a debt to pay
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Unfinished Business
by Matthew H Emma


I’d just completed my first week as President of the Salzburg Country Club Board of Directors in the Austrian city of the same name. As two members of our maintenance staff carved the moniker “Fritz Bauer” into the door’s gold nameplate, I didn’t grin with pride, but trembled with fear. I’d just made an unpopular decision that left me convinced my tenure would be the shortest of any President, past or future.

“You like it Herr President Bauer?” asked Hans, a twenty-something with tattoos of the Salzburg State crest on his guns.

My name was now etched in stone. At least I’d have one enjoyable, lasting, fond memory. I stepped back and gazed at the image for several seconds, before whipping out my Samsung Galaxy to capture a photo. If nothing else, my grandchildren would have visual proof that I wasn’t lying.

“Ja,” I replied.

“Good luck,” shouted Manfred, the bulky, balding forty-seven year-old Superintendent of Grounds.

“Thank you,” I replied in a quiet, polite tone, but yearned to scream out ‘I’m gonna need it.’

I made The Sign Of The Cross, plodded down the hall to the conference room, occupied head position at the mahogany table, unzipped my briefcase and slid out a yellow folder with the words POTENTIAL NEW MEMBERS LIST written in red ink.

A half-hour later, the board members filed in. The only good thing about my first official meeting as President was that it occurred during recruitment weekend. Neither the agenda, nor my speech would be long, as those assembled would be in a big hurry to party and mingle with whom each nominated to join our prestigious institution. As I arose, my legs quaked with such severity, I needed to grasp the edge of the table with my hands to maintain posture. Eighteen eyes fixated on me. My pulse increased in strength and velocity to where I could see it jumping up and down through my shirt.

“I thank all of you for your confidence,” I began, as I ingested a huge gulp of water. “This’s a very important weekend so I won’t waste any more time. Let’s have a great weekend and bring more people into the SCC family. Meeting’s adjourned.”

Despite the dismissal, no one budged. Eight people kept their heads down. The only one who didn’t was the Board’s Vice President, Freidel Lanzerhausen, the heavyset daughter of a former Salzburg State Premiere, who sweated with the slightest movement. Our eyes met.

“Ja Frau Vice President,” I said, with a heavy dose of sarcasm, after I cleared my throat and refilled a crystal goblet with ice water.

“Brunhilda,” as several people referred to her, straightened a grey stocking that matched her suit and winced while inching her rotund derriere upwards.

My underarms were already soaked in sweat. She leered.

“Uh, Herr Scherzer and I’d like to speak with you in private,” she demanded.

“Okay,” I responded, stressing the O and pausing before the kay. “Would the rest of you be kind enough to excuse us?”

The other seven members stood in unison and exited in a single file line. Lanzerhausen strutted, as she trailed the four men and three women and shut the door behind them. Treasurer Wolf Scherzer remained seated. The bearded, fifty-four-year-old child of Austrian aristocracy seldom spoke, but was respected for being a staunch supporter of the Club’s traditions and conservative policies.

“You needn’t say another word,” I said. “I know what, or shall I say who, this’s about.”

I’d nominated Martin Schiff, the grandson of the late Abraham Schiff, founder of Schiff Imports, one of one Austria’s biggest companies, for membership.

Scherzer arose at a measured speed. I pounded my hand against the back side of an adjacent chair. He raised his hands up and down.

“I won’t calm down,” I screamed. “Don’t give me your bullshit about history and traditions. You don’t want him because he’s Jewish and I refuse to adhere to and will reverse the Third Reich mentality that’s been pervasive in this place for far too long.”

I stormed towards the other side of the room. Scherzer returned to his seat. Lanzerhausen rotated her chair and faced me.

“It’s not that he’s Jewish,” she said. “It’s that he’s who he is.”

I stomped back towards her, snared a seat and we sat almost face to face. Lanzerhausen smirked and poured herself a glass of water.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I inquired.

She placed her left hand on my right knee.

“There’re other Jewish families I’d rather see be the first,” she said. “Why not the Frankels? Or even the Friedmans? They’re different from him, they’re less…”

I leaped up and chucked a ball point pen across the table.

“Proud of their Jewish heritage,” I interrupted.

“Boisterous,” she countered, in a sharp, sarcastic tone.

