The UK literary journal Empty Oaks has announced it’s shutting down. They had a short but interesting run, so congratulations to the editors Ro McNulty and Layla Cummins. I had “Rustle-y,” a short story, published in their inaugural issue of summer 2015. After discussion with the editors, I’ve decided to return to the story’s original title, “Un-Heinrich.” Here is the story—which I’m happy to say has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize—and a link to the Empty Oaks site.
I’m on the outside now. I’d better keep my nose clean, or I’ll land in the hole again, and then it won’t be months but years. I’m at Annika’s, and I’ll be happy to see her. I’m hoping she’ll be happy too. It’s nine in the morning, and I’m standing in front of her Berlin apartment building, looking at the nameplates. I look over my shoulder like a perp in a detective story. Why? Because I’ve been inside and now I’m outside, where I have to watch myself. That’s rich, isn’t it? What the Nazis have managed to do is get me to watch myself. In other words, self-police. Spy on myself.
I find Annika’s name and I ring. The few seconds it takes for the heavy wooden door to click open are longer than three months in Dachau. When I’m inside, I see the black and white checked linoleum in the foyer, and that’s familiar. I see the heavy, dark wooden railing winding up to the fifth floor, and that’s familiar. The smell in the hallway outside Annika’s door is familiar too, a mix of cigar smoke and bacon from the family across the hall. But when Annika opens the door in response to my knock, her face is not familiar. Three months have meant five years for her acorn-colored eyes. There are faint lines in the skin around her mouth. She frowns but not angrily. It’s an anxious frown. I want to say, “Annika, what’s wrong?” And she’ll say, “oh, nothing, come on in, Berthold, haven’t seen you for so long.” But I can tell that won’t work. Right now, I have no words to match Annika’s look, and Annika has no words either. We stare.
I feel I have to say something. “I’m out” comes from somewhere in my throat, and I regret it the moment I say it. I wish the words had stuck in my craw like fish bones. I don’t see Annika for three months, I’ve gone through hell, I thought several times I’d never see the outside again, the Nazis would do me in, out by the latrine maybe, where they’d beat me to death, or maybe they’d do it simply with a bullet to the base of the skull. One less Bolshie, they’d say as they pissed on my sorry-ass corpse. After all that, and I manage only to utter the obvious.
Annika raises her finger and signals me to come in. In my dreams, that thin, beckoning, assertive finger has often meant a world of soft, perfumed skin and clean sheets and waking up with her head in the crook of my arm. It has made me imagine how she would sigh under the weight of my body. The kind of dream I was having when they rousted me out of bed and sent me to the camp. But her silent finger doesn’t do that for me now. No, it makes me even more worried. She doesn’t hug me, doesn’t even look me over to take inventory. It’s as if she knows what she’d see anyway. She closes the door and says, “Sit.” I’ve never heard that tone from her before. It tells me there’s only one choice. I sit.
She goes to her bedroom, a room I’ve been in just once and then only by accident because of too much schnapps (my fault) and too much imagination (also my fault). Annika laughed about it the next morning and told me how she’d shuffled me out and deposited me on her faded green living room couch, where I awoke next day at noon with the Berlin subway careening through my head. It taught me a lesson, namely that schnapps plus imagination make a man an idiot. Yet from idiocy comes insight, and so I learned a second thing, namely that I’m not her type.
She walks out of her bedroom now with someone I’ve never met, though he looks damned familiar. He’s quite a bit shorter than me—I’m a little over six feet—and he’s dumpy in a pear-shaped way. He approaches me like a gravedigger; the expression on his face says that when you know what I do you’ll run like hell. He’s introduced as Heinrich but I know he’s no Heinrich. I know Heinrichs, and he’s not one of them. A Heinrich looks like someone ready to serve a summons or foreclose on a poor widow’s property. This character is beyond that kind of mundane evil. His hair is wrong for a Heinrich too—it slants down over his forehead instead of being combed back and greased with pomade. He’s got almost a full beard; he’s in the process of growing it out, it would appear. I see something through the beard that reminds me of someone else, and I wonder if my eyes went to hell when I was in the camp. I recall several years ago seeing some bigwig, a movie star or politician, strolling on the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin, but I’d only seen pictures of the man, so I thought it couldn’t be him because I was still looking through an image my mind had formed.
