Michael NollFiction / Number 93
Franz was a special case, April’s mother said, not like other kids. April asked, “Different how? And from kids in America or ones in Germany?” Her mother reminded her it was West Germany. And, also, that they shouldn’t ask Franz too many questions. April wanted to know why. Wasn’t West Germany the good Germany? What, exactly, was off limits? Politics? Her mother nodded. His family? Her mother paused and then said, “No, but tread lightly.” But that only infuriated April more. His school? His friends? His clothes? His face?
“If we say the wrong thing, what? We’re all dead? Are the East Germans going to get us?”
Her mother told her to shush. Maybe things really were different across the ocean. Maybe everyone there was a special case. How would they even know? No one in their family had even been to New York or California or Washington D.C. or anywhere, really, let alone Europe. She put her foot down: Sign on to the rules or no exchange student.
So here they were, in the Kansas City airport, summer of 1989, meeting Franz, trudging toward them in his black clothes like a child’s drawing of the words wide and weird, dragging his enormous suitcase, a black shirt hanging out of it. Here was April’s brother, rushing to help, pushing up his short sleeves, showing off his 8th grade muscles—which he did for anyone and everyone, even remote objects—and lifting Franz’s suitcase three feet off the ground, nearly throwing out his back.
“What do you have in here? Bricks?”
“Ya.” Franz patted the suitcase. “Bricks.”
April’s mother stepped protectively between the two boys. “He means books.”
“Nein,” Franz said. “Bricks.”
• • •
Their initial conversations with Franz had a flat, guarded quality. How do you like Kansas so far? How’s the weather compared to home? Does the food seem weird? Franz had a complete English vocabulary. They knew this from letters he’d sent before his visit, formal messages about school and how much he was looking forward to seeing America—but now, in person, his answers were limited to ya and nein. They had not learned any German. The exchange was supposed to work both ways: you hosted a kid and then sent one of your own away the next year. But that would not be their story. April had asked and asked again, and her parents had made clear the financial impossibility of it. So what was the point of learning the language?
One night at supper, they were eating tacos in silence, and the sound of everyone chewing was driving April crazy, so she said, “Hey Franz, I guess Kansas is probably a lot like home, huh?” Franz did this weird thing with his eyebrows.
“No kidding!” April said, too brightly, drawing a look from her mother that she ignored. “It’s really the same?”
“Ya, exactly the same. For example, you have so many new buildings here because the old ones were bombed by the Americans.”
It was the longest sentence he’d spoken since his arrival, and he seemed satisfied with himself. Even April didn’t know what to say. She watched Franz pick up a taco with two hands and shove it into his mouth like it might jump away.
“Wow,” Ben said. “No tacos in West Germany, huh?”
Their mother said, “Ben!” but to no effect.
“Nein,” Franz said.
Franz shook his head. “Nein. Only German food.”
“How come you say yeah and no in German but everything else in English?”
“I don’t nein,” Franz said, and April snorted. Everyone looked at her. “What?” she said, and it was while everyone was staring that she noticed that Franz had reached over and put his hand on top of Ben’s.
• • •
At school, kids made fun of everything about Franz, not just the way he was always touching people or the way he talked but also how he walked and the way he sat as if his vertebrae had been welded together, like a big, fat, German Frankenstein’s monster, which was how the kids imitated him: arms held outright, shouting, “Nein.” For Spanish class, he’d taken the name Frederico. Every time he said it in his German voice, the whole class, or maybe not the whole class but everyone in a particular group of freshman boys and the girls who hung out with them, fell out of their seats laughing. Before he showed up, they didn’t know a word of Spanish, but now they practiced it like they meant to become native assholes, spending entire homeroom periods saying things like, “Como estas, senor?”
“Ya. Estoy bien.”
“Te gusta que el plato de pollo?”
“Nein.” This was when they’d touch each other’s arms and look deep into their eyes. “Como pito solemente. Me gusta su pito sabroso ahora!”
Then they’d look at Franz. “Hey Franz, he says you like to eat tasty dick. Es claro?”
April’s friends asked her if he was gay, and she said, “No, he’s European,” but it sounded so much like what her
mom would say that she got mad and said, “I think you guys are jealous because I get to live with him and you don’t.”
“Oh, please,” they said, and maybe Franz overheard them? April wasn’t sure. He wouldn’t sit with her friends at lunch, instead choosing the table where a severely disabled kid used to sit with his para. The kid was dead now, and so the table belonged to Franz alone. “C’mon,” she told her friends. “Let’s join him.”
