Thursday, July 19, 2018

Redemption Road



In the Year of Our Lord, Nineteen-Hundred and Eighty-Six, a grave wrong was visited upon a young man, fifteen years of age. Tall, slender, and pale, the young man had a hawkish nose and bright eyes. He didn’t smile easily or often, but it was worth the wait when he did, because each one was earned. The world was not always a kind place to the young man, since he was above average in intelligence and preferred comic books to sports. Though he was a talented baseball player, his crippling shyness made team tryouts a nonstarter, and most would still have called him nerd—otherwise known by its scientific nomenclature Dorkimus Maximus. And the world is no friend to nerds, as you shall see. 

As a result, Dorkimus Maximi (plural) typically travel in packs known as Nerd Herds, which can often be found in long lines ahead of certain movie premiers, at conventions of similar variety, and of course comic book stores. Owing to their rejection by and persecution from the general populace, especially the athletically inclined or otherwise genetically favored of either gender, Nerd Herds are often skittish, insular, and rigidly territorial. They will usually situate themselves on the periphery of gatherings, with clear sightlines both to exits and clusters of pretty girls. The former for obvious reasons, and the latter in the hopes that a female that would otherwise be uninterested might be charmed by some overheard bit of clever repartee or hypnotized by the intensity of the Nerds’ desire.

These tactics virtually never work, of course, and on the rare occasion that they do, the presence of the female will often be a disruption to the cohesiveness of the Herd. The males tend to compete over her attention, which is ultimately the demise of the Herd, even if neither of them wins. And it’s worse if one of them does win. Nonetheless, the prolonged absence of the female can be just as harmful to the health of the Herd—testosterone and involuntary celibacy being what they are—if the group decides that one of its members is responsible for repelling females or otherwise damaging the group’s standing among existing social hierarchies, low as it may be. 

At these times, the Herd behaves much like other groups in higher social strata, turning on their own and designating a scapegoat upon which to heap the blame, a lightning rod to absorb all of the self-loathing that society has taught Dorkimus Maximus to feel for himself and his kind. Within the Nerd Herd, this designee is usually the nerd’s nerd, and much like the ‘winner’ in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” they find themselves the victim of the group’s efforts at expiation in order to please some social deity who might look kindly on the propitiation of their sacrifice. Such was the cruel and unjust fate of the young man.

For although he was a bit awkward and ungainly, he was also without artifice or guile. He liked Star Wars, comic books, and Steven Spielberg movies. If he liked or disliked something or someone, he said so, and that was it. He took things and people at face value and would be friendly to anyone that was friendly to him. He was completely himself and was unburdened by ambitions to fit in anywhere other than where he naturally fit. Though there were many that seemed to be above his station in life, there were none that he deemed below him, and though his circle was small, he was a stalwart and true friend. His name was Tim Smith, and for no reason at all, I betrayed him.

I’ve been hearing a lot lately what a great memory I have. I never thought it was especially good myself until I started writing these ad hoc memoirs, spelunking deep in the recesses of dusty archives and discovering some true delights, and not just a few moments that made me cringe with regret. On average, a person remembers a total of about nine days per year. That’s 2.4% of your life, in case you’re wondering. I’m guessing that means I remember maybe thirteen days a year, or 3.6%, which is why people say I have a ‘good’ memory. I wish I could pick and choose what went into that measly 3.6%, because there’s a lot that I’d prefer to put in the trash bin for collection. Things I’ve done that are inexcusably, unequivocally wrong. Not talking about boosting GI Joe figures from Target here, or pilfering quarters from Mom’s purse to buy Slurpees and play Mario Bros. and Yie Ar Kung Fu down at the 7-11. No, I mean the truly dishonorable things that I’ll take to the grave with me.

I’ve discovered that memories are most easily retrieved from the foggy ruins of time when they’re attached to some sort of association, like a song or even a smell. Better still is when they are tagged with a particular emotion. It’s easy to remember when someone embarrassed me or made me angry. Exhilaration and fear are big ones, too. I have vivid snapshots of sitting at the top of a steep hill on my bike at six, mere moments before being hit by a car; of making serious attempts to gain superpowers by way of high voltage. Sharp memories of the first girl that I liked who liked me back, and the fluttering jolt of electrochemical love. A note taped to a cold door that didn’t open when I knocked, explaining why a different girl would not be spending Christmas with me. Of realizing that I wasn’t going to be able to stop in time and feeling the world slide into dreamy slow-motion, as I shouted an expletive before slamming the family Datsun 710 into the rear bumper of a Chrysler New Yorker at sixteen. Moments of absolute panic, when guns came out in anger, or when a ladder gave way and I went two stories down with it. And thousands more, all tagged with some emotion and filed away as important for some reason.

The memory of how we treated Tim is especially vivid because of the emotion it’s tagged with: shame. More than regret, shame attends the things that I’ve done wrong in life when I knew better ahead of time, and couldn’t blame it on being young or foolish. When there wasn’t a lesson to be learned or good that arose from the wrong that was done. That’s when having a good memory can be a double-edged sword. Because I perfectly remember standing up on the bridge between the Admin and History buildings at Long Beach Poly, looking down on the quad and seeing Tim standing at the flagpole, waiting for us at our usual meeting place. He was checking his watch, looking around in confusion because he didn’t know that we wouldn’t be coming that day, or ever again. 

I first met Tim when I was a scared little pencil-necked honky at a rough inner-city school in Long Beach, CA. I was fresh from Naples, Italy and a very civilized DOD school run by the military, only to be dropped into the Darwinian Thunderdome of Washington Jr. High. By the time our paths crossed, my status as star-student and teacher’s pet had gotten me noticed by some pretty scary people, and I’d become a regular target for hazing and abuse. It was as I was taking the long way around campus, through service breezeways and behind buildings—instead of across the quad where I might run into Mike Connelly—that I walked past a group of four Dorkimus Maximi out by the athletic field who were talking about what turned out to be a mutual friend of ours, Matt Murdoch. All I had to do was hear that name come out of their mouths and I was arrested dead in my tracks. If these guys knew that guy, then they were all right with me. Out of simple relief and a sense of recognition of an island of my own kind amidst this sea of chaos, I butted right in on their conversation. Anyone who considered Matt Murdoch a friend was bound to be good people. My kind of people. Because Matt Murdoch is also known as Daredevil, the blind superhero and Patron Saint of lonely nerds everywhere. As Patron Saints go, you could do worse, believe me.




So I jumped right in with those four, and was welcomed with open arms. Tim Smith, Phillip Holliday, Mike Price, Stephen Abatay, and I formed a nerdly cadre that somehow navigated all the treacherous waters around us. Staying the night at each other’s houses for Star Wars trilogy marathons, trips to Richard Kyle books on Friday for new comics and Wester Bacon Cheese Burgers at Carl’s Jr, and using washers to trick dilapidated old pinball games into letting us play for free. We fought and backstabbed, we saw each other through California earthquakes, school violence, first forays into the world of girls, and the beginning of the end of our collective innocence. But eventually, the day came when none of that mattered. Because in the Year of Our Lord, Nineteen-Hundred and Eighty-Six, ‘ghosting’ may not yet have been a term, but it was absolutely a thing.

If you said it to a kid today, they’d know right away that you meant disappearing out of someone’s life without explanation by pressing the right series of buttons on a screen to delete, block, ban, or otherwise unfriend a person. The result being that the victim can’t see you on social media, their emails get delivered straight to the trash, their text messages dissolve into the ether, phone calls go straight to voicemail, and any message they leave is heard only by machines who instantly forget what was said. All without notice or fanfare, all unbeknownst to them. At the touch of a button, they simply fade away like a ghost. Kids these days and their rock n roll music. In my day, we didn’t have machines to do our dirty work. You had to be a coward the old-fashioned way. Right to someone’s face…except, you know, behind their back.

For all my vaunted memory, I wish I could recall the specific event that lead to our decision to “ghost” Tim. I’m certain that it centered around a girl, as every teenaged boy’s problems do. I can see a parade of faces from the myriad girls that I wished would have liked me the way that I liked them: Ylani, Julie, Norma, Juvy, Luz, Gloria, Anna, Rosie. The list is endless, because it’s made up of pretty much any girl that I’d ever exchanged more than ten words with outside of class. At some point, one of them approached me out on the quad for some reason—maybe socially, or more likely some help with school work—and got a gander of me in my native habitat, amongst my Nerd Herd. I could practically see the gears turning in her head as she reassessed her impression of me and beat feet for the hills. Unlike Tim, I wasn’t content to just be myself, to accept my station in life. So instead of disregarding someone like that for their shallow judgment of us (or me, specifically), I took it as a perilous loss of status that I couldn’t afford if I was ever going to escape exile in Dorkdom. That had to be somebody’s fault…

There is no measure for how absolutely desperate I was not to be labelled a nerd, dork, geek, spaz, egghead, poindexter, neo-maxie-zoom-dweebie loser. Not again. Not after the nightmare of Washington Jr. High and Gladiator Academy. No matter what, I couldn’t let that cling to me at another school. So over the next couple of weeks, as the dust began to settle on the initial chaos and uncertainty of our Sophomore year, and our reputation as the Dorks Who Met At The Flagpole was firming up into a fact, the wheels were turning as to who was to blame for that assignation and how we might shed the taint of their presence. Looking around, the group began to triangulate on Tim as the nerd’s nerd, a lightning rod to absorb all of the self-loathing that we’d been taught to feel for ourselves. Our scapegoat.  

