On the second day, at one of the slave labor camps, a skeleton took his hand and kissed it, then held on to it, an obscene gratitude, gibbering something in Slavic -- Polish? Russian? -- and Jake froze, trying not to smell, feeling his hand buckle under the weight of the fierce grip. "I'm not a soldier," he said, wanting to run but unable to take his hand away, ashamed, caught now too. The story they'd all missed, the hand you couldn't shake off.
"Old home week for you, boyo, isn't it?" Brian said, cupping his hands to be heard.
"You've been before?" Liz said, curious.
"Lived here. One of Ed's boys, darling, didn't you know?" Brian said. "Till the jerries chucked him out. Of course, they chucked everybody out. Had to, really. Considering."
"So you speak German?" Liz said. "Thank god somebody does."
"Berliner deutsch, " Brian answered for him, a tease.
"I don't care what kind of deutsch it is," she said, "as long as it's deutsch. " She patted Jake's knees. "You stick with me, Jackson, " she said, like Phil Harris on the radio. Then, "What was it like?"
Well, what was it like? A vise slowly closing. In the beginning, the parties and the hot days on the lakes and the fascination of events. He had come to cover the Olympics in '36 and his mother knew somebody who knew the Dodds, so there were embassy cocktails and a special seat in their box at the stadium. Goebbels' big party on the Pfaueninsel, the trees decked out in thousands of lights shaped like butterflies, officers swaggering along the footpaths, drunk on champagne and importance, throwing up in the bushes. The Dodds were appalled. He stayed. The Nazis supplied the headlines, and even a stringer could live on the rumors, watching the war come day by day. By the time he signed on with Columbia, the vise had shut, rumors now just little gasps for air. The city contracted around him, so that at the end it was a closed circle: the Foreign Press Club in Potsdamerplatz, up the gloomy Wilhelmstrasse to the ministry for the twice-daily briefings, on up to the Adlon, where Columbia kept a room for Shirer and they gathered at the raised bar, comparing notes and watching the SS lounging around the fountain below, their shiny boots on the rim while the bronze frog statues spouted jets of water toward the skylight. Then out the East-West Axis to the broadcasting station on Adolf Hitler Platz and the endless wrangling with Nanny Wendt, then a taxi home to the tapped telephone and the watchful eye of Herr Lechter, the blockleiter who lived in the apartment down the hall, snapped up from some hapless Jews. No air. But that had been at the end.
"It was like Chicago," he said. Blunt and gritty and full of itself, a new city trying to be old. Clumsy Wilhelmine palaces that always looked like banks, but also jokes with an edge and the smell of spilled beer. Sharp midwestern air.
"Chicago? It won't look like Chicago now." This, surprisingly, from the bulky civilian in a business suit, introduced at the airport as a congressman from upstate New York,
"No, indeed," Brian said, mischievous. "All banged about now. Still, what isn't? Whole bloody country's one big bomb site. Do you mind my asking? I've never known. What does one call a congressman? I mean, are you The Honorable?"
"Technically. That's what it says on the envelopes, anyway. But we just use Congressman -- or Mister."
"Mister. Very democratic."
"Yes, it is," the congressman said, humorless,
"You with the conference or have you just come for a look-in?" Brian said, playing with him.
"I'm not attending the conference, no."
"Just come to see the raj, then."
"Oh, no offense. It's very like, though, wouldn't you say? Military Government. Pukkah sahibs, really."
Copyright © 2001 Joseph Kanon
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