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Mar 18, 2021

Historical Fiction Contemporary

Connor peered out under the hood of his raincoat just in time to see a bike hurtling towards him. Under the control of a lazy eyed pilot, it veered sharply to the right, spraying Conner with the contents of a clouded puddle while flashing him the “Hotel Vondel” promotion printed along the crossbar. Mouth agape, Conner considered chasing down the cyclist to inform him of the importance of using the designated bike lanes when his eyeline traveled across the cobblestone avenue, catching along the cracked black paint which curled from the edges of the front door to his rented canal home. It stood out of time, sandwiched between two others which seemed to be squeezing out the unmaintained structure between them. Two oversized tulip planters ornamented either side of the front door, originally intended to give vibrancy to an otherwise cheerless exterior but now served as the reservoir to a 20 something spring-breaker who was heaving her lunch onto the defenseless flowers. Conner’s face twitched in horror.

“Hey!” he bellowed across the street. “GET OUT OF HERE!” 

The startled tourist barely spared a glance his way before running down the row of houses and disappearing out of sight as Conner dragged a disappointed hand down the skin of his face. He lost himself in thought as he crossed the street, hunched over to both hide from the rain and to signal to the universe that any further unpleasantries were no longer welcome. He estimated that marijuana was now legal in half of the states back in the U.S., so why was his city still labeled as the universal party spot? 

The splintered, yet pleasantly dry, floor in front of him was a welcoming sight as the unoiled hinges of the door wailed to receive him home. Freeing himself of his saturated layers, he resolved that soup would be on the menu for tonight's supper for one. And so it began that the kitchen filled with the sounds of clanking pots, the humidity increasing as a boil rolled atop the stove. He guided the knife as it sliced along the meat of a carrot, an onion, a potato. All the while, he struggled to separate his thoughts from the privilege of the young travelers outside: the ones who stumbled in and out of coffee shops instead of taking one of his guided tours at the Rijksmuseum. A soft sizzle over his right shoulder tore him out of rumination, bringing his attention to the vegetable stock now foaming over onto the floor. He growled as he stomped across the kitchen, practically throwing the stockpot in the adjacent sink with frustration. The collision of metal on metal reverberated along the kitchen counter, Conner’s breath increasing with frustration as he leaned forward onto the workspace before him. As if waiting for the impact of a punchline, a deafening moment of silence passed before a panel of veneer lost its adherence to the side of the overhead cabinetry, falling into the remnants of his soup with a mocking “plink”.

He chuckled to himself as if wanting to partake in the joke, and craned his neck to observe a rectangular hole running along where the wood met the wall. About the size of an encyclopedia, the hole was stationed behind where the inside of the cabinet seemed to stop short. It displayed the side of what Connor immediately recognized as a cigar box. All thoughts of soup now abandoned, he withdrew the box and apprehensively lifted the lid to reveal the contents of the trove. Black and white photographs soon cluttered his table, all centered on an individual person’s face. They were accompanied by pages of green and red numbered tags, all displaying Dutch words which Conner had to translate using his phone.

Visch: Fish

Aardappelen: Potato

Boter: Butter

Conner identified the only items of value to be a golden crucifix and a man’s wedding ring. Stepping back from the display of his discovery, he ripped a phone number from his fridge, the one presented to him by the leasing agent upon his move-in which could be used to reach the landlord. As the phone started ringing, he reached his arm deep into the newly unearthed lair above the sink, withdrawing the dust ridden body of a Kodak 35.

A few hours later, the kitchen was flooded in neon blue. Conner hunched closely to the screen of his laptop as he read about ration stamps. An impatient banging disrupted his concentration and he got up from his place at the table to greet the woman behind his front door. She stood with good posture, ashy blond hair pulled neatly into a ponytail at the base of her neck, holding the hand of a young girl in pigtails who looked up and waved with a grin.

“I knocked twice,” the woman said with an unreadable tone.

“Uh, yeah. Sorry, I was distracted I guess.” Conner flashed the woman an innocent grin and shrugged. “I’m Conner,” he said as he extended his hand.

“Lauren,” she returned as she clasped onto his hand, pumping it once with such force that Conner’s elbow jerked out of control. “Can I come in? I’m in a hurry.”

