The Verdun Affair
Santa Monica, 1950
The deceased had been a doctor—a surgeon, renowned in his field—but I knew him only as the neighbor who locked himself out once during a storm. I invited him in and we drank coffee in my living room, watching rain pelt the eucalyptus leaves, sharing comfortable conversation and silence. We’d both grown up in Midwestern cities, we discovered—Chicago in my case, St. Louis in his. We both lived alone. As the locksmith rattled up in his truck we shook hands and promised to get together again. We never did.
He was buried in a beige suit, white hands folded on his chest, looking nothing like himself in life, at least as I had known him. The funeral parlor’s ceiling was frescoed in a mannerist style: rosy light, lean cherubs, clouds, and fountains. No doubt an expensive place to lie dead.
Though one can never think particularly fondly of a wake, I must admit that I preferred those of my childhood. When my mother died, our neighbors downstairs offered their living room for the viewing so the coffin wouldn’t have to be carried up two narrow flights. Mrs. Riley across the hall—who would have taken me in and cared for me as her own if my father hadn’t shocked everyone by cabling from France—swept out our apartment and lit the stove with her own precious coal so that our friends would be warm enough to stay as long as they chose.
Though I knew none of Dr. Kepler’s friends, I resolved to stay as long as I could. I found his daughter, surrounded by three light-eyed children. She said it was kind of me to come, and thanked me for the dahlias, which I’d guessed were a favorite. I’d often seen him in the early morning, watering his dahlias and pulling weeds from his green jewel of a lawn. Beside the casket, I said a few words to his pallid face, then passed between the clusters of mourners, saying appropriate things—appropriately little—until I found myself listening to a man tell a story with the accent of a British actor playing a German in a film.
At first, I was only half-listening. It felt disrespectful to take an interest in such a story—the story of his life, it seemed—at another man’s funeral. But as he continued—blinding headlights, Blackshirts swinging cudgels in an Italian piazza, fires set to the cafés and shops—I realized I knew that in the next sentence he’d be separated from his friends, swallowed by the crowd, beaten badly because the Fascists heard him speaking German, his ribs cracked, his eye nearly gouged out. That is to say, I realized it was not just the story of his life he was telling, but mine.
And, of course, though his back was to me, I knew immediately who the man was. Still, I waited what must have been a full minute on the chance the scene would simply fall apart as dreams do. I touched Paul’s shoulder—that was his name, Paul Weyerhauser—and when he turned his expression was not so much of surprise as awe, as if the story had somehow conjured me. Perhaps it had—how would I know? What does it feel like, I wondered? What does it feel like to be conjured?
* * *
Paul suggested a Viennese bakery. It was late afternoon by the time we left the wake, and the tables were empty. His English had always been perfect, but I could hear the American in it now. He’d had his gig at UCLA since ’35, he said. He scribbled his books in English.
What were the books on? Nineteenth-century American painting, portraiture of the Gold Rush West in particular. When I told him I wrote for the pictures, he asked what he might have seen. I named a few films, and he pretended for a moment before giving up.
“My wife will know your work,” he said. “And you? Are you married?”
“Yes,” I said, which was true, though my wife and I had not lived together for some time. I wasn’t in the habit of covering up that fact, and something in the way I said it—the eagerness, probably—must have betrayed me, because his only response was a sympathetic smile. A bus passed outside. The register rang, and a boy of about nine walked into the evening with a loaf of bread under his arm.
Outside, palms lined Wilshire, thin in the sunlight. Within blocks, the street of bakeries and banks would become a shoulder of brown beach shrugging off a coat of ocean. And Paul, who had bowed to Franz Joseph at masked balls when there still was such a place as imperial Vienna, looked perfectly at home. One can get used to anything, I suppose, from crumbling empires to crumbling sand.
“I have to admit I’m not sure I would have recognized you,” I said. He’d aged the way people do in California. His long face was lined and tanned, his hair gone silver instead of gray.
“I spend too much time in the sun,” he said. “And perhaps you assumed I had lost the eye?”
He blinked several times, as if to assure us both that, indeed, he hadn’t. “You realize that Dr. Kepler was the one who saved it, don’t you? It was a close thing. I’d had two surgeries in Austria already before I came to him. I was trying to explain that at the wake—explain his near-genius, but also why I’d needed his help—the riot, the rest of it. Frankly, it’s not a story I’m in the habit of telling.”
“He lived next door to me—Dr. Kepler. For almost three years now, I think.”
Paul smiled, amazed, amused. “I should have preferred to meet him your way.” He paused. “I wonder, have you spoken with any Italian doctors recently?”
“I believe he died,” I said. “In a Nazi camp.”
“What, for communists?”
I nodded. We said nothing for a few minutes, eating raisin bread, sipping coffee. Of course, I was wondering how long it would be before one of us mentioned Sarah Hagen. I wanted to prepare myself for what that might feel like.
