Clemens Meyer is perhaps the most exciting German author of his generation. In his short stories, as well as in his two novels, he unveils the anxieties, the struggle, and the longing for salvation of human existence. Born in 1977 in Halle, East Germany, he wrote his stunning first novel, „Als wir träumten“ („When We Were Dreaming“), about young desperados, just after the fall of the Berlin wall, when the system had collapsed and dreams ruled. In that state of anarchy, the young heros party, fight, and drive their lives against the wall, illuminating the crazyness, the glamour and the magic of the world we live in. His writing can be ruthless and irritating, yet at times poetic and sensual. His story of a man desperately trying to get into his locked apartment is at once slapstick comedy, a timelss picture of vanity, and a rumination on death and loss. Clemens Meyer shows us a picture of humanity filled with greatness, pride and pity.
Translated by: Katy Derbyshire
I go out in the yard with the dog. Just after two in the morning and the night’s very warm; the summer’s come back again this August after a long cool and rainy stretch. The hottest day of the year was this week. It wasn’t good for my dog, the heat. Wasn’t good for me either, that the nights didn’t cool off while I was writing. I always plan to write during the day but then I don’t start until everything’s quiet. I live on the ground floor, what we used to call the mezzanine, a word rarely used now. As a child, I didn’t know what it meant when I read it in books. I thought it was a secret. A strange in-between level inside houses. My dog is having trouble getting down the half flight of stairs. Slowly, he puts one front paw on the first step, reaches the other very hesitantly too far down and can’t find the step to hold him; he often falls if I don’t watch out, and slips onto the tiles by the back door, sometimes turning over in mid-flight. The tiles are smooth and his back legs slide on them; he lands spread-eagled as though he wanted to do the splits. His body’s barely in one piece. I stand on the threshold and watch him struggle a couple of feet into the back yard and pee on the spot of ground where he always pees. The paving stones there are almost white by now. I carry him up the stairs; he’s lost a lot of weight these past weeks. His piss has a strong smell of sulphur, all the way into the hall. The door to my flat is closed. I can’t remember closing it. I search my pockets for my keys. Nothing. How am I going to get back in? My mother has a spare key; I could go over to the phone box and call her. But she’s in Africa, until the end of the month I think. My flat has a double door; if I push the right-hand door with the handle and the lock on it as far inwards as it goes, I can put my hand through the gap to the two bolting mechanisms that keep the other door closed by means of two metal rods, the bottom one going down into the floor and the top one going up into a small opening in the door frame. If I manage to reach the lever that moves the rods, I can push both doors inwards and the lock will give way. It’s a complicated process, especially since I’ve inserted a cork into the top bolting mechanism to prevent the lever being released and the door being opened that way. It’s enough to release this upper rod from its anchoring in the wood of the frame, you see, and then the bottom rod pops out on its own if you throw your body hard enough against the two doors, best of all in the middle. It’s difficult to describe technical or mechanical processes exactly. Let’s use a very simple example as an illustration – here’s something I made earlier, Make Do and Mend, Meyer’s Applied Mechanics Training. Here we have two large boards. One board, or my board, is nothing more than a three-dimensional rectangle. So I’ll stand it on one end, vertically, and then it looks like a door, or like one side of my double door. A large surface area on the front, a large surface area on the back. And then we have two long interior edges between these two surface areas and two short ones, at the top and bottom. If we now stand both our rectangular boards on end next to each other, so that they’re touching in the middle, the long thin facing edges meet directly with only a tiny gap visible between the two doors. And that’s where the metal tongue of the lock slides across when you close the door, from the right door to the left door. And right inside that long thin surface of the three-dimensional rectangle is where the bolting mechanisms are. And now I pull the boards apart again – The shades of night are falling fast, D-I-Y, D-I-Y! – and turn the board representing the left side of my double door so that the long thin side is facing the camera. It’s not at all complicated now, is it? And there, in the wood of this thin side, there are two openings, at the top and the bottom, for the steel rods with the movable levers or sliders, in-out, in-out, door fixed, door movable, comprende? And I pushed a cork into the top opening. It didn’t actually fit in there so I used a hammer to force the cork into the little opening, and that now holds the lever and the rod in place nice and tight so that no one can press against the door and reach into the gap and simply pull the rod out of its anchoring in the door frame and then open the door when I’m not at home and clear out my flat, and me no insurance, you see. My dog’s standing outside the door; he taps his nose against the wood and gives me a slightly dumb look. He’s very old and he doesn’t like standing for long, already