Fiction Page 2
THE THREE FOOLS
AT THE BORDER
Lawrence R. Dagstine
Simon Dürer had been sprawling in obvious boredom. His days with the 42nd Border Patrol were like any other--to keep an eye out for the French Resistance Party. But there were three enemies in particular who, regardless of being German, and in spite of being conspicuous in the loneliness of the community, came to torture him. It did not matter whether they were a few feet away or on the other side of town. They always seemed to be within walking distance of the border.
He was beginning to remember about the three village misfits. They each had their own reason for the daily visit to the border, and only when he was on infiltration duty: Hans Coburn came to scorn, Orffmund Lübeck to brag of his wealth, and Regan Brechthausen to laugh and breath smoke in the soldierís face...but these were only outward reasons. The truth was that these three men were demons. They came to the border to mock Simon, who kept up the illusion of life.
"You!" they always seemed to say in a bored way (as if they had nothing better to do) with thin and raspy voices. "Youíre such a pathetic excuse for a soldier! You think youíre high and mighty because you have a few badges on your uniform. But youíll soon learn that you are no different from us." And they were not jealous of his position in the Nazi regime. Not in the slightest.
But this time as they approached the exit to the border, he studied the three men, with their mugs of Kästner ale and smelly cigars, and their fat bloated bellies. He studied them unconsciously and rudely, and they, for their part, did not overlook any details of his sloppy appearance: the awful smell on the hat he had laid beside his guarding post chair, the tiny creases in his watchmenís coat, the bagginess of his pants, and the other frayed places where his cotton fatigues had been mended. They took satisfaction in such evidences of hard luck, especially in such a gaunt, weak-looking soldier. It was hard not to resist scorning such a person; just as the grammar school bully teases and takes money from the student who is smaller than him. But Simon had been an arrogant louse himself before he joined the German army. He was eighteen, maybe nineteen at the time. And though his parents considered the Third Reich to be a worthwhile endeavor, after his enlistment, he no longer favored the war. He even hoped his own side would lose.
Hans walked over first. He was a mean man with a nauseating drinkerís face, cold and harsh--the kind of man you wanted to knock off his feet. Simon had always thought of him as a bulldog foaming at the mouth, for his upper lip was usually covered in froth. Orffmund and Regan on the other hand were quite different. They didnít look like the kind of people who would hang out with a man like Hans Coburn, yet their dispositions were the same. Orffmundís eyes were dark, deepset, slightly too close together, his lips generous though a little mean at the corners, his shoulders broad, almost kingly. Regan, who was the shortest of the three, was definitely a follower. His legs, in the tight carpenterís pants, bulged with powerful muscles; his hands were held slightly away from his sides as if pulled out by the pressure of his triceps. Except for the carpenterís pants, his clothes were the height of polka fashion. And the funny thing was that all three of them were old enough to be Simonís father.
"Comb your hair, soldier!" Hans joked smugly. "Youíre a mess!" There was an indefinable hint of hatred in his voice. "Hah!" he retorted a second later. "Youíre supposed to be defending our side from saboteurs?" Orffmund and Regan stood quietly in the back- ground, laughing to each other.
"Stop!" Simon insisted. "Just stop!" He disliked being mocked. After all, he was a man down on his luck.
Hans took a great big sip of his ale and smiled. He enjoyed every minute of it, picking on a young, lonesome man (which is what he thought Simon to be). "So, whatís for today?" he asked.
For the sake of simplicity Simon said, "Infiltration watch for another four hours."
"Oh, then I mustnít keep you from your work." Hans was suddenly acting rather apologetically.
"Like you three procurers really care. Thatís a laugh."
"Of course I care, Simon. How could you think that? Iíd just like to know how one like yourself becomes a soldier? How come the Führer has given you top rank?"
"I agree," said Orffmund, just as casually. "You certainly donít meet the requirements of a soldier." He then strode over and shoved Simon back against the wall, practically knocking him down.
Simon quickly steadied himself so as not to seem like a wimp. He was angry. So angry that he was about to crash his fist into the manís face out of retaliation, but instead he took stock of his neighborís words.
"And look how small he is too," Regan laughed hysterically. "You canít be more than 140 pounds." Again Simon felt a fist jab into his chest. He tried to ignore it, but Reganís heavy breathing came over his shoulder with the smell of cheap Austrian wine. "If a firefight broke out, how would you hold your rifle up? It probably weighs more than you."
"Give me a break, fellas," Simon said in a tired voice. He had been undergoing the same verbal abuse day in and day out. "Itís been a long day, and when you come here and act the way you do, you only make my job harder. You constantly belittle me and find some way of crushing my hopes and dreams. Iím sick and tired of it. Plus, you always drag me away from the border, and if the enemy ever got past it, I could very well be shot."
"Thereís nothing to fear from a firing squad," said Hans, still joking around. "Itís an admirable form of death, when compared to our defection camps."
Simon was confused. "What do you mean?"
