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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Arbogast Case

A Novel

Thomas Hettche Translation from the German by Elizabeth Gaffney

Farrar, Straus and Giroux


The Arbogast Case

She laughed as if she had just discovered something and turned back to look at him. Drawn to her laugh, he let the two sides of the swing doors slide slowly across his open palms before gently releasing them. There was almost no sound as the doors closed behind him and he stepped out into the evening twilight and her laughter. Afterward, he always remembered the quiet of that moment and the way the cool, smooth wood of the doors had brushed across his palms, almost as if he were being nudged forward. That was when it started. But when he pictured her face, later on, he couldn't really say what it was that had captivated him.
"'When angels go abroad ...,'" she began, but didn't finish the sentence. As he stood there, she reached out and touched his forearm to suggest that he turn around. "Look, there."
It was almost painful, the way her touch drew the tension from his skin. He already knew the bar was called the Angel; he also knew, as he turned back to look at the yellow neon sign, that they would sleep together. All day long, he hadn't been sure, but now he could taste it on his tongue as certainly as if he held a smooth pebble in his mouth. He spit it into his hand, ashamed of it, and stuck it in his pocket. In those days, out in the country, there weren't many neon signs, and this sign's glow had seemed very faint until the end of the summer's day. There were no cars on the road that ran past the bar, and it was quiet except for the buzzing of the neon tubes. They stood there in the yellow light for a moment; he felt her hand on his arm and let it fall, then grasped her around the waist and touched the resilient syntheticfabric of her dress for the first time. She slid into his embrace as if into a coat, but then suddenly she wasn't as energetic anymore. She shivered; she needed someone to warm her up.
"'When angels go abroad ... the heavens smile,'" he whispered into her ear, finishing her phrase.
The way they went to his car, it was as if they'd known each other a long time. He was struck by her silence as he opened her door and closed it carefully behind her. The whole afternoon, she'd chattered and told him stories. He hesitated briefly, looking back down the road they'd traveled together. He'd pulled over at the railway overpass outside of Grangat on the way to Gottsweiher and asked if he could give her a lift. "Sure," she'd said, and only then asked where he was heading. In fact, he was on his way to Freiburg, for business, but he'd told her he was just out for a drive. She wasn't from around there, was she? he'd asked. No, Berlin. Ah, he thought--one of the refugees from the East. Did she live in Ringsheim, in the camp, then? She'd nodded, and he'd looked at her.
She might have been in her early twenties, but he found it difficult to tell with such a delicate woman. She was just over five feet and had short, curly red hair. Her eyes were always in a squint, which might have been the sun or shortsightedness--he couldn't tell--but it gave her an air of confidence, as did her Berlin accent, which sounded unfamiliar to him. Her dress, with its round neck and short-cropped sleeves, had a pattern of green leaves on an ice blue field, and she wasn't wearing a crinoline. But she was wearing a pair of white pumps. Had she been to the Black Forest before? She shook her head. And then they'd driven off. It had been a lovely day, and not merely on account of the weather, he'd thought. The date had occurred to him just then, he later recalled: the first of September, 1953. He walked around the car, opened the door on the driver's side and got in. She was silent, but he knew that didn't make any difference.
He didn't put his hand on her knee--that would have seemed too forward--but once they were off and he'd casually shifted into third, he pressed the back of his hand lightly against her upper thigh, just as if he always kept his hand there, positioned quite carelessly on the edge of the passenger seat. She didn't pull away, nor did she reciprocatethat slight pressure as the night fell irrevocably around them and they drove in silence toward Grangat. After awhile, he felt her hand on his neck and her fingers slipping inside his shirt collar, roving as far as his left armpit before they retreated, and then her fingernails and then her fingertips, grazing his carotid, all the way up to his left ear, and finally plunging down his unbuttoned shirt collar, as if helpless to resist.
"Is it far?"
"About an hour."
"Why don't we just stop somewhere along the way?"
"Do we want to do that?"
"Yes." Her voice was so close against his face that he could feel her moist breath on his skin.
