IN OUR PREVIOUS INSTALLMENT...
It is August on the Costa Brava, and life, in the words of young Udo Berger, has never been better. He has brought his adored girlfriend, Ingeborg, to the Hotel Del Mar, where he spent happy summers as a child. It is their first holiday together—the first, Udo hopes, of many. What’s more, he is on the brink of a new career: when they return to Stuttgart, he plans to quit his job at the electric company and become a full-time writer.
Specifically, he plans to write about war games. Already a grand-strategy champion, Udo is at work on the article that will secure his reputation in the gaming community: a new variant in a game known as The Third Reich. With the long-distance encouragement of his friend Conrad, Udo spends his days in the hotel room, at the game board, scheming to save the Nazi war effort. Meanwhile, Ingeborg spends hers on the beach, reading detective novels and socializing with another German couple, Hanna and Charly. Udo finds them less congenial, especially Charly, who is a drunk with a penchant for brawling. When sober, his conversation turns mainly to windsurfing and sex. (“Charly is a serious braggart,” Udo confides to his diary, “or a serious idiot.”)
The Germans meet a pair of locals, known as the Wolf and the Lamb, who take them to several questionable night spots. At one of these, the Andalusia Lodge, Udo falls into conversation with El Quemado, a muscular but hideously burned young man who rents pedal boats for a living and who squats—in a “fortress” constructed from the boats themselves—on the beach near the hotel. Udo is intrigued to learn that El Quemado is himself a writer. Udo also finds himself drawn to the remote and beautiful proprietress of the hotel, Frau Else, whom he fondly remembers from childhood and whose husband is mysteriously absent and rumored to be ill. When Frau Else hears about the Wolf and the Lamb, she warns Udo to be more attentive to Ingeborg.
This is not the only sign of trouble on the horizon. At times Ingeborg seems to disapprove of Udo’s war games, and his sleep is troubled by nightmares in which Florian Linden, the detective hero of Ingeborg’s favorite novels, warns the pair of imminent danger ... in their own hotel room.
Today, for the first time, we woke up to gray skies. From our window, the beach looked majestic and empty. A few children were playing in the sand, but soon it began to rain and one by one they disappeared. At the restaurant, during breakfast, the atmosphere was different; banished from the terrace because of the rain, people gathered at the indoor tables, and the breakfast hour stretched on, encouraging the quick formation of new friendships. Everyone talked. The men started to drink early. The women were constantly going back up to their rooms in search of warmer clothes that most of the time they were unable to find. Jokes were made. A general air of frustration soon manifested itself. But since there was no point spending the whole day at the hotel, expeditions were organized; groups of five or six, huddled under a couple of umbrellas, went out to visit the shops and then a café or some video arcade. The rain-swept streets seemed removed from the daily bustle, immersed in a different kind of ordinariness.
Charly and Hanna arrived partway through breakfast. They had decided to go to Barcelona, and Ingeborg was going with them. I said I wouldn’t go. Today will be all mine. After they left I sat watching people come and go. Despite what I expected, there was no sign of Frau Else. But at least it was a quiet and comfortable spot. I put my brain to work reviewing the beginnings of matches, opening moves and exploratory moves . . . A general lethargy had fallen over everything. Suddenly the only truly happy people were the waiters. They had twice as much work as on an ordinary day, but they were kidding around and laughing. An old man sitting near me said that they were laughing at us.
“You’re wrong,” I said. “They’re laughing because they can feel summer coming to an end, and work, too.”
“So they should be sad. They’ll be out of a job, the lazy bastards!”
I left the hotel at noon.
I got in the car and drove slowly to the Andalusia Lodge. I would’ve gotten there faster by walking but I didn’t feel like walking.
From the outside it looked like all the other bars with terraces: chairs upended and water dripping from the fringes of the umbrellas. The fun was inside. As if the rain had broken the ice, tourists and locals—mingling in a way somehow tinged with catastrophe—were enmeshed in an endless and unintelligible exchange of gestures. In the back, near the TV, I spotted the Lamb. He waved me over. I waited until I’d been served a coffee, and then I went to sit at his table. At first we just made small talk. The Lamb was sorry it was raining, though not on his account but on mine, because I had come in search of sunny days and beach, etc. I didn’t bother to tell him that actually I was delighted it was raining. After a while he asked about Charly.
I told him he was in Barcelona. With who? he wanted to know. The question took me by surprise; I would have liked to say that it was none of his business. After hesitating, I decided that it wasn’t worth the trouble.
“With Ingeborg and Hanna, of course. Who did you think he was with?”
The poor guy seemed taken aback. Nobody, he said, smiling. On the fogged-up window someone had drawn a heart bisected by a hypodermic needle. Out the window, the Paseo Marítimo and some gray planks could be glimpsed. The few tables at the back of the bar were occupied by young people, and they were the only ones who kept a certain distance from the tourists. The bar was tacitly divided between the people up front (families and older men) and those in the back. Suddenly the Lamb began to tell me a strange and meaningless story. He spoke rapidly, confidentially, leaning over the table. I hardly understood him. The story was about Charly and the Wolf, but the way he told it was like something out of a dream: an argument, a blond (Hanna?), knives, the all-conquering power of friendship . . . “The Wolf is a good person, I know him, he’s got a heart of gold. Charly too. But when they get drunk they’d drive anybody crazy.” I nodded. I couldn’t care less. Near us a girl stared into the empty fireplace, now a giant ashtray. Outside the rain came down harder. The Lamb bought me a cognac. Just then the owner came in and put on a video. To do so he had to get up on a chair. From his perch he announced: “I’m putting on a video for you kids.” No one paid any attention. “You’re a bunch of bums,” he said on his way out. The movie was about postnuclear bikers. “I’ve seen it,” said the Lamb when he returned with two drinks. It was good cognac. The girl near the fireplace started to cry. I don’t know how to explain it, but she was the only one in the whole bar who didn’t seem to be there. I asked the Lamb why she was crying. I can hardly see her face, he replied, how do you know she’s crying? I shrugged. On the TV a couple of bikers were riding through the desert; one of them was missing an eye; on the horizon sprawled the remains of a city: a gas station in ruins, a supermarket, a bank, a movie theater, a hotel . . . “Mutants,” said the Lamb, turning sideways so he could see better.
Next to the girl by the fireplace were another girl and a boy who might have been thirteen or eighteen. Both of them watched her cry and from time to time patted her on the back. The boy had a pimply face. He whispered into the girl’s ear, more as if he were trying to convince her of something than as if he were consoling her, and out of the corner of his eye he made sure not to miss any of the most violent scenes in the movie, which, as it happened, followed constantly one after the other. In fact, the faces of all the kids (except the one who was crying) lifted automatically toward the TV at the sound of fighting or at the music that preceded the climactic moments of the fights. Either the rest of the movie didn’t interest them or they’d seen it already.
Outside the rain was still coming down.
I thought about El Quemado. Where was he? Could he possibly be spending the day on the beach, buried under the pedal boats? For a second, as if I were gasping for air, I felt like running out to check.
Little by little the idea of visiting him began to take shape. What attracted me most was seeing for myself what I’d already imagined: part child’s hideout, part third-world shack. But what did I really expect to find under the pedal boats? In my mind’s eye I could see El Quemado sitting like a caveman beside a kerosene lantern; when I come in, he looks up and we gaze at each other. But how do I get in? Down a hole, like a rabbit burrow? Maybe. And there, at the end of the tunnel, is El Quemado, reading the paper and looking like a rabbit. A giant rabbit, deathly afraid. Of course, I didn’t want to frighten him. I should announce myself first. Hello, it’s me, Udo, are you there, the way I imagined? . . . And if no one answered, what to do? I imagined myself pacing around the pedal boats searching for the way in. A tiny crack. Sliding on my belly, creeping in with great difficulty . . . Inside everything is dark. Why?
“Do you want me to tell you how the movie ends?” asked the Lamb.
The girl by the fireplace wasn’t crying anymore. On the TV a kind of executioner was digging a hole big enough to bury the body of a man and his bike. When it was over, the kids laughed, though there was something indefinable about the scene, something more tragic than comic.
I nodded. How did it end?
“So the good guy escapes the radioactive zone with the treasure. I can’t remember whether it’s a formula to make synthetic gasoline or water or what. Anyway, it’s just another movie, right?”
“Right,” I said.
I wanted to pay but the Lamb refused to let me. “You can pay tonight,” he said, smiling. The idea was completely unappealing to me. But no one could make me go out with them, after all, though I was afraid that idiot Charly had already made plans. And if Charly went out, Hanna would go; and if Hanna did, Ingeborg probably would, too. As I got up, I asked casually where El Quemado might be.
“No idea,” said the Lamb. “That guy’s kind of a nut job. Do you want to see him? Are you looking for him? I’ll go with you, if you want. He might be at Pepe’s bar. I doubt he’ll be working in this rain.”
I thanked him; I said it wasn’t necessary. I wasn’t looking for him.
“He’s a weird guy,” said the Lamb.
“Why? Because of his burns? Do you know how he got them?”
“No, that’s not why, I don’t know anything about that. He just seems strange to me. Or not strange exactly, but a little off, you know what I mean.”
“No, what do you mean?”
“He’s got his hang-ups, like everybody. Maybe he’s a little bitter. I don’t know. We all have something, don’t we? Take Charly, for example, all he cares about is the bottle and his fucking board.”
“Come on, man, there are other things he likes, too.”
“Chicks?” said the Lamb with a malicious smile. “You have to admit Hanna’s hot, right?”
“Yes,” I said. “She’s not bad.”
“And she has a son, doesn’t she?”
“I think so,” I said.
“She showed me a picture. He’s a good-looking kid, blond and everything. He looks like her.”
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen any pictures. ”
Before I could explain that he knew Hanna practically as well as I did, I left. In some ways he probably knew her better, but there was no point saying so.
Outside it was still raining, though not as hard. On the wide sidewalks of the Paseo Marítimo a few tourists walked by in brightly colored windbreakers. I got in the car and lit a cigarette. From where I was I could see the fortress of pedal boats and the curtain of mist and foam raised by the wind. Through one of the bar’s big windows the fireplace girl was also staring out at the beach. I started the car and drove off. For half an hour I circled around town. In the old part of the city the traffic was impossible. Water bubbled out of the drains and a warm and putrid scent crept into the car along with exhaust fumes, the blare of horns, children’s shouts. At last I managed
to escape. I was hungry, ravenously hungry, but rather than look for a place to eat, I left town.
I drove aimlessly, not knowing where I was going. From time to time I passed the cars and campers of tourists; the weather signaled the end of summer. The fields to each side of the highway were covered in plastic and dark grooves; against the horizon stood small, bare hills toward which the clouds sped. In a grove, under the trees, I saw a group of black workers sheltering from the rain.
Suddenly I came upon a pottery shop. So this was the road that led to the nameless club. I parked the car in the lot and got out. From a hut an old man stared at me in silence. Everything was different: there were no spotlights or dogs, no otherworldly glow emanating from the plaster statues on which the rain pattered.
I picked out a few pots and went over to the old man’s lair.
“Eight hundred pesetas,” he said without emerging.
I felt for the money and handed it to him.
“Bad weather,” I said as I waited for the change and the rain fell on my face.
“Yes,” said the old man.
I put the pots in the trunk and left.
I ate at a chapel on top of a mountain with a view of the whole bay. Centuries ago a stone fortress stood here as a defense against pirates. Maybe the town didn’t exist yet when the fortress was built. I don’t know. In any case, all that’s left of the fortress are a few stones scrawled with names, hearts, obscene drawings. Next to the ruins rises the chapel, of more recent construction. The view is incredible: the port, the yacht club, the old town, the new town, the campgrounds, the beachfront hotels. In good weather it’s possible to make out some of the other towns along the coast and, peeking over the skeleton of the fortress, a web of back roads and an infinity of small towns and hamlets inland. In a building adjoining the chapel there’s a kind of restaurant. I don’t know whether the people who run it belong to a religious order or whether they got the license in the usual way. They’re good cooks, which is what matters. The locals, especially couples, are in the habit of driving up to the chapel, though not exactly to admire the landscape. When I got there I found several cars parked under the trees. Some drivers remained inside their vehicles. Others were sitting at tables in the restaurant. The silence was almost total. I took a stroll around a kind of lookout point with a guardrail; at both ends there were telescopes, the coin-operated kind. I went up to one and put in fifty pesetas. I couldn’t see anything. Utter darkness. I whacked it a few times and then gave up. At the restaurant I ordered rabbit and a bottle of wine.
What else did I see?
1. A tree dangling over the precipice. Its crazed-looking roots were snarled around the stones and in the air. (But this isn’t a sight unique to Spain; I’ve seen trees like it in Germany.)
2. An adolescent vomiting by the side of the road. His parents, in a car with British license plates, waited with the radio turned all the way up.
3. A dark-eyed girl in the kitchen at the chapel restaurant. We made eye contact for only a second but something about me made her smile.
4. The bronze bust of a bald man in a small, out-of-the-way square. On the pedestal, a poem written in Spanish of which I could make out only the words land, man, death.
5. A group of young people shrimping on the rocks north of town. For no apparent reason, they erupted every so often in cheers and vivas. Their shouts echoed off the rocks like the clamor of drums.
6. A dark red cloud—the color of dirty blood—taking shape in the east, which, among the dark clouds that covered the sky, was like the promise of an end to the rain.
After eating, I went back to the hotel. I showered, changed clothes, and went out again. There was a letter for me at the reception desk. It was from Conrad. For a moment I vacillated between reading it immediately and putting
off the pleasure for later. I decided that I’d save it until after I saw El Quemado. So I put the letter in my pocket and headed for the pedal boats.
The sand was wet though it wasn’t raining anymore; here and there on the beach one could make out the vague shapes of people walking along the shore, gazing down as if they were searching for bottles with messages inside or jewels washed up by the sea. Twice I almost went back to the hotel. And yet the sense that I was making a fool of myself was less powerful than my curiosity.
Long before I reached the pedal boats I heard the sound made by the tarp as it slapped against the floaters. Some rope must have come undone. With cautious steps I circled the pedal boats. In fact, there was a loose rope, and the tarp flapped ever more violently in the wind. I remember that the rope seethed like a snake. A river snake. The tarp was wet and heavy from the rain. Without thinking, I grabbed the rope and tied it as best I could.
“What are you doing?” asked El Quemado from the pedal boats.
I jumped backward. As I did, the knot came undone and the tarp made a sound like a plant ripped out by the roots, like something wet and alive.
“Nothing,” I said.
Immediately it occurred to me that I should have added: “Where are you?” Now El Quemado would be able to deduce that I knew his secret, since I wasn’t surprised to hear his voice, which clearly came from within. Too late.
“What do you mean, nothing?”
“Nothing,” I shouted. “I was taking a walk and I saw that the wind was about to rip the tarp off. Didn’t you notice?”
I took a step forward and decisively retied the confounded rope.
“There you go,” I said. “The pedal boats are protected. Now you just need the sun to come out!”
An unintelligible grunt came from inside.
“Can I come in?”
El Quemado didn’t answer. For an instant I was afraid that he would come out and curse at me in the middle of the beach, demanding to know what the hell I wanted. I wouldn’t have known how to answer him. (Was I killing time? Confirming a suspicion? Conducting a small behavioral study?)
“Can you hear me?” I shouted. “Can I come in or not?”
“Yes.” El Quemado’s voice was barely audible.
