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The Year I Stopped Worrying and Started to Dream

Author: Thomas von Steinaecker
Translator: Bradley Schmidt

The Year I Stopped Worrying and Started to Dream

That October I noticed that the clients sitting on the chairs in the lobby needed longer than usual to pull themselves away from the television when I picked them up. They were still trying to catch a glimpse of the pictures while I greeted them, images that hadn’t interested much of anyone previously: press conferences, German Financial Minister Steinbrück by himself, Chancellor Merkel by herself, Merkel with Steinbrück, Merkel with Foreign Minister Steinmeier, all of them making faces that, having attended the seminar “Smile When You’re Winning – the Fine Art of Facial Expressions”, made me doubt that even they believed in the effectiveness of their aid measures. Before that and afterwards there were always the same pictures from the US Stock Market – brokers in white shirts and sleeves rolled up, making calls, staring at monitors, yelling across the room, index curves pointing down, and always the same sun-soaked family homes with front yards and the sign “4 Sale,” – “4” red, “Sale” blue.

Sometimes I sensed the clients’ need to chat about the non-pictures they had just seen on the television, and I enjoyed engaging them with a concerned expression on my face. That’s what I’m there for. “Terrible, isn’t it?”, “What’ll come next?”, “Is your company affected by that at all?” and so on. Especially Type 1 and Type 2 clients were ready to show more emotion than usual. I was capable of establishing relationships.

Ben Bernanke stated: “This is not an S-sized crisis. This is not an M-sized crisis. This is an XXL crisis.” But maybe it was Alan Greenspan who said those or some similar phrases back then. I’m increasingly confused about who and when and so on.
I, and by that I mean insurers in general, was clearly on the right side. We don’t gamble. We, and when I say “we”, I mean the actuaries, had done our homework. No risk. We had learned the necessary lessons from 2001. Don’t forget: We retain our bonds until the end of the term, just like every other normal insurer. Stay calm. We don’t carry products “with profit”. Those are Anglo-American conditions. Steady. Already forgotten? This is Germany.
Chatting about the possibility of a total collapse of the world economy with a client on the way into my office, I would often pause for a moment in front of Ms. Aktan’s desk to secretly turn towards the television and glance at those pictures that really mattered for us. I waited for the weather. We could recite all of the names in the right order that we would never name our children, because they always reminded us of unpaid overtime, and despite all objectivity, the tangibly emotional telephone calls with our reinsurers where it was unclear if we were the famous drop in the ocean that would mean their financial ruin. Andrew, Mireille, Daria, Lothar.
When I saw Willy Scholz running down the hall to the elevator, not walking with a spring in his step, but really running, his tie swinging inappropriately back and forth, and I immediately thought I could hear unintelligible yells from Claims Adjustment, I checked the headlines online with the firm conviction that it had happened after all, the disaster of the year. But nothing had happened, nothing was happening, McCain continued to trail Obama, an Austrian cyclist tested positive, there was a plane crash in Nepal, killing twelve Germans, otherwise no panicked calls from established companies, as I had seen after Lothar, no emails with damage claims. Seconds later I ran into Scholz, Serdar, and Martin along with several agents from headquarters in front of the water cooler, which surprised me, since they had apparently convened for an unofficial meeting, without having informed me, the deputy manager.
With outstretched arm an agent from the headquarters, maybe about six-foot-six, held a piece of paper in the air, and one or two shorter reps circled him. Now and again they jokingly tried to reach for the paper and snatch it from him while the others stood around chuckling with arms crossed. It was only as I came closer that I understood what the giant was reading with a grin when he wasn’t being attacked.
“Cigarette Trash All-Round Protection.”
Some of the agents shook their heads. Those must be the suggestions from product development for the 4th Quarter of 2009. Officially they shouldn’t be announced before the end of the year. There had been plans for an all-round cigarette package for a while, concerning bars where, because of the smoking ban, cigarette trash piled up despite ashtrays in front of the entrance. Both the ashtrays and the cigarette trash were as risk factors new and not to be underestimated.
“Third-party shift…”
“What?”
“Louder!”
“What gets shafted?”
“Third-party shifting bankruptcy protections package.”
While Serdar whinnied and Martin chortled whenever the giant took a breath, Scholz whispered: “Get out of here! You can’t sell stuff like that. The names will be changed, right?” His jacket sleeves were rolled up and exposed his wrists, catching my eye. The first time since I had joined the department in Munich, I was looking for a wristband armband from the dubious rewards trip – but all I could see was his Breitling watch.
The giant continued: “Anti-terror…”
Widespread groans.
Serdar: “Oh, yeah, we haven’t ever had that!” He imitated the horn sound from a quiz show.
Someone from headquarters formed his hands to a megaphone and acted as if he was calling out suggestions to the product developers on the 29th floor: “Earthquakes! Why don’t you suggest earthquakes!”
“Even better,” another yelled: “Meteors!”
“Locusts! Volcanoes!” said the first agent.
The other one: “Ten biblical plague prevention! Protect yourself from the wrath of God!”
I had to laugh despite myself, a cackling noise, as always was the case when I really found something authentically funny; my mother had often cackled. I bent forward, laid my hand on my neighbor’s padded shoulder and, after I had calmed myself, with blushed cheeks, I could feel it; I looked at the profile of man about 25-years-old, who looked at me out of the corner of his eye desperately trying to keep on laughing and cover up his confusion. I quickly removed my hand, no one had noticed anything, they kept chatting. I returned to my desk to work on the mountain of small claims reports that grew relentlessly.

THIS IS YOUR DAY
TODAY YOUR NAME IS: WINNER
THERE’S ALWAYS ROOM AT THE TOP
(DANIEL WEBSTER)

I was prepared to demonstrate my qualities as an agent. After more than ten years of work experience, I wanted more. I was hungry. I started my computer and entered my new password, “Sseinrem66”. I picked up my 11:15 appointment from the reception. Serdar came towards me with a client, chatting jokingly with him in Turkish. In my office I asked my client: “How can I help you?” The registration form, where the client’s issue was recorded under point number two, flickered. I wanted to hear it from him. The client was a “worrier”. I pushed a brochure over to him and circled the number “100%” with a pen. The sales pitch ended without a deal. Smiling with exceptional friendliness, I accompanied the client back to the reception. In my office I disposed of the abandoned brochure and noted the client’s name on a Post-it note with the reminder “follow up”. I arranged the two pencils on my desk at a 90 degree angle because I suddenly had the firm conviction that if I did not do this, then the day would end without a deal. I watered the spider plants. I met Serdar in the break room and asked: “Well?” and he said, “Well what?” I asked: “How’s it going?” He said: “Same-same.” I received a call from a client who reported a damage claim. The client asked for Ms. Sandmann. Extremely friendly, I answered that I was her successor. I opened the form for the damage report and went through it with the client. There were too few lines under point three. The course of events had to be recorded on a separate page. Extremely friendly, I said goodbye with the words: “We’ll be in touch with you shortly.” After the conversation I checked if this was a premium client or a B1 client and because this wasn’t the case and I didn’t have any additional time capacity at my disposal, I passed the report to a claims adjustor. I walked to the reception, looked at the clock next to the elevator and went back to my office. At the Tuesday meeting Scholz instructed Serdar, Martin, and me to pay special attention to the cross-selling of the CAVERE product Package X, which had been introduced that summer. He said it was our problem child. At the Wednesday meeting I was greeted by an agent from headquarters, whom I hadn’t seen before, with the words: “So this is the tough new agent.” The whole meeting I pondered whether it wouldn’t have been advisable to parry with a comment like, “And that means you’re my girly new colleague,” to make clear from the beginning that I paid attention to things. I decided against it. I usually don’t overreact. I have a sense of humor. I considered if I should place the two pencils on my desk next to each other because in that moment I had the feeling that then and only then would I conclude a B1 deal this week, and at the same moment I admonished myself to not get superstitious again, as I had been as a girl, like when my parents were gone and I believed I had to go up and down the steps ten times, precisely ten times, so that my mother and father would return safe and sound, otherwise they would have a deadly accident. At the Thursday meeting the agent from headquarters was there again. He was extremely friendly. Over the course of the meeting I wondered if his conduct wasn’t especially treacherous, acting extremely friendly now, but actually continuing to be in ironic mode. I decided to be on guard. I was hungry. I watered the spider plants. I placed the pencils on my desk at a 180 degree angle to each other. I picked up my 11:30 client at the reception. The woman’s name, as I only noticed then, was the same as mine, Renate Meissner. She looked puzzled when I introduced myself. I said it wasn’t a joke. She said it was amusing. I checked if my pencils were at a 180 degree angle to each other. Serdar came towards us in the hallway. He stared at an invisible point, laughed, and was apparently having a conversation with a client. He was alone. He gesticulated. He was speaking into a headset. In my office I asked the client, “How can I help you?” The registration form, where the client’s issue was recorded under point number two, flickered. In the course of the consultation the client proved to be a “performer”. I pushed a brochure over to him and underlined the words “security,” “49%,” and “advantages” with a pen. I recommended the CAVERE package X. The client acted as if he hadn’t heard me. The deal did not live up to my expectations. Smiling extremely friendly, I accompanied the client back to the reception. I noticed that my new password contained the term “REM”. In my office I wrote the client’s name on a Post-it with the note “follow up”. I looked over this week’s remaining appointments. There were no potential B 1 clients. At the Wednesday meeting we compared the deals of the past week. Scholz instructed Serdar, Martin, and me to pay special attention to cross-selling the CAVERE product Package X, which had been introduced that summer. He said it was our problem child. I picked up my 5:15 client at the reception. I studied the print of Hopper’s “Sun in an Empty Room” on the opposite wall. I picked up my 9:45 client at the reception. I didn’t have any more time at my disposal. I ate a granola bar with wild berry flavor.

