by Triss Stein
Enjoy this never before published mystery short story by mystery author Triss Stein. It has a winter setting, which sounds nice as the weather starts getting hot.
It doesn’t snow here anymore, not the way it used to. Oh, I remember walking on the sidewalks and the snow banks towering over my head. I remember the tall metal poles at every fire hydrant, painted yellow at the top so firemen could find the hydrants if they were buried–and they were buried for months and months. I remember waking up early, when it was still dark, to the sound of snow shovels scraping the sidewalk and fumbling for the radio knob, listening breathlessly to the ‘school closing’ announcements.
I remember the morning father opened the front door to go to work and found the snow had covered the porch steps and was still falling, softly, relentlessly. For the first and last time ever, he took off his three-piece suit and went back to bed.
In the falling snow, the familiar world turned into something else, white, hushed and full of mystery. It’s snowing today, but it doesn’t snow like that anymore. I used to think the snow was the reason we had an army base here during the war. This was a good place to train soldiers to fight in cold places–Bastogne, the Alps and the Aleutian Islands.
After the war, the base was closed down for decades. Local politicians did their best to convince the Department of Defense that this was the perfect place to train for the inevitable war with Russia, but no one listened. Then, decades later, it was reopened and became the home of a division that had a history as Alpine fighters after all. Now our town is filled once again with baby-faced young men and hardened career soldiers, shopping for sports gear, going to bars and looking for girls, right alongside the ghosts of those first soldiers. This time they could bring their families too, and the Army built and built. They get shipped out to fight in the freezing Hindu Kush…and in the desert too. Makes about as much sense as most military decisions.
Of course, I am relying on my memory and the TV about these new solders. I haven’t been out and about seeing them in person for a while now. I’m not sure how long, really. Time has become puzzling and slippery for me, running and standing still all at once. Truth to tell, I remember the original soldiers better. Of course I do. I see them in my mind, the sharp old uniforms, not that ugly camouflage they seem to wear now, and the bright badges for Divisions that maybe don’t even exist anymore, the old Army trucks with canvas sides and people listening to the war news on the radio in the coffee shops. Yep, a scene by Norman Rockwell, but I was there.
These new baby soldiers, they probably don’t know a thing about all those ghosts walking around next to them. Now all those boys I knew are down to just a handful of little old men laying wreaths. Even the ones who remember them are almost gone too. I’m still here though. I was just a girl when they started coming into town, first in trickles and then in floods, even before we were in the war. This sleepy little old city, all its old prosperity and local importance eaten up by the Depression, started coming back to life.
Goodness, it was exciting in those days. I was in my first semester at Vassar when Pearl Harbor was bombed and when I came home that summer, I told my parents I wasn’t going back. We had what was–for us–quite an argument. No raised voices or passionate language, that wasn’t our style, but Father did go so far as to slap his hand on the table.
“I can’t take Latin and art appreciation seriously,” I said, “when history is going on all around us. I’ll go back later.” I swore I would.
“No one goes back after they leave,” they said, “and nice girls belong in a women’s college, not in a town full of soldiers from who knows where, roaming around.”
“It is my patriotic duty,” I said, “to do war work.” They started to waver, but then they said, “Join the Red Cross club at college, knit socks and write letters to soldiers.”
I pulled up the big guns then and said I would just go off and join the WACS without telling them and they caved in. I remember Father, looking so implacable while he carved the roast, and Mother so worried, nervously folding and smoothing her napkin at the dinner table, and jumping up as soon as the conversation ended to serve the apple pie.
Ah, here she is, my nice girl who brings me dinner when I’m not up to going to the dining room. Carrie? Katie? Kerry, that’s it. Silly name but she is a sweet child, fresh-faced and smiling. Sometimes she slips me an extra piece of pie. She always remembers my cranberry juice and she sets the tray properly, with the napkin folded under the fork and a little bud vase on special occasions. She’s married to a soldier too.
Something’s wrong tonight though. Her eyes are all red and her smile is just pasted on. She has makeup an inch thick. Pancake makeup, we used to call it. She doesn’t need all that “gunk.” They tell me my mind is pretty fuzzy some days, but my eyesight is just as sharp as ever. Never had glasses a day in my life; I know what I see right now.
“Thank you, my dear,” I say, as she settles the tray and uncovers the dishes. Then I say,
“What’s wrong? You aren’t your usual chipper self.” Subtle, that’s the way.
