Victory Gardens – Chapter 88

Novel

Esther prepares for the Rothsteins lunch with Jens and his sister Helle. Manny discovers that Jens has been following him. Jens tells Manny that there are others who are following him as well.

*   *   *

“That’s ridiculous,” said Manny firmly, although parts of his insides were rapidly turning to jelly. “I came here to find my brother and that’s that. My father arranged passage for me on the airship. He was a countryman of the captain.”

“Eckener?” said Jens. “That only makes it worse for you. He’s no friend of his country. They keep their eye on him every minute of his life.”

“What do you propose I do?” said Manny.

“Simple. Go back home. Be among people you know. Erect a barrier around yourself.”

“Go home? I can’t do that. I — we —,” Manny stammered, looking over at Esther, who appeared so calm and comfortable.

“We just got here,” he continued. “What will my wife say if, practically the moment after she arrives, following a grueling journey, I tell her it’s time to pack up and go home?”

“She’ll be delighted to know that her husband is safe and sound, that he hasn’t been carried off by pernicious elements, and that he cares for her enough to ensure her continued survival.”

“You’re exaggerating,” Manny retorted, refusing to believe Jens.

“I’ll beg your pardon,” said Jens. “I do many things. I prevaricate, I extrapolate, but I never exaggerate. If I say you are in danger, son, then you are. You can bet on that.”

With that last statement, he stepped over to the tiny table where the women were chatting gaily. “Ladies, it’s such a lovely day out. Shall we eat together in the garden?”

“Well, all right,” said Esther, smiling brightly. “I was waiting for you to finish your talk. I’ll get lunch. Go outside. We’ll be out in a New York minute.”

“Thank you,” said Jens.

Jens escorted his sister through the light screened-in door that separated the house from the tiny garden out front. There was a small table and four chairs, perfectly aligned one from the other in distance. Jens observed that Manny had arranged the chairs, and not Esther.

What’s going on?” said Helle in a low whisper in their native tongue, once they were seated.

Smile, sister,” warned Jens.

I’m smiling,” Helle replied, gritting her teeth and stretching her lips over them into an awful grimace. “Can’t you tell?”

Much better,” said Jens. The siblings had spent a lifetime maintaining an unending stream of witty repartee, of which this exchange was just a small part.

I told him what he needed to hear. What happens next is his own choice.”

But did you warn him? Did you tell him he was in danger?”
I certainly did. He claims his wife will be upset with him if he makes her leave as soon as she arrived.”

“Do you have proof?”

“Of course I do. I always have proof.”

“So show him,” said Helle, signaling with her eyes that the Rothsteins were on their way outside. Jens was sitting with his back to the door, but facing the gate that gave entry to the cottage.

Back in the house, Esther and Manny were conducting a similar conversation.

“I’ve been sitting on shpilkes,” said Esther. “How on earth do you know these people?”

“I met him on the train, actually,” said Manny. He was kicking himself a thousand times over for being so candid with Jens. He had perceived him as simply a stranger on a train, a person he would never see again. And here he was, not three months later, sitting on a lawn chair in his garden, waiting to be served lunch by his wife. Could his life get any more absurd? Any more ironic?

“He greeted you so warmly. It must have been some train ride,” said Esther. Manny wasn’t sure if she suspected something and she was fishing, or if she was just being ingenuous. It was sometimes hard to tell with Esther.

“Regular. You know, a train is a train.”

“We took a train when we went to the port in Danzig. They’re different than the trains here. Those little compartments. Anything could happen inside one of them and nobody would be the wiser.”

“I suppose. But don’t be concerned. All we did was exchange a few pleasantries.” This was untrue, of course, but Manny decided it was necessary to withhold the full story for now. He only hoped it wouldn’t come back to bite him.

“I think this is everything,” said Esther, piling up a tray with plates and glasses, and the serving plates piled with food. “Let’s go. We don’t want to keep the guests waiting.”

Jens stood up and greeted the Rothsteins while Esther went back in to get the pitcher of lemonade she’d prepared, and Jens took the opportunity to give one more word to Manny, in case he wouldn’t get him alone again.

“Hear well what I say, friend,” said Jens. “Because I won’t say it again. Go back home, while you can.”

To be continued . . .