“One in Ten”

“Is this a Hitler?”

I took a step back and turned to look at the woman standing next to me. Her hair was black, styled in a short, professional manner. Eyeglasses, narrow lenses with black frames, also very professional. Earrings? Yes, two large, crimson-glass orbs. I sensed that she was a woman of extremes. A no-nonsense businesswoman with an edge.

“Yes, the entire room is Hitlers.” We examined the watercolor in front of us. Schloss u. Kirche Perchtoldsdorf (Perchtoldsdorg Castle and Church), 1910-12. A set of brick buildings, including a tower, tucked behind trees, signed “A. Hitler.”

“No people,” she said, turning on her heel to take in the rest of the Hitlers. “All landscapes and buildings. No people.”

I watched as she turned. About 5 feet, 2 inches, black linen jacket and skirt, absent of any ornamentation. Black shoes, open toed, surprisingly high heels for such a conservative outfit. Slim. Perhaps too slim. In her mid 40s. A suggestion of vegetarian in her demeanor.

“I’ve seen watercolors by Churchill and Eisenhower as well,” I said. “Landscapes. Rarely any people. Everything quiet, tidy, in the proper place. It’s almost as though the world was unpopulated. It didn’t need people. They didn’t need people. Maybe they didn’t want to think of people. So many died, they didn’t want to think of it. Just rolling hills and church steeples.”

“That’s interesting.” Together now, we stepped over to the next watercolor. White Orchids, 1913. An illustration of a droopy plant set against a gray background. “His Munich Period,” I said. “Hitler actually preferred painting carnations.”

She asked if I was a collector.

“Art? Oh, no. I collect things of historical interest from that period. It’s all readily available. This kind of thing, Hitler watercolors, it’s way beyond what I can afford. Nazi regalia, that’s more my budget. I collect caps, Nazi party badges, Hitler Youth flags, service daggers. I have a set of Herman Goering’s cufflinks.”

Too much? Maybe not, as she was nodding, as though carefully weighing what I had to say. But still uncertain, I thought. She turned away, just a bit, as she considered Alter Werderthor Wien (The Werder Gate), 1910-12. A stone waterway in the city of Vienna, rendered in drab browns and grays. “From his Vienna Period,” I said. “Notice the cross hatching.” I couldn’t tell if she was sizing me up – a head taller than her, mid 50s, college professor in personal style, although I am not. Irish, some people would say, although I am not. How far could I go with this one?

“Look,” I said, pointing to the next painting, because my introduction of Goering’s cufflinks into the conversation was now feeling a bit too rushed, and I didn’t want to look like a creep. Not this soon in our relationship. We stepped over to The Trail, 1916, from Hitler’s World War I period. Trees with their limbs torn away lined a dirt road cratered by shell hits. Next to it, watercolors of smoldering tanks, wrecked buildings and bridges. “Hitler saw serious combat in World War I,” I said.

I suggested we have a drink. Alcohol always seems to improve the odds. She raised an eyebrow in mock surprise, although I believe she was expecting it. As we left the gallery, she pointed out a place just next door, Tara Lounge.

The Tara is dark wood, tea lights positioned deep in the bar-back shelves, even in the late afternoon, for a warm, romantic glow of tiny flames and back-lit liquor bottles. Zebra heads stared down from the wall, plastic, lifelike; it was easier on the animals. I steered her toward a favorite black-leather booth, against a wall with magazines carefully lined up in a wire rack. Architecture magazines. Photography magazines. “Build a Pagoda in Your Back Yard,” urged the cover of a magazine promoting “Design, Fashion, Art, Lifestyle.” They looked as though they hadn’t been moved in days. Weeks. We’d all given up on the dream lives. It was too dark to read in here, anyway.

Would it be going too far if I selected a bottle? She loved that idea. Work was done for the day. I ordered a 2005 Château Croix Mouton Bordeaux Superieur.

“This is wonderful,” she said, setting an elbow on the table and tipping her head slightly until it rested on the palm of her upturned hand, flicking the dangling earring with a long finger.

“You like the wine? This one has a terrific nose.” I swirled the wine in my glass and sniffed. “Blackberries, very fruit forward. Tobacco. Perhaps wet forest floor. A little early for this one.”

“I mean, it’s just kind of wonderful, meeting someone like this. So unplanned. Everything is so structured, so routine, today. I can’t think of the last time I was truly surprised.”

“I’m glad the wine isn’t a surprise. You probably know, one of the epic moments of World War II came when the French liberated hundreds of thousands of bottles of wine from Berchtesgaden.  Hitler’s Eagles Nest. They brought the bottles down the mountain strapped to stretchers. Only the French would think of that.”

I filled her glass. She would have two. Three for me. She gazed over my shoulder for a moment, finger again idly flicking at her earring. Her nails were short, and painted crimson. Several delicate silver rings, perhaps of Peruvian nature. No wedding ring, no engagement ring. Not that that always mattered.

