Bill didn’t want to go into the beer hall, not that anyone in his family cared. On day twelve of their two-week holiday trip to Europe, he couldn’t think of one instance when he’d gotten his way.
“You can’t go to Munich and not listen to an Oom-Pah-Pah band,” said his wife, Lily.
Yes, you certainly can, thought Bill.
“I want one of them giant beers,” said his father-in-law, Clyde, not cranky for the first time that day. The beer stein in the window was the reason they’d stopped, since alcohol seemed to be the only thing that made the old man happy. That, or talking about all the money in his retirement accounts—IRAs, SEPs, DBPs, ESOPs. His father-in-law had an alphabet soup of stocks, bonds, and cash.
“I’m hungry,” said Bill’s thirteen year-old son, Max.
And so Bill was outvoted, as he’d been over and over throughout the trip. That morning, he was voted down when he suggested touring a concentration camp outside the city. He’d taught a history section on the camp for twenty years and had always wanted to see it in person.
“Too depressing,” said his wife.
“We know what happened. We don’t need to be reminded,” said his father-in-law.
“I’m hungry,” said his son.
And so Bill didn’t bother objecting to the touristy German beer hall. Clyde had already dismissed their tour guide with a tip equivalent to half a day of Bill’s salary as a high school history teacher. Every day of the trip had been exactly the same: a long walking tour with a guide, then a cat-nap for Clyde, followed by cocktail hour and an extravagant meal at the restaurant of whatever five-star hotel they were staying in. The following morning they were off to the next city. They never got to do any of the things the guides recommended, or that Bill had spent hours researching on the Internet.
As they entered the Hofbrauhaus, music from the Oom-Pah-Pah band had the audience stomping its feet and shaking the floor, giving Bill an instant headache. He tried to rationalize there was history in Munich’s beer halls. After all, Hitler himself had attempted to overthrow the government from one during the infamous Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. He couldn’t imagine Hitler getting up onto one of the wooden tables in this particular hall, which reminded Bill of a packed New York City dance club, if the club also had bright lights and fat people in lederhosen.
Bill stood in front of his family to protect them from the throngs of tourists jostling each other, most of them drunk young men. He pushed his way to the hostess station, more than once lowering his shoulder into an oncoming figure to clear the way. He relished the contact, which reminded him of his football-playing days, when as a 6’1” all-league fullback, it had been his job to open the hole for his tailback.
Once he made it to the station, Bill couldn’t help but notice the hostess had perhaps the darkest tan he’d ever seen, despite it being wintertime in Germany. Or that most of her chest spilled out of the Bavarian dirndl she wore. Clyde was staring and looked like he might have another heart attack.
“Guten tag,” said Bill, brushing off his dusty German. “Wir—”
“Four for a table?” she asked without a trace of an accent. Except for her outfit and the tuba oompahing away in the background, they could’ve been at home in the New Jersey suburbs.
When Bill nodded, she asked, “Menus in English?”
Before he could manage a “Nein,” Lily interrupted, “Definitely.”
The hostess handed them menus and told them to follow her. Like him, she seemed unafraid of the young men barreling at her. Unlike him, however, the men jumped out of her way, though not without glancing at her chest. She seated Bill and his family at one of the dozens of wooden tables toward the back of the immense hall, where it was less crowded.
“Your waitress is quite busy,” she yelled. “I’ll take your drink orders. What would you like?”
“Ich, uh, mochte,” said Bill, wanting to impress his son.
“English is fine,” she shouted, swiveling her head toward the line of tourists waiting for her at the hostess station. “Three beers?”
“Jawohl, mein leibchen,” said Clyde, speaking to her bosom. “And a Coke for my younger brother.” Clyde punched Max on the shoulder.
After the hostess left, Bill opened his menu. He wanted to play the role of translator on the trip, but in every restaurant they’d been given menus in English. All the homework he’d done to resurrect his high school German had been a waste of time.
“Any bowel movement of late?” Lily asked Max in a low voice. Their son had been constipated the entire trip, except for one exception when he clogged the toilet and flooded the bathroom of their hotel suite. Since then, Lily had made it her mission to track his bowel movements. It was a topic of conversation at every meal.
Max appeared not to hear her over the band, though Bill suspected his newly minted teenager was pretending. His son’s hearing seemed to have gone bad right around the day he turned thirteen.
“Have you had a bowel movement today?” Lily said again, this time loudly, so Max had no choice but to respond. He grimaced and shook his head.
“Gotta eat prunes, kid,” said Clyde.
“I don’t like prunes.”
“You don’t gotta like ’em. You like what they make you doo-kie.” Clyde snickered at his joke. “Get up and go.”
“I don’t have to go.”
“I didn’t ask you if you had to. I said go.” Clyde pushed Max up and off the wooden bench.
