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Spandau, the most outlying and unexciting borough of Berlin, has earned some measure of fame for two things: providing Rudolf Hess with life-long free board and lodging, and for making it as complicated as possible for those who seek shelter in Germany. Marco started to work at the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees twelve years ago, after his second child was born and his wife had her first attack of multiple sclerosis. This afternoon, after finishing his paperwork, he goes to the window and looks down on the courtyard. He stands there while his colleagues are marching to their cars and the janitor is clearing the trash bins. He’s still there when the court is deserted and the pigeons take over. At five fifteen he goes back to the desk and reaches for his briefcase. Slowly climbing down the stairs he hears somebody else’s steps above him.
“Marco! You’re going to the bus?”
He turns around. “I need to copy something first.”
Iris smiles. “Me too.”
They have to wait until the secretary is done. Marco opens the briefcase and takes out his iPad. He browses through his calendar, and then he puts the iPad back again. Iris tilts her head. “I’m thinking of buying one of those, too.”
“It’s practical,” Marco says.
“I’m still not sure,” Iris says. “Always online. Sounds a bit creepy.”
He shrugs. “Always and everywhere.”
“Well,” she says, “You can still turn it off, can’t you?”
The secretary grabs her papers and winks. “You guys have a lovely weekend,” she says, pushing for the door.
“You, too.” Iris turns to Marco. “You can go first.”
He steps back. “No, go ahead.”
She holds up a book of case law. “I haven’t found the right precedent yet.”
“All right.” He opens his briefcase. “I won’t be long.”
Iris touches his sleeve. “Take your time.”
He clears his throat and takes out a single sheet. “Thank you.” He closes the lid, presses the button, waits for the light to pass and removes the sheet again. When he catches the copies, they are still warm. He stuffs them into his briefcase and says, “Your turn.” He reaches for the door handle. “I better be going now.”
“Give me a minute. We can take the bus together.” Iris puts her book onto the machine. “Just two pages, okay?” She presses the start button and frowns. “Marco?” She points at a sticker attached to the wall: Always make sure that the copy machine is filled with paper after usage.
“Sorry.” Marco opens a new pack and pulls out the drawer.
“Don’t do that,” Iris says. “You don’t want to have a paper jam.” She takes half of the pile, places it in the drawer and carefully closes it. “This should be fine.” She presses the start button again and then takes out the book and makes another copy.
Marco looks at the clock above the door.
“I’ll be done in a sec,” she says.
She reaches for her copies and browses through them. “That’s not mine,” she says, handing him the first one.
“Right.” He quickly rolls up the sheet. “My son’s celebrating his birthday.”
“It’s a nice drawing.”
He smiles. “I’ll tell him.”
They walk past the pigeons. One flies by next to his head, brushing his shoulder.
“That was close.” Iris removes a feather from his coat and says, “When I was a kid, a pigeon got caught in the front wheel of my bike. There was blood everywhere.” She starts to laugh. “It took me two shrinks to realize that it isn’t my fault if someone stupid comes in my way.”
“My wife loved them,” Marco says. “She used to feed them with bread crumbs.”
At the bus station Iris opens a pack of cigarettes. “How are things at home?”
“Since when are you smoking?”
She smiles. “I quit after Leon was born. Now that he is moving out, I thought I might start again.”
Marco looks at the sign. The next bus is leaving in five minutes. “I could use one of those too.”
She passes him the packet. He pulls out a cigarette and bends toward the lighter that she is holding up to him. “Thank you,” he says.
She nods. “How are the kids?”
He takes a drag and inhales deeply. “All right.”
Iris looks at him, frowning. “I’m so sorry.” She slowly blows out the smoke. “I really am.”
He reaches into the briefcase for his cell phone. He looks at the display, and then he says, “There’s the bus.”
“If you need someone to talk…” She drops her cigarette, puts it out with her foot, picks it up and throws it into the trash bin. “You can call me anytime.”
“I’d love to help,” she says, and then she bites on her lower lip.
“I’m a single mom, remember?” She touches her chin. “Gosh, what am I saying?” She shrugs. “What I mean is I can look after your kids. I know how it is. You have to organize and everything. Anyway, I’d love to do that. If you need a rest, you know?”
“Thanks,” he says.
Iris enters the bus. Holding up her ticket, she smiles at the driver. Then, she turns around and says, “You’re coming?”
He tosses his cigarette on the street, reaches into his back pocket and shows his ticket. The driver nods and pushes a button. The door lets out a sigh, closing them all in.
