In the evening sunshine on the Rhine, she saw heaven's gate. There was a unicorn, an unfinished cathedral, a gondola, a paintbrush, and a young man with a guitar, gleaming bronze in the adoring light. An avalanche of butterflies descended on his head, singing songs of Mahlerian joy.
He extended his hand to her with the sweetest possible smile, as if to help her down from a pedestal, although she happened to be sitting in a wheelchair. When she tried to lift her hand to take his, she saw that her wristwatch was melting and ants were crawling out of it.
She had been brought here to witness the fall of the Berlin Wall. Vaguely she recalled the people scrambling alternately for pieces of the Wall and for autographs from her famous daughter-in-law, who had been a legend at the Metropolitan Opera before retiring five years previous. They heard the concert in Berlin where Leonard Bernstein had conducted Beethoven's Ninth with the word Freiheit, freedom, in place of the word Freude, joy, and later they had brought her to the Rhineland village where she had lived her girlhood.
It looked much as she remembered. Flowers everywhere, the linden and chestnut trees, and the old house, the vineyards, the bridge, and the river. Actually it was not the Rhine. Just a tributary stream, but in the tangled clouds of her imagination, it was the Rhine.
The others watched her with baited breath, as though expecting her to utter some breathtaking profundity.
"Give me those binoculars, hon," she said to her great-granddaughter Serena. After nearly sixty years in the States, Ursula still had her accent, and it tickled the little ones to death when she called them "hon." Never Liebchen or meine Süsse as one might have expected. They might find it embarrassing when they were in their teens, but she scarcely expected to live that long.
She had already lived much too long, having outlived three husbands, her brother, her sister-in-law, one of her children and two of her grandchildren, and who knew how many friends. An old woman is perpetually haunted. Not that she was one to dwell overmuch on the past. Still, one's history was one's house.
The others watched her anxiously: her youngest son, her daughter-in-law, their son, his wife and their three children, as she rose from her wheelchair. She could get around with the help of a cane, but they had brought the wheelchair nevertheless, and she was now hobbling toward the riverbed. She looked more like seventy than ninety, and a good seventy at that. Lucia, her daughter-in-law, started to go to her, but Ursula stopped and her son held his wife back, saying, She'll be all right. Let's just let her be.
But what was she seeing now? A pair of swans on the river, floating in the late sunshine, the water rippling gold and green and silver in their wake. Strange, it was so late in the day, they should have retired to their nest by now.
The others looked at her as if they sensed she was seeing something more than just a pair of swans. It worried them, as nearly everything she did worried them. Elderly women spoke of heaven frequently, but she never did. She had thought of it for the first time in decades when hearing her daughter-in-law sing Aida for the last time, with Pavarotti singing a hefty but handsome Ramades in the tomb where they were condemned to die. They would be reunited in heaven, they sang. How could that be? Ursula had been married three times. With whom shall I be reunited? she wondered. Her third husband, who had succumbed to cancer nine years ago? She had not loved her second, with whom she had parted in bitterness. And her first...
Her hand strayed to her throat, where hung a silver locket, hidden under her blouse. She had not taken it out of her jewel box in thirty years, and the others were not even aware that she had brought it with her. She did not open it; her fingers were too stiff. But she held it clasped in her palm as though it contained the key to heaven itself.
Part I: Sunshine
Munich was radiant... Thomas Mann, "Gladius Dei"
1. Wisdom Prohibited
Ursula sat in her chemistry class, staring at her diamond ring, noting the way the facets of the large stone refracted the harsh electric light into patterns of undiluted color. The plump girl sitting on her right glanced at the ring from time to time as though the diamond contained a magical secret. The youth on Ursula's left glanced sidelong at her until she turned her head to look at him, whereupon he cleared his throat.
At the podium, Professor Kuhn was holding forth, but not about chemistry. He spoke on and on of the incomparable privilege of fighting for the Fatherland. With his greying black hair and loose robe he almost blended in with the chalkboard behind him, a disembodied face floating within her range of vision, a discolored incarnate accusation.
