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Short Story

Still Here

Dear Mr. Photographer,

Yes, Italy. Now, before you start cursing me, consider this: how many car thieves tell you where your car is, and do so in a hand-written letter? (Hold this page up to the light and you’ll see a watermark in the silhouette of a palace. Not our palace, but a nice touch, right?) No car thief would, of course, which is my roundabout way of saying I’m not really a car thief. True thieves don’t mail you back your keys, enclose a map, and fill up the tank for you. You’re welcome, by the way.

I can certainly understand how being in possession of your car for a few days could make me seem like a thief. And, if I’m going to be honest with you in this letter (and I am, 100%), there was a section of road there where I felt I might be stealing. It was when I figured out how to turn on the seat warmers (we were driving south through the Alps). But see the part above. About the keys and a map being in this envelope. If anything, I’m a borrower. Incidentally, the we in “we were driving south through the Alps” doesn’t refer to Elisa, as I’m sure you know—if you’ve had the decency to follow up with her and her injuries. I had a male companion. The quiet, silent type.

So you won’t be taken aback when you get into your BMW: the stains on the passenger seat should come out, no problem. Oh, and you’re down one pistol.

I’m going to give you some more tidbits about me now, so just…just sit tight. You may, of course, have already jumped to the map, grabbed the keys, and hurled these pages into the trash. I’ll never know. My words could be fluttering about the surface of a Munich dump or expunged in an incinerator. But hear me out. After all, I had your BMW washed and did I mention the full tank? What’s the rush that you can’t spare a few minutes to read a few pages? The car will be there when you get there. The dump’s not going anywhere.

Here’s an idea: if you’re not in the mood to read my letter now, maybe you could read it on the train to Venice or on a flight there—you seem the flying type. Are you at the airport gate now, or are you in the air? I’m picturing you in first class, up there at 30,000 feet, belt loosened. You’re flying down on a Tuesday afternoon. A glass of something strong is on your fold-down tray, a magazine or two unread on the empty seat beside you, courtesy Lufthansa. I hope you booked a window seat. I can’t get enough of seeing the world shrunk down so small you can see cars but not people, like there’s not a being below to hold the problems our brains are sopped wet with. If only everything would stay distant and miniature when our feet are on the ground. If only we were giants.

Where was I? The palace: where I ended up with your car keys. I had such terrible runs the day before. If you’re ever in the town near the palace again, note the cute little cafe in the square, to the left of the town clock. Don’t order the Schnitzel. That’s left if you’re standing in front of the clock. But for all I know, it may be the same story for the cafe on the right. I mention this episode only to point out that it’s the small navigational choices that determine the course of our lives. Had I eaten elsewhere, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, as it were. Stomach bacteria can maneuver the most strong-willed body.

But I wanted to see more of Schwarzwald Palace than its miserably cold public bathroom, so I came back the next day, the day we met. The English line was long by the time I arrived by shuttle. Same with the French line. The fat Italians were all huddled under yellow translucent ponchos, like eggs in cellophaned Easter baskets. Do you have Easter baskets over here? Probably. Where’d we have gotten such a silly idea from?

I saw that the Chinese-language tour was starting so I switched allegiance rather than wait, even though I don’t understand a lick of Chinese. No matter. Facts are never crystalline for long, and tour-facts are a sub-category I’ve found to be especially fleeting. Might as well be Chinese, as the saying goes. In China, the saying is it’s like chicken intestines, which makes no sense. The docent led us down into the kitchen where she pointed out an enormous elevating mechanism that can bring a fully laid-out table to the dining room above. You might want to consider it for a photo shoot. Maybe place some models on the table as it’s going up. Think about it. This particular docent, should you ever have her as your guide, is a young Chinese-German woman with crazy-wide eyes. Widely spaced, I mean. She’d make a great model except she’s short and that’s a no-no, right? But she’d be a knock-out going up that table.

You know, it’s strange: I’ve only thought of Chinese people living outside China as being Chinese Americans, in the same way there are Greek Americans or Cuban Americans. Until I started traveling, it never occurred to me that there are Chinese folks whose native tongue is German. Just between the two of us, though, isn’t Chinese an awful-sounding language? All gnashed and slurred and swooning. During the tour, the docent threw out occasional guttural German words between the Chinese plosives. Having taken German in college, I was probably the only one there who understood those words. Strange how, despite all those many thousand intricate characters, Chinese still lacks the pin-pointedness of an illustrious compound German noun.

You know, it crosses my mind now that you might try steam-cleaning your BMW. Can leather be steam-cleaned? I imagine so. All those cows standing in rain and sun, year after year. It must be okay.