I believe it was the 44th CW when I suddenly found myself in front of an oversized world map on a wall in the break room, consciously registering it for the first time. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that the continents on the map were not yellow, brown, and green according to their vegetation. Instead, they were colored in various shades of red according to the regional frequency of natural disasters. Bright magnet chips were on individual countries without a recognizable system. It dawned on me that after more than ten years in this line of business, for the first time I actually now had before me the game that I had always only heard rumors about; it was said that there were avid fans from the business insurance department. “You ever played before?” a voice behind me asked. Serdar stood at the door.
“Disaster Monopoly,” I said.
“Disaster Monopoly,” said Serdar. “You know the rules ….?” “Remind me,” I said. “… So you don’t know the rules,” Serdar said. He sauntered up to the map, his face noticeably lighting up. “It really couldn’t be easier. Maximum of ten players. In January each of them makes what in DM circles is called ‘the prophecy’: So you place your thirteen DM tokens, everyone has twelve DM tokens and an additional thirteenth token, you place them on the countries where you think a natural disaster might happen. Look.” He motioned to one of the green tokens engraved with the number five and below that, a small DM®. “The number on the token designates the month in which the player says: okay, something’s going to happen. There’ll be a disaster. For example, when a hurricane rolls over the US in September and there’s a token there with the number 10, the player doesn’t get anything. Of course it’s completely stupid to bet on countries that are completely red like Australia or the US. There are only loads of cash where there are tectonic, gravimetric, climatic, or epidemic phenomena, against all expectations. It’s up to you how much you bet. Hmm.” Serdar pushed his hands into his pants pockets and gazed at the world map like a general studying the movements of his troops. “I have to say, it’s a little meager for me at the moment. Put everything on Germany. January to December. At least there was the cyclone Emma in March. I made a killing then. After that it looks a little thin. Man, a real worst case scenario, in Saxony, for example, would be great. I tell you what: someday we’re really going to be shaken up too. It’s just a matter of time. And then I’ll be the champ here.”
“Can you actually bet on Space too?” I deflected. I hadn’t noticed any irony in Serdar’s speech. Even if he didn’t let it show, I was sure that he had lost a certain percentage of his personal assets, invested in bonds, through the slump in the markets over the last few days. People like Serdar invest in stocks; his risk appetite could be characterized as high.
He suddenly tilted his head and turned it towards me while he fixed his gaze on me. “Space? What made you think of Space?”
“Well,” I explained, “Just one example. If something like the Challenger happens…”
“Challenger?” He raised his bushy black eyebrows.
“Challenger,” I explained. “1986. Space shuttle. Crash.” All at once, I remember that morning before school when my mother suddenly turned up the radio and during breakfast I stopped and asked what was wrong and my mother only interrupted me with “hush, hush”. Then we stood next to each other incredulously, and whispered the newscaster’s sentences to each other: “exploded,” “”during the launch,” “all occupants dead,” “including a teacher.” My mother reached for my hand. At the time she was just a little older than I am now. She would only die someday, in an unimaginable future. Two of the three channels showed pictures of the accident. When there was nothing on ARD, ZDF, and the regional television station, then there was nothing on.
“Sorry, I’m going to have to pass on that one,” Serdar answered. But essentially it wouldn’t be such a bad idea. I’d have to ask Scholz where you would put the token…”
To get rid of the thought of my mother, I followed a sudden inspiration and asked: “Wackersdorf?”
“Three Mile Island.” Pause, “yeah.” Serdar took his hands out of his pants pockets and held them undecidedly in the air for a second before crossing them on his chest. “What about it?”
“Three Mile Island?” I insisted. “Does it ring a bell?”
“No.” He closed his eyes and had a wide grin but noticeably irritated.
“What are you getting at?”
“Dan Aykroyd,” I said.
Serdar shook his head.
“Tara Calico, Khomeini,” I said. “Oliver North, Ben Johnson, Mathias Rust, Tears for Fears.” Each name was a memory.
“Well then. Best dishes.” Serdar gave up. The corners of my mouth went up and signaled my upper hand. I noticed that I had involuntarily imitated Lisa. He turned his strong back to me and strolled slowly towards the door – then he turned on his heel once more.
“Glitches?” he said.
It took some effort to keep the corners of my mouth up. It wasn’t clear to me what Serdar was referring to. “Glitches!” He noticed that he had unexpectedly won in the end and threw an uninterpretable glance my way before disappearing down the hall.
At the end of the 44th CW I received a phone call, the consequences of which I could not anticipate at the time. The number on the display of my Blackberry looked familiar without me being able to say immediately why. It wasn’t Walter, at any rate.
“Ms. Meissner?” a man at the other end said.
“Yes?” I answered, unsure of whether it what a client or a colleague.
“Utz.”
“Mr. Utz.”
I made an effort to find the tone of voice we had used to say goodbye two weeks before.
“It’s so nice that you …”
“Sure,” Utz interrupted me. “I’ve made a decision. I’ve picked you.” Those are the happiest moments, I admonished myself to stay calm.
“Well, that’s wonderful.” I used a submissive tone of voice that Walter could never stand in our relationship. “Then my portfolio was able to convince you. That’s really…”
“That’s okay”
“… a good decision…”
“The insurance has been purchased, Ms. Meissner. Now we can talk like normal people. But I understand. You’re under a lot of pressure from your boss. That’s why I’ll tell you straight up: I was by and large satisfied with you. Your competitors from Allianz weren’t so capable. You just shouldn’t look so grimly determined, like at the beginning. My setter looks like that sometimes – but you?”
I forced myself to audibly adjust to his laughter, which immediately became a cough, so that he didn’t think I didn’t have a sense of humor. The rabbit on my computer blinked at me.
I gulped. “So you think I was too determined?” I sounded charming.
“Well. But as I said, you’re under pressure from above. I know that.”
While Utz was speaking, I had time and again pleasantly said “yes” and “oh, yeah,” although I sensed an uneasiness rising in me. With his words he was starting to open up a room inside of me that he wasn’t permitted. “Yes, I know exactly what you mean.” I had the immediate urge to ask Utz what it had been like for him when his parents died in an accident. Although I frequently dealt with people, I didn’t know anyone for whom a car accident played a similar role as with Utz – and me. It was quite possible that he would have understood me if I had told him about the unpleasant repercussions that my grandmother’s disappearance had had for me and my family.
“Why don’t we do this, Mr. Utz: I’ll fax you the contract, let’s say in a half-an-hour, you take your time and read through it look over the whole thing at your own speed and if you have any question, just let me know and then I’d say we’ll see each other once more here to conclude the contract, Mr. Utz, okay?”
After the call I stood at the window for a long time and observed a smoker down on the plaza who brought the cigarette to her mouth, exhaled smoke, examined her shoes, bent slightly towards the ground, straightened up, brought the cigarette to her mouth, and so on. After that I wrote Scholz, who may have been in his office next door but couldn’t be heard, a short email that we, I wrote “we”, had won Utz over as a client.

