Fathers and Sons
“There’s something about that music that we’re not familiar with,” said Phantom. He kept playing 'Cheep cheep doodle dutch, American invasion.'
“Yeah,” Sparks said, “it’s the rhythm. It’s as if... it’s like when you’ve packed one under your belt and then you try to walk down the sidewalk and not step on the cracks, and you can’t do it.”
“Exactly,” said Animal. “It’s American, the same gedoodle, like what you’re already getting on the radio, all disorderly and it makes no sense.”
ThinMan said, “Something as stupid as that, well, it’s, how shall we say, it’s a whole new feeling.”
“Fee-e-e-eeling,” said Animal. “Feeling. Please do us a favor and shut up.”
They were lying on the grass in front of the Russian barracks, sunning themselves and waiting for the Americans.
“They forgot us,” said Hugo Beck, who had taken off his wooden leg and was playing skat with Clemens, Karlheinz and Franz.
It had been three days since the first wave of the American army swept past the town. It was stillness and blue sky, but everybody knew something had to happen soon.
And it did. A dozen booms rained down in the vicinity all at once, bazooka shots. They all ran back into the bunker. There were white flags hanging everywhere, but the bazookas kept shooting all day long and all night too.
The next morning it was quiet again. Stash and Stumpe went outside, but they couldn’t see or hear anything.
Then Phantom, Animal, ThinMan, Sparks and Sugar went out and sat up on Merrick’s wall with a white sheet draped over their knees. They let it hang down to the pavement. They waited and waited.
Then Sparks said, “There they are, by Siepmanns’ corner. Right in front of us.”
Three men with machine guns were running down the street, ducking, checking each doorway. Finally they hid themselves behind Phantom’s rabbit hutch, maybe 15 yards away. Nobody on Merrick’s wall moved a muscle.
“Come on over here,” Animal called. “We won’t hurt you.”
One of them jumped up. He was black. He yelled out something and fired his machine gun into the air.
“They think we have weapons under the sheet,” Phantom said. “Let it fall.”
The white sheet fell to the pavement. The three soldiers leaped over and pulled them down from the wall, turned them around, face to the wall and hands up against it. They searched them.
But then Stash and Piotr, Lena from Minsk, Chahlie and Jean arrived from the factory, and there was conversation and handshaking all around. Then the American soldiers shook hands with Phantom, Animal, ThinMan, Sparks and Sugar. They gave them each a couple of chocolates, and the war was as good as over.
“No celebrating until Heini and the others are back,” said the short Mr. Pottmann, who had been installed by the Americans as something like mayor.
The first one to come back was Fritz Niehus. He was supported by the short Mr. Pottmann. His shoulder was all bandaged up, his arm was in a sling, and he was using a walking stick.
Everyone was hanging from the windows, clapping, laughing, and tossing out friendly words. They offered the homecomer wine and schnaps.
By the time he got to the end of the street, ThinMan’s father was pretty fogged up, and he really had to support himself on the short Mr. Pottmann.
They all sat in the railway car first class until well into the night. They wined and dined Fritz Niehus until the moon went down behind the tracks, and only then did they all return to their homes, singing and swaying as they went.
“Doesn’t talk much,” said ThinMan after a few days. “He’s not like he used to be.”
“He needs to be here for awhile,” said Phantom. “You just wait.”
“He told a story,” ThinMan said, “about somewhere, Greece or like that. He was standing one evening by the sea, on the bay. It was calm, nothing but the sound of the sea and the moon and the stars. And a ship went floating by on the sea, and on its deck you could see men and women laughing and dancing.”
“Is that all?” asked Animal.
“Yes,” said ThinMan. “And he’s already told that story three times.”
Nobody said anything for a long while. Sugar said, “Well, you’ll just have to get used to your fathers again.”
Animal’s father Otto Ronsdorf arrived at night. The next morning he stood at the window and whistled over to the Spormanns, looking exhausted and like he had lost a lot of hair. But he was laughing.
