by Jan Wiezorek
He heard a man shouting outside his quiet little shop on Sunday afternoon, but Jerry didn’t think too much of it. Rummaging took priority, and he was searching for the receipts like a bloodhound noses the wetlands, trying for the life of him to gather what he needed to determine the month’s take. It should be easy, he thought, but it never was.
He gave up, ran fingernails against the hair above his ears, walked over to the window, and saw the scuffle on the street. There was a thirty-something-year-old, heavyset skinhead harassing an old lady, trying to grab her plastic bag. He was about ready to open the door, go outside, and try to calm the man down. But he thought better of it because it wasn’t his affair.
The clock chimed three, she came in, and the skinhead followed. White haired and firm lipped, her face had the presence of a bulldog. She wore large brown frames from the seventies and a blue-and-red scarf against her white sweater. Her hair looked like damp cumulus clouds topped with a white cotton hat, turned up at the brim and covered with a design of pink peonies. He thought her whole ensemble gave her a rather continental look, like a European traveler visiting the farm communities of southwestern Wisconsin.
The man’s head was shaved clean, and he pushed past her, pulling his dark brown eyebrows down and tight, causing deep vertical ridges to pucker on his forehead. His wide nose looked like the creation of a balloon artist, with a bulbous center and two flanking circles for nostrils. He practically knocked her over, Jerry thought, looking up and seeing him approach brick-faced, pounding his feet right up to the glass countertop that held the jewelry, by the cash register.
“I want what she’s selling,” he said, and his robotic words nearly spit in his face.
“Not so fast,” the old lady countered. She moved forward toward the counter but surveyed the floor, like she was preparing to fall and needed an overstuffed chair on which to make a safe landing, if necessary. Under her left arm she had a mailing tube, and in her right hand she carried a small plastic bag. She elbowed the skinhead.
“May I help you, ma’am?” Jerry said.
“I hope so, young man,” she answered. Jerry had been in the business for over thirty years, and he didn’t recall the last time anyone called him young. Had she meant his son? No, Helmut was straightening up the back room.
“Do you buy collectibles?” she asked. “I imagine you do.” The frames outlined a rigid glare in her blue eyes that fixed on a point far away, seemingly traversing time.
“Yes. What can I do for you?”
“I want to show you something I’ve treasured,” she said, standing next to the block-headed man. “And I don’t want him to have it.”
The man with the balloon nose said nothing more. He inhaled and exhaled, shifting the weight back and forth from his heels to the balls of his feet.
“When I was seven, I sat for a German poster artist,” she said, smiling.
Jerry did get posters and pastel portraits from time to time. They were never worth much.
“I know it’s difficult to believe,” she said, taking time with every word, and making each syllable leave her mouth on a sluggish journey. “But the portrait includes Hitler, too.”
Now, Jerry’s own mouth was fixed with a set jaw, and he could feel the sagging skin tighten on his neck. He looked at her with eyeball directness. “May I see?” he asked.
“Yes, of course,” she said. Her voice started at a low register, rose upward like a silver curl, and ended on a downhill slide.
Jerry took the protective mailing tube and pulled from it a twenty-odd-inch by, say, thirty-odd-inch color poster of Hitler holding up a small child with a blue ribbon in her hair. The poster also contained swastika flags and smiling, young blonde-headed boys. It was in very good condition.
“Now, this is a collectible,” he said to her. “What do you know about it?”
“There was a contest, I was told, and the artist chose me to sit for the poster,” she said. “I vaguely remember the whole encounter myself, but my mother took a picture of me with Hitler,” she added, “and later on she gave me this poster.”
“That’s a fascinating story,” Jerry replied.
“And here is the photo my mother took.” She had the black-and-white photograph in a frame that she pulled out of the plastic bag. He assumed it was this woman as a seven year old. Oh, my God, he thought. There was Hitler reaching out for her.
“In those days,” she said, “it was all propaganda, of course.”
“You want to sell the poster and the photograph?”
“I’ve kept them all these years, but, yes, I want to sell them now.”
“How is it that you’re here—in the U.S.?” he asked.
“After the war we moved to America. We had relatives who farmed in Wisconsin, so I ended up here. And I have one more item.”
Also in the plastic bag was a tiny, metal-globe pencil sharpener that the woman said Hitler gave her as a present. The countries that Hitler controlled had Nazi flags printed on them.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “This is stunning.” He took his nails and scraped them against the hair above his left ear.
