By Thomas J. Hubschman
(c) Thomas J. Hubschman
(“Logging On,” in a slightly different version, was broadcast over the BBC World Service in May, 1996. It was read by Don Fellows.)
He had been to Tasmania to check out the amount of rain fall for that day (actually, for the next), had browsed the latest press release of the African National Congress and read postings in alt.small.business and several other newsgroups. It was half an hour past his usual bedtime, but he typed a command that would list on his computer screen the other users on-line at that moment.
Dozens of names scrolled down his monitor, cryptic user IDs followed by real names. Some he recognized as staff, people he turned to when he was stumped by the Net’s arcane protocols or had a problem with the local server’s software. But for the most part they were strangers, people like himself who would rather be surfing the Internet than sleeping. They all subscribed to the same local provider.
“De” was the abbreviation for Germany. Cara Reilly was probably a student with access to the Internet through her school there. Even so, it was six (or was it seven?) hours later in Berlin. If she had a case of insomnia, it was a serious one.
He typed “talk” followed by Cara’s Internet address.
For a moment nothing happened. Then the screen split in two, a broken white line dividing the top half from the bottom. He typed, “Hi, Cara. What’s the weather like in Berlin?”
Almost immediately he saw white letters appear on the screen’s blue background. “Cold. Light rain. Where you are?”
He glanced over his shoulder at the darkened window, then remembered the weather forecast he had heard earlier in the evening.
“Same. Maybe snow later. You’re up early.”
“Don’t sleep much,” came the reply, the hesitations between letters and abrupt deletions of words suddenly thought better-of taking the place of the facial expressions and pauses of a face-to-face conversation. “Logged into your server by chance. Where are you located?”
“NYC,” he typed. “Brooklyn, actually. Know where that is?”
“Sure do. My mom was born in Flatbush.”
“Just down the road from here.”
“I grew up in Indiana. Near Fort Wayne.”
“What are you studying?”
The toilet flushed in the bathroom next to his study. That would be Margaret, up for her first pee of the night and a nip of something sweet from the refrigerator. She still got up for work every day at 5:50, although over the years her bedtime had slowly advanced until nowadays lights-out came closer to ten than one a.m. as it used to.
“What time is your first class?” he typed.
“No classes today. Field trip yesterday. Brandenburg Gate and Brecht’s House.”
“Tomorrow we go to Poland. Cracow and Auschwitz.”
“That should be different.”
“I’m a little leery. Gas chambers? Yuck. You’re not Jewish, are you?”
“Only on Rosh Hashonah.”
There was a pause. For a moment he thought she was logging off, and the prospect so alarmed him that he held his breath until he saw the white characters begin to appear again.
“Didn’t mean any offense,” she wrote.
“None taken. How long a trip will it be?”
“Two days.” She was typing confidently again. “We’ll have a Polish translator with us.”
“I’d love to hear how it turns out.”
“I’ll send you an e-mail.”
“I’d like that.”
“Gotta go. Promised my roommate a Berliner for breakfast. Know what that is?”
“As in ‘Ich bin ein…’?”
“You got it. See ya.”
For the next couple days a quiet anticipation informed his waking hours. He read and replied to e-mail and other messages with more interest than usual, and he was not one ordinarily to show diffidence.
“I saw a construction crane today,” he told his wife when she got home from work looking so old and tired that it made his heart ache. “Some sort of heavy-duty equipment.”
“For that you expect a medal?”
It continued to amaze him much she, the gentile, talked like a New York Jew and how many of her own Irishisms he had assimilated.
“Guess what the company’s name is.”
“Tell me,” she said, pulling off her pantyhose even before she had removed her skirt. Her expression reminded him of the way his mother used to look when she took off her girdle, although his mother never spent eight hours in an office and another two traveling crowded subways.
“In big black letters.”
“You picked up apple juice?” she said, already into the refrigerator. “I left you a note to pick up apple juice.”
“Come on. Guess.”
“I specifically asked you to buy apple juice.”
“In the back. Right-hand side.”
She removed a quart of milk and pulled out the container of apple juice. She tried to force open the glued top but gave up with a sigh. He stepped forward and pried back the cardboard nozzle for her.
“‘Putzmeister’!” he declared. “Can you imagine?”
She took a long sip of juice and regarded him warily from the glass’s rim.
He shook his head in delight. “Imagine. In block lettering three-feet high.”
“You’re making it up,” she said, putting the glass into the sink. Then she plodded barefoot into the living room. “Where’s the TV section?”
After two days there was still nothing from Cara. She should have been back from Poland by now. Had she forgotten their conversation earlier in the week? Had she mislaid his Internet address?
Another day passed. Each time he logged on he felt a mixture of hope and apprehension. When the system notified him he had mail waiting, he switched eagerly to his in-box only to feel deflated when he found the message was not from Cara. What did it matter if he never heard from this stranger again? He had a dozen friends on the Net who were better informed and more reliable. Nevertheless he became snappish and ill-at-ease. Margaret noticed it, but he often went into moods and she had learned to ignore them.
