(A revised version. Enjoy!)
The sun took its time rising over the Ammersee. It peeked over the water, letting the residents of Utting see its blazing orange head, but then seemed to duck back into the night. By the time it got itself off the ground, most of the townspeople were already up.
Markus Becker and Christopher Jung decided to feed the ducks that morning. Their beaks were gold with sunlight. Each floated from the east dock to the west dock in a solemn procession. Christopher tossed a chunk of his mother’s bread into the water. Markus chided him for wasting such a large piece of sourdough, but Christopher remarked that his mom always made a special loaf for the waterfowl.
In time, Frau Weber came out to join them by the dock. She asked how their summer reading was coming along. Both Marcus and Christopher had read books that could have gotten them arrested, had they lived 300 kilometers to the north. Here, though, they were free to read. Free to learn.
Outside his window, indifferent flakes of white floated to the ground. These were not Christmastime flurries or Ski Chalet squalls; this was Dresden snow, the kind that loved to mix with pools of gasoline and collect near the steps of the apartment. The thermometer held steady at eight degrees; he didn’t have quite enough oil to get to nine. Heinz adjusted its position on the sill.
The telephone buzzed out, but the line went dead before he could get the phone to his ear. The light above him sputtered furiously. Heinz reached up, pulled the twine cord and looked back at the typewriter. His graduation gift typewriter, now almost as useless as the Dr. phil. pinned to his wall.
Markus’ mother and Christopher’s mother watched their children play along the Ammersee. Frau Becker remarked at how strong Christopher’s little legs looked; Frau Jung blushed, saying that Markus’ swimming lessons had been invaluable for him. Imagine that, she said: an eight-year-old child teaching his friend to swim. They both laughed at their children and took sips of Bremen tea.
Herr Jung opened the door with a crate of milk in his hand. The milkman was offering his weekly three-for-the-price-of-two deal, and knowing how much his little Christopher liked milk, the father couldn’t resist buying a dozen. Frau Jung suggested putting a little milk in the teapot to give the drink some extra flavor. A beautiful teapot; all the way from the United States. They placed the order and collected the shipment as if it were no big deal to be allowed to purchase American. Herr Becker carried a packet of American gum in his hand: a packet he would never have to hide from searching eyes.
A few blocks away, the mayor—the residents nicknamed him Hahn—came across a group of schoolchildren. He addressed all of them by their first names and remarked at how tall all of them had grown. Indeed, the mayor thought to himself: a dozen years’ time, and he would be the shortest resident in all of—
The buzzing telephone interrupted his typing. Only one person ever took the time to dial his number.
“Hello, Udo,” he said, fumbling for a gum packet with his other hand. His chewing habit made the typewriter keys smell like mint.
“Heinz? Why do you always hang up on me?”
“It’s the phone line,” he said.
“That would be a dozen broken phone lines. In three days.” Udo’s voice was flat.
“You know what the infrastructure is like. You have to pray these days just to reach Leipzig, and you’re calling all the way from Neubrandenburg.”
“I blame the barracks that you’re living in. Then again, better an empty house than an empty pantry.”
Udo’s voice sounded a little off. Perhaps it was the phone line.
“The Republik’s offering me a three bedroom in Potsdam if I’m approved as a screenwriter for the DFF,” Heinz said. I have an interview with them tomorrow.”
“I hope…it’s not over the phone.”
“What’s wrong, Udo?”
“Nothing,” his friend replied. “Just checking in. To see how everything is.”
Heinz held the phone closer to his ear. There was something different in his voice.
“Is the safe still under the floor panel?” his friend asked.
“The one you installed? Yes.”
“And you still have to push the tulip and the daisy at the same time?”
This was an arbitrary line of questioning, even from Udo.
“I was just curious,” Udo said flatly. “I’m glad to hear it’s security—I mean, secure.”
The receiver clicked from 300 kilometers away.
A few intrepid flakes of snow managed to get through the crack in the window and onto the table. He watched the flakes melt on their own, then, impatient, snuffed each out with his thumb.
That safe gave him more warmth than the heating oil. All 160 pages inside had been conceived from his typewriter keys. Heinz was almost done with the final draft.
He turned back from the windowsill. A beam of streetlight broke through the window and landed on the wall, casting light on the brick that poked through the wallpaper. Which would decay first? he wondered. The crumbling brick or the yellow print covering it? Or might the State outrace both of them?
He looked at the rusted keys, sighed and dropped his fingers onto the home row.
A notch past ten in the morning, but the milkman already had five Marks jingling in his pocket. Sadie would be so proud to see him spill all the Pfennigs and Groschens on the table. Maybe they could take a few of those coins and head over to Porter’s for dinner.
Better yet, nobody would force him to turn the coins over to some man in a gray jacket with a bright red badge. It was a luxury they considered pedestrian, a liberty overshadowed by so many other freedoms.
The sun looked its usual mid-morning cheery self. The milkman wondered what the sun drank to get so much energy.
An hour later, and 83 words to show for it.
Heinz bit off the end of a gum wrapper and spat it into the trash can. “Wintergreen,” “Juicy Fruit,” “Spearmint:” the Stasi would get suspicious if it saw foreign brands on his shelf, but he couldn’t stand the State’s version. Nor did he like Big Red; the taste just didn’t agree with him. He hid each box inside a black vase. The snow had now encroached onto his keyboard, taking the P and Ü keys hostage with just one flake. No telling how many more inches remained in the Dresden skies.
What he would have given to spend his childhood with the people down south, unstained by the checkpoints and the security barriers and the rifles. The DDR wouldn’t let him emigrate with his Trabant or through the Klotzsche airport, but he had an escape plan that would work just as well. With a vain smile, he moved his hands back to the typewriter.
