You

okay let’s see
you’re in debt
your significant other left you for a profile pic
you feel most alive when you’re on drugs

I know you

you failed the test
you want and don’t want the truth
you can’t handle and need the truth

some days you text more than you talk

your father didn’t mother you much

and now you are getting very sleepy
since you worked all day all week
didn’t even have time for chores
how do others cope with so much working?

every year you think more about climate change

you know about disasters, diseases, and serial killers
but not miracles or cures

you wonder whether you’ll grow old
you wonder whether it might be better not to
you would swear the walls are closer every day
you believe it’s best not to think too much about death

you think about death all the time

you wonder whether you maybe said the wrong thing
yeah buddy you did say the wrong thing
you said it a hundred times

you miss him so much
you tell yourself there are others like him, but better

you don’t find any

you know what you should have done
you don’t know what you’re going to do
you doubt too much, you believe too much

you want this part to end

you look at beloved faces and imagine them old
for the last decade you’ve been sidling around a hole
you think ever less about that one brief era when it all flowed
when love was easy
and you were about to become another and better person
but never did
you have this hunch though, that one day
one day…
sometimes this is all that keeps you going

you know there must be a better way

or this will all end badly

you throw open the curtains
it’s night

Rise and Fall of the One-Man Empire

I unsolved a few mysteries
(a good night’s work)
then strutted the morning streets
with a candle in my head,
half-believing that everyone was
watching me pass,
admiring my
lofty
burning
transcendental

eyes.

That lordly stride!
Those mystical lips!

The sky rolled its eye up over the avenue,

the city shuffled its deck of people,

and I blessed a park bench
with my presence,
slid my gaze around
and waited for a miracle,
a disaster,
anything.

Honey sunlight drizzled in waves.

A sunken woman drinking beer solo
stole looks at me.

Some decayed rockers argued about chemicals in vodka.

Planes left trails of white droppings.

A tragic teenage couple embraced.

And the sunken woman began to sob
so loud it echoed across the park
and she swung into her bottles
and they came clattering smashing down
and the pigeons launched and wheeled,
but her crying was louder and harder,
and the sobs slammed into bricks,
shattered laughter,
broke bank windows,
boomed over river boats,
bounced over factories and parliaments,
splashed hissing into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

It took me a while to find my body again
but there it was, slumped on a bench:
balding,
box glasses,
a squint,

not much more.

I smoked weed
and wandered around in music,
a sleepless weirdo
timing my steps to eerie beats,
side-eying the sadder women,
the black-lidded and serious women.
They looked at me
and saw only the city.

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.