By Annette Oppenlander
Based on a true story
Solingen, Germany 1946.
Bending low against an icy wind, Günter hurried after his best friend Helmut. From afar both boys looked like scarecrows, jackets ill-fitting and patched together, pants ending above the ankles. Günter wore socks of indefinable color, darned by his mother with a mosaic of yarns.
“I’ve got nothing tonight,” Günter said, letting his hands wander through his pockets as if he could uncover a hidden treasure.
Helmut held up a burlap sack. “Onions and carrots from grandmother.” He cleared his throat. “I wish I had a cigarette.”
Günter made a face. Smoking was like throwing your money into a fire. One cigarette bought a kilo of bread—if you could find a baker.
“I wish we had food. The war has been over for a year and still we have nothing.” He navigated around a pile of bricks in front of a bombed-out house. “How’s work? You still see that girl, Helga?”
“Work is fine.”
“What about Helga?”
“Are you getting anywhere with her?” Günter said.
“What do you mean?”
“Isn’t she eighteen?”
“Yes, why?” Helmut looked straight ahead.
“That’s old enough to lose your virginity.”
Helmut turned pink. “You haven’t done it yet, have you?”
“I still have a few months until my birthday. I’ll try it soon.” Günter didn’t think his birthday had anything to do with sex, but it was a good excuse. He didn’t have time for a girl anyway.
“How about Sabine, Helga’s friend? She seems to like you well enough.”
“She’s screwed half the town. Probably infected. Besides, I saw her with a British soldier.”
It was dusk by the time they arrived at Grünewald, a neighborhood on the south side of town. Down the street the red-bricked buildings of Henckels Twin factory loomed. In the shine of a single light bulb wrapped in barbed wire, people had set up shop in an empty lot.
A bucket of potatoes sat next to a camera and three cutting knives, their serrated blades gleaming with grease, a sure sign they were plain metal and would rust the instant they became wet. A gruff-looking man with a shaven head and a scar blooming across his cheek presided over chunks of meat, wrapped in bloodied strips of newspaper. He stared at his goods, his eyes darting toward the street once in a while. Two dozen men and women mingled, looking for bargains. An older woman offered clumps of butter. One of her customers held out a scruffy chicken for inspection. It clucked softly as the butter vendor inspected its feathery chest.
Helmut held out his bag. “Do you want to try? You’re better at it.”
With a shrug Günter grabbed the sack and headed toward the back corner where assorted glass bottles set in the mud. Lounging behind it were two boys their age.
“It’s real schnapps,” one of them shouted. He looked filthy even in the gloom, his hair greasy, the dirt in his face competing with pimples. His eyes shone but he looked washed out and sickly.
“You have to taste it,” Helmut whispered. “They could’ve water in there.”
“What do you mean, water?” the pimply boy said. “It’s good stuff. You can’t taste it. Otherwise we’ll have nothing left.”
“How do we know you aren’t lying?” Günter felt strangely angry.
“Why would we lie? We come here all the time.”
“I wouldn’t buy from you.” Günter turned to scrutinize the butter seller.
“How about some meat?” Helmut said.
Without warning the pimply boy gripped Günter’s arm. “You shouldn’t come here if you don’t buy.”
“Leave me alone!” Günter yanked free, pushing the boy backwards. He was turning toward Helmut when the boy’s fist landed squarely on Günter’s cheek. The second youth jumped on Helmut. Blocking his face, Günter bounced back and forth like he had seen in the box ring. His fist shot against his opponent’s chin. The boy’s head jerked as he flew to the ground.
Günter grunted. “Come on. Want some more, right here.” He pointed to his chin. The boy’s matted hair hung across his face. He stood up with effort, shook his head and lifted his arms.
“Liar,” the boy sniffed through the blood dripping from his nose. He jumped forward, digging his knuckles into Günter’s stomach. Fighting the urge to double over, Günter smacked a fist into the boy’s eye socket. The boy stared in disbelief and sank to his knees.
Several whistles blew at once.
“Stop!” someone yelled. “Don’t move.” A shot exploded.
Günter looked up. Men in British military uniforms were fanning across the market. “Helmut. Now!”
“I just about got him,” Helmut panted, throwing another punch.
“Police. Let’s go!”
Around them, buyers and sellers scattered, dragging their wares with them. The pimply boy staggered rubbing his eye. Helmut’s opponent looked dazed. Quickly, Günter grabbed two bottles and ran. And stopped.
There was no way out.
The man with the scarred face was laying face-down in the dirt, his arms pinned back by an officer. More police was cutting off access, the street now clogged with trucks and jeeps. In the back an eight-foot brick wall loomed—too high to climb. The house on the south side had a side door. Günter doubted it was open. Trust was a thing of the past. People, even formerly honest ones, stole every day. Besides they’d have to cross the entire market and give the Brits ample opportunity to catch them. Visions of himself in jail, his father’s angry face drifted into his mind.
