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      home : book reviews : The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus

There is No Such Thing as Schicksal
A short story by Shawn Casselle










"It started with goo," said Henry Dixon. "The goo in me has cosmic origins." He winked at the woman at the bar. "The goo in me is a direct descendant of the primordial goo from which all life on this planet evolved." He leaned sideways on his stool, toward her. "Want some?"

He wondered: how long have I been here? Glancing up at the funny clock over the glass-littered bar, he saw that Hitler’s arms pointed straight up at the twelve. As if to say: I surrender! The bar was full of ausländers.

Dixon liked the Black Bar. There were enough people in it at all times that looked at least vaguely like him that the others, the indigenous population, didn’t bother to stare at him, unless it was because they merely found him attractive. Like "Claudia" here. Or "Martine"…she could very well be a "Martine". He hoped to God it wasn’t "Petra". He hated that name. He made a deal with himself: if her name was "Heike"; "Steffi"; or "Petra", he wouldn’t fuck her. If her name was "Tina", he’d fuck her, but he wouldn’t spend the night. If her name was "Rafaella" he’d fuck her, spend the night, and buy her breakfast. If her name was "Eva"…

He pointed at her, then at himself. "Goo." He pointed at the bartender. "Goo."

Then he said, pleadingly, "All this trouble over goo! Antediluvian fucking goo in a slime pool in Africa! Storm starts. Lightning hits the goo. Four billion years later, here I sit in this smoky bar in this filthy fucking town, wrestling with my conscience about whether or not to…" he made a rude gesture "…with you."

"Which is really a question about whether or not to make more goo!"

He smoothed back his wavy hair and sipped his drink and pulled a hair, not his own (in America he’d sue), off of his tongue. "Eh?" He peered at it… straight and black and white-rooted (dog)…on the tip of his finger. "I mean, come on!"

He wasn’t sure. He just wasn’t sure what to do with this woman. He got the feeling that she loathed (?) him, in some way, and yet was intent on screwing. Of course, he could’ve applied that description to many of the women he’d ever eventually been with. Of all the cities he’d lived in, Berlin exacted the stiffest penalties for "love", and it was only now, in his grudging maturity, that he understood why the Berliners preferred their sex without it.

He hadn’t even bothered to discover her name yet, the woman who had come to nestle with available proximity at the bar, and for that he was proud of himself. He was finally learning: don’t always rush to be so gallant. But she wasn’t that close, and that’s what puzzled him. She slouched at the ring-stained counter, the clusters of sticky cup-circles of batida de coco and anisette between them, with her elbows together and her arms rising up in a tight vee. Her hands clutched both sides of her face in a pantomime of bemused despair, and she grunted, her fingers drumming her cheeks with impatience. She grunted and sighed and looked at her watch.

Her English wasn’t very good, or didn’t appear to be. Several times she clasped her hands pleadingly and rolled her eyes heavenward but Dixon kept talking anyway. She straightened her spine and adjusted the straps on her dress and frowned at him sidelong through the smoky blurs that hooded them like cauls.

He leaned over precariously and patted her on her back with a hand that felt mittenish; three-fingered. She hooked a glance over her shoulder in the direction of the patting hand and shrunk her shoulder away from him, a seductive gesture of mock-disgust. She tossed her candy-red hair and fanned her freckled cleavage with a green-nailed hand. She was tired of talking and even more tired of listening. She leaned over and stage-whispered loudly, over the jagged stew of bar noise, from a short but indiscreet distance, with her thick-as-sex accent, "Do you want to make love in my mouth?"

He winced, and held up a finger.

"The human fetus roughly mimics the progress of mammalian evolution, that is, you know, it goes through a fish stage, a monkey stage, etc., as it develops in the womb. And then, again, the philosophical development of a man, this man, Homo Dixon…no smart remarks!… parallels the philosophical development of Human History, and it just so happens that Human History and I are both experiencing a midlife crisis at the moment. "

He paused to take in the setting. He found himself surrounded by the human race. Soft, bruised, scratchy, sticky, lumpy, smelly humans. In various states of disease, decay, and disrepair. All those air-scooping nostrils, smoke-burned eyeballs, chest-slamming hearts. And all those ropey-dense guts, synthesizing and compacting masses of fecal material. Not to mention veiny circumcised or uncircumcised penises; humid vaginas (at least one present also circumcised…that African lady…), and, topping it all, the seething chunk of brain. Those stiff few pounds of universe. Blinking with alcohol-poisoned thoughts.

