“Anybody who paints and sees a sky green and pastures blue ought to be sterilized.”—Adolf Hitler
Whenever they exited their apartment building together, Gunther and David used the rear door meant for maids and service people. The route allowed them to hold hands or drape arms over one another in the shaded alley that brought them to exposed sidewalk. Today, however—and during the months since Gunther had begun volunteering for the Degenerate Art Commission—the boyfriends didn’t touch one another.
“You should start exercising,” Gunther told David, whose weary eyes and bent posture caused him to look 46 instead of 26. “If you spent as much time in your body as you do in your brain, you wouldn’t be so neurotic. And we’d start having sex again.”
“I don’t make love with you because you’ve come to smell like a thief,” David said.
Gunther knew David was referring to the hundreds of artworks the commission had seized from Germany’s museums and private collections. Gunther had passed weekends and evenings arranging their delivery to Munich for “Entartete Kunst,” an exhibition of degenerate art that would open tomorrow in conjunction with a showing of Reich art. The Nazi Party wanted citizens to view the difference between diseased pieces and Hitler’s favorite works.
David was disgusted by this vilification of modern artists because he considered himself one. When he wasn’t aiding Gunther at Gemini Decor—the bright and enchanting home decorations shop they’d run for most of their three-year relationship—he created charcoal illustrations of spirit-like beings constrained by belts and hoods and various devices.
“The commission isn’t committing any evil,” Gunther said, pausing in the alley. “It’s trying to advance our culture.” He took David’s hands in his own and said, “Perhaps if we are to be a superior people then we need to focus on the heroic part of human nature, not the flawed. Why look at rot when you can look at gold?”
“You can learn something from rot,” David said. “Gold just gives you a distorted reflection of yourself.”
A scream came from the street, and the stocky Armenian woman who told love fortunes in the nearby public gardens ran into the alley, her kinky locks and Oriental garments trailing behind. Two jeering men in SS uniform pursued her, each with a brick in hand.
Gunther stepped back so he wouldn’t interrupt the hunt. He pulled his lover against the wall, from which they watched like frightened rodents as the men ran by.
“We need to be more cautious,” Gunther said.
David nodded. “There’s always Paris,” he said. “We could leave tomorrow.”
“Going into exile is the same as admitting you have no worth,” Gunther said. “We will stay, and we will obey the Führer, and one day he will recognize our value as men.”
David’s cheeks went ashen, and he slid toward the ground.
Gunther hooked an arm around his waist and lifted. “Tomorrow Wilhelm, the volunteer coordinator, is going to pick me up for the exhibit. I want you to take down all your drawings and hide them.”
“I don’t think I can manage,” David said. He reached to embrace Gunther.
Gunther evaded contact. He gave a warning nod toward where the men had charged, and brushed debris from the wall off his jacket. “You go out the alley,” he told his lover, “and I’ll leave by the public entrance.”
Gunther checked his image in the window of the now-abandoned Jewish clock shop. He patted the sandy hair he continually tried to lighten with lemon juice, and buttoned the collar of his starched shirt. He then crossed the street to the Haus der Kunst, the building that housed the two exhibits. He composed himself to be as straight as the columns outside the structure, and delivered a respectful German salute to the Nazi Party members crowding a sculpture by the entrance. The piece of degenerate art depicted an oval-headed scholar reading alone on a park bench. The Nazi Party members took turns putting cigarette butts out in the eyes of the figure.
A familiar twitch returned to the side of Gunther’s mouth. It had first manifested when he heard about the Reich Central Office for the Combating of Homosexuality and Abortion, and increased in frequency during his stint helping with the exhibits. Gunther pinched his cheek as a distraction, and reminded himself why he needed to be a volunteer.
The incident with Gretchen Richten occurred just after Gunther and David had come to flourish in business due to the closure of all the Jews’ shops. Gretchen was married to a military official who compensated his wife for his constant trips to Berlin by opening accounts for her at her preferred stores. The tyrannical woman—“Fraulein Bitch,” Gunther and David called her—came into the couple’s shop each month as surely as black ice arrives in winter. The purpose of her last visit was to return a broken bar of soap. Gunther suggested she might have dropped her package, and Gretchen responded by asking if the Gestapo wouldn’t be interested in knowing that Gunther shared his one-bedroom apartment with another man. Gunther gave Gretchen two new blocks of soap and a sizable bottle of body lotion. He didn’t tell the already anxious David of the incident, and he picked up his phone as soon as he saw the ad for the high-profile position helping the Nazi Party.
“My best worker!” Wilhelm called from the central hallway of the Haus der Kunst, where he was orchestrating the erection of a massive stallion statue. Seeing this stout fellow with hair like September wheat and eyes as aqua as mountain pools always thrilled Gunther. Wilhelm triggered a vision of the future Germany, a land stocked with athletic men whose central concerns were self-perfection and masculine camaraderie. Surely the Führer would eventually understand that homosexuality was a celebration of manhood—not its denigration. And Gunther would finally receive confirmation that he belonged in this country.
