The Old Man’s Dark Light
I admit—and I hope I’m not bothering you, ma’am—that I don’t speak your language, but since you’ve said nothing to the contrary, I’ve got a story I’m burning to tell you—or at least to tell someone—that I think, you being a local, will interest you, and which, in any case, ain’t something you hear every day—or at least I would assume not, because it’s something I’ve never seen, and I’ve been all over—and which, even if you have heard such a thing once or twice, is rare enough that it can’t possibly annoy you, although—and feel free to laugh—I don’t precisely know what would annoy you, seeing as you said nothing and, what’s more, didn’t even move when I sat next to you on this bench, even when I could have chosen any other bench in Wilhelmsplatz, really any other bench in Göttingen, as much as any bench means to me, which is nothing, nothing at all, new as I am and uninitiated and without the established preference a local such as yourself might have for some bench over the others, although, as you can tell—or at least you may be able to tell, though I truly have no idea whether you’re passed out drunk or just sleeping or even dead, because we’re not close enough yet that I would touch your neck to check for a pulse, even when, to be honest, I’m burning to do so, for I haven’t touched a neck in so very long, which I don’t mean to sound creepy, but it may be unavoidable—as you can tell, I repeat, I have, indeed, picked your bench for a very particular reason, namely that I must tell this story and that, seeing as I don’t speak your language—or at least not well enough to tell what I have to tell—my selection of listeners is rather slim, perhaps slimmed further by my own nervousness to simply walk up to a perfect stranger and begin to regale, having no way to know beforehand whether he, she, or they would be able, ready, or willing to be regaled in my own language, the use of which, in such an aggressive abrupt, must seem horridly presumptuous even in the best of cases, and much more so when I have no idea whatsoever whether this story of mine is the most commonplace thing in the world for you people or whether it really is as truly mythologically ominous as it seems to me, the ignorant newcomer, or whether it falls somewhere in the middle, in a gray zone that, in any case, aside from all theorizing, may not justify my abrupt and unrequested storytelling, to which, I must say again, I am incredibly grateful that you have consented—or to which, at least, you have not objected—and which, I promise, will be worth any unpleasant surprise that accompanies it if you should wake up, because I have now seen you shudder and thereby know that you are asleep and not dead, a heartening revelation for me because, at the very least, even if you do not hear my story per se, it may produce for you some entertaining dreams, even if you do not speak my language, because my tonal melody, at least, will reach you, and I have been told that the fluctuations of my voice are quite pleasant, although of course I have no way to know if such things carry over into this new place, into this new language, while I assume they must, though I also have no way to know why I would assume such a thing except that it feels right, or that I am vain, which may well be true or, in any case, may well seem true, except that this story, if I really were so vain, would surely focus on me, which it does not, as you will hear (or as you will dream) in a short moment, since, after such a horribly long introduction, I have lost all hope that you will awaken and either listen attentively or tell me to leave, so that I really have no reason to procrastinate further unless I simply enjoy hearing myself speak, which, to tell the truth, I no longer do because every word reminds me of my irrevocable outsideness, of the series of historical and economic and ethnographic events that have led me—by simple human necessity, you understand—to tell stories to an inert body who, until only some moments ago, may as well have been dead, for all I knew, in exactly the same way as—and I thank you, for you have given me, by your silence, the perfect segue into the story I’ve hyped so much—and to repeat, for clarity’s sake: in exactly the same way as the protagonist of my story, namely the old man on the tricycle, may as well have been a ghost, for all I know, which makes—I know, I know—no sense now, so prematurely said, but which will make all the haunting sense in the world in a few short moments, once I have laid the groundwork for his entry, a rather dramatic and mysterious entry that, I regret, may have lost some of its delicious spontaneity now that I have foreshadowed it, although, on the other hand, it will be all that much more tensely anticipated once it arrives—that is, to ignore grammar for a second, once he arrives—and so! I proceed, with no regrets whatsoever, to the groundwork I promised:
I walked along the Weender Landstrasse, with which I’m sure you’re familiar, at around midnight—though I cannot tell you the exact time of any of this, since I have no watch and no cell phone, since I cannot have a cell phone contract, since I’m so new here and haven’t yet amassed the mounds of papers required for a cell phone contract, which sounds like an enormous hindrance, right, though it really isn’t but is, I must say, extremely freeing, not to be reachable, not to be connected, to have the possibility of loneliness, with which of course I need no help, as linguistically stunted as I am, though in any case it’s nice, such a forced immersion in the analog, and is something I’d recommend to anyone, though I still can’t say exactly why, except that it has rendered me…I don’t want to say, “more present,” but rather…more constant, let’s say, more consequent, from one moment to the next, less fractious—ah, and against my horrific digressions I repeat, yet again, that I walked at