David Lugasi, I think, never knew how much he really loved the Western Wall until he saw it completely dismantled, stone by stone by stone, and piled onto the three trucks of his hauling and renovations company, A.A. America Hauling and Renovations. Until that moment, the Western Wall had been a place. Just a place. But the Rabin assassination changed everything.
Lugasi is one of those rare types: people born to pray. No wonder he felt at home at the Wall. He wasn’t “religious” to the extent that he could marry the grandchild of a learned rabbi – any learned rabbi – but there are people who, when they pray, are happy. On Friday nights, for example, he’d go to synagogue with his father, return to his parents’ house for kiddush and a festive meal, and then get into his car and drive to a party. In the Lugasi home, that was considered an excellent Sabbath eve.
And that’s why he loved the Western Wall and hated Jerusalem: because the minute you pass Sha’ar Hagai on the road leading to the city, you have to choose. Right wing or left, religious or secular, orthodox or ultra-orthodox – like in a poor neighborhood in Hollywood movies, you have to choose a gang, or else you’ll be alone in a violent and sour city. Lugasi, who hated choosing and loved praying, would come back more and more upset from those visits to his beloved Wall. Until the last time, when he cracked. One night, a week after the assassination, he called me. It was one in the morning.
“You have to come,” he said. “Take a taxi and come to Jerusalem. I need your advice urgently.”
“Advice about what?”
“Where to put it, brother. The Western Wall. I finish loading in an hour. Come, I have no time to talk. The battery in my Nokia is conking out.”
* * *
Half a kilometer away from the square in front of the Western Wall, I came to a barrier put up by the Border Police. A Druze policeman stopped me and said, “No entrance, sir. The Wall is being renovated.”
“Renovated. They’re cleaning it. For Rabin’s shivah, a special operation.”
The policeman waited. I scratched my head.
“Listen,” I said, “I have to go in. I’m on the advisory team.”
“What’s your name?” the policeman asked and pulled a wrinkled piece of paper out of his pants pocket.
“You’re the famous Uzi Weill?”
“Famous?” I said. “Famous for what?”
“Why didn’t you say so right away,” the policeman said and tapped me on the shoulder. “The contractor told us to let you in. I want you to know that I’m with you a hundred percent. My people and yours are blood brothers.”
“I see,” I said cautiously.
He shouted for his colleague standing next to the barrier to move it, and added, “That’s why, even if I am Druze – I’m for your father.”
“My father?” I said, puzzled.
“A great man,” said the policeman. “Too bad there aren’t more like him. May he rest in peace.”
“My father’s not dead.”
He froze. “Really? Not dead? Begin?”
I didn’t know what to say. I smiled at him politely.
“You don’t say,” the policeman continued, shaking his head in growing amazement. “You don’t say. Begin’s not dead, ah? So – he’s hiding out?”
I shrugged cautiously.
“Good for him,” the policeman said, “he got really good at hiding out when he was in the underground. When’s he coming back?”
I said, “Another year or two.”
“Tell him we’re waiting,” the policeman said. “Even though I’m a Druze, I’m waiting. You know why?”
“Because my people and yours are blood brothers?” I tried.
He looked at me with new respect. “Good for you!” he said. “I see your father taught you well. Good for you! You’re a good family.”
“True,” I said. “Benny turned out a little…”
“Too serious,” the policeman said.
“Oh well…” I shrugged.
“Never mind. A Begin is a Begin. You’re all a good family.”
“I’ll tell my father,” I promised.
He lowered his hand from my car window and I drove in.
The square in front of the Wall was brightly lit, and dozens of workers were dismantling the stones. All that remained of the Wall itself were the two bottom rows of stones. Two workers worked on each stone, and after detaching it, carried it to the huge truck parked at the edge of entrance area. The other twenty-nine trucks were already waiting in line, full of stones, on the street leading away from the Wall.
On the roof of the last truck, which was in the process of being filled, sat David Lugasi. Next to him sat the driver, and they were drinking coffee from a large thermos. I stood rooted in place, stunned. Lugasi saw me.
“Brother!” he called to me and stood up. “Come on up and have something to drink with us.”
I climbed onto the door of the truck, the driver gave me a hand, and I found myself looking down at the workers who had begun destroying the last row. It was a shocking sight. The Western Wall looked like a stone path. I sat in silence.
A few minutes later, Lugasi said, “It’s really something, huh?”
“Tell me…” I began, but couldn’t go on.
“I’ll explain it to you in a minute,” Lugasi said and moved his head very very slightly in the direction of the driver. He didn’t want to share his plan with too many people.
“Good coffee, huh?” asked the driver.
“Terrific. Listen, if you wouldn’t mind, we have a few professional matters to discuss.”
The driver looked at me suspiciously. Then he spilled out the remains of his coffee, stood up and jumped to the ground.
Lugasi watched him move away. “What do you say?” he asked when we were alone.
“What can I say?” I extended my arm. “It’s…”
“Yes,” I nodded, “you could say it was great. You could definitely say that. But why?”
“Those Jerusalemites don’t deserve it. They don’t deserve to have the Wall.”
“Aahh.” I looked around. The workers had started taking apart the last row.
“You tell me,” Lugasi put his hand on his heart. “Tell me if I’m not right: last week, two days after they killed Rabin, may he rest in peace, I went to the Wall to pray. For Rabin, and for the country, and for… I don’t know. My heart, from so much sorrow, became… especially after his funeral. Did you see how his granddaughter cried?”
“Then, do you understand? It was tough. On the way to the Wall, I put on my father’s kipa, may he rest in peace, and there I was, with my beard and all, you know – at least five people grabbed me, told me how good it is that Rabin’s dead.”
I nodded. Lugasi took a deep breath, and shook his head incredulously.
“Then I finished praying,” he went on, “took off the kipa – and on the way back, three other people jumped on me, told me to come to an anti-religious happening, they’re all murderers. So I decided – I, David Lugasi, am moving the Western Wall.
I didn’t know what to say. Under us, the workers were finishing their job. They worked diligently. Another twenty stones, and the Wall might never have been there.
“Some operation, ah?” Lugasi smiled proudly. “A hundred and twenty workers.”
“And where will you put it in Tel Aviv?”
“That’s what you’re here for. Advise me where the best place is. A pretty place, no arguments, no politics, where people will come to pray with goodness in their hearts. A laid back kind of place?”
“The beach?” I suggested. Lugasi smiled.
And that’s how it was.
* * *
Half an hour later, the convoy of trucks began leaving the place that once was the Western Wall, and was now a naked hill. Lugasi and I, in the Peugeot, passed the canvas-covered trucks and the bus carrying the workers, and reached the Border Police post. Lugasi got out and tapped the policeman on the shoulder.
“Finished for the day?” the policeman asked.
“Yes,” said Lugasi. “You can move the barriers. Do you have the permit from the City?”
“Right here,” the policeman said, patting his shirt pocket. “ Do you need it?”
“Keep it,” said Lugasi, “in case they ask any questions.”
He got in and closed the door. “An original permit,” he said, “from the City. From the time I fixed the sewer in the Convention Center. It says: please follow the contractor’s instructions.”
The policeman knocked on the window and waited for me to look at him. He pretended to be locking his lips with a key. I gave him a thumbs-up as a gesture of thanks.
The convoy began to move.
“Tell me,” I said to Lugasi, “aren’t I little young to be Begin’s son?”
He shrugged. “Policemen,” he said.
And so, smiling and serene, Lugasi continued leading his convoy of trucks along the deserted Ayalon Freeway. At three in the morning, we reached Sheraton Beach. We got out to survey the territory. The workers waited in the bus.
“What do you say?” he asked, looking around, hands on hips. “Maybe between Sheraton and the marina?”
I tried to imagine it. “I don’t think so,” I said, “the strip of beach is too narrow. You need enough room for the prayers and for the sunbathers too.”
“You’re right,” Lugasi said. “And it has to be far from the water. So the waves won’t erode the stones in winter.”
We looked around, and all at once, our gaze fell upon the slope leading down from the Hilton, under Atzmaut Park. We shook hands, and Lugasi went to the workers’ bus.
“Ya’allah, let’s go, everybody out,” he told them.
They started whispering to each other in Romanian. One of them got up and acted as interpreter.
“Mister Lugasi, we’re all very tired,” said the chosen leader. “All night work, work,” he said in English.
“Tell them everyone gets another two hundred dollars,” said Lugasi. “They work till morning.”
In a flash, they were all outside, unloading the stones. Some of them began setting up scaffolding on the slope under Atzmaut Park. They worked with astonishing speed, unloading the stones in the exact order they’d been put on the trucks, but despite their diligence, they’d only managed to put up a third of the Wall when the sun rose. Lugasi, who saw in advance what the problem would be, sent them to sleep. At six in the morning, the second shift arrived.
This time, they were Arabs, and Lugasi managed without an interpreter. At seven, we collapsed in the Peugeot. Lugasi turned on the radio. We listened to four news broadcasts, switching from one to the other: none of them mentioned the fact that during the night, someone had stolen the Western Wall.
“Maybe they’re keeping a lid on the investigation,” I said. “Censoring it.”
“They’re censoring the Voice of Cairo too? And the BBC?”
I shrugged. “It doesn’t matter,” I told Lugasi. “My father, may he rest in peace, always used to say: a man needs to have faith and never to worry, except when he hears the hoo-oh of a police car approaching. Now, let’s go to sleep.”
We nodded off on each other’s shoulder for three hours of fitful sleep. At ten-thirty in the morning, a knock on the window woke us. It was a City inspector. Lugasi lowered the window.
“Are you the contractor?” the inspector scratched his head.
“What is that thing?”
“The wall of peace,” said Lugasi, “in memory of Itzhak Rabin.”
“Ah,” said the inspector. “It looks familiar, that wall.”
“There’s one like it in Jerusalem.”
“Ah,” said the inspector. “My wife’s from Jerusalem. Maybe that’s why.”
Lugasi called to one of the workers and asked for coffee. The inspector sat and drank with us, and told us how much he earned working for the City. When he left, we turned on the radio again: still, not a word about the Western Wall disappearing.
Lugasi got out and stretched. Then he said, “Strange, isn’t it?”
“Let’s go,” I said.
He looked at the laboring workers and said, “Wait, we’ll wash our faces and then take off.”
* * *
We reached Jerusalem at noon. We parked not far from what was once the Western Wall, and approached cautiously. Twenty different scenarios passed through our minds, but none of them even came near what we actually saw: everything was going on as usual.
The prayers prayed. Men on the left, women on the right.
Policemen, as usual, guarded the square.
Tourists, as usual, had their pictures taken wearing cardboard kipot on their heads. The only thing different was that the Wall wasn’t there. We walked towards the square. A policeman stood there in his regular place and handed us black kipot.
“Tell me,” – Lugasi asked the policeman – “where’s the Wall?”
“Being renovated,” said the policeman.
“Renovated where? Where are they renovating it?”
The policeman shrugged. “Ask the Rabbi of the Wall, that’s what he said. Are you going in or not?”
We went in. A large group of chassidim was praying very intently, but their attempts to push notes into the dry hill failed utterly. They occasionally looked around in puzzlement, but in general, it seemed that the explanation given by the Rabbi of the Wall satisfied them. We left the square and went to eat at a small place Lugasi knew, not far from there.
Lugasi ate hummus and pita, and drank tea. He looked preoccupied. When he finished, he took out his cell phone.
“Hello,” he said when someone answered him, “is this the office of the Rabbi of the Wall? I wanted to ask something. I was at the Wall just now, and it wasn’t there.”
“That’s impossible,” the clerk replied, “the Rabbi has been here since the morning.”
“Not the Rabbi,” said Lugasi, “not him, it. The Wall. The Wall wasn’t there.”
“Ah,” replied the clerk. “It’s being renovated.”
“You don’t say,” said Lugasi. “Who’s renovating it?”
“The City,” she said. “I don’t know exactly. This morning, the Rabbi spoke to the Border Police, they took the stones away for the renovation. It’s a special operation.”
“The Border Police? Who’s that, the Druze guy at the barrier, you talked to him?”
“Yes, yes,” replied the clerk. She was starting to lose her patience. “It’s from the City, a special operation. In honor of Jerusalem’s three thousandth anniversary.”
“Thank you,” Lugasi replied and hung up. We looked at each other.
He said, “We pulled it off. I think next week, I’ll move the vault from the Leumi Bank.”
* * *
We worked like crazy that whole day and night along with the workers, and the next day – right before sunrise, at the end of the Romanian’s second shift – it was all finished. We stood in the water, the waves lapping at the edges of our rolled-up pants, and looked at the new Western Wall. It looked great.
“The Jewish people’s holiest site,” said Lugasi. There were tears in his eyes.
“Don’t be cute.”
He paid the workers and they got on the bus and disappeared. We remained standing there, looking at the fruit of our labors. A few minutes later, I started feeling hungry, and remembered that we hadn’t eaten since that humus in Jerusalem. We went up to the Café Regatta, took a table near the window, sat down silently and looked at the beach.
“The Temple Mount is ours,” said Lugasi, like a general after a successful battle.
* * *
At first, everything went smoothly. The beach-goers did show a certain puzzlement, but the wall had yet to be born that would keep them from getting a tan. The tourists, on the other hand, were very enthusiastic. A rich American from Chicago named Joe Rivlin, Chairman and owner of Rivlin & Rivlin Buttons and Zippers, outdid himself, and sent the mayor a letter of congratulations from Milan, enclosing a check in the amount of one hundred thousand dollars.
“A brilliant way to bring tourism to Tel Aviv and to Israel in general, period,” he wrote, “if only the American government had your courage, we wouldn’t have to travel to Beijing Grand Canyon to see the Beijing Grand Canyon, period.”
The religious public in Tel Aviv received the new Western Wall with mixed feelings, but quickly got used to the idea. First of all, no one said in so many words that it was that Western Wall – The Rabbi of the Wall still insisted that the original was being renovated – and secondly, even if it was that one, what was so terrible if it stayed in Tel Aviv for a few years? Pilgrims came from the four corners of the country and proclaimed that the new location was not only more convenient, it was also a lot safer – considering the security problems Jerusalem’s Old City had been having for years.
Amazingly enough, even the sacred status quo was not damaged, despite the dangerous proximity of the prayers and the sunbathers. The former faced the Wall, the latter faced the sea, and they all met on the number five bus, of which there were now another fifty. Even the homosexuals in Atzmaut Park finally got used to the idea. Many of them, so the city council representative of Meretz, the leftist liberal party, discovered, came from a traditional background, and the proximity of the Western Wall surprisingly improved their sex lives.
The problem began when the mayor realized what he had. After the shock of the first week, when all he did was throw one fax after the other into the waste basket and fire any person who dared suggest that the Western Wall be moved to his jurisdiction, he finally decided to go down to the beach and see what was happening there. When he realized that the people – again, dammit – were right, the trouble started.
First, he declared that the Western Wall was now to be called “The Kings of Israel Wall” – compensation for the Kings of Israel Square, a name which, after the assassination, was taken from them and changed to Rabin Square. The next thing he did was commission Yaacov Agam to paint the Wall in shifting iridescent colors. “Yaacov Agam,” he said at a press conference broadcast live from the seashore – “is an international artist who combines kinetics and Judaism, and he will put the Wall on the map of the next millennium!”
And then a special sound system arrived and was installed next to the Wall. It broadcast commercials from the Municipality and Israeli music twenty-four hours a day.
Before a day had passed, Channel Two announced that it would broadcast live a series of summer performances to be called “Rock ‘n Wall”, direct from the new, revolving, pneumatic stage purchased expressly for that purpose in Germany and flown to the Wall. Dudu Topaz, the TV entertainer, would be the emcee, Dudu Dotan, the comedian, would tell jokes, and Dudu Shmulevitz – head of the city’s electrician’s union – declared that if the City didn’t reach an agreement with the union before the program, the beach would be blacked out.
At that point, Lugasi stopped returning my calls. But he too could take no more when the army championship games were held there, and hundreds of infantry fighters hang-glided down from the Wall. On that day, at four in the afternoon, he called me.