“Out of your beds,” he cried, “and over here!”
But he too said little. He just pressed his hand for a long time into each of theirs.
“So have we won, then?” asked Grandpa Thiel.
“Certainly, Hermann,” said Otto Ronsdorf, “we certainly have.”
And that evening he went to the meeting at the town hall.
The last one home was Heini Spormann. They already all knew that the Buchenwald prisoners were free, and when the Americans first brought him to the town square, he was greeted warm and long with speeches and sprigs of green. But nobody from the Quarter was there.
They had planned it all out. They wanted to surprise him, welcome him home in their very own way. “Just please no bazaars or circus tents,” Heini Spormann had always said when it came to celebrations, even when they celebrated his other homecomings from some camp or prison.
And so Heini Spormann walked home alone, right down the middle of the street, high noon, small and thin. He cast only a very short shadow.
Olga Pottmann, who spotted him first as he turned into the Quarter, gave the signal. Every soul except for Grandpa Thiel disappeared from street and window.
He walked in his characteristic way: a little flatfooted, shoulders held high, his arms swinging lightly as he went. There were no footsteps to be heard. The Americans had given him boots which made no noise. Heini Spormann squinted, looking to the left and to the right at the houses. Nothing. He threw his shoulders straighter back still.
Grandpa Thiel was sitting on a chair in front of the house, looking heavenward and whistling.
“Hello Hermann,” called Heini Spormann, and he stood his ground.
“Hello there,” said Grandpa Thiel.
“Nice weather today,” said Heini Spormann.
And Grandpa Thiel said, “Yes, isn’t it?” And he began to whistle again.
Heini Spormann didn’t make a move, but those who were peeking through the windows saw how his eyes and mouth dropped. He was looking downcast as he entered the door to the house.
The only ones sitting in the Spormann kitchen were Phantom, his brother and his mother. As Heini Spormann came in, Phantom made a signal to the others.
And then the tin concert began, clattering and banging and pounding, and Lorenz Fuchs let off a few blasts from the locomotive, and Stumpe at the factory had the sirens blowing, everyone was shrieking and laughing, and there was just no end to it.
Heini Spormann went to the window and did something he very rarely did: he raised his right arm, then bent it at the elbow and made a fist.
They danced in the streets that night to music by Stepan’s accordion, Phantom’s harmonica, and Jean’s violin. Chinese lanterns hung draped from house to house. There were streamers. The Russians sang, and the three Americans, the black one and his two white comrades, were sitting in the midst of it all, Inge Vordamm and Peppenelse on their knees.
The last stragglers were still singing and dancing when the first chimney swallows flew hunting over the rooftops, announcing that it was dawn.
A couple of days later, on a Saturday afternoon, they were all sitting upstairs at the Spormanns’. Phantom’s father, who otherwise never touched the stuff, let Stash, who also never touched the stuff, pour them both a glass. They toasted each other.
“You will be moving away,” Heini Spormann said, “but the others will stay.” Stash nodded.
“And look, why don’t you,” said Heini Spormann, “at how things are around here already. The goons are on the move again, and Muller-Balzenbeck, that old weasel, he’s getting chummy with the Americans. Before you know it he’ll be back at the factory. They have brought a couple of intellectuals with them, the Americans have. They’re proprietors. They don’t even ask what we think. And your folks, the Red Army, they’re sitting at the Elbe River, not moving. How come, dammit, how fricking come?”
Stash said, “You, Heini Spormann, know as well as I, that they can’t fight the Western allies.”
Behind Heini Spormann’s head hung the picture of Stalin. Both of them gazed out angrily over the tracks. “That was our hope for all of these long years,” Heini Spormann began again, “victory. And now they’re just sitting at the Elbe, not moving. Stash, you know as well as I that the old fiend hasn’t lost in anybody’s eyes around here. In no time at all the Fascists will be coming out of the woodwork again. And us? How many of us are still alive even? Most of them dead, the best ones murdered. So what are we two supposed to do? Build everything up again from scratch? The country is completely wasted, wreck and ruin, and our children” – he motioned towards Phantom – “casualties of neglect. He can’t even write his own name. How to rob and how to shoot, that’s what they’ve learned.”