midnight, a midnight that, though there are streetlights all along the Weender Landstrasse, was dark enough, what with the light rain and the heavy, relentless surge of cumulonimbus clouds, a midnight, furthermore, that seemed even darker to me—not to be, I hope, overdramatic—because of my loneliness, being so newly displaced and so unaccustomed to my new life of relative silence, for which reason I walked with my hood up, a beer—Augustiner, if you must know—in one hand and a hand-rolled cigarette in the other because I wanted—childish, I know; and histrionic, I know, to tell it like this; and futile, I know too well—to seem, for a moment, like a local; and so you can imagine that, with each limb employed and a hood up, I looked as unapproachable as I possible could have, but still not unapproachable enough that this old man—with his wavy white hair and short white beard, in a full black pinstripe suit and matching fedora—not unapproachable enough, I say, that this dapper old man could refrain from stopping his tricycle next to me and saying—in his and, I must presume, your language—, “Would you mind turning the light on?” and pointing to the bulb on the front of the tricycle, to which I, in shame, had to respond, “Repeat that, please”; so he did, this time with more expressive gesticulations toward the bulb, whose switch I attempted to find for a full thirty seconds before my hand landed on a small knob, turned it, turned it further, and around and around as the bulb completely refused to respond, so that, after turning the knob for a minute or two—imagine that, a full minute or two, kneeling in the rain beneath a perfectly functioning streetlight, all the while watched by this tricycling dandy—and hearing several clicks, I raised my eyes to the man in shame and despair—on the verge of crying, if you want to know the truth—at which crucial, hopeless point, despite everything, he grinned at me with the mischievous, arch-browed grin one expects from a demon or a criminal lecher, and he said—and I do really think I caught it, though he may have said something else—, “That’s it!” and sped away with sureness and vigor into the light rain, as though I actually had managed to turn on his light; and, looking back, perhaps I had, although I certainly saw no difference in the bulb, so that I was forced to assume that this old man’s tricycle was outfitted with some type of light that he could see and I could not, which so perfectly mirrored everything that I had felt during our short conversation and during my few but long days here that I drained the beer straight away, finished the cigarette, and rolled another, just to give my hands and eyes something to do, so that they would not display my lostness, my infantile impotence, my glowing blatant outsideness, as I followed after him up the Weender Landstrasse; but all at once my mind…I hate to say “exploded,” but that’s exactly the right word…yes, exploded into recognition, that this tricycler was somehow linked to that famous story of the man who walked into the marketplace on a sunny noon with that redundant lantern in his hand and said that he was searching for God, though what precisely connected this man, with his tricycle and fedora and his mysterious and perhaps delusional light, to that other, with the lantern, escaped me and could not be caught, that is to say I could not connect the dots but had nevertheless felt the explosion in all its revelatory luminescence, so that I became certain that the man had come specifically to me in order to teach me some crucial lesson that, because of whatever personal shortcomings, I had failed to learn, even though I had recognized it, which is, I’m sure, worse than not having recognized it at all because, in that case, I would have no reason to fret and no reason to feel yet more inadequate, yet more external, while in this case, having recognized but not learned, I was only reminded yet again of my fundamental inability to grasp what goes on here, which is to say, my fundamental inability to become anything other than outside, to be anything other than isolated, to see the array of tripwires and lights that—I’m certain—surround and converge on me at all times but which I cannot see or feel except by some deeply buried nervous sense, the same nervous sense that led me to drain that beer and to roll the second cigarette, the same nervous sense that then drove me to put headphones in my ears without connecting them to anything, to pull my hood further over my forehead, and to bury my one free hand—that is, the non-cigarette-laden hand—in my jacket’s pocket, where it fidgeted shamefully with the rubbery underside of a bottlecap, a bottlecap which, for that same purpose, I have kept in my pocket for three days now and with which—I will admit, though it pains me—I fidgeted madly through the first several minutes of this…can I call it a conversation? I suppose not…this narration, let us say, though now, now that we have become somewhat better acquainted—or at least I have said quite a lot, and you have allowed me to rest my hand on your shoulder—I have decided that I will throw it away, the significance of which you surely grasp or, at least, feel in your dream, which I earnestly hope is a good one, though you shudder and grimace with attractively bluing lips, a dream lit by the type of light I was and still am unable to see, or even unlit entirely if those types of lights are bad, a dream, regardless, populated by that same type of old man, the type that posit themselves immediately, for no discernible reason, as mythological, who pop up seemingly out of nowhere with their tricycles and demonic illogic, who make—if you will allow me the conceit—spheres out of circles, so to speak, who illuminate, that is, the realm of illogic that surrounds all logic, for better or worse, and who therefore round out logic itself exactly while they describe, by their very presence, its