Category Archives: antifiction

The Bomb Collector (an antifictional novel)

photo by SG

“Every war on Earth is, in the end, a battle of the sexes.”-Azzedine El-Hadi

In the three months between the time I signed the lease on my new flat and the day I returned to Berlin with two suitcases of meager possessions, the building next door was knocked to the ground, and construction started on an above-ground parking garage. I’d been charmed by the old fashioned quality of this corner of the neighborhood and now they were modernizing it.

The day I’d first looked at this flat, flipping light switches and opening and closing cabinets in an amateurish pantomime of my father, the caretaker assured me it was a quiet neighborhood. It’s standard in Berlin that you’re allowed to deduct a portion of your rent for inconveniences such as malfunctioning heat in the winter or quality-of-life-damaging construction on or near your dwelling, but there is so much development happening in this suddenly fashionable neighborhood that there’s a special clause in my rental contract that negates the reduced rent option ‘in the event’ of construction, which, obviously, though unknown to me, was a certainty when I signed the contract. I signed it, flew back to California a week later, then returned to Berlin on the last day of summer.

The taxi driver who drove me from Tegel to August Strasse was not German; he was a London-born Pakistani named Shadz (a contraction, he informed me, of a name that sounded, as he pronounced it, like Sa-Heedz). Shadz lifted my two large suitcases of meager possessions into the trunk of his BMW-built taxi and guessed that I wasn’t a tourist. “Are you a scientist?” he asked, after I’d given him the address in halting German. I can’t say why, exactly, this offended me. Perhaps I’d rather have been mistaken for a rock star.

“A scientist? No.”

“You absolutely wouldn’t believe how many scientists I end up driving.”

“Really.”

“Oh, yeah. Something like, I dunno. Half a dozen a week, maybe more?” He didn’t in any way resemble the voice coming out of his mouth. He stared into the car that we were passing on the left as though its driver was insane. I looked too and saw that it was an extremely attractive woman at the wheel, brushing her teeth.

We drove through leafy green lanes that gave way to narrow, treeless, cobblestone streets. There was a fenced-in muddy lot of old touring coaches emblazoned with Cyrillic lettering, across the street from a row of run-down stucco cottages with boarded-up windows. Then a quaint shopping district populated almost entirely, it seemed to me, with women in Turkish headscarves. Then a mile of much-graffiti’d brown brick buildings. The scenery changed quickly and in unexpected ways and felt like a haphazardly-edited montage of many cities from different eras. Which, in a way, is what Berlin is.

“Are they working on some kind of big project, do you think?”

“Who, mate?”

“The scientists.”

He eyed me in the mirror. “That’s the question I was going to put to you sir, actually.” We both laughed. Shadz said, “A machine for influencing your dreams, maybe?”

“Exactly. Top Secret stuff.”

“Imagine the possibilities if you could beam adverts directly into people’s skulls while they were sleeping,” he said wistfully. I smiled but couldn’t think of a clever comeback and soon found myself dozing… nodding off… my chin touched my collar bone twice. Each time I awoke with a sudden start and a snort. Embarrassed, to prove I was awake I said to Shadz:

“But how do you know they’re scientists?”

“How else would they get the job?”

When we pulled up in front of my building it was shortly after noon, and so the construction workers were on a break, but I saw the skyscraping crane anchored in the building-sized crater next door with a sinking heart. I was too tired to care much at that point, however. Shadz quoted the amount I owed him, I handed him two bills fresh from the money-changing kiosk at Tegel, and he popped the trunk and hopped out. He was yanking my bags with virile grunts and lowering them onto the pavement before I could manage to get my door open. That’s how wobbly the flight had left me.

Before he climbed in, he handed back one of the bills I’d given him. “Keep your eye on the ball, mate.” He winked. “This time the lesson was kostenlos,” he said, using the German word for ‘free,’ and he drove off, leaving me jet-lagged and constipated and with two large suitcases in the middle of the road, facing a construction site.

The only thing I like more than packing a suitcase is unpacking a suitcase; the former indicates an adventure to come and the latter an ordeal survived. My pleasure would be magnified in this case by unpacking my suitcases in an absolutely empty flat… just walls, floor, windows, doors and ceiling… a ritual I was, however, too exhausted to enjoy before getting a little sleep. In the top layer of suitcase number one was a cloth-covered air mattress I’d purchased from a bankrupt Army Surplus store as a much younger man always on the look out for bargains, novelties and items that nobody else had or wanted. I’d finally unpacked the thing, to air it out, the day before my flight, and it gave off a sad, dry rot odor of Korean War memorabilia when I first unboxed it. The odor managed to taint the entire contents of the suitcase, which I had wisely refrained from packing with clothes; suit case number two had all the clothes in it, along with a five hundred page manuscript (single-spaced, narrow margins, tiny font) I was nowhere near being finished with.

When I yanked the rip-cord dangling from the panel with the stenciled warning on it (WARNING: DO NOT PULL: JERK!), I expected the cord to snap off in my hand, or for nothing to happen, but, to my surprise, the mattress inflated rapidly with a loud hiss that changed in pitch as the mattress plumped out. The compressed air canister continued until the mattress bulged asymmetrically and I backed out of the room with my fingers in my ears and it exploded in a cloud of dust. Of course. I unpacked half the clothing from suitcase number two, arranged it in a thick rectangle in the middle of the room and laid the blown mattress on top. I kicked off my shoes and curled up on the makeshift bed.

I dreamed I was climbing a steep, grassy hill on a sunny day with The Beatles. They were long-haired and bearded and young-looking, younger than I had been in years, and I was slightly embarrassed, in this dream, to be an over-thirty, someone they might not trust, or, even worse, someone they might mock with their rapid, cutting, inside jokes. John was the one I had to be especially careful with, I remember thinking in this dream, and I put an effort into watching his face very carefully for reactions to my cautious remarks: a lifted eyebrow or a curling lip or a conspiratorial glance at George. It was difficult as he was the furthest from me. To my immediate left was Ringo in a bright red caftan and then to my right the order went George, Paul and then John. Climbing the hill in the heat had winded me but they, The Beatles, didn’t seem visibly affected. Their long hair was shiny, fragrant and beautiful in the golden light; in fact they were pretty as girls, even with their beards, and I couldn’t stop thinking how it was really them, The Beatles, and here I was climbing this hill in the sunlight with them.

At what point as the dream unfolded did it become clear to me that these four young men weren’t The Beatles at all? They had merely resembled The Beatles. But as I stared at the profile of the one I had taken to be John Lennon, the one who was furthest from me, with most of his face eclipsed by his hair, I could no longer locate even the faintest resemblance between his face and Lennon’s and it seemed to me (or does so now) that his facial features were changing, subtly, even as I watched, into something very strange.

The brilliant sunlight had dulled and darkened, too. The wind was picking up, whipping the tall grass, and, back down the hill into a vast valley that reached for miles to a poisonous black seam of clouds on the horizon, I watched white bits and large gray chunks of some kind of debris blowing; bouncing; rolling down the hill. The four young men I was climbing with were menacing, unambiguously hostile towards me and united in some kind of mission or scheme and their grim faces and dark clothing in combination with the cold wind and violent storm overtaking us made me shake with despair.

The noise that woke me was so loud that it seemed to push me to the floor but I was already on the floor, or close to floor level, gasping as my heart raced. I didn’t know where I was, but it felt like I was in an earthquake, back in California, having a heart attack. What was I doing on the floor of an empty, high-ceilinged room with strange windows and two narrow doors and a power socket in the wall shaped like nothing I was familiar with, rattled in my bones by a deafening rumble? A cheap ceiling lamp on the end of a white chord was swinging left and right. I stumbled in a panic to the door jamb and wedged myself there with my arms covering my head until I suddenly remembered where I was exactly and under what circumstances and laughed at my stupidity, right there where I squatted in the vibrating doorway. I slipped my shoes on, confronted a sleep-smashed face in the bathroom mirror (soft; middle-aged), splashed some water on it, and left the building to go for a walk, since sleep was impossible.

The day… a late spring/early summer day… was streaked with low, fast moving clouds like dark fish in a cold creek and the chill in the air made me consider going back to unpack a light jacket. But going back would have felt like the first small failure of my new life so I went forward instead, my hands jammed in my pockets and my collar turned up. It was early afternoon and there was only one other person on the street, a tall, pretty girl with brilliant orange hair. She wore a pale green diaphanous scarf over her hair and she didn’t once look up as she hurried past me on loud boots in the direction from which I’d come, the noise of her loud boots disappearing into the roar of construction. Turning to watch, I saw her cross towards my building and let herself into it while dust clouds and diesel fumes from the frenzy of construction next door blew over her.

I had followed her half-way back and waited to see if she’d appear in a window in the upper floors, pulling a curtain or lifting a blind to catch me spying from the corner. I lingered awhile, saw nothing and continued my walk. I started thinking of her as ‘the little red headed girl.’ I’d never had a neighbor that pretty in any apartment building I’d ever lived in in America but I had observed women like that in some of the houses I’d worked in, chatting amiably with harmless me over a mug of coffee from the other side of the invisible barrier of comfort.

Most of the work we did was at one or another of the gated communities that had mushroomed beyond the suburbs in response to opportunities in new technology at office parks that were an hour’s drive from the city. The rows upon row of brand new houses were identically over-large, poorly designed, thrown up far too quickly and in need of paint. The owners were invariably young, college-educated and friendly to a fault with the workers, all the way down to the Mexican maids and gardeners. I always made it a point to have at least one conversation with the lady of the house to assert myself, I suppose, as a reader of books and an appreciator of culture. Which Richard, my partner (my boss, actually; they were his bids, and he had me on an hourly wage), considered embarrassing not only for me, he said, but for the client and himself and the tradition of house painting.

“No matter how smart you may think you are, to them you’re just a beat up old house painter, just like me, John.”

“I’m only doing this to finance the writing of my book, Richard. You know that.”

“All I’m saying is how you see it ain’t how they see it so the point is what? Plus it’s fucking unprofessional. Okay?”

I was careful not to let him catch me talking with the homeowners after that exchange. Once, I walked into a living room carrying a step ladder and found the client’s blonde wife curled up on the Cadillac-sized leather couch in a bright red jogging outfit, chewing a finger and reading a brand new paperback of Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. She just happened to look up from the book as I entered the room in my cover-alls and cap, ladder over one shoulder, paint on my face. As she made eye contact I pointed and said, because I knew Richard was out in the van, mixing paint, “There’s textual evidence in there that Quilty is Lo’s biological father,” and her eyes went wide and her mouth fell open as though a talking dog had walked in on its hind legs and asked for a date.

Rosenthaler Strasse is the nearest main road and a trolley runs up and down both sides of it. There were more pedestrians there than on the side streets that led me to it and there was eerily quiet, clogged traffic packed with makes of cars and trucks I’d never seen before and for the first time since I’d arrived I had the thrilling sense of being in a foreign capital… the implication of infinite possibility and vague threat that middle-aged Bohemians travel for. The wind whipped flimsy spring coats against the short-skirted legs of business women or secretaries hurrying back to the office from lunch breaks and I wondered if the eros of foreign travel was more in the anonymity of it… as though anonymity in and of itself is an invitation to transgress… or in my subconscious superstition that European women find American men sexy. I turned left on Rosenthaler Strasse, under a whole city of clouds in places so black they looked rotten and I was chilled to the bone by the same wind that was flirting so rudely with the secretaries.

I hadn’t gone twenty paces when I came upon a pale older man, his thin hair wind-blown, painting a picture on the wall of a block-long building. The building housed a bakery and a barber shop and a travel agent among other ground level businesses. The building was made of huge black blocks of stone and he was very carefully taping a stencil to the wall and spray-painting it with slashing strokes. He then taped a second stencil on top of the first, lining up the edges of the two stencils with deft-but-nervous fingers and sprayed again with a different color. He was blowing on the fresh paint, his lips just inches from the black wall, as I came up on him, and he didn’t look my way but cocked his head at my footfalls. He carefully peeled the stencils off and slipped them into a backpack, then produced, from where I don’t know, a telescoping, red-tipped stick and hurried off, tapping the base of the black wall with the stick.

I looked at the image he had so carefully double-stenciled and saw that it was a formless mess of red and green paint running together into brown drips down the wall. I looked up again in time to see him hurrying across the street, his cane like a taut lead on an invisible dog. Almost without realizing it I decided to follow.

2.

The title of the book I’m struggling to finish is ‘The Bomb Collector’. Set towards the end of the 1960s, it concerns the personal life of Azzedine El-Hadi, an Algerian émigré living in upstate New York. El-Hadi is a writer and bon-vivant, a silver-haired, worldly man of fifty with three American girlfriends. He teaches a creative writing class at a community arts center in his small town in the Wisselvallig Valley, and the youngest of his girlfriends, thirty years his junior, is a star of the writing class. The second girlfriend is married to a teacher of an evening class for working adults called ‘Generational Dissonance in Post-War Jewish Literature: from Singer and Malamud to Bellow and Roth,’ at the same arts center. His third occasional girlfriend, Ruth, his ex-wife, is the woman he married for his green card. Ruth is an amateur landscape painter and the mother of two grown children from a previous marriage.

El-Hadi has published one French novel, years ago, which he is busy translating for the English market; his second mistress has promised to show the manuscript to a publisher with whom she may or may not be having a parallel affair. The title of the French version of the book, Le Collecteur de Bombe, is from an Algerian saying that Azzedine’s father, a devout Muslim, often admonished his son with during the boy’s sex-mad adolescence: a man with too many women is like a bomb collector.

The Bomb Collector is comprised of thirteen linked short stories or vignettes on the theme of adultery; there are Moroccan, French, British and Nigerian adulterers featured in interwoven tales all set in Algiers, the great North African city. Cora (the second mistress, married to his colleague) has suggested that beyond translating the book, Azzedine should also include a new chapter, featuring an American, in order to increase the chances of getting the English version published. He initially resists her idea because to add a chapter would violate the numerology of the book.  ‘Thirteen’ is one of its ordering motifs.

“Well,” suggests Cora, “simply replace one of the existing chapters.”

“Which chapter would you suggest I replace?”

Without hesitating in order to think about it, Cora answers, “Love is Blind. I think it’s the least-charming chapter in the book, to be honest. It denigrates women… also men, when I think of it. The book will be better without it.”

How can Azzedine admit, then, after Cora’s judgment, that the Love is Blind chapter is his favorite… the very heart of the book? A handsome man, an epic womanizer with philosophical inclinations, goes to his Moroccan apothecary one day and requests a philtre that will render him blind, but only temporarily. The apothecary, a man as versed in modern pharmacology as he is in Moroccan folk medicine, mixes a concoction that will blind his client for thirteen days exactly. Take this with a glass of wine on the morning of the first day and your vision will return to you on the evening of the thirteenth. The apothecary, who knows the womanizer well (having provided the man with condoms as well as penicillin and various other salves and ointments in the past), adds, But if you don’t mind my curiosity: why?

The womanizer explains: As you know, I rarely go without extremely desirable female companionship. However, it’s often occurred to me that for every impossibly beautiful woman I allow (or cajole) to climb into bed with me, there are at least a hundred of her sisters, all too willing but, unfortunately, too ugly to meet my silly standards. I curse my good taste but, as you know, there’s nothing to do about it… the male organ can’t be reasoned with in terms of what it finds attractive or not. However, I realized, one need only sneak a lover past the sentry box of the eyes in order to…

Ah yes, says the apothecary.

Following the apothecary’s instructions, the womanizer stirs the bitter substance into a glass of wine early the next morning. It’s a brilliant day, and he doesn’t even realize, at first, that what seems to be the encroaching gloom of cloud cover in an unseasonable display of weather before lunchtime is, in fact, the drug taking effect. By dinner time he is utterly blind. After spending a few days getting used to the situation (with the help of his servant), the womanizer tests his theory that by being free of the tyranny of the aesthetic prejudices of his eyes, his lovemaking will enjoy new freedoms and varieties… new intensities. Guided to the marketplace on the arm of his servant, he says: point me in the direction of a real sow. The servant does so; the womanizer makes contact with a lady of that description and finds himself escorting her home (just as he is escorted by his servant) in no time at all. The resulting sexual encounter is the best he’s ever had.

By the time his vision fades gradually back in on the evening of the thirteenth day, the womanizer has bedded dozens of women… fat, tall, short, skinny, old, young, poorly-dressed, exquisitely-dressed, European, African and everything else… and all with the same high level of energy and pleasure. The experiment has been a success. So much so that he hurries back to the apothecary the morning after the regrettable return of his vision and asks that the prescription be refilled. As you wish, cautions the apothecary, but I must tell you that the third time you use this drug, the effects are permanent.

Another thirteen days of carnal amazements follow. At the end of this journey into the ravishingly sensual night, the womanizer opts for a third, permanent dose, reasoning that he is no longer a young man; he’s seen enough of the world’s picture; to trade just one of his grossly limited senses for limitless pleasure would be more than worth it. With logical eloquence he persuades the apothecary to sell him the third dose.

A year goes by. The apothecary has nearly forgotten the strange case of the self-blinding womanizer when the man appears one morning at the counter on the arm of his harried-looking servant, looking pale and skinny and with his formerly distinguished head of gray hair gone white. The apothecary is filled with guilt and pity: it strikes him that the poor fellow has returned to plead for his sight back.Which is, as he was warned, impossible. As the apothecary approaches the counter with a heavy heart he is surprised to see the blind womanizer detect his presence with a cocked head and give off a sly and boyish grin.

How can I help you today, my friend? asks the non-plussed apothecary. Are all things right with your chosen life?

Righter than ever, answers the blind womanizer. I’ve broken my own previous record for number of conquests in a week several times over and show no signs of slowing down. There’s only one thing I need from you now to make my bliss complete, says the blind womanizer, lowering his voice so that the apothecary draws near.

And what would that one thing be? inquires the very curious apothecary.

A drug to render me deaf, responds the womanizer.

The parallels between the blind womanizer from the book within my book, able to ‘see’ all women as equally desirable in his darkness, and the blind graffiti artist, able to falsely ‘see’ his art as beautiful (or well-executed), were amusing to me. As I followed the blind man on his route, along which he stopped to stencil his runny brown blobs on various buildings, I began to feel that I knew him because I had created the character he was an offshoot from. I began to predict the buildings he would chose to mark (or to ‘piss’ on; wasn’t it territorial behaviour? Wasn’t it canine?) with impressive accuracy. He went right for the newest, cleanest buildings, despite his blindness. He’d walk right by the buildings with too much graffiti on them. The unstylish buildings, too. He didn’t seem to find those very attractive. I assumed by this behaviour that up until relatively recently he’d been able to see.

I was miles from home already but unpanicked because we’d followed a straight line through a commercial district with a tram running up and down it and I could always hop on to ride one home. Figuring out how to buy a ticket (I speak less German than the average pre-schooler here) was another matter, but I’d face that hurdle when the time came. The street I followed the blind man along is called Kastanien Allee.

It’s a neighborhood of young people, good-looking young people sitting inside and in front of the packed cafes (despite the threat of rain) and smoking languorously, or with emphasis, like movie stars. Young people strolling in and out of funky record shops and quirky boutiques. The girls are all stylish and tall like the ‘the little red head girl’ living in my building and I marveled at their uniform beauty. Not a fat body or failed outfit or wrinkled face among them. I began to feel quite self-conscious as a voyeuristic emissary from the awful fraternity of the aged and unhip and almost wished I’d picked a dowdier neighborhood to live in. I didn’t need to have my unfuckable mortality rubbed in my face every time I stepped outside to buy butter. But the blind man was above all that; those beautiful girls were as invisible to him as I was to the beautiful girls and so they had lost their power to tantalize and diminish him. He was flying through outer space with his spray paint. He would have been impossible in California and I realized that it was up to me not to become impossible in Berlin. Enough with the bitterness; expect nothing and you can’t be disappointed, I told myself. Finish your novel.

The writer character in my book, Azzedine El-Hadi, creator of the character of the blind womanizer, is based on a real person (of the same name) I’d met as a house painter. I suppose I never bothered to change the name of the fictional version of Azzedine because I either never really expected to publish the book, or assumed that he’d be dead by the time the miracle happened.

While the fictional Azzedine El-Hadi is a writer, the real-life El-Hadi runs an antique shop, with a sideline in contraband antiquities. Richard and I had been hired to paint the little apartment that Azzedine keeps over the shop which is situated in a row of genteel businesses in the Mission Hills neighborhood of San Diego. Richard had said, You’re going to get a kick out of this guy on the way over in the van that first morning and he was right. El-Hadi looked like something out of an Agatha Christie novel when he answered the door, a silver-haired gentleman with a fastidious mustache wearing red satin pyjamas and velvet slippers.

The walls of his bedroom were covered from floor to ceiling with framed photographs of beautiful women; photographs it was our task to remove and eventually replace in exactly the same order. There was more preparation than actual painting involved in this particular job and I had the pleasure of chatting with Azzedine, or listening to him chat, while I worked. Richard had learned by this point in the history of our partnership to behave like a real boss, leaving me to do the great majority of the work. He’d be gone a few hours every day (at the race track for all I knew), therefore I was free to chat with the witty, literate El-Hadi while I stripped the wall paper in his bedroom or sanded the moldings.

It gradually dawned on me that El-Hadi’s wit wasn’t the main reason I enjoyed his company. Unlike every other citizen of the state of California, he was able to distinguish easily between my soul and my occupation. In short, he treated me as an equal, a fellow human being, and not a middle-aged house painter. If he hadn’t hired me to paint his flat, he never would have known, not being impolite enough to ask, how I earned my money… it was of no concern to him, the details of my material wealth or my social standing. What he needed to know about me he gathered with his eyes and ears; it was the quality of my conversation he noticed, my ideas and opinions.

Richard’s return from his four hour lunch break was always jarring: I became a house painter again the moment he climbed the back staircase with his thermos of coffee and the paint-layered cuticles of his fingernails. Richard’s idea of egalitarianism was to display contempt for us both (Richard and me). At which El-Hadi would shrug and wink, preserving the secret of my humanity until our conversation could resume.

As my admiration for El-Hadi increased during the three weeks we worked to refinish his apartment in an oriental theme of greens and golds, my stubborn tolerance of Richard shaded gradually into resentment. I saw that an ugly aura radiated from the man and that my first assumption… that being a house painter had turned him sour over the years… was wrong. His job, posture, manner of speech, living arrangement and outlook on life were all just accessories, after the fact, to the original core of his negativity. We’ve all known gloomy or even vicious children from our childhoods; maybe it starts in the womb, or in the miserable upbringing of the mother. It was finally clear to me in any case that time in Richard’s company was more toxic than exposure to any of the noxious chemicals we handled and for the sake of my own health I should get out, despite the money he paid to keep me near and under his control.

I brought up the taboo topic of novel-writing with El-Hadi one day about five minutes after Richard drove off to whatever he did on his own for half of every working day but he came back. He came back for the wallet he’d left in the jacket on top of the toolbox. He caught me standing on the top of my step ladder, scrubbing the ceiling with trisodium phosphate and discussing the problem of particularizing character in the context of a first-person narrative; how to separate the narrator’s voice from both the writer’s and the reader’s? Azzedine stood at the foot of the ladder with his chin in his hand, looking up. Even Azzedine jumped a little when Richard shouted at me.

“Hey! Don’t we have an agreement that you keep your mouth shut and paint shit? Nobody wants to listen to your wannabe crap!”

“Calm down.”

“Calm down shit!”

I climbed down off the ladder. “Forget it, Richard” I said. “It’s over. I quit.”

“Fine. Get the fuck out of here.”

“Fine,” I said, wiping my hands.

“Excuse me for interrupting, my friends,” said Azzedine, with his mellifluous voice and his unreadable smile. He nodded at me. “John and I were having a conversation that I would very much like to finish.”

“But you heard him, Mr. El-Hadi: the damn fool just quit!”

“Perhaps you can send me a bill for work completed, yes?” Azzedine turned to me. “Can you finish it on your own, John?”

I shrugged, then nodded. Richard turned red. He put his hands on his hips. “We agreed on a price.”

Azzedine’s smile took on extra depths as he made a very compact little voila gesture, saying, “Ah, but we have signed no contract, sir, correct?”

Richard laughed as though he enjoyed being out-maneuvered.

3.

It was sometime after I’d watched the blind artist spray, with meticulous care, the fourth brown blob on an otherwise immaculate building that he lost me. He must have slipped into a doorway or up a side street while I was watching an unreachably pretty girl walk by. Ahead of me stood the massive overhead girderwork of the overground link of the U-Bahn system at Eberswalderstrasse, an old green hooded train bridge straddling a complicated five-way intersection thronged with cars and walkers. To get to the other side of the U-Bahn station I had to cross under it and against three traffic lights in a crowd of people. It felt like a group activity: a sight-seer’s hike or school kids on a class outing, five minutes of camaraderie with people I’d never seen before and would, for the most part, never see again. I imagined the crowd holding hands, two by two. A big girl to my immediate right, dark-haired and sweet-faced and over-dressed in a puffy orange jacket, must have thought the same thing because she seemed so amused by it all when we made eye contact. Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t have considered her even remotely attractive but loneliness in a foreign city can be a powerful aphrodisiac.

“Welcome to the International Society of Pedestrians Crossing Schönhauser Allee,” she said, with a pronouncedly Philadelphian accent. She walked as though weighed down by an invisible, book-laden backpack. I guessed her age at 29-ish.

“Membership is free, I take it.”

“All you need to join are your feet.”

“And you’re the president.”

“No, sir, I’m the ombudsman.”

“I always loved that word.”

“Me too. Ombudsman, stipend, satyr, druse… ”

“Druse?”

“An incrustation of small crystals on the surface of a rock or mineral.”

“Aha.”

She pressed her hands together in a mockery of prayer. “I’ve been waiting for years for someone to ask me the definition of that word.”

We all completed the complicated task of crossing under and to the other side of the vast green riveted structure. The group was dispersing. “Now what?”

“Ask me the definition of drupaceous.”

“Okay.”

“Resembling or related to a drupe.”

There was a cafe in the shadow of the U-Bahn station and we sat there with cake and coffee while the weather, miraculously, cleared up. Her name was Amanda Nye and she’d been in Berlin for five years.

“Came as a German language student but defected when I figured out I don’t like speaking German.”

“If you don’t like speaking German, why stay in Germany at all?”

“Because Germans don’t like speaking German either. It’s easy to get by with your English and a native vocab of about twenty six words. Besides, Berlin is the least German city in Germany. I just pretend it’s South East London in an alternative universe where the Nazis won the war. How old are you?”

“Forty two.”

“Okay. That’s not so old.”

“Thanks.”

“Wanna come watch porno at my place? It’s not far from here. No big dogs or roommates.”

Funny girl. I paid for our coffees and half-eaten cakes and followed Amanda out the door of the cafe in time for a lurid sunset. All of the clouds had been pushed to the westernmost corner of the sky like damp kindling. She produced a wafer-thin camera and aimed it over my head and clicked without looking, paying attention to me instead. She said,

“Personal anecdote. I thought I was Dianne Arbus when I was nine years old. I had an old Kodak Instamatic and I photographed the ugliest people in my neighborhood. Fat kids, acne cases, crones with dowager’s hump, shrinking violets with faint mustaches… you name it. I kept developing these rolls of film and getting them back and they looked nothing like Dianne Arbus. You know: haunted, shunned and auguring extinction? Nothing at all like that. Nothing like I had hoped to capture.”

“Did you try using black and white film?”

“That was my next step. My uncle Dan drove to a flea market and got me a banged up old Pentax for twenty bucks. So back I went to re-photograph every freak and outcast in my neighborhood, and then I did my church and my grammar school too. The custodial staff at school was a god-send. They were Existential super-models. Wet eyes and stubble. I shot rolls and rolls of black and white 35 millimeter film and spent all my savings…  every single Kennedy Half in my piggy bank…  getting those damn rolls developed. And guess what?”

“You still weren’t Dianne Arbus.”

She pantomimed tearing her hair out. “I still wasn’t Dianne Arbus. It was very frustrating to a nine year old girl who’d come that close to knowing what she was going to spend the rest of her life doing.”

“You tacked every print to the bedroom wall and stared for hours trying to grasp the difference. While all the other kids were playing you were staring intensely with the curtains drawn. You took a magnifying glass and studied gray, blurry, low-contrast images down to the finest molecular grain to locate whatever it was that wasn’t quite there. You studied between the grains. You ran your fingers over the photos in the dark… ”

“I sure did. And guess what?”

“Eureka?”

“I came to a profound conclusion. See, all my freaks were… smiling…  smiling. In every single photo I’d taken. Listen, it’s hard to look like a freak and an outcast when you’re smiling. Arbus was a fraud. Those famously eerie and depressing pictures of hers would have looked exactly the same no matter who she was photographing…  as long as she put ’em in a bad enough mood first!”

I laughed, but it was also some kind of genuine insight. Funny girl; smart girl. But still not any version of pretty.

“See, artists, first and foremost… if they’re any ‘good’… ” She simulated quotation marks with her fingers, seeming to quote her own head. “… they’re con men. Con Artists. It’s all a scam. Because of that precocious little revelation, I lost the desire to be an artist very very young… but I couldn’t find anything else to replace it. Some epiphanies suck.” She sighed. Or ‘sighed’.

I thought: I should study her face the way she studied those photographs and get to the bottom of this ‘attractiveness’ thing. Was there no hope for her? We walked in silence for half a block until she perked up and skipped ahead and turned, walking backwards to face me and ask, “So, I guess being forty two and all means you already know what you became when you grew up, huh.”

“Well, yeah. ‘What’ and ‘how’ are pretty young questions. ‘Why’ is the one I’m dealing with now.”

Still walking backwards she held the camera out at me like it was I.D.. “Ask an oblique question and get an oblique answer, I guess. Smile?”

“Best I can do is leer.”

She stopped abruptly and I bumped into her, making us both laugh while also confirming my suspicion that she was flat-chested. Her bones were like a heavy old iron bed frame.

“So here’s my building and so forth.”

“Am I coming in?”

“Suit yourself.”

She shouldered a massive door and we passed through a dark hallway, one wall of which was a bank of letterboxes, and across a barren courtyard the most interesting feature of which was the wire-fenced enclosure for two wheeled dumpsters and three barrels for various colors of recyclable glass. Meaning beer bottles. She lived in the rearmost wing of the building, what the Germans call the hinterhof, and up five flights of stairs. Her voice and our footsteps echoed in the otherwise deathly quiet stairwell.

“I arrived in Berlin about two weeks after the attack on the Twin Towers, right? First thing I noticed was the airport… I flew out of Newark… the airport was empty. No lines, no waiting. I got upgraded to First Class and I got all kinds of free drinks. It was like everyone was feeling sorry for me. Then I land in Berlin and the Germans… you never saw Germans acting so compassionate. It freaked me out. I saw an ad in the paper and came to look at this flat… I was staying in a youth hostel up the road a ways… and the lady practically begged me to take it. Didn’t ask about my financial status or anything. All she needed was to hear that I was American. I was like a celebrity… I was living, breathing history and she wanted to be a part of it, and to show her solidarity with the American way of life.”

We were huffing and puffing as we trudged ever upwards.

“She told me she was leaving for Jamaica… a friend wanted her to run a bed and breakfast there… she proposed I sublet until she returned in March and then we’d talk about it. Fully furnished, washing machine, the works. Reasonable rent… all the utilities bills are deducted automatically from her bank account. All I have to do is deposit money in her account before the fifth of every month, right? She says I’ll call in a week in case you have any questions. She doesn’t leave a number or an address she can be reached at but I figure nothing that bad can happen in a week… if the toilet backs up I’ll bang on a neighbor’s door or something.”

We stood on the landing in front of the door while she dug in her puffy orange jacket for the keys. We were both winded and panted heavily while smiling at each other like idiots. She said,

“But she didn’t call in a week. Or in three weeks. Or, like, ever. It’s been five years and I haven’t heard a word.” She unlocked the door and pushed it open and gestured that I should enter first.

It was an airless flat with hardwood floors and overstuffed, maiden-aunt furniture. The distant odor of rotten cherries. Every flat horizontal surface (windowsill, counter-top, book shelf, banquette and faux mantelpiece) was covered with obsessive-compulsive kitsch. Porcelain figurines, miniature spoons, plasticine cartoon characters, antique thimbles, keys, ink pens, buttons and egg cups and so on. The living room opened, theoretically, onto a balcony but the double doors were blocked by a small table supporting a very large vintage radio and had a sealed look about them. There was a large box or trunk on the balcony, exposed to the elements. To the right of the table supporting the radio, on the floor, was a television on top of a VCR angled to face the overstuffed couch that Amanda gestured with mock grandiosity that I should sit on.

“Do you know what a vollmacht is?”

“A what?”

“Okay, it’s like this signed declaration authorizing you to pick up a parcel at the post office on the signatory’s behalf, for example. Okay. She left one for me on the kitchen table figuring there’d be packages for her from time to time.”

To the right of the television were two old steamer trunks which, unlike all the old steamer trunks I’d ever seen, had obviously once belonged to the profoundly wealthy, with ornately bracketed corners and complex locking mechanisms. The larger of the two stood on end, on metal wheels, and the one nearest the television lay on its bottom face, handle facing us. She opened this one and removed a video cassette and shoved it into the mouth of the VCR.

“Just about every two months I get a little green notification in the mail that the mailman has supposedly attempted to deliver a parcel… which is a lie, he’s just too lazy to come up the stairs and he assumes people will be at work during the day… and so here’s me in a taxi to fetch a package that isn’t even mine because it’s way too heavy to use my bike.”

She aimed a remote control at the television.

“About a year ago I figured, what the hell? So I started opening the parcels.”

A sinister-looking copyright warning in Cyrillic lettering appeared on the screen.

“It’s all porno. Hundreds of videocassettes of porno porno and more porno. Every kind of porno known to man, no pun intended. This trunk here is full of them but these are only the ones I’ve gotten to… the bedroom is stacked to the ceiling with ’em. Hey, what can I say, I’m on a tight budget… I can’t afford to go to the movies, pay for cable, or rent something from the videothek, so… you know. This is my entertainment. I can see you’re surprised. Some of them are actually pretty good and even clever in a theory of film kind of way but, well, duh, most of them are amateurish and evil but they’re all fascinating. I’m becoming kind of an expert. The neighbors must be pretty acclimatized to the moaning by now… moanin’ noon and night… moanin’ and groanin’ and horrible horrible music and so forth. I tried watching with the sound off a few times but a soundless porno is like a silent martial arts film and it was definitely missing a dimension.”

“So, you weren’t kidding about the porno.”

She shook her head just once and tossed her jacket on a chair near the kitchen door. “I wasn’t kidding about the porno.”

