I was standing at the snack bar window on a Saturday in 1980 when Jack walked up and told me that Adolf Hitler was alive and living in Pasadena.
“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “Hitler killed himself.”
“No, he didn’t. Everything we learned is wrong.”
I hadn’t seen Jack since he’d gone to visit a friend in LA at the end of June. He was supposed to be gone for just a few days, but nearly three weeks had passed without so much as a phone call. Meanwhile, I spent my days stuffed inside the snack bar with a couple of high school kids. It was basically a steam room with a griddle, and by the time I left work my clothes always reeked of fries and body odor. I wanted Jack to apologize – both for disappearing and for convincing me to come to Palo Alto in the first place – but now that he stood in front of me, I couldn’t bring myself to confront him.
I handed him a burger. “The Allies executed a bunch of top Nazis. I know you love conspiracies, but do you honestly believe that they let Hitler fake his death and move to Southern California?”
“I don’t know who was involved or who knows. All I know is that he’s alive.”
Nothing he was saying made any sense. I grabbed a napkin and wiped some sweat from my forehead, then balled up the napkin and crushed an ant on the windowsill. “Let’s say, just for the hell of it, that Hitler survived the war. He’d be dead of old age anyway.”
Jack grinned. “Nope. He was born in 1889. He’s 91.”
I could see that reasoning with Jack wasn’t going to get me far. The more I heard, the more his theory sounded like one of his theories about JFK or Bigfoot.
“Ok, Jack, you found Hitler. Congratulations. If you ask nicely, maybe Mr. Freeman will give you your job back.”
Mr. Freeman was the manager of Palo Alto Country Club, where we’d taken summer jobs. We’d originally planned to spend the summer backpacking in Europe. Jack claimed that World War III was inevitable if Carter lost the election, and he wanted to get to Europe before it was destroyed. Then, in mid-April, Jack had changed his mind and applied for a job teaching tennis in Palo Alto. He explained that we’d go to Europe after graduation, when we’d saved more money. At first I was furious. I’d already turned down an offer to assist my archaeology professor on a dig in Wyoming. But then Jack suggested that I join him in Palo Alto and even put in a good word for me with Mr. Freeman, so I didn’t stay upset for long.
“My job? Who cares about my job?” Jack said now. He told me that he was grabbing a few things that he’d left in Palo Alto, then heading back to LA to continue his investigation. “Come with me, Roy. I’ve got a sublet and everything.”
“Come with you? What would I do in LA?”
He shrugged. “Surf, see some movie stars, help me with the investigation.”
A chubby brat waddled up to the snack bar. Jack stepped aside, pulled a comb out of his pocket, and dragged it through his hair. He was always combing his hair. Even when he forgot his wallet, he’d remember a comb.
“I don’t know,” I told Jack when the kid waddled off a few minutes later with a root beer and two cheeseburgers. “I have a responsibility to the snack bar. And I’m sort of seeing Brandi.”
“The lifeguard? Forget her. She’s got nice tits, but it’s not like she’s that cute. Blondes with big tits grow like wildflowers in LA.” He paused. “Unless you’d rather spend the summer getting root beers for fat kids.”
In truth, there was nothing keeping me in Palo Alto. Sure, I felt some vague sense of responsibility toward the job, but it wasn’t like the country club would fall apart without me. And I certainly wasn’t going to stay in Palo Alto for Brandi, who seemed content to string me along between first base and second base forever. The problem was Jack. As much as I wanted to spend the summer with him, I worried that he’d just disappear again once we got to LA.
“Why don’t you stay here?” I said. “We’ll go to LA for a few weeks at the end of the summer.”
Jack shook his head. “This can’t wait. I’m leaving tomorrow morning, with or without you.”
