Prologue

 

 

TIMOTHY BESCH pulled his old clunker of a car into the parking lot of the nursing home on Milwaukee’s East Side, hoping the old thing would make it for just a few more months. Every now and then it made a sound like gunfire, and it chose that moment to do it. Letting off the gas, he glided into a parking space and turned the key. The engine ran for a few seconds before finally dying. Every time that happened, Timothy wondered if that would be the end and the old thing would give up the ghost. Not that he could blame it.

His car door groaned, metal scraping metal as he opened the driver’s door and stepped out of what he knew was probably a death trap, but for now he had no choice. Another car was not a priority. He had less than six months to go and he would actually graduate from college—with a mountain of debt, but he would graduate. Timothy closed the door, getting an even louder than normal screech of protest, walked toward the front door, and went inside.

The place was depressing; it always had been. And it wasn’t just because it was a nursing home, but one of those that took people who had nowhere else to go. Timothy hated it and wanted so badly to move Grampy to another place, but his grandfather wouldn’t hear of it. Walking down the hallway, he passed old men and women sitting in wheelchairs, moving slowly down the halls like they were pulling the entire weight of their own lives behind them. Wrinkled faces looked up at him like puppy dogs begging for a little attention. As he walked, Timothy said good morning to everyone who met his eyes. Some he knew by name, some he didn’t, but it didn’t matter to them or him. One lady reached to him, taking Timothy’s hand in hers. Rose was always a breath of fresh air in this dreary place. Eyes bright, sharp as a tack, hands curled with arthritis, and nearly deaf, she put her skinny arms around his neck, pulling him into a hug the way she always did. Timothy relished this simple gesture every time he visited, probably because they both needed the simple contact and comfort. “I’ll come to visit with you once I see Grampy,” Timothy promised, as he always did. After visiting Grampy, he always stopped to see Rose for a few minutes. She nodded, knowing the routine, and Timothy continued down the hall.

“Hi, Grampy,” Timothy said with as much of a smile as he could muster as he walked into the small room. At least Grampy had his own room instead of sharing with someone else. Timothy saw Grampy’s eyes open, and the elderly man smiled a little bit. He was so weak lately, but Grampy tried to sit up, and Timothy helped by propping pillows behind him.

“How are you feeling?” Timothy sat in the chair next to the bed, holding Grampy’s hand. He used to hug him, but Grampy had become so fragile, and his skin so sensitive, that additional stimulation hurt. So Timothy contented both of them by holding his hand.

“My legs itch,” Grampy said, and Timothy looked down at the bedding, to where Grampy’s legs would have been if he still had them. His circulation had stopped, and they’d had to amputate over a year ago. He’d gotten better at first and was more alert after the surgery, but since then, he’d slowly returned to what he was like before his legs were taken. Timothy often wondered if they simply should have let Grampy die, but he hadn’t been able to bear that thought, so he’d made the toughest decision of his young life and let the doctors take Grampy’s legs. Now he wondered constantly if he’d made the right decision.

“I know,” Timothy said. “Close your eyes, and I’ll scratch them for you.” Timothy had been told that these were phantoms. Timothy made scratching sounds on the bed, and Grampy sighed softly, like he was feeling better. It was all in Grampy’s mind, so Timothy played along, and Grampy felt better. “Has anyone been up to see you?”

“Your mother was here yesterday,” Grampy said softly. “She wanted money, and I told her to get a job.” Grampy smiled and laughed a little. “She always was a lazy thing.” Timothy agreed with him but kept quiet. There was no need to upset him, and at least Grampy hadn’t given her any money. “I saved it all for you, Timmy,” Grampy added. “All I had I saved for you.”

“Grampy, you don’t need to save anything for me. You need it for you,” Timothy said, but Grampy had his eyes closed, and he was no longer with him. Their visits often went like this. When Grampy got tired, his mind would wander and he wouldn’t make much sense.

“I saved it for you, Timmy. I put it where you always played.” Grampy muttered something else and sat back in the bed, holding his hand like he had before. “The nurse came in here yesterday, and she had a banana on her head.” Grampy’s eyes shot open, and he turned his head toward Timothy. “Who are you?”

