I feel like a ghoul. I sit every day beneath the stairs in the basement of the small house on Eichenweg street. Some days I stand, though I have to crouch in my space behind the wall, and I stretch my legs, stepping on my toes before my calves pull, and bending my neck so as not to hit my head on the low ceiling.
It is dark behind the wall and only once a day do I emerge, to walk around the Leitner family’s basement and to relieve myself in the chamber pot Frau Leitner so kindly cleans for me. It is then that she brings me bread and sometimes some cheese and I can look on the single bulb that lights the basement. Then I return to my space behind the wall.
I lie on the cold ground and listen all day to the Leitner family’s steps. I have come to know Herr Leitner’s work boots that he puts on early in the morning to stomp off to the fields where he must herd and slaughter cows. I recognize Frau Leitner’s soft steps, silent in the midafternoon—when she does her sewing, she has told me. The Leitners have a daughter, Inge. She does not know I live in the space behind the wall but I know her fast, pointed steps. She walks like a young woman with purpose. Sometimes she fights with her parents and then her feet fall heavily when they relegate her to her room. Sometimes she is disrespectful and Herr Leitner hits her. I can hear her soft sobs then.
When I leave the space behind the wall, under the stairs—when the Americans come and pull me from my home of some two years—I thank the Leitners for their bravery and compassion, I move to America, I meet a young girl whom my mother would have liked (who understands the reasons I cannot sleep at night and why I save even the juice of the pickles we buy) and we have a son, a boy we name Otto. He attends a school in Brooklyn where he sits in the sun on hot summer days and sleeps close to the radiator during the coldest of the snowy winter nights. He makes friends and loses them and makes new ones in the way that children should, he plays a game of hiding in closets and beneath beds, under stairs and behind walls, and he likes the feeling of being snug and trapped in a world that is for him so sprawling and free.
This is what I tell myself, the future I contemplate as I sit in my space behind the wall for years. This is what I tell myself when I hear new footsteps and then shouts, cries of alarm and a wrenching of the secret door that leads to my solitary space behind the wall. This is what I tell myself as I am finally brought out into the light that I’ve missed for so long and, as it falls so pleasantly upon my sallow skin, it burns my eyes and I cry tears of joy for the son I must someday get to hold.