Heartburn [Short Story]

An old man is unable to adapt to the changing world around him and takes the easy way out.
[Short Story, 9 pages, 2579 words]

Heartburn

1

The break was over. The past twenty minutes were shown as a supercut and introduction for the new audience; then she continued where they had left off.

“And this is your stance on immigration?”

“Yes. I don’t see any way in which letting people into the country can give us long term benefits.”

“But what would you say to all the people that came from many different countries and are here today. They have integrated themselves and are now part of this country.”

“They were lucky that we were so naive. They saw the advantage and took what was ours. Our money and our jobs. Now they have infested our entire system and are corrupting it from the inside.”

“But the statistics tell us that overall the country has been getting better over the past decades. Of course, there are problems coming up, but on average we are way better off than 50 years ago.”s

“You can only trust the statistic you have doctored yourself. I told you they infiltrated our system. They doctored these statistics. They know what they are doing.”

“So you are talking about an organized effort by people that have come into this country over decades and build themselves a life here, to destroy it from the inside then? Why would they do that? Even if I follow your statement, wouldn’t it be more charitable to say that they are trying to improve the country in their own way?”

“By getting rid of us.”

The crowd that was filling the ranks of the studio started to laugh.

“Please, people. It’s important to hear him out. Why would they want to get rid of us? And what do you mean by ‘us’?”

“Because they think we are worth less than they are; all of the people that build this country over hundreds of years. We have been here for generations, and now we are being pushed into a corner. Either conform and serve them or die.”

“You say over hundreds of years. Back then, the people in this country were completely different. And there have also been migrants among them that you would now include in your group of people. If you go back even further, all of the people who came to this country have been migrants themselves. They came from another country to try their luck here. Where do you draw the line between your people and the people you seem to despise?”

“It’s actually really simple. Most of the people that are white belong here. The rest usually not.”

The crowd started to get noisy again. Some were booing, other laughing.

“What do you mean by ‘white’? My skin color is white, but my mother is Irish, and my father Korean. We moved to this country when I was twelve. By your definition, I am a migrant.”

“You are an exception. One of few.”

Laughter from the crowd.

“Then what do you say to the black or indigenous communities all over the country? They have also been here for many generations, many even before any ‘white’ people came here.”

“They are not part of our culture. They are separating themselves and hate us.”

“But isn’t that exactly what you are doing right now? And why should different cultures not exist together, as long as they are peaceful to another?”

“Their culture is not as advanced and civilized as ours.”

Now she had to laugh out.

“I’m sorry, but can’t you see the irony in all of this? You constantly wiggle around and cherry-pick the things you like. Only the people you like, parts of culture you like. And you prescribe others bad behavior, but when you do the exact same things, you justify it because it is in your interest.”

“That is not true. You are trying to dodge the issue!”

“I am trying to make you understand and become aware of what you are saying. This show, we are open to your ideas because we want to understand you. If you would try to do the same, you may find out that you have a lot more in common with the people you despise than you initially thought.”

He turned off the TV. He already knew what had happened next. He had started to insult her. She then tried to talk to him for a few more minutes till they had taken him out of the studio.

He looked at the E-Mail he had received from her a few minutes after the show had ended. She apologized for taking him off-air and was more than happy to continue their talk in private.

He looked into the glass in his hand. The ice cubes had melted, and the rest of the whisky had lost its color from merging with the water. What was he doing here? Nobody was taking him seriously. The people in the show had laughed at him, and his social media was getting flooded with condescending messages.

 

“Grandpa needs to check his calendar. Being a racist has been out of fashion for a while now.”

“A first I was angry at him, then I laughed at him, then I pitied him. I hope he might one day understand that all of us are not so different, and we all want the best for each other.”

“Whites are the best because Whites are the best. LMAO. Circular logic at its finest.”

“Wow. I did not think people like him still exist. Does he live on the moon? That guy has a lot of catching up to do.”

 

He turned off his phone and stared into the black TV screen. He saw a reflection of himself. Sitting sloppily in the armchair of his hotel room with the empty glass in his hand and his pants and shirt half-open. His gaze was empty.

 

2

The taxi for the airport picked him up in the morning. He wanted to get out of here as soon as possible. The flight was delayed, so he got himself a newspaper. His outburst had landed him a spot on the fifth page. He felt sick.

He arrived at his small apartment in the evening. When he was about to open the door, the woman living next door came outside and held it open.

“Good Evening Mister Thomas. You alright? How’s the family?”

She was living next to his apartment with her two girls and one boy. All three were going to the nearby school, and they often helped him out with the groceries or mail. There was only one problem. They were black.

He mumbled a “Yeah. Everything’s good. Thanks.” Then he got up the stairs and closed the door behind him. His answering machine had one new message. It was his daughter who had called him a few weeks ago. He did not want to hear what she had to say. He took a shower and went to bed early.

The next day he heard the newspaper drop through the slit at the door. The neighbor’s kids had a unique program at school. They all received the daily newspaper for free and discussed the topics in class. But because all three of them received one, they had two left when they came home. One day they saw him reading the newspaper and told him about it. Since then, they had always given him one.

