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Drinks with Gunther

A couple of months ago, I got a call from Gunther Prien. I was out at the barn watching the bay filly get lunged, and had the cell turned off, and missed the call. Gunther left a voice message, and said he'd be in the city, unexpectedly, Wednesday of next week. He said he'd be at the bar of the St. Regis at nine and that he hoped to see me there. He didn't say where he was staying, and didn't leave a number.

My wife must have noticed that I was taken aback. "Who was that?" she asked. "Gunther. Gunther Prien," I answered. "Who's that," she wanted to know. "A friend from college," I lied. I hadn't gone to school with Gunther, I hadn't even met him, or, frankly, ever expected to. I didn't want to tell her anything. She was already worried enough about me.

The message came on a Saturday, so the meeting was still a few days away. I thought about it constantly. The call had to be a practical joke. Only a few friends had my cell number, and I checked with all of them. Some thought I was just trying to play some sort of strange joke on them, others laughed and said no, but they wished they had called and pretended to be Gunther. I called the carrier, but the people there were no help. If it was Gunther, why would he call me? Was it a wrong number? But he had asked for me by name. How did he get my number? Why did he want to see me? What could he possibly have to say to me? Above all, how was it possible for Gunther to leave a voice message in the first place? I couldn't sleep that Saturday night, but by Sunday morning, had decided that there was no message, that nobody had called. I supposed that it was best to delete it and never think about again. I tried to delete it, but it wasn't there anymore. No message, or if there ever had been one, it was just a prank: two satisfying ways of leaving the thing behind and forgotten. We went back to the city and back to work on Monday, and it seemed like a week like any other.

By Wednesday afternoon I wasn't feeling particularly well. I had played a number of different little scenarios of the meeting through my mind while at the office. I had been distracted all day, and people asked if I was feeling alright, if I needed to take some more time off, if I hadn't come back to work too soon. "Just the cod I had for dinner last night," I explained. I called my wife, and invented something about a faculty recital which I just had to attend, Schubert lieder, at the conservatory. She hated music, so there was no chance that she would ask to come along. I was covered, free to go to the hotel, or not. The office was almost empty by seven, and by eight the last of my co-workers said goodnight, sympathetically acknowledging what I mumbled about deadlines and the project. By 8:45, I was walking up Fifth with my hands in my coat pockets, wishing I had worn a hat, or at least a scarf.

I passed the St. Regis and looked at it from across the street. Everything looked perfectly ordinary for a midtown hotel during the holiday season. Cabs, porters, doormen, couples in and out, some children in pea coats, packages, luggage, laughter, whistles. It was cold, and tourists were asking me for directions when I decided to go in. It had been years since I had been to the bar. King Cole was still holding court. Everyone seemed younger and happier and louder than the patrons I remembered.

I was feeling uncomfortable, and more than a little foolish, so I thought why not at least get a drink and enjoy some of the holiday cheer? The bartender brought a gin and tonic, no ice, as requested, but was less helpful when I called him back.

"Have you seen a gentleman by himself this evening?" I asked.

"Yes, sir, quite a number," he answered.

"I mean, one with," here I was at a loss for a moment, "a distinctly military bearing?"

"No, that is, not any young ones. A few of the older patrons, maybe."

This was something that hadn't occurred to me. Perhaps Gunther wasn't in his 30's anymore. He hadn't sounded either young or old in his message. I looked around the room more carefully. In the back, in a corner, was an old man sitting stiffly in an overstuffed chair, smoking. He ignored me as I made my way towards him. He was wearing a dark suit, crisp but distinctly out of date.

"Would you mind if I sat?" I asked, and motioned to an empty chair at his table.

"No, not at all," he said with a heavy accent, not looking at me. I sat, and glanced at my watch. It was 9:15.

"Pardon me for asking," I said, "but I had been asked to meet someone here."

He didn't answer, or look at me, but continued smoking. His left hand shook, I noticed. I took a sip from my drink and looked at him closely. His clothes certainly weren't new, but they were clean and pressed, and showed no signs of wear. He had kept his hair, now a dazzling white even in the dim light of the lounge. His eyes were sunken deep into his head, and seemed entirely black.

"Are you Korvettenkapitan Prien?" I asked.

"What did you say?"

"I'm sorry," I said, rising, "I've made a mistake. A stupid mistake. I apologize for bothering you. Good night."

"Wait," he said, "sit, please. No mistake." I sat down again, and drew the chair up to his table.

"I'm ready for another," he said, "and you?"

"I don't see why not," I replied, while I glanced at a waiter. I ordered, and we sat until the next round arrived. "Prosit," he toasted with a glass of schnapps. He tried to smile, but the result was more of a rictus.

"Prosit," I answered. We sipped and sat. The bar was becoming more crowded, and louder. "Well," I said, "excuse me for being so blunt, but why did you call and ask me to meet you here?"

"Did I?"

"I thought so. In the middle of last week. You said that you were going to be in the city and hoped to see me."

"Yes, of course. Please pardon an old man. I forget so many things these days."

"I understand," I said.

"Do you? So young and so wise?" I was surprised by the harshness of his tone. "No I don't, sir, not really, I don't pretend to be," I offered. He relaxed. "I only meant to say that I can't recall much of what's happened for years. When I look around, I can barely recognize anything, even a familiar place like this." Gunther sat back in his chair, pulled a cigarette from his box, offered me one (I refused it), lit, and smoked. His nails were manicured, although yellowed. On hands so thin, they resembled claws.

"I haven't been here before," he said. "I've never been to this city. We used to hear the shows on the radio, years ago. We could see the lights reflecting off the clouds. But the happy times were short. Very short, and there was work to do. After that, it all…" Gunther was looking at something very far away, or on the table before him. With those eyes, and the low lights, it was impossible to say what he was focusing on. His voice was inaudible, although his lips were moving. Thin, very red.

"There you are!" said a smiling woman in a navy knit skirt who was now standing in front of us. "Have you been bothering people again?" Gunther was motionless and silent. She then helped him to his feet and turned to me, saying, "I'm sorry, I don't know how he got out of the room. I hope he hasn't ruined your evening."

"Not at all," I replied. Gunther seemed resigned to her direction, and turned to me to say good night and something else as he was led away. She held his left arm with hers, and put her right on his back. I got up from my seat to answer, but they were already making their way across the bar to the door.

"How was the recital?" my wife asked later, in bed.

"Even bad it was good," I said. She had already turned over and was breathing deeply. "We got an organ grinder without a monkey," I added, "growling dogs, and a double sun."

"That's nice," she answered, already asleep. I couldn't sleep. Why hadn't I asked Gunther what I had planned to ask? I had enough time. Why didn't I ask him about the torpedoes? He was the best, he must have known. You can't get into Scapa Flow without being the best. Nobody else ever got into Scapa Flow, not in two wars. Why did he refuse the training position and stay out in the Atlantic? Because he was the best at finding the convoys and vectoring in the wolf packs? Because he would get there first, and stay the longest, always firing? Or did he have some sort of premonition about the torpedoes? It couldn't have been the Wolverine's depth charges, it must have been Gunther's own torpedoes that sank his U-Boat. Had he guessed? Did they explode in the tubes, or had they circled back to find their source? It was getting clearer, and I knew why Gunther had called. There was no convoy, there was no Wolverine, there was no gathering pack, just Gunther, and his torpedoes, and his target. He knew that. Gunther was a professional.



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