As he approached a small bridge between Gutach and Hausach, he braked, took his hand from the edge of her seat to downshift and gave a little gas; she leaned toward him, put her arms around him and kissed him. On the left side of the road, just before the bridge, there was a path that led through a meadow and into the darkness. Without signaling, he took the turn and rolled down a small incline. On the right, there was a small stream and the bridge that spanned it. Some shrubbery blocked the view to the road, and a field opened up off the path. He turned off the engine and cut the headlights.
Marie pulled a pack of cigarettes from her white patent-leather purse and asked him for a light. She smoked Kurmark, but the brand didn't seem to fit her at all. The perfect blend every time--"Great flavor, and mild, too," he thought, flicking his lighter on with his left thumb and cupping his other hand around hers as he touched the flame to the tip of her cigarette. She thanked him with a nod. She wasn't all that young after all, he saw. The creases at the corners of her mouth gave her laugh a trembling quality that made him want her. She told him about herself: the war, the two children she'd left behind with her mother, the wooden barracks at the refugee camp where she lived. She barely mentioned her husband. He doubted she was lying much. Her hands were not girlish. She wasn't wearing a ring and--strange that he only noticed it now--no stockings, either.
He opened the ashtray, holding the lighter with its flame still goingin the other hand. She exhaled smoke and gave another nod. He took the pack of cigarettes from her hand and lit one for himself. Then he put the lighter away and dropped the cigarettes in her lap. As if that were a challenge, she moved her purse to the floor and leaned toward him, and he kissed her. He kept close to her as she leaned back, switching the cigarette to his left hand and placing his right hand behind her neck. The glow of the cigarette seemed to float in the air between the thin white steering wheel of the Isabella and the equally white Bakelite knob of the radio, just above the ashtray, into which he then let his cigarette fall without looking. She pressed her head back against the seat cushion and his arm with all her strength. He managed to pull her up to him nevertheless, and then, when her head fell back slightly, he ran his tongue along her gums, spelling out each of her teeth.
Her lower lip quivered, which didn't surprise him--he sensed the same excitement under his own skin, as well, the way it traveled from his lips through his entire body. But just as he was registering that sensation, she freed herself from his kiss and his embrace. For a moment he thought it might all be a mistake, a misunderstanding, an imposition. Then she hurriedly stubbed out her cigarette in the ashtray, and this time it was she who softly pressed him into the upholstery and crouched over him. And as she kissed him and her hands crept back inside his shirt, he held her around the waist, then found the buttons on the side of her dress and undid them. His fingers slid across a soft charmeuse undergarment and onto her skin.
"Shall I undress?"
He nodded and pushed her dress up around her legs to her hips while she reached over her head, grasped the dress with both hands and pulled it off. Her white slip gleamed as the headlights of a passing car streamed wildly across her body and then momentarily gilded the ceiling panel of the car. In the last glimmer of light, he saw that she was looking at him.
"Should we go outside? It's still warm."
He nodded again, and she unbuttoned his shirt while he undid his pants and kicked off his shoes.
"Come on," she whispered.
There she was, standing in this incredibly shiny slip in the nightdark meadow beside the dirt path. She turned and took a few steps. She'd left her shoes behind in the car. Her skin was very pale--as is often the case with redheads, or so he'd read--as she sauntered lazily, head down, through the tall, dry grass. At one point, she stopped and, keeping her back turned to the car, took off her slip, her bra and her panties.
He came up behind her, grasped her shoulders and pressed himself against her, slipping himself between her thighs. He felt how wet she was and whispered in her ear how much he wanted her. She laughed again. Not the loud, bright laughter he knew from before, but a breathy, nearly toneless cooing, in time with the movement of her hips as she ground against him. He could still see her smiling from beneath closed lids when she turned back around for a kiss. Then they collapsed onto the ground where her underwear lay, not quite letting themselves fall so much as holding each other on the way down.
She pulled away from his embrace and lay on her belly, expectant, supporting herself with her hands, not facing him. He had a full view of her ass, caressed it there, at the crack, then took hold of her hips and turned her gently onto her back. He grasped her by the thighs and pushed into her. For a moment, he thought he sensed resistance, but then she looked straight at him, bore down and began to follow his rhythm.
