The stink from Jim’s armpit brought him out of his half-dream state. Its unpleasantness made him hunker down towards the foot of his bed, when what he really wanted was to soar above the stalemate of his musty sheets. But, this way, everything fit, including the sensation of being locked away in a cocoon of his own making. Apparently, there was no urgency or purpose to his floundering, despite his having killed a man in the last twelve hours.
The corpse would have been recovered by now, surely…? That was his sole thought as he continued to deny being awake, haplessly pondering what the Fates had in store for him. He struggled to induce his body back to that numbing sleep he had yearned so desperately the night before. With nothing more to live for—just a matter of time, he knew—why go in to work, what was the point? Why imprison myself any sooner than I have to!
He rolled over. His breath deflected off the pillow, along with a new odor that reminded Jim of his lover, a holy combination of semen and sweat after lovemaking. This struck him—how seamlessly this scent was attached to the stench Hans’s entrails left behind to linger, once the serpentine guts had made contact with air. Why am I not sickened? I should be revolted by my actions. Yet there was only emptiness where Jim might have expected guilt.
His eyes focused blurrily on the bed stand clock, at the filigreed Art Deco hands pointing to the elegant ten and six on the ivoried oval face. The timepiece—bought at an auction he and Hans had attended that previous October—made fun of him now. High art suddenly turned into homespun bourgeoisie, deriding the innocence of that autumn afternoon which had filled Jim with such hope for love and a future.
That had been 1936. A full year before the more insurmountable problems began to chafe, belying their carefree lives.
Jim knew his being late for rehearsals yet again meant automatic dismissal. How little it mattered today that he would be jobless, be an unemployed foreigner in a country that had grown impatient with their decadent habits. The same country that, not even a decade before, had fawned on them, les émigrés with their less-than-German ways of doing things. Would that the voices calling to him from America were brighter, fairer; regardless—Jim had made a point of leaving all ofthatbehind him quite permanently.
He reached for the gin in the glass next to the half-eaten sandwich on the floor. The tot of liquor could not entice the escape he craved—even for him, whose body was not all that big, his size more slight than thin, artistic rather than strong. “Chile, where do you get that from?” Aunt Amelia had chided him over some grand gesture he had appropriated at a precocious stage. “The other side of the family, I suppose,” was his pat retort to uproarious laughter from the visitors gathered in their parlor. Coming from a bastard child, his arrogance was nothing if not flawless.
The young American had traveled a fair portion of the world on those mannerisms alone, a singular way he had of putting on airs that rarely, if ever, offended anyone, though why it didn’t he was at a loss to say. His satisfied smile had opened doors, allowed him to succumb to the wiles and generous transgressions with total strangers, without much need for fleeting clarity those murky nights offered people like him who had mannerisms to spare.
He had traveled in opportune style once his French had improved in Paris, his Italian flourished in Rome. His ease with German had led him to the cesspool of Berlin’s excesses to paint expressionist art before it was debunked and confiscated as degenerate; all the while playing Black for all it was worth, seldom pausing to fathom what might have been had he stayed in his paltry hell-fired life back in Harlem proper.
So it was ironic to have Harlem, most notably Aunt Amelia, pop to mind as the gin slid down his gullet to tickle just behind his raspy chest; absorption complicated by too many cigarettes that had precipitated too many tears. Too many screaming matches having followed too much beer. Too much screwing without the drive of love, with little commitment beyond hello to confuse jealousies that forever proved misguided. This sequence of interconnected moments, in what he had always considered as a successful life, had caused the gun to be drawn and fought over.
Had he wanted Hans dead? The anger in the couple’s argument had never contained such acrimony before, unless it had been subterfuge on its way to lust. Could he have been that foolishly protective of a man who thought about love of the Reich all the time, who was incapable of little more than fucking and sucking and eating out men’s arses?
The pistol drawn from Hans’s holster had not been that dramatic considering their drunken stupor. Once the gun had been disabled, Jim had blithely assumed passionate lovemaking to follow. When Hans reached for the knife, the quarrel escalated as the men fumbled over the new weapon. The tussle from the mattress to the sofa towards the floor-to-ceiling windows in Hans’s cramped fourth-storey balcony had been surreal, like a badly directed cabaret scene fraught with chaos and none of the bawdiness.
