Oskar liked the smell of tobacco on his hands. It reminded him of his grandfather, how he used to take a tuft of chewing tobacco, wedge it between his lower lip and teeth, and rustle Oskar’s hair if he caught him watching, transferring the leafy smell to the boy’s head. It was comfort, like soft rain on glass and the smell of red cabbage in the pot, the vinegar newly-added and perfuming the air.
These memories helped him bear the discomfort of the work. As he picked through the rubble in the streets, finding stray zigarettenstummel scattered across the ashen ground, he’d come across sights and smells more unpleasant than stale tobacco. There was the occasional blood, but Oskar could be stoical about that. He was fourteen. He had seen blood before—on the farm; on his uncle’s hands (God rest his soul) when he had freshly slaughtered a pig; and on his own hands and clothes when he had caught himself in the wire surrounding Old Georg Hoffman’s red barn. He could put blood in its place and ignore it. It were the other objects that lingered in his mind and made his stomach turn two knots past comfortable. He’d see the torched dolls, the broken plates, the little scraps of paper from schoolbooks and photographs, and he’d shudder. He knew their former owners, old faces that’d stare in the street as he made his way to school or voices who’d murmur their prayers beside him in the Evangelische Kirche on Sunday morning. He did not like thinking of where their owners were. Or worse, how the items were now nothing more than trash when there were no folks left to claim them, protect them, rebuild. And yet, for all the discomfort, Oskar could still shut all that away in the back of his mind. The mental remove of a young man can be remarkable and terrifying at times and, furthermore, there was a job to do. He had the zigarettenstummel to find and sell to the Americans who would pay him handsomely for his services.
Or pay him at least. There was not much money to go around, but the Americans had what little of it there was and they were not frugal with it when it came to things they wanted, like a good stein of brew or a pretty woman or the loose tobacco and papers that could be found in the streets of the town. The Americans would pay for their pleasure. Oskar did not know the German money was worthless to the Americans, that they had no desire to keep it and only wanted to head home and forget the land of the Krauts, which had stolen so many of their friends and wasted their youth.
Oskar knew little of this when he would bring what findings he could to the tall, brown haired man with the lines on his forehead and the gap in between his two front teeth. He had the three bars on his shoulder, which Oskar believed made him a sergeant, but he was not sure whether the Americans did things the same as his own people. Regardless of his rank, Oskar knew he was in charge of the small coterie of soldiers that hung around the tables of Rudolf’s Tavern off the main square. They’d sit with their beer and laugh and stare after the women who’d walk by in their long skirts and shawls, not minding the dust and dirt and rips that covered the women’s clothes if they could get a glimpse of their calves.
The Americans were not drinking beer when Oskar made his way to them this time. They were drinking coffee and playing a game that looked like damespiel, although there were a few pieces missing and the Americans were using a salt shaker and a cork to replace the lost components. The sergeant was not playing, instead watching two of the others play, lending advice when one or both of them made a play he disagreed with. He spotted Oskar come down the lane, his tissue folded in his hands, indicating the presence of the zigarettenstummel.
“You come bearing gifts, kid,” the sergeant said in his best German. His accent was coarse and his words came slowly, but he knew the language, which was more than most. The other Americans were helpless in any language but their own. At most, they would say “fraulien” to the pretty women who passed their way and he had heard the small one with the beady eyes once yell “schiesse” when he lost one of their many games they played, but that was all. Even now, one of the players raised his eyes and muttered something in his American language, prompting his opponent to turn his head to spot Oskar and spit something under his breath. Even Oskar could understand the meaning of the gesture.
“Yes, sir,” Oskar said once he was near the sergeant. He unfolded his tissue, revealing the odds and ends of many zigarettes. He jostled them in his hands to prove the large amount, convincing the sergeant of their worth. “I have more of the zigarettenstummel for you. I found them in Herr Mandel’s home near the schoolhouse. No one else thinks to look there. These here,” Oskar said, pointing out the three largest butts, “have barely been used. They are good, yes?”
“Not bad, kid,” the sergeant said, picking up the largest of the butts and feeling it in his hands. “How much are you thinking?”
“I don’t know,” Oskar said. “I have no intention of being greedy. I want what they’re worth.”
