Dieter maneuvers the car casually down switchback curves into the Eichelbachtal, a deep crease in the dark pine forest.
"Die Heimat," he announces dryly. His home.
Julie looks eagerly around. She will never have a home in this sense of the word, a place her family comes from.
In the far distance are snow-capped mountain peaks and below, the roofs of the two villages, Obereichelbach and Untereichelbach. She hears the creek for which the valley was named.
"Acorn Creek Valley," she murmurs. "Why didn't you bring me here sooner? It's so beautiful."
He shrugs. Uneasy, she checks her hair and makeup in the visor mirror. What if his parents don't like her? Or she doesn't like them?
Having imagined a quaint, half-timbered ancestral home, she's disappointed that Obereichelbach is a suburb of the older, smaller village. The forest was cleared and the boxy two-story houses built only thirty years ago in the early fifties.
Long terraced yards slope downhill toward Untereichelbach, and in all the yards that she can see, ceramic garden dwarves with red jackets and hats and white beards stand guard among fruit trees and flower beds. The air is fragrant with roses and plum blossoms.
Papa Steinle takes Julie and Dieter around the garden. He's tall and barrel-chested, with a full head of silver-gray hair. His eyes, faded blue and long-lashed like Dieter's, seem narrower because his cheeks are pouchy. His nose is broken at the bridge.
"Now, breathe deeply," he exalts. "It's the freshest air in Germany."
"Just because you can't smell pollution doesn't mean there isn't any," Dieter says tightly.
His father turns to Julie and winks. "You see how he is?"
She's elated. She can follow the dialect. She smiles encouragingly.
Dieter falls silent. The older man launches into a rhapsody over the plum trees and the extraordinary plum wine made by his wife. "Now here is the special garden dwarf who protects the plum trees, Fräulein."
Julie drops to her knees to examine the figure. It is unlike any other she has seen, carved from wood, its costume painted forest green. The face—not cast from the same puckish mold as its ceramic brethren—is somewhat gloomy. It seems to stand slightly off balance, as if about to stagger, and in one hand brandishes a tiny goblet.
"Dieter made him," he tells her.
"Oh, he's sweet," Julie cries. "Have you had a little too much plum wine, Herr Garden Dwarf?"
"I paint his coat and hat every spring," Herr Steinle says, with a sidelong glance at his son. "I'm a painter, too."
Inside the house, Frau Steinle is working at the kitchen table alongside Dieter's sister Sybelle. They are large women wearing flour-smeared smocks over their party clothes.
"Try this wurst," Herr Steinle urges. "My wife made three kinds of wurst and three breads. It's hard to say which is best. Try some of each."
Frau Steinle smiles shyly. Her face, plump and unlined, is flushed from the heat of the kitchen. Her hair is pulled back in a neat gray and blonde knot.
"She made seven different cakes," her husband adds. "You'd better loosen your belt, Fräulein."
Dieter shows Julie the room where she will sleep, his sister's former bedroom. It's small and dark with a narrow bed under a sloped ceiling and one window hung with white, ruffled curtains. Sybelle's stuffed animals are still carefully arranged across the pillows, though she hasn't occupied the room since her marriage.
They look at Dieter's old room, too. It's larger and lighter, its windows overlooking the garden.
On the wall opposite the bed hang some charcoal sketches and watercolors of the village, all by Dieter, and a framed, tinted photograph of him as a small boy with a shock of white blonde hair and red lips. He is dressed in lederhosen and almost but not quite smiling.
"You never told me you wore lederhosen. You were adorable."
He frowns. "It was mandatory. Every boy in the village had a pair."
He opens the window and they sit on the sill. Dieter rolls a cigarette and Julie takes one puff and passes it back. She watches his full lower lip, the way he savors the tobacco. Their knees are pressed together.
"I'm really glad you came with me," he says.
"I thought you didn't want me to," she murmurs.
"Of course I did."
"You made the party sound like an obligation."
"Actually, it is." He smiles at her. She can't tell if he's serious or not.
"Don't you like your family?"
"Sure, I like them. But we have absolutely nothing in common. Scheisselbachtal is a real time warp."
"Shit Creek Valley? That's a joke, right?"
"It smells of pig shit."
"It does not."
He toys with a lock of her hair. "Stick around a while, Liebchen, you'll see."
"Not if I can't sleep in the same bed with you." She pouts and he laughs.
"We'll sleep together somehow, I promise." He puts out the cigarette and takes her in his arms and kisses her slowly.
Today is Papa Steinle's sixty-sixth birthday. A Schnapszahfest in his honor is being staged in the large front room, whose windows are open to the street. Two long tables are laden with platters of wurst, loaves of bread, several cheeses and bowls of ripe plums. Another table is dedicated to the schnapps, which appear to be any kind of consumable alcohol.
