Where did they all go this time?
Last Friday, that’s right, Friday afternoon, it suddenly got quiet like this. There’s always some kind of noise around here—footsteps, somebody coughing out in the hall—but when there’s absolutely nothing going on, like now, you can feel it pressing down on your skull like a dead weight, and it’s like you’ve got butterflies in your stomach, anyways, I went over to Comrade Tolkening’s office but there wasn’t a soul there either, just a pile of papers on his desk, which isn’t Comrade Tolkening’s style at all, if he goes out for even five minutes he locks everything up, and there was nobody at Comrade Kallweit’s either, so I thought, what’s going on? if there was a meeting, Comrade Kallweit would’ve called me for sure, but these days you can’t count on anything or anybody, oh yeah, they keep on saying things like, that’s right, comrades, business as usual, the business will just get another name—but what’s in a name? The main thing is that we stay at our posts, and I knock at Comrade Stösselmaier’s door—he’s always the first here in the morning and the last to leave in the evening—but there’s nobody in his office either, they can’t all be having coffee or be out on business, and then what Comrade Kuhnt said at the department meeting crossed my mind—and Comrade Alfred Kuhnt isn’t just anybody—Comrade Kuhnt clearly pointed his finger at me, no mistake about it, and said, Comrade Bobrich is one of our most reliable men, our Arno is, that’s for sure, and if it should come to a real fight some day Comrade Bobrich will hold the fort and besides he’s the type of person who can calm people down, so nobody’s going to do him any harm.
I told Martha what Comrade Kuhnt said about this calming effect I have on people and Martha said, that’s right, Comrade Kuhnt is a good judge of character, but all the same, it makes you stop and think, especially in troubled times like these when everything’s in a mess and even somebody like the boss who the whole nation was scared to death of, that’s God’s truth, really scared to death, even the boss had to get up on his hind legs in public and defend himself in front of people who normally would’ve been groveling before him, defend himself for doing what? I’d like to know, the man was only doing his duty like everybody else and he still got arrested. And Comrade Kuhnt also told us that if it should come to that—though he didn’t think it would—then we’d have to make a strategic withdrawal for a while, those were his very words, “strategic withdrawal,” really, and he said that’s when we can trust our Comrade Bobrich to do what needs to be done because Comrade Bobrich knows that what’s in the department here must not get into the wrong hands.
That was last week. And once again there’s not a sound. But all the same, they didn’t have to “withdraw” in such a hurry, at the very least one of them could’ve stuck his head in the door and said, Arno, he could’ve said, it’s just temporary. But not one of them even said so much as that, and so now I’m expected to do my duty and hold the fort because what we’ve got in the department here is top secret; and when I said to Martha, this time they’ve posted me right smack in the middle of the nerve center—that’s how I put it, “nerve center”—she said, oh, cut it out, why do you have to be stuck in the nerve center? The work you’ve been doing is hard enough, isn’t it, Arno? I’ve never been able to figure out how you could do that and still live with yourself and your ever-loving soul, but now this, with you in the middle of the nerve center of the whole business, it can only bring you bad luck, Arno. And when I told Comrade Tolkening what Martha said about me being posted to the middle of the nerve center—and when all’s said and done it shows a lot of respect on my comrades’ part—he just laughed and said, don’t give it a second thought, Arno, and what do women know anyways about duty and what’s needed in our work? But I did not tell Comrade Tolkening what the boy had to say when he came home and Martha told him about my new posting to the nerve center, there’s no way you can tell something like that to a comrade, why, he’d think Comrade Bobrich was raising a viper at his bosom, a real live viper, and how reliable can Comrade Bobrich possibly be with a brood of vipers like that in his own house? And anyways I’d never dream of touching one single file in the nerve center—they’re all lined up there with their yellow and green and crimson and orange stickers, all organized by category and then alphabetically—and so what if I did sometimes look up at the second shelf from the top, fourth compartment on the right, Bat to Bur? But I’m not in there anyhow, the staff records are kept separate. Only Comrade Kuhnt has access to our personal files, nobody else does.
