|Aufbau Verlag, August 2010, 244 pp.
ISBN: 978 3 351 03321 7
The story I tell in this book really happened, but in a different way. Since I had to rely on my memory it’s a madeup story in any case. And the people who appear in it never existed quite like this either – or if they did, then only in my imagination.
If I was a girl I’d fall in love with you on the spot. That sentence suddenly popped into my head and with it my earliest memory of Boyroth. It pushed its way in front of the scene I was just reading but not really paying attention to because I’d read it so many times before. I still liked to give readings at schools even though I could hardly stand looking at the kids’ arrogant, bored – or frequently, hostile – faces anymore or hearing the questions they asked like it was some tedious duty.
If I was a girl, I’d fall in love with you on the spot. I’d said that sentence in my head once before, thirty years ago on a soccer field outside the Letzigrund Stadium at my first practice for the B junior team of the Blue Stars soccer club.
After my reading, the teacher offered me a cup of coffee in the teachers’ lounge but I told her I’d hardly slept at all and needed to stretch out before my next reading.
When I had woken up a little before four that morning and gone over to the window of my hotel room, I saw it was snowing. A sanding truck was driving down the street and its blinker jumping across my bed every few seconds had probably been what woke me. The truck’s motor, at any rate, was inaudible, as were the voices of the three men frolicking along the sidewalk like schoolboys. Were they drunk? Or maybe they were just enjoying the snow and the wind that drove the flakes between the buildings and made the streetlights dance and fling their light in different directions, filling the flurries with ghostly movement. I watched the snow falling for a while and then lay down again, hoping to get a bit more sleep. And now I was tired.
The schoolyard and playing field of the cantonal school were covered with snow and there were low-hanging clouds, but it wasn’t snowing. A few of the students who had been at my reading were sitting in the foyer. They didn’t acknowledge me, just watched in silence as I opened the door and walked out of the building. Fog hung over Lake Lucerne and probably wouldn’t disperse until midday, once the sun climbed above the mountains and made the roofs and towers gleam before reaching the river and, finally, the streets in the old town center.
The next reading began in two hours. Did I have enough time to stretch out? The hotel was on the far shore of the bay. Maybe I should just grab something to eat in the school’s cafeteria and then start looking for the next classroom and the next group of students.
I walked in the direction of downtown, unable to get Boyroth out of my head. He’d been the occasion for the sentence I had thought and immediately suppressed back then. I wondered what had become of him. The path ran along the lake shore and past a park, then across a pedestrian bridge that spanned part of the harbor. Passenger boats were tied up there, including the paddlewheel steamer on which I’d taken a tour of the lake years ago. Seagulls were patrolling the roof of the steamer and rose into the air when they heard me. Some workers were offloading a freight boat carrying fist-sized stones, surprisingly round and each wearing a cap of snow. A conveyor belt carried them to the bed of a truck where the men were distributing them evenly with their shovels.
I hadn’t noticed the food stand behind the train station earlier that day. Cement planters fenced off a quadrangle with little plastic tables where no one was sitting, of course. Three men stood at the counter beneath a glowing space heater. Another was standing off to one side, holding a large bottle of beer like the others. The last time we’d seen each other was thirty years ago, but I recognized him immediately: Boyroth. He had a scraggly beard streaked with silver and shoulderlength hair and was wearing jeans and a green parka. A brindled dog lay so close to Boyroth that his work boots were touching it.
I came up and stood beside him without saying anything, but he betrayed no recognition. The air smelled of rancid grease. The casings of the bratwursts on the grill were burned and split open, a currywurst had shriveled to the length of a finger. The potato salad lay on display in its congealed sauce. Next to it was a pile of onion rings. The woman inside the stand lifted the french fry basket from the boiling oil, then stirred a pot. She was about fifty, with teased hair the color of copper piled up on her head, lots of lipstick, and skyblue eye shadow. The plastic tree lashed tight to the stand and shielding the customers rattled in the gusts of wind.
After a while, Boyroth turned his head and gave me a penetrating, expressionless stare. Nonetheless, I could see he recognized me as well. He removed the wooden matchstick he’d been chewing on.
“Well, well, the poet!”
His voice sounded weary, but I would have recognized it immediately too. I could have picked it out from a thousand other voices anywhere. He spread his arms, grinned, and gave me a hug. When we embraced, I could feel that he’d gained some weight. The dog jumped to its feet, panted, and turned circles like it didn’t know what to do with itself. Boyroth gave him a gentle pat on the head and the dog lay down again.
“Good boy, Zappa, good boy.”
Boyroth smelled of beer, machine oil, and cold cigarette smoke. The right arm of his parka was ruststained.
“I thought of you today,” I said, “crazy, isn’t it?” I could see immediately he didn’t believe me.
“I’ve always said you poets were liars. And later on, you claim it’s all made up! Or true!”
“No shit, I just thought of you a few minutes ago.”
“Ha, ha! Me too!” he said and put the match back in his mouth.
