Sheldon Lee Compton is an Appalachian short story writer, novelist and poet. He is the author of the short story collections The Same Terrible Storm (Foxhead Books, 2012) and Where Alligators Sleep (Foxhead Books, 2014), the novels Brown Bottle (Bottom Dog Press, 2016) and Alice and the Wendigo (Shivelight Books, 2018) as well as the poetry chapbook Podunk Lore, part of a collaborative volume of the Lantern Lit series (Dog On a Chain Press, 2018).
The Last Friend in Red Knife
Sheldon Lee Compton
Harley Frank’s father found the picture, a slick rectangle of black and white scissored from a library encyclopedia. Though his father had no way of realizing, it was well known and historically referred to as The Last Jew in Vinnitsa, 1941. The phrase and date were found written on the back of the original photograph when it was discovered in an album belonging to a German soldier in 1944.
The night his father found the photograph Harley Frank wasn’t at home. When he returned he saw his mom and sisters running away from the bus toward the river. It had rained all day and the little mounds of riverbed sand was an array of mud puddles his sisters dodged as they followed their mother. They saw him while huddling together and screamed his name over and over again.
And then his father came out. The weather had worked itself back to a sprinkle and the old man squinted at him through the rain and dusklight, began screaming unrecognizable words in his direction. It was all about the photograph, but if it hadn’t been the photograph it would have been something else. For Harley Frank’s father, anger wasn’t only a symptom, it was the core reason for everything.
When he sprinted over to the edge of the riverbank, the old man came at him hard, splitting yellow-brown trenches across the ground. The two of them would collide that evening in the bright and hot way only a father and son can when led by the heart in anger. I wouldn’t know any of this until later, but that collision was the beginning of a shift tectonic.
About half the time when Harley Frank visited me he brought a fifth of Jim Beam. On that day, he pulled it from the black gym bag and smiled. For the first time since he started coming around I felt uncomfortable.
Many times he brought books from the library about the Civil War, the Nazis, military and war, and told me the other kids called him a Nazi. He didn't bath and was always in need of a haircut and a clean shirt, not to mention a solid meal. We watched movies rented from the local video store, too. All war films or documentaries about Hitler or Robert E. Lee.
By the time he brought the Jim Beam I was on a long list of medications. I took those and then better than half of my mother's pain pills. Even with all my health problems, an esophageal tear, a hip replacement, a string of minor heart attacks, and on and on, the VA hospital would never prescribe me anything stronger than ibuprofen.
The perpetual fog of being high on painkillers kept any other vice I may have had at bay. I never drank, is what I'm saying. Not until Harley Frank brought that fifth of Stag and his grin. I had already taken about a hundred milligrams of oxycodone when he knocked on the door of my back bedroom. No one else knocked before coming in my room, so I let go a little sigh, prepared myself to discuss Confederate operation plans for the battle of Antietam, and told him to come in.
But the truth is, the visits didn’t really bother me. It was clear Harley Frank came for the pills and booze, maybe a little conversation, but he would never come around if it were only for a visit. I knew this and accepted it. I needed the company, even if it was a sixteen-year-old outcast hoping to get high.
Vinnytsia, as it is known in the homeland, is located in west-central Ukraine. When the Germans came in to murder the Jewish population at the beginning of World War II, there had already been demons who arrived before them. Their presence was, itself, a revisitation of an old and embedded fear so ancient any soldier chosen at random would have struggled to explain why this and why that and how in the world does anything like a years-long slaughter happen to civilized people. The last Jew in Vinnytsia had no good answers and neither did the young man behind him siting the gun on the sunned skin of the prisoner’s neck.
We had been drinking and talking for about two hours when Harley finally came up with the question I think he'd been wanting to ask since we broke the seal on the Jim Beam. He wanted to know if I'd ever killed anyone. While in the military, he said, did you ever shoot anyone? Or just kill someone, gun or no gun?
