What Does She See?

When we enter, Oma’s gazing at the wall.
Unsmiling. Her eyes red hollows.
Opa announces that I crossed Germany to see her.
She asks for a tissue but can’t bring it to her face.
Holding up the spread square of tissue, frozen.
Opa wipes her raw nose, pulls her straight.
Her body always caves around that missing hip.
He asks, “Remember the last time you saw Stefan?”
Shrinking back, she names an event ten years past.
He starts to correct her…
But just tips the sippycup of coffee to her trembling lips.
And laughing rolls her fingers, one by one, between his own.
I suck on sweets and look out at the parking lot.
He deposits in her limp palm a rubber spikeball.
I can’t, Oma whimpers. I can’t I can’t there’s no use.
And the sunlight comes in like a memory; we sweat.
One drives till the vehicle breaks down.
Till the windows go blind.
Into the cold that neither begins nor ends.
Following his lead, she lifts one hand over her head.
Then slowly, painfully, the other hand.
And her eyes say:
rat death shit fire filth maggot mold ash.
We leave her lopsided in her wheelchair.
Once more staring at the wall.

You Can’t Escape Your Body

You were my favorite hand. That’s why I flung you out when my bicycle skidded sideways, as if it were being pulled out from beneath me, and the pavement became a wall that expanded until it filled the world.

CRUNCH.

It was like high-fiving God.

The dark city vanished. It was just you and me revolving in space—barely me, almost all you—and your wrist had a molten crevice, and stars were embedded in your palm, ringing a high pure note of pain that was strangely perfect and almost beautiful.

I didn’t mean to sacrifice you. I’d gladly have given your slacker sister, my right hand.

I’m sorry.   

*

While I’m still assembling myself from a thousand scattered pieces, a flock of birds descend on me and turn into concerned strangers.

Instantly they seem like the only real problem.

I announce that I’m okay, and chuckle to prove my point. I stagger upright, and with my left arm folded T-rex-style across my chest, hobble with my bike through the gathering crowd, ignoring all further inquiries.

The bike I leave unlocked against a wall. I’d known it was shit, but to save money I’d ridden it anyway. Fuck me and fuck that bike. Let it be stolen.

I limp down stairs to a waiting train, where I lower myself painfully into the seat and text my boss:

Had a little accident, might be twenty minutes late.

But now I can’t procrastinate any longer. I have to look.

My right thumb: wrenched and radiating chill spikes.

Elbows: bloodied and banged, but whole.

Knees: reddening my jeans, with holes disclosing a sort of magma jam. Unpleasant, but just scraped flesh.

Finally the left wrist, which

has a quirky new angle.

Staring in horror, I can’t uncurl the fingers.

Whole-body shivers hit me like a shower of sparks.

*

In shadowless hospital light I bite my bookbag’s zippers to get at my notebook, and with my lesser hand crabbed around the pen, I jaggedly scrawl You can’t escape your body.

Then: I speak so crooked with my spare voice.

My left forearm has doubled in size. But I can’t think about that.

The coffee machine eats my two euros, then stares at me insolently. Should I kick it, should I scream and one-handedly pull out my hair?

Abruptly everything’s funny: no coffee, no money, no hand.

Hahaha.

*

Please just give me back my usual problems

and I promise to be grateful for them.

*

Several million years later the nurse calls me in for x-rays, and to maintain my arm in the proper position I have to growl and hunch over, twisting awkwardly sideways into a rough swastika, with one bloodied knee coming up.

Cherry-cheeked and cheerful doc informs me I’ll need a permanent titanium plate. They’re sending me home for the night, but in the morning I’ll need to nip on down so they can slice open my wrist halfway to the elbow.

They won’t even put me under.

For now he’ll need to straighten out the bone. He tightens white weaves over my fingers, then hangs my hand from hooks and attaches weights to my bicep.

I’m left alone for twenty minutes. One by one my fingers tingle, then wink out of existence.

Just a big ol’ frozen lobsterclaw.

The happy-go-lucky doc returns, his high spirits somehow gruesome. With hands as strong as machines he mashes my wristbones back into place, going hmm, hmm, squeeeeezing, hmmmmmm, SQUEEZING, hmmmmmmmmmm, rolling and and thumbing and pulping while my wristbones crackle like papyrus scrolls.

I suspect that the doctor is a professional sadist, crushing patients for his own sick pleasure. I rob him of his satisfaction by staying silent.

“You’re very brave,” he remarks, being unable to see my face.

*

I’m released at three a.m with my arm in a plaster coffin.

After a nauseous train-ride I find my bike almost where I left it, so obviously shitty even the thief noped out. For some reason I decide I should drag it home single-handedly.

With every step my knees and elbows squeal.

At home, in the grip of a sort of weightlessness, I pack and pace and scroll through memes I don’t find funny, and think about the food I’m not allowed to eat, and the water I can’t drink.

I wait for their call.

Five a.m.

Six a.m.

Eight. Nine. I am sleepless, parched, losing strength, trying to just lie back and let time bear me along but totally unable to be still. I spend most of my time staring at my sleeping phone and waiting for it to scream.

My hand is a hunk of frozen ham, and the wrist has a chasm.

My chest does this weird chugging thing that is like crying without tears.

At noon I break and call every number I can find, and after nearly an hour in the wrong telephone queues I find out that the orthopedic ward has had a crazy Friday, unbelievable, catastrophic—and they can’t operate on me till Monday.

*

Two days waiting to be sliced.

Holding my mind stiff as the wrist, so that everything is muffled and far away, I stay inside my tiny room, which is not unlike a skull with a single rectangular eye. The electric heat parches my mouth, wastes my skin. Posters crackle on the walls and my notes blacken at the edges.

Feasting on garbage food brought to me by an angel, I walk my good hand like a spider over the tabletop, then push off, ascending.

My surviving hand, floating in space.

When I wash the dishes one-handed, the bowls hop around clanging, till I laugh a dusty and infertile laugh.

I open the window to save my life but find I’m angry at the birds.

At night I spoon the cast and count the hours until—

The hospital is a pale promise, a white hole that had been waiting all this time while I stumbled around in stupid health.

I roll over, and formerly joined bones rub on one another, sending sparks thudding into my brain.

But it’s just arm surgery—how can I be so cowardly?

How do people with cancer ever survive?

Not just illness but treatments, curative poisons,

the scalpels catheters wheeled beds intermittent beeps,

surrounded but utterly alone.

Sepsis. Chronic pain. Complications.

My blanket pins me to the mattress.

I am being buried alive in my bed.

It’s coming it’s coming

and there’s nothing I can do.

*

Morning of, I wake at four.

I take my first shower since the.

Outdoors, a cruel chill. Plump drops.

Bus-stop flapping with newspapers.

Eerily empty bus.

Wobbling heads on the metro.

Rain-dust side-streets under construction.

The hospital—a block of solid light.

Admissions unstaffed. All empty chairs.

Me reading white-faced in unbearable silence.

Clerk. Papers. Hallways. Increasingly ominous signage.

The gatekeeper who takes my earthly belongings and gives me a hospital gown, gauzy underwear, blue plastic bags for my feet.

I lie on the bed they have prepared for me.

Nurses roll me toward the gathering conclusion. We joke, and there is more of that unpleasant crackling laughter that cannot possibly be mine.

Someone removes my glasses, and I enter the blur.

*

I’d chosen local anesthesia but I am seriously questioning my wisdom as they jam needle after needle into my armpit, shoving the steel spear around and jolting my fingers into a dance.

Every time I whimper, a certain nurse oohs and aahs, sounding genuinely hurt for me, and her sympathy strikes me so deeply I almost cry.

My arm begins to go away. The doctor pinches it.

“Does that hurt?”

“No, but I can feel it.”

“You’ll still be able to sense movement.”

Wait a fucking minute—WHAT?

We cast off. I say nothing but I want out. I’ll adjust to life one-handed. It wasn’t fair—I hadn’t asked for this body. It was thrust upon me. It’s a prison, only I’m the prison, destined to degenerate or be shattered, needled and pinched, shaved, scrubbed and flushed, cut, cut, and cut.

I am borne into a terrible room where seven or eight personnel await me.

What, so many maids of honor for my marriage to the scalpel?