It would have been a shame, after all that time, to say something about her that I didn’t mean. But I had written about love successfully for the pictures precisely because I’d never set out to say anything true. And if I were to have attempted it, I might have said that our sense of romantic love comes from the Middle Ages, along with bloodlettings and the Black Death. I might have left it at that.
But Paul did not mention Sarah, perhaps because he and I were old enough now to be cautious above all else, or perhaps because we quickly became lost in other conversation, in the pleasure of discovering there was much to talk about besides a past we happened to share. And before long, the woman who’d served us coffee turned the sign on the door and it was time to go.
“I walk here sometimes,” I said. “To this bakery.”
“Do you? I drive from Brentwood once a week. The best raisin bread in California, so far as I know.”
“Brentwood? Three miles from here? Four? It’s extraordinary.”
“Isn’t it?” He reached across the table to squeeze my shoulder. His face was so frankly happy that I almost had to avert my eyes. “Isn’t it?”
* * *
My house was only blocks away, but sometimes the roads seem the least lonely place in Los Angeles, so I kept driving. Past restaurants
with men in paper hats carving roast beef in the windows. Past furniture store signs twirling slowly over Lincoln Boulevard. Then out into the farmlands south of Los Angeles, through thickets of trucks heading back to San Pedro. In Torrance, I took a turn into a neighborhood of bungalows and bougainvillea, where two boys wrestled in the street, grudgingly giving way as I approached.
By the time I reached Palos Verdes at the end of the peninsula, it was growing dark, and the road had dipped between hills of chaparral, and I had a long drive back. I didn’t mind. The war had shown me the uses of long drives in the dark. Just after I arrived in France, in fact, my father taught me to drive on the empty roads west of the river Meuse. This was in October or November of 1915. He was pleased—we both were—with how fast I took to it, the clutch, the gas, the brake.
But on the way back to Bar-le-Duc we found ourselves on foot. The ambulance had stalled in the cold, then died completely just outside a village. “I don’t see us walking the rest of the way,” my father said as I followed him over the moonlit grass. “Not in this weather. We’ll have to find a floor to sleep on here.”
He said the name of the place, but I wasn’t sure what he meant. Not because the word was French, but because all I saw were a few stone houses along a low hill, a narrow road of wet ruts. Stars on the sky like a rind of frost. Nothing that needed a name.
It seemed the kind of village left untouched by the war, by the sentiment that outsiders had a place in France. I think my father sensed this, as, almost cheerfully, he said, “Don’t worry. They can’t turn us away with you here.” And he yanked my cap down, playfully. Well, he meant to be playful, I’m sure, but my ears were cold, so it hurt quite a lot.
A woman came to the door in a black shawl, white hair undone on her shoulders. My father spoke to her in French; he gestured to me
and then to himself and then down the road in the direction of the ambulance, or maybe that wasn’t the direction. I couldn’t tell anymore.
There were five other women inside. All pale and thin, though everyone was pale and thin then. The woman with white hair nodded to them, and said something that made my father smile. This is a celebration for her birthday, he translated, but we’re invited to stay. The room smelled of onions. The woman began to ladle soup and pointed to a place by the hearth where we could make a bed. The stone floor was warm. Aside from a few candles, the fire was the only light.
She served us the soup, then returned to a round table at the other end of the room. They were stitching needlepoint, the six of them together; a dim blue thread through canvas on a scroll frame, taking turns, the needle looping out and doubling back. I had neither the language nor the strength to ask what they were doing, and soon fell asleep.
I awoke to voices in darkness. From the irregular breathing to my left I could tell my father was awake too. My French was almost useless, and names of places were easiest to catch. Reims, Amiens, Ypres, the women whispered, trying not to wake us.
“What is it?” I asked my father. “What are they saying?”
“They’re arguing,” he said, and I could hear the laugh in his voice, a sly ironic laugh that was perhaps typical of him, though I never got to learn what was typical.
“They’re arguing about where I’m going to die.”
They were wrong, though; he didn’t die in Reims or Ypres. He died of typhus not far from where we slept that night, just north of Verdun in December of 1915. He was a doctor too—a surgeon with the American Field Service. I sat with him as he lay sweating through three nights of incoherent fever.
I was scared, but not sad, exactly. It was difficult to fully appreciate that the man dying before me was my father. He seemed decent enough, and I was grateful for the time I spent with him, but months later I could remember only that his hair was a metallic gray at the temples, though he wasn’t yet forty.
I never lost the image of those women, though. In eastern France in 1915 it was no difficult thing to select a young man for death; it took no special powers. But, for the same reason, perhaps, it seemed like a world in which such powers were possible. In the years after, I thought of trying to find that village, that house. But, that night, I was too turned around in the dark, and the French name was lost to me almost at once, before I knew I needed to remember it.