“What they’re worth is something that you suggest and I can agree upon,” the sergeant said. “You have to learn how things work, kid, if you have any hope of making it in this world. So, what is the price?”
“Ten Reichspfennig? Is that alright?”
“Let’s make it one whole Reichsmark, why don’t we?” the sergeant said, reaching into that jacket pocket for the coin. “That seems more fair, doesn’t it?” He handed Oskar the coin and collected the zigarettenstummel from his handkerchief. “Don’t undersell yourself, not in business. Not in life.” The sergeant looked over at the other Americans, who were paying him no attention. “Besides, these coins of yours are worthless. What good can you do with them, anyway?”
Oskar looked down at the coin in his hands and did not want to meet the sergeant’s eyes, as if to do so were to agree that the coin was worthless, which would shame himself and his family. He could only blurt out his thoughts in their superficial manner, unrefined and unreflexive, like the thoughts of so many children. “My mother still wants them,” he said. “She says that she can use all she can get.”
“Well then, take that back to your mother and be a good son,” the sergeant said. “Now get going. Our transaction is complete.
Oskar nodded and started to walk away, but paused and turned back to mutter “Thank you,” before continuing on. And then another pause, and he said, “Sir,” as if the American sergeant was owed respect, even though he was their enemy. Or had been their enemy, at least. The distinctions were hard to parse. Oskar did not have a mind for things past the horizon at the edge of town and out of the purvey of boy’s games and worries involving parents and girls and whether school could be avoided.
He rushed home, not wanting to live in the discomfort that the transaction with the sergeant left him with. When he entered the home, his mother was in the kitchen with his younger sister, scrubbing down the clothes Oskar and his younger brother had left in the laundry basket in the morning. He looked at the portrait of his father that hung along the stairway and bowed his head in reverence to it before entering the kitchen.
His mother looked up, her watery blue eyes taking in her son and striking him to the core with her distinct look of disapproval. Her lips usually curled in a perpetual snarl when she wasn’t talking, which wasn’t often. In the snarl’s absence, it was more than amply compensated for by her cutting words and refrains of misery.
“What was it this time?” she said, holding out her hand. Oskar approached with ginger steps, scared the hand would clasp him like a trap were he to rush to it. He pulled the Reichsmark out of his pocket and placed it into her palm. She retrieved it and put it into the pocket of her apron without looking it over. “Katze holding your tongue?”
“More of the zigarettenstummel.”
“Ach.” His mother’s scrubbing sped up, vigorously scraping the shirt against the washboard. “Wash your hands. I don’t want the linens getting the smell of the scraps on them.”
“Yes, mother.” Oskar turned to leave.
“It was the Americans again?”
“Yes,” Oskar barely muttered.
“What was that? I could not hear you with your back turned to your poor mother.”
Oskar turned to her, but he could not bring his face to meet hers. His hands held stiffly at his sides, replicating the look of a child much younger than himself, the shame borne out in every limb of his awkward frame. “Yes, the Americans bought them.”
“I do not like this,” his mother said. She turned the shirt over and slapped it back down against the washboard. “Your father would be ashamed.”
“Father is not here,” Oskar said.
“Do not say such a thing.” His mother stopped scrubbing and stared at her son, heartstruck. The silence overwhelmed him, the discomfort seeping into the depths of his loins and down into his thighs. “He will return home soon. I am sure of that.”
Neither Oskar nor his mother liked to address his father’s absence. The fact that he disappeared in Frankfurt over a month before and they had not had even a letter from him since then left them in a state of unknown misery. On the occasions they did speak of him, Oskar’s mother would mention that he was not in the army and was not a target for the Americans and British, as if that would protect him from the bombs and bullets that had killed countless others who wore no uniform.
“Yes, mother.” Oskar turned again and left the room and his mother did not stop him, still struck to silence by the memory of his father.
Dinner was quiet that evening and Oskar spent the next day avoiding the family home and wandering the streets of the town with his friends. As the sun reached its peak and started to descend, Oskar was in the market, alone, his friends having deserted him. He kicked at a loose cobblestone and it tumbled down the lane. Oskar followed its journey with his eyes, watching as it slammed into the wall of a home at the bottom of the lane, startling the man who had just turned the corner. Oskar saw it was the American sergeant. He turned to flee, but it was too late. The sergeant had spotted him.
