“Dad’s Manila Envelope” by Annie Bien

My dad lifted himself into the parked wheelchair. “The day I can’t do this anymore you’ll be pushing me out on a gurney straight into the stove.”

“Oh come on, Dad, you had a great checkup this year.”

“Thank you, Margaret, you look lovely in that saucy sweater. Cashmere?”

I’m not Margaret, but lately he sometimes thinks I’m Mom. I don’t correct him. He might get upset.

“Yes, cashmere.”

I consider calling him Gerald, like Mom would, but don’t want to play more into the mistaken identity. I push him toward the sun room.

Sunlight heats up his consciousness, “Well hi, doll! Thanks for visiting me today. Is Mom coming?”

“Hi Dad, I’d never miss the chance to visit you. Mom’s on her way.” Mom’s not, but he’ll forget, eventually. “Dad. I brought the photo album you asked for. It’s exactly where you said it was, on the photo shelf you had labeled, 1940-52. What were you looking for? I didn’t recognize anyone.”

His face brightens. He flips through the initial photos quickly, all neatly labeled with names and places. He turns to near the back where a manila envelope is tucked between two pages. He’s written “Doubles” in cursive hand on it.

“Do you have a letter opener, doll?”

“No, but you can unclasp it. Shall I do that for you?”

He hands it to me. I undo the clasp and withdraw two photos of two women I’ve never met. The first stands in front of a Christmas tree with her stockings rolled down. The second, a woman hugging a snowman.

“Who are they, Dad?”

“Colleagues. We were mathematician friends. I’m glad I’ve never forgotten how to add and subtract. We were all decoders during the war. Mavis was excellent, that wild hair! Like her mind. Her brain was a pocket calculator, and so hilarious at parties. Look at her with the rose between her teeth. See how she’s got her stockings rolled down in front of the Christmas tree but where are all the presents? Are the stockings the present? She said she suspected one of the other decoders might be a double agent, leaking information. So she slept with him to find out. He gave her stockings.”

“Wow, Dad, are you supposed to be telling me this?”

“Don’t worry she’s long dead. Turns out she was right. She wanted to make sure he didn’t strangle her with the stockings. I scattered her ashes in ’52. They’d just think I’m an old nut with Alzheimer’s now, so I can’t leak anything, right?”

“Well—”

“Let’s look at that second photo.” He held a photo of a woman hugging a snowman. His lightness shifted. “Astrid. So intelligent. The love of my life.” It wasn’t my mother.

“Dad?”

“Margaret. I have to confess. You were so stalwart. You were right when you said leading a double life catches up with you. But you were wrong about Astrid. All we did was math because I was married to you. The code was in a tube plugged into the snowman’s nose. Astrid put it there for safekeeping in case neither of us survived. Is that a great screenplay or what? Remember how we used to say that?”

He turned the photo over, handing it back to me. He began to hum Silent Night.

“These days I only seem to remember songs in German.”

***

“Dad’s Manila Envelope” first appeared in Fiction Kitchen Berlin, 2019

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Annie Bien

Annie Bien has written two poetry collections and published flash fiction in print and online. A Third Quarter flash fiction winner and Fourth Quarter finalist of the London Independent Story Prize in 2020, she is a Pushcart Nominee and finalist in other competitions. Forthcoming, The Sixth Dalai Lama: A Historical Novel, co-written with Robert Thurman, and a flash novel, Rain at Fragrant Harbour in-progress. An English translator for Tibetan Buddhist sutras and commentaries, her translations are published on 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha.

http://anniebien.com

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Gay Degani

Wow. Terrific story Annie!!

Susan Borgersen

Oh my word Annie, what a story. So much packed into so few words. It will stay with me, for sure.

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