There was a certain accord between them, right from the beginning. The boy thought the old man looked pretty good for ninety, and the old man thought the boy, whose name was Dale, looked pretty good for thirteen.
The kid started by calling him Great-Grandpa, but Barrett was having none of that. “It makes me feel even older than I am. Call me Rhett. That’s what my father called me. I was a Rhett before there was a Rhett Butler—imagine that.”
Dale asked him who Rhett Butler was.
“Never mind. It was a bad book and only a so-so movie. Tell me again about this project of yours.”
“We’re supposed to talk to our oldest relative, and ask what life was like when he was my age. Then I’m supposed to write a two-page report on how much things have changed. But Mr. Kendall hates generalities, so I’m supposed to concentrate on one or two specifics. That means—”
“I know what specifics are,” Rhett said. “Which specifics have you got in mind?”
Dale considered the question. While he did so, Rhett considered the boy: healthy mop of hair, straight back, clear skin and eyes. There were seventy-seven years between them, and Dale Alderson probably considered that an ocean, but to Rhett it was only a lake. Maybe no more than a pond.
You’ll get across it in no time, kiddo, he thought. The brevity of the swim between your bank and mine will surprise you. It certainly surprised me. He wasn’t sure his great-grandson—the youngest of the lot—even thought of him as an actual human being. More like a talking fossil.
“Speak up, Dale. I’ve got all day, but you probably don’t.”
“Well…you remember before there was TV, right?”
Rhett smiled, even though he felt this was a question to which his great-grandson should already have known the answer. He restrained an urge to say, Don’t they teach you kids anything, because it would have been curmudgeonly and impolite. Not to mention ungrateful. This boy had come to the Good Life Retirement Home for the sole purpose of hearing Barrett Alderson talk about the past, a subject that usually had kids running the other way as fast as they could go. It was only for a school assignment, true, but still. He had come all the way across town on the bus, which made Rhett think of trips he and his brother Jack had made on the interurban line to see their mother.
“Dale, I never even saw a television until I was twenty-one. Radar scopes, yes, but no TVs. I had my first confirmed sighting in an appliance-store window, after I got back from the war. I watched for twenty minutes, almost hypnotized.”
“Which war was that?”
“Two,” he said patiently. “Nazis? Hitler? Japanese in the Pacific? Ring any bells?”
“Sure, yeah, banzai charges and all that. I thought you might mean Korea.”
“When Korea blew up, I was married with a couple of kids.”
“Was my grandpa one of them?”
“Yup, he’d just made his appearance.” And when Vietnam rolled around, I was as old as your father is now. Maybe older.
“So you were stuck with radio, huh?”
“Well, yes, but we didn’t consider ourselves stuck with it.”
Outside his room, from down the hall, came the electronically amplified voice of the retirement home’s recreation director (or one of her minions) calling out bingo numbers. Rhett was happy not to be there, although he supposed he would be tomorrow. He was measuring out the last years of his life—maybe down to months now, considering the blood that had started to show up in the bowl when he took a shit—not in coffee spoons but in coverall games.
“No?” Dale asked.
“Absolutely not. After supper, my dad and my brothers would—”
“Wait, wait, hold that thought.” Dale dug into the pocket of his jeans and brought out an iPhone. He fiddled with it and the screen lit up. He fiddled with it some more and then set it on the bed.
“That thing records, too?” Rhett asked.
“Is there anything it doesn’t do?”
“Honey, it don’t do windows,” the boy said, and Rhett laughed. The kid might be a little foggy on twentieth-century history, but he was quick. And funny.
Dale smiled back at his great-grandfather, glad the old guy had gotten the joke, perhaps seeing him as a human being after all, or beginning to. Rhett could hope; even at ninety, he remained mostly optimistic, although optimism was a little harder to manage at three in the morning, lying awake and feeling the threads holding him to this life loosening.
“Are you sure it’s hearing me?”
“Yeah, this baby’s got great pickup. Also, I can see your voice on the screen.” He held it up. “Say something.”
“Our radio was a Philco table model,” Rhett said, and watched sound waves roll across the iPhone’s screen.
“Yes. Great gadget. Don’t know how we ever got along without them.”
Dale checked the old man’s face to be sure he was kidding. “Good one, Great-Grandpa.”
“No, good one, Rhett.”
“Good one, Rhett. So tell me about the radio.”
Rhett talked for ten minutes or so, about how he and his two brothers would lie on the living-room rug after supper, them with their schoolbooks, his father in his easy chair with his feet up on the hassock, smoking his pipe, all of them listening to the Philco. He told Dale about The Shadow and The Jack Benny Show—how Jack was such a cheapskate—and his own favorite, The Major Bowes Amateur Hour, where the host would hurry talky guests along by saying “All right, all right,” and bang a gong if their performances were bad. But he began to slow down as more vivid memories slipped into the flow of his recollections. Those bus rides with Jack, for instance. And he thought, Why not tell him? You have never told anyone, and you’ll be dead soon enough. Blood in the toilet does not lie, not when you’re ninety.
