A Stray Dog in Spain
History happens to other people. Memories happen to us. The difference can drive us mad.
I can't really say that what follows has haunted me all these years. I wish I could; it would be more dramatic.
But the truth is that every so often, when I recall what happened, I remember the experience without any feeling one way or the other. It may be that because I was young and determined to live the good life, I couldn't--and perhaps still can't--deal with the odd and ultimately sorrowful event that climaxed our stay in Spain.
We arrived in Le Havre on the old, supremely elegant Ile de France in early September, the most jubilant couple in the history of marriage. By design, we had no particular itinerary, although an older Spanish couple we knew from our summers on Fire Island--a painter and his pediatrician wife--gave us several letters of introduction to friends of theirs in Europe: Robert Graves on Majorca (The White Goddess had been my bible in college); Pablo Casals, who had a house in the Pyrenees; and an exiled Spanish painter, Juan Peinado, who lived with his family in Paris.
As it turned out, the Peinados, their children, and grandchildren became our surrogate family during our months in Paris, and I still on occasion think of that dear, impoverished, generous family with a wistfulness that borders on longing. I have kept and treasure a photograph of the Peinados' twelve-year-old granddaughter, Jeanne Marie. I shot it in the garden behind the artist's modest suburban studio. (The old man used to bicycle the six miles to and from their apartment on the Left Bank to the atelier every day.) The picture is a close-up, snapped on the morning after we had taken Jeanne Marie to see her first ballet. She is staring straight into the camera, sedate, innocently ravishing, framed by a halo of flowering vines and, to my eyes, dancing wildly in her mind.
Peinado was in his mid-seventies, a kindly, consistently affectionate family man, but extremely difficult, to say the least, when it came to the business of art. Like several other painters I've known, he was vehemently distrustful of gallery owners. I'm not qualified to judge his talent as an artist, but when it comes to sabotaging his own interests, he was a raving genius.
We left Paris in early December and headed south, hoping at some point during the year to connect with Casals and/or Robert Graves. But we didn't get to meet either of them--Graves because we never got to Majorca and Casals because our entire stay in Europe, where we went, how long we stayed and when we left, was to a large extent determined by a clinically insane MG Magnette acquired in Paris for fourteen hundred dollars from an old high school buddy. The car threw its first serious fit in Avignon, and we had no choice but to spend a month exploring the Midi and the Basse Alps (hardly a tragedy) in a rented car while waiting for a new set of cylinders to arrive from Paris.
Like I said, while we didn't have any particular timetable or destination, we were determined to find a warm place to spend the winter. Reaching Nimes, we flipped a coin: heads, we'd turn left and go to Sicily, tails, we'd turn right and drive down to the Costa del Sol, a very different place in those days. It was tails.
Now understand: I am not, nor have I ever been, the hey-man-it's-cosmic type. Admittedly, in the late sixties and seventies did my share of psychedelics (along with every other drug known to man). I waved hello to walls that waved back, watched my friends transform into angels and devils, and had chats with God that seemed important but probably weren't since I've never heard from Him again--not yet, anyway. Once, with a cooperative Penthouse model and my all-time favorite, MDA, the so-called "love drug," I had an orgasm that lasted two months. Still, I was never suckered into buying all the woo woo bullshit of the period--astral projection, astrology, communal living, talking to vegetables to improve their health, Eastern religions, guru glorification, arcane massages, beatific grins, and all the rest of it. I began and ended the epoch as a pathetically rational human being.
Thus, I was thoroughly unprepared for what happened when Anita and I crossed the border into Spain at Port Bou, almost a decade before I'd even heard of acid: I knew--knew--that I'd lived there in another life! Everything--the landscape, the smells, people's faces, even a mangy cat I saw hanging around a gas station--was intimately familiar to me. This was my country; I was home. And it really shook me up. I was having an experience I didn't believe in!
Anita was thrilled, which sort of disappointed me. I wanted her to worry about me, to be concerned for my mind. But Anita had always been more open to this sort of thing, even before it became fashionable. In fact, later on she went all the way with it and spent her fortieth birthday in Nepal searching for something which, she wrote back, "most people aren't remotely interested in." The "most people," of course, included me, by then her ex-husband and the father of her two children who were living with me full-time while their mother was out looking for herself in the Himalayas. For years I'd been telling Anita that she'd have better luck finding herself on a psychoanalyst's couch, advice which, as you can imagine, made a solid contribution to our eventual breakup.
