“Would you come back?”

Yakov looked up from his book. A sea breeze ruffled his wife’s hair. Beyond her, in the sandy cove stretching from the old pier to the sailing shack, a white pelican rose, folded its wings and dove into the clear blue waters. The hawkers’ T-shirts had it right: it was another beautiful day in paradise. He removed his reading glasses and wiped them with his shirttail. He would think it over.

Yakov and his wife were enjoying the respite they awarded themselves every January, except the year his mother died. Seven days of warmth and summer books under palm trees. Seven tropical nights crowded with food, music, exotic drinks and fresh faces. New friends from faraway places whose friendship seldom outlasted the vacation. One whole week to recharge, away from the everyday, from everything and everybody, even now that their kids were grown, gone and with kids of their own.

They had befriended a couple from San Diego. A tall, dusky Egyptian with exuberant gray hair and his American wife, tall, blonde and bronzed. Both avid toy train collectors, which Yakov — who collected nothing — found fascinating. Through them they met a young couple about the same age as Yakov’s children. An enthusiastic, wide eyed Californian and her husband, whom she introduced as the Mozart of code writing. She and Mozart had met at this very resort a few years back.

Each year Yakov tried a new sport. In the city he had his regular tennis foursome; at the all inclusive resort he’d taken up water skiing and quickly come to love rushing past the tall green grasses, the wind on his face, bumping up and down the ripply blue lagoon, the struggle for control. Even the pratfalls — after the sudden shock of the spill had waned — had a pleasant aftermath, floating indolently in the warm waters while the boat lazed through a wide arc and returned to offer absolutions and further instruction.
Waiting his turn on the floating dock, skis on, legs dangling in the water, a just-arrived but already sun-burned broker teased him about his form. Yakov in turn teased the skittish young man about the rumor that crocs lived in the lagoon, richly embellishing the lore about a crocodile that ventured to the shallow end, near the resort’s boutique, and lurked in the water under the sign asking not to feed the crocs.

The waits between runs grew too long and Yakov’s interests shifted to windsurfing, which was taught on a beach close to his wife’s favorite reading spot, a secluded, tree-shaded, grassy oasis overlooking an old pier colonized by a gaggle of pelicans.

He remained skeptical, though the persisting stories about crocs in the lagoon intrigued him. Late one morning, while his wife enjoyed a massage, Yakov grabbed his camera, just in case, and wandered over to a building supposedly frequented by a crocodile named Lulu.

He only had to go as far as the adjacent building. It didn’t seem plausible, but across the narrow canal, a full grown crocodile lay sunning itself atop the bottom stairs landing. A real crocodile, ten, twelve foot long, maybe more, the size and heft Tarzan wrestled in the matinees of Yakov’s childhood.

Yakov was a prudent person, a man who avoided unnecessary risks, such as waterskiing in a crocodile habitat. He could just imagine his physician treating him for a missing chunk of flesh: “When did you realize this wasn’t a good idea? Before or after the croc bit you on the ass?”

The access stairs were roped-off and guarded by armed men in brown uniforms sprawled on folding chairs a few steps above the concrete pad where Lulu the crocodile lay stretched the length of the landing, the tip of her tail barely out of the water.

If there was one crocodile in the lagoon, there had to be more. But even one … Crocs are prehistoric leftovers, fiercer, more aggressive than alligators, and a clear danger, but obviously the resort management were aware. They had taken steps.

Maybe that’s why Yakov wasn’t perturbed. In part his rational mind told him resort management wouldn’t endanger the guests. But in part it was Lulu herself, her languorous indolence, her presence, her allure, for Lulu was indeed seductive, the way beasts often are.

A bikini-clad young woman, blond hair woven into braids and beads, arrived bouncing down the hallway. She asked him how he liked her croc.

“Most impressive,” Yakov agreed.

“I’m getting her some chocolate bread,” the young woman said.

Yakov hesitated, feeling the weight of his years.

“Not a good idea,” he shook his head. “It will train her to come back for an easy meal.”

