by Scott Rhoades
- Continued from April 23 -
A little girl sat down next to him. "Guten Tag." Her voice was fresh and sweet.
"Why do you water the flowers?" She twisted the apron of her doll's dirndl.
"Because they are thirsty and the water takes away their wrinkles."
"If I water you, will your wrinkles go away?"
The innocence of the question made him smile. "It would take more than water to wash away my wrinkles, I'm afraid."
"Oh." The girl held her doll so close to Franz's eyes that he could see nothing but a colorful blur. "Do you like my baby?"
"Yes. She is almost as pretty as you are."
"You're funny. I guess you don't know her name?"
"I think it must be Gertrud."
"No. Try again."
"Not Gertrud? Well then, I think her name must be Elise, Elisabeth."
"No, that's my aunt's name. How did you know my aunt's name?"
"I'm an old man. There is nothing new to know."
"I know my numbers up to ten."
"I'll bet you don't."
"I do. Listen." She delivered her numbers like the Kaiser giving a speech.
"My, but you are a smart one. You still haven't told me your doll's name."
"It's Alice, of course. That's my sister's name, too."
The child's mother came and took the girl by the hand. "Come, Johanna. You shouldn't pester the nice old man." She turned to Franz. "I'm so sorry she bothered you."
"No bother. Let her stay." They walked away and his loneliness returned heavier than before. This was the child's world now, and he had no place in it.
Franz thought of the Danube. He hadn't seen the river in months. As a boy he had fantasized about living on the river. Later, the legendary Danube maidens became a part of the dream, inviting him to join them in the womb-like water for a lifetime of joy and dancing. That was long ago and he chuckled at the memory. "I think I'll go to the river," he said aloud. He rode a tram to Erzherzog Carl Platz, near the rows of railway tracks at the North Station. Franz felt little emotion as he walked the short distance to the Kronprinz Rudolfs bridge.
He stood above the river. Downstream a pair of young lovers walked hand-in-hand beside the Danube, as he and Elise had done so many years before. He watched the water swirl around the bridge supports. How would it feel to fall in? How easy it would be. One misstep and it would be over. He would be gone before the New Vienna beast could devour him. They would find his body and bury it unmourned in the Friedhof der Namenlosen with all the other unidentified people who ended their lives in the river.
He used to pity those nameless dead. Now that there was no one left to notice his absence, he was one of them. What would it be like to jump? He cursed the rails that discouraged him from acting on his impulse.
He walked down to the bank. He thought of Alois, of Elise, and the city walls. Where were the water maidens when he needed them?
A hat floated under the bridge, bobbing in the current. It looked like the hats he used to make, and he waded in to get a better look. He was not surprised to see Elise's face smiling at him in the river.
She beckoned. "Dance with me." It was the Elise of their courtship, before the painful disease had made her face old and worn. The sound of her angel's voice banished his melancholy. Peace washed over him as the "Blue Danube Waltz" echoed in his head, the way she used to play it on her piano.
He waltzed in the current, spinning, turning. The waist-high water eased his weight and helped him move gracefully with the music. He watched Elise dance near him. She smiled and motioned to him to go deeper into the current, to let the river wash away his troubles. He started toward her.
"Hey," a voice behind him called. He turned and saw Alois standing on the riverbank. He'd forgotten how tall his friend had been once. "Come back to the shore. This is no place to dance."
He glanced at Elise. She smiled and vanished beneath the ripples. He looked back to Alois, but where he had been there stood a young man, his sweetheart behind him. He reached out to them. They helped him from the river, then led him to a restroom at the train station so he could dry off.
Franz rode the tram home. He stopped only once, to buy some flowers. Maybe he'd give them to Frau Schmidt, if they pleased her.