Scherzer glanced upwards and slowly raised his hand in an obvious plea for permission to interject.

“Go ahead,” I said. “Make your point.”

“The history and traditions are what make this Club special,” he said, as he stood erect. “And I agree with Freidel. It’s not about being Jewish, my objection lies in the manner by which he carries himself.”

I marched towards the door and flung it open.

“Discussion’s over,” I snapped. “My decision’s made.”

Scherzer and Lanzerhausen moped past me and towards the door.

“You know we’re right,” Lanzerhausen said. “There’s something you’re not telling us. I mean, you’ve never even met this guy.”

She and I entered the hall.

“I didn’t ask you to explain who you nominated for membership or why,” I said, in a snarky tone. “Please extend me the same courtesy.”

She was right. I did have my reasons, but didn’t feel it was anyone else’s concern. The three of us made our way towards the main bar for the welcome reception. Guests were adorned in suits and dresses, with the exception of a muscular man in a short sleeve shirt and ripped dungarees, who sat by himself at a barstool.

“Who’s that?” I asked Lanzerhausen, as we entered the bar.

“Your nominee,” she retorted. “Should take a gander at what his shirt says.”

“What’re you talking about?” I asked.

“You’ll see,” she responded. “It could ignite that Third Reich mentality you go on about.”

Okay, Schiff didn’t obey the dress code. In most members, such behavior would be frowned upon, but for him I’d be willing to make an exception. As I drew nearer, I noticed Star of David tattoos ran the length of both his arms, which were large enough to make Arnold Schwarzenegger’s look puny.

“Herr Schiff,” I said.

He neither answered nor turned around.

“Herr Schiff,” I repeated, a bit louder.

Still, he didn’t respond. I rested my south end on the stool next to him and extended my hand.

“Herr Schiff,” I said, yet again. “Fritz Bauer, Board President.”

“Yeah, I know,” he snapped back, as he offered a limp handshake.

Schiff was in his early forties, had an unshaven face and thinning brown, greyish hair. Seconds later, he whirled around, placed his hands behind his head, faced the revelers and giggled. His shirt had a yellow Jewish Star over the word “Jude,” which covered an inscription: “They Missed One.” A number of passersby, which included Scherzer and Lanzerhausen scowled and glowered as they marched past. Perspiration built up, my heart thwacked and queasiness set in.

“Interesting choice of shirts,” I responded, not being able to ignore what I was witnessing, but in as polite a voice as possible.

Schiff gestured to the bartender and was soon replenished with another Beck’s draft.

“Was the only clean thing in the drawer,” he responded, in a conversational tone, but his smirk conveyed the sarcasm of that statement.

“May I suggest a bottle of wine,” I said, in a deliberate attempt to both change and forget about the subject.

Schiff downed the beer with one gulp and slammed the glass onto the bar’s countertop.

“Don’t waste your breath,” he snarled.

I jumped up and retreated a few strides.

“I beg your pardon,” I responded.

“I’m not interested in joining your pretentious club okay,” he said. “I’m here for the free food and booze. It’s about time you people did something for us other than use our skin to make wax and lampshades.”

I bit down on my tongue so hard it drew blood and gripped the bar’s countertop like it was a life raft and I was near drowning. That was the only way to prevent myself from tossing him out by his balls. For both our sakes, it was a good thing he exited the bar area a few seconds later.

If the fact that my initial encounter with Schiff bombed like a B-Movie wasn’t enough to be uptight about, I returned to my office and found a note that read “Meet us in conference room at one o’clock,” signed by Scherzer and Lanzerhausen. I glanced at my watch, which said twelve forty-three. En route to the rematch, I doubled back to the bar, ordered Vodka on the rocks and downed it in one shot. The Stoli’s did nothing to quell a pair of twitching legs and trembling hands. I lumbered to the conference room and entered at ten to one. Lanzerhausen and Scherzer were already there. She gaited around the carpeting and glared at me the second I marched through the door.

“He’s got to go and now,” she bellowed, before my south end hit a soft, green seat on the table’s left side, closest to the door. “I don’t care what you say, we can’t have someone who’ll purposely embarrass us like that.”

Scherzer didn’t flinch and kept his head bowed the entire time.

“And,” she screamed, louder than the previous moment.

She removed an envelope from her a Louis Vuitton case and flung it at me.