Looking at the woman who leaned there looking at him, comprehending not a word of his diatribe, he felt a lukewarm wave of tenderness for her. Pity for the fact that she would die, sooner or later, by definition, and envy for the fact that she didn’t seem aware of it.

The only thing that appeared to concern her, at the moment, was enticing him, this broad-shouldered American, to follow her home. Was it his obvious intelligence, or his manifest coloredness, that turned her on? He could just picture her showing him off to her milch-kaffee-swilling, tattooed little Kreuzberg girlfriends. Bragging about certain stereotypical attributes of his. He hoped to God that she didn’t like soul music.

But he wasn’t sure he even wanted this one, and that was the problem. Plus, he was in the mood for orating. He’d never been much of a public speaker in The States; the anonymity of doing it in pidgin-English-speaking Berlin appealed to him. Released him of inhibition. I should have been a professor of something, he thought. With a blackboard, a pointer, and rapt pupils.

He said: "Back to our Topic, class! The Topic is how this middle-aged has-been beside you in a bar approximately mirrors the cognitive development, stage by stage, of Human History itself."

With a finger pointed ceiling-ward. He cleared his throat. "From zero to eighteen months was the Stone Age."

He mimed the wielding of crude tools. "Between eighteen months and two years I passed rapidly through my iron, bronze, and golden ages."

He mimed the stacking of alphabet blocks. "Three to Five were the Dark Ages, Five to Six was the Renaissance. Ten was my Age of Reason. By thirteen, I, er…what came next?"

"Well, at thirteen I was a Beatnik, but that’s where I deviated somewhat from the chronology of the March of History."

"Beatnik?" She perked up at that. She knew that word. "Beatnik?"

"Fifteen: learned to drive. Industrial Revolution. Nineteen, rebelled against my family and quit college…The Cold War."

"Why isn’t there a stage, I wonder, in the March of Human Progress, that corresponds to my discovery, at an early age, that I could give myself pleasure? In fact, you know, and I’m not bragging, but once…."

He caught himself, braked that train of thought, swiped the air clean as with an eraser. He spun a hand in an on-with-the-story gesture. "And then, of course, there’s the Romantic Period, which, in my version, happened after the Cold War. I’m talking about women." He snapped his fingers. "Christ! Women. Women and money. Where I come from that’s pronounced wimmin and munny in case you didn’t know." He snickered and she bit a nail. He sighed, exasperated.

"Look, my Love Life in a nutshell. The Artist; His Muse; the Banker; The Banker’s Wife." He diagrammed it on a cocktail napkin. "But that’s another story. Let’s just say I’m divorced. Got a kid, too. Little girl. You can look them up in Prague if you’re ever in the neighborhood." He put a hand on his forehead, feigning regret. "I’m losing you, aren’t I?"

He pounded the bar and the side-burned bartender looked up from the book he was reading. Dixon slid off his stool and dragged it behind him a few feet to right beside her and kissed the hot side of her face, which caused her to half-turn, mashing their mouths softly into a sticky compound. She wedged a hand between his legs and felt for him, for a "yes," and he pressed his head to her face with blind affection, lamb-like. But still he kept talking, even eyes-closed. He said, but quietly, because his lips were by her ear:

"Any fucking way…"

He tried to kiss her again but she shook his lips off her cheek. He peeled her oyster-white hand off the bar top and kissed it instead. He examined her cold fingers. The green plastic nails. He said, softly, with eyes-averted gravity, "There is no God, no point, no plan, no Fate, no nothing. That’s it. And when we die, we’re dead, that’s it. And there are no such things as ghosts." He put a finger on the tip of a soft swelling in her dress under which a nipple sweated.

