The Night Watch

August was relentless, night provided little relief. Peter tossed off his sheets and stared at the ceiling, a blank canvas for memories. When the morning light finally filtered through the blinds and the insects announced the fourth day of a heat wave, he turned away from the window and thought of the people who had lived in his house. They came and went in such a haphazard pattern that Peter had forgotten most of their names. Only one seemed to endure.

Mr. Hayakawa, the painter who rented the parlor floor was Peter’s original tenant. He wanted the high ceilings and a certain kind of light from the back windows. The message on the bulletin board of the ‘High and Dry’ Laundry read: Artist seeking parlor floor rental. North light wanted. Very clean, very quiet will pay rent in advance.

Paying in advance was all Peter needed to know; money was short in those days—his job at the post office didn’t cover the heating bill and taxes on the house. His sister had gotten married and moved out of the second floor flat with her husband to some place in Ohio. Peter had lost track of her there. A young couple took that apartment and now they had grown to a family of four, squeezing into the small two-bedroom space.

The third floor had cycled through a cast of singles. When the sound of roof top parties shifted to baby showers, Peter knew it was only a matter a time before a new fresh-faced tenant would appear.

He gave his thin frame a push up by holding onto the night table. In the bathroom he looked in the medicine cabinet mirror and shook his head at where the muscles use to be. Peter had been in the infantry during the Battle of the Bulge; he was seventeen then. “Don’t start down that path.” A cold shower focused him on what he needed to do first.

“You’ve reached the Department of Veterans Affairs,” the automated recording began. “Please type your VA number and press the pound button when complete.” Peter put on his glasses and held the phone in front of him. “For information regarding health insurance, press one. For information regarding benefits press two…”

“Damn it,” Peter said into phone as he waited for the recording to reach the final choice, which was to speak to a live representative.

“That check, Mr. Daniels, will be processed in the next two weeks and automatically deposited into the account that you’ve designated.” 

“That’s good, because I‘ve been waiting a month for it,” he said. Peter tried not to be offended by the chirpy girl on the end of the line. “Where are you?” he asked.

“What do you mean?” she said.

 “Well, I was just curious if it was as hot where you are as it’s here. Maybe that’s why it’s taking so long to process that check. You’re not in Bombay, are you?”

“No, Mr. Daniels. Americans working in the United States staff the VA. I’m in Oklahoma City. Can I be of any further assistance, sir?”

“No, dear, that’s all for today.”

“Well, we are always here for you and we do appreciate your service to the country.”

There was a pause on the other end of the phone.

“Thank you.” Peter pressed the end button. “Bet she doesn’t even know where Belgium is. That was one cold winter.”

Peter looked up when he heard the front door close. “Is that you,John?”

His son came every morning on his way to work. He sometimes had breakfast, but most of the time he was in a rush to get to his job in downtown Brooklyn where he did other people’s taxes. The two men had a pattern: first John would check if his father had taken all of his medicines the day before, next he would look over the apartment to see if everything was in order, and finally he would review the list that was on the refrigerator door.

John was a list maker, and while Peter was annoyed by having to check things off every day, it did save conversation about what he ate and the number of glasses of water he drank.

“I see you didn’t take a walk yesterday.” John stood facing the refrigerator door.

“I went up and down the stairs four times. I think that counts. Here, let me check it off.” He turned to face his balding sixty-year-old son. “Did you take a walk?”

“It’s not about me, Dad,” John said.

“Mrs. Allen called me yesterday about her toilet. I went upstairs and she didn’t even have a plunger, so I came down here to get mine. I’ll be damned if I’m going to call a plumber because her kids keep trying to flush toys,” Peter said.

“Maybe it’s time for you to consider retiring as the super of this building. You could fit everything you have here into a small apartment. Remember the pictures I showed you last week of that apartment in Flatbush? It’s in a better neighborhood, too.”

“This is where I was born, and this is where I’m going to be carried out the front door.  I’ve lived on every floor of this house. I know every board and every crack.”

Peter looked across his apartment. Beyond the living area were French doors that opened onto a small garden with a flagstone terrace. “Where could I get an apartment with such a beautiful garden? Rose bushes that my grandmother planted.”

“Well, there’s a park in Flatbush and…”

“Thanks, John, but no thanks. This was your playroom, and we had a swing on that tree in the corner of the yard. Remember?”

There was a loud crash and both men looked up at the ceiling.

“Just Mr. H, he’s working on another masterpiece. I was in his apartment yesterday; we had a long chat about art. His new paintings are very dark: black, brown and blue.”

“Is that what you talk about?”

 “No, sometimes we talk about the weather and sometimes we talk about the war. He makes a real good cup of tea.”

“The war?” Peter opened his thermos and took a sip of coffee.

“It took me a while to bring up the subject. It’s uncomfortable for both of us. We have our prejudices.” Peter laughed.

“What’s so funny?” John asked.

“You know he’s been my tenant for almost thirty years, and I wasted ten of them barely speaking to him.”

