She hadn’t had any particular feelings about classical music then, hardly did even now, but had always gotten a vaguely erotic thrill from watching people do things they were very good at. It never mattered what the things were, the mastery was what did her in. She had once fallen momentarily but completely in love with an excavator operator, who let a cigarette dangle from his lip while he moved the digger’s claw through the dirt so gracefully it seemed more animal than machine . It had been a long time since she had seen anything like that, though. There wasn’t much building happening anymore. There wasn’t much expertise either, now that she thought of it. 1
The coffin emerged from the mortuary, borne on the strong shoulders of grandsons and neighbours. It was slid into the back of the hearse. I adapted the demeanour of a character I’d seen in a film who had mastered a deadpan expression. The line of the cheek-bone is taut, the small lips are pursed. The pupils in the blue-grey eyes penetrate the gloom. Are you going for a pint, Harry the Hat asked? Can a swim duck, as the great man said, I said, but later, in some strange confusion found myself alone. 2
And part of me needs to believe this: that deep in the American deserts, a caravan of camels lumber through the pitch night, unencumbered by humans, no longer burdened by us at all. 3
The Russian alphabet is comprised of foreign signs that only foreign men can interpret. Moscow. It is a heavy word, I think, like gray rock, or hard skin. Russia, land of churches and cloisters. Where they flogged themselves in naked cellars and called out for their savior in an incomprehensible tongue and without music. Holy Russia. Ivan the Terrible, murdered in a cloister, in front of an altar. Icons, flickering candles. Outside, the winter gloaming, the winter storm and the endless steppe. But across the steppe, troikas of men lashing violently with their whips in a halfway-upright stance. 4
“It almost sounded like fear.”
The light of the train came bearing down on them out of the darkness. They stepped closer to the edge of the platform.
“You don’t forget what that sounds like.”
“I hear you.”
“Yeah, I know you do.”
They watched as the train slowed to a stop. When the doors opened, the two men climbed aboard.
“It sounds like a siren. Or a baby crying.”
They disappeared into the warm car. They kept talking about what it sounded like. 5
After she left, I started thinking a lot about Kafka. I felt I had to deserve him. I started dressing a little more conservatively. I tried to make myself scarce and to be deferential. I argued with my father. I exercised in front of open windows. I started rooting for the underdog. That’s how I met the new girl.
Since I found myself with so much time on my hands (sans-girlfriend), I started watching movies that were nominated for Oscars but didn’t win. It felt like a mustache-appropriate hobby. Melanie and I both reached for The Birds at the same time. I could’ve let it go, but I had to see where the story would lead. I told her about my loser-movie marathon.
“The Birds wasn’t nominated for Best Picture,” she said. We discussed the ones that were that year and settled on How the West Was Won. The movie was so long I couldn’t make it to the end before I had to tell her about Kafka’s mustache.
“It’s wild,” she said. “Can you imagine. Whose beard do you have under there?”
I didn’t want to think about that. 6
In the high school’s parking lot I see two cop cars by the gate. At first I think they’re looking at my beard, but then I realize I’m wrong. My beard is not as big as I thought it was. 7