Although the revelation that Spain was my former homeland stayed with me throughout our stay there, the initial awe and euphoria I felt was replaced by rage just North of Valencia. Despite its rebuilt engine, the goddamn MG began cleverly mimicking the symptoms of a catatonic stupor, forcing us to put up at a government parador after a brace of incompetent mechanics poked around a post-war engine they'd never even seen before, pronounced its condition muy serimente, and probably replaced a few spark plugs while pretending to make repairs for the next several weeks. Save for another young American couple with the revolting habit of treating their mutt as though it was an adorable only child, the hotel was empty. Anita realized that my usually sunny disposition had abandoned me when, at our first dinner with these people, I asked them whether it was difficult finding the right size diaper for a daschund in a destitute, outcast country.
To her credit, Anita immediately went to work on me and, as she had from the day I met her, returned me to my rightful character. She pointed out that we were in a warm place in a cold month and not hurting for money, that we had a large, bright room and a tiled terrace overlooking the Mediterranean, that we ate our breakfast in the sun and strolled down to the tiny harbor to watch the small fishing boats return in late afternoon and hawk their catch right there on the stone wharf. She reminded me that each morning we swam in ancient Roman pools just down the beach, pools carved out of the rocks two thousand years ago, neatly squared and refreshed with every incoming tide, and that I'd discovered many new things, like sargo, a delicious local fish that often became trapped in these shallow pools and were caught by the hotel staff using long, jerry-rigged bamboo poles at the end of which were a few feet of line, a hook and a bit of octopus--which I'd also never eaten before, but now loved even more than sargo.
"And what about finding your cosmic homeland the day before yesterday?" she added. (For the record, I never said it was my "cosmic" anything.) "You could have sold shmatas to the Romans who built these pools." (She was right about that, though. Once a Jew, always a Jew, no matter what your incarnation.) "Given all of this," Anita concluded. "I don't see how you can be in such a shitty mood just because our car broke down again."
But by then I no longer was, and you can see why I loved Anita so much. It always surprises me when I think how, some years down the line, we almost came to hate each other, got divorced, and didn't become friends again--well, distant friends--for many years.
There's an event that occurred during our stay at the parador which I feel obliged to mention because of the significance it took on later: I didn't catch a fish. Not one. And I tried almost every single day. My compulsive dedication was a joke among the hotel staff, albeit a discrete and respectful joke since this was a fascist country and Franco was looking over everybody's shoulder. I suppose they also felt sorry for me because they offered lots of encouragement and all manner of tips for nailing this wily prey. (Okay. The truth is there's nothing wily about sargo. They'll devour any tidbit you dangle in front of them.)
The whole mortifying business started after I'd watched the hotel guys fishing both the Roman pools and from the rocky breakwaters that enclosed the tiny harbor. (One guy actually grabbed a fish out of the pool with his bare hands.) Now I considered myself a pretty fair fisherman from my summers on Fire Island. I used to surf cast for Atlantic blues in season and the occasional bottom fish that always hung around a sunken wreck a hundred yards off shore. Obviously, I didn't bring my rig to Europe, so I was forced to suck up to the dog people--good sports, really--and wrangle a lift to Valencia. There I got all duded out with the best fishing gear a sporting goods store had in stock, returned to the parador, and, as you can see, made a complete schmuck out of myself for the next two weeks.
Carvajal wasn't on the map. Barely a village, it was a cluster of white-washed hovels on the beach between Torremolinas, the major haven for tourists with an artsy attitude (they called themselves "exiles") and Gibraltar, a place we came to know well thanks to the loathsome, Stephen King-esque MG. The car apparently found Carvajal to its liking and went into another of its fraudulent, money-eating death throes as we were passing through on our way to Marbella. Fortunately, there were half a dozen rental cottages adjacent to the village, and for seventy-five bucks a month (housekeeper/cook included) we settled into the only vacancy still available for the winter.
