— Do you object to my annexing the middle seat?
— I’m sorry?
— They’ve just closed the cabin doors, so I thought I might spread myself out into the middle seat, since there’s no one else boarding. Unless you object?
— Oh, no, not at all.
— Thank you. Seems like these seats get smaller and smaller all the time. Here, see? If I lift the armrest it becomes a single unified seat under my sole authority. Ha!
— Yes, I suppose it does.
— All these announcements, they make my head spin. No, I do not want to sign up for your vile Capitol One Rewards card!
— Do you fly often?
— Not so much. It’s hell on my varicose veins. And my neuralgia responds poorly to the changing cabin pressure. Poorly – pah! It feels like a sword is being driven through my cheek.
— And security! Every time I go through one of those confounded archways I set off the alarm. Do you know, it took them fully ten minutes to locate all the medals on my person just now. Nearly missed my boarding group. I faked a dizzy spell so they’d have to ferry me to the gate on one of those beeping carriages.
— Oh, I know. Those security people don’t know what they’re doing. Always talking to each other and carrying on. It’s like we’re bothering them. You know, one time my daughter actually missed her flight because they insisted on patting her down, but the only female agent available was having lunch, so she had to sit there twiddling her thumbs until Miss Lunchbreak came back. She could hear them calling out the final boarding announcement and everything.
— I’ve court-martialed generals for less than that.
— And they didn’t even compensate her! She missed the last flight that day and had to stay in a hotel room that she paid for out of her own pocket. Can you imagine?
— The whole of the TSA is not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier.
— You’re telling me.
— So are you from Des Moines?
— Oh, is that over near Denison? Crawford County?
— No, you’re thinking of Schleswig.
— Schönhausen is in Saxony.
— I don’t think I know it.
— It’s in Germany. I was Chancellor of the German Empire from 1871 to 1890.
— Well! That sounds like a lot of work.
— It was.
— Bet it paid good, though.
— Not bad.
— And how about you?
— What do you do?
— Oh, I flip houses.
— You flip houses.
— Yeah, you know. You buy some cheap bank repo property, bring in some contractors to refurb it, sell it for about three times what you paid for it. You ever see the show Flip It and Forget It? One of ours was on that. Nice big Victorian in Sherman Hill.
— Pah, bloody difficult woman.
— Victoria. No sense of reality. A slave to sentiment in all matters touching upon foreign affairs.
— Well this place in Sherman Hill was really nice. You’d have loved it. Original hardwood floors, big arched doorways. Of course, the former owners built a hideous rectangular rec room on the ground floor in the back, so we had to take that down. And for whatever reason they put this thick pink carpet all over the place. Like, salmon pink? It was a sight, let me tell you. Some people just don’t know how to take care of nice things.
— The dread of responsibility is a disease of our times.
— It’s like, why did you even buy this place if you’re not going to take care of it? I guess if you’ve never known any different you don’t have any frame of reference. I think they bought it pretty cheap when the neighborhood was more run-down.
— The untutored masses will always ruin what they love through overuse. They can’t help it.
— Much better class of people in there now. I drive by it sometimes and just think: We did that. We brought that place back from the dead. Feels good, you know?
— Yes. I did the same to the great German Reich.
— Oh, here comes the drink cart.
— Diet Coke, please. No ice.
— A glass of milk, lemon water, and a bottle of burgundy. What? What did the man say?
— He said they have no milk and just regular water. And red wine will be seven dollars.
— Ach, he mumbles so. Just let me find my platinum card. No, wait. What’s this? This tiny bottle? This bottle I wouldn’t feed to an infant? I will need a dozen more of these, my good man. I don’t care what it costs. Are the beers this small also? Then bring me six of them. Lagers.
— Here, I’ll help you with your traytable.
— Would you like a little rum for your Diet Coke? I’ve snuck some in my carry-on.
— Oh, that would be nice. Thank you. Feels weird to be drinking so early in the morning, but after the week I’ve had I need it!
— So you were saying about Germany?
— Oh, just that I reunified it. The Danes and the Austrians sure weren’t happy about that! Or the French, but the French can go to the devil.
— Huh. That’s so interesting. I was just saying to my wife the other day that you never hear anything about Germany anymore. It’s like the wall fell and then poof! No more Germany!
— Your wife.
— Yes, my wife Connie. We run the flipping business together. Well, we did until she got sick.
— But you are also a woman.
— Yes, we’ve been married for about ten years. Second marriage for me, first for Connie. She’s quite a bit younger than me, but at least she’s not as young as my daughter. That would be weird.
— Yes, it would.
— She’s forty-five. Connie is. Hardly ever sick a day in her life before this. Triathlete. Marathoner. We used to go kayaking together on the lake. I’d be all out of breath before we even got the kayak on the water, but Connie could paddle for hours without breaking a sweat. You ever go kayaking?
— It’s a surprising amount of work. You really need to do some cardio and strength training to build up your core. Just after Connie and I got together I bought a resistance band, like a handle attached to a long bungee cord? It really helped build some muscle. Squats, too. Sit-ups. Things like that.
— My core is pretty strong.
— I bet!
