Welcome to His Brother’s Keeper, a fictional mystery series set in 2000, in New York. I’ve decided to periodically lend my blog to a friend, Eva Hirschel. Eva doesn’t have a social media presence but she does have a mystery that she wanted to publish serially on-line, so I’m giving her a hand. (If you’re just tuning in now, I suggest that you start at the beginning). Here is Part I, Chapter 12. Enjoy!
Horseshoe Curve was a must-see on the list of anyone who was seriously interested in railroads or in the history of American industry, and Simon was almost as big a railroad buff as Caleb. Opened in 1854 by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, it had made possible cross-country train travel and the transport of goods from east to west. Where the Allegheny Mountains had once been an impenetrable barrier, the curve created a kind of horseshoe-shaped shelf upon which the train tracks could be laid. It was still one of the busiest sections of track in the country, with hundreds of trains passing around the curve every week.
We parked the car and entered the official Horseshoe Curve museum. The exhibits were interesting, but the real excitement lay elsewhere. Up a mountain by cablecar and there we were, right in the middle of the curve. Surrounding us on three sides were train tracks, making an enormous U-shape around the contours of the mountain. It was easy to see why it was considered a feat of engineering and ingenuity. Simon sat on a bench, admiring the planning that went into such a project, and the kids ran back and forth in front of the railing that kept the tracks safely beyond their reach. It was a crisp October day, with just enough of a breeze to blow the leaves around our ankles. From this high up, we could see the valley below and the reservoir directly beneath us.
Sitting down on the bench next to Simon, I leaned back and let the sun warm my face.
“So was it worth it coming all this way?” he asked me.
“You mean, to see this?”
He moved closer and put his arm around my shoulder. “No, wise guy. Did you get helpful information that you couldn’t have gotten without making this incredibly long trip?”
“Yes, very helpful. I have some real solid information to go on, and a much better picture of Jack Gelberman.”
“So are you ready to fold your cards and give the granddaughter the information you’ve gathered?”
I bolted straight up and looked at him, shocked. “What are you talking about? I’m far from done. And she’s paid me. I have to finish.”
“I know,” he answered. “But you do have some answers for her. I just think this ‘case’ has some strange aspects to it. Don’t you think something weird is going on?”
“Simon, you need to be more supportive.”
“Oh, Abby, come on. I’m very supportive. But you need to know when it’s time to move on. There are a lot of holes in this situation you’re dealing with. I just don’t want you to get in over your head.”
The trouble was, I still hadn’t told Simon about not being able to contact Sarah Gelberman. This didn’t really seem like the time or place. “I’m okay,” I answered. “I’m not a babe in the woods. It’s interesting, I’m learning a lot, and I’ve been paid. I’m going to see this guy Mort Klein later on, which I’m sure will prove fruitful. I don’t see a problem.”
Simon sighed deeply. “Well, I can’t tell you what to do.”
“Abby, I don’t want to fight.”
“So don’t tell me what to do.”
“You really feel the granddaughter is trustworthy?”
Now it was my turn to sigh. “Okay, look, no, she’s not. Don’t scream, but she gave me a false phone number. I’m sure the address is false too. But Jack Gelberman is for real. I’ve been paid enough to let me continue for a while, and I want to figure out what this is about.”
Simon just looked at me, his eyebrows tense with tightly controlled anger. “I can’t believe this. When were you planning on telling me? I mean—”
I cut him off. “Don’t get over-dramatic. Now you sound like Hannah. This isn’t anything I can’t handle.”
Simon was silent for some time. Finally he spoke. “I think you’re making a mistake. But it’s your choice.” He reached for my hand and squeezed it. “It’s just that I worry about you. Don’t do anything dumb.”
“I won’t,” I said, and squeezed back. But as I spoke, a new plan was hatching in my head.
Suddenly there were two jumping, squirming children in my lap. “Daddy, Mommy, come see!” exclaimed Hannah.
