I have picked the shade of blue, but, looking at it now, it kind of works. The couch belonged to my grandma, and clashes brilliantly with everything in my living room. I like bright colors and have the fashion taste any interior designer would call a disaster, but there’s a reason I have no interior designer friends.
The couch smells like Grandma’s condo, a mixture of carpet deodorizer and laundry detergent. It reminds me of sleepovers and popcorn parties and roast chicken suppers, and it’s the closest I can get to my grandma now that she’s been gone for three months and the contents of her life doled out to kids and grandkids. I inherited the couch and a German hymnal I can’t read, but I’m happy with them.
I settle down on the middle cushion with a bag of microwave popcorn to watch TV, but there’s a knock on my door. I don’t get much company so visitors make me a little excited and a little worried. I find an older lady standing in the hall. She wears a pink sweat suit, carries a pink tote bag, and has her hair pulled back in a neat bun.
“Can I help you?” I say. I’ve never seen her before. Maybe she’s selling Avon.
The lady peers over my shoulder and grins.
“I found you,” she says, skirting past me to the couch and plopping down on the center cushion like she owns it.
“That’s my new couch,” I say, pivoting around with one hand on my hip. “Well, it’s my grandma’s old couch.”
“Uh huh,” she says, looking around my living room like she’s admitting to this fact but it doesn’t make any difference. “You could do with a good dusting and run a vacuum over the carpet. All sorts of crumbs down there.”
“That’s not the point,” I say as I walk over to her. “This is my couch.”
“If you must know,” she says in a low voice, “I had to find the couch because of the little people. They’re from the old country.”
My stomach tenses, but I assume she can’t be serious until a small person, perhaps eight inches high, crawls out from under the left sofa cushion and sits next to the old woman. He wears dark pants, a long-sleeved cream-colored shirt, a newsboy’s cap, and looks like a middle-aged elf with a comfortable paunch.
“There you go,” she says, patting his shoulder with two fingers. “I’ve been looking all over for you fellows. Half expected you wouldn’t have survived all those decades without regular helpings of meat and potatoes.”
“We like pizza now,” says the little person. “Pizza and nachos. And we’ve grown accustomed to lighter beers. All immigrants have to adapt to the new world, I guess, but we’ve had nearly a century to do it.”
“This explains where the chips went last night,” I say, easing myself down on the arm of the couch. My grandma had told me stories about German little people, but I thought they lived underground. Sometimes they were helpful, sometimes they were mischievous, usually they were hungry, but so is the old woman because they both start munching on my bag of microwave popcorn. Soon they’re joined on the couch by two more pointy-eared little people who explain they hitched a ride in my great-great-grandmother’s steamer trunk when she came over from Germany. They lived in her couch for years, and my grandma had a hell of a time convincing them to move to a new one when the first was threadbare.
“We’ve been in the family for years,” he says, “you just didn’t know it.”
“I’ve been searching for them for decades,” says the old lady. “But after this snack we have to do some cleaning.”
It takes me another second to realize who she is. Grandma always said Berchta would find me if I didn’t keep my room, and later my apartment, tidy. Berchta starts removing cleaning supplies from her tote bag. Like anything else could have been inside…
When I was little my grandma told me all the old stories she’d learned from her grandmother, including ones about Berchta. She was the ugly old woman responsible for making sure people weren’t lazy. During the twelve days after Christmas when spirits and trolls roamed the earth, Berchta came down from the mountains to make sure everyone had done their work for the year. She traveled the countryside in a wooden cart, giving gifts to those who’d been industrious and scolding those who hadn’t worked hard.
I was more afraid of Berchta looking over my shoulder than I was of Santa, because she seemed nit-picky and I was horrible at keeping my room clean. But she was supposed to be a hideous crone with a hooknose, not a plump woman in a pink jogging suit who looked like somebody’s great-aunt.
“You could have soaked the breakfast dishes before you went to work this morning,” Berchta says when she drags me to my kitchen. “Dried-on cereal is difficult to get out of bowls.”
“I thought you’d bug me about the laundry,” I say.
“That’s this weekend,” she says as she fills the mop bucket.
We clean and clean and clean until my kitchen reeks of pine and lemon, then we have leftover pizza for dinner. The little people eat on the couch while Berchta and I eat at the kitchen table, and she relaxes enough to grouse about how no one appreciates the old gods and goddesses anymore. I assume this is a typical complaint among mythical figures.
