September 6, 1948

September 6, 1948

A Chapter by Kris St. James

September 6, 1948

Sacramento, California


A blaring six a.m. alarm clock jolted Shorty from a deep sleep.  Bleary-eyed, he turned toward the red alarm clock beside the bed, slapped the snooze button and pulled up the covers, tucking them tight under his whiskered chin.  A bird chirped cheerfully from the oak tree outside his window.

Five more minutes von’t hurt anybody.

Try as he might, sleep wouldn’t return.  Bright sunlight filtered between the cheap window curtains and through the near empty bottles of vodka on the nightstand to form a prism on the torn linoleum floor.  His head started to throb, reminding him of the hangover he’d hoped to sleep off.  Rolling onto his back, Shorty stared at the rainbow that reflected off the floor and onto the ceiling of his little house trailer as the minutes ticked past.  Just as well he couldn’t sleep; the nightmares were returning.

The clock rattled its warning; get up for work, or be late again.  Running thick fingers through his thinning hair, he got out of bed and walked across the tiny mobile home to the kitchenette where week-old dirty dishes were piled high in the sink.  He rinsed out a bowl and poured some cereal with the last of the milk, which he gulped down while getting dressed from the clean laundry stacked on the kitchenette table.  A quick shot of vodka chased the cereal down before he opened the front door to get the morning paper and replace the fresh milk bottles with empties.  He didn’t bother to read the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s headline before tossing the paper onto the crowded table as he made his way to the bathroom.

“Labor Day,” he snorted in his heavily accented English at the disheveled, blood-shot face staring back from the dingy mirror.  “Everyone else in America gets today off, but a plumber’s job? Never done!”  Zhey work us like slaves. The thought emerged dimly through the thickening vodka haze.  He spat a thin amber stream of Listerine into the small sink and made his way again to the front door.  At the last moment he remembered he needed a precision caliper for a special job later that day.  The toolbox in his Chevrolet pickup only contained his everyday hand tools; the expensive items he kept hidden under the bed.

Shorty returned to the bedroom and kneeled in the narrow space between the bed and the wall.  Reaching underneath with one arm, he pulled out a long, slender dust covered cardboard box and lifted it onto the unmade bed.  The lid was fastened snugly with two canvas straps, which he loosened and removed to reveal an unopened bottle of schnapps, numerous precision tools with German markings, two small wooden boxes, and a 9mm Luger pistol with accompanying box of shells.  Before he retrieved the caliper, he glimpsed the older of the boxes between the tools and the pistol.  His breath caught at knowing the box’s significance, the irony of his last thought about slaves gnawing at his alcohol saturated soul.  He could never forget the many prisoners who were enslaved to make V2 rocket parts for Siemens; the long years filled with endless days of impossible quotas.

It sat there, motionless, voiceless, but calling to him nonetheless.  Shorty stared at the ancient box, knowing it had been worth keeping around while the war was still fresh in everyone’s mind.  What better thing for a fleeing Jew to take with him than an old family heirloom? He had only opened it briefly one dark night three years ago.  But for all the good it had done then, it now hung around his neck like a millstone.  The vodka burned through the milk and cereal in his stomach and a mild wave of nausea swept over him.  Enough, he thought.  Enough of zhis foolishness.  He checked his watch.  Zhere’s no time for zhis.  You’ll be late again, you old fool, and he’ll sack you zhis time for sure.  Shutting the lid back on the cardboard box and returning it under the bed, Shorty made a beeline for the front door and the old ’41 Chevrolet pickup parked outside.  He was ten minutes late for work and two weeks behind on his rent.  He would deal with his demons some other time.  As he reached for the front door knob, a sharp rapping from the other side startled him. 

Vas? At zhis hour?  He parted the curtain over the small window in the door, expecting to find his ever impatient landlord, but instead saw a young man in a black suit and a policeman.  A sharp chill pierced Shorty’s spine and raced down his back as a vivid image of the Gestapo flashed into his mind.  He sobered almost instantly as his next thought was briefly of the Luger, but he reached for his empty lunchbox instead and opened the door as coolly as he knew how while feigning an expression of pleasant surprise.  The policeman spoke first.