Politely, I sought the entrance; of course there was no hole dug in the sand. The pedal boats, propped against each other in an unlikely fashion, seemed to leave no gap through which a person could fit. I looked up: between the tarp and a floater there was a space through which a body could slip. I climbed up carefully.
“Through here?” I asked.
El Quemado grunted something that I took as a yes. From up above, the hole looked bigger. I closed my eyes and let myself drop.
A smell of rotting wood and salt assaulted my senses. At last I was inside the fortress.
El Quemado was sitting on a tarp like the one that covered the pedal boats. Next to him was a bag almost as big as a suitcase. On a sheet of newspaper he had some bread and a can of tuna. Despite what I had expected, there was enough light to see by, especially considering that it was a cloudy day. Along with the light, air came in through any number of openings. The sand was dry, or so it seemed, but it was cold in there. I said: It’s cold. El Quemado took a bottle out of a bag and handed it to me. I took a swig. It was wine.
“Thanks,” I said.
El Quemado took the bottle and drank in turn; then he cut a chunk of bread, split it open, stuffed it with some shreds of tuna, drenched it in olive oil, and proceeded to eat it. The space under the pedal boats was six feet long and just over three feet high. Soon I discovered other objects: a towel of indeterminate color, the rope-soled shoes (El Quemado was barefoot), another can of tuna (empty), a plastic bag printed with a supermarket logo . . . In general, order reigned in the fortress.
“Aren’t you surprised that I knew where you were?”
“No,” said El Quemado.
“Sometimes I help Ingeborg solve mysteries . . . When she reads crime novels . . . I can figure out who the killers are before Florian Linden . . . ” My voice had dwindled to almost a whisper.
After gulping down the bread, he scrupulously deposited both cans in the plastic bag. His huge hands moved swiftly and silently. The hands of a criminal, I thought. In a second there was no trace of food left, only the bottle of wine between us.
“The rain . . . did it bother you? . . . But you’re fine in here, I see . . . You must be happy to see it rain every once in a while: today you’re just another tourist, like everybody else.”
El Quemado stared at me in silence. In the jumble of his features I thought I detected a sarcastic expression. Are you taking time off, too? he asked. I’m alone today, I explained, Ingeborg, Hanna, and Charly went to Barcelona. What was he trying to insinuate by asking me whether I was taking time off, too? That I would never finish my article? That I wasn’t hunkered down at the hotel?
“How did you decide on the idea of living out here?”
El Quemado shrugged his shoulders and sighed.
“I can understand that it must be beautiful to sleep under the stars, out in the open, though from here I doubt you see many stars.” I smiled and slapped myself on the forehead, an unusual gesture for me. “No matter what, you sleep closer to the water than any tourist. Some people would pay to be in your place!”
El Quemado dug for something in the sand. His toes burrowed slowly up and down; they were disproportionately large and surprisingly (though there was no reason to expect otherwise) unmarred by a single burn, smooth, the skin intact, without even a callus, which daily contact with the sea must have endeavored to smooth away.
“I’d like to know how you decided to set up house here, how it occurred to you to arrange the pedal boats like this for shelter. It’s a good idea, but why? Was it so you wouldn’t have to pay rent? Is it really so expensive to rent a place? I apologize if it’s none of my business. I’m just curious, you know? Shall we go get coffee?”
El Quemado picked up the bottle and after raising it to his lips he handed it to me.
“It’s cheap. It’s free,” he murmured when I set the bottle back down between us.
“But is it legal? Besides me, does anyone know you sleep here? Say the owner of the pedal boats, does he know you spend the nights here?”
“I’m the owner,” said El Quemado.
A strip of light fell directly on his forehead: the charred flesh, in the light, seemed to grow paler, to stir.
“They’re not worth much,” he added. “Any pedal boat in town is newer than mine. But they still float and people like them.”
“I think they’re wonderful,” I said in a burst of enthusiasm. “I would never get on a pedal boat built to look like a swan or a Viking ship. They’re hideous. Yours, on the other hand, seem . . . I don’t know, more classic. More trustworthy.”
I felt stupid.
“That’s where you’re wrong. The new pedal boats are faster.”
In a scattered way, he explained that with all the speedboat, ferry, and windsurfing traffic, the beach could sometimes be as busy as a highway. So the speed that the pedal boats were able to attain in order to avoid other craft became an important consideration. He had no accidents to complain of yet, just a few bumps to swimmers’ heads, but even in this regard the new pedal boats were better: a collision with the floater of one of his old pedal boats could crack someone’s head open.
“They’re heavy,” he said.
“Yes, like tanks.”
El Quemado smiled for the first time that afternoon.
“You’ve always got the same thing on your mind,” he said.
Still smiling, he traced a picture in the sand that he immediately erased. Even his infrequent gestures were enigmatic.
“How is your game going?”
“Perfect. Full sail ahead. I’ll destroy all the schemes.”
“All the schemes?”
“That’s right. All the old ways of playing. Under my system, the game will have to be reimagined.”
When we emerged, the sky was a metallic gray, auguring new showers.
I told El Quemado that a few hours ago I had spotted a red cloud in the east; I thought that was a sign of good weather. At the bar, reading the sports news at the same table where I’d left him, was the Lamb. When he saw us he beckoned us over to sit with him. The conversation then proceeded into territory that Charly would have loved but that frankly bored me. Bayern Munich, Schuster, Hamburg, Rummenigge were the subjects. Naturally, the Lamb knew more about the teams and personalities than I did. To my surprise,
El Quemado took part in the conversation (which was in my honor, since there was no talk about Spanish sports stars, only German ones, which I did fully appreciate and which at the same time made me uncomfortable), and he revealed an acceptable knowledge of German soccer. For example, the Lamb asked: Who’s your favorite player? And after my response (Schumacher, for the sake of saying something) and the Lamb’s (Klaus Allofs), El Quemado said Uwe Seeler, whom neither the Lamb nor I had heard of. Seeler and Tilkowski are the names El Quemado holds in highest esteem. The Lamb and I didn’t know what he was talking about. When we asked him to tell us more, he said that as a boy he saw both of them on the soccer field. Just as I thought that El Quemado was about to reflect on his childhood, he suddenly fell silent. The hours passed, and despite the grayness of the day, night was long in coming. At eight I said good-bye and returned to the hotel. Sitting in an armchair on the first floor, next to a window through which I could see the Paseo Marítimo and a slice of the parking lot, I settled down to read Conrad’s letter. This is what it said:
I got your postcard. I hope swimming and Ingeborg are leaving you enough time to finish the article as planned. Yesterday we finished a round of Third Reich at Wolfgang’s house. Walter and Wolfgang (Axis) against Franz (Allies) and me (Russia). It was a three-way game, and the final result was: W & W, 4 objective hexes; Franz, 18; me, 19, including Berlin and Stockholm (you can imagine the condition in which W & W left the Kriegsmarine!). Surprises in the diplomatic module: in autumn of ’41
Spain goes over to the Axis. Turkey wooed away from the Allies thanks to the DP that Franz and I spent prodigally. Alexandria and Suez, untouchable; Malta pounded but still standing. W & W did their best to test parts of your Mediterranean Strategy. And Rex Douglas’s Mediterranean Strategy. But it was too much for them. Down they went. David Hablanian’s Spanish Gambit might work one time out of every twenty. Franz lost France in the summer of ’40 and weathered an invasion of England in spring ’41! Almost all of his army corps were in the Mediterranean and
W & W couldn’t resist the temptation. We applied the Beyma variant. In ’41 I was saved by the snow and by W & W’s insistence on opening fronts, at a huge cost of BRP; they were always bankrupt by the last turn of the year. Regarding your strategy: Franz says it isn’t much different from Anchors’s. I told him that you were corresponding with Anchors and that his strategy had nothing to do with yours. W & W are ready to mount a giant TR as soon as you get back. First they suggested the GDW Europa series, but I convinced them otherwise. I doubt you’d want to play for more than a month straight. We’ve agreed that W & W and Franz and Otto Wolf will take the Allies and the Russians, respectively, and that you and I will take Germany, what do you say? We also talked about the Paris conference, December 23–28. It’s confirmed that Rex Douglas will be there in person. I know he’d like to meet you. A picture of you came out in Waterloo: it’s the one where you’re playing Randy Wilson, and there’s an article about our Stuttgart group. I got a letter from Mars, do you remember them? They want an article from you (there’ll be another by Mathias Müller, can you believe it?) for a special issue about players who focus on WWII. Most of the participants are French and Swiss. And there’s more news, which I’d rather wait to give you when you get back from vacation. So what do you think the objective hexes were that stymied W & W? Leipzig, Oslo, Genoa, and Milan. Franz wanted to hit me. In fact, he chased me around the table. We’ve set up a game of Case White. We’ll get started tomorrow night. The kids at Fire and Steel have discovered Boots & Saddles and Bundeswehr, from the Assault Series. Now they plan to sell their old Squad Leaders and they’re talking about putting out a fanzine and calling it Assault or Radioactive Combat or something like that. They make me laugh. Get lots of sun. Say hello to Ingeborg.
After the rain, evening at the Del Mar is tinted a dark blue shot through with gold. For a long time all I do is sit in the restaurant watching people come back to the hotel looking tired and hungry. Frau Else is nowhere to be seen. I discover that I’m cold: I’m in shirtsleeves. Also, Conrad’s letter leaves me with a trace of sadness. Wolfgang is an idiot: I can picture his slowness, his hesitation at each move, his lack of imagination. If you can’t control Turkey with DP, invade it, you moron. Nicky Palmer has said so a thousand times. I’ve said so a thousand times. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, I felt alone. Conrad and Rex Douglas (whom I know solely through letters) are my only friends. The rest is emptiness and darkness. Unanswered calls. Snubs. “Alone in a ravaged land,” I remembered. In an amnesiac Europe, with no sense of the epic or heroic. (It doesn’t surprise me that adolescents spend their time playing Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games.)
How did El Quemado buy his pedal boats? Yes, he told me how. With what he had saved from picking grapes. But how could he buy the whole lot, six or seven at once, with the money from just one harvest season? That was the down payment. The rest he paid little by little. The former owner was old and tired. It’s hard enough to make money in the summer, and if on top of that you have to pay an employee salary . . . so he decided
to sell them and El Quemado bought them. Did he have any experience renting out pedal boats? No. It isn’t hard to learn, said the Lamb, mockingly. Could I do it? (Silly question.) Of course, said the Lamb and El Quemado in unison. Anyone could. Really, it was a job that required nothing but patience and a sharp eye for runaway pedal boats. You didn’t even have to know how to swim.
El Quemado came to the hotel. We went upstairs without being seen by anyone. I showed him the game. The questions he asked were intelligent. Suddenly the street filled with the noise of sirens. El Quemado went out on the balcony and said the accident was in the tourist district. How stupid to die on vacation, I remarked. El Quemado shrugged. He was wearing a clean white T-shirt. From where he stood he could keep an eye on the shapeless mass of his pedal boats. I came over and asked what he was looking at. The beach, he said. I think he’d be a quick study.
The hours go by and there’s no sign of Ingeborg. I waited in the room until nine, jotting down moves.
Dinner at the hotel restaurant: cream of asparagus soup, cannelloni, coffee, and ice cream. Lingering at the table after dinner, I once more failed to spot Frau Else. (She certainly is nowhere to be found today.) I shared the table with a Dutch couple in their fifties. The subject of conversation at my table and
across the restaurant was the bad weather. The diners expressed a number of different views on the subject, which the waiters—invested with a presumed
meteorological wisdom, and locals, after all—took upon themselves to arbitrate. In the end the faction that forecast good weather for the following day won.
At eleven I took a stroll through the various rooms on the main floor. There was no sign of Frau Else and I headed on foot to the Andalusia Lodge. The Lamb wasn’t there, but half an hour later he showed up. I asked him where the Wolf was. The Lamb hadn’t seen him all day.
“I don’t suppose he’s in Barcelona,” I said.
The Lamb gave me a horrified look. Of course he wasn’t, today he worked late, the idea. How could I imagine the poor Wolf had gone to Barcelona? We drank cognac and for a while we watched a game show on TV. The Lamb was stuttering, by which I deduced that he was nervous. I can’t remember why the subject came up, but at some point, unprompted, he told me that El Quemado wasn’t from Spain. We might have been talking about hardship and life and accidents. (The game show featured hundreds of small accidents, apparently simulated and bloodless.) I might have been saying something about the Spanish character. After that we may have gone on to talk about fire and burns. I don’t know. The point is that the Lamb said that El Quemado wasn’t Spanish. Where was he from, then? South America; which country specifically, he didn’t know.
The Lamb’s revelation struck me like a blow. El Quemado wasn’t Spanish. And he hadn’t told me. This fact, in itself trivial, struck me as particularly disturbing and significant. What motives could El Quemado have for hiding his true nationality from me? I didn’t feel deceived. I felt observed. (Not by El Quemado; actually, by nobody in particular: observed by a void, an absence.) After a while I paid for our drinks and left. I expected to find Ingeborg back at the hotel.
There was no one in the room. I went downstairs again: ghostlike on the terrace I made out some shadowy figures scarcely speaking a word. At the bar a single old man drank in silence. At the reception desk the night watchman told me that there hadn’t been any calls for me.
“Do you know where I can find Frau Else?”
He doesn’t know. At first he doesn’t even understand who I’m talking about. Frau Else, I shout, the owner of this hotel. The watchman’s eyes widen and he shakes his head again. He hasn’t seen her.
I thank him and get a cognac at the bar. At one in the morning I decide that I might as well head upstairs and go to bed. There’s no one on the terrace anymore, although a few recently arrived guests have come into the bar and are joking with the waiters.
I can’t sleep; I’m not tired.
At last, at four in the morning, Ingeborg appears. A phone call from the watchman informs me that a young lady wants to see me. I hurry downstairs. At the reception desk I find Ingeborg, Hanna, and the watchman embroiled in something that, from the stairs, resembles a secret council. When I come up to them the first thing I notice is Hanna’s face: a violet and pinkish bruise covers her left cheek and part of her eye; there are bruises on her right cheek and upper lip, too, though not as bad. Also, she can’t stop crying. When I inquire how she came to be in such a state, Ingeborg abruptly
shuts me up. Her nerves are frayed; she keeps repeating that something like this could happen only in Spain. Wearily, the watchman suggests calling an ambulance. Ingeborg and I discuss it, but it’s Hanna who categorically refuses. (She says things like: “It’s my body,” “I’m the one who’s hurt,” etc.) The discussion continues and Hanna cries harder. Up until now I had forgotten about Charly. Where is he? When I mention him, Ingeborg, unable to contain herself, spits out a string of curses. For an instant I have the sense that Charly has been lost forever. Unexpectedly I feel we share a common bond. It’s something I can’t define, something that painfully unites us. As the clerk goes in search of a first-aid kit—a compromise solution that we’ve reached with Hanna—Ingeborg fills me in on the latest developments, which, as it happens, I’ve already guessed.