“Boy…come here.” The sergeant had been drinking and his words slurred. Oskar hesitated as he did not like the unpredictability of drunkards. His uncle was known to drink too much beer and schnapps in the evenings and pound the table in anger. Oskar often worried that some day his own head would fill the space between table and hand during a drunken fit. “I said come here, goddammit.” The last word slipped out in English, but Oskar understood the meaning of it. He walked over to where the sergeant leaned against the wall. The sergeant caught his breath, stood straight, and looked the boy up and down.
“You have wares to sell?”
Oskar looked around, hoping a companion would answer the question for him. As no one was there to supply Oskar with words, he simply shrugged his shoulders. “I took the day off.”
The sergeant barked out a laugh and stepped forward to pat Oskar on the shoulder. Oskar startled at the movement before realizing the sergeant meant no harm. “You’re bold to take a day off in this economy.” He looked around at the alley with the ruined home at the end, its stones broken apart by artillery, and back at Oskar. “Are you bold, son?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“That’s not a bold answer.” Another booming laugh from the sergeant, the wit of his words forcing the air from his lungs in joviality.
“No, I guess not.” Oskar didn’t find the sergeant’s words funny, but he knew he was being made fun of and didn’t want to open himself up to further belittlement.
“What you need is a girl to make you bold and strong. Someone to impress. You have a girl?”
“‘Not yet’—I like that. An admission of things as they are and a declaration of how you want things to be. That’s a little more bold, son.”
Oskar smiled and the sergeant reached into his pocket and pulled out a worn package of zigarettes. Inside the children of Oskar’s zigarettenstummel jostled around as the sergeant dug for a solitary smoke. He saw Oskar watching him and held the package in Oskar’s direction so he could get a better look at them.
“Yes, I see.”
He grabbed the prize smoke and lit it. After exhaling the first plume, he held the package out for Oskar. “Care to sample your wares?”
Oskar did not hesitate in taking one of the sergeant’s reconstituted zigarettes and putting it in his mouth. The sergeant lit the zigarette for him and smiled as Oskar took a deep drag. The smoke filled his lungs and burned his throat and he coughed heartily. The sergeant smiled and patted Oskar on the back as he coughed. “Atta boy. Get a taste for it.”
Oskar regained control and put the zigarette back in his mouth, but was hesitant to do more than puff at it. The sergeant continued:
“You have a girl you fancy?”
“Yes, she is from school.”
“What’s her name?”
“How German.” The sergeant chuckled to himself. “What does Ilsa look like?”
“She…she has blonde hair. And freckles.”
“She have big tits?” The sergeant said, chuckling as he watched Oskar blush. Oskar shrunk into himself and gave a small nod. A hearty nod would be vulgarity. The sergeant boomed another laugh. “Good on you. You have got to choose the ones with some meat on their bones and curve in their hips. That’s how you know they’re a real woman. It means you’ll have more fun with them.”
Oskar nodded again, but it was unconvincing.
“Do you know what I mean, son?”
Oskar didn’t want to lie about something so serious so he said and did nothing.
“You do not follow my train of thought, do you?”
“I think I do…”
“But you have never done it yourself?”
Oskar stared at his shoes as the sergeant examined his face.
“Would you like to?”
Oskar looked up, thinking: “Are you joking?”
“Do you want to be a man?”
Oskar looked over his shoulder again and the sergeant caught his movement.
“What are you looking over your shoulder for? Looking for someone to answer in your stead?”
“I do want to be a man.”
It was true. Oskar felt the urges. They came to him when he stared at the girls in school too long or found his mind rushing into ecstatic visions in the minutes before sleep. He was beginning to feel his body react to it, to notice that his stomach would tighten and his loins would swell and he’d feel almost sick and hungry for something food couldn’t satisfy. In the absence of his father, Oskar was the man of the house, and although he could never phrase his thoughts in such a manner, he had a growing belief that the man of the house was deserved some pleasures.
He looked at the sergeant and saw the man’s vulgar grin and felt uncomfortable, but he knew a promise was coming and did not break eye contact with the promise’s deliverer.
“I can see you do,” the sergeant said. He finished the zigarette and dropped it, crushing it under his boot. Oskar did the same. “I hope you had a big lunch because you’ll need your energy.”
