Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Old Man and the African - story

As I find what is going on politically to be so completely stupid I am finding it difficult to even discuss it. So here is a short story I neglected to include back when I was doing such things.

The Old Man and the African

Two men were already assigned to the room when the African came; so he was put in the only remaining bed, the middle one.

The bed on the left as he lay there looking at the institutional green walls was by far the best; it was nearest the two fine corner windows where the writing table was located. It was empty at the moment but the assigned occupant had obviously been there for some time as there were several vases of flowers, some fresher than others, and innumerable books, magazines, clothes, and other personal possessions, all placed with care in tidy piles. Nothing was out of order.

The bed on his right, nearest the door, was occupied by an old man who, although lying there in his bathrobe with his eyes open watching, said nothing. An oxygen tank with a mask stood nearby. The African ignored him as he went about putting away the items he had brought for what he knew was an indeterminate stay, mostly computer books and magazines, clothes, and toilet articles. As he had no pajamas he simply stripped off his shirt, shoes and stockings, and lay there barefooted in his undershirt and loud checkered trousers. He had almost dozed off when the door opened and a sad looking slightly effeminate man entered. His clothes, although clean and neatly pressed, were too large for him.

"Hello," he said, as he made his way to the bed by the windows, "you just came in, huh?" He was very German with a Swabish accent, a mustache, and even in his too-large clothes, a still prominent belly. He had a strange crazed look in his blue eyes as if he were chronically frightened. "What's wrong with you?" he asked as he began to undress.

"Oh, nothing much," the African replied. "They say I have pancreatitis. But I don't feel very sick. I'm only in here for observation. Apparently it shows up in my blood and they have to put me on a diet and do more tests."

"I've been here for ten weeks," the German said, pulling his short pajama bottoms on over his underwear.

"Ten weeks! I never heard of anyone being in the hospital for ten weeks. It must cost a fortune. What's wrong?"

"Heart. Heart trouble. I have heart trouble. They're keeping me here on a strict diet. I weighed 120 kilos when I came, now I'm down to just over a hundred. I couldn't even bend over when I first came." He sounded proud of himself. "It only costs 15 marks a day above what the insurance pays. I live alone since my wife left me. That was five years ago, so I might as well be here as not." Then, pointing to the old man, he went on, "He just came in two days ago. He's a heart patient too."

The African looked at the old man lying there still awake listening to them. He looked distinguished even on his hospital bed with his beautiful thick white hair and a carefully kept walrus mustache. A heavy wooden cane hung by its handle from the chest at the head of his bed. He had neither moved nor spoken since the African arrived and he said nothing now although he was obviously aware of what was happening.

"You live here in Stuttgart?" the German went on.

"Yes, West Stuttgart," the African replied.

"You work here? What do you do?"

"I have a degree in engineering but I don't work as an engineer. I work with computers at Daimler Benz."

"Oh," the German said, looking even more unhappy than when he arrived, "one of those foreigners that come here and take all our jobs." He looked as if he might cry.

The African looked at him, started to speak, but then said nothing.

"Computers, too," the German continued, "they're going to eliminate even more jobs. Pretty soon there won't be anything left for us Germans. You foreigners should all go back where you came from. You know, we don't dislike foreigners, but Germany is a small country and there's lots of unemployment now. And all these new computers are going to make it worse." His crazy light blue eyes darted randomly around the room, looking everywhere except directly at the black man.

"Why should I leave?" the African responded with irritation. "I've lived in Stuttgart for 13 years. I went to the university here. I have a good job, a car. I own my own apartment. I pay taxes." Then suddenly deciding to take the offensive he said, "And you, what do you do?"

"I work in a warehouse," the German replied, "I'm a foreman," he continued proudly. "I've worked there for twenty years. Twenty years. I started when I was eighteen years old, just when the war ended, and I've been there ever since. There wasn't hardly anything to store when I first started, you know. I was in the army. They wanted to send me to the front but by then it was too late. The war was over. I worked in a motor pool, taking care of trucks, helping to service them, wash them, that sort of thing..."

