by Russell Dyer
published: july 15, 2007; revised: september 03, 2017; readers in past month: 113
He sat quietly in his chair, looking down and to the right, remembering a moment from only a week before. He was recalling a conversation he had with a young woman. She wasn’t a romantic interest of his. She was just a friend. An acquaintance is perhaps more accurate. That was as much as he could lay claim. His face was serene as he thought of the conversation he had had with her. A slight and soft smile came over his face. He liked her. He enjoyed their conversation. She was sweet. She had a nice smile when she laughed at what he said about… “Shut up!” he shouted in a quick and minimal voice. He shook his head once abruptly before a sudden, cold feel of embarrassment came over him. He looked around the coffeeshop to see if anyone had heard him, if anyone had seen him. No one had. His eyes looked down again and they began racing from left to right and back again with the rapidity of a man in trouble, a man trying to recount the last few seconds to make sure he didn’t miss anything that had happened. Did someone just walk by? Did anyone notice and turn away to save him the embarrassment? He told himself he was fine. He told himself that no one had noticed, no one had heard. He thought about the moment with the young woman again, the moment that had brought on the outburst. He sighed firmly, trying to dismiss it. He relaxed again. His thoughts hit upon the moment again when he had said something to the young woman that was meant as a joke, but didn’t come out right. She had smiled, but he had sensed something in her body language which indicated that maybe she thought it a strange thing to say, that maybe she thought him strange. He mumbled aloud the line he had said to her again. He tried modifying it a bit and said it again, more audibly. He said it again with a smile and tilting of his head, altering the inflection of his voice at key points in the hopes that she would retroactively take it as the joke he had intended, hoping to change the memory, the past, the reality. He started to say it again when his right fist clenched; his left arm pulled in close to his chest as his biceps expanded. His left hand squeezed with his index finger crooked, but pointing forward. There was anger in his point, like he was warning someone, like he was tightly in their face—nose to nose, eyes to eyes. His eyes narrowed as he said aloud, with a constrained voice that only someone an inch away and directly in front of him would have heard, “Shut. The. Fuck. Up!”
He held this posture for a moment, before relaxing his left hand and closing his eyes. He breathed slowly to let the anger out. He slid his hands down and rubbed his legs to calm himself. He smoothly opened his eyes. He didn’t look around this time. He chose to act like nothing had happened, like he had said nothing. If anyone had heard him or saw him, there was nothing he could do about it. If they had only caught part of it, there was hope that it would be excused or ignored. It was too outrageous of a possibility that a man sitting in a coffeeshop alone would carry on as he did. He decided that he would act as though nothing had happen so that if anyone had seen or heard, they would question what they had witnessed. They would begin to wonder if it was him they had heard, or if maybe they were mistaken and it was their own mind which was erratic. He would use their own insecurities about their sanity against them, or rather to his advantage, for his protection. He got up in a relaxed manner and picked up his book and glanced at his watch. It was time for him to go. Nothing more natural than that: a man sat for a cup of coffee, relaxing with his book alone for a few minutes. Time passed. He left. Sanity.
He walked along the street, no longer thinking of his outbursts or the young woman. He thought of things he had to do: stop by the grocery, stop at the cash machine for money, go home and check his email, maybe shower before going over to the bar. It was Thursday evening. He goes to the bar on Thursday nights. He doesn’t drink—not alcohol anyway. He just goes and has a coke and socializes. He doesn’t have alcohol because it makes him bitter, his conversations become snippy, he offends people when he drinks just one drink. So he doesn’t drink when he goes out. He goes every Thursday night—just to have a coke and to socialize. Not to drink alcohol. That makes him offensive, rude.