Her gaze drifted back to me. “I’m Karma.”

“That’s a good vibe.”

“Karma, with a K. It’s my name, dork.”

“How did you know my name was Dork?”

So, we shared an odd sense of humor.

“Are you a historian? A history teacher?” she asked.

“I have a friend who collects lawn sprinkler heads. You know, you never set out to collect something like that. It starts itself. He was a landscaper, and found a box of old ones in a shed. Nothing too outrageous.”

“I can’t imagine sprinkler heads getting too outrageous.”

“Oh, ho, yes they can get outrageous. He has some that look like tractors. And he has quite a few phallic representations.”

She laughed. Very pretty. “Everything’s phallic, if it’s longer than it is wide. That wine bottle is very erotic.”

I filled her glass.

“And your collection  of…?”

“Nazi regalia?” I said. “From my father. I’ve built on it. You’re frowning.”

“My neutral face is angry,” she said. “Is it at a gallery? At your home?”

“Well, Bob Jones University wanted it…”

“What?”

“I’m joking. It’s at my apartment.” The conversation ebbed, a natural pause, as we each considered what could be next. People seemed to be talking too loudly around us. Two guys nearby were listing baseball players who they suspected of using steroids. A woman’s daughter had come home a few days ago from her misanthropic boyfriend’s house with a black eye: Tripped in the middle of the night and hit her head on the corner of a stereo speaker, she said.  Some bald guy was insisting you always, always, had to use a wooden spoon when making risotto. What did he know? Such trivia. So annoying. I looked at Karma again. She was gazing at me with a crooked little smile. I couldn’t tell if she was looking at me or thinking about her cats.

“You have cats, right?”

“Two.”

This was not trivia, these were key details. A single woman with cats. “You want to see my collection, don’t you?” I said.

She smiled, crookedly again. “Better that than your friend’s sprinklers.”

I pointed to her glass. “Finish your wine. Honest men died for it.”

Outside, it was drizzling. She leaned a little into me, against the rain. “Just a couple of blocks down here,” I said.

“This is crazy.”

“No. Crazy is a house on the beach, with a storm coming in, and the shutters are banging open and closed in the wind.”

“What’s your name?”

Did she detect a pause? “Don.”

“So, I was close, wasn’t I?”

“It’s karma.”

I launched some idle chatter about, oh, I can’t quite remember now, to distract Karma as we arrived at the stoop of my brownstone. The elderly doorman was waiting, Felix Katz, an unfortunate name, but the humor was lost on him. I didn’t want Karma to see how he was scowling at me, that he didn’t like me.

Up the creaky stairs to my second-floor apartment. I had three different keys for three different locks. I pushed the door open, and allowed her to walk in ahead of me. No need to hastily gather newspapers carelessly tossed on the couch. My apartment is no college bachelor pad, it is tidy. It always is.

I reached behind her and turned on the light switch. Karma looked surprised and, I think, impressed. The living area has a high ceiling, with dark-stained wood crown moldings, a polished wood floor and calming shades of vegetation green that I had carefully picked out myself. The two windows facing out the front looking out on nothing – this is New York City – were draped with a particularly heavy olive-drab material that could keep out any light, or hide me from the neighbors in the apartment building across the street. A comfortable couch and reading chair with material of a fern pattern, a low wood coffee table, two halogen floor lamps. Small entertainment center. An oval area rug, in camouflage brown, olive and tan, that I’m embarrassed to confess I found several years ago at one of the suburban yuppie stores.  I have a set of matching coffee mugs in the kitchen. The only art on any of the walls was an abstract drawing that, as you inspected it closer, was actually a German King Tiger tank of the Schwere Panzer Abteilung 503. A friend of mine did it for my birthday.

“You have a sewing machine?” Karma said, spotting mine in the darkened kitchen, on the kitchen table. “I’ve never known a man who sewed.” She walked over to the far wall, built-in shelves with leaded glass doors on either side of a non-functional fireplace. She walked pertly, very efficiently, I thought. “You have a lot of books,” she said.

“History, mostly. I have a little port left in this bottle.”

“Yes.” She knelt before the doors, peering into the shelves. “DVDs. Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS. Frauleins in Uniform. Fraulein Without a Uniform.

“Pure camp. Lowbrow entertainment. Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS was shot on the set of Hogan’s Heroes.” Karma stood up, and I handed her a small glass of the port. “This is what I’m reading now,” I said, pointing to a stout book on the coffee table. “It’s a little more serious.” William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. “I try to read it once a year.”

She sighed. “I have a friend who reads War and Peace every year.”

Too much war, I thought. Music was needed. I have a turntable, because much of what I listen to is difficult to find on CD. Last year I found a double-record vinyl set of historic recordings, including some Hitler speeches. Not that I could understand the German, of course, but it was easy enough to grasp what was happening. But I would not be playing that now. I deftly dropped the needle into the groove of Martin Denny’s Quiet Village. In a moment, bird calls twittered amid the trees, hand percussion chattered and piano began a hypnotic procession through the jungle as vibraphone joined in: Part cheese, part lounge jazz, but undeniably cool.

