Marcelle Thiébaux’s interest in the 1930s, both in America and abroad, inspired “Motoring,” along with some of her other fiction. She’s finishing two novels of the period, “American Girl” and “Daisy Clare.” A recent story of hers, “Berlin Noir,” was an award winner in the 2013
Writer’s Digest 82nd Annual Writing Competition. Over the past months she’s published fiction online: a noir short-short, “The Night of DeLyria,” was featured in the Akashic Books series, Mondays Are Murder; “Timetable for Crime,” came out in Grand Central Noir; and “The Daughters” appeared in Urban Fantasy and is also available in print. Her other short fiction has been published in Literal Latté, Karamu, El Gato Tuerto/The One-Eyed Cat, Twisted, and the Cream City Review. She’s written about women in different times, from the legendary St. Ursula to Mary Wollstonecraft, Ellen Glasgow, and Joyce Carol Oates. Her books on medieval themes include The Writings of Medieval Women; the historical romance Unruly Princess and The Stag of Love, to be reissued by Cornell. Her Columbia PhD is in literature. She’s currently a member of the Crime Fiction Academy at the Center for Fiction in New York.
The women’s warden who policed our behavior at the exclusive all-girls college I went to in New England, class of 1930, put out a handbook with a paragraph on Motoring. Getting in a car with a boy was forbidden without written consent from your parents, and even then you needed a female chaperone. Unless you had permission, you could motor only with another woman or an immediate family member.
I hadn’t been invited to motor with any boy, and so I didn’t have to worry about the college warden’s rules. But ever since that time, I’d felt the keen lure of the sport. If anybody had given me the chance, I would have motored until I ached in every muscle and couldn’t sit down for a week.
Right out of graduate school with a degree in history and languages, I took a job at the American Embassy in Berlin. I was Jane Grey, typewriter girl, with my own cubicle. This was February 1933.
Chancellor Adolf Hitler was promising he would rid the country of Reds and terrorists. He launched the motor industry with new cars from Porsche, Mercedes Benz, BMW, Volkswagen. He was building superhighways to create thousands of jobs and boost the economy. When Hitler opened the Motor Salon in Berlin, we Embassy staffers were told we should visit the show. I felt eager to go.
After skimming the pages of international Vogue and Elegante Dame, I put on my navy belted walking suit. A navy cloche with the forest-green band fitted snugly over my hair with my chignon bundled at the neck. I compared myself to the willowy models in Kultur und Sport, the illustrated society glossy, Culture and Sport, and decided I looked trim and not too conspicuous.
I stepped off the trolley at Königin-Elisabethstrasse, beyond Charlottenburg at the city’s outer limits, where Berlin spread into the wide-open spaces. The air was clear as blue cellophane. I felt the cutting March wind through my jacket, and it whipped my mid-calf skirt around my legs.
Two barren buildings stood side by side. Painted a military gray-green, they could have been aeroplane hangars or, with their high, rounded roofs, the electrical turbine works on Brunnenstrasse. Workmen in corduroys queued up outside one building. They stamped their feet against the cold and littered the hard ground with cigarette butts. I supposed they were hoping for those jobs Chancellor Hitler promised. A placard announced openings for motor technicians.
I pushed against the heavy, glass door of the other building, the exhibit hall. An armed guard in uniform opened it for me, then blocked my way. I presented my Embassy ID.
“I’m sorry, Fräulein.” He was curt. “This is a restricted event. What are you doing here?”
“I think my American Embassy pass is valid for every event.” I tried staring him down, from his muddy, close-set eyes to his yellow führer mustache. “You surely have us on your guest lists.”
He checked his clipboard. I looked around at the vases of pink gladiolas banking the reception area, the photo murals of luxury cars cruising the beaches and alps. At a hitching post, little tied-up dogs yapped and strained at leashes while their owners milled around on the other side of a velvet rope. Bewitching women and black-uniformed SS swilled beer and schnapps and that German champagne called sekt. They wolfed down tiny tarts. The event looked like a gala. It looked like fun.
“Moment, bitte,” said the guard and signaled a hefty, bouncer-type stormtrooper who marched over, hand on gun holster. Panic tightened my neck and I considered backing off when I heard my name trilled in high excitement. “Jane, sweetie! Come, come, come!”
My girlfriend Gilda Lux waved to me from the other side of the velvet rope. The guard, correct and unsmiling, ordered the bouncer back to his kennel and turned to me. Boot-heels clicking, he bowed.
“Of course, if you are a friend of Fräulein Gilda’s—” He unhooked the barrier. “Heil Hitler.”
I mumbled words that sounded like the Hitlergrüsse, the official Hitler greeting, as Gilda detached herself from a tall, fair-haired SS officer and rushed over to give me a hug. She pulled me through to the other side of the velvet rope.
