By Rebecca Epp
“What are you going to do today, sweetheart?” my grandfather inquires as I take a seat at the table next to him and start spinning the Lazy Susan. Filled with spices, sugar, sauces and spoons—why is it called a Lazy Susan? “I don’t have any concrete plans,” I say as the balanced disc moves with the slight touch of my fingers.
“Did you want something to eat?” my grandmother asks. She thinks I’m too skinny. Probably because she is fat. She bustles about the kitchen in her flower patterned apron between her two ovens. Why she needs two I do not know. There are three people living and eating here. No need for two.
“Did you hear what I said, dear?” I look up to see her staring at me like I was infected with a social disease. Like I was not quite all there. Concern mixed with pity. Like the way she looked at my mother. “No thanks, Grandma.”
She starts muttering something in German. Grandpa looks up and says something in reply. Something like ‘Leave her the hell alone’ I imagine. Or ‘What are we having for supper tonight’.
Grandpa’s voice is rough, quiet, commanding, soft, sincere. All these things, especially in German, blended together to make him terrifying and touchingly gentle at once. That’s what makes old people scary. You can’t tell what kind of person they really are. They scuttle up to you with their walkers, all toothless and grinning. Something about the depth of the wrinkles, the spots spattereed on their hands, the frailness of their limbs. It’s very disarming. People see a cute little old grandma, but they never stop to think about what she used to be. Everyone will become old someday. They’ll retire and take up bingo and botchy ball. Society lumps them all together as this population of innocent folks who only reminisce of the ‘good old days’. Yet every person in the retirement home lived a full life before getting there. What were they like before being locked up in a prison parading as a hospital? What secrets of the past are hidden in the flesh folds hanging off their faces? Living with my grandparents for the summer has given me ample time to examine such inquiries.
“It smells like cabbage in here,” I observe getting up from the table. “Gross.”
Cabbage was all they had to eat. Cabbage was good though, Dierk thought to himself. Actually it was awful, but he didn’t have a choice. It was a meal, food, sustenance. It would get them to the next day. The only honest one in the family was Heinz, the youngest. Three years old. “No cabbage mama, no cabbage!” sang Heinz.
“Eat your supper, darling,” their mother said.
“Noooo!” he whined.
“Well if you don’t want your cabbage I’ll have to eat it for you because it is just too tasety to throw away,” said Dierk with a grin, reaching over to his little brother’s bowl.
“My cabbage!” Heinz yelled defensively as he grabbed his bowl and held it tightly to his chest, his face tightening up into an adorable pout. Dierk chuckled and shared a smile with his mother. The whole family had been eating cabbage at every meal for months. It was better than some. There was a portion of the village that was not eating anything for supper tonight.
There was a knock on the door. Dierk looked up across the table at his father. It was time. The trucks had come. They had come for the barely-yet-boys, the strapping young men, the balding fathers. They had come to destroy families and tear apart the little German village. And they didn’t have a choice. Dierk stood up, knowing that to resist was to embrace the sharp numbing of a bullet in the back of the head. He kissed his mother, then his sisters, then little Heinz. He followed his father outside into the street and climbed into the back of the truck.
“Do you like mushrooms, Grandpa?” I had spotted a rather large clump of them on the side of the road. “No,” he answers. They were probably the poisonous ones. The ones that you can’t put in soup, that don’t alter your state of mind, that just grow on the side of the road for no reason. Pointless mushrooms. I kick some with my foot.
We were walking up the twisted road to the mailbox at the top of the hill. Apparently post men are lazy and can’t deliver to the end of the cul-de-sac. Maybe it’s the crazy dog that lives on the corner. Lazy. Lazy Susan.
My grandmother insists that I walk with my grandfather. And so to shut her up we both comply and travel the winding road together daily. It gives us a chance to have lively conversations about fungi.
“Steak for dinner again today?” It was Saturday. We had steak every Saturday. Steak and horse radish. Yum. I do not know what part of the horse is in that radish, but it tastes like pickled shit.
“Are you going to go out tonight? Do I need to make dinner early?” I never went out. Ever. I think they are getting worried. Fair enough. Grandma caught me talking to a tree yesterday. Actually a squirrel in a tree. A little better. If I wanted to go out I would not be living with my grandparents. “Nope. No plans.”