She plopped down beside me on the couch. “I’m not an expert on the terminology, okay, because I never studied it in school, so give me a break, but I’ve managed to break the films down into three basic categories: mind control, rape, and torture. The mind control ones are the easiest to watch. It goes like this. Some guy exchanges a chatty kind of dialogue with some chick with boobs out to here…  I mean, I assume it’s chatty from the general sound of it… and within a few minutes she’s got his thingy-do in her mouth and they’re off an running. Some of the guys look fit enough and sometimes even slightly, weirdly cute… in a sideburned way… but most of them are bushy, freckled pot-bellied beasts so that’s the mind control aspect. It’s a certain kind of male fantasy for a certain kind of male… usually the gentler ones… that they can have sex with a mind-bogglingly attractive woman by merely coming up with the correct combination of words, all things being equal. I love it. But this one we’re about to see is from a rape batch, I’m pretty sure. Yeah, it’s definitely going to be rape. So, like, fasten your seat belt… ”

A tiny, black-haired, Middle Eastern type with dirigible breasts climbs out of a limousine as it comes to rest on a circular driveway. She’s done up in a way we’re meant to accept as wealthy: a low-cut black micro-dress and gaudy jewelry. Her hair hangs down as far as her thighs and she is pretty in a hard bronze way, with kohl-rimmed eyes and cheekbones of almost Mongol severity. She lets herself into a pillared house we accept as a mansion. Cut: to two gangly gentlemen (resembling nothing so much as retired second-string basketball players) dressed in black leather and berets, ransacking the master bedroom. Cut: to the ‘wealthy’ beauty ascending her spiral staircase, a half-finished bottle of champagne in one hand and her stiletto heels dangling by their straps from the other.

I cleared my throat and scratched my forehead and said, “Is this some sort of test, Amanda?”

“Um, you could think of it as a lie detector test in a way, yeah.” She giggled. Or ‘giggled’. I didn’t giggle back. What if I suffered a terribly obvious erection while these two black gentlemen beat and raped the Persian? What would that say about me and how could I deny the verdict? Amanda had mercy and flicked the remote and the picture froze with the blacks crouched on the obscure side of the bedroom door. It was a striking image. Figures on an urn. “Want some tea?”

“I’m not sure.”

“You think I’m weird now.”

I shrugged.

“I’m not weird. I’m just acclimatized to Germans. You’re the first American I’ve ever had up here. I’ve forgotten certain standards of normal.You’re new in Berlin, okay, so you don’t know it yet but the cultural distance between, like, Germany and America isn’t that much smaller than the one between, say, Iceland and Iran. You’ll see what I mean.”

4.

El-Hadi is in a quandary about his book. If he leaves the thirteenth chapter, Love is Blind, untouched, there’s a good chance that Cora (with her hairy privates; such a contrast to her polished nails) will renege on her promise to get the manuscript to Mr. X, the powerful, mysterious publisher she might also be screwing on the side. Azzedine doesn’t care who else she’s screwing beyond her husband; it’s good for his book if she sleeps with this man. He will encourage her to if she hasn’t already. He will even give her pointers. He wants to be a published American writer.

He realizes that he’s suffering the kind of cultural problem, the problem of truth, he’d expected on first arriving in his adopted country but until now naively believed he’d escaped. An illusion, of course. Has a man who hasn’t died young or even in middle-age escaped death? He’d expected the Americans to seem like Martians to him, and to treat him as though he himself were from the Moon, but his first weeks in New York had been a perfect dream of endless, seamless welcome. It was only now, all these years later, that he saw that the wall he’d expected to walk into had all this time been behind him. He was free to move forward in America but not to turn back. Not even to look back. Love is Blind, the tale of the blind womanizer… this looked too far back to Algeria. Cora was offended by the animal truth in his beautiful story and rightly saw in the center of the soul of the blind womanizer, as Azzedine had crafted him, Azzedine’s own eye winking back at her. The cold eye of a proper deity. That is art; that is truth. That is the heart of his book.

The evening of the day of Cora’s infuriating suggestion that he mutilate this creation of his; that he castrate it; Azzedine found himself alone with his young mistress, Noa, in the classroom he occupied on weekends at the community arts center. It was not a serious class and Azzedine was not paid a ‘serious’ fee for teaching it but he felt there was a serious dialogue about literature being held under all the small talk, hot air, topical blather, chit chat, empty banter and other forms of static the class was good for generating. The serious dialogue about literature was going on surreptitiously between his mistress and himself and their lovemaking was the distilled conversation in its arcane form. El-Hadi could just as well have quit the futile attempt to open these money-mad materialists up to the spirituality of a pure sentence and held the discussion in bed alone with Noa. There was something valuable in the mundane presence of the others, though. He couldn’t decide if it was as contrast or padding, or, even, protection, that the others served to magnify his pleasure in having Noa. Of seeing her amongst them like the high priestess to El-Hadi their minor god. He chuckled at this thought. But he felt it had truth.

The last lingering student, a housewife whose weekly ration of creativity was wasted in the selection of the garish hats she affected every Saturday in class, finally left them alone together. He sat for a good long time on the edge of his desk, trouser leg dangling from the desk’s corner and shining black Brogan swinging to the buzz of the overhead fluorescents with a boy’s indolence, and he luxuriated in their ability to stretch a purposeless moment. She sat at her student desk with skinny arms folded over that exquisite sparrow’s chest of hers (the violet welts of her breasts) and rolled her blue eyes around the room, smirking. Her sandy-blonde hair was short and boyishly cut and added to the aura of middle class mischief he associated with her dungarees and sandals and untucked shirt. Like that luminous gamine from Peyton Place. A woman like that, to get the full benefit of her, one makes love as one did as a boy, with a boy, that pungency under the tented bed sheet.

“Why were you so late today?”

“The truth would be indelicate, honey.”

She gave Azzedine a certain look and he turned away with embarrassment and said, “Aha. I see. Your strawberry days… ”

With a perverse glee she said, “I’m unclean.”

It was a clear, mild twilight in the shallow bowl of the Wisselwallig Valley,  the sky resembled an inverted parfait with its dulcet bands of orange and pink at the bottom and deep dark grape at top. The breezes were warm breath and Azzedine went without his suit jacket, draping it over one shoulder on the hook of his forefinger a la Sinatra, and Noa’s white shirt provocatively unbuttoned to the level of her heart. The community arts center was all glass and dark metal (though brilliantly lit), a modern structure set down upon the northernmost hill of Wisselwallig Park. They strolled down the grassy slope towards the parking lot holding hands. Holding her hand in public produced in him the kind of prideful frisson you’d expect in a man who’d overcome a phobia. They could hear a basketball smacking the concrete on the court on the other side of the lot in which El-Hadi’s car stood alone. Floodlights blazed to reveal the disconcerting delay between the dribbled ball and the sound of it while gangling Negroes and a solitary paleface chased it around the court. Azzedine brought up the topic of Cora.

Noa was shaking her head. “What do you see in that wrinkled old bag, anyway?”

“Without the other women in my life I would rely too much on you, I think, Noa,” El-Hadi joked. But it was also true: keeping several women was insurance against any one woman taking over. Especially a young woman. With her untapped dowry of as-yet-unleashed cruelties. “Otherwise one upsets the balance, wouldn’t you agree?”

“I agree in principle but why her?”

He touched two fingers to his lips and frowned, one of the gestures she found most attractive in him. He spoke as though repeating sentences that were being whispered to him. “She’s convenient. I always know where her husband is. She’s grateful for the attention. And I must also admit that I like the fact that her husband is an academic Jew. You know… it’s the sibling rivalry of the Middle East, still sleeping in my Westernized bones. It wakes up in me when I see his wife naked, you see.” He laughed. “The aura of scholarly refinement I glimpse reflected in his wife’s neglected body inflames me.”

She said, “Jews are funny. They call themselves ‘Jews’. Isn’t that funny?”

He put a hand on her shoulder, certain that no one was watching. “I find the word ‘Caucasian’ rather more amusing, to be honest.”

“I’d tell that Cora Simon creature to screw off with her suggestions, if you ask me. Since when did she become Maxwell Perkins?”

“But I very much want this book to find a home in America, Noa. Until I’m published in this country, what am I? What’s my purpose? I’m living as a man of the past and I find that intolerable. Sometimes one must hang a man to keep him from harming himself, so to speak. Is Cora ignorant of art? We could say so. But there are politics… strategies… ”

“These are all rather arch ways of saying ‘sell out’ if you want my opinion.”

“I do.”

“You like Cora because she’s had three kids and her box is capacious enough to accommodate that massive bronze thingy-do of yours. And you like me because I’m smart like a boy.”

“As I’ve already told you.”

“And I let you screw me like a boy, too.”

El-Hadi offered a courtly gesture of assent.

“Promise you’re not a queer?”

“A queer is a man pretending to be a woman. Or longing to be a woman. I am a man inside and out. I was a man already at seven.” He pretended to pretend to make a muscle of his right arm like Charles Atlas. “You could ask my father. There are two of everything on this planet and a time for everything… a tool for every job, so to speak. When I take pleasure from a male’s body it’s a matter of power and utility. Do you understand what I mean? The exchange is between master and servant. Not between two bearded dreamers in pink.”

“Is it this way between us, too? Master and servant?”

“Teacher and pupil, I should say.”

“With the twist being that I’m the teacher,” she said, skipping ahead of him and walking backwards to face him as they walked.

“Exactly,” nodded El-Hadi.

“Exactly!” shrieked Noa, and she turned and ran ahead to his car. Just watching her tired him out, and he wondered if he himself had ever in this life run. She was swift and awkward like a child; her limbs seemed to fly from her torso in an ecstasy of flight and reassemble at her destination. But when she reached his car in her game of tag she seemed to recoil from it. She cupped her hands to her mouth and called back to him, “Hey, Rudolph Valentino!”

“Hey Jean Seberg!” he responded, impulsively, feeling very foolish… feeling light-headed. Feeling for half-a-second drugged. If this was his attempt to participate in the exuberance of the era it had taught him, instantaneously, that he couldn’t. Which was a relief. He was confused, however, to see Noa examining his dear old second-hand convertible, sneaking around it in the twilight. Her head appeared above the pale ragtop and she waved.

“You’re not going to like this!”

“What?” he shouted. Shouting gave him a headache. His normal tone was a whisper.

“You’ll see when you get here!” she shouted back.

After my confusing encounter with Amanda Nye earlier in the day I realized that the character of Noa needed re-writing, so I went back to the passage in which I had first attacked the problem of her with any depth and made her less grimly enigmatic and more sexual,  less of a sphinx and more Puckish. Unpredictably young. After Amanda Nye it struck me that I couldn’t allow ‘god’ to write his characters with more verve than I did and that any novelist half-worth the term is better than ‘god’ (or god) at just about everything that matters. The novelist learns from god’s mistakes. Literature is the imposition of order and meaning on god’s untidy experiment. The passage I was re-wiring was only about half-way through the 500 or so pages (single-spaced, narrow margins, tiny font) I already had. Meaning massive revisions for the remainder.

My method is to write it out by hand in a notebook and type out the ‘completed’ chapters. Every time I change any passage anywhere (other than at the very end of the text ) it means a lot of work. But it seems to me that getting it right is a question of life and death. Getting it wrong would leave me with nothing to show for my time on the planet. A credo, if you will.

If Amanda Nye can bring a strange man, a rootless traveler (I might easily be a killer who has fled America to elude prosecution) home to watch hardcore porno with her, what is Noa Reese, twenty years old and beautiful in that magical year of 1968, capable of? I had to explore that within the themes of the book I had already developed. I had to let Noa flower without running amok. But I realized that Noa was a much more important character than I first assumed, and that Azzedine’s ex-wife Ruth was less so. Much of the writer’s block that marooned me on the 500th page was due to the strategic mistake of relying on Ruth’s character to catalyze plot developments. Ruth was too passive, content, even-tempered and willing to give. The dangerous energy of the re-configured Noa (capable, even, of violence) was my solution.

Noa wagged her finger. “Don’t touch.”

She grabbed Azzedine’s shirt sleeve as he reached for the driver-side door handle. He looked at her as though she were being bothersome and shoved her and reached for the door again. She shoved him back and said, “Christ, are you blind? Can’t you see? Somebody crapped on it.”

She pointed at swirls of what at first appeared to be ruddy rich mud on the driver-side door and on the handle and across the windshield in greasy figure eights. A thick-limbed stickman sketched in shit on the ragtop like a Roualt or a Klee. Where the tarry mud had smeared on thin it was dried and cracking but in the thicker, slopped-on gouts it oozed and glistened and fallen clumps piled under the chassis. It was not dog shit; there were mosaics of undigested food exposed in the smear. The dulled colors of a cheap cafeteria lunch. El-Hadi stood back from his car with a disgust so intense it looked to Noa, who couldn’t help laughing, like terror.

“The Jew did this… “ he said, surprised to hear his father’s quaking voice. Surprised most of all that the voice had survived the purifying crossing to America. Something chilling occurred to him as he hugged himself and headed for the floodlights of the basketball court,  Noa running after him, seeking the possibility of a witnesses among those colored boys with their ball. Something very odd.

Chapter Four in The Bomb Collector… the chapter called A Precaution Against the Attentions of Jealous Gods… didn’t something similar to this happen in chapter four of his book? Someone smears shit with his bare hands on a Nigerian art dealer’s front door and the Nigerian can’t bear the idea of ever setting foot in the defiled house again. And all the precious art in the house, the paintings, drawings, illuminated manuscripts and fetish figures he’s collected from Africa and Mediterranean Europe for twenty five years, he decides to destroy it all along with the house. He packs the perimeter of the building with dry brush and sets fire to it and watches the flames twist and rise and roar in an ecstasy of devils without realizing that the girl of his dreams is upstairs in bed waiting for him, a gift from his incorrigible brother.

5.

I tried to sleep but I couldn’t, in no small part because I still didn’t have a bed. Buying one was the top of my list for the next day’s activities, but the resolution to do so didn’t much help at 2 in the morning as I lay on the rubberized canvas hide of the burst inflatable and a few layers of towels and sweaters under that for padding. I couldn’t sleep but I was exhausted. Not from the day’s walk but the night’s writing. Was it really an art or a compulsion? The more I wrote the less I cared about the answer to that question… which case being, in and of itself, of course, the answer.

My flat… the building… was quiet except for the sputters and hum of the student-sized refrigerator in the little kitchen. I began to imagine the most ancient former tenants of the place, which is the oldest building in the neighborhood: built at the end of the nineteenth century. Grim German ghosts. Because the games the mind plays with itself are usually uncontrollable, I had a vivid fantasy of a young peasant (shapeless hat; rope belt) hanging himself from a beam (now gone) in the living room where I was trying to sleep… kicking and swinging in front of the high window with its view of the park. When someone tapped on the window I nearly jumped out of my skin.

I opened the window and looked down and saw that it was Amanda Nye, standing on her tiptoes in a faint drizzle on the sidewalk. I put on my pants and shoes and let her into the building. “It’s 4 in the morning,” I whispered.

“It’s the human timepiece!” she said in a middle-of-the-day voice. There was a bike in the hallway, chained to the balustrade at the bottom of the staircase. “Is this your bike? We should ride to Wannsee before the weather gets too cold.”

“It’s not my bike.” I ushered her into the flat. I had to admit to myself that I was grateful for the company after the vivid suicide reverie of a few minutes prior. She peered into the kitchen, then turned left and I followed her into my living room, switching on the light as I entered. She was wearing her orange jacket and a dark beret and beadlets of rain were sparkling on her face. She was taller than me in very high heels.

She said, “I figured you could use some company,” and from the look on her face I couldn’t tell if she was making a guilty joke or congratulating herself on her amazing generosity. She looked around the room and her face fell. “No bed.”

“No nothing,” I added. I nearly mentioned the fact that I had to sit on the toilet just to write in my notebook but I didn’t want her to know I was writing.

“You’re a real little Abelard, aren’t you?”

“A what?”

“You don’t know the story of Abelard and what’s-her-name? Heloise?”

“No, and at the risk of sounding like a bad host, I don’t really care to, either.”

“Suit yourself.”

She patted my cheek and handed me her jacket. I hung it on the door handle. She fossicked around in her backpack and said, “Look, I brought some candles. And some absolutely exquisite hot cocoa. Ohhh, and some embarrassingly old digestive biscuits from the UK.” She handed me each item after announcing it.

“I don’t have a pot to make the cocoa in.”

“This is where my sheer genius comes in handy.” She handed me a small electric tea kettle and two tin cups.

She removed her heels and we sat on the floor in the candle-lit kitchen using mounds of my clothing, wrapped up in sweatshirts, as pillows. I took note of the fact that either the candles flattered her or she was wearing a cleverly subtle layer of makeup or that a combination of the hour, the circumstance and general loneliness was eroding my faculties of discrimination: her lips seemed plumper, her eyes rounder and the bridge of her nose not quite so broad. Also, the soft white sweater she had on seemed to me to be an order of magnitude bustier than I remembered her being. I wondered what kind of inventory she was performing on me, meanwhile. I could only hope I wasn’t being judged solely by the lights of the content of my character, because that would mean I was a shit.

“You must be the only person in Berlin who speaks less German than I do.” She gave me a thumbs-up. “What nobody can seem to get through their thick skulls is that I like not being able to speak the language… my isolation is a luxury, man, it’s precious to me. Most writers, like, pay for solitude like this.” She peered at me from under the rim of her beret as she sipped her cocoa.

“You’re a writer?”

“Didn’t I tell you? Oh my. That’s why I came to Berlin, to write my second book.”

“I thought you came to take language lessons.”

“That too.” She smiled and carefully placed her cup beside the electric kettle. “I’ve had two novels published and one twee little book of short stories. It’s practically an oeuvre, dah-ling. Surprised?”

“You said you were disillusioned with art at a young age, though, yes?”

“Writing isn’t an art, it’s an addiction, silly boy.”

I was glad that I hadn’t mentioned The Bomb Collector; how foolish would that have made me look? Strutting dilettante with his chest puffed out. The ghost of Richard, pointing and laughing. When and if she does ask what I ‘do’, I decided, my answer will be simple:  housepainter.

“It’s cozy in here,” she said, “even without the furniture. You’re lucky…  my flat gives me the creeps.  Too many ghosts.”

“Doesn’t anyone ever come there looking for the former tenant?”

“No… I don’t think she knew very many people, poor girl. She was here illegally, you know… even the government didn’t know. Iranian. Persian if you want to get poetic and towel-head if you want to exercise your freedom of speech. Two heads worth of hair on her head… best thing about Iran has got to be all that hair in that country. The women have hairy arms and faint mustaches and the boys are capable of beards at seven.  She was a pretty little thing, though. I suppose she’s packed in a box in an abandoned building in Haiti by now,” she giggled. “Not to be morbid. Jamaica, I mean,” she corrected herself.  “How long do you think you’ll stay in Berlin?”

She sat with her back against the kitchen wall, hugging her knees. She seemed less larger-than-life than before… nicely so. It occurred to me in any case that I had fucked less likable women and even fallen in love with ones who were not nearly as bright. It also struck me that ‘personality’ is almost always a defense mechanism; a diversion. Wit, charm, gregarious vitality: they’re all a performance. The core being is a mysterious bundle of thoughts and sensations much closer to animal than we care to admit… it may well be that the ‘human’ aspect exists solely in the performance… the human bit is an avatar we project to interact with other avatars. The more her performance faded (out of sheer exhaustion), the more I liked her.

“I mean,” she yawned, resting her chin on her knees and closing her eyes, “do you even like Berlin so far, or are you already kicking yourself for coming here?”

I yawned back and didn’t bother answering. I just stared, determined to make her do all the work.

She stood and crossed the kitchen towards the countertop, dragging her fingers through my hair along the way, and cradled her hand around each candle flame before blowing it out. Because it was dawn, however, the room was no darker after than it had been before, and I watched her undress.

“Voyeur,” said Amanda.

6.

It rained all day, the next day (or, that is, later the same day), and I found myself under a cheap umbrella on Schönhauser Allee, looking for a mattress store. I hadn’t told Amanda about my plan to go mattress shopping simply because I hadn’t wanted the activity to take on symbolic significance; a tacky conjugal milestone; I just wanted to make a basic purchase. After an adventurous few hours on the makeshift campsite of my living room floor, we’d separated drowsily at the front door of my building with a plan to meet later for dinner. I ended up wandering for quite a while in a light drizzle after it became obvious that most shops weren’t open before ten or eleven a.m.. I window-shopped a sex boutique with a row of huge black topologically accurate dildos on display like biblical serpents. Next door was a travel agent advertizing discount flights to Johannesburg.

There’s a wretched majesty to the city in the rain that fulfills its romantic image. I’ve seen Berlin on a bright hot summer day and there’s something sad about it under those conditions… ugly and vulnerable like an old queen kicked out at closing time and caught staggering home in a blast of work-a-day sunshine. Berlin is properly a city of mists and fogs and water-stained stone. Buildings rarely burn here, but they go black with time. To stand near one of these black edifices is to feel the cold serenity of the utterly hopeless.

When it started raining so hard that drops were bursting through the fabric of the umbrella in a fine spray, I stepped off the street into a cafe packed with refugees from the sudden downpour. Most of the refugees were standing with styrofoam cups of coffee at the glass wall of the cafe, watching the rain, waiting for a break in it, so there were several free tables. I picked one near the back, propped my drenched umbrella against the wall and dug a little notepad out of the capacious side-pocket of my raincoat. I always carry a notepad and pencil, never knowing when I’ll have the opportunity to write.

I flipped open the notebook, stared at the blank page on the table, licked my pencil and wrote: She is lying. Then I looked at what I’d written and wondered what I meant by it.

Azzedine El-Hadi once made a remark to me that was so powerful that I seriously considered either framing it or making a tattoo of it. We were using a chart to replace the hundreds of framed photos (of every size and style of framing) of beautiful women on the walls of his bedroom. The walls were freshly painted a lovely, subtle green called Statue Patina. I don’t remember what specific conversational thread led to this but he said:

“Women are liars and men are their lies.”

I went home after work that day and put the same line in the mouth of Azzedine’s doppelgänger in the untitled novel I’d just started (having scrapped the first attempt: a novel concerning the adventures of two house painters), inspired by our conversations. I was yet to have the book’s title as Azzedine was yet to pass it on to me (unawares) as the memory of his father’s favorite aphorism. The manuscript was thirty or forty pages of first draft at that stage and the few characters that populated it were stick figures who spoke like comic book characters and moved in a jerky, mechanical fashion.

Cora was standing in El-Hadi’s bathtub, one foot up on the bathtub’s rim, while El-Hadi sponged her reddening flesh. Rosewater. There was evidence of his attitude towards the female sex, she was thinking, in the vociferousness with which he soaps and scrubs my cunt. She sighed and said, “You can’t really agree with that, Azzedine. Tell me you can’t. Having a cunt doesn’t automatically make me a liar.” She usually pinned up her shoulder-length hair when he bathed her but she felt particularly exposed this time; shy about her old neck. My mother’s neck. Red as a radish. As a lobster. El-Hadi said,

“Whether I agree with it or not is immaterial, Mrs. Simon. The saying was already old before America itself was only a dream! Who are we to quibble with its wisdom? Perhaps you take it too literally.” A hand-rolled cigarette batted up and down between his lips as he spoke and his right eye squinted against the smoke that rose into it. “Okay,” he said. He clapped. “Out.” He fetched a towel and patted her dry.

I looked up from the declarative sentence in my notebook. I saw that it had stopped raining, so I left the cafe without having ordered a thing, feeling as though I’d gotten away with something. The scrubbed air tingled on my face and the clouds had lifted to the level of the tree tops like a blur of ghostly kites. The ground was a dark mirror of stone and asphalt; cars drove on their reflections.

“Are you always so mind-bogglingly observant?”

I jumped. It was Amanda, laughing in my ear. I was walking at a good clip but she was right beside me, clopping along in her heels. “I was sitting right there in the Supreme Bean!”

“The what?”

She took my arm in hers. “Possibly the name of the cafe you just came out of, Captain Kirk?”

“When I was a kid we had a cat that was forced to wear a bell around its neck… ”

“Droll. You walked right by me when you came in the cafe. You sat at a table in the back and wrote something in your notebook and just sat there staring at it in a trance for, like, fifteen minutes. Then you got up and left. What were you writing?”

“Nothing. List of things I need to buy today.”

“Do you mind if I look at it?” She reached in the pocket of my raincoat and fished out the notebook. It was a brand new notebook, so there was nothing else to find in it but what I’d just written. “She is lying. Who’s lying?”

“Not you, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“I wasn’t thinking that.”

“I disagree.”

“Okay. But only for as long as it took me to read, reflect on and be hurt by it.”

“Hey, aren’t we meeting for dinner tonight?”

“Hint taken. Well, here’s my bike, you silver-tongued devil.”

It was chained to what looked like a German No Parking sign. It was too beat up to require security measures more stringent than sticking a Free Bike sign to it. She unchained it, wiped the cracked vinyl rain-beaded seat with the arm of her orange jacket and swung a leg over. “Anyway, that’s what we do.”

“What?’

“Writers. That’s what we do. We lie. Fair warning. So bring a decent bottle of wine and your toothbrush tonight. Or feel free to use mine. You haven’t even bothered to ask me who I was sitting in the cafe with. Tootles.” She pedaled off, leaving me in a quandary as to whether or not I liked her.

It wasn’t even 11 a.m. yet but I was too tired to continue this quest for a mattress. I made my way home and collapsed on the pile I called a bed and dozed off until the construction workers’ lunchbreak was over. The building shook and I let loose with a primal scream of rage and frustration that no one could even hear. Or so I thought.

Five minutes later my doorbell was ringing. I heard it during a two-second gap in the roar of construction. I assumed it was Amanda and snatched the door open wearing nothing but my pants and was non-plussed by the apparition of ‘the little red-headed girl,’ standing with a tentative smile in my doorway. I find that clichés work best in the description of beauty: she was cat-eyed and breathtaking. With perfect posture and pearly-white teeth. She spoke with the faintest of German accents.

“Are you okay? You screamed. It sounded like you hurt yourself.” As wild and irrational as I felt I must look to her at that moment, she didn’t seem afraid. She extended her perfectly sculpted hand in greeting. “I’m your upstairs neighbor, Nico. I heard an American was moving in.”

I shook hands with her. “John.”

“John! John… what?”

“John just-John.”

“Hi John just-John. So I guess you’re okay, then?”

“Great. Except, you know… the noise… ”

“Speaking of which.” She winked and lowered her voice and leaned near; the smell of her hair was tantalizing. “I heard you this morning. I thought you were watching a porno until I saw your girlfriend staggering out of the building… ”

“Who? Oh! That’s not my girlfriend.”

“Well, I hope she’s not your daughter!”

“No, neither. You know. I don’t know. It’s Berlin, right?”

“Is it?”

“It’s not?”

“I’m a Christian, ” she beamed. Oh god. Well, the Christianity explained her boldness. Proselytizers are bold of a necessity, but I felt it was unfair for her to harbor an agenda like this and be so physically attractive. “Christians don’t do that. In Berlin or anywhere else.”

“Christians look like this?”

“You should see my little sister.”

“What do I get if I convert?”

“Unsurpassed peace and blessings everlasting.”

“Is that a euphemism?”

She wiggled her fingers in a bye-bye wave and turned towards the staircase. “You’re asking a virgin?”

“Have a nice day, Nico.”

“Same to you, John.”

And she ascended the staircase. What stuck with me was how she’d pronounced ‘unsurpassed,’ emphasizing the third and fourth syllables of the word. Like an Elizabethan. Her pale skin and orange hair and striking blue eyes supported this impression.

7.

At Amanda’s that evening I experimented with pretending that Amanda was Nico. Nico lighting a dozen candles around her living room, bustling back and forth from the kitchen in an apron. A kitsch apron embroidered with a German aphorism girdling Nico’s hips. The touchingly harried look of a woman trying to get the first meal just right… but not on Amanda’s face… on Nico’s. It was impossible, though, to imagine Nico demonstrating one of Amanda’s feats of strength: the trunk. She was using the steamer trunks for dinner tables and the one edge-up on its wheels had to be laid on its side with the other. She was grunting and groaning as she maneuvered it, so I jumped from the sofa to help. I was stunned to discover that the thing must have weighed as much as I do.

“It’s okay, I’ve got it.”

“Honey, the thing weighs a ton, let me… ”

“Don’t be a male chauvinist pig, John-John… I said I’ve got it. Sit down, okay? You’re my guest. Sit fucking down and relax.” She lowered it carefully onto its side and let it fall the last inch or so with a flat-shaking thud. Her sleeves were rolled up and I saw the veins bulging in her forearms. I thought: I better never make this girl really mad.

She spread a white lace table cloth over each trunk and brought in two plates but no utensils. I was forbidden entry to the kitchen so when she went off to stir something or turn a flame down or whatever she was up to we communicated by shouting between the two rooms, which were separated by a short hallway. Both to make small talk, and to indulge in the surreptitious erotic delight of discussing Nico with Amanda, I said, “Turns out there’s a Christian living in my building. Right upstairs.”

“A Christian?” Amanda yelled, over the sound of chopping. “Is he a German?”

She’s a German, yeah.”

“Germans can never really be Christians. They’re too pagan in the blood. They revert to their roots in times of great need or stress. I’d watch out for her. She’s probably horny as a stampede of cattle. Where do you stand on salt in your food?”

“No particular stance.”

She poked her head around the corner. “No issues with hypertension?”

“Not particularly.”

“Well, you know. Forty two and so forth.”

“I’m a healthy specimen.”

“So I’ve noticed.” She disappeared. When she came out of the kitchen again she was carrying a paperback. She said, “Dinner’ll be ready in twenty minutes, sir. By the way, in case you’re curious.” She handed me the book.

The Passenger. By Amanda Nye, Harridan Press. Nice cover.”

“Thanks.”

The cover was a black and white period-type photo of a station platform. Couple of ‘colored’ porters in the background and a pale-skinned, black-haired female traveler in the foreground, looking a bit camp in a pinstriped, shoulder-padded, wide-lapeled business suit of the ’40s. The dame was glancing at her chunky, modern, steel-banded wristwatch, the anachronism (no pun intended) which falsified the image. Glancing at the watch with a look of concern. Was someone late for a rendezvous? A suspect? A lover? I handed the book back.

“Oh no, please. Keep it.”

“Thanks. I’ll have a look later. Is it post modern?”

“Genre. Sub-genre. Lipstick-lesbian murder mystery.”

“There’s a market?”

“Large enough to keep me in Ramen Noodles.”

“I thought I recognized the smell of monosodium glutamate wafting from the kitchen.”

“Give that man a cigar! It’s the beef flavor packet, so your Riesling should go well with it.”

I tapped the female on the book cover. “Victim or sleuth?”

“Neither. The publisher’s girlfriend. Actually, this is true, I made the publisher a minor character in the book.”

“So it is post modern.”

“Isn’t everything?”

“Though nobody yet has managed to define the term to my satisfaction.”

“Well, it’s like the definition of pornography, isn’t it.”

“You know it when you see it?”

“You know it when you do it. Ooops! Gotta go check on Ramen.”

The mention of the word pornography reminded me of the fact that the table-cloth-covered steamer trunk I would be eating on was full of it. This gave me a funny little thrill. I’d be dining atop all those pumping, heaving, spasming body-parts. All those pink and brown gurgling holes. It was very nearly disgusting, like some new Japanese restaurant fad.

I agreed with Amanda’s assessment of her flat: it gave me the creeps. There was an aura of the taxidermied and shellacked about it that the candle light, with its twitching shadows and orangey wood-tones, exacerbated. But did this creepiness emanate from Amanda or the previous tenant or something inherit in the apartment? Could the previous tenant really be blamed for the Victorian attic ambiance if Amanda had been living here for five years already?

I yelled, “Hey, I have an idea for a book you can write.” But she didn’t answer. I waited a good long time and called out, “Amanda?” and there was silence, though I heard the creaking of floorboards in other rooms in the apartment.

Just as I was deciding to go check on her she entered the room carrying a large silver serving tray, dressed in the style of an orthodox Muslim: from head to toe in a dark Burka, only her hands and eyes exposed. Her eyes were kohl-rimmed and the grim fabric of the Burka billowed and despite her attempt at being exotic or even seductive she was frightening. There was no trace… no remnant… nothing to indicate that within that macabre shroud there existed a human in any way known to me. She knelt with the tray and set it on the edges between the two trunks and spooned dollops of hummus, tabouli, tahini, etc., on my plate. Her plate remained empty.

I said, “Amanda…”  But she cocked her Burka’d head with a perfectly alien movement and stared me down, a finger over the shroud where her lips would be.

I realized that in this role-playing fantasy, she couldn’t eat until after I was finished. I was very hungry and the food was delicious; she knelt beside me as I ate. The apartment was quiet as a crypt, which magnified the sound of my chewing and swallowing. She remained in character throughout, and I tried not to look at her, but it was impossible. There were no utensils; I just scooped and mopped with hunks of pita bread; and I’d stuff some in my mouth and glance over and there she’d be, eyes downcast, swaying almost imperceptibly as I ate. The horror of the Burka is the sinister magic of it… how the woman shrouded in it becomes all women and no woman, with less personality than a dog.

I ate quickly, finishing about half of the food, then leaned back from the plate and gestured that she should continue where I’d left off. She was reluctant until I moved entirely away from the ‘table’ and sat on the couch. She then crawled to the plate and balanced on her haunches, lifting the front flap of her cowl with one hand and stuffing the food in with the other, careful not to expose any of her own flesh in the process. There was a hypnotic rhythm to the mechanics of it and a dream-like blankness in her kohl-rimmed eyes which she fixed on me without acknowledging my presence. The eyes looked decorative, flat, painted-on… but it also struck me that they could be gazing on some bearded Imam of the 19th century for the absolute absence of recognition I saw in them.

Abruptly, she stopped shoveling it in and angled away from the plate for a still moment, eyes closed, and then she stood, with a rustle of fabric, and crossed to where I sat on the couch. Kneeling before me, pushing my legs apart, she fussed with my zipper. She reached in with thumb and forefinger and plucked it out deftly while lifting the front flap of her cowl. I only caught a glimpse of my swelling dick before it disappeared into her mouth under the shroud. Her head bobbed and I gripped at the couch, holding my breath while she nodded and gulped in prayer.

I closed my eyes and arched my back and pushed into the dark warmth. I made sounds… I said things… I’m not sure. If I hadn’t opened my eyes again before coming I wouldn’t have seen Amanda, in a bathrobe, walk into the room with that smirk of hers.

8.

I shoved the Burka away and jumped up and snatched at the door and stumbled down five flights two steps at a time in the dark, barely able to breathe. I ran across the black courtyard to the front of the building and shouldered through the heavy door afraid that they might follow me and I ran when I hit the sidewalk and the laughter I had heard or imagined I heard as I escaped from Amanda’s flat… the dirty laughter that followed me down the stairs as though the witch it came out of was flying down the stairs behind me… her laughter was smokey, Middle Eastern; the dusty throat of the Levant. Amanda wasn’t laughing but her friend in the Burka was. This is like a movie, I kept thinking. This is like a horror movie. I even considered, for a wild second, flagging down a cop car. Had I just been raped? If not, I’d been severely fucked with. I couldn’t tell if the chest pains were from the trauma or from running down five flights of stairs.

I vowed to myself that I’d never cross paths with Amanda Nye again, although, the further I got from her flat, the less frightened, the less angry, I became. I could see the creepy Zen of it… the decadent, artistic Choderlos de Laclos wit of it, even. Still, I had never been less than ambivalent about a relationship with Amanda, as interesting as she had proven herself to be, and this was the perfect excuse for a righteous exit. She couldn’t drench me in guilt or seek revenge over my breaking things off with her because by almost any system of reckoning, what she had done was ‘wrong’. I could well remember her saying, I’m not weird, I’m just acclimatized to Germans. I’ve forgotten certain standards of normal. Damn right. But it wasn’t as though she’d killed anyone. Knowing Ms. Nye, I realized, meant never knowing when the floor was about to drop out from under you. Some people might enjoy that.

