IN THE SLEEPING CAR
It has hardly rained at all in the last couple of days, but the wind has gotten stronger, whipping up little sprays of water; it rakes across the fields, long since liberated from the snow, and works its way into the cracks of the house, so that doorknobs fly out of your hand and doors slam shut; it howls in the chimney, scratches at the windows, and when I go outside at night I hear a sharp whistling. Is it from the windmills on the hill, their blades slicing the air into pieces? A whistling and a roaring – and every so often, from far away, a clanging and clicking noise, like the cord that used to snap against the flagpole in the courtyard of the Naval College. And don’t forget that jingling sound – is it from the strips of foil hanging in the farmers’ cherry trees? Or is it just the coins that used to be in my pockets in the sleeping-car days? Tips from travelers.
People who are afraid to fly, I used to think when I saw them in the evenings, standing on the platform with their luggage. Why else would they let themselves be carted all the way across Europe at night, squeezed into a narrow bunk like so much cargo, when they could have gotten to their destination in a plane, in a fraction of the time, for the same price?
By the time I met them at the door of the train car, I had already folded down the beds, spread the sheets over the thin mattresses and laid out the blankets, to avoid doing it in front of them. “Can I bring you anything?” I would say when I knocked on their door a while later. Yes, I could, usually – a nightcap, a drink to settle the travel nerves. On offer: a thumb-sized bottle of whiskey, which I served on a tray along with ice from the cooler, if desired. Or a cognac? A fruit brandy? A quarter-bottle of Merlot poured from a screw-top bottle into a plastic cup? When they paid, they rounded up – No change, thanks – or dug out a few coins and put them in my pouch. Italian lire, French francs, Swiss francs, Danish kroner; back in my Berlin apartment, I tossed them into a jar on the dresser next to the front door, and took them to the bank every so often to exchange them for Deutschmarks. Back then, in the mid-eighties, the view from my window, between two buildings, was of the Havel River. Barges pushed their bow waves in front of them while trains traveled into or out of the city on the railroad bridge, which I could also see, that spanned the river. For a moment, train and ship met before taking their leave of one another again.
My shift started in the late afternoon or early evening, when I walked to the office to pick up
the passenger list for the sleeping car. There’s not much more to say about the work itself, except that it required an ability to lead one’s life in the dark and to do mental arithmetic; an outwardly friendly demeanor; and a certain number of regularly rotating books to help pass the time between midnight and morning. When I described it to my grandfather, he wrote back: You might as well have signed on for a listening post in one of those sardine tins that sits under the pack ice for a solid half year without ever surfacing.
As soon as I heard the clattering of the bolts being slid shut, I walked through the train, through the other cars, and looked at the people slumped in their seats; if I saw a familiar book lying in an otherwise empty compartment, I stood by the window and waited for its owner to return. Once he was back in his seat, I would watch his reflection in the window, hoping to learn something about myself from him – as though people who read the same books were members of one family, their traits expressed less through facial or physical similarities than through a certain attitude, one I could perhaps find in myself once I had discovered it in him. Was I like that? Did I have that self-confident look? Or had the journeys already started to change me?
