A short story by Robert Arvay
The camp is cold and dreary. As we stand in line, I reflect on the events of the past few days. Everything happened so suddenly. Now, our lives have all been changed. Nor will we ever be the same again.
The line moves slowly. We take a step, then stand and shiver for a few seconds. Then we take another step. The corridor that we are being herded through is grey, bland and dreary. And it is cold. I cannot see to the end of this featureless tunnel. That is because ahead, perhaps twenty more steps, it makes a sharp left turn. I cannot see beyond that.
Where does it lead?
Those who can see, those who stand at the corner, seem uninterested, numb, almost lifeless. They turn left at the corner, and then they just stand and wait, looking straight ahead of themselves, facing to my left, into that unseen place, until they are told to take the next step.
I should be more curious. Where are they taking us? Why are we here? What will happen next? And what is around that sharp corner?
I feel a nudge from behind. The line has moved another step. I take one pace forward, then stop. I shiver.
No one says a word. No one has spoken since we were unloaded from the back of the trucks that brought us here. Up until then, everyone was complaining. About everything. Some were speculating about events. A few were even suggesting that we should revolt, take over the trucks. Let’s fight back. But the guards had guns, and we had only our bare fists. And even if we revolted, where could we hope to go? Back home? Where was that, anymore?
But once we saw the camp, we had all fallen silent. It was dreary. What more description could one give than that? It was grey, sterile, and as cold as a corpse.
The guards had shouted terse commands at us, mostly about moving along. Those who might have asked the obvious question were quickly silenced with a shove, or sometimes, merely a threatening glare. “Keep moving. You’ll be told what to do, and when to do it.”
I had hoped that at least, once inside, it would be warmer. But it wasn’t. Not that it was colder, but it was just a different kind of cold. The narrow concrete corridor greedily sucked heat from our bodies. We shivered. And that mysterious corner lay not far ahead of us.
Finally, I reached it. I reached the sharp turn. Only a few yards beyond the left turn, there was a door. I stopped. I saw the uniformed guard close the door, and then saw him step back, engaged in some conversational banter with another guard.
My first thought was that something horrible must lie beyond that door. Else, why would they keep closing it every time a few men had walked beyond it? The words, “gas chamber” crossed my mind, something from a high school history lesson. But no, the door while sturdy, was not air tight. If there were poison gas there, the guards would be affected, too. Still, the door seemed to be hiding a secret. The word, “sinister,” came to mind. Was I being overly dramatic?
The guards wore a uniform that projected an image more coldly institutional than harshly authoritarian. They were not military men. Their haircuts alone proved that. Some, to be sure, had the high and tight look of Marine Corps “jarheads,” as they are sometimes called. But others had long hair, some had sideburns, some had bushy moustaches and even a chin beard here and there.
They looked like our neighbors.
But they were well trained. We could see that from the very beginning. They knew their job, and they felt no need to explain anything to anybody. If they said move, you moved. A black night stick, holstered at their waists, witnessed to the threat of force behind their orders. There was no doubt that they could be brutal if need be.
Each step brought me closer to that sinister door. Its handle was a vertical bar, as institutional as the guards’ uniforms. The door itself was thick, wooden, probably made of oak, I thought. But why was I concerned with such matters? What really worried me was not the door, but rather, what lay beyond it?
Suddenly, the chill that had permeated my entire body moved to my stomach. What kind of fear makes one’s stomach turn cold? Whatever it was, I knew that I did not want to go beyond that doorway. Whatever lay on the other side, it could not be good. No sound of fear or distress came from there, but neither did the smell of a warm meal, nor any hint of cheer. Why was everyone so willing to move that one further step, I wondered? Why did they let the guard close that door behind them? Why?
But they did.
Another step, and I was standing at the door, just as the guard pushed it shut. The guard beside him spoke, not to me, but to the guard who had shut the door. “Why are you doing that?” he asked.
Yes, my mind shouted silently. At last, someone had asked the question. Why are you doing that?