squatting a little with his back legs, wanting to go back to his corner for the rest of the night. But what shall I do? My mother’s in Africa, my spare key’s in her flat. I could go to my sister’s place; she lives about twenty minutes away. But what shall I do with the dog? It’s much too far for him to walk. Since a few weeks ago he hasn’t even made it across the road to the small patch of woods where I’ve taken him for his walks for almost ten years, as long as I’ve lived in this flat. Before that I lived very near here too; if I remember rightly, I’ve been walking my dog since 1999 on that patch of land where a huge factory stood until 1994, VEB Polygraph, the partner factory to my school, printing machines was what they made, and I went on trips there a few times with my class, must have been between 1986 and 1989. We were shown around the big halls, machines everywhere, and there were streets between the halls and buildings like in a tiny town, even a railway line. You can still see the tracks even now. They run right across the road and end at the fence, behind which the patch of woods has been growing for fifteen years. The trees and bushes weren’t as high and dense in 1999. Sometimes people would stop on the footpaths when they saw me and my big black dog roaming through the bush. There were large hollows where the factory cellars had once been, and around 2000 so much water, snow and rain gathered in one hollow that a family of ducks lived there, for over a year. I could only just call him off when he wanted to go for their jugulars, but actually he was just curious and wanted to play, although probably all dog owners say that, ‘Don’t worry, he just wants to play,’ but it was really true of my dog, he was very good-natured but a little bit boisterous; I’ve rarely met anyone as good-natured as him. Over the years, the woods opposite my house grew so dense that I could hide there for hours in the summer, sitting with the dog in one of the half-overgrown hollows and reading or noting down the plotlines of great works. And now he can only take a shit in the back yard. Luckily, there’s a little patch of grass and weeds around an old cherry tree out there, actually part of the neighbouring plot but they demolished the house next door two or three years ago, giving me a free view of a small low building beneath the railway embankment running behind it where some kind of carpentry workshop hammers away, sometimes until late at night, and sometimes it emits toxic-smelling fumes from a small tin chimney and I have to close the windows. Opposite the carpentry workshop runs the curved terrace of a side street, branching off from the big main road on which my building stands isolated. They’re nice renovated houses but a lot of the flats are vacant. A few Russians have made themselves at home in one of the buildings. I can hear them at night, sometimes. Shouting and yelling, occasionally a woman screaming. That seems to be their everyday life, though, partying and fighting. Only once, when I was sitting on my folding chair and watching the dog one evening, it can’t have been that long ago because he was already tipping over sometimes when he took a crap because his back legs wouldn’t stay stable any more in a squatting position, only once did one of the Russians shoot a gun out of the window. Probably just a flare gun, but who knows. I know it was one of the Russians because he was swearing and cursing loudly at the same time. As if it weren’t enough to fire a gun at night, he had to yell out a few hefty curses to go with it. And of course no one called the cops either; I don’t do that kind of thing on principle – someone would have to go on a proper killing spree for me to call the cops. And now I’m outside my closed front door with my old, tired dog and I don’t know how to get in, 2:15 in the morning by now. I move the doormat away from the door to the opposite wall and tell the dog to lie down on it. He twists and turns before he lies down, then gets up and places his rear first there and then at the other end of my large doormat. At least he doesn’t have to lie down on the bare tiles; like every old man his frail old bones like it soft and warm. He’s lying directly beneath the box containing the electricity meters. How often has someone from the utilities company stood there and turned off my power, or someone else’s in the building? When I pay the bill too late now, because I’ve been travelling or cutting myself off from the outside world for weeks to write or lie on my bed and let the stories work inside me, they’re very friendly when they come, ‘Yes, Mr Meyer, of course I can come back later when you’ve been to the bank, what time would suit you?’ Four, five or six years ago, they would tip the switch with no comment and put a seal on it if I didn’t have the cash to pay them off. And when I then slipped the seal off the switch with the aid of a little grease, because everyone needs electricity even if they’re broke, they came again and made a safeguard out of the innards of the meter cupboard, and I couldn’t just bridge that because there were too many volts involved. One time I woke up, must have not heard the doorbell, and there’s this electricity policeman right opposite my front door with his head in the cupboard, fumbling and screwing away, and when I open my door to ask what the hell’s going on the dog pushes past me and jumps right on the electricity policeman’s back, and the guy screams loud and high in fear. But I’ve already said he was just curious and wanted to say hello in his own special way. I