We are continuing our ongoing series of Cold War Vienna tales. It should be noted that Fred is a gung-ho patriot who called in friendly fire on his own position in Korea to stop the Chinese from overrunning it.
I stared at him, not so much shocked at his proposition as amused. There was a long silence, during which he lit another of his cheap oval cigarettes and then pinched tobacco crumbs from his white-coated tongue.
Finally I said, “I hate to state the obvious, but there are actual, real-life, card-carrying, Moscow communists working there right along with folks from our side. We all have access to the same information. I mean, who’s spying on who?”
“Whom.” He smiled.
Fred, the sudden grammarian. With whorls of black hair growing out his ears, with a clip-on tie, with his short-sleeve polyester shirts. Fred, correcting my grammar.
“What’s to spy on?” I insisted.
Fred sighed, raised an eyebrow and peered around the half-empty café. “Maybe we could keep it down a bit. Walls have ears.” He tapped his nose, not his ear, and then made his Thonet chair groan as he shifted his bulk from buttock to buttock.
“It’s like this, Jon.” Now he stretched his ham fists out on the table, constructing imaginary squares as he spoke. The knuckles bristled with rather long black hairs.
“We are in a life and death struggle here. Make no mistake about it. No laughing matter. The commies do not like us. They want to bury us. Forget this crap about day-taunt and thaw. They mean to do us in, okay? Doesn’t matter what the name of the bozo is who’s in the Kremlin, they are all our enemies.”
“Fred…” I began.
A pudgy mitt shot up, palm outward, to cut me off.
“I know what you’re going to say. Hey, I’ve got your file here.” He knuckled a manila folder lying on the tiny round marble table separating us. There were coffee rings on the folder’s cover, interlocking brown ovals like an abstract of moonrise.
“Against Vietnam, protested at major demonstrations. Who’s to say, maybe you kids had it right.”
“No maybe,” I blurted out, but was immediately sorry I’d let that button be pushed. I was away from all that. Thousands of miles away.
“Well, we’re getting our sorry asses out of there as we speak. But I’m not one of those narrow-minded guys figures because a person criticizes his government he’s not patriotic, right? I figure you and your generation, hell, you love America as much as anybody else. And given the chance, given the right opportunity, you’d be prepared to show that love. Am I right?”
“I don’t think so.”
“You’re perfectly situated. It’s a dream job.”
“I mean all the information has to pass through your hands one way or another.”
I slapped down a twenty-schilling bill to pay for my achtel of wine and wurst sandwich. “Bye.”
He was jerked out of his salesman reverie.
“You haven’t been listening. No. Nein. Niyet.”
“We’ll be seeing you, Jon,” he said to my back as I left.
“Longish lunch break,” Herr Frisch said when I got back to the agency. Conspiratorial rather than censoring. Frisch was known for his two-hour lunches, for coffee breaks that stretched to quitting time as he played one more hand of Tarok.
Frisch was the new breed of Wiener, but cut of the same old cloth. Hip and wise to the ways of the world, he vacationed on the Dalmatian coast while most of his compatriots val-de-ree’ed in the so-called “house” Alps at Semmering. As if mountains could be domesticated, made tame simply by proximity. He ate at Balkan or Chinese restaurants rather than the local gasthaus with the perennial schnitzel. He dressed in Italian slacks and French shirts under the white lab coat.
But he was Wiener to the quick. His job–cushy by Viennese standards–was merely a means to a lifestyle. For Frisch, there was never anything truly serious about his occupation; urgencies were for doctors. He wore a permanent sardonic grin on his face, as if privileged to an inside joke none of the rest of us had heard. The situation may be desperate, but it was never, never serious.
“They were recruiting me for the CIA,” I said.
His eyebrows lifted to show mild amusement. “I hope you accepted. The pay, I hear, is quite good.”
“Right. I’ll remember that.”
He winked to show he understood my joke about the CIA.
“She wants to see you again.” He shoved an inter-agency memo across the check-in desk to me.
“She finds you charming,” Frisch said. “You should be flattered.”
“I should be knighted.”
“Ah, for service above and beyond, I assume.”
Service being the apposite word.
“Shut the door, Herr St. Denis.”
Her office on the third floor was dimly lit as usual. Through a half-open window I could hear the trams going by on the Ring below. It had an unpleasant odor, despite the open window: heavy rose-scented perfume overlaid with smoke from her Dames cigarettes. She chewed mints as she smoked.
Frau Luschner was not a bad looking woman, all told. Not for a forty-five-year-old. Her hair was jet black and worn pulled severely back, twirled into a tiny ball at the base of her neck. I remembered the shiver of expectation the first time I undid that tightly coiled ball of hair and let it fall over her alabaster shoulders.
Now it seemed more duty than desire.
“I am informed you have broken agency regulations of non-disclosure.” She looked at me sternly as I crossed from the door to her desk.
