Goss slithered out of the hotel bed, careful not to wake her. This was not easy because she was the lightest sleeper ever. He hadn’t been able to shift a millimeter without getting an interrogative grunt from her and his escape from the bed had taken what seemed like hours of excruciating control. When he finally slipped into the bathroom he realized it must be suppertime back home. Sat on the toilet, seat down, lights off, with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands but he was smiling. Not quite laughing. Actually maybe he felt slightly sick.
She was suddenly upright in bed. ‘Jimmy?’ she called. Not his name. And she pronounced it weird anyway. Yeemy?
Go in there, he ordered himself, and get your clothes. And don’t you say a fucking word.
Goss stared straight at the corner where his pants must be, ignoring the motionless silhouette which registered on his peripheral vision like a human shape in a sinister dreamscape as he groped and found briefs and slipped them on, then socks, his pants and going down on all fours patted the floor for his cap and found it. His scarf. His pullover was flung across the half of the bed they hadn’t used and he remembered kicking his shoes off right inside the door, bouncing them off the wall, so they must be here and here.
‘Jimmy,’ she sang, softly, sounding very sad.
He shod himself with one hop on each foot and got both hands on the doorknob squinting against the light he let like a rush of air into the room so musty with what they had done. He backed out careful not to look as the light closed on her old face and Goss blew out a long breath turning to the red AUSGANG sign and high-fiving his own ghost before it hit him that his jacket containing not only a copy of Levy’s keys but also all of Goss’s money and his passport and the sacred lock of hair was still hanging in the hotel room closet.
He rapped on the door and waited and rapped again. His nerve-endings sang with shame.
-2 Days Before That-
Goss on a couch beside Levy in a café on Königinnen Strasse called The Supreme Bean where they both liked the music and one of the waitresses was really pretty. Dogs romping around the café and hot coffee served in water glasses but Goss was comforted by normalizing details such as lonely males over Powerbooks like Nosferatus by the light of their desktops. As Tears go by, the ballad second only to the majestic Angie in the Richards/Jagger songbook was the song playing when it happened.
Goss had never written a song or fucked a girl worth writing a song about but he could remember a time in his life when both activities had seemed like eventual givens. He had almost fucked Tina Yee and had almost written a song about almost doing it, twenty years ago. It was Levy who had pointed out that every woman Goss ever fucked (not counting his first, a cousin) had been the ex-best friend of the girlfriend previous.
It is the evening of the day…
Goss was mouthing the lyrics while Levy talked. He anticipated with emotions he could barely control the last stanza, containing as it did one of the great couplets in English verse: doing things I used to do, they think are new. Levy, meanwhile, who knew so much about everything that he knew exactly how much of everything that he didn’t know, as he often quipped, was yammering away. White streamers in the cafe window were part of a greater horizon-wide movement of cold ash padding; a miraculous makeover of the dirty old city.
Something told Goss to look up. An oldish woman, furred and painted, very tall or on preposterous heels, pushing through the corpsey curtain of the snowfall. Her epic grimace and coin-colored bob. Levy with his back to her but Goss’s heart flinched as the beautiful old thing moved across the picture window of the Supreme Bean like a queen puppet traversing a stage and the knowledge, the recognition, was so basic in Goss that it was semi-conscious. His body knew before his mind could react. Levy hunched forward in his chair, prepared to deliver the Levy-affirming punchline to whatever anecdote when Goss suddenly tugged at and freed his army surplus jacket from under Levy’s ass and he held up a finger and said Excuse, please, one sec, and bolted. It wasn’t forty seconds before Goss thought about running back for his scarf and gloves too but didn’t want to risk losing her on the shopper-choked street. She was roughly a block ahead. She was walking so fast with a spine so straight and open coat flying that Goss wasn’t sure briefly if she didn’t look a bit crazy and busy in the bad manner of the insanely alone. She was, or had been, he had been told, a performer and if Goss was 36 she would be about 55 with her bob hard-luminous in the creamy gloom of the high street.
