“They have nothing,” the old man said adamantly. “They say they do, but they don’t.”
He was dressed in baggy pants that showed some wear on the knees and the cuffs were frayed. His coat’s sleeves were frayed and the elbows were shiny. His shoes were without shape or color, just lumps of leather that surrounded his feet. They had no laces. He pulled them on when he went out and pulled them off at the door when he went in to keep his housekeeper from yelling at him about the slimy cow pudding always on the soles of his boots.
He wore them into the gasthaus.
None of the farmers who drank in the gasthaus cared if he brought cow pudding in with him. His thick, calloused fingers ran over the top of his head threading the thin strands of gray hair through them and over the dirty fingernails. The gasthaus was almost deserted. Besides the old man at his table, only another old farmer was there, his head resting on his arms which were spread across a one-person table in the back corner by the pfennig slot machine. Occasionally a snore rattled the table top. Less frequently, but just as audibly, gas escaped from one end or the other.
He looked through the segmented front window. The sky was low and dark. Cold drizzle ran down the glass making everything outside waver from side to side. November in the Eifel.
The other one at the table had white whiskers looking like short, stiff quills and straight, thin graying hair plastered to his head by the drizzle through which he had walked on the way for his beer. “Abend!” he had said as he shook off the rain and turned to nod at no one in particular. The gasthaus smelled of beer and sweat and cow pudding but the man did not notice. Everything in the village smelled of beer and sweat and cow pudding. Since the choice for conversation was the old man in the back, the landlord reading a paper, or Klaus, he crossed to Klaus’s table and sat down. Klaus was always good for a beer after he had had a few.
“They have nothing, you know.”
The old man raised his eyebrows. Klaus Koch never looked at him. He just stared out the window. Water ran down the glass distorting the lights on either side of the entry door of the whitewashed building across the street. The water washed down onto the cobblestones of the parking lot and out onto the blacktopped street, then down the slight slope to the left. Eventually, it would end up in the river that ran through the long valley down toward Baustert. It really wasn’t a river. It was only a creek – smelling of cow manure most of the time. But there in Hüttersheid, everyone called it The River.
The old man nodded towards the landlord and pointed at the glass of beer in front of his companion. Apparently, Klaus had not had enough to become generous. The landlord drew a glass of the frothy amber beer and brought it to the table.
“Is it Bitbürger?” the old man asked.
“You know it is. It is the only thing I have here on draft.”
“I don’t like Bitbürger. It’s bitter. You know that.”
“You should have told me you wanted a bottle. You pointed at Klaus’s glass. That’s what he is drinking.” The landlord held out his hand.
The old man reached into his baggy, tweed trousers and removed a one mark coin. He laid it on the table. The landlord scooped it up and left.
“Don’t like this Pils stuff. It’s too bitter.”
Klaus turned from the window and nodded at him. “You’re right. It’s too bitter. But I drink it anyway because it is fresh. Fresh beer is better for you than what you get in bottles.”
The old man shook his head. “So you drink what doesn’t taste good because it’s fresh and won’t drink what does taste good because it is bottled?”
Klaus ignored him and returned his gaze to the window. The old man swigged his beer and made a face. “Bitter!” he said.
“They have nothing.”
“The Americans who live over there.”
“No, they have everything. They are Americans and so they are rich.”
Klaus pounded the table. “No, they have nothing. They try to tell a man they are rich, but they have nothing. I know.”
Klaus finished the last of the beer in his glass and waved at the landlord. The landlord came and got the glass, refilled it, and brought it back to the table. For a good customer, he would have poured the beer in a fresh glass but Klaus was not a good customer. He was miserly. He never ordered any food – only the few beers in the evening. Let him drink out of the same glass all night.
Klaus looked over at his friend and smiled. His head nodded toward the apartment building. “I’ve been in their apartment. Nothing. If I didn’t give them stuff to use, they would have nothing.”
His friend nodded, wondering if he should wait for Klaus to get generous before ordering again. He decided against it and waved at the landlord. “Bring a bottle of some Bavarian beer. Now that is beer. Those goatherds down there know something of making beer.”
Klaus looked upset. “What we make here in the Eifel is as good as any made anywhere.”
Klaus settled back in his chair and stared out the window. “Ja, it is bitter but it is as good as anything they make in Bayern.”
