Clown Cheeryouup

Author: Christian Helm
Translator: Ingrid G. Lansford

The night had been cold, and in the morning, it started to rain. Paul pulled the frayed brown coat tighter around his body and his wool cap lower into his forehead. He tried to expel the cold from his fingers by blowing into his hands by turns while pushing the old shopping cart in front of him.
He longed to take a sip from the liquor bottle he could feel in his coat pocket, but knew that he must remain sober. He surveyed the gray street, the dark houses, and the gloomy sky, saw that the trees had lost their last leaves overnight, and listened to the wind gusts autumn was blowing through the streets.
He was sad. He hated what he saw, but was determined not to drink.
At the end of the street, he could make out the bright yellow of a telephone booth. In a moment he would call his ex-wife. She’d talk with him briefly as always, would exchange a few trivial words for the sole purpose of checking on his condition. And only if he passed this test satisfactorily would she allow his little daughter come to the phone.
Paul stepped into the telephone booth after carefully parking his shopping cart so that he could keep his eyes on it. All his property, everything he still owned, was in that shopping cart, and there were always teenagers who thought it was fun to grab his cart and pull out everything in it. They didn’t want to steal anything, as they considered its contents mere trash. They only meant to humiliate him, and he knew it. He had ceased to care long ago. After all, they were right. He didn’t deserve any better.
For the second time that morning he resisted the temptation of reaching for the liquor in his pocket. He dug up the change instead, and, with his trembling hand, fed the coins into the slot. Then he punched the number and listened to the ring.
“Eva Bremer,” his ex identified herself. The sound of her maiden name, to which she had returned, always hurt. He took a deep breath before he spoke.
“Hi Eva, it’s me.”
As always, there was a brief pause.
“Hi Paul. How are you?”
He swallowed and tried to sound as normal as possible, so that his wife could tell he was sober. “Fair. It was cold last night, and I’m a bit worried about the winter, but everything else is okay. How are you?”
“Thanks, things are going well enough. I found a new job as secretary for an attorney. The work is boring, but I’m making a little money.”
He wasn’t sure if he heard a slight reproach in her voice. However, after being out in the street, after his utter descent, even that didn’t matter much to him. He would simply drown her disappointment in the next bottle of booze.
“I’m glad. The two of you can certainly use that money.” He paused a little before he continued.
“I’m sober. Haven’t had a drink all morning. Could I talk with Klara? I promise I’ll behave.”
His ex-wife hesitated as always. He could understand why, knew what he had done to her and his daughter. He was sorry, but it was too late; he couldn’t undo the past, couldn’t turn back the clock. Being able to have phone conversations with Klara was the best he could expect.
“Okay, I’ll get her. But remember our agreement: not one word about your condition! Growing up without a dad is bad enough for her.”
Her words hurt, but he said yes. He wouldn’t have told his daughter anyway that he was an alcoholic bum who couldn’t even take care of his family. Why should he? So she’d look down on him? He actually was afraid that his ex might tell the child. After Eva had kicked him out, ever since he’d been living on the street, he’d been afraid of that.
After a brief moment, he heard his little daughter’s small voice on the line.
“Hi Klara! How are you?”
“Pretty fine. But it’s been a long time since you called. Mommy said you were traveling again. Where are you just now?”
That was the story they told her. Her father was on a trip to a faraway country and couldn’t come home. He knew that this lie didn’t really make things any easier for his daughter. She missed him. But at least she didn’t know what he had turned into, and he could talk to her on the phone now and then. He tried to put as much joy into his voice as he could.
“You won’t believe what I’m telling you. I’m in a city where the sun shines all the time. It never rains here and never gets cold. Can you imagine that?”
“That sounds very nice. It’s turned very cold where we are. I think winter is coming again.”
He heard his daughter’s voice, looked out of the telephone booth, saw the gray street, the gray buildings, and the passers-by, who wore thick clothing against the cold. A city where the sun shines all the time? He’d like that. He felt thirsty again.
“Do you have Clown Cheeryouup with you?” his daughter asked.
“Sure I do, Klara. He’s skipping from one leg to the other in front of this telephone booth. It looks very funny.”
He had often told her about Clown Cheeryouup. She loved her dad’s stories about the clown and asked for a new one each time he called.
“Did he cheer someone up again?”
“You know that he always has to cheer everyone up, even if that’s not what he has in mind. Yesterday he ran into a very sad little girl.”
His daughter laughed in anticipation of the story.
“What was the matter with the girl? Please tell me.”
“Okay, I’ll tell you what happened yesterday. We were walking through the streets of the city where the sun always shines, when we saw a small girl on a park bench who looked very sad. Cheeryouup leaped toward her on his little legs and drew himself up to his full, one foot, one inch height in front of her. He looked firmly into her face and asked in his very deep voice why she looked so unhappy.”
Klara laughed. She always thought it was funny that such a little clown should have such a deep voice. Paul now played the clown, saying in his deepest voice, “‘The weather is so beautiful and the sun is nice and warm. Why are you so unhappy, little princess?’ The girl looked unhappily at Cheeryouup and told him that her best friend had moved to another city, and that she was so sad because she couldn’t play with her any longer. ‘But you have other friends, don’t you?’ Cheeryouup asked. ‘Of course I do, but she was simply my dearest friend,’ the girl answered. ‘I miss her a lot.'”
“And what did he do then? Did he make the girl happy again?” Klara asked.
“It was very funny. He tried all his tricks on the girl. First he grew his ears very large, so that they were dragging on the ground, and then he danced like mad, until he stumbled over his own ears and fell on his red nose.”
Klara laughed. She was probably imagining the clown with the large ears.
“But the girl still looked unhappy. So Cheeryouup first changed the color of his nose from red to green, and then to blue and yellow. At the same time he made very funny noises with his mouth and danced on his hands. But the girl still looked at him sadly. He got crazier and crazier, but nothing helped, so I started to worry that Cheeryouup might get sad himself. You know, that would be very dangerous for him.”
Klara had been laughing loudly again; but now she suddenly said with all the seriousness of her young years, “Clown Cheeryouup mustn’t be unhappy! You told me that he would vanish into thin air if he became sad and could never cheer anyone up again.”
“That’s right, Klara. That’s why I worried about him when I noticed that none of his tricks worked on the girl. But then I saw that Cheeryouup was turning angry, not sad. Can you imagine a clown throwing a tantrum? Now, that really looked funny: Cheeryouup stomped his feet and jumped up and down, so his pants slid off over and over. That made him even angrier and angrier, and he grumbled to himself. His head turned very red and little clouds of smoke came out of his ears, while his red pointed cap fell off. This really looked very funny. And, you know what?”
Klara was laughing again.
“While Cheeryouup got so worked up, the girl started laughing after all. I guess she’d never seen an angry clown.”
“That’s very funny. But I hope he got over his tantrum?”
“Well, once in a while his ears still give out a little smoke, but I think he’s fine again.”
“I’d like to get to know Cheeryouup. Can’t you come by sometime and bring him along?”
“But Klara, I’m so far away. And besides, what for? You’re happy. You don’t need the clown.”
He heard the soft voice of his ex in the background, and Klara said, somewhat disappointed, “Daddy, Mommy wants to talk to you again. Take care! I love you.”
“I love you, too, Klara.”
It was too brief. As always it had been simply too brief, but he couldn’t stop the clock, couldn’t make the moment last.
“Thank you, Paul! That was very good of you.”
His wife’s voice sounded sad when she continued, “Maybe you could make another effort to get help. Klara needs her dad.”
“I can’t, Eva. You know I tried my best, but I’m too weak.”
He swallowed hard, glanced at his shopping cart in front of the phone booth, and felt the liquor bottle in his pocket. He knew he had to have a drink now; the morning had exhausted all his strength.
“Thank you for letting me talk to Klara! I’ll call again soon.”
“Take good care of yourself, Paul! And let me know if there’s anything I can do for you after all!” Eva hung up.
Paul remained in the phone booth for a moment. Then he stepped out into the cold, grabbed his shopping cart, and trotted over to the near-by park. There he sat down on a bench, pulled the liquor bottle from his pocket, and started swigging in large gulps.
After emptying most of the bottle, he saw Cheeryouup poking his little head out of the trash in his shopping cart and looking at him with questioning eyes.
“Cheer me up, too, little clown,” Paul said, watching him climb from the shopping cart and striking a pose before him.
The clown shook his head, lifted his red nose, and looked at him before saying in his deep voice, “You heard your daughter laughing. If that doesn’t cheer you up, then I can’t help you either.”
Paul looked at the little clown for a long time, while he drank the last of the bottle. Then he nodded and smiled.
“Let’s have a new adventure, Cheeryouup, so that we’ll have a new tale to tell!”
He got up, and together they pushed his cart into the city where the sun never stopped shining.