I’d planned to do Europe last summer, but my two daughters sent me on a tour of New England to smother my plans. I was cancer-free, but they didn’t like the idea of their mom being by herself in the Old World. And yet a quiet man on our bus’ tour group choked on a maple syrup candy as we left a farm outside Bangor (which sounds like it should be in India, right? Well, maybe not to you, but to an American like me it does.) I remember the way the man’s toupee separated from his head as he lay flat in the aisle of the bus, unconscious. It looked like his brain was coming loose at a seam, ready to spill out onto all those crisp new pairs of helpless white shoes in the bus, mine included. I belong to the last generation of toupee-wearers—not that I wear a wig anymore, but men of my age, I mean. The last generation of watch wearers. The last generation of newspaper readers. Still. Good riddance to poor disguises, to time leading you by the wrist, to inky fingertips.

This summer, though, I was adamant about seeing Europe, finally. My youngest daughter wanted to accompany me, but that girl can hardly use a public restroom without wiping her backside down afterwards with antibacterial gel. Beside which, she has her babies to make. She doesn’t have the vacation time or money anyway. Between us: she shouldn’t have waited. Twins are statistically more probable at her age. I’m a twin, though I’m adopted and never found out who my brother is/was, only that he lives/lived somewhere in Europe. Look: I don’t care if the thought crosses your mind that you’re a stand-in for my unknown brother. So what. You are, of course, generations too young. Maybe you’re my nephew. I’m kidding, of course, though I did mention to my youngest daughter when she was still wanting to come with me that maybe she should find some nice Italian or French genes here and bring them back as innocently as a bauble, no one the wiser. I was jesting, of course. Still, if you saw that boyfriend of hers you’d be on my side. He’s nice enough, but that hairline! Those ears! Think of the children! Love has a way of undoing a million generations of steady progress. He must have one hell of a great tongue, because I walked in on him when he was changing, once. Goodness.

Oh, before I forget. The man in our Vermont tour? The one in the loose toupee, who choked on a maple syrup candy? He died. I don’t know why it’s necessary to tell you, but it is. He didn’t choke to death, but died a few months later, from what I don’t know, but it was probably the same illness that made him quiet. Maybe he was hoping to choke to death on a maple syrup candy. There are worse ways. When I was doing my nursing studies, I worked in hospice, though they didn’t call it that, then. It kept me upbeat, surprisingly. I saw that one day I, too, would have morphine dripping into me and be wishing, purely wishing, that I was young again, back in some squandered corner of my youth. Back then, any personal illness was but a projection; I could return to the current moment and go outdoors after my shift and be free to live for years and years. The day I realize I’ve lost the magical ability to project and then pull back will be my last. To which, you think, raising your hand for the stewardess’ attention and another glass of something strong, who cares? No one but me. No one, eventually, but you. No one, eventually, but no one.

Funny thing: the widow of the choking man sent me a package with a sweater she’d borrowed during the bus trip. I wonder if she’d have returned the sweater if her husband hadn’t died?

I feel we’re getting along, you and I. Gosh, I hope you’re happy to hear from me. Were we to ever meet again, I could picture the two of us in some ivy-lined courtyard laughing this off over chilled wine. You’d wear Birkenstocks over black socks and have a soft spot for this old American woman. But if you’re angry still, you should be careful. Anger is just regret with a microphone. Someone said that. Maybe it was me.

You’re still flying, aren’t you? As much as I like flying, it occurs to me now that there’s a downside to being up at 30,000 feet. It’s lifeless up there. Think: how else could pilots carpet bomb enemies, carpet bombing being, incidentally, the most infuriatingly inaccurate term for a thing itself. You, of course, are in the cradle of Lufthansa and I’m there with you, in words. And, admittedly, I’ve been looking at one too many placards showing bombed-out German cities from the war.

Slaughterhouse—now there’s an honest word.

So it goes.

While my mind’s on blood—perhaps you should have the car professionally cleaned. The car will probably need more than steam. Some kind of leather-safe chemical treatment. Oh, and about the odor: it’s only overwhelming if you put your nose right down into the leather. Notice that when the leather’s cold there’s only a slight scent. DO NOT TURN ON THE SEAT WARMER! Apart from that, it’s more the stain that’s noticeable. The floor mats, I imagine, can be replaced. You can probably get the floor re-carpeted.

Before returning to this letter this morning, I wrote a couple of postcards. So far I’ve sent postcards from London, where I visited an Edvard Munch exhibition in the National Gallery; from aboard a ferry to Munch’s homeland of Norway, where winter still held its own; and another postcard while heading south-east through Sweden and back west across to Denmark to get the heck away from snow. This was last month, in April/May. In Denmark, I headed to Copenhagen because the marzipan bar I ate on the train was from Copenhagen, and then I dawdled a week in Copenhagen because it was warm and there was a puppet festival and I remembered having bought my youngest grandchild a puppet on her last birthday. I purchased another, this one much finer and with real hair, and had it shipped back to the States, the States being one of those weirdly common phrases that you can only use when you’re in absentia.

