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Görg, Patricia (Sample Translation)

Meier mit Y (Meier with a Y)

Abstand
Berlin Verlag, January 2008, 176 pp.
ISBN: 9783827007797
 

JANUARY
 
Like everyone else, Meyer would like his days to bring happiness without seeking acknowledgement. He has stopped at an independent service station, unlocks the nozzle and leans forward to watch the display. At home he used his detour calculator to find out where petrol is cheapest, and that is here. There are other cars waiting behind him, their engines idling. Busts in repose, belted to their seats, torsos with light shining on them. What amount has he reached? A round sum. Meyer struggles with the tank lid. If the cap jams, then next time he fills up Meyer will have to use more force, and because the little door will also jam – the door outside this tank cap that often sticks – he will have to feel his way deep into the boot, under the protective mat, for a lever that releases the catch on the tank cap door – till next time, although he hopes that there won’t be another next time like this. The threads engage. Meyer turns round as he walks, memorising the number that has frozen on the pump display. Is Our Planet Splitting? asks a headline as he heads for the cash desk.
 
Do you collect loyalty points? He nods. When he’s accumulated enough he will use them to get a torch which will warn everybody if he breaks down at night and stands next to the boot he has torn open in panic, watching the chain of headlights coming out of the dark. Meyer has no trouble imagining that he will be stuck there. In the morning as soon as he wakes he probes his inner horizon, finds streaks drifting in all directions – impalpable shadows weighing on his life. He pays. As he moves on to the self-service vacuum cleaner, the others move up one space at the row of pumps. They open doors, get out, fill bubble-free petrol into their tanks. Meyer vacuums his car for as long as one coin will let him. Let’s have no more damage! He feels wear and tear, scratches and scrapes nagging at him, and carelessness obsesses him. He re-emerges backwards. He hangs the vacuum hose back in its holder. The petrol stations roof covers Meyer as he furtively looks down to check whether his things are clean. The car is OK, it pulls out of the service bay with Meyer at the wheel, a bust in repose, belted to its seat.
 
Where should he go? So much is unfamiliar to him. There are hit songs on the radio that mean nothing to him. In a penetrating falsetto, singers lament that their freedom is like a seashore buried in sand; they modulate this lament up the scale, interrupted by an announcement about the location of a traffic jam owing to a muffler which has fallen off. Meyer is keeping his eyes on the road. At the edge of his field of vision a little mascot is bobbing; it nods to the road that is now part of his past, disappearing in the rear-view mirror. Signs prohibit turning off. He drives to maintain his average level of fuel consumption. He clutches and de-clutches. The fan blows warmed air into the interior of the car. Meyer has to brake. There is a jam in front of him, probably because of the dropped muffler. Annoyed drivers strapped in, waiting for the hold-up they’ve been told about to clear, while they become more and more of a hold-up themselves. He gets out, surveys the queue. A pile-up devoid of people. Clouds of exhaust, hovering over the ground. The vibrato of engines that are keeping warm even while they are stationary. He eyes this and that car, appreciating its engine capacity and its level of environmental friendliness; he knows exactly what he is up against if he decides to buy this model. Father Schmiege who lives in Meyer’s TV recently had a guest who looked through his files at home and found any number of things you should not have to put up with. Insurance companies that charge too much. Wrong classifications. A rip-off? asked the priest, digging deep into Meyer’s soul. Now he runs Schmiege’s advice through his mind.
 
A rescue vehicle forges a path through the traffic. Everyone shows good will and makes room. The windscreens of standing cars here and there flash with the light from rotating signals, a brief reflection of movement. Further up front there is invisible first aid being given.
 
There is no more queue. It has broken up into its individual elements, one of them being Meyer. At the spot where the accident took place he turned his head as he drove past, trying to see as much as possible of what is lying next to the carriageway, piled up by fate but untouchable: two smashed car bodies. Crumpled sheet metal, glass fragments, spilt oil. Firemen clean the road with hoses.
 
A lapse of one second was enough to cause total loss. For a moment Meyer experiences the void, although he has a steering-wheel in his hands. He accelerates involuntarily, as he accelerates involuntarily when someone wants to overtake him. In the rear-view mirror the firemen are getting smaller.
 
There are arrows on the asphalt. They point towards the country across the border where Meyer wants to fill up with petrol, get his hair cut, new glasses made and his teeth fixed. He is practical. If it’s a matter of undercutting list prices, he knows where life, despite its other cares, stoops low enough to hand out a few presents to those who are willing to put up with things like waiting. He has time. Anyway, he feels younger when he finds prices that are, so to speak, not grown up, not fully-fledged. He will go there even if it means driving quite a long distance.
 
