by Matthew Muller
We are alone without our parents for breakfast at my grandparent’s house in Germany. My brother is with me on the long oak bench and in the corner is my grandfather, smoking his pipe. My brother and I, we are both watching him, suck, suck, suck, blow. Into the morning light comes all of the blue smoke and it becomes more and more grey as it goes up into the light and the air slowly takes it apart until there isn’t any left by the time it reaches the ceiling.
My grandfather takes a silver lighter from his pants and puts it over his pipe. He lights it and makes sucking noises like a baby goat. I laugh because he is usually so serious. My brother looks up and we have to turn away not to laugh too hard. My grandfather pretends not to notice us. He just keeps smoking and looking out ahead of him.
I try to make friends again: “What does it taste like, the smoke?” I ask.
He turns and looks at me. “It tastes like smoke.”
I don’t know what to say so I just keep looking at him.
He doesn’t stop looking at me either. It is like our eyes are stuck together. I don’t know what he wants from me but I keep staring. When I think I can’t look into his eyes anymore he gives up and says, “It tastes good, that’s why I’ve been doing it for so long.”
“Since I was twelve.”
“Because that’s when the war started and we didn’t have food so then we had to smoke. Smoking makes you less hungry.”
“Because you eat the smoke?”
He looks at me for a moment and then out at the window and then back.
“Yes, because you can eat the smoke.”
“Can I eat the smoke?”
“When I’m twelve?”
“No. But you can eat your breakfast.”
My grandmother lays wooden boards in front of us for breakfast. She is tall and she is what the whole house feels like. When she cooks everything is saved and put into the refrigerator and then cooked again, even if one wants something new instead. Mostly for lunch we have fried vegetables, gemüsepfanne, which my parents tell me I have to eat, even if I hate it. “Just hold your breath when you swallow,” my mother says. An aunt tells me that she sometimes holds her nose when she has to eat something she doesn’t like. When I do it at the next lunch time the whole table looks at me and begins laughing. At first I am angry and want to throw or hit something but then I have to laugh too with all of the attention and some of the food sprays back out and my mother covers my mouth with a napkin.
Out of the fridge and onto the table comes butter and jelly for us. My grandfather is knocking his pipe against the table to get the tobacco out. He unscrews it and takes out a filter, which is all yellow.
“What is all the yellow stuff on it?”
“It’s from the smoke.”
“And why do you put it in?”
“So that it doesn’t go into my body.”
“Because it’s bad?”
“Because it’s bad.”
My brother is listening because he doesn’t want me to ask anything that he thinks is rude. Before I have asked another question he puts a butter knife in my hand. There are little breadcrumbs on the butter and I try to move around them so that my butter is perfectly clean. I can feel him watching me. He doesn’t care about the breadcrumbs. He’s probably the person that put them there. It annoys him that I care, so I try to be even more picky, to take even longer. My grandmother says that there is a little bit of the breakfast sausage left, and she lays it out before us. There isn’t nearly enough for both of us. My brother knows I will say something and tries to reach out for me but he is too late.
“There isn’t enough of it, I could eat it all by myself.”
My grandfather turns and says, “Here, this is how we do it.”
He leans over and cuts two slices for each of us. “Put it on your bread, and with each bite, you only take a little bit, and then you push it back on the bread, and again only a little bit. You would call it pushing wurst maybe, in America. Here: schiebewurst.”
I think it is stupid but my brother tries it so I follow. He puts it just close enough to bight and his big buckteeth go into the sausage. He chews and then moves it back. He smiles at my grandfather.
“Very good, good boy,” my grandfather says in English, to show us he can be American too, without wanting to be American.
I try it and taste only bread, big kernels of sharp brown bread. And then suddenly in the darkness in my mouth I can taste the salty squishiness of the sausage. It is like a little burst of it. Quickly I move it back and try again. Every time I bight it is like I have to go looking for it.
“I like this,” I tell my grandfather. “I like it a lot.”
“Good,” he says. He is nodding his head. He is about to go back to his pipe.
“From now on I only want to have a little bit of everything, just a little bit, because that is always the best bit!”
“Yes,” he says in English again, “A little bit is the best bit, you are right.” He starts to grin. “It will become new American saying, A little bit is the best bit,” and he points his finger up into the air, his whole face filling with the idea until it comes coughing out in laughter.