An Excerpt from the Winner of Restless Books 2020 Prize for New Immigrant Writing
This story first appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern (Issue 52, 2018) and was shortlisted for the 2019 Caine Prize for African Writing.
When I met Herr Weill, I was a lanky 10-year-old, a fish out of water in —, Iowa, a small college town surrounded by fields in every direction. My family had moved to the US a few weeks earlier from Ethiopia via Berlin, so I knew no English, but was fluent in Amharic and German. I’d speak those sometimes to strangers or just mumble under my breath to say what was on my mind, never getting an answer until the day I met Herr Weill.
I was wearing jeans with a button down, a too-big blazer, and a clip-on tie waiting in line during what I’d later come to know as a typical mid-80s Midwest community potluck, with potato salad, pasta salad, green bean casserole, bean salad casserole, tuna pasta salad casserole, a good three-quarters of the dishes on offer incorporating crushed potato chips and dollops of mayonnaise. The Norman Borlaug Community Center had welcomed us because one of the local big-wigs was in the Peace Corps in his student days, and he’d cultivated an interest in global humanitarianism. He’d heard of the new stream of refugees leaving communist dictatorships in the Third World, found us through the charity that gave us housing in Berlin, and had arranged for the NBCC to orient us, get us some new used clothes, and a place to live. They also invited us to Sunday meals that were the best ones of my week.
On this particular Sunday, I’d walked into the recreational room transformed by paper cut-outs of pumpkins and bundled ears of multicolored corn. Cotton had been pulled thin across the windows, and dried leaves pressed in wax paper taped to the wall. Beneath a banner (which I couldn’t read) was a plastic poster of a woman with a pointed black hat on her head, her legs straddling a broom, haunting grimace bearing missing teeth, as if I didn’t already feel afraid and alienated in that space. Next to this monstrosity stood a very benign looking real-life man with a wool scarf, wool coat, who wiped away a bead of sweat as he eyed, then looked away from, then eyed again a pretty woman across the room who was picking through a basket of miniature candy bars.
In German I said to no one in particular, “Why doesn’t he just talk to her?” Nodding at the man with the wool coat, I continued, “What’s he waiting for, permission from his mother?”
Then from a deep voice behind me, I heard in German, “There was a woman in my life, once. I looked at her the same way.”
When this stranger spoke these words, I recalled the moment a few months back in West Berlin when I was playing soccer with Herman and Ismail, two Turkish brothers who lived on Friedrichstrasse next door to me. Our improvised playground was this plot close to the Berlin Wall where someone had tied a piece of yarn between two old halogen lamps, a makeshift goal post. Sometimes I’d aim not for those feet between the metal posts, but far beyond the Wall. This was in defiance of my mother’s strict command to stay away from “that horror of a serpent.” Wasteful and risky, she called it when I’d told her twice before that I’d sacrificed a soccer ball to the GDR. She was wrong to worry that I’d get in trouble for my antics—I never did. But she was right that I’d been wasteful. We had nothing as it was, and the embarrassment of buying a toy must have been infuriating to her because strangers slandered her with cries of “welfare woman” and “refugee scum” when she walked down the street anyway, just to get groceries or some exercise, and when they saw her carrying something as frivolous as a soccer ball, they’d shout louder, with more spit in their breaths and more rage in their eyes. I knew this, I’d even witnessed this, but for some reason I couldn’t help that sometimes, after running circles in the tiny paved playground that pressed against the barricade, I’d visualized this little grounded balloon between my feet soaring to the other side of that imposing wall that seemed to challenge my very sense of freedom, and so I’d close my eyes and kick hard. Herman and Ismail could never—or would never—clear the hurdle, but I’d done it twice already, and the third time I launched the ball just over the barbed wire, I heard a loud grunt from somewhere beyond, and saw the ball come soaring back towards us. I caught it and was stunned. Herman and Ismail yelled at me to send it over again, but I knew it would have broken my heart some if we’d kicked it back and never had it returned. I’d have held tight to hope, I’d have gone back to that spot and waited, I’d have lingered in the playground anticipating a reply, whether or not another ever came. So I convinced Herman and Ismail that we should retire our game, and to make sure of it, I put a pin through the ball and let out the air.
This is how I felt standing in the potluck line that October day looking at the man looking at a woman, hearing this response in German said back to me, the first words I’d understood in this new country spoken by anyone other than my parents: “There was a woman in my life, once. I looked at her the same way,” the man had said in German, and I replayed this in my mind as I stood there frozen, not daring to say a thing, holding onto my words like I held that returned ball in the playground.
Johannes Weill went ahead and introduced himself and said everyone just called him Herr Professor Weill or simply Herr Weill because he once was a dean at the college who’d won some big international award, and so it stuck. He told me I was famous in town, too. I pointed at myself, wondering what he’d heard. “You’re one of the Ethiopian refugees, right?” Herr Weill asked, then said, “I’ve been waiting to meet you, the whole town has been talking.” I nodded, just beginning to trust in this conversation, in the sincere interest of his tone, in his perfect German, in which he continued, “To answer your question, the man in the wool coat is trying to think of a way to impress the girl of course.”
“Stringing together a sentence might be a good start,” I suggested. “His opener is obvious. As she’s picking through the basket of candy, ask her what kind of chocolate she likes.”
Herr Weill took off his round glasses, and squinted in a way that severely exaggerated the already deep lines that crossed his face. He held his glasses up to the light, like he had to make sure that I was real and not a speck on his lens or something, and after this pause, he replied, “It’s not always easy to find the right words, you know.”
“Maybe you just have to know the right language,” I said.
