From Now till Doomsday
By Gaither Stewart
I am one of those persons who live in perpetual movement. I am like the tide. Like the ebb of the tide I am drawn away from the familiar shore toward the outer deeps where I seem to vanish. But then, when the moon is full and the earth spins, I ineluctably gravitate back homewards with the flood tide. Back to the start, back to the shore. And afterwards, in lonely moments, as seen from a lonely bluff above, the familiar white line of the surf snaking down the beach is a comforting sight. Nonetheless I am continuously wondering how it would be to be drawn in the same way, with the same force, to some other place. I mean to say, would being a Münchener be the same as the sensation of being a Berliner? Or could, let’s say, Milan or Lyon have the same hold on me? Or is my desire for lasting roots only mislaid obsession? I don’t know. Despite my following the pull of the moon and the sun, despite the ebb and flux, my most ardent desire is to break this accursed cycle and to become indissolubly linked to one specific place where I believe reside peace and freedom. Somewhere in me there seems to live an unrequited penchant for fixedness. For if I do not stop I fear that when my life is over and my body buried and my agitated soul finally departs for wherever souls go, it will seem I never existed. I will have been merely the idea of a spirit. And if it comes down to that, what meaning then could this city I sometimes think I have chosen possibly have?
When you think as I do, you have to conclude that residential matters like social responsibility, civic consciousness, the environment, patriotism and monogamous family bliss do not pay off. Cannot pay off. Inevitably you come to think that at most life and time are indistinguishable. Like those lives that continuously change venue and characters and meanings your life is just a dream.
We know that dreams are another life, another world. My dreams are of both beauty and ungraspable mystery. The idea of admiring, enjoying and even loving things one cannot see is not for every man. For example, as a boy I learned to appreciate the view over Rome from the Pincio when the city is veiled in a sheath of mist and fog, when it is only a notion of beauty. I know the beauty is there—red - tiled rooftops, Spanish Steps, Piazza di Spagna, church steeples and the cupola of St. Peter’s, extensions of the Tiber River, and hills and more hills beyond. My eyes cannot see it, yet I know it is the apogee of beauty. The essence of beauty. I am always looking for an essence. Sometimes I have briefly that kind of vision. But as I oscillate in my perpetual movement, invisible beauty can become a problem. I am always searching for it but I have forgotten where it lies.
My parents came to Rome when they were young and chose never to go back where they came from. They visited Berlin but they never really returned. They simply never wanted to go back. At least that is the impression I have of them. I suspect they nonetheless are unsure, for they cut their roots artificially. I grant them that in their generation shame still smoldered, and they most certainly had their hang - ups in a country like Italy where Germans—if they were not Klaus Kinsky or the Kessler Sisters—were unpopular. Yet they made a choice. They went out with the tide once and for all. I accepted their choice and their life as reality. It was almost a sacred choice for them.
As I was growing up, my journalist father, with a tremor in his voice, often told me how each time he returned to Rome he felt how fortunate he was. When he was young he had flowed southwards and remained fixed there. And I by chance was born into his dream world. As part of his dream.
But what was I in Rome? Though it was the place I was raised it was still not quite my native country. In Rome I was a German in a way my father never was. He was a foreigner. He would always be an expatriate. I came to dislike that word. But I felt neither Italian nor German, neither expatriate nor immigrant. I was part of it and I was not.
As an adult I came to understand that even if, like my German school friends, I married an Italian and my children were to grow up then as Italians, I, Karl Heinz, would remain German. It would take another generation to break the link.
Italy was not America, not the New World, not a melting pot. It was Europe, just south of the Alps. Nation was important.