“Did you hear?” he asked in a defeated voice.
“That’s nothing,” I said. “The local newspaper is organizing a squash league on the beach. Guess what they’re using for a wall?”
“One hour, at the Hilton,” he said and hung up. I guessed that he would bring a rotten mood with him, but I never imagined how rotten. When I got there, I saw him from a distance, standing stooped over next to a kiosk on the beach, a cigarette in his hand. That was the first time we had dared approach the Wall since we moved it from Jerusalem, and it did not look good.
On the top of it, along the uppermost row of stones, an electronic sign was flickering: “The Western Wall brought to you by Yediot Aharanot newspapers and Isracard.” And David Lugasi didn’t look any better than his Wall.
“What are we going to do?” he asked. His eyes were red. He dragged hard on his cigarette.
“Maybe people will calm down. Give them time. It’s still new.”
He nodded. We moved closer to the police barricade separating the swimmers from the prayers. At one end of it was a small booth. We took kipot from an old worker wearing an orange uniform with a drawing of the Wall facing the sea on it. The kipa was also orange and had the same drawing, along with the words: “Sunset at the Wall – An Experience!”
We passed the barrier and went inside.
“Wait, wait a minute!” the old man called after us in a Russian accent.
“What?” I turned to him.
“Fifty shekels to go in, please,” said the old man in the orange uniform.
I looked at Lugasi. He returned the look.
“Ten tonight,” he said. “Be ready. I’ll pick you up.”
* * *
That same night, we returned the Wall to Jerusalem. We finished the whole job in eight hours of strenuous labor. The two crews, Romanians and Arabs, worked together and when the sun rose, the Wall was back where it belonged.
Lugasi stood and looked at his Wall. He wiped tears from the corners of his eyes. “We tried,” he said.
The workers were already on the bus, ready to go. The empty trucks left the parking lot one after the other. We were standing quietly when suddenly, from behind us came the sound of the bashful clearing of a throat. It was the Rabbi of the Wall.
He said, “Ah… the renovations are finished, sir?”
We turned to him. His eyes were red, his hair slightly disheveled, and he looked as if he’d aged a hundred years in a single week.
“Finished,” Lugasi said gently. He looked at the old man, and he was filled with great, inexplicable sorrow.
“And… everything’s okay?”
“Everything’s shiny and shipshape, Rabbi. We added screws to strengthen it, poured cement, it’s like new. A cinch to last another three thousand years.”
“Thank God. Thank God!” the Rabbi heaved a huge sigh and was silent. Then he said, “More power to you, young fellow. Just tell them at City Hall that next time, I’d like to know in advance when they do something like this, fahrshteist?”
“There won’t be a next time,” said Lugasi. “If I take it away again – you better believe I won’t bring it back.”
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
*Translation © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
We Weren’t actually at starvation’s door, although even that depends on how you look at it – the house was in ruins, windows missing, the living-room armchair shot to pieces, a crack in the wall, the kitchen a shambles, cupboards falling apart, furniture which had given up the ghost a long time ago – but I could smell it coming.
Apart from which my husband told me: “You’re a wreck.” This being the case, first thing in the morning I phoned and asked to speak to the editor-in-chief in charge of all the editors and chiefs and mentioned my full name – which is so long that it’s ridiculous.
I told him about myself and said that I had an unprecedented offer for which I wanted a four-figure sum, monthly.
I made an appointment with him in an air-conditioned cafe and pushed my way though crowds of people I didn’t know and who for some reason embarrassed me greatly. When the coffee arrived I explained my proposal to him.
“Listen to me,” I said to him, “and then say whatever you’ve got to say, I’m not listening anyway. I’ll just take in your tone, my feelers will grope for the gist of your reply – yes or no, and afterwards, sir, we’ll say goodbye, either forever or not.”
“I’m all ears,” he said.
“Let me have a car, let me have money, neither a little nor a lot – budget me – let me travel round and about the country. Yes, we’ll begin with round and about the country. Let me see what’s going on. Believe me, I haven’t left the house in years, I’m in urgent need of contact with the outside world. And I’ll pay it back, the outside world, by describing it with amazing accuracy, with flashes of brilliance. Let me travel, let me wander, and I’ll bring you a story a week, a thousand shekels a story.”
“Yes?” his eyebrows rose like two hills.
“Could you concentrate, please?”
“That’s my side of the bargain, and what do I get in return?”
“A story a week, weren’t you listening to me?”
“Certainly I was listening, that’s why I’m asking you what you’re giving me in return.”
“I don’t understand you.”
“That story’s for you – release, therapy, autotherapy, what do you want of me?”
“What kind of talk is that?”
“Sorry,” he said. “We don’t need a weekly story. Every day there are hundreds of stories and parts of stories in the newspapers. I’ve got reporters poking into the pockets of every Minister in the government, I don’t need a literary angle on plain reality.”
I called another newspaper and repeated my offer over the phone. I expanded it. After all, it wasn’t asking much and the rejection stung me. I said: “Let me travel round the world, with my daughter and my husband. I’m Orly, I’m a wreck. But I’ve got eyes, sir. A thousand shekels a story. And not a penny less. That’s my last word.”
He said: “Let’s see an example. Go to the refineries on your own account and bring me an example. Or not. Go wherever you like. Go to the Jordan valley, to Masada, to Arad, to the Dead Sea. Wherever you like.”
“Tell me, what is this? I’m not prepared for you to give me tests. Either you take me now as I am, or I’ll go to Avigdor from the rival paper, or somewhere else. Either sign me up on a blank contract with no strings attached or else,” and I took out a hammer and a rolling pin and banged on the table.
“Okay, okay,” he sighed,” let’s meet.”
We arranged to meet at a cafe on the promenade, next to the sea. I repeated my offer and the waiter came and removed the melon rinds and the remains of the salad.
The man sitting opposite me lit a cigarette and thought. In the meantime a few thoughts crossed my mind which I thought were quick-off-the-mark, but today I know they did me no good.
“Listen,” I said, “all I want is a page in your newspaper and a thousand shekels a story. Come on, give.”
He went on looking at the sea in silence. My wrinkles deepened. Five o’clock in the afternoon, the sun was directly opposite my face. I dried my sweat with a paper napkin.
“Well,” I said.
He shrugged his shoulders.
“What do I know.”
My worst fears were realized. I had made the man miserable. I had depressed him. The whole idea from beginning to end suddenly seemed futile to me, I asked him to forget the conversation had ever taken place. But he said that actually he liked my offer, and we should talk about it again in a couple of days time.
I walked up the steps to Hayarkon Street, and began going down all the streets perpendicular to the sea in the direction of Ibn Gvirol, the desolate street where the bus s.t.o.p. is situated. I stood at the bus stop and waited for a bus. When I got home I saw my husband watching a five by five video movie.
“Where is our daughter?” I asked.
“Sleeping,” he replied, and demanded a full account of the conversation.
I falsified everything on purpose, because I’d already forgotten what had happened, and immersed myself in the television set. My husband filled me in with regard to the plot and I asked questions and he answered them.
A few days passed and the man didn’t call. I personally wasn’t waiting for a call, but the economic situation was.
The bank clerk came for coffee at six o’clock on Wednesday evening and asked when we intended covering the overdraft.
“Never,” said my husband and stroked his cheek.
“Why don’t you shave?” she asked.
“I don’t like it.”
“You know,” she said to him, “you make awfully good coffee.”
He looked at me, because actually it was me who had made the coffee.
“She made it,” he said.
“So what?” she said.
“What?” I said.
“If there’s anything you want here,” said my husband with a smile, “take it – don’t be shy.”
“Really?” said the bank clerk.
“Take whatever you want.”
“Have you got a few crates?” she asked.
“Maybe the neighbours have,” I said.
“Why don’t you put your salary in the bank every month like everybody else?” she asked.
“I’ll tell you,” my husband began telling her, and hinted to me that I should make myself scarce. I took my daughter and went down to the woods. From there I went on with her to a cafe, and from there to the pub. The drink warmed my heart and I stopped wishing I was dead. My distress faded, I calmed down and hugged and kissed her and explained a few things to her from an objective point of view. She looked at me and I kept saying to myself that there was no other way, what other way could there be? My heart was like the skin of a camel, flat as a rug.
When we went home I saw the bank clerk’s ‘86 Fiat Uno driving off in the direction of the main road.
“Salamaat,” I said to her.
“Salaamtek,” I said to her again.
“Tislam, peace be with you, lady.”
I went inside, and I saw my husband standing there with his three brothers, all playing snooker.
“I got an extension of eight years,” said my husband. “In the meantime the interest will rocket, but who cares. In eight years time we’ll leave the country.”
His brothers looked daggers at me. They accused me of hypocrisy, of self-righteousness, of bad literature, of perversity.
I told them I agreed with every word they said, and I made tehina with lots of parsley. They all ate well, they finished the lot, they polished their plates clean, I didn’t even have to wash the dishes, I put them straight into the cupboard, and to hell with them.
It was a long night. I looked at the stars scattered over the sky like salt on my wounds. I prayed for redemption, for the Messiah to come. What’s going on here – I wondered. I’m not a woman, my husband’s not a man. Soon I’ll die, I’ll turn into a picture. Everyone will forget me and I’ll forget them.
I’ll go away, I’ll disappear, I’ll vamoose, I’ll evaporate. I’ll die. That’s it. Au revoir and goodbye. No more. When. Finito la comedia. Twenty years from now. I’ll die. I won’t exist. I love moments of fellowship between people, they move me to tears. But open moments, like my sitting here on the balcony, send me way off. I love these open moments, when the dome of the heavens really functions like a dome, they’re terrific.
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
*Translation © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
It was the last summer before they gave the Sinai back to Egypt. I was thirteen and I drove with my parents and their friends down to Ras Burka. I think that must have been our last big family trip. After that, I preferred going with my friends. In any case, one of the families traveling with us had a son with cerebral palsy. They put up their tent a little bit away from the rest of us so it took a few days before I even noticed him. And that was purely by accident too. I went into the water to snorkel and the current carried me too far out. The waves were high, salt water seeped into my snorkel and my mask steamed up. I wanted to go back to the shore but didn’t know how. After a long momment, I found a sandy path that wound through the corals and swam along it till I reached the shore. I rested there for a while, got my breathing regular again, took off my fins and started walking back toward our tent, swearing to myself that this was the last time I’d go underwater myself.
And then I saw him.
He was sitting in a wheelchair near his family’s tent.
I couldn’t decide whether to go over to him, but he seemed to be smiling at me, so I turned away from the shoreline and walked toward him. When I got closer, I saw that the smile was actually an involuntary twitch that distorted his mouth.
But that wasn’t the main thing.
Dozens of flies were sitting on his face. There were flies on his lips, on his nose, inside his nose, in his ears, on his cheeks, his neck, his chin, his hair, his weird thick glasses. Big flies, small flies, flies that weren’t moving, flies that were rubbing their hands together in pleasure. Where were his parents? How could they have left him there like that?
“Do something,” his eyes pleaded from behind his glasses. “Save me from this torture.” He moaned, the sound an animal makes. A wounded animal.
I peeled off my shirt and started flapping it wildly around his body. Some of the flies took off. And some didn’t. I waved my other hand too, and kicked the air with my foot, close to his face. I did everything but touch him. I jumped and stamped, even went into their tent and brought out a piece of cardboard meant for fanning the barbecue coals, and waved it hard next to the back of his neck where an especially stubborn guerilla of flies was hanging on.
Finally, after a few minutes of hard work, I managed to cut down the number of flies by half. I knew that as soon as I left him, the flies would come back and retake his face easily. But there was no choice. I had to go back to the main tent for help.
“I’ll be right back,” I said. He didn’t nod his head and he didn’t shake it. I thought I could see a thank you in his eyes, but I wasn’t sure of that either. “I’ll be right back,” I repeated. And again, not a muscle in his face moved.
I started running back to the main tent, the soles of my feet burning in the sand, but before I reached it, I ran into his parents, who must have been on their way back. The mother was carrying their new, blond baby girl. The father was carrying two folding chairs.
Your son, I blurted out, he’s there… alone… the flies. The words were all jumbled in my mouth.
We know, the father said in a firm voice. Confident. What can we do, the mother said with a sigh. We can’t stand next to him all day and swat them away.
Yes, but… I wanted to object. To demand. To wave my fins around. But my protest couldn’t find its way into words, into a coherent argument. I was only thirteen and still a little bit afraid of grownups.
But thanks for taking an interest, the father said, and started walking again. She has sensitive skin, it isn’t good for her, being in the sun like this, the mother apologized, gesturing to the little blond girl, and walked past me. The little blond girl herself was asleep, her face bright and beautiful.
That night, I told my parents about it. I was sure they’d be outraged. That they’d use the same expressions they used when I did something to make them furious: “shameful,” “disgraceful,” or worst of all – “deplorable.”
To my shock, they were indifferent. Even worse: it turned out that it was nothing new for them. The boy had been with the group on their vacation at Lake Kinneret, and then too, he sat in his wheelchair outside the tent and the flies set up residence on him.
I agree with you, it’s not a pretty sight, my father said. But what can they do? Stand next to him all day and swat away the flies?
I actually think it’s nice that they insist on bringing him, my mother added. After all, they could leave him in the home. But they want him to grow up like a normal child.
So why do they hide him? the question burst out of me at full volume, volume that was fine for home, not the Sinai. If it’s so nice and they have nothing to be ashamed of, why did they put up their tent so far from everyone else?!
Because it took them a little more time to get organized and that was the only place left for them, my father said.
Yes, my mother backed him up – I hadn’t heard her back him up on anything for a long time – it’s purely by chance. At the Kinneret, they were right in the center of things.
Their arguments, added on to his parents’ arguments, paralyzed me. It all sounded so logical and convincing. But still, I had the feeling that an injustice was being done here. My father put out the candle and in the dark, my mother said it was nice that I thought about others, not only about myself, and maybe I should put that virtue to use by washing the plastic plates every once in a while because it makes no sense that she’s in the Sinai and the only thing she does all day is cook and wash up after us.
When we woke up the next morning, we saw that a lot of other Israeli families had come during the night and planted their tents on the beach. You can’t imagine, Rina, the whole country came to say goodbye to the Sinai, my father said after finishing his morning exercises outside the tent. Oh my God, my mother said when she went outside, the whole country really is here.
I hated it when they talked like that. As if they weren’t actually part of the country. But I didn’t say anything. I went outside and scanned the beach. The boy’s tent wasn’t on the edge of the camp anymore, but right in the middle of the rows of tents that now filled the small inlet from the little hill to the dunes. Terrific, I said to myself, now the whole country will see that boy being tortured on his wheelchair and someone will definitely say something to his parents.
That day, when the sun had begun to sink toward the hills, I went into the water with my snorkel and swam back to the spot where the narrow sandy path wound between the large fire corals. After I came out of the water and dried myself off on the beach, I began looking for their tent. It wasn’t easy to find anymore because there were so many other tents surrounding it, but the flash of the sun’s rays on the iron of the wheelchair showed me the way.
He was sitting there in the same small square of shade. I searched his eyes for a sign that he recognized me, remembered something. And didn’t find it. There were a million flies on his face. A billion. The whole country has been walking past him since the morning, I thought. And didn’t do a thing.
I started the work of swatting them away. This time, I was determined to get all the flies, every last one. I wanted to see his face completely clear for once, I wanted to give him a few seconds of grace free of irritation.
It took a long time – the sun was already turning the hilltops golden – but in the end, I did it. The last three flies turned out to be dead, and I peeled them off his cheek with my fingers. But while I was moving back a little to check if any flies had gotten away from me, four new ones landed on his nose.
Furious, I went back and slapped the air next to his nose until they gave up and flew away. Then I stood beside him for a few minutes to make sure that not a single fly dared to come back. It was starting to get dark and I hoped my parents were already worrying about me, so I promised the fly boy that I’d come back the next day at the same time, and left.
I’d like to say that I went back the next day and the day after that. I’d like to say that, in the end, I started a protest demonstration, maybe even a hunger strike, near the fly boy’s wheelchair until his parents had no choice but to stand on either side of him waving huge palm fronds all day long.
