Before The Father He Knew

                                                                    Für Burgi

“Sag ihm, dass ich in einer minute unten sein werde,” he wished he understood what his mother said. She hung up the hotel phone. “Xaver is in the restaurant.”  His right hand pressed down on the mattress, as though he needed it for balance. “Wait here Finnian, and I’ll come back to get you.” Before leaving, she drank the last third of her white wine and set the empty glass on the nightstand. He didn’t know what to do with himself. Waiting for her to give the “okay” made the meeting too formal.  Over the small desk, the ceiling was slanted with a skylight window. He had to duck to sit down. He opened the top drawer and found a pen and the hotel stationary, Hotel-Gasthof Zur Post. I’m meeting my birth father for the first time. He stared at the sentence, waiting for his feelings to pour out onto the stationary. No words had piled up in his mind to put down on paper. He set the pen across the stationary and rolled it forward onto the desk. He hoped she would not come back for him for quite a long time.

He went to the window that overlooked the old center of Bad Abbach, the “Am Markt,” with its red and gray checkered cobblestones interrupted by the St. Christopherus fountain. Above the red-tiled gabled roofs and tree line, he could see the Heinrich Tower and the clock on St Nikolaus’ steeple. The onion-domed Kath Kirche St Georg in Peising Bad Abbach was where he was christened. That’s what his mom had told him. He left at such a young age his memories are what she seemed to carefully select for him. I already told you, was her stock answer to get him to stop asking for more stories about his first two years in Bad Abbach. The bits and pieces she shared with him were told in a rush, as though she did not want to draw attention to herself. He learned it was best to leave alone what answers he was given. After all, he felt no familiarity with this place where he had started his life.   

He heard the key card in the door. Mom casually held a new half-full glass of white wine. For some reason, he thought Xaver would be with her.

“We have a nice table. Are you hungry?” She straightened his collar under his sweater. “You look handsome.” 

Before they left, he went over to the desk and tore off the stationary with his sentence, folded it in fourths, and tucked it in his right front pocket. She took a long sip, the wine glass fogged up from her exhale.

As they walked down the hallway, he felt embarrassed at the thought that if the restaurant were full, he wouldn’t be able to pick out Xaver. Fortunately, it was between lunch and dinner hour, and the restaurant was empty. The lone man sitting at the back table looked like an older version of a photo Finn had seen of Xaver. He wore a yellow sweater over a white collared shirt with a white-gray argyle pattern down the front. He had thick black hair. Finn had his mom’s blonde hair.  When Xaver stood up, he was a head shorter than him. Finn caught himself staring at him. He put his hands in his pockets. 

She translated what Xaver said, “You are tall like your grandfather, and you have his curly hair.”

He had picked out the word Opa because he called his American grandparents Oma and Opa.

He sat between the two of them at the head of the table.

His mother was beautiful. Today, her makeup was a little more than usual. She sat twisting her chunky beaded necklace.

He had never seen a man in his family who looked like him. Except for being tall, Finn looked nothing like the father who raised him. He had heard whispers from friends and other parents followed with, but he’s tall like his father, which seemed to erase any doubt. In his family, there was an unspoken agreement to let people whisper. And to never speak of Finn’s birth father. Not wanting to be obvious he glanced at Xaver, the contours of his face, the same nose, strong jawline, and with Mom’s high cheekbones and blue-green eyes, he was all at once able to complete the mind’s-eye picture of himself he had never been able to put together. He didn’t know how to respond to seeing the other half of his features in person. The recognition was not something he had planned on.   

“What?” she had asked something, then he realized. “No champagne.”   

The waiter was at their table. He was close in age to Xaver.

“Today is your birthday, you’re twenty-one now,” she said. “Here in Germany, the legal age is sixteen.”

He thought champagne tasted like vinegar.

“A beer, please?”

Xaver grinned. “Ich auch,” he held up two fingers. “Zwei Bier.”