ROME. It is so cold these January days. Dark stone cold. The naked cold of the dark stones of the eternal city. In the years of my absence I had forgotten just how dreary her winters are. How dark! And the infectious rain, penetrating and freezing. Eternal rain like the city itself. Cold gray rain forever on the point of transforming itself while her vaguely offended people hold their breath. People struggling against the cold winds huddle together at the rail station. Winds and dogs howl in unison. Wooden shutters and rusting gates bang like distant drums, clouds hang and swirl among the tree tops, water floods cellars and creeps and rises mysteriously from the earth around house doors. People sit in their cars in silence, mesmerized behind dancing wipers. Ghostly figures float past against streaked windshields. The dark city surrounding you seems abandoned. Ubiquitous rain—and darkness, sadness, silence. Rain eternal like the time on the clock on the wall of a café behind Termini Station. The little hand is broken and stands motionless at twelve. The big hand continues to turn, round and round, futile and vain, telling time for no one, just marking uselessly, relentlessly, over and over, the passage of rapid, gratuitous minutes. The repetition of it all.
Goethe’s words about his Italian voyage created an enduring misunderstanding. The poet of light had no clear idea of the reality of Rome’s climate. I can laugh for I was born in it. The poet probably never experienced the Siberian winds descending on the city, cold enough to freeze the shins of legionaries. For the poet, Rome was the warmth of art and music of the Sistine Chapel and Sant’Andrea della Valle. Even in the minds of expatriates from the North, Rome is still the land of eternal spring.
But I know it is all a great misunderstanding. On windy days or dark days or rainy days you can witness at the Pantheon or Piazza di Montecitorio the results of Goethe’s handiwork—residents and parliamentarians bundled in topcoats and scarves and woollen caps shake their heads at visitors from the north strolling in sandals and T- shirts.
The sudden arrival of the tramontana, sweeping away fogs and mists, smoke and smog, changes everything. The magic winds from the North bring the majestic sweep of the arc of mountains back to the gates of the city. From the Alban Hills to the Abruzzi to the Sabini to the Cimini her mountains are snow - capped and sharply defined against cold horizons. And later in the afternoon a full moon white and cold hangs from a pale sky cleansed by the winds.
When again I returned here three years ago, after all my going back and forth between South and North, and I again dreamed mostly in Italian, I believed I had finally surrendered and accepted where I belong. Or dare I say, I found myself? I was wrong. And now that I have changed again I still wonder how I am to recognize my real self when I meet it? If I meet it? I wonder if after peeling off all the layers of the artichoke of my persona my real self even exists? For in my childhood, in my growing up, I played so many roles in two diverse societies that I still do not know who I am. Where did I lose me?
I do not mean to say that Rome is to blame. Not at all! Or, is it? For Rome, my father always says, is my home. I try to explain the difference: “You’re realizing your Italian dream but I was only born here by chance. It wasn’t a choice.”
He acted as if he didn’t understand but I believe he did.
For me, Rome is like a ledger. A balance sheet of debits and credits, where the major events of my life have taken place, the good and the bad, the successes and failures of youth. Yet I have resisted the thought that Rome closes the circle of my life as it does for my father. I tell myself that life is not like that. It is more than that. My life is not a nice clean circle. It is many diverse circles. But not concentric circles as some of my countrymen might think. They are disorderly circles, unpredictable, haywire, spiralling off crazily, uncontrollably in disorderly directions.
Sometimes, even when I was a child and I hardly understood anything, I told myself secretly that Rome was not for real. There was always something unreal about my life. Something make-believe. Mine was like an extended visit, destined to end.
Detachment was my mood, estrangement my destiny. But return was constantly on my mind. Return to what, I did not know.
BERLIN. I was twenty - two, in my last year at the university, when I met Katharina, and the way we met seemed to portend much in common. Between girl friends I had often felt the loneliness one can feel in a big city. I was careful to avoid it.
I had always wanted to play a musical instrument—a clarinet or a saxophone, the piano or violin—and join some band like the many proliferating at my school. But I knew I had no musical talent, that I would never learn to read music. I had been a total disaster trying to learn the Cyrillic alphabet. One fall day after an exhibition of Russian art in the Kunstforum it came to me—I would take art lessons. Maybe I had a hidden talent for colors and form. The next day in my café I saw the card tacked on the bulletin board—Private drawing lessons for beginners with a Russian master. Modest prices. But at my first lesson Katharina arrived too. Anatoly the Maestro had absent-mindedly scheduled us for the same time but we looked at one another and agreed. We went to a few lessons, skipped a few, and finally stopped them altogether.
