Randy Ford Author- Revised ON THE HOME FRONT
It was the middle of the night, and she couldn’t sleep. She remembered the boys on the two trains and how they leaned out their windows and exchanged wine bottles. Toasts were also exchanged, till the trains pulled out, while none of them realized what they were heading into.
But now alone, pushed to the breaking point, she asked herself, “Is he alive?” For all she knew she could’ve been a widow, and with all of her heart she hoped Fritz could still hear the enemy’s reveille. If he could it meant that he still could come home, and now she saw her husband and lover charging Calvary Hill, tipsily trilling the “Hooch Habsburg-Marsch.” Felt better? No. She still couldn’t sleep and wanted to cry … cry … many more tears … but they just wouldn’t come.
Wars, as you know, are never fun, never, never fun. The question is does prayer work? Prrwht! So she rarely prayed, but now she wanted to know if prayer works.
Most nights she didn’t bother with sleep … how to fall asleep before exhausting herself was a mystery to her. For this woman though, it was not the lack of sleep that mattered, but it was the nightmares that bothered her the most. More than anything else it was the nightmares. The yells of assault, the screams of agony, the wrath, the pain, and the killing, all these things came too close to home.
This life didn’t suit her. There was no one to cheer her up. She had to do it for herself, and she didn’t know why, for instance, but when she was around other people she felt even sadder. It took courage to go out, courage to go on living, while courage conquered death and death ended misery. Her excursions ended not with her seeking friends, but with her wandering the streets of Wien. Whenever she went out she rarely had a destination in mind and usually ended up in a place where they wouldn’t recognize her.
“Why, Frau Hertzel, why?” she asked herself. “Why is it so hard these days to carry on like we did before the war? And why can’t you do something that’s useful? Why can’t you contribute to the war effort? War! I thought you wouldn’t mind war so much. I just want to know what you can do, that’s all.”
“See here, we thought the war wouldn’t amount to much. Croatia isn’t far away, and with few causalities the war would be over in the matter of weeks. Then if we must fight, fight we shall. The war business is all very well, but it shouldn’t disrupt everything, you know. Don’t forget the reason we’re fighting is due to the assassination of one man. War! It takes courage on all fronts to fight a war. Courage! Austrian courage? Is it different from French courage? There’s no way of knowing for sure.”
At first they blindly went along with the war. At first she tried to behave like other women she knew; she really tried, carrying on the best she could, taking one day at a time. But it didn’t work for her.
It all seemed so pointless. Without Fritz it seemed that way. She could’ve been spending her time helping out in some way. There was so much to do.
It wasn’t long before she realized that the war would drag on. The topic of conversation then became who would come home. And out of those who came out of it alive how many would’ve lost an eye or a limb?
And for the women and the children who were left behind it was especially hard, and while some of them learned how to survive some of them didn’t. As long months turned into years, causalities on the home front mounted.
It helped not to think too much. Also drink helped but often gave no pleasure.
Why expect more from women than men? Remain strong first, then set an example by preserving the home. Be the best she could be. Then every time she was called upon, she was ready to help and did her best to keep her morale up.
Maybe she should stay at home. She couldn’t be careful enough. She tried to stay home, and many times she failed. She had to burst out, after she felt so depressed that she didn’t want to leave her flat.
The key, she thought, rushing out the door, must be fresh air and companionship …to forget the war through companionship.
Avoiding her old haunts … the cafes she once knew … she went looking for something she once had. It took tremendous courage to go out alone, but it got easier over time. Within a short time she overcame her inhibitions. A few drinks helped.
But one or two drinks weren’t enough. The moment she stopped drinking, her mind cleared but perhaps she never saw that she was making mistakes. Indiscretion aside, she never intended to hurt anyone.
When he approached her he seemed lonely too. He wanted to talk. What was there to talk about? Was there anything wrong with talking to him? He asked her name. She feebly answered him. She said just enough to keep the conversation going, and that was as far as it went.