He crosses this prosaic, geometric landscape without taking much notice of it. In the sky there are sparks of electricity. One after the other high-tension masts tower up, and between them hang icy steel cables, unbelievably heavy, looking as though they might tear apart. A load of frozen drops is weighing them down; soon they will surely touch the ground. There must have been a miscalculation here, but it has the look of truth about it – it is reminiscent of branches full of over-ripe fruit, a much-used washing line, waves surging and subsiding, and the longer it goes on as he drives past, the more the pattern of wave-motion imprints itself on his brain and causes a current to flow.
 
He brakes and pulls up on the right shoulder. The car bumps over the hard ground. At the edge of the road Meyer has spotted a hand-painted poster with a sausage and a hot drink beckoning, both of them with conspiratorial but unassuming faces. A break will remind him of his home, at least for the time it takes to chew a few bites. From the passenger seat he grabs a bag with sandwiches that have to be eaten; he chews, observing the snack bar where he has stopped. A woman lives inside. She sells hot meals, and so as to be better understood, she paints eyes and mouths on them. Not only is the bratwurst grinning, but the hot drink is beaming at Meyer too, and the terms are absolutely reasonable. He gets out. He counts out coins for a cup of coffee and puts them on the counter. As she serves him, the woman smiles at him briefly, whereupon he begins to talk – about the temperature of the coffee, whether it was warm enough in her shop, and, believe it or not, the bratwurst was even cheaper by quite a significant margin on the other side of the border. If she had not smiled, he would have started talking in earnest, and more than earnest, for the very purpose of making her smile. Out of Meyer’s mouth spreads a fog of speech, white mist that is slow to disperse. It floats between him and the woman, envelopes them along with fragments, chair, table, bed, house: condensed worries expanding to fill the fog while Meyer looks like someone who is hungry. The sandwiches needed to be eaten, so that’s why he was just having coffee, he says. A dog comes out from behind the shop. Meyer looks at it suspiciously. Animals are one of those damned things. Either they seem to be waiting for something outside their reach, or they snap at everything that moves, and it sometimes even happens that they bite him, although he has nothing to give them. The dog growls. Meyer attributes human qualities to some pets – this is not one of them. The woman behind the counter calls. The dog has both its ears pricked. It looks like a wolf. Meyer says a hasty goodbye and starts his engine.
 
Too many things distort their own features. He knows all about this: the longer he looks, the stronger even carpet and wallpaper patterns begin to grimace, reveal imaginary images in which he sees features of living beings, without actually wanting to. Tongues pant, snouts spring open, mouths smile seductively out of the dark. Magic jagged shapes gather on the lampshade, as they do before you go to sleep. These things don’t manage to fool him, though. He knows their real worth. Having memorised it, he is made immune to deception by a table of values in his head. He records every price he encounters to the second decimal point, and has it before his eyes in bold print if someone tries to fool him. Not me, you don’t! And still carpet and wallpaper patterns beguile him, shading, spots and wood grains thumb their noses at him. Where on earth does this excess come from? The fantasy-images creep through tiny gaps and expand into figures that harbour all sorts of significance for Meyer. Sometimes he asks how he ought to react to this. The engine is screaming. He changes up a gear.
 
Outside there are abandoned industrial plants.
 
They populate the border areas. Meyer looks for a station on the radio that is broadcasting news. Reception is bad: noise that swallows up words, hit songs that repeat simple sentences till they make no sense. He doesn’t need consoling. Once an hour on the hour he wants to hear the truth, even if it consists only of catastrophes, which he is expecting anyway. Beijing, says a serious announcer. The station scanner has come to rest. After several days of blizzard in Inner Mongolia the nomad shepherds have lost countless sheep through exposure, many of them standing upright as though asleep. Meyer sees white clumps. A row of backs looms up, each forced by the disaster into its own place, fixed there and frozen. Forced together they form islands. The last high ground in their distress. Their outlines become more and more unclear and are lost in the flurry of snow.
 
Someone honks. For a few short seconds Meyer has nodded off counting sheep and has grazed the kerbstone. He sits up with a start. Of course he doesn’t want to be driving on the wrong side of the road. Where is he? The houses in isolated cubes suddenly seem so strange, as if extra-terrestrial beings lived here. A lit-up painted pedestrian crosses the road, swinging his arms. Meyer reduces his speed. He is just negotiating the road through a town. It is the last before the border.
 
The inhabitants have erected walls of poured concrete slabs along the road. They provide cheap and durable protection from the transit traffic and usher Meyer on his way out of the town. He needs to pee. Where can he stand without being too obvious? Garden allotments front a transformer station, separated from each other by waist-high walls of poured concrete. He turns off into the vacant land, stops in front of one of the walls, gets out and goes up to it. As he does so, he estimates the size of each allotment and what it might have cost. The area is isolated. Nevertheless, Meyer eyes the land as if he wanted to own it. He thinks where he would build his weekend house. Where would he put the chair, the table, the grill, and all the other paraphernalia? He loves nature. He loves its fresh air and fine views. The gardens spread before him and give a vague promise to preserve a bit of what he loves and make it available to him at the appropriate time.
 
