Authors: Alex George
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary
A GOOD AMERICAN
AMY EINHORN BOOKS
Published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons
a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
AMY EINHORN BOOKS
Published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Publishers Since 1838
Published by the Penguin Group
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Copyright © 2012 by Alex George
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BOOK DESIGN BY AMANDA DEWEY
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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Always, there was music.
It was music—Puccini, to be precise—that first drew my grand- parents into each other’s orbit, more than a hundred years ago. It was an unusually warm afternoon in early spring, in the grandest municipal garden in Hanover, the Grosse Garten. My grandmother, Henriette Furst, was taking her usual Sunday stroll among the regimented flower beds and manicured lawns so beloved of city-dwelling Prussians. At twenty-five, she was a fine example of Teutonic rude health: Jette, as she was known by everyone, was six feet tall, and robustly built. She walked through the park with none of the feminine grace that was expected from ladies of her class. Rather than making her way by trippingly petite steps on the arm of an admirer, Jette clomped briskly along the graveled paths alone, too busy enjoying the day to worry about the unladylike spectacle she presented to others. Rather than squeezing her considerable frame into the bustles and corsets that constrained the grim-faced ladies she so effortlessly outflanked, Jette preferred voluminous dresses that draped her outsized form like colorful tents. She swept along in a dramatic, free-flowing swirl, leaving all those rigidly contoured women hobbling in her wake.
And then, as she passed a sculpted wall of privet, a song drifted out from behind the topiary. The singer was male: his voice, as clear and as pure as a freshly struck bell, fell on Jette like a shower of jasmine. She stopped, stilled by the tune’s simple beauty. Jette could hear hope and enchantment in every syllable, even though she could not understand a word of Italian. Unable to pull herself away, alone by the privet hedge, her act of listening felt shockingly intimate. The invisible singer seemed to be whispering in her ear, performing for her alone.
The voice that had halted Jette’s afternoon walk belonged to my grandfather, Frederick Meisenheimer. In fact, her intuition had been exactly right: he
singing just for her. Frederick had been waiting for Jette as she made her way around the path. When she passed in front of the hedge he was hiding behind, he crossed his fingers and began to sing.
This was no impromptu performance. Frederick had been watching Jette walk through the Grosse Garten for several consecutive Sundays, enchanted by her unusual size. He had spent his time between those delicious weekly sightings wondering how best to attract her attention. In the end he had chosen to ambush her with an aria, “Che gelida manina,” from Puccini’s opera,
. The opening lines translate as “Your tiny hand is frozen”—not especially appropriate, given that Jette’s hands were not, even by the most charitable standards, tiny; they were also rather clammy, due to the unseasonably warm weather. Still, Frederick knew what he was doing. When he had finished his song, he stepped out from behind the hedge and thrust a concoction of lupins, dahlias, and pansies into Jette’s (big, sweaty) hands. By then, caught squarely in the crosshairs of Puccini’s gorgeous melody, she was helpless.
Frederick did not look like the sort of man who could pull off a stunt like this. If you are picturing a suave, attractive suitor, think again. Physically, he and Jette were a good match, insofar as neither of them quite met the prevailing expected standards, and neither of them especially cared. He, too, was huge, in every sense: taller than Jette by an inch or two, he possessed a quivering gut of heroic dimensions that he made no attempt to hide. Waves of thick red hair washed across his head. Instead of the prim mustache favored by most Hanover men, he wore a magnificent ginger beard that sprouted from his cheeks in chaotic exuberance.
For the next few weeks, Frederick and Jette met each Sunday afternoon by the same privet hedge. They walked side by side through the park, past the fountains and waterfalls. Every so often Frederick would step away from Jette and break into song. He serenaded her with Mascagni, Verdi, Donizetti, and Giordano. He was a terrible ham, acting out every lyric as if his life depended on it. He changed from lovelorn Sicilian peasant to fiery French revolutionary with barely a breath in between. His histrionics earned baleful looks from other passersby, their quiet Sunday strolls disturbed by this barrelful of song, but he ignored them all. Jette soon learned to do the same. With Frederick by her side, the rest of the world retreated into bland anonymity.
Before long, the young couple began to live for their Sunday walks, the long days in between a gray sea of tedium. In each other these two oversized misfits found refuge from the choppy, unforgiving sea in which both had been unhappily drifting. Frederick was enraptured by all of Jette’s big-boned loveliness. He was simply grateful that there was so much of her for him to worship. And Jette loved him right back. She adored the lines he had first sung through the privet hedge:
Per sogni a per chimere
e per castelli in aria,
l’anima ho milionaria.
When it comes to dreams and fancies
and castles in the air,
I have the soul of a millionaire!
It was Frederick’s capacity to dream that dazzled Jette the most. When she was with him, anything was possible.
anything was possible. For not even Frederick’s considerable, if unorthodox, charms were enough to win over Jette’s mother.