He quickly glanced through it. There was a follow up on his story from yesterday. Somehow the paper had contacted and interviewed his daughter. She sounded like the host from the show. She understood his perspective but was disappointed that he could not see the flaws in it. She even shared how his views had divided the family and that he was now living in solitude. She wanted him to grow and understand, but she was not a part of his life anymore.

The last lines made him nervous. He looked at the answering machine. He still had not listened to what she had said. It was probably about the family gathering he had been invited to a few weeks ago. He had started to insult her black husband and called her a traitor and disgrace. Their two daughters had seen all of it and were confused why grandpa was always so angry.

It was not the first time he had lashed out against his daughter’s family. He had never approved of her decision. She had eventually moved out because she could not bear it with him any longer. They had still invited him, and most of the time, he had only made a few remarks about the topic.

Hi Dad. I’ve been thinking a lot after you visited us. It was not the first time that I’ve been thinking about it. I’ve always been thinking about it. You have your views, and I hated you a long time for it, but you were still my father. I invited you, again and again, to show you what had happened to us, how we had built a happy family. We were always open to you. We tried to show you the blind spots in your views by our example.

We were never out to hurt you or persuade you of something different. We just wanted you to accept us. Even if we were not what you wanted, we hoped that you could jump over your shadow and be happy for and maybe with us. I do not hate you for what you did or said. I am just disappointed that I could not get through to you.

The world is different now than it was 50 years ago. Back then, your views were popular, but today they are far outdated. The world has changed, and you need to adapt to it. It won’t change for you.

When you visited us, I’ve realized that you have not changed at all over all these years. And it is burdening me, burdening us. We’ve tried for so long and invested so much time and effort. Now it was time to make a decision. And we have decided.

We have to let you go. I have to let you go, dad. I can’t say that I loved you, but I can say that I’ve learned a lot from you.

Take care, dad. I want to say that I hope we see us again someday and laugh and let go of the past, but I’m not sure if I really want that.

 

3

He looked at the small trophies and certificates that were standing on the board on his wall. They were all from times when he had been a successful writer. He had gotten extremely popular and was all over the talk shows back in those days. Then, after a few years, the tone had shifted. TV stations and newspapers started to avoid him. They had given in to what he had warned them of.

Many years later, he was invited again, but only to be made fun of and ridiculed. None of them were taking him seriously anymore. It had been several years since his last public appearance, and he was slowly turning grey and bold. Then this show invited him. They stood out. They wanted to understand him, not debate him. He accepted, and they flew him over to the studios.

He heard the front door closing and checked the door. It was the woman next door coming home. She was working as a nurse and came from the morning shift. He opened his door before she could unlock hers. He peaked through the door, only half his face visible.

“Hello, Mister Thomas. You scared me there for a moment. Are you ok? Anything I can help you with?”

He stuttered and did not know how he could phrase it. She turned to him, and he opened the door a bit more. He had become old and brittle. He was skinny, and his posture had gotten worse. Now standing in the doorway, he became aware of how he had changed.

“You look a lot more white than usual. Are you sick?”

“No. No, I’m good. I just wanted to ask…”

She had to wait a moment until he continued.

“You know my name. You know who I am and what I’ve said. Why are you so kind to me and help me out?”

She started to laugh.

“Oh, Mister Thomas. If I could not be kind to you, what would that say about me? Only because you have different opinions does not mean that I should not be nice to you or that things can’t change. And you are very different from what they show on TV and say about you. I think you are a kind person at heart, but it’s just hard for most to see.”

He mumbled.

“Thank you.”

“No problem Mister. Now take care, I have three monsters waiting for me inside.”

She smiled and unlocked the door. He could hear her children scream up in excitement when she entered. Then the door closed, and it was quiet again.

 

4

Things went upside down in his mind. He was getting aware of the cognitive dissonance he always had neglected. It was painful. He did not want to face it. He wanted it to end.

An idea crawled into his mind; he lived a lie only because he did not want to face reality. He tried to bury it under his thoughts. He walked up and down the floor, his mood continually changing from anger to deep sorrow. He hated and pitied himself at the same time. He had become what he had always despised.

He went to the desk in his office. It was an old wooden desk where he had written his books on; all of his books. He opened the lowest drawer on the left side. While he was reaching into it, the picture on his desk was staring at him: an old photo of him, his wife, and their daughter. They were making a picnic in a green park. In the background, a river and on the other side, the buildings of the city. Her daughter was four years old and sitting on his shoulders. She had her arms wide open as if she would fly through the air. He was holding her legs and was smiling wide. His wife was sitting next to them, smiling and observing the scene. He teared up and pulled out the gun.

It was loaded. It always was. He sat down in his old chair, the gun in his right hand. Tears were flowing down his cheeks. He could not get out any sound. He was just sitting there quietly. He took the gun and opened his mouth. He could taste the dust that was on the cold steel. He closed his eyes, his teeth biting on the barrel, his finger on the trigger.

He pulled the gun out of his mouth and put it sideways on his temple. He exhaled and closed his eyes, then exhaled again.

He opened his eyes; the pain was gone.