“You thought of me?”
“Of you? Crap! Of me! I do it all the time – think of myself. Sad to say.”
“And what are you doing here?”
The critical undertone in my voice annoyed me, too. Why shouldn’t he be standing here at eleven in the morning, drinking beer instead of working?
“Taking a break. Something I’m sure you know all about,” he said, spitting his match onto the ground, “as a poet.”
“Do you live in Lucerne?”
“Sort of. And you?”
He gave me a mocking look, then quick as a wink, just as he had almost forty years ago, he swiped his index finger across his upper lip, twice, then shook it out with an expression of almost disgusted astonishment. Just like in the old days.
“Aren’t they all reactionary assholes up there in the mountains?” he asked before I could answer.
So he already knew where I lived. I’d moved to the village of Tavanasa in the Surselva region, a short hour by train from Chur.
“Not all of them,” I said, “just most of them.”
“Just like everywhere else.”
“Exactly, just like everywhere else.”
“You still don’t smoke?” he asked.
I shook my head. Boyroth’s hands looked workworn. There was dirt under his nails.
“I would have been surprised if you did. I still do. A pack a day. At least. What about soccer?”
“What about it?
“You still playing?”
“I’m too slow,” I said.
“You always were. But you played anyway.”
Boyroth swirled his beer bottle. We watched the foam rise, then he drained it in one swallow and gave a gentle belch.
“I finally found ’er, by the way,” he said.
“That LP we were looking for for so long.”
If I didn’t know what record he was talking about, I was done for. Then I’d be just one more of his friends. One of many. But his best friend doesn’t forget which LP we had searched for everywhere, obsessively. And I remembered. I could still see the hundreds – no, more like thousands – of cartons of LPs we’d pawed through, all the flea markets we’d checked out.
“Canned Heat,” I said so fast I almost tripped over my tongue, “Live at Topanga Corral.”
“Exactly,” said Boyroth and closed his eyes in pleasure, “recorded in Topanga Canyon in California.
“In ’66 and ’67.”
“In the United States of Ah-ha-merica,” he said quietly.
When was the last time I’d said it like that, the way we always used to? Thirty years ago, doing ninetyfive miles an hour on a Triumph 650 without a helmet, in a T-shirt and jeans jacket, hanging onto Boyroth for dear life. “This is like in Ah-ha-merica!” I’d screamed in his ear with the road to Birmensdorf rolling out in front of us, straight as an arrow and lined with trees.
“You wanna hear it?” he asked and assumed the face he used so many years ago to get me to do things I would never have done otherwise, either because they were forbidden or because I was afraid to.
I nodded. Boyroth grabbed his beer bottle by the neck, leaned over the counter, and placed it beside a pile of paper plates. The woman behind the counter was snipping pepperoncini into a pot with a pair of scissors while she read a movie magazine. She looked up.
“Hang on a sec, Walti,” she said and gave him an affectionate smile. “What do you think of my chili?”
He closed his eyes, opened his mouth, and let her serve him a spoonful. Before his lips released the spoon, he smacked them dramatically and sighed.
“Just like always, Rita,” he said, “better than at the Mexican place.”
“Hot enough?” she asked and finished licking off the spoon.
“It’s too hot for the white-collar guys but it’s perfect for me. Come on, Zappa. Ciao, Rita.”
He had some sauce on his lower lip, that hadn’t changed either. Whenever he ate, he got crumbs on his cheek, bread fragments between his teeth, ice cream on his chin. Boyroth had sauce on his chin and I wiped my own mouth, just like always.
“You’ve got something there,” said Rita, leaned across the counter, and wiped his chin with her index finger.
“Only for you, Rita, only for you.” She blew him a kiss but he’d already bent down to snap the leash onto the dog’s collar. The woman’s mouth hardened. She licked her thumb and turned a page. Boyroth straightened up and left without looking over his shoulder.
“Where do you live, anyway?” I asked, following him.
“You’ll see soon enough, Hansi.”
When was the last time someone had called me by the name I hated more than anything in the world? Hansi. My mother. She called me that until the day she died. The uproar I made every time she said it was a sham, and she knew it. I loved her to call me Hansi.
(pp. 13-19 of the original)
The wind had already blown apart the freshlychalked goal-line, but that didn’t seem to bother the man who’d done it. When I asked him where the B-juniors of FC Blue Stars trained, he smiled and nodded and gestured with his chin toward the penalty box at the other end of the field.
I was late. The police had stopped me for the second time that summer because I’d lengthened the front fork of my moped, which of course wasn’t permitted. The modified fork had fascinated the two officers so much it didn’t even occur to them to check the cylinder head. The four days’ grace period they gave me to reinstall the standard telescope fork would be enough to also replace the drilled-out cylinder with the one I had removed and stowed in a carton under my bed when I bought the moped.
