Authors: Johannes Mario Simmel
This book made available by the Internet Archive.
Translated from the German by Rosemarie Mays
(Original Title: To the Bitter End)
POPULAR LffiRARY • NEW YORK
The First Tape
I can remember the moment even now when I died for the first time. I died several other times but the place and date of that first time will remain burnt into my memory to remain there as long as I live: Hamburg, the twenty-seventh of October, 1959.
On that morning a heavy storm raged over the city and, insistently, I still hear its roaring, its whistling, groaning, moaning in fireplaces, its rattling of rooftiles and metal, of signs, window shutters, gates and canopies. This storm found its way into my chaotic dreams and I heard and felt it before the ringing of the telephone disrupted my sleep.
The drapes were drawn and I switched on the lamp. My head ached, I had a sour taste. I felt sick as I sat up. Next to the telephone I saw cigarettes, an ashtray, a glass half-filled with Scotch, a vial containing sleeping tablets, the little cross of gold and my watch. It was three minutes past eight.
The door to the bathroom stood open. Through the frosted glass window above the tub, ugly early-morning light crept into my room blending with the yellow, weak fight of the bedside lamp.
Picking up the receiver I smelled the whisky and nausea shook me.
'This is the operator. Good morning, Mr. Jordan. I'm afraid I woke you."
"I'm sorry. We have a transatlantic call for you from California, Pacific Palisades. WiU you accept the charges?"
"Charges?" I was still too sleepy to form complete sentences.
"It's a collect call. The caller is Shirley Bromfield."
"No, Miss Shirley Bromfield."
"That's my daughter. My stepdaughter." What did that have to do with the operator? I had to wake up. "I'll take the call."
"You'll accept the charges?"
"Please, hold on."
I heard a click; it crackled and rattled in the open line and from both sides of the Atlantic I heard words, sentences, drifting, confused. A window was open behind the honey-colored drapes which covered one entire wall of the bedroom. I saw how the heavy fabric swelled and rose; I felt the icy air of the storm and heard its thundering, whistling and whining. It was draughly. The ventilators in the bathroom were open.
"Hello, New York relay ..."
"Just a second, Hamburg, just a second ..."
On the carpet by the bed were German and American newspapers, well-thumbed and read. The cover of a film magazine showed my face. I wore a blue open sportshirt. Joe Schwartz, the Hollywood photographer, had taken that picture. I looked at most thirty years old, seven years younger than I really was. In my black short hair were many white ones but they had dyed them, covered the wrinkles around the blue eyes with make-up. Only the
healthy color was real. For weeks, before coming to Europe, I had let the sun tan me. Narrow head, high forehead, a strong jaw, beautiful teeth (all capped). The photo showed a laughing, dashing man, the embodiment of decision and confidence. All qualities I did not possess, much less ever had possessed.
AFTER TWENTY YEARS! PETER JORDAN, AMERICA'S UNFORGETTABLE CHILD STAR, IN FILMS AGAIN.
A draught seemed to give life to the paper mountain, made it shiver and breathe. The operator said: "Can you hear me, Hamburg? Here is Pacific Palisades now." One more click. Then I heard her voice, so loud, so near, so clear it startled me. "Peter?" It sounded as if she were in my room. Now I spoke English:
"Shirley! Did something happen?"
"Yes . . ." Her high childish voice shook as if suppressing a sob.
"No. Why mommy?"
"What do you mean, why mommy? Where are you, anyway?"
"At home." She was nineteen years old, but her voice sounded even younger, much younger. Across the Atlantic, across a continent, I could hear quick breathing, frantic, full of fear.
"Tell me this minute what happened!"
And her high-pitched immature voice told me.
"Paddy, I'm going to have a child."
She had called me Paddy—^the first time in years. She met me when she was four. Spontaneously she bore me the same hatred she felt for the devil who had been presented in apocalyptical figures to her by her priest. Only threats of punishment induced her to call me "Uncle Peter" which she did defiantly, through clenched teeth while averting her head. She told her mother again and again, "My dad is dead, but I'll always love him, only him. I'll never forgive you if you marry this Uncle Peter."