Original © Christian Helm
Translation © Ingrid Lansford


Author: Keto von Waberer
Translator: Ingrid G. Lansford

The little store was next to the filling station at the edge of town. It looked dusty and abandoned. I was able to peer in through the grimy window pane. It was a corner store and its display window continued around the corner. Every time I shook it in disbelief and defiance, the door was locked. We usually came by late in the afternoon and filled up at the gasoline pump half buried in sand. One could look across the plateau from there. Silvery cactus clumps rose in the twilight between the flickering tongues of dust the wind swept down from the faraway, rounded mountain peaks. Mountains as on an ocean floor. The man who owned the gasoline pump would very slowly come out of the house behind the cacti on which the laundry was drying. He’d observe the sky as though checking the weather for the next stage of our trip. “Un norte,” he generally said as he started to rub our windshield with a dry rag.
“Isn’t anyone in the store?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he would answer, shrugging his shoulders.
Just once – I think it was the third time – I’d asked who owned the store, and the man had studied me closely, stroked the brim of his hat and spat, not in contempt, but lost in thought. Just when I believed he would silently turn away, he said, “I haven’t seen anyone.”
I walked over and put my hands next to my face on the window as a small protective barrier, so I wouldn’t see my reflection.
Inside, fossilized salmon pink ammonites the size of wagon wheels leaned against the wall. Next to them, clumps of whitish glittering rock mazes ran rampant with plantlike buds and stalks. Brown desert roses like crystalline peach pits, bulky like ostrich eggs. Green slabs of slate with oily impressions of primitive beaked fish glistening on them, and right before me on the windowsill lay geodes like super-sized river stones. Their sparkling smiles suggested that they had already been split in half and had hundreds of crystal needles growing inside them – in the dark and unobserved.
The evening light cast inky blue shadows around the stones, and my yearning to enter and place my fingers on the crystal surfaces turned the little store into a paradise.
Whenever I walked back to the car, I did so slowly and uncertainly, always hoping someone would run outside with a key, beckoning to me to follow him into the store.
That was many years ago. I’ve forgotten the name of the town; I’ll never find the store again.
Sometimes I dream of opening the door and stepping inside. The door opens just like that.