Still, the boy isn’t a bad apple, and we’ve done a good job raising him in the best sense of the word, but he’s embarrassed, he says, because of his dad. Why should a son, I ask, find it so embarrassing to have a father who’s only doing his duty to his class and his job, and as a father? Martha says the same thing but the boy just shrugs when she tells him that, but then he tells me that if I didn’t know before now who I was workin’ my fuckin’ ass off for all those years then I really should’ve clued in when the boss had to stand up in public and defend himself, and then he laughs in a way that stabs me right in the heart and I really want to let him have it but Martha grabs my arm in time and says, things are hard enough without you two fighting!
How long were they gone last Friday? Twenty minutes maybe, thirty, no more, then they came sneaking back in and acted sort of embarrassed, and Comrade Kallweit was the only one to say something, false alarm, he said, they’ve all marched off out front, they were scared shitless they’d get bashed on the head. I can understand Comrade Kallweit; Comrade Kallweit was always a pushy sort, and now they’ve gone and taken his pistol off him, he’s got another one at home, he says, as a backup, but he hasn’t got one here anymore and feels castrated, he says—Kallweit’s actually a very decent sort and takes a personal interest in us too, always asking after Martha and the boy—I’m worried, I said to Comrade Kallweit, about Martha, Martha has her doubts, why are people leaving, she keeps asking, it certainly can’t just be for the bananas and a few rags, there are other values after all, and why can’t we make those people understand that, or do you really think the pressure you’re putting on them’s going to convince any one of them? Then Comrade Kallweit shook his head and put his hand on my shoulder and sighed, you got it rough, Arno. Me too. That’s a fact.
But they’ve been gone for over twenty or thirty minutes now, at least. They sure wouldn’t leave me here all alone like this, somebody with a pistol’s got to help me out, they’ve never let me carry one, your hands are always shaking, Arno, Comrade Stösselmaier said—he’s in charge of firearms—a thing like that can go off at the wrong time, maybe when you’re cleaning it at the kitchen table, and then you’ve hit your Martha without meaning to, and then where would you be? Martha said the same thing to me, I said to Comrade Stösselmaier, Arno, she said, I’m glad you don’t have to carry a thing like that around on you, the state’s one thing but a human life is quite another, and no state on earth not even ours is worth laying down your life for. And Comrade Stösselmaier folded his hands behind his head and gave a yawn and said, the things women say, amazing. And now Comrade Stösselmaier isn’t here either, though I really would like to hear somebody say just one word, even him, the silence is pressing down like a dead weight on my skull, this total silence, and boy, does it ever give you butterflies in your stomach and make you want to shout, Comrades!—but the comrades have gone and left Comrade Bobrich all by himself in the nerve center, one of our most reliable men, like Comrade Kuhnt said.
But when that silence is suddenly broken by thumps and bangs and yelling, then it’s almost worse than the silence before. I go over to Comrade Tolkening’s office and his desk is still covered with papers, though he usually locks up everything before he goes out even for five minutes, and then I go past Kallweit’s and Stösselmaier’s and it’s absolute chaos in their offices too, mine’s the only one that isn’t, and that’s because I’m calm by nature and process one file before picking up the next, even when everything else is all mucked up and even when a man like the boss who’s got us all really quaking in our boots had to defend himself though he was only doing his duty. And the noise is getting closer, it’s like hundreds of boots scraping and stomping on the stairs and in the halls, and the shouting and yelling, “Over here!” and “No, here!” and “Off to the right!” and “Here, upstairs!” and “Around that corner!” and it seems like there’s one man maybe more who know exactly where they’re going and are leading the rest of them right into the middle of the nerve center of the whole business, and then my office door bursts open with a bang—I’m at my desk, it’s immaculate, ruler and pens and In and Out baskets, everything in its place—and I get to my feet and straighten my jacket and say clearly in a loud voice but not too loud, “Get out, all of you!” And to the boy, “Beat it! Go on home to your mother!”
