CONJUNCTIONS:53, Fall 2009

A Simple Question
Francine Prose



AS SOON AS VOGEL realized he could end the interrogation simply by staring unblinkingly back into the light, he awoke with the full moon shining in his eyes. He pulled the sheet, scented with lavender water, over his head, but still the moonlight soaked through, pooling on his sleeping wife’s chest, which shuddered like a baby’s. Even now there were nights when Vogel woke from yet another failure to answer the question that had upended his future as a philosopher and dumped him into his actual life in the family jewelry business. A man can do what he wants but not want what he wants. Identify source, and explain. It was Vogel’s luck that the examining professor was the one man on the planet immune to the lure of cuff links or perhaps a brooch for the lady.
      Exiled from academia, Vogel was still a philosopher. There was no way they could stop him from being a practicing metaphysician with a special interest in how the mind stepped away from itself and watched its own responses.Wasn’t everyone like that? Even at a rally, with thousands of people shouting with one voice. Weren’t those people conscious of thinking their thousands of separate thoughts? Vogel, for example, was thinking, You can scream all you want about the spilling of precious German blood and our homeland stabbed in the back, but what I am hearing is that the most desirable and formerly elusive clients will now quit shopping in Paris and stay in Berlin, where they belong. How many in the thunderous crowd were contemplating, as was Vogel, all the Jewish-owned jewelry about to come on the market?
      He himself had nothing against the Jews. He had met many in his business and had concluded that the proportion of honesty and dishonesty was the same in every population. In fact he despised the smashed windows and his own need to make sure that the ignorant thugs knew he wasn’t Jewish. He’d refused to become a party member, and a few sparkly trinkets distributed here and there had worked wonders to lift the pressure on him to join. He didn’t believe the Communists would have done any better. And the Republic, bless its naive heart, had had everything stacked against it.
      Still, it was insulting to imagine that he or any sentient human would confuse the hook-nosed, slobbering Shylocks in the pamphlets and films with the exquisite Frau Rubinstein, who contacted Vogel and Sons (there were no sons, he’d been the son, and his father was dead) to inquire about selling her earrings. Vogel understood that this would be a very special sort of transaction, requiring a particular set of attitudes and manners. He reached this conclusion not because Frau Rubinstein was beautiful, nor because her earrings, tiny dewdrops of opal and pearl beading up on a pair of golden spiderwebs, made him gasp when she unwrapped their velvet bunting, but because it was a transaction in which so much had to be communicated: regret, nostalgia, helpfulness, respect, collective but not personal shame, mutual awareness of an unfortunate necessity. In other words, civilization.
      Vogel paid Frau Rubinstein fairly and managed to leave her feeling as if she had not sold her beloved earrings so much as entrusted them to a kindly uncle who would safeguard them until her circumstances improved. The jeweler longed to ask her to try on the earrings one last time. In his mind he rehearsed a joke about wanting to see them in their natural habitat, twin constellations in the glossy black firmament of her hair. But at the lastmoment he realized it would have been tasteless and cruel. Sensing hesitation, she asked, “Is there something else?” Vogel shook his head.
      Later, this conversation would join the regrets that woke him at night, disguised as the full moon. Sorrow at not having seen the earrings on a woman so radiant with gratitude and terror distracted him momentarily from his grief at having forgotten that the quote, a man can do what he wants, et cetera, was from Schopenhauer.

Predictably, circumstances did not improve for Frau Rubinstein, though she and her family were able to emigrate, partly thanks to the money she received from Vogel. But circumstances did improve for Vogel, who became known among buyers and sellers alike for his fairness and tact. As time went on, the government became interested in Vogel’s business. He was required to hand over the diamonds, but it was understood that he was free to set aside the most handsome or unusual pieces for the discriminating buyer. Each time Vogel looked over his stock, deciding which gorgeous bauble might best suit which client, he found himself passing over the opal earrings, which gradually migrated to the back of his safe.