It was apparent that the strange fellow just wanted to talk, no matter what. He continued babbling on about the motor pool oblivious to the fact that he was being ignored. The African was relieved when the nurse entered to interrupt.

"You are settled in alright?" she asked the African, smiling and fussing needlessly with his bedclothes.

"Oh yes, I'm fine," he said, "thank you."

After glancing briefly at the other two occupants and ignoring an opening question put to her by the German the nurse

left the room. The black man picked up a computer magazine and pretended to read, turning his back to the garrulous roommate. He was surprised by the size of the old man when he slowly rose from his bed, took his cane, and walked with effort from the room, stiffly erect and with dignity.

It was 24 hours before the old man spoke. Then, while the African was eating his broth, all he was allowed, the old man addressed him gruffly, "Do they eat with spoons in Africa?"

Having been forced to listen most of the day to the crazy German's monologues, the African's patience had grown thin. "No," he said, "we all live in trees like monkeys and eat bananas."

The old man looked at him with surprise, then with a loud grunt fell silent again.

"You have to excuse him," the talkative German immediately volunteered, "he says all kinds of things like that. He doesn't know what he's talking about." The African shrugged and turned back in dismay to his thin soup.

After a while the old man, apparently feeling stronger, sat up in his bed and asked, "Do they wear any clothes?"

"Does who wear any clothes?"

"In Africa. Do they have clothes there? I've never been to Africa."

The African couldn't believe it. He thought the old man was deliberately baiting him. "No, we don't have clothes," he said, "we run around naked all the time." He looked at the other German questioningly but with a delightfully impish grin on his face.

"I told you," the apologetic German said, "that old man is ignorant. He doesn't know anything. He's never been out of Germany. And he was in the war, you know, on the front. Maybe that's what's wrong with him. I apologize. As a German, I must apologize. I'm sorry we have such uninformed people."

"Is that true?" the African asked, turning back to the old man, "were you on the front during the war?"

"Yes," the old man replied very deliberately, staring with displeasure at his countryman, "on the Russian front. In those days it was better to be on the front than here. At least we had water and food. There wasn't anything here. It was all bombed."

The African had lived in Germany long enough to know that saying you had been on the Russian front was also a subtle way of indicating you had not been a Nazi. It was commonly believed that Nazis, especially good Nazis, were never assigned to combat.

"How long were you there? On the front, I mean?"

"Two years I survived there," the old man said, "two years. Then I came back here. There was nothing but rubble. Everything was destroyed. But we went to work and rebuilt it. I got a good job selling paint and painting supplies. I made a lot of money. Now I live in a wonderful house. I have a summer house on the Bodensee, a nice car, everything."

"You were lucky, eh, old man? Not many came back from the Russian front."

"Yes, I was very fortunate both during the war and after," the old man said seriously. Then he turned over, closing the conversation. In a short time he was asleep.

The African, not wanting to encourage further conversation with the other German whom he now regarded as daft, sat on his bed facing the old man. The face was heavily lined even in relaxed sleep, with deep vertical wrinkles that came down from the forehead to above the eyes. They were intersected by shallower but far more numerous horizontal lines that extended clear across the broad forehead. The nose was prominent but made less noticeable by the strength of the chin and jaw. It was a good strong honest German face. As he studied it with care the African saw vast expanses of cold, windswept snow covered fields extending beyond the horizon. The fields were littered with grotesque frozen corpses. Abandoned tanks, trucks, and artillery pieces were everywhere. As far as one could see in every direction there was devastation, misery and eerie silence. Then columns of dejected staggering black figures appeared, their feet wrapped in rags, dragging their meager remaining possessions behind them. Overhead were angry dark clouds with death hovering within...waiting. "I wonder what private memories are hidden there, behind that face," the African wondered. "How many did he kill? What horrors did he see? How did he manage to survive? What did he think about it all?" He tried to sleep, thinking gratefully, "They're his memories, not mine."

