The call from Hitler is unexpected and more than a little disturbing. Although I’ve known with dread certainty that he is there, in his vast corner office, I’ve never been called directly into his presence before.
“What should I do?” I ask Stein.
“Do you have a choice, Manfred?” Stein strokes his Freudian beard and continues scribbling on his yellow legal pad. The screen saver on his PC is a scattering of pinpoint stars ever receding into black space.
I pace back and forth in the windowless office we share. “Maybe it’s some kind of joke. It was his secretary, Miss Braun, who called.”
“I think she’s more than his secretary,” says Stein.
“She doesn’t like me.”
“What makes you say that?” Stein asks a lot of questions, some of which I avoid answering. I can’t tell him everything, after all.
“She called me in once before and I sat in her office waiting to see Hitler. I sat for a long time. Then she picked up the phone, even though it hadn’t rung, listened for a minute, hung up, and told me the matter had been resolved and I was not needed after all.”
“I think there never was a call. She smirked at me. Or smiled. I’m not sure which. But I think it was a smirk. It made me nervous.”
“Why did it make you nervous?”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Stein, I don’t know. Not everything has a reason.”
Stein puts a hand to his chest and makes a sour face. He suffers from dyspepsia, I think. “Just the same you’re better off going than not. Pasquale’s Wager.”
“Can you refresh me on that, Stein? My Pasquale’s a little thin.” Actually, nonexistent. The only philosopher I ever read and even vaguely remember is Nietzsche. In an abridged edition. Well, actually just quotes. A little paperback called Nietzsche in a Nutshell given to me by my father when I graduated college.
“It’s better to bet that God exists than that he doesn’t. If you bet he exists and behave that way and you’re right, you win everything; if you’re wrong, you lose nothing. But if you bet he does not exists and you’re wrong, you lose everything; if you’re right, you gain nothing.”
“In other words?”
“Going to see Hitler is a better bet than ignoring him.”
“I see what you mean,” I say. Sort of.
“So?” says Stein and folds his hands in his lap.
“So.” I seem stuck to my chair, frozen into it. I’m unable to move.
My half-sister Ann is sitting at the kitchen table. She douses her burnt toast with ketchup and spreads it with her finger. She puts the finger in her mouth.
“I have napkins, you know,” I say.
“Yes, but I have a tongue.” She sticks it out to show me. Her big brown-black eyes are slightly bloodshot. Her short red hair is disheveled. A hangover hangs over her.
I gulp my coffee. Ann has made it and it is bitter, hard to swallow even with milk. And sugar. She applies another indelible blot of ketchup to her toast. “I have strawberry jam, you know,” I tell her.
“I need my vegetables. Best thing for a drunk.”
From Seattle Ann has brought with her a clock imprinted with pictures of various birds in place of numbers: the Blue Jay where the 12 should be; the Northern Cardinal instead of the 1; the tufted Titmouse at 2, and so on in an unbroken avian circle. When the clock strikes the hour, the pictured bird sings or calls. The coo of the Mourning Dove warns me it’s 7 o’clock and I’m running late.
“Happy Birthday,” says Ann. The folds of her robe part just enough to give me a glimpse of her prepubescent chest, startling on a woman of twenty-five.
“It was my birthday last month.”
“So I’m a little late.”
“I’m a little late myself this morning,” I say, trying to short circuit the conversation. I get up and put my cup in the sink.
“Thirty-three is a special year, Manfred. It’s the age Jesus died.”
“I’m thirty-two. And Jesus I’m not.”
“You have to spoil everything, don’t you?” She stands up and cinches the belt of the robe, which somehow just makes it more revealing.
“I’ll be late tonight. Just fix yourself something.”
“Are you seeing Dr. Stein?”
“Did you dream about him again last night? Hitler, I mean.”
“I’ve got to go, Ann.”
“When you’ve got to go,” Ann says with that sly smirk of hers, “you’ve got to go.”
After a long and arduous day of working on the Cranwinkle case (Mrs. Cranwinkle accidently killed her invalid husband with an overdose of medication, although the prosecution doesn’t see it that way), I manage to find the only cab driver in New York who stops not only at red lights but every yellow as well. As a result I’m ten minutes late to Dr. Stein, who will scrupulously charge me for the additional time, if we work a whole session, on which he invariably insists.
