Eva’s Gift

By Nancy Gerber

ude studies the black polish on her nails as she shivers at the bus stop near her high school on Cedar Street. It’s chilly this November afternoon; she wishes she’d listened to her mother and worn her winter coat. Once again the bus is late. It’s usually five to ten minutes late, and no matter how many times she explains this to her supervisor, Mrs. Goldberg always complains. “It’s in the judge’s order you show up promptly at three,” Mrs. Goldberg repeats wearily, as if Jude is conspiring with New Jersey Transit to keep the buses from arriving on time. Jude is edgy; she knows Eva is impatient to see her and she doesn’t like to keep Eva waiting.

At the end of August, right before the start of sophomore year, Jude was caught shoplifting eye shadow and lip gloss from Target. Because this was her first offense, the family court judge, a gray-haired woman with tortoise shell glasses who looked like an owl, opted for leniency in the form of community service. “You will report two afternoons a week to Valley View Nursing Home for the next three months, starting in September,” the owlish judge declared. When Jude breathed a loud sigh of irritation and rolled her eyes toward the courtroom’s yellowed ceiling, the judge added, “And since you don’t seem to value clemency, you will also write a paper on what you’ve learned from your experience.”

At Valley View Jude stops to sign in with Mrs. Goldberg, but the small office is empty. She takes a yellow Post-it, scrawls “3:10 p.m., bus was late,” and leaves it on top of a large stack of manila folders piled precariously high on the cluttered desk. There’s no point in fudging the time; she’s already tried this and was caught because Mrs. Goldberg was talking to another social worker in the office next door. Jude pulls off her black cardigan and walks quickly down the hall to the community room to find Eva.

Eva is different from the other women in the unit. Her nose and cheeks are sharply chiseled, while the others have faces that look like melting ice cream. Her hair is crazy—a tangled mass of silver and white threads spreading outward from her skull as though she’d stuck her finger in an electric socket. Eva is completely lucid; she speaks loudly and clearly in full sentences, whereas the other women mumble softly and incoherently. Eva’s lilting accent makes Jude think of dark forests and deep rivers. Also, Eva is the only woman missing a leg. Because of diabetes, one of the nurses told Jude.

The friendship between Eva and Jude began on shaky ground. On Jude’s first day at Valley View while she was helping Allison, the activities director, pass around a green plastic tray filled with Chips Ahoy cookies and apple juice in paper cups, Eva stared at Jude and said, “Does your mother know how you dress? In all that black you look like a witch.”

“What’s wrong with witches?” Jude had asked.

Eva had snorted, and Jude sucked in her breath. It was bad enough to be stuck in a hellhole that stank of piss and Clorox with a bunch of women who looked like zombies, or as if they might drop dead any minute, without a total stranger criticizing her. She had her mother for that.

Later that first afternoon, a heavyset nurse wearing white pants squeezing her large bottom came in to speak with Allison and took a cookie. “You need to watch your weight,” Eva had called out.

“And you, Miss Eva, you need to mind your own business,” the nurse had said. Jude realized she found it amusing when Eva directed her sharp tongue at someone else. She’s really nasty, Jude had thought.

When Jude’s mother, Lynn, picked her up from the nursing home, she asked her daughter what she’d done during the afternoon. “Nothing,” Jude had said.

“Judith, I know that’s not true,” Lynn had replied with irritation. “You’re telling me you sat and twiddled your thumbs for the past two hours?

Jude did not answer. Her mother’s refusal to acknowledge her new name was infuriating. Her mother always began a conversation with Judith or Judy, as if she’d forgotten when they’d left the courtroom Jude told her she would no longer answer to those names: She wanted to be called Jude. Now that she was an outlaw, she needed an outlaw’s name.

“What’s wrong with Judith? Lynn had asked. “It’s so lovely—biblical and timeless. I’ve always wanted to be named Judith.”

“Yeah, it’s good if you want to serve up someone’s head on a silver platter.”

“Well, Jude is a ridiculous name for a girl.”

“You’re ridiculous.”

“You are very rude,” Lynn had said.

Jude and her mother live in a three-bedroom, sixties-style ranch in Mountain Ridge, a New Jersey suburb twenty miles from New York City. Jude’s older brother is a senior at Rutgers who didn’t come home from school over the summer, saying he preferred to stay on campus and work in a pizza place.