“Why not let one of the guests do it? There’s nothing complicated about opening and closing a door. Just a suggestion.”
The other guard grasped my elbow and pulled me aside. “Stand here,” he said. “When I say open, you open the door. When I say close, you close it. Got that?”
My throat got tight. My brain, chilled from the long ride in the truck, and numbed from the slow walk through the damp corridor, hesitated to respond.
I stared blankly at the guard. He was asking me to do the unthinkable. But why was it so unthinkable? It was, as his friend had said, only a simple thing. Just open the door, and then close it. After all, doing that task would at least spare me from having to walk through that dreaded doorway.
Once again, the words, “gas chamber” had crept into my thoughts. No, no, no, I reminded myself. The door was not air tight. It did not even lock, for that matter. There was no need to fear, no need at all.
But I feared.
If I did as the guard was telling me, then every time I closed that door, it would be the same as if I were condemning my fellow citizens to a horrible fate. It would be the same as if I had joined the oppressor. And I would have forfeited my final, last chance to engage in one, feeble act of defiance against injustice.
Against what? What injustice? Could I be sure that some horrible fate awaited us? What if it were simply what the uniformed thugs (who had rounded us up) had said it would be? Just an emergency relocation. For our own good. Could I be sure?
“He’s zoned out,” the guard’s friend said. “Get another one to do it.”
Instantly I realized that they were going to push me back into the line, and grasp another inmate--- or “guest,” as they called us. And then, I would be not opening the door, but being moved beyond it, to the other side.
“Yes,” I heard myself say urgently, without thinking it through. “I can do that. Sure.”
Satisfied with my response, the two guards took a step or two away, and resumed whatever casual banter had been occupying them in their boring duty.
I grasped the door handle. It was cold. I just stood there, holding onto it, as if somehow, despite it robbing me of heat, it provided some sense of security.
“Open it,” I heard the guard say. Obediently, I pulled back on the handle. It opened without much effort, and a number of the “guests” walked silently through.
“Close it.” Again, I obeyed. The man who would have been next through stopped, and waited his turn.
How had I done? Had I opened it quickly enough? Had I closed it at the right time?
The guards took no notice. Good. I was safe, for the moment at least.
“Open it.” I opened it.
“Close it.” I closed it.
I lost count of how many times I did this. I lost track of how many small groups of men had passed before me, passed, and disappeared beyond my view, perhaps forever. At least they were silent. At least I heard nothing from beyond the door. At least nothing bad was happening in the next room. Not there. Not then.
The man who now stopped in front of me did something that none of the others had done. He was looking at me. There was no particular expression on his face. But somehow, he unnerved me. What was he thinking? Was he going to say something to me? If he did, would the guards silence him?
Long moments passed, but the man said nothing. He just looked at me. Expressionless, perhaps thoughtless, he just looked. I grew ever more uneasy. What could he be thinking?
I thought of asking the guards to make him stop. He had no right to look at me like that. I was doing nothing wrong. I was just holding the door, opening it and closing it, almost like an automatic door motor. And even if it were not completely the right thing to do, the fact remained that if I were not doing it, someone else would be. My action of holding the door changed nothing. If I stopped doing it, that also would change nothing.
Except for me. It would change everything for me.
I did so. The man who had been looking at me turned his gaze to the place that lay beyond the door. His expression did not change. No one needed to tell him to move along. Everyone had stood in this section of the corridor long enough to see the pattern. The door opened, you moved. The door closed, you stopped. There was nothing complicated about it. You just did it.
The man stepped beyond the door. He was gone. I would never see him again.
Memories. Long ago, I had a summer job in a cannery. In my mind, I could still see it. My job had been to monitor a short portion of the line where cans emerged from a place where they had been sealed, and were being sent into the next room where a machine put labels on the cans.
The cans were all the same size and shape. And because the labels had not yet been put on, there was no way of knowing what was in them. All of the cans were grey. One day we might can spinach. Another day it would be beans. Yet another day it could be corn, or turnip greens. It all depended on whatever the trucks brought that day to the cannery.
