Life Experience

“It’s over,” Fiona said, staring at herself in the dressing table mirror. “Nothing more to it … I ended it last Friday.” She took off her garnet earrings, the ones he had given her, and stirred them in the palm of her hand with her index finger. Under the small table lamp, the earrings looked like two drops of blood.

Charles sat in the shadows on the edge of the bed. “It doesn’t make much difference that it’s over,” he said to her back, “and that’s not the point.”

She avoided his gaze in the mirror. “I know.”

“You never lied to me before.”

Fiona gave him a quick glance. Her face dropped. “There were other times,” she said. “You made it easy; you always believed me.”

“I didn’t know deception existed in relationships like ours.”

“I hate that I did it, Charles. Even while it was going on, I kept telling myself it wasn’t really me. The last few weeks felt like madness.” She shook her head. “Sometimes love needs a little madness.”

“Is that the reason?” he murmured. “You were in love with Derek?”

“No, I just needed some time away from myself. It was something I needed to do, something I had to experience. I would have told you eventually, in time.” She flashed a wan smile. “Now I’m back where I belong.”

“I never noticed you were gone.”

“I love you, Charles. I ended it with Derek. Besides, it really wasn’t much.”

After a long silence, he said, “I loved you more than I ever loved anyone, more than I loved our children.” He sighed. “I suppose I’m largely to blame. I’m pretty dull compared to Derek … old and dull. I let it happen.”

“No, that’s not it, Charles,” Fiona said. “I never thought those things. Never.”

“You’ve watched me turn gray, slow down in middle age. I thought I was living a normal life. That’s what I wanted. There’s more to me, you know, more I could have shown you.”

“That might have helped,” Fiona said, rocking her head, “a little madness.”

“I suppose your bridge club knows,” he said. When she didn’t respond he continued, “The garden club, too?”

Fiona winced. “Christine gave me a key to the greenhouse, so Derek and I would have a place to be alone.”

He threw his head back and signed. “Where can I go? No one respects a cuckold. There’s no reason to be here anymore.” He rose and walked out to the living room.

“What does that mean?” Fiona shouted after him. “I told you it was over. It was something I needed to do and now it’s over. Wait, are you telling me you want a divorce? Alright, now you’re upsetting me. Let me tell you a thing or two. Derek paid me attention. It’s been a long time since…”

Charles emptied his pockets on the coffee table: wallet, keys, glasses, pocketknife, loose change, a bill from the wine and cheese shop he’d visited that afternoon. Then he unbuttoned his shirt and folded it neatly on the faux leather recliner.

He stepped out into the night and felt the cool air on his bare chest. It was quiet except for a party going on up the street. Charles unlaced his shoes and left them with his socks on the porch. The pavement felt warm crossing Jessup Street. When he stepped out from under the streetlamp and entered the park, his shadow leaped ahead, stretching until it blended with the night. He shed his trousers and shorts on the dewy grass and found his favorite bench. The metal chilled his bare backside.

“Greetings, Lord Karl,” a strong low voice said.

“Greetings, Svendar,” Charles said with a sigh. “Is my post still open?”

valkyrie2

“The Valkyries keep your armor polished and your sword sharp. They replenish the mead in your horn each evening anticipating your return. Our warriors never toasted your departure.”

“The Sky Lord has forgiven me then?”

“Forgiveness is freely given to the faithful, and you are a favorite.”

“I wish to return.”

“You said you wanted to live a normal human life, to love, have a family, grow old. It’s been over sixty years, have you done those things?”

His wife’s words came to him. “It was something I needed to do, something I had to experience. Now I’m ready to go back where I belong.”

Ah-O-O-O-O, a distant deep horn sounded, and with it came a growing chorus of beautiful voices.

 

The following morning, police found the naked body of a man in Jessup Park. It wasn’t long before they identified him as Charles Haley. His body was laced with a dangerous hallucinogen. Traces of the substance were found in six empty wrappers clutched in his hand—the only things he had retained from his trouser pockets.

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Time to Change

Jeannine, Marty’s new friend and art student classmate, studied his collection of sketches and memorabilia. As she paused, touched slender fingers to her chin, then nodded and moved along, Marty recalled his role in their origins.

