One of a Kind
by Paul Bluestein
Marty Goldstein sat up in bed, looked around the room and had no idea where he was. This wasn’t his bedroom! There was no yellow-flowered wallpaper, no French doors leading out to the garden, no dog sleeping beside the dresser. And this wasn’t his bed, the one that he had slept in with Elaine for more than sixty years.
He was still trying to work out the mystery when the aide came in with his breakfast. Now he remembered. Yes, Elaine had been telling him that his memory was fading, and she was right, of course. It had started slowly, forgetting where he put his keys or his wallet or forgetting the names of people he had worked with but, in time, things had gotten worse, and Elaine said he had to be in a place where they could watch over him.
That’s why I’m here, he thought. “My wife put me here,” he said aloud.
“Well, Mister Marty,” Janice replied, “she sure did, but I tell you, she was not at all happy about it. No, not at all, but there was nothing to be done. She couldn’t take care of you no more, and you couldn’t do for yourself, so...” She let the thought drift away. After five years of looking after Mr. Goldstein, she knew enough not to upset him first thing in the morning.
“Your son, Jacob, called yesterday to remind us that he’s coming for his visit today, so why don’t you have some breakfast, then we’ll get you dressed and take a little walk outside. Get some air. It’s a beautiful morning. Not too hot, not too chilly. Blue sky, bright sun. Just the kind of day that makes you feel like God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.”
“Jacob’s coming today? Is Elaine coming too?”
“He didn’t say one way or the other, just that he was coming for maybe an hour or so. So what do you say there, handsome? Some eggs and toast and then a walk around?”
“OK, just a short walk. I don’t want to miss my boy.”
* * *
Jake arrived at the Elliot Rose Home shortly before noon, just as he did every Wednesday. He met Janice at the nurses’ station and together they walked down the hall to Marty’s room. The door was open and he was sitting in his chair, looking out the window.
Janice knocked on the door to get his attention and announced, “Look Mr. Marty! Your son, Jacob, is here.”
“Hi Pop!” Jacob said, walking over to put a hand on Marty’s shoulder. “You ready for lunch? I hear it’s meatloaf today!”
“Is your mother here?”
“No, Pop. She couldn’t make it today, but she sends you her love, like always. Anyway, we’re here and I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry, so what do you say we go get lunch? You like meatloaf, old man?”
Marty stood up, put on a sweater and walked toward the door.”You coming?” he asked without turning around.
When they got to the dining room, it wasn’t very crowded and they had no trouble finding a table for the two of them. They ate their Wednesday meatloaf, mashed potatoes and peas without much talking. Jacob asked Marty how he was doing, if they were treating him well, how he was spending his time.
Marty, in between bites of food, said he was doing OK without either much elaboration or enthusiasm. It was as if he wasn’t really paying attention, as if his mind was someplace else, which it almost certainly was. But when Jacob asked if there was anything he could do for him, he brightened up like the sun peeking through the clouds on a winter day.
“Yes, there is something. I want to go shopping. I want to get a present for your mother. A surprise, just something to let her know I’m thinking of her.”
“You want to go shopping for something for Mom? Really? Shopping?”
“Yes, I want to buy something for her.”
“OK, Pop,” Jacob sighed reluctantly. “I guess we could go to the mall. There’s one just a couple-three miles from here.”
“No, no, no!” he said, sounding like a petulant two-year old. “I don’t want to go to the mall. I want to go to the old neighborhood. You know, where we used to live. I know the stores there.”
“Come on, Pop. That’s almost an hour away. I’m sure you can find something at the mall.”
“No, I want to go to the old neighborhood.”
Jake wasn’t up for a trip to the mall, let alone halfway across town and back, but once Marty got hold of an idea he just kept gnawing at it, or maybe it kept gnawing at him. Resigned, Jake shrugged and said, “OK, I’ll take you back to Castor Avenue, and we can see what’s still there.” He tried hard to keep the frustration he felt from leaking out into his voice.
