I did not sleep well that night.
I am sure that part of it was the time difference between where I was and where I was supposed to be. Trying to fall asleep at a time when you should be having dinner proved to be challenging.
At least a few of my tosses and turns were due to Walter. He was so different than the prim, fastidious, and somewhat haughty University student who had pridefully shown off his new rubber boots. Had he not been arrested he would dead in a camp somewhere or perhaps on kibbutz in Israel. And if not for Max where would I be. Fate, the twists and turns in our lives in which we have no more control than a leaf floating on a river, takes in all sorts of direction that we could not imagine. How could I conceive of the life I was living today while Tad and I built Tomahawk. Man plans, god laughs. But Walters life, I could not imagine the life he had led imprisoned and tortured, exiled, wounded, captured and imprisoned and bombed and then bombed again. It had changed him. The pressure and heat of the war had hardened him like a diamond. But it had also opened him up to the pain and suffering that others have felt because he knew what they were feeling. I had a feeling that the war and aftermath would create a generation of men like this. Hard as diamonds on the outside but filled with empathy and compassion that only sacrifice and service can create.
But most of my endless search to find the cool side of the pillow had to do with what I was going to say to Tad’s mother in the morning. No doubt that she had put things together by now. Me showing up on her doorstep, looking for Tad on the day he disappeared. What was I going to say to her about that? How do you beg a mother to forgive you for her son’s death and then turnaround and then ask her the location of her only brother. Why should she trust the person who was responsible for her son’s demise? Information, if given, that would no doubt place Col. Skoda’s life in danger as well.
I could only imagine of all the horrible things she would say to me because I had been thinking the same about myself for the past six years. of her brother.
In my mind, I tried to write a little speech that I would give her when I saw her. But I could not find the right string of words in either German or English. When eventually I did fall asleep, I dreamt of an endless series of slaps to my face followed by doors being slammed.
“You look like something the cat dragged in.” were the words Captain Granville greeted me with when I met him for breakfast the next morning. “Did Cookie take you to some of the more interesting bars in Vienna last night?”
“No sir…George. Just trying to figure out what time zone I am in. Hard to fall asleep when your body thinks it’s time for chow back in Oklahoma.”
“Are you suure it did not have anything to do with what happened yesterday? Cookie told me about your Grandmother.”
I really did not want to talk about Pepi with Granville. It cut far too close to the quick. It would not serve the most junior of junior officers to be emotional in front of his commanding officers. To cut off the conversation I replied “Thank you sir. But we did get some good news yesterday.”
“Really, Cookie didn’t mention anything.”
“No sir, this was after I left him.” and proceeded to tell him about Walter and what he had revealed about Frau Saegerer.
“Are you going to check that out this morning?”
“I would like to go it alone sir. I think me speaking with Mrs. Saegerer privately will produce the best results. She knows me. And it is going to be a matter of building trust with her. With Cookie around, I am not saying it would not happen, but it may her a little while longer.” Or that being slapped, spit upon or having a door slammed in my face would be humiliating by itself but in front of Cookie…
“I get what you are saying but the chessboard is a little bigger than your friends Mom. I understand the Russians were following you yesterday and Cookie spotted them while you did not. We are playing on their turf and they are not stupid. A lowly lieutenant tries to find his family day by day when he supposed to be scouting out sites for the eventual division of the city will stand out like a sore thumb. And you wouldn’t go looking for these sites alone.”
I thought for a second and then added, “I understand. But let me suggest something. Why does not Cookie come with me. My middle school is near there along with a couple of other old government buildings. They would be logical places for us to inspect and give us cover. After we inspect them, we can go to Frau Saegerer. It may not convince the Soviets of what we are doing but it may confuse them a little bit.”
“That sounds reasonable.”
“And we get to Saegerer’s Cookie should stay with the jeep.” I could see Granville about to make an objection and added “It goes with our cover story. Why would my Sergeant follow me on personal business? It would give Cookie a chance to see if we are being surveilled or not and serve as a lookout in case the Russian’s show too much interest in our activities.”
Three hours later, two school inspections later, Cookie and I were parked in front of Dornbacher Strasse, 4. The building was typical for the area, a three story concrete structure made to look like stone in the style of the late 19th century. There was only one shop on the ground floor. Its sign read in large letters “Paul Grosz, Kurschner Meister” and beneath that in a smaller font: Massarbeit, Umarbeitung, Repartur. Cookies said “A Furrier?”