Snobbery ran uncut through Brigitte Furst’s veins, and she regarded her daughter’s marital prospects as the means by which her family might elevate itself into the more rarefied strata of Hanover society.
Brigitte had chosen her own husband carefully. Elias Furst did not possess the dashing looks or charm of some of her other suitors, but that was what she liked about him. She knew that a man overburdened with qualities of his own might be more trouble than he was worth. Elias was a rich, hardworking lawyer, and that was good enough. Soon after their wedding, at Brigitte’s insistence, Elias quit his law practice and became a judge. He developed a knack for handing down politically astute judgments from the bench, and from time to time he accepted small bribes to let it be known that he was a reasonable man. He was swiftly promoted. All in all, he had proved most satisfactory.
Brigitte had not been so lucky with her daughter. Soon after Jette’s eighteenth birthday, Brigitte had begun to make discreet inquiries about potential suitors for her, but my grandmother refused to sit and flutter her eyelashes at the young men who called. Instead she either teased them or ignored them, depending on her mood. It didn’t take long for word of her rude behavior to spread. The young men of Hanover were a feeble lot. Nobody wanted to risk their dignity at the hands of a precocious young girl, especially one who did not conform to the usual ideas of feminine beauty. Men wanted their wives thin-boned and frail. Women needed only the strength to lift china cups to their delicate lips, but Jette looked capable of romping over the Alps with a sheep slung over her shoulders. Gentlemen soon stopped calling.
Brigitte had never forgiven Jette for sabotaging her plans. She had retreated behind the haughty frostiness of the Prussian upper classes to which she so ardently aspired, grimly hoping that the right match for her stubborn, galumphing daughter would one day present himself.
It had been a long wait. By the time Frederick serenaded Jette through the privet hedge, Brigitte had given up hope of marrying her off at all, but she still had standards. It was clear from her solitary interview with Frederick that he failed to meet them. Rather than being the wealthy scion of one of the local grand families, he was an orphan. He worked as a junior clerk in a small bank. He had no money, no family, and no future.
Appalled both by Frederick’s lack of breeding and his affable fecklessness, Brigitte briskly informed Jette that she was forbidden from seeing him again—which suggests that she did not know her daughter very well. If anything, it made Jette determined to love Frederick even more.
The young couple continued to meet, away from Brigitte’s bitter gaze. The streets and parks of the city became the backdrop to their love affair. They took long walks, lingered in cafés, and visited every museum in the city many times over. Jette would return home, chilled by the cold northern wind but glowing at the memory of Frederick’s touch, his whispered endearments still warm in her ear.
Denied the ability to conduct a conventional affair, Frederick and Jette had little reason to conform to the social orthodoxy that would have governed a more traditional courtship. As the months passed, their passion for each other outgrew the public arena in which it had flourished. Frederick lived in an all-male lodging house, and the sour-faced superintendent who patrolled the stairway up to the tenants’ rooms would have died before allowing a woman into his domain. Jette’s house was obviously out of the question. And so Frederick persuaded his best friend Andreas to lend them his apartment.
Andreas lived above a pharmacy. A never-ending tattoo of hacking coughs drifted upward from the shop floor as customers queued for their medicine, a diabolical hymn of the unwell. It was in that small room that Frederick and Jette first fumbled clumsily with each other’s clothes, their fingers numb with excitement and fear. It was there that those two large bodies first rolled together in joyous abandon, a heavenly excess of flesh, while the small bed teetered on the brink of collapse beneath them. In that room they learned each other anew, and, delighted by their discoveries, drowned in long afternoons of private bliss. And it was there, one afternoon in the fall of 1903, that Jette fell pregnant.
Frederick greeted the news with jubilation. Not only was he overjoyed at the prospect of becoming a father, he was sure that the pregnancy would persuade Jette’s mother to relent and agree to the marriage that they both longed for. Jette, though, knew better. There was no telling what manner of maternal wrath might be visited upon them when Brigitte discovered that her daughter was carrying the bastard child of a man she despised. She persuaded Frederick that they should wait before announcing the news—although she had no idea what it was they were waiting for. At least time was on their side; Jette’s size and her preference for loose-fitting clothes meant that she would be able to hide her condition for months without arousing suspicion.
And so they watched and waited, paralyzed by the inevitability of the baby’s arrival. There was nothing to be done; and so they did nothing. They knew that those months were a last, peaceful coda before the unwelcome attentions of the outside world crashed in on their private bliss.
n the end, unsurprisingly, it was Jette’s mother who brought matters to a head.
Frederick had a fine singing voice, and performed whenever he could in the city’s beer halls. One evening in the early summer of 1904, Frederick was giving a recital at a hostelry in the Nordstadt district. Most of the people in the room were, as usual, doing their best to ignore the fat man standing next to the piano, singing his heart out. He was halfway through a sprightly Rossini aria when Jette walked in. She carried a small suitcase and wore a shawl over her shoulders. The men at the bar stared at her. The only unaccompanied women who frequented the beer halls were whores or alcoholics, and Jette was clearly neither. She was seven months pregnant, and the baby had lent her some additional heft, thickening her ankles and infusing her cheeks with a flush of health. She could not have looked more different from the pale, sharp-faced women who trawled the city’s taverns looking for work, or a drink, or both.
