Lights flickered briefly in the small apartment and stuttered on, casting a dim glow on the worn furniture and two occupants. Joseph looked up at the bare bulb. A cockroach crawled on the ceiling, joined its brother or friend or mate, for all Joseph knew, and together the pair made their way through a crack in the sheetrock and away. ‘Lucky bugs,’ Joseph thought.
“Step away from the window, please, Joseph. There is no need to stand there now; the electricity is back on”
Joseph looked at his Father, sitting calmly on the old couch, reading. He tried to picture him as he had once been, according to the one photograph they still had of the time before the occupation. In it his father stood tall and smiling, his suit expensive and well tailored, his home elegant. Joseph’s mother leaned into her husband, laughing, make-up and hair perfect, jewelry ordaining her fine clothing and happy day. In the picture his parents looked like movie stars. Joseph couldn’t imagine it.
“Now, please, son.” Father’s tone was pleasant enough but Joseph knew his father. An order was an order, expected to be followed immediately and without comment.
The boy stepped away, but took a breath and, for the first time since his twelfth birthday, argued with the man. “Don’t you know what they’re doing?” he demanded, gesturing out the window to the street below.
Joseph’s father looked over the top of his reading glasses. “Of course,” he replied calmly.
“And yet we sit.”
Father rubbed the bridge of his nose and frowned up at the light as it flickered, threatening to cut his evening reading time short again. “We sit because there is nothing else to be done.”
“Nothing else to be done? What are you…Are you insane? You read that newspaper and have no idea of what’s happening around you!” Joseph walked back to the window and peered through the shades. A uniformed SS guard was poking around in a dumpster with the barrel of his rifle, scattering trash, littering the street. His partner stood watch beside him. “There’s nothing else to be done. How can you believe that?”
“Because, Joseph, as much as we may not like it, it is true.” As if his observation ended the conversation, Father returned to his paper.
Joseph shook his head, his breath exploding from his lips and nose. “You’re wrong.”
He looked at the street again, past the street to the rest of the ghetto. People ducked their heads as they hurried past the SS guards, holding their coats close, trying to ignore them, trying to imagine a different reality. Yellow arm bands stood out against the gray and black and browns of their winter wear, clear evidence of their place in the feeding chain. They were on the bottom, pushed there by the stronger, more vocal majority. They’d all been forced to move into this squalor shortly after Joseph’s birth. He couldn’t remember any other life, but, like the people on the street, he liked to try.
“They’re looking for David Greene. When they eventually find him they’ll execute him as an enemy of the state. You know that, and yet there’s nothing to do except sit. I went to grade school with David, our mothers were best friends, and still we sit!”
Father folded the paper and placed it neatly on his lap. He brushed at a spot on his pants leg. “We are not their enemy, Joseph. David is because he chose to be. He is a hot head, and he always has been. His temper, his impatience, that’s what makes trouble for him. That’s why they’re looking for him. He shows no restraint in anything he does. We sit because it allows us to live.”
“By sitting we help them kill our neighbors, Father!”
“We place the bands on their arms and load them onto the trains!”
“Do you know what they call you behind your back? Have you heard the jokes the SS tell about you?”
Father’s face flushed again. “If it keeps you alive they can tell a million jokes about me, they can call me any name they choose! I don’t care what they call me!”
Joseph raised his hands to the ceiling. “Do you think God cares, Father? Do you think He hears? You’re supposed to be His Child, one of His Chosen! How can you not see that when they call you names they’re calling Him names, too? When you let them bully you, you’re letting them bully Him!”
“We might as well just cut our own throats and save them the time! Be humble. Be good. Do what they say. Everywhere the SS is finding our people, imprisoning those of us they can’t exploit and wiping us out! We’re safe because they need your business but that won’t last forever, will it, Father? When they finally decide we are their enemy, who’ll stand up for us? If we don’t stand up now, right now, our people will be gone!”
“That is why we pray!” Father’s cheeks were flushed, but he stayed sitting, his demeanor unruffled.