On my part I insist on lying down on the couch, my jacket off but shoes on, despite his assurance that it is there merely for show and none of his patients, save me, ever use it.
The office is austere, though not uninviting, a cube of a room with no windows, quiet gray walls and carpeting, and book-lined shelves on the wall behind the desk, the books so neat and evenly placed I doubt they have ever been read. Also behind the desk is Dr. Stein, sitting in a black leather chair that would better suit a bigger man. The immaculate glass-topped desk is bereft of anything except a laptop PC, a pen and pencil holder in the form of Freud’s head with the top sliced off, yellow legal pads, and a box of tissues. Nothing adorns the walls, no diplomas or certificates, no awards or acknowledgements, no photos of family (I don’t even know if Stein has a family—he’s never mentioned anyone and I’ve never cared to ask). The only exception to this is a small framed black-and-white print of Edvard Munch’s iconic work “The Scream,” in its less familiar lithograph version, even more effective than the paintings in pulling the viewer into the vortex of the little man with his great O of a mouth. “Doesn’t it disturb patients?” I once asked Stein. “Of course,” he replied.
“So?” says Stein, and it’s like the starting pistol at the beginning of a race, one that I never seem to stop running. He squints at me through his glasses and strokes his beard.
“Is that itchy?” I ask. “The beard, I mean.”
“Does it look itchy?”
“It looks like a woman’s—you know what.”
“And you think that would be itchy, Mandrake?”
I’m not going to take the bait. Everything with Stein comes down to sex. Or guilt. Or both. How tedious it all is. How terribly tedious. I sigh.
“Is Ann still staying with you?” he asks.
“I see.” He makes it sound like I’m harboring a criminal. I wish he would stop stroking that infernal beard.
“I will tell her to leave, Stein. Just as we discussed. But it’s only been a month. And she has nowhere to go, after all. I think she burned her bridges in Seattle. An incident at a day care center. Something to do with her drinking, no doubt.”
Stein makes a note on his yellow pad and gives me a long look.
“All right,” I say. “I admit I like having her there. Well, not like exactly. But, at least she’s someone. She’s better than no one.”
Stein purses his lips. Now what the hell does that mean?
“These dreams are—unnerving. I don’t like waking up to an empty house.”
“Did you dream of Hitler again last night?”
Ah, I have drawn his attention away from Ann to another of my problems. “Yes. I was working for him in some kind of company. He was my boss, as usual. I was called to his office.”
“Did you see him this time?”
“No. I woke up before I could make myself go to him. As always.”
“Was I in the dream, Mandrake?”
“No,” I lie. I cannot admit to him that he too has invaded my dreams. How then, will I ever get rid of him? “Should you be?”
Stein scribbles a note.
I don’t know if it was an email or a phone call or exactly when I received it. I know only that I have been summoned to appear before Dr. Hitler and the Ethics Committee of the hospital. I’ve opened the patient on the operating table, a very fat man, a virtual duffel bag of guts, and am slowly unpacking his intestines, pulling them out, inch by inch, like a rubber hose. They trail down the side of the operating table and pile up on the floor. There’s not a drop of blood and the fat man is awake and talking all the time, some drivel about inalienable rights, but I’m not really listening to him. Eva Braun, the nurse, pats my forehead with a tissue from a large box she holds.
“So you have no idea why Hitler wants to see you?” asks Dr. Stein, who is assisting me.
“Perhaps it is about my daughter,” I say, “which is very strange.”
“Why is it strange?”
“Because I have no daughter.”
Nurse Braun snickers.
“When was the last time you saw Dr. Hitler?” asks Stein. I get the feeling he is laughing behind his surgical mask. The bastard.
“I have never seen him, as you well know.” The fat man’s intestines go on and on without end, just like his inane chatter. “Perhaps I just shouldn’t go. What’s the worse they can do?”
“I’d just go, if I were you,” says Stein. “Get it over with. You’ll have to go eventually. The worst part is the waiting, don’t you agree?”
“You ask a lot of questions, Stein. You don’t expect me to answer them all, do you?”