Caleb grabbed one of my hands, and Hannah the other. “Come, come, the train is coming.”
And sure enough, I could hear the whistle. A moment later the train itself chugged into view. A freight train was slowly and carefully making its way around the curve. Hannah jumped onto a bench and began to count excitedly. “One, two, three, four,” she yelled, “five, six, seven…”
Caleb ran to the railing to get as close a look as possible. He waved at the engineer, who waved back.
More cars followed the engine. I had never seen such a long train in my life. It went on and on and on, and so did Hannah. “Forty-six, forty-seven, forty-eight,” she continued.
As the train progressed, there was no end in sight to the freight cars. Caleb hopped up and down, trying to guess what was in each car. “Bananas, blankets, toys, chairs, ice cream…”
Then came the moment everyone was waiting for, when enough of the train had gone around the bend of the curve so that we were surrounded by it on three sides. Theoretically, the engine could wave to the caboose.
“Eighty-nine,” Hannah recited, “ninety, ninety-one, ninety-two…”
“I didn’t know she could count so well,” I said to Simon.
“Yeah,” he answered just as my cell phone rang. “She’s just full of surprises, like her mother.”
It was the call I’d been waiting for.
Over the phone, Betty Klein had been as friendly as could be. When I explained why I was calling, she’d invited me to come over in the late afternoon and have some coffee with them, telling me they’d be glad to have a chance to do some reminiscing. I had stopped at a nearby bakery and picked up a coffee cake. The Kleins lived in Holidaysburg, right outside of Altoona and about a ten-minute drive from our hotel. I was quickly learning that in this small city, nothing was too far away. But when I got to their house, Mort Klein did not exactly radiate a warm welcome.
I stood at the entrance to the Klein’s fifties ranch house, holding the cake box in one hand and my bag in the other. Before I could even shift something to other hand in order to ring the bell, a face appeared at the door.
“Hi,” I said brightly, “I’m Abby Marcus.”
A tall, bald-headed man in his late seventies, wearing jeans, a faded flannel shirt, and sneakers, opened the door. He placed his foot firmly in the doorway, blocking my entrance. “Show me some identification,” he said. He was clearly used to giving commands and being listened to.
Surprised, I stared at him, trying to decide if this was for real. “Will a driver’s license do?”
“Let’s see it,” was the reply.
I handed him the box of cake, and pulled my wallet out of my bag.
He took my license and studied it carefully, looking up at me twice. Grudgingly, and with a sense of disappointment, he gave me back the card. “Don’t suppose you have a P.I. license or anything, huh?” he asked. “A gun license?”
For a quick moment I let myself enter the fantasy and imagine that I was a tough-talking, thin, six foot tall sharpshooter, not a short, out-of-shape mother of two. Many different retorts ran through my mind, but in the end I simply flashed my most virtuous smile and said, “I’m not a P.I., and I don’t carry a gun.” The man watched far too much t.v. “I’m just doing some harmless genealogical research. Would you like to see my library card? Or my Jewish Genealogical Society membership card?”
“Okay, never mind,” he said gruffly, as if I was the one setting up the obstacles. “So you’re Abby Marcus. I suppose I’ll have to trust the rest of your story as well. Mort Klein, nice to meet you.” He stuck out his hand to shake mine, then ushered me inside.
The living room was to the right of the doorway and behind that was the kitchen; I assumed the bedrooms were off to the left. The wood-paneled room featured a stone fireplace, overstuffed bookshelves, and glass doors leading to the back deck. A rocking chair was placed next to the fireplace, and signs of a knitting project were in evidence on the table next to the chair. On the coffee table was a crossword puzzle book and the remote control to the television positioned across from the orange slipcovered couch. Also on the coffee table were about half a dozen small puzzles and games of various types, the kind where you have to align all the colored squares up just right, or move the balls from one side to another without jumping any of them, and several books of word jumbles. A red plaid recliner, worn out in the seat, was placed next to the couch, a crocheted afghan hanging over one arm. It was a warm, comfortable room, clearly the center of the house and not just meant for entertaining guests.