Despite my concerns, I decided to go with Jack. Yes, he was unpredictable. Yes, he might disappear again. But Jack had transformed my life, and I wanted to support him. College had started badly. Everybody else made friends with ease, but I ate meals alone and spent my Friday nights in the school library. Even my roommate, a wrestler from Seattle, seemed indifferent to my existence. I spent so many hours on the phone with my mother that I was practically living at home. Then, just when I was about to give up on college altogether, I’d met Jack. He immediately treated me like an old friend, taking me to parties and introducing me to dozens of people. Jack saw something different in me. He gave me confidence.
“Ok, I’m in,” I said. “Why are you so convinced that this guy is Hitler, anyway?”
Jack smiled. “It’s a long story. I’ll explain on the way to LA.”
As we glided down the 101 the next day, leaving the Bay Area behind, Jack outlined his theory. He believed that Hitler had escaped to South America on a U-boat, then entered the United States using a new identity – Helmut Koch – in 1949.
“Come on,” I said. “Hitler faked his death and traveled across the world in a submarine?”
“Why not? Josef Mengele and Adolf Eichmann fled to Argentina on U-boats, and Hitler had more power than they did. Why couldn’t he have done the same thing?”
“Because he was dead.”
“Allegedly. That’s disputed. And not just by me.”
It didn’t surprise me that Jack believed that Hitler had escaped to South America. He had become obsessed with fugitive Nazis after we’d seen The Boys From Brazil. He couldn’t accept a world where men who had terrorized so many lived full lives, never punished for their actions. He was particularly obsessed with Mengele, the Nazi doctor whose behavior at Auschwitz earned him the nickname “Angel of Death.” Jack had stopped talking about Mengele a few months later, and I figured that he’d lost interest in Nazi war criminals, but apparently he’d just moved on to a bigger target.
“So what’s Hitler – sorry, Koch – doing in Pasadena?” I asked.
“He’s retired. Used to own two pet stores. One in Pasadena, the other in Van Nuys.”
“That doesn’t sound too evil.” An image of Hitler strolling into a pet store every morning and greeting each of the puppies, kittens, parrots, and turtles with the Nazi salute popped into my head.
“Hitler was a vegetarian, you know,” Jack said. “He loved animals.”
“What’s your point?”
“Both Helmut Koch and Hitler are animal lovers.”
I shook my head. “Well, in that case he must be Hitler. Seriously, though, why Pasadena? LA’s got to have one of the largest Jewish populations in the country. Wouldn’t somewhere rural be better for Hitler?”
Jack shrugged. “He’d stick out in some small town. LA’s an enormous city with tons of foreigners. It’s easier to blend in.”
“I hope that isn’t your best argument.”
“Of course not,” Jack said, but it turned out that the rest of his theory was just as flimsy. He kept tossing out facts about Koch – his age, his height, the year he’d immigrated – like this information somehow proved that Koch was Hitler. Even after a detailed explanation, I still didn’t understand how Jack could possibly believe that Koch was Hitler.
We arrived in Los Angeles that afternoon. I hoped for a beach bungalow, or at least something hip and “LA,” but Jack’s sublet was located in a depressing three-story building near the 405 Freeway. Splotches of grass were missing from the lawn and a broken sprinkler spewed water into the parking lot. The apartment itself was no better. Dark and musty, it was furnished with nothing more than a dresser, a sofa, an old television, and a bed. There wasn’t even a coffee table. It was barely suitable for one person, let alone the two of us.
After I cracked open a window and put on a swimsuit, we walked to the swimming pool. I needed a breather, and I hoped that Jack would shut up about Hitler and Helmut Koch long enough for me to relax.
A thick layer of leaves and twigs covered the pool, almost like a family of trees had swum earlier in the day. Despite this, two girls in bikinis reclined on lounge chairs next to the pool, smoking and drinking Tabs. One, a blonde, had sunburnt shoulders and a face full of freckles. The other girl had feathered brown hair and wore gaudy teardrop earrings. We sat down near the girls.
“Looks like the pool boy needs to be fired,” I said.
