Friday, December 18, 2015

Fiction: The Collector of Old Toys

We've got a handful of holiday fiction for you. Today's is a short piece of magical realism - hope you like it! Check back on Sunday for another story!


The Collector of Old Toys
By: Erin L. Snyder

The cab fare comes to fifty dollars, and I hand over three twenties, suddenly wishing I’d used a few minutes of the ride to google what I should be tipping. Is ten dollars enough? When I’m coming to a place like this? Mother always called Grandfather’s home a mansion, and with good reason. It is by far the largest house I have ever been in, though in truth it’s only the third largest on its street.

The driver doesn’t look insulted by the tip, so I suppose it’s sufficient. My luggage consists of three pieces, which seems excessive for a four-day trip, even if one of the bags is mostly full of wrapped presents. Should I even have brought them? I almost didn’t, but the fear of being the only one who didn’t bring gifts beat out the fear that I’d be the only one with them. Besides, if no one else bothered, I can always keep them hidden and take them back with me.

I wonder, not for the first time, whether I should have come at all. The thought I might only be here to ensure an inheritance worms its way into my head, though I’m pretty sure it isn’t my motivation. It’s not the only thing motivating me, anyway.

I’m here, because it is Christmas, and it is the last time I will ever see my grandfather alive. The invitation spelled out as much.

I gather up my belongings and walk to the door, unsure whether to knock. Before I can decide, it slides open. The woman who opens it looks familiar, though I can’t recall who she is. She’s got to be around fifty, with a stern face. I am almost certainly related to her, though I can’t place her among the numerous great aunts and second cousins I haven’t seen in more than a decade. “Hello, Jenny,” she says, solemnly, making my memory lapse all the more awkward. “I’m glad you were able to make it.” She clasps my shoulders in a gesture reminiscent of a hug then releases me. “Step in. I don’t want to let the cold out.”

I follow her inside, and she shuts the door behind us. The hall is dark, and I can’t help but wonder if it wasn’t warmer in the driveway. The thought of asking her name terrifies me, so I change the subject. “Do you know if Art’s here, yet?” She responds with a puzzled look, so I add, “My brother, Arthur.”

She clears her throat. “Your brother called last night to send his apologies. He was detained by business. I’d assumed you knew.”

“No. He didn’t tell me.” Because he’s a selfish asshole, I most certainly do not add. I had to quit my job to make the trip. Granted, I was a cashier in a bookstore, but at least it was something. I’d never have come if I knew Art was skipping out. Briefly, I wonder if I can get my job back if I grab a flight back to Queens tonight. But of course, it’s absurd: it’s two days before Christmas, and everything will be booked. Besides, the idea of begging for my old job is even more sickening than the thought of being stuck here for the holiday without backup. My coworkers looked at me like I was a hero when Mr. Drieston told me if I wasn’t there on Christmas Eve, he had no use for me ever again, and I responded that his second-rate bookstore had just worn out its use in my eyes. I wonder if they’d have looked at me with so much admiration if they saw where I came from. If they’d known I didn’t really need the paycheck to cover rent; that I could manage on my trust fund if I had to.

“Your brother must be so busy,” my unknown relation says, as if I needed some sort of explanation. “It is difficult for them. The men in our family. They work very hard, and sometimes they forget things.”

I nod and force a smile. But I know damn well this has nothing to do with Art’s job. Either the idea of wasting the time in a drafty mansion with relatives he doesn’t know or care about caught up with him, or a better offer came in. A girlfriend’s holiday suddenly cleared up, or a couple college friends were in town, and he decided to bail. Without giving me a head’s up, of course.

Before I realize I’m being led somewhere, I find myself in the dining room, and the woman who greeted me at the door announces my arrival. “Jennifer is here. Lawrence, you remember Jenny, don’t you?”

Lawrence, whoever he is, looks to be sixty, and he’s working on a crossword puzzle. He’s holding the newspaper inches from his face to make out the letters in the dimly lit room. “Yes. Jenny, of course,” he mutters, without looking up. “I trust the flight wasn’t too bad.”