      Late one summer afternoon, Vogel received a phone call from a secretary who identified himself as working for a man so powerful that Vogel trembled when he heard the name and could not stop trembling until he decided to think of him not by name but only as Commandant H.G., though he could not have said why this should be any less disturbing. Vogel had imagined this phone call so often that when it finally came, it was as if it had happened so often as to have become tedious. In fact, he’d thought about getting the call less than about not getting one. So many others had. Frequently the Commandant summoned the highest-level artisans and purveyors, dealers in furs and antiques, to parties at his villa in the suburbs of Berlin. It was traditional for the guests to lavish their host with gifts, in return for which the Commandant sent the best customers their way.
      At one such party, the Commandant arranged for his guests to meet him in a meadow. He drove up in sports car wearing goggles, a leather cap, and a floor-length ermine coat. Shouting through a megaphone, he lectured the group on animal husbandry, then tried to get a bull to mate with a cow as a demonstration, then gave up and ordered the guests to meet him back at the house, where he greeted them dressed as one of the Three Wise Men, in a mink-trimmed turban and a brocade caftan.
      Vogel was especially sorry to have missed something like that. Vogel’s wife had repeatedly asked him why they weren’t invited to the Commandant’s, like this or that girlfriend who wasn’t any prettier than she was and whose husband wasn’t any richer than Vogel.
      The car that picked him up was driven by two junior officers in the Luftwaffe. Vogel had hoped to find out from their conversation to what sort of party he’d been asked, but neither of the handsome young men spoke as they headed toward the edge of the city. For a moment Vogel had the ridiculous notion that his companions were uniformed store-window mannequins or ingenious automatons. As the houses grew sparse, and the headlights became the only light beside the moon, he thought, Surely we will be there soon. But they kept on driving. Eventually his uneasiness was replaced by the pleasant sensation that he had waited exactly the right amount of time and was being rewarded for his patience by the fact that the warm air streaming in the windows was scented with orange blossoms, literally inebriating, so that when they turned off the road and a gate swung open, Vogel felt he had already enjoyed a glass or two of expensive champagne.
      For another party, the Commandant had managed to find actual Nubians, or anyway black people, whom he costumed in loincloths and gave torches to hold along the path to his front door. But tonight there were no torches—or other cars in the gravel courtyard. The officers ushered Vogel up the steps to a building that looked like the Pergamon Altar. Flanked by the lieutenants, he was escorted along a corridor lined with ancient maps, then through a succession of parlors decorated in silver and gold in the style of the French kings. Had those fleshy pink goddesses been painted by Rubens or Fragonard? Vogel couldn’t enjoy, or even marvel at, all this luxury and beauty, so busy was he adjusting to the growing conviction he had been summoned to a small or even a private meeting. What could the Commandant want? Vogel fantasized a little play in which he was asked to assume a high government position or undertake a secret mission for which he was uniquely suited and which, after protesting his unworthiness, he modestly accepted. How proud his wife would be to accompany him here when the borders of their lives expanded to include the Commandant’s villa!
      Vogel found himself at the door to a huge room, its high ceiling supported by massive rough-hewn beams. Candles burned in candelabras made from braces of antlers, the hides of exotic animals lay about on the floor. At the far end was a fireplace, and in front of it a long couch. On the couch sat a woman with her back to the door. How strange, a roaring fire in July, when one would expect stifling air trapped among the heraldic flags and beneath the fur of the safari trophies. But in fact the room exuded a glacial chill, as if frozen forever in the endless winter of some Teutonic chieftain.
      Here the lieutenants left him, and Vogel approached the woman, who continued gazing into the fire, without turning, which was lucky, because more readjustment was required as Vogel understood that he had not been called to see the Commandant but rather his wife, suggesting that his secret mission had something to do with jewelry. Fortunately, he had brought along a pocket watch on an aviation theme for the Commandant, and a pretty bangle for his wife, platinum studded with ruby chips.
