BRÜCKENKOPFSTRASSE, a story by S.K.Johannesen
The house in Brückenkopfstrasse must have been very old, but it had no particular architectural character. There was scarcely any vantage point from which one might have seen it entire. There were not even any definite levels or storeys or a definite front and back. Small irregular windows were stuck here and there in the yellowish stucco, and gave no clue to the internal arrangements. One entered the house by a nondescript door in a narrow cul-de-sac off the street, which twisted on itself twice in the space of a hundred metres from where it began on the Handschuhsheim road until it petered out at the river bank, opposite and a bit downstream from the castle and the old city.
Inside the house, short irregular flights led up and round and off at odd angles to a series of apartments. There was only one water closet in the whole building and this was just inside the entrance, behind a primitive door of nailed boards open at top and bottom. A bathtub in the ancient catacomb under the house, whose hot water had to be heated for each bath by means of a briquette-fired boiler, completed the public amenities. Otherwise each flatlet had its own hodgepodge of lumpy and rickety furnishings and assorted, mostly dangerous, arrangements for heating and cooking and minor ablutions.
The landlady, Frau Keller, a widow who lived somewhere in the back parts of the premises, rented these accommodations at the most the market would bear with the minimum adherence to her obligation in law and morality, in the fixed belief that she was perpetually the victim of cheats, and in particular that the clapped-out furniture left for the use of each tenant, became, in the mere process of transfer from one tenant to the next, new and shining things unaccountably stained, broken down and worthless in no time. As most of her tenants were necessarily poor students, foreigners, people of irregular habits and schedules, her plaints had a racial tinge to them. She said of the Turks, for example-none of whom she had ever taken on as tenants, but of whom she had heard a great deal from her professional contacts with other landladies-that they were a very dirty people, and also that they were ruinous as tenants by dint of the quantities of hot water they used for their frequent baths.
She had somewhere got the mistaken idea that I understood her lengthy tirades in German. I thought it best to hear her out at these moments and nod occasionally, and from which harangues, by dint of frequent repetition of a few key words, I came to understand that Frau Keller regretted the passing of a more orderly time in the past, and looked with fading hope for a similar one in future. She disapproved, however, of the proprietor of a tiny shop in our cul-de-sac, a Herr Schuler, who sold us eggs, candling them one at a time at an electric bulb embedded in the wall behind his counter, and wrapping each one separately in a twist of brown paper. Frau Keller said he had been an SS officer in the war. What she disapproved of, however, was that the war had permitted Herr Schuler to rise above his station.
In the year and a half I lived in Brückenkopfstrasse, with my first wife and our infant son, I was the only American soldier there. The other tenants included a M. Martin, an aloof Frenchman who smelled of garlic, and who lived just inside the entrance, opposite the WC. A few steps up and to the left were a Guyanese student named Cyril and his English wife Pamela. They had many interesting friends, including a homesick girl from Birmingham, whose accent they made fun of, and who was desperate to get out of a condition of virtual slavery to a German baker she had promised to marry. The hapless girl had discovered that she was meant to be servant and drudge to her future mother-in-law, a bitter and resentful woman who did not like her son marrying a foreigner, and thought better of her engagement. The baker, however, with the encouragement of his mother, held her to the free labour he had counted on from a wife and thought he was entitled to, at least until he could find a replacement, and hid her passport and money as insurance against her flight. There were many tears over this in the flat, amid high-sounding expostulations from Cyril, who was excitable, a communist, a supporter of Cheddi Jagan, and anyway had a dim view of Germans. Cyril was reading medicine, and his plan was to skip the lectures and read English medical books while swotting German, in hopes that these streams would come together in time for his examinations. In pre-1968 Europe you could do such things. Cyril and I frequently went together for talks over potato soup at Mensa, the cheap student dining hall not far from the site of the old Heidelberg synagogue. Pamela, besides perpetually comforting her Brummie friend, minded our baby when my wife got ill and went to hospital.