— But my bulk dismays me. Every great man has some flaw, just as a good apple has its speck. My doctor has put me on a special diet.
— Is it paleo? I tried ketogenic paleo for a while but I couldn’t do it because I missed the croutons on my salads. Isn’t that silly? To miss croutons on your salads?
— I have never had a crouton.
— Nothing for me, thanks.
— What did the mumbling man say?
— He wants to know if you’d like a snack.
— Ach, yes. At last. I will have a mushroom omelet, pheasant and sauerkraut boiled in champagne, turtle soup, a wild boar’s head, and some raspberry and mustard compote on the side. And three more bottles of burgundy.
— I think it’s just pretzels or Bischoff cookies.
— Pretzels then.
— Pretzels aren’t paleo. Don’t tell your doctor.
— Devil take my doctor. If he had his way I’d be dining on pickled herring and seagulls’ eggs morning and night.
— These pretzels are vile. They are like real pretzels that have been mummified and buried for three thousand years. They are the pretzels I would expect to find in Pharaoh’s tomb.
— Could you spare another splash of rum?
— I think I need a peppermint. Connie will be angry if she smells alcohol on my breath.
— Connie is teetotal?
— No, but I promised her I’d rein it in while she’s in treatment. It has a way of spiraling out of control when I’m stressed.
— Same with me. Passions are like the trout in my pond: one devours the other until only one fat old trout is left.
— That’s me exactly.
— I can’t get to sleep unless I’ve had at least eight flagons of beer. To work up such a thirst I must eat caviar by the ladleful. It makes travelling rather difficult. The expense is appalling.
— Does your wife give you grief about it? That’s one of the things that really bugs me about Connie. She treats my habits like they’re public property. I know she’s just concerned about me, but it makes me feel like a child.
— It is my wife who has made me what I am. But yes, she does nag a bit. Very Prussian, if you know what I mean.
— It’s just that this last six months has been so stressful. Work has been a nightmare. Contractors haven’t been returning my calls. And Connie’s hardly been able to get out of bed the whole time.
— Connie has dropsy?
— Scarlet fever?
— Yellow fever?
— Bilious fever?
— I am at a loss.
— So are we.
— You don’t know what the ailment is?
— It’s something with her muscles. She can hardly lift a glass of water without spilling it. Walking is tough. She’s also got these weird dark spots all over her skin? Never hungry, tired all the time. They thought it was MS at first, but it’s not. It might be something with her adrenal glands. They’re treating it like it’s the adrenal glands.
— She’s taken the waters at Baden-Baden, of course.
— We’ve done it all. Physical therapy, aromatherapy, acupuncture, parsley juice, CBD, ginseng, hypnotism.
— I sometimes think I prefer the waters at Ems over Baden-Baden. The clientele are cleaner, although they do tend to displace more water, if you know what I mean. Of course half the attendants at Ems are French spies. But that’s not a problem if you’re capable of keeping your maw shut!
— We even tried this stuff made out of sunflowers that you smear on your sore muscles? But it just made her smell like Christmas trees. Weird that it didn’t make her smell like sunflowers.
— I can tell you right now that you needn’t waste your time with Dr. Pulvermacher’s electro-galvanic belts. I tried that for my neuralgia – had to buy two of the buggers to fit around my trunk – and all it did was tickle my ribs and singe my belly hairs. Later I found out Pulvermacher is a Viennese, which explains a lot.
— I just feel so bad for her, you know? Always assumed it’d be me who’d begin falling apart first. She’s so young and vibrant and, I dunno, hopeful. You know that saying “Live, Laugh, Love”? I don’t know who said that, but it’s her. That’s Connie.
— I think maybe Metternich said that. It sounds like Metternich.
— Sorry, I think the rum is getting to me.
— You really love her.
— Yeah, I do.
— The thing is.
— The thing is it’s not really the illness.
— It’s not the illness?
— No. I mean, the illness or whatever it is we can live with. I can live with. But it’s changed her… I don’t know… her outlook on life? She doesn’t want to flip houses anymore.
— Yes. She says it’s driving up house prices, pushing people out of their homes. Which is a bunch of hooey because we’re not pushing anybody out of anywhere. Mostly we buy from banks. And when we do buy from occupants it’s because they want to sell. If anything, we’re putting more money in these people’s pockets than they’ve seen in their lifetimes, so they can go buy a big house in the suburbs or a new SUV or whatever. And then we turn their cruddy old houses into neighborhood showpieces. Young couples move in. Kids. The new people actually mow their lawns, plant trees and things, make the street nicer for everyone.
— You’re like Baron Haussmann in Paris. Tearing up the slums! Building magnificent boulevards!
— Exactly. But Connie doesn’t see it that way. She says we should do more to give back to the community. Give back. Like keeping a historic home from falling down isn’t giving back. She wants to open a cat shelter. She says it’ll be easier to manage with her illness. But I tell her she can just handle the business end and I’ll handle the sites. And then we start arguing, and, I don’t know. We just go round and round for hours.
— I’m thinking of Baron Haussmann before the Communards chased him out of France, of course.
— Can I tell you a story about the time I quit my job?
