Don't Ask

 

Photo: Nasuna Stuart-Ulin

Don't Ask

(Excerpt from a Novel)

By Gina Roitman

 

Hannah waited twenty-four hours before calling the police, knowing her mother, Rokhl, would have been mortified: O mein Gott! The police! To bring yourself to the notice of the authorities was something to be avoided at all costs. It was one of Rokhl’s many unspoken rules. If she was in the car with Hannah and a siren wailed, no matter how far away, no matter what kind of siren it was – ambulance, fire truck or police – Hannah had to immediately pull over to the side of the road and stop the car. And no one was allowed to move until the sound had died away. “You never know…” was all the explanation Hannah ever got and for Rokhl, that was saying a lot.
 
 
On the day Rokhl disappeared, in the gloom of the beige hallway, on the edge of the wrought iron seat next to a phone that rarely rang, Hannah sat folding and unfolding the note Rokhl had left, as if by some magic its meaning would be revealed. I am not her. What did Rokhl mean by ‘her’? Was it a mistake? Didn’t Rokhl mean ‘I am not here?’ Not that it made any more sense. And if she could decipher it, what could it tell her except what was obvious? Rokhl had left home without her purse, no wallet so no means of identification and with no known destination in mind. Deep in Hannah’s belly a larva of worry was growing.
 
Hannah slid into the sweltering car. Almost instantly, sweat filmed her face and trickled down the curve of her clenched jaw. She stared out of the windshield at the front door of the duplex as if half expecting that by some miracle her mother would suddenly appear. For almost all of her forty-five years, Hannah could predict Rokhl’s every move, although never her motives, never the why. Now this. Nothing had prepared her for this. Not even the shocking exchange she and Rokhl had had the night before. Like an anxious child, Hannah brought her thumb to her mouth and started chewing on the cuticle.
 
“You’re eating yourself up alive,” her friend Marilyn would say, “…a classic case of self-cannibalization.”
 
Marilyn had a theory for and an opinion on everything. For a moment, phone in hand, Hannah thought about calling her best friend but hesitated. To call would be to admit that something serious had happened. There was no real proof of that, not yet. A thin line of blood trickled from Hannah’s thumb. Cause and effect. The sharp pain came as welcome relief. She began to coast up one block and down another, trolling through the streets of the area she knew like the contours of her mother’s face. She drove half-believing that she might spot Rokhl, or by some fluke, maybe someone familiar. But after so many years in Montreal, her mother’s smattering of acquaintances, those who hadn’t died, were living far away in Israel or Miami. Slowly rolling past rundown apartment buildings, Hannah worked on recalling anyone she might contact about Rokhl. No one came to mind.
 
 
Since her father Barak’s death, Hannah had avoided thinking about how bereft of human contact her mother’s life had become. She did not want to consider how much Rokhl needed her every day. It was easier just to perform her duties: make the daily calls, take her mother food shopping for a large order once a week, chauffeur her to medical appointments, and share a Friday night dinner together at the duplex on Barclay. Hannah had tried to get Rokhl to do more but her mother didn’t want to leave her home, not even to have dinner at Hannah’s just for a change. It finally became clear, Hannah confided to Marilyn one day, that after Barak’s death Rokhl had closed herself up in a ghetto of her own making.
 
First, Hannah covered a ten-block radius by car then struck out on foot, crisscrossing the back lanes she had roamed as a child. Much had changed since those summers, decades ago, when she had played with her friends on shimmering asphalt driveways and in back alleys. As playgrounds, they were so much more welcoming back then, cleaner and with metal garbage cans neatly lined up against new building walls. Now, it shocked her to see so many condoms; the way garbage spilled from torn green bags; and orphaned plastic stirred by half-hearted breezes floating low to the ground like deflated ghosts. The alleys reeked of cumin, curry, and jerk seasoning, smells she adored when they were cooking, not rotting.
 
Most of the immigrant Jews, Holocaust survivors like her parents who had once filled these apartment buildings, had long since moved away. Either they followed their children to Toronto or clustered like flocks of seagulls in the high-rise condos around the Cavendish Mall from which each December, if ambulatory, they headed south to Florida. Her father had refused to go that route, refused to sell the duplex he had worked so hard for decades in ‘that fahrkakteh shmateh factory’ to pay off the mortgage. A lifelong unionist, Barak labelled those who had fled to the middle class and better addresses to be poseurs.
 
