Currents of War – excerpt 3


Berlin, Germany – 1931 – Club Femina

The bus traveled the length of Ku-damn and tilted left onto Nürnberger Straße, finally lurching to a halt in front of the slender shelf of a marquee jutting from the center of the 185-meter-long majestic façade. This geometric marvel known as the Der Femina-Palast, The Femina Palace, was the grandest, yet the swansong of the New Objectivity, a minimalist, but an elegant collaboration of Modernistic architecture.

Dempsey swiveled his head to stare directly at the brightly-lit, meter-high letters, FEMINA. A whirlwind of hands grabbed him up and floated him along. The staircase spat the merrymakers out, one by one, where they reformed in the street like an amoeba.

The radiant entrance, cluttered with an excess of hopeful customers, filled Dempsey’s eyes with a grand confusion. Clutching one another en masse, they leaned their way into Berlin’s premiere nightclub. Dempsey seemed to be invisible within the throng of girls as they whisked him through the gleaming brass opening without even a curious glance from the bouncers.

They flowed through the marble vestibule, and the white and green tiled antechamber, to momentarily linger in the spacious Gentlemen’s Bar. The lilting voice of the solitary figure at the far end of the room wasn’t enough to hold the excitable group, and again, they bustled through their surroundings with vigor, only to be pressed into an enormous elevator that easily contained the seven of them, plus another dozen inebriated revelers as well.

The short ride elevated them to the first floor, opening to a view Dempsey had only seen in magazines. The tipsy party spilled out into the grand ballroom and concussion of musical wonder, joining over five-hundred of Berlin’s elite in raucous entertainment. Dempsey surveyed the room, eyes blinking in the dazzling light that seemed to emanate from everywhere, capturing each impression like a photo.

At one end, a long service bar was catered by a score of young, uniformed serving girls. They fanned out through the tables surrounding the main dance floor searching out and delivering orders. The tuxedoed dance orchestra of horns, piano, and drums on the elevated stage at the far end churned out splendid Jazz refrains that lapped around the great oval room, enticing even the most sedentary onto the dancefloor.

Berta wove her arms around Dempsey’s. “Come. The balcony is our home.”

Dempsey looked up to the oval loggia with a brass rail that looped around the whole massive room. In several places, men and women hung over the railing gesticulating with one another across the open expanse that rose thirty feet from dance floor to ornate ceiling.

Priska, her auburn hair styled in a very short gentleman’s cut, chimed in as she took hold of Dempsey’s other arm. “It’s the coolest. All the tables have phones and even tube-mail like the Rezi.”

Dempsey looked from Priska to Berta. “Tube-mail?”

The girls laughed and began walking him through the concourse of tables.

Though there were stairs adjacent to where they stood, Berta led the entourage across the dancefloor, instantly becoming an additional set piece when they ascended the curved staircase behind the orchestra. As they alighted on the second tier landing, a tall, androgynous creature of lithe proportions and gaunt of face greeted them with a flurry of cheek kisses and overly expressive oohs and ahs reserved for Dempsey.

Berta’s scolding finger now found a new face to wag in. “Now Eike, you keep your dainty claws away from our freshy.”

“But honey, they’re so much firmer before they’re ripe.”

Berta allowed a confirming laugh to escape as she patted Eike on a powdered cheek. “We’re keeping this one in-house, but you’re welcome to stare.”

Narrowed sable eyes made a grotesquery of Eike’s frozen smile. Within a heartbeat, the androgyne turned way, and with an exuberant fanfare of dance flourishes, guided the retinue to their table. With faux nonchalance, Dempsey made several futile attempts to order, but the beck of his raised hand was ignored. Within seconds a tableful of beer steins pounded onto the tabletop.

He peered up at the buxom waitress overflowing her sleek, stylized dirndl. “I guess we’ll have beer, then.”

The barmaid hooked a finger under his chin, tilting his eyes from her bosom. “Are you sure you’re old enough to play in here, my handsome young man?”

A blur knocked the girl’s hand away. Berta raised her pointed index. “Keep those fingers around stein handles or there’s going to be trouble, sister.”

Startled, the kellnerin, waitress, backed up.

Two girls down from Berta, Priska laughed. “Someone needs a good lay, I’m sure.” She caught the bargirl’s eyes. “Don’t fret, sweetie. She’s just protective of her little brother.”

The continued scowl clouding Berta’s face didn’t convince the waitress.

“Look, hon,” Priska added, “just bring us a couple of your yummy sample trays. A full stomach always settles one’s nerves.”

The waitress’s hip-thrusting retreat held Dempsey’s attention until she disappeared down the stairs. When he looked back at the tableful of models, they were all chattering away about mixed innocuous subjects as if a bar fight hadn’t been imminent. Then, the telephone rang.

The conversations abruptly stopped. The phone rang again. Dempsey looked around in bewilderment. At the end of the tablecloth, next to the balcony railing, a white porcelain telephone jingled.

“Hallo, dies Priska sprechen.” Her eyes rolled at the received answer, then she held out the receiver to Berta. “It’s for you.”

Berta flashed a gracious smile and took the phone in a dainty embrace. “Berta… You think so? But of course, you are correct. I am most lovely.”

The table broke up laughing. Berta stifled her laughter with a bigger smile while she searched the tables across the gallery. A dapper young man in a taubenblau, pigeon blue, double-breasted suit, stood up at the opposite railing and bowed. She nodded to him, then rose and made her way to the dance floor below.

She left Dempsey a few parting words. “Have fun, dear boy, but don’t be naughty like me.”

Dempsey followed her haughty gait down the stairs and onto the dance floor, his own joy ebbing with every hip-swaying step. His eyes diverted across the animated patrons at the tables below. Without conscious thought, he scanned the female faces for only one match. Darja.