* * *
The “old neighborhood” was one of the first subdivisions built on the outskirts of Philadelphia after the end of World War II. Brick row-houses, three bedrooms, one bathroom, a small kitchen. Sloping lawn out front and a patch of a backyard.
Marty and Elaine had bought the place in 1947 with the help of the GI Bill and, along with a whole streetful of families just like them, they worked hard, saved their money and told their children to “make something of themselves.” It was a good neighborhood. But that was decades ago and slowly the neighborhood had changed, and not for the better. It acquired the look of a house that hasn’t been “kept up.”
The lawns were either burnt and bare or overgrown with weeds. Awnings hung askew over some of the front doors, windows were cracked and repaired with duct tape, and many roofs needed repair. The cars at the curb — where Marty had once parked his shiny yellow Chevy Impala — were now Datsun or Dodge beaters.
But Marty didn’t seem to notice any of that. His eyes were locked on the place that had once been Sunny’s Five & Dime but was now a shabby-looking store with a sign over the front door that proclaimed ONE OF A KIND CURIOSITIES with the name Stefan Lucescu underneath.
“That’s it!” he cried out, like a prospector who had just found gold. “That’s the place! Stop! Park the car!”
They walked through the door into total chaos. The merchandise was strewn around on shelves, on chests of drawers, in dusty glass display cases and on the floor. There were no other customers in the store and, when no one appeared to help them, Jacob momentarily thought maybe the owner had simply left for the afternoon and hadn’t bothered locking up, figuring there was nothing in the place worth stealing.
“Come on, Pop,” he called over to Marty, who was looking at some old watches laid out in one of the display cases. “Let’s go. This is all junk.”
“No, it isn’t” came an answer from behind a bookshelf off to one side of the room. “It isn’t junk.” When the speaker stepped out from behind the bookcase, Jacob saw that the voice belonged to a slight man with a salt and pepper beard that matched his graying hair. He wore round wire-rimmed glasses and was dressed neatly, but a little old-fashioned, in a white shirt, bow tie, sleeveless vest and pleated slacks. The clothes gave him the look of a college professor and were very much at odds with the appearance of the store.
“Things are not always what they appear to be,” he continued, speaking with a strange accent. “There are some very unusual items I have acquired over the years, and I think I may have just what you’re looking for.”
”Oh, you have just what we’re looking for, do you? Well, just what is it that you think we’re looking for?” Jacob asked, making no effort to hide the sarcasm in his question.
“Why, you’re looking for a remembrance, aren’t you?”
“What makes you think so?”
“Because that’s what everyone who comes here is looking for, you know,” he said in a voice almost like a stage whisper, as though telling a secret. “That is what you’re looking for, isn’t it?” he said, now looking directly at Marty and smiling slightly.
“Yes, that’s it, a remembrance. That’s what I want.”
“A present for your wife? And maybe something for yourself?”
“Yes, something for my wife.”
“I knew it!” the Professor — as Jacob now thought of him — exclaimed. “I have just the thing. Let me show you.”
He led Marty to a scarred, round table littered with the leftovers of people’s lives. Among the Hummel figurines and the odd assortment of music boxes, there was an etched cranberry-glass bud vase. The Professor picked it up and, when he held it up to the light, it glowed like a tropical sunset.
“Beautiful, isn’t it? I can let you have it for say, twelve dollars?”
Jake was about to object, but before he could say anything, Marty’s face lit up; he nodded and said, “I’ll take it.” He reached into his pocket to pay, but found he had only three dollars and a picture of himself, Elaine and a teenage Jacob, which he dropped getting the bills out of his pocket. He looked over at his son, who said, “I got it, Pop,” and fished out his wallet.
While Jake paid the bill, counting out two fives and two ones, Marty bent down to pick up the picture and noticed a shoebox under the table, partially hidden behind a pile of books. There was writing on the lid of the box in a language he couldn’t read, even though he recognized the letters in the spelling. He lifted the box out from behind the books and opened it. Inside was a pair of slippers made of soft black leather, decorated with strange, tribal-looking designs.