My job was simply to monitor the line. If a can were to fall down, or get stuck, or if anything were to happen to stop the line, I was supposed to make everything flow smoothly again,
And flow smoothly everything did. Too smoothly. Because there was never a problem. No can ever tipped over, nothing ever jammed, and the line of cans never stopped moving. Every day it was an endless flow, thousands of cans, perhaps hundreds of thousands, all alike, all identical, all without a clue as to what was on the inside.
On the inside.
Then one day there was a tap on my shoulder. It was the foreman.
“Come with me,” he said.
“To the office.”
In the office, I stood before the desk of an older lady. She looked like she was well past retirement age, but there she was, still working, filling out some paperwork that I saw had my name on it.
Her clothes looked like they had been selected from some kind of charity store, where people donate old clothing items. She was speaking to another lady, a clerk at the next desk.
I can’t remember the exact words, but they were complaining about how much it cost them just to ride the bus to and from work each day, and how much of their paychecks were docked for taxes, insurance and other things. And how their health suffered from the stale air of the cannery. They wondered if they were losing more than they were making. Yet, they continued to work.
The lady stuffed an envelope and handed it to me. “This is your final paycheck,” she said. “You’ve been laid off.”
That was it. We don’t need you. Go away. There was no thanks, no wishing me well, no acknowledgment that I even existed anymore.
Memories. A line of cans, anonymous cans, all alike, all disappearing from view, just like the men who were passing before me.
Now I glance back toward the corner. The end of the line has come around the bend. There is one last, final man at the end, and behind him, only a few feet of now empty corridor.
The line is now very short. I’m trying to count how many more times I will open and close the door before the last man in line has gone through.
My heart is beginning to pound. Somehow, I have been convincing myself that I am safe. But now I am wondering. Am I?
I turn to glance at the guards. They pay me no heed.
I want to ask them, what is going to happen to me? Why are we here? Are you going to kill me?
But my throat tightens, and the cold knot in my stomach grows colder and tighter.
I pull the door open. But now I’m scared, really scared. I cannot speak. The words don’t come forth. I try to say them, but I can only think them.
Yes. See? I’m opening it. I’m doing just as you tell me to do. I have been a good guest, haven’t I? I’ve served you well. That counts, doesn’t it? Surely, it must count for something.
Look, I’m--- I’ve been--- surely you can use me for other things, here.
“I said close it, dammit. What’s the matter with you?”
“Yessir,” I say out loud. “Sorry. There. It’s closed. Can I ask you something?”
“Just keep quiet.”
He grasps his night stick menacingly. I back down.
There are only five or six men in line now, not the ten or twelve that they’ve been putting through each time.
“Dammit, I said open it. Here, give me that door.” I feel a rude shove on my shoulder. This guy lifts weights. I nearly fall down as he guides me roughly through the doorway. Before I comprehend what’s happening, I’m inside the next room.
I look around. There are six of us here, plus two more guards. These look even meaner than the ones outside the door, and these fellows have Glock nine-millimeter pistols strapped to their sides in holsters so secure that there is no hope of grabbing one away from them. Oh, yeah, and they have nightsticks, too.
There is another door. It seems much like the one I was opening and closing. For the moment my worries are eased. It doesn’t look like a death chamber. Have I really been overly dramatic? Have I been inventing fears?
But then one of the men, one of the “guests,” speaks. To me.
“You were helping them, weren’t you?”
“No,” I protest, too quickly to be believable. “I wasn’t helping them.”
“Yes you were. I saw you. You were opening and closing the door for them.”
“That wasn’t helping,” I retort.
“Yes it was. Oh, it wasn’t much, I admit. Not much at all. But it was something.”
“They intimidated me. These guys are vicious. You know that.”
“Yes, I know that. Hey, look pal, I’m not calling you a traitor or anything. None of us here can say that he resisted. My brother did. He resisted. They killed him. In his own house. Then they carted off his wife and kids.”