“That amateur show was really sponsored by cigarettes?” Dale asked.
“Yup, Old Golds. ‘If you want a treat instead of a treatment, smoke Old Golds. They’re good for you!’”
“They could really say that?” The boy’s eyes were shining with fascination.
“They did, but let’s forget about the radio shows. I want to tell you something else I remember.”
“Okay, but those old radio shows are pretty interesting.”
“I can tell you something a lot more interesting, but turn off your gadget. I don’t want you recording this.”
Dale turned off his iPhone and put it back in his pocket. He looked at his great-grandfather with some caution now, as if Rhett were about to tell him he’d robbed a few banks or enjoyed setting dogs on fire as a teenager.
“I had sort of a peculiar childhood, Dale, because my mother was peculiar. Not outright crazy, at least not crazy enough to be locked away in a sanitarium, but very, very peculiar. I was the youngest of three. In 1927, two years after I was born, she moved out of the house, bag and baggage, and into a little cottage on the other side of town—this side of town, in fact, and not far from here, although there’s a shopping center there now. The place was hers by inheritance, from an old aunt, and not much bigger than a garage. She left my father to raise Pete, Jack, and me. Which he did, with the help of a woman who came in to do the housekeeping and watch us when we were too small to be trusted on our own.”
“She never even gave a reason?” Dale asked.
“Said it was for our own protection. My father saw she had a good allowance for her necessaries, and he did it without complaint—those were tough times, but he had a shirt-and-tie job with the American Eagle Insurance Company, and her wants were small. They maintained a collegial relationship. Do you know what that means?”
“That they got along?”
“That’s exactly right, and good for you. My brother Jack and I got along with her, too. Accepted the situation the way young kids usually do, without much complaining or too many questions. We went to visit her quite often. We’d play gin rummy and Crazy Eights and Monopoly. The place was cold in the winter and hotter than a stovepipe in the summer, even with a fan blowing the air around. We had a lot of laughs. She had a ukulele. Sometimes the three of us went out on the back stoop, and she’d play, and we’d sing. Stuff like ‘Old Black Joe’ and ‘Massa’s in the Cold, Cold Ground.’”
“Those were real songs?” Dale glanced at his iPhone. Probably wishing it was still turned on, Rhett thought. Too bad, kid, but you’re not playing this for anybody. Crazy is safer when it goes unrecorded.
“Real songs. Not very politically correct by today’s standards, but that was a different time. A different world, really. We loved her like mad. She was energetic, as manic-depressives often are. Her laughter was free and wild. It was different with Pete. He was the oldest, almost seven when she moved out, and he stayed angry at her until she died. Wouldn’t visit her unless my dad made him, which he eventually gave up doing.”
Then broke down at her funeral, Rhett thought. Cried so hard he fainted and had to be carried outside into the fresh air to revive.
“Probably his feelings were hurt,” Dale said. “Maybe he even thought he was to blame for her leaving.”
Rhett smiled. “You’re a wise child, son. I’m sure it was all of that, and more. In any case, he rarely saw her. Jack and I, though…we didn’t just love her, we were fascinated by her. Nineteen thirty-six was her last good year. Jack was thirteen and I was eleven, which made us old enough to ride across town on the interurban, so we went to see her once or twice a week. Usually on Saturdays, sometimes after school.”
“My mom told me not to ask about yours,” Dale said.
“Because she committed suicide?”
“Yeah. Mom said she might just be a, like, historical figure to me, but she was a lot more to you. When she asks me how it went—and she will—I’ll have to tell her you brought it up.”
“That’s fine,” Rhett said. “And it did hurt. It hurt plenty. I guess it most always does when your mother dies, but suicide is in a class by itself. It hit Jack harder than it did me, because he blamed himself. He thought that because he was older, he should have seen how much worse she was getting. Only it was hard to see, because she was so full of life, and so … so interesting. She’d fly around that place, getting cards or board games or five-hundred-piece Tuco puzzles for the three of us to do. Sometimes she’d crank up her Victrola and try to teach us how to dance the Charleston, and when we wouldn’t, she’d do it by herself, with her shadow on the wall. She’d tell jokes … play her uke … show us how to do magic tricks like the Disappearing Coin and the Floating Handkerchief. And—this is important—she had a big blue ceramic jar on a high shelf with cookies on the side in red. It was always full, and we’d eat them until we were stuffed. All different kinds, all good. That place of hers might not have been much bigger than a garage, but we had plenty of fun there. She saw to it, and I’m not sure even an adult could have seen the truth under all that camouflage.”
“What truth?” Dale asked.