“We have one last room to fill,” Wilhelm said. “No bigger than a train car.” Gunther followed him up the claustrophobic staircase that would funnel the public into the degenerate art exhibit. The second-floor spaces were small and dim and cluttered with lonely sculptures and unframed paintings in lopsided positions. Bits of rope were all that kept pieces from falling to the floor, and shreds of paper tacked to the walls contained the names of artists. As Gunther walked through the deathly quiet rooms, he spotted names of a few people who’d been on his list: Paul Klee, Marc Chagall, Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian.
The Reich expected those who attended the exhibit to recognize the insanity and depravity of these artists. Instead, Gunther saw the miserable fate that awaited those who strayed from the norm.
“You said you despised this one?” Wilhelm asked when they reached the unfinished room. He held up a Cubist portrait of a nude woman standing hip-deep in a pond.
The pain in Gunther’s throat prevented him from speaking. His father had kept a reproduction of this painting on the desk where he spent afternoons scratching poetry onto paper. He was supposed to be selling farm machinery all day, but the foolish man claimed he had an artistic calling that would doom him to dejection if he didn’t heed it. So he listened to his creative spirit’s directions, even when those directions advised him to abandon his family for a writers’ colony in Russia. And it was Gunther’s mother who received the curse of depression and a new world of shame.
“Would you like to hang the painting?” Wilhelm asked Gunther.
Gunther felt revulsion when he placed the piece on the wall, as if he were displaying a corpse rather than artwork.
Wilhelm handed him a permanent marker. Like all the other degenerate art, this painting required a graffiti slogan.
In his manliest handwriting, Gunther scrawled, AN INSULT TO GERMAN WOMANHOOD.
Gunther had often pondered asking Wilhelm to be his lover. He wasn’t positive of the man’s sexual inclinations, yet he guessed that Wilhelm’s displays of affection signified something more romantic than mere supervisor satisfaction.
As he strolled home from the Haus der Kunst, Gunther eyed candlelit chocolate shops and bridges arching like loving arms over the river Isar. He imagined Wilhelm and himself delighting in these sites of leisure together, and then partaking in gymnastic sex fit for members of the master race.
Yet there was one thing that kept Gunther sealed together with David—the dark box in his heart. Both lovers owned secret storage units, and knew the contents of each. David’s contained ancestral ties to Judaism, his frequent panic attacks, and the inability to orgasm in a lying-down position. Inside Gunther’s box were his mother’s suicide, the terror he suffered when alone too long, and a predilection for masochism.
After their first, accidental meeting at the Munich airport, Gunther and David discussed how they felt like twin souls who’d connected after floating in isolation for lifetimes; hence their inclusion of the term “Gemini” in the name of the shop they opened together. As Gunther mounted the stairs to their apartment, he pictured a future without David. He decided this would mean bearing the burden of his dark box alone, because new Germans like Wilhelm certainly would not tolerate sharing old weaknesses.
“I don’t smell dinner,” Gunther called out as he opened the door. “You know Thursday is your night to cook.” He dropped his bag on the floor when he saw the charcoal ghost in dog collar still staring at him from above fireplace.
“I’m not going to take down my illustrations,” David said. He entered from the kitchen with two bunches of purple tulips in hand. “I’ve decided we can be ourselves and the Nazis can be themselves and everyone can simply exist.” He set the flowers on the kitchen table and said, “I bought one bouquet for you to give Wilhelm and one for us to send to Hitler.”
A corner of Gunther’s mouth began to twitch violently, and this time he made no effort to stop it. “Are you sick?” he asked David. “Do you want to have your name in the degenerate art exhibit? By David Himmel, a demented deviant who stupidly surrendered his good relations with Germany? Because that’s what will happen, David, and all of Munich will happily spit on us.”
“I bought flowers for the scum,” David said. “Isn’t that enough to please you? Or perhaps you’d like me to scrape all Jewish cells from my skin and lop off my genitals so we look and behave like everyone else?”
“The Führer detests flowers,” Gunther said calmly. He turned his back to David and began to arrange cushions on the couch. “Their wilting reminds him of death.”
David plucked one of the flower heads and tossed it onto the couch. “Gunther loves me,” he said. He decapitated a second one and threw it at his boyfriend. “Gunther loves me not.”
Gunther went to the wall and yanked down one of David’s drawings. “David has the option of loving me,” he said. He fingered another and said, “And David has the option of loving me not.” He spoke the words in a monotone voice as he traveled through the apartment, removing framed illustrations from nails and placing sketchpad papers facedown in drawers. He didn’t glance away from his task when David stuffed a suitcase with clothes, and he only stopped speaking after his partner slammed the front door.
