by Sven Klöpping
Translated by Michael K. Iwoleit
Chili con carne
If he wasn’t so useful as a driver I might be tempted to shut his mouth for good. It’s disgusting nonetheless to see how this mouth, the jaws gaping all the way, is fed with one spoon after the other and gobbles the meat pulp like mousse au chocolat without wasting too much time on chewing. The flavor of his dish is not very appetizing and cuts its way across the edge of the plate and the table, settles in my nose, runs through my windpipe and into my stomach that is about to erupt. I couldn’t stop it but I can’t avert my eyes either because the others watch me Argus-eyed. His noisy eating doesn’t bother anyone but me, a white fast-food Yankee – although I don’t even appear like a transient, more like someone who is on the run. Meanwhile the gluttony of the man opposite is climaxing in a huge burp.
At the poker table: cheers that seem a little bizarre in an atmosphere that must have strayed into the Cervezeria where the Mexicans prefer to lounge on bar stools and plastic chairs, spend their time with card-playing and drinking and bluntly gaping at the bar, where the beer itself would be glad to be drunk to better endure this boredom. Otherwise there’s a dead silence such as it sometimes occurs in the UN Security Council while elsewhere the napalm bombs go up, down and up again, humans are turned into ash and a minute of silence is devoted to the fallen troops, especially the own ones.
Calm without the hope of a storm pervades the bar and there seems to be a trace of feigned condolence in the eyes of the Mexicans who constantly look over at us. Otherwise they just drink and keep quiet – their best ways to forget themselves. Talkativeness is definitely not on the menu here, especially not in presence of a fast-food Yankee and much less if this Yankee is unwilling to pay at least five rounds as he usually does in Hollywood. There’s no TV set that might have distracted the well-nourished Latino cowboys. Even the clamorous mob of bikers that might show up any minute, reduce everything to rubble, empty out the whole beer supply and violate every single woman around is constantly ignored – which is an indication that the beer is running short anyway because there are enough women and the buildings looks like it is insured.
Meanwhile José, the man opposite, does his best to catch up with his countrymen in terms of corpulence. He shoves the calories with relish towards his esophagus and seems not to be interested in his surroundings. Over the last four hours as my life was in his hands and almost got wasted – while overhauling he did not only topple beer bottles but almost the whole truck – I didn’t witness him any other way. The whole time he was chewing on some food supplies that he pulled like a magician out of bags, compartments and boxes.
Of course I could have got out and fled from my budding paranoia – but wasn’t this what I was doing anyway?
Before I had met José yesterday I had been standing somewhat west of Mexicali at a graveled rural road, my fear behind and the sun ahead of me, halfheartedly hitchhiking toward Tijuana, and was close to giving up. About three dozen selfish pricks had left me standing which was all the more annoying since there were only 150 kilometers left to the border where I would be welcomed in a heavily armed manner to protect me, as was claimed, from dangerous immigrants from the south. God bless America!
Of course I felt a little queasy in this lonely cotton plantations. I felt like an outlaw, thirsty, sweaty and homeless. Never before had I been so misplaced as in this country. Most of the car drivers seemed to think the same since they usually drove by without even noticing me (or not wanting to notice me). At best they looked at me out of the corners of their eyes and some even tried to provoke me, abused their horns or swerved into my direction but didn’t stop and floored their cars with a laugh.
I would have been back in San Francisco long since if I hadn’t left my money in a scrap heap of a Beetle whose driver would not turn round to bring it back to me.
Dusk was already falling and I was about to search for a place to sleep in the wild as I heard the noise of a solitary car engine behind me that chuffed along the road. It clattered and spluttered as if the engine had been fed with the wrong kind of gas and seemed close to conk out, break down or betray its owner in some other way.
I turned towards the road and my apprehensions were confirmed. A transporter from the thirties, with grilled radiator and two-part rounded windshields that looked like two sad eyes, was approaching me. The windshields were dirty and almost made it impossible to look into the car interior. I could only recognize the contours of the driver, a broad-shouldered male figure that casually sat behind the wheel and did not seem to be aware that his jalopy was hardly in a running condition.
The car was approaching me leisurely while its eyes got ever larger, sadder and smudgier. At first I didn’t intend to stop this moving spare parts depot. It would probably grunt, creak and fall apart when I got on. Exhaust fumes clouded the air behind it like the breath of a dying dragon that had just enough strength left to curse its surroundings and all that crept and flied in it.
I don’t remember why I extended my thumb. I was probably afraid to spend the night alone in this wasteland. He would drive on anyway, I thought, but the car got ever slower which, considering the state of the vehicle, didn’t necessarily indicate the intentions of the driver to take me along. It might just as well have been the premonitions of a sudden death. The car hissed and whistled and screeched to a halt a few yards further down the road.
You may imagine that I was more than a little surprised as José pushed the door open, received me with a bottle of Corona and even managed to got the van moving again.
Maybe it’s José’s “dish” and the way he devours it that causes a certain aversion and a subliminal aggression in me.
My stomach is commanded by that chemical process that spirally spreads over neural pathways and the rib cage almost up to my neck, sending SOS calls to the cerebellum. Beads of sweat form on my brow but it’s hardly noted in the poorly ventilated joint.
José is almost finished, scratching the rest of the billowing stuff from his plate, oblivious of my disgust or ignoring it, chewing the pulp back and forth with relish as if time has no meaning, as if there wasn’t any trampers longing to go home – as if nothing existed but his repulsive muck that trickles in threads from the corners of his mouth.
Thoughts that I wanted to forget long ago cut their way via my association cortex into my mind. José’s way of eating, his smacking and the way his greedy eyes devour everything before it’s even in his mouth – I had to be suffering from Alzheimer’s if this sight wouldn’t remind me of the incidents that had brought me to Central America months ago. Incredible – even the motivity of his right hand as it hold the spoon resembles that of my former friend.
As I suppress the urge to vomit that overtakes me without warning José notices any glance in his direction.
When I give him my attention even for just the fraction of a second he cracks an ironic, complacent smile that makes my blood run cold. Not because of that smile but because I suddenly see Pete instead of the Mexican sitting in front of me and have to listen how he constantly repeats this one sentence, his litany of mental destabilization while he is turned on by my anxiety. After all he knew that I’m allergic to it. He should have known! The thought alone almost drives me mad. I can’t stand it, have to get somewhere, to the bathroom, outside – but away from this table!
Jośe stops for a short period and, as if he’s a telepath, grins broadly and charming like a corn harvester while disgorging a smattering of English words with half-full mouth: “You …” The meat keeps him from speaking fluently so he gulps everything at once and manages to complete his question: “You too?”
He arches his bushy eyebrows, points at the chili and grins. I decisively shake the head. Gracias, I’ve already eaten. I have no demand for a second hot meal. Next time maybe. He shrugs and goes for his helpless prey again, obviously without remembering that I’ve made a very different statement about my feeling of hunger in the car. He seems not give a fuck how I feel and it doesn’t surprise me with such a blunt guy like him. The other Mexicans avert their eyes and continue to do nothing after listening to our attempt of a conversation for five seconds.
Thinking of Pete has got me completely confused. To get rid of it at all costs I peer into the mustachioed visage of my opposite one more time. It doesn’t resemble the face of my former friend to the slightest degree. I try to convince myself that his cheeks are much fatter, his lips more rubbery – but I still don’t feel any relief. What I need now is some kind of distraction, opium for the self that has lost itself somewhere between Miami and Disney town where much better shops and addicts are to be found. But instead of being relieved and entertained I repeatedly witness how José is joyfully pushing his leftovers back and forth, as if showing off, pressing them with his tongue between his teeth so that I can follow everything live and in color.
And then he turns up again, Pete, my former best friend, looking up from his plate, a curtain of hippie-like long hair over his savaged features, spilling out of his full mouth: “It’s not enough for us …”
Cold shivers down my back, bear witness to my suppressed fear. I don’t want to be reminded! But my memory is like an old wound that you’ve got used to and that bursts open when you happen to bump into something, causing an eruption of pain that you thought you had overcome long ago.