The wind blew my shoulder-length hair as I crossed the field, walking as slowly as possible. I wasn’t comfortable in groups and the thought of arriving late to join a bunch of fifteen or sixteen boys who already knew each other was almost enough to make me turn around and head back home. This soccer field beside the main stadium in Letzigrund was where the various teams of the Blue Stars club practiced and played their home games. Next to it there were several bocce courts sheltered by a flat roof but open on the sides. The faint calls of the Italian guest workers, who must have been from the early shift if they were playing bocce on a Wednesday afternoon, as well as their wind-blown accordion music and the clack of the balls knocking against each other gave me courage to keep going, as did the boy who had left the group and started running toward me, juggling a leather soccer ball from one foot to the other. When he was still maybe twenty yards from me, he kicked it straight up overhead. It was spinning but also seemed to hang frozen in the air for a few seconds, then it dropped from the sky like a stone. Before it hit the ground and without looking at it because his eyes were glued on mine, he volleyed it at me. To this day I don’t know how I managed to stop that blistering shot, but I did and it stuck on my right foot as if it had grown there. I let it hang there a second before I kicked it back in a flat curve.
“At last, a guy who knows how to play soccer!” the boy shouted. He caught my shot, juggled it briefly, then passed it back to me and came toward me beaming.
“And you’ve got the right shoes, too!”
I wasn’t just wearing Pumas like him, but they were the exact same model. I was 6’1” and the tallest of more than twenty apprentice typesetters in a printing company less than three hundred yards from the stadium. I’d been in training there since April. This boy was half a head taller than me. His blond hair was fine and straight like mine, but fell to the center of his back. He was lanky, almost gaunt, but at the same time so muscular I wouldn’t have wanted to play against him.
“I’m Boyroth,” he said.
“Mind if I call you Gönggi?”
Gönggi? I shook my head. He had a woven lanyard on his right wrist and wore a silver chain around his neck.
“Don’t worry. We can outplay these fuckers” (he jerked his thumb toward the rest of the team) “with one hand tied behind our back.”
At that moment he became my friend. I was seventeen and had already outgrown the stage when nothing happens to you when you’re alone, only if you’re with friends and can talk about it. Even so, I needed an ally. An ally against teachers, supervisors, parents, and adults in general. Back then I always went around sulking like someone had rejected me. But I was the one who kept to himself and wanted nothing to do with the others. My solitariness was self-imposed, but it was also lonely and I suffered. I would have liked a friend to share it with. Not a girl, that came later – no, a friend who also kept himself apart by choice. Boyroth was that friend; I felt it right away. He was something special. He was going to give me the feeling of being here, being alive, really and totally alive every second of my life, someone who doesn’t get submerged in the crowd and yet is not alone. I could see he had already accomplished the difficult task of becoming himself. With him, I could practice being a new person until I really became a new person. He was ahead of me, far ahead, and not just me. Boyroth wasn’t one of those people who do everything in their power to hang onto their dreams so they don’t become reality. He did everything he could to make his dreams come true. He was going to make me bigger than I was and older too. Not more adult – I could sense that – but older and less fearful. And what would I do for him? That question never occurred to me until many years later. Back then of course I couldn’t see what a gift it was to be allowed to share with him that greatest and most difficult farewell of all, the farewell from childhood.
“If I was a girl I’d fall in love with you on the spot.” That scary realization was immediately supplanted by the thought, “This guy’s not afraid of anything.” Only then did I notice that the stench from the nearby slaughterhouse was especially bad that Wednesday. On some days we couldn’t open the windows of the printing shop because the smell of putrid flesh – or was it blood? – took our breath away and we couldn’t stand hearing the squeals of the pigs, cattle, and calves being led to the slaughter and the excited shouts of the butchers.
“If that doesn’t make you want to be a vegetarian, you deserve to be butchered yourself,” said Boyroth lifting his chin in the direction of the abattoir. Smoke was rising from its smokestack in a light gray column straight as a flagpole.
“Well I eat meat,” I said.
“Not for long. You drink too?”
“Do I look like I do?”
He gave me a mocking grin and mimed lifting a beer stein to his lips, draining it to the dregs, and then tossing it away with a flourish.
“Do I look like I do?” he asked again.
“How does someone look who drinks?” I countered.
“Different from someone who smokes hash and grass. Are we on the same page?”
“You bet we are.”
“After practice I’ll roll us a joint, OK?”
“Did you watch the game yesterday?”
Of course I’d watched the World Cup game between East and West Germany. When Jürgen Sparwasser scored the only goal of the game for the East Germans, I ran around our apartment cheering.
“The Germans are gonna talk about that nothing-to-one for years to come,” I said. “They’ll never forget it.”
“Right. But they’re going to win the World Cup anyway!”
“Not a chance. The Brazilians will win.”
“Come on. I’ll introduce you to the other fuckers,” he said, handing me the ball. “I’ll tell them we’ve known each other for years.”
(pp. 33-37 of the original)
Translation © 2010 by David Dollenmayer
© 2010 Aufbau Verlag