“Is this cartoon music?” Karma asked, sitting on the couch.

“Cocktail music. It’s exotica.”

Shirer’s book was on the table in front of her. “This is more than dog eared,” she said, pulling it toward her. “This is dog assed.” She flipped open the front cover, which could only partly close over the pages now. Over the years I have carefully annotated the book, underlining key passages, penciled notes in the margins, inserted maps of Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland into the chapter where it becomes Germany’s Sudetenland, marked particularly important troop movements with photos of the commanding generals. I have seen people do this kind of thing with cookbooks, making notes on measurements, slipping additional recipes among the appropriate pages, filing out-of-date school pictures of the nephews among the casseroles.

Karma pushed Shirer to the middle of the table. “So, where’s the museum?” she asked.

“Here. It’s a small apartment, so the bedroom has to be kind of the shrine.”

Holding her lightly by the elbow, I steered Karma through the kitchen and to the bedroom, pushing the door open with my toe, slowly releasing a wedge of amber light from the room. The effect, I admit, is kind of magical, like the door of Tutankhamun’s tomb sliding away to reveal the treasures within.

“Wow,” she breathed, pushing the door open further and stepping inside. I followed. “It’s the Fabergé Egg of guy rooms.”

Yes, there is a bed. It is where I sleep. But what she saw was all four walls lined from floor to ceiling — remember, those are 10-foot ceilings in these old apartments — with shelves that I had carefully built myself. The shelves, with built-in recessed lighting, spilled over with almost everything I had collected over the past two decades. Armbands for Hitler Youth, sports leaders, real estate assessors and the Old Comrades Association For First World War Veterans. Badges for rallies, elections, the auxiliary rural police and the Dr. Fritz Todt Prize, with its stern eagle, awarded for inventions furthering the war effort. SS death-head cap badges. Field caps, arcane-looking civil defense helmets, dozens of the familiar army coal-scuttle helmet, a few Afrika Korps sun helmets. Crimson motor corps pennants and Hitler bodyguard standards, and German labor front flags with the swastika depicted in the middle of a gear. Secret Military Police insignia. The German Cross, Deutsches Kreuz. Silver Gestapo warrant discs and commemorative medallions depicting Germany’s occupation of Paris. Awards for mine rescue services and civil defense. A Luftwaffe officer’s tunic with Goering’s cufflinks. Luftwaffe daggers; is there hand-to-hand combat in the air?

“Over here, in the closet, are some of the things I’ve made myself.” I lifted a bag, a dry-cleaning bag that slides over the hanger, from one of the rods. “I’ll take this, while you look around. Be comfortable.”

I left her there, with that crooked smile, and closed the bedroom door behind me. We’ll see. I set the bag on the kitchen table, flipped the Martin Denny record over to side two, poured myself another small port, and sat on the couch. More bird calls from Denny. And vibraphones. They brought a relaxed beauty to the room. The window was open, just a little, and I could hear sounds from the street. Men arguing in Chinese. A car with a bad muffler. A muted trumpet.

Now I could hear the clatter of wire hangers in the bedroom. Rustling noises. Karma said something to herself, I think. I stood, finished the port, and went back into the darkness of the kitchen. I changed my clothes in the dark, quietly, and stood there, leaning on a kitchen chair, listening, like a rodent in the walls of my apartment. The wood floor of the bedroom creaked as Karma moved about. Maybe 10 minutes passed. Could have even been 15.

And then, “Come on in,” she said from behind the door. I didn’t reply, but slowly pushed the bedroom door aside. I was wearing the gray uniform of a corporal in the 2nd SS Panzer Division, with the red-trimmed shoulder patches signifying artillery, twin SS lightning bolts on the collar, and a steel Army helmet, circa 1935, the one with an eagle in full flight and carrying a swastika in its claws. Karma was on the bed, on her hands and knees, having draped across the bed a crimson company flag of the National Socialist Flying Corps, with its brazen black swastika on a white circle. I could see she had chosen the blue service dress tunic of a Luftwaffe lieutenant, and had awarded herself the Iron Cross, pinned to the left breast pocket. She accented it with the beige Luftwaffe officer’s cap trimmed with gold braid. I had modified that jacket with my sewing machine, taking in the sides so that it would better compliment a woman’s figure. The dim light was enough to show off the side of one of her breasts beneath the tunic, and trace the outline of her bare rear end, the back of her thighs, her bare feet. She had taken one of the red swastika arm bands and slid it onto her leg, over the knee, to where it fit snugly on her lower thigh. Very creative, I thought.

“Come on in,” Karma said again, and arched her back. She growled playfully.

She was one in 10. That’s all I need, one in 10.