Envy and Poetry

Marion Martny had stopped jogging, now that she was eighty five. Not only did she have a pacemaker but the previous year, in Snowmass, while downhill skiing, she gasped for air. Not during skiing but while carrying the skis in her clumsy ski boots to the lift. This Saturday afternoon, while alone, her husband was knocking on doors to save the Dunes, she went to answer the door bell. It was a man in an aqua green running suit. She didn’t recognize him under the pink baseball cap. “Mildred how many years since we worked the 63rd and Woodlawn Board of Health?” As soon as she heard the rubbing, scraping sounds of his German consonants, she knew its owner. William Rimkus. It was close to twenty years. He had emerged as if from a dream.

Marion took him into her study, past numerous periodicals and books spilling from every available space. She excused this state of affairs. “Remember Lindner? He would never allow me to ratpack this way. He’s dead three years now. It’s not that Artie does. He’s just so busy trying to get the Burns Ditch Steel Foundry into Dunes Park, he hardly notices.” She noted William was now grayer, more short of hair and shorter than she remembered. Yet he was still more erect than she. She hated the contrast though she had ten years on him. The osteoporosis had crunched the bottom of her rib cage to the top of her pelvis.

They talked of who they knew, who lived, died, who retired and why. When they got into what they themselves were doing, William removed an envelope from his jacket and handed it to Marion. He kept his German fricative as gentle as possible when he told her to read the letter. She removed it. It was from the president of Humboldt University in Berlin offering him a first class ticket to the city and first class accomodations, all expenses paid for a week. It thanked him and his classmates from the 1933 class of Friedrich Wilhelm University (as it was then called). It apologized profusely and wished to make amends. In 1933, out of a class of 8500, 2000 Jews were expelled as well as many non Jews who were thought to be political pariahs. Of his four anatomy partners, only one of William’s anatomy partners had no Jewish ancestry. Marion was particularly curious about this Aryan. William smiled.

“You remember, after Germany I fled to Italy. When I finished medicine, I sojourned in Greece. When the Germans came through the Balkans, I fled to Colombia. Much of this I chronicled in my poetry. You even said you liked some of it.” Marion remembered. “Wasn’t there a special German writer? You used to make poems of his stories that you read to me. I think somehow he survived the Eastern Front.”

William nodded. “Exactly. Wilhelm Borchert. In Hamburg is a Borchert museum. I met Peter there. Ten years after the Berlin Wall fell. He’s got a droop of his left eyelid and a nasty burn scar on his neck. It struck a chord. His build was about the same I remembered when we were in anatomy. Once I introduced myself, he immediately recognized me. We spent the following three afternoons together. He too had survived Stalingrad and the Eastern Front. He too was interested in Borchert. In order to avoid the Nazi party, after the expulsion of his Jewish classmates, like many, he joined the army where without suspicion they were without obligation. After WWII, he settled in E. Germany and became one of the first and foremost authorities in exercise physiology. He was given one of the best positions in their sports medicine programs and sent everywhere. His communist credentials were not questioned. He therefore was able to avoid affiliation with the Communist Party.”

Marion looked at William’s striking figure. He had just come in from the beach where he’d been jogging. “You know William. I am envious of you. Maybe even jealous.” William’s relaxed face tensed. “You are joking. You envy me? That’s crazy. I’m a German Jew who had to leave everything: family, friends, country.”

Marion stared through the tall windows of the study toward the beach and the faint towers of downtown Chicago, barely visible, thirty miles away, over the waters of Lake Michigan. She felt the turmoil mix of her admiration for him and her despair for herself. “Hear me out friend. I was born a Jew too. By sheer luck I was born here. I escaped all the horrors that drove you from your house and home. Yet you have had a remarkable career. You have been quite a physician and person in my experience. Despite the handicaps of new languages and cultures to which you have had to accommodate. Nothing in my life would have helped had I been in your shoes.”

William rubbed his chin and glanced at the accumulation of papers and periodicals around them. “You would not think so highly of me if you knew me better.”

“How so?” “Though I have escaped the concentration camps, I have not always escaped my own emotional needs.” Marion shrugged. “Whoever does?”

“I have never reigned in my sexual needs very long. One of my mistresses lived close to where you practiced in Woodlawn.”

Marion shook her head. “William, I know. She was one of my regular patients. She sold herself to many and still managed to collect food stamps and public assistance. It has never affected my admiration of you, nor my envy. The only child she ever had is one of the most famous black composers in all of Europe. He left this country to get away from her looseness and the almost total lack of opportunity, support for artists.”