Last year when Jude was a freshman, her parents separated and her father moved to Los Angeles to be with his girlfriend, whom he’d met on a business trip. This woman also has a teenaged daughter and a college-age son. A brand-new family, complete with replacement children. How very convenient, Jude had thought when her mother told her about her father’s new living arrangements. Her father was gone, he’d left her without any more thought than he’d give a trash can, and she doesn’t know if she can ever forgive him for the hurt in her chest each day. A few weeks after her father left, she began stealing candy from a local mom-and-pop convenience store and was caught on camera the very first time she tried to shoplift at Target.

On this cold November day Eva sat in her wheelchair, dressed as she always dresses—in a gray sweatshirt and a wrinkled navy cotton skirt that comes to the middle of her right calf, which is clad in a thick black stocking covering a foot in a red pull-on sneaker. For the first week Jude could not stop staring at the empty space where Eva’s left leg should have been, but now she is used to it. Eva never mentions the phantom limb, and Jude doesn’t either. Eva is small with delicate bones, barely five feet tall. Jude’s initial impression was that Eva was taller. Jude realized she thought Eva was taller because her voice sounds so much bigger than her body.

The two became friends at the end of September, during Jude’s first month at Valley View, when Eva offered to show her how to play gin rummy. Jude had not played cards since the days of Old Maid and Go Fish. For some reason, this cranky old woman with the Gypsy-sounding lilt wanted her company. Jude could not remember the last time her mother had asked her to spend time together. As for her father, who even knew if she’d ever see him again.

“Do you play cards?” Eva had asked while they were sitting at a small dark table, Jude listening to Eva complaining about the meat loaf. Jude shook her head.

“Here, would you like to learn gin rummy?” Eva patted her skirt pocket and took out a deck of worn cards wrapped in a blue rubber band. Jude nodded and pulled her chair closer to the table.

They played the first game with the cards face up on the table, so Eva could better explain. “Gin is based on strategy and luck.” Eva made a laughing sound in her throat. “You have to pay attention, not just to the cards you hold in your hand but also to this,” and she tapped a bony finger on the discard deck. “You need to be thinking about the cards your opponent gets rid of just as much as the cards you want. It’s like having two stories in your head at once.”

Jude nodded. Eva’s intensity about the game was intimidating, but Jude knew her own memory was strong. Jude lost the first game they played after they turned the cards face down but won the second. Eva snorted with pleasure.

“You’re good at this!” she said. “Now it’s interesting!”

Jude felt her cheeks flush.

Eva was wild for cards and taught Jude poker. They played each time Jude came to visit, first for pennies, which Jude confiscated from the jar on her mother’s kitchen counter because Eva had none of her own. Sometimes they ran out of coins, so Allison found a used set of poker chips in the community room closest. This did not satisfy Eva. “I want to show something for my winnings,” she complained. When Allison told her she could exchange the plastic disks for M&Ms, Eva said, “I want the ones with peanuts.”

Over cards Jude learned Eva despised the nurses, who were mean and bossy. “There’s no one here to talk to,” Eva confided one day as she reached for her winnings. “Look at these waterheads,” she said, nodding at the other women dozing in their wheelchairs. “I’m completely alone. Except for you,” she added.

Jude said she felt alone too. Lynn was always complaining about Jude’s silences, her laziness and messy room. Her mother refused to make vegetarian meals because they took so long to prepare. “She says she’s too tired when she gets home from work. She won’t cook for me and there’s no food in the house, so I’m living on peanut butter and jelly,” Jude said.

Eva clicked her tongue in disapproval.

“What kind of mother won’t make dinner for her daughter? And you’re such a nice girl,” Eva said.

Jude laughed. “You’re the only one who thinks so.”

Eva talked about her only child, a grown man named Peter who lived alone in Chicago and never came to visit. “He turned out to be a selfish good-for-nothing,” Eva said as she threw her hands in the air and muttered some words in a language Jude did not understand.

“I know what you mean,” Jude responded. “That’s how I feel about my father.”

One day in late October, as Eva collected the large mound of poker chips in the center of the table, she asked Jude, “Do you believe in God?”

Jude was taken aback. No one had ever asked her that.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Do you?”