His life doesn’t have much in the way of routines. He lives alone in a small apartment. He has no pets. He has no friends of which to speak. He has no girlfriend. He had a wife once, but they’ve been divorced for several years now. She’s in the United States with their ten-year-old daughter whom he talks to once a week, sometime on the weekends. His work is that of a part-time English teacher and an interpreter. He lives in Berlin, in the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood. Besides his native language of English, he speaks German, Italian, and French—all fluently. As a result, he makes his living teaching English one-on-one to Germans who want to go to England or the United States, or those who want to get a job in a multi-national company where English is required. Occasionally, he is called in by the government or by a local company to translate documents where they have to be sure of every detail, where they have to be precise as to what they are agreeing in a contract. So, he has very little routine in his life other than he might work at any time, day or night and without much advance notice. His students are fickle: they make appointments only a day or two in advance and sometimes cancel shortly before their appointment or not show up at the coffeeshop by the Hackescher Markt where he meets them. This may seem strange, German students not making their appointments, not showing up for them. But, they’re fickle, the students he tutors, that is, at least. The effect on him is that he has no routine, other than what he imposes on himself and that is only his Thursday night appearance at the bar near his apartment on Christburger Strasse. He doesn’t particularly like going to the bar on Thursday nights. He talks to people, briefly, but not for long with any one person. Mostly he sips his coke and looks around. It’s just something to do once a week. A routine thing to do: to go to the bar and to have a coke and socialize, on Thursday nights.
It’s a long walk to Prenzlauer Berg from Hackescher Markt, where he usually goes for coffee or to meet his students. He won’t walk all of the way. He likes to walk along the tram line on the right side of the street until he has had enough. Then he takes the tram when it catches up with him. It had only been about five minutes or so when he felt the rumble of the white and yellow dragon scraping and pounding its way towards him from behind, steel on steel. He could feel the weight of it dragging along, the beast restrained from flight by the electrical cables above from which sparks, outbursts of irritation come. He slipped into its belly when it stopped, when the doors opened, like he belonged. He took one of the single, cool and rounded plastic seats facing backwards and ignored the people facing forward. He sat quietly watching the people walking along the sidewalk, watching them slip by like lost souls floating down the Styx. His cell phone vibrated in his top, shirt pocket. He slid it out and opened it without looking, without taking his gaze away from the stream of people outside. “Hallo.” He paused. “Ja, ich bin Julian Allerton.” He listened to the caller ask if he would meet with him to translate a two page document. “Ja. Wann?” He listened. “Jetzt?” He grimaced and looked at his watch. He was going to miss his Thursday night out at the bar. This would be the first time that he had missed in over nine months. He wondered if anyone would notice that he was missing. ‘Probably not,’ he thought. Still, he would notice: His one stake of structure in his life was being yanked out of the dirt and tossed aside. He told the caller he would meet him at the coffeeshop in the Hackesche Hofe, his usual place, in fifteen minutes. He sighed and closed his phone. He clenched it in his fist for a moment as he stared out the window, feeling its seeming coolness caused by the smoothness of the metal housing, on his dry hands. He was going to miss his Thursday night out. He wondered if anyone would notice him missing. ‘Probably not,’ he thought. Still.
The tram stopped and the doors pulsated their annoying buzz as they opened and waited for him to exit. The dragon seem to be badgering him to get out, to leave its belly and to free it of the acidity known as him. He reluctantly got up and exited just as the doors were closing, letting out the sound of air being released under pressure, like poisonous gas escaping from an ancient sarcophagus. Walking back towards the coffeeshop, he could hear the dragon slink away, metal screaching like fingernails on slate, and it seemingly pounding the cobblestones of the street with the unseen elbows of its gothic wings, dragging itself forward in abhorrence, longing for its former freedom of flight. Most people could not see this, could not sense this. He could. He chose to ignore it, not to draw attention to it.
When he arrived at the coffeeshop, the stocky and naturally tanned, young German man behind the counter, named Hakan oddly enough, greeted him and said in his peculiar accent, “Back again soon, my friend?”
“Yes, someone called me and asked me to meet him here,” he explained.
“Another coffee? Or is it too late in the evening?” Before he could answer, Hakan suggested, “How about a decaf?”
“No, better make it a regular. Thanks.”
He took his coffee over to the creamer stand and added one and a half packets of brown sugar and just enough milk from the metal container marked, Vollmilch to achieve a soft brown color to the coffee: not sooty looking and not milky looking, but what he knew as Columbian brown. He was always precise about the color of his coffee. Just then, from behind him he heard a man at the counter asking Hakan if he knew if there was a customer here named Herr Allerton. He turned around to see Hakan pointing towards him. Allerton nodded in acknowledgment of Hakan’s identification of him in the line-up of the coffeeshop. The man was tall and a bit thin with platinum blonde colored hair and brown eyes. He was probably in his late twenties and dressed plainly, like his mother had dressed him. ‘I missed coke at the bar for this’, Allerton thought. The young man was carrying a stark orange, almost goldenrod colored folder. He walked up to Allerton and said, “Herr Allerton, ich bin Alger Eberhard.”
