K. C. Frederick
Later, after my visitor had left, I was able to convince myself I’d been expecting an encounter like this, that I’d had a presentiment all morning, but it’s so easy for memories to slide out of place, to shift their shapes to fit our inclinations. More likely I wasn’t feeling much of anything beyond a restless sense of freedom, alone in the house with Anna and the children at the lake. I was going up to join them in a couple of hours and I was looking forward to that, but I was happy that for a time I was here alone, unconnected to anyone, without ties or obligations. I could do what I wanted, I could act on a sudden impulse and toss the magazine I was reading onto the floor and, at least for a few seconds, not worry about picking it up.
You might laugh at that, such a petty imaginary transgression, and the fact is, the last thing I see myself doing is flinging a magazine across the room, watching its shiny pages open out like wings before it drops face down to the polished wood floor. But the thought that I might do it if I wanted to was attractive, it created interior space. I’m a careful man, I’ll be the first to admit, and that care has brought me a good deal of success at the Ministry of Transportation. Still, it seems that even I need some place of refuge, actual or not, where I can indulge my less guarded instincts.
I was packed well in advance, I could have left for the lake in five minutes, but I wanted to enjoy this free time a while longer. I’m proud of my house, of the renovations we’ve done in the last year, and just walking through its airy rooms was enough to lift my spirit. A house is a statement, and I like to think that mine conveys the sense of someone who’s been successful and fulfilled at work, a man who has a happy marriage with two children who are a daily treasure, someone who believes that honest work will bring its rewards. I’m not an expressive person but that doesn’t mean my feelings aren’t as strong as the next man’s, and what I was feeling as I walked through the rooms of my house was like hearing sounds of a piece of music that can bring me pleasure before I’m even aware of it.
It took me a moment to acknowledge the knocking on the door. Maybe the person who stood outside had begun with a timid rap and gradually increased the volume, but after a few seconds I heard the sound distinctly and, to my surprise, my first response was shock. Had something happened to my family, was a policeman at the door with the news? A chill passed through me even as I reminded myself that in any kind of emergency it was more likely that someone would phone me. By the time I got to the door the knocking had stopped momentarily—had the caller given up and left? I paused to catch my breath. I was calm when I opened the door and saw a stranger who was certainly not a policeman.
“Yes?” I smiled with relief.
The man spoke a halting version of our language and pointed to the address to confirm that he was at the right place. He was an American, he explained.
“Yes, yes,” I said in English, still extravagantly pleased not to be confronting that imaginary policeman. “This is the place.”
The stranger’s angular features collapsed into a loose, perplexed smile. He was a tall, gangly man of about thirty with bad skin, dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt, a small red knapsack on his back. His dark-rimmed glasses gave him a bookish appearance. “Thank God you speak English,” he said, his prominent adam’s apple moving fluidly in his throat—our language had obviously been a struggle for him. Now that he was here, though, all barriers to communication removed, he seemed to forget why he’d come. “This is so strange,” he said after a while, shaking his head and looking at the number. His voice was barely audible. “This is really the place.”
I returned his smile. “What place?” I asked politely.
His bespectacled eyes swam with incredulity. “My grandfather used to live here,” he said.
It was gray outside, as many of our days are, but the familiar overcast sky might have cloaked an oncoming storm. In the street behind the man traffic moved through the square as usual, but for a moment the individual sounds seemed to blur. The mention of this stranger’s grandfather transported me to another time, long before I was born. After all, it was more than seventy years since the grandfather could have lived here.
“Is your…?” I began, not really wanting to know more.
Taking my meaning at once, the stranger shook his head. “My grandfather died a few years ago. He used to live here when he was a boy.”
I nodded. What was there to say? That was another time, another world.
“It just feels so strange to be in the actual place,” the man said. “He used to tell me stories.” He must have been caught up in memories because for a time he seemed to have difficulty continuing. I wondered how long he’d been on this search that had now come to an end.
In spite of my impatience for this encounter to be over, I felt a sudden sympathy for him, and this gust of feeling made me surprise myself. “Would you like to step inside for a minute?” I asked him.
It took a second or two for the question to register with him and at first I was sure he was going to refuse my gratuitous invitation. Instead, though, he smiled broadly. “Yes, I’d like that,” he said. “Only a minute.” Though I’d been the one who suggested it, I ushered him inside as if I’d been ordered to do it.
Soon we were in the main room, beside the chair where I’d been reading a minute ago, and I was at a loss about what to do next. My surprise visitor stood not too far away, as if unaware of my presence. He looked paler indoors and he seemed drained, lost in himself. His head was lowered and it was impossible to read the expression on his face. Had he fallen into a funk? Had his quest worn him out? I was his host, I reminded myself. “Please,” I said, making a motion with my arm. “Have a seat. Can I get you a glass of water?”
“Oh, yeah, sure. Thanks,” he said, coming awake. I had the impression that we were both relieved when I went to the kitchen. What was that faint tang I’d caught a whiff of, I wondered as I ran the tap.