On that Thursday or Friday evening on the way home a warm downdraft blew at great speed down from the Alps across the foothills all the way to Munich. The city’s lights shimmered, turning the clouds above me magenta. “Did you see their ugly long faces when they had to ask for help?” The voice belonged to one of the Tom or Stephans from IT, about half – a guess – of the employees there had those names. “I’d say their days are numbered…” Tom/Stephan looked toward the bank we were just walking by.
“People will have to rethink things, I’m fairly sure of that,” I said. “Ethics will play a role again. Sincerity will play a role again. This is a kind of new start … like in 1989 in a certain way…” I wasn’t paying any more attention to Tom/Stefan. It was as if I was talking to myself. It’s possible that I only carried on the conversation on my way home as an inner dialogue.
On the evening of that Friday in the 44th CW or another evening in that week in the tram I quickly wondered if it would make sense to invest in gold the small inheritance that my mother left me and I had kept in my checking account. I became dizzy at the thought of that in the worst case, the probability of which did not appear to be low, all that she had worked for years to save, all at once might not be worth the value of a used car or a two-week Lanzarote Club vacation. The fashion models on the advertisement in the shop windows the tram drove by, decorated for Christmas, gazed at the observer from a time that had moved far away within a few days, from another era.

After I had lined up seven white Lyrica pills next to me in equal distances on the parquet floor at home, I turned the Sony on that Walter had given me last January, a Caesar salad on my lap. Once again I noticed that I always watched television precisely when the programmers assumed fundamentally different average viewers than me, who were either expecting comedy or action. I paused briefly with my fork in front of my open mouth when the news about the earthquake in Northern Pakistan came in the late edition. But when I realized that this was an “M” catastrophe at most, with no effect on the insurance business here in Germany – none of my clients owned commercial property in Pakistan – I finished eating my salad. In addition, the pictures were of poor quality; the scenes of the Pakistanis clawing at the rubble were interchangeable. All of this could have been reruns of the pictures taken years ago during the Iraq war. I tried to have empathy for a woman of my age who, covered by a burka, beat her chest in grief and made loud shrieking noises. I was aware of her desperate situation. Nevertheless it was impossible for me to establish an emotional connection with her. I changed the channel. I was slightly more affected by the politicians struggling to keep their composure and the line of the people of Klagenfurt breaking into tears while waiting to sign the condolences books, mourning the beloved right-wing politician Jörg Haider’s accidental death with Austrian accents that I loved. In the end, it may have been around midnight, I couldn’t get the deal with Utz and the telephone conversation out of my head, and I removed that silver disc out of my DVD case, the one that Walter had burned me after I had requested it repeatedly. I was normally calmed by the viewing of unique XXL catastrophes from, the last 25 years, let’s say. Number 1: September 11, number 2: the 2004 tsunami, number 3: hurricane Katrina, number 4: the second war in Iraq, and so on.
Now and again the images of the worst events remind me of when I first heard of them, incredulous, gripped by unexpected excitement, in front of the television with Lisa, with my mother, telephoning with my brothers, or with the people with whom I usually have hardly any private contact at all, like colleagues. On the afternoon of September 11, 2001, when for some odd reason I was at home, the door bell rang – the World Trade Center was already smoking, but hadn’t collapsed yet – at the door of my apartment in Frankfurt. A man in a suit stood there and asked if he could watch television, he was just returning from work, lived in Hanau, but just wanted one thing, to watch television. We spent the following hours together on my couch, swapping theories about who was behind the attacks, what would happen next, etc., laughed, were silent, once the man wiped a tear from his check, completely unashamed, right next to me. That evening he said goodbye, thanked me again, and we hugged each other. On days like this everything that had previously appeared to be an essential part of my life lost its meaning in a single moment. It’s as if gravity and with it all of the laws of probability were suspended. What the future may bring, what will be tomorrow or the day after that, is completely open.

That Friday or Saturday evening I decided on the 9/11 episode on Walter’s DVD. To be honest, I was a little disappointed at the beginning of the new millennium because the first year didn’t seem to be at all different from the previous one. For years we had lived toward the year 2000. But after the big parties were over and the months had past without noteworthy events, it suddenly appeared to me as if we were now living in an unending present, as if the future had disappeared. I believe that’s why I wasn’t the only for whom that bright September day seemed to be the delayed fulfillment of a promise of something great, something shocking.
And so that’s how it came that, sitting on my bed that evening, the empty salad bowl next to me, the television glowing blue as if from the inside, I sensed a short-lived wish for a new, even more spectacular disaster that would make everything stand still.

 

From Das Jahr, in dem ich aufhörte, mir Sorgen zu machen, und anfing zu träumen by Thomas von Steinaecker, © S. Fischer Verlag, 2012.
Translation © Bradley Schmidt

the russian woods

Author: Ulrike Almut Sandig
Translator: Bradley Schmidt

the russian woods were what we didn’t care about, where
we didn’t go, where sheaves of light shot up to
the spruce crowns, red, where the ashes
from cigs and bent steel covered the ditches
along the field. on the outskirts of the village
tables moved and something woke us
late: further on was the end of the path.

no trespassing land mines / heath
barrier clearing moss fringe / crater red deer
empty villages / brick halls heather. there were

caravans of tanks, trucks, dark green tarps, inside
stood forty men, they gazed back
out in rows, all heads shaved. and there was
this one that stood still four hours, in july
in the heat, alone on the crossing, till they rolled
by in thirty machines, and he raised his right

arm: yield to military / till dust and the barking
of dogs and he doesn’t move / thin
boy sunset / the centre strips green. they’d always

been there and sometimes broke slats
from the fence and sliced off cabbage and
shot the hens. whoever was full up
went on to the fish pond, to the sun, and swapped
badges with children, red and sickle for
friendship. whoever did that didn’t come back for
a long time. we waited in vain.

 

Original © Ulrike Almut Sandig
Translation © Bradley Schmidt

The Balance of Time

Author: Lutz Seiler
Translator: Bradley Schmidt

“In our family it was unfortunately custom to visit the capital city…”
Wolfgang Hilbig, The Fear of Beethoven

First the bell, then the whisper from the glass cabinets. I unfasten the strap over my wrist, the back of my hand touches the counter; the arm is stretched out as if for drawing blood. The watch slides silently onto the small tablet with the inscription: Walinski & Söhne. I massage the unshackled joint and take a seat (my chair, I think) between two head-high showcases made of glass. A tram rolls by, and I await the sound.

