BY LAURA ELIZABETH WOOLLETT
I never thought working at Photohaus Hoffmann would be so boring. In the three weeks I’ve been here, I haven’t once been asked to get behind a camera, let alone in front of one. Instead, Mr. Hoffmann has me sifting through files and selling rolls of film. When important clients come in, he tells me to make them comfortable: to fetch them coffee, beer, teacakes, whatever they please. These clients are invariably fat old men from the National Socialist Party. None of them look all that important to me.
It’s late, but I still have filing to do, and Hoffmann is expecting one of his important clients. He’s given me a ladder so I can reach the files on the top shelf, and I’m teetering on its rungs like a ballerina. It probably wasn’t a good idea to shorten my skirt before leaving for work this morning — I have a feeling the hem is uneven, and the amount of leg I’m showing is almost indecent. I hear a bell tinkle at the front of the shop, some manly murmurs and rustlings. I don’t need eyes on the back of my head to see that Hoffmann’s important client has arrived and that the two of them are settling down on the far side of the room, out of earshot but in view of the ladder, my legs.
I’ve been told that I have nice legs. My big sister, Ilse, giving me pointers on how to dress, says, “You’re ten pounds too heavy, and your bust is small like mine, but as long as you’re showing off your legs, no man will notice the rest.” On the streetcar, men are forever brushing up against my legs or dropping coins by my feet so they can get a better look at me. It doesn’t surprise me then, given the shortness of my hemline, to feel Hoffmann’s important client staring at that part of me. Still, it’s embarrassing to be looked at so intently when I don’t know who’s doing the looking. My face is bright red before I’ve even climbed down from the ladder.
They’re standing up, crinkled and ungainly as a pair of elephants. The important client wears a pale English raincoat and clutches an ugly felt hat. He looks damp and smudged, with slick hair and a funny little square mustache. Though he isn’t fat, there’s something oddly soft about his body and the way his raincoat flares out at his hips.
“Mr. Wolf,” Hoffmann announces his client, smiling like he knows something I don’t. “Our good little Miss Eva!”
The men invite me to dine with them. I know this must have something to do with Mr. Wolf looking at my legs and that no isn’t really an option, when it comes to important clients. Besides, it’s late enough for dinner, and my stomach’s growling from the smell of the beer and sausages Hoffmann got me to fetch from the corner pub. I guess it was a bad idea to skip lunch, diet or no diet.
At the backroom table, I’m aware of every clink of our cutlery, of the crawlings of Mr. Wolf’s mustache as he chews, and the salty stink of the sausages. I try to keep my eyes on my plate, but Mr. Wolf is eating me up with his own eyes, which are the deep blue of mountain lakes, wild gentians. He has questions.
“How old are you, Miss Braun? Only seventeen? Good … good. And where did you go to school? A convent? I should have known … Convent girls have the sweetest manners. Miss Braun, do you like Wagner? You prefer modern music? Jazz? I’m afraid it’s all primitive noise to me. You say it’s fun to dance to? Far be it from me to keep a young girl from dancing! I imagine you are a very fine dancer, Miss Braun …”
I don’t know what to make of all this attention, and Hoffmann is no help. He listens on with glinting eyes and swills his beer, sitting back to belch and feed Mr. Wolf the occasional tidbit about me: that I’m a fine little worker, that I’ve shown an interest in learning about photography, that he intends to let me do some modeling in the next few weeks — It would be a waste not to put such a pretty face to good use. They laugh at this.
They laugh at all sorts of things, like when I venture, “I’d like to do what Mr. Hoffmann does someday. Only, I want to take pictures of fashionable ladies, not politicians.” I don’t know what’s so funny but laugh along with them anyway.
When supper’s over, Mr. Wolf rises and smoothes down his raincoat, which he kept on all through dinner. Hat under arm, he reaches for my hand, tickling it with his mustache as he bends down to kiss it. The parting of his sleek, black hair is dusted with dandruff. “May I offer you a ride home, Miss Braun? My driver is just outside.”
I cast a glance at the dark shop windows, the shiny black Mercedes parked outside them. “No thank you, sir. I still have some filing to do.”
I’m clearing the table when Hoffmann comes back in from the street, shaking his head at me. “You really have no idea who that gentleman is, Miss Eva? No idea at all … ?”
A few days later, a bouquet of yellow orchids turns up on my desk, together with an autographed portrait of Mr. Wolf in uniform. Mr. Wolf looks better in the portrait than in person. I can’t tell if this is because of his uniform or Hoffmann’s skill with a camera.