“Traurigkeit”, by Keto von Waberer, from Der Mann aus dem See, © 2006, Berlin Verlag, Berlin
Translation © Ingrid Lansford

As in Gogol

Author: Siegfried Lenz
Translator: Ingrid G. Lansford

I’ve known this transit junction for eight years now—this confusing distribution pool where street cars, buses and subways converge to trade their cargo, passing it on from one to the next. The instant the doors fly open with a hiss, people rush, speed, and zoom toward one another, mingling and interlocking—like unarmed opponents sinking their teeth into each other. Their march is so confident, the multitude forges so recklessly ahead, it’s best to stop and wait until everything has passed, though you have a green light. Were it only this parade of bobbing backpacks and swinging briefcases, were it just this grumpy morning procession, you might be able to keep track, but here, where the commuter traffic feeds into a many-branched delta, you have to be prepared for the unexpected move: a lone wolf’s sudden swerve, obstructive types, or little runners dashing from behind parked cars to sprint across the street.

I knew all that. After all, for eight years I was one of them myself, carried along by their impatient stream from the subway to the bus that stopped in front of my school; I’d taken part in their recklessness long enough.

Yet all this knowledge didn’t help me, nor would it have helped anyone, not even a driver with twenty accident-free years behind the wheel. What happened was statistically inevitable and did not result from my inexperience as a driver, nor the fact that my first car, which I’d taken to work less than a week, was a used vehicle. Though there was nothing gloomy or unusual in the air that morning, though there was no reason for special alertness— I was only scheduled to start with two back-to-back geography classes—I slowed down early as I approached the transit junction and didn’t speed up even when the traffic light changed to green with a little flicker, which looked like a wink to me, like an invitation to hurry up and get away before the two buses turning toward their stops on the other side of the street opened their doors. The cobblestone pavement was covered with crushed snow grimily melting from the bite of the scattered salt. The car wasn’t doing more than 20, and I kept an eye on the buses, whose passengers would explode out any second.

He had to have come from the subway exit, then spotted the number of his bus and tried to reach it come what may, just like the rest who had timed their morning commute to the last minute. First I heard the impact. The steering wheel kicked out. Then I saw him on the hood, his distorted face under the visored cap, his arms reaching toward the windshield, looking for something to cling to. He had run against the car from the right immediately behind the traffic signal; I braked and watched him topple to the left and roll into the lane. No parking, no parking anywhere, so I went into reverse and backed up a few yards, pulled the handbrake and got out. Where was he? There, at the curb, attempting to get on his feet by grabbing the barrier chain hand over hand—a little man, a flyweight in a worn-out coat. A few passers-by were already with him, trying to help him, and had promptly taken sides against me; they had decided the issue of guilt. The man’s olive face showed fear rather than pain; when I approached him, he looked at me as if to keep me away, and he attempted to calm the pedestrians with a forced smile: no big deal, not worth mentioning.

My eyes strayed from him back toward the car. The right fender had an oval dent, fairly regular, as if made by a wooden club; threads stuck to the edges where the paint had flaked off; the hood was also dented and the latch had sprung; one windshield wiper had broken off. He watched me, holding on to the chain with both hands, while I estimated the damage, and he repeatedly glanced at the departing buses.

Skin lacerations on his forehead and the back of his hand—I didn’t observe anything else when I walked up to him. He looked at me with a smile admitting all of it: his carelessness, his haste, and his guilt. Trying to play down the consequences and prove to me how easily he’d gotten off, he raised each leg in their frayed narrow trousers, turned his head right and left, and gingerly flexed his free arm: Look, everything’s fine, isn’t it? I asked him why he’d crossed on red; hadn’t he seen the car—regretfully, guiltily, he shrugged his shoulders, unable to understand me. Fearfully he kept repeating the same sentence while strenuously gesticulating toward the railroad track; as I guessed by the intonation, the words he used were Turkish. I could tell that he wanted to get away and understood what kept him from it; but he was afraid to diagnose the aches within his body, or even acknowledge them. He cringed at the compassion and curiosity of the passers-by; he seemed to understand that they were accusing me and felt bad about that, too. Doctor, I said. Now I’ll take you to see a doctor.

How light he was when I put my arm around him, pulled his arm around my neck, and walked him to the car, and how anxiously he explored the damage to fender and hood! While earlier passers-by told newcomers what they’d seen or only heard, I maneuvered the man onto the back seat, eased him into a relaxed, reclining position, gave him an encouraging nod and started along my old route to school. Several doctors lived or practiced nearby; I remembered the white enamel signs in their front yards. That was where I wanted to take him.

I watched him in the rearview mirror. His eyes were closed, his lips were trembling, and a thin streak of blood ran down his neck from his ear. He braced himself and lifted his body off the seat—not to ease his pain, but to look for something in his various pockets, hunting through them with stiff fingers. Then he pulled out a piece of paper, a blue envelope which he handed to me across the seatback: Here, here, address. He sat up, bent toward me across the seat, and, stressing the syllables contrary to their usual pronunciation, urgently repeated in a hoarse voice: Liegnitzerstrasse.