He guessed Xaver understood a little English.

The waiter spoke with Xaver without formality. He looked at Finn, then back to Xaver as though he were piecing together their similarities and appeared pleased by what he saw. “I have heard many good things about you,” he said.

Finn was too surprised to reply with the question he wanted to ask. Does Xaver talk about me?

The waiter was about to continue, when she said, “we should order.” Finn wished she hadn’t interrupted. He thought the waiter was going to answer his question without his having to ask it. He pointed to the word Ravioli on the menu, the waiter took the rest of their order, and left with the menus.

She released her finger from her twisted necklace. As Xaver spoke, he nudged his salad fork slightly to the side and then back to the original position. It seemed to slow down his words, making him sound thoughtful.

“Xaver was really looking forward to meeting you. Your whole family is looking forward to meeting you,” she translated. “He hopes you feel the same way.”

He had been told when she married Dad and they left for America, that Xaver was relieved to no longer have had to pay child support; that Xaver and Finn’s German family wanted nothing to do with him and his mom. He wanted to be honest and say, I don’t know what to feel about all this, but he told a half-lie and said he felt the same way. 

“He wants to know what sports you like. If you ski?”

“No, I don’t ski.”

She translated to Xaver, then added. “Xaver is an excellent skier. Kitzbühel is his favorite place to ski.”

He was supposed to ask him a question to get to know him better. But where and how was he to begin? There was nothing between them, no history, no starting point. Just a blank page. Then it came to him, it’s simple, and he is embarrassed that the question came to him unexpectedly. What happened between Xaver and his mom? In his family, this question was suspended and enforced by her changing memories. Bringing Xaver’s name up made her uncomfortable to the point of not being able to hide her physical irritation. He learned by watching his dad that when it came to this topic he had to be careful with her. How odd it was that Dad hardly spoke of Xaver. Finn had three answers to his question: it was an affair, or depending on her mood, they were going to get married, and the most hurried one, it was a one-night stand. Dad never questioned her; and neither did he. He leaned back in his chair to give her and Xaver more space to talk.

As the two of them spoke German, he felt he was sitting one chair away. He looked for the waiter, hoping the drinks would come, create some kind of filler. She had finished her wine, but her mood hadn’t changed. For that to happen, she would need a couple more.

Even as their conversation seemed cordial, she kept her slight lean away from Xaver. Finally, the drinks arrived.

“Xaver tell me you make very good grades,” the waiter said to Finn. “That you go to good university. He have show me photos of you.”

She must have seen Finn’s confused look, because she said, “We can talk about that later.” 

“I think I say something,” the waiter started, then Xaver exchanged a few words with the waiter. “I say something I should have not.” The waiter set down their drinks and left.

“Photos?” Finn’s question was directed somewhere between the two of them.

“We can talk about it later.”

“What photos?”

“Of you.”

“Childhood photos?”


Because the word for photo sounds the same in German, Xaver must have understood what was being said. He said something and made a hand gesture as if to tell her to explain.

“I sent Xaver photos of you.”

“You have photos of me?”

Xaver’s delayed understanding surfaced with a single head nod, and he spoke directly to Finn.

“He thought you knew,” she translated. “He wanted photos of you. It was part of the deal I made with Xaver.”

He never would have thought Xaver would have wanted photos of him. That’s what he had been led to feel. Would Xaver have a photo of him on display in his home, be married, and have children, Finn’s half-siblings? Abruptly the questions tumbled over each other. How much was hidden from him about Xaver and his German family? He had a sick feeling in the back of his stomach he had never felt before. 

“I thought I told you,” she said. “I could have sworn I told you.” 

For a moment he didn’t recognize her, she might as well have been a stranger. He couldn’t look at her. His mind went blank, nothing, think nothing. He looked up and out. Where’s the waiter? Nothing, think nothing, keep the blank spaces in their place. Again, the sick feeling in his stomach.

