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Today's Story by George McLoone

"She knows who everyone is. She’s as old as your grandmother was, older, at least eighty or ninety. I couldn’t tell her what to do. I couldn’t talk to her.”


Lyle Babbington walked into the café off the airport concourse, ordered three fingers of bourbon, and looked at the flight monitors over the bar.  There were long delays in Paris, Moscow, Astana, Vladivostok, Anchorage, Chicago, and New York yet again.  It was not weather.  New York was clear.  He could see that on the weather channel.  The Atlantic was clear – England, Western Europe, free of storms, and it was a clear morning out the window at the Flughafen Wien.  A news channel crawl had nothing about a crash or explosion, nothing about terrorism, and nothing about a woman at JFK.  Perhaps it had been a child, he thought, not a grown woman but, say, a boy of ten jumping a security line in pursuit of the parakeet he thought was tucked away in his satchel—something quite natural, ordinary, naïve, evanescent yet cosmic in its issue, as in theories about insects’ wings and chaos.
He felt better when his bourbon came, and he reassured himself Helen Avery was a grown woman, well bred, stable and, as a rule, punctual.  She would not hold anything up at JFK, and he was over reacting, he said to himself.  Air traffic had nothing to do with her.  Absurd.  He was confusing effect with cause, and he probably had no more than another hour to kill.  He ordered another bourbon, then moved to a table and ordered coffee, croissants and salmon.  If there were some way she could reach him from a plane high over the ocean, she would have found it.  He felt sure of this by the time his food came, and he began to see through the monitors, through the animated maps and the ETA lists to an image of her in first class, her flight approaching the coast of Normandy and beginning a smooth descent into the Continent.  There was really nothing to worry about.

It was his first trip to Vienna, an enviable destination for any number of people he knew, but two weeks earlier he was not sure he wanted to go.  He was just fifty and felt fit, but he did not want to travel so far alone, even for a business meeting that would include other Americans, plenty of them.  He had piano dealerships in Manhattan and in Tarrytown, where he lived, and he would be joining counterparts from Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington at the Vienna Marriott for meetings with Bosendorfer management.  He had asked Madeline, his wife, to go with him, but she brought up plans for a trip with her sister to visit their mother in Cape Hatteras.  It had been arranged as far back as August, and she was quick to remind him of this–  Margaret was to pick her up in Tarrytown.  The two would drive to Cape Hatteras and stay for a week, perhaps two.  How could he have forgotten?  She did suggest Peg, their daughter, might be interested in a European jaunt with him, but then caught herself and said she had talked to Peg last week on the phone– Peg would be taking mid-term exams at Stony Brook, then going to Vermont with friends for the Fall Break weekend, a four-day weekend over Columbus Day.

Lyle did not ask Madeline to change her plans for Cape Hatteras and said nothing more about either trip.  But Helen, he remembered, had been to Vienna more than once, spoke some German, and she was still on his mind.  He had not gotten over her, as he often told himself, simply because he did not want to.

Their affair had ended two years earlier – an impossibly long time by now, he realized, but at this point he did not see any harm in trying his luck.  He wondered if her cell number was still the same, tried it and reached her right away at her office downtown in the MetLife Building.  She was short with him at first but did not hang up.  He thanked her for that pleasant surprise, and she began letting him know what she was doing at the moment– walking down the hallway from her office, then into an elevator, then out, then saying hello to someone she passed, then all of a sudden saying nothing.  He talked into the silence, first about a Bosendorfer franchise, then about how much he missed her.  More silence, and he doubted she was listening.  She had hung up, he thought, or walked into a dead zone in the building.

Then something, a spark upstaging indifference – She declared nothing would come of their reviving a relationship because nothing had come of it in the past — certainly nothing would come from an overseas trip together—and Vienna could be cold in October, not to mention the routine, year-round frustrations of transatlantic air travel, all air travel, the long lines in terminals, the maddening flight delays.  It was bad enough she had to fly to Chicago or Pittsburgh every few months on business, and she had not even thought about Vienna for years.  As for missing something, she had already missed lunch and was going to be stuck in a meeting for hours, a distressing meeting about which employees to fire because of the downturn.  She did not want any argument and was now already inside the boardroom.  People were sitting down, and she would have to hang up in seconds. Then she reminded him they had broken up for good two years ago almost to the day.  He began agreeing with her.