“Sorry to welcome you like that,” Mort Klein explained before I had time to fully recover, “but you can’t be too careful today. People think up schemes to prey on the elderly, pretend they’re our friends, you know. We don’t like to think of ourselves as elderly and vulnerable, but we are. I tell Betty that all the time, and still she trusts people too much.”
“No problem,” I said smiling. “I totally understand. Better safe than sorry.”
“Exactly,” he answered. “Just the other day, a young man came by, said he was collecting money for abused children. Betty was ready to let him in, give him a cup of coffee, the whole nine yards. She’s just a sucker for anything having to do with children. Luckily, I heard her and intercepted that one. Who knows who he was? You can’t be too safe.” He stopped, and motioned to the couch. “Here, have a seat. Sorry, I’m not being a good host, talking too much already and we haven’t even gotten started. Betty’s making coffee. She’ll be out shortly. I guess I better bring her this—one second.”
He took the box of cake into the kitchen, leaving me to take a deep breath. Had he been like this in the classroom, or was his overbearing personality simply a result of the boredom of retirement? Seating myself on the couch, I scanned the titles on the shelves. One whole bookcase was filled with science books of various kinds, including textbooks. There were also books on Jewish history and the Holocaust, a sizable collection of art history books, and hardcover editions of popular bestsellers.
Before long, Mort Klein returned with the coffee cake, now decorously placed on a silver-rimmed plate. He was accompanied by a woman I assumed was Betty, carrying a tray of mugs and other coffee-related fixings.
“Can I help with anything?” I asked.
“No, no,” she said, smiling. “Make yourself comfortable. I hope Mort hasn’t been doing his attack dog routine.” She laughed at and looked at her husband fondly. “We don’t need a guard dog with Mort in the house.”
After we were settled comfortably with our coffee and cake, and had made some small talk about the differences between Altoona and New York City, it was time to get down to business. Placing my mug on the table, I took out my notebook and a pencil.
“So, how can we help you?” asked Mort, leaning back in the red plaid recliner.
“I’m trying to find out as much as I can about Jack Gelberman so that I can accurately put together his family tree, and try to locate his brother.”
“Brother? I didn’t know he had a brother,” said Betty.
“I don’t know if the brother is still alive, or if he even made it through the war. But the family wants me to find out.”
Mort looked thoughtful as he chewed a piece of cake. “Jack and I, we worked together for many years. He taught physics, I taught earth sciences. We belonged to the same synagogue. We played bridge now and then, over the years, were on the science curriculum committee together. We were buddies, you know, friends, but not really close. He was a private person, wouldn’t you say?” He turned to Betty for confirmation, and she nodded in agreement. “He didn’t let people in. His wife was the same way. It’s funny, really. We worked together for so many years, knew each other for so long, but it’s not like I really knew him. You always felt there was a whole lot locked up in there. Other than the wife and kids, I’m unaware of any other family.
“Betty, here, she knew Judith, Jack’s wife. Their kids were around the same ages as our kids, you know how that is. They spent time together when the kids were young, play groups, things like that. You knew her as well as anyone, wouldn’t you say, Betty?”
“But I can’t say we ever heard about any family, from either of them,” Mort continued. “It was like they were starting from scratch when they had kids, building their world all over again. Nope, don’t know about any other family they mighta had.”
“Except there was that time— ” said Betty with hesitation. “Remember, Mort? When he had to rush to New York and you covered some of his classes that time. Not too long before he retired.”
“What happened?” I asked.
Betty, in the meantime, had gotten up from the couch and crossed the room. She had pulled an album off a shelf and was leafing through it.