The festival offered puppetry classes and I soon found myself performing for children. I played a villager in one scene, off to the side of the master puppeteers on the street stage. After a few days, I could make my marionette raise his hand to scratch his forehead, and walk a couple paces to the left and right, and put both arms at his sides. One of the master puppeteers could make his character saunter over to mine, embrace my marionette and plant a kiss. It’s much harder than it looks. But then, so is every kiss, every movement. We take oodles for granted. I know: blah, blah, blah.

For days afterward I imagined a slight tug of strings on my own limbs.

We packed the crowds in tight. Hundreds of people in town squares so beautiful it made you want to cry at what America doesn’t have. And the thing lacking isn’t history but a kind of liberation. Here, in Europe, you’re all peasants occupying castles and palaces, living like queens and kings. It’s a grand illusion.

The next city on the troupe’s tour was Berlin, so I went there ahead of them. There, I finished a nonfiction book I’d picked up called Beer!, which led me to think of Octoberfest, even though October was somewhere on the other side of the sun. I abandoned the idea of waiting for the troupe and instead took the train south to Munich. I strolled around the perimeter of the large Theresienwiese where the Octoberfest is held, but which now featured BMX bikers going up and down rolling dirt hills of a shape you never see in nature. The monotony of young people’s pursuits never ceases to astound me. I read that the average young person accumulates ten thousand hours in front of video games by the time they’re old enough to wish those hours back. Think of the talents never even budded, the abilities forever replaced by artificial gloaming. All that missed sex. Every generation shakes their head at the next, but come on now.

That same evening, in Munich, I watched a TV show being filmed down a narrow shop-lined street. I observed for so long that I was given a role as an extra. I think it was a police drama of some sort. Look out for woman reading guidebook in the background in the coming weeks and you may spot me—if I’m not cut out. The book they gave me to read was a travel guide and I kept looking at the picture of Schwarzwald Palace through all the takes. It was the first guide book I’d held on the trip. From the start of my trip, I’d made a decision to travel by chance. So when a guidebook was thrust into my hands with a picture of the Palace on the cover, I took it—the book and the sign.

I left Munich and headed toward Schwarzwald via Bad Reichenhall. There, at midnight on my birthday, I broke into an outdoor spa and swam in my birthday suit through the grand outdoor pool, then walked naked through the inhalatorium where water trickled down a wall of blackthorn twigs. It was primordially refreshing, like every cell in my body was remembering the brine from which we all climbed, those eons ago. The next day I paid for a loaf of bread while shoplifting cheese medallions that sat against my chest like cold coins, there where my left breast used to be. I hadn’t shoplifted since I was fourteen. I was giddy. I spent the day in a park carving fat slices from the bread and consuming them with the cheese in a dizzyingly delicious lunch. I met a man in the park there. He was walking his dog and was fishing around in his pockets for a plastic bag to pick up his dog’s turds. I waved the plastic bag the bread and cheese had been in in his direction and ended up sharing my modest picnic with him. He was a long-retired, widowed chemistry teacher. He spoke lovingly of Pennsylvania, where he’d attended graduate school many decades ago. I enjoyed watching him eat shoplifted cheese. He kissed me and groped my vacant breast and was so startled I felt obliged to lift up my shirt to show him the breast that remained. This one he went after like an infant. I slept with him in a shady corner of the park while his dog, tied to a tree, punctured the tires of my rented bicycle in two quick sighs.

It turns out that a partner—however temporary—grunting words of pleasure in a foreign language is disconcerting. Ja, ja, mein Gott! Mein Gott is right. It’s up there with all the other things I never considered, like German-native Chinese. The chemistry teacher was nice enough to accompany me back to the bike rental office, pushing my flat-tired bicycle for me as though he was a strongman, the weight of his arms pressing the tires flat against the cobblestones. I should mention that up to now I have not been the kind of woman who picks up men in parks. Nor shoplifts, or breaks into spas after hours. And you know what? My loss. I’ve left far too much fruit to rot on the tree. And though I’m trying, it’s hard to eat that much fruit so late in the season. The sweetness makes your teeth hurt. Also, peppermint skin creme is not a good lubricant. I tingled for days.

By the way, you can probably order an entire replacement seat for your car. BMW seems like the kind of company that takes care of their customers; they probably have a warehouse of spare seats at the ready. If spot-cleaning the ceiling doesn’t work (it probably won’t) a new sky of ceiling fabric might be best. I’m not sure what can be done about the dashboard. I cleaned it off best I could, but I’m afraid I waited longer than I should have. There’s a corona of stain around the far edges, like salt.

Sorry. Digressions, digressions. You’ll notice that I’ve had to go out and buy more writing paper. No watermark this time. And I’ve traveled yet another day from your BMW.