And like the scapegoat of old, we cast him into the wilderness alone to bear our shame, starting first thing one random Monday morning. No preamble, no explanation, we just stopped showing up. So, at fifteen, Tim went from having a group of faithful friends on one day, to having literally no friends at all the next. Poof! Ghosted. All because we were callow and stupid enough to believe that with him gone, our status would surely rise of its own accord. But of course it didn’t. Over a few short weeks it became clear that Tim’s absence hadn’t changed a blessed thing. How could it? After all, I still had the same off-brand fashion sense, goofy Donny Osmond haircut, dumbass sense of humor, and anorexic Gumby-like physique that I’d always had. Still, it was easier to imagine that Tim was somehow uncool, than to admit that I was. That, as a scrawny, sycophantic little know-it-all dork, I could repel girls just fine on my own, solely by virtue of my personality and appearance. That all things being equal, we were exactly where Darwinian forces would have us be in the social hierarchy. But rather than come to our senses and admit it, we stayed the course.

Of the four remaining members of our original Herd, only Mike Price had the humility and character to see that what we were doing was pointless and cruel. After a few days, he went and mended fences with Tim and made things right between them. That should have been enough to break the spell of self-delusion we were under, but rather than admit what shitty assholes we were, we doubled down on our assholery, finding ways to taunt Tim and flaunt our shunning of him. It was as if, by piling up enmity and derision on him, we could cover over our bizarre and inexcusable behavior. Looking back, I’m glad Tim had Mike to stand with him, because Mike was a big guy, strong as an ox, and he had a punch like a pile-driver. Not only did he teach our little pack of hyena-like cowards to keep a respectable distance, but he went on the offensive to get back at us in a variety cunning ways. Until that moment, Mike had kind of been the troublemaker of our group, the ruffian shoplifter and foul-mouthed oaf. But when the chips were down, and I was the villain instead, he was a loyal guy who stood up and did the right thing.

That year passed into the next as they are wont to do, and by then we were moving in different circles and mysteriously never had one class with Tim, or saw him in the halls, at the mall, or the movie theater. It was as if we were living in parallel dimensions, existing at the same time and place, but somehow removed and unaware of the other’s existence. We didn’t necessarily escape the dreaded label of nerd, or dork—or whatever it was we were so terrified of—but we did learn to live with it and accept ourselves and who were with a little bit of grace. Over the course of our High School career, we began to look back on what we’d done like it was from a fever dream, or something done by other people. Disassociated, as though it were too shameful to have been done by what were otherwise terrific guys like us.

Even after I’d graduated, I kept the story in my back pocket, carrying it with me everywhere I went. Every now and then, when I’d get into a deep conversation or truth-or-dare type of game—like you do when you’re of a certain age or have been drinking—and people would ask what the worst, most embarrassing thing I’d ever done was, the Ballad of Tim Smith always came to mind and then inevitably came tumbling haplessly out of my mouth. No matter what anyone else had to say, my story always topped theirs. I’d get these looks of shock or mild horror, as though they were reassessing me as someone capable of things that even an animal wouldn’t do. Well…not the cute ones anyway, like badgers and wolverines. To this day, my wife and closest friend all know the name Tim Smith. Such is level of remorse that I’ve felt ever since, that it’s become a permanent part of my biography.

Over the years, I added a couple of other whoppers to the resume of regret that I left in my wake. Things that, in spite of the years of drug addiction, small-time dealing, and money laundering etc., still stand out as the worst things I’ve ever done, and which make up a special trifecta of regret that I’ll take to my grave. Since I turned 40 (cliché as that is), I’ve been on a low-key mission to rebuild friendships and make amends—or at least apologies—for long-term sins, wrongs, and general douchebaggery that I engaged in over the course of my life. It’s taken a lot longer than I thought it would, because people are busy and our lives are complicated, and you can’t just show up on somebody’s doorstep out of nowhere and, apropos of nothing, blurt out how sorry you are for being a jerk.

What I couldn’t have guessed at the outset of my “mission,” was how pivotal these stories would turn out to be in helping me to connect with people.  Not only resurrecting old friendships I thought were lost to the sands of time, but for creating opportunities to have conversations I would never have been able to even begin otherwise. Phillip and I got back in touch in 2012 and have dinner a couple of times a year these days. At some point during those long and boozy conversations, we inevitably return to Tim and the indelible sense of remorse that we’ve carried with us, always. I guess there are just some things in life you never get over. Still, the outcomes have otherwise been so gratifying that I started telling all the stories that I had in me. By way of all this bloviating, I’ve managed, incredibly, over the course of the last six years, to find redemption and even restoration with virtually all of my beloved old friends that I’d so grievously wronged. Everyone except Tim Smith.

That is until the morning of June 6th, 2018.

On that fine morning, an otherwise nondescript Wednesday, I checked the blog and noticed a spike of unusual activity in the analytics. I poked around and found that someone had left a new comment on a three year old story, “Whitey Sings the Blues.” The comment began this way: “Jerk, asshole, tormentor? Yes to all three.” I recognized my own words from that selfsame story being spit back at me in pain and discovered that they had been written by none other than Tim Smith himself. Through a series of unknown connections and coincidences, he’d somehow found the story—in which he is briefly mentioned by name—and left a lengthy reply. http://scratchedinthesand.blogspot.com/2015/01/whitey-sings-blues.html


In it, he confirmed all of the things I’d felt about myself for the past three decades and described in some detail the injury he’d suffered more than half our lifetime ago. It was exactly as painful an experience for him as I'd feared, and more besides. I read it over and over again, until it was like a silent bomb had gone off inside. When I finished picking my jaw up off the floor, I immediately reached out to Phillip, and so began many hours-worth of soul searching. Long discussions about what we should say and how to say it. Reminding each other of details we’d forgotten, debating the timeline and our motivations. More than a few tears were shed in fresh anguish, and yet somehow there was still this air of…possibility.

So I sat down and began writing the single-biggest apology I’ve ever owed in my life. Inflation adjusted for 1986.




“Whitey Sings the Blues” is a story about bullying, and about how even a Dorkimus Maximus like me had found people lower in the social hierarchy, and saw fit to keep the same shit I received rolling downhill to them. That being a victim of bullying doesn’t indemnify you from being a bully yourself. About how we find ways to pass on our pain, and that my regret for that is why I tell all these tales in the first place. The closing words of the story are these: “I write these rambling, oblique apologies for the way that I was; these huge love letters to friendship and days gone by; thank you notes to the Grace that has planted itself at the corners of my life as a bulwark against my own stupidity… Try not be too big of a dick, Whitey. It’s a helluva vig when it comes due.”

Well, after thirty-two years, the vig has indeed finally come due. But rather than an unpayable debt, it somehow feels like a gift. It’s hard to say where this will lead, because thirty-two years is a long time. A lot of years, a lot of miles, a lot of hard feelings. Still, difficult and candid conversations have begun between Tim, Phillip, and me at long last. Reflections on pain and rejection; meditations on the vulnerable, confusing years of high school, and how life has turned out for us in the wake of it all. Looking back on the best of times and the worst of time. And maybe a bit forward as well...so who knows?

Of this I’m certain, even an inch down Redemption Road is worth a million miles anywhere else. 







Wednesday, July 11, 2018

As Loud As I Can



There is no need to glance at the bedside clock. I still do, taking some pointless comfort in the ritual of seeing bold red digits confirm what my body already knows to be true, somehow. 12:06AM, as it has been every night for weeks now. I wonder for a semi-lucid moment if it was the train or Tom and Elsie's screaming match that brought me up from my perpetually-disturbing dreams, before I am oriented enough to realize that it was the whistle of the train. I suppose that is better than the alternative. Truth to tell, it is a small blessing to escape the recurring horror-show of my dreams, either way.

No sense trying to go back to sleep just yet, so I pad over to the window to look out on Tom and Elsie Kemper's place. Having the only two-story house in our neighborhood, I look down on their darkened home and, finding it dead quiet, gaze out across the reservoir to see the dappled lights of the train disappearing along the edge of the forest on the other side of Highway 58, the Doppler Effect waning the mournful whistle away to nothing. Of late, it seems there is no escape from the trains or the screaming.

Since Tom and Elsie moved in, the odds have been about even from night to night which it will be that awakens me at 12:06. In a quiet town like Lowell, Oregon, population 825, where they roll the sidewalks up at 8:00 and the low hum of the distant highway contrives with frogs and grasshoppers to lull us to sleep every night, discord cuts like a knife and carries for miles. So I cannot be the only person in this little town that knows Elsie did not walk into a door to get that black eye, but because we are in the choir together at Lowell Lutheran, I will actually pretend to believe she is that clumsy. Nodding gravely or offering a knowing chuckle in commiseration helps to lend credence to the script we will act out together. I was quite expertly tutored in the art of feigning both ignorance and belief in another little brick Church on another continent, lifetimes ago. I am certain I can sell the part.