“Humm, that’s right, Bets. Forgot about that.” Mort looked like he was trying to gather his thoughts. “We were at school, in the teacher’s lounge, and a call came through to Jack from his wife. Apparently there was some family emergency, and he had to leave town for a few days. Right, right, now I remember. Forgot about that, Betty, forgot all about that. Yup, it struck me as strange at the time, because I never knew he had any family other than the wife and kids. He was gone for a few days, and then came back, and that was that. But I remember while he was gone I called to make sure everything was okay and his wife told me he had gone to New York. Remember, Betty? We both remarked on how strange it was at the time.”
“Yes, I remember. Sure was.”
“See, we knew he was a refugee,” Mort continued. “You know, a survivor of the camps, and had a lot he didn’t like to talk about. She had no family either. Yup, the two of them musta had some tragic stories to tell. But they were private, didn’t talk about their stories. It was like they put it all behind them. And I’m sure we would have known if there was family. After all, we were at the son Nathan’s bar mitzvah, and what a small, sad affair that was. Just a modest lunch back at the house, no music, no dancing, no family, just a handful of acquaintances like us, and Nathan’s friends. And we were at Nathan’s wedding, also, no family from either Jack or Judith’s side. More like a funeral than a party.”
Betty nodded in agreement as she walked back to us, the album open in her hands. She perched herself on the arm of the couch next to me. “This is Jack, at our daughter’s wedding, must have been 1979. He didn’t like to be photographed, but the photographer was too quick for him here.” She laughed, handing me the album and pointed to a picture on the upper right hand corner. “Always such a serious man. He never seemed to like parties, but if he was invited to a bar mitzvah or a wedding, he came.”
The color had faded, giving the photograph a bleached out look, and his eyes were red from the flash. But I could make out a tall, slim man, wearing a brown sports jacket and white shirt, looking warily into the camera. His dark hair was graying at the temples and beginning to recede, making his large ears appear especially prominent. He was handsome, with prominent cheekbones and full lips, if you liked the strong, silent types. But the redeye from the flash made it hard to tell what he really looked like or what his eyes might have revealed about his character. I studied the photograph carefully, looking for further insight or other distinguishing features, but I didn’t notice anything else that might be helpful to me. I don’t know what I was expecting, maybe a sign behind him saying something like, yes, I am the grandson of the last Halizcher rebbe, but there was nothing like that in the photo. I sighed and handed the album back to Betty.
Betty got up from her perch on the arm of the couch, and went back to the bookshelf where she tucked it back into its place among the other albums.
“Thank you,” I said, trying to figure out how to steer the conversation back to the mystery phone conversation. I figured that being direct was the best bet. “But if you don’t mind, you were just talking about that call he got. Did you learn anything later about why he rushed off to New York?”
His hand on his chin, Mort tapped his nose and thought for a moment. “It seems to me that there was a problem with a relative, but not a brother. I would have remembered that. I think it was a woman. I remember, when he answered the phone that day in teacher’s lounge, not that I was eavesdropping or anything, him saying something like, ‘What’s wrong with her?’ And he sprang into action, clearly very worried, said he’d be gone a few days, it was an emergency, and so on. I remember, because at first I thought maybe it was something with his daughter. But it wasn’t. Asked a bunch of us to take over his classes. It was out of character.”
Now this was something interesting indeed. As far as I knew, he had had no sisters. Who was this mystery woman?
“Really out of character,” Mort continued. “He was such a self-contained type, didn’t need anything from anyone. And we were friendly and all, like I said, played bridge, helped each other out once in a while, sat together at staff meetings, shared some meals, chaired some meetings, attended each other’s kids’ weddings, but since he left for Florida, I haven’t heard a word from him. Not a word.”
“That’s true,” Betty agreed. I wondered briefly what would happen if she didn’t agree with him, or whether that ever even happened.
“So, can you tell more about his character?” I asked. “Or anything else that might help me trace other family members. Anything about his background?”
