Issue 197, Summer 2011
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.