ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

A journal for poetry, criticism, reviews, stories and essays published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"The Trade", a story by Joachim Frank


            "We shouldn't have quit the factory in Buschgotthardshuetten," Lisbeth said, stirring the soup in the large pot, to last for a week. Potatoes, onions, and carrots.  Also, traces of chicken broth from the week before, to add some taste.
            "That's easy for you to say," Heinrich said, standing in the entrance to the kitchen, his head bowed.  He always felt awkward in the kitchen, with its low ceiling.  The Helfensteins were mighty tall people, the men at least were; they didn't fit into the standard blueprint of a house.  It was the one thing he hadn't thought about when he’d built the house.  But presently he knew what was coming; Lisbeth had to go through the litany, and would not relent and would not stop and would not let go, till it was all out.
            "Pigs — look, we've even got pigs now," he added in her direction, to soften the anticipated storm.
            "Natűrlich, but a lot of good does it do.  They eat us poor.  They poison the air!" She spoke without looking at him, talking to the pot in front of her, which responded by wafting steam and the sharp stench of onions into her reddish-turning face.  "To tell you the truth, I miss having your brother and his family around."
            "Don't mention his name in front of me again."  Heinrich's hand curled into a fist.
            "Your brother, is all I said.  I didn't even mention his name.  He is — you have got to admit — a good-natured God-loving man."
            "He stole from us, is all I need to say."
            "And Lieselotte," Lisbeth spoke to the pot.  "And little Martha and her brother.  I do like them.  Margarete used to play with Martha when they were little. All our family and friends are in Buschgotthardshuetten.  But here  — here's nobody here to talk to."  At this moment an extra puff of steam came up, a burst bubble, and wincing with her eyes she had to turn her face away.
            "Nobody, you say?  Are you kidding? With Uncle Heinrich living close by, and Aunt Sophie, and the twin cousins.  And what about Rudolf?"  Heinrich was still standing in his uncomfortable pose.
            "Your folks, they are, though.  Boors they are, all of them.  Boring me to tears, that is a fact.  And why in the Lord's name did you have to sink the rest of the money into this new factory down here?"
            "Listen, woman!  You stop right there.  This is men's business.  You have no idea what you are talking about. We're going to be rich."
            "Let me tell you about women's business, since you understand men's so perfectly.  I can tell you a thing or two about women's business.  There's no money for clothes.  The kids' socks are falling apart, too frayed to be mended.  There isn't enough money to go around for buying decent food.  I'm ashamed of going to Schaefer's, because I always have to look for the cheapest stuff.  That's why I'm going downtown, to the other side of the railway, where they don't know me.  All with the baby in the Kinderwagen and the other two kids trailing behind."
            "Will you stop with your laments?" he shouted.  "I've heard enough.  You can't go to Schaefer's?  You need to go downtown?  Lisbeth, that's insane."
            "If we are going to be rich as you say, then it better happen fast, before we starve to death."  This last bit was rendered in a scream, while she pointed the dripping spoon in his direction. 
            So this is how it went every day, except for the extra treat of three children crawling and bawling all over the place, and now and then Lisbeth's shrill voice cutting the day into so many pieces.  A good thing the kids were with her sister Henriette today, so Lisbeth could get some chores done, with some time and breath left to give it to her husband.
            Whenever she complained about having to take care of three kids he'd just laugh at her.  At home, in Buschgotthardshuetten, where he'd grown up, it didn't seem too much for his mother to run the house with eleven kids, and grow a vegetable garden, too. She even kept chickens and a goat on the side.  Somehow his mother was made of a different cloth than this fragile specimen here, a woman who freaked out every time a pig took a wrong turn and ran into the living room.  Who never managed to get the laundry done on time, so that more than once he found himself in the same underwear for days. Not to speak of the two older kids who ran around bare-bottomed all day for want of clean diapers.  Sometimes he would come home and would find his wife sitting on her bed, just staring out the window, as if nothing was there to be done in the house.
            Heinrich had had a falling out with his brother Friedrich on how to run the family business, the iron manufacturing plant in Buschgotthardshuetten they jointly owned.  It all came in the open one day.  The business had done well, perhaps a bit too well.  Much of the profits were piling up somewhere, probably outside the books, till one night Heinrich saw a lockbox, in a man's hand, being carried out of the factory office.  He confronted his brother, who professed ignorance, but unfortunately for him, just then the foreman who'd sneaked out before came back and knocked on the door.  Friedrich had an innocent explanation, but it was clear to Heinrich, even if he lacked proof, that the man and Friedrich were buddies in some murky business behind Heinrich's back.
            When he'd come back home, he didn't mention a word to his wife.  He was quiet, refused to eat the food she'd prepared, and slept in a different room.  That night, staring at the ceiling, he'd made up his mind to ask for his fair share, get out, and move to Weidenau, on the other side of the hill.  Weidenau was the place where his cousins lived, where he could easily find labor for a new business that would be his own.
            "What in the Lord's name is the matter with you?' Lisbeth had asked the next morning, the three kids standing around in their nightgowns, the youngest with a finger in his nose.  Having had less than an hour of sleep, Heinrich found it difficult to explain himself. 
            "Your sandwich!  You left your nourishment behind!" Lisbeth yelled after him, but he was already on his way, walking his determined walk, what he knew to be the last of his daily three-kilometer hikes over to the factory.  'Nourishment!' he repeated to himself, turning the word around in his mouth in wonderment and disgust.
            When he'd come back from work that night, much later than usual, Lisbeth greeted him with fists on her hips, elbows angled out.
            “So what took you so long?” she said.
            "I've seen all there is to see," Heinrich foamed.
            "See what?" she asked.
            "My brother, a veritable crook."
            "Don't say that.  Wash your mouth, or the Lord will smite you."
            She had this Lord business in her mouth all day; Heinrich should have listened to his father who told him to stay away from the serious Evangelists because they would not fail to drive him crazy, but now it was too late.  She'd grow up going with her parents to an Evangelist congregation, where she’d been brainwashed and never found her way out.
            His brother, though, who would have thought!  They'd all been brought up in a crammy cabin out in the Hauberg — the brush forest — eleven children, all running around in this small crammed space.  Neighbors' kids went in and out, too; till things got out of hand.  His father used to come back from his job at the factory at eight, tired from the ten-kilometer walk, just enough juice left in him to sit on the front porch and smoke a pipe.
            One night, Heinrich remembered clearly, his dad had turned to little Friederich and said, 'hey boy, it's getting late, time to go home.'  And little Friederich said, tears welling up in his eyes, 'but Daddy, I'm one of yours!'  Heinrich realized that no matter what he did, now that they were grownups, Friederich would carry around the idea of being the runt of a large litter, and would hold it against him and the other siblings for the rest of his life.