Her friends, girls she’d grown up with, girls she thought she knew, glanced at each other and made yech faces. “At the retard table?”
“He’s not retarded,” April said, too loud, and the girls all turned their moony faces toward Franz. He saluted them, and they burst into giggles.
“He’s so retarded.”
So April wound up sitting with him by herself, a special presentation for the lunchroom, especially the laughing and pointing boys from Spanish.
“Screw them,” April told Franz, and he gave her that weird twinkling look. “Or, you know, just tell them they’re so funny you forgot to laugh.”
“Forgot to laugh?”
“But I did not forget. See?” Then he laughed so loud that everyone in the room looked at him. Someone yelled back, “Pitos sabrosos!”
“Does that happen much in Germany?” April asked.
“Nein. I do not learn Spanish in Germany.”
“I mean, do you get a lot of crap like that?”
“Are you saying that those boys are making fun of me?”
He gave her a look that said he knew more than she did.
“Nein. You are lying.” Then he knocked on his head as if it was a door. April said, “You are the weirdest person I know,” and he said, “Ya, but that is because you do not know many people.” Then he touched her arm. She pulled away.
“Listen, you can’t do that.”
“Touch people.” She touched his arm. “Like that.”
“Because of germs?”
She couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic. “No, because,” she tried to think of how to put it, “it’s just not what guys do here. It weirds people out.”
“Are you weird out?”
“Weirded,” she said. “And nein.” She was hoping he’d laugh, but he just shook his head.
“If you are going to nein, then nein right.” He sat up straight, threw back his shoulders, and shouted as loud as he could: “Nein!”
• • •
On the news, they learned that Hungary had begun tearing down the fence on its border with Austria. Hundreds of East Germans who’d been vacationing there suddenly found themselves with access through the Iron Curtain, and they’d taken it. Now they were in West Germany. April’s mom had stopped cooking dinner to watch.
“Do you think—” She was speaking in a hush. “Do you think it’s possible that the wall might, I don’t know, that they might open it up?”
“Nein,” Franz said.
“But,” she began, and he interrupted her: “Never. Not in one million years. Not if the sun burns out and everyone starves and dies. Even then, there will be a wall.”
“Wow,” Ben said from his seat on the floor. “That’s like poetry,” which made April go stiff and red since she’d been thinking the same thing.
“Idiot,” she muttered, and her mom said, “What was that, April?”
• • •
She was the only one who understood Franz. How could anyone else? The only time they were apart was when he slept and when he went to the bathroom. On the bus, they didn’t sit together, but that was fine. People needed space, right? They needed to think? She could see him sitting there, looking out the window at the fields passing by, and thinking about things: is my family okay, do I fit in here? Was he thinking about her? She thought he was.
For sure, everyone was thinking about him. When a girl was found dead in a ditch off the highway outside of town—raped and killed and thrown away by a trucker—the first person everyone asked about was Franz. Had he heard about it? “Isn’t that crazy?” they asked, and even people who made fun of Franz stopped what they were doing to wait for his answer.
“Ya,” he said. “In Germany, we killed many girls, too.”
“Oh,” people said and walked away. Only April had been paying attention, watching closely. She’d seen what he did right before talking, the way he’d changed slightly, as if putting on a costume. Instead of Franz, he was Franz the Weird German. It was something he did a lot, she realized. He swiveled his hips when he walked. When he went through doorways, he ducked even though he wasn’t even close to being too tall. “Ya,” he’d say. “That was a close one. Almost knocked my noggin.” Knocked my noggin kids would repeat to each other in thick, German accents. And he knew it. He was doing these things on purpose, April was sure of it. He was flattening a hundred individual kids into a crowd that laughed at him or with him—it didn’t matter—and no matter how much you wanted to really talk, to communicate something real and meaningful, if you wanted Franz, the real him, you got the Franz the Act.
He could make anything a joke.
One kid, one of the tougher ones, announced, “You know how many Holocaust Jews you can fit in a car? Two in the front, three in the back, and six million in the ash tray.”
Franz clapped his hands.
“Ya ya! That is, how do you say in English, a practical joke?”
The assistant principal called home to talk to April’s mother about this. The Holocaust joke had been one step too far: “I understand he’s new, but if anyone else said that?” This is what April’s mom told Franz later, in his bedroom. April was listening through the door, and she burst in and said, “He wasn’t the one who told the joke. It was someone else. What did you want him to do? Beat the kid up?”
“Ya,” Franz said, holding up one arm like a muscleman. “I might have killed him.”
