Phantom was sitting on the window seat, watching the railroad cars shunt back and forth on the tracks.
The engine would give the cars a push. They would roll away. He could see the couplers crash together before he heard the sound from it. The engine would let off steam, and a cloud of smoke would spiral into the air and turn yellow and rose in the setting sun.
It was just after the end of the day shift. Windows were open everywhere, and he could hear the fork-against-plate sounds of people eating dinner.
The Russians were leaning against the wall of their barracks. One of them began to sing. Others fell in, and pretty soon they were all singing.
People stopped eating and went to their windows to listen. Everyone was still – daydreaming, or gazing out over the tracks. Phantom accompanied the music, lightly, on his harmonica. He thought to himself, peace must be something like this.
His father was lying on the sofa and acting like he was reading the newspaper, but really he was listening. So was his mother, who was darning, and his brother Karlheinz, who was dozing off.
A car turned onto their street, and stopped before their door. Four men hopped out.
Everybody suddenly moved away from their windows. The singing stopped. Now all you could hear was the puffing of the locomotive.
Phantom knew what was about to happen.
His father jumped to his feet. Then he was standing next to him, looking out the window.
They could see the man outside, waiting by the door. They heard the sound of footsteps coming up the stairs, higher, up to their floor.
The door flew open. Three men entered the kitchen. The short one said, “Spormann, you’re under arrest.”
Anna Spormann shouted, “You swine! Three times now you’ve come for him! You’re not satisfied to smash everything to the ground and send all the children off to war,” etc etc.
That was their signal. From the houses all around came a clattering and crashing, pounding and whistling, so loud they couldn’t hear the train anymore.
Heini Spormann still stood at the window. He almost laughed. “How long will you keep trying to do us all in?” he asked the short one. One of the heavier goons came over and punched him in the face.
Phantom moved away from the window slowly, towards the chest in which lay his 765 Walther. Just as he had lifted the lid, and slid his hand inside, his brother casually sat down on the chest with a plop. Phantom slid to his knees. He thought he was going to faint, but he didn’t utter a sound. Karlheinz laid his hand on Phantom’s head and said, “Cool it.”
The other goon had his .08 in hand and said, “One more peep and we’re taking all of you with us.”
“Leave them alone,” said Heini Spormann. And then he said to Anna, “Mother, you can pack my bag again and bring it to me in the morning.” So he put on his jacket and the goons pushed him out the door. The short one took one last look around the kitchen, shrugged his shoulders, and went out after the others.
As they were shoving Heini Spormann into the car, the racket grew as loud as in the factory machine hall. Flowerpots flew into the street. Pots and skillets rained on the car, which was racing down the street at high speed, in reverse.
Phantom went to the toilet and threw up. He was so angry he was dizzy.
Then all the neighbors began coming in. They sat down in the kitchen. “It won’t be so bad,” they said, “things can’t last too much longer this way. In the morning we’ll sabotage a few machines,” etc etc.
Phantom hurried outside and headed over to Animal Ronsdorf’s. Animal was sitting at the table, waxing some shoemaker’s thread. His mother was sewing something. “There’s nothing you can do,” she said. “Not yet.” Phantom didn’t say anything.
He looked at the picture hanging on the wall behind the chest. It showed a man on horseback. He was wearing a sombrero, and had two cartridge belts criscrossed over his chest. His right hand gripped a rifle; his left, the reins. The man wore a moustache. He was laughing. In the background was an enormous cactus.
Phantom had already looked at that picture a thousand times. He had taken it down from the wall, and examined it through the magnifying glass. It was yellowed and covered with grease spots. The man was Animal’s Uncle Alphonse, Mexico 1919.
“Here,” Herta Ronsdorf resumed, “we live here, and it’s here that we must carry on. Think of Herbert’s father, “ – Animal’s real name was Herbert – “he didn’t just disappear without a word.”
They had picked up Otto Ronsdorf three years ago. Now he was writing them from someplace near Hamburg.
Herta Ronsdorf went into the adjacent bedroom and came back with a photograph. “There,” she said. “Will you please take a look at that man.”
It was a picture of Stalin. Phantom’s father had once acquired a whole package of these pictures, and he gave them out for services rendered, as he put it. Phantom had one too.
He sat down next to Animal and pulled the picture over towards them. Stalin was wearing a grey uniform, and epaulets with a red star. A handsome man, with a thick bushy moustache and thick black hair that stood straight up. He was looking somewhere into the far distance with his angry yellow eyes.