“I see you found the babouches. They were made in a village near Cluj, where my parents lived, in Romania. The writing is Romani, the language of the Gypsies. They are one of a kind, but I’m not sure they are really what you want. Maybe you should look for something else. A walking stick, perhaps? I have one with a very attractive carved silver handle.”
“No, I want these,” Marty answered quietly.
“Are you sure?” the Professor asked, raising one eyebrow quizzically.
Marty nodded and said, “I’m sure.”
Jacob, who was impatiently watching this exchange, put an end to the debate by saying, “When my father makes up his mind about something, that’s it. How much are the slippers?”
“They are quite valuable, you know. Very unusual, truly one of a kind. But not to everyone’s taste. Why don’t we say for the vase and the shoes, an even $40? Would you like them wrapped?”
“No, thanks. It’s getting late, and I need to get my father back to his place.”
“Yes, of course. I’m glad your father found what he was looking for. I wish both of you long and happy lives.”
Jacob and Marty drove back to Elliot Rose, listening to the news on the radio; neither one of them felt any need to have a conversation.
* * *
After Jacob had taken his dad back to his room and said his goodbyes, promising he would come again in a week, Marty put the bud vase on his dresser, where he could see it from his bed. Then he sat down in his chair and opened the box. He took the slippers out and put them on.
Suddenly, the way you remember the name of that actor who isn’t Matt Damon, he was back in February of 1941, knocking on Elaine’s front door for the first time. He was just shy of nineteen, four months younger than she.
It was snowing lightly that evening and, when he stepped into the living room, she reached up without thinking and brushed the flecks of snow from his hair. She always said he looked so handsome in that moment she knew right then and there he was the man she was going to marry; and he always insisted, with a wink, that he had been seduced by an older woman.
Now, other bits of memory fell into place like puzzle pieces. The letters that had the scent of Evening in Paris she sent while he was stationed overseas during the war. How she liked it when he made breakfast and remembered to cut her toast into triangles — never rectangles — and forgave him when he gave her a toaster for Christmas one year.
And, of course, their morning routine. It had started when, early on in his career as a lawyer, Elaine bought him a bow tie. She said it made him look learned and sexy. He had never tied a bow tie and didn’t know how. She tied it for him that first time and every workday afterward until he retired. He never did learn how to do it and never wanted to. He said having Elaine do his bow ties made him feel special.
Monday through Friday, he brought Elaine her first cup of coffee in bed. She sipped it while he dressed and then got up, knotted his tie and sent him off to the office. It was a simple ritual, but simple as it was, it helped get them through many of the ups and downs that come with marriage and the hard times and disappointments that come with life, giving them a way to say, without words, “I’m sorry” or “I still love you.”
But as later scenes unspooled in his mind, like the grainy home movies of an earlier time, he felt a growing anger that was soon replaced by despair. Everyone, even his own son, had kept the truth from him, and for so long.
Lainey wasn’t coming to visit or have lunch, not ever again. She had died five years ago. And not just Elaine. His brother Al and his two sisters, Janie and Lee, also gone. He was an old man who had outlived nearly everyone: his family, his friends, even Elvin, their Australian Shepherd. That was why he was here in this place, because there was no one other than Jacob, who had his own life to live, to care for him or about him.
He tried to move, but couldn’t. He felt he was being crushed under a wave of ALONE that wouldn’t let him surface, wouldn’t let him take a breath. He just sat there and remembered what the Professor — the Gypsy — had said about the slippers. “I’m not sure they are really what you want. Maybe you should look for something else.” The Gypsy had been right. It was better not to know, not to remember, than to have to live the rest of his life with this sadness.
He sat motionless for a minute, then took the slippers off, put them back in the box and went to the closet. He reached up and put them up on the top shelf, way back in the corner behind the hats he never wore anymore, certain that the next morning he wouldn’t remember anything about it.
Copyright © 2018 by Paul Bluestein