BY FELIX IMONTI
Copyright is held by the author.
WE HAD been speaking to Frau Denberg and her son for a month and had not realized the connection. The woman was in her mid-50s and we usually encountered her while she was walking her Beagle along the rural roads behind the apartment complex.
She was what I saw as that vanishing class of old European aristocracy. Her English and German were flawless. Her manners were honed to perfection. Her conservative clothes were matched perfectly and of only the highest quality.
Her son we had met on the street in front of the apartment building where we lived. If there were only the two of you in a room, you wouldn’t notice him.
Our value to Helmut was that we spoke English and he spoke only English to his Philippine wife. I realized that he intended to keep it that way. My wife was fluent in German, and Helmut made clear when she tried teaching his wife a German phrase that educating Luna was not an option.
The connection between mother and son was made when we met Frau Denberg on the main street and paused to chat for a moment. We had just returned from a brief trip to Hamelin and were telling her about the Sunday play of the Pied Piper.
“Whore!” Frau Denberg said in a hardened voice scarcely above a whisper. It knocked us backwards and Caused Miyoko to look in the direction that the venom was aimed.
“Luna?” Miyoko said puzzled and shocked.
“My fool son brought that trash home and she expects to be a rich queen.”
There was that famous pregnant silence as we all sought some way to resume a conversation about what had become a meaningless subject. Frau Denberg recovered her composure and returned to the story of the Pied Piper. A moment later, she excused herself, apologized for the loss of dignity, and left. What had happened would take weeks more for us to understand.
The family owned a chain of small hotels and inns across Germany. Herr and Frau Denberg had expected when their son was born to see the 200-year tradition continue through their son only to see their expectation turn into a bitter disappointment. He had attended a school in Switzerland to study the hotel business, had graduated by some miracle, and then slipped immediately back into his customary life of doing as little as possible while demanding as much as he could get.
Helmut was 22 when his father succumbed to cancer. Before his death, Herr Denberg had discussed with his wife what should be done without anyone reliable to continue the family tradition. One of the possibilities was a nephew, but the final decision would be left to Frau Denberg whenever a decision would have to be made.
Soon after Herr Denberg’s death, Helmut informed his mother that he was ready to step into the business and expected an ownership role. He insisted that it was his right.
“We have a duty to see that the business is managed properly and you have no experience,” she reminded him. The tradition was for the next generation to start at the bottom; and she had no intension of altering 200 years of a proven formula. Like it or not, he would have to spend time carrying luggage and offering help to guests.
There were days of angry debate, but Frau Denberg held her ground. Grumbling, he began with a six month trial employment as a bell hop at a smaller hotel. That would teach him humility and what the employees were experiencing.
He passed the first test and was moved to a desk job at a larger hotel. He had to learn the names of regular guests and show them special consideration by recalling their favourite rooms and what services they required.
From job to job and hotel to hotel, he stayed the course to the shock and delight of his skeptical mother. She had begun to change her opinion of her son; and then came the demand again for an ownership position.
She could not abandon completely her distrust in his capabilities, but would let him prove himself as the manager of a small hotel in Bavaria. If he passed the test, she would consider granting him some degree of ownership. Just to be on the safe side, the trusted assistant manager was recruited to be her eyes and ears to keep her informed how Helmut was doing
The frequent reports were astounding. At the end of the year, the hotel was showing an impressive increase in profits. Frau Buick could not believe that her useless son had managed to hide so thoroughly his talents. Still, there was that gnawing doubt that kept surfacing.
“Father always said that I was lazy and useless. I could never do anything right,” Helmut told his mother during a serious conversation about the future.
What troubled her was his whining, like a beaten child. Was it possible that her husband had broken his spirit? It was difficult to suddenly condemn her husband of so many years. He had been strict and somewhat authoritarian, and perhaps a little severe, but never cruel. The mother began asking herself if her son was far more sensitive than she had realized and that he needed to be pampered more than he had been.
