[untitled]

Merlin’s Keep

here is an old foundry a few minutes from here. He grasps her wrist, battle-scarred like his, and walks out of the back door and across the street. They stumble down the grassy hill behind his house, their bodies vertical, the earth inclined, and they reach Pleasant Street on the other side.

This way, he says, his voice obscuring the empty pop of the tub in his pocket, and he lets her hand fall to her side.

Outside the foundry there is a sign, staked into the ground and splintering. A large horizontal gash splits the wood in two and nearly runs for the full length of the sign. On it, still legible, are the words: Merlin’s Keep.

When Yuri was a child, Merlin’s Keep had still been in business. It billowed mile-wide, inky clouds across the sky as it forged beams and girders, car panels and corrugated roofs. The Tobin Bridge had been built here; the train cars for the new Yellow Line subway. He remembered how it towered over the Square downtown.

Now the sign stands abandoned, much like the foundry inside, pointing jaggedly at a ninety degree angle to the ground. Yuri recalls online news clips of a stars and stripes flag being planted firmly in the red Martian soil.

They go inside. A cube-shaped space, steel beams still delineate the walls at intervals, rising around them for two stories. The roof is gone. In the far corner, the one nearest the river, there is a coal-covered, metal contraption.

One of the forges, Yuri whispers to Sandra. She smiles weakly and her mouth creases like a dolphin.

Reeds as brown as the sign outside perforate the stone floor, peering up through the cracks at the two foreign bodies in their midst.

Yuri creases into a cross-legged position on the floor, pushing aside the twigs in his way, and Sandra sits opposite with her knees bent toward her chest. He reaches into his pocket and takes out the small plastic tub, and the pills tip and tap against the side. The label is worn off, though even if it had remained legible, it would have been incorrect.

Are you sure? he asks. Sandra nods. In another time, before the Pulse, she would have been beautiful. White, lank hair now hangs around her face; and though her lips are full and alive, the creases under her eyes are as blue as her irises and exponentially wider. Yuri hadn’t looked in a mirror since then either. He couldn’t blame Sandra for neglecting her appearance.

Like Yuri, Sandra is an archivist at the Bradbury Library. It is a strange word, Yuri thinks.

Ok, he says, and twists the cap off of the bottle in his hand.

They are not archivists, he thinks; they are reconstructive surgeons. Pulling from memory the lost words, sentences, serifs. Rebuilding page for page and line by line the books which ought to fill the brownstone building’s shelves.

In his palm he holds out two pills: one white, the other half blue, half red. Sandra takes them nervously, opens her full mouth, and then gulps them dryly.

It might take some time, Yuri says. Her eyes close… Slowly, like honey smearing from a spoon. She slips into unconsciousness, and he lays her down on the cracks and between the reeds.

chug, train-like and unmistakeably mechanical, echoes against the ghost walls of Merlin’s Keep. It crescendos, then stops. Yuri hears footfall and stays perfectly still, leaning as he has for the last fifteen minutes against the dusty forge in the corner of the old foundry.

Outside, rushes and brushes. Breath crisps against the afternoon, and a figure appears like a mirror image at the opposite end of the Keep.

Hey. Yuri, he says. The man is bearded and thin, wears a plaid sweatshirt with holes near the wrists. This her? he asks.

Yes. She needed to get out. She’d transcribed her last, and the Library was under pressure to get rid of her, Yuri replied.

Your goddamn eidetic memory is all that’s keeping you in your job, the man says.

Yuri leans down and the remaining pills make distant popcorn noises inside his jacket pocket. He reaches under Sandra’s arms and lifts her from the ground to the sound of crackling reeds. Since the Pulse, there has been no electricity, and even the slightest noise bounces manically against the eardrum. He drags her over to the man, and takes one last glance at her before placing her carefully into his outstretched arms.

Pretty, the man says.

The man’s voice is dull. Yuri nods and tells him: Be sure to wake her as soon as you get there.  We have three more coming next week, all Fed escapees.

I’ll take as many as I can handle, the man says, and jerks his head in the direction of the water running quietly behind the husk of a building. Outside, in the river, Yuri knows that the boat is tied to the splintered, wooden sign, as usual. In it, others like Sandra lie unconscious.

As the chug resumes, Yuri leaves Merlin’s Keep and canters up Pleasant Street as far as the yellowing grass. He crouches at the apex of the incline and looks through the leaves of the trees to the Foundry.

A tiny puff of smoke emerges from behind the steel outline further down the street. Far below and headed for the Atlantic, a small tug boat struggles against the rough wash of the Charles River, and Yuri wonders if it will ever be his turn to sail away. [ends]

Advertisements
Standard
[untitled]

The Charles D. Thornton Tapes, on “The Second Murderer”

I read the classics, of course (though, of course, at the time they were not classics). Hammett, Chandler, some Gardner and Campbell, too. But it was Hadley whose prose grabbed me. J. Ford Hadley could wrap sentences so tightly around your fingers that you swore the bones would break once you reached the period at the end. Crisp, tight paragraphs. Hard-edged and whimsical. Hadley died in the Fifties; I suppose I have spent the intervening years trying (and, I admit, failing) to imitate his style.