Six blocks away from the scene of the crime I began to laugh. I laughed hard. More had already happened to me in my first few days in Berlin than in ten years of living in San Diego. I felt free, the sky was bruise-blue and moonlit and beaded with stellar ova; the air was a cool drink and Kastanien Allee was jumping. A Babel of music pumped out of every cafe, club, restaurant and idling car on both sides of the long long street and young people were everywhere, endearingly willing to dress up in loud fashions and prance across my path. I was glad I hadn’t come in the Burka’s mouth. I was glad I hadn’t wasted the day’s orgasm.

A skinny blonde came skipping out of an Indian bistro sing-songing something in German. Taking note of my incomprehension, she said, “Do you please have the extra money you can give me, sir?” She was late-teens, early twenties and dressed like a pirate, with leggings and tall boots and a red bandana tied over her ratty blonde shoulder-length hair. She smelled like hard candy and cigarettes. There was a spot high in the middle of her forehead that it had obviously been the bandanna’s job, before slipping, to hide. “An Euro, perhaps?”

“Sure,” I said, and handed her a five. This appeared to impress her.

“You must be American,” she said. “Brits are as cheap like the Germans. Are all Americans so rich?”

“No, but we’re all fools.”

“I like fools!”

“Lucky you. I’m a one man ship of fools.”

“Hey, you talk like a book by Jack Kerouac, man. You must be, so, a Schriftsteller. I am correct?”

“What’s a Schriftsteller?”

She mimed writing. “You must be a psychic,” I said.

“For another five I am reading your palm.”

“I’ll give you ten to listen to me talk for forty minutes.”

She made a praying gesture with her hands. “Fifteen?”

“Deal.”

We walked arm-in-arm up Kastanien Allee, a forty two year old American and a nineteen year old waif of Central Europe. Being a nameless, faceless traveler, I was immune to shame or the pressure of public opinion, like a long-time member of the Milwaukee chapter of the Kiwanis Club with his arm around a fifteen year old hooker in Saigon. I was still half-hard from the unfinished blow-job and rattled, still, by the prank. But I refused to remain creeped-out for the rest of the evening. I refused to let Amanda have the last laugh or dominate my thoughts by becoming a phobia. Let’s speak of things Amanda knows not of, I thought. I told the girl,

“I had an unhappy childhood. My parents divorced before I could even walk, and my father was nothing but an authoritarian voice on the telephone who would only make the special trip to where my mother and I lived if I had done something bad enough to deserve a spanking.”

“I soon figured out the relationship between misbehaving and seeing my father, so I misbehaved constantly. Those spankings were the high point of my week. I usually made sure to misbehave on the weekend so the spankings wouldn’t interfere with homework.”

“Meanwhile, my mother, my gentle mother, whom I’d loved obsessively as an infant, seemed less perfect as I grew older and went to school. She was not a bright woman… my father had married her for her looks and her ability in the kitchen and her natural genius was in her optimism and kindness. But I was a so-called gifted child… too smart to be happy, or to fit in anywhere… and I soon lost patience with the idiotic aphorisms and catch-phrases she faced life with. I was a cruel little tyrant of eight or nine the first time I told my poor sweet mother to shut up. What’s worse, rather than spank the shit out of me for that filthy impertinence, she obeyed me. Which had the effect, to make a long story short, of ruining my life.”

“I was accepted into an expensive private college, on a full scholarship, at the age of 15. The student body was equal parts whiz-kids and trust-fund brats and quite a few members of the faculty were bonafide geniuses and or masters of their discipline and taught classes that in some cases featured three pale students with large, pulsing craniums. It should have been exactly the kind of place I’d find myself in, but, instead, I spent my two years on campus staging elaborate pranks and fucking beautiful coeds from all over the world. I’d always wanted to write a book, I could write extremely well but only in spurts, but it had never occurred to me that writing could be a profession… something that people paid you to do. It never occurred to me that this private college was anything other than a symbol for everything I hated about people who’d been born having more than I did.”

“I quit in the middle of my sophomore year to follow a girl to California. I was still just barely seventeen. This was the late ’70s. I jumped into her Volkswagen minibus with a duffel bag full of my meager possessions and that was that.”

“The thing I noticed real quick was that whereas in prep school and college, smart people were paid or otherwise motivated to listen to you, outside of college, the density of smart people not only dropped to something close to the vacuum of interstellar space, but, also, the dumb fucks you suddenly found yourself surrounded by… whether on the job or in your run-down apartment building or even on the streets… could not give less than half a blind monkey’s bent-dicked fuck about your theories, dreams, quips or observations. In fact, it soon becomes painfully clear that many dumb people are too dumb to know they’re dumb or that you, in contrast, are smart… they even, some of them, misinterpreting the eccentric behaviour of the intellectually gifted for stupidity, might take to calling you retard.”

“The moistly voluptuous Jewish American Princess I had run away from school with wised-up fairly quick and opted out of the situation by playing her trump card: blaming me. Daddy sent a friend of the family… a crewcut jock attending the school I’d bailed out of… to get her the fuck out of our hovel with a minimum of incident and drive her back to the family compound in Rhode Island. When I got home from my job on the loading dock that day, I saw them driving off, and when I entered the open door of the apartment I noticed that all the good furniture, all the booze, most of the records and all of the silverware… was gone. The only thing she left me… and this hurt… was the hand-painted book of poetry I’d written for her birthday. That she left in the empty refrigerator, strangely, and I’m still working out the symbolism there. Her family had staged an intervention and pried her easily out of a poverty cult of two, no deprogramming necessary. Have I mentioned already that it was her idea to quit school and move to California? Life, as we now know, is unfair.”

The girl I was walking with (who called herself  ‘Motte’… German for Moth) took all of this in and said,”You must be lucky to write. I dream of this, or to make music.” She reached up and adjusted her bandanna, self-conscious about her Third Eye. “To eat from what you create!”

She assumed, of course, that I was a published writer; that I earned my living from words. I could have taken her back to Amanda Nye’s place and introduced her, saying Now, this is a real writer, Moth; she has a book out and everything… unlike me. Instead, I acted the part for my little fan. To lie about being a published writer is to be closer to being a published writer than if one is honest about not being one, after all. I went into great detail about my book. If there’s one thing anyone who’s committed a year or two of his or her life to the founding and maintenance of a text knows, people with whom one can discuss the effort are far and few between. Songwriters have it easy: they ask for between three and five minutes of your time, on average. Painters even easier: usually, a glance will do it. But a writer… someone working on a novel… is truly a wretch, waiting for that rare patient angel with hours, days, weeks of attention to dedicate towards the reading and discussing of one’s god-damned creation.

The real Azzedine El-Hadi had been the only such listener in my life (while Richard was the perfect embodiment of the anti-listener); there would have been no The Bomb Collector (whatever degree of a shambles the manuscript is in at this moment) without our conversations. Rigorous conversations about aesthetics, language, vision, purpose, life. Everything. It was refreshing, in America, to have what Americans might consider a self-indulgence or a hobby treated by this cultured Algerian as a sacred duty imposed upon me by my sincere willingness to undertake it. Not that he had ever read the result, or even knew that I was working on a fabulated version of his life. He respected my serious desire to write and proved this respect by listening.

And now there was this nineteen year old runaway (I assumed she was a runaway), who’d listen to anything I cared to ramble about in exchange for a pathetic €15. She seemed smart enough; her English wasn’t bad; and, most importantly, she was at an age during which interest in Art is at its peak, if it is present at all. Not to mention the fact that €15 would probably feed her for three days. I only escaped feeling guilt about this exploitative arrangement by floating the mitigating (and experimental?) thought that at least I wasn’t expecting a blow job.

The first time El-Hadi was bold enough to go on a ‘date’ with Noa in public, he drove the precautionary distance from his conservative bedroom community in the Wisselwallig valley to Manhattan. If he couldn’t get away with it in Manhattan, there was nowhere in America that he could reasonably expect to. Noa considered her lover’s caution quaint (fatherly) at best and paranoid (grandmotherly) at worst, and El-Hadi was torn between wanting to have a pleasantly uneventful experience and hoping that his young mistress might learn a lesson about the dangers inherent in crossing certain lines, not only in America but around the world. Her assumption that she could go anywhere and do anything (the driving force behind the Peace Corps, no?) was her middle-class, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant birthright and El-Hadi resented and admired this birthright in equal measure. Noa Reese wouldn’t know the caliphate from a Caliban but she had a Mullah’s pig-headed arrogance.

The first part of the journey, El-Hadi kept the top up on his convertible, but ten miles along the Henry Hudson Parkway he pulled over into a scenic rest stop (Howard Johnson’s) and put the top down and they enjoyed the rest of the drive with the wind and the sun as fellow passengers. There was an AM radio in the car and Noa was in charge of it, so El-Hadi was treated to the cacophony of musical so-called ‘youth culture,’ which was owned, promoted, often created and sometimes even performed by middle-aged men. They had a good-natured argument about Paul Anka.

“He’s Lebanese.”

“No he’s not!”

“Oh, I’m afraid he is, my dear. His biggest pop hit is ‘Diana’, yes? You remember this song?”

“Yes I remember that dusty old thing.”

“It was about a Lebanese girl named Diana Ayoub!” El-Hadi laughed with great relish. “He’s now married to the daughter of an Egyptian count! You are unaware the extent to which the Arab world is taking over, my dear! But not to worry, I’ll put in a good word for you!”

“It’s just music for squares, anyway. Who cares? I suppose the Jefferson Airplane are Arabs, too?”

“I would not be shocked by this! Although I rather suspect they are Jews.”

“Same thing.”

“In point of fact it is, in many cases, but don’t tell anyone I uttered such blasphemy.” He dragged a finger across his neck. “It is an unpopular opinion among the boys with the sharp knives.”

“And so they have found Manhattan?” asked Moth.

“They have found Manhattan.”

“They found a good place to park?”

“They found the best of all possible parking places.”

“Did they park in the sun or under a tree?”

I began to seriously reconsider the blow job option. I said, “Moth, can you really read my palm?”

“I have done it like my nine-to-five job since I am twelve. Everybody knows that Motte is the girl who reads palms like they are U-Bahn maps.” We were standing in front of the crowded entrance to a club/cafe called Rash wherein a live band was banging away on their laptops. It didn’t strike me as the most congenial atmosphere for tuning into the ether but Moth grabbed my right hand and held it up in the brilliant red glare of the neon RASH sign.

9.

As Noa and El-Hadi waited at the bus stop for the number 6a (because his car, smeared with human feces, was now untouchable), he thought of the time they’d driven into Manhattan together, a little more than a year before. He’d had the same damp palms; the anxiety like sand in his lungs. What did he expect to happen on a city bus, a lynching? He’d never in his life ridden one. Noa was in charge on this mission and it was she who held the two adult fares of thirty five cents each (including the nickle charge for a transfer) as the bus rounded the corner onto the main street that ran along the southern edge of Wisselwallig Park. The bus was a gleaming cage, a mobile exhibit from the zoo. It wasn’t packed but it was far from empty and, after Noa dropped their money in the slot and the machine collated and digested the coins, making a sound like a tiny washing machine, El-Hadi followed her up the aisle, careful not to make eye contact with any of the piles of clothing that sat motionless on the filthy green seats. The experience was marginally less disgusting than driving home in his shit-besmeared car would have been.

Last year, summer, a near-lunch in Manhattan and the Diane Arbus show at MoMa. El-Hadi had parked his car in a lot owned by distant cousins who’d preceded him to America and the cousin on site at the lot, the short dark one who now called himself Sammy, had given Azzedine a sly and complicated look which Azzedine recognized from his youth. That’s nice what you’ve got there, cousin… how about sharing?

A subway ride later they were on Fifth Avenue, headed for West 53rd Street. The tension in Azzedine’s neck by then made him feel like a robot who could only turn his head left or right by moving his entire torso. Noa, in contrast, was energized by the Manhattan shop windows and babbling giddily. Several times she reached spontaneously for his hand to drag him to see something… a purse or a shoe or a shockingly short skirt on a mannequin… and he dodged the gesture. Everywhere he looked he saw red-faced Irish cops, plainclothes detectives or bohunk sailors on shore leave, savagely drunk. The hipsters, freaks, fashion-plates, matrons and sniffy plutocrats who also thronged the street were invisible to him, or flat as cartoons and resolutely backgrounded as he picked out one after another of the vivid threats to his dignity and physical well-being as he and Noa walked by.

Who would intercede if there were to be trouble? The pathetic, black-skinned shoe-shine boy? The Puerto Rican queers cackling on the corner? Noa’s fine-featured, fair-skinned beauty made him feel blatantly dark and coarse in comparison, as though his charcoal touch had left smudges and pawprints on her. To make matters worse, Noa had dressed like a proper woman for a change. The knee-length skirt and frilly top and suede boots… the little purse and those big round sunglasses… he looked like her sweaty old chauffeur when he opened the car door for her and she poured out, long legs first, like a drink from an aristocrat’s refrigerator.

The Arbus show confirmed his mood. “My god,” whispered Noa, glancing at the museum guard over her shoulder as though what she was about to say might get them kicked out of the exhibition, “I didn’t realize there were so many ugly people… ”

Azzedine pressed two fingers to his lips and lowered his chin and said, “Is it that they are so ugly, or that they have seen so much ugliness?”

“Well, I bet they never dreamed they’d be hung on the walls like this, for all the world to see.”

“All the world? Not even a millionth of it.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I know all too well what you mean.”

She tried to slip her arm around his waist but he sidestepped the gesture. “Not here, Noa,” he whispered. Now it was his turn to glance at the guard.

“If not here, then where? Christ, Azzy, it’s not… Nazi Germany!”

For you it’s not,” he answered, too quickly, with too much passion, and he realized, immediately, how idiotic he sounded. Like a frightened old woman. To prove he was a man he reached and pulled Noa to his side and kissed her full on the mouth.

“That’s enough of that, Jack,” said the museum guard, tapping Azzedine on the shoulder. A thick-lipped Polack with sour-milk breath. “This is public property! Take it outside to the gutter!”

“We’ll probably just screw in the car, thanks,” said Noa, sweetly. It was exactly what the day needed… it broke the spell… Azzedine and Noa left the exhibition hand in hand, laughing, strolling down the famous spiral ramp of the museum like any other culture-loving couple. They didn’t notice the man who followed them out into the sunlit street.

Azzedine, who hadn’t been in Manhattan since his arrival in America more than a decade earlier, was on the lookout for a restaurant in which to treat his young mistress to a proper meal; he was torn between wanting to keep a low profile for fear of trouble and wanting to show off the prize on his arm in a commensurate venue. Noa continued to lobby for something casual, by which she meant, without being blunt enough to put it that way, an establishment frequented by young people. Azzedine had brought a navy-blue blazer to wear with his white turtleneck and gray slacks and oxfords, despite the heat, and the thought of sitting in a dining room full of similarly-attired people filled Noa with anticipatory boredom so powerful that she nearly yawned from it. Dining with her parents upstate every blue moon provided more than enough of the required yearly dosage of that particular character-building vitamin.

Her Algerian lover, so forcefully young in bed and so self-possessedly fascinating in the classroom, was half the man, however, under other circumstances. He aged and shrank in the context of the mindless chores and mundane confrontations of daily life; how else could she explain his vassalage to the snap judgments of absolute nobodies? It was Noa’s job, she felt, to support him… be his crutch, his shield or even his red-tipped cane… when he wasn’t fucking or lecturing. She’d read his story A Precaution Against the Attentions of Jealous Gods but hadn’t understood it in the context of their relationship.

Noa won the restaurant battle because El-Hadi couldn’t find anything satisfactory after forty minutes of walking. By then they’d wandered into an aromatically fecund corner of the East Village and Noa stamped her feet in a mock tantrum in front of a place called The Star’s Bangled Jammer. Laughing, wringing his hands and rolling his eyes to a putatively Christian heaven for strength, Azzedine gave in.

They pushed through the heavy curtains of the entrance and found a table near the window and Azzedine, seating Noa and then himself said, “This looks like a madman’s idea of a restaurant.” The walls were covered in primitively hand-painted faces. “Or a child’s,” he added.

Noa shrugged. “Everything is relative, Azzy.”

“Relativism is merely nihilism without the courage of its convictions, my dear. Is bright light merely on a continuum with utter darkness? Pleasure interchangeable with pain? Aesthetics may seem to many to be a wholly subjective affair, but, I assure you, it is no more subjective a matter than biological or physical properties. There are laws. Rules.” He picked up his menu with a patient smile; he’d said what he’d said without bitterness or emphasis. Noa enjoyed his comment, in fact, and he knew it. She was reassured to see him become fully himself again. The lecturer. The stern lover. The confidently big-dicked intellectual.

A waiter came and sat at their table, scooting in next to Noa. He was a pale, thin Brit with his incisors missing and copper wires twined here and there in his shaggy hair. He said, “Here at The Jammer we believe in removing the artificial barrier between customer and the waitstaff. I’m Jeremy… pleased to meet you.” He reached across the table to shake Azzedine’s hand. Winking at Noa, Azzedine seized Jeremy’s hand in a manly shake and said,

“Tell me, Jeremy, do you also believe in removing the artificial prices as well?”

Both Jeremy and Noa laughed at this. Noa said, “Jeremy, what’s the story behind your teeth? I’ve seen other people in the area sporting the same fashion today. Is it religious?”

El-Hadi was surprised and impressed by Noa’s powers of observation; he’d noticed no such thing on the street himself. He’d assumed the condition of the young man’s teeth was drug-related.

“The canines? Had them removed.We inherit them from carnivorous ancestors, but in our case… myself, and the others you’ve noticed… we find them no longer necessary. You’d be surprised at how having these teeth pulled will purify your thoughts?”

Jeremy settled back in his seat. His gappy smile made him resemble a backwoods character from the popular televsion show called Hee Haw. The exquisite little cross-reference being that the dipthonged and glottal speech patterns of much of the American South were handed down from 18th century Cockneys marooned there in British penal colonies. It pained El-Hadi to have to forego the pleasure of sharing this observation. He smiled at Jeremy and said,

“How do you handle the lunchtime crowds with such a… relaxed… attitude towards service, if I may ask, young man?”

“If things get too hectic, actually? We close?”

Noa said, “Hey, Jeremy. I think we might be ready to order.”

“You haven’t told me your names.”

“Heckle and Jeckle,” said Azzedine. He was pleased no end when Noa rested her chin on her interwoven fingers and, batting her eyelashes, cooed, “I’m Jeckle.”

“Awe-inspiring,” said Jeremy, looking bemused, and he took their orders. “We’ll call your names when the food is ready.” Noa twisted in her seat to wave as Jeremy shuffled off, but when she turned to face Azzedine again she had a puzzled look on her face.

“I must say,” said Azzedine, “I’m impressed. This incisor matter. I noticed no such thing. Your powers of observation are truly amazing, my dear. I’m extremely proud of you.”

“Oh, I can do better than that. Much better. Behind me? The nondescript gentleman in the hat, with a camera around his neck?”

Azzedine peered over her shoulder. The man she described was frowning at a menu. He looked like a G-man from a B movie and he was surrealistically out of place in The Star’s Bangled Jammer. Noa said, “I recognize him from the museum. He was in the room with us when the guard kicked us out.”

“Yes?”

“What’s even more interesting, Azzy, is the camera around his neck. It’s a real nice camera… a Hasselblad reflex, okay. He’s got a Zeiss telephoto lens on it. Viewfinder is on top. It’s really the only way to go if you want to take pictures of somebody without them noticing. Oh, and by the way? I see that the lens cap is off. Say cheese, baby.”

El-Hadi tried to adopt a lighthearted tone. “Paparazzi?”

“Are we so famous?”

“As you know,” joked Azzedine, “fame, like everything else, is relative.”

“I shouldn’t have told you.”

“Nonsense.” But he felt the tension return like a plague, spreading across his shoulders and up his neck and solidifying like lead in his jaw muscles. He looked at his watch. “Let’s go.”

“Without even eating?”

“Yes.”

“But I was looking forward… ”

“I know. Heckle and Jeckle.” Azzedine stood, placed a five dollar bill on the table, and pulled an exasperated Noa out of the restaurant. The man with the camera put his menu down, scooped the five off the table they’d just vacated, and followed.

10.

My first snow in Berlin arrived on the evening of November 1st. By this time, nearly ten months after moving to Berlin, I had a second-hand sofa bed in the living room, a kitchen table with two chairs, a basic set of plates, cups, pots, pans and utensils, and a futon in the narrow, windowless room next door to the living room.

I had re-worked The Bomb Collector considerably, but it was still, basically, poised at the same spot in the arc of the tale where it had stalled as I fled The States: the end movement remained unresolved. But the first two thirds of the manuscript had changed so much that it energized me to read through it. I had learned, ‘on the job’, as it were, to throw things away. Even good things; if they didn’t add to the forward-momentum of the tale, I crossed out. Any narrative threads that led to dead-ends were either crossed out or the walls that the dead-ends led to were dynamited.

By the evening of my first snow in Berlin, I hadn’t heard from or about Amanda Nye in months, not a peep or a note since her grotesque prank (the night of the Burka). My upstairs neighbor, Nico Taubkind, the pretty, orange-haired Christian, had eased into a harmless, chatty friendship with me, though she sometimes (and increasingly so) gave me funny looks. These looks of hers (troubled, intrigued) undoubtedly related to the fact that my living situation had taken rather a curious turn that any woman over a certain age would frown on.

I was scrawling in a fresh notebook on my kitchen table by the parchment light of a brass-based lamp I’d gotten at an Estate Sale (cancer in Pankow) when I heard a key jut into the door lock. The door jangled open and jangled shut like the exaggerated sound effect from an old time radio show, and boots stomped a little war dance on the muddy rug in the short hall of the entrance.

Moth came in with a dozen fat snowflakes impaled and trembling intact on the spikes of her platinum hair. She pecked me once on each cheek and I noticed, again, how her nose looked bigger with her hair so short, and her eyes looked smaller and closer together with her nose so big. But her skin had cleared up since I’d taken on the responsibility of feeding her in a more-or-less healthy way. Her white-sugar consumption was drastically down and every day spent inside the flat, sleeping late, bathing long and listening to music in the windowless room I let her have, was a day without smoking or exposure to sexually transmitted diseases. I’d even bought two cell phones, the cheap kind you buy minutes for, and given her one as a safety measure.

Discussing books with Moth was pointless: in the system she’d worked out, books and paintings are there to make us better people; popular movies and songs to keep us up to date; and everything else is mindless entertainment. Any discussion about a book that went deeper than the question of plot was lost on her, and she had a knack for changing the subject (sometimes by seducing me: an effective method). We rarely ate out or went dancing or strolled through Berlin’s surplus of galleries and museums because both of us were frankly embarrassed about the age gap. Our only public appearances together were shopping trips… clothes for Moth, mostly (clothes she preferred looking for in the Men or Boys departments). We rarely ever even ate together at home; she preferred taking a jar or a tin or a box of something into her room and chowing with her headphones on. I tried to make sure she had warm soup or a sandwhich and a big salad for lunch and dinner a few times a week but I never pressured her to dine with me. My eating habits, after years of living alone, were as solitary and unceremonious as her own, and I can remember, more than once, in California, coming home from ten hours of housepainting and drinking a ‘gourmet’ vegetable soup from Whole Foods cold, straight out of the can. In an almost Swiftian way we were a perfectly suitable couple, though I never deluded myself that it was a stable union. I knew she’d be gone by the time she was twenty.

I folded my notebook closed, lay the pen across it and watched Moth think with her body in the middle of the kitchen. The tip of her nose was as cold as it was red and it was running. She sniffed and back-handed it and said, “It’s snowing cats and dogs out there!”

“I haven’t seen snow in fifteen years.”

“Wow! You haven’t seen snow since the year I learned the word for it. That’s what you call poetic creepiness.” She grabbed the electric tea kettle and stuck it under the spigot. Her English had taken on an idiosyncratic suavity in the two months we’d been living together. She filled the kettle with hot water, a tic I’ll always remember her for, and said, “So, are you Mr. Busy right now?”

“Not really. Not anymore. I ran out of steam an hour ago. I’m just doodling now. Wanna see?”

“Wanna get fucked in the virgin snow?”

“Why not.”

“Lemme put some warm tea in the Moth-motor first.”

“Okay.”

“And then you get fucked.” She nodded with and that’s-that curtness.

I appreciated the offer. We hadn’t fucked in a week. I never pressured her; sometimes we fucked a lot and sometimes we fucked a little and it was my job to act as though I didn’t notice, it was all the same to me, etc. She, of course, was free to fuck whoever whenever as long as I didn’t have to meet them or smell the evidence. I therefore assumed that when our fucking suddenly dried up for a week, she was involved in a furiously passionate little affair. I never asked or commented. The only ground rules were: no smoking in the flat; no bringing others home to the flat; no fucking with notorious bisexuals or intravenous drug users. Moth was on the pill but we weren’t using condoms. Stupid, I know. But all too human.

As for my end of the open arrangement: I wasn’t fucking anyone but Moth. I didn’t need the trouble, and, at the age of forty two (soon to be forty three), an affair with a seventeen year old girl (sixteen the day we met: surprise) was as decadent as things should get. Twice, with her gangling, fidgety, sinewy form and her now-short hair, she’d been mistaken (once in a department store and once at the cinema) for my son. I must admit that sometimes even I saw her that way, catching a glimpse of her in a t-shirt and boxer shorts, eating peanut butter out of the jar.

She swallowed a slug of tea from our Mr. T mug (her purchase, her pun) and went “Ahhhh,” and belched loudly, exactly as a teenage son would have. “Herbal tea is my heroin,” she moaned, rubbing her parka’d belly. She glugged down more and slammed the mug on the counter with comical machismo and said, “Ready.”

If our arrangement generated collateral health benefits for Moth in the realm of her diet, for me it meant a healthy cut in the kind of days that Doctor Johnson would have marked in his diary with discreet little M’s. Having a young and often-willing sex partner on the premises for the first time in eons made jerking off feel wasteful and silly. Even when I went for a week bereft of her amazingly naked embrace, I preferred to sit it out rather than waltz alone, with the results being that I rediscovered a spring in my step and a fire in my loins and could approach such undertakings as my book with a crackling fund of stored energy. And, coming at it from another direction, in the hours of my palpable relief after every time Moth deigned to fuck me, the writing discovered a sense of reconnected humanity. I was a better writer for not masturbating.

There are any number of bluestockings of my acquaintance and in my age-class who would abhor this happiness in Moth’s skin. Fucking her wouldn’t even be legal for a teenage boy in most of the 50 states, and, even I, before weathering the existential sandstorm of being a forty-ish house painter with a high I.Q. in Southern California, would have looked askance at what I’m doing with her now. But, well, why not throw buckets of cold water on copulating dogs all day? Shoo away flies in mid-fuck, and haul your randy, gray-shanked baboons and goats and cocks and rabbits off to re-education camps. If Nature never intended middle aged males to fuck teenage females, She wouldn’t have made teenage males so useless.

There’s bio-karma at work here, too, since many of the middle-aged women who would stone me for fucking Moth now… broke my heart by shunning me when they were young and I was a useless teenager myself. They were all busy with older men, back then, of course. One day, perhaps, Moth herself will be a middle-aged woman shaking her fist at the same disparity. Existence is a joke written in a dead language on a Möbius strip.

I pushed the front door of the building open against a gritty white wind and a doorstop of snow. Everything was padded and numb with white. The little park across the street was an enameled triangle and the mercury arc street lamps along the street were hung with streaked veils that flapped and hung in a row. Moth and I had our parka hoods up and she gestured right and I followed her with the wind at our backs, which was howling and shoving like kids at a concert. I was curious as to how Moth planned for us to fuck in all this.

We trudged about fifteen paces and turned right, trespassing on the construction site next door, which could easily have passed for a bombed building at this stage in its development. The ten-story crane looming over it groaned and pinged like an old iron ship under all that ice in the wind, the top bit blazing in a beacon packed with snow flakes. We scrambled over the gouged, rutted, rock-hard mud under the snow and into the perimeter of the superstructure. There were eight floors, each floor featuring a checkerboard of huge gaps, and no walls, and snow-frosted pipes and cables dangling everywhere. The first few stories were connected by aluminum extension ladders and we scrambled up to a dark corner of the fourth level. The ladders, within the form of the building, were sheltered from all but the obliquest blowing snow; otherwise I wouldn’t have dared. After all those years as a house painter, I knew which stunts qualified as dangerous on an extension ladder, and scrambling up icy rungs with a fearless teenager in the dark was one of them.

Berlin is a city with a low physical profile, and you can see surprisingly far from shockingly low. Being on the fourth level of the skeleton enabled us to see a few miles in three cardinal directions. The famous Telekomm (Tele-Commie?) tower, nicknamed Sputnik, with its needle spire to the west of us (ironically) seemed as though it could be hopped on like playground equipment from where we were standing, though it was a twenty minute walk away. S potlights carved the low blocky clouds like glass blades from various points around the neighborhood, but whether they advertized gallery openings, portended aviational emergencies, or were merely first-snow exuberances… we couldn’t tell and wouldn’t have cared. The wind was weaker within the form of the building and we pulled our hoods off.

Moth, with her black back to me and the bright view of the sky in front of us like an enormous screen (on which the snowfall kept abruptly changing direction like schools of fish), said, “Do you think I’m a lesbian?”

“If you’re a lesbian, I am.”

“Maybe you’re a fag hag.”

“I don’t think that term applies to male groupies of lesbians.”

“What is the proper term, then?”

“I don’t know.”

“Mr. Writer.”

“I know… I should know.”

“I totally made love with a woman for the first time last Friday. A real woman, almost as old as you. I really liked it.”

I should have seen the foreshadowing in that; the feminine ‘made love’ vs the masculine ‘fucked’ thing. Instead I merely suppressed the impulse to put a hand on Moth’s shoulder and give her a Son, you’re a man now speech. I said, “So that’s why… ”

“That’s why I slightly cut you off for a while there. Yeah. Completely, I mean. She lives in London most of the time and she flew back yesterday… so… she… ”

I felt my emotions shading very quickly from bemused to touched to devastated. Moth was crying. I caught myself thinking, bitterly, woundedly, absurdly: you can’t even trust a seventeen year old girl these days not to fall for someone else until I reclaimed my slippery grip on sanity and re-phrased the thought as: thank goodness she’s a healthy enough seventeen year old girl to fall for someone else…

“I can’t call her, I don’t have her address in London, she told me that when she’s back in Berlin she’ll… she’ll just… let me know.”

“How’d you meet her?” I know that speaking of the Beloved always helps, for some reason. I flashed on that night at Amanda Nye’s, when I’d thought of clever little ways to slip Nico into the conversation, back when I thought I was in love with Nico. Invoking the Beloved through the vocal avatar of the Beloved’s logos works; the sound of the name is part of the effect, like a post-hypnotic suggestion.

“The first time I met her when I was too young, outside all the time… when you’re homeless and young, before you become fucked up and smelly, you meet everyone in the neighborhood. You sit on a wall and the world walks by. Pretty soon she’d wave whenever she saw me. Then she started giving me good money when I was panhandling.”

She said, “Remember the night you and I first met?”

“You read my palm.”

“Yeah. We talked about love seriously for the first time that night. She was with a friend and they took me to dinner at that Indian place. We talked about everything.”

“So you didn’t even have to spend any of the money I gave you for the palm reading.”

“Yeah,” she sniffed, through a web of tears and snot, “it was brilliant.” I could hear that she was smiling. “It was like being rich. I wasn’t even attracted to her at first but she kinda grew on me. It wasn’t until after I moved in with you that I thought anyone would seriously be interesting in fucking me, and then I realized she’d been flirting the whole time. And then I thought, maybe I was, too.”

“At first I thought she was kinda shy and uncool. Then I understood that she was the strongest person I’d ever met.”

She said, “I know you think I’m a runaway because my dad did something to me, don’t you?”

I nodded in the dark.

“Well he didn’t. He was always good. But I had read so much about that shit and seen so many movies and special television shows and counselors at school telling us about inappropriate touching and this and that… I thought he was definitely going to one day… I thought it was a fact of life like puberty. You turn thirteen and your dad does something to you. Know what I mean? Like a nature film. So I ran away so he wouldn’t.”

“A pound of prevention.”

“What?”

“What you did was crazy, stupid, or wise.”

She laughed. “That’s me alright.” She spit over the edge of the black semi-floor we were perched on; she was leaning against a vertical girder, back still to me, with the phoney insouciance of a perfected James Dean slouch. The falling snow was thinning out and as the air went hard and clear something in Moth’s voice changed, too. “Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah. Azizam pointed out to me… ”

“Azizam?”

“It means Beloved,” she said, proudly.

“That’s lovely.”

“Yeah, she pointed out that you’re just like my father now… shit, you’re even older than him, and you’re fucking me, so, it’s like, Moth is out of the frying pan into the fire! It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.” She faced me, arms crossed, while spotlights criss-crossed behind her.

I had begun shaking. I said, with a fair amount of anger, “Wait a minute. I can’t be ‘like’ your father because I didn’t raise you or adopt you and you’re not my flesh and blood. The incest taboo isn’t based on an age gap, it’s based on, well, the violation of the, you know… direct kin reproducing. Birth defects and so on… ”

Moth laughed. “You think that’s why it’s wrong for a man to fuck his daughter? Because if she gets pregnant the kids will be retarded?” She laughed harder.

“Hold on now, Moth. You said this Azizam of yours… you said she’s almost as old as I am, right?”

“She’s thirty seven.”

“What’s the difference between her doing stuff to you or me doing it? My penis?”

“Give that man a cigar!”

“Oh come on.”

“Well?”

Sarcastically I said, “I thought you came out here to fuck me?”

With brilliant timing and delivery she retorted, “Don’t you feel like you’ve just been fucked?” And she punched me in the shoulder, dropped her copy of my keys at my feet and climbed down the ladder to the next level down, and again, further down. The soles of her boots ringing on the rungs. Genuinely concerned for her well-being I called out, in the dark, “Wait! Moth! Where are you going? Where will you sleep tonight?”

Down on the sidewalk she shouted, “She keeps a flat in Berlin! I have the keys! No hard feelings?”

“No hard feelings!” I shouted.

“Are we quit?” She meant are we even? Two months of her body for two months of my shelter is what she meant.

“We’re even!” I shouted. Maybe I screamed.

She waved goodbye and ran up the street.

The pain that hit me as a result of all this was like a crude old bomb dropped from a stratospheric height, taking its time in free fall, punching through clouds and whistling down a long lazy spiral over a map of the hemisphere, the continent, the city, my street. I managed to make my way back down the four levels of shakey extension ladder in the dark, though I shivered almost convulsively while doing it, as cold as the buried dead in my parka.

I almost snapped my ankle in half on the deep ruts in the frozen mud, twisting it at the foot of the last ladder and twisting it again hard as I stumbled to keep from falling. I limped off the site and around to the front of my building. It was hard to believe that a short while ago I had walked out this very door in high spirits, expecting bliss.

When the bomb of true suffering hit I was leaning with most of my weight on the kitchen table and staring at the dirty puddle of melted snow in front of the sink where Moth had been standing. A forty two year old man desperately in love with the seventeen year old girl who’s just dumped him: without a doubt the low point of my life. My ankle was broken, too.

11.

Too crippled to unfold the sofa-bed in my living room, I hopped on one leg into what had been Moth’s room, hit the light and eased myself down into her futon, which was drenched with her scent. The odor was a comfort and a torture. I managed to untie my right shoe and get both it and its sock off without fainting, only to see what looked like a kind of purple half-sock wrapped around an ankle that had already swollen to the circumference of a coffee can. If I so much as tried to move the foot a centimeter in any direction I got a jolt of pain that manifested itself as a flash of green light and I was certain it was broken. I was also certain that I had no health insurance yet (which was ironic, since one reason I’d come to Germany was for the brilliant, socialized health care), knew not a soul in the whole damn country and I wasn’t even sure what I would do when I had to take an inevitable piss.

