"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.

reading pornography again



There are paragraphs of this novel that I enjoy, separated by pages of fairly irritating self indulgence that remind me of all the flaws of Saul Bellow's writing. Hawkes becomes transfixed by his narrator, or perhaps (to be charitable), Hawkes' narrator becomes transfixed by himself. Yes, that's probably the case, and no doubt deliberate here, but it's not paying off.

What was it about the late 1960s and early 1970s that made so many male American novelists want to write about sex, as if writing about sex was some kind of valiant act, some kind of daring adventure? I suppose it may have been, obscenity laws having only recently relaxed, but just because one is now allowed to perform an act, gentlemen, performance of such an act doesn't necessarily become all that interesting.

The Blood Oranges is a book about narcissists and swingers, narrated by a man who seems to experience every moment as a sexual stimulation. P'raps this was groundbreaking in 1971 but it's not aged well, I don't think. The sex writing in Lawrence's Lady Chatterley (first published in its entirety in America in 1960) is also clumsy in places, too earnest perhaps and unsure of itself, but it is on the whole superior to the sex writing in The Blood Oranges because Lawrence does not have Hawkes' manner of "look at me, writing about sex" and because Lawrence's book is multifaceted and rich and human, which Hawkes' book is not.

What Hawkes has going for him is his imagination. The world of the novel is a fantasy world that looks just like our world, but it is a Lewis Carroll sort of place where each object is startling and new and alive; everything is possible, at least as far as the narrative is concerned. No thing is invoked without being surrounded by a sense of awe and portent. A haystack is a magical haystack, just by existing in this unreal or hyper-real world, even if nothing happens with the haystack. This working of Hawkes' imagination within the narrative is interesting and worth seeing. The same sort of unreality permeated the only other Hawkes novel I've read, Death, Sleep & the Traveler.

tomorrow is another day for waltzing

Last night we watched the second half of "Gone With the Wind." We watched the first half on Monday night, up to the intermission (you know: "As God is my witness, I will never be hungry again!"). I'd never seen the movie nor read the book (for years and years in my youth I conflated Margaret Mitchell with Margaret Mead, which would make an interesting book, maybe) and somehow we decided that now was the time, since Mighty Reader references dialogue from the film often enough around the house and I wished to deepen my cultural understanding, as one does.

It's both a better and a worse movie than I had expected, which I suppose is true of most famous works of art. I don't need to go into the film's take on slavery, the Civil War, or reconstruction, because none of that is particularly interesting and I think most people living today have not learned their American history by watching David O. Selznick movies. Or I hope to God they have not.

This was the first, as I recall, film to be shot entirely in color. So those shots of Atlanta burning, the sky violent black and red, and the street filled with the dying wounded, and those exteriors of Tara and environs must've been quite something for the first audiences, a real spectacle. And the party scenes and the moving-camera street scene as Scarlett forces her way through knots of carpetbaggers and freed slaves, everyone in vibrant, clashing costumes; those must've been a real visual treat, something we can't see with the eyes of the 1939 viewers whose eyes must've been popping from their heads at all the colors on screen. Every shot is crammed full of stuff, too. A movie bulging at the scenes. Whenever Scarlett is in mourning (which is often, even in a four-hour movie), she and her big black dresses are placed against backdrops rich in color; the last scenes in her new Atlanta house, with her going up and down that immense blood-red staircase, are simply amazing.

What else struck me most about the film are two things: First, that Scarlett and Rhett are selfish and immature and really never learn anything meaningful about each other as people. If this is a love story, it's the story of two people in love with their own ideas of romance, which is to say, in love with their own ideas about themselves. Possibly that's true of almost every love story. Secondly, the big dance scene where Rhett buys the privilege of dancing with the Widow Scarlett, is pretty good. Those immense hoop skirts, that dancing. I am a sucker for costume historical dance numbers.

