The call did not go through. Max stepped away from the booth. A man was waiting impatiently, a caricature of impatience—tapping his foot, checking his watch. As Max took Magdalene's hand and began to walk away, the man rushed in, slamming the glass door behind him.

Max rubbed the remaining coins in his pocket against each other. Magdalene's hand trembled with shivers. “Wait, wait!” he could hear, the coins clicking into the phone. "Yes, I heard that joke. What about the other one? The one about the socks and the old woman?" His voice came through the glass muffled.

Max tugged at the strings in the bottom of his pocket, worrying a small hole. As soon it ripped enough that his fingertip met air, he slipped his hand out and crossed his arms. But it had no effect on the man in the booth, who merely turned his back and kept talking. The longer Max and Magdalene stood there, the easier it would be for someone to recognize them, turn them in, report them, mention them at the local pub. Magdalene wandered away to look in a store window, and Max went after her, grabbing her hand. She jerked her hand out of his and ran back to the window. He let her go. She was transfixed by the flash and spin of a zoetrope. He returned to the spot in front of the phone booth, the contours of the cobblestones protruding through his thin soles.

He had to hear her voice. He had to tell her it was going to take more time—that something had come up and he’d be here for a while longer. He’d miss the art show, her hips and round breasts on eight walls of the Haus Deutscher Kunst. She would be furious with him. He practiced now, his breath coming out in wisps. “I’m sorry. I know how important it is to you. But I can’t.” Logical, calm, firm. The man in the booth laughed again, his enormous shoulders shaking under his thick coat. Max envied him that coat.

Magdalene squatted to the ground and cupped her chin in her hands, her fingers spread across her cheeks. They had to move on. The coins were warm in Max's hand, so warm they felt as if they were extra fingers. He ran his thumb along their edges. “We have to go.”

He reached for Magdalene’s hand, but she tugged it away. She crossed her arms. “I thought we had to call again. Why do we have to go now if we had to call then?”

Max wrestled her for her hand, clammy and cold. "Because we can't wait." He was already worrying about the joker in the phone booth, what he could recall of Max's face, the little girl squatting in the dirt.

Max remembered Lüneburg as glistening at night, the cathedral bright when lit, the streetlights and cobbles glittering in the rain. But now, under blackout, it was an ominous city of shadows and dark corners. A place to hide for the night. Max led them through alleys and back streets, behind pubs and around empty market stalls. He navigated by the feeblest of memories without benefit of a flashlight. The Lüneburg of his youth was gone, the confident city of his teenaged exploits was now dark, silent, wary.

The park sign he remembered as illuminated at night was illegible. But he knew the quiet slurp of the Ilmenau River and the soft crunch of the mulch path underfoot. Magdalene tugged on his hand to slow down, but he was drawn.  He saw them, shadows in the half-light of the moon. Larches. Lindens. He stood at the base of a linden and stared up into its branches.

“What are we doing, Max?”

He pressed his hand to the bark and pulled away a thin strip of lichen. It crumbled in his fingers.

“It's dark. I'm cold. What are we doing?”

He led her to the riverbank. He could hear the dark water below, the upstream rapids, the occasional flop of a fish. He stared, remembering the afternoon he'd led his camp group into days of hard labor, punishment, sacrifice for the bright swastika.

Magdalene pressed her face to his side and whimpered. “I’m hungry.”

He tore away from the hypnotic gurgling of the Ilmenau, negotiating around the very tree he had planted right before jumping into the river that hot day.

The path led through the park to the other side. They stumbled out of the deep darkness of the park into the relative moonlight of the street. Max heard the strident footfall of a blockwatcher and slipped behind a courtyard gate, his hand firm on Magdalene's. He waited until the street fell silent, then led her down the cobblestone street, away from the park, following the radial arm of the city center that would, as in all towns, end at the cathedral, the Rathaus nearby. He depended on the inevitability of medieval civic planning more than his memory. His memory wanted him to follow the cobblestone streets back toward the Ilmenau, but he fought it, and, within a few minutes, they were at the edge of a large Platz, the Rathaus at one end, the cathedral at the other. A gypsy couple held each other up with slumped weight. Magdalene shrank back from the smell. The woman curled up under layers of skirts topped with a dirty apron. The man held up a bottle, which Max refused, but Magdalene took in her hand. She tipped it up, about to drink, when Max caught it and handed it back to the man. “Stop it.”

She ran out of the portico and into the square. Max scrambled after her, slipped on something—excrement, the carcass of a rat, something that smelled—and fell, hard. A chorus of “shhh” rose from the couple behind him. “Let her go,” the drunk man muttered, and Max considered it. Let her go. Let her go. He brushed his hands against his pants, raised his foot and sniffed. Excrement. He couldn't see her out in the square, out in the darkness, but he heard her footsteps getting fainter, echoing in the distance against the medieval buildings. Were it midday, she would have scattered clouds of pigeons. On this moonless night, she stirred only the cold air. Max scraped his shoe against a column and listened, poised, to the slap of Magdalene's shoes on the cobblestones as she grew more and more distant.

“That’s right. You can't keep that kid around. She'll drag you down. Have a nip of Schnapps and go to sleep. Marie, you got more Schnapps for the kid?”

Marie stuck out a bottle. Her arm jingled with bangles. Max took the bottle and swigged, then handed it back. He wanted to ask her what to do, but she receded into the shadows of the portico.

He turned back to the square, and took a few steps, transfixed. He was choosing not to go. He rubbed his own hands together.  Frozen. Cold.

He leaned against the column and blinked against the darkness. Deep, penetrating darkness. The night was quiet again, noiseless. She was gone. Not even a shadow.

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Frances Badgett

Home About Frances Badgett
Excerpt from “Spare Change”