Helmut was giving her an ultimatum. He had demonstrated that he could do better than she or his father had imagined. He wanted his reward. Just one small hotel would be enough for the time.
There was a raging battle inside of Frau Denberg. Those years of his lazy aimless life had conditioned her to think of him as something less than reliable. On the other side, he had demonstrated a talent and will to succeed. The mother said that her child needed to be rewarded, while the business manager kept flashing alerts that something didn’t ring true.
A month of internal warfare and Frau Denberg agreed to transfer ownership of a hotel in Augsburg where he had worked for several months as an assistant manager. Once all of the legal paperwork was completed, Helmut moved to the city to assume his new role as hotel owner; and she agreed not to have any of his employees report to her.
For the first month, Helmut telephoned several times a week to tell her how things were going. The calls dwindled to one a week for a time. Finally, he had not called in a month and she began to worry. Was he ill? Did he find a woman?
Not knowing became too much and she telephoned. She asked to speak to Helmut Denberg. The clerk informed her than no one by that name was a guest.
“Helmut Denberg is your employer.” She made a mental note to advise her son to have a good talk with the ignorant clerk.
Instead of arguing with a stranger on the telephone, the clerk called the manager who
informed Frau Denberg that the hotel had been sold to the main competitor. What had happened to the former owner no one knew.
Frau Denberg would not know for another six months when a post card from Manila said that Helmut had bought two hotels in Ermida. What he did not say was that they were brothels. Oh yes, he also neglected to mention his address.
After that, the occasional post card said “Everything is fine.” The pattern continued for more than two years, until the doorbell rang. There was her son standing in front of her with a woman.
“This is Luna. She is my wife,” he told her. Frau Denberg was not as happy to see him as a mother might be under normal circumstances. She had been tricked and her trust betrayed. He had cheated her and his deceased father; and Frau Denberg was not feeling very forgiving.
For a moment, she was ready to slam the door in his pitiful face, but he was nearly on his knees begging for help. The anger settled into something more tolerable and the mother in her could not refuse her bankrupt useless son. She relented and agreed to have them stay for a short time while the problems were worked out.
The trouble had started when Helmut had been persuaded that there was a fortune to be made in the sex trade in Ermida. He could never refuse the chance to grab a pot of gold. Here was his big opportunity to make his own mark in the world without being shackled by generations of tradition.
He saw little chance to convince his mother that she needed to adapt to a new world. It was better to prove his point by doing what he was preaching; and joined with a German partner to buy two brothels with a couple of dozen prostitutes working day and night. Business was booming, and he could enjoy the services free of charge. He was kept so busy that he did not notice that his trusted partner was draining off the profits and borrowing against the properties. He didn’t notice until several creditors were standing at the door and demanding payment. When he handed over everything, they told him that he could keep his life and even have his favourite employee as a consolation prize.
Luna had learned that he was an only child from a wealthy family and decided to go with him as his wife. She could get German citizenship and get access to some of that fortune. Her prospects with him were better than her life on a mattress in one of the brothels.
Frau Denberg had little problem reading the character of her daughter in law. She couldn’t change that they were married, but she could make damn sure that she didn’t marry the family wealth.
In spite of all that had happened she was not as tough as she wanted to be. She rented a one bed room apartment for them in the building where Miyoko and I were staying.
Saved from starvation and living on the street, Helmut lapsed into his former life of doing as little as possible and demanding as much as he could get. What he could get was just enough to live. If he wanted more, he would have to earn it.
He could visit his mother’s chilly house, but his wife would not be welcomed. There was no more talk about having him involved in the business.
Several times a week, we met the couple walking into Bonn or just strolling aimlessly with nowhere to go and nothing to do to fill their time. If he had any plans for the future, he was keeping them a secret.
“I am sure that you can find a job,” I suggested to him. He seemed to be shocked by the idea, and the subject was never mentioned again. I should have realized that he would never let Luna off the leash. He just might have found himself standing in line at the brothel in his apartment.