Freya, one of the other girls at work, pales with envy when she sees the flowers. “Oh, that man is a charmer! He must like you. I only got a portrait when I first started here.” Freya is twenty-two and bosomy. Her hair is a few shades darker than my own. She doesn’t have my legs.
I like to preserve the things I pick up from day to day, like theater stubs and calling cards and colored ribbons. I do this with Mr. Wolf’s gifts, pressing an orchid inside my Bible and tucking his portrait away in the lining of my drawer. I know Papa wouldn’t be happy if he found Mr. Wolf’s portrait, and this is exciting to me. At the dinner table, when I ask him if he’s heard of Mr. Wolf, he flares up instantly.
“That man? He’s a dilettante, a fool who thinks he’s omniscient. He thinks he’s going to reform the world. Pah! I wouldn’t trust him to run a classroom, let alone a country …” Papa is a teacher and often speaks in classroom analogies.
Hoffmann has better things to say about Mr. Wolf. “He is a visionary,” he tells me. “He is the future of Germany. You won’t find a greater patriot, a better orator, a man of finer artistic sentiments! Consider it an honor, Miss Eva, to have caught the eye of a genius like him.”
The more I think about Hoffmann’s words, the more I believe them. In the darkroom, I’m haunted by Mr. Wolf’s face swimming in red chemicals. I’m haunted by it drying out on the rack and glowering at me from newsstands as I shuffle to and from work. I’m even haunted by it when I look at my reflection — short curls, chubby cheeks, soft belly, nice legs — and try to figure out if I’m beautiful or just a convent-bred nobody.
When I’m invited to dine at Hoffmann’s house, I don’t expect Mr. Wolf to be there and turn pink at the sight of him tramping into the dining room in his raincoat and heavy boots. As well as his felt hat, he’s carrying a whip. His eyes goggle and moisten when he sees me, and he grips his whip tighter, licking his lips and rapping himself lightly on the thigh. I rise and present my hand to be kissed. Hoffmann’s daughter, Henny, sixteen and seated beside me, does the same.
I’m glad to have Henny next to me at the table. We have a lot in common, and she’s pretty in a thin-armed, gap-toothed way. Aside from her light eyes and freckles, she looks nothing like her father, with his drinker’s flushed face and yellowy-white hair. Throughout dinner, we’re able to avoid the talk of Hoffmann and Mr. Wolf by whispering and giggling together. I ask her what she thinks of Mr. Wolf, and she answers in a hushed, excited voice with something astounding.
“Evie, can I tell you a secret? He asked if he could kiss me once. It was a few years ago. I was in my nightdress.”
I gasp. “Did you let him?”
“Of course not!” Henny cringes. “He’s so old.”
Across the table, Mr. Wolf is looking at us somberly and fingering his whip. I meet his gaze and feel myself blushing once again, regardless of how old he is. Hoffmann knocks back the contents of his glass and asks what we two little misses are whispering about.
“Clothes and shoes,” we answer together, then collapse into giggles.
After a dessert of apple cake and cream, we filter toward the anteroom to say our farewells. I’ve already donned my winter coat and am brushing my lips to Henny’s warm cheek, when Mr. Wolf appears at my elbow.
“Miss Braun, Mr. Hoffmann tells me you’re planning on walking home in this cold weather. I won’t have it. My driver will take you right to your doorstep.”
I open my mouth to protest. I close it again. Mr. Wolf has already put his hat on and is offering me his arm. Under his other arm, he tucks his whip. As I link arms with him, Henny catches my eye over his shoulder and pulls a kissy-face.
Outside, a dapper chauffeur waits by the Mercedes, cap dusted with snowflakes as delicate as Mr. Wolf’s dandruff. The driver salutes Mr. Wolf, who in turn raises his palm and says, “Good evening, Emil. Miss Braun would like to be taken home. She’ll tell you where to go.”
I hesitate, before deciding on a location far enough from my front door for the neighbors not to see. “Thank you. Take me to the corner of Elisabeth Street and Teng Street, please.”
Moonlight stripes my sleeves as the Mercedes winds out of narrow Schnorr Street. I keep my eyes fixed on the back of Emil’s head but can’t help being aware of Mr. Wolf’s sturdy presence nearby. I shiver involuntarily as a tramcar rattles alongside us on Norden Street.
“Are you cold, Miss Braun?” Mr. Wolf inquires.
“No, but thank you, sir. It’s just that sound always spooks me. I’m sure it’s what ghosts must sound like.” I feel like an idiot for saying this, but Mr. Wolf chuckles warmly.
“You are safe from the ghosts with me, Miss Braun.”