“Why do I even bother?” she says. “No one is nervous about the fact I might appear in their living rooms.”
“I was,” I say.
“Fat lot of good that did,” she says.
I decide to shut up because she has a point.
“I should get involved with a charity,” she says. “Maybe one that cleans houses after natural disasters. That’s always a big mess.”
I’m too tired for cleaning when I get home, since I have to keep things spotless at the Italian restaurant where I work. I know more than I’d like to about strict health codes. It seems like I spend half my day covered in flour from mixing and shaping doughs, and the other half wiping down stainless steel equipment and counter tops. I love my job—the smell of yeast, the smooth feel of kneaded dough, the wood smoke from the pizza oven. I don’t mind the cleaning part, but at home, I slack since I live alone and don’t care what things look like. At least that used to be the case…
The next day I bring home more extra pizza than usual—we get to eat the mistake pies—but it’s just enough for me and Berchta and the little people. I’m not sure how long they plan to stay, but the little people don’t have anywhere else to go.
“We came with the couch,” they say with a shrug. “We’ve always lived there.”
Berchta doesn’t want to leave now that she’s found other German speakers and an apartment that needs a good cleaning. I go to my bedroom when I need peace and a nap. Our dishwasher at the restaurant just quit so I had an exhausting day as pizza-maker and pie pan washer.
I wake up to the smell of breakfast—hash browns and bacon and coffee—and realize I was so exhausted that I slept through the night. When I mention the open dishwashing position to Berchta, she perks up. It may be one of the least fun jobs in the world, but she says she needs a way to keep busy and be appreciated.
“I got tired of punishing people for not keeping tidy,” she says. “Being a feared hag may be fun for a couple centuries, but then it gets old.”
She’d rather be everybody’s neatnik grandmother in the corner of the kitchen, singing old German folk tunes while scouring the huge kettles we use for pizza sauce. Everyone thinks she’s adorable. My boss is a seventy-one-year-old Italian woman, and she and Berchta get along terribly well. She learned how to cook from her grandma, and gives long kitchen lectures on how no one is connected to their heritage anymore. Berchta agrees. Over coffee and almond cookies on break, they swap recipes and talk about their respective old countries. It makes me miss my grandma more and think of all the questions I should have asked her, but didn’t.
Even though my apartment has never been so clean, I’m a bit upset when Berchta brings home Belsnickle.
“Look who I found at the grocery store,” she says, dragging the old troll into my kitchen. I remember him from my grandma’s tales. He was St. Nick’s Christmas counterpart, but carried a switch to beat bad children. Grandma said he never actually hit kids, he just scared them into submission, but with one glance at Belsnickle I understand how that could have worked. He wears torn jeans, an old t-shirt, a beat-up fedora, and a grumpy expression.
“He needs a good bath and a good meat stew with lots of potatoes,” says Berchta.
Belsnickle grunts, gives me a mean glare, and lets himself be towed to the bathroom.
“Don’t let him frighten you, honey,” Berchta says when she returns. The shower is running so I assume Belsnickle is making himself clean enough to suit her standards. “He’s a nice man, he just can’t show it. Has an image to protect, you know.”
I nod slowly as she chatters about her plans to get him a job as a bouncer at the bar down the street from the Italian restaurant. Once he has a clean suit, a new fedora, and a new switch, he’ll look very much like a nasty old uncle you don’t want to mess with.
Mealtimes at my apartment take on an interesting dynamic, as Berchta chats with everyone about what she’s going to make for dinner tomorrow, Belsnickle grunts at her and me, and the little people on the couch fight over the remote control (in German). I’m not sure how I became an ethnic neighborhood in three weeks’ time. Here I am, fifth generation German, can’t read a word of the language, and I’m being lectured by an old goddess on how she’ll teach me to make sauerkraut this weekend.
“Cabbage and coarse salt layered in a big bucket,” she says. “It’s easy and delicious.”
I wish Grandma were still here because even though her grandparents were the ones who had come over, she felt alienated from the old country. She couldn’t talk very well with her grandparents who only spoke German, and when her parents wanted to discuss things in secret, they spoke the old language like it was a secret code. She told me this sadly when we made lebkuchen, the Christmas cookie I loved because it was my main connection to my heritage.
