Author: Alfred Goubran
Translators: Thomas Ahrens and Edward Larkin
Snow is the blood of spirits.
February. Winter’s autumn. The days grow longer, but he hardly notices.
He is used to the darkness, the nights, the shadows, the pale light between sunrise and sunset, and to the lead-colored sky in the morning when he returns to his room just beyond the city limits. Center City ends at the tracks. That’s where he always decided whether to take the underpass or, if he still had enough money, to follow the tracks to the train station to have breakfast in the cafeteria there. Whenever I follow him on this path, I see the sun rise over the tracks. A mango-colored haze mixes with the fumes of the city. Below, the rail cars. Covered, pontoon-shaped platforms. The clocks. The shouts in the haze. The brakemen, the switchmen, and those who walk the tracks. I know all of them. I lived there one summer. The workers didn’t bother us. But at daybreak we had to leave the station. So we rolled up our sleeping bags and went down to the river to eat breakfast at Miros’s place. Miros was a gypsy – at least he said he was – who repaired old cars, refrigerators, and radios. Sometimes he found work in the city – painting, helping people move, odd jobs. If you didn’t have much money or couldn’t afford a professional, you called Miros. He rented a house from Jacky, who continued to live on the property in what had once been a tool shed. Jacky was a cripple, an alcoholic, and a psychopath; his legs consisted of two stumps, roughly ten centimeters each. It was said that he had thrown himself in front of a train, but no one knew for sure, and no one wanted to ask him. If you knew Jacky, you made sure to stay out of his reach, no matter how innocuous the conversation seemed to be. The story of the two Jehovah’s Witnesses who had inadvertently erred onto his property was absolutely believable: Jacky pounced on them from his wheelchair, beat them to a pulp, and choked one of them until he lost consciousness. Even Miros’ children kept their distance. The smallest gesture of pity toward him was extremely dangerous. The only person that Jacky allowed to get near him was Miros’ wife. She visited him in the shed, cleaned it up, and looked after him. “He is in pain,” she said. Some mornings she found him lying on the ground in front of the shed. He had been “dancing” again. Sometimes, when he got drunk, he lifted himself out of his wheelchair, walked on his hands, rolled and hopped around, cursing and swearing all the while, and attacked anyone who approached him. And when it got bad, he would climb onto the flat roof of the shed and scream and howl until he lost his voice, or until he fell asleep, exhausted. If he still refused to come down from the roof the next day, Miros’ wife had to send up what he needed. But this never lasted more than two days.
Jacky was so unpredictable that the hospital didn’t want to treat him anymore. Even the police left him alone. As far as I know, Miros and his wife no longer live there. I have no idea who is looking after him now. Maybe no one. But places like this – and they can be found everywhere – are attracting more and more people, people in transition, people who live on the margins of society, beyond the safety net. I have seen whole communities come into being this way. In the south, during the summer months, vagrants randomly descend on some obscure cove. They arrive with their sleeping bags and converted trucks. Some of them sleep in their cars, others in tents; cooking areas, toilets, and the water station are all improvised. By the time the authorities come to disperse them, they have already scattered and disappeared. These places are time zones that have come into existence on the margins of the civilized world. They are home to those who have not quite fully fallen out of society. – There are other places reserved for the ones who are truly broken, disillusioned, or have been otherwise discarded. We always sought to avoid these people, as well as the public soup kitchens, the homeless shelters, the free clothing programs, the job centers, and the welfare agencies. It is certainly possible that we may need to make use of their services one day. Regardless of one’s situation, anyone can “hit rock bottom.”
But not that other thing.
At that time I thought I could let him go. The dropout, the good-for-nothing. Or I could take him some place where he couldn’t find his way back on his own. It didn’t have to be a horrible place; it might even be a place where life would be better for him. Somewhere in the south. I suggested Morocco. And he seemed to like the idea. He hadn’t seen much of the world. He’d never been out of this small town. Had spent his childhood in a house that had a back yard. His parents were always too busy for him. He was often left to his own devices. School bored him. He hardly took notice of the teachers. Adults, parents, grandparents, the priest, the nursery schoolteacher – they were all just extras in his childhood. He liked to read, explore the surrounding areas on his bike, and, during school vacations, he loved to watch afternoon movies on TV. He would close the curtains and sit alone in the cool, dark room. When he was twelve, he began going to the movies on weekends, but he didn’t tell his parents. He was always able to find money somewhere in the house. The friends he spent time with were as unreal as the adults; they were miniature colleagues, who shared a similar fate, who sat next to him in school, who went swimming with him or played soccer. He never took them to the movies. Or on his excursions. When something was forbidden, he did it alone. That only changed later, when he met other like-minded people. The first adult who was really able to reach him was his math teacher, his homeroom teacher, who confronted him in the hallway about some difficulties he was having. To be precise, he only uttered one sentence, a question that pierced him; his response was to immediately stop coming to school. For six months he had been living in a small room that his father had once purchased, “as an investment.” By and large, his parents were not troubled by the fact that he had quit school. They listened calmly to his explanation, which was nothing more than an excuse, and nodded when he mentioned his plans to them; “all things considered,” they found it quite reasonable that he wanted to become independent.