I look at Annika and I see her eyes flutter, which is a nervous tic she often has. But now those acorn eyes flutter a lot, so I know she’s nervous a lot. My eyes return to this Not-Really-Heinrich character. And then it hits me.
“Jesus!” I say. Then, “I can’t fucking believe it!” That should be enough to express my surprise, I figure.
Annika’s lovely, tired eyes are about to flutter out of their sockets while the alleged Heinrich smiles a smile that looks like a brass-knuckle smash to the face.
Not too long ago, before the camp, my friend Toni took me to a film by some guys called Dadaists. That’s a fucked name if there ever was one, but I’ll have to say they were thinking differently than anyone else. For them, what was fucked was okay, and what was okay was just the opposite. And the girls in that film, oh my, they looked like Annika. Bobbed hair, real sharp, angled. Long, slim bodies, with clothes that made them look boyish—which is fine with me, some guys like that, and I’m one of them.
What I like most about Annika is the way her movements make her stockings and dress rustle. I think she has something rustle-y about her entire personality. She reminds me of the sound of birch leaves in a northwest wind. Makes me relaxed and worked up all at the same time. Is that possible?
Annika and I sit at the kitchen table while Un-Heinrich grows his beard in the other room. Annika’s brought me in here to calm me down. She’s given me a glass of beer, which should taste damned good after all these months, but it tastes like warm piss mixed with horse sweat. Still, I’m gulping the stuff.
I’ve come to see her because someone in the camp slipped me a note. It was from the resistance, and I was supposed to go see Annika immediately after I was released. For me, “immediately” wasn’t soon enough. I was outside her apartment only an hour after I got back to Berlin on the night train. I had something else in mind too. I wanted to find out what was going on outside, maybe even get a tip on a job that would keep me out of the camps. I wanted to see her because Annika knows just about everything and everyone these days—this is what people with rustle-y personalities are like. But I got something I didn’t bargain for.
“Who the hell do you think I am?” I say.
“You’re Berthold, and I trust you. More than anyone else. And you are the perfect person to do this job. No one would expect a recently released political prisoner to undertake such an audacious scheme—and just after being freed no less.” Annika keeps looking at the kitchen door. Her eyes have stopped fluttering but I can tell she’s still nervous by the way she brushes her Dada hair off her forehead.
“But you’re asking me to…what exactly are you asking me to do? I still don’t understand. No one’s going to recognize him?”
“It took you a little while to realize who he was.”
“But I did recognize him.”
“He’ll be wearing a brown fedora, kind of a floppy one, and when he’s outside he’ll have his collar turned up. I remember the night we walked along the canal. It was last August. You said, ‘it’s not that hard to make evil look ordinary’. Those were your exact words, or something like that, and I thought that was such a brilliant thing to say! So with the beard and clothes, he’ll go unnoticed. Especially since he’ll be traveling with you in a first-class apartment we’ve booked all the way to Munich. There they pick him up and drive him to the Swiss border.”
“And what am I supposed to be to him? A brother? We really look alike, Annika, like a wilted carrot and a hairy cabbage look alike.”
“You won’t have to say what your relationship is. You know how most people are these days. They’d prefer to see nothing, hear nothing. But if someone asks, there are plenty of possibilities, and I know you’ll be inventive. You might be cousins. Or he’s your eccentric uncle who has a lot of money but dresses like a pensioner. That would be very convincing, especially in first class. Or you’re just friends. Or lovers. You’re the rich man’s boy, you know, something like that.”
“Lovers! Christ, Annika! Lovers? I’m no lover of that fucking…thing. That fucking thing! That’s what he is. I just got out of Dachau, and I look it. And you’re telling me people might assume we’re lovers?”
“You do look thin, Bertie. But you’ll clean up. I already have the clothes. You’ll look fine in an hour. Even more handsome than you usually are.” Her eyes glimmer for the first time since I’ve been back, and it makes me happy in a way. The Annika I knew. Yet I’m wary too. There are conditions attached to that brief glimmer.
One of these conditions appears on the table after Annika reaches down to pull something out of her purse. It’s a small black Beretta, a semi-automatic pistol.
