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I. Joseph Kellerman

by Debra Lauman

Within the narrow boundaries of a world peopled by the troubled souls who come to 4991 Hopewell Street and by one devoted employee, a tale of self-discovery and redemption unfolds.

The shingle outside that Boston row house reads, "I. Joseph Kellerman, Psychiatrist," but inside exists a tormented man. Under the watchful eye peering through a tiny hole hidden by a bizarre painting, Dr. Kellerman listens to the problems of those who sit in the yellow armchair. The same yellow chair beckons the doctor, who struggles there with his own demons, created when he was a child in Nazi occupied Europe. As he comes to terms with his past and attempts to salvage what remains of his future, the psychiatrist and those who know him perform a dance of relationships, both imaginary and real.

* * * * *

"So, tell me about your sister," said Dr. Kellerman to the man in the yellow chair.

Joseph smoked until another digit flipped. Then he told his image, "She was four years older than I."

"And?" said the doctor. He knew the client was still getting used to this talking-about-it thing.

"And she was my friend. My best friend."

"What did you do together?"

"Well," said Joseph, then he paused to think again. "We invented games. Card games sometimes. We'd use the tops of cigarette boxes for cards and pretend while we played. We were always pretending."

"What did you pretend?" Dr. Kellerman asked.

"Oh, all sorts of things. One of us would start off and the other would join in. Rosa would usually go first, though. And she was much better at it. She'd say something like, uh ... Well, let's see now."

Joseph stared at the clock, but after two more flips nothing had come to him.

"Pretending helped," the doctor suggested.

"It did," the client agreed. "It made us less afraid. Or a little, anyway."

"Afraid of what?"

"Of everything. Of the unknown. Of being caught."

"Caught?" asked the doctor.

"When we'd sneak out," said Joseph.

"Of where?"

"The secret hole in the wall."

"What wall?"

"The ghetto wall!" Joseph snapped. He was aggravated with himself. "I'm sorry," he said and told Dr. Kellerman, "Once they sealed the ghetto, my sister and I would crawl through to try to get extra food. We'd take off the, uh, the arm bands, the Stars of David, so maybe no one on the outside would know. And we had these pockets hidden in the linings of our coats, and we'd take things to sell or trade."

The client knew the doctor's next question, so he said, "Whatever people would give us or whatever we could find. Like pieces of material, silverware. Jewelry sometimes. Or sometimes we had nothing, so we would, you know, ask for food. A carrot, a slice of bread, an egg. Anything."

"And what did your parents think of this?" Dr. Kellerman wanted to know.

"They didn't like it. No, Mama especially. She was afraid that the next time we'd go, something would happen. She'd always make us promise we wouldn't do it anymore. But I disobeyed."

"What about Rosa?" the doctor asked. "She went back out, too. Didn't she."

"But it was my idea," said Joseph.

"Are you sure?"

"Yes. Well, that time it was. Mama wasn't feeling well, so I wanted to get something more for her to eat. They made her shovel snow all day."

Joseph frowned and looked at the clock again. The time was 12:13. At 12:14, the numbers faded with the cigarette smoke.

* * * * *

"Let's look for a pumpkin," Rosa says while brushing the dirt off her knees. "A big one, so my fairy godmother can turn it into a carriage for us, and we'll all ride away."

"To where?" her brother asks.

"Far away, to the countryside. We'll find my prince, and when I put my foot in the glass slipper, it'll fit perfectly, and then he'll invite us to come live in his palace." Rosa looks around and takes Isaac's hand. "Come on," she says, leading him quickly towards the main street.

"If we find a pumpkin," Isaac tells his sister, "I'd rather have it turned into wiener schnitzel."

"But if we have the carriage," Rosa explains, "we can go to my prince, and he'll give us a mountain of wiener schnitzel and anything else we want. New clothes, new shoes, bicycles like we used to have."

"And coats," Isaac chimes in, holding the collar of his closed where the top two buttons used to be. "And Mama needs mittens."

The children pass more quiet buildings and parked cars, and turn the corner. As they near the shops, they slow their pace and try to act like this is where they're supposed to be.

Rosa lets go of her brother's hand. "There's a pretty maiden," she says, giving Isaac a nudge. "Go on, talk to her."

He takes a step backwards. "You go."

"I went first last time," Rosa reminds him.

So Isaac stuffs his hands in his pockets and approaches the woman with the fur-lined boots. They look warm. He wishes he could bring them back for Mama.

"Excuse me ... miss?"

The fur-lined boots stop.

"I was wondering if, um, if you might have anything you could spare? Something to eat maybe? It's for my mother?"

The fur-lined boots disappear.

Moments later, Isaac feels an arm embrace his hanging shoulders.

"Come on," Rosa says. "She was just in a bad mood. She kissed her prince this morning, and he turned into a frog."