The old man wanted to argue but -- a little nodding of the head and agreeing -- if he could swallow that bitter Pils, he chuckled at his joke, he could get a beer out of Klaus.
“You gave them the pots and pans – and the dishes?”
Klaus looked disgusted. “I am not talking about that. The furniture is mine. I gave them all of that.”
The old man looked puzzled. “You are the manager. Aren’t you supposed to provide those things?”
Klaus turned away to stare out the window again. He dismissed his friend’s argument with a toss of his left hand. “They want to make you think they are rich, but I have been in there. They have nothing. Him walking off to the missile site up there at Hisel every morning. They don’t even have an auto.”
“Well, I don’t have an auto either.”
Klaus harrumphed. He did not have an auto, either, but Americans who said they were rich should have one.
“Americans who say they are rich should have one.”
His friend nodded. “That’s true. Rich Americans should have an auto.”
Klaus nodded again. “You know that’s true. If they really were rich they would have an auto.”
“Klaus, did they tell you they were reicher?”
Klaus took a long drink, ignoring the question, emptying his glass. He thumped it back on the table and nodded again. “And do you know what?”
His friend glanced at Klaus’s empty beer glass. He quickly drained the bottle before answering Klaus. He wanted to give Klaus the chance, you know, to be generous.
Klaus, though, appeared in no hurry to order. He turned his back again to look out the window. The landlord stared for a few minutes to see if he was going to order again but Klaus was occupied with the wavering images.
Suddenly, he turned back and said, “She has to wash that little baby’s knappies in the bathtub. And the little boy – what is he, two? Well, that little boy is already out of knappies.
Too soon,” he said with a wag of his head. “You know that. Two is too soon to be out of knappies. Is that right? Two is too soon to be out of knappies?”
Klaus turned to the old man sleeping at the other table, “Herman, tell them!”
The old man lifted his head from his arms and stared with bleary eyes at Klaus. “Was ist los?”
“Two is too soon to be out of knappies? That is not good for a little boy of only two to be out of knappies.”
“Leave me alone,” the sleepy old man said. “I have to get up and milk the cows at 4:00 tomorrow. Leave me alone.” He did not have to get up and milk the cows. He had no cows – his son had taken them over two years before.
Klaus stared at his friend. “Do you know why the boy has been taken out of knappies so soon?”
The old man shook his head, staring longingly at Klaus’s empty glass.
“Because they have nothing. Can’t afford two children in knappies so the older one had to learn the toilet. It is disgusting.”
The landlord folded his paper and shouted, “Perhaps if you didn’t charge them so much rent, Koch. If you charged them only what you charge Müller on the first floor they could afford all these things.”
“They are rich. They can afford the extra rent. Besides, they have to pay more to compensate us for what they did to us in the war.”
The landlord snorted. “The war has been over for twenty five years, Klaus. You have been overcharging them rent since they moved those missiles up there. And since you spent the first part of the war on a farm and most of the last part in a POW camp, don’t you think you have been repaid enough?
Klaus’s face reddened. It was like this whenever the war was mentioned. He jumped to his feet, pushing his chair back on the stone floor. “I don’t have to take this. I was a soldier, like you. I’ll just leave this place, if that’s what you think.” He scooted back his chair and started to walk across the room.
The landlord waved his hand at the door. “It opens both ways, Koch. You can come in and you can go out.” Koch was not a very good customer anyway. If he never came back the landlord would only be out the sale of a couple of beers a day. But he would be back. There was only one gasthaus in Hüttersheid and Klaus Koch did not have an auto. It was a three kilometer walk to Baustert – and those people weren’t very friendly.
The old man rose and laid hold of Klaus’s arm. “Don’t let the landlord get your goat. You come back and sit. We all know you did your best in the war. It was not your fault they captured you just after Normandy. You come back. Let’s have another round. Landlord, another couple of beers.”
Klaus’s humors improved by the old man’s tone, he nodded. “Yes, landlord – who never got captured in the war but was only a company clerk anyway – yes, landlord, bring us two more beers. But none of that Bavarian stuff. I won’t pay for that Bavarian stuff.”
The old man smiled. “That’s fine, Klaus. We’ll drink Pils – if that’s what you want.” He didn’t really care. Being free would make it taste OK.
They sat staring at the beers for several minutes. Finally, the old man raised the glass to his lips. He paused and stared over the top edge of his glass. “Klaus, did the Americans tell you they were rich?”