Let us never flag in our devotion to our glorious cause. Let no one persuade you that our efforts have been in vain, that these splendid young lives have gone for naught, and that we have lost sight of our noble purpose … What their noble purpose was, he did not elaborate. When he showed signs of becoming choked up at his own eloquence, he harrumphed. "You are dismissed…all but Fräulein…Wenzler."
The plump girl, who had answered to the name Stolz, opened her mouth wide. The boy on Ursula's left stared at her as though she had begun to unbutton her blouse. Ursula closed her notebook with a deliberate gesture. The students took their time, naturally wishing to see what was afoot.
"What are all of you hanging about for?" the Professor snapped. "Are you expecting a sideshow? I said you are dismissed. Go!"
The students flurried out. Ursula uncrossed her long legs and picked her way down the tiers until she found herself standing before the tall figure fixed like a mast upon his platform, his robe a furled black sail around him.
"You wish to speak with me, Herr Professor," she said. He ran his tongue around his thin lips under his narrow mustache.
"Yes, Fräulein Wenzler, I wish to speak with you," he said, imitating her own manner of speech as though sarcasm were a way of life with him. "I suggest you drop this class immediately because, quite frankly, you haven't a prayer of passing. So you might as well save yourself the time and money, as well as the embarrassment that you would experience in failing this course."
"Why?" she asked him, although she knew perfectly well why. "Chemistry is a requisite for my field of study, and you are the only professor who still had an opening when I registered. I see no reason why I should not pass this course since the University saw fit to admit me in the first place."
He licked his lips again as he glared at her. Impertinent little hussy! Ah, he had her pegged: spoiled princess, used to having her own way and getting around everybody. Well, if she thought she'd get around him, she had another big guess coming…. God's mother, but she was a beauty though! In spite of the academic simplicity of her clothing, she had a certain outdoor radiance, a presence and a motion all her own that made her seem too big for her surroundings yet oddly at one with them. Probably she thought she'd take this University by storm, even after what that father of hers had done. . . . .
He felt glad of his loose-fitting robe; even so, as she stood before him in her white silk blouse and navy-blue skirt which, while certainly not indecent, did little to disguise her obvious feminine charms. Something unnerving about the girl, the way she occupied the space she filled as though she had been poured into it, refusing to be diminished by the electric air between them.
"Fräulein Wenzler," he said as he adjusted his black-rimmed spectacles, "you are obviously a bright little thing, as girls go, or you would not have been admitted to this University, as you said. So, I should not have to draw you a picture. Two of my sons fell in battle, and no one, not you or your father or any other of those other driveling white-livered pacifists, shall ever convince me that my sons' lives were wasted. I want nothing that reminds me of your father in my class, although I suppose I can't keep you from attending the University, more's the pity. So-"
"I am sorry about your sons," Ursula said with an effort not to clench her teeth. "That is why my father was so against this war, because of the waste of young lives. He was highly esteemed at this University. There was even talk of naming one of the wings in his honor..."
"Which fell through when he wrote that traitorous, cowardly article denouncing the invasion of Belgium," the Professor interrupted. "I'm astounded that even that idiotic, liberal-minded Review of the Humanities was foolhardy enough to print it. Now Fräulein Wenzler-"
"Von Schattenberg-Wenzler," she corrected icily. "And my father was no coward, Herr Professor, or he would never have dared to go against public opinion, alienating so many of his friends and colleagues. Really, you have to admit it takes much more courage to flow against the current than with it. My father was a truly titanic figure who richly deserved the title conferred on him. Now if you will excuse me, Herr Professor, I have another class, and I would really like to get to it on time if humanly possible."
"You will never pass my class," he snarled. "I will break you! I will make you sorry you ever entered the hallowed halls of this University!"