Brother and sister move along in the safety of the crowd, as the sister talks of her prince's kingdom, its green hills dotted with wildflowers, and sparkling lakes teeming with big orange fish, and tree branches bent to the ground with giant apples and peaches and pears. In the midst of painting a delightful picture in Isaac's hungry mind, of a grand celebration with song and dance, meats and cheeses and a towering cake, Rosa stops in front of a white-haired woman with a covered basket. Two pale gray eyes glare out of a mass of wrinkles, and Rosa says, "Pardon me, ma'am, but my name's Cinderella, and this is my brother, Prince Ishak."

"Cinderella doesn't have a brother," the old woman says.

Isaac moves behind his feisty sister and tries to shrink.

"Says who?" Rosa challenges, hands to the hips she doesn't have.

The old woman replies, "I have never in all my life heard any mention of Cinderella having a brother."

"Just because you haven't heard of Prince Ishak doesn't mean he isn't real."

"I'm not," he mumbles, and his sister's heel strikes his shin.

With a smirk, the old woman looks Rosa over. "Well, even so, if you're Cinderella, then your brother wouldn't be a prince, now would he? You certainly don't come from royalty."

"Oh, yes we do! Our papa's a mighty king, and he's off at battle right this minute, fighting for your freedom."

"I see," the old woman says. She shifts her basket to her other arm as if it's heavy. "How terrible for you, then, living with your wicked stepmother."

"She's our real mother, and she's not wicked," Isaac protests over his sister's shoulder. "She's beautiful!" He turns and stomps away, putting meters between himself and that nasty witch. He stops and leans against a building, his eyes on passing feet. Minutes later, he sees the pair he's been waiting for. "Cinderella!"

"There you are," she says. Rosa drops something in one of her brother's outer pockets. "One for you, one for me."

Isaac knows a potato when he feels one. "One for you, one for Rapunzel," he corrects her, and brother and sister head back towards where they came from.

"She said she'd try to find us a pumpkin," says Rosa with a skip and a hop, "big enough to make a carriage for the four of us, and Ellie and her mama too. She goes to market every week at the same time."

"But how will we hide a pumpkin?" Isaac asks. "It won't fit in our coats."

Rosa tousles his hair. "You silly little prince."

Isaac doesn't understand what's silly, but he smiles anyway. Rosa always makes him smile.

Away from the safety of the crowd, brother and sister quicken their steps and lower their voices.

"I wish we could get more," Isaac says. He stops and transfers the potato to one of his hidden pockets.

"Next time," Rosa tells her brother, tugging him along. "Our fairy godmother said she'd take care of us."

Isaac curls his upper lip. "She's not anybody's fairy godmother."

They turn onto the side street, Isaac trailing his sister. The wall is straight ahead. The street looks deserted. Just a few empty vehicles along the curb.

"Someday," Rosa says, "you and your princess, and Mama and Papa can have your own palaces next to mine. And Grandpa and Grandma will come, and Uncle Benjamin."

"And Auntie Evy?" Isaac asks.

"Yes, of course. They'll find us, and we can all live in the valley together, by the river. And you'll all come to my palace for supper, every night. Mine will have lots of windows, and huge pillows to sit on, and unicorns and rainbows painted on the walls. And there'll be a stage where we can have plays, and we'll invite people from all around. Now tell me what will your palace will be like, Prince Ishak ... Isaac?" Rosa turns around. "Isaac, what are you doing?"

"The potato," he says, peering under a car. "It fell out. The stitches came apart, I think."

"Well, hurry up."

Isaac runs around to the other side of the vehicle and drops to the sidewalk.

"Hey," says Rosa, "it's her."

"Who?" Isaac asks, now on his stomach, reaching.

"The lady who gave us the potatoes."

Isaac's fingertips barely touch the one he'll give to Mama. "Where?" he asks, stretching farther.

"Back there."

Isaac sees his sister's feet on the other side of the car. She's facing the main street. With his fingertips, Isaac rolls the potato towards him and gets his hand on it.

Rosa says, "What is she...?" then draws a panicked breath. "A big, bad wolf!"

Isaac knows what that means. As Rosa dashes behind the car, he jumps to a crouch and looks back up the street. A uniform is standing next to the witch, who's pointing directly at them. Then the uniform starts moving.

Rosa grabs the back of Isaac's coat, as another uniform rounds the corner. "Run, Isaac! Run!"

* * * * *

"And then what happened?" the doctor asked.

The client shook his head. "I don't remember."

"Are you sure?"

"I'm sure."


"I'm sure!" he yelled silently.

Joseph looked at the clock. His knee started bouncing. 12: 44. Damn, he thought. He glared at the numbers, concentrating hard. He just wanted to watch the minutes go by. Don't think, he told himself. Don't think, don't think, don't think!

And such is how the man in the yellow chair spent the next fourteen minutes, until the alarm finally went off.

Advance, autographed copies of "I. Joseph Kellerman" are now for sale directly from the publisher (Gardenia Press), toll-free at 866-861-9443 or online at and through the author's website:


from the July 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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