“I’m Timothy, Grampy. Remember?” Sometimes he did and sometimes he didn’t. The moments of lucidity were unfortunately becoming fewer and fewer. “Go to sleep. I’ll sit with you for a while.”

He shook his head on the pillow. “Remember the stories, Timmy. I can’t give you much, but it’s all in the stories. Tell me you remember the stories.”

Timothy smiled. “I remember every one you ever told me.” Timothy settled back in the chair. “You used to tell me all kinds of stories. We’d sit on the porch swing, and you would hold me on your lap and tell me about the things you and your dad did. Do you remember?” Grampy closed his eyes, and Timothy sat with him until he fell asleep.

“Remember the stories, Timmy,” Grampy mumbled when Timothy got up to leave. “They’re where you used to play.”

“I will; I promise.” Timothy patted Grampy’s hand and left the room. He stopped at the nurse’s station on his way out to make sure they checked on Grampy. Then he made his way to Rose’s room and found her sitting in her chair in front of her small television with a pair of huge headphones on. She was watching the news, and as he entered, he heard her make a very unladylike noise.

He walked around the bed and touched her shoulder. She jumped a little before pulling off the headphones. “There you are. I thought you forgot me.” She smiled, as if to say she really hadn’t, and rolled back from the television after turning it off.

“I just stopped by to say hello. You don’t have to stop watching because of me,” Timothy explained.

She made the same sound as she had earlier. “The president was making a speech. That Bush kid is as dumb as a box of rocks.” She actually made a hand gesture at the television before turning back to Timothy with a smile on her face. “I have some cookies here somewhere,” she said, and Timothy smiled. She was always trying to feed him.

“So how are you doing today?”

“As good as I can be,” she answered. “They have me making baby quilts.” She rolled her old eyes as best she could. “There isn’t a baby within ten miles of this place, and if there were, all these old folks would suck the life out of it. But I spend my days making baby quilts.”

“It keeps you busy,” Timothy said, sitting in the chair in the corner.

“Yes, I suppose they figure if they keep us busy, the inmates won’t try to take over the asylum.” They both laughed. Rose was a sharp cookie. She’d told him once that she was ninety-seven, and Timothy supposed at that age, she was entitled to say whatever she wanted. “How’s your Grampy?”

“Not good,” Timothy answered, and Rose nodded.

“This place isn’t good for anybody. It’s where they put us out of sight to die.” She said it so matter-of-factly it seemed sort of shocking to Timothy, and he looked at his shoes, feeling lower than dirt that he couldn’t find a better place for Grampy. “Hey, I didn’t mean you. Your Grampy and I are the lucky ones.” Her hand touched his leg reassuringly. “The kids visit me all the time, and you see your Grampy plenty. We aren’t forgotten, but most of them are.”

“But if I could find him a better place…,” Timothy began, and Rose clucked her teeth.

“It isn’t the place, because they’re all the same. No matter how much you pay, it’s still a home where you can be forgotten,” Rose explained. “Sometimes the depression here is enough to suck the life out of you.”

Timothy got up as two teenagers walked into the room, smiling and filled with energy. He said goodbye and left the room so Rose could visit with the kids. As he reached for the door, he heard all three of them laughing. Walking back down the hall, Timothy looked in on Grampy, who looked sound asleep. But he was playing possum, and as soon as he realized Timothy was there, he opened his eyes and tried to sit up. Timothy went back into the room and proceeded to have nearly the exact same visit he’d had less than an hour earlier, Grampy not remembering a thing. When he left a second time, Grampy said in a raised voice, “Remember the stories, Timmy.”

Timothy hurried back into the room and hugged his Grampy. He knew he shouldn’t, but he needed him so badly, and he felt Grampy’s arms around him and heard him whispering nonsense into his ears. “I love you, Grampy.”

“I love you too, Timmy,” he said, barely above a whisper. When Timothy let go, Grampy closed his eyes once again but looked happier, and Timothy’s spirit felt much lighter as he left the nursing home.