“It was fine. We got in early. Tailwind,” I say, grateful the otherwise uneventful trip offered at least a bit of conversation. Every time the room goes silent, time here seems to slow to a crawl. I haven’t been here for five minutes, and it already feels stifling.

“A short flight’s a good flight,” Lawrence says, distantly, before mouthing the next clue in his puzzle.

“Sarah, of course, you know,” the older woman says.

“She won’t remember me, Caroline,” Sarah tells the older woman, whose name, I guess, is Caroline. It doesn’t help me place her. “You don’t remember me, do you sweety? You were six, last time we saw each other.”

“That’s not right,” Caroline butts in. “You sat together at Elisa’s wedding to Mark Reid.” I get a flash of a summer wedding in a garden outside what must have been a country club, followed by a jumble of images of tables with white cloths, a bag of candy no one stops me from eating, and a meal of grilled chicken beside a bed of greens dripping with a sweet dressing. I don’t remember any of these people, and I don’t think I could pick Elisa out in a photo. But the taste of that salad dressing is clear as day.

“We sat together, because Tiffany put me at the kid’s table. I was a junior in college at the time, which means it was eighteen years ago. Which would have made Jenny about six, wouldn’t it, dear?”

“I guess,” I respond, too tired to do the math. I still have my bags, and it slowly dawns on me I could at least put them down. But I don’t, since they’re my one avenue of escape. I part my lips to ask where I’ll be sleeping, but I pause one second too long.

“Is Marsha here?” Sarah asks the room. My mind lurches, and it takes me several seconds to realize she’s asking about my mother.

“No. No, she… she couldn’t make it,” I stutter. Not entirely untrue, though far from complete. My mother wasn’t asked, not that she’d have come if she were. She’s hated my grandfather for years, and for good reason. After the accident, he hired a detective to investigate whether she’d done something to the car to cause it. She’s never gotten an apology, as far as I know.

Caroline turns away. “It’s a shame,” she says, without a shred of conviction. “I’m sure Martin would have loved seeing her.” She sighs. “I’m glad at least one member of his immediate family was able to make it. This means a great deal to him.”

“I’m glad,” I say, trying to sound more convincing that Caroline. “Would it be alright if I dropped my things off in one of the rooms?”

“Oh, of course. You must be exhausted. Sarah, could you show her to her room?”

“Sure,” Sarah says, emphatically, as she climbs to her feet. Apparently, I’m not the only one eager to get away. I follow her out. Once we’ve put a hall between us, she asks, “How are we related, exactly?”

“I’m not sure,” I reply. “How are you related to my grandfather?”

“I think my mother is his niece,” she replies. “Either that or a cousin. I’m not entirely certain. In a family this large, it’s difficult to tell sometimes.”

Her family may be large, but mine is decidedly more compact. My grandfather had several siblings - if I ever knew the exact number, I’ve long since forgotten - but he only ever had a single son. When my father died, that left my brother and I as his only direct descendants, which is part of the the reason I’m still trying to convince myself money wasn’t a factor in my appearance. I don’t really understand what his fortune comes to, but it’s certainly a great deal more than I could ever expect to see in my lifetime. His company alone is likely worth millions.

They make greeting cards, incidentally. Every Christmas card my family ever sent is made by that stupid company. Even to this day, I keep buying them, though I can’t tell you why. It’s not like they’re especially nice. I suppose it’s just tradition.

Sarah drops me off in my room, which is completely unnecessary. If she’d said, “the guest room with the yellow painting,” I’d have known what she was talking about. Nothing about this place has changed since I visited as a kid, save a deeper layer of dust and several light bulbs having burned out without being replaced.

I linger in the room as long as I think I can get away without it coming off as antisocial then wander back, pausing to use the bathroom. I stare at myself in the mirror and try to tell myself it’s only a few days, that I never really cared that much about Christmas to begin with. It doesn’t help, but it’s a slightly longer reprieve.

“There you are,” Caroline says, the moment I re-enter the room. “I was starting to worry you’d gotten lost.”

I smile, as if I’d mistaken what she said for a joke, then ask, “Is Grandpa sleeping?” I notice her wince when I say the word, “Grandpa,” instead of something more formal or respectful.