The principal called home again because of the touching. Apparently he’d touched someone in the locker room after PE. April’s mom was waiting for them when they got off the bus, and she asked Franz to join her in his bedroom. April went, too. When her mother saw her, she just sighed and said, “Fine. Now, Franz, I got another call. I need you to tell me what happened after PE.”
Her mother seemed to deflate a little. She was trying to be brave and calm. April knew the look well.
“Did you touch anyone—inappropriately? I mean, in a place, or in a way, they didn’t want?”
Her mother grabbed his pillow and threw it across the room. April gasped. Her mother was a crier. This wasn’t like her. “Franz, listen, I know what happened. You touched a kid on his leg.” She pointed to her own leg, the upper thigh. “Here,” she said. Franz did not answer. “Franz, you cannot do that. Do you understand? Not ever. It’s not okay.”
Franz watched her without a trace of emotion.
“No, it’s not okay.”
April couldn’t take it anymore and said, “For god’s sake, Mom, he’s saying okay. He won’t do it again.”
Her mom stood up and smoothed her clothes, and April thought that was the end of it. But that evening, when she was on her way to bed, her mother pulled her aside in the laundry room of all places.
“Be honest. How’s Franz doing in school? I’m worried about him. He’s so—” she didn’t have a word for it.
“Weird?” April said, and her mother pursed her lips. “Different?” April offered.
“No,” her mom said, slowly.
“Not exactly.” Her mom’s deliberation felt like a lie, as if she had something she wanted to say but couldn’t, at least not to April and maybe not even to herself.
“You mean gay?”
They both stood there, stunned, until her mother pursed her lips again.
“Sad. That’s the word I wanted. Now, go to bed.”
“He’s not gay. He likes girls. I think he even—” She felt herself blushing and stopped. Her mother said, “Honey. What?” April tried looking away and mumbling, “Nothing,” but that had never gotten her out of a conversation with her mom, and it didn’t work now. Her mother said, “April, this is a serious situation. The principal called here.”
“The assistant principal,” April said, and then her mother reached out and grabbed April’s face in one hand and squeezed her cheeks until she looked her in the eye. “Tell me.” April started crying. “Fine,” she said and swallowed and took a little breath. “I think he likes me.”
Her mother immediately let go and pulled her close for a hug. “Oh honey,” she said. “He doesn’t. Anyone can see that,” which made April duck from under her mother’s arms and run out of the house to be alone.
• • •
Franz was not gay. He didn’t like boys. At least not like that. He just touched people on the arm, sometimes the leg. He was German, and there were things that were lost in translation. People in France hugged and kissed each other on the cheek whenever they met. Were they all gay?
Yes, she imagined her mother saying, thick with sarcasm. Everyone in France is gay. That’s exactly what I’m saying.
“Then what are you saying?” April would ask, if this was a conversation they were having, but it wasn’t because her mother had made it clear that they were done talking, not in words, but it didn’t matter. Whenever April looked at her, she got this look, like she was a balloon, and the only thing holding the air in and keeping her from zipping around the room until she was flat was her lips. So she pursed them tight.
At school, April’s friends were waiting by her locker one morning, whispering to each other. When she walked up, one of them asked if she’d walked in on Franz in the shower. “Because that’s what we heard,” the girl said, and when April didn’t answer, another girl, Janie, said, “I heard that he walked in on her, and he didn’t look or anything. He just,” and she fought back laughter, “he just peed and walked out again.”
April shouted, “That’s not true,” and ran to the restroom in tears. Several of the friends knocked on the stall where she’d hid herself. “We’re sorry,” they said. “Janie’s such a bitch.” So April opened the door and came out. Her friends took turns hugging her, and she wiped her face dry with paper towels. One of the girls said, “You haven’t seen him naked, have you?” which made her laugh.
“No, but you should see his pajamas.” And then she described them, and it was giggles all around until one of them said, “My father wears those,” and everyone else said, “Really?” and the girl said, “What?” and everyone else said their fathers wore tee-shirts or nothing at all—mostly, they concluded, their fathers slept in their underwear. “You mean you see them naked?” someone said, and someone else said, “That’s not naked,” but now they were looking at the floor. “Maybe you will see Franz naked.”
“You wish,” April said, wondering if she really might.
After supper, she and Franz did homework together at the kitchen table. Ben was a lost cause—or a fifth grader, either one. “Only mature people do their homework,” April said when her brother walked through the kitchen, eating a piece of bread and sticking his other hand down his pants.
“Ya,” Franz said. “We are mystery.” It was his costume voice, and April looked back and forth between him and Ben.