Shaking my head “I have no idea. But this is the address that my cousin gave me. Wait here.” I hopped out of the jeep and entered the shop, a small bell attached the door announcing my entrance. It was hard to believe what I was seeing. Outside, the city was a heap of smoldering ruins, the smell of destruction and decay everywhere, but here it seemed as if the war had never happened. It was 1935 again, the Nazi’s were Germany’s problem, and the rich needed a way to keep warm and show their wealth off at the same time. Mannequins were posed around the store with postures of the fortunate class. One had her hand out as if to be kissed. Another with cigarette holder held in a way that mimed Marlene Dietrich. The most dramatic had her pelvis thrust forward with her hands on her hips as if showing off her new fur while accentuating her sexuality. All were wrapped in ankle length furs. While not an expert in such things I could see one was mink because Max’s wife Sara had a coat just like it and never failed to mention how expensive it was. Another was clearly a fox. The mannequin in the provocative pose was clad in fur that was dark brown and short. It looked so luxurious I could not help but touch it. It may have been the softest thing I had ever felt.
Startled., I turned around and saw a beautiful young woman with wavy black hair cut shoulder length and piercing dark blue eyes. For a second, I was a tongue tied so she added in particularly good English. “Are you looking for a present for your girlfriend…or perhaps your mother?”
Overcoming my initial inability to articulate I responded in German “Verzeihen Sie mir, aber ich suchte Frau Saegerer. Ist sie verfügbar?” (Pardon me, but I was looking for Mrs. Saegerer. Is she available?) It was her turn to look a little startled.
“You speak German very well, even with a Viennese accent.” And then added a little flirtatiously “How is this possible?”
“I am from here. I grew up in the 13th district on Ottakringerstrasse.” And trying not to be distracted by this young lady’s obvious charms I repeated my question “Is Frau Saegerer in?”
“She is not here right now” and giving me a coquettish look said “But surely I can help you, Lieutenant with whatever you need. If the coats are too expensive, we have wonderful accessories. Perhaps a rabbit’s fur change purse. No…a little mink mouse or perhaps a fur muff…”
She was flirting, and under different circumstances, and without Cookie watching I might have continued our little dance a bit longer but I needed to remain on track. “I am sure they are genuinely nice. But I am really looking for Frau Saegerer. She ran a grocery store near my home, and she was truly kind to me as a boy. I wanted to make sure she was okay and thank her for her kindness. Do you know when she will be back?”
She blessed me with a little pout as if I had really disappointed her and said “I don’t know when she will be here next. She doesn’t keep regular hours.” And added with a touch of pride “She is new to the business and she mostly lets me run the shop.”
“Hmmm…. Well I guess I will just have to come back later.” I said giving her my most winning Cary Grant smile. “In the meantime, if you should see her would you please tell her that Ugi Floessel stopped by to see her and she can reach me at the Hotel Sacher.”
I turned to leave, but as I reached the door, she said “Are you really a friend of Mrs. Floessel.”
“Yes. When I lived in Vienna, her son Tad was my best friend.”
“Then I guess it is all right to tell you.”
“Tell me what?”
“That she lives upstairs. Apt 2C.” And then added “But don’t tell her I told you?”
The apartment buildings entrance was just to the left of the store but before I entered, I stopped at the jeep and let Cookie know where I was going. He was doing his Joe and Willy routine with his body askew, his feet up on the dash and his service cap pulled down over his eyes. “Okay. I will keep an eye out.” And promptly pulled his cap a little further down his face. Surprisingly, I had no doubt he would.
The brown wooden doors of the apartment building were not locked which considering the rampage of the Red Army through Vienna surprised me. Until I noticed the frame of the door had been shattered. As if it had kicked it in. Clearly this neighborhood had not been spared a visit of the Soviets extracting their particular brand of retribution but made me wonder how it was that a store full of expensive furs had managed not to be looted. I would, if I could find a tactful way, have to ask Mrs. Saegerer.