I look at Annika in amazement as she slides the piece over to me. It makes a grating sound on the wooden table, like a prison door slamming shut. “You know it’s illegal for an ex-prisoner to carry a gun.”
“You and I and everyone else involved in this are committing treason, Bertrand. I wouldn’t worry about the gun issue. It’s just for insurance, anyway. I think you’ll find our bearded associate to be quite cooperative. You hand over your small bag to our contact when you drop him off.” She shakes her head in the direction of the kitchen door. “The gun will be in the bag. Then you’re done with both, your companion and the firearm. Free and clear.”
I look down and shake my head to show my utter contempt for the whole scheme. Utter contempt is the only thing I can feel at the moment. That and unrequited love, but there’s no need to plow that field again.
“Oh! One more thing,” says Annika. “You’ll have to stop smoking those Red Star cigarettes. They’d be a dead giveaway. We have other cigarettes for you, a full carton.”
Again I shake my head. This time more in exhaustion than contempt.
Annika looks toward the kitchen door again and brushes her hair back. She turns to me. Her eyes brighten, and this time their glimmer is steady, unwavering. She extends her hand across the table. It lasts only a few seconds, her hand on mine, but it’s long enough to send my heart on a wild journey. “Won’t it feel good to travel first-class after what you’ve been through? I bet it will be the first time in your life you’ve traveled first class, Bertrand. Right?”
“Oh, Jesus,” I say, knowing what I will do. Who can turn down Annika? Then I feel the spot behind my ear where the storm trooper lit into me.
Four in the morning and several SA storm troopers busted my door down screaming “Death to Bolshevism” and “Out of bed, Bolshie swine!” Then came the chop to the side of my head by a skinny little thug with an ill-fitting uniform. He resembled something a rich dame’s dachshund drops on the sidewalk: All brown and curled. They threw me in the back of a Dachau-bound truck with a bunch of other guys who, like me, had been Red Star boys before ’33. So I was a “political,” but what did that really mean? I’d been eighteen when I joined three years before. No job. Both parents on the bottle. Everyone twisted with hate and anxiety because of the Depression. Toni had come to me and said I could kick ass in the Red Star uniform and even get free food in one of the Communist party’s soup kitchens. He showed me his lapel pin, which had a sharp-looking red fist on it. So I said, “why not?”
That’s how I met Annika. She’s a mover and doer in the party, and I think every guy in Red Star dreamt about her the way I dreamt about her the night the SA came for me. All the boys tried to impress her by beating as many Nazi goons as they could. Those were the days when you could see swastikas and hammers-and-sickles daubed side by side on building facades in my neighborhood. Brown graffiti competed with red graffiti like bone rubbing on bone. Then everything changed in January of ’33 and my current traveling companion was in charge. The Nazis began their slash-and-burn campaign through Germany, and Communism was worth less than what I shoveled out the door when I worked at a tannery, one of the few jobs I had before hitting the unemployment line.
Un-Heinrich and I sit in a train compartment as the Bavarian countryside streams by our window. We’ve been on the train for several hours, but it feels like half the Thousand Year Reich has gone by. I’m sure that by now people have noticed Ersatz-Heinrich is absent without leave.
We face each other. The burgundy seat feels plush under my emaciated butt. I’ve learned that My Exalted Passenger is checking out of Germany. He’s had enough. He’s risen to the very top but he’s said to hell with it.
“I’m a bohemian at heart,” he says, as if I should congratulate him for this. “And bohemians are artists, not politicians, though I do like all the banners and flags, and the swastika is rather stylish, and red, white, and black are my favorite colors. Still, my goal is to be a great architect. I want to open a studio and have rich Jewish clients who will pay me fantastic amounts of money to build mountain retreats and ski lodges and anything else their wealth will buy.”
I see the whole picture now and draw the appropriate conclusion. “So you have to get away from all your supporters and hangers-on before they suck the life out of your Aryan ass.”
“My chieftains need me so much they’d kill me to keep from losing me,” he says with his brass-knuckle smile.
“How sick is that?” I say.
