An old man battles the persistence of a haunting memory.
As published on http://www.thewritehelper.com
The old man pressed his fingertips to the label. He eased away air bubbles and wrote a number in black ink.
“There’s so many types of stamps, Jeffrey. There’s commemorative, definitive, and special ones. We very much want to collect some special ones.” The old man silently cursed the v in the pronunciation of his w’s. It was the toughest part of speaking English.
“What’s kahmemative?” His grandson, Jeffrey, flipped through channels on the television. The boy’s eyes were blue crystals. His hair fitted him like a yellow helmet.
“Commemorative are the ones printed larger,” the old man said. “They show pictures of historical people and events. I don’t make collection of those. I have many animal stamps in these glassine envelopes, well, not like real glass.”
Jeffrey was lost in cartoons. He giggled as a coyote ran off a cliff and suspended in the air. “Did you see that, Opa?”
Our children, they are naïve. They will buy into anything we—the old man shut his eyes and tried to quiet the voices in his head. He pictured his wife in her vanilla wedding dress, cheeks flushed because he had snuck into the dressing room and seen her before the ceremony. It was an image he returned to many times before.
Once refocused, he applied another label to his collection. Five hundred and forty-three stamps, seemingly anonymous, were now named and numbered.
On the television, a newscaster with dark, slick hair announced the station’s interview with director Steven Spielberg.
“He has a big nose, Opa. He looks like a clown.” A boyish giggle.
“Speak through flowers, Jeffrey.” The old man grunted and returned to his stamps. Through a magnifying glass, he admired the tiny details of his favorite square. A baby panda looked up at him, gnawing on a green leaf that faded toward the perforated edges.
“Dad, I’m back!” a baritone voice sounded throughout the small home. “It’s terrible out there.” Alex entered the kitchen and the soles of his shoes squeaked on the tile. He greeted his father with a handshake. “Thanks for taking care of Jeffrey. I’m sorry the meeting took forever. I’ve gotta drop this kid off at home and get back to work.”
Jeffrey jumped on his father’s lap, hugged him, and turned back to the television. A mouse in a sombrero sped across the screen. A coyote trailed behind, pistol in hand. Jeffrey clapped.
“You haven’t gotten a new TV?” Alex asked the old man. “Jeffrey’s got a color set he watches back at home. It’s ‘86, Dad, time to embrace technology.” Alex pulled pieces of snow from his cufflinks and tossed them to the floor. “Actually, I think I know someone who can get you a color set for wholesale.” He put Jeffrey down and stood up. “Thanks again for taking care of him. I’ll see you soon?”
The old man nodded. He stared at his stamps and listened to their footsteps patter across the tile. When the front door clicked shut, the old man went to the window to make sure Alex’s car wouldn’t slip on the ice and knock over his mailbox again. “See you next year,” he whispered.
In the quiet house, the old man decided he would cook himself a Bratwurst dinner, possibly with strudel for dessert. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d made a traditional German meal, usually settling on microwave dinners and frozen vegetables. As he looked through the refrigerator, he thought of what Jeffrey had said about Steven Spielberg, and then flushed it from his mind.
The old man put two sausages in a pan and started the stove. As he tended to the sizzling meat, he recalled how Jeffrey laughed when the cartoon mouse aimed a pistol at the coyote. The old man reached for a knife to open the links and see how well they were cooking.
Burn them until their insides are black.
The knife slid into the old man’s finger. Red drops trickled onto the white tile. He pressed a washcloth against the cut, but still it throbbed.
The old man turned off the stove, walked through the bedroom, and into the bathroom. In the jumbled medicine cabinet, he found a brown, unlabeled bottle and swallowed four pills with a glass of water. He reapplied force to his finger and looked into the mirror.
That’s a strong Roman nose you got there, boy. Powerful features, perfect measurements all the way around. A soldier’s skull.
The old man rarely spent more than a moment’s time with his reflection. He had no one left to impress. But now as he stared into the mirror, he saw that the scar across his cheek had healed considerably, the indentations shallow under wrinkled skin. He ran his fingers over the wound and felt the cold of a Berlin winter.
Mama! Papa! Mama! Pa—The old man stumbled and bumped his knee on the bed as he exited the room.
He sat again at the kitchen table. His finger was numb. His head was dizzy from the pills. As he struggled to stay upright, the old man huddled over his stamp collection to find its colors more vibrant. An eagle soared against the backdrop of an American flag, and a turtle crawled out of its stamp to bite a rabbit in the next one. His favorite panda still looked up innocently as if begging.
Look away from their eyes. The rest of it can be forgotten. Not the eyes.
The old man kicked violently against the legs of the table. More pills would bring him peace, but he dared not go there again. Through a blur he saw Jeffrey standing upright, neatly dressed in the black uniform, his arm raised to the sky. In the middle of Jeffrey’s uniform was the hooked cross, an emblem more powerful than any stars or stripes. The old man reached out and tried to grab his grandson’s arm. But the more he reached, the further Jeffrey stepped back into darkness. The old man knocked over a glass of water that poured over his stamp collection.
Now is the time for total eradication.
He kicked wildly.
Throw the rest in the pile and do as you’re told.
He flung himself up from the table and stumbled to the bedroom. In the closet, he found the hammer just as he’d had left it. Mustering strength, he mounted the stack of encyclopedias Alex had given him for Christmas. He used both arms and hoisted the hammer to the top shelf. The nails up there had rusted, making it easier to pry them from the wooden panel. As he pulled, a layer of white webbing coated the hammer. A group of spiders crawled back into the wall, back toward the silver lockbox. The old man swung the hammer and splinters flew like sparks.
Just stand guard. It’s all you have to do. They’re only boys.
He swung harder and eventually the wooden panel fell. The old man felt electricity in his bones as he reached inside and touched the container. He held it cautiously as if it were some magical box, all the miseries of mankind waiting to be released. A voice echoed inside the metal.
Mama! Mama! Ma—
The old man closed his eyes and tried to picture his wife, but all he could see was the young Italian boy who had escaped from the barracks. He saw the boy rounding the corner with a fire in his eyes so furious that not even half a century’s time could extinguish it. Using a fork stolen from the feeding quarters, the boy carved deep into the old man’s cheek. He remembered that horrible pain, the immeasurable anger. The old man watched himself rise from the red snow and walk over to the naked boy whose skinny fists pounded into a wooden door. The boy’s cries grew louder and caused commotion inside the women’s barracks. Mama! Mama! Dozens of women huddled near the voice, scurrying and scratching like penned animals, but it was nothing a Luger couldn’t silence. The old man watched himself jolt with recoil. The boy’s body was so thin that the bullet cracked as it dug through bone. The small frame twitched in the snow. Mama! Ma—A second shot, and the body had lain still.
When the old man woke up, he was lying in the closet on a toppled heap of encyclopedias. Chunks of web-glazed wall panels were sprinkled across his shirt. He wiped them off and stood up, then walked to the bedroom window. The world outside was white with the falling of winter. His mailbox was a foot deep in snow.
The old man returned to the closet and picked up the silver lockbox. As he held it, he watched a spider dangle from the top shelf, its legs spinning silk for a new home.
“Forget what I did,” the old man told the spider, “but don’t ever forgive me.” He took a moment to admire the airborne ballet, then he re-stacked the encyclopedias and mounted them.
Two empty shell casings rattled inside the lockbox as the old man easied it into the wall.