Jesse says, “I was born in Hamburg and raised in Lübeck, Germany. After stays in the US and France, I moved to Berlin in the early nineties, where I still live with my three children. My stories, as well as my translation of Donald Barthelme’s Sentence, were published in American, Russian, Indian, German, Swiss, Irish, British and Canadian magazines and anthologies. I hold an MFA in Creative Writing from Sierra Nevada College.”
Care, Responsibility, Respect, Knowledge
by Jesse Falzoi
for Tamás Matkó
He was at the second apartment around noon. His first cleaning job had been at a private place on Schönhauser Allee, with a piano, so he’d stayed longer than planned. But there was plenty of time; the new guests weren’t coming before three thirty. And the former ones had left the place in a good shape: at least the kitchen/living-room looked immaculate. It was funny really; they paid for cleaning service but felt obliged to do it themselves—these must have wiped the floor even! Karl checked the bathroom: clean and shiny too. He could as well lie down on the sofa, watch TV, doze off a bit.
The fridge was filled to the brim; he took out an unopened packet of eggs, a piece of bacon, orange juice. He put the frying pan on the stove and reached for an egg, absentmindedly gazing at the metal-colored fridge that mirrored a girl who was observing him. He turned around and dropped the egg; she was standing in the doorway to the bedroom, dressed in a Barbie nightgown. “What the fuck?”
She stood there like a statue. Not a girl anymore, he’d say, with these large boobs and the face of a woman. A mongoloid! He said, “What are you doing here?”
She held up her nightgown.
“Holy fuck. Did you wet the bed?” He walked past her, into the bedroom she’d come from, and felt the mattress. “Shit.” He pulled down the blanket, the sheets, everything. There was a huge stain; even if he cleaned it with all the soap he had here and turned the mattress around, it would probably smell of urine. He ran to the bathroom to get Chlorox, and the girl was still standing there with her hand pressed to her crotch, but he would deal with it later, now the main thing was the mattress. There was plenty of time, he tried to calm himself down, plenty of time.
He opened the window, poured half of the bottle over the stain, rubbed until his hands hurt. Then he picked up the linen and carried it past the intruder, suppressing the urge to push her nose in, like he’d seen a friend teaching his Labrador puppy a lesson. “See what you’ve done? Didn’t they give you a nappy?”
The girl smiled and then pulled the nightgown over her head. Beneath, she was naked! “Oh my God,” Karl said but the girl continued to smile and passed him the crumpled cloth. “Don’t,” he said, then shrugged, then headed on to stuff everything into the washing machine. The girl followed him to the bathroom and grabbed a wash cloth and climbed into the bathtub.
“Hey,” Karl said. “Get out of there.”
She turned on the water. He turned it off again. “Listen. I don’t know what you’re doing here but we need to get you out. What’s your name?”
Call the police. Call the police right now! They’ll know what to do. But then they’d find out about Airbnb, right? This could get the boss into serious shit. The boss and him, if they came to ask why he’d been cleaning here in the first place. He couldn’t risk it. “Did they leave you here? Did mommy forget to take you with her? Or daddy?” What kind of parents would do that, even to a downie? They must have gotten used to her by now.
She turned the water on, drenched the washcloth, and held it up to Karl. “No fucking way,” he said. He ran to the kitchen/living-room and grabbed his cell phone. Why should he deal with it? He was just the fucking cleaner, let the boss do it. The boss didn’t answer. “Answer your fucking phone,” Karl yelled when the mailbox turned on. “I’m in real trouble here. Call me back ASAP, do you understand? Holy shit.” He tossed his cell onto the sofa and returned to the bathroom. The downie was still sitting in the bathtub, holding up the cloth. He’d just read in some news online that one of them was starting a teaching career, they couldn’t be that stupid. “Didn’t they show you how to do it? Hey, really.” He took the washcloth, put soap on it, pressed it into her hand. “Up and down, see?” He showed her the movements on his clothes, but she didn’t get it. She sat there shivering, accusingly pointing the dripping washcloth at him.
“Okay,” he said. “We’ll do it together.” He reached for her hand, pulled the washcloth over it, started with the legs. “What am I doing here? What am I fucking doing here?” He led the cloth over her hips and her stomach. He turned the water off and said, “That’s enough now. Out!”
She stood up, looked at him with her thin arms slung around her shivering body, waited.
