Millie died last year. A problem with her heart, they said. Happened in a moment. That’s what they told me. The years of marriage, the horrors we endured together, Jakob’s birth, all of it reduced to a moment. And now it’s gone.
“These things happen, sir.” That’s what one of the paramedics told me when he arrived that night. The words came in a tired sigh. His partners didn’t speak. They slid Millie’s gurney into the ambulance and climbed in the back with her.
“She died peacefully. You can take comfort in that.”
He told me this as he stared into Millie’s Koi pond, bored, searching for another condolence from the approved list, knowing nothing of peace or conflict or the depths of human depravity. Then he spat into the water, into the sky reflected on its surface, and cleared his throat. The stars there trembled and broke apart, their destruction casual and dull.
“She didn’t feel any pain.” That’s what the medic decided on.
He may have been right. Millie looked at peace when I found her slumped in the garden chair that day, the shears resting on her lap, stems scattered at her feet, petals strewn to the soft breeze. Her wedding ring floundering in a pile of potting soil. It had always been too big for her fingers, but then it was minted for a different stock of woman, of a different time.
Papa had given the ring to Mutti on her nineteenth birthday. Those were happier times for my father, long before the lean years, the harsh years, when raising children and arms for war would fill in the remaining moments of his life. Mutti wore it proudly until the day two soldiers came to tell us how the British Navy had destroyed Papa’s ship near the Falkland Islands. After they left, she put all Papa’s things, all the moments of his life, in little boxes. Then she stopped wearing the ring. I found it some years later when I went down to the cellar to chase out a rat. It was in a cigar box pushed behind a heater in the corner.
I’ve forgotten their faces. I’ve forgotten so many faces. Funny, isn’t it, how our gardens grow? We plant daisies and rosebuds just to find them replaced with bittersweet and forget-me-nots and rue.
Millie’s garden is gone now. I covered the life that flourished there with a shroud of concrete. I entombed the ring inside the old roll-top. Maybe Jakob will find it when I’m gone. I imagine he’ll sell it. I don’t blame him. It wouldn’t fit the fingers of the girls he meets. It was minted for a different stock of woman.
Where has the time gone? I’ve become old. The moments dash away. Visions of my past appear now as jaundiced photographs. The conquest of Poland. A line of thin men frowning in uniforms of umber. A faded snapshot of women shuddering and sobbing, captured through the slats of a boxcar, that develops nightly in the darkroom of my sleep. And somewhere among these faceless mannequins is Millie. Her face buried in her hands. Frozen in time.
I remember the day the war ended. The moment pollutes my mind, flickering like a grainy newsreel. I met Millie at the camp gates. The Americans brought her to me. She looked the same. Still frozen in that pose. Her face in her hands, her body shuddering. As though the moments had never passed.
But these dreams, too, are abandoning me. I find it harder to sleep every night. Sometimes it’s the baby crying next door. A strange sort of noise. Not what you’d expect from a hungry child or a sleepy child or a needy child. But I’ve heard it before. Long ago in Germany, on the platform of a railway station in winter. It’s a stuttered bleating, like the protests of lambs being led to the killing floor.
Sometimes I squander sleep trying to reach Millie, dialing random numbers into the phone, into frequencies I’m sure only the dead can hear. I keep thinking I can connect with her if I just dial the right combination. It’s crazy, I know. I told Jakob about it months ago. He refuses to see me now. My only child. He said I should consider moving into a senior care facility. He meant old folk’s home. It will be easier for the universe to yawn at my dying than for Jakob to deal with my living. I don’t blame him.
There I go crying again. I’ve had too much to drink. I thought it would help. It doesn’t. I still hear the dreadful moments approaching, sloshing toward me through a sea of scotch. Nothing seems to work. I’ve called a thousand numbers, but no one answers. I’ve offered a thousand prayers, but nothing responds. There will be no peace, only memories. No eternities, only moments.
And this, the moment I’ve avoided my whole life, the moment when I must admit that things happen without any reason, that they’re merely what they appear to be, this moment too has passed. And its passing matters not. Not to Millie, not to Jakob, not to friends left behind, not to the men who wage and fight wars, not even to me. It’s very late now, and I’m almost done.
I wince, dripping sweat, as the blade tears deeper into the tattoo on my forearm — into those five numbers, violet-streaked. Each stroke casual and dull. Each cut erasing a moment of pain, loss, disregard.
Bret Bass writes things. Lots of things. He gets paid to do this by people who should know better. He currently serves as an editor for the corporate equivalent of a Turkish bazaar. He has published in journals and anthologies including The Best of Every Day Fiction TWO (2009). His stories can be read at Every Day Fiction, 50 to 1, Tweet the Meat and other publications.