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I only have a few moments to ego-bathe, since I need to hustle to be on time for my first full-length show. As I open the balcony door, dingy air tumbles out of the room. I’m certain stale cigarette smoke from the twelfth century is still trapped inside. No time to shower, shave, or grab a fake tan, so I know I’m really going to have to sell my performance. I wrestle my new cow costume out of my suitcase, and begin to make the transition into “Professional Sexy Person”.
The first piece I affix to my flesh is a 3-D udder attached to the front of a tear away g-string. Next, I lather my forty-year-old thighs with hemorrhoid cream to temporarily firm any existing cellulite, pin the long, red, straight-haired wig over my dark curls, and lay the sea green eye makeup on, Vegas-style. I look like a confused transvestite with foreign pseudo-genitals between my legs.
“Hello Smartiepanties, nice to see you again,” I tell myself in the mirror, employing my fake British. “Not to worry love. Nobody has the slightest hunch that in reality you are one of the Madonnas of The Jewish Theatre. And if anyone questions your accent, all you need to say is “Oh, Buffalo Bullocks! Everything will be ducky, ducky.” I relax further recalling that a dear friend, Diana, originally from Brighton, had validated the authenticity of my elocution.
I generously apply my sparkly red lipstick, douse the dark circles under my eyes with cover-up, then powder. I wriggle into my tear-away, push-up, cow-spotted bra, and squish my breasts as close together as the medieval cleavage contraption allows, cheating a quick glance in the mirror to relish my theatrical beauty. Then I pull on my bra cover-up, secured by tear-away hooves which I wrap around my hands, careful to leave my fingers free for pole work.
But that was already ten minutes ago when I was still upstairs. Now, onstage, downstairs in Candy’s Cave Hotel bar, the palms of my hands pulsate from pole-burn. Catcalls interlaced with a few boos slap me back into the present. My now completely blottoed, physically-challenged fan’s attempt to inflate me between burps with, “Gor…gis…sweedhard,” doesn’t work. I pick my udder g-string up off the floor and dance myself onto all fours, grateful to have a little longer to cower inside the cow-head mask. I crawl around the stage like an animal in heat. The men are pounding the tables, rhythmically like soldiers marching.
Suddenly, it’s 1938, the Nazis are marching through Vienna. A Star of David sewn onto his shirt, the small man gagged at the sour stench of urine gushing on his face. Singing drinking songs, the Nazis emptied their full bladders on him and other Jews, who had been forced to march back and forth through the gutter since three that morning. One of the brown shirts pointed with his luger, “You! Come here.”
The Jew had been fantasizing about sharing a warm Shabbos dinner with his family at sundown. He jumped at the order, looked around, and pointed to himself.
“Jah!” said the Nazi.
Tasting metal, The Jew walked to where he stood. The Nazi towered over him and dragged him to the nearest alleyway by the collar. Choking, he plead “Please don’t kill me! Please don’t kill me!” Then he whispered “Shma Israel Adenoi Elloheynu -“
The moment they rounded the corner, the brown shirt said “Bernie, it’s me, Erich Haider! From school. You’re safe!”
“My God, my God! I was sure this was it!”
“Bernie, we only have a few seconds.” Erich unfolded an SS document and pointed to Bernie Sigal. “Look, you’re on the ’Death List’ to be taken tomorrow! Bernie, you have to get out of Vienna tonight!”
Bernie winced, and a vein on his neck bulged.
Erich said “Your best route is the bridge to Switzerland when they’re changing guard. But be very cautious, Bernie. It’s under high alert.” He motioned to the back of the alleyway. “Go that way! Now!”
Bernie hugged him and scuttled out the rear of the alleyway. He recalled their last heart-to-heart during pre-med. “The moment I’m a doc I’m going to get Greta pregnant! How about you Bernie?”
“General practice for a few years, then move with my parents and sisters to New York.”
He stalked homeward in the shadows, calling his angels near. A low chestnut branch beckoned him and he tore off a few leaves. He spat and wiped the filthy residue off his face, remembering the sweet hot roasted chestnuts he’d savored with his sisters over Hanukah, black and crunchy and tongue-stinging hot on the outside, soft as pudding inside.
High laughter cracked the air near his home street. He smiled thinking it might be his
older sister Eva. He peeked around the corner. A group of female Nazis chattered in front of the Sigal’s fabric store, which until recently had been lauded by the most noble Viennese gentiles. Bernie darted into an alleyway behind his home, which had shielded him since he was eight, when anti-Semitic boys had first bullied him. He relished the familiar garbage stink, unlike the unexpected scent of betrayal from his gentile neighbors who had been best friends with his parents for thirty years, who had baby sat him and his sisters, and then joined the Nazis.
He opened the back door. “Momma! Papa!” Nobody answered. Bernie rushed to the kitchen cupboard, took out a glass, and turned on the faucet. Tomato juice on the counter – no, blood. His stomach lurched. A flash: a Nazi cutting of her mother’s finger as she howled, then fainted. Like his grandfather, he experienced psychic images.
He panted, charged into the living room “Momma! Papa! Where are you?” Eva? Riesa?
Riesa’s walnut bedstead was splintered. Bullets had riddled the surface, destroying the hearts his grandfather carved. Three-year-old Riesa had been entirely unexpected, earning the nickname ‘Miracle’.
Chest searing, he searched the entire house. He thought about leaving a note — too risky. He packed a small knapsack with a sweater, socks, kitchen knife, half a sausage, a loaf of challah his Momma had cooked, and a mini Torah given to him by his grandfather Josef, a Chassidic rabbi. He kissed the mezuzah on the back door, and headed to the bridge from Austria to Switzerland.
Nazis patrolled the bridge like robots. He hid in the bushes, well concealed by the autumn foliage, studying the brown shirts every move to figure out the best moment to flee. Once the sky had turned black as his mother’s eyes, he prayed to God, peeked out to ensure that the coast was clear and scampered towards the bridge. A Nazi dawdled thirty feet away, his back was turned. Bernie crept across on all fours. It squeaked with every move. “Halt! Who goes there?” Bernie crawled faster as bullets tickled his cheek.
Please, I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die. I’ll spend more time taking care of Riesa, I promise!
This is an excerpt from Frannie Sheridan’s soon to be released novel narrative non-fiction book, “I Tried To Be Normal But It Was Taken!”.