 

 

Chapter One

 

 

TIMOTHY pulled his new car, the first he’d ever had, in front of what in his own mind he referred to as the house of horrors. Parking the car, Timothy tried to decide if he actually wanted to stop at all. He could simply pull away again and tell the lawyer to sell it, or better yet, bulldoze the place to the ground. But he knew he wouldn’t do that. There were good memories here, too, but bad ones had been laid down on top of those, and they were the ones that were hard to forget, the ones he saw again and again in his dreams. The house had been Grampy’s, and for that reason alone it held a place in his heart, but Grampy hadn’t actually lived there for quite a while. And even when Grampy had, he couldn’t stop the hurt. Getting out of the car, Timothy stared at the front door but didn’t move.

“Timmy!” A familiar voice rang out, and he turned to see Dieter running toward him. They’d met when Timothy and his mother had first moved in with Grampy. Dieter nearly tackled him with his energetic hug. “Are you okay? I saw people evicting your mom, and I figured I wouldn’t see you again.” Dieter seemed so happy, and his energy dispelled some of the gloom Timothy was feeling.

“Well,” Timothy began, wondering if Dieter would understand, “I was the one who tossed the deadbeats out on their sorry asses.”

“You evicted your own mother?” Dieter stared at him openmouthed.

“Yup, and I would have done it years ago if I’d known Grampy had put the house in my name.” Timothy felt the hate and rage swell inside him. “She’s an addict who couldn’t even show up for Grampy’s funeral. I always thought Grampy had given her the house, that’s what she said, but it was deeded to me years ago because he knew how my mother was.” Dieter still stared at him with his mouth hanging open. “I know it sounds harsh, but the bitch hit Grampy before we got him in the nursing home,” Timothy said. He didn’t tell Dieter that she and sometimes her “boyfriends” had hit him too.

“Then good for you,” Dieter said, and he put his arm around Timothy’s shoulder like he’d done when they were kids. “I loved your Grampy. Do you remember the stories he used to tell?”

“All the time,” Timothy said. “Do you still live in the same house?”

“Yeah. Gram died a while ago, and my partner Gerald and I live there now. Do you remember Tyler?” Dieter asked as they walked across the yard, and Timothy nodded. Tyler was older, so they weren’t close friends. “He and his partner Mark bought his grandmother’s house a while ago. It’s like when we were kids, except the kids have taken over.” Dieter snickered, the way Timothy remembered from when they were young, familiar and comforting in its way. “Are you going to keep the house?”

“I haven’t decided. Mom didn’t take good care of the place. But it was Grampy’s house, and he’d hate to see it the way it looks now.” Actually, the peeling paint and jungle yard would have broken Grampy’s heart; Timothy knew it.

“Come on, let’s take a look inside,” Dieter said, and Timothy agreed. After all, that was why he was here, and at least he wouldn’t have to see the mess on his own.

The inside wasn’t as bad as he feared. It was mostly dirty and old. His mother, the old bitch, hadn’t done anything, but at least she hadn’t really damaged the place, either. “It needs a good cleaning and some paint,” Timothy said as he walked from room to room. There was stuff piled in some of the corners and some old furniture. As he wandered around, he remembered these rooms when Grampy was still living here. The wallpaper in the living room was the same he remembered, faded with time, but still there.

“This is a great house. You could clean up the inside and have the outside painted. The yard needs some work, but you can do that yourself. This could be a really wonderful house, and I’m sure Gerald and I could help you. I bet Mark and Tyler would too. They helped me with mine, and they know everybody.” Dieter sounded so excited. “I’d love to have you as my neighbor again. I missed you after you left.”

Timothy stopped moving through the room and turned to Dieter. “I missed you too, but I couldn’t stay here anymore.” Timothy felt his knees threaten to buckle, and he forced himself to remain standing. He was not going to give in to the fear, not now, with Dieter here. He could do that when he was alone, but not now.

Dieter nodded before heading toward the stairs. “I still missed you.”

Timothy forced his legs to move and followed Dieter to the second floor. It looked much like the first floor, except for a few rooms, one of which had been his. There were still some of the things he hadn’t taken with him in there: some old pictures, the bed and dresser, the detritus of a life left behind. Timothy didn’t look too hard; he really wasn’t ready for that.

Leaving the room, they continued down the hall. The other two bedrooms were largely empty, but the fourth small bedroom looked as though it had been used as storage for everything his mother had no use for. “She could never throw a single thing away, the pig!” Timothy shut the door and added a dumpster to the list of things he was going to have to get.