“No. Martin is skulking about. You know how he is,” she adds, turning to one side. “Martin!” she cries out. “Your granddaughter is here!” There’s nothing in response, so she shrugs. “You know how he is,” she says again, though I really don’t know much about him. He was rarely around during the summers I spent here; I knew his late wife, Iris, better. She wasn’t my grandmother and would correct me when I called her that, but she was as close as I ever knew. My real grandmother died years before I was born.

Caroline removes a casserole from the fridge and heats it up for dinner. We eat in relative silence, broken by Caroline’s occasional prodding. “How is school going?” she asks. To her right, Lawrence sits, working on another crossword puzzle.

“I’m taking some time off,” I say. It’s not quite a lie, but it avoids the truth. I dropped out three years earlier. Of course, if I’d been a better student, I’d already have graduated, and her question would be just as meaningless.

“Have you thought at all about graduate school? Your brother went to Syracuse, didn’t he? I’m sure he could write you a recommendation.”

There’s so much wrong with that, I don’t know where to begin. Instead I say, “I’ll ask him about it the next time we get together.” I neglect to say it’s been more than a year since we were in the same place. This was supposed to be our big reunion.

“Syracuse has a fantastic business program. My doctor’s husband went there, and….” Her voice peters off as her attention is drawn to the doorway leading into the room. My grandfather is standing there, watching. “Sarah. Help him take a seat,” Caroline commands.

“I can make my own way,” he says, tersely, and starts making his way towards the mahogany table.

“I’ll fix a plate for you,” Caroline says, spooning out a large helping of casserole onto one of the dishes.

The water pitcher is near me, so I take it over to where he’ll be sitting and fill his glass. He arrives as I’m finishing and blurts out, “Thank you, Tina.”

“Tina left last week,” my distant relation says from across the table. “That’s Jenny. Your granddaughter.”

He turns towards me, somewhat surprised, and looks me over. “Jenny. It is you, isn’t it?” He smiles and nods. I pause, stealing myself for the same barrage of questions I’ve been enduring from Caroline, but he simply turns his attention to his food. There’s very little conversation after that, and I turn in early, closing myself in my room to reread the book I already read on the plane and regret not having thought to bring a spare.

The next morning, I find all four of them in the living room. Lawrence is working on yet another crossword puzzle, and I briefly consider asking if he has a spare. Before I can do so, Caroline pipes in. “Jenny, we’re going into town to do some shopping. Would you like to come with us?”

Before I can open my mouth, Grandfather interrupts. “No,” he says plainly. “There’s a matter I want to discuss with Jennifer. If that’s alright.”

“Yes,” I say, a bit at a loss. I didn’t really want to spend more time with the others, anyway. I have no idea whether this is better, but I did come here to see him, whether or not that was a good idea. For everything he put my mother through, he’s still my grandfather, and this will likely be the last time I see him alive.

It takes them almost an hour to leave, and Grandfather spends the entire time fidgeting. When they finally leave, he sends them with a list of things he’d like them to pick up. As their car pulls out of the driveway, I catch him grinning. “It should take them at least three hours,” he says. “I asked for blackberry ice cream, and I know for a fact no store in the area carries it. At least three hours to check them all.” I’m unable to suppress a smile. “Despicable people,” he adds. “But then, who else would come?”

“Are you okay?” I ask.

He gives me a look I remember getting from him as a child, in those rare occasions when I was actually around him. “I am dying. Slowly, and with less fuss than most. The pain hasn’t started yet, but my eyesight is not what it was. The doctors assure me I will get worse before long.” He sneers. “We will see. I am not so sure I’m so attached to this life to spend months lying in a hospital. Perhaps I will skip that stage.”

“I’m sorry,” I say, tilting my head.

“Suicide,” he says, without a shred of emotion. “I’m talking about ending my life before I wind up laying in my own excrement waiting for some nurse to clean me. It seems demeaning.”

I swallow, not knowing what to say or do. I certainly hadn’t expected that.

“I suppose I should apologize. I have a tendency to speak plainly. It is easy to forget my manners.” He clears his throat with a cough. “This is not why I asked to speak with you. I wanted to discuss the matter that brought you here. Your inheritance.”

