Tom Johnson has turned 85 and has suffered a few “events”, though he knows his mind is sharp. His oldest son, who had Down Syndrome has died, and his remaining two children want to move him out of the homestead lake house and into a retirement home in town. What Tom wants to do is to find the only woman he ever loved, a woman he met in the Netherlands where he was stationed during World War II.
And so he slips away, deftly covers his tracks, and begins his search for her in Eindhoven. While his children try to track him down and then have him extradited back home, Tom delves into love and loss and the value of memory. Soon he catches sight of a woman he believes to be Sarah, the love he lost almost a lifetime ago.
He will have to fight for her affections and forgiveness, even as he fights for the legal right to stay in the Netherlands in the name of love and family and all the remaining rights of an old man.
$17.00 | Fiction Paperback | 5 1/2 x 8 1/4 | 240 pages
ISBN: 978-1-60953-117-1 | Carton Quantity: 24
Brabant, Summer 2007
Tom stood on the wide apron in front of the Eindhoven train station amidst a thousand parked bicycles getting his bearings, but everything was different. There were a few old buildings, but he recognized none of them. Maybe one and a distant church spire. Otherwise the buildings looked like vacuum tubes in an old radio designed by the engineers at Philips who ran the town. Traffic flowed as if on circuit boards, and the engineers themselves went by on their tall bicycles, their brief cases bungeed behind them, their ties pinned to their shirtfronts.
Tom took a taxi to Veldhoven, but the rutted farmer’s lane that had once led across the fields and pastures and between the horse farms was now a highway and overpass that quite suddenly deposited him in the center of the village in front of the church and across from the hotel. Both were still there even if the old, narrow road between them was now a wide street. These days the hotel was for pensioners and commercial travelers. He rented a plain, quiet room in the back, and the owner’s son brought his bag up. That afternoon he wandered around the town. He sat in the park. He walked along the little canals crossing and crossing again the foot bridges. He couldn’t find the café that had once been the town center. Very little seemed familiar.
In the morning there were fresh fruit, breads, meats and cheeses and the owner poured Tom a cup of tea. Tom asked him directions to the tourist office and the public market and the man came back with a tourist map and a pen. Tom asked him if he could recommend a lawyer who spoke English.
“They all speak English,” he said, but wrote down a name and address. “This is a good one. Have you been here before?”
“A long time ago. During the war.”
“Are you American, then?”
“Yes. I was a supply officer. I spent some time here.”
Jan Dekker, the attorney, asked him the same questions. “You know,” he said, “on September 17 people show American flags. People have not forgotten, especially the old ones.” He smiled. He was a strikingly handsome man with a strong jaw, a thin nose, very blue eyes and thick blond hair that was neatly parted on the side and swept back dramatically from his forehead. He had a body builder’s shoulders and arms, but when he stood up he was surprisingly short. He looked like a small movie star.
“I’m looking for someone I knew back then. A Dutch woman. Her name was Sarah van Praag.”
Dekker wrote it down.
“She was a teacher of English and she worked for me as a translator. This was her address back then. I don’t think the house is still there; at least, I can’t find it. I haven’t communicated with her since 1947. Also I need some advice. I think I am being followed.” He saw doubt creep into the other man’s eyes. “I’m here, you see, against my children’s wishes. I imagine they’ll try to find a way to force me to return to the United States. I want to know if they can do that.”
“Well,” said Jan Decker carefully, “not really unless you commit a crime. Not unless you have not enough money. If you live by the conditions of your visa, well then, ja, you have most of the legal rights and protections of a Dutch citizen.”
Tom told the young woman in the tourist office that he was looking for a room to rent for several weeks. She gave him two leads. Dickie Druyf lived on the top floor of an apartment block on the edge of town. His flat was spacious and airy with big windows that overlooked the farms and fields. Tom’s room would be small but clean and bright. Dickie was a genteel man with Einstein hair and an improbably deep voice who talked too much but did so in perfect but dated public school English as if he had learned every bit of it by watching old David Niven movies. Unfortunately he didn’t have a garden, and he seemed a little too eager.