But at the moment, the truth is stronger stronger than me
That evening, near one of the circles of people listening to a guitar player, I met a fifteen-year-old girl. I lied to her, said I was fifteen too, and she believed me and told me that in Ashdod, where she lived, there are some girls who’d gone all the way with older boys. She had big green eyes and chocolate skin, and she always wore a white bikini, day and night, and spoke loudly about her boobs, how big and beautiful they were. I fell in love with her instantly, of course. And I spent the next few days playing endless games of backgammon with her and her cousins, trying desperately to impress her.
One afternoon, her cousins went into the water and just the two of us were left on the beach. The sun was behind us. I didn’t turn around, but I could picture it turning the hilltops golden now.
We didn’t talk. I felt that it was my responsibility to rescue us from the silence.
There’s this kid here, I said. He has some disease, I don’t what. Anyway, his parents leave him in a wheelchair outside their tent the whole day, and all the flies in the Sinai come and sit on his face.
How disgusting, she said.
Yes, I agreed. And added, spitting out the words quickly, I go to see him every once in a while and swat away the flies. Want to come with me?
What, now? she asked and buried her tan legs in the soft sand like someone who has no intention of going anywhere.
No, I said, alarmed. Who said now? I was thinking later, tomorrow.
We’ll see, maybe, she said, and jumped up suddenly. are You coming to the water?
I didn’t see the boy with the flies anymore. I was sure I’d see him the last day when my parents’ whole gang took down their tents and gathered together to make the trip to Eilat in a convoy of Subarus. I planned to tell his parents a thing or two, or at least say goodbye to him and apologize for not keeping my promise, but when we got to the meeting place, his family wasn’t there.
They left yesterday, my mother explained. Their little girl had a bad upset stomach.
And what about the… I started to ask, but my father changed the subject. Son, he said, take one last look at the beach and make sure you remember what you see. Inside of a year, the Egyptians will build an army base here. And that’s the end of the corals and the fish.
No, my mother said, I think they’ll develop the place for tourism.
And he answered her.
And she answered him.
And they were off, arguing till Eilat, and maybe even till we were on the Arava Road, I don’t know, because after Kibbutz Yotvata, I fell asleep.
A few months later, the Sinai went back to Egypt and became cleaner and quieter.
Ras Burka was taken over by an obnoxious blue-eyed Egyptian sheikh and his German wife. They let Israelis in the first few years, but then the intifada started and they hung out a little cardboard sign saying that only people with European passports could enter.
The pretty girl from Ashdod starred in my fantasies for a few months. And when I couldn’t summon up her face anymore, I replaced her with Sharon Haziz, the latest, hottest singer.
I haven’t thought about the boy with the flies for years, but during my last stint in the reserves – I was posted in Nablus, and when it was over, I asked for a transfer to a different unit – I suddenly remembered him. I was sitting alone in the small shed at the Ein Huwara checkpoint counting stars, listening to fragmented conversations on the radio, and I don’t really know why, but that boy’s face floated up before my eyes and my heart swelled all at once to the size of a watermelon, good God, there were even flies on his eyelashes, in his nostrils, in his ears. And I’d promised him I’d come.
A thought buzzed in my mind: it’s funny that I never mention the incident to anyone. After all, I’ve revealed more embarrassing things to the world – secrets, lies, perversions – but for some reason, not that. I promised myself I’d tell my wife when I got home, I felt that I had to tell at least her, but when I got home, the twins had fever and we took turns sitting with them and hardly had any time to talk –
Later I forgot about it. And I have no idea why I remembered it now, of all times. That terrible reserve duty was a year and a half ago, and I’m sitting at the computer now to prepare a laser optics marketing presentation for tomorrow morning. All the company’s head honchos will be there, and I still have a lot of work, so many slides that aren’t ready yet, so many slides I have to proofread, and obviously, this is a text I won’t show anyone. Obviously, it’ll be buried in the depths of my hard disk, where it’ll keep buzzing.
This, you know, is the beginning of the story about sprites and goblins which Mamilius, the best child in Shakespeare, was telling to his mother the queen, and the court ladies, when the king came in with his guards and hurried her off to prison. There is no more of the story; Mamilius died soon after without having a chance of finishing it. Now what was it going to have been? Shakespeare knew, no doubt, and I will be bold to say that I do. It was not going to be a new story: it was to be one which you have most likely heard, and even told. Everybody may set it in what frame he likes best. This is mine:
There was a man dwelt by a churchyard. His house had a lower story of stone and an upper one of timber. The front windows looked out on the street and the back ones on the churchyard. It had once belonged to the parish priest, but (this was in Queen Elizabeth’s days) the priest was a married man and wanted more room; besides, his wife disliked seeing the churchyard at night out of her bedroom window. She said she saw — but never mind what she said; anyhow, she gave her husband no peace till he agreed to move into a larger house in the village street, and the old one was taken by John Poole, who was a widower, and lived there alone. He was an elderly man who kept very much to himself, and people said he was something of a miser.
It was very likely true: he was morbid in other ways, certainly. In those days it was common to bury people at night and by torchlight: and it was noticed that whenever a funeral was toward, John Poole was always at his window, either on the ground floor or upstairs, according as he could get the better view from one or the other.
There came a night when an old woman was to be buried. She was fairly well to do, but she was not liked in the place. The usual thing was said of her, that she was no Christian, and that on such nights as Midsummer Eve and All Hallows, she was not to be found in her house. She was red-eyed and dreadful to look at, and no beggar ever knocked at her door. Yet when she died she left a purse of money to the Church.
There was no storm on the night of her burial; it was fair and calm. But there was some difficulty about getting bearers, and men to carry the torches, in spite of the fact that she had left larger fees than common for such as did that work. She was buried in woollen, without a coffin. No one was there but those who were actually needed — and John Poole, watching from his window. Just before the grave was filled in, the parson stooped down and cast something upon the body — something that clinked — and in a low voice he said words that sounded like ‘Thy money perish with thee.’ Then he walked quickly away, and so did the other men, leaving only one torch-bearer to light the sexton and his boy while they shovelled the earth in. They made no very neat job of it, and next day, which was a Sunday, the churchgoers were rather sharp with the sexton, saying it was the untidiest grave in the yard. And indeed, when he came to look at it himself, he thought it was worse than he had left it.
Meanwhile John Poole went about with a curious air, half exulting, as it were, and half nervous. More than once he spent an evening at the inn, which was clean contrary to his usual habit, and to those who fell into talk with him there he hinted that he had come into a little bit of money and was looking out for a somewhat better house. ‘Well, I don’t wonder,’ said the smith one night, ‘I shouldn’t care for that place of yours. I should be fancying things all night.’ The landlord asked him what sort of things.
‘Well, maybe somebody climbing up to the chamber window, or the like of that,’ said the smith. ‘I don’t know — old mother Wilkins that was buried a week ago today, eh?’
‘Come, I think you might consider of a person’s feelings,’ said the landlord. ‘It ain’t so pleasant for Master Poole, is it now?’
‘Master Poole don’t mind,’ said the smith. ‘He’s been there long enough to know. I only says it wouldn’t be my choice. What with the passing bell, and the torches when there’s a burial, and all them graves laying so quiet when there’s no one about: only they say there’s lights — don’t you never see no lights, Master Poole?’
‘No, I don’t never see no lights,’ said Master Poole sulkily, and called for another drink, and went home late.
That night, as he lay in his bed upstairs, a moaning wind began to play about the house, and he could not go to sleep. He got up and crossed the room to a little cupboard in the wall: he took out of it something that clinked, and put it in the breast of his bedgown. Then he went to the window and looked out into the churchyard.
Have you ever seen an old brass in a church with a figure of a person in a shroud? It is bunched together at the top of the head in a curious way. Something like that was sticking up out of the earth in a spot of the churchyard which John Poole knew very well. He darted into his bed and lay there very still indeed.
Presently something made a very faint rattling at the casement. With a dreadful reluctance John Poole turned his eyes that way. Alas!
Between him and the moonlight was the black outline of the curious bunched head . . . Then there was a figure in the room. Dry earth rattled on the floor. A low cracked voice said ‘Where is it?’ and steps went hither and thither, faltering steps as of one walking with difficulty. It could be seen now and again, peering into corners, stooping to look under chairs; finally it could be heard fumbling at the doors of the cupboard in the wall, throwing them open. There was a scratching of long nails on the empty shelves. The figure whipped round, stood for an instant at the side of the bed, raised its arms, and with a hoarse scream of ‘YOU’VE GOT IT!’
At this point H. R. H. Prince Mamilius (who would, I think, have made the story a good deal shorter than this) flung himself with a loud yell upon the youngest of the court ladies present, who responded with an equally piercing cry. He was instantly seized upon by H. M. Queen Hermione, who, repressing an inclination to laugh, shook and slapped him very severely. Much flushed, and rather inclined to cry, he was about to be sent to bed: but, on the intercession of his victim, who had now recovered from the shock, he was eventually permitted to remain until his usual hour for retiring; by which time he too had so far recovered as to assert, in bidding good-night to the company, that he knew another story quite three times as dreadful as that one, and would tell it on the first opportunity that offered.
I – How to Survive with the Aid of Literature.
Astride a Play to Tiflis.
If someone asked me what I deserve, I would say in all honesty before God that I deserve hard labor.
Not because of Tiflis, however; I did not do anything wrong in Tiflis. Because of Vladikavkaz.
I was living out my last days in Vladikavkaz, and the terrible specter of hunger, (Cliché! Cliché!… “terrible specter”… However, I don’t give a damn! These memoirs will never be published!) as I was saying, the terrible specter of hunger knocked at the door of my modest apartment which I had obtained with a permit. And right after the specter knocked Attorney Genzulaev, a pure soul with a brush mustache and an inspired face.
We talked, and here I include a stenographic record:
“What are you so down in the mouth about?” (Genzulaev)
“Apparently, I’m doomed to die of starvation in this crummy Vladikavkaz of yours…”
“There’s no question about that. Vladikavkaz is a crummy city. I doubt there’s a crummier city anywhere in the world. But why do you have to starve to death?”
“There’s nothing else I can do. I’ve exhausted all possibilities. The Subdepartment of the Arts has no money, so they can’t pay any salaries. I won’t be making any more introductory speeches before plays. I had a feuilleton printed in the local Vladikavkaz newspaper for which I received 1,250 rubles and a promise that they would turn me over to the special department1 Secret police.2 if another one like it ever appeared in print.”
“Why?” (Genzulaev was alarmed. Understandably, if they wanted to turn me over to the special department, I must be suspect.)
“For my mocking tone.”
“Oh, rubbish. They just don’t understand anything about feuilletons here. I’ll tell you what…”
And here is what Genzulaev did. He incited me to write a revolutionary play with him about native life. I’m slandering Genzulaev here. He pushed me and, because of my youth and inexperience, I agreed. What does Genzulaev know about the writing of plays? Nothing whatsoever, it was plain to see. Right away he openly admits that he sincerely detests literature, and I myself hated literature, you better believe, even more than he did. But Genzulaev knows native life like the back of his hand, if, of course, you can call native life a combination of shishkebab houses, breakfasts against a backdrop of the most repulsive mountains in the world, daggers of inferior steel, sinewy horses, taverns, and disgusting music that wrenches the soul.
Therefore, I will write the play and Genzulaev will add the local color.
“Only idiots would buy this play.”
“We’re the idiots if we don’t manage to sell this play.”
We wrote it in seven-and-a-half days, thus spending half a day more than was necessary to create the world. Despite this, it turned out even worse than the world.
I can say one thing: if there is ever a competition to see who can write the most stupid, untalented, and presumptuous play, ours will receive first prize (however, several plays from 1921-26 now come to mind, and I begin to have my doubts…), well, if not first prize, certainly second or third.
In short, after writing this play I am forever stigmatized, and naturally I can only hope that the play will molder in the bowels of the local Subdepartment of the Arts. As for the receipt, the devil take it, it can stay there. It was two hundred thousand rubles. One hundred for me. One hundred for Genzulaev. The play ran for three nights (a record), and the authors were called on stage. Genzulaev came out and took a bow, laying his hand against his clavicle. Then I came out and made faces for a long time so that I would be unrecognizable in the photograph (which was taken from below with magnesium). Due to these faces a rumor spread throughout the town that I was brilliant but mad. It was annoying, especially because the faces were totally unnecessary, since the photographer who took our picture was requisitioned and assigned to the theater, so nothing came out on the photograph but a shotgun, the inscription, “Glory to…” and a blurred streak.
I ate up seven thousand in two days and decided to use the remaining ninety-three to leave Vladikavkaz
Why? Why Tiflis of all places? For the life of me, I do not now recall. However, I remember I was told that:
1) in Tiflis all the stores are open,
2) in Tiflis there is wine,
3) in Tiflis it is very hot and the fruit is cheap,
4) in Tiflis there are many newspapers, etc.., etc.
I decided to go. First, I packed my things. I took all my worldly possessions: a blanket, some under-clothes, and a Primus stove.
In 1921 things were not quite the same as in 1924. To be more precise, it was impossible to just pack up and go wherever you wanted! Apparently, those who were in charge of civilian travel reasoned something like this:
“If everyone started traveling, then where would we be?”
Therefore, a permit was required. I immediately submitted an application to the appropriate authorities, and where it asked, “What is the purpose of your trip?” I wrote with pride, “I am going to Tiflis for the production of my revolutionary play.”
In all of Vladikavkaz there was only one person who did not know me by sight, and it happened to be the gallant young fellow with the pistol on his hip who stood as if nailed to the spot by the table where permits for travel to Tiflis were issued.
When my turn came to receive a permit and I reached out to take it, the young man started to give it to me, but then stopped and said in an authoritative, high-pitched voice, “What is the purpose of your trip?”
“The production of my revolutionary play.”
Then the young man sealed the permit in an envelope and handed both me and the envelope over to someone with a rifle, saying, “Take him to the special department.”
The young man did not answer.
A very bright sun (the only good thing in Vladikavkaz) beamed down on me as I walked along the road with the man carrying the rifle to my left. He decided to strike up a conversation with me and said, We’re going to be passing through the bazaar now, but don’t even think about escaping. Nothing good will come of it.”
“Even if you begged me to do it, I wouldn’t,” I replied in all honesty.
Then I offered him a cigarette.
Smoking companionably, we arrived at the special department. As we crossed the courtyard, I fleetingly recalled all my crimes. There were three.
1) In 1907 I was given one ruble and 50 kopecks to buy Kraevich’s Physics but spent it at the cinema.
2) In 1913 I got married against the wishes of my mother.
3) In 1921 I wrote that celebrated feuilleton.
The play? But that play could hardly be called criminal, could it? Quite the contrary.
For the information of those who have never been inside the special department, it is a large room with a rug on the floor, a huge desk of unbelievable proportions, eight telephones of different designs with green, orange, and gray cords attached, and behind the desk, a small man in military uniform with a very pleasant face.
The luxuriant crowns of the chestnut trees could be seen through the open windows. Upon seeing me, the man sitting at the desk attempted to change the pleasant expression on his face to an unfriendly an unpleasant one, but was only partially successful.
He took a photograph out of the desk drawer and began scrutinizing both it and me in turn.
“Oh, no. That’s not me,” I hurriedly announced. “You could have shaved off the mustache,” Mr. pleasant responded thoughtfully.
“Yes, but if you look closely,” I said, “the guy in the picture has hair the color of black shoe polish and is about forty-five. I am blond and twenty-eight.”
“Dye?” the small man asked with uncertainty.
“But what about the bald spot? And besides look closely at the nose. I beg you to take a good look at the nose.”
The small man peered at my nose. He was over-come with despair.
“I believe you. There’s no resemblance.”
There was a pause, and a ray of sunlight sprang up in the inkwell.
“Are you an accountant?”
Pause. The crowns of the chestnuts. The stucco ceiling. Cupids.
“What is the purpose of your trip to Tiflis? Answer immediately without thinking,” the small man said in a rush.