“Yes, I figured.” He also figured that his last-minute client could speak English like most young and educated Germans. He was tired and didn’t feel like speaking German any more than was necessary. “Is that the document you want me to translate?” he asked nodding towards the folder in the young man’s hand as he sipped his coffee, carefully.
“Yes, mein Herr,” Eberhard replied obediently
“Yes, sir,” he corrected. The young man looked at him a bit confused. “Let me have it,” Allerton said while tucking his book under his right arm and then reached for the folder with his left hand.
The young man pulled back for a moment and said cautiously, “Mein employer wants your confidence.” Allerton sipped his coffee again and nodded. Eberhard kept the folder, though, pressed to his chest and waited for Allerton to confirm verbally.
“Yes, yes. I will keep the contents of the document confidential,” he said irritably. “Don’t worry,” he said while holding his hand out and bouncing it up and down, impatiently. The young man nodded and handed it to him. Allerton took it and they walked to the back of the coffeeshop past the cash registers to where there were a few tables along a wall of small framed windows in a walkway to a backroom for the workers. The windows looked out onto the courtyard of the building which contained several theaters, some restaurants, a couple of bars, and a bookstore. They sat down at a small table, Allerton facing out towards the entrance, the young man facing him. He put his book on the floor, leaning it gently against the wall, standing it on its end upside down. He then opened the folder and began a preliminary read as he sipped his coffee. Without looking up, he asked the young man, “Do you have any paper, a notebook maybe?”
“Go ask Hakan for a note pad.”
“The Turkish man behind the counter?”
Allerton looked up and said, “Yes, him.” Eberhard stood up and went to the counter to get a pad for Allerton to write his translation on. The document was only two pages long. It was a letter on thick, high quality paper with a crest at the top. It was written in French and addressed to a Monsieur Lichtermann of Berlin, Eberhard’s employer. The letter was typed with an electric typewriter, ‘probably an old IBM Selectric from the looks of it,’ Allerton thought. The signature was elegantly done; the ink a rich, deep turquoise color. This was the work of a gentleman of the highest order. Allerton slowly sucked in his coffee and admired the document. Here was a man he could respect.
The letter began with a marvelous flourish of greetings, well wishes for the receiver’s health, and a humble apology for any inevitable mistakes the letter would surely contain (it contained none) as it was typed by the sender himself for not wanting to confide in his personal secretary as to its contents. He went on to say that he further apologizes for writing in French as his German is not as good as it used to be since the days of their mutual activities before the wall was removed and that he refused to use the common, but vulgar language of English. Instead, he was sure that Monsieur Lichtermann’s French was only improved after these two decades and that he would have no trouble understanding the finest details of the letter. This brought Allerton to the top of the second page. Judging from the word usage and the long sentences, he could see why he was needed for the interpretation. This was not an easy read.
At this point, as he placed the first page face down on the opposite side of the folder and picked up the second, Eberhard had returned with a pad of A4 sized white, lined paper. He handed it to Allerton, but he told the young man to keep it for now. “You are not to start translating?” Eberhard asked with a look of worry and concern.
“Yes, in a moment. I need to read the letter first, all the way through,” he explained. “When I’m done I’ll translate it slowly and with more accuracy.” Eberhard conceded, but glanced at his watch in protest. Allerton drank smoothly from his coffee now. It had cooled enough that he didn’t have to sip it. He resumed his read of the letter with the second page in his right hand and his coffee in his left.
