George and the Opium Den

The month of February was a blur of moving and working. And writing. I’ve been concentrating on writing creatively rather than creating blog posts about films. Also, I haven’t gone anywhere to share any photo shots. For now, I just want to keep working on “Inside the Gold Plated Pistol”. George Hero is in Berlin,1922, working as an extra for Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse: Der Spieler. Here is what he does in his spare time: 

Sunken clouds spit a late April rain on the back of George’s neck. He entered a cracked lane overtaken by weeds toward an abandoned water tower of chocolate bricks and curved windows that looked like drowsy eyes. The architecture was nothing like the white, water tower in Chicago where as a boy he had watched his father work as a foreman. This one was a rectangle box eight stories tall, a fortress from a medieval dream. As George approached the back door, the bumpy clouds obscured the morning light and gave the building a sinister appearance. The dampness absorbed into the stump at his wrist, and it ached as he poked at his neck trying to stifle the itch under his skin. It had been three days since his last visit to Mr. Li’s opium den.  

        Within walking distance of the UFA studio complex, hidden from the main road behind vines that coiled around the Hemlock trees, he knocked on a door and waited for a Chinaman to open the center window and admit him. The small window-door snapped open and a man with puffy eyes squinted at him. He recognized George and let him in. George hunched down and followed him, watching his braid roll on the back of his tunic as he led him through the basement. Room dividers partitioned a corner, and as George whiffed the aroma of opium, he salivated. A pot-bellied stove heated pots of water and warmed the area while a young worker prepared opium tea. Kerosene lamps sat on tables and a davenport. George walked over to the old man who organized the den and gave him Deutschmarks.

        Guten Tag, Joe,” he greeted George with a thick accent. “Here.” He patted one of eight Army cots each covered with a military blanket, all positioned in a circle with a center island for the young worker on a stool. His work table contained candles, matches, bowls, opium pods, a pester and grinder, tubes, bamboo pipes, and a hookah.  He had a long, curved pinky nail which was filed and used as a spoon. When filled, the nail held exactly half a gram. George thought that was clever.

        “Hello, Mr. Li.”

        He kicked off his soggy loafers and placed them next to the stove to dry. He set his overcoat on a wooden chair by his cot and lay down feeling like a bug on an ashen petal connected to a dead daisy.  As he waited for the opium to foam and to inhale the vapor, he ignored the other bug two cots away and stared at the room divider. There was a red dragon coiled and twisted on a silk panel. He inhaled and closed his eyes. Soon the flush dulled his senses. That dullness turned into a stupor like a blanket that covered him with nothingness, and he floated to a place where Private Cox could not penetrate. In this dreamy blackness, his one impression was that he was in his mother’s womb, and his relief became an audible groan.

     He lay there for several hours before he had to report for filming.

 

The following is an old post about Fritz Lang and German Expressionism and Hans Poelzig, an inspirational architect for this story.

Hans Poelzig’s Sulphuric Acid Factory in Luboń, Poland (1911-1912)Hans Poelzig’s Chemical Factory in Luboń, Poland (1911-1912)

Expressionist German architect, Hans Poelzig, and Thea von Harbou, the screenwriter and wife of Fritz Lang, have a grip on my imagination while I create the climate of Weimar Germany in the manuscript, “Inside the Gold Plated Pistol”. George Hero, my American World War I veteran, arrives in Berlin, and stumbles into the world at UFA studios wherein 1922, Thea’s script is filmed by Fritz Lang: Dr. Mabuse: Der Spieler.

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Who knows why she held her German Nationalist views while Fritz Lang emigrated to the United States or how she was implicated in a murder, but my fiction will dabble with the possibilities and recreate the evening involving George.

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Fritz Lang & Thea von Harbou, married, 1922-1933
Hans Poelzig Architecture 

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light columns at the Grand Theater’s entrance hall

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The Großes Schauspielhaus, Berlin, Germany circa 1920
What a pity Hans Poelzig’s grand theater exists only in pictures now. The honeycomb pillars resembled stalactites and the circular design without balcony seats, according to Ross Wolfe’s article “Scary Architecture: The Early Works of Hans Poelzig” found HERE, was an exquisite example of German expressionist architecture. Imagine the ceiling full of lights to imitate the stars. Before its demolition in the 1980s, the theater’s history included Nazi control in 1933 when its grandness was hidden behind dropped ceilings and eventually turned into a warehouse. I wish someone would recreate it for new audiences to enjoy.

Thank you for reading. 