“Thanks, I said. “I appreciate the congratulatory card on being named President.”

My attempt at sarcastic humor went unnoticed and did little to break the tension.

“It’s a letter signed by all of us,” she rambled on. “Really, it’s an ultimatum. Either you recant or I’m calling an emergency meeting where we’ll be forced to reconsider your Presidency and, if need be, have you removed.”

I wasn’t surprised, yet frustrated and moreover infuriated. Lanzerhausen came at me again. This time, however, I pounced up and confronted her.

“Frau Vice President,” I said, in a very forceful and direct tone. “I need and want to speak to the Treasurer alone.”

“Anything you want to say, you’ll express to both of us,” she retorted, with a heavy dose of arrogance and sarcasm.

I pounded my hand against the desk.

“Freidel,” I screeched. “Get your ass out of here now. I’m still President until I’m not. Ergo, I’m your boss. Don’t argue, just obey.”

She surrendered into a chair. Scherzer gaped. To be honest, I’d only remembered using such a booming, intimidating voice twenty years earlier when I scolded my daughter for taking my Mercedes on a joyride. She eyed Scherzer. He nodded.

It was time to reveal my ulterior motives, but I’d only feel comfortable doing so in front of Scherzer, who was also my friend.

“Excuse me,” she said. “But I’m warning you.”

She pointed at me.

“Duly noted,” I replied, as I followed her to the door and shut it the second she landed in the hallway.

I exhaled with force and ran both my hands through a head of grey hair. Scherzer poured two glasses of water and handed me one.

“I know she can be abrasive,” he said. “But, come on. She does have a point.”

Out of nowhere, my eyes welled.

“Sorry,” he said, as he fidgeted with his tie. “I know this’s a sensitive subject, but…”

I reached into my right pants pocket and yanked out a pack of Marlboros. I was trying to quit at the time, but needed a calming agent and didn’t wish to trudge back to the bar.

“You’re fine,” I interrupted, as I popped a butt in my mouth. “You mind?”

“Not at all,” he replied.

I ignited the cig with a Red Bull Salzburg lighter, inhaled a drag and expelled a ring of smoke.

“His grandfather saved our family’s business,” I began.

Tears now poured down my face like lava from an erupting volcano.

“A few years after the depression,” I continued.

I was so locked in, I didn’t remember either finishing the first butt or lighting a second, which I held between the first two fingers on my right hand.

“We were about to be homeless,” I said. “Abraham Schiff lent Papa just enough to stay afloat.”

Scherzer stood up and paced.

“You don’t have to say any more,” he said. “I…

“Yes I do,” I interrupted. “Because we haven’t gotten to the bad parts yet.”

Scherzer reoccupied his seat.

“Right after the Anschluss business flourished, which’s where we initially built up our wealth. Well, you could probably imagine what happened to Abraham and his family.”

I placed my head on the table and wailed.

“They were deported and Abraham died in Auschwitz,” I rambled on.

“Shit,” Scherzer said.

I lifted my head up.

“There’s more,” I said.

He sunk to the ground.

“Could I have one of those Marlboros first?” he asked.

I smiled, arose and handed him one.

“Luckily, Schiff’s son survived and they got their business back,” I said. “However, Papa never forgave himself for not doing more to help Abraham and, in August of 1954, shot himself in the head with a rifle and left a suicide note conveying those words.”

Scherzer gasped and dry heaved. We stared at each other for a full two minutes.

“Now you know,” I said. “But I want to be the one to tell Schiff. Okay?”

“No worries,” he said. “I understand.”

“Thanks,” I said. “And, just so you know. I’ll persist until I succeed or fail. If you wish to make a change, fine. This’s bigger than the Club and especially me.”

He extended his hand and we completed the formality.

“My apologies for questioning your motives” he said. “I hope you can persuade him to join us.”

“That’ll be even harder than what I just did,” I responded. “However, I have to try. For Abraham and Papa.”

I didn’t hesitate. After taking a few minutes to refocus, I searched for my man, first in the bar and then by the aquatic center. Lanzerhausen must have seen how my eyes bounced up, down, left and right as I ambled around the poolside. She eyed me, as I approached. My heart pounded. I prayed she’d have the decency not to initiate round three in front of so many prospective members. She ascended. I clenched my fists.

