The Toy Store
Braun's Imagination, a divinely unique toy store on Whyte Avenue in Brooklyn, was designed for children of all ages. Alfred Braun constructed the store out of an empty shell from a leftover clothing manufacturing warehouse into a magical space of wonder. It was something to be seen in the nineteen forties immediately before the United States entered the Second World War. With walls of brick and a shining hardwood floor, Alfred filled the shelves with shiny toys and books. The Great Depression had left the hearts and wallets of many homes broken. Alfred hoped to improve morale in general. To put a jump back into the step of his banker, to see more school teachers smile, to hear the laughter of children in the streets of Brooklyn where he had decided to settle.
Alfred believed that people needed to hang on to something that would bring them joy. But, instead, the fear of loss gripped the hearts of everyone. No one was immune to the suffering. Death spread its wings over the families of many, taking sons, taking husbands, stealing uncles, fiancés, and fathers. The War needled its hatred into every crevice of the earth. It was the worst abductor of souls to have plagued the planet in centuries. Yet, Alfred held fast on the hope that could be found in toys, a temporary escape from the harsh reality that shook the world, not just for children but for all. The simple suggestion that magic existed was the perfect solution to the pain that ailed the hurting—every one of them, including himself.
Alfred opened the store with a grateful heart and initially, an unrealized dream of making it big in New York. Alfred managed to open his store despite a wave of lingering angst and insecurities, achieving nothing less than the epitome of his vision. The exquisite collection of children's toys filled an emptiness in Alfred that had grown with the loss of his family. Leaving his entire extended family in Europe meant that he was now the only living Braun he knew of. Alfred was grateful that he had left France in 1938, barely escaping the holocaust with his sights on New York City. Had he not made the trip across the ocean before the War began, he, too, would likely have been erased by the Germans.
Frustration and loneliness brewed in his thoughts as he refilled the shelves of his new store with radiantly coloured spinning tops, train sets, cars, planes, erector sets and blocks. He had stacks of books and puzzles that required daily organization. The wall behind the cash desk was full of bright candy confections that begged sticky-fingered children to touch it. When Alfred opened the door each day, he hoped for nothing more than to fill his time with the merriment of children and the tender looks on a loved one's face when each child found joy in his store. He longed to one day find love himself and knew in his heart that the magic of his store could provide the perfect stage for romance to blossom.
He was alone at the cash register the morning that the postman brought mail that changed Alfred forever. A letter he received from one of his sisters was written in a concentration camp for women. It changed his focus on life for his entirety. Although her penmanship was scrawled and somewhat crooked on the page, he took time out of every day to read the words that were likely the last she had been able to share.
Dearest Brother Alfred,
This War has shown me the value of our existence, the preciousness of each moment that we so often overlook. I have met someone here that promises to help the weak. She speaks in rhymes and riddles, her dress the crispest black silk. Strange, when the lot of us are in rags to see something so beautiful, I must say. She shows compassion and love. She has brought a message of hope to us. I shall not go in sadness, but rather in gratitude for all that I have been offered, all I have been given and experienced. I have also met a German soldier that has been kind despite his circumstance. He has found ways to allow us dignity in our suffering, providing paper and pens to write to family, blankets, and brushes for our hair. It has to have been near impossible for him. I cannot imagine why he would risk his life for us, except that God must genuinely live-in people as they say. I will not leave here alive, and so this must be goodbye. Having known you, Alfred as a brother, has been a great honour, in this lifetime and until the next, adieu.
Her words affected him profoundly. He wore them proudly, like a badge of reverence, out of respect for his family, as he knew he had been spared.
Alfred went on spending his days selling trucks and dolls to tots and youngsters looking to be delighted while his beard began to turn grey. His upper back began to roll slightly into a hump, making him appear shorter than he had when he was in his thirties. His hair thinned, and the lenses on his glasses thickened. His sweaters became heavier, his thin limbs needing the warmth of wool to fight the frigid frost that riddled Brooklyn every winter. Time was running away from Alfred, and despite his kind and courteous manner, he hadn't found the love he had hoped for.
Time passed and brought a new type of War to the world, one that raged on humanity, eating at the bones and flesh of society, plucking them off by the thousands. Fear settled in, and the people began to hide in their homes. They retreated, locking their doors, pulling the shades, watching their televisions, and keeping to themselves. Humanity became isolated, fearful of others, objectified and reclusive.
Abigail looked up at a windy thread of toy buyers, too long to see the end of. The store was abuzz with shoppers and festive music. The Holiday Season upon them once more, she fumbled to find spirit in a heart full of disappointments. She was grateful for the work. Alfred Braun had provided her with a safe place of employment when she knew he could barely keep the doors open on the shop. He had convinced her in his gentle way to pray with him for a hearty bounty this Christmas season. She wasn't a firm believer in the Heavens or what he referred to as his Maker. She speculated about faith, what it really was and trusted in the Universe to guide her way.
Her hands were placed casually on the cash register. She smiled at the next person in line. They stood six feet apart, each of them masked to protect themselves from the crowd, eyes darting left and right, each shopper suspected the other of having "it."
"Next, please, hello, happy holidays," Abigail said.
A tiny hand reached up and placed a spinning top on the counter. Abigail couldn't see anything but the top of her head. Long dark curls hung loose down her back, falling onto her dress, which seemed to be crafted of fine black silk.