“What for would I move? I’m comfortable, no one bothers us as much as we bother each other, right Rokhl?” He never waited for a reply.
 
“When we die, you will sell it. It’s your inheritance, Hannah. If we sell it, the money we make will be thrown away on moving, painting, condo fees. Feh! Fees, shmees… who needs it? Aroisgevorfeneh gelt…”
 
It’s not thrown out money, Hannah had protested; it was a good investment, but Barak would have none of his daughter’s advice. Eventually, it grew too dark to keep going. Hannah returned to the empty duplex to wait although she wasn’t sure for what. “Maybe I’m waiting for the realization to sink in,” she said aloud, startling herself. She examined the blisters on her feet, prodding the swollen skin, anticipating pain but unsurprised by the lack of it. Exhausted, she lay down on the narrow bed where she had collected the dreams of her childhood and tried not to think about how much Rokhl feared the dark. She got up and lit candles as Rokhl used to do when Hannah was out on a date. She placed them in the kitchen and the front hall so that when her mother returned, it would not be to a pitch-black house.
 
As Hannah lay in the gloom, an army of fears marched across her chest and made camp until she could barely breathe. The last fear was the heaviest. What if, it asked with an evil gleam, this disappearing act was related to the altercation they’d had the night before? Hannah had been wilfully suppressing the disturbing image of Rokhl out of control – her face contorted, her arm raised in a fist. It was a vision that had been flickering in the back of Hannah’s mind all through the search. The last time Hannah had seen her mother, the passive face she had known was twisted beyond recognition. Rokhl had been shouting. Shouting! Never in her memory did she recall her mother raising her voice. Hannah might have been less surprised if she had witnessed the Sphinx get up and stretch.
 
In a half dream, Hannah envisioned her mother like a cat lying across a barren expanse of sand, her face impassive and her eyes lustrous as sapphires. Beneath their glow, Hannah felt small, helpless. She floated in a soupy, thin sleep, half waking every time a car drove by its headlights flashing light past her window.
 
 
By 6 a.m., bright sunlight broke through the half-open Venetian blinds and took up a relentless assault on Hannah’s eyelids. She sat up and for a moment, couldn’t remember where she was or why she was there. When she got her bearings, she marvelled at how the house had a hollow feel. Without deciding to do so, Hannah picked-up the phone and dialled 911. An hour later, washed but in yesterday’s clothes, she watched the police cruiser pull up. Inside were two young officers; the taller one came to the door and introduced himself as Constable Pierre Langlois and suggested that he follow her inside while his partner looked around outside. In the kitchen, Hannah gestured to the officer to have a seat on one of the aqua vinyl chairs, shiny with age and a million coatings of Pledge. The metal legs scraped on the linoleum as the officer pulled closer to the old Formica table edged in chrome. Constable Langlois was sitting in the chair that Barak had always occupied at the head of the table. From there, he asked his questions with more gentleness than her father could ever manage and took notes as Hannah described her mother, what she had likely been wearing, and when she had been seen last.
 
“How old is your mother?”
 
“Seventy-two.”
 
“Does she live alone?”
 
“Yes.”
 
“When did you last have contact with her?”
 
“Two nights ago.”
 
There were a dozen questions. Cautiously, Hannah answered them without offering up any extraneous information, so afraid was she to taint the process by her blossoming fear. The officer turned and looked around the room and spotted the tray of medications on the counter. He walked over to the collection, lifting, and scrutinizing each container, noting the prescription, then turned to Hannah, “Did your mother ever show any signs of senility, dementia, or the early stages of Alzheimer’s?” he asked.
 
“No.”
 
“No loss of memory, maybe erratic or childish behaviour?”
 
“No… no, not at all.”
 
Did Hannah know what those signs were, he had asked. At another time, Hannah might have been annoyed by such a line of questioning. Like Barak, she did not like to be challenged. But that morning, she was grateful for the orderly way in which she was being forced to think.
 
“No, she didn’t display any of those signs,” she responded. “My mother was of relatively sound mind and body.”
 
He nodded and wrote something on his pad. Hannah waited like a pedestrian at a crosswalk for the light to change, impatient to move on.
 
“Can I look around the house, please?” he asked.
 