The brunette laughed. I smiled, struggling to keep my eyes above her chest.
“You guys must be new,” the blonde said. She tapped the ash from her cigarette in an exaggerated manner, almost like she’d copied the gesture from a movie. “The pool’s been like this for weeks, but the super doesn’t care. We mostly just go to the beach now.”
We all introduced ourselves. Rosa, the brunette, attended UCLA, and Melissa, the blonde, was an aspiring actress. Within a few minutes, I developed a crush on both girls. I waited for Jack to tip his hand so that I would know which girl he wanted, but he seemed distracted and barely spoke.
The girls stood up after a while. “See you around,” Rosa said, winking. She walked off, hips swaying. My eyes were glued to her bikini bottom, which, fortunately, seemed to be too small. After they walked maybe twenty feet, she stopped, turned, and whispered something to Melissa. I figured that she’d caught me staring. Girls seemed to have a sixth sense for that sort of thing.
“Do you guys want to come by for a drink tonight?” Melissa said. “We’re in Apartment 307.”
“We can’t,” Jack immediately responded.
The wonderful fantasies dancing around inside my head vanished, replaced by an urge to crush every bone in Jack’s throat. “Give us a minute,” I said to the girls.
I leaned in close to Jack. “What are you doing?”
“We’re meeting a contact tonight.”
“A contact?” It took me a moment to grasp that he was talking about his stupid Hitler investigation. “Come on, Jack. Have you seen these girls?”
“They aren’t going anywhere.”
I peeked at Melissa and Rosa. They were giggling about something. “No offense, but –”
“I thought you were going to help me out,” he said.
“I am. But you said we’d have fun too.”
He nodded. “We will. I scheduled this meeting a week ago. You weren’t even down here. How could I know that we’d meet anybody tonight?”
I sighed. “Fine.”
I walked over to the girls. They stared at me, waiting, eager looks on their faces.
“Rain check?” I said, forcing the words out of my mouth. We agreed to get together sometime soon, but I suspected that I’d blown my one opportunity.
We met Jack’s contact, Alex, at Lefty’s, a bar on La Cienega. The drinks were modern, but the piano music and checkered floors reminded me of a bar from an old movie. I could almost imagine Humphrey Bogart or Cary Grant walking in the door.
“Alex is a Nazi hunter,” Jack said.
I studied Alex, trying to imagine him hunting Nazis. He was small and smelled like cheap cologne, with a boyish face that clashed with his receding hairline.
Alex laughed. “I keep telling Jack that I’m not a Nazi hunter, but he doesn’t listen.”
I sipped my cocktail. “He has that problem sometimes.”
“Alex is being modest. He works at the Simon Wiesenthal Center,” Jack said, waiting for a reaction. I shrugged. The name meant nothing to me. “As in the Simon Wiesenthal. The world’s most famous Nazi hunter.”
“That doesn’t mean I’m a Nazi hunter,” Alex said. “I work in education outreach. Trust me, I don’t hunt Nazis. I have enough trouble finding my keys.”
Jack cleared his throat. “So, Alex, are you ready to have your mind blown?”
“Oh, is this the mysterious investigation? Jack’s been promising me a bombshell, but he hasn’t told me anything. This should be good.”
Jack either didn’t notice or didn’t care that Alex was teasing him. He began to explain his theory, speaking so rapidly that he barely paused to breathe between sentences.
Alex quickly stopped him. “Let me get this straight. Hitler’s living in Pasadena?” Alex said. Jack nodded. “Well, shit, let’s call the cops.”
“I’m serious,” Jack said.
Alex put his arm around Jack’s shoulder. “Of course you are. That’s what I love about you. How about Eva Braun? Is she in Pasadena right now knitting a quilt?”
I chuckled. Jack glared at me, then pushed Alex’s arm away.
“I want you to get involved in the investigation,” Jack said to Alex.