Let’s get back to it: the palace. I began to suspect I was on one of the alternate tours, something like Temperamental Schwarzwald: Heating and Cooling in the Nineteenth Century, or Plumbing the Depths of Schwarzwald. Except in Chinese. I was in purgatory. I need to get upward and outward. I think I mentioned that I crept away from the tour and headed down a long corridor on my own—and if not, well, that’s what I did. There was a door at the top of a set of stairs at the corridor’s end. I pushed it open and was bleached for a long moment in light. But it was only the sun, punching through a bank of windows. The light glinted off curly-cues of gilding on nearly every possible surface. How did people stand such ridiculous ornamentation back then? A pun slipped into my head: If it ain’t Baroque, don’t fix it. Unexpected, ready-made phrases like that have been dropping into my head lately when I’m alone. I don’t mind them; it’s reassuring to know there’s still a mind at work, even if it turns gears solely for its own amusement—though it gives me the disconcerting feeling of the true me being somewhere between the intricate mysteries of the body on one end, and the mind’s inscrutability on the other.

I closed the door behind me and found it to be but one panel of a Grecian tableau. Out of place in the room sat a 1960s-era metal desk, a rotary telephone, and an empty mug of coffee atop a men’s magazine, the mug bearing roughly the same circumference of the other exposed breast on the cover. I’d found a night watchman’s break room. I parted the gauzy curtains and saw the courtyard, and beyond it, the lake where a boathouse dipped into the water. Anyway, you know. I don’t need to describe it.

I was tired, so I climbed onto the bed. I noticed the ceiling painting then in the center of the oval baroque frosting: a scene of cunnilingus. I imagined this was where the King, or Duke—or whoever had the palace built—would come to his mistress, (ha, ha), then slink away through the concealed door should the wife or mother-in-law happen by. Maybe they did their mother-in-laws, too. Seems like infidelity was built into the architecture of this palace as much as men have it built in themselves. My late husband would have loved a room like this, back when we were living in Connecticut, those years ago. He pronounced it Connecti-cut. I can’t even remember the name of the woman in the apartment next door. That’s not true, but let’s pretend it is. I hold no grudges. Rest his soul.

When I was in high school I knew I’d marry a Frenchman. I never did, of course. I married Peter, only. I knew I’d have a son. I had daughters. I was going to write for a New York magazine. Nichts. Wishful thinking can be the worst kind of thinking. It’s beautiful wrapping paper over a weightless box, like in department stores at Christmas time. Maybe life’s dissatisfaction stems from the heart never receiving the promises of the head. But I’m here, in Europe, aren’t I? So that’s one promise kept.

I slept for a few minutes. When I opened my eyes again I noticed that the room held quite a few pieces of erotic art. Pieces too objectionable, perhaps, for hanging in toured rooms. Sex never seemed so unoriginal as when you clearly see that everything’s been done before. A clock rang, its pendulum a phallus, its twin weights—well, you know. And when I got over that I focused on the time and saw that I’d missed the last shuttle back to town. So I must have slept for more than just a few minutes. I felt a delightful spurt of mild panic which turned out to be me just needing to relieve myself. I retraced my steps back downstairs and found a restroom I’d passed earlier.

When I returned to the cunnilingus room, I noticed the jacket immediately, hanging over the chair. It was dark blue, clean, but like most jackets it hadn’t been washed in a long time and I could smell the man who’d worn it. Günter was stitched on a name tag. He’d made the bed I’d napped on. The magazine was in a trash can. An imposing German book with neither dialogue or paragraphs brooded on the desk beside a tall gray thermos with a stainless steel handle. There was also a sandwich wrapped in wax paper, the folds held together on the underside with an adhesive blue dot with a hand-drawn heart. I ate half of the sandwich and left a neat stack of Euros from my pocket. I loved this Günter something awful just then. He smelled good, to quote his jacket. It’d been a long time since I’d had love-like feelings toward men. (The chemistry teacher was nice, but really, the carbohydrates and the cheese did more for me than him.)

I heard you shouting just then, Mr. Photographer. I moved aside the curtain and I felt transported. I’d like to thank you for those long seconds the sensation lasted. One moment there’s a gauzy curtain in front of me, then I’m looking at your two wigged models in those elaborate dresses riding vintage bicycles around the courtyard fountain. Elisa in Prussian blue and the other whose name I never got, wearing a faded mustard-colored extravagance of a dress. A man could perform cunnilingus in such a dress and never be noticed. Not on a bicycle, of course.

Elisa rode with that kind of uncertainty that the rest of us (bicyclists) only get when we’re riding at nearly a stop. I’d stepped into a costume drama, and I was only slightly disappointed when I spotted you and your assistants coming around the other side of the fountain, cameras and strobes in hand. You were leaping around on the fountain’s rim like it was hot to your shoes. You’re a shouter, aren’t you? I liked you at first, though, especially when you slipped and one shoe went into the water. A man (you) whose employees can laugh at his (your) misfortune is a good man, at heart, I can tell. Kind, forgiving, slow to anger. Yes?

