I'm back in the house in Georgia. This is strange, as I haven't thought of it for many years. The light is fantastic, as always, in the office at the back where my grandfather used to work. His eyesight was excellent, but due to the nature of his work, he needed the 'best light in the house' around him at all times...
He's seated there, in the middle of the room which was decorated as a den even though it never served any purpose other than being his office. He's at the big drawing board, the table turned up at an angle, the oversized magnifying glass on the floorstand beside him, his eye bent over a silver plate on which he is inscribing minute figures and lines. Many people will tell you that he used a microscope when he worked. He didn't need one, even in his sick years, after he left Missouri for Georgia. By that time we was doing his work mostly for his own engagement--and to help out at a local garage that did some tooling on the side--but he was no less particular. He still used his round silver-encased jewellers loupe (made specially for him in St Louis) mounted on an articulated brass arm attached to a wooden floor stand. And to make the inscriptions on the plates from which his blueprints were then inked out for use in the machine shop, he wielded a tiny hammer--the kind paleontologists use on digs--with far more skill that any fossil-scrounger ever showed with the same tool, and a variety of slender metal chisels, the narrowest not much wider than a sewing needle.
It is mid-afternoon, the sun slanting in the open blinds from between the linden trees in the backyard. The screen door is open. I can smell the fake citronella--which looks more like bunched up marijuana plants than the spiky original--and something else...
He doesn't look up as I enter. He never did. As a matter of fact, I can never remember entering while he was at work. Only my older relatives could do that, the rest of us had to wait until he was done and had been served his lemonade and gin on a tray. Then we could go in and sit quietly as he made a few last minute touches, turning each plate this way and that to examine the final work, bending close again to inspect something. He almost never made any corrections. He was an artist. This was what he did.
But this time when I enter and sit on the cream divan to his right side and a little behind him (I can see his starched collar brushing against his well shaved neck, the drooping mustache beneath his nose moving slightly as he sets up a mark)...he stops, puts down his tools, and turns in his chair to look at me as if regarding a peculiar set of calculations.
"Yes, grandfather," I say. My voice is my own for once. Often, when I try to speak in these alternate-reality situations, the voice that comes out is someone else's, a friend's, or my younger self, sometimes even a woman's voice.
"You're not well," he says.
I hesitate. "I...I feel fine, grandfather."
"You're not. You're dreaming. You never saw me at my work. Only photographs. I died before you were born."
I don't answer.
"You should get checked out...go to see a real doctor...never do to have you breaking down."
Then I'm in a waiting room, a long double row of benches, back to back, running down the center. There are a few other people there, hunched, fugitive expressions and postures, a family near the back talking in low tones, a strange language...
The person standing beside me is an official of some sort, a dark uniform with a cap.
"Next," he says again, bending down to fix me with cold fishy eyes behind spectacles.
"Do you mean me?"
"Am I looking at someone else?"
I am about to make a crack, how it's hard to tell, considering his astigmatism, but think better of it. Something whispers that I will need the local gendarmerie's cooperation...but for what?
I rise (discovering in the process that I'm carrying my yellow leather travel bag) and follow him to a counter that takes up the length of the far wall. There is a sign above it, in large white block letters on faded green backround: ENTRY AND NATURALIZATION, L.O.T.D., ALL COMERS WELCOME. It takes me a moment to realize that L.O.T.D. stands for Land Of The Dead. The official standing exact-center behind the counter doesn't look too welcoming though.
He is short, with a moustache, a German or Swiss air about him. I do not get along with such people. We rankle, as they say. The other official, who came to retrieve me, stands to one side as I stop before the little man, busy with something. He doesn't look up as he says:
I search my pockets. Finding nothing, I'm about to apologize, when I see that his little eyes are upon me.
"Not important," he says, to my surprise. "There will be a small fee for entry. Do you have anything of value?"
I start to rifle my suit again, and then stop, putting my suitcase up on the counter instead. He watches, impassively, with the other official, as I open the case and sort through the items--I've packed multiple pairs of trousers for some reason--until my hands close on something solid near the bottom...it's heavy, wrapped in cloth...I draw it out, undo the covering...
My .44 Ruger flops onto the counter.
"That will be acceptable," the guttersnipe Nazi says.
I shake my head. "No. I'm not going anywhere without that."
"Very well." He checks a log of names in front of him. "They're next," he says to the other official, pointing down the way at the family. My gaze follows...they're terrified, cowering together as the man steps towards them.
"What about me?" I protest to the one behind the counter. "What should I do?"
He smiles, as if he were expecting this all along, as if it had happened many, many times before. "You will have to wait."
He shrugs. "A while. Forever perhaps."
I stare down at the dark shiny steel on the counter between us, and then up at the other poor souls who seem to inhabit the place permanently now. Shabby. Shuffling. Dim.
"Alright," I say at last, and before I can add anything, he sweeps up the gun and deposits it on one of a series of shelves behind him, where I now see many other items reside.
He fills out a ticket and tears off the yellowed stub. "You can redeem it with this, when you return. If you return," he adds, no hint of anything but efficiency in his metallic voice.
"Thanks. Fucking right I will..."
As I turn away, I look down at the ancient typeset on the stub: #1472. I commit it to memory. Too many close calls at pawn stores...
When I look up, I'm standing in a crooked alleyway between mud-walled houses, the red-gold sun of late afternoon baking dully into them. I know this scene, I know it exactly. Tangier, summer, 1956. And in a moment, someone will come around the corner to shoot me.