DID YOU SEE HIM?
by Douglas Brin
My meeting Hitler was an accident.
I'd accompanied Camilla and the kids when our scenic train stopped sixty miles short of The Falls. It was 99 degrees, humidity to match. The delay droned on. A workman in designer jeans muttered something about valves. Two aged couples barked over bridge in the Observation Car, swapping the merits of artificial sweeteners.
I panicked. Camilla asked: "Where are you going?"
Who knew? A fading trail headed off into the underbrush. The dusky sun in that Latin sky glowed a dusty gold. I stumbled through thistle-bearing tropical bushes, ignoring the iguana-like creatures scurrying ahead of me. Eventually, a single bulb pierced the onrushing darkness. It shone behind the drooping verandah of a forlorn dwelling.
Waving off a swarm of moths, ignoring a coyote's howl, I clambered up two steps to rap on the door. It was a homely door, suited to a lower-middle-class, two-family house on a street where trees don't have a chance.
I knocked and waited. Nothing. A voice grunted when I knocked again. It may have said, "come in," or, "go away." The tone was identical. The door swung open and I recognized him. Adolph Hitler.
"I thought you were dead," I whispered. He didn't respond.
He wore an overstarched uniform, despite the heat, complete with Field Marshal's cap. Mufti, with red-and-black trim. It included the predictable mix of swastikas, skulls and other claptrap treasured by pre-adolescent, gay-bashing boys in places like Alabama or Chicago. A gothic-lettered name tag pinned crookedly to the breast pocket read: A. Hitler.
I couldn't possibly extend my hand. He feigned indifference anyway. I stared at that mythic face-a century's nightmare, and imagined the Charlie Chaplin mustache with a streak of milk. It was too ridiculous. I said: "Aren't you Hitler?"
"What of it?," he replied.
"I thought you were dead."
"You said that already. Talk in Deutsch."
"My German is wretched. I know a little Yiddish."
"Skip it," he snapped.
"I'm still surprised, to see you." He responded unintelligibly. "I thought you were dead."
"You, and the others."
"The yard of the Chancellery. Your chauffeur pouring gasoline over your charred remains. Eva Braun. The poisoned German shepherds. Goebbels and his children." I babbled. "You shot yourself. You're-dead!"
"Allied propaganda," he sniffed.
"Only the supermarket tabloids keep you alive."
"A broken clock is right, twice a day." He poked a finger at his sunken ribcage. "Believe your eyes."
"Oh?" He clicked his heels, was our time spent? I raced to think of something.
"The Knesset would condemn you to death. In absentia."
An unfortunate choice. He glared. "What's that?"
"The Reichstag, in Israel."
"What is this: 'Israel?'"
His lip drooped. "I'm no longer briefed." He had somehow acquired a cigarette. The extra-long, designer type so au courant in the late sixties. He took deep drags and exhaled with a showy, hopelessly obsolete gesture.
"Do you see any of your aides?" No response. "The others, who escaped."
"Who knows. I had so many."
"Of course, you see. Who else is there?" He shut his eyes, evoking Alice's caterpillar rather than The Reich, then nodded gravely. He opened his lids and invited me to dinner.
"It's getting late."
"I'll put you out."
"Don't be absurd."
"I'll miss the train."
"Catch the next one."
"Who does your shopping?"
He glazed over. Insignificant. But the man might still be dangerous. I'd humor him: "What could we have?"
"Cream of leek to start. Schnitzel, sauerbraten, salad, brandied pears, schnapps and coffee. Black. Would you care for a cognac? I prefer Courvoisier."
It was preposterous. There was no kitchen, even a pantry. I'd smoke him out. Certainly Hitler-the master strategist-was expecting something. "Are you alone?"
"We go over this."
"Taking care of the house, I mean."
"A woman cooks and cleans. Today she's gone. The 'day off.' I prepare myself."
"How on earth does she get here?"
"To others I leave the details."
"You said there were no others." I felt uneasy. He ignored it. "I miss my family. On the train."
He sighed, took a last drag on his cigarette, then fumbled with some ancient, cavernously-crackling battle map. The type that can never be refolded properly. "Family? Nonsense! This noplace-the middle of nowhere-we worry over some tram?"
"No matter." He lit a Cuban cigar and gave a mischievous grin. "Guess who sends me these?"
I took stock. My marriage was drifting. Psychiatry and sex manuals had become the stuff of everyday life. But the children. My daughter completing the sentences of Goodnight Moon at bedtime.
"Come!" He led me to an exquisitely-set table for two. "My demitasse is nonpareil."
That did it. I stayed. We had an aperitif on the terrace in back, watching a toucan execute precision sky dives. Dinner was delicious. Hitler was a cunning cook. Every dish had its own brio, with no unpleasant surprises. Over the cognacs, I decided to delay my departure, get his story. "I could stick around for a few days."
"Good!" He loosened up, unbuttoning the collar of his tunic. I felt at ease. If such a thing was possible in the company of a centenarian, demented maniac. "A little company would be welcome," he said, permitting himself the glimmer of another smile.
His good humor emboldened me. I braced myself to pop the question: "Why did you do it?" What else was there?
"You know." He sipped delicately at his cognac and feigned ignorance. Or worse: indifference. "Why did you do it?"
"The War, or the Jews?" Was he mocking me?
"Everything. Germany. Europe, Russia, The War. Of course, the Jews. Too."
"Jews-I know nothing."
I had him! Didn't I? "Six million. Their bodies stacked like cordwood." Hitler looked over his shoulder, as if a real culprit-or worse, Simon Wiesenthal-might be in proximity. "Men. Women. Children." No response. "Piles of hair. Eyeglasses. Gold teeth, suitcases. Why go on?"