An answer to that last, existential question presented itself at least. Like everyone in Berlin, Moth only ever drank tap water in tea… otherwise her drinking water came in bottles, with or without ‘gas’ (carbonation: kohlensaure). The bottles have a twenty-cent deposit on them, and the walls of Moth’s windowless little room (which I had been forbidden entry to for two months) were ringed with empty deposit bottles. Moth’s little dowry… which I calculated was worth about €15. At least taking a piss in my crippled condition wouldn’t be impossible. There was food in the room, too: a secret stash of sweets (including two large bags of peanut M&Ms) in a laundry bag next to the futon. Shitting would be a problem, but a week or two of eating M&Ms would no doubt minimize that as an issue.

The things I’d bought for Moth, along with the rest of her meager possessions, were gone, of course: the CD player and its accessories; a dozen CDs; the cell phone and its accessories; several pairs of sunglasses; the costume jewelry; a book or two; the clothing, etc. She’d been secretly shifting the stuff to her lover’s flat in preparation for this break-up (or break-off) for days, probably, a few items secreted in her parka pockets at a time. She’d either assumed I was too petty for her to be open on the subject after her announcement, or she thought of these items not as gifts but as payments. Both, probably. And while both possibilities were unflattering to my self-image to say the least, the latter was crushing: I had been paying for a live-in teenage sex-servant for two months, and not, as I had framed it, having an affair. I had pictured myself rescuing her but it turned out it was a soft kidnapping instead. What I had pictured as love-making was consensual rape. I thought, hating myself: if I’d never fucked her, she’d still be here. But then I thought: that’s a dishonest thought. If we hadn’t been fucking, I wouldn’t have wanted her here.

I had a mental picture of the woman who had facilitated the becomingness of Moth’s selfhood (as certain theoriticians might put it in all seriousness) and I couldn’t get it out of my head: Susan Sontag. I kept seeing the thirty seven year old assassin of my happiness as looking like Susan Sontag. The thirty seven year old Sontag, when she was still beautiful enough to be physically as well as intellectually authoritarian. The diamond-cut features and the ink-black coif with a white streak in it. She was sneering at me. She was gloating in the acquisition of Moth’s skin, the skin I had purified for Susan’s delectation. I could see it: Moth squirming on Sontag’s face with an ecstasy she’d never bothered faking with me. But it wasn’t Susan Sontag (being left for a celebrity has, at least, some value)… it was just some hypocritical Dyke who had out-maneuvered me before I’d even known there was a war on. Blitzkrieg.

It was hard to think at all because of the pain. I began to wonder, feverishly, why this violence had been done to my unspectacular happiness and I remembered my fictional fictionalist’s story, A Precaution Against the Attentions of Jealous Gods. My eyes were swimming. The overhead light burned and I couldn’t stand up again to switch it off and the hours crept across the futon, stepping on my ankle, which had swollen to such a grotesque size that glancing at it gave me palpitations. I could smell Moth’s scalp on the mattress and maybe I could smell her armpits and the faintest whiff of her ass and pussy, too. Unbelievably, in all my agony, I had an erection. This is the real battle of the sexes… between middle-aged men and middle-aged women. Sexually desirable young girls are the casus belli, the prisoners of war, the weapons of mass destruction and the battlefield too.

The ceiling of the narrow room I was in was much higher than any ceiling I’d lived under as an adult in America. There was no window, so I assumed that the wall partitioning the room off was a recent development. The entire four-story building had undoubtedly been intended, in the year of its completion (1888), as a one-family dwelling; most of my flat had probably originally been one grand room… the library, say. The area around the house had probably been a field and the field would have featured a road leading a mile towards a denser part of the city. Without being properly the countryside, still, the field would have featured its distant treelines and its idle cows or even sheep here and there without any of the elements in the composition sharing a purpose or meaning with their modern counterparts except in the most general sense. When I see a cow I think of MacDonalds; when I see sheep I think of Benetton; when I see a distant treeline I think of highways, future housing developments, or environmentally protected land. I don’t think home, hearth or Fatherland.

What kind of people would have inhabited this house and its surrounding landscape in 1888? Angels, compared to ‘us,’ or devils? When I note the vast differences, sometimes, as exist between various contemporary humans… compare a working class Brit to a wealthy Nigerian, both living in Berlin: their paths will rarely intersect and there’s more than likely trouble in store if they do… can we even really consider our ancestors human in the fullest sense, or they us?

I lay there under the bare, hypnotic bulb hanging from the high, high ceiling, thinking: am I more… or less… human… the lonelier I become, the more I suffer? If time can isolate you from the tribe as it marches on, can poverty, disability or crossing a ‘moral’ line too far do the same? It’s a discussion ‘we’ rarely allow ourselves but it’s an argument the body responds to: that filthy, reeking beggar in a puddle of his own sick on the sidewalk… do we really consider him human? And how far did he have to sink before his status changed? And can that status be changed without ‘sinking’… what about a lateral displacement? Too far left or right; ahead or behind? Is the state of being ‘human’ provisional… context-based… temporary? There’s a natural consensus on all this but it’s strictly unspoken; it may well be the last taboo in an era when the few that are left have to be carefully rationed.

As I finally drifted off under that bare bulb I thought I heard the faintest sound of a woman weeping, but I assumed it was the preview of my coming dreams.

12.

Being bed-ridden for two weeks with a broken ankle in a small flat in a foreign city with a little food, some money, a cell phone (though, who the hell would I call?) and a few dozen empty Evian bottles was not as bad an experience as one would think. The first few days were the worst, before I got used to (and then bored by) the pain, and before it was even possible to half-stand and hop or even crawl to the bathroom. The Evian bottles filled up, one after another along the wall like some kind of ancient or conceptual clock, each bottle the slightest gradation of acid orange darker (as I dehydrated) than the bottle immediately preceding it. I had only as much sense of the shifting hours of the day or night as I could gather from the snow-muffled traffic sounds that filtered in from the living room windows. I became intimately familiar with certain patterns of my Christian neighbor upstairs.

Every morning I listened to her watch some chatty chirpy German version of an early morning wake-up show (chit chat, introduction, applause, chit chat, introduction, applause, on-location segment, national news, local traffic report, weather, musical interlude, wrap up, applause… all in a language I’m 99.99 percent deaf to). Then an excercise show that had her hopping up and down (with her light frame) on the floor directly over my head. Then a morning movie (during which can be heard the three classes of water-based event a morning’s toilet consists of), an afternoon talk show (introduction, unprofessional voice modulations, shrieks, boos, cheers from the audience, moderation), and a German-dubbed American sitcom rerun from the ’80s or even the ’60s… sometimes it was the ‘The Love Boat’ and sometimes it was ‘Hogan’s Heroes’. Both shows I recognized, of course, from their theme music; the dialogue was dubbed entirely in German. In the case of ‘Hogan’s Heroes’, the show came without a laugh track. In other words she was watching, in German, an American sitcom about a German prisoner of war camp during the Second World War… with ominous dead air where there would have been canned laughter. The philosophical implications were weighty. Not that ‘The Love Boat’ generated no food for thought itself… especially when Nico, four out of five times, sang along (in a surprisingly strong voice) with the theme song. Being an invalid in that room under her bedroom was like living with her. Or, more like: being the ghost assigned to haunt her.

She would leave the flat so late every day (and often not at all), and return again after so short an interval, that it seemed unlikely that she had a job. Early afternoon (at which point on a winter’s day it’s already dark in Central Europe) I’d hear her strap her wooden-heeled boots on, hammer across her uncarpeted floor and hammer down the stairwell and out the door, clop clop clopping up the street. ‘Observing’ her served to keep my mind off of my awful physical circumstances, and off of Moth as well. Moth I was thinking of less and less frequently.

Considering the shocking intensity of the ‘love’ I felt for her at the moment she dumped me, my relative ambivalence towards the very notion of her existence just a few days after the break caused me to examine the nature of this post-hypnotic suggestion called ‘love’. In the absence of species-propagating hormone surges… at the age of forty two, that is… what is it, somewhere in my head, that still has the power to drive me to the brink of madness, or self-destructive obsession, in the name of it? And how does this tie in with that other mystery I tried to tackle the night of my injury… the mystery of human/non-human?

The answer can only be that a man in love; a man who is loved; is certain of his humanity. In the absence of love, the certainty vanishes. I’m quite sure, thinking back on it, that my real panic as I stood on the fourth floor of the open construction site next door and listened to the passionate narrative of Moth leaving me was the fear that my humanity was being rescinded. Even lying on the futon with my broken ankle under a bare bulb in a narrow room the walls of which were gradually being circumnavigated by bottles of my urine and facing this philosophical problem head-on, there was no guarantee that I wasn’t not human. Of course I panicked when Moth walked out on me. And that’s why some men (and even some women) will kill to prevent the leaving.

El-Hadi once told me, while we were replacing the hundreds of framed photographs of on his freshly painted wall (referring constantly to a chart we’d made to make sure the photos returned to their original spots), of an ex-lover who had attempted to poison him a few weeks after the affair was called off. What made this even more extraordinary was the fact that she, not El-Hadi, had been the one to call things off. So why the vengeful act?

“It wasn’t vengeance motivating her,” said El-Hadi, handing me a large black and white portrait of the would-be poisoner herself. “She wanted to make sure that I remembered her for the rest of my life.”

“By killing you?”

He shrugged. “The reasoning is sound, if less than ethical.”

The photograph was in the High School yearbook modus of the early ’60s… an off-the-shoulders gown, pearls and a towering blonde ‘beehive’ hairdo. The smile seemed to tilt subtly under the weight of the hairdo. I hung it on its nail. El-Hadi frowned at it, adjusted it so it hung a bit straighter, and said,

“She invited me to dinner a few weeks after breaking things off with me. I was pleasantly surprised by the invitation, though slightly nervous, despite assurances that her husband, a computer scientist working for Univac, was overseas at a conference on artificial intelligence, delivering a paper. He was in Germany for two weeks. I accepted the invitation. Perhaps it was the superstitions that surround the act of making love to a married woman that kept me on my guard.”

“I’d never been to their home before, as you can imagine. I got lost twice trying to find it, but I avoided asking directions, for obvious reasons. The house was an isolated and imposing structure on a very large plot of land, the perfect place, I realized, in retrospect, for getting rid of someone.”

“I was late in arriving for dinner. She’d been afraid I wasn’t going to show up, she said, and had been preparing to throw dinner away when I rang the doorbell. I remember thinking: these Americans! So rich they can throw food away!” He chuckled.

“I was quite ready to eat. As a precaution against her cooking being mediocre or even bad, I had starved myself before dinner. I was hoping to be led directly to the dinner table, but she wanted to make love, ‘one last time,’ before eating. I have to confess that at that point, I was so hungry, the offer of making love before dinner was not the most attractive proposition.”

“In the interest of not being rude, however, I allowed her to lead me by the hand, up a carpeted flight of stairs such as were often depicted in movies of the era… a thoroughly upper-middle class staircase… to the master bedroom. I was wearing a dinner jacket and penny loafers if I recall and she was wearing the gown you see here in this picture.We weren’t Rock Hudson and Doris Day but you get the idea. She threatened to rip my clothes off. I performed heroically, under the circumstances. She was blonde… my first blonde… but not beautiful. Exquisite body, yes, but she had a squint and a bit of an underbite that made her look permanetly resentful. But I did my duty… spurred on by the unusual degree of passion on display. She behaved as though I were to be shipped off to the war in Indochina at dawn the next morning. The war was just beginning to get public attention back then and I imagine there were many such dramatic partings. In this case, obviously, it was different.”

“Have I mentioned that she was a brilliant woman? Before marrying, she’d been some sort of scientist, or mathematician, herself. She had a mathematician’s quantitative interest in the Arts that passes for being cultured in some circles. But she was quite brilliant… intimidatingly so… nervous, neurotic, cold at times and given to strange moods, sudden outbursts of temper. I was extremely suspicious when I sat down finally to dinner. The brilliant ones are the ones to watch out for, and they are the most likely, as it turns out… I’ve done some research on the matter. The ignorant use knives, the stolid, church-going middle class have their guns but the clever usually opt for poison. I stared long and hard into my cream of mushroom soup… it had come out of a can, by the way.” El-Hadi made a face as though the fact that the soup had come out of a can was more distasteful to him than that it was laced with poison.

“A strong chemical odor rose from my bowl. So strong in fact it stung my eyes. It was a very poor job… an impulsive attempt at a poisoning. I pushed away from the table and began to laugh. And so did she.”

“I said, Marion… is it possible that you’ve tampered with my soup?”

“Her laughter became hysterical, shading into tears… very theatrical. And not very convincing. She was having her moment in the spotlight, I suppose.”

“I stood from the table and said, My God, you meant to poison me! I was quite obliging in those days, you see. Playing my role to the hilt. I was a pretty good sport, considering the fact that she’d emptied half a can of rat poison into my soup.”

“That’s when she stopped laughing and adopted the sly look of a Borgia, or the cat who swallowed the canary. ‘And how can you be sure,’ she said, ‘that I didn’t poison my pussycat too?’ She was, of course, referring indirectly to a sexual act I’d been known to experiment with, in those days, in a misguided effort to be modern.” El-Hadi chuckled again and handed me another picture to hang on the wall: an open-mouthed young redhead in tennis whites, posing with her racket as though it were a guitar.

“I saw myself to the front door and said, before making my exit, I’m fairly sure that if you’d really poisoned your pussycat, my dear, you’d have taken the trouble to wash it first. It was quite a zinger, as you say. She threw a wineglass at the door as I closed it, sealing my triumph. But halfway home I began to feel quite ill. There was a strange, metallic flavor in my mouth.”

“I had to pull over twice, on the road shoulder, to be violently ill. I felt feverish, dizzy, my heart was racing… I thought I was dying. You can imagine how frightened I was. I thought: my god! The madwoman really did it! She poisoned her private parts before inducing me to put my mouth on them! I’m going to die!”

“This was when I lived in a neighborhood of L.A. which was not too bad then, although today it’s a notorious ghetto; a no-go area. Back then it was a mildly integrated neighborhood of working class Mexicans, shabby-genteel white professionals, a few beatniks, artists, and some college students. To be honest I wouldn’t have been comfortable living in a suburban enclave of privelege. I drove myself to the Queen of Angels Hospital.”

“I had to fill out a form and sit in the waiting room along with the typical assortment of injured Americans. Household mishaps and matrimonial assaults… in decades to come, one supposes, self-mutilators and the morbidly obese would come to rule the territory. After filling out a form and while waiting in great discomfort to be seen by a doctor, I took note of the most beautiful colored girl; a sort of dream-Negress. This is far from a politically correct term and I trust you not to repeat the story, but we’re men of the world and you’ll know what I mean when I describe her as such. She was a living breathing daydream, with long legs and an exquisite small bosom. She had wrapped up her visit with the doctor and emerged looking a little shaky. She was gathering her coat and purse from the chair beside me… I still marvel at the social trust… the civility… in that gesture: imagine leaving a purse or a wallet unattended anywhere in America today! Not even in a jewelry store on Rodeo Drive, my friend. It could only mean the purse contained an explosive device!” Laughing a smoker’s hacking laugh, El-Hadi offered me a cigarette, which I declined, and lit one for himself.

“She put her coat on but sat down to tie her shoes… I noticed that she was wearing the same sort of white, crepe-soled shoe as the nurses wore, despite the fact that she was otherwise outfitted in ordinary street clothes… a pleated skirt and a sleeveless blouse. Her outfit was about ten years out of fashion but this was clearly not an eccentricity on her part. No, it was the sexual spice called poverty. After tying and re-tying her shoes, she slumped in her seat, her dark elbows on her skirt and her head in her hands… as though her thoughts were too heavy for her to hold her beautiful head up unsupported.”

“By now I was fascinated, and my own medical problems were the last thing on my mind. Who was this dusky vision, lovely enough to have been Shakespeare’s dark lady, and why did the weight of the world seem to be on her shoulders? There was some mystery as to her background, as well, I might add. She didn’t look entirely Negro… her nose was blunt, but her hair was lustrous and long. Staring at her flattened profile I thought I could detect an Asian, or even Mexican, influence. It struck me that an opportunity for adventure had dropped in my lap, give or take a few centimeters, and I decided to seize it. ”

13.

“Can I offer you a ride?”

“Ain’t you sick, baby? Don’t you want to see the doctor?”

She gave me a skeptical smile, said El-Hadi. But I told her, “I have the rest of my life to be sick.” I knew there’d be only once chance at this. She let me help her gather her things and we left the hospital together. I showed her to my car. I took the trouble to put the top down on the convertible; it was a beautiful evening.

“Nice.” She ran a finger along the contours of the dashboard and then clawed at and shook her hair out in the wind as though washing it. “Nice to ride in a car once in a while. I showed up at the hospital tonight on a bus. Shoot, I had to walk six blocks to the goddamn stop, too. Pardon my French.” She sank back in her seat with a chuckle and closed her eyes and when he asked her Where to? she responded, with a drowsy smile and a far-off voice, Anywhere but home sweet home, baby.

Her profile was more mysterious than the full-on view of her face, with its soft-spread Negro features. In her profile El-Hadi decided she was Polynesian, one of Gaugin’s black virgins, the lustrous mane and perfectly tooled white teeth. He pictured her topless, a flimsy skirt around her cool dark legs, with less than subtle results in the crotch of his trousers. He felt none of the shame about this that he would’ve felt with a white woman riding beside him in the car, and no shame, in turn, about his lack of shame about this frankly racist distinction. You were allowed (even expected) to be a racist in deed in hysterically egalitarian America, El-Hadi had observed, but never a racist in principle. In the Old World, he’d been with black North Africans of both sexes and in every case they’d been servants or of the servant class and pragmatically interested in pleasing him. El-Hadi sensed that with Americans, one could persuade them to go along with nearly any idea as long as it remained unspoken.

El-Hadi said, “Then we drive to the beach.”

“Why not?” she cooed. “It’s your gasoline.”

El-Hadi switched on the radio and lucked out with a favorite song, played from a point very near its beginning: Nat ‘King’ Cole singing Ramblin’ Rose. Steering with his arm at rest on the driver-side door, El-Hadi reached over and took possession of her hand, which was hot to the touch, and lifted it gingerly to his side of the car seat, her arm offering only the slightest resistance. He placed her hand between his trouser legs, where it added heat to the pressure, and stroked it like a smooth little cat in his lap as he drove. Glancing, he noticed that although she still hadn’t opened her eyes, the drowsy smile on her lips of a moment before had been replaced with what one could interpret either as acceptance of the inevitable or the burden of knowing precisely how every such situation in life would turn out, long before it came to pass. As if she could already quite clearly see El-Hadi doing the trivial thing he wanted to do to her and disappearing very soon afterwards, never to be heard from again. Still, her little black hand remained where it was, sandwiched between his arousal and the hand with which an Algerian eats… alive with fine tremors, riding the force of his heartbeat.

This was still several years before the Johnson administration’s Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Azzedine took note of the heady feeling this entailed. Of course, back in Algiers, he’d had his social inferiors, but it was really a matter there of the aristocracy, the Europeans, and everyone else. An Algerian of Azzedine’s class rarely enjoyed this Lord of the Manor feeling in Algeria. It was profound to contemplate that here he was, in America, the shining Atlantis of the West, where even the poor lived better than many merchants could afford to in the land of his birth, and riding beside him in his car was this beautiful American native, an order of magnitude below him on the scale of the human, by law. El-Hadi’s passport stated his race as Caucasian, though he was sure that the darkest part of his body… the part he meant to acquaint her with soon… wasn’t much lighter than the lightest flesh on hers. She was biting her lower lip and her upper lip curled back in a sexual sneer.

Fuck the beach,” she said, suddenly. “Buy us a six-pack and we can party at my place.” She removed her hand from between his legs to point at a neon Liquor sign, blurry and red, blinking on the other side of the wide and complicated road. He changed lanes and waited at the next light with the turn-signal ticking while she watched him in a strange state of suspense. As though she’d made a joke, or set up a prank, that he was yet to pick up on.

“Well?” she said.

“What?” he said, as he leaned into the left turn.

“You didn’t say ‘thank you’.”

Azzedine laughed. “I’ll say ‘thank you’ when I see where you live.”

She laughed with him. “No you won’t.”

This remark worried him but he pulled into the lot beside the little stucco building (barred windows and door; a hand-painted cardboard sign in the window reading The Cashier is Armed) and sent her inside with a five dollar bill.

El-Hadi had noticed before in neighborhoods like this that as soon as the speed of your auto dropped under a few miles per hour you were overwhelmed by cooking odors, commercial and private, and as he sat there waiting for his Gaugin to fetch their drinks and his change, a powerful odor of fried onions wafted from the stucco building on the other side of the lot. He remembered that he hadn’t eaten dinner; that less than an hour before he’d been driving himself to the hospital with sharp pains in his gut as a result of a psychosomatic poisoning.

When she came out with a six-pack of edible-looking beer bottles under one arm and a grocery sack under the other, she was grinning widely. He opened her door for her and she slid onto the seat with the bundle in her arms like a baby. El-Hadi nodded towards the source of the food odor. “Are you hungry?”

That place? That place is a dump. We can do better than that.”

The convertible eased out into traffic like a boat with her as its navigator. What El-Hadi liked was their tacit adherence to a rule he’d never before realized was one of his sweetest fantasies: no names. A short while later, two king-size fried shrimp dinners to-go sat steaming on the space between them. He was in a part of the city he’d never seen before, surprising not so much by its poverty but because of how rural it all ooked. White clapboard houses and red dirt roads and shirtless black boys peddling ‘no-hand’ on their bicycles. Under the harsh glare of streetlights their black flesh looked to be made of the asphalt missing from the roads.

She said, “You know what this here little party of ours is lacking?”

“What?” El-Hadi found himself growing impatient.

“Verna Williams.”

“Who?”

“You’d like her. I like her too. Verna’s my cousin and we’re so close we kiss goodnight on the lips.”

Despite his impatience, El-Hadi’s sexual greed got the better of him, and he soon found himself turning left and right and then left again on roads that were sometimes dirt, sometimes gravel. The first house they stopped at produced no results; the Gaugin girl ran back down the front steps to the car and informed El-Hadi that Verna was at church, so they drove to church.

“I was under the impression that Americans only went to church on Sunday.”

“You ain’t in America right now, baby,” she laughed, pulling a fried shrimp out of its greasey white box and re-sealing the box lest El-Hadi consider doing the same, “This here is a suburb of Africa.”

How ironic that of the two of us, I’m the actual African, thought El-Hadi.

They pulled up in front of the church, a dark box of a building with lavender curtains in all of its windows and a white cross each painted on two of them; a building, minus the detail of the windows, which might just as easily have been another liquor store. There was no boisterous music or primitive ululations, despite his expectations; the only sound was the wind whipping a chain against the aluminum flagpole in front of the building.

The temperature had been dropping gradually all evening and El-Hadi felt a chill setting in. But his resolve to have his sexual experience only solidified as the minutes turned to hours. He’d never had relations with a genuine American colored girl and this intersection of opportunity and desire (she was more attractive than the few of her race that he sometimes came in contact with… shop girls and meter maids, mostly) would most likely never repeat itself. So he waited.

By the time Verna Williams emerged from the building in a thick plug of people, followed by a trickle of stragglers, a light drizzle turned the sidewalks into a dark cloth and beaded on the windshield, and El-Hadi had had to put the top on the convertible up again. When Verna came out the Gaugin said That’s her and stretched provocatively across El-Hadi and honked the horn. The girl who ran towards the car in response was heavyset and darker than her cousin, medium height and somewhere in her middle twenties, although El-Hadi, of course, had been fantasizing about a younger, more slender and sloe-eyed version of the Polynesian. Verna’s dark dress hid neither the round weight of her stomach nor that of her breasts, which bounced in a Disney ballet as she skipped towards them with a grin that struck El-Hadi as their only common feature. Verna leaned into the window and the cousins kissed, as promised, on the lips.

“Girl, how you doin’? I was gonna call you later to see if everything turned out okay.”

“You know me, Verna.”

“Too well, child.”

“Verna, this is my friend Rudy. You wanna come with me an’ Rudy to my place an’ celebrate?”

El-Hadi got out and opened the Gaugin’s door so she could get out in turn and let Verna Williams push her way onto the back seat. Close up, he noticed that Verna was a pretty girl, though heavyset, and his disappointment healed itself. He developed a wolfish interest in seeing all that flesh unpacked and set in contrast with the slender form of her cousin. He even got a hand on her hips as he helped her into the car and this re-animated his dozing erection. He glanced at Verna in the rearview mirror and wondered how far the two girls had gone in the past. The trick would be to get them to exceed the previous limit without calling attention to the moment of truth, and the beers they had with them would no doubt play a role. El-Hadi’s dark beauty handed one of the shrimp dinners back to her cousin and they ate the food quickly while chatting, polishing off two handfuls of shrimp, some coleslaw and their complimentary Saltine crackers.

“How long you got off now, girl?”

“He said I could come back to work on Monday.”

“A four-day weekend. That ain’t bad.”

“Least he could do, considering.”

Verna curled her lip and cocked her head. “Considering. You sure you okay?”

“Okay as I’m gonna get.”

Verna licked her fingers and met El-Hadi’s eyes in the rearview. “Rudy, what do you do?”

“He’s a male nurse,” answered the Gaugin.

“Oh. Should would be talking about… ?”

“Different hospital. He just started working at St. Luke’s.”

“Presbyterian?”

“That’s right,” said the Gaugin girl.

“How you like working there, Rudy?”

“I love it,” said El-Hadi, and all three of them laughed, each for a different reason.

They drove up a very long gravel alley and parked behind a tilted garage so weathered that it had nearly managed to unpaint itself. The Gaugin girl was through the gate and up the walk to the back door of the house before El-Hadi could help Verna out of the back seat. The Gaugin had either run ahead to warn someone about this unexpected arrival or to hide something El-Hadi shouldn’t see, he thought, but still he was surprised that it was a house and not a wretched little apartment after all. It was Verna who led him up the uneven walk in the rain, speaking in a museum-goer’s hush.

“Maybe Mr. Reyes home,” she said.

“Who’s Mr. Reyes?”

“Step-father.”

When they entered the kitchen through the screen door the air they met was the sealed air of a sickroom, though the lighting was over-bright as on a stage in a theatre as the curtain rises. There were four unshaded table lamps glaring from various spots around the kitchen. Seeing El-Hadi squint, Verna whispered, “The poor man losin’ his vision.”

A gray-haired man of indeterminate race slumped at the kitchen table with El-Hadi’s sixpack in front of his downed head and the pillow of his folded arms. Tugged by Verna, El-Hadi followed the two women out of the kitchen into a dimly lit hallway, thence left into a doorless room. The room would have been just about a comfortable size for one adult, with its permanently unfolded and unmade sofa bed on the far wall and its two playpens, side-by-side, under the heavily draped window nearest El-Hadi. In each playpen stood a curly-haired child, wide awake but silent, the one aged two or three perhaps and the other three or four and resembling each other not very much at all. El-Hadi remained in the doorway with Verna while his Polynesian extracted two loud bags of cheesecorn from the Liquor store grocery sack and handed one to each. Whatever purchase remained in the sack, which she did not crumple but placed discreetly on a chair near the playpens, was clearly allocated for the night. She said, over her shoulder, “Y’all go on to the other room and I’ll be right with you.”

Azzedine, overwhelmed by the unpredictability of living things and stunned by the fact of the children, allowed himself to be tugged further by Verna into a large, dark room at the end of the hallway. There was a massive console television set in front of drapes faintly aglow with streetlight and a sofa angled to face the television.

Verna came at him with the fervently awkward kisses of a twelve-year old. She placed his hands on her body and moved in them like a novice teaching the tango. He stumbled around the room with her like this, smelling the sweat baked in layers into her dress and the meal that he’d paid for on her lips, nurturing his arousal with brutal thoughts: he saw himself yanking her by her hair to her knees, forcing himself in her mouth. He fantasized pinning her belly-down to the floor and forcing an entrance or having both her and her beautiful cousin prone and compliant, side-by-side, like a buffet; anything to protect his arousal against her clumsy, giggly, anti-erotic behaviour. He unzipped her dress and gestured for her to pull it off over her shoulders, thinking, The important thing is to have her naked before the pretty one comes back into the room; if the line is already crossed, she can’t fear to cross it.

Under Verna’s dress was a tightly-packed slip instead of brassiere and panties. She backed away from El-Hadi and sprawled on the sofa in a gynecological posture. Her breasts were rounded slabs. He unzipped his pants and freed himself with a sigh of relief, pointing at the ceiling as though a string was pulling him. He knelt on the couch with one knee as she said, not in a whisper but in a very small voice, “I hope your cock bone strong… “

“What?”

“Your cock bone… I hope it good and strong ‘cuz I got a hard cherry… “

“What are you talking about?”

“The bone in your cock… “

El-Hadi emitted an Algerian curse appropriate to being sold ten cracked eggs out of a dozen and dragged her up off the couch, to do a lurch-and-stumble tango of weak resistance across the room and up the hallway. Verna grunted and groaned, pleading No all the way. He dragged her to the doorway of the Gaugin’s bedroom. The light was off so he slapped on the light in the hall and he noticed that the bedroom smelled as though it had gotten a quick wipe-down from a kerosene-soaked rag by an arsonist: The Gaugin’s nightcap. She was snoring softly on her sofa bed between her doomed half-castes, one of whom blinked in the wedge of light that cut across his mother’s stockingless legs from the doorway as El-Hadi hurried to stuff himself back in his trousers.

She hadn’t even undressed; she was still wearing her crepe-soled shoes and Verna had Azzedine’s arm and pulled her mouth up to his ear and she said, “The poor thing had that operation today, you know what I mean. Let her sleep, Rudy. You can do it to me instead. Anything you want, I promise, I’ll take you to the moon and back just let my Raylene sleep.”

By the time El-Hadi had reached this part of the story, we were re-hanging the last of the framed beauties: a polaroid of a handsome gray-haired woman behind a desk, gesturing with a phone at the camera. Strange to say it but she didn’t look to me like a trustworthy woman. Something in her eyes caused the phrase “she’s lying” to pop, out of nowhere, into my mind. Not that I’d have been impertinent enough to say so to El-Hadi.

“My current love,” he said, wiping a smudge off the glass of the little gold frame. He kissed his bunched fingertips in a gourmet’s gesture. “Real Estate.”

“What about Raylene?”

“I never saw her again. But I bore her no grudge. What would you have done in her place? She taught me a valuable philosophical lesson.” El-Hadi counted on his fingers, “She got herself a free ride home, a dinner for herself, a dinner for her cousin, an evening’s worth of cheap fuel for her step-father, dinner of a sorts for her children and a bottle for bedtime in the bargain. She knew how to take when the taking is good. She really taught me something.”

“And Verna?”

“Verna wasn’t twenty five. She was thirty seven.”

I laughed. El-Hadi got a wistful look on his face. “It took three separate attempts, over the course of a week or two, to relieve her of the burden of her virginity.”

14.

It took me four days to record that passage in my notebook, piecing it together (as Azzedine had told it to me) from memory and polishing it into a style close to his speech patterns. I did this with a thought to working it later into The Bomb Collector somehow… an adventure El-Hadi recalls for Noa’s amusement, maybe, or an adventure he has in ‘real time’, behind her back, cheating on his three mistresses. I’d have to change the setting from early 1960’s Los Angeles to late 1960’s New York State, but the transposition wouldn’t be too technically difficult. The story would lose some truth in the process (the ironic evocations of innocence in the original setting would be totally misplaced just a decade later) but the loss would be ineffable; known only to me.

I had started writing again four or five days into my crippled state. On the morning of the third day already I forced myself to hop into the bathroom and take a painful, backed-up shit… my ankle throbbed while I slumped on the toilet, sick with pain. Still, I experienced something like the catharsis of giving birth when I finally cleansed my system of the dense black bomb that had boiled in my guts since the night Moth dumped me. On my way back to the sick room I had a drink of tapwater in the kitchen and grabbed a notebook and two pens, determined to make my incapacitation worth something.

The break in my ankle, I began to realize, represented a larger ‘break’ that had been necessary for a long time: a break with my past. Had I come all the way from San Diego to Berlin in order merely to continue the life of failure I had lived up until the point of departure? Transcribing El-Hadi’s tale in the state of my extremity caused me to reflect not only on myself but life itself… the realities versus the perceptions. Why had I, unlike El-Hadi’s Gaugin, never taken while the taking was good? I wasn’t an actor, I was a reactor. I was essentially passive, a failure of the ego typical of the thinking man. Even this grand and all-consuming project of the last few years, my book, The Bomb Collector… why was I so busy fantasizing about a life (or lives) when I should have been living one myself? Worse, it became clear to me that writing about Azzedine at all had been my vicarious method for living the life of a self-assured male. The only thing worse than a writer’s totalitarian dominance of a created character is his pathetic reliance on one.

After I transcribed El-Hadi’s tale of the white poisoner and the black con artist and the overweight virgin, I made a new rule: I could only allow myself to write something in the evening if I had earned the right to do so with a bold action during the day. To go into effect as soon as my ankle had healed to the extent that I was capable of leaving the flat.

Two weeks of carefully rationed sweets, despite my lack of exercise (and the occasional pizza or chinese takeout I ordered from various flyers slid under my door), chiseled my features… or perhaps it was merely the loss of water weight (I was down to a glass a day)… in any case, that and my new facial hair gave me a romantically gaunt look. When I reached the point that I was able to support my weight (wincingly) on both legs, I trimmed the beard into a sort of Robert Louis Stevenson affair; a rakish van dyke. I hobbled around the flat with an umbrella for a cane, liking my new style. I would never again be so pathetic as the middle-aged man I had become, dumped by an empty-headed seventeen year old girl.

Almost three weeks after the accident, I exited my flat and limped up the stairs to the second floor, dressed in a dark suit, with the umbrella as a cane. I knocked on the door with the umbrella’s wooden handle and waited, knowing that my neighbor was preparing to leave the building, her television droning on in the background as she went from room to room doing her makeup or brushing her teeth. When she came to the door my confidence faltered for a split-second: she was far more beautiful than I’d ever seen her… or any woman, within touching distance, for that matter.

Her long orange hair had become a precise and luminous platinum bob, and her cheekbones looked to be sharpened on a whetstone. We took in each other’s changes, each taking also a deep breath, before I said, quite bravely,

“Hi Nico.”

“Hi John just-John.”

“I was wondering.”

“Yes?”

“I hurt my leg recently…,” I touched my ankle through my suit pants with the metal spike of the umbrella, “… and I was wondering if you know where I might buy a stylish-looking walking stick?”

She was wearing a fashion I’d noticed a lot of in the neighborhood that year: a knee-length skirt over trousers. Her top, the skirt and the trousers were all black denim; the top featured pale bone buttons and the skirt featured thick white stitching in an almost oriental pattern for trim. She said, “Oh, yes, I know a very trendy shop where you can get yourself a walking stick. I like your hair.” She touched the shaggy edge that hung over my collar.

“I like yours.”

“Thanks. I’m going shopping in a few minutes. Would you like to come with me? We can stop off at the trendy shop and get your walking stick, and you can help me pick out new drapes for my flat.”

