Remembered Voices by Joe Giordano
I found myself squatting on a sun-baked Brooklyn curb beside a stinking sewer with humid heat radiating off the asphalt like a sauna.
How did I get here?
An aqua DeSoto honked while passing a black Packard and a wood-paneled Chrysler all in strikingly excellent condition. Strolling the sidewalk, men in outdated suits and fedoras accompanied women in veiled hats speaking excitedly to each other. On the corner, a swarthy Italian scooped lemon ice into a paper cup for a blonde-pigtails girl in an ankle-length skirt.
Strange—I seemed to have been dropped into a 1940s movie set, but where were the cameras and crew?
I last recalled tossing and turning in bed, frustrated and saddened, struggling to remember my parents’ voices. They’d been gone for decades. I had photos but no recordings and the memory of how they sounded faded in my brain. I’d started to forget things, and I worried if at some point I might not remember them at all. Memory was self, and the thought I could lose both raised my angst.
When I rose from the curb, my T-shirt with the words Nobody Cares, Work Harder received stares. I headed toward a corner newspaper kiosk with a stack of New York Times. The headline read, Atom Bomb Loosed on Nagasaki, with the date, August 9, 1945.
I stiffened in disbelief, then gazed around half-expecting people to burst out laughing at an elaborate practical joke. I shook my head. Nobody still alive would go to that much trouble just to take me out of myself. But a prank made more sense than believing I’d time-warped to a date three years before I was born.
I walked a few blocks, recognizing familiar street signs and images of my youth, passing grocery, hardware, and other mom and pop stores, my mind in turmoil wondering what the hell was happening. Except for the glances at my appearance, I was ignored. In the day’s heat, I sweated through my T-shirt and my mouth became dry. I stepped into a corner candy store, the type I frequented as a boy with a soda fountain counter and chrome stemmed stools. I opened the top of a red fridge with a Coke logo, grateful for the waft of cool air, and retrieved an old-style glass bottle. I pulled a dollar bill from my jeans and handed it to a henna-dyed fifties woman.
“What’s this?” She shoved the bill back at me. “Give me real money.”
My eyes widened. The dollar I’d handed her certainly was genuine. Then I realized the issue date was 2008.
“What year is this?” I asked.
“Are you drunk?”
I ignored the insult. “Is this really 1945?”
She huffed. “You’re lucky I’m in a good mood because we fried the Japs. Get lost before I call the cops.”
Her statement confirmed my fear.
I shuffled back onto the street. If I was experiencing a nightmare, why hadn’t I woken up? Normally in box-canyon dreams, I’m naked and snap awake as frustration builds. I was still thirsty and concluded I must’ve boozed too much the night before, again. I’d gotten into the habit of getting drunk every evening. Vodka. The cheap stuff purchased by the gallon. The buzz lightened my mood until I fell unconscious into bed.
I wondered if I should beg for spare change and rejected the idea. My shirt’s motto would draw jeers rather than a handout. I decided to take a seat on a nearby doorstep until either I awoke, or my brain thrust me into a different misadventurous dream.
The sun moved across the sky. I couldn’t remember a nightmare where time just passed. My parched mouth got me off my butt in search of a water fountain. A guy in a newsboy cap pointed me toward a park a few blocks away and I found a small shaded retreat with children’s swings, a teeter-totter, and thankfully a bubbler nestled within a concrete basin. Tasted like nectar. After slaking my thirst, I slumped onto a wooden bench under a maple tree and contemplated my situation. By now, I should’ve woken up. My perception of time might’ve been distorted but dreams never lasted this long. The sun had nearly set. I had no usable money and no place to stay. I clicked my heels and muttered, “There’s no place like home,” under my breath. Didn’t work. I huffed and stretched out on the bench. I’d never gone to sleep in a dream. Could that even happen? In the morning, my surroundings would thankfully return to normal, and I’d find myself in bed. That bit of optimism lightened my mood a bit. As darkness fell, a chill gripped me, and I hugged myself to stave off shivers.
I awoke to the sounds of birds chirping, an elevated train clickity-clacking, and car tires grinding on asphalt. Nothing in my surroundings had changed. I was still stuck in 1945.
Sore, stiff, and cold. As a kid I could fall asleep on a rock without ill effect. Nowadays, hard surfaces felt like being stretched on the rack. I yawned. I needed a cup of coffee but had no money. I smacked my thighs in frustration. Looking down, I spotted Washington’s profile, a 1941 quarter between the bench’s slats.
Odd. Nightmares never solved problems.