“Mature,” April said. “Not mystery.”
“Nein. You are mature. I am mystery.”
“Whatever,” Ben said, taking out another piece of bread and returning to wherever he’d come from. Franz watched him go.
“Hey,” April said. “If I come to visit you, will you show me around?” She carefully put her hand on his arm.
“You?” he said, jerking so quickly that he knocked her hand away. “You will never come to West Germany.”
“Why not?” she asked, even though she knew very well why not. “Maybe you could pack me in your suitcase.” She was kidding, but he shook his head as if it was a serious question.
“You have not flown before, so you do not know. There is no oxygen where the suitcases are. You would die, and then my suitcase would smell.” He went back to his homework. “Maybe you will go to Mexico? It is your neighbor, ya?”
“I’m not going to Mexico,” she said.
“Nein, then you will not go anywhere, I think.”
• • •
There was definitely a connection. Was she dreaming it? She was not. Anyone could see it—okay, so maybe they couldn’t, but she could feel it. Every time they were close, it was like her face was being pulled up toward his, and if she wasn’t careful, she would be pulled onto her toes and her lips would be smashed against his, and he’d wrap his arms around her and she’d wrap her arms around him and they’d spin. It’d probably change both their lives. Then what? If her mom found out, all hell would break loose. Goodbye Franz—can’t have a boy kissing her daughter in her own house. He’d get shipped off to some other family, where he’d be misunderstood and probably run away, get abducted by some creep, have his picture slapped on the back of a milk carton.
For his own good, she wasn’t going to kiss him.
But it was hard. When they watched the evening news before dinner, she couldn’t take her eyes off of him. Was he good looking? Was he attractive? No. Not even close, but things were happening in his part of the world. East Germany had closed its borders with almost all of its neighbors. Even Russia was cut off. The situation could not continue like this. Something was going to happen, and when it did, she would be there for him. No one else could do it. April’s parents tiptoed around the news, asking gingerly, “What do you think, Franz?”
“I think I am Hungarian. Let’s eat.”
Only April laughed, and at dinner she suggested that maybe they didn’t need to watch the news anymore. “I mean,” she said, “if something big happens, we’ll get a call, right? If it affects Franz?”
“Ya,” he said. “The chancellor has your number.”
“You’re not helping,” she said.
And, so, they were watching when the general secretary of East Germany was replaced with a moderate. Everyone looked at Franz, who shrugged. “He is still a communist. Nothing has changed.”
But that night, April heard a noise in the storage room, an empty bedroom upstairs that her parents used the way other people used garages. She crept to the door and saw Franz standing in front of the gun cabinet, pressing the barrel of a shotgun to his cheek. As if on cue, he put the end of the barrel under his chin.
“It’s not loaded,” she said, and he turned toward her and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. “Bang,” he said and laid the gun on top of an old suitcase.
“That’s not funny.”
“Nein. It is so funny. I forgot to laugh.”
April stood in the door. “I’m serious. If something happened to you—” Her voice trembled. “I don’t know what I’d do.”
Franz said, “Call the doctor, I hope. These things,” he nodded at the gun, “they will leave a mark.”
“Oh, Franz,” she cried, holding open her arms, and he sighed and came over and hugged. Then he pushed her away. “It is late,” he said. “Nein nein time.” She laughed so hard that she had to cover up her mouth.
All the next day, April kept waiting for Franz to acknowledge what had happened during the night, if not a heart-to-heart then at least a joke. But he was his usual self, goofing around at lunch, holding his lunch tray upside down and sticking his face up close to it.
“What are you doing?”
“Checking if there is food stuck to the bottom.”
“Because I am hungry.”
People were watching them. April waited for them to go back to their own lives. Of all the people in the room, she alone knew that someone among them had held a gun to his face the previous night. She alone was sitting with a boy whose home country was in the news because people on the other side of a wall were being penned up like hogs. It occurred to her, not suddenly but as if she had understood all along and only now faced up to it, that if there were a way to hide in Franz’s suitcase and sneak out of Kansas, out of America, she would do it. Even if it meant going to West Germany. Or worse.
“Tell me about East Germany,” she said. “Have you ever been there?”
Franz put down the tray and waited for her to realize how stupid her question was. “Right,” she said. “Duh. Of course you haven’t.”
He spun his tray on the table. “My father was born there.” He spoke so softly that she barely heard him.
“You mean your dad got through the wall? How?”
“There are roads.”
This had never occurred to April. “Wait, so people can leave? I thought they were all trapped.”