Over time, the world outside began to disappear. The fields, the meadows, the drainage
ditches, the rows of trees, the steep forests and rocky slopes that rose up suddenly, the bridges and tunnels, the suburbs with their factories, warehouses, parking lots and fairgrounds – everything merged into a single backdrop that scrolled by the window and became just as unreal as the repetitive accommodations, the hotels with their stacks of frayed magazines on the tables in the lobby and their narrow staircases leading up to rooms with bright checked wallpaper, the sleeping cells that were all furnished in the same way: the luggage rack next to the door, the built-in closet, the bed, the television in the corner. Either the windows didn’t close all the way, so you were always on the verge of catching a cold, with an earache or a sore throat, or they didn’t open, so you woke up soon after falling asleep because the air was all used up and then lay awake on your back, listening to the knocking of the pipes, where someone seemed to be sitting and constantly tapping out, with the persistence of a pneumatic rust chisel, the rhythm to the questions that circled around in my head: What now? What next? I had just turned thirty-five and had lost my barge, which belonged to a tax shelter, to the scrap merchants; the next day (out of spite? An illusion of independence? Independence, anyway, from the barge and ship distributors that had replaced the old owner-operators), I found myself in the recruiting office for the sleeping-car company. What now? What next? asked the knocking man in the pipes. Don’t forget the dismal bathrooms, tiled all the way to the ceiling, so narrow that if the soap slid out of your hand and you wanted to pick it up, you had to leave the room because you couldn’t bend down inside. And finally the well-worn paths between lodging and train station, office and train, train and office, train station and lodging, looking directly into either the rising or setting sun in the summer. Or the same walk in the winter, when it was still or already dark. And in between there was the rumbling of the wheels, the dimmed light in the corridor of the compartment, the landscape and cityscape passing by the window and pausing only at each station – all that made it feel like the outside world (although really we were outside) was dissolving into a shimmering mind-haze shot through with lights.
There were some colleagues, especially the older ones, who had not been home in over a year; in fact, one wondered whether they still even had one, or whether they had long since been living on the trains; this sometimes reminded me of the special class of homeless people who lived in New York’s subway shafts without ever seeing the light of day. They were the ones who had made the greatest impression on me when I was there once, those shadow people whose skin – whether originally white or black – had without exception taken on an olive-green shade. Some of them had deeply sunken eyes; others’ eyes had protruded so that they looked like little buttons attached to their faces. They were either mole-eyes or those of frogs, which they could turn in any direction without moving their heads. Instead of racing upward in the elevators, fast-moving as cars, to cast my gaze upon Manhattan, I kept going back down to that underworld, where I rode the subway up and down without rhyme or reason. Sometimes the rattling of the subway exploded into an infernal racket, and when you looked up, you could see one of the olive-colored people taking up his post in the door between the cars; he had come over from the neighboring car, pausing for a moment before moving toward the middle of the car, where he began to tell his tale of woe while singing or dancing, often with the most absurd contortions. For some it was one thing, for others something else. And in the end, it all came together for all of them. The subway had seared its dirty color into all of their faces, that olive green which one could see in my colleagues, too, upon closer inspection.
The nights on the train had been dug into their faces; their foreheads were furrowed, their eyes darted erratically; deep lines extended from their nostrils to the corners of their mouths. When they left the train, they swayed like sailors who had to reacquaint themselves with the feeling of solid ground under their feet. The contents of their suitcases (one could tell by the way they carried them) seemed to shrink with each journey, until I could imagine that only their work uniform and toothbrush were left inside; everything else had been scattered to the four winds. Their personal possessions, including letters, photos, mementos, had long ago been left behind somewhere or stolen; and if you listened to them, it seemed as though they had also lost their ability or will to remember. If they told stories, they were about long-ago things or recent occurrences, tales of pubs and women, but never about the period of their lives before their sleeping-car time. That period was blocked out, or else they stopped in the middle of a sentence as soon as they realized they had accidentally wandered into it. I listened to their voices, always too loud, sounding like they were still trying to shout over the train noise even in the hotel room, and suddenly I began to suspect it was not just their sense of balance that had been thrown off, but something else; and that something else was what they concealed. They commenced speaking, then went silent, turned to the wall and pulled the blanket over their ears.
