Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

The Toy Store

 

 

Ackerman must have been in a huge toy store—aisle after aisle of dolls, teddy bears, wagons, tractors, model trains, hoola hoops, you name it.

But what was he doing here?

Oh, yes, of course.  He had wanted to buy a gift for his ten-year-old nephew.

That’s right.  He had made that decision.

The problem was that he didn’t know all that much about what to give a ten-year-old boy.  A model battleship?  A ready-to-fly balsa wood glider?  A Darth Vader mask and helmet?

Too bad his wife, Barbara, wasn’t here.  She would know.  But she wasn’t here.  She was at home.  Back there.

So for the moment Ackerman simply continued along the aisle.  But clearly he was in the wrong area of the store because he was passing rows of boxes of little-girl dolls all dressed in pink or lavender or light-blue dresses.  No, no, he thought, nothing here for a ten-year-old boy.

So he looked over the aisles of the store for a more “boy-friendly” area and, in looking, saw another huge store, possibly a clothing store, off to one side of this store.  And, apparently, Ackerman saw, it was possible to walk directly from this store into the other store.

Could this be true?  Did they allow that kind of thing? 

Well, as if to confirm whether it was true or not, as he was looking he saw a tall man with a full head of white hair and a very erect posture walk from the other store into his store.  The man walked right through the wall, so to speak, although, in fact, there wasn’t any wall at all.

I’ll be damned, thought Ackerman.

Something about the man caught Ackerman’s attention and he found himself following the man with his eyes.  Just before Ackerman’s aisle the man turned up another aisle and stopped to look at some toys.

Now that the man was closer Ackerman was very surprised to see that that he was of an advanced age, maybe 70, or perhaps, who knew, even 80.  But somehow he didn’t look that old.  Or he did.  Well, he did and he didn’t.  Maybe it was because of his full head of white hair which he had combed back immaculately, each hair, seemingly, in its place.  That, and his erect posture and tailored, brown, tweed suit.  Ackerman judged him to be a retired lawyer or a doctor or a maybe a professor.  But there was something else about the man.  Something very special.  Something very different.  So, possibly, a concert violinist?

In any case, a strange idea occurred to Ackerman:  to go over to this man and explain his situation, that, you see, he, Ackerman, was in this town on a business trip and was staying at one of the motels out on the Interstate and that he had this ten-year-old nephew, and, as it happened, in two days he would be in his nephew’s town—again, on business—and he wanted to give the boy a gift but he wasn’t all that sure what to buy.

This strange thought—to go over and explain all this to the man—actually occurred to Ackerman. 

But, of course, he immediately rejected it.  No, no, no, he thought, what a stupid idea.  You don’t just go over to a strange man in a strange store, a man you have never met before, especially an older man, maybe even 80, and ask him his advice on what to get your ten-year-old nephew. 

Nevertheless, and even thinking this, Ackerman went down his aisle to the end and crossed over to the aisle where the man was standing. 

And saw immediately that the man was in the right section of the store:  the boy section.  Race cars!  And not only race cars but Formula One cars!  Ferrari, Mercedes, McLaren. Lotus!

That’s what a real boy would want!

So Ackerman continued up the aisle toward the man.  The racks above the shelves held the larger cars, the kind of cars a boy could actually get into, and the shelves directly in front of Ackerman were full of little, tiny boxes of Formula One cars all divided up into their respective brands.

So which brand of car to get his nephew?

Maybe a Ferrari.

Ackerman reached for one of the small boxes containing a red Ferrari car and, as he reached, felt his hand brushing against another’s hand.  He and the older man must have been reaching for the same box at the same time.

Ackerman jerked his hand away and said to the man, “Excuse me.”

“No, no, excuse me,” said the man smiling.

“My fault,” said Ackerman.

“Not at all,” said the man still smiling.  “Please.”

The man made a sweeping gesture indicating that Ackerman was now free to pick up the box containing the Ferrari car.

“No, no, you first,” said Ackerman.

“No, no, you first,” said the man.

The man even took a step back.

“Well,” said Ackerman taking the box with the Ferrari car inside, “you see, actually, as a matter of fact, I have this nephew whom I’ll be seeing in a couple of days and I . . . .”   

Ackerman stopped in mid-sentence because of the way the man was looking at him—as if the man had suddenly seen something extraordinary.

“I have this nephew . . . ,” Ackerman started again.

“I just can’t believe it,” the man almost whispered.  “I really can’t believe it.  What in the world are you doing here?”

“I beg your pardon,” said Ackerman.

You!” 

“Me?”

“In this town?  In this store?” 

“What?” said Ackerman.

“My goodness!  After all these years!  So:  married?”

The abruptness of his stare and now of this question threw Ackerman.  Although, actually, as a matter of fact, he was married.  He had been for ten years now.  Or was it eleven?

So, in answer to this question, he said, “Yes.”

“Happily?”

Again, an abrupt question.  Still, Ackerman thought about it.  Was he happily married or not?

