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By the Ocean

Only yesterday he’d been sitting on the terrace of his hotel and watching the sun sink into the ocean. He tried to feel something poetic, melodious but all he saw was the red ball disappearing and it left him cool. He got up and they went to eat, some grilled fish with garlic and home fries, some salad. They drank wine. When they left the restaurant he looked up, saw a couple of shooting stars and thought he really should wish for something. He tried to think of a wish while watching the sparkling expanse, but didn’t see any more shooting stars. They strolled back along the beach, got into bed, listened to the sound of the surf and looked forward to falling asleep. The next morning he was cold. That’s how fast things change.

            She was always calm when he sat on the terrace watching  the sun or the stars. He glared and was bored. He couldn’t think of anything in connection with celestial bodies. He really only sat there because he didn’t know what else to do with himself. He was waiting for her, her suggestions. If she took too long he’d suddenly become enraged. He would jump up and yell that he wasn’t going to wait any longer, that he already knew how the sun set, had seen surf before, and that she should hurry up already. He would pace, harangue her, and she had to get dressed quickly and leave the room with him. Immediately after reaching the hallway he would slow down and his steps faltered. Then he’d glare at her and expect her to choose a direction;  as soon as they had gone a few steps he’d demand she tell him what she thought about during the day. He would hardly comment. He simply walked next to her and stared at the ocean. If anything rustled in the bushes he would stop, bend down, hold his breath and try to figure out what it could be. It didn’t matter that she might be in the middle of a sentence, he was no longer listening but trying to root a simple lizard or little gray bird  -- anyway, some common animal which hangs out in road-side bushes.

            Now he doesn’t sit on the terrace anymore to watch the sun set in the ocean; and she doesn’t know what to think of terrace, sun, or ocean. It all seems empty, meaningless, because someone has to see it for it all to exist.

            She called down to Reception to report a dead man. Almost immediately two men appeared at the door, it seemed only seconds had passed. They put him on a stretcher, pulled the sheets from the bed, moved his things. She signed one, two, forms, the men took the corpse and everything was gone; there wasn’t even the bright spot on the wall of a  removed picture – it was as though he’d never been.

            Lately she disliked telling him her thoughts; she kept startling herself with the sense of being repetitive – she hated it. She became hoarse from anger at her meaningless chatter.  She skipped words in the middle of sentences, convinced she was repeating herself; she abandoned sentences without explanation because she felt she had already mentioned the very same thought; her speech became incomprehensible, sloppy word bits carelessly tossed, as increasingly the mere sounds and syllables appeared worn and unusable. He didn’t care. He stayed even tempered and didn’t comment. He didn’t care if she spoke nonsense, if she was clever or repeated herself. As long as she kept talking.

            Now she can be quiet, finally; she is no longer expected to pass on her insights, as thin and scruffy as they appear to her  – but she’s not relieved. Her life with him was monochrome. He sat and expected her to entertain him, so she was forced to talk. Now he’s gone and she sits, silently. The terrace is ugly, a gaping cavity, the smelly ocean wafts in through the open door and she has no thoughts. It’s getting dark, she feels nothing; a flock of birds cross the sky, their underbellies glittering, a school of fish pass, and she doesn’t know whether it might be time to eat, as he used to decide the rhythm of their days; when he got restless it was time to move. It’s pitch dark and she doesn’t know if she’s hungry. That’s how fast things change.


Matthias Zschokke, Am Strand. In: Ein neuer Nachbar. Zürich: Ammann 2oo2

Translation: Magdalena Zschokke

Bathing Days

every summer simon’s parents dropped him off at a camp not far from home. Dinner there was mostly stuff he didn’t like. During the day the kids were expected to do things like pick berries or go on field trips—to the transport museum or a castle with a dungeon and a well—or go on orientation runs through the forest and play boring indoor games when the weather was bad. The weather was mostly bad. It was rainy, windy, and cold. The area was notorious for its damp, foggy climate. Sometimes there were no more than two or three sunny days a season. That’s when the children were taken swimming to the nearby lake, which was more like a large puddle, really. They changed in two long shacks, one for the boys, the other for the girls. There were benches inside and hooks on the walls for the clothes. When everyone was ready, they had to assemble at the shore and then all jump into the murky water together. Rumor had it that there were snakes on the bottom of the lake, long, flat, white worms without skin, which is to say, they had a skin, but it was as thin and trans­parent as the skin inside of an eggshell, just strong enough to hold the blanched innards together. The swampy banks glistened. They made a sucking sound when walked on barefoot. Simon held his breath with every step. He was afraid to step on a still-warm snake heart and slip on it. The wooden pier was moldy, the slides old and rickety. One worried about getting a splinter on the way down. A few meters from the shore, a concrete pillar stood in the dark water; the diving board was missing. The afternoons dragged on and on, the horse flies stung, thunderstorms gath­ered over the nearby hills. At regular intervals, a small steamer chugged by full of tourists, once from left to right, once from right to left. At one point, the boat was full with a group of passengers singing traditional folk songs. They could be heard loud and clear from the shore. The group leaders made the children sing along ...