Mighty Reader and I have signed up for waltz lessons, as it happens, and our first lesson is tonight, at a senior center. We may be the youngest people in attendance. That would be amusing on its own, but I assume most of the amusement will be caused by our lack of waltz talent. We've been talking about dance lessons for years. So we'll see. Maybe we'll be good at it. If we're not, then fiddle-dee-dee.

"Complex Chinese" a short story

That Monday evening, as William stood washing dishes in his miniscule kitchen, millions of pale blue soap bubbles rilled and skirred atop the sinkful of hot water, humming a song of cleanliness into the humid air. Every bubble reflected, refracted, received a hallucination of William’s distracted expression and they knew, did the pale blue bubbles, that William was thinking about the as-yet unwritten fourth act of the stage play he’d been composing. William’s hands broke through the skirring, rilling piles of bubbles, down into the water where the dirty dishes mumbled in various tongues, all incomprehensible to the soap bubbles. The very water from the taps seemed to have a foreign accent. The soap bubbles rilled and skirred and hummed a song that questioned the source of the water. The dish soap, mostly water itself, had been bottled in Wisconsin. William’s taps were not full of Wisconsin water.

William squeezed the blue sponge he held in his right hand, the soft rough mound hot and slick with Wisconsin soap. The complete fourth act of William’s play came to him at that moment, every word of it all at once, and he squeezed the blue sponge again. He felt a powerful new force in his chest, a concentrated pyramid of coals that gave off opal heat and the scent of apples glowing around his heart. The soap bubbles fell from his hand to the sink, glowing and giggling with surprise and pleasure, squirming between his fingers before leaping away in celebration.

That night William dreamed about the Chinese waitress, a hot blue dream of squeezing and slickness and the movement of foreign tongues. When he awoke, William discovered that he was covered with lipstick prints, the crimson shape of a woman’s open mouth stamped all over his pale skin. In the shower he scrubbed at the impressions, pushing hard against himself with a sponge, but he was unable to wash the hundreds of mouths away. He shut his eyes and he could feel them on his skin, gently sucking, warm. I’m imagining them, William told himself. They’re just a distracted hallucination and nobody else will see them. The lipstick prints went no higher on his body than his jaw line, and when he squirmed into a turtleneck shirt, only two and a half of the mouths on his throat were visible in the mirror. William saw that since his shower three new imprints had appeared on the back of his left hand, and two on the back of his right hand. He pushed his hands into his pockets.

William worked as a file clerk in an immense subterranean storage room beneath a towering office building. He supplied and received boxes of documents via a large and noisy dumbwaiter that rattled and skirred against the most remote wall of the file room; he communicated with his coworkers by handwritten notes sent through a pneumatic tube system. If a message came for William through the pneumatic tube, the mechanism convulsed and gave a noise of surprise and pleasure, a forceful “Ah!” to which sound William reacted by shivering as a cold vibration rilled up his spine. William would have gladly listened all day to the sound of messages arriving, but the pneumatic tubes were not pleasured and surprised more than a few times each week. The workday began at eight o’clock, and at noon William ascended the service stairs that led up to the alley behind the office building. He blinked against the pale blue light and walked five blocks to the Chinese restaurant where he sat in a booth and wrote his dramatic works.

It was a good booth, with a window and bright sunlight and a large table on which William could open out his work alongside the dishes and silverware. William wrote his plays longhand, into a particular brand of spiral-bound notebooks manufactured in Denmark. The crisp white pages reminded him of bed sheets. The stiff metal spiral that punctured and twisted the pages together reminded William that he’d lived alone for a long time. For two and a half years William had worked in the file room, had written in that booth at the Chinese restaurant during his lunch hour. All through those two and a half years the same waitress had brought him his hot tea, his egg drop soup and his stir-fried pork. The waitress was short and narrow through the shoulders, with poorly-cut hair lopped at her collarbone, a few gray strands among the lifeless black threads. William had no idea what her name was. Her English was not good; William’s Mandarin was nonexistent. He often thought about her hands as he fell asleep, her trimmed nails and sallow skin, the wrinkles of her small palms.

