On that day, There must have been thousands standing in the rain. Watching them, from the view at my window, I longed to rush out and spread a protective cape over them. But it was an impossible task. I was an invalid, there were too many, and thunder, more specifically lightning, always frightened me.
“I hope the rain won’t pummel them”, I said. My voice is weak from not speaking.
“Who?” My mother demanded.
“The poppies! What do you care about the poppies? You’re a foolish boy.”
She put her cigarette down. I knew she stubbed yet another cigarette into the stinking and overflowing ashtray. The perpetual stink permeated the air, the stench had different phases. At Dr. Pettingers’ request, she shouldn’t have been smoking in the room with me. Each time he made a house call, he reiterated that she smokes, at the very least, on the balcony. Irritated by her blatant denial, he explained that it wasn’t good for my fragile lungs. Mother, however, shrugged her shoulders as if she had never been given that advice before, and that my coughing spells were from an imagined illness, not the plumes and clouds of her acrid cigarettes.
But she was right, I was a foolish boy.
Flying insects, intermittent thundershowers, signaled early summer, and the city was experiencing the start of a heatwave in the middle of June, and I was turning twelve on that day. The hours and minutes: a secret my mother never shared.
Because my father was a military man, we moved every few years, and he was stationed in Germany. Wiesbaden. In a way, we were enlisted just as he was. We adhered to a schedule and followed orders. Our lives were built on the foundation of rules, but that seldom meant we didn’t break them.
My father was a kind, albeit emotionally absent man. Without saying it aloud, he regretted that his only son wasn’t a robust kid, but he understood that my illness wasn’t self-imposed. When he had time off from duty, he drove us, at times only me, around the city or deeper into the country. I pitied people who have never been to Europe. Mimicking adults, I echoed the sentiments that there was a quality a person didn’t get back home. Wherever that may have been for me. Wiesbaden was the sort of city that wrote the script and played the leading role. I fell in love with the ivy-clad buildings, the gargoyles, and sculpted heads protruding from what seemed every building. From every cornerstone ever laid.
Because my mother insisted, we didn’t live on base, and she always found accommodations for us near quaint coffee shops and parks. To the back, our apartment overlooked a Wiesen, a meadow that even Longfellow or Tennyson would have difficulty committing to poetry with full effect. A pastoral scene that simply took my breath away, like my mother’s cigarettes, and spread out like a carpet woven from the fine thread of wildflowers.
“They’re stupid flowers anyway, and they’re poisonous. Heroin. Ever heard of it?” She asked while lighting another cigarette. She had already emptied an entire pot of coffee. Substituting as her breakfast and lunch. I had an egg, some hearty buttered bread, and cheese she forced me to eat.
“Heroine?” My mind instantly pictured a woman clad in a cape, ready to rescue frail children from their evil mothers. But up until that moment, I hadn’t thought a woman could be a hero, like Clark Kent, or Peter Parker. I paid attention in case there was something I had missed.
Dominating my life were only two women. My mother, who didn’t like me, and my sister. Doreen despised me and made my life a living hell, most of the time. She was only kind to me to keep me on guard.
“It’s a filthy drug junkies use.”
As usual, I was too dumb to answer. Her tone always belittled me and encumbered my speech. Often, after I tripped up on my own words, or hers, I thought of a thousand clever things to use as a retort. I argued fiercely inside my head, the heated debates occupying large swaths of my time. Dueling it out. I died a little each time, sometimes, on good days, I escaped with mere wounds.
I wasn’t dumb. I was homeschooled, mostly by means of figuring things out on my own while quarantined in my room. A teacher from the base made it his business to see me for an hour each day. He was a link to the outside world, yet there was one thing I despised about Mr. Becker. Although he was kind to me, he disappointed me because he didn’t hate my mother as I had hoped. I craved an accomplice in my hate. Instead of avoiding her and escaping with me to my room, he often sat next to her on the sofa, smoking and drinking coffee. Worse, laughing at her stupid jokes.
