by Alan Stolzer
My friend swept an undamaged arm toward others in the room, several wearing wehrmacht (army) campaign hats (as he did) muddled in their thoughts or conversations. At any rate, it served as barrier against an ice-tinged, pre-sunrise morning in Munich, 1965. The ex-soldier didn’t seem to care my German wasn’t anywhere near his nor up to par for that matter. Consequently, I couldn’t begin telling him I was between jobs and without lodging for, hopefully, this night only.
His gestures and talk, some to me, the rest for the room, were easily absorbed by the erratic hum of voice and smell familiar to contained space peopled by crowded bodies; no time or inclination to wonder how one arrived here but surrender to inevitable need for warmth and companionship – desirable or otherwise.
I wanted to find out where he had served. Was it North Africa, France or most disastrously the Russian Front where I’m sure he was as ignorant of that language as I was of German – save a few necessary phrases. Was he hospitalized for long? If so, where? What about his family? Did they ever exist beyond a certain point in time? What was his name come to think of it?
“Zu namen” I asked meekly, unsure of grammar or meaning (to him) for that matter. “Namen?” he straightened and showed me the good eye.
“Ja” I replied securely using a word everyone knew.
“Namen, namen” he went on, beginning to walk about the room, tripping on an extended foot, then shoved away by one whose lap he’d fallen into. No one queried him nor tried communicating: Here, civilized hostility seemed the norm.
He spun around room center, ended his whirl and addressed me again. “Meister!” unsteadily approaching, his nose having begun to drip, the tattered Wehrmacht overcoat open, its lining shredded, the outer part witness to who knows how many abuses or horrors.
For a wild moment I thought he was going to dance – here in this living grave of memory and reflex. How many dead had he seen? How many created by him and others? No, there was no dance, only energy that had no purpose or intention anymore. I knew he wouldn’t cry, sure whatever moisture for that outlet dried up years ago. Instead he was part of a celebration of lost souls not quite ready for last breath but acknowledging that event with the confidence of being, at last, right about death and welcoming that eventuality as one would submerge in endless ocean, warm to the skin, peaceful in benevolent introduction to forgetfulness.
I became even more frustrated knowing I was unable to even find out what his unit was, where he served and what the hell did he think of the war in the first place? There was one after all and now he was latter day victim, condemned by forces that controlled his thoughts to their own insane end. Did he, in any way, feel this? If he did, was he able to communicate what he wanted? I’d never known a shell of a human being before which aroused fascination as well as apprehension.
He was making drinking motions now, perhaps wanting me to buy him a beer. I’m sure I had a particularly stupid grin on my face as I, with difficulty since I was hemmed in, tried pulling my pants pockets out to inform him of my present state of affairs; insulted, he leapt into the stale air, pulled his pockets out then turned his back bending over to show me what he thought of my response.
Embarrassed, I huddled back into my place trying to sever whatever contact was left. But my companion would have none of that: Energized, he pointed at me and bellowed something to the uncaring room. It appeared he was trying to shame me to his world, or welcome a stranger (foreigner?) to their privacy, usher him into their present and dubious future. I couldn’t shrink any further back and couldn’t possibly dare the cold for the balance of the hostile night. Did he know he had a captive audience? Did any of it matter? Maybe he was telling them I was going to buy drinks, that an interloper had the price of relief after all. But I couldn’t say this wasn’t so and kept uneasy silence and waited for whatever came next.
Now his oration got louder. Whatever he was saying was apparently sincere. A face, here and there, rose from its previous place on its chest, some smiled, recognition of something in their eye – of what I couldn’t begin to guess. Here arose a shorter man on his feet trying to stand at attention, weak kneed but ridiculously willing. Another tried following suit and another pulled the short man’s pants down instead. Anger flared and I thought a fistfight was sure but the half dressed ex-soldier only flopped back into the lap of his undresser both laughing uncontrollably.
All jammed into this space must have been military since after a glance around the room there were clearly no civilians other than me; no civilians of 1965 nor years before. It was as if this room was reserved for those passing through all right, through a life best and deliberately forgotten by everyone in 1965. Indeed, the sooner the room was empty the better – even at 3am.
My thoughts, of course, didn’t affect my one-eyed and possibly neutered friend as he stayed on his feet not even seeking a seat among comrades. I wondered if this exhibition of resiliency would be his last and if he knew it. He certainly didn’t care and might be welcoming that waiting sea of eternity forever warm as might have been promised by a friendly prophet or two. Would he sing “Lili Marlene” as others might? Would he stiffen a good right arm in fascist salute, memory functioning mechanically as reminder of headier days?
At last he turned to me again and I saw fatigue, for the first time, exercise its will. He panted a bit, his grizzled face whiter than before. A step away he collapsed on his knees, his arms flung into my lap. Now what, I wondered? I can’t stay this way all night and who was there to help?
His face slipped down between my legs almost to the floor while he withdrew his arms to my legs, hugging them for all he and they were worth. “Meister, meister,” he moaned, now unconcerned over what friends and comrades might think.
It would be some time, I don’t know how long before a crack of light entered this tomb but one did. Two policemen, clearly alerted by someone, had entered and began pulling my friend off. I could see his death even as its remaining teeth protruded through a dark mouth, frozen crookedly forever. No one murmured a syllable as the cops carried him out with his past probably only known to him – if that was the case in the first place.
Alan Stolzer was born, raised and educated in New York City. After completion of military service, he traveled throughout Western Europe working odd jobs while writing freelance journalism for International Herald Tribune, Mallorca Daily Bulletin and various other European dailies (translated articles). Alan has been published in El Sol de Mexico and El Heraldo de Mexico. He continued writing upon return to U.S. and have written for the stage since. He studied with playwright John Ford Noonan, and served as dramaturg at St. Clements Theatre, New York, NY.