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Two Cents

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A man of six-foot-four needs a sturdier railing to climb the seven stairs from John Hawk's pub by the river. Even with the cane Ev makes him carry.

Used to be six-four, that is.

At the top, now.

Helmut straightens. Crick-crick, say his vertebrae.

Those vertebrae oughta be more relaxed after two Christmas toddies, but by golly that Hawk and his buddies... young, ignorant. They aren't thinking about what they're asking for, come January. So, it will be a long four years. Maybe eight, coz people won't want to switch horses midstream.

Ach, wasn't he like them once? Wasn't Chamberlain? But like he told them, this time there's no superpower that's going to land troops on a D-day, nor bomb them to smithereens to save them.

The clouds are white ovals forecasting snow, and dusk is dissolving the radiant-blue over the high rises. That Irish coffee'll keep him toasty in his parka. His car's in that lot near the arcade that used to be Gimbels Department Store.

What year was it that he parked cars in that lot? Who cares now when those cars got parked. Or who complained about it (and man, did those downtown bankers complain). All he knows is, it was several years before he met Ev.

Ev says never to act like he did the first day they met. Like it wasn't her fault. If she hadn't come sashaying past that Gimbel's window he was decorating, he wouldn't have vaulted over a brass bar, the better to see her apple-shaped butt. To this day he can hear the crash of plate glass and the tinkles as every mannequin rocked on its pedestal. And Ev's high coo, "Are you alright?" (Her voice is more practical now, but warmer than the froggy voices of young gals.) Helmut said he was fine though his heart was boinging all around. Then he nearly passed out from the touch of her gloved fingers at his temples. Kind gals like Ev, they wore gloves—titanium white, with just a tinge of cadmium yellow. He thought of that shade whenever she served anything topped with good old Cool Whip.

Light in dark. Streetlights shining up to the bridge, then continuing on the west bank. And every light source casts a shadow. Like there's some darkness hidden within light. Those restaurant windows stretching away along the Riverwalk. Yin-yang. The bridge: one filbert brush stroke to suggest its metallic green.

Ev says that wasn't the first time they met. She says they met at a train station when they were only nine or ten. She says she was with her mom, he with his, and he reached over and took her hand. He doesn't remember that, but one of his teenage paintings does show those children. He won a prize for it; it still hangs in Bayview High School. Ev thinks it really happened.

Mother called that painting sappy; got so afraid her youngest might be gay she made him join Golden Gloves after that prize. Renewed his membership every time he won another art prize. Helmut never took to boxing, but after that morning at Gimbels, would have fought anyone and everyone for Ev if he'd had to. Even August Jr.

Oh yeah, he finally hurt his brother real bad soon after he met Ev. Popped him with his one-knuckle. The Shoken Zuki, hard as John L. Sullivan, like his dojo master taught. So hard, he had to catch August Jr. quick before his head hit concrete. Which could have killed him, just like if Helmut fell today on the sidewalk here.

When Helmut caught him the coat came away in his hand and there was Emperor August with his fancy suit split right up the middle, and his white shirt showing up pink skin. Helmut sure hit him good that day. The taxi horns in An American in Paris kept blaring as August Jr. sailed off the porch for saying Ev was a dumb Polack. Said it right in front of Ev's dad, who was a dumb Polack, but always thought Helmut was a dumb Kraut.

So it was Uechi-Ryu, not boxing, that took care of August Jr. That's how August Jr. finally quit beating him up.

The river runs Prussian-blue between ice floes all along its banks. Ev would remind him to hold the railing when he gets to the Plankinton Street bridge. He'll stay to the right, on the side of the cigar store and the Riverside Theater, to say hello to Gertie. Kids these days only remember Gertie the statue. Helmut remembers the brown-feathered duck with the liquid eyes who sheltered her babies under this bridge during the war. He and August Jr. took a streetcar downtown just to see her.

August Jr. was already full-grown back then. About six feet, same as the guy in the hoodie coming toward him on the bridge. Tougher than Helmut, but Helmut was catching up. He had to. He and August were the only two German kids in a Polish school.

Oh man, when Hitler invaded Poland. August fought the crap out of three crazy kids armed with crowbars to break his legs, and Helmut fought the crap out of six kids who jumped him that day. Helmut got home with a smashed nose and there was his Uncle Margraff hunched over German Radio. Uncle told August Jr. and Helmut to clean up. He said everything would be fine as soon as Hitler invaded America to save the Germans. August got so mad he was German, he pulled the whole sink from the wall. And Helmut remembers himself, standing there, blood soaking his only school shirt wondering, Save us? Who can save us?