The sergeant laughed and motioned for Oskar to follow him down the street. They passed the market square and went past the church, where the cross haunted the periphery of Oskar’s vision. He kept his head down as they passed by Rudolph’s Tavern and the remnants of the school and by his friend Toby’s house, which sported a bell hanging from the second-storey window, as if it were the town hall. They crossed through a patch of rubble that hadn’t been cleared and reached the dark, winding streets of the town’s outer edge. The sergeant slowed his pace and Oskar looked up, seeing the house they were aiming for, with its distinctive warm glow from the inside and bright, red door.
Oskar knew the house. The boys at school would whisper about it and he had caught his mother and father discuss it one time, unaware that he was within earshot. The house was a shame on the town and a disgrace to all that was good and Christian and German, but that did not stop men from purchasing its wares each night.
The sergeant didn’t hesitate at the door, pushing it open and ushering Oskar inside. Oskar wished he had been able to collect himself before entering, but the sergeant was not a patient man. He was left to adjust to the glow from the fireplace and the candlelight above the bar and the slow, steady music coming from the player piano in the corner. An older woman walked forward to greet the sergeant and he smiled at the sight of her and her low-cut blouse, which revealed the tops of enormous breasts, barely contained by fabric. Oskar didn’t recognize her face, but he gathered she was in charge.
“You return so soon, sergeant,” the woman said. “And with a young friend I see. Although not a fellow soldier.”
“My friend wants to become a man,” the sergeant said as he slung his arms around Oskar’s shoulders.
“Then he has come to the right place. Does he have the money to pay—”
“It’s my treat tonight,” the sergeant said.
“I see. You are a generous man, sergeant,” the woman said. “We are glad to know you. And I’m sure he’s glad too.”
The woman smiled at Oskar and he could see that her teeth were rotten, dispelling the illusion of her beauty created by her great bosom. The feeling in his stomach was fading, replaced by a general anxiety at being in an unfamiliar place with unknown people. But he could not flee. That would be rude. And furthermore, he was curious about what awaited him if he could only calm down and receive what the sergeant was to give him.
“Does he have a preference?” the woman asked.
“Best not trouble his mind with such heavy burdens this evening,” the sergeant said, letting go of Oskar’s shoulder and moving closer to the woman. “I thought that new girl would do him right. He mentioned he fancied freckles and she has plenty to spare.”
The woman smiled and nodded and she reached out her hand to Oskar.
“Go on, boy,” the sergeant said. “I’ll be waiting for you to thank me later.”
Oskar stepped forward and took the older woman’s hand and followed her up the stairs and down the narrow hallway to an empty room with a bed and a candle and the curtains drawn across the window. She let go of his hand and told him to sit on the bed and asked him if he had any questions. Oskar told her no and she looked at him with a naked sympathy that wasn’t common in her place of business.
“Do you know how to….” She grew quiet and for a moment Oskar could see the coquettish young woman she once must have been. He shook his head and told her he would be fine and she retreated from the room. Oskar was not lying. He had never seen the act himself, but he knew the specifics of it from the many obsessive conversations he’d had with the boys at school. There were exaggerations in their comments and brags about their personal conquests, but at the heart of all their talk, they knew the mechanics of the physical act.
Before long, there was a knock on the door and a light voice in the hall and a young woman entered, no older than eighteen, in the full bloom of her beauty. She had long blonde hair and many freckles and a figure that made other girls jealous.
Oskar could not simply admire her beauty for he looked to the floor as she entered. He recognized her as Ilsa’s sister, Liesl, although he was not sure they had ever spoken. He had seen her with Ilsa at church and after school in the market gathering groceries for the family. Oskar continued to stare at his hands as he couldn’t bring himself to meet her gaze, lest she recognize him and shame fill her eyes.
“Don’t be shy, dear,” Liesl said as she closed the door behind her and came to him at the bed. She sat beside him and rested her hand on his and he could feel the warmth of her touch. “I know this can be frightening for a first time, but you don’t have to be frightened. I am here to take care of you.”
The words were a formality meant to soothe nervous johns but she wasn’t feigning the emotion behind each word. He finally looked up at her and saw the vivid blue of her eyes and steeled himself against the impending realization. But it did not come. She smiled and moved her hand to his thigh and started stroking it and he realized that she did not recognize him.
