I don’t know how the rumors started, but they took root like the relentless weeds of summer. Hans Miesenzahl, known in the neighborhood as Mr. M, was a former Nazi. His exact role in the atrocities of that terrible time in history varied, depending on who was telling the story. Some thought he’d been a guard at a concentration camp. Others, that he was part of a brutal occupying force. Everybody had their own opinion, but no one knew for certain. So while the details of his past were unclear, everyone agreed on one thing. Mr. M was a Nazi who’d escaped justice, and his presence was a black mark on the neighborhood.
At first, I kept my personal speculation to a minimum. What little contact I’d had with him over the years when delivering his mail, he’d always been nice—just an old man who spoke with a German accent. He kept to himself and didn’t like to talk about his past. It hadn’t occurred to me that he might be hiding a dark secret. After the neighborhood talk began, I started to have my suspicions, and joined the conversations. I knew that kindly old men weren’t always what they seemed. In my youth I spent the summers with my grandfather who taught me how to fish, and hunt, and fix things—how to be a man. Years after his death, I learned that he’d been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. I loved him dearly, but I hadn’t known him any better than I know Mr. M.
# # #
When I first started on this route two decades ago, most of my customers were older. Over the years the make-up of the neighborhood changed. Many of the original inhabitants moved away or died. The people who’ve taken their place are younger and more diverse. Once entirely white, there are now people of several different races living here, and they’re proud of the diversity in the neighborhood. It’s refreshing to see neighbors so accepting of everyone. Everyone except Mr. M. As some of them so bluntly put it: “We simply can’t tolerate someone like that old man being around our families. We don’t want him near our kids, and we have to do something about it.”
I could understand them wanting to see a criminal brought to justice, but I wasn’t sure what threat a ninety-year-old hermit posed to children. Perhaps there were other things going on here as well. All the houses around Mr. M’s were well kept, with newer paint, and manicured lawns. In addition to his questionable past, I’d heard complaints about his overgrown yard, and deteriorating house. Even modern, open minded people worried about real estate values.
A week ago as I was walking my route I noticed there was more traffic than usual on the quiet street. Drivers were stopping in front of Mr. M’s house to gawk. Several swastikas had been painted on the front, along with the word “Nazi.” It was a clear and powerful message. They were trying to drive the pariah from the neighborhood. When I went up on the porch to put the mail in the box, I could see Mr. M through the window. He was sitting in his usual chair. He glanced at meand then away. There was no smile and wave. No coming to the door for a greeting and brief chat. I’m certain he knew what was painted on the front of his house. I almost felt sorry for him. He’s so alone, like my mother was toward the end. I should’ve visited her more often, but I was “too busy.”
Several days later I went on his porch and knew immediately something was wrong. He was sitting in his chair, but he wasn’t dressed. He was only wearing boxer shorts and an undershirt, as if he’d been sitting there all night. He didn’t turn to look when I tapped on the window. I called 911 and waited for emergency responders. I followed them inside, but it was too late. Mr. M was dead. Whatever secrets his past held, they were forever gone, scattered by the wind like the ashes of so many Nazi victims.
Several of his neighbors wandered in to investigate. We all looked at him, and then at each other. I knew they saw the same thing I did—the irrefutable proof of Mr. M’s hidden past. The numbers tattooed on his left forearm were faded from time but still clearly visible. Mr. M, the intolerable scourge of the neighborhood, wasn’t a Nazi. He was a Holocaust survivor.
I finished my mail route like a man in a trance and then drove back to Mr. M’s house.I’d wronged one of life’s victims and forced him to suffer all over again. There wasn’t any way to make it right.
The neighbors who’d been inside with me earlier were there, along with the other people who lived nearby. They silently painted the porch, as if erasing the graffiti could somehow absolve us of our sins. When I got out of the car, there was an autumn chill in the air that stung the hands and face and soul, like pinpricks of regret for words that can’t be unsaid, and deeds that can’t be undone. The fading sun accentuated the yellow, orange, and red leaves of the trees. The summer weeds were turning brown and dying. Without saying a word, I stepped onto the porch and picked up a paintbrush.
Steve Bates is retired from the newspaper business and lives in rural Missouri. His short stories have been featured in Free Flash Fiction and Microfiction Monday Magazine. His first novel COME DANCE WITH ME is available on Amazon.