A hand laid on top of his. He looked around at grinning brunette Odile. “You still have five of us, schnuckel, cutey.”

The phone trilled again. Gertrude snatched it up. “Gertrude … What makes you think I want to?”

A very big man stood up across the way, his friends patting him on the back. Gertrude’s eyes crinkled in joy as she peered down the row of girls, hand over mouth. The man pointed to the dance floor. Gertrude nodded, her hair long, light, and in braids. She stood, and scurried down the aisle for the stairs.

Glancing around the table, Dempsey shook his head. “I can dance too, you know.” He stood up and held out his hand to Odile.

She slipped her hand into his, but instead of rising, pulled him back down in his seat. “Look around you, Bärli, little bear. More than half the patrons in this club are young women dying for a chance to meet a catch like you.”

Dempsey paused to consider just what Odile was proposing when the table began vibrating. He yanked his hands from the tabletop in alarm. All the girls laughed. Everyone’s attention riveted to the railing at the “tube mail” post between the tables. A sudden whoosh of air and a six-inch canister shot out with a hard slap against the brass endplate.

Poldi, the quiet girl of the group, retrieved the cylinder, unscrewed the cap and peered in. “It’s a note,” she said, and looked up at everyone, quite amazed.

The other girls laughed. “We can see that, schatz, treasure,” Odile scoffed. “The tube is see-through.”

Poldi sneered at her and pulled out the paper. “What cheapy sends only a note.”

“A student or a salary man,” Odile said flatly. “Just your type, Poldi.”

Poldi ignored her and unfolded the paper. Her expectant glee died on her face. She handed the note to raven haired Hannah sitting next to her.

She skimmed the message and looked up beaming. “It’s the guy from last week. He says what he has for me won’t fit in the tube.”

Everyone laughed. Hannah stood up and squinted across the open space to the tables on the opposite side. A rather burly-looking fellow with a huge grin rose up and waved.

Hannah scooted into the aisle. “I’m off to claim my prize.”

Dempsey looked after her, gaily sashaying onto the dance floor to meet her suitor. He swung his attention back to the remaining three girls. They were all gazing at him, heads angled, sizing him up.

Odile plopped down a little pamphlet in front of Dempsey and spoke. “You need to pick a girl and send her one of these little gifts by tube-mail.”

“What about the phone? Can’t I just ring her?”

“First the gift, then the phone.”

“But Berta and Hanna didn’t get gifts first?”

Odile grinned. “That’s because they’re sluts. Do you want to meet a slut or a nice girl?”

Dempsey wasn’t sure whether Odile was being serious about the status of her friends. “If they’re as sweet as Berta and Hannah, then slut is fine with me.”

Delight sparkled in Odile’s eyes, and she leaned in, pressing a hard kiss on Dempsey’s cheek. She pulled away, but left a deep red lip print behind.

She pointed to the pamphlet. “Pick a gift, then pick a girl, write a little note, and send it off. The girls at the tube exchange will send the gift you picked to the table you choose.”

Dempsey searched the arc of tables clinging to the brass-top banister that curved around the opening to the dance floor below. A lovely brunette wearing a still fashionable cloche hat sat profile to him reading the menu.

His three conspirators followed his gaze. When he turned back, they met his eyes. “How do I know which table?”

Priska turned the pamphlet over. A seating diagram of the entire club showed each table with its own number. Dempsey scanned the list of gifts, some typically banal, some eyebrow-raising: powder compact, perfume, confections, rings, cigars, cinema tickets, cocaine…

Mindful of his budget, he picked a moderately priced confection and scribbled a note to go along with it. The girls clamored to him, hanging over his shoulder to see every word as it materialized on the paper.

A moment with you would sweeten up my evening.

The girls oohed and embraced him in a group hug. This act of spontaneous empathy from the girls triggered rewards many times what the original notion had sought. Female curiosity had peaked into excess when Dempsey received such adoration from three well-known lebenden Mannequin. Within a minute, the phone rang and the mail tube spit out gift after gift.

Dempsey never got a chance to send his confection-poem. When girls couldn’t get through on the table phone or send a tube mail, they bypassed protocol and arrived at his table unannounced. Everyone was caught up in this impromptu event. Dempsey, with his newly-formed retinue of enthusiastic young women, along with his remaining three model/bodyguards, hit the dance floor in exuberant fashion.

Girl after girl, and the occasional androgyne, traded off dancing with Dempsey, though on Dempsey’s part, he was no longer certain if he was dancing or just riding an undulating sea of bobbing heads, arms and legs, and bosoms.

The melodious beat of the music crawled around the room dragging the walls, the tables and chairs, and all the patrons into a joyful, smoky vortex. The band tapped into the energy of the newly imbibed celebrants and picked up the pace. Dempsey’s heart followed suit with every dancing footfall. The world tilted for Dempsey, but loving hands steadied him as the dance floor began to rise. A rectangle, a couple of meters across elevated a half meter, setting Dempsey and his dancing partners shoulders above the rest.

The moment the floor ceased its ascent, the air whooshed when the massive glass ceiling slipped apart and slid open, dropping a cascade of cool night air upon the turbulent dancers. Echoes of women’s voices singing, screaming, warbling in rapture, elevated Dempsey to a celestial high his inebriated mind likened to Gan Eden, the Hebrew afterlife of spiritual perfection. He peered up into the dome of stars and became one with that abstract notion.

The night swirled around him in continuous joy. For the first time in his life, Dempsey lived in the moment. He didn’t think, analyze, or consider anything. The music led him on its own journey, and he was grateful to be invited along.

Ironically, this collection of events launched him on the tidal wave of history that had already begun, and would soon carry him in its currents through triumphs and agonies neither he nor anyone else could imagine.

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