The high priests arrive in masks. They stretch out my radio-static arm and sharpie where they’ll cut. I feel every nuzzle of the sharpie’s blunt nose.

Where’s the knife?

I begin to tremble.

Where’s the knife where’s the knife?

Slowly the talk trails off. Someone grunts. The empathetic nurse—I’d forgotten she existed—bends over me.

“Are you cold?”

I shake my head and begin to cry.

*

I’m given a shot for anxiety and a shot for sleep.

But they don’t wait. As the knife noses into my arm and tugs open the wristmeat, my head snaps up, I shudder. The surgeon growls, and I apologize in anguish, crying very quietly so as not to make it harder for them.

I don’t fall asleep completely. My hand is subject to squads of white-suited mechanics; it is like a white spider with five limbs and they’re carving up its abdomen and pulling out its intestines.

The ghost arm threads cold white veins into my chest.

It takes no time and forever.

*

The nurse appears from the fog and gently asks if I’m okay.

I nod—a lie. Her soft question seems like the kindest thing anyone has ever done for me. She’s close enough I can see her eyes, and they are fantastically feline, shaped like mosque-tops, with squiggling ornate eyebrows creased into eloquent sympathy. She’s so beautiful and so real. I cry again.

She stands up and out of my life.

*

I’m rolled to an empty room high above the city. The orderly opens the window, life blows in, and he leaves.

I grope for the bed control and slowly ascend on the rising pillows.

Outside, the sky up close and impersonal. And the city: the city: the city.

The back of my right hand is speckled with purple amoeba that flex and bounce as I thumbwrestle my pen.

In the distance, like a dystopian future approaching, towering glass hives bear billboards flickering through lurid ads, but nearby the old streets twist like the worn thoughts of the solemn, brick-browed buildings.

The arm’s still dead. It feels like it’s latched onto me, a parasite sucking on the stub of my shoulder. From the cast runs a thick tube dripping blood into what looks like a watercooler jug for mice. In my mind the surgical cut’s a flaming ladder, and the titanium plate plank-thick.

I am this thing that clutches its broken limb and sings.

When the sky darkens, I see my face in the window. Greasy hair thin as spiderlegs. Pate shiny with sickly sweat.

Eyes like archeological excavations.

Smile, buddy: this is what luck looks like.

Followed

[4:33 A.M.] O: ok im comin thru

I put on my headphones and went out to our tenth-floor balcony. Just a few blocks away was Toronto’s towering downtown—a deluxe crystal growth all the colors of credit cards—but the street below me was rough shit, an acned wasteland strewn with used needles, haunted by 3-D shadows and dumpster lurkers that scattered before the headlights of police patrols. There was even a dark humanish shape lying on the grass beside our driveway.

But no O. Why was she taking so long?

It was strange: when she got home, chances were we’d continue our grievous fight from before she left, she’d cry silently and I’d claw my skull, then we’d sleep back to back and avoid each other in the morning… but as I scanned the street, all I thought about was holding her and kissing her sweet head and rejoicing just because she was alive.

I texted her. It went unread.

Suddenly my music seemed stifling. I was reaching up to my headphones when someone grabbed my arm and wrenched me to one side. My heart leapt into my brain and exploded, this is it, I’m dead, and I swung around to face my executioner.

It was O. Still hauling on my arm.

“Come on! Come on!”

I resisted. Even tried to pull her down.

“Jesus FUCKIN Christ O, what’s wrong with you??”

“Come on! There’s no time!”

Then I saw she’d left our entrance door wide open, and I relented and hurried out with her.

About ten doors down, blocking the entire hallway, was one of the largest men I’d ever seen. His body looked inflated, bulging up against his hoodie and baggy jeans, while his head was tiny, a dark boil riding the massive ripple of his chest. His massive arms hung limply at his sides.

He was just far enough that I couldn’t make out his face.

O raised my hand high like I’d just K.O.ed someone.

“This is my HUSBAND, OKAY???”

I looked at her in disbelief. This dude could have crumpled me with one hand.

He didn’t answer. Not a twitch. Just the arms hanging like butchered pigs, and the bottomless stare out of a face I couldn’t see.

I hustled O inside, bolted the door and put my eye to the viewer: nothing… nothing… nothing.

O was in the kitchen drinking tapwater, long-legged in a ruffled short skirt, two big eyes visible over the cup. It had been a while since she’d looked like a priceless treasure to me. I took the glass out of her hands and embraced her tightly.

“He was in the elevator. On the ground floor. Just standing inside with the door closed.”

I drew back.

“And you got on anyway?!”

“I was so tired… I just got on and pressed our floor number. He didn’t press anything.”

“Oh my god.”

“He was looking at me the whole way up. Not saying anything, not smiling, just staring, staring… So I said, ‘Look, I have a husband, and he’s expecting me RIGHT NOW, okay?’ …No response. His face didn’t change. We reached our floor, he got off after me, I ran to you.”

“And what’d you think I was gonna do? He’s like three times my size!”

“I…”

“When you left the door open, you gave him his chance. If he’d come in… What were you thinking?”

She crossed her arms and looked at the floor.

“Never mind, I’m glad you’re okay,” I said, though I could feel our closeness already dissipating. I’d blown it again. I was unsheathing our ten-inch meat knife. “I’m going to check whether he’s there.”

In the viewer’s fish-eye I saw only the neighbor’s door and bare walls. I stealthily unbolted our door and eased it open.

He was in front of me, lying on his side on the carpet, supporting his shrunken head with one craggy hand and gazing up at me, his mouth gaping and his tongue lolling out sideways. He looked like he’d been violently lobomotized.

I waggled the knife at him and tried to say something menacing. No words came; I squeaked, then slammed the door.

He knocked.

“We’re c-c-calling the police!”

The doorknob wriggled.

“WE’RE CALLING THE POLICE!”

And he finally spoke.

It was like hearing a well speak, a toneless bass wind groaning up a long stone throat.

“Ooooookaaaaay,” he said.

When the cops arrived he was crosslegged by the elevators. Without getting up he began ponderously arguing with them. One came over smiling and asked to speak to us in our apartment.

“I arrested this guy last week. Broke into the home of a Chinese woman. Not a young one, we’re talking maybe… sixty. He found her in bed, but just… stood there. Looking at her. Watching her call us. Didn’t do or say squat. Then we come… and he goes along peacefully, no problemo. In the car, I ask him what he was doing there. What he wanted. He said… God told him to rape Asian women.”

O and I exchanged looks. She shifted over to lean against me.

The cop took details, shook my hand, patted O’s shoulder, and left. Clutching the butcher knife, I roved the apartment, checking the street, the viewer, the lock.

“I feel bad for him,” O said.

I chuckled and kept pacing until she asked me to stop and be with her. I found a safe place by our bedside to stash the knife, then we wrapped ourselves around each other and lay there quivering, with nothing to say. It was starting to get light.

Minus One

On the morning after first snow, my mother and I drove for two hours into hilly German countryside to visit a family who have a summer house next to our property in Newfoundland, and whose vacation the year prior was ruined beforehand by the near-sudden death of the mother, Matilde, from lung cancer.

My mother took it hard. She considered flying over the Atlantic to attend the funeral, but couldn’t afford it. She settled for lighting a virtual candle.

The closer we got, the deeper the snow. We followed serpentine roads along the flanks of mountains, curving over valleys full of whitened beech and outposts where hunters waited for boar. Ponies and goats grazed on forty-degree slopes. Every twenty minutes we would pass through a wedding-cake town with antique village houses in tidily ascending ranks.

The family’s house was a three-story triangle with an intricate system of patios spiraling around it from base to peak, framing windows that faced those of distant houses on the other side of a valley whose misty floor had been squared off and quantized into farmland.

At the door we were greeted by Matilde’s husband and eldest son, both underweight, unshaven, and bespectacled. They smiled with pale warmth.

After we exchanged hugs and exclamations they took us on a tour of their house, which had been the town hall and school until the second World War and still had many ornately carved wardrobes and cabinets, gold-inlayed fortresses of black wood that made the sticklike modern chairs and tables and the plasma TV look temporary and unserious.

The second floor was cozier, mostly given over to bookshelves stocked with quantum physics and literary fiction. It had belonged to the couple. Matilde’s husband, Lars, switched rooms after she died. The door to their conjugal room was shut, but the opposite door was open on his new room, which had only a mattress on a wooden floor beneath a clean rectangle of painfully blue sky.