"Donít complain so much," Orffmund jumped in and said. "Thatís what he means."
"Your job is to protect this village from invasion," added Regan mockingly, "and to protect our lives with your own."
Simon was annoyed.
"Yes, and now that you mention it, not ask questions either," said Hans. "Thereís an old saying: the young should respect the old."
"Respect must be earned," said Simon slight angrily.
"Earned?" Hansí tight look changed to open astonishment. "Not as long as we and other villagers support your unit. If it wasnít for our donations--which pays a chunk of your salary, may I remind you--this village wouldnít have need of such defective guards. The Deutsche marks weíve invested over the years gives us the right to do whatever we like."
"Thereís only so much money will buy," said Simon moralizingly.
"And what it purchases is enough to amuse us," remarked Hans flatly, as if it were a positive excuse. "Iíd be careful if I were you. Your insolence today could result in me writing a personal letter to the Führer himself."
"We can even have you thrown in prison," Orffmund pointed out.
"Letís not forget the gas chambers down in Saxony," added Regan shrewdly. Simon felt like he was being talked down to by an entourage of mindless apes. The misfits were known for finding words to locate oneís weaknesses.
And then, unexpectedly, they stopped talking. This was a first. Orffmund whispered something into Reganís ear, and he passed it on to Hans. A smile adorned Orffmund and Reganís face, and then Hans, too, put on a cheery grin. Simon could tell they were up to something. He could just sense it.
Suddenly, Hans inclined his head in a courteous manner, saying, "We just wanted to apologize for our unruly behavior. I myself was never one for quarreling."
"What?" Simon found this sudden change of heart confounding.
"Did you really think we were planning something?" Orffmund asked him.
"Well, it did cross my--"
Regan covered the young soldierís mouth. "Weíd never get you in trouble, Simon," he assured him. "We know how much you value your position." Simon still distrusted them, but there was no reason why he couldnít at least hear them out.
Then Hans said, "Lately, weíve been acting kind of arrogant towards you. Itís about time we showed you some satisfaction."
Simon narrowed his eyes in suspicion. "What kind of satisfaction?"
"Well, when was the last time you were out on the town?"
"I donít know," said Simon truthfully. "I canít remember exactly."
Then Hans got personal. "When was the last time you were laid?"
Simon stood blank for a moment; practically wooden. "I canít remember that either," he said icily, his heart sinking below his waist. He was angry at the same time. It was not the kind of question you asked another man.
"Oh, I didnít mean to be forthright," said Hans apologetically. "Listen, to show you Iím not such a bad guy, why donít you come to Grünedorfís tavern around 7:30 tonight? I promise Iíll show you a good time. And I may even have a surprise waiting."
Simon arched his brows. "Is this another one of your pranks?"
"Of course not," Hans said, the truce between them having its conventions. "Iím just showing my appreciation, making up for all those years of being an ass. I do hope youíll come."
How could he refuse?
Simon loved bars, especially Grünedorfís. It was the fancy inn with Nietzscheís picture hanging above the door. He loved the dim lights, the harpsichord music, the pungent liquor smells, the glint of womenís eyes, the shine of glasses, the colored glow of bottles, the feeling of remoteness from the outside world. It was something different, a change from his long and boring shifts back at the post. Strangely enough, he neither drank nor smoked, regarding these practices without objection but with the conviction that they were not for him.
He did not want to be an overanxious soldier, and he was careful not to push himself into hanging out with these three on the regular. He figured his natural complacency and compulsiveness could stay where it was. He wasnít particularly fond of it anyway.
Simon put his eyes up to the window and gazed from one happy face to the other. He looked at his pocket watch and saw with astonishment that it was nearly 7:30. The place was crowded for a Thursday night. Noisy too. They were inside the bar--Hans, Regan, Orffmund and many others. The warm glowing of the fireplace felt mild and balmy against their hands and faces, and the warm glowing comfort of the vodka and wine was whirling in their glasses. Even some of the tables in the back were laden with food.
The door opened and he was thrust into the bar. The first thing he took notice of was a calendar on the far wall. It read 1942 in big red numbers. To his left was a drunkard, knocking down his sixth or seventh lager and looking with enjoyment at the reflection in the bar mirror of a young woman seated. Next to him were a couple of black-uniformed Nazi lieutenants, laughing it up. To the right of him was the bar, over a dozen occupied stools in front of it. In the back were the restrooms, and an oak card table where a tall blond woman sat.
Simon decided to sit down and make himself comfortable. He quickly ordered a soda to give him reason for sitting there. The blond womanís eyes met his. He turned his head and smiled at the girlís image in the mirror, and at life in general.
Hans came waltzing out of the bathroom at that moment. At first, the loud-mouthed old man didnít notice him. He was too busy talking to the same woman Simon had laid his eyes upon. The way they were chatting seemed like they were almost related. "Hans!" he called out from across the bar. Hans took notice of him and rushed over. "How do you know that woman?"
