Morty’s Gold Mart was on the far side of the harbor, in the forlorn industrial corridor that led to the shipyards. Running on empty, I pulled into a pot-holed strip mall and, nervous about the gold coins in my coat, parked in front of a payday loan office next to Sharon’s Salon, as far from Morty’s as possible. Nobody was around as I walked over to the Gold Mart. I glanced into the salon in passing, and was startled to see a dignified black lady swiveling in a high chair and wagging her finger at me, but she was just discussing coiffure with Sharon.
A sign in the Gold Mart window promised electronic surveillance and armed response if needed. The door was locked, and a tarnished push-button dangling from a wire elicited only silence. I knocked twice; sunlit cars sped by, and no one accosted me at gunpoint. Across the street, a cinder-block auto shop and a bail-bond office framed a view of the harbor, where a distant sailboat tacked against an onshore breeze. The door opened, and Morty showed me in, double-locked the door, and slid a motel-style chain into its slot. He had an unkempt comb-over, hair sprouting from his ears, and a three-day stubble. Smiling, he splayed his hands on a scratched glass counter-top.
“We have to be careful,” he said, “I shot someone once, right here.” He pointed a forefinger at me, his thumb cocked, as if to establish his credentials in the sketchy business of gold exchange. His shop was in disarray, much like himself. Dusty catalogs were piled on shelves among jumbled bric-a-brac. Cracked whitewash peeled from the walls, and rust crept up the side of a cast-iron safe. He booted up an ancient laptop while I opened my zip-lock bag and arranged the coins by denomination.
“Ah, Franz-Joseph, 1915, very nice,” said Morty, “I don’t see these too often. Takes me back, oh yes…” He studied a 100-corona piece through a jeweler’s loupe. “Popular in East Europe before the war, say Austria, Hungary, Poland…” He looked up, and his sharp blue eye focused first on the laptop’s scrolling gold valuations, and then on me. “Insurance,” he said, “Everyone felt safer with a few coronas hidden away.”
“Did you kill him?” I asked.
“Who? Oh no, I only maimed her. The bullet tore through her ear, ricocheted off the safe and got me in the eye.” I looked once more and realized that Morty’s right eye was a glass marble, alert but ersatz. “I must have passed out,” Morty said, “because next thing I knew I was blinded by OR floods and someone was saying count back from 100. In threes, please.” His fingers slid up and down the stacked coins, while his good eye assessed their worth and the other one sized me up. I wondered whether to discuss the attempted robbery or the price of gold on the Chicago exchange. Morty’s probing glass eye nudged me onto a tangent.
“You’re right about the coins,” I said. “Years ago, hitch-hiking in Europe as a student, I stopped at my Aunt Theresa’s in Vienna. She lived in the suburbs with her husband Walter, once a Wehrmacht captain, and my grandmother, who sat in a wheelchair and drifted in and out of dementia. We toured her well-tended garden, I plucked ripe plums from the trees, and I heard the story of these coins.” Morty’s exploring fingers paused, and he inclined his head, attention caught.
“After the war,“ I went on, “Theresa and Walter had moved into an abandoned apartment in central Vienna. One day, while assembling a mahogany dining table they had lugged down from the attics, Walter removed a canvas pouch stuffed into one of the legs. He untied the ribbon and these gold coins spilled out. Years later, long after my grandmother was dead and Walter had suffered a fatal heart attack, I visited Theresa in her dotage. She said the coins would come to me when she died, in remembrance of our family’s ancestral heritage in Lvóv, Poland.”
“Lvóv!” Morty cried out, “I was born in Lvóv! Not many of us left now. We were herded into boxcars and we never returned. And now, coins that were the last hope of survival surface in my shop.” A tear glistened in his eye as he peered over my shoulder and scrutinized the incomprehensible past. The moment passed, the everyday re-asserted itself, and Morty keyed numbers into his laptop. “For these, I can meet today’s London rate,” he said, “minus 10% commission.”