What was even more perplexing, he seemed to have an avid interest in the family albums my mother kept in her bedroom. Boring pictures of ancestors I had never met, and collections dedicated to Doreen in pretty dresses and curled hair. It baffled me that he did. On those days, I childishly slammed the door to my room and stared out the window while stewing in my own pot of childish temper. Plugging my ears so I wouldn’t hear their laughter.
Mr. Becker was in the army too, and he fastidiously tutored me. He liked routine and discipline as much as I. Together, we enjoyed the rules of strategic games like chess and backgammon, which secured our bond. But today, because of the weather, I was reluctant and hoped the rain wouldn’t delay him for my lesson. I was twelve, eager, and selfish.
While I waited, I watched the rain. Fat drops pitter-pattered on the glass, the leaves of the cherry tree outside our apartment rustled in the increasing wind. It had been sweltering until the woolen clouds rolled in and slowly unleashed a powerful rinse cycle. To avoid speaking to my mother any further, I simply stared. I didn’t care about drugs, heroin. She rambled on and explained about shooting it up the veins, knowing I abhorred needles. I instinctively hummed the la-la-la-la inside my head so I wouldn’t have to listen. My enjoyment was in watching the lithe and colorful poppies, their nymph-like dance routine in the breeze.
I stepped away from the window, afraid that the vicious tongues of lightning would get me. But I also played a game where I envisioned a doozy of lightning bold catapult through the window and ground itself in my mother’s body. Then I could have my father all to myself. He’d hire a nurse to care for me.
Most of the time, I was a docile child. However, the urge to maim or torture my mother was only played out in my mind and only affected my feelings regarding her. I feel no shame in admitting my life would be so much better if she died.
She was the hurdle impeding my happiness. My sister, I could deal with. I thought again about the heroin she talked about and wondered how a flower as pretty as a poppy could be so devastatingly harmful. Could I use the potent poison somehow to my advantage? So far, my plans for murdering my mother were simple enough. I envisioned placing my hand on her rump and shoving her down the long flight of stairs. But were they steep enough to kill her? If she survived, then what?
I’ve also considered throwing the radio that she enjoyed playing loudly while soaking into the bathtub. I had read about a murderer who offed his mother that way. But even at age twelve, I knew that it was weird to see one’s mother in the nude. The radio theory sounded easy, I sometimes did a practice run, but mother always locked the door. Because of my illness, my youth, and inexperience, I didn’t have enough strength to fatally stab her. And I often tried to banish these potentially harmful thoughts but often failed at succeeding. I knew hating my mother was morally wrong, evil, and demented. I deserved the severest punishment for harboring such sinister thoughts. Yet, those very thoughts also kept me sane.
When I heard the quick rap on the door, I was happy again. Mr. Becker had arrived despite the rain. Just then, lightning struck a tree in the meadow, somewhere close enough, and it made me drop to my knees. My mother laughed hysterically, it was some time before she could compose herself enough to answer the door.
“You’re definitely not from my side of the family.” She glanced over her shoulder to confirm her suspicion, a cigarette squeezed between her yellowing fingers.
I turned my back on her. I hated it when she said mean things about my not belonging. I was the spitting image of her, only in a boyish, smaller version. Everyone said so. When I thought it was safe, I ran my sleeve across my eyes. All morning she’d been picking on me. Sit up straight. For Christ’s sake, blow your nose. She had no sympathy for my allergies. Eat your breakfast, I didn’t cook it for the fun of it. Go have a wash, you dirty little urchin. Albeit her constant sniping hurt, the worst cruelty came by way of her sneering. I tried to shoot poison darts with my eyes in her direction, but they always missed their mark.
Those were my mornings at home with my mother. The only joys in my life were my father and Mr. Becker, the poppies dancing in the meadow, and the pigeons who landed on my window sill. I didn’t have a single friend.