Lars led us to the bathrooms: one room with a hexagonal jacuzzi tub under a matching skylight and the other with a toilet that sported various nozzles and a remote control that he pressed for us with an air of self-mockery.

I interrupted my mother’s cheery patter to ask him who owned all the books.

“She did.”

Bent over the remote control, which was now tinnily issuing Beethoven, Lars had answered my question without looking up.

At sixty-seven, he still looked like a student — the quantum physics books at least were his — but bleakly detached and unimpressed. Sometimes when others were speaking he would snort curtly, as if what they were saying was maddening, but then he would say something colorless.

The third floor belonged to his middle-aged son, Horst, an underfed wraith who looked much like his father but more sickly, with purple lips that twitched and pulsed while he hovered at the edges of our group, piping up only to correct his father. Horst had returned home after completing his PhD in Engineering and never left again or, to our knowledge, had a girlfriend. His triangular space under the roof’s peak was cluttered with gadgets, hand-assembled model planes, and empty beer cans from all over the world, and had as centerpiece a knee-high statuette of a generously-chested Nordic maiden riding a harnessed lizard.

I asked him about his life, but every question was met by a monoxide-poisoned smile and answers that seemed almost deliberately banal, as if I’d done something naïve and he was slyly mocking me. I asked him how he passed his time; Horst answered, “Living.”
Over his computer table was a line of photos of his mother. The leftmost picture had her as a beribboned sepia baby; in the middle one she was young and stylishly trench-coated in a crowd of protesters, her fist raised, yelling; the rightmost photo showed her in crowish late-middle-age sitting on their patio, wearing sunglasses that disclosed her eyelashes and smoking, her cigarette hand obscuring a wry smile. On the table beside her was a whiskey tumbler atop a paperback with a curling cover that bore her name.

She had weakened quickly. After a Friday afternoon nap she found she couldn’t walk anymore, was hospitalized, intubated and catheterized, sedated, and gone by Sunday.

After the tour, we squeezed into their car and drove to a graveyard on a steep mountainside. It had snowed all afternoon, and upon turning onto the final side-road we plowed into a snow-bank. Our wheels spun in place.

I got out and watched, standing next to Horst. His hands were stuffed into his hoodie’s pockets, his purple lips and weak eyelids quivering with cold. Lars backed carefully down the hill, easing onto the main road, revved his engine, and then rocketed up through the drift, spraying snow, and around the corner, crunching to a stop in front of an old belfry.

On the hill, a sloped grid of tombstones was interrupted only by the wooden cross on Matilde’s grave. The cross will be taken down once the earth has settled, my mother said, and burst into tears, turning away orange with embarrassment. I hugged her for a long time while Lars and Horst stood over the grave looking down, their faces like old leather wallets.

Before we left, my mom kneeled and affixed two round pins — one with the Newfoundland flag, the other with a pink heart on white — to a crocheted poem that leaned between a brass angel blowing a clarion and a stuffed puppy that had frozen solid, its plush mouth ajar in puppy ecstasy.

The Answer

Heinrich has crummy yellow eyes. His hair is gelled into short hedgehog spikes. He smokes six cigs in a four-hour shift. Starting off he’s uneasy. He watches nervously for the approach of the floor bosses. He worries out loud that the local bully will come over and call him a faggot. When he lags behind the conveyor belt, he hisses, “Impossible! Impossible!” and hurls boxes to the ground.

Later he mellows. Sipping on a single energy drink for hours, he shouts over the conveyor belt about nineties electronic music and the shittiness of work cliques. He praises my precise stacks and frets over his own. Looking at the ground he jokes with the fork-lift driver. When the driver leaves, Heinrich frowns and informs me that the driver always torments him.

After the shift he invites me to sit on a concrete ledge with him while he smokes. He offers me half a chocolate bar. He tells me a secret: he lives at home, with his mother. But he can’t leave her, because his father is dead and she depends on him. He wants to see the world. To have adventures, to meet more people like me. Instead he works here at the warehouse, ruining his body and giving up his life for minimum wage. But after work on Friday nights, he goes into the city to have a small adventure. Would I be interested in coming?

All the drive to his house Heinrich fidgets. Cursing at the rain speckling the windshield, he worries that our night will be ruined. He turns up the bass woofers till it hurts, then turns them way down. He complains that I forced him to meet my wife when we dropped by. It had been a terrible idea, he says, she clearly had not liked him. I protest. He says we should drop it, he doesn’t want to fight.

The rain has stopped, he announces, leaning over the wheel and looking up at the black sky. He turns up the bass again. He cackles and slaps me on the knee and tells me that we’re going to have a wicked time.

Now he wants me to guess how long it’s been since he hung out with someone.

“I don’t know, a year?”

He frowns. “Four months. You must really think I’m a loser, huh.”

From an easy chair his mother greets me without looking up from her crossword. She is an indistinct mass behind heavy black glasses. I meet his sister – a rosy cheerleader studying psychology – and then Heinrich leads me down to his basement room. It’s got off-white carpeting, wooden paneling, and a seventy-inch TV with turret speakers. The entire wall behind the TV is covered by a glossy digital print of the Brooklyn Bridge under red skies. Heinrich gestures at a boss black armchair.

“Sit there, sorry – the room’s only set up for one.”

He runs up the stairs. I hear him ask his mother to make me a sandwich.

“Why don’t you make it yourself?”

“Mom! Come on! Please?”

Bearing a cold-cut sandwich and two beers, he comes back in factory-faded jeans and a tight black T-shirt with a skull-and-feathers. His hair has been freshly hedgehogged. He hurls himself down ass-first on the edge of his bed and then springs back up and turns on his sound system and LEDs; prismatic colors rinse through the speaker cabinets. He beckons me over to watch his computer tower’s wicked black fan pulse and vanish into blue glow. On the seventy-inch screen his desktop’s background cycles through pictures “of places that don’t exist”: Martian bubble cities, last-boss citadels, red Edens. He turns on a video comparing gaming laptops. He apologizes for his mom as I scarf down the sandwich, then apologizes for the laptop video and turns on scientists talking about theories of time. He says he’d love to talk like them. He asks if there’s just like one big book he can read that will update him on everything that intellectuals know.

Heinrich offers to play me some music he made, then immediately rescinds the offer, shaking his head and muttering something I don’t catch.

He apologizes for his room. He had lived down in an apartment owned by his mother, but the neighbors complained about him playing loud music on weekend nights, and finally a man kicked in his door and slammed him against a brick wall and choked him. Heinrich moved back into his mother’s house the next day, but she wouldn’t give him his old room… so: life in the basement. He shrugs and drains his beer.

Upstairs Heinrich digs up an empty 2L soda bottle and dumps in grenadine syrup, a flask of Jägermeister, and two cans of extra-strength energy drink. Then he goes to the bathroom, and his mother struggles up from her couch and takes my hand in her two wet ones.

“I just want to thank you for spending time with Heinrich tonight. I hope you can be a good influence…”

I try to smile.

At midnight we rush off late for the bus to the city. Heinrich scurries in front, talking over his shoulder about all the different ways he’s worried our night might go wrong. His fist is clenched around a bulging red plastic bag that swings against his jeans.

On the bus we sit together. Crossing his arms and then uncrossing them, he sinks in his seat, leaning forward to protect his hair. He complains that the chamomile tea he chugged hasn’t calmed him. Peering out the window at farmland, his eyelids heavy, he murmurs that he hopes everything will go okay.

We disembark in the old city square. A medieval fortress, a cobbled plaza lined with antique townhouses home to pubs, strips clubs, discos, casinos, brothels and fast food. We park ourselves on a grassy ledge in front of a particularly grimy disco and he rummages in his plastic bag and takes out the 2L bottle of Jägermeister and energy drink. He pours the mix into two red plastic cups and hands me one. Slurping happily he grins out at the crowd.

I pee behind a piss-smelling wurstwagon and when I come back Heinrich’s talking to a leonine blonde who smiles at him through fake lashes, and her shorter but otherwise identical friend who stands off to one side, inexplicably shaking her phone like it’s a mixed drink. Heinrich is complaining that people think he’s a weirdo for always coming alone. The lioness, glossy and self-assured, keeps interjecting, but Heinrich just speaks over her, apologizing abjectly, desperately, and then yammering on, telling stories with friendly outrage about all the times he’s been publicly shamed. Eventually she stops trying to reply, and she and her friend stub out their cigarettes and go back inside.