How they hell could she know about my interview with Fred, I thought, and then as quickly realized that this was part of her games. Reprimand and snoggle, perhaps. Or was it the old punishment gambit? Luschner loved role-play. A thwarted thespian, like most Viennese, she turned our love-making into theater.
“I really should report you to the secretary general,” she went on. “But, perhaps there is some other arrangement we could come to.”
She stood suddenly, unbuttoning her prim white blouse, moving around the acre of desk toward me. Her blouse, open to the navel, exposed a flat belly and melon breasts encased in an apricot colored lacy bra. She began hitching up her skirt, showing firm legs encased in black nylons, a smidge of cellulite bulge over the tops where they were held up by a red garter belt. Battle dress. We were in for a long afternoon, I figured.
Frisch twinkled his lizard eyes at me when I finally returned to the library.
“You have great staying power, my friend. In your case, youth is not wasted on the young.”
Frisch had once been a Luschner protégé. It was her sport, cultivating young men who applied for work with the agency, flattering them with her attention, getting them a cushy position and then using them–me, now–like an ambulatory dildo.
It had worked like a charm with me. I’d never been what you’d call a winner with the ladies, not in America. Too shy. Too sensitive. Too whatever. Or not enough whatever.
So when Luschner came on to me during our interview, I was flattered. Here was this worldly woman with a beauty mole on her cheek making nice with me, complimenting me on my penmanship on the application form, for my sense of calm during the interview, for… Oh, darn it all, just take off your pants.
Not quite that gauche, but that was the gist of it. I never realized I might be striking one of those Faustian bargains my English professors used to natter on about. Sex in exchange for employment. Sex in exchange for promotion. Sex in exchange for continued employment.
I didn’t really think of myself in connection with the P word. Prostitutes were women you found in the mean streets around the Prater. Neither did I consider the G word for my situation. Gigolos wore gold-plated neck chains and knock-off Rolexes.
Frau Direktor Luschner and I were having an affair, a grand, grown-up term, I thought. Except that we never met outside of the agency. Our afternoon sex sessions were secret assignations.
“You’d better hope she finds a new employee soon,” Frisch commented as I gathered my book truck to re-shelve reports from the Turkish atomic energy commission’s annual general meeting. “You’re looking peeked.”
“I’m tutoring her in English,” I insisted. “You shouldn’t judge others by your own low standards, Frisch.”
“I’ve noted the improvement in her gerunds,” he said dryly. “No but sincerely, Saint Dennis…”
“St. Denis.” Pronounced in the French manner.
“Certainly. With the greatest sincerity and compassion for your dilemma, I recommend you scout new recruits for the good Frau. That way she can drop you, there will be no vile recriminations nor unspoken threats of retribution. However, were you to finally tire of your unwritten contractual obligations, or to, God forbid, find a real girlfriend who might object to certain stains in your pants when you come home from work, well, then….” He waved a well-manicured hand in the air to denote all bets would be off.
“Harmless English lessons, Frisch.”
“There is nothing harmless about Frau Direktor Luschner, my friend. She is the Austrian version of a vampire.”
Frisch was right, of course. There really was nowhere to hide behind euphemisms any longer. I had been under Luschner’s protective wing now for six months, during which time I had risen from lowly messenger boy at the agency to second in command at the library. By the second week I had understood that our trysts were far from romantic. One afternoon last month I had actually had the temerity to come late for one of our meetings, needing to finish filling an urgent request from the Indians on roentgen analysis statistics. One would think that Luschner, director of personnel at the agency, would understand such professionalism. Instead she gave me such a dressing down that I was unable to perform. The ever inventive Luschner, however, found other ways for me to please her.
Yes, Frosch was right. I had to face it: I was a practitioner of the world’s oldest profession. And like all members of that fraternity or sorority, I blamed others for my situation. She had taken advantage of my naïvete; she had misled me; she was manipulative. All true, but now the blinders were off, had been for weeks, and what was I going to do about it?
Problem was, I needed the job and the steady paycheck. I had expenses. Musical lessons do not come cheap in the capital of music, and I was here to become a musician. The cello is my instrument, but I also play piano and viola. Overhead also included an apartment in an apartment house that appreciated musicians and did not look upon me as a threat to one’s sleep.
And then there was Ursula, Uschi. My new girl. A fellow music student–violin, we met playing a Bach trio. Our relationship had progressed to the petting stage. Sweet and innocent Uschi from that Appalachia of Austria, the Waldviertel, but not at all damaged by the experience nor overly inbred. To come from the steamy embraces of Luschner to the fresh-cut grass sweetness of Uschi was becoming a contrast I could no longer abide. As if I were sullying the girl by my touch. And I am sure Uschi would not understand the conflicted nature of my relationship with the older woman, twice her age.
Yes, Frisch was right. Something had to be done.
“Well, Jon, I was wondering when you’d get back in touch with us.”
“You seemed pretty certain of yourself.”
“I’m a good judge of character.” Fred smiled at me.
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