“No,” Eva said. “Not after what I’ve been through.”

She must be talking about her leg, Jude thought.

“What religion are you?” Eva then asked.

“My mother is Jewish and my dad is a lapsed Catholic who says he’s an atheist. I’m interested in Wicca.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s a modern pagan religion. Some Wiccans say a goddess created the universe and is the only divine being who should be worshipped. Some believe in a male god and a three-headed goddess. But basically there’s a lot of freedom to develop your own beliefs. Women have a lot of power, and I like that. Most Wiccans believe in rituals and magic.”

“So it’s witchcraft,” Eva said. “You’re a witch after all.”

“I guess so,” Jude laughed.

“Well, if you can cast a spell, I would like you to get me the hell out of here.”

“You and me both,” Jude said.

Today Eva takes the worn cards and shuffles them but does not deal. She looks at the wrinkles in her bony hands and clenches the cards as if to tear them to shreds. Then she looks at Jude and says, “I was in Auschwitz.”

***

Auschwitz. Jude’s skin becomes clammy. She knows what happened at Auschwitz. She learned about the Holocaust in school.

“I was born in Kartel, a farming village outside Budapest,” Eva says. “My father was a farm manager and my mother taught piano to the children in the village. My younger brother Peter went to yeshiva. We were a family and we were happy, until one day in March 1944 when the Nazis came. They screamed at us to leave our houses and our belongings and rounded us up as if we were animals. Do you know about the cattle cars?”

Eva’s dark eyes look like flaming coals. Jude has never seen her like this. “I’ve seen photographs,” Jude says.

“The old people from my village died in those trains, they were so terrified. For two days we had no food or water. Everyone was crying; the babies were howling. At Auschwitz they separated the men from the women, and that was the last time I ever saw my father and my brother.

“My mother and I went to the women’s camp. There were huge chimneys and a terrible stench everywhere. I said to my mother, ‘What is that horrible smell?’ And my mother said, ‘It’s human flesh. They’re burning people’s bodies.’ I didn’t believe her at first. Who does such things?”

Eva takes a breath and covers her eyes. Her voice is a croaking whisper and Jude has to lean in close to hear her.

“I knew some of the girls in my barracks were stealing bread. I wanted to try. My mother was starving because she gave me her bread. So one day I snuck into the kitchen and hid some in my shirt. I didn’t think anyone saw me. But maybe one of the guards found out, because later that day my mother was shot. I killed my mother.”

Eva is shaking and gasping and before Jude knows it, she put her arms around her and pulls her close. It feels strange to hold another woman, especially one so tiny. Jude hasn’t hugged her mother in years. Eva’s ribs press against her shirt.

“Your mother died because she was in Auschwitz,” Jude says. “Millions of people died there and it wasn’t your fault,” Jude says.

Eva pulls away from Jude and gazes at the white walls of the community room. “After the war I came to the United States and went to high school. I’d always dreamed of being a teacher like my mother, but there was no money. So I married and had a child. They call me a survivor. But I’m not a survivor, because that means something positive, like I’ve done a good job. I’m alive because I was lucky, that’s all. I hate that word, ‘survivor.’”

“I don’t know what to say. I’m so sorry,” Jude says.

“Dogol meg,” Eva mutters.

“What does that mean?”

“It means they should rot for eternity,” Eva says.

“I thought you didn’t believe in the afterlife.”

“I don’t believe in heaven. I believe in hell.”

“I’m sorry,” Jude says again.

Eva pushes up the sleeve of her sweatshirt and points to a string of numbers inked in blue across her lower arm. Jude reaches her index finger out to touch the tattoo and looks up at Eva, who nods.

Jude runs her finger lightly over the wavy ink. The numbers feel hot and Jude shuts her eyes so she doesn’t have to look at them. Dark, shadowy figures dance in the black space before her; they bend and sway and Jude hears them moaning. When she opens her eyes she groans and lays her head in Eva’s lap as tears drop onto Eva’s navy skirt.

Two days after listening to Eva’s story, Jude is back at Valley View. She stops in the office to sign in and finds Allison sitting in Mrs. Goldberg’s chair.

“I wanted to be the one to tell you, where we can have some privacy, so you don’t have to hear the news in front of everyone,” Allison says, rising from the chair. “Eva is gone. She had a massive stroke last night and died before we could get her to the hospital.”