As she reconstructed their conversation, a hollow voice sounded within her brain. There was no way around it. She had become a vamp, a silly vamp. She hadn’t come to the conclusion that she was a whore yet. If it were meant for her to realize that about herself it would mean that she’d have to wait. And she had brains, but she wasn’t thinking. If she had been thinking then maybe she wouldn’t have gotten into the mess that she got into. She felt foolish and tried to get over it.
The voice in her brain faded, and she went out again. The place was dark and cozy, and by then she’d decided to act like a vamp. It made him happy, and it gave her an excuse for her behavior.
“But I’m married,” she thought. “But I don’t care. It doesn’t matter to him, so it shouldn’t matter to me. I’m a vamp like every other vamp, and men like vamps.” So she didn’t have to think it over before she started flirting with him.
She felt better after her decision to be with someone. There’d be no ties afterwards. The war made it acceptable somehow. Spending time with him would mean no more than talking to a stranger on a tram … except they did more than talk.
Careful! But she didn’t pay attention to the hollow voice in the back of her head. Horrible!
She was lonely and was prepared to say “yes.” Then she wasn’t alert enough to say “no.” The weight of her feelings ignored, it was pretty clear that they went too far. And if it weren’t bold and risky, what was the point?
Whore! Whores were plentiful on Krugerstrasse. If you weren’t meant to be a whore, why would you allow him to slide his hand between your blouse and your skirt? Where were your brains? She had a girlish air about her. But there in the dark, as they passed Kremsmunsterhof, it felt like the end of the world, so her pain, her loss needed an antidote.
Feeling lousy. Talk was unnecessary.
That was the answer. Dive in headfirst. All she needed was a little tenderness. Then if indeed the world was about to end, what the hell!
They spent a few hours in bed looking for ways to get close, and without a thought of the consequences, he bought a little time before he’d face death again.
“When were you last in Salzburg?”
“Hotel Osterreichischer Hof in der Halle. We stayed there once. I was baptized a Lutheran.”
There would never be enough time … never enough time for an open carriage ride around The Prater, and it wasn’t nearly as hard for her after the first time.
With a hand on her thigh, the soldier asked her, “Again what is your name?”
“Why does it matter what my name is?”
“As a boy, I sang in the choir at Nonnberg Abbey.”
Solders always had the advantage because of the war. He knew this, as he loosened the lace of her bodice. She gave no resistance. In fact, she helped him. Her vows for the moment were forgotten, swept away by passion, breaking the promises that she had made to Fritz. Such promises didn’t mean much anymore. They’d become a causality of war.
His intensity and endurance surprised her. He was alive and trembling. Then without ceremony, he said goodbye, and she thought where was the gratitude that he should’ve shown. By the time he was gone she realized that his size meant nothing to her, but there was something that did matter, mattered more than anything else. She was now thinking straight. She swallowed, swallowed hard, and asked herself, how many times had she forgotten Lysoform and when was the last time she had her period.
The idea was terrifying. It was the biggest mistake she’d ever made, and it terrified her. Pregnant! Pregnant and she didn’t know who the father was. Which one was the father?
And then she remembered that for some time she regretfully hadn’t bothered to protect herself. It had been her responsibility and not the guy’s. Ya, it was the whore’s fault!
A single second made all the difference in the world. Afterwards she felt so clumsy and dirty. Oh, yes, she felt bad. She swallowed, knowing that she couldn’t keep the baby. But what was she to do? She was Catholic and knew what a priest would say.
He began by apologizing. So many of them wouldn’t have felt anything. It was clearly her fault. He couldn’t stop once he got started. They were both desperate.
It didn’t matter that she didn’t know who it was.
And so she shut her eyes.
It happened with a young boy really; then, if that was the one, she remembered that he seemed self-conscious … all fired up but self-conscious … though he could’ve been her son. The gulf between his and her ages made no difference since no one was hurt.