“Well if you don’t learn English soon, you’ll end up like that man in the wool coat, with no way to say what’s on your mind or in your heart, except to some old German guy you met waiting for spaghetti and ham-balls,” he said. “And that doesn’t sound like a good way to spend a childhood.”
“Yeah, I’m working on it,” I said.
“I could teach you English.”
“Then you must not know,” I said. The part I didn’t say was “just how poor we are.”
By now I was taking modest spoonfuls from the big Tupperware containers so as not to show just how poor we were. Not to overstate how eager I was for spaghetti and ham-balls, I pursed my lips to hide my watering mouth, and turned away hoping he wouldn’t hear the faint rumbling of my stomach.
“It’s true,” Herr Weill said. “I didn’t teach languages. I was a professor in the arts, but I do know how to teach.”
“But a tutor costs money, and the problem is—”
“A money issue?” He asked and waited, but I didn’t respond.
“You’d be doing me a favor,” he said. “It has been ages since I’ve spoken German to someone face-to-face—spoken German to anyone at all. It would be quite nice to have a new friend to talk to.”
I turned to face him. A friend, he’d said, and I nearly repeated him. “I would like that as well,” I confessed, unable to stop myself from smiling openly now. We shook on the deal, and I bowed slightly in a formal way as I said, “Nice to meet you, friend.”
I went to Herr Weill’s on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons. During our early conversations, it was a relief to land on his doorstep after the six hours in a school where no one understood anything about me. My silence, my inability to grasp the very words being said in class, including my own name—mispronounced by the teacher taking the roll. The pungent food I brought for lunch that I ate with my hands. My solitary play at recess that usually involved creative projects with flowers, rocks, branches collected from the patch of wilderness on the edge of the playground. My need for expression took on non-verbal forms in those thirty minutes of freedom outdoors. I contributed nothing to the class discussions, and understood almost nothing as well, except during our math hour (what a short hour), my favorite subject, that universal language. Math and art, the only things I cared about. After these exhausting days, I’d walk the mile of country road to Herr Weill’s tidy brick house, and it mattered that he always seemed pleased to see me.
Before I’d go up the walkway that perfectly bisected his perfectly manicured lawn, I’d always straighten my coat, tuck in my shirt, and inspect my shoes. He’d greet me in a suit and wing-tipped loafers, hold out his right hand for a handshake while his left arm was kept behind his back, like he was greeting a dignitary. His wispy white hair was always parted in the middle in an unwavering line from which thin strands were combed towards his ears. When those strands would flop as he was talking excitedly, shaking his head and index finger while making a point, he’d simply smooth his hair back down once he’d said his piece, that meridian reemerging just so. He had an unfussy home: no phone, sturdy furniture, lots of these framed silhouette paintings hanging on the walls. He’d set out tea and bread, cheese, and meats, and he always made me a to-go box to bring home to my mother. He was well-regarded in town, and so my parents quickly warmed to the idea of these meetings, and especially the free English lessons. Whenever I asked my parents a question about English, they’d say, “That’s one to remember for your professor.” Herr Weill and I would usually meet for about two hours. My mother didn’t have to worry about finding a sitter or some inexpensive afterschool activity for me three days a week. Herr Weill was a blessing, she always said. Father wasn’t particularly religious, but he agreed. Herr Weill was a blessing.
We worked through a basic English text book that had a cartoon of a red school house with a big sun shining down actual rays of wavy lines, something any preschooler could have drawn, if he had no imagination. We sat with this workbook for an hour and spent the rest of the time speaking German. At first, I was surprised by how much I had to say. With both my parents spending long hours at work cleaning the chemistry lab by day and applying to training programs at night, and with no one to talk to in my neighborhood or at school, I had filled my days with so much silence that my time with Herr Weill was an unexpected outpouring.
I told him about the first time I saw West Berlin on Christmas Eve, and how I hid under my bed when I heard loud explosions that I thought were bombs, never having seen fireworks. I explained that the Zoological Garden on the way to the American Consulate was one of the saddest places I’d seen with my own eyes, and no living creatures should be forced to be caged up in a big cold city on account of our fascination and fear, which was no crime of theirs. I told him the line at the American Consulate was much longer than the one to get a picture with a panda by a long shot. At this, he laughed, finally.
I told him the Wall seemed like it was everywhere, and the only thing I liked about it was those points you could touch that were covered in graffiti where people expressed a desire to overcome it. I’d fantasized about drawing fake stairs on its canvas, scrawling messages across painted paper-airplanes or writing notes grasped in the claws of charcoal doves. Herman wanted to sketch a wind that could ascend those heights, but only managed to paint a few circles radiating out from where someone dared chip away at the concrete so it seemed like that this slight crack might pulse, expand, crumble the whole thing. I confessed that I had also chipped off a tiny kernel using the knife that Ismail carried around ever since his father got beat up for being a foreigner.
Herr Weill didn’t reveal very much that first day, but opened up just to tell me he had been a refugee once, too, and had left home when he was a teenager because a war scattered his whole family. He spoke slowly and said little, but it was also an outpouring, I could tell. From then on, we talked often about these things, like conflict, violence, war, fleeing from it and the way it makes you tired whether you’re running or still. We talked about scars, invisible and visible, instant and latent ones, all real. How hard it is not to keep losing things because of conflict, even once it’s far away, miles or years away, and yet, how life fills up with other things all the while. At the end of that visit, he said, “It’s a relief to be able to chat with someone around here about something other than Chuck Long,” whom I’d never even heard of anyway.
The second time I visited Herr Weill, he gave me a leather journal so I would always have someone to talk to, if only the blank page. I wrote in German so that I could show it to Herr Weill if he ever asked to see it. I was always jotting down questions, notes about my life, about the things I’d encounter and wanted to think about, conversations that were ultimately reflections of what I longed to say and hear.