John shook his head. “So, what’s your plan for today?” 

“Well, first I’m going to hose down the front sidewalk, then I’ll water the plants out back. They need special food and some conversation. I thought I’d take my walk today over to the clinic and get my vitals taken. I know how much you like to keep track of my blood pressure. Gotta stop by Sweet Hearts though; you can’t win if you don’t play—right?”

“That’s true. I heard the lottery is now—what, twenty million?” John looked at his watch and picked up his briefcase. “I’ve got to run, I’m glad you’re going to have a busy day.”

Peter followed his son outside. “I really should take the pay-out as one lump sum…don’t you think?” He pulled the hose around the iron-gate next to the stoop.

“Sounds sensible to me. See you tomorrow.” John waved as he walked away.

Peter’s wife, Bea, had always kept red geraniums in pots around the entryway. Now that she was gone, the small, gated area held some ivy and four large black plastic garbage cans that were chained to the fence six days a week. As he bent over to connect the hose to the faucet, Peter felt a dizzy spell coming on, so he sat on the wooden bench next to the garbage cans. The small space outside the garden apartment’s door was still in the morning shade and he could hear but not see the traffic on the street.

Hart Street had changed. Brooklyn had changed, some for the good, and some for the bad. “I sound like an old man. My father was sure to have said that when the Greek family moved into number forty-five, and I bet his father said the same thing when they plowed over the last cornfield on DeKalb Avenue.” He pushed himself up, connected the hose, and started to water down the sidewalk.  The fragrance of the wet cement increased as the water splayed across the uneven squares.

 “You’re up early.” Peter watched as his neighbor’s granddaughter locked the front door and pause midway down the steps. He tried to continue the conversation, but she ignored him and looked at her phone.

“Everyone has someplace to go. If you’re not a celebrity, well, you might as well be invisible.” Bea had told him he looked like Dick Powell.

                                                                         *

Mrs. Kadam was in the store when Peter walked in. She was sitting behind the counter reading a fashion magazine. Peter watched her fold the corner of one of the pages and lick her thumb so that the next page would turn more easily.

“Good morning, Mrs. Kadam, how are you today?”

“Oh, Mr. Daniels, you surprised me. I’m well. And yourself?” She examined his shirt and avoided his eyes.

“Well enough.” Peter smiled and looked around the store for a few things to buy. He would never come in just for the lottery ticket. The purchase of a ticket was intended to look like a causal after thought. Walking to the back of the store, he raised his voice. “Do you have any plant food?”

“It’s in the last aisle, next to the dog biscuits,” she said.

“It’s a wonder how well you’re stocked for any and every possible need.” Peter returned to the counter and had the plant food in one hand and a can of soup in the other. “Here, this will do it for today.” He frowned as he looked above her head at the rows of cigarette cartons.  “It’s amazing that people still smoke.” Peter stood staring at the boxes, thinking of Bea rolling her oxygen tank from room to room.

 “Can I interest you in anything else, Mr. Daniels? Perhaps a Pick Ten, or a Mega Million, today.”

 “How much is it today, Mrs. Kadam? The Mega Millions, that is, the big one.”

He had heard a radio announcement confirm what John had said: it was going to be twenty million by the end of the day.

“Over twenty-million,” she smiled pointing to the sign in the window.

 “I’ll take one. Maybe you’ll give me luck.”

 “Are you still going to give all the money away?”

 “I may buy myself something. And you, Mrs. Kadam, after you buy all the shoes you want, what then?”

 “Oh, I never play, Mr. Daniels. Mr. Kadam doesn’t believe in it.”

 “The Lottery?”

“Oh, yes, the Lottery. He said it’s a conspiracy of the government, sir, yes. The government is keeping poor people down by selling them lottery tickets and cigarettes.”

“Look at the time. I must excuse myself. I have an appointment.” Peter cleared his throat and took his package. 

 He had started to walk down DeKalb Avenue when he heard Mrs. Kadam calling his name.

“You left your ticket on the counter, Mr. Daniels.” She was waving it above her head as her orange sari billowed behind her.

“A gift, Mrs. Kadam.”

She protested and tried to push the small rectangular ticket toward him.

“Surely your husband will allow a present from an old customer?”

She looked over her shoulder in the direction of the store. “We will worry about this tomorrow then—when we win.” 

“Of course, tomorrow,” Peter said.

When Peter returned home, he glanced up at the bay window of the first floor and saw Mr. Hayakawa staring back at him. He could see that his tenant’s hands were covered in blue paint, and there were streaks of black across the front of his painter’s smock. Mr. Hayakawa tapped on the glass, smiled, and motioned for Peter to come upstairs.

The massive set of front doors still had the original etched glass panels. A second set, across the worn tiled foyer, had several locks. On the floor of the small entry was a musty old umbrella and unwanted restaurant flyers. Peter folded the junk mail into his back pocket and unlocked the door to the hall.