I'm reluctant to concede that reverberations from some past life had anything to do with the speed with which I picked up the local dialect--or at least a workable version of it. But I did feel instantly at ease with our Andalusian neighbors and we got on enormously well. If it's because, as Anita suggested, I may have sold shmatas to their ancestors too, so be it. There was certainly patience and good intentions on both sides and that always helps.
A housekeeper, Maria, came with the place. She was twelve years old and one of the countless offspring of Tomaso, a fisherman who became my friend--except during those times when he beat his wife and/or children. Their deplorable wailing and pleas for mercy were too much for me and I always kept my distance for a few days after these incidents, causing Tomaso considerable consternation and confusion. Nevertheless, I chose not to discuss these outbursts with him. There's no point telling a Spanish peasant it's tacky to bounce your family off the walls when whacking the shit out of relatives has been a revered tradition since the Vandals began raiding Roman towns along the Iberian coast in the fifth century.
Our other neighbors--mostly English vacationers--disliked us from the moment they learned we were paying our wretchedly undernourished housekeeper four dollars a week. They seemed to think that we, like all "rich Americans," were "spoiling the natives rotten," creating expectations which would cost them, the true tourists, dearly. Tough shit! We're talking about victims of a repressive regime, pauperized peasants with little more than a roof over their heads and the shredded rags on their backs. So desperate were these people that, to avoid the dreaded, rapacious, omnipresent Guardia Civil, they would row out to sea in the middle of the night, risking prison to salvage some water-logged tree trunk out of which they fashioned planks to repair their boats and make oars and furniture and statues of the Madonna and God knows what else. Fuck those English tourists!
Anyway, I was still sargo-possessed; it had gotten to be a me-or-them sort of thing, and, even before unpacking, I grabbed my gear and made a dash for the sea. Little kids, both foreign and domestic, began to gather on the beach--no doubt impressed by my fancy rig. As I stood waist-deep in the water getting ready to cast for the fat, elusive (for me at least) silvery fish, I jokingly asked a six-year old English kid watching from shore, "Can you count to ten?"
"Of course I can," he replied, insulted.
"Good. You count to ten and I'll pull in the biggest fish you ever saw."
"Will you really?" he asked, eyes widening, jaw dropping, a pearly stream of spittle beginning to meander down his chin. In those days, little children, even bright, English public school kids, still believed that certain adults were blessed with magic.
Well, I had magic that day.
While a good-sized sargo averages a mere six or seven pounds, I, on my very first cast, landed a twenty-five pound behemoth, probably the biggest sargo in the entire Mediterranean! I have no doubt that had I waited another day, it would have washed up on shore dead of old age. I became an instant hero, not only to the kids, but to the fishermen as well, many of whom came running over to see this amazing catch and the amazing man who caught it. They themselves tossed drop nets over the sides of small rowboats and, in theory, had a better chance to trap a fish this size. Apparently, they never did. To pull one out of the sea with a cheesy lure on the very first cast was quite a feat.
I must say adulation beats disgrace any day of the week, but redeeming myself from the humiliations suffered at the parador meant more to me. For one euphoric moment, I considered sending a snapshot of me and Gigantor to the waiters up the coast, but that would have been a bit too gauche.
After a while, I noticed a man taking in the scene from the periphery of the small crowd. I guessed he was in his late thirties, tall, blue-eyed, greying at the temples and extraordinarily handsome. His face seemed to have been molded in white clay and left unbaked--powerful, angular, yet muted, almost soft. What really made me take notice was the perplexing contradiction of his bearing: He stood absolutely erect, yet the longer I looked at him the more I saw (imagined?) him crouching, maybe even cowering, within himself. It was very strange the way pride and sorrow somehow came together in the man's demeanor. I was hooked. I had to find out who this guy was.
It wasn't easy. For three weeks, we didn't exchange a word. We simply nodded to each other as he passed by on his twice-daily, unhurried walks along the beach. I found myself too shy to initiate a conversation, which wasn't like me at all. I was usually surrounded by an audience of impatient kids hungry to witness my next triumph over nature. But my magic never did return, and with every puny flounder I dragged from the sandy bottom, I'd lose a few more disciples. Eventually, all my admirers lost interest or, more accurately, faith, in my powers, and abandoned me to my vigils. I wasn't their very own magician, after all; I was just another ordinary human, kind of like their fathers. I was sorry to disappoint them.