"Oh, her? Sheís a good friend of mine," Hans said, glad he could make it. "Sheís also the surprise I was telling you about. This is her regular hangout."
"What does she do for a living?"
"Sheís a prostitute. Her name is Helga, and sheís Swedish."
Simon studied her more carefully. "She looks too intelligent to be a hooker."
"She was supposedly involved in espionage back in her country," Hans said, "but itís a lie if you ask me. I can introduce you."
Before Simon had a chance to consider, Hans pulled him to the back. The soldier removed his hat and greeted the woman with a small hello. She put out her hand to return the greeting, and Simon kissed it. "Whoís your friend?" she asked Hans, her eyes burning passionately.
"This is the man I was telling you about," Hans replied. "The one that guards the border."
"Such a handsome man," complimented the woman with very erotic eyes. "Perhaps heíd like to buy me a drink."
Simon felt himself swelling with pride. "I have no problem with that," he grinned.
But before he could order, Hans pulled Helga to the side and whispered something to her. Simon narrowed his eyes at the two. For all the time he had spent in that bar and for all the trust he had invested, he once again distrusted Hans. What was he up to? Where did Helga fit in? And where did Orffmund and Regan disappear to?
Hans cleared his throat and stated that, "Helga would like to bring you upstairs to her room. This inn has three floors. She rents out the second."
Simon stared at both of them long and hard, his prudent face set. The woman lit up a cigarette and blew smoke into the heavy air. Talk of the war swirled around them. Suddenly she clamped her fingers around his wrist...and kissed him.
Simon pulled away somewhat surprised, and carried on suspiciously, "Wait--well, I guess it would be all right for a little while." Helga took that very same wrist and led him up the bar balcony, Hans waving ciao behind them.
She brought Simon into the last room on the right, a dim-lighted little closet with a coat hook and a bed. It reminded Simon of his flat back in Nuremberg. For a long moment they stared at each other; then she closed the door and walked heavily into the room, taking off her dress. She unbuttoned Simonís shirt and removed his gun belt, putting the two material items on a nearby crate (an unmistakable excuse for a table). She then sat him down on the edge of the bed, saying, "You look nervous. Is this your first time?"
"No," he muttered. "Iíve only loved once, and that was a very long time ago." He tried something awful to forget Bethany. For years now.
Helga understood. She pushed Simon back on the pillow and started massaging his chest. He looked up at her in the dim light. What was this hold on him? It was electric. Magnetic. He felt her physical presence every moment. Sexually, she was one of the most stimulating women he knew. Her soft fingers working against the smooth surface of his pectoral muscles made him feel vulnerable; it was as though nothing could interrupt him.
But then, in this relaxed state, his head turned to the side and his eyes rolled open. He glanced over at the wooden crate where his gun belt lay...
It was empty.
His Luger was gone!
A feeling of betrayal suddenly overwhelmed him. His body was invaded--no, better yet, flooded by cold rage. Had Helga gotten him alone so she could kill him? Was this another one of Hansí vicious pranks? Was the whole evening just a set-up?
He swore he wouldnít let himself fall into this trap. Not again!
He took Helga by the hair and kissed her on the lips, while reaching down into the lining of his boot. He pulled a stiletto from the shoeís secret compartment and slashed her across the face. She fell off the bed and cried out in pain. She then looked at the blood on her hands and went into shock.
"Wh--why?" she asked Simon, panicking and edging back to the corner of the room. "Why did you cut me?"
"Because you tricked me," Simon replied angrily, feeling no regret over her horrible disfigurement. "Just as the three misfits have tricked me. Well, I wonít stand for it anymore. No more!"
"What are you talking about? I liked you! I was attracted to you the moment you set foot in the bar!"
Simon threw on his shirt. "What do you mean?"
The woman was strangely still now. From then on Simonís manner toward her was gentle; that is, up until the point he found it best to make his exit.
Before he left he knelt beside the womanís body. She looked asleep, rather than unconscious; he knew she would never have wakened of herself, the scar on her face being too much to handle. Even so, there was a moment in which her eyes opened in terror; she made a feeble effort to get up, but couldnít. She dropped into lethargy after that. Simon ran downstairs to get some help, preferably from Hans, but he wasnít there. Like Orffmund and Regan, the misfit had left some time ago.
The bartender called Simon over to tell him that he didnít pay for his drink. Otherwise frantic, the young soldier walked over to the bar to hear something else of unnecessary importance. "You should be careful where you put your toys"
Simon gave the innkeeper a strange look. "What are you talking about?"
The innkeeper handed him a pistol from behind the counter. It was the missing Luger. "A man by the name of Coburn--Hans Coburn, said it belonged to you," he said. "You left it on the table before you went upstairs."
Woefully, Simon drew his eyes from the innkeeperís and stared down at the weapon, thinking of the dreadful mistake he had made and the damage he had done. If only he had trusted the misfits this once, none of this would have happened.