Non-Fiction Finalist Edward Varga

Jan 31, 2018 by

Non-Fiction Finalist Edward Varga


An Essay about Love

“Undank ist der Welt Lohn!”

It is 1938. A young Austrian man, which is to say he is an old Austrian boy, shouts this phrase repeatedly as he marches in protest along the roadway which fronts the home of a local business owner. In English the phrase means, “Thanklessness is the world’s reward!” Something’s obviously got his panties in a knot to make him behave so. I’ll save you the exercise of guessing what that something is. It’s his feelings of love.

I don’t know the young Austrian’s name. He exists in my mind only as the main character in a story told to me once, long ago, by my father after he’d had a few beers and was apparently deep within the hermit’s cave known as melancholy. Perhaps Dad was reaching out to say how dissatisfied he felt about his own life, that a wife and three kids and a mortgage in a suburb of Chicago wasn’t ringing his bell satisfaction wise. Maybe he was needling Mom because he wasn’t happy with that night’s dinner which was to be served promptly at 5:45 and contain at least two vegetables. I’m not sure and I don’t feel like asking. I was maybe ten years old then. I’m fifty now and Dad’s almost ninety. Whatever the reason was he brought it up forty years ago isn’t important now. All that really matters is that event’s reflection on my soul.

The story takes place in the small town in Austria where my father first lived after his mother repatriated to her homeland. Dad was born in Chicago in 1928. Both of his parents were immigrants and met in the Windy City where they wed. When the effects of the Great Depression became too much to bear, his mother returned to Europe with their two children and my grandfather stayed behind. The rumor is that his remaining in the United States wasn’t entirely for economic reasons and that there were problems with the marriage. Whatever the truth of that story is, I feel confident saying that bringing an American child to Austria in the years which saw the Brownshirts tightening their murderous control in Germany was a super bad idea. And yet, if my grandmother hadn’t made such a tremendous gaff, I wouldn’t be able to tell you my story about the story my dad told me.

In Dad’s story, the young Austrian, I’ll call him Fritz, marches up and down the “strasse” yelling his dire conclusion about the world and the tremendous club it has in one hand waiting for you to become vulnerable enough to fall for its vicious schemes. The club is thanklessness, the tempting carrot is love. For an American raised reader, thanklessness may not mean much. For instance, if a non-German-culturist asks for someone to pass the salt and no, ‘thank you,’ is issued when it is received, the person providing the salt may be put off at the thanklessness but it will probably end there. Those raised in the Germanic culture, however, are rule followers.

When I pass you the salt, you will say thank you! I did not have a choice in providing you the seasoning when it was requested, therefore you have no choice in thanking me for my work!

What have we learned so far? Obviously, when in or near Germany, say thank you when you get the salt.

Let’s check back in on Fritz. He’s still marching in front of the businessman’s house, back and forth, expressing anger and dissatisfaction, which is not traditionally Teutonic behavior. In fact, it’s definitely a violation of the rules, but one of those rules is that when a rule is broken, the community must be notified and shame cast upon the rule breaker. Poor Fritz, made to uphold centuries of repressive norms, such a heavy burden to be laid upon the shoulders of a young man. Fritz has been cast into the gutter, literally, he’s walking at the edge of the road where all the other road apples end up, spouting off about the cruel indignation of this existence. What ever could be the machination of the businessman that has wound Fritz into such a Bavarian pretzel? It takes not much consideration at all to realize that his mission is of the highest importance and the meat of the matter could only be one thing, love.

My Dad was drinking beer from his favorite mug when he told me the story. This mug had solid metal sides but a glass bottom. I always wondered about the glass bottom. Was it there for you to look through to make sure no one was stealing your coat while you pounded one back? I would watch the glass bottom, hoping to see my father’s eyes, to see if he was watching me and holding me in suspicion. He never was. I think that action on my part was more due to the fact that I had a father who drank regularly than any real concern for my safety. Still, it’s hard to ask your dad to help you with your homework when he smells of drink and his eyeballs have a pinkish tint. So tell me more about Fritz, Dad, and in doing so, give me my first lesson on the dark side of love.

The businessman owned a successful mercantile. By today’s standards, it could be considered a thriving hardware store. He also possessed a beautiful daughter whom the young Austrian Fritz fancied to be his wife. Fritz realized that marrying the businessman’s daughter not only guaranteed him company in bed every night, but would eventually guide him into the position of owning a thriving hardware store, every Austrian boy’s dream. He could, in the name of love, possess a beautiful woman and a business. He approached the businessman with an offer. He would work for the man at almost no wages for several years. While doing so he would learn the business and court the daughter so that one day he might take over the business and provide for the daughter after the businessman had grown too old to do so. Well played, Fritz. The Kaiser would be proud of your ingenuity. Too bad Fritz never read the Bible.

Jacob is the Fritz of Israel. He is sent out to find a wife and happens to see a beautiful woman that fits the bill, Rachel. He has a little parlay with her dad and they come to an agreement. He’ll work for seven years then he can marry the daughter. Jacob holds up his end of the bargain and when the time is complete, the wedding is prepared. Rachel’s dad, however, has a concern. He has an older daughter, Leah, and he doesn’t want to see the younger one married before the older one. The answer? Cheat the groom. Jacob gets an abundance of drink poured into his promise making hole before he’s finally taken to the tent where Rachel is so they can consummate the marriage. In the morning when he’s sober but hung over, he rolls over and finds that the red sea he parted the night before was that of Leah, not Rachel. “Undank!” he might have yelled before going to see Rachel and Leah’s dad to say, “WTF old man?” The dad doesn’t even try to lie about what he did and instead says he can have Rachel as a wife too, if he just works for him for another seven years.

Fritz was the Jacob of Austria. The businessman agreed to Fritz’s offer and he went to work, but instead of learning the business so that he might run it one day, he was given a string of shit assignments and told to stay away from the girl until he has established himself as trustworthy. Fritz worked hard for many days, as only a man who thinks he’s in love will do. However, when the cunning businessman had found another, more suitable groom of higher social status and possessing greater wealth for his daughter to marry, Fritz was turned away. That’s “Undank!”

The pre-teen version of me didn’t get the Fritz story. In my twenties, I met a woman and said that I loved her only to find on my wedding night the knowledge that I had made a mistake. Becoming an adult messed me up. I thought I was supposed to have a plan, a goal, an end-game to reach for. Part of that goal was to be a husband and have a family and a job and a house and a car so I deluded myself into thinking I was in love because the wife was a cornerstone of that structure. By the time we divorced, we had spent more time separated than together. I was given our son to raise. The plan crumbled and I had no one’s house to protest in front of other than my own. The world’s reward is thanklessness, but this world didn’t give me my son. Because of him I learned to cook and clean and help with homework and fix scrapes and soothe earaches and visit museums and mend socks and make halloween costumes and do all the things a loving father does, except own a beer mug with a glass bottom.

Love can not be planned for. The only way to find it is to open your miserable life up to the elements and allow scary things to be introduced to you that you will never ever want to give up but will never truly possess. My son didn’t teach me to love, having to raise him did. Wanting to be married didn’t introduce me to the real love of my life, my fear of being hurt by marriage did. Thinking how wonderful it was to raise a child on my own didn’t lead me to become a father again, remembering my first son’s fear and anxiety while he grew up did. I learn to love over and over again as I navigate the dark valleys of this world, not because love is everywhere, but because suffering is. I found love because I suffered. Hopefully Fritz did too.

Edward Varga is a fiction writer whose work is currently found in the pages of the retro pin-up “Bachelor Pad” magazine.

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