By Mike Szymanski
He cut through the park to get to Fuller Street, scurrying past the hunched Russian with the captain’s cap selling wilted lettuce and soft apples from the back of his Isuzu pickup. Heinrich smirked at the vendor, who tipped his cap.
Although they never ever exchanged more than a few words, they shared a lifetime of past secrets.
Selling fruit and vegetables in the park is illegal, both gentlemen knew, but whenever the cops tried to boot out the vendor he lapsed into his native tongue and pretended not to understand. The vendor never knew that it’s Heinrich who keeps calling the police on him.
Three portly babushkas with shawls plant themselves every afternoon in the driveway of his house on Fuller Street, and there they were as usual yammering away as Heinrich grunted past them. He knew they whispered about him: how he lived alone in the only private house left on Fuller Street; how unfair it is that they live crammed together in the slapped-up stucco apartments built next to him; and how he is the most eligible bachelor close to their age.
He tried a few years ago to earn their approval by planting orange poppies around the front porch, but neighbors dropped Marlboro butts in the yard and let their cats dig in it, so he let the crabgrass choke out all the flowers. One of the babushka’s pesky Pomeranian yipped a squeaky yelp at his ankles and Heinrich growled back. The lady snatched up the dog and smothered it in her cellulose arms. They jabbered even louder, pointing at him as if conjuring a curse. He didn’t care. They were jealous, he decided.
He smacked closed the wooden gate behind him and looked up at the drab forest green asbestos tiles and noted to himself they needed repainting. The bushes grew over the front windows, but that was fine to Heinrich because it kept neighbors from peering in, and kept his place dark. He unlocked the top lock, then the dead bolt and the door lock and leaned into the heavy door — so big it would’ve allowed all the babushkas to walk in at the same time shoulder to shoulder. They’d never be allowed into the house on Fuller Street though, especially now.
Especially after the visits started.
It first began a little over a month ago. Heinrich thought someone was playing a trick on him. He thought maybe it was the neighborhood ruffians who taunted him when he walked through Plummer Park. Or the boys who built a tree house out front until Heinrich smashed the steps with a hammer. Or perhaps the vegetable vendor who finally figured out he was one who was calling the police. Or maybe it was those jealous fat babushkas that watched his every move as he puttered around his five-bedroom Craftsman.
He sniffed as he entered. The smell was back. It smelled like must or ash baked into the walls. The smell lingered in different parts of the house, it moved. It collected in one corner, wafted and gathered up in another part of the house. For years, Heinrich charted its path, but suddenly it grew stronger, and more prevalent throughout the whole house. And, more familiar.
The smell wasn’t as strange as the haunted bird feeder hanging from the porch. Often, it would swing violently from side to side when no wind was blowing. Once, the mailman saw it shaking and squirming and suggested that a bird or rat was trapped inside. The mailman looked inside it for Heinrich. He found nothing.
“You’re a witness, things like this happen here all the time,” the old man said.
“All the time?” the mailman gulped.
“All the time.”
The house bore scars: cracks in the porch from the house settling; cracked windows from the boys who threw stones; scorched floorboards in the hall when bums broke in while Heinrich was out and started a small fire to keep warm.
Over the years, visitors or vandals pulled out the decorative square light fixtures, pocketed most of the glass doorknobs, stole the brass light plates, and snatched off the tear-drop yellowed glass from the chandeliers. He believed some of the potted rose bushes on the apartment balconies looking over into his backyard actually came from his overgrown yard, but he can’t prove it. Kids threw tennis balls at the faded peach, green and yellow stained glass windows in the dining room and cracked most of them. Heinrich covered the windows with trash bags.
“Well, you done yet?” Heinrich muttered to his microwave as his schnitzel sizzled inside.
He picked at his supper, washed the dish, and embarked on his daily tour of the house with a wet paper towel brushing off dust and a capturing a web here and there that grew off his restored antique flea market furniture.
