Joachim Frank: Downpour (Prologue from The Observatory, a Novel in Progress)

May 1, 1986

The lilacs are in bloom; the air is pregnant with the sweetness of spring. It’s called Frühling here, in German literally a personification of earliness. We think of a young man dressed in a green skin-tight Medieval costume, jumping nimbly through the fields. This is Workers’ Day, a holiday in all of Europe, reserved for parades, solidarity, and consciousness-raising. Bonn has its first afternoon of sultriness in this season, and Arthur’s skin feels sticky.  He doesn’t exactly know what to do with himself, barred from his office by his wife Eva’s dictum that he must spend the day off with his family, “like normal people.”  But his five-year old daughter is at a birthday party for the rest of the afternoon, and Eva spends the day sitting on the balcony, sipping coffee and reading a book. She is expecting, and this is perhaps the reason she has this intense focus on family now. On a day like this, the apartment is oppressive; there is little air circulation. He makes an attempt to sit down at his desk and read his student’s Ph.D. thesis draft.  Christ! This guy can’t even write a single sentence right! Arthur’s shirt has turned damp. Seeking relief, he goes down into the courtyard.

“I’ll read a book, or something,” he says on his way out, loud enough so she can hear him, wherever she is in this spacious, spread-out apartment.

“Sure, see you later, Spatz.” Her cheerful voice comes back from the direction of the bathroom.

When he arrives downstairs, five floors below, he discovers he has forgotten his book. But there is nothing in the world that could force him to walk up again. Besides, more often than not, bringing a book along amounts to nothing but a good intention. As he enters the courtyard, the rabbit hutch emits wafts of intense odor from the droppings.  His daughter is too small to clean it out, but she has promised, with the seriousness of a five-year old, that she will “keep it clean forever” when she is old enough.  He sits down in the shade next to Prince Hirohito’s tree. It’s the tree the later-to-become Emperor Hirohito planted here sometime in the twenties when he was young. A swatch of skin on Arthur’s face itches intensely now; he rubs over it with his flat hand, then gropes with his fingers, and sure enough, he finds a single hair that had attached itself there. He takes his damp shirt off, and stretches out in the grass.  The coolness of the grass brings some relief. Wondering why grass doesn’t have the exact same temperature as everything else around, he dozes off.

Waking, he feels an intense itching of the skin on his back.  He scratches it, reaching as far as he can. He rubs his shirt back and forth, diagonally across his back. The skin starts hurting now as though touched by flames. He swears, races upstairs with the shirt bundled up under his arm, two steps at a time, turns the shower on.

“What’s the matter, Schatz?” Eva’s voice comes from the kitchen. It is all he can hear before he takes the rest of his clothes off and the water gushes down on him. The most intense pain is gone, but the skin still feels hot and sore.

“Must be some kind of allergy,” he shouts after stepping out of the shower.

“Let’s stay home tonight, Spatz,” she says when he comes to visit her in the kitchen, wrapped in a towel. “Simone is tired from her party. And it’s not exactly fun to be on the Rhine meadows on a day like this.”

He hands her the skin lotion, motions her to put it on his back.  She complies; he feels her small hand circling slowly. Every so often, a cool localized sensation means she has put another splotch of lotion on his back. He closes his eyes.

“It’ll cool off,” he says. “Besides, we promised the Krauses.”

“The Krauses? Big deal; we can call them and explain. We see them all the time.”

“There’ll be fireworks!”

“Arthur, really! You are acting like a little kid. OK, have it your way; we’ll go.” She gives him a quick affectionate kiss on the cheek.


But one cannot simply go; it has to be a picnic. A picnic with bottles and plastic glasses and napkins and pillows and containers with prepared food. Fruits and knives to peel them with. Containers to receive paper, peels and pits.  Simone wants to bring three of her dolls, and a picnic for her dolls, too. Eva dresses down.

“Think about the dirt on the ground!” she says, as a way of explaining the jeans to Arthur. But then she looks at herself in the mirror, and decides to dress up again.

“I think about the picnic on the Seine, the one painted by Manét!”

She looks at herself sideways, pleased. Her long dress billows as she walks down the steps with Simone and her dolls. Arthur has to do the five flights twice, with picnic baskets, bags and blankets. His shirt collar is drenched as he finally sits down in the driver’s seat.

