Feeding the Eternal Reich
When people hear what Blitz does, they say he isn’t a well man, so what else would you expect? He no doubt also turns off the stove and pushes down on the kettle to save electricity, bringing it up to the boil over the last thirty seconds with just the heat remaining in the coils. Or he no doubt saves tradesmen’s leaflets so as to write or type on the blank side. Lawn mowers. Tree surgeons. Leaf gatherers. He writes on the backs of all of them. They arrive in his mail box, as in everyone else’s; you’re no exception just because you happen to be less than one hundred per cent fit. He dreams about Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose top-trim body is like a brown condom full of walnuts. That’s what Blitz would like to look like, even if only on Sunday, a holy day for health. And, even if he had to keep the runs, still have trouble standing without a cane, or fishing something out of his pocket such as a key, a dollar bill, a little pocket compass, he’d like to look like that anyway: a Tarzan with a tic, a Hercules who hurts like hell.
Yet he looks so cheery, so pink, like someone with incipiently whitening hair right out of Charles Dickens, except Dickens’s ogres are much snider, more targets for simplified emotion. What’s that he says, when he explains? He gets all the medical details right, out of pride, as if taking demonic possession of his disease.
“Slowly progressive,” he says. “Even erratically so. Scattered patches of demyelination in the brain and spinal cord. Many remissions and worsenings. Tracts in the midbrain. Pons and cerebellum affected too. Weakness or clumsiness of leg or hand. Eye pain. Bladder control on the fritz. Vertigo. No specific therapy. But there is prednisone. You know what that is? So you don’t know what this is. Okay. If you stop it suddenly, it will screw up your adrenal gland. If you have just given birth, to an idea say, don’t nurse it. You can lose enough calcium to get a fracture. Mood swings well known. So we live in a world of chemistry. Never mind. I will come and go until I go.”
When not writing his memoirs, the first volume to be called Blitz’s Lonely Blitzkrieg, he watches game shows, soaps, and the channel known as Life: nothing but doctors all Sunday. With a buoyant smirk he announces, “I have to be encouraged all the time, and reassured. A hopeless outlook should be avoided. Diazepam can make you numb to pin stick. Baclofen—well, the trouble is, I get spastic, but when they make me less spastic they make me weaker too. It’s hard to win, almost as hard as it is to lose. You never win.” When his friends are sick, he tells them how much he envies them: “Yair, but you can’t have had a real stroke or would you be listening to me or not?” Or he says “Yair, but you don’t have one of those really grabby cancers, claws and all.” He chortles. “Look at me. Now look at you. Then look at me again.” He doesn’t look bad, but he does seem at times to melt, as if his body were mumbling. He does seem to slither sideways as if dodging very slow bullets, as in the heyday of his dictatorship.
“That Leland,” they say, “he sure is something. He never quits, he never complains. He writes six hours a day standing on tiptoe in the bath behind the shower curtain.”
“That Leland,” somebody else says to a visitor, “he gets everybody to help him out. They all pitch in. He collects.”
“Leland Blitz collects? He makes a killing? I didn’t know there was that much dough in fascist nostalgia.”
“No, stupid. From all over the world he collects. Soaps. Soap. Cakes. Tablets. Samples. With and without ropes. From the hotels mostly. He doesn’t unwrap them or sniff at them, he just tosses them into a big hamper in the bathroom, five feet high. Some weeks he gets a dozen. That’s a good week. Round, square, oval, he doesn’t care. Thick or thin. Soaps plain or fancy. But nothing powdered or flaked. He will take anything, which is more than you can say for him when he is making history. Capsules, modules, nodules, and even molecules. They are all the same to him. Ules, he calls them. What if the etymology is wrong, he says. So long as the dubiology is etymous. That hamper of his is some heirloom from Valparaiso, Chile. It never seems to fill up, maybe because over the weeks and months the soaps settle down.”
Night brings his awful, recurring dream. As somebody called Leland Berlitz he has checked into an anonymous hotel in West Germany. At first he likes it, maybe because they bring him everything he asks for. “May,” he says in this dream, “I have an ashtray, bath towel, an extra blanket, some envelopes, more hangers, ice cubes, an extra pillow, a reading lamp, some writing paper, and—” He never asks for soap.
