THE NOVEL EXCERPT: from THE BOMB COLLECTOR

 

THE BOMB COLLECTOR

[The Bomb Collector is a Novella featured in THREE POSTMODERN MURDER MYSTERY NOVELLAS]

The only thing I like more than packing a suitcase is unpacking a suitcase; the former indicates an adventure to come and the latter an ordeal survived. My pleasure would be magnified in this case by unpacking my suitcases in an absolutely empty flat. Just walls, floor, windows, doors and ceiling. A ritual I was, however, too exhausted to enjoy before getting a little sleep. In the top layer of suitcase number one was a cloth-covered air mattress I’d purchased from a bankrupt Army Surplus store as a much younger man always on the lookout for bargains, novelties and items that nobody else had or wanted. I’d finally unpacked the thing, to air it out, the day before my flight, and it gave off a sad, dry rot odor of Korean War memorabilia when I first unboxed it. The odor managed to taint the entire contents of the suitcase, which I had wisely refrained from packing with clothes; suitcase number two had all the clothes in it, along with a five hundred page manuscript (single-spaced, narrow margins, tiny font) I was nowhere near being finished with.

When I yanked the rip-cord dangling from the panel with the stenciled warning on it (WARNING: DO NOT PULL: JERK!), I expected the cord to snap off in my hand, or for nothing to happen, but, to my surprise, the mattress inflated rapidly with a loud hiss that changed in pitch as the mattress plumped out. The compressed air canister continued until the mattress bulged asymmetrically and I backed out of the room with my fingers in my ears and it exploded in a cloud of dust. Of course. I unpacked half the clothing from suitcase number two, arranged it in a thick rectangle in the middle of the room and laid the blown mattress on top. I kicked off my shoes and curled up on the makeshift bed.

I dreamed I was climbing a steep, grassy hill on a sunny day with The Beatles. They were long-haired and bearded and young-looking, younger than I had been in years, and I was slightly embarrassed, in this dream, to be an over-thirty… someone they might not trust, or, even worse, someone they might mock with their rapid, cutting, inside jokes. John was the one I had to be especially careful with, I remember thinking in this dream, and I put an effort into watching his face very carefully for reactions to my cautious remarks: a lifted eyebrow or a curling lip or a conspiratorial glance at George. It was difficult as he was the furthest from me. To my immediate left was Ringo in a bright red caftan and then to my right the order went George, Paul and then John. Climbing the hill in the heat had winded me but they, The Beatles, didn’t seem visibly affected. Their long hair was shiny, fragrant and beautiful in the golden light; in fact they were pretty as girls, even with their beards, and I couldn’t stop thinking how it was really them, The Beatles, and here I was climbing this hill in the sunlight with them.

At what point as the dream unfolded did it become clear to me that these four young men weren’t The Beatles at all? They had merely resembled The Beatles. But as I stared at the profile of the one I had taken to be John Lennon, the one who was furthest from me, with most of his face eclipsed by his hair, I could no longer locate even the faintest resemblance between his face and Lennon’s, and it seemed to me (or does so now) that his facial features were changing, subtly, even as I watched, into something very strange.

The brilliant sunlight had dulled and darkened, too. The wind was picking up, whipping the tall grass, and, back down the hill the five of us were trudging up; down the hill into a vast valley that reached for miles to a poisonous black seam of clouds on the horizon: I watched white bits and large gray chunks of some kind of debris blowing; bouncing; rolling down the hill. The four young men I was climbing with were menacing. Unambiguously hostile towards me and united in some kind of mission or scheme and their grim faces and dark clothing in combination with the cold wind and violent storm overtaking us made me shake with despair.

The noise that woke me was so loud that it seemed to push me to the floor, but I was already on the floor, or close to floor level, gasping as my heart raced. I didn’t know where I was, but it felt like I was in an earthquake, back in California, having a heart attack. What was I doing on the floor of an empty, high-ceilinged room with strange windows and two narrow doors and a power socket in the wall shaped like nothing I was familiar with, rattled in my bones by a deafening rumble? A cheap ceiling lamp on the end of a white chord was swinging left and right. I stumbled in a panic to the door jamb and wedged myself there with my arms covering my head until I suddenly remembered where I was exactly and under what circumstances and laughed at my stupidity, right there where I squatted in the vibrating doorway. I slipped my shoes on, confronted a sleep-smashed face in the bathroom mirror (soft; middle-aged), splashed some water on it, and left the building to go for a walk, since sleep was impossible.