“To stage my revolutionary play,” I answered in a rush.
The small man opened his mouth, but recoiled and was completely radiated by the sun.
“You write plays?”
“Yes, I have to.”
“No kidding. Was the play you wrote a good one?”
There was something in his voice that would have touched any heart but mine. I repeat, I deserve hard labor. Looking away, I said:
“Yes, a good one.”
Yes. Yes. Yes. This was my fourth crime, the worst one of all. If I had wanted to remain pure before the special department, I should have answered: “No it’s not a good play. It’s junk. I just really want to go to Tiflis.”
I looked at the toes of my worn-out boots and did not speak. I came to myself when the small man handed me a cigarette and my travel permit.
He said to the guy with the rifle, “Show the writer to the door.”
The special department! I must forget about it! You see, now I have confessed. I have shed the guilt I have carried for three years. What I committed in the special department was, for me, worse than sabotage, counter-revolution or abuse of power.
But I must forget it!!!
II – Eternal Wanderers
People say that in 1924 it was easy to travel from Vladikavkaz to Tiflis; you simply hire a car in Vladikavkaz and drive along the remarkably scenic Georgian Military Highway. It is only two hundred and ten versts.3 A Russian unit of distance, in this case equal to about 6.5 miles.4 However in Vladikavkaz in 1921 the word “hire,” sounded like a word from a foreign language.
In order to travel you had to go with your blanket and Primus stove to the station and then walk along the tracks, peering into the innumerable freight cars. Wiping the sweat from my brow, on track seven I saw a man with a fan-shaped beard standing in slippers by an open freight car. He was rinsing out a kettle and repeating the vile word, “Baku.”
“Take me with you,” I requested.
“No,” replied the man with the beard.
“Please, so I can stage my revolutionary play,” I said.
The bearded man carried the kettle up a plank and into the freight car. I sat on my blanket beside the hot rails and lit a cigarette. A stifling, intense heat filled the spaces between the freight cars, and I quenched my thirst at the faucet by the tracks. Then I sat down again and felt the scorching heat radiated by the freight car. The bearded man stuck his head out.
“What’s your play about?” he asked.
I unrolled my blanket and took out my play.
“You wrote it yourself?” the proprietor of the freight car asked dubiously.
“Never heard of him.”
“I really need to leave.”
“Well, I’m expecting two more, but if they don’t show up, perhaps I’ll take you. Only don’t have any designs on the plank bed. Don’t think that just because you wrote a play you can try anything funny. it’s a long journey, and as a matter of fact, we ourselves are from the Political Education Committee.”
“I won’t try anything funny,” I said, feeling a breath of hope in the searing heat. “I can sleep on the floor.”
Sitting down on the plank bed, the beard said “Don’t you have any food?”
“I have a little money.”
The bearded man thought for a moment.
“I’ll tell you what… you can share our food on the journey. But you’ll have to help with our railway newspaper. Can you write something for our paper?”
“Anything you want,” I assured him as I took possession of my ration and bit into the upper crust.
“Even feuilletons?” he asked, and the look on his face made it obvious that he thought me a liar.
“Feuilletons are my specialty.”
Three faces appeared out of the shadows of the plank bed, along with bare feet. They all looked at me.
“Fyodor! There’s room for one more on the plank bed. That son-of-a-bitch Stepanov isn’t coming,” the feet said in a bass voice. “I’ll make room for Comrade Feuilletonist.”
“Okay, make room for him,” bearded Fyodor said in confusion. “What feuilleton are you going to write?”
“The Eternal Wanderers.”
“How will it begin?” asked a voice from the plank bed. “Come over here and have some tea with us.” “Sounds good—Eternal Wanderers,” responded Fyodor, taking off his boots. “You should have said you wrote feuilletons to start with, instead of sitting on the tracks for two hours. Welcome aboard.”
A vast and wondrous evening replaces the scorching day in Vladikavkaz. The evening’s edge is the bluish mountains. They are shrouded in evening mist. The plain forms the bottom of the cup. And along the bottom, jolting slightly, wheels began to turn. Eternal Wanderers. Farewell forever, Genzulaev! Farewell, Vladikavkaz!
Agit-train in one of Dziga Vertov‘s famous documentaries
When I think of Ireland, John-Paul Finnegan said as we stood on the deck of the ferry while it pulled out of Holyhead, I think of a limitless ignorance. And not just an ignorance, but a wallowing in ignorance, akin to the wallowing in filth of a pig or a naked, demented savage. Ireland and the people of Ireland wallow in ignorance much in the way that a child or a lunatic wallows in its own filth, smearing the walls with it, grinning and cooing loudly, smearing the walls and itself with its own filth, its own stinking self-made filth. This is definitely how the Irish people are, he said. This is their primary characteristic. Absolutely. Elsewhere in the world you can find qualities in people, both individuals and groups, which correspond to words such as spirit, life-force, vitality, passion and curiosity, but in Ireland you will find no such qualities. No such qualities at all. This is what John-Paul Finnegan, author of Nevah Trust a Christian, told me as the ferry, the Ulysses, began to move out of the harbour at Holyhead, propelling itself away from the British coast, towards Dublin.
Consider the name of this very ship, said John-Paul Finnegan. In fact, don’t even get me started on the name of this ship, he said. But it was too late, because he had already got himself started on the name of the ship, which was Ulysses. Not a single fucking dickhead in all of Ireland has actually read Ulysses, said John-Paul Finnegan. Except me, of course, the biggest dickhead of them all. Yet everyone in Ireland pretends to have read Ulysses, or acts like they’ve read it, but none of them have. The last person in Ireland to read Ulysses was James Joyce, and even he only read half of it, said John-Paul Finnegan. Come to think of it, there were a few professors who came after Joyce who also read Ulysses, or rather, they didn’t read it, they killed it, they killed Ulysses by James Joyce, just like they have killed almost every other book that was once worth reading. And not only did they kill Ulysses, but first they mutilated it, subjecting it to the most mental forms of torture. And how did they kill it? he asked. I will tell you, he said. They killed Ulysses by rendering it a desiccated literary relic; they wrote a slew of murderously dull articles about Ulysses, and thereby killed it. They killed Ulysses by making it seem to anyone unfortunate or depraved enough to read one of their hateful papers that Ulysses is the most boring and flaccid book in the world, when of course it is anything but the most boring and flaccid book in the world, it is in fact deeply subversive, scatological, irreverent, perverse, and above all, diabolically deviant. That is, the form and the content of the book are deviant: they deviate from good taste, from literary classicism, from the boredoms of morality and plot, and from sentimentality — in other words, from all the shit of literature, said John-Paul Finnegan, the typical and all-too-prevalent shit of literature. Like any decent author, said John-Paul Finnegan, Joyce ignored the shit, he sidestepped it, the hideous shit of literature, because he couldn’t be bothered and he wanted to write a new kind of book, which is the only thing worth doing if you call yourself a writer of any description. Yet if you read one of the papers, any of the papers by those unconscionable fucking dickheads who write about Ulysses, you will soon if not immediately come to the conclusion that this book, this Ulysses, is not worth reading precisely because, judging by how these academic fucks, these sick, life-hating, evil, mental, and spiritually crippled fucks write about it, Ulysses must be the least interesting of all books, said John-Paul Finnegan as the ship, the Ulysses, finally pulled out of the harbour and commenced upon open water.
I sighed. John-Paul Finnegan was right, I thought. But then again, maybe he wasn’t right. Maybe he was entirely wrong, as he had so often been entirely wrong before, about so many things, nearly everything in fact. After all, I had read Ulysses, so he wasn’t entirely right. Likelier he was entirely wrong. After all, I was Irish, and I had read Ulysses. What about me? I said to John-Paul Finnegan, suddenly indignant that he would so casually disparage the entirety of the Irish race, myself included, on the basis of such a truly sweeping generalisation. What about me? I said again. To which John-Paul Finnegan looked at me, clasping his hands as the ship cut across the waves. What about you? he said warily. I read Ulysses, I said. That’s right, he said, I’d forgotten that. He seemed to be having a moment of self-doubt. So there’s you and then there’s me and then there’s James Joyce, he said finally. We three have all read Ulysses. But no one else in Ireland has ever read Ulysses, he added. This I know. I know this simply because I know it, he said, his confidence returning. In other words it is what the philosophers call a priori knowledge, the kind of knowledge which we can possess prior to, indeed independently of, empirical verification. I simply know, as you know, as everybody knows, that everyone in Ireland, everyone except you and me, is too fucking dim-witted, too altogether stupid and moronic, and above all too terrified by the very word literature, to have bothered to read Ulysses. That’s how I know. You think I’m fucking joking, he said, jabbing a finger in my chest. I am not fucking joking, he said. I am not even exaggerating, let alone joking. Irishmen are terrified of the word literature. I can guarantee you that if I were to suddenly turn around, on this deck, with these couples and old drunken builders and traveller families and whatnot, and if I were then to roar the word literature at the top of my lungs, the vast majority of these people would run to the sides of the ship and hurl themselves over the edge to be drowned. They would sooner drown than confront a man roaring literature. And the rest of them, John-Paul Finnegan added, would simply collapse on the spot, they would die of the sheer horror that the word literature provoked in them, the boundless sense of nausea, terror and repulsion it provoked in their Irish hearts, that is to say their pig-hearts, their flaccid dickhead hearts. Some of them would have heart attacks, others aneurysms. Others would simply keel, causes unknown. For they know nothing of literature, of Joyce, and they care for less, these Irishmen, said John-Paul Finnegan, glowering at me now with a ferocity and yes, a hatred which I had done nothing to deserve, or so I felt. I may as well roar Allahu akbar, added John-Paul Finnegan, as roar literature. I may as well wrap a towel around my head and roar Allahu akbar while ripping off my shirt to reveal a suicide vest, as to roar literature, for the effect it would have on these Irishmen, in other words these cretins, these fuckheads, these unconscionable morons and idiots, these fucking heartless and mindless pricks, these pigs and sheep and rodents that call themselves Irishmen, when in truth they should call themselves sheep and pigs and rodents, if not total fucking spanners, said John-Paul Finnegan, who now had flecks of foam collecting at the corners of his mouth, and whose eyes had not left mine. But it seemed to me that the boundless hate had drained from John-Paul Finnegan’s eyes, and what remained was a childlike fear, a pleading, a remorse even. I imagined that John-Paul Finnegan was flailing out in the sea, not the Irish Sea which our ship, the Ulysses, was cutting across at a decent speed, but the metaphorical sea, the Black Sea or the Dead Sea, the sea of loneliness, self-hate and dread that is the fate not of all men, but certainly of all thinking men, as John-Paul Finnegan had himself told me, in one of his more vulnerable moments, when we had lived together in London, in a crowded and unsanitary house near Finsbury Park.
These pricks! he shouted. These unconscionable mental pricks! How I fucking loathe them, he muttered, shaking his head violently, too violently I thought, he might do himself damage. He drew sharply from his hip-flask, neglecting to pass it to me. How low can you go? he asked. How fucking low? I will tell you how low: all the way to Ireland. That’s how low you can fucking go. I let it pass, that inane comment, and fell to thinking about our lives in London, the lives we were leaving behind, standing as we were on the deck of this ship, this Ulysses that was cutting across the Irish Sea, the coast of Britain fading behind us. It was in the house near Finsbury Park that John-Paul Finnegan had written the last three volumes of Nevah Trust a Christian, his novel in eleven volumes, as he always called it, with bottomless perversity, the fact being that there were no fewer than thirteen volumes in his novel, if it even was a novel. I had moved into the house when John-Paul Finnegan was nearing the end of volume twelve, which he had titled Who’s Ya Daddy? I write eight thousand words per day, he had told me on the night we first went out for drinks in the Twelve Pins pub on Seven Sisters Road. I replied that eight thousand words seemed like a lot, in fact it seemed like far too many words to write in a single day. Absolutely fucking correct, it is too many, it’s far too many words even for the most deadline-haunted hack, let alone for a writer of literature, such as myself, John-Paul Finnegan said, pouring a shot of whiskey into his Guinness, as was his wont, a concoction which he called Guinnskey. It was then that John-Paul Finnegan had explained to me his notion of paltry realism, the genre in which he claimed to write, and which he also claimed to have invented. Paltry realism means writing shit, he said. What I mean to say is, what is art, only a howl against death. Are we agreed on this, Rob? he demanded. I nodded my head. Good, he said. Then we are agreed that art is a howl against death and nothing more. Yet why is it, he said, that so much art tries to do the opposite, to ignore, even to deny death? Have you thought about this? he asked. Art, and especially literature, has a thousand clever ways of denying or ignoring death. One of these ways is literariness itself, that is, literary imposture, said John-Paul Finnegan. By which I mean the ceaseless attempt by practitioners of literature to achieve beauty and perfection, to write well, in short to craft perfect and elegant sentences. This is infinite bollocks, said John-Paul Finnegan. If you write slowly, carefully, then what are you doing if not indulging in vanity — the vanity of writing well. It’s no different from wearing a nice coat or a frock or a shiny pair of shoes to a bourgeois dinner party — and I will tell you now, he added, I am not nor have I ever been the kind of man to attend dinner parties, bourgeois or otherwise. And death is no fucking dinner party. The point is, though, said John-Paul Finnegan, trying to write well is vanity and nothing other than vanity, and when I say vanity I essentially mean the fear of death expressed in self-framing, as you will have guessed. That is where the technique of paltry realism makes its stance. Paltry realism means writing rapidly, and yes, even writing badly, in fact only writing badly, and not seeking to impress anyone with your writing, with either its style or its content. Paltry realism means writing eight thousand words per day, he said. Eight thousand words — far too many for any decent or tasteful writer, but perfect for the practitioner of paltry realism, a school which, for the time being, consists solely of me, said John-Paul Finnegan, fixing another Guinnskey. I was intrigued by his theory of paltry realism and urged him to say more, though I needn’t have bothered, as he was already talking over me, caught up in the swell of his own oratory, aflame with the zeal I was to observe in him many times over the course of our friendship, which began that night in the Twelve Pins and continued to the afternoon when we stood together on the deck of the Ulysses, which was now at full steam as it tore across the Irish Sea, the British coastline having faded completely to the stern. Another indicator of the vanity and ultimately the self-delusion of literature, even in its so-called avant-garde, modernist or experimental guises, is that its practitioners invariably display a craving, a very unseemly craving, to have their work published, John-Paul Finnegan had said that night in the pub, him downing Guinnskeys and me downing Guinnesses. All of them, the brazen slags, all they want is to be published, he said. They want an adoring or a scandalised public to read their works, thereby granting them a kind of immortality, or so they would like to think. This goes for Céline, Kafka, Pessoa, Joyce, Marinetti, Musil, Markson, Handke, Hamsun, Stein, Sebald, Bernhard, Ballard, Beckett, Blanchot, Burroughs, Bolaño, Cioran, Duras, Gombrowicz, Pound, Eliot, and any other dickhead of the so-called avant-garde that you might care to mention, as much as it goes for McEwan, Self, Banville, Tóibín, Auster, Atwood, Ellis, Amis, Thirlwell, Hollinghurst, Smith, Doyle, Dyer, Franzen, and any other arsehole active in mainstream literature today, said John-Paul Finnegan. To them, the value of a work of literature is dependent on its being published. If it is not published, it has no value. There is an ontological question at work here, he added: if a book is unread by anyone except its author, can it be said to exist? More pertinently, can it be said to be any good? My response, and paltry realism’s response, is simply to bypass the whole squalid agenda. What is the point in sending my writing out to publishers, said John-Paul Finnegan, so that they might accept or reject it? What is the use in that? I will tell you now: I reject the publishers, every last one of them, even the ones I admire, the ones I revere, the good and the best of them, because I am a paltry realist, and publication, Rob, is not among my aims, not among my aims at all, it is not among my aims, I am simply not fucking interested in being published, he said, slamming his Guinnskey on the table. I write for other reasons, he added, though he neglected to say what they were. On several occasions, while we were living together in the house near Finsbury Park, John-Paul Finnegan had permitted me to read sections of Nevah Trust a Christian, his gargantuan work allegedly in the paltry realist mode. True enough, the writing was very bad, and obviously written in great haste (handwritten, that is — John-Paul Finnegan hated typing on a laptop). The prose was utterly devoid of literary flair and displayed not the slightest effort to seduce or entertain the reader. Not that the writing was hostile to the reader, as can be the case among the severest of modernists; rather, the writing seemed indifferent to the reader, perhaps even unaware of the reader’s existence. There were few paragraph breaks and no chapter breaks. There was no discernible story and no characters. The word fuck, or one of its variants, appeared at least once on every line, more often twice or three times, or more. The word cunt was almost as frequent; the words bastard, dickhead, rodent and moron riddled the text. Several pages consisted solely of fuck-derived words repeated hundreds of times, punctuated by bastard, mongrel, cunthawk or dickhead. Others offered perfunctory descriptions of dusty towns and hurtling trams, giant mounds of waste and crumbling ridges, or glibly vicious references to contemporary events. I had the sense of an inner monologue; not exactly a stream of consciousness, more like a machinegun of consciousness, or a self-bludgeoning of consciousness, or just an interminable, pointless spewing of language, a kind of insane vomiting of language, page after page of it, a dozen volumes stacked on the floor beside John-Paul Finnegan’s desk, which was a backstage dressing-table salvaged from a closed-down strip club.