      That is, for the Commandant’s second wife, famously unhappy because her husband was still grieving for the first wife, after whom he named everything: his yachts, his stables, this villa. Every year, on the anniversary of her death, the Commandant held a gathering at which black-robed guests listened to the solemn chanting of monks imported from Greece. Vogel had heard all this from his own wife, who loved this sort of gossip.
      As he approached the woman, Vogel noted that the angle of her head and the slope of her shoulders—both bare white arms were outstretched along the top of the couch—expressed some deep mysterious melancholy. She remained so still that Vogel felt as if he were looking at a painting, a painting he’d seen and knew by name: A Woman Sunk in Sorrow. A curl of smoke twisted up from a cigarette she held in an ivory holder. Vogel supposed he should make a warning noise, but the soles of his good leather shoes brushed silently against the marble, and everything else—a cough, a cleared throat—seemed rude and artificial. It occurred to him that the woman knew he was there, and that not acknowledging him was something only a woman would do.
      Vogel liked women, whom he found not only charming but usually smarter and wittier than their husbands. And women intuited that, which surprisingly was all it took to be what was called “lucky” with women. They liked it if a man had thoughts that were flowery but not too flowery, and if he told them some of those thoughts, in a slightly ironic tone that created a kind of privacy, just the two of them together.
      Also it was amazing what happened to a woman between the moment she admired a piece of jewelry in the window of his store and the moment she walked in and found him alone there. Vogel prided himself on never having taken advantage of the desperate Jewish women, though some of them, like Frau Rubinstein, had been extremely pretty. His standards were more relaxed with the casual shoppers. Vogel’s wife had been one of those, and though he didn’t believe she had married him for a hat pin, their married joke was that an amethyst had arranged the introduction. Since his wedding, there had been other girls, not many, but enough so that Vogel felt he was still in practice and could deal with whatever the evening ahead might bring. How accommodatingly his fantasies had shifted from power to sex. Obviously, it would be suicide to flirt with the Commandant’s wife, but, in Vogel’s experience, one could have a lot of fun before it qualified as flirtation.
      Energized by the prospect of bringing a smile to the lips of the grieving woman, he walked around in front of her.Of course she knew he was there. She was wearing a sleeveless green velvet gown, Grecian or medieval. She rearranged the skirt, uncrossing and recrossing her legs, as she waved him into the chair at her right. Sighing deeply, she threw back her head and shut her eyes. Then she roused herself and offered Vogel a cigarette froma silver tray, probably Venetian. As he leaned forward to take it, he saw, by the flickering light, what he had known from across the room but had refused to to admit.
      It was not the Commandant’s wife, but the Commandant. That too was gossip one heard. That the Commander’s fondness for extravagant costumes sometimes led him to borrow his wife’s gowns. Some said this had started after the death of the first wife, others said he had been like that as a child and as a bold aviator flying bombing missions with blond ringlet wigs stuffed under his helmet. So Vogel was less startled than he might have been to find himself alone with the former President of the Reichstag and the Chief Commandant of the Luftwaffe, in a pair of high-heeled sandals with pom-poms on the straps.
      Even so, it was unsettling. Vogel could understand the Commandant indulging this eccentric whim in the company of his wife and trusted friends, but Vogel was a stranger, a jeweler from Berlin. He concentrated on keeping control of his face so that when the Commandant looked at him, he would see … what, exactly? No surprise, no surprise in the least. Admiration. Appreciation. Perhaps even that was excessive. A purely relaxed neutral friendliness. Mixed, of course, with respect. But the most important thing was not to show or think that this was in any way abnormal.
      The impression of normality was reinforced by the lieutenants, who reappeared with two glasses and a bottle of champagne. One of them filled a glass and gave it to the Commandant, or rather, wrapped the Commandant’s free hand around it. Not trusting his voice, Vogel nodded to the officer, who poured him a glass and put the bottle in its cooler on a low table beside Vogel, along with a silver bell. It seemed peculiar that he, the guest, was being given charge of the champagne and the servants’ bell until he noticed that the Commandant was drinking with his eyes closed.