I soon learned that his name was Gerd and that he and his wife, Helga, lived in a cottage at the other end of the tourist enclave some fifty yards up the beach. She occasionally went with him on his daily promenades which always took place at exactly eight a.m. and four p.m. You could set your watch by his strolls. He walked as he stood, upright and downcast, the most august and angst-ridden man I'd even seen. Helga, a skittish, chatty, blond woman whom I judged to be in her early thirties, flapped around him like a raven harassing an eagle. Gerd never engaged her directly on these walks; he looked passed her or through her when she happened to flit in front of him, always gazing straight ahead, his eyes on the fisherman who, at these times of day, were hauling in their nets or sorting their pitiful catch on the sand. The couple kept to themselves and I never saw them speak to their neighbors. I wasn't sure they even knew English until I met them and discovered they spoke the language flawlessly, with only a shade of an accent.
Because animals must live in non-Catholic countries to possess souls and feel pain, those unfortunate enough to inhabit Latin countries lead lives of unrelenting misery. Useful beasts, like donkeys or cows, are only a little better off than pets, so if you wake up tomorrow and discover that you're a stray dog in Spain, head for the nearest border or swim out to sea and drown.
In 1959, though, you'd have found a haven in Gerd's cottage.
That's how I finally met him, on the morning a bunch of local kids were hurling stones at a trembling mongrel and harassing it with sticks. Gerd must have heard the ruckus too (it woke me up), because he came running down the beach shouting (in Spanish) and chased the kids away from the near-dead dog. I watched from my terrace as he cradled the poor creature in his arms and took it back to his cottage, murmuring soothing words in German.
I had to meet this guy.
Later, when I knew he'd be taking his afternoon walk, I intercepted him.
"Good morning," I said.
"Good morning," he replied, neither pleasantly nor unpleasantly.
"Ah. You speak English," I said, grinning inanely. He didn't reply, so I continued. "That was a nice thing you did this morning, saving that dog."
He shrugged. His shrugs were difficult, slow to start and lengthy, as though there was a hundred pound weight on his shoulders. A long silence followed, so long I began thinking, well, that's it for today, when he said:
"That was quite a fish you caught the day you arrived."
"Just luck," I said, with what I imagined to be disarming modesty. Then, strangely, I felt compelled to diminish my own stature with a confession. "You know, I fished for two straight weeks near Valencia and didn't catch--" I was about to say "shit," but thought better of it. "--a single fish." Something about the guy demanded a measure of formality. Or maybe I was self-conscious, knowing how Europeans hated the way Americans presumed a jolly friendship from the first hello.
"Good luck counts," he said. Huh? Wow, was that ever elusive! Counts for what? In what context? Fishing? Life? Everything? So far the guy's said a dozen words (including "good morning") and already I'm mulling over what he means. (Although, there was a voice inside saying, hey, you want a mystery, you'll find a mystery.)
Well, I had plenty of time to gnaw on this bone because Gerd nodded without smiling and resumed his walk. Watching him vanish down the beach, I began wondering about what he did during the war. True, he had the air of a soldier, an officer, but I couldn't imagine him fighting for the Nazis. I trusted my feelings about him and, his aloofness notwithstanding, Gerd had heart; there was no way he could have been on the wrong side. Working with the underground was more like it--dangerous, secret meetings in Berlin safehouses, sending morse code messages to London, blowing up bridges across the Rhine, night attacks on barracks in the Black Forest--all the stuff I'd seen in movies.