I felt breathless. I really was in with what looked like a circle of super-rich Nazi superstars. Gilda and I held on to each other. I went a little giddy. Even the air on this side of the rope felt rarer and purer, scented with privilege, perfume, and the new-car stinks of fresh rubber and formaldehyde.
“Am I ever glad to see you, Gilda!” I couldn’t wait to hear how she came to have such clout. She looked new and wonderful, like a department-store mannequin. Her slanted, blue cat’s eyes sparkled. She wore a silver mink boa flung over one shoulder, the mink biting its own tail while its hapless little paws dangled. Her purse was a baby crocodile, the eyeholes stuffed with diamonds.
“Why are you here all by yourself, Jane?”
“I guess I didn’t know it was a party thing.” I must have come off dressed like one of my mother’s suffragette girlfriends. “You look amazing, Gilda. I love your outfit. Did you win the lottery?”
“In a way, yes.” I caught a lemony whiff of her Zizanie fragrance, all the rage in Berlin and featured in Kultur und Sport. She smiled, coy and adorable. “I’m at Salon Toffi’s.”
“That’s...super.” I was careful not to do a double-take.
Toffi’s was the most élite government bordel in Berlin. I knew where it was because one of my girlfriends at the Embassy had pointed out to me Frau Stefany “Toffi” Schmidt’s luxury cathouse villa on Savigny Platz. This was definitely news. The last time I’d seen Gilda was outside our apartment on the night of the Reichstag fire. She was sobbing in the street because the police were hunting for her communist boyfriend.
“Whatever happened to, you know, that kerl, that wild typ you were—” I started to ask.
She hissed in my ear, “Shut up, dummi, he’s dead meat around here.” She drew back and smiled with affection. “Let’s have champagne, sweetie, and not talk about the old days, ja?”
“Oh, oh yes, right.” I’d blundered, bringing up that Red Bolshevik motorbiker of hers. The reception was crawling with SS. We grabbed two bubbly sekts apiece, one in each hand, from the black-tie waiter making the rounds.
Gilda’s date, I noticed, had walked off the minute I arrived to take up his post at the bar of the Salon’s indoor beer garden. He nursed a tankard and watched us, one black-booted foot on the rail like an American cowboy. Whether he was Gilda’s customer or bodyguard, I couldn’t tell. He looked crisp and cruel in his black-and-silver SS gear, his mustache fringe like a gold epaulette. Cap with deathshead, swastika armband, revolver at the hip.
“Your friend looks pretty cool,” I said, playing with my gloves. “What’s happening today? Everyone is so on edge.”
Gilda looked around to see we weren’t overheard. “They might be expecting the führer.”
“The führer? Today?”
“To review the new cars. He’s declared auto-racing the national sport, and he has a thing for uniformed chauffeurs too.” She took out a gold vanity case and whisked a powder puff over her perfect nose. “But it is not certain he will show up.”
“Doesn’t he have a busy schedule? I heard he and Eva were flying to a mustard-tasting in Düsseldorf.”
Huffy, Gilda snapped her vanity case with a click like angry jaws. “That is misleading disinformation, sweetie. Crazy people stalking him all the time. Like prey for the kill. That’s why he keeps his timetable vague. The SS stays on top of things, of course. Like us at Toffi’s.”
I blinked, taking in Gilda’s new secret-agent personality. I was dying to ask how many gentlemen she entertained on a daily or a nightly basis. Like the song, “Ten cents a dance, that’s what they pay me, gosh, how they weigh me down.” I was about to ask her what it was like being a party-mädchen or, as some people might say, a call-girl, but she jumped right in and started talking.
“If you’re worried about me, sweetie, don’t be. It’s a really good établissement.” Which was what Germans called a high-toned house for sporting gentlemen. “Not some cunt-cabin. We have superb working conditions.” She coughed on a gulp of sekt. “Girls from the best families, bluebloods who lost everything in the War. Titled girls used to luxuries. Some of their fathers were four-star generals.” We drained our glasses and helped ourselves to two more.
“It sounds like a posh finishing school.” I was being bitchy to cover up my anxiety. Gilda had guts.
She shot me a narrow look. “Not exactly. But getting accepted at Toffi’s was the best thing that ever happened to me. You can’t beat the pay. And all we have to do, besides make the client happy, is report him to the government if he happens to say anything.”
“You mean like the Gestapo?”
“I’m in with them. But Gestapo guys never come to Toffi’s. They don’t want it known they’re involved.” She slid a pearly fingernail across her neck in a throat-cutting slash. “It’s tough luck for the dummfick clients, and I’d get my own throat slit for squealing. Damn, I must be drunk. Forget everything I said.”