"You will come to find that I am not a bit of fluff you can break so easily," she said, and with that devastating riposte, she turned on her heel and exited the room to find the plump Stolz waiting outside the door.
"You really stood up to him," Fräulein Stolz whispered. "I don't see how in the world you did it, I would have just curled right up. . . .So, are you going to stay in his class?"
"Of course," said Ursula loftily. "I would never give him the satisfaction of intimidating me. He will come to find that I am not to be trifled with in such an egregious fashion."
She turned away, ruthlessly forcing back a tear or two.
"What an ogre," the other girl said, shaking her little brown head and glancing at her wrist watch. "Hmmm, you'd better get to your class now. It's almost eleven."
"I don't have one," said Ursula. "I just didn't want to stand around quibbling with him all day, that's all. What is your name besides Stolz?"
"Emma. And yours is...Ursula?"
"My friends call me Uschi. Have you another class soon?"
"Not until one. Ah . . . do you want to go get some coffee? I know a nice café nearby."
"I'd love to." Ursula smiled. As the two girls descended the stairway, they could hear two young men talking in the hall.
"She's damned pretty, I'll say that for her," one of them was saying. "Think she'll last?"
"He's talking about you!" Emma whispered, gripping the handrail as though the stairs were shaking. Ursula put a finger to her lips.
"I doubt it," said the other youth. "Kuhn's never liked girls to begin with. I've heard that when they ask questions in class, he pretends to be hard of hearing. I don't much approve of them in college myself. They make it too hard to concentrate on your studies."
"Hey, I don't mind!" said his companion, and the sound of their laughter receded down the hallway.
"Well Uschi," Emma said, "it looks like you are already quite a personage here!"
"So be it," Ursula said with a little smile. "There are worse things in the world than notoriety. Although it would be more gratifying to earn it for myself, rather than inheriting it."
Outside, the bells in the campanile sounded the hour of eleven. The alpine air was delicious, the sky insanely blue, shielding the city like the perfection of innocence, and the breeze played freely with the girls' skirts and hat strings. Some students hurried to their classes, others sauntering along in the leisurely way of Münchners. A group of youths Ursula recognized from Professor Kuhn's class were clustered around the bicycle rack smoking and lounging about, while one of them imitated the Professor's speech. He broke off abruptly when he saw the girls approaching.
"Good morning," Ursula said with a smile that only bordered on flirtatiousness. She would take this university, not by storm, but by sunshine and breeziness, anything that would counteract the influence of Professor Kuhn, keep them from marching out to embrace the "glorious cause". God forbid that any of these young men should meet a fate like her brother's! "This certainly is an interesting place. I expect this year will go down in the annals of unprecedented experiences in my life."
Some of the boys gasped at her audacity. Others looked uncertain as to whether they should be scornful or delighted, or grateful to her for livening up a boring class, and they looked at each other to see what their reaction should be. Ursula did not stick around to see what they would decide. She took the astonished Emma's arm and steered her along until they were out of sight of the youths.
In the café, a thin waitress took the girls' order. Soup du jour, fifty pfennigs and the rolls came free; you could get a salad in season but it was expensive with all the rationing. A plate was one mark fifty. Emma insisted they order plates. She would treat them; her father owned a brewery. She might not be beautiful or brilliant or brave enough to face down a hostile professor, but she did have one advantage over Uschi: money.
"What's your field of study, Uschi?" Emma asked as they waited for their order. Students milled about, laughing and jabbering.
"Psychology!" This was still a relatively new field.
"Yes. You see, my brother Albert lost his wits in battle, and I wish to become a psychologist so I can restore his sanity, and treat others like him. I just hope our esteemed professor doesn't prove too much of an obstacle. . .. Fortunately I have friends in high places. Our biology professor, Dr. Kreider, was a close friend of my father's, and one of the few who stood by him until his death."
Emma didn't seem to know what to say to that. Then she remembered Uschi's ring. "You are engaged?" she asked shyly. Ursula glanced at the diamond with a little smile.