He grabbed a huge towel and put it around her. She still didn’t move so he started rubbing her. “It’s a dream,” he said. “This all is just a fucking nightmare, I’ll wake up in a minute and have a good laugh.”
She dropped the towel and walked to the bedroom where she positioned herself next to the chair on which there were clothes, hers obviously. Someone must have put them there, they were neatly folded, washed even, he could smell the softener, fortunately also on the underwear similar to the ones his six-year-old niece wore. “Your parents did a lousy job. It’s what parents do, teach their kids how to get dressed.” He unfolded the undershirt. “You do have a mommy, do you? A daddy? Where are they?”
She raised her arms. If not for her breasts and the face, she could go for six as well. Maybe she was a midget too. Was that even possible? Weren’t both genetic diseases? Fucking unfair, he’d say. He pulled the undershirt down her body, keeping away as far as possible from her skin, and then reached for the underpants and held them up to her. “Come on. It’s not that difficult.”
She sat down on the chair, dangled her legs. “Halleluiah,” Karl said. “A dream. Just a fucking dream.” His gaze fixed to a Chagall print—identical to the one his grandmother had in her room at the old age home—he pulled the underpants over her feet, her legs, and when she’d jumped up again, over her hips. “Is that the way you do it at home?” He unfolded the sweater: Paddington Bear sitting on a leather suitcase. And that pathetic note around his neck: Please look after this bear.
Karl finished dressing her, tied her shoelaces, led her along the hall. “Listen, I can’t keep you here.” He opened the door. “I’m sorry.” He wanted to pull her out of the apartment but she pressed her back to the wall and it was as if she was glued to it, he couldn’t drag her away. He didn’t use full strength of course, but he clearly signaled to her that he wanted her out, so why the hell wouldn’t she listen?
He closed the door again. There was this chick he was seeing from time to time. Girls do this instinctively. Maternal stuff etc. They liked taking care of others. Because he fucking didn’t. He left the stubborn visitor where she was, called the chick who was visibly irritated and brusquely answered, no, she was at university, couldn’t possibly leave now, what about meeting for a couple of beers next weekend?
He looked at the other girl who had silently slipped into the kitchen/living-room and sat at the table now. “Don’t move! Don’t you fucking move until I figure out what to do.” He sat down next to her, studied her face. “Do you understand me?” He’d thought that they were able to speak. Not in the proper way of course, but they should be able to utter some sounds, shouldn’t they?
“You’re German, aren’t you?” How could she possibly not speak? She didn’t look like those who were totally messed-up. It was just the eyes really, the rest was pretty in a way. Like if she closed them you wouldn’t even notice. “Svenska?” He rattled through all the foreign words he knew, observing her closely. When he came to French, her whole face turned into a smile. “Comment t’appelle-tu? Moi, je suis Karl. Comme Charles, n’est-ce pas?”
She started to laugh. How can that be that they suddenly become so happy about nothing? He fetched his cell to Google “Down syndrome”. So it was normal to be tiny, average IQ 50, identifiable during pregnancy. Why the hell didn’t they get rid of her then instead of leaving her in this fucking apartment when it was his fucking turn to clean it? “How old are you?” He held up his hands and said, “I’m thirty-three.” He opened and closed them three times, then held up three fingers. “Thirty-three. What about you?”
She laughed again.
“Didn’t you learn that in kindergarten?” He reached for her wrists, raised her hands, said, “Ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen.” She was still looking at him with that radiant smile, her shining strange eyes, as if he were the magician that mommy had invited to her birthday party. “Twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty-six?” Still no reaction. “Ninety-seven, ninety-eight, ninety-nine, hundred?”
The tiny hands suddenly showed a life of their own, she pulled them away and clapped. “A hundred? Nobody gets a hundred, you’d be fucking dead now.” He returned to Wikipedia. Some lost the ability to speak at the age of 30. He looked at her face again. Maybe that’s what happened. But she should at least understand him, it was written here. “What am I supposed to do with you?”
She turned her head. Karl followed her gaze. “You’re hungry?” He reached for the cereal package. “It’s empty. That’s the only thing your parents forgot to buy.” He stood up and opened the fridge. “Listen, I’ll cook us something and afterward I’ll bring you to the police. They’ll find mommy and daddy. They’re experts in finding people.”