“Ya, now they are trapped. But in the past, not as much. There were rules. You could leave and not return for 25 years, after your kids were old, your wife was old.”
“That’s what your dad did?”
“And he left his kids there?”
“Then, how did you get out?”
“I didn’t. I was born in West Germany.”
“Then—” And then it dawned on her. “Your dad left and started a new family.”
He patted her hand. “Ya.”
“But what if they change the rules? What if they say he can go back?”
He sat up stiffly, as if some spirit had come into him. “We. Are. The Communist. Party,” he announced loudly. “We. Do not. Change. The rules. Except. When we. Change them. To Help. Us.”
April took his arm in both hands. “Please,” she said. “Don’t do that.” He slumped down onto his elbows, and she asked again, “What if they change the rules?”
“Then he will go back. To his real family.”
“How come they’re the real family? Why aren’t you?”
“Ah,” he said, as if she’d hit on something true and unavoidable. “Poor people are always more real.”
Then he got up, took his tray to the lunch ladies, and went to the restroom, where he stayed until the bell rang. He did not talk to her the rest of the day, except when it was absolutely necessary. During the news, April asked if there was something else on. The news was so depressing, she said, that it made her want to kill herself.
“Don’t say such things,” her mom said, and she shot back, “Why not? People do it, you know. And when they do, I bet their family wishes they’d been a lot nicer to them.”
Her mom sighed. “Because your life is so hard. We’re so mean to you.” And April said, “Yes!” But everyone ignored her, except her dad, who chuckled, and that was not the worst, not even close. The worst was that dinner was served, and they all ate, and everyone of them was alive and always would be, April realized miserably, until they died.
• • •
She was almost asleep when there was a knock at her door. It swung open, and though the hall was dark, she knew it was Franz standing there. His shadow was not like anyone else’s. “Please,” he said. “Come. Read with me.”
“No,” she said and pulled the covers over her head. She didn’t go to sleep, though, and she heard Franz breathing in the doorway for a minute and then shuffle back to his room. Pretty soon, she heard voices, and out of curiosity, she slipped out of bed and eased down the hall, back against the wall. Franz’s door was half open, and she was able to peek through the crack between the hinges. The light was on, and Franz and Ben were lying together on the bed. Books were spread across the quilt, and the boys were sorting through them, reading the covers and flipping through the pages. The books were her old Nancy Drews that she’d gotten in third grade. She kept them under her bed, which meant that someone had sneaked into her room and taken them.
She pushed the door open and pointed at Ben. “Go to bed before I tell Mom and Dad.”
He started to get up, but Franz put his hand on her brother’s shoulder. “Nein, she is not the boss.”
“Ya, but it is early in Germany.”
“Well, this isn’t Germany.” But this did not faze him. “Nein,” he said. “But we can pretend.”
She started gathering up her books. “These are girl books,” she told Ben, and Franz said, “Nein. Books do not have gonads,” which was so funny that it only made her madder, and she threw them back on the bed and said, “Fine. Stay up all night. I don’t care. You can’t hoot all night with the owls and soar with the eagles in the morning.”
“Thanks, Dad,” Ben said, and she felt her ears burning because, of course, they were her father’s words exactly. She didn’t know what had possessed her to say them, and she ran back to bed and did not get out of it again until morning.
• • •
In an alternate world—a West Kansas to her East Kansas—she would never say dumb things, she would always be understood, her feelings would always be reciprocated, and her brother would never have been born. But that wasn’t the case, was it? She only had this world, and her brother lived in it, and at night, he stayed up late reading Nancy Drew novels with the boy she loved. Now, she hated that word and could not even think it—love. Except, of course, it was all she could think about, and she went around, trying to bar the doors to it.
Also, Ben and Franz had started sitting together on the bus.
They were best buds. After school, they went outside and exercised: high knees, push-ups, sit-ups, lunges, crunches, jumping jacks, sprints, agility drills, box jumps. On cool days, they wore jackets until they’d worked up a sweat. On warmer days, they just wore T-shirts, and Ben spent the entire time hitching up his sleeves, until the day—and April wasn’t sure when this day had come—when they decided to take off their shirts. She looked out the window, and there they were, standing on their hands and leaning against a tree for balance. Or, Ben was standing on his hands. Franz had toppled over and was slowly tracing a circle around his belly button.
“Gross,” April said, and her mother heard her and asked, “What’s gross?”
Then she walked into the bathroom and caught Ben staring at himself in the mirror, no shirt, posing and flexing his arms. He immediately dropped his arms and looked around for his shirt, but then he seemed to change his mind. He held up one arm muscle-man style and flexed. “Feel it.”