            With the payout in Buschgotthardshuetten Heinrich had bought a piece of a meadow in Weidenau, which was overpriced since it was swampy and in need of draining.  Weidenau  — the name meant a pasture of willows, conjuring up a paradise.  The reality was not half as nice.  Willows love water, that is all one needs to know. Mosquitoes and horseflies were everywhere on account of the swamp.  Much of the pastures and trees around the property had already yielded to iron manufacturing buildings, ugly boxes made of corrugated steel and bricks that had popped up everywhere.  People in Weidenau and all his relatives thought he was crazy, buying a piece of swamp in the middle of nowhere, but he would show them.  He would show them and his brother.  He was full of wrath and determination and couldn't be talked out of anything, certainly not by his wife — he would show her, too, what he was capable of.  Heinrich hired a hand, and together with the young, slightly asthmatic man, he dug trenches, drained the area, built a good-sized house (though he didn't check the floor-to-ceiling measures) with a pigsty, a chicken coop, and a cowshed, all things he'd always dreamed of.  The river Sieg meandered by in the distance, too far away to see, but actually less than a few blocks away, a comforting thought.  And what was even better, the Sieg harbored some trout for dinners on Friday nights.
            Then, when the house was done, roof and walls covered with the blue-grey slate of the region, though still not quite finished inside, he thought of greater things to do. These were the greater things: a hammer forge and a large lathe, both operated with a steam engine.  He would specialize in making axle for trains.  From the business he'd bowed out of he knew something about the steep demand, and how it was climbing, too.  All major cities had been connected with railways in the first rush of industrialization, but now came a second wave of railroad construction, off the main arteries, into the province.  Even on the existing main tracks train schedules were expanded.  It would double, even triple the number of trains, and with it the demand for axles made from highest-quality steel, machined to perfection.
            Everything was lined up: an experienced foreman, Peter Selig, who had followed him to Weidenau, was ready to sign up; a supplier of the raw steel bits, in Klafeld, was ready to roll; and a piece of real estate in the Herrenwiese was waiting, which he'd bought with cash.  He had broken ground for the factory — not a big deal since all that was needed was to prepare a flat terrain to pour concrete on, with some corner pillars going down deep; there was no need for a basement.  Once the concrete was poured, with vertical steel beams erected in regular intervals, the shell of the factory would be in place within less than a week.  The corrugated tin segments for side walls and roof had been delivered already, stacked up on the property, covered with oil cloth to protect against the persistent Siegerland mist and rain.  He'd made a down-payment on the hardware, too, and that's where the rest of his money had gone.  Given his experience in this particular business, he was all confidence; with some luck, he could be up and running within three months.  It was easy to find people nowadays who worked for a pittance a day.  Not that he intended to pay a pittance, but it helped to know the bottom line.
            But there was something else to contend with, Lisbeth with nobody but her kids to turn to, bubbling away in hoity-toity sentences, the bits she'd picked up in her two years of trade school.  It was painful to listen to her when people visited, his cousins, the few friends she had, or her sister.  "Nourishment!"  he mumbled to himself.  The clock would tick-tock away as his wife served tea on a silver tray, offering sugar cubes with a vintage silver prong.  He would always time it to be away, at his project, even if his project happened to be at the local pub.  Lisbeth, seemingly confused as if she didn't quite know where she belonged, believing perhaps that some day her educated words might fall in someone's ear, the ear of a man of means and culture.  Heinrich, of course, was neither one nor the other, but the hammer forge would turn it all around, and within a year, they would be able to buy meat at least twice a week, and afford real butter and real colonial coffee! Heinrich couldn't elaborate on these foregone realities in front of her since, knowing her well, he was quite certain she would cut him off in mid-sentence.
            "Henner," he was sure she'd say, "you're dreaming.  Tell me when you wake up so I can talk some sense with you."