Friends who knew the state I was in following the breakup with C. had suggested I come to Berlin. They had done this in a letter that I still have and keep like an old ticket that you believe you might be asked for one day. At the end of the letter there is mention of a possible employment “in the food industry.”
What was meant was a basement café in the Mitte district, Oranienburg Street. A cellar converted by people living in the building, few conveniences, low prices, and the name: Assel, woodlouse. The Assel was the first of its kind; similar and other locations followed later, restaurants, cafes, and a few kosher shops in the neighborhood around the synagogue. Even during the day there were numerous tourists who were drawn to the ruins and the scene, which had settled down with junk sculptures and large puppets hanging from the windows on nooses. The prostitutes came in the evening, and then it was their street. When they wanted to rest or warm themselves up they sat at a round table right in front of the bar in the Assel and drank hot chocolate. The table – it had been established as the staff table but the women negated that or they didn’t notice it, and none of us would have dared to draw their attention to the fact.
The first few weeks I lived with friends. Through long conversations that repeatedly circled around C. and my misfortune, they were ultimately able to convince me that a few things were necessary, even in my situation: nutrition, sleep – and a place of my own. Over multiple expeditions I noted the location of several seemingly vacant apartments. Initially it was all about checking if the windows were dark, dirty, and missing curtains. It wasn’t always easy to decide whether the apartments were inhabited or not, and I often stood down on the sidewalk for a long time staring up. It could come to pass that one of those lifeless windows was opened and an occupant appeared, who had probably been observing me for a while and was now shaking his or her head strongly, making a threatening gesture toward me and then down the street.
There were rumors about a new regulation regarding “the fight against vacancy,” which granted those looking for apartments significant rights if they could give convincing proof that the housing unit had not been used for more than six months. It was also said (one of the main rumors in newcomer circles that sporadically formed) that individual departments had become so unsettled by the events that even a halfway energetic appearance and hints of your own knowledge about “fighting vacancy” could bear fruit. The background for all of this was the “General Influx Prohibition for Berlin,” a ban that was well-known across the country if not infamous. By now it was no longer clear to anyone if it was still valid or which exceptions were permitted or, as the big mouths among the newcomers claimed, whether all laws of this kind were absolutely meaningless now and that basically every door was open to us now.
Vacant apartments were not scarce. In some streets entire courtyards stood empty. Then there were the apartments from the refugees who had fled via Hungary, some in prime locations, but much harder to figure out. If they hadn’t already been plundered or confiscated, there were still curtains in front of the windows, and the windows themselves couldn’t have been uncleaned for more than nine months. When I had gathered up enough courage I entered the house. Making as little noise as possible, I climbed the stairs, waited until my breathing had calmed down, and laid an ear on the door. Had I heard something – or not? Sometimes I knocked or rang the bell. If someone from an adjacent apartment stepped into the stairwell I immediately presented myself as a relative or acquaintance. “Excuse me, is Mr. Treibel not there?” No one ever asked, “What do you want to know that for?”
In the end I settled on a house on Rykestrasse halfway overgrown by a small forest of rampant bushes and trees. I purchased tools and a door lock in a hardware store on Rosenthaler Platz and of course I shied away from this last, but necessary step.
There was an enormous willingness to help. Tenants who had noticed my laborious, deafening hammering (I had thrown myself against the door in vain a couple of times) came down the stairs and inquired if I was planning to stay here for a while. My answer was already contained in the tone of their question: Yes, I would like to, I would really like to, because it’s precisely here that it’s very nice, I think because the front building is missing and the whole area is completely covered with bushes – is that elder? – and even with some white lilacs, old lilacs and then also, the garden bench and the fire pit to the left of the entry, as if there were courtyard parties once in a while, under the elder bushes… After that, the tenants lent me their crowbar.
In fact I didn’t care much for courtyard parties and the associated fraternization in the immediate neighborhood, but perhaps I would start to like them in Rykestrasse, I thought – after all, everything was back to the drawing board.
Some wood splintered out of the brown frame, and once again I was lucky: The door was only drawn closed, not locked. The last occupant, a man named Alfred Wrubel – a paper sign scrawled with childish handwriting hung above the bell – had seen no reason to do so.
For a while the new, metallic lock, installed with my own hands, was my pride and joy -my lock, my door, is what I thought. It was a shaded one-room apartment with a tiny hallway, which also led to the kitchen. The toilet was in the staircase, its loophole of a window overlooking the elder bushes and the street – the floor was covered with candle stumps and empty toilet paper rolls.
I found a couple things in the apartment that had obviously been left behind by Alfred Wrubel: a china cabinet, a twin bed with spring mattresses and an ash can full of ashes in front of the stove. A workbench stood in the kitchen, a solid piece of work constructed from oak planks and steel brackets that almost completely filled the narrow room; there was nothing else. Only a few odds and ends, walnut shells, and candy wrappers behind the stove door, and a small, dirty stool almost invisible on the auburn flooring under the sink, which was attached at an unusual height. The entire apartment appeared to be inundated by a sickly sweet odor, reminding me of my grandparents’ bedroom.
Over the course of two afternoons I painted the walls white, and on the third I began, as best I could, to cover the floor boards with white, shiny paint (on the can it said “high-gloss”); white floorboards, a stroke of genius, I thought. After half the kitchen floor – the workbench proved to be immovable, which was why I had to carefully work around its steel columns – I was completely exhausted. I went down Dimitroffstrasse and compared two snack bars’ offers. I sat at a small table strewn with white cabbage for a long time staring at the house wall opposite me. My gaze still searched for dark, dirty windows.
Alfred Wrubel – a corner of the paper sign stuck up from the wall like a challenge to finally tear it down and write my own name plate, but I now felt too weak for that. The door closed, and I instantly felt the soothing unfamiliarity of the place. I went to the bedroom without glancing once at the half-white flooring, pulled several mattresses from Wrubel’s bed and lay down to sleep. For a while I searched for my desperation but didn’t find anything.

Quickly, as if grabbing an animal by the tail, Walinski grasps the end of the strap and raises the watch to eye level. A half second, then the hand closes around its catch, then his gaze goes over to me. My form is somewhat unclear, distorted through the glass cases, I think, but a blurry nod suffices, then Walinski disappears to his equipment again. Two, three breaths, and although I am prepared, it catches me by surprise: The mechanical tone, clear and strong, as if something was beating against the struts of time, essentially not so much ticking but still the echo of the watch that I am entrusted with.

When I woke up the next morning I felt extraordinarily calm, almost light. I could think simple things and do simple things. I thought of errands, shopping, I had the patience to write a list. I called my mother from a booth beyond the border; I hadn’t spoken to her in weeks. Her voice was faint, and she also could barely hear me. I yelled that everything was going well in Berlin, friends, studies, English classes, and even Latin, which I needed for my degree now… Maybe she didn’t understand me, the connection deteriorated: almost without sound her question at the end whether I didn’t want to get back into a masonry company, as a mason at a construction site on the side and maybe even moonlight, like I used to, you still have all your tools, son … I couldn’t talk for much longer. The coins were gone and the telephone surrounded, day and night there were crowds in front of the booths on the other side of the border – you couldn’t get out of the East any more.
Two, three forays through the remainders of pillaged apartments sufficed to round up what I was still missing. Normally it would have been embarrassing or at least awkward for me to drag my loot home through the street in broad daylight, but it was as if I was merely watching the person who was doing it; I wasn’t the one carrying the chair on his back and hotplate with pots and utensils on his chest, just someone who had the time and leisure to do it and it would stay that way.
My nightshift as wait staff started in the early evening. At four a.m. I pulled out the shift plan from under the counter and erased all of my future bar and waiting duties. From then on I only worked in the kitchen: breakfast until eleven, salads, pasta, and potato soup out of the can for lunch. The receipt books and note pad where the waiters wrote their food orders were on the refrigerator. I was worked in quickly. There were mornings when there was not a single order for hours on end. Then I went to the window and laid my head to the side with my cheek against the cool, tiled windowsill. It was a good, old, almost forgotten tiredness that enveloped me there. I myself was almost invisible with my eyes just above the ground. I saw the sky above the street and in front of that the tram’s overhead wire, which had been worked on for several weeks. I saw legs, shoes, the stream of passers-by, and in the evening, when my shift was over, the patent leather boots of the girl who had her spot in front of Assel and went by Dora. She never asked, “How about the two of us?” or at least, “Hey, sweetie?” She just whistled or hissed or growled like a bored animal when a car rolled to a stop at her level.

