At first, Fisher was hard pressed to find anything like what he was used to in Flushing, but there was no city of any size in America without a Chinatown. It was a short distance from the park, close enough to bike there and back inside of an hour, so he put foot to pedal and took his Schwinn Roadster to the smooth pavement. The reaching canopies of leafy green trees tossed over his head, shielding him from the summer sun, and creating a soothing music. Fisher liked being outside, preferred it to mortared close quarters and low ceilings.
The Chinatown in Fort Hunt was small, eight little restaurants flanking the short block, but the smell filled Fisher’s nose with nostalgia and he knew he’d made the right decision. Having no fear of it being stolen, he leaned the bicycle against a tree and made his way over to the nearest chow mein shop. It was faced with peeling red that was still vibrant, and the middle aged woman leaning over the counter watched him with a smiling hunger.
Fisher caught sight of himself in the window as he approached– neat dark hair, tanned face, just on the near side of tall, as clean cut and fresh faced as any graduate student. He grinned at the proprietress and ordered some takeout in broken the Cantonese he’d learned from the little old ladies of Queens. A smile split her face, and she put an extra large helping of fortune cookies into the paper bag. Fisher didn’t believe in karma, but he did believe in small gestures. He paid, thanked her, and left.
“What is this?” Kholer asked as Fisher plonked a paper carton on the coffee table in front of him. He used one elegant finger to lift the greasy paper fold, and sniffed. His long, shapely hands were the first details Fisher noticed upon being introduced to him. He picked up the chopsticks and unsheathed them as Fisher was doing, but he didn’t seem to understand that he needed to break them apart to use them. Dexterous as those long fingers were when caressing out Fur Elise or Moonlight Sonata, they were unskilled in the ancient chopstick art.
Fisher was tempted to watch his companion try and puzzle out for a few more minutes, but he had a job to do. He pushed a finger down on the intercom.
“Miss Reese, will you please bring us some knives and forks- oh, and some beer if you wouldn’t mind.”
“Of course, Mr. Fisher,” came the filtered, saccharine reply. Miss Reese herself arrived in a moment, young, tan and springy in her buttercream summer dress, carrying a tray laden with sweating Heineken bottles and napkin rolled cutlery.
“Anything else?” she asked, beaming a smile at both of them, but especially at blonde and blue eyed Kholer, who was gifted with Hollywood good looks and impressive height to match. Kholer did not commit to a full smile, but the intensity of his gaze betrayed his interest as she leaned down to set the tray.
Under other circumstances, Fisher might have felt a little bit of envy, but he was immune to Reese by now. So he ignored the shine of dying light on her tight rust coloured curls, the angle of shadow that jutted up across one breast and rippled a little as she snapped open the beers with a church key.
“Thank you, no,” he said severely, as though he found her presence highly irritating. He didn’t, but she knew that, and there was no reason for Kholer to know that. His comfort was important to Fisher. It was helpful to keep him a little distracted.
They waited until Miss Reese had left to before eating, and even then Kholer hesitated. He held his fork delicately between three fingers, his tongue darting out to wet his lips.
Fisher shrugged as he fished in his noodles for prawns. “I can order sandwiches .”
Kholer waved him off, and began to shovel food into his face like a starving man. Fisher watched with amusement as the dangling curried noodles forced the tall man to assume the classic hunched over position familiar to takeout eaters the nation over. Just as well- the cable knit sweater Kholer wore was expensive, chosen specifically by Fisher for the casual Yale regatta affect. He didn’t want it stained.
Polite as ever, Kholer swallowed before opening his mouth to say “this is good. Chinese, you say?”
“Kind of,” Fisher said with a shrug. “I don’t think you’d find it in China. It’s American Chinese.”
“American Chinese.” He chased his amusement with a long swig of beer. “I have heard of this thing you Americans do. American Chinese. American Italian. African American.”
As if to make a point, Fisher deftly twirled the noodles around his chopsticks, and ate them with relish. “People come here from other places, but they don’t want to let go of those places, so they call themselves whatever they want to call themselves to make them feel connected. I don’t expect you to understand.”
“In theory, I suppose I do. As an exercise. But if you intend to use the blending of food cultures to make to me a lesson of the blending of the nations, I can’t say I am the right student for you.”
“You’re precisely wrong,” Fisher said as he stuck his chopsticks into his carton, and lobbed the whole mess into the trash bin against the wall. “You see, it’s a political and academic maxim that striving to inform the educated isn’t really progress at all. If you were ready to receive the message, you wouldn’t need it in the first place.”
“Evangelism? I thought you were a Jew.” Kholer’s wry expression as fixed as ever.
“If you were me and I was you, I don’t think we’d be having this conversation.” Fisher said with a warm, sad smile.
“It was not my occupation to procure intelligence, so perhaps not.” Kholer dangled the bottle of beer by its neck, contemplative. “It would be a different conversation.”
Fisher put his hand in his vest pocket, and pulled out a box of Benson and Hedges. He tapped the box lazily.
“It’s such a cliché,” he said lightly. “But I like having something to do with my hands.”
There was a silence between them that was neither comfortable nor distressing. Kholer watched, seemingly mesmerized as Fisher went through the maudlin, familiar rigmarole of lighting the cigarette, sucking the ember towards himself, the smoke’s circuit of mouth-nose-lungs as he French-inhaled. When he exhaled, the smoke was sucked away out of the open window by the gentle breeze. Kholer watched it disappear into the clean blue sky, leaving no trace or scent.