 

George and the Weimar Republic

After spending a unit of World War I and the Weimar Republic in the classroom, my imagination created George Hero who suffered in more ways than one. The words fell right out of me. My first novel, The Knife with the Ivory Handle was set in 1900. Now it’s twenty years later, and the second manuscript “Inside the Gold Plated Pistol” is on the back burner. Why? Time consumed by blogging. Caring for my granddaughter. Jim. Watching movies. Three jobs. All wonderful parts of my life. But the creative writing suffers. Writing is a process of isolation. I’m trying to rectify that, to put my second novel back into the forefront of my life. Maybe if I share the process with you all, I won’t feel lonely writing it. So here’s the beginning:

 

Chapter 1

Weimar Republic    

He reached for the hand that was not there with an ache to grab his thumb, trace the outline of his fingers, or scrape off a lengthy fingernail. In his mind, he made a fist and punched the face of the dead soldier with the feminine features. Out of the shadows, the sun poured into the cabin car and George Hero squinted out the window as the train arrived at the Berlin station. The information board clicked the date: March 12, 1922. 13:00. The steam escaped from the train with a whoosh, and the iron wheels groaned to a halt.  Dimly, it occurred to George that he had been roaming without forethought for two years since his discharge. He was reluctant to return to his parents in Chicago because he discovered many widowed women in France were attracted to him. With his pitiful command of French and their few words of English, it was easier to communicate with smiles and sympathetic fingers. Especially if she had children by her side. They looked up at the stump at his right wrist, and their eyes filled with curiosity and disgust. He wrapped the hot wound with clean bandages during the day and at night massaged the stretched, shiny skin.

      What am I to do with one hand?  The ghastly stitching on the top of his forearm mirrored his thoughts, and his indignation boiled for the skittish private who had misfired. During his stay in the Army field hospital at St. Mihiel, George dubbed him Private Cox, digressing with his pun by imagining daily ways of amputating the private’s genitalia. George chopped, burned, shot, squeezed, and sawed off Private Cox’s manhood.  

        George was transferred to Camp Hospital No.4 in Paris which was converted from abandoned school buildings into a makeshift hospital with no running hot water. He convalesced with 400 other wounded soldiers and waited his turn, the loneliness as profound as the pain that emanated from his amputation. When he was released, George’s anger intensified when he failed at buttoning his shirt or shaping a tie.  When he pissed, he had to ask for help to button his pants, so he switched to trousers with zippers with limited success. It was impossible to tie his bootlaces. George practiced writing with his left hand. If he wrote very small, he had more control over his penmanship. He had a nurse post a letter to his parents: February 3, 1919. Dear Mom, I lost a hand, but I’m still alive. Healing in a Paris hospital.  Will be home soon. George.

        After his discharge from the 103rd Infantry, he impulsively changed his mind and sold off his return passage for one hundred Francs and two vials of laudanum. Private Cox was dead, but George Hero’s anger lingered and leaked to the women who broke convention and touched him freely as their nurturing tendencies invaded his personal space. At first, he enjoyed the abundant opportunities for sexual interplay. Their eyes widened over his good looks. They hovered over his clumsiness, appeased and stroked him. In him, they saw a replacement to their dead husbands, and he learned to compensate for the lack of a hand.

        At twenty, his broad shoulders and plump lips gave him an older, sensual appearance. A pattern emerged as he made his way with a map south into the French countryside avoiding St. Mihiel, the empty trenches, the mountains of shell casements, the grotesque trees, and the rubble of destroyed buildings. He loitered in towns and searched for women whose clothes were once of good quality but had worn thin. Usually, their houses mirrored the state of their clothes. Before World War I, houses had been bright with colorful doors and whitewashed walls. Now crooked shutters leaned to the ground and fences faded to brittle gray. He would walk up and offer his services in exchange for food and sleep in the barn. On the first day, he was polite and completed chores he could manage with the help of her children to hold a nail or grip a tool. He surveyed the property, the windows, and the exit doors. He worked his way inside and ate at the kitchen table. Her stew was delicious, he praised, and the hand on hers, brief. On the second day, as she hung her clothes on the line behind the house, he tripped and pretended to fall. He grabbed her waist and held her. She blushed and patted his shoulder. That evening, he leaned forward after the meal and kissed both her cheeks. She found brandy in the cupboard. He thanked her for bandaging his wrist which throbbed with pain. She sighed and expressed with body language how long it had been since a man had held her. They rolled on her lumpy mattress and slept; when they woke, his stump pulsated with a heartbeat of its own. He asked where he could find an opium den. In Lyon. In Saint-Étienne. In Avignon. He allowed the opium dens to influence his direction, and the widows became checkerboard pieces as he leaped from one to another.  