Iris falls onto a free bench. “I’m so happy for Makela,” she says as he sinks down next to her.
She opens her eyes wide. “The Lebanese girl you signed the paper for today.”
“She’s going to do her A-levels next year.”
He presses his briefcase to his upper body.
“Girls like her make me feel that my work makes sense.” She smiles. “At least you’re not one of the bastards. You haven’t forgotten that they are real people.”
Marco looks at the kid standing next to him. His gaze wanders from his head to the sneakers, to the loose laces blackened from dirt and rain.
“The first week I was so close to quitting.” Iris sighs. “But then I thought that it would be worth it if I could at least save some of them.” She winks at him and says, “Like the Mbuvis. Remember them? The father has finally got a work permit. They got their own place now.” She rummages in her bag and produces a pack of chewing gum. “Want one?”
He nods and tries to draw out a stick.
“Wait,” she says. “Let me do it.” She passes him a stick. “I always hated clerks with bad breath. I hated all clerks.” She starts to laugh and puts her hand on his thigh. “You’re doing a great job, Marco.” She smiles and says, “You save a lot of families.”
He turns to the window, holding his breath.
Iris chuckles. “I’m sorry.”
He looks at the bus which is just passing them. He looks at the faces looking in his direction. “I sign the orders, that’s all.”
Iris sighs. “It must be hard for you.”
He stands up. “You’re staying in here?”
“No,” she says.
The subway is crammed full of people at this time of the day. Since they have started construction work on the new line to the Reichstag, trains are delayed constantly. Plus, the beginning of winter has added a large number of people who’d rather leave their bicycles at home. A group of Spanish tourists with maps in their hands crowds around them, making every attempt of conversation redundant. Iris and Marco just stand next to each other in silence. Then, the Spanish tourists leave and other people leave, too, and Iris says, “Shall we take a seat?”
He sinks down next to her. She opens her bag and takes out a folder. “There is this guy from Cameroon I’ll have to interview on Monday.”
Marco presses his briefcase to his chest.
“His first application was turned down. He’s got tuberculosis and he’s gay.” She opens the folder. A sticker saying Stop Deportation Now is attached inside. “He is a poet.” She holds up a booklet. “This is his original language, Duala. The title means, ‘My father’. He was killed in some war. Threw himself on a group of children to protect them from shelling.”
Marco fumbles with the handle of his briefcase.
“This guy is the only one from his family to survive,” she says. “If we sent him back they will kill him on the spot.”
“Sorry,” Iris says. “Work’s over for today, I know.”
Next to them four teenage boys are chatting loudly in a mix of German and Turkish. Iris smiles. “I’m learning Arabic now. It’s not easy. With the different letters and all.” She writes something on a piece of paper. “This is my name in Arabic. Pretty, isn’t it?” She throws a glance at the boys and says, “Nobody ever asks us if we speak their language, right?”
He looks at her. Then, he opens his briefcase and takes out a bunch of papers. “See these?”
She frowns. “What’s that?”
He flips through the pages and says, “Ngala, Tokewa, Koye.” He draws a pen out of his shirt pocket. “Watch this.” He scribbles on the bottom of a page. “Saved.” He also signs the other papers and then passes them to her. “Feel better now?”
She drops her gaze. “I’m sorry.”
“Can you please stop?” He rubs his left temple, saying, “Can you please stop saying that?”
Her eyes are fixed on the ads offering advice, jobs, and master programs at private colleges. “I began to study law because I wanted to do something. They were deporting all these people back to their countries where there would be starving or tortured or killed as soon as they left the plane.” She carefully puts the papers into her folder. “It wasn’t easy being a single mum.” She leans back and says, “I wanted to help.”
He closes his briefcase and places it on the floor. “It’s a job,” he says. “I’m just a desk criminal.”
“I thought you cared for these people.”
“Of course you did.”
The subway comes to a halt. He looks out of the window. The sign says Halemweg.
“I understand.” She smiles. “You’ve got other things on your mind now.”
He snorts. “Like what?”
“Marco,” she says. “I know it’s hard.”
He checks his cell again. “Do you?”
“My mother died two years ago.” She closes her eyes for a moment, and then she opens them again, saying, “I often ask myself why there are still so many people laughing and chatting and having fun as if everything would last forever.” She clears her throat. “There is this group I’m going to once a month. They all lost a loved one. It’s good to share.” She smiles at him and says, “Next time is on Wednesday. Perhaps you’d like to come, too.”
Marco leans back. “Jesus.”
She bites on her lower lip, and then she says, “I just want to help.”