When they come back, laden, off he goes again, asking for more. Soon his room is crammed, he has to go out from all those lamps and blankets, towels and envelopes.
Downstairs in the restaurant with his little golden pillbox, he seems to have a bad time every time. In his best German, right out of the phonetic part of the book, he has to keep saying, “Where is my drink? This is too bitter. This is too sweet. This is too sour. This is too warm. This is too salty. The meat is not only overdone, underdone, tough and soft, it is also too easy to tear. The meat is cold. The meat is dead. What is taking you so long?”
He realizes that he is trying to feel at home, at ease, in the German physical universe, once the exclusive property of Hans Horbiger, who, sponsored by Heinrich Himmler, had planned an expedition to the North Pole to look there for an opening to the interior of the Earth. Was it not the Germans’ very own Werner von Heisenberg who lost them the war because, when figuring out how a chain reaction would work, he assumed a fatal geometric simplification? Those from the Manhattan Project later put him right, after the dust had settled.
Well, anyway, it is that universe they once thought theirs, in which Mrs. Heisenberg, Mammafrau, had to write a letter to Mrs. Himmler, Mammafrau too, asking her to ask Heinrich not to make Werner disappear. No, Mrs. Heisenberg went in person, and Mrs. Himmler said: “My heavens, if my Heinrich only knew. There are some nasty people around him, I know, but this beats the armband. He is such a nice boy—always congratulates me on my birthday and sends me flowers.” On such Aesops he grew up.
A single word set matters right. The inventor of the quantum uncertainty principle did not disappear and went on to lead the main Nazi effort to build the bomb. It is said, though, that as Mrs. Heisenberg took her leave of Mrs. Himmler, Mrs. Himmler said: “I sometimes wonder if Heinrich did not make an error in his choice of profession. What do you think?”
“Oh, you know, Mrs. Himmler,” came the reply, “we mothers know nothing about politics, but we know how to care about our boys. Where would they be now, without us? Bei mir bist Du schön. The world is full of gaschambershirkers. Thank god we gave our boys a good start in life. We wouldn’t want them selling matches and suchlike stuff on streetcorners, would we now?”
That was the end of it, except that Mrs. Himmler began to suffer with enormous boils on her labia, quite sealing her up and Mrs. Heisenberg’s tongue began to develop the texture of hobnail liver, curling her tongue back into her throat, with unfortunate effects on her singing. The two mothers were never more intimate than this, which is something of a relief to them both. They blamed Jewish dentists and gynecologists, not necessarily in that order, for their fate, and urged their sons on to further efforts.
Now, after that air raid, Leland Berlitz, still trapped in Leland Blitz’s nightmare, is upstairs again, on the phone, tweaked by some hypercritical incubus. “The washbasin is clogged. The air conditioner doesn’t work. These aren’t my shoes. This is not my laundry. I have lost my watch. The lamp is broken. Do you have a less bombedout hotel?” Now he tells the cringing manager, who makes a gesture equivalent to offering to shoot himself, but with a blindfold, of course. “Itch moss so forth uprisen,” says Leland Berlitz. “Ich muss sofort abreisen,” echoes the distraught, suicidal, unpurged manager. He understands. Leland really has to go but where are his ski poles? All the foreign countries are lousy, excepting his own.
In the next hotel, Leland tries to forestall disillusion. “May I see the room? It is too dark, cold, hot, noisy, small, big, endless, and what is that incessant sound of Schubert coming out of the air conditioner?” Again he asks for ashtrays, et cetera, but forgets about the soap. The language of persecution seems to be speaking him. It has not been the other way around since the 1920’s. He has been overwound into a state of permanently dissatisfied tourism. He tries something new, to see if the language of hell will rebel: “Give me one box of chewing tobacco. I need a bottle of blue ink. Have you an ax? I am going to write my memoirs today. Then back to the old country, business class. I have a round-trip bonus coming.”
Then he begins asking for a Miss Phillips, whom he does not know, but her name is the one in the guidebook. “May I introduce Miss Phillips,” he says. “This is Miss Phillips. Have you seen Miss Phillips today? Miss Phillips and I have quarreled. Here is Miss Phillips’s bag. She has lost her golf sticks. Can you find her? I should be doing my memoirs.”