push the right wing of the door inwards as far as I can, with my shoulder. In the gap that makes, the little lever is visible with the cork planted under it. I push harder and try to widen the gap. Then I try to put my hand inside and get a grip on the cork. But as soon as I adjust my body, and thereby the pressure, the gap gets too small for my fingers. I need some kind of wedge, then. I go back out to the yard. I find a few branches from the cherry tree; that’s getting old too. It does still bear fruit in the summer but there are fewer and fewer cherries every year. Last summer there were hundreds of cherries on the grass around the tree; the dog ate the fermented fruit every day, got addicted to the alcohol, stood swaying in the sun and gave me dumb stares out of empty eyes, still searching the ground in desperation for a top-up even in the autumn when all the fruit was gone. I snap a couple of pieces of wood to size, making sure not to tread in one of the turds on the grass or between the little bushes. They’ll still be fertilizing the ground when the dog’s long gone. I go inside. Jam my body against the door again and ram the strongest bit of branch in the gap. So there it’s stuck, and I can see the lever and the cork underneath it. The gap’s not big enough yet to put my whole hand in and it takes me a good while to push a second piece of wood between the two doors, and because that’s still not enough, a third one. I’m sweating by now and I take off my shirt, going on in my vest. Now I can reach the cork, the gap is maybe two fingers wide, and with these two fingers I try to get a grip on the cork. And then I yell like a banshee. Because one of my provisional wedges gives way and slips out of the gap, and the other two join it before I can get my fingers out. The dog gives me a slightly dumb look, actually more surprised though, with his head aslant and his eyes dark, as I scream and jerk my fingers out of the wooden embrace. I run back out to the yard; no branch to be found that’s strong enough; go back inside again, run sweat-drenched down to the cellar, which isn’t locked, luckily, find a broken wooden handle between the caretaker’s brooms and spades, from a shovel or a spade. Back up to the door and I lever at the bottom first and pull the metal rod out of its anchoring there, but the bolt system at the top keeps the doors together no matter how many times I throw myself against them, and now I know I need a pointed tool, a screwdriver or an awl, to practically stab the cork out of the opening underneath the lever, because it’s stuck firm and blocking the mechanism. I run back down to the cellar but can’t find either a screwdriver or any similar tool suitable for the job. The sweat is dripping into my eyes. It’s almost three in the morning now. I think about which neighbour’s doorbell I can ring at this time of night. Everyone’s got a screwdriver. I don’t have many options. The two at the very top? The tall, thin, almost toothless man on the left, the fat woman on the right. Or maybe they’re both together in one of the flats right now. I don’t know much about their relationship; to begin with I thought they were brother and sister but I don’t want to find out more and I decide to let them sleep. They’re nice people; I get on well with them even though he’s a Lok Leipzig fan. He has a Lok sticker on his letterbox – the Chemie Leipzig sticker on my letterbox is at least twice the size. If someone rang my doorbell at three in the morning I wouldn’t open up, or I’d pretend I wasn’t in. The stupid thing about the upper ground floor, the mezzanine, is that you can see when the light’s on. For a while Thilo the Drinker used to ring my doorbell whenever he saw my light on at night. There’s a petrol station a few yards down the road. That was his top-up route for many a year. And he wasn’t the only one. Especially on summer nights, endless columns of drinkers passed by my windows. That’s why I love the long cold winters we rarely have now. I could ring Ali’s bell. He’s a very hospitable man; he’d be bound to lend me a screwdriver. I used to visit him often, until two or three years ago. He didn’t like coming to my flat because of the dog. Dogs are impure animals, he said. We still got on well though. We used to smoke his water pipe, drink tea and talk about Islam and God and women. Ali is strictly religious, or that’s how I’d put it at least. He has big wall hangings in his living room showing the faces of various holy men, Imam Ali, Ayatollah Khomeini and a few others whose names I’ve forgotten. A couple of times, this is five or six years ago now though, I went to the mosque with him. Not because he converted me to the true faith, just because I’d never been to a mosque and I thought, in times of Islamist terrorism, Islamophobias and the Islamization of Europe, Africa and the rest of the world you have to have been in a space like that to understand the secret of these divine portals and the group transcendence there. But I was rather disappointed by the Leipzig mosque, just a large flat in a run-down block, with the walls knocked down to create a few pillars. Carpets on the floor, carpets on the walls, Arabic writing, lots of gold, lots of kitsch, lots of glitter, as long as God feels at home, and the mosque for women and girls was in the flat next-door, it’s like the separate changing rooms at the swimming pool, one God for the men and one for the girls, or that’s where he shows his feminine side. Ali’s German girlfriend who he had at the time used to go to the women’s mosque, he converted her to the true