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Seeing the World from a New Angle

“A Promise is a Promise”. A Short Story About Keeping My Word to a Dead Man 

Filed under: Uncategorized — Bob at 2:10 pm on Wednesday, December 8, 2021

“A Promise is a Promise”.

A Short Story About Keeping My Word to a Dead Man 

by Robert M. Katzman © December 8, 2021

About thirty years ago I was running a business no one’s child would ever go into, in Morton Grove, Illinois, which is NW of Chicago and next to Skokie, Illinois, about 16 miles from Chicago. One of very few left in the United States at that time, perhaps twenty such stores, I called it Magazine Memories.

It was a back-issue store which people frequented to get a magazine from the week or month a person was born, married, joined the army or graduated from a school. We also carried rare and collectible items, with the inventory going back to 1576, a British newspaper.

In order to be able to supply the average person who walked into the store, or a Mail order request, I had to carry 150,000 periodicals arranged by date and subject. There was no computer, I just knew where everything was located. People often asked me how this was possible, but my response was that I never knew it couldn’t be done. 

I would sometimes say that if  farmer walked into a hardware store in 1920 and needed a certain size screw to repair his farm equipment, when many such machines were being manufactured all over the country, how in the world could the owner of the hardware store know where that particular screw was located in his cavernous store? 

The answer is that no one knew that what they were doing was supposed to be impossible, so they just did it, memorized everything. My feeling was that the human mind’s capacity for retention of detail is far more complex than any person may realize, unless they were the clerk looking for that certain screw, or me seventy years doing the same thing within a sea of periodicals.

My inventory grew gradually over the years and I personally touched every periodical when I shelved it in a logical place by date or subject. 

Logical for me.

I think the touching, often multiple times, seeing the cover’s colors, and deciding whether to file it in date order or but subject reinforced my memory about each of my magazines. In other words, a magazine from December 7, 1941 filed by date, or for me, better to be put in the section on historic issues from World War Two, because that one issue of Life covered the surprise Japanese Air Force attack on the United States Navy in Pearl Harbor, sinking or damaging 20 battleships and killing 2,335 sailors an civilians.

An issue like that was hard to get because so many saved it the week the attack happened. It would be more valuable, but generally the magazines from the Forties were $49.95. An issue like Pearl Harbor would be $95.

What I just described is generally correct except that it isn’t how magazine were actually dated in relation to when they were for sale. This complicated things for me when I was attempting to sell something to a person, but the earlier description usually served.

However, since I am partially writing a history of stores like mine at this point, nearly thirty years after the beginning of this story, here is how the dating actually worked.

If the issue of Life before the Pearl Harbor incident were dated, say, December 6, 1941, it was actually printed seven days before because it was the off sale date. That Life went on sale on November 30, 1941. Magazine couldn’t be instantaneously produced, especially with an organization like Life which then had reporters and writers all over the world. Photographic film had to be flown to Life’s headquarters in New York to be processed and printed. 

Today, in 2021 it is instantaneous to send anything anywhere. But not in the recent past.

What this means is, that the December 6thissue was already a week old before Pearl harbor happened. If the planes were fast enough to get from Hawaii to New York by the next day, Sunday, December 7th, the preliminary story and first photographs would possibly make it into the December 13th issue. But the real and comprehensive story wouldn’t hit the newsstands until a week later, in the December 20th issue of Life, which went on sale December 13th.

That was the world’s level of technology then. Radio was instant, sure, but for most people having a newspaper or magazines in their hands was as close to experiencing the reality of the event as they could have. After Johannes Gutenberg invented the first printing press in 1439, it took a long time before any real progress was made in the distribution of news.

And that had real consequences for big wars fought on two continents with an ocean between them. In 1815, it could still take two weeks for a fast ship to deliver important news from Europe to America, even 376 years after the invention of the printing press. Then horses were needed after that to get to the smaller towns.

This had major effects on soldiers and their commanders. The treaty of Ghent was signed on December 24, 1814 in the Netherlands. It took a month for the news of the end of the War of 1812 to reach everywhere in America. What difference did it make?

In the Battle of New Orleans (January 8, 1815) between a rag tag force of Americans: Kentucky Frontiersmen, freed former slaves, Native Americans, Creoles, French and Spanish nationals, the pirate Jean Lafitte with his ships and men, men with long rifles from his own state, Tennessee and the Louisiana militia under a 48-year-old and quite sick General Andrew Jackson, a man with two bullets still in his chest left from duels he had fought and won in his earlier life. 