The thin metal blade breaking through the chest cavity, landing past the area where he imagined Hans’s heart to be, would stay with Jim forever. Of this he was certain. How many more seconds before Hans managed to maneuver the dagger from its imbedded site, and charge it inches below into the center of his torso, as though deeding his own death? The grotesque smile on his face had to have been madness setting in. One final mocking gesture in this life!
Hans had lain there, defiant, abhorrent in his own mutilation—holding on to life— looking at his lover of two years, at his black-skinned beauty.
“You see, you have your wish,” the German soldier said in an intimate whisper, no different than if they had been dining at their favorite bistro, before the blunt talk of war and the hating of Jews had robbed Berlin of its voracious pleasures.
Jim had wanted to reach out to Hans but the putrid sound of entrails gushing forth from the self-inflicted wound was an intimidating barrier. He hesitated. Jim’s tears, as impatient as they were solemn, said, “Man— I need to get out of here. I will not inherit your guilt.”
He blasphemed the country that had given him this godless blond youth without a conscience. This boy who had been raised to hate all that was not ethnically pure, who lacked the particular ability of resisting all the blackness Jim offered: in his strong expressive hands whose bi-colored configuration scorned segregation with a mere wave of them; in his thighs that sang the splendor all kingdoms had heard sung since Adam had embraced Eve and begotten Man in search of Man; in his fine intelligence that had demanded of Hans to think past rhetoric and hatred, forcing the youth to reconsider all his rudimentary politics, never able to reconcile its many contradictions.
It was Hans who fell for Jim first. Simple common sense. The “volk” sense Hitler mistook for guilefulness at the German core. But it was Jim, older by four years and a world apart from Hans’s limited life vocabulary, who had fallen hardest.
Jim’s hands, half inside the entrails, had felt safe, full of surprising solace as life slipped away from the man Jim had held so often before. If lovers’ eyes in this lifetime had the fortune to meet, as they had with them, then certainly a heaven awaited the repository of their love, holding forth any unsung glory until they could reunite in the hereafter and beyond.
“There’s a heaven waiting there, baby. Hans, I can see it…” And he could. Jim could see reverence all around them, as if approaching a sacred calling, even as he tried to retrieve life from guts that refused to be tamed.
“Komm mit mir…” he heard Hans beckon.
For the first time in Jim’s twenty-six years he wanted to laugh at a language other than English. The adventurous seduction that had compelled him to apply himself to the romantic study of so many tongues vanished in a second. ‘Come with me’ was all the young German had said. Why was Jim summoning the strength to resist laughing? Why could he feel his own heart breaking with the weight of this confusion? It was all so absurd.
Baby, I want to live, Jim thought, but he could not betray a dying man’s delusion. He looked away, momentarily, as the sound of what could only be the death knoll straying from one shoreline to the other traversed the body he clutched possessively in his arms.
Jim knew this at every level of his being. It unearthed a beauty he had not yet known existed before; could not, therefore, have anticipated its impact. Calling it god or soul, he could see it for what it was— a taking back of sorts, a minus in the equation of life, and he acknowledged Universe for the first time since his church-going days with Aunt Amelia.
Mid-morning, in his meager room, Jim scrounged for food, any scraps to fill up his aching belly. Is this how men act on the day of their executions? He walked naked to the window and peered outside. The same Nazi shit was all over the street. When? How soon? The body had to have been discovered by now! He tried to imagine the activity at the club. Who would be the first to question his absence at rehearsals? Would someone be dispatched after lunch, curious to see if he had overdosed again, fallen sick or run off with a newer, much younger soldier, all pretentious-note-left-behind-with-sordid-descriptors?
“Damn, damn, damn,” he yelled, convinced that his good fortune had finally run out. He scoured the street below for signs, anything that looked suspicious. Everything was normal. There were no sequestered figures in dark corners spying up at his windows. No Gestapo car coming to a halt in front of the building. So the unexpected knock made him jump.
Jim ran for clothes, grabbing a kitchen knife from the sink to slip into his pocket. He glanced in the mirror by the door and saw his hair kinked up in a bulbous mass on one side, all natty on the other. He reached for a kerchief and tied it—Garboesque—hoping it would detract the listener from his lies, make his account more credible somehow.
