Mitchell Waldman is the author of the short story collection, PETTY OFFENSES AND CRIMES OF THE HEART (Wind Publications, 2011), and the novel,...read more A FACE IN THE MOON. His fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in many other publications, including, among others, Kairos Literary Magazine, Literally Review, Corvus Review, Random Sample, Wilderness House Literary Review, The Faircloth Review, Crack the Spine, Epiphany, Foliate Oak, The Legendary, Connotation Press, new aesthetic, Longshores Literary Magazine, The Battered Suitcase, Worldwide Hippies, Moronic Ox Literary and Cultural Review, eclectic flash, and eFiction Magazine. His writing has also appeared in the anthologies Beyond Lament: Poets of the World Bearing Witness to the Holocaust (Northwestern University Press, 1998), Messages from the Universe (iUniverse, 2002), and America Remembered (Virgogray Press, 2010). Waldman was also co-editor (with Diana May-Waldman) of the anthologies, Wounds of War: Poets for Peace, and Hip Poetry 2012, and serves as Fiction Editor for Blue Lake Review. For more information, see his website at: http://mitchwaldman.homestead.com.
IT ALL STARTED WITH A PACKAGE placed on Borglund's doorstep at two o'clock in the morning.
But, no, really, it started before that, when tilting his head over the picket fence, the smell of gin strong on his breath, he told me about his father, how he had collaborated with the Nazis back in Holland. I was speechless, but I must have had a telling look on my face because he stood back a step and, with watery eyes, said, "What else could he have done? He had a family, seven children to support." His father had been a railroad employee, had helped the SS route trains to the death camps. To Borglund, he was like any other man trapped in a job he didn't really like. But it was different -- those trains were full of my people, my ancestors.
And that's when it really began.
A bag of shit, a bag of cat shit left on his doorstep. What is it really? Not much, in light of the number of ancestors of mine who were gassed in the war, whose names I don't even know. Not much in light of the dreams, the nightmares that have started to visit me ever since talking to Borglund that night. Sometimes it's every night, sometimes weeks go by without one, but when they come, it's as clear as day -- the gray-helmeted men with spatterings of Nazi red, the blood of their victims, as decoration. Some of them so young, so very young -- pimples on their faces still, gangly teenage postures, rifles over their shoulders or held firmly in the creases between their arms and chests. But no children these -- the eyes cold, metallic, the eyes that don't look at you, they look through you, the "superiority," arrogance, trained into them.
I'm standing there, behind a wall, watching as they pull my proud but faceless ancestors down a flimsy attic ladder, or sometimes down from a hay loft (the place changes, but the events never do), march them along in their baggy creased trousers and yellowing button down shirts, their aging flowered dresses, heavy woolen socks, and clunky black shoes. I wonder what they're thinking as they do these things, these wunder boys who have learned their lessons of hatred with such zeal -- do they inisc reminisce about a certain young Fraulein back in Hamburg or Bremen, or about their days back in school, skipping home with strapped books swinging? In their brown knee knockers and caps, peering into the baker's window with hungry eyes? Thinking these thoughts, even as they carry out their orders, thinking nothing of the crime, the genocide they've initiated? Innocent (in German: unschuldig), a word that will never again apply to them. The crime: the wholesale destruction of families (my family) and most of a race.
"Shnell! Shnell!" the young men shout, their rifle tips prodding my relatives -- the children among them -- forward, as I tremble, want to scream out, but know I can't make a sound, can't even breathe, as, grim-faced (the victims have faces now, or maybe just eyes), even the children stare hopelessly with the looks of the condemned, the already dead, as my tears start to fall -- tap tap -- onto the floor, and a gray-helmeted head turns, the fiery eyes searching in my direction, the black boots creaking, the rifle aimed toward me, a shot ringing out, and I scream (or is it just in the dream?), my heart racing, body drenched in sweat. I prop myself up in bed, sit up against the wall, don't ever want to sleep again -- but it's still, silent, crickets singing now, cicadas screeching outside in the darkness, the breeze coming through the window, lightly sweeping the blinds forward, then sucking them back so they slap gently against the window pane. An occasional car swishing on the street below.
And across the yard, Borglund's light is still on. It's two o'clock in the morning -- is he devising these dreams somehow, does he have some sort of evil machine to put them in my head?
His words come back to me long after our conversation at the fence, not only what he said but the way he said it, with wide-eyed innocence, that open-palmed gesture of defeat -- what else, indeed. For weeks I mull over the words, knowing that they slipped out, that he never meant to tell me at all -- it was the booze that lubricated the tongue, let the words come, almost of their own volition, like a confession.
Borglund is a man who goes to church with his wife Helen (his second wife) every Sunday morning. He never misses it. He helps his neighbors plant their gardens. He's retired and doesn't seem to know what to do with himself. He has two grown sons who come to visit him once or twice a year. He spends hours on his knees, digging holes, shoveling dirt. His yard is a sanctuary for birds and, though small, he has squeezed every space full of exotic plants and flowers.