He remembered Kärntner Strasse. Everyone was nattily dressed the morning he’d arrived—except for artists, urchins, and street venders. Men wore dark suits or patterned jackets with bow ties and sporty straw hats. Women wore lace-trimmed dresses with fancy hats and high button shoes. The smock and beret cap Marty wore marked him as an artist.

He’d tucked his sketchpad under his arm, hiked up the satchel strap on his shoulder, and strode to the coffee shop where a young painter was exhibiting watercolors of Vienna.

Slide1Old Vienna was quite beautiful. Flowerboxes and planters brimmed with springtime blossoms, red, violet, yellow, and blue. The stately shops and townhouses along the walk had elaborate French facades with carved stone stairs and caged gas lamps on poles and sconces. Kärntner Strasse was paved with cut stone and brick, and small trolleys jerked on rails that ran up its center. Horse carriages clop-clop and clattered past. The air smelled of horses and freshly baked pastries, and an occasional whiff of stale exhaust. A distant bell rang from a tower up the street.

Jeannine’s voice suddenly pulled Marty back to the present. “I didn’t know you were into Hitler.” Her delicate finger traced the carved frame of Hitler’s photograph. “You’ve never mentioned his work.”

“I’m not really a fan of his paintings,” Marty said. “I keep that picture as a humble reminder.”

“Was he your inspiration?” Jeannine asked. When he didn’t answer, she turned to him. “You look sad. I’d think you’d be proud.”

The photograph that captured her attention was of two men in wheelchairs: Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Adolph Hitler. Both wore dark suits. Around Hitler’s neck hung the medal Roosevelt had just given him.

“Oh, look at this,” she said, dropping her hand to the acrylic case on the credenza. Inside the case was a copy of Kronen Zeitung, a Viennese newspaper from 1909. “Is this an original?”

“It’s a copy. I ordered it last year,” Marty said. “Another reminder.”

The headline featured a picture of a bombed coffeehouse where Herr Hitler’s watercolors were going on display. Hitler had come early to see to their placement. The bomb blast took both his legs; no one else was injured.

“That incident changed his life,” Jeannine said, sounding professorial. Marty gave a knowing nod. “Hitler switched from city watercolor scenes to paintings of terrorist atrocities—World War One made him famous.” Marty cocked an eyebrow and she smiled. “I led a seminar discussion on Hitler’s work at the Met last fall.”

Mmm, mmm. Jeannine’s timer went off. “Sorry, got to go. I’m meeting mother uptown for lunch.” She gave Marty a peck on the cheek. “See you in class tomorrow.”

Marty watched her catch a cab at the curb then turned to the photograph and newspaper. He pushed his black hair off his face. Time to put these things away, he thought, then carried the two items to the workroom out back.

He had inherited the brownstone townhouse from Professor Mindrick. The inheritance had come as a surprise; he was only the professor’s lab assistant.

Time sculpting, Mindrick had called it when he showed Marty the machine. The professor was obsessed with Adolf Hitler—the original one—and Marty came to share his obsession. They could stop the war, the professor had said, the camps, the horror, all the death and destruction. After Mindrick died, Marty continued his work.

When he had arrived at the coffee shop that spring morning, Hitler was busy hanging pictures. Marty slid his satchel under a table and ordered a cup of coffee to savor the moment. Hitler was pale, he noted, a dark-haired young man, intense, underfed, someone Marty might have befriended. He almost hesitated too long: the blast almost caught him.

He remembered how smug and elated he’d felt when he got back—and a little guilty. Then he’d noticed that Mindrick’s copy of History of World War II was still on the shelf. His hand shook when he took down the volume.

Hans Kléber had seized Germany in the early ‘30s at the head of the Nazi party, declared himself Führer of a master race, and led them into war. Hitler had continued painting and remained in Vienna until the German occupation in 1938. Then he’d fled to the United States to escape arrest. His anti-war paintings depicting German atrocities had enraged Kléber.

Marty once thought the time machine in the middle of the workroom was a marvel of science; now it looked like a torture device out of a B-grade horror flick. The artist tunic he’d worn was still draped over it. He couldn’t imagine what Jeannine would say if he told her. He glanced at the flyer he’d brought back as a trophy: an invitation to view a young painter’s watercolors in a Vienna coffeehouse.

He padlocked the door on his way out.