By the time he said goodbye he had forgotten her name. Perhaps he didn’t care enough about her to remember it. She certainly couldn’t blame him, if there was anyone to blame, so blame it on the war … a boy going off to war. He spared no time that day to talk to her, but rushed out the door. He had a war to fight.
When she remembered him … if only she could be sure that he was the right one … she remembered how she had helped him. He was young and terrified. Yet in delight he yelp like a puppy. When she heard it, she thought of how it felt the first time with Fritz. The first time with Fritz … would she get another time with him? They had been wild with joy. Now she felt only sadness. Now instead of a whole lot of happiness, there was one small problem. She could think of it in that way and do something about it, or … she could be free of it, as long as it remained an “it”.
Meanwhile the war dragged on, and people shouldn’t forget the men who went to war.
Remember it was supposed to have been the war that would end all wars. They had, in fact, dug themselves into a hole.
Fritz! Caught in Hell, he no longer dreamed of glory. Instead, he dreamed of bathing, a long soaking bath. Caught in Hell, he dreamed of women. Of course, he thought of his wife. Of stoking her hair. Touching her up. Knoodle and schnitzel. Strudel. Krugerstrasse. Grinsing. Cutie pie. Songs of love, always of love, pretty songs sung by rotten singers.
Fritz, caught in Hell, dreamed of the Prater in early spring, but the sounds of battle substituted for the sounds of thrushes and early lambs. And obsessed on cafe life, from conversation to cigarette smoke, comfortably talking or reading, even writing, the last sanctuary known to mankind those cafes. A frustrated and unrepentant cynic, with a little alcohol and opium, dull sort of fetishism he needed more booze. And more booze.
War changed all of that. A heavy dose of death, unmentionable horror, cold feet, froze bite did it! Eyes burning from acrid smoke! He was no hero. What if he refused to go over the top? They sent him crawling from trench to trench.
For as much as he wanted to communicate truthfully, there were subjects he avoided. The worst part. The broken spell worse than the broken vows. After the front, everyone was game. She, on her part, also felt less willing to communicate honestly. Who was with his sweetie?
Before him lay many more battles. From cold and dreary Prussia, with a war to win and a staggering number of dead, Lord have mercy; to Belgium and to France, the war dragged on and on. Ahead of him lay Ardennes, Mons, and Ypres, places Fritz hadn’t heard of before.
”… for your reckless irresponsibility,” the hollow voice intoned, “… for violating your vows and the traditions of family …”
To be faced with shame … delusion was easy in Wien. She never claimed to be pure.
But while she never intentionally hurt anyone, she was unfaithful at the very hour of her husband’s greatest trial.
But she quickly learned that irresponsibility didn’t pay. Irresponsibility? Was that what she called it? Now when she was faced with doing or not doing the responsible thing she had to think of her family. Given a chance to think, and when it came down to it, that was who she was thinking of. She didn’t want to hurt them.
Fritz might as well have been on another planet. Their vows were broken, and he didn’t know it. And she could’ve accepted her responsibility and turned her back on him
Now alone she walked up Staudgasse, but once she made up her mind she didn’t dare stop. Her one regret was not what she was about to do; it was that it hadn’t been Fritz’s baby. She refused to consider other options now.
She hadn’t slept. She knew that it would be over soon, if she could get over the pain and knew that the physical pain would go away soon enough. She no longer needed anyone else’s help, and she’d made up her mind without it. With some inner control she found the name and the address of a doctor who would take care of it for her … and when she was most vulnerable, but had she learned her lesson? And at the very same time as far as she knew Fritz lay dead in a trench somewhere.
What she once hoped for was now lost; changes familiar by now, some were not so subtle. She tried to abort it herself, tried many things. Her secret wouldn’t have been a secret for very much longer. And she’d never tell Fritz.
So this was it, she thought, and a long bath hadn’t cleansed her. A warm douche hadn’t stopped his sperm. Why hadn’t she used Lysoform?
And now as she came to Hilderbrandgasse, with a twisted ankle, and in survival mode, she saw the address she was looking for. True, he had to be a disreputable gynecologist, or else he wouldn’t do it. A friend of a friend of a friend gave her Herr doktor’s name.