“Of...of course!” Conner stepped aside, allowing the pair entrance. He led them into the kitchen, breaking ahead to turn on the overhead light. He pointed to the table at the corner of the room. “That’s everything I found. I believe these are ration stamps from world war II,” he declared as he picked up the serrated sheet of paper. “And I can only guess the headshots are to create ID cards.”

But Lauren wasn’t listening. She was focused on the cross and ring, gingerly picking them up and studying them as she ran her thumb over the detail. “My great grootvader’s,” she said just barely above a whisper.

Conner shoved his hands in his pockets, nodding his head as if this statement had answered all of his questions. “Your great grandfathers ...and, why was it hidden?”

The sentiment contained behind her eyes disappeared as she blinked up to meet his gaze. “My family lived here during the war. My great grandmother - my grandmother. My great grandfather died of a heart attack before the occupation began, and they was assigned to host a German soldier. From what I understand the men weren't shy about claiming valuables as they pleased.”

“That’s amazing!” Conner bounced back, causing Lauren to twitch by the unexpected outburst. “She played a part of the resistance despite living with a soldier? If that’s true then this building is a piece of history. Why haven’t you ever fixed it up?”

Lauren seemed taken aback by the line of questioning. Shaking her head slightly as she sighed through gritted teeth. “Look, Mr.…”

“Schmidt,” Conner answered.

Lauren studied Conner’s face for two uncomfortable seconds, ripping her gaze away to turn to the child at her hip. She pointed toward Conner’s bedroom. “Sophie, go down that hall and use the restroom at the end. We’re going to head home in just a minute.” The girl skipped away as Lauren stood straight, smoothing out the wrinkles of her blouse and turning to bore deep into Conner’s eyes. “Look, I appreciate you notifying me that you found all this stuff, but I honestly don’t know much about it. I know she ran deliveries for the bakery down the street, and that meant she could pass documents along to a lot of different people without raising suspicion. When the war was ending, she went to the celebration at Dam Square… Hopefully I don’t have to inform you about the shooting that took place...but she never came back. My grandma was 12. Relatives cared for her but she never liked spending much time in this empty house after that.” Lauren paused, filling her lungs with air and slowly exhaling through her nose before continuing. “When she was well she didn’t like to talk about it, and now... She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s three years ago. There’s not really much left I can do about that. As far as the renovations, I can’t afford to not have someone renting the place right now.” 

“I wouldn’t mind if the renovations go on while I’m here,” he responded. “I could work around myself - I basically only need one room to sleep in, and - ” but Lauren was no longer listening, she had her head turned to watch Sophie come sprinting out from the hallway. She wrapped her tiny arms around her mother’s leg, blinking up at Lauren with hazelnut eyes.

“Mama, I’m hungry.” 

“I know, Schatje,” she said with her hand atop Sophie’s head. “Thank you Mr. Schmidt, but I must be going.” She bent over the table, packaging the contents of the cigar box, and stuffing it inside a burlap bag. Turning her back to Conner as she walked to the front door, she scooped up Sophie and placed her on her hip as she stepped across the threshold.

Conner pondered if Lauren had even heard his offer as he handed her the Kodak camera. He was desperate to invite some sort of meaningful discussion, and so he blurted out the first thing that came to his mind. “Seems odd that she would hide this stuff in the kitchen, right? Why not her bedroom where it wasn’t a public space.”

Lauren turned to once again scan Conner’s face, eyes narrowing as she burrowed. “I know enough to understand that that man frequented my great grandmother’s bedroom, no matter how unwelcome. But I’m sure he never helped in the kitchen.” And with that, she disappeared into the night.

The evenings that made up the next few weeks were consumed with inspection for every crevice of that old row home. Conner ran his fingers along the seams of the door frames, prodded at loose floorboards, and tapped along the wall in search of hollow points. It was encroaching the end of week four when Lauren showed up at his doorstep. She conjured a stack of old photographs from her burlap bag, presenting Conner the story of the mother and daughter who lived in that old house before he was even born. He invited Lauren inside before shuffling to his bedroom, returning to the kitchen a moment later with a magnifying glass. He thought quite briefly that Lauren was playing a trick on him, sepia toning photographs of her and Sophie as a prank. The resemblance was remarkable.