“Don’t you the think the Ethics Committee and Dr. Hitler will expect some answers?” He pulls down his surgical mask. There’s blood in his beard.
“Isn’t that itchy?” I ask.
Nurse Braun hands me a cell phone. “It’s for you.”
“Hello?” I say into the phone. But no one is there.
“It was Dr. Hitler,” she says. “The Committee wants to see you immediately.”
I hand the ever-unraveling intestinal tract to Stein and rush out of the operating room, down a long corridor, to a frosted glass door marked Ethics Committee. Through the door I can just make out the nebulous figures of men sitting at a table and one man standing. I wipe my hands on my scrubs, but can’t seem to get them clean, although there’s no discernable sign of anything dirty on them. I can hear Hitler talking softly to the group behind the door. I grasp the knob and try to turn it, but there’s something slippery on my hands. The door won’t open.
Mancinni is fidgeting with one of the bent oak wood armchairs in my office. The problem is not with the chair. He is a man who does not wear the average chair easily.
“You’ve got to talk some sense into her, Manfred. She’s putting her head on the block. On the block. The chopping block. And Bloody Betty wields the quickest ax in the D.A’s office. She gets a hard-on when anyone sticks their neck out—particularly on the block.” Mancinni talks in rapid-fire bursts. Often nonstop. It’s why he never presents a case in court. Juries would cower under the barrage and run to the arms of the prosecuting attorney.
“Women don’t get hard-ons,” I tell him.
“Shows what you know about women.”
“Mrs. Cranwinkle is an adult, Mancinni. 70 years beyond the age of consent. It’s entirely up to her.”
Mancinni laughs and his enormous belly shakes, like the proverbial bowlful of jelly. But there any resemblance to old St. Nick ends. He is hairless—bald, not a trace of a chin whisker, barely even an eyebrow, his face swarthy, puffed and pulpy, like the head of a penis.
“Nothing is entirely up to anybody,” Mancinni spurts. “Not in a rational society. This case isn’t about the aged Mrs. Cranwinkle and her cancer-laced husband. It’s not about whether she thinks she’s guilty or innocent or none of the above. Mrs. Cranwinkle is, in many respects, superfluous. The case is about a basic human right that we now have an opportunity, a golden opportunity, Manfred, to defend, the right to slit one’s throat, if one determines that is in one’s best interest, and the state has no right, no earthly right, to interfere …”
I know better than to try to stem the flood of words that issues forth from Mancinni once a favorite subject has been broached—or breached in his case. And the inalienable right to self-extermination, or to assist in such as requested, is indeed one of his very favorite chest-thumpers. He launches into it at the slightest provocation. Yesterday it was suicide over sushi at lunch, on into the elevator when we returned, uninterrupted at adjacent urinals, even after the final shake and zipping up. I have more than once hurried my stream to escape back to my office.
“…good and great men, Manfred, chose their own exits, Socrates, Van Gogh, Hemingway, Virginia Woolf—”
“Virginia Woolf was not a great man.”
“…Hannibal, Mark Antony, Marilyn Monroe…”
I get up abruptly, go to the closet, and get my coat.
Mancinni comes up for air. “Where are you going?” he asks.
“To convince Mrs. Cranwinkle of her sacred duty to defend self-slaughter.”
“Be gentle, Manfred. She’s an old lady. Show a little warmth, make her trust you.”
“Warm trust. Got it.”
“Sometimes you don’t quite come across.” Mancinni takes a deep breath.
“Come across as what?”
“Sit down a minute. Please.”
I take my seat, but do not remove my coat.
“You need to talk with Ms. Brown. Candidly. To reassure her. As I’ve told you before.” He actually waits for me to say something, unusual for Mancinni.
“I will not cater to our distinguished Head’s paranoia. I’ve told you before.”
“Here’s what I suggest,” says Mancinni, ignoring me. “Tell her you were once a heavy drinker. Or a reckless gambler. But nothing with drugs. Absolutely no drugs. Just make some kind of admission.”
I laugh to show I’m not amused.
“She’s convinced you’re harboring some dark secret sin. She prides herself on her uncanny ability to judge character. She needs confirmation of this extraordinary insightfulness of hers. Just make something up, for Christ’s sake, and tell her it was long ago and you’re well past it all and right as rain now.”