“I’d never breathe a word, Gilda. I mean, it sounds scary as hell. Exciting too.” I felt a thin sliver of warning fear not to say too much. Should I be afraid for Gilda? Or for myself? It couldn’t be, no, she couldn’t be a dangerous person. I’d bought safety pins and two pairs of rayons from Gilda when she worked at the hosiery shop.
With a beautiful, jittery smile she was saying, “It’s a gig like any other. You know what people say. Dass ist meine arbeit.”
It was what the murdered girl said in a novel I just finished, Berlin Alexanderplatz. It was written a few years ago by a Berlin psychiatrist who had all these freaky patients. “That’s my job,” the girl said before she got strangled in Freienwalde Park. I kept quiet about it. I didn’t think Gilda read novels.
“Enough of this small talk.” Her cat’s eyes weren’t laughing, but her scarlet lips were merry. She had an enchanting overbite. Her white teeth glistened with health. “Don’t we want to go into the exhibit? See the cars before everybody else troops in?” Most of the guests were still at the reception and in the beer garden. “I’ll show you the one I want.”
The exhibit hall stretched as far as I could see. Neon lights lit up the mirrored walls, reflecting the glittering vehicles to infinity. The cars waited, silent as groomed animals of steel and chrome. Most were a shimmering anthracite black, while here and there shone a dark cherry, a blue, a chocolate-and-cream. The automobiles stood parked at angles, cordoned off by chains.
I stared at the pennants hanging from the ceiling. Audi, Mäuser, Stoewer, Protos, Perl. They were like heraldic banners festooning the rafters of cathedrals. I was rapt. I felt a mystical, religious hush in the hall. We still had it pretty much to ourselves, except for the deadpan waiter who followed us in with more champagne.
Gilda dragged me to a car that was a patchwork of pastels. “Here’s my favorite,” she said. “I want one. I want two.” The body was painted in swirls of rose, green, jonquil, powder blue, and lavender, sweet as a roll of Necco candy wafers.
I wanted to squeeze the chrome klaxon jutting from the driver’s window but I held off.
“Is this insane or fabulous or what? It’s a Citroën. French, naturally.” She read me the plaque. “Some cubist painter. You can buy her sportswear to match. The Nazis are gaga for anything French.”
We giggled drunkenly. Gilda pulled off her silver mink toque and tossed it over the chain to land on the fender as if she already owned it. She shook her blond hair, fluffing it out.
“It’s your car, Gilda,” I said. “As soon as you get your kavalier to buy it for you.”
Her eyelids did an uncertain flutter but she rallied. “What it really is, sweetie,” she threw out, “it’s the fashion car for fucking. It’s the ultimate frog-princess fuckmobile.”
“Gilda, sweetie, it’s what motoring is all about.”
I swallowed my drink, set my glass on the fender, and couldn’t stop laughing until I started to hiccup. Bubbles went fizzing up my nose. I felt sick and reckless.
I stepped over the chain, opened the driver’s door, slithered in as if I’d been doing this all my life, and eased down into the deep leather seat. It enfolded me, caressing and voluptuous as flesh. Gilda stopped laughing. I saw her berating me through the rolled-up window but I couldn’t hear her.
I grasped the leather-padded steering wheel in both hands and experienced a welling surge of joy. My foot touched the un-gassed pedal and I pressed it, hard. I imagined myself flying through the roof and careening along a great open highway under the stars.
Through the Citroën’s windows I saw the other guests pouring into the exhibit hall. A paunchy guard headed my way. His square, red face was none too friendly. I dropped my hands from the wheel and got ready to disembark when my right hand closed over a thing that had slid between the seats. Made for a girl’s hand, it was a silky, blue-steel weapon, smooth and seductive as a man’s cock. Hard as a man and twice as dangerous.
I felt a cold, lightning thrill streak through my body. What was it doing here? Gilda had said Hitler had stalkers. To kill him.
I slid my hand to the grip and trigger. In spite of knowing why it might be here, I couldn’t let it go. It was like a junk-gun Saturday night pistol, a ladies’ special made for my hand, for me. I wasn’t leaving this tin trap, this arty Sonia Delaunay creation, without it. In that moment I loved it, I wanted it. I needed a weapon. I’d always wanted one, I realized for the first time. All the guys around here had them, and I could see why they liked it. I crushed down any thought of the danger it might mean to me. I pictured taking it home, taking it apart, reloading it, and having fun with it. I stuck the weapon in my purse and climbed out of the car.
The guard towered over me, his face red, rotten, and full of pores. He was so close, I could breathe the meaty scurf of his scalp. “It is forbidden,” he thundered, “to enter these vehicles without permission from the authorities.”
“Just looking,” I said, acting jaunty, as if I were shopping for polished chintz with my mom at the Economy on Main Street. Tight under my armpit and close to my body, I clutched my purse, heavy, lumpy, cold. The guard looked ready to shoot me, but he paid no attention to my purse.