We ended up staying together for two years in her apartment in Charlottenburg. Still feeling as much a stranger in Berlin as I had in Rome, I had come to the conclusion that a German wife would be the first step toward attachment and rootedness. But Katharina did not have matrimony in mind. She was a lusty woman who also liked her drinks now and then. She liked to put her tongue in my ear and feel me up in public places. The more public the place, the better. She would go down on me at a table or in a booth in any bar if I let her but she wasn’t interested in marriage. We spent a lot of time drinking beer in bed.
Day in, day out, I continued feeling like a visitor. And at the end I think Katharina and I understood each other less than in the beginning.
One night or early morning after a session of love-making I asked her point blank:
“Do you want to get married?”
“What? What?” She always threw in a what before responding, as if giving herself time to think. “Yes, my love, I do … but not to you.”
“Why not? Do you want to marry a real German … or a rich man?” I asked, again surprised at her frankness. An Italian woman would not say a thing like that.
“What? Why, both!” she said joyously and reached toward me again. As I say, Katharina was a very sexy woman.
I told her that in my dreams I am always a migrant. My figure is long and thin with shaggy hair. I carry a sack. I told her the migrant is always aiming for an uncertain place. She laughed at that.
It was shortly after her nocturnal confession that I began noting her absences and suspected she was also seeing other men. But she usually turned things around and said repeatedly during the days and weeks we were gradually separating, “You’re too distant from me.”
I was sad after we parted and walked around the city with a frozen smile on my face. I smiled bravely at people on the streets. I smiled stupidly at monuments. I smiled familiarly at the Neptune fountain. Not over lost love or a broken heart or anything like that. It was more the kind of sadness I feel when a train pulls out of a station, leaving someone behind and taking others away. It was the sadness of the sound of the horn of the night ferry to Sardinia. It was the sadness of the moment of departure from a rented summerhouse in Tuscany where you have been happy for a month—bags are packed, the car is loaded, and the house seems more alive in its loneliness than when you moved in.
When she said, “Why don’t we just remain friends?” I think I loved her more than during our two years together.
It was spring and unusually warm.
I went back to walking the city as I had done in my first years here. From the time I could walk I knew every alleyway, every little piazza, nearly every individual palazzo in the old center of Rome. I was convinced that methodical exposure to Berlin’s streets would compensate for the blanks in my feelings for the city, that in walking and looking and touching the physical city I could acquire the sense of familiarity that real Berliners are born into. I had remained faithful to the three kilometers of the Ku’damm where my imagination could run wild. In my mind’s eye I reconstructed the former cafés, Café Kranzler, Romanisches Café, Café Schilling, Café des Westens. Now I extended my old walks into real Berlin, into Berlin Hauptstadt—Unter den Linden and the length of Karl Marx Strasse, up and down Friedrichstrasse, Potsdamer Strasse through Schöneberg, Oranienburger Strasse out past the cafés and restaurants, and my regular tours of the rail stations, the circular system of stations around the center. I was making the enormous expanse of the city mine. For the first time in my life I felt an awareness of everything I saw, and an unexpected sense of freedom.
Then I met Imogene. She was only nineteen. She came from the depths of the eastern regions. I looked at Imogene that first day and immediately saw the intensity of her femininity. It was the way she moved her hands and head and the flash in her eyes. To her I must have seemed exotic. But the more distant I seemed, the better she liked it. That is what she wanted. We never spoke of marriage and I was just as content to live with her as I had been with Katharina.
One day walking along the Havel together I pointed out my grandfather’s villa. I told her the lights there were always dim, in the summer heat or the January rains and mists. His house is preserved in my memory like a beacon in a lighthouse on a bluff. Passing by it in the late afternoon, holding the hand of a pretty girl, I felt the presence of his overpowering force.
“Toll!” Imogene said. “I would like to live in a villa like that some day.”