“You realize that they found Hitler’s body, right?”
Jack rolled his eyes. “The Soviets found Hitler. The Soviets. You know what they found? Burned remains.”
The waitress brought us a bowl of pretzels and we ordered another round of drinks.
“Anyway,” Jack said. “Stalin – whose own army discovered the remains – was convinced that the Allies had Hitler stashed away somewhere. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?”
Jack smirked, but Alex didn’t seem impressed. “Ok. So Hitler somehow fakes his death. Then what?”
“Best I can tell he went to South America first, then eventually made his way to LA. There were rumors about Hitler being spotted in Argentina.”
“The CIA investigated those rumors. They found nothing.”
“That’s because he didn’t stay there.”
“So he moved to LA and somehow was never recognized?” Alex said, his mouth stuffed with pretzels. I couldn’t believe how easily Alex rejected Jack’s arguments. Jack had an explanation for everything, and Alex had a response for every explanation. It was like watching a tennis match.
“Would you recognize Hitler without a mustache? With a different haircut?” Jack said.
Alex turned to me. “So what do you think, Roy? Do you believe this crap?”
They stared at me, waiting. Jack still seemed to think that he could convince me about Koch. Maybe, if I sided with Alex, Jack might finally comprehend the absurdity of his theory. But I couldn’t support Alex. Not now. To publically reject Jack’s theory – to Alex, of all people – would be a betrayal of our friendship. Jack would never forgive me.
“It seems unlikely,” I said. “But Jack’s one of the smartest people I know, so I’m trying to stay open-minded.”
“Look,” Alex said. “In case you aren’t aware, Hitler had serious health problems. I’m only telling you this because I don’t want you guys to waste your time.”
“Health problems?” I said. All the videos I’d seen of Hitler showed an absurdly energetic man. Mentally unstable, yes, but physically healthy.
Alex nodded. “Parkinson’s disease, maybe. Do you really think that somebody who was in such bad shape in 1945 is still kicking around in 1980?”
I glanced at Jack. He didn’t look even mildly concerned. Whether or not he already knew about Hitler’s health problems, he disregarded the information with the skill of a religious zealot. “We’re going to his house tomorrow, Alex,” Jack said. “Why don’t you come see him for yourself?”
“We are?” I said.
Jack ignored me. “Come with us. Just one time. That’s all I ask.”
Alex shook his head. “Sorry, Jack, but this is way too farfetched.”
We waited until after rush hour the next morning, but traffic was still a slow crawl. Hundreds of movies and TV shows had failed to prepare me for the sprawling reality of Los Angeles. Except for downtown LA, which seemed to be more eyesore than destination, I saw little of the city from the confines of the freeway.
After nearly an hour of driving, Jack parked across the street from Koch’s ranch-style house and we began our stakeout. The house was located on a quiet street, the kind of street where children rode bikes without worrying about speeding cars. Everything screamed American dream – the cottonwoods blanketing the house with shade, the freshly-mowed lawn, the knee-high fence separating the sidewalk from the lawn. The house might as well have come from central casting.
I pointed out the Reagan for President sign sticking out of the lawn.
“So?” Jack said.
“Do you really think that Hitler would cheat death, travel across the world, and assume a new identity, just to campaign for Reagan?”
Jack considered the question. “You think he’d be more of a Carter guy?”
I opened my window and extended my arm, letting the warm breeze roll over my skin. “That’s not what I’m saying. Why campaign for anybody? Wouldn’t it be smarter to keep a low profile?”
“It’s just a sign.”
“Ok, Jack. Whatever you say,” I said, giving up. I pulled a magazine out of my backpack and began to read. Jack said something about two sets of eyes being better than one, but I had no desire to stare at an old man’s house all day long.
I hoped that we’d explore LA after lunch, which we ate at a nearby pizza place, but Jack drove back to Koch’s house. “I want you to see him,” he explained in response to my protests.