        In late fall outside of Bourges, he met a young mother whose husband had propped a Sunbeam motorcycle up against the side of the house when his conscription orders informed him to report to the town square in 1917. It still waited for his return. George assessed he’d have to replace the crank and give the 3.5 hp engine a tuning. The back tire sagged. It was the first time since his amputation that his heart lifted with excitement.  Could he get parts? He worked on it with the help of her eight-year-old son. They made a handsome pair, three hands manipulating the machine, and it charmed the mother. She gave herself with a passion that startled him. At night, he kissed her with enthusiasm, spread a cheek, and burrowed inside. He stayed in her warmth while the snow fell and icicles spiked down off the fascia. 1921 came quietly.  Winter’s pastel skies deepened as spring arrived and turned the earth spongy.

        She followed him around the room with her eyes. She fussed with his clothes and claimed his body parts with roving fingers tips. When he sat down, she leaned a hip on the arm of the chair, patted his crotch, and waited expectantly for him to pull her into his arms. Her insatiable need for affection annoyed him. George grew restless. He confiscated her dead husband’s wallet, a tie already formed into a knot, a jacket that fit, and a pair of loafers a little too small, but at least he could slip into them without needing help to tie the laces. The motorcycle rumbled to life and his departure came swiftly thereafter. He felt a twang of guilt as he aimed for the Mediterranean. He imagined her returning from her errand from the village. He heard her chirp his name with two syllables as she checked the barn, the kitchen, and the cellar. He saw her brace herself. Each time she called out Geor-ge, her voice lowered into a whine. He imagined her eyes fill with tears when she saw the motorcycle was gone. Perhaps, she reasoned, he just went for a trial run. She would hiccup with hope and dash upstairs to see if his possessions were still in her bedroom. Nothing of him remained, and her tears dripped off her chin. He could see her clearly as though she sat on the handlebars.

        George maneuvered around a sharp bend and the bike wobbled. He drove slowly and focused on balancing. He had figured out a way to roll towels and secure them with a strap to his elbow so he could balance the right side of the handlebars. Gingerly, he braked with his left hand and leaned as a counter-weight.  He would miss her smooth shoulders and the slight protrusions of her ribcage where his fingers traced and she wiggled. Her son would frown, confused he left without a word.  The boy talked with a sissy squeal. George clenched his jaw. He felt suffocated by the pair’s silent insistence that he stay.

He dreamed of the war at nighttime with mortar fire and the strobe lights of the shells that punctuated the darkness. The tanks rolled and the screams of the hit reverberated in his mind. Fashioned from the fog of an opium high, he began to have a recurring dream where details grew sharp and shadows seemed real. In his dream, he swam in the air away from the sounds of the war. He used a breast stroke and exerted his arms and made paddles of both his hands. He kicked his feet, but he floated nowhere. Shadows raced ahead of him like ghostly whispers. Then, superimposed on the backdrop of the night, a bombast of fire streaks lit the face of Private Cox. George swore at him. His dream changed, and he ran through the trench, stumbling over the bodies cluttering the ground and jogging with the rats in a maze that never ended. He turned a corner and there was Private Cox.  He stood in front of George with a bamboo pipe breathing and exhaling in a seductive fashion, his long lashes flickering, his mouth open and puckered. It disgusted George. He reached for his gun in his dream but both hands were gone. George stood helpless. Private Cox gave him a lascivious grin and laughed.

        George sat up in bed and hit his head with his palm and wished he could expel the sounds out of his ears. The women would sit up on their knees and coo French phrases. After a year, he grew bored with the predictability of them all. Sometimes his actions grew rough, and his voice snapped. Sometimes in bed, his pats turned into slaps as he forced them into strange positions.  He shoved them away and started to cry. He begged them for forgiveness. Their eyes softened and their worry lines disappeared when they tried to hold him. Then his feelings flipped. He found them in contempt for forgiving him and started to yell at them. He learned it was dangerous to stay too long, but the widows made it easy for him to stay. They were spiders that spit their filaments over his body and tried to wrap him in a cocoon. They found him jobs he could handle, introduced him to family members, and brought girlfriends over to inspect him. He bought another vial of laudanum from the apothicaire and told himself it was for the ache from the stump.

        He spent the winter of 1921 in Marseille 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 a hand.  

Thanks for reading. 

