Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998
Of course, a beginning of some sort is called for, but what do we do when these things go round and round. In the beginning, there was Quark. I’m the one who ate Quark, or farmers cheese, whenever you ask my sisters and my brother and my mother. I’m forever defined as the Quark-eater; it is part of my very essence:
In the beginning there was a sickly child that was on the verge of dying and nobody knows how I made it through but Quark has a lot to do with it because everything else went right through me or went back up but nothing stayed where it was supposed to stay, in the middle, in my center of gravity — and my mother, she was constantly worried. “Funny,” said my elder sister much later, “he always was sickly, couldn’t keep anything down when he was little, but now he is the healthiest of all. With my younger sister in and out of the hospital with cancer and follow-ups and me with my skin problems and my soft tissue arthritis and my brother is not the fittest one of us either.”
In the beginning, then, there was Quark.
There I am on the toilet pushing hard and then something gives but it’s my own guts that come out, Oh God, I’m shitting myself, it’s the reverse of a snake eating its own tail, and for a moment I think nobody cares. It is as though all the insides of me are made of Quark and the slightest push makes everything come out. Somebody, my mother, my sister, my grandmother; come to my rescue, take some soft paper and push it all back so it’s part of me again, at least until the next episode. Then they all start talking around me about my frail health and could it be that I would spend my life eating quark and nothing else? It even comes out of my head: my hair is not white without reason; it’s farmers’ cheese in my brain pressed out through the pores of my skin, spun into silk that is impossible to hide. This is the same principle as spaghetti is made.
It’ll be years until it is discovered that literally everything is made of quarks. Quarks are the building blocks of matter. I’m matter (though I don’t matter, for all I know), so I’m quark.
“Quack!” or “Ach quack!” said both my older siblings to interrupt a sentence by us latecomers, my young sister and me, if they believed the first part contained obvious nonsense that could not be fixed, in their opinion, by the part of the sentence yet to come, even though German has the known penchant of being able to invert the meaning of a sentence right at the very end. Quack is short for Quatsch — nonsense — but it is also the mindless uttering of Donald Duck. I saw Quack and Quark related in some way, in a curious juxtaposition. With my present knowledge, I might have said: if quarks are building blocks of matter, quacks are the blocks of destruction.
Quark is the beginning of all there is. It’s the primordial soup and cure for all ailments. Quark is the savior fluid, the White Holy Mud. I’m filled with it, to this day.
Hindelang was a word I associated, undulating as it was, with softness, sissiness, and quark. We went to Hindelang on vacation during the War. It was a village in the Allgäu, in the south of Bavaria. A black and white picture shows a dirt road rising up a hill in front of a mountain range. The dirt road is bordered with a wooden fence, basically three continuous rows of unfinished boards fastened to poles planted every 10 feet. In the middle of the road stands a little white blonde-haired boy, looking at the camera, smiling. I am that boy. At that time photographs were printed with white borders that were cut in a jagged, ornamental way, as though intended to serve as frames. I believe only my mother went there with me, but perhaps her sister came along, as well. The stay in Hindelang had something to do with my ailment; the fresh air was supposed to fix whatever was wrong with my digestive system. Sebastian Kneipp, inventor of the world-famous water cure in Wörrishofen, not far away from Hindelang, said this about diarrhea in his authoritative book on the Water Cure, in 1888:
It is a warning for such people that morbid matters have accumulated in their body, which, if they are not removed, frequently occasion destruction. Indeed experience teaches that people afflicted in this manner suffer from some organic defect, that they generally die early or at least never reach a particularly old age.
It is clear, then, that I was not supposed to live. If not for my mother’s care and the miraculous properties of the white coagulant matter —curdles of my cradle— whatever became of me was through sheer accident, extending an existence beyond the wholly plausible and natural end. But the fortuitous afterlife I was able to enjoy was not altogether free of morbid matters. They stayed put and kept simmering, reminders of my gratuitous state, occasionally leading to eruptions, pimples, boils, bad dreams, bed wettings, alternate feelings of incompetence and responsibility for the sore state of the world. Although the second one of Doctor Sebastian Kneipp’s dire predictions has not yet been put to test, there is still a good chance for me to prove him wrong on that count as well.