Steak with roast potatoes
It should have been late summer according to the calendar: a sunny Californian late summer, permeated with the scent of ripe grapes. Calendars, however, are sometimes mistaken and so the city which around this time of the year would usually be bathed in a shimmering light, its streets turned by streams of tourists into a kind of open air theater, was now, stiffened from the cold, in the grip of an impossible weather. There was no trace of a summer, no matter how hard I looked. The cloud cover wasn’t penetrated by a single beam of light. Frozen up puddles and ice-covered windshields of Pontiac cabriolets seemed a little surreal. It smelled of autumn and winter, not of wine grapes which would no be harvested this year, spoiled by the frost. They served port wine and import wines in the restaurants instead.
I shivered up and down the foggy, windy streets of San Francisco but didn’t find a way out. My trembling body was wrapped in all kinds of winter sweaters, scarfs and cotton socks that I could get hold off. They hadn’t been needed for such a long time that moths had nested in some of them.
The legendary tourist crowds that would otherwise squash through the streets in cars, buses and old-fashioned streetcars had failed to appear and I couldn’t blame them. If still some foreigners would show up in defiance of all logic they were almost indistinguishable from the frustrated locals. They wore warm padded jackets, usually hat or woolen caps too, and on each of their faces was a clear expression of what they thought about the snowfall.
Thus, I at least wasn’t alone with my frustration but one of many disappointed fellows who, like in protest marched across the sidewalks, pretending that all was fine. They smiled. They talked: “It will be all right. We will deal with it. We Americans have dealt with far more difficult things than that.” I didn’t get anything out of their positive thinking, however, and gave vent to my anger by kicking cans over the curbside or ranted at little children who crossed my path with their sleds.
After half an eternity of carefully avoiding to slip or being knocked over I finally climbed the stairs up to the Red Peppers where my friend was waiting for me.
Not that Pete’s invitation had bothered me, quite the contrary. I was looking forward to chat with him since we had hardly met for some weeks.
The business, family, his girlfriend, appointments – there was always something. At first I didn’t have any explanation why he always asked me for dinner each time he wanted to see me. It was not unpleasant in any way. After all, Pete was still my best friend and I was glad for any opportunity to chat with him about old and new times. But of course we could have gone to a cinema or a bar, simply to see something else than the reddish interior of the Red Peppers.
And there was something strange that made me increasingly despise such meetings. Pete didn’t bother with me at all during dinner. It was really disconcerting that he was completely occupied with eating and reordering and I felt almost useless in his presence, like a deaf-mute priest in a confessional box. I didn’t exist for him anymore and if he cared to say something it was usually a question like how I liked the food, which kind of dessert I wanted to order, if I could recommend a good restaurant in Chinatown and so on.
Well, I am a far too good-natured person to simply look away when my friends have problems. It was obvious that something was wrong with Pete. I usually approach the concerned persons directly in such cases to find out what they suffer from and to help as best as I can. Helping others is kind of a self therapy for me that you don’t try on yourself but on others – almost without a risk. I had such a reputation of a hobby psychiatrist among my friends and acquaintances that I was consulted without being asked, even regarding trifles.
My advantage was that I wasn’t even required to check after such a “session” whether the person in question had actually put my proposals into practice. Such an approach might be contrary to the ethical standards of medicine – if there is any such thing at all – it was, however, not contrary to my own thinking which was still pretty sound at that time. Pete’s case, however, was on an altogether different level, compared with the usual everyday worries. I didn’t have the slightest idea what was going on in his head and was unable to make head or tail of his sudden reluctance that at times aggravated into a real aversion against me. I had already advised him to consult a professional who might provide better help than me. Peter, however, had been rather sensitive to that proposal which made me assume that he preferred the support of a good friend instead of being “abused” by one of those “mind eaters”, as he used to call the psychoanalysts.
I was shivering as I tore the bar’s entrance door open. After a short cursory look around the seating area I discovered him at a small side table, apart from the sparse visitor traffic, completely immersed in himself and his plate. In this corner, relatively shielded by screens, he was just eagerly chopping up his first or third pork filet – he didn’t care how many exactly – as I joined him.
A slight nod towards me was his only hint of a welcome before he covetously lunged at the still untouched young vegetables. I decided to pretend that I could handle the situation, consulted the menu and made it seem like I was picking something, although I always ordered the same meal in the Red Peppers that Pete, however, could never remember.
“You shouldn’t eat so much”, I said casually as if the words had just dropped out of my mouth.
He looked up, obviously struggling with himself whether he should put his oar in it but decided against it and kept on snacking.
The next minutes I watched him shredding rather then chopping his filet and devouring huge chunks of it without caring much for the feelings of other people who were eating. As he did his plate was getting empty while the air was getting stale and I somehow tried to squeeze in between as if it all wasn’t my business.
Pete had never been a gourmet. The amount of greed, however, with which he stuffed the portions into his mouth was not completely new to me but in this intensity and crudity it reminded me of a medieval tavern where the gents used to empty their stomachs more or less frequently, depending on their capacity, to make room for the next course. When Pete had cleared his plate of everything edible he would notify me shortly how delectably it had tasted before he ordered a fresh ration that was just waiting to be served to this ravenous regular.
The waiter interrupted any further thought. I order steak with roast potatoes as I had done the last few times. Then I pondered what, in Odin’s name, had caused my friend to put his lowest instincts on display in such a way. No doubt, it was a libidinous compulsion that had seized hold of my friend. It was as if he had been ordered to incessantly assimilate food so not to starve to death or suffer something even worse.
Was it a rare disease or was a simple midlife crisis to be blamed for his abnormal behavior? Had he overworked his mind and his body during his stockbroker career in such a way that he had finally become a victim of the trading floor? He who had always hold his health in high esteem and who never let anybody or anything convince him of the American fast food dream? The waiter brought the interim check, my steak and let us know that we were always gladly welcome in this house. Sic!
The days passed and the cold went. Instead the heat struck which was with around 100 ° F almost even worse. Outside half-clad, sweaty figures squeezed past each other across the pavement, streaming towards the hopelessly crowded beach that willingly absorbed them after all the time and made them gradually forget the late Californian winter. Hoteliers, ice-cream vendors, travel agencies – they all were delighted and profited in the name of possibly record-breaking top temperatures.
Only I was sitting in my attic apartment and enjoyed every motion I wasn’t forced to complete.
During one of my dates with Pete – that became more frequent and increasingly unpleasant now as the Red Peppers was more busy and thus less tolerant towards my friend’s Lucullan escapades than during the customer free winter season – he looked at me right in the middle of his gluttony with strangely sparkling eyes which expressed a determination I had never noticed in him before. There was selfishness and aggression in his eyes which for the first time frightened me somehow. He stopped eating for a moment, sloppily cleaned his mouth with a napkin and uttered those words that were filled with more foreboding than I had thought at that time and only later indelibly burned into my memory.
“It’s not enough for us,” he whispered, looked all around and stuffed the next jacket potato unpeeled into his mouth. I was tempted to ask “Us?” but kept my mouth shut, not sure if I even wanted to hear his answer.
From this moment on I had no doubt that Pete was in need of help. Maybe he suffered from a split personality, schizophrenia or whatever it might be called. At least I haven’t had an explanation until then why and how his character had changed so much – this one sentence made it clear. Like a puzzle that assembled without my assistance an overall image of my friend’s state of mind emerged. I couldn’t assess in this stage what he really suffered from, otherwise I would have taken other measures to help him.
But I couldn’t explain it: he was obsessed with hunger but didn’t try to hide it like a bulimia patient, instead acted it out in public. His personal circumstances hadn’t changed much. He had a well-paid job and he never had a lack of women. It would probably take a good headshrinker to find our what was wrong with him and even thinking of such a treatment – that according to the Freudian association had a success rate of 1:500 – made me almost despair.