                                                                              a line

            When Martha had first heard about her uncle's death, she didn't think much of it.  Uncle Heinrich, or Uncle Henner as they called him, was a distant memory, a beard seen bristle-on from below, a hollering voice that had hardly ever addressed her even when he was still around.  Since the day he and his family had left to settle in Weidenau, she'd never seen him again, nor her cousins and Aunt Lisbeth; they were all dead in a way.  None of their names were mentioned ever again at the dinner table.  She'd figured that was how some people acted: they parted, moved somewhere else, and promptly forgot about each other.  Much like chickens she'd observed in the courtyard, which seemed without memory about what happened five minutes before. 
            In her school, though, someone mentioned a fight between her father and Uncle Henner, and that night she'd looked at her dad for bruises or a band-aid.  When she found neither, she dismissed the rumor as groundless.  And then she tried to think in her bed, before falling asleep, how she would feel if her own brother would one day leave and seek his fortune somewhere else — the way the sons and princes did in fairy tales — would she also forget him?  And what about her parents?  Would they stop talking about him, as if he'd never existed?  But then she was unable to imagine him gone.  Thinking about the gone-ness of gone, the stark inevitability of it, and thinking herself into the place of her brother, even though he was still here and sleeping soundly right this minute, had made her very sad that night.
            But now, all of a sudden, Uncle Henner seemed to have reappeared the very moment he had passed away.  His name was on everybody's lips, and so was this dreadful word, "tragedy."  It was attached, oddly, to the rest of his family, who had not died at all.  Aunt Lisbeth was said to be "out of it", and that was said to be a tragic fact because of her three now fatherless children.  Martha thought the "it" referred to her Aunt's house in Weidenau.  Of course, if her aunt Lisbeth had left the house, the children would be alone without food.  That would be an easy thing to apply the new word "tragic" to.
            On the day of the funeral, Martha settled for a fine freshly ironed pink cotton dress, with ribbons.
            "Mom, do I look nice?" she asked, turning around in front of the mirror.
            "Martha, how often should I tell you we're trying to look decent and serious at a funeral, not nice."
            "Mom, do I look decent and serious?" Martha was quick to change her tune.  She kept turning this way and that, and now her mother seemed to have a hard time suppressing a smile.
            They all took a horse-drawn carriage to Weidenau.  There Martha met her cousins, strangers who first eyed her with suspicion.  The two boys were dressed in sailors' outfits, for the solemn occasion.  She recognized Margarete, the eldest, a girl about her own age, who was dressed in a deep-purple velvet dress, with black lacquer shoes and white stockings.  Her own cotton outfit paled in comparison.  They were all sitting next to each other on the hard bench in the chapel, in the back row, braving the tedium of the service.
            "How did your dad die?" was Martha's first question, rendered in a whisper.
            "His heart was attacked."
            Martha tried to process the information, without success. 
            "Do you guys keep geese?" she asked.
            "We have pigs.  Why do you ask?"
            "Geese are supposed to be mean.  The attack people."
            Margarete shrugged her shoulders.  "Do you want to see my marble collection?"
            Martha agreed.  The day of the funeral started to turn interesting.
            "Wait till we are at the reception, at home.  I've got spiral ones, and worlds."
            "What are worlds?"
            "Little globes, with the continents, like America, and the North pole."
            When the coffin was carried out onto the graveyard, the procession forming behind it, they got separated.  Margarete and her brothers were supposed to be with her aunt, right behind the coffin, while Martha was supposed to be with her mother, who for some reason didn't want to walk with her sister-in-law.  Martha's dad was one of the pall bearers.
            Back at the house, she was in awe of how big it was inside.  Margarete took her upstairs to her room.  As she emptied the tin box with her colorful marbles on the cover of her bed, Martha heard a wailing sound.
            "What's that?" Martha asked.
            "Oh, it's my mother.  She's not right in her head.  She's been in her room since Dad died.  I think she hasn't eaten a bit since."
            Martha looked at her silently.  "That's tragic," she finally said, with a tone of conviction, and leaned over across the marbles to touch Margarete by her shoulder.
            "I don't know what it is," Margarete said, averting her eyes.  "My aunt says ‘Lisbeth should pull herself together.’"
            "You have such a fine new house," Martha said.  "I envy you.  Not a forlorn place like ours in Buschgotthardshuetten."
            "Let's go downstairs, eat some of the cake before it's all gone."  It seemed Margarete didn't want to acknowledge how good she had it in Weidenau.


