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Y is for Yesterday

For he would be thinking of love

Till the stars had run away

And the shadows eaten the moon.

—W.B. Yeats, “The Young Man’s Song”

The house is a small 1930s bungalow in a neighborhood in decline. The yard with its flower bed and a few tidy bushes is well-tended by the landscape company your firm has hired, and a caretaker comes regularly to make exterior repairs. No one has been inside since Mikołaj Dworkowicz left in 1945, except in 1991, when a storm-damaged roof resulted in a leak into the kitchen. Permission was granted for some quick interior repairs, and nothing else could be touched.

A dog yaps nearby. You adjust your skirt and blouse. You’ve made it a practice to be presentable even for casual assignments. You always wear a skirt, a feminine blouse, matching earrings, and great shoes. Your makeup is pristine.

You wear latex gloves to protect your nails. You smile and try to look friendly. Someone in these neighborhoods is always watching from behind the curtains.

You walk up to the house carrying a shopping bag containing a note pad, cell phone, hand sanitizer, keys, makeup, and new shop rags. The brick is clean and repointed, the wooden porch recently painted.

A large wooden Y lies in broken pieces stacked by the front door. Some of the other houses display similar wooden letters originally intended to please the local children, although many letters are missing. This saddens you.

The curtains in the front window are closed, but there is a gap. You walk over to the window, the glass streaked and yellowed on the inside, and you lean in for a peek.

The furniture is draped in gloom. You move closer to the glass. A young man in a beige shirt and baggy brown pants sits in a chair, staring at you, motionless. You put your hand over your mouth afraid to make a sound. You don’t move, and the man fades away. This has happened before, your brain filling the gaps between light and shadow to create an image.

You walk over to the door and unlock the deadbolt, then use a different key in the knob. You turn the knob and push, but nothing happens. You try again, using your shoe to press against the brass kickplate. Good thing you wore your black pumps. But you can’t afford to ruin them. Your size is expensive and only available online.

The bottom of the door gives a little, but the top remains jammed. You turn the knob again, but this time you ram your shoulder into the door. You feel it give and pop open. For once you’re thankful you still have broad shoulders.

As you enter the home you feel the cobwebs dropping over you. Damn. You furiously brush the soft debris from your blouse and out of your hair. You flip the switch and the dirty chandelier glows. At least they got the power back on.

You take out your cellphone and start taking pictures. You scribble some impressions into the notepad. The room is layered in dust, fine gray bits like ash. Even when a house is shut the dust always finds its way in. Insects die and decay, mice leave droppings, wallpaper flakes and glue backing breaks down. Dust leaks from the ceiling cornices and attic spaces, and the tiniest gaps around windows and doors allow the dust to blow inside.

Webs decorate the corners. A wasp floats by. This stresses you. As long as you can remember you’ve been afraid of being stung. You doubt the house’s interior has ever been sprayed. You make a note to call the exterminators.

You take dozens of pictures. You’re not about to be blamed for taking too few. The living room wallpaper has vertical green stripes with clusters of cherries. They had busy tastes back then. The space has an excess of furniture: a coffee table in front of a long floral couch, a matching chair, side tables with lamps, a white hutch full of dusty plates. The carpet is so dirty it’s impossible to know the original hue.

You open a door expecting a closet, but it leads into the damp smelling basement. You don’t do basements. You’ll leave that for the inspection and clean-up crew. Whoever buys this house will doubtless strip it down to the studs and rebuild from there.

A bookcase holds two prayer books, the Tanach, the Mishnah, a commentary on the Talmud. Your mother had similar volumes in her house. You barely glanced at them, much to her dismay. You pull out a small volume of Sholem Aleichem in Yiddish. Perhaps you can arrange to buy the Aleichem and give it to her as a peace offering, a last-ditch effort.

You’re surprised Dworkowicz left books this important behind, but he walked away with little more than the clothes on his back and some savings in the bank for a new life in Chicago.

For all its dust and disintegration, the room is remarkably orderly and uncluttered, the furniture aligned and nothing unnecessary intruding. The one exception is a dirty rectangle lying on the floor beside the coffee table. You nudge it with your shoe. It’s a magazine, too soiled for you to pick up.

Closed French doors lead into the dark dining room. Still, you can see the edge of a dining table and chairs placed around it, and in one of those chairs that same young man you’d seen earlier sits bent over the table as if in prayer.

He wears a skullcap and a dark shirt with rips in it. He nods ever-so-slightly back and forth, mumbling, and tugging on these torn pieces of shirt. His fingers snag small bits of paper from a pile on the table before him. He folds and unfolds them, dropping them back onto the pile.

