Robert Earle

Language Lessons

After his stroke, Creighton could only get out of his wheelchair for short hops around the flat. He had no awareness of the left side of his face and left it untouched with his electric razor. He suffered from tachycardia and angina. He had complex relations with several doctors and two hospitals. Understandably, he wanted to talk Matt’s ear off when they saw each other, talk business, the Yankees, politics, things he had seen on the TV. Anything except broader discussions of the future. He definitely wouldn’t consider moving simply because Matt was taking a job in Europe.

“No ‘assisted living,’ I’m telling you. The only thing would be going to Berlin with you. That I’d like.”

“Dad, I’ll barely be able to manage living there myself, let alone look after you.”

“You minored in German in college. I paid the bills.”

This was true, but Matt had forgotten almost everything and regretted telling his firm that German was essentially his second tongue, but he’d been desperate, wanting to get out of New York more because of his divorce than because of Creighton, but because of Creighton, too.

“Why not move to Denver? Zeke repeated his offer on the phone last night.”

“I don’t want you two talking about me.”

“You’re our father. How can we not talk about you?”

“If there is anything to be discussed, I will initiate discussions. Denver is out.”

“But he has that suite downstairs.”

Creighton glared at him as he always did when the subject of Zeke’s basement came up. He pushed aside the curtains with his cane and revealed the apartment buildings across Broadway. “At least here I’ve got something to look at.” Then he returned to a favorite theme. “I liberated Germany. It would be full circle.” But like Patton he had not made it to Berlin.

* * *

After the decision to take the job in Berlin was settled, Matt’s routine was to spend the morning closing things out with his major accounts and then devote the balance of the day attending to personal affairs, only part of which involved Creighton. He had planned six weeks for this transition, both too much time and too little for what he had on his plate. It amazed him how quickly his clients took to his successors. In some instances the introductory meeting was the only one necessary. Like the divorce, once things were going to change, they changed fast: “We’ll deal with Jeremy from now on,” or, “We’re really glad you’re turning us over to Franco.” If he had been effective on his clients’ behalf, it didn’t show, much as the remains of the marriage didn’t show. Angela kept the brownstone, and he wasn’t welcome to visit, even on holidays when their son, Cray, came north from Florida. Sometimes he wondered if this was more a sign of how close they had been than of how far they’d drifted apart, but try to discuss that with Angela—impossible.

So in some ways, he could pack and head for Berlin, but there was the other business he’d planned for these six weeks: relearning German. This took place in a Starbucks five doors up from his father’s building because he wanted to double the value of his transit time, seeing Creighton and boning up on his German with a single trip uptown. Herr Schmidt, his instructor, was a scrambler who also, Matt gathered, was some kind of a personal trainer. Buff, rosy-faced and soft-spoken, he traveled with an old-fashioned canvas gym bag he apparently used to carry toiletries, towels, and presumably his workout clothes. He was about Cray’s age—late twenties—but seemed more thoughtful. Cray had taken Matt and Angela’s divorce as par for the course. Herr Schmidt, by contrast, thought it was a very sad development. “One lives one’s life for someone else, and then to lose that connection is so terribly disappointing,” he said, in contrast to Cray commenting, “Can’t say I’m surprised, Dad. You and Mom haven’t been on the same wavelength for years.” Words didn’t change anything, but Herr Schmidt’s words seemed more sympathetic, more felt. Did German naturally convey sentiment more sincerely than English? There was a ghostly suggestiveness about the language, something like a doppelganger effect that gave it a doubly meaningful depth. The similarity between some German words and their English equivalents—God/Gott, good/gut, friend/freund, morning/morgen—reinforced this duality. Matt became somewhat obsessed with the conviction that if he could navigate across the divide from what he thought and felt in English to the same in German, he could heal a breach in himself.

Starbucks was not the best place for language lessons, though Herr Schmidt, something of a philosopher, said it had its advantages. “Sounds flow and wander everywhere. They are promiscuous. All this clatter and chatter helps you develop strength in differentiating between the relevant and irrelevant.” Nonetheless his gentle voice was hard to separate from the sound of coffee machines hissing, the rustle of newspapers, the front door swishing open, and the grumble of street noise out on Broadway. Matt had to listen to him as though he were both right across the table from him and also somewhere deeper in reality, an echo of himself.

* * *

Creighton said, “You wouldn’t have taken up German in the first place if I hadn’t been stuck in Germany in World War II.”

“Dad, you were hardly there.”

“I made it to Frankfurt many times.”

“You flew in and out of air strips. You were based in England and France.”

“I saw Messerschmitts coming at me out of the clouds. They still give me nightmares.”

“It’s been forty-seven years.”

“Doesn’t matter. I made it through, and they cheated us all out of the prize.”

“Berlin was rubble.”

“It should have been our rubble.”