Before I had the chance to answer and share my secret moments overseas, he started telling me about soldiers crawling in these tiny underground tunnels with a handgun, a grenade, and a knife in their belt. He made a serious face that bore out like a caricature and said the soldiers were told to use the knife first and if it didn't work, the gun. If the gun didn't work, Harley Frank said, it was the grenade and then everything was blown to kingdom come. All the time he sat there explaining and explaining he held himself as if he'd been the one to travel overseas with his stomach turning and fight a war started by wealthy men. I tried to push away the old rage welling up inside me. I focused on what he was saying, this instruction. I wondered if he knew the other soldiers called the men in the tunnels courage guys.
Nearly twenty years after the last Jew in Vinnytsia was murdered, the city became what has come to be known as a spy town. The Soviet Union used it as a grounds for training KGB infiltrators to live in the United States. For all practical purposes the city was a city, complete with a post office, grocery store, and all the other niceties a town might have, including a college campus, which provided the KGB operatives their classrooms for learning how to walk and talk like Americans. They were good at pretending, knowing that this practice alone could lead them to the highest levels of success. This was in 1959, so it’s fair to assume that the general procedure would have them infiltrating the United States, befriend any citizens vulnerable enough for catch and release, and then complete whatever task or mission they had been assigned. But, make no mistake about it, the most important aspect to the entire operation was for the KGB operatives to convince other people they were completely harmless and perhaps even friendly. Friendship became a subversive weapon in this way, and a means to an end.
Maybe it was the pills mixed with the alcohol. Maybe I'd just heard enough from this particular outcast. Maybe I needed to get a dog. I couldn't hold my tongue, though, and Harley Frank leaned back and his face, at first cartoonish, now appeared to lose all muscle definition. I felt the air spark up with a crawling static. He put his hand through his dishrag hair, and, while I watched the one hand, his other dipped into his black gym bag and brought out a 9mm. He didn't take time to aim or raise it to proper position. As soon as the barrel cleared the bag, he pulled the trigger. Once, twice, three times whop whop whop.
One slug clicked through my breast bone and tore up the muscles there, gouging around somewhere near my heart. There was no saying for certain where the other two landed because I didn't feel a thing, not at first. The body takes over. Adrenaline was doing its best, and in that kinetic haze I saw Harley finger back the hair from his forehead before I let my head fall back and fixed my eyes on the ceiling.
There at the end, it wasn’t anger I felt toward this boy. That would make sense, sure, but he’d been my only contact with anyone apart from my elderly parents for a long while by the time he shot me. He was a friend, as close as I could manage. Losing a friend, an only friend, no matter how strange or terrible, was softened by the possibility of death. The thought was strong in me that, should I live, I would be truly alone.
Harley Frank came to stand over me and did not look at all like any friend I’d ever known. The several layers of clothing he always wore made him larger than average and blotted out the sunlight through the window behind him. He struck an intimidating figure in the rim of eclipse-light with his body cast in silhouette. When I kicked and hyperextended his knee, he nearly fell on me. Instead, he went face first into the bedroom floor. I crawled on top of him and moved my lips to his ear.
I told him there were courage guys in this world and then, of course, there were cowards.
I told him he would never so much as meet a courage guy, because these guys knew how to avoid the cowards.
I told him what it felt like to lose my very last friend.
For three years the German soldier carried the photograph of the last Jew in Vinnytsia with him, this snapshot moment depicting a gaunt man on his knees at the lip of a mass grave, a soldier behind him pointing a pistol to the back of neck. Less than four feet beneath him, piled together like kindling, are the Jews who came before him, their legs, arms, and torsos shown at the bottom of the rectangle as if rising up from the earth itself, death become real and carrying with it the scent of a rare kind of hell.
I did live. I lived the same sad, substance-filled life I had lived before Harley Frank shot me. I kept drinking. I kept doping. Truth is, all of that got worse. And Harley Frank did go to jail, but not prison. There’s a massive difference in those two places, the subtleties of which can be surprisingly lost on the unversed. He went to jail and served five of a ten-year sentence and was paroled.
In a rare excursion outside the house, I went to the county clerk’s office, asked to see, and read the deposition Harley Frank sat for before trial. He was asked what his intentions were the day he had arrived at my home. He answered simply, saying he intended to kill me. Not for a particular reason, but only because I was a living human being. Isn’t it true that this man was your close acquaintance, someone you spent time with, the deposer asked. Harley Frank replied simply, saying he said didn’t have friends, close or otherwise. He said he would have killed his father but the old man deserved to suffer. It would have been better, he said, to have killed his sisters and given them an end to the suffering. Why didn’t you kill them, an attending attorney asked. The first kill was practice, he told them, and the practice one shouldn’t mean anything.