“He’s in the fitness center,” she said.

“Thank you,” I replied, as I changed direction and sped inside and down the expansive first floor hallway leading to that facility.

Within thirty seconds, I entered and witnessed Schiff doing squats. He glimpsed up and paused, but continued his reps soon thereafter.

“Mind if I hang out here a while?” I asked.

Schiff stepped towards a bench housing a barbell that harnessed at least two hundred pounds of weight.

“It’s your club,” he answered, a minute or so later.

He laid down and began a set of twenty reps, which he completed in under a minute and a half without offering the slightest grunt or grimace.

“Impressive,” I said. “I couldn’t bench a miniature schnauzer”.

A slight smile came to his face. I seized the opening.

“Mind if I speak with you?” I asked, but in a voice suggesting it was more of a plea.

He leaned forward, bent over and added two twenty-five pound weights to each side of the barbell.

“Only if you spot me,” he said.

Schiff laid down again, flexed his hands several times and expelled a huge burst of air, before placing them on the bar. I positioned my palms on each side of the barbell and waited for him to begin the set.

“Please don’t drop it,” I said. “I’ve already admitted to being weak.”

This time, he giggled for a second. I gambled further.

“You know,” I began. “I had a special reason for inviting you.”

He tossed the barbell up and down with the ease an experienced Italian chef might display when flinging pizza dough.

“Which is?” he wondered. “I’m not that special a guy.”

My pulse let up. We were actually having a conversation. I got braver.

“Your grandfather was,” I responded.

Big mistake. The nanosecond those words left my lips, I watched with terrible apprehension and utter astonishment, as he chucked the barbell across the room and glared. I grew more soused in sweat then he was. Nausea and lightheadedness reigned. As he continued to stare, I almost hoped I’d faint, thinking an unconscious state would spare me the beating I feared was about to happen.

“Don’t you ever mention his name,” Schiff shouted, as he bounced around the room like a decapitated chicken on speed. “You people killed him.”

The few other guests present were exercising on elliptical machines. Upon hearing and witnessing his outburst, they shut down and exited with haste. I smacked my lips together several times and hissed like boiling water. I resented when Jewish people referred to present-day Austrians as you people. Though I understood his feelings, I was determined to convey mine.

“Don’t you refer to me that way,” I stated, in an authoritative tone. “I’ll not tolerate those kind of insults.”

He retired to the bench and sat up, but with his back towards me. I felt as if I’d connected with a Muhammed Ali uppercut. I had to try and keep him on the ropes.

“Your invitation’s more about Abraham than you,” I continued on.

“Not sure I understand,” he replied.

“Wouldn’t expect you to,” I said.

He grabbed a small, white towel out of his Adidas duffel bag and wiped perspiration from his forehead. I afforded myself a brief respite, moved to the vending machine and retrieved a bottle of Evian. The truce lasted less than a minute.

“What the fuck do you know about anything?” he muttered, in a soft tone he assumed I wouldn’t hear.

I’d had it with his belligerence

“A lot,” I shouted. “Your grandfather saved our family business before the war.”

He rotated around.

“And you expressed your appreciation how,” he snickered. “That’s right. By ensuring he got a good seat on the cattle train to Poland.”

I knew this was a sensitive subject for him, but just as difficult for me. I tried, but couldn’t hold back my emotions. Before I knew it, I was crying. Schiff rolled his eyes, returned to the supine position and entered into another set of lifts.

“I guess this’s the part where you say your family did all they could,” he said, as he executed each exercise at a faster pace.

“No,” I said. “They knew they didn’t.”

He offered a “yeah sure” type of laugh.

“My father felt so bad, he blew his brains out in ‘54,” I said, no longer crying and in a calm voice. “He even left a suicide note saying he couldn’t bear living because of the guilt he carried. I still have it. You could read it if you want.”

The next sound I heard was the thud of weight crashing to the floor again. Schiff stood up, but remained silent. I noticed his eyes were glassy. Out of nowhere, he barreled towards the exit.

“Wait,” I said.

He pulled up just as he entered the hall, but wouldn’t turn around.

“As you know, tomorrow’s the new members’ breakfast ceremony,” I said. “I’d be deeply honored if you’d join our Club to honor the memories of your grandfather and my father. Please consider it.”

