~This story was previously published in The Florida Review (1989).
Every morning at six, weather permitting, Herr and Frau Leopold climbed the wooded hill next to their inn and descended to a clearing, ringed on the north with tall firs and opening on the south to the lake. They deposited deck chairs and baskets, stripped to their bathing suits, donned plastic caps and ran without a word into the water. Franz Josef cut effortlessly across the surface. In the water he did not feel his seventy years. Karla preferred to float on her back and look up at the circling gulls. If she tilted her head she could see the snowcaps on the
Then they returned to the clearing, and as the day progressed, moved their deckchairs around it in a semi‑circle, following the sun.
Early in the morning Franz Josef read the newspaper from beginning to end. As the sun rose, his eyelids grew heavy. He adjusted his chair to a semi‑reclining position and took out a volume of Schiller to read between naps.
Karla busied herself knitting scarves for her husband and son. At least that was her intention. Anything might distract her — a bird, a squirrel, a cloud. While Franz Josef dozed, she would swim again or stroll along the shore and look at the sunbathers. She would have liked to speak to some of these people, but of course it was not possible to sit down half‑naked and insinuate herself into a conversation. From a distance, then, she wondered who they were and where they came from.
By late morning, the Leopolds might be joined by a few guests from their inn. No one so invited was gauche enough to play a radio or tape‑recorder. No one wished to sit in the shade. Thus they all moved in quiet stages together around the clearing. When it had filled completely with shadow, Franz Josef and Karla returned to the inn for dinner.
From the window of their room, Karla had a view of the plum orchard and the highway sloping downhill past the wooden stations of the cross. But not of the mountains. It was just as well, she thought. Too much mountain‑gazing made her restless. She would have liked to visit the Swiss Alps, but her husband dreaded traveling abroad. They had not so much as been to
in thirteen years, though the border was forty kilometers from their inn.
Whenever she suggested they try some place more exotic, Franz Josef would
remind her that outside of Austria ,
and sometimes inside, Germans of their generation were but thinly tolerated. At
least on the Unterhimmelsee they were known and respected. It would be
stressful to vacation elsewhere, and therefore pointless. Germany
The Leopolds took all of their meals at the Stammtisch, the big oak table near the entrance that was the prerogative of the village elders. Occasionally other guests would seat themselves there before the Leopolds arrived. The widow Müller would gently request that they sit elsewhere, if you please, and when the Leopolds claimed their rightful place, report the incident to them, a flick of her eyes indicating the unthinking intruders.
Every morning at quarter of six, the innkeeper set out coffee and rolls and a picnic basket for the Leopolds on the Stammtisch and then went off to dust and sweep and cook and change the flypaper. Where else could they find such old‑fashioned gemutlichheit? If only Frau Müller could organize the weather as successfully as she did her inn. Thunderstorms plagued the first week of their vacation. The days were swollen with rain and arthritis and marked by the slap of cards in the Gaststübl and the whine of mosquitos. When the sun finally came out, the beach was mobbed.
Even their "own" special spot was not proof against spillover from the grassy meadow where people sunbathed elbow to elbow. One cloudless morning, a large and noisy Turkish family marched into the clearing. The Leopolds stiffened in their chairs, whispered uneasily. "They have as much right as we," reasoned Karla. But Franz Josef disagreed. Year after year he had been required to deal with the public. In his retirement had he not earned the right to peace and quiet? Reluctantly he got to his feet. He stepped firmly across the clearing. He explained politely and patiently to a short mustachioed man who seemed to be in charge that this space was reserved for friends who were coming soon. The man shrugged.
No one joined them that day. The Turks spread their gear all over the clearing. The women in long dresses and bright shawls sat on blankets in the shade and prepared coffee and grilled meat. A radio played loud highpitched music while several small children fought with plastic water guns. The boys had hair cropped close to the skull and they looked like ugly little soldiers, but the girls were exquisite, Karla thought, with their black curls and long‑lashed eyes.
Franz Josef moved their deck chairs as usual around the clearing with the sun, until at
one o’clock, he was practically on top of a
blanket full of giggling adolescent girls. An older woman barked out a guttural
command and the girls moved out of his path.
