FROM SPORT 40, NEW ZEALAND, CONTEMPORARY WRITING IN GERMAN, 2012
Translated by Ross Benjamin
Death Valley, Disneyland, Death Valley
Bodenschatz gets ready. He straightens his collar and tightens his tie, he breathes in, he looks through the tasteless glass door, then he pushes the handle, but there’s no one outside. Bodenschatz hears the squeak of the garden gate. Behind the fir trees, he calls, behind the fir trees. Bodenschatz stands on the porch of his parents’ house and waits. Bodenschatz looks around, the colourful stained-glass window, the dream catcher, the withered desert lilies. A nameplate made of forty-year-old modeling dough hangs on the doorpost, The Bodenschatz Family. Andreas Bodenschatz. Martina Bodenschatz. Kathrin. Niklas. Thea. Next to it rolled-up carpets and his father’s last cardboard boxes, Helmut Klein Movers, Aloys Priller Moving Company, Krax Shipping. Bodenschatz isn’t expecting anyone, the boxes are supposed to be picked up on Friday and brought to the nursing home where his father now resides. ‘Sonnenfeld Senior Residence’, Bodenschatz thinks, he thinks ‘the hills of the Sauerland’, ‘mother earth’, and ‘father death’. Bodenschatz kicks a brown carpet. Bodenschatz wonders how things will go on. No one can be seen, but the footsteps are approaching. Bodenschatz notices an unease in his shoes, he senses an indignation in his heart, a sober anger. Bodenschatz pulls the key out of the lock and walks toward the footsteps.
After his father was admitted, he immediately began to pack. There’s agreement on all sides that his father will not return. Bodenschatz has disposed of almost everything, what remains will be divided. Bodenschatz set the price and advertised the house, he doesn’t want to deal with the repairs, the poorly designed interiors bore him. There are potential buyers, the money will be split three ways. The older sister gets the books, the tarnished silver and their father’s small car, the younger sister isn’t interested in anything. She calls from Bremen, she’s currently breaking off from her second husband and his children, she doesn’t have any time right now, let alone any money. People can’t love each other, she says on the telephone, people can’t love each other when they don’t have any money. Each of us gets 33.3 percent, Bodenschatz replied. He doesn’t want anything but his father’s flat cherry-wood Recamier, he wants to pack it up, he wants to go home, he wants to live his life as planned.
On the path next to the firs stands a sort of mailman in uniform, a package in one hand, a clipboard in the other. Bodenschatz? The uniformed man holds the clipboard out to him. Yes, says Bodenschatz. Sign here, says the man. For me? asks Bodenschatz, signing. From whom? See for yourself, says the uniformed man, turns around and leaves. His footsteps sound oddly soft on the gravel. Bodenschatz watches the uniform go past the rhododendron, the holly, the dogwood shrubs, through the garden gate and onto Horbacher Strasse. The squeak of the garden gate seems to Bodenschatz much too loud. He weighs the package in his hand, sender: Gilman’s Electronics & Appliances, recipient: Niklas Bodenschatz.
Bodenschatz favours symmetry and duality. For every entrance, Bodenschatz declares to his students at the start of each semester, there must be an exit. Now Bodenschatz is standing with a strangely heavy package in the living room of his parents’ house and wondering how the uniformed man knows his whereabouts. Bodenschatz shakes the package. Nothing. He dials his older sister’s number. How does she know he’s here today, in this place at this time? asks Bodenschatz, but his sister can’t help him, Bodenschatz hangs up abruptly, still holding the package, the address in ballpoint pen on brown packing paper. The postmark: August 14, 2009. Bodenschatz locks up his parents’ house and walks down the path to his Volkswagen.
Bodenschatz has taken two days off, he packed his computer and a sketchpad, he got a room at the Donner Inn on the church square. The innkeeper recognised him immediately. Niklas, he said, it’s a pleasure, your mother’s eyes, the rest just like your father, a special room for the son of old Bodenschatz! He gets a room with a view of the church in which he was an altar boy. Bodenschatz unpacks, he lays two shirts on the bed, one on the right, one on the left. The package lies unopened between them. Bodenschatz stares at the room’s wallpaper, a revolting yellow, an insane yellow. Bodenschatz wonders what could be in the package. He takes his old hiking boots out of the bag, he looks inside them, he scrapes a little dirt out of the tread. He imagines himself hiking, he imagines forest paths, pine tree trunks, mossy ground and hunting stands. Bodenschatz hasn’t been on a mountain summit for twenty years, he wonders how his birthplace looks from above, and whether he will like the view.