I learn he’s turned to the Communist party, which carries on a shadow existence these days. They say opposites attract. Annika and the comrades have somehow managed to work a deal for him to go to Switzerland in return for a hefty amount of cash from anonymous sources that want him out of the picture. The Communists will use the money to fight the Nazis. It seems too crazy to contemplate, especially in today’s Germany where surveillance is so thick it’s like they’re shining a flashlight up your colon. But when I think about it, it makes sense in a bizarre way. The man sitting across from me has said that people will believe The Big Lie if you tell it often and simply enough. So why not also believe you can hustle Double-Un-Heinrich out of the country right under the Teutonic noses of the Gestapo, SS, and SA lords?
“And may they choke on their acronyms looking for you,” I mutter under my breath.
“What?” says Un-Heinrich.
My situation is as bizarre as the plan. I’m a courier, escort, travel buddy, and maybe even bodyguard. I go from Dachau to sitting in a rich man’s train compartment with none other than The Great Non-Heinrich himself, who’s doing a crossword puzzle in the Sunday paper while I wonder if I’ll have to use the Beretta. A crossword puzzle?
I look at his floppy brown fedora. What a sorry piece of shit to put on a man’s head. What a contrast to me. Annika has picked out the right clothes and given me plenty of time to wash up and shave and clip my nails. She even did a quick cleanup on my hair around the neck and ears. It’s like we’ve been married thirty years. She knows exactly which shirt and tie to buy—light blue for the former and regimental stripes of darker blue and gray for the latter. She knows which dark blue trousers I need after spending time at the Dachau Weight Loss and Spa Retreat. The old Red Star guys should see me now. They’d be jealous, and they would think I was getting trim from Annika.
Herr Brown Fedora looks up from his crossword. His eyes widen and I can see a tiny gap in his beard open slightly. I see his pink lips and the tips of yellowed teeth, which disgust me. He looks as if an idea has just popped into his hairy head, and he speaks. “You are the kind of young man I tried to help. Working class. Unemployed, and with few prospects.”
He acts as if I should be grateful to him. I say, “You’re the reason my favorite gray trousers no longer fit me.” That’s a lot to say to the man since I always prided myself on looking sharp, but I know there is much more. “You’re the reason I did nothing but breathe in danger for three months. It felt like there were shards of glass tearing at my insides the entire time.” I have the urge to get up, pull the Beretta out of the bag, and do the man right here, not for me but for my comrades, women and men better than me who have died fighting this bastard. But instead I take a long breath and compose myself. In the window of the train car, I see a reflection of my shaved head and marvel at how long it is, and how it looks like a bristly pistachio.
His beard grows a half-inch in the silence that follows. All we hear is the rush of wind outside the train window and the occasional opening and closing of compartment doors up and down the aisle. He keeps up with his crossword puzzles and I think he must be putting any old letter in each little box because how long can anybody think up so many words without getting pissed off?
“I am a man of the people too.” The words come from somewhere inside Not-Quite-Heinrich’s thick beard, as if there is a hidden orifice in there. “I was born in a little town in Austria. My father was just a minor civil servant. He beat me. I failed to get into art school, twice. I worked construction in my days as a young man in Vienna. I was in prison.”
“Bloody hell,” I snort as I gaze out the window. I want to open the window and throw Anti-Heinrich out and watch his pathetic pear-like body bounce like a soccer ball. I want to wire him to the ceiling like one of the hanging carcasses I saw at the tannery.
“The less we speak the better,” I say.
“You will have a nice sum in your pocket once you deliver me. You will get something for your trouble,” says Beard-Man.
“And what do you think my life will be like when the Gestapo finds out I was your escort? Do you think the secret police will give me a Lifetime Achievement Award? I’ll have to lay low for a long time. Go underground. How long do you think I’ll live? A year? Six months?”
“Freedom sometimes comes in unexpected forms.”
I shake my head. All I need is for him to start philosophizing.
“You can go back to Annika,” says Ersatz-Heinrich.
“Yes, so I can be her poodle again.” I think about this for a moment and figure, well, a dog’s life is better than no life at all.
“Ah, you haven’t read the signs have you? You need to be more perceptive, young man. I think you’ll find that Annika has a special place in her heart for you. I could see it in the brief time I saw you two together, and how she talked about you before you arrived.”
I’m stunned for a moment, but then doubt starts to hammer away at me, as it always does. “What? Are you like one of those columnists who give people cheap advice about their love lives? Even if it were true, what kind of life would we have together? Annika is married to the resistance.”