“You want to ask, Mr. Kholer,” Fisher said, setting down the cigarettes and the book of matches and sliding them towards him. “You can ask. You can ask me anything you want, and if it’s in my power to answer or to procure for you, I am authorized to do that.”
“Why am I here?”
Fisher touched a finger to the pack of cigarettes, and moved it closer. “Because my superiors are interested in you.”
“You misunderstand,” Kholer said, a little agitated. “Why am I here?”
Fisher understood. He wanted to know why him and not some other, higher ranking, better connected asset. He did not reply, but considered his charge quietly. Then he rolled up his sleeves, picked up the cigarettes and held them out to Kholer.
The German reached up to take one, paused, hesitated, his eyes following the narrow gradient of tanned olive and beige pale where they joined at Fisher’s wrist. Faded, spiky lines spelled out a sequence, an artefact that resonated with Kholer, especially so removed from its accustomed context.
He took the whole pack, and held it- to have, as Fisher had said, something to do with his hands. Which was Fisher’s intended utility of the thing, because Fisher knew that Kholer did not smoke, and that Kholer was aware of his knowledge. Fisher thought it would be a good time for him to start.
“It was a matter of sequence, of record,” the German said, fingers kneading the stiffness out of the corners of the paper pack. “I did not order their make, or anything that followed. Do you intend to hold me responsible for an idea?”
“There is a difference, I suppose,” Fisher said amiably. “Between writing a number and typing it. Even between inscribing it with needles, and causing it to be inscribed. What I imagine you’re asking yourself now is not what possible use I might make of you, but rather whether I understand the extent to what possible use I can make of you, knowing what I know.”
“Which should I inventory first? The pencils? The ink ribbons? The needles?” Kholer’s tone mocked, but he held himself at the centre, tense now. He did not lean forward, or back, simply sat at attention, waiting for the commencement of the real interrogation, those graceful hands holding his knees.
Fisher could see inside his head, as clear as a projected image, the expected entrance of a brace of MPs, the frogmarch to the lower level where they lined the walls and floor with tile. Fisher sympathized with him- he too had a horror of tile, an accoutrement with which Kholer was intimately familiar with, as it would also have been in his inventory. The two men sat next to each other in the audience of each other’s minds, both knowing what they were seeing was accurate. But where Fisher felt a needle sharp hiss across the back of his neck, Kholer imagined the throaty rattle of pink water swirling down a drain.
“How are you still alive?” Kholer demanded, suddenly angry. “Why you?”
Fisher shrugged heavily. “I ran away. I was small, and the security wasn’t as good before the aktion.”
“I should kill you.” Kholer said, but Fisher understood it to be an unkind mistranslation from the German. I should kill me, if I were you.
“Rache,” Fisher said with a nod. “Well, there are other ways. There are typewriters, and lists. There are things that no one writes down, places that have no names. These are not things that the commandants really know about, do they? They issue orders, they direct the operations, but they don’t really ever hold the information in their hands. They don’t linger over file cabinets or transcribe conversations.”
It was satisfying to see the sweat prick around Kholer’s severe blonde hairline. He suddenly looked as though he wanted to shuck off the heavy sweater, but Fisher knew he wore nothing but an undershirt beneath. It was getting darker outside, and colder, and Fisher had no intention of closing the window. He, Fisher, did not like enclosed, stuffy spaces and his superiors were sensitive to that. He did not have to ask for the second story suite, because it was part of the program. He didn’t have to ask for Miss Reese, either, because she was also part of the program, currently operating the recording apparatus in another room, one brutal red pump hanging precariously from her stockinged foot. It was a pleasant image. Fisher used it to adjust his mood. Kholer was not the first Nazi to pass through Fisher’s hands.
Kholer sat back, his spine bowing, his hand going up to push his blonde hair away from his clammy forehead. His knees came together, and he sucked his teeth.
“You know it was all burnt,” he said, somewhere between defiance and desperation. “Everything, and everyone. But I burned no one. I am a secretariat, a clerk. I see that you know it.”
Fisher fixed him with a gaze as empty as it was unblinking. “But we both understand bureaucracy. It’s impossible to eliminate all redundancies. One man might die, but another who knows and remembers can be discovered- in that way, information is immortal. And so is accountability.”
“What assurance can you give me?” Kholer demanded, unable to conceal his desperation.
Fisher gestured to the airy room, the comfortable if shabby furniture, the open window, the trees, the air so cool and clear that it was sharp in the lungs, pure and heady and scented with green leaves. The breeze carried in the laughter of children playing on the swings in the nearby playground, unencumbered by the unfortunate business they were about now.
“I’m not interested in nihilism. Go outside, Mr. Kholer. Go for a walk, no one will stop you. Think about what you want to say.”
Kholer couldn’t hold his gaze for long. He looked at his hands. He turned them over, looked at his clean, clipped nails, the spatulate fingertips, the ones that could type eighty words per minute, the ones that tapped out invisible keys when he slept at night and dreamed of his mother’s piano lessons, his father’s old Bohemian typewriter. A young woman in a buff coloured dress.
Kholer reached over and took up the chopsticks, awkward a child, and held them up for Fisher to see. “Like this?”
Fisher shrugged. “Close enough.”