He stands up. The doors are closing. He sits down again. “Sorry. I didn’t want to be rude.”
Iris fumbles with the sleeve of her coat. “I know.”
The train is rattling along the tunnel. He looks up and says, “Your son’s moving out?”
She nods. “He’s going to live in Hamburg.” She straightens her skirt. “He wants to study law. I told him not to, but you know how it is.”
Marco yawns. “Back to freedom.”
The lights start to flicker. The train slows down for a while, and then it speeds up again. Iris looks to her left where one of the teenage boys is scribbling a tag onto the window. “It’s not easy,” she says. “Letting go, I mean.”
The boys jump up and push each other along the aisle. When the subway comes to a halt, they bang against the door until it opens. They are replaced by a man reading a book, a woman pushing a buggy and three girls dressed up for a party.
“Well,” Marco says as the doors are closing again. “Any plans for the weekend?”
Iris shrugs. “Nothing special.” She fumbles with the collar of her blouse. “I thought of going to the theatre. My son’s worrying about me being by myself too much.”
Opposite to them a boy and a girl are holding hands, watching videos on a tablet, sharing in-ear headphones. Iris smiles and says, “I told him that I don’t mind, but you know how it is. Kids want their parents to be happy.”
The speakers announce the next stop. “Right.” Marco stands up and extends his hand. “Have a nice weekend.”
“You, too,” Iris says. Then, the lights go off and the subway comes to a halt in the middle of the tunnel. “Oh,” she says, holding on to his hand.
Marco steps back to get free. The emergency light goes on. He sits down again and says, “I hate it.”
Iris leans back. “Maybe we’re just waiting for another train to leave the next station.”
“I just read that more than half of the vehicles need maintenance,” Marco says. “Apparently, they ran out of money.” He shakes his head. “Like everyone in this fucking city. Poor but sexy.”
Iris touches her temple with her right hand and put her left on Marco’s leg again. “Last night, I had this dream.” She takes away her hand, and then she says, “I dreamed that I was riding a bus. I sat down behind the driver and took out my book. When I looked up again, I realized that there hadn’t been any stop for more than hundred pages. ‘I need to get off,’ I said to the bus driver. He looked at me through the rear view mirror as if I wanted something no one had ever wanted before. ‘You have to push the button,’ he said which I did then and the bus stopped. I hurried down the aisle and got off in the middle of a desert, and then I stood there, watching the bus slowly disappearing, and then I woke up.”
“Well,” Marco says.
“It’s strange, isn’t it?”
“I wish we were in a bus now,” he says. “We could get out and share a taxi.”
She smiles. “You don’t believe in dreams, do you?”
Marco reaches for his cell phone. Looking at Iris he says, “Listen, honey, can you call the pizza service?” He rubs his front and listens and then he goes on, “Nothing to worry about. Talk to you later.”
The girl opposite to them smirks. “Fuck them.”
“Relax,” her boyfriend says.
Iris turns to Marco. “Are they all right?”
“Who? The kids?” He puts his cell into the inner pocket of his jacket. “Of course.”
“How old are they now?”
“Nine and fourteen.” He looks at her, and then he says, “I believe in coincidences. I believe that life is just a never ending collision of stupid coincidences.” He loosens his tie and opens the first buttons of his shirt. “If you hadn’t come down the stairs, I wouldn’t have had to wait for you at the copy machine and I would have caught the earlier bus. Or, I would have made some more copies and I would have taken the next bus. Anyway,” he says raising his eyebrow, “the coincidence that made you go down the stairs the very moment I came out of my room led to a lot of other coincidences which led to the fact that my poor kids will be sitting in front of the TV munching a hot pizza in about twenty minutes.” He smiles. “They’ll be happy. I am such a bad cook.”
“Me too,” Iris says.
The man standing next to them opens his backpack and takes out a beer can.
“Lucky bastard,” Marco says.
A woman says to her teenage son, “Somebody jumped on the tracks?”
Her son shakes his head. “That’s called personal damage.” He turns around to her and says, “They wouldn’t do it in the middle of a tunnel. Too much hassle.”
His mother says, “How do you know?”
He raises his left shoulder. “I just.”
Marco clears his throat. “What was it like to be in the desert?”
“It wasn’t as exotic as I thought a desert would be. It wasn’t even hot.”
“What do you mean by exotic?”
“A poor but happy place?”
Marco takes out his cell and looks at the display, and then he puts it back again. “I’d die for a smoke.”
Iris sighs. “Hopefully we’ll be moving soon.”