Where his contemporaries would warp a story around the central murder, theft, or act of heinous violence, Hadley would not. There was rarely a semblance of plot because, after all, there is no single narrative to life. You cannot have predestination in detective fiction. Surprises come often, twists that interrupt – even end – your characters’ existence; without surprises, detective fiction is nothing but urban life with added similes.

When I started out, I wanted to be ‘literary’, whatever that meant. I set out to be spare, brittle, and irritatingly clever. But soon Hadley and co. had pulled me in, and I instead applied myself to becoming one of them. My first story was published in 19__, and it was very much a Hadley pastiche, from the opening lines to my nameless protagonist. (This detective cipher would, one day, swirl into the recognisable form of Delaney). Published in _____ _______ magazine, it was titled “The Second Murderer”, after a similarly nameless character in Macbeth.

(The Second Murderer utters one of the most prescient things in all of Shakespeare:

I am one, my liege,
Whom the vile blows and buffets of the world
Have so incensed that I am reckless what
I do to spite the world.

Unwittingly, my dear countryman seemed to have predicted the course of the Twentieth Century.)

I am blustering like an old fool. Forgive me, Liebchen. Tangents are like catnip to the old. What I mean to say is that fiction always seemed more able to order life, to categorise it; and that detective fiction, on top of this, provided an insight into what lay behind the crumbling facade of our time. That, and it was jolly good fun.

“The Second Murderer”
by Charles D. Thornton

Most cases begin with a bang. This one was no exception.

It had been the usual damp and lonely Wednesday afternoon before the dame in the red dress drifted into my office. She was tall and slender, the curves of a bowling pin and then some. Drawing on a cigarette, rich smoke rose like a curlicue into the room. Gauloises, maybe?

But the thought was amputated. From out of her clutch a package wrapped in parcel paper and twine dropped onto the rosewood table top. I almost spilled my coffee onto the taupe carpet tiles. Instead, I pulled myself together and tugged the cuffs of my white shirt another half-inch towards my fingertips, tilted my head approximately 45 degrees to the left, and asked:

“Where’d you get a purse big enough to hold a gun?”

[continues…]

Standard
[untitled]

Won’t Somebody Please Think of the Children?

e had been birthed by a collection of pop-culture myths. Coca-Cola had been his mother’s midwife. Pale Dr. Warhol in his white fright wig had nodded sagely in the background. A second attending, in Lycra and hair gel, may well have been Superman. This was how he remembered it (or, more accurately, misremembered it). His birth, beneath the warmth of neon signage. Dragged by the fingernails into a room of bright color and repetition. How could he help where he was going, if this was where he had started out?

Today, however, he was in a state of zen unhappiness, a state that might in ordinary circumstances have led to a productive morning. At least a few thousand words of memoir were waiting to be written, mostly anecdotes from the ’80s, but today, the nagging depression couldn’t coax even the shittiest sentence out of him.

He switched on the TV. Daytime cable. In yellow Colorvision, William Shatner was investigating an alien threat of some kind. Spock raised his eyebrow and the phone rang.

“What’s up?”

“Nothing, man. Trying to come up with a chapter for the book people.”

“Mmhmm. Cool.”

Josh had nothing to say. Josh had never had anything to say. Every day, Josh called him and asked about the memoir.

“You come up with a title yet?”

“The publishers wanna call it Just the Kid,” he delivered in monotone. “But I think that’s a fuckin’ stupid name.”

“Mmhmm.”

Eventually the Enterprise floated across the screen on invisible wires, and Josh hung up with an ‘alright, yeah, bye’.

He added a few lines to the Word file that had been languishing on his hard drive, and then picked up the remote control.  Weekdays, 1 p.m., reruns of the show. There he was: curly-haired, big-eared, his weak chin never destined to grow into square-jawed manliness. From ages ten to fourteen, he had grown inside a television tube into a surly teenager. After four seasons, the network had pulled the plug on Just the Kids. There was no public outcry against the sitcom’s cancellation, no words of consolation for his character, little Rudy Salmon. Just a life cut short, transferred onto VCR, and banished to Best Buy bargain bins. Suddenly, Sam Freeman had become a ‘former child star’.

The pop culture echo onscreen delivered a punchline and then exited. His television family continued their dinner table conversation. The baby face looking back and forth between television mom and television dad, a pink, tennis-ball of a child, would grow into Josh Reitenscharfer. Sam didn’t know why he was still in touch with Josh. Out of a sense of misplaced fraternity, perhaps.

“Hey… Hey, Sammy!”

He started, looked behind him. His Spidey sense told him that a jovial killer brandishing a lens-flare knife was waiting to pounce. No one was there.

“No: over here, asshole.” On the screen, Baby-Josh’s round cheeks lip-synched to words spoken by the adult Josh. He was staring out of the TV and right at Sam. “The fuck are you doing, watching this shit? Are you high or something?”

He wasn’t high. Was barely drunk. The scene around Josh had gone out of focus as though the camera lens had been smeared with Vaseline. Like when Shatner saw a beautiful alien he wanted to fuck, Sam thought.