Or maybe I'd known him in one of my previous lives. Yeah: I'm a wandering gem merchant pursuing my trade in one of the old Roman coastal towns, Saguntum or Tarraco. Gerd's a Carthaginian Vandal from North Africa. (Come to think of it, in this scenario, he could very well be one of Tomaso's ancestors.) On one of their raids, I'm taken prisoner. I'm about to be executed when Gerd intervenes: "Let this one be!" he thunders to his men--don't ask me why. I thank him in a language he doesn't understand and go on my way. A few months later, one of Justinian's armies arrives to sweep these dreaded barbarians out of Africa and put an end to their brutal forays along the Spanish coast. Now Gerd is captured. He's about to be executed. I recognize him at once among the thousands waiting to be nailed to the cross. I check my gem bag and approach a centurion. The guy's got a hammer in his hand and sneers ominously through a mouthful of nails. The bastard can't wait to start hammering. "Excuse me," I say. "That man over there, the one who's straight and bent at the same time....I'd like to buy his freedom." I bribe the boob with two opals and an emerald--second-rate stones actually, but what does he know? Gerd jumps down off the cross. He thanks me in a language I don't understand and goes on his way.
Sounds about right to me.
"What do you think of the kraut?" I asked Anita when I returned to the cottage.
"Which one's the kraut?" she replied, which tells you where her focus was. Anita had started knitting a muffler in Avignon that was now seven feet long.
"You expecting Siamese twins?"
"Up your ass," she replied matter-of-factly.
I guess being together twenty-four hours a day for five months was beginning to take a toll on our marriage. It wasn't serious (yet), but it wasn't fun anymore either. We didn't fight; we were just there, keeping more and more to ourselves, leading separate lives in the same space. As the winter went on, we became increasingly listless, kind of numbed out, at least with each other. Sex, on those rare occasions when we had it, was still pretty good--for me. But I'm a skilled pervert who can (or could in those days) get off behind anything. Assent, resistance, indifference, even a woman's passion--all were aphrodisiacs to me.
We couldn't see it then, but this was more than a bump in the road on the way to a happier marriage. Our alienation was growing at about the same rate as Anita's muffler. No surprise that it took a while to notice the most important sign of all, the one that reads: "Couples Who Stop Discussing A Future Together Don't Have One."
Now here's a shocker: That same night, Gerd, with Helga in tow, showed up at the cottage with a chess set under his arm, just as though we'd made plans for the evening! We were digesting yet another feast of boiled leather (squid), half-baked potatoes and raw carrots--What do you want? The kid was twelve years old!--when I noticed the two of them standing on the flagstone terrace: Gerd, as always, outwardly erect and inwardly stooped, Helga, doing her overwrought raven routine, dipping and weaving and hopping around her stationary husband as though waiting to pounce on his discarded tidbits.
"May we come in?" she asked, smiling politely.
"Hey, our door's always open," said Mr. Cheery, prompting a God-you-can-be-putzy-sometimes sigh from Anita. "Come, in, come in," I continued, ignoring the put-down. I'd done it! Casals is in the Caribbean, we may never meet Robert Graves or Picasso. But who cares? I've landed another giant sargo!
"I thought you might like a game of chess," Gerd said.
Jesus! How does he know I love chess?
"Well, sure! You guys want a drink, coffee or something?"
"Guys?" asked Helga, rattled by the colloquialism.
"Oh, sorry. It's....you know, a way to say....it just means the two of you."
"Ah, I see." But I could tell she didn't see anything. I suppose she thought I was calling her a dyke.
I noticed that Gerd, who didn't pay any more attention to his wife indoors than he did outdoors, was scrutinizing the room. (What was he looking for? The tourist bungalows are all identically furnished.) What I was totally oblivious to, until later when she busted me for it, was that I was ignoring Anita! For the next two hours, it's like she wasn't there. Weird. I was imitating this guy!
Loving a game doesn't guarantee that you'll be any good at it, and I'll never be more than an average player. However, my ego isn't invested in chess and I didn't mind losing three games in quick succession. Truthfully, I would have lost even if I hadn't been distracted by an avalanche of thoughts regarding my enigmatic opponent. (Why had he suddenly appeared at the cottage? What did he want? Who was he? Why did I care who he was?) What did bother me was that he hardly said a word that night. He came to play chess and that's what we did. Helga, to Anita's dismay, took up the chit-chat slack, giving new meaning to the phrase witless prattle. (Examples: Spain is a lovely country. The sea is beautiful. I wish the beach weren't so rocky. The sand is grainy. It hurts to walk barefoot. How nice to be warm in winter. Have you been to the bullfights in Malaga? Et cetera.)