But first he had to clean up the egg he’d dropped and he also had to think of making the bed, really, what would the guests say if they came here and first thing they saw was that gigantic stain of piss. It wasn’t anymore, of course, but that’s what comes to your mind when you see a stain on a mattress, right? He turned around. Would she do it again? “Hey,” he said, “Do you need to go to the bathroom?” Maybe they went more often than normal people, but why wasn’t she wearing diapers then? He took the girl by the hand. “First wee-wee, then din-din.” He laughed out loud. “What the fuck am I saying?”
The girl’s hand was warm and delicate, holding on to him as if he was her fucking daddy. What would she do if he was one of the bad guys? Would she follow him around as well? What if he took her to the bedroom instead? Would she even try to fight him off? There were enough perverts out there, maybe they’d find it extra exciting.
“Come on,” he said, pulling her to the bathroom. He shoved her inside, closed the door from the outside, went back to the kitchen, and finally cleaned up the floor. Then he lit the stove, poured oil into the pan, fried the bacon, cracked the other eggs. When the pan was steaming on the table, he returned to the bathroom. “You’re done?” He waited, then said, “Lunch is ready.” He waited, then carefully opened the door: the girl was standing right behind it. “What’s the matter?” He stepped inside and pointed to the toilet. “Don’t tell me that you don’t know how to do this? What the fuck did they teach you?”
She stepped forward.
“You want me to stay here? All right. But hurry up now. Our food will be cold soon. I hate cold eggs.”
The girl didn’t move.
“Holy shit,” he said, opening the lid. Then he pulled up her skirt, pulled down her underpants, sat her on the toilet seat. “Quick now.” He listened to her pee, unrolled some toilet paper, pressed it into her tiny hand. “Either you do it or we leave that part out.” He waited for a few seconds, then took her off the seat and pulled up her underpants. “They didn’t have toilet paper in the middle ages. You won’t die.”
She followed him to the table and sat down. He filled her plate and then he filled his own plate and said, “Bon appétit.” He greedily shoved the now cold egg into his mouth while she continued watching him. “You don’t like it? You don’t like eggs? I don’t believe it.” He took her fork, picked up a bit, held it up to her. “Yummy.”
She obediently opened her mouth, chewed, and swallowed. Can that be true? Do you have to feed them? Will they be like that until the day they die? The doctors surely must have warned her parents, how could they do that to themselves voluntarily? He grabbed his plate, sat down next to her, took turns shoving the fork into his or her mouth. When they were done, he reached for a paper napkin and wiped her face. “What about dessert? Let’s have a look what’s in here.”
There was yoghurt and ice-cream. He put both on the table and said, “What would you like?” He opened the yoghurt, she didn’t object, he fed her, she finished. “Okay, then I’ll take the ice-cream.” Her eyes followed his every movement. “You wanna have a try?” This time she opened her mouth double and she opened it again before he’d even had the chance to refill the spoon. “How can such a tiny person eat so much? Where does it go?” He fed her until she leaned back in her chair and he wiped her mouth again and the clock said that they had one hour and a half. He browsed over the last paragraphs on his smartphone: 92% went for an abortion.
“Stay here,” he said. “I have to work now.” So this was the plan: he would get everything ready, take her to the nearest police station, come back, hand over the key, and charge his boss fucking double. He went to the bedroom and felt the mattress: it was far from dry, but if he turned it around it would do. Most important, that reek of piss had gone. He opened the dresser where the bed linen was stored. It was empty. “Shit. Really, this fucking arsehole.” He called his boss again, let off steam on the mailbox, browsed through his contacts. Whom could he call for help? What could he say? “Get that downie out of here? Bring fresh blankets? Pinch me, make me wake up from this fucking nightmare?”
There wasn’t enough time to take the subway to Alexanderplatz. He couldn’t think of any nearer place and wouldn’t he hate to spend his last money on fucking sheets? The other apartment, the one where he’d played the piano this morning, they had plenty of linen, a whole antique chest full of it. And the place was ten minutes away.
“All right,” he said to the girl. “You stay here. I’ll soon be back. Don’t touch anything, okay?” He grabbed his coat. “Don’t fucking move.”
The girl stood up and reached for his hand.
“No,” he said.