Klaus waved toward the apartment building. The rain made it shimmer in the glow of the parking lot lamp. “I told you. They have nothing but they want us – all us Germans – to think they are rich. Bah,” he waved his hand, “they are poorer than church mice.”
They drank in silence for a few minutes, then Klaus said, “Do you know what they did?”
The old man sipped his beer. “What was that, Klaus?”
“They showed me a picture. From the United States. It was a picture of a rich man’s house. There was a big, concrete driveway – big enough for two cars. There was a green lawn. The house had two stories and had a garage door right in the front – the garage was built right into the house. There was a front door with windows on either side. And there was a big window over the garage – like there was a room up there.”
“It was a big place. Had to have eight -- ten rooms in it – and big rooms.”
“He told me it was his sister’s house. Said it had four bedrooms. FOUR BEDROOMS!”
The old man shook his head. “Four, huh? That is a big house.”
“You better believe that is a big house. And it is not any poor man’s house. That was a rich man’s house. His sister, he said.”
“Well, maybe his sister is rich?”
Klaus snorted. “If she is rich, then he would be rich, too. They have nothing.”
Klaus took a long
pull of beer and put the glass gently back on the table before swallowing. He belched softly behind his hand. The old man in the corner noisily passed gas.
“Tried to pull one over on me. See, he has nothing but what was he doing showing me his picture? He wanted me to think he’s rich. That’s those Americans. Got nothing where they come from but they come here and act like they are rich.”
“I thought America was rich, Klaus?”
“Nay! They are not rich. Oh, there are a few rich ones but haven’t you watched the television – they live like pigs in those cities. I’ve seen the pictures. Haven’t you? Hey, Herman, you’ve seen the pictures, haven’t you?”
The old man did not lift his head. He waved and mumbled, “I have to milk the cows.”
“Well, you’ve seen the pictures on the news. Killings. Robbers. People with guns all over. And the way they live. Garbage on the streets. Building falling down around them. I’ve seen it. The government has to give away cheese. That is what most of them live on – cheese and a little bread they bake.”
The landlord came and stood next to the table. “You two want any more beer?”
The old man shook his head. “No, three is enough for me. I don’t want anymore.” He hoped Klaus would say he did not want any more either. It would be his turn to buy.
Klaus stared at the couple of centimeters of beer in the bottom of the glass. He shook his head. “No, three of these are enough. It is so bitter that it sours my stomach if I have more than three.”
The landlord walked back to the counter and picked up his paper.
The old man stared out the window. The lights at the entry to the apartment were on again. The door was ajar.
“Klaus, why did the American show you the picture? Was he just bragging?”
Klaus nodded. “Just bragging. I had come to tell him that I was going to raise the rent again. I have decided they have so little and I have to supply so much of what they want – Did you know they bathe everyday? Did you know that? They sure would not be able to do that in America. But they do it in my apartment where I have to pay for the oil to heat that water up and pay for the water that they throw away. Did you know?”
The old man shook his head. That did seem inappropriate. Bathing everyday.
“That’s not the worst of it. Each one has to have his own bath water. They throw the water away each time! And I have to pay for that!”
The old man was shocked. Extravagance. Too much extravagance.
“So, I told them they could get nothing like I was giving them in America – even if the furniture was old and maybe a little dirty – and the bed was not really a bed but an old couch I had put in there – and even if one burner on the oven did not work, they didn’t really need it because they didn’t have any money for big meals anyway. So, I told them they were going to have to pay more because … Did you know they are so poor that they are forced to eat maize?”
The old man looked appropriately shocked.
“That’s right. They eat pig food. Anyway, they couldn’t get anything comparable to what I am providing for them in America. That’s when they pulled out that rich man’s house picture and tried to tell me they lived like that in America.”
On the road from Baustert, a figure walked out of the mist and turned onto their road and then into the light. It was an American soldier dressed in his work uniform. He turned into the apartment parking lot. When he was three or four meters from the door, it flew open and a small, blond boy of two years bounded out across the puddled yard. He was swooped up into the soldier’s arms and carried quickly to the apartment door. There, a plump, dark-haired woman stood with a baby wrapped in a blanket. Her teeth shined in the light of the lamps as her husband approached her. He pecked her on the cheek then they slipped inside.
Klaus nodded wisely and smirked at the old man. “Didn’t even come to the gasthaus for a beer after all that walking. See, they have nothing.”