“Oh god,” she said. “That is so gross. I’m your sister.”
He’d turned red, but the shame didn’t stick. He started taking off his shirt for no reason, not even to look at himself. One day, they walked in the door from school, and he immediately stripped down to his pants and opened the cabinet, searching for crackers or raisins. Their mother walked in and said, “What on earth? Put your shirt on. For god’s sake.”
“What?” he said. “It’s too tight around my neck. It was choking me.”
“Then I will buy you a bigger shirt.”
He opened up a box of Hi-Ho’s. “Why bother?” he said. “I’ll just outgrow it.” Then he put his hands around his neck and pulled them away, holding his palms and fingertips together to show how big around it was. “You see?”
“Wow,” April said. “Why do we even bother buying you clothes?” Franz grinned and said, “Ya.”
She laughed, but then she saw his face. He didn’t even look like himself. He was almost glowing, and she turned and saw her brother blushing. And she understood. “Shut up, Franz,” she said, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, one Saturday afternoon, she went upstairs and noticed that Ben’s bedroom door was mostly shut—though not completely shut—which was weird because why would anyone shut a door to a room they weren’t in? So she peered into the room and caught Ben in bed, flipping through the underwear section of the JCPenney catalogue. She almost laughed and gave herself away, but she kept it together, peering around the corner as he paged through, occasionally holding the thick, awkward book up to his face so that he could study one of the photos. She watched him reach the men’s section and keep going. She watched him pull out the waistband of his pants and look down at himself. It was too much, she couldn’t handle it, but she kept watching as he slid his hand down his pants and then pulled it out again, holding his fingers as if to say, “Okay.” It took her a moment to realize what he was doing, and when she did, she squealed in horror and ran, down the stairs, through the kitchen, out the door, and into the yard where she could guffaw as loud as she wanted. And she did, she laughed hard and loud and it did not make her feel better, not even a little.
At lunch at school on Monday, she had a talk with Franz.
“My brother’s not like you.”
“Can you please be serious? I need you to leave my brother alone.”
“But who will train me to be big and strong?”
“Just—please don’t do anything weird,” she said, and he picked up a handful of French fries and stuffed them into his mouth. “Weird?” he said through them. “Like this?” Then he opened his mouth wide and let the chewed-up fries fall back to his plate.
• • •
“Has Ben,” her mother was looking out the window at the two of them exercising—shirts on, thank god, since it was cold. Her mother was really taking her time. “Has he—” she sighed “—said anything to you about Franz?”
April shook her head and hoped that would be it. They were both seeing the same thing. Ben and Franz high-fived and then got down in sprinters poses before racing out of the frame of the window. They looked like boys. It was possible to believe that’s all it was. But then her mom said, “Did you know that Ben and Franz stay up late reading?”
She pretended to be shocked, and her mom nodded solemnly, her eyes welling up. “I was cleaning your rooms and found a stack of books under Franz’s bed. Hank the Cowdog and your Nancy Drews.”
April was so relieved that she couldn’t hide it. “Well, Ben does love Hank the Cowdog.”
“It’s a kid’s book,” her mom said. “And Nancy Drew?”
“How do you know Franz isn’t reading them by himself?”
“They’re staying up late at night, on Franz’s bed, reading girl books. Do you understand what I’m saying? I had your dad go up there and listen at the door.”
Now April really was shocked. “You did what?”
“You know your father. He just told them it was time to get some sleep. In their own rooms.”
“Did he really say that?”
“And he told me—he came down, and I said, ‘Well?” and you know what he said?” Now she imitated the voice of April’s father. “They’re just reading.” She stopped to dab at her eyes. “Sure, they’re just reading—for now.” Franz and Ben had run back to their spots in the yard and were doing push-ups. “I’m going to say something.”
“Please don’t,” April said.
“Why shouldn’t I?” It wasn’t really a question, but then her mother put one hand to her mouth. “Wait. Are you okay with this?”
In the yard, Franz got down on one knee, and cupped his hands, and then Ben ran right at him, stepped in the hand and jumped, and at the same time, Franz tried to stand up. He was trying to throw Ben. Ben looked like he was trying to do some kind of flip, but they ended up on the ground, rolling and laughing.
April’s mom’s voice was rising out of her control. “Is that how we raised you? To think that that,” she pointed out the window, “is normal?”
April said, slowly, “No, Mom. That never came up.” Then she ran upstairs, slamming the door behind her.
