Instinct: Ernst, Estelle, Buffy, the Birds, and the Rat

Max Liebermann, “Allee in Overveen,” 1895.


Upon waking in the post-op intensive care unit, Ernst could make out a bulky shape in the chair beside him. Before the heart attack of yesterday – or was it the day before? – he had been diagnosed with late-onset diabetes, worsening his already lousy vision. Sixty-seven is not young, after all, though it is a ridiculous age at which to undergo a divorce; he simply refused.

After the attack, which he vaguely remembered as occurring behind his desk on Third Avenue, someone ran in – did Ernst call out? – and telephoned 911. Was it Ira? His secretary, Judy? Ernst couldn’t be sure.

“Ira?” he said to the chair and its occupant, who remained shadowy, though the room, like all hospital rooms, reeked of light like mid-day in Shanghai.

“No. It’s not Ira,” said the voice, an irritated female voice.


“Who else would it be?” said his wife, the woman whom he had married 27 years earlier, who had spent the last decade of that marriage asking him to leave. Only three months ago, he finally succumbed to her wish, moving from their glorious Great Neck home into an ugly one-bedroom apartment in Murray Hill, five blocks from his office.

“Why are you here?” he asked, his gruff German accent turning Ws into Vs, a question with the air of a barked command rather than an inquiry.

“Ernst, you almost died. Ira called me immediately, so of course I came.”

“You kicked me out! We bought that house together in 1965, and you wanted me gone. So why are you here?” He was both infuriated and touched by her presence. An enigma, that woman, he would never puzzle out.

“I thought I should see for myself that you really do have a heart!”

Together, they burst out laughing.

The sudden exertion caused one or more of his medical gauges to beep in crazed cacophony, followed by a nurse sprinting into his room.

“Mr. Wolff! Mr. Wolff!” With the press of a button, she stopped the noise-making machines, observed her patient convulsing – not with pain, but in paroxysms of laughter that were taking his breath away.

“Calm down, Mr. Wolff. You must rest. Peacefully.” The nurse turned to Estelle. “Mrs. Wolff, you need to keep him quiet. The sutures are still fresh, and though I doubt they could rupture from a little laughing, we need to be extra careful.”

Nodding, Estelle eyed Ernst, covering her smile with nail-bitten fingers.   Shaking her head, the nurse left, the serenade of mechanical noise returning to its dull, soothing rhythm, which reminded Ernst of summer crickets behind the home whose loss he mourned daily.

“When Ira called and said you’d had a heart attack, I didn’t believe him. I needed proof.”

Still gasping for air, Ernst began formulating his joke-in-response, to match hers, which was making him want to laugh even more.

“It’s like the first time you had a headache,” he wheezed. “Then I knew you must have a brain!”

Estelle threw back her head and laughed, her face contorted with the pleasure of laughing, fear slaked that her husband, the man she could no longer live with, would die. If he could manage this joke, which he had used in other variations previously, clearly he was not dying. Neither was her joke original to this moment, as she remembered other occasions arguing with Ernst, proclaiming he lacked a heart, his brain enlarging in compensation; therefore he was incapable of feeling.

“That’s how I survived!” he told her more than once. “That’s why I’m not dead like my sentimental cousins. I used my head and not my heart, and they the reverse! What happened to them?” he asked rhetorically. “Auschwitz! That’s what happens to sentimental Wolffs. Not to me.”

“Wolves are not sentimental, Ernst,” was her standard response. “Look, you’re not in Germany anymore!” Always, she felt angry at the way her husband used his admittedly compelling history to justify his emotional bankruptcy, which she believed was destroying their marriage. Guilt consumed her: Ernst hadn’t chosen, after all, to be born in the heart of European anti-Semitism, to flee for his life first the Nazis, then the Red Chinese.

A young male doctor came through the doorway, leafing through the pages of a bulky clipboard.

“Mr. Wolff! How are you feeling today? I’m here to look at the sutures. The nurse said you had a bit of a convulsion; she wanted me to make sure you were okay.”

The surgeons had taken a vein from Ernst’s thigh and inserted it in his heart, replacing the defective one that had ruptured, causing the coronary. In a previous moment of lucidity, this procedure had been explained to him.

“Did you approve the surgery, Estelle?” he asked suddenly.

“Yes, we did call your wife and tell her what we thought would be the best way to proceed,” said the doctor, whose name was Silver. “Although it’s still a fairly experimental protocol at this time, we’ve had good success here at Belleview, and advised Mrs. Wolff to give her consent, which she did.”