The excursion couldn’t have gone worse. After an apparently normal and quiet day—even too quiet—during which they walked around the Barri Gòtic and La Rambla, taking pictures and buying souvenirs, the calm was shattered. According to Ingeborg, everything began after dessert. Charly, without any provocation whatsoever, underwent a notable change, as if something in the food had poisoned him. At first it all took the form of hostility toward Hanna and jokes in poor taste. Words were exchanged, but that was all. The explosion—the first warning—came later, after Hanna and Ingeborg reluctantly agreed to stop at a bar near the port; they were going to have a last beer before they left the city. According to Ingeborg, Charly was nervous and irritable, but not belligerent. The incident might not have occurred if in the course of the conversation Hanna hadn’t reproached Charly for something that had happened in Oberhausen, something that Ingeborg knew nothing about. Hanna’s words were vague and cryptic. At first, Charly listened to her recriminations in silence. “He was as white as a sheet and he looked scared,” said Ingeborg. Then he got up, took Hanna by the arm, and disappeared with her into the bathroom. After a few minutes, worried, Ingeborg decided to knock on the door, not sure what was going on. The two of them were locked in the women’s bathroom, but they made no protest when they heard Ingeborg’s voice. When they came out, both were crying. Hanna didn’t say a word. Charly paid the bill and they left Barcelona. After half an hour’s drive they stopped on the outskirts of one of the many towns along the coastal highway. The bar they went into was called Mar Salada. This time Charly didn’t even try to talk them into it. He just ignored them and started to drink. After five or six beers he burst into tears. Then Ingeborg, who had planned to have dinner with me, asked for a menu and persuaded Charly to eat something. For a moment everything seemed to return to normal. The three of them had dinner and—with some difficulty—maintained the simulacrum of a civilized conversation. When it was time to leave, the trouble started up again. Charly was determined to stay, and Ingeborg and Hanna were determined to get the keys so they could drive home. According to Ingeborg, the argument was pointless, and Charly was enjoying it. Finally he got up and pretended to be about to give them the keys or drive them back. Ingeborg and Hanna followed him. Once they were through the door Charly turned around abruptly and hit Hanna in the face. Hanna’s response was to run toward the beach. Charly sprinted after her and in a few seconds Ingeborg heard Hanna’s cries, muffled and plaintive as those of a child. When she reached them, Charly wasn’t hitting Hanna anymore, although every so often he kicked her or spat on her. Ingeborg’s first impulse was to get between them, but when she saw her friend on the ground with blood on her face she lost the little composure she had left and began to shout for help. Of course, no one came. The drama ended with Charly leaving in the car; Hanna bloodied and with only enough strength to refuse to call the police or an ambulance; and Ingeborg alone in a strange place and responsible for getting her friend home. Luckily the owner of the bar came to their aid, helped clean Hanna up without asking questions, and then called a taxi that brought them back. Now the problem was what Hanna should do. Where would she sleep? At her hotel or ours? If she slept at her hotel, what were the chances that Charly would hit her again? Should she go to the hospital? Was it possible that she had been more seriously injured than we thought? The watchman settled both questions: according to him there was no damage to the cheekbone; the wound looked worse than it was. Regarding sleeping at the hotel, tomorrow there would surely be vacancies, but tonight, unfortunately, there were none. Hanna looked relieved when she realized she had no options. “It’s my fault,” she whispered. “Charly is on edge and I pushed him too far, that’s just the way he is, the bastard, and he is not about to change.” I think Ingeborg and I felt better when we heard this; it was for the best. We thanked the clerk for his help and went to leave Hanna at her hotel. It was a beautiful night. Not only the buildings but also the air had been rinsed clean by the rain. There was a cool breeze and everything was absolutely still. We walked her to the door of the Costa Brava and waited in the middle of the street. In a moment Hanna came out on the balcony to tell us that Charly hadn’t returned. “Go to sleep and try not to think about anything,” shouted Ingeborg before we headed back to the Del Mar. Back in our room, we talked about Charly and Hanna (critically, I would say) and we made love. Then Ingeborg picked up her Florian Linden novel and soon she was asleep. I went out on the balcony to smoke a cigarette and see if I could spot Charly’s car.
At dawn the beach is full of seagulls. Along with the seagulls, there are pigeons. The seagulls and pigeons stand at the water’s edge, staring out to sea, motionless except for the occasional short flight. There are two kinds of seagulls: big and small. From the distance the pigeons look like seagulls, too. Seagulls of a third kind, even smaller. From the mouth of the port, boats set out, leaving behind them a dark wake on the smooth surface of the sea. Last night I didn’t sleep at all. The sky is a pale and liquid blue. The edge of the horizon is white; the sand of the beach is brown, dotted with little mounds of debris. From the terrace—the waiters haven’t arrived yet to set the tables—it promises to be a clear and calm day. One could say that the seagulls lined up along the beach watch imperturbably as the boats dwindle, until they’re nearly lost from sight. At this time of day the hotel corridors are warm and deserted. At the restaurant, a half-asleep waiter brusquely pulls back the curtains, but the light that bathes everything is pleasant and cold, a faint, contained light. The coffee machine has yet to be turned on. From the waiter’s attitude I surmise that it will be a while. In the room Ingeborg is asleep with the Florian Linden novel tangled in the sheets. Softly I set it on the night table, though not before a sentence catches my eye. Florian Linden (I imagine) says: “You say you’ve committed the same crime several times. No, you’re not crazy. That happens to be the very nature of evil.” Carefully I replaced the bookmark and closed the book. On the way out I was struck by the strange notion that no one in the Del Mar planned to get up. But the streets weren’t completely empty anymore. In front of the newsstand, on the border between the old town and the tourist quarter, at the bus stop, bundles of magazines and newspapers were being unloaded from a truck. I bought two German papers before heading down narrow streets toward the port, in search of an open bar.
In the doorway, silhouetted, stood Charly and the Wolf. Neither of them looked surprised to see me. Charly came straight over to my table while the Wolf ordered breakfast for two at the bar. I was afraid to say a word; outwardly, Charly and the Spaniard seemed calm, but behind their apparent calm they were on their guard.
“We followed you,” said Charly. “We saw you leaving the hotel . . . You seemed very tired so we decided to let you walk for a while.”
I realized that my left hand was trembling; just a little—they didn’t notice—but I immediately hid it under the table. Inwardly, I began to prepare myself for the worst.
“You haven’t slept either, have you?” said Charly.
“I couldn’t sleep,” said Charly. “I suppose you’ll have heard the whole story by now. I don’t care; I mean, one day of sleep more or less doesn’t matter to me. I feel a little bit bad about having woken up the Wolf. It’s my fault he hasn’t slept either, isn’t that right, Wolf?”
The Wolf smiled uncomprehendingly. For an instant I had the crazy idea of translating what Charly had just said, but I didn’t. Something obscure warned me that I’d better not.
“Friends are there to help in times of need,” said Charly. “At least that’s how I see it. Did you know that the Wolf is a true friend, Udo? For him, friendship is sacred. For example, right now he should be on his way to work,
but I know he won’t go until he leaves me at the hotel or some other safe place. He might lose his job, but he doesn’t care. And why is that? It’s because he understands that friendship is sacred. You don’t mess around with friendship!”
Charly’s eyes were bright; I thought he was about to cry. He gave his croissant a scowl of disgust and pushed it away. The Wolf made a motion as if to say that if Charly didn’t want it he would eat it. Yes, take it, said Charly.
“I stopped by his house at four in the morning. Do you think I could do that with a stranger? Everyone is a stranger, of course, in the end we’re all scum; and yet the Wolf’s mother, who was the one who let me in, thought I’d been in an accident, and the first thing she did was offer me some cognac, which of course I accepted even though I was blotto. What a wonderful person. When the Wolf got up he found me sitting in one of his armchairs drinking cognac. What else could I do!”
“Nothing you say is making any sense to me,” I said. “I think you’re
“No, I swear . . . it’s simple: I knocked at the Wolf’s door at four in the morning; his mother welcomed me like a prince; then the Wolf and I tried to talk; then we went out for a drive; we stopped at a few bars; we bought two bottles; then we went to the beach, to drink with El Quemado . . . ”
“With El Quemado? On the beach?”
“The guy sleeps on the beach sometimes so that no one steals his disgusting pedal boats. So we decided to share our booze with him. Listen, Udo, here’s something strange: from the beach we could see your balcony and I swear you had the light on all night. Yes or no? Oh, I know I’m right, it was your balcony and your windows and your goddamn light. What were you doing? Were you playing your war games or were you doing the nasty with Ingeborg? Ah ah! Don’t look at me like that, it’s a joke, what do I care. It really was your room, I realized that right away and El Quemado realized it, too. Anyway, busy night, seems like none of us got much sleep, did we?”
Beyond the embarrassment and rage I felt at learning that Charly was well aware of my love of games and that it must have been Ingeborg who informed him or malinformed him of it—I could even imagine the three of them on the beach laughing at their own clever riffs on the subject: “Udo may be the champ, but what a loser”; “this is how the General Staff spend their vacations, shut up indoors”; “Udo is convinced he’s the reincarnation of von Manstein”; “what will you give him for his birthday, a water pistol?”— beyond, as I say, my embarrassment and rage at Charly, at Ingeborg, and at Hanna, I was visited by a quiet, creeping feeling of terror upon hearing that El Quemado, too, knew which was my balcony.
“Don’t you think you’d better ask me about Hanna?” I said, trying to sound as normal as possible.
“What for? I’m sure she’s fine. Hanna’s always fine.”
“What are you going to do now?”
“About Hanna? I don’t know. Pretty soon I think I’ll drop the Wolf off at work and then I’ll head for the hotel. I hope Hanna will be at the beach by then because I want to get some serious sleep . . . It was a happening night, Udo. Even on the beach! Believe it or not, nobody here stops for a second, Udo, nobody. From the pedal boats, we heard a noise. That’s something you don’t expect, hearing noises on the beach at that time of night. The Wolf and I went to see what was going on and what do you think we found? A couple screwing. Two Germans, of course, because when I told them to have fun they answered in German. I didn’t get a good look at the guy, but the girl was pretty, dressed in a white party dress like Inge’s, lying there on the beach with her dress wrinkled and all that poetic crap.”
“Inge? Are you talking about Ingeborg?” My hand started to shake again; I could literally smell the violence surrounding us.
“Not her, man, her white dress; she has a white dress, doesn’t she? That’s all I’m talking about. Do you know what the Wolf said then? That we should get in line. That we should get in line so we could take our turns when the guy was done. My God, I laughed so hard! He thought we could fuck her after that poor jerk! A bona fide rape! So funny. All I felt like was drinking and staring up at the stars. Yesterday it rained, remember? Anyway, there were a couple of stars in the sky, maybe three. And I was feeling good. If things had been different, Udo, maybe I would have gone along with the Wolf. Maybe the girl would have liked it. Maybe not. When we got back to the pedal boats I think the Wolf tried to convince El Quemado to go with him. El Quemado didn’t want to go either. But I’m not sure, you know my Spanish isn’t so good.”
“Your Spanish is nonexistent,” I said.
Charly laughed without much conviction.
“Do you want me to ask him and then you’ll know for sure?” I added.
“No. It’s none of my business . . . Anyway, believe me, I can communicate with my friends and the Wolf is my friend and we communicate just fine.”
“I’m sure you do.”
“That’s right . . . It was a gorgeous night, Udo . . . A quiet night, full of dangerous ideas but no bad behavior . . . A quiet night, let me try to explain, quiet and yet without a still moment, a single still moment . . . Even when the sun came up and it seemed as if everything might be over, you came out of the hotel . . . At first I thought you’d seen me from the balcony and were coming to join the party. When you went off toward the port I woke up the Wolf and we followed you . . . Taking our time, as you saw. Like we were just out for a stroll.”
“Hanna’s not all right. You should go see her.”
“Inge’s not all right either, Udo. Neither am I. Neither is my pal the Wolf. Neither are you, if you don’t mind me saying so. Only the Wolf’s mother is all right. And Hanna’s little boy, in Oberhausen. They’re the only one’s who’re . . . well, not exactly all right, but compared to everybody else, more or less all right. Yes: all right.”
There was something obscene about hearing him call Ingeborg Inge. Unfortunately, her friends, a few work colleagues, called her that, too. It was no big deal and yet I’d never thought of this; I didn’t know any of Ingeborg’s friends. A shiver ran through me.
I ordered another coffee. The Wolf had one with a shot of rum (if he had to go to work, he didn’t seem very worried about it). Charly didn’t want anything. He only felt like smoking, which he did without stopping, one cigarette after another. But he promised he would pick up the bill.
“What happened in Barcelona?” I was about to say “you’ve changed,” but it seemed ridiculous: I hardly knew him.
“Nothing. We walked around. We shopped for souvenirs. It’s a pretty town. Too crowded, though. For a while I was a fan of FC Barcelona, when Lattek was coach and Schuster and Simonsen were playing. Not anymore. I’ve lost interest in the club but I still like the city. Have you been to the Sagrada Família? Did you like it? Yeah, it’s pretty. And we went out drinking at some really old bar, full of posters of bullfighters and gypsies. Hanna and Ingeborg thought it was cool. And it was cheap, much cheaper than the bars here.”
“If you’d seen Hanna’s face you wouldn’t be sitting here like this. Ingeborg thought about reporting you to the police. If it had happened in Germany, I’m sure she would have.”
“You’re exaggerating . . . In Germany, in Germany . . . ” He made a face, as if to say there was nothing to be done. “I don’t know, maybe things there don’t stand still for a second, either. Shit. I don’t care. Anyway, I don’t believe you, I don’t think it ever crossed Ingeborg’s mind to call the police.”
I shrugged, offended. Maybe Charly was right, maybe he knew Ingeborg’s heart better than I did.
“What would you have done?” There was an evil gleam in Charly’s eye.
“In your place?”
“No, in Inge’s.”
“I don’t know. Beaten you up. Knocked you around.”
Charly closed his eyes. To my surprise, my answer hurt him.
“Not me.” He grasped in the air as if something very important were escaping him. “In Inge’s place, I wouldn’t have done that.”
“Of course not.”
“And I didn’t want to rape the German girl on the beach, either. I could have done it, but I didn’t. See what I mean? I could have wrecked Hanna’s face, really wrecked it, and I didn’t. I could have thrown a stone and broken your window or kicked your ass after you bought those filthy newspapers. I didn’t do any of it. All I do is talk and smoke.”
“Why would you want to break my window or hit me? That’s idiotic.”
“I don’t know. It was just an idea. Fast, quick, with a stone the size of a fist.” His voice broke as if suddenly he were remembering a nightmare. “It was El Quemado. When he looked up at the light in your window, just a way to get attention, I guess . . . ”
“It was El Quemado’s idea to break my window?”
“No, Udo, no. You don’t understand anything, man. El Quemado was drinking with us, none of us saying a word, just listening to the sea, that’s all, and drinking, but wide awake, you know? And El Quemado and I were looking up at your window. I mean, when I spotted your window El Quemado was already staring up at it, and I realized it, and he realized that I had him. But he didn’t say anything about throwing stones. That was my idea. I planned to warn you . . . Do you know what I mean?”
Charly gave me a look of disgust. He picked up the newspapers and flipped through them at incredible speed, as if before he was a mechanic he’d been a bank teller; I’m sure he didn’t read a single full sentence. Then, with a sigh, he put them aside; by this he seemed to say that the news was for me, not for him. For a few seconds we were both silent. Outside, the street slowly resumed its daily rhythm; we were no longer alone in the bar.
“Deep down, I love Hanna.”
“You should go see her right now.”
“She’s a good girl, she really is. And there’s been a lot of good in her life even though she doesn’t think so.”
“You should go back to the hotel, Charly . . . ”
“First let’s drop the Wolf off at work, all right?”