“I’m honestly astonished that anything came out of that camera, but my friend down at FOTO said the years of darkness probably did them some good.” She sat down at one of his kitchen chairs, leaning back on the two back legs and peering up at the ceiling as if deep in thought, “I’m sorry,” she announced after a moment of pause. “I’m a single mom. I’m used to running around. It’s always just been me and Sophie. And I don’t like accepting help. It feels like it's throwing off my balance.” She shifted forward to plant all four feet of the chair onto the floor, drawing in a gulp of air before announcing, “If you’re still up for it, I’d love to take you up on your offer. This place could use some sprucing up.”

Conner opened his mouth to hastily agree, but quickly bit his cheek in fear that he would insert his own foot past his teeth once again. He instead chose to eagerly nod.

In truth, Conner’s agreement to put up with the sound of construction was his biggest service. Lauren proved herself capable of the sanding and painting that made up this particular labor of love, shooing Conner aside every time he waved a hammer with a limp wrist. She mostly worked by lamplight, putting in a few hours after a full day of managing Hotel Vondel a few canals over. When Conner first heard where she worked, he stopped himself just short of requesting that they start doing sobriety checks before lending their guests any bikes. 

The nights that she worked, he poured over the photographs as Sophie colored next to him. He pointed out when the molding Lauren picked out didn’t quite match what was featured at the corner shot of a birthday party - the one where a young mom blew out the candles while her daughter bounced on her knee, mid giggle. He stared hopelessly at the young couple kissing outside the façade, the young woman’s skirt caught mid-twirl as if spinning in each other’s arms, the young man's ring finger flashing gold under the sunlight. This frame captured the featherlike cornice which stood proud along corners of the roof but had long since crumbled. A picture of the downstairs bedroom showed the woman kneeling beside a rotund dachshund puppy. Lauren fell in love with the wispy floral curtains featured behind her, and so Conner spent the next month hunting down a similar design that could take their place. She sanded, he observed. She painted, he cooked. They both lived in the echo of the lives caught on film, and in the shadow of what the photographer had chosen too dark to memorialize. The role had not been finished.

The days blended into months which stretched out through the better part of a year, until one day Lauren cleared her throat behind Connor as pouring his heart into a bowl of beef burgundy. She had paint smeared across her forehead and he dampened a rag to wipe it away. “I was thinking... grandmother might like to see what we’ve done here.”

And as he had become accustomed to doing, he bit his cheek, nodded in agreement and offered to make them all bangers and mash that Saturday night.

It didn’t register for Conner that he would be meeting the young girl in the photographs until he saw her being wheeled through the entryway. The old woman's skin told the stories of her years, creased like old parchment. Her eyes matched her mothers, tired like the ones in grayscale which peered at Conner over the top of a newspaper. Tired like Lauren’s who would scoop up Sophie to carry her home across town. The old woman looked around the kitchen, suspicious but serene as she took in the fresh layer of life throughout the house, accenting but not covering the old one. 

Feeling as though his eyes were going to overflow, he returned his concentration to his potatoes as the generations settled at the table behind him. He presented his work before seating himself among the family: Plump sausages, whipped potatoes, dressed salad.

“Moeder,” the old woman breathed, leaning to her right and looking at Lauren. “I thought you said never ask Soldaat Schimdt to help with housework.”

Conner withdrew his arms as it reached toward the salad, searching his mind under the layer of dust which shrouded his collection of Dutch vocabulary. Soldaat, he recalled. Soldier.

Lauren’s gaze bounced between Conner’s and her grandmothers, eventually resting her palm atop the old woman’s hand and leaning out of her chair to kiss her forehead. “You don’t have to worry about that, anymore” she said as she eased back onto her seat. “Conner loves to cook, and Amsterdam is his home too.”


Conner drew blood from his cheek, imagining the soldier not pictured.


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2 comments

Farhad Amini
06:36 Apr 29, 2021

Love it and I copied a little of your bio because it was fascinating.

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Innocent Noble
04:24 Apr 28, 2021

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