He was defending with mounds of dirt and bales of cotton to absorb bullets against an invading force of highly well-trained and disciplined British soldiers who had just defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. Accept the war between Britain and the United States was over, which cost the Brits more than 2,000 casualties and their general was also killed. The US? About 25 casualties. Fighting in snake-filled mosquito-cursed swamps and bayous near the southern most port of the Mississippi River was not the same for British Redcoats lining up across from the French army on flat and dry European plains. 

Twenty-one years later, the news of the Fall of the Alamo on March 6,1836, or the War with Mexico in April 25, 1846, still was delivered on horseback, because there were no photographs of those events, just initially sketches, then drawings and reporting. 

When the Telegraph was invented in 1855, imagine the sensation of sending news anywhere in America which was able to receive messages, if they had wires, of course. The telephone? 1876. The primitive Aeroplane became a way of photographing wars in World War One between 1914 and 1918. Apple Computers? 1976. Cell phones? By Motorola, 1973.

So, even though the issue of Life Magazine covering the bombing of Pearl Harbor occurred more than five hundred years after the invention of the Gutenberg press, it still took a week for the story to appear on the newsstands of America. 

The public wandering into my Fortress of Periodicals never heard all this from me or I never would have the time to sell anything to anyone. I just looked and listened to the customer, tried to decide what they might be willing to spend (an art, not a science), and then show them non-collectible magazines if that was what I felt was appropriate.

On the other hand, if a person walked in, or as happened, messengers from advertising agencies or law firm libraries came seeking a very specific issue or whatever I had on hand about some historic event, cost wasn’t an issue, but accuracy was. My having a system of swift retrieval enabled my Magazine Memories to become a resource for corporations and universities as well.

But even a “superlative” memory isn’t perfect and that can have significant consequences.

One day an insurance company called me and said that one of their clients had suffered a loss in a fire of the first complete year of Playboy, in 1954, January to December. They inquired if I had all twelve issues, what was their condition and what would be my price.

This was not an unusual thing for me, but this was the most valuable request ever made. Usually, the insurance company was seeking the value after talking to several places like mine still existing in America. As they began to close down, my calls from insurance companies increased. 

I told them the condition was excellent, that I had all of them and after some quick calculations told them without tax or shipping, the price would be $11,000. They thanked me and told me they would get back to me.

Two weeks later I was told my price was the best they could find and they would overnight me a certified check immediately. I responded that as soon as that check was received, I would carefully gather up the twelve issues and ship them out. The sale was out of state so there was no tax, and I would be using their own fed-ex account number. So everything was fine and I waited for the check.

The next day the check arrived — a better level of technology than was available in the Battle of New Orleans – and I went to fetch my carefully filed away 1954 Playboys. I was confident about how many I had and their condition. Except for one slight problem.

I was somehow missing July 1954.

Damn!

My amazing memory had a glitch in it and that caused me to scramble faster than a speeding locomotive to locate the valuable and elusive Playboy among my many friendly contacts with remaining dealers and private parties.

The frenzied search produced nothing. I resigned myself to calling a sophisticated private collector who was friendly to me, but who was also quite aware of what the value was in his collection.

He was my last resort, especially since time was a big part of what I owed to the insurance company.

I told him my story and he was sympathetic. But regardless, I paid him the retail price of the Playboy and thanked him for helping me. The price was high, but the condition was guaranteed. That meant the centerfold was not only within the magazine, but that it was still attacked by the two original staples. And that the Playboy hadn’t been sitting in the sun for 40 years and was therefore badly faded. Or that no one had used a razor to cut out certain cartoons or photos of models they liked. My dealing with an honest man protected me from all that, and I also was paying him for that condition. 

The Playboy arrived the next day at my expense, was added to the other eleven and shipped out the next day. Everybody involved was delighted with my speedy service. Except I was humbled about the perfection of my memory.

I must be human, and capable of unimagined errors after all. 

Thirty-five years later, the incident still seems recent to me.

*************

Then, one day my phone rang. An old and quavering voice with a definite Western twang inquired if I was the person to talk to about selling his collection of old car magazines?

I told him I was and what my name was, too. He replied that his name was Silas. 

He told me someone both of us knew had given him my number and that I was a an honest and reliable dealer in old periodicals, as my caller himself had been for sixty years. He then gave me the name of our mutual friend whom I knew was long retired and no longer selling or buying anything.

Then there was a loud coughing and wheezing sound transmitted over the phone.