It’s not the watch, just its reverberation; it’s the small machine’s work. Walinski, who already thought he smelled a hidden lover of mechanical watches during my first visit, had motioned for me to come to the back. The watch lay open on the cushion with the microphone as if for an operation, next to it the machine, half covered by a stiff dust cover, with a color ribbon and paper roll, similar to an ancient calculator or lie detector. There was a series of red lamps, the top one of which began to light up, above that the label Greiner Vibrograf and a long metal stylus that hammered on the color ribbon – every one of the lever’s movements, each tick was a blow and each blow a dot on the paper… Walinski, who talked and turned the magnetic cushion: defective waste and shaky moments, rough dial and sweeping stylus – it is the hidden state, the secret heart, as Walinski called it on that day. I observed the pale dots on the paper, their strange distribution. It was a kind of Braille, one single line that slowly grew out of the apparatus towards me.
 

My first months in Berlin: visits at my friends on Linienstrasse and a few lonely day trips to a lake in the north. One thing is certain, that I worked three days a week, essentially every other day. Following the currency conversion the wages lay at six Marks per hour, in addition to a portion of the tips, which the two waiters usually shared with the kitchen staff. After ten hours I got about eighty Marks – an amount that seemed to be reasonable, especially because it was paid out immediately. As I made my rounds through the park as after every shift, and over the museum island and from there back to Wrubel’s cave via various routes, I fingered the money in my pants pocket now and again.
On my days off I barely slept longer than otherwise. I washed myself at the sink in the kitchen, then I ate breakfast at my workbench. I used a console of marble as a table and plate at the same time. It had been part of a vanity that I had discovered in one of the open apartments and had disassembled, marshalling all of my strength. In my efforts for further furnishings – I was constantly finding things that could still be used – I occasionally talked to myself quietly, “Wrubel, Wrubel,” or even cursed with “damn old Wrubel!” A joke, to the extent that anything at all could be registered as a joke in this stage of my pupation.
You old Wrubel, I thought.
The summer grew hotter; a granulated light enriched with the finest dust and mold spores reigned over the courtyards covered with trash. It came to pass midway my movements through a house full of abandoned addresses that I suddenly bolted up and the sensation of absent life moved through me like a pin, from my head to my tailbone. Then I would stand petrified for minutes on end in front of a sink full of dishes or at the end of a double bed, the covers barely pulled back and the impression of a head on the pillow. What I finally brought together: a wall plate with the inscription “Rennsteig 1974” (the strongly simplified figure of a runner was etched with a soldering iron), a lunch box of tin and several bronze thistles that I had discovered in a box full of homemade Christmas decorations. All of this landed on my work bench, arranged like found pieces for an altar. A few moments in front of these things were enough, and their silent, stubborn persuasiveness transported me into a state of involuntary reverence. In the presence of their gestures that had become meaningless, the contours of that which I would have called ‘my story’ just a few weeks before disappeared.

