We ration tear-salted whiskey and chew the news. Summer in Portland, everyone is invincible. Falling asleep on top of warm sheets, windows open to the night. But I knew when Chris called. I knew.
We both cry for his doomed father. We move up our annual late summer trip to Germany. People tell us everything will work out and other things that wash over me like a river of static fuzz.
Cool, rainy afternoons in little Winterbach, outside of Stuttgart. We drink champagne with bitters as my father-in-law shows us his scars. The surgery could fix nothing. The surgeon cried as she told Werner she could not save him though she operated for seven hours. She could not remove the pancreas held hostage by a crucial artery.
Werner dreams of going to Portland again and being able to understand everything being said around him. He dreams of when he and Irmel got engaged in Poland in 1970. In sleep, he and Irmel travel again to Czechoslovakia and exchange their Deutsche Marks on the black market and live like royalty for a weekend.
We mix beer and sparkling lemonade and burn through stale old cigarettes on the balcony. We speak with Werner about last wishes. He doesn’t want to drive a Ferrari or soak in one last Grecian sunset. He wants to see his grandchildren grow up, and since he cannot have that, he doesn’t care for a brave struggle against the cancer.
Cloudy days follow nights of malnutritious sleep. Werner tries to scurry off for a drive alone, but I demand he take me along. The red Mazda veers and lurches to a nearby hilly orchard, his scars from the operation still sore and preventing full motion to steer and sapping the power to punch the clutch. Finally there, we tour the apple orchards. We look down on the hamlets of the fiefdom and the king’s road.
Chris and I take Werner on walks through the fields surrounding the small village once or twice a day. We rest on the bench overlooking the newly mowed fields. Chlorophyll burns my nose. All the dirt life has been thumped to the surface. The crows dive and gorge on the displaced insects. Even bad hunters will eat well on this anxious, balmy summer’s evening. Stories bubble up. Werner cries and makes confession. His daughters covering for his affairs. His wife tethered to the bed by the invisible chains of bipolar disorder. We listen to histories of family life that went through and around Chris, but never settled in him. He was too young to fully comprehend.
In the tall, skinny apartment, a large metal syringe sits in the orange bathtub. It has a handle made of three finger rings. I try to not look at it when I go in the bathroom. Drops, creams, salves and solutions border the tub like the rings of Saturn. This medical object focuses me back on reality. I imagine Werner’s funeral and how I will strain to decode German and still not understand much.
Werner stares at weeds in the sidewalk cracks. “Look at the strength and energy of nature,” he says before hobbling off on his cane. Such are the things I catch in German, of the many things I don’t grasp. The weed sighs in relief, drowning in pleasure. “Someone has noticed me and my incredible struggle. There was no easy birth in a hothouse flat for me. No graduation to a well-tended garden plot. I suck dust and drink exhaust. But here I am, the first step in bringing down this road.”
August moves into September and the three week visit is up. Before we leave, Werner has his first round of chemo. They install a pump and it takes about five hours. Afterward, he drinks beer and smokes his pipe. He doesn’t look sick on the surface, but he is haunted and living as though already dead.
Summer darkens into winter. Werner cannot handle television programs involving people. Humans leave him empty, make him sick with their malice, their choice of violence, their pitiful enslavement to lust and their never-ending deceptions. He watches documentaries about jaguars in the jungle trees dripping with moisture. Flowers blanket Alpine meadows. He smokes cherry tobacco and drinks cellar-cooled lagers. He plans his last days and dreams of seals on black rocks.
Irmel waits for the taxi on the street corner, nervous that her neighbors might be watching from behind white lace curtains. They know she spends her days, and sometimes nights, at the mental clinic. There, they teach her how to do the simple things, like keeping it together at the grocery store. Here is ten Euros. Go to the store and buy these items on this little list. Come back. Make the spaghetti. Good job. Tomorrow you will go to the library and renew your card and buy stamps at the post office. She dreams of train tracks and medicine cabinets full of final silence. She wants freedom from her mind.
The same crows sit in the rolling fields surrounding the house when Chris and I return for a short Christmas visit. In less than four months, Werner has gone skinny. His thick, black hair is now white and thin. Werner, Chris and I walk the meadows again. We pass the barn, the weedy river bank, the apartments being remodeled and the small orchard. Now the corn stalks bend over, gray rot dragging them down. Turkish teenagers hold hands in the rain shelters. The red Deutsche Bahn train cuts through the fields, connecting one church tower to the next. I cannot sleep through the clock of those trains. Werner and Irmel, one or both, is also always awake, wandering the house. The night turns us out, barefoot, into the fields of grass stiff with frost.
About the author:
Stephanie Golisch writes screenplays, short stories and travel essays. She has been published in two anthologies of PDX Writers, Bengal Lights and will have a piece in the upcoming edition of Mission at Tenth. A recipient of a 2014 Oregon Literary Arts fellowship, she calls Portland home.