a line

            "Mom, tell me if I'm dreaming, or what?"
            Martha stood by her mother's bed in her starry nightgown.  Her mother, without a word, lifted the cover to let her daughter snuggle in.
            "You do and you don't," she whispered in her ear. 
            Before six months had gone by, Martha's life and the life of everybody around her had been transformed.  Margarete's mother was now in what they called an institution, a place much bigger than her room, where perhaps she could wail all day and nobody would hear her, or perhaps they would give her a special kind of Chinese tea to calm her down while she stared at photographs of her children.  The adults — Lisbeth's sister Henriette, and Martha's parents and some other relatives — had talked amongst themselves in the mysterious ways adults made decisions, and decided on a solution that was too fantastic to think about, except now it was real.  Margarete and her brothers, practically orphans now, had moved to live with their Aunt Henriette in Geisweid, and Martha's family had moved from Buschgotthardshuetten to take over the empty cozy house in Weidenau.  Martha had her own room now, the very room in which Margarete had shown her the marbles with spirals and continents.

            Martha's father kept talking about an investment that his brother had made, and spent his days at an industrial place, the Herrenwiese, east of Weidenau.  The name of the place, Masters' Meadow, made no sense to her, nor did she know what an investment was.  But gradually, from all the talks about money at the dinner table, she put bits and pieces together: at this point in time, the factory, her deceased uncle's dream, had to be put up quickly, or all the money he'd put in the enterprise would be lost.  Her Aunt Lisbeth's treatment in the asylum which might go on forever was costly — though part was paid by the town — but the other worry was the cost of bringing up the children in Geisweid.  There were even debts to repay right now.


a line

            So this is why my grandmother, Martha Helfenstein, couldn't think for a minute how lucky she was without thinking about the trade she'd been unwittingly part of.  Thinking about her cousin at night, incessantly and for years, putting herself into Margarete's place once more, so to say, her face turned worried and bitter.  People started to say to her: 'hey kid, lighten up.'  Whenever she managed to smile, she actually looked attractive, which was the reason, apart from a handsome dowry, why she later wound up with a very good-looking high-school teacher, who was to become my Grandfather. But presently the guilt consumed her, so her mother, a revivalist, did not have a hard time persuading her to come to service in the Vereinshaus, the assembly hall which was little more than a large wooden barrack that looked like a barn, not far from the railway station.  Throughout her forced prayers, one question was constantly on Martha's mind: "Why couldn't they come to live with us?" But all these years she did not dare ask it, for fear of sounding unreasonable and ungrateful.  She did meet Margarete again, at family events when the women cooked and gossiped in the kitchen and the men smoked cigars and talked about the good old puddling method of refining iron, and how it got replaced by the Bessemer process; the rise in steel prices in the upcoming war; and the growing American competition.  But the conversations with her cousin were monosyllabic, and never, ever got to the point.


Joachim Frank, a German-born scientist and writer, moved in 1975 to Albany, New York and recently (2008) relocated to New York City.  He took writing classes with William Kennedy, Steven Millhauser, Eugene Garber, and Jayne Ann Philipps.  He wrote three novels, still unpublished.  An excerpt of his novel The Observatory has appeared in WIPs Works (of Fiction) in Progress.  He has published short stories, poems and prose poems in Lost and Found Times, The Agent, Inkblot, Heidelberg Review, Groundswell, Peer Glass, Open Mic, elimae, 3711 Atlantic, Cezanne's Carrot, Brilliant, Eclectica, Offcourse, The Noneuclidean Cafe, Ghoti Magazine, Duck and Herring Co. Pocket Field Guide, Hamilton Stone Review, Raving Dove, Bartleby Snopes, Red Ochre Lit, StepAway Magazine, Litbomb, and Black&White.  
His work appears in Issue #53, #47, #34 and Issue #15 of Offcourse.


Return to Offcourse Index.