But this is not even the worst of it, John-Paul Finnegan said suddenly as we stood together on the deck of the Ulysses as it bounced over the waves, away from Britain. This ship, this Ulysses, is not even the worst of it, he repeated. The worst of it is Bloomsday. Have you ever seen Bloomsday? he asked. What I’m talking about, he said, is the national day of celebration in tribute to a book that no one in Ireland has even fucking read! That is what I refer to, said John-Paul Finnegan. Until a decade or so ago, Bloomsday was merely a kind of minor national stain, a silly and moronic venture that no one really bothered with, and which you could safely ignore. But then the government, that gang of dribbling pricks, that moron collective, as I have so often labelled them, saw in Bloomsday a serious marketing opportunity, one which they, in their infinite hatefulness, decided was far too lucrative to ignore. There was more money to be squeezed out of Joyce, they decided, as if Joyce were a sponge or a testicle, and even though not one of them — this I know — not one of them had ever read Ulysses, or even Dubliners, or any of Joyce’s books at all, said John-Paul Finnegan. In fact, these morons that I’m referring to, these are the kind of people who, if you suggested to them that they might read Ulysses or Dubliners, would laugh out loud. And I’m not talking about an embarrassed or a social form of laughter, he said, but a bellowing, hearty and spontaneous laughter, from the guts, a laughter of delight at what they would consider the mad and uproarious idea of reading Ulysses or Dubliners, said John-Paul Finnegan. He drew again from his hip-flask, then passed it to me. I drank. These morons, these dickheads, these unconscionable fucking arseholes decided to commercialise this so-called Bloomsday, said John-Paul Finnegan, the day when the fictional Leopold Bloom fictionally wandered around Dublin city, drinking, ruminating, chatting and so on. In other words, the sixteenth of June, he said. It would bring in the tourists, they reckoned. It would bring in the Yanks and Japs, the French and the Germans, the Swedes and the Slavs, the vulgarian Bulgarians and the roaming Romanians, and all those grinning tourists would spend their money admiring the Irish people and their literary heritage, even though the people of Ireland no longer read, are too stupid to read, let alone to read Ulysses, the book that this whole moronic fiasco of Bloomsday purports to celebrate. You don’t need me, said John-Paul Finnegan, to point out that the two Irish writers widely considered the greatest of the twentieth century, even by people who have never read and never intend to read either of them, namely Beckett and Joyce, had nothing but hatred and disgust for Ireland, and for the Irish. These two writers spent a huge amount of energy actively disparaging the Irish and Ireland, said John-Paul Finnegan, in their letters and conversation, and frequently in their published work too. Yet here we have a situation, this so-called Bloomsday, wherein all the fat waddling morons on the island gather in the streets to celebrate a book by Joyce which they never bothered to read! Pink pudgy dickheads. Mindless flabby wankers, trailing their moron progeny. Useless bastards one and all. They celebrate Ulysses in the most nauseatingly self-conscious of ways, prancing about for the snapping tourists, dancing like twats, like true dickheads for these snapping tourists, who gaze on in a euphoria of mindlessness, clicking their cameras, their smartphone cameras, their video cameras, recording the Irish, this literary nation, making absolute fools of themselves by aping the characters in a book they have never read, a book they never intend to read, for they hate books, they hate all books regardless of provenance, the only exceptions being Harry Potter and football biographies, said John-Paul Finnegan. Bloomsday, he said, shaking his head in disgust. Bloomsday. Fucking Bloomsday. Blooms-fucking-day. Bloom-fuckings-day. Fuck off, he said. Fuck right off. I mean it, fuck all the world. Listen to this, John-Paul Finnegan said. A few years ago I was back in Dublin, don’t ask me why, I was back in Dublin at the time of Bloomsday. I went into town, not to partake in the celebrations of course, but for unrelated reasons. And while I was in there I walked up O’Connell Street and listen to this, it will sound like the stuff of broad satire or lunatic fantasy but it is neither, Rob, I assure you. I walked on to O’Connell Street and what did I see, along the pedestrian island running up the middle of Dublin’s great thoroughfare, but hundreds of fat grinning idiots, together with their chortling wives and their chubby, shrieking children, all sitting in rows along either side of an immensely long dining table, said John-Paul Finnegan. I am not kidding you. And listen to this. Over their heads was a massive dangling banner, a dangling banner that read Denny Sausages Celebrate James Joyce’s Bloomsday. Yes! Denny fucking Sausages! As if the sausages themselves were bursting in ecstasy. This because somewhere in the scatological sprawl of Ulysses, between its intimate depictions of flatulence, defecation, masturbation, blasphemy, and unbridled male and female lust, there is brief mention made of Denny fucking Sausages, said John-Paul Finnegan. So here they were, hundreds of these fat chortling twats, crowded around a long dining table replete with white tablecloth, being served plate upon plate of sausages, each of them cramming their faces with sausage, a veritable orgy of sausage-gorging in honour of James Joyce, high-modernist and high-mocker of Ireland. Here is your legacy, James Joyce, John-Paul Finnegan roared over the waves, here is your legacy — two hundred chortling fucks eating sausages! You have really left your fucking mark, James Joyce. Oh yes you have! You are the KING OF MODERNISM! Presently John-Paul Finnegan produced his hip-flask, swigged on it, and passed it to me. I drank self-consciously, for despite the roar of the turbines and the waves crashing against the prow, many of the other travellers on deck had heard John-Paul Finnegan’s outburst and were looking warily in our direction. John-Paul Finnegan was oblivious to their gazes, or just indifferent. Fat waddling pricks, he muttered, more subdued now. How they waddle. Like fat, mental penguins. Fat chortling penguins, grinning like lunatics. Penguins of depravity, penguins of hate. Will I tell you what I did? he said, turning to me sharply. I will tell you what I did. I made it my business to at least attempt to fathom this unprecedented display of public idiocy, this linking of high-modernism to pork consumption. I walked along the rows of chortling, sausage-cramming Dubliners, through the gauntlet of snapping Japs, the lens-faced legions. Then I stopped and asked one woman who was sitting with a pile of sausages on a plate in front of her, whether she had actually read Ulysses, said John-Paul Finnegan. She stared at me for a long time, her expression conveying sheerest bewilderment and horror. Her child began to cry. Eventually the woman came out of her trance, and she said to me, very slowly, Ulysses. Just the word Ulysses, nothing more. I never saw a woman so afraid. Her little boy had his head in his hands now, weeping through his fingers, wailing. That was when the father turned around. He looked me in the eye, a long and disdainful look it was. Then he said, I think you’d better leave. What the fuck, said John-Paul Finnegan, recollecting the incident. What the fuck? All I had done was ask her if she had read Ulysses. They ran me out of there, he said. They’d have lynched me, that sausage-mob, if I had not made off with myself. A black day for Ireland, and a black day for me, said John-Paul Finnegan. And yet here I am, here we are, on a ferry, on the fucking Ulysses no less, gliding across the sea not away from, but in the direction of the accursed land, the steaming hole, the potato field, the literary and intellectual silence of Ireland. Would that it would crumble into the sea, he added. Would that the entire stinking mass, the whole abominable island would groan, keel and tumble into the sea. Dissolve in the sea. Dissolve like a man who is made of salt, a man who fell into the sea, he said. He was silent for a time, looking out at the waves. I thought about London, about Dublin, about our position now, suspended between the two cities. We must be the only two Irishmen returning to Ireland rather than fleeing from it, I reflected, not for the first time. I thought about Irish pubs, the many of them back in London I had drunk in with John-Paul Finnegan, and it seemed to me now that they weren’t pubs at all, but cages, or bear-traps. I began to fantasize about climbing the rail and flinging myself to the sea, vanishing in the foam with a truncated yell.
The journey was nearing its end. John-Paul Finnegan was muttering away by my side, as if in tense dialogue with the waves, or the treacherous forms that squirmed inside his head. I sensed that the closer we got to Dublin, the less sure of himself he became. Very soon we would be at Dublin port. I could already make out the Poolbeg towers hazed on the horizon. I thought of all the time we had spent away, John-Paul Finnegan and I, and the hatred he bore within him, the hatred that is purer than any other, the hatred for where one comes from. And now John-Paul Finnegan turned to me, gripping the rail. I could feel his gaze on me. I turned to face him. What the fuck did they do to me? he said quietly, referring to what, I did not know. What the fuck did they do to me, Rob? The words had to them a tone of revelation. The coastline was expanding across the horizon, sinister and domineering. John-Paul Finnegan shook his head. What the fuck did they do to me? What the fuck was going on, Rob? What the fuck was going on?
I turned away, facing the coast. Neither of us spoke for a time. John-Paul Finnegan went to speak again but hesitated. I did not look at him. Finally he said, I hate what I’ve written. I hate every word of it. That moronic and sickening fucking book. That so-called novel which I hate more than anything. He seemed calmer now, even as the coast grew closer, firmer, filling our vision to the prow of the Ulysses. Paltry realism is nothing, means nothing, he said. I wrote what I wrote because I thought it would heal me, but there is no healing, you just learn to live with your wounds and your mutilations, and you stagger onwards, crippled and bedraggled, towards your death. One day your energy fails you and you keel over, and that’s that. You have not been healed. In a way you died from your wounds. Every hurt and every humiliation lasts for ever. There is no healing. Writing changes nothing, it’s an infliction. You inflict yourself on the page, and then on the reader, and on the world. Better to have no readers, better not to write at all. There was no worth to what I wrote, nor to anything I have ever done. Nothing in my life has had any worth. Writing has no worth. Nothing has any worth. Nothing. We were both silent as the ferry sailed into the mouth of the port, the twin red and white towers looming like sentries. Now John-Paul Finnegan seemed truly calm, self-possessed once more, neither raging nor afraid. I will not forgive, he said. Fuck it all. I have decided. I will not forgive them, not forgive any of them for what they have done, for what they have done to me. I will not forgive them, he said. I will not. No. Fuck it, he said.
*This story is taken from: This Is the Ritual By Rob Doyle (Bloomsbury, 2016).
In March I received an invitation to appear at IdiotFest, the second most prestigious event on the entire Idiot circuit. I called my mother.
─Don’t you remember, Mom? It was in San Diego last year. I was an alternate.
─Oh, right. Of course. Congratulations, honey. That’s wonderful.
─I have a solo performance the first night. On one of the side platforms. Then, the last morning, I’m supposed to participate in a workshop on fluids.
─I bet they probably heard about what I did at the Canadian Summit.
─I’m sure they did. You got a lot of attention for that. Listen, I wish your father and I─
─Don’t worry about that, Mom. Indianapolis is quite a haul from California, and tickets aren’t cheap. I need to start looking for bargains myself.
─They’re not paying for your travel?
─No, just a discounted room at the main hotel.
─I’m only performing on a side platform, Mom. I’m not exactly Maury Benjamin.
─There’s only one Maury Benjamin. Still, I’m sure you’ll do great.
─This could be a really big break for me. If I make a good impression there, I got a great chance of winding up at the Gathering in December.
─Did you tell Michelle?
─Will you? What about the girls?
I counted fourteen people gathered around the small, wooden platform, including a friend of mine from high school who lives in town. We had talked about going out for a beer afterward. I blamed the weather. Fucking rain. At 6:30 there were still probably two-hundred visitors snaking around the lobby waiting to check in. I tried not to think about it.
I opened with some incoherent bellowing, my mouth still dry. After moving to the floor and yanking out a fistful of hair, I began my slobbering sequence. This was the first time I was using an oil capsule in public. I had no trouble bursting it, but I had some difficulty determining the rate of its drainage. In the solitude of my apartment, I had trained myself to gauge the size of the capsule’s rupture by concentrating on the strength of the oil’s flavor in my mouth. Once that was clear, I would decide how much saliva to mix with the oil in order to create a plausible degree of viscosity. I used a rosemary infusion. With a crowd this small, and with this kind of professional lighting, the oil was probably unnecessary. But it would have been foolish to pass up an opportunity to try it out in front of an actual audience. Plus, I could ask my friend about it later.
As I prepared to return upright, I noticed the assistant to the impresario standing against the back wall, nearly hidden in shadow. Somehow, I had missed her entrance. She contacted me with the initial invitation. Called me out of the blue and proceeded to compliment me throughout the conversation, she even made reference to the fact that I craft my own dental prosthesis. They had done their research. Maybe she had come to this room to check on the sound and the lighting, or to record the turnout, or just to get a feel for the overall atmosphere here on the first night. Maybe she just wanted to enjoy my work, to catch the act of that up and coming guy who refuses to order his hideously yellow buckteeth out of Chauncey’s Idiologue. Still, I couldn’t ignore the possibility that she had arrived primarily to judge me. To decide whether or not I deserved this platform, to consider whether or not I would be invited to return next year, to estimate the potential long-term commercial appeal of my idiot, to ask herself if she hadn’t made a mistake by bringing me here in the first place.
By now I was standing back up, moving into my bluster. The snot, thick and generous thanks to the air travel, bubbled out of my left nostril and ran onto my lips. But then, for the first time ever in the middle of an actual performance, I began to wonder if I had made the right decision. As I heaved my shoulders and used my forearm to spread the phlegm across my right cheek, I found myself focused on the assistant to the impresario. Like more than a few idiots, I had considered the route of the moron and the fool as well. And despite the fact that I believed deep down my talent lie in idiocy, I was haunted by what might have been had I elected to become a moron. After all, even my manager would admit that the moron circuit had more than doubled in the last five years and was now threatening to surpass foolishness in overall market share. My manager didn’t try to hide this from me. But he insisted that none of this mattered. All you should do now is be an idiot. It’s all you can do. You are an idiot. It’s that simple. An enormously talented idiot. You’ve spent too much time, you’ve sacrificed too much to give up now. Could you have made it as a fool? Perhaps. If you had gone the moron route, would you be on magazine covers today? It’s not impossible. But you know what, your time is coming, I truly believe that. There’s no turning back. All you can do is go out there and do it. And be it. Be the perfect idiot. I’ll take care of the rest.
The assistant to the impresario shifted her weight and moved her clipboard from one hand to the other. My website had eight-thousand hits last week. In April I learned I had made it to the final round of a major fellowship and was encouraged to reapply next year. Plus, there were rumors of increased government funding. And I did still enjoy the actual appearances, when I always felt I had found my calling and been true to it. My manager knew I had started meditating, he knew I was reading some of the Buddhist masters. He was kind enough to resist taunting me for this, he understood that with everything I was going through there wasn’t any other way. The point of my craft, the goal in my eyes, was to empty myself into moments of absolute presence, such that all my practice and devotion could be translated into simple effortlessness.