The old man paused, caught his breath and I waited patiently.

In my mind, I could see him as a much older version of myself some forty years in the future, if I lived that long. Then Silas resumed speaking to me.

Except the same round of his coughing interrupted him again. It was like I was talking to the older Marlboro Man who had smoked too many red and white packs of cigarettes and he was paying for that now.

I decided to say nothing about it, but the man seemed to me to be not far from his end.

He told me that his age and health had declined to a point where he was no longer able to be in our sort of business. And that he had sold off everything to different dealers who were still in business. He said it gave him comfort that his lifetime of buying and selling was going to have a neat ending. He told me he was from a small town in Oregon near the Pacific Ocean.

Then Silas explained that he had one remaining collection to sell and that no one else wanted it. It upset him that it would remained stacked up on his shelves or probably just trashed after he died because he had only one son who lived near him but who was never in the business with him, that his son had gone to college and he was an engineer.

It was an interesting moment. I could hear in his weak voice the pride that he had in his son having achieved more conventional work and had a real career. I also heard what he wasn’t saying, that his old magazines had paid for that education. I knew something about that same feeling myself.

But something was wrong with how Silas was speaking to me about his as yet unknown selling price of his car magazine collection. An experienced and sophisticated dealer would never say that “no one else wanted it” to a prospective buyer. That immediately would depress the price. He would never say anything to suggest that he had no alternative to selling it besides to me.

I felt a sadness within me. 

I felt the desperation in the old man’s voice.

He wasn’t just another older dealer wanting to get out and retire with a little money after decades of buying and selling. 

I felt he was looking for some sort of closure for his decades of crawling through damp garages, cramped basements and attics searching for enough inventory to satisfy a prospective customer’s wants. 

In other words, Silas was a much older version of forty-five-year-old me who had already lived the life I was living now, while I was also caring my own eighty-three-year-old Father Israel every day who had advancing congestive heart failure. 

My Father sat in my store every day next to my cash register, mostly sleeping, to maintain the illusion that he was still working. I once told my doctor who knew my Father well that whatever I eventually died from, I didn’t want it to be congestive heart failure, which had also killed my grandparents.

I wasn’t certain how to deal with Silas. I had plenty of car magazines on hand to satisfy birthdays requests and collectors. 

What was the right thing to do here?

It sometimes amazed me that I would let morality and kindness interfere with my business life.

Perhaps that I came from a sheer hell of unending violence as a child had created some unpredictable reserve of compassion which would announce itself unbidden in certain kinds of situations.

Now what?

With some hesitation, I asked Silas how many car magazines he actually had.

He was ready with his response, and he replied that he had ten thousand periodicals, some going back to the late forties when car magazines first began to be published in America. A few first editions too, if that was important to me. 

Ten thousand car magazines.

Whomever was testing me was surely testing me now.

I told Silas I needed to think for a moment.

Most of what he had, I already had. The late forties and early Fifties were always in short supply, but so was the demand for them. To younger car enthusiasts, the Eighties were a long time ago.

I sighed, wondering what to say to the sick old man with no alternatives, who wanted to sell me something I really didn’t need. Or want.

I asked Silas how much he wanted for his thousands of car magazines.

He responded with a number that was higher than was reasonable for me to pay.

But that was also normal behavior for men selling in volume in our profession.

It was a wheezed “opening bid”.

I smiled to myself. He wanted to go through the motions of “the Dance” one last time. 

I decided to cooperate with this unspoken request of his.

So, as was normal, I countered with a lower number which I felt was not insulting, but plausible.

Another bout of a hacking cough came over the line and I waited for Silas to respond.

He said, well, my price was too low, but if I could add a little more to it, he would pay for the shipping and his son would do that for him.

I thought to myself that this part was the last part of the play in his life.

The closing curtain.

Would I allow him this request for dignity?

I had no choice.

I told Silas that this was a fair enough deal and that I agreed to his price, payable upon receipt his collection.

He coughed and laughed and seemed so happy from the lighter tone in his ancient voice.

He thanked me for helping him sell the last part of his inventory and that he could go fishing now, with the satisfaction that he got out clean after so many years in the business.

I again repeated, as was my habit, our final agreed upon price which he confirmed, and told him to go ahead and ship all of his magazines, and I hoped he always caught something worthwhile when he went fishing. 

And that was the end of our conversation. I had made a verbal contract with a person I would never meet. perfectly normal in a business were a person’s word alone still meant something.