“I bet if you pull up these old carpets….” Dieter knelt in one of the corners, pulling at the edge. “Look, there’s oak under here. If you get rid of these, I bet the floors will be beautiful. You’ve got great woodwork, and mostly it just needs cleaning and touchups. This could be a really great house, and think how happy Grampy would be to see you here fixing the place up.”

Timothy laughed, throwing his arms around Dieter’s neck. “You just want the neighborhood eyesore cleaned up.”

Dieter looked mortified for about two seconds before grinning. “Actually, I want my best friend back. It felt like you got ripped away when you left.” Dieter returned his hug. “I know why you did it, and I don’t blame you one bit, but it still hurt.”

“I know, and I’m sorry,” Timothy said, wishing more than anything that things had been different.

“Gerald will be home from work soon. Why don’t you come back to the house? We can talk, and you can stay for dinner.” Dieter grinned, and Timothy remembered what he’d been missing all this time. Growing up, Dieter had always acted like the big brother he’d never had, actually better than a big brother, because he was also his best friend.

“Are you sure Gerald won’t mind?”

“Of course not,” Dieter said, as they descended the stairs. They left the house, and Timothy locked the front door. Following Dieter across the yards, he watched as his friend bounded up his front stairs and held the door open for him. Inside, the house was a showplace, and Timothy stopped, almost in shock. He’d been expecting the house to look the same as it had when he and Dieter were kids, but it was so different, in a rather spectacular way. “Go on into the living room. I’ll get something for us to eat and be right in.” Dieter left, and Timothy wandered a little through the house, admiring everything.

“This is really nice,” Timothy said as he stopped in front of the fireplace. The portrait above it looked familiar.

Timothy stared at the image. “Why does this look familiar?” Timothy had seen this somewhere, but he wasn’t sure why.

“That’s Gram when she was a girl,” Dieter said from behind him. “Sometimes I find it hard to believe she was ever that young because I only knew her when she was old. It was hanging in the museum for a while. The Woman in Blue was Gram’s mother. The portrait of Gram was part of the opening exhibit at the museum, along with the other works we were able to recover. I’m surprised you didn’t hear about it. The story was all over the news and stuff.” Dieter looked hurt, and Timothy sighed.

“I’ve been really out of it for a while. Between school, working, and taking care of Grampy, I missed a whole chunk of what went on in the outside world.” Timothy didn’t know what to say. He hadn’t meant to hurt anyone. “I’m glad you got the paintings back; they’re really amazing,” Timothy said, feeling uncomfortable and sort of figuring he should just leave.

Timothy turned to say goodbye, and Dieter’s hand touched his shoulder. “I just missed you,” Dieter said, and Timothy placed a hand on Dieter’s. “It was like you ran away from me too.” That was Dieter—sensitive as they came. He remembered the one time they’d fought as children: Dieter had looked as though his world was coming to an end.

“I didn’t run away, Dieter, I got out,” Timothy said softly as he tried to hold it together. After six years, the hurt was still close to the surface sometimes. “I worked after I graduated high school and went to college. It was a freaking miracle that I got this scholarship through the school so I didn’t have to borrow all the money for my degree.” He still had a mountain of debt, but he was working hard to pay it down.

“Where are you working now?”

Timothy smiled wide. “I got a job in the design department at Harley Davidson. I help design the motorcycles. I’m the junior associate in my department, but it’s the coolest job ever.” Timothy loved going into work every morning. The other guys who’d been there for a while thought Timothy a bit too enthusiastic, but this was his dream job. “I’m saving up to get a cycle, but I have bills to pay down, so that will have to wait for a little while.”

“I’m glad you’re doing well,” Dieter said before bear-hugging him again. “I’m not letting you get away again. Even if you sell the house, I’ll stalk you if you don’t stay in touch.”

Timothy laughed and returned Dieter’s hug. It was good to have close human contact again. For a long time, he hadn’t been touched like this, except for careful hugs with Grampy and Rose, but he had to be careful not to hurt either of them. Dieter, on the other hand, threw himself into the hug, and Timothy figured he must be feeling like his prodigal brother had returned, because that was a bit how Timothy was feeling right now. He hadn’t even realized just how much he’d missed his friend until he saw him again.