Then it was time for dinner. Hooray, dinner. Her stomach was so knotted that she couldn’t eat, but of course her dad noticed and asked if she was feeling okay. She glanced at her mom before answering. “Fine,” she said. “Perfectly normal. So, how was your day?”
But, her dad didn’t get a chance to answer.
“Franz,” her mom said, “I’ve been meaning to ask: what do you want to be when you grow up?”
Franz had been chewing, and he took his time swallowing. He leaned back into his chair and clasped his hands together.
“I think . . . a lumberjack.”
“Jesus Christ,” April said under her breath, and her dad said, “What did you say?”
“You’d have to be really strong,” Ben said. “Those axes, you know how many times you’d swing one a day? Can you imagine what your arms would look like?” He reached out to feel Franz’s arms.
April’s mother slapped his hand. “Stop it. Now.” Ben put his hands in his lap and mumbled, “Sorry,” but she shot back, “I’m not talking to you.” She glared at Franz, and he became—or maybe he’d been ready for it and had already become—Franz the German. He put one hand on his cheek thoughtfully.
“Cut what out?”
This time it was April’s father who stepped in. “You know what she means.”
Franz made his fingers into scissors. “Cut my hair?
Franz lowered his scissors. Nobody spoke, and so he seemed to decide it was up to him. “I am curious,” he said, looking at her father. “Why are you a farmer?”
It was so unexpected that April’s mom actually laughed. Her dad seemed taken aback. In April’s whole life, she couldn’t remember anyone asking her father this question, and, for a moment, he really seemed to mull it over. Then he smiled and shook his head. “I don’t know, Franz. I guess it’s what I always wanted to be.” He went back to eating. The conversation was over.
Franz said, “Then you did not choose to become a farmer, nein? You did not take two options,” he held them in his empty hands, out to his sides, “weigh them and choose. You are what you always were.”
April fixed her attention on her plate—pointedly looking down so that everyone would she that she had no part of this—but she couldn’t resist peeking, and so she saw her father’s face transform into something she had not seen very often, if ever. He picked up his butter knife and pointed it at Franz. “You’re a smart kid. Too smart for this farmer.” The butter knife remained pointed, and then her dad seemed to realize that he was holding it and he put it down, cleared his throat, and went back to eating. It was a duty that suddenly consumed all of them. When Franz finished, he pushed back his chair. Ben finished a second later and also pushed back his chair, and that’s when April’s mother said, calmly, “Tonight, everyone stays in their rooms. Am I making myself clear?”
Ben and Franz nodded
“No hanky panky,” Franz said, but even he seemed to realize how wrong this was because his voice trailed off.
“And what does that mean?” April’s mom demanded. April tried to stop what was happening. “It means no reading,” she said, and her mother snapped, “No. No reading means no reading. Hanky panky means something else.”
“Mom, he’s German. Who the hell knows what it means.”
Now it was her father’s turn. “Shut your mouth, brush your teeth, and go to bed.”
“At six thirty?” she said, and, at the same time, Ben finally spoke: “How are we supposed to shut our mouths and brush our teeth at the same time?”
Franz burst out laughing.
“Now,” her father roared everyone scattered.
• • •
They went to bed, but sleep was impossible. It was only a quarter of seven. April got up and went into the hall, but the downstairs door immediately opened, and her father told everyone to stay in their room. So she waited until after midnight and then went down the hall and pushed open Franz’s door. He was asleep. She hissed his name, but it was no use. She could have shaken him, but what if he shouted in fear? If her parents awoke, she’d be dead. So she returned to her sleepless misery. In the morning, Franz did not come out of his room, and no one said a word about it all through breakfast. They just looked at one another and didn’t talk. Only when the bus rolled up did Franz show his face, walking silently through the kitchen to the bathroom, combing his hair, and then walking silently out the door and onto the bus. When Ben tried to sit with him, Franz scooted toward the aisle. Ben stood there, lost, until the driver hollered at him, and then he sat next to April, reached into his pocket, and slid out a sandwich bag of Hi-Ho crackers.
“Franz didn’t have any breakfast,” he said, “so I brought these.” He gave the crackers to her. “Can you hold them? In case he gets hungry in class?”
She held the crackers like they were someone’s dirty Kleenex. Ben said, “What?” and what, really, was she supposed to do? What was next? Passing notes for him the way girls did in school? Whispering through the door of Franz’s bedroom where they were reading together, “Don’t worry guys. I’ll cover for you”? She couldn’t do it. Wasn’t sure it was even the right thing to do. So she decided on the least thing: don’t be mean. She took the crackers and, when she got off the bus and walked into school, tossed them in the trash.