She bursts into tears and says, “He’s going back. Jack, my husband. We just heard. He’s only been home a little while and he’s…we never even adjusted…and now…”
“Do you mean, back to the front?”
She nods. “The ‘Stan, they call it.” Then she is crying too hard to speak and I just put my arms around her as if she is the child I never had.
“I know. I know. Your heart just hurts, doesn’t it?”
“Yes. And it hasn’t been…since he came home…”
“It’s so hard, having them go away like that. Oh, yes, it is.”
She straightens up suddenly. “Look at me blubbering. I’m so ashamed.” She becomes very busy wiping her eyes and straightening her uniform, and when she has wiped her eyes, I see the purple under the makeup.
I touch it and say, “What’s this?”
“Nothing,” she says quickly, as her hand goes up to her eye. “There’s nothing.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my eyesight,” I remind her. “Mean old age has left me that much at least. Half-inch closer to your eye, it would be a first class shiner.”
“No,” she stammers. “No, it’s not…”
“Don’t bother, dear. I grew up with boy cousins, lots of them. I know a shiner when I see one, even with that ugly makeup spackled on.”
Her smile fades from weak to none, but she says, “When it snowed the other day? It was so exciting. I’m from Georgia, you know. I never saw anything like it. I was–I was making snow angels. Some of the neighbor kids showed me, and someone threw a snowball and hit me hard. That’s all. I wanted to cover it up for work. That’s all it was.”
She turns her head away, quickly. Then she says, trying to sidetrack me, “Remember doing that when you were little?”
“Of course I do. You lie on top of the snow and sweep your legs in and out to make a pattern like a robe and you sweep your arms up and down to make a pattern like wings. Then try to figure out how to get up without messing up the design!”
“That’s it! Well.” She stands up tall, with squared shoulders and straight spine, military straight. “You go ahead and have your meal and I have to get back to work.”
“You can break down with me any time, dear. I do understand. It will be our little secret.”
She nods, lips tight, and turns to leave but then turns back. “You said you know? Were you ever married to a soldier yourself?”
“Yes, I was, a long time ago. You go on now.”
She leaves so I don’t have to tell her we weren’t quite married in the sight of man and God, or the Army either, but only because we couldn’t pull it off in time. There were too many complications. I hadn’t even figured out how to tell my parents. We were married in our own eyes though, and in our hearts. We did manage to slip away for a two-day honeymoon. I wore his Woolworth ring around my neck, hidden on a long chain, until the end of the war. I wonder if my little Kerry would have been shocked.
Then I drifted, I suppose, because I was making snow angels, going in to my house after and my mother scolding because I was sopping wet. She had to hang the woolen jacket, socks and mittens up to dry over the metal register set flat in the floor where the heat came up from the furnace. Pretty soon the room smelled of hot wet wool and the register hissed when the melting snow hit it.
I woke up to the television, where there were people talking about the deployed soldiers, how hard it is on their families and how they have some kind of instant messages, using computers. With pictures, too! They can even talk back and forth. I couldn’t understand how it worked, but I thought it sounded like a miracle. All we had were our letters and they meant the whole world to us. In his last letters from the front, my soldier wrote about the snow. He was in a forest somewhere, in the coldest winter of the war. He could not say where but I figured it out later. It was called the Battle of the Bulge.
It snowed and snowed and then snowed some more. He wrote me that his time at “Camp Icicle” had prepared him perfectly for it. He joked once that if I was there, being such a tough North Country girl, I wouldn’t even need the wool socks I sent him. Then he added that a girl from the frozen north was everything he ever needed or wanted to keep warm. I cried when I read that. I kept those letters for years and years, but I don’t know if they came with me to this place where I live now.
That television program was interesting but I suppose I drifted off again, because next thing I knew there was an old movie on, so old it seemed to star a matinee idol from my youth. There were pirates in it. I heard someone talking but it was not Tyrone Power’s voice. I knew that voice in an instant and it woke me right up. But what was he saying? I couldn’t make it out. I called to him, but he was gone.
My mind was not playing tricks. No, it wasn’t. I was sure I heard his voice–and yet…that movie was one we saw together, sitting in the back row of the big movie palace that used to be right downtown. He held my hands and whispered in my ear and his voice became part of the movie. I wondered if I got into bed and buried myself deep in the pillow, with the movie still on, could I dream myself back into that movie theater?
