ad libitum



you’ll be rich, when i die, but not if you tell her. he meant minäle, my grandmother, his beloved of a hundred years. i still hear the gravel of his voice, see his face, those mischievous eyes all a twinkle.
rich, asked grandma, when he was dead, what are you talking about, boy? she handled the till and the tap at the pub. she knew everything. there hadn’t been a savings-book with his papers. the president of the bank played handball with him thursdays. they sipped cognac together at the small table behind the bar. he ought to have known. uncle bob was a bookie and bragged his brother bet every nickel on the ponies. he said so right there in the kitchen. grandma was bent over a pot at the stove tasting soup. she dropped the ladle and uncle ducked behind the maid when her oven mitt hit. liz sat peeling potatoes into a pan. uncle’s hand had felt sweet on her knee. she jerked up as if from a dream. water doused her lap and spuds reeled the floor. uncle snickered and grandma was just furious. i hung my head. no one believed me, i wasn’t rich and the old man was dead.


when minäle retired from the pub, we cleaned out the small office behind the bar. this had been his haunt. only his key opened the door. he took me there one sunday morning, when everyone was off at church or asleep. time stopped, when he opened the door, there seemed no room in that room, only clocks on the walls, best of all four wooden cuckoo clocks, the biggest a tall black forest farmhouse, carved from dark wood, surrounded by trees and backed by mountains. above the face with its dials and hands, three doors opened on time, cuckoos bobbing in and out on the quarter, the half, the three-quarters and at full. brass chain-weights, polished pine cones, turned the works and filled the bellows. birds coo-cooed from their roosts, some on time, some confused, but most all in unison. high noon could last up to ten or so minutes. the chronometer of a steamboat whistled the hours, a calendar clock clicked a new number once in a minute, hour, day, month and year, other tickers had bells and chimes around the clock, one opened its door for a ballerina, whirling pirouettes to the sounds of music box mozart. dividing the wall left to right stood a tall grandfather clock, he called it an horologe, its slow pendulum measured time this way and that. from top of a foot stool i got to wind it’s strong spring with a crank key counterclockwise. the clock’s gong sounded in my bones more than my ears. the noise level was portentous and during those minutes at noon that first sunday i was in awe, and in heaven, as i don’t think i have been since. 
grandfather taught me dominos in that room. while it was his turn to play, i looked around. facing the table we played on, stood the statue of a tall woman. she was bright naked, holding a lamp shade with both hands high over her head. i hadn’t seen anything like it before and for some time later measured all woman by her grace. i also rubbed her bronze breast with my thumb. behind the desk next to the phone was the cage for max. the parrot never took note of the cuckoos. he snoozed perched on the phone’s black handle, but squawked his hello at the first ring. the old man’s desk was cluttered with papers and books, some open, a parrot feather marking a page, a flat-nosed tweezers for stamps lay askew  in the pencil box, mail tied with string, a deer antler dagger, and as if presiding, an upright old underwood on a stand, where he typed pub-menus, punching keys so hard that i-dots fell through carbon and page. over grandfather’s head hung a portrait of the king, a bullet hole had torn the canvas right through his heart. a billiard cue leaned on a stepladder pointing into the folds of half drawn drapes. he owned an abacus and i caught hell when i played with its beads. a case shelved rows of fat books, some spines stamped with flaky gold titles hard to read in their age. an atlas of asia lay flat, too tall to fit upright. die räuber leaned on a stone bust with schiller's name carved at the base. its face had a large, dusty nose, no eyeballs and dark laurel leaves on a bald head.
on those sundays the slap of grandfather’s domino jerked me right back to the world. but my turn passed after i played only one tile and i lost most games. the room stayed with me, at night in my sleep and in school daydreaming. the coat of armor, grandfather’s uniform with the saber, the frayed leather belt with the kaiser’s crown on the buckle, surrounded by those frightful words: gott mit uns. the old german flag, the fireman’s helmet, the fencing mask, the bike without brakes, a fix he rode to play bike ball. he owned a first green magic eye radio, fat earphones on top. his cognac decanter had a monkey head stop. a small chrome plaque from the dash of his benz read don’t ever shift with the knee of your passenger. the wall of clocks, those shelfs of fancy clepsydras, collections of his acquisitions; somehow all fitted in this small room, necessities and papers aside. even the ceiling held a surprise: the dusty outline of a trapdoor, though i never saw it decent. nor would i know its purpose till much later.


and now he was dead. the pub was for sale. uncle bob took the lamp. my cousin got the fencing mask and the fireman’s helmet. i coaxed max into his cage and grandma broomed out the room. uncle bob held the ladder for lizzie, who stood tiptoe on top, taking down curtains. the rod holding those drapes just wouldn’t budge. looking up along lizzie's long legs, uncle thought it was screwed down. now he climbed the ladder and jiggled the peg. it let go of a sudden. down came uncle with a terrible crash. he toppled liz, tangled in curtains. i saw the flash of her thigh before she could straighten her skirt. the rod slipped and slowly pitched down on one end. coins poured from its aperture like water from a tap. silver flooded the floor. grandma’s jaw dropped, she had to sit down. she’d talked of money amiss from the till for years, some days ten marks, others just five. all collected it came to a fortune. my fortune. i counted forty-nine stacks each of ten five mark pieces.