Fritz can’t sleep, because someone is watching him — not staring down at his face or peering around the curtain that separates his room from the nurses’ station, but spying on him at the station itself, where everyone’s heart is on display: three televisions broadcasting nothing but the story of many hearts, sharp white peaks that form and dissolve, marching endlessly across a gray background. The nurses explain that his heart muscle is sending out some type of electric signal, but he thinks they are not telling the whole truth. He is disappointed, too, to find out that his heart is like a battery. He had supposed it was more mysterious than that.
To the nurses, Fritz is a funny old German man with strange notions who lives in a cabin in the woods. To him, they are jailers holding his heart captive. They know its every move. His heart sends messages; they counter with drugs. They shoot drugs into the line in his neck. They put drugs into the plastic bags that hang like overripe fruit from the metal pole near his bed. His heart is telling them it wants to stop, but they reply, No, you can’t stop. You must go on, even though worse lies ahead. You must be a good soldier.
His daughter, Anna, visits him, smiles at him fondly, combs his white hair, says, “Don’t worry, Daddy. I’ll take care of it.”
Don’t worry. She knows what he has lived through: the fighting on the Russian front; the march to Stalingrad and back; the bombs, the cold, the hunger, the death. Yet she still thinks he needs someone to take care of him. His heart tried to stop, and what a big fuss they kicked up. If he’d died on the battlefield in 1943, no one would have kicked up a fuss. He’d have frozen where he lay, been buried by the snow. Now that he is old and useless, suddenly everyone is determined that he should live. They want to do surgery, to reach into his chest and patch his old heart so they can put him in a wheelchair and stick him in front of the television.
Fritz sits up cautiously and swings his feet over the side of the bed. No one comes; they are gossiping or eating or have missed the signals his heart is sending. If he acts now, he can get to the bank of plugs at the head of his bed and yank them all free. Then perhaps he will die.
His feet hit the cold floor. Moving quickly for an old man, he grabs at every line he sees, pulling them like weeds. Suddenly, someone is behind him, holding his arms in a bearhug and calling for the others. They pour in, men in green uniforms, like soldiers of life, their job not to kill but to save. Fritz begins to shout at them in German. He can’t remember the words in English; it is as if he never knew the language. Nor can he understand the words they are saying: A-line, Haldol, I-med, D.O.C., stat.
Now he is back in bed, his hands tied this time. Every wire is back in place, all the machines are going again, and they are really watching him. The man who came in first, the one who held him, is sitting by the bed writing in a green book. He is perhaps forty-five, compactly built, with blue-green eyes and short-cut hair. He seems calm, slightly burdened, and, compared to the others, wise. He’s the only one around here who looks as though he’s lived. The rest are like babies, silly American babies who eat pizza and watch TV and have no idea how bad the world can be.
Fritz lived alone after his wife died — did some carpentry, raised some animals. His daughter told him he should get a television. He refused; he’d look at a blank wall first. He had a home up in the hills of Hartland, Vermont, a small house he had built himself. He kept his distance, feeling like an outsider because of his accent. Sometimes people asked when he’d come over, and when he told them 1954, they were quiet. He had emigrated after the war, the war their country had won. He wanted to explain that he came here to get away from the past, that he cared nothing for politics. He didn’t need to, though. People were polite and never openly held his background against him. Vermont was a place that had room for human odds and ends; it had room for Fritz Dietz.
And Fritz would have gone on living that way until he dropped, had he not dropped inconveniently in the grocery store, buying his weekly beans and bacon, his flour and coffee and tea. Why couldn’t he have dropped while feeding his strange flock of chickens, with their garish plumage and silly ways? Why at the A&P in Windsor?
It was an almost glorious feeling, the weakness that came over him. The room shimmered, the cans on the shelves danced, the sounds merged into something like ahhhhh, and his head filled with light, as if a bomb had gone off, a silent one. When he fell, he was entirely comfortable. The floor was like a cushion absorbing his weight.
Fritz’s daughter once told him that when people die, they see light and all the loved ones who’ve died before them. But the death he had seen during the war had seemed invariably awful; there had been no peace on the faces of the dead, only snarls and grimaces. He had thought that soldiers must not go to a happy place, and that as they died they realized this and were not glad.
So he hadn’t expected to see anything, much less his friends: Johann, Wilhelm, Hans, Friedrich. He’d thought they were dead, but here they were! He was running toward them through a meadow. They were on the other side, waving their caps and hands, shouting his name, delighted to see him. And then he tripped. His feet got tangled in the grass. He kicked and kicked, trying to get them free, crying with frustration.
Now the soldiers of life came running with their air-raid siren to insist that he come back. They took him to a huge new hospital where he’d never been before. When he awoke and said he wanted to go home, they told him no. No! How could they tell him that so simply? He was an American now; he had rights. But Anna, his daughter, explained that he couldn’t leave, because he might die. And he did not have the right to make that decision.