I have friends who tell the same story—they make tamales or perogis or homemade pasta with their grandmothers and don’t mind that they’ve been mixed into the Great American stew pot where the potatoes taste like the carrots taste like the onions taste like the celery. A shame, but now that the old country has invaded my living room, I spend evenings listening to Belsnickle’s stories about kids he scared into behaving, and Berchta’s stories about people she scared into cleaning their homes. They snicker and sip tea and tell me about old traditions—Easter trees decorated with colored eggs, bonfires on the summer solstice, wearing new clothes on New Year’s Day, leaving shoes out on December 5th for Sankt Nikolaus to fill with candy…
During our afternoons off, Berchta and I make sauerbraten and honey cookies and potato salad and Christmas breads and spaetzle. I write down the recipes because she never did before, only added a little of this and a little of that until the mixture tasted right. My fridge crammed with German food, I feel like I don’t taste so much like everyone’s else’s stew, but like pumpernickel and honey cookies. These are scraps of heritage my great-great-grandparents would have stuffed into my hands and told me to sew into my American patchwork life.
My new roommates would be great if I didn’t live above the crabbiest man on the face of the planet. He’s seventy-something and been in the building forever. While he’s never complained about me before, one day I get a call from my landlord saying that my neighbor has reported “excessive foot traffic, stomping, and moving furniture.”
I say I had overnight guests and it won’t happen again, then I hang up the phone and curse a few times. I know from the people who live on either side of my downstairs neighbor that he’s a picky jerk, and seems determined to have the whole apartment building to himself. Allegedly, he’s made two people move out because they got sick of his bellyaching.
When I see him downstairs at the mailboxes I try to be nice, smile and say hello. He grunts back. He’s also a grade school friend of my landlord, and while my landlord is much nicer than my neighbor, they often get coffee at the cafe on the corner. I’d like to complain about the volume of my downstairs neighbor’s complaints—I often hear him ranting on the phone over excessive noise made by other tenants in the hall—but I don’t think my landlord would be sympathetic. I love everything else about my apartment. The rent is reasonable, it’s the perfect walking distance from work, and my neighbors are nice except for that one, but all it takes is one person to make everything else go to hell.
After the noise complaints, my landlord calls because the downstairs neighbor has been bellyaching over the smell of vinegar and pepper coming through his air vents. He’s also sure I have pets. I say that’s not the case, and my landlord can come inspect the apartment if he wants. He says that’s okay, he believes me, just try to tone down the noise and odors.
“Of course,” I say, then hang up the phone and explain the situation to Berchta and Belsnickle and the little people. They say they understand.
“We’ll be quieter and I’ll keep the windows open when I’m cooking,” she says. “We don’t want to be a bother to anyone.”
I put my foot down when Berchta brings home the dragon. She says she found it wandering around City Park, but I’m not sure if I believe that.
“There’s no room for him,” I say, though the dragon is nuzzling my hand and looking at me with big black pleading dragon eyes. It’s as big as a Newfoundland dog, and my lease agreement says no pets.
“He’s very clean and well-mannered,” says Berchta. “And he’s traumatized, poor fellow. Been living alone for too long with no friends.” She goes on to explain how Siegfried killed the dragon’s great-great-great-grandfather and bathed in its blood. (“An unnecessarily cruel and messy affair.”) Its family has been highly traumatized ever since.
Since Belsnickle is bedding down on my recliner chair, Berchta suggests the dragon can sleep in the bathtub. She claims dragon dung (fewmints) is easy to clean up and would make excellent fertilizer for the plants she’s started to grow on my fire escape.
“Fewmints smell a little like bay leaves,” she says, “and it needs companionship.”
I agree reluctantly, then she insists that the dragon come to work with us the next day.
“It hates to be alone,” she whispers. “The poor thing worries people will kill it for its blood. All dragons in his line have PTSD, honey. Dragon parents tell their young ones too many bedtime horror stories of knights and wizards. They’re convinced the world is out to get them.”
Or at least a healthy gallon or two of their blood. I say it’s okay with me, but she has to explain the situation to our boss. While she’s sweet and grandmotherly, I’m not sure how this will sit with her. A wood-fired pizza oven lit by a dragon would be a great thing to advertise, but might violate pesky health codes.
