Frank Volkheimer’s third-floor walk-up in the suburbs of Pforzheim, Germany, possesses three windows. A single billboard, mounted on the cornice of the building across the alley, dominates the view; its surface gleams three yards beyond the glass. Printed on it are processed meats, cold cuts as tall as he is, reds and pinks, gray at the edges, garnished with parsley sprigs the size of shrubs. At night the billboard’s four cheerless electric spotlights bathe his apartment in a strange reflected glare.
He is fifty-one years old.
April rain falls slantwise through the billboard’s spotlights and Volkheimer’s television flickers blue and he ducks habitually as he passes through the doorway between his kitchen and the main room. No children, no pets, no houseplants, few books on the shelves. Just a card table, a mattress, and a single armchair in front of the television where he now sits, a tin of butter cookies in his lap. He eats them one after another, all the floral discs, then the ones shaped like pretzels, and finally the clovers.
On the television, a black horse helps free a man trapped beneath a fallen tree.
Volkheimer installs and repairs rooftop TV antennas. He puts on a blue jumpsuit every morning, faded where it strains over his huge shoulders, too short around the ankles, and walks to work in big black boots. Because he is strong enough to move the big extension ladders by himself, and perhaps also because he rarely speaks, Volkheimer responds to most calls alone. People telephone the branch office to request an installation, or to complain about ghost signals, interference, starlings on the wires, and out goes Volkheimer. He splices a broken line, or pokes a bird’s nest off a boom, or elevates an antenna on struts.
Only on the windiest, coldest days does Pforzheim feel like home. Volkheimer likes feeling the air slip under the collar of his jumpsuit, likes seeing the light blown clean by the wind, the far-off hills powdered with snow, the town’s trees (all planted in the years after the war, all the same age) glittering with ice. On winter afternoons he moves among the
antennas like a sailor through rigging. In the late blue light, he can watch the people in the streets below, hurrying home, and sometimes gulls soar past, white against the dark. The small, secure weight of tools along his belt, the smell of intermittent rain, and the crystalline brilliance of the clouds at dusk: these are the only times when Volkheimer feels marginally whole.
But on most days, especially the warm ones, life exhausts him; the worsening traffic and graffiti and company politics, everyone grousing about bonuses, benefits, overtime. Sometimes, in the slow heat of summer, long before dawn, Volkheimer paces in the harsh dazzle of the billboard lights and feels his loneliness on him like a disease. He sees tall ranks of firs swaying in a storm, hears their heartwood groan. He sees the earthen floor of his childhood home, and the spiderwebbed light of dawn coming through conifers. Other times the eyes of men who are about to die haunt him, and he kills them all over again. Dead man in Lodz. Dead man in Lublin. Dead man in Radom. Dead man in Cracow.
Rain on the windows, rain on the roof. Before he goes to bed, Volkheimer descends three flights of stairs to the atrium to check his mail. He has not checked his mail in over a week, and among two flyers and a paycheck and a single utility bill is a small package from a veterans’ service organization located in West Berlin. He carries the mail upstairs and opens the package.
Three different objects have been photographed against the same white background, carefully numbered notecards taped beside each.
14-6962. A canvas soldier’s bag, mouse gray, with two padded straps.
14-6963. A little model house, made from wood, partially crushed.
14-6964. A soft-covered rectangular notebook with a single word across the front: Fragen.
The house he does not recognize, and the bag could have been any soldier’s, but he knows the notebook instantly. W.P. inked on the bottom corner. Volkheimer sets two fingers on the photograph as though he could pluck out the notebook and sift through its pages.
He was a just a boy. They all were. Even the largest of them.
The letter explains that the organization is trying to deliver items to next of kin of dead soldiers whose names have been lost. It says they believe that he, Staff Sergeant Frank Volkheimer, served as ranking officer of a unit that included the owner of this bag, a bag that was
collected by a United States Army prisoner-of-war processing camp in Bernay, France, in the year 1944.
Does he know to whom these items belonged?
He sets the photographs on the table and stands with his big hands at his sides. He hears jouncing axles, grumbling tailpipes, rain on canvas. Clouds of gnats buzzing. The march of jackboots and the full-throated shouts of boys.
Static, then the guns.
But was it decent to leave him out there like that? Even after he was dead?
What you could be.
He was small. He had white hair and ears that stuck out. He buttoned the collar of his jacket up around his throat when he was cold and drew his hands up inside the sleeves. Volkheimer knows whom those items belonged to.