Some nights when they wake me with their shouting, I try to drown it out with a hymn from Church, thinking that if I can hear them, they can surely hear me. Apparently, I have never sung loud enough to get the hint across. Not for lack of trying. My bladder calls me away, as it does three times per night. Aging is not for the faint of heart. I like to believe that the creaking I feel is in the floorboards and not the rolling of old bones. The sudden bolt of pain as I stub my toe on the dresser causes me to call out.

Verdammt!”

There are none to hear, since I have become an old curmudgeon in perpetual bachelorhood. Still, I bite back the word, surprised at my own carelessness. I do not even think in German. A lesson learned hard at the back of my father’s rough hand, also lifetimes ago. It was difficult to unlearn, but not as frustrating as mastering English contractions, the laziness of which strikes a blow to my German work-ethic each time I use one. Not even my father could force me to think in such lackadaisical terms.

In retrospect, learning English in the company of drunken Scotsmen on the rolling decks of a fishing troller in the frozen seas of the Shetlands and Hebrides may not have served me well. But when Father and I finally arrived on the shores of America, it turned out there were many lessons to be unlearned. A Highlander’s brogue was the least of our worries.

 ****



"Where were you last week, Willie? We missed you,” she asked sweetly.

“Scottsdale,” I lied, pretending not to notice the matte wall of foundation around her eye.

"Arizona?” she asked, as if there were another.

“Indeed,” I said, trying not to imply anything that might reinforce the low opinion she held of herself. “My cousin David passed away.” Which was true, except his name was Dietrich and he lived in Stuttgart, Germany. I had not dared return, even for a family funeral.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said. Her sincerity made me feel guilty about lying to her. “Were you close?”

We were in the choir room a little early, trying on the new gowns the Church purchased with the proceeds of a little bake sale. I am certain mine will not fit. They never do. The Church had no air conditioning, so the cheaply paneled anteroom was claustrophobic with late-Summer heat, and smelled of dust and entropy.

“Not for some time now,” I said, trying to squeeze my rather large shoulders into a faux-satin polyester sack two sizes too small for a man of my stature. “We had not seen one another since we were young men.”

"How old are you now? If I’m allowed to ask.” She had already slipped into her white robe, arms out and taking in the splendor of herself in the dressing mirror. “I’m kind of dumb about things like that.” She seemed tentatively pleased with what she saw, and surprised to be so.

“Not at all,” I assured her. “But first, tell me, how old would you guess?”

She turned to look me over, quite the sight with my arms protruding inches beyond the voluminous high-water sleeves and shoulders badly straining the seams. They never fit. Had I attempted to zip it I would have made a sausage of myself; a gleaming white Braunschweiger.

“Sixty-five?” She said, almost apologetically.

“Elsie. Seriously?” I said with a knowing look.

She cringed like a child being called to the board unprepared in math class. “Uh, I don’t know. Maybe, sixty-two? One?”

“Flattery will get you nowhere, Elsie,” I said with a grin, which put her back at her ease. I thought her guess was purposefully low, though no one ever came close. “I’m eighty-two.” I always enjoyed the look of understandable amazement I received in response to such an outlandish-seeming confession. The thick shock of my hair had gone from an Aryan white-blonde to an ageless silver beginning sometime after my Father’s death, making it difficult for people to guess my age.
  
“Eighty-two!” She exclaimed, “But you’re so…” She trailed off before she could put her foot all the way into her mouth.

"Well, I try to stay active," I replied. Which was true, though my volunteer efforts with Lowell Fire and regimen of calisthenics were really nothing compared to the arduous years on the New York docks and Pittsburgh foundries. Still, I am a large man accustomed to vigorous work.

“I’ll say. The only time I ever see you home is in the evening, and even then you’re always practicing your choir solos, or splitting wood.” I could see her appraising me in a new light now. We were still getting to know one another, since she and Tom had bought the house next to mine as relative Newlyweds just a few months previous. “Do you ever rest? Watch TV or something?”

"As they say, 'I'll get all the sleep I need when I’m dead.’” I responded, purposefully adding contractions for folksy effect. I was looking for a way to extricate myself from the polyester sausage tube without ripping it. Elsie came to my rescue.

“Well, all that practice does you proud,” she said, reaching up on her tiptoes to take the shoulder hems of the robe and pull it off and away. I towered over her petite frame by well over a foot. “The Choirmaster always seems to pick you for the solo. Which is what the rest of us get for watching American Idol when we ought to be practicing.”

“I hope my practice times aren’t interrupting your reality television viewing pleasure,” I said. “Because that would be a shame.”

“Oh, no. Not at all,” she said, folding my useless robe into crisp quarters, as though it were of great import to have it just so. “You have such a terrific voice, it’s actually nice to hear it floating into our kitchen window.” When she was done, she slid the compact bundle back into the plastic sheath it arrived in. The robot at the factory couldn’t have done so with as much precision.

“I hadn’t realized it would carry so far.”

"Out here in the country? Everything carries on forever…” She trailed off, understanding.

"Indeed,” I jumped in, to rescue her from humiliation. “Well, what is your favorite hymn? If I’m going to serenade you nightly, the least I could do is sing one that you’ll enjoy. Please don’t say ‘Amazing Grace.’”

Eternal Father, Strong to Save is my absolute favorite,” she replied.

“Ah, yes. That was my Father’s favorite as well. He used to sing it on the fishing boat we worked on. What a powerful voice he had, much to the other fishermen’s chagrin. They were all too afraid of him to say anything, though.” I immediately wished I had said nothing. The revelation made me a touch nauseous; recollecting the rough seas, rolling decks, and the hateful smell of fish that couldn’t be washed off.  

She read my discomfiture and sputtered to change the subject from the dead-end I had lead us into. “So, uh, was your cousin a secret millionaire? Did he leave you an estate full of cats in Arizona?”

“Thankfully not. I went to say my farewells, but there was no bequeathment. My side of the family had something of a falling out with his side when we moved away.” Aside from the “falling out,” none of this was true. I had never dared test my alias with the US Government, beyond paying the taxes they are always so eager to receive, so I have no passport and only rudimentary ID. Germans were especially unwelcome when we arrived, so it has always seemed unwise to press my luck. I had actually only gone to Portland to receive a package from Dietrich, via his estate attorney proxy.

“And you never buried the hatchet, after all these years?” she asked, mild disapproval written all over her. Unforgiveness being a cardinal sin in the Lutheran world, and with battered wives everywhere.

“Sadly, no. My father passed when I was just a young man, and I had to make my way in the world on my own. It was many years before I knew where the rest of the family was.”

That seemed to set her back. And me as well. I had known Elsie only a few months, but had taken a liking to her right away. Which may or may not have had something to do with her arrival at my door with a plate of warm snickerdoodles to introduce herself the day after she and Tom had moved in. Even so, I had never opened up to anyone about these things. Ever. For the life of me I could not think why I was doing so now.

"Where was your mother?”

“Also passed away, years before my father, when I was but a teen.” I was so taken aback by the words flowing from my mouth that I almost told her how.

"Oh, you poor thing,” she said, with a consoling hand on my forearm.

"Thank you, Elsie. But it was all a very long time ago. Before you were born, even.”

But she was unrelenting in her empathy, perhaps feeling guilt for judging me moments before. “Do you have any siblings?”

Of the many lies I have told over the course of my life, I think the one most poorly delivered was this one: “No. I am… I mean, I’m an only child.” There was virtually no chance that she believed me, since she removed her hand from my arm and looked away. Damnable contractions.

Although we were both keeping secrets in the little brick church, I was the only one actually lying. And badly. I was at a loss to understand why; I have been lying pathologically about my entire life, for my entire life. By now I should be adept enough to fool a mild-mannered young woman, decades my junior. Then it occurred to me. Of course it was the box. Dummkopf.

It was still sitting at home unopened, like a time-capsule. Or a time-bomb for all I knew. Dietrich and I were bitter to the very end. I certainly was, anyway. It was an enigma, tucked away in the attic since my return from Portland, the day following word of Dietrich’s fatal stroke, which reached me via a call from a generic estate attorney. I was telling myself that I had not had time to attend to the package, but each day made that more of a lie.

At that moment, the Reverend walked into the choir room. He was a short man, stoutly built, and wore jeans with his black shirt and cleric’s collar, since it was a Saturday afternoon. “Ah, the new robes?” He seemed most pleased. I would have been pleased with fewer toothy grins and a great deal more formality from a man of the cloth, but his boyish looks and folksy affect projected an affable air that the young people seem to value these days.

“Yes, we were just trying them on,” Elsie explained.

“And?” he asked.

“Very nice, indeed,” I said.

“Excellent! I think we’ll chalk this up as a success, then. Which is good. Who knows when we’ll have another little nest-egg like that to work with?” he said in his usually chipper way.

“In plenty of time to practice for Christmas,” I volunteered. Despite his perpetually-amiable demeanor, it was best to keep the stocky little Reverend in a good mood, I had found.

