Monday, June 11, 2012

#37: "Souvenir" by Diane Simmons

~This piece previously appeared in Local Knowledge (2009)

            He said do you want to come to my place and I said OK.  We paid the bill and walked along to Twelfth Street. We went in to a second floor apartment. It was the usual railroad, long and narrow with windows at either end. 
At the front was a bed.  At the back was the kitchen with a small table and one chair.  In between were two narrow, windowless rooms entirely given over to ceiling-high shelves. The shelves nearest the door contained what looked to be about a thousand record albums.  The shelves closer to the kitchen held CD cases, hundreds of them.
            We passed between the shelves to the kitchen.
 “You sit in the chair,” he said.  “I can get another one in a minute.”
He opened the refrigerator door. An army of brown beer bottles had taken over the top shelves.
            “Want one?”
            “Not yet.”
            He opened a bottle, put his head back and took a long swig.
            He took a foil-covered dish from the one shelf of the refrigerator that had food, put it on the counter, then bent down and lit the gas oven with a match.
He leaned against the counter, pulling hard on the bottle again.
            “I never saw anybody with so many recordings.”
            “Music is pretty much my emotional life. Just to be up front about that.”
He finished his beer, opened another one, and took a long drink.  He put the foil-covered dish in the oven. He took another pot out of the refrigerator and put it on top of the stove, turning the flame on low. He set a timer for thirty minutes, then took another swig.
“I’m an alcoholic,” he said. “I usually slow down after two or three, though.  I’ll go up and get another chair now.”
“You have another floor?”
“My parents live on the second floor.  That’s the other thing. Besides the music, I mean. And being an alcoholic.”
He took a drink.
 “I usually check in on them when I get home,” he said. “I’ll just go up for a minute and I’ll borrow a chair.  Unless you want to come.  It’s good for them to see people once in a while. Only if you feel like it.”