“You could call someone?” he says, trying to be helpful.
“I don’t really have any friends here Grandpa,” I reply. “And I don’t really want any either,” I mumble quietly under my breath. We stop talking after that.
Two little boys race down the hill on bikes; ringing bells and blowing whistles.
It was jarring. Earsplitting. The sound of the whistle stabbed through him, as if his body was being violently butchered, cut into tiny pieces. Dierk had been watching him. Light brown uniform, black boots and a red, black and white arm band. Just like all the others. The youth marched with pretention, strutting up to Dierk, the only other person in the lonely Berlin street. Dierk didn’t really hear the shouts. He knew what they were without listening. All he truly heard was the whistle, the clear, piercing shrill of the whistle. And then the youth raised his right arm.
It was done before he knew what had happened. Dierk grabbed the shiny silver whistle and forced his hand into the youth’s warm mouth. He pushed the small metal object down his slippery throat drowning out the noise, replacing the shrill with the muffled laments of a choking human being. Then the young man with the arm band was on the ground. Really only a boy. Really only a child. The boy really didn’t even know what he was doing. And now there was an unnatural lump in his throat, a black cord hanging out of his mouth, his eyes white and glassed over.
Dierk ran. He didn’t look back.
Lying on a queen sized bed in a spacious room, I trying to count the plethora of small square tiles covering the ceiling. I should probably stop before I go mad. It’s pink. Pink walls, pink pillows, pink curtains, pink bedspread, pink carpet. It’s a pink room. It’s like drowning in Pepto-Bismol. But the mattress is comfy.
It’s an improvement on my last room. The room I had after the moving trucks came and took away everything in our real house. They came. They emptied. They left. They took everything. Even the keys. After that Mom and I moved into a shitty apartment which smelled like alcohol and cigarettes. I didn’t exactly have a room. Just an old mattress in the corner by the window looking onto more shitty apartment buildings falling apart with old age. The window here looks out into the garden. I head outside.
I run my hand along the contours of the white picket fence. Unlatching the lock, I open the gate. The garden goes all the way around the house. Plants of all kinds, colors, textures, sizes and species grow in artless tandem together. Or perhaps it is because of the random creepers linking all the living things together, the unarranged placement of the flowers, the spontaneous sprouting of the vines that make it artful. It is tangled, confused, chaotic. It is beautiful.
My grandfather is mowing the lawn in the back. He never wears a proper shirt while mowing, just a white tank. It was the only time you ever saw his tattoos. On one arm was a sailing ship. It made me think of pirates. On the other was an anchor with an inscription on the bottom. I never asked what it meant. I wave. I keep walking.
The ravine is in the back woods of the house. The softest moss grows up the tree trunks adding new texture on the rough bark. The canopy blocks most of the sun and the forest has a dark feeling of mystery. It smells fresh, clean, moist. It’s muddy. My black rubber boots—a size too big—get stuck with each new step. A crude trail leads the way to the river.
It has been a wet spring and the water level is higher than usual. The rapidly flowing stream flows south. Everything is in such a hurry. The rocks and pebbles on the shore are worn smooth. I walk across the rocks, slipping slightly, and wade into the water. The forest is quiet except for the soft hush of the stream and the splash of my feet breaking its surface.
The trees were dense. That was good. Denser trees meant better cover. Cover. Stay covered. Just stay covered and maybe he’d make it. His comrade was breathing heavily. He grabbed his shoulder reassuringly. “We’re going to make it. Not much farther now,” Dierk said more confidently than he felt. It was only ten miles to the American line. If they could make it to the American line they could surrender. If they could surrender to the Americans they would be spared, put in a prisoner of war camp. They wouldn’t have to fight anymore. He wouldn’t have to fight for a cause he didn’t believe in.
They’d have to break cover soon. About 300 feet of field separated them from the next forest covering. It had been quiet for several minutes, or hours. He was getting nervous. It was dangerous to move, dangerous to stay. But, he didn’t like waiting to be caught. If he was going to die he’d rather it be over quickly. If they were moving at least they were doing something. The war was going to be won by the other side. Now he was fighting a new battle, a personal battle for his right to life. Yet, Dierk was feigning confidence. He wasn’t sure how much he wanted his right to life anymore. He stepped out from behind the tree and adjusted his rifle. Giving a nod to his companion, they rose and started making their way out from cover, slowly, quietly, cautiously. If they just kept moving…
I struggle to get out from under the bulky blankets. It’s nearly noon. I stagger sleepily into the hallway heading towards the kitchen.