The day… a late spring/early summer day… was streaked with low, fast moving clouds like dark fish in a cold creek and the chill in the air made me consider going back to unpack a light jacket. But going back would have felt like the first small failure of my new life so I went forward instead, my hands jammed in my pockets and my collar turned up. It was early afternoon and there was only one other person on the street, a tall, pretty girl with brilliant orange hair. She wore a pale green diaphanous scarf over her hair and she didn’t once look up as she hurried past me on loud boots in the direction from which I’d come, the noise of her loud boots disappearing into the roar of construction. Turning to watch, I saw her cross towards my building and let herself into it while dust clouds and diesel fumes from the frenzy of construction next door blew over her.

I had followed her half-way back and waited to see if she’d appear in a window in the upper floors, pulling a curtain or lifting a blind to catch me spying from the corner. I lingered awhile, saw nothing and continued my walk. I started thinking of her as ‘the little red headed girl.’ I’d never had a neighbor that pretty in any apartment building I’d ever lived in in America, but I had observed women like that in some of the houses I’d worked in, chatting amiably with harmless me over a mug of coffee from the other side of the invisible barrier of comfort.

Most of the work we did was at one or another of the gated communities that had mushroomed beyond the suburbs in response to opportunities in new technology at office parks that were an hour’s drive from the city. The rows upon row of brand new houses were identically over-large, poorly designed, thrown up far too quickly and in need of paint. The owners were invariably young, college-educated and friendly to a fault with the workers, all the way down to the Mexican maids and gardeners. I always made it a point to have at least one conversation with the lady of the house to assert myself, I suppose, as a reader of books and an appreciator of culture. Which Richard, my partner (my boss, actually; they were his bids, and he had me on an hourly wage), considered embarrassing not only for me, he said, but for the client and himself and the tradition of house painting.

“No matter how smart you may think you are, to them you’re just a beat up old house painter, just like me, John.”

“I’m only doing this to finance the writing of my book, Richard. You know that.”

“All I’m saying is how you see it ain’t how they see it so the point is what? Plus it’s fucking unprofessional. Okay?”

I was careful not to let him catch me talking with the homeowners after that exchange. Once, I walked into a living room carrying a step ladder and found the client’s blonde wife curled up on the Cadillac-sized leather couch in a bright red jogging outfit, chewing a finger and reading a brand new paperback of Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. She just happened to look up from the book as I entered the room in my cover-alls and cap, ladder over one shoulder, paint on my face. As she made eye contact I pointed and said, because I knew Richard was out in the van, mixing paint, “There’s textual evidence in there that Quilty is Lo’s biological father,” and her eyes went wide and her mouth fell open as though a talking dog had walked in on its hind legs and asked for a date.

Rosenthaler Strasse is the nearest main road and a trolley runs up and down both sides of it. There were more pedestrians there than on the side streets that led me to it and there was eerily quiet, clogged traffic packed with makes of cars and trucks I’d never seen before and for the first time since I’d arrived I had the thrilling sense of being in a foreign capital… the implication of infinite possibility and vague threat that middle-aged Bohemians travel for. The wind whipped flimsy spring coats against the short-skirted legs of business women or secretaries hurrying back to the office from lunch breaks and I wondered if the eros of foreign travel was more in the anonymity of it, as though anonymity in and of itself is an invitation to transgress, or in my subconscious superstition that European women find American men sexy. I turned left on Rosenthaler Strasse, under a whole city of clouds in places so black they looked rotten and I was chilled to the bone by the same wind that was flirting so rudely with the secretaries.

I hadn’t gone twenty paces when I came upon a pale older man, his thin hair wind-blown, painting a picture on the wall of a block-long building. The building housed a bakery and a barber shop and a travel agent among other ground level businesses. The building was made of huge black blocks of stone and he was very carefully taping a stencil to the wall and spray-painting it with slashing strokes. He then taped a second stencil on top of the first, lining up the edges of the two stencils with deft-but-nervous fingers, and sprayed again with a different color. He was blowing on the fresh paint, his lips just inches from the black wall, as I came up on him, and he didn’t look my way but cocked his head at my footfalls. He carefully peeled the stencils off and slipped them into a backpack, then produced, from where I don’t know, a telescoping, red-tipped stick and hurried off, tapping the base of the black wall with the stick.