Behind, he could hear a German speaking English with stiff casualness, saying "I am having two beers, my man," and his white-bloused African date, adding "Ich mich auch" in a throaty voice. There was music, the beautiful necks of beer bottles gargling into tilted glasses, chair legs and boot heels sounding on the gritty floor, and tainted leafy bills dissolving into showers of glittering coins on the counter. His throat was sore from talking; all the noise in the bar was a pain that echoed in his vocal cords.

Henry stood there a full half minute, heart pounding, and he could feel the stirrings of an erection…a reluctant fattening of a possible hunger for her…reassuringly involuntary…and agreed with himself that that would be the closest he’d get, on this occasion, to anything resembling grace. A hard-on in a bar and her merciful attentions later. And the truth was, and he had to laugh at himself for this, he just didn’t want to be alone that night. Or any night, really.

She shook her hair out, stood up, and staggered towards the curtained exit, the floor reflected at an angle in her pupils like the deck of a listing frigate. Her shoes remained at the base of her barstool in a convincing counterfeit of her presence. His job now was simply to fetch her shoes, over-tip, and follow her. He hooked her orphaned mules by their buckled straps and did so.

The sky was one of those brilliant three-in-the-morning Berlin skies, a massive rough-hewn blackboard with its chalked-in moon and stars, and he never ceased to feel thrilled by the threat of it when it loomed over him on such nights as he tiredly quit some bar, meandering home alone. Daylight in Berlin was the ugliest thing, but night was a masterpiece. You felt not nocturnal but subterranean under that black dome called "sky" in Berlin…expecting brackish moisture to drip from dagger-like stalactites in the star-filthy ceiling.

He trailed her from a half a block behind, respectful of the distance, sobering on the chill, dragging in long restorative breaths, comically wearing her dainty suede shoes on his hands like a clowny quadruped gone staggeringly upright, saying, "Yoo-hoo. Yoo-hoo miss whatever-your-name-is…." or "Ick bin ein Berlinah!" with a nasal Bostonian honk.

She kept staggering along, around a corner, down a narrow block, and he pressed on, following. She had a sexy, if slightly exaggerated, ass-toggling walk. He enjoyed being behind her, the subtle pressure of sex that echoed back to him off that spring-wound gluteus bomb of hers. The neighborhood, on the boundary between Schoneberg and Kreuzberg, near the canal, was dark with sooty brick and boot-worn cobbles, but it was tree-lined, and made the journey to her bedroom romantic enough, nearly story-bookish, which was practically all that Europe could offer an American anyway, he thought. Little moments and zones of story-bookishness amidst all that depressing modernity.

She’d turn her head every few minutes to check that he was still following, her hair too heavy with sweat and bar smoke to swish with the vitality that it had much earlier in the evening. They crossed the bridge off Hauptstrasse towards Kreuzberg. Having crossed the bridge (where Dixon took half a minute to release a splattering luminous arc of piss over the railroad tracks under them while she waited, applauding the arc), she veered up a side street. She crept into the dark mouth of a passage that led from the front of an old concrete apartment building to the back courtyard, what they call there the hinterhof, lit only by the moon and the moon’s reflection in the black upper panes of the three surrounding windowed walls. There was the sour smell of lazily-mopped halls, the farty breath of coal ovens, the soft white trail of her vanilla-based perfume.

When he came to the rear of the courtyard he found her, as his eyes adjusted to the deeper darkness, sitting on a big green metal box labeled lebens gefahr: hochspanung, which obviously had something to do with the building’s electricity. She had a finger up to her lips to shush him, and then he noticed that where her feet dangled, kicking the air idly as though she was seated on the end of a pier, were two bald men. They were propped against the side of the metal box, lodged in shadow and nodding in boozy stupors, and they were skinheads, all sinew and vein and knuckle.

Dixon had never been so close to real skinheads before: he felt as though by some terrible accident he’d just found himself trapped behind the bars of a cage at the zoo. Fuzzy points of match-light shone in their freshly waxed skulls as she lit a cigarette. They were shirtless despite the chill, classically attired (inspired no doubt by television) in fat suspenders and stove-pipe denims and high-laced bulbous-toed work-boots. One of them was mumbling curses in his half-sleep, chewing his swollen lip, still clutching a beer. The hands of the other lay folded in his lap, like those of a perfectly good German. Dozens of brown bottles stood in a sloppy Maginot Line around their boots.

