Authors: Jonathan Rabb
Tags: #Literary, #General, #Historical, #Fiction
again and always
There was nothing but heat and sun. And, from time to time, the young man forced himself to arch his neck just to feel the lines of sweat dripping down his back.
What had he expected, a German in Spain? It was his job to sweat and look sickly doing it. His cheeks had gone a nice pasty red, even through a three-day growth of beard. He wasn’t smelling all that good either, but then neither were any of the others in the row, staring across the plaza, cameras at the ready, cigarettes hanging limply from parched lips.
The young man had thought about keeping the beard, but he knew his wife would tell him to shave it off the moment he got back to Berlin. It would probably scare the boy anyway—“Where’s my papi! Where’s my papi!” ringing down the hall, screams and tears before all the presents came tumbling out of the suitcase. Presents were always good with a boy of four, even from a father he didn’t quite recognize.
It hadn’t been that long, he thought. Not this time—had it?
The young man kept his right arm on the crank of the movie camera, his eye at the viewfinder, as, with his left hand, he tried to grope for the can of water he had set down somewhere on the cobbled pavement.
He must have looked ridiculous doing it because a voice down the line blurted out, “You do juggling tricks as well, Hoffner, or is it just the balancing act?”
The words were Spanish, but it was a thick Eastern European accent that muddied the sound.
Georg Hoffner pulled himself back from the camera. He brought his long body upright, blinked the sweat from his eye, and stared down at a fat Bulgarian with a hand-held Leica strung across his chest. The camera looked twenty years old, cutting-edge for a Bulgarian.
“Why?” said Hoffner. “You have some balls that need juggling?”
There were a few laughs, those dry uncomfortable laughs that come with heat and sweat, but almost at once the line fell silent. Across the plaza, the doors to a vast building opened. Hoffner quickly repositioned himself behind the camera and peered through the viewfinder. He focused on the banner hanging above, hastily painted but still impressive:
S OLYMPICS, 19–26 JULY, 1936, BARCELONA FOR THE PEOPLE, FOR THE WORKERS
A line of young men and women began to pour out the doors, all dressed as workers, with red neckerchiefs and berets to signify their exalted station in life. To be a worker in Barcelona these days, a member of the proletariat—that was the stuff of dreams. To be a worker athlete—well, that was pure legend.
The fat Bulgarian snapped his shots as he tried to squeeze past the line of Guardia Civil: patent leather hats, patent leather boots—patent leather men with patent leather souls. How these soldiers were managing to stay upright in the heat was anybody’s guess. Still, Bulgarians were never much good at maneuvering through large Spaniards with cudgels. The Bulgarian pushed once too often and his camera went crashing to the pavement.
Hoffner heard the moans from down the line, but it wasn’t enough to draw his attention from the smart set of Germans striding across his lens. Hoffner cranked as they walked, his arm remarkably steady as he followed them along the plaza. There was something almost Soviet to the way these boys moved, triumphant and bedraggled all at once, their nobility protruding from the angle of their heads and the broadness of their chests. He recognized them from this morning’s press conference outside the Olympic Stadium. It had been a hell of a time getting the cameras into the funicular and up the mountain, where the smells of wheat and cow manure and maybe beets—he hadn’t been able to place that one—followed the tram all the way up.
It had been the German contingent on the podium this morning. The place of honor. After all, they were the ones protesting their own Olympic games—Hitler’s chance to show the world the best of Nazi Germany. Hitler, however, would have to wait another ten days before parading his Aryan ideals in Berlin. Until then, it was the worker athletes here in Barcelona—Germans, Swedes, Russians, English, on and on—who would remind the world that sport was pure and not meant to be used as a tool of politics. Hoffner suspected it was a logic only the Left could follow.
Truth be known, most of these boys hadn’t seen Germany in years. They were Jews and Communists and socialists—exiles living in France or England—but still they had come to compete as Germans. Proletariat Germans. Protesting Germans. Take that, you fascist bastards.
The boys reached the buses parked at the edge of the plaza. They turned and waved to no one in particular and then got on. Hoffner stopped the crank and stood upright. The Bulgarian was still yelling at the Guardia. The buses began to move and the Guardia, no less bored, headed off in various directions, leaving the Bulgarian to shout into the emptying plaza.
