Tommy was secretly delighted that he no longer had to share a room.
At 10 years old, I didn’t understand much about the ways of grownups, but I knew punishment work when I saw it.
“What’d you do?” I asked him.
“Do?” he responded. “How do you mean?”
“To get in trouble,” I said.
He chuckled bitterly, “Son, I been in trouble since the day I was born.”
Confused, I asked, “You mean you’ve always been bad?”
“Not exactly,” he said. “At least not on the inside. But you’ll find out soon enough that that ain’t what matters to lots of folks. It’s the outside of me is all they can see, and they don’t care for it much.”
“That don’t make any sense to me,” I said. “You look just fine to me.”
“Why, thank you, sir, ” he said as he bowed graciously. “If only everyone could be so blind.”
He stood beside me 46 years later, watched me sign the bill, shook my hand, and said those exact same words.
Childhood sweethearts, they had married in the spring of 1927. He looked deeply into her eyes and was happy.
On the train coming home from their honeymoon, a man with desperate eyes shoved a gun into their faces and demanded money. Without thinking, he pushed the gun aside and tackled the man, then pummeled him until the police arrived.
She told him he was a brave man.
After university he secured an excellent job as a factory manager. She bore him two children within three years.
They were content. He came home every evening to an immaculate home and was greeted by a warm smile and embrace.
By 1934, neighbors started looking at her differently. He overheard snippets of guiltily whispered conversations: “…black hair…nose…star…”
By 1936, she wondered why he no longer looked her in the eyes when they made love and why he resisted family outings.
In 1940 a friend in the Gestapo secretly handed him a note at a party. Hands shaking, he opened it in the bathroom. It read: “They know.”
When they got home that night, he told her to take the children to the park in the morning.
He kissed them goodbye that morning, then watched them leave through the window. As soon as they were out of site, he rushed to his bedroom to pack.
After finishing, he scoured the house for every document he could find that connected them. As he was feeding them into the fire, his eyes fell on her old diaries, from which their love letters protruded.
He lay down and began reading them. Lazy summer afternoons at the lake. Whispered promises under the stars. Nervous caresses. Shared dreams. First kiss and first realizations. Naive, heartfelt, authentic.
With a sigh, he dropped the last one into the flames, then went into the bathroom to wash his hands. He didn’t look up into the mirror.
He grabbed his bag and newly-prepared documents, took one last look behind him from the front door, taped the yellow star onto the door, and disappeared.
On those blustery days the fire in my belly was stronger than the ice in my fingers and toes.
Every afternoon after the school bell rang, I burst out the doors, hustled home, changed my clothes, then rushed to the dump. I spent most of every Saturday there, too.
I probed the piles in search of pearls — discarded treasures that could be repaired, re-sold, and re-used. At the time my sister just thought it was fun, but I was a boy with tunnel vision.
The neighborhood boys always gathered, pointing and laughing as we scrounged like hungry rats. I can’t say it didn’t hurt, but hearing the clang of coins in my secret can always soothed me afterward.
I’d watch them, envy clawing at me, as they spent their fat allowances on candy and ice cream, cheap toys and carnival rides.
There were times when, glaring at my holey jeans and shoes, the jeers ringing in my mind, a feeling so strong would rise up inside me I thought I’d explode.
“Someday,” I’d imagine, “I’m gonna buy leather shoes without even looking at the price tag. I’m gonna swim in ice cream. I’ll be so rich that no one will ever laugh at me again. And I’ll always look out for holey shoes on young boys, pounding the pavement in search of a brighter future. They just need a chance, and I’ll give them their chance.”
27 years later, after I owned half the town and the same boys who used to mock me worked for me, I bought that old dump, just as a souvenir.
After I signed the papers, I drove to the dump and stood staring at it for awhile. As I turned to leave, a movement behind a pile caught my eye. I watched as a young boy emerged, face dirty, clothes tattered, eyes bright and absorbed as he explored.
“Son,” I called, “What are you doing?”
“Just looking for things I can sell, Mister,” he replied defensively.
“Come on over here,” I said. “I’ve got an opportunity for you.”