Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Flash Fiction: Howard Tinkertoy

           As I backed out of the driveway, I noticed Matt’s kiddie tablet on the seat and almost stopped the car.  He was going to be with his mother for the next two weeks and would miss it, but I found myself easing into the intersection anyway.  The divorce hadn’t been amicable, and I didn’t feel like going back, getting out of the car, and having to ring the doorbell of the house I’d bought like an unwelcome guest.  The tablet, a Leapfrog, was Matt’s responsibility, so being without it would teach him a valuable lesson.  And if he wanted it that badly, his mother could call and arrange a time to pick it up.
           Traffic wasn’t too heavy, and I got home in record time. 
           Jesus Christ.
           Home is an inapt term for a crappy apartment on the “ethnic” side of town that was mostly inhabited by overlarge Latino families, welfare cases, and college kids too poor to live on campus.  I hated that I always had to make sure there wasn’t anything visible in the car, from a half-empty snack bag of Ruffles to my kid’s tablet, or else the homeless junkies would smash the windows to steal it.  From a four-bedroom in the suburbs on a good half-acre to an inner-city toilet: this was home?
           On a whim, I turned the Leapfrog on, logged in, and looked at the photos he’d taken.  At his age, it wasn’t like he had any great grasp of composition or anything, but he’d caught a few interesting things: a dew-jeweled spider web strung between the branches of the birch tree in front of the house, countless selfies with his tongue out, bones from a KFC dinner, the Iron Man poster on his bedroom wall at the apartment.  Usual stuff—
           Who the hell was that?
           It was a picture of the dining room.  Sitting at the head of the table was a man wearing large brown glasses and holding a knife and fork above a bowl of soup, as if he planned to cut into it.  The photo’s blurriness made his features impossible to discern, but he seemed familiar somehow.
           Who was he?  A new boyfriend, clowning around in my chair like he owned the place—
           I was holding the tablet so tightly that it shook, so I put it down, went to the freezer, and poured myself a shot of Svedka to calm my nerves.  The guy looked so familiar.  Did he work with my ex-wife at that stupid gift shop downtown?  None of the other photos on the tablet turned him up.  I’d have to ask Matt when I saw him in two weeks.  Two whole weeks to see my own son: those are my visitation rights.  Good deal, huh?
           Anyway, I digress.
           My job is only tedious because of the clients.  You’d think a contract lawyer would have been able to get a good divorce attorney, but you’d be dead wrong. 
           The clients.  I work with old people on wills and trusts, mostly, and 70% of my day is answering and re-answering the same questions asked by the same people.  Telling somebody something once doesn’t do it any more: you have to reassure them.  Yes, Mr. Stanwyck, you can devote this percentage to this person and the rest to that university.  No, Mrs. Blum, you shouldn’t leave it all to your dog, because those wills get contested all the time and only in the movies does the dog live in the lap of luxury while your ungrateful children gnash their teeth outside the fence.  After having to shout into the phone for an hour at a deaf old broad about reverse mortgages, I told my secretary I’d be taking a coffee break and left the office.
           The man in the large brown glasses was pacing back and forth in front of the lobby doors, and looked up hopefully when I came out of the elevator.  He wore a gray V-neck sweater and corduroys despite the warm weather, with clean white sneakers and black socks.  Determined not to let him know I recognized him from the photo, I went to breeze past him.  Let him call my name and make the first move.
           “Howard?  Howard Tinkertoy?”
           All the blood in my body turned to frozen gelatin, and I stared at him as if he’d slapped me.
           When I was four, my mother took me to visit some great-aunts of hers.  They were old and I was shy, and they asked me my name and I didn’t want to tell them, so I told them my name was Howard, because I loved Howard the Duck comics.  Everyone laughed, and they asked what my last name was, and I said Tinkertoy, for similar reasons.  Nobody remembered that but me.  My mother died of breast cancer a few years later.
           “I need to talk to you.  Fast,” the man said, and jerked his head in the direction of the exit.
           My voice was a squeaky whisper.  “How do you…what…”
           “Fast,” he insisted, took my upper arm, and pulled me out of the building. 
           We were halfway down the block when I managed to yank my arm away.  “Get off me,” I said.  “You can’t just—” 
           I finally recognized him.  His name was Kreutzman.  He’d been my third grade teacher, the only male teacher in the whole school.  From the 1970’s glasses to the Puma sneakers to the mild, rubbery late-40’s face, he hadn’t changed at all.
           “Yes, I know,” he said.  “We really need to talk.  Now.”  He kept looking down the street as if someone was going to sneak up on us.
           “Okay, okay.  Let’s go here.”  I led the way and sat at an outdoor table at the Starbucks. 
           It was clear from the look on his face that he didn’t like it, but he perched on the edge of a chair and nodded to himself.  “We don’t have a lot of time.  So I’ll be quick.”
           “But how—“
           “Shut up!” he hissed, and for an instant I was back in third grade getting hollered at for talking in class.  Abashed despite myself, I hung my head.
           He bit his lip.  “I’m sorry, Robert,” he said, using my real name this time.  “I can’t answer questions.  That’s not why they brought me back.”
          I spread my hands and kept my mouth closed: a perfect listener.
           “There’s something I need to get from you.  It’s a memory.  A memory of something really awful.  Something so terrible that you couldn’t even grasp it at the time.  I need you to remember and I need you to give it to me.”
           How do you give someone a memory?  Even so, I knew exactly what he was talking about.  My stepmother.  She’d been a horrible, abusive woman, full of vitriol and bile.  Once, when I was ten, she caught me sneaking one of Dad’s Club magazines out from—
           “No!  No, Robert!  That’s not it,” Mr. Kreutzman said, jabbing a blunt forefinger at my chest.  “I’m talking about something important.”
           I gaped at him.  “Important?  Jesus Christ, she took a wooden spoon and…and…I needed surgery!  And no one believed me when—“
           He slapped both hands on the table hard enough to make it rattle.  I jumped.  Nobody else seemed to notice.  “Stop it!  It isn’t about you.  Everything isn’t about you.”
           Swallowing, trying to push the decades-old pain, anger, and resentment back down where it belonged, I glowered at him.
           “We’re not going to be able to talk again like this.  They won’t allow it.  So when you remember, write it down or draw a picture of it.”  His honest, elastic face relaxed a little.  “I know it’s hard, Robert.  You think I don’t know that?  As much as I ever loved a student, I loved you, because you were a decent, sweet little boy who had a sick mother.  You didn’t deserve that.”
           Tears stung my eyes, the first since I was twelve.  Even when Matt was born I didn’t cry.  Real men don’t cry.  Mr. Kreutzman doubled, then trebled.  I scrubbed my face.
           “I have to go,” he said, getting up.  “You have no idea how important this is.  It’s everything.  I can’t tell you what it is.  All I can say is that you weren’t alone when it happened.  Four others were there, and you’re the only one they haven’t killed yet.  But you have to remember.  You can.  And if—when you do, you’ll understand.  You’ll shout it to the world.  As terrible as it was, you’ll make everyone understand.  Everything doesn’t have to end.”
           I looked up at him, and he made the face of a man who has to do something he really doesn’t want to do.
           “This wasn’t a dream.”  He touched my forehead with two fingers and made me see what would happen if I didn’t remember what I was supposed to.
            My screaming didn’t stop until the ambulance arrived, and long before then, Mr. Kreutzman was gone.

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