“My grandfather is a very selfish man,” I said. “He lives alone ... with his cats.”
“If I lived in a house like that I would have cats too and I would never leave,” Imogene said.
“We always leave,” I said. I didn’t tell her about Katharina.
When I was a boy I came often to Berlin with my parents. My paternal grandparents lived in the district of Dahlem. Compared to Rome, Berlin then seemed like one big garden, isolated and closed in by its wall. People would speak of the Wall and sometimes we drove in Grandfather’s car to look at it. I saw a city of villas and big gardens and fast trains and subways surrounded by a wall. Since we always had to fly there it could have been anywhere, maybe in the clouds. It was not a real city at all.
The year I finished high school in the Deutsche Schule in Rome I spent the summer at my grandfather’s. After Oma’s death, Opa had become a grumpy old man who loved his cats more than most people. From the time I was a boy he’d had Angoras and Persians and Siamese and Russian Blue and simple tabby cats … he gave them names like Fire and Storm and Lightning and Thunder and Ivan. Opa had first gotten rich on boats—he founded a bunch of magazines about boats and yachts and sailing and boating and oceanography and built an empire. Boats in his magazines always had cats on board. I liked cats too, and I think that was the reason he wanted me there.
That was the year the Wall came down. Everything was changing. My parents had wanted to give me time too to decide what I wanted to do with my life. But what did I know? I was glad the Wall came down but I only felt then, without really thinking about it, that, yes, Rome was my home. And always would be. It was my place in the world. But the feeling of being a stranger in Berlin was exhilarating too. That’s how I felt at nineteen.
ROME. Now I am thirty - four. It seems I have already lived several lives. Some people, the older they get the more they long for the places of their distant past, for the world of their youth. I am convinced I will never be like that. People who never live any other place are strange. As a rule I relish change. My world has always kept changing and extending its boundaries. No wonder it is a world I cannot understand. For in Berlin, I feel like an Italian. In Rome, I still feel like a German.
Three years ago I returned to Rome after those years in Berlin with Katharina and Imogene and my marriage with Renate. Here in Rome I have lived alone and drank more. Excesses have become a way of life.
It is now autumn. The rains have already come and gone and it is still hot.
BERLIN. I had a job teaching Italian in the Dante Aligheri Institute and lived in a small apartment together with Imogene in Friedrichshain. My work was undemanding—fifteen hours a week, low pay, augmented by forbidden private lessons. Imogene was still studying and working in a tourist agency. With low rent, no car, a modest life style we ate and drank well.
Our apartment was on the famous Mainzer Strasse. I liked to think then I was living a bit of history. Just down the street anarcho-communists had once occupied the apartment houses; and armed with cobblestones and barricaded behind a streetcar they held off police for days. As in Rome you heard all of life’s noises in our apartment—running water and flushing toilets above us, loud music and shouting and arguments and tramping on the stairs, dogs barking and motorcycles revving. It was a lively street while I was there, the home of the left-wing Alternative Liste that was part of the city coalition government. It was an area of cheap food shops, tattoo parlors, a metro station on the corner, inhabited mostly by students and hippies.
The last time I saw my still young-looking grandfather was shortly after Germany was reunited and the old DDR and the BRD were united. It was November of 1990. Opa had the red face of an alcoholic and long hair as white as snow. He was tall, slender and distinguished. Everybody said I was the spitting image of him. He had always loved beautiful women, and also my grandmother, poverina, was herself a beauty. But she was quite eccentric and one wondered why she had married him. My father and my uncles and aunts loved her the best; they said Opa was a stubborn old fool. I can still hear him shouting at my father that he would never set foot in Italy that country of “piazza eaters and mandolin players.”
That cold day Katharina and I had lunch with him at the Kempinski where he used to take my parents and me when we came here on visits. Naturally he took a shine to Katharina ... and instinctively she flirted outrageously with him. I had the very Latin idea that something might come of their relationship. I was dreadfully right.
It was not long after that that Katharina’s absences became more frequent and our relationship cooled. Then it happened that one day shortly before she said we should remain friends I saw her enter the Kempinski, and I knew. She could easily become my grandmother.
