By Frank Ephraim
I like to have a destination in my daily walk that serves as exercise, but I suspect it is also a subconscious attempt to get away from my frustration with writing. Today, for the umpteenth time, I chose the trail near my house that would lead me to the local Barnes and Noble bookstore in Bethesda. Dressed for my walk, I wore blue jeans, a sweatshirt, a visored cap, and running shoes. Once inside the store I planned, as usual, to give the new books a quick look to see if a promising spy thriller had been published in paperback. World War II espionage is my favorite genre.
The shelves at the front of the bookstore had little to offer me, so I stepped on the escalator to browse among the books displayed on tables on the second floor. There was nothing inspiring there today and I began to scan books on the long rows of shelves. I stopped at the Holocaust section and started to read the titles.
I did not notice him right away, but as he inched closer I turned my head. The man was elderly, wearing a dark blue pin-striped suit, a white shirt, and a tie with a fleur-de-lis pattern. A white silk handkerchief protruded neatly from his coat pocket. Wearing heavy, black-rimmed eyeglasses, he seemed to concentrate on the books just to my left. Then he pulled one out to examine it, opening the volume to read the back flap.
I continued my own search, fully expecting to soon give up and leave the bookstore for my return trek. That is when the well-dressed man began to speak to me. The accent was strong, and by his appearance, I guessed middle European.
“Yes, those were brutal times,” he said. He had, of course, noticed my interest in the books about the Holocaust. “One can never forget and, believe me, I have tried.” I immediately knew he was a survivor, but all I could say was, “Yes, I can imagine.” How trite that sounded to me. He did not seem annoyed and continued. “I come to this bookstore as often as my busy schedule allows to see if anyone has written about my camp.” He must have expected me to ask what camp that was, and so I did.
“Entlingen?” I had never heard of it, but then most camps were unknown to me, except for places like Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and a few other infamous names. “Not many survivors, probably all dead now anyway,” he said, looking at his watch. “Still time for a cup of coffee.” I do not, to this day, know why I asked him if he would like to join me in a cup at the Starbucks coffee bar located in the back near the magazines. “Delighted,” he said, not seeming to notice or care about my very casual outfit next to his business attire. Still, I felt uncomfortable and crossed my arms as if to hide behind them.
We ordered café lattes and scones and sat down at a small table. He introduced himself as Lucas Pen. He laughed as he explained his name had been Perlstein and to Americanize he had decided to just pick three letters to construct his new name. For the next 30 minutes he mesmerized me with the story of his experiences. My insignificant attempts to write fiction over the past few years might now lead to a true story if I could only scribble notes fast enough. “Perhaps I can write your story,” I interjected quickly. Was it stupid of me to think I could do justice to such a powerful chronicle? But then, I was really desperate because nothing had worked for me so far. Frowning as he looked at his watch, he muttered something and said his chauffeur was waiting for him outside and that he had to leave for an important meeting. As he reached for his wallet I quickly held up a hand and said I would take care of the check and bade him hurry to his appointment.
“Please give me your telephone number,” he said. “I would really like to continue our conversation, and maybe you will write my book.” Not expecting ever to hear from him, I wrote my name and number on a napkin and he grabbed it as he hurriedly walked away. It seemed less than two weeks later when the phone rang and Lucas Pen was on the line. “How are you, young man?” he said. I was not that much younger than he was, but compared to me he had lived several centuries’ worth of adventure. Just back from a business trip to China, Pen wanted to have lunch the next day. “Fine,” I said and suggested I make reservations at the Alsatian Village in Chevy Chase. I did not feel right lunching with so important—and interesting—a man at one of the noisy eateries usually crammed with office workers.
After talking about his trip and mentioning that next week he would be in New York for negotiations on a deal to open three supermarkets in Nairobi, Pen returned to his story. I was armed with my notebook because I told myself that this was going to be the beginning of “serious” writing. Over dessert I brought up the subject of audio taping and asked Lucas—he had insisted on first names—if I might interview him at his home. “Of course, of course,” he cheerfully replied. “But not at my house. My wife, you know, is very sensitive. She does not want to talk about the past.” “All right,” I said, “let’s just meet for lunch or coffee at a quiet place until I have enough material to work on.”
Since it was to my benefit, I felt I should pick up the check, and signaled the waiter, but knew Pen would probably object, as he was, after all, a successful businessman. Pen raised his eyes as he slowly said, “No, on me.” I quickly grabbed the bill and slipped my Visa card into the leather folder, as Pen shook his head smiling at my insistence. I liked the man.
We met for lunch once a month for almost a year, trying to accommodate Pen’s absences from town and working around his frequent business conferences. Then I did not hear from him for a couple of months. Attributing his failure to phone me to his busy schedule, or perhaps to illness, I concentrated on the material I had recorded and transcribed, using my daily walks to think about how Pen’s story would unfold. I was not prepared for what happened next. My phone rang and the woman on the other end of the line spoke in a sad, accented voice. She had obtained my phone number from her husband’s address book and knew all about our lunches, she said, and apologized for her husband. “No need,” I said. “Lucas has resuscitated my limp writer’s life with his story, and I looked forward to continuing our relationship.” “That will not be possible,” she replied. “Lucas died two days ago. He had been very ill. I am sorry.”
I was shocked despite the fact he was not a youngster and was still pursuing a busy life. I wanted at least to attend the funeral, but she seemed reluctant to provide any information. I insisted on coming and she gave me the time and place for “graveside services.” The burial was a simple ceremony with just five people attending. This surprised me as I had expected Lucas to have a sizable circle of business contacts. Walking back to my car, Lucas’s widow approached me. “Excuse me,” she began. “I must talk to you.” I started to ask if perhaps another time would be better since I did not want to intrude at this moment of bereavement. “No,” she said. “Here is just fine.” And we stopped near my car.
“Lucas could never get used to America. He tried so many things, drifting from job to job without success. His one good suit was a hand-me-down, a gift from one of his last employers, and I shortened the pants. But Lucas liked bookstores and would meet people there—strangers—whom, like you, he befriended. He could never have afforded those lunches without the generosity of people he met, because my small pension and the social security barely kept us going.” I was sure my face showed surprise, but Mrs. Pen seemed not to notice. She continued.
“I heard all about you and your writing. That’s why I called you when he died, I don’t like it when things are left hanging. Anyway, I am glad you came and I was able to tell you about Lucas.”
©2011, Frank Ephraim. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.