“I… No,” he said. “Josh?”

“This is not the time to be thinking about getting your end away with some green-ass alien chick,” Baby-Josh said. His face was grainy like only ’80s TV could be. Sam was afraid that if he blinked he might be sucked into some static non-existence. Eventually his eyelids gave in, and the television family came into focus and went about their business. The slow cuts warmed Sam’s insides, and he went back to his laptop.

andall Pryce, the soft-spoken Midwesterner who had played Just the Kids’ father John Salmon, had been a poor man’s Jimmy Stewart. During filming, Sam could squint beneath the studio lights and almost make out the real actors trying to escape from beneath the TV family facade: here was James Stewart, opposite him a glamorous but homely Lucille Ball; the mailman was a Bogart, but without cigarettes (it was, after all, the era of political correctness); and their neighbor was Elvis, with sideburns turned grey.

He and Josh had always worn primary colors; they were the crew of their own starship Enterprise.

“Mr. Freeman, this is Sandra Killington, from Gotham Publishing.” He had picked up the phone automatically. It wasn’t Josh.

“Hello, what, er…”

“How are you today?”

“Fine, I’m just working on the memoir.”

A laugh. “Don’t worry, we’re not checking up on you. We had some more ideas for the title.”

“Okay.”

“How about Sam & Salmon?” She paused. In the background, a Twilight Zone star scape swam on the flatscreen. “We can include Just the Kids in there, too. Maybe as a subtitle?” Sure, he said, whatever. Sandra-Killington-from-Gotham-Publishing had no more interest in Sam Freeman than Rod Serling did.

After he hung up, he asked: “Rod, what’s the twist at the end of this one?”

Rod’s pixellated features looked out at him and said: “Picture the interior of an apartment, daytime. Samuel Freeman, 36 years of age, a minor star now supernovaed into obscurity. Like all things burned into their component atoms, Freeman may be destined to languish… in the Twilight Zone.”

he Chantilly Place Diner was his Holy Grail. It seemed almost to glow. It was red and silver, a toy racing car. As Josh slid out of the booth and waved a nonchalant goodbye, Sam noticed that his mustard-yellow polo shirt was torn in the back. He let Josh go without saying anything.

Behind the counter, a server polishing coffee mugs with a dish cloth asked: “Can I get you more coffee, hun?” She floated over to his table, silent as a silver screen Dracula, coffee pot held menacingly at head-height. Sam shook his head, asked for a strawberry shake instead. Drinking alcohol had been prohibited on a family show such as Just the Kids, and as such, the Salmon family’s only vice had been the occasional trip to a soundstage diner where Rudy slurped a milkshake and his parents sipped coffee. Since they had reconnected, he and Josh had gravitated toward the Chantilly Place out of some sense of nostalgia, he supposed.

He pulled his computer out of his bag and set it on the Formica table top. The still-open Word file blinked a cursor at him.

In the delivery room, Superman’s forehead creased, the midwife lit up with a red, familiar glow, and a newborn Rudy Salmon clawed his way into existence. Next to the impassive Dr. Warhol, Sam Freeman looked on, confused. Was this Rudy’s birth, or his? He felt like William Shatner wearing a William Shatner mask on Halloween.

The milkshake slid onto his table and he began to type: I had been birthed by a collection of pop culture myths. Coca-Cola had been my mother’s midwife. Pale Dr. Warhol in his white fright wig had nodded sagely in the background… [ends]

Standard
[untitled]

Losing It

he height of the counter and its angle in relation to his swivel chair aggravates James Coverstone. He is not a tall man, but all things considered, he is far from short. And yet, behind the lobby desk, his eyeline sits barely two inches above the highest point of the counter. Occasionally he extends his spine and peers out into the large foyer, watches the self-consciously sentient crowds come and go in tandem with the train schedules.

A woman with a long floral print dress and a nose piercing has just exited the Joseph Beuys exhibit and is heading toward the sloped counter. Her hair dyed red and frayed at the ends, she passes him a black rectangle with earphones wrapped around it, smiles, tells him that the Ipod is, like her, divorced from its other half. She found it, she explains, on a seat opposite a Beuys self-portrait.

Coverstone thanks her, notes down the time and the location of the lost item, and then places it in a drawer alongside three cellphones, a pair of glasses, a hotel key card for room 119, a flash drive and an expired university ID card. The drawer has a Post-It note reading “Lost Propperty” stuck to its front. The supplemental letter is another source of frustration for Coverstone.

*         *        *

is night is haunted by electronic ghosts. Feverish dreams persist on the subway ride to the museum the following day: the amputation of an Ipod, an Iphone, of eyeglasses, walking sticks and other prostheses, from faceless people. He should note this down for his next therapy session, he tells himself. Instead he scribbles in a Moleskine notebook the narrow outline of an Ipod Nano.

As the day passes, the drawer fills a little further. Coverstone records a pair of sunglasses that complement the other already in the drawer, and a woman with a small child hands him a thin, blue sweater that she found in the bathroom.