Though the Germans mass buried literally forty percent of the city’s population as they rolled in during those early days of the war, a few short years earlier saw the mass murder that history calls the Stalinist Great Purge. For the pride of two military leaders these souls were freed of their bodies. For a newer version of pride, a more twisted version, the city was fashioned into an open coffin, dug by men and boys so afraid that they killed to feel safe. And so it was like this before the Germans and before the Stalinists before them. Each often found evidence of their predecessors. German military personnel claimed to have exhumed some ten thousand bodies upon arriving in Vinnytsia.
This may have been taken as a challenge.
Before I saw Harley Frank for the last time I already knew a good deal about how he felt following the shooting. Interviews with news outlets when he was released quoted him saying he remembered only a little of his punishment. What he shared during those interviews was that he read a lot. Hitler biographies, books on World War II, Sun Tzu, a lot of material that only deepened his interest in violence.
On one or two local daytime talk shows he shared the stories of being raised hard, living in a converted school bus with his family of seven. He said that calling it converted made it sound way too fancy. It was more accurate to say shelled out. A shelled out bus. His dad had taped over the windows and torn out the seats. It opened the bus up and the family, which was made up of two other boys and three girls, and then Harley Frank’s punch drunk mother, who did her best to settle the space as necessity dictated. His father put up a tarp covering the back section and used that area to abuse the sisters and youngest boy. Not very much of this was talked about in court.
Most of the victims buried at Vinnytsia were killed using a .22 calibre bullet fired into the back of the neck. Because of the small calibre of the bullet, most victims were shot twice, and at least seventy-eight of them were shot three times; three-hundred and ninety-five of the victims found there had their skulls broken in addition to traces of gunshot trauma. Almost all men whose remains were excavated had their hands tied. Older women were dressed in some form of clothing. Children were buried naked.
The Home Health nurse allowed Harley Frank in that day when he knocked on the door. No one knows what he told her. And then Harley Frank the man, not unlike the boy years before, walked through a room heavily, shoulders drooping forward, leading him along like a madman’s creation. I heard the heavy footsteps from my bed. I had learned the sounds of the house, how the house moved, from my bed. A creak here and a thump there could be a bathroom door closing or Mother making a pot of coffee. I knew the very clear sound of a stranger in the house. It was a literal kind of slithering.
But of course Harley Frank wasn’t exactly a stranger. There was purpose to it in the way it went heavy and then light, heavy then light. Ten or so of these and there was the knock at my bedroom door.
I got up from the bed and lifted the old mattress. A brief toss of dust flew up and then sauntered down again, dotting specks along a small .22 caliber. At the same time I told Harley Frank to come in, I also took the pistol and positioned it into the back of my pants. But when he came into the room, when I saw the same greasy hair parted and draped along the tops of his ears, the same slack-faced grin, I drew out and fixed him in the site.
Seeing his grin slowly change was a pleasure. His mouth went completely slack, his jaw actually dropping open. I smiled. It’s a crazy thing, but I could feel the thickened scar across my chest smile. The time it took for him to fall sideways into the dresser beside the bed also happened slowly. I was able to notice that he wore a camouflage jacket with a flea market patch of the Confederate flag sewn too high on the sleeve. For a full half minute before Mother came into the room in response to the gunshot I bent to Harley Frank, talking the entire time, explaining in our private conversation why all of this had happened—me, him, the shootings, the courage guys, the full circle connection of our friendship. I smiled and I talked and I swear I could see him smiling, too.
The unknown prisoner in the photograph is looking up and just to the left of the camera. His expression is not one of fear or even torment but one of absolute resignation. With his coat folded and draped over his broken knees, though, if you look more closely, the way the father did after finding it under his son’s mattress, what you’ll see in the prisoner’s face, around the eyes mostly, is more rage than can be articulated. For this final man, as with the boy, the future and all hope is full of vengeance.