Hannah nodded and they both stood up at once. The constable was tall, maybe six-two. She smiled up at him, suddenly weary, feeling exposed as if she unexpectedly found herself in a strange city wandering about without a map. At that moment, she wished she had called Marilyn.
 
“Please…” Constable Langlois said. “Can we look?”
 
She almost suggested that he could see everything he needed right there from the kitchen table, the house was that small. Instead, she led him through the hall and to the door of each of the other four rooms.
 
“Is anything missing?” he asked as he checked the surfaces of dressers and desks and bathroom counters. Hannah bit back the words bubbling up in her throat: Yes, MY MOTHER! My mother is missing, and I don’t care about anything else. Instead, she quietly described finding the door unlocked.
 
“But there was nothing else unusual,” she said. “Nothing was missing or disturbed.”
 
Nothing missing, she thought but something of an aching, throbbing hollowness had been added. It filled the house. Wherever it came from, it was slowly consuming all the unoccupied space and available oxygen. She was certain there was barely enough to sustain her and the officer.
 
"Did your mother sometimes forget to lock the door?”
 
“Never,” Hannah replied, “…or at least, not that I can ever recall. Locking the door was something she was very careful about. Lately, her short-term memory has not been that good, she’s just turned seventy-two and she’s grown a bit forgetful since my father died a few years ago. She’ll leave the house then turn around and return just to check the door because she can’t remember locking it. But I don’t think that’s so unusual. On the whole, my mother is a very careful person.”
 
A careful person. Could there be a more euphemistic phrase? Careful as in private, guarded, concealed, isolated, non-communicative, removed, secluded, secretive, separate, sequestered, solitary, withdrawn. Yes, Rokhl had always locked the door. The constable made a note and moved towards the entrance. He checked the door jamb and opened the door letting in a wave of warm air as he examined the lock from all sides. Hannah tried some deep breathing. Once done, the constable with Hannah trailing behind, revisited each room to examine the windows. When he was finally finished, they returned to the kitchen. Constable Langlois indicated that he was going to sit down again. He reviewed the details he had noted and then asked Hannah for a photo. She had one in her wallet, taken of Rokhl before Barak’s cancer diagnosis. She asked if she would get the photo back. It was precious, she said and as she spoke, Hannah had the feeling she had seen this episode before. Was it on Law and Order, or Missing?
 
 
As the cruiser drove away, Mrs. Orenstein, Rokhl’s neighbour, came marching up the walk. Now that the coast was clear, Hannah could tell Mrs. Orenstein was on a fact-finding mission of her own. She was the block’s self-appointed guardian, keeping a relentless watch from behind her living room curtains. Hannah realized guiltily that she had not even thought to check with Mrs. Orenstein.
 
“Did you see anything?” she asked hopefully after explaining the situation. But Mrs. Orenstein had been at a doctor’s appointment all afternoon.
 
“You could die sitting in the waiting room and that fahrkakteh secretary would still make you wait your turn. Oy! Don’t get old, Hannaleh darling, don’t get old. It’s no fun and you’re treated like yesterday’s garbage.”
 
Hannah had patiently listened to all of this before but today she was in no mood for Mrs. Orenstein’s litany of woes. Hannah began to edge away, making her way down the front steps towards the Subaru. At that moment Mrs. Orenstein lobbed her best shot.
 
“So, when did you speak to your mother last? You know, you should call her every day?
 
“Yes, I know, I do call…”
 
“You know, Hannah,” she said, moving to narrow the distance between them, “I try many times to invite her for tea but you know your mother, she was always a little bit too much to herself, what people sometimes call a private person, right?”
 
“Well, she just…”
 
“…I try many times to make conversation with her but she only smiles at me and looks over my shoulder like maybe there’s someone standing there behind me, you know? After so many years, a person stops trying.”
 
Hannah bit her tongue as she had been taught to do and turned away with a nod.
 
“Let’s hope for the best…” Mrs. Orenstein called out, “and you’ll let me know, won’t you, Hannaleh, as soon as you hear something, eh?”
 
There was nothing but silence for the next two days except for a single phone call from a Detective Sergeant Desjardins who said he was now in charge of the case. And then, nothing, not even a word that there was no news, despite the six messages she left on Desjardins’ voicemail. Wednesday morning, Hannah sat in her car unable to determine where she should go. She pulled out her cell phone and called her assistant, Danielle. It had been twenty-four hours since she had spoken at length to anyone. Without too much preamble, Hannah explained her absence and a little about the situation. Danielle said she’d take care of everything. She would clear Hannah’s calendar for the rest of the week with the explanation that there was a family emergency, but nothing more.
 