At the inn Bodenschatz orders Warsteiner and reads the Westphalia Post. He drinks faster than expected, Bodenschatz feels dehydrated, the innkeeper sets the third glass next to his plate of venison goulash. Bodenschatz inquires about the tower on the mountain and the view and the demography of the village. He lists the names he remembers: Rettler, Kappel, König, he asks about the People’s Bank, the Savings Bank, the youth center, the sledding slope down to the reservoir, Bodenschatz asks about the best way up the mountain, and does the innkeeper know the story of the twins who leaped together to their death? The innkeeper brings the fourth beer. This village is almost gone, he says, Kyrill blew down the fir plantations on the eastern slope, the hurricane killed all the wild boars in the pig park, there’s nothing left to see there. Kyrill, says the innkeeper, wiped everything out.
Bodenschatz opens the window of his room: the blue hour with ravens, the church like a paper cutout in the twilight. Bodenschatz breathes in and opens the package, the packing paper rustles much too loudly in the empty hotel room, the ravens in the trees watch Bodenschatz. In the packing paper: a box, in the box: a light blue plastic case with a few reels of film. A letter. A number of DVDs. Super 8, Bodenschatz thinks, with Super 8 my father archived his memory. Disneyland. Acapulco. Death Valley. 1976. Bodenschatz tries to remember. Disneyland? Bodenschatz has an uncertain feeling in his forehead. He must have been five years old at the time. Bodenschatz takes the reel out of the box and holds the filmstrip into the twilight, but he can’t make out anything. Then he orders a bottle of pinot noir.
Bodenschatz stands in the darkness at the window, the ravens are still cawing, the wine is open. He has taken an ice-cold shower and shaved. He has turned off his phone. On television is Blade Runner, Rosamunde Pilcher, a talk show. Bodenschatz tightens the belt of the bathrobe and flops down onto the bed, he piles the pillows behind his back, he opens the letter. ‘Per your order we have performed the conversion. We thank you for the prepayment.’ Order? Prepayment? Bodenschatz flips open his computer and inserts the DVD. He feels a slight ache just above his nose, a slight pre-test anxiety. Bodenschatz never made any order and definitely never paid any bill.
The screen flickers, the room glows pale red. A hotel, a beach from above, palm trees, then dark water in Super 8, a red and yellow sun hat. Bodenschatz recognises his father by his mustache and his mother by her black and white bathing suit. Bodenschatz remembers his own red and yellow sun hat, he remembers Acapulco 1976, the family on a great journey, the family on a ship with a glass bottom, his mother at the light blue railing, Kathrin and Thea and Niklas watch the cliff divers, the underwater world, the cliff divers again, the underwater world again, the sea pounds the rocks, dark lifeguards drift in narrow rowboats on the water and wait for an emergency, the cliff divers arch their backs, spread their arms, cormorants in slow motion, guano on the rocks, his father with deep sea fishing rod and sunglasses, a tuna on the hook, Niklas Bodenschatz with blond hair and life preserver gazes at the ship’s screw, a swordfish on the hook, the Johnson outboard, later the three children Thea Niklas Kathrin in water wings, and Niklas jumps in slow motion off the diving board, his mother a young woman at the poolside, his father remains behind the camera. The shimmer of the swimming pool in Super 8 brings tears to Bodenschatz’s eyes.
Disneyland. 1976. His mother and the children on the monorail, they walk through a Wild West town, across the hanging bridge, papier-mâché rocks, the oleander, the green water. Bodenschatz sees himself from above and remembers his father with the camera, Nik, Nik, over here! Bodenschatz hears him calling, and Niklas Bodenschatz, six years old, Niklas in his checked shirt and red and yellow sun hat, Niklas with light blond hair, Niklas in 1976 looks up at his father and waves to the camera. His mother laughs, a carousel with wooden horses, his mother laughs, his father films himself at full speed in the mirror of the ride, Niklas drinks soda from a red paper cup with yellow writing on it, his mother kisses his father behind the camera, Niklas at the dolphin pool, a chimpanzee in red overalls rides a bicycle, Niklas claps, the family later in a lunar landscape, colourful surging geysers and one or two robots, the future in Super 8, cotton candy, Disneyland, how people imagined the future in those days.
Bodenschatz holds his breath. He could give thanks for these memories, but he doesn’t know to whom. He wonders whom he should call. He spills some wine. The ravens are silent, tasteless music penetrates from the bar. Memory has dull colors, Bodenschatz thinks, changing the DVD, memory blurs easily, memory goes by a little faster than the present. Bodenschatz feels safe.