«My dearest friend, and I realize that I have no right to use such a term—and you will agree when you learn of what I am to tell you now—my dearest friend, I wish to tell you of your daughter. Yes, your daughter. She lives, here in Paris. She did not die as a baby as you thought in that fire, that incident, that contrivance of a government who I shall not name but only say that we both despise. The reasons for their farce, I shall not commit to paper. It is sufficient to say that it was done to control you from across the wall, to keep your focus where they wanted it and not on your family, or rather on your daughter since your lovely wife had died in child birth only a year or more before. The child needed to be placed somewhere and with someone. Knowing of their intentions and plans as I did, I interceded on her behalf, on your behalf and asked to be the child’s guardian. I have cared for her these twenty plus years and have raised her as my own and I hope as you would have liked.»
Allerton looked up at Eberhard. The young man offered him the pad of paper. Allerton didn’t take it or even acknowledge it. Instead he said, “Do you know what this letter is about?”
Allerton looked back at the letter and resumed reading it. «I tell you now out of guilt and remorse. You deserve to know your daughter and I have done a terrible thing in keeping her from you. I cannot presume to receive your forgiveness. I can only present to you as my defense that when I took her in, it was out of compassion for her and love for you. By the time the wall was removed and the borders opened and the Soviet Union dissolved, she was already part of my life and in my heart. At that time, I was contacted by those who had placed the child with me. They threatened me and the girl if I should inform you of her existence. Since I was reluctant to let go of this unexpected joy of my life—you know that I never had a child of my own, never having married—I too willingly, I’m ashamed to say, agreed to remain silent. However, now I have come to realize that I was wrong not to tell you long ago. So now I hope to make some miniscule amends by reuniting you with your daughter so that you may rejoice in her again and know of the beautiful young woman she has become. Please come to Paris as soon as is possible for you, and speak to me: give me your verbal abuses and your condemnations—I deserve all that your perfectly reasonable anger will surely manifest. When you are ready, I will introduce you to your daughter once again and bid her well in her new life with her new father, her true father.» The letter ended at this point with a simple closing salutation and the signature.
Allerton looked up at Eberhard who again offered him the pad of paper. Allerton shook his head in disgust. He flipped the first page back over again and put it together with the second and set it on the left side of the table. He took the tablet from Eberhard and laid it down on the right and pulled a pen out of his pocket and began translating the letter into German. Eberhard watched as he started. He seemed relieved that the translation had finally begun. Allerton looked up again and said, pointing with his pen, “Go sit on the other side of the room and call Herr Lichtermann and tell him to come here to pick up the translation himself.”
Eberhard looked dumbfounded and protested, “I must bring it to him. This is my instructions.”
“Nein. Call him,” Allerton said firmly and a bit angrily. The young man rose looking a little perturbed and walked across the room and took a seat at a table facing Allerton and placed the call on his mobile phone. When he finished the call, he sat watching Allerton the whole time he was translating the letter.
When Allerton had finished writing his translation, he flipped the first page of the tablet over—he had a very neat and tight handwriting; he managed to translate the two typed pages into only two handwritten pages. He carefully tore the pages off of the tablet. He saw Eberhard start to rise. He looked up and shook his head and gestured for the young man to remain seated and where he was. He complied. Allerton neatly put the original back into the folder with the translation on top and closed it, setting it onto the top of the tablet. He then put the cap on his pen and held it in his right hand and turned his gaze out the windows to his right where there were young women walking by on their way to the theaters or nightclubs or restaurants or God knows where. He didn’t watch them for long before his mind began to wander to thoughts of his daughter. He wondered what she would be like when she reached her early twenties. Would she be beautiful? He couldn’t imagine her any other way. She was already beautiful beyond belief. He remembered how clever she is and how her mother has to struggle to stay in charge. He missed her, his daughter. He wanted to fly back to the U.S. to see her. He hadn’t seen her in over a year and he felt much anguish over this. He loved her dearly and missed her, desperately. He remembered how he had told his daughter recently how he would try to come back in a few months, when he could afford it. He then remembered his step-father and what he had said to him when he was last in the United States, how he had accused Allerton of not appreciating his daughter, how precious she was and how he needed to spend time with her to know how she really was, how he was ignorant of how beautiful she was inside. He remembered how…”Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” he let out, with the last ‘up’ rising noticeably in volume. He quickly turned back towards Eberhard to see if he was still watching him. He was startled to see someone standing immediately in front of him obstructing his view of the tables across the room.