“Give me a cigarette.”
“You can’t smoke in here!”
He points at her bag. “I know where they are.” He gets up and opens the window. “Come on, I blow the smoke outside.”
“You can’t do that!”
“Stop me.” He gently takes the bag out of her hands and reaches for the pack of cigarettes. Then, he returns the bag and says, “I also know where you keep your lighter.”
Iris reaches into her breast pocket. “You really shouldn’t.”
He holds the cigarette out of the window and blows out the smoke. “Relax,” he says. “I take full responsibility. I’ll pay the fine.” He winks and says, “Have one too. I’ll pay yours as well.”
“Hey,” a man wearing a baseball cap shouts, “it’s non-smoking in here.”
Marco doesn’t even look. He takes a drag and blows the smoke into the cold darkness, and then he takes another drag.
The owner of the buggy touches Iris’s shoulder. “Can you please tell your husband to stop smoking? My son’s got asthma.”
“He’s not my husband.” Iris looks around, at the people staring curiously at her, and then whispers, “His wife died. He doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
“The fuck I do,” Marco says.
The man with the beer can takes out a pack of cigarettes as well and joins Marco. He holds up his can. “Want some?”
“Yeah,” Marco says. He takes a sip and smiles, and then he takes another sip and passes the can back. The two men finish smoking and drinking in silence. The mother brings her kids to the other end of the wagon, and the rest stop watching when both men return to their seats.
Iris takes a deep breath, and then she says, “I understand that you’ve had a lot of stress lately.”
Marco starts to laugh. He laughs and shakes his head, and then he says, “You understand nothing.”
“Listen,” she says. “I’m not your enemy.”
“You better listen to me now. What if I was glad that she died?”
Iris clears her throat.
“You want to know the truth?” Marco says, “No, you don’t. Because people like you never want to know the truth. But that’s how it is. I wanted her to stop breathing. I prayed each night that she would just stop breathing.” He puts his hand on Iris’s chin and forces her to look at him. “I don’t deserve your pity. I don’t deserve anybody’s pity. You’re all a bunch of hypocrites. And I got a master in hypocrisy. I was fucking glad that it was over.” He lets go of her and leans back. “Now you know. Because you got it all wrong, see?”
Iris turns her head away.
The boy opposite to them removes the earphones from the tablet. “Let’s dance, honey.”
“Stop it,” his girlfriend says.
Marco opens his briefcase and reaches for his iPad. “He’s right.” A few seconds later a deep woman’s voice is singing in Spanish. “Dance with me,” Marco says. He takes Iris’s hand and pulls her up. “Please.”
Iris looks around. No one is watching. Some have taken out their books or magazines, others open their laptops. Some sit there, staring silently at nothing.
“You want to help me?” He puts his free hand on her hip and says, “Dance with me.”
Iris frowns at the teenage boy who gives her a thumbs-up. “That’s crazy,” she whispers.
“Life’s crazy,” Marco says. He holds her close and puts his mouth next to her ear and sings, “Porque sin tu amor se me parte el corazón.” He slowly moves her around and around. “The singer is from Mexico,” he says. “Exotic enough for you?”
Then, all the lights turn on again. The people cheer and the subway resumes her task, slowly in the beginning, but little by little regaining the usual speed with which she and her companions crisscross the underworld days and nights. The speakers say, “Next stop: Jungfernheide. This train terminates here. All change please.”
Iris opens her eyes. “We’re moving again.”
Marco continues holding her tight, and he continues moving her around. “Let’s not get off,” he whispers. “There’s just the desert outside. And it’s not even hot.”
And then the subway comes to a halt and the passengers get out. There’s an empty subway waiting for them, ready to help them reach their destinations, and it may seem much, much later that they get back on their way, but the time business is a peculiar one, especially for our couple that is left alone now, not dancing anymore, not holding each other anymore, but standing a foot apart, which means 0,3048 meters to them, looking at each other in embarrassment or in stupor or in fear, and maybe their gazes mean something completely different which we will never know and they will never know either and maybe together they have found a short, intense break from seclusion for a while, but there’s no need to decipher their glances – nor anybody else’s – to understand that there’s no hope at all at all at all.
Jesse Falzoi was born in 1969 in Hamburg and raised in Lübeck, Germany. After stays in the US and France, she moved to Berlin in the beginning of the nineties, where she still lives with her three children. Her stories, as well as her translation of Donald Barthelme’s “Sentence,” have appeared in American, Russian, German, Swiss, Irish, British and Canadian magazines and anthologies.