Rain dots the sidewalk.

Heinrich yells, “Tim! TIIIIIIIIIM!”

Tim looks like a melancholy brown bear that only uncomfortably walks on two legs. He plods over with his diminutive friend Devin and after a round of backslapping and introductions little Devin pipes up that they were just going to do some coke, and would we like to buy in?

Heinrich swings his red plastic bag like a windmill, then drops it, punches the air, and screams YEEEEHAAAAAAW!!

…without smiling.

We creep under some scaffolding and up over a low wall into a parking garage, where we sit cross-legged in an arc against a low wall, our sneakers almost touching. Heinrich and I dig up bills while Devin cuts four equal lines and then snorkels his up with aplomb. Tim follows suit, slugging his chest afterward and hallooing into the echoing garage. Heinrich rails his and then snuffles around with his 20€ proboscis after stray powder. I put a rolled-up five to my nose and snort, but only a few flecks vanish.

“Faster! Faster!” shouts Heinrich. He gets up on his knees and points at me imperiously. “Try the other nostril!”

“It’s just as blocked! Haven’t you ever noticed how nasal my voice is?”

I give him what’s left. He’s stunned. At first unwilling to believe. He weakly pushes it back at me. Then a look of awed happiness rises through his face.

“Wow man, you’re a real friend, aren’t you?”

The tiny dose of coke never confronts me. There’s a gentle buoyancy and a certain impatience to get my words out. Tim corners me. Heinrich has mentioned that I’m a writer. Tim, whose bulk blocks my view of the others, says things like, “If you examine it from through the lens of the late Marxism of the Frankfurt School …” He talks slowly, eyelids half-closed as his furry voice lumbers after a single gigantic thought that he never quite catches.

When he casually mentions that he “has been to known to go crazy on coke,” I chuckle and shut up for good.

Tim tells me a story: once he was drinking screwdrivers with some university friends and one of them, playing around, pushed him. He fell backward, onto his open book-bag, and smashed the vodka bottle and some beer – all the booze he had till he got paid. Everyone laughed. His back was cut by broken glass and blood ran down onto his new white capris. And he was too broke to buy more booze. But no one had any sympathy, in fact they mocked him and said it was his fault for getting so wasted… so Tim went to a construction site and fetched an iron rod and threatened to beat their heads in. The guy who’d pushed him – an expert on Derrida – wrestled away the iron rod and smashed up Tim while everybody stood around and watched. The next day, home from the hospital, Tim tried to commit suicide for the third time.

I ask Tim what he thinks about Heinrich.

“Heinrich? He’s a nice guy, but he … he needs … I had a friend, he used to sell speed, right … and one day, Heinrich comes up to him in the grocery store, and wants to buy some speed … this guy doesn’t have any … I mean he’s in his jammies, on a chips-and-cola run … but Heinrich doesn’t believe him, he thinks the dude is fucking with him, and he breaks a beer bottle – full, from the shelf – and shoves it in the guy’s face, and screams at him to hand over the speed…”

I glance over. Devin is bent and solemn with ear cupped, listening to Heinrich jabber. They’re both smoking hard.

At three, Tim suddenly announces that he and Devin have to leave.

Heinrich claps him on the shoulder.

“Hey man come on, we’re all have such a good time,what’s another hour or two?”

Tim removes Heinrich’s hand, laughing.

“Sorry dude, gotta work in a few. You know what it’s like.”

He turns to go, but Heinrich snatches at his arm and pretending that its a joke he gets down on his knees and clasps his hands and prays to the sky that Tim and Devin will stay around and have some more fun. Tim scowls.

“Dude!”

He’s already walking away.

Heinrich leads us around the beer-bottled square, looking into every face we pass. “The two of us aren’t enough to make a party,” he says, and then stops short and puts his hands on my shoulders and looks in my eyes and pleads that I don’t take him wrong. He says he needs to make it clear that he’s grateful to me for coming out tonight and spending all this time with him. He says that I have proven myself to be a real friend, even though it is after all best to be careful about calling someone a friend. For example, he says, can he really be sure that I won’t tell everyone at work that he lives in his mom’s basement? What if I go in on Monday and tell everyone how he spends his time and they all laugh at him together? What if they find out how pathetic and doomed his whole existence is? What if by trying to make a friend for once he has made his shit life at the warehouse and in his shit fucking basement finally and for real impossible to bear? After all, how can he go on living breaking his body stacking boxes for not enough money to live on? Not enough money to respect himself, or even have some fun sometimes – he’s spent next to nothing and he’s already broke! If it weren’t for how much it would hurt his mother, he would have killed himself a long time ago, he’s known ever since his father killed himself that the old guy was smarter than he was, his father knew that no one wins. No one! Not you or me, friendo!

Sometimes Heinrich interrupts himself, craziness crawls into his face, and he yelps and laughs maniacally. The few around glance over warily. Holding high his red cup, he calls out to them: “Hey, can do you me a favour? Could you guess how much of a fucking loser I am? HahaHA! I live in my mother’s basement!”

A muscled luxury dude assesses Heinrich’s narrow shoulders and fragile chest, his hair spikes and faded jeans, and says, “Oh come on kid, how old’re you? Nineteen?”

Heinrich’s skipping toward him, cackling. “Thirty-two, motherfucker!”

“Oh shit,” mutters costly dude, sidling away, “I guess you are a loser …”

“I hate my life!” Heinrich screams into the increasing distance between them. “I hate my fucking life!” He turns back to me and sees my face and suddenly looks chagrined, desperate: “I’m sorry, I’m sorry … you know what’s happening, don’t you? I told you, right?”

“I have a hunch…”

“A hunch! A hunch! H is for Hunch!”

He spots someone sliding through a parkette. He calls out, “Hassan! Hassaaaaaaaa-aaaaaaan! HAAASAAAAN!” and the silhouette stops and turns into a bony ash-locked man in a filthy beige trenchcoat, who waits silently for Heinrich, his face withdrawn behind white curls.

As we approach, Heinrich explains, “He’s a good guy, he always says ‘Thank you’ …”

Hassan, who looks like the fossilized skeleton of a Renaissance angel, falls into step with us. He doesn’t say hello. Heinrich wants to know what he’s been doing. Hassan shrugs. Heinrich tells him that he met me at work and that I’m from Canada and that I’m moving to Berlin soon and probably won’t be back. He says that I’m probably trustworthy. Unlike Tim. Tim has always had in it for him. Once upon a time he trusted Tim and it ended in bad, bad trouble.

Hassan never gives a sign that he’s listening. His dagger-eagle profile is always half turned away.

Heinrich’s nose has turned red. He rubs it and sniffles.

The sky is now less than black.

When Hassan wafts off to pee, I lean over to Heinrich and say, “Be careful. He doesn’t like you.”

Heinrich looks over sharply: “Hey man, Hassan is a good guy! He’s here every week, unlike you …”

Hassan drifts back over, and Heinrich pointedly strikes up a monologue in his direction.

It blooms into a chilly grey morning. Heinrich moves us to a glass booth in the middle of streetcar tracks crisscrossing cobbles under a golden clock. In a dull-red electric wheelchair sits an old man with stubbed arms and legs like those of a supermarket turkey. Heinrich greets him by name and offers him a cigarette and then wedges the cigarette between the old man’s pursed lips and lights it. Hassan leans back against the smudged glass wall and stares at the ceiling, his jawline an arrowhead. His fingers delicate as wires intertwine in steady rhythmic loops. Heinrich smokes and stares with narrowed eyes at me for a long time, and finally says, as if only now coming to the conclusion: “You have to remember: we’re not friends. You’re a good co-worker, that’s all. A real friend would come and hang out every week, not just once. But you have no money, you live too far, and one of these days you’re just going to vanish off to Berlin.”

I said that we had different ideas about friendship. It was true that I wouldn’t be around for long, but while I was here, I intended to listen to him and have patience with him, even if sometimes he was mean. For me that’s—

“Waitwaitwait: I’ve been mean to you?”

“Everybody’s mean sometimes.”

Eying me as if I’m insane: “Why didn’t you tell me sooner!?”