"Yes. Martin Hinterhofer. He's a pilot with the-"
Just then their order came. Ursula could hear the other students making bleary jokes about how the rolls should be shipped to the front lines for ammunition and be careful, the soup might give you trench mouth. . . .
After lunch she went to an employment agency, slipping her ring into her purse as she filled out the application. What were her skills? She could type pretty well but not very fast. No, she didn't take dictation. She had a year of nursing school and was working as a volunteer at the hospital in the wounded soldiers' ward, and she enjoyed it very much, but it didn't pay and she needed a part-time job to help accommodate her expenses. Yes, she could do housework.
"Fräulein Wenzler?" the receptionist said, poking her head into the waiting room. "There's a Reverend Schnaudt here. He needs a girl to come help out around the parsonage."
The minister, a huge man with a broad ruddy face flanked by enormous red ears, stood with his hat in both hands and smiled when Ursula appeared.
"God's greetings, ah, Fräulein," he said in his too-rich bass voice. His small watery eyes swept over her, lingering on her breasts for just a moment, but it was long enough. "My, I was not expecting such a . . .ah, young girl. So . . . ah, young and so beauti-I mean, well . . . ah, see, our daughter recently married and moved away from the parsonage, and my wife is not in very good health and . . .ah . . .Fräulein, where are you going?"
Ursula had never been so glad to see the sun before. She ran for blocks until she was out of breath. Soon she found herself in the Karlsplatz, where she dropped down on a bench near a fountain, letting the cool drops caress her face. An ex-soldier stumped past her on his crutches, staring straight ahead like a blinkered horse.
Ursula turned her head. The flower vendor was an old woman with a cataract in one eye, wearing a heavy shawl even in this pleasant weather.
"I'll take one, please," Ursula said. A pfennig for a long-stemmed yellow rose without thorns. Ursula dropped several pfennigs into the old woman's basket. Then she approached the ex-soldier, who now rested on a bench. He looked about forty but was probably much younger, his once handsome face showing the effects of poison gas, eyes too glazed even to register despair. His very shadow seemed immobilized and shapeless, like a hole he was about to fall into, a grave from which he had risen to confront a sunny world where he was unmanned and invisible.
Albert, she thought numbly. But he was not Albert, of course.
A moment later she was walking swiftly away, leaving not-Albert clutching her purchase in his puzzled, tremulous fingers while a flock of doves beat startled wings around him like agitated particles in a snowglobe.
"Have you ever modeled before?" asked Robert Eber, a ruddy, stocky, robust-looking man of about forty, raising thick sandy eyebrows above the silver rims of his spectacles in a perpendicular question mark. Ursula glanced at a framed photograph of his wife and child, which sweetened the official neatness of his desk, along with a graceful bronze statuette of an oriental dancer.
"Not except for having my portrait painted," Ursula said smiling. She had not put her engagement ring back on; it was still in her purse. "I saw the ad for an art model posted in the University hallway, and thought I'd look into it."
"Your name is Uschi?"
"Just Uschi. Is that all right?"
"Fine with me-unless your father comes storming over here and drags you away, after subjecting me to a merciless beating. How old did you say you were?"
"Eighteen, and my father is dead."
"All right then, just Uschi, you'll find that modeling is an art of itself, and there's a good deal more to it than just being beautiful. It's an act of balance and control, quietude and fluidity. Maybe you have what it takes. Come have a look at the classroom now."
The Art Academy was a building that had once been a part of a monastery. A pleasant pungency of turpentine and paint thinner pervaded the building. The classroom looked like a choir room, student drawings secularizing the plaster walls. On a small platform stood a pale, lanky male model, while far in back sat a young man softly playing the guitar. The students, mostly girls, were sketching with charcoal.
"This is my beginning class," Herr Eber said. "I won't put you with them, I'm afraid you might be a bit overwhelming for them. I'll put you with the Intermediates and relieve Sonia, who can no longer work at those times. How does that sound?"