“Deal. But I’ll need my coat.”

“No you won’t. Haven’t you been outside at all in the past few days? It’s freakishly warm out. Like spring.”

“Global warming.”

“I blame you Americans,” she said, shaking her head, but she smiled and gestured that I should come into the apartment while she put the finishing touches on herself. What I saw of the interior of her flat was airy and light-filled (it amazed me how much difference one storey in elevation made viz the natural light available). I only saw her living room but it was in marked contrast to the only other flat in Berlin I’d thus far seen (beside my own), which being Amanda Nye’s artefact-stuffed lair.

It was indeed bizarrely warm outside considering that Christmas was only two days away; much warmer outside than it was within the entrance hall of our apartment building. Some trees, in fact, confused by the weather, had begun to show green, and children ran by us on the flooded sidewalk without jackets. We walked slowly, arm in arm, and I had no sense that Nico was impatient with our pace as I limped beside her on my umbrella. She took the opportunity to tell me the story of her life.

“Well,” she said, “where do I begin? I always blank out when somebody asks me a question like that. Maybe it’s easier to start with what I do. You must be curious, considering the odd hours I keep. Not that I think you pay attention to everything I do or anything. I’m an actress. I work seriously about half a dozen times a year and the rest of the year I’m either auditioning, learning a role, or doing commercials or voice-over work. You’d know some of this if you had a television.”

“I’ve known a few actors in my time,” I said, “but I’ve never seen an actor’s apartment that wasn’t full of pictures of himself.”

“You haven’t seen my bedroom… walls,” she said, and I was sure that she’d called the sentence to a halt before finishing it with ‘yet’. A violet blush suffused the flesh under the fine white powder on her face. “That’s where my vanity truly outdoes itself.”

She said, “My father was American but he died when I was very young… six. The first language I ever spoke was English and that’s why I’m not too bad at it nowadays, although I’ve spent most of my life in Germany. A few years ago I changed my last name, legally, from Silver to Taubkind, which is my mother’s maiden name, because I always, I don’t know… I thought ‘Silver’ sounded too show-bizzy.”

“The big news is that I’m up for a speaking part in a big American production… not the romantic lead but the romantic lead’s best friend who is killed in the beginning of the second act. They needed a German girl who’s English is perfect… it’s a thriller set in Berlin… so I have a pretty good chance.”

We were blocks away from home, still strolling along at my crippled pace, when I said, “It’s the blind graffiti guy again!” I pointed across the street with the umbrella like I was aiming a shotgun.

Strangely, Nico tensed… I felt it in her grip on my arm. She reached over and pulled my umbrella down. “He’s not a graffiti guy, he’s a famous artist here in Berlin,” she said, keeping an eye on him as we put his shuffling figure slowly behind us. A race of the locomotively impaired.

“A famous artist?” I wanted to laugh and spit at the same time. “He can’t even see what he’s doing! He just sprays brown blobs on new buildings!”

She shook her head. “It’s performance art. The green and the red paint represents money and blood… when they mix together it makes brown… shit. Sorry.” She blushed again. “The cane he uses has hi-tech sensors in it that respond to certain buildings that are implanted with microchips. He’s being filmed while he tags the buildings. It’s a year long project and he got a lot of grant money to do it.”

“Wow,” I said, eager to change the subject, “that’s ‘Art’, I suppose.”

“That’s the reaction of many of the tax-payers. It was quite a controversy last year. You know, the working class people say, my five year old can paint better than that! They get quite angry about it. They don’t realize that the money would never go to them either way, whether it goes to this project or not. That money is just a ghost to them, or they’re ghosts to it… they’d never even know about it if the press didn’t decide to report it. It’s no more their affair than the price of tiger’s paws in China and if they’re so worried about aesthetics why don’t you ever see the proletariat represented at art openings?”

I didn’t like being lumped in with boorish, uncomprehending, meat-and-potatoes hoi polloi, and, though normally I would have played the diplomat, steering the conversation away from her inadvertent insult, the ‘new me’ decided this was as good a place as any to assert himself.

“Bullshit,” I said.

Taken aback, but far from angry, she said, “How so?”

“Because it’s not a question of aesthetics, is it? It’s a question of the almost pathological need that the rich have to separate themselves from the middle class. Paying lots of money for utter crap that the middle class ‘don’t get’,” I mimed the quotation marks with my fingers, “serves the double-duty of snubbing the middle class and pissing on the poor. The quality of the art is never the point. The shock value is the point, and the shock value couldn’t exist without quoting the prices.”

Her head hung in thought while she considered all this and she began to nod, slowly. Again, that blush; but with an entirely different meaning this time. “I’ve often thought exactly the same thing, but you’re the first person I’ve ever known who put it into the right words.”

I leaned over and kissed her. She said, after coming up for air, “John, I should tell you I have a boyfriend.”

“Well, if you didn’t have one I’d be worried that there’s  something wrong with you.”

And we kissed again.

That evening I sat in my kitchen writing, having earned the right to do so with two strong actions committed in the real world: kissing Nico and giving her my cell phone number. The second of the two acts wasn’t as profound as the first but it was a step on the path towards the act above-which-there-is-nothing-profounder, as some would argue. As far as I know, this is new in the philosophy of writing: my notion that each act of fantasy must be earned by a corresponding act in Life itself; in real time; how many pariahs, shrinking violets, shut-ins, hermits and ghouls from ‘The Canon’ could have been saved by this simple prescription?

Soon, I imagined, Nico and I would be exchanging witty and then intimate text messages. What could be more romantic than laying in my bed directly under Nico’s, separated only by the thickness of her floor and the muddled air above my head, whilst exchanging little haikus of text via the intermediaries of microwave relay stations and a satellite or two in geosynchronous orbit? And what could energize a writer in the early Autumn of his life more wonderfully than having a modern kind of goddess at his side to inspire him? I hadn’t actually been excited about a woman since college,  sad but true. I flashed back on the very first moment I’d  laid eyes on Nico, my first day in the flat… how she’d walked briskly up the street with her bright orange hair,  astounding me. I saw myself dedicating The Bomb Collector to her. Maybe I’d end up actually publishing the damned thing after all.

I was certainly beginning to look the part of a guy who gets his picture on the back cover of a paperback. Speaking of which: propped against the wall beside me as I scribbled in my notebook was the antique blackthorn walking stick I picked up at the consignment store that Nico had directed me to. Apparently, a destitute Irishman had parted with the thing for a song.His abject shame and misery transmuted into my striking (literally) accessory.

I decided to take El-Hadi’s recently transcribed tale of The Poisoner, The Gaugin and The 37 year old Virgin and ease it into the fictional El-Hadi’s life, changing a few of the important details. For simplicity’s sake I removed Verna Williams altogether. And the would-be poisoner I decided to change into El-Hadi’s ex-wife Ruth, the obvious candidate. And The Gaugin (who I decided to name Delilah) would become El-Hadi’s new flame.

It had only been a few hours since Nico and I parted when my cell phone made the cricket-like sound indicating that I’d gotten a text message. Ah, so eager! The message read:

Meet 2morrow @ Supreme Bean @ 9am?

As luck would have it, The Supreme Bean was the only cafe I knew by name in Berlin. I typed in the answer and pressed the ‘send’ key: Perfect.

15.

I was up early the next morning, boyishly excited about the rendezvous with Nico at the Supreme Bean. The fact that it was the day before Christmas Eve seemed appropriate. I had gone to sleep with silent-movie-type images of her face, the powerful beauty of which seemed to flutter between evoking the 1960’s or the 1920’s for me, and I felt like a man who was soon to inherit a large fortune. I washed myself quietly (for some reason I didn’t want her to hear me preparing for our meeting), trimmed my dandyish facial hair, and dressed in the second of the three suits I’d brought to Berlin with me, a brown woollen vintage bespoke suit I’d been given by Azzedine, in fact, who had brought too much heavy clothing to America on first arriving. The suit, which was forty years old, was immaculately preserved, and so old fashioned that it looked almost futuristic.

I left a little early for the two mile walk, not sure how long it would take me to limp along on the blackthorn. It was still unseasonably warm and the suit I was wearing was more than enough; halfway there I began to worry I might break into a sweat, despite the fact that it was the Christmas season.

Eight o’clock on a Tuesday morning in Berlin looks very much like six in the morning in every other major city I’ve lived in. What it is about Berlin that makes it so much like a ghost town, despite its millions of inhabitants (San Diego is less than half the population and seems to bustle and hum like Manhattan in comparison), I wasn’t qualified to say, but once, walking along with Moth (in an era that seemed shrouded in the mists of time, suddenly) past the third sex boutique on that particular street with flesh-tone appliances on display in the in the window, I asked her, only half-joking: “What does this city seem so… perverted?” And her answer had been to shrug, and say, “High unemployment? Too much time on their hands.” Academics could construct all kinds of fanciful arguments to describe the social effects of the economy on the lower classes but had any historian yet written a scholarly paper with the title, “Idle Hands: The Devil’s Workshop”? Boredom as a shaper of civilizations explained everything from the sexual decadence of ancient Rome to the murderous energy of modern Fascism. Employment was palliative care for the proletariat; even the very wealthy get up to mischief without vocational interests to harness their energies.

I limped along the sparsely populated street imagining that everyone else, from the out-of-work traffic cops to the out-of-work yoga instructors, was still crunched up in bed, sleeping the troubled sleep of the reality-persecuted. Only Berlin’s ravens, huge gray or black birds that looked like über-crows, seemed busy at that hour, making an awful racket… like rusty gears grinding… in the trees overhead. These aggressive birds, in some cases standing knee-high to a grown man, had been known to gather in large numbers (like a natural Luftwaffe) and mutilate flocks of sheep in rural areas where food is scarce, using beaks and talons to peck the animals’ eyes out.

They hop down from the tree branches to peck at litter on the sidewalk from time to time and aren’t even intimidated enough by humans to fly away or even hop aside should you find yourself approaching one. One hopped down in just such a way, in fact, as I limped along a few blocks away from my breakfast date, and I was glad I had the unbreakable blackthorn to swing at it.

When I stood in front of the door of the Supreme Bean it was quarter ’til nine and saw that it was already full of students and the glass walls were fogged with espresso steam and cigarettes. I reached for the door and saw, at the moment that I touched the handle, that the girl at the counter with her back to me, chatting with a chiselled, dark-haired man who was ringing up orders, was, unmistakably, Moth. As if in response to the emission of this non-plussed thought she turned as I opened the door. After a startled pause during which she adjusted to my new look she said,

“John? You’re all dressed up! Why do you look so horrified to see me?”

I thought: this could either end up being the most embarrassing hour of the day, or the funniest story of the year, or both. I could only hope that Nico was a little late for the appointment and I’d be done with Moth before she showed up. Of course, she’d seen Moth coming in and out of my flat more than once during the two months that Moth and I had lived together, but I didn’t want to remind her how much of a dirty old man I once had been, or, even worse, give her the impression that the affair lived on.

“Moth. You look… healthy.” We exchanged that pecking two-cheek kiss that it had taken me a dozen attempts to master. She did look healthier… rosy-cheeked and a little fleshier. Had I fed her so poorly during our time together? Perhaps my mistake had been in not playing enough of the father figure… letting her eat under her own supervision too often. I laughed at myself for this ridiculous thought even before completing it. She was wearing a pair of jeans I’d bought her; the sweater looked familiar, too. The motorcycle boots were from an entirely different patron, though.

She pointed at the handsome young man behind the counter, who I now realized was smolderingly Gay, and said, “John, this is Ramin.” Rah-meen. High cheekbones, olive skin, jet black hair, a slender frame and eyes from the frescoes at Pompeii. He wasn’t much taller than Moth; a compact little prince. If he hadn’t been Gay, I’d have been terribly jealous, despite the fact that Moth and I were no longer together and my mind, of course, was full of thoughts of Nico. Ramin seemed deeply amused at something and I wondered what Moth had told him about me. Here’s the dirty old man who stuck his dirty old thing in my mouth, ass, cunt, between my tits and my toes

“Pleased to meet you, John.”

Moth said, “Ramin is my girlfriend’s business partner… they own The Bean together.”

“Looks like business is good.”

Ramin smiled enigmatically and said, “Well, I’ll give you two some privacy,” and he drifted off to take an order. Moth reached for my cane but I moved it. “It’s real, Moth… I need it to walk.” The amount of bitterness… of blame… I heard in my voice as I said this surprised me.

“Really?” She seemed genuinely concerned. “What happened?”

“It’s a long story.´”

“Suit yourself. I like the facial hair, by the way. You look like Johnny Depp.” She brushed by me on the way towards a few empty tables and said, “So, where do you want to sit?” and I panicked. I glanced at my watch and she added, “Okay, we’re still a little early, I guess, but… I have something important to tell you. I wanted to catch you before Christmas.”

It was only then that it dawned on me that the message to meet at the cafe that morning hadn’t come from Nico at all.

We sat at a table in the back, near the window; in fact, it was the same table I’d sat at the one time I’d been in this cafe before, early on, the morning of sleeping with Amanda Nye. This was the table I’d sat at with the notebook I wrote ‘She is lying’ in. I had ducked into this cafe while on the search for a bed, I recalled, to get in out of a downpour. I’d come in, taken a seat, written in the notebook and left again without even noticing that Amanda Nye was sitting there too. This was during an epoch even earlier than the Moth Dynasty. I’d been in Berlin less than a year and more had happened to me already than in all the time I’d lived in California. Idle hands and the Devil and so forth.

Moth said, “You want something? A hot chocolate or something? Anything we want is free.”

I was still doing my best to recover from the fact that Nico wouldn’t be coming through the door any minute. “I’ll have a look later.”

“Suit yourself. By the way, before I forget: what’s the name of the publisher your books are published with? I told my girlfriend about it and she’s curious.”

“It’s just… they’re just, you know, paperbacks. It’s a small press. Indie. Upper Midwest.”

“Yeah but we can order them on Amazon can’t we?”

I did my best to gauge whether Moth knew the truth and was needling me or if she still innocently believed my bullshit about being a published writer and therefore the intense little schoolboy horrors of dread and shame she was inflicting on me without preamble at 9 in the morning were purely unintentional; it was impossible to tell. “They’re all out of print but I guess you can try. The name of the publisher is Objets… like the French word. Objets.” I borrowed the name of Azzedine El-Hadi’s antique shop in Mission Hills, San Diego. The Objets Press sounded pretty good.

Moth said, “Listen, do you believe me when I say I’m really really sorry about how things, you know, ended up?”

“Don’t… ”

“I mean, I’m not sorry I’m with my girlfriend. But I’m sorry I had to hurt you to be happy. You know what I mean?”

“I know what you mean. And I’m sorry I wasn’t a better friend to you instead of a horny old goat…, ” I lowered my voice, “who used you like… you know. Who used you.”

“Hey, I fucked you with my own free will,” she said, a little too loudly. A chubby student with blond dreadlocks (Moth’s old hairstyle) looked up from her book at us. “That wasn’t the problem.”

“What was the problem?”

She looked away, arrived at some sort of conclusion, and said, “You want to come see where I live now?”

We took the scenic route, and Moth gave me a guided tour, pointing out spots that had been her courtyard kitchens, cul-de-sac bathrooms, tree-shaded living rooms and overpass bedrooms when the entire neighborhood had been her apartment, before we’d met. I was nervous that Nico might see us walking together so I made sure to keep a distance from Moth as I hobbled along beside her. We wandered a maze of funky little side streets, left, right, left, left, right, right… until it almost felt as though we were traveling in an angular circle; as though Moth was doing her best to disorient me, or put off some kind of moment of truth.

Some of the streets felt vaguely familiar, the way streets will feel from a new approach after you’ve walked down them a few times already from the opposite direction and on the other side of the street. If she’d suddenly run off and left me limping alone, I thought, it would probably take me hours to find my way home, although I was only a few blocks, I was sure, from familiar landmarks. We followed the shattered wall of a baroque-era cemetery, crossed a railroad bridge and at some point could see the dull metal dome of a planetarium like a lead balloon rising over leafless treetops of the warm winter on this day before Christmas Eve. And then, it seemed to me, we doubled back along a parallel path, protecting ourselves from the obvious.

Just when I thought I couldn’t walk another step, Moth stopped in front of a big green door and was digging in her pockets for her latchkey. The strangest thought flitted through my head. A thought in the form of the sensation of vertigo.

“I know this place,” I said.

“All these buildings look alike. Don’t be a pussy. Let’s go up.”

We entered the dark hallway.

“Moth… ” I reached for her. In anger, possibly. She dodged my hand and bolted across the courtyard, into the rear wing of the building. I heard her on the staircase. I thought to myself: this can’t be true.

She was taking the steps two at a time and I went after her and tried to keep up on my bad leg, clutching the banister with one hand and swinging the cane with the other. The sense of deja vu that crowded in on me was so not ephemeral; so solid; that it was like a clinical symptom of insanity. Deja vu plus rage. The cracked yellow enamel on the walls; the threadbare red runner on the steps; the smells leaking out from the dark doors of silent apartments… it was like a film running backwards, returning me to the black room of a nightmare; a terrible accident; the scene of a crime. Breathless as I pounded up the stairs after her I called, “Moth… Moth… I can’t believe it… I can’t… ”

She called down, from two levels higher, “It was my idea, John! I chose you! I wanted you to be the father!”

And I remembered Amanda teasing me in front of the Supreme Bean that rainy morning with you haven’t even bothered to ask me who I was sitting with… I remembered Moth saying she was with a friend and they took me to dinner at that Indian place and I remembered Amanda joking that night, the night of the ‘dinner’, Give that man a cigar and Gotta go check on Ramen and those Kohl-rimmed eyes… the Kohl-rimmed eyes of the Burka’d ghost who sucked me… the dusky laughter as I ran down the same stairs I was now, insanely, stumbling back up again…

Moth kept running higher and higher and I was expecting, any minute, to wake from the dream.

16.

So that was my Christmas present. After a handful of abortions with as many women over the years, I had finally been tricked into fatherhood. I celebrated the long Christmas holiday alone, paradoxically. Even Nico, who had family in Berlin, vanished from the building for a week that wasn’t even at least decorated with a snowfall. It was a cloudy, muddy, end-of-the-world Christmas. Then came New Year’s Eve, on which I received a text message from Moth while the bombs went off (New Year’s Eve in Berlin is like the 4th of July in Texas): hppy new yr & we c each othr soon. Moth.

Time after that fell away like a rope I no longer had the strength to clutch at; a rope tied to an undefined object of great weight… perhaps the heavy object had been me. Freed of this weight but only at the cost of falling. Moth filled out… her breasts lost any memory of boyishness and her face rounded many weeks before the bulge in her stomach showed. Of course, anyone privy to Moth’s nakedness would have detected the first subtle change down there immediately but I just watched from the outside of the expensive Irish sweaters Amanda kept her in throughout the mild winter.

I checked on Moth every few days by cell phone (hers was still one of only two numbers in my possession), saw her perhaps once a week for dinner. Amanda made an appearance a handful of times before Moth became so pregnant that she required constant supervision.

One night, in fact, I believe Moth was drunk, or on some kind of drug, and I was alarmed for the baby in her. She woke me up, whispering into her cell phone like a proper paranoid that all of the videotapes in that trunk in Amanda’s living room are the same film, John, and I’m really scared. Or something to that effect. I checked on her the next day and she laughed it off, but I couldn’t laugh off the drug-use. Should I bring it up with Amanda behind Moth’s back?

Seeing Amanda Nye again for the first time in months was a queer, but not entirely negative, sensation. In fact, by then, I was glad to see her, if only to have the opportunity to put some questions to her that had been driving me nuts for a very long time.

It was Moth who had phoned me on Valentine’s Day (ironically). “Amanda’s in town. Wanna come over for bagels?”

“What about we all meet at the Supreme Bean instead?” For whatever reason, I still found Amanda’s flat a place to be avoided.

“Okay. Three o’clock then?”

I was standing in my kitchen, where I’d gone to run hot water for the tea kettle while the phone was pressed to my face, and when I signed off I heard what sounded like plate glass shatter in my neighbor’s flat above me. Checking myself in my hall mirror first, I limped upstairs and knocked on Nico’s door. So much had happened since the one and only day we’d kissed that I’d almost forgotten about her. Understandably, I had lost a great deal of the force and self-confidence that had inspired me to boldness with Nico the last time I’d seen her. When she answered the door it was all I could do to resist the temptation to apologize for knocking.

“John just-John!” She broke into a huge smile. A smile, I noted, devoid of the vanity of sexual calculation. “Fancy seeing you in my doorway!”

Her razor-sharp luminous pearl of a platinum bob had devolved into a shaggier, nondescript chocolate-brown haircut in the interim. She was even wearing her reading glasses. Sweet, but hardly the stuff to incite self-immolating panics in a young man’s breast. Or even mine, for that matter. Thank goodness.

“Are you okay? I heard glass breaking.”

She frowned. “Glass breaking?” Then she laughed. “Okay, I know,” she grabbed my hand and pulled me over the threshold. “We’re editing.”

Her living room, otherwise exactly as I had seen it months ago, now featured a table at its center on top of which was a computer monitor and various other black or silver boxes of equipment, linked by a nest of cables. There were two chairs in front of the table and a young man, still with his back to us, sitting in one of them. He had curly blonde hair and a black tee-shirt on the shoulders of which there were either cigarette ashes or dandruff. My immediate thought: so that’s the boyfriend.

“John just-John,” said Nico, with a hand on the boy’s shoulder as he twisted in his seat and smiled at us, “Meet Eric-more-than-Eric,” a humorous introduction I felt slighted by. Slightly.

I realized that I still wanted her; there were still these pangs; but any dreams of actually having her now seemed fairly ludicrous. Not long ago, our paths had come so close that we might’ve touched, but that was the extent of it. My future was obviously shaping up to be too strange to include her: but even this portentous sentence makes it all sound more glamorous or full of mystery than it could possibly be.

“Whatever happened to that big Hollywood audition you were so excited about?”

Nico shrugged. “I decided to stop chasing luck,” she said, “And make some for myself.” She gestured at the computer screen as Eric returned his attention to it as well. He hit a key on the keyboard and a body went flying backwards through an un-shattering pane of glass, sucked feet-first out of the black night and into a kitschy bedroom, landing on tip-toe and freezing. “We’re making our own movie with rented digital cameras and some big software editing programs. Everyone donated their skills. That kind of thing is really ‘in’ now.”

Eric hit another key and dragged the mouse and the body went forward through the glass again, without sound and in slow motion this time, and I could see that it was somebody in a platinum blond wig (very much like the ice-cold hairstyle Nico had previously), doubling for her. The shattering glass looked like a wave smashing on a swimmer’s body. The body went back and forth through the membrane of the glass as they attempted to synch the sound-effect perfectly with the moment of impact. The sucking-and-then-spitting plume of candy-glass in the brilliant spotlight. The body’s arms as they crossed and flailed backwards and forwards, in half and double time, looked like some kind of devotional dance of the Middle East.

“It’s almost hypnotic,” I said.

“It’s the end of the film,” said Nico, softly. “This is where she kills herself.”

“Why does she kill herself?”

Nico shrugged. “She just does.”

Walking to my scheduled appointment at The Supreme Bean, I couldn’t get over that line: she just does. It was the perfect and terrifyingly unanswerable answer.

On my way through Berlin on a warm, partly-cloudy Valentine’s Day, it felt as though I’d been living in Europe for years already. My time as a house painter in Southern California seemed like another life, or a dream, or a novel I’d been working on many years ago only to abandon before coming to the end of it, though it had not been six months since I’d flown away from all that. There were probably still molecules of house paint swirling around in my bloodstream.

Work had stopped on The Bomb Collector… the physical work of actually writing it (following my new rule that I could only earn the right to a page of writing in the evening if I’d accomplished something ‘real’ during the evening’s day) …  but it occupied my mind nevertheless. Even as I limped up the street, away from my building (next door to which workmen were still scurrying around, climbing up ladders and banging on things, although the decibel level had dropped to tolerable levels and the construction site was beginning to look like a building), I was seeing Azzedine El-Hadi’s fictionalized life projected on the backdrop of my current reality. I was picturing him walking arm in arm with a woman, well-dressed and unusually relaxed, not on a first date but clearly in the early phases of a romance. Who was the woman and where were they off to? Was this the black mistress I’d given him? What about Noa?

I was still puzzling all that out at the complicated intersection of Rosenthaler platz, not far from the spot I’d first seen the blind ‘artist’ defacing a black-walled building, when I happened upon the man himself, sitting in front of a trendy new cafe called Sankt Oberholz. He hadn’t changed much in six months and I wasn’t sure but was fairly convinced, in fact, that he was wearing the same outfit I’d first seen him in. If he hadn’t been blind anyway, on the other hand, he wouldn’t have recognized me at all, I chuckled to myself. My hair was longer, I was sporting this rakish facial hair, and I was hobbling like a distinguished gentlemen on an antique walking stick. In a way, I’d grown up. Back in Southern California, I’d still dressed like a college student, despite the fact that it had been twenty years since I’d handled a textbook.

The blind painter sat close enough to me, as I waited for the traffic light to change, that I could hear him muttering to himself. The cafe had a row of silver chairs placed in front of the window facing the street I’d just come up and he’d taken one of the chairs and pulled it out towards the corner. He was drunk, I realized. Was I imagining this or could I smell the liquor on his breath? He suddenly stiffened as if aware of the fact that I was staring at him and he swung his backpack around to his lap and rummaged around in it. He pulled out a case for his sunglasses, popped it open, extracted a pair of black framed eyeglasses, removed the sunglasses he was wearing and put them in the case… and then slid the eyeglasses on. They magnified his necrotically blue eyes as he turned them upon me… in a perfect imitation of being able to see. I jumped out of my skin in fright and hurried across the street.

Crossing the street at that intersection means crossing the streetcar tracks as well, and I limped dangerously across the tracks as one was approaching, a clattering tin toy in bright yellow, despite the stories I’d heard from Moth of people being hit and sliced in half by the streetcar. I watched from the opposite corner until the chain of five wagons had pulled away again but by then the blind painter was gone. Maybe into the cafe itself. Those dead blue eyes. There was something cruel or even evil about those reading glasses over his broken eyes, but I could admit to myself that it was a witty response to my staring. But how could he tell I’d been staring? The change in the rhythm of my breathing? I was going to have nightmares about the corpse-blue of those pupils.

Half a block away from the glass box of the Supreme Bean I could see Amanda and Moth standing at the counter, chatting with Ramin, and the idea of walking in there and standing between the two of them making small talk with the man who had ‘raped’ me as part of Amanda’s little prank was not what I would call appealing. But what were my options? I could keep walking, of course, and never see any of them again if I chose to. But the idea of Moth’s young body transformed, even as I gazed upon the three of them, by my sex, my seed, was too compelling. As a writer, too, I was driven by curiosity: how was this story going to turn out?

“There he is,” said Amanda. “The mystery man.” She hugged me. “I wouldn’t have recognized you if Moth hadn’t warned me first. My my. You do look a little like Johnny Depp with that pirate style. I like it. Is that walking stick real? How’d that happen?”

“Long story.”

Moth hugged me too. Did I imagine a certain lingering quality to the embrace that reminded me of the embrace that had gotten her pregnant? In a panic over the instant erection this produced, I suggested that we grab a table at the back of the cafe somewhere, away from eavesdroppers. I ignored Ramin completely: my passive aggressive revenge.

Moth and Amanda were dressed in what the Germans call a “partner look”. We took our seats at a table insulated with a good distance on all sides; the cafe only had a handful of patrons in it.

“John, before anything else, I just want to apologize for my behaviour. Everything, I mean. I don’t have to go into detail here but you and I know a few things happened that shouldn’t have. In a way it was a misunderstanding, but it was unfair of me to kind of toss you into the deep end of a situation… a lifestyle… you probably weren’t prepared for. You won’t believe this but Ramin is sorry, too. But that’s enough on that subject. Fair enough?”

“Fair enough.”

“Good. Next topic. You’re probably wondering about… ”

“The baby. Was it an accident or on purpose?”

“I don’t believe in accidents.”

“So, there was a plan,” I said, eyeing Moth carefully. She smiled warmly at me and squeezed Amanda’s hand on the table.

“Yes, a plan. Moth was outside a lot in those days, as you know. I wasn’t happy with that but it was something she felt she had to do… it was a freedom thing, right, baby? And being outside a lot she noticed people. We were looking… ”

Moth jumped in. “We had decided a while ago we wanted to be pregnant but we wanted a certain kind of guy for the father. He had to be good-looking,” she laughed.

“And we didn’t want a German,” Amanda took over again and Moth shook her head vociferously on this last point. “We wanted someone intelligent, too, but there’s no way to tell that one by looking, is there?”

“So that day I first met you crossing the street over there under the U-Bahn tracks… ”

“Yeah. It wasn’t random. We were sitting in front of that Indian restaurant on Kastanien Allee and Moth spotted you again so I, uh… I went after you.”

“Jesus Christ.”

“Hey, be more flattered than freaked out.”

“Yes, John… we looked at… I don’t know… hundreds of guys before we picked you.”

“I was immediately impressed by your intelligence, John.”

“And Moth moving in with me… ”

“That was part of the plan, too.”

I looked at Moth but spoke to Amanda. “So she could get pregnant.”

“It took awhile.”

“I’ve heard of women tricking men into getting them pregnant before but this… ” I was numb.

“But there’s a big big difference, John. We don’t want you to take any of the responsibility for the child. We want you to be a part of her life…, ” they squeezed hands again and exchanged a romantic look, “… but only to the extent you feel comfortable. And not as a parent.”

“How do you know it’ll be a girl already? It’s only been a few months.”

“We just know,” said Moth.

“And you don’t expect any… financial… input from me?”

Amanda laughed and for a moment the old Amanda shone through this reasonable new facade: the arrogant, mysterious, sinister prankster. “Frankly John, I’m rich. Okay? No worries.”

Amanda produced what looked like the manuscript of a short story and smoothed it out on the table.

“In fact, along those lines, here’s something I had my lawyers prepare,” continued Amanda Nye, “don’t bother reading it now. Take a look at it at home. If you want a lawyer to look at it with you I’ll pay his fee.” She slid the sheaf of papers, stapled in a corner, across the table at me.

“This is just so there’re no awkward situations in the future. As much for your protection as ours.”

17.

It was a beautiful irony that I should be walking home alone on Valentine’s Day with a legal document limiting both the responsibilities and influence regarding my paternity of a lesbian couple’s fetus, and the smile that I wore… patient, tired, numb, self-mocking… reflected the joke. I hadn’t been laid in months but I had this paper in my hands to certify the fact that long ago I had fucked a pretty girl so well that we had to get lawyers involved. Anyone I might meet on the way home now, making the mistake of seeing me as merely a sad and stringently unfucked middle-aged man, would get this seven page contract waved in his or her face. All I had to do was sign it and we’d all have legal proof that my hard cock had been in a vagina. But what about the other orifices, I wondered. No contract attesting to the fact that Moth had sucked me off more than once, or I her; no legal paper proving that her second-favorite invasive sexual act had been anal. In the missionary position, though. That was our invention. The secret is easing in and fusing gently with the heat and desperate grip of her darkness…

Well, I got a nice hard-on as I strolled along Kastanien Allee on Valentine’s Day, one hand in my pocket and the other one clutching the contract. I had no problem making eye contact with the girls, boys, men, dogs, crows and women I passed on the sidewalk, being at an age when a longstanding hard-on is considered a triumph. The unseasonably warm breeze ruffled my hair and pressed and fluttered at my bulging trousers like a vaguely distracted whore and I thought back on the days when these hard-ons were new, like stainless steel, and would last for half a day at a time, embarrassing me in check-out lines at the supermarket or in front of the card catalogue at the library.

Oh, so many pretty girls, then and now, frail and intimidating, saturated with that hot light that young men crave and go blind for (and that the savage ones smash into darkness sometimes, with words or fists). Bright outfits, long silks of dark and pale hair, trinkets of laughter… I wanted to cry and laugh about crying and sniff my tears and get on with it, move on, get myself out of the way, self-conscious about stumbling across that brave road with its mindless, fast traffic. My God, I’m old… that’s what those eyes… the eyes I made defiant contact with… that’s what they told me: you’re old. Some smiled, most scowled, a few frowned with puzzlement: you’re old. Don’t you know it? Get out of the road!

Being old is very much like being fucked in the ass, as it turns out. It only hurts until you accept it. A girl told me that, once, about ass fucking, while smoking her post-coital Virginia Slim cigarette. Way back in the 1970s, when we (as fresh young heterosexuals) thought we’d very hiply, very exclusively, stolen the practise from British queers. She said, it only hurts if you try to pretend it isn’t happening.

Exactly.  So many pretty girls, every spring. So many springs.

I took the long way home and stuck the key in the lock in the front door of my building about an hour after Amanda had slid me the contract. I noticed that the skeleton of the building under construction next door was fleshing out with electrical conduits and large panels of fiberglass insulation and the sense of frenzy had mellowed into a few hammers banging humbly away on various floors of the building. The crane was gone, as were all the forklifts and dumptrucks.

I stood in the hallway outside the door to my flat and listened to a loud swelling of choral music. It was like standing in the foyer of a packed and floodlit church, and I recognized the piece almost immediately as Bach’s Johannes Passion… one of the most moving pieces of music ever written, in my opinion. It helped not knowing the lyrics, which were based heavily on the Biblical interpretation of that famous anti-Semite and man of peace Martin Luther. It was the saddest melody I’d ever come across as a high school student, and now that I was hearing it again in the hallway outside the door to my flat on a warm, lonely Valentine’s Day of my middle-age in a foreign country, I burst into tears.

I followed the sound of the music upstairs until I found myself in front of Nico’s door, from behind which the music blasted at a level she could only get away with because our building was almost empty. I sat down right there, leaning back against the door that seemed to bulge out and suck in against the breathing weight of a full choir and a massed orchestra and I submitted to it, holding my face in my hands.  All these years on earth. All these years.

I felt the pressure give way as the door suddenly opened from behind me and I stood up with great embarrassment, my face wet, too late to hide it, giving Nico a kind of half-smile and a shrug, and as if in a dream she reached and pulled me over the threshold and against her breast, rocking me in a slow, sad, desperately tender hug. I didn’t dare open my eyes and didn’t bother fighting the flood of tears that came and she pulled us clear of the door and pushed it shut with her boot and pulled the papers out of my hand and let the sheaf fall to the floor… none of these actions audible against the music… and we kissed, undressed and made love.

The completion of the act, which came quickly, right there on Nico’s living room floor, in the blast of Bach’s morbidly majestic music, satisfied a craving in both of us that I knew we’d never feel again. Naked on my back on the chilly floor with a bottomless Nico collapsed upon me, I couldn’t help wishing that it was Moth instead, my penis shrinking in sleep in the dark warm wet of her body. We weren’t embarrassed or disappointed and the mood was very sweet. I stroked her dyed brown hair as we listened to the Johannes Passion play itself out; resolve; conclude, drain from the room like a tide.

Nico climbed up off of me with a bemused smile. She was blushing, though, so her attempt to come off as modern and casual about what we’d just done… that harmless little mistake… fell somewhat short. Which was reassuring, at least. My ego couldn’t have stood up to any more post-coital experiences with fearlessly unsentimental women that day.

“Let’s not mention this to Eric,” I joked. I was on my hands and knees, gathering up my clothing.

Nico went to fetch the pants she’d tossed across the room on the couch in the heat of our moment and said, “Eric?”