“I can’t learn anything more at school,” he had said. The sentence stuck with him, resurfacing in his memory from time to time. It was one of those adult sentences that sounded better when it was said aloud before other people. He had no idea what he was going to do with his life. If someone asked him about his plans, he would just ramble on. Or he’d make something up on the spot. Just as he did on tests at school when he had not studied for them. Only now, it didn’t matter. What he said had no consequences. It meant nothing as long as he didn’t want something from someone else. And as long as somebody else didn’t want something from him. Basically, no one, he thought to himself, wants to know anything about anyone else. That’s just the way it is. Every man lives for himself . . .
For him, this entailed a life without obligation, without rules, without strong social ties, a life that amounted to nothing more than chance encounters, a life that alienated him from the average people with their routines and soulless business dealings. For how were their lives any different from business deals? And the currency for these deals was their own short lives. There was no other currency. There may be no original sin, but you can certainly inherit a debt: the life that you forgo, the unfulfilled life, the life not lived, the life that you have saved up for some other purpose. But, in any case, it was a life that remained within your comfort zone and that someone else, coming after you, could redeem. Someone who is dumb enough to take on this burden and then cancel the debt with his own life. For life: a fate congealed into hard cash; every euro, a promissory note. How much, Schatzi? Everyone has their price, and everyone is in debt to others. Without being asked. That is what social means. Other people’s burdens. But what was his burden? His promissory note? – He did not know. Every day his life led him deeper into the night, to discotheques and late-night bars, to brothels, beer halls, and obscure lounges. He became friendly with the owners, the bouncers, and the cocktail waitresses; he got to know the whores and their pimps, the thugs, the dealers, the gamblers, the insomniacs, the drunkards, and the losers. And even there he sensed the world of working people. There were the seasonal laborers and construction workers who had exhausted themselves on some construction site during the week and then worked on their single-family homes on the weekend. There was great solidarity among them; everyone helped each other. And when they went out drinking, seven or eight of them together, there was always a brawl. The people of the night gathered in just a few places in this small town. Conflict was inevitable. The “normal people” could be seen in the discotheques on the weekend; only during the ball season did they inadvertently stray into the late-night bars with any regularity. Girls in fairy-tale ballroom dresses, high school students in their first suits drinking schnapps for the first time and, more crazy than drunk, trying to act like men in front of their dates – at the wrong place. They often laughed at the eccentrics they saw there. Strange characters. They laughed at him too. He was by himself. At first, he was bothered by the giggling and whispering of the girls, who were not much younger than he was. The longer it lasted, the more unsure of himself he felt. He was ashamed but didn’t know what he should be ashamed of, or why. He felt defenseless, powerless, and was about to leave when Maggie sat down at his table. She had been a hooker but had worked her way up to manager. She placed two glasses of cognac on the table and offered him a cigarette. When Maggie glanced at the hyenas at the nearby table, they were suddenly transformed into little girls, little doves whose beaks sipped awkwardly from their Prosecco glasses while the boys with sweaty faces stared at the tabletop. Children dressed up. A birthday party for kids at an inappropriate place. At an inappropriate time. Nothing more . . .
He nodded. They toasted. Maggie downed her drink, and, holding a lit cigarette in her hand, returned to her station behind the bar. That’s when he realized that he belonged there. It would be an overstatement to say that he felt accepted, but the people there liked him and had grown accustomed to him. His parents did not know the people and the places in this world, the world in which he gradually began to establish himself. Where else would he find the debt, the burden, and the unlived lives into which he had been born, if not in a world that did not seem to exist for them…
Excerpted from Alfred Goubran, Durch die Zeit in meinem Zimmer, Braumüller Verlag, Vienna, 2014.