Then Death Valley, then Peru. Niklas in shirtsleeves amid cacti, tumbleweeds, his father with a thermos, his mother embraces him from behind, tanned Indians in ill-fitting outfits, his mother embraces Kathrin and Niklas, his father with a clay pipe, Indians with gigantic noses, Indians with pockmarks, Niklas drinks from a cup and screws up his face. Then a cut. An airplane and frightening cloud towers. A German city, Munich or Göttingen, a high rise, a bird’s nest on the balcony, Niklas on his 21st birthday, he remembers this, an embarrassing bouquet in front of everyone, Bodenschatz remembers the lions at the entrance to the park, If you say run, I’ll run with you, if you say hide, we’ll hide, Thea and her first husband, a beer garden, Niklas’s footsteps on beer garden gravel, his father’s footsteps behind him, his camera commands, Bodenschatz remembers, his mother with the bouquet, Kathrin, Thea, pretzel and beer, then Berlin Savignyplatz, Niklas suddenly in his mid-twenties and with a university degree, his father with the camera, the picture shakes, Bodenschatz takes another sip, the son asks for a light and gets a light, father and son smoke, the son suddenly has a doctorate, the parents on a visit, the laughter in front of the camera and the memory of the laughter behind it, the son blows smoke in front of the lens, the picture for a second gray and out of focus. Then his mother’s sickroom, the red room in Super 8, Thea’s first daughter and the dying mother are smiling, that was 2003, the little girl gives her grandma a stuffed rabbit to combat loneliness. Then just his mother, with slightly open eyes and slightly pinched face, someone brushes her hair from her forehead. Bodenschatz suddenly realises that he’s watching his mother’s death on a DVD. He can’t remember anyone filming his mother dying, he finds his father tasteless. Bodenschatz quit smoking ten years ago, but at the sight of these images he would like to smoke a cigarette, he reflects, he needs a cigarette now. Bodenschatz presses the stop button and reaches for the telephone, but no one answers at reception. Bodenschatz puts on his hiking boots and then stands in the stairwell, slightly drunk and unexpectedly shaken, a man in his late thirties wearing a bathrobe and coarse boots in a Sauerland inn.
Bodenschatz searches for cigarettes. No one can be found in the whole hotel, not at reception, not in the kitchen, not in the cellar, not in the cold storage room. Bodenschatz knocks on a door with the sign Private—nothing, Bodenschatz knocks at a few rooms—nothing, Bodenschatz pounds on a cigarette machine—nothing. Only the cat creeps around his bare legs, inexplicable music is playing far away. Bodenschatz suddenly feels afraid and tries various rational explanations: his sister had their father’s old films digitised. His father filmed so as to remember the woman with whom he spent his life, in good times as in bad. Formats supersede one another and disappear, first Daguerre, then the Lumière brothers, then Eisenstein, then Hollywood, then Super 8, then VHS, then MiniDV. Nothing helps. Bodenschatz wants to know how things will go on.
The lightbulb in the room flickers and goes out, Bodenschatz gropes in the dark for his computer on the bed. He takes a sip from the bottle, because he can’t find the glasses, the ravens can now be heard again. In the sky something is glowing like the northern lights, an impossibility, Bodenschatz thinks, a pure impossibility. Bodenschatz presses start: he sees his own wedding at the Freiburg marriage bureau, his blue tie and Verena’s blue dress, Lake Scenery with Pocahontas, his father in the same suit as at his mother’s funeral, Bodenschatz notices that, Verena’s bulging belly, Verena’s bulging belly on an Alpine pass, in the background mouflons or mountain sheep with curved horns, Verena in a bikini on Lake Como, Verena eats an apple on a street in Rome, 2007, Verena in an open tour bus, Verena is speaking Italian, sights, Vatican and so on.
Who’s filming here? Bodenschatz wonders, and why in Super 8? Why in that format? Bodenschatz knows that he didn’t have a camera with him in Rome. Bodenschatz sees himself in a bar at the port of Brindisi: he turns to the camera, his cell phone falls off the counter and bursts into pieces, then he’s standing in a wood-paneled telephone booth, Bodenschatz suddenly remembers the smell of the booth, he remembers the birth of his son Andreas in the Freiburg University Medical Center, on the way back from Italy and two months premature, he sees Verena and Andreas in front of the hospital. Bodenschatz stares at the screen. He senses what’s coming: he sees himself standing in front of a coffin and knows that he is now carrying his father to his grave, he sees Thea’s tears, he sees his children’s tears in Super 8, he sees himself weeping. Bodenschatz sees something that he cannot see. Bodenschatz in 2009 doesn’t understand the world anymore, the cat scratches at the door of his room.