“He doesn’t need to know.”

“I’ll probably mention it at some point. He’s my best… ”

“Do you think that’s wise?”

“Are you that prissy about your privacy?”

“Won’t he want to kick my ass or something?”

Nico put her hand over her open mouth. “Oh my God,” she said, finally. “You think… ”

“Isn’t he?”

“John,” she said, laughing, “Eric is not my boyfriend! He’s as Gay as… ” she gestured vaguely, reaching for a metaphor. She was standing in front of the stereo system near the window, making sure that the Joahnnes Passion wasn’t about to cycle into a repeat, when the doorbell rang. Two short sharp rings and a very long one. At which she seemed to go pale, glancing at the clock on the wall over the couch. “Shit shit shit! I totally forgot!”

“What?”

“There’s no time,” she said. She pointed at the table that the computer sat on… the editing table… which had been pushed to the wall to make room in the middle of the floor. “Get under it. Quick! Get under it and don’t make a sound. I’m serious, John! Hurry the fuck up! Get under the fucking table! Now!” (I would marvel at the quality of that acting job-Nico’s surprise at the doorbell ringing-later, when I had time to think about it).

She pressed two buttons on the stereo and ran to press the buzzer button that would let whoever it was into the building. The Johannes Passion started again. Then she ran back into the living room with a can of air freshener and sprayed the room. I didn’t see this… I only saw her feet briefly… but I heard her do it. I was crouching under the table with my bundle of clothing in my arms, blind to anything higher than the table top. My shoes I saw standing on their own near the couch, but there wasn’t time to scurry and get them as I heard Nico open the front door of her apartment. I scooted away from the front of the table, my back to the wall, holding my breath.

I was in as absurd a position as anyone could imagine:  a middle-aged man cowering naked under a table in his upstairs neighbor’s living room to the mockingly grandiose soundtrack of very loud Bach. Even more absurdly, as I listened to Nico unlock her front door and greet whoever it was I was hiding from, I thought of Azzedine El-Hadi…  not my old friend, but his fictional counterpart, my creation.

I thought of his day trip with Noa into Manhattan; how it started with a blue sky with only the tiniest cloud in the distance and suddenly became black with paranoia. Why was I thinking of Azzedine as I squatted under that table? A writer’s mind has its own agenda. Azzedine and Noa have a life of their own in my thoughts.

I remembered that aborted lunch in the hippie restaurant… the man with the camera who followed Azzedine and Noa out of the restaurant and into the street. Azzedine’s tightening chest… the barely controllable impulse to run. Who was this man? What harm did he intend?

I felt like a rabbit hiding from a hound as I cowered under the table, listening, through the Bach, to Nico and her visitor, a man with a very deep voice, exchange words. Without understanding a fragment of German, it was nevertheless obvious to me that her visitor was drunk, demanding, aggressive. Nico’s tone was conciliatory… pleading. I wondered if at some point the moment would arrive that I would have to crawl from under the table and defend her. They moved from the little entrance hall into the living room. I could see their feet as they stood in front of Nico’s couch, continuing the debate, their voices rising. How could it be that this man couldn’t see that someone was squatting under the table?

Noa and Azzedine were walking at a good clip down a shaded sidestreet festooned darkly on both sides with pawn shops and iron-barred jewelry stores, a street more like an alley than a street, Azzedine glancing frequently over his shoulder. The man with the camera had yet to round the corner, but he had thus far managed to remain doggedly on their trail, over a distance of many blocks and several abrupt changes of direction, maintaining a discreet distance.

All talk between Noa and Azzedine had ceased. There was only the ambient sound of the city and their huffing breaths as they hurried. It was Azzedine’s perfect idea of a nightmare, Bergmanesque in its silence, no comfort in having Noa there with him for he was convinced that it was she who had brought this visitation upon them. This sinisterly bland yankee hounding them was an avatar of covert American violence in his ruddy-faced, square-jawed manner… Azzedine worried that he might even be a government spy… a secret agent… what was the agency called? The O.S.S.? He was becoming furious with Noa for not quite keeping up as he walked faster and faster…

They had doubled back to the parking garage and when they had gotten within fifty yards of where a man sat on a stool in a booth in front of the garage’s entrance, reading a book with a sneer of pleasure, El-Hadi, who was a good twenty paces ahead of Noa, called out to the man in a dialect they shared. The garage was owned by cousins of El-Hadi’s and the man on duty was a countryman, a retiree’s age, no doubt doing the job for money under the table. Whatever El-Hadi called out had him off the stool and scurrying into the oily shadows to fetch the car with an expression on his face that struck Noa as so theatrically grave that she wanted to laugh. But she knew better.

The car sped back up the maze of the streets they’d followed, retracing their steps, as if El-Hadi now sought the man they’d only moments before been fleeing as from the Devil itself. Where the streets narrowed and admitted no traffic in the direction El-Hadi was speeding he drove anyway.  Where they turned into the mouth of an alley where it was ill-advised to drive any faster than a crawl he put the speed on. Still, they couldn’t find him…

This menacing square with a camera; the shit smeared all over El-Had’s car a year later: they were related incidents. El-Hadi knew it, he knew it in the part of his mind (which wasn’t, perhaps, his mind at all but his heart or his guts)  that knew without words and saw without pictures. The obvious connection was Noa, who’d never, in all the time he’d known her, struck him as real. That eternal smirk of hers, which he’d once mistaken for the ignorant arrogance of youth. He knew better now.

All that pleasure… how could he ever have been fool enough to think that it came without a price? And then I thought: is that how the book ends? Does he lose his mind? Does he kill her?

They were arguing: the male voice slurred, belligerent. The music was loud but I’m sure I heard the muffled sound of a punch, then a slap in response. A scuffle, a grunt, a gasp, the sound of furniture sliding, a struggle that went on like a booze-fueled dance. I jammed my hands over my ears until only the Bach roared through, but then I heard something above that anyway, something awful. Evil, even. A scream, yes, but a scream of pleasure… a man’s…

I slid from under the table on my knees and there was Nico, on her knees, with her hair tight in a man’s dirty fist and his fat ugly prick bobbing and spitting and poor Nico’s sad shocked face as I lunged at him, lunged at his back, holding my breath. I was shocked too, believe me. He was strong but I hit him full force, catching him unawares, knocking the wind out of him and me both, slamming with the weight of all my hatred. Every time the bones in my fist touched his mouth or ear or the side of his cheek a fine line of blood or bloody sweat or spit popped out like sparks from a flint. He was everything I had ever hated, a truth I only discovered at the moment of impact: he was my ex-partner Richard, he was my father, he was the bully in grammar school and the rich kids in college and the smugly successful, locally famous asshole who beats his wife. We hit the wall hard together as the German choir swelled in the nearly Satanic power of that Bach and Nico was tangled in the crash, maybe she was hurt too, I wasn’t sure, I wasn’t thinking, I know she cried out, I think she screamed for me to stop and clawed my face to pull me off but mostly I remember just pounding. Pounding her lover; his blinkless deadfather eyes. Beating that monstrous blind artist with everything in me, naked in my rage.

18.

If you’ve never had the chance to beat an ugly man in the face with all the strength in your arms, I recommend it. Do it but not for long… twenty seconds is already too much… but do it because if you have read this book for this long you can’t be very different from me and that means you’re estranged from your natural self. Your inheritance. We hate the ugly… I believe this… we hate the ugly based on species memory. Ugly represents the beast, the monster, the animals with snouts or muzzles and bristling foul fur that hunted us hungry when we were few and soft and afraid and guarding our little settlements with pathetic sticks for weapons. That has to be where hate comes from and where my hate came from. Connecting to that is a powerful thing and once the connection is made it can never be undone, I think. The county jails and federal prisons are full of born-again Neanderthals like me.

Nico and I dragged her blind boyfriend by the ankles to the bathroom; he was moaning and hot-slippery with blood and I was relieved he was alive. Or greatly relieved plus just that little bit embarrassed in front of a female witness that I hadn’t been man enough to do more serious damage to my adversary, despite my lack of restraint. She daubed his pulpy features with a wet towel and said, kind of breathless, still shaking, he’s had better beatings than that. He’s dead drunk anyway and won’t remember this tomorrow and I’ll just tell him he got in a bar fight again.

Then she said Jesus, look at you and I saw myself with her eyes, hunched naked and very erect. Go get your clothes and put them on, John, she said, before you accidentally rape me. But she wasn’t angry, just upset and shaking. Matter of fact crisis control. I tried to put my pants on and my bloody hands were heavy with pain.

I said, Why didn’t you tell me this man was your lover?

She said, it’s none of your business, John.

I was shaking, too, and fumbling with my pants and then my shirt and I gathered the rest in my arms and quietly let myself out of her flat and down the stairs with weird vision both acute and vague and clinging to a sliver of hope that I was dreaming this mess and would wake out of it chastened and laughing and deeply relieved.

It was only after letting myself into my flat and washing off my hands and lying on the bed in the narrow bedroom under Nico’s (which I still hadn’t seen and probably never would, now) that I noticed that the Bach was still playing, loud as ever. Coming to its unalterable crescendo.

19.

I couldn’t relax. I had to get outside. I put my shoes back on and grabbed my walking stick and a jacket in case it rained and was on the street again, limping like a man with a destination in mind. But in truth I had none. Whatever I was hurrying towards was as vague as whatever I was escaping.

It was spring, despite the unseasonable warmth, and the sun was already setting behind the low, undistinguished apartment buildings on the west side of August Strasse. The restaurant on the corner, with a short row of tables-for-two on the sidewalk, was alive with dinner talk and the clink of cutlery and generic dinner music… in this case a slick gypsy band… and I made eye contact with what patrons I could in transit. It was impossible to see into their lives because I couldn’t hear into their language, but it was clear that each and every one of them was the solidly unremarkable window dressing of a culture that was rewarding them decently for playing their parts.

It was a very expensive restaurant (I’d peered cautiously at the menu posted in a display case by the entrance before) and they had the money to eat there. The men were handsome, fleshy, my age or older, in dark silk suits or beautiful pullovers and many of the women were much younger than their dinner dates, and one or two were ravishingly, if vacuously, beautiful. And yet none of them were real. Or they were proof that I wasn’t; how could both sets exist in one reality? Just limping near them on the sidewalk produced a spiritual wobble in me akin to two musical notes, neither close enough to overlap nor separated enough to harmonize, jarring as they come closer. I touched my face where I thought one of them must have tossed the dregs of a cold drink and realized I was bleeding. A billion organisms from under Nico’s nails were starting a new life in me… she had fertilized my clueless scowl… the pain would come tomorrow.

I limped on. Where August Strasse empties into Rosenthaler Strasse, the major thoroughfare down which runs the streetcar, I turned right. It was only when I saw a young woman, a simple blonde, dragging a helium balloon in the shape of a bulging red heart through the twilight behind her, that I remembered it was Valentine’s Day. The fact that she was crying… sniffing red-eyed at long evaporated-tears… was reassuring.

In fact it was the sight of this pretty young German in the voluptuous trance of her dinky opera that cheered me up. She couldn’t have been much older than seventeen and there was nothing she could tell me about the recent events of her tragic hour, if I could only interview her, which would surprise me. Those upper-middle class diners in their tight-smiled, Chablis-pouring prime had chilled me to the bone, illuminating the lie in that old maxim smile and the world smiles with you. The sad young thing was a messenger from the great beyond. Cry, she had come to inform us, and we are never alone.

I wasn’t too old to share in that.

fin

The Dinner Party [from CITY OF AMATEURS)]

Two things are in fashion in Berlin that year: hookahs and riverside bars. Some riverside bars even feature hookahs. To the list of punny names like Chocolate Bar and Crow Bar and Gold Bar and Bar Nun and even All Holds Bar there was added, that year, a place along the absinthe-colored Spree on the bank of a kink in the Spree’s many twists through the part of Berlin called Kreuzberg. A place called the Zand See Bar. Not far from the indestructible ghost of The Wall.

Five tons of white sand have been imported from somewhere along the Baltic, with five potted palm trees, none of which look well, and a concrete wet bar as long as a light-aircraft runway plus a Dj platform, complete with search light, which was once a guard tower, transplanted from one hundred and seventy five meters to the east.

Adjacent to Zand See Bar is a band shell faced by fifty rows of rusting iron benches still warm with thousands of hours of Soviet march music. The flaking band shell is called Oompah and a preppy American named Tony Gale owns both Oompah and Zand See Bar along with his rich German partner and boyfriend, Born. There is a warm, shaggy, dirty old breeze blowing. Ambient club tracks dingle and whum on speakers lashed to palms between strings of straggly Christmas light like paralyzed sparks in the sky.

“This is not a date,” had said Salter, when Elke opened the door to her flat.

“Okay,” she saluted. “Just please give me one minute to fix myself up for this not date of ours you are too early for.”

Her heat-fluffed cloud of pyrite hair swished as she turned towards the bathroom, leaving Salter in a fog of roses. Her gentleman caller nodded at framed photos on an upright piano at the wall under the heavy curtains over the living room window. He studied a snap of her at eight or nine featuring platinum hair in thick flashes over a dark jacket as she knelt in a camera crew’s floodlight, chipping away at The Wall. Perched beside her in the photo,  rubbing shoulders, was a baldingly long-haired pedophile with a mustache, doing his bit with a bottle opener. Salter did not pay much attention to the pedophile. He was riveted by the beauty of his date at eight or nine.

Her hair was so long that she’d step on it sometimes climbing the ladder to her bed on top of the loft her father built with help from mechanically clever Uncle Heinrich. It took forever to dry at that length after a bath. Money-wasting showers were forbidden. Elke remembers with a shiver of horror how after they moved to the west her pennypinching mother would draw a bath for all four members of the family… first came Papa who would languish in there for an hour reading the paper and then came mama who was always number two after Papa and then came little brother Jörg who was just five or six and came before Elke in everything simply because he was a boy and who she knew for a fact considered it the height of luxury to float under the stream of his own warm urine in the tub (since by his turn the water was relatively cool) and finally, with horror and nausea, came Elke, already a budding woman at twelve who had to lower herself into the filthy family soup of the bathwater. Most times she faked it but her mother caught her once, sitting on the toilet and reading a Gala in a towel instead of stewing in the sedimented room-temperature broth and after that the baths were supervised…

At the age of fourteen Elke had a little abortion adventure. She’d noticed something while sitting in the waiting room of the West Berlin gynecologist. This was a waiting room so comfortable and pleasant that it was almost an incentive for her to come back for another abortion, the opposite of the Trotskyite bedside manners of the East, where the doctors hoisted their eyebrows at female mistakes and tut-tut-tutted at female weaknesses; female horror of blood and female fear of pain.

She noticed something while sitting there not on the day of the abortion but during one of several consultations she was required to endure before having the fetus evacuated. What she noticed, sitting there in her skinny stonewashed jeans and her mid-metamorphosis- Michael Jackson t-shirt, while glancing up occasionally from a year old copy of Gala… was this: while not all of the unattractive women in the waiting room were there unaccompanied, not a one of the attractive females, whether there for a checkup or prenatal care or a termination, was alone. One bronze-haired, cruel-lipped beauty even showed up with two men, one her approximate age and the other old enough to be the father of either. With his hand on her knife-sharp knee…

Being chronically early, Elke watched the females come and go and she tried to imagine how life might look if she summoned the foolish courage to sneak out of the waiting room and raise the cell-bud instead of terminating it. She observed that the fattest, ugliest females invariably sat in the waiting room clutching badly-used magazines in postures of long-accumulated insult, sad-eyed and wise beyond their looks. The pattern was laughably consistent and Elke laughed, very softly, in fact: a sequence of three or four ponderously pregnant girls with stringy hair and unappetizing skin and inconsequential eyes would shuffle in and quickly find a seat with cringing deference as though ducking into a packed theater twenty minutes late. And next, some lethal blonde newlywed or magazine-haired mistress would breeze in, pulling a male by the ring through his nose, rolling her eyes with boredom.

“Have you been to Tony’s club yet?” called Elke, from the bathroom. “I think it is a trendy place.”

In the back seat of a taxi on the way to Zand See Bar she reached over and rested her hand on the crotch of Salter’s tight white American pants. She told him that one thing she remembered from her childhood before The Wall vanished were the ultraviolet gro-lights you’d see in all the bedroom windows along the quiet streets at night, glowing vivid nutrition on everyone’s treasured pot plants, especially beautiful on snowy nights, the black light spun through falling snow with festive devilishness and that was the first unforeseen disappointment, when her family migrated West (stepping carefully over the imagined bodies of all those shot for trying the very same walk too soon): where were all the pretty purple night-lights? It wasn’t long after that loss that she had the abortion.

The abortion was the rite of passage she’d expected losing her virginity would be. The gynecologist with the waiting room where they played a cassette of the greatest hits of The Carpenters performed on a synthesizer masquerading as a harp. The first time an authority figure ever touched her pussy. See, what was good about Donnal, Elke’s Irish statutory rapist, was not his workaday performance of the task of despoiling her and the diminishing returns of his several followups but rather Donnal’s sideshow of penance for each messy act of coitus. The auctioneering catechisms while pounding his thighs or yanking hairs off his scrotum or the time he drew blood raking his dirty (incl. dark news from her ass) bohemian fingernails across his own ruddy cheek with a howl. The sex was that good.

She’d been thirteen when they started, thirteen to Donnal’s twenty one, and yet he’d seemed to her far more innocent because of his wide-eyed superstitions; his credulity; that fantastic show he put on. Even at thirteen Elke knew it wasn’t the mother of God keeping an eye on you but the Stasi; those two-faced, nosy friends and neighbors who filed reports. And sex was the last thing you got in serious trouble over, anyway, but, rather, it was being an oddball and a rebel with a horror of filling out forms that could get you treated as though you’d been possessed by the devil. Elke’s hand rested lightly on the hill rising in Salter’s crotch.

Now Salter is trying to decide how much he likes her as she schmoozes energetically a hundred paces away from him at the bar, taller than all the men surrounding her, a skinny Amazon. A barge horn adds a perfect bass note to the music, thirty octaves down. Seagulls in the distance. Gnats close up. He recognizes Tony Gale as a friend’s ex-boyfriend and Gale stares at Salter a good long time, shading his eyes against the late afternoon sun, but doesn’t wave or wink or anything in case Salter doesn’t wave back; or maybe in case Salter expects a free drink. Elke knows Born from club life in general and goes over to the bar where he’s standing and chats a while, establishing not only her Club Cred, Salter guesses, but her independence as well. Or maybe she just genuinely feels like chatting. Salter can only hope that Elke noticed that Tony Gale was very pointedly staring at him. Not that Salter gives too many shits or percentages of a fuck how cool Elke thinks he is but he knows how carefully calibrated the point system can be.

How Elke can negotiate the sand in high heels Salter can’t imagine. In her heels she’s as tall as Salter. With fragile ankles like that. She’s wearing a very short brown suede skirt and a ruffled white blouse and her thick banana-blonde hair pinned up. Swaying next to her while she chats with blue-suited, flute-clasping old Born at the bar is another expat, with terrible posture, in a Take That t-shirt, balding and long-haired with a Fu Manchu mustache, called Nixon. Nixon looks like an American beach bum in Thailand c. 1976.

Nixon is a hard-to-parse amalgam of beatnik, hippie, and epicurean redneck from whom everyone at Zand See Bar this afternoon, at some point or another in the past, has purchased a controlled substance. Nixon, with his Shakespearean forehead, is one of those paranoid ex-stoners capable of shocking you with a massive I.Q. as demonstrated by a ferocious erudition in the service of a mad passion for angels-on-a-pinhead trivia. Among other things. Nixon is a genius. Nixon started out selling E but he realized that synthetics didn’t suit him…neither synthetics like E or LSD nor the hard currency drugs like blow and horse, as Germans now call them. Not for him. Nixon currently markets whole-earth drugs like pot or mushrooms to an exclusive clientele that reads Carlos Castenada and Aldous Huxley now that they and vinyl LPs are again in fashion.

Nixon is slouching close to Elke (with his queryingly curved spine and Biafra belly and thumbs hooked in the waistband of his cut-offs), a parasite feasting on the smell of her freshly washed hair. Just when he is beginning to worry that if someone doesn’t recognize and approach him soon he’ll be forced to join Elke with Born and Nixon at the bar, losing valuable points, Salter is recognized and approached by someone. A freckled weak-chinned man with a very low hairline in a three piece copper-brown Paul Smith suit and smart Italian shoes. He tip-toes through the sand like he’s never seen sand before, arms up and out for balance and taps Salter on the shoulder.

“My God, Cough” says Salter, giving his ex-drug-dealer a hug. Crushed in the hug, Cough pats Salter affectionately on the back in the manner of the loose approximation of an ex-in-law that some ex-drug dealers are.

“How long has it been do you reckon?”

They let the background music and ambient noise fill the intervening silence. They watch pretty girls trudge by alone and in mobs. Elke crosses the sand with Nixon in tow and an ironic formation of WW2 bombers overhead on the way to an airshow in Poland. You can almost see the quotation marks.

Cough bows at the lovely Elke with a flourish, very pointedly does not so much as look at Nixon and squeezes Salter’s elbow saying “We’ll talk later,” and trudges off across the shadow-stained sand towards the hurricane fence separating Zand See Bar from Oompah. Leaning on the fence looking bored are well-dressed young people possibly in need of Cough’s attention. Nixon snorts and executes an Italian chin-brushing gesture of derision at Cough’s back. Nixon, whose voice is incongruously dark and deep, says to Salter, with his ashtray breath and his Princetonian mumble, “The root of the word mulatto. Guess what it is. Mule. Guess why. You are sui generis, Sir. We’ve met before.”

“Salter this is Nixon,” giggles Elke and Nixon inclines his head and palms his breastbone with mock-courtliness. “Nixon is paranoid,” she adds.

Nixon chews a corner of his mustache, glancing thither and yon. Hither also. “The late great William Burroughs tells us that a paranoid is a person in possession of all the facts, ma’am,” he says.

“Funny,” says Salter.

Elke suddenly hops and waves at someone standing near a distant palm and flutters off again with a Be right back… leaving Salter there squinting at Nixon, who is staring at Salter with the tilted head and cautiously incredulous gaze of a parrot. He says, finally, “Little miss Elke tells me you’re in the popular music game the same as she is, but from the other end, I assume, by which I mean you’re not one of the puppets but one of the string-pullers. True?”

“How do you know Elke?”

“Known her for years. I was her tutor. Mentor. Role model and idol. Do you always answer a question with a question?”

“Do I?”

“You haven’t asked me what I do yet, Ishmael. Isn’t that the first thing us Americans do, ask people what they do? Germans try to pin that one on me all the time as if they haven’t noticed that Nixon displays zero curiosity about them. Ask me what I do.” Nixon’s rapid mumble was like little round boulders bumping into one another whilst rolling down a hill and was not an unpleasant sound. “Go on, ask me.”

Okay. “What do you do?”

Mock disgust. “That’s always the first thing Americans fucking ask you.”

Salter glares at him.

Impishly: “I’m a part-time drug dealer by trade.” Nixon lifts an instructive finger. “But a full time author by calling. In the middle of my fifth novel, in fact. All this,” he gestures dismissively at the sand and the palms and some nearby girls, “…research. You need a writing teacher? Hey, I have an idea. Highbrow pauper, meet well-to-do hack… join forces for the benefit of mankind. Why not? You want to learn to write, don’t you? Don’t look at me like I’m Uri Geller, son, Elke told me all about it over there at the bar. It was Elke’s idea. She thought we should get together. How much are you willing to pay? Per hour, I mean.”

“A real live novelist. Who are you published with?”

Nixon’s face, yanked up by his nose, wrinkles like a kneecap. “Published?” He takes a step back. “One more philistine comment like that, good Sir, and the deal is off, you hear me? By the way: philistine and Palestine share etymological roots. Of course I’m not published… I don’t write to put bread on the table; that’s what drug-dealing is for; I write to avoid not writing. Consider. I’m a truth-telling aesthete, man. My novels are imagination-powered thinking machines based on a centuries-old technology that they still haven’t managed to improve. I deal in bibles in the original sense of the word. Bible is from Byblos which was the name of the Phoenician port where papyrus was shipped from, which you already know, of course. You want to become an adept at this seminally spooky technology, I’m the guy at whose feet you must sit, brother. So how much is that worth to you? Give or take a drachma or two? How much?”

“Well, I’d like to… uh… can I, uh, read some of your… uh… before I…”

“Better idea. How ‘bout I recite some for you right here on the spot? Hold on to your hat, Ishmael.”

Without waiting for Salter’s response Nixon holds up the instructive finger again, improves his posture by many magnitudes, does some lip-limbering exercises that may or may not be comic relief, and intones, with the raised hand now on his heart, “From City of Amateurs by Nixon W. Prescott the Third. Chapter Three… Scottie’s Haircut.”

Nixon clears his throat.

“You wanna know when the despair hits? It hits on the day that it hits you that you’re better… truly and demonstrably better than many if not all of the ones who are at the so-called top… the ones everyone thinks of as ‘the best’… the ne plus ultra of the hegemony’s queer empyrean… you realize you’re better than they are after years of honing… honing and honing… honing the log to a club and the club to a spear and the spear to an arrow and the arrow to a needle and the needle to a ray of light and that ray of light right down to a single pure concentrated line of steel-burning thought, man… honing, honing… all this honing and one day you look up and it hits you: you’re fucking better than they are… goddamn! Whoopee! You can’t believe it at first but no, it’s true, you are simply better and… and… so what? So what? So fucking what? So what? Because hello, knock knock, anyone home… it ain’t about better! It ain’t about genius and craft and all that shit. It’s a social game, a herd game, a hierarchy with shibboleths and secret signs and antlers and big dicks and tails between the legs like any other activity that hunting and gathering Neofuckinlithic man indulges in… a pecking order determined by lots of things that ain’t got shit to do with intellect or talent. You wanna know why F. Scott Fitzgerald is still famous, an icon, exalted in the pantheon, as famous as ever, the so-called golden boy, while John Peale Bishop, for example, ain’t shit? Scottie’s haircut, motherfucker. His haircut. And you’re bald.”

He fires up a Pall Mall and lets that sink in while Salter nods, appearing to digest what he’s heard. Through the intervening gap bulges ambient club music and chatter and the grumpy chug of a rusty red barge negotiating the kink in the green Spree. Elke, with her high heels swinging from one hand and an empty champagne glass in the other comes marching through the cigbutted sand back towards them, wiggling her nose like Samantha Stevens and sniffing furiously. What has she been up to and with whom? A quick scan of the perimeter for Cough turns up no evidence but then Salter spots an aqua-blue Porta-Loo at the very edge of the sand, close to the parking lot, with a circle around it rather than a queue in front of it and he has his suspicions.

TESTING ONE-booms a voice, pronouncing “one” like “fun”. TESTING ONE TWO ONE TWO. The crowd is trickling from Zand See Bar over to Oompah. Salter searches the breast pocket of his blazer for the backstage passes, which are color-coded wrist bands.

“It is almost time for the show,” Elke gushes. “I am so excited.”

Twenty minutes later they’re all three standing backstage at Oompah while the girlgroup of which Elke was briefly a member, Q-Teez, mimes its way through the first song of the set, Come and Get Your Man. Elke the contrarian firebrand was summarily replaced by pliant, warm, full-bodied Inisha after Ollie, the senior A&R guy at the record company, fucked Inisha and found the deed to his liking. The chore of notifying Elke of her redundancy fell to Salter, a lesser A&R functionary, who parlayed the odious task into a very long and philosophical phone conversation that metastisized into a late lunch and a cinema date. It was Elke who then called Salter the day after and asked him to squire her to the Q-Teez showcase. No hard feelings, see?

Miraculously, the fifty rows of rusted iron benches facing the band shell have filled with people, who stand on them. Even more miraculously, a goodly chunk of the audience (a mixed crowd, demographically; typical for Berlin: blame the high unemployment) seems to be miming right along with the lyrics and hopping in place and punching the air and behaving like genuinely unembarrassable lunatics… or loyal fans. Pathetically, Salter spots more than one bulky thirty-something mixed in with the semi-pathetic twenty-somethings and the red-faced teens and toddlers. Looking out into the audience from within the dirty ear of the band shell, from behind the sound man and the light technician and the massive black scrim of richly cabled gear is a strangely, childishly, safe and secure feeling.

Salter has never noticed before how vulnerable a “singer” is out there in front of the mob. About whose intentions we only assume we know. That sea of flailing arms and bared teeth. The oldest part of the brain, the reptilian bit that tells us when to run and when to play dead, must suffer ramifying cascades of panic when confronted by such an unnatural spectacle for the real show is always in the audience and the bigger the crowd the greater the risk the bigger the spectacle. That’s what stage fright must really be. Not the modern fear of fucking up but the primordial fear of being ripped to pieces.

More banally, watching from behind as the Q-Teez prance back and forth across the stage in their carefully choreographed routine like amphetamined zombies, without even the token benefit of seeing their lips move, dilutes even further the illusion that the voices blasting out from the sound system are coming, in real time, from the singers themselves. They’re dressed in matching pink hot-panted satin uniforms… crowned with rhinestone tiaras… and high-heeled mules laced up to the knee… like Monegasque bordello chambermaids of another era.

Halfway through the bridge, as Salter knows, the sound man will have to activate Inisha’s headset for a live improv (a shrill “Come on, clap your hands, we love you Berlin!”) and kill it again and then bring up all three headsets at the very end of the vamp so they can introduce the next song and indulge in carefully scripted banter about how one of the girls’ adopted mother kinda, in a way, inspired this next tune. At Q-Teez’s very first showcase the soundman, who was let go on the spot for his sin of omission, forgot to kill Inisha’s headset after the four-bar bridge improv and the audience was treated to a horrendous 1:47 of her suddenly out of sync, out of breath, profoundly off-key and forgetting the words in a panic.

Nixon shouts, “Consider! The more huge a celebrity gets the more the celebrity functions as a kind of diagnostic tool for the sickness of the culture celebrating it, man…consider how the ghoulishly pathetic Michael Jackson… who wanted to represent a blending of races and genders and classes but in truth became a bloody, fatal, high-speed collision of everything… look how perfect an emblem he is for the ugliest decade in American history! We can only pray for the sake of your dancing slut puppets here that they never make it!”

“What?” shouts Salter.

Nixon turns to Salter. “I said… !” shouts Nixon.

“What?” shouts Elke. Nixon turns to her.

“I said… !” shouts Nixon.

“I can’t hear you!” shouts Salter.

“Never mind!” shouts Nixon. “Fuck it!” He puts his hands over his ears. But Nixon isn’t about to let Elke and Salter hang out there backstage together alone. He stands his ground between them and the three slut puppets in pink satin hotpants, seemingly in slo-mo, shake their booties at him to the idiot stomp of their hideous modern march music.

2. Checkers

They used to play checkers. Draw the board on a calendar spread flat, on two consecutive pages, inking in half of the squares, and using American coins as pieces. He: filthy pennies. She: smeary nickles.

“Do you really write books?” she asked once, after her opening move, pushing a bright lock out the blue beam of her eyes. This would have been shortly after the start of the Honecker trial, Nixon believes. She was twelve.

“Are you really a writer?”

“Yes.”

Clever little fox. He was rattled and nearly lost that game. Am I a writer? Do you mean the noun… or the gerund? I am definitely the gerund. From time to time during that checker match and at other times, too, The Bad Thing would stir in him, stretching and yawning in the folds of his baggy crotch, and he would think: an avid reader leads a rich life that doesn’t involve consequences. An avid writer toys with consequences. The writing is a rehearsal of actions and consequences which sometimes leads to real actions and actual consequences. Real actions are, at all costs, to be avoided.

If he were rich enough he’d just do it, as the phrase goes.

Nixon has a love-hates-love relationship with his books… the four already completed and the one he’s halfway through. His books are brilliant and he knows it but they aren’t about anything and he knows that, too, despite the fact that they average about three hundred and fifty pages apiece, single-spaced, reproduced and spiral-bound at the copy shop. Compulsive Creativity. He has four large cartons containing dozens of copies of each book and miscellaneous cartons containing other output: short stories, diaries, essays, aphorisms and a form he believes he himself must have invented: the fictional operating manual for the imaginary device or appliance, of which there are several dozen. WARNING: PLEASE READ INSTRUCTIONS CAREFULLY BEFORE OPERATING THIS DEVICE. But no poetry. Writing new poetry is like recording new ragtime or painting new Russian religious icons, in his opinion.

His first novel (The Fun Haters) was about a man who’s writing his first book about a man writing his first book. The second book (Flicker) was about a man who’s writing his second book about a man writing his second book. The third book (City of Amateurs) was about a man who’s writing his third book, and so on. And all of them are about nothing, essentially… or none of them, that is, is about anything. That’s roughly seven years of work… roughly seven years of living he turned into roughly seven years of writing which became, in total, roughly fourteen years of a literary kind of half-life.

One thing he doesn’t love-hate but rather hate-hates is money. Hates thinking about it, dealing with it, being forced to genuflect to the movie-star beautiful bully of the idea of it. Money is everything bad about humanity in its liquid form. He can’t stand the idea that everything on earth… everything… has its calculable equivalent in cash. Can be reduced to a dollar amount. Even his ugly body. Even his brain. This means that Plato’s assertion that everything around us is merely a reflection of a purer, higher Truth… the theory of the Platonic Ideal… was really just a futuristic description of money.

Money is the highest authority and authority is all about pushing people around. Nixon hates being pushed around. He even hates having to stand there while a cashier counts out his change for a twenty like some shorthand lecture in good book-keeping. He wishes he could walk through shops picking out what he wants and throwing wads of cash and being gone.

For that you need to be rich. The way in which Ulysses was ahead of its time… what made it “modern” and why it’s still ahead of most everything in print, muses Nixon, is not in the fucked up sentences. Plenty of writers before Joyce tried fucked up sentences (they just didn’t make it into print with their experiments). It wasn’t the sex. The sex was in an obscure language. Most of the people who objected to the anal/excretory/masturbatory passages had to be led to the passages and have them translated before they could even feign outrage… no it wasn’t the sex. The Bible beat Joyce in the obscurely worded pornography field in any case. What was and still is revolutionary about Joyce’s Ulysses was that it was the first book of any importance that wasn’t, directly or indirectly, concerned with money.

Consider.

His father was rich. Nixon once heard his father, without much irony that he could detect, maybe even with delight, ask, “What’s this?” picking up a newly minted Kennedy Half from the steps in front of the gazebo and turning it in the sun. He thought it was some kind of medal. Nixon thinks that European money feels like old bandages and American money feels like old skin. Pliant, loin-warm, reeky. Nixon writes, above all, to avoid thinking about money. The only relief from the insult of money is when he’s buried up to his ears in his own safe sentences. Well if Joyce said there’s nobody in any of his books worth more than a few shillings Nixon can do him one better: there’s no one in any of Nixon’s books period.

But if Nixon were rich (like Montgomery)….

Nixon looks out across Berlin from his highrise penthouse in the hideous grey concrete plattenbau at Alexanderplatz. His neighbors pay twice the rent he pays because he got in the building before its bland grotesquerie became chic in a nostalgie de la boue kind of way, shortly after The Wall came down. Being a genius isn’t only useful for the making of Art… it can be applied to banalities like comfortable living, too. The wide tin snake of traffic that curls clattering around his flat block stuffing the street every morning seems muffled and far away, but it’s only ten stories down… the pedestrians resemble Brownian molecules or icons on a high-res desktop. As a crowd they seem worthwhile, but as individuals, from this height, they seem pointless… just bits drifting off from a crumbling mass at the mercy of entropy. If Nixon can’t be rich he can be famous. Write a book…that kind of book. The kind that makes you famous. Some stupid fucking book about someone wanting something and getting it in three hundred and fifty pages.