Ursula didn't answer for looking at the model, who wore only a narrow flap to cover his private parts. He appeared in his thirties, his pasty skin slightly blemished and loosely stretched over his long bony frame. His narrow face looked bland and unremarkable, though pleasant enough, and his lank, colorless hair and beard needed combing. Yet the students seemed to regard him in all seriousness; there was safety in those ribby and creamless contours.
"That's Walther," said Herr Eber. "He's a painter, but he models on the side. The guitarist is Julio Romero from Barcelona. I discovered him playing in Café Stefanie and fell in love with him-so to speak. I don't have him here but two or three days a week because the girls try to flirt with him, and I can't afford it anyway. You won't mind having him here, Uschi?"
"No, he's very attractive…but I won't flirt with him." Ursula's face flooded with warmth.
"You'll probably hear some wild stories about him if you hang around the coffee houses long enough," Herr Eber chuckled. "But don't believe everything you hear."
"Oh, I don't listen to gossip," Ursula said with a little shrug, "unless I'm simply bored beyond all endurance."
Herr Eber laughed out loud, attracting a few glances but not many. "Tell you what," he said, "sit for both Intermediate and Advanced classes, and I'll give you your pay and lessons with my beginners. You did mention you'd had drawing lessons?"
"Yes." Ursula allowed herself to glance at the guitarist again. Julio wore a colorful shirt open at the throat and black trousers, and his dark brown hair was thick and curly. He played a motif, a sad-sounding melodic figure, which he repeated and varied. Then suddenly he played the same phrase in a major key, adding a note not related to the key in which he had been playing. The music had an eastern, nocturnal pathos Ursula could almost taste and smell. Then he looked at her and stopped playing abruptly, staring at her as though she had begun to levitate. It was not mere admiration; she was accustomed to admiring stares. It was more as if he had known her in another life.
Ursula frowned in puzzlement as a small woman appeared in the doorway, wearing a gray dress and a black beret on her short, wiry, carrot-colored hair.
"Ah, Sonia," Herr Eber called to her, "meet Uschi. She's going to take your place in the Intermediate class."
Sonia came closer. Between her wide Slavic cheekbones, her close-set pale green eyes had an unblinking luster, like those of a soldier who believes more in the fight than the cause.
"How do you do," she said in a tone as cool and unwavering as her eyes.
"Fine, thank you. Are you a student too, or just an artist?" Ursula asked her.
"Neither. All I can draw is a crowd. I'm a cabaret entertainer at the Purple Duck. It's a place frequented by the bourgeoisie, who go there to unwind after a long, grueling week of exploiting the proletariat. I bat my eyes and wiggle my ass there four nights a week. So you're a model too? You don't much look it."
"I beg your pardon?" Ursula thought it was Sonia who didn't look much like a model. She was almost boyish in figure, with a very wide, crooked, rather ugly mouth with a curl that could only be described as a smirk.
"Let's just say you don't look like the kind of models who work at this place," she said with a glance at Walther.
Ursula laughed, thinking she should be quite a big fish here. Herr Eber dismissed the class, and the students began putting away their drawing materials, stealing glances at Ursula as they wiped their black fingers. The guitarist stopped playing and began putting his guitar back into its case.
"Julio," Herr Eber said in the protective tone one uses toward a child or a very shy person, "come meet our newest model."
The young man rose, a stray curl falling over his left eye. Walther put on his robe and hopped down off the platform.
"Don't I get to meet her too?" he said with a friendly smile. His eyes were so pale a blue they looked almost white. "God's greetings, Fräulein. Gee, you're gorgeous. Did you bring the Piazza di Spagna with you by any chance?"
"I left it in my portfolio," Ursula said, "along with the Sorbonne, the Acropolis, the Odessa Steps, Napoleon's tomb, and a small fish cannery in the north of Denmark."