Schnapszahfest is dialect. She can't find it in any dictionary. Zahl means number and double digit birthdays are lucky, Dieter said. It means "lucky number party," Julie decides. She'll invite everyone they know to a Schnapszahfest for Dieter's thirty-third birthday.
Guests arrive with bottles of wine, beer and liqueurs. After they shake hands with Eugen Steinle, they buzz around his son. What have you been up to, they ask. A worthwhile sabbatical in Italy, we hear. Sly glances at the American fiancée. She smiles and sips her wine. Dieter drinks thirstily and greets the men with back slaps. His father too grows merrier. The more he imbibes, the more difficult conversation with him becomes. She asks whether oak trees grow in the nearby forest. He replies, "The old town once had a wall around it."
Aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors stream in and out of the room. Dieter introduces her to everyone. She can't remember names, but does manage basic conversation. People speak slowly for her benefit.
She meets the Burgermeister of Untereichelbach. "I have a cousin in Chicago," he tells her. "Oh, so do I," she replies gaily. "Perhaps we'll meet again at a Schnapszahlfest in Chicago."
A tiny white-haired woman was Dieter's first teacher. "What a rascal, our Dieterle. His earliest drawings were graffiti. But so clearly gifted. Did you make that dress yourself, Fräulein? It's very pretty."
"The natives are friendly," Julie whispers in Dieter's ear.
"I told you there's nothing to worry about," he says. "You're the star of the show."
Sybelle passes her fat rosy baby to its grandfather, who attempts to perch the infant on the edge of the schnapps table. It slumps over and drools on his hairy fist. "Here Dieter, you need the practice," Herr Steinle chortles, and hands the baby to his son. The baby squeals. Dieter holds it gingerly before passing it back to his sister. "The kid is soaking wet," he says, and everyone laughs.
"Good health," Dieter cries. "To healthy babies and dry bottoms." And he drains his glass.
A tall slender woman in jeans and T-shirt looms up on Dieter's arm. She is his cousin, "Little Emma."
"I remember Emma with pigtails and braces," he marvels.
To Julie's relief, Emma speaks perfect English. Her face is a pale oval, eyelashes so blonde they disappear behind thick-lensed glasses.
"She's another Shit Creek Valley survivor," says Dieter sotto voce. Emma looks pleased to hear this. The cousins flank Julie, talking excitedly in a mixture of English and German. She thinks they're as elegant and well matched as racing horses. Dieter roars with laughter from deep in his throat, and she feels an upsurge of desire for him so keen she's relieved when he rushes off to greet someone else.
Emma explains she is a university student on vacation. "I hate it here," she says flatly. "I can't wait to go back to Stuttgart."
"But it's so beautiful," Julie demurs.
"It's totally boring. Next summer I'll travel in Italy. Dieter said you were living in Verona. Why Verona?"
"I got a job teaching English there. Then I found a flat in the old town and it had a balcony overlooking an alley. It was perfect. Friends would stand in the alley and shout my name. 'Hey Giuliatta! Giuliatta!' I'd never have left if not for Dieter.
"How did you meet him?" Emma asks. "Did he happen to walk down that alley?"
"And see me on the balcony? That would have been too perfect. I was in a church looking at frescoes and so was he. After that, I saw him everywhere."
He had followed her into the church, she learned later.
"Why?" she asked him.
"Because you were sailing across the piazza toward me and your dress was della Robbia blue. I wanted to paint you."
"Paint me?" She scoffed. "Is that what you were thinking?"
They spent a good deal of time in bed with the shutters drawn. Friends stopped calling her name from the alley and phoned to arrange their visits. She'd had a few lovers from among the Veronese, but took no one seriously until Dieter Steinle dropped into her life, as if by some enchantment, tall and fair and radiating passion. He didn't want to leave without her once his Sabbatical had ended, and he couldn't afford to stay. He had to return to his job in Karlsruhe, where it's so gray and soggy she feels they're living underwater.
She promises Emma she'll mail her names and phone numbers of friends in Verona and elsewhere in Italy. "You'll have the best time, believe me. The only way to know a country is to live in it."
Emma's pale skin flushes. "I may stay there, if it's as good as you say."
Julie shrugs. "You never know what might happen in your life."
They look across the room at Dieter. He is talking with great energy and both hands, and Julie laughs. "You see, he's an honorary Italian."
Herr Steinle insists that Julie sit next to him at the long banquet table and Emma quickly takes the seat on her other side. Dieter retreats to the far end of the table to play pinochle with his sister and brother-in-law.