“Fine, let’s go right now.”
When he got up from the table he was white, as if there was no blood left in his body. Without stumbling once, by which I deduced that he wasn’t as drunk as I’d thought he was, he went up to the bar and paid, and we left. Charly’s car was parked near the water. On the roof rack I saw the windsurfing board. Had he taken it with him to Barcelona? No, he must have put it there when he came back, which meant that he’d already been to the hotel. Slowly we covered the distance that separated us from the supermarket where the Wolf worked. Before the Wolf got out Charly told him that if he got fired he should come see him at the hotel, that he’d find some way to fix things. I translated. The Wolf smiled and said they wouldn’t dare. Charly nodded gravely, and when we’d left the supermarket behind he said it was true, that with the Wolf any altercation could get complicated, not to say dangerous. Then he talked about dogs. In the summer it was common to see abandoned dogs starving in the streets. “Especially here,” he said.
“Yesterday, on my way to the Wolf’s house, I hit one.”
He waited for me to say something, and he continued:
“A little black dog, one I’d seen on the Paseo Marítimo . . . Looking for his rotten owners or scraps of food . . . I don’t know . . . Do you know the story of the dog who died of hunger next to his owner’s body?”
“I thought about that. At first the poor animals don’t know where to go, all they do is wait. That’s loyalty, isn’t it, Udo? If they make it through that stage they go roaming around and looking for food in trash cans. Yesterday, I got the feeling that the little black dog was still waiting. What does that say to you, Udo?”
“How are you so sure that you’d seen it before or that it was a stray dog?”
“Because I got out of the car and took a good look at it. It was the
The light inside the car was beginning to put me to sleep.
For an instant I thought I saw tears in Charly’s eyes.
“We’re both tired,” I said to myself.
At the door to his hotel I advised him to take a shower, go to bed, and wait to talk to Hanna until after he got up. Some guests were beginning to file toward the beach. Charly smiled and vanished down the corridor. I went back to the Del Mar, feeling uneasy.
I found Frau Else on the roof, after blithely ignoring the signs that indicated which areas were for guests and which were reserved for the hotel staff. And yet I must confess that I wasn’t looking for her. It just so happened that Ingeborg was still asleep, the bar made me feel claustrophobic, I didn’t feel like going out again, and I wasn’t sleepy. Frau Else was reading, lying on a sky-blue lounge chair with a glass of juice beside her. She wasn’t surprised to see me. In fact, in her usual calm voice she congratulated me on discovering the entrance to the roof. “The advantages of sleepwalking,” I answered, cocking my head to get a look at the book she was holding. It was a guide to the south of Spain. Then she asked me whether I wanted something to drink. At my inquiring gaze she explained that even on the roof she had a bell to call the staff. Out of curiosity, I accepted. After a while I asked what she’d been up to the day before. I added that I’d been searching for her all over the hotel, to no avail. “You vanish with the rain,” I said.
Frau Else’s face darkened. In a gesture that seemed studied (but I know this is just the way she is, just another part of her spontaneity and verve), she took off her sunglasses and fixed her eyes on me before answering: yesterday she spent all day in her husband’s room. Was he ill, perhaps? The bad weather, the clouds charged with electricity, bothered him; he had terrible headaches that affected his sight and his nerves; a few times he’d been afflicted with temporary blindness. Brain fever, said Frau Else’s perfect lips. (As far as I know, there is no such illness.) Immediately, with the hint of a smile, she made me promise that I wouldn’t come looking for her anymore. We’ll see each other only when fate ordains. And if I refuse? I’ll have to make you promise, whispered Frau Else. At that moment a maid appeared with a glass of juice just like the one in Frau Else’s hand. For a few seconds, dazzled by the sun, the poor girl blinked and didn’t know where to turn, then she set the glass on the table and left.
“I promise,” I said, walking away toward the edge of the roof.
The day was yellow and from everywhere there came a glow of human flesh that made me sick.
I turned toward her and confessed that I hadn’t slept all night. “No need to swear to it,” she answered without lifting her gaze from the book again in her hands. I told her that Charly had hit Hanna. “Some men do that,” was her reply. I laughed. “Clearly you’re no feminist!” Frau Else turned the page without answering me. I told her then what Charly had explained to me about dogs, the dogs that people abandon before or during their vacations. I noticed that Frau Else was listening with interest. When I finished my story I saw a look of alarm in her eye; I was afraid that she was about to get up and come over to me. I was afraid that she would speak the words that at that moment I least wanted to hear. But she made no comment, and shortly afterward I considered it most prudent to retire.
Tonight everything was back to normal. At a club near the campgrounds, Hanna, Charly, Ingeborg, the Wolf, the Lamb, and I all raised our glasses to friendship, wine, beer, Spain, Germany, Real Madrid (the Wolf and the Lamb aren’t Barcelona fans, as Charly assumed, but Real Madrid fans), pretty women, vacations, etc. Peace restored. Hanna and Charly, of course, had made up. Charly is back to being more or less the same ordinary boor we met on August 21, and Hanna had put on her flashiest and lowest-cut dress to celebrate it. Even her bruised cheek gave her a kind of erotic and roguish charm. (While she was sober she hid it under a pair of sunglasses, but in the clamor of the club she flaunted it cheerfully, as if she’d rediscovered herself and her raison d’être.) Ingeborg officially forgave Charly, who, in everyone’s presence, kneeled at her feet and praised her virtues, to the delight of all those who could hear and understand German. The Wolf and the Lamb were no laggards in this show of goodwill; we owe to them the discovery of the most authentically Spanish restaurant we’ve encountered thus far. A restaurant where, in addition to eating well and cheaply and to drinking even more abundantly and more cheaply, we got to hear a flamenco singer (that is, a singer of typical songs) who turned out to be a transvestite called Andromeda, a close acquaintance of our Spanish friends. After dinner, we spent a long time telling stories, singing, and dancing. Andromeda, sitting with us, showed the women how to clap their hands and then danced a dance called a sevillana with Charly; soon everybody was getting up to join them, even people from other tables, except for me; I refused categorically and a bit brusquely. I would have made a fool of myself. My brusqueness, however, seemed to please the transvestite, who read my palm once the dance was over. I’ll have money, power, love; a full life; a gay son (or grandson) . . . Andromeda read the future and interpreted it. At first her voice was almost inaudible, a whisper, then gradually it rose, and by the end she was speaking so loudly that everyone could hear and laugh at her witty remarks. Anyone who volunteers for these games becomes the butt of the other patrons’ jokes, but she had nothing unpleasant to say and before we left she gave us each a carnation and invited us to return. Charly left a thousand-peseta tip and swore in the name of his parents that he would. We all agreed that it was a place “worth seeing”; praise was showered on the Wolf and the Lamb. At the club the atmosphere was different, there were more young people and the setting was artificial, but it didn’t take us long to get into the groove. Resignation. There I did dance and I kissed Ingeborg and Hanna and I went looking for the bathroom and I vomited and combed my hair and returned to the dance floor. At one point I grabbed Charly by the lapels and asked: everything all right? Everything’s amazing, he answered. From behind, Hanna threw her arms around him and pulled him away from me. Charly was trying to tell me something but all I could see were his lips moving and finally just his smile. Ingeborg had also gone back to being the Ingeborg of the night of August 21, the same old Ingeborg. She kissed me, hugged me, begged me to make love to her. So when we got back to our room, at five in the morning, we made love; Ingeborg came quickly; I held out and possessed her for many long minutes afterward. We were both tired. Naked on the sheets, Ingeborg said everything was simple. “Even your miniatures.” She insisted on this term before falling asleep. “Miniatures.” “Everything is simple.” For a long time I lay staring at my game and thinking.
Today’s events are still confused, but I’ll try to set them down in orderly fashion so that I can perhaps discover in them something that has thus far eluded me, a difficult and possibly useless task, since there’s no remedy for what’s happened and little point in nurturing false hopes. But I have to do something to pass the time.
I’ll start with breakfast on the hotel terrace, in our bathing suits, on a cloudless morning tempered by a pleasant breeze blowing from the sea.
My original plan was to go back to the room after it had been tidied and spend a few hours immersed in the game, but Ingeborg did her best to change my mind: the morning was too splendid not to leave the hotel. On the beach we found Hanna and Charly lying on a giant mat; they were asleep. The mat, brand-new, still had the price tag in one corner. I remember it with the sharpness of a tattoo: seven hundred pesetas. It occurred to me then, or maybe it occurs to me now, that the scene was familiar. The same thing often happens when I stay up too late: insignificant details are magnified and linger in my mind. I mean, it was nothing out of the ordinary.
And yet it struck me as disturbing. Or it strikes me that way now, in the dark of night.
We spent the morning wrapped up in the same vain activities as ever: swimming, talking, reading magazines, plastering our bodies with lotions and tanning oils. We ate early, at a restaurant packed with tourists who, like us, were in bathing suits and smelled of sunscreen (not a pleasant scent at mealtime). Afterward I managed to escape; Ingeborg, Hanna, and Charly went back to the beach and I returned to the hotel. What did I do? Not much. I stared at my game, unable to concentrate, then I took a nap plagued with nightmares until six. When I saw from the balcony that the bathers were beating a mass retreat toward the hotels and campgrounds, I went down to the beach. It’s a sad time of day, and the bathers are sad: tired, sated with sun, they turn their gazes toward the line of buildings like soldiers already sure of defeat; with tired steps they cross the beach and the Paseo Marítimo, prudent but with a hint of scorn, of arrogance in the face of a remote danger, their peculiar way of turning down side streets where they immediately seek out the shade leading them directly—they’re a tribute—toward the void.
The day, viewed in retrospect, seems devoid of people and of omens. No Frau Else, no Wolf, no Lamb, no letter from Germany, no phone call, nothing significant. Only Hanna and Charly, Ingeborg and me, the four of us in peaceful coexistence; and El Quemado, but in the distance, busy with his pedal boats (there weren’t many takers anymore), though Hanna, I don’t know why, went over to talk to him; just for a bit, less than a minute, to be polite, she said afterward. Overall, a quiet day, a day of sunbathing and that was all.
I remember that when I went down to the beach for the second time, the sky suddenly filled with an infinity of clouds, tiny clouds that began to scurry toward the east or the northeast, and that Ingeborg and Hanna were swimming and when they saw me they came out, first Ingeborg, who kissed me, and then Hanna. Charly was lying facedown in the sun, which was no longer so strong, and he seemed to be asleep. To our left, El Quemado was patiently building his nightly fortress, removed from everything, at the time of day when surely his monstrous appearance was plainly revealed to him. I remember the ashen yellow color of the late afternoon, our insubstantial conversation (I couldn’t tell you for sure what we talked about), the girls’ wet hair, Charly’s voice telling the absurd story of a boy learning to ride a bike. Everything indicated that this was a pleasant evening like any other and that soon we would return to our hotels to shower in order to cap off the night in some club.
Then Charly leaped up, grabbed his windsurfing board, and headed for the water. Until that instant I hadn’t noticed the board was there, that it had been there all the time.
“Don’t be long,” shouted Hanna.
I don’t think he heard her.
The first few yards he swam dragging the board after him; then he got up, raised the sail, waved to us, and headed out to sea on a favorable gust of wind. It must have been seven o’clock, not much later. He wasn’t the only windsurfer. Of that I’m sure.
After an hour, tired of waiting, we went for a drink on the terrace of the Costa Brava, with a view of the whole beach and of the place where it seemed logical that Charly would appear. We felt dirty and thirsty. I remember that El Quemado, whom I saw every time I turned around in search of Charly’s sail, never once stopped moving around his pedal boats, a kind of hardworking golem, until suddenly he simply disappeared (into his hut, I infer), but so unexpectedly, so dryly, that the beach telegraphed a double absence: Charly was missing and now El Quemado was missing. I think it was then that I became worried something was amiss.
At nine o’clock, though it still wasn’t dark, we decided to ask the advice of the receptionist at the Costa Brava. He sent us to the Red Cross of the Sea, whose offices are on the Paseo Marítimo, just outside the old town. There, after getting a detailed account from us, they radioed a rescue Zodiac. After half an hour the Zodiac called back, advising that we alert the police and the port’s maritime authorities. Night was falling fast; I remember that I looked out the window and for a second I glimpsed the Zodiac we’d been speaking to. The clerk explained that the best thing for us to do was to return to the hotel and call Navy Headquarters, the police, and the Civil Protection offices; the manager of the hotel could advise us on everything. We said that’s what we would do and we left. Half of the way home we were silent and the other half we spent arguing. According to Ingeborg they were all incompetents. Hanna wasn’t so sure, but she insisted that the manager of the Costa Brava hated Charly. There was also the possibility that Charly had ended up in a nearby town, the way he had once before, did we remember? I gave her my opinion: that she should do exactly what we’d been told to do. Hanna said yes, I was right, and she broke down in sobs.
At the hotel, the receptionist and later the manager explained to Hanna that windsurfing accidents were frequent around this time of year but that everything usually turned out all right. In the worst of cases the windsurfer might spend forty-eight hours adrift, but he was always rescued, etc. Upon hearing this Hanna stopped crying and seemed a little calmer. The manager offered to drive us to Navy Headquarters. There they took a statement from Hanna, got in touch with the port authority and again with the Red Cross of the Sea. Shortly afterward two policemen arrived. They needed a detailed description of the board; a helicopter search was about to be launched. When asked whether the board was equipped with survival gear, we all declared ourselves absolutely ignorant of the existence of such a thing. One of the policemen said: “That’s because it’s a Spanish invention.” The other policeman added: “Then everything will depend on how tired he is; if he falls asleep he’ll be in trouble.” It bothered me that they would talk like that in front of us, especially when they knew I could understand Spanish. Naturally, I didn’t translate everything they said for Hanna. The manager, meanwhile, didn’t seem worried at all, and on our way back to the hotel he actually joked about what was happening. “Are you enjoying this?” I asked. “Sure, everything’s fine,” he said. “Your friend will turn up soon enough. We’re all working together on this. There’s no way things can go wrong.”
We had dinner at the Costa Brava. As might be expected, it wasn’t a lively meal. Chicken with mashed potatoes and fried eggs, salad, coffee, and ice cream, which the waiters, who were aware of what was going on (in fact every eye was upon us), served with unusual friendliness. Our appetites hadn’t suffered. As it happens, we were eating dessert when I saw the Wolf’s face pressed to the glass wall between the dining room and the terrace. He was signaling to me. When I said that he was outside, Hanna turned red and lowered her eyes. In a tiny voice she asked me to get rid of them, let them come tomorrow, whatever I thought best. I shrugged and went out. The Wolf and the Lamb were waiting on the terrace. Briefly I explained what had happened; both were affected by the news (I think I saw tears in the Wolf’s eyes, but I couldn’t swear to it). Then I explained that Hanna was very upset and that we were waiting for news from the police. I couldn’t think of any reason to object when they proposed coming back in an hour. I waited on the terrace until they left. One of them smelled like cologne, and within the bounds of their slovenly style they were dressed with care; when they got to the sidewalk they began to argue; when they turned the corner they were still gesticulating.