"This is Uschi," said Herr Eber with a startled laugh at Walther's goggle-eyed expression. "Uschi, Walther-damn, I never can remember his last name."
"It scarcely matters," Walther said with a flip of his long, bony hand. "No one else knows it either, and probably never will until I'm dead and the worms have devoured my scrawny carcass."
"Uschi, meet Julio, our court musician," Herr Eber said, laying a hand on the guitarist's shoulder. "I dare say those were his own compositions you heard him playing."
Julio smiled, a very sweet, happy-looking smile in contrast to the haunting poignancy of his music. He was just a couple of inches taller than Ursula, well built though a bit thin. She sensed a chilled and stunted quality about him, like a plant badly in need of sunlight. But his large eyes were unforgettable, full of a galactic, jewel-like intensity, the eyes of exiled genius.
"Were they really?" Ursula said. "I adore music, although I'm scarcely musical at all myself. When I traveled in Spain with my father, I loved to listen to men serenading ladies at their windows in the dusk. But I never actually met a Spanish guitar player before. This is an unprecedented pleasure."
"You have been in Spain?" Julio spoke with a charming accent, but his melodious voice had a slightly rusty quality, as though he did not use it much.
"Yes. Your playing is wonderful, so haunting and, well, unprecedented."
He laughed a little: "That word I do not know, but from your lips it sounds very good, and so I thank you, Fräulein."
"Please call me Uschi. In Bavaria we do not stand on formality so much. And I shall call you Julio?"
He looked as though he had been handed a treasure. "Yes, please, Uschi. Please forgive the way I stare, I know is very rude. But by a chance, were you in Paris, in, ah, 1913?"
"Why, yes. I was traveling about Europe that year with my father, who was on sabbatical leave from Heidelberg University. We were in Paris visiting friends, and there was a new ballet playing, and-"
"Yes, yes!" The huge eyes glittered like dark cabochons. "The ballet in Paris! Pardon me for interuptioning, Fr-Uschi, but-"
"That's quite all right," Ursula laughed. "You saw me there?"
"I am certain was you. I was with a friend from Marseilles, he take me there, saying about the ballet by a Russian composer, I forget his name. Narciso, this is my friend, he wanted me to hear this ballet because it was new and modern. He wanted me to become aware of the twentieth century. He had a thing about that, about becoming aware of the twentieth century, all the new and modern things. But I was not prepared for how new and very, very different this music and this dancing, and neither was all the other peoples of Paris. Such pounding, such harmony, was exciting and yet…." Julio gestured wildly with both hands as he talked.
"Yes?" Ursula said. The others stood about in intent silence. "My poor father seemed not to know what to do when everyone went completely berserk, jumping out of their seats, screaming, throwing things…."
"Yes," Julio said, a look of horror washing over his finely sensuous features like a storm cloud. "It bring to me such evil memories of riots that happened in Barcelona when I was a boy, the other terrible things that followed. I was terrified, Narciso has to drag me out. I am ready to faint, have hysteria, or something unmanly and disgracing like that, when out in the street, I saw such a, a beautiful young girl. She was with a very large man with a beard, her father or grandfather I take him to be, leading him out of the theater. He seem to be shocked. I turn to say, 'Narciso, do you see that girl?' Narciso was a man who know how to get the girls. But he was gone for a taxi. I look to see where the girl is gone, and she is vanished. I could find nothing of her. Even if I could meet her, I could not talk her language, I was new to Paris, could hardly even talk French. But she make me forget about the riots, the horror, the things that happen because of . . ."
He stopped there, as though he had betrayed too much about himself, fiddling with the neck of his guitar. Ursula didn't tell him she'd been only thirteen at the time.
"And she was you?" he said. "I never think to see her again. And here you are, and I understand your speaking, I even know your name. Is so strange and wonderful."
"Well isn't that romantic," Sonia said dryly. Ursula started; she had forgotten anyone else was there. "I think I'll just die."