When I returned I handed him the glass and sat down across from where he’d dropped into the chair I usually used, the open magazine beside him on an end table. My nostrils twitched and I recognized what I was smelling: the man was evidently a smoker and the trace of spent cigarettes clung to his clothes. I hoped it wouldn’t get into the chair. He took a swallow of water, his adam’s apple bobbing, and he looked around the room. “My family has had this house for seventy years,” I told him, as if I felt the need to establish the rights to my own home, though there was nothing overtly threatening in my visitor’s manner. He told me that his name was Abe. He’d been named after his grandfather Avram, the one who, he’d claimed, had previously lived here. I listened, tense. Of course there was a time when there were many Jews in our country and, for one reason and another, almost all of them were gone. The Germans killed most of them but I knew that many were ruthlessly expelled by their neighbors, their homes given to non-Jews. My own grandfather had been a resistance fighter during the war and it was for that reason that this property was turned over to him. But all this was ancient history, these matters were adjudicated long ago. This visitor had his story, I had mine.
“It’s like a dream,” he said, “to be in the actual place.” He laughed quietly to himself. “I always imagined it differently.”
“We’ve made a lot of changes,” I told him. Oddly, I felt defensive admitting this.
“Is that your family?” he asked, looking at a photo of Anna and the children.
I nodded. “I’m going to join them soon,” I said.
The information caused him to straighten suddenly. “Sorry,” he said. “I hope I’m not keeping you.”
“No, no,” I protested, and he settled back once more. In my mind, though, I urged on the hands of an imaginary clock.
The visitor looked around. “My grandfather talked about looking out the front window into the square,” he said. After a while he added, “He remembered the tanks. He’d peek out from behind the curtain, he said, hoping no one would catch sight of him.” It was impossible not to imagine the boy peering out at the world that held so many dangers for him. I wondered about the fate of his family but I didn’t ask.
“Our country has changed a lot,” I told him.
“I’m sure it has,” he said. All at once it seemed to me this stranger looked very comfortable sitting in my chair and the thought was probably what intensified the smell of tobacco. Would Anna notice it when she returned? Once again my visitor was looking around the room as if he’d forgotten I was even there. This wasn’t the place his grandfather had lived in, I wanted to tell him. Last year we’d knocked down a wall and installed new windows, painted the room a creamy white, so that it was now brighter and more spacious. We had no wish to live in the past. The previous century had been tragic for our country, it was a time that called for heroes, and even some disreputable members of my family showed great courage fighting against one and another of our occupiers. I, who was no hero, felt the long shadow of those predecessors. I was diligent, conscientious, I was a hard-working, law-abiding citizen. Surely there was a time for us.
“I wonder,” my visitor said, hesitating before going on, “if I could trouble you just a little more?”
“Yes?” I asked, alert once again.
“One story my grandfather told me over and over was that on the day he knew he might be leaving this house for a long time he scratched his initials onto a brick in the basement. If I could just see that,” he said, “just touch that brick…”
I didn’t want to let him go there though I knew that his was a wish impossible of fulfillment. “We’ve made many changes down there,” I said. When I saw the disappointment in his face, I realized it would cost me nothing to concede on this point. This visit would be over in a few minutes and I’d be on the way to the lake. “You could look, though,” I said at last. “Of course.”
He considered it a moment, then said. “Thanks, I think I would.”
When he got up I was relieved that he’d vacated my chair. I showed him to the basement door and at the top of the stairs I turned on the light. His shoulders sagged when he looked into the bright, modern space we’d created below. “I see what you mean,” he said. I suppose he’d been imagining a dim cavity smelling of coal dust, a frightened boy scratching his initials into the red brick with a bent nail. He shook his head. “This is quite some place you have here.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, as if this were something to be ashamed of. He wasn’t listening to me. Lost in thought, he sighed, then took a step toward the pale green wall, which he touched with his palm. He leaned in, his head lowered, eyes closed for a few seconds as if he were praying. He made a sound but I couldn’t catch its meaning. Had he found anything, I wondered.
“Thank you,” he said after a while. “Thank you so much.”
After he left I was restless. Something about his visit irritated me. I returned the half-filled glass of water to the sink and washed it. Now that he was gone the smell of cigarettes was fainter, but I opened a window anyway. I planned to leave it open for a half hour or so and then drive to the lake. There was no need to tell Anna about any of this. Before I left, though, I went to the basement and looked at the portion of the wall that my visitor had touched. I couldn’t be sure exactly where he’d put his palm, and certainly there was no mark. I’m not guilty, I wanted to say to somebody. That didn’t make me feel better.
K. C. Frederick grew up in Detroit and lives near Boston. In addition to his six novels, he’s published or has short fiction forthcoming in Epoch, The Missouri Review, Shenandoah, Fiction International and The Kenyon Review OnLine.