What you begin, Bodenschatz says into the empty room, will probably end, for every entrance an exit. He says it because he wants to believe in it. Bodenschatz lets the cat in, the film keeps going, the Remberg cemetery in January 2010, then Berlin again, Bodenschatz and Andreas are playing basketball, Bodenschatz can still win, Verena helps Daniela with her homework, Andreas with his first real report card, Daniela and her first lipstick. Andreas breaks his leg. Verena at the pediatrician, Verena at the gynaecologist, Verena at the orthopedist. Then Death Valley. 2012. Or Mexico. 2013. Or Berlin. 2014. The world looks dry. Then it’s snowing. Welcome Rolling River Reservation #67, Niklas and Daniela in a red pickup truck, the children are asleep on the back seat, gray clouds, Indians in denim outfits, liquor out of water glasses, then desert again and a Chevy again, Zabriskie Point 2015, the water of the pools, wooden houses, wooden wagon wheels, a car cemetery from the last century, the children play in the car wrecks, Bodenschatz at the wheel of a rusty Volkswagen, 2002 model, then Switzerland again, the switchbacks of the San Bernardino, on a wooden table sandwich paper and thermoses. Verena is standing too close to the edge of the mountain pass road. 2017.
Then high school graduation 2018: his son Andreas, sparse facial hair, Bodenschatz sees the professional basketball career of which he himself always dreamed, he sees himself in the stands, he knows his son’s stats by heart, Bodenschatz is proud, Bodenschatz and Andreas at the 2028 Olympic Games, but his daughter Daniela is the first to get married, a row house, and suddenly Verena dies. Bodenschatz in the hotel room weeps, because he suddenly knows that Verena will die. Next comes Bodenschatz’s outrage at the 2017 Mediterranean War, his bitter grimaces, his political disenchantment, he watches the wiping out of Cairo and for a short time worries about his colleague Hamed, whom he hasn’t seen for years. Then Bodenschatz is bald, Bodenschatz with tubes in his knee, Bodenschatz with hiking boots and hiking stick, something like despair in his eyes, Bodenschatz in a canoe on the Ruhr, Bodenschatz with his next wife, Kristin perhaps. Then Disneyland once again, Snow White and the seven dwarves, the whole family with cartoon characters, none of which he recognises, Bodenschatz an old man, Bodenschatz now laughs at Mickey Mouse, a second childhood, Bodenschatz buys his grandson cotton candy, soda. His next wife dies slowly of cancer, but not slowly enough, and Bodenschatz’s tears are still for Verena, he hopes to see her again some day, but he isn’t sure, he weeps over this uncertainty. Bodenschatz starts having panic attacks, his daughter-in-law, a psychiatrist, prescribes him Cipralex or a successor product, Bodenschatz feels better, Bodenschatz feels worse, Bodenschatz gets older than expected, he contemplates the rain in the puddles and the sun on the unwashed window. Bodenschatz suddenly knows that he will drink too much on his 103rd birthday. He even knows what. Then it seems over, Bodenschatz is dead. His granddaughter plays piano at his funeral, the inheritance is divided among the three grandchildren. Bodenschatz’s son takes over, things are going well for a while, then he dies of a heart condition, the grandchildren don’t work much, there’s nothing to do, most things are virtual or fictional or immaterial, the name Bodenschatz gets lost, sparrows die out, a priest promises the world, telephones steadily shrink, someone becomes famous, facial hair becomes a sign of affluence, someone dies unknown, telephones grow steadily bigger, the stars lose all romance, cancer is treatable, a warlord rules the world, then an eco-activist, then a company, then another, gasoline becomes scarce, but no one needs gasoline anymore, people are living in ruins, gasoline no longer matters to anyone, people are living in palaces, everything turns out well, everything ends in a catastrophe, someone goes to Disneyland, to Death Valley, to Disneyland, Bodenschatz suddenly has this knowledge, knowledge of the past and tomorrow, the sense that everything always keeps going, that the chain never breaks, that mosses will grow and vines and burrs, everywhere. And Bodenschatz—in the Sauerland hotel room—weeps for himself, Bodenschatz laughs for all the living, Bodenschatz weeps for all the dead, and then everywhere there is music. Or flames. Or water. Or stone.
© Thomas Pletzinger, 2010. First published in Deutschland 2089, ed. K. Agathos, btb Verlag, 2010.
English translation © Ross Benjamin, 2012.