Karla fled to the lake and swam vigorously. When she looked shoreward, she saw only a dense clump of fir protecting their camp and the green rolling hills that, dotted with farms and cows and cross‑stitched with fences, covered her angst like a quilt.
Following the "Turkish affair," Franz Josef spread their blankets and chairs strategically around the clearing early every morning, securing it against invasion. He insisted that — until reinforcements from the inn arrived — either he or Karla stand guard. That meant they did not swim together at dawn.
"Now you’re going a bit too far," she protested mildly. "I don’t want to worry every minute."
"If we take a few simple precautions, we won’t have to worry."
She decide to humor him.
Franz Josef was at bottom a mild‑tempered, retiring man whose back went up in unfamiliar situations. Only when they were in their own home was he truly at ease. He would have been content to stay at home with "his best friend" as he called her, and never leave. It really is a shame, she thought, not for the first time, that he has no close friends. He was a little jealous of hers. He had been jealous of their son, especially when Ulrich was small and demanding.
Franz Josef remained fiercely loyal to the memory of two young men who had been "friends beyond compare." One had died on the eastern front; the other, in
. Their framed photographs
hung in his "museum," a little room under the main staircase that had
been off limits to their boy unless he were accompanied by an adult. There too
were housed collections of antique carpenter’s tools, dueling pistols, nautical
instruments, rare leather bound books, some Limoges platters, and Franz
Josef’s prize possession, a three‑masted ship in a bottle which had been
assembled by his great-grandfather in the last century and which one day, he
fretted, would fall into the careless hands of their only child, that thirty
year old university student and motorcycle bum. France
Ulrich Leopold had never vacationed on the Unterhimmelsee. He traveled instead to places like
and Thailand . These vacations lasted six
months. Afterwards he came home without money or a job. Franz Josef did not
bother to hide his disappointment. But Karla still maintained that the best
time for a young man to see something of the world is before he settles down. California
"And when will that be? Your young man is over thirty."
"Soon. He’s calming down already."
Her hopes were based on the fact that Uli had been with one woman for eighteen months and that Franz Josef himself had been 33 and more dead than alive when Karla met him. "Those were different times," he countered, "And I was not handed the world on a platter. I tell you what, he doesn’t need the love of a good woman. He’s had that already for 30 years, perhaps too much of it." How many times had they argued thus. It was as close as they ever came to anger, the little cold war in the closet, Karla called it. Her position strengthened considerably when the American girlfriend convinced Uli to move out of the Besitzwohnung where they had squatted all winter with a band of fellow anarchists, and not a moment too soon, for the following week the police raided the building, tore down the red "occupied" banner and hauled the occupants off to jail.
"How long can he get by on luck and charm," Franz Josef queried icily. "As for what’s‑her‑name, grinning at me like a monkey, I suppose she thinks she’s charming too." "Donna is a go‑getter," Karla shot back. "She’ll see to it Uli makes his diploma." "What about the way she dresses. Just barely." He was referring to the Amerikanerin’s flimsy low‑cut blouses and tight leather pants. Karla replied, "It’s the style, isn’t it? You are too old‑ fashioned. Besides, the leather keeps her warm on the motorcycle, she told me."
That motorcycle. She could not refrain from teasing him. Nothing irked Franz Josef more than Uli’s motorcycle unless it were the mopeds which the last few summers had been whining up the trail past their clearing on the Unterhimmelsee. He hated the noise and the smell. Karla secretly liked the smell. It reminded her of gas stations early in the morning of a long trip.
Karla woke up abruptly. Her sleep had been undisturbed. Night had not leaked into the dawn. The day might be extraordinary; it could not possibly be bad. It was foolish, she knew, but sometimes just pulling a fresh sundress over her bathingsuit made her heart beat a little faster.
six o’clock they left the inn and crossed the deserted
highway. A fine skein of dew lay over grass and trees. The sky was delicate and
They climbed the hill slowly. They were carrying deck chairs, picnic basket, towels, books, newspaper, knitting needles and yarn. Karla felt oddly unencumbered, as if she were many years younger. She glanced at her husband. He was deep in thought, his sparse hair lifting in the breeze.