The Krauses meet them with kisses and hugs by the giant oak close to the parking lot. The French way of kissing alternate cheeks three times, not twice like in the olden times, has taken the country by storm. Arthur uses this rare moment to squeeze Ingrid to his chest, to feel the hardness of her breasts. Ingrid wears a fancy straw hat, with ribbons. He likes her as a friend, but he is also full of curiosity; he can’t help it. Ingrid’s husband, Herbert, is done with his bit of party kissing, and looks for a place to spread the blankets. Eva intervenes, apparently still with Manét in mind: can’t you see, this is much too far away from the bank of the river! So now they all go down toward the Rhine with their baskets and dishes. The Rhine is almost half a kilometer away. It certainly looks closer than it is. By the time they reach the point Eva has marked by setting down Simone and the three dolls, the mood among the picnickers has become tense.

“I thought it’s gonna be a holiday,” Herbert says, and the way he says it, Arthur can’t make out if he is just miffed or outright mad at the rest of the party.

“The main thing is to make the ladies happy,” Arthur says, earning himself a questioning glance from Eva. He feels bad to be such a coward, talking about ‘ladies,’ implicating Ingrid, too, who did nothing to drag everybody down here. Then he realizes that it’s the exploratory hug, and the way he enjoyed it, that makes him want to be soft on Eva now. Herbert makes a grunting sound, probably because he agrees with Arthur’s characterization of matrimonial dynamics.

But this is all forgotten when Eva and Ingrid have spread out the bounty on the blankets, the bottle of Champagne has been opened, and the glasses have been filled. Ingrid has brought an Indonesian salad, the kind she always makes for potluck events. Fruit and yogurt is out on platters.

“I made sure to keep nuts out of the salad,” Ingrid says to Eva. “I know about your allergy.”

“Nice of you to remember,” Eva said. “Just a little could send me into the hospital.”

The two women look beautiful, each in her own way, seated sideways on the blanket, with skirts spread out, as though part of the offering. Everywhere, as far as the eye can see, there are colorful settings just like theirs, but many girls wear bikinis or hot pants with halter tops, throwing their heads back in laughter while the boys throw back theirs, sipping beer. The large, towering trees and the slow-flowing majestic river nearby make the voices of the people around sound intimate; it feels like sitting in a gigantic living room, waiting for someone to arrive, or for an event to happen that is half-expected, half-unknown.

In the distance there are the city workers in bright-yellow uniforms, busy getting the fireworks ready. Simone wants to run over there and talk to them, and when Eva tells her to stop it and be quiet, she starts one of her tantrums.

“Just ignore her,” Arthur says to Ingrid and Herbert, but the moment his daughter hears him say it she ratchets up her pitch, so that it gets into the painful range. Why don’t the Krauses have a little daughter, too? It is a lack of consideration, really, to leave Simone without a playmate on outings like this. Ingrid and Herbert just keep talking about it, without ever getting it done. Arthur, still with a memory of the hug, imagines offering his help.

It is at this moment that the first big drops fall. The eyes of the two couples have been mostly on the ground, and the giant trees have masked the view of the large billowing clouds that have suddenly popped up and filled the sky above. There is rumbling, too, and Arthur tries to remember, scanning through the period of time that has passed with setting up the picnic and quieting down Simone, if any of that rumbling was there before, or if he mistook a sound that big and all-encompassing for an airplane passing by. But now the drops fall faster, and some fall even into the glasses, which definitely means the rain has picked up, from a simple calculation of cross-sections and impact probabilities. Arthur and Ingrid empty their glasses, drinking the Champagne up, as a quick preventive measure to avoid more dilution. Herbert, just as quick, decides to drink the rest from the bottle directly, now that the picnic seems doomed. By the time Simone starts crying about her dolls getting wet, and a general sense of panic sets in, the rain is coming down in sheets, and the only thing to do is to pick up the four corners of the blankets and gather everything in them, like in a rucksack. Santa Claus is often pictured with this kind of makeshift bag slung over his shoulder. Now they curse Eva again, for her determination to dine so close to the river, since the whole distance back to the parking lot now opens up in front of them, a giant shallow pond still with grass blades sticking out and pockmarked by the rain. But then Ingrid laughs, and dances with her chiffon dress, which clings to her body and follows the contours of her breasts quite closely. It’s the kind of dress that became fashionable in the late sixties: natural-looking, but definitely cool. Arthur puts down his blanket-sack and joins her for a brief moment, dancing, feeling the water running down his face and into his open mouth. It is a moment of craziness, and if they cannot enjoy it now, when will there ever be a time? Eva wordlessly picks up Simone, who is still crying, and puts her on her hips. Slowly, in her undulating way of moving, she follows the others in her wet, dripping dress. She could be a Hindu Goddess caught in the Monsoon, maybe, though he doesn’t know anything about India–it’s just a poetic, gratifying way of looking at her now. He decides to tell her later, as a gift; it’s like an invisible bouquet of flowers he carries with him, unbeknownst to her.