The compulsive talker had been up since daybreak and had made his own bed. He made it much neater than the nurses did. He was waiting for the African to wake.

"Did you sleep well?" he inquired pleasantly, preparing to talk for the rest of the day.

"No, I didn't sleep well. You snore too loud. I hardly slept at all. And when you stopped snoring, he started. It was awful."

"Oh, I'm sorry. I'll try not to snore anymore. But he snores all the time. I apologize."

At the sound of their voices the old man turned towards them indicating he was awake.

"Did you sleep well old man?" the German asked. "Are you alright?"

The old veteran sat up very slowly, yawning and not answering. He put on his expensive robe with difficulty and left the room.

"Are you married?" the German inquired. Then without waiting for an answer he volunteered, "I was married for five years but then my wife left me. I don't know why she left, but one day she just left. I've lived alone ever since. That was five, no six years ago. I don't..."

The African, taking his cue from the old man, slipped his bare feet into his shoes and left the room while the lonely divorcee was in mid sentence.

Later, at breakfast, the old man watched the African closely for a time and then asked, "what do they eat for breakfast in Africa? I've heard they eat snakes and worms and all kinds of things like that."

"People," the African replied without hesitation. "We eat people there. Whenever we get hungry we run out and grab one of our neighbors and eat him. You'd better watch out old man, that's what might happen to you." The African had a marvelously radiant smile which he turned full force on the old man who, totally unembarrassed, continued to stare at him.

"Oh, you just have to pay no attention to him," the younger German said. "I apologize for him again. He's ignorant and just doesn't know any better."

"Why are you always apologizing for him?" the African snapped. "He's not a child. He knows what he's doing. What affair is it of yours what he does? Why don't you mind your own business for once? And be quiet. You talk too much."

The German was momentarily speechless, but only momentarily. Then he said, "Oh, I'm sorry. I apologize. I know I talk too much. People have told me I talk too much. Perhaps that is why my wife left me. Please accept my apology. I will try not to talk so much from now..."

The old man looked at the African's face intently, almost affectionately, neither of them hearing whatever it was the third man continued to prattle about. "I'd like to go to Africa someday," he said. "Do you think I could go there?"

"Sure, old man, of course you can go. You've got plenty of money, you can go wherever you want."

The old man lay back on his bed breathing heavily and then turned to face the door, waiting for his wife who came faithfully for an hour every day.

The old man's wife had never been in the same room with a black man before. When she heard the African telling her husband about how they circumcised the young boys with stone knives, excised their front teeth, cut them with bamboo knives and rubbed ashes in the wounds, and that all had a dozen or more wives, she almost fainted.

"Why do you tell him those terrible things?" she demanded. "He's sick. You shouldn't tell him those things. It will only upset him."

"Why does he ask, then?" the African replied. "He's old enough to know what he wants. If he doesn't want to know it

doesn't matter to me."

The old man nodded almost imperceptibly. "When I get well I'm going to make a trip to Africa," he announced to his distraught wife. She frowned and looked at the African with accusatory displeasure.

There was little privacy in the hospital. Although he made no attempt to overhear, the African could not help but learn more and more about the old gentleman. He sympathized as the old man complained to his wife that his children didn't visit him.

"They only come to see me when they want money," he railed. "They come to the house and I give them 5000 marks and they disappear until the next time. They're parasites. Bloodsuckers. Ingrates. They don't care about me. It's just the money they want. Always money."

"Of course they like you, dear, but they're very busy. I'm sure they would like to come but they have so many other things to do, especially with working and the children in school and all."

When the old man complained about his grandchildren the African listened with empathy and indignation.