It was a Friday in August when the worker entered the Assel. The door stood open to let out the sour fumes of the previous evening. I saw the man unclearly in the semidarkness. He wore the orange colored work coat of track workers, and at first glance I thought he was a bum. He stepped towards me with one stride, and suddenly the silver stripes on his chest flashed – a carnival costume, a skeleton, I thought, or a giant advent figure. I yelled “Closed!” and spread out my arms, but before I could push the flashing work coat back to the steps he said something and his voice sounded familiar to me. As if walking on water, the man now crossed the dining area and took a seat, right under the window where I had just opened the shutter. He held his face very calmly into the light of the morning sun. As I approached his table to reprimand him I saw that he was watching the hydraulic lift outside on the street. A full tram moved closer, ringing nervously, and the men on the hydraulic lift (they were all wearing the work coats) slowly lowered their tower down and to the side. Maybe it was that: this smooth retreat, the sight of the slowly sagging platform with its beguiling mechanics, or it was the sudden evidence of his being a worker or all of that in its convincing synchronicity.
“Do you know what you want?”
If he had advanced promptly at first, the man now turned to me in a ponderous manner. Under the reflective jacket he wore nothing more than a woolen undershirt, his forearms were tanned and hairy; he leaned his head back slightly.
“Breakfast, please.”
“With sausage or cheese? If you want you can have an egg, too and there are various kind of jam at the bar, raspberry, strawberry, currant …”
My answer – maybe it had sounded a bit zealous, but his face remained motionless and his gaze patiently at my chest. The face of a boxer, I thought, a worker at any rate.
“Cheese, please. And a brandy, please.”
The worker chewed with exceptional slowness, almost painstakingly, and frequently brushed across his face to wipe a strain of hair to the side that the sweat had formed into an old-fashioned forelock. After taking a sip of coffee he dabbed his lips with the back of his hand; every one of his movements was accompanied by the reflections of the work coat, which blinded me like the effects of a dream. He was smoking. The hand with the cigarette lay on the table; the cup was raised, motionless in front of his mouth. But he didn’t drink now, but merely pressed the porcelain to his unshaven cheek. A moment passed in which I believed I had done that myself. I myself was sitting there below the window; I hadn’t fled my background with my traditional location and position of a class, I hadn’t forfeited my right to position, the right, semiconsciously or exhaustedly, to warm my cheek on the cup and to then return to the eternal course of things: “Your locker back there, your box, helmet on, civvies on the top shelf…” I unconsciously carried out some tasks at the bar, something with glasses and bottles; something was crackling in my cocoon. Everything he did carried the mark of the gravity that I admittedly had never reached myself. I had never really gained access to the inner circle of workers, their holy sphere. In all the years and over all the construction sites something had held me back, repelled me, without maliciousness and even without intent; it seemed to me it was just as if I was missing a particular, definitive trait, a scent, perhaps a certain pitch… Without actually being able to tear away my gaze, I stepped back, two, three steps from the bar into the kitchen; two, three steps and a half-turn toward the refrigerator, a nearly elegant, divine retreat that shifted everything into a new, redemptive context: “The worker sits under the window, his hand holding a cup in the air… ” I wrote on the order pad. It was my very first sentence.
When the man wanted to leave I was almost frightened – still as hypnotized by the reflections of his jacket, I moved towards the worker all at once with the quick step of a waiter who had recognized that at that moment something really needed to be done at the tables. Just one step from his wide contours, the tray started to sway – in my blindness up to that point I had not at all noticed that I had marched through the room with a tray in front of my waist full of freshly washed and polished glasses that buzzed quietly with every one of my steps and then slid into each other and tipped, clattering mockingly…
A single grasp, then everything was quiet.
We stood there for maybe one, maybe two seconds. His hands tightly on my forearms, the tray above.
“Hold your horses.”
The watch timing machine is running, I’m in the noise. Unusual dial, Walinski calls from the back and keeps talking but is barely comprehensible through the hammering of the timer. Up on the dial, in the finest of type, is the name of the watch of my concern: Glashütte SPEZIMATIC. The casing: gold-plated brass. Caliber: seventy-four. Year: sixty-three. Movement: self-winding. And Walinski who knows what is needed: care, maintenance, keeping the heartbeat pure. Its sounds and interfering noise. When ticking become hammering, a steam hammer, a job with sweeping anchors and moments that sway.
He came all August. His greeting was short and nearly imperceptible when he left – a nod in the dim light toward the bar behind which I had stepped to say goodbye to him and then again catch up on the stairs, unlock the door and open the Assel for the rest of the street.
The other workers in his brigade sat outside on the frame of the hydraulic lift. They had thermos bottles along and ate out of lunch boxes. Their laughter could be heard occasionally, a kind of guffaw which made the bucket sway and a couple times it seemed to me like they were pointing to the Assel, and at us.
Above all, I felt the undisputed, unquestioned nature of his existence, I wrote: his dignity, his pride, his attitude – that’s what mattered. To me his gestures appeared pure and consummate. And the sum of that, I was sure, would be much more.
When the worker, after having taken his seat, took off his gold-colored watch with the arm stretched low over the table, it offered a view of a difficult but composed and carefully carried out operation with which a vital organ was removed for a necessary period of time and deposited in a location long predetermined. This place lay next to the ash tray, partially beneath its curved edge as if the purpose was to hide the gold a little while eating. Unlike the glass with the brandy, he never lifted his cup directly to his mouth; on its way it stopped several times in the air to give his large tongue enough time to move against the inner surface of his cheek. Before smoking he wiped his hands on his undershirt with such care as if he was trying to feel his heartbeat at the occasion. And maybe he did. Each of his gestures appeared to immediately contribute to the understanding of my own existence, the integrity lost, as it shot through my head meaninglessly, and there were moments in which I believed the gestures were carried out purely for this reason, and then again moments in which I broke into small, inaudible laughter behind the bar with pleasure, giggling in the depths of the kitchen before I stepped to the refrigerator, blessed anew: sentence by sentence I culled from his figure and from the gleaming flotsam of my excitement. Promise was the word of the hour.
The worker stayed away when the repairs on the overhead wire had reached Hackescher Markt. I then sat at the workbench with increasing frequency, the marble slab serving as a desk. “As long as it happens, the bell is lifted…” I whispered this and other such incoherent things to myself when I suddenly looked up from my page, but nothing really led beyond my refrigerator notes. Once again I tried to picture how it had started. The track work coat, his stiffness, his macabre glow – the worker’s first appearance. It required something of me, something that had become indispensable since that day.
“Hold your horses.”
I could no longer recall the sound of his voice. His contours slipped away. As if it could only succeed in his presence – with him or never, I thought.
In the local section of the BZ newspaper, which was delivered daily to the Assel, I came across a picture of the lift – in it two men with helmets, bare arms above their heads, one of them must have been the worker. The picture was very small and the report extremely meager – the completion of the repair work was apparently, it said, anticipated by the end of the month, and that meant the end of the inconvenience was finally in sight.
In my desperation it could have been pleasant to simply let the pencil drop and press my wrists against the cooling marble – that was the moment in which I once again pictured the worker’s saving grasp, his grasp and his hold, firm and practiced, precisely the way old companions greeted each other when they grabbed each other on the forearms and just stood there for a while, the picture of timeless solidarity like I had seen so often in coverage of so-called veterans’ reunions – a gesture for which the word steadfast was invented…
“Hold your horses.” My glance was drawn to the article. Even the newspaper picture was characterized by the worker’s figure, which seemed serious and determined, expressing the attitude of communion that I yearned for, a gravity of my own that I had unquestionably recognized. There appeared to be no single expression for this state of grace, as I called it.
As evening crept into the courtyard and the light above the work bench had to be turned on, I was still sitting there, my wrist pressed against the stone. Would I be able to calm down or would I in the end be drawn once again down to the street to the nearest dive, called Krähe or crow, where everyone who had to discuss how essential it was to be authentic every evening came together, which was especially essential for what they were planning right now, impressive schemes (“projects” – this pervasive word constantly filling the room) that they were able to describe in utmost detail, strong gestures and faces lit almost ghoulishly in the lamp shades.
It was only around midnight that a type of customer entered the Krähe, who could immediately be recognized as someone who had accomplished something. Some came, as it seemed, directly from the studio or some kind of workshop, with pants stained with paint and oily hands and for just one beer while standing, which they drank very slowly, sip for sip like a rare reward. Their tired, absent gaze passed over the heads, exhausted but yet still almost apprehensively careful to stay away from the projects. Those who sat at the tables laughed about the fuss, as they called it, and looked at the one-beer-while-standing people with contempt or yearning when they left the bar again. Intently and to the end, I tried to divine the secret of their task based on their already fleeting form.
When I returned home around two or three o’clock, I once again went into the kitchen to the workbench. I myself tried to assume some posture for a while – weight, gravity, I mumbled and scribbled something on my paper, and then I fell asleep with my arms on the marble slab. The dream was short. Although the image in the newspaper had made everything dull and grainy, a southern illumination suddenly emerged from the paper: the worker at work, with raised fists on a worn-out cable through which the greatest possible degree of grace flowed. I saw how he checked a screw joint or exchanged an isolator with his head stretched towards the heavens and apparently with eyes closed, and all at once I felt the power of the fellow soldier’s grasp on my forearms. Once again I was overcome by the impression of a lost, apparently indescribable fund that I believed I had recognized in his picture – an entire continent of the Good and Right that was broken and had fallen into the depths but now reappeared before my eyes, huge and darkly familiar, reconstruction of emotional stocks at Hackescher Markt, the caption read, and it was inconceivable that I had overlooked that before.
The last breakfast I made for him was on August 31, just before the start of my so-called double shifts when I had to stay in Assel from eight in the morning until four in the morning. I owe the date to my notebook, hidden under the receipt books.
The number of brandies had increased, and a small beer had been added. Unchanged remained the gestures associated with the removal and donning of his watch, the cup on his cheek, the tongue in his mouth and nod as farewell. I silently followed him to the door. As usual, the worker made no attempts to pay while I didn’t make the slightest effort to give him the bill – that also was a part of our alliance and he showed me. I had already discovered the gold glistening by the ash tray on the way back – it’s the watch, his wonderful watch, I whispered, that means he will return, now, any moment, and then – then maybe, while handing over his watch, our conversation would begin.
Outside there was some movement in the early evening. One of the prostitutes called something down the stairs toward the bar, a few guests followed her. The lift stood at the end of the street at the tram’s turning point. Passengers, passers-by, the prostitutes and their first customers had already formed a kind of circle at a conspicuous distance, as if carefully measured.
In order to be closer to the events once again, I would now like to continue with the wording of those first penciled notes, which I made at the time, soon afterwards on the Assel‘s refrigerator – an initial, rough recording that I present here without revision:
“He had already disappeared when I arrived. You could hear scraping and stamping and something on the metal of the bucket that crackled like a small campfire, crackled the whole time, was that the electricity or voltage or what, then it was still again. As the lift stopped swaying and then the contact was broken – perhaps by a millimeter – first you could see how the man’s head or something like the head slowly, quietly and as if tired crept over the edge, the rim of the lift and then a hand: I saw that it was him, the man, the worker with his bulk, who was now attempting to straighten himself in the bucket, without doubt his efforts were devoted to the goal of reaching the button, the switch or some kind of controls, but the man (the worker) was already heavy and gray from the power line’s juice and his torso swayed (very) (shook) and how the hands, his hands (shriveled hands) jumped back and forth on the rim of the bucket like birds in a bad mood (gray mood). That meant / so that the whole bucket began to sway anew and the small campfire with the crackling, popping and the gray plasteline that, his clay head falling back with a difficultly modeled, but muted cry into the orange bucket. Then you could also hear, like before, the scraping knocking on metal, then it was still again. Down below as well, where we stood, on the edge – this may have been his hand, the birds in a gray mood, once again jumping, now slower… I”
Even today, when I try to comprehend something from the situation, details push themselves to the fore. The worker’s scraping in the bucket, his futile effort to push away from his fate. The worst: his whimpering and groaning, his begging without words, just sounds, his extended, pleading Ow-Ow-Ow, like an infant crying, howling out his misfortune, in a man’s voice.
I no longer remember how much time had passed until I realized that what I saw was actually happening, and later that in fact no one came to help. Where were his workmates? Where were the emergency vehicles, the firefighters? It seemed as if the voltage transferred to the lift created an unreality against which no objections at all could be raised, just a single, pleading Ow-Ow-Ow
An unusual number of food orders had accumulated while I had written, salads, soups, pasta dishes – and still more spectators from the circle around the lift streamed into the Assel. The whores’ business also took a while to get back into gear. Several of the women had gathered around the staff table in front of the bar, stirring their hot chocolates vigorously and discussing the worker’s death. A song by the band U2 blared from the speakers. “Execution… punishment… eternal torment” – when I helped serve the bowls of soup several of their hysterical comments, each trumping the other, pushed into my ear – among them that woman named Dora who continually hissed over the table, “Never paid, never paid!”
In the end the watch glides onto the pad, a new swipe of Braille next to it. First I stow away the scroll. By the way I clasp the wristband above the wrist, carefully, composed, my arm stretched as if for drawing blood and my hand very close to the counter, I show Walinski that I know how to handle a watch.
It had rained half the night. I crossed the street, took a couple steps into the park and broke out in tears. The tears ran down my cheeks, they dripped from my chin, there was no longer anyone there to see so I let go, and at the same time I detected a whisper. A couple words, a phrase that I had silently spoken to myself a while upon leaving, when I left the Assel already, maybe the whole evening, “You goddamn, miserable…”
Walking did some good. The change from asphalt to the grass where my footsteps instantly became silent. I sensed the moisture in the grass, which took every step from my feet, soft and unquestioning, and through the echo of the music that had begun to encapsulate itself beneath my temples to keep pounding like the heart of a parasite, I finally heard the sentence: “A dreamer, you’re a goddamn dreamer, a miserable dreamer.”
That wasn’t much of a sentence. At times it had maybe been some sort of blah-blah-blah and ludicrous enough per se but not at this moment. What I said was true. I heard that it corresponded to the truth. And as much as I repeated it as I was heading towards the river and towards the island – “a dreamer, a miserable dreamer” – the sentence didn’t return to the husk of its meaninglessness, it didn’t become less true.
I went past the playground with the climbing hill made of cobblestones and the concrete cave; a whiff of urine blew over, I felt lighter and lighter, step by step. I crossed the makeshift steel bridge to the Museumsinsel, the bridge boomed under my feet, on the river the glow of the streetlights. Where had I not failed? I went closer to the railing, a couple meters over the water that enclosed the museums’ torsos with algae, weeds, and bushy birches. Bode, Pergamon and the wreckage of a museum in the middle of the island – they were huge stranded ships that I could talk to. “What blew you this way, which storms, and how do you endure it?” That’s how I talked and barely heard myself, it was just a pleasant dozing which I surrendered to.
Like a porous reef blackened by the tides, the ships on the other shore were affixed opposite a corner building several stories high. It bore the sign of the university, which still demanded respect from me. I crossed the street and without hesitation, pushed my index finger into one of the bullet holes next to the door.
I only stood there for a couple seconds, at the base of the institute, alone in the dark, and drilled some loose sand or dirt out of the hole. Although I was undeniably in the middle of the city, there was complete silence. I briefly asked myself if it was possible that the projectiles could still be at the end of these little hollows, and if I would be able to touch them sometime like this. Maybe that’s why this house covered with hits hadn’t been renovated, I thought – you had to remove the old iron first. A piece of rusty metal comes through with time, through every new façade; it blooms, as masons say, that much I still knew. I immediately had the glow of the work coat before my eyes. He had done everything for me. He had come into the Assel, he had given me signs and held my arms. I lifted my free wrist and followed the movement of the small golden second hand: ow-ow-ow … I slowly pulled my finger out of the bullet hole. For the first time since my childhood I seriously considered praying. Not only for the worker, to be honest, but also for the progress of my story.