“That she was getting worse. She’d chat away about other worlds, right next to ours, and the alien races that lived there, and how something was out to get her. It talked to her through the electrical sockets, she said, so she unscrewed all the lightbulbs at night and put playing cards over the plug-in plates on the floor. She said the celluloid backs on the cards were very effective at stopping that voice. Only then she’d laugh, like it was all a big joke.”
“Whoo,” Dale said. “Far out.”
“She drew a map on one of the walls, and she was always adding to it. She said it was a country in one of those other worlds. She called it Lalanka, and said it was full of entities. Do you know what that means?”
Dale shook his head.
“Creatures that wanted to come through into our world, but couldn’t. At least not yet. They were bottled up by some restraining force, which was a good thing, because they were hungry. She said that if they ever got into our world, they’d eat everything—not just the people and the animals, but lawns and cars and buildings and even the sky. About other things, though, she was completely rational. She did her little bit of grocery shopping, she kept herself clean and neat, she was very affectionate with me and Jack, and she never failed to ask about Pete. Before we left, she always told us to tell him that he was welcome anytime. ‘I only moved out because it wouldn’t have been safe for you boys and your father if I stayed,’ she said.”
Rhett shrugged and spread his liver-spotted hands. “Not to us, it wasn’t. We just accepted it. That’s what children do, Dale. But her map—that was amazing. In the last year of her life, there were new things on it every time we visited: mountain ranges, lakes, villages, castles, forests, roads.”
“Did your dad ever see it?”
“Oh yes, many times. He thought it was a genuine work of art, and said it should have been in a gallery someplace. I think he believed that map was one of the few things keeping her on the rails. Along with our visits, of course. These days I suppose some people, smart people, would call it a coping mechanism. Sometimes we’d just sit in her little kitchen, eating sandwiches with the crusts cut off, and she’d ask us about school, and our friends, and quiz us if we had a test coming up. Jack was taking algebra and didn’t get it, but she explained it to him by using cookies from the cookie jar. She’d draw an equals sign on a sheet of paper and put three cookies from the jar on one side and seven on the other. Next to the three cookies, she’d put an x, and tell Jack to stack more cookies on top of it until both sides of the equals sign were the same.”
“But in between those rational, normal things, she’d tell us about what was going on in Lalanka, where the gobbits—those were creatures who lived in the deep woods—were producing a terrible white mist that killed small animals and gave larger ones convulsions, or the war between Red Henry and his renegade twin brother, Black John. One day when we came, she’d colored the woods around the biggest castle—Red Henry’s castle—black. Because, she said, Black John had ‘put the torch to the Long Forest.’ And there was the stuff about how time had come to a stop in the West Kingdoms, and it was tearing holes in the fabric of existence. ‘If the time-stop spreads to our world, boys, we’re doomed,’ she said. I had nightmares about it.”
“I’m not surprised,” Dale said. “I probably would, too.”
“She called the white mist forza, and said it could travel in electric wires and telephone lines if it ever got over here. I had nightmares about that, too, and I got in the habit of checking our telephone to make sure forza wasn’t
coming out of the holes in the receiver. Only … ”
He trailed off.
“I don’t know how much of that she actually believed,” Rhett said finally. “Back then I believed that she believed … do you get that?”
Dale said he did.
“And because she believed, we believed, but Jack changed his mind after she was dead, and he convinced me. He said Lalanka was just a story she made up to distract her from one specific thing. Something that was real but not a part of this world. Something that couldn’t be, but was. He said he didn’t think a person could live with something like that. He called it a hole in reality. Lalanka and the gobbits, Red Henry and Black John, the forza mist, they were just…distractions. A way to cover that hole in reality the way you might cover a well with boards so no one would fall in.” He thought about it and added, “What I mean is those stories were her way of staying sane. At least that’s what Jack thought. I came to believe different.”
“Are you serious?” Dale’s eyes were shining.
“As a heart attack, kiddo. Anyway, all her distractions finally stopped working. Her uke, dancing with her shadow, the map on the wall, the playing cards over the wall sockets. Her stories stopped working for her, too. Because the thing she was afraid of was in the house with her all along.”
“What? What was she afraid of?”
“She was afraid of the cookie jar.”
After his wife’s funeral, George Alderson told his three sons that he was going to empty the little house to the walls—sell what could be sold, and throw away the rest. But before he did it, he took them there and invited each of them to take one thing to remember her by. Jack chose the ukulele, and eventually learned to play it. Peter—a much quieter and less argumentative boy in the wake of his mother’s untimely death—took the watch George had given her when she left for the little cottage. It was a man’s watch, and she had worn it around her neck, like a ticking locket. Rhett took the blue ceramic cookie jar.
