The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
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Ann clapped her hands. “C’mere boy!” “C’mon, Willy-Nilly!” “C’mon boy!” She watched the four-legged mass bound toward her as he ran through the park. The large dog lunged around maple trees, scattered dry leaves, sprang off the earth, and threw himself against her chest. When Ann recovered from the impact of the animal and her own laughter, she sat up and looked west, the sun in her eyes. All she could see was a dematerialized blur, a shimmering, barking shape vaulting into the light of a blue, blue sky.
Ulrich had the compartment to himself. He would soon be entering the German peacetime army, though he bore traces of a British accent, his mum’s influence. She, a burn-scarred Englishwoman, trimmed his almost-blond, precisely combed hair every two weeks. Every two months he took a trip, never telling her where he was going; she experienced the thrill of loss, he, the illusion of freedom. Seated by the sliding glass door as the train pulled out of Amsterdam Centraal, Ulrich saw green, flat pasturelands and cows, while allowing himself one fantasy, that of being a spy.
Too long before his birth, his parents had met and married, just days after his father’s release from a British prisoner of war camp. The newlyweds cut through red tape in lieu of wedding cake, and exited east to the Ruhr and the Rhine. For the bride it was part madness, part answered prayer, for the groom, convenience. He had lost an arm in battle.
For the moment, Ulrich worked for a giant pharmaceutical company that promoted cultural events. The manufacture of tiny aspirin produced enormous chemical clouds; day and night, the skies were darkened over Rhineland-Westphalia.
As the train picked up speed, a man and woman entered the compartment, thwarting Ulrich’s desire for privacy. Taking seats by the window, the man watched the landscape retreat. Both ate croissants, tiny flakes of which fell onto their laps. Ulrich furtively observed them through eyes not-quite-gray, not-quite-blue.
The woman threw bits of
crust from the open window,
creating a feast for sparrows.
The couple wore black. The woman, complaining of cold, closed the window, but not before exclaiming:
“Oh, look! The grass is different where cows graze than where sheep graze!”
“Yes, Ann,” her companion replied quietly.
Ulrich, wish-spy, desirer, perceived nothing suspicious in her comment, but found it foolish to express aloud, noting silently that Americans were so obvious. He had spent the previous evening with a teenaged football player from the United States who was vacationing alone in northern Europe. The two young men had exchanged keepsakes and one night’s drunken, flawed sensuality. Ulrich had been disappointed by the encounter, though he now wore a gray woolen jacket bearing the word Champs in orange letters on the back. As his part of the bargain, he’d relinquished a dagger once belonging to his father.
Presently, he removed the jacket and under pretense of hanging it on a hook, ran his fingers over the soft, fuzzy letters. He then focused surveillance at a distant point as the train followed a gentle arc, his muscles yielding to the motion as they had when he was young, swung in the air by his father, pressed hard into the elderly, one-armed man’s torso until the boy shrieked with joy and nausea. His father would collapse into a chair, saying,
“Genug. Enough now.”
Ulrich was five years old when his father walked to the corner for a packet of tobacco, checked his pockets, realized sufficient marks and pfennigs for a train ticket, and disappeared. The child and his mother received one card from Spain with no apology or return address. She was certain it was a conspiracy.
The woman in black squealed, disturbing Ulrich’s reverie. She had spotted a horse. Moments later, a train streaked by in the opposite direction, making her jump, urging delight from Ulrich, most of whose responses were measured, though he had been known during sex to scream, moan, and utter curses in two languages.
The destination of all three was the same, ancient center of travel and commerce whose eponym was responsible for that mild, most restrained scent, existing within a nation of other remembered scents, less tame; a locale of orderly street crossings, small dogs, large pubs, art galleries, butchers, museums, bakers, flower shops, concert halls, Turkish men, women, children, and the proud site of a colossal spiritual monument. Bombs dropped upon this last, a cathedral, scarcely defiled portions of its exterior, giving rise to tales of the miraculous: site and locale, monument and scent, domination coexistent with invisibility, and always the ring roads of the city, the sky gray to grayer, the hymned and venerated river. Cologne, near the Ruhr, on the Rhine.
They’ve gone beyond pastures, passing gorse
and small forests. On a low hillside, a man
stood, glowering, hands pressed hard into his
pockets as the train whizzed by. Bent low
beside him, a woman gathered mauve clouds of
heather into a basket. The sparrows finish
Ann, vocal animal lover, has left Willy, her dog, with Dorothy, her mother. Willy is the only male Dorothy trusts, the only one on whom mother and daughter agree. For the past ten years, Ann has been the hostess in a two-star French restaurant in New York City. Unlike most of her friends and contemporaries, Ann’s attitude toward the other half of her species vacillates between benign and adoring; no opinions or experience to the contrary could shake her faith which, like any faith, was predicated on the need and will to believe.