At the top of the rise they paused to catch their breath and to appreciate the view of lake and mountains. Cowbells clanged lightly. Otherwise no sound disturbed the early morning quiet. They moved more swiftly downhill on a damp trail between the firs. Karla shivered. Franz Josef transferred the deck chair to his other hand and with the free one, vigorously rubbed her bare arms.
When they came to the hedge which separated the trail from their clearing, he stopped suddenly. He could see over the bushes, but she on tip toe could not.
"What’s the matter, dear," she whispered.
"A bicycle," he replied simply.
"A bicycle at this hour? It’s not possible."
Each mirrored the other’s incredulity and disappointment.
"Someone must be sleeping there," Franz Josef whispered.
Quietly they walked around the end of the hedge and peered into the clearing. There at the spot where they normally deposited their chairs at this hour stood a bicycle. On the ground nearby, like a giant dark slug in their path, lay a sleeping bag.
Franz Josef raised his voice to just above a whisper.
"He’ll be on his way before too long. Meanwhile we’ll have our swim." He lowered his voice. "And we’ll take all of our gear down to the shore."
The gear now seemed a burden. The silence they shared had grown heavier too. At the beach they deposited their belongings, removed their outer clothing, put on their caps and plunged joylessly into the water.
Karla thrashed about for several minutes, warming herself up. Then she floated on her back and looked at the snowcaps on the mountains. But this only disheartened her further. She lowered her feet to bottom and found Franz Josef also standing waistdeep in water and staring toward shore.
"Did you see anyone leave?" he asked.
"No. I wasn’t looking."
He turned glumly toward her. "This corner of the world has become altogether too crowded. We should really look for something better next year. Don’t you agree?"
She shrugged. They fell silent again. Their lake was as serene as ever. Why always assume the worst? Might they not be pleasantly surprised? "It’s only a youngster on a bicycle tour," she said finally.
"I’ve slept in the woods like that," Franz Josef murmured. He was thinking back over fifty years to his boyhood. "We were Wandervögel then, free as birds."
"So have I," she smiled. "You can’t have forgotten."
"I remember everything. We couldn’t find a room."
"We couldn’t afford one. We spent too much for lunch."
"We’d been walking all day," he continued dreamily. "The sun was setting. And there was a perfect stand of fir off the road without any underbrush, a bed of leaves, a roof of branches and the stars shining through.
"I couldn’t sleep. I imagined someone would report us to the military police. Or what if a land mine or an old grenade had gone off. You heard stories like that all the time."
"Oh you slept. I watched you. You looked like a wood nymph with fir needles in your hair."
"A wood nymph? What am I now, a mer‑matron?"
She laughed, showing large slightly buck teeth. He looked down at her fondly. She might be placid as the lake on a summer morning. Then a sudden joie de vivre would erupt in her. Or a storm of tears. He never knew what to expect.
"Why are we making a fuss over one young man who is communing with Mother Nature?"
"I won’t make a fuss. My dear Frau Leopold, if you wish, we can invite him to commune with us over breakfast."
"Let’s see what sort of young man he is first," she replied, smiling up at him somewhat coquettishly.
He took her arm and led her out of the water.
They climbed the trail, chatting loudly and rattling their baskets and chairs.
The bicycle was gone. But the sleeping bag remained, spread on top of the hedge, along with bright red saddlebags and a pair of hiking boots planted at their
seven o’clock position.
Franz Josef spread the contents of their dufflebag all over the clearing. Then he paced back and forth between the saddlebags and the entrance to the clearing where another dirt trail sloped downhill through the trees to the highway. He inspected the sleeping bag without touching it. Goosedown and quiltstitched, a quality item. The saddlebags bulged insolently.
"What galls me is the complete lack of responsibility," he said. His voice did not sound angry; he spoke slowly and methodically. "Think how long you would have to work to buy a sleeping bag like this. Would you leave it on a hedge?"
"Certainly not." Karla’s knitting needles clicked.
"It is exactly what your son would do."
"Oh please, let’s not start on that."
He would not discuss Ulrich, then. Nor the irresponsibility of an entire generation to whom everything in life had come so effortlessly. He paced the clearing, looking frequently at his watch. What was he going to say to this fellow? This young man in leather jacket and cutoff jeans, how was he going to defend his behavior?