If it wasn’t bright pink I don’t think I’d have seen it. The man wearing a t-shirt with a strange swoosh of colour passes Coverstone a cellphone found in a video installation upstairs. Isn’t the Marley stuff amazing? Coverstone nods in response. Later, an unsheathed umbrella scuppers the “Lost Propperty” drawer, and he has to lean it between the corner of his desk and the wall. It is, he discovers, another Beuys orphan.

His shift ends at 8 p.m. As he rises and looks out into the lobby, he opens the drawer and extracts the black Ipod, before collecting his things from the staff room and leaving for the day.

*         *        *

he subway car jolts out of the station the next morning. The earphones are in his ears, but so far Coverstone has been too busy scrolling through the list of artists to actually listen to any of the mp3s. An item out of context, he thinks, might still reveal something of its owner.  He recognises most of the band names.

Postal Service
Pulp
Radiohead
Rainer Maria

Instead, he chooses a band named Sandsturm and presses play. The thrash of guitar accompanies the shunting tracks and the train arcs into a tunnel. Perhaps the monochrome gaze of Joseph Beuys caused the Ipod’s other half to abandon it in the exhibition space of a moderately successful museum.

Behind the slanted desk, Coverstone spends the day playing solitaire at his computer. The PC is pure artifice. It does not have internet access, and is there merely to suggest that Coverstone’s job is more important than it really is. Over the course of the day, several items – including a contact lens case, a baseball cap, and another pair of eyeglasses – are added to the drawer. A child’s shoe lands on the counter and slides onto the table before Coverstone can look up to examine its source.

As the rain falls outside that evening, he steps out and opens the orphaned Beuys umbrella over his head. Water patters onto the plastic canopy, and Coverstone imagines that he is someone else, that he is more important than, in actual fact, he is.

*         *        *

t is the end of the day. The man says: James, I’m sorry. Coverstone takes the envelope, lifts the unsealed flap, and pulls out the letter. It is not even signed. Let me know if you need anything. The man walks away from the lobby desk, and Coverstone slumps in his chair, his eyeline sinking beneath the angle of the counter. He reads no further than “We regret to inform you” before understanding what this means. He has been cast off, fired, laid off, retired, disposed of, he is the equivalent of an unwanted Polaroid or a worn-down shoe.

Coverstone smiles, then tosses the pink slip into the trash. He then disposes of the Post-It reading Lost Propperty, and then opens the drawer.

Minutes later, he walks into the Beuys exhibit. The space is empty, the lights dimmed. From his bag he withdraws the thin Ipod, its battery expired and its screen dark, and he places it on the cushioned seat opposite a screen-printed portrait of the artist. In one corner of the room, Coverstone leans the umbrella up against a pedestal that is supporting a sculpture of a typewriter.

In the women’s bathroom, he drapes the sweater over the paper towel dispenser and, after checking the list in his pocket and seeing that the university ID was found in one of the stalls, drops the card with a plink into a toilet bowl.

Within an hour, Coverstone has dispersed his collection with care, examining the list and placing each item in the appropriate location. The permanent collection houses three cellphones and both pairs of glasses, while he installs in the rest rooms both the contact lens case and the hotel key card. Finally, the last cellphone, the baseball cap, and the flash drive find their respective homes.

Back in the lobby, Coverstone retrieves the small blue and white tennis shoe from his bag. A single, child-size sneaker divorced from its companion. He places it on the counter and watches it slide onto his desk, then smiles, and heads for the exit. [ends]

Standard
[untitled]

Faber: The Secretary

In our regular feature, we take a photograph of Darby O’Shea‘s and prove that a picture is worth at least a thousand words.  Check out Ms. Jones’ photos here. This week’s post is part of a larger story, previous chapters of which you can read here and here. Faber is in Germany investigating the final years in the life of Charles D. Thornton, an American ex-pat detective author.

He moved slowly along the cobbled street. The scrap of paper in his satchel bore an address printed in the Poet‘s neat handwriting, an address that Faber had been hoping to uncover since his arrival in Germany.

The small apartment was situated in the so-called Karoviertel of Hamburg and occupied the third floor of a large square cement building on Falkenstrasse. It was the last known residence of Helga Schnatterer, Thornton’s private secretary for nearly twenty years and the only living person to have spent any significant time with the ex-pat writer during his final years in Berlin.

A street in the Karolinenviertel of St. Pauli, Hamburg

Brown paint accented the windows of every building on the street, the identical and finely adorned houses speaking to the difference between Berlin and Hamburg. The latter, a uniformly prosperous north German city, seemed to Faber foreign by comparison to the patchwork aesthetic of the country’s capital. He almost missed the haphazard arrangement of Kreuzberg and Neukoelln, the miniature diasporas within each community. Eventually he came to a door, indistinguishable from all the others on the street except for a tall 23 painted above it.

A thin, wispy cloud of rain hung in the air, the nucleus of each drop surrounded by a ball of humidity. North German summer. He scanned the buzzers on the right hand side of the door looking for the name Schnatterer, but it wasn’t there. From top to bottom, the four buttons read:

W. Schneider
Theodor Hasse

Zimt/Kleeman
Watson

His eyes stumbled over the English name several times. He backed out of the doorway, looked up at the windows enclosed by brown parentheses. Finally, he stepped back in and pressed the fourth buzzer.

