The thrill is gone
Neal W. Fandek
“Heil gut looky!” the Kraut crooned. “Vot you cot cookie!”
The singer-songwriter put down his stein of beer. Tasty. Dark. Smelled like socks. What was it called? He tried to focus on the speaker, a tall not very thin man. Germany was just emerging from starvation, they said back home. These men didn’t look like they was starving at’all.
“Howza cookie somezat uppame!”
The German laughed, slapped him on the back. Not a small slap. Hurt his lungs, sent a rattlesnake of pain shooting up his spine. The singer-songwriter edged away, bumped into a rail-thin fraulein. His back was killing him, again. Even after that shot of whatever the hell that was, that wasn’t morphine, from that fat n’ greasy sawbones just around the corner. He shook his head, tried to clear it – where was his hat? His signature white Stetson? — failed.
“You vant I make you feel butter?” she breathed.
“What?” He tried to focus on her. Too damn tall, bitter mouth painted blood red.
His hat! There it was. Atop her aggressively blonde curls, crown now smudged and a splash of something brown or dark red on the brim.
“Make you feel gut, jah?”
“Fraulein – no offense, but what I need you ain’t got.” She pouted, just like a good whore should. Then smiled. Her teeth were awful.
She garbled something in German and the men around her frowned. Looked him up and down. Muttered something.
He got the gist. Fruit.
The whore cast him a contemptuous look, threw his hat on the filthy floor and teetered out on broken heels.
He picked the hat up, put it back on his head, cocked it just so.
“Cain’t win ‘em all boys.”
The men laughed, slapped each other on the back, big slappers these Krauts, yelled for Dunkeles! Yeah. That’s what this here beer was called, dunkeles. Dark n’ strong as a bull. Tasted like bread. They had all kinds of beer here, dunkeles and pils and lager and he didn’t know what-all.
Two men began arguing about something and squared off, yelling and sputtering like broken wind-up toys. Had they yelled like this at Jews in the death camps, at Russians they was executing? Probably. One poked the other in the chest. The pokee looked at the poker. Then whapped him square on the nose.
The poker staggered back bawling. They fell into each other’s arms, bought each other beers, arms around each others’ shoulders.
The singer-songwriter smiled. Honky-tonys. They was the same the world over.
He’d broken away from his jealous wife Audrey and the group, the little interpreter in that nice neat but shabby suit who spoke English, like English English, funny accent and all, who said he knew a doc who’d give him a shot. They’d slipped down dark streets, rubble still everywhere, no streetlights, few lights in windows, nothin’ going on in the streets. No. That was not true. He saw flickering shadows in the war-mangled apartments above, heard whimpers laughter and muted cries in the crumpled streets. People still lived here. Made you almost feel sorry for these Krauts. Almost.
The sawbones was a short fat man in a nice suit who smelled of good tobacco and aftershave and antiseptic, just like sawbones back home. His office wasn’t no office neither but a bedroom in a nearly intact building, only part of the roof missing and one or two upper windows blown out. The dank little room glowed with steel medical equipment, vial and syringes. It all looked new. Where had he gotten it all? The singer-songwriter decided not to ask.
On the walls were a bright new map of the divided city, red, blue, white and — dark blue? Green? The Frenchies they was on top in white even though they didn’t do nothin’ but go belly up in the war. The Brits was under them, darkish bluish and the Americans under them, true blue. To everyone’s right, a slash of red taking up half the damn city. Russkies.
Big expensively framed black and white pictures on the wall. Did doctors ever hurt? Ever go without? FDR and Truman, that blank King of England and his new prime minister what his name? Ataleee?, that beaky, baggy-faced French gen’l too, deGasse or something, in a plain uniform, no medals or ribbons at’all. That’s how you knew he was top dog. And he’d bet his bottom mark this office had pictures of Hitler, Goebbels, Goring, Himmler, the day before.
The quack seen him looking at the pictures.
“I buy zese pictures from Look Magazine, jah.” He clanked tiny bottles, peered at pills, syringes, tongue depressors. “Ist zer gut. Freidom of press, jah? Yesterdays ist Hitler, today ist Trumans, England, DeGaulle. Tomorrow–? Stalin maybe. Jah.” He shrugged. Big shruggers too, these Krauts.
But the syringe was clean, the shot good and hot and – what? The old sweat-and-tingles was there alright, rushing from his head to his feet and he felt great, stronger than a country mule, peppier than a polecat. But that warm and soft glow, that happy shining feeling just wasn’t there.
“Say doc what is this stuff?” he managed when he could speak. The two Krauts kak-kaked at each other. Not a pretty tongue, that Deutsch. What was they saying? They used a word, kinda sounded like opium.
But the thrill, the thrill just warn’t there.
