Conclusion of The English Lesson. An excerpt from short story collection Saint Catherine’s Baby.
After several moments of silence, Mrs. Frankel closed her eyes and whispered, “That man save my life.” Her eyelids parted slightly. “After war, our town in ruin from bombs. Many months go here and there. Much poor, much, how say, puberty?”
“Poverty,” Ruthie nodded, choking down her urge to laugh.
“We have little to eat. Most people in country same. Our haus destroyed. No verk. Father dead.” A smile caressed her lips. “Then comes Claude. He intrepoter, inturp . . . you know, talk for. He verk with Americans because he speak Deutsche, English and French,” she blushed. “I just young girl. He came in night, after verk and ask my muter if he can take out me. She say, ‘Ask her, not me.’ Of course, I say yes. He is so nice and looking good.” She smiled so broadly that Ruthie could see her scrubbed white dentures.
“He bring our family extra bread and ration coupons. I not help but fall in love with man. He very gentle and true.” She stopped and caught her breath. “One day he tell me his story. Claude’s parents were arrest by Nazis, just as he home from school in afternoon. He been told what to do if something happen, so he go hiding and join sister, who already live in château in France, where brave owner save many refugee.”
Mrs. Frankel suddenly stopped, got up stiffly and moved down the hall. “I show something,” she mumbled, then disappeared into the back bedroom. Ruthie could hear her opening drawers and struggling to close them.
After several minutes she returned with a small, torn envelope and drew out its crumbling contents. She handed the paper to Ruthie who looked blankly at the German correspondence. “I found letter going through his thinks. It is to man who survive death camp and write Claude to tell him how his parents horrible finish. He know and see Claude’s parents go into gas death. Claude’s letter back to this man is scream of anger and how you say, griefing?” The handwriting was neat and precise up to the final shaky sentence. Mrs. Frankel read it to Ruthie. “His last words say, ‘I have to stop writing . . .’”
A shadow fell upon the room, as a limb outside the window blew in the gathering wind. Ruthie folded the letter with tenderness and handed it back to Mrs. Frankel.
“He end up verking as journal speaker for Radio Free Europe, then as soldier for underground,” she said proudly. “He speak languages good.” Ruthie’s smiled. “Not like me.”
Mrs. Frankel’s smile subsided as her story continued. “It hard to think my sweet Claude as soldier boy. He live in woods and mountain caves two years until allies, how you say, ‘parasite’ vepons from sky?”
“Parachute,” Ruthie gently supplied the word, not wishing to intrude.
“Yes, parashut,” Mrs. Frankel agreed. “Then they have guns and bullets to fight. He say he lost many friend . . . many French friend. He very brave. Not only he stood his place, but run back and forth during heavy fight to bring friends bullets. He grew above self and after war was honor the la Croix de Guerre by French guvermant.”
Mrs. Frankel took a blue and white embroidered handkerchief from the pocket of her plain, neatly ironed dress and blew her nose. “‘One of happiest day in life?’ he say, when he and thousand of French people greet American soldier boys and march down Champs de Elysees.”
“What was the other?”
“Happiest day of his life.”
She gazed at her husband’s picture. “When he meet me.” Her tears flowed freely. “He always say I best thing in his life.” She resorted to her hanky once again, dabbed her eyes and apologized. “I sorry. Please . . . I just old, sad woman. Not your problem.”
Mrs. Frankel blew her nose one last time and pocketed her handkerchief. “Enough.” She picked up the pages, pointed, and demanded, “What this say!?”
Sy was half-asleep, lounging in the car, when Ruthie left Mrs. Frankels. The wind had picked up, blowing a multi-colored curtain of autumn leaves around her. She stopped at the front gate to wave to Mrs. Frankel, who watched through the living room window. The shades had all been opened.
She went to the car. With the English lesson resting on her lap, she looked fondly down the maple and elm-lined street.
Sy sat up slowly and turned the ignition. The old Plymouth hummed to attention.
“How goes it?” He put the transmission into drive.
“Not bad.” Ruthie’s seditious smile lit her face. “Not bad at all.”
Sy put the gear back in park. “Not bad?” he said incredulously.
Ruthie buckled her seat belt and said, more to herself then to Sy, “Not bad, once you get to know her.” She leaned over and kissed Sy, who stared at her blankly. “I’m awfully lucky to have you,” she grinned.
“What brought that on?”
“Let’s go home,” she nodded towards the street. “I’ll tell you all about it.”