And there's the grass. He's obsessed with it, cuts it every day.
Even my wife, Donna, has noticed it, and she's the forgiving kind. She heard the motor first, then looked out the front window to see Hans cutting his grass, and a neglected strip in front of our house, yet again.
It's almost as if he wishes time would stand still, keep the blades from growing. Or is it his love of order, of neatness, picked up from the Germans maybe -- the way they neatly organized us, like sheep, fifty years ago, and took us to our deaths. And the theory behind it, that only the superior genes should survive. Neatness, order. That was behind it all, despite the lunacy behind the theory, the horror behind its application.
We used to talk over the fence, Hans and I. I would be walking home. I would wave, say hello. He would ask me about work. I would tell him how it was. "So, so." He had had work problems too. A commercial artist for a large company, he had given it up because, like me, he couldn't take all of the crap, the bosses telling him to do this, to do that, running him ragged. (I still do take the crap -- I have a family to support).
But after his revelation about his father, the chatter stopped. I started to avoid him. I'd pretend I didn't see him. And his attitude was similar. He'd go on puttering in the yard, digging a new hole for this or that. Either he was embarrassed for telling his little secret, or he was ignoring me because I was one of them, a Jew. But could that really have been it? There'd never been any evidence of anti-Semitism in this man. But, on the other hand, having been a child in the time of the Nazis, and having a father who helped them, willingly or not, how could some of that not have rubbed off?
Then there was the incident with my girls. They were innocently chalking a group of hopscotch boxes in front of his house. The girls -- three-year-old Lucy and six-year-old Lainie -- came running back to our house, tears in their eyes, telling my wife how mean Mr. Borglund had scolded them for messing up his sidewalk.
"So, what are you going to do about it?" Donna asked me that evening, hands on her hips, giving me one of her looks.
I threw up my hands. "What am I supposed to do about it? It's his property, he doesn't want it to be dirtied. You know how he is, like an old lady."
But I did do something about it. When everyone else was asleep, snoring away, I snuck to the basement with a small box, then scooped some choice tidbits from the cat box into the small box, sealed it, climbed back up the stairs, opened the door and, walking very quietly to Borglund's, laid the package on his doorstep. Stealing back home then, feeling electric, a dangerous thrill running through my entire body. Smiling to myself as I took off my coat and hung it on the rack, thinking about the horror on Borglund's face as he would open the box the next day. Feeding on that horror, the payback, just a small one for what he had imposed on my people -- though I'm not religious, they are still my people, were my ancestors, great aunts and uncles, and cousins, how many cousins, who I will never know, whose names have long been forgotten, all of them liquidated, murdered, in that war, in that Holocaust.
But in the days that followed, avoiding him at all costs for fear that he would know who had left that package, I had second thoughts. Had I been unfair? After all, it was not him, it was his father.
Yes, I thought, but descendants should be made to pay for what their predecessors did, shouldn't they?
But, no, that wasn't it at all, really. I had two German-American roommates in college and I never felt that way about either of them with their pale blue eyes, their straight blond hair and their prominent chins.
I peek at him sometimes from behind the blinds in our bedroom. He lives on the top floor of the house just across the way from our bedroom, rents the first floor out to a young couple -- it keep him in seeds. Behind the blinds, from our darkened bedroom, I can see him over the bushes -- there are no curtains over what is their living room. The sound of the television blares and, on rare occasion, the raised voices between him and his wife, Helen, although the words don't quite come through.
"What are you looking at?" Donna says, pulling me back towards her side of the bed.
"Nothing. I thought I heard something," but it's just him, Borglund, just beyond my view, but never quite out of my mind.
I take to diving into my work to avoid thinking too much about it. But no matter what, I always return to this new obsession, wondering, scheming about what new package to leave him next. It becomes a time-consuming task after that first one. You can't easily leave him something obvious, like a picture of Hitler; that way he would know who had planted the present, wouldn't he? It has to be something fairly ambiguous, but clear enough to let him know. But nothing threatening enough to bring the police into it.
The second gift contained a package of dead goldfish floating around in water in a plastic bag. "How much for them?" I'd asked the boy at the pet shop.
"But they're dead." What would you want with them?" he asked.
I'd insisted: "How much?"
He'd taken his net and swept them out, put them in a bag, twisted the top around and tied it. Then he'd handed the bag over, looking at me for an instant too long before jerking his head away. Before I could thank him, he'd already moved away toward the tanks, in pursuit of his next customer. And, after I walked out of the store, I imagined the boy telling his coworkers about the crazy man who had wanted the dead fish. I heard them all laughing, talking about the "types" that walked into their store.