She and Goff—Godfrey—the man sitting opposite her, had not known one another long, and she was not, strictly speaking, dressed in black. The distance from short black sheath to high black boots was briefly traversed by bright, scarlet stockings held up by a split-second of garter belt.
She excused herself to head to the toilet, passing a group of singing Dutch men, making her smile. The toilet was occupied. While she waited, Ann entertained herself by imagining her future with Goff, thinking about Willy, and enumerating on her fingers the museums she’d visited thus far on her trip. Momentarily, a man came out, appearing vacant and distracted, nearly falling into her. He was scratching tiny scabs near his nose, pulling at the ragged sleeve of his coat, trying to get it to cover his forearm. Ann recalled seeing him board the train, remembered the worn-out feather on his Tyrolean hat.
Once inside, Ann peeled red silk stockings down long thighs, squatting, making sure not to touch the seat. She stood up, washed her hands and cautiously stuck the tips of her pinkies into the corners of her eyes, removing the gooey substance accumulated there from her makeup. Finally, before opening the door, she patted her breasts—small, still firm, the nipples inverted—to assure herself that a bag of marijuana, bought in Amsterdam as a surprise for Goff, hadn’t dislodged. The brassiere felt alien. She wondered if Goff had noticed anything different about her.
Ann returned to her seat, wriggled back into it, and crossed her legs. Speaking to her companion as though they were alone, she said:
“My mother told me I was an idiot to come here.”
Ulrich was reading, but he discerned that this might be a code, his book now providing cover as he listened.
“She’s always told me how I avoid real responsibility. Real, in my mother’s dictionary, means having children. At least one. For punishment.”
Goff rubbed one hand with the other, lit a cigarette, and put on his sunglasses.
“The only time in my life I ever asked her for money, she accused me of using it to pay for an abortion! I mean, I’ve had one, but I’d never ask her. I think my bank account had gotten screwed up or something. Anyway, she’s impossible. She won’t even admit I take good care of my dog. His name’s Willy; I think I told you.” Ann dug into her bag, found her wallet, produced a photograph. “He was just a puppy then.”
Ulrich flipped another unread page.
“The happier I am, the nastier she gets, especially where men are concerned. She thinks she’s being protective because my father left us when I was young. Just split.”
The young German almost dropped his book, shocked that he and she had this in common, her words dispelling his spy persona for a moment. He thought of his own mother. “Ulle, Ulle,” she crooned as she cut his hair, pretending he was his father. Ulrich’s mother looked forward to grandchildren. He reached back and secretly stroked the jacket, his trophy.
Abruptly, Ann ceased all talk, folding her legs beneath her, tugging at the short dress. She began scribbling on postcards, thrumming her address book each time she closed it, looking up now and then to smile at Goff. He, on his guard, yawned and closed his eyes just as she put down her pen.
“She’s always telling me I’m wasting my life. She says that if she hadn’t been forced to raise a child alone, she would have done something brilliant, but she never says what. She was an executive secretary for an insurance company, but she’s retired now.”
Goff’s shoulders and neck stiffened involuntarily. He wondered what Ann would do if he caught her, mid-sentence, say, and gently pressed his knuckles against her mouth; he imagined her tongue impaled on a nail.
“Once, I tried telling her what it was like to watch a painter sponge a canvas. You know what I mean, the way it makes the surface shudder like skin, like a person shivering or something.”
“Christ,” Goff muttered, “you’re nuts.”
“I said the word, ‘skin.’ You know what she did? She hung up on me. She claimed we’d gotten accidentally disconnected, but that’s bullshit. It was the word ‘skin.’ That’s how uptight she is.”
Goff didn’t care. He hadn’t spoken to his own family in years and thought that for Ann to be disconnected from her mother, accidentally or otherwise, was long overdue. Ann and Dorothy. Ann and men and paint.
She loved the aura of it, the scent of turpentine, linseed oil, the sound of brushes, palette knives, hatchets, hands, whatever the tool, no matter the scale. She was awed by watching layers built up in defiance of gravity, or scraped off, the image reduced to its barest, most transparent self. She adored seeing colors prodded, wormlike and wriggling, out of tubes or sitting, like rich cream, in buckets. She asked questions about the application of colors on different surfaces, about one color being mixed with another to form a third, about what happened when you laid this one on top of, or next to, another. She wanted to know about varnishes, sizes, glazes and asked what the specific detritus, objects or images adorning each ones’ studio meant. Ann felt anointed when touched by hands that held the charmed properties. She wished to be, if not a martyr, at least a muse. Her friends had given up suggesting that what gets made should be considered apart from its maker. Ann, hooked and trapped.