It is true, Franz Josef reasons, that we do not own this land. But certainly, we have seniority. Year after year, you see, not just one night’s worth. And then, what about a little respect for my gray hair?
Gray hair, the bicyclist says. That doesn’t even give you the right to be alive. Get out of here, fascist swine. I’m taking over.
Franz Josef inquires calmly: What makes you think you are any better than I am?
But when had he said that before and to whom? He recalls the sound of his own voice. High pitched, a kind of strangled scream. Uli must have been in his teens. What makes you think you are any better than I am?
Uli is rummaging around in the little museum under the staircase. It looks like a diploma he’s dug up but it’s not. He’s holding it between his finger and his thumb as if it were contagious. Certified Denazified, it says.
What did you do, he asks.
Stamping birth certificates and such, oh that was the final straw. Racist, fascist, bureaucratic cockroach, guilty of every word in that mountain of paper I stamped and sealed and filed away in the cellar of the city hall. Better to have rotted in a camp, he says. Better to be dead.
What about the time we pamphleteered for the Reds and the Brownshirts beat us up. He doesn’t believe we ever did it for the Reds, but it’s a fact. Alright, the SD too. I admit we really did it for the money, though never indiscriminately. Willie, now, he only worked for the Reds. His father was a party man. They broke Willie’s jaw. They broke my glasses, knocked out a tooth. Broke Jörgen’s arm and two of his ribs. I was the lucky one.
That story has a beard, he says. What about the rest of it? The rest is simple. I kept my mouth shut. I survived. Simple. I was in the cellar of the Rathaus when our house was hit. Your grandparents and my first wife and little girl, your half‑sister, they’re all dead. Willie blown to bits at
Jörgen no one knows. Perhaps you’re right. I should have died as well and never
met your mother. She brought me back to life, you know. You were the child of
Franz Josef looked over at his wife. She was a small round woman with deep creases around her eyes and short gray hair, and he was a tall bony man. Funny how well they fit together.
Karla looked up.
"Come and drink your coffee," she said and patted the empty chair beside her. He did not move.
"You are fussing over nothing, aren’t you?"
He cleared his throat loudly. Rusty old pipe, he told himself.
"I can hear you thinking. You may as well let me in on it."
"You won’t like it," he managed.
"Not if it’s about Uli again. It isn’t fair. He isn’t here."
"But he is." Franz Josef tapped his chest and then pointed at the saddlebags. "He’s here and he’s here. In essence."
"Ach!" Karla handed him a mug of coffee. "It doesn’t do a bit of good to get worked up. When the fellow came back, you’ll talk to him. Meanwhile, won’t you sit down?"
"As you wish," he said stiffly.
8:00 they had finished the rolls and cheese and a cup of
coffee each. Karla was knitting. She lost count, dropped stitches. So the rows
are uneven, she thought, cross with her clumsiness. Franz Josef had pulled out
the Frankfurter Allgemeiner. He read an item aloud to her, and his voice
cracked a little.
She dropped needles and yarn to her lap, exasperated, and folded her hands and waited. They were waiting, she realized, exactly as they had once waited for Uli. She felt as uneasy as she had then, and she was asking herself the same questions. If he never came home? When do we stop waiting?
"Franzl, what time is it?"
Half past eight."
Finally they heard the clicking of bicycle wheels down the trail. Franz Josef folded the paper and put it neatly back in the basket. He walked slowly to the entrance of the clearing, where he waited with arms folded across his chest. Karla remained seated.
Up the trail clattered a bicycle, an old one judging by the sound of metal being rhythmically scraped. Through the trees they saw it, clanking up laboriously, a figure rising and falling, then disappearing behind the hedge, a light thud — the rider dismounting — and Franz Josef stood yet straighter. His heart beat faster. How he hated the whole business.
Then around the corner came a slender, young woman, pushing a solid, antiquated lady’s bicycle. Momentarily Franz Josef was speechless. Behind him, Karla sucked in her breath.
"My God," she said. "You spent the night here? Alone?"
The woman put the kickstand down and looked around the clearing warily. She spoke slowly with a heavy American accent.
"Yes. A lovely spot, isn’t it? Do you come here often?"