My greatest regret at the moment was that I didn’t feel more regret. I thought something was missing in me. It’s because I don’t belong, I thought. Perhaps that condition has made me insensitive. Maybe I’m incapable of love, otherwise I would be jealous and throw terrible scenes. But I did neither. I behaved normally with Katharina, as if I suspected nothing. While my rancor for my grandfather grew. One day, when I couldn’t bear any longer the thought of her with him I simply took my stuff and moved to a room in the same district, leaving her a short note of adieu:
We had a fine time together but like it or not everything ends. I wish you great happiness. Best greetings to my grandfather.
Yours, Karl Heinz.”
The next day I quit my part-time job in the zoo and immediately took off for Rome. A change of air, I thought, was the right medicine.
ROME. It was January. It was cold and rainy in Rome. Seen from the airport train the city was colorless and drab. On a sudden inspiration I got off at the Trastevere Station, boarded a tram headed downtown, and went to a friend’s apartment near Piazza Argentina. He was not at home. I left my sack at his door. It was afternoon. Despite the dampness the streets were crowded and here and there the smell of coffee was in the air. I walked toward Campo dei Fiori. My feet were wet, I was cold, and my throat sore. I decided I would not call my parents. I went to a nearby trattoria we German high school kids used to go to. Maybe I would meet someone I knew there. No one was there but the proprietor, sitting at a table alone, reading a newspaper. Though he knew me well, he spoke to me as if I were a tourist. He served me a liter carafe of Castelli wine and asked me how Berlin was.
“My girl friend just left me for my grandfather,” I said.
He just looked down at me, laughed softly as if he didn’t believe me. though I knew he did, and said, “Auguri!”
Afterwards I went back to my friend’s apartment for my sack, took the 64 to Termini and bought a second class ticket on the night train to Berlin.
BERLIN. In late March it snowed. The air was chilling, the streets slippery. It was as dark as night. I was hurrying across a square when the girl slipped and dropped her books and handbag. I helped her gather her things and asked her if she was going to class. She was very pretty, blond, petite, just the way she should look.
She thanked me and said yes. “That is, I was going to class but now my feet are wet and cold and I feel like I’m coming down with a cold.”
“So do I,” I said. Why don’t we go somewhere and drink something hot?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t mind that.”
“We’re near my place … I can fix you a hot grog.”
She stared at me for a long moment. Loneliness was in her eyes. Everything seemed to hang on her answer. I thought that was the meaning of the snow and the ice and her slipping near me.
“Toll,” she said.
I took her things and led her back to my room. I had the feeling she’d never done anything like this before. I didn’t have the ingredients for grog but I poured her a glass of Schnaps that she downed without blinking. We introduced ourselves—she was Imogene Lenz, from East Germany, in her first year at the university. She studied Germanistik. I poured her another Schnaps and told her she should have a hot bath and go to bed. We had three or four drinks and she stayed.
Undressed, Imogene was stunning. Her feverish body that day was luminous and pearly white, the solemnity of a requiem. A perfect body that she seemed to dress more to conceal than adorn. For me, the half-drunk half-Italian, she was a study in understatement. Yet, contradictorily she seemed at the same time unaware of her nakedness. She was innocence itself but, as I came to suspect later, containing a strain of wickedness. In that moment it was as if I were looking at something forbidden, something I shouldn’t see. I sensed that some unnameable threat hung over me, or that I was being hexed.
The unnameable threat was elusive. For at my age, her remarkable body counted more than her mysterious person. Her body was enough to make me forget Katharina, and even my grandfather. Nonetheless, with time, her strange Nordic habits began to wear. She got up at 6 or 6:30 a.m. already looking sexy and alluring and took a cold shower, she fell into silence rather than argue, she ate dinner at 6 p.m. which for me was still afternoon. But those things I could accept. In fact, in my imagery she was one hundred percent German and since I was a half-breed, I tried to imitate her. It was always reassuring to think that we were both new Berliners. Both strangers, we were explorers. I felt I could belong.
