He was now so old that people really didn't bother to listen to him anymore. Most pretended to, but it was just an excuse to have something to do while he rung up their purchases on that old-fangled machine of his; a large cast-iron monster that rumbled and chimed whenever levers were pushed that corresponded to the appropriate monetary amount of the sale. The register was intricately overlain with bas-relief grape vines and leaves, painted silver and gold against the coal blackness of the forged body. At the top, little glass windows displayed the one, five, ten and dollar amounts in the correct columns; little white tabs with numbers on them that would pop up and down like soldiers stealing a quick look over the battlements at an approaching enemy, where, with the final pull of a lever, the grand total would display, to be answered with a great "cha-ching" that signaled the cash draw was open.
It would have been hard to determine which was more ancient; man or machine. Both had a tendency to ramble. The man, because he couldn't hear very well, and so he compensated by being dominate in the conversation, switching topics like socks, rapidly and frequently, so that the current ones would remain fresh. The cash-register clicked and clacked because it was made long ago, and any moving part, if moved long enough, would wear out in time. The machine protested itself still being in use.
Past and present would sometimes merge, and the man found himself interjecting into a conversation events that had long since transpired. When this happened, his customers would nod and smile, as if to say "yes, yes, I understand, thank you very much, good day," collect their purchases and leave. He would watch them go, the bell on the front door clanging against the glass as it closed behind them.
His stature was bent in age where once he had been tall and straight from a daily routine of farm chores in his youth. His beard was white and wiry where once he had been beardless, starting just below the top of his ears and continuing in unbridled abandon halfway down his chest. His head was like a barren mountain-top above some well defined tree line where nothing grew any longer. He sported a black yarmulke, in contrast to his crisp, white shirt, long sleeved and collared. Suspenders sprang from his black trousers, and shiny black loafers completed his ensemble. The arthritis in his hands flared regularly, making it painful to tie laces.
His face was kind, and he would smile frequently. When he did so, his visage would be broken into a hundred lines, each one bearing a passage that spoke of his long life. In all this, his pale blue eyes had never lost their intensity. He had the eyes of an observer; a witness who missed nothing, backed with an intelligence that was housed within a crumbling temple.
His kingdom was this shop, located off the square in this little town in a building that had been built in the late 1800's and renovated in the 1950's. His son had bought the store in 1975, and it had been the father's joy to run it when his son needed a well deserved day off. It was a bookstore and newsstand, carrying dailies and periodicals from around the world, stocking the latest hardbacks and paperbacks, along with displays of postcards, calendars, and fancy stationery (the last item, his daughter-in-law's idea).
Today, business had been slow. It was cold and wintry outside, the snowfall coming regularly, sometimes heavy, sometimes slow, swirling from a swollen, fleecy cloud that had days before swallowed the sun. As the gloom of evening fell, he walked around the store, turning off lights; the world outside became clearer through the plate glass windows, no longer held in check by the brightness of the shop’s interior.
Putting the day's sales receipts and money in a small bag, he shouldered an immense black coat and slipping it on, picked up his cane. It was the eve of Shabbot, and so he would be walking the short distance home. His grandson had promised to meet him here at closing time.
He thought of the days end when he would be gathered around the dinner table with his son's family. The meal would be well prepared and the conversation lively, as usual. Later, the night would find him sitting warmly beside the fire reading the Torah before going to bed.
The little bell complained noisily when he opened the shop door, a rush of cold air greeting him as he stepped outside. Slowly, he closed the door and entered the key into the lock, hearing the deadbolt slide into place. He turned to face the street, and noticed it had started snowing again: fine white flakes of powder which dusted the sleeves of his coat for an instant before melting from the warm material. The world was white, and he stood in the doorway, slightly confused. His brows knitted together as he strove to focus on the landscape before him.
The ash fell before his watery eyes; a fine white rain which filled the air to cover the ground with grey. He instinctively knew the ovens had been working overtime and had just been allowed to cool a few days before, but still the ash floated from the sky.
They had all gone before him, and he was alone. Not all had burned. Mother, father, brothers. His sister. He had thrown their stick-like bodies into the yawning pit at the point of a gun, along with all the others. He could smell the coppery scent of death in this place, knowing in his heart-of-hearts that when his usefulness was over, he would be next.
He watched as the ash swirled, riding on a sudden gust of wind that swept between the grey blocked buildings. Beyond that, tight-linked electrified fences with barbed-wire defined the horizon.
There was a young man coming towards him, bundled up against the cold. His eyes were wide; questions' running before him as the snow was crushed beneath his boots. He carried a long, black rifle, at guard, apprehensive in his approach. Speaking, a cold frost came from his mouth, carried away on the air.
The man stepped closer, a look of concern in his eyes, and he laid a hand gently on the elders' arm. "Grandfather, are you alright? I brought your umbrella, as you requested…"
Then the old man remembered.
This was not the Russian soldier who had liberated him on that day so long ago. The snow was just snow, and not the ashes of friends and neighbors. This was America, not Auschwitz.
Linking their arms together, Grandson popped the umbrella open against the snowfall as the two walked slowly down the street, one tall and straight, the other bent with weariness.
Some events are forgotten as soon as they happen.
Others remain for a lifetime.
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