“Another piece of pepperoni?” Ludwig offered generously.
“Thanks, I’m full.” I patted my stomach.
“Full,” Ludwig repeated the word, enchanted. “It’s been so long since I heard that word.”
He glanced affectionately at the pepperoni stick lying on the uncovered table, as if looking at an old friend who’d helped him relive a pleasant childhood experience, and stroked the peel nostalgically. From time to time, they could hear the shelling out there and if you pressed your face against the windowpane you could see the French church going up in flames and the streetlamps lying on the sidewalk like guards who’d fallen asleep on duty. Ludwig pulled away from the window, leaving an oily spot where his nose had been.
“Those filthy Russians won’t stop until there’s nothing left in Berlin to destroy,” he hissed furiously. He scanned the room as if searching for something he could smash. But there was nothing there except the desk, two chairs, and what was left of the pepperoni. Ludwig gave it a close look. He smiled. “After pepperoni like that what we need is a beer,” he hummed merrily to himself. “But we’re not going to find any here.”
“How about going out for a walk?” Ludwig proposed. “It’s good for the digestion.” We helped each other with our coats. Ludwig disappeared into the adjoining room and returned holding an old hunting rifle. “I got it from Opa Günther for my seventeenth birthday,” he said, eyes shining. “Maybe we can trade it for a bottle of wine, or some beers.” We stepped outside, and it was as if we’d been thrown into a place we’d never been before. The street was too ugly to be Berlin, the weather was too cold to be late April. Ludwig stuck the rifle under his arm, and pulled on a pair of tattered wool-lined gloves. “The walk will help us warm up,” he whispered hopefully. We headed down the boulevard, and Ludwig kept blowing on his hands to keep them warm, as if the steam coming out of his mouth could fill in the holes in his gloves. The few streetlamps that were still standing weren’t working, but the buildings burning around us gave off enough light. Ludwig stopped by a poster of the Führer. He pointed at it and said proudly: “He and I studied at the same school in Linz. He was two grades below me.” He gave the rifle a fond look. He’d forgotten that it was under his arm and once again his eyes reflected a gentle nostalgia. “It was at the end of that year in Linz that Opa Günther gave me the rifle. I was with Anna then, the first girl I actually touched,” he added, examining his fingertips, which were poking out through the frayed wool. “Adolf was in love with her. He’d bring her flowers, candy, paintings he’d made. I felt sorry for the little guy. He was so short. Came up to here on Anna.” Ludwig held out his left arm parallel to the ground at chin height. “Besides, he was younger than we were, just a kid really. He didn’t have that ridiculous mustache yet.” Ludwig pointed at the poster. “There was something very pathetic about that whole thing with Anna, the way he tried to have her, though she always treated him with patience and respect. One day she came to show me a painting he’d done of her. She held it up next to her face. There was almost no resemblance. True, Anna was pretty, but the person in the picture was much more than that. She was perfect, a goddess, like the Valkyries we learned about in literature class. Anna refused to let me touch the picture. She said she was leaving me, she was in love with Adolf.” Ludwig sighed, and I couldn’t help following the cloud of steam that spread above him. “’You’re a great guy, Ludwig,’” she said. ‘You’re not stupid at all, except you have no imagination. But Adolf,’ her eyes shone, ‘Adolf is an artist.’ I spent the whole afternoon up in the attic with the new rifle that Opa had given me, imagining how I’d kill him, kill her, kill myself.” Ludwig aimed the rifle at an invisible target. “Kaboom!” he made the sound of a gun being fired. “And she said I had no imagination,” he gave me a sad smile. “An artist,” he spat out the word derisively. “I’ll tell you something about art,” he added indignantly. “My mother’s brother Siegfried used to make sculptures out of cheese. That idiot could spend hours whittling away. Every time he’d join us for a meal he’d sculpt something: a horse, a dove, a sombrero. Mother would line up the sculptures on the mantelpiece and within three days they’d smell so bad and get so moldy that we’d have to get rid of them.” Ludwig aimed a kick at one of the streetlamp cadavers lying there on the ground, and the rifle slipped out from under his arm, hitting the pavement. He bent over to pick it up, and as he rose, his eyes met mine. “Cheese is meant to be eaten,” he decreed in a no-nonsense tone.
At the entrance to Alexanderplatz we stumbled on a body. Ludwig turned it over clumsily and tried to feel a pulse at a spot where there had never been one. It was the body of a young woman, her dress soaked in blood. Even now, after death, her face remained contorted in pain. Ludwig leaned the rifle against the fence of one of the houses and picked up the girl. There was no place for us to bury her. Ludwig placed her gently on the back seat of an open Volkswagen parked nearby. He took off his coat and used it to cover the suffering body. Then he went back to fetch his old rifle, and we continued our stroll. “What a strange evening,” Ludwig said, his voice trembling, his arms wrapped around himself, as if trying to ward off the cold. “I gave that young woman my coat, and I don’t even know her name, damn it.” Ludwig continued, still freezing. “I don’t even know the color of her eyes.”
Next to the ruins of the opera house Ludwig found three bottles of plum wine and a drunk. The drunk was wearing a beat-up dress suit, and the bottles were empty.
“I beg your pardon, gentlemen,” the drunk said and bowed, almost losing his balance. “Would you gentlemen happen to have anything to alleviate the diabolical pain pounding in my head?”