“Because it wasn’t important?”

Suddenly he looks skeptical, and then crafty.

“When, exactly, was I mean to you?”

“Oh man, I can’t remember.”

“You being honest?”

“Heinrich!”

“You can’t even give me a single example, and you want me to believe you? I can’t trust you, motherfucker … you laugh at me when I’m not around.”

“Why do you think that?”

“You’re going to tell everyone that I’m stupid.”

“I have never once laughed at you. Have you laughed at me?”

“You’re the one who laughs…”

But what has happened around us? In our glass booth amid the streetcar tracks, the ring-shaped bench has become home to the strangest crew. The limbless old man is arguing with a fish-faced woman with protrusive buckteeth. She’s squeezing the arm of a thick boy talking to himself in a gentle Pooh-bear voice. Next to him sits, fuming, a spherical man with a red choleric face with so many pores that he resembles a deseeded strawberry. Hassan stares yogi-like skyward and alone in some other place. Tears roll down his arrow jaw, dangle briefly from his ears, spatter his trenchcoat’s lapels. Heinrich’s on his feet and offering cigarettes to everyone, greeting them by name, slapping them on the shoulder. He repeats to each person that he’s had a terrible, frightening night around people he can’t trust. He gives four cigarettes to a kid he seems to fear, a dirty boy with clean circles around his eyes, looking like some kind of inverted raccoon, with a holey green garbage sack between his ragged feet. A skinny Japanese man in a bob-cut black wig thanks Heinrich effusively and then begs a second cigarette for his friend, a drag queen with jowls sagging down over enormous pearls who is just now jiggling across the cobbles.

Then a ponytailed wraith floats in and everyone rises and rushes toward him babbling.

Heinrich and Hassan crouched behind a crumbled fortress wall, bent over folded-up paper with tan powder in it. Heinrich complains that it’s chunky. He worries he’s been cheated. I sit facing the street and warn them whenever somebody comes by – not that either cares. Hassan is bent almost double, his grey curls concealing his doings, but Heinrich is half-turned toward the street, and keeps getting distracted by the words tumbling out of his mouth. It seems to take hours for him to get ready, and then, his face hanging over the paper, furled bill plugged into his nostril, he rolls up a urinous eye and says, very quietly, “You want some?”

I shake my head.

He swoops down and snorts the short brown line. Then he straightens up, dusts himself off, claps his hands and rubs them together, smiling with great satisfaction. “You were wrong.” He turns to Hassan’s tousled crown. “He said you didn’t like me. But he was wrong, wasn’t he?”

“Mm.”

Heinrich turns back to me. “Hassan did something amazing just now. I offered him some H. And he said – can you fuckin believe it – he said I should keep it! – he said that he had his own! Do you know how hard it is for a fucking homeless heroin addict to say that?”

Hassan, sitting cross-legged, hands on knees, is leaning way back, almost reclining, his pretty white locks over his closed eyes, swaying.

I remind Heinrich that my train home leaves in an hour. He says he’ll walk me to the station. But every time we start to leave, he pats my arm fondly and says hold on hold on and goes back over and whispers to Hassan, touching his shoulder, leaning in, smiling like he’s been washed clean of sin.

Once we’re on the way, Heinrich stops every few steps to illustrate a point or to look me in the face to make sure I’m listening.

“Hassan is a good guy. You know what he did back there? But you’re a good guy too. Really. It’s rare: I feel like I can tell you anything and you won’t judge me or laugh at me. Do you know how rare that is? How fucking extra-ordinary that is? I don’t tell anyone that I live with my mother! and you can’t tell anyone, because it would destroy me – but somehow I know you won’t. I trust you. You got a hug for me? Hhhmmmfffff. Thanks buddy … god I was so nervous we would fight. I thought you would come and see how pathetic I was and it would be awkward and terrible at work on Monday and you would laugh at me with the others and that would be the final straw for me, the last time I ever reached out to anyone … That’s why the chamomile didn’t calm me down … the chamomile always works, but I was just worried, I wanted so bad for us to get along. But now, oh my god, it’s hard to believe – it worked out! Here we are in the sunshine! And we didn’t even come close to fighting. You know … I sit before work in my car in the parking lot. And when I see you come in… You come in on your bike and go around the corner. And I see you and I smile – just like this – I get a big old stupid grin on my face. Because you won’t laugh at me, not like the others … when Horst comes by and makes fun of me they always laugh at his jokes. They’re scared of him. But when he came by you just looked at him like he was an idiot, and for once – the only time ever – he didn’t get to me. And it’s because you were there, my friend. It all seemed so simple. I could just choose not to feel bad. Horst didn’t matter at all. And if he called me a faggot, so what? I’m not some homophobe. I made a friend at a disco once and he needed a place to sleep and when we got home I said he could sleep on the couch but he wanted to come on the mattress, so I said okay, and he got up there, and then he wanted to go down on me, and I was drunk, and I thought, okay, sure, any port in a storm, haha, whatever – but I couldn’t get it up! His awful little mouth moving around down coldly down there. Then he wanted me to go down on him, and I thought about it, I considered it, and it made me want to puke. So I said no – and he got so mad! I moved to the couch, but then I couldn’t stand the thought of being in there with him, so I went upstairs to my old room and slept there, and when I woke up my laptop was gone … and my new camera … no, I’m really not gay at all, but if I were into men, it would be men like you…”

I ask Heinrich whether he really threatened Tim’s speed-dealing buddy. Heinrich seems confused. He has me relate the whole story. Then he cocks his head sixty degrees and narrows his bloodcurdled eyes. “Tim made that up! Tim … Tim … Tim’s antisocial. We were drinking together once and he just whipped his cock out and pissed right in front of everybody, in front of girls! And then he was mad at us for getting mad … But his friend, Devin, Devin’s all right. Devin just sitting there with his hand to his ear and listening, really listening, instead of just pretending … that’s rare. You don’t find that much … Of course you listen too, I see it, but there’s one thing I just don’t understand about you: why are you here? What do you want from me? Did you really think we were going to have a good time? Didn’t you see this coming all along? … But no no shh you are here, and you have been nice to me all night…”

He stops us for so many hugs and fist bumps that I miss my train. We wait on a mezzanine over the tracks. He squawks, the squawk echoes. He calls out: “Echo!” Looks dirty us. I take us down to the platform, which runs from beneath a glass overhang out into drizzly grey. Sober commuters in rainwear stand around on their phones. Heinrich sets down his eternal red plastic bag and puts his hands in his jacket and gazes out into dripping wetness. After a long time, his first silence in hours, he says, “This was a bad idea. You shouldn’t have come.”

“Heinrich …”

“Because it’s just once. You should come every week, and we could do this every time, and you would be my friend. But it’s already over. And every week I’ll want you here and you won’t be. And it’ll hurt.”

“I thought—“

“You thought it would help me.”

“…”

“You were wrong. And what makes it worse? When you’re in Berlin, I’m going to miss you a lot more than you’re going to miss me. You have the city, your wife, your writing. I don’t have anybody. The first day at work after you’re gone is going to be so depressing. I’m going to sit in my car and you’re not going to come by on your bike and I’m going to cry. And I hate that that day is going to come.”

“I’m sorry.”

The train booms and rattles in, doors hiss and commuters rumble past. Heinrich grabs my shoulder.

“If you were in my place, what would you do? Would you move to Berlin? Or would you get a better job? Go back to school? Would you find a wife? Just don’t say quit heroin. Say anything else.”

I step onto the train and turn to face him.

The Author Chooses His Own Adventure

After yet another deep and wide night of strumming my intestines for no one, I don my denim armor and venture out into the city to find myself, seeking some reality in other people, in the dying summer as darkly yellow as a middle-aged banana. This early the streets are half soft, breathing like someone asleep. I hadn’t seen my old pal the sun in many a moon; his mothery light strokes me like dove wings and renders every tenement, every tired leaf and obese cloud, carbuncular poster and broken-nosed traffic cone, as distinct as a familiar face. I witness each existence eagerly, hungrily, unless someone is passing me, in which case I drop my eyes and quicken my step.

