THE BOUQUET OF RUINS by Peter Nolan Smith


Dec 1982

Some cities are best defined by songs such as APRIL IN PARIS or AUTUMN IN NEW YORK, but Hamburg defied music, as the weather off the North Sea besieged the harbor city with endless rain, cold, and darkness. Every day the night conquered a few more minutes of light and our once-popular club on Epperdoffer Weg was deserted by the attractive youth, the esoteric intelligentsia, and the wicked rich, who sought comfort in their homes rather than BSirs.

The sleek nightclub had been designed to mimic CLOCKWORK ORANGE’s milk bar.

THe fashion people of Hamburg had loved it throughout the summer, but they had been replaced by pimps and off-duty prostitutes from the Reeperbahn. Neither liked to pay for their drinks and my share of the profits shrank to nothing.

Henri, the DJ from Paris, and I were counting the days until we called it quits, only I wasn’t telling management about my departure in case I wanted to come back after the holidays. Good-paying jobs for foreigners without the proper papers were difficult to find in Europe.

Only one person deserved an ‘auf wiedersehen’.

I had been seeing Astrid since early October. The blonde twenty year-old was studying fashion at the University. Her dramatic overbite and an aquiline nose stole any chance at being called beautiful, but Astrid was very accommodating in bed.

“I may be leaving,” I told her after a lengthy session nearing dawn.

“Are you going for good?” She dressed conservatively for school and stuffed her night clothes in a large leather bag.

“Yes.” I lay in bed thinking that I’d miss her in Paris.

“And you are not coming back?” Her body belonged on a runaway model.

“Not a chance.” I had had enough of Germany for this year.

“When?”

“Soon.”

Claudia kissed me on the lips and I returned to sleep.

That night SS Tommy showed up at the bar early. We had few customers. All of them avoided the six-foot enforcer for the GMbH. Astrid stood at the door dressed in a fur with very little else underneath. She normally never showed until after midnight.

“What’s this.” The total came to almost 10,000 DMs or $6500 US.

“A bill.” His scarred finger jabbed the top of the ‘rechtung’.

“I can see that.” I had learned German in high school. The list consisted of charges for sex. “What’s it have to do with me?”

“This is what you owe for the nights with Astrid.” With his long blonde hair and steroid muscles SS Tommy resembled a monstrous transvestite bulldog.

“Astrid? I didn’t know she worked for you.”

She smiled at me with a crooked grin. I hadn’t seen this coming.

“Not all our girls work the Eros Center.” His gang ran a string of 200 women on the Reeperbahn. Each one had sex five times a night. 200 DMs times five times two-hundred women came to $100,000 a night. SS Tommy owed three Ferraris. “Is everything in order?”

I checked the bill again. Each act was itemized by date.

“She never said anything about working for you,” I said in rough German.

“Everyone in Hamburg works for someone.” Zuhaleters were well-known for their violence and SS Tommy had a well-earned reputation for a short fuse.

I had to offer him a gesture.

“Here are the keys to my car.”

SS Tommy took the car keys for 5000 DMs. I had paid 7000 six months ago.

“Where’s it parked?”

“At the mechanic shop.”

Two days earlier I had driven the orange VW into a tree. The mechanic said last rites over the chassis. It was a total write-off,

“Warum?” asked SS Tommy.

“Just getting a turn-up.” It was an easy lie to tell.

“Das ist gut, but morgen 5000 more.” SS Tommy grabbed my arm in a claw grip to insure that I had to pay him the rest of the money tomorrow or else.

“Of course.” My shoulder muscles went dead, as his fingers dug into my flesh. The pain radiated through my body. He wanted money not a car.

“I’ll give you a free night with Astrid.” SS Tommy clicked his fingers. “Stay with him. I don’t want him running out on me.”

“Jawohl.” She was good at taking orders as are all Germans.

I told the manager that I was going home early. I rubbed life back into my arm, as we left the club. Everyone avoided me, as if I had the plague. No one had friends, when SS Tommy was your enemy.

Back at my apartment Astrid acted, as if nothing had changed between us and I suppose that it hadn’t, except I had 5000 DMs were under my bed.

SS Tommy wasn’t getting a pfennig.

Neither was Astrid.

After a glass of sekt she went to take a shower, promising me a night to remember.

“Maybe I do 1000 worth.”

“That would be nice.” I smiled sipping my glass of pesudo-champagne.

As soon as the bathroom door shut, I grabbed my cash and wrapped a wire hangar around the doorknob, trapping Astrid inside. Within minutes I packed a bag with my clothes. I didn’t have much to show for six months in Hamburg, but I didn’t need much in Paris.

I heard thumping on the bathroom door.

Shouts followed.

“Chus,” I shouted heading for the door, leaving a note on the kitchen table to SS Tommy.

The bed, chairs, table, and everything else were his.

I liked this deal better.

I bent over to take Astrid’s underwear. I liked her smell.

A minute later I caught on Mittelweg.

“Bahnhof.” It was only ten minutes away from Mittelweg. No one was in the station. The night was cold. I bought a ticket for the 2:34am train to Paris.

After that I hid on the platform like a spy fleeing Nazi Germany.

The southbound train pulled out of the station on time. My compartment was empty. The train stopped at every station. The towns sounded like battlefields. I didn’t sleep until we passed through Dutch customs.

Dawn brightened the gray skies on a landscape of ruined steel factories of the Low Countries. These industries had been destroyed by Japanese competition. The decay stretched from border to border into Belgium. The wet of the winter carried the corruption of rust and concrete. It smelled of death and I pulled out Astrid’s panties. They were French silk.

The conductor announced our ETA in Paris was 9:23am.

After arriving at Gare Du Nord I took the Metro to St. Germain, where I booked a room at the Hotel Louisiane and then breakfasted at the Cafe de Flore

Cafe du lait, croissant, and a Calvados said Paris and I sang APRIL IN PARIS to myself. SS Tommy would never find me here.

Astrid’s panties were still in my pocket. I stole a whiff and inhaled the fading fragrance of cinnamon and sweat with a tang of herring. We had had a good thing for a few months and I smiled thinking that I would never see her crooked smile again.

And that was a good thing for this winter, especially since I couldn’t see that far into summer.

For that was Hamburg’s season to shine.

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