Soldiers came from east and west. They were on foot, and on wagons with horses. They came through the town and through the Quarter, since the major highways were all bombed out. Many were carrying steel helmets. Everybody had rain ponchos.
It had been raining for days, and snowing some, too. The wagon wheels sent up sprays of mud when they hit the puddles, spattering mostly on the munitions and supply wagons, which were carrying the officers in both directions, those who were too important to be on their own feet. There were other officers sloshing around on wet horses, shouting here and there.
Sometimes the traffic would jam up for hours. Then the soldiers would sit down on the sidewalk. Some of them stretched out and went to sleep. Others went into people’s homes, let them fix them a pot of coffee; they would chew on their hard commissary tack and curse the damned war and Hitler. They would fall asleep at the table, or play cards.
Phantom Spormann, Animal Ronsdorf, ThinMan Niehus, Sparks Krach and Sugar Trietsch were all sitting on Merrick’s wall, huddled under a tent, watching the whole thing. Sometimes they mingled with the troops out on the sidewalk, or in people’s houses. They accepted packages of bread, and gas masks, and boxes of old rations, commissary tack, cigarettes, an .08 revolver, binoculars, a box of flares, two rolls of ammunition fuses, horse blankets, and ponchos. They accepted ladles from the stewpots, with burnt barley stew charred onto them. They spoke with the soldiers, who mostly wanted to know if they had any older sisters.
A whole bunch of the soldiers remained in town. People rearranged their quarters to make room.
One morning a wagon pulled up in front of Merrick’s wall. The driver shouted through the clatter, “Where would I find Frieda Bohr?” They pointed out to him the street.
“I’m looking for quarters,” the soldier shouted. “I’ve got 5 men and 4 horses arriving today.”
“You got the right address,” they told him.
Bohr’s little Frieda had only returned to town a few days ago. She had hitched a ride in the stream of soldiers.
After she had lost her white-and-gold Belgian draft horse Elsa, Frieda had screamed all night long. She broke windows, and smashed a wardrobe to pieces. “You damned pack of bureaucrats! Every one of you!” she screamed through the open window.
The next day she climbed on a train and headed for the family homestead, on the southeast border. Peppenelse carried on the business after that, helped by Sella Siegers, little Frieda’s old assistant, helping hand, and potato peeler, who made the deliveries throughout the Quarter on a three-wheeled bike.
“She’ll never come back,” most of them had said. But now, half a year later, here she was again.
She was sitting in her gigantic chair next to the oven, flask full of her special recipe – milk plus schnaps – in hand. She gazed through the open door into the little establishment where one could purchase eggs, butter, cheese, bonbons, effervescent powers etc etc, when such things were available. She hurled insults at Peppenelse, who was standing at the counter, weighing out powdered milk. “You’re a greasy broad, overfed, stirring your fat finger around in the powder there,” etc etc.
“Kiss my ass,” Peppenelse said, and she went about her business undisturbed.
She didn’t pay any attention to Phantom either, when he went around behind the counter and said, “Hello.”
“Aha!” cried little Frieda Bohr when she saw him, “now there’s a swinehead for you! Come sit down.”
Bohr’s little Frieda was about 6 feet tall and weighed about 300 pounds. She grinned out through her baby face. “So I’m back,” she said. “I couldn’t do anything but cry. You probably thought I’d never come back. So what all have you stolen from me? You’re no better than the whole pack of bureaucrats.” She offered Phantom the flask full of milk and schnaps.
As far as Bohr’s little Frieda was concerned, all the miseries of the world were the fault of the whole pack of bureaucrats, as she called them. That was everybody who didn’t make or sell the products of their own hands.
And she knew plenty about misery. For one thing there was her physical presence, much too tall and too wide. When she, in her late twenties then, had arrived in this little town behind the mountain, why of course everybody had laughed.
She had come from the family homestead on the southeast border, carrying plenty of money. She had come to be the bride of Wilhelm Bohr, a debt-ridden farmer.
Two nights after the wedding, Wilhelm Bohr died in bed, of suffocation.
The court case dragged on for 3 years. It went all the way to Berlin, where little Frieda Bohr was sentenced to 9 month’s probation. The judge was one of them, and since the Bohr residence then fell under the jurisdiction of the gavel, Anna Spormann took charge of her care.
Little Frieda Bohr, who didn’t want to go back to the southeast border, arrived back in the Quarter, very tall and large-boned, wide and full of tuberculosis, on the back of a truck, sheets and pillows and all. She cursed and cuffed everybody who came close to her.
But people stuffed her back into health with butter and cream. They arranged a meeting between her and her brother from the southeast border. He gave his sister another pile of gold. With it she bought a couple of acres and some cows. She worked hard and provided the Quarter with milk.
But then the drinking bouts started, and then the cows too came under the jurisdiction of the gavel.