Then he drives on. The little mascot is dangling from the rear-view mirror, blessing the trip with the movement of an incense burner swinging without incense, till it abruptly changes rhythm and flies off to one side. The next jam is waiting for Meyer. His experience tells him to switch off the engine. The cars are queuing up in countless lanes, some of them with open doors, with hands hanging out, holding glowing cigarettes, with men who have got out, leaning their forearms on the car roof and looking into the distance where the border checkpoint must be, somewhere, not visible for the moment. Vapour is rising from exhaust pipes, spreading between those waiting. The cigarettes get smaller. Lowered windows emit music, repeating simple sentences till they make no more sense. Dust is gathering on dashboards.
 
Heads are looking ahead, reading the same numberplates again and again. They share one hope: that they will move. The hope vibrates as it idles. Feet scrape on the protective mats. At the edge of the carriageway there is a lone shoe, lying on its side. The air is filled with grey. People undo safety belts and sit unrestrained on seats which are attached to a motionless chassis, they ash their cigarettes out of the windows, move thoughts about like lozenges just before they dissolve in your mouth, they have their own excessive, overgrown patience weighing heavier and heavier on their laps.
 
Only those with weak bladders break ranks. They seek the cover of a little wood stretching off to the side to relieve themselves. What they need is thick trunks. A trunk is good if it hides humans relieving themselves. Many of them provide not just relief, but an unexpected alternative place; avoiding each other, moving between trees in search of trees, they penetrate deeper and deeper into the heartland of trunks – and disappear in it ...
 
For the ash tree in the middle of the little wood it is a short day. Its nights are long. The bark has slowed its breathing, it measures the dark surrounding interval between sunset and sunrise and concludes: hold back. A period of waiting. Cells at rest. Growth-inhibiting substances in dull black buds, in tiny leaves, pressed together, covered all over with blackish scales. The bare ash. Rigid, reaching up high. Meshed grey-green with the sky, its branches bear indehiscent fruit at their extremities without yielding it up. Naked rustling. Resilient little nuts.
 
Whole bunches of them, flat, brown, dry, with tongue-shaped wings spread wide, whirr when the wind ruffles them, but stay put, even though it is their destiny to break loose, twisting and dispersing on their way to the ground – wellsprings of hesitation. Bits of tough tissue remaining here for want of a spirit of adventure. Only when it has accumulated enough cold does the ash release its old fruits, sever its links with them and bandage the wound in a knobbly covering of cells that turn a dark colour.
 
Till that point, time passes. It has cracks lengthways, but will not break up or stretch. Viscous flows of sap under the bark. Lignified, as if dead, metabolising imperceptibly, the ash, with dropped leaves lying around it. At the lowest part, at the point where a small branch joins the trunk, it has swollen to say good-bye. The next time it is under stress from snow or wind it will snap off at that point, where the tree has grown its farewell collar. On the higher branches, packed in the little nuts, there are seeds in hibernation. Premonition of reproduction, in bunches. Exposed. Moving in monosyllables, feeling its way below ground with strong hands, a competitor in a web of absorbent hair: the ash. It takes a tally of light. It encapsulates crumbs of soil. Without impatience, it lives for more than a hundred years, always in the same spot. It takes what is there, whatever is useful, turns it into a mass that casts shadows, has rime on it, buds and slumbering eyes that grow all over the surface, a web of determination, till it forms a thatched a roof with dead wood under it, cold decay, populated by phosphorescent fungi. Faces covered with shading, spots and wood grains move out from behind trunks, skulking in expectation of being seen, and then fade away again, thumbing their noses, suffocated by sounds like the swishing of a scythe. The crack of footsteps. The little wood is full of paper handkerchiefs. It is crossed by a few goat-tracks. Humans appear, not having seen the wood for the trees, head for the edge of the forest; they have been outdoors for a while and want to go back now. All of them are car-owners. In the terrain covered by roots to stumble over and names they can’t think of, the ash remains behind them, with its resilient fruits bending towards the ground: a pillar in winter.
 
Meyer crawls through the border zone, accelerating and braking. Hard to believe that anything can move so slowly. He engages and disengages the clutch; he grows heavy with repressed speech and dulled confidence. This jam is robbing him of all the time he thought he had, and yet he is close enough to the neighbouring country to see its boom gate, its uniforms, its signs that he cannot understand. A pervasive feeling of unease paralyses him when he is there, where he cannot utter one sentence because they only speak foreign words. They are nice over there, but in their forests the paths are marked by dull reflectors, and in the semi-darkness there are those men crouching and waiting for people like Meyer, armed with a magnet which will pull away his property from under his backside if he doesn’t watch out. Of course their hands dart out, they are always stretched out even when it doesn’t look that way, because they happen to be scratching their heads not knowing what to do, endeavouring to understand Meyer who is murdering their language. He is much too good-natured, so he is suspicious of everyone on principle, right from the start.
 
(pages 7-17 of the German edition)
 
 

Translated by Tomas Drevikovsky
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