I nodded. Morty spun the dial on the safe and the door swung open. He placed packets of bank notes on the counter and slit their paper bands with an ivory letter opener carved into the likeness of an alligator. His lips shaped a silent count while his fingers snapped bill after bill, teller-style. I recalled the cortège of unknown mourners that followed Aunt Theresa’s hearse to a wooded cemetery overlooking the Danube. Afterwards, I’d wandered through her run-down garden where the plum trees were heavy with fruit, and grass grew unfettered over graveled paths. Walter’s dress dagger, complete with engraved swastika and tasseled hangings, and a Luger wrapped in oilcloth, a bullet still in the breech, were momentary diversions, and I sent them on as registered freight. Later, US Customs queried the more substantive diversion of a Persian rug from Theresa’s dining room, and overlooked the gold hidden in my laundry
“Me, I’m happy here,” said Morty when he was done. He gathered in the towers of coronal glitter, and slid a pile of bills across the counter. “Nobody bothers me, and if they do, I got my Glock. Tell me, have you been to Lvóv? To the killing fields of East Europe?” If he was mocking me, he did so with a complicit smile, sliding the coins into translucent sleeves and shrink-wrapping them with a heat-gun for shipment to Chicago. Morty’s question was straightforward, but his mention of killing fields made me cautious. My answer was impartial and strictly historical.
“Yes, I was there not too long ago,” I said, “My parents had studied in Lvóv, but they’d grown up in the countryside around Domazyr. On the way there, I drove past working-class suburbs with shabby tenements and rail-yards full of empty wagons. Off the main highway, the road to Domazyr was rutted and muddy, winding through a misted landscape of birches and bare fields with sagging barns. Rounding a corner, I came upon a shrine overlooking a pasture. A rickety fence enclosed a black wooden cross with an impaled Christ, some stained glass cups with puddled candles, and a wreath of plastic flowers. The mist lifted, and beyond the pasture I saw a sunlit hill with cottages nestled in the tree line. Strips of furrowed land reached downhill from the village. Black and white cattle nosed at leisure through the rough grass. Domazyr lay peaceful under the warm afternoon sun. I parked next to a chapel with yellow-stuccoed walls and a golden dome. High in the crown of a nearby water-oak was a huge storks’ nest.”
Morty looked up from his deft packaging of coins. “Storks were everywhere back then,” he said. “They were thought to have an enchanted stone in their skull, an antidote to all poisons.” Morty laughed, but a hacking cough intervened. He braced himself against the counter and grimaced. “When I was a child, my best friend was a fair-haired boy called Mirus who lived next door. One day we climbed onto his roof to steal magic crystals from storks nesting on the chimneys. He lost his footing and fell, his fingers scratching over the slates for grip . A long instant later, I heard the terrible impact on the flagstones below.”
“Mirus was buried the day the Wehrmacht arrived,” he went on. “Selections and deportations began at once. Professors at Lvóv University were assembled in their quadrangles, formed into lines, and shot. Old people and women and children were sent to Belzec and gassed. The countryside became littered with the mass graves of their sons and husbands. In frantic discussions with Mirus’s parents at our kitchen table, some papers were burned and others were falsified. My father told me I was now Mirus, and that I would live next door with his parents. Three days later, I watched my mother and father join a grim procession heading for the Kleparóv railway station.” Morty slid the last cylinder of glitter into a padded envelope. “I never saw them again.”
To all intents, my business with Morty was over, and I regretted that I’d rambled on about Domazyr. I gazed in silence at the money arrayed before me and contemplated the unspeakable convergence in our stories. Much too late, a doomed family’s last hope was being traded, not for life, but for equity in irrelevant marsh-front property. Morty spread his hands in a gesture of acquiescence and acknowledgement of survival against all odds. His glass eye held me fast, and the other one swept the sidelines, alert for danger. A shadow darkened the Gold Mart window, but it was only the lady with her near-perfect Sharon coiffure.