Many years later, while living abroad, Simon had a professional op­portunity to return home. To save airfare, Simon—following his talk in L.—stayed overnight from Saturday to Sunday, and so had a whole day at his disposal. It was steaming hot. He didn’t know what to do with him­self. After spending the morning strolling through the narrow lanes of L., he amused himself by watching the locals at the Saturday market. Later he found himself at the train station where he studied the schedule. Ex­press trains took off for the capital at hourly intervals; a local train went to the little lake he remembered from his youth. He had read of an exhibit in the capital worth seeing. Though he generally despised exhibits that were lauded in the media, he was about to purchase a ticket for the capital when, on the spur of the moment, he changed his mind and decided to visit the lake again. Was it really as dismal as he remembered it? The train stood in the blazing sun, ready for departure. It was scheduled to leave in ten minutes. He got in; with him were two schoolgirls who in­spected him on the sly and then proceeded to whisper and giggle. The heat was intense. He opened several windows and sat down on a shaded bench. The station plaza glistened as if sugar had been sprinkled on it. The engineer climbed in; the local train took off and rumbled between suburban gardens into the open, past dry meadows and through parched orchards. The sky was a faded blue. Scattered homes appeared and were left behind. They were reminiscent of abandoned termite hills. Their open windows yawned a black void. The train slowed and stopped near a wooden shed. Through the windows the creaking of the car’s steel ex­panding in the heat could be heard. A cricket began to chirp. A wasp flew into the compartment and skittered against the lowered window pane. The air smelled of tar. No one got out, no one got in. The train started rolling again. He asked the girls where the lake was. They blushed and pointed to one side, down a hill where there were trees with leaves that had a leaden glare. And where do I get off to get there most easily? They looked at each other, snickered and then said, in the clipped dialect that reminded him vividly of his youth: at the station second to last, then snickered again, stopped abruptly, and turned away from him as if insulted. He sat back down. The effort to speak made him break out in a sweat on his chest and back. His shirt stuck to his skin. On top of it all, he had also car­ried along a raincoat that hung behind him on a hook. Simon was grateful for the little bit of breeze. At the second to the last station the girls had in­dicated, they gave no sign that this was the right one and stared mind­lessly at the floor.


He got out. Directly opposite was a restaurant with a board saying: Closed Saturdays. It was noon, there was no one in sight. He started walk­ing, his coat draped over his right shoulder. Soon he reached a sparsely treed forest that led down the hill. He walked slowly. The path was un­paved, yet well maintained and not too steep. Further down, he saw a child walking with a red life preserver. Sometimes the child disappeared behind some bushes, then reappeared. The child looked back several times and kept walking faster and faster. He followed, emerged from the woods, and passed between a couple of weekend homes onto a large parking lot where car after car brooded in the scorching heat, on past a meadow full of beach towels to the shore of the small lake. He had lost sight of the child. He stepped to the water’s edge; it was clear. The boys and girls splashing in the water did so with a strange reserve. Their voices sounded muffled. Adults swam past him attentively and looked at him. His right shoulder, which held the coat, was soaking wet. He sat down on a bench under a tree and looked at the bathers. They all moved as though they were being observed; as though someone had urged them to behave normally; as if there was a child molester on the loose whom they had to bait. Above the hills on the other side of the lake, a hot air balloon floated in the haze. The sun hung above it like a gigantic white cotton ball.