Fritz must have fallen asleep, because Anna is now sitting in the chair where the male nurse sat. She is reading a magazine. Fritz watches her for a moment. She is not pretty, but no one in his family ever was. They were farmers — square, squat people. Their noses were large and broad, as if to pull in more air for the heavy work. Their teeth and jaws were powerful, like those of cattle. Their bodies were thick, like trees. The woman on the cover of Anna’s magazine is pretty. Americans put too much emphasis on looks. He used to feel for his daughter, his only child, because she had grown up never knowing what it was to be beautiful. Now she is old enough that it doesn’t matter. She’s married and has two children. Her life is good.
Anna looks up and sees him watching her. “Daddy,” she says, “you’re awake!”
She takes his hand and smooths the hair on his forehead. “You gave them hell last night, hey?”
“Yah. I want to go home.”
“Daddy, you know what I told you. They think you’re depressed, and that that’s why you don’t want them to do the surgery.”
“ ‘Depressed.’ What if I was one hundred years? Would they still say I was depressed?”
Anna laughs. “Probably. They say you have post-traumatic stress disorder, too. From the war.”
Fritz cannot reply to this. Stress. Depression. Trauma. All these words they think up now for people’s pain. They want to make all pain go away, but that is impossible. Pain is like the sand in an hourglass: a certain amount must sift through your soul before your life is over. That’s one reason Fritz likes Vermont. Every winter reminds him that cold cannot be hurried, but also that it cannot last forever. All his life he has ignored his suffering: while he worked, while he ate, while he fed the animals. Occasionally, he will feel a movement from his heart to his belly and know that a little more sadness has passed through him. The last grains are falling now.
“How’s Pompy?” he asks Anna. Pompy is Fritz’s rooster, a Buff Orprington with ruffs of feathers on his feet and a great, curving, striped tail. Pompy lords it over a few Striped Wyandottes, a dozen Blue Andalusians, some Buff Minorcas and Silver Leghorns, and one lone, bothered Banty. Fritz used to raise them to sell; now he just takes their eggs. When the birds do manage to hide a clutch from him, they produce odd, hybrid offspring, not the pure strains he once bred.
“Pompy’s fine,” Anna says, with barely concealed irritation.
“The kids?” Fritz says, to make up.
She tells him that Jimmy is on the football team, and Betsey is playing hockey, that they’re both doing well in school.
Now that the family is out of the way, he can ask about the cat. The cat is either Badboy or Goodboy, depending on its behavior and Fritz’s mood. It’s a tom, and Fritz has refused to get him “fixed,” as they call it. Sometimes the cat backs up against the wall and, looking Fritz directly in the eye, makes an insolent motion of his tail, releasing a spurt of scent. Fritz doesn’t mind the smell — he’s smelled worse — but his daughter wrinkles her nose when she visits. Badboy’s ears are tattered, and his jaw is big and hard from a long series of abscesses. Fritz holds him every morning while he has his coffee, and rubs his head and talks to him. Goodboy/Badboy listens better than Pompy, who struts around nervously, like a general, ever ready to prove himself by nailing a handy hen.
When Fritz is sad, he tells Goodboy about the war. He tells him about the trucks full of wounded, how they ran out of gas and the drivers went ahead on foot and the injured men congealed into solid wedges of icy cloth and flesh and blood. Some tried to crawl away and were frozen in the act; Fritz saw one hanging by his coat from the tailgate of a truck. The sky was gray, and the sun was as cold as a coin. The road had thawed and refrozen, thawed and refrozen, and in places the bodies had become part of the frozen road, trapped beneath the ice, like wax figures under glass. Goodboy/Badboy purrs. In his purring, Fritz hears a reply better than any psychiatrist could give: it passes, it passes, it passes.
The man with the blue-green eyes is back that night, and Fritz thinks to look at his name tag: JOHN CORLISS, RN. John moves softly about the room, doing this and that. Fritz’s hands are still tied so he can’t pull out his lines. These things they are doing to him are beginning to frustrate him beyond measure. He can feel where he’s been stuck all over; the holes they have made — especially the ones they are using — are itching and burning and throbbing. He wants John to talk, but it’s apparent he will say nothing until Fritz does.
“John,” he says.
“Fritz,” says John, surprised. “English today?”
“How are you?”
“Not too good.”
John does not reply. He remains silent until Fritz feels compelled to add something.
“I think I’m going crazy,” Fritz says.
“Well, don’t worry, the shrink will be in to see you tomorrow,” John replies lightly.
“What will he do?”
John pauses, as if deciding how frank to be. “He’ll say whether or not he thinks you’re in your right mind, and whether we have the right to do surgery against your wishes.”
John is kneeling at the side of the bed, emptying the urine bag into a plastic pitcher. Fritz remembers how, during that unspeakable Russian winter, he used to urinate on his hands to clean and warm them.
“Give me something now,” Fritz says.
“Something for the pain?” John asks, without looking up.