At the top of the house, in the least salubrious spot, a garret really, lived a Hungarian medical student, Deszo Benyo, and his French wife, a poor mousy thing who spoke not a word of anything but French. This did not prevent her teaching my wife, similarly and stubbornly unilingual, to knit, which they did together at a furious pace. They evolved a voluble intercourse consisting mainly of shouting and pointing. Deszo, by contrast, spoke at least six languages fluently and, judging by his English, with colourful abandon. Deszo had been in every army there was during the war, switching sides as exigencies demanded or opportunity offered, and was lucky enough, or prescient enough, to end the war in an American uniform, and had thus acquired a US passport. He had an amazing command of GI obscenities with which he salted a continuous stream of Hungarian, Russian and German directed at the heads of the many students and émigrés who showed up at the numerous drunken parties in their tiny flat. I thought, and still think, he was a spy and had been planted in Heidelberg by some espionage service to recruit agents. He in turn seemed to think of me as a hopeless naïf in regard to everything political, and greeted everything I said about America and the cold war with affectionate tolerance and of course complete disbelief. He was vastly amused at my aborted attempt to emigrate with my family to Australia. He was scornful of all deliberate self-improvement schemes, all bourgeois politics, all optimisms whatever. Deszo and his wife had a daughter, Madeleine, a fey pre-pubescent child dressed always in crisply starched costumes of delicate grey or mauve stripes, cut to an old-fashioned sailor-dress pattern, to which on Sundays was added a wide-brim straw with a long, trailing ribbon. Altogether a miracle of imagination and resistance on the part of Mme Benyo.
Then there was Rose, the landlady's daughter. Baptized Roswitha, she had been married to an American army captain who had left Rose with a son, a scruffy street-arab, about twelve years old, who ran errands for his grandmother and perhaps spied on the tenants for her too. Rose was an indifferent mother. It was not clear where the boy slept, probably with his grandmother. You could see his sharp feral face peering around corners at unexpected times and places. Rose spoke English and so relayed the more complicated complaints and instructions involving the running of the house, such as those having to do with blockage in the toilet or rubbish on the stairs, but it was her boy that tracked me down after I left Brückenkopfstrasse, with a message from his grandmother that the sofa in our flat, a broken-backed put-you-up on which several cycles of tenants had slept and ate and made love, was in worse condition than when we had got it, and demanding compensation.
Rose kept one of the flats, just a room with a small kitchen, but the one with the best view. A skinny woman with bleached hair and a cheerful slap-dash manner, she had a lover, an Italian named Sergio who appeared and disappeared for periods of several days and sometimes weeks in his Alfa Romeo, smuggling various sorts of contraband in a small-time way between Germany and Italy. On occasion he left a parcel with us, little heavy things wrapped in brown paper and string which I hid in the toe of one my spit-shined parade boots until he called for whatever it was (I never asked or looked), and then he would leave a bottle of some sticky aperitif or other in gratitude for the favour. Frau Keller did not approve of Sergio, needless to say, and the Hungarian would have nothing to do with him, a thing to which I attributed a significance, and which perhaps had some influence on my decision in the case I am about to relate.
At the base where I worked as operations clerk in a military police unit, I sometimes relieved the desk sergeant at the entrance kiosk to the headquarters caserne. At the desk, which admitted hundreds of German workers every day, as well as much of the top American brass in Europe, we employed a civilian translator named Müller, a smarmy fellow with a pock-marked face who engaged in a variety of petty extortions as a sideline or benefit of his go-between position, but who was tolerated nonetheless because he knew everybody and had a ferret's instinct for every sort of dodge and trick and underhandedness that presented itself. One day, in a slack moment at the desk, Müller announced in his creepy way that he had something to show us boys, something really juicy. Müller was an amateur photographer, and a photo-developer on the side, who had connections with all the photographic clubs and darkroom facilities around Heidelberg and did portraits and other custom work. He had a line of black-and-white postcard views of the castle and the bridge and so forth, all with nice dramatic cloud contrasts, done with filters, which he was happy to explain to you, that sold briskly to tourists.
He knew an Italian, Müller said, who had taken some pictures of his girlfriend, and had brought the film to Müller to develop. At first, Müller explained, the Italian only wanted them for himself. But he had been quickly talked into a joint venture with Müller, peddling additional prints to select customers, with the proviso-these being men of scruple-that the photos be cropped to conceal the subject's identity. The girlfriend was not to know about this bit of delicate traffic. Whereupon Müller handed round among the three or four of us working in the kiosk that day, samples of the photographs.
They were all of the same naked skinny blond woman, posing in a frankly vulgar way, rather like old naughty postcards, in a mood of cheerful burlesque. There were none that showed the face of the model and there was no one else in any of the pictures. The pictures I saw made much of the model's hands, sometimes coyly covering her breasts, sometimes her fingers playing with herself, or disappearing sweetly into herself, lying on her back, or kneeling or bending over. On one of these pictures, a close-up, I recognized the ring, a distinctive ring with a large lozenge-shaped stone that Rose always wore on the middle finger of her right hand.