He heard a faint whimper. It was Fritzy. The old timid Dachshund was 19 years old when she disappeared one morning. Fritzy wouldn’t even go into the backyard without Heinrich standing guard, but one day, Fritzy simply walked away and disappeared.
He could hear her though, whimpering around the house as if under the floorboards. Heinrich paid one of the neighbor boys two bucks to crawl under the house to looking for her, thinking she may be stuck.
“I hear it, right over here,” the boy said as he searched for the dog under the house. “I don’t see anything under there, though.”
That was three years ago. Certainly a carcass would have turned up by now. And that smell in the house, well, no, it wasn’t of a decaying dog. But still, on occasion, Fritzy whimpers within the walls of the house on Fuller Street.
The light in the kitchen flickered out. As Heinrich left the room, it flickered on again. As he walked through the den, the Tiffany lamp went out and left him in the dark.
“Damn bulbs always burning out at the wrong time,” Heinrich muttered.
The Tiffany flickered back on as he hobbled upstairs.
Heinrich stayed most of the time in one room upstairs in the smallest of the five bedrooms.
“Where’s all this dust come from?” he mumbled, pausing to note how gravelly his voice sounded. Was he getting a chill? He doesn’t talk to anyone very much anymore, mostly to himself.
That night he figured he’d be ready for the visit again. He had the brown paper bag next to his bed, the glass, and the camera. He fidgeted much of the night, trying to flip through some musty hard bounds from the shelves downstairs that he never got to finish, trying to stay awake through the eleven o’clock news. Then, he’d watch “Nightline,” a “Lucy” re-run and then an old black-and-white movie he often remembered vaguely seeing long ago in the theater.
He knew that 3:13 was approaching and there was nothing he could do to stop it.
A month before, during an irrational period, Heinrich tried moving the clocks back to see if that would stop the visits. Then, he tried the next night by moving the time forward. But, inevitably, all the clocks would hit thirteen minutes past three o’clock in the morning.
Heinrich didn’t try tricks anymore. He simply decided to welcome the visits, and study them. He picked up a few books on the subject in the library, but they didn’t help much. The few books he did understand were too ridiculous, and the few books he respected were too scientific.
He wondered if someone was getting back at him; getting back at him for something they perceived he did at one time; getting back at him for escaping something they thought he did wrong. He wondered.
The old gray wood grandfather clock downstairs quick-clicked the quarter hour and Heinrich took a deep breath as he sat in his dark room upstairs. It would come again soon, preceded first by the three deep hollow bongs all spaced out neatly in a row with the very last bong lingering in the house until it was absorbed into the wooden walls. The quarter-hour quick click just before the three bongs signaled Heinrich’s first plan of action. He opened the brown paper back and pulled out the Stolichnaya and overflowed it into his shot glass — his prized antique from the New York World’s Fair with the big globe almost completely scratched off. He hadn’t planned on doing it just yet, but he swigged down another two shots much earlier than he wanted to because the warmth of the vodka felt so good in his bones.
He didn’t have the television on tonight, not even with the sound turned down. He sat there in the quiet. He had all the lights on in his room, the overhead bright lights with the 75-watt bulb, the two above his bed with 40 watts each and the night stand three-way lamp switched to its highest setting. He tried to flip through the musty red covered book of Edgar Allan Poe poetry but every time he started reading there was a line about death that distracted him so he finally shut the book and set it back on his nightstand.
The clock struck three. The bongs beat the same time as his heart. They came methodically, slowly, spaced very evenly. Bong, bong, bong.
He became acutely aware of the grandfather clock downstairs, it’s large pendulum wagging, ticking, back and forth. The only other sound was the plastic K-Mart alarm clock in his room, which always had a faster tick-a-tick-a-tick-a-tick. But tonight, just now, it slowed. It became a methodical tock. Tock, tock, just like the clock downstairs, and soon, almost as soon as Heinrich noticed both the sounds, the tocks joined each other in unison, tocking at the same time in some odd chorus beating through the house.