He kept watching her face as she undid her blouse and revealed her curves to him, not even blushing at his intent stares. As she unbuttoned his trousers and positioned him on the bed and came astride him, he kept staring at her face, focusing on the freckles and recognizing how much they reminded him of Ilsa. In the dim light, he could almost mistake her for Ilsa, which made him swell with excitement. As she touched him and moved forward and pulled him inside her, he realized that he only need soften his gaze to see the girl he fancied. It was almost as good as the real thing.
It was over soon after it had started, but there was no shame in the room. She cleaned up his mess and replaced her blouse and skirt and he did up his trousers and watched her go about her tasks with an automatic efficiency. She went to the door and turned back to him, smiling at him one last time before she ducked into the hallway.
Oskar was left alone in the room. He had enjoyed the act, however short it was, but he also felt anxious, as if he had missed a key component of it all in the rush of things. He looked to the door, half expecting Liesl to return for more, but one minute passed and then another and he realized that nothing more would come of it. He was a man now, and yet, there was little different from the minutes earlier, aside from the heat of his groin and the liquid calm that filled his mind. He got up and left the room, walking down the hall and the stairs in something of a daze, his mind still racing through what had happened.
In the main room, sprawled across an armchair with a girl in his lap, the sergeant spotted Oskar coming down the stairs and called out to him. “So soon, kid? Didn’t you want seconds?”
Oskar didn’t respond. He had no desire to stay in the filthy main room as now all his eyes could see were the various stains of wine and beer and other liquids he rather not know the origins of across the carpet. He looked at the sergeant and saw how drunk he was, with a broad smile across his face and deep-set eyes that saw the room through a haze.
The sergeant tried to stand up, forgetting the girl was on his lap, but a woop from her kept him seated as he attempted to get an answer out of Oskar.
“Did she rob you of your voice?” he said. “Speak dammit! Or have you been struck dumb?”
“You wanted my thanks and now you have it. But I have to go home.”
And with that Oskar left the house a new-made man and the sergeant turned his focus to his appetites. The dumbfounded boy soon fell from his mind.
The Americans left town the following week. Oskar saw the sergeant one last time in the market square as he and his unit were discussing arrangements with the mayor. The sergeant noticed Oskar but he was in the midst of his duties and Oskar did not interrupt him. Their eyes met and they nodded and Oskar continued on his way home and when the sergeant was no longer a fixture in the tavern or the square, the exact lines of his forehead and gap of his teeth faded from Oskar’s mind.
He continued with his life, collecting the zigarettenstummel in case another unit would enter the town and be in want of his wares. He did not speak of the night with Liesl and the sergeant to his friends, nor did he dwell on it much in the quiet minutes before bedtime.
One day in the following weeks, he was in the square at the tail end of another of his treasure hunts for scraps, which had become second nature to him and gave structure to his day in the absence of school and homework. He turned the corner into the schoolyard and looked up and saw Ilsa bidding farewell to her friends and coming down the lane in his direction. She looked up and spotted him and smiled, as Oskar knew that just as he had fancied her, she had always felt warmly towards him. She made to say something, but Oskar did not wait to hear what it was. He turned away from her and made for the next street. The blues of her eyes and the amber of her freckles reminded him of Liesl and the sergeant’s booming laugh and the rotten tooth of the madam at the house and whatever yearning remained in the pit of his stomach for Ilsa, a new discomfort outmatched it in number and intensity.
He walked through the streets and focused on the dusty corners of the cobblestones and soon enough, her face slipped from his mind and the discomfort in his stomach eased and he could go about his day without an unwanted confusion dampening his thoughts. He returned home and shut himself in his room and filled his mind with thoughts of new women who would bring the promise of pleasure without burdening him with the discomfort of doubt and hesitation. There were to be many women to share his bed in the future who would have the good sense to leave his mind and feelings alone. As for Ilsa, she was just a girl to him now. And he knew that he was a man.
Aren Bergstrom is a filmmaker, film critic, and travel writer. His short films, including the sci-fi comedy, “QuanTom,” and the religious drama, “A Consecrated Life,” have played festivals worldwide. He co-founded and regularly contributes to the film review website, 3 Brothers Film. He lives in Toronto, Ontario.