Rewriting My Ghost by David Breithaupt.
I have memories I wish I could rewrite the endings for while others have no conclusions at all. This past Memorial Day recalled for me a WW II vet I met in NYC during the mid 1980s. I was walking down 1st Avenue on the Upper Eastside with my friend Kitty, who was from Brooklyn and worked as a sign language interpreter. It was one of those fetid summer days in the city when anyone who could had already fled and the air was that kind of clammy smog you knew would give you some kind of cancer one day. We were about to traverse one of the cross streets when we noticed an old man who had fallen by the curb. He was stuttering and holding an arm up for help. As we approached, I noticed my fellow New Yorkers walking by him, vaguely annoyed by the obstacle that was slowing them down en route to their important missions. I stopped for a moment to take this in.
Kitty shook me out of my stupor when she bent over the man and asked in her loud (she was partially deaf) Brooklyn accent if he was all right. A wave of relief swept across his face as she and I hoisted and steadied him. The man had a cheap cane which had broken and lay in the street in pieces. He slurred and sputtered. Passerbys must have thought him a common drunk. I was however, fluent in drunkenese and recognized that his speech impediment had some other source. Most likely the man was a stroke victim.
“Where do you live?” Kitty asked while signing, partly out of habit and partly out of uncertainty of the man’s ability to hear. Again the man stuttered. He reached for his wallet and handed it to us. Kitty opened it and found a state ID with his current (we hoped) address. He lived not far away, one block down and one over. The name on his card identified him as Herman.
“We’ll take you there,” Kitty half shouted, still signing. Slowly, we walked him to his building, one painstaking step at a time. This was a memory that would whirl into my mind years later when my father suffered from emphysema and I would help him walk at an equally slow pace. Both times I can recall thinking, this will be me someday, if I live that long. Thirty-five minutes later we stood in front of his building.
“Keys?” Kitty asked. “We will walk you up. Do you have your keys with you?” The man pulled a chain out of his pocket from which dangled about a dozen keys. We tried each one to see which opened the front door. Of course it was the last one. Once in the vestibule, Herman pointed to his mail box. More good luck, he lived on the fifth floor. We fumbled with his keys again and let ourselves in. We recommenced a slow journey, like climbers reaching the peak of Mt. Everest. I wondered how he coped with this on a daily basis.
We succeeded eventually, sweaty and slightly out of breath. I was already looking forward to drinking several large beers in the first available air-conditioned bar. Herman was almost home. Kitty found his door key after we had made some commotion in the hall, the noise of which attracted the neighbor across the way. A young man next door came out to see what was up.
“Hey Herman,” he said. We quickly explained the situation. The neighbor said he’d been keeping an eye out for Herman, that he was a WW II vet and lived alone. Herman had suffered a stroke eight months earlier which affected his speech and slightly impaired his walking ability. The neighbor said he was hoping to find a relative to help him but Herman seemed to be alone in the world.
The last key (again) let us in and we helped him to a bed in the center of a small room. He plopped down gratefully and looked at us expectantly. I walked around his room, flipping on light switches which didn’t seem to work. The only light was coming from his open door.
“His electricity gets cut off sometimes,” the neighbor informed us. “I’ll try to get him some candles,” he mentioned half-heartedly. Herman was still sitting, as if expecting some miracle, perhaps a wave of our hands which would make him twenty years old and erase the memories of his dead comrades. We didn’t have that kind of magic.
Kitty fluffed his pillow. “You just rest now, all right?”
Herman just wanted to sit. And look at us. Maybe he wanted us to adopt him. To give him the gift of electricity, cook him an omelet and watch a Mets game with him. Instead we backed out of his room while he watched us go. Slowly he raised a hand and waved goodbye. Kitty signed a farewell and told him to rest. “You take care Herman, get some rest!”
I watched him dissolve into darkness as we closed the door, his look more meaningful than any novel I’d ever read including the long Russian ones whose morals were sometimes elusive. What was going though his mind? What did his expression mean? He was taking us in like we were the last sight he’d ever see. Maybe we were. We closed the door with a final click and left him locked in darkness. We never saw him again.
I want to change the ending now. I want his lights to come on, to have one of his kids come to the rescue and take him home. I want to make myself march down to Con Ed and pay his damn electric bill. I want myself to stop in every now and then to make sure he was illuminated.
Instead I took with me the legacy of his thousand mile stare through time and space which has haunted me for the last thirty-five years. I’m sorry Herman. We should have crafted you a better finale. We left you in the dark which is where we all end up but it wasn’t quite your time. I hope you found some peace. I hope you were reborn in the light. I hope you got a new cane and some candles. I hope you are OK wherever you are.
Jennifer Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Jezebel, Salon, among others. Jen’s leading one of her signature yoga/writing retreats to Ojai, Calif over Labor Day in Ojai, Calif and she and bestselling author Emily Rapp will be leading another writing retreat to Vermont in October. Check out jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up: Seattle, London, Atlanta, South Dakota, NYC, Dallas. She tweets/instagrams at @jenpastiloff.