He didn't kiss her, just stared at her openly and kept thrusting until he came. Afterward, he considered whether he still liked her and was glad he did. He lay quietly beside her in the grass for a while, then knelt between her legs and looked at her in the moonlight, to which his eyes had now grown accustomed. He saw her thinness for the first time, her scruffy, light pubic hair, her bony hips and shoulders. Her breasts were small and pointy, her toenails painted. There were deep circles under her eyes that he'd somehow failed to notice the entire day. Even now, he thought, I don't know her. He caressed her belly with an open hand. There was no sound but the eerie whispering of the dry grass. It had gotten distinctly chilly outside. It'll be fall soon, he thought with a faint dread.
"Let's have a cigarette," she said and sat up.
He got to his feet and reached out for her hand. She let him pull her up as she scooped up her underwear with her other hand. They walked hand in hand back to the car and sat down, leaving the Isabella's doors open like two wings spread wide. He noticed she kept her panties between her legs so as not to soil the leatherette upholstery. Then she pulled the slip over her head and he gave her a light. Once again, they said nothing while they smoked, but with her left hand she stroked his inner thigh, again and again, as if she needed to be sure of him. At last, she kissed his neck, his breast, and threw her cigarette out the passenger door. She kissed him breathlessly, as if she couldn't tear herself away from him, sucked his nipples so hard that it hurt, and he flinched. But all she had to do was smile for him to bend back down to her. This time, she bit his neck, and all the while her hand was still stroking his thigh in a strangely chaste manner that would surely have reawakened his lust, even if she hadn't used her teeth.
"I'm not done yet," she murmured into his neck.
"Neither am I."
He pushed aside her slip and bit her right nipple, and she writhed as if she were spring-loaded, as if he were winding her up, and the car seat could only just contain her. She drew her knees up against her body and sucked his neck harder and harder, as if that were the only thing that sustained her. It was like the way the parts of a tool fit together--he'd never touched anyone like that before and he couldn't let go, not of her. It was only force of will that kept him from really hurting her. Not until at some point he discovered the taste of blood in his mouth, despite his attempt at restraint, did he release her, shocked; at the same moment, her mouth detached from him, and when the tension that had bound them together was released, she slid backward, almost falling out of the car.
"Come on!" she said.
By the time he'd gotten around the car, she was lying down in the grass beside the little stream. The water here rushed quite loudly around the piers of the bridge, and the breeze was colder than it had been in the protection of the scrub. The moment he approached her,she rolled away and lay in the same position as she had before, propped up on her knees and elbows. He would never forget how warm it was when he knelt behind her and reached out to touch her sex with his open hand. He held her with both hands and pushed into her, and she relaxed at once, spine slowly collapsing into the small of her back, ass pressing into his belly, until he was in her entirely. She arched against him.
"Much harder!"
He closed his eyes.
"Then hold still."
But she didn't. She turned back to look at him and laughed her laugh again. Eyes open now, he reached for her face and grasped her hair, but she grabbed his hand and sucked two of his fingers into her mouth in a way that nearly made him come. Finally, he was holding her by the base of the neck. She squirmed momentarily out of his grip, then laid her neck in his large hand. She gripped him so strongly with her sex, it was as if she wanted to delay his climax, and it seemed to him it could go on forever, that he would never be able to come, that she, whom he'd known for barely a day, understood his body far better than he did himself.
"Look at me."
He often wondered, afterward, how much time passed before he whispered to her again, asking her to look at him--again and again.
"Please, look at me."
She didn't answer. Only when her silence had sunk in did he realize that she wasn't responding to his movements, either, hadn't been for an infinitely long moment. He stopped dead and listened, and it was completely quiet, except for the whispering grass. She was no longer holding him. She was still on her arms and knees but had collapsed into herself. He slid out of her, and she away from him. She lay there with her back to him, she who had only just been so close to him, without moving. And he felt a completely unfamiliar sensation that he often thought about later on, a kind of weariness pulling onhim, heavily. A weariness so black that he--a man not otherwise fearful--was suddenly as frightened as a child. As if something that was passing over had lingered to make a demand of him. And soon enough, it really did pass. Timidly, he bent over her and begged her once more to look at him.
"Look at me!"
Then he turned her over.
Copyright © 2001 by DuMont Literatur und Kunst Verlag GmbH and Co. KG, Cologne (Germany) Translation copyright © 2003 by Elizabeth Gaffney All rights reserved