Anna Spormann did the negotiating with the farmers, the brother gave up another little pile of gold, and little Frieda Bohr opened a milk store. Early in the morning she picked up the milk from the farmers, took it to the dairy and then carted it through the Quarter, ringing a bell, calling, “Milk, milk, you greaseheads.” She continued her insults as she measured it out of the milk cans into liter containers and then into the pots and jugs held out before her, all the while drinking her special recipe out of an insulated bottle.
This went on year after year without disturbing anybody. A local official named Berger tried once to get her locked up and sent away, hopefully to the gas chambers. But little Frieda Bohr’s brother had become an area-wide official, and he had connections in Berlin who could discourage any such attempts.
Berta Niehus called Bohr’s little Frieda a landless farmer, clinging to her small business for dear life, full of hate for her sinking class.
Anna Spormann was helping take care of her again. She was the only one that the big fat namecalling baby would listen to, oh yes also Heini Spormann, the Bolshevik, as she called him. She also liked Phantom, who made as if he was about to drink from the flask. But then he gave it back. Just the smell was enough, the smell that always surrounded little Frieda Bohr.
He said, “You have company coming. Five soldiers, four horses. They’ll be here today.”
“Nothing but a pack of bureaucrats, a pack of soldiers, whoremongers,” etc etc, she shouted. She lifted herself out of the chair, and called for Sella Siegers, who was in the yard underneath the three-wheeler. She waddled with him over to the stalls.
The soldiers arrived that afternoon, a sergeant-major on horseback, and a lieutenant and three regulars on a wagon pulled by two horses. The fourth horse was tied behind the wagon.
Phantom and the others sat on top of Bohr’s shed and watched their arrival. The sergeant-major was drunk, and bellowing, “Where is Frieda?” He opened the door to the house. The sounds of yelling and screaming issued forth.
Half a minute later the sergeant-major burst back through the doorway, and vomited all over the yard. His men, laughing, dragged him into the stalls and threw him into the straw. “Come down here,” the lieutenant said to Phantom and the others. “Show us where to find water and we can take care of everything else ourselves.”
From then on they often sat on the floor of the horses’ stall, or dangled their legs from the backs of the nags. They chewed on dried sugarcanes which they scrounged out of the horses’ feed trough. They spit the chewed-up pieces back into the trough. They stroked the horses, and ate and smoked with the soldiers.
“You should watch them. Pay close attention to what the soldiers say. Find out why they’re here, and for how long,” Stash said. “If they have decided to make the town a defense position, then the forced laborers and prisoners of war will be moved out and sent elsewhere.”
“And we don’t have to tell you what that means,” said Ewald Stumpe. “So get with it.”
The soldiers in Bohr’s stall were doing absolutely nothing. They were lying on blankets in the straw, reading romance novels, playing cards a little. They stood up whenever the goulash pot rolled into the yard. They would serve up some barley stew, and eat and curse the stuff.
Only when the sergeant-major came into the stall, which was only about once a day – he had a room up in Bohr’s attic – would they polish leather a little, or clean the carbines. They would laugh at his barking, and say, “He needs a good beating.”
The lieutenant, whose name was Franz, was not like that. He always had some work in hand. He did repairs to the roof and the whole stall, he swept, he closed the door to the straw shed when Inge Vordamm or Peppenelse were in there screwing with the soldiers.
When they resumed their curses against Hitler and the war, Phantom said, “Why not do something about it?” The men didn’t say anything. Franz gazed at him for a long time.
“So how long are you staying here, really now?” Phantom asked him.
“I don’t know,” Franz replied. “And if I did, I wouldn’t be allowed to say so.”
But one comfortable December afternoon, when the stew pot was bubbling in the corner and the horses were rubbing themselves against the wooden posts, when some were playing skat and the noises of rustling and giggling were wafting from the straw shed, Franz said to Phantom, who was currying Max the dapple grey, “Come with me out into the yard. I want to show you something.”
They went into the shed. Franz took a piece of paper out of his pocket and handed it to Phantom.
He read: 'Comrade, you don’t want to die for Hitler anymore. You want to live and join in the fight to save the people, and Germany' etc etc. The very pamphlet that they had distributed.
“Have you ever seen such a pamphlet?” Franz wanted to know.
“No,” said Phantom.
And then Franz came out with it. “There are many in the army who feel the same way as in that pamphlet. The war is a lost cause. It will only last another couple of weeks. But most of them are afraid. They want to do something, but don’t know who or where to turn,” etc etc.
Phantom asked, “Have many soldiers seen the pamphlet?”
Franz didn’t know. Phantom said, “We could make copies of it on the typewriter and distribute them, in secret of course. We could do it ourselves. We hang around with the soldiers and nobody gets suspicious.”
Franz was very excited. “That is very dangerous, and you could be sentenced to death if caught.”
“We’ll be careful enough,” Phantom said. “Give it here.”
Franz didn’t want to, but Phantom reassured him. Finally he got the pamphlet from him, and showed it to Stash and the others that night in their meeting place in Passageway 3, under the tracks.