“Is there someone I should call? Do you need to speak to or be with someone?” she asked. Danielle was the best, the one who would jump in to fill any vacuum, take up any task.
 
“There’s no one but me, honey,” Hannah said, “And Marilyn. I’m calling her next.”
 
She was finally ready for Marilyn to help sort out the jumble of emotions that were crawling around inside her head like blind mice. Marilyn would cook something for her, even though she wasn’t hungry. Hannah suddenly realized that she had not had a meal in almost two days. If anything, what she had been consuming was her own flesh.
 
*
 
“Mme. Baranowski?” A stone dropped on Hannah’s chest as she recognized the gravelly voice of Detective Sergeant Desjardins. Over the past three days, she had imagined this call a hundred times. She gently replaced the spoon in her cereal bowl. Breakfast was over.
 
“Ms. Baran, please,” she said, correcting him. Her hand grew clammy as she clutched the phone. She reached up and tucked her hair behind her ear.
 
“Yes, excuse me. Mme. Baran. This is Detective Sergeant Patrice Desjardins. I took over your file? We spoke…”
 
“Yes.”
 
She knew who he was, had known from the first intake of his breath.
 
“Yes, I remember.”
 
“We think we have some information about your mother. I am sorry. It may not be good news. When can you come down to see us?”
 
“Where?”
 
Desjardins provided an address.
 
“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes,” she said and hung up without a thank you or a goodbye.
 
Hannah pulled into the parking lot of the shopping mall where the police station was located. Despite all her haste to get there, for a moment, she couldn’t for the life of her recall how she had managed to drive to the station from her condo on the canal. A crazy notion took hold, the idea that she might be asleep and having one of her ‘ordinary’ nightmares, those dreams that had haunted her since childhood. In them, sad things happen but nothing so frightening as to warrant screaming or even waking up. The nightmares were most often filled with an escalating series of appalling events, not physical but always dreadful. Like the dreams where she has a baby. She is so busy with work or travel that she forgets to feed or bathe the infant for days. Or the dream where she misplaces the child and must keep reminding herself to look for it. In a way, that’s what the last three days felt like to Hannah, a nightmare in which, through her neglect, she had misplaced her mother. What about her pledge to Barak? Hannah had only that one responsibility and she had failed to carry it out.
 
Nearby, a car door slammed shut snapping Hannah out of her reverie. She took a deep breath slowly letting the air slip out. How long had she been staring out the window? It didn’t matter. The dread of not knowing could now only be made more awful by the news that Rokhl was gone forever. The day had been hot and sticky — Hannah remained barely aware of the weather until a thunderclap rattled the car window. Beneath the sound, she thought she heard Barak’s angry challenge: What’s the matter with you? If not you, who? If not now, when?
 
Detective Sergeant Desjardins shook Hannah’s hand then led her down a hall into a windowless cubicle where he asked her to take a seat. Even with her eyes aimed at the floor, she knew this office looked nothing like those she had seen on TV, yet the man in front of her, medium height, in his fifties, with a receding hairline and a slight stoop, could have been any number of performers playing the role of the gruff but kindly police detective. Hannah tried to imagine how she might perform in the role of the distraught daughter. So far, her ability to remain outwardly calm had been disturbing to those closest to her.
 
“Mme. Baranovsky?” Desjardins said.
 
“Baran,” Hannah said. “That’s my legal name.”
 
“Mme. Baran, my apologies. I know you must be distraught, but can you answer my question?”
 
“I’m sorry,” Hannah said, “would you be good enough to repeat it?”
 
She had momentarily detached from her body and taken up residence in a corner of the ceiling, like a spirit after death. From there, she was keenly observing both herself and the detective.
 
“Was your mother depressed?” the detective asked slowly, as if to allow her to read his lips. “Do you think she was capable of killing herself?”
 
Hannah looked at the man whose job it was to tell her that her mother was dead.
 
“Monsieur, my mother was a Holocaust survivor,” she said in a voice so laden with sympathy that the detective grew uncomfortable.
 