A candy bar (interlude)
José has pushed the last bite of his meal towards his esophagus and makes the chair back squeak as he gets up.
At the bar he holds out a few dollars to the sluggish barkeeper whose eyes flash briefly, then leaves the pint with me in tow and enters the so-called parking lot where a few vans stand about. They are mostly from Mexico and what they have in common with their owners is the way they carelessly wait in the blazing midday heat for something to happen.
What I see here makes the whole of Mexico seem lazy and destructive to me and almost turns me misanthropic. Even the highways seem to transport rushed people with no other intention but to hurl them over the banks to their death if they dare to negotiate a corner too fast. Day and night, wind and fire, humans and animals are permeated with a tangible infamy that is hard to describe.
If the Indians are to believed, this is the late revenge of that legendary original people that once ruled South and Central America before the “returned gods” came sailing with the galleons over the edge of the world and let the Aztec high civilization collapse into drunken bodies and drug trade. Each year countless people die on the – still not yet completely finished – Panamericana what may be seen, depending on your perspective, as tragic or as a timeless tribute to Pachamama.
Since the highway is the only continuous route through South America, it’s significantly more frequented than the muddy potholes in the hinterland. It’s interesting how the Mexicans deal with this fact. While Americans or Germans would have worked themselves almost to death to divert traffic to secondary routes, jump-started new cities in the semi-desert for the sole purpose of traffic optimization and thrown whole ecosystems out of balance in doing so, the Mexican has simply built a few highway rest stops with a guaranteed customer base and waits for the next beer while drinking beer and even takes in tip for waiting.
José awkwardly produces a candy bar from his pants pocket, bites into it and offers it to me. I decline with thanks.
He didn’t hear from Pete again for three and a half months before he suddenly phoned.
His voice sounded fragile and exhausted as if he suffered from chronic bronchitis. He asked feebly if I would visit him and asked again repeatedly as I had trouble to understand him. Yes, he would ask me to dinner. To dinner. No, not into the Red Peppers this time but into his new apartment in the north. I could come today if I felt like it. I said that basically I could come but proceeded to ask what has been wrong with him recently, that I haven’t heard from him for quite some time. He told me that his business wasn’t going to well, the prices fluctuated and he was afraid that he would soon be fired.
I expressed my sympathy and agreed to visit him this day so that he could tell me everything calmly. I was hardly finished when I heard the busy sign. My promise made me wonder myself. Didn’t I know already what was going on with my friend?
So I set off by early evening. I only marginally knew my way around the north, so it took me a while to reach my destination. After an hour I had finally found the correct stretch of road, not a very pleasant quarter with just a few new or renovated houses. I parked my Ford in a guarded underground garage for three dollars an hour. I vainly searched for an elevator in the house and my apprehensions were confirmed in the staircase. Water trickled from the ceiling. The plaster had not been renewed since the founding period. The landlord seemed to have given up on his duties. There were other, more lucrative properties in the city.
You have ended up in quite a shabby quarter, I thought, took a deep breath and climbed the stairs. Breathing hard I entered the 6th floor and briefly knocked on the door on the right whose bell – as Pete had described – had been removed and which had no name. I was still staring at the spot where bare wires stuck out as I heard the door creaking and the strange voice of my friend that sounded even more rough than on the phone.
“Too many visitors,” he croaked and pointed at the missing bell.
Pete wasn’t Pete anymore. I was faced with a short, fat man who put out his hand and scrutinized me with alert eyes. The scruffy appearance, his voice, the strange reception – all of that wasn’t really appealing. I ignored it all with a awkward smile and kept my mouth shut. What could I have said as a visitor?
I had to resignedly realize that I – spontaneous and flexible, according to my employer – was exactly the creature of habit that you read about in trade journals, unwilling to deal with any kind of changes and prone to ignore or understate them if he can’t help to face them. It has been claimed in other journals that it’s a “genetic degeneration” that has spread for thousands of years and has contributed much to the current inflexibility of humanity. I can only agree to that. It’s true that we cover ever longer distances in ever shorter time but in our heads the facts of everyday life pile up like stacks of documents and proven patterns of behavior join into lines like in a post office so that our messy nature is left behind and gets stuck in the thick traffic of civilized life.
Seen from this angle I was stuck at the highway junction of my prejudices while Pete was wandering along a lonely country road on a planet far removed from all material reality – a world where burgers grew on trees and fried chickens flapped into your mouth.
I mechanically followed the inviting gesture of my friend that guided me into his parlor like I was a lackey whose king had just granted him an audience. Moments later I was standing in the dining room that from one point of view didn’t look like a dining room at all, from another point of view, however, looked exactly like you would expect a dining room to look. The floor was completely covered with food remains, pizza boxes and formerly colorful supermarket wrappings that were waiting to be recycled. This sight and the foul stench that pervaded the room into every corner was extremely repulsive and to claim that it put me into a state of deep disgust would be a gross understatement.
I didn’t remember Pete as being so messy. His domicile had always been tiptop clean before then, to such agree that I had been ashamed to invite him into my pigpen. But now? Wherever I looked the walls were draped or plastered with greatly enlarged photos of meat, salads, fruits, all kinds of finished dishes and exotic delicacies whose names I could only guess. On the table next to the Michelin lay books such as How to Eat the Right Way, Delicious Afghanistan, The Return of the Beef Tomatoes (Part #5), The Wishing-Table – the whole bunch provided with side marker so that the best would not be forgotten but eaten.
At least I got some idea here why he hadn’t got in touch with me and had been in trouble at work: who was so concerned with eating didn’t have any time left for life after dessert.
I was involuntarily reminded of the well-known psychologist Dr. C. Rosenkreutz’s attempt to research behavioral disorders caused by greatly reduced food intake. Of course there had been some dumb-asses willing to dispense with significant amounts of their usual diet for several months which many regretted very soon and in some cases even caused anomalies. The probands began to think of eating all the time. Some provided themselves with cookbooks and gourmet guidebooks so that they at least could devour images of their favorite dishes as long as they weren’t allowed to feast to their heart’s content. Within a few months the experiment got out of control to such a degree that some left their wives to focus on their new hobby, quit their jobs completely or at least took their whole vacation in one stretch. The only reason was that these people didn’t eat enough. Pete, however, did feast to his heart’s content, squandered his money, wasted it for any conceivable delicacy available on the American market and still suffered from the same symptoms as Rosenkreutz’s human guinea pigs.
I pushed my thoughts to the side along with some pizza boxes to sit down. Behind me Pete almost stumbled over his own legs, just barely managed to occupy a free spot and gave himself some solid courage by hastily shoveling a few spoonfuls of strawberry ice cream into his mouth before he addressed me.
“I’ve invited you today because I think you should know which danger humanity is facing.”
What did he have in mind now?
“You will declare me insane … ” His talk was repeatedly interrupted by an obligatory smacking. “Well … maybe I am. But … hmm … as my friend you should know something about the danger that we’re not aware of as it … hmm … maybe seems too simple but – it’s definitely there.”
His fingers trembled and his composure – an insincere kind of composure as I realized now – was for a moment revealed in all its fragility so that he almost dropped the ice cream to the carpet what could just be prevented, however, by an elegant sweep of his forearm.
I noticed his near-mishap without a stir, not willing to make him assume that I was thinking what I was actually thinking in this moment, what would have seemed suspicious but only for someone who I didn’t see with the same eyes as Pete. He continued as if nothing had happened.
“They want us to eat more. It’s like a … a fattening. We are like pigs and they feed us. And they do it by causing us to feed ourselves and by deciding with what we feed ourselves. You have no idea what I had to endure in the last few months. They … ” He abruptly lapsed into silence and seemed to seriously struggle with something. There was no other explanation for his jerky movements as if he a shivering fit or an epileptic seizure. He seemed to fight with his own split personality, nervously stroked his hair and stared blankly at an oversized meat loaf on the wall behind me.
“What is it?”, I asked.