We went upstairs, Len taking along the ticking timer that had twenty-five minutes left.
“Hey, Ma!” he yelled, knocking at the door. “Ma!” 
Eventually the locks inside began to click and a small old woman with jet black hair and pink-rimmed glasses opened the door.  She looked up at me with alarm.
“Ma, this is Cam. Don’t worry. It’s no big deal.”
“No big deal?” she repeated, a trace of accent under the English.
“Right.  I’m just giving her some dinner down there and we came up to borrow a chair.”
            “Sure you can have a chair,” she said, not moving from the doorway.
“Well, I can’t get it if you don’t let me in.”
Len’s mother stepped aside.  The apartment was just like his, except that instead of a room full of records there was a dining table with a white lace table cloth under a chandelier.  Under the light of six bulbs a heavy, white-haired old man sat motionless over a newspaper.
“Dad, this is Cam.”
 The old man looked up slowly.
 “She’s just stopping by.”
“I’ve got some cake,” the mother said, moving slowly toward the kitchen.
“Ma, we can’t stay. We don’t want cake now.  We’re going to eat dinner. I’ve got pots on the stove.”
Len’s mother went on, though, and from the kitchen came the sound of clinking china.
“You left the fire on?” the father said.
“Very low, Dad. And I’ve got the timer here so I don’t forget.”
The clinking of plates went on in the kitchen.
“Ma, we can’t stay,” Len called again, but in a minute his mother came out with a large tray that held dessert plates, forks, and a white cake box.  She put it all down and went slowly back to the kitchen.
“Well,” Len said. “A little cake won’t kill us I guess. We’ll sit for a minute OK?”
“No coffee, Ma,” Len called.  “We’ll stay for some cake but we don’t want coffee, OK? Come. Come on and sit.”
He went to get her in the kitchen. I sat down at the lace covered table.
“Are you in on it too?” the old man asked.
“In on what?”
“I know what Leonard is involved in.”
“I know. It’s in here.”
He tapped the newspaper that lay on the table in front of him.
“I’m involved in mishegoss is what I’m involved in,” Len said, coming back in with his mother by the elbow.
His mother opened the box which held a quarter of a chocolate cake. She cut four small slices and handed out the plates, along with forks and white paper napkins.
“Thank you,” I said.
“You’re welcome.”
“You left the fire on?” Len’s father said.
“Very low. Under something that had a lot of liquid. I’ll check it in a few minutes.”
Len’s mother got up and moved slowly to a shelf.  She came back with a photo album.
“Ma, maybe not right now. We have to go on down in just a minute. I’ve got stuff on the stove.”
“You left the fire on?” the father said.
Len’s mother opened the album and put it in front of  me.  On the first page was a black and white snapshot of fifteen or twenty figures taken from a distance.  They were all walking the same direction in a loose group, all slightly hunched, all in striped pajama-type suits.
 “OK,OK,” Len said. “Let’s just do it and get it over with.  So. This is a picture of them before they were married.  At least, my mother thinks it’s them.  Close enough.”
Len glanced at the picture.
 “It’s Auschwitz.  They were both there when it was liberated.  Somebody took this picture in the last months.  Nobody knows who. It seems too amateurish for anything official.  Just somebody who wanted a souvenir, probably.”
“That’s me and that’s Ned,” the mother said, pointing a short thick finger.
“Allegedly,” Len said. “Other evidence indicates they never met when they were in Auschwitz.”
            I looked closely at the small figures that could have been Len’s mother and father. I couldn’t make out the faces.
“I remember that morning,” the mother said.
“No you don’t,” Len said.
 “Yes I do. We were going out to cut wood. And there was somebody off in the distance. I remember seeing them out of the corner of my eye. That’s probably who took this picture.”
“The more you look at it, the more you make up. You know that.”
“Nobody’s making up anything, Mister.”
She turned the page. Here there was an old-fashioned class photograph of a dozen teen-age boys in knickers, shirts and rumpled sweaters, the front row sitting, the back row standing.
After a while Len’s mother turned the page again.  Now one of the faces from the back row, a big smiling boy with lots of wavy dark hair and a crooked front tooth, had been isolated and enlarged so that it filled the page.
Len looked at the picture.
“That’s my mother’s brother, Leo. This is the only picture
of him. She doesn’t have pictures of anybody else. My dad doesn’t have any pictures of his family.”
 As Len’s mother turned the pages there were half a dozen more blurry enlargements of the same boy’s face, each print a different size. Then the album pages went black. His mother turned back to the page with the biggest enlargement.  
“He was sixteen.  He was older than me. Two years older. I remember the day this was taken.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Yes I do. Afterward we went out on the lake in a little sailboat.  I don’t know whose sailboat it was but I know that’s what we did.  It was Leo and me and another girl.  The other girl was wearing a bright green sweater. I remember it vividly.”
“Yeah, well. I’m suspicious because you only started saying that about a year ago.”
“It came back to me, Mr. Smarty.”
“OK, OK. You went out on a sail boat.”
“He’s handsome,” I said. “He has beautiful hair.”
            “Very handsome. He had so many girlfriends. Like the one on the boat. The one in the green sweater.”
            She got up slowly, picked up the album, carried it back to the shelf.
            “My mother’s mother was smarter than most people. When the Nazis said come out, other people went out.  She didn’t. She hid everybody. That’s why they didn’t get taken until late in the war. My mother was at Auschwitz for less than a year. That’s probably why she survived. That and the fact she was so young.”
            “Leo was young too.”
            “Yes but he got shot didn’t he? Being young didn’t help.”
“Every day we marched past the doctor,” Len’s mother told me. “He wore a beautiful uniform. He looked so beautiful, like a god.  He told us to go left or go right.  I saw the sick people were all going left so I always went right, no matter what he said to me.  I didn’t even listen to what he said to me. I just went right. The funny thing was, they didn’t notice.”
“You were a smart kid,” Len said.  “You and Grandma were both smart.”
“Why did you leave the fire on?” Len’s father said.
 “OK, Dad. Let me go down and turn it off.  Then in a minute we have to go.”
“Eat more cake,” Len’s mother said to me when he had gone. “Ned, hand me the knife.”
 Len’s father picked up the cake knife and pointed it at his chest.
“When I see God,” he said, “I’m going to stab him in the heart.”
“Ned, hand me the knife. We have a guest and I want to cut cake.”
Len’s father put the knife down and pushed it to her over the lace table cloth.
“I know what Len is doing,” he said.
“He’s not doing anything, Ned.”
“She’s in on it too."
“She’s not in on anything. She’s just a girl he met.”
“She’s the same one.”
Len’s mother turned to me, suddenly alarmed behind the pink-framed glasses.
“Are you the same one?”
From the apartment below there came a rhythmic thumping.
            “That’s his music,” Len’s mother said, smiling for the first time. “He plays it all night long. So I can know he’s there.”


Why this story?
Like many of people, I came to New York City to be a writer.  What I hadn’t anticipated was that being here would liberate me to write, not about New York, but about the far West where I spent my first thirty years.  As a result, my most successful work is set in that high Eastern Oregon desert, or on the road between one Western wide spot and another.  That doesn’t mean I haven’t aspired to write about New York City.  I have.  I just haven’t been highly successful at it. I’ve realized that, on some level, I’ll always be on the outside looking in. So I like “Souvenir” because it is a New York story and because the outsider who tells it is privileged—as I in fact was privileged— to be given a brief but searingly intimate look inside an experience far from her own.
Diane Simmons’ short fiction collection, Little America, winner of the 2010 Ohio State University prize for fiction, was published by the Ohio State University Press.  Her short story, “Yukon River,” was a runner-up for the 2010 Missouri Review Editor’s Prize.  Other short fiction has appeared in journals such as Beloit Fiction Review, Blood Orange Review, and Northwest Review.  Her novel, Dreams Like Thunder, won the Oregon Book Award for Fiction.  Her novel,  Let the Bastards Freeze in the Dark, was published by Simon and Schuster.  In addition, she has published critical biographies on Maxine Hong Kingston and Jamaica Kincaid.  For more information:

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