-20 Years Before That-
In back of the house at 25th & Colfax the dog-breathed summer Tie a Yellow Ribbon was a hit young Goss was on his knees digging a hole behind the oak with a bent spatula on a Saturday morning. A lawnmower morning so loud with the sci fi sound of a planet hive, the neighborhood doused in green perfume, while Dad added his own nasal motor sleeping a stiff one off. When was the last time anyone mowed this lawn, thought Goss. He actually spat with contempt. It never occurred to him to mow the lawn. Cursing and in tears he worried a rooty wound in the earth at the mouth of the tree. This was a household of three males sharing the surname Goss and yet Goss, the youngest, was the one they all called Goss. Behind the oak to bury a picture of Tina Yee.
You may lose that fading sense-print of The First Kiss but you will never forget the very first I Don’t Love You Anymore. Despite the traditional disclaimer, it is you, you’re the one, the failure, the disappointment, the faded value, the seed on the deepest level unworthy of egg. Goss could always tell when an outbreak of I Don’t Love You Anymore was coming. They never look better than they do on the day they dump you.
Tina Yee in cap and gown smiling by the hole. About a foot into the nugatory cakemix of middleclass earth his bent spatula scraped a cigar box. He coughed and accidentally dropped a gross track of phlegm-web on the rim of the hole when he levered the box up and out and knocked a jacket of dirt off. An old Panetellas box for a photograph of a disturbingly attractive woman. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Also in the box a long lock of ice-blond hair. Goss was suddenly not crying and blinked at the photograph with no recognition, no switches tripped but the lock of hair was eerily-if-inaccurately familiar, like flying had been the first time he’d ever been on an airplane.
The evening of that day while Goss was out with his big brother and his big brother’s so-called friends mourning Yee, dousing the burning witch of his heart with tepid beer at a place called Moose’s, the photograph he’d found in the cigar box that morning disappeared from his bedroom from the top right drawer behind the magic mushrooms, never to be seen again. Over breakfast the next morning Goss glowered with the irritating wisdom of not mentioning it. But he had the lock of hair in his pocket and he fought the urge to place it on the table.
Joe senior had been a band-leader, a sax player, he’d even toured Europe. His sister Aunt Pennie told the brothers all about it but there hadn’t been a horn in the house since shortly after the year Goss was born. The saxophone, with its fetal curves, was a dead sibling you never mentioned and had become Goss’s stillborn twin like the twin haunting the dim but intense imagination of Elvis. Elvis was how Goss and Levy had met a month before Elvis’s self-satirizing death on a toilet. Levy was short but ramrod-erect among a slouching jumble of sideburned lotus-eaters near the front of the ticket line, turning suddenly to confront Goss about his t-shirt.
‘You’re wearing an Elvis t-shirt to a Beatles film festival?’ Levy laughed. ‘Man, if we weren’t all hippies, we’d have to kick your lanky ass!’
What you do with your hands when you’re not doing anything with them says a lot about you, thought Goss: this loudmouth has his arms folded over his chest like a drill instructor. Goss’s thumbs were hooked in the front pockets of his dungarees. He hankered after girls who struck limp-wristed postures like Cher (or Robert Plant, to be honest), a pose so feminine that it seemed to have vanished entirely from the increasingly macho planet by the time Goss was thirty, a loss that inspired vague pangs. All these years later, Levy was still Goss’s friend and friendship-deformingly rich. He had a company called The Bombardier Beetle and split his time between Minneapolis, Vancouver and Berlin.
Back in the spare room, listening to Levy’s German girlfriend do something dramatic with Levy on the other side of the large flat, Goss found it impossible to sleep. But when they were finally finished the noise of his own breathing kept him awake so he slipped into his briefs and out of his unfamiliar bed and down the hall into the flicker-blue living room where he found the post-coital girlfriend watching the final minutes of It’s a Wonderful Life in German but with the sound off. Goss was prepared for what he found because Levy had carefully prepared him: Liesl likes to go naked around the flat. It had something to do with good health, or self-expression, or equal rights. She reflected the light of the widescreen television, naked as an Equatorial baby and unremarkably attractive. Nice big hands, though. Her breasts a goatee’d lunatic’s unblinking stare. A giant bust of Lenin transfixed by It’s a Wonderful Life.
‘Hallo, man,’ she said. ‘…this flick is so corny.’
Goss squeezed her shoulder. ‘Corny? Are you kidding? It’s like something out of the Brothers Grimm.’
She lowered her voice and said ‘Levy is completely asleep. He’s sleeping like a baby. It’s always like that.’
She smiled at the TV. ‘I put him to sleep. Like a baby.’