Mrs. Waleboer had a large, fastidiously kept garden behind her row house which Tom’s second floor room would overlook and in which he noticed a brown and white spaniel asleep on its side in the sun. Mrs. Waleboer was a shy, plain young woman of about thirty who wore an apron and worked in a nearby frites stand. She spoke almost no English. She and Tom toured the house and garden communicating by smile and pantomime. In the living room she picked up a framed photograph of two little girls in pigtails. They were perhaps seven and five. She pointed up toward the children’s bedroom that they had looked into upstairs. She did not show him a photograph of a man although she was wearing a wedding ring. Tom liked Mrs. Waleboer and her house, but thought he would need someone who spoke at least some English. The next morning he wasn’t as sure. He realized that he’d have the house to himself much of the day. Also, he had dreamt of waking up in the room that would be his, of stepping through a door the room didn’t have right into the garden, of sitting in a lawn chair he hadn’t seen, reading and listening to an Albinoni oboe concerto.
He went back to the young woman in the tourist office and asked questions about Mrs. Waleboer. “Her husband was a soldier. He was killed in an accident. Very sad. As for her, she is a country woman. She grew up on a farm. She is uneducated but neat and clean and she needs the money.”
He asked the young woman to help him write a series of questions in Dutch:
“May I cook?”
“May I sit in the garden?”
“May I listen to music a little loud for I am hard of hearing?”
“May I do laundry?”
“May I bathe each day?”
“May I drink beer and wine?”
Mrs. Waleboer stood in her doorway still wearing an apron and read the list of questions. “Ja,” she said. “Ja, ja, ja, ja, ja.” Then she clapped her hands once and laughed aloud. Tom liked that. He moved in that afternoon. He cranked the windows in his room open as he unpacked and listened to the Albinoni piece he’d dreamt of. Then he sat on his bed and smelled the spicy, fresh garden scents. He felt some satisfaction. He wanted to tell someone that he had an address and a phone number, but there was no one to tell. The lawyer. He called the number on Jan Dekker’s card and left the information. Soon Tom would e-mail me.
Tom’s reverie was broken by the sound of the children coming home. He went downstairs to meet them, to shake their small hands. Ilse was a beautiful child with big brown eyes and perfect skin. Nienke was a fireplug with pudgy arms, cropped hair and thick, red plastic glasses.
The market began to appear early Monday morning near the city center. It came out of caravans and car trunks: tables, tents, display cases, boxes and bags of merchandise. The process was nearly soundless and perhaps automatic as if like so many things in Holland, Tom remembered, it had been done over and over again for generations.I If everyone in the country didn’t quite know everyone else, they at least knew the rules: where to stand, what to bring, when to show up, what to say.
There was an aisle of clothing, an aisle for the truck farmers with piles of peppers, tomatoes, carrots, onions, peaches, pears and plums. There were cheese vendors with their big rounds of belegen jong to oud. There were tables of tools, others of CD’s and DVD’s, others of bike accessories: bells, mirrors, seats, locks. There was a caravan that sold little cardboard boats of fried fish and frites, and one that sold deep fried Vietnamese snacks with lines of tangy red sauce squirted across them. There were gypsies selling inexpensive jewelry and Ukrainians selling tie-dyed t-shirts.
Tom spent the day in the market and was in the café across the street when the market began to be disassembled late in the afternoon. Had he really thought that he would see Sarah Van Praag? The very notion suddenly seemed absurd. But of course he hadn’t. He had never really thought that, not even years ago, not even before Tony’s death, certainly not before Julia’s. No, he had told himself from the very beginning that she would not be there. She would be dead. She would be lost in time, forgotten, living in Rotterdam or England or Boise, Idaho for all he knew. Or if she were here, she’d be happily married to someone like Dickie Druyf and have children and grandchildren and great grandchildren. Or she would be very fat with sour breath.
Or, and this much more likely, upon seeing her he would instantly know in his heart why they had quarreled that day and why they could never be together. Then what would that mean? That he had spent his whole life waiting for a moment that had long since passed or, perhaps, never been? That he had really been the fool and dreamer Julia had always thought him to be, that the real illusion was that he could not find a way to love Julia? That she had been waiting all through the years for him to turn to her and smile, to touch her cheek with the back of his fingers, to push her hair aside and whisper something in her ear in just that way he could never find that would make her eyes smile, her head nod, her hand touch her mouth? He could have sold cars. Why not? Other men did. Whatever made him think that he was too good for that life? He could have played golf and laughed at bad jokes. He laughed at Mike McIntyre’s, for God’s sake; he laughed at Tony’s.
“How many cow tails does it take to reach the moon?”
“One if it’s long enough.” He had laughed at that one very hard. What was the difference? And what in the world after all these years could ever have tempted him to think she would be doing the same thing in the same place on the same day of the week?