“You’re right,” he said, “absolutely right, but the Bosendorfer meeting lasts two days, and I’ve taken the whole week off, two weeks if I want to.  I think I should use the time to take in more of Vienna – Klimt exhibitions, two of them listed in this packet they sent me, and some good restaurants, maybe the opera if it’s not too modern.  I’m going to get away from my compatriots at the Marriott and stay at the Sacher.  They have the café with Sachertorte, needless to say, and it’s close to the opera.  Then I’m going to walk off the chocolate by wending my way to concerts – concerts all over town, many of them within walking distance — I have a map here, too – and cafes to eat strudel after.  If I stay longer, I might even to take the train to Prague.  I remember you had a grandmother in Ohio who grew up in Bohemia.  Her name was Anna, and that’s what you called her—Anna, not grandmother or Nana.  But — correct me if I’m wrong – I don’t think you’ve been to the ancestral village itself.  You are right, though.  It’s going to be cold, even colder in Prague – farther east, I think, almost to Russia.”

“No,” she said in a soft voice.  “The climate is about the same in both cities.  And Prague is west of Vienna, two hours northwest by train.”
“Hard to believe the train actually goes west to Prague,” he said.  “I imagine Prague in Red territory not so long ago– East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Russia, China–that big red splotch on the right side of the map.”

“All right,” she said, “I’ll go with you.  I had better go with you.  You can probably find the opera house since it’s next door to the Sacher, but I’m not sure you can find Klimt exhibitions or anything else in Vienna, much less find anything in Prague.  No, I won’t go with you.  I’ll meet you there.  I’ll meet you in Vienna. Madeline will be seeing you off at JFK, I suppose.  Give me those dates again.”

He waited another fifteen minutes at the café, then he got up and walked the length of the concourse back and forth, until he looked again at a monitor and saw her plane had been on the ground for forty minutes.  He hurried back to the cafe, and there she was.  She had on her usual black travel outfit with black gloves and what seemed a new coat over her shoulders, a black raincoat with brass buttons and a fur lining.  Her figure was about the same, but her hair was lighter, tinted with blond, and cut shorter– more stylish, he thought.  She gave him her real smile, and he was gratified with the effect she still had on him.  She beckoned to a porter who came up behind her with two suitcases and a carry-on bag.  In the taxi, she sat close to Lyle and took his arm. In passable German, she told the driver where to take them.

They spent a pleasant, often passionate three days at the Sacher before moving outside the Rings to a B&B, Die Schildkafer, over an arcade on Turkenstrasse near the river.  In six nights, the subject of opera did not come up, and they had yet to take in a concert.   But at Die Schildkaker they could not stay in bed all day, and were up early for the breakfast, then down the stairs and out the door by the time the maid came to clean their room.  They spent four days hiking to and through museums, composers’ houses, and vast, old churches– gothic, baroque, rococo, gothic revival, reconstructed baroque and reconstructed rococo.  Evenings they dined at the same café on Schlickplatz, and began to speak of it as their café.   By the seventh day, a train ride to Prague, easier on the feet, seemed inviting.  This would be a three-day excursion before their flights home.

Helen took charge.  They would cross over the Vltava on the Charles Bridge–“The river used to be called the Moldau,” she explained to him– then climb the hill to the splendid palace and cathedral on the other side before walking back over the bridge to spend one night at the Klaster on Prague’s Old Square.  The next day, they would explore Anna’s village.  This meant taking the train farther west to Jeptiska.  This had once been a mainly German town with dairy farms, a lead mine and a sulfuric acid factory, but now it was little more than a way station for hikers and bicyclists.  There would be little of interest for tourists like themselves, Helen had also found out, but the town was in the heart of old Bohemia.  From there it was likely less than an hour to the village of Blaumeise.  The small village was not on the map, but it would not be hard to find.  Anna had told her this long ago – Blaumeise was near Jeptiska, although it might have lost its German name after the War and now be called something quite different in Czech.  They would have to rent a car in Jeptiska or hire a driver.  The train did not stop at Blaumeise, not even in her grandmother’s day.