“Don’t get excited, Gramps,” one of them tells me, a sort of pasty-faced blonde with pale blue eyes and thin lips, “We are the people,” and she goes over to the shelves and starts ripping out the file folders—the ones with yellow stickers first and then the ones with crimson stickers, and from A to Atz and Aub to Bas and so on—and she tosses them all over the floor and the benches and the windowsills and everything comes apart and papers are fluttering around and everybody’s tearing them up and stomping all over them with their filthy boots, and I start bellowing “Stop! Stop!” and run around like a lunatic and bend over and grab whatever I can and put it all back together and the boy just stands there laughing and laughing until I can’t control myself and drop the files and papers I’ve picked up and put under my arm and grab him by his parka and shake him hard enough to make his straggly hair whip back and forth and I scream “Brood of vipers! Brood of vipers!” and I don’t know what happened next because when I came to I was sitting on the floor and my office door was wide open and the stomped-on files and shredded papers and patches of color from the stickers, yellow and green and crimson and orange, were all around me and then a voice from outside “No violence! Please! No violence!” and I think to myself, hey! you know that voice, and then I realize it’s the boy’s voice and feel all choked up and in my head I hear the words of Comrade Kuhnt One of our most reliable men but where was everybody when it came to the crunch and the boy is standing right there in front of me, laughing and laughing?
And then I see a folder with Bat to Bur written on an orange sticker and it’s lying there facedown and somebody’s trampled on it and I feel sorry for that folder somehow because between Bat and Bur is Bob, Bob as in Bobrich, and though my file can’t be in the folder because the staff files are kept somewhere else and only Comrade Kuhnt has access to them and not me, I snatch up the folder and open it to Bob as in Bobrich, and of course there’s no Bobrich, Arno, but there is Bobrich, Martha, and I get a big lump in my throat, even after a day like this when you think you’ve been through the mill and couldn’t get excited about anything else: Martha too, they were monitoring Martha, the wife of their own fellow worker and didn’t breathe a word to me about it, but they aren’t allowed to of course, conspiracy is conspiracy, but I’d still like to know who they put on Martha and who was monitoring her and reporting on her and how come I didn’t notice a blasted thing, me, one of our most reliable men like Comrade Kuhnt always says?
And there it is, all written down, nice and orderly, Roman numeral I: How you can do that and still live with yourself and your ever-loving soul, is there, and it can only bring you bad luck, Arno, and beside it under “Special Remarks” Tolkening, so that came from Tolkening. And then it reads, Roman numeral II: The subject explained to her husband that she has her doubts and wanted to know why people were leaving, she said it certainly couldn’t just be for the bananas and a few rags, there were other values after all, and why couldn’t we make those people understand that, and under “Special Remarks” Kallweit. And under Roman numeral III: The subject stated that she was glad her husband did not have to carry a thing like that [service weapon] around on him, the state was one thing but a human life was quite another, and no state on earth, not even ours, was worth laying down one’s life for. “Special Remarks” Stösselmaier. And at the end, “Signed” Kuhnt, Alfred: Nevertheless, I am of the opinion that Comrade Bobrich, Arno, is of the belief that we are of the belief that he is one of our most reliable men.
And here I am, sitting on the floor with all that paper and the yellow and green and crimson and orange stickers around me everywhere and the empty file folder in my hand and I see that the paper is covered with stains, stained with sweat, that’s how much my hands have been sweating, and all of a sudden I realize it wasn’t Comrades Tolkening and Kallweit and Stösselmaier who did the monitoring and reporting in the Bobrich, Martha Case, but me, Comrade Bobrich Arno, one of our most reliable men, and then I hear someone laughing in a way that stabs me right in the heart, and I realize the laugh’s on me, it’s me doing the laughing because the boy there in front of me is not laughing but is bending over me and putting his hand on my shoulder, very gently, like he wanted to go easy on me, and he says, “C’mon, Dad, we can go now.”
Translation of “Der Zuverlässigsten einer,” from Auf Sand gebaut: Sieben Geschichten aus der unmittelbaren Vergangenheit (Built upon the Sand: Seven Stories from the Very Recent Past). By arrangement with the estate of Stefan Heym. Translation copyright 2009 by Gerald Chapple and Tracey Fortune Yanqui. All rights reserved.