“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.
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