Translated by Gerald Chapple
She says her brother went to the garage three or four days before he died to pick up the towrope in the trunk of his car, it was in with engine trouble. He drove my mother’s car, his stepmother’s, she says, who’s never crocheted since and never worn silk scarves and never a scarf in winter, only loafers. And never tied a shoelace again. He had copies made of the keys to his father’s office, she says, where the secretary found him the next morning, they found the receipt for eighty-one thousand lire, the knot’s tightening—everything comes back to her now.
As long as his shoes were still in the shoe room, she says, she’d slip into his gym shoes, running shoes, tennis shoes, I’d put on his sweaters, one after the other, lie down on his bed in one of his T-shirts, sleep in his bedcovers, I’d try to dress him, I wanted to find out what he was like deep down inside.
My brother was hanging from a towrope, I’ve been towing him along behind me for years now, I’ve been dragging him around for ages, I can’t cut him loose, I cling to him, swim after him with diver’s weights on. I see his springy, gym-shoe stride, defying gravity, and the lead in his arms, she says, he was always cheerful, and she wasn’t surprised the day he didn’t show up for breakfast, he always slept in, he often got up when I was already in school. She says she had breakfast and went off like she did every morning, I was given a ride, and says she didn’t leave a message on his empty plate that day, a sheet of computer paper folded over and over.
There’d be a reply on her pillow in the evenings or in her toothbrush glass, but on that day, the day his father’s secretary found him, he hadn’t picked her up after school, she says, he never picked her up ever again, and she never again had him play the boy friend in front of the school, in front of people who didn’t know him, anybody asking, is that guy who picks you up your boy friend, got to hear what he wanted to hear. She always put her arms around his neck, she says, he was my brother after all, though only a half-brother, we were never in the same belly, my non-uteral brother, she says in English, we’d never, ever go right home, we’d go get some ice-cream, go to the movies. Or I’d just sit there beside him in the car, she says. And we’d make our way through town and the traffic jams, on the Via Appia Antica, and on really hot days we’d go to Ostia, to the beach. And it wasn’t until after his sudden passing, until a week later, that she found his note in her shoe, I thought a dead man had written me, she says, the note was almost illegible because of my foot sweat, she hasn’t told anybody about that note, not her mother, not her father, not a word to the investigating officers. He didn’t leave anything else behind, not a letter, not a note, not one line, didn’t phone anybody, not a friend, didn’t say a word even to his mother in Milan, her father’s first wife, she says. She didn’t reveal a thing, even during a long interrogation, not a thing in response to the banal questions, how was he dressed, did he have a sweater on or just around his shoulders, had he shaved and combed his hair, did she have the impression he was about to do something out of the ordinary, did he kiss her good-bye, did she notice anything, did she notice anything else, You must tell the truth! You were the last person to see him alive that evening! the detective said, you must tell the truth!
The investigation—there has to be one if they don’t find a suicide note or a letter—was going nowhere and dragged on, she says she kept his clothes on and at night, if her mother didn’t see her, if her mother’s pills had made her sleep, she’d get into his bed. Anytime her father referred to it, if at all, then it was only an accident, a screw-up, incidente, accidente, she says, and soon afterward, a few months later, he had his study on the second floor of the house in Monteverde enlarged so that her brother’s room disappeared from the floor plan.
Sometimes, she says, words I learned from him come and hit me, lie on me, and hold me tight, sometimes a thin, damp film of incomprehensibility just sits there, sometimes it stays on my skin. That hasn’t happened again for a long time, she says. I wore myself like a very tight-fitting bathing suit, I’d dry off very slowly after getting out of the pool in the garden out back, he was my towel when I was cold, he and whatever I still possessed of him, his absence stayed with me, was my constant companion, a feeling that wrapped itself around me a lot tighter than his sweater did.
The hook he pulled the towrope through was on the ceiling, a little in front of the desk, he’d put the ladder back in the broom closet. He must have noticed that hook—maybe it was for a heavy chandelier—during one of my father’s sermons, speeches, declarations, she says, he must have figured it out, must have imagined what it would be like to be hanging from there, up there, my father probably kept on talking, talking about his prospects at the office and when he would make his move, his name was already on the door.