“Perhaps I can admit to having murdered my mother, drunk as I was over my gambling debts, and upset with her selling drugs to school children. But I was acquitted on an insanity defense and found Jesus and my lost mind at about the same time.”
Mancinni has not heard me. “She’s the boss and needs to know she’s right. Your work here over the past six months has been sterling. You’re a first-rate defense attorney. You could be a partner in four or five years. And everyone’s a sucker for a reformed sinner, Manfred. Even me.”
“Do you think I’ve sinned, Father Mancinni?”
He hoists himself up and the chair comes up with him. He forces it down with a thump. “I don’t give a fig’s ass,” he says, startling me with an impossible metaphor. “You win cases. That’s all I care about.”
“I’ve got to go,” I say and brush past him.
“When you’ve got to—” he begins, but I’m out the door before he can finish.
Mancinni hates jailhouse visits for two reasons: one, the chairs are usually even smaller than the ones in my office, which he struggles so to get into; and two, he has a phobia about jails, as unfortunate an affliction for a lawyer as a fear of blood would be for a surgeon.
I, on the other hand, am not only not bothered by a jail, but feel comfortable in one. I’m not saying that I like them (how on earth could anyone like them?), but simply that for some inexplicable reason I’m often more at ease in a jail than I am elsewhere. I must remember to mention that to Stein. Or maybe not.
I sit in the conference room in a chair that is quite adequate for a man of normal hip width. Mrs. Cranwinkle is due to be released on $50,000 bail tomorrow—unless she changes her plea to guilty of voluntary manslaughter, which she is apparently determined to do. Why she’s had this change of heart, which would deprive Mancinni and company the opportunity for championing the right to assisted suicide, is really of no concern to me; I simply must convince her to remain ‘not guilty’ and allow us to mount our multiple soap boxes and save her scrawny neck.
A guard brings Winnie Cranwinkle in. She’s exactly what you’d expect a Winnie Cranwinkle to look like: little old thing, silver-haired, a bit plump, round glasses, Norman Rockwell’s granny in spades. She’s not in prison garb, nothing so stylish. She wears lose beige slacks and a lemon-yellow top that render her slight person almost invisible in the harsh lights of the room.
“How are you holding up, Mrs. Cranwinkle?” I ask, as she takes a seat opposite me at the table. The female guard who has deposited her there gives her a smile and leaves the room. Apparently, she is deemed too harmless to keep an eye on.
“I’m doing better since I made my decision, Manfred.” Three days in the detention center have actually seemed to do her some good. She looked much worse before she was arraigned. “I’m sleeping better, you see.”
“Mr. Mancinni informed me of your thoughts on the plea. I think you may be a little confused about the whole process. Of pleading guilty to a serious charge, I mean.”
“Manny is such a nice man. I was so sorry to hear him upset. He went on and on and on. I’m afraid I finally had to ask him to be quiet.”
“Did it work?” I ask. That’s something I’ve never tried with him. Worth a shot. “What I mean is, I understand why he’s upset. But do you?”
“Do you know why I gave Jocko all those pills, Manfred?”
Mrs. Cranwinkle leans forward on the table and whispers to me, “Jocko is what I called Steven behind his back. It’s kind of an insult. A private joke.” She smiles and shows bad teeth.
“You gave your husband the overdose because he was in unbearable pain and he asked you to,” I say, more telling than asking her.
“That’s just what I told you and Manny. But it’s not true. Not entirely. I was in more pain than Jocko and for a much longer time. Jocko was a pain.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Oh, I don’t mean he hit me or anything. He never did. But he was not a nice man. Never was, I guess.” Mrs. Cranwinkle sits back and seems to think for a moment. “So many years, it’s hard to recall it all. The past has a way of thinning out after a while.”
“I did not love my husband, Manfred.”
“Well, that’s probably not so unusual in a long marriage,” I say, trying to be reassuring.
“I did not even like him.”
“That’s not a crime, Mrs. Cranwinkle.”
“I killed him because I did not like him.”
