TOO LATE - by Jack Thiessen © 1998

"Call me Karl Otto," he said, "You are a bit Mennonite, aren't you? Yes? then call me Karl Otto. Father said at home, that's the way to do it." That's how he addressed me in Marburg many years ago, and I was a little surprised because most Mennonites who had lived in Germany for any length of time were generally a little from the top down as we said, and they were, somehow, strange to me, as if I'd lost the link of inner bonding, or whatever one might term it.

Karl Otto was a Mennonite from Jantsied, from the other side of Germany. That he had never been in Russia and his father had forgotten to tell him all about the Dnieper was something I also detected. But I never said anything because Karl Otto was a Doctor and also rather sophisticated, or `intelligent' as Aunt Derksen and the Jake Kloßsche always said when they talked about our mother's learned brothers. People knew that he was called Doctor from thirty steps away; that he was important, they knew from fifty steps. One noticed his sophistication because when he laughed he pulled one lip a little to the back displaying several golden teeth. But before you could count them all, he made his mouth round and pointed and then quickly lowered the curtain on all the excitement potential. I watched him, waiting for the next smiley smirk to count the remainder of his gold teeth. When Karl Otto sat, he sat with a look of superiority on his face as if he had noshed on an ultimate delicacy, like a fine helping of halvah. When the occasion called for it, Karl Otto lisped a bit and he drank beer out of a glass, or not at all. He always ate something a little more special than the rest of us, or he went hungry. Oh yes, and also Karl Otto always walked with an umbrella cane and with it he could casually engage an audience of by-standers by executing every kind of ballet-in-the-air with finer pirouettes than any shepherd I had ever seen do in the Balkans.

When he walked with his stick and his white shirt with a silk tie, which he called cravat, and his tweed and hat and smiled every twenty steps - joh, then I just stood there and admired him as did all the others. And the fact that he spoke a few words of Low German with me...? One might say, this fellow had won me over even before we started playing.

It did not take very long at all before I met him once in the late evening in Marburg while taking a walk and Karl Otto waylaid me, "I have forgotten my money in the other tweed. And so I grant you permission to buy me a beer." I felt tickled and replied, "Even two, if that's your pleasure." "Let it be two," he said. Karl Otto should have said `four or five' and he would still have been conservative in his predictions.

After the sixth beer out of a glass when I had started chasing pennies around in the corners of my pockets, Karl Otto started with his story and did not stop before the roosters crowed and the sun greeted us from the east. Actually and more accurately, the story he then started only came to a stop ten years later and I feel a strong urge to tell it to you tonight. But before I start I must insist that you take the little ones to bed because what I am about to tell you is not meant for little ears or gossips.

When Karl Otto and I finally walked to my student quarters way out and up there, he had another little suggestion. "If it's alright with you, I'll stay the night in your erudite domain so that we can talk a little more. Have you got another beer which is ready to do me honour?"

I handed him a bottle and then another and with such bottles he knew how to socialize. And then he started, "My father was an academic and became a professor in Leipzig and very wealthy. But all that is past splendour and is no more. However, I have a very wealthy aunt in America and when she dies I shall be Doctor and very wealthy and I shall buy beer and a few new Harris Tweeds and I'll treat and spoil you because I am her only nephew. But if you have another beer around these parts, I am prepared to put an end to its sitting around idle."

I rather liked this fellow and I suppose you do too but if you claim you still cannot quite account for everything about him then I must admit I was in similar dilemma.

Karl Otto really was a sophisticate and he came from the upper roost. Rich they had been, even wealthy and they had lacked nothing in former days. But then the Communists came along and made all things level and now Karl Otto lived and sustained himself from the barrel of memories.

Not that long ago at all, he had gone out with a fine, clever and comely girl and after half a year she had invited him to her home to meet her parents. Then one fine day he travelled with her to Göttingen where they attended university but in fact, they took off for Berlin where he still had a few powerful connections with full tables and warm beds. When her parents found out, Karl Otto overnight became the jugular victim of her parents' connections; he shortly flunked his final medical examinations in royal style, leaving him just a bit short of a doctorate....

But he and his lady friend had already violated the limits of respectability and were soon unmarried parents. Karl Sebastian was the name of their little one, a handsome little fellow with blonde hair which curled nicely.

But we were still in my room. Karl Otto asked me whether we Russlander-Mennonites were as strict about bedroom matters as the Germans were and I said, I didn't know. He was stretched out on the other bed and so could not see that I was lying.

Na joh, and so it went. Karl Otto lived at my place for a whole year but we just managed to talk now and then because when I got up in the morning, he generally went to bed. Soon he had drunk the last beer at friends' and now he oftener and oftener went to bed without a bottle. But he stated with authority and resolve every time I saw him how hard and soon he would again attack his medical books. Everyday he got up at the stroke of four in the afternoon and stood at the ready when the mailman came along. "Mail from America, or Hamburg?" And always nothing.

That overdue aunt was still alive and as for Sebastian's mother? She was busy being a medical doctor in the Hansa-League-City and making shy.

One day the traces of life re-directed my path back to Canada. From here I heard that Karl Otto was employed in a medical laboratory experimenting with over-exposure of x-rays on rats; but only till four everyday; then he upped to meet and greet the mailman.

The correspondence let up as it does in life but in my mind I often talked with Karl and we laughed at the beer bottles and what they had to endure while we shook them up and turned them every which way, and wondered how old his aunt intended to get while she was doing nothing but cheating him out of his doctorate and his fatherhood status.

Ten years later every horse in the field of my life pulled me back to Marburg and I took a room in the Kurhotel for the first time in my life. Early the next morning I started phoning around to old friends asking them about Karl Otto. "What, you are still around? People said you had gone back to Canada. Liars, again. Karl Otto? Hurry up and you'll make it for the funeral; we are carrying him to the graveyard this very afternoon," I was informed.

I too walked behind that carriage-hearse pulled reverently by two black horses, and many others walked very quietly with me: Karl Otto had considerably more friends in death than in life; na joh, I thought to myself, he was a bit Mennonite after all.

Karl Otto lay in the coffin in a black tweed with his mouth closed and his eyes, the smile-smirk wiped away. Behind the black carriage walked his lady friend, dressed in black. Her fingers were still bare. I saw that through her black-lace finger-gloves. Karl Otto had come ever so close to giving her a ring upon receiving his doctorate; she wore an expression of sorrow and a question mark which I could discern even through her black veil; Sebastian in a black suit tripped along as fast as his eleven-year-old legs would take him and with big tears in his blue eyes. No words, no prayer, no song. Slowly we retreated. We observed total silence, probably because Karl Otto had taken away a bit of everyone present.

After she had composed herself, Karl Otto's fiancee quietly suggested we have dinner together at the Kurhotel. I consented. We ate and drank and when I ordered a glass for my beer and put a little extra emphasis to the glass request, she smiled and suggested, "Let's open Karl Otto's mail together."

Gisela F. held a considerable stack of letters in her hand. One of them was from me to him, many months old, stamped in Canada. Then many others, including bills and invoices from haberdasheries. And then a recent one. It was from "Amerika" more explicitly from "Singer and Friedlander, Attorneys-at-Law, New York, New York." The $975,500.50 for Karl Otto had arrived a little too late.

© 1998,2007 Jack Thiessen