I looked at the image he had so carefully double-stenciled and saw that it was a formless mess of red and green paint running together into brown drips down the wall. I looked up again in time to see him hurrying across the street, his cane like a taut lead on an invisible dog. Almost without realizing it I decided to follow.

 

2.

The title of the book I’m struggling to finish is ‘The Bomb Collector’. Set towards the end of the 1960s, it concerns the personal life of Azzedine El-Hadi, an Algerian émigré living in upstate New York. El-Hadi is a writer and bon-vivant, a silver-haired, worldly man of fifty with three American girlfriends. He teaches a creative writing class at a community arts center in his small town in the Wisselvallig Valley, and the youngest of his girlfriends, thirty years his junior, is a star of the writing class. The second girlfriend is married to a teacher of an evening class for working adults called ‘Generational Dissonance in Post-War Jewish Literature: from Singer and Malamud to Bellow and Roth,’ at the same arts center. His third occasional girlfriend, Ruth, his ex-wife, is the woman he married for his green card. Ruth is an amateur landscape painter and the mother of two grown children from a previous marriage.

El-Hadi has published one French novel, years ago, which he is busy translating for the English market; his second mistress has promised to show the manuscript to a publisher with whom she may or may not be having a parallel affair. The title of the French version of the book, Le Collecteur de Bombe, is from an Algerian saying that Azzedine’s father, a devout Muslim, often admonished his son with during the boy’s sex-mad adolescence: a man with too many women is like a bomb collector.

The Bomb Collector is comprised of thirteen linked short stories or vignettes on the theme of adultery; there are Moroccan, French, British and Nigerian adulterers featured in interwoven tales all set in Algiers, the great North African city. Cora (the second mistress, married to his colleague) has suggested that beyond translating the book, Azzedine should also include a new chapter, featuring an American, in order to increase the chances of getting the English version published. He initially resists her idea because to add a chapter would violate the numerology of the book. ‘Thirteen’ is one of its ordering motifs.

“Well,” suggests Cora, “simply replace one of the existing chapters.”

“Which chapter would you suggest I replace?”

Without hesitating in order to think about it, Cora answers, “Love is Blind. I think it’s the least-charming chapter in the book, to be honest. It denigrates women… also men, when I think of it. The book will be better without it.”

How can Azzedine admit, then, after Cora’s judgment, that the Love is Blind chapter is his favorite… the very heart of the book? A handsome man, an epic womanizer with philosophical inclinations, goes to his Moroccan apothecary one day and requests a philtre that will render him blind, but only temporarily. The apothecary, a man as versed in modern pharmacology as he is in Moroccan folk medicine, mixes a concoction that will blind his client for thirteen days exactly. Take this with a glass of wine on the morning of the first day and your vision will return to you on the evening of the thirteenth. The apothecary, who knows the womanizer well (having provided the man with condoms as well as penicillin and various other salves and ointments in the past), adds, But if you don’t mind my curiosity: why?

The womanizer explains: As you know, I rarely go without extremely desirable female companionship. However, it’s often occurred to me that for every impossibly beautiful woman I allow (or cajole) to climb into bed with me, there are at least a hundred of her sisters, all too willing but, unfortunately, too ugly to meet my silly standards. I curse my good taste but, as you know, there’s nothing to do about it… the male organ can’t be reasoned with in terms of what it finds attractive or not. However, I realized, one need only sneak a lover past the sentry box of the eyes in order to…

Ah yes, says the apothecary.

Following the apothecary’s instructions, the womanizer stirs the bitter substance into a glass of wine early the next morning. It’s a brilliant day, and he doesn’t even realize, at first, that what seems to be the encroaching gloom of cloud cover in an unseasonable display of weather before lunchtime is, in fact, the drug taking effect. By dinner time he is utterly blind. After spending a few days getting used to the situation (with the help of his servant), the womanizer tests his theory that by being free of the tyranny of the aesthetic prejudices of his eyes, his lovemaking will enjoy new freedoms and varieties… new intensities. Guided to the marketplace on the arm of his servant, he says: point me in the direction of a real sow. The servant does so; the womanizer makes contact with a lady of that description and finds himself escorting her home (just as he is escorted by his servant) in no time at all. The resulting sexual encounter is the best he’s ever had.