My first memories bring me into the cellar of our house: my family seeking shelter during an air raid. Huddled under blankets, we sit in front of an electric heater, listening for the sounds of planes. To me the red-glowing hot curly wires of the heater look like Heinzelmännchen, the little German fairies that were precursors of the Brownies in the States. A whole battalion of them paraded for us behind the vertical safety bars. Instead of rushing around, cleaning the floors and washing dishes, these fellows did their good deeds simply by standing at attention and glowing. “Let’s go see the Heinzelmännchen,” I would say even on wholly peaceful days, trying to drag one of my parents into the basement. They resented it, of course, since they didn’t want to spend one minute more than necessary in that cold damp space. The constellation formed by the square-shaped heater, with its glowing window, and the family huddled in front of it, staring into it, is a premonition of TV-watching, at just about the time (1943) when TV was being invented. When the heater was plugged in it made a ghostly scraping sound for a few minutes until the wire was red-hot.
[Later, when I was 12 years old, and knew all about electricity, I got the go-ahead to take the heater apart, since it was broken. With pounding heart, I finally discovered the secrets of the magic box. The heater was encased in enameled sheet metal. Three horizontal ceramic bars, mounted in the focal lines of parabolic mirrors that had turned rusty, were wrapped with a curled nickel alloy wire following helical grooves. I found out that the ghostly sound was made when the spirally wire expanded as it got hot and repositioned itself along the winding ceramic bed. (A helix curled into a helical superstructure: that brings us to the level of the 30-nanometer chromatin fiber in the organization of DNA, the substrate of the genetic code, whose structure will not be discovered till I’m thirteen, in 1953.)
Taking things apart was a family tradition. When my brother was fourteen or fifteen, acting on impulse and good faith in his mechanical intuition, he took our Pfaff sewing machine apart. Seeing the oily finely crafted parts — levers and crankshafts, cog-wheels and pinions — spread out on that morning’s issue of the Westfalenpost, the local newspaper, next to the empty shell of the sewing machine, made my mother shriek. In her eyes, there was no hope of ever seeing the parts come back together to move again in their functional orbits. But he managed, biting his lips and working into the night, earning himself an honorary degree of engineering in my family long before he would prove himself at the Engineering School.
At the age of twelve, I also discovered the beauty of insulators used in appliances. In those days, clamps, switches and resting posts for incoming and outgoing leads were fastened to intricately shaped plates normally made of Bakelite, a product made by pressing some organic compound into a form, which worked fine, unless the leads and insulators were intended for a hot environment. In that case, as in our electric heater, ceramic or mica were used as insulating material, and the mount of the wires emanated the solemn professional dignity of 19th-century scientific apparatuses. They made me think of cast-iron electric generators standing on clawed feet, as depicted in Meyer’s Konversationslexikon, our 20-volume encyclopedia from 1905. Leads to and from the heating wires were insulated with white cone-shaped ceramic beads that fitted into one another, male on one end, female on the other, like a chain of amphoteric snails in heat. I unfastened the leads and let the beads drop into a cup. As they dropped they made a tingling sound, and settled in a random, clueless way.]
Next, as a four-year old, I find myself on the doorstep in front of our house, holding someone’s hand, looking across where the house of our neighbor Timpe’s Friedchen was burning. Her house was a wooden box the way I remember it, with elaborate friezes running under the roof encircling the house. Timpe-Friedchen’s house had been hit by an incendiary bomb. It burnt with frightening speed and efficiency. In my mind at the time, all fires were pre-figured by the fire in Struwwelpeter that was started by a boy playing with matches and ended with the complete destruction of his and his parents’ home. Struwwelpeter was the name of a children’s book, illustrated with drawings, that warned against the terrible consequences of not following rules. Somewhere inside Timpe-Friedchen’s house, I was certain Friedchen was trapped and burning all by herself. Yet somehow the diminutive form of Frieda, Friedchen, a name that was stuck to her, along with her capricious last name Timpe softened the impact of the catastrophe as it took the unfolding story into the realm of a legend. An adult on a miniature scale could always weasel herself out of danger, if necessary by slipping through cracks in the wall. Within minutes, the fire became an inferno — I was sure I heard screams — and I was dragged away from the door, into the interior of our house that still lay in peace. The next time I was allowed to look outside, Timpe-Friedchen’s house was gone and in its place there were charred beams of varied sizes amid a smoldering heap of debris. Friedchen Timpe had survived, which proved to me her ethereal fairy-tale nature: she had no doubt escaped by an act of planned disintegration, diffusion and reassembly outside where it was safe. Later I learned that Friedchen ran a bookstore in Weidenau. She’d be one of those who could make thoughtful suggestions when a customer would ask for a recommendation “for a book,” because I suppose she read them all as they came in.