“Oh good, you’re up!” an excited voice exclaims from down the hallway. My grandmother comes scuttling towards me with an anxious look on her face. “Get dressed, dearie. It’s a beautiful day. You should be in the garden.”
“You nearly slept the day away! When I was your age I would have been up and hard at work for hours already.” She also walked to school uphill both ways.
“And wear something nicer today,” she adds pushing me back down the hall. “Maybe something more feminine. You are always wearing all those boys’ clothes and they don’t do anything for your figure, darling.”
“Righto skipper.” She had already scurried back to the kitchen. “I’ll just break out my pink tea dress for an afternoon of doing nothing.” I head back to my room and pull on a pair of faded jean shorts and a blue t-shirt. Take that, Grandma.
I head back down the hall. My grandfather is watching the news in his recliner.
“So, what terrible travesties are happening in the world today?”
Before he can answer my grandmother sweeps me out of the front door and into the garden. I start to protest, but she shoves a banana chocolate chip muffin in my hand tells me to breathe the fresh air while closing the door. Apparently fresh air is good for you.
In the garden I stop at the cherry tree. “Why the hell would I ever dress up just for you? No offense.” I continue walking. Glancing to my left, I stop short. A boy. Or a guy I guess. He looks to be about the same age as I am. He stands frozen, like me, and we stare. His clothes are dirty. There is a shovel in his hand and a quizzical expression on his face. It is hard to make out exactly because his shaggy brown hair hangs down over his eyes.
“Hi,” he says.
I just stare. He stares back. “I don’t look nice today.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Uh, nothing. Well digging a hole. In the ground. For a tree.”
I keep walking until I end up down in the ravine. I am barely aware of what is around me as I walk. I make my way north up river to a little pool. Small, but deep enough to submerge your entire body in. I strip. Jump in. The cold river water sends shivers down my spine. I feel numb, magnificently and utterly numb. Like everything has been stripped away with my clothes. Blowing the air out of my lungs, I let myself sink down to the stream bed. I think about staying there forever, about letting the water take over, about falling asleep and never having to wake up. My lungs start to panic inside my chest, but I keep my head down my eyes closed. I blow my last air bubbles and dig my fingertips into the slimy mud.
At the last second, I shoot back up to the top, breaking the surface, gasping for breath, hungry for air. I cough and sputter, my throat dry, my mouth open trying to inhale as much oxygen I can possible hold.
Dierk had spent eight months in an American prisoner-of-war camp. He spent everyday thinking about his family, waiting to go back to his little peaceful village. When the war was over, and the treaties signed, they released prisoners who were not thought to be a threat to current security. He walked, hitching rides when he could, all the way back to the village. When he arrived home though, there was not much for him to recognize. The Russians had passed through, destroying most of the homes, burning fields, killing civilians. Dierk had camped out in the ruins of his former home for three days. He learned of the death of his mother and siblings, and the disappearance of his father during battle. He cried all three days.
He had made his way to France under a false passport and bartered his way onto a ship. The passenger ship sailed smooth and straight through the Atlantic heading toward America. Heading towards a new start, a new life. Heading away from the post war mess of his birth country, away from the graves of his mother, his sisters and his younger brother Heinz. Dierk was standing on the edge of the lower deck. Messy blonde hair, dark circles beneath his eyes, a worn green jacket stained with mud. The wind was sharp and chilling across his wet cheek. His knuckles had gone white from gripping the railing. He held on with intensity, as if to let go would have been the end.
Dierk watched the white capped waves sweep up the side of the ship. He let loose his grip, bent down, untied his shoe laces, stepped out of his boots and placed them neatly a couple feet from the railing. Shoeless and tired he swung his left leg over the railing, then the right. His grip now loose, it would not be hard for him to let go. Because this was the end.
He imagined the splash expand that would occur, the rings that would develop where his body hit the water. He was sinking now. Sinking down into the blue. He took a deep breath. A strong hand upon his arm jerked him back into reality. A man, balding with a scruffy gray beard, had a hold on his upper arm. He shook his head and guided Dierk back across the railing to the deck. Dierk let go his grip and collapsed to his knees. Tears welled up in his eyes. The stranger stayed with him, a comforting hand resting on his shoulder.