Another time it was a piece of a headstone that had broken off. I'd been walking in the cemetery near us. (I'd taken to doing this lately, thinking more and more about my dead, nameless, ancestors) and had stumbled (literally) on what I had thought was just a chunk of rock. But when I had picked it up I had seen the words Died 19...and that was where the letters met the jagged edge.
And last night it was a dead baby bird. I'd found it on the side of the house -- it must've fallen out of its nest -- picked it up with a doubled up piece of paper toweling to get it before the neighborhood cats sunk their teeth into it.
I caught our own cat once, she'd trapped a living bird. I don't know what kind of bird it was -- a sparrow maybe. It was gray and wasn't moving, was in shock, I guess, scared stiff. I only knew it was alive because it blinked and its tiny yellow beak quivered. When I found it, found them, the cat, Natasha, had trapped the little bird between her paws. She'd let it go, then jump on it again, playing with it, the game of death. I yelled at Natasha "Stop! Let it go!" She looked at me with her crescent green eyes wide, questioning, but not moving.
"Dammit!" I yelled, bolting toward her, jerking her paws away from the little bird, which sat there still, shivering -- perhaps it had given up hope and now was too weak to even save itself. I waved my arms at the bird. "Go now, you're free!," but it just sat there looking at me until I bent down, as if to grab it, and it shot straight up into the air for home, my heart flying with it. All that it left behind was a single gray feather, about two inches long, that had fallen back to Earth as it had taken flight. And, of course, there was Natasha, who stared at me with a look of hurt.
So: a dead bird for Borglund, one that couldn't be saved, in a plastic bag. Seven children, what could he do? Maybe he would think about it, maybe he would know.
I see him occasionally, say hi to avoid suspicion. He comments on the weather, that's about it, and I walk on.
It goes on for weeks, months, the friendly but distant greetings by day, the parceling out of my little gifts by night, first the more innocuous ones -- dulled, discarded razor blades, carefully wrapped pieces of burnt toast, discarded chicken bones, the meat chewed off, or, sometimes only the skin, like the skin of my ancestors which they made lampshades out of; and then it gets worse, more threatening -- crumpled newspaper clippings of car bombings, of gruesome murders, a picture taken from a magazine of young children with an X neatly drawn in black magic marker from corner to corner, poems about faces who are no longer there....
But sometimes it's all too much.
One night, in the fall, I'm walking by his house. I'm out for a walk to escape the need to sleep. The fear of sleep. Three dreams in three nights because of him. The sky dark, but clouds up high, gray veils passing before a bright full moon. And from Borglund's second floor window the sounds of a television and of people laughing.
I notice he's left his car lights on, try the doors. Go to his house and ring the bell. The voices upstairs stop.
A minute later his face appears at the little frame of a window. He opens the door and steps out. He's wearing a striped knit shirt and military green shorts (the kind everyone wears these days), the remains of a drink in his hand, the tiny chips of ice tinkling.
"Hi" he says too loudly, beaming at me. Two of his bottom teeth are brown; they're long and narrow, and bent toward each other. "What can I do for you?" he asks.
"Your lights," I say.
"Huh? What's that?" he asks, tilting his head like he did that night at the fence.
"Your car lights. You left them on. I tried the door but..."
"Son of a bitch." His face wrinkles into a frown, and he moves in his thongs toward the car door, twisting back around at me with a smile, shaking his head. "Now, how the hell did I do that?"
I shrug, but he's already opening the car door, taking care of the problem, slamming the door, and smiling. "All set," he says. "Thanks a lot. I'd hate to have come out here in the morning and...and...."
"No problem," I say.
He puts his hand on my shoulder, squeezes the round bone a little too hard between his thumb and forefinger. I'm staring at him, his smile, studying the long jagged brown teeth. The sour smell of old alcohol on his breath.
"Why don't you come upstairs for a drink."
"Well, I don't know...." I say, avoiding his eyes.
In his apartment -- it's smaller than I imagined -- Helen is sitting on the couch in her shorts and sleeveless blouse (they're both in good physical shape for people in their mid- to late-fifties) watching me with tentative eyes, as Hans tells her "Rich here just saved us a call to the garage in the morning. I left the car lights on, can you believe it!" She laughs loudly. It's the same loud, but not unpleasant, laugh that I've heard through the air between our houses on warm summer nights. "Thanks a lot," she says. "It would have been hell tomorrow to rush to get out the door and then find a dead battery. But, he always does that!" she says, looking at her husband now, waving a finger at him, while he laughs good-naturedly, shaking his head, saying "I don't know what gets into me sometimes!"
Hans turns his back now, facing his small bar. "So what'll you have, Rich? Gin all right? You look like a gin drinker to me. What do you think, babe?"
Helen laughs again, a quick burst, then says, "Oh yes. Gin definitely, I'd say."