The waitress came to his booth a few minutes after William seated himself. He’d laid his notebook on the table to the right of the place setting. The steel soup spoon, bamboo chopsticks in a bright red paper sleeve, the steel fork, all swaddled in a white paper napkin, reminded William of nothing but his hunger. He pushed the laminated menu with its water spots and adhesions of dried rice to the edge of the table and smiled at the waitress. She put her hand over her mouth and choked on soft trebles of laughter.

“You had exciting night, huh?”

William tugged at the collar of his shirt. The red lipstick mouths imprinted on his skin pulsed, all together at once, scalding wet over the length of his body. His clothing felt stiff, a carapace or a plaster cast, ready to burst open.

“They won’t wash off,” he said.

“They look like writing.”

“Like writing?”

“Like Chinese character, means ‘hunger.’ You need better soap.”

The waitress raised her pen to her mouth and pushed against her lower lip with the pointed blue cap of the instrument, leaving a tiny crevasse behind when she moved the pen away. The flesh on each side of this miniature valley swelled momentarily, glossy under the pale blue fluorescence of the dining room lamps.

“You want stir-fry pork again?”

“Yes.”

William was aware that the waitress scrutinized his throat, and then her gaze shifted to the backs of his hands. He remained still, suppressing the impulse to hide his hands beneath the table, and then he felt her eyes upon his arms, his chest, his lap, as if the waitress was computing how many crimson mouths lay hidden from sight, and where precisely they were. William remembered the fourth act of the play he was composing and in surprise and pleasure he sat up straighter and said “Ah!” as a cold vibration rilled up his spine.

The waitress retreated to the kitchen. William heard her voice, treble and commanding, as she gave his lunch order to the cook. William had never seen the cook. He had never seen anyone but the waitress in the way of staff at the restaurant, but he’d often heard a man’s basso rumbling in Mandarin behind the beaded curtain that protected the kitchen from William’s curiosity. And it was to the sounds of this rumbling basso that William began hurriedly scratching away at his spiral-bound notebook, writing down the fourth act of his new play. William’s hope was that this would be the one to finally launch his career.

Later that same afternoon, William locked himself into the employee washroom at the foot of the staircase that led down to the subterranean file room. He stripped off his clothes, careful to fold and stack them in the dust atop the paper towel dispenser. Standing naked and without socks in his untied shoes, William scrubbed himself with his employer’s harsh pink antibacterial hand soap. The soap, which was manufactured in Indiana, did not lather, bubble, rill, skirr or sing. It expressed only a slimy grumble as it ate away the lipstick impressions and irritated William’s skin even where he was most particularly gentle with himself. After half an hour or so he’d removed all but one of the crimson mouth prints. The washroom was especially cold in the summits of hot weather and William’s skin clung to him like wet fur, uncomfortable, ungainly, intolerable. William worried about the security of the washroom door. As he dried himself on coils of rough brown paper towel and wriggled into his clothing he heard the rattle of the dumbwaiter, the pneumatic tubes convulsing in surprise. Two and a half inches to the left of his navel, the lipstick stain he could not remove clung moist to William’s skin. He felt the dark lips beneath his shirt, hungry with a life separate from his. He tried to concentrate on his work.

In the evening when he returned to his small apartment, William was tortured by the unwritten final act of his play. Two hours of pushing against the audience, of grinding into perceptions and filling eyes and ears with the rilling and skirring of high and low artifice and then, and then, a rhythmic building and pressing toward toward toward what? William didn’t know. He threw his imagination forward into the dark furrow of the unknown aesthetic and encountered nothing, desiring to leave the hypothetical audience open-mouthed, drained, filled with his vision. How? Nothing was coming and William sat at his small desk over the open pages of his particular spiral-bound notebook manufactured in Denmark and nothing was coming. He felt dry, his fingers limp around his fountain pen. In frustration William left his apartment and wandered aimlessly through his neighborhood, zigzagging northeast and then westerly, listening to the heat of the evening, his scalp damp with sweat.