Appearing younger than their eldest daughter, who was 26, Doctor Silver smiled at Estelle, whose non-descript housewife clothing and graying, Brillo-like hair did not identify her as a matron of one of Long Island’s most exclusive suburbs. To the doctor, she seemed a Flatbush type, or maybe Queens, someone who only by accident was married to this much older German-Jewish refugee, who was, according to the admitting nurse, one of the country’s top patent attorneys.

“I believe I did the right thing, Doctor,” said Estelle, her voice wavering. “Didn’t I?”

“Oh absolutely, Mrs. Wolff. Your husband owes you his life.”

Nodding, she looked at Ernst as if to say, “See!”

“Actually, we are separated.” Ernst turned away from the doctor and Estelle to study the ceiling.

“Oh!” Now Doctor Silver looked alarmed. “The paperwork indicated your wife was to be contacted in an emergency, and your partner, Ira Shmelkin, said you were married. By law, that was the appropriate step for the hospital to take.”

After the doctor left, Estelle rose. “I guess I’ll catch the next train home, Ernst. You are apparently back to your lovely, congenial self.”

Ernst frowned at her departing figure and groped for the small box of tissues beside him, which he then aimed at a cockroach making its way up the wall along the doorjamb. Estelle was gone by the time he hit his mark.


During the next ten years, Ernst managed to reconfigure his diet, lose thirty pounds, and believed he was now, in fact, healthier and stronger than he had been in his sedentary, suburban life. Estelle wouldn’t budge on their separate living arrangements, but he had at least prevailed in delaying the divorce. Every November, she invited him to Great Neck to celebrate Thanksgiving with the children and grandchildren, and if he wanted a change of pace from Manhattan’s constant noise, he would telephone Estelle and ask if he could spend the weekend. She never said no. As before, she prepared all his meals and cleaned up after him, letting him sleep in the big bedroom while she took a smaller room vacated by his youngest child.

This time, however, it was Estelle calling Ernst on a Friday afternoon.

“Ernst! Ernst! You have to come right away! Can you catch the next train?”

It was a lovely spring day, and Ernst imagined the huge maple in the backyard burgeoning green with new tendrils.

“Calm down, Estelle. What’s the matter?”

She was sobbing, hysterically, that little cat-sound in the back of her throat that found its life only in times of extreme distress purring full-force.

“Estelle! Get a hold of yourself! What’s the matter? Maybe you should call 911!”

Sniffing, she caught her breath. “No. It’s nothing like that. There’s a rat, Ernst. Remember, I told you?”

“Yes, and I told you to get the exterminator and send me the bill.”

“I did! They’ve come four times, but the rat’s still here. They used poison and traps several times over! But I could still hear it. Then somehow Buffy got its scent and chased it all over the house, cornering it in the bathroom, and I don’t know how, but it dove into the toilet, and now it’s thrashing around in the water!”

Ernst laughed. “So that crazy mutt was finally good for something! She solved your problem! What do you need me for?”

Buffy was Estelle’s latest pound dog, another multiple-breed bitch his wife had rescued from a Long Island shelter. The dog was a peculiar husky mix who dug for bones in the dining room floor, mutilating the thick carpet, and pushed imaginary dirt with her nose into the corner of the room to cover her treasures. Ernst thought the dog was wild and disliked being in the same room with her. She was nothing like their old dog, Pepper, whom they had selected together, a German Shepherd-like elegant, well-behaved animal. But Buffy was Estelle’s dog, and he thought it good for her to have company in that big house she now inhabited all alone.

“Ernst! How can you say that? Didn’t you hear me? There’s a rat in the toilet!” Hysteria threatened its return in the shrillness of her voice. “A rat trying to swim in my toilet! In your toilet! The bathroom to the master bedroom!”

He laughed. “Estelle! There’s nothing to worry about. It will die, and then you just throw it in the garbage can outside.”

“Ughh!” She began to cry. “I can’t touch it. Ernst, I can’t. You’ve got to come out and take care of it.”

So he did. But he took his time. After work, he commuted with everyone else in the Penn Station insanity of rush hour back to Great Neck, and walked with all the walkers – whose wives did not pick them up in station wagons from the station – to his former home, which was still, in fact, his home, in his name, and he liked the fact that he had a pied `a terre in Manhattan like one of his partners, Hal Whittemore, whose home in Connecticut was too distant to return to if he worked late or had an early morning meeting.

Whistling, he passed the bakery and adjacent dry cleaner, whose owners were two concentration camp survivors, both with numbers on their forearms visible from the sidewalk, where passersby could see them at the sewing machine or hanging up clothes, the store hot and stuffy from chemicals so they always wore short sleeves. The man would sing and smile, while his wife remained pinched and sour. It might have been him, Ernst Wolff, in the bunk above the dry cleaning man (whose name Ernst could never remember), starving to death; instead, luck sent Ernst to China in 1939. And now, decades later, he owned a house in this prosperous suburb; he didn’t have to work with his hands to serve its wealthy residents, which included a large percentage of refugee German and Iranian Jews who had migrated here over the decades, drawn by excellent schools and libraries, for which they gladly paid substantial taxes. Back when they were house-shopping, he and Estelle agreed good schools were top priority for their three young children.