In its muted stillness the scene resembles a painting by Edward Hopper: the quiet, the isolation, a barely contained misery. You wait, but this time the image does not fade. You walk slowly to the left side of the living room where a narrow hall leads to the back of the house.

The first room off the hall is a bedroom, the bed still made. You’re struck by the floral-patterned wallpaper, the matching bedspread, and the flowery upholstered chair. This was a man who decorated for a woman, you think, but you don’t believe a woman ever arrived.

Above the chest of drawers hangs a diploma from a Polish yeshiva dated 1936. Nearby is a bare nail. You can still see the vague outline of a snapshot-sized frame. So far you’ve found no photographs or art on any walls. Searching the drawers might yield further information, but you’re afraid of whatever might be living there.

You turn around and you’re startled to see that same young man dressed in brown and beige sitting on the edge of the bed, elbows on knees, hands over his face, leaning forward. He is all too solid, except when his shoulders heave as he weeps into his fingers. With every minute shudder he becomes slightly less substantial, as if a spirit striving to escape its body.

You quietly move around him, not knowing what might happen if you touch this less than substantial form, and not wanting to find out. You still have a job you must complete.

The next room is smaller, and contains a baby crib, the faded twelve-dollar price tag still attached.

You like the bathroom’s look. Green tile on the walls and a green wall-mounted sink with two chrome legs, a matching tub. The medicine cabinet still contains a variety of glass medicine bottles and pasteboard boxes.

The bathroom mirror has grown cloudy with age, but it is all you have to work with. You brush the remaining dust out of your hair and off your shoulders until you reach a reasonable semblance of professionalism. You apply a bit of foundation around your mouth and smooth it out. You add a little extra concealer under your eyes.

Your cell phone is buzzing and you glance at the message. HAVE YOU FINISHED LOOKING AT THE ESTATE? WE NEED YOU BACK IN THE OFFICE NICOLE. This is from the same person who sometimes still calls you Nick, but each time insists it is an honest mistake. So far HR has done nothing.

If you had the funds, you’d get the surgery to soften these square facial edges and reduce the width of your nose. You’ve already gotten your hairline lowered and it’s made a dramatic difference. You have a friend who’s had a tracheal shave, so people won’t notice their Adam’s apple. You were supportive of course, but you can’t even imagine. A scalpel touching your throat.

When Mikołaj Dworkowicz resettled in Chicago he insisted everyone call him Nick. So, another Nick. At some point he changed his last name to Divari. It’s all in the deceased client’s file back in the office, an entire life history, but with a few pieces missing.

People thought Nick Divari was Greek and as far as you can tell he never corrected them. It was even in the Chicago obituaries. Did the name change give Dworkowicz a completely new life? It appeared to. But it couldn’t change his past.

The kitchen could use a good sweeping and a mop, but otherwise appears ready for meal preparation. You’re grateful not to smell anything foul. The icebox is empty, as is the pantry. Dworkowicz knew he wouldn’t be coming back, but he still cared about what he left behind.

The color scheme is red and white: red and white checkerboard linoleum floor, apple red and crisp white enamel metal dining set, quarter circle shelves at the end of the white wall cabinets, wallpaper with a rooster pattern. An enameled bread box and cannisters, a wood-burning cast iron stove, a leaning farmhouse cupboard on the verge of collapse.

Like all the rooms in this house, despite the dirt and the grime, there is an order here. The house was left ready for its next resident, but Mikołaj Dworkowicz decided there would be no next resident and paid a considerable amount for over half a century to make sure people left the house alone, until his death, with no descendants, the beneficiaries several Jewish charities.

The door to the dining room is open. You peek in, and you’re relieved to see no phantoms inside. The dining room set is of better quality than the rest of the furniture. The wallpaper is more subtle, cream-colored with an embossed pattern, but again heavily soiled. A sideboard matching the table is centered against the wall. You ignore the temptation of its many drawers. You turn on the light, and the chandelier fills the room with fragmented brilliance.

A stack of letters lies on the table’s dull surface, alongside a small pile of letter fragments, correspondence which has been torn apart. Another letter lies stretched out like a body on an operating table, covered by yellowed, disintegrating tape, an apparent attempt to reconstruct those fragments into a whole. You can only imagine the labor and focus required. Nearby is an antique circular metal tin of “Scotch” cellulose tape.

Intrigued, you dust off a chair and test it with your weight. It creaks but holds. You take a rag and wipe around the letters and the pile to create a cleaner surface.