Jesus was supposed to be the answer. Jesus was the answer to everything for Mother. Jesus had a helluva lot on his hands back then, trying to save all the German and Polish guys who quit fighting one another to sign up right when Helmut did, and go fight the same sonovabitch.

Jesus still has. Only now, Jesus, how about looking after this old gumba? Because there's a dark guy in the hoodie, almost as tall as the carved and painted Indian standing outside Uhle Cigars. Which means almost as tall as Helmut. The dark guy's footfall clangs softly on the metal bridge.

The guy in the hoodie doesn't know Helmut used to do the shomen geri, a kick high as his own ear, or a spear-hand nukite so hard he could bring down August Jr. Well, at least Ev is at home and can't feel his arm trembling, his grip tightening on his cane. He's facing forward, feeling the rush of the river below. The carved Indian facing the street looks like he knows but won't tell Helmut what hue of white is the snow dust stippling the air. Good thing none of the guys at the ad agency can see him now. Good thing Ev can't see Helmut now. She'd see he is feeling lightheaded. Should he continue?

A knowledge-bubble rising within says kicking or punching are out.

The railing feels solid beneath his fingertips. If the guy comes at him sideways, maybe he can back up against it, real sudden, real quick. Theoretically, the guy would fly past.

If he comes at him straight, you can bet there'll be two guys in the drink, coz Helmut isn't the kind to let go.

The dark guy trades places. It takes Helmut a second to realize the man is now behind him, walking.

Is he looking back? Turning? What if he's coming up behind Helmut, about to take him in a choke hold from behind? Helmut will flip him over his shoulder and shout, "Harrrgh!" and slam him to the ground. And a look of surprise will wash over his face like it did for August Jr. the day Helmut said, "No, no more money, go find another patsy."

The black guy could be coming up behind him, stealthy and quiet as a thief. Tiptoe, like August Jr. must have when he stole the money Ev gave his kid for cutting grass. She called it mowing the lawn.

And the black guy could be thinking as August used to, that he could just get away with anything because he always did.

Move forward.

He tries to catch up with the clanging of his cane.

Had there been a flash of white in the hoodie? August Jr. used to smile whenever he was caught. A smile that said, "What, you were expecting something different?" or "You have to forgive me—it's my nature." No, there had been no smile.

Doesn't anyone teach kids to smile at their elders these days?

Maybe he didn't smile because, unlike August Jr., he probably knew he'd never get away with whatever he might be planning to do to Helmut.

Are those footsteps? No sound. The black guy must be wearing fancy sneakers. The Michael Jordan kind: dark cadmium red, lamp black and white.

He listens for breath. Like he had when August was lying there, out cold. Remembering how he worried if he'd killed his brother this time and how would he explain to Mother.

There's none, only stiffness in his neck from holding himself tall as he did in the Air Force. Which he joined because he could not shoot to save his life or anyone else's, so it wouldn't do him any good at this moment to have—or not have—a gun.

Helmut stops, draws his collar up. The rush of the river seems to have stilled. Snow swirls lazily on the road; the wooden Indian looks like he has better things to think about than notice. The roll of the marquee on the Riverside Theater is still. Now he can barely read the name of some rapper who, like Helmut, probably never finished school. (Artists never finish school, he told Ev. She believed him—or at least she never said he should have).

All the kids should be out on the street at this hour. People gotta work tomorrow. C'mon, isn't closing time only a few hours away?

The black guy could be following him, getting closer. He might need someone to take him back to Ev. She'll know what to do.

Ev always knew what to do. Would call up and schmooze people Helmut completely forgot right after he delivered on time; he never missed an ad deadline. If she were here, she'd turn and say something nice that would just stop that guy.

Helmut could too, if he could get the words out. Because he knows exactly where that young man is right about now, in his life. Nothing working out, no one making any more jobs. Computers taking over the ones you could have had with no college. He might tell him how he'd had to retire from ad agency work because his hand was too large to ride the back of a mouse, his eyes couldn't focus on a screen. He wants to tell the kid, I get you. I was like you at your age. I'm like you now.

But the black guy is probably just like the Polish kids in school. Probably only sees a white guy, a Kraut.

They say only your mom cares a rat's ass who you are.

Not Mother. Nicknamed him Two Cents, coz she said that's all he would ever be worth. That black kid probably had some teacher say the same. But his mom would never call him Two Cents—no way. His mom probably worked her ass off for him. But that black kid is probably living without his dad, like Helmut did at his age, coz who would want to live with August Sr.? Not Helmut or August Jr. A guy who'd leave his wife and go off with her sister. Ev says Helmut should trash the newspaper clipping now. But that's all he has of August Sr.