“Fingers crossed,” yelled Lily as Max put in his earbuds and stalked off in search of the toilet. Bill wondered if his son was listening to the playlist of German artists Bill made for the trip. The mix had taken him weeks to get right and included Beethoven, Brahms, and Bach, as well as Wagner and Weill. He’d even thrown in a couple of German pop songs from the 1980s to keep Max amused like “99 Luftballons” and Falco’s “Der Kommissar.”
A line from the Falco song had become their secret code on the trip. Whenever Clyde was bossing them around, acting like the police commissioner in the song, either Bill or Max or his older son, Bill Jr. (who left the trip early to make it back for his last semester of graduate school), would whisper, “Alles Klar, Herr Kommissar.”
All clear, Mr. Police Commissioner.
“I recommend the weiner schnitzel,” said a lightly accented baritone.
Bill lifted his head from the menu, as did Lily and Clyde, searching for the source of the voice. At the very next table was a mountain of a man seated by himself, wearing what looked like a modern version of lederhosen, along with an Alpine hat complete with a large green feather. His entirely black ensemble was far more fashionable than those being worn by the players in the Oom-Pah-Pah band. Everything the handsome man wore was leather, even his suspenders. It almost made Bill wish he had a pair.
“Gerhard Klinger,” he boomed. “I’m, how do you say in English, regular.”
“We say ‘a regular,’ not ‘regular,’” said Clyde, all but adding dumbkopf to his sentence. He waved his arm in the air as if to dismiss Gerhard. Bill thought it incredibly rude, yet not surprising coming from his narrow-minded father-in-law, who still hated the Germans for starting World War II, though the former defense industry executive had become rich in some way as a result. If Max had been there, either he or Bill would have murmured, “Alles Klar, Herr Kommissar.”
“Of course. I am sorry for the intrusion.” Gerhard gave Bill a fleeting smile before turning back to his beer.
“No,” said Bill. “Thanks for the tip.” He wanted to say more, maybe practice his German with the powerhouse of a man, but the disgusted look on Clyde’s face prevented him from engaging any further.
“Well, I’m not ordering any wiener schnitzel,” said Lily, throwing her menu onto the table. “I want a salad, which they don’t even have.”
“I’d like my damn beer,” Clyde grumbled.
The hostess arrived carrying the beers and a Coke for Max. “Your waitress will be right over.”
“Can’t we order with you?” asked Lily.
“Ach du lieber, this is some gutsy beer.” Clyde had already chugged a quarter of the large stein and reached out to paw the hostess as his way of showing thanks.
She squirmed away. “I’ll make sure your waitress is coming.”
“What are you going to order, honey?” Lily asked after the woman had left.
“I’m thinking the duck,” said Bill.
“Excellent choice,” said Gerhard.
Clyde whipped his head around to glare at the German, who threw his hands up in surrender, seemingly as intimidated by the one hundred and thirty-five pound senior citizen as Bill was, even though the muscular Gerhard was almost twice Clyde’s size.
Bill wanted to lambast his father-in-law for being so rude to a German in his home country, perhaps his home bar, but Clyde was paying for everything: the five-star hotels, the private tours, the expensive restaurants. The two-week European trip of a lifetime, but with a catch: namely, that they did whatever Clyde wanted. Oh, they went through the pretense of “taking a vote,” but it was like elections in the former East Germany. The man in power—the one with the money—won every time.
“Sorry,” Gerhard said. “You’re right. Forgive me for interrupting.” With that, he got up, gave a regal half-bow, and left the table, leaving his giant beer unfinished.
“That was rude,” said Bill, unable to restrain himself any longer.
“It damn sure was,” Clyde said. “What’s his problem eavesdropping on us?”
Bill wanted to explain that the blue-eyed, dark-haired German was being social, that they were in a beer hall, for God’s sake, where people went to meet others. But he remained silent, his mouth stopped up by the old man’s money.
“Honey, why don’t you see how things are progressing?” Lily said, lifting her chin in the direction Max had gone.
Bill didn’t see the point; they would find out soon enough whether or not Max was “successful.” Also, checking on Max would make him the exact kind of helicopter parent he’d made Lily swear they’d never be, even before they married. He hadn’t especially wanted children but agreed with the proviso they wouldn’t give up their own lives, their own desires, for those of their children. The fact that every meal was focused on whether their youngest son had taken a shit told him how far gone they were.
“I’m sure he’s fine,” said Bill.
“Make your wife happy for once in your life and do what she says,” Clyde said. “We’ll order for you if the waitress ever comes.”
Resigned, Bill got up from the bench. The old man browbeat him, bullied him for sure, but Bill went along as much for himself as for his family. Clyde had paid close to half a million dollars for Bill Jr.’s education. He’d set up a 529 plan for Max. Clyde spouted the numbers regularly, like some version of the National Debt Clock, and though Bill knew he wouldn’t have to pay it off, he was aware his own costs, while different, were just as steep.