“He’ll smash ‘em all flat, you can count on that,” said Animal, and he pulled a bottle of schnaps out of the chest. Immediately his mother started nagging him, “It’s always an orgy here, it’s not enough that the old one” etc etc. But she let him pour her a glass too.
Just as they tipped their glasses, the door next to the bedroom opened. In came Animal’s Grandpa. He could smell schnaps from a hundred yards away, through any number of walls. “Give me a teeny tiny taste too,” he said. He sat down at the table.
The old man had a white moustache, and sucked constantly on a pipe. His eyes were so watery that it made everybody else’s eyes water just to look at him. He wore a red handkerchief around his neck.
Animals’ Grandpa had been a little weird for a couple of years now. Therefore they had to hide him upstairs, because now they were picking up even people who weren’t quite right in the head.
Until a few years ago he could still go out in public. He used to sweep the floor at the factory. But then one day old Muller-Balzenbeck, who owned the whole works at one time, saw him. Muller-Balzenbeck came across the floor and laughed, “Well, Arthur, haven’t they picked you up yet?” Arthur Ronsdorf went after the old man with a shovel, and leveled him, before two of the factory guards knocked Animals’ Grandpa out.
It probably could have turned out even worse than it did, but Phantom’s father and another friend visited old Muller-Balzenbeck in the hospital and had a few words with him.
It was the middle of ’43. The Red Army had gotten to Stalingrad and Kursk undefeated, and they were advancing. There were armed uprisings all over Europe. Mussolini was in custody. The Nazi’s Reich was crumbling. In other words, an end was in sight.
Old Muller-Balzenbeck was naturally a perceptive man, unlike his two sons, who had inherited the factory and were running around in SA uniforms no less. But nobody took them seriously.
The upshot of it was, old Ronsdorf was forbidden ever to trespass on the factory premises again, but neither did they come to pick him up.
“I’m going down to Dautzenberg’s for a bit,” Animal’s mother said. “But no more for Grandpa.”
She was hardly out the door before the old man grabbed the bottle. Before Phantom could tear it away from him, he had taken a long swill.
“So did they take Heini?” he asked Phantom. “Hey Grandpa! Go back to your room!” said Animal. But the old man stood up and steadied himself in front of the cupboard and began to sing Brothers to the Sun to Freedom. “Shush, would you please shut up!” hissed Animal. But then the old man really let forth, “See how the tide of millions...”
But that’s as far as he got. Animal’s mother burst back through the door and was screaming, “Quiet! The whole damned lot of you! Making Grandpa drunk” etc etc.
Animal got the beginnings of what sounded like a long lecture, and Phantom managed to duck out the back door.
He waited until he was all the way downstairs before he let out a laugh.
Ever since the great bombout, ThinMan Niehus had been living with his four sisters and their Grandma in a converted railway car, first class, by the tracks.
They were all there now, crammed into the tiny living space, around the round table – Hannelore and Doris, the 5-year-old twins, and Rosa and Klara, the 17-year-old twins, ThinMan in their midst, and between Rosa and Klara sat a broadfaced sweaty soldier, much shorter than the two tall sisters. Sitting in the corner, in her wheelchair, was the crippled Grandma, keeping an eye on the windows and the door. They were eating boiled pork and cabbage, and they were drinking schnaps, and talking loud and all at the same time, the way they always did when they were all together.
“Come in, my young man,” Grandma said to Phantom, “We have heard of this tragedy which affects not only you and yours, but us all.”
Berta Niehus usually spoke in highflown fashion like that. But she also knew French and English, and how to type. She was acquainted with Teddy Thalmann and even maintained that she had met Lenin once, that time in London. But nobody believed that.
Phantom squeezed himself in next to ThinMan. The old woman was explaining something. “We have had the good fortune to procure half a hog, and you will have the chance to savor its virtues for yourself. In addition, the soldier sitting between the two older sisters of your friend – he is one of us. He goes by the name of Paul. He has brought news of Fritz Niehus. We thought this to be sufficient occasion for a small celebration,” she said etc etc.
ThinMan’s father was in a penal batallion, and it was very seldom that they heard anything at all from him. Phantom ate and drank and listened.
ThinMan’s father was healthy, and had many friends and acquaintances in the batallion. The little soldier sweated and beamed. His head was jammed in between Rosa’s and Klara’s shoulders, and it was completely obvious what he was thinking about.
The old woman was back at her favorite theme, namely, how to raid the Wehrmacht’s well-watched larder at the freight depot.
