Ben Ehrenreich

Waltraud was a small woman, but she had a lot of energy. This is what she looked like: Her hair was cut short and dyed a bright, orangey red. Her eyes were green, sharp, and always darting around. She had these strange, jaggedy teeth that looked like they’d been filed to points. She was almost 70, but still she always wore tight, starched khaki pants tucked into a pair of high leather boots with a spotless white shirt, like she was about to leave on a safari. The boots always had a good shine to them that must have taken her hours to maintain, but they made her look even shorter than she was, and she was shorter than almost anyone I’ve ever known.

I can’t imagine Waltraud sleeping, or even closing her eyes. If she wasn’t actually scurrying about cleaning or filing things, or fixing herself a meal of sprouted seeds and yogurt, she was twitching her hand or her knee or her foot, or more likely all three. She never stopped moving. Mainly she was concerned with small things, dirty saucers and spots on the counter. Things like that really preoccupied her, so we sometimes had a hard time getting along. It’s not fair to judge, though, I know that now. She may have thought about other things too, things of great profundity and import, but if she did she never let on.

A little while after I moved in, I brought a friend home, a woman friend. I’m not going to tell you her name. In this story only Waltraud gets a name. This friend and I drank a bottle of wine that night sitting in the park, chatting up the bums and joggers. My friend is so loopy, she got even the bums confused. Then suddenly it was late and the trains had stopped running so she came back with me to the room I was renting from Waltraud. We went in as quietly as we could, so as not to wake Waltraud, because I already knew she got upset about noise, even during the day, even just the normal creaking of the floor when you’re unpacking your clothes, or the noise you make when you shut the door to your room when you go to take a nap.

This friend and I, we tried not to giggle too loud, and since it was hot we took off our clothes, most of them anyway, and got in bed. You might have guessed that one thing would lead to another, as they say, and it did, which was kind of strange because we’re just friends and didn’t really mean for anything to happen. I don’t remember it too well, except that it was a little frantic. When we were done we just lay there, naked and sweaty and kind of surprised, afraid to say anything or even look at each other. All I could think about was how long it had been since I’d washed my sheets, and how embarrassed I was by all the grit down where the feet go, and I was mad that I had to be embarrassed around my friend, who never made me feel that way before.

Maybe she was thinking the same thing, because she got up and rustled around in her bag until she found a cigarette. She only smoked when she was nervous about something, or depressed. Every time I’ve seen her since I think about her the way she looked right then, bending over and searching for a book of matches in the yellow light from the streetlights out the window, about the shadows behind her knees and down her long, skinny back between the knuckles of her spine.

She took one drag, got back in bed and passed the cigarette to me. I don’t smoke, but I took it anyway. I sucked on it for just a second and immediately started coughing. I guess I closed my eyes because I thought it was my friend who took the cigarette from my hand but when I looked up the lights were on and there was Waltraud in her flowered bathrobe, her face bright red, the same color she dyed her hair. She held the cigarette up in one hand like a sword, or a tiny torch. "Nicht rauch!" she yelled, and stormed out of the room. I heard her run the kitchen faucet and then slam shut the door of the cabinet beneath the sink where she kept the trash can. Then she stomped up the stairs to her room and my friend got dressed and left. I didn’t see her for a month after that and since then it’s always been weird between us.


You can read Waltraud in its entirety in issue 2 of Swink.

Ben Ehrenreich is a fiction writer and journalist based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Bomb, L.A. Weekly, The Village Voice, and other publications. He is working on a novel.


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