By the time his vision fades gradually back in on the evening of the thirteenth day, the womanizer has bedded dozens of women… fat, tall, short, skinny, old, young, poorly-dressed, exquisitely-dressed, European, African and everything else… and all with the same high level of energy and pleasure. The experiment has been a success. So much so that he hurries back to the apothecary the morning after the regrettable return of his vision and asks that the prescription be refilled. As you wish, cautions the apothecary, but I must tell you that the third time you use this drug, the effects are permanent.

Another thirteen days of carnal amazements follow. At the end of this journey into the ravishingly sensual night, the womanizer opts for a third, permanent dose, reasoning that he is no longer a young man; he’s seen enough of the world’s picture; to trade just one of his grossly limited senses for limitless pleasure would be more than worth it. With logical eloquence he persuades the apothecary to sell him the third dose.

A year goes by. The apothecary has nearly forgotten the strange case of the self-blinding womanizer when the man appears one morning at the counter on the arm of his harried-looking servant, looking pale and skinny and with his formerly distinguished head of gray hair gone white. The apothecary is filled with guilt and pity: it strikes him that the poor fellow has returned to plead for his sight back. Which is, as he was warned, impossible. As the apothecary approaches the counter with a heavy heart he is surprised to see the blind womanizer detect his presence with a cocked head and give off a sly and boyish grin.

How can I help you today, my friend? asks the non-plussed apothecary. Are all things right with your chosen life?

Righter than ever, answers the blind womanizer. I’ve broken my own previous record for number of conquests in a week several times over and show no signs of slowing down. There’s only one thing I need from you now to make my bliss complete, says the blind womanizer, lowering his voice so that the apothecary draws near.

And what would that one thing be? inquires the very curious apothecary.

A drug to render me deaf, responds the womanizer.

The parallels between the blind womanizer from the book within my book, able to ‘see’ all women as equally desirable in his darkness, and the blind graffiti artist, able to falsely ‘see’ his art as beautiful (or well-executed), were amusing to me. As I followed the blind man on his route, along which he stopped to stencil his runny brown blobs on various buildings, I began to feel that I knew him because I had created the character he was an offshoot from. I began to predict the buildings he would choose to mark (or to ‘piss’ on; wasn’t it territorial behaviour? Wasn’t it canine?) with impressive accuracy. He went right for the newest, cleanest buildings, despite his blindness. He’d walk right by the buildings with too much graffiti on them. The unstylish buildings, too. He didn’t seem to find those very attractive. I assumed by this behaviour that up until relatively recently he’d been able to see.

I was miles from home already but unpanicked because we’d followed a straight line through a commercial district with a tram running up and down it and I could always hop on to ride one home. Figuring out how to buy a ticket (I speak less German than the average pre-schooler here) was another matter, but I’d face that hurdle when the time came. The street I followed the blind man along is called Kastanien Allee.

It’s a neighborhood of young people, good-looking young people sitting inside and in front of the packed cafes (despite the threat of rain) and smoking languorously, or with emphasis, like movie stars. Young people strolling in and out of funky record shops and quirky boutiques. The girls are all stylish and tall like the ‘the little red head girl’ living in my building and I marveled at their uniform beauty. Not a fat body or failed outfit or wrinkled face among them. I began to feel quite self-conscious as a voyeuristic emissary from the awful fraternity of the aged and unhip and almost wished I’d picked a dowdier neighborhood to live in. I didn’t need to have my unfuckable mortality rubbed in my face every time I stepped outside to buy butter. But the blind man was above all that; those beautiful girls were as invisible to him as I was to the beautiful girls and so they had lost their power to tantalize and diminish him. He was flying through outer space with his spray paint. He would have been impossible in California and I realized that it was up to me not to become impossible in Berlin. Enough with the bitterness; expect nothing and you can’t be disappointed, I told myself. Finish your novel.

The writer character in my book, Azzedine El-Hadi, creator of the character of the blind womanizer, is based on a real person (of the same name) I’d met as a house painter. I suppose I never bothered to change the name of the fictional version of Azzedine because I either never really expected to publish the book, or assumed that he’d be dead by the time the miracle happened.

While the fictional Azzedine El-Hadi is a writer, the real-life El-Hadi runs an antique shop, with a sideline in contraband antiquities. Richard and I had been hired to paint the little apartment that Azzedine keeps over the shop which is situated in a row of genteel businesses in the Mission Hills neighborhood of San Diego. Richard had said, You’re going to get a kick out of this guy on the way over in the van that first morning and he was right. El-Hadi looked like something out of an Agatha Christie novel when he answered the door, a silver-haired gentleman with a fastidious mustache wearing red satin pyjamas and velvet slippers.

