<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="1252"%> Little Fireworks
Chapter 23
In the Cave

Living in a cave with candlelight and carbide lamps can make you crazy even if you’re not already there by yourself. Wherever people are gathered, they seem to turn into enemies.

So you pick out a spot as far removed from the other guy as possible. If you could only just be left alone in the darkness, then you could just make your own self miserable.

The cave dwellers worked out a rule that they would only see each other every third day. They laid it out professionally. When you greet each other, act like you haven’t seen each other in years. You always have to bring a gift, which always has to be returned after a specified time.

The only permissible topics of conversation are the things you noticed during your half-hour out in the sunshine that day, what you saw and heard and smelled. And that was a lot: in the summer, the little sparrow hawks learning to fly in the oaks, the smell of lilacs in the morning and in the evening, how many deer you spotted, flying things in the air; and in the winter, playing rabbits, snow, bombs, crows in flight.

Fresh Air Time was once in the morning and once in the late afternoon. Someone from Phantom’s gang performed sentry duty every week. He or she sat guarding the entrance to the cave, or in a tree, or played in the vicinity, while Anna Kusnevski and Chahlie or Clemens and Jean sat outside or took a walk around the immediate woods, until the sentry whistled. Sometimes it was in half an hour or so, sometimes sooner, if there had been suspicious movements or smells or noises.

Everybody in the cave tried to find something else to do.

Chahlie and Anna Kusnevski certainly didn’t have it the easiest. Shmoozing and screwing from morning till night with no significant break. Whenever man and woman live together, there are altercations. Somewhere else to go was, of course, out of the question.

Now, it’s true that Anna Kusnevski had gotten no small enjoyment here, and she liked Chahlie a lot. But with one cave, three men, and one woman, you have to have some kind of a system worked out. And Anna Kusnevski was currently pregnant with Chahlie’s baby.

She crocheted, or else she made little baskets out of straw and grasses. The British squadron leader made model airplanes out of paper and wood: the Mosquito, the Bristol dazzler, the Spitfire, the Thunderbolt, and the Flying Fortress B17.

Clemens the shriner tried to give him advice, but he wouldn’t listen. Chahlie teased him about the book he had written on his experiences with the Death Squad, on the defusing of explosives.

Clemens drew sketches of the single-fuse type with protective barriers, at Chahlie’s instruction. He let Phantom bring him pieces of iron, files, filings, ether, and a screwdriver. He fashioned a bomb defuser kit.

Jean played the violin morning and night. Chahlie and Clemens had patched it back up for him. Phantom had also managed to arrange some strings for it. Sometimes they played Sonata in A Major, by Mozart, together.

Despite the rules, which everyone had agreed to, things tended to end up in fights.

A few days before Gertrude Rosenkranz was to move in, there was another big scene. It started when Clemens laughed at the B17 that was sitting on Chahlie’s table, with its tail too short and its wings too slanty. Chahlie rushed roaring at Clemens, the two of them were at each other’s necks, but Anna Kusnevski and Jean finally got them quieted down.

Then Anna Kusnevski wanted to take violin lessons from Jean, and that led to a fight in the lovenest.

Jean’s violin playing eventually had everybody turned against the Frenchman again.

Finally Chahlie drew a pussy and pecker in Clemens’ book, and scrawled under it, Firebomber No. 1, with protective barrier, surreptitiously, while Clemens was out getting his nip of fresh air.

The fight started during a visit in Clemens’ little parlor. Jean grabbed for the violin. Anna Kusnevski was screaming. Chahlie fell upon Jean, Clemens upon Chahlie, and Anna Kusnevski upon all three.

Animal, who had just arrived for his sentry duty bringing a basket of goodies for them, got to witness the tail end of the whole thing. Everyone was lying on the floor, seemingly confused. They were all yammering and shouting insults in a different language.

“It doesn’t sound good,” said Sugar.

And it didn’t look good, as she and ThinMan went to inspect the scene.

It was worse than usual at the moment. Anna Kusnevski had separated from Chahlie. She was living in the back part of the Blue Niche, cursing the British officer, her hands folded over her belly. She was already five months along. She had found out through Clemens that Chahlie wanted to get back to the front, to rejoin his own people or the Americans.

Jean continued to play the violin, hard and loud. He wouldn’t say a word.

“It’s enough to drive you crazy,” Clemens said, “living with these idiots here. It might be dangerous to evacuate, no doubt about it, but at least you’d be living among the sane.”

“Oh, get out of here,” Sugar said.

“I might just do that,” Clemens said.

“Aunt Klavier will be coming to live here too.” Animal laughed.

“But without her piano,” Phantom said.

And as he brought Gertrude Rosenkranz to the cave, it didn’t look good to him either.

The others were nowhere to be seen, as they went to Sugar’s Grotto. Only the barest essentials were there, a couple of blankets, some dishes, a couple of candles.

Phantom muttered curses under his breath. Clemens could at least have fashioned a plank bed for the space.

He explained about the other four, how they were currently in the middle of a fight, how that came about etc etc. But Gertrude Rosenkranz said, “I can take care of myself just fine now. Why don’t you run along home. I’ll be all right. I’ve had practice at this; I can handle it.”

And she handled it, all right. Too well, people were thinking before long.

Sparks, whose sentry duty it was that week, came back on the second day. “They don’t want us to watch for them anymore, they can take care of it themselves,” he said.