“Why don’t we just knock on the door and ask him if he’s Hitler? Wouldn’t that be easier?”
A serious look came over Jack’s face. “He’ll disappear the second that he senses something’s off.”
So, again, we parked across the street and stared at the house, waiting for something – anything – to happen. Were real police stakeouts this dull? The most likely scenario at this point seemed to involve a bored housewife standing at her kitchen window, writing down our license plate, and calling the cops, convinced that we were burglars casing the neighborhood. Two kids carrying tennis rackets walked by around 1:00 p.m., then the street was lifeless until the mailman arrived around 1:30 p.m.
“I wonder what type of mail Koch gets,” Jack said.
I shrugged. “What do old people read? National Geographic?”
“His mail? That’s illegal.”
Jack chuckled. “Then you’d better keep an eye out for the FBI.” He slid out of the car, strolled over to the mailbox, and reviewed the contents, then hurried back to the car. “Just bills,” he said, disappointed, as if he’d expected to find a letter from a neo-Nazi organization.
“I hope we aren’t coming back tomorrow,” I said. Today, Jack wanted to sift through Koch’s mail; tomorrow, it might be his garbage. “Surveillance doesn’t seem useful.”
Jack pulled a comb out of his jeans and began to style his hair in the rearview mirror. “Actually, I was thinking we’d head to the Central Library tomorrow. Or maybe UCLA.”
I shifted my weight. I’d spent the past two days in the car, and the previous night sleeping on Jack’s sofa, so my tailbone was tender. “Let’s go somewhere interesting tomorrow.”
“Anywhere. I want to actually see LA.”
“Relax. You haven’t even been here a day.”
“Whatever,” I said. I wasn’t interested in arguing. “Let me know if anything happens.”
I reclined my seat, shut my eyes, and covered my face with a baseball cap. As my breathing slowed, I imagined a world in which Jack’s theory was correct. How would people react? Would he be executed after all this time? If so, what country would execute him?
Jack nudged me after a while, startling me from my half-sleep. “Here he comes.”
I raised the seat and rubbed my eyes. By this point I was beyond curious to see Helmut Koch. Admittedly, though I found Jack’s theory laughable, a small part of me expected Koch to march out of the house in full Nazi attire. Instead, a man with thin white hair and a slight hunchback shuffled down the path to the sidewalk. He wore a long-sleeve shirt tucked into pleated slacks that were hiked up at least two inches above his waist.
“Do you see the resemblance?” Jack said when Koch reached the mailbox. I squinted, trying to see Hitler in Koch’s face, trying to imagine a toothbrush mustache on his upper lip, but all I saw was an old man.
Koch must have sensed that he was being watched because he lifted his head and stared at the car, squinting. He smiled and tentatively raised his hand in greeting. I couldn’t decide whether to wave back, so I followed Jack’s lead and sat there, frozen, staring back at Koch. Koch dropped his hand, then turned and shuffled back to his house.
Jack started the car and sped off, driving through two stop signs. He pulled over after several blocks and started pounding the steering wheel with his hands.
“Shit, shit, shit. He knows.”
“Knows what?” I said.
“That we’re on to him.”
“What are you talking about?”
“We spooked him. He looked scared.”
“Jack, we were parked in front of his house, just staring at him. We didn’t even return his greeting. That would spook anyone.”
Jack slapped his forehead with his palm. “He’s going to disappear. I know it. He’s going to disappear.”
The prospect of the frail old man we’d just encountered disappearing from anywhere seemed absurd, but Jack wouldn’t listen, no matter how many times I told him that there was nothing to worry about. He remained frantic during the entire drive back to the apartment, analyzing every miniscule detail of Koch’s actions.
Jack paced around the apartment, scratching his stubble, while I watched TV. “We can’t let him disappear,” he kept repeating.
After twenty or thirty minutes, somebody knocked on the door. I opened the door, expecting to meet an angry downstairs neighbor, but it was Melissa.