That seemed to be the only thing he wanted now; he spoke excitedly, his fear increasing: Doctor, no; Liegnitzerstrasse, yes, and waved his blue envelope. We reached the taxi stand near the school. I stopped and motioned for him to wait—I wouldn’t take long. Then I walked up to the taxi drivers and asked about Liegnitzerstrasse. They knew two streets by that name, but of course assumed that, since I was here, I wanted the closer one, and described the route they would take: past the hospital and through an underpass to the edge of a small industrial park. I thanked them and walked to the telephone booth, where I dialed the number of the school. My classes were to have started long ago. No one answered. I dialed my own number and told my startled wife, Don’t worry—I had an accident, but I’m not hurt. She asked, A child? – and I quickly answered, A foreigner, probably a guest worker. I need to drive him, so please let the school know. Before leaving the phone booth, I quickly dialed the school number again, but got a busy signal now.

I returned to my car. Two taxi drivers were standing in front of it, cheerfully using my damage as an opportunity to tell about their own collisions, trying to top one another. The car was empty. I bent over the back seat, patted it—the taxi drivers didn’t remember a man, but allowed that he could have walked up to the front and taken the first taxi. Still, a Mediterranean-looking man with a visored cap and injured into the bargain would surely have attracted their attention. They wanted to know where I’d had the mishap. I told them, and they estimated the damage—provided I got off easy—at eight hundred marks.

Slowly I drove toward Liegnitzerstrasse, past the hospital, through the underpass and to the industrial park. I passed a small wire factory whose yard was surrounded by a chain link fence full of holes; heavy crushers mashing car wrecks into convenient metal bales; gloomy buildings claiming to be repair shops and moving companies; and snowy storage lots without a single footprint.

Liegnitzerstrasse seemed to consist of nothing but a protective board fence covered with posters, with yellow cranes rigidly looming behind it; no homes; set back from the street, a shut-down industrial plant without doors and with broken windows, black tongues of soot still testifying about a fire. Through a gap I glimpsed house trailers, their wheels sunk deep into the ground. I stopped, got out of the car, and walked through the dirty snow toward the trailers. The workers were gone. Curtains covered up the windows, and the attached steps had remnants of road salt on them. Smoke rose from a metal chimney.

If a curtain hadn’t moved, if I hadn’t seen the ringed finger trying to smooth the crocheted gray fabric, I think I would merely have walked around the trailers and then left, but now I climbed halfway up the steps and knocked. A hasty, whispered exchange inside, then the door opened, and I saw the signet ring on the finger right before my eyes, on the door handle now. When I looked up, the man loomed above me alarmingly: black dress shoes tipped with white, narrow creased pants, and then the short, fur collared coat and the triangle of a silk handkerchief gleaming from the upper jacket pocket. Politely, in broken German, he asked me what I wanted; by that time, glancing past his hip, I had recognized the man on the lower berth of a bunk bed and pointed to him: There he is—that’s who I want to see. He let me enter. Four beds, one washstand, photographs pinned to the unfinished board walls—those were the furnishings that first struck me; later, after the conspicuously dressed man had offered me a stool, I discovered cartons and cardboard suitcases under the bedsteads.

The injured man lay stretched out under a blanket with the word “Hotel” on it. His dark eyes shone in the dim interior. He met my greeting with indifference—no sign of recognition, and neither fear nor curiosity.

Mr. Üzkök had an accident, the man with the signet ring said. I nodded and, after a pause, asked if I shouldn’t drive him to a doctor’s office. The man with the signet ring emphatically turned me down. Not necessary, Mr. Üzkök had been getting the best medical care, for two days now, ever since he had this accident at his building, at his construction site. I said, This morning, I’ve come because of the accident this morning. The big man brusquely turned to the invalid and asked him something in their native language; the hurt man gently shook his head. Of an accident this morning Mr. Üzkök knows nothing. I calmly said, I was involved—this man ran in front of my car when the light was green, and I hit him. The car is parked outside and you can look at the damage. Again the man shouted at the invalid in his native language, annoyed and irritated, seeking an explanation with theatrical vehemence. He had him expressly repeat a whispered sentence. All he could sum up for me was this: Mr. Üzkök is from Turkey. Mr. Üzkök is guest worker, Mr. Üzkök had accident two days ago. A car is unknown to him.

I pointed to the man on the bunk and said, Please ask him why he ran away. I wanted to take him to Liegnitzerstrasse myself, over here. They played their question-and-answer game again. I didn’t understand, and while the injured man looked at me with a pained expression and moved his lips, the man with the signet ring said, Mr. Üzkök did not run away after his construction accident; he has to stay in bed. I asked the hurt man, Show me the blue envelope you showed me in the car, and he listened to the translation. I couldn’t believe that my request was so much longer in Turkish and also required an argument. I was told with a mixture of triumph and regret that Mr. Üzkök had never owned a blue envelope.

This uncertainty—suddenly I felt this familiar uncertainty, as so often in the classroom when I’m faced with the risk of a final decision; and because I was sure that the injured man would still be wearing his shabby coat, I went to his bed and simply raised the blanket. He lay there in his underwear, clasping something in his hands he obviously didn’t want to give up on any condition.

