"Berlin" a short story

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?"

"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."

"Boyfriend?"

"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?"

"Sure. Okay."

"My mother thinks you are handsome."

"What?"

"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.

8 comments:

  1. i've been thinking about this story... it has some personal resonance: i was intent on a career in classical music when things went awry in my twenties... Michael's predicament, limited employment, is a common one among musicians. The conflict between new and old cultures is posited naturally, and done well... icky teenagers are always with us and the unknown future looms threateningly for both young and not so young... sort of Chekhovian situationally... ambiance over plot? i guess anyway...

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    1. Someone challenged a couple of writers to create stories about finding six dead birds, and this is what I came up with. It's one of the first things I wrote after I started seriously studying Chekhov's stories, yeah. If I was going to write this story today, I'd strengthen Michael's desire to go inside and eat, to add a dash of impatience to the narrative. I might make Anna's motion of giving the box to Michael more physical, more aggressive and intrusive. Little touches here and there to sharpen focus. Yes, I'd probably do all that.

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    2. i might have picked up on the dead birds but i didn't. I find lately, or maybe always, that i don't follow multi-stranded plots too well... reading Gorky and thinking about his work, i keep recalling fibers of storyline that i should have been curious about... hmmm... so it goes, i guess...

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    3. Well, Michael's interaction with Anna turned out to be more interesting than the dead birds for me when I was writing it, so I suppose it's natural that their interaction is more important than the dead birds to the reader. The birds get pushed pretty far aside, and it's not like they carry any symbolism; they're just a McGuffin.

      I read your post on Gorky; I'll have to look for that book. Have you read the story "Twenty-six and One"? And we sing away, with some one else’s words, our dull sorrow, the heavy grief of living men...

      Chekhov encouraged Gorky's talent when he was starting out. After the Russian revolution, Gorky became a propagandist for the Soviet government and his stories got constrained, earnest, less honest and human. A pity.

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    4. yes, i remember reading that about his later work... one of the reasons i picked this book is i that i really liked "My Childhood" and wanted to see what his shorts were like... i'm glad i read it: he, at that period anyway, had quite complicated visions... i'm sort of planning, as much as i do that kind of thing, on posting on a collection of Chekhov's stories sometime soon; i found it at the library book sale... i'm interested in comparing the two...
      Ursula leGuin has passed... i know she was old, but it's still a shock... i studied her while attending portland state u. and subsequently read a lot of her work: a gentle, wise soul; i will miss knowing that she's around in this viciinity....

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    5. I look forward to your post about Chekhov, if you write it. I believe I've read everything by Chekhov that's been translated into English; I'm a huge fan. I'm currently revising a novel based loosely on the life and works of Chekhov.

      I'm sad about LeGuin. She was a tremendous writer and seemed to be a thoroughly decent person. I admired her. She had good innings, though.

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  2. I liked this story, Scott, I think because it captures, among other things, a set of feelings I've always had a hard time putting into words: the vivid strangeness of temporarily passing through another land, and the unpredictability of the connections we make there. Plus you capture the German demeanor and character accurately, but in ways I have a hard time articulating.

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    1. Thanks! One thing I both intensely like and hate about travel is the feeling of being a foreigner, of random unexpected cultural collisions. And when we get back to Seattle I always find that I've taken on a few of the affectations of whatever culture I've been visiting and have to adjust back to the American way of doing things.

      My fictional "Germans" are actually based on Austrians! They are an assertive folk, at least the ones I've met.

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