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The Given Life of Theodore Kaminski By John Tyler Allen
“Would you have killed yourself if you were Jewish?” Theodore asked. They sat in Theodore’s poorly lit apartment, each conscious of the springs of the old recliners. Theodore read Dostoevsky. Otto searched the textured wall for shapes the same way he and Sofie used to watch the clouds. That was fifty years ago, we were all ten years old, Otto wrote on the wall. “Fifty years? Fifty years? Fifty years is a baby.” You said that about forty when we were fifty, Otto wrote. You said fifty was the beginning of the end.
“What did I know? I was a baby. And you were a putz. You still are.” You’re not Jewish. “I’m glad. Otherwise you might try and kill me, too.” I never killed anyone. Otto turned from the wall to meet Theodore’s eyes. He turned back and wrote as fast as he could. We’ve had this argument for nearly fifty years. Who cares if you’re Polish and I’m German? “Fifty years is a baby.” That’s not what you said when you were forty. I was still a baby.” Today’s her birthday. “What?” Sofie. Today’s her birthday. “You think I don’t know that? She was my sister for nineteen years.” Otto found and outlined a shape. “She would still be my sister if it weren’t for you.” I didn’t know that four of them would go in there. “You shouldn’t have let her go into the room with one.” They were going to kill me. “You should have let them kill you, putz.” You’re not Jewish. “What did I know?
“You think you suffered?” Theodore put his book on the arm of his recliner and stood. “You get a scar from him pressing a gun to your forehead and you think you suffered?” I’ve never complained of suffering. “You don’t know suffering.” She did that to save me. I suffer. “I had to listen to those men defiling my sister all night” She was my wife. You’re the reason we were on that boat. “Sofie wanted to change the world.” You told her that America was the best place to do that? “They kept you from killing everyone on the planet.” I left Germany when I was twelve. “They still stopped everything.” What’s so great about America? “They hold all the power.” How is a Polish immigrant going to use that power? “The same way that this Polish immigrant used that power,” Theodore said and pointed at himself. “I established the Polish Immigrant Assistance Foundation. I persuaded Congress to aid in the nutritional development of six thousand Eastern European inhabitants. What have you done? Nothing.
You followed me around the country being ordered to wait tables or wash dishes by Americans half your age.” He was silent. The accusations that thickened the air were slowly settling. You wouldn’t understand. “Why follow a sixty-year-old man with Perkinson’s Hemophilia as he chases his murdered sister’s dreams?” Because I’m holding on, too. “Like hell, you’re holding on. What are you holding onto?” Otto never turned his face from the wall. He traced a shape. Nothing, I guess. “Otto Putzkammer is a tried man, right?” Theodore walked toward the door. “Every day, Otto Putzkammer holds on to his very life while serving food to privileged whites who don’t appreciate him.” Theodore put on his coat. “You don’t hold on to life like I do.” Where are you going? “The same place I go every month.” Theodore opened the door. Before he walked out, he looked at Otto.
“Putz.” You’re not Jewish. “If I were I’d be dead, thanks to you.” Theodore left. Otto sat back and surveyed the wall. A diving bird, a fish, the top half of a frog’s eyes, and cat’s head were all outlined; all animals. He didn’t know what that meant. He capped his pen and left Theodore’s apartment. He crossed the hall to his own where the walls were already covered and the furniture had never been moved. He walked straight to his closet and pulled the chain hanging from the solitary bulb. He took off his pants and sweater. This left him standing in an offwhite tank top tucked into striped boxers and dark, shin-high socks. He found his black work pants and a long-sleeved white dress shirt. Jerry always warned him about wrinkles but he didn’t care. They could fire him. Otto pulled the chain on the light bulb and walked into the living room. He stopped and looked at the walls covered with Sofie. He looked at the wall above the still brand new sofa he’d bought twenty years ago. He
touched a baseball bat, a palm tree, and a piece of broccoli. He knew what they meant. I miss you, too. So does Theo. A late bus made Otto late for work. Welcomed by the flashing neon “Dine Euro” sign, he hurried inside and eased his way through the tables. The restaurant consisted of two long, narrow rooms. One room held too many tables where customers listened to each other’s conversations and occasionally drank each other’s drinks by mistake. Smoke swirled around low-hanging lights and the air was thick from the use of fryers in the small, unventilated area. The kitchen ran parallel to the dining area. A bead curtain crashed each time a hurried server walked through it. The menu consisted of common and traditional European foods. Elegant French cuisine and typical Italian-turned-American dishes were the most popular. They served the best kielbasa in Manhattan, so said Jerry, the large owner who resembled a Wall Street businessman. “You were supposed to be here at nine a.m.,” Jerry said through customers. “It’s nine thirty.” Otto shrugged an apology. Jerry cleaned a table.
