I shook my head and turned my attention to the manuscript. The title page said The Good American. I shot her a comical smile, took a deep breath, and turned the page.
In April of 1948, in a dim and Spartan attic room in Wiesbaden, Germany, Ruth Karstens, a young woman of twenty-six, mended a dress. It was the only dress she owned, a wildflower print on a pale yellow background, and it was not the first time she needed to mend it. This time, she had ripped it when she went to a job interview at a small, newly re-opened grocery shop. Walking in the door, she had caught the dress on a nail that ripped a perfectly triangular tear into a cluster of poppies and daisies and summer vines that congregated on the dress. She tried hard to work the stitches in such a way that they would follow the outlines of the flowers and vines. The tear, she figured, would be less obvious that way.
She worked beneath the light of a tall, elegant lamp that was wholly out of place in the room and did nothing to soften its appalling poverty. Its meager furnishings consisted of a table and four chairs that didn't match, a cot, an elaborately wrought but slightly rusted iron bedstead, some boxes, lined up where the slanted roof of the room met the floor, and an old radio.
The cot was neatly made up with a blanket that had woven in its margins the letters US ARMY'. Beyond the sphere of the lamplight, in the soft shadows, two small children slept in the bed. The small skylight above the bed was like an afterthought in the slanted wall that made up the roof of the nineteenth-century Victorian apartment building where Ruth lived. The skylight was propped open to a mild evening sky filled with stars.
As she sewed, Ruth looked, now and then, at a glass filled with grape hyacinths, wild daffodils, and anemones. She had gone for a walk earlier that day with the children. They had left the city and had walked through a park that, before the war, had been a calm and tranquil refuge from city life with neatly trimmed lawns and benches and quiet paths beneath high old trees. But now the lawns had gone wild and the paths were overgrown with weeds. Not that it mattered to Ruth or to the children. They had collected wildflowers and scouted out the places at the edge of the woods for blackberry vines that had just begun to bloom and would yield a wealth of berries later in the summer.
Ruth made a mental note of just where the blackberries were, because they were food and they were free, and if she could hoard sugar, which might be impossible but she could try, she could make jam.
The battered radio on the floor beside her chair played a lively waltz that was barely audible. Now and then, Ruth hummed softly along with the music without making the least sound and tapped her foot to its rhythm as she sewed. At times, the radio sputtered, which she registered with a frown and fixed by tapping it sharply with her foot.
The sudden, jarring ring of a doorbell beyond the room so startled her that, with an unconscious gesture, she put her hand to her heart. With an intuitive gesture born of fear, she turned the radio off and waited, sitting stiffly, straining to hear the least sound. The bell rang again, loud and insistent. Again there was silence. Finally, a door creaked open somewhere and slow footsteps shuffled along a corridor. Muffled voices came through the door as another closed beyond with a thump, and someone knocked. Ruth put down her sewing. The children lifted their tousled heads.
Ruth turned to the children who, rosy-cheeked and sleepy, sat up now. She put her finger to her lips. The children slipped under the cover so only their eyes showed, fearful and curious, as Ruth cautiously opened the door.
In the dim light of the hallway stood her landlady, Mrs. Garske, wearing a housecoat and curlers--she had obviously been startled out of deep sleep--, grimly holding on to an emaciated, desperately filthy, and utterly exhausted young woman. "Hannah!" Ruth cried out and ripped the door open wide. It slammed against the wall with a bang just as Hannah collapsed at the threshold.
Copyright Ursula Mandel 2001. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint this excerpt please contact http://www.ursulamandel.com
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