German for Beginners by Lam Pham
B bought me a slingshot when I was ten. She was my German babysitter and we spent our weekday afternoons breaking pyramids of empty jars on top of the fence posts behind the garage. One cold Wednesday, B and I were out back at the makeshift firing range, her with an Airsoft gun spray-painted pink and me with my slingshot. She saw me load a pair of plastic sapphire earrings curlicued in tin filigree and asked if they were my mom’s. “Yeah.” I told her. I gnashed bubblegum with my baby canines and took aim. “She won’t miss them.” Dad had bought them for her.
After the divorce, Mom moved us to a loft on the corner of MacArthur, a few blocks away from the bar she worked at. Dad reenlisted. He sent me letters occasionally and always signed off as Corporal James Nguyen. Mom stopped reading them to me after the third letter. I had B read the more difficult bits. She didn’t know any English euphemisms and replaced the more graphic or disturbing details of my Dad’s letters with German words. It sounded more brutal that way. The rough consonants and invisible glottal stops made me imagine the kind of warfare I’d seen in movies and video games.
When summer came, Mom came home less. She’d return after four days with B’s paycheck, a purse full of clothes to launder, and distracted smiles for me. My dinners consisted of the Meal Ready to Eat plans Dad had left behind in a garbage bag. B never addressed the unannounced transition of routine, but, for my benefit, played the part of a substitute mother as ably as a sixteen-year-old immigrant could. She’d leave the apartment after I’d fallen asleep and return before I’d woken up the next morning.
I tried pronouncing B’s last name once and it came out sounding like someone drowning. B laughed as I tripped over her umlaut. When she wrote it down on paper, they looked like her eyes, rounded and dark, crowning the long vowel of her face. Whenever she came over with a black eye or bruises underneath her arms, I imagined her name spooling out like silk with its additional diphthongs, each mark another umlaut christening her name.
The night of my birthday, B allowed me to stay up till midnight. She knew my mother wouldn’t be there. At the hour, she brought out a Black Forest Torte she had baked and sang Zum Geburtstag viel Glück as I marveled at the layers of strawberries and frosting.
“Make a wish, Thien,” she told me.
I closed my eyes and prayed that we could stay together like that forever. I blew as hard as I could muster to choke out the candlelight. When I opened my eyes, I found a new Airsoft gun next to the cake, still in its original plastic casing. I looked at her, unbelieving.
“I’ll go get the scissors,” B smiled.
Wrapped in jackets, we headed outside. Glass jars had already been stacked and arranged for me. I loaded my clip of hard plastic pellets into the Airsoft gun and took aim. I pretended I was Corporal James Nguyen. I pretended B had my last name. I pretended the glass jars were letters that spelled out the German words for loneliness and violence, and my bullets were umlauts that made them whole.
Lam Pham was born in Midland, TX. He blames his hometown for his love of bleak spaces and quiet struggles. He is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Wyoming. His fiction has appeared in Monkeybicycle, Storyglossia, Mud Luscious Press and more.
“German for Beginners” originally appeared in the second print issue of apt, available to purchase here.