“Pray, yes, Father! But act, too! They marched around Jericho! They attacked the Philistines! God never expected David to sit before Goliath! He never told Moses to read about the Promised Land—“
Father stood. “Those are the words of the underground! I’ve heard them preached on the corners and in the alleys around the store!” He whispered the words but the impact was such that the whole world seemed to stop. He took a step forward. “Have you attended a meeting of those rebels? Tell me you haven’t joined them, Joseph.”
Joseph felt like looking away, ducking his head. But that would only prove to his father that he was still a boy, unable to think for himself. He needed to show his parent he was a man; a man of faith and a man of action. “I’ve been attending the meetings for over a month. I would go when you had to open the store late at night to consort with the murderers. I joined last night.” He said the last sentence defiantly, staring the older man down.
“Last night…Without my permission? Without my blessing?”
“Sixteen! A boy!”
Joseph moved the seven steps that separated him from his Father. “A boy who will never become a man if we don’t act.”
“A boy who will never become a man because he acted rashly!” His father looked traumatized, tears forming in the corners of his wide, dark eyes.
Joseph shook his head and looked toward the window, praying for David as he spoke. “Tell me what to do, then, Father. They take our rights. They steal our land and property. Their only reason is that we worship a God they don’t understand, and don’t want to believe in. They blame us for every social failing, every political problem…All these years we saw it coming! We should have taken action sooner but no one believed the threat. Old Benjamin told me about all the warnings, all the signs; the laws passed against us, the social movements away form our freedoms! How could you miss it, Father? How could you not have seen it coming? And now…I don’t even know if it’s possible for us to survive.” He said the last sentence like a confession—softly, whispered to keep it from becoming true. “If you would have resisted them earlier…maybe now…”
“My brother resisted—Joseph. You were named for him. Sometimes I regret that…you’re so much like him.” Father looked from Joseph’s face to a small fire burning in the fireplace. “He spoke out, he picketed, he rallied support. He saw what I did not see at that time—that our rights were being eroded away, right from under our noses. He marched, he filed legal suits…he did what he thought was right.” Father shook his head. “You never had a chance to meet him. He was killed in the last so-called ‘legal’ march—nothing but an excuse to eliminate him and those like him. The government had tolerated the movement until then, but…something had changed. Public opinion was so far against us by then…There was no pretense on the part of the police. It was a massacre, haled as a great step forward for tolerance. It happened one month before you were born. Within a year we were exiled to this part of the city—exiled in our own country.” Father looked fiercely at Joseph. “He fought for a heritage he was never allowed to pass down to a son. But I have a son! I have kept the faith alive in more than just a memory!”
Joseph heard a noise outside and hurried to the window. The SS guards were pulling a young man out of a doorway, hitting and yelling and cursing at him. David Greene looked up at Joseph’s second story window, a silent plea in his eyes. ‘Don’t let Him down’, he seemed to say in that moment. ‘Don’t let the Faith die.’
An SS guard looked up to see what David was looking at and Joseph jerked back from the window. He turned to Father. “What were you doing, Father?” he asked.
Father looked blankly at his son.
“When my uncle gave his life for his faith what were you doing? Were you sitting? Reading? Were you selling goods to your enemy? What were you doing?”
Father lowered his head.
“What were you doing when the Secular Sovereignty guards first marched on our neighborhood, Father? What were you doing when they took our vote, stole our voice?”
Joseph looked out the window again, watching as David was thrown against a dented, rusted Hummer across the street. He clutched at the door handle of the ancient vehicle, forcing the guards to wrestle him into a bright yellow Predator SUV. The words “The State is the Way to True Life” blazed in red from the side of the transport. The ‘Ghetto Garbage Truck’ had been created by the government for the ‘disposal of the socially unfit and unwanted’.
A lieutenant who’d helped manhandled David inside the vehicle slammed the car door and pulled a cell phone from his coat, calling in the arrest. Joseph watched numbly as the SS guards saluted a superior in a drab green PT Cruiser who drove by to monitor their progress.
He turned from the window. “What were you doing, Father, when it became illegal to be a Christian?”
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