When Ernst saw the dry cleaner’s tattoo, he stopped whistling, though the man smiled up from his perch behind the ancient Singer machine, which he pumped steadily, like a piano pedal, with his foot.

After a brisk fifteen-minute walk, Ernst arrived at the house; the dogwood in front was blossoming pink.

Even before he arrived on the porch, Estelle opened the door and threw herself at him as he ascended the stairs. “Oh thank you, thank you for coming!”

“Don’t be silly, Estelle. It’s just a rat. A drowned rat, for that matter. It has stopped swimming by now, hasn’t it?”

He pecked her cheek and entered. He would always think of this place as their home, the home they’d moved into after the firm became a success, when they could afford to leave Queens. Estelle had lovely taste – not too fancy, as she was after all a working-class girl from Brooklyn – and decorated the house with an artful eye: reprints of her favorite Rembrandts, Van Goghs, and Renoirs along with original art they’d bought on their travels to Japan, Spain, Italy, and elsewhere. In the kitchen, he smelled his favorite Taster’s Choice.

“I made you some coffee,” she said, wringing her hands. “I knew you’d be tired, but could you please take the rat out first?”

Because she was so earnest in her upset, he couldn’t stay mad. She was just an ordinary woman, his Estelle, which was why he’d been drawn to her in the first place. Unlike his, her history was American, without the trauma that marked everyone with a background similar to his.

“Okay. I’ll get rid of it. Then can I have my coffee in peace?”

When she smiled, she was still attractive, he thought, though she had gained so much weight over the years, unlike diabetic, diet-conscious Ernst.

“I’ll make you an early dinner, if you like.” She set to work in the kitchen as he headed up the stairs to the master bathroom, calling after him, “How about scrambled eggs?”


In another ten years, Buffy was dead, the bones of the rat had decomposed in Fresh Kills landfill, and both Ernst and Estelle suffered, in their disparate locations, from debilitating arthritis. Still, they persevered in their never-made-official state of separation. The Great Neck house was sold, replaced by a modest clapboard in the Catskills, where Estelle had moved to be closer to their oldest daughter and her children.

Early on a May morning, Ernst boarded a commuter plane from La Guardia to attend his oldest grandchild’s high school graduation later that day, after which Estelle would host a celebration at her place, which he now described as “my house in the country.”

These days, he walked with a cane, as the arthritis in his left knee made him limp otherwise. The pain was stupendous, but Ernst refused to take painkillers; he wanted to feel what remained to be felt, unmedicated. Other than the arthritis, his health was good, especially for an 87-year-old man with a heart condition who daily self-administered insulin. At 80, he officially retired from the office, though Ira still called him for legal advice, and Ernst Wolff remained on the letterhead as founder and ex-officio “of Counsel” to the firm, which had doubled its number of partners and associates and relocated, yet again, to sleeker offices uptown.

“Hi Grandpa. How was the trip?” His granddaughter, Jordanna, a shy but smart teenager who had already been accepted to an excellent university, arrived in her compact Japanese car to pick him up outside the one-room airport.

“Very good. Where is your grandmother?” His accent remained as strong as ever, and the girl shook her head, smiling at him. They were both about five feet two — as tall as they would ever be.

“Grandpa! How come you never ask how I am or anything like a normal person? ‘Vere is your grandmutter?’ You always ask the same question in exactly the same way!” She revved up the engine and drove off, not expecting an answer, as this was part of their routine.

“I’m not a normal person!” He ruffled her curly hair with his gnarled fingers, which now pained him nearly as much as his knee. “So, are you ready for your speech?”

Jordanna was to give the valedictorian address at the ceremony at noon; Ernst was immensely proud of her, though he hadn’t told her so. Instead, he would pay her college tuition, which implied as much.

“As ready as I’ll ever be, I guess.” She looked from the road to her grandfather’s lined face and back at the two-lane country highway. “You’re so funny, Grandpa. This morning Mom said you were paying for the party. Why didn’t you tell me?”
He shrugged. “So what? Don’t think about it. Just enjoy yourself.”

“Well, thank you.”

“You’re welcome. I expect you will do your best.”

She winced. “Grandpa, whenever you say that, I always get scared I’m going to disappoint you.”

“Like your mother?”

“Yeah. Like Mom.”