When, on my way down the steps, I asked about the number, the house number for the trailer, the man with the signet ring laughed and barked a command at the injured man. When he faced me again and, gleefully spreading his arms, said, Forty to fifty-two, his open mistrust struck me for the first time. Much address, he said, maybe five hundred yards. When I asked if this was Mr. Üzkök’s permanent residence, he covered up his suspicion with enthusiasm and gave an evasive answer: Much work everywhere. Sometimes is Mr. Üzkök here, sometimes there—he pointed in opposite directions. Though I said good-bye, he silently followed me out to the street. He walked to my car, brushed across the dents the slight man had made in the metal, raised the hood and asked for confirmation that the latch would no longer snap shut. Was he relieved? I got the feeling that, though none of this needed to concern him, he was relieved after checking the damage. He rubbed his soft chin and then his sideburns with his big thumb. Was I planning to call my insurance company? I gave him to understand that I seemed to have no other choice. He then began another, more thorough inspection of the damage and to my surprise, named a price just below the one the taxi drivers had suggested: seven hundred-fifty. He grinned and gave me a sly wink as I got in and turned down the window. As soon as I started the motor, he extended his closed hand. For repair, he said. Mr. Üzkök, he needs rest now.

I started to get out, but by then he was walking away, his fur collar turned up, irrevocably, as if he’d got the formalities over with. After he had disappeared behind the fence, I looked at the money in my hand and counted it—the sum matched his estimate. I hesitated, waiting for something I couldn’t name, and, before heading for school, left the car at the shop.

In the teachers’ lounge, of course, there was Seewald, seated as if he’d been waiting for me, with his red face and his uncontrollable belly which presumably would drop to his knees if he didn’t rein it in with an extra wide belt. I heard the news, he said. Now tell me what happened. He offered me tea from his thermos flask, in fact, thrust it upon me as insistently as if the tea would entitle him to every detail of my accident—Seewald of all people, who at every chance he got touted his conclusion that there were no original experiences any longer. He claimed that everything we encounter or experience had already happened to others before us. We had come to the end of fresh experiences and conflicts, and even an odd situation did not merit being regarded as anything but stale.

I drank his heavily sweetened tea, startled to notice how much my hand was shaking—less on raising the cup than on putting it down. All right then—the drive, the accident, the injured man’s escape; and finally, when I described to him my encounter in the trailer, I witnessed the start of his typical smile, a superior, opinionated, know-it-all smile, which immediately irritated me and made me regret having spread everything before him. It was, after all, my accident, my experience, and so I had to have the right of evaluating it in my own way and narrating the encounter in the trailer in particular with its appropriate open-endedness. For him, for Seewald, everything was settled: Just as with Gogol, he said, didn’t it occur to you, my dear friend—exactly as with Gogol. I was glad when the bell summoned me to class and spared me his explanations, especially the inevitable reference to the prototype for my experience. I’m not going to tell him that both the taxi drivers and the man with the signet ring had overestimated the cost of the repair. I had more than two hundred marks left over, because the dents could be hammered out. And I’m definitely not telling Seewald that I drove back to the Liegnitzerstrasse at dusk while snow was falling, to return the rest of the money to the stranger or Mr. Üzkök.

The window had been blacked out and the trailer looked abandoned, or at any rate locked; but after I knocked several times, the door opened, and the tall man stood before me again, holding the red silk kerchief he’d probably used to fan himself. At least six men sat on the bunks, short, timid men trying to hide their glasses of red wine when they saw me. They sat there as if they’d been caught, and every last one of the faces showed anxiety.

I asked about Mr. Üzkök; but the man with the signet ring didn’t remember him, had never met him, had never cared for him. Then I knew he would also have trouble remembering me, and when I tried to return the surplus money to him, he looked at me in almost surly bewilderment—he was very sorry, but he couldn’t take money that didn’t belong to him. I looked at the silent men. Every one of them seemed to resemble Üzkök, and I just knew that if I came back the next day, they too would deny ever having seen me. Several trailers sat right next to each other; could I have picked the wrong one? But there’s one thing I’m very sure of: I put the money on a folding table before I left.


From Einstein überquert die Elbe bei Hamburg, by Siegfried Lenz
© Hoffman und Campe, Hamburg
Translation © Ingrid G. Lansford