"Prosit!" Herr Steinle clinks his glass against Julie's. His face is mottled red.
"How do our women put up with these besotted oafs?" remarks Emma with a pleasant smile.
Julie looks around nervously.
"Don't worry, no one else understands English."
Several conversations are in progress simultaneously. Herr Steinle and his cronies talk rapidly and she strains to recognize words. Emma says in her ear, "You can't imagine how many times I've heard these idiotic war stories. I can't tune it out like Dieter does."
War? She thought they were discussing a soccer match. She glances at Dieter. Brother and sister are hunched over their cards, speaking a private argot. He must hate these stories, she thinks.
But of course all these old men once were soldiers. One stooped and grizzled fellow wearing a Tyrolean cap with a limp feather in it looks old enough to have served in the war to end all wars. Soldiering may have been the only remarkable passage in their lives.
Herr Steinle refills her glass to the brim. She gets at most a tenth of what he's telling her. She hears: soldiers, fight, bombs, hungry, escape, lucky (or happy? It's the same word in German).
When he pauses to drink again, she asks Emma, "Is he describing his escape from enemy forces during the war?"
"That's close enough."
"It must have been terrible for you," she manages.
"Terrible," he agrees, then gabbles on. She imagines a young, plucky Eugen, dodging bullets and grenades. The young Eugen looks like Dieter, with sandy hair, nose not yet broken.
"Uncle Eugen, speak slower," Emma urges.
"I don't understand what happened in Vietnam," Herr Steinle says thickly. "Americans aren't good soldiers anymore. What do you think, Fräulein?"
Everyone is listening. Dieter grimaces and slaps down a card.
"I don't know," Julie replies carefully, "I think at least thirty thousand American soldiers died in Vietnam."
He repeats the number, slurring. "Dreishigtausen?"
She nods. He thinks for a moment, then asks, "Is it true that thirty percent of Americans are Jewish?"
Her heartbeat quickens. Could she have misunderstood?
"You said thirty percent?"
"Dreissig," he repeats slowly. "So I have heard."
"That is false," she tells him. "It's closer to drei. About three percent of Americans are Jewish."
There is an awkward silence. Emma studies her curiously and Julie feels her face grow warm.
"Only three percent? Very interesting," Herr Steinle goes on. "It is also well known that Israelis make excellent soldiers."
"So do Palestinians," Emma puts in.
Her uncle ignores this. He describes two boyhood friends who were Jewish. They were clever boys who worked alongside him in a factory in Pforzheim. But he lost track of them.
"I don't know what became of them," he says sadly.
Dieter looks as glum and off-kilter as the garden dwarf. She wants to signal somehow, "It's you I love, I don't have to love your father, too." But his head is bowed, his eyes closed.
"Let's get some fresh air," Emma suggests.
Julie nods and follows her out the front door.
It's good to be outside. The air in the house is thick with tobacco smoke. They walk briskly past homes identical to the Steinle's, large and prosperous looking with their entrances close to the street. Neighbors stroll by or lean out of windows to greet them.
"Grüss Gott!" they chorus.
"Grüss Gott!" Julie and Emma reply.
"Can you understand now why I want to leave?" Emma gestures at the houses, the people. "They're all fascists."
"You can't be serious."
"But I am. Doesn't Dieter tell you anything?"
"He never talks about Obereichelbach unless I press him. What are you saying, Emma? Is there a neo-Nazi movement here?"
Emma looks shocked. "Oh no, nothing like that. It's the way they think. My uncle, my father, everyone."
"That's not surprising in their generation, is it? My father says stupid things about Germans. Some of his cousins won't get in a VW."
Emma drops her voice, though she's speaking in English. "Are you Jewish?" she asks, shyly.
"I'm Italian, mostly, some Irish. One great grandmother was Jewish. So that makes me, what, 12.5 percent Jewish. One-eighth yiddisches Mädel."
"Dieter should have told them."
"But why? It doesn't matter to him. Or to me."
"That's nice," Emma says and falls silent.
Julie thinks uneasily of her parents. They'll never come to Obereichelbach, she decides. She can't imagine the Steinles in California. She can't even imagine them in Karlsruhe.
When she comes back into the front room, cheeks flushed from the brisk walk, Dieter's mother smiles at her from across the long table and murmurs to a woman nearby. "Shayne Mädel, gel?"
It's what her grandmother used to say, the fifty percent Jewish nana who taught her a dozen Yiddish words. Pretty girl. She smiles back and Mama Steinle beams, showing a gold-capped tooth.
The sky is turning indigo blue and guests are still coming and going.