A couple of high school kids got up and left the room, walking past a young woman at the edge of the third row who looked to be a professional photographer. The assistant to the impresario greeted an older man who, judging from his suit, likely worked for the hotel. I was finding it difficult to cry. Rather than fight it, I released an especially violent moan, which drew the faces of the audience back to the platform, and brought my attention to the closing urination. I made myself perfectly still, letting the drool and mucus run off my chin. Fixing my eyes on a random spot near the side of the room, far away from the assistant to the impresario, who remained visible only as the small yellow patch of her hair, the hair I recognized from her picture on IdiotFest’s website, I prepared to empty my bladder. The jock strap and tape had done their job, and the tip of my stretched-thin penis remained fixed high above my right thigh. I began to relax my entire body, starting simultaneously from the tips of my toes and the crown of my skull. My eyes closed as my feet sunk into the uneven heels of my orthopedic shoes. With arms hanging limp from my shoulders and with knees slightly buckled, I allowed my abdomen to relieve the pressure it had been forced to endure for the last three hours. I sensed a gradual shifting below my waist, and soon my pant leg grew heavy and warm. Visualizing the expanding contours of the darkness steadily covering the worn khaki on my thigh, I sought to limit the rate of flow. At around fifteen seconds I heard a faint gasp. At half a minute the room had grown perfectly silent. By the time I was done, a full minute later, by the time my right sock was drenched and a fair-sized puddle was likely glimmering as it spread out along the platform, I allowed myself to seek out the assistant to the impresario. She had tucked her clipboard under one of her arms and was leading the stunned audience in a round of applause that sounded like the work of much more than twenty-six hands.
The beer with my old high school friend was so-so. Naturally, he praised my performance, and his words seemed very sincere. Said he was blown away. He may have been willing to continue talking about my idiot much longer, but it didn’t feel right. So I asked him about his career, something to do with marketing or PR, or marketing and PR. We shared what little we knew about the other guys we used to hang out with almost twenty years ago. Laughed a little. Food was decent. Even though we left the hotel, I couldn’t help scanning the bar from time to time to check if I recognized anyone, or if anyone recognized me. He listed the other divorces he’d heard about. There were more than a few. I reminded myself to be thankful that he came out. Even told him I was grateful. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk about my performance, but I couldn’t really talk about any my art if I wasn’t allowed to express what it meant to me to be both exceptional and overlooked, to be an obscure genius, to be a man nearly, but only nearly, capable of finding solace in the expression of his own unique vision. I tried not to hate myself and my life again, so I reminded myself that here I was in a pleasant bar in Indianapolis, where I had recently shared my authentic self with a dozen or so perfect and similarly grateful strangers. He insisted that he pay and we told each other to take care.
Then I found myself back in the lobby, which was crowded, though not quite bustling. I scanned a number of small lounges, places where four or five pieces of furniture had been assembled for casual encounters. There were a few faces I recognized, but no one I really knew. I could think of two options. Go to the bar and order a drink, sit by myself, look at the televised sports, perhaps find someone to talk to. Adults did things like this, including adults at IdiotFest. Or go to my room. Turn on the television. Try to read. Take a pill. Sleep eight to ten dreamless hours.
I took out my phone, called Michelle, and had this conversation over the cheery din of the people gathered around me:
─Hi. It’s David.
─It went pretty well.
─My performance. I think it went well.
─Yes, I know. That’s good.
─The audience was kind of small, but I made a big impression, I could tell.
─That’s great. I’m happy for you.
─How are things there?
─Can I talk to the girls?
─They’ve been asleep for over an hour. It’s past ten here.
─Right. Of course. They’re okay?
─Well, thanks again for taking them this weekend. I appreciate it.
─You know, I gave a really strong performance tonight. I know I did. It could mean something for me.
─That’s wonderful, David, it really is.
─ Someone from the organization saw it, and I could see that she was amazed.
─Great. Really, but look, I─
─No, I mean, I just want to say, and I know I’ve said this before, but if my day comes, and I don’t know if it ever will, but if it comes, I won’t forget about your support and everything, about all those years…
─I won’t. It’s important you know that. I’ll make it up.
─No, I don’t mean that. I’m not asking for… but to you and the girls, I will.
─I should go. It’s late.
─Will you give them a hug for me?
On my walk to the elevators I passed a circle of people that included Paul Drexel, who had recently been awarded a genius grant. He was the first idiot to restrict his work to video installations, narrative-driven pieces shot in public spaces. We had met a few years earlier at a regional event, I found him tedious.
I turned around to see the blond head of the assistant to the impresario. She was smiling and looking at me.
I smiled back. She extended her hand. Her other hand was still carrying the clipboard.
I know. Hi.
Her hand was small for her height, but her grip was firm.
─I really enjoyed your performance.
─Thanks. Thanks a lot.
─No, really. I was truly impressed.
─I had heard some good things─
─You did? From who?
─From a number of people. It’s our job to hear things.
─But I mean it, that was better than good. That was a lot better than good. I’m sorry we couldn’t get you a bigger crowd.
─Don’t worry about it. I’m glad you liked it. I felt like it went pretty well.
─I hope we can get you a better platform next year. I don’t know, maybe you could even perform a Center Piece on the first night.
─That would be amazing.
─I mean, I can’t promise anything like that. Obviously.
─But, but you’re ready for something like that. You are.
─Thanks. That’s really great to hear. From you especially.
Her phone rang. She said just a sec, pulled a device out of her pocket, answered the call, and turned a quarter-rotation away from me. Someone from the organization. She mentioned the name of a cable station, and then I realized I shouldn’t be trying to listen to her conversation. I started to back away when she raised her finger toward me and made a strange face. She may have been apologizing or making fun of whoever was on the other line. I think it meant I shouldn’t leave. So I didn’t. I looked at her body briefly, at her face, wondering if she was attractive. I don’t think she was beautiful, but there was something warm about her, something that made her look more inviting that her physical features all alone would suggest. Some kindness, perhaps.
She got off the phone.
─Sorry about that.
─No problem. Everything okay?
─Just more bullshit. Nothing new.
I nodded. She asked if I wanted to have a drink.
I hadn’t been with another woman since the divorce. Just two dates. Or one and a half dates. A little kissing with the second one, someone my brother knew from his company. I wanted it to happen, I didn’t want it to happen. I tried not to think about it.
Gretchen wanted it to happen.
I was grateful to her well before we got to the room. She had an easy confidence about her, was able to put me at ease as she let me know she was happy to be in charge. I didn’t know what to order, so she suggested a particular beer. I didn’t know what to ask her, so she told me about the organization, about what it’s like to work with the impresario. I didn’t know if I wanted a second, or a third, beer, so she ordered for both of us. I didn’t know what to talk about, so I let her talk. When she started asking questions, I answered them, telling her whatever she wanted to know about my past, my art, and my ex-wife. And then she said, while the bar was still filling up, would you like to come to my room. I didn’t know that people ever really said such things. I knew they must. But I wondered how common it was and how likely it was that I would ever be asked such a question. For fourteen years it hadn’t been much of a possibility. It was, all in all, not a bad question to be asked, and I was thankful for my beers, for the way they allowed my face to not respond very much at all.
We had sex. This outcome was clear to me the moment she used her card to let us into her room. I was surprised to be so sure of something so new, but there could be no doubt. She went to the bathroom, tried different lighting combinations, took off her earrings and placed them on a dresser. Then she kissed me. We must have had the exact same breath. I smelled nothing.
Soon we found our way to the bed and our way out of our clothes. Her body, if not altogether better than Michelle’s, was fresher. This was a younger woman, with a tattoo of a pear tree on her hip. It felt remarkably reassuring to be with someone who seemed to have so few compunctions.
Quite quickly I was inside her. I thought, in these words, which announced themselves loudly, so this is what it’s like inside another person. Another fit. I removed myself for a moment, concerned about the possibility of premature ejaculation.
─Yeah. It’s just the first time since.
She smiled generously. Raised her head to mine and kissed my check.
─Well, I expect you’ll enjoy this. I’m going to do my best.
She may have laughed. I returned to her and things accelerated rapidly. Much more than not, her prediction proved accurate. I found myself calling upon some of my training in order to postpone my orgasm, and after a time I sensed she was both extremely pleased with and fairly impressed by my self-control. After perhaps ten to fifteen minutes we knew somehow to pause for a moment. Or maybe she just decided to ask me a question:
─Did you. With Michelle, did you ever?
─Did you ever, you know?
─Pretend to be an idiot.
I looked at her.
─Did you ever have sex with her as an idiot?
─No. No. I didn’t.
─Did you want to? Ever?
─I don’t think it was ever much an option.
─But did you want to? Did you ever want to?
─I guess I probably thought about it a few times.
─But did I want to?
She was stroking my back. We were on the thirty-fourth floor of a downtown hotel.
─Would you like to? Now?
I looked at her, at her nose and the way it lead to her mouth. Her features were a great deal more angular than Michelle’s. I touched her chin, which was smooth and red.
─Would you like me to?
─A little bit I would.
And so I did, a little. I watched her as she watched me, as I brought her such strange pleasure. It felt wonderful, mostly. I was good at this. The room seemed to grow perfectly quite except for me and the sound of our bodies, as if her attention silenced the circuits and pipes, the elevators and footsteps alive in this building, the late night traffic in the streets below. As I finished I thought, has Michelle been with another man yet? Was he kind to her? Did he invite her to be someone I discouraged her from being? Did it make him as happy as this Gretchen is right now?
I opened my eyes and found myself in a moment of pure uncertainty, with no idea where I was or even when I was in my life. I must have been dreaming just a second before, and my confusion led me to wonder if I still was. But I soon remembered. My head, near the edge of this bed, was pointing toward the outer wall. I tried to be completely still and listen for Gretchen’s breath, which was soon audible. The world outside was still dark, as dark as it ever got in the center of a city like this. I slowly left the bed. Once standing I looked back at her and a combination of red numbers on a digital clock that I had never before seen in a dark room in a strange hotel.
I walked to the window, pushed aside the curtains, and considered the view for a very, very long time. I was naked and unexpectedly calm, as if large parts of me remained asleep in that bed. The skyline was both unremarkable and interesting, as the traffic lights changed steadily even when there were no cars to direct. Though the rain had stopped at least three hours earlier, much of the city was still damp, and together the lights and the moisture created a pleasing effect. I felt truly alone, every bit as alone as I would have felt in my own room, twenty-nine flights below. This did not bother me. Eventually I turned away from the window, suddenly struck by an urge to wander the streets before dawn. I quietly found my clothes and shoes. While getting dressed I wondered what it would be like to be a source of pride for my family. I left Gretchen’s room, stepping carefully over the morning paper already waiting just outside her door.
The elevator stopped at the thirty-second floor. After the door slid open, Maury Benjamin stepped inside and pushed a button. I had only seen him in person three times since I first attended one of his shows over twenty years ago. I was visiting my older brother in New York, where he was going to school, and he and his friends dragged me to a performance. Idiocy was still a new art then, and, my brother told me on the way to the theater, Maury Benjamin was going to be its ambassador to the world.
In the twenty-plus years since I had only ever seen a few pictures of him out of character, and I was, in addition to the larger shock of being alone with him in this elevator, amazed by how conventionally he was dressed. A button-down blue Oxford, cuffless grey trousers, a herringbone sports jacket, a pair of plain penny loafers. He was holding a couple sections of that same newspaper under his arm, standing right next to me as the elevator resumed its descent.
He turned to me, studied my face.
─You look familiar to me, you know that?
I smiled, perfectly speechless. Not five minutes into that first show I was overcome with fear. As if the man on the stage were a source of heat, some out-of-control flame, as if by merely watching him I was exposing myself to great danger. But I experienced a weird joy, too, as if his performance were an invitation, a challenge to go forward into something I knew nothing about, nothing except its overwhelming authenticity. I decided that night, sitting right there in that crowded theater, this is what I will do with my life. He was responsible.
─I know! Of course. Look at this.
And he opened the Arts section of the local paper. And right there on the front page, right below the headline, “Idiots Invade Indy,” was a large, color picture of me from the end of yesterday’s performance.
─That’s quite a bit of piss, young man.
He laughed briefly.
─I mean, you must have been keeping some of that in your lungs. Unless you were smuggling it in a sack.
─Not me. Never.
─No, you look like the real deal to me. Must have hurt like hell, sitting on that bladder. That’s talent. And determination.
He turned back away from me and watched the elevator display the floors passing by in quick succession. Until he spoke again, without turning his head.
─You know what I did on my sixtieth birthday?
─About a month ago. 60. I moved my bowels in front of almost 4,000 people, some of whom had reportedly paid over $500 for the privilege to watch. Then, after a late lunch at the best restaurant in all of Manhattan, I was awarded an honorary doctorate from Columbia University. I gave the professors and donors a short speech, fresh out of crap as I was.
The elevator stopped just above the lobby, the display said 1R. The door behind us opened. Maury Benjamin started walking out.
─Oh, I eat all my meals in the kitchen. I don’t mind the performance, but I can’t stand the autograph hounds and all the other lunatics at these events.
I looked at him as he stood in the doorway.
─Say, you going to be at the Gathering?
─Not sure. I hope so. Haven’t heard back from them yet.
He pointed at the caption under the picture in the paper.
─Did they get your name right?
I read the caption.
─Yes. That’s me.
─I’ll put in a good word for you. But don’t think of it as a favor. Just curious to see all that piss in person. I myself was never much in the piss department.
Before I could thank him he turned and walked away, the door sliding closed a moment later. I got off at the lobby, only to see that it had started raining again. According to the clock above the reception desk, it was already late enough to call Michelle and the girls. But first I decided to a drink of water. Wanted to see if I could hold it until lunch.
My sister is going out with a guy who got famous for being on a reality show in the United States. She met him at the cafe where she works in L.A., where she’s lived since 2002, when she told me she couldn’t take it here anymore and left. She waited on him the same way she did all her customers, and after the guy left, her coworkers started jumping up and down around her, and one of them said “Didn’t you recognise him? That was Ozzy, from Survivor.” She had never seen the show (me either), except for a few random episodes from the first season, so she didn’t understand at the time what the whole deal with Survivor was about, or why the girls she worked with could be so excited about someone as gross as an ex-reality show contestant.
Ozzy came back the next day, and my sister would have liked to wait on him the same way she waited on all her customers, but that day she couldn’t help but comment on the book about sharks that he was flipping through. It was one she knew very well: I had given her that book on her fifteenth birthday (a bookseller had told me it was a classic, one with hard facts that was suited to aficionados, and it had soon become her favourite and the first of a collection of twenty titles on the subject). My sister told me it had moved her to see that someone else in the world had that book, that one in particular, and that her emotion had nothing to do with the fact that the someone in question was Ozzy from Survivor, because Survivor meant nothing to her. And then I thought of an article I’d read in a magazine: Ricky Martin’s kids only recently realized, now that they’re almost seven years old, who their father “is:” “You’re Ricky Martin?” they asked him in astonishment after watching a show for the first time from the audience and not from the side of the stage.
So, my sister had nothing to say about Ozzy from Survivor, but she did talk a lot about Ozzy the boy who went to the cafe almost every day and whom she found irresistible: cute, with a kind face, simple and very sweet. Little by little, and in spite of both of their shyness, they had sought out coincidences and excuses to see each other when she got off work.
Starting then, everything my sister told me about him made me think they were made for each other, especially because they both held life goals that were quite achievable, which made them prone to happiness.
One day, my sister told me she was in love. Utterly in love, she said. “And him?” I asked worriedly, because love was a state that tended to leave her overly vulnerable. She told me that only when the feeling is reciprocal can one be in love and be serene at the same time. And then I remembered that love can also turn her a little sappy.
I had googled “Ozzy” and “Survivor” the first time she mentioned him to me. I looked at his photos to get an idea of what he looked like, and I read a few articles and the comments on some forums to try to find out what kind of person he was (I knew my sister would never do a thing like that, and it seemed like a waste not to take advantage of the fact that he was very well-known). I got a little worried imagining my sister —the way she is, so candid sometimes— in the life of someone who was almost famous.
Right away I found out that Ozzy wasn’t just any contestant, but was quite a popular character on the show; most of the fans had opinions about him. And the strangest thing: almost all of them had the same impression of him, though some people took certain characteristics as virtues and were for him, and others, for the very same reasons, were against him.