It was a Sunday afternoon, cloudy but not cold.  The train to Jeptiska was an old train with compartments, and they had one to themselves.  She sat next to him, unbuttoned her coat, and leaned back against the corner of the seat.  She closed her eyes for a few minutes until the train began to move.  When they were well underway, she sat up and told him more about the village in much the same words her grandmother had used long ago in Ohio —

“Blaumeise can mean three things — a hydrangea with a blue flower, a kind of bluebird more gray than blue, and a nun.  Sometimes nuns wear blue habits.  It was picturesque if not what you would call prosperous, and everyone spoke German. When I was little, I thought Anna’s village must somehow convey all three meanings along with its hundred cheerful souls, five shopkeepers, two or three curmudgeons, a woman thought to be a witch, a beer garden, and a small church with two kindly priests, Father Praetorius and Father Max.  There was a life-sized mural of the Nativity behind the altar.  The school attached to the church had only two or three rooms, but it had wide, tall windows that overlooked a large meadow.  Father Max, the younger priest, taught there along with a nun, Sister Klara, and a laywoman from Jeptiska, Frau Richter.  There were fifteen kids in the school, and Father Max would sometimes take them on outings.  He once took them on an outing all the way to Dresden.
“Anna,” she concluded, “emigrated in 1946 at the age of seventeen and eventually settled in Cincinnati, where she worked as a hostess in a German restaurant.  She married a high school history teacher, an older man named Art Thorne, who had dinner there every night—or so it seemed.  My mother was their only child.  He died in 1963 from a heart attack.  I never knew him.”

They reached Jeptiska in less than two hours, and, as expected, the larger town was drab.  A block of gray, smallish, run-down apartment buildings fronted by courtyards littered with refuse dominated the area around the station. When they got off the train, the only person on the platform, a man in a shabby wool suit who was carrying a basket of carrots, frowned at them.  No one entered or left the apartment buildings.  No children played in the courtyards, and the road leading into the town was deserted.  Helen said nothing.

The economy was bad, as Lyle remarked to her, but he also pointed out the hills and thick forests in the distance where yellow maples could be seen among the black-green pines.  He referred to the bike trails she had mentioned earlier and wondered aloud where the nature center might be.  Helen said nothing in reply, and he added they would not be here long in any case.  The stationmaster, he reminded her, would help with directions and renting a car, once she spoke to him in German.

The stationmaster was a slight young man trying to grow a beard, a trainee, who spoke some German and less English.  Helen took her time with him.  He did not know about renting a car, but he would be able to find out about a driver later that afternoon, if they could wait.  He understood they did not plan to spend the night in Jeptiska, but there was a hotel farther into the town, and the owner had a car.  He could call the hotel and arrange a ride to the hotel, but he could not promise them the hotel owner would take them to other places.  He had not heard of Blaumeise.  Perhaps they knew of it at the hotel.  Was Blaumeise renamed something in Czech after the War?  He pulled a German-Czech atlas from a drawer behind the counter, and the three of them pored over the list for the entire district.  No Blaumeise.  The map itself showed nothing in the way of a village for a fifty- kilometer radius, nothing until one crossed the German border and was well on the way to Dresden.

“Tell him your grandmother was from Blaumeise,” Lyle said, “and that she left in 1946.”

Helen did so, but the stationmaster only nodded and looked over her shoulder.  The man who had been on the platform was standing behind her and trying to get the young man’s attention.

“It’s a touchy subject,” Helen said when they were back on the platform.  “Nearly all the Germans were thrown out of Bohemia in 1946 in retaliation for the War.  The few remaining Germans keep a low profile, I should think.”

“Perhaps it was something less than a village,” Lyle said, “a hamlet or whatever is less than a village, unworthy of the atlas.”


“What was your grandmother’s name?”

“Anna Thorne.”

“I mean her maiden name.”

“Kreitel, Anna Kreitel.”

“Why don’t you ask the stationmaster about the Kreitels.  Maybe some are still around, or he knows something about them, or we could ask at the hotel, talk to the owner.  He’s got to be older.”