“Ist gut for you spine, jah.” The sawbones smiled. “Unt now, meine friend…” He knew that smile. He reached into his pocket, came out with a fistful of bills.
“Okay hoss, hold onto your shirt.”
The singer-songwriter put away the dull green and blue bills, a lot like greenbacks back home except no great men on ‘em, classical-lookin’ half nude women and men in togas striking poses. Guess they’d run out of great men.
“Dollar, yes, Englische punt, French franc, yes.”
The thrill is gone…
“Hold up there.”
He found a pen, wrote the line down on a note with funny writing all over it, found and gave the greasy sawbones a five, an outrageous amount but so what, he left five-dollar tips all the time back home, left with the interpreter. The hallway reeked of cabbage, sweat, piss. Outside it was even worse.
Next thing he knew, he was jawin’ with a group of bored MPs who’d never heard of him, damn Yankees, the next him and the interpreter was in a bar drinking this, what was it called again? Dunking. Dunckles. Had him some that last night too. Heidelberg. That was last night. Night before? The castle looming on the hill, the bridge over the river, the dark university. Like something out of a fairy tale. Not a heavenly-after-one neither.
“I haff chot rod Fort and two dollar bilt!” roared a man with a dark beard and glittering eyes. The beard barely covered up the scars. The man was more scar than skin.
The singer-songwriter grinned and drained his stein. “Thank God there ain’t no sodey pop and dancing here.” The men looked blank. “Gimme another, mein freund.”
“Hold up a second there hoss. How you all know my songs?”
“Radio Free Amerika! Grunt olt Opry!”
“Frase der Lord! Ich saw der licht!”
“We luff der hellbilly music.”
“We luff it, jah.” The rail-thin man sang some what sounded like Roy Acuff.
The beer arrived. He took a deep pull. Tasted like shit. He took another huge pull.
“You all is alright for Nazis.”
“Wer ist ein Nazi?”
“Wo ist ein Nazi?”
“Nein, nein – Wir sind gute Kommunisten.”
Kommunisten. They was saying they was Communists.
That meant- Oh lawd.
He looked around. Huge metallic posters of Lenin and Stalin on the dirty walls. How come he hadn’t seen ‘em before? A hammer and sickle in a circle made up of them ugly German colors, red yellow ‘n black. Damnation! He was in Berlin, yeah, but East Berlin. Behind enemy lines. Law! He was in a world of trouble now. How’d he explain this to Audrey? Never mind them Russkies.
“Umm – Kommunisten,” he hiccuped. “Comrade Stalin, he’s zer gut. Jah.”
The faces around him went dull. The scars on the man’s face turned white.
“Ulbricht, Stalin … Er hat uns gerettet,” they muttered.
He had no idea what they was saying. He knew exactly what they was saying.
He plopped a fifty-dollar bill on the sticky bar. They all stared at it.
“Fuck ‘em all. God-damned politicians. Barman! Beers and shots all around for meine freunden!”
They roared, yelled in German, slurred fragments of his hits, slapped his back ‘til he coughed and coughed. A few men glared at him like they wanted to slit his throat, grab his cash, steal his Caddy then ravish his woman, not necessarily in that order.
Honky tonks. Same all over.
Flyin’. Law but he hated flyin.’
Only flew once before just this March when he’d flown up to Nashville from Shreveport to record “Wedding Bells” and “I’ve Just Told Mama Goodbye.” Worse than a roller coaster that damn aero-plane, except there was no coaster. This time they’d boarded a C-54 from Nashville. Skymaster, they called it. Shitmaster, more like. Noisy as all Hades, cold and bare as a coffin, seats that reclined but who could sleep in all that cold and noise? And they said this aeroplane had been Ike’s plane. Ike, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Forces in Europe. You in for a mighty comfortable ride, boy, them flyboys at Berry Field said. Comfortable my ass. Seats was too lumpy to sit or sleep or do anything but make his back hurt, and cold, so cold. He’d never been so cold in his God-damned life.
They’d refueled in gray rainy Washington, D.C., again in shiny-as-quartz Newfoundland. Then the endless flight over the Atlantic, steel gray below as far as the eye could see. Be scary if it wasn’t so God-damned boring. The Eiffel Tower at dawn, looking like a collection of toothpicks. Then the teeming Army bases and wrecked cities. More miserable lookin’ men and women he’d never seen nowhere not even in the poorest of poor Alabama, tiny, listless children no bigger and with as much life as rag dolls, every woman looking like she was 70 with VD, rickets, TB or all three. Hospitals all fulla sick shot up and burned GIs. “Entertaining Personnel of USAFE (United States Air Force Europe) Installations,” this here tour was called. Poor bastards.