"We have been coming here every morning for thirteen summers, Fraulein." Franz Josef, too, spoke slowly and precisely. The woman was standing about a meter away on the other side of the bicycle, panting a little from the uphill climb. He became aware of his crossed arms and let them drop.
"We stay here all day. Following the sun in a circle, you see." He swung one arm in a slow semi‑circle. "You can tell the time of day by where we are sitting, you see."
"How could you have slept here alone?" Karla’a voice rung out imperiously. No woman she knew would wander the countryside without protection — not even Uli’s American girlfriend.
The young woman shrugged. "I couldn’t find a room," she said. "That inn down the road was full." She came forward cautiously to where her saddlebags lay, Franz Josef following behind. She was not, after all, so very young, Karla observed. Her hair was streaked with gray and there were webs of lines under her eyes — heavy‑lidded eyes that, accented by high cheekbones and a beaked nose, gave her a sorrowful air. Perhaps she was part American Indian? Her hair was tied in two shoulder‑length pony‑tails and she wore cut‑off jeans and a t‑shirt, which accounted for the first impression of youth. "I think it must be dangerous for a woman alone," Karla continued softly. "Weren’t you frightened?"
"A little, yes. I was frightened when you walked by." The hooded eyes widened suddenly in comic alarm. "I pulled the bag over my head."
"So sorry," they chorused.
Franz Josef considered. His daughter, had she survived the war, would have been this woman’s age. He would be remiss in his duty should he not speak.
"If I may offer advice, Fräulein. It was ill‑considered to abandon your belongings here. I suggest greater caution in the future."
"Oh I know I took a chance." Now she spoke in a rush, cutting off ends of words. "I woke up hungry and tired and these packs are so heavy, you see. Then I saw you two in the lake, and I thought, there’s nothing to worry about. I could tell that you were trustworthy. So I went back to that inn without the saddle bags. She was surprised to see me again, the Gastwirtin. I was never served so enormous a breakfast."
"To be sure," Karla murmured. She felt uneasy, having a room in that inn. "Please do join us for a cup of coffee," she offered.
"Thank you, no. I have had two already."
They watched as she knelt to roll up her sleeping bag.
"Isn’t it lonely for you, traveling alone?" Karla asked.
"Not at all." She looked up from her task with a quiet radiance on her face that threw Karla into further confusion. Was the woman perhaps mentally unstable?
"So long as your are happy, then," Karla said a little awkwardly.
The woman tied up the sleeping bag with a flourish and sprang to her feet. She seemed much taller suddenly and she shifted from foot to foot as if there were hot sand instead of grass beneath her. "I dreamed for many years about doing this," she said earnestly. "Now here I am."
Karla straightened up. She felt old and fat and Franz Josef looked rickety. As long as she did not move from the deck chair, she would retain her dignity.
The Amerikanerin fastened the saddlebags and the sleeping bag to the bicycle, while Franz Josef held it steady.
"Be careful," he said. "We don’t want to read about you in the newspaper."
"I am careful."
And where was she going? First, for a swim. Then to the highway and north to visit the cathedral in Ottobeuren. Franz Josef advised her of an excellent bicycle trail that had been built along a former railroad bed. No automobile traffic, quite serene. Exactly what she wanted, she thanked him enthusiastically, and with good wishes on both sides, off she clattered down the trail to the lake. The sound died away.
"Americans are all cowboys at heart," Franz Josef observed.
Does she have a husband, Karla wondered, or children? What is she doing in
? I don’t know her name. Germany
They didn’t quite settle down. They were waiting still. The Amerikanerin had to come back up from the beach in order to reach the highway. When she did, they stood up to wave goodby. "I can see it’s almost
she called through the trees. Then she was gone for good.
That evening the Leopolds dressed more festively than usual. Franz Josef wore the most flamboyant in his collection of clip‑on bowties — his "little‑ wings," he called them. Other than that one gay spot at his neck, he dressed soberly, as befitted a retired official of the Bundespost. Karla tied a batik scarf around her neck — made in
it was a gift from Uli she had not yet dared to wear. India
Arm in arm, they descended the stairs to the Gaststübl. As they crossed the hall, the door leading to the garden swung open and in sailed the widow Müller carrying a large bowl of plums. Seeing them she smiled mischievously before disappearing into the kitchen.