In that quick search I also found out that Ozzy was really named Oscar, that he’d been born in Guanajuato, Mexico, and that he hadn’t been on one season of the show, but three. It seems that after his first time he’d turned into a kind of star contestant, a favourite among the fans, who voted for him every time the producers decided to bring back old “castaways” for a new and special season. So, after his first appearance on Survivor: Cook Islands, he came back for Survivor Micronesia: Fans vs. Favourites, and later he was on Survivor: South Pacific.
The show’s grand prize, which goes to one winner among twenty participants, is a million dollars. Ozzy never won, and only once did he make it to the final round, although in the other seasons he was part of the “jury” (the group of the last seven participants expelled, who vote to choose the winner). Twice, his first and last time, he won the prize of a hundred thousand dollars for “Survivor Favourite:” the only one awarded according to an audience vote. It would seem that Ozzy was the ultimate expression of the survivor, and viewers voted for him because he was a full-on Robinson who could climb trees like a monkey, hold his breath underwater for three minutes, and harpoon fish that weighed over a kilo. Plus, he won all the physical tests the participants had to undergo in order to win “immunity” or “rewards.” That’s how he managed to advance far in the game, but it seemed his lack of malice, his arrogance, and his inability to manipulate the others and head off a betrayal always left him shy of the grand prize. Of course, all this was what, to his fans, made him the game’s true “moral winner.” For his detractors, it was what made him an athletic and brainless wimp. Survivor awakens grand passions in United States audiences, and people for or against Ozzy (or any other more or less striking character), would use these expressions and others even more enthusiastic or cruel.
There had been a couple of times when I’d tried to get my sister to talk to me about Ozzy and his experience on the program, and especially to find out what he thought about his inability to win the million, but she had refused to talk about the Ozzy of Survivor. In fact, over time she began to call him Oscar. She wasn’t interested in anything that had to do with his time on TV. She even seemed to feel a certain aversion to that part of him, though she would never openly admit it.
It was more or less around when she started to call him Oscar that I decided it was time to watch Survivor.
I couldn’t travel—with my salary, I couldn’t even think about buying a ticket to the United States. But the fact that he had spent so many hours on TV being “himself” on a reality show gave me the chance learn about the man my sister was spending more and more time with; to see him in action, as it were. The last few times my sister and I had talked, he had been there. He didn’t say anything or show himself on Skype, but I knew he was there. One time my sister asked him to turn down the TV; another time, laughing, she told him to be still (maybe he was tickling her); and the last time, I saw one of his hands as it passed quickly in front of the camera to grab some papers from the desk.
Anytime I caught a glimpse of what was happening near my sister (not because she told me directly, but from some other clue), I grew more anxious about the distance that separated us. After all, I had never seen or set foot in those places she talked to me from. I’d never been to the café where she worked, or the apartment she rented with her coworkers, or the school where she was studying pastry-making (my sister had always had a great flair for cooking, and she’d decided to turn that natural disposition into a more official, and hopefully more lucrative, activity). I think the Ozzy on Survivor had something to do with my sister signing up at a prestigious cooking school and being so conscientious with her classes; she’d always been reluctant when it came to academic schedules and study goals (it had been a pitched battle to get her to finish high school). I’m sure he was the one who paid her enrollment fee, and even her monthly tuition. My sister denied it all, but she was a terrible liar. She went into detail to make her story more credible—she gave so many details that at some point, one of them would always give her away. Maybe because my primary instinct was to protect her, I never let her know when I’d caught her in a lie. And when she got a scholarship from the cooking school (one they would never have given to an immigrant whose papers weren’t in order), it was no exception. What I did was congratulate her, and start to think that if Ozzy was doing these things for her it was because the relationship was getting very serious. I also thought that a marriage proposal must be near. He would buy her a ring, get down on his knee during some romantic dinner, and very soon they would be fiancées. It was strange how the Yankees had that idea of three steps so engrained: dating, engagement, marriage. And although Ozzy had been born in Mexico, he’d spent his whole life in the U.S., and surely those habits were now part of him as well.
It wasn’t easy to get my hands on a decent-quality copy of the entire season of Ozzy’s debut: Survivor: Cook Islands.
The season starts off with the twenty participants and the show’s host on a ship. The contestants have limited time to jump overboard with the rafts they have to row out to the desert islands where they’ll spend the next thirty-nine days. As they do this, the host explains that this is the first time that the four starting tribes are of different ethnicities. Ozzy is part of the Latino tribe. There is also an African-American tribe, an Asian American one, and a Caucasian one.
That season was filmed between June and August of 2006, and Ozzy eight years younger was a boy with short, curly hair, olive skin, and agile body, who almost never smiled and spoke little, though very soon he was at the head of his tribe. One of his three companions, on watching him climb a palm tree to get coconuts, commented that he felt like he was watching something from The Jungle Book. “I thought it was Mowgli going up a tree.” He was also good at fishing using what they called a Hawaiian harpoon, oversaw the construction of their hut (made of bamboo and palm leaves), and designed a trap to hunt wild chickens. But his companions didn’t trust him completely; they couldn’t explain why, but they didn’t trust him. I think it must have been because Ozzy didn’t seem to have a sense of humor, he took himself and everything he did very seriously. He seemed obsessed by winning every challenge, and he was self-sufficient to the point it was irritating.
I thought it would take me at least a week to watch that season’s fourteen episodes. But my curiosity and the dynamic of the program itself (perfectly designed to generate tension and intrigue) impelled me to spend all day Saturday at home. By two in the morning I’d seen everything, all the way through the post-finale reunion. On top of an excruciating headache, I had a pretty clear idea of what Ozzy’s fans had seen in him.
Some aspirin and a good night’s sleep got me to Sunday recovered and more interested than ever in talking to my sister’s famous boyfriend. I wanted to find out how he’d felt after he lost the grand prize with a vote of only four against five (the winner was Yul, a lawyer of Korean descent who dominated the game from the social point of view). The grand finale (which is when the jury’s votes are counted and the winner is announced) was filmed on a CBS set in New York, where the season’s twenty contestants were all gathered, now recovered from the dirt, hunger and injuries that physically ravage all the participants. They, the public, and the host all had general questions about how or why this or that had happened, but they all had one big question for Ozzy: how was it possible that a city boy, over twenty years old, Mexican and (at the time) working as a waiter, seemed to have been born to live and survive on a desert island? Ozzy, serious as always, listened to the question without changing his expression, and gave the one answer no one expected, one nobody knew what to do with: “I’ve always read a lot,” he said. I clapped. Sitting there, alone in my living room in front of the laptop where young Ozzy was talking about his first love—Robinson Crusoe—and how ever since he was little he’d fantasized about being abandoned on a desert island, I clapped.
At that moment I felt like calling my sister and for the first time just asking her to let me talk to Ozzy. I wanted to congratulate him for that answer, but I also wanted to ask him what other books had been important to him (in the end, I couldn’t help feeling Robinson Crusoe was a little obvious).
I was tired that night, but I decided the next time we talked I would tell my sister it was high time she introduced me to her boyfriend (“I just want to get to know him a little,” I would tell her).
I found the complete season Micronesia: Fans vs. Favorites (Ozzy’s second season) on YouTube.
For two days, when I came back from the school where I was subbing in a third-grade class, I sat down in front of my computer to watch the show. I felt completely trapped. It was the only thing I wanted to do, the only thing I could get myself to focus on. I had an opinion about Ozzy and about each of the participants, about every alliance, every elimination in all the tribal councils. I got excited about the challenges for rewards or immunity. The fans (a tribe of ten people who had never played before) struck me as naïve, inept, out of place. I waited anxiously for the moments when the cameras would return to the favorites tribe (Ozzy and nine other ex-participants), where even the most banal conversations had potential repercussions in how the game unfolded, and where everyone was extremely self-conscious and suspicious.
Friday night, I was finishing the finale, watching and rewinding to see Ozzy’s parts again, commenting on the two finalists before casting his vote for the winner of the million dollars, when the house phone rang. I knew it was my sister. Ever since I broke up with Germán, no one else calls the house at that hour. “Get online,” she said. She practically didn’t say hi, she just said “get online,” and hung up.
Lately we’d been chatting on Gmail, so I opened my inbox and sent her a message to let her know I was there. “On Skype,” she wrote. I didn’t like to use Skype. Sure, it was all much more comfortable and fluid than chatting; the problem came later. Ending a chat just meant typing “xo” or “xoxoxoxoxoxoxo,” or a little phrase like “I miss you” or “Love you” (it all depended on how our conversation had gone). Hanging up on Skype, saying “bye” to my sister who was right there on the screen, moving and raising the palm of her right hand to her lips to blow me the kiss she always said goodbye with—I was afraid of that moment. Cutting off communication and sitting in front of the black screen terrified me. In my head I’d built up the idea that it was like giving the world the chance to swallow her: on her end, the dark monitor turned into a giant mouth that opened up to swallow my sister, taking her away from me forever.
Once we were connected, as soon as my sister’s face appeared onscreen, I could tell she had been crying. I asked if she was all right. She smiled at me, a weak smile, and said: “They invited him back to the show.”
When good things happened to my sister, I was happy—very happy, even. But when the good news for some reason was cut short or turned against her, I was also happy then. And I was very ashamed of that. I knew it was pure envy of the worst kind, and also that it was the result of an idea I would never admit to anyone: I didn’t think there was any reason for things to go better for her than for me. At those moments I also realized that I was still resentful she had cut and run when things in the country were falling apart. I stayed, I thought sometimes, and enduring is more commendable than fleeing to a place where everything is easier.
There was no one in the world I loved more than my sister, and no other person awoke such low feelings of resentment and envy in me. I didn’t understand why that happened; I couldn’t forgive myself for it, and I tried hard to repress those feelings.
However, when I saw how disconsolate she was because CBS had invited Ozzy to be on a new season of Survivor, I felt that in some twisted way it was a rightful turn of events.
“It’s not so bad,” I told her. And she burst out crying the way she used to when we were little. After she’d calmed down, she explained that the season would be called Blood vs. Water and that each of the ex-participants chosen by the viewers had to compete alongside a loved one. Ozzy wanted my sister to go with him. “But you’re not a blood relative. You’re not even married to him,” was the only thing that occurred to me to say, trying to seem like I was in her corner. Apparently, for the producers of Survivor, “blood” and “loved ones” were the same thing. I do not agree.
I didn’t need to ask, I knew my sister had already told Ozzy she didn’t want to take part. The only thing I didn’t know was how he had reacted. “He’s furious,” said my sister, and she started to cry again. “He says it’s his favorite place in the world, that he’s happy there. It’s ridiculous, we’re talking about a TV show.” I tried to explain that surely he wasn’t referring to the program itself, but to the places where it was filmed (for the most part, idyllic Pacific islands), and where Ozzy seemed to really be in his element. “You don’t know him,” said my sister. And I went on insisting that she wasn’t going to know him completely either until she’d seen him climb trees, swim like a dolphin, and crack coconuts with a machete. Only then, I told her, would she realize that when he was doing all of that, he was happy. All those things made him happy, and so did the competition. Because when you were watching Ozzy compete, you weren’t watching a guy who was enjoying some exotic vacation; you saw, rather, an extremely competitive person fighting to win a game he knows he’s good at, but not unbeatable, and he can improve. “The program’s whole concept is his place in the world, understand?” I told her. “And maybe it’s a good idea for you to go with him. You two might even win.” There was silence. My sister stared at me. For a moment I thought the image was frozen—my house had a terrible internet connection. But then she blinked. “I hate you,” she told me. And at that moment she wasn’t looking at my image on her monitor, but right at the webcam, so I would feel her eyes meet mine. “I hate both of you,” she said, and hung up.
Black, silent screen. It took me a while to react. I couldn’t understand what had happened. This time, when I’d seen her crying like that, I’d managed to forget about everything and offer advice that was for her own good; I even felt proud I’d encouraged her to go on the program. After all, if they won it meant losing her completely. A boyfriend and a million dollars was enough to keep her from ever thinking about coming back. And deep down, I was always hoping my sister would want to come back. Then I thought that she wasn’t really understanding the situation, that she was making a serious mistake and I had to help her.
It took me all night, but I found what I needed. I put together a file with a compilation from YouTube that some fan had made with Ozzy’s best moments on the program, another one-minute video where Ozzy (interviewed shortly after being eliminated from Survivor: South Pacific) was saying to the camera how depressed it made him to have to return to his life, to the city, to everything he felt pulled him away from his truest self. There was also a third video in which, during his first season, Ozzy was celebrating having spent so long on the island with a shout of “treinta días, es increíble,” and he said it with a big, unexpected smile and in Spanish (he’d never spoken in Spanish on the program, and I knew he and my sister only spoke in English). The last video was one I’d compiled myself and consisted of several shots of Ozzy swimming, because that was the best of Ozzy. It was beautiful to see him swim. And it wasn’t a matter of admiring his technique, or speed, or stamina, it was simply exciting. It was like letting a slow, lazy housecat into an unknown yard and seeing how it instantly became a savage animal.
I saved the files as an attachment in a blank email and wrote in the subject: “Don’t miss this.” I sent the email and went to sleep. I felt satisfied with myself. I had overcome my lowest instincts and was again the person my sister deserved, someone who advised her for her own good and with a more generous goal: her happiness (and maybe even that of her “Oscar”).
I woke up around noon. It was Sunday. My inbox had an email from my sister. Not a reply to the one I’d sent, but a new one. I opened it and saw that it didn’t have text, either, but a video attached, untitled. I spent a while sitting in front of the computer without daring to open the file. I was afraid my sister hadn’t understood what I’d wanted to tell her with my message, and that now she was even angrier. For very little, she’d already told me “I hate you.” What was there after that?
I lit a cigarette and pressed play. The video opened with a sign that said “Reality Show,” and went on with several edited fragments from very homemade recordings. Ozzy now had very short hair and several kilos more than the boy on TV.
In all the shots, my sister is wearing clothes I’ve never seen. In all of them, one of them is filming the other or someone is filming the two of them in very domestic situations. A breakfast. The preparation of a welcome home sign for someone she never mentioned and who was coming home from somewhere I couldn’t say. A toast for something that was important to my sister about which I’d never heard anything. Ozzy opening his arms and smiling at the camera at the entrance to the cinema. Her with wet clothes acting angry while she threatened the camera with a bucket full of water. The two of them lying in a park on the grass, while a dog belonging to someone unknown went running over them and the two of them double up in laughter and kiss and wave at whoever is filming them. The two of them asleep, sharing the seat on a bus. The two of them very serious and elegant, walking in someone’s wedding party. The two of them in bed, her holding the camera aloft so she can get both their faces in close-up; neither of them speaks but they smile, they smile and breathe a little quickly and finally say something to each other that can’t be heard.
It’s been days since then and I haven’t heard from her again. I still haven’t replied. I’m tired of talking and understanding. What I did was change the photo in all my profiles, impossible she hasn’t seen. Now there’s an image of the big bonfire they make at the end of each episode of Survivor for the tribal council, the one when the participants decide which member of the tribe they will eliminate from the great game.
Here in the city lives a prince whose left arm is like any other man’s and whose right arm is a swan’s wing.
He and his eleven brothers were turned into swans by their vituperative stepmother, who had no intention of raising the twelve sons of her husband’s former wife (whose pallid, mortified face stared glassily from portrait after portrait; whose unending pregnancies had dispatched her before her fortieth birthday). Twelve brawling, boastful boys; twelve fragile and rapacious egos; twelve adolescences—all presented to the new queen as routine aspects of her job. Do we blame her? Do we, really?
She turned the boys into swans, and commanded them to fly away.
She spared the thirteenth child, the youngest, because she was a girl, though the stepmother’s fantasies about shared confidences and daylong shopping trips evaporated quickly enough. Why, after all, would a girl be anything but surly and petulant toward the woman who’d turned her brothers into birds? And so—after a certain patient lenience toward sulking silences, after a number of ball gowns purchased but never worn—the queen gave up. The princess lived in the castle like an impoverished relative, fed and housed, tolerated but not loved.