The knocking caused Gunther to accidentally cut himself with razor. “David?” he called. Hope filled his voice.
Gunther dabbed a finger in the spot of blood on his neck and rubbed it into each cheek. He aimed to change his ghoul-white face and drooping eyes. After David’s exit last night, Gunther had managed to turn their home into a sparse bachelor apartment. Yet he failed to sleep in the new setting, and by morning he resembled one of his lover’s drawings.
The rapping returned, and Gunther went to the door.
“Guten Morgen,” Wilhelm cooed. Sporting a black suit with red carnation pinned to the shiny lapel, he looked like a bridegroom.
Gunther scanned his own dull, mostly white outfit for iron burns or drips of toothpaste. He noticed a scuff on his brown shoe and saw no such flaw on Wilhelm’s black ones, which gleamed like obsidian.
The brawny man reached out to lift Gunther’s chin a bit. “You look sharp enough to meet Herr Goebbels,” he said. “He told me he wants to compliment you personally on your service.”
The image of introducing himself to the head of the Degenerate Art Commission was enough for Gunther to forget about David’s parting. He slipped his apartment keys off the hook that still held his lover’s set and said, “I’m ready.”
Gunther was surprised that the Reich exhibit brought no bloom of confidence in himself. He experienced unease when he entered the foyer that was so much larger than any space in the degenerate art exhibit. The two marble lion sculptures were almost too grandiose to fit in Gunther’s brain, and the mural of Germany’s future Autobahn system winding across countryside made Gunther feel carsick. Even the four petit rural paintings of the Austrian village where Hitler frolicked as child before becoming Germany’s political savior were overwhelming. The season in each piece was too intense in color and manifestation.
Gunther considered how the Reich exhibit was less a collection of ideal art than a slew of ridiculous expectations and ornate lies. He tried to escape to the open-air courtyard where the Jewish musicians used to play violins for coins.
“And here is the volunteer who so greatly contributed to our success.” Wilhelm’s voice caused Gunther to pause, and his grip forced Gunther to turn.
A small-framed, middle-aged man with a clubfoot and high hairline approached them. “I am Joseph Goebbels,” the man said. Flanking him were other Nazi officials and a blonde woman with arms about a pack of infants.
Gunther hesitated before accepting the man’s handshake. He was confused how such a specimen of physical imperfection could determine the scale of Reich aesthetics.
Goebbels indicated the surrounding throng and said, “The public will finally understand what kind of culture the Führer expects. I have heard we will take in thousands of visitors today, and I have also heard you helped bring them here.”
Gunther felt ungrounded. To balance himself, he looked at a statue of a muscled warrior pointing sword at sky. “I had some responsibility,” he said.
“My wife, Magda, finds you impressive,” Goebbels said with a nod to the blonde behind him. “She wants to know if you have a sweetheart.”
Gunther began to perspire, and both sides of his mouth twitched when he forced a grin for the woman. He glanced again at the statue for mental refuge, yet the inspirational figure had devolved into a representation of paralysis. Gunther pictured a sickly, blue thing beneath the muscles and gleam, a malnourished fetus trapped within a stone womb.
“Please excuse me,” Gunther told his audience. He cut through a line of people waiting to view a set of crystal swastikas and entered the employees’ restroom.
Compose yourself, Gunther told himself. Panic is what happens to David, not to you. Don’t give up what you’ve achieved. Gunther thought of his lover riding a train across the French border, and he dissolved into tears. He shut himself inside a stall and sobbed as quietly as possible on the toilet.
“Gunther?” Wilhelm’s voice boomed into the room.
Gunther didn’t speak, but instead saw black, shiny shoes approach.
“I want you to come back with me,” Wilhelm said. “Herr Goebbels was appreciating your company.”
Gunther wiped at the wetness curving down his cheeks and toward the toilet. He stared into the bowl and said, “I don’t belong out there.”
“Then maybe you’ll let me inside?” Wilhelm asked. He stepped near enough to the stall for one of his shoes to poke beneath the door. “You do want my friendship, don’t you?”
Gunther felt the stiffening within his trousers. His tears ceased, and he lifted the latch to allow Wilhelm ínside. He moved onto his knees. With one hand, he touched Wilhelm’s shoe. He used the other to trace the rising member beneath his own pants. “I knew I had a place with you,” he said, looking up at Wilhelm. “And with the Führer. And with Germany.”
At that moment, Gunther received Wilhelm’s slap. Gunther thought how the bedroom slaps from David had always been pleasant reminders of life—its chances of intimacy, its opportunities for healing. Now there was only pain, the sound of the main bathroom door opening, and Goebbels’ terrifying question ricocheting off the white tile walls: “Is there something wrong?”
© David Massengill. All rights reserved.