Those models, though. They were on such a different level of beauty it makes one terribly sad at the injustice in which attractiveness is doled out. My daughters have only a tenth of this beauty—though I thought them beautiful when they were very young. The sun lit the models’ faces the color of ripe peaches. Just gorgeous. So much for the meteorologist’s Niederschlagwahrscheinlichkeit. That’s when you first saw me, and shouted for me to close the curtains. To vanish. And so I did, have, will.

I was cold so I put on good, kind Günter’s jacket. The inside of the jacket was fleece and still warm. I liked him even more. It’s sad, but there’s less difference between a warm jacket and a good man than you might suppose. The room’s proper door let out into an even larger bedroom. I found myself behind an enormous bed surrounded on three sides by velvet ropes and four gleaming stanchions. I could hear your models laughing, then the squeak of their tires as you brought the photo shoot indoors.

“We go ahead, then you come on my call,” you shouted. “We do this, okay?”

This was in that long hallway that looked like the one where they signed the treaty ending WWI—all gold and mirrors. I was about to write all smoke and mirrors. When your girls passed me in the corridor they were laughing but not making a sound. Only brilliant actors can make glee silent—and sad that way.

You and your assistants ran down the hallway to the end, where descending stairs took away your feet, legs, waists, arms, and heads until I was alone with the two models waiting for your call. The one in the mustard-colored dress was balancing herself perfectly on the bicycle. The faces of the girls were ashen with make-up.

“Okay,” you shouted from somewhere down that staircase. “We go!”

The girls pedaled off, Elisa swerving as she headed toward the staircase. I heard the slap of their chains on the chain guard as they descended. I was alone again, mistress of the castle. But my thoughts were cut short by a scream and then a metal clatter I couldn’t place. A wincing cry followed, then a curse. I ran toward the staircase. Ninety-nine percent of me was coming to help. The other one percent was glad there was this unknown thing for me to rush to: a plan for the evening. Not that being alone has been a great fear of mine. I like being alone. But there are nights when I don’t like being left somewhere between the mind and the body. Nights like that night, or this one.

The swooping staircase was a dozen persons’ wide and descended into an enormous entry room lined in portraits. Which reminds me—a short digression, I promise—of when my late husband Peter got it into his head to have an artist paint a portrait of the president of his firm as a retirement gift for the outgoing president. Somehow the nose ended up looking like a penis and Peter had to go out and buy an ostentatious Mont Blanc fountain pen at the last minute instead, as there wasn’t time to fix the painting because the painter had checked into an ashram somewhere for the summer. Penis-nose hangs in the garage, next to my hot water heater.

Short, see?

I could see you, your assistants, and the girl in the mustard-colored dress at the bottom of the stairs, but I couldn’t see Elisa. Descending the curved staircase, I saw that the red carpet had come undone, with several of the staircase’s long brass stair rods lying untucked. A plume of red carpet pointed downstairs, like a giant tongue, and Elisa lay at the tip, contorted under her bicycle. Her white wig lay several steps below, like a lapdog waiting to be picked up.

Verdammte Scheisse!” you shouted, and—honestly?—your curse made me wonder if I’d perhaps stumbled, not on an accident, but on a rehearsed shot. Magazines and ads always have strange tastes: that heroin period, always the unhappy trapped-soul faces. Never anyone who looked like they could ever be a parent’s pride and joy. But Elisa’s wincing was real. You know the rest: I helped her untangle herself, thought her arm was broken, and you threw your little temper tantrum about a few rips in the dress and the fading light and something about paperwork and insurance that used that breed of German words they don’t teach you in language classes.

I do want to say, though, that some part of me appreciates the fact that you use film. My daughters gave me a digital camera to take with me, but I gave it away. Life isn’t digital, but unforgivingly analogue. Digital has an endlessness to it—you can store 4,000 photos on it Mom! Erase the ones you don’t want to keep—which is a kind of selective immorality. Real life is twenty-four shots. Thirty-six if you’re lucky. It’s about care and carefulness. On this I believe you and I would agree. I just wanted to say that, now that my mind is on it.

Five minutes after all this, I have the keys to your BMW and I’m taking Elisa to the hospital while you and the other model continue shooting, the one with that beautiful face, but beautiful in that strange, slightly inbred way—though I guess there’s no such thing as slightly inbred, is there? Maybe it was Günter’s jacket on my shoulders that let you trust me, or my mentioning I was once a nurse, or simply your panic at the fading light.

Your car was in the staff lot. To get there we had to pass through the cavernous, half-finished ballroom with the mirrors behind the statues. Why work stopped on this room I’ll never know, though I might have discovered what flavor of bankruptcy had I taken the English tour. So strange to see that behind all that richness and solidity stood uneven brick and sloppy mortar and nothing fancier than a mud hut’s walls. Even some of the structural details are, close-up, nothing but tromp l’oeil.