Mort shrugged and looked at Betty. “He was a quiet guy, like I said. He was a great teacher, his students loved him because he taught something difficult but made them feel they could do it. Oh, they loved him. I remember thinking, what does this guy have that I don’t, you know? Students who were scared of science and math opted to take his classes, because he had this reputation, a well-deserved one, as a great teacher, someone who wouldn’t intimidate you or make you feel stupid. My own kids tried to explain this to me. And boy did he know his stuff. It always amazed me that he didn’t go into research or academics. He was so bright. But he seemed happy with the life he had, content to stay here in Altoona and teach in the high school and go home every night. Never took on extra responsibilities like coaching or overseeing a club, only what the school assigned him to do. Though he did a lot of extra tutoring of the kids in his classes. He hated to see a kid fail or not live up to their potential.”
“Mort was the advisor of the ham radio club,” Betty interjected proudly.
“That’s right,” he said, smiling. “Before e-mail and faxes and cell phones, that was the greatest thing on earth. Talk to someone on the other side of the world, find out something about life over there. It was great for the kids. They don’t even have it anymore at the high school. How things change. But back to your question, his background, no, I just don’t know much. I don’t know how much his kids or grandkids know, I guess not much, otherwise they wouldn’t have you doing this. All I know is that he came from Europe, I think Poland or thereabouts, and was in the camps. He must have been a young boy.”
“He and his wife met here,” Betty said. “She was a refugee too, you see. She had some incredible story, hid in a barn of a Polish farmer until someone turned them in. Once she opened up and talked a little, years and years ago. The community here, together with the Joint Hebrew Immigrant Charities branch in Pittsburgh, sponsored a group of young refugees. My parents collected clothes and kitchenware and bedding for months in preparation. I think Jack and Judith both came as part of that group. Do you remember, Mort? The idea was to bring these poor young people— ”
“Yes, yes,” Mort interrupted. “Sure, sure, it was big news. To bring them from the D.P. camps, they were all alone, to bring them here and help them get a fresh start. They were given jobs and helped to enroll in the university. You know, many of them had never even gone to high school because, well, you know, they were in those camps. But they learned English and other basics, and they made lives for themselves. I remember when they came, the papers were full of it. They were the biggest news around for a while. In fact, my father, who was an immigrant himself, took it very seriously. He didn’t have a lot of money to give, but he helped however he could. It was important to him. But I remember that he was disappointed, because he was thinking he’d have people he could speak Yiddish with. And this group of young people, including Jack, they didn’t want anything to do with Europe and what they’d left behind. They wanted to learn English and become American as quickly as possible. And really, could you blame them?”
Betty cleared her throat, turned first to her husband, and then turned back to me. “Actually, Mort,” she said, “Just to set the record straight, Jack and Judith both did quite a bit of volunteer work in their spare time. Judith volunteered at the library and was involved in adult literacy. Jack tutored new immigrants in English, both at the high school and in the evenings, at a local church, he would teach adults a few nights a week.”
“Really?” Mort exclaimed. “See, I didn’t even know this. Worked with guy how many years, I never knew this. Amazing. How’d you know, Bets?”
“One time the city wanted to give them both an award. Must have been in 1976, with the Bicentennial, and the city was doing thing on Outstanding Citizens. It was going to be written up in the newspapers, a big megillah. I was on the nominating committee, representing the synagogue Sisterhood. They got this group together of people from all the local synagogues and churches and civic groups, the Rotary club, the Altoona Development Corporation, what have you. They were both nominated, and the newspaper was going to profile all the nominees and people would vote for who they thought should be the Outstanding Citizens, something like that. But when they heard about it, both Jack and Judith asked that their names be left out of it, they didn’t want any recognition for what they did. And that’s just the way they were. So don’t blame yourself that you didn’t know. I was surprised myself.”
“The things you find out about people! So Sarah hired you to do this?” Mort asked me.
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Interesting,” he muttered between bites of his second piece of coffee cake. “A’course, I haven’t seen her in years, since they moved away, but I would think she’s too young to have money to hire a detective or whatever you are. She can’t be too long out of college yet.”