Part of me felt that I was sort of an idiot to let my heart interfere with my transactions.

But a much bigger part of me felt I had the chance to do something very important to an old man, that sometimes life pays a guy back for “doing the right thing”, whatever that meant.

Time went by, about two weeks.

No truckload of boxes of magazines arrived at my door to disgorges their contents.

I forgot about it and did what I did every day, and cared for my sleeping Father, too. 

Then about a week later, a call came and it was a much younger voice but with that same now familiar Western twang to it. The man calling me identified himself as Ezra, the son of Silas.

He told me that Silas had died shortly after my conversation with his father. Between Ezra making funeral arrangements for him and all that, he hadn’t remembered to call me about my agreement to buy his father’s magazines. His father had written down all of it on some wrapping paper in his shaky handwriting, along with my name and phone number. 

I told him I was very sorry and that for the few moments I had to speak with him, he seemed like a very good man. Then I waited. Ezra had more to say. I felt it.

Ezra told me how much his dying father appreciated our conversation and that it gave him great satisfaction to end his business career as he had, thanks to my offer. Ezra told me he was nearby when his father spoke to me and had pretty much heard all of it. That under the unusual circumstances, my offer to his father had allowed Silas some dignity, because my price wasn’t some pathetic sum. But was in fact, both to him and to his father, fair.

I waited some more. Because I knew there was more.

Ezra said he called me to tell me there was no reason for me to buy thseten thousand magazines any more.

That what I had done was the best to be expected for his father, but I should save my money because his father was in the ground now and would never know the difference.

I broke in and responded, with some vehemence,

“Maybe he wouldn’t, Ezra, but I would”.

Ezra seemed surprised, because he had assumed I was being kind to his father, but that I never really wanted all those massive piles of car magazines.

I told Ezra that his Father’s death didn’t extinguish my promise to him. 

Not in my mind.

I was very firm in my commitment to honesty in my dealings and that whether Silas was gone from this world or not, a promise was a promise. That to me, that was a holy thing.

There was a pause, and then a sound of disbelief in Ezra’s voice, that I actually believed what I just said to him. I responded that his father believed me, which was all I needed to complete the transaction.

So, was he going to ship all those magazines to me, or not?

Ezra laughed, then responded,

“Mister, you are a rare bird. To me, today, most people’s promises seemed to be airy words which evaporate immediately. My father was a religious man and if his spirit is still around, he’s smiling. The money you offered to him will pay a lot of old bills sitting around and I have learned something good about people today. 

Thank you for your kindness to my father. Very much.”

Then Ezra told me he’d package up all the many, many car magazines and ship them off to me. Might take him a while, that he’d do them in batches. Maybe his wife would help him. Maybe.

I laughed, thanked him, told him I would never forget his father for the rest of my life and I was happy I could do what I did to give Silas what he wanted: Dignity.

Ezra shipped the magazines wrapped in newspaper and twine, strangely, but they were all delivered intact. They kept coming and coming every few days for quite a while and were in the thousands.

Eventually, yes, ten thousand and it took me a while to integrate all of them by date onto my shelves. The earliest issues were rare ones and maybe I could sell them to someone, some day.

But that was not a big concern of mine.

My own very ill father had long ago taught me about life and relations with other people, both in business and privately. That is was up to me to decide how closely I would stick to the line of what I was taught and some day be able to judge myself about how I had treated other people in unadvantages circumstances.

I thought about that, and him and all of the conversation. 

Very simply, my father instructed me, a promise is a promise, whether spoken aloud or chiseled in stone, “A promise made”, he said, “was a debt unpaid.”

Not long after all the magazines were received and put away, and all the newspapers and twine were thrown into the dumpster in the back alley behind my store, I happened to pass a mirror and stopped a moment to look at my weary perspiring face.

I thought to myself: Absolutely — a promise is a promise. 

Yes, very simple.

Then the guy in the mirror smiled at me, and I smiled back.

No regrets, Silas.

Hoped the fishing in heaven was good for him.

And then I got on with my life.

3 Comments »

Comment by Jim Payne

December 8, 2021 @ 8:24 pm

Heart warming delightful story and you are a Pulitzer story teller.

Comment by Debra L Kelber

December 11, 2021 @ 1:00 pm

You are a man of honor. Thank you for this story, it is especially meaningful during this time of year.

Comment by David Griesemer

January 11, 2022 @ 7:39 pm

“…I have learned something about people today.”
Is there any greater reason for an act than to restore someone’s faith?

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