What happened next must, I presume, be standard routine in cases like this, though it was also annoying and unnecessary. First, one policeman arrived, then another one in a different uniform, accompanied by a civilian who spoke German and a navy seaman (in full garb!). Luckily they weren’t here long (the sailor, according to the manager, was about to join the search in a speedboat equipped with spotlights). When they left they promised to let us know what they discovered, no matter the hour. In their faces I could see that the likelihood of finding Charly was growing increasingly slim. The last person to appear was a member—the secretary, I think—of the town’s Windsurfing Club, who had come to promise us the material and moral support of the club’s members. They had also sent out a rescue boat in cooperation with Navy Headquarters and Civil Protection the moment they heard news of the shipwreck. That’s what the club secretary called it: a shipwreck.
Upon this latest show of solidarity, Hanna, who during dinner had put on a brave face, once more fell into tears that soon turned into an attack of hysteria.
With the assistance of a waiter, we brought her up to her room and put her to bed. Ingeborg asked whether she had any sedatives. Sobbing, Hanna said no, the doctor had forbidden them. Finally we decided that it would be best if Ingeborg spent the night there.
Before returning to the Del Mar, I looked in at the Andalusia Lodge. I hoped to find the Wolf and the Lamb, or El Quemado, but I didn’t see anybody. The owner, sitting at the table closest to the television, was watching a Western, as usual. I left immediately. He didn’t even turn around. From the Del Mar I called Ingeborg. No news. They were in bed although neither of them could sleep. Stupidly I said, “Try to console her.” Ingeborg didn’t answer. For a moment I thought the connection had been lost.
“I’m here,” said Ingeborg. “I’m thinking.”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m thinking, too.”
Then we said good night and hung up.
For a while I lay on the bed with the lights off, wondering what could have happened to Charly. In my head I could only come up with random images: the new mat with the price tag still attached, the midday meal impregnated with repulsive scents, the water, the clouds, Charly’s voice . . . I thought it was strange that no one had asked Hanna about her bruised cheek; I thought about what drowned people looked like; I thought that our vacations were essentially shot. This final thought made me jump up and get to work with uncommon energy.
At four in the morning I finished the spring ’41 turn. My eyes were closing with exhaustion but I was satisfied.
At ten in the morning Ingeborg called me to say that we had an appointment at Navy Headquarters. I waited for Ingeborg and Hanna in the car in front of the Costa Brava and we set off. Hanna was more animated than the night before. Her eyes and lips were made up, and when she saw me she smiled. Ingeborg’s face, meanwhile, presaged nothing good. The Navy Headquarters is a few yards from the marina, on a narrow street in the old town. To get to the offices you have to cross an inner courtyard paved in dirty tiles, with a dry fountain in the middle. There, propped on the fountain, we discovered Charly’s board. We knew that was what it was before anyone told us, and for an instant we were unable to speak or to keep walking. “Come on up, please, come on up,” said a young man (I later recognized him as being from the Red Cross) from a second-story window. After the initial shock we went up; waiting on the landing were the head of Civil Protection and the secretary of the Windsurfing Club, who greeted us with warmth and sympathy. They asked us to come in: in the office were two other civilians, the kid from the Red Cross, and two policemen. One of the civilians asked us whether we recognized the board in the courtyard. Hanna, her tanned skin paling, shrugged. They asked me. I said I couldn’t be sure; Ingeborg said the same thing. The secretary of the Windsurfing Club looked out the window. The policemen seemed fed up. I got the impression that no one dared to speak. It was hot. It was Hanna who broke the silence. “Have you found him?” she asked in such a shrill voice that we all jumped. The German speaker rushed to answer no, we’ve only found the board and boom, which as you’ll realize is quite significant . . . Hanna shrugged again. “Probably he knew he would fall asleep and he decided to tie himself on” . . . “Or he guessed that his strength wouldn’t hold, the sea, the fear, the darkness, you know” . . . “In any case, he did the right thing: he let the sail go and tied himself to the board” . . . “These are guesses, of course” . . . “No effort has been spared: the search has been lengthy and we’ve taken every risk” . . . “This morning a boat belonging to the Fishermen’s Guild found the board and the boom” . . . “Now we’ll have to get in touch with the German consulate” . . . “Naturally we’ll keep combing the area” . . . Hanna had her eyes closed. Then I realized that she was crying. We all exchanged somber glances. The kid from the Red Cross bragged: “I’ve been up all night.” He seemed excited. His next move was to pull out some papers for Hanna to sign; I don’t know what they were. We went to have
sodas at a bar in town. We talked about the weather and the Spanish officials, well-intentioned people with few resources. The place was jammed with a dirty sort of day-tripper and it smelled strongly of sweat and tobacco. It was past twelve when we left. Ingeborg decided to stay with Hanna and I went up to the room. I could hardly keep my eyes open, and soon I was asleep.
I dreamed that someone was knocking at the door. It was nighttime, and when I opened the door I saw someone slipping down the hall. I followed. Unexpectedly we came to a huge dark room filled with the outlines of heavy old furniture. The smell of mildew and dampness was strong. On a bed a shadowy figure was twisting and turning. At first I thought it was an animal. Then I recognized Frau Else’s husband. At last!
When Ingeborg woke me, the room was full of light and I was sweating. The first thing I noticed was her face, which was definitely changed: irritation was etched on her forehead and eyelids, and for a few instants we stared at each other blankly, as if we had both just woken up. Then she turned her back on me and gazed at the closets and the ceiling. She’d wasted half an hour trying to call me from the Costa Brava, she said, and there had been no answer. In her voice I heard anger and sadness; my attempt at conciliation only disgusted her. Finally, after a long silence during which I took a shower, she admitted: “You were asleep, but I thought you’d left.”
“Why didn’t you come upstairs to see for yourself?”
“There was no need . . . Anyway, this hotel scares me. The whole town scares me.”
For some obscure reason I thought that she was right, but I didn’t say so.
“That’s silly . . . ”
“Hanna loaned me some clothes, they fit just right, we’re almost the same size.” Ingeborg is talking quickly and for the first time she looks me in the eye.
In fact, the clothes she’s wearing aren’t hers. All of a sudden I’m aware of Hanna’s taste, Hanna’s aspirations, Hanna’s steely determination to enjoy her vacation, and it’s disconcerting.
“Any word of Charly?”
“Nothing. Some reporters were at the hotel.”
“Then he’s dead.”
“Maybe. Better not to say anything to Hanna.”
“No, of course not, that would be absurd.”
When I got out of the shower, Ingeborg, who was sitting next to my game lost in thought, struck me as the image of perfection. I suggested that we make love. Without turning, she rejected me with a slight shake of the head.
“I don’t know what appeals to you about this,” she said, gesturing at
“The clarity of it,” I answered as I dressed.
“I think I hate it.”
“Because you don’t know how to play. If you knew how, you’d like it.”
“Are women interested in this kind of game? Have you ever played
“I haven’t. But they do exist. Not many of them, true; it isn’t a game that particularly attracts girls.”
Ingeborg gave me a bleak look.
“Everyone in the world has handled Hanna,” she said suddenly.
“Everyone’s handled her.” She made a terrible face. “Just because. I don’t understand it, Udo.”
“What do you mean? That everyone has slept with her? And who is everyone? The Wolf and the Lamb?” How or why I can’t say, but I started to shake. First my knees and then my hands. It was impossible to hide.
After hesitating for a moment, Ingeborg jumped up, put her bikini and a towel in a straw bag, and literally fled the room. From the door, which she didn’t bother to close, she said:
“Everyone’s touched her and here you were in this room with your war.”
“So what?” I shouted. “Does that have anything to do with this? Is it my fault?”
I spent the rest of the afternoon writing postcards and drinking beer. Charly’s disappearance hadn’t affected me the way one might expect it should. Every time I thought about him—which was often, I admit—I felt a kind of emptiness, and nothing more. At seven I went over to the Costa Brava to check things out. I found Ingeborg and Hanna in the TV room, a long narrow room with green walls and a window that looked out onto an inner courtyard full of dying plants. The place was depressing, and I said so. Poor Hanna gave me a sympathetic look. She had put on dark glasses and she smiled when she said that this meant no one ever came in, the guests usually watched TV in the hotel bar; the manager had promised that this was a quiet place. And are the two of you all right here? I asked stupidly, even stuttering. Yes, we’re all right, answered Hanna for both of them. Ingeborg didn’t even look at me: she kept her eyes glued to the screen, faking interest in an American series dubbed in Spanish of which obviously she didn’t understand a word. Near them, in a kind of toy armchair, an old woman was dozing. I nodded toward her inquiringly. Someone’s mother, said Hanna, and she laughed. They made no objection when I offered to buy them a drink, but they refused to leave the hotel; according to Hanna, news could come when we least expected it. So we were there until eleven, talking among ourselves and to the waiters. Hanna has evidently become the hotel celebrity; everyone knows about her misfortune and at least superficially she’s the object of admiration. Her bruised cheek contributes to people’s vague sense of a tragic tale. It’s as if she, too, had escaped from some shipwreck.
Life in Oberhausen, of course, was evoked. In an uninterrupted murmur, Hanna recalled the basic traits of a man and a girl, a woman and an old woman, two old women, a boy and a woman—all disastrous pairs whose ties to Charly were scarcely explained. The truth is that Hanna had met only half of them. Alongside all of these masks, Charly’s face shone with virtue: he had a heart of gold, he was always seeking adventure and the truth (what truth and what adventure I chose not to inquire), he knew how to make a woman laugh, he didn’t have stupid prejudices, he was reasonably brave, and he loved children. When I asked what she meant when she said that he didn’t have stupid prejudices, Hanna answered: “He knew how to ask for forgiveness.”
“Do you realize that you’ve started to talk about him in the past tense?”
For an instant Hanna seemed to ponder my words. Then, with her head bowed, she started to cry. Fortunately this time there were no hysterics.
“I don’t think Charly is dead,” she said at last, “though I’m sure I’ll never see him again.”
Seeing that we were incredulous, Hanna said she believed it was all one of Charly’s jokes. She couldn’t imagine that he’d died for the simple reason that he was such a good swimmer. Then why hadn’t he turned up? What reason did he have to hide? Hanna believed it had something to do with madness and the loss of love. An American novel told a similar story, except that in it the motive was hatred. Charly didn’t hate anyone. Charly was crazy. Also: he had stopped loving her (this final certainty seemed to give Hanna strength).
After dinner we went out to talk on the terrace of the Costa Brava. Actually, it was Hanna who talked and we who followed the erratic twists of her conversation as if we were taking turns caring for an invalid. Hanna has a soft voice and despite the silly things she rattled off it was soothing to listen to her. She described the telephone conversation she’d had with an official at the German consulate as if it were a romantic encounter; she pontificated on the “voice of the heart” and the “voice of nature”; she told stories about her son and wondered whom he would look like when he grew up: at present he looked just like her. In short, she had grown resigned to the horror or, perhaps more astutely, she had exchanged the horror for rupture. When we said our good nights there was no one left on the terrace and the hotel restaurant was dark.
According to Ingeborg, Hanna hardly knows anything about Charly:
“When she talked to the official from the consulate she couldn’t give a single address of near or distant relatives to contact about his disappearance. She could only give the name of the company where they both worked. The truth is, she knows nothing about Charly’s past life. On the bedside table in her room she had Charly’s ID booklet open, with his picture, surveying everything. Next to the booklet there was a little pile of money and Hanna was very explicit: it’s his money.”
Ingeborg was afraid to look at the suitcase where Hanna had put
Departure date: the hotel is paid up through September 1, that is, tomorrow noon. She’ll have to decide whether to go or stay. I suppose she’ll stay, although she starts work on September 3. Charly would’ve started work on September 3, too. Which reminds me that Ingeborg and I have to be back on the fifth.
At noon Hanna left for Germany in Charly’s car. As soon as the manager of the Costa Brava heard the news, he said it was a grave mistake. The only reason Hanna gave was that she couldn’t stand the stress anymore. Now, in a dark and inescapable way, we’re alone, which until recently was something that I desired, though certainly not in the way it came about. Everything seems the same as yesterday, although sadness has already begun to roll over the landscape. Before leaving, Hanna begged me to take care of Ingeborg. Of course I will, I reassured her, but who will take care of me? You’re stronger than she is, she said from inside the car. This surprised me since most people who know both of us think Ingeborg is stronger. Behind Hanna’s dark glasses there was a troubled look in her eyes. Nothing bad will happen to Ingeborg, I promised. Beside us, Ingeborg snorted sarcastically. I believe you, said Hanna, squeezing my hand. Later the manager of the Costa Brava began to pester us by phone, as if he blamed us for Hanna’s departure. The first call arrived while we were eating. A waiter came to get me at the table and I thought, against all logic, that it was Hanna calling from Oberhausen to let us know that she had arrived safely. It was the manager; he was so upset that he couldn’t speak clearly. He had called to confirm that Hanna had just left. I said yes and then he told me that by “fleeing” Hanna had just flouted every principle of Spanish law. Her situation now was very precarious. I ventured to suggest that Hanna might not have known she was breaking a law. Not one law, said the manager, several! And ignorance, young man, is never an excuse. No, the hotel bill was paid. The problem was Charly, because when his body appeared, which no doubt it would, someone had to be present to identify it. Of course, the Spanish police could wire the German police the information that Charly had given when he registered at the hotel; the Germans would do the rest with their computers. It’s utterly irresponsible of her, he said before he hung up. The second call, a few minutes later, was to inform us in astonishment that Hanna had taken Charly’s car, which could be considered a criminal act. This time it was Ingeborg who talked to him, saying that Hanna was no thief and that she needed the car to get back to Germany. Why else would she want it? What she did afterward with the damn car was her business and nobody else’s. The manager insisted that it was a theft and the conversation ended a bit abruptly. The third call, conciliatory, was to ask us whether, as friends, we could represent the “party in question” (by this I suppose he meant poor Charly) in the search efforts. We accepted. Despite the sound of it, representing the affected party didn’t mean much. True, the rescue efforts continued, though no one had any hopes now of finding Charly alive. All of a sudden we understood Hanna’s decision. The situation was unbearable.
Nothing has changed. That’s what surprises me. This morning it was impossible to navigate the hotel corridors because of all the people leaving, but this afternoon, on the terrace, I’ve already spotted the pale and enthusiastic faces of a new influx. The temperature has gone up, as if we were back in July, and the evening breeze that cooled the sweltering town streets has vanished. A sticky sweat makes clothes cling to the body, and going out for a walk is torture. I saw the Wolf and the Lamb about three hours after Hanna left, at the Andalusia Lodge. At first they pretended not to see me; then they came over, looking stricken, and proceeded to ask me the obligatory questions. I answered that there was nothing new to tell and that Hanna was on her way back to Germany. With this last bit of news, their expressions and demeanor changed notably. They grew more relaxed and friendlier; after a few minutes I realized that I wasn’t about to get rid of them anytime soon: the conversation continued along the usual lines, in the same code that they had used with Charly, except that instead of Charly, there I was, and instead of Hanna, there was Ingeborg!
