The House on Kronenstrasse

Her mother's last words led to a place Christiane had fled as a child—and where truth lay concealed

A well-dressed young woman standing next to me, who was surveying the pastry case, turned and gave me a polite smile. I felt like slapping her face. Instead I ordered a quarter pound of liverwurst and the same of ham, my mother's regular order in the years since I'd stopped living with her.

Outside the store I deposited my purchase in a trash can.

"The house," I say to the man on the other end of the telephone line, who is waiting for my reply.

"We haven't decided yet what we're going to do with it. My father's death was very sudden, you understand."

"Perhaps in the meantime you'd be willing to rent it?" Without any forethought this absurd and impractical suggestion slips from my mouth.

"That might be a good idea. Let me talk it over with my sister."

I hang up the phone and look out onto the street, aware of how everything seems uncannily familiar and yet completely unknown.

My mind is racing with practical details that ten minutes ago would have made no sense whatsoever. Quitting my job, subletting my apartment in New York, dealing with my mother's landlord to put her belongings in storage. Canceling subscriptions, transferring utilities, sending for some of my things. I will enlist my best friend to help put the pieces in place. I'll call my bank to transfer funds from my savings.

Several hours of phone calls, I figure, looking out onto a square where sooty little sparrows hop cheerfully up and down the arm of a statue of a German poet from a lost age—that's all I'll need to undo my life.

This undoing is disconcertingly easy. When I call my boss at Columbia University, where for ten years I have served as assistant dean of the School of General Studies, he takes the news of my request for leave just a little too much in stride. We will have no trouble filling the position in your absence, he assures me; don't give the matter another thought. My best friend also seems just a bit too nonchalant. Yes, certainly she can tie up the loose ends—she's happy to do so. I'll miss you, Christiane. Both seem to have been waiting for just this unlikely scenario, and to wish to wrap things up as quickly as possible.

In any case, here I am, three days later, with all the arrangements made, my life in New York put neatly in storage.

We meet at the son's residence, in a leafy suburb. I come to a quick and ready agreement with Herr Sturmer's son and daughter for what seems a ridiculously low rent, given the grandeur of the house as it stands in my memory. No doubt my childhood perception enlarged and embellished the place. Besides, Herr Sturmer's children are probably people of means, and are perhaps simply grateful to have a final disposition of the house pushed off into the future.

The son types up an agreement, which all three of us sign: I will take the house for six months.

Two days is all they need, they say, to clear the house of their father's belongings. "My father lived a simple life," the son tells me. "Besides, the house is small; the move shouldn't take long." As for the furniture and household goods, they'll leave them for me.

"You can bring your suitcase and just move in," the daughter says, mustering more cheer in her state of mourning than I am able to achieve in mine. "It will feel like home in no time."

I am a little taken aback. How can anyone refer to the house as small, even taking into account the distortion of childhood memory?

They do not seem to think it odd that I don't ask to see the house first. When I stand to leave, we shake hands. I fancy I detect in the daughter's eyes a peculiar, knowing expression.

"How long did your father live in the house?" I blurt out. I hope this is not becoming a habit—my mouth's bypassing my conscious faculties, issuing statements and questions of its own accord.

"Why, it's the house we grew up in," the daughter replies, the peculiar look deepening. "During the war … so many houses were abandoned. I believe the house stood empty for some years. We took it over toward the end …" Her voice trails off. I think I see a glint of distrust in her eyes.

''You must be mistaken," I say to the taxi driver as he pulls up in front of an attached house on a dingy, treeless street. The driver repeats the address and then points decisively at the brick façade, which is slightly crumbling in places. It is a two-story house with comfortably high ceilings, but with none of the grandeur I had expected.

The driver turns off the engine and exits the car to retrieve my suitcase from the trunk.

Stepping out into the gray late afternoon, I find myself trying to stifle a childish sob of disappointment. Where is the fountain? The imposing wide steps? And where is my mother, crouched over something she's doing? Where has it all gone? I should have known, from the modesty of the rent they settled on. How could my mother have made such a mistake? Could she have directed me to the wrong house?

I catch myself. What does it matter? This address is a mistake—the taxi driver's mistake, most likely. Kronenstrasse is, after all, a common street name, like Maple or Pine in leafy suburbs all over America. A tonier neighborhood across town, no doubt, harbors a far grander Kronenstrasse, with the large brick house and fountain and grounds of my memory.

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