"Shut up, Sonia," Walther said, jabbing her with his elbow. "I think it's the most adorable thing I ever heard of. Don't you, Robert?"
"It's quite amazing," Herr Eber admitted. "Was it that ballet by Stravinsky, by any chance? I read something about it."
Ursula nodded absently, lowering her eyes. A crayon lay on the floor a few feet away. She almost bent to pick it up, but refrained. Her ring finger throbbed.
Sonia said, clearing her throat, "Well, that's all most fascinating, but it's nearly two, so what say we all skip merrily off to Paschal's and get a coffee? Come on folks, let's make tracks."
Café Paschal was one of the coffee houses frequented by artists and students who loitered about in shabby paint-smeared clothes. Many were engrossed in earnest conversation, others reading Simplicissimus or other periodicals. The smell of cigarette smoke hung in the air like a cloud. From an adjoining room the click of billiard balls could be heard, a melancholy sound somehow. In a far corner stood a small platform with an unoccupied stool, and over the counter hung a sign painted with art-nouveau letters that read: WIDSOM STRICTLY PROHIBITED HERE!
Ursula wondered from which tar pit the coffee had been dipped, but did not comment aloud. She listened to the prattle of conversation around her as they sat crowded at a round table.
Sonia said, "In Berlin they've been shooting communists right and left. It's not enough that Russia has surrendered, now we have to obliterate every noble, vital thing she stands for in this country as well. Let's face it: we're going to the capitalist dogs on a downhill pull."
Robert said, "I've been commissioned to do a piece for a soldier's grave. It's come to a nice pass when one has to make one's living off the dead. But come to think of it, that's how I got my start, designing tombstones."
Walther said, "Do you know that in America they don't put anything in their coffee, they drink it black as the bottomless pit? Did you ever hear anything more barbaric?"
Julio was silent, but he smiled at Ursula, seeming slightly dazed. She wondered about the terrible things he said had taken place in Barcelona. What were those things? And why was he in Germany? Surely Paris would have suited him much better. She contemplated the strangeness of fate.
"How did you happen to come to Germany, Julio?" she finally blurted. He glanced down at his beautifully formed hands as though checking them for cleanliness.
"In Barcelona, all the artists and poets and musicians decide Paris is the place to go, so I go. In Montmartre is a café like this one. I am playing there one night, and the German businessman, Herr Rothenberger, is in Paris on business. He say, 'Julio, come play at a party for my friends.' I play at the party, is at a big hotel, and he say, 'Julio, come to Germany with me, study the music.' He is very fond of Spanish music, the exotic things. Is dead now. But I stay. I have many beautiful melodies-I know I am not modest-and I want them to write down. They are like the colored birds that come down like a woman flirting, but I try to catch them and they are gone. In Germany they have good teachers. I am very stupid in all things but the music, but I learn. Soon I write down all my melodies for the people."
"Holy crap," breathed Sonia as she lit a cigarette. "Julio, there've been times when I didn't think you could talk at all. You must have just been saving it all up for today."
Walther and Herr Eber laughed. Julio smiled but his skin darkened. He wished he might take a cigarette too, but he thought the smoke might bother Uschi. Her eyes alone would have swept him away on a tide of madness, he was certain, even if the rest of her had been as plain as dirt.
A heavy-set, black-haired, gloomy-looking man in his mid-thirties entered the café, glancing about as though looking for someone. Walther bounded halfway across the room, sending a chair clattering to the floor.
"Günther!" he cried, his voice almost velvety. "Günther, do come sit with us!"
"There's no other chair," grunted Günther. "Am I supposed to sit on air?"
He looked as thought he hadn't changed his clothes in three months, and he needed either to grow a full beard or shave that stubble off his face, Ursula thought.
"Well, you know what the philosophers say," said Sonia with a wink and a smirk. "The idea is greater than the reality. You can sit on the idea of a chair. You've certainly got my idea of an ass."