“Just hold it right there,” ThinMan said, “that is complete nonsense.” And Berta Niehus actually held it, right there.
No one else but ThinMan could get away with talking to the old woman like that. Oh, but ThinMan was her darling.
Once they were all sitting together playing skat – the old woman, Phantom, Animal, and ThinMan – and she said softly, so softly that ThinMan, who was standing by the window, couldn’t hear, “Don’t you think he looks a little like Lenin did as a young man?”
Well of course ThinMan did hear that, but Phantom and Animal acted like nothing had happened. And that bothered ThinMan even more. ThinMan namely had a very ordinary face like all the Niehuses, and there was no way he looked like Lenin.
Later, when they were alone, Animal and Phantom laughed themselves half to death, aping the grandmother’s expression. But they didn’t tell anyone.
Only every now and then, whenever ThinMan started getting a little too highhanded, then Animal would lean back a little, shove his thumbs under his armpits, and ask, “Look at him, don’t you think he looks a little like Lenin did, as a young man?” And that was guaranteed to shut ThinMan up.
“He’ll be sent to some camp, your father,” Rosa thought. They all agreed that was far better than being sent to prison somewhere.
Before Phantom left, the old woman beckoned him to her. She pulled his head down close to hers and whispered something in his ear, which he did not understand. Then she gave him a kiss.
“See you in the morning,” ThinMan called out after him.
On his way to Sparks Krachs’ place, Phantom remembered something his father had told him once. “If ever something happens, anything bad, our people are everywhere around here. They’ll be your friends. Just go to them.”
He would have liked to go visit Stash just now, but Stash would be on the night shift today.
Phantom was quite fogged up from all the schnaps, but still they kept pouring them at the Krachs’.
The funny thing was, Sparks’ mother was Catholic. She went to church every morning at six. That fact bore much discussion. But Heini Spormann had once said, when they were all sitting around like they were celebrating Heini’s birthday, “Some of you have enjoyed quite a few slices of the things she has done for us. The hocus pocus in the church, well, she grew up with it. Anyway, it’s certainly no worse than your eternal orgies.”
Sparks’ father and Heini Spormann had known each other since they were little. They had done practically everything together. He had been killed last year.
“A difficult trial for us all,” said Lisbeth Krach. Sparks said, “Nonsense! What trial?”
But Phantom told him to shut up. He couldn’t stand their constant bickering over Catholicism, and certainly not now, of all times. Phantom had to take a dose of cod liver oil soaked in crumbs.
While he was at it, Sparks reported to him, “Karl May gave both his guns to Mara Durimeh. He doesn’t even want to shoot anymore. Can you believe that nonsense?” Phantom let Sparks show him the place in the book. Phantom laughed.
Sparks had entertained him for hours on end with his stories about Karl May, like when they were sitting on Merrick’s wall or over in Bohr’s shed. He was completely crazy over the whole thing, and he would get just furious if anybody tried to say it was silly or a bunch of lies.
But after he found that passage, Sparks didn’t want to read any more. “Look,” his mother said later, “your Karl May, I have one for you...” But Sparks threw her such a look that she stopped.
Lisbeth Krach gave Phantom an envelope with a few coffee beans in it, for his mother. She said, “Take care that you get home before the sirens start.”
Sugar Trietsch was sitting at the table, with her arms outstretched toward her mother, yarn wrapped all around them. Erna Trietsch was winding all the many-colored knotted-together yarn lengths into one ball.
“Don’t worry,” she said, “Heini will come back, him if anybody. You know, don’t you, how...”
“So you’re going to go on just like all the others,” Phantom said. He took his harmonica and went to the window, playing a little bit. Then he played The Swamp Rats. The other two hummed along.
They rolled cigarettes for themselves. Sugar lay on the table, looking at the ceiling. She said, “Yesterday Horsti Backhoff came by, that short one with his cute little cap. He was explaining how they were going to take over Russia.” She made a face exactly like Horsti Backhoff’s, with a twisted-up mouth, and stuttered, “Th-th-they have got ab-absolutely n-no culture, th-those I-I-I-Ivans.”
Phantom practically fell off his chair from laughing so hard, and Erna Trietsch had to run to the bathroom.
They all had themselves another little glass of schnaps. Then Erna Trietsch said, “Well, I’m going to bed now, and I want no nonsense out of you two.”
Sugar slept on the porch with her little sister. She and Phantom took their things off, and crawled under the covers. Sugar put her arm around Phantom, and they both went right to sleep.