— Your Connie has made me think of it.
— We had a new Kaiser, an impetuous young man eager to establish his independence from me. You’ve heard of Frederick the Great? Well, it was often said that if Frederick the Great had had a chancellor like Bismarck he would not have been Frederick the Great. So it was with the old Kaiser. He stroked his whiskers and signed my decrees and kept out of my way. But this young pup wanted his people to love him. He wanted to be Wilhelm the Great.
— A Kaiser is a kind of…
— Okay. I was thinking bagel for some reason.
— I won’t bore you with the details. It had to do with the socialists. He wanted to coddle them, wanted to mandate no work on Sundays and limited hours during the week. He was confusing all workers with the small band of socialist agitators. I knew that the workers would detest this, would detest being told how long they might work. A man has to work so many hours to put bread on the table, and you’re going to make it impossible for him to work those hours? What will he do in those new, idle, breadless hours? I’ll tell you what he’ll do. He’ll riot!
— That’s what my daughter calls it. Hungry and angry together. Hangry.
— Ach, so. He’ll be hangry. And our furnaces will go cold and our rivals will laugh into their gilt handkerchiefs. Anyway, this was our conflict, the Kaiser and me. But at bottom it was also about love. He was trying to woo my mistress from me.
— He was?
— I mean Germany. My actual mistress couldn’t stand the sight of him. But Germany was my other mistress, my one true love. I had thrown myself prostrate at her feet. I had watched amazed as she blossomed from a confused, blushing little girl into a stout and fearsome warrior. Without being immodest, I even took some credit for helping her to become what she was. But this whelp, this, this sprat who had only started shaving the day before yesterday, he wanted to take her away from me.
— I’m not sure this is quite the situation I’m in with Connie.
— I can still see his face when I told him what I had to tell him. We were in his overheated apartments in the Reichstag. I can still smell the pomade he put in his hair, the smell of a bicycle tire dipped in lard. He had summoned me just after breakfast. I remember because I belched when I came into the room, and the belch tasted of hardboiled eggs. He started one of his prim little speeches about killing the socialists with kindness and winning such love from the workers that they would work even harder during their shortened hours from sheer patriotism. It was the thousandth time I heard this speech, and when he paused to light his cigar I took a deep breath and I said it.
— What did you say?
— Your Majesty, I said. What, he said. I fear that I am in Your Majesty’s way, I said.
— That must have been hard for you.
— Not really. I had said it a dozen times to the old Kaiser and it had always focused his mind. The old Kaiser would rather run through the streets naked than lose his loyal paladin.
— So what did he say?
— He finished lighting his cigar and just said Yes, I fear you are. He didn’t look at me, just stared out the window into the grey sky. I clicked my heels, placed my helmet on my head, and wheeled about. A few weeks later I was back on my estate planting turnips.
— Don’t you just love gardening? I find it very therapeutic. Sometimes I go out back when Connie’s sleeping and just lose myself snipping and fluffing and plucking.
— I would rather have been hunting, but I was too sore to ride. The pleasures of my youth were impossible to me now. The great Alcuin of York was speaking of me when he wrote of the devoted youth who once chased stags across the fields, now leaning on his stick, a tired old man. My wife died, my brother died, my dear dog Tyras II died. The Kaiser sent me a full-length portrait of himself and I had it hung in the stables. Deputations from the towns came to me with crystal vases and music boxes and I had them stored in the pantry. Newspapermen came to ask my opinions on the government’s latest follies and I gave my views without varnish. And all the while my mistress, my strong and fearsome Germany, was growing ungainly and grotesque, unrecognizable under the influence of her new suitor. And this is the point I want to make to you. This is why I am telling you this story.
— You will say I was like your Connie, incapable of doing the things I once loved, my life constricted like a bull’s neck in a harness. But in my analogy Connie is Germany, and I am you. The disease that deflates and distracts your Connie is like the young Kaiser who engorges Germany with his folly. Our true loves are both stolen from us by capricious suitors, plucked from us in their prime and molded into something grotesque.
— I don’t know about…
— It cost me much agony, but at last I came to this conclusion: I must let her go. I had devoted my life to her, but my devotion was not enough. She had outgrown me. If she were to achieve her destiny, however I might quarrel with the direction in which she tended, I must step aside. Once I understood this, a blanket of peace fell upon me like a warm rain. It was not her absence that had constricted me, but her presence. I felt free for the first time since my boyhood. And that is my advice to you.
— Surrender her to her new lover. Surrender her to the illness and the way it perverts her mind. Surrender her to the siren call of the cat shelter.
— What was it Metternich said, “Live, Laugh, Love”? Surrender her and you can begin to do this again.
— I, that’s. Hm. That’s certainly something to think about! Oop, I think we’re starting our descent. I really need to read through these papers before we land.
— Yes, of course. I’ll just close my eyes for a moment.
— Hi babe. Yeah, good. Just getting on the parking shuttle. Oh, fine. A little bumpy at first but it smoothed out. The guy next to me nearly talked my ear off. Anyway. How are you feeling? I was thinking of picking up some wine on the way home. You up for a little wine?