"Have mine," Walther said, uprighting his seat and offering it timidly. "I'll get another." He swiped a chair from a table where two solemn young men sat playing chess. They glanced up, then grinned knowingly at each other before they resumed their game. Walther sat down and gazed at Günther with a worshipful light in his pale eyes. "Oh, ah, Günther, this is Uschi, our newest model. Isn't she a beauty?"
"How do you do," Günther said with condescending gruffness, as though forcing himself to get the formalities out of the way so he could dismiss her completely.
"Likewise, I'm sure," Ursula said with what she hoped was a withering tone, lowering her eyelids at him in a cutting manner.
Sonia snickered and Walther blushed, and Herr Eber said softly, "Folks, I like this girl."
"You should not be so unpolite to her," Julio said to Günther, who stared straight at him. Julio glared back, clenching a fist. Ursula looked at him in wonder, with a twinge of fear. A moment of tension ensued, during which Herr Eber pressed Julio's arm, whispering, "It's all right, don't make trouble, old man."
Ursula smiled at the guitarist shyly, and she hoped, disarmingly. His statement softened, taking on a more sensuous and luxuriant quality. Walther filled Günther in on the story of Julio's meeting with Ursula in Paris. Sonia stared out the window, Herr Eber grinned in sly amusement, Ursula looked at her hands, semi-smiling, and Julio seemed fascinated with his coffee. Günther's stubbly face remained impassive.
"Isn't that delicious?" Walther said when he finished. "It's just like a fairy tale, isn't it?"
"Hardly," Günther grunted. "Fairy tales have underlying implications emerging from our psychosexual beginnings. They abound with primal imagery and symbolism arising from the collective unconscious of man, inculcating the values of the dominant culture upon the listeners. Whereas the story you have recounted is as meaningless and chaotic as the riot itself-a nonstory, as it were."
"Well, I think it's sweet," Walther pouted. Robert Eber laughed. Ursula thought Günther almost as much of windbag as Professor Kuhn. Julio looked ready to shoot him, although he probably hadn't understood a word Günther had said.
"Actually," Robert Eber said, "I think the riot highly symbolic. Considering it happened a year before the War began, I'd say it was downright prophetic."
Ursula nodded: "My father called it the birth travail of the modern age."
Günther looked mortally offended at the very idea that anything that happened in real life could possibly have meaning. Sonia smirked.
"Günther is a writer, Uschi," Walther informed her eagerly. "He's working on a novel, aren't you, Günther?"
Günther nodded and lit a cigarette. Out of the corner of her eye, Ursula saw Walther's hand reach down and stroke Günther's hefty thigh. Her cheeks grew warm.
Sonia said, "Günther, why don't you write about the exploitation of the working classes? Most readers are middle class; why don't you heighten their awareness of the evils of capitalism? You could do a lot of good if you'd appeal to the social conscience of the masses."
"Oh Sonia, let it rest," groaned Walther. "Is that what you're doing in the Purple Duck when you flaunt your underdrawers? Heightening people's awareness of the evils of capitalism?"
"Shut it, Walther," Sonia retorted coolly. "What do you care about women's underdrawers anyway? Now if handsome men were dancing there, no one would hear you bitching about their politics."
Günther said, "The idea of the 'social conscience' is meaningless to me. There is only the individual conscience, a nebulous creature who must shape his own destiny as best as he can. All he can hope for is to establish his own integrity in a purposeless universe, thereby creating the only vestiges of order possible in a godless world of total chaos. This is the theme of my novel, which is about a little man lost and alienated in a limbo of futility and cacophony, unable to communicate with his fellows, eternally frustrated in his quest for ultimate meaning."
"God, isn't he wonderful?" cried Walther, starry eyed.
"Very," said Ursula under her breath, then looking at Julio once more. At the bottom of her purse, the large diamond in her engagement ring felt sharp and remorseless, the size of a boulder.