My boss loves the dragon right away—she scratches the dragon behind its ears and says he’s adorable–but she’s antsy about having an uncontrolled flame indoors. Berchta smiles and says that’s easily solved, since we can let him sit behind the restaurant where we have a smoker and an outdoor grill. Both are tended by an economics-professor-turned-award-winning-barbecue-pit-master named Marcus.
“He reminds me of a Great Dane, I used to have,” says Marcus, rubbing the side of the dragon’s neck. The dragon lets out a low rumble that’s something like a cat’s purr. “Of course he can sit with me. If the coals go out, I’ll just ask him for a little puff.”
When I take a break in the middle of the afternoon, I find them sitting on lawn chairs with glasses of iced tea. Marcus tells the dragon about his trips to China to meet with business leaders, and asks if the dragon if he has ever met Chinese dragons.
“I’ve heard they’re supposed to be very wise,” says Marcus.
The dragon shakes his head but looks intrigued. I feel reassured as I go back inside to tend my own fires in the pizza oven.
The only problem with the new dragon is that it has nightmares. When I get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, I find it whimpering and cowering in the bathtub.
“Are knights invading your dreams again?” I mumble.
The dragon nods its small green head and whines like a scared dog. There’s no room for it in the living room, so I sigh and let it come back to my bedroom and sleep at the foot of my bed. The dragon curls into a tight green ball of scales and sighs contentedly. It takes a good bit of effort for the dragon to breathe fire—it’s not like every stray sneeze or snort catches things on flame—so I’m not too worried. It’s just another thing I’ll have to hide from my landlord.
In the end, Berchta’s clean streak proves to be her downfall. When my downstairs neighbor thumps upstairs to complain about the music and dancing and incessant loud vacuuming, I’m at the grocery store. I trust my roommates to behave appropriately, but Berchta vacuums a lot and I have an older model that’s loud. I should have sent her door-to-door in her spare time as a volunteer cleaning lady, not left them to the mercy of the guy downstairs.
As it turns out he’s also scared of lizards, so the scene is rather chaotic when he pounds on the door and Berchta opens it to reveal the dragon, three little people, and Belsnickle sitting on the couch. He screams loud enough to be heard all the way across the Atlantic.
At least that’s what the lady across the hall tells me when I get home, arms loaded with grocery bags. My downstairs neighbor thundered away to call the landlord. Berchta frowned and closed the door. When my landlord and cranky neighbor returned, they pounded on my door but no one answered. When they opened it, everyone was gone. So was my couch.
“I swore I didn’t see a thing and the fellow downstairs was probably just tired,” says the lady across the hall, patting my shoulder and giving me a wink. “But I’m very sorry.”
I drag into my oddly empty living room and sit on the armchair since I no longer have a couch. At least Berchta and Belsnickle and the little people and the dragon escaped. Then I realize I need to put away the groceries before the ice cream melts.
When I had been living alone, I was fine with my own company, but that evening I just feel lonely. The apartment is too quiet and empty, even after I rearrange the furniture to make up for the lost couch. I have honey cookies for dinner and call in sick to work the next day. Since I have a massive headache and feel like I’m going to throw up half the time, it isn’t exactly a lie. Seeing the empty bathtub makes me want to cry, even though it’s never been so clean.
A day later when I return to work and the pizza oven, I have to explain to my boss and Marcus that Berchta and the dragon left. I say they went back to the old country, since I hope that’s what happened. If not, at least they were all together, so they can forge the wild streets and pizza joints of the new world with friends. It’s hard not to cry when I see a new person at the dishwashing station, but I have to wipe my eyes on my wrist and make more pizza dough.
That night when I get home, I realize I’m out of cookies so I drag myself to the kitchen and plan on digging through the fridge for sad leftovers. Then I see what Berchta left on one of my chairs at the table—her pink tote of cleaning supplies and a whole stack of recipes that I copied down as she’d cooked. I flip through the cards until I find one for lebkuchen. I get out the flour and honey and sugar and eggs and candied fruit and a large mixing bowl, humming one of those old German songs and wondering if she’ll ever return for a visit. I’ll need to have sauerkraut ready, and the kitchen should be spotless. Or maybe I’ll just try to mop more often.