"I'm Jewish." Did he blink? I don't look it. But I am!
"Of no consequence."
"As you like."
"I should kill you!" I feinted a blow. He cowered. A pathetic, ancient madman in a threadbare uniform.
"I suffer this hellhole half-a-century." He shrugged, like some little boy who'd spilled his Coke on the table.
"Christ!," I said, mustering what I hoped was an appropriate degree of wrath.
Hitler countered: "Wasted decades. I see maybe one llama. The peasants are swine." I gave him a look. "Don't try to change me now."
"I should kill you. . . "
"You tend to repeat yourself."
" . . .or at least alert the authorities."
"The C. I. A. The UJA. B'nai Brith. Somebody."
"I cook you dinner, and this?"
"A meal is nothing."
"Not if you only had to eat it." He gave a dismissive wave. "Let me ask you a question."
"I've nothing to hide." I inflated myself with uncertain bravado.
"Have I seen you somewhere before?" A line. A diversion. Yet my pulse quickened. "Haven't I?" I shook my head, a bit too theatrically. "Yes, I have. Linz. '29. Bismarckstrasse. We were organizing. Pamphleteering. Shoving Jews into the sewers."
"I wasn't alive in 1929," I crowed triumphantly. "I've never been in Germany."
"Mere detail. Of no consequence." He said this with a cardboard, authoritarian air, the phony finality of some second-rate actor playing The Fuhrer in a made-for-TV movie that would 'guest star' a washed-up female sexpot. "You were a male stenographer at National Socialist Headquarters who liked to slap around innocent civilians. My motorcade bogged down. You took dictation and fawned over my officer's cape."
"Absurd," I said. Anything but convincingly.
"You handed me messages by the reception desk as I arrived. Late in the War some incompetent General had you moved to Berlin as an Assistant to The General Staff. You were a nobody."
"I was never a nobody. I'm a Jew."
Hitler stood with emphatic urgency and strode to a set of rusting file cabinets. He returned with a disintegrating manila folder, tabbed 'Top Secret.' "Here. See?" I removed an 8 X 10 black-and-white glossy with a near-illegible German caption on its reverse, and gazed at this full-length photograph of a man who vaguely-resembled any number of Nazi bigwigs, or myself (as a youth before the onset of hair loss quickened the compulsion to shower). He shoved the tab of that folder into my outstretched hands. 'Top Secret' was gone, it had my name.
"This is crazy!"
"Why do you speak in German?"
"You're speaking in German this instant."
"Sweinhunt!," I screamed, in a calibration of scream I'd never screamed before.
"See?" He began his little jig. The 'dance' in front of the souvenir railway car outside his Belgian headquarters, when France surrendered.
"You lie, my so-called Jewish friend." He enunciated the word 'Jewish' as if it were unclean. Then sat, a sullen smile contorting his wizened face.
"I will kill you!," I screeched, my head swimming in a jolt of poisoned adrenaline. I kicked viciously at his shin, his chair went over. Hitler was on the floor trying to retain his mustache. It had fallen off. It was a fake. Or he was a fake.
"You New York juden are all alike."
"How do you know I'm from New York?" He gestured to his left ear, feigning deafness. "How do you know I'm from New York?"
"Your nose." He ran a finger meticulously down his own, implying mine was enormous.
It wasn't. I have a 'gentile' nose. My best feature. He kept smiling that snide smile. I ranted: "Animal! Genocider!" (Is there such a word?)
"No matter? What if I kill you?"
"That again." He incongruously tilted his head in the manner of FDR, sans the cigarette holder. "You directed the camps. Together with Eichmann."
"Liar!," I bellowed, hoarse from so much righteous indignation. Then I kicked him again, this time where it would hurt the most.
"Not me," he wheezed, clutching at his genital area, a sado-masochistic smile his latest. I slammed at his ribs with a rubber truncheon that inexplicably hung from a special loop on my belt. "Won't tell," he sputtered.
"Liar!" I fell to the floor on top of him: Pummeling, scratching, clawing. There was a hammer not six inches away. Admittedly, a cheap and flimsy one. But no matter. I grabbed it as one lunges at a solo, chocolate-covered treasure in the standard Variety Doughnut Pack.
"Take it back!," I growled.
"I'll expose you . . ." He barely gasped the words.
I raised the hammer-
" . . . half the Argentines, and all of Paraguay know I'm here."
-and brought it down.
He gurgled. The tiniest sink makes more noise. His glazed eyeballs fixated on a wall poster of John and Yoko, curled together naked in a fetal position, the placard that once adorned the walls of record shops and denim emporiums. A short wave radio in another room droned Bolivian soccer scores.
Winded, my sleeves caked with dried blood, I staggered back on the train just as it finally pulled away, unable to shake off a shoebox-length lizard, clinging to my right pants leg. My little boy, blond and corkscrew-curled, clapped his hands in excitement at the sight of it. He carried his own souvenir: a plastic glass of ginger ale fresh from the snack car. "Ice, and a cherry, daddy," he prattled, proudly. I patted his head and thought of Eichmann.
My daughter lay asleep in our roomette, clutching a book that she liked to read. The lizard made a daring jump and scooted out under the door jam. My wife brushed her hair out in front of the cunning, tiny vanity table. "Did you see him?," she said.
That's all she said. At least I think that's all she said.
Copyright ã 1998 by Douglas Brin
Douglas Brin's novel The Seventh Son was published by Electron Press in 1997.
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