Light and movement caught his eye and he looked up into the attic windows of a large craftsman house on his left, an old home that enterprising landlords had filled with walls and doors, dividing it into many irregular studio apartments. William looked up into the windows of one of these apartments where a young woman languidly worked a wide brush across an enormous dark canvas. The woman had rolled her hair into a vinuous flaming mass atop her head and William saw the sheen of sweat on her bare skin as she worked naked, or at least naked to the waist. She turned and her shoulders, arms and breasts shone beneath the brilliant blue-white lights she’d mounted above the easel and William watched the fluid chiaroscuro of muscles and bones in her back.

The woman looked down through the open window and William knew she could see him there, standing on the sidewalk looking up into her apartment. A vibration began at the base of William’s spine and then the woman turned away, her brush shivering into the canvas, the paint singing a song of blurring and opacity. The brush protested in confusion as the canvas stretched in the heat. William hurried back to his apartment where it was too hot to do anything and he lay on his secondhand couch dressed in nothing but a pair of boxers, the lamps off and the casement windows propped open in the hope of a cooling breeze. It was too hot to eat or drink so William slumped in the humid blue evening as the traffic grumbled along the street, an unpleasant scrumble of fumes and heat that traveled in waves to roll, unwanted, into the condensed darkness of William’s apartment, lapping over William’s damp skin as he was slowly ground down into an unpleasant and restless sleep. He wandered past the automobile exhaust and the heat, into a dream where the Chinese waitress sat in an office high above William’s file room in the towering building where he worked. She wore a tailored black suit with a short skirt, heels and an apricot-colored silk blouse. She called out to William as he passed her door on the way to the dumbwaiter, whose rectangular mouth slacked open, waiting to lower him into his own domain. William turned back from the dumbwaiter’s jaws and walked into the office. The waitress rose from her leather chair, circled around the pale blue steel desk and took William by the hands. She was excited, her eyes bright, a smile of surprise and pleasure on her face. Her fingers skirred and rilled and trembled against William’s.

William smiled, aware that he was expected to share the happiness of the moment even though he didn’t know its source. He recalled that the waitress often seemed tired and melancholy, her greetings to customers a little forced. Sometimes she sang in Mandarin, quiet songs of misery that spun wobbling and limping into the dim air of the restaurant as she rolled soup spoons, chopsticks and forks in white paper napkins or wiped down the laminated menus with bleach water and a threadbare towel. When he thought about her past, William sometimes imagined that the waitress had come to America to escape persecution, and that in China she had been a research scientist or a physician, that identity and all her credentials abandoned during desperate flight to asylum across thousands of miles of ocean, Shanghai to Seattle, where she was lucky to have a job carrying tin pots of hot tea and bowls of soup.

She drew him close. Her body was rigid, aflame and vibrating.

“I leaving soon,” she said.

“Leaving?”

“I appointed professor of drama back home. I quit this job. Permanent faculty with tenure. No more stir-fry pork.”

“When are you going?”

“Tomorrow I fly back to Beijing.”

“Tomorrow? But I haven’t finished my play.”

She took William into her arms and the office building dissolved the way dream locations always do. They were in a room somewhere in Shanghai, naked on a bed. The high crescent moon shone through white curtains billowing at an open window. William lay with his head between her apple-scented breasts, her legs firmly around him, her vibrating fingers pressing his shoulders. When she moved, he felt her thousand soft mouths, slick with lipstick, sucking gently at his skin, leaving their mark.

She whispered something in beautiful Mandarin, but he was already awake and could no longer hear her voice. On the dark street outside William’s apartment, a delivery truck stopped abruptly, the pneumatic brakes convulsing in surprise and pleasure.

at the andrew wyeth exhibit


To judge by the pieces in this exhibit, Wyeth's world was cold, wet, dark, dirty, and trapped in a perpetual early winter. Everything was carved from stone or wood, even the animals. Some of it was breathtaking and empty. I looked at this one (click the image to enlarge it) and I saw a ship with a mast at first, only a moment later recognizing the kitchen and stove.