“We’re heading to the beach for a few hours and thought you guys might want to join?” she said.
“Can’t. We’re on our way to Pasadena,” Jack said.
“No, we’re not,” I snapped. I didn’t know what Jack was planning, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t going all the way back to Pasadena, and I certainly wasn’t going to blow another chance with Melissa and Rosa.
Melissa glanced back and forth between Jack and me. “Maybe we should just get together another time?”
“No, I’m coming with you,” I said. “Just let me change my clothes. Meet downstairs in ten?”
She smiled. “Sounds good.”
I shut the door and turned toward Jack.
“We can’t let Koch disappear,” he said.
I nodded. “Got it.”
“If you got it, you wouldn’t be running off on some beach date. We can’t let him slip through our hands.”
I changed into my swimsuit. “We’ll go back to Koch’s tomorrow, ok?”
“Tomorrow’s too late. He’s on to us. He’ll be gone by tomorrow.” He paused. “We’re going to have to snatch him.”
“Snatch him? Like kidnap?”
“Not kidnap. Just temporarily borrow. We’ll tie him up and leave him at the Wiesenthal Center with a letter explaining who he is.”
“Do you hear yourself? I mean, honestly, are you insane?”
“Don’t worry. Nobody will catch us.”
“Of course they’ll catch you. You told Alex all about Koch, remember? But that doesn’t even matter. You’re talking about kidnapping somebody. You can’t go around kidnapping people.”
“He’s not people. He’s Hitler.”
“He’s not Hitler! Jesus, you’re like one of those guys who wastes his life searching for the Loch Ness Monster. Do what you want, but I’m going to the beach.”
I tried to walk away, but Jack clamped his hand around my wrist. “We have to do this,” he said. He was standing so close that I could smell the sourness of his breath. “Please. I need your help. After this the investigation is done.”
For a moment, my resolution wavered. “Done?”
“Done. I promise. I can’t do this without you, man.”
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I couldn’t force Jack to behave rationally, but I refused to follow his delusions any further. “I’m sorry, but you’re on your own.”
He squeezed my wrist tighter. I struggled to wriggle free, but his grip remained strong. “Let go,” I said, trying to pry his fingers from my wrist. My chest tightened and the rage inside me began to grow, becoming larger and larger until it felt like my body was going to burst. “Let go, Jack.”
But he still wouldn’t loosen his grip. My free hand balled into a fist and my arm began to swing. By the time Jack saw the fist it was too late, and his head recoiled from the impact. He released my wrist and took a step backward. We stared at each other. There was wonder in his eyes.
I grabbed Jack’s car keys and sprinted out the door. He chased me down the stairs. I didn’t know where I was going; all that mattered was outrunning Jack. But he was fast. I could hear him behind me, and I realized that it was only a matter of seconds before he caught up to me. I turned left and ran toward the pool. As I approached the pool, I pulled my arm back and flung the keys. They landed on top of a pile of leaves, then plopped into the water.
I turned and faced Jack. “You aren’t kidnapping anyone without keys,” I shouted, triumphant.
He stared at me, lip quivering, a piercing look in his eyes. Then he lowered his head and charged, slamming his head into my chest and forcing the wind out of me. I fell to the ground and gasped for air.
Jack pulled off his shoes and dove into the water. A few seconds passed, and then a few more, and he still hadn’t come up for air. I stood near the edge of the pool and tried to spot him amongst the tangle of leaves and branches, but I couldn’t find him. I removed my shirt and prepared to jump in. Suddenly, Jack emerged from the water and grabbed the edge of the pool. His head and upper body were covered with leaves. He took several deep breaths, sucking oxygen into his lungs.
“Jack,” I said, but he didn’t seem to hear me. “Come on, Jack. Get out of the pool.”
He glanced at me, an empty look on his face. “We can’t let him get away,” he said. Then he disappeared back into the dark water.