I nod in acknowledgment. “They came to my house, too. They threatened my wife and kids. They said I had been involved, and that they had to relocate us until the bad times are over.”
“Yeah, right,” he says. “Like the bad times are just going to end all by themselves. They’ve screwed things up so badly that---“ he glances over toward the guards, but they seem to be paying no attention.
He tilts his head toward them, then says, “They don’t care what we say. What difference does it make anymore? They’ve got absolute power now. Look at us. We know that they are probably going to kill us, but we just sit here, hoping against hope that maybe they’ll only put us in a labor camp, or something. But think about it. When we pulled up in the trucks, did you see any labor going on here?”
I shiver. “No. But do you really think that in America, in the twenty-first century--- ?”
“No. Not in America. But this is no longer the America we once knew. The Constitution means nothing to these thugs. They’re little different than the terrorists that they say they are protecting us from. Say, you look deep in thought.”
I lift my head, roused from what I have just been thinking. “You know, no matter what they ultimately do with us--- or to us--- no matter what, there is one thing that each of us will have to answer for. Look, you accused me of helping them, and you’re right. By holding that door, I was in fact helping them. Sure, sure, it wasn’t much of a thing. That was my excuse. But now that I think of it, I would have been much better off not doing it. I’m a coward. I was afraid to come into this room. I was somehow thinking that, somehow, some way, maybe I could get a better deal. That was stupid, I know. It was worse than stupid.”
“I’ll bet,” he said, “that when we saw you, more than one of us wished he were in your place. We thought you had sold out, and we regretted that you got there before we did. None of us were brave. The brave ones never got this far.”
I sigh deeply. “No, I was not brave. I had many chances to resist. But I was always afraid. My deepest regret now, looking back on these last few months, is that I did not resist when it might have meant something.”
He answers. “All of us wish that. But we wish it only now, only in looking back. At the time, none of us knew it would come to this. We always hoped, we always depended on other people to do the dirty work for us, to take the risks, to suffer the consequences.”
I nod. “And look where it got us.”
He nods back to me in agreement. Then, out of nowhere, the man says to me, “Did I tell you that I’m a Jew?”
“No,” I answer in shock. “Oh my gosh. This must be doubly terrible for you.”
“It is,” he says. “But not just because my people already suffered like this before. No, for me it’s personally worse, because my great-grandfather was one of those who died during the Warsaw uprising, when the Jews fought against the Nazis.”
I am stunned beyond words. Then, without thinking, I say, “But the Jews who rose up in Warsaw to fight the Nazis--- they all died.” I immediately regret my words. But he is kind.
“Yes,” the Jewish fellow says to me. “they all died. Many of them died while killing Nazis. But the irony is that, when they had no more ammunition, the surviving Jews surrendered. And then the Nazis killed them all anyway. I’ve always wondered why they surrendered. Surely they must have known what would happen next. And I often wonder whether my great-grandfather was one of those who died fighting, or one of those who was murdered after surrendering. I hope that he died while killing Nazis.”
I think about that, then I say, “In either case, my friend, your grandfather was a great hero. Even if he did surrender, he first gave it his best. Even if he resisted for only a day, even if he fired only one shot--- whatever he did, at least he did something. He did more than we did. I hope you are very proud of him.”
The guards speak. “Get up. Time to move on.”
Again, fear tightens my stomach as if a ball of ice had frozen it from the inside. My newfound Jewish friend looks at me. No, not at me. He looks to me. What are we to do, he asks silently. Shall we rush the guards? Can we take away their guns? Is there any hope?
But I can only shiver.
Quickly, before we can even think it through, we are pushed into the next room.
At last, I know now why I am here. It is not because I failed to resist on that terrible day when the thugs came to my house. It is because I failed to resist on that very first day, that bright and sunny day, when the very first of my rights were violated. Just one right, violated. Once they had done that to me, and once they had seen me do nothing--- then afterward, they knew that they could do anything to me. Anything.
The door closes behind us, and I hear it lock.