Jude feels faint and sits down in the chair opposite Mrs. Goldberg’s desk.

“I don’t believe it,” she says. “I was with her just the other day. She seemed fine, not sick at all. She didn’t say anything about not feeling well.”

“Stroke is like that,” Allison says. “It happens when you least expect it. Eva had all kinds of health problems. Cholesterol, high blood pressure. Her diabetes was out of control. I’m so sorry. I know how fond you were of her.”

“I don’t believe it,” Jude says again. She feels the tears soaking her mascara, dragging long black streaks down her cheeks.

“She left something for you,” Allison says. “She gave me this and said if anything happened to her she wanted you to have it.”

Allison hands Jude a tiny white box. Inside there is a thin, gold band set with a small, round garnet.

“It was her birthstone, a present from her parents for her fourteenth birthday,” Allison says. “She told me she kept it with her in Auschwitz and hid it in the toe of her clog.”

Jude puts the ring on the fourth finger of her left hand, where it rests like a crown. “It’s beautiful,” she says as she turns the ring back and forth. “It’s magical that it made it out of Auschwitz with Eva.”

The sobs start coming and Jude hides her face in her hands.

“Do you want to go home?” Allison asks. “Mrs. Goldberg said she understood if you didn’t feel like working today. I also called your mom, and she said she would come pick you up if you wanted.”

Jude shakes her head.

“No, that’s okay. I’d like to stay. I just need to go to the bathroom and wash my face.”

Allison rests a hand on Jude’s shoulder.

“You’re a brave girl,” she says. “No wonder Eva liked you.”

Jude writes her paper for the court the day after she hears of Eva’s death. She gives a copy to Allison and mails one to the family court judge. The paper begins: Eva Bauer survived Auschwitz, though she did not care for the word ‘survivor.’ She thought it diminished the horrors she experienced and the suffering that followed. She taught me that even in the darkest moments it is not too late to love or be loved. Though I only knew her for ten weeks, I loved her. She was my friend. She paid attention to me and gave me something that was missing in my life. She was also the bravest person I’ve ever known.

Allison asks her to read from the paper at Eva’s memorial service in the Valley View chapel. Allison points out a thin, sallow-faced man sitting in the last pew.

“That’s Peter, Eva’s son,” she says to Jude. “I met him just once in all the years Eva was with us.”

Jude studies Peter’s face, trying to find the connection between him and his mother. He catches her staring at him and looks away. When the service is over he rushes out the door.

Two weeks later the judge telephones Jude. She says she gave Jude’s essay to a friend of hers, an editor at a local Jewish newspaper who wants to print it. “Would that be okay?” the judge asks.

“I don’t know. Let me think a minute,” Jude says. “I’d like to change Eva’s name to protect her privacy. Maybe I could call her Clara? That was her mother.”

“I’m sure that would be fine,” the judge says.

“And something else. I’m only half Jewish. I’m Wiccan.”

“I don’t see a problem with that,” the judge says.

Several weeks go by and Jude telephones Allison at Valley View. “Do you know where Eva is buried?” she asks. Jude cannot imagine Eva would choose to be cremated after Auschwitz, but she realizes she has no idea.

“Peter took her body back to Chicago. What makes you ask?”

“I miss her,” Jude says. “I was thinking I’d visit her grave.”

“I miss her too,” Allison says. “I’m glad you called. I’d been thinking about asking if you’d come back. We have a new resident named Rose who’s always complaining she has no one to play cards with. She’s very lonely. I’m sure she’d love to meet you.”

Jude says she can come by tomorrow. She’s interested in meeting Rose, but more than that, she wants to sit in the room where Eva taught her to play gin rummy.

 

Eva’s Gift first appeared in a slightly different form in DoveTales:  An International Journal of the Arts (2017).  This is an annual journal that was published in Spring 2017.

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Nancy Gerber has published fiction, poetry, and essays in various journals, including The New York Times, Mom Egg Review, Adanna Literary Journal, The Penmen Review, DoveTales,  and elsewhere.  She received a Ph.D. in English from Rutgers University and is currently an advanced clinical candidate at the Academy of Clinical and Applied Psychoanalysis in Livingston, New Jersey.


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