He turned towards me, completely surprised as if he didn’t know whether or why I had asked. His glance would even have puzzled a half-blind, a dull, blank look like that in the Red Peppers a few weeks ago: eyes that would have scared off an insurance agent or an unwelcome mother-in-law but not eyes that were looking at a friend.
The bright green pupils were dim, gleaming faintly. They were hiding something, I thought. Pete briefly opened his mouth, gasped for air as if struggling for his life, exhaled noisily and closed his mouth again like a fish without answering my question. His state had stabilized again only a few minutes later and he asked me to go – claiming that he wasn’t feeling well and that he had to rest.
I told him that I already noticed that but that I would call in again as soon as he had put his stuff in order which, of course, did not only refer to his physical health. He showed me to the door where he wished me a nice evening and this time it was me who didn’t answer.
Ignorant as I was, I actually visited him again one month later. As I stood before his door there was a different name – or rather a name at all – on the doorbell which even worked. I pushed the button and a short, somewhat stocky man opened.
“What do you want?”, he asked with an Italian accent.
“Eh … does Pete Mulligan not live here anymore?”
“No!”, the Italian snorted and slammed the door.
It seemed that I had disturbed him. Something told me that I should let the matter rest, forget about Pete, leave his life to himself and conduct no further inquiries. He would surely get along somehow. After all, almost everybody gets along somehow nowadays, even the “mentally challenged” who, despite being deprived of their freedom, tease and twit their caretakers and are even rewarded for it with something that had formerly been called a fool’s license before it was rechristened into “rehabilitation” by naive and humorless flower people.
But Pete was not such a fool – I tried to persuade myself – that he would expect me to witness his indisposed situation. I was secretly afraid to feel like a gawker, like the people who place themselves behind the barriers after an accident and have a giggle over the calamity of others. On the other hand, however, the pricks of my conscience would force me to make sure that my friend was still of sound mind or at least accountable. I soothingly reasoned with myself that things were different in my case, that I had a certain responsibility as a friend – after all, there was still a chance to get him out of his mess – , which may serve as an indication that deep in my heart I was still a naive and humorless hippie myself. And so I pushed the button a second time. It took the Italian a little longer to open the door and this time he was much more aggressive.
“Who the hell do you think you are, you … you … ”
“Please, it’s a matter of urgency. I need important information from you.”
“Is there a sign with ‘inquiry office’ at my door?” the Italian snapped, though already a little calmer. It always helps when you lay the right emphasis on the right words. In this moment I noticed two things that, I realized, I should have noticed before but had overlooked in my initial bafflement: first that his belt was open and second that I heard from his apartment the impatient sigh of a female ready to mate.
“Sorry, I didn’t want to intrude … ”
“You already have intruded. So go ahead, but hurry.”
I put my request forward. He asked for my name, confirmed that Pete had left his address for me and let me wait for him to write it down but then, for fuck’s sake, I should piss off and never bother him again. No problem at all, I replied and half an hour later I was, with a crumpled-up slip of paper in my pocket, fuzzily scribbled on with a street name but no house number, in search of my friend, fearing the worst. According to the town map he had moved into one of the nastiest outskirts of the whole West Coast.
Either the Italian was sending me into this dangerous quarter to give me a wipe or the man was right – which might be even worse.
To get over with it as soon as possible, I set off immediately and parked the car after a two hour criss-cross drive in an alley where I thought nobody would notice, scratch or otherwise damage it. For the rest of the way I cautiously pussyfooted like a shadow along the houses until I spotted the sought street sign at a larger crossroad.
It was February and thus cold. Since even the air made it seem like it would become even more chilly any minute I was eager to swiftly check every doorbell for Pete’s last name. But then I realized this course of action made little sense as he already had taken care in his previous lodging that no stranger would find him and it was to be expected that he would shut himself off from unwelcome visitors the same way here.
Regardless of whether it made sense, I still undertook the ordeal. At least I could have claimed afterwards that he had tried everything to locate Pete and would not be plagued by a bad consciousness (though by frozen hands maybe). While I paced off the surrogate dump that could better be called a junkie boulevard than a sidewalk, desperately searching for a doorbell with the name “Mulligan” on it, the moldy smell and the cold aggravated and finally enwrapped and froze me from all sides, I would have been tempted to turn back on my heels if I hadn’t, at that very moment, tripped over a picture of misery that crouched, gaunt and in rags, at an exterior wall and began to cough as I hit his ribs with my toecaps.
“Hey!”, the figure muttered sleepily without lifting his head.
I muttered “sorry” in a low voice, trying to avoid all trouble in this neighborhood. You never knew how many of his accomplices were hiding in dark corners of the street and would need no more that one word, one gesture to come at me.
“Never mind … ” He blinked from under his hood and added, half puzzled, half amazed: “Oh, it’s you?”
The words made me dizzy – his voice! – but I forced me to stay calm. After all there were some doubts left. Maybe it was not my friend. Maybe this man had just one whiskey too many.
The next step took a lot of effort. I looked down and examined the shadowy silhouette that had more in common with a heap of discarded garbage that with a living human being.
Worn old crutches were laying at the wall. His clothes, which would have been too shabby even for a clothing drive, were covered with beer and street filth. At the same time I found that – fortunately, as I initially thought – his right leg was missing which made me gasp of relief inwardly. It was not that I lacked sympathy for this poor fellow but now I could be sure that it couldn’t be Pete. I had known him as an athletic kind of guy who I couldn’t imagine with an amputated leg.
To be sure I called his name which caused the stranger to lift the hood that had covered his face until then. The load taken off my mind immediately turned into a weight around my neck that seemed to drag me down into hell.
It simply couldn’t be, but it was actually him! Accusations and self-doubts assaulted me as I had stood back while he was increasingly going mad and finally had distanced himself from everything, just as he was retreating now into his cloak, hood and a facade of schizothymic weirdness that I couldn’t explain.
Why had he battered himself like that? Why hadn’t I stepped in earlier? These and other futile questions encircled my mind and kept my sympathy from breaking through to him. I kneeled down in horror on the rubbish-littered pavement and desperately tried to remember when we had laughed together last.
“What has happened to your leg?”, I finally asked.
“We were hungry,” Pete said.
As the word “hungry” had been spoken he went back into these muscle contractions that I had already witnessed, to a lesser extent, in his living room. This time, however, they were much stronger and turned his whole body into a twitching thing that reared up against the exterior wall and squirmed like being whipped. He looked like having an epileptic seizure. I had to desperately concede that this was no longer the old Pete who had traveled with me through Europe and spent, out of sheer world weariness and boredom, two years in an Irish hippie commune without accomplishing much.
This Pete here also had nothing in common with the person I thought I had known half a year ago. Since our last meeting, which was just a few weeks back, he had changed so thoroughly that his case history couldn’t have been any more depressing. He had not just lost the fat reserves he had built up in such a short time but was downright emaciated as if he was suffering from anorexia instead of bulimia now.
“How the hell did you get so sick?”, I exclaimed, examining his miserable state.
Pete managed to pull himself together somewhat, but he was still not himself rather that other personality who coldly and ambiguously retorted:
“Our craving is … self-destructive.” His hands trembled like an aspen leaf, deferring another seizure as best as he could. “Our hunger, our emotions burn us. We can’t handle them. They have deteriorated to a mechanical pattern that is easy to figure out. Open your eyes, look around, realize that humanity has failed.”
He accentuated his words like a fervent preacher as you see them in dozens of parks and shopping malls, always with a appropriate epistle on their lips and waggling the obligatory forefinger through the blessed radioactive air.
Even though I couldn’t make any sense of his message I devoutly nodded which I wouldn’t have done under different circumstance. It happened rarely that I played a sheep and even then I limited myself to its pelt. I have more trust in science and since scientists had argued that it’s better to agree with a madman than to contradict him, I forgot about my sincerity for a moment and became Pete’s devoted wolf in a sheep’s pelt.
“I believe you,” I lied on top of it, just to calm him down.