There was him, Red Foley, Roy Acuff and the Smoky Mountain Boys, Little Jimmy Dickens and boy was he a dickens, the harmonica and piano player Jimmie Riddle, comedians Rod Brasfield and Ophelia C. Cannon they called her Ophelia not no stage name Minnie Pearl, the announcer Grant Turner, Jim Denny, Opry Vice President and General Manager Harry Stone. Old Tom Luckenbill, agent for the sponsor R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company was along too. Also two right pretty ladies, Dolly Dearman and Helen Bremer, Dolly in them tights, Helen dancing and yodelin’ in that right tight blouse, law she had her points and law did the GIs yell. England, Austria, West Germany, Berlin. East Berlin. God, he hoped no Russians stumbled in to take a piss.
He was trying to tell the boys what he’d seen: Newfoundland, the beautiful-ugly Eiffel Tower in the mist, Heidelberg Castle, untouched, almost, the show that night the girls’ dressing room caught fire, took two hours to put out the fire and three hours to put out the firemen, cracked “Minnie Pearl.” Tempelhof Air Force Base, 7350th Air Base Group, had they seen these new jets? Law, was they something. American bases didn’t stink like the rest of Germany, no offense boys. They smiled, laughed. And tonight – he checked his Timex, oops! an hour til showtime! – at the Titania Palast, biggest durn concert hall in all Berlin.
“Hey, you boys know where the Palast at? The Titania Palast?”
A flurry of guttural German. Not an attractive language. French, now, that was sweet talkin’.
They stopped gabbling, stroked chins, pointed. He heard vest which was west wasn’t it? Russisch, soldaten, Stasi. Stasi he didn’t know but Russisch and soldaten well that was pretty damn clear.
“That way? Vest? Okay then. Well boys it’s been fun.”
He scooped up a handful of change, great souvenirs for the fans back home, tipped his hat. He had no hat. Where was his durn hat?
“Nein! Nein!” they shouted, and again with the Russisch, soldaten, Stasi.
“Russians– Hell boys, can’t be any worse than Saturday night in Clarksville.” He grabbed his soiled hat from a second fraulein with a beer where her mouth should have been, turned to the door.
The singer-songwriter and trio of Soviet soldiers stared at each other.
They were a lot smaller than he’d thought they’d be, in gray greatcoats that wasn’t so great, barely reached below the knee, belted at the waist. Big black boots. And them funny furry hats with the flaps tied on top of their heads. They didn’t look fierce. They just looked tired and bored and dirty. Also surprised as all get-out.
The bar had gone dead quiet. One of the soldiers stared so hard his eyes was almost a-popping out. The two others stepped closer to him. Began babbling in German, he guessed, didn’t sound like the boys’ German but the boys nodded, shook their heads, shrugged. God-damn Berliners. Wasn’t they gonna stick up for him? Guess not. The staring soldier took off his funny hat. His skull was shaved to the bone with a jagged scar that ran from neck to forehead. He didn’t blink.
The taller one came right up to him, stood inches away. Frowned. He stank of booze and dirty underwear and cheap tobacco. Gabbled something in German.
“Sorry hoss, nict sprechen zer Deutsch. Sprechen zie some English?”
“Yes, I speak the English. Who you are? You are American? British? What do you here?” There was a neat hole at shin level in the soldier’s coat.
“Naw, American — Just havin’ me some beers with the boys here is all.”
“You cannot be here.”
“You’re right about that, hoss. I gotta get to the Titania Palast.”
“Please? Palast? You are artist, musician?”
“Artist! I ain’t no artist. I write songs then I sing ‘em.”
The soldier frowned. Turned to the two other soldiers, talked in what he supposed was Russian. Not so bad-soundin’. Better than German, for sho. All three looked at him. The tall one cleared his throat, hand drifting down to his pistol.
Aw shoot fire. He had to do something!
The note! Yeah. In that funny writin,’ Jimmy said, You best hang onto this ‘case you get lost and the Russians get a hold of ya. Aww, I ain’t gonna get lost, he said, stuffed it in his left trouser pocket anyway. He’d barely glanced at it. Fulla the dangest scribble you ever did see. Hell, they weren’t gonna win the next war, they couldn’t even rightly spell.
He found the note, hot and still crisp in his pocket, gave it to the tall soldier. It was only slightly creased and barely stained.
The man turned it over. Read. Exclaimed. Showed it to the other two. They began talking in excited Russian, looking at the note, looking at him, talking to the Germans. Said his name. Said it again.
The scar-headed soldier began singing what sure sounded like “Move It On Over.” The two others joined in. The Germans gaped.
“ ‘Lovesick Blues!’ We love this!” the leader said. He put his arms around the singer-songwriter, kissed his cheek, hard. The singer-songwriter recoiled. God knew what kind of diseases these Russkies carried.
“… these wedding bells never they will ringa me!” the scab-head soldier yelled.
“How you –? Ain’t Radio Free America jammed, verboten?”