There is no formal good-bye when they reach their cars, only a disorganized  shuffling through the puddles of water on the asphalt, and a quick waving of hands. Arthur throws the big sack leaking orange juice and yogurt into the trunk, and Eva puts her daughter down and wrings the water out of her own long hair. Then they jump into the car and watch the steam rise from their clothes and fog the windows from inside. As they watch the Krauses take off with their VW bug, Arthur and Eva catch each other smiling. He leans over to kiss her, and the water on her face tastes like earth. What a good feeling to go through adversity, and still feel good about it! He’d felt guilty about the little dance with Ingrid, leaving Eva to deal with Simone, but now it turns out Eva is a good sport. Arthur starts the engine, puts the wipers on, and the radio fades in with an announcement of some sort. Arthur instinctively changes the station, but there is again the same male voice. He now pays attention:

“… Rhineland-Palatia’s Ministry of the Interior with an important announcement. The precipitation that accompanied the thunderstorm this evening has been found to contain raised levels of radioactivity, from the Chernobyl meltdown.  Persons who have been exposed to the rain are advised to take a shower immediately. There is however no immediate danger to your health.

“The clouds were part of a weather system in the Ukraine that traveled three days before reaching this area of Germany.”

“Radioactivity! Jesus Christ! Go home as fast as you can,” Eva says.

“This is crazy,” Arthur says, glancing down on his shirt that clings to his chest. As he pulls the fabric loose from his skin the shirt makes a sucking sound. He remembers the water running into his mouth, and the muddy taste of it. Leaving the park, they see an endless line of cars backed up from the highway. The highway itself is clogged with cars, as far as he can see.

“Do something!” Eva screams.

“Do what?” he says. “We don’t have a shower in the car, so we have to wait.”

“What’s holding them up?”

“Well, everybody is trying to leave at the same time, and so we’ve got a jam.”

“What’s radio-tivity?” Simone asks.

“It’s called radio-ac-tivity. It’s something bad that goes into your body and can make you sick.”

“I don’t wanna be sick, Mommy!”

“Don’t worry, we go home right now and all take a long shower, and everything is gonna be flushed down. Everybody is gonna be alright.”

Eva takes a big breath and looks at him. He knows from her look that she doesn’t believe what she said.

It takes three hours, in bumper-to-bumper traffic, before they reach the Schillerstrasse. It is a distance that normally takes less than twenty minutes. One of the streets is flooded, and there has been a big accident along the way.  Eva is beside herself.  At one time she talks about taking her dress off, but Arthur, knowing she has no bra on, talks her out of it. Simone is fast asleep. Arthur has to carry her upstairs, then tries to wake her. When she finally opens her eyes, she doesn’t want to take a shower.

“Why can’t I take a shower in the morning, as always?”

“Because of the bad stuff we told you about. Bad stuff in the rain.”

Eva takes Simone’s wet clothes off, lifts her into the bathtub, and scrubs her under the shower beam. Then, after the little girl is tucked away in her bed, Arthur and Eva take long cool showers, and it feels like washing down a bad dream.  Meanwhile, in the living room, the TV is running with announcements by Government officials and debates by radiation physicists, Green activists, and experts on public health and epidemiology. There are also muffled Russian voices of Soviet bureaucrats with German voiceover.


June 15, 1986

Eva says she feels the baby move. It really happened at eleven in the morning, when she was washing dishes; there was no mistake. She cries on Arthur’s shoulder when he gets home from work. She has been tense all these weeks, and now is incredibly relieved. He holds her close.

“It must be the noise, you know!” She lifts her face up to look at him brightly. Those are the best smiles, he thinks, the ones that rise in a face of tears! “Dishes clattering, it practically happens right in front of him. In arm’s reach, if it weren’t for the wall of the belly in between.”

“Him? How would you know?”

“Women just know these things. You know, I find it so incredible that he listens to what I’m doing. I wonder if he hears when I pee.”

