I grew up in the German city of Darmstadt, which literally translates to “Bowel City,” which I choose to render as “Bowel Town” because it sounds funnier. My first home in Darmstadt was an apartment building at Roßdörferstraße 55 (which loosely translates to “Horse-Village Street” — I swear I am not making this up). We lived for eight years in a two-bedroom apartment on what Americans would call the third floor but Germans call the second.
The building’s first floor housed a “Konditorei,” which I guess would be a pastry shop or confectioner’s shop to those of the English-speaking persuasion. The presence of said pastry shop resulted in the most amazing scents that drifted daily up the stairwell and into all the apartments, making everyone in the building crave Butterhörnchen a whole lot more often than fortnightly, lemme tell ya.
The baker’s names was Herr Gibis, and before I started 1st grade, he took to wife a younger woman with two children. Their names were Marcus and Sylvie. Marcus was my age, and Sylvie was a year younger, and they lived with Herr and Frau Gibis in the only apartment on the first floor, behind the pastry shop.
Marcus and Sylvie and I became fast and great friends. I could tell oodles of stories of our many outside adventures, including the ones about how Marcus chased me and his sister with daddy longlegs. But that is another story and shall be told another time.
The story on my mind right now is The One Where We Got Into The Bug Spray. You see, adjacent to the back of our apartment complex and beyond a low chainlink fence brooded this squat, square, white building with a fire escape. (The fire escape figures into yet another tale, as does the chainlink fence, but again, that is neither here nor there right now.)
In this squat, square, white building lived an old woman. I suppose now that she must not have been very old at all — probably between 40 and 50 years of age — but to us children (we were now 10, 10, and 9, respectively), she seemed ancient. I only ever caught a couple of glimpses of her, and my only memory of her is long, dark hair in a bun, and shoulders wrapped in a fringed shawl. But Marcus and Sylvie must have seen her more often than I did, because they said her name was Maria and she didn’t like children.
It quite possible that Marcus and Sylvie were making this up.
Anyway, we were fascinated and terrified. Maria didn’t like children; ergo, we qualified as unlikeable. There was a chainlink fence — obviously, a barrier we were not meant to cross. Mystery, darkness, and danger lurked at this far end of the apartment complex. The lure of the squat, square, white building was irresistible.
I don’t know where Sylvie was on that fateful day, but she wasn’t with us when Marcus and I climbed over the chainlink fence, our hearts thudding wildly in our small chests, our eyes darting over our shoulders again and again in case A Parent should suddenly appear. But, undaunted by fear or threat of parental disapproval, Marcus and I scaled the fence (it was all of four feet high) and found ourselves on terra incognita: Maria’s backyard.
Eerie light filtered down through leaves overhead. An unnatural hush descended, as though even the birds were shocked into silence by our audacity. We were shocked into silence by our audacity. The air felt heavy.
The shed beckoned.
It was squat, square, and wooden, with a tin roof and all sorts of gardening implements leaning against its rickety frame. My memories progress as though I’m flipping through photographs, and the next picture shows Marcus and me, not entering the shed, but inside the shed, and Marcus is holding a sort of pressurized pump can, and we’re deep in the fantasy of marauders surrounding us, barring our escape, shouting for us to give up and come out, there’s nowhere left to run, and Marcus and I are looking at each other with huge, excited eyes, and we know that this moment is The Grandest Adventure EVER.
Meanwhile, the marauders were advancing. They were at the door. They were breaking in. We defended ourselves with the only weapons available: magic sleep-dust spray guns — what else?
Of course, when we got back to our side of the backyard universe (not having had the guts to approach the squat, square, white building proper, defeated marauders notwithstanding), the fantasy quickly broke into smithereens when The Parents smelled not magic sleep-dust on our clothes but insecticide, with which we had sprayed not only the imaginary marauders, but also each other, and generously. Because, as anyone with half a brain can tell you, magic sleep-dust magically turns into a restorative and palliative powder when used on a friend instead of against a slavering, primitive marauder.
I don’t remember what happened to Marcus, but I got a spanking and an afternoon in the bathtub, being scrubbed down with great vigor by my mother, who was not impressed.
That was our first adventure centered around Maria’s squat, square, white house…but it was not to be our last.