E.A. Durden: In the Prison Garden

First the German prisoner promised her carnations.

“What color do you like?” he said. His English was passable. He showed too many teeth. He had no business smiling at an old maid.

“Can you sign for this?” Edith said, and held out her clipboard.

She was delivering bread from her family’s bakery to the prison camp mess hall. The day before, and every day before that, the person to sign for the bread had been a grizzled old American.

“Germans make a nice garden,” the prisoner said, and began to whistle as he took the first tray of loaves from her cart. His eyes were the same blue as the Gulf of Mexico, clear water over white sand. She had been there once, before the war.

***

Three days later, when it was about time to deliver to the prison again, she was trying something new with her pin curls when Mother’s face clouded the glass.

“You look like a man playing dress-up,” Mother said. “What are you fussing for? You’re going to be late.”

When she was in the truck she took from the pocket of her apron the small glass bottle of L’Air du Temps. A clerk at a Birmingham department store had snuck it to her when she was a girl and Mother was occupied with the girdles. It was the size of her thumb. The glass stopper was carved in the shape of two tiny doves. She wiped the dust from the eyes of the doves and dotted the perfume on the backs of her knees.

At the mess hall the paunchy American was back, and the blue-eyed prisoner was gone. The old man flared his nostrils as he slid the trays from her cart.

“This bread all right?” he said.

“Why?” she said.

He sniffed the air. “That smell.”

Her face began to burn.

She could not very well ask about the blue-eyed prisoner. He was an enemy combatant. What’s more he was a young man, perhaps twenty.

***

Edith had spent her last birthday, her twenty-fifth, in her bedroom with a pile of cinema magazines. She had scrutinized pictures of Judy Garland and Vivien Leigh. Mother knocked around noon and said it was time for cake. Edith told her, through the closed door, to give it to the poor house.

“The what?” Mother said. (Opelika, Alabama had no poor house; it was just another thing Edith had read about.)

The thought of, at her age, making her standard wish—Please, God, give me four girl babies and a husband who does not work with his hands—made her laugh.

“What’s funny,” Mother said through the door.

“Nothing’s funny,” Edith said.

Out her window was the crabapple tree in full flower. The saw of hundreds of bees. She drew the curtains and turned on the lamp, like she was an invalid. She was an invalid: a washed-up prune, without matrimony, without issue. Then why did she feel so full of…. She felt full of something. The feeling was not unpleasant, though it hardly could be called pleasant.

She got out of bed to paint her toenails Fire & Ice.

***

About a month after Edith had first seen the blue-eyed prisoner, Daddy was talking about hiring one of the POWs to help at the bakery. All over the country, the government was opening camps to house POWs caught in north Africa, and people were taking advantage of the cheap labor, hiring the prisoners on as farm hands, mostly. You saw them, in their prison grays, hoeing or digging or at the plow, squinting in the sun.

“I am not paying money to a Nazi,” Mother said to Daddy.

Edith, Mother, and Daddy, the three Ogletrees who had not been called to war, were in the bakery. It was a few minutes after opening. Mother and Edith were moving pastries from the kitchen to the display counter. Daddy was tending the oven, his belly sweating through his apron. Fly paper flapped in the weak breeze from the ceiling fan.

“Are they all Nazis?” Edith said. “I heard only some were. Most just got drafted.”

“We don’t pay them, we pay the government,” Daddy said, and wiped his forehead with a red kerchief. “It’s patriotic. Make them do for us.”

Like Edith’s three brothers, every able-bodied Opelika boy was in Europe, or north Africa, or the Pacific, which left the bakery short-staffed, just when business was big, what with the opening of the prison camp. Otherwise Edith would have been finishing her degree at the women’s college. She had planned to teach math. Now she spent her life speckled with flour. It got in her hair and made her look old. Older.

The bell on the front door jingled. As Edith left the kitchen to greet the customer, her parents lowered their voices.

“You want one of those Huns around our girl?” Mother said. “What good you see coming of that?”

Daddy laughed. “She’s no girl, Mother. Those boys are boys.”

***

The blue-eyed prisoner’s name was Heinrich. He wanted her to say it.

“Just once: Heinrich.” When he said it, the name sounded like a dog trying to hack up a tendril of bind weed. His whispering scorched her ear. “Heinrich. It’s easy.”

They were in the bakery storeroom. She could scarcely breathe, let alone talk. Her parents had gone to a baptism earlier that afternoon and were to return any minute. Heinrich was due back at the camp. Meanwhile, Edith’s skirt was pushed up to her waist. A burlap sack of semolina was chapping her bare fanny while Heinrich commanded a commotion down below. It made her dizzy and made her hurt.

Car wheels on gravel.

“The window,” Edith said. She opened the window for him while he was stowing himself inside his standard-issue trousers.

