|Jan/Feb 2012 Fiction|
He promised himself he would eat nothing but mashed potatoes and tomato soup until the war was over. The stomach cramps still came with wavelike regularity, leaving him exhausted. He had thought of changing his diet, but he would not abandon his vegetarianism and join the carrion eaters. To fight his fatigue, he took Benzedrine and eye drops tinged with cocaine. To sleep at night, his kindly doctor prescribed massive doses of Veronal. During the day, he pored over maps of the Eastern front, met with his generals, who were arranging their escapes, and gave directives that his staff knew would never be followed because their intended recipients were no longer alive. At night, he and Eva listened to Wagner's operas. "German music," he would say to her, "so profound, so superior to anything the rest of the world has produced. Wagner invented the 'total work of art,' and I have invented the total work of politics. I am an artist rearranging the map of the world." Eva did crossword puzzles.
In the mornings, when the uppers did their work, he mused aloud about the New Germany that would spread into the heart of the Soviet Union. He imagined a vast web of orderly, German-ruled cities. The inhabitants would be bright, blond, cruel. In the hinterlands, peasants, receiving no more than a fourth-grade education, would do the masters' bidding. Tears came from his eyes as he spoke.
"My Führer," said the kindly doctor. "It's a wonderful vision. The superior over the inferior. The natural order restored after years of socialism and liberalism when the rabble took command. The victors in the great racial war must lead. The weak must die. You have re-aligned earth and heaven."
The days went by like decades. Outside the bunker in the Chancellery garden, staff members regularly smoked cigarettes as they listened to Soviet artillery hammer the Berlin suburbs. Around them, a damp fog transformed the city's buildings into specters. People, animals, the ground itself were dissolved in the persistent grayness.
One rainy afternoon, the Führer's adjutant informed him that a package had arrived. Security checked it over and found it clean. But the contents were puzzling. It contained unmarked 78 rpm records. Shall the staff play them and report back? Or would the Führer himself like to hear them?
"By all means, I'd like to hear the records," he said. "Let us all listen in the sitting room. It's undoubtedly a recording done by my loyal Volk. What dedication! Yet another sign of racial superiority and the inevitability of Aryan triumph over Asiatic hordes and American half-breeds. Think of it. We now have fourteen-year-olds in hand-to-hand combat with Soviet troops in Berlin. Ah, the German people, they will endure."
"Jawohl," said the adjutant. Fifteen minutes later he gently lowered the needle onto the record. "Testing. Testing. One-two-three," said a voice with a heavy drawl. "Take number two, the Gunter Hotel, San Antonio, Texas, with Mr. Robert Johnson, the next king of Mississippi Delta blues."
"English?" said the Führer, his face reddening.
Before anyone in the circle of people seated around the record player could speak, a frightful wailing, accompanied by the harsh metallic twang of a single acoustic guitar, filled the room. The man's voice reminded the adjutant of a stray dog he had found along the Autobahn once. It had a mangled rear leg, and he had put it out of its misery with a single shot to the head. Even more disturbing to the adjutant, who'd learned English in his time studying abroad, were the lyrics. "I went to the crossroad, baby, I looked east and west / Lord, I didn't have no sweet woman, ooh well, babe, in my distress."
"What in God's name is this subhuman saying?" asked the Führer, his hands clutching the armrest of his overstuffed chair. "This is a Negro, a slave, isn't it? A degraded product of American mongrel culture. What is he jabbering about?"
"Sir, it's all gibberish," said the adjutant. "Ravings of a mad man."
"I suspect it's some kind of mistake," said the kindly doctor.
"I could only pick out the words 'east' and 'west,'" said the Führer. "It must be a reference to my triumphs on the Western front and my future domination in the East. But no negroid screeching, no unearthly caterwauling of this kind, could possibly tell what we Aryans have accomplished here. No animal could possibly comprehend." His arms swept the air as they had in the days of his triumphant marathon speeches at the annual party congresses. His face took on the claret color of the unmarked record label. His eyes hopped from one person to the next.