Heini Spormann stood up and went over to the window. “Thirty years of work, and all of it for nothing,” he said. “What I’d like to do now is give up, throw it all out the window and leave here,” etc etc.
Phantom, who was slowly getting more and more furious through all this talk, stood up.
He said, “So leave, why don’t you, Sir Bleedingheart. Mexico would be a good place. Get a great big hat for the top of your head, and play robbers. And you can send us a picture.” He slammed the door loudly and headed for Animals’ place.
Animal was sitting at the table, waxing a piece of shoemaker’s thread. Phantom looked at the picture of Uncle Alphonse hanging over the chest.
“Won’t be too much longer,” Animal said while pouring a couple of glasses of schnaps, “before Stash and Lena are packed up and gone. My old man isn’t happy either. Keeps complaining about the pack at City Hall. They’ve already twisted everything around. The short Mr. Pottmann, Makevka and Alex have buttered up to all the old owners and the new occupiers. Won’t be but a couple of weeks and it’ll all be just like before. You just watch.”
“Don’t talk that way about your Papa,” said Herta Ronsdorf.
And as Animal’s Grandpa began to sing, Phantom left to go visit the railway car first class.
Berta Niehus, who had been appointed sort of secretary-receptionist-translator for the short Mr. Pottmann, was reading documents. Lorenz Fuchs, ThinMan and his father were playing skat.
“The era of anarchy is over,” said ThinMan’s Grandma, as she fixed her hawklike stare on the drunken card players. “Discipline and hard work, even at the small things, that’s what it’s going to take now.”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Fritz Niehus. “You just work hard, even at the small things, and we here will sit and play cards, we anarchists.”
The old woman said to Phantom, “These are times of transition. You will find your own way soon, I know it.”
Phantom was already considerably foggy as he arrived at the Krachs’, but Sparks was in the middle of reading Karl May and was not to be disturbed, not even for a moment. But his mother was explaining, they were going to build a mission for the needy, Father Friedrich would stay for awhile and help.
Sugar was the only one home at the Trietsches’. Erna and Piotr had gone on an outing with her little sister. “Come on,” said Sugar, “let’s take a walk over in Dohmann’s thicket. I know a couple of very pretty spots there.” They set out and didn’t get back until the next evening.
“I’ve thought it over,” said Heini Spormann as Phantom finally walked back into the kitchen. “I think I’ll stay. It’s too hot in Mexico for me.” They both grinned.
Anna Spormann said, “Yes, it’s better that way. When I think of the things they must have done to Alphonse.” Karlheinz tried to hide his amusement. Anna Spormann blushed and said, “I didn’t mean it that way, you turkey.” But that just made everybody laugh.
And so a couple of days later they were all gathering again at the Spormanns’, just like in the old days, the whole network, ThinMan’s father too of course, talking just like the old woman. And Phantom’s father sat at the head of the table and said, “Comrades, we are only just now at Point Two,” etc etc.
Anna Spormann was sitting by the stove. As Phantom came in, she said, “Shhh, there’s a meeting,” and Phantom disappeared quietly, just like in the old days.
And so they were all sitting on Merrick’s wall again, Phantom Spormann, Animal Ronsdorf, ThinMan Niehus, Sparks Krach and Sugar Trietsch. In the middle of them sat Stash and Lena from Minsk, and they all had their arms around each other. They were singing and telling stories and laughing together for one last time, because the Russians were leaving tomorrow, headed for the Soviet Union.
The sun disappeared behind the train tracks, the smell of lilacs hung in the air, the chimney swallows called and swooped close over the rooftops, hunting their prey. And so finally they unlocked arms and parted ways, each headed in a different direction.