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.

Solitude of the Employee

At the specified hour the employee strode into the national HQ and presented his summons. After a brief interrogation, he was pushed into an amphitheater. On its semi-circular tiers, behind executive desks, dozens of bosses conferred, muttered into phones, or glared down at him with hands buckled across paunches.

The employee’s personal boss—young and crisp, stiff as a soldier—rapped on his desk.

“We’ve ordered you here because your colleagues have testified that you often stare at nothing in particular, lost in private thought.

“In other words, you have been stealing the time that we purchased from you.

“Personally, I believe that such behavior deserves swift exile—with prejudice.

“However, here at Corp Inc. we subscribe to compassion, and the directors will settle for removing the part of you that stares into space and imagines other ways of existing.

“It will be stored safely, in isolation. You won’t feel that different, but there are a few side effects…”

“Okay,” said the employee, and stood up. “I’ll make this as easy as possible for both of us.”

And he bolted.

He hurtled through the generic hallways, skidded into a stairwell, and fled down concrete steps, past bare pipes, toward the coolness of fresh air.

But the corridor led to a catwalk forking off through windy darkness.

Eying a distant EXIT sign, he edged out onto the open…

And found himself high over an immense cavern split by an agitated river.

The rocky walls and ceiling, the wet boulders of the riverbanks, were webbed with thick white strands that sagged everywhere with bulky cocoons.

Inside each cocoon, just barely visible, was a junior boss in suit and tie, knees curled to chest.

The employee crept across the catwalk through echoing river-roar until he reached an iron staircase that spiraled down toward daylight. He had descended several flights when the thin stairs began to reverberate with someone’s ascent.

It was a muscular, clean-cut boss in a white dress shirt tucked into chinos.

As they passed each other, he realized that the other man had his face, but harder, and perfected.

He emerged into noon dazzle on a lush hill over a strange city.

A city he’d seen in dreams.

A fractal city that shifted under his gaze, its streets opening at impossible angles on ever more castles, skyscrapers and pavilions, circuses in ancient forests, ziggurats and temples and hypermodern black cubes. There were carved stone dwellings teeming with monkeys. There were single-acre farmsteads sailing down canals, past floating nightclubs lit by throbbing holograms. There were mammoth trees, growing out of abandoned churches, whose boughs supported colonies of eccentric treehouses.

But though he often called out, no one ever answered.

He was alone.

How to Summon a Witch

Dearly beloved nemesis,

Fill my eyes, won’t you?

I’ll murder you in that way you like.
I’ll word you slow and hard,
throw open the curtains of your ribs
and show you the pretty pink pad
I’m moving back into.

This Page Hallucinated Its Letters

That bird just described itself.

Three hundred explanations got up and walked around
but always came back to the same place

The canalhouses gazed into their own reflections
and hungered for the lives in their windows.

Wind kissed her and watched her walk away.
The night held her hand,
and the trees attempted to persuade her,
and it was the moon, I believe,
that nosed into her hair.

The song heard itself,
and stretched out on the purple mattress above the garden,
warm and safe and young, for now.

Message From The Devil (Vibrations in a Red Crystal)

“It was Lambros. I went out with her food and he had her leash and was taking Sally out the back gate.”

“Lambros? That boy with the huge forehead?”

“His kid brother.”

“That little shit.”

“He was laughing the whole time, pulling on Sally. She didn’t want to go, she was looking back at me and whining, but he dragged her into the trees.”
“Seriously? Why didn’t you follow him?”

“Christie—you have to let me tell the story.”

“Oh, so I can’t ask about what happened to my fucking dog?”

“Of course I followed them! I ran as hard as I could!”

“Okay! I’m sorry, all right?”

“It’s just that I tried to jump the fence. And my foot caught. And I fell on the gravel. Which gave Lambros even more of a head start.”

“Fuck.”

“Yeah, I know… Anyway, I caught up by the footbridge. Sally was nowhere. Lambros was on the railing, grinning like he’d just played a hilarious joke and now got to enjoy the grand treat of watching me bumble through. And then I see it: right beside the creek there’s a circular hole in the ground, with a ladder set into its side.”