The tock controlled Heinrich’s own insides, his very heartbeat, as if the two clocks in the house forced the thumping in his chest to pound along with them. Tock, thud, tock, thud. Tock, tock, tock. He waited for thirteenth minute.
The flat, squat long wooden house creaked in the wind. The olive tree whooshed and the white lace curtain moved ever so slightly as the wind seeped under the window and blew them as if the window didn’t exist. Heinrich could see the wind bend the olive trees because the shadows beamed by the streetlight made the branches dance on his curtains. He could hear the leaves swirl outside and brush against the house. The wooden floors downstairs creaked, a snapping creak, a painful creak of age. The wind again?
The snap came again, and then again and with each sad snap, the house seemed to groan under its own weight, under its own history. Heinrich knew some of the history. A dividing wall downstairs was added in the 1940s, and inside the walls are rolled up newspapers with world war headlines but the papers crumbled to dust if anyone tried unrolling them. In the 1960s, it was a hippie house like a commune with psychedelic wallpaper that’s now under a coat of shell white paint and the louder colors bleed through on the wall in the kitchen. In the 1980s, it was an AIDS hospice where young men came to die after they were booted out of their homes by their families. When Heinrich had to move quickly, and find a new place to live, he bought the house at a steal.
Heinrich was almost relieved as he heard the creaks come up the stairwell. They popped like his old bones when he stretched in the morning. They squeaked like the mouse he would hear running across the television cable wire outside his window on winter nights.
When he first heard them a little more than a month ago, Heinrich was sure they were footsteps. He was sure that someone was coming up the stairs, a stray bum, a curious Russian, or perhaps the lady with the colostomy bag who insisted there was a secret passage somewhere in the house because she claimed to live there once. The first time he heard it, Heinrich called out and the stepping stopped. That’s when Heinrich grabbed his long sharp sewing scissors, the ones he used sometimes to trim the ivy that was sneaking through the windows on the side of the house. But the scissors would do no good, and the footsteps would always continue.
This time, the steps went uninterrupted. They creaked and snapped all the way up, and on the seventh step a sharp crackle from the board with the loose nail sent ice down Heinrich’s back as he realized he did the same thing every time he walked up those familiar eighteen steps.
When he knew it reached the top of the stairs, his heart leapt into his throat because he was well behind with his well-thought-out plan. He scrambled into the paper bag, nervously fumbling at the wrapping of the package inside. He cursed as his fingers trembled and he could hear the wheezing of the floorboards slide down the hall to his door, which he left slightly ajar.
Heinrich opened the back of his Instamatic and pulled the Konica 135 out a bit too far but wheeled it on the spool and snapped it closed. His hands shook as the door whined opened and he gasped.
The silky white dense oval of smoke hovered indecisively in the doorway as Heinrich backed against the backboard of his bed. He tried speaking to it a few times before, but it never responded. He tried calling out to it, crying out it, shouting it away, but nothing ever seemed to do any good. He even thought, one time very fleetingly, it might just be, well he thought he’d give it a try, and he whispered “Gerta?” But it never responded, never changed, never moved, just oozed away into the dark wood of the house.
It didn’t sparkle, it couldn’t be blotted out like a spotlight, it couldn’t be contained. Even in the bright light of his room, it seemed white. It was clear, he could see himself through it in his dressing mirror on the far wall, his wide-eyed wrinkled face caught in the midst of a swirl of wispy white smoke. It wasn’t really smoke, it was vapor, or gas, like the heat that comes off of ice when hot tea is poured over it.
Heinrich didn’t breathe, didn’t move. He wondered if it could see him, if it knew what he was thinking. He calmed himself with another shot of Stoli and then reached for the Instamatic. He flashed, and expected it to melt away, but it didn’t. He flashed again and again. Then, it moved. It steadied over his desk and regrouped and then neared closer to Heinrich. He kept taking pictures, not moving any more than he needed to, not breathing any more than necessary.