The walls of his bedroom were covered from floor to ceiling with framed photographs of beautiful women; photographs it was our task to remove and eventually replace in exactly the same order. There was more preparation than actual painting involved in this particular job and I had the pleasure of chatting with Azzedine, or listening to him chat, while I worked. Richard had learned by this point in the history of our partnership to behave like a real boss, leaving me to do the great majority of the work. He’d be gone a few hours every day (at the race track for all I knew), therefore I was free to chat with the witty, literate El-Hadi while I stripped the wall paper in his bedroom or sanded the moldings.

It gradually dawned on me that El-Hadi’s wit wasn’t the main reason I enjoyed his company. Unlike every other citizen of the state of California, he was able to distinguish easily between my soul and my occupation. In short, he treated me as an equal, a fellow human being, and not a middle-aged house painter. If he hadn’t hired me to paint his flat, he never would have known, not being impolite enough to ask, how I earned my money… it was of no concern to him, the details of my material wealth or my social standing. What he needed to know about me he gathered with his eyes and ears; it was the quality of my conversation he noticed, my ideas and opinions.

Richard’s return from his four hour lunch break was always jarring: I became a house painter again the moment he climbed the back staircase with his thermos of coffee and the paint-layered cuticles of his fingernails. Richard’s idea of egalitarianism was to display contempt for us both (Richard and me). At which El-Hadi would shrug and wink, preserving the secret of my humanity until our conversation could resume.

As my admiration for El-Hadi increased during the three weeks we worked to refinish his apartment in an oriental theme of greens and golds, my stubborn tolerance of Richard shaded gradually into resentment. I saw that an ugly aura radiated from the man and that my first assumption… that being a house painter had turned him sour over the years… was wrong. His job, posture, manner of speech, living arrangement and outlook on life were all just accessories, after the fact, to the original core of his negativity. We’ve all known gloomy or even vicious children from our childhoods; maybe it starts in the womb, or in the miserable upbringing of the mother. It was finally clear to me in any case that time in Richard’s company was more toxic than exposure to any of the noxious chemicals we handled and for the sake of my own health I should get out, despite the money he paid to keep me near and under his control.

I brought up the taboo topic of novel-writing with El-Hadi one day about five minutes after Richard drove off to whatever he did on his own for half of every working day…  but he came back. He came back for the wallet he’d left in the jacket on top of the toolbox. He caught me standing on the top of my step ladder, scrubbing the ceiling with trisodium phosphate and discussing the problem of particularizing character in the context of a first-person narrative; how to separate the narrator’s voice from both the writer’s and the reader’s? Azzedine stood at the foot of the ladder with his chin in his hand, looking up. Even Azzedine jumped a little when Richard shouted at me.

“Hey! Don’t we have an agreement that you keep your mouth shut and paint shit? Nobody wants to listen to your wannabe crap!”

“Calm down.”

“Calm down shit!”

I climbed down off the ladder. “Forget it, Richard” I said. “It’s over. I quit.”

“Fine. Get the fuck out of here.”

“Fine,” I said, wiping my hands.

“Excuse me for interrupting, my friends,” said Azzedine, with his mellifluous voice and his unreadable smile. He nodded at me. “John and I were having a conversation that I would very much like to finish.”

“But you heard him, Mr. El-Hadi: the damn fool just quit!”

“Perhaps you can send me a bill for work completed, yes?” Azzedine turned to me. “Can you finish it on your own, John?”

I shrugged, then nodded. Richard turned red. He put his hands on his hips. “We agreed on a price.”

Azzedine’s smile took on extra depths as he made a very compact little voila gesture, saying, “Ah, but we have signed no contract, sir, correct?”

Richard laughed as though he enjoyed being out-maneuvered.

 

 

3.