Anita, kind, generous, big-hearted Anita, was wilting under the barrage. My wife, an M.A. in Comparative Lit. who read four books a week--despite her knitting obsession--had no flair whatsoever for small talk. Nonetheless, there were a few nuggets of substance in Helga's painfully mindless soliloquy. The Rautenbergs, I learned, weren't merely tourists. They had taken a long lease on their bungalow years ago when they came to live in Spain permanently. Helga worshipped her husband and told us that Gerd was a commercial artist who made a living painting "the most exquisite labels" for Rhine wine bottles for a company in West Germany which kept him supplied with materials. I noticed Gerd winced slightly every time his wife touched on anything relating to their personal lives.
The Rautenbergs left as suddenly they had come. Cutting his wife off in mid-rant, Gerd swept the chess pieces off the coffee table into their sweet-smelling cedar box, snapped the board shut, rose to his feet and said, affably but unsmiling, "Goodnight." I thought the guy was pissed by my shabby performance. Later I came to understand that sudden appearances and abrupt departures were his style.
He disappeared through the open, glass-panelled door with poor Helga fluttering in his wake firing salvo after salvo of exaggerated tics over her shoulder. Before I realized that these twitches were intended to be apologies for her husband's unceremonious exit, I suspected she might be a loon who'd been downing anti-psychotic medication for too long.
But that was it. No "Thanks for the coffee," no "What a pleasant evening," not even some 1959 equivalent to "Your chess sucks, I'm outta here." Just a curt goodnight, and he was gone.
"So...?" I said to Anita. I really wanted her angle on the guy.
"What do you mean?"
"Ah, c'mon, Anita," I whined. "What do you think about Gerd?"
"I like him," she said.
"All right. I can buy that. So do I. But, seeing as he didn't open his mouth, what do you like about him?"
"Must I have a reason?" she asked.
"Hey, this isn't a grilling. I'm only asking for your opinion."
"Why're you so interested in him?" she said, unspooling the half-mile-long muffler.
"Must I have a reason?" I shot back, mimicking her tone exactly.
Okay, it was a snide, self-defeating remark and I knew it would curb any further discussion. I wasn't surprised that Anita got up without a word and went into the bedroom, but, what the fuck, I was angry, justifiably angry, at her airy intransigence. I was also frustrated. Anita had a unique fix on people; I valued her observations and I had a genuine yearning to discuss the evening with her; I didn't want to keep this guy to myself. I'd hoped he was a mystery we could unravel together.
Alone on the terrace, staring into a black, starless sky, listening to the crashing waves of an exceptionally high tide, I started thinking that maybe we'd turned some corner and were in the early stages of a doomed marriage. Not having experienced it before, I had no idea how a downhill slide started. But, geez, we'd been together for less than four years, only two of them as man and wife! The notion was too outrageous, too painful to hold onto. Exhausted, I wrapped the thought in a sigh and let it go, trusting it would float out into the darkness and sink to the bottom of the sea. Then I went into the house, opened Claudius the God and instantly fell asleep on the sofa, quite unaware that this was the very first time Anita and I wouldn't be spending the night in the same bed.
All in all, January wasn't a good month; February was worse.
I'd given up surf casting and started going out to sea with Tomaso, helping him gather his nets and fishing from his boat. I was hoping I'd have better luck in deeper water. I didn't. Late one morning I returned from one of these expeditions and found a letter from Olga, Peindado's wife. She said that Peinado had died suddenly in his sleep. (I've always wondered what that's like, to die in your sleep. Are you dreaming you're dying and then--I don't know--stop? Or do you just keep on dreaming forever? Or are you trapped in a nightmare and reach that terrifying moment where, ordinarily, you wake up in a sweat, panting, relieved that it was just a dream, only this time you don't wake up and the nightmare goes on through all eternity? Or do you never really die in your sleep? Is the proverbial obituary entry, "died in his sleep," a euphemism for waking up and dropping dead? Which would mean Peinado was present for his own death. And what about Olga? She had to be there next to him, because you don't make it through forty years of marriage sleeping on the sofa in the living room. However it happened, it was probably fast, and I consoled myself by thinking there's this to be said for death: it puts the fear of dying behind you.)