Despite Matt’s ineradicable apprehensions, Creighton didn’t have the force of will to get his way anymore. Once upon a time he could impose himself on Matt without effort. He didn’t have to do anything to persuade Matt to choose German to meet his language requirement in college. In their family, World War II and the powerful enigma of Germany had been almost theological. Creighton was in Europe for four years “fighting Hitler.” This experience overshadowed all other myths of good and evil, life and death, happiness and sacrifice, wellness and illness. No need for the Bible or ancient Greece and Rome. The Other was there across the Rhine, and He possessed a perverse majesty. Matt and his brother Zeke knew, and they suspected their mother knew, that Creighton never would be as intimate with anyone as he had been with World War II, not just through deprivation and danger but also via the eros of continuous battle, the way in which the enemy became part of everything, good and bad. That’s what Creighton meant when he said, “War gets right into your skivvies.” He still had his leather flight jacket and .45 caliber service pistol, and the news about Berlin prompted him to ask Matt to go into the closet and bring them out, as Matt had done many times surreptitiously as a boy. Matt draped the jacket over Creighton’s shoulders but did not hand him the gun.

“I flew 320 days in this jacket,” Creighton said. “With that gun, I’m sorry to say I killed a man, but I did.”

Matt was sitting on the white sofa with the .45 in his lap. His father was in his wheelchair by the window. Half-shaven, stooped and gaunt, he looked wolfish with the cracked flight jacket on his shoulders.

“You never told me that.”

“I never told anyone.”

“Where did it happen?”

Creighton had placed his left hand on his left cheek and forgotten it there. His body was something like Matt’s life, or Matt’s feelings, part present, part absent.

“It happened on an airstrip. They strafed us and were trying to send in a platoon to finish us off. I hit a Kraut coming around the corner of a building we were using. Four years of war, the only shot I ever fired with that thing. What a wallop. I hope God forgives me.”

“Presumably he would have killed you if you hadn’t killed him.”

Again, either the decline in his father’s will, or some more profound change, undermined his ability to pursue this discussion. Whatever enabled him to kill a man at one point no longer existed.

* * *

In working with Herr Schmidt, Matt needed to develop his business German, but inevitably he would find himself discussing his father, whom he would have just seen before his German lesson. Every visit was uncomfortably riveting as he confronted what Creighton’s days were really like, particularly the long hours of the afternoon. Yes, there was a housekeeper who came and went, and a visiting nurse, and a woman who catered his meals, and he time spent downstairs kibitzing in the lobby (sometimes deliberately ignoring other elderly folks he disliked), but these were superficial interruptions in the deep tedium of his existence. Although Creighton still managed his “private needs,” he was in visible decline, his hair and eyebrows shaggy, his clothes ill-matched, rumpled and growing threadbare, the remnants of a wardrobe of which he’d been proud, even vain. The more Matt saw his father, the worse he felt about leaving him. The exposed red rims of Creighton’s eyes accentuated a look not just of age but also of fear, fear of not being able to cope with what was heading his way—the end of his living wake.

Matt said to Herr Schmidt, “I tell him I’ll be back from Berlin to see him every other month. It doesn’t console him. He sees this as abandonment.”

Again Herr Schmidt responded with more sympathy than Matt heard on the phone from Cray in Jacksonville, or even Zeke in Denver. “Old age is the most grievous period in life. Nothing children can do mitigates its insults.”

“Is it this bad in Germany?”

“I think we are not so individualistic in Germany. We Germans know collective failure, and there is strength in accepting it that way—collectively. Some of my clients around New York are more handicapped by their attitudes than their bodies.”

Herr Schmidt couldn’t be referring to the kind of client Matt had assumed. It turned out he was a personal assistant, not a personal trainer. By this he meant assisting elderly folks with some of the same problems Creighton faced: clipping his toenails, getting his ears clean, even bathing in a bathtub.

“Just a half hour in a bathtub can be paradise for an older person,” Herr Schmidt said, “but they are often too shy to mention it. Sometimes you have to start the water running to get them to agree.”

The thought of a New York honeycombed with apartment-bound elderly receiving such attentions from this burly, fair-skinned German momentarily staggered Matt. It was as though Herr Schmidt had sprung on him the dialect that everyone really spoke, not the classroom German Matt had learned. Quickly he ran through what he knew of Herr Schmidt—studied linguistics at Padeborn, married an American Air Force lieutenant now working for Lufthansa downtown, lived in Brooklyn, exhibited a great range of knowledge but apparently no ambition except, as he mentioned once, to be a full-time instructor at the Deutches Haus at NYU.

“How did you develop this specialty—taking care of old folks?”

“I wouldn’t call it a specialty. These are simply human needs. Anyone willing to help could do these things.”

“It’s one area I’ve never known how to address with my father.”