Stumpe reported, “A large number of empty supply cars will be rolling through town during the next few days. Lorenz Fuchs got an order to make sure all the tracks are kept free. But we have to know, right away, whether the cars are intended for soldiers, or for forced laborers and prisoners of war. This Franz with the pamphlet, surely he can find that out, can’t he?”
“We’ll see,” said Phantom. “I have a plan.”
“So tell us already,” Stumpe said. “Out with it.”
It requires Bohr’s little Frieda, Phantom said. And he explained what he had in mind.
“Look at our little Partisan,” said the short Mr. Pottmann, “and at his age.”
But everybody liked the plan.
But little Frieda Bohr did not. “Your slimeshit means nothing to me, pack of Bolshevists, pack of bureaucrats, you’re all the same. And what will come of it? Robbery, lies, and betrayal, and finally me on the gallows to boot. Oh, but you’d like that, wouldn’t you?” she screamed. “So that you can take from me what little I have left.”
Phantom made no attempt to answer her in midstream. He just took the bottle of milk and schnaps out of her hand, and emptied some of it into the sink. “That’s your last little pisser,” he said, “if you don’t go along. We can get you sent up for bootlegging, you and your little Sella Siegers, and then you can both hang on the gallows.”
She tried to rise from her chair, but that didn’t work. She began to whimper.
“So,” asked Phantom, holding the bottle over the sink, “what’s the matter?”
She nodded and cried until Phantom gave her the bottle back. The crying ended with a sigh, like when the last bit of water gurgles out of a washbasin.
“So,” Phantom said, and he carefully explained the whole thing to her once more. And little Frieda Bohr laughed once again.
Phantom had to stay close to her, because of course you couldn’t trust her to do the right thing at the right time.
He looked around. There was no one but them and the enormous chair. “Let’s go,” Phantom said to her. He gave her the pamphlet, and Bohr’s little Frieda stood up.
Phantom slid under the chair. Bohr’s little Frieda tore the door open and called, “Lieutenant Franz, come inside, I have something to say to you.” She waddled back over to the chair and sat down, hiding Phantom with her skirt.
Phantom was overcome with her smell. He thought he was going to throw up. “Breathe anyway, breathe anyway,” Phantom said to himself, the same as when he was 7 and he fell into Kleff’s latrine, because Horsti Backhoff had taken the cover off it and had covered it back over with cardboard and a little dirt thrown on top. He had placed his softball carefully on top, and he went and sat on a bank nearby, polishing his bat, and he said offhandedly, “Go get me the ball, kid, and we can play.” And he – Phantom – had had to fight to stay conscious, swimming in the liquid.
“Gas mask,” he thought to himself. “I should have remembered a gas mask, dammit.” And he upbraided himself, as he always did when he had planned a thing but forgot something.
He heard the door open. Then the dicey steps of Franz, who asked, “What is it?”
“You pigass!” began little Frieda Bohr, “Pack of soldiers, bureaucrats’ pack, you’re all pissbulls, and you’re the biggest asshole of all of them, childstealer, traitor to the Fuehrer and to the people, you beast! You belong on the gallows, you do, but first with your tail cut off. Here, I have the smear paper you gave to the young one. I took it away from him, you sack rat. I’m taking it to the police, you stabbing the Fuehrer and the people in the back, and dragging innocent children along too. What did you expect to do with this, you dogswine?”
Franz didn’t say anything. Little Frieda began once more. Phantom heard words he had never heard before. Little Frieda Bohr scolded, “I’ll send the Gestapo out for your neck, they’ll hang you right here in the yard, I’ll make sure of it. I’ll disembowel you myself, with the hayfork.” She continued for awhile on entrails, and there would have been no end to the insults, but then Phantom pinched her leg. She squawked, but then she came to a close.
“Yes,” she cried, “all that will happen to you, unless you, unless you...”
“What?” asked Franz.
And Phantom thought to himself, “She’s forgotten the whole thing.”
But then she said, “Unless you tell me, right now, how long you’ll still be here in town, and why you’re here, and what you have in mind to do.”
“Aha,” Franz said.
“Not aha aha!” shrieked Bohr’s little Frieda, who was back into another rage. “If you’re here to fortify the town, then we have to reckon with bombing raids again and again, the Ammies, those swines, outlaws that they are, bureaucrat pack, day and night, they’ll be at us, smashing everything to smithereens. And if that’s going to be the case I’d rather just head out, you understand, swine? Are you staying here, or what, and what are all those railcars for, there at the tracks?”
Franz said, “I don’t know the answer to that myself.”
Bohr’s little Frieda bellowed, “You know the answer to that by 5 this afternoon, or else you hang on the gallows. And now, get out of here, you swinebrain.”
By that evening they knew enough. The cars were for carrying soldiers to the front at Aachen. Only a few soldiers would remain in the town, among them Franz, two horses, and two of his comrades from Bohr’s stall. Franz had managed to arrange all this at the cost of two bottles of French cognac for the sergeant-major, and one session with Peppenelse for the captain.