Later I asked Ingeborg what she’d meant when she said that everybody handled Hanna. Her answer put an end to my speculations, at least in part. It was a generalization, Hanna as the victim of men, an unlucky woman, in perpetual search of balance and happiness, etc. . . . The possibility of a Hanna raped by the Spaniards was absurd; in fact, Ingeborg hardly gave them a second thought: she spoke of them as if they were invisible. Two average kids, not very hardworking to judge by their schedules, who liked to have a good time; she liked to go clubbing, too, and even do crazy things once in a while. Crazy like what? I wondered. Staying out late, drinking too much, singing in the street. Craziness—Ingeborg’s—of the mildest variety. Healthy crazy, she explained. So there was no reason to avoid the Spaniards or be angry at them, beyond the obvious reasons. This was how things stood when, at ten o’clock, the Wolf and the Lamb appeared once more on the scene. The conversation, really a spurned invitation to go out, proceeded in highly tasteless fashion, with us sitting on the hotel terrace (all the tables were full and crowded with ice cream dishes and empty glasses) and the two of them standing on the sidewalk, separated from us by the iron railing, the boundary between the terrace and the mass of passersby who at that time of night, suffocated by the heat, were walking along the Paseo Marítimo. At first neither of them made anything but the tamest of remarks. The one who talked (and gestured) more was the Lamb, and what he said managed to draw a smile or two from Ingeborg, even before I translated. The Wolf’s contributions, meanwhile, were careful and deliberate, as if he were feeling out the territory, expressing himself in an English superior to his education, the manifestation of a steely will, a desire to poke his nose into a world whose outline he could only imagine. Never had the Wolf’s nickname so truly suited him; Ingeborg’s face—bright, fresh, tanned—attracted his gaze as the moon attracts werewolves in old horror movies. Seeing that we were reluctant to go, he insisted, and his voice grew hoarse. He promised clubs worthy of the trip, he assured us that our weariness would vanish the minute we stepped into one of his famous dives . . . All for nothing. Our refusal was irrevocable and issued two feet over their heads, because the sidewalk is lower than the terrace. The Spaniards didn’t insist. Imperceptibly, as a prelude to their farewell, they began to reminisce about Charly. The capital-F Friend. Anyone would think they really did miss him. Then they shook hands with us and walked off toward the old town. Their figures, soon lost in the crowd, struck me as unbearably sad, and I said so to Ingeborg. She stared at me for a few seconds and said she didn’t understand me:
“A minute ago you thought they’d raped Hanna. Now you feel sorry for them. The truth is, those morons are nothing but a couple of second-rate Latin lovers.”
Neither of us could stop laughing until Ingeborg suggested that for once we go to bed early. I agreed.
After making love, I sat down to write in the room while Ingeborg immersed herself in the Florian Linden novel. She still hasn’t figured out who the killer is, and from the way she reads one would think she doesn’t care. She seems tired; these last few days haven’t been pleasant. I don’t know why, but I found myself thinking about Hanna in the car, before she left, giving me advice in her broken voice . . .
“Do you think Hanna’s gotten to Oberhausen yet?”
“I don’t know. She’ll call tomorrow,” says Ingeborg.
“What if she doesn’t?”
“You mean what if she forgets about us?”
No, of course, she wouldn’t forget Ingeborg. Or me. Suddenly I was afraid. Afraid and a little excited. But what was I afraid of? I remembered Conrad’s words: “Play on your own turf and you’ll always win.” But what is my turf? I asked. Conrad laughed in a peculiar way, without taking his eyes off me. The side that calls to your blood. I answered that playing like that was no guarantee of winning; for example, if in Destruction of the Central Army Group I chose the Germans, the most I could hope for was to win one time out of every three. Unless I was playing a complete idiot. You don’t understand, said Conrad. You have to use the Grand Strategy. You have to be more cunning than a fox. Was this a dream? The truth is I’ve never heard of a game called Destruction of the Central Army Group!
Otherwise, it’s been a boring and unproductive day. I spent a while lying patiently on the beach in the sun, trying unsuccessfully to think clearly and rationally. Images from a decade ago drifted through my mind: my parents playing cards on the hotel balcony, my brother floating twenty yards offshore with his arms outstretched, Spanish boys (gypsies?) roaming the beach armed with sticks, the staff dorm room, smelly and full of bunk beds, a strip of nightclubs, one after the other, running down to the sea, a black sand beach fronting a sea of black water where the only note of color, suddenly, was El Quemado’s fortress of pedal boats . . . My article awaits. The books I pledged to read await. And yet the hours and days speed by, as if time were running downhill. But that’s impossible.
The police . . . I told Frau Else that we were leaving tomorrow. Unexpectedly, the news surprised her; her face betrayed a faint hint of regret that she hurried to hide under a professional cheeriness. The day had begun badly: my head hurt and I was sweating copiously despite the three aspirins and the cold shower I’d taken. Frau Else asked me whether a satisfactory conclusion had been reached. To what? Our vacation. I shrugged, and she took my arm and led me to a little office tucked behind the reception desk. She wanted to know everything about Charly’s disappearance. In a monotone, I gave her a summary of what had happened. It came out pretty well. In proper chronological order.
“I spoke today to Mr. Pere, the manager of the Costa Brava. He thinks you’re an idiot.”
“Me? What do I have to do with anything?”
“Nothing, I suppose. But it would be a good idea to prepare yourself . . . The police want to question you.”
I turned white. Me! Frau Else’s hand patted me on the knee.
“There’s nothing to worry about. They just want to know why the girl went back to Germany. It was a rather odd thing to do, don’t you think?”
“The girlfriend of the dead man.”
“I just told you. She was tired of all the chaos; she has personal problems; there were plenty of reasons.”
“All right, but it was her boyfriend. The least she could do was wait until they had finished the search.”
“Tell that to her, not me . . . So I have to stay here until the police turn up?”
“No, do whatever you want. If I were you I’d go to the beach. When they get here I’ll send a staff person to find you.”
“Does Ingeborg have to be here, too?”
“No, one of you is enough.”
I did as Frau Else suggested, and we were at the beach until six when a messenger came to get us. The messenger, a boy of about twelve, was dressed like a beggar and it was hard to see how he had been hired to work at a hotel. Ingeborg insisted on coming with me. The beach was a deep golden color and it seemed frozen in time; really, I would’ve been happy to stay there. The policemen were in uniform and they were at the bar, talking to a waiter. Frau Else pointed them out to us from the reception desk, though there was no need. I remember that, as we approached them, I thought they would never turn around to face us and I would have to tap one on the back the way a person knocks at the door. But they must have sensed that we’d come in by the glance of the waiter or some other sign I didn’t notice, and before we got to them they stood up and saluted us, which had an unsettling effect on me. We sat at a secluded table and they got straight to the point: did Hanna know what she was doing when she left Spain? (we didn’t know whether Hanna knew), what ties bound her to Charly? (friendship), why had she left? (we didn’t know), what was her address in Germany? (we didn’t know—a lie, Ingeborg has it written down—but they could get it from the German consulate in Barcelona, where Hanna had, we presumed, left all her personal information), did Hanna think or did we think that Charly had committed suicide? (we certainly didn’t think so; who knew what Hanna thought), and so on, more pointless questions until the interview was over. The policemen were nothing but polite, and when they left they gave us another military salute. Ingeborg smiled at them although when we were alone she said that she couldn’t wait to be in Stuttgart, far away from this sad, corrupt town. When I asked her what she meant by “corrupt” she got up and left me alone in the dining room. Just as she was leaving, Frau Else came out from behind the reception desk and headed toward us. Neither of the two of them stopped, but Frau Else smiled as she passed Ingeborg; Ingeborg, I’m sure, didn’t smile back. In any case, Frau Else gave no sign that she’d noticed. When she reached me she wanted to know how the interrogation had gone. I admitted that Hanna had made things worse by leaving. According to Frau Else, the Spanish police were charming. I didn’t argue. For a moment neither of us spoke, though the silence was charged. Then Frau Else took me by the arm as she’d done before and led me down a series of corridors; the entire way she opened her mouth only to say, “You shouldn’t let this get you down”; I think I nodded. We stopped at a room near the kitchen. It seemed to serve as the hotel’s laundry. Through a window was a cement-paved inner courtyard full of wooden baskets and covered by a huge green tarp through which the evening light barely filtered; in the unair-conditioned kitchen a girl and an old man were still washing the lunch dishes. Then, without warning, Frau Else kissed me. The truth is, it didn’t take me by surprise. I wanted it and I was hoping for it. But to be honest, I didn’t think it was likely. Naturally, her kiss got the passionate response called for under the circumstances. Though we didn’t do anything untoward. From the kitchen the dishwashers could have seen us. After five minutes we pulled apart; we were both shaken and we returned to the dining room without saying a word. There Frau Else shook my hand and left me. I can still hardly believe it happened.
The rest of the afternoon I spent with El Quemado. First I went up to the room, but Ingeborg wasn’t there. I supposed she had gone out shopping. The beach was half-deserted and El Quemado didn’t have much work. I found him sitting next to the pedal boats, for once lined up and facing the sea, with his gaze fixed on the only pedal boat that had been rented, which seemed to be very far from shore. I sat down next to him as if he were an old friend, and soon I was drawing a map in the sand of the Battle of the Ardennes (one of my specialties), or the Battle of the Bulge, as the Americans call it, and I gave a detailed explanation of battle plans, the order in which units would appear, highways to use, river crossings, the demolition and construction of bridges, the offensive activation of the Fifteenth Army, real and simulated advances of Battle Group Peiper, etc. Then I erased the map with my foot, smoothed the sand, and drew a map of the area around Smolensk. There, I pointed out, Guderian’s panzer group had fought an important battle in ’41, a crucial battle. I had always won it. For the Germans, of course. I erased the map again, smoothed the sand, drew a face. Only then did El Quemado smile, without diverting his attention for long from the pedal boat still lost in the distance. A slight shiver ran through me. The flesh of his cheek, two or three poorly healed scars, bristled, and for a second I was afraid that with this optical effect—there was nothing else it could be—he could hypnotize me and ruin my life forever. I was rescued by El Quemado’s own voice. As if speaking from an insurmountable distance, he said: do you think we get along well? I nodded several times, happy to be able to escape the spell cast by his deformed cheek. The face that I had drawn was still there, barely a sketch (though I should say that I’m not bad at drawing), until suddenly I realized with horror that it was a portrait of Charly. The realization left me speechless. It was as if someone had guided my hand. I hurried to erase it and immediately I drew a map of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, and with the aid of many arrows and circles I illustrated my decisive strategy to win at Third Reich. I’m afraid El Quemado didn’t understand a thing.
The big news of the night is that Hanna called. She had telephoned twice before, but neither Ingeborg nor I was at the hotel. When I arrived, the receptionist gave me the message and I wasn’t happy to get it. I didn’t want to talk to Hanna and I prayed that Ingeborg would show up before the third call came. My mood thus altered, I went up to wait in the room. When Ingeborg got back we decided to change our plan, which had been to eat at a restaurant near the port, and to stay and wait at the Del Mar. It was the right choice. Hanna called just as we were about to dig into our frugal dinner: toasted ham and cheese sandwiches and french fries. I remember that a waiter came to find us and as we got up from the table Ingeborg said it wasn’t necessary for both of us to go. I said it didn’t matter, the food wouldn’t get cold anyway. Frau Else was at the reception desk. She was wearing a different dress from the one she’d been wearing that afternoon and she seemed to have just stepped out of the shower. We smiled and tried to carry on a conversation as Ingeborg, with her back to us, as far away as she could get, whispered things like “why?” “I can’t believe it,” “disgusting,” “for God’s sake,” “the pigs,” “why didn’t you tell me before?” which I couldn’t help hearing and that wore on my nerves. I also noticed that with each exclamation Ingeborg hunched over a little more until she looked like a snail; I felt sorry for her; she was scared. Meanwhile, Frau Else, with her elbows firmly planted on the counter and her face aglow, began to resemble a Greek statue: only her lips moved when she spoke plainly about what had happened hours before in the laundry room. (I think she asked me not to harbor false hopes; I can’t say for sure.) As Frau Else talked, I smiled, but all of my senses were focused on what Ingeborg was saying. The phone cord seemed about to wind itself around her neck.
The conversation with Hanna was interminable. After she hung up, Ingeborg said:
“Good thing we’re leaving tomorrow.”
We went back to the dining room but we didn’t touch our plates. Cruelly, Ingeborg remarked that Frau Else, without makeup, reminded her of a witch. Then she said that Hanna was crazy, that she didn’t understand her at all. She avoided my eyes and tapped the table with her fork. From a distance, I thought, a stranger would have taken her for no more than sixteen. An overwhelming tenderness for her rose from the pit of my stomach. Then her voice rose to a scream: how could this happen, how could this happen. Startled, I feared that she would make a scene in front of the people still left in the dining room, but Ingeborg, as if reading my mind, suddenly smiled and said she’d never see Hanna again. I asked her what Hanna had said. Anticipating her response, I said that it was logical that Hanna should still be a little off balance. Ingeborg shook her head. I was wrong. Hanna was much smarter than I thought. Her voice was icy. In silence we finished our dessert and went up to the room.
I accompanied Ingeborg to the station; for half an hour we sat on a bench
waiting for the arrival of the train to Cerbère. We hardly said a thing. Wandering around on the platform were crowds of tourists whose vacations were almost over and who still fought for a place in the sun. Only the elderly sat on
benches in the shade. Between those who were leaving and me an abyss yawned; Ingeborg, however, didn’t strike me as out of place on that crowded train. We wasted our last few minutes giving directions: many people didn’t know where to go and the station employees hardly offered much guidance. People are like sheep. After showing one or two the exact spot to catch the train (not difficult to figure out, after all: there are only four tracks), we were accosted by German and English tourists wanting to check their information with us. From the train window Ingeborg asked whether she’d see me soon in Stuttgart. Very soon, I said. The face that Ingeborg made, a slight pursing of the lips and a quiver of the tip of the nose, suggested she didn’t believe me. I don’t care!
Until the last moment I thought she’d stay. No, that’s not true, I always knew that nothing could stop her. Her work and her independence come first, not to mention that after Hanna’s call all she could think about was leaving. So it wasn’t a happy farewell. And it surprised more than one person, Frau Else first among them, though maybe what surprised Frau Else was my decision to stay. To be perfectly honest, Ingeborg herself was the first to be surprised.
What was the exact moment when I knew she would leave?
Yesterday, as she was talking to Hanna, everything fell into place. Everything became clear and irrevocable. (But we didn’t discuss it at all.)
This morning I paid her bill, hers alone, and carried down her suitcases. I didn’t want to make a scene or have it look as if she was running away. I was an idiot. I suppose the receptionist hurried off to give the news to Frau Else. It was still early when I ate lunch at the chapel. From the lookout point, the beach appeared to be deserted. Deserted compared to previous days, I mean. Again I ate rabbit stew and drank a bottle of Rioja. I think I didn’t want to go back to the hotel. The restaurant was almost empty, except for some businessmen who were celebrating something at two tables pushed together in the middle of the room. They were from Gerona and they were telling jokes in Catalan that their wives hardly bothered to acknowledge. As Conrad says: meetings are no place for girlfriends. The atmosphere was deadly; they all seemed as dazed as I. I took a nap in the car, at a cove near town that I thought I remembered from vacations with my parents. I woke up sweating and not the least bit drunk.
In the afternoon I visited the manager of the Costa Brava, Mr. Pere, and assured him that he could find me at the Del Mar if he needed me for anything. We exchanged pleasantries and I left. Then I was at Navy Headquarters, where no one could give me any information about Charly. The woman I saw first didn’t even know what I was talking about. Luckily there was an official there who was familiar with the case and everything was cleared up. No news. Efforts were continuing. Patience. In the courtyard a small crowd gathered. A boy from the Red Cross of the Sea said they were the relatives of a new drowning victim. For a while I stayed there, sitting on the stairs, until I decided to go back to the hotel. I had a massive headache. At the Del Mar I searched in vain for Frau Else. No one could tell me where she was. The door to the hallway that leads to the laundry room was locked. I know there’s another way to get there, but I couldn’t find it.