faith and she only went out on the street with a veil on and wasn’t allowed to shake my hand and explained that God didn’t like that kind of thing because I wasn’t her husband. She wasn’t my type at all but she was very nice. When Ali went to visit his family in Kuwait for a while one time things hotted up in amongst the holy pictures in his living room; I was constantly running into young people on the stairs, there was loud music playing, the bins in the yard were full of empty bottles… Although we’ve hardly seen each other in the past few years I’ve rarely met such a friendly person and I was always welcome in the mosque, as a Christian, and was invited to join their meal after the sermons (I didn’t understand a word of them, of course, because they were held in Arabic, the language of God, and sometimes you think you hear things like ‘Bin Laden!’ or ‘JihadiscomingtoEurope!’ but I don’t think the Shi’a community was a hiding place for hardliners, the Shi’a haven’t got a lot of time for the Wahhabi Bin Laden & Co. anyway, and I talked to the imam a couple of times and smoked strong Arab cigarettes, they weren’t round, they were oval), we’d eat on the floor on a big plastic sheet, and the greatest gesture of friendliness was to put some meat and rice on the next man’s plate unasked, that was greeted with an implied bow and a grateful smile with folded hands. So that’s why I don’t ring his doorbell to ask for a screwdriver, because I know he has to get up early for work. And that’s pretty much all the options I have. The flat above me is empty, the flat next door to Ali is uninhabited at the moment as well, the guy’s in jail, not sure how much longer. It’s kind of an unlucky flat, I’d say, because the guy who lived there before is in jail as well. It must have been two or three years ago that the cops came for him. A Turk who married an old lady in Leipzig for his resident’s permit, must have cost money as well. I read the letters from the court and the divorce lawyer with great interest when his letterbox started overflowing after he went inside. I don’t know exactly what they did him for. Maybe something to do with drugs; I saw him strolling along Eisenbahnstraße a few times, suspiciously slowly, and that’s been a place to score for a good many years. He used to drink a lot too, although when he came down to my flat for a tea once he told me he didn’t understand the Germans’ excessive drinking, ‘A beer now and then, OK, but schnapps, so much schnapps, that makes people bad.’ Only a couple of weeks later the fight he had with his girlfriend echoed all round the building. Got louder and louder and worse and worse, the woman screeching and yelling blue murder, him cursing and swearing, now and then something smashing, that’s the good china gone then, I thought, and I thought about going up there and helping them settle the fight but I had enough of my own to do. Until then, at the peak of the noise, a shadow flew past my mezzanine window to the street, coming from above, impossible to make out exactly, and hit the ground in front of the house with a dull thud. That’s it, I thought, him or her. And I hardly dared to go out in the street, expecting a shattered corpse. But it was only a table, or the remains of a table. A coffee table with a tiled surface, the tiles surrounding it like grenade splinters several yards in the radius of a detonation. A man on the other side of the road looked over at me with his mouth gaping, top marks, that candidate chose the correct footpath! I did go up in the end. An open penknife behind my back. Who knows what he’ll open the door with… He was only wearing underpants and he stank of schnapps, and when I said to him ‘Something’s just fallen out of your window’ he promised me, swaying and slurring his words, to clear everything up right away. The woman was nowhere to be seen. I work on my door, sweating. The dog asleep on the doormat under the electricity cupboard. With one hand I brace the spade handle between the doors and lever them apart as far as I can, and with the other hand I jab my new pointed tool into the cork. Paint splinters off the wood, small chunks already breaking out of the cork. I pulled a loose bracket hook off the rain downpipe in the back yard, my vest now dirty and smeared with rust, but the cork crumbles, the blockade breaks down, 3:17 AM, the door opens with a crash, the dog wakes up.
Outside the door, in my back yard, right next to the old cherry tree, is a small grave marker made of red bricks. There lies my dog Piet. I had him cremated and buried the urn there. He lived to over fourteen. The doctor stopped his heart on the evening of 19 October. He had eaten little the previous days and his last meal too he merely sniffed at and then ate a few bites, as if he knew what was coming. The doctor injected him with an anaesthetic, not too strong so that he started drifting off very slowly. And then I sat beside him for a while longer, I’d washed his blankets so he died clean and soft, the doctor asked and I said yes, and then he took another syringe with a long, thin needle, felt his ribs, looking for his heart, and injected directly into it. I put my hand on his muzzle so he can smell me. For an instant he rears up, opens his mouth, and I put my hand inside it, wanting him to get my scent in his last seconds. And he grows calm, I can feel the moment, his teeth touch my skin. He’s gone.
*This story is taken from: Gewalten © S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, Frankfurt am Main 2010.
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