“I don’t think she’s doing this on her own. It seems to be a family effort.”
“How nice,” murmured Betty. “So sweet.”
Mort licked his fingers clean and put down his cake plate. “Well, it sure is a nice thing to do for Jack. And why they’d come to you? You specialize in the Holocaust, or finding people or something?”
I was silent. It was a question that was starting to gnaw at me, a question I would really have liked to have asked Sarah Gelberman, if she hadn’t disappeared on me. Then I spoke. “Yeah, I’m good at finding people. But honestly, I don’t know why they came to me. I really have no idea whatsoever.” And that was the truth.
“Let me ask you a question,” I said with hesitation, choosing my words carefully.
“Sure,” said Mort.
“From what you know, and I realize it’s been a while, what do you think about Jack’s kids and grandkids? Are they on the up and up?” I asked.
“Now, what are you referring to?” asked Mort, taken aback. “Far as I know, they’re as straight as they come. The daughter, Beth, she was in sales or something, left here to go to college and never came back except for an occasional visit. Couldn’t wait to leave, I think. But real smart, real nice kid. Probably has a family by now, must be in her late forties. The son, Nathan, also in his late forties, also super-smart. I had him for two classes. Wow, what a mind. But he didn’t go into science. Became a professor of American Literature, if I’m not mistaken. Last I heard, he got tenure somewhere or other. And Sarah herself? Well, the last time I saw her, she was a little girl. So cute, they were, those kids.”
“Cute as buttons,” Betty said.
“Yup. Well, they stood out here, but what can you do? She was a nice girl that Nathan married, don’t remember her name, something unusual, you know, well, whatever. Nice. Nothing weird there. I think she was a professor too, right Betty?”
“I really don’t remember. I just remember talking to Jack and Judith about it, and they weren’t thrilled at first, but they were accepting,” she said. “Sometimes it’s hard for parents, you know.”
I wasn’t sure I did know, but I could imagine how hard it could be for parents to let go and let them make their own matches. “Kind of makes you wish for the old days of matchmaking,” I said laughing lightly, fishing for more information. They joined in on the laughter.
“Kids marry who they want, and there’s nothing we parents can do about it,” Betty said. “Though we have nothing to complain about, do we Mort?”
“No, we don’t” he agreed, “Except for that terrible mincemeat pie our daughter-in-law Polly insists on making every Thanksgiving. And then we have to pretend to like it.”
“Now Mort,” Betty chided. “It’s not so bad. It’s just so, so — ”
“So goyishe,” Mort said, finishing her sentence. “Betty’s just too darn nice to say it, but it’s true. Two of our kids married non-Jews. That’s the way it goes here. Life in America, right, what can you do? But we got ourselves some cute grandkids outta the deal, so what can I tell you. Our daughter-in-law Polly, she converted, whadda they call it now? She’s a Jew-by-choice. And my son-in-law, he didn’t convert but agreed to raise the kids Jewish. So I got one grandkid named Shira McConnell, and I got another grandkid named Shannon Klein. Only in America. But so what? You love ‘em no matter what, even if they were not being raised Jewish, what, I wouldn’t love my own flesh and blood? So what if my father’s turning in his grave. Life ain’t like it once was in the old country. Nothing you can do about that.”
I nodded sympathetically. It seemed like it was time to go, before they started dragging out pictures of their grandchildren. But I had one more question to ask.
“Can you think of any reason why Sarah might think that her grandfather had lived in New York before he retired to Florida? Was she so young when they left here that she might have gotten confused?”
“Naw, she had to be about five, six when they moved away. That makes no sense. Is that what she said to you? How strange.”
I sat back on the couch and looked at Mort and Betty. How strange indeed. I couldn’t have agreed with Mort more. But what I didn’t know then, sitting there comfortably in their homey living room, was just how much stranger it was going to get.
[To be continued….]