Soon the mural-sided tenements curve out like hands opening around the raised train station, whose window-walls are illustrated with silver graffiti. I perch on its lowest stair, pull out my notebook, and write this sentence. A few stairs higher a seriously sunburnt homeless man pets a grubby teddy bear. On the corner a few yellow-eyed dealers joke with a bedraggled fruit vendor who sells mealy watermelons and collapsed grapes. Against the back of a bus shelter squats a bike-helmeted kindergartener staring up sadly at cluttered golden balconies identical in construction but unique in decay. Unseen overhead a train sighs in and slices open its own sides, and soon ex-passengers climb down from the sky and spread out past me into the seedy plaza. Everybody strikes me as a specially made treat offered up for my personal delectation, their looks and ways both novel and familiar, unique and generic, and a standout few inspire in me a violent and obscurely painful wish to know them. I don’t dare approach anyone, however, can only gaze at profiles and backs of heads, and despite my delight am in fact no closer to other people than I was a year or a decade ago, even if their physical presences do feel ever more stirring and urgently significant. Somehow the reality of other people draws closer even as I grow further away inside.

Sleep sneaks up and almost nets me, but I am determined to go further. I want to write something that makes this all real. I want to be so present that I’m no longer afraid. I want to feel awe. I relocate to a park and climb the stairs of a deserted amphitheater. Up there, as I record these words in my front-row seat to the long sky, big brother sun shoulders in close, slaps me around, shrinks and magnifies me, and with trillions of needles inscribes on my skin many ultraviolet tattoos. Before long I hop down the hillside to a twice-shaded bench, where I watch with satisfaction as dancing lindens clasp hands over the bully sun and it spurts, spilling yolk, from between their leafy fingertips. In the other direction an inflatable white dome, big as a three-story house, pulsates like a jellyfish about to push off from the earth. I may be sweating and light-headed, with visibly stinking shoes, but my pen, which I am holding onto for dear life, has finally loosened its tongue and sweetly lays down for me throbbing lines of fat pigment. Three barking dogs run by and abruptly freeze into a stand-off. Piebald magpies strut like the louche members of a highly dressed gang. A pentacle-shirted girl with movie-blood-red lips, clumping after her shaggy black familiar, stops nearby and smiles palely in my direction, but my own head shouts anxiously at me and though I’d love nothing more than to smile back I just hunch deeper over this hermetic landscape of ink silhouettes, my neck slowly being wrung by its own strained muscles. Yet my shyness has led me to do the right thing, for my fantasies of meeting others should remain fantasies, lest they become my life. If I want any chance at all of making words live, if I want shimmery slithering sinister tonguetwisters that spread through cables and infest all responses, if I want to fall as Lucifer did, wrapped in words, into a new language of new possibilities, well then I’ll just have to stay away from lovely vampires: to create my own adventure I have to be alone with the page and the clock in my chest tick-talking. I cough deep.

On the tree-lined banks of my beloved canal, mother of these reflections, I observe with glee as swans periscope in reverse. One lifts its neck like a muscular arm with a white-and-orange-painted hand and turns toward me its tyrannical glass eye. An inverted beer bottle bobs past, dunking as if being chugged by the current. It begins to rain: water arpeggiates on water, but the water resists, the water seeks rest, the water is a hard surface that thrums when struck, and I am regaled with ripples upon ripples, the sky needling its mirror for me, every drop exploding and launching a smaller drop, the water pingponging itself. Amid this crystal physics, confronted with the water’s interlocking equations, I huddle cross-legged and mortal beneath a homey maple, and although I’m only a little damp I still feel like one big dank itch, a pulp-scalped and scaly swamp creature with raw sore eyes and subaquatic socks. I’ve been awake for as many hours as the years of my age, having spent all yesterday suffocating under the weight of another’s genius and then all night industriously drawing my own fire and extinguishing it; nevertheless it is only here and now, at the limits of my body, that I am finally beginning to reach someplace real, and it’s not the scene around me but its reflection in this mirror world of words. To either side of me vines trail lazy fingers in the water for the puppy waves to frolic around. A white feather writes upon ripples, a scrappy white butterfly scampers like a shred of plastic bag, and a white tourboat bearing a zoo of sitting tourists drags its own perpetually shattering image through wavering and stretching foliage. It’s as if every word were a step in the massive journey to myself, though perhaps a step in the wrong direction, for in this lifelong hunt for myself I’ve already crossed my own trail many times over, I’ve thirsted and shivered and used up my feet, I’ve mapped forests and coasted over oceans, exhausting all the clues, but I might still discover that the distance from me to myself was no further than this pen from the page, or my dangling feet from the singing water. See my reflection rippling on the paper: my crow’s feet branch like lightning. Thirty-one years ago I was packed into a capsule of self-consuming flesh and fired at that last black wall, and by now I know I’m merely dreaming meat floating so high I can see the future and the past, with my little thoughts flying about like tubby bees, but my eyes are made of sights, upon my foggy shirt the falcon of the intellect alights upon an alchemist’s finger, and from my prismatic ballpoint flows the world waving all its flags and banners, tails fanning out and colors burning, every key pressed and all stops pulled, and I may breathe for now, that much is permitted me, I breathe, and I breathe, listening to the passing seconds plunk on leaves, letting the clouds wash over me and the birds sing my name. These words plunge from the sky, letters spattering the page. I begin.

Stumble

It was three days before the end of the month and we still hadn’t found a new apartment. We were seeing places every day, but in Berlin the rental market is brutal, as many as fifty people show up to each viewing, and they all seemed to be higher-earning, more responsible and lovable than us.

On top of the daily viewings, I worked night shifts all week. Each evening I biked across the city to a hostel where I served beer, cut cucumber plates, swept the floors, scoured flecks of shit from toilets, cracked a hundred eggs, and prepared a buffet table for eighty haughty schoolboys from Dubai. Afterwards I would rush home for a few hours of sleep, wake up at noon half-dead, bike to viewings, bike back home to search for apartments, and then finally bike to work exhausted, on my sixth coffee of the day, feeling like an alien slowly shriveling up in an uninhabitable atmosphere.

It caught up to me on the final workday. I had to be there early, and I was running on about three hours of sleep I’d caught a day ago, and I’d just come from a viewing where I’d pushed the Stefan-and-O product hard, but the potential roommates were college-age ultra-German model citizens and I knew they wouldn’t call me back. I was too tired to bike, so I rode the subway, where I fell asleep and missed my stop and then on the way back nodded off again and almost missed my stop again and had to spring up at the last moment and charge through the closing doors.

I jammed my hands into my overcoat pockets and leapt up the yellow subway stairs three at a go, until abruptly I felt my foot catch and I tipped forward hard. My hands jerked but were stuck in my pockets. All the force I’d put into the attempted three-stair leap now accelerated my fall, and the long edge of a riser impacted me between two ribs. My skull bounced off the lino. I lay there for a second face-down, too stunned to move. My chest hurt so much that it felt like my consciousness had been sucked down into my torso. Passers-by were making distressed sounds. I lurched to my feet and tried to keep going up the stairs, but the world whirled and tilted around me, and I stumbled out into night air that seemed to be made of heavy burning black sand. I fell against a car. Two men had followed me and were trying to help. I tried to convince them I was fine. I kept saying I had to go to work. It felt like there was hot fluid dripping out of my ears, but when I put my hands there, I felt only cold flesh. The cars around me were bonging like they’d all just been struck. One of the men eventually went away. The other, younger, with carefully combed gleaming hair, leaned down over me. “Hey, I live nearby… I have drinks at my place … I could massage you …”

The night seem to last three or four years, but at least I worked alone. Every inflation of my lungs hurt. I could move only very slowly, shuffling like an old man. I refilled the fridges four or five beers at a time, working continuously throughout the whole night. Somewhere in the middle I began to get sick. Nausea, chills, stomach pain. Pain-ants crawled over my eyes. My nose was running, but I couldn’t sniff it in because of the rib pain. At one point I ended up sitting on the toilet, shivering, snot running down onto my shirt, wanting to puke, frosty pain radiating in from my right shoulder and shooting cold rays down into my guts.

Five in the morning. We had our final apartment viewing at nine.

My replacement was fifteen minutes late, so with only forty-five minutes to spare I staggered down a wide boulevard. I walked with my hands spread over my ribs. My eyes were crusted red and subtended by black arcs. My hair was disorderly and thin with grease. But on the broad, open street, with the long sunlight of early morning coming at me almost level with my eyes, I was able to feel alone. Invisible. Everyone coming toward me was haloed in such golden light that their features disappeared.

