Below are two more excerpts from my first novel, Fortuna Berlin. If you haven’t bought the book yet, I really wish you would. It’s one of those books that can be read again and again, I have been told, not just once, a la Dan Brown or Nicholas Sparks. It’s available here:
At my apartment building, I hit the up button on the elevator, but the elevator must’ve been kaputt. It was stuck on the third floor. I banged the button, walked over to the stairs and on the way noticed what seemed to be the door of the lady with the wild angry hair and paint all over her foot. It was a red door with a gold handle. I gazed at it for a moment, wavered a bit and looked down at the mat. There was a thin streak of white paint on it.
I should wake her up, I thought. Just so I can ask her if she thinks what she did was rude.
It was door number 11, the numbers gold and gleaming. Eleven. A prime number. A master number. A magical number. The light-bearing number. A number that when broken down (1 + 1 = 2) comprises the Two of duality. A rocket must travel at over 11km per second to escape the Earth’s gravity. The first lunar landing was made by Apollo 11. The deepest point on the ocean’s floor is 11km at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Chapter 11. September 11th. The Twin Towers. Berolina. Fortuna. I was born on the 11th of August. It was a number that seemed to run through my life like a bass-line, and although most of the time, I considered it just chance, it often gave me pause.
I saw my bloodshot eyes in the two ones.
A feeling of rage welled up in me and I pictured my drunken fists battering the door. Then I pictured backing up and running and smashing through it.
I wasn’t going to do it, of course. But the thought of it gave me a special pleasure and brought me back about twenty years to the night I got arrested by the ATF for having a fake ID. I was going to Florida State University at the time, and after the arrest, which didn’t involve any jail time – just a ticket and a court date – I came home and started drinking vodka with two other friends. One of the friends brought up Nome, my ex-roommate, who lived next door. We only lived together for two weeks, but broke it off a couple days before because I apparently wasn’t neat enough, I never invited him to any parties, I came home drunk every night – he had a real problem with that – and most of all because he thought either I or one of my friends stole one of his checks. It didn’t happen, but my friend brought the accusation up, so I went into my bedroom to check on my own checks and saw that one was missing. I went out the front door, banged on Nome’s door, but got no answer. Then I backed up, and charged into it with my shoulder. It didn’t budge. I backed up again, but further, and crashed into it. Nothing. A third time, nothing. Finally on the fourth time the frame shattered and I flew through the threshold, tripped and fell and gashed my head on the edge of the counter. The blood was sticky on my hand, and as I tried to get up off the linoleum, I rolled around and looked up and there was a vision in the kitchen light: Nome’s large imposing figure, his fists balled, eyebrows and nose and mouth turned upside down, transmogrified into something from a Francis Bacon painting. “Look what you did, you bastard!” he shouted, his whole body squirming with rage. “What the hell is wrong with you?” He started gasping. Then I mentioned something about the missing check. I tried to elaborate, got confused, mused for a moment, then it came to me: groceries. My own. About $8 worth and I must’ve forgotten to mark it. I rolled over on the linoleum again, thought about how I’d already been arrested that night, eked out a timid apology and got slowly to my feet. I wiped the blood off my face with my shirt, wiped my shirt off on my pants, and gathered up the pieces of door-frame. I took three of the broken half-pieces, and a few other thick jagged shards and tried to get them back in place. For twenty minutes I tried to get something into the door-frame so the thing would shut properly, but nothing came together right and finally I had to throw up. I rushed to the bushes and leaned over.
The fix cost me $75 the next day.
It was the elevator. The two little wooden doors opened and a neatly-dressed, blond German couple came out.
“Morgen,” said the young Fräulein.
“Hallo,” I said, with a slight lilt in my voice.
I weaved through them, got in the old rickety beast and hit the number 5.
THE BOTTOM LINE
I had to get outside and get some fresh air. I started walking down Wiener Straße, and as I passed Metman Döner Kebap, which was only a few doors down, I saw Bernd Heisenberg sitting at a table in the back corner. He must’ve slipped out just before me. He was eating a köfte kebap, his favorite late-night meal. I thought about going in and getting one too, but I was feeling a little woozy from the pill, and besides, it was too bright in there. Everything – the counter top, the table tops, the floor tiles, the wall tiles – everything seemed to scream with reflected light from the fluorescent bulbs in the ceiling. The place has all the ambiance of a Texaco bathroom, I thought. It was obviously decorated by men. Men who cared for nothing more than the tyrannical bottom line. Men who couldn’t see or feel the difference between soft, romantic, mellow lighting and having a blaze of searchlights illuminating your every flaw.
I walked on to Görlitzer Bahnhof, then went in the other direction down the slushy and ice-patched sidewalks along Skalitzer Straße. When I got to Falckensteinstraße, I entered a dark, warm little Kneipe, bought a beer and sat down at the walnut table in the back.
The song playing on the juke was The Gambler, by Kenny Rogers, and it reminded me of my dad. It was one of his favorite songs partly because of the melody, but mostly because it was his story. His story was money. He loved the pursuit of it. He loved putting it on the line and watching it flow down its filthy river, away and away, and then the waiting, the anticipation, and the commodius vicus of recirculation, almost always with something less. Money was always duping and double-crossing and knocking him to a knee, but he always got up, got it back, and never lost faith in the game.
“More on the river, more on the river, more on the river!”
And then the commodius vicus of recirculation, and something less on the river.
My dad too was a lover of the bottom line, but he had something in him that made him different than most: a super resilient cheerfulness. No matter how many times things were lost or he lost or life itself strangled and lashed and punctured and bled his heart, he never let his light Irish cheerfulness go. It was his own little piece of eternity and it was always with him and it’s what made his soul so noble. You could see it when he walked in a room. It was as if there was an invisible sunbeam pouring down on his head and grazing his shoulder and twinkling off his ring finger and if you asked him how things were, he’d invariably say, “Marvelous!” in his velvety baritone. Meanwhile, at that same moment, his patio furniture business was being audited, a very important supplier had just cut him off for late-payment, his credit cards were all at their tipping point, one of the drivers had just shot himself in the stomach, Mrs. Pugh was on line 2 waiting to talk to him about the slings for her swivel-rocker – they were supposed to be peach-colored, and yet they looked closer to pale-apricot – and his wife was on line 1, and she wasn’t too happy either.
He loved the word almost as much as he loved money, and he wasn’t being totally false when he used it. His genius was that he never seemed to take anything too seriously. He should’ve taken some things more seriously, maybe. But maybe not. He was imbued the natural wisdom that everything, no matter what happened, would work out in the end. He knew the real bottom line was the end, which was cheerfulness, the eternity in him.