Author: Keto von Waberer
Translator: Ingrid G. Lansford

After Luise died, Albert couldn’t stand having anyone near him. His two sisters, whispering in the little kitchen while making coffee and arranging pieces of cake on plates for the funeral guests, seemed like intruders to him. He’d left the kitchen and sat down at the table with friends and neighbors without a word or a glance for anyone. Everyone excused him because he had just been widowed. There he sat among them like the child he had been when his parents entertained guests on Sundays and he had to stay home. He said to himself again and again, Let them go away, let it soon be over. He didn’t hear what they told him with their goodbyes, but patiently endured their touch, their hands on his shoulders, on his head, or under his chin. This will be over soon, he told himself. They mean to comfort you, so you mustn’t shake them off. Luise would never have wanted him to do that. Luise, who was so careful not to hurt anyone. She had treated even the wasps she caught in a dust cloth with consideration, freeing them outdoors.
Once, when their love was just beginning, in the dirty little room above the Greek restaurant, she wouldn’t let him stomp on the large cockroach that had crawled out from under their mattress. “I wouldn’t have wanted to sleep with you afterward,” she said as though he’d almost committed murder. It would have been murder to her. In the bus to San Cristóbal he had merely averted his eyes when the Indio with the pair of ugly spined lizards had struggled past them. He carried the lizards by their linked tails, and they struck against each other in the jam, hissing and twitching. Her face distorted, Luise bent forward for a better look at the animals. Assuming that she was utterly revolted by them, he had asked her if they should get off the bus. But Luise hadn’t even listened to him. She’d wedged herself by him, and he had observed her shouting and gesticulating among the people looking for seats and stowing their bags and bundles. She came back red in the face and gasping.
“What’s the matter?” he’d asked, ready to defend her. Luise squeezed past him and sat down. She hung her head.
“I wanted to buy them from him.”
“For heavens sakes, what for?”
“He won’t give them up.” Luise wept and leaned her face against the window, trying to hide her tears. Later, in the hotel room, on the bed under the listlessly rotating ceiling fan, they lay next to each other like two strangers forced to share a room.
Louise suddenly screamed, “He broke their legs and hooked their claws into their own bodies. Just to carry them around – you get it?” She sat up and studied him with red, reproachful eyes. Why did she have to keep saying such things?
They’d intended to take many trips over the following years. Luise wanted to visit India, but Albert planned to take Luise to Lisbon, where he’d worked in a sardine processing plant as a young man. He’d wanted to do all kinds of things, for instance, create a rock garden in front of the house, to demonstrate to Luise how pretty a rock garden could be when designed by an expert like himself. Albert was not an artist, though he wished he might have been one. He’d worked for a shipping company transporting art: huge canvasses and statues carefully packed in crates made to order. As a young man he’d been restless and adventurous. He had carved ice sculptures for elegant table decorations and sold hats his then girlfriend made from felt. That was before Luise. Thinking back, he always saw himself in a swarm of people. Hands reached out to him and bodies collided with him, he smelled the breath of strangers and felt their body heat and movement like blotches on his skin.
Remembering this commotion now gave him a touch of nausea. He was sitting in the garden behind his house, in a piteously creaking wicker chair he’d once forgotten to carry under the porch when it rained and just left out from then on. He simply sat there doing nothing. The green of the garden meant nothing to him. Though the sky with its clouds existed, it held no message for him. He observed the flowers, pillows of color swaying and flickering in the breeze; they, too, conveyed nothing. Even his hand, a pale, freckled hand, holding a glass and set aside on the arm of the wicker chair next to him, seemed mysterious. A tuber? A freshwater lobster?
Luise had always wanted a dog, but he didn’t care for dogs. As a child he’d watched his neighbor beat on a sack with something moving and whimpering inside before tossing it over the embankment into the river. Albert could guess what the sack contained, but he’d shied away from picturing it clearly. He’d held back the spotted dog by its collar, because the neighbor had asked him to. The dog knew precisely what was in the sack and went wild. In the end it got loose from Albert and jumped in the water. By then it was too late, and Albert had knelt and vomited among the daisies beside the path. No, he couldn’t stand having dogs around him. He simply didn’t like them. Still, for a few seconds he noticed a movement in the greenery and thought he saw a black and white dog running around in his garden. As if the greenery were a playing field on a computer screen, and a virtual dog from some game were scampering there, a dog you could move back and forth or click away.
Since Luise’s death Albert had done his grocery shopping at the supermarket, because he didn’t feel like conversing with Mr. Busse at the neighborhood store. He only rode his bicycle now, even for long distances like the cemetery, because he couldn’t stand the people on the subway. He didn’t answer the telephone, and didn’t open up when someone rang the doorbell. The mere thought of going to the barber gave him the jitters, so he shaved his head with the little razor Luise had sometimes used for trimming the curly hair at the back of his neck.
Luise sitting in the wicker chair beneath a red umbrella that must still be somewhere. Luise leaning back and saying, “Oh, how well off we are.” And he, Albert, would hand her a plate with sliced tomatoes he’d sprinkled with sea salt and with basil leaves from the herb garden. By this time he no longer knew just where the herb garden was. The plants seemed engaged in a growing match now that Louise was gone, and you could no longer tell friend from foe.

Albert’s sisters refused to give up. If he didn’t open the door, they walked around the house and through the garden without letting his grumpiness bother them. He couldn’t eat any of the food they brought and warmed up for him in the kitchen. They joined him in the garden beneath the red umbrella, which they had found and set up. Wasps flew around the plates and glasses on the round table, settling on the wieners and potato salad. He killed the wasps by taking off a shoe. You had to stun them with a side cut first, and then, when they reeled, you could squash them. It seemed like a garden family picnic, but everything was wrong. The garden backdrop, the table and food all seemed picked and arranged by stage managers. Everything was just pretend, and he played the role of Albert: Albert relaxing and chatting with his sisters, sipping from his glass and softly belching. He couldn’t go through with that.
He was having a particularly awful day and couldn’t stand for his sisters to watch him. Gilla, the younger one, forced a hug on him as they parted. “Bertie, Sweetheart, I can’t take it any more, please tell me what to do.” Then she wept, and he had to muster all his self-control to keep from screaming, because her assault had made him so angry. It was easier to arm himself against Karoline’s words. Calm and clever as she was, she had pulled Gilla up short. “Bertie, we actually do understand you, but don’t you think you ought to seek help, at least from an uninvolved professional. I’m leaving a business card on the mantel. No one is pushing you.” He’d forgotten about the card, of course. It rained the next afternoon, and he walked the streets until he was ready to go to bed.