“Sure. They’re upside down. Their ears are right where the action is.”

“Arthur! You are impossible!”

He laughs, enjoying the relief they both feel. She is so pretty, and good for him.

“We should go out tonight!” he says. But she doesn’t hear him at first.

“And then I sat down, just to concentrate,” she says instead in a breathless voice, like a teenager describing her first outing to a friend. “And that’s when it happened again — Arthur, he is alive!”

Arthur finds these things very sentimental, like coming from a paperback romance one can buy at the Kaufhof for DM 12.95. But at the same time he tries to imagine what it must be like being a woman and pregnant — the anticipation, the concentration on a part of the body that has been taken over in this bewildering inarticulate way; the direction into everything is headed. He thinks he gets one step closer to this notion when he tries to imagine being without a penis, and being somehow unclosed and unfinished down there.


October 7, 1986

“He never had a chance,” she whimpers. “It’s so unfair. I want my baby back.” She sits crouched in the armchair, face buried in her hands.

Arthur is quiet with grief. He finds it difficult to listen to Eva, but somehow he knows this is not the time to close himself off. Three weeks before, they’d buried little Günter with the help of Pastor Kopsch. The second the pastor opened his mouth Arthur knew that they had made a mistake asking him. They had gotten his name from a friend, but this was too much oily trifles, too much God-in-His-mysterious-ways, too many generalities, when the real culprits were inept government officials on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The Soviet officials had played everything down, released the truth in trickles when it was too late: incredibly, in this advanced end of the twentieth century the clouds had traveled faster than the news. The German counterparts were not much better. In an attempt to reduce the chance for panic, they had painted the rosiest picture. Government spokesmen kept dismissing the warnings of environmental activists as dooms-say. Iodine pills, designed to compete with the radioactive isotope in the thyroid glands’ metabolic intake during the critical first 72 hours, were handed out too late.  Arthur had felt the urge, at the funeral, to stop the pastor in his sermon He pictured himself picking up the shovel that sat ready in the heap of earth and whacking it over Pastor Kopsch’s trifling mouth with his overlong upper lip which trembled when he prayed.


One evening, at dinner, when her wailing will not stop, and he cannot think a coherent thought after a long day at work, Arthur can’t hold himself. “You know,” he says, pushing his plate away, “this is something I find hard to say, but you’ve got to find a way to get over it.”

Looking at her face, he instantly knows he has made a mistake. She gives him a cold sideways look, as though regarding a criminal she does not want to share the same house with.

“Get over it,” she says, tonelessly. Then she continues, with increasing volume, “Get over it?  You call this ‘it’. You call my fears, my hopes, the birth, the brief joy, the nightmares with the doctors who don’t know what they are talking about, the agony of his suffering, the nights I spent at his crib, the last night when he was suddenly gone, poof! leaving me with nothing! You call all this ‘it’? Get out of my sight! We have nothing in common.

“Who was it who absolutely needed to go to the first-of-May event? I was completely happy to stay home. We would have been safe. Even Simone didn’t want to go. Remember, she played with the rabbit downstairs. You dragged us into it, you dragged me into this fucking iodine gushing from the sky. The Krauses! The Krauses my ass! Where are the Krauses now? They didn’t even come to the funeral. No, they had more interesting things to do. I bet they went to one of those artsy-fartsy art openings with wine and cheese.”

“You know very well that Ingrid and Herbert are going through a divorce.”

“What has that got to do with anything? They can carry on their fights anywhere they want.”

“How was I supposed to know that on that freaking day, it was going to rain? That the rain was going to be radioactive? Show me one person in the crowd who saw it coming! And how do you know for sure his thyroid troubles had anything to do with it?”

“I was waiting for this. Honestly, you sound like one of those government jerks on TV.”

They slip into a period of silence, which will last for weeks, interrupted by perfunctory exchanges about necessities, such as grocery shopping and doctor’s appointments. Only at night, sometimes, she gropes for him in her sleep, as though her body is more forgiving, or as though it has never realized the change. He refuses to accept blame for the tragedy, and thinks her allegations are preposterous. Lying awake for hours, staring at the ceiling, he half-expects stars to show up once his eyes are fully adapted. But no matter how long he stares, he never sees a glimmer. He compares his loneliness to the time-worn loneliness of a galaxy, surrounded by so much empty space, and separated from his neighbor by millions of light-years.