Meet Kay, the Hopi Indian

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Inside the Gold Plated Pistol

It’s 1927. Kay is Hopi who lost her family at a young age and was picked up by a German couple in Clarkdale, Arizona. Over the years, Kay helped plant the orchard and tend the animals. She felt at peace with the cycle of the ranch nourished by the Verde River. One morning a shot rang out. Kay stole George’s precious, gold plated pistol. Then, her new friend Sally dragged her to a film shooting of a Zane Grey Western where she is discovered and dressed as an Indian male on the set. When an Apache family comes to work at the farm, Kay must come to terms with her hybrid identity; her quiet childhood becomes a chapter of the past. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 3:

Sally took Kay down to the second floor of the boarding house to the communal bathroom and locked the door. She ran hot water in the porcelain tub and added soap flakes until the bubbles jiggled. She assessed Kay’s shabby dress and matted hair and told her she stank.

     “I try to bathe every day. You really must,” she explained to Kay as she helped her take off her clothes and examined her. Kay blushed. Sally looked at her dispassionately as though she were a rag doll which had fallen into a mud puddle. 

     “I’ve got dresses in the costume closet. You soak and I’ll be back.”

     Sally left her alone. Kay listened to the tub sprocket drip water into the mound of bubbles. The water was hot but felt good to her stiff arms and thighs from climbing the orchard ladder yesterday to prune the row of Persimmon trees. This morning, she hitched a ride on the back of a truck that contained two calves and a goat. The driver drove up the swaying road to Jerome. She leaned against the calves and rubbed the downy hair above their noses while the hot sun caused all to steam and she felt like an over-ripe persimmon, puckered and moldered.

     Kay exhaled slowly and tried to submerge until her shoulders were covered. Though the tub was long, her heels went up over the end and exposed her callused feet. A half hour later Sally still had not returned and the water was cold. Kay stepped out of the stained tub and dried herself, and that was when Sally burst into the room with an armful of clothes and set them on a bench next to the vanity cabinet. Mrs. Weese taught her how to change without exposing herself. Nacktheit ist eine Sünde. Kay had alternated between three smocks and a nightgown, ever mindful to hide her body because nakedness was a sin. In her room at the wash basin, Kay sponge-cleaned her body daily, and at the yard pump, she washed her hair once a week.  Sally threw away the bandages that functioned as a brassiere and gave her a soft, side-lacing bra and new cotton panties. Kay changed into the clothes Sally brought her. It looked like an old cowboy costume, and she wondered if Sally was playing a joke.

              “Whatta’ya know—an Injun-Cowboy,” she said, mimicking her crude aunt.

     Kay ignored the remark. She shook her head and said, “This looks ridiculous.”

        Kay took off the vest and left on the blue chambray shirt and the gauchos, liking them more than her old dress. Sally nibbled on a slice of bread coated with butter and sugar, and she tore a piece off and gave it to Kay. She was hungry.

     Sally lifted a handful of Kay’s hair that fell to her waist and tried to smooth her locks. Sally inspected the ends. “Have you ever had your hair cut? Mind if I cut it?”

              Kay felt her eyes bulge. “To your length? Nein.

        “No, it wouldn’t look right at your ears. Let me trim up the ends a few inches. Your hair looks like the tail end of a horse.”

        She thought of Marvin and envisioned him swinging his tail like the pendulum of a grandfather clock. She felt a pang of guilt for being away from the farm and hoped the old horse would have enough sense to stand in the shade under the Cottonwood trees. Kay thought again about being angry, but the luxuriousness of the bath and Sally’s sketchy hospitality brought out a giggle for which Sally took as consent. She located the black shears from the top drawer of a dresser. She babbled on about the upcoming day and patted her shoulder. Kay sat on the toilet seat and let her play with her hair. Kay tried to remember a time when Mrs. Weese had touched her affectionately or hugged her. She could not remember. Mrs. Weese had never been mean to her, but she had not doted, either. As Sally’s white hands snipped the black straw that was her hair, Kay thought about the farm animals who twisted their heads whenever she patted their flanks. They considered the gesture, their dumb eyes neither accepting or rejecting the touch. She wondered if this was how she appeared to Sally. Was Sally’s attention an act of pity or friendship? The light of the sun stabbed through the high window and illuminated the dingy bathroom. The water gurgled out of the tub.

     Sally faced her with eyes eager with anticipation. “I–we, have to go to the Montana Hotel later. It’s Thursday, and tonight is the first Nickel-hopper dance.”

        Kay did not understand.  Sally’s black hair shined. She did a Charleston Step. “Dancing. Men will come and pay for a dance. We’ll make a nice pile of change, we will. You’ll see.”

 

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The picture above of the Hopi man weaving a blanket is an example of old and rare Native American photos taken circa 1900, and I found them at Paul Ratner’s 2014 article in THE HUFFINGTON POST

I have a lot of research to share regarding Southwestern Indians, but I will do that in a separate post. Thanks for reading!

 

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