Never did find out where he vanished, though Helmut once took Ev to Berlin in a vacation sort of way, hoping to bump into him on Unter den Linden or near the Bundestag, places August Sr. had mentioned. If he'd found the man, he would have asked, Did you not fear us? And then killed him, probably. Though not in front of Ev.

August Jr. never cared about finding his father. Soon as Mother died, he left for Las Vegas. Kept calling, telling Ev some mobster was going to break his legs, so she'd send him a check. Helmut never believed him till it happened.

The black kid could break Helmut's legs. Helmut strikes backward into the dark with the cane. Nothing. No one.

No breathing.

"Hey!' He shouts. It's a squeak of bravado. "I see you."

But he doesn't. Above him, the clouds have blended into indigo.

All he has to do is make it to his car. If the black guy wants to come after him... well then, it's time.

August Jr.'s time came after they broke his legs. He called and said it was because Helmut had refused to send him money. But that was just August Jr. making more excuses. Helmut told Ev to tell him so—it was easier than talking to him. Ev wasn't talking to August anyway. She was talking to August's latest lady friend. The one in his Christmas photo. With the red leather skirt. The one with the zinc-white teeth and a horse laugh you could hear clear across the whole United States whenever Ev asked how things were going.

He's going past the Riverside Theater now, crossing the street. And another crossing at a right angle to that one. Crossing over.

The lines on the black asphalt look like a referee's shirt. There should be referees on every corner blowing their whistles on grown-up kids getting their kicks out of destroying.

"Dirty rotten kid," August Jr. called him in that last call. Helmut couldn't remember what August Sr. sounded like by then, but he imagined his voice like August's. No joking, though they were brothers. Said his brother was a "dirty rotten kid" like he meant it. No joking, though Helmut had loaned him money several times by then.

Maybe he was right, he thinks, folding himself into his silver-gray Chevy.

No, he was not. One of the two dirty rotten kids could paint his teacher nude when he was ten. And only one dirty rotten kid painted a picture of Ev reaching for his hand at the train station as if that really happened. That award-winning painting that still hangs outside the teacher's office at Bayview High School.

That painting must be how the hell Ev ever fell in love with a dirty rotten kid. It helped her imagine his big mitt enclosing her hand, then her enclosing him. Yin-Yang.

If he ever sees the dark guy again, he'll tell him: don't ever let anyone call you a dirty rotten kid. Because there was something in you that someone like Ev will see one day. Something that let this old artist go, put his cane into his car, and drive past the ferry, down Superior Street.

He should have stopped and talked to the kid. Maybe learned him a thing or two. Too late now, as he's pulling into his garage, hauling himself out of the car a leg at a time. Whole legs, even if they don't work so good.

A private eye called from Vegas after August died and asked if Helmut wanted him to investigate August Jr.'s death because those broken legs sure weren't natural. And Helmut told him nothing about August was natural, and he wasn't going to spend another dime on that sonovabitch, not even two cents.

Was August Jr. ever afraid of crossing over? Did he ever wonder what's on the other side? Was he in hell before, or after, or…what? There's no way he can be peaceful.

Helmut enters through the side door, calling for Ev. She's usually standing in the bay window, watching for him.

Silence. Unmoving, hollow.

He calls out again, hanging up his cane.

He switches on the tree lights. They begin winking, colorful as memories.

Helmut's heart falls ten stories, banging below his ribs till he can barely breathe.

In the bedroom, her side of the bed is unused. In the bathroom, her toilet articles are neatly arranged. Her sparkly scarves scratch his cheeks as he opens one closet. Her sixty-shoe rack bulges from the other. Her cream gloves are still in their satin-lined box. Her collection of music boxes is dusty.

Ev wouldn't leave him. No matter how bad the dirty rotten kid is, Ev would never leave him.

He stands in the living room till her tree lights begin doubling and blurring. He gazes out of the bay window. Snow is settling on the Noel sign, the one he painted for Ev.

The weight of the coming year presses down with the snow.

Maybe he should be glad she's no longer here. Together they'd outlive their savings and the little that comes in via Social Security—which he wouldn't have but for Ev talking him up, sending samples of his work to ad agencies and invoicing his clients. Ev won't have to deal with the new guy acting like August Jr.: loud on loving America, proud of never learning anything but how to cut people down. Destroying the hard work of all the folks Helmut fought for.

Helmut stands there a long time.

Please, Ev, tell me you're okay.

He turns the lights on at the top of the stairs and holds onto the railing. He descends, a step at a time, into the smell of linseed-oil and Gamsol.

Yup, he still has a few primed canvases in his studio. He sets one on his easel, stares into its blankness.

He will dress her in viridian-green velvet. This time Ev's hand, freckled and wrinkled as he remembers it, will be reaching for his.

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