“A ladder. In a hole.”

“Yep.”

“And how did we never notice it before?”

“It wasn’t there before.”

“Are you sure?”

“…no. I’m not sure of anything anymore.”

“Did you try calling for Sally?”

“Well, by the way that asshole kid was smirking at me, I figured he’d thrown Sally into the hole. I’m not going to lie, I wanted to do things to that kid’s skull that would have put me in prison for a very long time. And right away I thought about Maria and Bruce’s—“

“Oh my god, their cat.”

“Yeah… But I figured I could deal with Lambros later. Call social services on his parents and get him committed or whatever. Something nasty and satisfying. But I pushed it out of my mind and climbed down the ladder after her.“

“But she wasn’t down there, was she? What did Lambros say?”

“So. I climbed down. It was warm and almost dark. I was in a sort of large room, there was junk everywhere, old electronics, busted couches. Twisted metal wire. Like somebody had been hoarding in this weird hole. I call out Sally, Sally! Nothing. I walked around a little, found a passageway. Another room: the same deal, maybe less junk. Dim light that I couldn’t find the source of. And only two exits. Around this time I stopped calling for Sally and just listened. I guess I got a little nervous. I started wondering who had dragged all this shit down here, and whether they were still around…”

“Eric…”

“Please listen. Because next the rooms got cleaner, emptier. The trash disappeared. The paint looked newer and brighter, and there were windows way high above, too high for me to look out. Then I heard people, lots of them, some kind of market, somebody yelling out prices. I went through another passageway and came out into a street I didn’t recognize, in a city I’d never seen before.”

“ERIC…”

“And there were all these people rushing past me. But something’s wrong with their faces. Their eyes were split four ways, like… like quartered golf balls. And they had noses like red cucumbers. White gloves. And big hanging mouths and rows of teeth like sharks do. Their throats were full of teeth.”

“Okay so there are two possibilities right now. One is that you’re completely insane and who knows what the fuck you did with the Sally.”
“You know what, it really could be that I lost my mind. I totally agree with you.”

“The other possibility is that you’re the biggest tool who has ever existed.”

“Christie…”

“You think I’m an idiot?”

“I don’t think you’re an idiot.”

“I have a Master’s!”

“I know.”

“Here’s what really happened: you thought this like scrawny sixteen-year-old kid was going to whup you, and you made up this entire fake story which no one in the world would ever believe—nobody I know, nobody who has ever lived would fall for it. You’re a coward, AND a liar.”

“Sure, I am a coward. You’re right.”

“I don’t give a shit! I just want my dog back!”

“I was a coward when I climbed down into the scary hole, when I went through all those rooms, and when I went into that strange city with the weird people. I was a coward because I was willing to risk my life to avoid the fit you would throw if anything happened to your precious irritating shitting yapping idiot dog.”

“It’s starting to sound like you’re the one who got rid of her.”

“I couldn’t. Too much of a coward.”

“…”

“…”

“There’s an easy way to settle this, isn’t there? Let’s go look at the hole.”

“We can’t.”

“Let me guess: it’s not there anymore.”

“I can’t explain it either.”

“Your story’s so full of shit, man. How did you get out of fairyland? Did the hole like, close behind you at the last minute?”

“No. I went the other way. The people ignored me completely, they didn’t seem dangerous, and anyway in a few minutes they were all gone. I was alone in the street. I could see deserted high-rises for miles. The sun was too close and too big, it went down between two condos as if it were welding them together. Then I heard a crack, and the street split in half and began to fall apart, but jumped back into place. I hauled ass in the other direction, up a hill, and the sky seemed to sort of melt down and flow toward me, washing away the buildings as it came, and then washing away me… Then I wasn’t in the city anymore. I felt like I was nowhere. Like I didn’t have a body. I felt like a network of vibrations in a sort of red crystal that went on forever, underneath everything, vibrating. I felt like red lightning crackling everywhere at once superfast, but in a space so big that I could never branch through it all. But all that energy was swirling toward a center, to a tight black bubble, inside of which was this intricate lightshow — our entire universe, sustained by this awful red energy. The last thing I sensed was that the universe had not been created by a kind God. There had never been a God, only a Satan, and the evil he had planned was bigger in conception and in time than anything we could understand. All the evil we humans have ever experienced is only a by-product of his ultimate plan. And when I saw this, I woke up by the creek. And the hole was gone.”