Instead of defusing the situation it only made his mouth blurt out an incomprehensible nagging and spitting. I instinctively started up so that I looked down on him as he breathed fire and brimstone and words that sounded like the execrations of a fortune-teller whose monopoly of the future had been disputed.
The longer I listened to this outburst of barbarity the more I despised myself for not having acted earlier these past few months, for not saving him from a mental breakdown and handing him over to a specialist. All that was left for me to do now was to tacitly witness the tragedy and be prepared for its conclusion. Either he recovered himself or he would further deteriorate into an insane asylum which I didn’t wish him no more than a gradual decline on the streets of San Franciso. His body convulsively shuddered one more time, then suddenly came to a halt, relaxed and became calm, almost rigid. Pete eyed me appraisingly.
“Say … do you happen to have something edible with you?”
I didn’t and Pete was disappointed. I suddenly became aware of another matter that had been in the back of my head the whole time and required clarification. So I asked: “What did you mean when you said that you had been hungry?”
“Eh, regarding the leg?”
“As I said.”
“You mean you have eaten it up?”
“Damn, I’ve been hungry. Don’t you know what hunger means?”
I raised my eyelashes.
“You think that I’m lying?”
“I think you conceal the truth.”
“Oh, fuck you. We know what we’re talking about. We don’t accept orders from some petty fool.”
Pete’s hands flinched and there was pure hate in his eyes. I didn’t know what to do. Maybe I should have called the police but what if Pete had acted like an ordinary beggar again when they arrived?
Without a word I let my friend continue to swear and retreated into my car, my sabbatical and the backpacking tour that has lasted three months by now, just to gain some distance …
Water and death
When I listen to José’s slurping and smacking I have the feeling that this trip has been a waste of time because nothing could remind me more of Pete than someone faithfully imitating or even exaggerating his behavior, even though my Mexican driver not even remotely resembles Pete. He looks more like a Latino who is intercepted close to the border, put behind bars and at best “repatriated” (which means returned to where he is not very welcome either).
His facial expressions remind me of one of those human fatalities who at KGTV reach higher audience ratings than a daily soap. Since the Operation Gatekeeper has been initiated at the Southern Californian border in 1993, the media report on the “illegals” more frequently since their mortality rate has raised their entertainment value enormously. Six times more persons than before are shot which means that while a few less Mexicans roam the frontiers’ dooryards there are some discussions about the human rights of the not-yet-shot, not the least since the immigration rate has dropped by merely 1 % which is far behind the expectations and promises of the government. Quite the contrary: the Gatekeeper program has even worsened the war-like conditions in this area. The conduct of the American border patrol has more in common with a bunch of guerilleros that with disciplined underlings. It’s not much different on the Mexican side. Miles before the demarcation street signs already warn of muggers, smugglers, border patrols and live ammunition. A warning of mortal danger would be more appropriate but does not fit in the autorities’ concept.
José appears unimpressed by the forest of signs. He transits this area regularly with his van and the delivery order guarantees him free driving up to Los Angeles. Besides, he thinks that the illegals don’t deserve it any better. Instead of working in Mexico and boosting the ailing economy they lead a fine life without thinking of their homeland. He has no answer to my argument that many of them provide their fathers at home with a better life. They are all lazy prosperity parasites, he claims, who have nothing better to do but to lie on the beach, to live on others and only think of themselves. I assume that he’s just a little envious, but I keep it to myself.
“They may all go to hell, if you ask me,” he boasts and hides the beer under his seat, in time for the border check.
It’s early afternoon and there’s little to be seen of illegal immigrants. It’s only after sunset when both war parties clash in the hundreds that the situation becomes dangerous and Hollywood-like. Nonetheless all are on guard even during the day and scrupulously check all papers. Only we are allowed to pass all checkpoints without much fuss. José wipes his brow with a cloth, reaches under his seat and has the Corona back in his hand. “Would you like one too?”, he asks me.
I decline but José keeps going. “There’s also something to eat in the glove box, if you want.”
Strange. He seems more relaxed than before the border check. Did he have something on board that shouldn’t have been there?
“Maybe later,” I say. He doesn’t have to know that I prefer the next McDonald’s.
“Could you tell me why you’re smirking?”
“You try to stifle it since we’re across the border. Apart from that you’ve been pretty nervous around these soldiers. I hope you didn’t have anything to hide.”
“Something to hide? What makes you think so?”
“Just a thought.”
It amuses me to notice that he becomes uneasy. Maybe he thinks that I could betray him. Or that I may turn out to be a customs agent who poses as a hitchhiker and only travels with especially suspicious vans. Things like that may be customary in Latin America. In the North, however, you wouldn’t even think of assigning staff to such a task. There you prefer to shoot the poor in the death strip and thus get rid of them swiftly and efficiently as it is common in a modern national economy based on demand and supply.
“The most important thing is that you reach Frisco, eh?”, José replies which of course is correct, even though his vehicle sounds like it will have given up its ghost until then. In spite of that he seems to be damn proud of his baby that must be at least as old as himself.
A silent period follows that lasts until San Diego and beyond. It seems José wants to make sure that he doesn’t have a fink of the Gatekeeper program on board after all. To clear this suspicion he only has to keep his mouth shut until San Clemente, the last checkpoint behind the border. I enjoy the sudden silence and delve into the just purchased San Francisco Times that at a first glance contains the usual stuff: forest fire near Stockton, spree killing of a programmer in Silicon Valley, the mayor has promised raised welfare spending, a smog warning for the day after tomorrow.
In the local section I come across a report that worries me.
Cannibals in California?
A unprecedented series of murders has been provisorily ended today with the arrest of Justin McSullivan, a guitar dealer from San José who is suspected of several cases of manslaughter.
McSullivan, according to neighbors a nondescript fellow, was supposed to have brutally bludgeoned four people and three dogs from April to September and consumed them at the scene of the crime. “We arrested him after we had received an anonymous letter that accused Mr. McSullivan as the perpetrator. The envelope also contained a videocassette that showed the accused in flagranti. Until then I wouldn’t believe that a human being was capable of doing something like this but then – Jesus! – I have no words for that. A human disaster.”
Stated superintendent Arthur Dorfler during his interview in the SFPD press center. The “man-eater”, as the tabloid press has called him, is said to have furiously ranted during his arrest. “The apocalypse”, he said, had only just began and “the others”, he assured, would take care that his victims would not be the last. The local residents are worried. A waitress present at the arrest said: “How are we supposed to protect our children from these monsters? How are we going to protect ourselves?” And her husband: “Someone like this has to be put on death row.”
The married couple is surely not alone with their opinion. The San Francisco Police Department has, according to the latest information, installed a special commission to investigate the McSullivan case and clear the suspicion of a possible conspiracy of cannibals. “We will give no coincidence a chance,” Dorfer emphasized and pointed out that there had been a similar case in Utah where cannibals had successively lured 23 people into their rural farm community to fatten and sacrifice them in a bloody ritual. “These people are scum. We have to remove them from our midst,” governor Smith demanded at his pre-election party in Los Angeles today. He added that their crackdown will require a considerable budget and hinted at a possible involvement of the FBI.
Is it possible that Pete knows something about this “sect” or is even in contact with them? The thought is not completely absurd but it upsets me insofar as it may provide an explanation for his strange behavior. I could finally stop bothering about it but I’m still afraid of such news.
What if Pete had actually turned into such a predator? I fold the newspaper together, tuck it somewhere to the right of my seat and lean back. What good would some sleep do to me now? Too long I have refused, didn’t want to stop arguing where there is nothing left to argue, tried to understand as if my mind had long ago been infected by Pete’s compulsive urge for more food.