“Carnations,” he said, and crouched on the sill. Shirtless, he was sinew and long, flexible muscle, like an acrobat, primed to vault. His blue eyes held mischief. “You never tell me the color, Edith. What color?”

The bakery door jingled.

“Carnations look like a whore’s underthings,” she said.

He smiled. His dog teeth had an uncanny point. “Red, then,” he said.

She shoved him out the window.

What he did hurt less the second time, and less than that the third, and not at all the fourth. When she was kneading, or knitting, or scattering scraps for the chickens, she thought about it. While he was doing it, she thought about nothing.

Meanwhile, Daddy praised his work ethic. Mother learned how to bake for him a German cake.

***

Mother had said a woman stopped bleeding when she got too old, so that was what Edith assumed when hers stopped. That, and the winter. Some days bottomed out at thirty degrees, which was harsh for Opelika, likely to cause any number of bodily disruptions. At the bakery they started to sell hot chocolate in paper cups, Heinrich’s idea. Little children liked it, all the babies born while their fathers were away.

“That boy is enterprising,” Daddy said one night as he, Mother, and Edith sat down for supper. “If I had even one son half—”

“You have three sons,” Mother said, and clasped her hands together. “Bless this food, please, before it gets cold.”

***

Four months later, the ties on Daddy’s apron could not reach around her waist. What waist? She didn’t have a waist anymore.

Not that Heinrich had noticed, though she had given him a lot of chance in the storeroom.

Mother did.

***

“Edith!” Mother shouted from inside the house. “We’re late. The chaplain’s only got this afternoon.”

Edith was by the fence in the backyard holding a pair of scissors and a stool. She set the stool down and stepped on the seat and stood up on it, aware she looked a sight in the white tent wedding dress Mother had made. A perfect coral rose bobbed over the fenceposts from the neighbor’s yard. She leaned to smell it. It had no smell. She cut it from its branch. Coral blossoms studded the whole bush. She had trouble reaching over the fence, because her watermelon of a belly kept the world at bay, but she managed to snip another flower. She stood on her toes to get a third. The leaves were the dark green of some other place, a wetter, colder place, or the opposite: a tropical place. She had only ever lived in this yard, which was unremarkable in every way.

The neighbor, Mr. Francis Foster, rushed out his back door shirtless in a pair of unbibbed overalls. “That’s where Grandmother was buried,” he said. “Those are Grandmother’s.”

“It’s for my wedding,” she said.

“Oh.” Foster looked like he had swallowed a quail egg.

All of Opelika knew why she was getting married. She and Heinrich had been granted an exception, given the ballooning circumstances.

“Get down, Edith!” Mother yelled from the kitchen window. “What you need flowers for?”

“I bet your grandmother had flowers at her wedding,” Edith said to Foster.

“Grandmother was a lady.”

“What makes you so sure?” Edith said. She climbed down from the stool and smiled.

***

“I will return,” Heinrich said to her. “Now I am married to an American. I will get the papers.” He tucked a loose curl behind her ear.

All of the prisoners were about to be shipped back because America had won the war.

“When?” she said.

They were sitting on a bench in the prison garden. She was jiggling the baby on her knees. Heinrich had been right about Germans and their flowers: tiger lilies bloomed in great hedges. The prisoners’ handiwork rivaled that of any garden club lady.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Nobody will tell me. It is like nobody knows.”

She believed him. He didn’t seem to want to go back to Germany. Germany was just smoking piles of stone.

***

His English when he did write was worse than his English when he talked. She had a hard time making out his letters. What was clear: he was starving. There wasn’t enough food in Germany. When the winter came, he got cold, because there weren’t enough clothes.

One of her three brothers came home alive. Tom was appalled to hear they had had a Hun working in the bakery. He was disgusted that now they had a half-Hun squalling in a crib.

“He’s not a Nazi,” Edith said. “He hated all that.”

Her brother was rolling out biscuit dough.

“You’re a Nazi whore,” he said, “and your bastard is Nazi spawn.”

“Johnny’s your nephew.”

He spit into the dough.

“You’ll make another batch,” she said. “I will not.”

***

Heinrich sent instructions: she was to get the baby’s picture taken, and send it, along with a copy of the baby’s birth certificate—Johnny Lee Blumenstock—and a copy of their marriage certificate, to the United States government, immigration division.

The afternoon she took off from the bakery to run these errands, she told Tom she was going to buy a paper flower from the Jaycees. He looked at her like she was a spy.

***

“Brooklyn,” Heinrich wrote, eight months later. “I got job in cherry factory.”

“Brooklyn!” she wrote back. “Brooklyn?”

***

“Delivery for Mrs. Blumenstock,” the new mailman said when she opened the door. He held a small box wrapped in brown paper and string.

“Do I need to sign?” She reached for the package. The handwriting was Heinrich’s. She had heard nothing for months.

The mailman pulled the box away. He smiled, kindly, it seemed.