The room was a wreck: the bed was unmade and my clothes were scattered all over the floor. Several counters had fallen, too. It would’ve made the most sense if I had packed my bags and gotten out of here. But I called down to the reception desk and asked them to tidy the room. Soon the girl I’d met before appeared, the same one who’d tried to find a table for me.
A good omen. I sat down in a corner and told her to clean everything up. In a minute the room was neat and bright (easy enough to achieve the latter: all it required was opening the curtains). When she’d finished she gave me an angelic smile. Satisfied, I found one thousand pesetas for her. She’s a smart girl: the fallen counters were lined up now beside the board. Not a single one was missing.
The rest of the afternoon, until it got dark, I spent on the beach with El Quemado, talking about my games.
I bought sandwiches at a bar called Lolita and beers at a supermarket. When El Quemado arrived I told him to sit beside the bed and I took a seat to the right of the table, with one hand resting in a relaxed fashion on the edge of the game board. I had a wide-angle view: to one side El Quemado, with the bed and the bedside table (the Florian Linden book still on it!) behind him, and to the other side, to the left, the open balcony, the white chairs, the Paseo Marítimo, the beach, the pedal-boat fortress. I planned to let him speak first, but words didn’t come easily to El Quemado, so I talked. I began by giving him a brief account of Ingeborg’s departure: she left by train, her job, full stop. I don’t know whether he was convinced. I went on to talk about the nature of the game, saying who knows how many stupid things, among them that the urge to play is simply a kind of song and that the players are singers performing an infinite range of compositions, dream compositions, deep-bore compositions, wish compositions, against the backdrop of a constantly shifting geography; decomposing food, that was what the maps and their constituent parts—the rules, the throws of the dice, the final victory or defeat—were like. Rotting food. I think that was when I brought out the sandwiches and beers, and as El Quemado began to eat I sprang over his legs and grabbed the Florian Linden book as if it were a treasure about to vanish into thin air. Among its pages I found no letter, no note, not the tiniest sign of hope. Just random words, police interrogations and confessions. Outside, night gradually crept over the beach and created the illusion of movement, of small dunes and fissures in the sand. Without moving from where he was, in a corner that grew darker and darker, El Quemado ate with the slowness of a ruminant, his lowered gaze fixed on the floor or on the tips of his huge fingers, emitting at regular intervals almost inaudible moans. I must confess that I experienced something like revulsion, a feeling of suffocation and heat. El Quemado’s moans each time he swallowed a mouthful of bread and cheese, or bread and ham, depending on which of the two sandwiches he was eating, constricted my chest until it felt as if it would burst. Overcome by weakness, I stepped over to the switch and turned on the light. Immediately I felt better, although there was still a hum in my temples, a hum that didn’t prevent me from picking up where I’d left off. Instead of sitting down again, I paced back and forth from the table to the bathroom door (I turned the bathroom light on, too) and talked about the distribution of the army corps, about the dilemmas that two or more fronts could pose for the German player possessed of a limited number of forces, about the difficulties involved in transferring vast masses of infantry and armored units from west to east, from the north of Europe to the north of Africa, and about the common fate of average players: a fatal insufficiency of units to cover everything. These reflections caused El Quemado, with his mouth full, to pose a question I didn’t bother to answer; I didn’t even understand it. I suppose I was carried away by my own momentum and inside I didn’t feel very well. So instead of responding I told him to come over to the map and take a look for himself. Meekly El Quemado approached and agreed that I was right: anyone could see that the black counters wouldn’t win. But wait! With my strategy, the situation changed. As an example, I described a match played in Stuttgart not long ago, although in my heart I gradually realized that this wasn’t what I wanted to say. What did I want to say? I don’t know. But it was important. Then: complete silence. El Quemado sat down next to the bed again, holding a little piece of sandwich between two fingers like an engagement ring, and I went out on the balcony, walking as if in slow motion, and I looked up at the stars and down at the tourists passing below. If only I hadn’t. Sitting on the edge of the Paseo Marítimo, the Wolf and the Lamb were watching my room. When they saw me they waved and shouted. Although at first I thought they were shouting insults, their cries were friendly. They wanted us to come down and have a drink with them (how they knew that El Quemado was there is a mystery to me) and beckoned more and more urgently; it wasn’t long before I saw passersby raising their eyes to search for the balcony that was the source of all the commotion. I had two options: either to retreat and close the balcony door without a word or to get rid of them with a promise that I had no intention of keeping. Both possibilities were unpleasant; red-faced (a detail that the Wolf and the Lamb couldn’t see, considering the distance), I promised I’d meet them in a while at the Andalusia Lodge. I stood on the balcony until they were lost from sight. In the room El Quemado was studying the counters deployed on the Eastern front. Engrossed, he seemed to understand how and why the units were deployed along particular lines, though obviously that was impossible. I dropped onto a chair and said I was tired. El Quemado scarcely blinked. Then I asked why that pair of morons couldn’t leave me alone. What do they want? To play? asked El Quemado. I noticed an attempt at clumsy irony on his lips. No, I answered, they want to go out drinking, have fun, anything that makes them feel less mummified.
“A monotonous life, isn’t it?” he croaked.
“Even worse, a monotonous holiday.”
“Well, they’re not on holiday.”
“It doesn’t make any difference, they live off of other people’s holidays, they attach themselves to other people’s holidays and leisure and make tourists’ lives miserable. They’re parasites.”
El Quemado stared at me incredulously. Evidently the Wolf and the Lamb were his friends despite the apparent divide between them. In any case, I didn’t regret what I’d said. I remembered—or rather saw—Ingeborg’s face, fresh and rosy, and the certainty of happiness I felt when I was with her. All wrecked. The force of the injustice quickened my movements: I picked up tweezers and with the speed of a cashier counting out bills I placed the counters in the force pools, the units in the proper squares, and, trying not to sound dramatic, I invited him to play one or two turns, though my intention was to play a full game, through the Great Destruction. El Quemado hunched his shoulders and smiled several times, still undecided. This made him look almost uglier than I could bear, so as he considered his response I stared at a random point on the map, as is done in matches when the opponents are two players who have never met before, each avoiding the physical presence of the other until the first turn begins. When I looked up I met El Quemado’s innocent eyes, and I could see that he accepted. We pulled our chairs over to the table and deployed our forces. The armies of Poland, France, and the USSR were left with an unpropitious opening gambit, though it wasn’t as bad as it could have been considering that El Quemado was such a beginner. The English army, meanwhile, occupied decent positions, its fleet evenly distributed—with support in the Mediterranean from the French fleet—and the few army corps covering hexes of strategic importance. El Quemado turned out to be a fast learner. The global situation on the map to some degree resembled the historic situation, which doesn’t often happen when it’s veterans playing each other. They would never deploy the Polish army along the border, or the French army on all the hexes of the Maginot Line, since it makes most sense for the Poles to defend Warsaw in a ring, and for the French to cover just one hex of the Maginot Line. I took the first turn, explaining as I went, so that El Quemado was able to understand and appreciate the elegance with which my armored units broke through the Polish defenses (air superiority and mechanized exploitation), the massing of forces on the border with France, Belgium, and Holland, Italy’s declaration of war, and the advance (toward Tunis!) of the bulk of the troops stationed in Libya (the conventional wisdom is that Italy should enter the war no sooner than the winter of ’39, or if possible the spring of
’40, a strategy to which I obviously don’t subscribe), the entry of two German armored corps into Genoa, the trampoline hex (Essen) where I based my paratrooper corps, etc., all this with a minimal expenditure of BRP. El Quemado’s response could only be tentative: on the Eastern front he invaded the Baltic states and the adjoining section of Poland, but he forgot to occupy Bessarabia; on the Western front he opted for the Attrition Option and disembarked the British Expeditionary Force (two infantry corps) in France; in the Mediterranean he sent reinforcements to Tunis and Bizerte. I still had the initiative. In the winter ’39 turn I launched an all-out attack in the West; I conquered Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Denmark; through the south of France I reached Marseilles, and through the north I reached Sedan and Hex N24. I restructured my Army Group East. I disembarked an armored corps in Tripoli during the SR. The option in the Mediterranean was Attrition and I got no results, but the threat is now tangible: Tunis and Bizerte are under siege, and the First Italian Expeditionary Corps has penetrated Algeria, which was completely undefended. On the border with Egypt, the forces are balanced. The problem for the Allies lies in knowing exactly where to throw their weight. El Quemado’s response can’t be as vigorous as the situation requires; on the Western front and in the Mediterranean he chooses the Attrition Option and he throws everything he can into the attack, but he’s playing with short stacks, and to make things worse, the dice don’t go his way. In the East he occupies Bessarabia and stakes out a line from the Romanian border to East Prussia. The next turn will be decisive, but by now it’s late and we have to put it off. We leave the hotel. At the Andalusia Lodge we run into the Wolf and the Lamb with three Dutch girls. The girls seem thrilled to meet me and they’re amazed that I’m German. At first I thought they were pulling my leg; in fact, they were surprised that a German would have anything to do with such eccentric characters. At three in the morning I returned to the Del Mar feeling content for the first time in days. Could it be that I was convinced at last that it hadn’t been pointless to stay? Maybe. At some point during the night, from the depths of his defeat (were we discussing my offensive in the West?), El Quemado asked how long I planned to stay in Spain. I sensed fear in his voice.
“Until Charly’s body turns up,” I said.
After breakfast I headed to the Costa Brava. The manager was at the reception desk. When he saw me he finished up a few things and motioned for me to follow him into his office. I don’t know how he knew that Ingeborg had left, but he did. With a few rather inappropriate insinuations, he made it clear that he understood my situation. Then, without giving me a chance to respond, he proceeded to sum up the current state of the search: no progress, many of the searchers had given up, and the operations, if one could dignify with such a name the efforts of one or two police Zodiacs, seemed headed for bureaucratic deadlock. I told him I planned to demand a personal report from Navy Headquarters and if necessary I was prepared to twist the requisite arms. Mr. Pere shook his head paternally. Not necessary; there was no need to get all worked up. As far as the paperwork was concerned, the German consulate had taken care of everything. Really, I was free to leave whenever I liked. Of course, they understood that Charly was my friend, the bonds of friendship, it goes without saying, but . . . Even the Spanish police, usually so skeptical, were about to close the case. All that remained was for the body to appear. Mr. Pere seemed much more relaxed than he had during our previous encounter. Now, somehow, he saw the case as if he and I were the sole, dutiful mourners of an inexplicable but natural death. (So is death always natural? Is it always a part of the essential order of things? Even if it involves windsurfing?) I’m sure it was an accident, he said, the kind we see every summer. I hinted at the possibility of suicide, but Mr. Pere shook his head and smiled. He’d been in the hotel business all his life and he thought he knew the souls of tourists; Charly, poor bastard, wasn’t the suicidal type. In any case, when you really thought about it, it was always a bitter paradox to die on vacation. Mr. Pere had been witness to many similar cases in his long career: old women who suffered heart attacks in August, children who drowned in the pool under everyone’s eyes, families wiped out on the highway (in the middle of their holidays!) . . . Such is life, he concluded, I’m sure your friend never imagined that he would die far from his homeland. Death and Homeland, he whispered, two tragedies. At eleven in the morning, there was something crepuscular about Mr. Pere. Here’s a happy man, I said to myself. It was pleasant to be there, talking to him, while at the reception desk tourists argued with the receptionist, and their voices, inoffensive and remote from matters of real concern, filtered into the office. As we talked I saw myself sitting comfortably there at the hotel, and I saw Mr. Pere and the people in the corridors and rooms, faces that were attracted to each other or pretended to be attracted to each other in the midst of empty or tense exchanges, couples sunbathing with linked hands, single men who worked alone, and friendly men who worked with others, all happy, or if not, at least at peace with themselves. Unfulfilled! But still convinced they were at the center of the universe. What did it matter whether Charly was alive or not, whether I was alive or not? Everything would roll on, downhill, toward each individual death. Everyone was the center of the universe! The bunch of morons! Nothing was beyond their sway! Even in their sleep they controlled everything! With their indifference! Then I thought about El Quemado. He was outside. I saw him as if from underwater: the enemy.
I tried to spend the rest of the day being productive, but it was impossible. I was incapable of putting on my bathing suit and going down to the beach, so I settled at the hotel bar to write postcards. I planned to send one to my parents, but in the end I wrote only to Conrad. I spent a long time sitting there just watching the tourists and the waiters making the rounds carrying trays loaded with drinks. I don’t know why, but I had the thought that this would be one of the last hot days. Who cared? For the sake of doing something, I had a salad and tomato juice. I think the food made me sick, because I started to sweat and feel queasy, so I went up to the room and took a cold shower. Then I went out again, this time without the car, heading toward Navy Headquarters, but when I got there I decided it wasn’t worth enduring another string of excuses and I walked on.
The town was sunk in a kind of crystal ball; everyone seemed to be asleep (transcendentally asleep!) no matter if they were walking or sitting outside. Around five the sky clouded over and at six it began to rain. The streets cleared all at once. I had the thought that it was as if autumn had unsheathed a claw and scratched: everything was coming apart. The tourists running on the sidewalks in search of shelter, the shopkeepers pulling tarps over the merchandise displayed in the street; the increasing number of shop windows closed until next summer. Whether I felt pity or scorn when I saw this, I don’t know. Detached from any external stimulus, the only thing I could see or feel with any clarity was myself. Everything else had been bombarded by something dark; movie sets consigned to dust and oblivion, as if for good.
The question, then, was what I was doing in the middle of such gloom.
The rest of the afternoon I spent lying in bed waiting for El Quemado to return to the hotel.
On my way up to the room I asked whether I had received any calls from Germany. The answer was no; there were no messages for me.
From the balcony I watched as El Quemado left the beach and crossed the Paseo Marítimo toward the hotel. I hurried downstairs so that when he arrived I would be at the door, waiting for him; I suppose I was afraid that they wouldn’t let him in if he wasn’t with me. As I was passing the reception desk, Frau Else’s voice brought me up short. It was hardly louder than a whisper, but it took me by surprise, echoing in my head like a trumpet blast.
“Udo, you’re still here,” she said as if she hadn’t known.
I stood there in the main hall, in a embarrassing position, to say the least. At the other end of the hall, behind the glass doors, El Quemado was waiting. For a moment I saw him as part of a film projected on the door: El Quemado and the deep blue horizon punctuated by a car parked across the street, the heads of people walking by, and the fuzzy images of the tables on the terrace. Only Frau Else was completely real, beautiful and solitary behind the counter.
“Yes, of course . . . as you well know.” When I addressed her with the informal du, Frau Else blushed. I think I had seen her like that only once, with her defenses down. I wasn’t sure whether I liked it or not.
“I hadn’t . . . seen you. That’s all. I don’t keep track of all your movements,” she said in a low voice.
“I’ll be here until the body of my friend turns up. I hope you don’t have any problem with that.”
With a scowl of distaste she looked away. I was afraid she would see El Quemado and use him as a pretext for changing the subject.
“My husband is sick and he needs me. These last few days I’ve spent with him, unable to do anything else. You wouldn’t understand that, would you?”
“Well, that’s enough. I didn’t mean to bother you. Good-bye.”
But neither she nor I moved.