She stared sidelong at Goss and Goss cleared his throat but said nothing. He scratched his head. Jimmy Stewart was clutching Donna Reed with all of his might, sending a pang through Goss that made him want to jump out of his skin and smash all the lights in the universe. Liesl hugged her knees and said, a tad loudly, ‘You know what I hate?’
‘What?’ asked Goss, who assumed he was about to be treated to a diatribe against American kitsch as embodied by Jimmy Stewart.
It was so cool to be not interested.
‘I’ve heard disturbing reports,’ said Levy the next morning pacing the new carpet in his furnitureless storefront, ‘…that some of you, in violation of my policy, are smoking while distributing promotional materials to the public.’ Levy’s muscular arms were folded over his ever-expanding chest because getting rich had inspired him to start working out. It wouldn’t be long before he became too top-heavy to swim. ‘Smoking on the job is not just verboten. It’s fucking dis-gusting.’
Levy glared at Nikola B, the fleshily-attractive brunette with blonde streaks he had hired on the spot without any references. Nikola gathered her purse and coat from a big pile in the corner and left without saying a word, slamming the front door so hard they were all afraid the building might collapse.
Goss asked himself, hours later, making his way to the building he believed was harboring his long-lost mother, why he couldn’t be like Levy. Why couldn’t he? It was a Vital Force thing.
Goss had followed the woman this far yesterday and turned back. He’d seen his mother enter that building. But did he really believe this? Or was it a sort of meta-belief… a belief that this belief was possible to believe? What seemed shakiest about this latest in a long line of improvised quests was the lack of gravity in his emotional response to the situation. Where was the bloody roil of emotions he was supposed to be feeling? He only knew for a fact that his mother had been from Berlin. Had followed Joe Goss to The States and bore him there two children and very soon after left. She could be in Berlin. A mile, two blocks, a neighborhood away. Yes, she could very well be the woman he saw walk by the café window last night. He would know his own mother, wouldn’t he? Mammals have that going for them, at least. Don’t they?
Last night’s spectacular snow was already melting under the fierce efforts of a little white custodial sun. The shoppers Goss squeezed by were unreadable, avoiding eye contact. Goss was wondering about this eye contact thing when he slowed and then stopped. He stuck his hands in his pocket and cleared his throat.
‘Hey, Nicole,’ he said.
She was crying. Not really crying; her face was relatively blank although her cheeks were bright red and decorated with silver tear-streaks. Her eyes might as well have been glands.
‘Nikola,’ she corrected him.
He looked away up the street towards the shop. He wanted to say: I’ve been searching for all of my life for the mother who abandoned me as an infant and I’ve finally tracked her down to an apartment building right up the street. Will you come there with me now as I see her again for the first time in thirty-five years and share that moment with me? Instead he said:
‘I’m sorry about what happened.’
Goss gathered the collar of his jacket around his neck. ‘Because. I don’t know. I thought you were a good worker.’
‘I thought Levy is so seductive to the women only because he is an American,’ she said, digging in her purse for a taschentuch, a kleenex, ‘But I see now that it is because he is a Jew.’
She blew her nose. ‘Talking to a female is hard for you, I think.’ She shocked Goss by tossing the balled tissue on the sidewalk.
‘You will probably be remembering this conversation for the rest of your life.’ She gestured at a balding red-haired scowler pushing impatiently between them on his way up the street. ‘Whereas to him, sex with me would mean less than nothing.’ She produced a package of Marlboros and lit one and stared at Goss through a cloud she kept adding to. Like eggs in the air.
‘So?’ she said, finally.