Rome, Via Principe Amadeo, not two hundred meters away from the train station, early July, muggy and hot. I had opened the door to the corridor to create a draft, without success; the air hung in the room like a boulder that had been charged with heat. Through the wall I could hear the card players’ hands crashing down on the table, and with each crash the boulder seemed to grow and to radiate a few more degrees of heat. After a while I got up and went into the shower room at the end of the corridor to get the shirt I had washed and put on a wire hanger on the metal frame of the shower stall, but it was no longer there, it was gone; no, not stolen; someone (one of the card players, whose hands I could still hear crashing onto the table and raising the temperature?) had (in order to make room for his own shirts?) held it out the window and let go. I could see it lying on a section of wall projecting from the neighboring house, so I grabbed the two shirts which were hanging there in its place, tore them down and dispatched them after mine; they were still damp, and grazed the wall of the house before freeing themselves and dropping down to the street, where they were caught up by a car and dragged away. “That wasn’t fair,” said my colleague (yes, it was one of the card players, who were on a different route) as we – they, I and Wilhelm, my sleeping-car colleague – walked through the almost worse evening heat to the train station, two against one, thereby declaring his fundamental approval of my behavior, while Wilhelm, as was his habit, jerked his lower jaw back and forth, making a soft clicking sound. He was the oldest among us. Originally blond, his hair was now just an array of thin gray threads, which he pasted to his shiny olive-tinged scalp with water or brilliantine. He was already wearing his white shirt and red vest, while the rest of us still had our street clothing on – our lightweight summer pants, still too heavy in the heat, and short-sleeved shirts. His suitcase dangled in his hand, and I suddenly knew the only thing he still kept in there was his tie, the gray strip of fabric that, per instructions, we were to tie so that the emblem with the three initials of the sleeping-car company was displayed a hand’s width under the knot.
Was that the night when he came out of his car and stood next to me at the window? The clusters of lights from small towns flew by, and sheet lightning quivered over the mountains; the curve of a river (the Ticino?) was briefly visible. He was smoking; when he drew on the cigarette, its glow made his face light up in the window. He told me he had pain in his wrists, his legs, his back. And suddenly he said, casually, as though he had grown tired of complaining and wanted to change the subject, that he could have prevented the Second World War, the murder of the Jews, Tehran, Yalta, the Potsdam Agreement, the building of the atom bomb, the division of Europe, the Berlin Wall, maybe even the Vietnam War and a number of smaller wars (whose causes, development, and conclusions he could no longer remember).
He nodded. It was in Dresden, in the late thirties, when as a young bellboy he had been assigned to push the breakfast cart to a certain room; the best one in the hotel, not really a room but a suite, no, a whole floor that was separate from the other floors. He had been chosen from all the bellboys (twelve in all, who mainly held doors open and closed them, pressed elevator buttons, and bowed as they handed over telephone tickets). Walking in front, next to and behind him were the directors; one of them knocked, someone opened the door, he wheeled the cart with the mushroom omelet, toast, bowl of fruit, pot of tea on the flickering tea warmer, plates and cups and silverware into the room; and when he looked up, he saw Hitler sitting on the edge of the bed in his robe and slippers. “I could have just taken one of the knives from the cart and rammed it into his throat.” His cigarette, the third one, glowed again, making his face shine darkly in the window. “Yes,” I said, “that’s a good story.” And then immediately asked the inevitable question: “So, would you have?” “What?” “Stabbed him.” Whereupon, instead of answering, he raised his arm and wiped the pane, turned around and shuffled back to the sleeping car with his jawbones clicking. It was around two in the morning, still very warm, but of course nothing compared to the afternoon heat at the hotel on Via Principe Amadeo, from which he was picked up a few days later. On the stairs he had encountered Lipski, one of the card players, who was on his way back from an errand: Wilhelm between two men, whose appearance Lipski could not recall later when I asked him for a description. Lipski was a small, spindly man with deep-set, always slightly shaded eyes, whose otherwise startlingly light skin stretched over the bones of his face like parchment. From the glittering noon brightness on Principe Amadeo, Lipski had walked into the darkness of the staircase and been nearly blinded for a moment, so that he would have collided with one of the two men, who were wearing dark clothing, if he had not suddenly heard a hissing – a hissing or a whispering – that had caused him to retreat with his back pressed to the wall, since the three made no attempt to move out of the way.