The first night she’d arrived in Europe, she’d fallen asleep next to Goff and dreamt that she was standing naked, arms at her sides in a blindingly glowing room with silvery walls. Her hands began to float slowly upward like freed sea anemones, reaching toward her breasts, the nipples, just this once, pink and full. Her fingers hardened into pincers squeezing the tender, supple points, releasing narrow lines of color trickling in rivulets down her body, the rills becoming streams as she remained motionless: feet, ankles, shins, thighs, hips, deep in swirls of liquid tincture. Ann, hooked, trapped, dreaming.
“You know, I was already half in love with you.” Goff opened his eyes as she said this. “Just from seeing your work, I mean, a long time before we ever met.” He lit another smoke and picked up a German art magazine, relieved to look at words he couldn’t understand.
Ann’s voice began to crack from the effort not to cry.
“It’s okay. Men feel threatened by love. They don’t like to talk about it.” Goff’s fists clutched the edges of the magazine.
Ulrich was asleep, mouth open, head slumped forward. His rhythmic snoring mixed with Ann’s staccato breaths, he and she in unconscious, contrapuntal release within the darkening, smoky atmosphere.
Behind white lace curtains, a woman placed
heather in a vase and began to prepare
dinner. In the next room, her husband
coughed and cursed, rolling a cigarette.
Sparrows leave one country, fly into another.
Goff arrived fresh from the womb in a fit of howling-blue, unforgiving rage. He learned early that holding his breath would gain attention, subverting this into a persona easily mistaken for gentleness, a quality of restraint.
Many who knew his paintings assumed he was making a statement about demonic social forces, adding their generosity of vision to his rendered verisimilitude, wondering how he could survive such wrenching paradox between content and form, his touch was so deft. For this misapprehension on the part of most he was paid handsomely and lived well.
His tenure in Europe was at the behest of a giant pharmaceutical company, promoter of cultural events whose sponsorship had grown to include artists foreign to their soil, just as their factories had found homes in other countries, fostering employment and profits. The cultural events remained discrete from the factory workers, many of them Turkish, dark as the darkened skies.
None of this was Goff’s concern. For three months he’d been working on his Stations of the Cross, 14 panels depicting a variety of tortures, maimed and dismembered figures writhing in paroxysms of agony, all of them women. The committee that selected his proposal viewed the work as allegory; some of them believed it. During the next three months he planned to work on paintings to be shown in a museum, also owned by the company. “The Stations” was to be housed in the corporate headquarters, deep in verdant countryside, behind high, spiked gates guarded by uniformed men subduing growling dogs. Ulrich worked neither in the factory nor the headquarters, but midway between, in a building not-quite-beige, not-quite-white. He continued to sleep, dreaming of a boy with staples in his lips, hidden in a tower.
Goff and Ann met for the first time in New York the night before he left for his sojourn to Germany. Some painter friends of his suggested dinner in a French restaurant where one of the men knew the hostess, assuring them of a table even if it were crowded. Ann recognized Goff and, after treating the group to a bottle of expensive wine and a joke she’d heard the night before, made her admiration clear. He slurred his address at her as he and his friends were leaving. She arrived at his place at 3:00 AM after getting off work and was ushered out at 8:00 the same morning. When a letter arrived in Germany, telling him that she had vacation coming and would love to see him, he had to think hard to remember who she was. His response, written on an announcement from one of his old shows said, “If you want. G.”
Ulrich awakened with a wheeze and a start, dismayed that he’d fallen asleep, his spying at an all-time low. Some day he planned to buy a motorcycle and ride throughout America. He had mentioned this one particular trip to his mother who’d said, “Perhaps your father’s there, Ulle, my darling, meeting with people in positions of power, people who understand.” Understand what, Ulrich thought. He used to watch his father roll cigarettes with the one hand, just like a real American cowboy. In a low voice, his father told him that the missing arm was tacked up on the wall of an RAF captain’s country estate, splayed from the shoulder to the translucent, yellowing skin of the outstretched fingers. Ulrich was too young at the time to dare ask if this were true, but it silenced him then as now. America. Must be a terrible place but, who knew, maybe his crazy mother was right, maybe his father was there after all.