“The house looks amazing,” Timothy commented once Dieter released him from the hug.

“This house didn’t look much better than yours when I got it. Gram did her best, but the house needed a lot of work. Initially, I did a lot of it myself, but Gerald has helped as well, and we’ve been able to make the house our own. Would you like to see the rest?” Dieter asked excitedly, taking Timothy on a tour of the entire place. It looked so very different from the way the house had looked when Dieter’s grandmother had lived there. “I didn’t want the house to look like a memorial to Gram, so we updated a lot of the rooms. Her bedroom was one of the last we did, but I had to bite the bullet and let it go.”

“Do you think my house could look like this?” Timothy asked as he ran his hand over the fireplace mantel in Dieter’s master bedroom.

“I don’t see why not,” Dieter answered. “These old houses have amazing character, and with a little care and some elbow grease, they shine right up.” Timothy heard what he thought was the front door opening and closing. “That’s Gerald,” Dieter said, already heading for the stairs. Timothy followed more slowly, and when he reached the lower landing, he saw Dieter in the arms of another man, both of them obviously very happy to see each other. The wave of longing that came over Timothy nearly knocked him back onto the stairs. He wanted that kind of unabashed happiness more than he could say, and he hadn’t even known it until that second. The realization made him understand why he felt so hollow inside sometimes. Timothy pulled himself together and headed the rest of the way down to where the other two men were standing. “Gerald, this is Timothy. He and I have been friends for years, and he owns the house two doors down. I’m trying to convince him to stay and fix it up.” Dieter kept an arm around Gerald’s waist as he made introductions.

Gerald extended his hand. “It’s nice to meet you. Dieter has told me about some of the things you two did growing up.”

“It’s nice to meet you too, and I hope you won’t hold those stories against me.”

“Timothy is going to join us for dinner,” Dieter explained, and Gerald nodded.

“I figured that part out,” he said with a smile before turning to Timothy. “I was about to open a bottle of wine—would you like a glass?”

“That would be nice, thank you,” Timothy answered, and he followed the couple back into the kitchen. It had obviously been recently remodeled, and every surface gleamed, from the granite countertops to the new cabinets that went beautifully with the rest of the house. His mind was already turning about what he wanted to do with his own house. Gerald opened a bottle of white wine and handed Timothy a glass before passing one to Dieter as well. He motioned toward a stool, and Timothy sat while Gerald and Dieter began pulling things out of the refrigerator.

“Is there anything I can do to help?” Timothy asked, feeling a bit useless watching them work.

Dieter returned to the refrigerator and began pulling out veggies. “You can make the salad, if you like.” Dieter placed a bowl and cutting board near him, and Timothy began cutting vegetables.

“Do you remember the story Grampy always told about his mother during the Depression?” Dieter asked as he put a pot of water on the stove to boil and began shucking sweet corn.

“What was it?” Gerald prompted.

Timothy laughed at the memory. “Grampy said that his father had bought a brand-new car in early 1933. They must have had it for about a week when Grampy’s dad was asked to travel from Philadelphia, where they were living, to Milwaukee. He went by train, and Grampy said that his mother became obsessed that someone was going to steal the car.” Timothy took a sip of his wine when he finished cutting the lettuce, and then started on the tomatoes. “Grampy must have been about ten, and he told her to lock up the car. So his mother got a length of chain from the garage and padlocked the car to one of the trees planted by the curb. She stopped obsessing about the car and was happy until Grampy’s dad got home and wanted to use the car.” Timothy took another sip of wine.

“What happened?”

“It seems there was no key to the lock she’d used to secure the car to the tree.” Timothy began to chuckle, saying, “And Grampy’s dad spent an hour with a hacksaw, trying to cut through the chain so he could get his car loose.”

“That’s good,” Gerald said with a chuckle.

“It gets better,” Dieter added. “Because once he got the car free, he then asked his wife….” Dieter paused, and they answered together, “Why didn’t you just park the car in the garage?” Both he and Dieter laughed, carrying Gerald along with them.

“Grampy used to tell me stories all the time,” Timothy continued. “According to Grampy, it was when his dad was on that trip that he got the job offer to move to Milwaukee, and it was way too good to pass up. It was Grampy’s parents who originally purchased the house just down the block.”