      Vogel was careful not to look at the officers as they left. He took advantage of the Commandant’s somnolence to drain his own glass and refill it. The bubbles popped against his brain like snowflakes hitting a window. How powerful the champagne was, and how little it took to make it seem as if the fire suddenly blazed more brightly, revealing a world infinitely more interesting and less alarming than it had seemed just minutes ago.
      The Commandant raised his chin, as if in greeting, then burrowed his head into the crook of his arm, so that he looked like a cross between a sleeping bird and a Romantic painting of a sleeping woman. Vogel had got it right before. A Woman Sunk in Sorrow. The other bit of gossip one heard was that the Commandant was fond of morphine, a habit dating back to a near-fatal wound sustained in the early, violent days of the party. Vogel’s eyes brimmed with shocking tears, sympathetic, but someone else’s, and he felt a churning inside his chest, as if his heart were being squeezed and prodded to see if it was ready.
      The Commandant wore a caplike auburn wig, and his lips were painted a candy heart that matched his rouged cheeks and gave his face an eerily doll-like perfection. His gown was gathered at the breast with a large enamel clasp in the Chinese style that Vogel recognized as having passed through his hands in ’38 or ’39. In each ear was a large diamond stud. Vulgar, but somehow touching.
      Neither male nor female, the Commandant was like a mythological figure who had been both male and female and therefore understood how hard it was to be either. Had Vogel tried to picture this scene, he might have visualized something grotesque, but in person—in the flesh, as it were—the Commandant was lovely. Not lovely like Frau Rubinstein, or like Vogel’s wife, or like the two wives of the Commandant, whose photos Vogel had seen, but lovely in his woundedness, in his raw awareness of how painful and lonely it is to live and die in your body. How helpless the Commandant looked as he dozed against the couch, but also how heroic, not like the young aviator he had been, but heroic in his insistence on finding something transcendent and brave amid the grief and suffering everywhere around him. The grief and suffering he has caused others, said a voice inside Vogel’s head.
      Vogel grabbed the lit cigarette from the Commandant’s drooping hand. The Commandant’s knees slipped apart. Vogel glimpsed a scallop of pale lace and was astonished and embarrassed by a faint tug of arousal. Not sexual arousal, he told himself, but spiritual arousal, something he’d felt only twice in his life, both times when he’d gone to hear Bach played in a cathedral.Was it possible to live so long and be homosexual and not know it? But Vogel didn’t want to have sex with the Commandant. He wanted to cradle him in his arms and talk to him and tell him secrets and jokes and put his head against his head and never leave his side. He felt a familiar longing, the hollow draining chill he’d felt as a young man, worshipping girls from afar.
      Perhaps it would be helpful to frame this as a philosophical question. How reliable is the past as a guide to the future? And couldn’t it be said that every anomaly is a bandit lurking in ambush by the side of the road? A man can do what he wants but not want what he wants. Maybe this was like Vogel’s dream of the philosophy exam, or like any of those dreams in which you can choose to fall to earth by weighing yourself down with reality: your bed, your name, your city, the sleeping woman beside you. In this case the ballast would be what the Commandant had done—the murders, the forced labor. The burning of the Reichstag! But what did the man who had masterminded all that have in common with this fragile, elegant creature who lay, so trusting and vulnerable, half conscious on the couch? And why should he be so unhappy? The war was going well.
      Patiently Vogel waited until the Commandant opened his eyes and said, “Good evening” in a voice like someone blowing smoke through a flute.
      “Good evening,” Vogel replied.
      The Commandant clutched his pale throat. “Excuse me. Laryngitis.”
      “Summer colds are the worst,” Vogel said. How banal he sounded! “My mother always said …” He paused. Why was he talking about his mother?
      “So you had a mother?” the Commandant asked. What kind of question was that?