dissolution, the possibilities beyond, the possibilities open to those who, for better or worse and often better and more often horribly worse, have become at home with outsideness in a way that I still have not learned, although, you must admit, simply to deliver such a lengthy narration to a completely inert body such as yourself is an undeniable step in that direction, try as I might to explain all this away as dream-work or somesuch mystic cop-out, and try as I might to excuse myself by saying that I have simply craved to speak my own language—in so far as I can own a language, which I doubt—, and, what’s more, try as I might to reason through the story itself: Even still—regardless of all that, regardless of everything—the story itself and the fact that I have told it to you of all people, on this of all benches, testify to nothing but, again, my irrevocable outsideness, my incurable loneliness, my steady path to becoming that man on the tricycle or some analog thereof, if, after all, I have not become something akin to him already, which, at the end and bottom of it all, is what I fear: That I may, in only a few long days, have sunken so deep into the churning seas of myself that I won’t be able to swim out, so deep that the only person with whom I can reasonably speak is either asleep or passed-out-hammered or dead, so deep that I will, in fact, begin to see the lights that old man sees—or at least, none being given, that I will create them—and that, in the end, when I finally approach the brink of his impossible, I will see no barrier at all and will simply step off the edge of the cliff, which may be anywhere at any time, and which is—I know; I sense it; I don’t know how—a final movement, a terminal velocity, a real sickness unto death, one that must prove wonderful or terrible or, more likely, an overwhelming—in the harshest sense of the word—combination of the two, for which I don’t know if I am prepared, since I’m not even prepared to speak to someone who isn’t incapacitated, though, of course, I don’t mean to insult you, especially after you have been such a perfect listener, in all truth the perfect recipient of this long, rambling account, at whose end I retain only one solitary regret: That, if and when you awaken, I cannot ask what you dreamed, just as I cannot ask you anything else, not really, so that I must stare down at your violetly quivering, cracked lips with the same straitjacketed stare that I directed at the old dandy as he triked away into the black rain and mist of Weender Landstrasse, weaving into and out of the bike lane as though drunk, and I wanted to call after him, “Are you okay? Should I try the light again?”, for, at the end and bottom of it all, perhaps he was exactly as anxious as me, and perhaps he had only affirmed my efforts because he could not bring himself to condemn them because he saw in my eyes the masculinely restrained tears of all my miscarried communications and could not bring himself to add the one, final blow that would release them, that would unite me with the black rain and the mist and the drenched night and all the inhuman environment against which we each, in our own way, struggled; but of course I could call neither of these things to him, so that I was forced to watch, deaf and silent and helpless, as he swerved on and off the road, to watch as his fedora flew away from his wispy white locks and sailed into a small stream at the roadside before being swept into a rusted storm drain, to watch an old Audi sedan zip by me, blasting techno music, a bottle of pilsner glinting in the driver’s shaky hand, and to watch as they both, the tricyclist and the sedan behind him, swerved more or less blindly, more or less drunkenly, across the splashing black road, like the mating dance of some monstrous species of butterfly, until finally they met, and the dandy sailed, with the same limp fluttering movement his fedora had exhibited only seconds earlier, head-first into the curb, his crumpled tricycle scraping the street in his wake, while the sedan, after coming to a hydroplaning halt, groaned into high gear and fishtailed away into the night as I, my heart split in two and beating in both ears, ran to the old man’s side, my boots sticking slightly in the pool of blood that spilled from the back of his head and ran down toward the storm drain to join his hat—as I ran to his side, I repeat, knowing that I could do absolutely nothing for him, that I had no cell phone and wouldn’t know the emergency number nor what to say even if I did have one, so that I could only watch as his blood swirled against the soles of my boots and press his hand as he extended it to me, its tarnished wedding band searing cold against my wet and numbing palm, and when his hand dropped, limp, onto his pinstriped chest, I only stared out at the empty street, yelled random, indecipherable syllables into the indifferent darkness, then set off for home at a sprint, blood flecks spritzing out from my pounding boots in all directions, flecks that even now are caked into their treads, which I would show you if you awakened, so that you could see my guilt, or the guilt of language itself, or the guilt of time in its eternal reckless dash, and oh how I hope you do awaken, that this blue of your lips does not imply what I fear it does because, my new friend, my only friend, I can do no more for you than I did for my triking dandy, and though I yell for hours in this empty plaza, we’re both on our own here, and I can give you nothing but a concerned look, an extra jacket against the cold, although you have not shivered for some time, which I hope—stupidly, perhaps, but I hope nonetheless—means that you have warmed, that your dreams are full of fire and charcoal, though your once-blue lips have turned pale.
Jonah Howell lives in northern Germany. His recent work has appeared in Expat Press, Plutonics (vol. 14), and Countere.