Somewhere along the way, I had revealed that I was working on a collection of short stories about Japan. I had just finished a story called, “The Smile of Buddha.” It had to do with a Japanese soldier who had a truck of treasures that the Japanese army had plundered from around Asia and had assembled in Manila for trans-shipment to Japan, except that the swift movement of U.S. naval forces made it impossible to send the treasure to Japan. Instead, it was to be moved to the summer capital of Baguio where the Japanese were preparing their defenses.
The story fascinated Helmut. While in the Philippines, he had heard the many wild tales about the Japanese treasures.
No one listened when the Japanese assured everyone that there had never been any stolen loot. Some believers of the story said that a ship with the treasure was sunk. Others said that the items were hidden somewhere around Manila or in the jungle. Every now and then, there was a rumour that a new clue had been uncovered and the swarm of treasure hunters were off and running.
Helmut was particularly interested because Miyoko’s family had a lengthy military background. Her paternal grandfather was a naval hero from the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. A cousin on her maternal side became the first commander in chief of the newly reconstituted Japanese army in the 1950s.
All of that military background convinced Helmut that the story was more than a story. He was absolutely certain of my deep knowledge because of the description of the events.
Sergeant Ohara with two men was assigned a truck that he was to drive to Baguio. He was told that the cases were vital military documents.
As they drove south along the highway, the truck was attacked by a U.S. naval Corsair fighter. The truck crashed into a tree. One man was killed and a crate broke open. Sergeant Ohara found himself peering into the smiling golden face of a statue of Buddha.
The sergeant resealed the crate and had the other man help him bury the five crates in the jungle. As the two walked to Baguio, the sergeant murdered the other man, managed to survive the war and to make the journey home. There, a mosquito with the Dengue Fever bug was waiting for him. A few weeks later, he died a very wealthy man without a yen in his pocket.
Helmut could not believe that it was all a story. Sick with fever, the dying man probably told other people what had happened.
“Ohara must have been a cousin or something,” he concluded. He recalled that Miyoko was a child living in Japan at the time and would have heard people talking about what the dead Ohara had said. How else did I know that the truck had been on highway 4 and that it had been attacked near a reservoir by a naval Corsair. Telling him to look at a map and a history book of the war was not an answer.
I asked him why I did not go to claim the treasure or why some other family member had not gone. He dismissed my failure to go as a lack of an adventurous spirit due to my blindness and not having any contacts in the Philippines. Probably, the others didn’t believe the story from a man dying with a raging fever.
Over the next few months, he kept probing me for more details. Telling him that there were no more details just convinced him even more that I was withholding information and I had the sense that something was happening.
What was happening is that Helmut and Luna had somehow collected enough money to acquire the best metal detector on the market and a plane ticket to Manila. A few days before we left Bonn, we found a letter under our door that revealed Helmut had gone in search of that treasure that we insisted did not exist.
Frau Denberg told us the next day, that her son had vanished again. He had not paid the rent and had borrowed from everyone dumb enough to provide the money. She would be stuck with covering his debts.
He had dropped a note into her mail box. It said he was on his way to Manila to earn his fortune. He was going to discover where the Japanese treasure was hidden and would return rich beyond his mother’s dreams.
“Do you know what that fool is talking about?” She asked.
“I have no idea,” I lied to her. I did not have the nerve to reveal that I was the cause of this fool’s fantasy. How disappointing to an already deceived mother that her fool son was following a highway in a short story that was only the musings of a hopeful author.
I can imagine that Helmut would eventually run out of money and abandon the search. That would leave him the only choice of crawling back to mother penniless and wifeless.
Luna was not such a dreamer. Without the prospect of a castle on the Rhine, I have little doubt that she would choose a more realistic course and go in search of a thick wallet or a new mattress.
“What will you do when he returns home?” I asked and wondered if I should intrude so deeply.
“I do not have a son and he does not have a home.” She choked on the words as she spoke. That was how we parted those many years ago in Bonn.
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