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|Publisher:||The Overlook Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
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I WAS BORN IN VIENNA on March 25, 1927, Johannes Ewald Detlef Betzler, a fat, bald baby boy from what I saw in my mother's photo albums. Going through the pages, it was always fun guessing from the arms alone if it was my father, mother or sister who was holding me. It seems I was like most babies: I smiled with all my gums, took great interest in my little feet and wore prune jam more than I ate it. I loved a pink kangaroo twice my size that I troubled to drag around but didn't love the cigar someone stuck in my mouth, or so I conclude because I was crying.
I was as close to my grandparents as to my parents — that is, my father's parents. I never actually met my grandparents on my mother's side, Oma and Opa, as they were buried in an avalanche long before I was born. Oma and Opa were from Salzburg and were known far afield as great hikers and cross-country skiers. It was said that Opa could recognize a bird from its song alone, and a tree from the sound of its leaves moving in the wind, without opening his eyes. My father also swore that Opa could, so I know my mother wasn't exaggerating. Every kind of tree had its own particular whisper, he said Opa once told him. My mother talked about her parents enough for me to grow to know and love them well. They were somewhere up there with God, watching me from above and protecting me. No monster could hide under my bed and grab my legs if I had to go to the toilet in the middle of the night, nor could a murderer tiptoe up to me as I slept to stab me in the heart.
We called my grandfather on my father's side "Pimbo," and my grandmother "Pimmi" followed by the suffix chen, which signifies "dear little" in German — affection having the curious side effect of shrinking her some. These were just names my sister had made up when she was little. Pimbo first set eyes on Pimmichen at a ball, one of the typical fancy Viennese ones where she was waltzing with her handsome fiancé in uniform. The fiancé went to get some Sekt and my grandfather followed to tell him how beautiful his future wife was; only to be told that he was her brother, after which Pimbo didn't let him in for another dance. Great Uncle Eggert sat twiddling his thumbs because, compared with his sister, all the other ladies were plain. When the three of them were leaving, my grandfather led the others to the Benz motorwagon parked just behind the carriages, and resting his arm on the back of the open seat as though he were the owner, he looked up at the sky dreamily and said, "A pity there's only room for two. It's such a nice evening, why don't we walk instead?" Pimmichen was courted by two fine matches in Vienna society, but married my grandfather thinking he was the most handsome, witty, charming of all, and wealthy enough. Only the latter he wasn't. He was in truth what even the bourgeoisie would call poor as a church mouse, especially after the expenses he suffered taking her to the finest restaurants and opera houses in the months prior to their marriage, compliments of a bank loan. But this was only a white lie, because a week before he'd met her he'd opened with the same bank loan a small factory that produced irons and ironing boards, and he became wealthy enough after some years of hard work. Pimmichen liked to tell us how lobster and champagne transformed to sardines and tap water the day after their wedding.
Ute, my sister, died of diabetes when she was four days short of twelve. I wasn't allowed to go in her room when she was giving herself her insulin shots, but one time, hearing my mother tell her to use her thigh if her abdomen was sore, I disobeyed and caught her with her green Tracht pulled up past her stomach. Then one day she forgot to give herself her shot when she came back from school. My mother asked if she had, and she said Ja, ja, but with the endless shots her response had grown into more of a refrain than a confirmation.
Sadly, I remember her violin more than I do her, the glazed back with ribbed markings, the pine smell of the resin she rubbed on the bow, the cloud it made as she began to play. Sometimes she let me try, but I wasn't allowed to touch the horsehairs, that would make them turn black, or tighten the bow like she did, or it could snap, or turn the pegs, because a string could break, and I was too little to take all that into account. If I was lucky enough to get as far as drawing the bow across the strings to emit a noise that delighted only me, I could count on her and her pretty friend bursting into laughter and my mother calling me to help her with some chore she couldn't manage without her brave four-year-old. "Johannes! My sweet little Jo?" I gave it a last try but could never move the bow straight the way Ute showed me; and it ended up touching the bridge, the wall, someone's eye. The violin was wrenched from my hands and I was escorted out the door, despite my enraged wailing. I remember the pats on the head I got before Ute and her friend, in a fit of giggles, shut the door and resumed their practice session.
The same photographs of my sister stood on the side table of our living room until one by one, with the passing years, most of my memories were absorbed into these poses. It became hard for me to make them move or live or do much other than smile sweetly and unknowingly through the peripeteias of my life.