“That’s not why I came,” I tell him. “I came here to see you.”

He laughs. “But that’s not why I asked you here. I asked you here to talk to show you what I’m leaving you. It is a profound gift, but it is even greater a responsibility.”

“You’re… you’re leaving me the company?” I ask.

“Of course not,” he laughs. “I’m leaving your brother the company. He is the one who devoted his life to business, after all. I am leaving you something greater. I am leaving you my life’s work.” I doubt many things about my grandfather right now, but his sincerity is not one of them. He is focused, and his breathing has slowed. “Come with me. I have much to show you before those idiots return.”

He leads me down a long hallway to the basement door, which he unlocks. I’ve only ever been to the cellar once as a child. Iris yelled at me when she found me there, saying I was not allowed there. I’d forgotten the incident until just now. She’d been far angrier than she should have been - I hadn’t broken or moved anything. I’d only been looking for a place to hide from my brother while he counted. But she’d been furious with me. No, that’s not right. She’d seemed angry, but she was scared. I was too young to understand at the time, but in hindsight it’s fitting together.

“Go on. I need to lock the door behind us,” my grandfather explains. I nod and move halfway down the stairs, while he does just that, despite the fact there’s no one in the house but the two of us. Then he begins down, cringing with each step. I move to offer my hand, but he sneers and shakes his head. “No. I have managed these years well enough. Go on.” I stay just a few feet ahead of him in case he falls, but he reaches the bottom without incident.

“What’s down here?” I ask, looking around. Diagonal shafts of light flow from a row of windows along the top of the right wall. Flakes of dust dance like snow.

“Do not concern yourself with this garbage. What I have to show you is ahead. I would not trust my collection in the open.” He leads me through a maze of metal shelves lined with boxes. We pass beneath several dangling cords in the dark, but it’s clear he knows the path. Finally, we reach a length of wall covered by a hanging cloth that faded to a pale grey. He pulls this aside, revealing another door, this one metal. Then he reaches beneath his collar and draws out a key. He unlocks the door and pauses for a moment. “This one is quite heavy. I could manage it, but we would be here a while.”

I grab the handle and pull. He wasn’t exaggerating: I have to use both hands and lean back to move it. But I succeed, revealing a secret room. My grandfather enters first and illuminates the enclosure with a light switch to his right. This room couldn’t be more different from the one we just left. The walls are white and lined with glass cases, displaying dozens of small wooden objects. In the back, there are several industrial machines. The area is almost spotless, besides some sawdust scattered around the devices.

“It had to be Christmas,” he says, solemnly. “I could not do this another time. Only Christmas. They were to go to my son, your father. But he was taken from us, so it will be you. I have thought on this a great deal, and there is no other choice.”

“They’re… toys,” I say, looking into one of the glass cases.

“They are old toys,” my grandfather replies, following close behind to squint over my shoulder. “Very old. That horse comes from Germany. It was given as a Christmas gift more than two hundred years ago. Some are much older than that. Please. Take your time. Look at them. Tell me what you see.”

I walk around the room, somewhat shaken. This is a test, of course. For some reason, I want to pass. More than that, I’m overtaken by the beauty of the objects in the case. There is a bird with blue paint. I can make out the individual feathers. A small boat, complete with oars, lies beside it. The curve of the wood is perfect. I move on: there are balls, wagons, dolls, animals, and a host of other playthings. “It’s the same kind of wood, I think. I don’t know much about woodworking, but it’s similar.”

“Good. Yes, you are right. What else?”

I shake my head but keep looking. “They’re all so detailed,” I say, noticing another bird, this one red with longer legs. I stop to study the feathers. “This was the same artist, wasn’t it? Whoever did the bluebird, did this one, as well.”

He leans close and adjusts his thick glasses. I hear a chuckle. “The bluebird was from Iceland. It is at least six hundred and fifty years old. The crane comes from Canada. I cannot date it earlier than eighteen ninety-four.”

“I don’t know much about carving,” I say, shrugging.