[On the lot where Friedchen’s house had stood, on the corner of Engsbachstrasse and Wilhelmstrasse, a small one-story building was later erected, which housed the establishment of the hairdresser Ohrendorf. Ohrendorf was a tall man with a pale complexion; for some time, when I was little, I linked the long sound of “Ohrendorf” to the length of his body. Besides, the Ohren or ears in his name seemed an ominous reference to the accidental mutilations of customers. He cut my hair until I was around 12 years old, at which time I switched to Salon Meinhardt in the Gartenstrasse. Herr Meinhardt, a stocky man, charged more but his salon, when compared to Ohrendorf’s triste and spartanic outlet, had something of the ambiance of the world of fashion —as much as it ever took hold in Weidenau— with fancy mirrors and pictures of fashionable coiffures on the wall, and glossy magazines lying on gold-speckled kidney-shaped tables.]
Another early memory —I couldn’t have been more than four years old— was watching a Mickey Mouse movie on the third floor of our house. There was a scene about a black she-cook (Köchin, as in “Ist die Schwarze Köchin da?” — Is the black she-cook home?), and the most vivid scene with a stupid gardener who keeps stepping on his rake which promptly swings upwards each time, hitting his forehead and thereby knocking him down. It’s the only memory I have about the third floor, which was soon to burst into flames, in 1944, when it was our house’s turn to get hit with an incendiary bomb. After that, it was replaced by a mere shell, in a hasty construction that restored the outward appearance of the house with its elaborate double-gabled roof, but left the third floor unfinished within.
Our house was built in 1906 by my grandparents. It was built of orange double-fired bricks (Klinker, in German). The gray coarse mortar between the bricks was covered by half an inch of a pink compound for decoration. We used to scrape out the pink compound with iron nails, gathering the fine dust in cups as though it were a magic potion. By adding water to it, we could make it into a pink face paint. The house was stately, like many houses of the bourgeoisie at the turn of the century. It had steep slate roofs and a two-story balcony facing the Engsbach hill. There were a few houses like that in the neighborhood, but ours was one of the biggest. Much later, in 1994, on a trip to Spain from Frankfurt, I found an identical house in the airline’s magazine. It stands in Zurich, and is currently used as a museum —the Reetberg Museum.
The entrance was on the right side of the house, well above ground level, to be reached by a false marble stairway bordered by an iron railing. (Because of the elevated placement of the ground floor, the basement was partly below ground, partly above, and had plenty of daylight through windows placed above ground level.) Stepping into the house, one would stand on the tiled floor and see the stairway to the second floor (the first floor, following the German system of counting) going up to the right, with its running carpet held in place by heavy brass bars.
Next to the stairway, to the immediate right, was the hallway leading to the back door. It housed the wardrobe and, on the wall next to it, the important brass gong. To have a gong in the house was a sign of sophistication. Other people shouted through their houses or apartments to summon the family to dinner. My mother never shouted, but used two different ways of notifying us, depending on the occasion. Family was normally summoned by banging the kitchen radiator with a knife or a spoon. The noise traveled along the pipes into every room that had radiators, faster than the speed of sound in air. The other way was by sounding the gong, only used at special occasions when we had visitors. When I was old enough, my mother would send me into the hallway to bang the divine real instrument. It was a mission to be proud of. The clapper, a brass stick that carried at its end a ball covered with felt, lay ready, suspended on two brass hooks. I had to get on my tiptoes to take it off and strike the gong with it. As with most things in life, there was a right way and a wrong way of doing it. The right way was to aim for the very center, in which case the gong produced the fullest, roundest, most satisfying sound. The wrong way was to strike the metal disk close to the edge, and then the sound was shrill and buffo, lacking dignity.
The tiles in the hallway were quite colorful and had intricate designs that carried the eye along the floor, along rigid lines of perspective, interrupted by floor mats, umbrella stands, and a shoe chest. Some of the tiles were loose, and stepping on them made a wonderful saturated sound, like a Mercedes door closing, giving me the feeling that really nothing was broken, that, on the contrary, the liberation of the tiles from their cement matrix had set free their hidden qualities, their own voices so to say. Some spare tiles were piled up in the cellar like back-benchers — they must have been there for 34 years already at the time I was born, waiting for the chance to replace a cracked companion.