Wilhelm had not paid him any attention, he said, but had looked straight ahead, simply sliding his jaw back and forth. In the evening we went back to the train station. Lipski walked next to his colleague, while Wilhelm, who was usually at my side, was missing. Lipski thought he might already be waiting on the platform, but he was wrong, so I ended up taking over Wilhelm’s car as well with the help of the conductor.
The conductor met the guests at the door, took them to their compartments, then asked for their tickets and passports and placed them in a folder, which he handed over to me so I could complete the formalities at the border without waking the sleeping passengers. Around two, just as I was about to do my rounds, the train stopped between stations; I looked out and was startled, because I imagined I saw Wilhelm walking over the railway embankment and disappearing between the bushes into the darkness. The conductor walked forward to the engine to find out the reason for the stop, and when he came back he reported that the machine had stopped for no (apparent) reason; no, the emergency brake hadn’t been pulled, they knew that because the instruments would have shown it. He was about my age, but taller and fatter, so that he practically filled the entire height and width of the corridor.
When the train started back up with a jerk, he looked at the clock, pulled a small book out of his bag and noted the time – 2:23 am – before entering “Stopped from – to –” in his logbook under Special Occurrences, which was important because it meant our stopping time could be compared with those of other trains later on. As it turned out, all the trains that had been heading north from Rome that night had stopped as if by agreement (or upon some secret command): the engines stopped at 2:03 am, the wheels locked up, and the trains came to a halt and could not be started up again, despite all the engineers’ efforts, until 2:23 am. During those twenty minutes, all rail traffic north of Rome came to a standstill, while the southern regions only received reports about minor disruptions.
A couple of days later, on a day that was just as bright and hot as the day when Lipski saw Wilhelm between the dark-clothed men on the stairs, I heard a knock on my door at Principe Amadeo. I told them to come in. Two men entered, identifying themselves as criminal police investigators, and asked me to follow them to the Forensic Institute on Porta Pia to perform an unpleasant duty: identifying a man who might be my missing colleague. So the sleeping-car company had shared my report, based on Lipski’s observation, with the police. One of the men spoke German. In response to my query, he said the unknown man had been discovered by a cleaning crew at the Ostia Lido terminus, sitting at the window of the Metro train as if he were asleep. The train ticket in his pocket had been stamped at the Piramide station at 4 pm; since the time of death was about 5 pm, it looked as though he had shuttled back and forth between Rome and Ostia until the train’s last run (12:17 am). They pushed me into a car but it wouldn’t start, so we got out again and walked, since they could not agree whether to take a bus or a taxi – first along Via Cavour and then, once we had passed the train station, taking various smaller streets, of which the last one led not to Porta Pia, but to Viale del Policlinico. The sun hung directly overhead; the streets seemed abandoned, the blinds had been rolled down on all the houses, a cat lay curled up in a car tire, and suddenly I thought that if I were to disappear, it would be the only living creature to have seen me walking with the two men. A cat that sleepily raised its head. And suddenly I remembered a distinction my grandfather had made: that in the south – because the streets and plazas were so empty in the mid-day heat – kidnappings and murders normally took place at noon, while here in the north those things were usually handled at night.
Ever since their argument – taxi or bus – the two men had been quiet. The younger one, walking on my left, wore brown sandals, his toes protruding slightly past the insoles; it looked as if they touched the pavement with each rolling step. The other wore sturdy black shoes with soles that were clearly hobnailed, their clicks echoing down the street. But neither of them wore dark clothing. The younger one wore light-colored pants and over them a green, red and blue safari jacket with an open collar; the other was all in beige or khaki, also with his collar unbuttoned; a delicate silver chain hung around his neck, bouncing up off the gray pelt on his chest with every step, as if on a trampoline; he was the one who knocked on the iron door in the clinic basement and pressed down the door handle upon hearing Si, avanti. We stepped into a large room, tiled all the way to the ceiling in pale green, which was icy cold after the heat outside. I had been prepared for one of those stainless-steel refrigerated wall cabinets you see in the movies, with the body-length drawers that roll out, but instead there were several tables in the middle, covered with sheets beneath which the outlines of bodies were visible. Circular neon tubes hung from the ceiling, giving off a kind of foggy or gauzy light, so palpable you felt it could be cut with a knife.