“Yes, I’m looking forward to the Advent Choir this year.”

“The other members should be here soon,” Elsie said. “I think I’ll hang around in case anyone needs me to make any little sewing alterations.”

He thought about that. “Okay. Be sure to lock up behind you.”

“I will, Tom. Thanks,” she said. “See you at home, darling.”

****



I sat at my kitchen table, the box unopened before me. For some reason I could not breathe very well. A gift from a man who hated me? I might as well be Schrödinger, looking for his cat, both dead and alive. I took a sip from my espresso, the only decent cup within twenty miles of nowhere Lowell. It was unlike me to be so indecisive, and the longer the box stared at me, the more a coward I felt. As though it might be a bomb, or an artillery barrage coming down the years to find me. Had I not truly escaped, but only delayed the inevitable?

It may have seemed bizarre to Elsie that Dietrich and I, cousins and fast friends in our youth, should still be at odds sixty-eight years later, especially having not seen each other in all that time. Some nights as I lay awake, it seemed that way to me as well. But then I would dream and remember.

The attorneys informed me that now, with him gone, the last of the Grüber family line had come to an end. They showed me several pictures of his wife and extended family; apparently he’d done quite well for himself. But his daughters, Dagmar and Sabrina, were not modern enough to hyphenate, they were solely a Shulz and Farber, respectively, and so their children after them. While I had spent almost seven decades under the pseudonym Willie Greene, and could no more return to Wilhelm Grüber than I could decide to time-travel back to little Oberkirch Village in the Black Forest, from whence we came.

By the time I was done with the box, an end to the Grüber family line seemed utterly apropos.

I picked the parcel up. It was light, about the size of a shoebox. Its brown paper sheathing called to mind the image of Fraulein Maria singing to the Von Trapp children on a dark and stormy night. Shaking it yielded no clues as to its contents. A slight rustle of paper or cloth, probably packing fodder, but nothing else. I supposed that a viper would be dead by now, and that a bomb would have tripped up the draconian post-9/11 security measures. I had not lived in such a chillingly patriotic world since my youth. God bless America. At any rate, it should have exploded under the indelicate ministrations of our postal servants at the very least. So, not a bomb.

The not-a-bomb box had not originated in Stuttgart, where Dietrich lived, but rather from our childhood home of Oberkirch, which did nothing to assuage my feelings of entrapment. In fact, it was somehow worse than the cryptic call from the estate attorneys, regardless of how inscrutable their methods in finding me turned out to be. The butcher paper was tattooed with a variety of stamps from the ports of call separating Dietrich and me. I recognized one of them, marveling at the amicable exchange of cooperation that the parcel’s presence in my kitchen represented.

For example, it had passed through Strasbourg, France unmolested. Whereas the last time I attempted that, an armored column of retreating German Sturmabteilung had blocked our path and then blasted the bridge from existence behind them to stymie Allied pursuit, forcing us North along the Rhine River, instead of into France. I will never know what might have happened if we had made it to that bridge even one hour earlier. How might life have changed for us?

Some nights I lay awake imagining that Mother and my younger sister, Madeliene, would have lived if we had made it into France in time. The idea used to bring me anguish, until I realized that it implied things could have been different. It belied the role of fate, and offered me the comfort of believing in free will. These are not lessons one learns in Lutheran Churches that teach the Catechism. Predestination and the Sovereignty of God —who gives grace to whom He sees fit, and has mercy upon whom He will have mercy, answering to no man— these are the lessons of the Catechism.

So obviously the German land-mine that Mother stepped on was predestined from creation, and neither the haggard Wehrmacht troops covering their retreat, nor the Polish slaves in Warsaw—who likely made it—bear any responsibility at all. I would prefer to believe in a random lottery of meaningless tragedies that generates sorrow from split-second decisions and innocuous footfalls, rather than a meticulously orchestrated clockwork of Purpose, grinding us into dust. Would that I could.

Before I could follow that hopeless line of thought down the survivor’s guilt rabbit-hole for the millionth time, I picked up the antique letter opener and slit the box along the top seam, bisecting the address placard. Dietrich had put quotes around my name, “Willie Greene.” To mock me, I am certain. He had even spelled “Greene” correctly. Almost no one uses the third ‘e.’ The question as to how he had found me had been vexing me for days, but was soon answered as I folded the flaps of the box back, swept the fodder into the fireplace ash-pail, and saw his letter sitting atop an efficiently nested bundle of artifacts from the life and times of Wilhem Grüber.

His message was scrawled in tight script, quite legible for a man in his eighties, though I could tell he had acquired a tremor of some sort. I am ashamed to admit that the thought gave me a moment’s satisfaction in comparison to my own robust health. That feeling had vanished by the time I finished his letter and viewed the contents of the box. My Father’s hammer was the only item of any weight, anchoring a bundle beneath. The pictures, the correspondence, two pieces of virtually weightless cloth. Everything Dietrich needed, and nothing he did not.

It turned out to be a bomb, after all.

****
The night I read his letter, my dreams were quite pleasant for the first time in memory.

I ate Madeleine cakes with Proust by gaslight at a street Café in a completely Vichy Paris. Distant Howitzer artillery blasts marked our time like the metronome on Mother’s piano, somehow celebratory rather than threatening, lighting the night sky with air-burst fireworks. The streets were wet from a recent cloudburst, redolent of pâtisseries and evaporation. But the storm had passed and the waitress, a lovely girl with shining eyes that I could not quite place, came and went from unsearchable shadow, bringing an endless supply of sweet delicacies. Plump Blachinda, sublime Franzbrötchen, and thin, exquisitely flaky slices of vanilla Strudel, my favorite. It all tasted exactly like Mother’s own, except for the Strudel. Proust was alternately my Father, or his brother Emile—Dietrich’s Father—seamlessly interchanging any time I looked away. Each allowed me a few nips of their Rüdesheimer Kaffee when no one was looking, and all was well.

Or it was until I awoke. I had slept through to the morning for the first time in years, waking at a criminally late 9:00 AM with the taste of Black Forrest vanilla on my tongue, and the sure knowledge that my dreams had been a requiem from my real life, instead of the other way around for once. It was a nice few seconds when I thought the world was the same as it had been the previous day, and that the construct of Willie Green—ghost-writer of the Biography of Wilhelm Grüber, and retired man-at-leisure—was still a viable life. But even the lag-time of an old man’s brain could not shield me permanently from the new world I arose to.

Or, more to the point, the actual world that had always been, of which I was only becoming aware.

I badly wanted to believe that Dietrich was simply stabbing at me from beyond the grave with a bitterness that had festered into pathology. That the contents of the box were an elaborate ruse designed to ruin me. But my Father had journaled for as long as I could remember and I still had the one he had begun keeping in Antwerp—when our lives had reacquired the faintest vestige of civility in a refugee camp, as Hitler and Eva Braun celebrated their nuptials—so his handwriting was as familiar to me as my own. The photos Dietrich had furnished were too faded and worn in ways inimitable to careless thumbs and a life in storage to be forgeries. The hammer had my Father’s initials engraved into the handle, which also could not be forged, since it was in my own shaky child’s hand. I remembered well my first amateurish efforts at craftsmanship, guided by my Father’s own hand on mine, as the pipe tobacco and sawdust smell of him suffused my memory, intermingling with the scent of burning Ashe from the engraver’s brand.

The iconic cloth scraps might have been facsimiles, Dietrich had certainly amassed resources enough to mock-up something convincing. The frayed, moth-eaten, mildewy air of them could be feigned, I suppose. But I knew they were not. Still, I would go over the correspondence he had provided and compare it to the rough pulp pages of Father’s journal—that I had lovingly rebound in leather with my own hands—to compare the handwriting. Just as I would go over the photos with a magnifying glass to examine the scratches and coffee stains, all to no avail. They were real, and I knew it. It was all true.

The only lie left standing was the life I lived now. But my silence was coming down the years, like an artillery barrage long-delayed, but not escaped.

****



As an inveterate believer, in spite of myself most days, it struck me as no coincidence that the first night of uninterrupted sleep I had enjoyed in decades was also the night of the penultimate Battle of the Kempers. The second day in a row I saw Elsie wearing jeans and a turtleneck as she gardened in the back yard, I concluded that I had missed something rather fearsome. On the third day she came to me.

“We missed you at practice yesterday, Willie.” She was leaning on the low cedar fence between our back yards. I had not even detected her approach.

I looked up at her from the garden pad I was kneeling on, refraining from comment on how she perspired in the summer sun in such an ensemble. Why break the silence now? I wore a Panama Jack straw hat, to shield me from the late August sun as I picked my beefsteak tomatoes. The morning had been crisp, hinting at things to come, but the heat reasserted itself, so I was in shorts and sandals. With socks, of course; I am German. Even so, it was miserable out. I could not imagine what it would be like in her beige head-to-toe cover-up. She might as well have been wearing a burka.

"I haven't been feeling well," I said. Which was true enough.

“There seems to be a lot of that going around. Toby and Amanda didn’t come either,” she said. “I hope they’re doing better than those tomatoes.”