“Oh, it’s no big deal,” she said.

Agree with her, he told himself, and everything will return to the way it was.

“Sure, Mom.”

“It’s your birthday.”

Xaver held up his beer glass, “Happy Birthday, Finnian,” he said in a thick accent.

“Alles Gute zum Geburtstag,” she said.

They clinked glasses. Finn was late with his glass and put it down without drinking.

“Finnian, all is okay?” Xaver asked.

“He’s fine,” she said and switched to German to speak to Xaver.

In a softer voice, Xaver spoke directly to him. His hand moved towards Finn and stopped short of touching him.

He waited for her to translate.

Finally, she did. “He said it’s a shame you don’t speak German, and he doesn’t understand why, when your family is here.”

She tilted her head down and away to hide her irritation with Xaver.  She was not used to anyone confronting her choices. 

“Oh good, the food is coming,” she put her napkin on her lap.

Xaver and the waiter seemed to have a private conversation that was filled with little talking and a handful of head nods. 

“Guten Appetit,” she said.

“Guten Appetit, Finnian,” Xaver said.

“Thank you.”

“Dankeschöne.” Xaver said directly to him. “Dankeschöne.”

“Dankeschöne,” Finn repeated.

Xaver held up his beer glass and Finn joined him.

The sick feeling in his stomach had all but gone and his appetite returned.

After they commented on how good their meals were, she said. “He wants you to know that you will be welcomed by your family. Your aunt Louise speaks good English.”

“How many aunts and uncles do I have?”

She thought for a moment and had no answer. She must have asked Xaver because he held up six fingers.

Finn did the math out loud, “Seven of you?”

“Ja sieben,” Xaver said.

When he tried to picture his family and how the meeting would go, he had no memory of ever seeing a photograph of them. He was left with a box he could not figure out how to open.    

“What?” He asked his mom.

“We’re going to have to call your father soon.”

There was a six-hour time difference.

“He’ll want to hear from you, wish you a happy birthday.”

He’d have gotten home from work by now and finished dinner. Probably sandwiches, he wasn’t much of a cook. Early in the morning, he had received a birthday text from him, nothing was mentioned about his meeting his birth father.  

They were almost finished with their meal when a small cake and a lit candle slowly made their way to their table. She and Xaver joined the waiter in singing happy birthday in German. She took out her phone, opened the camera, and took photos.

“Make a wish,” she said.

He paused for a moment, pretending like he was thinking of one when all he wanted to do was to be by himself and not have to pretend that this was a typical birthday. He blew out the candle. She gave her phone to the waiter to take photos of the three of them. He had a hard time looking into the camera.

“Smile, Finn,” she said.

The waiter took a photo. Xaver followed with his camera phone. Finn had left his phone in his room. He blew out the candle and poked at his piece of cake with his fork.

“Aren’t you hungry?” she asked.

“Not really, I think I’m still jet-lagged.”

“Lecker,” Xaver said.

“Yes, very tasty,” she said. “We can save it for later.”

The waiter put the cake in a to-go box. 

“Thank Xaver for taking care of everything,” she said.

He was about to say thank you, when he said without a thought, “Dankeschöne.”

“Gern geschehen,” Xaver said.

While she spoke to Xaver, he looked at Finn the whole time.

She turned to Finn.” I told him that I made good on my promise. That you would meet Xaver when you turned twenty-one. Now it’s up to you. I’ve done my part.”   

He knew what she was doing, knew it was her mess he was left to sort through and it was impossible for him to pull at the right thread that would unravel twenty-one years of being shut out from Xaver. The strangeness of it all went beyond anger or sadness; it left him unable to even begin to find a beginning. 

“What did he say?” Xaver said something directly to him.

“He wants to know if you had a good birthday,” she said. The wine and champagne had made her glossy-eyed and vacant.

Finn forced himself to answer, “Yes.”

