THE GRINNING OF CLOUDS
– Boaz Koriander (1981)
I’m trying to read but my flatmates have returned from their tour and there’s no ignoring them. When I first saw the place—stammering irrelevant questions in my best German to try and make the landlady like me—I was under the impression that the whole three-room apartment was for rent. But when I turned up at the head of a long, tired caravan of hardwood furniture and countless books, it turned out I was to dwell in a single room, albeit a large one. I burned quite a few bridges back home, so I had no choice but to accept the meager offer. The other rooms are occupied by a family of Russian circus performers. The stench of cabbage and grease paint is unbearable. Blessed weeks when they’re on the road, travelling through terminal harbors, strip malls and public housing association offices; full-blown terror when they’re resting here for a week or so. Grandmother Russia stomps around on her short stilts, from the stove to her armchair and back again on those matchsticks, tick-tick-ticking on the moist, moldy parquet floors. She lost both her legs in a gruesome handstand accident—or was it a trampoline fiasco?—years ago and can now only move around on splintery stilts that she pushes into her rotting stumps. She collects exotic birds but hardly ever feeds them. Grayish flamingo’s and almost featherless toucans lurk in the hallways like veteran tigers, hunting the little bread crumbs that flee across the floor to reach their promised land in the hollow walls. If only her act included birds, I could understand the fascination, but she never even attempts to train them. They are simply let in the house and left to fend for themselves. I always keep a tennis racket nearby, just in case I find my bedstead invaded by hummingbirds and macaws.
One of her sons lived with Francis Bacon in London for a while and posed for his paintings. The poor juggler never really recovered from the experience. His head is still partially wiped out—he resembles a shaky photograph, or a painted sheet of rubber that is pulled in several directions at once. He sits silently at the kitchen table holding a toaster in front of his face. Great big tears run down his hands and drip on the table top where they transform into microscopic concrete bunkers, including tiny barbed wire and gun loops the size of pin pricks. Perhaps microbes will move into them to create an Atlantikwall in the breakfast nook. His older brother—Father Russia now that grandpa has finally passed away, thinking he could still swallow a broadsword when he could hardly swallow his dementia pills anymore—is the ringmaster of the group, dressed to the nines when he’s on the road but slouching on the sofa in sweat-stained shirtsleeves when he’s at home. Grandmother Russia strongly favors this son over the mess of a man that the juggler has been for the past ten years. In my opinion, the ringmaster has no flair or natural charisma whatsoever. He resembles an ink miner or mountain builder more than someone who can command limelights and audiences, but apparently he can be quite charming when he wants to. He’s shopping for more cabbages and other putrid foodstuffs at the moment, always the cheapest of the cheapest. It allows them to spend what little money they make on costumes and birds.
Despite the deadly silent sobbing of the deformed juggler, I can still hear the ringmaster’s twin daughters, one hanging from the rings attached to the bathroom ceiling while the other encourages her on the tuba. The polka hoompapa noise swells to a climax, the limber sister releases the rings, makes a double somersault and finally corkscrews into the high cistern of our only toilet. I keep replacing the cistern’s lid, but someone keeps using it to ski down the roof. It’s their own fault. I refuse to get involved. The fat sister, almost as vast as the brass instrument she is clutching like a dead lover, shrieks and pulls the toilet chain with all her formidable strength. A half-hearted stream of brown water sputters into the bowl, but no sister. Grandma comes tramping in, assesses the situation in a second and also starts pulling on the chain, which consists of Egyptian phallic symbols welded together. Yank all they might, the lithe acrobat (actually the only attractive one in the bunch, but why should that matter?) is nowhere to be seen. She was probably sucked into the pipes. Now they’ll have to wait until daddy Russia comes home with the groceries. He will then proceed to rip the entire bathroom apart to save his daughter, subsequently waiting months before retiling the space. This happens about twice a year. Thank goodness there’s asbestos in the walls—at least we’ll have something to stoke the stove with this winter.
All this noise, and the perpetual, omnipresent stench that my flatmates wear like medals bestowed upon them by the emperor himself, make it impossible to read. I’ll never finish my book in time. The novel was published by Soup Greens Inc. and is printed on very thin slices of zucchini that will have to be eaten soon or they’ll perish. This book won’t last two more days.
After I moved in with all my furniture, the door couldn’t be closed anymore, so I decided to pawn it a while back. The pawnbroker offered me four copper coins and a Swedish travel guide for it. I immediately spent the money on a desk guillotine I saw in the window, and I mailed the guide to a former colleague who now lives in Stockholm—what am I to do with something like that? I don’t travel. The absence of a door, however, does not mean the absence of privacy. Using my desk, dining table, dining chairs and some other pieces of furniture, I constructed a room within my room, a little house within a house. Old art books and philosophy tomes that haven’t been opened in ages are stacked into little stairs between the tiny floors of my cottage. I eat sitting at a hatbox and a rough horse rug on the roof serves as a bed—there are approximately 40 centimeters between my nose and the ceiling, and some mornings I don’t bang my head so hard that I fall back semi-conscious onto the wooden boards that used to be my dresser. Hidden in my 3 m3 of a living room, I can almost pretend to live alone, as long as they keep the noise down! The Russians know I’m home but don’t pay me the slightest attention. I try to read some more.
Less than ten minutes later my fragile concentration is utterly shattered by a metal crashing in the hallway, as though someone is throwing a truckload of steel tubes up the stairs. I exit my cabin crawling on hands and feet and rush to the front door. It’s my scaffolding that I taught to climb the stairs. I pet it on its top shelf and quickly usher it into my room—whenever grandma sees it, she tries to catch it with a lasso braided from her own hair. The precious thing clangs into my room and positions itself against the wall, still as a stiff. Good boy.