He kept it under his bed, and each night he and Jack ate a couple of the cookies—to remember her by, Rhett said. Pete was not invited in to share this ritual, and did not even know about it, because by then he had his own room. Although neither of the younger boys said so aloud, they felt Pete had no right to share in their cookie communion. He had mourned their mother after she was dead—strenuously—but had mostly turned his back on her while she was alive, sneering at the playing cards propped over the baseboard outlets and calling the map of Lalanka “goofy shit.”
“He loved her,” Rhett told his great-grandson, “but we felt he didn’t love her enough. We were just kids, remember, and kids can be awfully judgmental.” He paused, thinking. “Although in some ways, I still think we were right.”
There came a night—it might have been a week after Moira Alderson’s suicide, it might have been two—when Rhett and Jack Alderson shared a realization that should have come earlier, and would have, if their powers of observation hadn’t been numbed by grief. They were sitting on Rhett’s bed, the cookie jar between them.
“Whoa, Nellie,” Jack said. “It’s still full. How can that be?”
Rhett had no idea, but it was true. They had taken a lot of cookie communion since their mother’s death, but the jar was still packed to the rim. On this particular night, the ones on top were macaroons. When Rhett stirred them aside, he saw chocolate chippers beneath. He started to burrow deeper to see if he could find the oatmeal-raisin cookies that were his personal favorites, but Jack grabbed his wrist and pulled his hand out.
“Don’t do that.”
“Because it might be dangerous. Put the cover back on and stick it under your bed.”
Rhett did so without argument, and Jack put out the light. They lay there in silence for awhile, neither sleepy. Rhett could feel the cookie jar underneath him, a small, dense planet with its own gravitational pull.
“It’s like her ghost is in there,” Rhett said finally, and his eyes filled with the tears that were always waiting since their mother had died.
“It’s not her ghost, that’s stupid,” Jack said. Rhett could tell from the thickness of his voice that his brother was crying, too.
“What, then? Is it something to do with Lalanka? The forza? The…” It was hard to finish, because they were what he feared the most. “The gobbits?”
“Santa Claus isn’t real, and neither are the gobbits or the forza mist, Rhett. None of that jazz is real. The map was just made up out of her head.” Jack was trying to sound tough, but his voice was still thick. “She knew it, too. It was all just stuff she made up to keep her mind off the cookie jar.”
“Then what’s in there?”
“Cookies. And I don’t want anymore. I never want to eat another cookie in my life, not from that jar and not even from the bakery.”
A week passed. The cookie jar stayed under Rhett’s bed with the lid on. Then one night—it was a Saturday—Rhett was jerked back from the edge of sleep by the sound of his brother crying.
“Jack?” Rhett sat up. “What’s wrong?”
“We would have gone over there today,” Jack said. “We would have had bacon sandwiches, and played Clue. I miss her. I miss Mom.”
“I miss her, too.”
Jack got out of bed, ghostly in his white pajamas, and sat down next to Rhett. “I was thinking of how her place smelled. How good it smelled.”
“Like cookies,” Rhett said. “That’s how it always smelled. It was like a fairy-tale house that way, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” Jack said, “only she was a good witch instead of a bad one.”
They sat there for a little while, not talking, remembering the smell and her shadow dancing on the wall. How gone she was had finally gotten through to them. Even the map was gone, with the Long Forest and Lookout Hill and Castle Black and Castle Red. Their father might have said it belonged in a gallery when she was alive, but when she was gone, he scrubbed it away like a shopkeeper scrubbing a dirty word off the front of his store so his customers wouldn’t be offended. He certainly couldn’t sell the house with that crazy thing on the wall, he told the boys. It had to go. He took pictures of it first, but Kodak snaps weren’t the same. Couldn’t be.
“Get the jar,” Jack said.
Rhett pulled it out from under the bed with relief, and cradled it in his lap. Jack lifted the cover. It was still full to the brim, but it was no longer macaroons on top. That Saturday night it was ginger snaps.
“She’s been gone almost a month,” Jack said. “They’ll be stale.”
But they weren’t stale; they were as fresh as if they had been baked that very day.
Moira had cut her wrists and died in the bathtub on a hot August afternoon. Rhett and Jack discovered the cookie jar was always full right around the time school let in again. Halloween came, and Rhett went trick-or-treating by himself for the first time. He dressed as a pirate and came home with a bag of candy, but it wasn’t very much fun without Jack, who had declared himself too old to put on a costume and go traipsing around the neighborhood begging for sweets. Thanksgiving came, and their father—now showing strands of gray at his temples—carved the turkey. Pete’s girlfriend ate with them, and Pete ate with her family at Christmas. They became engaged on Valentine’s Day of 1939, shortly after Pete turned eighteen. Summer came again, and Rhett spent most of it at the vacant lot down the street, playing baseball. Sometimes he pitched, even when there were bigger kids on the team. He had a great fastball.
Jack occasionally watched him, but rarely played. Mostly he went places by himself, usually with a sketchpad under his arm—he had inherited his mother’s artistic ability, and then some.