Outside, it was twilight. The fountains had all been turned off, their white noise replaced by the rasping of insects. I pushed the fob on your keychain and heard a chirp. I transferred Günter—which is what I’d begun calling the jacket by then—onto Elisa’s shoulders and we climbed into your BMW and sped off into the enclosing darkness, the in-dash GPS showing us in a world of blues and greens when everything, to my eyes, was fading to black. The nearest hospital was somewhere off the map. In the beginning we followed a blue line that snaked before us, but I didn’t know where it led, other than back to wherever you’d driven from. A home? A wife? Children?

I asked Elisa to check the glove compartment for a proper map. She could barely get to it; her dress filled half the car. When she opened the glove compartment she found your pistol. Elisa laughed, making me first think it was a joke of some kind, a cigarette lighter, perhaps. But I quickly saw it was too angular and dark for a joke. It changed my picture of you immensely, Mr. Photographer. Your wife, your children? They evaporated. I didn’t know you, suddenly—as though I ever had.

Elisa winced when she lifted the pistol and switched it to the hand of her right, uninjured, arm.

“Put that back,” I said.

“I will,” she said, but didn’t.

It’s hard to find a corollary to the particular adrenaline cocktail you get when driving down unfamiliar roads at night, in a new car, in a rush to get to a hospital whose location you don’t know—all while wearing glasses at least a prescription too weak. Elisa put the gun into her lap where it was consumed by fabric. She pulled down her dress and unwound the tape that squeezed her breasts together for cleavage. I used to have breasts twice as nice.

“Better?” I asked.

“Yes,” she sighed.

I once read that men like cleavage because it reminds them of, well, ass. I told that to a girlfriend once and she said it made sense, since men like to fuck with your heart. But really, is that true (cleavage=ass)? I suppose if it’s that deep in the DNA, then it must mean we’ve been taking it from behind for a million years. Which, I suppose, we have been.

I gave Elisa some Vicodin, being careful to avoid the smaller pills, the ones with a more sinister chemistry. They’re octagonal for a reason.

“I broke my leg once, when I was eleven,” Elisa said, “Surgeons put a metal pin in.”

“How’d you break it?”

“Bicycling,” she said.

I told her not to worry. That she was young and young bones heal quickly. Funny, though, isn’t it, how avoiding what we fear can have a tendency to come back to harm us?

“You’ll have a cast off in less than six weeks,” I said.

“Six weeks?!” Elisa sounded desperate. ”I have three shoots this month.”

I thought she was going to hyperventilate. But somewhere on that drive the pills kicked in and she went into a pharmaceutical reverie. When she discovered I spoke (some) German, she went on and on about her boyfriend and, I’ll be honest, I wasn’t really listening and don’t remember what she said other than that he, her boyfriend, was gay-handsome, but straight. Like winning the lottery, she said. He either composed a song for her, or had a song composed for her—one idea worse than the other (to me.) She loved the song and tried to sing it for me in the car, but forgot the lyrics after a stanza. Meanwhile, I was enjoying your car: the heated seats, the headlamps that turned to follow the curves in the road—I had no idea cars did that. I own a ’98 Honda that’s sitting in a cold garage right now, the driver’s door dinged from hitting the hot water heater. Penis-nose is looking out over the oxidized hood of my car. Now that I think about it, it was the portrait’s stare that stopped Peter from giving the painting to his boss, not the nose. I remember now. It was eerie, the way the eyes followed you. The penis nose was something we came to appreciate afterwards. He’s dead now, Peter’s boss—Peter, too, of course—but the stare continued until, at some point in the last decade, I took a marker to the painting and drew on sunglasses and a goatee.

Back to your car. We’re driving along, the highway appearing at the top edge of the GPS’ screen, when Elisa rolled down her window. My first thought was that she was going to be sick, so I slowed down, looking for a turnout. Instead, Elisa had the pistol in her hand and aimed at the road sign for the upcoming highway. She fired, then shrieked and flung the pistol out the window and into the dark. The noise scared me so I nearly drove the car off the road.

“Now I’ve done that,” Elisa said, excitedly, and I was afraid to ask what else was on her list.

I insisted on going back to recover your pistol. I could picture school kids finding it in the morning, and the natural progression of dare and danger that would follow. Elisa got out too, but only to check the highway sign. She pouted when she saw she’d missed. I found the gun in the field on the other side of a narrow culvert, my pants wet from dew and my back a little sore by the time I returned to the car. I hated Elisa, then, sitting in the car with the dome lights on and the doors closed, her butt warmed by the seat and her body like an angel without wings, half of her youth still left to burn. I shouldn’t have given her the pills. I should have made her grit her teeth from what little pain she might feel. I climbed in, put the pistol in the glove compartment and slammed the door shut so she got the message. I turned off the emergency blinkers and put the brights back on. The highway sign gleamed with the strange reflectivity of new road signs and only then did I notice the hole right through the center, but I said nothing. I tapped the GPS screen. “Find that hospital,” I said.