Still, her language was more difficult than her character. Her vocabulary revealed a gap between us. She spiced her otherwise rich language with fashionable words that I seldom used. For Imogene a scene from a telefilm was always toll, an actor was rassig, and Friedrichstrasse was Klasse. And now that she was learning English everything and everybody was awesome. Those words made her even sexier.
Other times Imogene would abruptly change tactics and confound my impressions of her—according to her many things that happened to us in our daily lives were the result of, or reflected, the ongoing Klassenkampf and we only had to be more objektiv and klassenbewusst. Her father, she explained, still spoke like the political commissar he once was.
The day I brought her a kitten, coal black with white feet, she said “toll” and named it Illich, She promised she would love it and me forever. She laughed when I fed it spaghetti but she insisted that cats did not eat pasta.
Imogene had never seen the cats in the Forum and on Celio Hill that live on spaghetti.
ROME. So as I said, I returned to Rome three years ago. I refused to go back to Berlin for birthday parties for my grandfather. I never went to the villa in Dahlem with the others for holidays. I never spoke of him to anyone. Only sometimes drunk I would rant about the man “who stole my Katharina.”
Again I thought I was making a final choice. If Rome was not what my grandfather thought it was, my childhood memories were here: my schools and school friends, the streets I grew up on, the mysterious atmosphere concealed in the August heat, the folly of Romans at vacation time, the promiscuity of Roman girls, the general and easy-going neglect of rules and regulations.
Yet, insofar as finding my shore was concerned, my so-called return was lost time, though I did make progress in journalism, writing about reborn Berlin for the Italian press.
BERLIN. Despite her enthusiasm for her new life, having her own apartment and Illich, Imogene had never really accepted new Berlin. She was homesick. I told her that most people were homesick at one time or another and that it was unimportant. She said she felt nostalgia for something different—she missed those people who thought as she did.
“Berlin is not what I expected,” she said. “My father was right. There’s no feeling of solidarity. No communal spirit. We never thought West Berlin was a real city anyway. Now it’s all West Berlin, and I feel like an exile.”
When she left for a visit at her parents in the East, she took a lot of her stuff and also Illich in a decorated catbox. I missed her and Illich but I didn’t expect her back.
I’d begun selling enough stories to survive when I met Renate at a poetry reading in a bookstore in Mitte. She was the legal assistant to a prominent Charlottenburg lawyer. Elegant and efficient and career-minded, and with a passion for literature, she seemed the epitome of my image of new Berlin. After ambitious and traitorous Katharina and dreamlike Imogene, Renate from the first moment corresponded to my ideal of the German wife. I had learned from Katharina and from Imogene not to confuse eroticism with what is truly beautiful in life. What, for example? Well, I thought, nature and order and a sense of belonging. Above all, my place in it. Self-assured Renate knew such things. She always knew precisely what she wanted. And she knew who she was. She was my age, twenty - six, lived with her parents in Grunewld, and had decided mathematically that it was time to strike out on her own straight into matrimony. We seemed meant one for the other. Though somewhat thrown off balance by her self-confidence and mindful of my past errors, I leapt guilelessly into the adventure. After a romance of two months we married in a quiet ceremony attended by our parents and friends and her colleagues and moved into a comfortable apartment in Prenzlauer Berg. And into a perfectly planned existence—she, brilliant at her legal job and I, selling more and more as a freelance journalist. We were a Berlin couple. We were a family that paid taxes, voted in every election, marched in peace movements, supported a child in Africa, separated our trash ecologically, always used seatbelts and stopped at pedestrian crossings.
To celebrate I bought her a cat too, a long-haired Persian with sea blue eyes. She named it Darling and I fed it spaghetti.
Occasionally Opa, the old devil, telephoned and asked how I was doing and invited us to lunch. Much to Renate’s annoyance, I never accepted. Suppressing my fury, I was cold toward him and said we would do it sometime. Opa never mentioned Katharina nor did I ask. The only concession to familiarity I ever made was to ask him about his cats. He usually answered in considerable detail. That seemed to console the loathsome old guy.
