A Sunday in Oberheim
(translated by Andrew Wachtel)
Not even a Sunday, just a Sunday morning. Three scenes, a thousand words. And the necessary backdrop of the melancholy Central European provinces. The square by the Danube: the river has risen a bit in the last few days, and the long-hulled boats, either on their own or with the aid of tugboats, struggle against the current but they slide quickly and almost soundlessly in the other direction as the brown water foams. The wind stirs the tops of the poplars, clumps of white acacias toss in the breeze, somewhere up river it is raining, while here a dull and foggy light can be seen through the clouds. Organ music emanating from the church of St. Egidio rolls over the cobblestones, and it bounces off the houses whose empty facades look like inside out city walls, the powerful sounds chase each other and swirl around the gothic building. It is deserted. Everyone is at mass.
Several cars park in front of the abandoned brewery on the other side of the tiny street on which I am living. I don’t know why I’ve never noticed before. They park here and some men carrying elegant gun cases in their hands get out and disappear through the broad door which must lead into a cellar or warehouse where once upon a time they rolled beer barrels here and loaded them onto carts. The brewery tower looked over the roofs at the Danube. I’d like to be up on it, right on top. I’d be able to see where the misty rain from the low clouds meets the river in it’s upper reaches. Beneath the tower is a smaller, pretty well abandoned building.
It was an ice shed, Fastl explains.
Fastl isn’t as mass, ever. He doesn’t want me to use the formal forms of address, just “you Fastl.” He once worked on the railway. Now he keeps a hot dog stand in the small train station. Jadranka from Bosnia cooks and sells the hot dogs. Every Sunday, when the stand is closed, Fastl goes to drink beer at the Black Eagle. You can find some others who don’t go to mass there.
They loaded ice with the beer, he explains.
And whats in the brewery now?
Nothing. In 1945 just here near the entrance three people were killed by a grenade from an American tank.
Another car parks in front of the brewery. A broad-shouldered man rings the bell by the door, waits, and disappears inside.
And where are those people going?
To the cellar.
But you, Fastl, say there’s nothing in the old brewery.
Only in the cellar.
The small brown eyes in his big head shine puckishly.
He asks whether I’d like to see what is in the cellar.
Let’s go, he says.
We cross the street. Fastl rings, and a man’s voice can be heard through the intercom. They speak in a dialect I don’t understand. The door opens and we find ourselves on a long stone staircase which leads down into the depths. It smells like sulfur and as if something is burning. I seem to hear a vigorous crackling, as if someone was smashing a heavy tree branch. Fastl walks cautiously, he is retired, and we are illuminated by the yellow rays of the cellar light. Down below is another door. My guide rings again and it opens as well. Now we’re in a small room where a tall, close-cropped man sits at a table reading a newspaper. He nodds, which means we can proceed, and we suddenly find ourselves in a bigger, better-lit room. It is full of close-cropped, broad-shouldered men, most of them wearing vests over shirts with rolled up sleeves. Those same elegant gun cases are lying open on the table, and inside them are neatly arranged revolvers of various calibers, together with gun cleaning supplies.
Schutsverein, says Fastl, a gun club. Some bigger pieces are leaning against the wall- shotguns, Winchesters, some automatics. The crackling is now louder, the smell of sulfur sharper than it was upstairs. A grayish blue cloud floats above our heads, and it hugs the high vaults of the cellar. There are no windows. The men walk out through heavy, metal-framed doors and come back in with serious faces.
They handle their weapons like small animals, carefully and lightly, with practiced motions. Fastl speaks with the broad-shouldered guy who just arrived. He nods. From underneath a bar covered with a forest of beer mugs someone pulls out a kind of earphones and presses them into our hands. We go through the same door, which emit a cloud of bluish smoke every time they open.
As soon as we walk through the door we hear an explosion. A young man is holding something like a pistol, a browning, a luger, a kind of bazooka in his hands. Fastl and I put on the earphones, his eyes shine. Two people are shooting at a target with small bore pistols, a young man with a bazooka is shooting at panels covered with human outlines. Some are closer, some farther away. They rise and fall, rise as if scared, hide, and rush out the other side of the hall. But the bullets from the spluttering gun catch up to them there as well. The walls are covered with thick foam rubber. The shooter is satisfied, though he doesn’t say anything, wordlessly giving way to the next in line. He has a long barrel which he balances on his left elbow, aims and shoots. Fastl is pointing out to me that the shooter is hitting the target right on the head, in the forehead.
When we return to the first underground room the broad-shouldered hippopotamus offers me a beer, and a close cropped guy asks Fastl to ask me whether I’d like to try. I say no. The close-cropped hippo says that I’m not Hemingway and I say that I’m not. The broad-shouldered guy asks weather I want a beer and I say no thanks. Fastl says that he will have a beer in the Black Eagle, just like he does every Sunday morning. Then the broad-shouldered guy and his close-cropped friend devote themselves to a discussion about the apparatus in fitness clubs, while Fastl and I climb through the yellow light up the stone steps. The grayish-blue smoke clings to us, the crackling, as if someone is breaking up tree branches down below, gets farther away. It still smells of sulfur.
Outside it is a Sunday morning. It is completely quiet in front of the scorched and empty bakery. The wind stirs the tops of the poplars, somewhere up river it is raining, while here a dull and foggy light can be seen through the clouds. The brewery tower looks over the roofs at the Danube. I’d like to be up on it, right on top. I’d be able to see where the drizzly rain from the low clouds meets the river in its upper reaches. I ask what is in the brewery tower. Fastl says, nothing, but if I’d like we can go see. I say no. The street is completely quiet. Nothing would indicate that people are shooting around here, I say. Lentia. The gun club is called Lentia. Fastl shrugs and cuts across the courtyard and the little garden plots on his way to the Black Eagle for a beer.
The main square is still deserted, and the organ in Saint Egidio has been joined by a powerful choir whose slow te deum, as broad as the Danube, floats across the square and around the church. Around and around it swirls until it finds an outlet across the ground, across the coblestones of the square, through the streets and over the roofs of Oberheim down to the brown water. I head down there together with the current of sound, to where a tour boat called the Theodor Fontane struggles against the river’s current. Someone is standing by the railing and looking through binoculars at the town’s facades, the poplars, and the acacias from which clumps of white flowers hang.
A girl in blue jeans is sitting on a bench in the park by the river. Her shoulders tremble, she is crying. It is spring, the girls of Oberheim are crying. A boy stands next to her with his hands in his leather jacket. He is saying something to her, towards the current and then over it. They don’t see me though I pass close by.
Then I sit in my room and glance out at the brown waves that head toward the Black sea. It is getting dark, the clouds have drawn nearer, beneath the windows someone is whistling, the light is no longer diffuse and translucent, it is almost opaque, then it disappears.
The radio announces that all the roads are blocked by Whitsuntide traffic. No one should travel unless absolutely necessary. I will write those thousand words, one or two more.
ANDREW WACHTEL is Herman and Beulah Pierce Miller Research Professor at Northwestern University. As Editor of Northwestern University Press’s acclaimed series “Writing from an Unbound Europe,” Wachtel’s endeavors to identify and publish the most interesting contemporary poetry and prose from Central and Eastern Europe.