      “I did,” said Vogel. “Not anymore. Doesn’t everybody?” He heard himself rattling nervously on, like a hysterical girl. He didn’t even sound like himself. Vogel knew how to talk to women.
      “Oh, please,” the Commandant said. “Let’s not fool each other.” He laughed, and Vogel laughed as well, then stopped when the Commandant stopped, or a moment after.
      “When I was growing up,” the Commandant said, “my mother’s lover went hunting every Sunday afternoon. We—the boys—went along, of course.We were living in the man’s house. His idea of sport was to wheel a cannon to the edge of a field and blast away at tiny birds and send us to gather the feathers! From which he had fans made for my sisters’ dolls. Let me ask you, why would a little girl need fifteen thousand feather doll fans?”
      “I don’t know,” said Vogel.
      “Well, of course, you don’t,” said the Commandant, “because there is no reason a little girl’s doll needs fifteen thousand fans! No, wait! It was only ten thousand fans and five thousand doll feather dusters.” He waved at the room behind him. “All this taxidermy was his.”
      Firelight sparkled in the tears trickling down the Commandant’s cheeks, and it seemed to Vogel that these tears were washing away not only powder and age but the sins committed in his daylight life lived among uniformed men. For example, the new law, a product of the Commandant’s interest in animal rights and game protection. Convicted poachers were sentenced to join the mobile units assigned to track down partisan units. The theory was: You like hunting so much, we’ll give you something to hunt.
      Vogel fought an urge to get up and run from the room, an impulse rapidly muscled down by a stronger desire to reassure the Commandant that everything could be forgiven. Odd, because not for a moment did Vogel believe this. How had they gotten to this point in such a brief time? Two grown men, one in a dress, both of them in tears.
      Vogel said, “How can I help you, Commandant?”
      The Commandant peered at him and after a while said, “I remember now. You’re the jeweler.”
      “That I am,” Vogel said. “Though, to tell you the truth, my ambition was to be a philosopher …”
      “As you can see,” the Commandant said, “I love beauty above all things. If beauty were an actress, I would sit in the theater and watch her hour after hour, year after year, until I died in my seat. Died of happiness, I mean …”
      Vogel fingered the case containing the pocket watch and the bracelet, which now seemed like cheap toys one might find baked into a holiday cake. He said, “I brought you a little … token. But now, having met you, I realize I have a piece in my safe that would be perfect. Perfect.”
      “What is it?” The Commandant looked almost pleased, or anyway as close to pleased as Vogel expected to see.
      “Earrings,” said Vogel. “Opal and pearl.”
      The Commandant frowned. “Opals are bad luck. Opals mean tears.”
      “Life is tears,” said Vogel flirtatiously. “And in my career as a jeweler, I’ve observed that luck pays no attention to what stones a person wears.”
      “When will you bring them?” the Commandant said, leaning yearningly toward Vogel.
      Vogel stared back into the Commandant’s dark eyes until the room, the fire, the couch, and finally the Commandant’s face vanished from the edges of his vision. Maintaining this steady gaze was a challenge, but it was easier than answering the Commandant’s deceptively straightforward question. Had it been a woman who’d asked, had Vogel been in his glory days, he would have said, For you, for you, my darling, I will go home and get them now, I won’t be able to sleep a wink until I’ve seen them on you. But this wasn’t a woman. This was the head of the air force.
      Finally he decided to say, “Whenever you wish.”
      Disappointment pushed the Commandant back against the couch.
      Hastily, Vogel corrected himself. “I mean I can get them now.”
      The Commandant said, “I will have my secretary telephone you in the morning.” And with an airy but imperious gesture, he sent Vogel from the room.
      The two lieutenants waited outside the door to walk him back to the car. On the long ride into town Vogel felt queasy with shame and regret at having given the wrong answer. Should he have sounded more impulsive? More devoted? More generous? What had the Commandant wanted?