“He might have been one of the great ones,” Rhett told Dale. “Probably not, most kids never fulfill their potential, but we’ll never know.”
The lives of the two younger boys began to draw apart, slowly and subtly, but surely. Yet they still shared the same room, at night they took cookie communion, and the blue ceramic jar was always full, the cookies inside always fresh. Sometimes they were chocolate-covered grahams, sometimes they were sugar cookies, sometimes they were macaroons or chocolate chippers. They ate one or two apiece, sitting on Rhett’s bed, more than a thousand cookies in the course of that long year before Pete got married and Jack moved into Pete’s room.
By then Hitler had begun to dominate the news, and it seemed that in each day’s paper more of the map on the front page was stamped with Nazi swastikas. Europe was pretty much gone, and England would be next.
“It can’t hold out,” George Alderson said, puffing his pipe. There were only two boys listening to the Philco table model with him now; Pete was living nine blocks away with his new wife, and on the road most of the time, selling beer and cigarettes and stocking jukeboxes with new records. “Thank God there’s a long stretch of ocean between us and the maniac with the mustache.”
As the swastikas on the front-page map continued to spread (Britain still holding out but Russia tottering), Rhett thought often of his mother’s map. Hitler is really Black John, he thought, and he’s turning Europe into Lalanka. And one day, while Rhett was downtown shopping for Christmas presents, a shopkeeper told him that the Japs had bombed Pearl Harbor.
“How old were you then?” Dale asked him.
“Sixteen. I still hadn’t kissed a girl.”
“Could you sign up to fight if you were sixteen?”
“No. I just hoped the war would last long enough for me to get in. And, unfortunately, it did.”
Moira Alderson had sometimes called her oldest the plodder of the family—slow and steady wins the race—but Pete was Speedy Alka-Seltzer after Pearl Harbor. He was at the Navy recruiting office the very next day, with a fresh haircut and wearing his best suit. His new wife encouraged him, feeling he would be safer on board a big battleship than fighting the Japs hand-to-hand in the Pacific. On the day he left for Newport News, Pete gave Jack the Bulova watch their mother had worn around her neck, with instructions to keep it safe. “Because I’ll want it back when I come home,” he said.
Jack, the artistic one, joined the USAAF in early 1942, as soon as he turned eighteen. On the day before he left for Florida, where he would learn to fly the P-47 Thunderbolt at Hillsborough Army Airfield, he gave the wristwatch to Rhett.
“What about the uke?” Rhett asked him.
“Never mind the uke, greedyguts, I’m taking that with me. You just wear the watch, and keep it wound. It won’t keep good time if you don’t.”
Rhett promised he would. They were sitting on his bed, and ate two cookies apiece from the blue jar. It was still full, and the cookies—gingerbread that night—were as tasty as ever.
Rhett enlisted in the army a year and a half later, one step ahead of the draft. There was no excitement in the thought of going to war, no thrill, only pessimism so strong it amounted to a premonition. He felt sure that he would be sent overseas, and that when the inevitable invasion happened—perhaps in 1944, perhaps not until 1945 or ’46—he would be in the first wave, and killed by enemy machine-gun fire before he could even wade out of the water. He could actually see his body rocking back and forth in the waves, face-down, arms splayed.
It was in this fatalistic frame of mind that, on his last night home, he opened the cookie jar for the last time in almost three years. He didn’t dare upend it—he had a vision of being buried in a never-ending avalanche of macaroons and shortbreads—but he began to reach in and take them out by the double handful, dropping them on his bed: sugar cookies, chocolate chippers, oatmeal raisin, ladyfingers, date-filled. When he had a hill of cookies on either side of him, he stopped and peered into the fat-bellied jar.
He had emptied it to a point more than halfway down, but the level was already rising. The cookies pushed up in the middle, then tumbled down the sides. It made him think of a high-school science lesson they’d had on volcano formation. Soon it would be full again, and what was he going to do with all of those he’d taken out of the jar? There were hundreds. He began to toss them back in, then saw something that froze him in place. He was wearing the Bulova, and as soon as his left wrist went past the rim of the jar, the second hand stopped. He snatched it back, then put it back in, just to be sure. Yes. When it was outside the jar, the second hand moved. Inside, it stood still.
Because Lalanka is real, he thought, and the cookie jar is a kind of portal. One that opens on the West Kingdoms, where time has stopped.
By then the jar was full to the brim again (pecan sandies on top that night). Rhett clapped the cover on it and stowed it under his bed. He put the leftovers in a paper sack marked for the trash the following morning—a final chore before leaving for what he assumed would be his own premature disposal. He told himself there were no West Kingdoms; he was too old to believe in such things. The cookie jar was a miracle, that much was undeniable. But miracles are scary things, and this one had been powerful enough to drive his mother out of her mind. It would do the same to him, if he let it, especially with the war about to swallow him up.