"With tonic? How's that sound, Rich?"
"Oh, fine, that'll be just...." He's already handing me the glass. I take it, thanking him, then begin to sip and watch them both, the inevitable question playing in my mind.
Then, in looking around, I notice: on a low table in the corner of the room are a number of my "presents." When my eyes come across them I stay calm, try not to look away too quickly, nor linger on them too long, just let my eyes glide slowly across them, at the same rate as I take everything else in.
"Nice place you've got here," I say, barely aware of my own words.
"Thanks," Hans says, watching me. "Of course, it was a lot of work, but we've made it home."
On the television, a baseball game's on. There are runners on first and third.
"You follow the Yanks? Quite a season they're having."
"No," I say. "I'm not really into sports much."
"You still running? I see you sometimes in the mornings. How far do you go?"
"Oh, five miles generally. Every other day."
"You know, I used to run two, three times a day."
"Hmmm." I sip, then, thinking better of it, trying not to prolong this, gulp the last of my drink and say, "Well, thanks for the drink. I guess I'd better be going."
"So soon?" Hans says. "How 'bout another little one? As a night cap. It'll help you sleep," he says, staring right at me.
"You see this stuff over here?" he says suddenly, pointing, walking towards the table with the gifts.
"Hmmm? Yes?" He's blindsided me.
"You wonder, what is all this stuff."
I play it nonchalant, trying to look mildly curious, shrug, laugh, say, "What is it?"
He picks up a little white box with a small broken glass mirror in it, my most recent gift. Only the day before I'd taken my hammer and smashed the little dime store mirror, then carefully glued the glass fragments back together like a puzzle on the cardboard backing, before laying it in tissue in the box -- a little coffin -- and, putting the lid back on, all the while imagining him looking into it, seeing the cracks in his own reflection.
He hands the box to me.
"You think I collect junk?" he asks.
I shrug again and smile at him, let him know I'm indulging him, playing the gracious guest. "People collect all sorts of things," I say.
"Yes," he says, looking at me, but not smiling now. "But I'm not one of them. You see, Rich, I have very little use for most things."
I take another sip of gin.
"No," he says, "I've been getting these...things..." -- He sweeps his arm across the table -- "for many months now, and I don't know who or why."
"You've been getting them...how?"
"On my doorstep. I wake up to them once, twice a week sometimes. They're my little morning surprises." I take another swallow of gin. His face is red now and he suddenly strikes out, grabs up the car bombing story, slightly yellowed now, and thrusts it toward me, on top of the box with the mirror -- "I mean, what kind of sick mind would leave me this?"
I pretend to read the story, doing my best to keep from shaking.
"The only reason I haven't called the police is because it's just been...this. Nothing else. No phone calls. Nothing."
I try to hand the things -- the box, the article -- back to him, but he won't take them.
Helen coughs on the couch behind us, but I don't turn around.
"I was thinking about it," he says, "trying to remember when it all started....and then one night, not very long ago, it struck me."
I'm paralyzed, unable to take another breath.
He stares at me. "You know, Rich, I can't sleep at nights. It's that bad."
I'm visibly shaking now. It's all I can take. I slam the box and the newspaper clipping down on the table. "And you think I can?" Behind me, from the couch, a thin gasp, quickly stifled, and I continue: "Ever since that night, that night when you told me about...."
"About my father, that's what it's about, isn't it?"
"You said, 'What else could he have done?' I was outraged! And the dreams. I have them all the time! The storm troopers come. Sometimes with a man who looks like you. Lately, he's become you. They're coming for my family, they're coming for me."
"I'm sorry, Rich," he says, putting his hand on my shoulder again, but gentler than before. "I know how that must have sounded, 'What could he do?' But, really, what could he, what would you have done?" He takes his hand off me suddenly, sweeps it quickly through the air, and then back at me, putting the tip of his index finger against my chest. "You think it was easy for him? You think I'm proud of him for what he did? He was just trying to survive, too! They would have put him to death just as easily as they'd put the Jews. Those people were monsters!"
I feel like crying now, can't look him in the eye.
"You know, Rich, I was just a boy then. I was there. I saw it. You think that's easy for a child, to experience all that horror, to witness it?"
I look up at him. He's no longer angry, but wears a sad smile now. "God knows my nightmares have never stopped."
From then on the dreams fade -- there are one or two more, but, the last time, just as the gray-helmeted machines are dragging my relatives down the stairs, just as they're about to turn to where my breath, my pounding heart is giving me away, Borglund comes right into the dream, stands in front of the soldiers and says "Stop. Enough now. Go home to your families." And the blood in their eyes fades. They turn into little boys who drop their heads in shame and walk silently out of the room, the last closing the door behind him.
And the next night, I leave my final gifts on his doorstep -- a bottle of wine, a rose, and a two-inch gray feather from a sparrow, the one that got away.