SARAH IS FIVE-ISH: a short story from NOT REALLY DIFFICULT TEXTS

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You expect a clockwork metropolis resembling dirty stacks of old wedding cakes. It’s a surprise riding into Vienna from the airport on the shuttle and seeing miles of heavy industry instead. Silver pipes and vast white tanks and smokestacks protruding from asphalt plants and refineries. There was a premonition of this already at the airport because the horizon is ringed with the rust-tinged edge of an inverted bowl of old industrial weather. The last thing you’d expect of the former heart of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire is to be reminded of pre-EPA Pittsburgh in its sky-killing heyday but life is just one long surprise for the living, isn’t it?

Further in, at the center, in the area around the Stephansdom (the cathedral), things look more as they are supposed to. Vienna is a closer match for “Vienna” here: the plaster-pallid coachmen are top-hatted and their Fiackers are brightly enameled in greens or reds and heavily trimmed in black. Some of the Fiackers, drawn by two-horse teams, are so black they look like funeral carriages, never more so than when the horses drawing one of the grandiose things through crowds across Graben, the old square, are pure white.

Sarah and I are having a rest on the long lawn in front of the Votivkirche. Sarah is five-ish. We watch as a bespectacled file clerk in short-sleeves and stiff-legged pants goes from girl to girl, snapping photos with the barest minimum of subterfuge. Every three snaps or so, he pretends to take a picture of the church, or a tree, as long as the church or tree happens to fall within the sight line of an interposed girl showing skin. He makes his way around the park, barely able to control his excitement at capturing all these soft white girls and their long limbs laid out browning in the sun.

In the sun it feels like late spring but in the shade it feels much colder, as though patches of snow should still be visible in the trees and on the grass. The man snaps his fill of girlflesh and eventually disappears into the Votivkirche, following two tiny things in tulip dresses with their unsuspecting parents who are entering the whispery dark no doubt with the unironic intention of prayer. Sarah and I stand up, brush off our bums and leave the park as the bells begin their robust work at noon. I am feeling a bit hungry.

Sitting in The Café Braeunerhof, I’m struck by the paradox that the service is both far ruder and infinitely more polite than what I have come to expect in Berlin. The waiters in Berlin espouse the rights of man and bodily refute the very notion of service; what are your pennies compared to their self respect? They slouch and mumble while serving and your manners devolve to the level of the service. Viennese staff hold the clientele to a much higher standard, for service is a form of mastery in Vienna. Sarah’s plate of scrambled eggs comes with an implicit command not to play with her food and I’ve never seen her use a fork so adultly. For myself I’ve ordered a sausage filled with cheese and served with a tin of beer, known in jolly Viennese slang as An aatrige mit a blech…  some pus with a tin.

Sarah says, “Aunt Iris has two big horses, a black one and a white one, like the ones we saw with the carriage, Henry,”  but I tell her that isn’t true. Then she says, “But I saw them,” and I assert that this, too, is untrue. Sarah has never seen her Aunt Iris before, unless it was in photos so old that Iris herself was a child in them. And Iris definitely doesn’t have horses. She lives with a cat in a shitty little apartment on Hahngasse.

Leaning through the cook’s portal in his immaculate toque, and framed by steam, is a dead ringer for Paul Gauguin, bent nose, grease-paint mustache and everything. Earlier in the day we saw Richard Wagner in a light gray suit, shirt open at the collar, inspecting the tourists and shop fronts of Graben with an air of lordly tolerance, hands clasped behind his back, gray hair skirting the suit collar.

Half of the clientele of The Braeunerhof are phantoms themselves. There’s the grinning geezer with a lap-long beard he is not much wider than to the front, right and there’s the off-season Brunhilde, like a ship in her bosom-prowed dress, in the booth opposite, slurping her soup and there’s a dapper fellow with his Herald Tribune in the window under a fading magazine clipping about Thomas Bernhard, the Austrian writer who liked brooding over his coffee with a newspaper in that very spot. Bernhard is dead as a Mesopotamian now, ribs like a sprung umbrella… can no longer talk, feel, write or taste coffee. I wonder what he thinks about in that little room. I wonder if death was worth it?