Although we'd only known Peinado a short time, I felt like I'd lost my grandfather all over again--the one on my mother's side for whom I had a special love all through my childhood.
I'm certain Anita was just as upset by the news as I was, but by then we'd reached a point in our relationship where we couldn't even share our grief.
It was after Peinado's death that I began, unconsciously, to assume Gerd's carriage: head up, heart down. He must have detected the change in me because he soon became friendly in a more conventional way. He'd show up at the cottage to play chess two, sometimes three nights a week--often without Helga, which probably added six months onto our marriage. Frequently, we took long walks along the beach to Fuengirola, a more prosperous village where fisherman plied the waters in spacious, broad-beamed boats, some equipped with single masts and huge, billowing sails, others powered by motors. From these vessels, tipped with majestic, ornately carved mastheads, they swept the sea clean of larger fish for miles around, leaving Tomaso and our other Carvajal friends--in their ancient, rotting dinghies--little more than minnow-sized scraps.
And Gerd began talking more. Nothing intimate, nothing about his past, just the kind of stuff you'd expect from him--how he hated the way the Spanish treated animals, and he thought the English were snobby, but their kids were charming. It wasn't much, but it was a step in the right direction.
Then, suddenly, surprisingly, I learned everything I wanted to know about Gerd all at once. It happened on one of our chess nights, which always took place at our cottage since they never invited us to theirs. Helga was with him. Gerd and I had settled down to play. (I'd begun to give him some competition, losing a mere three out of four games.) As usual, Helga was spouting and Anita was fuming when, an hour into the evening, I asked a question about Thomas Mann, a question that can only be characterized as bland, inconsequential. Gerd's response to it led to--what?--a dramatic explosion? a shocking confession? a major breakthrough? Well, yes and no. The content of what he said was certainly dramatic, and it was a major breakthrough given my ardent interest in him. Yet, it all came out so offhandedly, it couldn't in any way be considered either shocking or confessional. For a moment, I was convinced that the only reason Gerd hadn't said anything about himself until that night was because we hadn't asked!
"When I was seventeen," I said, "and a freshman in college, I was a Thomas Mann nut." Followed by: "It must be great to read him in German, huh, Gerd?" Gerd snorted and for the first time in my presence spat out a smile, a piercingly cynical smile, and grunted: "Thomas Mann? When I was seventeen I wasn't reading Thomas Mann."
"Oh? How's that?" Don't ask me why, but I'd assumed Gerd was well-educated, a guy who loved books.
"Because members of the Hitler Youth weren't encouraged to read the books they burned," he said with that long, weary shrug of his.
Shock? Stunned silence? A deafening lull in the conversation? Take your pick. They all describe our response to this blunt, prosaic, utterly stunning revelation--and that includes Helga. I glanced over at her. She looked as though she'd just been told she was going to have open heart surgery without an anesthetic.
"Ah... interesting," I said after what seemed like ten minutes. "So you were in the Hitler Youth." Like, no big deal; Germany had the Hitler Youth, America has the Boy Scouts. Anita didn't even bother reacting to this prize absurdity.
"He had no choice," Helga said. For a second, she was no longer a raucous, chatty raven; she became a hawk spreading it wings protectively over her newborn chick. Gerd glared at her. The message was: I didn't ask you to defend me, so stop it. Helga obligingly returned to her babbling mode--though it was a pretty heavy babble this time.
"It was terrible for us... the firebombings... in Hamburg.... They say it was worse than the atomic bombs in Japan. We lost everything... everyone.... We had to live in the streets. We had no food. We... we ate rats! Everybody was sick, and the dying... the bodies on the street.... Mein Gott, mein Gott, I can't tell you how horrible it was." She covered her face with her hands and began rocking back and forth in her chair.
"Oh. So you guys knew each other during the war." I said. It was the most idiotic, irrelevant, inappropriate statement I'd ever made, but I was desperate to lighten things up. Ridiculous. I'd spent two months looking for a cat to let out of the bag and now that it had appeared, I had this urgent need to shove it back in. There was good, old fashioned Jewish guilt at work here, as in: How dare you invite these lovely Nazis into your home and allow them to feel uncomfortable.