Mama and Sybelle carry in tureens of dumplings with saurkraut and roast pork for dinner. This is served with the local beer and followed by coffee, Kuchen, and the de rigueur plum brandy.
Never before has Julie reached this pitch of intoxication and remained upright. Perhaps it's because Emma has pressed mineral water upon her between rounds. Still, the room is beginning to wobble. She hears Emma's voice in her ear analyzing the aftermath of the Iranian hostage crisis.
Papa Steinle holds forth with both hands and also his feet, which he stamps as if marching. His monologue lurches on unabated in Julie's other ear. She can't see Dieter's face now; it's cradled in both his hands. She hasn't been able to speak with him in hours, it seems.
Emma peers at her uncle, eyes narrowed. "You'd think nothing else happened to him since Berlin."
Corpses everywhere, Julie hears. The Reichestag on fire. Alles kaput. Alles.
Then she loses the connection again.
"Sounds like he had a close call," she says to Emma.
"He was luckier than he deserved to be."
"What do you mean?"
Emma doesn't answer. She looks around for Dieter, but he's disappeared. There's a fan of cards before his empty chair.
Papa Steinle leans against Julie's shoulder.
"I was a good soldier," he says. "Yet they would hang me by the balls."
"Eugen!" his wife protests.
He begins to talk instead about a cousin who wound up in a Russian prisoner of war camp.
Emma lowers her voice. "My uncle served in the elite bodyguard of the lunatic Austrian painter. Understand? I can't say the name. It is never mentioned."
Julie recoils a little. Dieter's father, Hitler's bodyguard?
The room starts to spin and she focuses on the ruddy broken nose. He looks like a punch drunk boxer. Or a clown.
"He was one of a hundred men," Emma whispers. "He got picked because of heroism on the front. Which was due more to luck than courage, he says so himself." She pauses to listen and Julie glances at her. Emma's mouth is a prim line.
"He's bragging about how lucky he's always been," she translates. "Lucky to get out of the bunker alive. Lucky not to wind up in prison like cousin Eckhardt. Lucky to avoid denazification. Oh oh, he's not supposed to talk about that either. Aunt Maria's upset again. Lucky to have married Maria, of course. Lucky to still be alive."
"Glucklich!" roars Herr Steinle. "I'm the luckiest man alive."
Mama Steinle escorts Julie to Sybelle's bedroom. She fusses and clucks. "Sleep well," she says, pausing at the door for a last concerned glance.
Julie pulls off her dress and collapses on the bed. She knocks the stuffed animals to the floor. Dieter must have crashed in his old room. In the dark, muffled shouts swoop up from below.
She dozes fitfully. The sound of the fest buzzes over her, fades away. She dreams the bed is in a cemetery. It's a busy place, she senses rather than sees, because it's pitch dark. All around her, unseen but audible, relatives of Dieter who've been dead for centuries, are drinking and laughing and droning on about their lives, their sicknesses, the circumstances of their deaths. She is annoyed to discover that death is one long party, an unlucky number party. All she wants to do is sleep.
Toward dawn the door creaks open.
"Shh," Dieter whispers. He tiptoes to the bed, wearing only jockey briefs, and slides in beside her, smelling of beer and stale cigarette smoke.
"You're still drunk." She turns her face away.
"I promised you, cara mia," he breathes in her ear. She is bone dry, but Dieter doesn't seem to notice. He bites her shoulder to muffle his moans.
"That was super," he says, then rolls over and falls asleep, pinning her at the edge of the bed.
"Wake up!" She shakes him. "The bed's too small."
"I'll sleep on the floor." He topples off onto the rug. She looks at the white curve of his buttocks.
"You could join me," he yawns.
She throws a blanket at him.
"Tell me about your father's job with the Führer, Liebchen."
"Oh scheiss," he groans.
"A little bedtime story, bitte."
"What should I tell you?" He wraps himself in the blanket. "It was the best job he ever had. It was away from the front. He's a stupid peasant."
They are quiet. He stares at the ceiling.
"I never think about it anymore. It does no good." His voice trails off wearily. "I would have told you some day, honestly."
"You should have told me before today."
"I didn't want to spoil your visit. Besides, it has absolutely nothing to do with you and me."
"It's a big part of your life you're not coping with."
"Nonsense," he says, and turns his back to her.
"Schlaf gut, Dieter." Sleep well.
In a few minutes he's snoring. Julie lies wide-eyed and sleepless on the narrow bed as the sky in the window turns gray, then pink. The stuffed animals are watching her from the floor with bright little button eyes, as if to say, we never think about it either.
Title graphic: "Back at the Village" Copyright © The Summerset Review, Inc. 2010.