On his way to the restroom, Bill was tempted to sneak out of the Hofbrauhaus. What would he do if he were free of his cushy life? If he hadn’t moved in with Lily after college to save money and pay off his student loans? Of course, that wasn’t the real reason. Who was he kidding? He’d resisted his impulses and tried to make things work: married her, quickly had a kid, and for the most part stayed faithful. In those days, it probably saved his life. Was sex worth dying for? For that matter, was love? Unlike the handful of boys he’d known in college, all of them dead—Bill’s answer was no.
But he wanted to see one of the castles designed by Ludwig II, the former King of Bavaria. The most popular was Neuschwanstein, which Walt Disney copied for his Disneyland castle. Because of the amount of money Ludwig had spent building it, he was deposed and, two days later, murdered. Today the castle was famous all over the world, not to mention the top moneymaking tourist attraction in Germany. Bill decided he’d much rather visit Herrenchiemsee, the castle Ludwig modeled on Versailles. Ludwig had admired French culture, their glorification of architecture, art, and music, in which he found his own Bavarian people so miserably lacking. Bill could relate.
“Why would you go see a replica, one the guy didn’t finish, when you could see the real thing?” Clyde had said when Bill suggested visiting the castle earlier on the trip.
“Do you mean…?” Lily asked.
“Yeah, I was thinking France next year for Christmas, though I hate those French fairies.”
“Oh, Dad!” Lily had given Clyde a long hug.
But like the good husband he was, Bill followed orders. He located the men’s room and was surprised that it seemed empty. Perhaps because their table was in the back of the Hofbrauhaus, this bathroom received less traffic. In any event, he was grateful for a respite from the migraine-inducing music pounding in the hall.
One of the things Bill loved about Europe was the way Europeans built their bathroom stalls, like mini hotel rooms. The stalls often had ornate, ceiling-to-floor wooden doors with shiny, high-end knobs, affording exquisite privacy when one had to do one’s business—or jerk off, as he’d done a few times while streaming porn on his phone, always muscular big-dicked men, often black, fucking a variety of women—in case he got caught.
The two stalls of the Hofbrauhaus were no exception, though their doors didn’t go all the way to the floor. Even so, Bill would’ve had to drop to his knees to see which stall Max was using, and he’d be damned if he was doing that. Instead, he called out, “Alles klar, Herr Kommissar?”
In the silence that followed, Bill turned to the urinals opposite the stalls to relieve himself. He heard some sort of rustling.
“Alles klar, Herr Kommissar?” he said again louder, because Max likely had his earbuds in. Bill hadn’t begun to pee yet, as doing so took his full concentration. He was, after all, nearly fifty. Any distraction made it a no-go situation.
“Dad! Leave me alone!”
“Sorry, buddy. Mom wanted me to check on you.”
He sensed a light coming from behind him, over his right shoulder, and turned. One of the stall doors was now open, and the light from the enclosure had entered the main part of the bathroom, as did the man who’d been inside.
At the same time, Bill felt the presence of another man. He turned to his left. A bearded man took the urinal next to him, though no one else had entered the restroom.
“Alles Klar,” said Gerhard. “Funny.”
“It’s, uh, a German song. It’s a joke we have,” said Bill.
The man at the urinal left the restroom. Clearly, he didn’t have any issues with being able to pee on cue. Unless he hadn’t peed.
“The singer was Austrian. Falco. He’s from Vienna.”
“Oh, I didn’t know that.” Bill zipped up, despite still having to go, and made his way to the row of sinks.
“You speak German, don’t you?” Gerhard said, following.
“Ja, Ich kann Deutsche.”
“Sehr schon. Your accent is excellent.” Gerhard loomed behind him but didn’t move to wash his hands.
“I, uh, took German for a couple of years in high school. It’s a very hard language,” Bill said, justifying why he’d already stopped speaking it after one sentence. But it was hard for him to concentrate. Had he interrupted the men? In a beer hall of all places?
“Deutsche sprache, schwere sprache,” said Gerhard. “Even for Germans, the language is difficult.”
“Yeah, all that stuff with putting the verb at the end of the sentence.” Bill tried to remain focused on lathering up and not on the big man behind him. “Then, uh, there’s the der, die, das stuff. There’s like ten different ways to say the word ‘the.’”
“You’re kidding?” Bill continued to scrub away. “Who knew there could be so many ways to communicate one thing?”
Gerhard laughed, his voice echoing off the walls like they were inside a cave. Even the German’s outfit seemed amused. Bill could hear leather cracking and what sounded like bells jingling.