Ernst and Estelle’s oldest child, Selma, was bright and quick, but she had dropped out of college in her first year to marry and start a family – not a future her parents wanted for her, or for any of their children. Ernst hoped all three would become professionals – white-collar successes, whom he would help along with his money toward the best education in their chosen fields. But, as he knew from his own experience, nothing turned out the way one planned: Selma’s first child died of an extremely rare genetic Jewish disease, undiagnosed until the boy was on his last breath, brain-dead in a pediatrics-intensive-care-unit. His son had pronounced himself homosexual and now made a living as a gray-haired delivery boy on a bicycle in San Francisco. The youngest girl was a spinster pre-school teacher in Anchorage, whom he rarely saw. But maybe this generation, this grandchild, would follow in his footsteps.


In the backyard, after the ceremony and the party and the cleaning up, Ernst and Estelle sat on garden chairs listening to the crickets in the gathering darkness. It was quiet here, even quieter than Great Neck. Wilder, too – sometimes deer left their droppings in the forest park on the corner, though the animals were rarely sighted. Once, Ernst thought he heard a coyote, but Estelle swore he was making it up. No matter. He liked being in the mountains, just as he liked the co-op apartment on Fifth Avenue, which was decorated in his own, whimsical way, a comfortable place to return to after his many foreign travels. Every season, he went somewhere. Always, he was alone, but this summer, he would take Jordanna on her first overseas trip: to Paris, which he had visited so many times that he had favorite restaurants where they would eat, and he looked forward to introducing her to all the great museums.

An unfamiliar pollen in the soft air made him sneeze.

“Sneeze out, Ernst!” Estelle told him, for probably the hundred thousandth time in their lives together. Back in Berlin, he had been taught to pinch his nostrils when a sneeze came on, and always did so. In the United States, on whose shores he arrived in 1949, after the Chinese Communists took over his beloved, adopted homeland, he learned this practice was an unhealthy habit. It did, in fact, often make his head feel as if it might explode from the pressure, but in Europe, one kept bodily functions to oneself. In America, one let everything out! Nearly fifty years an American, Ernst was still unable to let his sneeze escape.

“Ernst, sneeze out!” Estelle repeated, as he was lost in a fit of pollen-induced implosions.

Something fell onto the patio beside them.

“What was that?” he asked.

“Those birds. Every May, they build their nests in the vent up there. Can you see it?” Estelle pointed toward the second floor. “Anyway,” she went on, “it’s slanted toward the ground. I don’t understand it. Every year they nest in the same stupid place, and every year at least a few of the babies fall out and die. Maybe only one or two survive.”

“Dummkopfs,” Ernst grunted.

Estelle shook her head. “Always full of compassion, you are.”

Straightening up, setting aside his New York Times, Ernst said. “I have compassion! You know that! I give away lots of money! But these birds – this is just stupid! No one is forcing them to make their nests the same dumb way every year.”

Slowly, Estelle arose, groaning with pain from the various places her joints were afflicted. “I’m going to bed. I’m exhausted.” She made her way to the area directly below the vent. “Those poor babies. There’s three of them here: two dead, one dying.”

“So why can’t they put their nest in a more sensible place?” Ernst said, his head again buried in the pages of stock listings.

“Maybe they have no choice,” Estelle said, and sighed deeply. “Ernst, do you want something to eat before I go up?”

“Nothing, thank you. Good night.”

Groping for the railing, Estelle pulled herself up the steep back steps, which led from the patio to the sliding doors of the kitchen. “Good night, Ernst. I was so proud of Jordanna today. Weren’t you?”

Something made him sneeze, so he didn’t hear his wife.

“Sneeze out, Ernst!”

“Good night, Estelle.”


A week after his trip to Paris with Jordanna, Ernst suffered a massive coronary at home in Manhattan, and died. The concierge discovered his body. After the reading of the will, Estelle Wolff learned she was a millionaire, a fact she had difficulty believing for many years. She liked to repeat one of Ernst’s aphorisms: “The dumbest farmers grow the biggest potatoes.” She said it was an old German saying about the Poles. “That’s me,” she told her children, who were not at all surprised that their mother had been left a wealthy widow. “I’m the dumbest farmer.” Whenever she said this, she would laugh for a long, long time.




Annie Dawid’s third book, AND DARKNESS WAS UNDER HIS FEET: STORIES OF A FAMILY, won the Litchfield Review Award for Short Fiction. A fictionalized version of her father’s family in Germany, China, Rumania, France, Israel and the United States, it was praised by Lore Segal and Cynthia Ozick, who wrote, "THE story of our time; and to tell it, and then retell it, and then to tell it yet again, is our obligation."
tags: Culture, Poetry & Fiction   
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