Though Renate and I did all the right things, it was precisely at this time that the thought that everything was determined from now until doomsday seemed like spiritual death. I was dying inside. O weh! O weh! Everything got harder and harder. Renate had no idea what demented forces were at work in me. How could she? My life corresponded less and less to the life I had expected. We go along with life’s things, work, the changing seasons, the city, passing time, and we wonder if this is happiness. Is this life? Life as we thought it would be when we began our adventure? The world goes on changing around us but we remain static inside. Then one day we wake up and find everything humdrum. O weh! O weh! No great unhappiness. No life changing tragedies. Just comfort and ease and then creeping age. I confused all that with happiness. I came to feel like a traveller. I knew I would feel no more alien on a street in a remote village in Manchuria than I did in Berlin or Rome.
At the same time I knew that Renate was beginning to sense that I was her first big mistake. I was the big unknown wave. I approached the shore, broke and began ebbing. I began feeling that I didn’t know one tide from the other. I was a man in utter despair. Our new generation was so used to order and ease that desperation and despair and genuine joy had been eliminated.
I nearly stopped my walks through the city. I believed I knew it all. My expanding waistline became emblematic of my changed life—I started with size 50 pants and had progressed through 52 to 54 and was pushing 56. What did it mean? Only diet?
Renate complimented me. She thought my belly made me distinguished.
ROME. Opa died last month. He was over ninety. I felt absolutely nothing. Not even the mild prickling and mystery of death that adolescents feel at the death of a grandparent. His passing seemed to put a stone on top of that part of my life.
My Berlin period seemed ended. Imogene had returned home. Renate had divorced me. My last link to Berlin had vanished. Already three years back here, yet I could hardly recall what I had done in that time.
My parents and all the relatives, children and grandchildren, all except me, gathered in Berlin for the funeral. Under the circumstances I refused to go—he had stolen Katharina from me. I only wondered what would happen to his tribe of cats.
When my parents returned to Rome, we met at the weekend house at Lago Bracciano. It was a brilliant April day, the sun’s reflections from the expanse of the lake blinding. I gazed out the window and surprisingly it reminded me of Wannsee.
My father was very nervous. He kept walking around the house, standing on the terraces and gazing at the lake. My mother made coffee and my father even took out a bottle of cognac.
I drank off a brandy and poured myself another. He paced around the room and asked how I was doing in Rome as if I’d just returned yesterday. I said fine and that I supposed I was destined to follow in his footsteps as an expatriate.
“Not if your grandfather has his way,” he said, and placed a package of documents on the coffee table.
“What do you mean?” I asked and grinned at my mother.
“Just read that,” he said.
“What is it?”
“His testament.” From my father’s tone I suspected something unusual had happened.
“You tell me,” I said.
My father looked at my mother with a bewildered expression on his face. She cleared her throat.
“He was richer than any of us thought,” my father said. “He left something to everyone in the family, a substantial provision for his … young governess, a big donation for an animal shelter association, remembered a retired domestic couple he’d once employed, and made a few random gifts here and there ... but the major part of his estate he left to his beloved grandson, Karl Heinz.”
“Yes, to you. He often told me you had made him a wonderful gift that changed his life.”
“Why that dirty old …!” I throttled my rage.
“Under certain conditions that is … otherwise it goes to charities.”
“The provision is you have to live in Berlin, in his house, and promise to take care of his cats.”
“Toll,” I said.
I grinned inwardly and wondered if Katharina herself came with my inheritance. It would be just like him to have willed her to me … that despicable old man who always thought he could buy anything and command even from the grave.
© 2004 Gaither Stewart
This is one of the stories from Gaither Stewart’s new collection, some of which originally appeared in Southern Cross Review. Highly recommended. It is available as an Ebook from: windriverpress.com
Gaither Stewart is a journalist who currently makes his home in Italy. A regular contributor of both essays and fiction to Southern Cross Review, Gaither has also authored several novels published by SCR E-Books and, in print versions, by Wind River Press.