El Quemado was watching me from the other side of the door. And I have to imagine that he was being watched by the hotel guests sitting on the terrace or by the people walking by on the sidewalk. At any minute someone would come up to him and ask him to leave; then El Quemado would strangle him, using only his right arm, and all would be lost.
“Is your . . . husband better? I sincerely hope so. I’m afraid I’ve been an idiot. Forgive me.”
Frau Else bowed her head and said:
“Yes . . . Thank you . . . ”
“I’d like to talk to you tonight . . . to see you alone . . . But I don’t want to force you to do something that might cause trouble for you later . . .”
Frau Else’s lips took an eternity to move into a smile. I don’t know why, but I was shaking.
“Someone’s waiting for you now, yes?”
Yes, a comrade in arms, I thought, but I didn’t say anything and I nodded in a way that expressed the inevitability of the engagement. A comrade in arms? An enemy in arms!
“Remember that even though you’re a friend of the owner, you should respect the hotel rules.”
“Among many others, the rule that prohibits certain visitors in the guest rooms.” Her voice was back to normal, sounding part ironic and part authoritarian. Clearly, this was Frau Else’s realm.
I tried to protest, but her raised hand commanded silence.
“This is not to suggest anything, or say anything. I’m not making any accusations. I feel sorry for that poor boy, too.” She meant El Quemado. “But I have to look out for the Del Mar and its guests. And I have to look out for you. I don’t want anything bad to happen to you.”
“What could possibly happen to me? We’re just playing.”
“You know very well what.”
“Ah, the game at which you’re champion.” When she smiled her teeth gleamed dangerously. “A winter sport; at this time of year you’d do better to swim or play tennis.”
“If you want to laugh at me, go ahead. I deserve it.”
“All right, we’ll meet tonight, at one, at the church on the square. Do you know how to get there?”
Frau Else’s smile vanished. I tried to come closer, but I realized it wasn’t the right moment. We said good-bye and I went out. On the terrace everything was normal; two steps down from El Quemado a couple of girls were discussing the weather as they waited for their dates. Just as on every other night, people laughed and made plans.
I exchanged a few words with El Quemado and we went back in.
As we passed the reception desk I didn’t see anyone behind the counter although it occurred to me that Frau Else could be hiding. With an effort I repressed the urge to go over and look.
I think I didn’t do it because I would have had to explain everything to El Quemado.
Our match continued along predictable lines: in the spring of ’40 I launched an Offensive Option in the Mediterranean and conquered Tunis and Algeria; on the Western front I spent twenty-five BRP, which bought me the conquest of France; during the SR I placed four armored corps with infantry and air support on the Spanish border(!). On the Eastern front I consolidated my forces.
El Quemado’s response was purely defensive. He made the fewest moves he could; he strengthened some defenses; most of all, he asked questions. His plays still reveal what a novice he is. He doesn’t know how to stack the counters, he plays sloppily, he has either no grand strategy or the one he has is too schematic, he trusts in luck, he makes mistakes in his calculations of BRP, he confuses the Creation of Units phase with the SR.
Still, he tries and it seems he’s beginning to get into the spirit of the game. I can tell by the way he keeps his eyes glued to the board and by the way the charred planes of his face twist in an effort to calculate retreats and costs.
It inspires sympathy and pity. A dense kind of pity, I should note, leached of color, cuadriculated.
The church square was lonely and poorly lit. I parked the car on a side street and settled down to wait on a stone bench. I felt good, although when Frau Else appeared—she literally materialized from the formless mass of shadows under the only tree in the plaza—I couldn’t help jumping in surprise and alarm.
I suggested leaving town, maybe parking the car in the woods or somewhere with a view of the sea, but she refused.
She talked. She talked freely and without pause, as if she’d been silent for days. In conclusion, she gave a vague, allusive explanation of her husband’s illness. Only after that did she allow me to kiss her. And yet from the very start our hands had met, our fingers naturally interlacing.
There we stayed, holding hands, until two thirty in the morning. When we got tired of sitting, we took a walk around the square; then we returned to the bench and kept talking.
I talked a lot, too, I suppose.
The silence of the square was interrupted only by a brief series of distant cries (of happiness or desperation?) and then the roar of motorcycles.
I think we kissed five times.
On our way back I suggested parking the car far from the hotel; I had her reputation in mind. Laughing, she refused; she isn’t afraid of gossip. (The truth is she isn’t afraid of anything.)
The church square is rather sad: small and dark and silent. In the center rises a medieval stone fountain with two jets of water. Before we left we drank from it.
“When you die, Udo, you’ll be able to say, ‘I’m returning to where I came from: nothingness.’ ”
“When a person’s dying, he’ll say anything,” I answered.
After this exchange, Frau Else’s face shone as if I’d just kissed her. And that was exactly what I did then—I kissed her. But when I tried to slip my tongue between her lips, she pulled away.
I don’t know whether the Wolf has lost his job or the Lamb has, or both of them have. They grumble and complain but I hardly hear them. I do, however, register their low-frequency fear and rage. The owner of the Andalusia Lodge makes merciless fun of them and their misfortunes. He calls them “bums,” “dirty bastards,” “aids scum,” “beach faggots,” “deadbeats”; then he takes me aside, laughing, and tells me a story that I can’t follow but that’s about a rape in which they’re somehow implicated. Showing no curiosity whatsoever—though the owner is talking loud enough for everyone to hear—the Wolf and the Lamb are mesmerized by some TV sports show. This is the generation of kids that were going to put their shoulder to the wheel! This troop of zombies was going to bring glory to Spain, I shit on
the Holy Virgin! the owner ends his speech. There’s nothing left for me to do but nod and return to the table with the Spaniards and order another beer. Later, through the half-open bathroom door, I see the Lamb pulling down his pants.
After I ate I headed to the Costa Brava. I was received by Mr. Pere as if it had been years since our last meeting. Our conversation—trivial—this time took place at the hotel bar, where I got to know more than a few of the manager’s circle of friends. They all radiated an air of distinction and boredom, and, naturally, they were all over forty; when I was introduced to them, they treated me with great tact. It was as if they had been presented with a celebrity or, rather, a young man of promise. Clearly Mr. Pere and I were charmed by each other.
Later, at Navy Headquarters (my visits to the Costa Brava inevitably lead there) I was told there was no news about Charly. Not intending to cause trouble, I decided to venture some suppositions. Wasn’t it strange that his body hadn’t turned up yet? Was it possible that he was still alive, suffering from amnesia and wandering around some town on the coast? I think even the two bored secretaries gave me looks of pity.
I took a leisurely walk back to the Del Mar and was able to confirm what I’d already sensed: the town is beginning to empty; there are fewer and fewer tourists, the natives’ movements are infused with a cyclical weariness. And yet the air and the sky and the sea shine clear and pure. Breathing is a delight. And anyone out for a stroll can stand and stare at whatever catches his eye without the risk of being shoved or mistaken for a drunk.
When the owner of the Andalusia Lodge disappeared into the back, I brought up the subject of the rape.
The Wolf and the Lamb guffawed and said it was all in the old man’s head. I got the sense that they were making fun of me.
When I left I paid only for what I’d had to drink. The Spaniards’ faces turned stony. Significantly, our good-byes made reference to the date of my departure. (It’s as if everyone is eager for me to leave.) At the last minute, they tried to patch things up by offering to go with me to Navy Headquarters, but I refused.
Summer 1940. The match has heated up. Against expectations, El Quemado was able to transfer enough troops to the Mediterranean to cushion against my strikes. Even more important: he guessed that it wasn’t Alexandria but Malta that was under threat, and he fortified the island with infantry, air, and naval forces. On the Western front the situation remains unchanged (after the conquest of France a turn is necessary for the Western armies to regroup and receive replacements and reinforcements); my troops there have trained their sights on England—the invasion of which would demand a considerable logistical effort, but El Quemado doesn’t know that—and on Spain, an unnecessary conquest but one that clears the way to Gibraltar, without which English control of the Mediterranean is almost nonexistent. (This play, recommended by Terry Butcher in The General, involves moving the Italian fleet into the Atlantic.) In any case, El Quemado doesn’t expect an attack on Gibraltar by land; on the contrary, my movements in the East and the Balkans (after the classic play: the obliteration of Yugoslavia and Greece) make him fear an impending invasion of the Soviet Union—I think my friend sympathizes with the Reds—and neglect other fronts. My position, needless to say, is enviable. Operation Black Beard, perhaps with a Turkish strategic variant, promises to be exciting. El Quemado’s spirits never flag. He isn’t a brilliant player or an impulsive one: his movements are calm and methodical. The hours have gone by in silence; we’ve spoken only when strictly necessary, questions about the rules receiving clear and honest answers, our play unfolding in enviable harmony. I’m writing this as El Quemado takes his turn. It’s interesting: the game relaxes him, I see it in the muscles of his arms and chest, as if at last he’s able to look at himself and not see anything. Or as if he sees only the tortured Europe of the game board and the grand maneuvers and countermaneuvers.
The session took place as if in a fog. On our way out of the room, in the hallway, we ran into a maid who upon seeing us stifled a scream and went running. I glanced at El Quemado, unable to say a thing; embarrassment for him stung me until we got on the elevator. Then I thought that perhaps it wasn’t El Quemado’s face that had given the maid a fright. My sense that I was treading on uncertain ground grew sharper.
We parted on the hotel terrace. A quick handshake, a smile, and finally El Quemado disappeared, ambling off along the Paseo Marítimo.
The terrace was empty. In the restaurant, which was livelier, I spotted Frau Else. She was sitting at a table near the bar with two men in suits and ties. I was struck by the idea that one of them was her husband, though he looked nothing like the way I remembered him. Their conversation had every appearance of being a business meeting and I didn’t want to intrude. Nor did I want to seem timid, and with that in mind I went up to the bar and ordered a beer. The waiter took more than five minutes to bring it to me. He wasn’t slow because the bar was so busy, since it was hardly busy at all; he just chose to dawdle until I had run out of patience. Only then did he bring the beer, and I could sense the defiance and hostility in his attitude, as if he were waiting for the slightest complaint from me to start a fight. But that was unthinkable with Frau Else right there, so I tossed a few coins on the bar and waited. No reaction. The miserable waiter shrank against the shelves of bottles and stared at the floor. He seemed to be angry at the whole world, starting with himself.
I drank my beer in peace. Frau Else, regrettably, continued to be immersed in conversation with her tablemates and she chose to pretend she didn’t see me. I supposed she had her reasons, and I decided to leave.
In the room I was surprised by the smell of tobacco and stale air. The lamp had been left on, and for an instant I thought that Ingeborg had come back. But the smell, in an almost tangible way, ruled out the possibility of a woman. (Strange: I had never stopped to think about smells.) All of this depressed me, and I resolved to go for a drive.
I circled slowly through the empty streets of the town. A warm breeze swept the sidewalks, scattering paper wrappings and advertising leaflets.
Only every so often did the figures of drunk tourists emerge from the shadows, stumbling blindly toward their hotels.
I don’t know what made me stop on the Paseo Marítimo. But I did, and inevitably I found myself on the dark beach, heading toward the abode of El Quemado.
What did I expect to find there?
The voices stopped me by the time I could see the fortress of pedal boats rising from the sand.
El Quemado had visitors.
With extreme caution, almost crawling, I approached; whoever was there preferred to talk outside. Soon I could make out two shapes: El Quemado and his guest were sitting in the sand with their backs to me, gazing out to sea.
It was the other man who was leading the conversation: a quick series of grunts of which I could catch only stray words like necessity and courage.
I didn’t dare go any closer.
Then, after a long silence, the wind stopped blowing and a kind of weight of warm stone fell over the beach.
Someone—which of the two I don’t know—was talking in a vague and lighthearted way about some “bet,” something “forgotten and done with.” Then he laughed . . . Then he got up and walked toward the water’s edge . . . Then he turned around and said something I couldn’t hear.
For an instant—a mad instant that made my hair stand on end—
I thought it was Charly: his profile, his way of letting his head slump as
if he had a broken neck, his sudden silences. Good old Charly, escaped
from the dirty waters of the Mediterranean in order to . . . give sibylline advice to El Quemado. A kind of stiffness migrated from my arms to the rest of my body as my sense of logic fought to regain control. All I wanted was to get out of there. Then, as if the rest of the conversation was simply reinforcing the madness, I heard the kind of advice that El Quemado’s
visitor was giving him. “How to stop the strikes?” “Don’t worry about the strikes; worry about breaks in the line.” “How to avoid them?” “Reinforce the front line; annihilate any advances of the armored units; always keep
an operative reserve.”
Advice on how to beat me in Third Reich!
More concretely, El Quemado was receiving instructions on how to counter what he saw as imminent: the invasion of Russia!
I closed my eyes and tried to pray. I couldn’t. I thought I’d never get the madness out of my head. I was sweating and the sand stuck to my face. My whole body itched and I was afraid (if I can call it that) that suddenly I’d see Charly’s shining face looming above me. The filthy traitor. The thought jolted my eyes open; there was no one next to the pedal-boat shack. They must both be inside, I thought. I was wrong: the shadowy figures were still standing at the water’s edge with the waves licking their ankles. They had their backs to me. In the sky the clouds parted for a moment and the moon shone weakly. El Quemado and his visitor were talking now—as if it were the most pleasant of subjects—about a rape. With some effort I rose to my knees and grew a little calmer. It wasn’t Charly, I told myself a few times. Elementary: El Quemado and his visitor were speaking in Spanish and Charly couldn’t even order a beer in Spanish.
With a feeling of relief, but still numb and trembling, I rose to my feet and left the beach.
At the Del Mar, Frau Else was sitting in a wicker armchair at the end of the hallway that led to the elevator. The lights of the restaurant were all out except for a faint one that illuminated only the shelves of bottles and a section of the bar where a waiter was still laboring away at something I couldn’t make out. When I’d passed the reception desk I’d seen the night watchman with his nose in a sports paper. Not everyone in the hotel was asleep.
I sat down next to Frau Else.
She made some remark about my face. Haggard!
“I’m sure you hardly sleep, and you don’t sleep well. Not a good advertisement for the hotel. I’m worried about your health.”
I nodded. She nodded, too. I asked for whom she was waiting. Frau Else shrugged; she smiled; she said: for you. She was lying, of course. I asked her what time it was. Four in the morning.
“You should go back to Germany, Udo,” she said.
I invited her up to my room. She refused. She said: no, I can’t. She gazed into my eyes as she said it. How beautiful she was!
We were quiet for a long time. I would have to liked to say: don’t worry about me; really, don’t worry. But it was ridiculous, of course. At the end of the hallway, I saw the watchman peer around the corner and then disappear. I concluded that Frau Else’s staff adore her.
I pretended to be tired and stood up. I didn’t want to be there when the person Frau Else was waiting for appeared.
Without rising from the chair she offered me her hand and we said
I walked to the elevator. Luckily it was stopped at the ground floor and I didn’t have to wait. Once I was inside I went through the farewell ritual again. I said a silent good-bye, only my lips moving. Frau Else held my gaze and my smile until the doors closed with a pneumatic wheeze and I began to rise.
I felt something heavy rolling around in my head.
After taking a hot shower, I got in bed. My hair was wet, and in any case sleep wouldn’t come.
Why, I don’t know, maybe because it was the nearest thing to me, I picked up the Florian Linden book and opened it at random.
“The killer is the owner of the hotel.”
“Are you sure?”
I closed the book.
—Translated from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer