Letters from Vienna: A short story

Destruction, June 1945Letters from Vienna[1. First appeared in Glimmer Train Stories. All Rights Reserved.]

Among the photographs on the study wall, weddings and family reunions, grandchildren, there is one that everyone takes a second look at. Almost everybody says the same thing, getting up close, maybe taking off their glasses: they all think it’s from LIFE magazine. Most people stop then, but some come on out with it and ask who that is there with Roy.

It is a striking picture. Roy, a young man then with a head full of wavy hair, wiry in his khakis, leaning out of an army jeep. His sleeves are turned up. One boot, the one out of the jeep on the cobblestones, is untied. He is reaching out to a dark haired woman who is leaning toward him. They are laughing. It is Vienna, VJ Day, August 7, 1945.

I look at this picture everyday and sometimes, somehow I forget that it isn’t a page from LIFE magazine. I see a young man who is a stranger to me in the deep tones and sharp contrasts of an old photo and I admire the lighting, the composition, the line of her back and arm as she leans in. I have taken some photography classes at a junior college, and in the basement I have a small darkroom, nothing fancy. Some of the black and white photos on the study wall are mine, but not this one.

Roy came home about a year after that picture was taken, but he didn’t leave the army behind him. Every year he went back to it, every third weekend and two weeks in the summer. I stayed home with our children, two boys and a girl. In twenty-five years, we never had a family vacation, but he made it up to them in other ways. Little League, boyscouts, PTA; he helped our Ginny build her own doll house when she was nine. She still has it.

When the children were older and he had been on the job twenty years we’d have a little time away once in a while: a cabin in Wisconsin, once a weekend in Montreal. At night we would lie in bed, holding hands, and we would talk. Mostly about work, the children, the bills. But sometimes Roy would talk about retirement, from the office, from the army. We would spend our time touring the world, jumping rides on army transports as a retired reserve officer was entitled to do: Hawaii, Japan, Australia. Austria.

Her name is Martine. When he came to Vienna with Army Intelligence in late May of 1945 just two weeks after the Germans surrendered, she was his first contact, his community liaison and translator. He wrote to me about her that very first day. I still have the letter. We keep things in this family: the confetti from our wedding, the children’s baby clothes, all their toys, their scribbles and drawings, old ration books, show bills, uniforms. My early attempts at pottery. Roy has some of the worst of them on his workbench holding nails and bolts and washers.

This particular letter was longer than his usual ones, although he did tend to write chatty letters. Martine was kind to him, had taken him home that first week of working together. She had two children and her husband had been killed in a concentration camp; he was Jewish, a lawyer. Somehow she had managed to stay out until almost the very end and she had managed to save her girls, but the house they had on the outskirts of the city had been bombed.

When I think of that house the way he described it, dust sifting down from what was left of the roof, the windows covered in newspaper to keep out the wind, it doesn’t surprise me that they became friends in that last summer of the war. Roy has always been easy around women; he strikes up friendships with them as quickly as he does with men. And she had a house falling down around her ears, and two little girls, an numbers tattooed on her forearm. It doesn’t surprise me at all.

I am sixty-four years old and I have never been very far from home. Somehow I am standing here with my husband; there is a suitcase next to me. It is January in Chicago and we are wearing our heaviest coats, but there are transports scheduled today and this is our plan: to fly west to where it is warm, Hawaii, the South Pacific, and then to find our way around to Europe, and to Austria.

Martine loved the sun, he says; we will write to her from someplace with palm trees to tell her we are coming.

The private behind the desk in the hangar is very polite: yes sir, she says to Roy’s low inquiry, of course sir. We sit on folding metal chairs near small space heater; there will be a wait; there is always a wait. We can see our plane on the other side of the hangar: a single mechanic is banging at something on the underside of the wing lackadaisically.

Nearer to us another plane is being loaded with cases and boxes and bags. We can see someone in the cockpit, writing on a clipboard. I lean over to the young woman at the desk.

“Where is that plane going?” I ask.

“Munich, ma’am.” She smiles at me as I feel my heart take up an extra beat. Roy and I look at each other, and I see that he had already known about this transport.

It seems to me, now as I get old, that every once in a while something–fate or destiny, or God, once I might have said God– takes your hand and leads you off to places you would rather not go. Now, seated in this plane with boxes of supplies and bags of mail and a jeep (they drove it right up a ramp and into the belly of the plane; I can reach out and touch a headlight if I like), flying east instead of west, I am afraid.

There is no service on a transport like this: I take out the food I have packed to tide us over, but Roy has fallen asleep and so I wrap his sandwich up again and turn to look out the window over the drab green of the wing while I eat. In this bag I have everything I can imagine to be necessary for an adventure; as we travel the world we will not lack handcream or small clothespins to hang up our washing.

In a leather portfolio I have my special things: a few postcards I especially like, one of them a study of DÅrer’s, the praying hands; my own photos of the children: our oldest, Ginny, with her husband and little boy; Carl and his wife and two girls; and Mark with Andrea–they are expecting their first baby. I look briefly into my notebook and address book and then I check my small stock of writing paper, envelopes, pens and pencils.

We were once great letter writers, both of us. I think it was that discovery, the summer when Roy went to work on his uncle’s farm in Wisconsin, that really brought us together. The first letter I have from him was dated June 1940, postmarked Deep Lake, written before we were engaged but after we had gone together into the darkness of trying to please each other. And then there are all the letters from the war: the ones written from England, and
thirty-two letters from Vienna; I think it would come to about two a month. The first one came in May, 1944 and I tore it trying to get it out of the envelope: it had been weeks since I had heard from him and my hands shook in relief and vexation.

For me the war was only this: living from letter to letter, taking my nourishment from thin sheets of cheap paper that came in envelopes covered with cryptic notations from censors and clerks.

The last letter Roy wrote from Vienna came to me on a Saturday morning in late August, 1946. I can see myself as I stood on the porch with it in my hands, starring at my own name in his large, back-slanted hand. I wasn’t aware then that he had already started on his way home.

It was a sunny, clear day and I could see the crease in the mailman’s trousers as he walked away from the house. I rocked on the porch for a long time with the letter unopened in my lap; eventually I got up and went in to start the ironing, but first I put it away just as it was in the top drawer of my dresser.

The next day when Roy stepped out of the cab without any warning it was in the drawer, unopened, and it is unopened still. Roy never wrote me another letter.

Driving toward Vienna in a rental car, we cross the border into Austria. The highway is nearly empty and the mountains are bright with snow, dull with evergreen. We have slept well and eaten a breakfast of rolls and butter and coffee, and now we are on our way, the map on the seat between us.

Somehow over the years we have gotten into a habit which sets us off from our friends and the people we grew up with: if we are alone in the car, I always drive and Roy always navigates. If you ask Roy why this is he will say that when he drives I spend all my time watching him watch the road; it has gotten many laughs over dinner, that line. I suppose it is true that I am not trusting when I sit in the passenger’s seat; but all these years Roy has never
noticed that it is not him I am watching, but the drivers around us, people we do not know, people with blank faces, who are nothing and everything to us as we go to the store for groceries, drive our grandchildren to the zoo.

My boys still tease me about this, but Ginny understood from the beginning. I remember driving to Wisconsin in the middle of a winter storm: we sat together in the back seat with her Jay in the car seat between us and our heads bent together into a tent over him, watching the traffic. I remember the brush of her hair against my cheek as we watched the road, the snow, the trucks; her husband worked the clutch and gas and break with a light touch while Roy hunched over the map next to him.

We have been quiet for a while; I am intent on the road, the strangeness of the signs, the newness of the car. Roy watches Austria fly past.

“Have we driven past Dachau?” I ask.

“Dachau?” Roy echoes.

He doesn’t answer me for a long time. Then: “I think it’s over on the other side of Munich. You don’t want to see Dachau, do you?”