I try to close my eyes but it is my stomach instead of my lids that contracts and cautions me to calm it down. Sarcasm, that higher level of melancholy, sloshes across my diaphragm. What can’t be changed may as well be laughed at. Perhaps Pete is just devouring himself or committing larceny of food by nibbling at other people – which makes me wonder, however, how he does kill them. While I ponder this question, my thoughts take on a life of their own and accompany me on a smooth transition from waking to dreaming consciousness …
I see the border once again. Warning signs everywhere, on top of them skulls, some still draped with sun-dried hair, spiked on the pointed pole tops, half decayed and fetid like a slaughterhouse. Attencion, estados unidos! is written on one of the signs. No further warning is required. Everybody knows and fears the US American firing squads who are authorized to run wild here at night.
José sits to the left of me. With horns on his head. His grin is similar to that of the other skulls, with the only difference that he is smirking, munching and swerving on the street as usual. But the more we approach the border guard, the more things calm down next to me. The driver of this car more and more slips into ascesis until his cheerful nature is completely hidden behind the mask of a dutiful motorist who had the customs procedure ahead and behind him hundreds of times.
He winds down the window. A face with sunglasses and turban outside asks for our papers. I speak with a perfect Californian accent and so the officer relaxes. The sight of José’s horns makes him suspicious and he asks us to get out, only to have a look into the load area, he claims. No problemo, José retorts and opens the door. If there really is a devil then I’m sure it’s a Mexican who has somebody driving around Wall Street while he drinks beer and plays Russian roulette with passerbys.
Things aren’t quite as amusing to the right of me. A soldier in Bedouin costume has planted himself there, a recruit at best, judged by his age, his mouth corners pulled down, heavily armed with sub-machine gun, revolver and enough ammunition for a feature-length manhunt.
I’m not eager to become his first victim so I better step out and join the others. I notice that José is limping but it’s not because, as I initially assume, he has a clubfoot but because his right leg is completely missing. By means of a prosthesis he hobbles to the rear of his rust bucket, jerks the double door open and clears the way for the officer who looks like a terrorist. He climbs into the car and gestures to the younger one that he should be alert. I notice that José retreats a few steps, obviously a little alert himself. I hope that he has nothing to hide. My muscles contract involuntarily and I’m prepared to react immediately, to whatever may happen.
A storm of words emits from the car: bodies, bodies, all the barrels are full of bodies, the officer yells and storms out, dragging a woman’s head along to prove it.
Jośe tries to run away, heedless of the bystanders who have gathered by the roadside. He tries to savor the last moments on his own, trips over the curbstone but manages to catch himself and runs like a madman towards Mexico.
I was only hungry, he screams, so damn hungry! Who could forbid me to still my hunger?
The officer does not think twice and issues a firing order. Seconds later Jośe collapses prone into the dust, hit by a burst of 9 mm bullets. His final words resonate in my waking consciousness: I was only hungry, he screams, so damn hungry! Who can keep me from killing others by killing me?
I cast up my eyes abruptly. The first thing I see is José’s visage that stares at me from the side.
“Everything okay?”, it asks.
Well, at least I don’t see devil’s horns anymore but that surely doesn’t mean that everything is fine. I fib, nonetheless. Sure, todo bueno.
Maybe I talk too frantic. I have to forget the dream that occludes reality like a fog and only slowly dissipates.
“Yes, of course,” I say.
“If you’re hungry, I can stop at the burger stall over there.”
My stomach is rumbling so loud that only with a very good lie I could keep my appetite a secret. Besides, José means it so well that I will be forced to agree even when it would mean to sit there and helplessly watch how he gobbles one burger after the other.
“Okay, why not?”
José makes a resolute turn as if he would done the same without my consent. We enter the shop through two automatic glass doors that open sidewise. He orders four kingsize burgers – extra hot – double fries, cheese sandwich and vanilla ice cream. They don’t sell his favorite drink here so he has sneaked it in precautionary and is eyed irritated for not having ordered any drinks.
I stick to salad and cola. Who knows how my stomach would react if there were a serving of spare ribs or even a bloody steak on my plastic tray. I can tolerate the food photos printed on it as I don’t have to eat or taste these meals but only need to calmly see over them – right onto José’s half dozen cardboard boxes and then up into his face.
He says something. I thank and wonder on what twisted paths Knigge’s spirit has entered this cretin. An ironic josh, I suppose, very likely caused by the climatic change or maybe he’s still afraid of my true identity and tries to kiss my ass with some friendly empty phrases.
I phlegmatically poke around the ready-made salad, hold a leaf in front of my mouth and nibble off a piece – real joy of eating looks different and I actually don’t feel any, only comply with a necessity to stay alive – although I’m not even sure if it’s really the case. I have to distract myself, focus on the food, don’t think of it anymore, above all not to think of Pete, but to eat up everything, as my mother would have asked me to, so that the weather will be fine tomorrow.
At first my plan is successful. The more I devote myself to the act of food intake and my life fades into the background, the more my plate is emptying. I only have to continue eating, then the dangerous ideas will vanish on their own. There is only me and my food – no Pete, no José, no burger stall, no plastic tray. Only me and my food. I eat myself into a kind of frenzy and lose track of what happens in me or around me until the world finally regains shape, seems to restructure itself without my intervention and everything is clear in front of me. Colors and fragments flood my senses and only after a while I notice that José has still almost his whole meal ahead of him and is observing me with raised eyebrows. The other guests, too, glance at us. What is going on here?
“You’re eating with your hands.”
José’s answer sounds like a question or an accusation. With my hands? By no stretch of the imagination I can see myself acting in such a way but as I look down at my fingers I find them smeared all over with herb sauce and tomato leftovers. I hastily reach for the napkin. All will be fine, I try to persuade myself and see that the cutlery still lies untouched beside the plate. How could I let myself go like that?
“Do all the Yankees eat like that?”, José jokes but I’m in no laughing mood.
I lift my shoulders and keep them where they can’t affect anything. No word passes my lips. I feel embarrassed, sad and instinctively search for someone who I could blame for this awkward situation. There is, however, no-one who I could point a finger at and I realize that if I don’t get my inner life back together I might end up like Pete one day.
If I don’t want that then there must be a way to finally leave it all behind me – even if it means to confront the cause of my psychological weakness. I imagine how it would be to visit Pete one more time and to make him understand what I think of our friendship – basically that it isn’t a friendship anymore and that I don’t care what he does with his ruined life as long as he doesn’t cross my path. It might help to put an end to it, to peacefully go separate ways and to better cope with the fact that a long-standing friendship such as ours had to end in such a miserable way. It might, however, make things even worse.
My mind refuses to consider a meeting with Pete while my feelings insist that it’s the only way out of this misery that would drag me down ever more until I, too, would indulge in humanity’s last cynicism and devour my own flesh and blood with Pete by my side. I sit there mutely and listen to my inner dialogue without completely coming in on one side while the other guests turn first into lawyers, then crusaders, then hangmen and cannibals who all around me impale innocent, slaughtered fellow species on their forks and stuff them with relish into their mouths.
“Someone like this has to be put on death row,” the man from the newspaper says and it sounds like he’s sitting in my head.
After an overnight stay north of San Diego we continue our travel and after another about 600 miles the blazing native sun is dashing in through the clear glass that makes the external world seem like a post-doomsday landscape: the colors faded, overlaid by an off-white light that, focused by the windshield, hits my retina.
Superficially the light seems to cover everything bad like a shining manifestation of what is good that, however, turns you blind if you’re exposed to it for too long. I would love nothing better now than to hide myself in a dark room with a simulated Xeroderma pigmentosum and a continuous supply of absinthe until my early death that I’d like to experience in the light of the most beautiful sunrise that a human can hope to witness. The other cars reflect the sun and next to them the rest of the world fades like the face of a criminal investigator who sits behind a gleaming floor lamp while asking dangerous questions during an interrogation. Our star could have easily distracted a stranger from the fact that he’s in a city, right in the middle of San Francisco’s evening rush hour – but not someone like me who was born, raised and had almost gone mad in a city that knows no limits and still ends at the ocean.
