He spent the winter of 1921 in Marseilles in an apartment overlooking the harbor with an older, sallow woman whose appetites matched his own. The realization he needed opium more than he needed sex or companionship began to creep into the shadows of his mind. He abandoned the dying motorcycle and bought train fare. He headed toward the one city he heard whispered for indulging strange proclivities and addictions–Berlin. When he pulled into the city on March 12, 1922, he arrived with a decent wardrobe, a silver pocket watch, and enough money to buy second class passage from Hamburg to the United States when he was ready. George stepped down onto the platform and a part of him mourned. His home in Chicago might as well have been on the moon.
I’m sorry, Ma. I think I lost more than my hand.
Where to go in Berlin? He picked the subway line announcing Zooligischer Garten because he liked the sound of the name. It reminded him, when as a boy, he begged his folks to take him to the Lincoln Park Zoo. His father gestured him away before leaving for work in the basement of the Pearson Hotel where he worked as a public works laborer who maintained the engines and the steam boilers that provided water and heat to over two hundred rooms of the luxury hotel. George’s mother succumbed to his begging and a sensation of victory filled George’s chest. The two of them spent the day strolling around the zoo grounds in awe. George’s memory was a patchwork of images. The chimpanzee’s rubbery arms reached from one branch to another. A tiger panted and looked at George as though he was the curiosity. Elephant ears flapped. Striped legs meandered. A stiff breeze off of Lake Michigan carried the smell of the animals, and he felt coated by their odors.
Now as he entered the gates of the Berlin Zoo, a rare, energetic March sun over-warmed the day and a kinder breeze carried a whiff of dung into George’s nose. It comforted him. He sat on a bench that faced the lion’s pen. The tips of a copper mane preceded the beast as he emerged from behind a boulder. It stepped down a level and looked at him. Then it paced back and forth and twitched his tale. George tucked his suitcase by his leg and watched the people walk by him.
When he first saw her standing at the other end of the lion’s pen with her coat draped over her forearm and holding onto the wire fence which kept the cat confined, George thought there was nothing remarkable about her. She was simply the only woman in his vicinity. Her blouse did not ripple in the wind around full breasts. Her skirt did not cling to a small waist. She was neither tall or short, thick or thin. Her legs were not shapely, her outfit not stylish. She turned toward him, posed, lost in thought, and he wondered why she was alone at the zoo. He walked over to her, his polished suitcase in hand, and they looked at the lion together. He tipped his hat and smiled at her.
“Helfen Sie, bitte, Fraulein.”
George stammered. “A room to rent. Zimmer. Ein zimmer zu mieten.”
She scrutinized him boldly. She tilted her head and her eyes traced the horizontal line of his shoulders. The dimple on his stubby chin. The mole under his eyelid sitting on top of his cheekbone. He showed her coins from his pocket and gave her his very best smile. He motioned eating. “Essen mit mir.”
She looked at his coins and her pink fingertips touched her stomach. She looked around and pointed to the east, and they left the zoo. They crossed the street into a residential area of five-storied apartment buildings. Two blocks later on the corner was cafe. She motioned with her head, and they went inside. She ordered them two plates of knockwurst and creamed kraut, brown mustard, and black bread. He had a Berliner Weisse. She had coffee. She ate with two hands, her fork in her left hand, her knife in her right. She spoke German as if he knew the language fluently. He had graduated school from St. Sylvester from Logan Square with some knowledge of Latin and German and encouragement from the nuns to apply for college, but he had not felt proficient in either language or passionate about a subject matter to warrant college. His mother’s badgering to make something of himself with more schooling brought about fits of suffocation. To escape the decision, he had enlisted in the war.
In the Berlin cafe, George watched her lips and recognized the words, but he was so rusty with the language, he understood little. When she paused from eating, he watched her fingers flick the air as she punctuated her sentences, or during calmer moments, under her chin, a pink nail propped up her face. She seemed to constantly giggle. He leaned closer to her. He noticed she looked at his stump and smiled politely. He leaned back and hid his right arm under the table cloth. How had he failed at the zoo to notice the reddish strands framing her face? The hazel eyes? Her arched eyebrows lifted as she talked to him, and he confessed over her monologue, “If a face was a song, yours would be a Cole Porter melody.”
She stopped talking. She blinked at him and tapped her hand once on the white table cloth. Ja. Kommt mit. Wie Heissen Sie?
He understood that. “George Hero.”
“Mitzi.” She stood and yawned behind her hand, her expression feline. The Oberkellner approached and collected some of his coins. Mitzi slid her hand through the crook at George’s elbow and locked herself to him. “Kommt, George Hero. Wir mussen zum Babelsberg zugehen.”
“Anywhere you want, doll.”
Down the steps to the train station, he let her lead, motioning her to reach in his jacket pocket for more change to buy tickets. To where, he did not know. She refused to take her hand off his arm. They lit cigarettes together, she with her spare hand, he with the other, and they laughed. She whispered to him in German. Surely she knew he could not understand, but he nodded and smiled just the same. Fifteen miles south outside of Berlin, they got off at the Babelsberg stop and took a taxi.
She presented him to the entrance of UFA movie studios. She brought him to the back lot where at the entrance door, George admired a large poster of a man in a tux with black eyes walking on top of the city like a predator. It was unnerving. At the top of the movie poster in black letters was the title of the film.
Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler – Ein Bild der Zeit. Regie: Fritz Lang
There you go, proof I’ve been writing during my hiatus. https://cindybruchman.com/2015/05/17/fritz-lang-and-weimar-berlin/ and https://cindybruchman.com/2014/07/02/german-expressionism/ in architecture and film are fascinating historical topics for me, and it forms the first third of the novel. I hope you enjoyed this scene. Now, back to work.