Pimbo died of diabetes less than two years after Ute, at the age of sixty-seven, though he had never been, to his knowledge, diabetic. When he was recuperating from pneumonia the disease had arisen from a dormant state, after which his sorrow was incurable, for he felt he was the cause of my sister's death by having passed it on to her. My parents said he simply let himself die. By then Pimmichen was already seventy-four years old and we didn't want her to struggle on her own, therefore we took her in. At first, she wasn't at all fond of the idea because she felt that she would be intruding on us; and she reassured my parents at breakfast every morning that she wouldn't bother them long ... but this didn't reassure them or me as none of us wished for her to die. Every year was to be Pimmichen's last, and every Christmas, Easter and birthday my father would lift his glass in the air, blinking his moist eyes, and say that this might be the last year we were all together to celebrate this occasion. Instead of believing more in her longevity as the years went by, we strangely believed in it less and less.
Our house, one of the older stately ones painted that Schönbrunner yellow common in Austria, was in the sixteenth district, called Ottakring, on the western outskirts of Vienna. Even though it was within the city limits, we were partially surrounded by forests, Schottenwald and Gemeindewald, and partially by grassy fields. When we came home from central Vienna it always felt as if we lived in the countryside rather than a capital city. This said, Ottakring was not considered one of the best districts to live in; on the contrary, it was, with Hernals, one of the worst. Its bad reputation had come about because the portion of it that extended towards the city was inhabited by what our elders would call the wrong sort of people, which I think meant they were poor, or did whatever one does not to remain poor. But luckily we lived far away from all that. From the windows of our house we could not actually see the hills covered with vineyards, famed for the fruity Weißwein they'd produce after the grapes spent a summer of basking in the sun; still, if we took our bicycles we would be zigzagging along the roads just below them in a matter of minutes. What we could spot from our windows was our neighbors' houses, three of them, in old gold or hunter green, the most-used alternatives to Schönbrunner yellow.
After my grandfather's death, it was my father who ran the factory. He had the necessary experience because when Pimbo was the director my father had worked under him, supervising the workers. My mother warned my father of the dangers of the firm getting too big; nevertheless, he decided to merge the company with Yaakov Appliances, which was not bigger than Betzler Irons but was exporting all over the world, bringing in impressive profits. My father argued that 100 percent of zero was zero, whereas any way you looked at it, a thin wedge of a lot was more. He was satisfied with his partnership, and soon Yaakov & Betzler was exporting its modernized irons and home appliances to strange lands. My father bought a globe and, after dinner one night, showed me Greece, Romania and Turkey. I imagined Greeks and Romans (I thought Romans were what one called the people who lived in Romania) and Turks in stiffly ironed tunics.
Two incidents from my early childhood stand out, although these moments were neither the happiest nor saddest in those early years. They were superlatives of nothing really, and yet they are the ones my memory has chosen to preserve. My mother was rinsing a salad and I saw it first — a snail housed among the leaves — and with a flick of the hand she threw it in the rubbish. We had several bins, one of which was for rinds, peelings and eggshells, which she buried in our garden. I was afraid the snail would be smothered as it could get quite juicy in there. My mother wouldn't let me have a dog or cat because she was allergic to animal hair, so after some begging on my part and some hesitation on hers, she, with a queasy look on her face, consented to my keeping the snail on a dish. She was as sweet as mothers get. A day didn't go by without me feeding my snail lettuce. It grew bigger than any snail I ever saw — as big as my fist. Well, almost. It poked its head out of its shell when it heard me coming, swayed its body and moved its antennae at me, all this of course at its own slow rhythm.
One morning I came downstairs to find my snail was gone. I didn't have to look far to find it and after detaching it from the wall, I put it back on its dish. This became a habit and every night it escaped and went farther so that I would spend the onset of my day looking for and detaching it from table legs, the Meissen porcelain on display, the wallpaper or someone's shoe. I was running late for school one of these mornings, hence my mother said I could look for it after breakfast if I had enough time. Just as she said this, she set the tray down on the bench, and we both heard the crunch. She turned the tray over and there was my snail, all broken to bits. I was too old to cry the way I did — I didn't even stop when my father came running, thinking I'd got myself with the carving knife. He was sorry he couldn't help because he had to leave for work, so my mother promised to fix the snail for me. I was in such a state, she finally conceded I didn't have to go to school.
