Eighty-three-year-old Ernst Weiss was back, the second time in a week he’d come to The Gold House Pawn Shop trying to sell his valuables.
“What is this? Pete Gold said to him as he examined the twisted piece of metal Ernst gave him.
“It’s a Knight’s Cross.” Ernst wiped his face with the sleeve of his coat.
“No, no. It’s battle-worn. Berlin 1945.”
Pete eyed him suspiciously. The old man had no hair, but he might have been blond. His eyes were blue, and red-rimmed, white pus in the corners. “Were you a Nazi?”
“Yes and no. I was eleven when Hitler pinned this on me. I stopped a Soviet tank from entering Berlin. By accident, I assure you. I fell off the balcony overlooking the street where one was passing and brought the railing and half the side of the building with me on top of it. It blocked the view of the driver, and he fired, instinctively. The shell exploded inside the tank and sent me sprawling.” He sank into one of the captain’s chairs Pete had in front of the counter for the desperate.
Pete came around the counter and sat next to him. “You met Hitler?”
“I served him. I served the German people. How much will you give me for the medal?”
Pete toyed with the lump of tin. “Five dollars.”
Ernst remembered looking into the deep, dark eyes of the Fuhrer on verge of utter defeat. His father was killed at Stalingrad, his brothers in Africa, and Italy. His mother and sister were hiding somewhere in the city, starving, and terrified of the imminent Russian invasion. Yet, his heart was grateful. Yes, grateful he’d met his beloved leader before it was time to die.
“You’ve done well by your nation, and it will survive. It will rise from the ashes because our enemies will be defeated. This battle is only temporary.” Hitler had placed his hands on Ernst’s cheeks and kissed his forehead for the camera before moving down the line to reward the Hitler Youth. Seventy-one years later, there were rumblings of a coming conflagration in the Fatherland as anti-German forces sought to kill every German gene.
“Five dollars? I can get ten for my blood. I’m a universal donor.”
“Fine. Go to the blood bank.” Pete opened his fist and offered Ernst the medal laying in his palm.
Ernst fastened it to one of his buttons—punk rock jewelry on his Hawaiian-print sport’s shirt. “No.” He struggled to rise.
“Okay. Eight dollars. You can get two wine cooler packs for that.”
Why did everyone assume a poor old man was a drunk?
Ernst stopped listening to him. He needed the money to pay his water bill. If the water got cut off, he would have to go to the welfare office and beg for elderly assistance. He would get his water turned on, but he would ache for days remembering he had to beg for a government handout. He would not beg Pete. His honor could not be bought for eight dollars. He had two dollars in his pocket; enough to buy drinking water at Walmart. He would use the bathroom there too, until Monday when he could go to the welfare office.
And he would never take his medal off again.
To be old, poor, and insulted is the trifecta of misery. But to lose one’s pride and one’s only daughter to a jihadi who posted it on u-Tube was the Triple Crown. It’d been three months since Sec 8 Housing had approved an antiseptic-clean apartment for him at the Senior High-rise. His balcony overlooked San Diego Bay and bordered Little Italy. No Italian would mistake his accent, however. Or so he thought. He shied away from the outdoor café’s that lined Columbia Street, and instead rode the bus downtown to a gaming hall in Southeast San Diego near the tuna rendering plant. One neighborhood that the City Planners and Economic Development Department ignored because of the stench when the on-shore breezes wafted through it. Ernst didn’t mind. He’d lost his sense of smell around seventy.
The game he played was Bid Whist. The black version called ‘rise and fly’ where the losing team had to leave the table and let a new team try to unseat the champions. He and Kurt Meier, once seated, never left. They even brought their own pillows to ease the pressure on their butts after five or six hours of constant play.
“You pass signals, you krauts,” the black and Mexican teams insisted.
“How?” Joe Blind, the owner, demanded they explain. And they never could.
It was the stranger who unmasked their cabal. He drew Joe aside. “It’s their glasses. They’re mirrors.”
“Nonsense, Old Man, they’d be silver. Like the cops wear.”
“Those Nazis. They invented all kinds of things. You can’t see the reflections standing up or from the side, but straight on, eye-level, they can see each other’s cards.”
“Maybe, but they can’t see through them.”
“No, stupid, they see the reflections of the other guy’s hand when he looks down at them.”
“I don’t believe it. Kurt and Ernst are my best customers. Guys from all over San Diego come to beat them. I’m finally making a profit off this place. Don’t make any trouble or I’ll call the cops on you.”
The Old Man left but waited at the bus stop for Ernst. He hurried to catch the seven-fifteen uptown, and the Old Man took the aisle seat to his left.
“That’s an interesting bangle you wear on your lapel. Does anyone at Joe’s know what it really is?”