“You misunderstand. You were right about them being from the same hand. The same woodworker made the birds. The same man made every one of the toys you see here. Every last one.” He walks over to one of the cases, opens it, and removes a toy carriage. “This was my first. I received it when I was a boy. My father told me it was from Santa Claus, but I would not relent. It took years before he admitted he had purchased it from an old widower on the other side of town. I went to see the widower, and I asked if he had others he could sell me, but of course he did not. He had received it as a gift as well, when he was a boy. A Christmas gift.”

He walked to the back of the room. “When I grew older, I traveled the world and found others. The same materials, the same craftsmanship. I bought them when I could and brought them here. Sometimes, I am not sure. This is where I test them.” He opened one of the machines and set the object in. Then he reached into a box nearby and removed a plain block of wood. He set this beside the toy and closed the door. He swung a lever down. “This will achieve a temperature of six hundred degrees celsius. It will only take it a few minutes.” He sees me gasp and grins. “Wait. Wait and see. Look around the room. There is a toy house from Australia in one of the cases. It is one of my favorites.”

I wander around, unsure what to think. “Shouldn’t you give these to a museum?”

“They would not understand.”

“What are they? I mean, I understand they’re toys, and I know they’re antique. But who made them? How were they distributed so far?”

My grandfather smiles. “Be patient. I will show you soon.” He glances back to the oven. Even from the other side of the room, I can feel its heat. Finally, he moves the lever back and opens the door. A cloud of soot spills out, and he coughs, waving me to him. I go and look in, still horrified. “Do you see?” he whispers.

I fan the smoke away with my hand and squint. There, beside the charred remains of the block of wood, is the carriage. My grandfather takes a handkerchief from his pocket and uses it to pull out the toy and clean off the soot. Beneath, the paint isn’t even cracked. “Drills do not pierce them. Hammers won’t break them. Saw don’t cut them. Do you understand?”

I shake my head. “It’s impossible,” I say. “No wood lasts that long. Nothing does.”

“Magic,” my grandfather says. “Magic can last forever.”

I swallow. “I don’t know I believe in magic,” I tell him.

“Good. Only idiots believe in things they haven’t seen or tested. There are hammers and drills in that case. Test them to your heart’s content. You will see. These cannot be harmed. They were meant to last forever.”

“Who made them?”

“It is obvious. My father was right, all those years ago. These were the work of the toymaker.”

I shake my head. “That’s a fairytale. Parents buy kids plastic soldiers and say they’re from Santa Claus. He doesn’t really exist.”

“Do you see any plastic here? The stories come from someplace real. The toymaker exists. I do not know how, but he does.” Grandfather walks to one of the other cases and removes an old book, its cover faded and full of holes. “This is a journal. It speaks of my carriage. A girl in Virginia owned it a hundred years before it was given to the man who sold it to me. It was a Christmas present to her, as well.”

“Are you saying he takes them back, like in that Christmas special?”

“I do not watch cartoons,” my grandfather says. “No, I think the craftsman gave it once, and then it was passed on. Through the years, who can say how many hands have held it. But adults grow tired of such things. They forget the love they had, or perhaps they seek to pass it on. So they give them to another child or they sell them to a collector, never realizing what they possessed. I realized it. I found the truth.”

“I don’t understand. Why didn’t I ever get a gift like this? If Santa Claus is real, why doesn’t every child have something magical?”

“Because he is one man. Even if he makes fifty such marvels in a year, he could not give them to one child in a million. Most who receive his gifts acquire them as I did, handed down through the years. They are rare things. I suspect as many are lost, buried forever in the ground or beneath the ocean. But these--” His words cut out in a fit of coughing. He recovers and shakes his head. “I am sorry. These toys, the ones I have found, they are my life’s work. What gives me joy. I do not want them claimed by a museum. And most of all, I do not want them sold. I need your word you will never sell them, no matter the price. No matter how desperate you become.”

“I promise,” I say. “I won’t sell these.”

“Good. They are easy enough to care for. You will choose to keep them clean, but doing otherwise would do no harm. The temperature, the humidity… none of that matters. Security is more important. You must protect them from thieves.”

“Does anyone know about them?” I ask.