When we married she was six. After the ceremony, her voice harsh, she said, "You are not my father. I'll never call you dad no matter what you do to me. I won't call you daddy, either. To please mommy I'll caU you Paddy, P from Peter." At thirteen her hate was smoldering instead of burning. That was when, shrugging her shoulders, she said, "Paddy sounds so childish." And from then on I was "Peter" —^for six years, untill today.
The receiver had dropped from my sweat-slippery hand; it was lying on my knees; there was a quack, "Paddy... did you hear me?"
Now I held the receiver with both hands and smelled the whisky and the soaked cigarettes in the ashtray. The bed beneath me seemed to sway.
"Shirley... if someone should hear you!"
"No one can hear me."
"Where is mommy?" v
"At the theater. With the Bakers. And I made it a collect call. So she won't find it on the bill." The bed rolled even more now. I could not get enough air.
"At the theater? What time is it there, then?'*
"It's past eleven."
"Where are the servants?"
"I'm calling you from your bunaglow." My bungalow was a little way from the main house, it had its own telephone. "No one can listen in." What about the hotel here? The telephone operators? "Paddy, did you hear me? I am—"
"Don't say that word!" Almighty God. If my wife should return and look for her daughter. If someone should listen outside the bungalow. I stuttered: "It's impossible. It cannot be."
"I saw the doctor this afternoon."
"The doctor was wrong."
"I saw him twice. Today and two weeks ago."
"Two weeks ago I was still at home. Why didn't you say anything then?"
"I ... I didn't want to upset you . . ." Her voice quavered. "I thought it was just late ... you were so terribly nervous about your film."
"What kind of doctor is he?"
"I got his address from a girlfriend. He lives in Los Angeles. I was very cautious. I always took taxis. He doesn't know my real name."
"He made two tests."
"They are positive. He is sure. The second month." Suddenly she screamed, "I know what you are thinking. But I want to have it!"
"You'll have to talk with mommy right away . . . you must or . .."
"Shirley, stop it!"
"I'm not going to give it up! I'd rather kill myself! It's a part of—"
She was silent. I heard her pant.
"Have you lost your mind? Do you want a catastro-
phe?" This conversation was pure suicide. Anyone on the switch'board with an ounce of intelligence who had heard only the last sentences could now blackmail me. Hoarsely I said, "I'm sorry I yelled at you."
The sobbing increased.
"Stop crying. Please. You must stop. Shirley."
But she continued to sob.
I wanted to console her, whisper tender words, avow my love for her but I could not do that. I had to use cold and sober reasoning if I wanted to save us both from this sudden whirlpool. I had to force myself to seem angry and hard. "You are going to do what I say. Do you understand?"
"She must not know. If she finds out, we are lost."
"I can't stand it any more . . . Paddy, I canJt look her in the face . . . can't talk to her any more."
I heard Shirley's voice, her beloved voice, clear and tremulous so well remembered from aU those nights when, after our ecstasy, despair and guilt overwhelmed us. I was older. I was wiser. If I lost my composure now we would be lost. I had to speak harshly: "We cannot talk on the phone. It is too risky. Hang up. I'U write. Today. Airmail, Express. To the post office at Pacific PaHsades. As always."
"And ... and?"
"Everything will be in the letter. I have friends in Los Angeles. They wiU help you."
"I don't want any help!"
"You'll do what I'll write you. In our ... in this situation you must. Don't you understand?"
Silence. Across the deserts, mountains and forests of the New World, across the dark depths of an ocean the whisper of a child reached my ear and rent my heart
"I understand ..."
"Good." Cold. I had to remain pitiless, to protect us from destruction from the meanest kind of dirt.
"May I . . . may I see Father Horace?" He was her priest. Shirley's mother had raised her a devout Catholic. Now she suffered because of it. Since it had happened I would not let her go to confession. She comphed because she loved me. But I am certain that the dark prophecies and judgments which her religion reserves for sinners like us tormented her.
"You are not going to see him! Not under any circumstances!"
"But I have to! I must confess, Paddy!"
"I am damned ... I will never be forgiven if I don't—"
"I don't want to hear you mention that again! Not a word, you hear, not a word to anybody!"