“All I have is a pair of gloves and a rifle,” Ludwig replied, visibly disappointed at the sight of the empty bottles.
The drunk sized up the caliber of the rifle with his finger. “No, it’s too small,” he said and shook his head. “I guess I’ll have to go on suffering.”
The drunk leaned back on one of the streetlamps and slid down into sitting position, trying to take in the view of the opera house ruins with an unfocused gaze. “Isn’t it disgraceful how poorly public buildings are maintained in Berlin these days,” he observed. His right hand was tugging at the crease in my pants.
“Please remind me tomorrow to write a strongly worded letter to the City Council,” Ludwig said. He was still clutching the bottle, but had lost interest in it.
“We’ve been walking around for nearly an hour, and we haven’t met a soul.” It was clear from the nervous tremor that shook his body that he was thinking of the girl.
“Of course not,” the drunk said. “You haven’t met anyone because they’re all at the Philharmonic concert.”
“What are you talking about?” Ludwig’s voice belied his annoyance. “The Philharmonic hasn’t played for over two years.”
“But the cannons,” the drunk said, pointing skyward. “I was sure they were playing the 1812 again.”
Feeling the frustration well up inside him, Ludwig hurled the empty bottle to the ground, smashing it. “There’s nobody left in this ghost town,” he whispered and looked at me. “Even you are transparent.” I studied my hand in the light of the flame that was consuming the French church. He had a point.
“Ars longa, vita brevis,” the drunk said dejectedly.
“Beg your pardon?” Ludwig asked, looking confused.
“No, no,” the drunk insisted valiantly. “It is I who must apologize.”
The sound of coughing coming from a figure stooped over the table in the café made us both jump. Strange how quiet Berlin could sound after you’ve gotten used to the sounds of shelling. As we walked toward the café, Ludwig ran his hand through his hair as a final, eager preparation for an important appointment. The man at the table in the café was wearing a fashionably beige raincoat. His clean-shaven face seemed disconcertingly familiar, his small eyes were focused on the still-full chessboard in front of him. “Interesting, very interesting,” he mumbled. “How can white deliver a checkmate in three moves?”
Ludwig squinted in an effort to remember. Suddenly a big smile appeared on his face and he ran gleefully toward the man in the raincoat.
“Adolf, it’s you, I didn’t recognize you at first without the ridiculous mustache,” Ludwig said with a laugh, lifting his finger to his upper lip to indicate a mock-mustache. “Really, Adolf, you have no idea how happy I am to see a familiar face in this empty city. I’ve been pounding the pavement for more than an hour now without meeting a living soul, as if this whole fucking city is playing hide-and-seek with me.”
Hitler went on eyeing the chessboard with interest. Most of the other tables in the café had been overturned, and there were chess pieces strewn about. “Adolf, it’s me, Ludwig from Linz. Why don’t you answer me?” Ludwig asked, gently tapping the coat-wearer’s shoulder.
“That really is a complicated problem,” Hitler muttered, still preoccupied, his right hand massaging the back of his neck.
“So it’s beneath you to answer me, eh?” Ludwig hissed furiously. “Then I won’t trouble you to talk, Führer.” He spat out the final word, overstressing each syllable. “All you need to do is listen.”
Ludwig leaned on his rifle, and started talking in a dreamy voice. “I had a younger brother, Karl. You didn’t know him. He was more talented than I was. My parents sent him to school in Vienna, but when my family’s resources ran out, we had to move to Germany. Karl had to interrupt his studies and started working at occasional jobs. When the war broke out, he soon volunteered for service in the S.S., and shortly after that he was made an officer. Before his enlistment, he’d always been a happy kind of fellow, smiling, whistling, the life of every party. But now,” Ludwig continued sadly, “Now, when he walked down the street, his face was expressionless, blank as a zombie’s. Three months ago, he shot himself with his service gun, and it’s all because of you, you scum.” There were tears in Ludwig’s voice. “It’s all because of you.”
“I must admit,” Hitler mumbled, “that the problem seems almost unsolvable.” Ludwig looked at him with moist and angry eyes. “You scum,” he hissed again, and his old rifle fired a shot.
“That’s strange,” I told Ludwig as I studied the chessboard. “How can you deliver a checkmate when there’s no king on the board?”
“Let’s go home,” Ludwig whispered. “I’m tired.” We walked in silence. On our way out of Alexanderplatz, Ludwig wiped his damp face with the back of his hand. “I apologize for that shameful scene in the café,” he said, lowering his head. “I don’t know what came over me. Some kind of temporary insanity, I suppose. And what rubbish it was too. I don’t even have a brother.”
“He did a lot of bad things. He deserved to die,” I said, trying to cheer him up.
“Maybe,” Ludwig answered, “but that’s not why I fired the shot.” We walked a little further in the lull between shellings, and Ludwig gave a strangled laugh, more like a wheeze. “I had a younger brother, Karl . . .” he said, mimicking his own voice. “And she had the nerve to say I had no imagination.”
There was a poster of the Führer on the wall of one of the buildings. I compared it with my recollection of the man in the café. “You were right, Ludwig,” I said. “He really did look better without the mustache.”
© Etgar Keret. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Miriam Shlesinger. All rights reserved.