The kindly doctor reached into his small black bag for the Veronal.
The next day the Führer didn't rise till two in the afternoon. He immediately called for his adjutant. "I want to hear another of those records."
"But, my Führer, I've had them packed up and sent for further analysis."
"Get them back. I insist. In two hours, I want to hear more of the records."
The adjutant sent a motorcyclist to intercept the military truck taking the records to military counterintelligence. A little over an hour later, the package lay before him again. He used a box cutter to reopen it and carefully arrayed the records on the table. Four in all, each label without identification. No song title. No mention of Robert Johnson, whoever he was.
Soon the Führer, Eva, the doctor, and the adjutant were reassembled by the record player. Once again, the adjutant placed the needle on the vinyl disc and sat back. Again, the tortured guitar chords, the voice like a wounded wild boar. The Führer sat silently, unlike the day before when he had ranted. The adjutant noted that the Führer's left foot tapped several times as the music played. When the song was done, he looked questioningly at his adjutant.
"You have good English," he said. "You need to tell us what the black man is singing. What does this Robert Johnson say?"
The adjutant blushed. He wasn't sure how the Führer would react once he translated the lyrics. Nor was he sure he could reproduce the exact meaning. He had heard faint echoes of this strange music before 1933 in the cabarets, where ragtag bands played "Negro music" till early into the morning. He'd never told anyone of his surreptitious visits to Berlin's nightspots. He would be suspected of decadence, or of softness toward the un-German culture of the streets. But this was unlike anything he had heard back then—more elemental and desperate, like the last wolf on the Russian steppes.
"I'll try to recite a verse," he said. "But I'm not certain I understand fully the black idiom, or if it is translatable into German."
They listened to the song again. When it ended and the adjutant spoke, the Führer reacted as if he had been roused from a deep sleep. He blinked several times, turning to the adjutant.
"In the second verse, if I have it correctly," said the adjutant, "the singer says, 'Me and the devil, was walkin' side by side / Me and the devil, ooh...'"
"Ooh?" asked the Führer. Eva grinned and covered her mouth as she looked toward the gray concrete wall.
"Yes, 'ooh'—that's correct. Shall I go on?"
The Führer nodded.
The adjutant stared at the pale brown rug as he translated, "Me and the devil, ooh, was walkin' side by side / And I'm goin' to beat my woman, until I get satisfied."
The adjutant looked up to see the Führer's lips quiver. His face had turned an even deeper red than the day before. He stood up, drew his hand across his mouth, then looked at the adjutant. "What unmanly, dishonorable filth. This is what we have fought against these twelve years in Germany. This decadent trash, this smut. A country that produces such tribal madness and calls it music deserved the Jew-President Roosevelt. And they deserve the department-store lowlife Truman as well, now that he's in charge. The petit-bourgeois haberdasher! It's no wonder our brave forces are routing them on all fronts!"
The Führer stormed out of the room as the doctor followed with his bag. He'd already decided on a double dose for his patient.
"It's as if he's addicted to it," said the doctor the next day to the adjutant. "The music sends him into a rage, but he's asked for more again. He's up and around unusually early. I don't understand how he can be so alert so soon after the dosage I gave him last night. What are we to do?"
"We can't hide them. We'll have to play them and hope for the best."
Once they were gathered together, it was the doctor who lowered the needle onto the record as the Führer, Eva, and the adjutant watched. The Führer's dog Winston also sat by, its ears at attention and tongue hanging out. At first, the strumming of Robert Johnson's guitar was easy, almost soothing. But when his voice took over, the group sensed the heart-wrenching urgency. The voice reminded the Führer of the screams he'd heard from wounded soldiers at the front in World War I. He wondered if out beyond the bunker, out in the suburbs, there were young German men who sounded like Robert Johnson, crying for help, demanding the world listen to their misery, their longing to be released.