He tried to convince himself that everything would remain as it was, to leave himself as he was before this day. He had the naive idea that since he had never met Xaver, they would be nothing alike. No matter how he struggled to keep the screen up between Xaver and him, he had to admit he saw how similar they were in physical likeness and mannerisms. Both tilted their head to the left when listening intently. So much so that Finn corrected his posture to not seem like he was mimicking Xaver. Both pursed their lips slightly outward, not in disapproval, but in contemplation of how to answer. He could tell Xaver was not an outgoing man, slow to warm up to, and Finn guessed they were alike in having a few select friends. 

Except for their water glasses and the to-go box of birthday cake, the table had been cleared.     

When it was time to leave, they found themselves lingering at the entrance to the restaurant to say their goodbyes. Xaver stood just inside the arched doorway.

“Xaver wanted to meet you this way. Just us without the entire family,” she said. “He thought it would be best for you.”

“I understand,” Finn said. “I will see you tomorrow.”

After she translated, Xaver said, “Ja, ja bis morgen.”

She drifted two steps to the side and back, leaving Finn suspended between the two of them. He looked over his shoulder at her. She seemed far away. He shifted his weight from one leg to the other, the awkward silence made him feel like he was on stage. He was about to say something in English when he realized Xaver wouldn’t understand. Nothing came to him. Xaver reached into his front pocket and pulled out folded-over bills of money. They were hundred euros. He was confused.  Xaver had already paid the check. He held out five one hundred euros for Finn. Without knowing what to say, he looked over to his mom for an answer. It felt wrong for him to accept money from a man he didn’t know, a man he was told had wanted nothing to do with him.   

“It’s okay,” she said. “It’s for you. For your birthday.”

Finn accepted the euros and put them in his right front pocket. He felt the folded hotel stationery that he had forgotten about. All at once, something dislodged inside of his chest, a hot and cold chill rushed up his shoulders, up the back of his neck. He turned away from Xaver. The tears leaked out. He walked past his mom, across the empty restaurant. He felt her walking just behind him. He went up the stairs, and down the hallway, wiping his eyes and face with both hands. He didn’t know why he was crying. He wanted to apologize to both of them. She was a half-step behind him until he stopped at his room. “Oh, Finnian, please don’t,” she managed to say. Their rooms were across from one another. He couldn’t look at her, but he wanted her to say more, wanted her to give answers to what had just happened. With his mom, he would never discover what truly happened among him and her and Xaver. To calm himself, he slowly exhaled. She stayed on her side of the hallway in front of her door.

“It was a big day, and I think we need to get some rest.”


“I’ll call your father and tell him everything went well, and you had a happy birthday.”


“I need to lie down,” she went into her room.

After her door closed, he waited a minute before heading down the hallway and out of the hotel. He needed to get some air. He had stopped crying.

Outside the arched hotel doorway, the waiter smoked a cigarette. He wasn’t wearing his apron. Long shadows slanted across the cobblestones and here and there people strolled by. Finn wiped his cheeks to make sure there was no sign of him crying.

“You make a good birthday party?” The waiter stopped him.


“Is everything okay?”

Finn’s eyes felt puffy.

“Would you like a glass of water?”

Finn shook his head.

“Xaver was very happy to finally meet you.” The waiter had a nice voice. Finn decided to stay. 

“Do you know him well?”

“Ja, ja, we go to school together.” Finn declined the waiter’s offer of a cigarette.  “The balcony of Xaver’s home looked at our window.”

“You grew up with him.”

“Grew up? I’m sorry but my English.”

“No, your English is very good.” He searched for the right words. “You were childhood friends.”

“I know your Oma and Opa and family. They are like my family. They are very nice people, very respectful.” The waiter took the last drag off his cigarette. “You will see when you meet them.”

He put his cigarette in the ashtray outside the doorway and looked back towards the restaurant.

“Am I keeping you?” Finn asked.

“No.” The waiter took two steps to the right, away from the entrance, and Finn followed. “You must have many questions.”