My father fired his secretary afterwards and gave notice about his office in the Via Nazionale. My mother took sleeping pills now, the only way she could get some sleep. And she couldn’t sleep a wink if I wasn’t home. The alarm system was set for ten-thirty, I wasn’t allowed out any later, I couldn’t be at home by myself either, the au-pair was always right there with me.
My mother packed me up, shielded me, tied me down, wrapped me up in cotton wool, and stood guard over me, I can’t remember being alone for a single evening, she says, there were those narcotics she kept dreaming up for me, trips everywhere, to get my mind off it, and she’d buy me things, but not as presents, even before I’d had two seconds to wish for them. And I’d think to myself, I have to keep it all in my head for him, every step, every hand movement, every day, and every image, I really have to be able to tell him what went on when he comes back. I’ve always been hoping to run into him somewhere, at least see him, in a passing car, sitting across from me in the train, on the other side of a subway platform, on an approaching ferry, that’s her secret way of looking, she says, peeking at people’s faces and searching for similarities, and I’d stand in front of the mirror at night searching for similarities too and wonder if I couldn’t go visit him, but even though I never wanted to be any older than he’d been, I am older now, still got that old feeling he’s on his way here, trip’s just taking some time. After all, he lets me hear from him often, keeps sending little signs. And even if nobody responds on the phone, she says, she imagines it’s him, though he can’t say anything, she says, but wants to hear her. Which is why, even if she can’t make out the voice breathing on the other end of the line, she swallows occasionally and says nothing, or talks about this and that, she says. Dreamed-up long-distance calls, long-distance feelings, a touch on the back of the head, an almost imperceptible caress, a touch from way up on high. He might look like anybody, today, she says, all men have to be compared to him, though they don’t know anything about him, maybe he’s gotten fat. And gone bald.
His body, she says, had to be kept refrigerated for ninety days, the investigation was taking its own sweet time, he couldn’t be buried any sooner, the first funeral went on without him, the dead body. An empty coffin was carried to the grave and lowered into the ground, his hair was always thin, she says, I haven’t worn braids since. Ropes, she says, are made of three or four strands, ropes are braided together around a core, woven ropes are made of twenty-two strands braided around a core. And held together by a twenty-third strand. You can use your imagination a lot later on, how he was, what happened, the pulling and writhing, I was always on a leash, she says, safely tied up, I used to tie him up, and he’d tie me up, with a bathrobe belt, playing cowboys and Indians in the garden, in the pool, and games underneath our night-things, tie me to the stake. And I bet you can’t escape, your hands are tied, let them go to sleep, can you stand it like that for a whole night? If he didn’t want to play anymore, I’d bite him, I was his kid sister, and I bugged him.
And what she’s saying about him, she says, lies like a noose around him and around her neck, she’s imagined jumping off after him often enough, from a one-meter, from a three-meter, from a five-meter diving tower, from any old cliff on the coast, he probably pushed off quite easily from my father’s desk, a little jump, he didn’t fall very far, she says, the rope from the trunk of his car tightened an inch or so into his neck and cut into the skin all around it, his neck wasn’t broken, you need a thick knot to break your neck, a knot that hits you like a fist in the nape of your neck after the free fall and separates the vertebrae, she says, the braided rope didn’t break, synthetic fibers stretch.
The secretary found him the next morning, my father fired her soon after. I was told he’d fallen off dad’s desk, that it was some kind of accident, and she says thoughtful as he was, and because he knew from the movies what would happen, he placed a large developing tray—for developing, soaking, and fixing large-format photographs—directly below the hook in the ceiling, otherwise dad would have been cross about his ruined carpet as well.
David Wagner, born in the Rhineland in 1971, lives as a writer in Berlin, the subject of many of his writings. Translations of two other stories from Was alles fehlt (What all’s missing) appeared in Southern Humanities Review and Stand; a memoir was published in the Antioch Review. One of his most recent prizes was awarded by the Leipzig Book Fair in 2013 for Leben (Life).
Gerald Chapple taught German at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and is a freelance literary translator. He has translated works by Günter Kunert, Barbara Frischmuth, Josef Haslinger and Stefan Heym, among others. Some have appeared in Fiction, Modern Poetry in Translation, Agni, Grand Street, Osiris, The Literary Review and Words without Borders. The winner of an Austrian government Translation Award in 1996, he is working on a book of his translations of Kunert’s poems.
Original text: David Wagner, “The Developing Tray” from Was alles fehlt. Munich: Piper, 2002.