By Dris Horton
It was a small book, only 127 pages, and the print was kind of large. Not too well written, but it had taken her only two hours to read the whole thing, front to back. Now her hands wouldn’t stop trembling, betrayed by the vivid depictions affecting her faculties. She put the book in the glove box and got out her car. As she walked across the parking lot of the county jail, she couldn’t recall the title of the little book. But she did remember that it was blue. She began to cry quietly to herself as she approached the entrance of Central Booking, where she’d been ordered to report by the judge the day before. What she had read still screamed at her thoughts. Piles of little babies? she wondered, silently querying herself. A testament to an unimaginable horror swirled past her mind’s eye, suddenly making her problems seem quite small.
“Where you are going is paradise,” said the old man when he first handed her the novella, earlier that morning.
She had known the old man all her life, the kind Greek Jew who owned the little grocery store on the corner, down the street from where she grew up. Her mother and grandmother had shopped there, its aisles so narrow they had to walk sideways or they’d knock something off the shelf. As a little girl she was taught to always be polite to the old man. And never steal, not even a grape. He had gone through something terrible as a young man, and moved to America after the war.
Now she waited tables full-time, putting herself though college part-time, not taking life too seriously. She lived with a couple of roommates, a surrogate family sharing a cheap apartment, taking advantage of the sweet bird of youth. Early mid-twenties, free, attractive and Facebooked; her parents still helped her when things got tight.
But last weekend the hometown team won the big game, underdogs coming from behind to upset the old rival, first time in half a decade. And the party was on, drinks flowing, a student body spilling over into a nearby strip mall, display windows shattered. Sauced to the nines and moving with the crowd, she saw a trendy fashion she’d always wanted but couldn’t afford. In a fit of impulse, she snatched the latest craze from the vandalized showcase, then slipped away to a local hangout to change into the pilfered garment. She became the life of the party, dancing the night away in a purloined dress worth over a week’s pay. Capricious, gleeful mirth owing to its course.
The next day it was big news, the riots caught on video surveillance. She was identified along with many others, urged to come forward and accept an offering of leniency. A night in jail, restitution and a month of weekends doing community service. A swift, humiliating reprieve in lieu of slower, harsher justice.
On the day she was to turn herself in, she stopped at the little store to buy cigarettes, hoping to calm her frayed nerves. The kind old man was there. At first she averted her eyes in shame, knowing she had been on television. But the old man smiled and called her brave for owning up to what she had done. Then he gave her his little book, something he’d reluctantly written decades ago at the insistence of others. “A quick read,” he said, “to help put things in perspective.”
He’d been younger than her when the Nazis came to the tiny village where he lived with his wife and two small children. The whole town of less than 300 was loaded onto boxcars and shipped by rail for a week in their own filth to Janowska, a death factory in the Ukraine. It was there that he last saw his wife and children, and all his family and friends. He survived by throwing the corpses of his people into the furnaces, being the only one left from his tiny village by the war’s end.
As she was fingerprinted, she recalled the book’s title, suddenly grasping its meaning: Ratio of Loss. And as the deputy handed her the clean, orange jumper she’d be wearing for the night, she thought of the photograph on the book’s cover: a monument with the names of the dead where the village had once been. On the back was another photo: the old man standing outside the store with his new family, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all of them smiling.