By Scott Rhoades
-Continued from April 16-
The market was a jumbled collection of booths and tables covered by colorful awnings and umbrellas and plastered with posters advertising everything from hot sausages to fresh carrots. Franz bought some apples and beets that were not quite as fresh as he would have liked, but the price was good. He also bought some beans. He needed proof when he told Alois his grand lie about how the young lady had given him some beans and promised to go dancing with him. As always, he paid her a little extra money to make up for the bargains she gave Alois. He struggled slightly as he carried his groceries home.
He walked into the house and saw Frau Schmidt. She scrubbed the floor, standing bent at the waist. He danced on the wet floor in front of her. "Hello, young lady. Where is that old bird, your grandmother Frau Schmidt? When she's not watching, maybe you could come up to my apartment for some wine and fresh bread, and maybe a bit of bratwurst."
"God will get you one day for being so frech."
Franz pointed up. "He knows better than to come for Franz Mitterfeld. I will go to Him when I am ready, not before." He tipped his hat and started up the stairs.
He had just sat down with some bread and cheese when somebody knocked frantically at his door.
"Herr Mitterfeld!" It was Frau Schmidtﾒs voice. She pounded again. "Herr Mitterfeld!"
"I'm coming, I'm coming. Jessasmaria und Josef! I'm not as young as you think I am." He thought of something naugthty to say to the widow, but the words clung to his lips when he opened the door and saw her standing with an arm around Alois's daughter. Tears ran down the younger woman's blotchy cheeks.
"Waltraud, was ist? Please come in."
She stayed in the hallway. "Herr Mitterfeld, it's Papa," she said without entering the apartment. "Heﾒs very ill. When I brought him his berries, I found him on the floor. I think it's his heart. Come quickly. He's asking for you. The doctor is with him. Please hurry!"
Franz didnﾒt take the time to grab his hat or coat. He held Waltraud's arm and rushed down the stairs, nearly falling several times. He arrived at Alois's apartment out of breath. The doctor rose and gave them a look that said everything.
Waltraud fell into Franz's arms and sobbed. Franz held his goddaughter, somehow supporting her weight while the ruined world spun and collapsed around them.
"Waltraud--" He tried to comfort her, but couldn't continue.
She buried her head in his shoulder. He was grateful for her presence. Consoling her meant he didnﾒt have to think of his own breaking heart. He sat with her while the doctor completed some paperwork and sent for the hearse.
Franz didn't know what else to do, so he resumed his routine. He took the bag of seed and bread crumbs from his pantry, put on his hat and coat, and shuffled out with heavy feet.
Loisl was dead.
The steps at the end of the street leered at him. Just that morning, he had spoken to Alois there for the last time. "Grüss Gott, Loisl," he had said to him. Now he really was greeting God. Franz's hand trembled as he stroked the rail his best friend had held.
He stopped at the church to light a pair of candles, the usual one for Elise and an extra Alois. He found no comfort in prayers. Even God had left him.
He walked toward the inner city. He turned on to Kaerntner Strasse where the massive Kaerntner Gate used to be, crowned by the double-headed eagle that symbolized the dual crowns of Austria and Hungary. The gate was so strong that it had taken seven months to tear it down.
Franz no longer felt as if he were in his mother's protecting arms when he entered the Old City. There were no more walls and gates to offer shelter. He knew that the wall had become ugly and useless, but some would say the same about him.
The pigeons flocked to him on the path between the Kur Salon and the pond. He sat on his usual bench and scattered seeds and crumbs. He liked to think the birds would not survive without his generosity, though he knew it was not true. Being the birds' savior gave him the strength to make the trip every day. Today he was sure they saw him only as an old fool who willingly tossed out perfectly good food instead of hoarding it for himself.
When the feed ran out, he walked to the gardens near the little Weather House. His dear wife had loved these flowers, and he watered them every day in her honor.
He could see her, how her dark hair used to fall into her eyes, just so, as she bent to pluck dead leaves from the rose bushes. He remembered how she lifted her hem, so, with her left hand to keep her skirt dry as she watered. He recalled those longing looks she tried to hide from him as she watched the children play run, rabbit, run and other games. He would have liked to have been able to give her a child. He remembered how weak she looked at the end as she lay in her bed, her infected lungs gasping for air, smiling through the pain as she looked at him for the last time.
He wished he could have been at Alois's side too. He pictured Loisl lying alone on the floor, grasping his heart as he waited for his daughter. He wouldn't have wanted to be seen that way. He would have tried to die with dignity. Franz crossed himself and sat on another bench and watched the people stroll by.
- To be concluded, April 30 -