Fighting his rising panic, Günter pulled Helmut toward the ruins of the apartment house on the north side. The roof was missing, its walls partially collapsed into itself. The stucco had cracked and peeled away. Günter darted behind a pile of bricks and cement, the remains of an entrance. Along the back wall a basement window, broken since the citywide bombing two years ago, gaped open. Ignoring the glass shards and splintered wood, Günter dropped to his knees. The window was no more than a foot high and three feet wide, hiding what was beyond in shadow.
Around the corner whistles trilled. Günter felt his heart pound in his neck. Any second the military police would see them. He had no choice. Dropping on his stomach he squeezed through the opening. Helmut followed.
Inside, the damp air carried a faint burn smell. Günter could make out debris and half-collapsed walls.
“Get away from the window,” Helmut whispered from somewhere in the darkness.
Günter felt the familiar tightening in his throat. The inky void was reaching out to grab him. He couldn’t move.
“Do you have a light?” he croaked. He knew Helmut had neither matches nor a lighter, but it distracted him from the increasing terror of remembering the bunker.
“If they shine a light in here, they’ll see you,” Helmut whispered.
“I can’t hear anything.” Günter opened his eyes as wide as possible, but the pressure on his chest remained.
“They may wait for us.” Helmut’s voice was hollow in the gloom.
Fighting the fog in his brain Günter listened for sounds, willing the police to be gone. He thought of the only time he’d been in the bunker. It’d been after the devastating bombing when the city burned for eight days. Everyone had been afraid, no terrified. He’d followed his mother to the bunker, but after being locked inside all night, he’d thought he’d suffocate. The fear and tight space, the whimpering of his neighbors had driven him insane. After that he’d refused.
Now his throat felt as if a ghostly hand were choking him. He couldn’t stand it for another minute.
“I say we try it.” Günter forced air into his lungs. “They must have left.”
Without waiting for an answer he clambered through the window, his palms bleeding by the time he straightened outside. Breathe, he ordered himself…in, out, in, out. He crept to the corner—and sighed. The space was deserted.
“Let’s run,” Günter said when Helmut appeared next to him. “I know where we can go.” He patted his jacket. The bottles were safe.
On the side of an abandoned villa, an isolated bomb had carved a fifty-foot crater, collapsing the house walls on one side. The hole in the earth looked endless in the dark. They climbed inside one of the ground-floor windows, the gas lantern across the street throwing long shadows. Glass crunched as they searched for a place to sit. The room, its ceiling sloping down toward the back, had been stripped down to the concrete subfloor, the floor planks long torn off for cooking and heating.
Günter handed Helmut a bottle, slumped to the ground and pulled the cork. He took a deep swig. The sharp liquid burned as it traveled through his throat, etching a pattern of heat inside his stomach.
“They sure were stupid.”
“Who?” Helmut’s gulp echoed through the room.
“The guys with the liquor.”
“This is pretty good.” Günter smacked his lips. His mouth felt warm as the alcohol numbed his tongue. Heat spread across his face.
“Who’d have thought?” said Helmut.
“They looked like thugs. Could’ve been water.”
“Could’ve been.” Helmut slid across the floor to rest his back against the moldy remnants of wallpaper. “I wonder who lived here.”
“I wish we could make a fire,” Günter said.
“That’d be nice.”
“You think those guys got arrested?”
“Who?” Helmut took a sip. The bottle clanked against the concrete floor.
“The boys with the schnapps.”
“Served’em right.” Günter drank again. He felt comfortable now. The heat had spread to his fingers, the pain in his cheek subsided. He wiggled his toes inside his boots. They were tight.
“Wonder where they got the stuff.”
It was quiet except for the glass clinking between swallows. The room grew smaller, warmer, its shadows familiar. People had lived here, sat on the sofa and listened to the radio. It was hard to imagine.
Günter sat up straight. “Why haven’t you done it with Helga?”
Silence. Helmut lifted his bottle. The liquid sloshed as he drank.
“You heard me,” Günter said.
Helmut took another swig, setting down the bottle hard. He mumbled something but Günter couldn’t hear.
“Why do you want to know?” Helmut said. He sounded irritated.
“I don’t want to talk right now.”
“Fine,” Günter said, “sorry I asked. A fire would be nice.”
Helmut leaned over, inspecting an opening in the wall. “Looks like they used to have a stove. I’d love a nice coal fire.”
“And something to roast on top.” Günter took another sip. Schnapps dripped down his chin and he wiped at it with his sleeve. Numbness settled, turning his legs and arms heavy, like the earth was pulling him down. He relaxed, feeling almost cheerful. For a while, the room was quiet. Thoughts went through his mind but they seemed hard to hold on to. Every time he wanted to speak, the sentence slipped away. He no longer felt the cold emanating from the concrete.
Suddenly, he jumped up. “We sure showed them,” he yelled.
Helmut’s snort hollered up from the ground. “We sure did!“
Günter burped. A burp contest ensued. Giggles rang through the darkness.
“I declare myself the winner,” Helmut howled, scrambling to his knees. “I’ve got to piss.”
“You are the burp meister. Me too.” Günter straightened, but the room began to spin. He laughed again, groping for the wall. Misjudging the distance, he fell forward and caught himself on the window sill. “This place needs to stop moving.”