“No, I’ve had enough.  I want to get back on the train.  There’s a train back to Prague in an hour.  I’ll wait here.  Why don’t you look at the nature center or find something to eat.”

“You surprise me.  I thought you would want to pursue this, at least the family name, especially after coming all this way and after all those years of wondering.”

“It wasn’t vague to me, not as a child.  Anna described it to me and I imagined it – the village, the people, her house, the little church, and a square for parties with dancing.”
“There’s a church just across the tracks,” Lyle said.  “Look – next to the siding and that loading dock.  It’s a little church, a small, run-down church.  It could be an old village church.”

“Please, let’s drop it.”

“It’s got to be more than a hundred years old, probably two hundred.  Consider the graveyard that’s behind it.  Kreitels may be buried there.  The church may have a priest.  He may know something about them. We have an hour.  Let’s look for Kreitles.”

“It’s a common name.”

“Stay here, and I’ll have a look at the church.  I’ll reconnoiter.”

He did not use the overhead walkway but jumped off the platform and bounded across the station tracks.  He continued past the loading dock, hopped a short fence, walked up to the side of the church and around behind it.  He stayed behind it for longer than seemed necessary.  Then he appeared with an elderly woman who held on to his arm and shuffled, a hunched over woman in a print dress, a straw gardening hat and green rubber boots.  He waved across the tracks with his free arm and pointed to the woman’s head.

Helen took the walkway to the other side.  She could see right away the small church had been abandoned for years.  The front entrance was boarded up with plywood and a rusty iron bar.  The yellowish stucco was cracked and stained with brown, the plain gray windows streaked with grime.  The side and back doors to the church were open, ripped off their hinges.  Inside, everything had been ripped out, the pews, railings, altar, everything.
“I saw her tending to the graves,” Lyle said, “and there are headstones with German names on them.  She lives in that house beyond the fence at the back.  She doesn’t speak any English.  She speaks German, but she doesn’t hear very well.  Ask her what her name is first, then about the Kreitles.”

Helen looked the old woman in the eye and tried to smile.  “Gnagdige Frau,” she said ,“wie helssen Sie?”

“Ich helssen Anna Maria.”

“Bitte, Anna Maria, wo ar das Kreitles, das totenacker Kreitle?”

Anna Maria seemed to understand.  She let go of Lyle, took Helen by the arm and led her to the edge of the graveyard nearest her house.  She pointed to a back row with a dozen stone markers and let go.  She did not wait for Helen’s reaction but turned and shuffled through the gate, got up the steps to her house and closed the door behind her. There were no names on the stones, no dates.

“Maybe the names and dates were to be added later,” Lyle said.  “It was the War, missing documentation, something like that.  Or they could be so old the inscriptions have worn off.”

“No,” Helen said.  “They are markers for unknowns.  She was just being polite then afraid, probably afraid to speak German.  She doesn’t know anything about them.  Did you give her money to pretend?”

“Nothing like that.  She lives right here.  She knows who everyone is.  She’s as old as your grandmother was, older, at least eighty or ninety.  I couldn’t tell her what to do.  I couldn’t talk to her.”

Helen looked toward the tracks.  “We’ll miss the train if we don’t get back on the platform.”

He tried to take her hand before they crossed over the walkway to the station, but she would not let him and walked ahead.  On board, they shared a compartment with a man in work clothes and muddy shoes stretched out on the seat across from them.  The man was soon asleep.  Helen leaned back in the corner, spread her raincoat over herself and closed her eyes.

As planned, they would stay the night in Prague at the Klaster and take the early train to Vienna for their flights home.  They had to be up before dawn, and this seemed to require a hurried, uninteresting dinner, references to mutual fatigue, then going to bed early.  That night, neither could sleep, but he did not attempt to touch her.

“Is it the separate flights,” he asked her not long before they had to get up, “the prospect of separate flights?”

“Yes,” she said, “separate flights.  That’s all it is.”


George McLoone grew up in Arizona but has lived most of his life in Northern Virginia and worked there as an academic, editor and writer.  His recent publications include short stories in The Northern Virginia Review and The Fringe (Australia).


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