“Do… you… realize that if you had just admitted to losing Sally, I would have been mad, but I would have forgiven you? Someday? But by lying… I mean what… what are you even trying to accomplish? Are you actually insane? I mean literally insane. Because how could you ever think I would be stupid enough to believe you?”

“Christie, I just came back from a first-hand encounter with the absolute evil at the center of existence. You think I still care whether you leave me?”

Something yapped.

Christie cried out and ran to the window. The garden gate was swinging open: Lambros bustled through with Sally in his arms. She snuffled his neck, licked him under the chin. Christie gave me a quick look that compressed twelve years into less than a second, then opened the window and called smiling to Lambros. In his soft voice he explained that he’d found her by the creek. But when she leaned down to take Sally, he looked in at me and grinned, baring rows of teeth, like a shark, all the way down his throat.

I skipped sideways into the bathroom and locked the door. I sat on the tub and put my face in my hands, and laughed. Briefly.

The Witness

I trembled as the metal pterodactyl bobbed and struck.
I watched screams being buried under courthouse trees.
I put ear to wall, and heard the hive’s heart humming.

Baffled, I turned to my mother
and stared into her red sunglasses
reflecting molten-glass apocalypses.

I opened my monitor and writhed inside.

I fragmented in parking lots across the divided states of hallucination.

Then winter wrapped white sheets around my face,
and reality’s severed legs inched back to its corpse,
and I slammed
into the absolute truth
of the floor

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.

To the Woman in Pursuit

Be careful what you ask of me:
I deify the street at dawn tearstricken
and pull down statues

but only my own

and honestly
just the way you look at a fork
paralyzes me

so I force the sparrows to sing in my place
and roll back my apeface awed
at the height of it all

and maybe I’ll never tell you
but you terrify me

women usually wait for my advance
giving me time to rethink
decide against
and escape

but you
you cornered me with a glance
my shyness only made you stronger
and now every time you leave
you trap my eyes
until I flinch away
magnetized
knowing
no amount of cowardice
will save me

or you

because listen
I want to spare you

have you ever seen 62 kilos
of water, blood and ink
ignite?

if you chase me inside
color will blast out the windows

it won’t be pretty

The Rainy Library

Yeah, I’ve been to the rainy library. They don’t put plastic on any of the goods. So many waterlogged stacks of books… I remember standing in the massive lobby and looking up over floor after floor of sagging shelves, up to the clouds bumping against the ceiling. The rain was weirdly warm.

But of course the rainy library has books that normal libraries could never find, much less stock, as well as other and more experimental ways of transmitting knowledge.

The online instructions guided me to side halls which forked off crazily in ways that made no sense. I climbed up some stairs and then down others and up again. I rode horizontal elevators, and crossed catwalks over book vaults. It went on for hours. The windows looked out on a city I didn’t recognize, then a desert, then a landscape like the moon, then the black fur of some planet-sized creature out there in the wider universe, breathing.

Finally — soaked, exhausted, and yeah, a little afraid — I arrived at the last room, and pushed open the stone door…

And saw myself standing by a picture window, back turned.

I joined myself at the window.

We looked out at a very clean darkness. It wasn’t dark like space or under blankets — it was like reality ended just outside the window.

Then the darkness began to soften.

It didn’t become light so much as it sort of gave way to a whiteness that was not really white. I can’t put it into words…. It was anti-black. And it made the dark spiral open like an anti-black rose.

And inside the rose? At its center?

A gigantic blue eye.

My eye.

Anyway, I’m never going back.

The Liar

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.