What was that about, Karla wondered. Does she know we found that Amerikanerin in our spot?
Franz Josef opened the door and ushered her in with a courtly bow. She looked eagerly around the room, which was empty, except.... Her heart sank. There at the Stammtisch, his back to them, sat a stranger. She felt her husband’s arm, still linked in hers, stiffen. Frau Müller must not have seen the man come in. He turned in his chair, then got to his feet, facing them. He was tall and fair and clean‑shaven.
Karla stopped where she was, bewildered. Uli? Afterwards, Franz Josef confessed that he too had failed to recognize their son. "It is because he shaved his beard off," was his explanation of the phenomenon.
"Mother. Father. How are you?” He came up to them and took their hands. Then Karla recovered and hugged him to her. She could still feel the delicate bones of the child and his cheeks were smooth again. "How you startled me," she cried.
They sat at one end of the Stammtisch, Karla between the two men. She observed that Uli’s eyes were red‑rimmed and the skin blotchy beneath. He slouched over the table. Franz Josef sat bolt upright. Even the bowtie seemed to stand at attention. Suddenly she laughed aloud. Father and son looked at her, the same high, puzzled forehead times two. She controlled herself with difficulty.
"It’s the little‑wings, Franzl. Remember how you’d tell us they were propellers. Do you remember, Uli? And if we spun them around, off we would go, eins zwei drei, AUF! Straight up in the air." She beamed at her two men. "Franzl, you look ready for take‑off."
Franz Josef shifted uneasily on the bench. He also remembered that the boy had mocked him, for the story, for the old‑fashioned bowties.
But Uli said, "Sure I remember. I used to love that story. Straight up in the air. Like magic."
Franz Josef was touched and embarrassed. Just then a girl came in with a pitcher of beer and three steins and took their orders. Uli drank thirstily, the elder Leopolds slowly. They watched their son and waited for him to explain why he had come. He had never in thirteen years visited them on the Unterhimmelsee. They scarcely saw him at home. He must want something, Franz Josef thought; and Karla, he is in trouble. Indeed, he seemed troubled, distracted. He was on his way to a skat tournament in
he said. They wished him luck. It isn’t luck, he said impatiently, it is skill.
They nodded politely, their faces impassive. Karla, sensing her husband’s
repressed outrage (that their son was, in his words, "a confirmed gambler,
a card shark"), quickly changed the subject. Friedrichshafen
"It has been a day for surprises!" She described their encounter with the American lady‑bicyclist, and Franz Josef commented slyly that they need not go anywhere; the world would parade by them for a visit. Last week, they’d had an encampment of Turks. Next week, who knew what — Eskimos, perhaps. Uli nodded politely through all of this. "Very interesting," he said in a dull, far‑away voice. "I’m glad you still enjoy your vacations here."
"Indeed we still do," his father replied coldly.
A long pause. Then Karla inquired a little anxiously after Uli’s Amerikanerin.
"Could Donna not come with you?"
"She has an important assignment this week. Improving the English of some bigshots from Krups." He stared into his glass. "Anyway, she won’t ride the motorcycle now."
"Why not," rapped out Franz Josef.
"She is pregnant."
Silence. Uli drained the glass.
"So now you know," he said.
"You aren’t delighted with the prospect of fatherhood?" Franz Josef asked sarcastically.
"Were you?" Uli snapped.
Father and son glared across the Stammtisch at each other. Their anger was so palpable that Karla almost succumbed to it herself. It was a dense, familiar thing, somehow, a beast let out, a ridiculous unnecessary two‑headed beast, and it was intolerable. "You are a fine pair of fools," she said sharply.
They turned to Karla astonished by her outburst.
"Oh you are looking at me with the same face, exactly the same. I can not bear it," she spluttered. "Now listen to me!" She lifted the pitcher and filled all three steins, then raised her own.
"Here’s to a healthy baby. Well, what are you waiting for? Here’s to the mother and the father. And the grandparents. Prosit, um Gott es willen, pick up your glasses, you idiotic men. Zum wohl!"
They lifted and clicked their glasses and drank. Father and son regarded one another warily. Karla was now a little tipsy.
"Will you — well of course you will, now, I suppose," Franz Josef fumbled.