“Wasn’t he in unbearable pain? Didn’t he ask you to do it? He was terminal, after all.”
“Yes, he was terminal. And yes, he was in pain because he refused to take the morphine. But he did not ask me to end it. I asked him to end it. And he said no.”
We’re silent for a moment.
I fold my hands on the table. “Perhaps you knew more what was best for him than he did himself,” I say in a low voice.
“I knew what was best for me,” she says and pats my folded hands consolingly. “I’ve been having nightmares, you see.”
“I don’t remember them all. But Jocko is always in them. One way or another.”
“Since I decided to admit what I did, I haven’t had the nightmares anymore. I’m sleeping well, Manfred. I tried to tell that to Manny, but he wouldn’t listen.”
“Look, Mrs. Cranwinkle, even if your motives weren’t the purest, what you did was the best thing for Mr. Cranwinkle—Jocko—Steven or whoever. He was dead anyway, no matter what. You just helped him along. It would be a crime for a nice lady like you to go to prison at this point in your life. What good would that do anyone? What good would it do you?”
“It would let me sleep, Manfred, like I used to. Alone in my dreams.”
“Won’t you take my advice, Winnie?” I take her hands in mine and put all my warmth into it. “Won’t you trust me?” I look into her tear-filled blue eyes.
“You’re a nice boy, Manfred,” she says. “But no thank you.”
The altar boys fold our vestments and arrange them in the wide, shallow draws of the cabinet. The boys are in their underwear and are bare-footed. They whisper to each other. The one with red hair looks over his shoulder at me and snickers.
“Who delivered this summons from Bishop Hitler?” Father Stein asks.
“That’s the odd thing, Stein. I don’t remember. But I know he’s coming today,” I tell him.
Stein is fiddling with the gold cross hung around his neck. It nestles in the wiry hair on his chest, which I can see through his unbuttoned cassock.
“Isn’t that itchy?” I ask.
“When was the last time you spoke to Bishop Hitler, Manfred?”
“In my prayers. You know I’ve never met him.”
“And what were you praying for?”
“That I would never meet him.”
Somewhere in the distance I hear the swell of an organ. The boys laugh.
“Maybe you could go in my place, Stein. Make up some excuse for me. He’ll believe you, I’m sure.”
“Is that what you think Hitler really wants? Excuses?”
“Can’t you ever just give me an answer, Stein?”
“Is that what you really want, Manfred? Answers?” Stein gets up and picks up the phone, although I did not hear it ring. He says nothing and hangs up. “The Bishop wants to see you immediately.”
“Where is he?” I ask. The cross on Stein’s chest is bloody.
“You know where he is. Use the stairs.”
I feel like I have no feet.
“Take one of the boys with you, if it makes it any easier.”
The boys link arms. The red-headed boy sticks his tongue out at me. He is of that tender age, inchoate, as much girl as boy. I run from the sacristy more to get away from him than to go to Hitler.
I rush through the harshly lit hall to a spiral staircase and descend it rapidly, with the force of something being sucked down a drain. At the bottom of the stairwell is a door. I open it.
Eva Braun is sitting in the Bishop’s big red chair. She’s smoking a cigar. “He’s been called away,” she says, “to hear a death-bed confession.”
“Can’t someone else do that?” I shout, feigning outrage, to conceal my relief.
“It’s his little old grandmother,” says Eva and winks at me.
Ann is late, which doesn’t surprise me. What does surprise me is that she shows up at all. She squeezes past tables, almost knocking over a fat man’s cappuccino, and deposits herself in the small hard chair in front of me. Her face is partially made up, lip gloss, too red, eye shadow, too purple, like bruises.
“These chairs hurt me,” she says, “because I have no ass.”
“What can I get you, Ann? They have pumpkin-spice latte—for a limited time only.”
“Have you noticed that I have no ass, Manfred?”
“Would you like a raspberry scone with it?”
“I can’t have anything. It’ll make me sick. No smoking in here, right? No smoking anywhere anymore. Smokers are not welcome, are they? Smoking is verboten.”
“I have two hours before court this afternoon. And I’ve been wanting to talk with you. About something.”
“Why couldn’t we talk at home? Or at a bar?”
“I thought you might like—a scone, perhaps.”