The voice on the other side made him rush to open it.
“Jim…” The hysterical woman grabbed him by the neck, sobbing as she came in. “Es tut mir so sehr leid,” she said mournfully. Jim tried to breathe as best he could inside Marta’s ironclad grasp. His heart beat out of control as he waited for more information. Was he supposed to pretend shock, is that what was expected? What story did she have for him?
“Marta…what…what is it?”
She looked around, more out of embarrassment at the shambles before her than anything else. She began to repeat herself, “I’m so sorry…” when she noticed the bloodstained shirt next to the bed.
Jim saw where her eyes had gone. He blanched. He turned towards his guest. “Marta…”
The woman pushed herself away—not that Jim was holding her—it had been the opposite. She let go of her friend’s arms and went towards the pile of clothes. She sat on the chair next to the bed, her fingers not quite afraid of the textured blood that tainted the cloth she held in her hands.
“Marta… I can explain…”
“Hast du ihn geliebt, ja? My brother, you loved him…?”
Twenty-four hours before, Jim would not have hesitated with the question pressed upon him this way. His answer would have been a resounding yes, shouted out over the Führer’s ranting speeches. But the life he had loved had turned conjuror. If guilt could master anything, then it could transform the heart; it was the only explanation for his silence. Why else would he be struggling to answer her like this?
Jim looked at the woman who had gone out of her way to make her brother meet a man that would challenge all of his weak ideals. It was this clear conscience in Marta that Jim so admired, whose integrity had prevented her from following what her Hitler Youth training had tried to instill in her cohorts. None of the racial ideology had gained any foothold in Marta’s psyche.
“I know Hans loved you.”
At this, Jim broke down. Her sentence reconstructed the image of Hans at the dinner table the night Marta had first brought Jim over for dinner. He could still see Hans’s blue eyes fondling the skin of his right palm as the two had shook hands. The skin on skin contact had disengaged all the theory behind Hans’s bigotry, invited reason in its stead—born of lust if not humanity.
“How did you…” Jim tried to ask her in his best German, but to no avail. There were too many questions that could not be asked this morning for answers that had not yet been contemplated by either.
“It was suicide, ja?” she said.
Jim’s tears abated only slightly as he fished around for a perfect answer; too many words sometimes being just as bad as too few. He opted for a tiny nod of his head. He observed Marta as she went to the brick fireplace. She set the bloody clothes in the hearth and reached for a lighter in her coat pocket.
“My parents did not want to see the body. I went…” She lit the material and watched the combustion fan over to engulf the garment. “Is there anything else that needs to be burned?”
Jim thought for a moment. He went to his dresser and found the document that was smudged; his fingerprints from his lover’s blood. He handed it to her.
“C’est quoi?” she asked, reverting to the French they so loved to speak when they wanted to swap secrets, usually about some handsome man in their midst. She read the official notepaper and glanced at him. “Is this why he did it?”
“We quarreled. Over this. I knew he had no choice. The SS. He had been appointed… I wanted him to leave Germany immediately, with me, last night… He was afraid. At least…I think he was afraid.”
Marta saw the look of doubt cross over his face. She knew better. Meeting Jim had been her perfect validation, shifting the burden of proof forever onto the opposing side. Jim had changed her brother. Of that, she was convinced. “Hans had the choice…”
“He had you. You had choices, the two of you together…”
She threw the card into the fire. They stared as the orange flames consumed the white paper until all that was left was the embossed swastika at the top of the sheet.
About the Author:
Tobias Maxwell is the author of two novels, Thomas, and The Sex and Dope Show Saga; a novella, And Baby Makes Two; three memoirs, 1973—Early Applause, 1977—The Year of Leaving Monsieur and 1983—The Unknown Season; and a poetry collection, Homogium. His material has appeared in, Balita and Mom…Guess What Newspapers, in The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, Worlds, LA Edge, Art & Understanding, New Century and The California Therapist Magazines. His one-act play, The Mary Play was republished in 2014 by Black Lawrence Press in Art & Understanding: Literature from the First Twenty Years of A&U. You can find more by visiting his website and blog at: tobiasmaxwell.com.