The adjutant sat near Eva, whose face was flushed. It was warm in the bunker, and lately the air circulation seemed less efficient than four months before when the Führer moved in. Cooking smells, body odors, the fetid ambience of underground quarters in which dozens lived—all seemed to accumulate more noticeably now than before. The music made the atmosphere even more oppressive. The doctor's black bag sat on the table across from the Führer. It would be needed sooner rather than later, thought the adjutant, who wiped his damp hands on the knees of his uniform.
The Führer's face was impassive, trance-like. His only movement was the occasional tapping of his left hand on the armrest of his chair. Then he spoke. "You must translate," he said, neither looking at the adjutant nor changing his expression.
"This is a very challenging song to translate, my Führer."
"You must translate."
The adjutant cleared his throat. Just then a huge explosion could be heard from outside. In the last two days, Soviet artillery had edged closer to Berlin's government district. Several times the previous evening, the insistent rumble of the war had awakened the adjutant. It was the first time he resorted to the same barbiturate the doctor gave the Führer. Unlike the Führer, he still felt drugged at nine in the morning. The overhead light swayed. Then silence returned. The only sound to be heard was the needle's faint scratching on vinyl.
The adjutant rose, went to the record player, returned the needle to the start of the song. After the first verse the adjutant removed the needle and took a quick glance at his notes. "I got to keep moving / I got to keep moving." He translated in a sing-song rhythm, looking at the Führer. The Führer nodded.
"Blues falling down like hail / blues falling down like hail."
The Führer raised his feet off the floor and flexed them. The doctor stood up and said, "Is it the foot cramps again, my Führer? I have something for that."
"My feet are fine. Go on, go on. I want to hear more lyrics."
The adjutant adjusted his tie. "And the day keeps on remindin' me, there's a hellhound on my trail / Hellhound on my trail."
The Führer rose quickly to his feet, startling the others. He brushed a lock of brown hair from his forehead.
The adjutant said, "Shall I go on, my Führer?"
"Yes," he said. "There is a need to go on." He turned, walked into the short hallway and up the stairs toward the exit. "Winston, come!" The German shepherd followed.
He pushed the exit open as the sentry stood wide-eyed. The air from outside was cold, smoky, and damp. The sun hadn't shone in several days.
"Stop him!" shouted Eva. The adjutant and doctor stood staring just outside the entrance to the bunker. From inside, the adjutant heard the last verse of the song. "I can tell the wind is risin', the leaves tremblin' on the tree / Tremblin' on the tree."
In the distance, small arms fire crackled. The Führer walked briskly toward the perimeter of the Chancellery compound and through the front gate. The dog trotted alongside, its tail looping semi-circles.
He picked up the pace, thinking of the countless millions he had sent to death in the concentration camps for the crime of inadequacy. "What are they now, Winston? Bones, ash, nothing." His words came out in machine-gun-like bursts. All around him were bombed-out buildings, the calling cards of Soviet rocket launchers. He imagined red stars floating over the moonscape of Berlin ruins.
"And the ones still living? The ones who have been forced to march from Auschwitz back to Germany? Where are they now? Dachau? Buchenwald? Bergen-Belsen? Where? What of them, hellhound? Do they moan like this Robert Johnson? Do they raise beastly voices to the heavens? Can their subhuman minds comprehend the greatness of what I've done?"
He hurried past a pile of rubble where four soldiers sat. They'd built a fire and had their hands raised to the flame. The Führer could see they were not even out of their teens. When they saw him striding by, they looked as if lightning had struck. They stood at attention and gave the Hitler salute. The Führer didn't return it. Instead he called to them, in English. "I got to keep moving, I got to keep moving."
He walked. He could see his breath in the raw-boned dampness of the morning. He could hear Winston's rhythmic panting. Every few minutes a shell burst pounded the air. He would allow nothing to stop him. He strode toward the east, in the direction of the Soviet advance, toward the blues that fell like hail.