Ann leans across the table. “Oh, how did you know? A big fat raspberry scone—every girl’s fantasy. You have a remarkable insight into the female psyche. I think Dr. Stein is rubbing off on you.”
I begin to doubt my strategy of having this talk with Ann in a public place. I felt that it might inhibit the hysterics that could well ensue. She has always been self-conscious in public, more in control. Even when she was little.
“You want me to leave, Manfred?”
“You just got here, Ann.” I can’t let her walk out of here now.
“I mean your place. You want me to go away.” She’s scratching at her hands, just like she used to do when she was ten. She’d scratch them raw.
“Don’t scratch,” I say.
“I just want what’s best for you. I don’t want to be an—enabler. You need to be back on your own. For your self-esteem.”
“Dr. Stein is rubbing off on you.” Ann is oddly calm. It frightens me.
“I could lend—give you some money. Maybe you could get established back in Seattle.”
“I can’t go back there. I’m lucky they let me go.”
“Denver is nice. Everyone loves Denver. And the air there is—great. Great air, Ann.”
“I came to your bed last night,” she says. “You were asleep. But I don’t think you were alone.”
“Of course, I was alone,” I say.
“He was with you, wasn’t he? Hitler.”
“I have never seen him. Never.”
“I’ll be gone before you get home.”
“For God’s sake, Ann. You don’t have to leave today. Please.”
“Oh, I do, Manfred. I do have to leave today. You frighten me. Did I ever tell you that?” Her eyes well up with misery. “Did I ever tell you how scared you made me? Always? How afraid I was to go to sleep? How afraid I still am?”
I sit for a long time and stare at her empty chair.
Judge Hitler wants to see me in his chambers. Stein, the prosecuting attorney, has not been requested to join us.
“This is ridiculous,” I protest to Stein. “He’s not even the presiding judge in this case. I’ve never argued a case before him. I’ve never even seen him.”
“Oh, don’t be coy, Manfred. You’ve always argued your cases before him. You’ve been arguing cases before him since—well the age of puberty, wouldn’t you say?”
Stein is stuffing papers in his briefcase, stacks of them, indictments, briefs, motions, notes, and they’re all about me, I know it. He just shoves them in, more and more. The briefcase bulges and looks like it’s going to burst. He has trouble carrying it to the door.
“Where are you going, Stein?” I ask.
He puts his hand on his chest and makes a sour face. “You have no idea the shit I have to swallow in my line of work. Fortunately, it doesn’t go on forever.” He waves and bangs through the swinging doors of the courtroom.
“Stein!” I call after him.
But he is gone.
“Manfred, the judge will see you now,” calls the court clerk, Eva Braun.
“Will he? Will he really?” I laugh. Somehow, I know I’ve done this before. I will get to the door and it will not open. I will walk into the room and Eva will come after me and announce the meeting has been canceled. I will take a seat in a hall and hear a door slam and know that Hitler is gone, gone again, gone like always, if he was ever there at all.
“He’s waiting,” says Eva. “He doesn’t have all day.” She arcs an eyebrow and for once she does not smile or snicker. She takes me by the hand and walks me behind the judge’s bench to a side door. Then she steps back. I turn the knob and the door opens.
The room is very large with immense windows and the light coming through them is so bright I can hardly see the desk at the far end.
“Come here and sit down, Manfred.” The voice is unmistakable.
I sit in the chair before the desk. I can hardly breath.
“So?” says Hitler.
He is in judge’s black robes, his neck scrawny in a white collar, his nose large over the toothbrush mustache, his black hair slightly slicked to the left over his forehead. His eyes are deep and questioning.
“So?” he says again. “You have something to tell me, no?”
I know what I must say, but I can’t find my voice. I melt under his gaze and drip with delight. Finally, as if from far, far away, I whisper, “My sister.”
Hitler smiles, not unkindly. “Yes,” he says softly. “Yes.”
Paul Negri is the former president and publisher of Dover Publications, Inc. He has edited several anthologies of poetry and fiction published by that firm. His stories have appeared in The Penn Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, The Cabinet of Heed, Ligeia Magazine, and more than 50 other publications. He lives in Clifton, New Jersey.