We humans don’t have much of a knack for peace, I’ve noticed. We are good haters more often than good neighbors.
Dietrich and Cynthia are one of our staunchest Heartbreak families. Cynthia sings in the choir at Cottonwood Baptist Church, our lead soprano. We see less of Dietrich on a day-to-day basis, but he runs true to form. He spends most of his days farming and ranching from sunrise to well after sunset.
He has a sort of Old World-work air to him, right down to the manure pile outside his barn, of which he was unusually proud. Cynthia begs at him to at least move it behind his barn, but he sees it as a mark of pride and doesn’t hear of it.
On Saturday nights he comes in to The Waterin’ Hole Café and has exactly two beers. Cynthia comes along, always slightly disapproving, to drive him home. They have a sort of playful bickering that makes them a “cute” couple.
“So Dietrich, when are you going to move the manure?” she would ask.
“When it gets 30 feet tall, I guess.”
“But it stinks!”
“Smells like hard work to me,” he would reply.
In short, they are a typical Heartbreak couple, from somewhere down around New Braunfels, most of us thought. Anyway, he was from somewhere down in deep German country. They were probably fourth- or fifth-generation German immigrants.
How deep into German country were their origins? Well, the one time I saw Dietrich have a third beer, he started slipping into a slight German accent. Nothing unusual there, but he was sure true-bonded deep Texas German, a fine tradition by any standards.
Nineteen years ago they had an unexpected and blessed occurrence. They named her Williemae. “Willie,” as she was universally known, turned into one of those striking blond beauties any crowd would be glad to claim.
Cynthia joked that it was all such a surprise, a biological “last call” that landed them the joy of their lives.
Last Saturday Dietrich got me to one side.
“Dave, I don’t much like asking favors, but Willie is about grown. She needs some work experience off the farm, if you know what I mean. I hate to let my one little chick leave, but she’s going to grow up, like it or not. Could she work around the Waterin’ Hole? Is there a job here she could do?”
Sally Rae had a long history of hiring the latest pregnant girl as a waitress and dish washer. She had a similar predicament a long time ago, and while The Waterin’ Hole Café wasn’t a shelter exactly, Sally Rae had helped a number of girls through a rough time.
“Are you telling me that Willie is in the family way?” I asked.
Dietrich was genuinely shocked.
“Well, heck no! Does a girl have to be in trouble to work here?”
“No, no, Dietrich. Sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you. I’m just sorting it out, that’s all. Sure, our current girl can hardly get close enough to the sink to wash dishes. Now, it’s often dirty, tough work, it is real work, but I doubt that’ll scare any kid of yours.”
“She don’t work hard enough, you just tell me. But honest, that won’t be a problem. She thinks real work is getting up before sunrise and milking the mastitis out of three ornery cows. Dishes will seem like a treat.”
“OK, let’s let her start Tuesday at 8.”
All in all, this was what our Pastor Hollis calls “Ordinary Time,” just a roll of days that make up the fabric we call life.
About three weeks after Willie started, a couple of strangers came into The Waterin’ Hole Café.
“Publican, come over here,” one ordered.
I didn’t much care for his tone of voice, but I came over and sat down.
“I’m Agent Rollins and this is Captain Dexter. I’m Homeland Security and Captain Dexter is ICE. We have some questions for you.”
They both “badged” me, tucked away their IDs before I could possibly look at them, and continued to act bored and contemptuous at the same time.
Captain Dexter piped up, “I didn’t say to sit. I said come here and answer some questions.”
“First off, I don’t need permission to sit in my own restaurant. Second off, you do. If you got questions, fire away, but don’t forget whose property you’re sitting on.” (Some people have a natural gift for rudeness. My gift is that of natural-born smart aleck, but I try to hide my natural talents if others are polite. These guys managed to get under my skin from the start.)
“We are here on sensitive government business. About 30 years ago, two East German agents slipped into this country. They were Stasi. That means, they were some of the worst of the worst, East German fanatics. We lost track of them somewhere west of Houston. Now they are in deep cover, and we are going to find them. So, do you know a couple in their mid-50s, possible German accent, ’cause we are going to find them and deal with them. If you lie or omit anything you know, you are liable under Special Security Order 5873.48, punishable by up to 20 years in federal prison.”
I didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that he was perfectly describing Dietrich and Cynthia. Also, I knew for a certainty that I deeply disliked these two men in front of me. They embodied everything I hated as a freedom-loving American
They were pushy and rude; they had no time for even the most basic manners, and they just weren’t from around here. I mean, in the most basic way possible, these guys weren’t my idea of basic fighters for freedom. They ought to be cast in as second-rate movie with German spies, set somewhere around Casablanca.
I needed time.
“Willie, please come out here,” I called.
Did I mention that Williemae is a classic Nordic beauty, an abundance of blond hair, high cheek bones, high, well, high everything else that might make a girl attractive? Most of all, she seemed completely mystified at the effect she had on men. I brought her out to stun these guys while I thought.
“Willie,” I said, “can you think of anyone that might be a little suspicious? Someone that has been around a long time, sort of German in their background?”
“Like me?” she laughed.
“Oh, no honey, bad people, foreign agents like,” the Homeland Security guy said.
I noticed that he couldn’t take his eyes off her bouncy young chest, I also saw that her eyes had narrowed in a way I hadn’t seen before.
Well, Willie and I chatted with the agents for a while. We kept it up until I had to make really stupid, inane remarks and tell old stories until I bored them out of their minds. Finally, the two agents left.
“Willie, tell your parents I need to see them both up here at closing tonight.”
At 10:45 Dietrich and Cynthia came in. Our last customer had left, and I hung the closed sign out, locked the door, and dimmed the lights.
“Dietrich, I guess Willie told you about our visitors today. I think you need to really, really talk to me,” I said.
He was silent a long time. When Dietrich began to talk there was a German accent in his voice stronger than I had ever heard before.
“Back in 1980 the Cold War was going strong. Reagan made jokes about bombing Moscow, the big powers were just an inch away from war. Back then, two 19-year-old kids graduated with honors from The People’s Polytechnic School in East Germany. Cynthia was what you would call the valedictorian, I was half a point behind her. We were chosen for special honors. We were sent as ‘deep sleeper’ agents. They forced us to marry. Choice wasn’t much of a factor.”
Cynthia spoke up: “But sometimes things work out. We both fell in love. We loved each other, and we loved America. People here are free, free to make mistakes, to move, to just BE.”
Dietrich continued, “We talked it over. It was obvious that the old ways were going to pass. If we went home, we would be disgraced. If we stayed, we would be illegal. However, we had pretty good papers, and, well, we went to the back side of the country …”
“You mean Heartbreak?” I asked.
“Yes, this place reminds us of home, the good parts of home. What do you intend to do? Turn us in?”
“If I don’t say anything, what do you intend to do?”
“Build the highest manure pile in Heartbreak.”
I spoke up. “Sally Rae, come out now.”
Sally Rae walked out of a dark corner where she had been listening as my backup.
Cynthia said. “Hey, Sally Rae, I don’t think I want or need this now. You want to take it?” With that she put a plastic bag on the table.
“What is this?” I asked.
“It is our suicide pills. I kept it under that big manure pile. I told Dietrich if we didn’t need it tonight, it was time to get rid of it. But you have to understand, living free is something we would die for, not something we will kill for.”
We all sat there silently for a moment
“So, Dietrich, how high is your manure pile these days?”