I sat with Elisa in the waiting room of a Uniklinik until I felt my blood sugar getting low. I headed to the hospital canteen, which, though the kitchen was long closed, still served pretzels and soup, both cheap. I checked the waiting room, but Elisa had already been admitted. I ate in the car (two pretzel, no soup—though my desire not to spill anything in your car, is, in hindsight, rather humorous). And then I drove, alone.

By this time, back at the palace, you were probably loading up your van and waiting for me to come back with your car. Instead, I was driving to my hostel only to find they locked it at ten p.m. Fascists. I had someone drop my pack through a window, then, back in the car, I buckled my pack into the passenger seat and draped Günter over its shoulders. We talked for hours as I drove south. At first about you. I didn’t like the discovery of the pistol; I no longer liked your shouting; I didn’t have any sympathy for needing to photograph before the light faded. Someone was injured and you remained behind. So I thought I’d leave you behind as well by taking your BMW for a little drive. Had you not given me those moments of pleasure, staring out at the girls on their bicycles, I might never have written to tell you where to find your car. You’d have made me a true thief. Anyway.

It is unjust that one can go through an entire life driving compacts and hand-me-downs while others purr along in cars like yours. That’s one of life’s injustices that Günter and I talked about. Also discussed: the probability of life on exoplanets, what the speed limit was, and whether your car took gasoline or diesel. In a sharp turn that caught me unaware, Günter leaned into me and put his left sleeve on my leg. Cheeky.

After a frustrating fill-up, Günter and I flashed through the Alps during the night, then into Italy, which was immense and flooded with a diffuse pre-dawn light that disappointed me, even with it coming at me at two-hundred kilometers an hour. I’m not certain why I felt disappointed. I was possibly expecting arches. Roman columns. Aqueducts. Elysium.

While I’m thinking about it, those nicks around the gas tank of your car? They can be polished out and touched up. Took me forever to figure out how to open the dang cover.

I needed to sleep, so I pulled over at a roadside filling station, parked out back, and caught a few solid hours with one of Günter’s sleeves over my eyes, blocking the sun. When I woke, the cafe was open. I picked up a couple of hitchhikers there. Probably something you’ve never done. Always pick up hitchhikers, the safe-looking ones, anyway. They usually make you feel immensely better about your situation in life. I didn’t learn this until about ten years ago. All those years I’d been passing them up, hundreds of them, their thumbs feeling my tailwind because I was afraid.

The hitchhiking couple were young. He was thin with a nearly shaved head, while she had hair enough for the both of them, straight down to a belly about to burst. Pregnant, in other words. They tried talking to me using their Italian guidebook, but I don’t speak any Italian except musical Italian, forte and legato and allegro, etc. They spoke a few words of English. They had hitchhiked all the way up to France and now they were on their way back home to Albania, via Italy. I was surprised to learn that they hadn’t known each other until meeting in France. Or perhaps I misunderstood. But if they’d only met this month, I have trouble believing there’d transpired much of anything carnal between them. I didn’t really catch their names all too well then, and now my brain has muddied them to something like Razkzksk and Terrliz which I’m confident isn’t anything close to their real names. So let’s call him Richard, and she, Terri.

In the car, Terri sat up front while Richard and Günter sat in back. I don’t think they exchanged more than a few words, (Richard and Terri, I mean) though Richard was massaging her shoulders with near-obsessiveness. They looked like brother and sister, which, I’ve noticed, is easy to do with people from the same European countries. Back home in the States, it’s a gene sea, a roiling Atlantic of DNA, but here you can tell that the genes have led more pool-ish existences.

I treated my companions to lunch. I offered them beers, but Richard abstained, mostly because Terri did. He ate something Schnitzel-like that made me shudder. His knuckles were hairy. Terri had a ring shaped like a butterfly on her pinky. And though I don’t remember the hitchhiker’s real names, I do remember the name Lule. That’s not something you forget.

Terri looked uncomfortable while we drove, even with the BMW’s seat nicely reclined and Günter rolled up as a pillow in the crook of her neck. I wanted nothing more than to take them to the nearest Italy-Albania ferry crossing and get them off the road and into their families’ arms. But I’d let slip something about Venice and they insisted that I drive there. I had daydreamed about the canals—and of all the re-arranging the real thing would do to the imaginary construct of Venice I had in my head. My lizard brain drove while I daydreamed, and as a result I got as lost as one can get without a GPS, a man’s digitized voice saying “Neuberechnung” at nearly every highway juncture across the flat, empty farmland. I was studying the map when Terri hissed, then squealed. I swear I could hear my name called over a hospital speaker. Knowing when you’re needed is an intuition you don’t lose on retiring. I glanced over and saw Terri pressing her hands into the seat between her legs. The seat’s leather looked freshly skinned as her water pooled around her knuckles.