"Get married, he means," Karla finished for him.
"Not unless we live in
Uli spoke into his glass. "Then I could get the American green card. If we
live here, Donna stays single. She is eligible for Versorgengeld" America
Franz Josef pressed his lips together. They knew his opinion. Who paid the taxes to support these good‑for‑nothings!
Dinner was served. The food absorbed their attention, soothed them. When the coffee was poured, Uli looked out the window. He could reach
while it was still light, he said. They walked outside to where his motorcycle
was parked. Friedrichshafen
Once mounted on the machine, he looked taller and more self‑assured. He did not slouch. The engine raced and he held it steadily between his legs. Karla sniffed the fumes. She put one hand on the engine casing and vibrated from head to toe. She did not feel like a grandmother yet.
"Papa! Listen!" Uli shouted.
"I hear you. I am not deaf."
"The bike is my little‑wings, understand? Straight up and away!"
"Come for a ride, Papa?"
"Oh never mind. Some other time, perhaps. Tschüss! Grandpa! Grandma!" And off he roared, laughing. They watched till he was out of sight.
"Perhaps I will," Franz Josef murmured, fingering his bowtie. "Only let him ask me again."
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
I lived and worked in Germany in 1980-81 and did embark on a solo bicycle tour with a clunky old bicycle like the American who appears briefly in this story. I couldn’t find a room or campground and slept in the woods near a lake one night. In the morning I encountered an older couple who were astonished to see me and said they’d be summering there for a dozen years and this was their special spot. When I continued my journey at mid-day they had moved in a circle, following the sun. So that was the beginning, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. I returned to San Francisco later that year and wrote the first four or five pages, then got stuck. I didn’t know who those people were or what the story was.
That fragment went into a drawer for three years, and I scribbled ideas in notebooks. I knew that when I met older Germans, at that time, the one (unasked) question on my mind was “What did you do during the war?” I wanted to imagine my way into the heads of two “good” Germans who survived the Third Reich by complying with it. How did they feel afterward?
The generation gap seemed wider in Germany than anywhere else. I read an article about that in Der Spiegel, but I could see it for myself. My German boyfriend was somewhat estranged from his father and step-mother, and so I worked their personalities and bits of their history into this story. Also I’d met a wonderful woman on my first hitch-hiking trip through Europe who is another model for Karla. (She gave me and my partner a ride from northern Italy to Tubingen, and she told us that during the war, her husband had a clerical job with the SS.)
The Turkish family got added later, I believe. I wanted some foreshadowing. There was and may still be a good deal of prejudice against Turkish guest workers. How would Franz Joseph and Karla react to these intruders?
The turning point for me in writing this was realizing their son was yet another intruder, at least for Franz Joseph, because father and son were alienated. Ulrich was modeled after someone else I knew (NOT my boyfriend, but that’s another story). A grandchild might be what brings them together ultimately, though we can’t know that for sure. I like stories that are a little ambiguous, as life usually is
I found the date in a journal when the first draft was finally completed: May 5, 1985. And then a memory resurfaced. I am at my desk under a loft and after I write the final sentence, I shout at the top of my voice, “Hooray! It’s done!” My roommate runs down the hall of the flat and into my room, thinking I needed help.
That journal entry also says that I hacked the draft to pieces, but I don’t recall making any major revisions. Those were probably extensive line edits. I think, after waiting three years, that story came out pretty much in one piece.
ABOUT JO-ANNE ROSEN
Jo-Anne Rosen was born in Toronto and has lived in Miami, San Francisco and Karlsruhe, Germany. She has an MA in English Literature from the University of Miami. Her work has appeared in Other Voices, The Florida Review, FlashQuake, A Room of One’s Own, The Summerset Review, Prick of the Spindle and other journals. She was awarded a two-week writing residency at Soapstone in 2007. Jo-Anne is a freelance book and website designer, now living in Petaluma, California (with her 93-year-old mother). She also edits and publishes an online chapbook quarterly of fiction, memoir and poetry at www.echapbook.com. The New Short Fiction Series (http://www.newshortfictionseries.com/) will be performing excerpts from some of her stories in October 2014 (at the Federal Bar in N. Hollywood, CA).