“Catch an earlier bus if you have to,” he said and handed Otto a stack of dirty plates. “There’s a mountain of dishes in the back. You stay until I say you can go, you hear?” Otto nodded and took the stack of plates to the kitchen and began washing. He put the clean dishes on the counter to his left and took the dirty ones from the counter on his right. He dipped the dishes in the soapy water and sprayed them clean. Despite his pace, servers waited for clean dishes and the mountain to his right grew. He washed dishes until the last customer left that night. Jerry entered the kitchen. “You can lock up?” Otto nodded, keeping pace. “See you tomorrow.” Before he finished, Otto heard the ten thirty bus pull up and leave. The next bus wouldn’t arrive until midnight. He would have to walk home. When finished, he turned out the lights, locked the door, and began his seventeen-block walk home. Though he had been in New York for years, the city still felt foreign. This place could never feel like a home for him. He could find kielbasa and barszcz. He could find lebkuchen and baumkuchen. He could find old men
like himself with whom he could talk about the old country. These things gave him a paper-thin comfort, though. A bad cab ride or a heartless boss could tear it in half. His only escape stood at the corner of Tenth and Madison. The United Banking building, one of the tallest in Manhattan, had an open, flat roof with stairway access. On windy days, Otto rode seventy stories to the top and walked the final two stories that the elevator couldn’t reach. He would lie on his back and watch the clouds drift past. When he saw a shape he recognized, he pointed to it. Sofie wasn’t there to guess what he had seen, though. Each shape connected to a story that he now had to create on his own. After several stories and a few tears, Otto walked down the two flights of stairs and rode seventy floors down into the pits of reality. He arrived home as the midnight bus stopped next to his curb. He walked up the three flights of stairs and down the hall to his apartment. The apartment was dark. He felt his way to his bedroom then to his closet. He found the chain in the dark and pulled it. He changed back into his sweater and cotton pants. He went to Theodore’s apartment and walked to the wall next to Theodore’s chair. He drew a question mark. “Everything went fine. I learned something interesting, though.”
Otto faced the wall and listened. “My blood type is rare.” That’s not new. “Two percent of the people on earth are able to give me blood.” Otto outlined a shape and shrugged. “A nurse told me today that every time I go to get blood, they always have just enough.” Otto shrugged. “They didn’t have enough, today.” Otto turned to look at Theodore. “They said I’m the only person they’ve ever treated for Perkinson’s Hemophilia. And this blood that someone donates every month has only been used for me, until now.” Until now? “They treated another man two days ago.” Otto shrugged. “My blood is too thin to be pumped by my heart. Two percent of the population carries the blood that can help me. I can’t afford to share.” Where did he come from? “They don’t know.”
They can’t treat both of you? “No. Taking more blood from this person would be unhealthy. They’ve tried to find another source. There isn’t one.” Move. “I can’t leave behind one of the two percent of the people in the world that can keep me alive.” What did the hospital tell you? “They said someone has to go.” Go? “Move or…,” Theodore didn’t finish the thought. Otto turned from the wall. “Or die!” Theodore’s voice grew loud and shaky. “They basically told me that one of us has to die!” Otto thought for a moment and turned his pen in his hand. What will we do? “I have to find him.” I’ll help. “You’re a born mute.” The hospital can help.
“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” Theodore said. “They won’t tell me anything that jeopardizes any of those things for him. Likewise, they won’t tell him anything about me.” Life. “I’ll wait around the hospital,” he said. “He’ll have needle scars like me. I’ll find him.” Or heroin. Otto smiled. Theodore didn’t. Then what? “I don’t know, yet,” he said. “It seems my forty-year miracle has expired.” Otto pointed to a question mark. “A sole recipient of a sole donation,” he said. “Someone has to go.” You go. Your miracle can continue somewhere else. “Everyone has a purpose.” I know. “I can’t leave,” Theodore said. “Don’t be a putz.” You’re not Jewish. Theodore was quiet after that. Otto could see his mind turn and buzz with the thought of someone else taking his life from him. He could tell
Theodore was thinking about death. For the first time, his friend was without an answer. Theodore Kaminski, the Polish immigrant who saved the lives of so many others, now could not save his own life. There was nothing Otto could say. He looked at Theodore who wouldn’t look back at him. He walked along the walls and read half of every conversation between himself and Theodore that had taken place in each room. He read them all and Theodore never said anything more. Otto went across the hall to his own apartment and went to sleep. In the morning, before taking an earlier bus to work, Otto stopped across the hall to see Theodore. After he walked through the entire apartment, he assumed Theodore left early to begin his search. At work, Otto thought about Theodore and his search to save his own life. Jerry yelled at him to wash faster. When Otto started dropping plates because he washed too fast, Jerry yelled at him to slow down. At seven, Otto saw Theodore sitting in the restaurant. He brought him some kielbasa from the kitchen. When Theodore finally looked him in the eye, Otto shrugged.
