I am your brother, said the stranger at the door.
At first I thought he was one of those evangelicals who go from house to house peddling salvation, but then I looked more closely at his face and saw my mothers eyes looking back at me.
Come in, I said.
We didnt fall into each others arms or even shake hands, one too much, the other too little. We hadnt seen each other for sixty years. What did it mean that we were brothers?
I held the door open for him and as I watched him walk past in profile, I thought: Willem must be sixty-five now.
But he didnt look it. A face that hadnt seen much. A gray-haired boy. An American.
I dont have much to offer you, I said. Beer. Some ham, cheese, bread.
I live alone. I dont keep much in the house.
You never married? he asked, sounding concerned.
I didnt ask him about himself. Didnt have to.
I was lucky, he said. Found the right woman and found her early. Two kids. Five grandchildren. My oldest, Cindy
Ill be back in a minute with the beer.
I didnt want to hear their names, see their snapshots. Willem had gotten everything. When our mother left our father for a Canadian soldier at the end of the war, it was young Willem she took with her and so hed gotten everything, her, a family, America.
Dutch beer is the best, he said after a good swig.
You like a drink then?
Since I first tried it.
Its in the blood then, I said with a smile and he smiled too, though I knew we had to be smiling for different reasons.
You must be sixty-five, Willem, I said.
Thats right, he said. I am. I dont know where the time went, the years just flew by.
I knew he was speaking about his own life, how one day you wake up old, but he was also apologizing for never having come to see his own brother in all those sixty years since our mother took him from Holland.
What was your work, Willem?
I was an optometrist. You?
I worked in the food industry like my father. Our father. You must excuse if I sometimes say my father and not our father. Ive been saying it so long.
Sure, said Willem, with a look of pain on his face that I was glad to see, sure, I understand.
But I wasnt a cook like our father. I worked in wholesale, warehousing, distribution.
For several years.
I knew he was about to ask me what I did with my time but was somehow reluctant to. Maybe sitting across from me at the table, he could see into me a little.
People who dont have secrets imagine them as dark and hidden. Its just the opposite. Secrets are bright. They light you up. Like the bare lightbulb left on in a cell day and night, they give you no rest.
In a way Im amazed that he couldnt see into me, I feel so transparent.
Or maybe he was just having second thoughts about coming over here, coming to see me. He was clearly a little uncomfortable in my place, which was clean but dingy.
We finished the first beer with small talkhow was the flight over, what hotel was he staying in, how long did he intend to stay in Amsterdam?
At least a week, he said. I mean, theres a lot to see and do. And I promised the grandkids to make a video of everything for them. One of thems doing a My Heritage project for school, the one I started to tell you about, Cindy . . . wait a second, I want to show you something. Tell me, he said, pulling his wallet out from his back pocket and flipping it open to the snapshot section, tell me Cindy doesnt look just like our mother.
Copyright © 2007 by Richard Lourie. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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