I never realized before how calming Mr. Wolf’s voice is, low and slightly rasping. Still, it’s not easy to feel calm with his blue eyes savoring me like I’m a slice of apple cake with cream. Gooseflesh tingles on my throat. When I breathe out, a cloud of mist follows.
At the corner of Elisabeth Street and Teng Street, the Mercedes comes to a halt. Emil steps out, and Mr. Wolf sidles closer to me along the leather seat. He takes off his hat.
My mind numbs. I think of what he asked Henny, what he’s surely about to ask me. I can almost smell the sweet tea and apple cake on his breath, the foul base note of his saliva. The thought of saying no goes in and out of me like a swift, poisoned blade. I focus on his mustache.
Mr. Wolf bows to my hand. There’s a tickle of coarse, black fur on soft skin, a puckered wetness on my knuckles. “Goodnight, Miss Braun. May we meet again soon.”
In another instant, Emil is holding the door open for me. The cold is hitting my cheeks, and my heart is beating somewhere between my legs. I move my lips, but only the snow and stars can hear me whisper back to him, “Goodnight, sir.”
I can see Mr. Wolf on the other side of the studio, leaning over Hoffmann’s desk with a magnifying glass to his eye. In his baggy blue suit, he looks as lumpy as a sack of potatoes, yet there’s something adorable about his form. I’ve already thanked him for the little box of marzipan fruits that he brought to my desk and the compliments that came with them. I’ve already offered him a taste of these fruits and watched as he lifted a tiny, perfect peach to his lips, observing sweetly, “Peaches and cream — just like your complexion, Miss Braun.”
Now he’s absorbed in business, and it’s up to me to catch his eye before somebody else does. I rise from my desk and smooth my skirt, before clicking on my heels toward the filing shelf closest to Hoffmann’s desk. Retrieving one of the files, I look askance at the men. Under the bright table lamp, they are murmuring over some prints of Mr. Wolf. I bite my lip. I let the file slip from my clasp and, with a gasp, bend to retrieve it. My skirt tightens over my hips. Their heads swivel.
“Miss Braun,” Mr. Wolf says with a smile, “perhaps you can help us reach a decision.”
“I always like to hear a lady’s opinion on these things. After all, women are among my staunchest supporters.” His eyes shine a deeper shade of blue as he says this. “Miss Braun, are you old enough to vote yet?”
“Yes, sir. I turned eighteen in February.”
“Come closer, my child. Into the light. Good girl. And which of these men, Miss Braun, would you be most inclined to give your vote to?”
I can feel his eyes on the back of my neck as my short curls fall forward, blazing from brown to gold in the heat of the desk lamp. The same eyes bore into me from the photographs on the desk, making my breath grow shorter and my cheeks flare up.
“This one,” I say, pointing to a picture in which he stares straight at the camera, as darkly enigmatic as a matinee idol. He’s wearing a dark jacket and a National Socialist Party badge, which I know to be red, white, and black, though the photo doesn’t show this. I’ve been given one of these badges myself but don’t dare wear it, lest my father have a heart attack.
Mr. Wolf seems pleased with this decision. He takes a step back and inhales deeply. I’m afraid he can smell my moist, nervous heat, but if he does, it only pleases him further. “I agree, Miss Braun. You are very discerning.” He steps forward again, glances down at the photo, and passes an unseen hand down the length of my body. “Mr. Hoffmann, be sure to make a copy of this picture for Miss Braun.”
Back at my desk, I’m still tingling from his caress. I take a marzipan pear from the box and slip it into my mouth. Its sweetness sears my cheeks.
This is an excerpt of a longer piece. Find the full version in Footnote #1.
The 2015 Charter Oak Award
THIRD PLACE WINNER
We are pleased to announce the third place winner for The 2015 Charter Oak Award for Best Historical, honoring the independent press’ best writing on historical topics. The winners are selected by an external panel that judges all pieces blindly and selects the full list of finalists. Alternating Current does not determine the final outcome for the judging; the external judges’ decisions are final. The third place winner receives a printed certificate, publication on The Coil, publication on Alternating Current’s award page, and printed publication in the literary journal Footnote #1.
LAURA ELIZABETH WOOLLETT is a Perth-born, Melbourne-based author, editor, and aspiring screenwriter. Her first novel, The Wood of Suicides, was published in early 2014. Her short story collection, The Love of a Bad Man, is currently being considered for publication. Since 2012, she has been a fiction editor for Voiceworks. She has recently begun a second novel, Beautiful Revolutionary, and is adapting one of her short stories as a short film.
Story originally published on 3/31/15