It was sometime after I’d watched the blind artist spray, with meticulous care, the fourth brown blob on an otherwise immaculate building, that he lost me. He must have slipped into a doorway or up a side street while I was watching an unreachably pretty girl walk by. Ahead of me stood the massive overhead girderwork of the over-ground link of the U-Bahn system at Eberswalderstrasse, an old green hooded train bridge straddling a complicated five-way intersection thronged with cars and walkers. To get to the other side of the U-Bahn station I had to cross under it and against three traffic lights in a crowd of people. It felt like a group activity: a sight-seer’s hike or school kids on a class outing. Five minutes of camaraderie with people I’d never seen before and would, for the most part, never see again. I imagined the crowd holding hands, two by two. A big girl to my immediate right, dark-haired and sweet-faced and over-dressed in a puffy orange jacket, must have thought the same thing: she seemed so amused by it all when we made eye contact. Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t have considered her even remotely attractive, but loneliness in a foreign city can be a powerful aphrodisiac.

“Welcome to the International Society of Pedestrians Crossing Schönhauser Allee,” she said, with a pronouncedly Philadelphian accent. She walked as though weighed down by an invisible, book-laden backpack. I guessed her age at 29-ish.

“Membership is free, I take it.”

“All you need to join are your feet.”

“And you’re the president.”

“No, sir, I’m the ombudsman.”

“I always loved that word.”

“Me too. Ombudsman, stipend, satyr, druse… “

“Druse?”

“An incrustation of small crystals on the surface of a rock or mineral.”

“Aha.”

She pressed her hands together in a mockery of prayer. “I’ve been waiting for years for someone to ask me the definition of that word.”

We all completed the complicated task of crossing under and to the other side of the vast green riveted structure. The group was dispersing. “Now what?”

“Ask me the definition of drupaceous.”

“Okay.”

“Resembling or related to a drupe.”

There was a cafe in the shadow of the U-Bahn station and we sat there with cake and coffee while the weather, miraculously, cleared up. Her name was Amanda Nye and she’d been in Berlin for five years.

“Came as a German language student but defected when I figured out I don’t like speaking German.”

“If you don’t like speaking German, why stay in Germany at all?”

“Because Germans don’t like speaking German either. It’s easy to get by with your English and a native vocab of about twenty six words. Besides, Berlin is the least German city in Germany. I just pretend it’s South East London in an alternative universe where the Nazis won the war. How old are you?”

“Forty two.”

“Okay. That’s not so old.”

“Thanks.”

“Wanna come watch porno at my place? It’s not far from here. No big dogs or roommates.”

Funny girl. I paid for our coffees and half-eaten cakes and followed Amanda out the door of the cafe in time for a lurid sunset. All of the clouds had been pushed to the westernmost corner of the sky like damp kindling. She produced a wafer-thin camera and aimed it over my head and clicked without looking, paying attention to me instead. She said,

“Personal anecdote. I thought I was Dianne Arbus when I was nine years old. I had an old Kodak Instamatic and I photographed the ugliest people in my neighborhood. Fat kids, acne cases, crones with dowager’s hump, shrinking violets with faint mustaches… you name it. I kept developing these rolls of film and getting them back and they looked nothing like Dianne Arbus. You know: haunted, shunned and auguring extinction? Nothing at all like that. Nothing like I had hoped to capture.”

“Did you try using black and white film?”

“That was my next step. My uncle Dan drove to a flea market and got me a banged up old Pentax for twenty bucks. So back I went to re-photograph every freak and outcast in my neighborhood, and then I did my church and my grammar school too. The custodial staff at school was a god-send. They were Existential super-models. Wet eyes and stubble. I shot rolls and rolls of black and white 35 millimeter film and spent all my savings…  every single Kennedy Half in my piggy bank…  getting those damn rolls developed. And guess what?”

“You still weren’t Dianne Arbus.”

She pantomimed tearing her hair out. “I still wasn’t Dianne Arbus. It was very frustrating to a nine year old girl who’d come that close to knowing what she was going to spend the rest of her life doing.”

“You tacked every print to the bedroom wall and stared for hours trying to grasp the difference. While all the other kids were playing you were staring intensely with the curtains drawn. You took a magnifying glass and studied gray, blurry, low-contrast images down to the finest molecular grain to locate whatever it was that wasn’t quite there. You studied between the grains. You ran your fingers over the photos in the dark…”

“I sure did. And guess what?”

“Eureka?”

“I came to a profound conclusion. See, all my freaks were… smiling…  smiling. In every single photo I’d taken. Listen, it’s hard to look like a freak and an outcast when you’re smiling. Arbus was a fraud. Those famously eerie and depressing pictures of hers would have looked exactly the same no matter who she was photographing…  as long as she put ‘em in a bad enough mood first!”