He nodded.

“You know not much?”

“Not much.”

“You should know your father is a good man, respectful to people.”

The waiter must have seen his surprised look, “it is true,” he added.

Finn gazed down at the cobblestones, wondering how much he should say.

“You don’t believe?”

“I do, but it’s not what I was told.”

“I see,” the waiter lit another cigarette. “You can ask me anything about your father.”

“I don’t know where to begin.”

“Ja, ja it is okay. I can explain you later.” The waiter stared at him. “You look so much like him when he was your age.”

“I do?”

“Very much. You also, how do you say in English? You remind me of him. He is your father.”

Finn didn’t know how to answer.

“I am sorry sometime I say too much. I have how do you say in English, a big mouth. If you want we do not have to talk about this.”

“It’s okay. You don’t have a big mouth.”

“I think we understand us.”

Finn nodded, then, “It sounds strange, Xaver being called my father.”

“Ja, ja of course.”

“I grew up with a father.”

“He must have spoken to you about this.”

“Not really.”

“A little?”

“I knew I had family here.”

“And your mother? She must have spoken to you about this. She is from Germany.”


“I think I understand you.” The waiter paused.  “Xaver will understand, you can ask him questions. He is easy to talk with.”

“I don’t speak German.”

“Your Tante Louise speaks good English. She can help you.” The waiter was halfway through his cigarette. “I can’t believe your mother did not speak German to you. She should have not done this.”

“I don’t have an answer.”

“Now you have a reason to learn German.”

He nodded. “What does my Tante Louise look like?”

“She is the youngest.” The waiter stopped himself, then, “you really know nothing?”

“Just about.”

“You will not have to worry. They are your family, and they speak of you as family.”

“They do?”

“Ja, ja of course. You will find this when you meet them.”

“Dankeschöne,” Finn said. “What is your name?”


“I’m Finnian.”

“I know,” Otto put his cigarette out in the ashtray. “In German, you say, Ich bin Finnian.”

They shook hands, and he repeated, “Ich bin Finnian.”

“I am here five days. We speak again.”

“I would like that.”

“Bis bald.”

“Bis bald?”

“See you soon.”

“Ja, Bis bald,” he said.

“Already you learn.”

They both smiled, and Otto went inside the restaurant.

He walked towards the pedestrian zone, “Am Markt,” the old center of Bad Abbach. The colorful burnt orange and bright yellow three-storied A-framed buildings were in shadow. Occasionally the lights in the windows were on. He liked the buildings with balconies and window flower boxes. He stopped at the fountain next to the little onion-domed pale-yellow church, the Katholische Marktkirche St. Christophorus. The cast iron bird bath-shaped fountain stood in the middle of a circular pool of water. There were no coins in the pool of water. He bent at his waist, reaching into the cool clear water, he scooped with his right hand and cupped his left under to hold onto the water. The water seeped from his overlapping cupped hands and dripped down his wrist. He opened his hands up so they were facing him. Then he turned them over and over again. His hands were clean. He let the air dry them. As he decided on which way to walk, he looked over his left shoulder at the hotel, he knew he would not return the way he had come. After a moment, he headed down the narrow, cobbled stone Die Kleine Geschäftesstraße, the Little Shop Street. The cafes began to fill and more windows were lit. The street was very narrow. Here everything felt close to him.

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CategoriesShort Fiction
Daniel Beer

Actor and author Daniel Beer’s body of work includes lead roles in, Love Finds A Home, a Hallmark TV movie. Creepshow 2, Dying Young, Point Break, and several lead guest star roles in one-hour dramas. He also appeared in Michael Jackson's "Who Is It," video, and Paula Abdul's "Rush Rush." He is a member of The Actors Studio and attended the U.C.L.A. Advanced Fiction Program. He has had short fiction published in the literary magazine 34thParallel and Modern Literature Magazine. He has taught writing seminars at Lancaster State Prison.