In less than a month he'd be leaving Berlin and going back to his efficiency apartment in University Heights, in a neighborhood of Dominican restaurants and crumbling buildings and graffiti and noise. Michael tried not to think about New York as he got off the S-bahn and walked the neat avenue to the apartment where the orchestra board had put him up during his six-month fellowship. It was early evening and spring had come; windowboxes were alive with tulips and hyacinth, the trees in front of the identical rows of flats were beginning to bud and blossom and here and there children were playing on stairways and in parking strips before they were called indoors for dinner.
Michael was hungry and doubted that he had any food in the kitchen. He'd been too lost in thought to stop at the outdoor market between the opera house and the S-bahn station and the closest grocer to his apartment was nearly a mile away. Maybe he'd run to the curry shop down the block after a bit. Odd that curry was the closest thing he could find in Berlin to American food. The Germans ate so much meat and butter that Michael had gained ten pounds in the last five months. He would have to rejoin the Y right away when he got back to Manhattan.
One of the neighbor kids, a teenaged girl named Anna, was sitting on the steps. Anna was dressed all in tight black clothes and her hair was platinum white with electric blue tips. She wore heavy black eyeliner like most of the girls her age in the neighborhood and Michael sometimes felt that he was surrounded by members of an alien race who'd based their entire culture on sci-fi cult films and dance music.
Anna's mother was Frau Magda Bloch, the apartment building's live-in manager. When Michael had arrived in Berlin, the opera's music director himself had driven Michael out to the neighborhood and introduced him to Frau Bloch. She had looked him over while finding the keys and said very little beyond reminding him to keep the lobby doors closed and to not play loud music after ten o'clock.
"If you have any problems with your home," she had said, "I live on the top floor and you can knock on the door at any time."
Michael had not had any reason to knock on Frau Bloch's door. The opera management paid the rent and the utilities and the apartment was in good shape. It had been built just after the Wall fell and everything was newer and cleaner and better than anything in Michael's apartment in New York. Michael was in Berlin for an opera conducting fellowship, a six-month intensive course with Daniel Barenboim. The apartment had been decorated by Elena, Barenboim's wife, and Michael always felt at the end of the day when he sank into the low sofa by the window, that he had stepped onto a film set, into a screenwriter's idea of a professional musician's home. There were photos of conductors and singers, paintings and prints of Puccini and Mozart, an expensive sound system with a thousand CDs and LPs and a room filled with scores and analyses with a fine mahogany worktable and a leather-covered chair. It was the sort of place Michael dreamed of having, and he'd leave it in three weeks for his old futon and plastic bookshelves and second-hand Dover editions.
Berlin had never felt real. Standing next to Barenboim before the Berlin State Opera musicians was a dream; the reality was that next month Michael would be unemployed and his student loans would begin to come due and there were precious few jobs for a man trained for nothing but conducting an orchestra. Likely he'd find himself playing piano in a cocktail bar or doing wedding gigs again, maybe going back to the Strand and begging for a job shelving books.
"Hallo Michael," Anna said, as he climbed past her on the steps. She smelled like cigarettes.
"Guten Abend, Anna."
"Did you have fun at the opera today?"
"I worked very hard. We are performing Der Fledermaus on Friday."
"I don't like opera. Why don't you join a band or something if you like music?"
"I play piano. I was in a band once, when I was a teen."
"Oh. Back in the stone age?" Anna had a wide mouth full of large teeth and when she smiled up at Michael she closed her eyes. It reminded Michael somehow of a cat yawning and the effect did not make the girl anything like pretty.
"Yes, back in the stone age." Michael was twenty-six. Anna was old enough to know what boys were about but among her set Michael was middle-aged, a sexless old man. The idea amused Michael.
"Have you a cigarette?" Anna asked.
"I don't smoke. It's not allowed in this building; I'm sure Frau Bloch tells you this all the time."
Anna scowled at him.
"You will be going back to New York soon, ja?"
"What gift are you leaving for the apartment?"
Michael had wondered this himself. The conducting fellowship had been going for fifteen years and for the last decade the visiting fellows had stayed in the same apartment, and Frau Bloch had been the manager the whole time. She had encouraged each of the visiting fellows to leave behind a memento of their homeland, and it had become a tradition over the years as knick knacks accumulated here and there: a photo of Mexico City in the bathroom, a porcelain soap dish in the kitchen, an afghan in blood red across a chair in the living room. Michael had known about the tradition before getting on the plane at JFK but he'd forgotten to bring something along, and he'd also forgotten to have any of his friends in Manhattan ship him a souvenir once he'd arrived in Berlin.
"I don't think I have anything suitable."
"You Americans, you know, are the worst."
"I believe it."
"You could leave behind a framed love letter from your girlfriend. That would be very sweet, I think. If she writes that she misses you terribly with all her heart."
"You are making fun of me. I don't have a girlfriend."
"Not one of those, either."
"Are you sure you don't have a cigarette? No?" Anna looked carefully at Michael, studying his shoes, his black jeans, his oxford shirt and blazer, his briefcase and his haircut. Her scrutiny made Michael faintly uncomfortable.
"Do you think my mother is pretty?"
Frau Bloch was a sharp-boned woman of about fifty-five, with hair dyed orange and glossy lipstick and nail polish to match. She wore brown and blue dresses and heavy shoes and Michael knew Frau Bloch slept very late, went out around four in the afternoon and returned near midnight. She always looked to Michael as if she'd not slept in days.
"Frau Bloch is a pretty woman, yes."
"I have something, then. Wait here." Anna jumped to her feet and ran up the steps into the building. She was ungainly, like a long-legged shore bird running along the beach. Anna was gone for a few minutes and just as Michael began to think the girl had become distracted by some other amusement, she appeared again and tripped down the steps to where he sat. She held something out to him.
It was a long wooden box, thin and shallow with a glass top, the wood painted faint blue. A curio case, Michael thought. Inside were six small birds, the size of finches, all fixed to the back of the case, facing to the right, their feet closed around a willow branch that wound like a serpent along the bottom of the case. They were dry and dead, gray birds with yellow points on their wings and tails, each with red glass eyes fixed on the back of the next bird's head. They were ghastly and Michael tried to hand the curio case back to Anna.
"No," she said. "You keep it and hang it on the wall of the apartment somewhere."
"What's it got to do with me?"
"My grandfather was an oboe player for the opera, back in the old days. The 60s, you know. They went on tour once, and he brought this back. It's been in the family since then, but my mother doesn't like it though she can't throw it out. Look at the back."
Michael turned the box over and saw a small brass plaque on the bottom right corner.
Central Park Taxidermy
1953 1st Avenue
New York City
"I see," Michael said. "So you want me to leave your grandfather's box of dead birds in the apartment?"
"He was in the opera, you know, ja?"
"My mother thinks you are handsome."
"Do you want to come to our apartment for dinner sometime before you go back to America?"
"Does Frau Bloch know you're asking me this?"
"Do you have anything better to do?"
"No, I don't. I guess I don't."
"Then come tomorrow night. I'll tell my mother you have her birds." Anna jumped to her feet and ran down the block away from Michael, waving and yelling at one of her friends across the street. Anna crossed the avenue, dodging between cars. Her friend, who also wore black and had hair dyed silver with colored tips, gave her a cigarette. The girls linked arms and Michael watched them walk away until they disappeared around the corner of the building, two small shadows fading into the larger gray of the evening.