I heard my mother and Mr. Becker laugh and assumed it was at my expense. I waited behind the long, velvet curtains, playing shy. Mr. Becker kindly laid his hand on my shoulder and said, “Hello Oliver. Quite the storm, eh?”
Mr. Becker handed me a stack of books. My eyes lit up. It was Winnetou. Although the books were written in German, I could read them. Winnetou and his friend, Shatterhand, came alive in my world of a vivid imagination. If only I had someone like Winnetou to talk with. Someone to share my problems with. Or my own personal Shatterhand to go riding with.
I was surprised that Mr. Becker was allowed to treat me to a tetra pack, army regulation orange juice. Such things were forbidden to me. But it was my birthday. He plunged the straw into the hole and gently suggested, “Go to your room. Read your books.” He winked.
When I walked past my mother, she brushed ashes from her blouse and shifted her brassiere. She wiggled herself into place on the sofa and patted the seat next to her. My mother was thirty-four years old. I was never enamored by her looks, as is sometimes common with boys my age. Or so I read. But she must have had attributes men enjoyed, for Mr. Becker complied, and my father worshipped her.
I fell asleep, dreaming about riding on the wide prairies with my Indian friends. They trained a painted pony just for me and outfitted me with a bow and arrow to fit my small stature. But they saw beyond my size. When I was with my Indian friends, I felt the greatest sense of freedom and belonging. While I slept, the storm moved on, and I woke to my sister pulling on my leg.
“Wake up!” She asked, chewing a wad of pink bubble gum.
I blinked to orientate myself. Doreen had never been in my room before
“Where’s mother?” She shrugged her shoulders and blew a giant bubble and snapped it.
When I sat up, I saw I had slept for an hour. I was disappointed Mr. Becker didn’t wake me to continue our lessons on history and geography like he promised yesterday. The book had fallen from my grasp while I slept. A bit of dried drool caked the side of my mouth.
In the living room, mother’s coffee had gone cold. A cigarette lay smoldering in the ashtray, burned down to the filter. I knocked on the bedroom door and listened for my mother’s shrill reply. Doreen stood two steps behind me. I dared not open the door, there had been repercussions when I inadvertently walked in on her once before. I had learned my lesson. I knocked a second time timidly, my sister snapping and chewing like a cow on cud, towering behind me.
“Mother? Your television show’s about to start.” I mumbled into the wooden door.
With my ear pressed against the door, I listened. Doreen snapped an explosive bubble right next to my ear and scared the bejesus out of me. She giggled, but surprisingly, she whispered sorry. Since the start of the last school year, for reasons unknown to me, Doreen ceased mistreating me. Sometimes she was even kind, but I was afraid that she was concocting some sort of underhanded attack. I had to be on guard. But I should be grateful. Doreen had arranged for my introduction to Mr. Becker.
When she first suggested a tutor to my mother, the idea was struck down. But Doreen played her trump card and enlisted father. Although Mother had scoffed at the thought of someone as young as Mr. Becker in retaliation, his good looks and charm won her over. I remember I was embarrassed that she teased him so much, said he looked like a schoolboy himself. Which was true.
Doreen was a good student, and I heard it often enough, a popular student who had many choices ahead of her at sixteen. College in the States, or even here in Germany. She was gifted at languages. They said she was fluid in German, French, and Italian, and making progress with Spanish. They also said she was pretty.
I knocked again, like a doctor bent listening for a sign of life and shrugged. She had left me alone before on many occasions. If she needed cigarettes, she slipped out to the tobacconist at the corner without explaining to me. But today, she didn’t need cigarettes, I noticed the nearly full pack on the table, next to the heap of butts, her special engraved silver lighter.
“She must have gone out.” Doreen offered to appease me.
“But she never goes out without locking me in my room.”