I try to list for myself the things I would like to see. The village where Richard the Lionhearted was kept for ransom. In Vienna the big ferris wheel, the old city, the museums with their Holbeins and DÅrers and Klimts. Maybe the Spanish riding horses. I think of my old address book safe in the leather

Martine Rosenfeld
13 Dreikugelgasse VI
Hatlersdorf bei Wien

and in the column meant to keep track of Christmas card exchanges:

sent ’46 ’47 ’48 ’49 ’50 ’51 ’52 ’53 ’54 ’55 ’56 ’57
rec. ’46 ’47’ 48 ’49 ’50 ’51 – ’53 – ’55 – –

In ’53 Martine wrote that she was remarried; in ’55 she sent a picture of her new daughter. Then nothing.

Roy turns to me and puts his hand on my leg. We are driving through Linz and the sky is angry with smoke and fumes; a city of furnaces and factories.

In his letters from Vienna, Roy was constantly trying to rebuild some part of Martine’s house, but scavenging the materials was difficult and it was a big project. I imagined him on the telephone, calling in favors, making deals, drawing up plans. He has always been good with his hands, and quick to see that a job needed doing. And when there was nothing to fix, no leaky faucets, no loose wires, he would make up little projects. All of our closets are fitted with special shelves for shoes; in the study the bookshelves are sized to fit six different book sizes; in the kitchen every box and bottle and canister has a special niche. The boys each have treasure chests of oak with secret compartments and sliding doors on drawers of varied sizes.

When Ginny was nine she and Roy built a doll house out in the garage. They spent hours at his workbench; from the kitchen window I could see them, his dark head bent over hers, his arms around her shoulders as he showed her how to steady the saw, how to balance it. In the end she did every little bit of it herself. Roy wouldn’t step in when she got frustrated; at the most he would reach in and put one large hand over her small soft one to move it a bit, to make her relax her grip. And he would talk to her, calmly explain things again, show what she needed to do to get it right. Sometimes she would howl in frustration and then he would tell her to put things down, it was time for a break.

They had many dishes of ice cream that summer on the kitchen step talking in low voices about the virtues of two bedrooms and a nursery versus three smaller bedrooms and a den, open walls or closed walls, paint or wallpaper.

From her father Ginny learned to build things to care about, and to take responsibility for the things she created; I tried to teach her those lessons I struggle with myself every day: when to be patient with herself, and how to tell the difference between the caution that sustains life and the fear that can devour it.

We decide it is time to stop for lunch. We drive off the main road into a small town, maybe you would call it a village, but it is not very picturesque. There is very little traffic here; we decide that it must be a holiday of some sort. On the main square in the center of town there are two public houses and we go into the one that looks older.

The hallway has a low ceiling and it is very bright with firelight reflected in oak panelling. Off to the left is the dining room, we take a table near a massive oven tiled in bottle green and Roy orders lunch from a waitress who does not speak English. When he stumbles a bit my four semesters of evening school German prove to be some good after all.

Over our food Roy tells me a story about Martine. It is a story I know well, but I let him talk. I try to remember that he must be scared too. It is about the time they interrogated a small man who had seemed so harmless, but who had told them things which gave them nightmares; I close my eyes and I see Roy sitting low in his chair behind the desk, taking notes, struggling to keep his composure, and Martine, sitting on the edge of the desk in front of the prisoner. Her voice grows softer and softer until it threatens to fade away altogether.

The summer that Ginny was sixteen we had a recurring argument. In itself this wasn’t surprising: we are very much alike, both stubborn. From the time she could get around on her own we have been pulling at each other, but this was different. Now, looking back at Ginny as she was that summer when everything about me irritated her and I found myself observed from angles I never knew existed, I see that there are times when a girl must negate her mother to find the woman in herself.

She asked me hard questions about Martine; she accused me of being afraid of the truth. I don’t understand, she would say, how can you let him talk about her?

My answers never satisfied her. Ginny did not really want to hear about my anger, but she needed to show me her own. Then one day Ginny looked me straight in the eye with fierce concentration and asked why I had never just taken down that picture and thrown it away. This is what I could not explain: Roy is my husband, but Martine has been my silent partner for forty years.