“Well . . . ,” he said.

The man laughed and reached out and touched Ackerman on his arm.

“Of course, you’re happily married.  And your wife’s name?”

That, at least, was clear.  His wife’s name was Barbara.

So he said, “Barbara.”

“Not really?  The same Barbara as . . . .”

Suddenly the face and figure of a girl Ackerman had dated so many, many years ago in high school came to him.  Barbara Dawson.  They were standing in the back yard of her parent’s house, it was spring, and they were standing under an apple tree. “I guess this is it,” Barbara Dawson had said.  The tears were streaming over her cheeks.  Ackerman said, “Yes, I guess it is.”

“Well,” smiled the man—and he kept his hand on Ackerman’s arm—“these things happen.”

Ackerman said, “You think?”

“Of course,” said the man.  “Life goes on.”  The man took his hand away from Ackerman’s arm.  “But you met another woman, Barbara, I think you said.  And you married her.”

Again, suddenly, powerfully, another image came to Ackerman.  He and his wife-to-be, Barbara (not the girl he had dated in high school), were coming out of a drug store and had stopped and were waiting for the pedestrian light to change when he suddenly decided just do it, go for it right there.  And he kneeled down on the sidewalk.  That’s right!  On the sidewalk!  She was looking at him.  Other people were looking at him.  He took her hand.  “Will you marry me?” he shouted.  Her concern about him dissolved into laughter.  “Yes, of course!” she said.  People around them were smiling and beginning to make a circle.  He stood up and she threw her arms around him and kissed him and kissed him.

Wow! thought Ackerman.

“And children?” said the man. 

Suddenly another scene came back to Ackerman.  Five years or so ago.  He and Barbara were leaving the doctor’s office.  They were in a hallway.  It looked like a hallway anywhere, pictures hung on the wall, down there somewhere some windows.  “At least we know,” Barbara had said.  “Yes, there’s that,” he had said.

“So, no children?” said the man.

“No, none,” said Ackerman.

“I’m sorry,” said the man.  “I’m terribly sorry.”

“Oh, no need . . . .”

“But,” offered the man, “perhaps a nephew?”

“Yes,” managed Ackerman. 

“My goodness!” said the man smiling broadly.  “Wonderful!”

“He’s ten years old,” said Ackerman.

“Ten!  Imagine that!”

“Yes, ten,” said Ackerman.  Then he added, “I have a photo.”

“Oh, please!” said the man.

Ackerman pulled his billfold out of his back pocket and found the picture.

“That’s on Tim’s ninth birthday,” said Ackerman handing the man the picture.

“My goodness!” said the man looking at the picture.  “Tim!  His ninth birthday!  And what a good-looking boy!  You must be very proud!”

“Oh, I am,” said Ackerman. 

“An uncle!” said the man.

“Yes,” said Ackerman. 

Just at that moment a woman came up the aisle toward them.  Since she was an older woman Ackerman immediately assumed she was the man’s wife.  She had a tanned face and arms, blond hair, and wore a bright, red, short-sleeved dress with lots of jewelry including several silver bracelets on her arms.

“There you are!” she called to the man.  “Racing cars!  I thought I would find you here!”

“Yes, yes,” said the man.

“So, I almost bought it,” she said when she got to them.  “Although they’re asking $159.  Which is a little steep.  Don’t you think?  Would you come and have a look?”

“First, may I present,” said the man turning to Ackerman, “a special friend of mine.” 

“Actually . . . ,” started Ackerman.

“Oh,” said the woman holding out her hand to Ackerman, “I’m so happy to meet you.  Any friend of Stephan’s a friend of mine.  But, then, Stephan has so many friends.  He’s meeting them all over the place.”

“Now, you know that’s not true,” said the man.

“It is.  It is absolutely true.” 

“It’s not.”

“Come, dear,” said the woman attaching her arm to her husband’s.  “Decision time.”

The man turned to Ackerman.  “You see how it is?  What can I do?  I’m only human.”

The woman also turned to Ackerman.  “Don’t you believe that.  Don’t you believe anything Stephan says.”

She pulled at her husband, started him down the aisle, but before they got to the end of the aisle the man suddenly pulled himself away from his wife, turned to Ackerman and held up his hand in a salute.

Ackerman held up his hand and saluted back.

Then Ackerman watched the man and his wife, her arm in his, walk toward the other store, probably a clothing store, continue right through the wall which wasn’t there and disappear out of his life forever.

 

 

 

Karl Harshbarger is an American writer (living in Germany) who has had over 90 stories published in such magazines as The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, The Antioch Review, The New England Review, and The Prairie Schooner.  Two of his stories have been selected for the list of “Distinguished Stories” in Best American Short Stories, and twelve of his stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.  He was a finalist for a collection of short stories in the Iowa Publication Awards for Short Fiction, the George Garrett Fiction Prize for Best Book of Short Stories or Short Novel, and the Mary McCarthy Prize for Short Fiction.