Frederick stopped singing at once when he saw her. There was an ironic cheer from the back of the room. He hurried over to where she stood.
“Jette? What is it? Why are you here? What’s wrong?”
“She knows,” said Jette.
Frederick stared at her. “Your
“She came to speak to me in my bedroom, and walked in without knocking. I was undressed. I couldn’t turn away in time.”
“I’ve never seen such anger,” said Jette, her voice flat. “Such hate.”
“She’ll come around. She’s your mother. She loves you.”
Jette shook her head sadly. “You don’t understand, my darling. You don’t know what I’ve done to her. She told me I might as well have plunged a knife through her heart. She said she’s going to die of shame.”
“But this is her
,” protested Frederick.
“No. This isn’t new life, not for her.” Jette rubbed her stomach. “As far as she’s concerned, this is the end of everything. The family name is ruined, don’t you see? She’ll never forgive me.”
Frederick put an arm around her shoulder. “When she sees the baby, she’ll change her mind.”
“She won’t ever see the baby,” said Jette quietly.
“Don’t say that.”
“Frederick, my love, you didn’t hear the words that came out of her mouth.” Jette shuddered. “Such vile words.” Her eyes filled up with tears but she blinked them away before they could fall. “Our life here is over.”
“Over? What do you mean?”
“We have to leave, Frederick.”
Jette sighed. “My mother will never leave us in peace. She’ll persecute you and terrorize me. Heaven knows what she’s capable of. She’ll make our lives a misery, I can promise you that.”
Frederick looked at her. “Well, suppose you’re right. What are you proposing? Where would we go?”
Jette was silent for a moment before she spoke. “I thought perhaps America.”
For the first time that either of them could remember, Frederick was lost for words.
“There’s a ship that leaves from Bremen tomorrow,” said Jette.
Finally Frederick managed to speak. “America,” he croaked.
“The land of the free.”
Frederick pushed a worried hand through his hair. “Do we have to go so
“If my mother doesn’t want to see me again, she can have her wish.”
They were both silent for a moment.
“And what about all this?” Frederick gestured around him.
“Your beer halls?”
“Not just that. Hanover is the only place I’ve ever known. I’ve never lived anywhere else.”
Jette looked around, her face a mask of regret. “Neither have I,” she said. “But it’s time for a fresh start. For us and the baby.”
“How are we going to
for all this, Jette? I don’t have much—”
Jette bent down and reached into the suitcase between her feet. She held a golden disk between her fingers.
“Is that a
” said Frederick.
Jette nodded. “The Kaiser awarded it to my grandfather. The Kaiser pinned it on my grandfather’s chest himself.”
“He was an infantry commander during the war against the French.”
“You never told me that.”
“I don’t like to talk about him. He wasn’t a good man. He ordered the massacre of hundreds of French troops at Spicheren. They were trying to surrender at the time. Of course, nobody cares about that anymore. He won, that was all that mattered.” Jette paused. “Later in the war he began using a hot-air balloon during battles. It was tethered to the ground. From the air he could follow the fighting better. He would bellow instructions down to the command post below him.”
“Clever,” said Frederick.
“Not really. One day the rope got loose, but nobody noticed. Unfortunately for my grandfather, the wind was blowing the wrong way. The balloon drifted into enemy territory. The French followed it. They knew who was in it. They hadn’t forgotten what he had done.”
Frederick turned the medal over thoughtfully. It was surprisingly heavy. An eagle was emblazoned on one side. On the other was the Kaiser’s profile, and a date: 1870—the year of the slaughter at Spicheren. Even without its monstrous provenance, it was a disgusting thing, gaudily imperial, cast heavy in military pride. “How did you get this?”
“It was in my parents’ safe,” said Jette. “I stole it.”
Frederick looked at her, aghast.
“I took all the money that was in there as well,” she continued. “We have enough for the journey. But I wanted the medal, too, in case of emergencies.” She looked grim. “Besides, now my mother will at least be sorry when I’m gone. She’ll miss the medal, even if she won’t miss me.”
“Jette, what have you done? Your father’s a judge. He knows the chief of police. The minute they find out what you’ve done, we’ll be arrested.”
She shook her head. “Not their own daughter.”
“Well, that’s the thing. Of course they won’t blame
. They’ll say that I put you up to it.”
Jette looked affronted. “But it was
“My love, you’re seven months pregnant. They’ll say it all just shows how thoroughly I’ve bamboozled you. I’ve seduced you, shamed you, and now I’ve made you steal from your own parents. Don’t you see what a scoundrel I am?”
“I won’t put it back,” said Jette, defiant.
“In that case, I don’t think we have much choice.” Frederick sighed. “America it is.”