The Balance of Time

By Lutz Seiler

Translation Bradley Schmidt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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