Undaunted, Hannah recounted her mother’s history as if reciting a childhood poem: “My mother survived Auschwitz. She lost her entire family, every single member. My father died two years ago and I’m an only child. So yes, she may have been depressed but I never believed her to be suicidal.” Hannah moved to the edge of the chair and leaned forward. “And as I said, my mother is a survivor. I think survival for her is an instinct; it’s as if her whole system is somehow programmed to keep her alive, despite the losses and the horrors of life.”
 
“Does she take any medication for depression?” the Detective Sergeant asked.
 
“Yes, she does,” Hannah said, “but she is closely monitored, and the dosage is often reviewed to make certain she is not over- or under-medicated.”
 
“But you do not seem surprised by my question, Mme. Baran. Do you think it is possible your mother might have decided to end her life?”
 
Hannah had not told the detective about the purse still hanging in Rokhl’s hall closet. Nor about the note. It was not a suicide note; she was sure of that. It was merely one more cryptic message for Hannah to decipher. She looked down at her hands where her fingers had been busy at work, picking away at a cuticle. Hannah was tired of holding back, she was tired of the dread. But she had no choice.
 
“What have you found, sir?” she finally asked keeping her eyes on her hands.
 
“Three days ago, there was an accident on Côte-des-Neiges some blocks from your mother’s home. Witnesses said that, without looking, a woman stepped out in front of a bus. She was killed instantly but caught under the front wheels, her body was dragged for several metres. The woman was wearing a blue dress and… and this is the part that we are not certain about, you said that your mother had a scar on her right forearm… You had noted this identifying scar in the same location when you reported your mother missing…”
 
The stone that had lodged itself in Hannah’s gut on entering the police station was suddenly a boulder rolling downhill. For a moment, Hannah went careening with it but, in the face of the inevitable, she proved to be her mother’s daughter. Her look remained impassive. Only her lips moved, imperceptibly, as if testing her memory for a recital, gathering together the rehearsed words to make an acceptable and coherent sentence.
 
“When my mother was liberated from Auschwitz,” Hannah quietly said to the French-Canadian detective who likely had heard worse, “my mother scraped and cut the skin off her arm where she had been tattooed with a number.”
 
 
Hannah called Marilyn from the police station. Her hands were trembling as she jabbed at the keys. She could not go to the morgue only in the company of the detective. She wasn’t sure she could go at all but there was no choice. No choice. All the big moments in her life always seemed to end like this. For years, she had imagined this day when she would be all alone, when she would have to deal with the loss of her parents. Along with an odd sense of disconnect, there was a vague sensation of disappointment.
 
She felt let down by all the systems she had so carefully constructed to help make order out of the chaos of her life. In her thirties, she had embraced Taoist philosophy in preparation for this very moment. Yet she was now unable to invoke anything that could keep her steady. She needed to regain her balance. Taoism had helped her form a mantra: Accept everything that happens because who is to know what’s good or bad? This was the rule she had determined she would live by. It should have prepared her, but she didn’t feel equipped, only detached.
 

 

A story appeared to be unfolding while somewhere high above the changing scene, she hung suspended as if clinging to the riggings above a large stage. Looking down, she could see the players enter and exit, but she was growing exhausted waiting for a cue. Was Rokhl’s disappearance, possibly her death, Hannah’s fault? It all started with this Heilemann business. She should never have agreed to go to Germany for Sonenshein. That was the cause of her mother’s despair. Rokhl had killed herself because of their quarrel right after she had shouted, “I do not want you to go to Germany. If you go, it will be over my dead body, do you hear me? Over my dead body…”

         

This excerpt is from the forthcoming novel, Don't Ask, which will be published in April and can be pre-ordered or purchased here.
Copyright © Gina Roitman 2022

Gina Roitman, living in Quebec’s Lower Laurentians, works remotely as a memoir-writing coach. The excerpt published here is from her first novel, Don’t Ask, which will be published soon by Guernica. Roitman is also the author of the short story collection, Tell Me a Story, Tell Me the Truth; the co-author of Midway to China and Beyond; and the subject of the award-winning documentary My Mother, the Nazi Midwife and Me. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines including Poetica, Wherever I Find Myself, Moment, the Forward, and carte-blanche. She is currently editing an anthology featuring the essays and stories of 14 daughters of Holocaust survivors.



 

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