“Mr. Schroeder?”

“I’m sorry?  Schroeder?” he said, minimizing his accent.  “No, my name is Shorter.  Gerald Shorter, officer.  But everyone knows me as Shorty.”  He fought the urge to look at the man in the black suit, then realized his inattention might appear more suspicious, so he nodded in that direction and smiled.  “Is everything all right?  I’m just leaving for work and I’m afraid I’m a little late.”  He produced his California driver’s license from his wallet unprompted.

The policeman accepted the license and examined it as he pulled a notebook from his breast pocket below his badge to compare a page inside with the number stenciled over the door.  The man in the black suit pushed back his impeccable fedora with a small, bright red feather in the wide brim, and unbuttoned his coat before ramming both hands into his pants pockets, silent but smiling.  Shorty noticed there was something different about the hat.  The style wasn’t American.  Maybe British?  Maybe it was just old.

“I have an address listed here as 87 Engle Circle.  You are not Gerhardt Schroeder?”  The policeman placed both hands on his hips, drawing Shorty’s attention to the revolver that awaited just inches from his clenched, but empty right hand.

Gerald Shorter closed the trailer door firmly behind him and placed the lunchbox under his left arm as he pushed his sleeve high enough to reveal not only his wristwatch, but the six numbers tattooed on his forearm.  Allowing a hint of Polish accent to escape, Shorty examined the cheap Timex briefly, but took no note of the time as the mental image of a drawn .38 consumed his concentration for the moment.

“Gentlemen, I’m terribly sorry, but you haf been given a mistake.  Yes, zhis is 87 Engle Circle, but zhat is not my name.  I haf only recently moved here, you see.  Perhaps you haf zhe name of zhe former resident? “  He continued to hold back his sleeve until he was confident both men had seen the tattoo and understood its significance.  He fought the urge to hold his breath; he must remain calm, but his thoughts flickered between the smiling man in the black suit, the .38 just below the policeman’s right hand, and the Luger under his bed.

Get on vis it!  Do vhat you haf come here to do! Sweat trickled down Shorty’s tense back.

The policeman looked at the tattoo just above the wristwatch on Shorty’s arm and glanced at the other man, who seemed to be losing interest with each passing moment.  He glanced down at the notebook and license, up again at the number above the door, and back at Shorty’s tattoo and wristwatch.  Finally he looked back at the man in the black suit, who shrugged his shoulders and smiled apologetically.  The policeman cleared his throat and returned his notebook to his pocket.

“You may be right.  I’m sorry Mr. Shorter.  I believe we have made a mistake.  I hope we haven’t kept you too long.”  He returned the license and motioned to someone in the patrol car.  Shorty began to feel faint as he noticed for the first time a second policeman behind the steering wheel of the black-and-white.  The other officer started the car and both men turned to leave.

Shorty stood for a moment, watching the patrol car back slowly away as he returned the driver’s license to his wallet.  The pickup.  Work.  He must not lose this job and this home, both of which were his fourth in the last ten months.  A plumber can always find work, but landlords who would rent without a lengthy lease�"and no questions asked�"were hard to find.  But this morning all that mattered to Gerald “Shorty” Shorter was the intense fear he had just experienced.  Zhis foolishness must stop.

He waved to the patrol car and smiled openly as he made his way to the Chevy.  He cranked the truck and watched the black-and-white disappear around the corner from his rear view mirror, then bolted for the trailer and retrieved the long cardboard box from under the bed.  He swept and armload of clothes from the kitchen table and returned to the idling truck.  Shorty backed quickly away from the tiny trailer and flew down the dirt road known as Engle Circle.  In the rearview mirror he watched the patrol car return to his lot.  He retrieved the schnapps from the cardboard box, slid the loaded Luger beneath his right thigh and drove north. Gerald Shorter never returned to California.

© 2010 Kris St. James

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Added on March 9, 2010
Last Updated on March 9, 2010


Kris St. James
Kris St. James

Birmingham, AL

I'm a Southern Gothic writer who enjoys telling stories about the forgotten. I appreciate all thoughtful critiques and will gladly reciprocate. If you don't like my work, please say so, but please.. more..