Everyone has places they don’t dare go. When we were kids, one of those places was Mr. Dombrinski’s yard. He was our neighbour across a low, wooden, stockade fence. Sometimes an unlucky bounce or an errant kick would sail a ball over that fence into his yard.
‘Go get it!’ someone would yell at the person who’d thrown it or mis-caught it, frustrated by the sudden stoppage of play.
‘No way! You go get it!’ was the almost universal reply. Inevitably, after much arguing and name calling, someone would usually run home to fetch a replacement and the game would resume from where it had left off.
We rarely saw Mr. Dombrinski. I remember him as short and pudgy with silvered hair, slicked back, but I wouldn’t swear to it. He lived on the bottom floor of the kind of house we called a double-decker—two identical units stacked one on top of the other—with his wife and daughter. It was the kind of house immigrants lived in my mother once said, with two, or sometimes three, generations all crammed in, just like back in the countries they came from. No one though, as far as I can remember, ever lived upstairs from the Dombrinskis. We knew the daughter’s name was Vicky, probably because someone’s older sister or brother went to high school with her. She had long blonde hair gathered in the back, usually with a colourful bow, and pale, translucent skin. I mostly saw her getting on the school bus which stopped just outside her house. She moved stiffly, as though uncertain she was getting on the right bus, though it was the same bus every morning. Mr. Dombrinski’s wife often came outside to hang the laundry, a stocky woman, in my father’s words, who would sometimes yell things back toward the house—at Vicky or Mr. Dombrinski—in a foreign language none of us knew, could even name.
We nicknamed him The Nazi, though none of us knew for sure where he had come from, nor much about Nazis, really. Joey DeSalvo, my older brother’s friend who lived two streets over on Pleasant View, said anyone with a last name ending in –ski came from Poland, for sure. We were taught about Nazis in school, and we knew they were bad, but that was about the extent of our knowledge, or our interest, to be honest. Kevin Lynch’s mother said Mr. Dombrinski wasn’t a Nazi, that the Nazis had invaded his country at the start of the War, and got really mad every time she overheard us calling him that, so we had to keep our voices down really low when we played over at her house. If Mr. Dombrinski caught you in his yard, Brian O’Laughlin told me, he would take you inside and do experiments on you. Turn you into a lampshade or make soap out of you. His cousin Bobby said that his wife would make you into a gloopy stew in a big, black pot and then they would all sit there—Mr. Dombrinski, Vicky, and his wife, slurping you down for dinner.
On Halloween one year, my brother dared me and my best friend, Eddie Monette, to throw raw eggs at their house after we’d gone trick-or-treating and split up the candy between us. The eggs made a weird crunching sound when they hit—weird because neither of us had ever thrown eggs at anything before. They never even turned the porch light on or lifted the shades to see what was going on outside. When we came home from school the next day, Mrs. Dombrinski was up on a ladder cleaning off the last of the dried-on mess.
After that, their window shades were almost always pulled right the way down, even in the heat of summer. It might have been because of that that some of us started calling him The Count, as in Count Dracula, instead of The Nazi. Eddie and I always felt a bit bad that we’d egged their house and that maybe they’d thought we were the Germans invading all over again—you know, like a flashback. But Eddie’s dad said that some of the people in Poland didn’t much mind being invaded by the Nazis and that cheered us up a little.
Later that summer before I started high school—it must have been late August—I woke up in the middle of the night to flashing red lights outside my window, which was wide open on account of the heat and humidity, and saw some ambulance guys carrying a stretcher down the front porch stairs of Mr. Dombrinski’s house. There was a white sheet pulled all the way up to the top and straps wrapped around everything to hold it all in place. It must be a dead body, my father said, and when we saw Mrs. Dombrinski and Vicky hugging each other on the sidewalk we figured it was him under the sheet. ‘Poor bastard,’ my father said before going back to bed.
By the time we started school in September, there was a For Sale sign outside the Dombrinski house. A month or so after that, a big moving van pulled up outside and loaded everything up. We never saw Mrs. Dombrinski or Vicky again. I was talking to my brother the other day—he works out on the west coast now selling retirement plans—and it was the weirdest thing; he seemed to remember that we never got any of those lost balls back. But I’m pretty sure we did; usually the morning after we’d lost one, there it would be, tossed back over the low wooden fence sometime after dark, shining like new in the wet grass.
Art Nahill is a US-born New Zealand physician, teacher, and writer who, after 4 books of poetry, is inexplicably turning his hand to short fiction.