“I told myself it was some kind of magnetic field that stopped the second hand,” he told Dale, “and I told myself I just wouldn’t think about it anymore. Then I lay there wide awake until after midnight, thinking about nothing else. So I got up and took the damn thing up to the attic. Which is where it stayed until I came back from overseas.”
Pete Alderson fought his version of Big Two from a desk in Hampton Roads, Virginia, and finished as a lieutenant commander. He sent many men into combat, but never heard a shot fired in anger. Jack learned to fly, and took his mother’s ukulele to Guadalcanal with him. From there he flew dozens of sorties before his fighter was blown out from under him during the battle of Iwo Jima. A friend wrote to George Alderson, telling him that his son’s canopy had jammed so he couldn’t parachute to the water below. What he did not say (and perhaps did not have to) was that Jack, the artistic one, had burned like a torch in his cockpit before the shark-infested waters could put him out.
Rhett was indeed part of the invading force that landed at Normandy, but although men were shot to death all around him (their bodies rocked back and forth in the waves just as he had imagined), he survived that day and the booming, earth-shaking night that followed. He fought across France and into Germany, the vagabond watch that had made its way through the entire Alderson family ticking away on his wrist. He suffered from blisters and trench foot, he was gashed by blackberry brambles one afternoon when his squad happened upon a pocket of Kraut resistance holding a bridge near the German border, but he was never once wounded by enemy fire and he always kept the watch wound.
Sometimes there were cookies in their mess rations, usually hard as rocks and always stale. He ate them in bivouacs and foxholes and slit trenches, thinking of his mother’s blue cookie jar.
In April of 1945, after facing only minimal resistance, Rhett was part of the Allied force that liberated a concentration camp named for the beech forests that surrounded it. The day was damp and overcast, with a heavy ground mist that sometimes hid the heaped bodies and sometimes revealed them. Living skeletons stood at the fences and outside the crematoriums, staring at the Americans. Some were horribly burned by white phosphorous.
“What the fuck have we gotten ourselves into?” asked a soldier standing at Rhett’s elbow.
Rhett didn’t reply, because what was in his mind—what he knew—would have sounded insane: They had gotten themselves into Lalanka, of course. The trailing mist was the forza, the heaped bodies in this dank charnel house were victims of the gobbits, and somewhere—probably in Berlin—Black Adolf, now barking mad, was determined to continue the slaughter.
Two weeks after Buchenwald came Dachau. Thirty-two thousand dead, many still lying in the trenches they had been forced to dig, their emaciated bodies rotting in the rain, their hair fallen out to lie beside their heads. These were the memories Rhett Alderson brought back from Europe, only they weren’t exactly memories, because they weren’t exactly over. He had seen too much for them ever to be over, and consequently brought the West Kingdoms of Lalanka home with him. The West Kingdoms, where time had stopped just as the second hand of the Bulova watch had stopped when he dipped it below the rim of the cookie jar.
All this was nothing to tell a boy of thirteen, so he merely said, “I was with the Americans who liberated two of the German death camps, near the end. It was pretty awful.”
He was relieved when Dale didn’t pursue this. His great-grandson had something else in mind. “Did you get the cookie jar out of the attic when you came home?”
“Eventually.” Rhett smiled. “But the first thing I did was to give that watch back to my brother Pete, because it was the first thing he asked for.”
“He sounds like kind of a dickhead,” Dale said, then added hastily, “If you don’t mind me saying.”
“I don’t, and he was, but he mellowed over time. He was a good husband and a good father.”
Also, he never knew about the cookie jar, Rhett thought but didn’t say. And he never saw what I saw, from Omaha Beach in Normandy to Dachau, where the dead had lain in the open long enough to lose their hair.
Rhett stayed with his father at first, his father who had grown prematurely old and moved slowly, his back humped into a shape like a turtle’s shell. Pete had begun talking about putting him in a home, and Rhett supposed that would be the best thing, although it seemed cruel—like putting him out with the garbage. In the meantime, father and son rubbed along well enough, with Rhett doing the shopping and most of the housecleaning after putting in a day at the auto-repair shop where he had caught on as a mechanic (and which he later owned).
He worked hard, but slept badly.
One night in March of 1946, after his father had gone to bed and while a sleet-thickened wind slapped at the house, Rhett went up to the attic. The cookie jar was where he had left it, behind a carton of boxed-up glassware from when a sane mother had lived in this house. Rhett hefted it, half expecting it to be light, its magic gone, but it was still full.
He took it down the narrow flight of stairs cradled against his belly and sat with it on the bed, where Jack had sat beside him so many times. He lifted the lid and breathed deep, smelling chocolate and vanilla and cinnamon and butter. Good smells. Fresh smells. Ones he had remembered and longed for in the heat of a French summer and the cold of a German winter. The smell of newly baked cookies that had always pervaded his mother’s little house, where she had danced to the Victrola and given them custard in little green cups.