I walk back up to the house. My garments develop some odd shaped splotches from the river water still clinging to my skin. The guy with the shaggy hair is still in the garden digging. I walk past his hole, pausing to inspect the depth and then take a seat against the tree nearby. He stops working and stares at me again.
“Who are you?” I ask pointedly.
“I live up the street. In the green and white house.”
“The one with the lions by the driveway.”
“Do you enjoy digging holes in your neighbors’ gardens just for fun?”
“I needed a summer job. She hired me. Your grandmother.”
“How do you know that I’m not just someone who enjoys walking through people’s gardens?”
He didn’t look at me like I am insane. I wouldn’t hold it against him; I had already talked to a tree today. No squirrel.
“Why are you here?” he asks.
“I live here.”
“No, why are you living here? I heard you were from Chicago.”
“Things didn’t work out.”
“What kinds of things?”
“Lots of things.”
“Oh.” He looks at his feet. He looks disappointed.
“My mother is an alcoholic and my father, well he just isn’t.” I stop and look up at the clouds. “Isn’t in the picture anymore,” I said quietly. “He left with the moving trucks,” I said even softer to myself.
We stand again in silence. He looks at the sky, I look at the ground. I start untangling my hair with my fingers. Parting it in three I weave it together into a long brown braid. He stares again. He’s smiling.
The streets were noisy. There was a buzzing, a constant stream of chatter that flowed with the movement of bodies busily rushing by. He didn’t understand any of it. The movement, the chatter, the signs, even the people looked strange. It didn’t look like there had ever been a war. Dierk crossed the street blindly following the current of bodies. He’d been wandering the streets for quite a while now, not knowing where he was going or what kept him moving.
He spotted a small cluster of trees down a side street. It turned out to be a park. A little patch of grass with a rustic swing set and a bench. That is when he saw her. The girl with the long braid. She was holding the hand of a young boy. The boy had been crying. She smiled tenderly as she wiped away his tears. Dierk stood against a tree and watched. The boy, now sufficiently comforted, turned from her and ran towards the swings. She yelled after him. As she stood up she caught Dierk’s gaze. The girl with the long braid smiled at him. Her lips smooth and pink parted slightly in a questioning expression. Dierk smiled back, his lips stiff from serious expressions. He smiled a real smile for the first time since the trucks.
Grandpa was down in his woodworking shop. As I open the door I am hit by the pungent smell of freshly cut wood. The garage is covered in a light layer of dust making me cough as I breathe it in. Piles of scrap material litter the floor. Stacks of lumber lean on the walls. Tools of every kind hide amongst the chaotic heaps of wood products. My grandfather is working at the table saw in the corner of the room.
“Hey, Grandpa,” I say, but he didn’t hear me. “Grandpa!” He shuts the saw off and turns around.
“Oh, what are you doing down here?”
“Grandma sent me to tell you supper is ready.”
“What are you working on?” I ask maneuvering around a stack of two by fours.
“Oh, just a little table.”
I squat down and brush my hand against the soft grains of the wood. It was a nightstand. A pattern of swirls and leaves was carved into the sides of the dark lumber. My parents had a nightstand exactly like it beside their bed back home. When we had a real home. When we were a real family. It used to hold a stack of books my mother bought but never read, the lamp that my father once broke and then glued back together, and a picture of the three of us when I was born. A time I try not to think about anymore.
I look back up at my grandfather. His eyes are dark wells of time, holding secrets of the past. He smiles at me, his half smile which moves his wrinkles in the most pleasing way.
“I was much like you when I was young,” he says putting his hand on my shoulder. “When I was young I…..” He stops and closes his eyes for a moment. “I love you very much.”
There is a shout of some incomprehensible German phrase from the stairwell. I assume Grandma is yelling something to the effect of ‘Time for supper’ or ‘Dear God almighty I burnt the potatoes.’ My grandfather stands up slowly using the table for assistance. He exits the door and I can hear his heavy footprints make their way upstairs. I stay, crouching on the floor next to the nightstand. My tears mix with sawdust to make patches of gunk on the ground. I cried for the first time since the trucks.