The building’s lobby was small. Just big enough for a desk where a concierge had once sat. Despite the intrusion it looked it good shape. The white tile floor clean and well maintained, the walls free from damage. Directly adjacent to the entrance there was a large, surprisingly intact mirror and I used it to make sure I was squared away. I adjusted the knot in my tie, puulled my Eisenhower jacket so it cover the top of my trousers and picked a piece of imaginary lint off my lapel. Physically I was ready but emotionally I was unsure. How would she greet me? Would she blame me for Tad’s demise? If she did would she give me the information that I needed…the reason that I had been brought to Vienna to begin with? Would she even recognize me?
Before my doubts overwhelmed me, I climbed the rounded staircase that twisted 180 degrees to the next floor two at a time in the hopes that a little exertion would help calm my nerves. There was a sign at the top of the stairs that indicated that Apt C was to the left. I walked in that direction with my leather souls making a distinctive clicking sound as I went. When I reached the door, it had a small knocker with a lion’s head on it. I took a breath and used it.
The sound of the clacker was surprisingly loud and echoed through the hallway. But I could hear no movement in the apartment. Perhaps I had gotten my nerves up for no reason. Then I heard “Einen Moment. Ich komme. Ich komme.” I heard the bolts of the door sliding back and the door opened.
Looking older, her once jet-black hair now streaked with grey, a set of wrinkles on her face that I did not recall and much shorter than memory served stood Tad’s mother. She looked at me in puzzlement and said in heavily accented English tinged with a element of fear “May I help you?”
I looked down at her and tried to give her a reassuring smile and said in German “Frau Saegerer, erkennen Sie mich nicht?”. Mrs Saegerer don’t you recognize me.”
She got a perturbed look on her face and said “No. Why should I….” and paused, and taken a step back from the door, placed her hand over her mouth and said “Ugi? Is that you? I cannot believe it.” Then she was hugging me. The type of hug reserved for family after a long separation. I had spent most of the night before worrying about all the ways this meeting could go wrong. Face slaps. Door slamming Spit. In all that worry I had never anticipated being greeted like the return of the prodigal son. I was more than relieved. It was if the burden that I had been carrying for the past six years had been washed away. There may have been tears shed but Army officers are not supposed to weep.
When she finished hugging me, she stepped back and while holding my hands looked me over and said “Hugi, you have grown so tall. I could barely recognize you.”
“Perhaps, you have just gotten smaller.” I said and we both laughed more out of the joy of seeing each other than actual humor.
All this time we were standing in the doorway. Recovering from her surprise she said “Ugi. Where are my manners. Come in. Come in. Sit on the couch while I make us some coffee and you can tell me all about your new life and America.” She escorted me to a chintz sofa that I recognized from the Saegerer’s apartment before the war. It and the coffee table were the only familiar items. And, they looked out of place as the rest of apartment was mostly Biedermeier that was so popular in Austria before the war. They matched nicely with the Persian rugs laid over wood floors. It was apparent that the apartment had been fully furnished when she moved in and she had only brought a few items of her own but it was homey and warm that stood in contrast to the war that had taken place around it. It seemed to be as good as place as any to start the conversation. I called out to Frau Saegerer in the kitchen “How long have you been living here.”
“Since last November. My cousin, owned this place, and the furrier shop downstairs. He committed suicide after his two sons were killed at the Battle of Stalingrad. I guess he felt grateful to me because I had always made sure he had good food on the table from my grocery despite the rationing. And, I don’t think there was anyone else. Anyway, he left me this place and the furrier shop. Then my store was destroyed in the bombing and there was no way to rebuild so I said “Why not” and came here to live. Its cozy don’t you think.”
She mentioned the suicide so casually. As if it were an every day occurrence But I suppose it was. Even before I left many had committed suicide because no other choice made sense. A b-product the hopelessness of war.
Before I could answer her question she emerged from the kitchen carrying a silver train with a flowered porcelain coffee pot, two matching cups and what appeared to be a homemade apple cake. The smell of coffee and cinnamon giving the apartment a scent that reminded me of my childhood. I was not surprised. This is what Viennese hostesses did. Coffee and cake before any conversation. She placed the tray on the table in front of the couch and proceeded to pour me a cup of coffee and cut me a piece of cake. The coffee was wonderfully bitter. The cake had delicious streusel on top was still warm. It was if she had anticipated my arrival and baked a cake for the occasion.
Pouring herself a cup of coffee, she turned to me and said “Ugi, so tell me what has happened to you since you left Vienna.”
“Yes, General Shatterhand. Tell us.”
I turned to the door where the voice had come from. It was Tad.