If only I had a story, he moons. He stands on his balcony in his bathrobe, watching the morning sky assemble itself groggily from a scattered box of old components. His bath robe is as threadbare and comfortable as an old hound. He feels like a Callas doomed forever to sing scales. To clear her throat.

If only I had a story, sighs Nixon, scratching the dry blind eye of his bald spot. He reflects that the tremendous potential energy stored in his own body climbing the ten flights of stairs to his penthouse apartment every evening could be released like a bolt of lightning to smash him flat in less than three seconds by stepping over the low railing of his balcony in the morning. That’s a lot of energy and it comes from his own skinny legs. Not that he entertains such thoughts but the option to end it all at any given moment is a cherished freedom and Nixon’s source of power… for if suicide is an option, why not try anything, instead, then? Why not try everything? Because any situation can be brought under perfect and eternal control in the time it takes to sever the thin chord attaching us to Time.

There are no mirrors in Nixon’s penthouse. No mirrors and few if any reflecting surfaces… the occasional droplet of water or bead of perspiration, maybe… it’s all buff and rough and matte in Nixon’s flat. His drinking cups are made of wood, his cutlery and cooking utensils and bathroom and kitchen utensils are of buff aluminum or other dull alloys. Once there was this 14 year old Romanian prostitute up there, in her lace-up knee-high cuffed suede boots and leather bustier, sneering jovially at all of the American’s expensive stuff, but when it dawned on her (a conclusion she confirmed with a terrified check of the bathroom) that there were no mirrors to be found, none, not even tiny and incidental reflective surfaces, she started trembling uncontrollably and crossed herself, backing towards the door, bleating “Strigoi! Strigoi!” and making a hasty retreat for the elevator.

Which of course delighted Nixon who found it highly erotic and more than his money’s worth. He came right there in his pants in the foyer as the elevator doors muffled her screams. Ugly Nixon. An ugliness set in cruel relief against well-to-do parents so physically beautiful that even deep into their Alzheimered twilights they are in constant danger of being diddled by caretakers; the edible jewel that is his mother with her amphorae-green eyes and Hepburnish cheekbones and lunar mane; his father’s Caligulan profile. He imagines a burly Jamaican nurse in crepe-soled shoes weighing mama (accent on the second syllable) down on a freshly turned and neatly childish bed, wielding aluminum-light mama like a kite.

How could such an ugly Montgomery Nixon W. Prescott the 3rd be the result of Gaia and Montgomery Jefferson W. Prescott the 2nd doing the dick and pussy trick? At least junior turned out to be a genius. Maybe he was a genius because of the ugliness… maybe he had no other choice. Maybe the isolating power of ugliness was essential. The sun is rising and the moon is sinking as its counterweight. Nixon is thinking that we hate intellectuals so much on this planet that Nabokov knew he’d have to make Humbert a pedophile before we’d tolerate Humbert’s smug narration. But what does pedophile mean, thinks Nixon, when you break the word down into its two clear simple meanings?

Child.

Love.

Nixon is not only a literary genius without a story to tell: he’s a checker champion without a worthy challenger. Why is it that chess gets all the press? Why isn’t the “game” of checkers taken seriously? Checkers is not an activity for children. Nixon rarely gets the opportunity to quote Poe (because Americans always mistake him for an adjective and the Germans for an ass) but Nixon relishes it when he can, quoting the master on checkers and chess: In the latter, where the pieces have different and bizarre motions, with various and variable values, what is only complex is mistaken (a not unusual error) for what is profound.

Amen, thinks Nixon, looking out over the fake bustle of Alexanderplatz.

The most terrifying thing about Poe was his eerie resemblance to mid-twentieth-century American comedian Bob Newhart. What is Love? Love is pleasure and need and poetry… that’s why animals can’t love… there’s the pleasure and the need but no poetry… not even the poetry of the beloved’s name. Elke. A twisting arrow of geese glides over, so low that Nixon flinches, and they are honking like a Turkish wedding, reminding him of a specialty of Weimar-era brothels in Berlin called Die Weinachts Gans… the Christmas Goose… you’d have a live goose sent up to your room. Right? Probably cost a million depression-era Deutschmarks. You’d fuck the goose and at the moment of climax lop the head with a cleaver, enjoying the writhing gush of its death throes. Das Huhn, das goldene Eier legt, schlacten. A treat for the rich. But what would stop a peasant from grabbing some goose behind the out house and doing exactly the same thing for free? Context is everything.

The first chance Nixon got to use the Poe quote was with his sweet little East German English pupil, back when he was forced to teach just to keep milk and wiener on the table, before he figured out how to sell Ecstasy in the long lines in front of the clubs, Ecstasy and then various organics, and his precocious pupil gave him the best checker matches of his life. Those checker games were so good that he wanted to marry her, despite the fact that she was eleven or twelve.

People talk of chess prodigies but rarely of checker prodigies but Nixon felt she was one. She was twelve at the time but now she was in her twenties and floating away from him. They’d first met, symbolically enough, perched on The Wall beside a thousand nobodies, both of them chipping away in the blinding smug glare of the CNN camera lights. Sheer luck. Sheer luck that he was in Europe when it all happened, the official death of white communism (no one seems to give much of a shit about those billion-and-change worth of yellow commies looming on the other side of the sunrise every morning, or that little brown crust of commies breathing and shitting their red beans and rice near Florida).What were the odds against these two, these special two, Nixon and Elke, Dante and his Beatrice, meeting? How old was Poe’s first cousin (Virginia Clemm) when Poe married her in 1835? Thirteen. Name one of the newlyweds’ favorite pastimes.

Checkers.

If only I had a story, swoons Nixon, high up above the morning bustle of traffic at Alexanderplatz. All this verbal firepower at his command… a fucking nuclear aircraft carrier’s worth of literary firepower at his finger tips… and not a single story to tell with it. His life is a blank. His childhood was just days that bunched into months and his adolescence was just weeks that clogged into years and his adulthood is a flickering, throbbing, unarticulated emission of interminable Now. The closest thing he has to a story is a subject, and he can’t even admit to that. She’d laugh at him if he did. Or shrink from him in horror. He buries the evidence in the prose. Bits and pieces of her: the smell of the insides of her gloves in winter, the almost imperceptible asymmetry of her nostrils (heightened to noticeability when she laughs); the way she still pronounces “clothes” as “clo-thus” or pluralizes “hair” and “spaghetti”. He thinks: I blew it with the writing lessons. I always blow it with the writing lessons. I always come on too strong. He hopes Elke isn’t too exasperated with him for blowing it…she tried so hard to get Nixon together with her handsome black pigeon but Nixon blew it by coming on to strong, like a fox who showed his sharp teeth in a smile.

Oh, that would have been such easy money.

3. Finnegans Wank

Nixon and Elke stopped by Salter’s around lunch time on Saturday and Elke left after about an hour (the pretty girl always leaves after about an hour; that’s a rule) but Nixon lingered and had a detailed look of just about everything in Salter’s flat. Nixon would pick something up…a matchbox memento or an old photograph and ask, with a child’s directness, what’s this? Nixon had no idea that Elke and Salter had already embarked on a sex life, in their peculiar way and Salter is tickled by Nixon’s hammy chaperone act, getting between the two of them whenever possible and making sly (and slightly effective) comments in Elke’s absence designed to discourage Salter from thinking about Elke in a romantic or sexual way.

Snooping around, Nixon had discovered Salter’s box of old photographs in the little room with the gold couch. He literally went on a room-to-room investigation of Salter’s entire flat; if anyone else had tried such a preposterous violation of his privacy Salter would have flung him bodily from the premises but Nixon has this holy fool aura about him… maybe simply because he’s so ugly… which gives him special license. Carefully examining one fragile old photo after another, Nixon had said, with a sidelong glance from the furthest corner of his eye:

“How old were you when you lost your virginity? I’m just curious. Arthur Brooke, who wrote the story Shakespeare ripped off to write Romeo and Juliet, made his Juliet sixteen, which is a tad young but just about squares with civilized modern standards, and if you ain’t never seen Olivia Hussey in the role for Franco Zeffirelli’s production do yourself a flavor and check it out, my man… talk about honeydews… talk about ripe… know where the word estrus comes from? You probably know this already. From the Latin word meaning, roughly, frenzy. Amen. But I digress.”

Nixon turned to face Salter for emphasis and continued,”Shakespeare, that dirty old fugger, made his Juliet fourteen years old, ain’t that scandalous? Fourteen! Of course, that was the sixteenth century, so, you know, who are we to get retroactively puritanical on a bunch of odoriferous Elizabethans who enjoyed a life expectancy of maybe forty, forty five years, tops…okay. But hold on to your hat, Ishmael. Elke… Dear Elke… our Elke… lost her cherry at thirteen. Ain’t that perfectly fucking disgusting? Fucked a twenty one year old bartender… some illiterate fucking harp from Derry with a chiseled jaw and the clap, prolly… and her parents knew about it. Thirteen! That’s even too young to play with anatomically correct dolls! Thirteen. Wouldn’t touch that pussy with a wax dick from Crete. Nuh-uh. Don’t tell her I said that.”

Nixon lifted a faded sepiatone photograph of Salter’s mother at the age of sixteen, combing her waist-long hair, and said “Who’s that?” Salter told him and Nixon then took an even older snapshot of Salter’s aunt Virginia at the age of twenty seven, in a one-piece bathing suit and a cap, holding a sea shell up for the camera, and said “Who’s that?” He dug out another picture of the aunt, even younger, crimped hair down to her shoulders, standing in a doorway with one foot forward and both hands on her hips and Nixon said “Be still my beating fucking heart. Goddamn, man. Is there some kind of law in your family that only the foxy chicks are allowed to live?”

Nixon said, “Nice cat.” Dusty threaded in and out between the legs of Nixon’s dirty dungarees and trotted out of the room again. “Artists should always have cats, not dogs, … dogs are too easy to please. Dogs radiate this incessant talent-eroding message: you’re great, you’re God, I love you, don’t change… everything you do impresses me, master! Any artist who owns a dog becomes complacent. You wanna know why Kurt Vonnegut, genius that he is, got so complacent over the years? And look at Hemingway…that was eighty percent of his problem… woof! The Old Man and the Sea… exactly the kind of book a dog would approve of. That was Faulkner’s problem. Steinbeck’s too. Jack London, obviously. Have you been writing? Let me see something. I’ll give you a sixty second critique that will advance you by at least five years in your painful struggle towards self-expression, free of charge.”

Salter went and got something out of a kitchen drawer and handed it to Nixon saying, “It’s just a… ”

But Nixon silenced him with the instructional finger, raised. “Never make excuses for anything you write. Would you make excuses for a crippled child?” Nixon glanced diagnostically at the tops and bottoms of each of the five pages that Salter had given him and noticed also that the word Elke appeared several times in the body of the text and said, “Junk.”

He turned his back to Salter and handed the pages back and said “Don’t get me wrong: junk is the standard. No shame in it. But three pieces of advice: one. Always start in the middle of the story. Nobody wants to read any once upon a time shit anymore; we don’t have the patience for it; this is a busy fucking century. Two. Contrary to that old saw, write about what you don’t know….nothing’s more boring than reading about something the writer is totally comfortably bored with. Three. You ain’t a writer. Writers are born, not self-invented. Oh, I forgot, there’s a number four, too. Four. Who the fuck am I to tell you that you ain’t a writer? That’s number four.”

Nixon says, “I gotta be honest, brother… I don’t get you.”

“How so?”

“You’re in showbiz, correct? Earning good bread, spending quality time with all kinds of tasty little slut puppets and getting paid for it… roof over your head and decent threads and the freedom to move through certain quasi-refined social milieus that are closed off to many of your tint… what the hell you want to write for? You need a hobby that badly? Bored with your life? What?”

“I need a reason to write?”

“Most assuredly, my good fellow. You need a reason to write. Your reason is your license… it’s your permission.”

“Ah, I see, now I need permission… ”

“Well, yes, in a manner of speaking, yes. But it’s all on the honor system, unfortunately. No enforcement. That’s the problem with all these diarists and aphorists and workaday scribblers… these yuppies with their creative writing workshops… do you think if somebody told them that words are not a renewable resource and we’re reaching a global crisis point and the word pool is in danger of drying up completely they’d stop, or even cut back, tomorrow?”

“Man,” says Salter, “nobody looking at you… ” and here Nixon sees himself through Salter’s eyes as Salter gives Nixon the up-and-down: his scuffed suede shoes; his second hand corduroy pants; his army surplus raincoat over his fading Milli Vanilli Unplugged t-shirt, “would take you for an elitist.”

Nixon gives Salter an open-mouthed glare that changes like time-lapse photography into a smile. He thinks: I am forthwith going to be the most seductive motherfucker I have ever been in my life. I will spare no trick; I will utilize to the utmost my seductive intellectual wiles and make Raquel Welch look like Lucy van Pelt as a succubus in comparison.

“Okay, here’s the thing, Ishmael” says Nixon, buttoning his army surplus raincoat and flipping his long thin greasy hair up over its raised collar. “I can’t teach you to write, but you can buy me a cup of coffee. Let’s go.” He scratches his bald spot vociferously. “Out.”

“Now?”

Salter is intrigued. What can it hurt? Besides: he feels the faint hum of incipient friendship. It’s kind of thrilling. When was the last time Salter felt the pang of the kindrid? All his so-called “relationships” are political (showbiz related) or short-term (sexual) or small-talk-based and patently disposable; he says Wie gehts? to the Lebanese guy at the magazine kiosk on the way home every day after shopping or what not and counts that as some kind of friendship. He has buddies like Noland and Ollie he can go for months without seeing or thinking about. It’s a mysterious process, how two grown men become friends, real friends, in that compulsive way they were once able to as boys, bonding and splitting and bonding anew like molecules in hot water… what are the factors… where do these last little droplets of boyish enthusiasm come from, this late in the game? Salter thinks he can feel it happening.

“You want to go get a coffee now?”

“Yes now. Now. Why not? Out in the great wide open.”

“Sit in a café with some coffee and do what?”

“I talk, you listen. Stuff like that.”

“Will you talk about writing?”

“Inadvertently, yes. Let’s ride, man. Bring that box of old photographs with you. Come on… let’s go.”

Salter sits on the U-Bahn with the shoebox of photographic heirlooms on his lap. Nixon opines wryly that he couldn’t help noticing that half of the young girls they passed on the way sneaked discreet or bold looks at Salter and he wondered if such chronic sexual attention was responsible for Salter’s… no offence intended… borderline illiteracy. This is how a man becomes a mere footnote, ignorant of itself.

One fucking book in your whole flat, man… I counted. One. And that was a paperback with a picture of King Kong on the cover! It’s a wonder you can spell your name! Not that I’ve seen evidence that you can. Can you?

Are you saying that books make you smarter, frowns Salter.

Nixon says that reading doesn’t automatically increase one’s I.Q… raw intelligence is inherited at birth and activated, probably, during infancy by sensual stimulus: sights and sounds, mostly, but also touch; maybe certain smells and tastes, too… maybe certain smells even foster intelligence but that’s just conjecture. But reading a higher kind of literature with disciplined regularity definitely shapes the mind and focuses intellectual potential and spurs the mind’s will to express itself and this self-expression contributes to social standing. Intelligence incapable of self-expression is almost useless in broader society (though handy on a desert island, where the solitary challenges of survival might favor the introvert)… an intellectual gift incapable of self-expression is like millions in paper currency issued by a deposed government… the best you can do with the money is keep warm or make a little light by simply burning it.

In a way, Salter feels, that’s what he did with his native gift of intelligence… used it for kindling… simply because he’s never put the time into polishing it into something…

“…capable of impressing people?” asks Nixon, sardonically.

Salter shrugs. “Well, yeah. That’s what it’s all about, no? Anyway…” Salter shrugs. “It’s a tragedy, that’s all.”

Nixon says “Yes, but… dig: if we can agree on the classical definition of a tragedy as being an avoidable error that ends instructionally in a death… is being a Negro in this world really a tragedy, as you might consider it, or merely a catastrophe, like an earthquake?”

Nixon says, “Okay, another helpful hint about writing: deploy your exclamation marks sparingly.”

Nixon says: the word “maudlin” comes from the Italian pronunciation of “Magdalene”, but you already knew that.

The train fills up at the next stop. Nixon stares hard across the aisle at Salter and says, “Ever notice how when the train is packed people are all smushed together on these long seats but then the train empties out but the person sitting next to you doesn’t exploit the newly available seat space but remains smushed next to you for several more stops? Germans are the only people I ever saw do that. I call it mandatory intimacy. A distant cousin of rape.” The red-cheeked Hausfrau at that moment sitting tight-up against Nixon with a bag in her lap sniffs diffidently.

The next station, a middle-aged beggar with a dog gets on, rattling a cup systematically up one side of the aisle and back the other. Nixon cups his hands around his mouth, highlighting his snaggling teeth, and stage-whispers, “Pssst. Ever notice the peculiar air of piety that some Germans affect when they beg? Like Shtetl Jews. Brilliant mimics these Germans.” He feigns frowning, intrigued, and adds, “How many Shtetls can you name? Let’s see, there’s Chortkiv, and Berdychiv and DrohobychPinsk… don’t forget Pinsk…”

Pretty girls get on and off the train in great numbers as they stop in station after station because it’s lunch hour at school and Nixon smirks with an I-told-you-so smirk as a considerable percentage pay Salter attention… staring and giggling from their seats or waving as they cross in front of him or strap-hanging in a swoon in groups. Nixon makes a joke, a loud joke, about being Salter’s manager and anyone interested in fifteen minutes with the stud will can purchase tickets from him, group rate or singles, but the girls’ English isn’t quite good enough to get the joke. Salter says, “Man, how long have you been in Berlin? Don’t you speak German yet?” and Nixon says he isn’t a collector of knick-knacks.

There’s that wreck of an Irish drunk who’s been busking on this line for ten years now, beating his three-stringed guitar and keening with the guttural wail of the Derry dead, authentic as hell and stinking of piss, his body and his guitar long-survived by his voice. Salter remembered when this feller was young and merely drunk all the time but not ruined: full of gab, doing Berlin on a lark, probably. But now he seems likely to die. The first really cruel winter will do it. Bloated baggy face like something fished out of the drink. Surprising full head of Dylan Thomas hair, though.

And then a perfect vision of Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen enters the train, galvanizing the wagon. You’ve never seen anything like it. Salter had seen it before… every true Berliner has… they call it The Phantom of Line Seven and it talks like an old woman with a piping, chirping, sarcastic voice. It could be a mass hallucination but only some seem to see it or find it shocking… about a third of the passengers glance up without reacting and go back to their crossword puzzles or paperback romances. The rest of the wagon is horrified. One kid points, another kid cries. A chubby French tourist’s mouth gapes behind splayed fingers. Here comes skully-head in a red knit cap and knobby bone arms and legs in a bright orange ski vest over stripeless pyjamas and improvised tape and rags and feet swaddled in metallic duct tape-and-foam-made shoes… shambling on a crutch with sallow translucent skin and a skull grin. The grim reaper is homeless. It hands out printed material and begs for donations… a penny will do… it shambles in those duct-tape slippers, wobbling on the crutch, looking both impossible and exasperated.

It shuffles up the subway aisle in its improvised Easter raiment of foil-and-tape with its skull smirk and says, in German, “No no, don’t worry, no need to shrink from my nearness as I approach, you can’t catch it, it’s not a disease, I am not a filthy homosexual or intravenous drug user suffering for my sins… contact with my words is definitely more dangerous to you than contact with the beautiful tissue of my flesh! For pennies you can read my latest tract!” It waves a sheaf of pamphlets (white and black printing on red paper) over its head.

“Believe me, if I could do my work without ever walking among you, I would, but then, what would you have to stare at? Who would give you your best bad dreams? No, despite the fact that I have many other things to do with my time, ladies and gentlemen, I will never let you down, I will haunt you, in fact, so to speak, and bring my message to you, since I can’t really count on you coming to me in order to get it. In other words, this is a serious relationship, and in any serious relationship, serious talk is of the utmost importance.”

It breaks stride as it approaches Salter and gives him a strangely ambivalent look, making eye contact for long enough to make Salter hold his breath. A swarthy youth with monk-like facial hair and a matching hood across the aisle gestures for a copy and it senses the gesture and turns to him. Pleased, The Phantom hands him a tract, pockets three pennies and then continues towards the end of the wagon, intoning,

“In these wonderful writings that cost even less than water, what do you find? You find the truth! Well, what is the truth worth to you? This most weighty of philosophical questions, I’m sorry to say, you must answer for yourselves in the few seconds left before this train pulls into the next station! Before you make that decision, ask yourselves if the creature you see before you, the like of which you have never seen before in this world, would appear to you at such a vast expense of will and energy for the sake of small talk?”

The train pulls into the next station, the doors pop open and the skeleton clatters off. The swarthy young man with the monk-like facial hair, bent over the pamphlet he has purchased, reads something that causes him to chuckle and nod vociferously. There are fellow passengers who now fret that they’ve passed up a bargain, but Salter himself is sure that he doesn’t care to know.

“There it goes,” says Nixon, with a jerk of his chin. “The Phantom of Line Seven.”

“First time I saw her,” says Salter, talking towards Nixon but looking at the skeleton’s back as it shuffles along the platform, “Maybe ten, twelve years ago. I wouldn’t have given her a year to live. Damn if she isn’t still going strong. Probably outlive both of us. Being homeless can make you tough, I guess.”

“On the other hand,” adds Nixon, not as softly as Salter, “I’ve heard a very intriguing rumor that… he isn’t homeless at all.”

“He?”

“Indeed, my man. I’ve heard from more than one source that it’s not an old woman suffering from AIDs but rather a middle aged fiend named Stephan who hates his well-to-do parents with such a pathological passion that he has developed an awe-inspiring eating disorder to shame them. Possibly suffering from a time-delayed, sympathetic guilt reaction to…” Nixon winks. “You-know-what.”

The U-Bahn surfaces at some point after Kurfurstenstrasse and mounts a banked track on a brontosaurian curve into the low sky over the river. They see Potsdamerplatz in the distance, rebuilt and garish, a neo-expressionist Oz. On the other side of the train, in the other distance, away from the sun, a black water tower looms like sinister Victoriana under the warm clouds over Kreuzberg. The train rocks to and fro. Nixon, in a voluble mood, rubs his hands together and says, “Man, I’m starving. You’re paying, right?”

There are block-long prison-gray housing complexes, and lots of stray dogs, and little girls in headscarves, and incomprehensible billboards, and ten year old boys with faint mustaches. Many of the housing blocks sprout dozens of satellite television dishes like inverted mushrooms tracking invisible suns. There are bakeries selling aromatic wheels of fladenbrot and fast-food joints hawking kebabs and falafel and schwarma and carbonated milk product beverages and lottery tickets promising windfalls in obscure currencies.

Walking up the street towards the place that he has in mind, Nixon says, out of the blue, as if in response to a remark Salter just made although they’ve both been silent for a quarter of an hour at least, “North American Negroes aren’t even a race, man, they’re a product… you were created, you were bred, you were a product designed to meet a specific demand. Created, perfected, marketed, shipped and sold. How are you not a product? Designed originally for back-breaking physical labor you are now used chiefly for entertainment. You know: sex, sports, buffoonery. Yo, my man, let me ask you a pertinent question,” says Nixon, chewing his mustache.

“What?”

“Isn’t there anything I can say to offend you?”

“Doubt it.”

“You don’t mind me trying, though, do you?”

Salter laughs. “Nope.”

“That’s what I like about you, Ishmael. Fucking imperturbable.”

They are at a corner diagonally across the street from a café displaying a red neon cursive in the window glowing softly with the hopeful message Morgenland in the intermittent daylight. Black chunks of ejecta from unclogged sinks in the sky are sliced by sunbeams. Directly behind them is a dimly lit storefront with half-drawn shades and white-bearded Turks in homely blazers and some also in skull caps, playing cards at various tables under roiling gray arabesques moored to the tips of two dozen Camel Filters and a handful of cheap cigars. Nixon reaches out and grabs Salter’s belt loop to prevent him crossing the street and…puts the other hand on the knob of the door behind him with its thick dark beveled glass. He says, “What we are about to do here is walk into this Turkish social club… men only… and take a seat at a table like there’s nothing queer about it whatsoever, dig? I’ve done it before. They think I’m just a crazy gringo and you… you look like some kinda of Muslim, so as long as you keep your voice low we’ll be fine, trust me. It’ll be an experience, Ishmael.”

“Okay. But there’s just one thing,” says Salter.

“What?”

“Don’t call me Ishmael.”

Nixon winks and looks truly pleased with himself but Salter isn’t in on the joke.

4. Chocolate Chicken Theory

It smells like a combination of Salter’s grandmother’s pantry and ringside after a fight, there in the Turkish Male Social Club. Onions, stale smoke, dry rot and supermarket cologne. There is a splintery wooden counter and a large television bolted to a metal arm extended from a wall and mildewed wallpaper with a stained pattern of fleur-de-lis and racehorses. Behind the splintery counter is a florid man with a yellowing Gurdjieffian mustache under a proportional nose and jet-black hair, shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows, his scalded hands on the counter and his black black eyes glued to Nixon and Salter as they creep across the room like mice. On the high television young men kick and prance on eternal grass through eternal fussball games with unmediated facial expressions, sound off. There are only three widely-scattered round tables in the room that remain not surrounded by groups of three or four men playing card games such as Dost kazigi or Okey or Maca kizi. Nixon chooses the empty round table furthest from the others in a corner behind a coat rack with the non-sequitur of a woman’s yarny pink hat hung on it, at the window. The window is velvety with grime. The carpet feels scratchy even through the thick soles of Salter’s shoes.

There are framed photographs of a man resembling a long-haired Stalin in sun glasses nailed here and there to the wallpaper. Lots of men with sleek gray Omar Shariff hair here; lots of Elvis happening as well. Weren’t those two in a movie together once? Salter and Nixon sit at their wobbly table, and Nixon makes sure to sit in such a way that he’s facing the rest of the room and Salter’s back is to it. Nixon’s eyes dart to and fro. Salter places his box of photographs in the middle of the table.

Gurdjieff tosses a dishrag and comes from behind his counter…looking very much shorter than he’d appeared to be behind it… and stands facing Salter and Nixon with his hands on his hips and a deferential tilt of his head. He is wearing an immaculate white apron. Nixon raises a hand in greeting and says, with comedic emphasis, “Biftek!” and when Gurdjieff looks inquisitively at Salter, Nixon says “Biftek!” again. Giurdjieff looks at Nixon and Salter in turn repeating, softly, “Biftek.” Byifftyikk, byifftyikk. Nixon says “Oui, mon ami! Biftek!” and off Gurdjieff goes.

Nixon leans back in his chair. “I just ordered you a steak with my High School French. Most Turks speak a little and respect you more if you use it instead of German or English. Do you dig chocolate cake?”

Salter admits that he does.

“What is chocolate cake made of? Consider. You probably never baked one, but you, like I, have osmotic knowledge of a chocolate cake’s ingredients the way we both know the plot of Moby Dick in a vague way… flour, eggs, butter, chocolate.”

Salter shrugs.

“Can’t really make a chocolate cake without eggs, can we? Eggs give the cake that spongy, springy richness that we North American gluttons prize. But those eggs in the cake are chickens, remember…everything of importance in a chicken is already present in the egg. So we take these liquid chicken ova and mix them with powdered plant sperm and incubate it and call it a cake! If you think about this while eating your next chocolate cake I guarantee you’ll detect the flavor of chicken… what is a chocolate cake but a chocolate chicken? You see? Chocolate cake as we know it didn’t become chocolate cake until about a hundred and fifty years after it was first invented…by then it was a celebrity and the reality was irrelevant; it became chicken-free the way Lauren Bacall became Goyish. We don’t taste the chicken in the cake because we don’t want to anymore… we have consensus and voila: the modern, chicken-free flavor of chocolate cake… see?”

Salter confesses to not seeing. Nixon tries another tack.

“For about six months, once, when I lived in San Diego,” and here Nixon lowers his voice appreciably, glancing nervously around the room, “I was a Jew. I had just moved there from Philly… ”

“You lived in Philly?”

“Yeah, but let me finish this parable first. Nobody knew me in San Diego and I decided to try life as a Jew and bingo, I was a Jew. It was easy! Not only did people treat me better as a Jew, but it was incredibly easy to get them to accept this lie. Know why? Because they wanted it to be true all along. They wanted me to be a Jew… I got that question in grammar school all the time… I was always the smartest kid anywhere I went and I was funny looking by their standards… scrawny and dark and balding by the time I was old enough to drive… they always asked me, are you Jewish? They didn’t want me in their gene pool. That’s how they wanted to explain me away: Jew. They were uncomfortable with me otherwise. So I finally decided to try to become what they always wanted me to be when I moved out to San Diego… I was richly rewarded for giving them what they wanted. Let me tell you.”

“Where in Philly?”

“Hold your horses. First girlfriend I’d had since High School I got by masquerading as a Jew. She’d never been with a Jew before. Yesterday’s insults are tomorrow’s compliments! First time she goes to blow me she asks me how come I’m not circumcised. Because I am a non-practicing Jew, honey, I explain. She wasn’t bad looking! She was really rather cute! Name of Gretchen Hunt… daughter of well-to-do Republican bigots from Ohio. Escaped to California to be an actress, thought San Diego was so much nicer than L.A. and conveniently located only ninety minutes away from Hollywood by car… might as well have been in Alaska as far as her career was concerned… ended up a career waitress with a severe credit card problem she cured by dabbling in porno but oh well. What’s this beautiful girl doing sucking my cock, I used to think, with my Yarmulke tilted rakishly athwart my noggin. By the way, the root of Yarmulke is a Turkish word that means rain bonnet.”

Nixon did a Burlesquely Yiddish shrug and said “I pretend to be a Jew and suddenly I’m getting things I never had… a good job, a pretty All American girlfriend, and a bunch of All American buddies who slapped me on the back and called me bud when we talked about the sports on the tellervision. I really liked being called bud… the weird conflation of derision and acceptance the word embodies is a uniquely American gesture, baby. It was heaven for about six months until I couldn’t take it anymore and fled town and never pretended to be a Jew again.”

“Did you know the part of Philly called Germantown?”

“We’ll get to that! Jesus! Where was I? Oh yeah: I discontinued the Jew Act. Not that I’d forsworn fakery as a practice. Far from it. In fact, I decided to up the ante. I skipped my lease and jumped a Greyhound bus to Minneapolis… from the palm trees and beach bunnies and perfect year-round median temperature of 77.5 degrees Fahrenheit to…Minnesota! The dick-snapping winters of the tundra! Lived and worked there for four years. Counselor at an Urban Youth Center. And just try to guess what I decided to be? Guess what sector of the American rainbow I chose to tap, despite the fact that I wasn’t quite hung for the role? Black.”

Gurdjieff is standing before them with a wooden serving tray upon which sizzle two large plates of bloody steak… cut into squares. Each square with a tooth pick in it. A very Tartar-like snack. Attila the Hun stuff. Gurdjieff gestures with his eyes that someone should move that box off the table and he slides the plates off the tray and bows out. Nixon says Merci. Salter is chuckling as he reaches for his first cube of steak.

“Black.”

“That’s right. Black. Well, an Octoroon, actually. Of course. Got me the foxiest black girlfriend you ever wanted to see, too… her name was… Johnny Rose. Put Pam Grier to shame, honey. Ever come in an Afro? Not on it… in it! Ah! Like fucking a Nerf Ball. Johnny Rose! Where are you now? My, that’s rare. Does blood make you squeamish? The Tarters ate raw beef. Turkish-Mongol tribe, of course. Did they even cook this… ?”

Salter likes it there in the clubby gloom of the Social Club; this is one of those rare places where Time stands still. Is it possible that it’s impossible for Time to stand still for men in the presence of women and therefore the informal ban? The girly pink hat on the coat rack is like the drop of black added to a gallon of white paint to make the white paint seem whiter, for this is the most masculine ambiance that Salter has ever dared to soak up. Every few minutes a muted cheer rises around the room in general (fussball) or at specific tables (cards) but at no time does anyone but Gurdjieff pay any attention to the interlopers. Salter is in fact amazed that no one oozes an odor of hatred or anger their way, especially considering the global hostilities between one of the three major desert-based faiths on Earth and the other two.

“Hold on now, Nixie… rewind. An Octoroon… in Minneapolis.”

“Yes Sir. An Octoroon. I figured,” swallow, “as a swarthy white I’m near the bottom of the barrel, n’est ce pas, but as a pale-skinned black I’m an aristocrat. Claimed that my roots were Creole. Toothless black winos started calling me Professor Longhair with affection when I’d stroll by in the ‘hood. Are you familiar with Minneapolis? Let’s have a look at those now.” Chewing lustily, Nixon gestures for Salter’s box of old photographs.

Salter pushes it towards him and Nixon wipes his trembling hands (and even he is impressed at his own prodigious powers of invention! What has inspired him to lie so fluently, so outrageously, and with such instinctive accuracy? An Octoroon? Professor Longhair? ) on his t-shirt before opening the box. Salter says, portentously, “The ancestors. My grandmother Moose… she was part Cherokee…she’d say that our blood… was a flow of many rivers…”

Nixon says “Okay, now don’t give me any shit about your great great granny being able to conjure spirits or heal the sick or fry chicken without even using oil or whatnot, okay? I’m too clear-minded for that stuff.” Winking, he pushes his plate aside and spreads a few of the mothwing-fragile photos on the table like tarot cards, studying each very carefully as he lays it in a grid on the table, a finger at his temple, his tongue between his teeth. He feels like a vampire (“Strigoi! Strigoi!”) … a literary Nosferatu about to feed on the thick warm blood of Salter’s own story. He is very hungry. He experiences the fleeting, condescending guilt that a vampire might experience, but it is overridden by his terrible hunger.

“Tell me about… this one,” says Nixon.

5. The Dinner Party

“Ach, schade, I thought you might be Stephan.”

As Brigitte von Bredow stands smiling in the doorway, it strikes Salter what a brilliant and shameless pimp is Elke. Brigitte is wearing a velveteen choker and a low-cut semi-transparent blouse and spray-on jeans and silver stiletto heels. The effect. Her nipples are dark blurs floating in the Monet of the blouse. Noblesse oblige. There Salter stands in his steel-grey suit, attempting head-cocked belligerent unselfconscious black American class defiance on the threshold, in possession of not even a proper invitation from the hosts plus clownishly attired and doubly not-invited Nixon beside him, but the woman is patently unfazed. She gives Salter the up-and-down as though she’s checking the reality against Elke’s particularly glowing product description and delighted to find a very close match. She wants to touch that deliciously black bald head; crush it between her nutcracking thighs.

Salter hears dinner party clink-and-chatter behind the skinny bleached wind-sharpened countess. Or duchess or baroness whatever she is. Hair pulled tight in an equestrienne’s S&M pony tail. She smiles… beams… and ushers them both in with a flourish, betraying only the scantest modicum of disdain for Nixon in the brevity with which her gaze engages his image, calling out to her husband the duke or the count or whatever to set another two places at the table because this is Berlin aristocracy and the only servants they can claim are a poker-faced cleaning woman who comes in every Saturday morning and the building’s arthritic concierge who seems to spend half his life in their master bathroom with a bucket and a wrench, and she lays a hand on Salter’s arm and lightly squeezes his biceps.