"No, no," Helga went on. "We met after the war, at a camp."
"I thought `camp' was reserved for Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and other undesirables," Anita said. I cringed. Anita was born a High Episcopalian related to such heavyweights as Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton on her father's side and the pre-colonial divine, Jonathan Edwards, on her mother's side. With bloodlines like hers, you don't worry much whether your Nazi friends are ill-at-ease under your roof. Besides, Anita had tolerated Helga's monologues long enough; she wasn't about to defuse the situation now that she had something to dig her teeth into.
"A refugee camp," Helga replied, staring at her shoes. "We were displaced persons when the war ended, so that's where they put us. We tried to emigrate to America, but--" She stopped.
I was thinking, why not? We took in lots of Nazis after the war. Too bad Gerd wasn't a rocket scientist, he'd have gotten in for sure.
"--But I had tuberculosis," Gerd said. "And that disqualified us."
"Being a Nazi wasn't enough?" Anita asked. The woman wouldn't let up and now I started shooting her dirty looks. I mean, c'mon, let me handle this; I'm the Jew in the crowd.
"Apparently that didn't matter...." Gerd said. There was nothing apologetic in his voice, just profound sadness--but, if not for having been a Nazi, for what then?
I decided, fuck it, I'll take the direct route. Sure I like the guy, he moves me, but pretty soon we'd be leaving Spain and I'll probably never see him again. I had nothing to lose. And, of course, my greedy curiosity had only been partially satisfied.
"Gerd, tell us what happened," I said, softly, sincerely. He studied me for a long moment, then told us the following:
"I was born in the Sudetenland, an area given to Czechoslovakia after World War I. We Sudeten Germans were a hated minority and the Czechs treated us...well...like what you would expect. When Hitler annexed the region, we all greeted him as a great liberator. Of course, I joined the Hitler Youth. I was a patriot. By the time the war started, I was a lieutenant in the Wermacht. For anyone who cares to make the distinction, we were the elite fighting arm of the German Army; we were soldiers, not those hideous thugs. I fought the whole war on the Russian front. A Panzer unit. Twice I was among a half dozen men to come back from an engagement. At Stalingrad, the beginning of the end for us, I was the only survivor in my section. Even our general had been killed. Later, like so many soldiers, when we saw that we were finished, we raced to the West. None of us wanted be captured by the Russians. When I learned about what we had done, I cursed God that I hadn't been killed in battle. In 1949, Helga and I left Germany for good."
Then he got up and left.
I'm sure Helga knew about the atrocities, but was saved by her talent for rationalizing the ugly parts of life. Gerd really didn't know what happened, but assumed responsibility nonetheless and paid the price: He was broken, irreversibly and everlastingly, a man who would never mend. And I will always believe that other than Helga and some U.S. Army interrogators, he had never told anyone the story he told us that night in Carvajal.
Two days later, Anita and I were startled out of our sleep (she in the bedroom, I on the sofa) by a harrowing scream. Along with our neighbors, we rushed to its source, Gerd and Helga's cottage. Helga had staggered onto the beach, howling, arms outstretched, spinning in ever-tightening circles until she collapsed to the sand sobbing. We found Gerd in the cottage, a rope around his neck, dangling from a beam. We cut him down and laid him out on the floor. For the first time, Gerd was neither stooped, hunched nor hiding within himself. In fact, he seemed quite peaceful.
Peter Meyerson (firstname.lastname@example.org) spent several years in book and magazine publishing in New York before moving to Los Angeles to write films and TV shows, most notably Welcome Back Kotter, which he created and produced for several seasons. "Not too long ago, realizing I had squandered much of my working life on dreck," says Peter, "I overcame my self-doubt and began writing fiction."
InterText stories written by Peter Meyerson: "Small Miracles are Better Than None" (v7n2), "Closed Circuit" (v7n4), "A Stray Dog in Spain" (v8n3), "Jane" (v8n5).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 8, Number 3 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1998 Peter Meyerson.