      He told his wife that he had eaten a bad oyster at his club. He fell asleep, exhausted. In the morning, he asked her to bring him tea in bed, then retreated under the blankets, where he replayed every instant of the evening before, all the time asking himself what else he should have done at the end.
      Just after eleven, his wife told him that a man was on the phone, claiming it was urgent. When Vogel hung up the phone after hearing that a car would come for him at the same time and place, his wife said, “You look happy.” Vogel told her that he was about to conclude a lucrative transaction with an important client.
      He had been granted a reprieve. Or maybe he’d been mistaken. Maybe the Commandant had grown tired, maybe it was the morphine. But the sense of having been pardoned and saved stayed with him through the day, as he went to his shop and opened his safe and found the earrings, which were at once more delicate and dazzling than he remembered. The Commandant loved beauty. Vogel felt no regret at giving up the earrings, but rather the wild surrender he imagined affecting the beneficiaries of miracles who hand over their whole fortunes to the interceding saint. He felt as if he’d been reading a fascinating book and dropped it by accident into the ocean. And now, against all odds, the book had washed up, whole and dry, so he could read the next chapter.
      Once again, the car arrived with the two lieutenants in front. The one in the passenger seat got out, as he had the night before, and Vogel—joyous now, he had to admit—waited for him to open the door. But this time the young man’s mouth emitted a scatter of words that Vogel slowly assembled into the information that the Commandant had an important meeting and regretted that he could not make time for Herr Vogel but would appreciate it if Herr Vogel would entrust his officers with the item they had discussed.
      “So you can talk, after all!” was Vogel’s first response. Then, even more shamingly, “I’m afraid I’ll need to ask for a receipt.”
      The lieutenant laughed and held out his hand. Vogel gave him the earrings. He watched the car drive away, even as he watched himself thinking bitterly that it was only fitting that the earrings should go to the man who stole them in the first place. Then he hurried back into his shop, possessed by the irrational idea that anyone who saw him would be able to read on his face everything that had happened.
      But of course no one did, and Vogel never told anyone. Not his wife, who left him when he refused to sell what remained of his jewels to escape Berlin at the last possible instant, nor his second wife, who was drawn to him because what remained of his jewels seemed to offer some security at the end of the war and who divorced him because there was almost a child, which starved before it was born. By then Vogel’s philosophical musings focused on the subject of how the mind apprehended the concepts of forgiveness and retribution.
      Eventually, there was an inquiry, during which Vogel’s attorney solicited letters from Jews, living safely abroad and all attesting to the fact that Vogel had behaved with consummate professionalism. He was cleared of any wrongdoing in return for the promise that he would do his best to see that the looted jewelry was found and returned to its rightful owners.
      Some years later he received a letter from Geneva. After thanking him profusely, Frau Rubinstein asked if by chance he had any idea what had happened to her earrings.
      It was the closest he would ever come to telling someone the truth. And perhaps he would have, had he known what it was. By then, the Commandant was dead, a suicide in his prison cell, after having performed brilliantly, with unassailable logic and eloquence, in response to the prosecutors’ searching and frequently harsh interrogations.
      Vogel wrote back and told Frau Rubinstein that he was sorry, but many precious objects had passed from hand to hand to hand until someone carelessly opened his hand and dropped them and lost them forever. He wanted to, and didn’t, add a philosophical postcript. Had he formulated and sent such a message, it might not have become the lodestar to which he gravitated, night after sleepless night, rewriting, rephrasing it in his mind whenever the moonlight woke him.
      He and Frau Rubinstein were veterans of an extraordinary history, and, as a fellow veteran, he wanted to ask her something. He had lived his life, which, he had always known, would be his only life. He had experienced a fairly standard proportion of satisfaction and regret, remakable in light of the era through which they had lived. But what he wanted to ask was how, given all those days and years, all those minutes and seconds he had somehow managed to fill, after witnessing such a long parade of dramatic and ordinary events, how could it possibly happen that the only occasions he remembered with any clarity or feeling were the times when he had tried and failed to answer a simple question.