Finally, on the fourth day he got a reply.
“Cracow was beautiful. Our guide told us there were few Polish cities that hadn’t been leveled during the war (WW II),” she added. “The next day we went to Auschwitz. It’s still a grim and scary place. An old Jewish man who had been a prisoner there was giving an interview for television. It was incredible listening to him in that setting right next to all those gas chambers.
“He described the bleakness of life in the camp, how you never saw birds flying overhead as we did that day. He described how the inmates were loaded off trains, how he was nearly shot when he dared to speak to a guard. Incredibly, he spoke of forgiveness, without forgetting what happened there, so the tragedy is never repeated. He said human beings are slow learners.
“After the interview a man came up to him and began arguing in Polish. I asked the tour guide what the argument was about. He said the man who had started the argument was crazy. He was saying that Hitler was a Jew and the war was just a battle between the Jews. The man was saying that Jews have a chip on their shoulder and want to destroy Poland.
“Then the tour guide said something very strange. He said that Jews really do have a bad attitude. He said sometimes after they see Auschwitz they tear the tour buses apart. He said the Germans who come to Poland interact with the Poles, but the Jews do not. He said that Jews hate Poles.
“I told him I thought both Poles and Jews, Jewish Poles, were victims of the Nazies. He must have thought I was baiting him because he asked if I was Jewish. I told him my mother was. He said he could tell that I disliked him. He said he had seen it in my eyes.
“I still don’t know what to make of this. I was not raised Jewish. As a kid I went to Protestant church at Christmas and sometimes at Easter.
“I hope you don’t mind my telling you all this.
“Is the weather any better in Brooklyn?”
His fingers were trembling as he prepared to type a reply. He seemed filled with things to say, but as he sat staring down at the computer keyboard he found himself unable to find words to express any of it. He hadn’t felt this way since his son was in junior high school and had some kind of trouble in the schoolyard — he couldn’t even remember exactly what.
“Are you coming to bed soon?”
Margaret was standing in the doorway, the hall light shining behind her. She had on a pink nightgown that emphasized her still perfect complexion. She didn’t ordinarily ask him to come to bed early unless she was feeling bad.
“In a minute.”
She went back to the bedroom, and he tried again to collect his thoughts for a response. But still nothing came. He logged off the system but left the computer on.
“Your boss giving you a hard time again?” he asked a moment later, taking his wife’s hand.
“Not especially. Just feeling a little . . .” — she glanced toward him apologetically — “you know . . . blue.”
He squeezed her fingers and said, “Old mortality gotcha?”
“Something like that.”
He lay down beside her.
“Sometimes I wonder myself what it was all for, those years at the store. If I had been a mason, at least I could walk by a building I had worked on and say, ‘I helped make that.'”
“If they hadn’t torn it down.”
“As it is, I’m afraid to go back to the store for fear they’ve turned it into a car wash or porno shop.”
“The Rahjis would never do that.”
“If they can’t make a go of it they’d have no choice.”
“They told you you’re always welcome to come by.”
“It’s too much like visiting a cemetery.” He glanced toward her furtively. “I’m sorry, Margaret. I should have sold out long before I did.”
“Have you heard me complain? I knew the store was your life.”
“Some life. Seventy-two hours a week. On my feet all day. For what? To sell some penny candy. A few milkshakes.”
“Don’t knock penny candy. It kept a lot of dentists in business.”
He stared out the darkened window at the bare branches of an oak tree trembling in the streetlight.
“You know what I was doing when you came into Rudy’s room? I was trying to answer an e-mail from a girl in Berlin. She had just had her first taste of anti-Semitism. The funny part is, she isn’t even a Jew. Except, you know, technically.”
“No, it was a Pole. An educated man. The tour guide who took her class to Auschwitz. “It reminded me, you know, of that time Rudy . . .”
She pressed her thin lips tightly together and nodded.
“I feel so bad for her,” he said. “Isn’t that weird? I don’t even know the girl. She’s some kid from Indiana. She wouldn’t know a Jew from a Jackrabbit.”
His wife turned partway toward him. “Remember what you said about Hitler? How in ten years he did more for Jewish identity than Theodor Herzl did in half a century?”
He nodded glumly. “I didn’t mean to get depressing.”
“You didn’t depress me. In fact, you took my mind off my own dark thoughts. You’d better go answer that girl’s letter. Then come back to bed.”
A couple minutes later he was typing away in his usual two-finger style.
“Thanks for the account of your trip to Poland. It means a great deal to me that you chose to share your experience.
“The weather’s much better now in Brooklyn. We’re looking forward to seeing our son for Thanksgiving. Will you and your American classmates celebrate Thanksgiving in Berlin? You should. It’s part of what makes us all American, no matter where we come from.
“Which reminds me of a sign I saw in a butcher’s window this afternoon. . . .”