To the hotel doctor, he reports, “I am nervous. I am depressed. I am having nightmares.” Then, even as he takes the packet of pills from the doctor, he hears the whole thing starting up again: “Has the boat for Calcutta left? I have lost Miss Phillips. Call the police. My armband has been stolen. Where is my ceremonial dagger? Where is my whip? Where are my epaulets? Where is my Knight’s Cross with Diamonds? Stop following me. Where is the Embassy? Any embassy will do.”
He is carried screaming into a windowless van with introverted exhaust. It is as close to home as he can get. He wants to wipe somebody out. Millions. He wants a tribe, a class, a nation, to persecute. There are hardly any left worth bothering with. If only, he says. If only. He considers opening internment camps for those with brown eyes, brown teeth, brown hair. Perhaps, he thinks, it is time to exterminate poets. Or anchor-persons. He has become too Americanized to be a good tyrant. He has been privy to too many ideas. He longs to settle down, but not in a sewer, not in the gutter, not in an abattoir. If he goes home and comes back, he will soon have enough mileage to get him a round-trip first-class ticket to Australia.
Alas, his only norm is the Life channel on Sundays, with that spiky and stealthy music as the surgeons probe the green-clad gashes and an automatic nice lady doctor talks with slightly chiding delicacy to tanned savants from California. He hoots as assistant professors of medicine come on and talk, trembling; he prefers those with an MD and a PhD, and most of all he likes the chubby cardiologists, the long crawling litany of appalling side effects to this drug or that, the heart ads as squash-playing general practitioners make locker room talk about the newest beta-blocker. When he gets his by-pass he is going to wrap his chest in a brand-new battledress made to measure in Chicago. Pain is his stage.
He worries about the soaps, though, what to do with them when the hamper fills up. Start a new one? Or begin to fill a room instead? Maybe he should start a young crocks’ club on TV, with compulsory horror stories nightly, and an occasional visit from the automatic nice lady from the Life show: the Muse of materia medica. A Linda or a Joanna, he can’t remember which, except he wants to see them in the flesh, with their long heavy skirts uplifted to their ears, and himself and the others with miners’ lamps peering at what makes the ladies tick, and talk that funny LA kind of coronary-care Cockney. He is waiting. Of course. He is not going to donate his collection to any gallery or museum. But soft soap, he will go that far. Leland Blitz is willing to go that far. Just so long as he never has that dream again, he is willing to pass muster in any country he despises.
His theory about the dream goes like this. When the hamper fills right to the top, and the little soaps are toppling off the meniscus like sapped Alpinists, he is going to do a final homage, to radio talkshow hosts with voices in the head, and female bears plugged up tight for hibernation. He is going to peel the wrappers off all the soaps, give them away to someone to make a collage with, and then, in the privacy of his outhouse, make use of his one and only oil drum, beneath which a merry flame will spurt, to melt the soap down and make from it in secretly made molds imported from the old country, five thousand brand-new Jews.
A Piece of Ancient China
Whenever he stacked pine in the kiln, Chin-Chin the former bellows-mender marveled at how fast the pine turned to ash. Not that he was unused to sudden shifts. His promotion to fireman was one, while the slurred version of his correct name, Ts’ing Ts’ing, had just as abruptly come about, although later on.
What had won him favor was his knack of fitting each broken bellows with tiny membranes of speargrass that vibrated deep inside the nozzle. A bellows became a primitive bagpipe, though less doleful in sound and less complex in effect. From then on, others made broken bellows musical while Chin-Chin tended the actual fire; menial as his job might be, it was a distinct advancement. Prowess had earned him proximity, and proximity was everything. Fire was fire, whereas air was only air.
One day, peering into the kiln, at the solid throb of the fire, he saw a blue, comb-shaped thing hover, pirouette, then come toward him as he drew back. He had no idea what it was, and it was not his way to confide in anyone. Nor would it have been wise to do so. Not long ago, the new Emperor had had all the books burned, along with musical instruments, traditional toys, and all kinds of statuary. Only what was brand-new mattered, such things as, apparently, musical bellows or the unprecedented blue trim being tried out on certain plates.