It was a very long bus ride away and early in the route the bus took them right by the building that Goss believed it was possible to believe harbored his mother. As the bus rounded the building’s corner he suppressed the urge, again, to proclaim, ‘I have good reason to believe that my mother, who I haven’t seen since I was an infant, is dwelling in that building,’ but he didn’t. Nicole’s hair was in a loose knot and she untied the knot and shook out and re-tied it twice during the awkwardly wordless journey. When they got off the bus at its Endstation it was in a neighborhood of fenced brown snow-patched yards and their dead-vine-covered houses of stone. It felt as though they’d bussed to another city. They walked through a rustic maze of narrow lanes under the high commentary of suburban birdsong until Nikola lifted the latch on a splintery wooden gate and Goss followed her in. I could be a killer, he thought. She pulled off her shoes at the door so he did also and they moved across the gloomy living room. In the kitchen they found Nikola’s mother busy at the sink with her back to them. She either hadn’t heard them enter the house or chose not to react. Nikola opened the refrigerator and removed a large black ceramic bowl of green grapes and pantomimed that Goss should take the bowl and follow her out of the kitchen. The bowl was heavy and warm; the mother had just then put it in the refrigerator. Nikola’s room was up a staircase so brief it was ridiculous, down a hallway, last right before a circular hall window overlooking a stone-ringed pond through the branches of a tree in a posture of agony. Goss managed a peek into two rooms along the way to Nikola’s bedroom and was surprised to see that each room he peeked into contained a person. The first was a teenage boy the second a man and each wearing a churchgoing suit and tie.
In Nikola’s little room, Goss put the bowl of grapes down on a dresser and closed her door and removed his jacket and tried to drape it from her door knob, which wasn’t a knob but a handle. His jacket shrugged off into a puddle on the floor and Nikola removed her own coat and purse and piled them on top of it. She positioned an old wooden folding chair beside her bed and reclined on the bed, smoothing her dress, her feet touching. Then, as though to a blown whistle only she could hear, she sat straight up and pulled the dress off over her head. She unsnapped her bra. The breasts of a beached sea creature when she was on her back. Goss was touched at how helpless they looked on land. They were too smooth, too firm and her vagina was simple as a fold in a table cloth. She reached and patted the seat of the folding chair and Goss sat.
‘No,’ she said, ‘bring the grapes here first and feed them to me.’
Goss had the look of a man attempting to make something happen with his thoughts alone. Bend a spoon or something.
‘Get the grapes,’ she repeated.
Goss was frozen.
Nikola flipped on to her stomach and hugged her pillow and counted to ten before saying,
‘Get out,’ she reiterated.
Goss was half way down the hall when he remembered his jacket and had to go back. When he left the house, the sky was a far dilute blue. He was surprised at how calm he felt. Everything was so familiar.
It was possible that Joe Goss, sideburned and swaggery, had been in this very neighborhood, had walked these lanes and maybe Goss’s mother, a teenager not so much younger than Nikola when she’d met Goss’s father, was from this part of town, had grown up in this area and had used the bus that Goss rode out there. He was used to the kind of small-town coincidences that people from Chicago or Tokyo considered mindfucks of cosmic import. He was thinking that very thing when he looked up and saw Levy walking towards him.
‘What the fuck are you doing here?’ asked Levy, who stopped in his tracks.
After Goss said to Levy that he’d taken the wrong bus to the end of the line and was now good and lost, Levy led Goss back to his car. ‘I have a little business to take care of, won’t be long, drive you back home when I’m done.’
-Earlier This Evening-
Goss ended up climbing out of Levy’s car again before night fell. It had been a profitable time alone, he thought. He put his cap on and zipped up his jacket and knotted his scarf and picked a random direction to walk in.
Loping along above the low sear hedge of one chalk-white cottage after another, Goss turned right, abruptly, when he spotted what looked like a major thoroughfare at the end of a darkening lane, a major thoroughfare behind which the sun was crashing to torch the brittle lung of the forest as it ground to a halt in the earth. Where the lane emptied into the thoroughfare, Goss found a bus stop bench in a shelter across the wet black shadow of the road. Seated on the bench was an older but nice-enough looking woman who smiled as he settled on the bench beside her. She waited until he was completely still and said, with an older woman’s precision, ‘You are an American.’
‘Yep,’ said Goss. ‘How could you tell?’
‘You weren’t afraid to look at me.’
Goss laughed. ‘Who would be afraid to look at you?’ He reached for her hand and looked her right in the eye and said, defiantly, ‘Jimmy.’
She hesitated so long before announcing her name in return that he knew it was a lie and he knew what the lie meant and it encouraged him.
She was tall and slender and profited from what looked like a fairly expensive dye job. Her hair up in a thick bun blurred gold in the fading last lights of the day.
‘Where are you going, Jimmy?’ she asked him. ‘Would you like a ride?’
He pulled his cap off. ‘You have a car?’ She was the right age. It was possible that she’d lived in America.
‘Yes, I have a car.’
He closed one eye. ‘Why are you waiting for the bus if you have a car?’