"I don't want any of them to come to dinner anymore," the old man inveighed. "They come and play that awful music and talk nonsense and eat everything in sight and they don't even bother to help you with the dishes. And they're so destructive, running about and breaking things. Why don't they have any manners? When I was a child children knew their place. Now they just run wild like little savages. I don't want you to have them anymore. Tell them they're not welcome in our house and we'd thank them to stay away."

"Now dear, don't get so worked up. They're just children, you know. Children have to run and play. They don't think to help out."

"Well, what do they think of? They certainly go to school long enough to think about something. They stay in school these days forever, just going on and on, and what for? They never do any work. They're lazy. They just stay in school so they don't have to work. When I was a boy I didn't go to school...just for the first four years and I had to work even then. I got up early and I had one piece of black bread and a glass of milk. Black bread! We never had white bread. Then I went to school and after school I worked in a foundry. Six days a week I worked in that foundry. For that I got two marks a week. Two marks!"

"Yes dear, I know, but school is much more important now than it was when you were a boy," his wife commented, trying to calm him. "Especially with all the unemployment now." She frowned at the African as she reached out and touched her husband gently on the knee. He could see she was genuinely fond of him.

"Foreigners!" the old man started a new theme. "I don't know where they all come from. Why don't the authorities send them all back where they belong? They're all getting fresh, too, like it's their country instead of ours. You can't even get a seat on the bus anymore without some foreigner in your way. Did I tell you what that wretched Italian woman did to me on the bus last week?"

"Yes dear, you told me. Please try to calm down. You let yourself get too excited about everything. You've got to take it easy."

"It was a terrible mistake, bringing all these foreigners here," the old man continued without pause. "They're going to take over if we don't watch out. We should send every one of them back to wherever they came from."

The wife's visit inevitably stimulated a diatribe indiscriminate in its condemnation of everything and everyone, as well as of the past, present and future. The African soon came to expect the recurrent scene and realized how foolish it was to take it personally. Each time by the end of her visit the poor woman was wringing her hands and trying her best to calm the old fellow down. She was so gentle and patient with the difficult old man the African could not help but admire her.

The days passed slowly in excruciating boredom, especially for the restless black who felt perfectly healthy. The compulsive talker had taken to going out afternoons, with permission, of course, having sworn he would not eat and would drink absolutely nothing but water. The old man and the African were left more and more together. Although they mostly ignored each other, occasionally one or the other would forget and initiate a conversation.

"Don't worry, I certainly wouldn't marry your daughter," the black man said when the old man asked if he'd marry a white woman, "you'd have a heart attack and die."

"You black people can't stand the cold here in the northern hemisphere anyway," the old man went on, "that's another reason you should be glad to go back to Africa. You weren't made for this northern climate, that's why you don't do well here."

"What do you mean we don't do well here? What about Joe Louis? Jesse Owens? Mohammed Ali? They all did pretty well. I'm doing fine here myself. That's all bunk, all that stuff about the climate."

These conversations were remarkably free of animosity. The old man wasn't entirely sure of himself. The African, although often upset at the old man's ignorance, respected his age and condition, watched his language, and tried to make the best of an awkward situation.

"Did you see this about the Americans?" the old man asked. "The American president wants to visit a German war cemetery to mark the fortieth anniversary of the war. But lots of people

don't want him to do it. They're protesting by marching in the streets. That's the Jews again, see. Americans and Germans get along fine until the Jews cause trouble. They're always meddling in everything, keeping things stirred up. It's always been like that, ever since I can remember."

"Yes, and the whole world would be a lot better off if the Germans hadn't meddled with everything. You Germans are a fine bunch to complain about other people." The African spoke very matter-of-factly. He didn't want to fight with the old man but he couldn't let the remark pass either.

"You don't understand," the old man said. "You foreigners come here and you think you know everything about Germany. You should all go back to Africa or wherever you came from and leave us alone. If Hitler had won the war you wouldn't be here, you know. I'd be in charge of a big piece of territory in the east and we wouldn't have any foreigners telling us what to do."