I looked down and noticed for the first time the bloody mess I had made of the tomatoes in my basket. They looked like something aborted. I had no recollection of picking them, let alone crushing them. “Gazpacho anyone?” I asked, trying to laugh it off as a “senior moment.”

“I don’t know what that is.”

"That's probably for the best,” I said. “I doubt we would be friends today if you’d brought me cold tomato soup instead of those delicious cookies.”

“I make my own vanilla extract,” she said. “That's the secret. But I have to use Vodka to do it, so don't tell anyone.”

As silly as it sounds, I knew that the disapprobation of fools had to be a real concern for a woman in her position. “Your secret is safe with me,” I said, attempting to shake the viscera from my bloodied hands with some kind of dignity. This did not appear to be possible.

"Yes, I imagine it is.” She handed me a red paisley-patterned kerchief from her back pocket. “You seem like a man with a lot of practice in keeping secrets.”

I took the kerchief from her, studiously not looking her in the eye. I wiped my hands rather thoroughly, the red fabric absorbing the juicy mess as though it had never been. “There seems to be a lot of that going around.”

She recoiled slightly at my words, taking a half step back from the fence, and I thought she would leave, withdrawing from me as she had with my lie about Madeleine in the choir room. I may have wanted her to do exactly that; I cannot truly say. I had been in a numb fog of detachment since detonating Dietrich’s bomb.

I had split and stacked three cords of wood, until there was enough supply built up for two winters; hand-tilled fallow borders made into hardpan from heat and disuse; trimmed and pruned my garden within an inch of its life. And still the demons of his revelation swirled in me like a corrosive gas that could not be exorcised by pain or exhaustion. Would that I could have killed him, rather than know what he knew. But he had beaten me to that as well.

Before I knew that I was going to say it, these words escaped my lips: “I don’t suppose you have any of that Vodka lying around?”

"Well..." She began. I knew that the religious sentiments she was steeped in made my question—and any response on her part, other than “No”—scandalous to begin with.

“For medicinal purposes, of course,” I offered.

She turned and walked away without a word, which I took to mean that I had prevailed upon her grace one too many times. I was struggling to my feet, wishing I had taken even one of the undeserved oxycontin my doctor had prescribed after seeing me like this, when she came back. She bore an abundant wicker cornucopia with colorful peppers, squashes, tomatoes, and cucumbers piled high. A very neighborly gift to any who might observe, made even more so by the bottle of Grey Goose Vodka tucked down into the bounty.

“Would you care to join me?” I asked.

She didn’t hesitate at all, this time. “Yes, but I’ll need to take the basket back. I’ll be coming to your front door with it, like a good neighbor.”

I understood completely and went back through my house, making my way slowly and in no small amount of pain. My body truly felt like a bag made to hold my bones, which rolled loosely and of their own accord within me. By the time I had made it there, she was at the door and ringing the bell. Towering over her slight form, I made a show of smiling in an avuncular fashion, as though surprised and delighted, for the benefit of whatever small town onlookers might be taking notes as to the behavior and whereabouts of the local Pastor’s wife. I took the wicker gift with a humble grin, inviting her in a sweeping flourish of my hand, again for the benefit of a perhaps-imaginary audience. Because out here in the country, everything carries on forever.

Though I am fairly well-to-do, my home is quite spartan in contents and décor. I have migrated across the country from docks to foundries to mills and factories for decades now. New York to Pennsylvania to Wisconsin to Ohio to Minnesota to Montana to Oregon. Never in one place for more than a handful of years, garnering success and material wealth as I went, but never putting down roots or starting a family. So, on the rare occasions that I host visitors, they always remark as to how empty my home is, usually stopping just short of labeling it sterile.

“Living Room” was a charitable description: Fireplace, couch, rocking-chair, table. One framed photo, one painting, one vase with a single orchid in it. No television. The open kitchen/dining area was similarly austere. A table with four chairs. Four of every place-setting nested in cabinets of glass, four mugs on a rack made for six. Everything immaculately clean. I’d designed it to be a place where I could finish out my days, alone. I had intended it to be a touch rustic, like my boyhood home; wood, tile, and earthen accents throughout, but it was inescapably antiseptic and uninviting anyway.

“My, what a…” She began.

“Soulless box?” I offered.

“Let’s say ‘efficient space,’ shall we?” she said with a girlish giggle of nervous relief. She really did have a lovely smile, with small, even teeth that spoke to the care she took of each aspect of her life. I assume that some might describe her plain features—brown hair and brown eyes—as drab, but not I. Unassuming perhaps, but not drab. “And at least you have air conditioning. Tom and I would sell our souls for that on these hot nights.”

“What a coincidence, that’s how I got mine.”

A half-smile or an eye-roll was all I really deserved, so I was pleased when I got both. Rather than go further into the uninviting room, she turned and pulled up a stool at the breakfast bar in the kitchen. That suited me fine, and I took two small tumblers from their rarely disturbed home in the cabinet and set them in front of us. She opened the bottle and poured a finger of liquid, somehow clearer than water, into each. I leaned across the bar to take mine, but she held up a finger.

“Not quite,” she said, reaching into the wicker horn to pull out a corked artisanal carafe that appeared to be as antique as me, filled with a viscous amber fluid. Within it were five vanilla bean-pods, like skeletal claws suspended in formaldehyde in some mad scientist’s lab. She uncorked the bottle of extract and expertly dribbled two drops into each tumbler, the iotas blooming into the vodka from tiny impacts into ochre whorls. “You’ll thank me.”

"No doubt.”

"What shall we toast to?” she asked.

“Sobriety?” I suggested, just to see her smile. The loveliness of a good woman is one of the few pleasures remaining to an old man, as platonic as it was.

We held our glasses at salute and she said, “Even moderation ought not be practiced to excess.”

"I’m not sure vodka is what Benjamin Franklin had in mind when he said that.”

“As my dad used to say, ‘If it ain’t, it oughtta be.’”

And with that we clinked glasses and shot them back. I was too well acquainted with pious veneers of civilization to be shocked by how easily she took the bolt of 80-proof spirits. Besides, she was right, it was sublime.

“So, Willie, how many more of those are we going to have to have before you tell me who you really are?”

I regarded her soberly for a moment. “At least one more. I may be a lightweight these days, but I still need to be plied harder than that.”

And so we had another, with her performing the vanilla alchemy with practiced ease. And then another. When my stomach was warm and my head light, I said, “Hallo, ich heisse Wilhelm. Dich kennen zu lernen.” I could not believe how easily my accent returned, muscle memory making my tongue into a stranger, foreign to my mouth. Still, the words tasted sweet. Or maybe that was just the vanilla.

“Gesundheit,” she replied, with a bemused look. “One more time in English?”

“Hello, my name is Wilhelm. Please to meet you,” I said, extending my hand to shake hers.

“Pleased to meet you,” she said, and we shook as though for the first time. “I’m still just Elsie though. Sorry.” She poured us another drink. “That sounded German to me. Although it’s not like I could tell the difference between German and, say…Swiss.”

“Swiss is not a language,” I said, enunciating carefully to get the words out without slurring.

“See?” And she laughed instead of being embarrassed, which was nice. “What do they speak in Switzerland?”

"German and French, mostly. Some Italian. But you were right, it was German. I did not learn English until I was fourteen. And my name is not Willie Green, it is Wilhelm Grüber."

“Oh. Well… what’s in a name?”

“Either nothing at all, or everything,” I said.

“I take it you think it’s the latter? Or else you wouldn’t have changed yours, eh, mein herr?”

I nodded slowly, appreciative of her jab and the swirling delay of my muted senses.

“Sorry, but I’m not part of the jet-setting European class. I’m just an American. Our names don’t mean anything,” she said.

“Ah, but they do. You may not care, but they do. For instance, did you know that Elsie means ‘Pledged to God?’”

"Is it Swiss?”

I liked tipsy Elsie. She seemed to forget her imagined inadequacies, so that her smile was easy and her laughter rang like a chord struck on bright strings.

“Hebrew, actually.”

“And you just know that off the top of your head?” she asked.

“Oh, no,” I replied. “Not ‘just.’”

****
My Dearest Wilhelm,

We can, of course, eschew pleasantries at this late date, though I wish I were able to see your face when the lawyers contacted you. If my timing is precise enough, by the time you read this I will be recently deceased. A stroke or an aneurism, or some such. I have not troubled myself with the details. In any event, the contents of this box are my bequeathment to you. They bear witness to the history of your family’s cowardice, and are therefore your birthright.

Let us dispense with the mechanics of how I found you, forthwith. Needless to say that in spite of the considerable resources I brought to bear on it, your trail was quite well covered, until Minneapolis. Even there, I only found the ghost of your presenceyears oldby sheer chance, if you can bring yourself to believe in such happenstance. You always were a bit fanciful, so perhaps you’ve grown to become such a fool. It hardly matters. By the time I found you, I had been hunting for decades, with the patience of the old. Surely you know what I mean. I had almost resigned myself to failure when our stars aligned in my granddaughter.

