Appeared in Open Pen magazine Feb 2019
Mrs Feldman’s husband died and she was having a hard time coping with it. She was an old lady with grey hair. She was thin and had no colour in her eyes as if she had no soul, which made me and my brother think she wasn’t really human. Mrs Feldman was also our schoolteacher. She’d taught geography for 35 years. That was a long time. She was a nice lady because she didn’t act like a teacher outside of class since we just saw her as one of our neighbours.
She told us things about her dead husband, Joe, who was in the war, she said, and fought the Germans and she used to tell us about the hard time Joe had, because he was a Jew, and that was to do with the war, because people were killing Jews and Joe Feldman was fighting the Nazis who wanted to kill him. That’s why I always looked up to Mr Feldman when he was alive, though he wasn’t as nice as Mrs Feldman. He was a miserable old man and mean and never talked to me or my brother, Samuel. He always kept our ball when we kicked it over the fence, and one time he caught my brother climbing over and my brother fell onto the other side. Mr Feldman came out and my brother screamed and I screamed for my brother but we were separated by the fence and I imagined I was like one of those Jews in the concentrating camps that Mrs Feldman told us about, and Mr Feldman took my brother away into his house, and I ran through our house, outside, round the front and to the Feldman’s front door. I banged on the door screaming that the Nazis were going to kill my brother and Mr Feldman opened the door and I screamed and my brother ran out screaming and Mr Feldman didn’t move from the doorstep. I guess he was fed up with the screaming. He must have told our parents because they grounded us both the next day. I had to apologise for screaming the word Nazi outside the Feldman’s house.
During this time, me and my brother had to visit Mrs Feldman to keep her company since Mum said she was impressed that Mr Feldman was dead. I didn’t know why. I thought she seemed sad all the time since he died, though I suppose it would be impressive to die of lung cancer instead of being gassed by the Nazis.
It was boring when we visited Mrs Feldman. We didn’t know what to do or say to her so me and Samuel made a deal to take it in turns so only one of us visited her and the other one could play in the street. And it worked out well. For the next few months, either me or my brother visited Mrs Feldman while the other one played outside with the other kids. I hated it when I had to visit her because I could see Samuel through the window on his bike and I laughed at him when he fell. Mrs Feldman heard me laughing and she said, ‘Boy, what are you laughing at?’
‘My brother fell off his bike.’
‘Oh, well you shouldn’t laugh when someone falls an’ hurts themself. ‘Specially if it’s your brother. E’en though it might look funny.’ She smiled. She hadn’t really smiled since Mr Feldman died. Actually, she hadn’t smiled at all.
Mrs Feldman was funny. She spoke to me like she was a little kid, too. It was like she hadn’t really grown up, or that she just remembered what it was like being a kid. She told me these stupid jokes and we just laughed about anything even when it wasn’t funny. I think it was that she’d said it or the timing, yeah, she had good comedy timing. I wondered if she’d ever been a comedian, but I never asked her.
Me and my brother had these bets and whoever lost had to go see Mrs Feldman. But I didn’t mind when I lost. I started to like going to see Mrs Feldman, so I lost the bets on purpose going, ‘Oh no, now I have to go see her again.’
We played Scrabble or something and she’d tell me what it was like growing up on the street when she was a kid since she’d lived on the same street her whole life, and the place sounded weird, like she was making it up, like the 1940s was just fiction in a book or something. But it didn’t matter if she was making it up or not. I liked spending time with her. She was my friend.
Mrs Feldman died. I remember when it happened. She was singing. I don’t know what song it was; she always liked those old-fashioned songs that sounded like they were stuck on the radio forever, and then she made weird coughing noises and fell down. I was on my own when she died. My brother was playing outside. I just stood there, looking at her, wondering what she was doing. I know that sounds stupid, but I just had this thought in my head that said, ‘What’s she doing?’
A week later was my tenth birthday and I felt sad because it was my birthday and Mrs Feldman wasn’t there. I didn’t even know what being dead was. Now I do. It means going away. That’s all it means.
The day after my birthday, Mr Black moved into the Feldman’s old house. Mr Black was the Devil. That’s what I thought of him. It’s what I thought of anyone moving into the Feldman’s old house. It wasn’t right. I couldn’t bear to see him move his stuff into their house. Mr Black was tall and sad-looking with pillow-creases on his cheeks as if he slept a lot. He walked over Mrs Feldman’s daffodils; their necks broke under his feet. Their sad daffodil faces looking at me as if they were Mrs Feldman crying and I burst out crying and I hated Mr Black because I imagined he was the one who killed Mr and Mrs Feldman. Later I had to apologise to Mr Black for calling him a Nazi.
One day I said to my brother, ‘Mr Black has no family.’
‘How do you know?’ he said.
‘Well he’s not with anyone. Looks like he’s going to be living on his own. He mustn’t have any family.’
‘Maybe he has a wife somewhere else.’
‘So he’s remorsed?’
‘For who?’ Samuel said.
‘You mean divorced.’
‘I don’t know.’
‘He has no one.’
‘He must have a mum and dad living somewhere.’
‘He just looks lonely,’ I said. ‘He looks like those sorts of people who don’t have anyone and don’t want anyone.’
Samuel was one year older than me. He told me I was always thinking out loud. Mrs Feldman used to tell me I should write a book. Mr Feldman used to tell me to be quiet.