The sun deploys its phantasmagoria unimpaired and the sun shields are unfortunately not able to keep me from the prospect of meeting him again. I close my eyes, exhausted by heat and sunlight, and all becomes red. The flashing cars blur into black amoebas, deform sidewise and lengthwise like air bubbles, depending on how I let my eyes move under the lids. I wish I could sleep but the coarsely veined red light that show on my lids is more disturbing than soothing which is why I risk another look out into the merciless reality where Jośe has just asked me something. I clumsily try to make it seem like I hadn’t understood him.
“Where you want me to let you out,” he repeats.
Better nowhere at all, I think, because there is no place in this city where I would be save of him.
If I would get out now I would be faced with the danger of crossing his path and what would I tell him when it would come to that? I could run away, pack up, emigrate but even that wouldn’t be a permanent solution because Pete would live on as a reminiscence in my memory, would follow me anyhwere like a bubble gum sticking under my shoe that leaves indelible marks regardless how hard I try to remove it.
I turn things over in my head and think how pleasant life must have been for flâneurs who didn’t have to think about the future but live for the moment as they didn’t have to earn anything the nature hadn’t already provided in abundance. They were kings, jugglers, jesters, buccaneers and forest fishers and still deserve highest respect for their talent to let others work for them. The industrial revolution has deprived us of these connoisseurs of the art of living, replaced them with functionality and efficiency, has turned us into disposable machines with no self-esteem who are granted seven hours of sleep and two free days a week if they are just willing to diligently and steadily work on their own destruction which is decreasingly compensated with reduced pension payments.
The world has been reigned by a nameless god since then whose Holy Scripture is a financial newspaper and whose basic principle is a parasitic imperative that has turned us into what we’ve basically always been: lazy predators with considerable inferiority complexes. The same imperative is behind my driver’s insistence to recite my address. I fulfill my duty in a frustrated manner, feeling like a schoolchild who is unexpectedly called to the blackboard, state my neighborhood, street, house number and add: “Would be kind if you could take me there.”
“No problemo, Amigo. You have lost your money – José takes you home. You would do the same for me, right?”
As if! I wouldn’t have taken this omnivore along for not even a single yard. He instead of me would be standing at the roadside and stick out his ketchup-stained thumb. I would probably regard this burly Mexican as a highwayman, step on the gas and scram. Insofar I’m impressed by José’s helpfulness and begin to doubt myself – because, despite my admiration, I’m rarely capable of doing what I admire in others.
One and a half months later.
I stand in front of my apartment, open the door, I’m met with a scorching heat and turn on first the air conditioner and then the TV set. On the matt screen, Mr. President is announcing that he will put the Department of Homeland Security into operation within the current term of office which I seriously doubt as I take a seat on the black chaise lounge and make the allegedly most powerful man in the world disappear from the scene with a single touch of a button.
My feet placed on the table, I change the channel to watch the match of the Giants where Miller just takes his third strike and has to leave the field. Although it’s a disappointment for me as a faithful Giants fan, the circumstances – especially one of them – allows me to be not too depressed about the bad performance of my team. The good thing is that I am with a lovely girl for a few weeks now. Thinking of her makes my work seem like a breeze, lets me see the world through rose-colored glasses and a lost Giants match seem like a minor annoyance. The oppressive clouds of the past have dispersed and Pete is only a chimera from a bygone era.
My new flame’s name is Stacy and we meet a lot, go to the movies, theater or shopping. Of course I’m aware that even this being in love, as fresh as it still is, will taste stale and stagnant one day which, I’m determined to delay as far as I possibly can – because for now, Stacy is the best therapy for my martyred soul.
The more I meet her, the less I think of Pete who I already have detached from my mind to such a degree that it wouldn’t bother me if he had silently perished in a gutter, consumed himself completely or been sentenced to death for cannibalism. However his biography may have turned out by now – after our last meeting there was no doubt about my decision: I had to put an end to the whole affair, start a new life and waste no thought on the past.
Stacy helps me with it as best as she can. She has already introduced me to her parents who she said were very fond of me and we plan a tour to Las Vegas in two weeks – not to get married but “just like that” which, of course, many married couples have claimed prior to their Las Vegas trip. Stacy could even have convinced me of a world trip; no distance could have been too far, no mountain too high to make her happy and to forget my negative experiences – although the latter should have taught me that no matter which woman you love, she will sooner or later become too expensive, too snippy or too boring and that what has initially been a dream woman will turn within weeks into a love trauma not worth the efforts of her seduction. But that’s how it is with the butterflies in your tummy: if you want to catch them you need a fine web as only a woman can knot it who even as a myth can only play tragic roles and has internalized them to such a degree that it has become impossible for her to accept any other role.
I’m convinced that a marriage is the worst possible way to stay permanently in love but that doesn’t keep the equally ardent and short-sighted suitors from taking a chance, against all odds.
It’s shortly before eleven and I have just switched on the TV set as the doorbell rings which is a little puzzling as I have no appointment and it can’t be Stacy neither – she has her own key. Who the heck is bothering me?
Maybe just some rascals who prank me. I keep quiet and hope that it will stop when I don’t move but exactly the opposite happens. The ringing turns into a storm ringing, a tornado ringing, a hurricane ringing. I regret that I haven’t signed in to be connected to the new entrance camera. Then the monitoring screen would have kept me up-to-date about everything going on at street level and I could have cursed the unwanted visitor from up here and chased him away.
As it is, however, I pull the blanket over my head, turn from one side to the other and wait until my torturer decides to give it up. It takes at least five minutes until the annoying noise finally breaks off. I yawn and devote myself to falling asleep which is no big deal after a 16 hour workday. Since I have to get up early and I don’t have much time to sleep, my dreams start pretty soon …
I’m on the street. Restaurants everywhere. Mexican, Chinese, McDonald’s. The sun shines but it’s cold. I count the venues, forty-three overall.
Pete is waiting for me, but where? I try to go by the neon signs that are mounted everywhere, but they are all marked with the same word. How am I going to redeem my promise when I don’t know where? There’s not much time left. I will check all restaurants, just have a short look if he sits at some table and then move on.
With a sigh I set off to the first tavern, a posh Italian. The waiters here carry ties, perfume and cuff links on silver trays through the corridors but neither Pete nor any other guest is in sight. I scram before I end up as the main course. A Chinese cooks for the next premise which offers cannibalistic abominations for all tastes. No guests are cooked here, only Taiwanese and terrorists, which allows me to stay a little longer, but still no trace of Pete.
So out on the streets again. I’m not successful in the next restaurants either, but then I scuffle along an apartment building and trip over something that sits on the ground. Even before the beggar has pulled back his hood I’m sure that it’s him, but far from it! Death itself is sitting there and scythes instead of crutches lean against the wall. He hurls his cold, sclerotic grin at me and I take to my heels and as I realize that I’m actually carrying two legs with Pete’s name written in blood on them I throw them on the street immediately.
Even though the Grim Reaper cat-calls at me that I can’t escape him I run further and further up the road that seems to have no end and suddenly appears to be plastered with burgers. I don’t find Pete anywhere – maybe he has ended up in the Italian’s cooking pot – but I still keep on searching until the end of the road. As I leave the last restaurant, the signs begin to blink as if trying to attract my attention. They form an almost endless row that continues up to the horizon. The signs are marked with a single word in blood-red letters …
My alarm clock delivers me. I start up as if Godfather Death was standing next to my bed, ready to wield his scythe. The digits blink and signal half past four. I have to be in my office. An important pitch needs to be prepared.
In the bathroom a gust of cold water relieves me of the last residues of my dreams that got caught between my synapses and the gurgle of the coffee machine calls me into the kitchen. The breakfast calms my nervous system that thanks to this ritual switches into the daily grind which it is used to as a way to effortlessly survive. Today is the crucial meeting with my customer so I have to wear my best suit to tastefully enhance my presentation. I grab the work folder, whip on my cloak and leave the apartment – or rather I would have left it if wasn’t for a figure sitting in front of my door that I only after careful scrutiny identify as my former friend Pete.
