By Irmgard Keun
Paperback, 176 pages
List Price: $16
Gerti wanted to have one more vermouth. She suddenly looked dead and drained. The way a woman looks when she's been waiting with all her might, waiting and longing, and all for nothing. Gerti did not want to buy a pink blouse any more, and anyway there wouldn't have been enough money left. We decided to go home without the blouse. It was five in the afternoon. There was turmoil around the Opera House. People, and swastika flags, and garlands of fir, and SS men. The place was in confusion, all excited preparations, much like preparations for the handing out of Christmas presents in a prosperous family with quantities of children. You get used to feverish celebrations of something or other going on all the time in Germany, so that you often don't stop to ask what it is this time, why all the fuss and the garlands and the flags?
Suddenly we felt cold. We were in a hurry to get home. But the SS wouldn't let us cross the Opera House Square to get to the Bockenheim Road. We asked why not; what was going on? But the SS are always arrogant and inclined to put on airs. This lot had nothing better to do than stand around, but they still couldn't find time to answer us. Possibly their minds were working away so frantically that they could only manage to give a contemptuous shrug of their military shoulders.
Gerti's eyes went dark as coal with rage. I know her in that mood: it makes her dangerous, and then of course she's the greatest danger of all to herself. So I asked one of the SS men again, sweet as sugar, very humbly, as if I thought he was one of the greatest rulers of Germany — well, that's the way men like a girl to treat them.
So then the SS man said the Führer would be coming down the Mainz Road to the Opera House at eight. If we wanted to get to the other side of the square we'd have to go round. Yes, of course the Führer was coming! How could I have forgotten? After all, little Berta Silias was due to break through the crowd with flowers, and Frau Silias had talked of nothing else for days.
It was beginning to rain. People were gathering in the square, more and more of them all the time. It looked quite dangerous, as if they'd crush each other to death. Everyone wanted to see something, some of them may not even have known what there would be to see, but all the same they were risking their lives.
Possibly the Führer thought, afterwards, that the people had come flocking up out of love for him. No, being the Führer he'll be too clever to think that. Thousands more people join the carnival parade in Cologne, and clamber up on lampposts and high rooftops, breaking arms, legs, anything — they don't mind. It's just a kind of sport: they're proud to have got a good viewpoint, so they can say, and believe, they were in the carnival. And classy people always want to have been at something classy — like Press balls and first nights. But as those things cost a lot of money, there isn't usually such a dangerous crush as in the enormous crowds of people who don't have any money and can only go to shows that don't cost them anything.
We reached the Mainz Road. It was officially lined the whole way down by SA men, who always look broader than usual on these important occasions. Mostly they don't have anything much to do these days, and go about looking as if they've shrunk a bit. Kurt Pielmann and Herr Kulmbach, for instance, resent the fact that there isn't a campaign on any more. Today, however, they could form an imposing cordon, which puts new life into them.
A thin, grey man with a bicycle was going on angrily about not being allowed through. He had finally got a new job, he said, and he had to be on time. Unpunctuality could mean bad trouble for him. And even if his employers did realize he couldn't help being late, they might still be angry with him. Life's nearly always like that: you put difficulties in a person's way, and a slight aura of something dubious and unpleasant still clings to him whether it is his fault or not. "Look, be reasonable, will you?" a fairly high-up SA man, drinking coffee from his flask, told the thin, grey cyclist. "Don't bleat on like that! Just you be thankful to the Führer for his high ideals!"
"That's right," said the thin, grey man, "the Führer gets to have the ideals and we get to carry the can." His voice was trembling; you could tell his nerves were worn to a shred. The people who'd heard him were struck dumb with alarm, and the SA man went red in the face and could scarcely get his breath back. All at once the grey man looked utterly broken, extinguished. Three SA men led him away. He didn't put up a struggle.
His bicycle was lying on the ground. People stood around it in a circle, staring in nervous silence. It shone dully in the rain, and had a subversive look about it; nobody dared touch it. Then a fat woman made an angry face, flung her arm up in the air in the salute of the Führer, said, "Disgusting!" and kicked the bicycle. Several other women kicked it too. And then the cordon opened and let us through.
Excerpted from After Midnight by Irmgard Keun. Copyright 2011 by Irmgard Keun. Excerpted by permission of Melville House.