On the GPS’s screen, we were a little silver image of a car amid almost nothing but solid green. There was a town up ahead on the map, but the car icon was barely moving, even though I was racing. Neuberechnung, the GPS said. I passed a baby-blue Alfa Romeo with lights on the roof like a police car before realizing, as the lights flashed on, that it was a police car. The police didn’t grasp our miming, even though Richard and I were making fairly obvious pregnant shapes and gestures. I pointed forward at an imaginary hospital, but the polizia were having none of it. We got a chuckle out of Terri from our antics until a contraction gripped her. I slowed, got behind the Alfa Romeo, and pulled up alongside again, this time with Terri across from the driver, who was now talking to us over a speaker, a ramble of indecipherable Italian, then broken German. I lowered Terri’s window and she shouted something long and damning at the police, even arching herself up so that her stomach could be seen.

“Ospedale,” said the horn, and we got the nod we’d been waiting for. The Alfa Romeo pulled out ahead of us with the full treatment, the siren sounding different, the lights all the more urgent, the highway parting its imaginary traffic for us. The thing was, I could see we were still a good fifteen minutes away from the town and even five minutes might be too late.

“How long?” I asked. “When are you due?” She’d told me August earlier in the cafe, but I could see that had been a fib. There was no postponing childbirth for a summer fling.

“Eight month,” Terri spat out.

I squeezed her knee, then put both hands back on the wheel and gave thanks that you, Mr. Photographer, had purchased a car with plenty of get-go. Your BMW passed the police’s Alfa Romeo, not once, but twice. I’ve never heard an engine sound like the BMW’s. We hit 250 kilometers an hour and that was it, the needle wouldn’t budge further though there was still room to move. Richard, panting, said it was the car, something about the car’s computer limiting us. The entirety of my will—to go faster, to deliver Terri to the closest maternity ward as I’d seen it in my head, the car sliding right up to the entrance with just minutes to spare—was outdone by a microchip. Terri screamed.

I pulled off the side of the highway and was out and at Terri’s side. I moved her seat back and reclined it, then got her stripped down from the waist before the first police officer was at the car. I yelled at him to turn off his siren and lights—Terri needed calm right then. She was panicky but I held her hand and pointed out the call of what sounded like meadowlarks in the grasses alongside the highway. Richard massaged Terri’s shoulders until she just reached back and gripped his fingers, wringing them bloodless as she screamed again. I put my hand over her mouth and told her not to scream, to put all her energy into pushing at my instructions, choosing intervals I hoped would slow the birth. But she was crowning in no time, her strong arms pushing against the ceiling. (Note the slight bulge on the metal roof of your BMW. Look at that bulge and, if your mother is still alive, tremble a little.) I dug through my backpack for my pocket knife, then made an incision to the perineum to give her room to deliver. It was then that Richard vomited all over the front dash and even into my hair. I pulled Richard out of the car and pointed to the tall stand of grasses. He scared out a cloud of birds that settled down again just as Richard crouched down to the dirt, breathing heavily. It was best he didn’t see his Terri deliver a bloody and chalky-white baby, or those endless gushes of blood and amniotic fluid, or the rubbery blue coil of umbilical cord. Even though I think it’s the greatest sight on earth. It’s a marvel.

The baby was having some trouble breathing, so I sucked out the fluid in the baby’s mouth with my own, then spat and placed the now-crying baby girl on Terri’s chest. I left the umbilical cord to the medics in the ambulance, which I could hear coming then, in the distance, even as I delivered the placenta. I waved Richard away when he tried to return. Who knows what bodily function the sight of the afterbirth would have weakened in him.

“Lule,” Terri said. Terri was red and soaked with sweat. I kissed Terri on the forehead and put my favorite sweater, the borrowed and returned one, over the two of them before the morning chill crept in. Putting what Euros I had into Richard’s hand, I hugged him. Escorted by the police car, the ambulance took them all away. Once more I was alone. Just me and Günter (and your BMW) and the meadowlarks and the haze lifting off the gray-green fields, and transmission lines in the distance held aloft by steel giants; each country, I’ve noticed, has its own way of hoisting up the necessary and the deadly. Back on earth, I was teary-eyed. Which I am again, now, writing this, thinking fondly of the three of them: Terri, baby Lule, even Richard. I imagine they’re back in Albania now. No, I wasn’t just teary-eyed. I wept. Wept with thanks that I’d been given another opportunity to help deliver a baby, wept because I knew that Lule would likely be my last. Wept.

In the end I did see Venice, with Günter as my aimless guide. Was it worth paving over my construction of the city with the reality of the place? It was. Lordy, it was. Now, about your pistol: I dropped it over one of the bridges spanning the Grand Canal. My personal constitution doesn’t allow for guns. As for the location of your BMW, see the parking garage I circled on the map. Go have it cleaned, stripped—whatever you need to do to return it to the condition it was that night when girls in tall white wigs rode bicycles and you stepped into a fountain and made your assistants laugh, and I, I slept within a palace’s walls and your car wasn’t yet bloodied and rank and ruined. Do it now while you can still pull off the trick.

It’s done just…like…this.

I’m still here.


“Still Here” first appeared in Sweet Tree Review.