You take off your gloves and pick up the taped letter for examination. The tape begins to separate, and you lay the letter back down. It’s in Polish, which you can’t read. That’s fine; you’re not looking for secrets to share. But there’s a year, 1940, and his name, Mikołaj, at the beginning, and at the end a signature, Stasia. And you see a word you recognize, Ahava, the Hebrew word for love, repeated throughout, and again at the end.

The handwriting is small and lovely, and you imagine this letter must have been written by a delicate hand. Your own hands embarrass you, so large and clumsy, your thick wrists and long index fingers and that bent, ringless ring finger. There’s nothing you can do to change any of that. Yet you have your nails painted a vivid purple. Painting your nails has been important to you as long as you can remember. This was the first bit of yourself you chose not to hide anymore.

You tore up the letter from your mother asking if you still observed Yom Kippur and recommending a matchmaker. She doesn’t get it and never will. Maybe you should have taped it back together. It might be the last letter you ever receive from her.

You go through the stack of letters, carefully removing each from its envelope, looking it over, then putting it back. Every one of them are signed Stasia, every one of them postmarked Warsaw. Apparently the taped letter is the final of the bunch, or else her final message is lost among all those little pieces.

You have found only two examples of disorder amid the orderly remains of a house closed since June of 1945. You put the gloves back on and go back into the living room and pick the magazine up off the floor. The dust slides off, revealing an issue of Life Magazine with three men on the cover. The one in the middle has a bandaged hand. The words at the bottom are “The German People.” The date is May 7, 1945. The price is ten cents.

You don’t sit on the couch because you don’t know what might be living there. You choose to glance through the magazine standing up. You remember that mourning sometimes involved a lot of standing. Memories are stirring. You’ve held this magazine before.

Your mother kept several boxes of papers at the back of her closet among old shoes and stacks of books, her private property forbidden for you to see. Of course, you felt compelled to go through these things. That’s how you discovered what your father looked like and the things he had done in his life, although you found no answers as to why he left your mother. You have always assumed it had something to do with you.

In one of those boxes, you found this magazine, hidden away as if it were some forbidden piece of pornography, and pornography is exactly the way you treated it. You thumbed through its pages with a growing sense of shame.

“Speaking of Pictures” is the opening spread, a layout of light-hearted black and gray panel cartoons meant to elicit a giggle. Then an ad for The Prudential, a man putting a wedding ring on a woman’s delicate finger, her nails darkly painted, you think probably red but it’s a black and white photograph so you can’t know for sure.

Then “War In Europe Draws To Its End,” the Nazis are decimated, and everyone is smiling, Russian and American soldiers shaking hands. But what follows is a feature on the “Atrocities.” This is what you remember, the first images out of the camps, the photos by George Rodger and Margaret Bourke-White. The skeletal survivors peering from their bunks, the scatter of clothing and bodies. German guards knee-deep in bones and decaying flesh, forced by the British Tommies to dig a mass grave at Belsen to bury the corpses of the victims.

You don’t know if your mother knew you’d found this box and rummaged through it, but several months later when you went back for another glimpse it was gone.

You can only imagine what Mikołaj Dworkowicz felt going through these pages. You don’t know if he saw anything familiar, if a bit of clothing or a pale, wraith-like face might have recalled someone dear, and what all this has to do with the torn and untorn letters on the dining room table, and why he left this house forever a few weeks after the magazine came out.

All you know is he dropped this magazine on the floor, and he tore up those letters, and tried to repair at least one, and then he left it all behind sealed up like a tomb.

You yawn. You rarely yawn when you’re tired. You yawn when your nerves get the best of you.

Your phone buzzes you again. NICOLE WHERE ARE YOU? ARE YOU AT LEAST ON YOUR WAY?

You don’t remember closing the French doors, but they’re closed again, and through the yellowed glass you see the beige man poised as if in a painting, bent over a scattered pile of paper remains.

You gather your things to make an escape back into your everyday life, where people you’ve never met wish you murder, where people you’ve never met would reduce you to ash.

About the Author

Steve Rasnic Tem, a past winner of the Bram Stoker, World Fantasy, and British Fantasy Awards, has published more than four hundred and seventy short stories. Recent collections include The Night Doctor & Other Tales (Centipede) and Thanatrauma: Stories (Valancourt). His novel Ubo is a dark science fictional tale about violence and its origins, featuring such viewpoint characters as Jack the Ripper and Stalin. Yours to Tell: Dialogues on the Art & Practice of Writing, written with his late wife Melanie, is available from Apex Books. You can visit his home on the web at www.stevetem.com.