Matt and Herr Schmidt contemplated one another. Herr Schmidt’s practice was to wait as long as necessary for Matt to produce the German words he must have known at one time. Ten seconds might pass while something dark and involuntary percolated in Matt, the other Matt, the forgotten college-age Matt. He could not tell you why he knew the words for tax-deferred investment or mortgage or economic growth, or how he managed to formulate questions that betrayed any degree of artfulness, as in, “Would you consider adding my father to your client list, or would that cross wires with what you and I are trying to do here?” But somehow he asked Herr Schmidt this. To which Herr Schmidt replied he’d be happy to meet with Creighton and see if Creighton wished to retain him.

* * *

Creighton looked at Herr Schmidt as though he had not encountered a German since World War II, especially not a German who revived for him the figure of the man he had shot during an attack on his airstrip in 1944.

“You say he is teaching you German?” Creighton asked Matt as if Herr Schmidt were not sitting there in the room with them. “You already know German.”

“I need a refresher, Dad. Just like you need some other things he could provide.”

Creighton reseated his lower dentures with a quick grab at his mouth. He kept his red-rimmed fearful eyes fixed on Matt. “How’m I supposed to talk to him?”

“You’ll find I speak English quite well, ” Herr Schmidt answered for himself in English.

Creighton said he didn’t see the point. “I don’t need any help on the pot, thank you very much.”

“But your hair, Dad. Your nails. Other things you might have trouble with. Look at the lenses on your glasses, they’re filthy.”

Creighton muttered something to himself. His left hand was stuck up on his left cheek again, giving him that pensive look. “I kept a Mercedes for years until the garage fees became unreasonable,” he informed Herr Schmidt. “What do you drive?”

“I don’t have a car,” Herr Schmidt said.

“How do you say that in German?”

“Ich habe kein auto,” Matt answered.

“No, let him say it,” Creighton insisted.

Herr Schmidt complied. “Ich habe kein auto.”

“See how much better it sounds when he says it?” Creighton raised an eyebrow at Matt as he removed his glasses and glanced at them to see if they were as bad as Matt indicated. “How do you say, ‘My glasses are dirty’?”

“Meine brille sind verschmutzt.”

“Could you have said that?” Creighton asked Matt.

Matt confessed he probably couldn’t.

Creighton paused, apparently ruing the money he’d spent on Matt’s college coursework. “I suppose I owe all these visits the last month or so to these German lessons you’re taking,” Creighton said at last. “All this attentiveness,” he added, bitingly.

“No, I wanted to come see you,” Matt objected. “Herr Schmidt and I could have met elsewhere.”

“Then because you’re leaving, that’s why. He’s going to Berlin,” Creighton told Herr Schmidt. “I would have gone to Berlin, too, if they hadn’t called Patton off. Know that story?”

“Yes, sir, I do.”

“I don’t have a car,” Creighton said, then quickly repeated himself in German. “Ich habe kein auto.” He looked fiercely at Matt for a moment. “It’s not that hard. I listened, I repeated it to myself in my mind, then I had it.”

“Good for you, Dad.”

The three of them resumed their uncertain silence. Creighton looked across Broadway; Herr Schmidt bided his time with a north European light illuminating his unblemished face and soft brown curly hair, and Matt wondered if he should give up this Berlin idea altogether and ask to be taken back in New York, or perhaps take Creighton with him to Denver to be near Zeke and try to start fresh. He didn’t know, the words escaped him, he sensed himself hurtling forward in one of those interminable tunnels. How could he say goodbye next week when he knew that sometime in the months ahead, Creighton surely would die, and that would erase his most vital link to his past?

Herr Schmidt murmured something in German in Matt’s direction, a thought that was half-born and half-confidential, therefore requiring the camouflage of German’s brotherly relationship to English.

“What did he say?” Creighton asked, not wanting to be left out.

Matt asked himself if he should get into this. How could it possibly work? But he went ahead and tried it: “He’s wondering if in addition to assisting you personally, he gave you some German lessons.”

Creighton drew himself up in his wheelchair. “Where?”

“Where?” What did it matter where? Not in Germany, that was for sure. Wasn’t the better question whether an eighty-seven year old man would really want to study German? “Here in New York, of course.”

“No, no, I mean, do I go to Starbucks, like you?”

Herr Schmidt understood perfectly. “We could certainly have our lessons in Starbucks.”

“Just like Matt—maybe the same schedule?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Would you like that, Dad?” Matt asked.

Creighton tipped his head back, unwilling or unable to say everything he felt in his heart. “It would be all right.”

Matt glanced peripherally at Herr Schmidt. That light continued to glow in the young man’s face, rendering him so alive and yet ghostlike. Could he trust him? Of course. The more important question was whether he could trust Creighton. How long before he announced that he had learned enough German and was moving to Berlin, too? But, no, Matt finally shed his own fears and really looked at his father. All Creighton wanted to do was go up Broadway to Starbucks a few days a week where the things being conveyed at this very moment would continue to be conveyed in the communion of silence the three of them had forged—father, stranger, and Matt, too—in neither one language or the other, so intimate and complete.


Return to Volume 6.4






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