Gilda tugged me away from the car. Her cat’s eyes blazed. “You crazy dummfick.”
I was too exhilarated to care. The other guests were sweeping into the showroom in drunken hordes. I clenched my purse to me, my door-prize tucked inside and bruising my ribs.
“You cannot just do that, get in the cars,” Gilda said. “You are lucky you are not arrested.” She said nothing about seeing me take the gun. I had to believe nobody knew.
I forced myself to chatter as if nothing had happened. “It was terrific we saw each other, Gilda. You have a darling boyfriend, that blond SS. I can see he’s mad for you.” I was shaking all over, delirious with fright.
Gilda said airily, “It’s nothing. I have a bunch of clients and boyfriends. They’re not all that cute, and a lot of them want special stuff. Which, of course, I have to do.”
“Special stuff?” I asked. “Like what?”
“Oh, this one’s kinky as hell but he has class. Tonight we’re going to Lohengrin. The führer might be there. It’s his favorite opera. On account of what happens to the girl.”
“Is that the one where the man pulls up in a white swan?”
“You’ve seen it?”
“Yes, but I don’t want to talk about it. I have to know something, and then I’ve got to run. In your job, aren’t you worried about catching a baby?” That’s how they said it here. Like catching the flu, which was what killed my mom.
“Well, you don’t go to a fortune-teller like some ditzy dummfick,” Gilda said. “You see a doctor. Before. Not after.”
“How does that work?”
“What she gives you is better than those sausage casings the kerl would wear on his prick, if you can get him to wear it.”
“Real sausage casings?”
“I don’t advise it. The doctor will give you a rubber-ducky thing to put inside you. It’s made with silkworm threads and unbreakable glass. A safety net to keep out the alien albumen. Once it’s in, you don’t have to think about it.”
I spotted her SS man at the far edge of the crowd. He was looking for us. “Okay, okay, what’s it called?”
“It’s called ladies’ friend.”
“Ladies’ friend,” I echoed. We reached for more drinks. My hand trembled violently and I spilled some of the champagne. Gilda opened her baby-crocodile for cigarettes and we lit up.
With a glass in my right hand, a cigarette in my left, and my purse with the .25 caliber clamped under my left arm—and I hoped it didn’t go off, as I’d heard of things like that happening—I floated on a cloud of raw nerves.
“Who’s the doctor?”
“They’re illegal,” said Gilda. “The police consider them degenerate trash.” Mobs of girls and officers flooded the hall. They milled around us. Drinking, babbling, laughing, threatening. Gilda’s SS man saw us and strode in our direction as if he didn’t want us to escape.
“I don’t care. Just give me the doctor’s name,” I said.
Outside, in the cold, I made for the trolley stop at a healthy walk. I couldn’t look as if I were running. Somebody would be looking for the weapon I’d stashed in my purse. Crunched under my arm, it felt like a bomb.
A convoy of touring cars swooped up Königin-Elisabethstrasse. Swastikas fluttered from the fenders. The cars pulled up to the Exhibition Hall, and the tires squealed to a halt. Each one was a black Mercedes Benz chauffeured by an SS. I watched the men in black and silver climb out and make for the Motor Salon.
In their midst I saw a man whose photo was everywhere: in shop windows, train stations, hotels, post offices. I knew him—who in the world didn’t? I’d seen him at the Reichstag fire. The mustache like a swarm of black flies, the slicked-black hair. Adolf Hitler in person. Alive, and he’d stay that way since I had the weapon in my handbag. Whatever plan had been under way for today, it would fail. Somebody would be disappointed.
Had I saved Hitler? Maybe I was imagining things. The gun inside my purse felt frozen to my body, cracking my ribs, gouging my tender armpits.
I made it to the trolley stop. I saw two workmen leave the job line. They walked with purpose around to the back of one of the buildings. The assassins. I felt a pallor sickening my face, a weight on my stomach. I was sluiced full of cheap champagne with a murder weapon fused to my body.
A woman at the tram-stop took hold of my arm, the gun arm. I wrenched free of her. “What is it?” I nearly gasped.
Her voice was shrill as a pair of scissors. “Isn’t that our Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels? Over there, with the führer. Look! From the movies. He’s very popular with those starlets he runs around with.”
I saw a scrawny little man limping in his built-up shoes, trying to keep pace with the führer.
“I don’t know.” I felt the terror rising in my throat and cutting off my breath. It was safer to know nothing, recognize no one.
“Oh, he’s a divine orator.” She sounded like a religious fanatic. “Have you heard him speak? You don’t like him?” I edged away. If I really had stolen a weapon destined to kill Adolf Hitler, I’d probably saved his life.
But who would thank me for this?