“It’s just chocolate bread,” she rolled her eyes. “The guards say she loves it.”

Yakov wanted to ask her what would happen the day Lulu found no chocolate bread.

“Sometimes I hate sounding so . . . ” Yakov mumbled, “sensible?”

“Don’t worry about it.” She laughed, waving her hand as if to forgive him. “It’s just a little chocolate bread,” her braids clinked as she walked away.

Yakov took many photos of the crocodile. Wide angles to show her size, zoomed-in close-ups to highlight her teeth, and for a last shot framing Lulu with foreground vegetation, he bent over the narrow bank, pushed the reeds to a side and clicked away, savoring the opportunity while Lulu remained the perfect model. Reluctantly, he left her to join his wife and their friends for lunch. He had a story to tell.

A fourth couple had joined them. “A sweet old couple,” was how Mozart’s wife described them. A short, plump French Canadian woman with red cheeks and white hair cut short, like a boy’s. Helmut, her husband — Yakov realized as soon as he heard him speak — was a German of a certain age. Yakov immediately recognized the sensation in his belly.

Fifty-five years had passed since the end of the war. Yakov had met many Germans, mostly his age, who’d been victims themselves, war-time children who grew up hiding from bombs or cowering at the sound of Soviet boots.

But this German, standing an arm’s length away, was in his eighties. He would have been of fighting age. Yakov tried to peek at the man’s forearm but it was covered by a towel.

Mozart’s wife related the man’s story. Yakov and the Egyptian had remained behind to hold the table; the others had left for the buffet stations. “The poor old man,” she said, “the Soviets took him prisoner and enslaved him in labor camps for years after the war.”

She shook her head. Her eyes glistened. She’d been born long after the war. “Imagine. Everyone thought he was dead.”

Yakov’s jaw clenched tight. A distant dread filled his earliest memories. He’d been born in safety, to parents who’d barely escaped Europe and obsessed about the family and friends they’d left behind. Until, in the merciless silence that followed the end of the war, they learned of their fate. One at the time. Yakov distinctly remembered being four when he learned of his father’s father’s death. Then, at irregular intervals, all the others, uncles, cousins, neighbors. No survivors. Not one.

He grew up caught between his father’s rage and the permanent sadness in his mother’s eyes, not understanding, not then, anything beyond the stigma of a boy with no family.

Mozart’s wife went on with Helmut’s tale of woe. Yakov rubbed his temple; pain lurked below the surface. His eyes dropped to the ground and followed an insect as it scurried past his sandal and across the large floor tiles, alternately appearing and disappearing in the dark designs.

After the Soviets freed him Helmut returned home; his wife had remarried.
“She told him he wasn’t welcome. She said it would be better if he forgot all about her and their baby. Better if he remained dead.”

Mozart’s wife’s eyes glistened. She too had a baby girl.

“The poor man. He drifted around Europe until he made it to Canada and started a new life. Just imagine,” tears at the ready, “giving up your baby, never to see her again.”
Yakov was reminded of the small sepia picture in a silver frame his mother had kept atop her bureau. Yakov’s grandfather had bright eyes and an assured expression. Seated next to him his grandmother looked tiny and worried, her hands on her lap, one atop the other, her graying hair arranged in a bun. Four boys and three girls surrounded them. His mother was the middle girl. Other than the incorrigibly impish eyes of the youngest boy, they stood frozen in stern and rigid poses for all eternity.

That photograph was all that remained of her family. His father didn’t even have that.

Helmut was shrunken, bony and bent, with rheumy, red-rimmed eyes, large-lobed ears, a few wispy threads of white hair atop his head and an obsequious smile. Not quite the Aryan superman.

Throughout lunch Yakov kept an eye on the old German. Surely Helmut couldn’t be the one. He didn’t act or look anything like the snarling SS villains from the movies. Yakov had no appetite. He did his best to remain sociable but he didn’t speak with Helmut.

That evening Helmut and his Canadian wife were waiting in the crowded restaurant lobby when the group met for dinner. Helmut had already secured a table for eight and — a napkin folded over his left forearm, mimicking a solicitous waiter — brought wine, glasses, even ice for the water. Big deal, Yakov thought, it’s all included.