“You know why I haven’t done it?” Helmut’s voice had an edge.
“Sleep with Helga, you dumb ass.”
“Why?” Günter said, only half listening as he fought the whirling in his head.
Helmut was quiet for a moment. “I don’t have condoms. Helga won’t do it without.”
“Heck, if that’s all it is, let’s find you some rubbers.” Günter climbed thought the window. “Man, I’m dizzy.”
“Easier said than done. I’ve tried but …it’s embarrassing. Hey, you got any condoms?” he squawked. “I sure don’t want my parents to know.”
“What about the pharmacy?”
“They have nothing. You’re lucky to get bandages.”
“I’m drunk,” said Günter.
Helmut crawled across the window ledge. “I don‘t feel a thing.”
“I can’t get up.” Helmut sat on the sill, one leg inside, one out.
“You stay here,” Günter sniggered. “I’ll pick you up tomorrow.”
“Why don’t you help me?” Helmut slurred, straining against the hold.
“Fine, I’m coming… to the rescue.” Günter lurched forward and fumbled behind Helmut’s back. “Try it now.”
A tearing noise followed. “Scheisse!”
Günter bent over laughing.
Helmut felt his rear where a patch of fabric had ripped from his bottom. “Idiot. Why didn’t you help me?”
“I did,” Günter said.
“I tore my only pants. Mother will kill me.”
“Who cares.” Günter staggered to the edge of the bomb crater. “Let’s see if we can hit bottom.”
“Man, I need to piss.” Helmut said, nearly plunging into the hole.
It became quiet except for the sound of pee splattering.
Günter zipped his trousers. “Shall we go home? I’ll get the bottles.”
Helmut remained silent as Günter climbed back inside the house. The room began to spin and Günter tripped. Glass crashed and alcohol vapors wafted in the air.
“What happened?” Helmut’s voice seemed to come from far away.
“Don’t know. I must’ve kicked the bottle. It’s gone.” Günter’s voice seemed muffled as if he were speaking through a giant cotton ball. “Where’s yours?”
“Don’t remember. You know where the vegetables are?”
“I thought you carried them. I can’t find the bottle.” Günter sank to his knees. He suddenly felt sick.
“You had the sack, remember. You were going to trade.”
“I must’ve dropped them when we fought. Why don’t you help me find the bottle?”
Helmut climbed back in. “All right, I’ll find it. Why did you leave it? Now I have nothing to bring home.”
“Take the rest of the schnapps,” said Günter. “I need to sit a moment.” His last words sounded forced as he tried forming the sounds with his mouth. Sweat had formed on his forehead and he leaned against the wall. He felt hot and cold at the same time. He wanted to rest, close his eyes for a while. His ears rang and he became aware of his breath rattling. It seemed loud and echoed across the room. His head floated like a balloon. He forgot what he wanted to do, that he wanted to leave. Life seemed to retract, become fuzzy around the edges and swallow him. Nothing mattered as he drifted off.
Helmut slumped to his knees, scooting across the floor. “Here it is. I knew it. Shall we go?” No answer came but a gurgling snore. “I guess not,” he mumbled and closed his eyes.
Just before dawn, when the night is at its coldest, Günter woke. A sledgehammer gyrated through his head. He tried to swallow, but his tongue was thick and rigid. A fire burned in his stomach yet his legs and back ached with cold. Nausea spread across his middle, up his throat into his mouth. He crawled toward the window and vomited, bending over in pain. Another heave. He leaned back, waiting for the pounding in his head to subside.
”Helmut, get up,” he whispered, forcing himself to speak against the sour dryness in his throat.
Helmut muttered but didn’t move.
Günter pulled himself up and stumbled toward the window. “Let’s go.”
“Let me sleep.”
“Wait, I’ll come—just let me wake up.”
It was still dark when they arrived in their neighborhood. As Helmut disappeared around a house corner Günter entered his apartment. Shivering, his head pounding, his stomach empty and bitter, he crawled into bed.
Drifting off he felt thin and hollow as a ghost.
Few people remember that after Germany capitulated on May 8, 1945, the civilian population continued to starve for another three years. Industry had been destroyed. Roads didn’t exist. Trains had seized. There were no tools, clothes, vehicles, but especially no food. The Occupying Forces were not equipped to supply millions of people and black markets fulfilled a much needed void. Finally, in June 1948 the Deutsche Mark was introduced. Every man, woman and child received 40 DM. Overnight, stores filled with goods. The widespread starvation that killed many and lasted more than five years finally ended. The value of one cigarette in 1946 is equivalent to about $50 today.
Helmut died in his late sixties from lung cancer. He could never break the smoking habit. To this day, Günter—now 84 years old—is scared of tight spaces. And no matter what the temperature he sleeps with a wide open window. Always.
As a professional writer Annette Oppenlander develops websites and marketing materials. Since 2009 she has completed four historical fiction manuscripts for YA and is currently working on a fifth about the Civil War. The short story HORSE, an excerpt from a novel-in-stories from the perspective of German teens during World War II, received an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train. BLACK MARKET is from the same collection. For more information please visit annetteoppenlander.com.