Caught between the dead past and the meager present, Chin-Chin racked his brains. Was the apparition the soul of the kaolin clay, indignant at being fashioned into vulgar designs for foreign buyers? If so, it would not appear when they fired china for China. He checked when some fine-crafted ware for the home market went into the kiln, but again the comb-like apparition came at him while he stayed at the vizored peephole.
Only at a certain heat, he discovered, did the phantom show. After a week he knew it showed only when china of whatever caliber sported the new blue trim, which is to say when it was not plain. Other colors could not withstand the kiln’s ferocious heat, not even during the preliminary biscuit firing. And the blue was cobalt, mined (amid rumors) on the mountain Kao-Ling, on whose lower slopes stood the kiln and its austere chimney. Although, in its reddish-gray or gray-white form, the raw cobalt ore burned the miners’ hands, Chin-Chin asked to be a miner too; but an expert fireman they could not spare; besides, such demotion would set a bad example.
So Chin-Chin went on peering and gaping until, one day, beside himself with delight and awe, he exclaimed to the overseer, “The pale blue dragon comes again! Look!” Refusing to look into the kiln, the overseer reported the matter to his immediate superior, a poet who had specialized in sunsets. Had it been dawns, Chin-Chin might have fared better.
When the Emperor arrived, some days later, he watched a typical firing through the peephole and, for reasons of his own, said “I see nothing unusual. Cangue him at once. He’ll unsettle everyone.” Never a word about the blue phantom crossed his lips, which goes to show that emperors are masters of all they survey. If he’d seen it, did he suppress it because marvels weren’t supposed to come via menials? Why then did Chin-Chin profit, however briefly, by his inadvertent invention of the bellows-pipe? No doubt the blue phantom was important, and Chin-Chin’s innovation trivial. The puzzle remains. On the other hand, perhaps the Emperor genuinely saw nothing and concluded Chin-Chin was off his head. The question remains, though, of how anyone knew what Chin-Chin possibly saw; no doubt the overseer blabbed to his wife, whereas Chin-Chin was a fire-infatuated bachelor.
So Chin-Chin’s neck was locked into a bisected, hinged table, with a central neckhole, for public display, as a reactionary, gagged with white fleece. After only a day, they released him, still gagged, and told him to fill the kiln with pine logs, as usual. Happily he went about this work again.
At a certain point, however, soldiers chained him to the rock floor inside the kiln itself, this time affixing a damp, plain china cangue about his neck, and resting it on the uppermost logs, which formed a roofless sentry-box to shoulder-height. “No china today,” they told him. ‘Air bubbles spoil the bake.” His hands were chained behind and the cangue prevented him from toppling over.
Then they fired him, hotter and hotter, and no one saw any blue, comblike apparition even when his skull glowed pink to the motley squeak of musical bellows.
When finally removed, the cangue was irregular, both warped and split, deserving to be smashed, but tinted the pale rose of a baby’s gums. The Emperor had it hung next to the sealed peephole as incentive and reminder. Chin-Chin’s ribcage they swung by a silken cord from a nearby tree, so that it cast a moving shadow on porcelain plates held near it, upon which nimble-fingered copyists trapped the shifting pattern in cobalt blue thinned with oil of cloves. For three reigns the blue comb in the kiln went unobserved, yet, oddly enough, the china almost always came out right; indeed, it cooked better when unspied-upon.
Thus was born the famous grid-iron plate called Ts’ing Ts’ing, which is Chinese for “hello.” It can only be supposed that Chin-Chin had witnessed the underground goblin known to German miners as “kobolt,” notorious among them for its pale-blue mane, which shines best in undreamed-of heat, but, in the shallows of Earth, bright enough to conjure up a devil from the deep.
Among the last proverbs of that muddled bagpipe-ridden era, there is one (kill a fact and find a truth) which could be Chin-Chin’s epitaph. Far more telling, though, is the eventual enduring fame, under gentler emperors, of the Dragon Kiln, whether the original dragon was a cobalt goblin, a twitch in the visible spectrum, or the whim of one incinerated by a dream.