She has taken an interest in vocal Jazz at her church. They are nonsensical dolts with acoustic guitars and such, which is what one expects from Pentacostals, but apparently her group was quite good. They went to an international competition in Paris, losing to a Lutheran group from the US, though we were all very proud, of course. Practicing for the following year’s event, they used a video of another performance by that American group to inspire their competitive spirit. Something the Americans had, in typically gauche fashion, posted on the Internet. An Advent Choir as I recall. In spite of my pride, I had grown quite tired of the recording and had gone to our basement to tell them to turn it down, until I heard a voice from beyond the veil. Your voice.

There was no mistaking it. Always the soloist, never the chorister. You wore the face of an old manit might have served you to lose your hair as I havebut you were an instantly familiar stranger. From there it still took years and cost a fortune, but I had both. What a sad, strange life you lived; running from warren to bolt-hole, forever an illegal-immigrant, forever alone. But always a Lutheran, a tireless defender of the faith, ceaselessly lifting her hymns to God. That made it easier.

And so I present to you your inheritance. The pictures and letters were culled from my Father’s effects upon his ‘passing,’ and from the remains of your family’s home and belongings, which Mother and I inherited the same way. I took no small pleasure in personally demolishing your house, by the way. I am told that you ‘Americans’ have a phrase to the effect of one not being able to return to their home again. In your case, that is literally true. The site of your first love is no more, erased from the Earth as surely as she was. For some time I allowed it to lay fallow, and even considered salting the ground. Mother would hear none of it, though; such melodrama is unprofitable. I believe it is some sort of shopping center now. I cannot imagine a more perfect repudiation of your existence.

We leveraged your abandoned assets to our advantagethey went far in the reconstruction economyand have continued to capitalize on that momentum to my dying day, mere hours away now. I will not bore you with further detail; you have enough of a history lesson in front of you as it is. Pay heed to the various notes I have added for context.

It seems that our fathers maintained a brief, but heated correspondence upon your arrival in America. Your father was terse in his descriptions of your passage through the Western Front, but America does not seem to have given you the life he had hoped for. To what fate did you escape? Did you even escape at all?  I trust you will find the reading instructive. It is obvious that you were ignorant of it, so it is my pleasure to reveal to you the truth of the life you never knew.

After all his noble posturing and pontification, it seems your father was just a collaborator, like all the rest. At least mine had the decency not to pretend. I will now follow in my father’s footsteps, as you have always followed in yours.

From Hell’s heart…

Dietrich

PS: It was me that turned you in. I am sure you suspected, but I wanted you to know it for sure, and that I still bask in the warmth of it on cold nights. Did you know that her name meant ‘Pledged to God?’ How apt.

****


“Who was she?” Elsie asked.

“My first love, you might say.” We sat comfortably in chairs on my front porch, letter in hand, brazenly drinking our Vodka in the waning autumn light like a couple of Cossacks, in what had become a regular appointment I enjoyed. “My only love, actually.” I knew how maudlin I sounded, but I did not care. It was true, irrespective of how much Vodka I had consumed, as evidenced by my permanent bachelor status. “Her name was Elsa Tremonte.”

“That doesn’t sound Jewish.” Elsie had taken to quizzing me about European ways, revealing a longing to travel beyond the dull confines of her life as an accoutrement to her husband’s career.

“She was Hebrew, not Jewish. Jews are of the Tribe of Judah, so while all Jews are Hebrew, not all Hebrews are Jewish.” I sipped from my tumbler. I had taken to providing the Vodka since it was easier for me to procure without question, and she would set out the vanilla and a light fare. Today it was a succulent fruit plate, which made the whole affair so neighborly and civilized. Look at the Pastor’s wife, a saint visiting the old and infirm. “Anyway, I’m sure her family changed it while they were moving through France. It was a necessary fashion at the time.”

“Well, what Tribe was she?”

“Levite,” I replied. “But you’re not keeping up your end of the bargain. I answered your question, now it’s my turn.”

“You’re right. Go ahead,” she replied, taking a tangerine slice and following it with a sluice of her vanilla-tinged elixir.

“How did you meet Tom?” I knew it was a sensitive topic, but she had agreed that my family’s doomed flight through the crumbling Reich was at least equivalent, so she had assented to a quid pro quo interview with me over a weekly drinking session. Though I ached for two full days afterward, I still found it satisfying.

“I was a music teacher at Fuller Seminary in California where he got his PhD. in Divinity.” She seemed serene, as though staring through time instead of into the street. “It was my first job after I got my degree, and I was so overwhelmed by the history and importance of the knowledge being passed down through the millennia. Like the halls were actually ‘hallowed.’ And he just seemed so… impressive; educated, well-spoken. And so handsome.” It was rare to see her aspect so untroubled.

“So it’s actually ‘Dr. Tom?’” I asked. “I’m not sure I can get used to the idea.”

“You shouldn’t,” she said, returning to today. “That’s a bit of a sore spot. He tried to be ‘Dr. Kemper’ at our first posting, in Long Beach. It, uh… didn’t go well.”

“Denominational leaders still assign clerics to different Churches, like soldiers with marching orders?” She nodded. It struck me as bizarre, like some communist bloc central planning committee from the Cold War. “How many postings have you had since Long Beach?”

“Sorry, not your turn.”

"Oh, come now. I let you have two in a row.”

“So did I,” she reminded me. “Your second was asking if it was ‘Dr. Tom’ or not.”

“Very well.” It was an odd dynamic; both wanting to hear the other’s story, while dreading the telling of their own, but knowing that our respective silence was anathema to our bones. “What is your question?”

“How did you meet Elsa? Of course.” She shook her head, “Silly man.”

“She came to my door with a plate of vanilla Strudel. So how could I resist?” We laughed easily, and for a moment it was my turn to stare through eternity at the lovely Levite at my door in little Oberkirch. “She was introducing herself and her family, since they were new to the village. She was a year older than I, a petite girl with dark hair and eyes that shone like the light reflecting from the bottom of a deep well. She spoke French perfectly, and German passably, and her Strudel was sublime. The best I’ve ever had. I think I fell in love with her instantly.”

"Why did Dietrich hate her so much?"

“Oh, he didn’t. Not at first. In fact, looking back, I’m certain he never did hate her. Me, to be sure, but not her.” I saw how rapt Elsie’s attention was, and wondered at our bottomless appetite for tales of young love. “I don’t see how anyone could have hated Elsa. Or her family. They fled the encroaching war, knowing that they had gone in the wrong direction—toward the darkness—but hey had no choice; the West refused to allow Jews to emigrate from Europe at all, including the US. So Oberkirch must have seemed a perfect escape, a quiet hamlet just inside Germany, for whom the War was far. For a time, they seemed happy.

“Her father was a tailor, running a tidy business in the square, her mother sold her own bread and eggs, Elsa taught ballet to the girls in the village, including Madeleine, and took piano lessons from my Mother. I would listen for as long as Mother would let me. She’d shoo me away, when it was obvious I could do nothing but gawk. When forced to leave, I would go into another room and loudly practice choral numbers, to impress Elsa. The neighbors complained, but I cared nothing for that, or Mother’s disapprobation.”

“Where did Dietrich come in to all this?”

“He and I were inseparable, until Elsa arrived. Hunting frogs in the mud-flats, absconding with lemon-drops from Eisengard’s Confections, singing in the Church choir together. Blood made us more than friends, and yet friendlier than brothers could be, because we didn’t share a dinner table or bathroom.”

“And then came Elsa.”

“And then came Elsa,” I agreed. “So, how many postings did you have, prior to Lowell?”

She sighed. “Two before this one, making Lowell the third of his career.”

“That… seems like a lot.”

“It is. He’s only been in the ministry full time for four years, and two of them were as a youth pastor while he was in seminary. Another sore spot.”

“He has a few of those,” I said. The bruises on her forearms were faded enough that she could wear short-sleeves again and return to the “I’m so clumsy” routine. I tried not to glance at them too often.

“This posting seems to be going better than the others,” she replied, glossing over my clumsy implication. “It was a blow to his pride to go from a major metropolitan post like Long Beach to a rural one. I think there were almost as many attendees in Long Beach as live in Lowell altogether. I like it here though, it feels safe. We never even bother to lock our doors.”

"The attendance seems to be…” I began, but she cut me off.

“So how did Dietrich meet Elsa? It sounds like you got there first, so what was his beef?”

I barked out a laugh. "Where beautiful girls are concerned, rationale does not enter in. ‘All’s fair in love and war,’ as they say. I may have met her first, but we were thick as thieves, he and I, so she spent time enough with us both for Dietrich to be smitten as well. Over time it became obvious what each of our intentions were, and it made continuing on as we were more and more difficult. Eventually he caught us in a discreet kiss on the forest path behind the schoolyard. It went downhill from there, to blows eventually. And compounding the usual teenaged melodrama was the advancement of the War.

“Though it seemed far from Oberkirch, we were near enough the French border that its effects encroached on our lives constantly. The sounds of warfare, Howitzer artillery bombardments, were distant, but steady. We were rationed tightly with meat, sugar, and coffee. Der Kommisar —the representatives of the Reich—would come on rounds through the village and confiscate odd bits of our lives: spare tires from our autos, women’s nylons, copper wiring from seldom-used outbuildings.

