Frau Bauer wore wigs–the kind you’d expect an old German woman to wear in the late 1970s—short, layered, and indecisively blond. These wigs went perfectly with the thick panty hose and costume jewelry she wore every day of the week inside her one-bedroom apartment in Queens. For all the hours my sister and I spent there while our mother went to school, we rarely saw Frau Bauer’s real, sparse head of hair. On those occasions, the lifeless wigs lay draped over styrofoam heads on top of a bureau, eerie and out of place.
Frau Bauer’s apartment always smelled of ham and the Raid spray she used to combat her hopeless infestation of roaches. Turning on the light in the kitchen, we’d see dozens of them scatter from the cat food dish across the linoleum floor, or dart over counter tops and into drawers. Once in a while, we’d find the pinnacle of horrors: a large pot in the sink that Frau Bauer had filled with water the night before, now brimming with hundreds of roaches lying motionless on their backs. This was the same pot she used to sometimes boil pigeons she found dead on the street, a special meal for her well-fed cats Nicky and Albert.
While my sister and I colored or read, Frau Bauer would sit at the table nearby, a rectangular magnifying glass pressed up to one eye as she pored over the latest TVGuide. Once in a while, a bag of Brach’s soft caramels, the kind sold in bulk at the A&P, appeared out of nowhere with their brightly-colored foil wrappers. Frau Bauer would dole out their sweetness in fractions ceremoniously cut with a knife. She’d do the same with almost everything we ate, as if toast spread with liverwurst tasted best in tiny squares. For all we knew, it did.
The TV was in the bedroom, where my sister and I would often retreat onto a large featherbed to watch our favorite shows like “Little House of the Prairie,” “Good TImes,” and “The Carol Burnett Show.” On nights when there was nothing much to watch, the cuckoo clocks in the hallway sounded extra loud, cruelly marking the minutes with their robotic chirps and chimes, before we finally heard our mother’s knock.
I know very little about Frau Bauer’s life before we met her, except that she’d grown up between two wars; that she was a widow for nearly half her life; and that she spoke very little English for having lived here for so long. Maybe the question isn’t who Frau Bauer was, but rather who we were to her. A family of three who seemed to fall from the sky one day and land two flights above her, who happened to speak the language of her youth, and have all the the time in the world to keep her company.