“I didn’t find anything,” Theodore said. “I waited at the hospital, but the security guards made me leave. They think I’m a threat to him. They’re advising him to issue a restraining order.” Otto shrugged. “I’m crazy.” Otto shook his head. “I’m going back tonight.” Otto shook his head again. “I have to find him,” Theodore said. “I’m still using my life to help others. The world can’t afford to lose me. I’ve got plans. Sofie had plans. Why don’t these things happen to someone who is wasting their life? Someone like…” Theodore stopped himself. Otto met his eyes then looked down at his own hands on the table. He looked at Theodore again and opened his mouth. He couldn’t say anything. He didn’t have to say anything. Otto stared at the table and shrugged. Theodore stood from the table, left the restaurant, and walked toward home. Otto ate the kielbasa.
At two a.m., Otto heard Theodore’s door open and close. He went to Theodore’s apartment. He found him sitting on a small, wooden chair in the kitchen. His clothes dripped water. Otto pulled two towels out of the cabinet. He draped one over Theodore’s head and sat the other in his lap. He sat in the chair next to Theodore. Theodore never looked at him. He sat without moving with one towel still draped over his head, the other still folded in his lap. As Theodore dried that way, Otto read the walls. I told her. She was the love of my life. You’re doing the right thing. Then why did you ask? I was ten. You’re not Jewish. Theodore never moved. Otto took the unused towels, put them back in the cabinet, and came back and stood next to Theodore. To Otto, he looked small and frail. He looked vulnerable. For the first time in his life, Theodore was vulnerable. Otto knew how he felt. His life was a series of vulnerabilities, especially in this city where, even if you could speak, you had to do more than shout to be heard.
Otto bent as far as his back would allow and wrapped his arms around Theodore’s shoulders and held him close. He could smell the rain in Theodore’s hair. His clothes smelled like dust. Beneath the skin, he felt nothing but bone. Though Otto had always been able to see Theodore’s age, he had never felt it. It was a strange revelation. Theodore had the body of a sixty-year-old man. Otto was afraid to hold him too tight. They sat like this for several minutes. Otto straightened, held Theodore at arms’ length, and looked into his face. He saw nothing. He saw Theodore’s lips moving. He held his ear close. “She would still be alive if it weren’t for you.” Otto looked at Theodore and shrugged. He was confused. He thought Theodore was mourning the eminent loss of his own life. Theodore’s lips were still moving. “…and it’s destroyed my life.” Otto pulled his pen from his pocket but, before he could write anything, Theodore shoved him against the wall. “It’s all because of you.” Forty years of rage came out of Theodore. “My entire life is what it is because of you. I lost the last person that meant something to me because of you. She was going to change the world. But
she died to save you and look what you’ve done. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Why did she die to save you? I don’t know. Your life is a waste.” He pointed a bent, shaky finger at Otto. “I wish they would have killed you.” Theodore pushed Otto against the wall again. Otto’s head knocked a picture to the floor. Theodore knocked Otto to the ground and fell on top of him. “This may kill me, too,” Theodore said. “But I don’t care.” He hit and shoved and jabbed at Otto. He pressed his hands over Otto’s face. The attack surprised Otto. He had no way to defend himself. He tried to push. He was too weak to lift Theodore’s body. He feared someone would break a bone. He feared Theodore would kill him. He rolled onto his side and pushed Theodore away long enough to roll up his own sleeve. He put his forearm in Theodore’s face. Theodore stopped his attack. Otto watched the thoughts running through Theodore’s mind. He shrugged his shoulders and gave Theodore an apologetic look. “You’re taking my blood?” Otto shook his head.
“Yes you are,” Theodore said. You took Sofie’s life. Now, you’re trying to take mine?” Theodore raised his fist to continue. Otto shook his hands in Theodore’s face. He held up a finger asking Theodore to wait. Otto climbed to his feet, helped Theodore up, and led him out of the apartment. They crossed the hall and entered Otto’s apartment. Theodore followed Otto through the dark to the closet. Otto pulled the chain. He looked at Theodore. “Your closet?” Otto opened a small stepladder and climbed it. He pulled a box down from the top shelf. He handed it to Theodore. Theodore opened the box. Slips of paper overflowed onto the floor. He pulled one from the box, then another. He read them. He pulled another paper from the box. “Donor slips?” Otto nodded. He pulled up the sleeves on both arms. Dotting his pale skin were small, red scars. “Starting when?” Otto took the box and dumped the papers on the floor. Taped to the bottom of the box was the first one.
“Nineteen fifty-five.” Otto watched Theodore’s eyes glaze as his thoughts processed. “How often?” Otto only stared. “Twice a month.” Otto nodded. “Did Sofie know?” Otto nodded. “Is that why she—“ Otto nodded. “Why didn’t you ever tell me?” Otto found a pen. He wrote on the wall. Why should two people carry the same burden when only one can? Otto watched Theodore’s mind as it processed. He interrupted Theodore’s thoughts with a smile. Can we go now?