A month later my dad made friends with Mr Black when Mr Black’s car wouldn’t start. My dad helped start it because my dad was a mechanic and could build or fix anything and Mr Black thanked him and invited my dad to drink beer in his house. So he did. I told Mum but she was happy my dad had made a new friend and she wouldn’t listen to what I had to say about Mr Black, so me and Samuel went to Mr Black’s front lawn and looked through the window and saw my dad and Mr Black drinking beer in the kitchen and they were laughing and they soon became good friends and they were always drinking beer in Mr Black’s house and they were always laughing.
It was a Sunday. I was playing in the street with Samuel and our dog called Johnson. Johnson was running up and down the street with a ball and Mum called us in for dinner and we left Johnson outside and when we went back outside we found Johnson’s dead body on the road.
‘Oh, a car must have hit him,’ Mum said. But no cars ever came up our road, not that day anyway. It was completely deserted. Mr Black looked at us through his window. He was just stood there staring at us, stood in the place Mr Feldman used to stand. It was weird that he was in their house. He was trespassing. He didn’t belong there.
Later that day my dad went next door to Mr Black’s to drink beer and laugh and me and Samuel buried Johnson in the front lawn and Dad and Mr Black came outside to drink beer in the sun. Mr Black came over and leaned on the fence. He was thin and he wore a suit. ‘What are you boys up to, then?’ he said. This was probably the first time he’d actually spoken to us. I was used to him just staring at us through the window. His voice was cold and dry. He sounded like he had a sore throat, like he was sick or something.
‘Burying Johnson,’ I said.
‘Oh. How did Johnson die?’
‘I don’t know. We just found him dead.’
‘These things happen. Dogs often die. You can’t help it.’ Mr Black turned around and walked over to Dad and they sat on deck chairs and drank beer in the sun. Samuel made a grave with sticks and I tried to scratch Johnson’s name on it, but it didn’t look very good.
Mum began to get annoyed with my dad because he started going to the pub with Mr Black and they wouldn’t come back for hours. Sometimes they wouldn’t come back until the next day and my parents started arguing and Mr Black would just go inside his own house without saying a word and wait until my dad would knock on his door again.
One day, Samuel asked me if I thought about Mr and Mrs Feldman.
‘Why ask me that?’ I said.
‘You don’t even talk about them anymore,’ he said. ‘It’s as if they were never even here.’
‘I just don’t want to talk about them.’
‘You’ve forgotten them.’
‘Talk about them.’
‘What do you want me to say?’
‘Tell me where they’ve gone.’
Sometimes I wondered why I was the younger brother when Samuel talked to me like this, expecting me to give him all the answers.
Mr Black stood over us and answered Samuel, ‘They’ve gone to Hell.’ We looked up and saw the skull-shape of his head, the road-mark lines of his wrinkles, sharp cheekbones and chin the colour of ash, colourless eyes so similar to Mrs Feldman’s it frightened me. ‘Or Heaven,’ he said, shrugging his shoulders.
‘I don’t know if Hell or Heaven are real places,’ Samuel said.
‘They are,’ Mr Black said. ‘You can go to those places while you’re still alive. You can be on your way to anywhere and then all of a sudden you’re standing in the middle of Hell and you can’t get out.’
‘We’re not supposed to talk to you,’ I said.
‘Are you the Devil?’ Samuel said.
‘Yes,’ Mr Black said and walked away. He walked to his house and shut the door. Soon after that, Dad came outside looking tired and we said ‘Hi’ to him but he didn’t reply. He knocked on Mr Black’s front door and Mr Black let him in. He went inside and Mr Black looked at us as he closed the door. All they seemed to do was drink beer. Later they came out and got in Dad’s car and drove away. It was getting late and the sky was orange. It cast a light over Johnson’s grave so the cross marked an X on the grass. The X slowly moved across the yard as the sun set and sat on Mr Black’s house and stayed there for some time.
My dad died. He was in a car accident with Mr Black. Mr Black said sorry to my mum and to me and Samuel and he disappeared into his house for a long time. I told Samuel that Dad died because he was driving with the Devil.
When Winter came and it got cold, Mr Black went for walks. Mum was still grieving. I think I was finished grieving. I think Samuel had a little bit of grieving left only because he was sad more often than he used to be. I followed Mr Black one day and he walked to the park and sat on a bench. He saw me and waved and looked down at his feet as I walked over to him. I thought his wave would be evil as if he was a villain from the films me and Samuel saw in the cinema, but it wasn’t. He was just a man. He said, ‘You’re a good boy, and so’s your brother, but you won’t be that way forever.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean that you’ll grow up and change.’
‘Will Samuel still like me?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘I thought you were the Devil.’
‘If I were the Devil, would I be talking to you right now? You have a vivid imagination. You should write a book.’
‘Mrs Feldman once told me to write a book.’
‘Who’s Mrs Feldman?’
‘She used to live in your house.’
‘Oh. I never met her,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry about your dad.’
Mr Black got up and left. I sat on the bench and it was cold. I listened to the trees moving around. I could still smell Mr Black’s medicinal beer smell. I could hear his voice and I could hear my dad’s voice. Later, I saw a dead sparrow. It had fallen from the sky. It lay on the ground, its feet curled up, its eyes closed. I looked at the sparrow for a long time and thought about my dad and I thought about where I could possibly end up when I die and I wondered if it was good enough that I buried the sparrow in the grass, amongst the moving trees in the wind.
© Michael Holloway
Cover photo by Pontus Wellgraf on Unsplash