Before I get sick, he thought, I better walk a few steps. He got up and followed the path, which soon narrowed and turned into a trail shaded by trees, which led along the shore away from the bathing spot. It was nice to walk there. The moist earth was spongy. Moorhens clucked, ducks floated on the water, their heads resting on their bodies, their eyes closed. As he passed, they opened one eye, watched him, and shut it again. A dragonfly flew in fits and starts alongside of him for a while. Every so often he encountered other pedestrians. They exchanged greetings and best wishes for the day. In a sun-drenched patch of reeds, something rus­tled. Small animals flitted about, weasels or polecats, marsh squirrels or reed-fairies, something fast and barely noticeable. They flitted from here to there, then dead silence, then another one flitted and froze, camou­flaged and stock-still—here a flashing pink nose, there a few trembling whiskers, here a small paw, there a silvery back. He stood motionless in the blazing sun and observed the ghostly specter. However, he did not manage to catch a glimpse of a single animal in its entirety. Sweat was running down his skin. His feet, swollen from the heat, were burning. He continued a few steps into the shade of a weeping willow and took off his shoes and socks, then stepped into the tepid water with his pant legs rolled up. He fixed his eyes on a private plane gliding through the haze. Behind him a couple passed with a stroller. The man carried a backpack with snacks. They exchanged greetings and best wishes for the day. Simon stood for a long time and watched his feet sink into the mushy lake bottom. Without knowing when it had started, he became aware of something growing inside him. He didn’t know where it came from or what it was. It rose within him and spread powerfully, warm and heavy. He stood in the water up to his knees, shoes in one hand, his coat in the other, and all he wanted was to continue standing there. He could feel the tiny waves against his shins, he smelled the water, he listened to the am­bient sounds, the drone of the small plane, the muffled shouts of the bath­ers on the other side of the trees, a tiny fish jumping in front of him and leaping back into the water, an occasional car on the distant highway be­hind him, a lawnmower from beyond the corn fields, the clucking of nearby waterfowl, the lake swaying the reeds, the buzzing of insects … Carefully, without stirring the silt and without spilling any of the fullness he felt inside of him, he waded back to shore, sat on a stump, and let his feet dry on a flat, hot rock. The tree stump dug into his flesh. First, it hurt; then the spot went numb. He sat motionless, and it was as if all life inside him had frozen. He was full of lake, of sun, of air. After a long while, he carefully put one sock back on, then one shoe, then the other sock and the other shoe. Then he rose slowly so as not to spill anything, and continued walking. He placed his feet as if he was walking through one of the great glass-domed passages of a European city, the way they used to build them. The afternoon heat was at its peak. He didn’t encounter anybody else any more. People lay in the shade and slept. His feet, with their skin soft and tender from the lake water, quickly blistered. He walked on and on. After a while, he reached a restaurant. Only a few guests remained, the ones who had one schnapps too many and who couldn’t make it home in the heat of the day. They dozed in their chairs. He sat down at an empty table by the water. He ordered blackberries and cream from a sleepy waiter, who appeared after a while. They tasted like blackberries and cream as if retrieved from his memory. Simon looked around and saw that it was very good. The garden lay in the deep shade of a chestnut tree. Many tables were already set for dinner, the gravel underneath them raked smooth. A boy watered it to keep the dust down. Cool air rose and wafted by. The weather held. Not a single wasp buzzed. Simon paid and continued on. A sign indicated how far it was to the next train station. He followed it, passed through a village and arrived at the station where he waited for half an hour in the shade of the station. Now and again a car passed. The bells of the village church chimed five times. The little train arrived; he got in. There was no one inside other than the two girls from before. He blushed. They looked stunned at first, then gave each other meaningful glances and watched him with hostility. He took a seat where they wouldn’t have to see him. Even though he’d sat in the shade for half an hour, he had broken out in a sweat as soon as he saw them. The train chugged and swayed through the dusty fields and meadows. The branches of the fruit trees hung low. A farmer’s wife stood on a ladder between the leaves and watched the train pass by.