Kerry tiptoed in to take away my tray, but now I was wide awake and thinking. His voice did not come back, no matter how hard I listened and I didn’t care anymore about watching Tyrone Power sword fighting. I thought about Kerry and the ace bandage on her wrist last week. The time she wore a hot turtleneck in the summer heat and the way she started to push up those hot sleeves, but suddenly stopped and jerked them down. And I thought, ‘Oh, Aaron, why did you wake me up and then leave me with a problem to solve myself?’ Maybe I even said it out loud.
It was still snowing the next morning, the first real snow this year. I got myself up and used my walker to get out to the big windows in the lounge. I wanted to see that snow piling up outside.
And I did.
I also saw Kerry out in the parking lot, next to a banged up car. There was a man too, a skinny, scrappy-looking fellow in a puffy, black winter jacket. He was holding her arm, bending it and she was pulling away. Was he shouting at her? Just as she finally got free, he hit her in the face with his other hand. She ran toward our building so fast she was stumbling and he just stood there, not moving, fists clenched, face stunned. It had all happened in a few seconds.
I wrapped my shaking hands tightly around the walker handle bar and hoped my shaking legs would get me back to my room. Now I knew why Aaron woke me up that night. He was giving me a job to do. Someone needed help, needed rescuing. That was Aaron all right.
I was the one needing a rescue when we met. I’d plowed father’s Buick into a snow bank coming back from my job at the Army base. Father had taught me what to do. There was sand and a shovel in the trunk and boards to go under the tires, but the snow was higher than the tops of my boots. I couldn’t see how I would dig out and I was trembling with fear that I’d done some real damage to the car. It was wartime. We were lucky to keep a car going and there were no replacement parts to be had anywhere.
Father would kill me, in his quiet, proper way. He would quietly just let me know how badly I had let him down, let myself down, let down mother who depended on us to get her around. Let down the whole war effort, probably.
I would have preferred yelling.
Then a jeep stopped and three young soldiers piled out, two privates led by a tall skinny corporal with snapping dark eyes and snow speckled dark hair. Mother would have said I should be nervous, a young woman alone on an empty road with early winter darkness closing in, but I looked at that grinning corporal’s face and I only saw my rescuer. There were jokes about damsels in distress but they put their shoulders to the car and rocked it until it was free. Then the corporal turned on the headlights, carefully backed it out of the snow bank and handed me the keys with a gesture not quite a bow.
I was so grateful I was babbling, but when I managed to blurt out “How can I ever thank you?” he grinned and said, “We have passes tomorrow night. Come out with us. Show some homesick New Yorkers the local sights.”
“Well, yes,” I said. “Yes.” I could hardly get the words out
“I’m Aaron Sobel,” he said. “Meet Julie and Si, Pride of the Rainbow Division. Pick you up at 8? Where do you live?”
I thought about this young man with the challenging twinkle in his eyes, his New York accent and his Jewish name in my parents’ home and said, “Uh, no. I’ll meet you at the USO.”
Now, today, I had a job to do, helping someone the way he helped me.
When Kerry came in, she only said, “I’m sorry I’m a little slow today. I was in a car accident last night.” The side of her cheek was purple and at my horrified exclamation, she said quickly,
“I just skidded into a snow bank but I banged my face on the steering wheel. I’m a Georgia girl, damn it! I don’t know about driving in a blizzard.”
“It could happen to anyone. Are you all right?”
She nodded and said, “The car isn’t, though.” She added, as if continuing an argument, “It wasn’t my fault! It wasn’t. How could I know what to do?” She stopped, with her hand over her mouth as if trying to hold in the words.
“Listen to me,” I said, holding tight to her other hand so she could not slip away. “I was looking out at the parking lot just now.”
“Doesn’t the Army have some kind of office for this kind of problem? I’m sure I heard about it on TV.”
“It would be wrong…he’s a soldier, going back…I have to support him, not get him into trouble…”
“Then talk to my friend. Well, the child of an old friend, and not such a child anymore. You call her.” I kept my phone book handy, right under my phone and found the page. “See? Right here! Women for Women. You call her, and soon. What do they say in the army? PDQ?”
Kerry just stared at me and I finally wrote the name and number and put it in her pocket. I didn’t know what else to do.