That afternoon I rang up a friend of mine in military intelligence named Barney.
Barney and I met before my wife came over from New York. I was living in the barracks, and got away as much as I could, trying, unsuccessfully, in my close-cropped hair and military-issue black shoes, to look inconspicuous at the cafés and recital halls and small galleries around Heidelberg, and even at the cellar clubs that featured apache dancers and camp reviews whose topical references and Berlin slang were quite beyond me. These clubs were frequented by refugees from the East, then mostly rootless young people, who had made it over the border in those days before the Wall. I met Barney in one of these places one night. We had similar cultural interests, and took to hanging out together. He had cultivated an appearance that allowed him to pass as European, buying his clothes and getting his hair cut in town, besides speaking excellent German. I eagerly took cues from his manners and the kinds of things he ordered to eat and drink.
Then one night at dinner, in an out-of-the-way bourgeois restaurant he had found, he told me there was something he should tell me. I should know what other people might think because of my association with him. He was gay, he said. The word was not so generally in use then and I must have looked puzzled, because he then said, "Queer. I'm queer." At that very moment I choked on a bit of roulade, which had nothing to do with his declaration, it was entirely an accident, and I immediately began apologizing through gasps and hideous gurgling sounds, mortified he would think I was physically reacting to what he had said. The truth was I had not entertained the possibility that Barney was homosexual, and felt additionally foolish for being so blind. Barney looked horrified at my distress, particularly as I could not have been making much sense. In the midst of spluttered apologies on both sides, we began to laugh, and when we attracted disapproving stares, we laughed even more helplessly, and had to leave the restaurant. Afterwards, Barney confessed he had debated for a long time with himself whether to try to seduce me, or to keep me as a friend. He thought finally he owed me this courtesy, as some people around town would assume we were lovers. He said he hoped he had not put at risk our friendship-or for that matter his job. Barney had managed to keep his homosexuality a secret from his superiors in the intelligence unit, whose work in Heidelberg was to keep an eye on the student right-wing clubs, and the numerous refugees from the communist East, and try to ignore the old Nazis clustered around the villa of the commander-in-chief up on the mountain. Gay men were of course in those days thought to be peculiarly vulnerable to blackmail, besides being a threat to morale generally, and Barney would have been summarily dismissed from his position and from the Army had he been rumbled.
I was deeply touched by all this and treated his secret as a sacred trust and we became fast friends, not caring where we went together. I was pleased that I might even have served as a bit of cover for him. After my wife arrived he visited us often, never failing to bring a few bottles of good wine. He refused to drink the house favourite of Brückenkopfstrasse, a manufactured "Chianti" which was four marks, or one dollar, for a two-litre straw-wrapped bottle.
When I rang Barney that day from the desk sergeant's phone, we agreed to meet later in the enlisted men's club, and there I laid out the story of Rose and Sergio and Müller and the ring. Barney said he would leak word immediately in the right quarter about the suspicious activities of a certain Italian in an Alfa Romeo. Sergio disappeared from Brückenkopfstrasse, never to be heard from again, and Herr Müller came for a time to wear a rather hunted look.
I did not see Rose for a long time, until the day she invited everyone from Brückenkopfstrasse to the confirmation of her boy, who appeared at the church scrubbed and almost angelic-looking with his mother and grandmother. Also M. Martin, Deszo and Mme Benyo-and Madeleine, in a straw with a round crown and a longer ribbon than ever. My wife and I were there of course, and Pamela and her Brummy friend. Cyril, true to his principles, would not set foot in a church. The Catholic service was offhand and hurried, but the two English women cried anyway.
When I saw how sad and thin Rose was and how aged she had become in a short time, how altogether alone in the world she was, I had my first serious doubts about what I had done. I decided the Hungarian was probably right about me, and, for a time at least, swore off interfering in things I didn't understand.
S.K.Johannesen lives in Stratford, Ontario. Stories and essays have appeared in Queen's Quarterly, Descant, Grain, Malahat Review and in Offcourse. A story was selected for the Journey Prize anthology by McClelland & Stewart in 2004. A novel, Sister Patsy, was published by Pasdeloup Press in 2003. Another novel is nearing completion.
Comments? Tell us!
Back to Offcourse home page