O was waiting for me a block from the place, sitting on the curb with her headphones on, still wearing the clothes she’d been dancing in.

The renter loved us and especially O. He said he had to see two more people, but he felt like we were right for the place, and if we just came by tonight with the money he’d rent to us. We left feeling hopeful and happy for the first time in weeks.

Neither of us had money for the subway, so we walked home in near silence. It took nearly an hour. Every inch of my flesh was chaffed and burning. A migraine sifted like salt through my brain’s wrinkles.

At home we collapsed.

I woke up to an email from the renter informing us that he had decided to rent to someone else, an Azerbaijani who “really needed it,” and that he felt he had “made the right decision.”

Beneath that email was another rejection letter, leaving us with only one viable place, a way overpriced and broken-down and illegal flat that we would have to share with another tenant, a hostile alcoholic. But we would have to race across town to the owner’s office and convince him to take us.
I didn’t feel like I had the strength. I had barely slept. I was queasy. I still couldn’t breathe deeply or sit up without agony, and I felt like all the higher parts of my brain had dried up and I’d regressed into a swamp amoeba filmed in its own fluids, suffering terribly at the end of days.

But we peeled ourselves out of bed and rode the subway to the potential landlord’s office. He was a doctor. He was late coming, so we had time to take in that the waiting room was cluttered and untidy, but homey, with glossy plants everywhere and children’s toys lying abandoned next to falling-over stacks of novels. Three receptionists fluttered around, all strikingly beautiful — one brassy girl with a fountain of ringlets and lots of clacking bracelets; one tall and thin but curved like a spoon, with an elaborate hair bun and devilishly curling eyebrows; and one with a hijab around a severe white face with ice-blue eyes and lips like regal sofas, huge plush affairs that she pushed out petulantly.

The doctor and potential landlord, Dogan, arrived plastered with sweat. Ten minutes later he ushered us into his rambling messy office, and by then he looked as cool as if he had never sweated at all. The hijab-wearing ice lady was ranting to him about a woman who wouldn’t pay her bill; he folded his glasses and held them against his argyled paunch and smiled at her, nodding and nodding, and finally smilingly told her that he felt the woman would pay them, if only they were patient.

After she left he apologized and asked us what we were doing in Berlin. I gave him a rundown of our lives as writers and our peripatetic city-switching. He nodded to everything I said, smiling quietly, and at the end gently told us that there was a solution to all of our problems, to all of this frantic searching that had characterized our lives. In 1975, he told us, a woman working as a psychology professor in America had begun to receive visions and then dictation from a spiritual source. The source turned out to be Jesus, and the creation of his new Bible had changed forever the karmic flow of modernity. It was called A Course in Miracles. Dogan leaned back in his big raggedy black office-chair and folded his hands over his belly and smiled the small maddening smile of a yogi who has mastered all the subtle flavorings of koan-soup. Behind him was a picture of him and his wife — he in a polo shirt, his face heavy, his chin sagging down into his neck; she a refined redhead twenty years younger, holding delicately in her slender fingers a glass of white wine. Dogan smiled at us without his glasses on, his gaze warm despite the fact that his eyes were barely visible under drooping skin. He said that the troubles we’re seeing in the world are the death throes of a horrible beast that is dying. That now the world will begin to knit itself together, because the spiritual rift had been healed. He said that we shouldn’t be afraid. That within our lifetimes everyone will have the great answers, and we will ascend to the next world in a blaze of delirious joy.

But hey, we got the apartment.

The Liar

Harris became a night watchman so he could finally get paid to write.

The best assignments were at construction sites, where he occasionally patrolled through massive metal skeletons with their cables hanging out, but mostly just sat alone in pale computer glow, peering at words in silence, until birds muttered and trucks hissed and the dark turned blue and died. Then he greeted the first hardhats and set off sunlight-headed into the freshly poured morning.

But Harris couldn’t just stroll into a security firm and announce that he wanted a job where he could write.

Instead he lied.

He said he’d been a guard seven years (untrue) and had worked every position imaginable (nope), and he’d discovered that he was only truly happy when he worked independently, for example in a construction site at night.

For his next trick, he changed the subject.

But then Harris moved to Berlin, and he wasn’t sure whether he could lie believably in German, and anyway it was unclear whether construction sites would still be la dolce vita. So he took a tactical risk: during an interview with a kindly recruiter at a job agency, he told the truth.

The recruiter — Klüh, an old worn-out mountainous chain-smoker who had been chuckling at everything Harris said — sobered up and looked at him sternly over the bridge of his yellow-lensed aviator glasses. But there was something off about his severity, and gradually his purple lips wriggled into a smile, and he slapped his desk, wheezing giggles, and announced that Harris had come to the right person — heeee heeeeeeee — because mensch did Klüh ever have the right place for him: a tiny hotel with ninety-nine rooms. Not only would Harris have some time to write, but he would also earn an extra two euros an hour.

Klüh stuck out his vast hand proudly.

Eventually, cautiously, Harris shook it.

He was nervous, but the extra money cinched it. He had debts, and besides, his wife still hadn’t gotten her work permit. The system made him an offer that it had rendered him unable to refuse.


The next day, Harris biked out to the bland wasteland where the security firm had their stainless-steel air-brushed office. There he was greeted by a dour Scandinavian named Uv, and after a few formalities they performed the sterile and terrible rituals of the contract.


That evening Harris togged himself out in black and marched out of his sunny yellow district, through a graffitied park seamed by anxious drug dealers, into the arches of an iron bridge lined with tattooed trolls partying in trash, and up a slowly rising hill toward the highest point of the party district, where the five-story brick hotel loomed over tracks and water, bodies and lights.

He swung in through the hotel’s propped-open glass doors. On a low black stage a tiny woman howled soul from behind a grand piano. Creative-types lounged on plush divans and encoignures, holding fairy-pink cocktails. In the corners bamboo aroma dispensers shot up vapor jets of citrus potpourri.

And between the stage and the bar was a ring-shaped desk within which, staring perplexed at a recessed monitor, stood a groomed cockatoo with blue lips and a bouffant.

Harris told her that he was here for a test shift. At first she couldn’t hear him. Then she shook his hand, told him where to drop off his backpack, and, as Harris was leaving, offhandedly mentioned that the round desk would be his station through the night.

He turned away quick so the bouffant wouldn’t see him grimace.

In the changing room, Harris wiped at sweat until his face stung.

The manager, a tiny, elf-eared woman called Antje, fetched him from there and led him through his patrol route, instructing him nonstop as she took him over seven stories, from the residential floors — muffled black halls with black doors — to the bar, the stage, the whiskey-tasting room, the restaurant and its twelve-person kitchen, down into the dusty thickly-white-painted brick basements to the hotel’s mechanical hearts and other flammable steel organs.

Smiling when appropriate, Harris watched Antje’s rapid blue eyes gleam and darkle. In his head he was already composing his refusal to the security firm.

Back at the circular desk — the soul woman had been replaced by a hip-hop-happy DJ — in the heart of the noise, elfin Antje cheerily went through the intricacies of how to conduct checks-ins and check-outs, how to file receipts and registration slips into accordion portfolios, how to protocol the multiple hand-offs of keys and print and sign the proper papers at the proper time…

But somehow she managed to talk to Harris as if they were old friends in easy conversation. She kept looking into his face, and he always smiled back.

Eventually she said, “I don’t tell many people this … but …” looking at him now with her eyes narrowed, “I do have the feeling that you understand what we want.”

“Yeah,” Harris said carefully. “I think so too …”

Antje clapped, squealing: “Then we are more than happy to welcome you to our team!”

He looked at her in horror.


He called his boss at the security firm, sullen eyebrowless Uv, and announced that he couldn’t work at the hotel because the constant loud music gave him headaches (true).

“Ja SSSUUUPER,” Uv hissed. “Perfekt!”

And hung up.

Later he called back and calmly informed Harris that he had already scheduled him for the next month at the hotel. If Harris hung on for just four weeks, full time, he would be transferred.

Harris felt he couldn’t say no.