“But the resistance may accomplish its goals more quickly than you think. I predict things will fall apart rather soon when the full shock of my departure dawns on the party leadership.”
“They’ll just continue what you’ve started.”
“The party chieftains will fight among themselves. Who knows? They may all shoot each other, they’re so gun-happy. That’s when your comrades will have to make their move. It will be up to them to grasp the opportunity. If you act decisively, you and Annika and millions of other Germans will avoid the worst—and believe me, I know what the worst entails if the logic of my rule is carried to conclusion. I’m the one who set it in motion, after all.”
So-Much-Not-Heinrich might have a point here. Himmler, Goering, Heydrich, Streicher, Goebbels—you could easily see these puffed-up gangsters lusting for power without their beloved Führer around. It could be quite entertaining, like a cockfight with Walther P-38s and even heavier stuff once they got their hordes out on the streets. The Communists might let them swim in their own blood for a while, and then move in. Still, I won’t concede a thing to the man seated across from me.
“And you?” I say. “You’ve already caused enough evil for a lifetime. And now you want to go off and you…you want to draw? You want to draw and create and make buildings. Beautiful spaces. Beauty? After what you’ve done? Christ!”
The beard trembles.
We pull into Munich’s main train station and leave the first-class compartment. The place is busy, and I realize how a crowd makes us anonymous.
A man meets us. He’s of normal height and wearing normal clothes, the kind an insurance salesman would wear. He’s so ordinary you can almost see through him. We shake hands, like we’re old buddies, and I hand him the bag with the Beretta. He smiles, and says very calmly, as if we’re discussing the weather, “We must be quick.”
He takes Forevermore-Not-Heinrich by the arm with more force than you’d expect from an insurance agent, leads him to a black Mercedes, and they pull away from the curb in front of the train station. I admire the car in the twilight. It’s swift and silent and ever so German. I’m standing there waving like a nephew seeing off his rich uncle. Everything is going as planned, and although my hands haven’t stopped shaking and my stomach feels like it’s full of acid-soaked rags, I feel relieved. In a way, I’m a bit underwhelmed that my little junket with Un-Heinrich has ended in this un-climax. Surely hanging around with The Most Evil Man in the World should have been more exciting.
I turn to go back and catch my return train. Then I hear what sounds like a shot. It’s muffled, as if it’s come from inside a nearby building. Or a closed car. I look out at the street. The Mercedes has already been carried away by the flow of traffic. Everything appears to be right as rain, yet I know what I heard. I stand there as people look around warily. They’ve heard something too, so I know I’m not going crazy. Maybe it was a car backfiring. Regardless, there’s not much I can do. Report a suspected gunshot to the police? Right. “You see, officer, I was escorting this dictator, and then I heard a sound like a gun going off.” I can’t phone Annika. Not with present-day surveillance. They tap your phones these days even if your farts sound Communist. All I can do is follow the plan.
So I find my seat in another first-class compartment. I’m happy to sit because my legs feel like wilted stilts. I expect to see police and Gestapo agents swarm like giant carpenter ants, but we pull away from the station without incident. Luckily I’m alone; Annika’s people must have booked a full compartment for the round trip.
I try to sort through my jumbled feelings. Fear and anger ricochet inside me. I wonder why Annika didn’t tell me about this part of the scheme. Why she didn’t trust me with the information. But was the apparent gunshot part of the scheme? I have an image of Un-Heinrich sprawled out in the back seat of a Mercedes with his brains splattered across luxurious black leather upholstery. At least it’s black; it will make cleanup easier. I think about his beard and wonder if the blood will soak in or remain on the surface like mottled red paint. I think about the Beretta, and wonder if it’s the weapon that was used. I wonder what happens when everyone finds out they’ve killed him—if that’s in fact what happened. Maybe I should get off at the next station and go to ground, never to be seen again. But can anyone really disappear in a police state? And even if I could, I’d be invisible to Annika.
I have no option other than to stew in my questions and return. I’m comforted knowing the train back to Berlin will be on time. Germans do trains like Contra-Heinrich does a beard. I can’t get it out of my mind that the man may have left me with useful information. Annika once said we often get help from fucked-up places. She didn’t use those exact words—I favor more poetic language.