When I ask Sarah if she wants a dessert she says no thank you, Henry. Declining the pleasure is her way of proving to me that she’s a good person I guess and this touches me terribly and I take her hand and lead her out of The Braeunerhof and onto the iron shadow of the cathedral. I almost make the mistake of offering a look inside the eternity-obsessed hangar with its gray recumbent saints and its vertebral columns but catch myself before the blunder. I’m relieved that she’s simply happy to walk in the new shoes I bought her. Relieved they don’t hurt.

The goodwill that being an English-speaking tourist elicits never ceases to astonish me. Sheepishly begging directions from one Viennese after another, we become not only progressively more lost but treated with greater and greater patience and sympathy, until I’m ready for the last direction-giver, a Muslim lady pushing her somber tram, to give us a kiss, cab fare to Hahngasse and a little mother’s milk for the trip. I come to the interesting conclusion that the landmark each person has given us to navigate by is calibrated to his or her respective social class or personality. Bank, kulturhaus, discount shoe store. The dark-robed Muslim lady tells us to turn right at the cemetery.

We are standing on a steep hill on a wide street in windy shadows when we notice a gray pasha in brown polyester, shiny-domed and grandiosely mustached, beckoning madly from a café table in front of the bistro on the other side. He is either the bistro’s owner, or some sort of local landmark, a colorful character busily writing himself into the oral history of the neighborhood.

“Where do you want to go?” he asks, dismissing my map with a gesture of gregarious scorn. He thumps his chest. “I know everywhere.”

I tell him the name of the street and he frowns. Soon, both of us are huddled over the map, gripping its corners like the wings of a bird we’ve snatched, for the purposes of divination, from the breast of the wind. A handsome matron in a cheerful scarf and a Burberry coat is just then stepping from the bistro and pasha intercepts her with one discreetly lateral move, blocking her exit and inquires, sotto voce, how to get to Hahngasse. The matron peers at Sarah, then me, registering, no doubt, the fact that the little girl and I cannot possibly be related.

“Do you speak English?” she asks, with a heavy German accent.

With five or six sets of conflicting directions to choose from, Sarah and I finally find Hahngasse. I think I remember the street number but how to get into the building to search for the flat? Her name isn’t on any of the buzzers. I buzz a random name and politely explain that I wish to leave a note for Frau Lott. Once in the building, we climb the staircase, ascending into a bowely-warm odor of cooking that harmonizes with the dark trim and carpet. On each landing I look for Iris Lott’s name, three different doors per landing, many of the doors astonishingly beautiful, ornate in the Belle Epoque style. On the fourth landing, two to go, Sarah says she’s tired so we take a break, sitting on the stairs and I wish I’d been prescient enough to buy fruit for her. Something.  She says,

“Henry, when we find Aunt Iris, will you stay with Aunt Iris too?”

I say no.

“Just me and Aunt Iris?”

And her cat. Yes.

“Will I see you again Henry?”

No.

She lowers her head to a resolute angle and says, logically, “Then I hope we don’t find Aunt Iris.”

We descend again to the front hall and find the mailboxes and there stands, on one of the boxes, on a strip of paper taped beside the name on the official nameplate on the box, in faintest pencil, M. Lott. It must be Iris but I don’t know what the “M” stands for. Does she have a name I’ve never heard her sister Sandy mention? Discoveries like this tend to take all the air out of me; doors opening onto doors opening onto doors towards a room of useless secrets; so I concentrate on the task at hand. But there’s no slot on the box that I might slip a note through (if I had a pencil and paper to write one with) . The mailman carries a master key, I assume, with which to open the whole bank of boxes in one go.

I’m trying to shimmy my business card through a narrow crack in the mailbox, an activity that looks suspiciously like a foreigner tampering with the Austrian postal system, a crime probably punishable with flogging, when we hear a key in the front door and I jump an inch in my skin. An elderly gentleman in a derby hat and a three-piece suit lets himself in, pauses to take in the scene and greets us with a loose nod and a “Grüss Gott” that sounds like a dying man’s terminal speech.

Sarah says, “That man scared me, Henry!” and I have to admit that he scared me too.

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