It seemed like a long wait, interminable in fact. Just a little longer. In an hour or less, it would be over. Powerless, she sat there stiffly wondering what she was doing.
Only a hundred shillings. She didn’t care what it cost.
He had her take her clothes off now. Then as she stood there he put his arm around her. It felt like she was inside someone else’s body but had she not been naked she could’ve still ran!
His fingers roamed her body now, and his touch was gentle and direct as a lover’s touch. He began to say, “I could kiss you” and would’ve too had she responded. With a thousand apologies, he tried to reassure her. With a thousand apologies, he thought that he could win her over and felt faintly disappointed when he couldn’t. There was a limit to how much she could stand, and it wouldn’t take much before she would crack. To him there wouldn’t be any limits.
Then finally the tears came. As his short, chubby fingers cupped her breast.
He was ignoring her objections and tears. And he’d charge her a hundred shillings for an abortion, while the abortion hurt less than having him kiss her. Kissed her and kissed her. Don’t complain, don’t squirm, don’t scream! Cursed dog! “Your secret is safe with me.” And why didn’t she scream? Women who came to him were never supposed to complain, or squirm or scream.
“So allow me.”
Where had she heard that before? The old memories came back to her. Some of them had been gentle, and some of them had been rough, but the details were now blurred …something about lying on her back with her legs spread apart.
She felt cold as she lay on the table. She didn’t feel anything else as he separated her legs. So far it had been the worse day of her life. It couldn’t get much worse, but it did.
He then turned to the business of the abortion, the probing and the penetration that hurt less than she expected. He had given her something to ease the pain, but nothing would’ve eased it entirely. For about ten minutes…maybe it was half an hour, an hour … an eternity. And how she hated him, hated him. God knew that she didn’t ask to be kissed. And her thinking got so mixed up that she thought she’d never get it straightened out. After she rebuked herself for … Wien lost much of its luster. Curious life is, really. Somewhere along the way, she fell asleep.
In the months that followed she still grew restless. But now she was hesitant. She wasn’t as assured of herself as she had been. For each time she went out she checked and made sure she had Lysoform with her. Then one day there was no more Lysoform in Wien. No more Lysoform. No more… Here were other whores who thought as she thought. For each of them, the most important thing in their line of business was to make sure that they carried with them Lysoform. And now there was no more Lysoform in Wien.
For a long time she forgot about where she came from, that she hadn’t always been a vamp or a whore. But now and then, it all came back to her. She remembered it as she walked through the Stock-im-Eisen-Platz and passed by the old tree trunk on her way to Stephansdom. She wasn’t looking for anyone, and no one recognized her. People surrounded her yet she asked, “Where is everybody?” Was she looking for men, when there weren’t many around? And there were thousands and thousands of women without lovers. She shook her head. And there was no more Lysoform in Wien. A city without Lysoform, what a shame! It slowly came her that there was little need for Lysoform. She might as well go back to where she came from. Do you have any idea how often she was tempted to go back to where she’d been when she had plenty of Lysoform? Thousands of women, thousands upon thousands without husbands. And without Lysoform. The same rule held for her now as it did then except now there was no Lysoform. We choose our world. Had she not learned anything?
”Hey, soldier!” she called out.
“Frauline?” he whispered, so as not to be obvious.
Frauline! Of course, she was flattered. Well, of course. As simple as that, two lost souls found each other. Sex-stuck, gosh. “Frauline, would you like…” “Well, of course.”
And back outside across Stock-im-Eisen-Platz and they passed the old tree trunk and walked together down Karntnerstrasse, where they had a particular destination in mind. Over to Eve’s on Fuhrichgasse. Hurry. Walk quickly. “Is there any hope for me?”
“No hope whatsoever.”
For an hour or two, she and the soldier played around. Then sometime before the candle burned itself out, music, emotion, and sensation set off a flood of tears.