A moment passed in silence, then static hiss accompanied a distinctly male voice: “Ja, hallo?”

“Guten morgen,” Faber choked. “Ich suche… Frau Helga Schnatterer.”

He considered formulating a second sentence, but was interrupted. “Are you American?”

“Oh. No, I’m English. I…”

“Helga is my wife. What do you want?” The accent was mid-Atlantic, stern. For a moment, Faber imagined Thornton, decrepit with age, standing at the buzzer three stories above.

“I have some questions for Mrs. Schnatterer. About Charles Thornton.”

A sigh, then: “Come in.” The door hummed against its hinges, and Faber stepped truculently through.

*        *        *

The narrow hallway had given way to an apartment that, if not palatial, was at the very least prosperous. The Poet had told him that Thornton’s inheritance had been significant, and Faber wondered whether, unlike the Poet, Helga had been lucky enough to make it into Thornton’s will.

“Good morning, Mr….?”

“Faber.” The man was eying Faber cautiously.

“Mr. Faber,” he said. “I’m Lionel Watson, Helga’s husband.” He held out his hand and Faber completed the handshake. Watson was not as old as he had expected, though he did have powder-white hair that was strangely offset by deep, suntanned grooves in his forehead.

“Is Mrs. Schnatterer here?”

“She’s Mrs. Watson these days,” the man said. “And no, she’s at work.” Watson gestured Faber into the apartment, and offered him a seat on a sofa opposite the entrance. Watson reclined in a leather chair across from Faber and crossed one leg over the other. “So what do you want to know about the venerable Charles DeForest Thornton?”

Faber explained why he was in Germany, why he had felt that Helga might be the only connection left to Thornton and the only person who could shed some light on why the author had moved to Berlin in the late ’50s.  When he finished, Watson chuckled and said: “Good Lord. You have an academic interested in Thornton?”

The sarcasm rang loud. “You think academics are interested in genre literature? I thought I was way off the beaten track with this little… search of mine.” He laughed awkwardly.

“Maybe in England. Here it’s de rigeur to write a master’s thesis on Charles’ books.” He leaned forward in the chair and a smile forced deeper grooves into his face. “I suppose I should explain. I’m a lecturer at the university here. Hamburg is an Americophile city, and they’re badly in need of washed up academics like myself to teach American Studies.”

Faber considered asking how he and Helga had met. The pairing did seem unlikely. “In any case, Helga might be an eyewitness, but I don’t think she will be of much help,” Watson continued. He rose and walked through into the kitchen, Faber trailing behind and trying to instill some confidence into his voice.

“She’s the best person to go to,” he said. Watson poured two glasses of water, placed one on the granite counter top and handed the other to his visitor.

“Maybe. But we’ve been married for nearly eight years and she’s mentioned Thornton a half dozen times at most.” Why did you marry her? Faber thought. The personal unknowns would, he supposed, have to remain unknown for now.

They parted having made dinner plans, Watson promising nothing more than an informal meeting with his wife under the pretense of her charming a visiting colleague over sushi and sake. Faber doubted that Helga would be any more forthcoming than she had been with her husband of eight years.

Exiting Falkenstrasse and walking in the direction of the Sternschanze train station, the air around him was lighter, the humidity having abated a little. Rain still soaked lifelessly into the pavements, while drops speckled each bicycle that Faber passed, their wheels or frames chained to lampposts or street signs. Pulling out an mp3 player, he unwound the earphones – picturing simultaneously the reels of magnetic tape that lay in his apartment back in Berlin – and plugged the buds into his ears. Scrolling through the Thornton recordings, he found the tape that he had last been listening to, labelled Apr. 94 and pressed play.

My dear Hans,

Firstly, and in response to your eruditely-composed English question: No. [A cough sputtered into the Dictaphone] I no longer think of any individual location, its inhabitants, topography, and cultural artifice, as home. Patriotism is at home neither in my bones nor in my heart. Neither, I believe (not that you asked), is it in Mr. Delaney’s character.  In his latest excuse for an adventure, the intrigue comes in large part due to his surrounding himself with foreignness. The book will be set here in Berlin. (You and your promotional people will, I’m sure, be glad to hear this. The cultural translation will be so much easier).

Cars skated past Faber and the recording gave way to static. The gentle rush of rainfall against tyres complemented the hiss of dead air around Charles Thornton.

*        *        *

Watson and Helga stood as Faber reached their table. Helga was in her late fifties, but like so many German women she possessed the air of someone much younger. Her hair was carefully bobbed and dyed a deep red, her skin pale and flat. In many ways a negative image of Lionel Watson, though Faber.

She shook his hand, smiling and squinting her eyes as she did so. Her clothes were overly elegant, making Faber self-conscious in his plain black t-shirt.

As they sat, she said: “You are here to research with Lionel, yes?” The two men exchanged glances and Faber nodded.