A man got up from his swivel chair and came over; he wore a gray apron and stood by the table in the middle, then threw back the sheet so I could take a look at the face. The dead man’s eyes were closed, his nose sharp, his mouth a line, all of it repellent and waxen in the foggy, or gauzy, light; but his jaw was held in place by a band wrapped around his head, knotted at the top. And that was what confused me so much that for a moment I saw Wilhelm, I saw his jaw jerking back and forth and heard the clicking, so that even after I was back out on the street I was still wondering whether it could have been him after all. But it wasn’t him, I’m quite sure of it.
I told Lipski the same thing. When I went to his room, he was sitting at the table and staring at four stacks of cards piled in front of him; they were smaller than normal cards, and there were more of them than were normally needed to play; they formed a row of four small towers, but when I came in he bumped them; they collapsed, and he began sliding them back and forth, his hands moving in circles. He was completely naked; I could see that he had no body hair at all, not even a tiny hair in evidence anywhere. His parchment skin, which I had remembered as being relatively light, had darkened; it stretched across his shoulders and ribs, and his genitals lay between his legs like those of a small child. When he noticed my gaze, he reached for a towel and covered himself.
“Lipski,” I said, “I’ve just been to the corpse room.” But he didn’t seem to be listening at all, instead looking toward the window. The blind was halfway down, and the light streaming in traced white stripes on his face. He sat there completely motionless, his chin jutting forward and his arms hanging down. Only when I left did he raise his hands to begin sifting through the cards again. But he had definitely understood me, because when we walked to the train station that evening, he commented, “I could have told you that right away.” “What?” “That he’s not in the place where they took you.” “And how did you know that?” He tilted his head, exactly as Wilhelm used to, then abruptly stopped walking as soon as he realized it. He stood stock still; his deep-set eyes now seemed to protrude. He was in the middle of Via Carlo Cattaneo, which we were just crossing in order to turn onto Giovanni Giolitti, which ran along the south side of the train station; around us was the rushing evening traffic – the cars, the honking horns and flickering turn signals. “Lipski, what is it?” His chin trembled. But he simply shook his head and didn’t say another word.
The facts are these: Wilhelm was picked up from the hotel on Principe Amadeo at noon by two men in dark clothing, and has been missing ever since.
My grandfather, whom I told about the affair, wrote back that he believed missing persons were not really missing, but tended to gather in certain places. If I understood him correctly, he supposed they were on a special kind of train on which they traveled ceaselessly, in other words without ever getting off, back and forth across Europe. Each person, he said, had a separate compartment for sitting and reading or just looking out the window. Since the trains weren’t listed in any timetable and never stopped – or only in very hidden places – it was hard to discover them. Later he expanded on his theory. It’s quite possible, he wrote in another letter, that the missing people were also in those dilapidated apartment blocks found at the edges of big cities, where they formed their own colonies, isolated from the rest of the world. The next evening, the evening of the day after my visit to the corpse room and after an uneventful trip during which Lipski sat silently in my compartment, as though afraid to be alone – “Lipski,” I had said, “What is it? Is there something bothering you?” but he had stayed silent, the only sound coming from the rustling of the cards sliding from one hand to the other – when I got back to Berlin that evening, I tossed the coins into the jar next to the door; and when I walked to the window I saw, between the houses, the Havel flowing backward – an impression doubtless caused by the fact that the wind was blowing in the opposite direction.
Dunkle Gesellschaft. Roman in zehn Regennächten. First published by Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt 2005 (c) Schöffling & Co.