I laughed, but it was also some kind of genuine insight. Funny girl; smart girl. But still not any version of pretty.

“See, artists, first and foremost… if they’re any ‘good’… ” She simulated quotation marks with her fingers, seeming to quote her own head. “… they’re con men. Con Artists. It’s all a scam. Because of that precocious little revelation, I lost the desire to be an artist very very young… but I couldn’t find anything else to replace it. Some epiphanies suck.” She sighed. Or ‘sighed’.

I thought: I should study her face the way she studied those photographs and get to the bottom of this ‘attractiveness’ thing. Was there no hope for her? We walked in silence for half a block until she perked up and skipped ahead and turned, walking backwards to face me and ask, “So, I guess being forty two and all means you already know what you became when you grew up, huh.”

“Well, yeah. ‘What’ and ‘how’ are pretty young questions. ‘Why’ is the one I’m dealing with now.”

Still walking backwards she held the camera out at me like it was I.D.. “Ask an oblique question and get an oblique answer, I guess. Smile?”

“Best I can do is leer.”

She stopped abruptly and I bumped into her, making us both laugh while also confirming my suspicion that she was flat-chested. Her bones were like a heavy old iron bed frame.

“So here’s my building and so forth.”

“Am I coming in?”

“Suit yourself.”

She shouldered a massive door and we passed through a dark hallway, one wall of which was a bank of letterboxes, and across a barren courtyard the most interesting feature of which was the wire-fenced enclosure for two wheeled dumpsters and three barrels for various colors of recyclable glass. Meaning beer bottles. She lived in the rearmost wing of the building, what the Germans call the hinterhof, and up five flights of stairs. Her voice and our footsteps echoed in the otherwise deathly quiet stairwell.

“I arrived in Berlin about two weeks after the attack on the Twin Towers, right? First thing I noticed was the airport… I flew out of Newark… the airport was empty. No lines, no waiting. I got upgraded to First Class and I got all kinds of free drinks. It was like everyone was feeling sorry for me. Then I land in Berlin and the Germans… you never saw Germans acting so compassionate. It freaked me out. I saw an ad in the paper and came to look at this flat… I was staying in a youth hostel up the road a ways… and the lady practically begged me to take it. Didn’t ask about my financial status or anything. All she needed was to hear that I was American. I was like a celebrity… I was living, breathing history and she wanted to be a part of it, and to show her solidarity with the American way of life.”

We were huffing and puffing as we trudged ever upwards.

“She told me she was leaving for Jamaica… a friend wanted her to run a bed and breakfast there… she proposed I sublet until she returned in March and then we’d talk about it. Fully furnished, washing machine, the works. Reasonable rent… all the utilities bills are deducted automatically from her bank account. All I have to do is deposit money in her account before the fifth of every month, right? She says I’ll call in a week in case you have any questions. She doesn’t leave a number or an address she can be reached at but I figure nothing that bad can happen in a week… if the toilet backs up I’ll bang on a neighbor’s door or something.”

We stood on the landing in front of the door while she dug in her puffy orange jacket for the keys. We were both winded and panted heavily while smiling at each other like idiots. She said,

“But she didn’t call in a week. Or in three weeks. Or, like, ever. It’s been five years and I haven’t heard a word.” She unlocked the door and pushed it open and gestured that I should enter first.

It was an airless flat with hardwood floors and overstuffed, maiden-aunt furniture. The distant odor of rotten cherries. Every flat horizontal surface… windowsill, counter-top, book shelf, banquette and faux mantelpiece… was covered with obsessive-compulsive kitsch. Porcelain figurines, miniature spoons, plasticine cartoon characters, antique thimbles, keys, ink pens, buttons and egg cups and so on. The living room opened, theoretically, onto a balcony but the double doors were blocked by a small table supporting a very large vintage radio and had a sealed look about them. There was a large box or trunk on the balcony, exposed to the elements. To the right of the table supporting the radio, on the floor, was a television on top of a VCR angled to face the overstuffed couch that Amanda gestured with mock grandiosity that I should sit on.

“Do you know what a vollmacht is?”

“A what?”

“Okay, it’s like this signed declaration authorizing you to pick up a parcel at the post office on the signatory’s behalf, for example. Okay. She left one for me on the kitchen table figuring there’d be packages for her from time to time.”