“Yes, I’m a postgrad at Warwickshire University. I’m studying American literature, and Lionel -” he stumbled over the name. “Lionel offered his help.”

“What do you research?” Helga said.

“Well, my thesis work is on detective literature.” She stiffened a little, leaned back as a waitress placed a glass of sake in front of her. Faber had come this far. He took his chance and, while she was distracted, said: “on Charles Thornton, specifically.”

A pause fell across the room like a smothering pillow.

“Mr. Faber,” she said as the server withdrew. “Charles died eleven years ago, and though he did teach me some wonderful turns of phrase, and saw fit to pay me rather too much for my services as a secretary, I really have nothing more that I can give to the academic community or to his supposed estate in America that I haven’t already given.”

Faber nodded and tried to appear contrite. “I have no letters or manuscripts, no amazing revelations about his life in Berlin. I’m sorry.”

“But he was working on another novel, wasn’t he?”

“Look, Mr. Faber,” Watson interrupted. “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.”

Helga raised a hand. “Yes, he was. But I don’t have a copy of it. He only had one copy, and that had been sent to Lichttrager, his publisher, several weeks before he died.”

Faber knew that the publisher would never give him access to the manuscript. Helga was his only chance. “The last Ray Delaney novel, Mrs. Watson. Even a glimpse at it would help me more than you could imagine. Maybe a phone call from Helga Schnatterer would help to loosen Lichttrager’s filing cabinets?”

“A brand new turn of phrase.” Helga looked rueful. She asked: “How long are you going to be in Hamburg?”

[continues]

Standard
[untitled]

Standing By The Wall

I first met Albert ten years ago. His shop was on Oranienstrasse, a street which at that time was little more than a Turkish residential neighbourhood with the occasional bar full of artistically attired waifs. Bars that are now hip hangouts for the urbane urbanites of Berlin. You can’t argue with gentrification. Even in 1998, Oranienstrasse – the main vein running through the part of town that I live in – was a place that any guide book cautioned against.

Antique shop (Kenmare, Co. Kerry, Ireland)

Albert’s shop was a grotto of antiques. Tiny porcelain statues lived alongside Weimar era movie posters, small mahogany desks with tarnished brass handles supported equally tarnished silver photo frames and sets of crockery. The detritus of pre-war Germany interspersed with East German artifacts. The ruins and runes of failed civilisations.

He was out of sight when I stepped into the shop. I angled my body around the furniture that filled the small space, and made my way to a shelf full of books. I sensed the movement of objects around Albert before I saw his elderly figure. His tall, bearded frame and balding pate then appeared from a back room, his wild eyes making me sure that I had interrupted some form of hibernation.

He smiled and greeted me. “You have some remarkable books,” I replied in German.

At the front of the shop he crumpled into a desk chair after lifting from the seat a handful of prints, some encased in plastic sleeves, others fraying, happy and free, at the edges. He could have been anywhere between sixty and eighty-five.

“Thank you. You are a bibliophile?” he asked.

“I’m a writer.” I nodded and crumpled my face apologetically. “I live in the area. On Degarmostrasse.”

Albert nodded again. As I replaced a book on the shelves, he pulled one of the prints from the middle of the pile and unfolded it, pushed it across the table toward me. I approached and spun it around to face me. It was a map of the city, labelled only with subway stations, public buildings and large thoroughfares. Drawn down the centre a thick, jagged line.

“The Wall?” I asked. The German word Mauer could mean any kind of wall; in reality it signified only one.

Albert nodded. “Degarmostrasse isn’t far from where the Wall used to be.” He pointed at the map, and I saw the zig-zag line running roughly perpendicular to my street. I thought of asking him a price. But as a proprietary hand pulled the creased and disintegrating map back across the table, I thought better of my impulse.

...

This summer, humid like only Berlin can be, I have sat at wooden benches and on metal chairs along the sidewalks of Oranienstrasse sipping beer with art school dropouts, kids who figure that life in Berlin might offer both personal kudos and cheap workspace. They’re right, of course. Though I now occupy two floors in my apartment building on Degarmostrasse, the rent has hardly more than doubled in the last eight years.

Albert’s shop is now a slinky cocktail bar named Molotov. Named for a soviet politician. Wherever he might be, I hoped that he enjoyed the irony. On a subsequent visit to his shop, he told me that he had lived until 1990 in East Berlin, worked in a light rail factory soldering metal plates onto the skeletons of train cars.

He pointed to the map, to a small conurbation of squares that signified East German housing. “My previous life.”

I asked tentatively when he had moved from the east to the west. He looked away, then swiveled so that his eyes scanned the high walls and the ceiling of his shop. White tiles hung just above an East German flag, ears of corn, hammer and sickle at the centre of the red stripe; black and white photographs told stories I could not begin to understand; and the occasional Soviet poster, its red propaganda not yet appropriated by hip Berlin artistes, glared down at us.

“It was,” said Albert, “the only thing I could do. If you open the door of the cage, you can’t expect people not to fly away.”

“Oranienstrasse isn’t so far away from the Wall,” I pointed out.