Roy consults the map once again and calculates another hour and a half on the road.

An hour later we are in the outskirts of Vienna and the car starts to hitch and buck. We pull off the road and Roy has a look; he is not happy. We find a telephone and begin negotiating through a series of voices and languages to find help.

It is midafternoon on a sunny winter day, and we sit in a small coffee house waiting for the tow truck. Suddenly I relax: things have been taken out of our hands for the moment; the coffee is very good; there is a fire and the room is warm. This is a guest house; the small sign outside says there is a free room upstairs, undoubtedly with a soft, shapeless featherbed. This is comforting: I think of release from this relentless course we have somehow set
ourselves. We could take the room, get a good night’s sleep. The postcard was never sent; tonight, after a good meal and a long walk in the snow we could call ahead.

“Wait,” Roy says, turning to me. “What about a taxi?”

This is the difference between us: Roy runs at things full on, and I let them run at me.

I have another photo with me, another old photo in black and white. It is Martine’s house, just before Roy left Vienna in 1946, as he rebuilt it. The walls are thick and stuccoed white, the eaves of the roof reach low over deep-set window casements. The garden next to the house is dense and green and roses bloom over the wall.

Now as we pull up in a taxi, the house hasn’t changed at all, only the roses are missing and the garden is lost in snow. I look again and see other differences: curtains at the windows; in the photo the front door was some kind of wood, now it is painted dark green. Pebbles crunch underfoot as we make our way. It is very cold.

Standing here on Martine’s doorway I realize that I am a ghost to her, that she is about to be frightened, maybe as frightened as I am. Roy takes my hand and when I look in his eyes I see terror and elation; suddenly, I am released from my own fear. He is offering me a distraction, and I take it: I squeeze his hand.

When she opens the door I feel Roy’s hand tense: this is the woman from the photo, young and dark-haired with a small mouth and wide-set eyes. She smiles at us, expectantly.

Roy tries to ask her something, his voice rasps and he clears his throat and tries again.

She leads us into the house; we learn that she is Rita, Martine’s youngest daughter, that it is a holiday and her father has gone out to pay a call but will be back shortly, and that Martine is dead.

We are on our way home: I am driving, and Roy is watching me watch the road. It is twenty-four hours since we saw Martine’s daughter; it is more than twenty-five years since Martine died in a car accident.

“Christmas 1965,” he says now, mostly to himself. “Christmas 1965 she had already been dead five years.”

“Jeannie,” he says. “When Carl and Lucy lost their first baby.”

I finish the thought for him. “Martine had been dead over twenty years.”

In December 1957 when Martine hadn’t written for two years and Roy checked the mail every day impatiently, I remember thinking that in the end women are more practical than men. Martine let go because it was too painful or not painful enough anymore; Roy kept her with him by sharing her with me.

Now a line from his second last letter from Vienna comes back to me, I know it word for word:

I am trying to find my way back to you.

I read that letter once and I put it away; I knew when I did that I would never read it again, not because I was angry, the anger would come later, but because that line struck at me like a live thing, embedded itself in my flesh, and would live with me forever.

A transport is just about to leave when we arrive at the airbase and there is room for us. We do not inquire about transports east, to the Pacific. We are going home. The trip will have lasted less than four days.

We are ordinary people; I am not especially courageous or cowardly. Once Ginny expected more of me and I disappointed her. Now she has been married herself for a while and she has not brought this matter up to me since her son was born. She has found out for herself that marriage is not a state of knowing, but a state of not knowing, and that marriage survives because of secrets, not in spite of them.

Roy was awake for most of last night and now he falls into a deep and fitful sleep as soon as we take off. I take out my portfolio and go through it slowly. In the back, tucked carefully behind the pictures of the children, is the letter I am looking for, Roy’s last letter from Vienna. I weigh it in my hand.

The glue has dried to brittleness and the flap cracks open audibly, but Roy sleeps on. On the one sheet of paper folded inside there is a single line:

I am coming home to you.

I turn my face to my husband; it is my turn to sleep, too.