Fritz gazes down on John’s shiny hair and clean scalp and imagines his brain curled up inside his head, thinking it’s safe, yet protected by nothing but a thin bunker of bone.
“No, to make me die.”
John laughs nervously. “I can’t do that.”
“Yes, you can. . . . I’ll give you money.”
John stands up, holding the container of urine. “Sorry, Fritz. I made a promise I would never kill anything again.” The word again seems to have slipped out, and it hangs there. “I was in Vietnam,” John explains.
Fritz remembers Vietnam. He thought the boys sent there had it good. They had helicopters and doctors and food. When the U.S. lost, it did not leave them there. But he can tell from John’s face that John has seen things, too. Fritz is glad he had only a daughter and no boys to send to war.
“War,” Fritz says, and a few more grains of sadness sift through him.
“Your daughter told me you were in Stalingrad. I read a book about that battle once. It helped put things in perspective.”
“So you don’t hold it against me,” Fritz whispers, “that I am German?”
“Hell, no,” John says. “You were just a kid. I was just a kid. . . . And I think we should let you die, if that’s your choice. The surgery is risky anyway. Does your daughter want you to have it?”
“She will let me decide.”
“Well, you should tell the shrink that. And don’t do anything crazy.”
“Yah, easy for you to say. You people drive me crazy, and then you call me crazy.”
John laughs as he injects a liquid into the IV. Fritz feels warm all over, and in minutes all the itching and irritation stop. He is drunk and silly, but it is pleasant. Whenever he looks around, he sees John in the chair. John’s eyes shine in the dark like the lights on the machines. He fought in a hot place. Fritz would like to ask him what death is like in a hot place. The bodies must stink more. The heat from the fires that the bombs leave behind must not be welcome. There must be insects everywhere, buzzing and biting, waving their feelers and biding their time.
“Where do soldiers go when they die?” Fritz is embarrassed to be asking this question, but senses that John will not betray him.
“I don’t know.”
“Yes, but what do you think?” Fritz persists.
“I think they are reincarnated.”
“You mean they come back as someone else?”
“Or maybe a tree or an animal,” John says. He looks sad now, and Fritz feels the urge to comfort him.
“If I said that, they would say I was crazy.”
John laughs. “What would you like to be, if you came back?”
Fritz thinks. “I would like to be a tree. A big tree on the plain outside Stalingrad, between the Volga and the Don. . . . But don’t tell anyone I said so.”
The psychiatrist is talking with Anna outside the door. Fritz has just spoken to him. It was a simple conversation. Fritz said that he is old, worn out, and doesn’t have the will to go on. No, he isn’t afraid. Yes, he is sad, but he’s been sad for a long time. Yes, he’s been happy sometimes, too. No, he’s not afraid the nurses are poisoning him; he just can’t eat. The food sticks in his throat. No, he doesn’t need to see the chaplain. He can talk to his daughter. And to John, he thought.
When Anna comes in, her eyes are slightly damp, but she is smiling. She kisses him. He doesn’t say anything.
“They’ve pronounced you sane,” she says.
“Ah,” Fritz says.
“They asked me what I wanted.”
“And you told them . . .”
“That it’s your decision.”
“They’ll move you onto the regular floor. And they’ll take out all these tubes.”
“I’m going to bring the kids to see you.”
“That would be nice.”
“Jimmy will take the chickens.”
“Good, Jimmy. He likes them. What about Badboy?”
“I can’t keep him inside, Daddy.”
“Don’t you castrate him!”
“Daddy, you’re so stubborn.”
“I’ll give him to John.”
“The night nurse.”
“Oh, yeah, I’ve met him. He asked me about you. I don’t know if he wants a beat-up old tomcat, though.”
“I’ll give him.”
Anna rolls her eyes. “I’m sure he’ll be thrilled.”
As it turned out, the cat settled the matter on his own. One morning, when Anna went to Fritz’s house to feed him, he didn’t show up for his bowl of Friskies, and they never saw him again. Fritz was out on the regular floor by then. He had no tubes and would be released to his daughter’s care soon, they said. (They drew the line at his going home alone.) He slept a lot and had found, to his amazement, that he could no longer walk. But he didn’t feel bored in the slightest. His mind played happily, now that it could ignore his body, which waited, a cooling sack of viscera and bone.
One morning, Fritz woke to a warmth flooding his chest and the thrumming of Goodboy’s purr. He reached up and felt the cat’s soft fur, rubbed a tattered ear. Suddenly, John was standing there by his bed. He had on a khaki uniform and a soldier’s cap. He looked sad. Fritz didn’t want to part with Goodboy, but he knew John needed him now, to tell his secrets to. Fritz grasped the cat’s solid, tolerant body and held him out to John.
“Goodboy,” he said.
Later, the nurses comforted Anna, who felt bad that she hadn’t been there. They assured her he went peacefully, not fighting. And he must have thought she was there, the nurses said, because he smiled and held out his arms and said, “Goodbye.”