 

“Die Zeitwaage”, from: Lutz Seiler, Die Zeitwaage. Erzählungen, pp. 261-285 © Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt am Main 2009. All rights reserved by Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin
Translation © Bradley Schmidt

this draught from talk

Author: Ulrike Almut Sandig
Translator: Bradley Schmidt

this draught from talk: tangled syllables
at the bottom of lungs, the delicate limbs
of serifs on tongues, the smell of damp
paper. tell me about eurasia, about the clean
CUT of the mountain range in our frozen

CENTER, urals, and about what follows,
this bird destination, where huts are built
from corrugated tin and tar, styrofoam, where semi-
somnolent rats devour stories, and rivers
are filthy with flowers and flesh, where they

speakand constantly drink tea, where they greet and
diethe one is always the one: listen


Original © Ulrike Almut Sandig
Translation © Bradley Schmidt

Frank

Author: Lutz Seiler
Translator: Bradley Schmidt

“Around, around, flew each sweet sound …” S. T. Coleridge

Their last evening. The girl at the hostess station outside the entrance wore the restaurant’s yellow and blue uniform, a short pleated skirt and a kind of blouse with epaulettes and gold buttons. If you wanted to wait, you typically gave your first name, which was called as soon as a table was open. In the past weeks Färber had found that his first name was too complicated for the restaurants’ maitre d’s and had adopted a simple name. Embarrassingly, now he had to repeat it; the girl had understood Hank instead of Frank. I could have left it at Hank, he thought, but he’d gotten used to Frank, Frank.

Some of the asphalt, softened by the heat, had seeped between the rocks of the shore. Or maybe it had been used to help reinforce the stones against the swells – he was fixated by these types of meaningless questions.

He and Teresa stood for a while on the illuminated beach beneath the restaurant. The sand was blinding in the halogen light and the foam brilliant white, or phosphorescent. A few overweight sea gulls tumbled towards them and then struggled to turn away again. Färber would have liked to say something, but he had to be careful, he had to concentrate so that it wouldn’t be, as Teresa put it, something negative again, just an attempt, as she believed, to repress his perpetual dissatisfaction.

He wanted to go down to the water, but Teresa sat down on one of the rocks. Her arms and legs were tanned, her black hair lay in a loosely woven braid between her shoulder blades. When Teresa noticed Färber looking at her, she thrust her feet into the sand. On her second-smallest toe she wore a new silver ring.

The parking lot filled, and more and more guests came up the driveway. Färber didn’t understand their motions, the sweeping gestures, the outstretched arms pointing now towards the canyon, now towards the ocean, and the distinctly erect, almost backward-leaning way of walking, with an expression of perpetual anticipation on their faces. I don’t feel anything special when I see the Pacific, and that’s the worst sign, thought Färber.

He wanted to draw Teresa’s attention to a sea gull that must have gotten snagged in one of the adopt-a-beach trash barrels (all the trash barrels on the beach carried this label) – one wing jutted out and beat at the barrel’s rim, a sort of Indian drumming clearly audible when the wind from the water rose and the music from the restaurant washed over their heads. For a moment, Färber saw a couple of homeless people stomping around the trash barrel, rhythmically thrusting their fists in the air.

He hadn’t touched Teresa the whole time. He had gotten very close to her in the log cabin at Tiagra Pass, but she had actually been asleep. At first she was shocked and furious, but she had to be quiet because Lucy was sleeping on a cot on the opposite wall with her cuddle pillow under her arm. “Don’t touch me!”

Later he was nauseous. Sunstroke, although he had only spent a few minutes outside the car. Why don’t you ever wear a hat – sometimes he heard his mother’s voice, and Färber mumbled something in reply, he was dizzy, and suddenly he had tears in his eyes: Don’t touch me! Let me be… touch, touch! At some point Teresa must have fallen asleep, the blanket pulled tight around her shoulders and her feet dug into the covers. Just like he remembered.

They’d done day trips together, the normal things all the tourists did, the desert, the Sierra Nevada, San Francisco and back down the coast on Highway 1. He knew the people where they were staying laughed about the Germans because they always wanted to go to Death Valley, all the Swiss and the Germans want to go to the desert, where it’s the hottest. Why in the world, Randy had asked him, laughing. Randy was their landlord. Lucy had promoted him to Uncle Randy, and she was staying with him this evening.

Unlike its gluttonous fellow gulls, which circled over the shore with bills wide open and uttered cat or baby cries, the bird in the bin was completely mute. Mutely it hammered its wings on the rim like a job that had to get done.