Time was passing quickly and imperceptibly. He could tell by the condition of the garden, the length of his hair, by having to buy tea, and by his increasing rage at Luise. Why had she done this to him? She had allowed death to come and pick her up like a new lover. She’d gone away with death and left Albert behind. This was cruel. He had relied on her for all those years.
The bad thing about his rising rage was that it expelled him from his sole paradise, his memories of Luise and of their love. No longer did he nurture loving thoughts of the past; he found not a single vision, no comforting, affectionate moments between them, though he yearned to recapture their closeness in his thoughts, if only for a few minutes.
He no longer slept. At night he paced the floor trembling with rage. Plates broke in his hands; he stumbled and stubbed his toes on the open door. His skin felt dry and too tight.
One morning, still before dawn, he went out in the garden. The sky stretched over the house like an airy dome, iris-blue and delicate. There was total silence. He heard himself breathe as he stood on the terrace naked and angry with clenched fists. He cursed as he looked for the rusty scythe and at last found it in the shed, along with the grindstone, which he moistened on the grass before sharpening the blade.
The grass stood knee-high, flowers and weeds grew rampant, and the saplings were wet with dew. It was intolerable how nature was pushing out its greenery, how everything was blooming, growing fruit, releasing seeds – disgusting. Enough of that. He stood in the dewy grass, scythe held aloft. Beginning in the center, he mowed down all growing things. There was a rich sound as the scythe sliced through the stalks; wood whistled as he struck it, stones shrieked, and he tossed them up into the darkness.
He sweated and heard himself panting. He relaxed his shoulders, breathed deeply, stood with his legs apart and found a rhythm. His movements became more fluid and elegant, he felt his knees giving a bit, his swings widening, his nose filling with the aroma of cut plants. Grass sap and clover leaves stuck to his calves.
Later he stretched out on the moist grass in the center of the garden, out of breath, his arms and legs stretched away from his body. He watched the morning star above his house grow pale. The sky took on a melon hue, and a pearlescent gleam announced the coming of daylight.
He lay very still and watched. And then he heard the blackbird and knew right away that it was a blackbird. Once, he had been outraged when Luise awakened him very early to show him the blackbird on the balcony railing in front of their bedroom. A black, tousled ball of feathers, perched there, trembling, and singing at the top of his voice as if this balcony and house belonged to him. Luise had kissed Albert and told him, “He’s singing, ‘Here am I, here am I, sweet, sweet, sweet.’ And he lay close to Luise and Luise close to him, and very gently and slowly he had penetrated her to the song of the strange voice, the voice of an animal that didn’t care what went on between the people indoors.
Albert lay in the grass with his eyes shut, listening to the blackbird and feeling its song wash over him. It was like being touched by a gentle silver tongue familiar with hidden places inside him he’d long believed gone and forgotten.
He lay in the moist grass, simply of a piece with the garden, belonging without needing to give it a thought. And as though the blackbird had been a messenger helping him from the old world into a new one through its song, he was not surprised to feel soft breaths along his cheek, and neither was he frightened when, opening his eyes, he looked into a radiant white face bent over him. It was the white cat from the neighboring garden, a huge animal he’d frequently chased off with stones when it disrupted the dark-green dusk of his arbor vitae hedge like a fat, white cloud. Now eye to eye with Albert, it no longer remembered his stones, but nudged him with its nose just once, with a little impatient mew that made him smile, a smile that turned into soft laughter when the cat traipsed over him, its rough, warm paws weighing down his bare skin for just a brief moment.
He had died – he knew that now. He lay dead in his garden and was in some kind of intermediate world where animals ruled, where he’d only been able to enter because he was on his way to the realm of shadows and Luise.

In his bed the next morning, he was surprised at still being alive, but not unhappy. The way he had fondly thought of dying embarrassed him, and he was ashamed when he remembered what he had done to the garden. He couldn’t bring himself to look outside and closed the blinds.
He packed a small bag for traveling to the seacoast. He became aware of his vulnerability when on the train, through a door that opened and closed again, he thought he saw Luise in the next compartment and realized that he had never really pondered the fact that he would never see her again.
His face grew numb and his eyes burned. He thought the two women across from him could tell just by looking how helpless he felt. They might ask what was bothering him and why he was crying, or something of that nature. They would speak to him as to a child alone on the train and lost. Because that’s how he felt. But the women paid no attention to him; only the black and white shaggy dog sitting on the floor between them, observing every bite they took from their lunchmeat sandwiches – this dog alone suddenly turned to look at him. There was no doubt that the dog looked him in the eye, and it closed its mouth as though to stress the earnestness of its gaze. The animal looked Albert in the eye as no one had in months. Albert couldn’t avoid this gaze, but had to endure it. Worse yet, he understood what the dog’s gaze said:
“You are suffering.”
The train slowed down. Albert got up, roughly pushed the dog aside with his knees, pulled his bag from the luggage rack and got out. He didn’t know the city, but that was fine with him. The station looked like all railroad stations – vending machines, news stands, train schedules, fast food stands, and a circular flower bed. He walked out to the street, crossed it and rented a room at the hotel opposite the station that had a red carpet rolled out to the curb under a plastic canopy as if to welcome him.
As he read in the lobby, there was a zoo in town, and he wanted to go there immediately without first unpacking. He hadn’t visited a zoo since childhood. He thought it was awful to keep animals caged up, as he had pointed out to Luise when she tried to drag him off to a zoo time and again. She had sometimes gone without him then, a bit unhappy because, as she said, she couldn’t understand him. There had been many things about him that she didn’t understand, and he’d enjoyed that. “He is secretive and has been since childhood,” his sisters told Luise, but that wasn’t true.