His mind was taken from him. There was little security work and lots of filing reports and fulfilling lists, billing logging sorting folding and stapling, signing for keys, but then also face-to-face duties like checking guests in and out, chatting with lonely inhabitants or selling the house spirits, house coconut water, and house fashion line. Harris was micromanaged by the middle tier, scrutinized by swiveling security cameras, and made to submit to the theorems of lofty bosses who understood nothing of life in the thick-carpeted trenches, all while he facilitated shows, dinners, conferences, bookings, brand-events and presentations, and weathered constant unforeseeable disasters for which someone always had to take the blame.

But the raw work only penetrated so deep into his brain. The deeper echelons were infiltrated by his colleagues and contaminated by the emotions they pressed upon him. The floor chiefs, ever vigilant, worried over his shoulder and lectured in circles. They coordinated their knowledge of him with each other. The waiters gossiped with the most casual snobbery and could smile two different smiles simultaneously. The poor girls being gradually and painfully converted into managers zoomed around taut as mousetraps. Someone was always about to get in trouble. Someone was always getting told off. Eyes narrowed in resentment. Nostrils flared with suppressed anger. Discontent oozed and hot hate scorched out behind backs in reaction to the smallest imagined slights.

By the time Harris got home each morning he twinged from singed emotions, and to recover he had to think endlessly into his journal, hypothesizing and theorizing, examining his motives, sorting his head, cauterizing wounds and stitching them up with logic.

Then he slept through the day, ate, and went back.

Harris worked the next eleven days out of twelve — filling in for a sick comrade — and by the end he was a creature of the hotel: he belonged to his work, just like nearly everyone he knew, all their personal possibilities subordinated to institutions that help affluent people trade pieces of paper, talent and individuality worth less than capacity to do repetitive, dehumanizing, and often humiliating tasks for next-to-no pay.

Harris did everything he could to escape work-as-life: he lied, he didn’t go out, he ate expiring fruit, he biked for hours to avoid train fare, and he rented broken-down apartments where nothing worked and the winter cold was unbearable. But the rent got higher every year, and they jacked up the prices of rotten fruit, and the truth was that so far they’d managed to steal the majority of his adult life.

And he was among the lucky ones…


By the last shift Harris was complaining so bitterly that his coworkers, who were more depressed and further along in their addictions than he was, banded together and defended the hotel against him.

It was a slow night, so theoretically he could have read for ten minutes here or there, had he been able to concentrate or even just stay awake. Instead he trudged back and forth from the courtyard to the street, struggling against his closing lids; and early in the morning, when everyone else was gone, Harris hid behind a partition where the camera couldn’t see and rested there for a few minutes with his eyes closed. When he opened them he saw the hotel’s work roster. For the next three days the other guard’s name had been whited-out and replaced by his.

Harris did call Uv in a wrath. He did demand to know what the hell was going on.

And he did insist that Uv treat him more like a human.

But yeah, he buckled: he took the days.


Finally Harris crawled on elbows and ankles to his day off and  pitched into bed and slept objectly through the morning and afternoon. In the evening there was a brief moment of reality when his wife climbed into the loft bed and they lay next to the open garden window and rain came on so hard and swift that the air turned white and the trees wriggled ecstatically and weeds thrashed on the overgrown concrete. They floated still and silent above the flailing sunset jungle. The low and heavy purple heat slowly melted into cool blueness. Newborn breezes explored our cheeks. A deep bass heart throbbed in the distance, under the far-off wails and rumbles of trouble.


The next afternoon Harris was awoken by a phone call from his lovely boss. Uv needed him to do four twelve-hour shifts, and the first one would start in a few hours — not at the hotel, however, but at some empty refugee homes.

Okay, so losing the days off stung. But what if Harris could finally write? With this in mind, he managed to sound happy. He even thanked Uv. But the site was far and he couldn’t afford the U-bahn, so after the phone call Harris had to leap into his all-black work clothes, shoulder his bulky backpack, and bike hard for eighteen kilometers through the steaming July evening, zigzagging through downtown blocks, along riversides and through parks, arcing around a golden victory statue and past a nuclear power plant — and more often than not blundering down the wrong path, because it was all new and he didn’t trust the GPS and had nothing in his stomach to power his withering brain, much less his limp legs; all they’d had at home were two mushy apples and some salted peanuts. His muscles gave out one by one, until finally he had to invent new muscles in order to struggle on.

He rolled up twenty minutes late to the front of the site, a fenestrated shipping container squatting between old trees. Behind it, ringed by tall metal fencing in a golden field, were white rows of identical shipping containers, each with a door, windows, and a tiny lawn.

When Harris knocked on the main door, a friendly face popped up at the window laughing: “I’m not allowed to let anyone in!” Nevertheless he did exactly that, shook his hand, and introduced himself as Rolf. Harris apologized for being late.

“Oh it doesn’t matter to me,” Rolf said. “I’m here all night anyway.”

Harris smiled sicklily and tried to sit down, but his makeshift muscles gave way and he fell into the chair. Rolf, mixing instant coffee for him, asked him where he was from. Then he wanted to know why Harris left his homeland, but didn’t listen to his answer before offering his own opinions, and soon Harris stopped trying to respond and just stared off to the side — at black branches ticking against pink sky — and drank the instant coffee, which stretched hot root-claws into his gaping stomach.

A few hours later Harris was able to escape his garrulous companion and bike out in search of food, but everywhere was closed, even the gas stations, and he pedaled ever slower as he neared his own personal zero. Finally he found a doner shop, but they didn’t take debit. He hunted down an ATM, only it wouldn’t dispense less than twenty euros, a near-magisterial sum that Harris did not possess. The next ATM obliged, though, and Harris raced back and ordered a doner. The pita sogged, the sauce was ketchup with extra sugar, and the meat tasted of slaughterhouse — but he ate so greedily that at one point he chowed down on a wedge of tin-foil, and gagged like a dog over the green plastic table.

Back at the converted shipping container, Harris set up his laptop and began writing for the first time since the hotel took over his life. He couldn’t focus on fiction, not with so many unexamined and anxiety-inducing experiences swimming in his meninges. So he started writing about Klüh the jolly recruiter and began to describe the trouble since then, in an attempt to get it under his control, lassoed by arguments and tamed, made bearable.

But Rolf never stopped talking. He disgorged a stream of life advice that ranged from how to treat women (randomly order them flowers) to which herb liquor would get Harris drunkest. Still talking, he produced a stereo and set it to play knock-off pop, loudly. Then he took out his phone and started tapping away at a lurid match-3 game with the sound on: cheers, swishes, pops, coin clinks and jewel dings. The only time Rolf ever looked up from his game was when Harris put earbuds in, at which point Rolf motioned at him to take them out and wondered whether they should maybe go for a patrol.

At three a.m. Harris’s phone rang. Guess who? Uv the eyebrowless one had cancelled two of his shifts at the construction site so that Harris could attend fire-prevention training at the hotel. “Hold on,” Harris rasped, and raced outside. He perched on an upturned bucket and crossed one leg at the knee and shook his foot like mad and tried to speak slowly and calmly:

“I’m not going!”

“You have to.”

“NO!”

“There is no ‘no.’ You’re going.”

“Yeah well … I won’t do anything for free!”

“Nor should you. The fire-training is paid. Listen, you have … four? five … actually eight more shifts at the hotel. And if it catches on fire?” Harris shook his scrawny fist at the rustling trees. “I don’t care! I am not going!” His voice cracked:

“I have plans!”

“Really? Because I thought you were working at the refugee homes…”

“Yeah exactly! I planned on not being at that fucking hotel!”

He didn’t cave, but after Uv hung up, saying he would call the next day, Harris lay down on the pavement and cried.

After his face dried and the snot unclogged he began doing push-ups on the still-black tarmac. Locking his body long and straight, he pushed until air left him and sweat shined his forehead and his arms shook and refused, but he held on, he lifted himself groaning and snorting, by centimeters, twice more — bringing him to a personal record of nine.

It had been a summer of rains and the grassways along the pavementwere flooded. From the dark water grew floral citadels, wispy skyscrapers in which crickets sang.

Pacing between the unlived-in homes, Harris peered into their hollow kitchens, where sometimes a ceiling fan spun silkily in near darkness. 

Harris hooked his fingers into metal-lattice fencing and watched fog rising from a golden field. In an imperial tree thousands of tiny birds switched branches furtively, in near silence. There was no one else around but him and the insects, and now you.