There I said it. The truth. I was an abused and neglected child. Instead of hiring a sitter, my mother often locked me in my room. Abuse isn’t always physical.
I never knew for how long, or where she went, sometimes I wet my pants. She only ever said she had errands. Doreen shrugged her shoulders and spit the wad of gum into her palm.
“I’m going to have some cake. Want some?”
I wasn’t allowed to have a cake, even on my birthday. Mother forbid me because the doctors were still ruling out the possible triggers of my allergies. Doreen knew the rules as well as I did. But since she was offering, I nodded. She cut both of us a thick wedge. German chocolate cake layered with a thick filling of cherry preserves. I tentatively stabbed at the cake, expecting doom and my dream to be crushed at a moment’s notice.
“Milk?” Doreen poured a glass for herself and hoisted the glass bottle as if to make a toast.
It seemed like we were celebrating, only I wasn’t privy to knowing the cause. We sat at the kitchen table, eating in silence.
“Did Mr. Becker come by today.”
“He did. He brought me books.”
During the cake sharing episode, Doreen drummed the table, and occasionally she looked out from under her thick eyelashes. We had those in common.
“Do you like him?”
“Very much. I’m disappointed; I missed him today.”
“There’ll be many more chances. Don’t worry your little head.”
I was halfway through my cake when there was a knock. It sounded just like Mr. Beckers’ rap.
“I’ll get it. Doreen put her empty plate in the sink.”
In case Mr. Becker wanted to continue our lesson, I gobbled up the cake as quickly as possible. Whispers snapped in the hallway, Mr. Becker stuck his head around the corner.
“Hey, Oliver.” He smiled. “Enjoying that cake?”
I nodded and wondered how it was that people asked you questions when they clearly saw that your mouth was full. The cake wasn’t going down smoothly.
“Can I ask you something?”
“I guess so”, I said, careful of the cake in my mouth.
“Can you keep a secret?”
Mr. Becker squatted next to my chair and put his hand on my shoulder. I had no way of knowing if I could keep a secret. I had never been entrusted with one. And in all the novels I read, to me, those who betrayed secrets were the worst sort of people. Whatever Mr. Becker was about to entrust me with, I’d take to my grave. With the fork in my hand, the cake went to mush in my mouth, my eyes wide, I nodded emphatically.
Mr. Becker took my hand and led me to my parents’ bedroom. He pushed the door open and there she was, my mother. For the first time in my young years, I understood what they meant: she was a beautiful woman. She was at peace. Her face, like clay, had softened. Her blue eyes were like those of the porcelain dolls I had seen in the museum father took me too. She was wearing her best scarf, the Hermes, my father bought it for her when we were stationed in Paris. Now it was wound tightly around her throat.
Outside, night had fallen. Doreen paced and kept us abreast of just how dark it was getting. When it was safe to do, we moved mother using the Anatolian rug she insisted on having when we were stationed in Istanbul. Mr. Becker grunted and did most of the work. Doreen kept an eye out and we loaded mother into the Peugeot hatchback. The streets still littered with leaves from the storm, wet from the rain.
During the ride, Doreen sat with me in the back. We put our knees on the rug to keep it from tipping out. We couldn’t close the hatchback, the rolled-up carpet was too long. From time to time, because we were on a rutted path, our heads bumped against the roof of the car. It was too dark for me to see where we were, but once I got out, I recognized the Wiesen behind the apartments. The rain had decapitated the bright poppies, the petals plummeted like folded parachutes onto the grass. We deposited mother in the grave, someone, I assumed Mr. Becker, had dug. When we finished, Mr. Becker placed the grass he had cut in perfect sod squares into place. No one would know.
We stood in the fresh night air, breathing in the fresh air, relieved it was over. Mr. Becker and Doreen held hands, they kissed when they thought I wasn’t looking. To disguise my surprise, I looked up at the sky. The moon was rounding the corner from the east, and the stars were out. There must have been thousands shining in the heavens that night.