From Pigeons on the Grass, a novel, which was published last month by New Directions. Koeppen (1906–96) was a German novelist who was awarded the Büchner Prize in 1962. Translated from the German.
He had marriage on his mind. The sky-blue limousine drew up in front of the tenement where Carla lived. Washington had bought flowers, yellow flowers. As he climbed out of the limousine, the sun broke through the cloudy sky. The light bounced off the metalwork of the limousine and made the flowers burst into sulfurous blossom. Washington sensed he was being watched from the windows of the tenement. The little people who lived in many clusters, in every room three or four people, every room a cage, a zoo was more accommodating, the little people pressed up against the patched and starched curtains and jostled one another. “He’s bringing her flowers. See that. He ought to be—” From some complex or other, it upset them to see Washington bringing flowers into the house. Washington himself came in for relatively little attention; he was just a man, albeit a black man. What came in for attention were the flowers; they counted the number of parcels he was carrying, and the car was eyed with bitterness. In Germany, a car like that cost more than a little house. It cost more than the little house in the suburbs that people yearned for all their lives. The sky-blue limousine parked outside the door was a provocation.
A couple of old women had registered complaints about what was going on in the third-floor apartment. Frau Welz must have contacts with the police. The police refused to get involved, cancer on democracy. Besides, the old women would have had cause to regret any intervention from the police. The police would have robbed them of the principal drama in their lives.
Washington walked up the stairs: jungles surrounded him. Behind every door they stood listening. But the times were not favorable, the times didn’t allow the herd to throw themselves upon the alien creature that had forced its way into their territory. Frau Welz opened the door. She was coarse-haired, fat, baggy-assed, dirty. In her eyes, though, Washington was a tame animal: maybe not exactly a cow, but a goat. “She’s not home,” she said, and made to take the packages from him. He said, “Oh, that’s too bad.” He said it in the mild, distant way of blacks talking to whites, but his voice had an undertone of tension and impatience. He wanted to be rid of the woman. He loathed her. He walked down the gloomy corridor to Carla’s room. From some of the doors he was eyed by the girls, who took soldiers back to Frau Welz’s.
Washington suffered from where they had to live. But he was unable to do anything about it. Carla couldn’t find them any other room. She said, “I can’t get anywhere else with you.” Carla suffered from it as well, but less than Washington, whom she was forever assuring of her suffering, how unworthy all this was for her, which really meant how much she was abasing herself for him, how low she had to stoop, and he always had to try and make up for it with more love, more presents, more sacrifices, and it helped but only a little. Carla despised and cursed Frau Welz and the girls, but when she was alone and bored, when Washington was at work in the barracks, she would fraternize with the girls, invite them round, gossip with them, girl talk, whore talk, or she would sit in Frau Welz’s kitchen, drink cups of acorn coffee from the pot that was always bubbling on the stove top, and tell Frau Welz (who would go on to tell the neighbors) anything she wanted to know. The girls in the corridor liked to show Washington what they had; they would pull open their pinafore dresses, adjust their garters, brush clouds of scent from their dyed hair. There was a competition among the girls to see which of them could get Washington into bed. The girls didn’t understand Washington. They couldn’t get it into their heads that he wasn’t a john. Washington was born for a happy family life, but unhappy chances had thrown him off his path and into this apartment, to the jungle and the swamp.
Washington hoped he might find a message from Carla in the living room. He thought Carla would be back soon. Maybe she had gone to get her hair done. He looked on the dressing table for a note that would say where she had gone. On the dressing table were bottles of nail varnish, face lotion, pots of cream, and boxes of powder. There were photographs jammed inside the frame of the mirror. One of them showed Carla’s disappeared husband, who was now on his way to his official death, his being declared missing presumed dead, and the taking off of the bond that tied him and Carla together in this world till-death-do-you-part. He was in field-gray uniform. His chest had on it the swastika against which Washington had gone to battle.
Washington looked at the man placidly. Placidly he took in the swastika on the man’s chest. The swastika had become meaningless. Maybe the racist emblem had never meant anything to the man. Maybe Washington hadn’t really been fighting against that. Maybe they’d both been cheated. He didn’t hate the man. The man didn’t unsettle him. He wasn’t jealous of his predecessor. Occasionally, he would feel a little envious of him, for being done with everything. It was a dark feeling; Washington would repress it.
Next to her husband was Carla in her bridal outfit and white veil. She was eighteen when she married. Twelve years ago now. In those years the world that Carla and her husband had thought they would live in long and securely had collapsed. Of course, that world hadn’t been the world of her parents anyway. Carla had been pregnant when she had gone to the registry office, and the white veil in the photograph was a lie, or not really a lie, because no one was or could have been taken in by it, because the white veil was just a piece of ornamentation, and became a painful source of ridicule when taken as an indication of an unbroken hymen, and it was by no means frivolous to think like that, because the times were if anything inclined to mock the idea that the bridegroom, the public celebration and compact over, would fling himself upon his bride, on his white sacrificial lamb, to find that idea shameless and frivolous, and yet marriage was de rigueur, the official and orderly business of matrimony, the blessing from the state, all for the sake of the children, the children who were to be born into the state, and were even solicited, visit beautiful Germany, and Carla and her husband, then just married, believed in a Reich to whom one could and should give children, trustingly, dutifully, and responsibly, children: true wealth of the nation, marriage loans for young couples.
Another picture, of larger format than the others, showed himself, Washington Price: he was in his baseball uniform, with the white cap, bat, and fielding mitt. His expression was grave and dignified. For a while he stared stupidly at the photographs. Where was Carla?
What was he doing here? He saw himself in the mirror, with his flowers and packages. It was funny, him standing in this room with the family snaps, the toiletries, and the mirror. For a moment, Washington was overcome by the feeling that his life was absurd. He reeled in front of his reflection. From one of the girls’ rooms he could hear a radio playing music. The American station was playing the sad and majestic Ellington tune “Negro Heaven.” Washington felt like crying. As he listened to the music, a song of home from a whore’s room in an alien land (and what land wasn’t alien to him?), he felt the whole ugliness of existence. Earth was no heaven. Least of all a Negro heaven. But straightaway his courage set off in pursuit of a new fata morgana, he got the idea that before long there would be a new picture stuck in this frame, the picture of a little brown baby, the baby that he and Carla were going to bring into the world.
He stepped into the kitchen, into Frau Welz’s kitchen, to the bubbling cauldrons, a witch in swaths of smoke, steam, and fumes, and she gave him to understand that she knew exactly where Carla was, he should set his mind at rest, there was something the matter with Carla, something had cropped up, he would understand, sometimes if people loved each other they got a little careless, she knew all about that, she probably didn’t look as though she did, but she knew about these things, and the girls here, they all knew, yes, the thing with Carla, it wasn’t too bad (he didn’t understand, he, Washington, didn’t understand, didn’t understand this German witch’s spells, an evil woman, what was she saying? what was the matter with Carla? why didn’t she say she was at the hairdresser’s, at the cinema? why these riddles? so many bad words), it really wasn’t bad, as she had such a good doctor, and had always been careful to look after the doctor even during the bad times, “I always said to Carla, Carla, I said, it’s too much, but Carla always wanted to take him the best of everything, well, now we know what it’s good for, Carla always giving him the best,” there was absolutely no need to worry, “Dr. Frahm, Washington, Dr. Frahm will take care of it.” That he understood. He understood the name, Dr. Frahm. What was the matter? Was Carla sick? Washington got a fright. Or had she gone to the doctor on account of the baby? But that couldn’t be, that couldn’t be. She couldn’t do that, that of all things she couldn’t, she mustn’t do—