The West Coast had always been a dream of Teresa’s. At first it was unrealizable, then difficult, because of Lucy. Two of Teresa’s friends ran a restaurant in Los Angeles with specialties from Thuringia. It was there, at Holy Elizabeth, that they’d had their best evening. Färber had drunk Köstritzer beer and eaten stuffed cabbage. The friends told them about their famous guests, about Clint and David and Betty, whose party they had been to, where the whole garden was covered with carpets, probably expensive ones, and a collection of four hundred busts of Lenin filling half the house – they laughed, and even Färber had laughed, relieved, and put an arm around Teresa’s shoulders. He and Teresa were still an enviable couple in others’ eyes, or at least he thought so.

The whole time Teresa had taken pictures from the car. When she wasn’t taking photos, she put one leg on the dashboard, bracing the ringed foot against the windshield, and sometimes the ring clicked a little against the glass. Färber hadn’t asked her about the ring. Jewelry usually came from Teresa’s father, who gave his daughter gifts for every possible occasion, valuable, necklaces, often delicate silver chokers – jewelry made for special occasions, for dresses with plunging necklines. She was usually uncomfortable about it in front of Färber but at the same time pleased, saying, “Isn’t it gorgeous?,” or “Just my style,” and “Doesn’t he have great taste?”

She had pushed her seat as far back as it went; her profile had slipped from his view. The tanned foot, the slightly spread toes, the pale, almost square toe nails, the landscape in the background … The big toe wasn’t really the biggest, compared to the next one, and even the middle toe was a bit longer. Färber was almost thankful for the foot. At the same time, the foot seemed to taunt him: a strange ringed animal that he didn’t know anything about for sure.

And yet he had always enjoyed going places with Teresa. Without her enthusiasm, her energy and cheerfulness, most things remained pale, as if in a fog; they hardly existed. When he was alone, what he missed was a connection, a kind of mediation he needed in order to see and hear. Once, when Teresa accused him of something along these lines, he had fallen silent. There was no good answer. He had depended on Teresa and Lucy; to a certain extent they experienced things for him, but he would never have said that. Their presence was like a garment, something that allowed him to be in the world. A kind of camouflage that shrouded and protected him.

The wind picked up and the beating against the trash barrel became stronger. Maybe it is a different, larger animal, thought Färber, a cormorant or albatross. He had seen how the waves pulled back into themselves, rolled in and spit out a second, smaller wave just before it hit, which moistened the shore like a tongue and left a fine, colorfully shimmering frothy rim.

Färber laughed and wanted to say something that could act as a segue to an observation; he felt as if he’d just gone through a long struggle. While letting his quiet fake chuckle fade away, he didn’t know which way his observation might be headed and started to laugh again, cautiously and unconvincingly. Just then their names were called. The girl used a megaphone: Mister Frank please! Misses Teresa please! Two places please! They had been married for ten years. They had left out all the ritual elements of the ceremony: no music, no procession, no speech. “And what about the kiss?” he had asked after it was almost over. “Well, you didn’t want anything,” said the justice.

The girl drew out the a in Frank as long as possible. She celebrated the guests’ names as if announcing their appearance on a show or in a boxing match. If it took a while for the guests to come up from the beach, her voice became questioning, then pleading, moaning (she knew her guests would be amused), and in the end very firm, almost demanding, a kind of judgment, as Färber thought he could discern from the hollow, metallic tone of the megaphone.

Fra-a-ank, please, Fra-a-a-ank! Frank!
Even though it seemed ridiculous, Färber had to think about how their car wouldn’t start on the morning of their wedding. Later they’d often told the story; it was just too good. How Färber had tried to push-start their Russian two-door down the street, how, completely soaked in sweat, he walked off to ask one of their despised neighbors for help… Fra-a-a-ank! The maitre d’ moaned out the a out for a while. She chewed it like a big sticky piece of gum. And then she slowly blew a bubble with it: Fra-a-a-a-ank, please…

Färber thought about the eighty-euro girl who remained lying in bed afterwards, stretched and sat up and turned away from him while he was already tying his shoes, his temples throbbing, and took his suitcase, already halfway toward the stairs, on the way home, which was still the most important thing, the most beautiful. He gave her a hundred.
“Thanks, honey. How about Tuesday?”
“Yeah, maybe; I’ll give you a call.” He came back to her for a second. He absently touched her between the legs. He wore jeans, and shoes that came up to the ankles, the ones Teresa called ankle boots.
“Yeah, but Monday at the latest, honey, so I can find some time for you.” She guided his hand. He liked her childishness, her breasts, the small hips, only her voice was a handicap.

Fra-a-a-a-ank!
By now they had reached the forecourt in front of the restaurant. In the halogen light the guests waited close in front of the hostess station with the maitre d’ in her blue and yellow uniform. The dull, metallic tone of the megaphone came one last time, and for a moment Färber grasped why all these people showed up here and lined up with their sweeping gestures and their faces bright with anticipation, on this freshly tarred lot whose harsh, numbing odors they all willingly inhaled. A thought shot through Färber’s head: they just want to influence the megaphone’s choice, but it wouldn’t help them, and suddenly he sensed his hatred.

Behind the maitre d’ with the loudspeaker in front of her face stood a boy who casually draped his arm around her hips. He also wore the restaurant’s uniform. Färber could see that the girl was touching the boy, she had started to swing the a in Frank up and down, she was putting everything she had into the name. She knows it all, Färber thought in a moment of confusion, the whole intricate story, and then: she doesn’t know anything, not even my name. Her hand rested on the boy’s thigh as if she wanted to cover something there. They were directly in front of her when she got ready to call Frank’s name again. Färber could see her eyes. But it was just in her voice, not her face and not the position of her soft, shining lips that just now had taken Frank up once again, Fra-a-a-nk!

The girl noticed him and suddenly broke off. She smiled mechanically, her mouth half-closed, please … Frank was still there, between her teeth, Färber could feel it suddenly, and he tensed. A year ago he had started to ask for his fees in cash, for tax reasons, he had told Teresa.

The girl passed the list of names to the boy next to her and led them to their table. She kept the megaphone in her hand and waved the gadget while she walked as if it were still of importance.

Färber was exhausted. He would have liked to follow the swaying pleated skirt for a while. He thought briefly of the flared leather skirts that the girls used to wear when he was young. He envied the boy, even his blue and yellow restaurant uniform. He felt worn and hollowed out as if life were slowly starting to reject him again.

“Don’t touch me.” It could have been their evening. Teresa and he could have drunk, talked and felt like they had reached the finished line. They could have ordered lobster and reminisced about their first lobster. The restaurant on the street that didn’t look like a restaurant, the tables that stood much too close together, the dully gleaming pliers they didn’t know how to use, their awkwardness, sheepish happiness.

Färber thought about the fat man, Teresa’s first affair. He had never seen him. One time Teresa had mentioned that the man was not exactly skinny, that he was ample, as she put it; since then, Färber had called him the fat man. And sometimes she jumped onto him, she had said at some point, and the man would stand completely firm, like a rock, he could hold, hold her … Maybe he was remembering it wrong. But it was something he was supposed to understand was crucial, and for a while he had always held Teresa tight as they fell asleep. The fat man drove behind Teresa on her way home in his own car, out of the city to their house. They parted ways on the corner a block away from their house and then the man ate breakfast at a highway rest stop. Färber found all that out piece by piece.

Earlier they would have thought the place was fabulous. The windows had been removed; they sat directly above the beach, the wind in their faces. Under them, on the beach, there was a table set with candles, the tablecloths attached with silver clasps; several chairs were already half in the water. At the bar a few people were dancing. When the music stopped, Färber heard the beat of the gull’s wing, or at least he thought he did. They talked about Lucy – school, piano lessons, her room, nothing should change for her. They agreed, like always. Even now it felt good to talk to Teresa.

At the end of the evening Färber was drunk. He heard the beat. It was coming from inside himself. Or from Teresa. He had almost put his hand on her breast. Everything was ok.

 

From Die Zeitwaage by Lutz Seiler
© Suhrkamp Verlag, 2009
Translation © Bradley Schmidt