He smiled. Several teeth were missing. “No. Perhaps I haven’t escaped, exactly.”

That afternoon I bought a leather-bound novella, on Albert’s assurance that it was a first edition. Its front pages were missing and its binding breaking apart. As I was leaving, I saw him carefully shuffling miniature figurines and glass bowls around at the back of the shop. I should have invited him somewhere, I thought. Taken him for a beer. I never did.

...

Albert, like his collection of antiques and trinkets, had an ungainly elegance. It was as though so much had been crammed into his seventy or eighty years that he had lost his balance a little, that he was destined only to stumble inexpertly around his ancient artifacts. Though I bought a few more books and even peeled an unappealing poster from the wall one winter evening (stuffing a handful of Marks into the old man’s cash register as payment), it was Albert’s history that intrigued me.

Recounting stories of his time in the east, he would point at some arbitrary area – unmarked on his map but for subway stops labelled in Gothic script – and relate a tale set in that locale.

“Here.” He jabbed a finger at a point just beyond the Wall. “I stood there, thirty minutes, staring at the guard up in his tower.”

When I asked him why, he just shrugged noncommittally.

“And here,” he said, pointing at an area just over the border into West Berlin. “Geisterbahnhöfe. Ghost stations. Whenever we rode a new subway car across to Alexanderplatz, we passed through the West. But of course the train was not allowed to stop. Faces would pass by the windows, stare in at us as though we were a zoo attraction.”

As Spring made the Berlin clouds greyer, I realised that my apartment, its walls and surfaces, were becoming crowded out by prints, books (some genuinely first editions) and even the occasional personal item that had belonged to an acquaintance of Albert’s, some unfortunate soul whose political inclinations had come to the attention of the Stasi.

Eventually I came to the unwilling realization that my office was becoming its very own Geisterbahnhof.

...

Oranienstrasse has, since that time, become a very unlikely place, gentrified yet peppered with tourists. Local and nonetheless fashionable. American voices float across the sidewalk whenever I wander past the Molotov cocktail bar and think of the narrow and tall, elegant but cluttered little antiques shop. I refuse, whenever I hear an English question, to respond; better yet, I turn to a neighbor and make a fluently snide comment in German. And at night I work on a new novel, a book featuring an unlikely memorial to Albert in the form of a German police detective with a penchant for stealing antiques.

But a little over a week ago, I was roused from my memorializing by the ring of a door bell. A suit, loosely attached to a young man, handed me a letter and a thin manila folder, told me he was working on behalf of Mr. Adalbert Schafer’s family. He handed me the envelope and the folder, and expressed his condolences.

With idle thanks I took the artifacts and, heading back upstairs, pulled the letter out of the envelope. There is nothing quite like it: the feeling you get when informed, on company letterhead, that someone you know has died.

I knew as I tugged the sheet of paper from the folder what it would be. But where once the map had been unmarked, now there had appeared two asterisks. The first signified the location of Albert’s shop on Oranienstrasse, the second denoting the spot in East Berlin where he had stood and gazed up at the guard in his watchtower. Along the top of the map in blue ink, Albert had written the words:

Dear Charles: We are both, still, standing by the Wall. Albert.

Standard
[untitled]

The Green Door

In our new weekly feature, [untitled] is inspired by one of Darby O’Shea‘s photographs. Cross-posted, as always, at I Have A Lot of Fond Memories of That Dog.

The tectonic rumble of tracks against wheels complemented the music beating against Alice’s eardrums. The sky was reddening a little, ready to break out into sunshine once the typical Berlin morning haze abated. But for now it was content, as was she, to accompany the familiar squeals and rolls of the tram coming to a halt just before the intersection ahead.

The Green Door, Berlin

Rosenthaler Platz was already occupied by commuters, punks and trains disgorging inconstant streams of people. Three floors up and across the street, the windows of Alice’s office were illuminated. Behind the glass she saw an anonymous co-worker, more a shape causing absence of light than the outline of a man or woman, and she was relieved not to be the first person to arrive. She popped an earphone bud out and, for a moment, a cacophony of cars and foreign consonants mixed in with the music. Crossing Torstrasse against the green light, the sun cracked through the cotton-ball clouds and she went inside.

On the third floor, she entered the office. Christian’s feet protruded from beneath his desk, then disappeared, turtle-like, as he straightened up. He enunciated a stiff “good morning”. Alice parroted the words back to him.

...

She left the office at six p.m., took the train to Alexanderplatz and then expertly navigated her way through the labyrinth of tunnels and staircases to the U2. Exiting at Wittenbergplatz, the sun was falling in the sky. She pulled her headphones out and listened closely to the foreign city wildlife as she made her way home. Exhausts sputtered on the Kudamm, punks surrounded by German Shepherds and half-broken guitars peppered the sidewalks beneath department store buildings and foreign words spun in her ears.

Eventually she reached the familiar graffitied door that led to her apartment. Alice entered and glanced to the right and into Die Grüne Tür, a bar that was clustered in the small, poorly-lit space on the ground floor. It was empty but for Jutta, the middle-aged German woman who was, perhaps literally, a fixture at the bar.  She made her way upstairs and deposited her things in her one-room apartment on the first floor, little more than a rabbit hole at the centre of a large square of concrete and steel.