Back in the small town he returned to his hotel, showered, dried himself, lay naked on his bed, and fell asleep. The nearby church bells woke him up. They rang in Sunday. The thing that had grown inside him still swished heavy and round within him. He got up, put band aids on his blisters, donned a clean shirt, and went down into the street. It was still hot and hardly anyone was around. He went to look for a restaurant. He didn’t find anything inviting. The few pitiful restaurants that had grown old along with the town had too often adapted themselves, participated in too many fads, and lost their originality along the way. He sat down out­side a modern café and ordered a glass of port. The local dialect, which the waitress spoke and which he had spoken himself in his youth before painstakingly trying to get it out of his system, now sounded sweet to his ears. He drank in small sips and felt as if he was feeding a strong bird with scintillating plumage inside of him. A young couple came and sat down at a distant table. The two spoke in an intimate singsong about eve­rything and nothing. He was enchanted. The youngster strained to sound tough, while she went for a teasing tone. The sun hung low. Everything around him had a golden glow, the walls, the cheeks of the youngsters, their hair, the asphalt under his feet, his hands in front of him on the metal table. Swallows zigzagged between the rooftops, bounced swiftly into the sky, dropped abruptly and chased around invisible corners, twittering in high notes. He listened to the couple, watched the birds, and his eyes grew moist. He paid. The waitress wished him “a good one,” which he hadn’t heard in years and which he used to hate, but now he liked it. He remained a while longer, then emptied his glass in one gulp and walked on. The cheeks of the young couple and the walls glowed crimson now. By now, he was familiar with the few roads of the little town. The only thing that caught his eye during his walk was an exclusive hotel with linen-covered tables in the garden. That’s where he went; he sat down under a fig tree that stood sheltered in a corner, and had dinner. He was the only guest. Every course, every drink tasted fabulous, and he took his time enjoying every bit of it. Later an old woman appeared and sat down at a table near him. As he learned from her conversations with the waiter, she was the widow of the former owner of the Uzuner company, an engi­neering firm with an international reputation for precision tools. As a stu­dent, Simon had owned an Uzuner drawing set, like everybody else. Ap­parently, the widow dined here every evening, some soup, a salad, a glass of wine. He was watching her and wondered what he could say to her. After she had finished, paid, and was struggling to her feet, he finally managed to say: Do you know if these figs here ever ripen? In this cli­mate? She responded: I’m sorry, but I really don’t know. You’re right, though, I will have to pay attention this fall. Then they politely bid fare­well to each other. He wanted to add that she had given him courage to go on living and that he enjoyed watching her eat. But he couldn’t do it, after all. It was possible that he was a bit drunk by now. He ordered a raspberry crumble, took his time again to enjoy it, then an espresso, a grappa, then the bill, upon which—accentuated by a serious look on his face—he gave the waiter a tip he was convinced was gentlemanly, not exorbitant, not stingy. Then he went to bed. He felt so full he couldn’t fall asleep for a long time. His heart was beating too fast. The church bell chimed one, two, three. After that, he didn’t hear it any more. The following morning he felt slightly less intense and departed with a lighter heart. The girl at reception, probably the daughter of the owner, asked how he had enjoyed his stay with them. Well, he said.


         While he was waiting at the airport, he read in the local newspaper that a small plane had crashed near the lake the day before. The four occupants, two brothers, one of whom was the pilot, and his two sons, died on the spot. A farmer, who happened to witness the accident, said that the plane had sunk rather peacefully. He thought they’d run out of gas and couldn’t make it to the nearest landing strip. It wouldn’t have been the first time one of these private planes had made an emergency landing on his fields. He said the plane had come down between the fruit trees, touched down on a mowed meadow, then bounced up again as if jumping, very lightly, but after that, about 200 feet above the ground, it seemed to tip over in the air, yes, just as if it had made a wrong step, after which it nose-dived and slammed into the ground with full force next to a plum tree and burst into flames. The family name of the four victims was Vogel.


One year at summer camp, Simon knew a boy named Vogel. Every other day, he received a care package from home with sweets. His father was director of a cookie factory; their specialty was rock-hard and sweet spicy pretzels, the so-called Vogel-cringles. They tasted wonderful. You put one in your mouth, sucked on it, and rolled it around until it was soft enough so you could bite and chew it. Vogel himself did not eat them. He used them exclusively to buy favors and affection. That worked only the first few days. Soon those strong enough simply kept beating him until he handed over the required number of cringles, while the weaker ones ganged up and hid his clothes, shoes, and toothbrush at night, so they could offer to return the vanished items the next morning in exchange for a certain numbers of cringles. In this manner, he had become the victim of his pretzels. As bribes they were only good for the moment—as soon as you had them, you avenged his audacity to bribe you. Why he wasn’t simply left to himself is hard to explain. His skin invited pinching, his soft white arms were ideal for punching, his face was smooth and ripe for scratching, his hair hung in even strands perfect for pulling. His feet were small and stompable, his fine clothes perfect for tearing, his bright eyes ideally suited for blackening. Vogel did not understand the circumstances. He got increasingly trapped in the web of promises to provide cringles as favors, bribes, or reparation. Instead of acquiring a couple of reliable bodyguards for protection, he tried to make friends with everyone. Yet all who succumbed to do him favors for payment ended up despising him for this very reason and making life difficult for him. In the morning, he was pushed away from the sink; he was denied access to the cafeteria; his bed was ruffled as soon as he turned his back; his sports shoes went missing when it was time for sports; his pajamas were gone at bedtime; and if something was damaged at the camp, Vogel was the one to blame.