He glanced up and caught Gerhard’s gaze in the mirror. When Bill tried to look elsewhere, his eyes bee-lined for the German’s crotch. There, attached to the pants of his lederhosen, was a long silver chain with coins, miniature musical instruments, and what appeared to be teeth. It was some sort of charm bracelet, albeit a very masculine one, draped low and hung in front of his manhood.
“It’s a charivari,” Gerhard said when he caught him staring. “A hunting amulet. A kind of talisman. This is an oak leaf. These are carved deer teeth.” Gerhard fondled various ornaments, pointing them in Bill’s direction.
“It’s beautiful,” Bill said, practically in a bedroom whisper. He worried how his voice might sound to his son, on the off chance Max was listening. “I mean, it’s really cool.”
“Originally, a charivari was a noisy serenade for newlyweds. The word derives from Latin. It means madness, or commotion. That’s where the honking of horns comes from after a wedding. Later, villages used the commotion of charivari—banging pots and pans, blowing horns—to shame unmarried people living together, or to drive away anyone in an unnatural relationship.”
The German removed a paper towel from the holder and presented it to Bill, as if Gerhard had turned into the restroom’s valet.
“Oh, thanks. Danke.” He imitated the half-bow Gerhard had done in the hall, and the German smiled wide, his fine European dentistry on bright display. The paper towel felt like a gift and Bill had to remind himself to throw it away. “I should get back to my family.”
“Aren’t you with your family now?”
“Your son?” Gerhard nodded toward the still-closed stall door.
“Oh, yeah. Well, I’m not waiting for him.”
“Isn’t that why you came in?”
“No, no,” Bill said. “I had to go too.”
“But you didn’t go.”
“Excuse me?” Had this stranger seen, quite literally, through him? After all this time, was it that easy?
“Forgive me, I wondered…”
Bill brushed past Gerhard toward the exit. The German pivoted at the same time as if to prevent Bill from leaving. Instead, Gerhard opened the bathroom door and held it for him. As Bill left, Gerhard tailed behind like they were playing football and Bill was leading the way to the end zone.
When he reached their table, the food was there, as well as another round of giant beers. Clyde appeared to have polished off his own two—equivalent to over a six-pack in the States—and moved on to Lily’s since she didn’t drink much. Lily had a plate of lettuce, which Bill imagined she badgered the server to provide. His wife always ordered off-menu, fine in your hometown restaurant, but couldn’t she for once try something the locals ate? He knew she watched her figure for him and worked out relentlessly in the hope her hard body would have a similar effect on his penis. But surely, after all these years, that hope was gone, and her working out had become, like so much of their life, a habit.
He sat down, hoping to avoid any discussion of Max’s bowel movement while eating—or answer any questions about why Gerhard was returning at the same time. Clyde had ordered the spaetzle, while someone had taken the German’s recommendation and ordered the weiner schnitzel for Max.
“The duck looks good,” said Lily.
“It does,” said Bill, digging in.
She caught sight of their son returning to the table. “How’d it go?”
“What’s this?” Max asked, plopping himself down on the bench.
“Weiner schnitzel,” said Lily.
“Perfect for a young man,” said Gerhard.
Clyde turned and faced the German. “What’s your fucking problem?”
“Sorry.” Gerhard got up to walk away but then turned back to stare at Bill. “Auf Wiedersehen.”
“There’s something wrong with that guy,” said Clyde after Gerhard had gone. “Which I knew right away.”
Bill had to agree his father-in-law had picked up on something, something Bill initially missed, maybe because he was with his family or maybe because they were in a foreign country. Gerhard had left him a message though, in switching back to German to say good-bye. The literal translation of auf wiedersehen wasn’t “so long” but “until we see each other again.”
Gerhard was waiting for him in the bathroom.
Bill played out the scene like he’d done so many times. “I’ll be right back,” he would say, hurrying up from the table, knocking over Clyde’s beer on purpose.
“What? Where’re you going?” Lily would ask.
“All this talk of bowel movements and guess who has to go?”
“No, don’t—” Because deep down she knew.
“Let him go,” Clyde would slur. “Let him go.”
He’d hustle away like he never had to use a bathroom so badly. On the way, he’d spot the bearded man from the urinal, now sitting with his family. They’d exchange a look equal parts recognition and revulsion. I know you, the glance would say. You make me sick.
When he entered the restroom, it would be empty. He’d check the closed stall doors for signs of activity. He’d bend down but wouldn’t see any feet, then whisper, “Alles klar?”
After a moment, a stall door would creak open, and he’d be drawn inside like a magnet, unable to resist the tree-like force leaning against the wall. He’d slide down the leather-clad oak, and as he reached his knees, lederhosen and charivari would fall down around him like tinkling leaves. It would be like a weight had been lifted from his shoulders and placed into the palm of his hand.