My mother, the good witch, Rhett thought, and this fucking thing drove her mad. The way my memories of the war will drive me mad, if I let them. Is there always a Red Henry, a Black Adolf? Does there have to be? Why does there have to be?
The anger that had floated in him ever since Buchenwald—his own forza—coalesced into a dark cloud, and he upended the jar, spilling out a flood of cookies that overflowed the bed and made a mountain on the floor. At last, just when he began to think they would continue pouring out until he was drowning in ginger snaps and peanut-butter smoothies, they stopped. He raised the jar, tilting it up to the ceiling like a telescope, and peered in.
“What did you see?” Dale asked. “Was it just the bottom?”
“No,” Rhett said. “Not the bottom.”
Once, in late 1944, during a lull in the fighting between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the USO had arrived with a projector and a stack of film cans. There were popcorn and bottles of soda pop, and the soldiers watched, mesmerized, as a double-feature movie show was projected onto a bedsheet. There was a color cartoon (“Ehhh…what’s up, Doc?”), a travelogue about Bali or Mali or one of those places, and then a double feature of The Maltese Falcon and Yankee Doodle Dandy. But what Rhett remembered when he peered into the uptilted cookie jar was the MovieTone newsreel that came between the cartoon and the travelogue. There had been a feature about a scientific wonder of the Army Air Force called the Norden Bombsight. What he saw through the bottom of the cookie jar was exactly like that, only without the crosshairs.
It was disorienting, because he was looking down, even though the jar grasped in his hands was tilted up. What he saw was distorted at the edges, but the central image was achingly clear. He could pick out each blackened, twisted tree in the Long Forest, burned by Black John’s raiders. He could only see the top of Lookout Hill, because the rest had been obscured by drifting white clouds of forza, and he knew that everything beneath that mist—every animal, every human being—was dead. When he moved the cookie jar a bit (“Less than two inches to the left,” he told Dale), leagues of land blurred past below, making him feel nauseous. When he held the jar still again, he saw Regency Road, curving like a snake on its way between Castle Black and Castle Red, just as it had on his mother’s wall-map all those years ago, before the world had gone insane for the second time in a single century.
“I saw a horse pulling a covered wagon,” he told Dale. “A peddler’s wagon. It was just as clear as could be. The front of it had been festooned with charms to ward off evil, but they didn’t help, because two great white things came bursting out of the burnt husks of those trees and attacked it.”
“Gobbits,” Dale breathed.
“Yes. Gobbits. They were as big as timberwolves, but hairless and headless. Their shapes kept changing, as if they were made of jelly instead of flesh. I saw the man on the seat drop the reins and put his hands over his face. As if he wanted to die without seeing the horrors that were going to kill him. The strength ran out of my arms and I dropped the jar.”
“Did it break? It did, didn’t it?”
“No. I think it would have if it had landed on the floor, but instead it landed on cookies. That mountain of cookies. The bedroom stank of them.”
The bingo game was over, and the inhabitants of the Good Life Retirement Home were making their slow way past Rhett’s open door toward the next station of the cross, which would be lunch—noodles in some sort of sauce seemed likely. It was time to wrap this up, but he was not sorry he’d told the boy about his mother’s cookie jar. Best-case scenario, Dale would see it as a kind of fable. Worst case, he’d think old great-gramps had gone gaga. And was that so wrong? Buchenwald and Dachau had knocked him crooked, and he’d never been really straight afterward. Yet he had done his best in small ways—volunteering in the city’s soup kitchen, working with kids from homes that were poor, broken, or both—to straighten some things. He still thought things like that mattered; even two bits in a bum’s upturned hat mattered. The world might be as awful as ever, but at least he had never joined the endlessly warring armies of Black John and Red Henry. Uncle Sam’s army had been enough for him. When he mustered out of that one, he mustered out for good.
“By the end of the war, my dad—your great-great-grandfather—was suffering from arthritis in his hips, knees, and ankles. Climbing the stairs every evening to go to bed was slow and painful. It hurt just to watch him. It was dangerous, too, because his balance was untrustworthy. Eventually I called my big brother on the phone, and the two of us converted Dad’s study on the first floor into a bedroom. So I had the second floor entirely to myself, and considering the sea of cookies in my room after I dumped the jar, that was good. It was three nights before I could get rid of them. On the second night, he asked me what that vanilla smell was, coming from upstairs.”
“What did you say?”
Rhett smiled. “That I didn’t smell anything, of course. He said it reminded him of my mother. ‘She baked so much that vanilla was her perfume,’ he said.”
Dale wasn’t much interested in this, either. “How’d you get rid of them, Rhett? How’d you get rid of all those cookies?”