I can’t,” she said. “He would…last night…after the car…he…”
“You call, damn it to hell!”
She looked shocked at that. I’m sure she’s heard way worse but not from me, nice old lady that I am. “Don’t wait until he puts you in the hospital–or worse.”
She nodded, speechless, and walked away. I was relieved that I did not see her take the paper out of her pocket.
“Well, Aaron,” I said out loud, “is I on the right track?” I felt him there, answering me.
That long ago night when he showed up at the USO, we talked and danced and went for a walk and talked some more. He took me home in the jeep, walked me to my door and didn’t try to kiss me, but we stood under the porch light for a long time, just looking into each other’s eyes. I was up all night, thinking about him, how we’d laughed, how we couldn’t stop talking, how we seemed to have told each other everything that mattered about our lives. How he had chosen social work after helping his mother leave the stepfather who used to beat her up. Helping people kind of became a habit, he said, after that, so he planned to make it his life’s work.
We talked about City College and how it was different from Vassar and how it wasn’t. He would go back to finish his social work degree and I would go back for my degree in something still to be decided. How we both planned to travel, when the war was over, to London and Paris and Rome, how I liked swashbuckling movies and how he’d taken fencing in gym. He showed me some moves and we couldn’t stop laughing.
His boyhood in a struggling Bronx neighborhood, hit hard by the Depression, and his socialist relatives. How could I introduce him to my Roosevelt-hating father? And how glad I was that I’d encountered some new ideas about that when I went to college.
And how handsome he was.
Why was I thinking about him so much, after all these years? It was so many years ago when he went off to freeze in the Battle of the Bulge. He wrote me whenever he could and I wrote him every day, until the day the Army itself finally wrote to me.
His last letters, moving slowly back from the front, across Europe and across the ocean, came to me one by one over time, when there was no longer any way to answer them. I did my crying behind my locked bedroom door, but the day my last letters to him, undeliverable, started coming back to me, I wrote to Vassar. I had to move away from my parent’s house and out into the big world, just as soon as I could. It’s not as if I hadn’t had a whole life, after. Marriage, later in life, to a nice man, work, travel and dogs instead of the children who never came.
Ah, yes. I was thinking about him because of car accidents and young soldiers and people who need help. That’s why, and I still believe I heard his voice the other night. I almost hear it now, encouraging me to find a way. What I do hear right now, for real, is the phone ringing. At the other end, there is a man’s voice. Not Aaron’s. Of course not; I am old but I am not crazy. He isn’t using AT&T to call me from wherever he is now.
Actually, I don’t know this voice at all and he doesn’t say who he is. He is shouting and using nasty words, and telling me to leave his wife alone, to keep my old nose out of his business and to remember he was trained to fight. I put the phone down without saying a word to him. I could guess who it was. I’ve met men like him before. I might have spent the war years at home, volunteering at the USO and typing at an army camp office, but I went back to college after. I became a social worker in upstate factory towns, so yes; I’ve dealt with this man in other places and times. He wanted me to be afraid of him. Expected it and took it for granted. Ha! In my tough old mind, I wasn’t afraid, not a bit. A bully is just a blowhard and crumbles with the shock whenever someone stands up to him–most of the time, anyway. Most of the time, he’s all hot air.
But in my frail old body I had to admit I was plenty afraid. Stand up to him tough as I liked, and he still could blow me down with one puff. ‘Aaron, damn it. You don’t know how old I got.’ How could I help Kerry when her job is to help me? On a good day, I can make a phone call and dress myself, on a bad day, I don’t get out of bed and I am happy to have my meals come on a tray. Sometimes I am too confused to find my way to the dining room.
In awhile she came back, my little Kerry, and stood looking at me. She had covered her face with heavy makeup again and her voice shook when she talked, but her eyes were steady on me. She said, “I called. I’m not going home. I’m going there and they will help me.” Then her face crumpled and she said, “He’s not a bad man. You have to understand that. He…he’s all messed up. He wasn’t the same after he came home…”
“I know, dear, I know. But you can’t let him keep hurting you.”
Her eyes were teary as she said softly, “A girl at Fort Bragg got killed that way. It was on the radio today.” She nodded once, hard, and left quickly. I dozed off in my chair, so relieved that she was taking the first step.