“It’s like laying blame for World War II on the president of the arts academy that rejected young Hitler’s application,” Arthur says to her one night. He thinks he has found the perfect simile, to get across the absurdity of her position.

“It’s my baby! It was my baby! Don’t you understand?” she screams back. And when he tries to appease her, seeing how far removed she is from accepting rational arguments, she sobs but will not let him touch her.

Arthur has to think of the German phrase, saying of a pregnant woman that “she is carrying a baby under her heart.” He suddenly understands that to a woman a baby still in the womb is like a second heart, and that birth does not change the resonance, the sweet ache she must feel in every fiber of her body. Unable to pronounce the new insight, he wants to at least hold Eva, but she is stiff in his arms, her head bent back, as though in the throes of a monster.


June 17, 1999

Anniversary of the uprising in East Germany. This used to be a national holiday, where Arthur and Eva and all people in the Federal Republic are supposed to think of their “brothers and sisters” in the East, behind the Iron Curtain. But Arthur has no relatives there, and he has always considered people speaking Saxonian offensive. If anything, he even has a deeper affection for the French. Eva had an aunt living in Eisenach, in Thüringen, but the old woman had died right after Arthur and Eva’s wedding.  She had last seen Eva when she was thirteen, at Eva’s confirmation, but was denied a permit to come to the wedding. Eva once told Arthur she believes the long, unsuccessful fight with the Stalinist bureaucrats in the GDR contributed to her aunt’s demise.

For years he and Eva have done what all the others did with this day: laze around in bed, have a long breakfast, and go into the park along the Rhine. So June 17 always seemed like a repeat of May 1, except for the more advanced state of the vegetation, with trees and flowers in full bloom, and the smell of jasmine and honey in the air. Now that the Wall is down, June 17 has become a really confusing date. What are they supposed to remember now?  He imagines explaining the significance of the day to his son, imagines the questions he would ask. Except there is no son, only Eva’s sorrow that has taken his place and fills the whole apartment, threatening to suffocate Arthur. Simone has always been taken for granted. No wonder she is so cold and distant now. No wonder she’s been so happy to escape. “You fool,” he often imagined himself telling his wife, “you might have held on to the one.” He blames himself, too. Earlier, as Privatdozent — university lecturer without entitlement to a job — he had all the time he wanted to spend with his daughter, going on bicycle rides with her, and fairs. But then he’d become professor, then Institute Director, and seen less and less of her. This is beyond grief now; she has survived, and is apparently happy to be on her own.

Arthur gets up early, acknowledging to himself that the main reason is to avoid being drawn into a nagging conversation with Eva. It is the time of day when he cannot cope with this. Lately her voice has adopted an accusing pitch. Even something like “I love you,” spoken in that voice, would send him for cover, except this is one phrase that has not come from her lips since God knows when.

He makes himself some coffee, trying not to make noise in the kitchen. When the percolator starts he has to close the kitchen door, because he remembers he was once woken by its noise when Eva had gotten up early and the roles were reversed. He takes his coffee mug out to the balcony.  The air is pleasant but already too warm, considering it’s only seven o’clock. In late spring, the weather in Bonn tends to slip into hot, moist, almost tropical conditions. He looks down onto the crown of Hirohito’s tree and the little hutch that once housed Simone’s rabbits. The hutch is empty: Simone has graduated from high school and moved to Munich, to study film. She hardly calls, and when she calls, it’s about money. What would he give to have the little girl back! To walk with her through the woods again, to see her excited eyes! As he looks down into the courtyard, Eva’s voice comes through the hallway. She probably calls from the bedroom. He imagines her early-morning warmth, but is happy and content to be out here, on the balcony.

“What’s the temperature today?”

“It’s mellow, sort of.  It might get muggy later on,” he shouts back.

“But what should I put on?”

“I don’t know. You really have to see for yourself.”

“That’s not something nice to say!” She is barely up, and her voice has already developed that edge.

“But how would I know what you need?”

“We’ve been married — how many years?  And you still don’t know anything about me.” The last part is muffled, and Arthur knows that in mid-sentence, she has turned around in bed, wrapping herself in the blanket like a cocoon.

“Honey, this is so . . .,” he starts, but then interrupts himself. “I know,” he says to her. “I know.” For a long time he stays awake, lying on his back, watching slivers of light rush across the wall from cars passing by. They are like comets that have gone astray.


Read Joachim’s interview with WIPs about “Downpour” and The Observatory, his novel in progress.