“I saw you leave earlier and thought I would give you a look at how the painting is progressing.” Mr. Hayakawa was standing in his open doorway in the dark hallway.

“Did you come up with a title for it yet?” Peter asked as he walked into the front parlor.

Even though Peter visited with his tenant often, he was always surprised: the twelve- foot ceilings and walls were painted white, the room was pristine and uncluttered. The floors were covered with sisal carpets, and a beige sofa with cushions around a low table completed the furnishing. Peter removed his shoes.

“My grandmother had this room painted red, deep red and my mother tried to paint over it. Yellow, as I recall. You could barely move around all the furniture then. The room over the years turned from orange to yellow. And now…” Peter paused. “Finally, white.”

“So, you’ve told me, Mr. Daniels.”

“How many coats of paint did it take you to get to white?” Peter asked.

“Four coats, the first year. Of course, I’ve repainted several times.” He pointed toward the sliding pocket doors that were shut. “I’d like to tell you about my painting before I show it to you. If that’s all right?”

 “The world is filled with obvious things. I applaud your mystery,” Peter said

“I’ll make us some tea first.” He gestured to the seating area in the bay window that overlooked the street. “Please sit down. I’ll be right back.”

A few moments later Mr. Hayakawa returned with a black lacquer tray holding a kettle, and two small gray tea bowls. “I’ll pour,” Mr. Hayakawa said.  He stirred the liquid with a small bamboo whisk, surveying the leaves, as they melted in the hot liquid. The scent bloomed from the small containers.

Peter observed his tea bubble in the ceramic cup. He could almost taste the hot bitter liquid.

“First, my title: The Night Watch.”

“Is it permissible to use a title that’s already been taken?” Peter asked.

Mr. Hayakawa smiled and nodded. “It’s a tribute to a painting that was severely criticized in its own time. A painting that had flouted the classical rules of art.

 “I’m afraid I need a Rembrandt refresher,” Peter said.

 “Well, if this was indeed an image of a night watch, then, as you know, Mr. Daniels, the rules of muster or as we might say mobilizationwouldn’t be so chaotic. Those men almost look like street performers, not soldiers. Here’s a print of the painting.” Mr. Hayakawa handed Peter a photograph.

 “It’s so dark,” Peter held the photo closer.

“Yes, that’s also one of its attributes or failings…or perhaps the aging of a canvas with layers of varnish. Rembrandt’s critics wanted more light in the painting.”

 “The little girl in the yellow dress seems out of place.” Peter stared at the print in his hand.

 “Symbolism. Possibly victory or resurrection. What do you think?”

 “I’m not sure, but I’m ready to see your Night Watch.”

Mr. Hayakawa went to the pocket doors, pushing one open with his left hand and the other with his right. In the corner of the studio was a very large canvas; it reached halfway to the ceiling and almost completely across one of the walls. Peter walked up to it and looked at its surface. He carefully stepped backwards.

The canvas was black with three large rectangular shapes. Each of the shapes was dark blue, so close to the black that the edges of the color fields almost disappeared. Within each of the blue forms Peter could see an under-painting, almost erased by the blue, a fleck of a yellow line in one and speck of red in another.

“Well?” said Mr. Hayakawa.

“I’m lost in it. A memory of the sea at night: black, but with a depth of blue, possibly moonlight flickering through waves, possibly a stain of blood from battle.”

 “I knew you would see more than just the surface,” said Mr. Hayakawa.

 “But you weren’t in the war. Why this subject?”

 “There are many kinds of battles. I’ve felt the anguish of war in my own way.”

Peter had learned years ago about the internment camp that Mr. Hayakawa’s family entered in 1942. He first heard of the camps when he returned home from the war, and even then, it was something Peter wasn’t willing to come to terms with—not until Mr. Hayakawa showed him his book of Dorothea Lange photographs. 

“You see, Mr. Daniels, Rembrandt’s Night Watch is an enormous painting, much larger than this.” He gestured toward the black and blue canvas in front of them. One needs to stand back from his painting, and it see it from a distance.”

“A distance of time, too, perhaps,” Peter said.

“Yes, wars from a distance melt into one another—don’t you think? We see history as a never-ending cycle. My Night Watch is meant to be seen up close.” The painter smiled. “Our night sky is the same.”

Peter must have look confused.

“It envelops us,” Mr. Hayakawa continued. “It closes in. We sense the enormity of the universe. It pushes on us from a great distance and makes us feel its presence and our smallness.”

“Your night sky from the desert of California was the same as my night sky over Saint Vith in Belgium,” Peter said.

 Mr. Hayakawa nodded. “Time and space bring us closer together.” He moved near the canvas, pointing to the red stain and then the yellow line. “We have left our marks on this world.”

End

This story was a finalist for the Adelaide Literary Award Anthology 2020, Short Stories. ADELAIDE BOOKS

The story is dedicated to the memory of Alfred Moskowitz who served during the Battle of the Bulge.

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