That night, she went into Ben’s room, patted the covers until she found his hand, and said to the back of his head, which was all he was giving her, “You want to tell me anything?” He shook his head. But when she started to leave, he asked, “Did he eat the crackers?”
It was so sweet and pitiful, just like the girls passing notes. “Yes,” she said. “He was so happy to get them. He said to be sure to tell you thank you.”
“He really said that?”
It was her chance to back out. Instead, she said, “Yep.”
She’d had this same kind of conversation with friends: Should I ask him out? Should I? Should I really? It never ended. There was no assurance you could give that would be enough and, of course, they didn’t believe you for good reason: you’d never had a boyfriend, either, so what did you know? She ruffled the hair on his head. “When we get home tomorrow, just do what you always do—go outside, run around with your shirts off—and see what happens.”
“What about Mom?”
It was shaping up to be too easy.
“I’ll take care of her.”
• • •
At lunch, she told Franz that he looked skinnier. “All that exercise you’re doing with Ben is paying off.”
“Nein, I do not pay for it. It is free.” She was about to tell him to come off of it, but then he straightened up and shouted, “I will not pay for it, April. Nein. Never.” So she let it go.
All the way home, she felt sick, and when the three of them walked in the door, her mom was sitting at the table. “Sit down. I have some news for you.” April had no plan for this.
“Hey Ben,” she said. “Aren’t you guys going to go outside today?”
He didn’t answer. He was looking at her, confused, and so was her mother. Franz was his usual unreadable self. Finally, their mother took a deep breath and folded her hands.
“East Germany is opening up the crossings in the Berlin Wall. Your dad heard on the radio. Bob Dole said it was a good thing. The president talked about it.” She looked at Franz and blinked away tears. “It’s happening, and I can’t tell you how happy I am for you.”
He just sat there.
“Do you understand what I’m saying? It means—”
“Ya, I know.”
At 5:30, they watched Tom Brokaw stand in front of the wall. People were sitting on it, being sprayed by fire hoses from the other side. Men were passing a bottle of champagne around, holding it with one hand and taking swigs. “Do you know them?” Ben asked.
“Nein,” Franz said, and that night, he did not shut his bedroom door when he went in. April saw the light and checked on it and saw him writing a letter. “Hey,” she said, but he didn’t turn to look at her. He couldn’t be bothered. She went into Ben’s room and sat on the floor by his bed. “You okay?” she asked, and he shook his head. “Look,” she said. “It’s been a crazy few months. I know it seems hard now, but things will go back to normal sooner than you think.”
“Leave me alone.”
Just like a girl, she thought, and she said, “You don’t have to make this about you. You know what this means for him? His dad’s going to leave him.”
Ben shuddered and, in a strangled voice, said, “I know.”
• • •
The next day, Franz had a ticket to Berlin. The exchange people had called during the night, and when April came downstairs, Franz was finishing breakfast. His suitcases were along the wall. Ben came down not long after and saw the suitcases and went into the bathroom and didn’t come out until he heard their father come home, clap his hands once, and say, “Okay, Franz, you ready to go?”
Franz picked up his suitcases. “Ya.”
That is when Ben showed his face again. He hadn’t been crying—April was watching closely. He seemed fine. He did not tug on his sleeves or push them up. He just shook Franz’s hand—which meant Franz had to put down one suitcase, though not both—and said, “Have a good trip.”
“Ya,” Franz said. “You, too.”
Then he shook her hand, and she hugged him. He didn’t let go of the suitcase, which meant she had to push it aside with her knee, but it was too heavy, so it seemed like she was trying to wrap her leg around him. So he pushed her away. “Nein,” he said.
Then he was gone.
• • •
It must have been a month later—maybe only a couple of weeks. Maybe longer. April and Ben were outside. The weather had been cold and drizzly, but now the sun was shining, and he was leaping onto a box and then back to the ground while she read a book in a lawn chair. The whole yard, and they’d chosen to stay within almost an arm’s reach of each other.
April said, “You ever wonder what happened to Franz? If his dad really left?”
Ben bent over with his hands on his knees, catching his breath.
“Yeah,” he said. “All the time.” Then he took a deep breath and went back to jumping.
Michael Noll is the author of The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction. He edits the craft-of-writing blog, Read to Write Stories, and works as the Program Director for the Writer’s League of Texas, where he moderates the Writers’ League of Texas podcast. His stories have appeared in various journals and in the 2016 Best American Mystery Stories anthology. He is at work on a novel.