I ran for the glue to stick the pieces of shell back together, but my mother feared the glue would seep through and poison the snail. She thought it best that we kept it moist with drops of water; all the same within an hour my poor pal had shrunk to something miserable. At that stage Pimmichen suggested we go to Le Villiers, a French delicatessen in Albertina Platz, to buy a pack of escargot shells. We rushed back and left a new shell on its dish, but nothing happened — my snail wouldn't come out of the old one. Eventually we helped the withered bit of life into the new shell, with fragments sticking to its back. After another two days of care and grief it was clear my pet was dead. If I took its death harder than I had my sister's and grandfather's, it was only because I was older — old enough to understand I'd never see it or them again.
The other incident wasn't really an incident. It was just that Friday evenings, my parents went out to dinner parties, exhibitions or operas, and Pimmichen and I would melt a whole bar of butter in the pan with our schnitzel. Standing in front of the stove like that, we'd dip bits of bread into it and bring them directly to our mouths, our forks getting devilishly hot. Afterwards she made us Kaiserschmarrn for dessert, scooping and sprinkling into the pan each ingredient I wasn't allowed to have and could, in a jiffy, feast more than my eyes on. Normally I was forbidden even to dream of such things because my mother was afraid anything rich could cause diabetes. If only she'd known. But somehow it tasted better without her or anyone else knowing.
One day in mid-March 1938 my father took me with him to a shoemaker who specialized in shoes for the handicapped. I remember because my eleventh birthday wasn't far away and there was a calendar on the shoemaker's wall. As we waited on the bench I couldn't stop counting the days to my birthday because I knew my parents were going to give me a box kite from China. You wouldn't really call my father's flat feet a handicap, but it was painful for him at work standing all day. Pimmichen bought her shoes there as well, and held Herr Gruber in the highest esteem. He changed people's lives, she insisted, claiming sore feet stole from old people the will to live. When Herr Gruber made a pair of shoes he took it as his duty to compensate for the bunions, corns and bumps that come with age. He was in demand, as we saw from the half a dozen others waiting that day in his narrow shop, which smelt of leather and tanning oils.
I kicked my legs to make the time go faster when suddenly there was a tremendous noise outdoors, as if the whole sky was falling. I jumped up to see what was happening but my father told me to close the door, I was letting the cold in. My next impression was all of Vienna shouting the same words, but it was too huge a sound to make out the single words they were saying. I asked my father and neither could he, although he was getting madder the further the big hand moved round the clock. Herr Gruber ignored what was going on outside; instead he continued to take the measurements of a boy who'd suffered from polio and needed the sole of his left shoe to compensate ten centimeters for the stunted growth of that leg. By the time Herr Gruber got to my father, my father couldn't stay still, especially as Herr Gruber finished with his feet and continued to fuss around measuring his legs to see if there was a difference, because if there was, it wasn't good for the back. Herr Gruber was the same with everybody; my grandmother said he cared.
On the way home we went by Heldenplatz, and there, I'll never forget, I saw the most people I'd ever seen in my life. I asked my father if it was a million people; and he said more likely a few hundred thousand. I didn't see the difference. Just watching them, it felt much like I was drowning. Some man on the Neue Hofburg balcony was shouting at the top of his lungs, and the mass of people shared his fury as much as his enthusiasm. I was astounded that a hundred or so adults and children had climbed up on the statues of Prince Eugen and Archduke Karl, both on horseback, and were watching from up there. I wanted to climb up too and begged my father, but he said no. There was music, cheering, flag-waving; everyone was allowed to participate. It was amazing. Their flags had signs that looked as if they would turn if the wind blew on them, like windmills turn their four arms.
On the tram home my father just looked out the window at nothing. I was resentful that he hadn't let me join in the fun when we had been so close to it. What would it have cost him? A few minutes of his time? I studied his profile ... his features on their own were gentle enough, but his sour mood made them, I was ashamed to observe, ugly. His mouth was determined, his face tense, his nose straight and severe, his eyebrows knotted irritably, and his eyes focused on something not present to a degree that nothing would divert him, or me either as long as I was with him. His neatly combed hairstyle suddenly seemed merely professional, a means by which to sell better. I thought to myself: my father cares more about his work, his profits and his factory than his family having any fun. Slowly, though, my anger subsided and I felt sorry for him. His hair didn't seem quite so nice anymore — it stuck up in a few places at the top where it was thinning. I took advantage of the tram going around a bend to lean on him with more weight than was really called for.
"Vater," I asked, "who was that man up there?"
"That man," he answered, putting his arm around me without looking in my direction and squeezing on and off affectionately, "doesn't concern little boys like you, Johannes."
Excerpted from "Caging Skies"
Copyright © 2019 Christine Leunens.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
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