“Come and have a drink,” Hoffner said, as he began to fold up the legs on his camera. “We’ll let Pathé Gazette pay for it—what do you say?—and maybe we’ll find you a camera lying around somewhere.”
The Bulgarian stopped squawking. He picked up the cracked pieces of his Leica and headed over. His smell preceded him by a good ten meters.
* * *
The bar was down in the Raval section of town, near the water and the docks, a good place for pimps and drunks and journalists. At two in the morning there was little chance of telling them apart; now, at four in the afternoon, it was primarily journalists. And one or two whores. They were big girls, with big chests, dark black hair like dripping tar, and tight skirts that hugged the thighs like two thick columns of flesh. The skirts were a kind of protective measure for men too eager to get a passing hand up and inside.
“The games are a joke,” the Bulgarian said to Hoffner. Two others were sitting with them, all four drinking what passed for whiskey. “You’d think if they’re going to protest your Nazis, they’d have someone outside of Spain who actually cares that they’re protesting.”
Hoffner was reading through one of the letters he had gotten from his wife. He liked reading them over and over, especially when he was sitting with Bulgarians and Poles and—he couldn’t remember what the dozing fourth one was, Russian or Czech. What did it matter? These types all got drunk the same way, spoke the same kind of broken Spanish, and tried to get the girls for cheap. But they all liked that Pathé Gazette picked up the bill for the first few rounds. Hoffner liked it as well. He would have to remember to put in for it.
The Bulgarian said, “You think Hitler cares that a few Communists decide to run the long jump? Or a socialist can throw a hammer?” The Bulgarian was fat and small, a winning combination. “I interviewed one of them. He’s here for the chess. Can you imagine it? Chess as Olympic sport? This one was terribly impressive after he cleaned his glasses and patted down his bald head. Now that’s an athlete.”
Hoffner continued to scan the letter. “My son’s been reading the front page of the
all by himself,” he said. “Every word.”
The Pole was pouring out his third glass. “He likes the news?”
“Let’s hope not.”
“How long has he been reading?”
“The last few months. He’s four and a bit.”
“I’ve been reading much longer than that. Are you impressed?”
“Only if you read better than you write.”
The Pole smiled and drank.
The Bulgarian was leaning back over his chair and staring at one of the girls at the bar. She was staring back with just the right kind of indifference. The Bulgarian turned his head to the table. “She wouldn’t go for less than ten pesetas, you think?”
“She wouldn’t go for it when you asked her last night,” said the Pole. “Or the night before. But don’t let that stop you from asking again.”
The Bulgarian peered over at Hoffner. “Must be nice to have a wife who writes letters. And a little boy.”
“Must be,” Hoffner said distractedly.
“I have one somewhere. A wife. Not the writing type.” He leaned forward. “So tell me, why is it that Pathé Gazette has a German working for them? It’s English newsreel. Shouldn’t you be with Ufa-Tonwoche or Phoebus? One of the German studios?”
Hoffner folded the letter and placed it in his pocket. “Phoebus never did newsreels.”
“So why not Ufa?”
Hoffner took hold of the bottle. “Not too many Jews working out at Ufa these days.” He poured himself a glass. “I’d say none, but then there’s always one or two who’ve managed to slip through the cracks. Too good at what they do for some government statute to force them out. I wasn’t that good in the first place.” He drank.
“I’m a Jew,” said the Pole.
Hoffner poured himself another. “Good for you.”
The Bulgarian said, “And Pathé Gazette just happened to have an office in Berlin? How nice. I’m thinking they haven’t had time to set one up in Sofia just yet.”
“Don’t sound so bitter,” Hoffner said with a smile. “The girl’ll think you don’t really want her.”
The Bulgarian shot a glance back at the bar. The girl was chatting up the barman.
The Pole pushed back his chair. “I have an interview with the Swedish fencing team,” he said. “We’re very keen on fencing in Warsaw.” He stood. “Anyone interested?”
“Are there women on the team?” said the Bulgarian.
“I imagine so.”
“My God. Swedish women in those outfits. And socialists to boot.” The Bulgarian was on his feet. He piped his voice toward the girl at the bar. “No more negotiating, capitalist. I’m off to the Revolution.”