Abigail leaned forward, attempting to make eye contact. "Hello there."
The young girl smiled up at her. The brightest smile she had ever seen. "Hello, I'm Mary Mack. I would like to have this spinning top if it might please you."
Abigail could do nothing but smile at the youngster. Her face was familiar, but her energy felt old to Abby. "It would please me just fine young lady. Would you like me to gift wrap that for you?"
She giggled. "Oh yes, please. Would you be a dear? I have a friend that will just love this gift, and he's very near."
Abigail set to ringing in the toy and removing the price tag before wrapping it in tissue paper. Odd. She thought. The price tag had no UPC code, was small, the size of a dime, and faded. It said "$0.10" Abigail turned towards the girl. "I'm sorry, where did you find this?"
The girl pointed towards a shelf on the left side of the store. "There, next to the dolls."
Abigail was perplexed. There was no display of spinning tops on that side of the store, and there were no dolls. But, nevertheless, she rang in the top as it was priced, in the spirit of Christmas, made a mental note to speak to Alfred about it, and promised herself she would find out where this inquisitive young girl had come from.
"So, tell me, from where do you prevail, lassie?"
"You speak my language! Heaven knows I've been here, and there, almost everywhere the wind blows, near and far, on cobblestones and gravel roads. I come when it's time for one to cross. So, they might see the way without fearing loss."
Abigail stood, scissors and ribbon in hand. "Heavens! That does sound grave! Have you come for me then? Is it my time to meet St. Peter?"
The young Mary Mack smiled at her new friend. "No, no, don't be silly. But you see, the one for whom I seek has spent a lifetime of regret, his life lived alone in suffering and dread. It's almost time you see, for him to come with me."
"You're talking about Alfred then? What is it that he's suffering about? He's had a wonderful life with all the children and toys. I suppose his only disappointment might be that he never found the true love he was waiting for."
Mary Mack smiled at Abigail. She took the young woman's hand in her own, reaching up over the edge of the counter. Energy passed between them as the youngster spoke. "True love knows no boundaries; it knows not the heart of a child nor of a person grown. It can fall on the soul of the young, or even an old man who's never before known. It's a magical feeling that tickles one's toes and fills you to the brim from your knees to your nose. It's magic, like a toy, and laughter why-it's pure joy. He's had it all this time, all these years he didn't see it, but it was there, in his heart, pleasing everyone that walked through the doors of this, his most cherished store.
He mourns the loss of his ancestors from the old country in the war; the truth is they live here, with him, in the walls, of the store. It is their spirit that brings in the children that dream of treasures they will find. And now the children and parents alike, who come to the store both day and night, seek some peace of mind. It is a feeling that they cannot find, that no longer resides in their minds. The world has changed, you see, the sickness that plagues the world will soon end, and amidst the rubbish of it all, Alfred provides a special gift for us, yes, to you and me. It's love that he offers, and so we receive in the form of a book or a toy or a game that brings simple laughter, some relief… it is joy, yes? You see it? Love isn't about taking or receiving from others but its the giving of oneself freely. Alfred expects nothing in return. A simple nod, a thank you perhaps, a smile is polite, but he's done well to know that he has made the hearts of thousands beat bright."
Abigail stood mouth agape. The line-up of customers didn't move and didn't complain about the wait. "Take me instead. Leave Alfred to the store. He loves it here. The people love him. It will never be the same. You mustn't take him. Not today, not now, not during the holiday, not before Christmas."
Mary Mack nodded. "A valiant sacrifice. One that is noted in my book. I have known well his family. They suffered through a terrible time. And though he is Jewish Abigail, you realize that the Holy day of celebration is not one Alfred will ever recognize. But you are a good girl. You will be fine. His time has come. His life is now divine."
She took the packaged spinning top from Abigail and moved toward the back of the store where Alfred was tending to the books in his office. Abigail stood and waited for a moment as if expecting a sound, a crash or a bang. There was nothing. No sound, not a whisper. Silence filled the store. There was not even a creak from the floor.
Abigail rang in the next customer and then the next. The next came, and the next and then the next. Finally, at five o'clock, Abigail locked the door.
She hadn't seen Alfred all afternoon. She counted out her float and tallied the sales from her cash register. She quickly checked her phone for messages and then walked towards the door to Alfred's office. She knew what she would find there. An old man slumped over his desk, perhaps just asleep in his chair. She hated this world and how terrible it was, how unfair.
She thought of the young girl who had come, the words she had shared, the wisdom and reverence that came with her rhyme. Abigail stood very still, listening to the sounds from the walls, the whispers in the halls. For now, she knew that the things that had once scared her were nothing more than loved ones of Alfred's, family that had once passed, ensuring he had customers to care for. The spirit of his ancestors filled the store with children and laughter, they brought customers to Alfred, knowing he would receive them joyfully. A man who has lost everything, and still offered up every bit of tenderness that he had.
Surprise didn't alert alarm, when Abigail found Alfred, as still as could be. Turned towards the fire, she stood still watching him. A smile set to his face he looked pleased, at peace. As though he had found what he was always looking for.
About the author
Taught by some of the greatest literary minds of this century, Sandra's delivery method is reminiscent of her mentors and yet uniquely her own page-turning style. Her novels are suspenseful, unpredictable, & thought-provokingly colorful.