“We feared that a draft would follow and cull from our ranks; already young men enlisted in dribs and drabs throughout the conflict, never to return. My Father volunteered for the Citizens’ Construction Brigade, which deferred his entry, and Dietrich’s father was among the town clergy, the Minister of our Lutheran post, which gave him an immunity. At the time I was still a bit young for it, though Dietrich was closer, being two years older. We lived in constant fear of it, which made matters worse between our families as time went on and Elsa became more and more of a problem.”

"Did anyone know they were Jew… Hebrew?” she asked.

“Not at first. But after a year or so, as the fortunes of the War effort began to turn, things became increasingly strained. Neighbors looking at each other askance, scrutiny passing over everyone who seemed to have too much. Clothes too clean, drinking coffee too often, that sort of thing. In an environment that tense and paranoid, anyone not blonde as corn would be under suspicion. The Tremontes had been passing themselves off as French for some time, and it was convincing enough, except that they were never in Church. Not any Church. When things took a turn for the worse and there was less and less to eat, that proved to be enough for someone to alert der Kommisar.”

“And that someone was Dietrich?” she asked.

“I doubt it. Those were desperate, paranoid days. It was probably one of the local townspeople who didn’t like seeing a non-Aryan so successful in business. In any event, Dietrich was referring to something else in his letter,” I responded. “So, how long into your marriage was it before you and Tom started… having problems?”

She paused for a very long time, as though she hadn’t heard the question. I knew she had, but I was beginning to wonder if she would even answer when she said, “I think I should have known there was a problem after about six months. He was very busy with ministry things, still keeping his grades up at Seminary, and feeling a lot of strain. So I volunteered to proof his Doctoral dissertation. It was over two hundred pages, and fairly good overall, on the philosophical divide between Calvin and Arminius.”

“Predestination versus Free Will? That is an age-old argument, and well settled in Lutheran circles.”

“Maybe at top-brass levels, but your average Lutheran couldn’t tell you who either of them are, or what the argument between them even is. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that you know the difference.”

“My Uncle Emile studied at Wittenberg, the birthplace of Protestantism.”

“That’s impressive. He must’ve been very good,” she replied.

“I used to think so.” I took a handful of cranberries and washed them down with another swallow of Grey Goose. “But how did Tom’s dissertation cause you so many problems? Were you opposed to his take on Predestination?”

“Yes, but not like you’d think. I’m quite devout in my beliefs on that, it was him that questioned it. His dissertation had the laughable title ‘Roll the Bones.’” She chuckled, and I realized I had finally met the real Elsie, who would say what she meant and not pretend to be dim.

“He came out in favor of Free Will in his dissertation? That’s either a very bold move, or a very foolish one, at a conservative Seminary.”

“He was thought of as a bit of Wunderkind back then,” she smiled at me. “Shall I translate?”

“Please do. I would love to hear you murder it in English.”

“So he had a bit of a special status, kind of like a prodigy, and his uppity thoughts were tolerated, even praised. Which is probably why his reaction was so bad when he came home and found his masterpiece marked-up so heavily. I guess he was looking for penciled copyedit, not a structural edit in red ink. I made a number of margin comments, rearranged a few paragraphs, that kind of thing. But I think me x-ing out his title was the real rub. For crying out loud, it’s the name of a rock song by the band Rush. He wasn’t going become a Doctor of Divinity by quoting Neil Peart.”

“It’s at this point that I can legitimately say, ‘Kids these days and their rock and roll music.’”

“Don’t you mean, ‘Ministers these days, and their rock and roll music?’ It’s a good song. A silly reference for a scholarly work, but terrific otherwise. You should give it a try.” She looked at me with a smirk, “That’ll be the day, huh?”

"Yes. The very last one. So…. how did he respond?"

She looked at me for a long time, as though I should already know. And of course, I did. “He asked me what happened to your girl Elsa.”

“Fair enough,” I said and settled in to finish my tale.

“When der Kommisar came next, Elsa was taken out of class and didn’t return that day. When I found her later at her father’s shop, the storefront was shuttered and they were huddled together inside. I did not think they were going to allow me entrance at first, but Elsa ushered me in and locked the door behind us. That’s when I saw their stars.”

I took the frayed scrap from my shirt pocket, and unfolded it carefully. It was weightless and felt incredibly fragile, like history was reclaiming it one molecule at a time. It was a six-pointed Star of David, a mottled mustard-yellow doggerel of rough fabric, about the size of a saucer. It had one word stitched into the center: Jude.

“This one,” I said.



I handed it to her. The way she held it made it seem like the world’s greatest weight. “Was this actually hers?”

“Yes. He told me where he found it. There can be no mistake. Only myself or the traitor that betrayed her could know the location.”

Elsie started to cry then, and suddenly it felt fresh, like only days had passed. No longer the backstory of a fugitive life lived under an assumed name, it was perfectly, terribly real. A single note in a symphony of horror, one life in the midst of millions extinguished, but still worth singling out and weeping for. But still no tears came for me. In all the years, they never had. Instead, I continued on, as though reading from a history book.

“Things happened quickly after that. The trains began rolling through town, Father and Uncle Emile began to argue constantly, which drove Dietrich and I past the breaking-point of our already cold relationship. We finally came to blows, and though he was older, I was bigger and stronger. I know it was humiliating for him to lose Elsa to me, but losing his pride that day was so much worse. If only I’d known…

“But it seemed the whole town was in the throes of losing its collective mind. The Tremontes’ storefront was vandalized, and Elsa told me that her parents were going to take her out of school. I knew they would run, and that I would never see her again. Even though we were in the middle of a war, with the creeping advancement of it evident everywhere, that was the first moment it felt like the whole world might end.”

“Why were your father and uncle fighting?”

"I didn’t know then.”

“And now?”

“Now I’ve seen my Father’s correspondence with Uncle Emile, from the early days of our life in America. By then they’d discovered the camps. The Struthof Concentration Camp, to be exact.”

“I’ve never heard of it. Why was that one so special?”

“It’s of far lesser infamy than Auschwitz and Dachau, practically a summer camp by comparison, though twenty-two-thousand people still died there.”

“Why would they fight about a Concentration Camp?

“When the trains started coming through Oberkirch, when there was no denying the truth of the nightmarish whispers that had filtered even to our little village, it was stunning to us. No one goes to war believing themselves the villain. The lengths we go to to convince ourselves of our righteousness are astonishing. We all believed that the Polacks were a threat to us, that the banks had ruined Germany to punish us for the First World War, and that Jews owned those banks.”

“What about the trains, Wil… Wilhelm?”

“The rail-yard was on the edge of town, so it wasn't a nuisance until it began running on Sunday. We had a small brick Church, reminiscent of our own here in most respects. It sat on the edge of our village, backed up against the Black Forest, where I first kissed Elsa. Most of us never noticed that the train tracks ran right behind the building, because no trains had ever come through on a Sunday. But then they did. Always Westbound. Always full of people.”

I felt my jaw slacken as I stared back at the abomination that would sleep no more.

“My God, the screaming! The mass of faces… panicked, animal eyes pressed against the slats of endless boxcars… countless limbs protruding in a hellish amalgam, clawing for purchase like the tentacles of a great beast.” A little surge of acrid vomitus filled my mouth. I forced it down with another draught of that timeless vanilla.

“The train inched past town with a terrible, implacable sloth. Their wailing… their misery… filled the Church, drowning out all words and song.”

Elsie’s eyes were a masque of tears, streaking her foundation to reveal the remains of a mottled yellow bruise that I hadn’t even noticed. “My God, what did Emile do? What did he say?”

“Nothing. All the months and years we’d spent praying for our troops, for the war effort, suddenly it was all a monstrous lie. The drums of war beat loudest for the righteous, but how could we continue to believe in the virtue of men that boxed up humans like chattel? What could he say?” I lowered my head into my hands and pressed my palms into my eyes, hard enough for bursts of color to blossom behind them. My tired voice sounded ancient to my own ears. “‘Sing louder!’ he would call, rousing us to chorus, waving his arms like a mad conductor. But even at the top of my booming voice, nothing could mask that shrieking, it just went on and on.”

“So that’s why… Why your Father and Emile fought? Because Emile tried to cover up… The trains… they were going to that camp?”

“Yes. But there was more. They came for Elsa’s family on a Tuesday. We should have been in school, but she was mocked continually for her Star, called ‘Juden’ instead of Elsa, and she was afraid all the time. So I would take her into the forest behind the school, holding her hand, trying to soothe her with stolen lemon drops from Eisengard's. Incessantly repeating that it would be OK, for my own benefit, as much as hers. We were returning to the hole in the fence behind the school when we saw through the missing slat the Einsatzgruppen vehicle driving away. They had missed her there, but we knew that her parents were surely gone, already on a Westbound train. There was nowhere for her to go then.”

Elsie was staring at me, tears running freely. “What did you do?”