"Germany for Germans, huh? I guess we've heard all that before. That's what you tried to do with the Jews, send them away...before you murdered them all, that is. Oh I'd be here all right. I'd be a slave. I guess that's what you Germans really want, slaves."

The old man stared at the African for almost a full minute either unwilling or unable to reply. Then he closed his paper, rose slowly from the table and made his way painfully out of the room. The African saw him later that afternoon, still sitting alone in a corner of the lounge, staring out the window at the city below.

"Do you remember when I went to that meeting in Dusseldorf?" the old man asked his wife. "When all of the sales representatives from all over Germany were there? When they gave me the award for being the best salesman of the year? Everyone was there. We all sat around in this huge room and everyone had to tell who he was and where he was from. I was the oldest person there. But I was the best that year by far. As everyone got up to speak he had to tell about where he had gone to school and what degrees he had and so on. Of course I hadn't been to school to speak of, but when my turn came I got up and said, "I went to a higher school than any of you -- it was on the fourth floor." Everyone laughed. They thought that was a good joke. They gave me the award, a plaque. I still have it you know, hanging there at home."

"Yes dear, of course I remember," his wife said patiently, "I was so proud of you."

"I made a lot of money, didn't I? A lot of money. The children don't understand what a difference that makes. They don't know what it was like to be poor. They've had it easy all their lives and they don't understand. They don't understand about the war, either. Either they think I was a monster and I went around killing people like a gangster, that I wanted to do it, or else they think I was too weak to resist, that I was afraid to speak up. In either case they have no respect for me. It's been like that ever since they were old enough to go to school. When I tried to explain to them that I was just a soldier, that I had no choice, that I had to do my duty, they didn't...haven't ever believed me. They have no idea what it was like...no idea at all. They don't respect me, that's the trouble. That's why they only come for the money. They respect that all right. Money. These young people have no respect for us, for those of us who fought in the war...a losing war. If we had won think how different it would be. Oh, yes, it would be different now. Then they'd look up to us. You bet. Then they'd respect and they'd pay attention to what we said. Yes, if Hitler had won the war things would certainly be different."

"Please, dear, don't talk about the war. That's all past now, over." She looked nervously at the African who was sitting on his bed reading. "Children now are different that's all. They live in a different world entirely. You shouldn't blame them for being confused. Those were such terrible times. They could never understand. You just have to put it all out of your mind. It was so long ago. And it just upsets you anyway."

"But they're so arrogant! They think they know everything and they don't know anything. They won't even listen. Oh, they

listen all right when they want money! That's all you ever hear from them...money, money. I don't understand what Germany is coming to. The country has been split in two. No one seems to care. The foreigners are everywhere. No one does anything about it. Young people have no respect for their elders. I tell you, we're in for harder times if things don't change soon!"

"Please dear, you're getting too excited. Please calm down. Please sit there and rest and don't talk for a while. I'll just sit here with you until you feel better." She took him by the arm, concerned as he had started to breathe with obvious difficulty. She guided him from where they had been sitting at the table towards his bed. The African had tried not to listen but was of course aware of the conversation. He put down his book and watched as the old woman tried to coax the old man into bed. She patted where she wanted him to sit but when he finally made it there the old man fell over onto his side with his legs still hanging down. He was too heavy for the frail old woman so the African went to help, gently raising the old man's legs and placing them on the bed. They both became alarmed when his breathing seemed to be getting worse.

"You'd better call the nurse," the African commanded. "I'll stay with him."

The old woman was pale with fright. She nodded and quickly left the room, walking as fast as she could. At the same moment the old man went into convulsions, groaned in pain, and began to roll off the bed. The African held him firmly with both arms and maneuvered himself onto the bed anchoring the old man as best he could.

"The doctor is coming," the nurse reported, as she entered hurriedly followed by the tiny frightened old woman. The African was sitting on the old man's bed cradling the massive white head against his chest, moisture welling in his eyes.

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