Yakov stared into Helmut’s faded blue eyes, trying to bore into his soul. Not all German soldiers were bad. Countermanding a direct order might’ve meant death. Would Yakov refuse to carry out an order he thought criminal? He thought he would. He knew right from wrong. It was in his nature to do the right thing.

Helmut noticed Yakov’s stare and offered a smile.
The rest of the week went by in a rush. Yakov windsurfed to exhaustion before dragging himself up the slight hill to collapse on the grass in his wife’s private oasis. They made other friends, but his wife preferred to eat with the same three couples. Yakov begged off the trip to Chichen Itza when he learned Helmut would go; he claimed a need to water ski. But he didn’t.

He couldn’t stop thinking. The odds that Helmut had been the one who’d killed his family, or even to have looked the other way, were insignificant. But did it matter whose family he’d killed?

“Why can’t you Jews forget already?” an English colleague had asked Yakov a few years earlier. They had been eating a quick lunch in London between business appointments. Yakov felt the blood rush to his face. He threw his pizza slice down.
“How could you forget such a thing? No. Never. Never again.”

But when it had happened in Cambodia, in Rwanda, in Somalia, in Bosnia and on and on, Yakov hadn’t stopped it. He had a family to feed.

On their last day Yakov decided to take a few more pictures of Lulu but she wasn’t on her usual spot. He scanned the canal waters, the long open hallway and the narrow bank lush with vegetation; any croc could easily be lying in wait. Maybe Lulu had missed her morning chocolate bread.

The security guards’ English was no better than Yakov’s Spanish but their surprised faces sufficed. They were unaware of Lulu’s absence. They shrugged. One guard said something and the others laughed. Yakov wished he’d understood. Maybe he’d have laughed too.

He met his wife and the rest of the group for their last lunch together. They exchanged hugs, kisses, emails, phone numbers … Yakov ignored Helmut but when he extended a hand towards Mozart, Helmut grabbed it and shook it. Surprised, automatically, Yakov shook the hand and mumbled something. Helmut’s hound-dog face broke into a grin.

“Auf wiedersehen, Herr Yakov.”

With one last afternoon left, Yakov windsurfed to the last possible moment. After showering and dressing he re-joined his wife. At dusk, from her oasis, in silence, they watched the sun set.

It was late by the time they boarded their plane. Young men and women, still in a festive mood, flitted from seat to seat, pre-testing whether their friendships would survive under the cold northern skies. A few lucky ones, like Mozart and his Constanze, might meet again, maybe even find love.

Yakov felt tired but relieved to be aloft and on his way home. He peered out the window into the dark. Below, somewhere in her lagoon, old Lulu lurked in the black waters, her reptilian eyes searching for her next meal. And somewhere else in the void, Helmut too prowled the vast expanse of shadows, stalking a more elusive prey. Come morning Lulu would be back on the landing, sunning herself, sated and majestic. Not Helmut: whatever he sought, he wouldn’t find.

Yakov yawned and stretched, trying to drive away the week’s exertions. In time the airplane’s lights dimmed, the passengers settled down, and the noise abated but for the engines’ constant drone. Normally, at this point in the vacation he would’ve dozed-off, his mind clear and refreshed, dreaming of new projects and future accomplishments. Not this time.

Out the window he spied a few flecks of silver in his small slice of sky. His thoughts drifted to his mother’s family portrait in the sterling frame, now residing atop his fireplace mantle and crowded by a jumble of colorful frames holding more recent images. Pictures of graduations and gymnastic feats and choo-choo rides and picnics and weddings and countless other moments, like his mother’s last Thanksgiving, when Yakov and the other men had to be dragged away from the TV for the all inclusive family self-portrait, with his mother in the center, smiling shyly, hands folded on her lap, amid her children and their children and their children and the promise in their laughing eyes. “I suppose we could come back,” Yakov finally answered his wife, though she was probably asleep, “but I’d rather find a different paradise.”

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