My grandfather shrugs. “A few others, I suspect. But none I know of personally, and none who know of me. Still, you will want a room no one can get into. If you cannot arrange one like this, then start with a safe. You will have money, as well. I have set funds aside for you and your brother both. But these I am trusting these to you. I would no sooner put them in your brother’s hands than I’d trust you with the company. I hope one day you will have children of your own to pass them on to when they are ready. The company is good for money, but the true legacy of our family is within this room.”

We talk more about the toys, about where and how he got them, and he hints at theories surrounding their creator. My grandfather doesn’t believe any of the fantastic elements - no workshop at the North Pole, no flying reindeer, and certainly no chimneys. When I mention elves, he scoffs and reminds me these were all made the same pair of hands. He’s sure of this, and says something about cut angles and patterns I don’t understand. When we leave the room, he locks the door behind him and hands me the key. “Keep hold of this until I am gone. Then come at once and claim them. The will is clear everything in that room is yours.”

Caroline and others return late that afternoon, and we eat steak for dinner. She apologises profusely for not managing to get the ice cream he asked for, and Grandfather simply listens silently.

Christmas comes and goes as if it was any other day. No one brings a gift for me, other than the key I was already given, so I leave the things I brought in my luggage. About half were for my brother, anyway, and I can’t imagine the trinkets and books I picked up for my grandfather would elicit more than a sneer.

On the twenty-sixth, I call a taxi to take me back to the airport. I spend the flight back to the city reflecting on the fact I never spoke to my grandfather about any of the things I’d meant to. I never got closure on his behavior towards my mother or asked why he didn’t spend more time with any of us when we were young. We never talk about my father’s childhood or how he remembers his son. I’d meant to ask him all those things, but I’d never found a time. I resolve to call him now that we have a connection.

I wish I could say I simply forget. But the truth is that, every time I sit and consider making the call, something stops me. I stop myself. Sometimes, I am scared. Scared he’d change his mind and leave the toys to my brother, or perhaps simply reveal the whole room had been a hoax and laugh at me. Other times, I’m simply too tired.

And then, it is too late. Caroline calls me one day - I do not know where she even got my number - and gives me the news, that my grandfather has passed. I don’t ask how it happened, whether he took his own life as he suggested or simply went naturally. I’m sure she’d tell me, but the truth is I don’t want to know.

As per his instructions, the will is read immediately after his funeral, which means there’s a crowd in attendance for both. I listen as various sums are passed to distant relatives and friends, and then when controlling interest in the company is passed to my brother, though I’m given a number of shares in addition to a sum of money to be doled out in yearly installments. Finally, almost as an afterthought, the attorney mentions that the contents of room on the western wall of the basement are being left to me before the remainder of the estate is put up for sale. A few people look confused, but almost everyone seems to forget the detail at once.

Late that night, I go into the basement, unlock the door, and gather up the toys. I pack them into suitcases and take them back to my apartment in Queens. That first year, I do as my grandfather asked. I purchase a massive safe - it costs hundreds just to have it delivered - and hide the gifts inside.

How do you own things of magic? How do you handle objects that will outlive you? I find myself opening the safe constantly to examine the toys, but they bring me no comfort. Holding them, I feel further from my grandfather than I did when he was alive. This is what he wanted, but I cannot stand sharing a house with these things. There are times I consider breaking my word. What could a collection of indestructible toys fetch at auction? What is proof of magic worth?

The idea is too horrible to contemplate. I cannot stand the idea of handing these over to another collector, who will set these away. A museum isn’t much better.

It is mid-December before I realize what I need to do. I open the safe one last time and move the toys to a large bag. Then I take them to a church where they’re collecting gifts for needy children. I empty the bag into the cardboard box, pausing only to consider the toy carriage. I consider keeping this, but even that feels wrong. I add it to the box with the others then leave without looking back.

My grandfather was right that these weren’t meant for museums, but they weren’t meant to be hidden away by rich collectors or locked away, either. He’d already figured out what they were intended for; he just couldn’t bear to part with them. Even when he was dying, he couldn’t let them go. But now they’ll be given out as Christmas presents. Not merely once, but countless times over the years and centuries.

I have nothing from my grandfather, save the old journal and the key. I haven’t decided what to do with the journal. But the key, I’ll keep. To remember.

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