“Excuse me. You are Herr Allerton? Are you finished with my translation?” the man asked with a clearly educated voice and demeanor, but a trace of a German accent lingering. He was a man in his late fifties, maybe early sixties. His hair was gray and full on top, neatly combed and not too long or short in length. He was wearing a tweed sport jacket of the finest quality wool without a tie. Allerton nodded and glanced over at Eberhard to confirm that this was the client. Eberhard was standing and watching and waiting from his table.
Allerton stood picking up the folder and asked, “You are Herr Lichtermann?” The man nodded and Eberhard from across the room seemed to show no sign of panic as he handed the folder to him. Instead, he nodded in assent as if to indicate that his particular assignment of delivering the letter and having it translated was now complete. He seemed to be taking pride in having accomplished a task entrusted to him.
Lichtermann took the folder and said, “Dankeschön.” He then handed Allerton a small cream colored envelop that he had been holding at his side. “This contains one thousand euros. I assume that is more than enough money for your time and for your confidence.”
Allerton looked at the envelop briefly without opening it—he could feel the bills padding the envelop inside. He then looked up and nodded. He wanted to say that he was sorry to Lichtermann. He wanted to congratulate Lichtermann. He wanted to ask Lichtermann to read the translation in front of him and to then tell him how he felt, to tell him what he would do, what he would say to the Frenchman when he got to Paris, what he would say to his daughter. He wanted to cry, to sob. Instead, he said nothing and Lichtermann nodded, turned and walked out with Eberhard following him.
He stood there a moment considering all of this before he bent over and retrieved his book and picked up the tablet of paper. He brought his cup with him, dropping it into the garbage can near the end of the barista stand where Hakan was waiting. He gave the tablet to Hakan who asked, “Going home now?”
Pointing casually towards Hakan with the envelop, he responded, “Yes, I am.” He slipped the envelop into his top, shirt pocket, pulled out his cell phone, and then left with a relaxed smile on his face and the smoothness of the cell phone soothing his dry hand.
He walked again along the tram line, on the right side of the street. It was a long walk to Prenzlauer Berg from Hackescher Markt, where he usually went for coffee or to meet his students or clients. He had a pep in step as he opened his cell phone with one hand and pulled up his ex-wife’s telephone number and dialed it. She lived in the U.S. still with his daughter. It was an expensive call, but it was worth it. He wanted to call his daughter to say he would be there soon, that he had the money. He hadn’t seen her in over a year. He loved her dearly and missed her, desperately.
“Hello?” a cautious sounding woman’s voice said over the phone lines.
“Hey, it’s me,” he informed his ex-wife, unwilling to use his own name when speaking with her—he never used her name either when speaking to her or to someone else about her, not since they broke up. He was bitter towards her in every respect and did not want to associate himself with her in any way. In fact, he always referred to her as the ex-wife and not my ex-wife. “Let me talk to my daughter.”
A sigh came through from the other end. “Why do you do this? Why do you put me through this?”
“What are you talking about? Just let me talk to her. Is she there or not?” he snappped. “Put her on the phone.”
There was a long pause. He could hear more sighing and sounds of discomfort, squirming, struggling: “She died years ago…in a fire.” He stopped in his stride, silently standing now on the sidewalk like a lost soul. He could feel the ground vibrating from a tram approaching from behind him. He ignored it. “Please, please, I’m begging you: stop calling me. Please. This is hard on me.” She hestitated and finished by saying, “This really hurts me,” and then hung up.
He stood there a moment without taking the cell phone from his ear. The dragon rumbled by and sparked and seemed to spit in his general direction as it passed—snorting at him in disgust. He ignored it. He slowly and somberly closed his cell phone and switched it to his left hand to hold and sooth its dryness, having already tucked his book under his left arm. He then felt in his top, shirt pocket for the envelop. There was no envelop; there was no money. He stood there considering, considering nothing—just considering. Then he nodded and grabbed his book from under his left arm and tilted his forearm up to look at the time and the day of the week on his watch. “Ah, it’s Thursday night. I need to get over to the bar,” he said and ran to catch up with the tram that had stopped at the corner ahead, stalled by the traffic light. Its doors were still open and pulsating their annoying buzz, calling to him with contempt to hurry up before he was missed at the bar—‘not that anyone would care,’ it seemed to say.