At noontime, just as the two families were getting ready for their picnic at the Ammersee’s shores, Herr Jung heard a knock at the door.
He turned the mahogany knob to find a hastily dressed man with gray-brown hair. He had never seen him before; in a town like Utting, that meant something.
“Can I help you, sir?”
“I’d just like to take a look around,” he said. “Is that all right?”
Herr Jung paused for a second, then nodded. The man at the door looked relieved, as if it were a dream of his to explore their little cottage.
“Christopher. Get our guest something to drink.” Herr Jung invited the man to sit down at the table. He obliged.
“You look as if you’ve traveled some distance.” It was a polite way of calling him a foreigner
“387 kilometers,” the guest replied.
“My goodness! And just to see this house! Did you travel by plane?”
“By my hands, really.” He thanked Christopher for the milk and took a sip. There was no snow intruding on the kitchen table; no police sirens to distract him.
“Can I get you anything else?”
“A packet of Wintergreen gum. If you have any.” The guest turned to face the window. “What is it like, Herr Becker, to live here?”
“Oh, good sir, I don’t live—”
“In Utting, I mean. By the Ammersee. It must be a dream come true for you.”
Herr Becker laughed. “If one values peace over excitement, yes. The children love to swim in the lake, and we enjoy the local produce.”
“You’ve never seen your closest friends interrogated, then.”
Herr Becker was taken aback.
“You’ve never had your uncle thrown into jail because he tried to cross into Gattendorf?” the stranger continued. “Your friend never had to explain why she had a BRD license plate in her briefcase?”
“My goodness, no! I don’t understand what you are getting at.”
He pointed out the bay window. “Your car, Herr Jung. The government let you buy it without having to wait? Even though you already had an earlier model?”
“That’s how things go around here, sir. I don’t know what your government has to say about purchasing a second Volkswagen.”
The guest smiled. “Yes: I made sure of that. I might have introduced you to a character from Dresden or an officer from Leipzig, but thought against it. I didn’t want my government to have an ounce of influence over you.”
Neither the Jungs nor the Beckers managed to respond to that. It didn’t bother him. The guest sipped his glass of milk and looked out at the Ammersee. No police cars in sight.
The sirens were especially active that night. Like buzzing mosquitoes, the Stasi had landed at his neighbor’s apartment, his friend’s apartment… but never his own.
Nor was he unprotected against their bite. He had three hidden safes in his house; two were decoys. The other was painted to look like a floor panel and opened only when one pressed the tulip and the daisy at the same time.
He peered out the window to watch, knocking the thermometer (6 degrees, now) to the floor. One car’s siren turned off. It came to a halt near the apartment entrance, leaving tire tracks in the grey-white snow.
He needn’t worry, Heinz thought. Two decoy safes. Camouflage that would impress the KGB. Even so, he started to type a little faster.
“And the surrounding area?” the guest asked. “How is it?”
“Lovely, lovely,” Frau Becker replied. “The Ammersee is the most beautiful lake in Europe, for all I know.”
“And it’s good to climb the trees,” Markus interjected.
The stranger nodded. “May I look inside the refrigerator?”
Herr Jung shrugged and opened it. There were more brands in that little white box than in the entire Dresden supermarket. Foods and juices he had never heard of. “Coke?” What was this Coke, and this “Sprite” and this “Hershey’s Pudding?” What was this “Grey Poupon” with a French flag on the cap?
“Are you hungry, sir?”
The man shook his head. “It is a wonderful refrigerator.”
Heavy footsteps echoed into his room from five floors below. Four floors below. Three floors below. A pair of sirens joined the first car at the apartment.
Two floors below.
Heinz popped another stick of gum in his mouth, chewed furiously and spat the whole ball out. If they smelled Wintergreen, they would get suspicious—goodness, if they smelled him, they would get suspicious.
“Do you realize how lucky you are?” the guest said. “Your lives—I have never seen such peaceful people. Perhaps my own country is at fault for that.”
They were back by the front entrance. Markus and Christopher had decided to go swimming after lunch. They both sported bright red bathing suits with German flags on the pockets.
“We are not rich, sir. We get by, but… it is still a stretch to take our yearly trip to Switzerland. The Volkswagen was quite a hassle to purchase.”
“No,” the man said. “You do not know how hard it can be to go to Switzerland. You do not know the process I must go through to buy even a second-rate car. Do not worry, however. I will not let you find out. I have fifty pages to go, but I will not let you find out.”
The stranger’s voice had become more and more rushed since he stepped inside. Just as Herr Jung opened his mouth, a knock sounded at the door.
A knock sounded at the door, loud enough to rattle his typewriter keys.
“Open up, Herr Schreiber. We will not ask again.”
Heinz stood up from his chair, walked over and turned the knob. Half a dozen men in grey uniforms met him at the entrance. Their red lapels showed a pair of wheat surrounding a hammer and compass.
“We happened to overhear a very interesting conversation between you and a comrade,” the man by the knob said. “Something about a safe with a floral theme.”
No wonder Udo’s voice sounded off. Heinz had two decoy lockboxes, but hadn’t even thought about a wiretap.
Before he could protest, the Stasi had their fingers pressed to the floorboards in search of the right flowers. The safe popped up in seconds.
“170 pages of foolish drivel about the quality of life in drunken, capitalist Bayern, from what comrade Udo said. It seems that you have a soft spot for the BDR.” The head of the group stuffed the papers into a bag. “Guards?”
In Heinz’s mind, the Jungs and Beckers were enjoying the Utting countryside. In his mind, his own handcuffed arms were paddling across the Ammersee. Red bathing suit in tow.