“Scooped them into galvanized trash cans I bought at the hardware store. Did it while Dad was asleep. I felt like a damn burglar. I put them out back, and on the third night I borrowed a pickup truck from where I worked and hauled them down to the river. I meant to throw them in, but in the end I couldn’t do that.”
“What stopped you?”
The memory of those walking skeletons, Rhett thought. The ones that stared at us through the barbed wire with the mist drifting around them. How could I remember those starving creatures, and then just dump four steel cans loaded with food into the water?
“I knew there were poor folks who came down to the river to fish. Back then the water was still clean enough to eat what you caught. And there were homeless people, too. They lived in the kind of camp we called a Hooverville, although I’m glad to say that it was gone by 1950 or so.”
Just in time for the next war, he thought. North Korea and South Korea, Black John and Red Henry.
“I’m sure those folks had…” He trailed off.
“Rhett? You okay?”
“Yup. Just had a senior moment. I was going to say that I’m sure those homeless people had a cookie feast.”
“At ninety, I guess you’re entitled to all the senior moments you want,” Dale said, and that made Rhett laugh. A good kid, fast on his feet. Would he ask the most obvious question? Rhett was betting he would. And Dale did.
Yes, he thought about throwing the blue ceramic jar away, but in the end could not bring himself to do it. Hauling cookies to the riverside in galvanized trash cans was one thing; throwing out a miracle, one that had belonged to his mother, was another.
Sometimes—often—he wondered how she had come by it in the first place. When he asked his father, George Alderson only shook his head. “That old blue cookie jar? No idea. But she used to haunt the church sales and rumble sales, called ’em the best entertainment in the world, and sometimes she brought things home. Cookie jar was probably one of them.” He lit his pipe and blew out a fragrant cloud of Cherry Blend. “That was back when her mind was still right. Before all that map nonsense.”
A week or so after he disposed of Cookie Mountain, Rhett returned the blue ceramic jar to the attic. Before he left, he took the cover off one last time. It was full to the brim, those enticing smells of vanilla and chocolate wafting up. Cookies that were as fresh as ever, sweetness masking a window into a blackened, blistered world that was always at war. He thought, If I were wearing the Bulova watch and put it inside the rim, the second hand would stop. It might stop even if I laid it against the blue glaze of the jar’s surface. But the watch had gone back to Pete.
He thought about taking one more cookie—one more act of communion—and resisted the temptation. He put the cover back on and left the attic.
Too many sweets weren’t good for you.
“We finally did put Dad in a home,” Rhett said. “It was all right, but not as nice as this place. He didn’t mind, because by then he’d started to get foggy upstairs, although he was only in his fifties. He aged all at once, it seemed. It wasn’t fair, but—we sold the house—Pete and I did—and split the profits. I moved across town, and bought my own place. I brought along a few pieces of furniture I was attached to…and the cookie jar. I brought that, too, although I never opened it again.”
“Never?” It was as if the kid couldn’t get this straight in his mind.
“Never. I met a girl, I got married, I had kids—including your gramps—and I bought the business I was working in. Now there are Alderson Auto Shops all over the Midwest, and a few in the South, too.”
“Wow, and you live here?”
“It’s as good a place as any,” Rhett said, and meant it. He was measuring out the end of his life in coverall games, but so what? He had a few friends, and you had to measure out the end of your life in something. “I lived with Pete’s grandson for a little while—this would be your uncle, or maybe your great-uncle, I get all confused about such things—but when I sensed I was becoming a burden, I came here. Someone or other said that fish and guests both stink after three days, and I was at your uncle Bill’s a lot longer than that. This is a roundabout way of getting back to your question, Dale, but first let me ask you a question. How much of this do you believe?”
The boy was quiet for a long time. Rhett respected his silence. At last he said, “I don’t really know.”
“A fair answer, but I think you can do better. If you want to. The last of my things are still stored in Bill Alderson’s attic.” Was he doing this wide-eyed, clear-skinned kid a favor by telling him that? Or cursing him? Well, either way, it was out now. “There are a few suits so old they might be back in fashion, some medals I won in the war—one of them’s a Silver Star, believe it or not—and the cookie jar.”
“Really?” Dale’s voice was soft with awe, his eyes so wide he looked closer to six than thirteen.
“Unless it’s been broken, yes. You could go see. In fact, I give it to you—think of it as a pre-death inheritance, and I’ll be gone soon enough. Have a few cookies. I’m sure they’re still fresh. Only…be careful.”
“I will! I will!”
You won’t, Rhett thought. You won’t be able to, any more than my mother was. Or I was. Any more than Jack would have been, if Jack had lived. In the end we all prefer the bitter to the sweet. It’s our curse. So you’ll turn the cookie jar upside down, and dump out all that’s inside, and peer into that other world. After that…
“Thanks, Rhett! Thanks!”
Rhett patted his great-grandson on the shoulder with one gnarled hand, and smiled, and thought: After that, you’re on your own.