“Ooh that woman’s a tiger, Aunt Klavier. She’s leading them like a foreman. They built her a little hut, and how they’re all talking like Partisans, and always Aunt Klavier at the head of the pack.”

Phantom went directly over to the cave. They were all sitting at Anna Kusnevski’s and Chahlie’s place. Phantom asked, “What’s going on here?”

Gertrude Rosenkranz made a speech. “What do you expect but that we go crazy here, living in this cave, doing silly things like making toys, playing the violin, and this complete idiocy with the visits. Self-confidence is lacking here. We’re being treated like children. For instance having somebody watch us while we go get fresh air. Of course we need to stay hidden, and of course we’re dependent on the others’ help. But we can’t just continue to sit around in such useless and meaningless fashion. We can at least watch out for ourselves. Above all we need some information about what is going on in the outside world. A map showing the different fronts, news from other areas. Why aren’t there any weapons here? We’re not helpless children, and we’re not going to let the Fascists just shoot us flat.”

Phantom asked, “So what do you want to do? Take over the town?”

“Nonsense,” said Gertrude Rosenkranz. “I’m no Hitler Youth scout leader, like the others have told me about. I also know that we can’t play war. But we can defend this cave ourselves, if the Fascists should come. I have one gun. We need more.”

“If the Fascists come,” Phantom said, “and find all the stuff we have in this cave, then it’s all up for all of us, don’t you understand?”

But Gertrude Rosenkranz replied, “We can make sure they don’t find anything, if it comes to that. There’s the second entrance, that nobody but us knows about. This is an ideal defense point.”

“What did I tell you?” Stumpe was raging. “You should have known better. And she’s got a gun, too, I now find out for the first time. Why is that?” he demanded of Phantom.

Phantom said, “She’s not crazy, not like Berti Bischoff.”

The short Mr. Pottmann said, “She has a point there, with what she said. You have to have something to do, else you lose all sense of self-worth. At least you need to feel you can defend yourself in an emergency.”

“Self-worth,” snorted Stumpe.

“Yes, self-worth,” repeated the short Mr. Pottmann. “Do we sit around doing nothing? The crummy stuff that comes out of our factory, what little there is still, should we call that off altogether? I’ve heard you, Stumpe, suggest something along those lines.”

“Who did you say?” asked Stumpe.

“Yeah, you,” said the short Mr. Pottmann, “you the security guard.”

Stumpe leaned forward. His nose patch was quivering. He had his fists balled up tight. “And how am I supposed to take that?” he said.

And suddenly there was mistrust under the train tracks. Everybody noticed it.

Stash shut his eyes. Stumpe was very touchy, of course. In the outside world he had to play the factory Nazi, and a lot of people in the Quarter hated him for that. One could imagine the double role might be uncomfortable for him sometimes. Stash put his arm around Stumpe. “You should take it easy. We can’t afford to lose our heads now, not this close to the end. You both should go see the woman and talk to her.”

Phantom told his brother the whole story, and Karlheinz said that Stumpe had the hardest assignment probably. No one could help him at all, and even later, after the war, the mistrust would remain, he wouldn’t even be surprised if... And he, Stumpe, himself, would probably have his own doubts.

“It can make you crazy,” Karlheinz said, “if you’re not treading the straight and narrow.”

The conversation between Gertrude Rosenkranz, Stash and Stumpe took place shortly after that, namely that night in the cave. No one ever found out what was said or written there. But at any rate a carbine 98 with 30 shots of ammunition and an .08 moved into the cave.

And as Phantom brought the goody basket, Gertrude Rosenkranz said, “Now I know who I’m dealing with, and I’m glad of it.”

Also Sparks was to get her a nun’s habit from the priest.

And so it happened that late one afternoon in late January, a tallish fellow in black pants and a coat, wearing earmuffs and glasses, accompanied by a nun from the Order of St. Vincent, rang the doorbell at the house at 10 Moltke St.

And as the lady wearing the little bonnet opened the door, Phantom said, “Good day,” and by the time the maid recognized them they were already inside the door.

Two girls were sitting in lessons with the rector. When he recognized the nun it was suddenly time for the lesson to be over.

As he sent the girls away, Gertrude Rosenkranz said, “Where is the money?”

Halsbeck was nearly crying. “I don’t have the money, mygodyoumustunderstandme” etc etc.

“Every Friday afternoon, at 3 o’clock,” said Gertrude Rosenkranz, “you will deliver to me a large bag of groceries. I know you get regular deliveries fresh from the farm, there where your wife and children are vacationing until the war’s end, and on my money too.”

Phantom described for him the place where the food should be left, in the meadow near the Dreizehnbogen. The meadow lay next to a wide field, so that you could see the whole thing quite well from the overpass for the Rhine line. The neighborhood gardens could be seen from the overpass for the main line.

At exactly 3 o’clock the following Friday afternoon, Phantom watched the rector through his binoculars, how he came and then disappeared behind the last pillar. No one followed him, nor did ThinMan give a signal from the overpass on the other side.

Then Phantom blew three short blasts on his whistle, just like an engineer, and Animal came out from behind Hugo Beck’s house and picked up the bundle.

“Just look,” said Gertrude Rosenkranz, “we’re almost self-sufficient now, we cave kids.”

And for the next two months that the war lasted after that, every Friday afternoon at 3 o’clock sharp, rain or shine, bombs or no, the rector brought a large bag of groceries to the meadow beside the Dreizehnbogen.