“It was late January, 1945, and deeply cold, but she stayed that night in the forest. I brought her musty blankets from the attic and old newspapers for a nest. By the next morning I had cleared out a space behind our coal bin in the cellar, hollowing out a shelter for her to hide in. It was my job to feed the furnace, so I would be the only one to go down where she hid inside a rat’s warren with a few boards separating her from discovery. The cellar was always full of potatoes and leeks, and I smuggled milk and bread to her from my meals, stealing spoonfulls of sugar from Mother’s larder to give her something sweet. She relieved herself in the ash-pail, whose contents I fed into the furnace along with the coal, stoking it against the cold nights as Winter deepened its grip. I would say it was a terrible plan, but it hardly qualified as a plan at all. We didn’t even make it two weeks.

“Until Dietrich sent his... gift, it never even occurred to me to question how Father had known in advance that the Einsatzgruppen—The SS—were coming for us. Mother came and took me from school, claiming that Father had been injured at work. But we went to the Church instead, and Father was there with Madeleine. The second he saw me, he struck me brutally across the face with the back of his hand, screaming at me about what a fool I was, how I’d ruined us all. Uncle Emile put an end to that instantly, my confusion disappearing as he slung a pack over my back and understanding dawned on me. I didn’t even protest. I knew I had destroyed our lives, that we couldn’t go home, ever again. Hugging the inside edge of the forest, we followed the tracks out of town, and I never saw Elsa again.”

“Dietrich admitted to them that he’d betrayed her? Is that how your father knew about the SS?”

“If only that were so.”

I never had the chance to finish the story, because Tom came storming over, stalking like a banty little rooster, barely containing his obvious fury because I would bear witness to it. He grabbed her by the arm and hauled her roughly out of the chair.

"What are you doing over here? I’ve been looking everywhere for you!” He said through gritted teeth, his face inches from hers.

I was suddenly aware of how dark it had grown, the lamp at the end of the street must have been lit for hours. The air had passed from crisp to actual cold, disorienting me, as though my tale had been years in the telling. I started to get up but, finding myself more than a little drunk, dropped back down again.

"My God, have you been drinking?" he asked, equally incredulous and angry. “Is that what this has been about, all these times? Some drinking game with an old fool?”

"Now, Tom..." I began.

“This is between my wife and I, Willie! Haven’t you done enough?”

Struck mute by shame and surprise, she silently shrank from him. But he gripped her cruelly by the arm, no doubt depositing new bruises as I watched him drag her away into the gathering darkness.

****



I had expected to hear them start up right away, but it was midnight before I heard a peep. Their magic hour, it seems. I didn’t really need to hear the end of the true tale of a woman married to an abusive man to know it by heart. Despite what Tolstoy said, unhappy families really are all the same. The banal particulars of how she threatens his manhood, the pressures of his job, declining Church attendance, etc. are unimportant. The point is, he did not mean it. He is sorry. He will never do it again. And she will forgive endlessly, or until her own end, because what would the world do without the Wunderkind Doctor of Rock and Roll Philosophy?

Maybe it was best that she would never hear the story of our savage flight through the disintegrating Reich and into the wintery badlands of an ancient world, blasted to ruins. Of a landscape of roving brigands, thieves, and ravenous men gone mad on the bleeding edge of civilization, and the horrors they worked. Perhaps it was a mercy to spare her the truth about the hallowed men and women that had held inviolate their predestined grace, to pass it on to us for safekeeping. To find them starving, demented cannibals in the burnt-out cathedrals—capable of depravities beneath the lowest animal—would be too much to bear for those that had always lived in the rekindled light of Reason.

Even Father could never bring himself to ask me of the grisly details of Madeleine’s end, despite his ceaseless, Herculean drive to bring us through the frozen hellscape of the Western Front. Time and again he saved us, mercilessly propelling us through the chaos of desperate, defeated men in full retreat. Maneuvering the wastelands of barbed wire and foxholes by cunning, violence, and sheer force of his indomitable will; through a maelstrom of bombardments, constant starvation, and across a thousand miles of obliteration.

Yet no word ever passed between us about her, or the events that transpired while he was separated from us for those days in Dalheim, Luxembourg. Not even after we had thrown in with the Scots, working off illicit passage to America, escaping internment in the tomb Europe had become. His stoicism has been my life’s foundation; that his faith was unwavering, a bulwark never failing, is the only reason my own faith had survived the decades. Until Dietrich.  

I would like to think I might have summoned the courage to tell Elsie the truth, if she had only had the opportunity to ask, to break the poisonous silence on which my entire life has been constructed. But I will never know.

Sitting in my darkened home, in a rocking chair made with my own craftsman’s hands, I stare down into the flames in the fireplace ash-pail between my feet. Dietrich’s letter went first, folded neatly into thirds, such that it would stand on edge as I set it alight from the teardrop of flame at the end of a match. I can hear Tom and Elsie starting up, but make no effort to mask their cacophony. Instead I feed my Father’s journal into the fire, tearing pages of desiccated pulp from a binding I had made in another city, in the days of yet another life.

I know now that Father never learned that Emile ceased responding because he had eaten a bullet, assuming his brother’s disdain instead. Looking back, I wonder if it was really Father’s footing that failed him on that high gantry in the Pittsburgh foundry, or if he might not have met his end for entirely different reasons. Bethlehem Steel had simply issued me an insurance payout and dismissed me from their labor force, neither of us looking deeper into the matter. That sudden windfall was a fulcrum that leveraged my escape from indentured servitude, making possible all future success.

As I feed the pictures and Father’s letters in after, the flames reach alarming heights, gleefully consuming our history as fast as I can destroy it. Reading my Father’s plaintive protests to Emile of his innocence, or at least ignorance, turned my stomach more than the vodka hangover. Perhaps it is my imagination, but I swear that the ultimate Battle of the Kempers is following the life of my flames, leaping and growing.

I cannot bring myself to send Elsa’s coal-stained Star into the growing pyre at my feet. So I fold it reverently and put it in my shirt pocket, then examine the other gossamer piece of cloth Dietrich had poisoned me with. In the chaotic dance of surging flames, the red field of the Swastika seems renewed in its fervency, as though shaking off oxidation and the faded weight of decades. It is hypnotic for a moment, to stare at the ineffable icon of the purest madness ever imagined. Not an historic rendering, or the wet-dream of some Neo-Nazi collector, but simply part of the routine attire of a man who lived and breathed the darkness of a humdrum, work-a-day evil. A nameless cog in the bureaucracy of the Reich, building the infrastructure of an insensate killing machine, merely to feed his family and protect his own.

To my surprise, the fire consumed it easily. I do not know why I expected otherwise.

The blaze is dangerously hot now, the flames leaping high. Smoke fills the room, bringing tears to my eyes at last. No matter, I am almost finished. I hold up the last of the grainy, black and white photos. The room is bright now, lending verve to the monochrome faces I recognize even through a prism of tears. The Oberkirch Citizens’ Construction Brigade, standing proudly together, flanked by their Einsatzgruppen overseers, smartly uniformed in their iconic garb. Each of the workers wore identical tool aprons, dungarees, and chambray work shirts festooned with their Nazi armband. My Father was in the back row on the left, an affable looking SS man with his arm around his shoulder, all smiles.The group at attention as only Germans can be.

These were the men who taught me, who mended my shoes, who rotated the tires of our car. But to support Germany, to perhaps spare the sons of Oberkirch the draft, together they took the train West each day to work, and East each day to home. As a child, I had no curiosity about this. Father went to work, Father came home, Father put bread on the table. Father was a craftsman I could be proud of. And so I was, until Dietrich. Together these men—not merely good Germans as I'd innocently assumed, but Party Members—stood proudly in front of a stout iron gate, the product of their craftsmanship. Emblazoned on high were the words “Camp Struthof.” 

I thought of his words to Emile, dead before he could read them and grant Father absolution: “We were told they were barracks. How was I to know?”



I spit on the picture, and drop it into the flames.

Standing, I kick the ash-pail away, toward the drapes of the living room window. It spills over, skittering, spinning, spewing the burning detritus of a secret history everywhere, as I throw back a huge bolt of Elsie’s elixir. The vanilla does not quite mask the bitterness of the fistfull of crushed-up oxycontin in it. Taking Father’s hammer, I go out the door, knowing I will find the Kempers’ unlocked.

Their screaming match is at a savage crescendo, with the musical tinkle of breaking glass, the dull thud of hurled objects. But this will be their last battlefield, because another argument entirely will be settled tonight: Is it the fate of precision gears, or a roll of the bones that brings my Father’s hammer down? Like Dietrich, I have had the patience of the old, but will wait no longer for the answer. In true ecumenical spirit, the good Doctor and I will find it together. Though he will know it before I, as befits a man of his erudition.

I do not bother hiding my approach. What would be the point? Out here in the country, everything carries on forever. As it ever has, as it ever will. The sanguine aurora of my home burning behind me casts my shadow long, a specter preceding me. Tears streaming, I go in like an artillery barrage coming down the years, singing just as loud as I can:

Eternal Father, strong to save
Whose arm hast bound the restless wave
From rock and tempest, fire and foe,
Protect us wheresoe'er we go;
Thus evermore shall rise to Thee
Glad hymns of praise from land and sea