Removing the sunglasses, Goff searched Ann’s face for telltale signs of age. Mistaking his lingering gaze for one of affection, she beamed back at him. Man, those nipples. Weird. Never talks during sex though. Not a sound. Surprising. Strange woman. All that crap about her mother. Thought she’d be old enough to know better. Maybe the older ones are more desperate. It didn’t matter. What was important was keeping power and speed in mind, in fast, out the same way.
The woman cleared the dinner dishes
from the table while the man read the
paper, smoking a cigarette, dropping
ashes on the chair, the floor. Sparrows
rest on wires, in trees.
Ann’s been daydreaming about Goff’s return to America. Three months isn’t that long. Her fantasy suffered a rupture when she heard him clear his throat, murmur, “Here comes trouble,” and looked up to see a scabby face with rheumy eyes staring at her from the door. The man stood there, swaying slightly, wearing his Tyrolean hat.
“I mus’ tell you d’at d’e reason I’ve come in here is d’at you bot’ look so innerestin’.” He moved forward uninvited, stepping across Ulrich as though through a ghost. He sat down next to Goff.
“I’m Dutch, when d’ey have kicked me outta Amsterdam. I can go d’ere for two days, one time a mont’. It’ll be easier wit’ d’e Wall not really d’ere anymore. I’m a artist.”
Chatter flew from Ann’s mouth, monkeys out of a cage:
“Really? So’s Goff.” She nodded in the appropriate direction, but when she saw her lover’s face, regretted having spoken. Goff had seen all he’d needed to see in the first few seconds of this guy’s arrival, the greasy hair, the sallow skin, drawn in some places, sagging in others, the dirty hat with the sad feather now clutched in his hands, crushed between his knees, but it was mainly the eyes. Goff knew right away. The man smiled at him, those eyes showing no complicity, the teeth brown and rotting:
“Yah? Ya wanna see my paintin’s?”
Goff looked his questioner dead in his dead eyes:
The ersatz grin was replaced by a look of genuine surprise on two faces, the intruder’s and Ann’s. She was stunned by Goff’s terse rejection, which seemed to include her as well. Her face grew warm. Ulrich allowed himself the merest twitch of a smile.
Goff stood up and headed for the corridor. The interloper turned his full attention toward Ann:
“What do you do?” he cooed.
Before she could answer, he posited:
“You’re also a painter; I recognize d’is.”
She paused, unsteady at being the sole target of his nervous expectations:
“Well, I work in a French restaurant, bu … “
“I knew d’at, I knew d’at,” he crowed. “D’at’s what I t’ought.”
She felt exasperated but could not look away, bound to him by embarrassment. He grinned back at her like a sadistic corpse whose last moments on earth were spent enjoying a foul smell.
Goff returned, eyes averted, checking his fly to avoid all glances. Released by his presence, she stared at her red cocooned legs, and the Dutchman turned his pink-rimmed eyes back toward his fellow artist, ignoring the recent dismissal. Both men lit cigarettes, and the compartment, which had seemed comfortable, began to grow dense with smoke and heat.
“I live in Dusseldorf, but I have a atelier in Berlin where I go a lotta times. I know famous artists, but my atelier is being taken away from me. I have no money. It’s shit. I own a paintin’ d’at d’e famous Dutch artist, Villem de Koonin’, gave to me personal. I have a lotta money when I want it.”
Goff looked out the window.
“My wife en’ my mistress fell in love wit’ each u’der. D’ey live tegedder in Amsterdam, wit’ my 12-year-old son. We’re gonna buy a place in Germany en’ live d’ere tegedder, d’e t’ree of d’em wit’ me. I’m good friends wit’ lotsa famous artists. I can innerduce you.” He waited, then added simply, “I’m a addict.”
Ann noticed that he was beginning to sweat and tremble, his focus shifting around the confined space. He got up as suddenly as he had appeared, and left. Ann felt confused. She shifted in her seat, unable to get comfortable.
Ulrich, motionless but for his eyelids and shallow breathing, promised himself a concealed tape recorder the next time he traveled. He would play the results for his mother, telling her it was a cipher. It might prove useful, a distraction for her when he leaves for the army. “Ulle, Ulle.” She could hunch over it, next to the electric fire in the cramped, narrow living room, shades drawn against night and day.
Twenty minutes later the Dutchman returned, scratching. He sat slowly. “Yah. Big show. Stedelijk Muse’m. Importan’ galleris’. In Dussl. Drf. Can stop any. Time. Don’ hafta do d’is. No. More.”