On one of the bathing days, he stayed behind in the shack because his swimming trunks had disappeared. Simon had two pairs with him. His mother insisted he carry two pairs and that, as soon as he got out of the water, he replace the wet pair. This request was quite embarrassing to him. No one else had to change their trunks. Everyone else lied down on the hot concrete benches, left dark wet prints on them, jumped up after a short while, and ran back into the water, climbed out again, lied down, ran around …


Vogel sat on the bench. The others were already outside and only Simon stood in the doorway, ran back to his pile, wadded up the second pair of trunks, pushed it down to the very bottom of his bag and got ready to run back out. Vogel asked, can I borrow that pair? Simon was startled. He hadn’t noticed him and thought he was by himself. After a short pause he said: only if you give me as many cringles as I can hang from your pecker. The shack smelled of mold. It was damp and warm. Vogel looked pale in the dusky light, as pallid as a maggot. He stared at Simon as if he was confronting him with an open knife in his hand. After a moment, he opened his mouth to respond, but then he just sat there, his mouth half open. The saliva on his teeth glistened. Simon bolted the door of the shack from the inside and waited. Vogel lowered his eyes and retreated inward. After a while, he began to dig apathetically in his bag, pulled out a box of Vogel-cringles, set it down next to him on the bench, stood up, pulled his undershirt over his head, lowered his pants, closed his eyes, and stood straight and motionless. His feet stood in a puddle of light and glowed. Their doll-like perfection made them so irresistible to be stomped on. There they were, immaculate. Simon began breathing slowly both through his nose and mouth, deeply and greedily. As if pulled by a mag­net, he approached the tiny feet, knelt down, and stared at them. They looked as if they had been rolled in flour. After a silent pause, Simon lifted his eyes from the feet and let them wander upward along Vogel’s naked legs, inch by inch. Everything looked waxen, as in one of those old anatomical drawings. Simon grabbed the box of cringles, picked one and slipped it over the tiny penis in front of his eyes. The pretzel fell to the ground. The member rose. Simon slid another one onto it, which held, and another and another. Vogel didn’t move. He stood there like a marble statue, eyes closed, three pretzels on his penis. Simon rose, stepped back, circled around Vogel and observed him. Suddenly he jumped forward, grabbed Vogel from behind and pressed him against himself. Vogel’s chest gave out a tiny squeak of escaping air. His skin felt soft, dry, and warm. Simon held him firmly with one arm, pressed against him as if to break him, dug his teeth into his neck, while tearing the pretzels from his penis with the other hand. Then he grabbed the foreskin and jerked it.


Vogel did not make a sound. Simon let go of him as abruptly as he had jumped him. He stepped back and observed him. Vogel still had his eyes firmly shut. His member shrank rapidly. Urine dribbled from it. The last cringle fell to the floor. Simon fetched his second pair of trunks from the bag, pulled it over Vogel’s head, choked him with it and, trem­bling with rage, hissed into his ear: If you let on that I gave you those trunks, I’ll beat you to a pulp.


That evening, after they returned to camp, he taunted Vogel’s bunk­mate. He claimed that whoever slept next to Vogel was gay. He, Simon, would require at least a box of cringles a night to sleep near someone like him. Immediately, Vogel’s neighbor started collecting cringles. Shortly before lights out, he had enough and offered them to Simon for exchang­ing their bunks. Simon accepted. In front of everyone, Simon slipped a knife under his mattress saying: just in case the pervert tries to come on to me in the middle of the night. From then to the end of camp, they slept next to each other.


        A man with a pleasant-sounding name was called to report immediately to a certain departure gate. The announcement echoed in Simon’s head: Mr. Urzino Uccellino, departing to Milan, please report to gate 7 A ... Simon put the newspaper down on the bench, got up, went to a kiosk, and asked the saleslady, an Asian woman, if she knew Vogel-cringles. There you go, she said with a smile, bowed and pointed to a corner of the dis­play. There they were. The box seemed smaller than back then. The writing was the same. Simon took one, paid, sat back down, and opened the box, dribbling some saliva on his pants in excitement. He pulled out a cringle and placed it on his tongue. The pretzel stuck to it, crackling; it tasted mostly of sugar and malt. Simon didn’t dare to bite down on it—con­cerned about his teeth. He sucked on the cringle and waited until it sof­tened. Then he chewed and swallowed it. Oh well, he thought, put the open box next to him on the bench, looked around, and saw that nobody was paying any attention to him, left the box, got up, and sat elsewhere.

Matthias Zschokke, Badetage. In: Strandparty - Geschichten von Sommer, Liebe und Meer.  Berlin: Aufbau Taschenbuch Verlag 2oo5, pp. 7 - 21

Translation: Magdalena Zschokke