A seal broke the surface before him and gazed toward him with beautiful eyes which reminded him of Luise without making his heart ache. The air in the elephant house was pungent, and there were glistening, deep-brown dung piles dropped by the bull as he lifted his tail, with all kinds of birds soon pecking at them. The large ape showed his red behind while fanning himself with a branch. He, too, smelled acrid and wonderful. Albert had forgotten these odors, and to his surprise, now liked them as much as when he walked hand in hand with his grandmother, who had covered her nose with a lavender-scented handkerchief.
The porcupines in the ditch of the hippo enclosure crowded trembling around a tiny pink porcupine baby likely just born. Blood stuck to its silky hairs. Albert found this scene so moving, he had to sit down on a bench. Maybe he was getting sick; something seemed to be wrong with him. He felt vulnerable, yet wistfully glad. He reluctantly left.
He liked the empty dining room and enjoyed the small lamps with pink shades on every table and the waiter pouring his wine and boning his fish; he liked the aroma of the raspberry parfait. Only men were sitting at the counter of the bar he passed, all staring at their glasses without a word. He would have liked a drink, but was afraid of losing the serenity that had come over him during the meal. He congratulated himself on his impulsive trip and the hotel that had met his eyes as though waiting for him as he stepped out of the unfamiliar railroad station.
Luise had died on a bus one early evening; it had been raining. The bus had left the road and tumbled down an embankment. Albert had seen the bus on television, if only for seconds, as it lay among the fir trees with its roof smashed in, a toy fallen from a table. That picture dissolved, horrific lights blinked, people crawled up and down the slope: a dense row of firemen in black capes glistening from the rain, policemen, and ambulance crews. People were being hauled away on stretchers. Those were no toys. He sat looking on. His mind was blank, for he knew by then that Luise was dead. Someone had called him.
His sisters couldn’t believe that they were supposed to go to the bridge without him to deposit flowers, flowers for Luise. Louise’s choir wanted to sing for the dead there. They had been traveling together in the rain that night. “To a choral competition,” Luise had said. He didn’t remember the city. “Why does this remind me of The Singing Match of the Heathland Hares?” he’d asked with a grin, and she’d dropped on his lap and answered, “Because you think rabbits are ridiculous and you think we’re ridiculous too.” “I like rabbits,” he said. “Roasted!” Luise had shouted. “Though you look like a rabbit yourself!” and she’d kissed his ears, saying they were too large for his narrow head.
The bus had rolled down the embankment. Albert was in the dark hotel bed holding the remote control, blind in front of the bluish picture. He saw the bus topple over and saw the people inside being pushed over and into each other in absolute chaos. He had never permitted himself to wonder where Luise had been when the bus left the road. He hadn’t wanted to know, but now couldn’t stop it though he shut his eyes, and there was a roar in his ears as if he’d pass out any minute. He saw Luise seated there, he saw her face, gigantic – the glaring, frightened face he knew, the blazing, tortured face he knew – unable to avert his eyes, he watched it dissolve, saw her body being knocked back and forth, flung up, pressed down, hemmed in, mutilated and squashed. He heard her whimpering. It went on and on. Other bodies covered her up, striking the windows with a thud. Metal burst and glass.
He must have got up, because he discovered himself in front of the toilet bowl, kneeling and retching in the dark bathroom, the remote still in his hand.

He told his sisters that he had dreamed of Luise, and that she had given him the order to buy a dog, a dog for her, because she had neither turned loose from Albert nor from their house and garden yet, and this would, she’d said, still take a while.
He could tell by the looks passing between the sisters that they were worried. The older one studied him with her pharmacist’s eyes, probably wondering if he’d lost his mind with grief. The younger one hugged him, saying something about “finally turning loose, letting go of Luise,” but Albert wasn’t listening.
He was sitting in the garden, which was just beginning to recover. He saw a dog – it stood in the midst of the greenery, watching him with its head cocked. A spotted black and white shaggy guy with pointed ears that tipped over slightly whenever it shook its head and beat the air with its nervous, wooly tail. For the first time Albert understood that to him, a dog had always looked just like that. He had never pictured a different dog in his mind – what was it, a pointer? He had no idea. What had the dog looked like in the Memory game he’d enjoyed so much as a child? Albert sat in the center of the garden with his eyes closed, sorting through the picture cards, remembering exactly how they felt. Had the dog, his archetypal dog in the Memory card, also had black and white spots? He had no idea. He didn’t find that dog, but he found Stella. The Stella of long ago, leaping to meet him and toppling over the little boy in her happiness to see him again, with her tongue in his face, her clear bark in his ears. His Stella; for though she belonged to the neighbors, she had really, for as long as he knew, been his Stella. He sat in the garden as memory flooded through him. He was the child again whom Stella took to her corner of the shed. Stella, who showed him where the puppies were hidden, and for several seconds he again felt the sweet heaviness of the little fat-bellied dogs, black and white too and still blind, with their little pink noses and hot, acrid smell, a puppy smell that filled the whole shed. And there was Stella curled around her babies in a nest of potato sacks, studying him attentively, quite serious suddenly and gaunt, allowing him to touch only her paws. Then he’d wished for nothing so much as for one of Stella’s puppies, but his folks didn’t want a dog.
He got on his bike and looked up toward Luise’s window. He almost shouted her name. But there was no need. He knew what she wanted.


From Keto von Waberer: Umarmungen © 1997 Berlin Verlag GmbH, Berlin.
All rights reserved
Translation © Ingrid Lansford