Ann’s mind jammed shut. He sniffled, trying to wipe his eyes and nose on the stained sleeves of his coat, grumbling in Dutch, no longer speaking to her or anyone. She realized Goff had known from the beginning, had left her to listen to this man with all his lies and sorrows, had closed his eyes again and feigned sleep. Ann, hooked, trapped, dreaming, dreaming.
“Willful naivete,” that would have been Dorothy’s verdict.
Ann looked directly toward Ulrich for the first time, but he quickly turned his head away and looked into the corridor’s emptiness. She excused herself to no one in particular, nodding like a geisha, smiling by reflex, acknowledged only by the blubbering death’s head, his eyelids weighted, chin bobbing. She stumbled against the jostling of the train and returned to the privacy of the toilet. Her postcards were becoming lies as they sat in her purse: “Fabulous time. Great weather. Wonderful museums. I’ve finally found him. Miss you all. Big hugs and kisses. Ann.” She thought about Willy. Her Willy-Nilly, her one trustworthy, unqualifiedly loving, sweet boy. Her yearning for the animal came on so suddenly, strongly, that she wept, her chest hurting, unable to catch her breath.
She pictured their reunion, felt the solid weight of his paws against her breasts, saw them gambolling around Dorothy’s living room when she went to pick him up. Her mother would be disapproving, and complain that something was bound to get broken, jealous that Willy was so happy to see Ann.
She took the picture out of her wallet, kissed it. “Just a little longer, boy.” Maybe she would change her ticket, pay the penalty, face Dorothy’s “I told you so” looks and questions.
Ann removed the small, plastic bag and the uncomfortable brassiere, placing the wired push-up cups in the trash. She took a thin, white leaf from the cigarette papers she’d bought as part of the surprise and rolled a joint, fat and conical, lighting it with matches she’d planned to save as a souvenir.
Ann inhaled at length several times, coughing, but not stopping long between each. She opened the window, watching the lights of homes flash by in the darkness. Earlier, while it was still light, she had seen an elderly couple riding their bicycles along the dikes. So sweet, Ann had thought, waving to them.
Looking out at the brightly lit rectangles, smoking the present intended for Goff, she created scenarios for the insides of these cosy homes, reveling in their serenity and contentment, thinking of couples, families exchanging guttural small talk on both sides of a newly-relaxed border. There hadn’t been any guards this time, stiffly uniformed in loden-green, checking passports. Not even going in this direction. Ann had believed it would all be such fun. She remembered that she’d been anxious to get a seat by the window so she could watch the sun set. It was too late. No sun. No life with Goff. Ann smoked a bit more, the quality and quantity more than she was used to, and thought about the pathetic junkie waiting in the compartment. When she returned, he was gone.
It was just the three of them again. She should have made more of an effort to talk to the blond boy. He looked so alone. As they drew closer to their arrival, she began to feel increasingly dislocated. Goff was standing, singing softly, gathering his belongings from the metal rack above his head. Ann stood up as well, then dropped back down immediately, catching her reflection in the darkened window.
Behind her, Ulrich leaned his head into the scent and comfort of the jacket. He took it off the hook, leaning forward to put it on, grinning uncontrollably, a gesture so broad it seemed to carry a sound. Seeing his face overlapping her own reflected apparition, Ann swung round in confusion, but it was as though both the smile and its owner had escaped out the door, down the corridor, and off the train.
A streetlamp shone through lace
curtains, illuminating a vase,
its contents casting feathery
shadows on the wall. A man and
woman coupled in strained silence
as a clock ticked in the next
room. Nearby it was a chair,
covered with ashes.
“Willy!” Dorothy shrieked. “Willy, get back here!” He disappeared around the corner. She ran off the porch and down the street as best she could, heard screeching brakes followed by a final, sharp yelp. When she arrived at where he lay panting softly, blood trickling from the side of his mouth, she felt her throat tighten. The driver of a panel truck stood over the dog: “Jeez, lady, I’m sorry; he ran out so fast.” Wavy skid marks, half a block long. He helped lift the dying Willy/not Willy, a still-warm, reddish golden mass of weight and fur, the well-shaped head hanging limply to one side, the deep-pink tongue lolling out of the mouth, blood dripping now as they lowered him gently to the sidewalk. Dorothy said that she’d tried time and again to get her daughter to bring the animal to obedience school.
Elena Alexander is a poet and writer who lives in New York City. She curates the reading series “MAD ALEX Presents,” “Devotional: Writers’ Retrospectives,” and the new “Extended Run,” at Biblio’s Bookstore & Cafe.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.