The white pulpy swirl then turned, almost tornado-like and inched in the air toward him. It stretched about a yard in height, about two feet off the ground. It seemed to reach out. His heart pounded louder and faster, now outdistancing even the plastic alarm clock. He winced, he tried to scream, to cry out. He felt himself choking, and then felt himself melting into the mattress below him.
He woke up to a harsh sunbeam in his eyes and he felt a wetness on his chest. Thinking it to be blood at first, he scrambled up and as it trickled to his lap and his hand found the empty Stoli bottle. He cursed and shook his head and changed clothes. As he looked in the mirror he wondered again if it wasn’t all a dream, a concoction of an under-used imagination and an over-used drinking habit. Then, he saw the camera.
After dressing for the walk to Walgreens with the one-hour photo counter, Heinrich locked the house and stopped at the porch to stare at the three Russian women in his driveway. Even though he didn’t drive any more it irritated him seeing how they staked out his property. Heinrich knew he had only taken eight photos on the role of 20, so he stopped to click their picture from the porch. They stopped talking and glared at him. He waved to them. They didn’t react, but instead were so stunned that the one lady let her little Pomeranian run up to him as he exited the wooden fence. Heinrich took a close-up picture of the dog, grumbled, pat it on its head and it ran back to the women.
Heinrich stopped to buy himself a bruised pear at the illegal fruit vendor and patiently waited as the man counted out the change in Russian. Heinrich took a few more photographs of the fruit vendor and then the children in the park as he headed toward the market and the one-hour photo store.
Heinrich stood outside for the pictures and read the newspaper to see if they really would be ready in an hour. They were. As he waited, he wondered why the visits weren’t like anything he had ever read about in the library books. It didn’t talk, it didn’t look like any one or any thing in particular, and it didn’t seem to bring him any sort of message.
Heinrich didn’t open the packet of photographs when he paid the $8.87. Instead, he walked to the park and sat down at his orange bench. He grumbled at the children on the jungle gym as he tore opened the packet and they stopped to watch him for a moment.
He ran his fingers through the thinning wisps of white hair as he looked at the photos. There were the ones of the Pomeranian, the ladies, the fruit vendor, the children in the park, and then his room. In the middle of those photos was a white blotchy hazy area hanging in the middle of the photograph as if someone had painted a thumb with Liquid Paper and splotched the middle of all the pictures. Heinrich seemed satisfied.
He looked around the park at the other old men sitting at their own benches. A homeless young man slept halfway under a bush, a young mother wheeled her baby in a stroller. The children chased each other on the jungle gym.
He wondered what kind of secrets they all held to themselves. He wondered if they had experiences, but just never talked about it. He wondered if they had visits.
He dared let himself remember, for just a brief moment, of the day his name was different, when he had more of an accent, when he was a leader, when he was a killer. He could not mention to anyone how proud he was of his time back then, and he could never discuss his past. The bodies walled up in his house will never be found even if it were burned to the ground. Most of them lie thousands of miles away.
And somehow, now, more than a half-century later, they found him, and are his only companion until he joins them. He winced a tear remembering how powerful he once was, and how powerless he now felt. No regrets.
Heinrich scowled at the children as he noticed they were staring at him again. He waved his hand at them and they ran away toward the basketball courts.
Heinrich stood up abruptly and left behind his newspaper and the photographs of the vendor, the ladies, the dog, the children and the visit. He left behind all the negatives.
As he turned to walk up Fuller Street toward the green house on the corner, a gust of wind caught the Classified section and took it high into the air. The photographs and negatives and newspapers scattered into the park, a few of them blowing into the street, a few of them blowing higher into the air.
Heinrich clicked his heels. He headed home to the house on Fuller Street.
(For more family history stories, fiction and non-fiction, go to https://medium.com/@mikeszythewriter)