When it reached nine p.m. and the hum of voices was filtering up through her floorboards, Alice went down to the Grüne Tür. Jutta was sitting in her usual seat, elbow crooked upright on the bar with a cigarette drifting grey smoke over the room.

“Good evening,” Jutta said, without looking up. Alice stubbornly returned her greeting in German. Behind the woman was a foot-high, hollow statuette of what Alice had taken to be a spaniel, though on recent inspection she had thought it also had something of the primate about it. Lit from the inside and emitting a warm, yellowish glow from head to tail, the spaniel was the main source of light in the rear of the Grüne Tür.

The bartender finally served her drink in a short glass tumbler. She placed it on the bar next to Jutta and rose to go to the bathroom. Between the two doors, marked D and H to denote women’s and men’s, Alice found something unusual. A tall and narrow, green and wooden door, unmarked but for the fine grain still visible beneath the fresh paint.

It was barely wide enough for her to fit through with hunched shoulders. She reached out a hand to the doorknob, also daubed with a neon shade of green, twisted it and pulled. Nothing happened. It was locked, she thought. But she leaned forward and the green door fell in on itself. For a moment it felt as though a fishing hook had grasped at her ribcage and was tugging her forwards, then, just as suddenly, everything was engulfed in a wave of blackness.

...

To her left and right, torches lit in succession along the walls, steel brackets holding the flames high above her head. Alice was in a tunnel. She couldn’t make out a ceiling above her, and the flames signaled that the tunnel was little wider than the green door had been. Squeezing forwards until her shoulders were freer, Alice thought she could hear trains shunting around her. If she was indeed beneath the Grüne Tür, perhaps Wittenbergplatz and the U2 were passing nearby. But the further she went, the less distinct the subway noise became.

As breathing became harder, she ventured a word, released it tenderly into the cavernous space:

“Hello?”

Nothing, then: Clunk.

“Hah. Low?” It echoed like static from another room, louder than the train noises. Then again: “Hallow?”

Something creaked open up ahead and she rushed forwards before realizing that she was rather anxious. A door had swung open to her right, and from it protruded a head. Christian’s head.

“Christian?”

“Hallo!” He nodded as though to signal her to follow. As his face retreated, Alice clambered through the doorway and fell into a large, white room, identical to her office. She turned to close the door, its interior a faded green, and faced Christian. If she had had breath left in her body, she would have screamed.

His smiling head bobbled from side to side barely two feet off the ground. He was on all fours, an American sneaker attached to each appendage. But stranger than this, both his head and limbs protruded from what appeared to be an enormous turtle shell covering the rest of his body.

“Holy shit, Christian, what the–“

“Hallo!” His head lilted merrily and he smiled at her from beneath the armored shell atop his back. “Haaaaa-llo.” As his enjoyment of the word seemed to peak, Alice backed away towards the office door and flung it open. She stepped out and onto the train platform at Alexanderplatz. The source, she thought, of the U-Bahn noises she had been hearing.

Except that the platform, though full of people, was silent. The women – for there were no men or children – were frozen. Alice’s steps echoed eerily across the vast underground network that was Alex, rebounded into tunnels and along staircases, until it was all she could hear. Reaching one of the platform’s occupants, she stopped and stared into their face. It was Jutta. They were all Jutta, framed by long, greying curtains of hair, sternly and stubbornly impassive.

Alice reached out a hand. Slap. Jutta didn’t react. She shook the statue by the shoulders and the woman tumbled sideways and fell with a dull thud against the platform, a plastic mannequin, the triangle of hair that fell across her face the only part of her that had moved during her fall.

She had to get to the escalator at the other side of the platform. Footfall crashed around the ceilings as Alice ran towards it, bustling past a number of immobile Juttas waiting on a never-to-arrive train, and knocking one facsimile of the woman down the unmoving escalator steps as she climbed higher. If she could only find the green door that might lead back to the Grüne Tür and back to her apartment.

The clunk of feet against cavernous space was becoming deafening and Alice’s breathing growing heavier as the escalator narrowed and came to an end. Her knees collapsed against the crenellated steps and nausea gripped the base of her diaphragm.

...

The warm glow of the spaniel lamp bathed the bar in a soft light. Jutta’s face, seemingly disembodied, swam in front of Alice’s eyes. Behind her, the bartender hovered anxiously next to the illuminated statue, his piercings reflecting the light.

“You are okay?” Jutta said. Alice sat up. She was at the table at the rear of the bar, her glass still full, the middle-aged German venturing a smile in silhouette against the lamp. Turning, Alice glanced to the back of the room. Between the two bathroom doors there was a green panel of wood. She stumbled upright and back to the panel to find mere streaks of paint against the wall, no door knob, no folds and creases to signify a jamb.

That night, Alice left the Grüne Tür empty but for Jutta. But for the smoke curling in perfect twists over the bar, Alice would have thought her a silent, stone gargoyle protecting the green door. [ends]

Standard