She shrugged and winked and tilted her face moonwards and blew smoke.

Like Scheherezade, Dixon had wasted so much time talking that he’d saved himself. He’d saved himself, unwittingly, back in the The Black Bar, which she had obviously targeted because it was a favorite among Ausländers (African students in particular). Her accomplices had drunken themselves into harmlessness while waiting for her and Dixon to show up. So now the skinheads were sleeping it off, and their pretty bait was shrugging at him, impressed that Fate had deemed him worthy of this pardon.

Fate. Fate! This lucky exemption from a severe beating was nearly enough, for an instant, to restore his faith in it, or in some benign Shaper of All Our Ends. But Dixon knew there was no such thing. No such thing. The German word came to him, whispered sibilantly by an imagined Nazi: Schicksal. She blew him a kiss and he saluted her with an upright arm, clicking his heels, and walked carefully backwards out of the hinterhof.

Two weeks later he was coming up out of the U-Bahn exit at Ernst Reuter Platz, the Hardenberger Strasse side, which was always crowded with students at that time of the afternoon, shortly after three o’clock. It was one of those late Fall days in Berlin with a hint of panic in it…the foreshadows of dreadful Winter…the gradually balding trees, and the real chill that stung in the shadows, despite the sun. The sunlight itself was thinning, losing the substance of its yellow. Soon, dark clouds would be metastasizing into meaty chunks in all corners of the sky. But until then there was also Fall’s exhilaration…the briskness of movement, the crisp air, the promise of a death that facilitated renewal. Students, in shrieking groups or dour singles staring down, took the worn stone steps, two at a time, up out of the U-bahn.

He had come bounding up the crowded stairway himself, the roar of the train behind him, into the leaf-cut sunlight that showered through the green prism of lindens, when he immediately recognized her, from behind. Yup, it was her. Had they ridden the same train?

She was not more than fifty meters ahead of him, this time in shoes, but shuffling along with the same seductive indolence, far too slowly for a proper German, as though anywhere, no particular destination, would do. He smiled to himself, impressed with (nonexistent) Fate’s sophistication, and he casually decided to follow her, just as he had done that night, two weeks ago; the night he’d escaped a serious beating.

Schicksal, again.

They walked up Hardenberger Strasse, a tenuously-attached couple, past the café Hardenberg, where cutlery clicked on china at the patio tables, and continued to the corner of the Steinplatz, the café-cinema, where she turned right, checking her reflection in the wall of dark windows behind which sat scowling diners with afternoon newspapers. She was headed in the general direction of the Ku’Damm. He was careful to keep enough distance between them that he wouldn’t register on her peripheral vision, yet keep so close that he wouldn’t lose her if she bolted impulsively across an intersection, or on to a bus.

She looked different in the sunlight: her hair was a harsher, more artificial red, and her legs were as white and hard-looking as bones. She was wearing a dark blouse and a short suede skirt and the same buckled suede mules that she’d worn the night that he’d followed her home. She was almost imperceptibly thick-waisted, seen from behind in daylight, but still gave off the ineffable pheromone of rotten pleasure that compelled him to follow. But just as surely as he recognized her, he could not, at that moment, call forth a sharp-edged memory of her face, and he wondered if she’d remember his, and how offended he would be if she didn’t.

When they had reached the Ku’Damm, he was so bold as to stand directly behind her as she waited for the light to change at Uhland Strasse, tapping a hip with a nervous white hand (green-nailed again) as she stood there, and he took a deep breath of her vanilla-based perfume. The backs of her arms were plump and freckled. There were flecks of dandruff on the shoulders of her blouse (which would show up as a humiliating galaxy under the ultra-violet light in a nightclub, he thought). The whorl of fine hairs that furled up her neck into the greater mass of her chemical-red ponytail was sea-bottom white, and a dusting of fine hairs silvered the scallops of shoulder blade visible in the low cut back of her blouse.