“You girls got up to a lot of fun while we were away,” he said. He dropped the box at her feet.

“Some of us were working,” she said to his back as he limped down the walk.

Inside the box was a baseball cap. Brooklyn Dodgers. It fell over Johnny’s eyes. It made the small boy look like a blue woolen lollipop.

“I got an apartment,” Heinrich wrote, in the letter that accompanied the hat. “Near a grocery, a little far from a park.”

***

She squeezed herself and Johnny into the train bathroom. They were due to arrive in New York in an hour. The journey had taken three days. Under her eyes she had blue-black half-moons. Her pin curls were flattened on one side, frizzed on the other. From her satchel she took out the fresh outfit, a bright yellow shirtwaist and matching cardigan she had bought in Birmingham. She had been saving it for this moment. Though it was wrinkled from the trip, it was more pressed than what she was wearing. She had not seen Heinrich for two and a half years.

***

The train platform was more crowded than the county fair on blue-ribbon day, with more people jostling her than she had seen over the course of her life. They wore dark woolen coats and hats, both men and women, and a set look of tired know-how. She held Johnny in one arm and her satchel in the other and tried to keep her balance.

Which one of these moving columns of confidence was her husband? She didn’t remember what she was looking for. He was ruddy-cheeked, and of course there were his eyes—the very same Johnny was studying her with, while he kicked her ribs with his new and only pair of shoes and said, “Down, Mama, down.” Her bright yellow outfit, which now seemed overblown, at least might help him find her.

She needed to claim her luggage in the meantime, probably. She began to follow the crowd.

“Down, down,” Johnny said. His small features constricted like the closing top of a drawstring bag. He began to wail.

“Not on your life,” she said, and held him tighter, trying to counteract his wriggling.

A new train arrived on the other side of the platform. Hundreds more passengers disembarked, and began to fill the narrow space she had thought packed already. They ran into Johnny. They banged her with their shoulders.

A man appeared at her side, walking at her pace. He opened a black umbrella. He held it in front of her like a shield.

“You are here to meet someone,” he said. He was tall but stooped. He had the dish-shaped face of a kitten, moon-white under a wet black hat.

“My husband.”

“He sent me in his place.” He looked at her as if the matter were settled. He jabbed his umbrella toward a passing man.

“He didn’t say anything about that,” she said.

“His letter must have arrived after you left.” His breath smelled of congestion, a thick sourness.

“Thank you, but we’ll find him on our own.” She began to walk a little faster.

The man receded. Or seemed to. He appeared again on her other side, where Johnny was. His gloved fingers wrapped around Johnny’s chest.

“I can help you.” He began to tug Johnny away from her.

The boy giggled. He thought he was being tickled.

She squeezed her son tighter. The man doubled his grip. She was so stunned that her arms slackened as she stared at the man. He pulled.

“Help,” she said. She was too quiet. She grasped onto Johnny’s bottom. “Help!”

The man looked like he was about to yell at her. He dropped his hold on Johnny. The boy hinged backwards like her forearm was a jungle gym. She swept her hand under his head and stumbled. They fell together, her son on top of her, onto the cold concrete.

The policeman who eventually appeared assumed she was crazy or drunk.

***

They found Heinrich outside the station, at a fruit and vegetable cart. He was haggling over a head of cabbage.

“I can’t breathe here,” she said. They were the first words she had spoken to him since they had said good-bye at the Opelika depot.

He took the boy in his arms. He regarded his son with the blue eyes his son also had.

“A real American,” he said.

She tried to take her child back. Heinrich’s muscled grip was too strong.

“I won’t raise him here,” she said. “You can’t think I’m going to raise him here.”

“Hey,” the vegetable man said. “You gonna pay or what?”

“Do you like cabbage?” Heinrich said to Johnny.

“Ca-age,” Johnny said.

“It upsets his stomach,” Edith said. “Gives him gas.”

Heinrich paid the man and handed the wrinkled head to Johnny. The boy was delighted. The boy thought the cabbage was a gift.

“You will like the apartment,” Heinrich said to her.

“I won’t like anything.”

“He will. My son.”

The boy would have liked a cardboard box.

“He needs grass. He needs air that doesn’t smell. All these people!”

“There is a park, I told you,” he said. “Not near.”

“You mean, not far?”

“No flowers.” He tweaked the boy’s nose as if to steal it. “You want flowers, you grow your own.”

“I don’t see any garden. I don’t see a single tree.”

Still holding the boy, he began to walk down the sidewalk, toward who knew what underground train, to who knew what hovel.

“What makes you so sure I’ll follow?” she said, but her voice was swallowed by the clanking motor of a cross-town bus.

She might have hoped the boy would have cried, but he was babbling quite happily at the man who held him, as if being clutched by a stranger in the midst of a maelstrom were a great adventure.



Tags: , , ,