I grabbed the coin and left the park, picking up the bouquet of a sizzling grill, leading me to a chrome-crowned ‘Diner.’ I took a seat at the counter alongside green vinyl booths with silver jukeboxes. A fifty-ish brunette waitress in a teal uniform clicking gum and smelling of cigarettes asked, “You want coffee? I just made a fresh pot.”
The menu she handed me listed coffee at ten cents. “Black,” I said.
The coffee was weak, clearly before the age of Starbucks. Still, I needed the caffeine and time to think. If I’d truly been transported back in time, how could I reconcile my new situation? The waitress returned my change, a nickel and dime, and an idea popped into my head. I brought my coffee to the public phone booth with a white page directory and looked up my parents’ names, finding them under the same exchange number they’d drilled me to remember as a kid. In those days, I’d plunge a penny into sulfuric acid until the copper was sufficiently eaten away so the coin mimicked a dime, which I’d use for cheap phone calls. Today I invested two-thirds of my remaining funds, picking up the black receiver then hesitating to dial. Yesterday, what would I have given to hear my parents’ voices? Two thirds of my wealth? And more. But now I struggled over what I’d say. I hadn’t been born yet. How would I not sound like a creepy stranger? My father would be at work, so my mother would answer. I’d finished my coffee before dialing the number.
She answered on the third ring.
The sound of her voice spiked emotion in my throat, and I swallowed to regain control. I sensed she was about to hang up, so I said, “When you were a girl, you found an old bicycle in a junk heap and jumped on, riding down a hill until the frame collapsed and you fell on strewn broken glass. That’s how you got the scar across your chin.”
She took long enough to speak that I feared I’d lost the connection.
“Who is this?” she asked.
The question I anticipated. Still, my angst rose. I realized she couldn’t possibly recognize my voice. “My name is Peter,” I said.
“Like my husband.”
I fought off tears, taking a moment to respond. “I’m a relative you’ve never met. May I stop by your house and explain?”
Her voice sounded wary. “Only my parents and husband know that story.”
And your son. “I wasn’t sure you’d listen to me,” I said.
“Is this some sort of prank?” she asked in a sterner tone.
“No. I swear. I’ll wait until your husband returns home. Best I introduce myself to both of you.”
“I don’t know.”
“Please don’t be concerned. I have white hair and am wearing jeans and a T-shirt. I’ll ring your bell at seven this evening.”
She hung up.
As I put the receiver down, my heart pounded. Would they even open the door for me? The thought that I’d see them again welled tears that blurred my sight.
Back at the counter, the waitress refilled my cup. I left her my last nickel as a tip.
I wandered until evening fell, my anticipation and an uneasiness in my gut building as I rehearsed what I might say. My parents rented a two-family home with a separate entrance. Walking up to the wooden porch, the house seemed smaller than I remembered. A memory surfaced when I accidentally jammed my hand into a rusted, sticking up nail. My mother’s frantic call to the local GP followed. He injected me with a tetanus shot under her worried eyes. Growing up, my constant mischief kept her on edge. As an adult, with all the nefarious capers I got into, I didn’t appreciate how much anguish I’d caused her until she was gone.
I pressed the bell and heard a familiar chime. My father opened the door just wide enough for me to see my mother standing at his shoulder. He had a mustache and a five o’clock shadow that would scrape my cheek when he kissed me. She had on bright red lipstick, a calf-length blue dress, with a hairstyle I’d seen in old photos. They looked so young.
Not to choke up, I bit the inside of my cheek.
“Peter?” my father asked.
“I see a resemblance. Are you an uncle nobody spoke about?”
I wanted to blurt out, “Mom, Dad,” but I said, “Now, I remember your voices.”
“From when?” my father asked.
“Would you like to come inside?” my mother asked.
To discuss what? If this was real, my presence could change the future. If I was in heaven, it was their heaven too. Maybe this was the happiest time in their lives. Before I was born.
“My apologies,” I said. “I’ll be going.”
“Why? What did we say?” my mother asked.
As I clomped down the porch steps, the door shut behind me, and I wiped my damp cheeks wondering if I stepped in front of a bus, could I die a second time?
Joe Giordano was born in Brooklyn. He and his wife Jane now live in Texas. Joe’s stories have appeared in more than one hundred magazines including The Saturday Evening Post, and Shenandoah. His novels, Birds of Passage, An Italian Immigrant Coming of Age Story (2015), and Appointment with ISIL, an Anthony Provati Thriller (2017) were published by Harvard Square Editions. Rogue Phoenix Press published Drone Strike (2019) and his short story collection, Stories and Places I Remember (2020). Joe was among one hundred Italian American authors honored by Barnes & Noble to march in Manhattan’s 2017 Columbus Day Parade. Read the first chapter of Joe’s novels and sign up for his blog at his website.