The twelve swan-princes lived on a rock far out at sea, and were permitted only an annual, daylong return to their kingdom, a visit that was both eagerly anticipated and awkward for the king and his consort. It was hard to exult in a day spent among twelve formerly stalwart and valiant sons who could only, during that single yearly interlude, honk and preen and peck at mites as they flapped around in the castle courtyard. The king did his best at pretending to be glad to see them. The queen was always struck by one of her migraines.
Years passed. And then… At long last…
On one of the swan-princes’ yearly furloughs, their little sister broke the spell, having learned from a beggar woman she met while picking berries in the forest that the only known cure for the swan transformation curse was coats made of nettles.
However. The girl was compelled to knit the coats in secret, because they needed (or so the beggar woman told her) not only to be made of nettles, but of nettles collected from graveyards, after dark. If the princess was caught gathering nettles from among tombstones, past midnight, her stepmother would surely have accused her of witchcraft, and had her burned along with the rest of the garbage. The girl, no fool, knew she couldn’t count on her father, who by then harbored a secret wish (which he acknowledged not even to himself) to be free of all his children.
The princess crept nightly into local graveyards to gather nettles, and spent her days weaving them into coats. It was, as it turned out, a blessing that no one in the castle paid much attention to her.
She had almost finished the twelve coats when the local archbishop (who was not asked why he himself happened to be in a graveyard so late at night) saw her picking nettles, and turned her in. The queen felt confirmed in her suspicions (this being the girl who shared not a single virginal secret, who claimed complete indifference to shoes exquisite enough to be shown in museums). The king, unsurprisingly, acceded, hoping he’d be seen as strong and unsentimental, a true king, a king so devoted to protecting his people from the darker forces that he’d agree to the execution of his own daughter, if it kept his subjects safe, free of curses, unafraid of demonic transformations.
Just as the princess was about to be burned at the stake, however, the swan-brothers descended from the smoky sky, and their sister threw the coats onto them. Suddenly, with a loud crackling sound, amid a flurry of sparkling wind, twelve studly young men, naked under their nettle coats, stood in the courtyard, with only a few stray white feathers wafting around them.
…there were eleven fully intact princes and one, the twelfth, restored save for a single detail—his right arm remained a swan’s wing, because his sister, interrupted at her work, had had to leave one coat with a missing sleeve.
It seemed a small-enough price to pay.
Eleven of the young men soon married, had children, joined organizations, gave parties that thrilled everyone, right down to the mice in the walls. Their thwarted stepmother, so raucously outnumbered, so unmotherly, retreated to a convent, which inspired the king to fabricate memories of abiding loyalty to his transfigured sons and helplessness before his harridan of a wife, a version the boys were more than willing to believe.
End of story. “Happily ever after” fell on everyone like a guillotine’s blade.
It was difficult for the twelfth brother, the swan-winged one. His father, his uncles and aunts, the various lords and ladies, were not pleased by the reminder of their brush with such sinister elements, or their unskeptical willingness to execute the princess as she worked to save her siblings.
The king’s consort made jokes about the swan-winged prince, which his eleven flawlessly formed brothers took up readily, insisting they were only meant in fun. The young nieces and nephews, children of the eleven brothers, hid whenever the twelfth son entered a room, and giggled from behind the chaises and tapestries. His brothers’ wives asked repeatedly that he do his best to remain calm at dinner (he was prone to gesticulating with the wing while telling a joke, and had once flicked an entire haunch of venison against the opposite wall).
The palace cats tended to snarl and slink away whenever he came near.
Finally he packed a few things and went out into the world. The world, however, proved no easier for him than the palace had been. He could only get the most menial of jobs. He had no marketable skills (princes don’t), and just one working hand. Every now and then a woman grew interested, but it always turned out that she was briefly drawn to some Leda fantasy or, worse, hoped her love could bring him back his arm. Nothing ever lasted. The wing was awkward on the subway, impossible in cabs. It had to be checked constantly for lice. And unless it was washed daily, feather by feather, it turned from the creamy white of a French tulip to a linty, dispiriting gray.
He lived with his wing as another man might live with a dog adopted from the pound: sweet-tempered, but neurotic and untrainable. He loved his wing, helplessly. He also found it exasperating, adorable, irritating, wearying, heartbreaking. It embarrassed him, not only because he didn’t manage to keep it cleaner, or because getting through doors and turnstiles never got less awkward, but because he failed to insist on it as an asset. Which wasn’t all that hard to imagine. He could see himself selling himself as a compelling metamorphosis, a young god, proud to the point of sexy arrogance of his anatomical deviation: ninety percent thriving muscled man-flesh and ten percent glorious blindingly white angel wing.
Baby, these feathers are going to tickle you halfway to heaven, and this man-part is going to take you the rest of the way.
Where, he asked himself, was that version of him? What dearth of nerve rendered him, as year followed year, increasingly paunchy and slack-shouldered, a walking apology? Why was it beyond his capacities to get back into shape, to cop an attitude, to stroll insouciantly into clubs in a black lizardskin suit with one sleeve cut off?
Yeah, right, sweetheart, it’s a wing, I’m part angel, but trust me, the rest is pure devil.
He couldn’t seem to manage that. He might as well have tried to run a three-minute mile, or become a virtuoso on the violin.
He’s still around. He pays his rent one way or another. He takes his love where he can find it. In late middle age he’s grown ironic, and cheerful in a toughened, seen-it-all way. He’s become possessed of a world-weary wit. He’s realized he can either descend into bitterness or become a wised-up holy fool. It’s better, it’s less mortifying, to be the guy who understands that the joke’s on him, and is the first to laugh when the punch line lands.
Most of his brothers back at the palace are on their second or third wives. Their children, having been cosseted and catered to all their lives, can be difficult. The princes spend their days knocking golden balls into silver cups, or skewering moths with their swords. At night they watch the jesters and jugglers and acrobats perform.
The twelfth brother can be found, most nights, in one of the bars on the city’s outer edges, the ones that cater to people who were only partly cured of their curses, or not cured at all. There’s the three-hundred-year-old woman who wasn’t specific enough when she spoke to the magic fish, and found herself crying, “No, wait, I meant alive and young forever,” into a suddenly empty sea. There’s the crownletted frog who can’t seem to truly love any of the women willing to kiss him, and break the spell. There’s the prince who’s spent years trying to determine the location of the comatose princess he’s meant to revive with a kiss, and has lately been less devoted to searching mountain and glen, more prone to bar-crawling, given to long stories about the girl who got away.
In such bars, a man with a single swan wing is considered lucky.
His life, he tells himself, is not the worst of all possible lives. Maybe that’s enough. Maybe that’s what there is to hope for—that it merely won’t get any worse.
Some nights, when he’s stumbled home smashed (there are many such nights), negotiated the five flights up to his apartment, turned on the TV, and passed out on the sofa, he awakes, hours later, as the first light grays the slats of the venetian blinds, with only his hangover for company, to find that he’s curled his wing over his chest and belly; or rather (he knows this to be impossible, and yet…) that the wing has curled itself, by its own volition, over him, both blanket and companion, his devoted resident alien, every bit as imploring and ardent and inconvenient as that mutt from the pound would have been. His dreadful familiar. His burden, his comrade.
*This story is reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd© Michael Cunningham, 2015.
When Markus Kellmer got home from work, he found a naked woman on his living-room carpet. Her dishevelled hair reminded him of the way he had drawn crows’ nests and tree tops as a child; her skin shone as if it were varnished, and when Markus turned her carefully onto her back to talk to her and maybe find out who she was and what she was doing in his flat, he realised she was dead.
He went straight to the window and drew the curtains. It was really far too early for that; outside it was still light. Spring had come a few days ago and the sun wouldn’t set for another hour, at about six. Not that many weeks ago it had vanished at about four, but since then the days had learnt to hold their brightness for longer and longer, and soon they would give way to the summer heat that was already ripening within them.
On these mild spring days, the rays of afternoon sun were always the first to greet Markus when he walked through the door of his flat. Shutting them out gave him a headache; it felt as if the room had a migraine. But he could hardly do otherwise: there was, after all, a dead woman lying on the floor of his flat. Around her mouth and nostrils, the skin looked as if someone had tried to strike matches against it. Markus lifted the corpse and set it in an armchair, but it fell straight out; its joints were like jelly, its body like a balloon filled with liquid. He tried once more, but again it didn’t stay in the chair; it tipped forward, like someone who suddenly has to vomit – and crashed head first onto the parquet. The crash brought Markus back to reality. He went straight to the stereo and switched it on. Music helped him think.
He couldn’t simply leave the corpse lying on the floor. Corpses changed; their surface was not as stable as that of living people. All they were really interested in was their own disintegration, and in order to disappear as completely as possible, they needed a base that was favourable to exchange, such as a forest floor or a swamp – something with which they could gradually become one. Here, of course, there was nothing of that nature, so he’d have to come up with something. He grabbed the remote control and turned up the volume.
It occurred to him that he had recently concealed a large model aeroplane behind his radiator. That had been when his parents were visiting the previous week, and he hadn’t wanted them to see the model. There was a lot of room behind the radiator, but was it enough to accommodate a grown woman? Markus fetched a tape measure and measured the corpse. Hard to say – he’d have to give it a try.
He struggled for over half an hour, but in the end the head and half the torso were still sticking out. Even so, it was a partial success. For a while, Markus just sat there, leaning against the doorframe and staring into space. What, he wondered, could the woman have died of? He had discovered no strangle marks or bruises. Whatever the cause of death, it seemed to have left her body unscathed. Perhaps she had been poisoned. Or died of natural causes. But she was still pretty young; Markus guessed that she was between twenty-five and thirty.
He got up and stretched. No, it wouldn’t do at all. The model plane had been safe behind the radiator, but the corpse would be spotted by anyone entering the room. He’d have to come up with some other hiding place.
Making a mental search of the various nooks and crannies of his flat, Markus dragged the corpse out from behind the radiator. Because she was naked, his impatient pulling and tugging left her damaged in places. The columns of the radiator cut into the pale skin as if it were butter. Only a little blood was spilled, though, because the heart had stopped beating; the blood vessels were no longer under pressure. Even so, a few ugly marks were left on the floor and radiator. Markus went in the bathroom and fetched a wet cloth to clean the columns. It was spring; if he left the bodily fluids to dry, the radiator would smell to high heaven when he turned the heating on again next winter.
Grabbing the corpse by the arms, he dragged it back into the front room. Again, it left some marks behind – long reddish trails this time. Shaking his head, he went back to the bathroom, fetched another cloth and set to scrubbing the floor. He really could be slow sometimes, positively dull-witted. To make sure nothing of the sort happened again, he wrapped the corpse in big towels from head to toe. That also made it much easier to pull across the parquet.
The music from the stereo fell silent, and a voice announced the Christian names of the double bass, percussion, and flute.
Markus left the swaddled corpse in the bath overnight. The next day he almost overslept because while dreaming he mistook the buzz of his alarm clock for the sad farewell croak of a frog aboard a small rocket that was being launched into a geostationary orbit around Earth. He had only just enough time for a light breakfast before catching the bus to work. In the late afternoon he returned home.
He noticed the smell as soon he walked in at the door. It wasn’t very strong, but it was there. He went in the bathroom. The corpse lay there like yesterday evening, except that on the towel covering its face, a stain had spread, vaguely reminiscent of a maple leaf.
It had been a tiring day at the office and usually Markus would have yielded to his urge for a hot bath, stretched out in the warm water, wiggled his toes, and drowned all the worries whirring around his head in the mountains of softly popping bubbles. Today he might just manage to go without his daily cleansing ritual, but there was no way this state of affairs could be accepted as a permanent solution. In fact, he was already beginning to feel nervous. He pulled the corpse out of the bath, rolled it into the next room, and rinsed out the tub with the shower. It wasn’t until he’d used up almost the entire bottle of bathroom cleaner that he felt he could face getting into the tub naked without feeling too disgusted.
But before having a bath, he set about putting the corpse in the half-empty wardrobe in his study. Odd that he hadn’t thought of it earlier. He had, after all, once stowed an entire set of rolled-up roller blinds in there – the white strings sticking out at the top had made them look like rods of dynamite. The corpse fitted nicely in the wardrobe, but every time Markus tried to close the door, it tipped out again, head first, and he had to catch it as she fell about his neck like a long-lost acquaintance. In the end he fixed her wrists to the inside with sticky tape. He also taped up the air vent at the bottom of the wardrobe thoroughly enough to leave him feeling that the whole thing could be left for at least a few days.
He had only been in the bathroom three minutes and was fiddling with the showerhead when he heard the bang. He turned off the water and listened. All was quiet, but it was no good pretending – he knew what had happened. Half naked, he left the bathroom and went back to his study.
The sight of the hideously contorted woman lying half in, half out of the wardrobe was so ridiculous that Markus let out a kind of roaring sneeze, triggered not by an overstimulated mucous membrane, but by an overstimulated imagination.
Before he could lift her up, he had to unfold her – yes, that’s right, unfold her, because she was – my God, not even a contortionist would have wanted to get into such a position. But it was a corpse, he told himself, nothing living. It wasn’t fair to apply the same standards.
Perhaps it would be better if he left the corpse as it was – a tangled muddle of arms and legs, and a body already bursting at the seams in several places. It was certainly easier to transport, but of course she took up more room than in her unfolded state.
The carpet in Markus’s living room was of the antique variety. It had been trodden by many generations, felt the patter of tiny feet give way to the heavy tread of age and responsibility, welcomed newlyweds and mourners. Its pattern had preoccupied twenty or more geometrically minded people. It had survived world wars and times of euphoria and inspired chaos. In short, it was not the kind of carpet you could simply shove a corpse under.
Markus knew that. He knew all that – and yet he could come up with no other solution. He had tried everything: the wardrobe, the radiator, the bath. Short of grabbing the corpse and flinging it legs over head over heels out of the window, he didn’t have a lot of alternatives. Besides, time was pressing.
He picked up the heavy carpet with both hands and used his feet to shove and kick the corpse onto the slightly paler floorboards underneath. Untouched by light and untrodden by people, these boards were without a doubt the most vulnerable and intimate part of the flat. It took him a while, but at last he had pushed the corpse into place and could spread the carpet over it. The thick, heavy weave smelled of shoe leather and the past. As it came down over the incongruous form, almost spiriting it away, Markus was suffused by a feeling of immense relief. He nearly clapped his hands.
The new carpeted mound looked a little like a three-dimensional model of a topographic map. By chance, the elevations of the corpse’s contours corresponded precisely with the concentric pattern in the carpet, so that the darkest areas were situated at the highest geographical point (one shoulder always stuck up slightly when the corpse was lying on its back). It was almost as if the whole thing had been arranged deliberately to help you get your bearings.
This solution was without a doubt the best so far. The only problem was navigating the steep sides of the corpse, because it was hard not to lose your footing on the raised carpet. So Markus fetched his big desk, which was never put to any meaningful use anyway, manoeuvring it from the study to the living room until it stood right over the carpeted mountain range. That would stop him from tripping at least. And although the desk wasn’t ideally positioned, here in the middle of the room, perhaps now he would sit at it more often and write more of those little literary efforts of his which flowed so steadily from his pen, but were – in view of their evident futility – an equally steady source of grief to him.
It didn’t look at all bad. A small mound in the middle of the room – and over it, a desk. If he didn’t manage to inundate the desk with pages of writing, he would simply spread a large cloth over it – one that reached to the floor.
So that’s that, thought Markus and went into the kitchen. His successful negotiation of the last two days’ ordeals definitely called for celebration. After staring distractedly at labels for a while, he decided on a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, its contents a dark red.
It wasn’t until he was back in the living room – where the desk, now the indisputable centrepiece, lent the room a whole new emotional focus – that he realised he was carrying two wine glasses. With every step he took, they clinked softly in his fingers, which he held loosely clasped about their thin glass necks.
*This story is taken from: Die Liebe zur Zeit des Mahlstädter Kindes by Clemens J. Setz. © Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin 2011.
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