A ten second pause ensued, before he bolted off.

At home that night I sat on the terrace outside the master bedroom, drinking shots of whiskey.

“Don’t do this,” said my wife Brigitte. “You did all you could.”

I loaded my glass again and belted whatever shot number it was. I’d lost count after ten, which occurred before the daylight expired. Brigitte twirled her blonde hair, then placed one hand on my right shoulder and commandeered the bottle with the other.

“Your father and Abraham would be proud of you,” she said. “You’ve done more to rectify things than so many others. Don’t let your health and sanity hinge on what he decides to do.”

Tears streaked down my face. She ran her fingers through my hair. A few minutes later, I nodded off.

The digital clock read six-eleven when I emerged from the stupor. My stomach gurgled at a volume louder than the bell at Salzburg Cathedral. The only good thing about my state of nervousness was it made me forget how hung over I still remained. I slogged into a brown suit and auto piloted my BMW convertible to the Club by eight o’clock. The ceremony wasn’t set to begin until nine, but I needed to give a couple of Beyer the opportunity to kill the throbbing headache produced by the consumption of almost a full bottle of Jack Daniels. I dropped my head on the desk and closed my eyes. At eight thirty, a gentle knock came to the door.

“It’s open,” I said.

Seconds later, I glanced up to find Lanzerhausen standing in the doorway. Her face displayed a typical scowl.

“You can come in,” I said.

She wouldn’t budge. I muttered in silent prayer. Given the condition I was in, I’d surrender before doing battle.

“I’ll be brief,” she said. “While I don’t agree with your choice, I respect it and won’t offer any further objection. Wolf told us.”

I cried.

“Thank you,” I said, as she nodded, waved and faded into the hall.

At a quarter to nine, I plodded towards the lounge. Our wait staff set out a buffet of semmel, muesli, boiled eggs, smoked bacon, cut sausage and more pastries than a mathematician could count. Our new members filed in. Schiff wasn’t among them. I patiently waited by the room’s entrance like a pet waiting for its owner to return home. At eight fifty-seven, I felt a sharp tap on my shoulder. It was Scherzer.

“It’s almost time,” he said. “We better get started.”

I moped back inside. Scherzer tailed.

“And Fritz,” he said.

I spun around and faced him.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I know you wanted this.”

Resigned to the circumstances, I still had to perform my duties and welcome our new members. As I approached the lectern, I noticed I blushed after seeing my reflection in a glass frame. The President’s nominee is the first new inductee introduced. Though a minor sidebar, I was very embarrassed for having failed to bring in someone new. It was a minute past nine. I tapped the microphone. The reverberation got the attention of the fifty or so persons present, who scattered to their seats.

“Good morning to our esteemed Board and our new members,” I began. “I want to officially welcome you to the Salzburg Country Club family. I’m not one to delay a celebration, so I say, let’s get to it.”

Lanzerhausen approached and handed me a folder that read CONFIRMED NEW MEMBERS. I peeked inside and scanned the list of names. I wasn’t surprised Martin Schiff wasn’t among them. However, I felt compelled to at least acknowledge him.

“Before we begin,” I said. “I’d like to mention someone who decided not to join us. His name’s Martin Schiff of the famous family of the same…”

When I glanced downward at my prepared oration, I heard what sounded like a door being kicked open, followed by quiet chatter. When I raised my head, I thought my still active hangover brought on a vision upon watching Schiff strut towards me. He was clean shaven and decked out in an Armani suit. He halted a few feet to the left of the lectern. We stared at each for several seconds. Dead silence reigned, as all eyes transfixed on the scene.

“You’re incorrect Herr President,” he declared.

I couldn’t move. He offered his hand. My hand felt heavy as I lifted it. I turned off the microphone, fearing a confrontation or verbal assault. After hesitating for a moment, I reciprocated and we completed the formality. Wolf rose and offered polite applause. Soon, the rest of the crowd followed suit. I turned back to Schiff.

“Well?” I asked.

“Don’t expect us to go yachting together,” he said. “This isn’t for you, them or anyone else, but my grandfather and your father.”

I felt the tears come again, but held back.

“That’s okay,” I replied. “I hate yachting. I’m just glad you’re here.”

I turned the microphone back on.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” I proclaimed. “Please welcome Martin Schiff to our family.”



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