My Friend Boembes

I was always glad whenever the eye was back in its place because the hole that it left in Boembes’ face was pink, just like freshly diced goulash meat on the kitchen table at my home before it went into the pan.

My Friend Boembes Joachim Frank

Boembes took his eye out, looked at it briefly with his other one, and showed it around among the little circle of boys and the single girl. It was obviously a fake since it was not even a complete sphere; it fell quite short of that. Later I learned that the technical term for this geometrical shape was calotte, which is the shape you wind up with when you slice a sphere above the mid-plane. The girl, Gudrun* was her name, was really a tomboy and we didn’t mind her being around as long as she remained a tomboy.

We all watched Boembes with a mixture of awe and envy – our own eyes were fixed in their sockets, and of a soft consistency, so they were of little use for showing around and bragging. As I would later find out, Boembes did his eye-opening act every time he’d meet a new kid, making the most of his talents at the critical opportunity for recruitment of new friends. At the time, I was a new kid in a way since my parents had kept me away from the street pretty much until then.

The eye was white with a light-blue iris surrounding a fixed black pupil, the color and pattern matching the real ones, and finely crafted like a marble. But of course the shape of it, with its so-to-say calottesque properties, kept it from moving on a table beyond a mere wiggle, either looking up at the ceiling or down, myopically, at the grain in the wood of the table.

I was always glad whenever the eye was back in its place because the hole that it left in Boembes’ face was pink, just like freshly diced goulash meat on the kitchen table at my home before it went into the pan. I didn’t like to look at meat, and if it had been up to me I would have turned vegetarian. The eye stopped looking at me when it was outside his face, as if it was privy to the notion that a minimum of context was needed for all higher sensory functions. Later, when I heard about van Gogh’s ear, I thought of Vincent as just another Boembes, whose only distinction was that he could paint.

We played a game on the street called War. We were five kids maybe, Boembes and me and sometimes Gudrun and a couple of others, and the aim was to take over the world. We’d draw a big circle for the world into the dirt, and divided it like a pie into Germany, France, England, Russia and America. The kid who had the ball would stand with one foot in his territory and shout, “Germany … declares … war … against … (and this was the point where people got nervous since they had to behave differently depending on their status as victim of the aggression or bystander) … France!” And he would throw the ball as he uttered this last word, and the kid owning France was supposed to run and catch the ball while all others put their feet firmly into the victim’s territory to carve out a piece, as a legitimate annexation bystanders were entitled to. And there was some logic in how the ball and entitlement to be the aggressor was passed from one to the other, which I can’t remember after more than half a century.

Boembes’ real name was Peter Fischbach, the last name meaning fish creek, which half a century later became associated with Governor Pataki whose home town is Fishkill, New York (because “kill” means creek in a language that probably goes back to the Celts). Boembes lived alone with his grandmother and his aunt in a little blue-grey, slate-covered corner house. His father had been killed in the war, and his mother had died early. I thought the exact shrapnel that killed his father also hit his eye, but I never asked him and never found out.

Boembes was a bit on the short side, but he made up for it with his big mouth. With his sure instinct for finding people who were below himself in social rank – smaller kids, handymen and bums – he loved to humiliate them in front of his friends. He was always ready to run if a shovel would be swung in his direction. He could be quite mean, and had a store of swear words and derogatory comments always on the tip of his tongue.

“You better shut up,” he once said to a grownup man who worked away for a few deutschmarks a day excavating a space next to the slate-covered house, for an annex. “You just stay in your shithole.” I witnessed the scene open-mouthed since the risk my friend took was without any discernable benefits, except for the effect of increasing his self-esteem and the chance to gain my admiration.

The little clap-trap house was on the corner of our street with Austrasse. “Au” means something like pristine meadow in German, but the street it lent its name to was virtually devoid of meadows or lawns. In fact, most houses protruded into the sidewalk, leaving little room for flowers and bushes. Only some houses were what we called villas or bungalows, houses that were well-kept and surrounded by flowerbeds and the occasional vegetable garden, and protected by wrought-iron fences, with a formal gate hinged on two pillars, and a mailbox made of brass embossed with the owner’s name.

Boembes’ grandma was a small grey trapeze of a woman, or not really a woman as much as a generic hausfrau beyond any gender identification, without recognizable breasts, even shorter in build than Peter, but with a sharp tongue. She lashed her tongue out at him for transgressions of any kind, unwittingly training him in the use of nasty discourse, foulmouthery, and ultrafast retorts, though some of the swearwords were quite original and entirely his own. Words like “Scheisshund” came from his lips easily, like dew. When he was angry, his face would turn mean, his mouth would contort with contempt, and his fake eye would at once look quite human next to its companion.

Boembes represented a world of mysteries outside the well-kept house and garden I grew up in. He was not welcome in my parents’ house since the little family he was part of lacked standing. My mother said these are not “our kind of people.” These were unwritten rules, but so categorical that I never dared to bring Peter home, even on my birthday. In fact he never ever set foot in our house. But a couple of times I came to sit in the tiny kitchen of his house. I was overwhelmed by the smell of cabbage being boiled on the wood-stove, and the utter smallness of the room, and the nature of the clipped conversations between aunt and grandma, about basic necessities. It was very cold outside on both occasions, and I liked the feeling of comfort in the steamy kitchen. The kitchen doubled up as dining and living room, since the only other space in the house was taken by three tiny bedrooms and one bathroom.

The contrast with my parents’ house could not have been more striking. Visitors in my parents’ house were brought into the living room, never into the kitchen. Our living room was dominated by an immense mahogany cupboard with inlays from the 20’s, my father’s mahogany desk, and a giant oil painting of a river running through an idyllic landscape.

I never found out what became of my friend Boembes. I was one of the only four kids selected in my class to go to high school, and Boembes with his loud mouth and versatile bragging eye was left behind. For a few years, when I was still running into him, we would both act embarrassed since neither of us could understand what precisely had put us into different places and why we should run out of words right after saying hello.

*I later developed a crush on Gudrun, in fourth grade. We were part of the vast hide-and-seek game that we played for hours with two teams roaming around an area of three-by-three city blocks, which included the bunker, a supposedly bomb-proof concrete windowless building sealed off with a steel door which nobody had ever seen unlocked. I wound up crouching next to Gudrun on a staircase leading into the basement of a house whose owner we didn’t know. She was shivering, and I put my arm around her shoulder to warm her up. This was the first time I ever touched a girl, and I thought I loved her but never told her a word about it. She had no breasts to speak of, but we did not speak of breasts anyway at that age.


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