Salter sniffs in Brigitte’s wake and glances at Nixon who makes some kind of Italian gesture of loose-wristed appreciation. She is faintly but movingly redolent of the kind and class and rarity of scent that civets and lemurs and various endangered species indigenous to Zanzibar get tossed on a bloody heap sans musk gland for. The elders of the antediluvian ghetto of Salter’s childhood would have referred to the countess dismissively as a chicken wing.

The entrance to the building was impressive compared to the entrance of Salter’s building and to general standards in Germany but nothing, of course, compared to intimidating foyers of New York or London. There wasn’t even a doorman or an elevator operator or a hindrance against walking right into the building of any kind but there was a red-carpeted, grandly curving staircase that reminded Salter of a visit he once made to a brothel. Mahogany banister, cracked plaster nymphs and grape vines impressed in the time-stained walls and a half ton of chandelier hung about thirty feet over the 19th century marble tiles which are troughed and warped and boot-worn by the glaciation of traffic. Salter took to the stairs rather than be stuck in close quarters with bad-breathed Nixon in the minuscule elevator and Nixon trailed up the staircase behind him, composing an ad hoc commentary with a radio commentator’s late night spooky velvet.

“Ever higher ascends the conquering hero, this supreme black figure of a brother man, unbowed by history’s ambivalence, unheralded yet irresistible, a swaggering cocksman with total penile recall of every glistening kootchie he has had occasion to lovingly distress with ample girth and indefatigable brio… attended by his valet, his faithful page, his clownishly attired Sancho Panza, the ambulatory brain the hero himself never had… yet never fully needed… higher and higher the bourgeois staircase they mount. Even as our hero grows weary of his sidekick’s self-consciousness-motivated burlesque of this earth-shaking occasion, the side-kick evinces a highly compressed…” and here Nixon paused on the stairs and winced, “… fart… to articulate his churlish disdain…”

“Nixie,” chided Salter. “Hush, man.” He rang the bell and there she stood.

The hallway leading to the wardrobe and then the dining room is a gallery of scores of black and white photos of the count and countess’s world travels. What do these pictures…of Brigitte in front of a tasseled elephant in wherever country it is that tasseled elephants live, or svelte bisexual Sebastian posing in a wide brimmed hat in front of some gorge or other… what do they say beyond that these people can afford the price of travel? Despite whatever else it is that these pictures are straining so hard to say. Brigitte and Sebastian in stylish matching outfits, leaning with rifle-caressing Masai on the flank of a muddy Land Rover. Brigitte topless and goggled and up to her waist in the Amazon. Salter and Nixon scan these and other pictures as they follow the slinky Brigitte down the very long hall. It’s as though the pictures are there specifically to irritate all visitors; to give them something to hate the hosts for in order to spice up the dinner a little; hate them for ageless good looks or affluence or global fluidity. When in fact you end up hating them for being crassly show-offy and letting you down by not behaving like your cherished age-old fantasy of wealth which is restrained, attenuated, bloodless and aloof. When did rich people start acting like poor people with money, wondered Salter. Probably soon after they started watching television. And then being on it.

Brigitte swings double doors open and the dining room is brilliant and mellow with silver details and polished wood and fat candles grandly crusted with time’s minute excreta. The banquet table is an Olympic swimming pool of polished mahogany and festooned with six basilica-scale candelabra and it is many meters long. Nine people, not counting Brigitte, are already seated at it, the first truly intimidating thing Salter has seen since entering the building. He can feel Nixon’s crisis of confidence flare up behind him in the form of Nixon pressing close as Brigitte introduces the two of them to the seated guests. Salter can feel Nixon’s fearful breath heating his shoulder. Nixon wants to be a puppy cringing behind Salter’s boot at this moment. There are times when being freakishly smart is no more of a defense than walking into battle with the original copy of the Magna Carta as a shield and this is one of them. Behind Brigitte’s empty seat at the far end of the table roars a fire in a baronial hearth that Nixon tries to calm himself by imagining taking a leak into but his hot breaths on Salter’s shoulder accelerate as Brigitte claps and says,

“Everyone! Please.” She points. “A dear friend of Elke’s. Elke is late as usual,” polite tittering, “and here also we have the friend of the friend. But everyone is welcome. That is our motto.” She takes Salter by the hand and leads him towards a spot that has been cleared adjacent to her queenly seat and says, “One of those annoying traditions of dinner parties, I’m afraid. Always split up guests who arrive as a couple,” more tittering. “It facilitates the most fascinating conversation. No one leaves one of our soirees without learning something or someone new.”

Nixon sits timidly between the otherworldy Sylver Goldin to his left and a florid, well-dressed, pot-bellied man who resembles a 19th century British food critic… even appears to be wearing some kind of medal on a tri-color ribbon around his neck. Or, no. The Master, Henry James, is what he resembles. Pretending this puts Nixon somewhat at his ease. Goldin says, to no one in particular, “I know this black man from somewhere,” as Salter glides the length of the other side of the very long table being tugged possessively along by the countess.

Nixon can only hope that this will end up being one of those upper-class German dinner parties that will devolve after much pseudo-intellectual chatter into an absinthe-fueled orgy but who might he pair up with in that case? The last one of those type things he was invited to, he just kind of skittered pantless around the throbbing periphery, trying wherever he might to assert/insert himself and ending up with mixed (possibly ancient and homosexual but definitely shit-tipped) results. Important to stake the claim on a likely female early. It will have to be a female who is homely enough, of course. He’d prefer a slender body and an asymmetrical or overweight face to the obverse, if he is able to choose. Then he spots the woman seated across from him whose main physical defects appear to be a highly visible mustache and a continuous gull wing eyebrow paralleling it and Nixon says to himself aha.

It isn’t until Salter takes his seat to Brigitte’s left, across from a stern blond bearded gentleman who doesn’t seem pleased with Salter’s arrival at all, that he gets a good look at the other guests around the table and discovers, at the far end, in a white turtle-neck and wire-rimmed glasses, looking appropriate indeed, Cough.

Cough glances away from the conversation he’s deep into and gives Salter the discreetest of acknowledging glances. Perhaps he’s not at this dinner in a professional capacity and noticing Salter too heartily will give both of them away. Still, Salter finds the sight of Cough sitting there a mind-spinning thing. It grants Cough too much of a backstory, too much of an inner life, too much validity, being seen out of context like this. Salter had bumped into him at the Zand-Zee Bar recently, but that’s to be expected… a drug dealer at a trendy bar. That’s only good business. But in attendance and completely at ease at this upper class dinner party, wearing wire-rim glasses and striking the pose of a deep thinker with a finger on his lips and one eyebrow raised?

Cough knows Brigitte and Sebastian… Gitte and Sebby… through Siegfried von Stummfeldt, a former client. Cough is interested in Art, suddenly… interested in becoming an Art Dealer (from Drug Dealer to Art Dealer is the distance of a handful of letters) and Gitte and Sebby have suggested that he attend this dinner party in order to make the acquaintance of the blonde fellow with the beard seated opposite Salter, who has connections both in Real Estate and the Art World. Cough wants to use his painstakingly accreted drug money to ease into an only slightly more legitimate business.

The blonde fellow with the beard, glaring at Salter as though Salter is the culprit in the foolishness he’s about to describe, continuing a conversation that Salter’s arrival interrupted, says, “People see a photo of Jack Kennedy playing touch football with his rapacious brother Bobby on the White House lawn and they think they know everything there is to know about the golden Kennedy. Mention bootlegging or Mary Jo Kopechne and you’re some kind of what… communist.”

“Paul,” says Sylver Goldin, with a smoked chuckle, “you are not up-to-date with your name-calling, darling. What American gets called a communist any more? That is precisely as damaging as calling someone a rascal.”

He smiles with disgust, “The only information that sticks with the masses is information that comes with an emotional charge. They only learn it if it frightens them, excites them sexually, or makes them cry. The cinema is the true classroom of the Republic. Take…”

Salter interjects: “Are you from Boston?”

“Yes sir, I am.” The bearded blonde Bostonian turns to Goldin again and says, “It’s ridiculous. Take…”

She chides him, “But why get excited about it?” and turns to Salter and smiles coaxingly, dropping her voice, “I am certain I know you from somewhere.”

The bearded blonde rubs his eyes and says, with great weariness, “Take Gandhi…”

Nixon, rediscovering his nerve, says, leaning shaggily across Sylver Goldin’s lap, “Gandhi, exactly. The greatest possible disjoint between image and reality. Gandhi the icon of brotherhood and good-living versus Gandhi the… gung-ho Sargeant-Major in the South African…”

“Yes yes, you see? The old hypocrite was a motivated participant in the Zulu slaughter when the Bambatta Rebellion broke out! A loyal citizen of South Africa for over twenty years and supported not only Apartheid as a practice but its philosophical underpinnings as well! And yet the… the…”

“Theatre-going public… “ adds Nixon with perfectly judged sarcasm.

Brigitte is explaining the Tuareg ceremonial dagger everyone finds on the innermost right of the serving plate, after the beverage spoon and salad knife, exactly where the dinner knife should be. She notes that the daggers are over a century old (and have most likely performed the task well they were designed to perform) and are identifiable by their straight, double-edged blades decorated with incised geometrical patterns, the hilts of which are still protected from the tarnishing force of acidic Tuareg sweat by the original woven leather. She indicates the knob-like shapes at the end of each handle and explains that they’re called the pommel, and winks that any meat that can’t easily be cut by these knives should not be eaten.

The bearded blonde smiles for the first time since Salter sat down across from him. Then he laughs with a hand on his chin. “I do hope the ghastly things are sanitary, Gitte,” he quips.

Henry James, seated beside Nixon and until now silent, says, with a heavily Germanized Etonian accent, “I must say, Paul, until you just now mentioned it, I was as ignorant on the matter as our Theatre-going brethren.”

Nixon says, using a voice that Salter has never heard him use before, “But Ben Kingsley as Gandhi is so adorable.”

“One can remember when wearing a suit and tie to the cinema was de rigeur,” sniffs Henry James.

Paul nods and lifts a finger, “Let me tell you, Mohandas K. Gandhi makes me look like a bloody secular humanist in comparison… ” everyone titters, “yet… ”

“Come now, Paul,” chimes Sylver Goldin, “we all know that you like to indulge in a bit of kaffir flogging from time to time,” and there is much merriment. Brigitte is smiling with Queenly beneficence as the conversation surges and flares. Henry James claps in an oh-goody way. “I say, this is jolly fun. Knocking plaster saints off their department store plinths. Who else can we debunk at?”

The ugly woman across from Nixon bounces in her seat and says “Marlene Dietrich!” and is ignored. Nixon finds her aura of extraneity and isolation extremely fetching. He wonders if she’s a poor relation and tries repeatedly to catch her eye. Voices lower and go local as the conversation shatters gently into intimate cells. Henry James nods at Paul Whittington and says, “Dickens.” Sylver Goldin leans towards Salter and frowns.

“I think it will drive me crazy.”

“People always think they recognize me from somewhere else.”

“Lovable old Charles Dickens, creator of Oliver Twist and defender of the poor… hated blacks. Abhorred them.”

“Was it on television, possibly? Are you an actor?”

“You’re referring to him being under Carlyle’s influence, of course.”

Salter says no, he’s not an actor.

“Am I overstating the case?” asks Henry James, blushing.

You are not an actor perhaps but you are as pretty as one.

Cough, at the other end of the table, exchanges a smirk with Sebastian as they watch gender-non-plussed Sylver Goldin spin her/his web. They can’t hear what she’s saying but the coy inclination of her head along with the pouty extrusion of her lips says everything. They watch Salter grin bashfully in response: a little black boy and an old white witch. Did his parents never warn him?

“Ah,” says Sebastian wistfully, “but to have a schwanz of that size to work with…”

When the food comes, the first course on a massive rattling trolley illuminated by candles like a birthday and grandiosely gleam-domed as a model Saint Petersburg that Brigitte herself wheels out, the whole room ooohs and ahhhs.

“The dirty little secret,” confides Henry James to Nixon, hugging himself and smiling at the food as it is ladled and tonged, “Is that there was a time when we were truly in control of them and now we are not.” Now vee ah naught. He passes a plate of food to his immediate right. “We’re long overdue what you’d call a revolution… ” he passes another plate, “.. .our only salvation being the happy fact that the Proletariat have become such fat no-hopers in the interval, they… are these sweet potatoes? I had my first sweet potato in Manhattan, the year Ballanchine died. May I ask where you were educated, Mr. Prescott?”

The front door bell gongs again and Brigitte hops up from the table, twisting up out of her seat, giddy and young-seeming. She says, to no one in particular, in German, “maybe it is Stephan!” She hurries to the door. Salter listens as she makes a girly fuss in the hallway, greeting some key arrival who is not, unfortunately, Stephan. In fact it’s the Nigerian supermodel Sadie Olubodun, spectacular, unprecedented, in blood-red furs, trailed closely by the artist Simon Kahn-Meyers in a tweed suit looking very much like Santa Claus in the courtroom scene from Miracle on 34th Street. Henry James is squinting at Paul Whittington and counting on his fingers.

“Let’s see, there was Firbank’s Prancing Nigger… ”

“And Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven. People have forgotten about… ”

“And the Nigger of the Narcissus, of course. And even e.e. cummings’s Jean le Negre. And Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians… ”

“Was originally called Ten Little Niggers, I know.”

Whittington chuckles with his chin on his chest and adds, very quietly, “Of course, only a liberal who doubts his own motives is afraid of telling them but a joke is a joke and some of them happen to be damn funny. I am quite proudly part-Scots on my mother’s side and believe you me, no one laughs harder at a skin-flint Scots joke than I do. What does any right-thinking person have to fear in telling a joke, after all? Surely we’ve come so far in the past fifty years… ” He leans in towards Sylver and says, with an impishly dimpled leer, “What’s the difference between a winter tire and an African American?”

Sylver’s eyelids go heavy with anticipatory relish.

“The tire doesn’t start singing the blues when you strap a chain around him… ”

“Dear friends,” announces Brigitte, with a clap, “Good news. Frankie and Georgette, our young guests who are so very talented, will make us so very lucky tonight with a tribute to Billie Holiday… ”

Salter is so intent on staring at Sadie that he doesn’t notice the skinny sideburned German in a striped waistcoat fetch a guitar case from under the table. The skinny guitarist stands dutifully, for Brigitte has commanded it, and so does his fleshy blonde companion; they stand on opposite sides of the table, making solemn eye contact; and after the guitarist plays a stiff little Django-derivative filigree with his veiny red hands the singer (with a carnation behind one ear) performs a swooping, adenoidal travesty of God Bless the Chile, improving on the original in her German version’s strict sounding of the terminal “d” in child and repairing the contraction in “who’s”, exchanging it pedantically with “who has.” Who has got its own; God bless the CHILD who has got its own. The “the” still sounds like “ze”, however.

The cherubically fleshy singer rolls her eyes, fish-lips her mouth, gestures indolently and slouches pathetically. Rather than be enraged, Salter feels pure bliss. He chews in synchrony with crude-oil-black Sadie sheathed in red furs who chews in synchrony with him and he raises his wine glass in an understated toast to her and she acknowledges it by putting her delicious beaky red parrot lips to her own glass and smiling with halved-eyes as she eases one slow swallow down, implying that the wine is Salter. He enjoys that. And the murmur of chatter and clink and clank of cutlery and the noded nimbus of steamed candle light and the ludicrous, well-meant music.

Simon is stewing in his seat across from Cough. He’s too far from Sadie to hiss something subtle at her across the table but not too far to watch her making fuck-eyes and pouty fellatic moues at someone at the other end of the table. He could throttle her.He doesn’t expect her to be faithful… after all she’s already cheating on the man she lives with by being here with Simon at all… but does she have to humiliate him in this room full of poncey Bosch snobs? Simon’s eyes dart around the table to assess the number of people possibly noticing the cuckolding he’s being subjected to and Cough catches Simon’s eye and says, aiming his voice in a robust stage whisper across the table under the hollow moan of the singing emanating from the spot beside him, “Excuse me, but aren’t you Simon Kahn-Meyers?”

“Indeed I am.” Aren’t you Simon Kahn-Meyers, the mediocre artist, being cruelly made a fool of by your much-younger African wench?

“Mr. Meyers! My god, it’s all I can do to keep myself from cadging an autograph! I’ve studied your work, I have. Feel free to laugh at my ignorance if I’m wrong here but I’ve always considered you to be both the cure for and the missing link between chronic British over-reactors like Hirst and empty American irony as embodied by Koons…”

“I wouldn’t call that ig… ”

Sebastian, at the head of the table, shusshes Simon loudly and points at the singer and Simon finishes the sentences in a whisper, “… ignorant at all!”

Whittington, with his hand carressingly light on Sylver’s bony knee in designer jeans squeezes it and says, “What’s the difference between an African American male and a pizza?”

Sylver squirms.

“A pizza can feed a family of four.”

Again the doorbell. Brigitte gestures that the musicians should forge ahead towards a grandiose, tin-eared climax without interruption and tosses her napkin on her plate and hurries with a gratified smile towards the front hall. When Brigitte returns not with “Stephan” but three other late guests instead it is to a round of applause that she swings open the huge black lacquered double doors of the dining room; applause for God Bless ze CHILD; but the four who stand suddenly in the doorway, backlit dramatically and bringing with them a sardonic little gust of chill wind like a ghostly pet, take the tribute for their own and each appropriates the praise in a way that befits his or her personality… smiling or smirking or squinting or frowning. Making the grand entrance beside Brigitte von Bredow are Siegfried von Stummfeldt and Sebastian’s older brother Luddy and Luddy’s wife Bobbi.

Bobbi gives the room a cursory smile and wave and sees Salter sitting there with his gleaming dark bald head and square jaw and heroic shoulders in a steel-gray suit that amplifies the sheer impact of his darkness and she feels a drop of interior moisture forming. Brigitte seats Luddy between Sadie and Henry James on the one side of the table and Siegfried to the guitarist’s right and Bobbi beside Siegfried on Salter’s side. Between Sadie and Luddy is a blank spot. Between Salter and Bobbi are two blank spots and the ugly woman Nixon was previously flirting with. Nixon, diagonally across from Bobbi, is now, however, stunned by her fine-boned and somehow strange beauty and encouraged by her age… the drawstring wrinkles around her mouth. His relative youth (plus his prodigious loquacity) might give him an advantage. When the orgy breaks out, he will make a beeline for her, for Bobbi, old and pretty as she is. Simon is thinking: this knowledgeable young man has saved the evening; who cares what that air-headed black slut gets up to now? I’m being appreciated.

Siegfried has passed around a large portfolio of his work-in-progress The Brotherhood Project. Each large, black and white print in the portfolio shows a German ‘model’, a girl with the profile of Elvis Presley, dressed up like the Statue of Liberty and on her knees, holding her torch aloft while sucking the penises of various naked black men. Some of the black men grimace and others laugh. Everyone around the table takes the portfolio and pages through it for a polite amount of time and passes it on.

“Everyone,” says Brigitte, clapping once. But before she can announce whatever she is about to announce, the doorbell rings again and again Brigitte skips to the door like a child. And finally her anticipatory enthusiasm is rewarded. She shrieks with delight: Stephan Schwartzwald has finally arrived. Nothing will ever be the same. Paul Wittington forks a morsel off of Sylver Goldin’s plate and into his mouth and whispers, chewing, What are three things you can’t give to a nigger?

A black eye, a fat lip, and a job…

What Brigitte fetches back into the room with her resembles nothing more than a tall, soft white spider in a Saville Row suit and a jaunty Borsalino. A scowling skull in a Borsalino hat. Salter, Sadie, Simon and Cough all gasp as one, but the others… the Germans and the Bostonian… all wave or smile and or exclaim “Stephan!” Henry James inclines most subtly towards Nixon and says “Richer than God… “ and Nixon, who has seen something like this in a dream, or while musing in the depths of a desolate night at his typewriter, haunted by failure and self-revulsion… merely raises his eyebrows and watches the creature make its way around the table, doffing its hat once, to take its place in the seat between Sadie and Luddy von Bredow. Luddy grins with secret, ferocious irony as he exchanges a soft greeting with the creature, who nods a subtle acknowledgement, but Sadie stiffens as though a huge bleached insect has fallen from the ceiling into her soup with a complacent plop.

Jesus Christ, thinks Salter, it’s the Phantom of Line 7! Salter, Sadie, Nixon and Cough have all suffered simultaneous and catastrophic losses of appetite. The rich and/or Germans in the room seem not only unfazed but delighted… invigorated and self-conscious in the presence of the rarest wealth and fame. “Why, Stephan Schwartzwald, you old rake!” exclaims Henry James. “What news do you bring from your illustrious travels, sir?”

“Rome wasn’t built in a day but it burned down in an hour,” retorts Schwartzwald, glancing at Sadie, to his immediate right, with contempt, before turning his gaze inwards to the seat he has settled on with a soft clatter of limbs. He scoots in closer to the table with a pained effort. “I hope you all haven’t waited on me before having your little dinners,” he says. “I’ve come this late on purpose to spare you all the lurid spectacle of watching me eat.”

“Stephan,” says Brigitte, with a doting grin, “what on earth are you talking about?”

Stephan looks from face to face, pointedly ignoring both Sadie and Salter. “Certain gustatory strategies I’ve developed of late. A refinement of the process.” He closes his eyes and smiles like a man rebuking a pain. “Not for the faint-hearted, I’m afraid.”

“Stephan,” says Brigitte, with a strained, forbearing smile, doing her best not to take offense, “who says any of us are faint hearted?” She gestures for Sebastian to bring Stephan some dinner.

A plate of paper-thin, bloody-rare strips of venison in orange sauce and capers, balanced with a circle of caramelized spring potatoes and garnished with symmetrical sprigs of mint, is placed before Schwartzwald, who pats his vest pockets. He finds what he’s looking for…a clear plastic vial of coarse white granules… and asks for a glass of water, a mid-sized stone or earthenware bowl and a drinking straw.

“What is death by old age,” asks Stephan, in his reedy, asexual, piping voice, “but a matter of the stored energy available in the body being less than the crucial threshold required to power the vital organs? It’s a simple matter of book keeping. By conserving energy where possible,” he continues, holding up the vial, “we extend and even double or triple our lifespans. This,” he says, indicating the substance in the vial, “is a digestive regent. And this,” he says, as the requested bowl is fetched and placed beside his dinner plate, “is tonight’s stomach. I picked up this technique, you see, in Buenos Aires… my tutor a learned physician who was well over one hundred and fifty years old himself and looked not a day over seventy.” The expressions of fascination evident around the dinner table vastly outnumber those of revulsion or horror.

“Ingenious,” exclaims Henry James, “… external digestion…”

“But doesn’t…” interjects Sebastian, “… wouldn’t the chewing itself… ?”

“Waste my precious energy? Indeed it would. This is why you would remark, at a very fine dinner party, in Buenos Aires, given by people not unlike our dear friends Gitte and Sebby, but much much older, of course… at these parties imagine, say, ten invited guests at the table. And beside each invited guest, a beautiful and very clean young woman… ideally not older than twenty… ”

Schwartzwald turns to his right and addresses the plump young singer sitting on the other side of his immediate neighbor, Sadie. “You’re young, yes? Very young. And you don’t suffer, I imagine, from either gum disease or an excess of calcium in your saliva? No colds or symptoms of hepatitis?” Schwartzwald then trains his gaze on Sadie, who vacates her seat without having to be asked. The singer takes Sadie’s place. Schwartzwald gives her a grave look and, after removing the pink plastic straw, slides the earthenware bowl in front of her.

.

Notes for a Story about What Happened

photo by SG

I’m going to tell you a lie and you’re going to believe it. You will have no choice. I will tell you the truth, too, but that you’ll doubt. Also inevitable. The lie will be seductive because it is something you already know.

I didn’t love her.

I got the call on the train, at lunchtime, and believe it or not I was actually watching the news (the Nth iteration of it) on a ceiling-mounted monitor as I answered the phone, swaying with the train. A Hollywood coincidence. The Malaysian with his infuriating grin. I was thinking give me ten minutes with that cunt in his padded cell. I was thinking ten minutes and a hammer. I could do it in five. Hello?

-Is this Steven?

She was five foot seven, about one hundred and twenty pounds. I don’t know if they weighed her after; what the procedure is; what she even looked like. Put her on a scale in a plastic bag. I do know that she’d just signed up for a fitness course and that is what always angers me when I think about it, the time and effort she wasted. Getting back in the game. But then some stupid cunt with his grand ideas. His belief system. Some vast sea of stupid cunts with their million raised fists called a belief system.

Note: the fistfight we got into in Limbo.

Note: also, the argument in class with Herr Wieland about the word “Jew” in the story and how I then lost my job over it. He hadn’t written the story: I had. It was a published story. Wieland claimed the term was pejorative.

Note: tie it together. Something about violence. But what?

-Is this okay? Does it hurt?

-No, it’s good. It’s okay, it’s good.

-Can she hear us?

-She’s asleep.

-We shouldn’t wake her.

-Are you saying I’m noisy?

-I’m just saying.

-You’re sweet.

But I’m not. I am what I am, and I was doing what I wanted to her, without asking first, on the gold batik bedspread on the fold-out sofa in her borrowed living room, capitalizing on her position of relative weakness as a single mother of 28 without any real career prospects. New age music down low. Or a recording of the ocean with gulls dubbed in. The inevitable candles. The inevitably post-coital, anticipated-with-genuine-dread looks of searching depth. The kinds of looks that make one’s face feel as though it’s crawling with tiny people. I buried my nose in her hair. Went to the bathroom. Anything to escape those searching looks. Jogging with Ginger the next day, I was too out of breath to go into detail. I said,

“What can I say? The earth didn’t move.”

“For you or for her?”

He gestured at a rain-glazed croissant of merd on the sidewalk and we veered. We usually veer together; this time we veered apart. Significant? Ginger, whose man-of-the-world self-image has a tendency to grate at precisely the moment I most need his worldly advice, said, “Any woman who lets you fuck her in the ass is the kind of woman you should never under any circumstance fuck in the ass.”

“So the only acceptable option is forcible sodomy, in your opinion.” I was so out of breath that it ruined my timing and killed the joke.

“Were you wearing a condom?”

“Were you?”

When?”

“Whenever.”

Last night she came back to me again: most of her hair burned off and half of her face crunchy black. I was thinking I hope I don’t see any bone. Don’t let me see the bones. Any skull or ribs or lidless eyeball. She was trying to kiss me and I was forced to be honest.

It was August of that year that I bumped into Indra while walking along Golt Strasse. I hadn’t seen her since the early part of the last decade, but walking along Golt Strasse on a Friday afternoon is a reliable method for bumping into long-lost Berliners of a certain generation. The veterans of this fossilizing in-crowd still haunt the area on weekends, shocking (and reassuring) each other with toddlers and wrinkles and receding hairlines, waltzing towards the same precipice with touching synchrony, clearing the way for the next great wave.

I knew her from the golden age on the cusp between my boredom and my stupid youth, an appetizing girl whose last name I never caught, one of the faces I’ll always associate with my first few ecstatic months in Berlin, before my increasing familiarity with the language, and its native speakers, ruined everything. Beware the expat who masters his German. We had always flirted and nothing more. We never risked touching (each assumed the other had fucked or been fucked too much), but had sometimes exchanged a certain kind of laden look on the packed dance floors of an era during which it now seems to me we all had been rather hysterically afraid to go home.

And here she was sitting in sunlight. That same black-haired girl, now a woman, or old enough to claim the title, sitting on a bench in front of a restaurant a few doors down from the café I had always seen her showing off in, looking almost exactly as she had a decade before. Half-Indian, father German, she was a mischling, as the Germans put it. Coin-colored, round-faced, voluptuous under spectacular black blades of hair. I jogged to her, grinning, and was rewarded with a crushing hug that felt more genuine than what I’d expect. Bent by the hug, I smiled meaninglessly at a toddler seated near her on the bench, hoping the child wasn’t hers, but she was.

“This is Jinny,” said Indra, introducing me to Jinny, but not Jinny to me (most probably because she couldn’t recall or had never known my name) as I took a place between them. I toasted Jinny with a Coke I ordered.

“To once being young,” I said, but Jinny just stared and Indra corrected me. She tapped her temple. “To staying young,” she smiled. “Both of us.”

Which made me feel extremely old. Several times during the conversation, Indra touched my arm and stared unwaveringly in my eyes and invited me to visit her in Bali. She painted a dreamy picture of a murmuring sea and laid-back days and Caligulan disco nights and I was touched to realize that she was looking for a man.

“Anyway” she said, as I eventually stood to leave, “Let’s hook up soon. We should really do something. It’s so good to see you again! Ciao!”

Jinny waved back (note: as though prompted) as I saluted a jaunty goodbye from the corner. It was the end of my lunch break.

I’d lucked into this incredible corporate gig, teaching creative writing to the executives of a company called Eurologika. The CEO wanted his underlings not only to speak and write English fluently but to be able to do so creatively. He wanted them to do that supposedly American thing called thinking outside the box. A dreadful cliché, yes, but I had a year’s contract.

Herr Weiss, Herr Brückner, Herr Richter, Herr Gumpenhölzl, Herr Wieland, Herr Woyczechowski, Herr Sonnabend, Herr Schlegel.

The first day (the class was on a Friday afternoon, in a conference room with a view of the canal, when most people with good jobs were already wherever they’d be spending the long weekend) saw me facing down the bemused tolerance/ mild contempt, for non-famous artists, of the typical German of a certain class. If you’re so good, why haven’t we heard of you? What is it that you do, exactly, that a hundred other people off the streets, with a little time on their hands, can’t do as well or better?

I turned the tables on them: what is it that you do?

“We design and manage systems protocols for capital storage and retrieval patterns on the Hannover model,” sighed Herr Wieland, the youngest in the room, whose headset never, in the three months I knew him, left the bluish egg of his balding head.

“Can you repeat that in plain English?”

He couldn’t. Pressing my momentary advantage, I said: “Your race, your class, your sexual preferences, national identity, earliest childhood memories, religion, education and professional standing are all stories that you have been told, and that you re-tell to others, without having a clue what the techniques and mechanics of storytelling are all about. I’m surprised you’d rather be so sloppy and haphazard about something you will do for every waking moment of your life. And in your dreams, too, and long after you die, possibly. You will be storytelling, but you don’t even really know how to. Is that a satisfactory state of affairs?”

-Is this Steven?

-Yes.

-Steven, you don’t know me. This is Indra’s sister Padme.

I was on the train during the lunch break on the ninth Friday of the class. Classes were held from 14:00 until 15:00, then a forty five minute lunch break, after which another hour or so until I dismissed them to fly off to Ibiza or Gstaad. On this ninth Friday we were critiquing the first bona fide assignment I’d given them: write a 600-word story about another member of the class.

Note: every single story they handed in was about me.

Note: exactly 600 words each.

I was staring at that little fucker’s monkey-grin face on the monitor. I’d assumed it was Ginger, calling with a new number. I looked at the phone and said,

-Excuse me?

-It’s about Indra.

A light dawned as I frowned at the monitor. Note: It’s astonishing how much thinking we’re capable of in a millisecond. Goosebumps. The coroners had shipped the recovered cellphones to the next of kin.

-Wow.

-I second that emotion.

-Your English is pretty good, you know that?

-I had good teachers.

-Is that was this is about? Free lessons?

-(laughs) I’m so glad I called you. Are you glad I called you?

-Of course I am.

-You’re not just saying?

-Would I tell you if I were?

-What do you want to do now?

Note: again the dream. She’s burning and moaning and I’m wondering if it’s pleasure. Does it hurt to burn? In the dream I’m not sure. I turned all the lights on afterwards and watched a little television before falling asleep again. Coda?

(Work this in as dialogue-possibly ironic: I firmly believe that you fake your own reality. What is a lie but the truth with a little talent? What is life but death pretending? When a katydid pretends to be a leaf, do we call that lying? The hawk moth caterpiller resembles a snake, and I resemble a hawk moth caterpiller. I lie, I get laid, I move on.)

Herr Schlegel, who looks like a JFK who’s made it to his 70th birthday with thick white hair intact and now only dresses in black, is confused. He is Herr Wieland’s picador, just as Herr Brueckner, with his off-puns and aphorisms, is the rodeo clown who breaks things up when I challenge Wieland’s arrogance; Wieland’s default pretense that any information he doesn’t already own is trivial. Everyone else is the audience. The coliseum. Schlegel says, “This story of yours, Herr Instructor, is it true?”

Note: classes were cancelled after the 12th week, but I was paid for the year.

“Define true.” At which, of course, Herr Wieland snorts.

“Did it happen as you have written it?”

“Does that matter?”

“If it is fiction, it is mere pornography. If it is true, I think, in all honesty, one must say the writer has no shame.”

“By revealing his truth, the writer reveals the reader to himself, Herr Schlegel. It’s a sacrifice we’ve been obligated to make since before Mr. Joyce.”

“Nonsense. There is nothing of me in this story!”

Wieland picks up his copy of the stapled pages and flips them until he comes to an excerpt, which he reads with such excitement, such theatrical disgust and sarcasm, that he can barely pronounce the words, let alone contain himself.

It’s the posture of submission that turns you on: the oiled flesh, brown as furniture, rich in the flamelight. The ass up and the head down with all that hair gushing forth, gushing out, a fountain of crude oil spilling over the edge and pooling on the Persian carpet at the foot of the futon, the face inclined politely away, gasping at the wall in a prayerful rhythm, the grunts of assent or helpless recognitions. So many groans are just prayer, and so much of prayer is just begging, and almost all begging is the music of pain. Her guttural prayers and my flickering shadow on her wall and those glistening streaks of her mud on me: what’s more exciting than that?

“Goatfuckers.”

Ginger, with his Jesuit upbringing, says “Don’t start.”

“Don’t start what?”

“Don’t start that intolerance shit.”

We are back in Limbo, our old club, after two months of swearing off the smoke and the sweat and the alarming influx of rich kids in from Zehlendorf, simply because there is nowhere else to go. Twice we’d tried places where the sensation that hit us like a wall of digital locusts as we entered couldn’t even be identified as music. We’d tried places that looked and smelled like the decadent version of daycare. Sheepishly, we returned to the passé nightspot we’d sworn off, and three Turkish types in payment-plan suits and pastel loafers, sunglasses mired in their highly flammable jet-black hair, have pushed across our view of the dancefloor, tugging their blondes by the rings in their noses. Two are blondes, actually, and one is not.

I finish my drink. “What intolerance shit?”

Ginger says, “Oh, come on. Remember the day Indra flew back to Bali? You were so fucking relieved you bought me dinner. And now you’re playing the grieving fiancé. Boo fucking hoo.”

I pretend not to hear and move onto the dance floor, parting a metaphorical curtain, doing my American dance. Loose in the shoulders. Impossible for Germans and alien to Asians and instantly identifiable. That and my very good shoes. I dance from the periphery in, eyes on myself, easing towards the center. The three Turks and their escorts are trying out their modern dance lessons in the middle of the crowd and I am locked on the best-looking girl in their menagerie, the taller, thinner, slightly embarrassed and attractively reticent one in dark slacks, gold pumps and ruffled white collar and sleeves. She can’t be older than nineteen. Tossing her hair. They must have kidnapped her. First you look, and then you look away, and then they look, and then they look away. There’s a rhythm to it until your eyes meet and you can all but predict the future.

.