“They must have had money, then,” Gerald said, and Timothy nodded.

“They weren’t rich, but even during the Depression, they lived pretty well. Grampy’s dad was a talented executive, and he worked for one of the breweries in town after Prohibition, so he did very well,” Timothy explained. “In fact, Grampy used to tell me about him and his dad visiting the Philadelphia Mint just before they left town. Grampy used to say that his dad knew that tough times were coming, so he drew a lot of his money out of the banks and converted it to gold in the late twenties. Before they left Philadelphia, they were supposed to turn in the gold coins for paper money, and Grampy’s dad took him along when he did it.”

“The government was nearly insolvent,” Gerald explained, “so they made people trade in their gold for paper. It was good for the government, but it screwed a lot of individuals over later on, when times got tough again.”

Timothy finished cutting the tomatoes and began working to clean the yellow peppers. “Grampy said that when they got to the mint, it was chaos. There was a huge line, and they had to wait a long time. He said a person in line was robbed, but the other people in the line caught the guy as he was trying to get away and nearly beat him to death.

“They waited in line for most of the afternoon in the blazing sun.” Timothy tried to imagine how that must have been. Heavy clothes, loads of sweaty people, no shade or relief at all as everyone stood in line on the sidewalk. “The first thing they had to do was take the raw gold to the bullion window, where they got, of all things, gold coin for it. Then they had to take the coin to exchange it for cash. Grampy told me that by the time they got to the window, his dad was so fed up that he hid coins in his inner pockets and only turned in some of them. Grampy said that when they got to Milwaukee, his dad hid the coins somewhere in the house as a safeguard.”

“Are they still there?” Dieter asked.

“I doubt it, after all these years,” Timothy answered. “Grampy said there used to be a safe in the one corner of the basement, but it’s gone now. You can still see the indentation in the concrete where it had once sat, and I suppose that’s where anything would have been kept.” Timothy finished up the salad as Dieter placed the corn in the boiling water.

“I’ll light the grill,” Gerald said, picking up the plate of steaks and heading toward the back door.

“Grampy used to tell me that story all the time.” Timothy stood up and wandered to the island, leaning against the counter as Dieter finished cooking. “When I was a kid, I could almost hear the sound of the cars as they passed on the street and feel the sweat as well as the concern and panic that everyone had to be feeling at the time. Grampy told me everything seemed so uncertain, and everyone kept wondering what was going to happen next.”

“I always loved listening to your Grampy’s stories.” Dieter stirred the corn in the huge pot. “What happened to him?”

Timothy sighed softly as he thought of his Grampy. “Mom put him into a home just before I left, and he did okay for a couple of years, but then he started to have circulation problems, and he lost his legs. He was better for a while then, but eventually the circulation problems spread to the rest of him, and his mind really started to go. He’d forget who I was sometimes, and toward the end, he didn’t know anyone. He died a few weeks ago, and that’s when I found out about the house.” Timothy let the words taper off. The rest was still too painful to talk about. “It was a blessing, I know that, but I still miss him so much.”

“I wish I’d have known,” Dieter said softly, and Timothy nodded slowly.

“Mom put him in the cheapest place she could find. I tried to find a better place for him, but I couldn’t afford it.” Timothy swallowed as the guilt he’d mulled over so many times reared its head once again. “Towards the end, I used to just sit with him and hold his hand. I knew he didn’t know me anymore, but every time I visited, I thought it might be the last time.”

Dieter turned off the burner and set his large spoon aside. “Were you there when he died?”

Timothy shook his head quickly. “One night he went to sleep and didn’t wake up. Thankfully, the home called me, because my mother didn’t do anything for Grampy’s funeral, including show up.” Timothy could forgive a lot of things, but her treatment of Grampy…. Timothy could never forgive her for what she’d done to him.

“What was wrong with her?” Dieter asked. “She never looked very good when I saw her.” He began removing the corn from the pot and set each ear on a plate.

“She was an addict.” Timothy sighed. “My mother the crackwhore.” At first, Timothy could see that Dieter thought he was kidding, but when Timothy nodded slowly, Dieter’s mouth hung open. “She used drugs of some sort for a