"Not a word ... not one word ..."
"Not to Father Horace, not to your girlfriend, not to anybody."
Her voice was halting, choked with tears: "I'll do what you say . . . only what you tell me to do . . . forgive me for burdening you with this ..."
My body was bathed in sweat. What had I done to her?
"My poor httle one ..." My poor Httle one—a father could say that to his daughter—right, operator?
"You'll have to be sensible now ..." A father could demand that from his daughter—right, you ladies in the telephone exchanges of Hamburg and Pacific Palisades and relay board of New York?
"Paddy, I love you!"
I love you, she said. Could an upset daughter say that to her father? It sounded different in English, in English she could say that.
"We'll have to hang up."
"I love you. I have only you. I'm all alone here."
"Everything will be all right."
"Don't hang up yet! Tell me, please, tell me!" ^
The bed was swaying, up and down, down and up.
"Good night, Shirley."
"Tell me! Please! Then I won't be so terribly afraid!"
I told her: "I love you, Shirley. I love you with all my heart."
I love you, Shirley, I love you with all my heart, I said to my stepdaughter who was expecting my child.
I had been married thirteen years. My wife was ten years older than I; her youth was gone. I deceived her with her daughter who was trusted to my upbringing, education, custody and care. I wanted to leave my wife for this girl, her daughter, my stepdaughter.
A man doing that must provoke disgust and animosity in the moral world around him. If this were but a novel and not a cUnical report written for two special people it would be a dangerous venture. The hero of a novel should be likable. Readers should be able to fall in love with him. No one could fall in love with a character like me. I would be the anti-hero.
It is to be expected that even the two specialists, for whom this confession is intended, will turn from the pages with horror. But I beg them to read on. I promise to lay bare the deep roots of this tragedy, to expose the hidden reasons of this drama in which I was a cursed actor. Perhaps then they will have more understanding for me. Understanding, I say, not pity.
After replacing the receiver, a spooky quiescence came over me, a kind of trance. Like a sleepwalker I got up, pulled my slippers out from under the newspapers, put on my robe and opened the heavy drapes.
The icy air of the storm hit me through the opened window. I saw the green-gray Binnenalster, the bare, black trees, streets still shiny from the rain of the past night, the old and the new Lombardsbricke. There were a few people who, bent forward, fought against the wind. A few ships were rolling on the storm-whipped water. Most of them were moored at the jetties. Under the wet boards of the deserted piers flocks of seagulls were huddling together.
Black-brown, green, dirty gray clouds were hurrying across the sky. Along the banks of the Alster the candelabra were lit; the white frosted bowls formed long ropes of lustrous pearls.
I knew that the California penal code provided a prison term for such a crime as I had committed. I don't want anyone to believe that I had not lived in continual horror since the night it had happened or that I was not aware of the seriousness of the offense I had committed—then and later on, again and again. But then, what force do ethics and morals and guilt have against the worst of diseases, the most horrible of plagues which we, presumptuous as we are, call love? '
There had been a time when I had wanted to put an end to it all, when I had been ready to confess and to take my punishment. It had passed. Now I was determined to defend my love, the only love I had ever really known, which no one understandably could forgive or comprehend. To keep and cherish this love I had to become enmeshed in an adventure which, here in Hamburg, would have to be brought to a conclusion.
I love you Shirley, I love you with all my heart.
I closed the window. The dizziness was becoming stronger and stronger as I went to the drawing room of the suite. Here too, I opened the drapes. On the balcony beyond the large window I saw a dead seagull. As it had started its flight the storm must have thrown it against the wall of the hotel before it fell on the balcony. Broken
feathers were lying around, the body had split open releasing bloody entrails, and only the head had survived the end without injury. The sharp, cunning eyes of the bird were open and seemed to be watching me maliciously as if it too knew that legal paragraph.
What was a paragraph? Who made the laws? Human beings, to protect human beings against other human beings. But what kind of human beings were they—^who made the laws? Could they imagine all those situations that weak mortals could encounter? The worst ones, the most extreme ones? Could they too drink from that same cup I had drunk from?