A roaring voice woke me up. Someone was in the hall, shouting. “Where is she? My wife. I have a right to see her!” He followed with a string of language that must have turned the air blue. I took the few steps from my big chair to the door to see what was going on.
It was a skinny man in an Army uniform and a puffy black jacket, turning around and around, searching, a gun in his hand but pointing down–for now. The head nurse was talking to him in the super calm, soothing tone she used– they all used–for residents who were having a meltdown. Just like talking to a child in a tantrum and he was still shouting. In the background, staff was very quietly, very swiftly, helping residents move away–around the corner or into a lounge which could be locked or back to their rooms. In an office across the hall, I could see someone frantically pushing buttons on a phone.
He turned again and stopped, looking at me, narrowing his reddened eyes. “I know you. You’re the one filling her up with all that garbage about me hurting her. I wouldn’t, not ever. She called me. She said she isn’t coming home. I said, yeah, where would you go where I can’t track you down? And she told me you told her…”
Two steps and he was at my side, holding my arm, tears streaming down his face. “Where is she? I can’t make it without her. Where is she? ”
He was gripping my arm so hard I thought it would break, and then he began to shake me.
The elevator bell rang and he turned his head without letting me go. Our one security guard was walking toward him, cautiously, hands up and open, saying softly, “Now, sir, why not just drop that gun before someone gets hurt? You don’t want to hurt anyone, do you?” Kerry’s husband looked down at the gun with some surprise, as if he’d forgotten about it and lifted it to my head. All movement in the hall stopped; everyone froze. It seemed as if everyone even stopped breathing, except for two uniformed cops slipping silently along the wall from the other end of the hallway.
And then I saw another man too, just behind Kerry’s husband, in an old-fashioned Army uniform and long khaki coat. He was tall and dark, with snowflakes caught in his black hair. He put his finger to his lips, warning me not to call out to him and then he was telling me what to do. No one heard him but me.
“You must be Jack,” I said politely, looking right at the man with the gun. “Kerry showed me your picture. Are you from Georgia too?”
“Where. Is. She.” He squeezed my arm harder and moved the gun closer.
“How nice of you to come to visit,” I said. “Would you like to join me for some coffee?” I couldn’t fight him, but maybe I could confuse him. I shifted my focus, just for a second, and my Aaron, the soldier only I could see, gave me a “thumbs up.”
Jack blinked and loosened his grip, but he recovered instantly. “Don’t change the subject, you interfering old bitch. I can’t lose my wife. Tell me!” The gun was under my chin now.
Then, I was scared, really and truly, but I told myself Aaron was still there. “I want to help you, but I just don’t understand.” My voice was perfect, a sweet little old lady with missing marbles. “What is it you lost? Perhaps I could find it for you.”
“You stupid old cow! I’d be happy to just shoot you now, but then you couldn’t tell me,could you? Would hurting you a little make you smarter?” He suddenly twisted my arm behind my back and I gasped or maybe screamed – it hurt so much– and the frozen figures in the corridor seemed to snap to life. I had kept him busy just long enough for the police to move in right behind him. In a rush, they grabbed his gun, tackled him to the floor and pulled him away. As they muscled him down the hall, he shouted obscenities at them, me, the home and pleaded for his missing wife.
Then, after it was over and I was safe, my old body finally betrayed me and I felt myself falling. Just before the blackness blotted out the last of my vision, I saw arms in khaki sleeves reaching out to me, but when I opened my eyes again, it was a nurse who was holding me there on the floor.
People came and checked me out for fractures. Then they carried me to my bed and told me I was wonderful and checked my blood pressure and held a light in my eyes and gave me some kind of shot, or maybe put me on an IV. It all became very confusing. I tried to ask about Kerry. She was safe, they told me, and her husband is going to jail. You rest, they murmured. You had a terrible experience. You need to recover your strength. But it wasn’t all terrible, I tried to say.
No one heard me, except the tall soldier standing in the shadows in the corner of my room. When they left me alone at last he sat next to my bed and his eyes told me that he was not seeing this old bag of bones I have become. We talked and laughed and remembered all the old times. The old times were all we ever had.
In the morning, I woke up to snow light coming in my window, that special winter light that only exists after a heavy snowfall, when sunlight is reflecting off a world covered in whiteness.
Check out a review of Triss’ mystery novel Brooklyn Bones, and an interview with Triss here in KRL.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.