ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"My Friend Bömbes", an excerpt from a memoir by Joachim Frank

Bömbes took his right eye out, looked at it briefly with his left eye, and showed it around among the little circle of boys and the single girl.  It was obviously a fake since it was not even a complete sphere — it fell quite short of that.  Later I learned that the technical term for this geometrical shape is calotte, which is the shape you wind up with when you slice a sphere above or below its mid-plane.  The girl, Gudrun was her name, was really a tomboy and we didn’t mind her being around as long as she kept that way.  (I later developed a crush on her, in fourth grade, but that is a different story).  We’d all watch Bömbes with a mixture of awe and envy — our own eyes were firmly fixed in their sockets, and of a soft consistency, so they were of little use for showing them around and bragging.

Bömbes did his eye-opening act every time he would meet a new kid, making most of his talents at the critical opportunity for recruitment of new friends.  I was a new kid, in a sense, since my parents had pretty much kept me away from the street until then, when I got into elementary school.  

Bömbes’ glass eye was white, with a light-blue iris surrounding a fixed black pupil, the color and pattern matching the real ones, and finely crafted like a marble.  But the shape of it, with its so-to-say calottesque properties, kept it from moving on a table beyond a mere wiggle, either looking up at the ceiling or looking down, myopically, at the grain in the wood of the table.   Years later, when I heard about van Gogh and his missing ear, I thought of him as just another Bömbes, or a close variant of him, whose most important distinction was that he lost track of his organ at one point, while Bömbes never left his eye out of sight.  I was glad every time the eye was back in its normal socket because, whenever it was out, the hole that it left in my friend’s face looked pink, just like freshly diced goulash meat on the kitchen table at my home before it went into the pan.  I didn’t like to look at meat, and if it had been up to me, I would have turned vegetarian.

At that time, when World War II was just over and done with a couple of years before, and much of our town was still in rubble, we played a game called “War” on our street.  We were five kids: Bömbes and I, and sometimes Gudrun, the tomboy girl from the neighborhood, and a couple of others, and the aim was to take over the world.  We’d draw a big circle in the dirt to be the earth, and divided it like a pie into Germany, France, England, Russia and America.  The kid who had the ball would stand with one foot in his country and shout, for instance, “GERMANY … DECLARES … WAR … AGAINST … (and this was the point where we got nervous since, according to the rules, we had to behave differently depending on our designation either as victim of the aggression, or a mere bystander) ... France!” And as he blasted out this last word he would throw the ball, and the kid owning France was supposed to run and catch the ball while all others put their feet firmly into the victim’s territory to carve out a piece, as a legitimate annexation.  And there was some logic in how the ball and the right to be the next aggressor were passed from one kid to the other, which I can’t remember after more than half a century.

Today, as I think about Bömbes’ violent accident when he was a little boy that rendered him half-seeing and half-blind, I find his appetite for war games difficult to understand.  But at the time, in our little neighborhood gang, we looked up at him as the epitome of an uncompromising warrior.  He would gladly fight, even with his grandmother — even, it seemed to me, at the risk of losing his other eye.  And he always was in the possession of truths we, the inexperienced, were unable to divine. 

Bömbes’ real name was Peter Fischbach, the last name meaning fish creek, which half a century later and some 1500 miles away, at the place where I came to live, became associated with Governor Pataki, whose hometown was Fishkill, New York.  This was because, I know now, the Dutch settled this part of the country, and “kill” means “creek” in Middle Dutch.  Bömbes, knowing nothing about these subtleties of language and provenance, lived alone with his grandmother and his aunt in a little blue-grey slate-covered corner house since his father had been killed in the War, and his mother had died early.  I was convinced the shrapnel that hit his eye was the exact shrapnel that killed his father, though I’d never dared to ask him.

He was a bit on the short side, but he made up for it with the size of his mouth.   With his sure instinct for finding people who were below himself in social rank — smaller kids, handymen and bums — he loved to humiliate them in front of his friends but was always ready to run if a shovel would be swung in his direction.   He could be quite mean and had a store of swear words and derogatory comments at the tip of his tongue.

“You better shut up,” he said once to a grownup man who sweated away for a few deutschmarks a day, excavating a space next to the slate-covered house, for the construction of an annex.  “You just stay in your shithole.”  I witnessed the scene open-mouthed since the risk my friend took was without any discernable benefits, except for the effect of increasing his self-esteem and the imponderable gain in my own admiration.

The little clap-trap house he lived in with his aunt and grandmother was on the corner of our street with Austrasse.  “Au” in German means something like pristine meadow — as in “Birkenau”, where it meant a meadow with birch trees — but the street it lent its name to was virtually devoid of meadows or lawns.  In fact, most houses protruded into the sidewalk, leaving little room for flowers and bushes.  Only some houses deserved the name “villa” or “bungalow,” houses that were well-kept and surrounded by flowerbeds and the occasional vegetable garden. They were protected by wrought-iron fences, with formal gates hinged on two pillars, and mailboxes made of brass embossed with the owner’s names.  These names belonged to the industrial mini-barons of our little town.

Bömbes’ grandma was a small grey trapezoidal-shaped woman.  To us she was a generic hausfrau short of any gender identification, without recognizable or even imaginable breasts, shorter in build even than nine-year old Peter, but with a tongue sharper than his.  She lashed that organ out at him for transgressions of any kind, unwittingly training him in the use of nasty, foul-mouthed language and ultrafast retorts, though some of his swear-words were quite original and entirely his own.  Words like “Scheisshund” and “Arschloch” came from his lips easily, like mountain dew.  When he was angry, his face would turn red and mean, his mouth would contort with contempt, and his fake eye would for once look quite human next to its living companion.

Bömbes represented a world of mysteries far removed from the well-kept house with garden that I grew up in.  He was not welcome in my parents’ house since the little family he was part of lacked standing.  My mother said these are not “our kind of people.”  These were unwritten rules, but so categorical that I never dared to bring Bömbes home, even on my birthday.  In fact, I don’t think he never ever set foot in our house.  But several times I benefited from his folks’ hospitality:  I came to sit in the tiny kitchen of his house.  There I was overwhelmed by the smell of cabbage being boiled on the woodstove, and the utter smallness of the room.  I remember an evening when it was very cold outside, and I liked the feeling of comfort in the steamy kitchen.  The kitchen doubled up as dining and living room, since the only other space in the house was taken by three tiny bedrooms and a bathroom. I was bewildered by the clipped conversations between him, his aunt and grandma, which were so different from the ones at our dining table.

The contrast with my parents’ house could not have been more striking.  Visitors in my parents’ house were brought into the living room, never into the kitchen.  They faced a formal setting — a landscape painting by a regional artist, with a river forever streaming from the left to the right; a mahogany cupboard filled with heavy important books, including a 20-volume encyclopedia; curtains heavy with cigar smoke from past family clan events.  And the conversation in this room was stiff except for bursts of mischievous laughter; it had to keep up with the level of décor.

I never found out what became of him later.  I was one of only four kids selected from my elementary school class to go to high school, and Bömbes — with his loud mouth and bragging eye — was left behind.  For a few years, when I ran into him, we were both embarrassed since neither of us could understand what precisely put us into different places and why we should run out of words after saying Hi.  

It was the first but not the last time that I lost a good friend before even knowing he’d been one all along.


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 runs a blog about everything and carries links to all his literary work.

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