“Thank you,” she said. “I’ve kept them safe all these years, but now it is time to sell,” she said. “Are you interested in buying them?”
The block-headed, balloon-nosed man could control himself no longer. “I want everything she’s selling,” he said.
“You’re not getting them,” she replied.
About this time Helmut walked from the back and stood next to Jerry behind the counter. Helmut’s brown eyes opened and his jaw dropped. He reached out to touch the Hitler artifacts, but his father’s hand brushed him aside.
“Helmut, sometimes it’s better to observe and do nothing more,” Jerry said as a reprimand. “This is my business.”
Jerry had to admit the stuff looked genuine.
“I want to buy her Nazi collection,” the skinhead said.
“Looks like she wants to sell it to me,” Jerry replied, eyeing the little globe.
“I’d like three-thousand dollars for them all,” the lady said.
“Ma’am what is your name?” he asked.
“Jane Welu,” she answered.
“Jane,” he said, “I don’t see where I could get much for them around here.”
“I’ll pay more,” the skinhead said, butting in.
“Sir, the lady wants to sell to me, so maybe you should return tomorrow if the items are for sale.”
“If you’re selling them to him, then I’ll keep them,” she said.
“Why do you care who gets them?” Jerry asked.
“Because he’s my nephew, and I won’t allow him to have them for his collection. He’s a racist.”
“Oh,” Jerry said, stalling for time. “Jane, it’s my job to be honest and fair, but I have to sell to buyers who can pay,” he said. “That’s how I operate.”
“Oh, dear,” she said, looking around and not knowing what to do.
“Have you considered selling your collection to a history museum?”
“No,” she said, “I was hoping for a little cash now.”
“I’ll offer you five-hundred dollars, but that’s about all I can do,” Jerry said.
“How about one-thousand dollars?”
“I can’t do that much—maybe six hundred.”
“O.K., seven; that’s tops.”
“You can have them for seven, so long as he doesn’t get them.”
He figured he could find a buyer for them somewhere, so he told her he would refuse to sell them to her nephew, if that would make her feel better. But it would be easy for someone else to buy them for him, so Jerry said it only to make her happy.
She gave him the items, he gave her the cash, and that emptied out the cash register, as well as the bills from Jerry’s pocket.
The balloon-nosed man’s chest expanded. He cocked his head left and his nose looked like it was ready to fall. Across from him against the window was a thick chain, the kind you might put on bus tires in heavy snow. In a moment’s flurry, the block-headed skinhead grabbed the chain, and Jerry heard a stunning crash. The chain hit a row of teapots on an oak table. By then Jerry saw that the skinhead had latched the front-door lock.
Jerry and Helmut stood still, and Jerry felt the muscles in his legs stiffen. Helmut took a breath to speak, but Jerry moved his left hand toward his son’s wrist, like a caution that stopped any words from escaping behind Helmut’s teeth.
“Now, I’d like the two of you to turn around. Put your hands behind your back before my nephew gets angry and crowns you with his chain,” Jane said. She looked right at Jerry. “He’s very good at that.” Her sapphire eyes, dull with the ages, brightened. Jerry turned around, and he saw Helmut do likewise.
Some kind of tape twisted into Jerry’s wrists. A length of it was laid down his back, between his legs, up his front, and around his shoulders. The balloon-nosed moron twisted the tape around and around, keeping Jerry’s arms in place. He heard the tape pull like a constant clock tick that wouldn’t stop. His mouth became fixed with tape, tight against his cheeks and hair. Tape encircled his eyes, and the force of it brought his lids down tight.
The tape click continued, though Jerry felt the work on him was finished. At one point he knew the body of his son was placed against him, and the two were taped together. Around the neck and shoulders first, and then twisted across the stomach, buttocks, thighs, calves, and ankles.
The force of the push sent them both on a downward trajectory, like a missile free falling from a German bomber. Jerry felt his body bounce against Helmut, toward the floor, and down onto a dirty Persian rug. He smelled the dust like an attic whiff. And he felt it settle against his nose and hair.
Necks writhed, wrists pulled, breathing labored, vision nonexistent.
He felt his own body shiver at the crash. He heard glass shatter, and pieces fell against his back, legs, and neck.
There was rifling and grabbing going on from the direction of the glass countertop.
“That’s plenty,” she said. “Let’s go.”
The two visitors walked, and their feet paced together faster than clock ticks. The chain dropped and broke something. The door opened and slammed shut.