Also, close up, he saw the bumped and claw-marked patch on the side of her left forearm where she’d been worrying a rash with those efficient fingernails. What was it about her that got to him? The forgotten face, the unspectacular body, or her previous attempt on his life?

She gave off a stink, spiritually, as foul and heady as any rich man’s back-room tidbit, served rancid and white on a mirror, to be gobbled with eyes-averted shame (and a smack of the lips afterwards). Once or twice he’d come across it before: the irresistibility of the hateful.

The light changed, and he let her get halfway across the wide street, pushing into crowds that herded against her, before he commenced his shadowing (this particular shadow being brown). She was headed east, towards the U-Bahnhof at Wittenbergplatz, or she planned maybe a little shopping at the KaDeWe, or even Wertheim’s, more likely.

She sauntered by the dirty concrete plaza around the Old Church. Berlin’s few street musicians clustered there, harassing tourists gregariously, and, also, black foreigners congregated, chattering, braiding beads into thin German hair for a few Deutschmarks. A caricaturist was set up in the shade of an old tree near the Church and she slowed to peer at the smudgy sketch of Elizabeth Taylor that stared at her, with the low IQ of a poorly done drawing, from a rickety easel.

And then.

She was walking along, glancing boredly left and right, when she braked abruptly and veered off, shifting into a fast walk, face down. She hurried in a reverse angle across the plaza, racing across the shadow of the Old Church.

Dixon had to shift into a mild trot to keep her within sight as she disappeared behind the back of the massive blue hexagonal prism of the Gedächtniskirche. As he rounded the sharp corner of the building, he saw her jogging across the deserted back end of the ugly plaza, the dumpstered part where tourists didn’t much care to stray, headed right back towards Hardenbergerstrasse via shortcut. She was dashing for a side street, a buckled shoe flapping in each hand.

Just as Dixon was wondering if she could possibly be trying to lose him…why was she running, suddenly?…had she been aware of him the whole time?…another man came flying across the right corner of his vision with the oblique trajectory of a Cruise Missile. The man was running so hard and with such serious intent that the sound of his breaths made Dixon jump, and the athletic violence of his effort was magnified by the fact that he was running with a limp, seeming to gobble the distance in no more than several long hops as he aimed to catch her.

Dixon saw, as the man snorted past him, that he was black, dressed in the pop-trash way of an African attempting to look like an American, with elephantine pants and a Chicago Bulls jersey and a baseball cap worn backwards, tag flying like a flag, the whole look counterfeited by the flourish of a red kerchief around his neck, the false note of a Paris/ Dakkar detail. He had the blood-orange skin of an African using topical lighteners…the moles and acne scars on his face were still so stubbornly black.

Also, and this added a touch of nightmare to the scenario: on the side of his face that Dixon could see, the African’s eye was swollen and pulpy and clotted shut, his face balloon-shiny and lopsided, the craft of a recent beating. Dixon was huffing to keep up with him, and it was like watching an elegant demonstration of calculus to see the graceful alignment of the two projectiles, the German girl and the African, the little blip of impact at the far corner of the plaza.

Dixon got there four seconds later, breathless, in time to throw his weight and broadside the African, who had one hand on the girl’s neck…not as though to capture her as much as to keep her at a distance. Not once did she scream for help, for the police.

Dixon and the African fell and smashed into the rusted face of a dumpster with a church-like gong. The girl stumbled sidelong to her feet and took off, dropping her shoes, and Dixon found himself drawn up on his side, trying to slither under the wheeled dumpster, kicking backwards from the African, who was tearing at him, clawing and snatching in a spitting cloud of hatred. Two other Africans, identically dressed, came shouting out of nowhere, kicking very hard at Dixon with the precision and energy of soccer fanatics.


Copyright © Shawn Casselle 2003

Shawn Casselle was born in Los Angeles, California, and has lived in Chicago, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Saint Paul, Brooklyn, San Diego, London, Berlin, Hamburg, and Stockholm. He currently lives and works in Berlin.

This short story may not be archived or distributed further without the author’s express permission. Please read the license.

This electronic version of There is No Such Thing as Schicksal is published by The Richmond Review by arrangement with the author. For rights information, contact The Richmond Review in the first instance

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