“Did you have a nice time?” I ask, knowing fully well it can’t answer. The only sound it makes is a slight creaking of the hinges, and I have yet to tease meaning out of these seemingly random utterances. I used to walk it but lately it wants to go out alone to look at construction sites with what I interpret to be a crushing sense of longing. I don’t usually enjoy pets—or any company, for that matter—but my small scaffolding is very dear to me. It’s about one meter long, seventy centimeters high and it sports three shelves. There are some paint spatters on it, and glue stains from mini-advertising, but all in all it’s a beautiful creature. I haven’t figured out what to call it, though. What do you name a scaffolding?
Perhaps I should get ready for my date with Ada. I feel no residual affection when she enters my mind. She’ll probably want to go to L’Écume des Jours again, “restaurant of the future.” You pay a fortune for a meal consisting of pills and powders, washed down with a bland Chablis—I would have believed them if they claimed to serve horse sweat, and who knows: perhaps future man drinks the skin liquids of all sorts of barnyard animals! Meanwhile, the diners are subjected to ‘music’ created by cogs and springs scratching vinyl records. People are encouraged to share their thoughts, dreams and aspirations for the future with other guests. Exactly what Ada finds appealing in all of this is beyond my grasp. I always get bored and draw pagan symbols on her with the greasy sausages I bring from home, something that irks her to no end. Nor do I understand why she insists on returning to the restaurant time and time again when she knows perfectly well that I detest it, but I can never refuse her because I always plan to break off the relationship. It somehow seems rude to dictate the dining establishment when you’re about to crush someone, sort of like denying a prisoner sentenced to the chair his last meal. I am actually under the impression that I already ended the relationship several times, explaining that we want different things and have nothing in common at all (she wants to marry and have children, relishes in attending parties and going to the theatre, and dreams of buying a submarine to see the world; while marriage is the furthest thing from my mind, I loath children, abhor parties and detest actors, and think that using a submersible to see the world makes no sense at all). Nonetheless, she keeps sending glasses of water with invitations to new dates hand-printed on tiny sponges—the fact that we’re not together anymore doesn’t seem to sink in. Or have I only rejected her silently in my mind? Possibly. I loath her. I’m not too fond of myself either. Perhaps I should get ready.
I carefully get up and waddle on my haunches like a duckling to a large steamer trunk. I lift the heavy lid and use a piece of celery to wedge the damn thing open. Carefully, I stick my arm into the darkness of the trunk and select an outfit on feel. This is a dangerous thing to do, but karma is with me today: I pull out my best purple trousers, a relatively matching pine-green blazer, and my least rusty chainmail shirt. I can’t find any socks, so I finally wrap my pale feet in paper bags from the greengrocer’s. When I step into my koala fur slippers and crumble the paper into fringes, it doesn’t even look half bad. While admiring myself in the dark window—I might not like people, but if I am to join the bustling of the world, I want to look my best—I hear a message flying my way. I jump toward the window to quickly shut it, but I trip over something and fall face down onto the thankfully quite soft, almost boggy parquet. The scaffolding doesn’t move an inch, but I can sense it’s ashamed. Between my feet I find the cause of my plunge: a small house painter, dead in bloody overalls. I feed my scaffolding sufficiently, but it brings home its prey nonetheless. I keep finding Lilliputian painters, welders, glaziers and the like, offered like frankincense to a mighty god.
Because of my fall, I fail to close the window in time. The message enters my room through the small ventilation crack and crashes into the walls, disintegrating into piercing word shards:
I’M GOING TO STRANGLE YOU, MOTHERFUCKER. I WILL SHIT IN YOUR LUNGS AND SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE!
My god, how dull. Another death threat from my doppelganger, he can’t help himself. We may be physically indistinguishable but he is a lot less refined and gebildet than I am. He works as a sparrow butcher at city hall and lives in a supermarket. Bizarrely, he is utterly convinced that I am the double and he the original—preposterous, of course. I am the one who was struck with and almost died of Möbiusfever all those years back, and my wallet contains all the proper paper work. It doesn’t matter that he has memories of being born as twins, memories can be grown like plants—give them enough attention and time out in the open, and they will flourish whether they deserve it or not. He has an awful temper and blames me for all that goes wrong in his life. Is it my fault that his status prevents him from obtaining better employment or housing? He shouldn’t complain, it’s unbecoming and thankless. He’s fed in the soup kitchens, has unlimited access to public parks and squares, and at least doesn’t have to share his flat with a troupe of Slavic clowns and tightrope-dancers! Still he envies me and thinks that a solution is to send me these threat clangs almost every week. They find me wherever I go. Once even while Ada and I were strolling along the river to attend the singing of the bridges. Ada had been looking forward to it for months, and then that vulgar, abusive message found me…
Ada! Fuck. Now I’ll be late, thanks ‘brother.’ Even though I wish, deeply wish to have nothing to do with the woman ever again, I will not make her wait. As long as she thinks we are in some kind of relationship (albeit a strangely detached, even frigid one), I will play the part. Precious seconds are spent selecting the perfect perfume hamster, which I stuff down the front of my pants, carefully locking it in the small cage that cups my manhood. I quickly throw an old curtain over the scaffolding—who knows what grandmother Russia gets up to when I’m not here—and jump out the window to meet the woman who is, apparently, appallingly still my lover.