“Verboten! Alt is verboten!” the tall Russian yelled.
Then everyone was laughing and smiling, talking like long-lost brothers, slapping backs but not his this time praise God. More beer materialized in front of him, not duncles but weizen, whatever that was, tasted even more like bread, small glasses of some sorta clear liquid too. Vodka? He drained it in one gulp. Didn’t taste like nothing, burned pretty good goin’ down.
He chugged another glass. The Russians was giggling like little boys. Hell, behind the scars and greatcoats and submachine guns they was boys, that one looked like he was nary 16, probably rousted out of their homes and farms to fight the God-damned Nazis. And now they was stuck here. Just like him. Just like all them poor Air Force boys.
The leader kissed him again. Not on the cheek. The singer-songwriter wiped his lips. Grinned. Kissed the Russian back. The Germans howled.
Roy, Jimmy, Red, all of ‘em gaped when he came waltzing up to the Palast stage door.
“Make way! Make way! The Russians are a-comin!” Audrey looked disgusted. Ophelia looked amused.
Red stepped back a pace. “You do know how to make an entrance, boy.”
“Red, Jimmy, Roy, meet my new friends. This here is Ivan, Ivan and Ivan.” The soldiers roared. “I’m just pullin’ your leg. This un’s Aleksei, that there’s Sergei, and the little one, the kid is—hey where’d Dmitri go?”
Dmitri was leaning against the wall, a steady stream of vomit gushing from his mouth. He then lay down and began snoring.
“Boys, you best get ole Dmitri to bed. Hey. You-all wanna stay for the concert?”
Harry Stone and Tom Luckenbill began sputtering.
“They’d love to stay fer the show. Tom! Give ‘em some smokes. Boys, this here is the sponsor of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.”
Their eyes went wide at the pristine packs of Lucky Strikes. Went wider when they saw the dancers. Sat quiet as mice behind the curtain. Whooped when the singer-songwriter sang “Lonesome Blues,” tears running down smudged cheeks.
Roy finished his set, walked stage left. He nodded at the soldiers. “You see that, Red? They’s cryin’ like babies. They’re more hillbilly n’ we are.”
“We oughta move over there and open a damn record store. Then I can finally get away from you damn hillbillies and make me some real dough.”
“Now you tallkin’, boy.”
“But boys, the thrill is gone…”
“Fuck you, Hank.”
The tall handsome bluesman sifted through the papers. Sighed and stared out the dirty window at dirtier Oakland, Calif. Why’d he leave Texas for this expensive, dirtyass shithole?
“Man, why you keep going over them old hillbilly songs?” said the drummer. He scratched his head. “Listening to is one thing, but readin’ it that’s bullshit.”
The bluesman kept sifting. “It’s the stories, man, the stories. The lines, too. Lookit this one. The thrill is gone.”
“Sounds like a hit to me.”
“My black ass,” The drummer snorted.
“.. There ain’t nothing strange about them likin’ our kind of singing..”
— Hank Williams, 1949
Hank Williams and an all-star cast from the Grand Old Opry toured Europe from November 13-26, 1949, performing before U.S. forces mainly in Austria, West Germany and West Berlin, then hundreds of miles inside East Germany. Williams reportedly carried a note written in Cyrillic, the alphabet used in Russia, in case he got lost in the wrong part of town.
Benson & Hedges
I smoked Benson & Hedges cigarettes hitchhiking to school senior year.
Benson & Hedges 100s.
Benson & Hedges 100s Menthol. On the way to hell aka Baltimore Lutheran Junior & Senior High School.
I had a revenge fantasy back then, of course. Of course it involved guns. But I didn’t want to shoot up the whole school the way kids do today. I just wanted to shoot Mark and Ed. Not kill them. Shoot them in the knees or wrists or elbows. Make them unable to walk or use their hands or arms or pray or eat or anything for the rest of their Christian lives.
Walt Disney introduces the seven dwarfs, 1937 Snow White trailer. Screenshot from public domain movie trailer.
It’s off to the ovens we go: Disney-obsessed neo-Nazi on the rampage in Allentown, Pa. http://ssmalmia.com/author/neal-fandek/
Profile photo from Facebook page of Valeria Lukyanova.
Vietnam Johnny Meets the Human Barbie
The short story that spawned “Peter Pike and the Murderous Mormons:” Vietnam Johnny wakes up under Jim Bond’s grave and wanders into Tina’s beauty salon, where the Human Barbie is on Oprah. Strange place, St. Baarlam.
Christopher Lee as The Man with the Golden Gun, 1974, Picture Alliance\Everett Collection.
On my father’s death, inheriting his gun, and Christopher Lee’s golden gun in the Bond movie.
On the set of “Apocalypse and the Beauty Queen,” science fiction flick shot in Missouri’s bucolic Arcadia Valley.