To the right of the television were two old steamer trunks which, unlike all the old steamer trunks I’d ever seen, had obviously once belonged to the profoundly wealthy, with ornately bracketed corners and complex locking mechanisms. The larger of the two stood on end, on metal wheels, and the one nearest the television lay on its bottom face, handle facing us. She opened this one and removed a video cassette and shoved it into the mouth of the VCR.

“Just about every two months I get a little green notification in the mail that the mailman has supposedly attempted to deliver a parcel… which is a lie, he’s just too lazy to come up the stairs and he assumes people will be at work during the day… and so here’s me in a taxi to fetch a package that isn’t even mine because it’s way too heavy to use my bike.”

She aimed a remote control at the television.

“About a year ago I figured, what the hell? So I started opening the parcels.”

A sinister-looking copyright warning in Cyrillic lettering appeared on the screen.

“It’s all porno. Hundreds of videocassettes of porno porno and more porno. Every kind of porno known to man, no pun intended. This trunk here is full of them but these are only the ones I’ve gotten to… the bedroom is stacked to the ceiling with ‘em. Hey, what can I say, I’m on a tight budget… I can’t afford to go to the movies, pay for cable, or rent something from the videothek, so… you know. This is my entertainment. I can see you’re surprised. Some of them are actually pretty good and even clever in a theory of film kind of way but, well, duh, most of them are amateurish and evil but they’re all fascinating. I’m becoming kind of an expert. The neighbors must be pretty acclimatized to the moaning by now… moanin’ noon and night… moanin’ and groanin’ and horrible horrible music and so forth. I tried watching with the sound off a few times but a soundless porno is like a silent martial arts film and it was definitely missing a dimension.”

“So, you weren’t kidding about the porno.”

She shook her head just once and tossed her jacket on a chair near the kitchen door. “I wasn’t kidding about the porno.”

She plopped down beside me on the couch. “I’m not an expert on the terminology, okay, because I never studied it in school, so give me a break, but I’ve managed to break the films down into three basic categories: mind control, rape, and torture. The mind control ones are the easiest to watch. It goes like this. Some guy exchanges a chatty kind of dialogue with some chick with boobs out to here…  I mean, I assume it’s chatty from the general sound of it… and within a few minutes she’s got his thingy-do in her mouth and they’re off an running. Some of the guys look fit enough and sometimes even slightly, weirdly cute… in a sideburned way… but most of them are bushy, freckled pot-bellied beasts so that’s the mind control aspect. It’s a certain kind of male fantasy for a certain kind of male… usually the gentler ones… that they can have sex with a mind-bogglingly attractive woman by merely coming up with the correct combination of words, all things being equal. I love it. But this one we’re about to see is from a rape batch, I’m pretty sure. Yeah, it’s definitely going to be rape. So, like, fasten your seat belt… “

A tiny, black-haired, Middle Eastern type with dirigible breasts climbs out of a limousine as it comes to rest on a circular driveway. She’s done up in a way we’re meant to accept as wealthy: a low-cut black micro-dress and gaudy jewelry. Her hair hangs down as far as her thighs and she is pretty in a hard bronze way, with kohl-rimmed eyes and cheekbones of almost Mongol severity. She lets herself into a pillared house we accept as a mansion. Cut: to two gangly gentlemen (resembling nothing so much as retired second-string basketball players) dressed in black leather and berets, ransacking the master bedroom. Cut: to the ‘wealthy’ beauty ascending her spiral staircase, a half-finished bottle of champagne in one hand and her stiletto heels dangling by their straps from the other.

I cleared my throat and scratched my forehead and said, “Is this some sort of test, Amanda?”

“Um, you could think of it as a lie detector test in a way, yeah.” She giggled. Or ‘giggled’. I didn’t giggle back. What if I suffered a terribly obvious erection while these two black gentlemen beat and raped the Persian? What would that say about me and how could I deny the verdict? Amanda had mercy and flicked the remote and the picture froze with the blacks crouched on the obscure side of the bedroom door. It was a striking image. Figures on an urn. “Want some tea?”

“I’m not sure.”

“You think I’m weird now.”

I shrugged.

“I’m not weird. I’m just acclimatized to Germans. You’re the first American I’ve ever had up here. I’ve forgotten certain standards of normal. You’re new in Berlin, okay, so you don’t know it yet but the cultural distance between, like, Germany and America isn’t that much smaller than the one between, say, Iceland and Iran. You’ll see what I mean.”

 

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