We took a walk upstream the other day, with the Rhine up to near-normal levels after recent rains. Following a period of record low water— and the reappearance of old sunken boats, and bodies long disposed of and forgotten— this was our first walk together since my return from the north. I pulled my sports shoes from the closet—the brown ones, still practically new—we’d bought back in December in Houston at the Academy store. I sat down and laced them up, waiting while she checked her hair, then we went down the stairs together. Out on the street we turned down the hill, then right towards the river, following the creek that runs by the Unterhof, a small restored castle and grounds. Refurbished as a conference center and hotel, the ground floor houses a restaurant, with outside tables set up in the summer months. The street goes on past a row of houses, with a stretch of trimmed sycamore trees fronting the river before emerging at the one-lane bridge that goes across to Gailingen. Past another stretch of row houses, the road goes through an arched passage, and on down another block before it narrows to a walking trail, past the swimming area. The Badi, the Swiss call it; they put a li on nearly every noun, a playful diminutive, the way the Mexicans like to affix ito or ita to the tail end of nouns. Across the river in Germany a similar bathing area is called the Strandbad, with heavy-footed, consonant-ending. In similar fashion, across the river the musical Swiss greeting Grüezi becomes Grüss Gott, or Guten Tag for Good day.
The gravel footpath goes on up the river, the way I traverse barefoot going swimming in high summer, gingerly the first few times until my feet toughen; it’s a half-hour walk to the place where I go in. I get the feeling that people have been walking by the Rhine forever, at least since the glaciers departed; year by year, down through the centuries. The St. Nicholas chapel on the north bank dates from the 1300s. The Celts were here in pre-Roman days, and before them the Pfahlbauers lived in stilted houses along the lake shore. Transported by river, goods from the Lake Constance basin had to be off-loaded at Schaffhausen—salt from Salzberg— taken by oxcart around the impassable Rhine Falls. At every bend a concrete bunker guards a stretch of river; from World War II days, empty now, left there as a reminder, or against future uncertainties. The Swiss watch their borders. The Nazis could have easily taken this part of Switzerland, but the Alpine regions would have been another story.
Die Schweiz, das Stachelschwein
nehmen wir im Rückzug ein.
Loosely translated, these words attributed to Hitler indicate he had plans for Switzerland; the tusked swine to be taken back in a rucksack when it was all over.
For some reason I was having trouble catching my stride; I tried to focus on my movements, to find the sweet spot. Often foggy, Diessenhofen is known as a place with a high incidence of rheumatism, and I wondered if this might be the reason. Usually I could walk off my soreness, find the rhythm where it fell away. But I was having trouble getting into it. “I don’t know what’s wrong; I don’t feel so fit today. Maybe it’s spring fever, Frühlingsmüdigkeit…”
“Schätzli, (from the high-German Schatz, or treasure) this could be; I think I feel the same.”
“Well, let’s go back.” We were only a short time back at the flat before we left to go see the twins, Edith’s grandchildren Emmanuel and Leander. She had presents she had bought for the boys for Easter, shirts and matching vests. Still feeling a nagging disquiet, I couldn’t put my finger on it. “Can you drive? I feel a little funky.”
I stood, glancing down at the cobblestones as she backed out of the garage. There, staring back at me—as if feet had eyes and could be said to stare—I beheld on my left foot, a brown sports shoe, on my right a blue one… and the voice came, as if it had been waiting all these years for confirmation: Well partner, you’ve gone and done it now… you have slipped beyond the pale and here’s the proof of it looking right at you… Without smoking or drinking a thing, or even realizing the source of my discomfit, I had walked an hour in mismatched shoes.
It was too late to go back upstairs. I decided to live with the consequences and go on the way I was; face to face with the irrefutable, the horrible truth revealed, the anti-epiphany. Never one to shy away from putting a lampshade—or a pair of her panties—over my head… just me and my buffoonish antics, trying to scare up a little fun. And what’s the harm in that, in the privacy of our home? But he who goes out walking in two different sets of shoes, you could be forgiven for suggesting such a person might be, um… missing a card out of the deck; half-a-bubble off, to put it kindly. Oh shit.
“Look at Ricardo,” Edith said. Kirstin and Markus, the parents of the twins, were kind enough not to say anything—and at ten months, Emmanuel and Leander were far too young to notice. Back at the flat I took off my shoes; first the brown one, and then the blue one on the right foot from a pair we’d bought the year before, at the mall in Austin.