Ernst glanced over, and smiled. “Do you know?”
“I’m a collector. I’d like to buy it from you.”
“It’s not for sale.”
“If the price was right, you’d sell it.” Ernst didn’t answer. He wasn’t afraid, but he was annoyed. Had the Old Man seen him try to pawn it? The Old Man dug into his jacket pocket and brought out a photograph. “I believe you know this girl, Hilde.”
At the sound of her name, Ernst jerked around to face him. The Old Man handed him the photo and Ernst gasped. “Where did you get this?”
“Where did you leave it?”
“This must be a copy. Unless you’re a grave robber.” He stared at the picture of his daughter. When he looked up to ask the Old Man if he could keep it, he’d disappeared.
He must have been real, Ernst concluded. The photo was still in his hand. Perhaps the bus had stopped without him realizing it, and it was the stranger’s stop.
“End of the line, “the driver said. “Everybody off.”
Had he really missed his own stop? The door opened and he stepped down. “This isn’t the bus station,” he muttered, but when he turned back, the bus was gone. Under the halo of a streetlamp, the Old Man leaned against the post. Was this death? In front of him was Ballantine’s Funeral Parlor, squeezed between dark, empty buildings that sported FOR LEASE signs on them. It couldn’t be. Ballantine’s was in New Jersey. He stuffed the photo into his coat pocket and walked away into the darkness. Two blocks later, he was still in front of Ballantine’s and the stranger was still under the lamp.
“My price for the medal is explanation and deliverance. I want to go home!”
The Old Man walked to his side. “Come inside.’
Ernst followed him into Ballantine’s, suddenly overwhelmed by the perfume of roses, hyacinths, and coffin cedar. In the rear of the parlor was a preparation room, where his Hilde lay on a gurney, wearing in death her mother’s white wedding dress that she never wore in life.
“You cheated me in ’45. And again in in 2011. You cheated on your wife, Ballantine’s customers, and now you cheat at cards.” The Old Man’s words sounded like hisses.
“Ballantine’s customers never complained.”
“Their families might have if they knew you pilfered the coffins before they were sealed. All those family heirlooms you’ve taken to Gold House Pawn. Wedding rings, prom tiaras, rosaries. Even a young man’s swimming medal. One after another because you were too proud to do benefit paperwork!”
“They were baubles that the dead no longer needed and the living obviously did not want to keep. How valuable were they if the families put them in dirt next to skeletons and worms? I had need of them and I wanted them, even if I could keep them only for a little while.”
“That’s what I will tell you about Hilde’s picture. She had no need of it. She didn’t want it. Now, how does it feel to hear those hollow words?”
Ernst held the photo near his heart as tears fell down his cheeks. He unpinned his medal and handed to the Old Man. “Go ahead. Take it. I asked for an explanation and deliverance, and you’ve paid what I asked. I thank you. Now I am ready to go home.”
Perplexed, the Old Man waved his hand. “Keep the medal. Now, I want an explanation.”
“This picture of Hilde was not buried with her, but with her mother in Germany.” He walked to Hilde’s body and from inside her veil, that lay next to her cheek, he pulled out a photo of her mother. “This is my Frances. These photos were to keep my wife and daughter company until they turned to dust. I had copies. They were lost in the boardinghouse fire. Jersey. 1995. I believed I would never see their likenesses again. Yet, here they are.”
“But…but you cheat at cards…your glasses…”
“Yes and no. The Germans invented many things during the war, but not magic glasses. Kurt and I share many codes because we are old and to the young, we are enigmas.”
The Old Man disappeared again. The sweet smell of flowers and cedar began to fade as the acrid scent of Lysol filled Ernst’s nostrils. “Good evening, Mr. Weiss,” he heard the night desk clerk say.
“It is a good evening, Kevin,” he said as he looked at the three jewels in his hand. “Have I ever showed you pictures of my family?”
He heard the foyer grandfather clock chimed ten. The kitchen was closed but there were probably snacks left over in the day room. Kevin came around the counter and flashed him a grateful smile. The night shift was a lonely gig, he often said. “No. And you’ve never told me how you won your medal, either. You must have been one brave son-of-a-bitch.”
“Oh, yes. I’ve stared into the face of death many times. Is there any left-over desert from dinner we could steal from the kitchen?”
There was so much that young men and young demons disguised as Old Nick didn’t know.
Jenean McBrearty is a graduate of San Diego State University, who taught Political Science and Sociology. Her fiction, poetry, and photographs have been published in over a hundred and sixty-five print and on-line journals. She won the Eastern Kentucky English Department Award for Graduate Creative Non-fiction in 2011, and she won a Silver Pen Award in 2015 for her noir short story: Red’s Not your Color. Her novels and collections can be found on Amazon and Lulu.com.