Standing there, in the entrance hall, and having managed to lift the eyes off the floor, one would see straight ahead the Etagentür — the door separating the entrance hall from the actual living quarters on the first floor. (“Etage”, like “Trottoire” and “Portmannieu” were leftover of the French occupation under Napoleon, and still in use.) I always considered this to be a high-class arrangement, in sharp contrast to homes where one immediately walked into the corridor of the living space. But later it occurred to me that in fact the very opposite might be true; that the compartmentation of a house signified that it was occupied by more than one party, and hence was associated with people of low means. But in my parents’ house, the division into two living domains — downstairs and upstairs — was probably a necessity, created years after its construction, and was meant to give my mother a sense of privacy in a house that was ruled and watched over by her mother-in-law’s sour face.
The Etagentür had a middle section that was of matted, scallopped glass, which broke only once, when my brother chased me through the house and teased me so badly that I ran with my arm into the glass and got cut close to my wrist, close enough to cause my blood to spill all over the glass shards on the floor and to make me pass out, still with my brother’s laughter in my ear. The accident made me wonder about the purpose of the glass in that door. That purpose was unclear, since there was very little light in the entrance hall to begin with — just the amount that was able to seep through the narrow glass panel above the entrance door.
Mounted on the wall next to the Etagentür, there was a bell reserved for the first floor alone. The bell was of ingenious design; it was a hollow metal semi-sphere with a chrome nipple in its center, a little breast as it were, and was activated by turning the nipple by a twisting motion of thumb and index finger. That motion would turn a gear hidden inside that caused little prongs to strike against the hollow encasing, producing a full, soothing, trilling sound. I couldn’t wait till the bell would break so that I could take a look inside and see how it all worked. The day finally came, but my excitement about seeing the guts of the device — little levers and wheels and spring-loaded hammers — was overshadowed by the discovery that one of the springs was broken inside, and no replacement could be found. Dispirited, I reassembled the bell and mounted it back on the door. It no longer sounded like a bell; it rather rattled like the breathing of a man with a serious case of TB.
Entering the Etagentür one would stand in total darkness, unless the kitchen door on the right was open, offering a view of the table and the large window facing South, toward the backyard. The first door on the left led into the dining room, the one after that into the living room. Dining and living room which were linked by a sliding door made up the formal part of the house, where guests were received, silver laid upon white linen-covered mahogany tables, schnapps served, cigars smoked, Schubert played on the piano, Christmas trees decorated, and presents exchanged. The layout of the house was a constant source of irritation to my mother. It made no sense, she said time and again, that both the dining room and the living room faced north. The two rooms were perpetually cold and dark, while the kitchen was overflowing with sunlight, and sometimes became uncomfortably warm. For my father’s 60th birthday, we children produced a mock version of the Siegener Zeitung dedicated to him. For this issue I wrote a poem in my mother’s voice, complaining about the unjust state of the world that had led to the design of the house.
Straight ahead, at the end of the corridor, was the Kinderzimmer —children’s room— so called because for a long time it was the room where two or three kids slept in ever-changing bedding arrangements. The reason was that for several years, the upstairs was taken, as it was divided between my parents’ bedroom and the quarters for refugees we had to accomodate after the war. The Kinderzimmer was flooded with light that came through two windows and one large glass door. That glass door led to the verandah. The verandah was an extension of the ground level of the house toward the East, supported by a platform made of concrete, that rested on a structure with several arches. In our family lingo, that structure was called Kabäuschen, which means something like the cabin used by the captain on a ship, centuries ago, when they had to contend with pirates and storms. That room, with a ceiling too low for adults to stand erect, was an ideal refuge for me and my friends, out of reach of our mothers’ calling voices.
Author Joachim Frank is a German-born scientist and writer living in New York City and Great Barrington, MA. He took writing classes with William Kennedy, Steven Millhauser, Eugene Garber, and Jayne Ann Philipps. He has published a number of short stories and prose poems in, among other magazines, Eclectica, Offcourse, Fiction Fix, Hamilton Stone Review, Conium Review, Bartleby Snopes, Red Ochre Lit, theeels, Infiniti's Kitchen, StepAway Magazine, Textobj, and Wasafiri. Frank is a recipient of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. His first novel, "Aan Zee," was published in 2019 by University Press of the South. Three others are still cooking. His website franxfiction.com runs a blog about everything and carries links to all his literary work.