I wish I could ignore him, simply move on, not think about what has happened and what I have left to say, but I know that this would only postpone the confrontation. Pete is awake before I can make a single step. He sleepily blinks at me and mumbles an incomprehensible greeting into the vacuum of my hospitality. He sounds hoarse, even more hoarse than usual, and overall looks like a dying junkie. His eyes are bloodshot, all else is chalk-white. His hands are trembling, his clothes have even more holes than last time and he’s still not wearing a prosthesis.
I’m afraid that he could drag me into his mud, that he may have come for just this purpose and my fear turns into a despair that infuriates me more than ever. Why else should this parasite suddenly show up at my door? I’m sure he wants money. I prepare to refuse, to tell him point-blank that he needs a physical and psychological treatment if there’s any hope for him at all.
“What do you want? I’m in a hurry”, I try to be brief with him and to emphasize my words. I consult my watch which, however, has stopped around half past one.
Pete doesn’t move a bit. He knows too well that I can’t let him sit here without at least hearing him out. He gapes at me out of cavernous eyes and begins to stutter as if he had been born with a speech impediment. It’s about eating and hunger, that much I can understand, and he asks me to give him something or he might starve at my apartment door. I’m not completely sure but shortly after Pete has uttered the word “hunger” it’s like I hear a click somewhere in my skull and I’m back into my dream. I see everything clearly: the neon signs above the restaurants, the Grim Reaper wrapped in Pete’s rags, laughing out loud about my attempts to escape.
I can’t stand around for long now, I say. I have to go to work, an important presentation, he should know how it is. But he seems to have forgotten because when I try to climb over him he grabs my leg and tugs it back, tearing out a piece of my linen pants which he clumsily holds between his fingers and stuffs it into his mouth to suck at it like a child at its thumb. I’m really pissed off by me former valued friend now for damaging something of value to me. Equally furious and frantic I fling my cloak to the ground but I have to pick it up again immediately as Pete is about to grab it, having already swallowed the piece of linen.
I kick his raised arm aside and clear a path to the door which I yank open and slam shut behind me like being chased by the devil, like there were a dozen illegal immigrants waiting in the hallway to rob me of everything I have.
I have to go to work, he sits in front of my door, my suit is ruined and work is waiting. It’s usually only in a movie that you have so much bad luck. Or am I still lying in bed and it’s all just a dream? I almost wish it was so because it would be a premiere: for the first time I consciously experience a dream and can control it. I’m my own director, powerful as god.
What would my dream self first do in this situation? Top priority would be to get another suit that has to be here as soon as possible – I can’t face the marketing experts in such an amputated state as I am now. For security purposes I also take a baseball bat of the Giants in my hands, only as a threat to keep Pete from groping me. I will simply climb over him and consider on my way to the city how to get rid of this obtrusive intruder in the most efficient way. So I tear open the door and Pete, of course, topples into my apartment. His upper body hits the carpet in the hallway and he tries to sit up again with both hands on the floor and moves towards the kitchen.
Just what I needed! I have to get him out before he reaches the refrigerator or worse. With one leap I’m behind him, put the bat aside and grab Pete’s remaining foot to drag the unwelcome visitor out. He has nothing to cling to so I at least manage to haul him to the door frame that he desperately clutches with ten fingers, begging for mercy.
“N-n-no, Mike, p-please d-don’t … ”
I try it with a last yank, then his leg falls back to the ground and I pick up the baseball bat.
“Either you let go voluntarily or I have to teach you a lesson,” I snap at him.
“B-b-but aren’t we f-friends?”
“We were friends.”
“B-b-b-but … ”
“Okay, if that’s what you want.”
I strike his fingers – not too hard so that I can’t be hold liable and just long enough that he lets go of the door frame. He looks seedy as he squirms on the floor, holds his bleeding fingers and watches me with trembling lips.
I resolutely pull the door shut, try to ignore him, to simply go on, but this is exactly the wrong thing to do as he grabs my pants just as I have turned round and tears at it as if his life depended on it. Fortunately the pants are made of cotton but even this will not resist the sneaky attack for long. What the hell is wrong with this guy? Even in the state he’s in, he should be able to realize that I don’t want to have anything to do with him anymore. But instead he clings to the past, the lovely hours that we have shared and he drools on my shoes and socks as he stammers all his stories.
I have to draw the line somewhere, I think, I kick his face and make it bleed. To crown it all, a drop of blood splashes on my snow-white pants and expands to a nice stain – one drop too many. I grab him by his hair and hurl his head against the wall which should teach him a lesson. I don’t want to see this nuisance never again. What does he hope to achieve with such a behavior? Does he seek reconciliation? He should know that it’s far too late for that. But I’m going to make him understand, as soon as I have him in my apartment. I will beat him up until he gives in and disappears on his own, never to show up at my door again. I hope to find a plausible excuse for the delay that my customer can accept.
I’m in such a rage, no longer in control of myself that it all happens automatically, like in a trance. I unlock the door, drag in Pete’s gaunt body, take care that nobody is watching, take his crutches and let the door shut. Now he’ll have the shock of his life! He drools, spits blood and babbles like a demanding child – “We’re hungry!”, “But we’re good friends!” and stuff like that. I will show him what we are. We’re no friends, I say, no nothing. And I emphasize it with a blow into his stomach. He screams out and begs me to stop, to leave him alone, but I don’t even want to understand him. I’m already in a blood rage. I want to make this dog whine and beg not to beat his worthless life out of him for good! Who does he think he is, that he shows up here in the middle of the night and keeps the doorbell ringing? It was his fault that my sleep was full of fear! If he’s willing to promise, however, that he will disappear immediately, never to be seen again, I might consider to perform an act of grace that he doesn’t really deserve and let him move on unimpededly. If he doesn’t take this chance, then god (or whoever this cannibal offers his sacrifices to) may be with him. I make sure that he has understood me and agrees never to approach me again.
“Y-yes, of course!”, he whines with the last of his strength.
“And you will never still your hunger with a human being again?”
“Y-y-y-yes-y-yes … O-o-o-o … Aaaahh” His facial features smooth out and snap into a demoniac grimace, clearly the face of an obsessive, an uncontrollable beast. “Noooooo!”, it suddenly booms in my head and in all my frenzy I don’t realize that this voice is very different from Pete’s with regard to volume and distinctness: “No! We will never surrender to you people. Humanity has failed and it can’t be spared if we want to appease our hunger.”
He cries but all my fuses blow now. How I use the baseball bat, which body parts I strike and which bones are broken before my work is done and I rinse the sports equipment in the bathroom – I don’t know. The sudden realization of my blackout horrifies me at first. Why did I do this.
The whole bat is red. As I realize what I have done to Pete, I’m seized by a shock first that gradually dissolves into relief – after all, something in me whispers, the world had to be released of this monster, or not? His battered body lies on the carpet in the living room, luckily only a simple rug that can easily be replaced without anybody wondering and, just in case, I can claim that I had enough of it. What’s even more important is that nobody will miss Pete. I cover the floor through the hallway into the bathroom with newspaper, fill the tub with hot water and put in what has once been my friend. Red liquid immediately spoils the clear transparency of the faucet water and cloaks his body like a shroud.
I feel relieved of a huge burden, a yoke that I couldn’t have carried any further.
Of course I have to shower and dress up again now and, most of all, remove the traces of a fight. All this takes about half an hour.
Later in the car, as I wonder how to get rid of the body most thoroughly, I come up with the crazy idea of asking Stacy to dinner tomorrow, maybe together with some friends. We could hardly consume such a huge meal on our own.
Sven Klöpping, born in 1979, writes poems and science fiction stories since his childhood. He has published numerous short stories in national and international magazines and anthologies and was a frequent editorial helper and contributor of InterNova’s mother magazine Nova. Apart from that he contributed poetry to German magazines such as Federwelt and Kult. He edited the anthologie Bullet in 2014, with stories set in his own fictional universe MegaFusion. Some of his tales were collected in his books MegaFusion (2001) and Menschengrenzen (2010).