Again she suddenly developed an incredible force. He wasn’t able to retrieve his hand, at least not without hurting her. “I warn you, we’ll have to run. This is no happy after-school stroll, do you understand?” He dragged her out of the apartment, down the stairs, along Kastanienallee. He pulled his hood over his head and said, “Aren’t you cold?” She was just wearing her short skirt and that pathetic Paddington Bear sweater. He sighed and took off his coat. It was much too big for her, nearly reached her feet, but at least she’d stopped shivering. “Your parents should go to prison for this, really.” He pulled up the zipper and said, “Mommy and daddy are very, very mean. How could they leave you alone?”
Or maybe they didn’t. Maybe something happened to them. But what? Where? In the apartment? Let’s assume, let’s just assume that they were murdered, a) wouldn’t there have been at least a trace of a fight? Blood? And b) why would somebody break in and murder them? There was nothing in that place except for furniture and a TV. Which was still there. It made no sense. So they must have left the apartment, maybe to go shopping. And then? Why didn’t they return? People don’t get abducted here. It was their last day, they had to leave, the only possible answer was that they forgot her here, really, how can you forget your fucking child?
He pulled her into the house that he’d left only a couple of hours ago, and how he’d left it, in such good spirits after playing the piano for at least an hour, he hadn’t touched one since he came to Berlin, how could that be anyway, he needed to find somebody with a piano, he didn’t realize how much he was missing it. He pulled her up the stairs and into the apartment and only then did she loosen her iron grip.
“Stay here.” He hurried to the bedroom, opened the chest, reached for two sets of linen, a couple of sheets. There was no bag here, so he went to the kitchen to get one and when he returned, the girl had disappeared, there was just his coat lying on the floor. “Hey,” he cried out, “where the fuck are you?” He searched in the children’s room first, then in the dining room, then in the living-room and there she was, sitting in front of the piano. “We’re done here. Let’s go.”
She raised her hands and let them fall on the keys with all force.
“Hey!” He tried to lift her from the chair but she’d locked her feet around the legs. “Do you want to have a beating? You’re a nasty child, aren’t you?”
She raised her hands again, only now she didn’t attack the keys, but slowly led her index finger from left to right.
He held her by the wrists and said, “Okay, I’ll show you how it’s done and then we go, all right?”
After a while she untangled her feet and allowed him to lift her. When he sat down on the chair, she climbed onto his lap. “No,” he said, trying to get rid of her but she quickly locked her feet around his own legs now. “You’re really something, aren’t you? Must have driven your parents insane, that’s why they’re not here anymore. Surely they had to be taken to the loony bin.”
He touched the keys. “So what is it you wanna hear?” Wasn’t Mozart good for kids? Something light anyhow, not too depressive, he remembered Wikipedia mentioning a tendency toward depression. No surprise really. He started playing sonata No. 13, which seemed to please the little brat enormously. She swayed back and forth on his lap—arhythmically of course, he had trouble staying in rhythm himself—and started humming—so she was able to produce sounds! Then she put her hands on his and strangely enough he was able to continue playing.
Like a kid she was, really, he felt her warm body, maybe it wasn’t so bad in the end, maybe you get used to anything after a while, maybe you begin to accept the weirdest things, like having a downie who can’t talk and doesn’t even know how to use fucking toilet paper. “That’s Mozart. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Ever heard of him?”
She leaned her head against his chest and sighed.
“You like that, don’t you?” He played the Turkish March next, which made her jump up and down on his lap, then he abruptly stopped and slid from the seat, and this time he’d surprised her, it was too late to lock her feet around anything. He pulled her to the hall, wrapped her up in his coat, and took her back to the apartment, where the clock above the sink was threateningly ticking and the bed was still unmade.
“I’ll tidy up here, you watch TV, all right?” He made her sit down on the sofa and browsed through the channels until he found a cartoon. Then he put the clean sheets on the bed, unloaded the washing machine, cleared the table, noticed a pen, a pen and a notepad. Of course, that’s how they did it: when she wasn’t able to speak anymore they made her write it down. He went to the sofa, sat next to her, put the pen and the notepad on the coffee table. “Look,” he said, “Maybe we won’t have to go to the police after all.” What could they do really? They didn’t have downie experts there. He reached for the pen, wrote down his cell number. “That’s how you can reach me.” Then he gently put the pen between her thumb and index finger. “Now it’s your turn.” He held her hand over the notepad. He waited. Finally he felt a movement. It was clearly her, he wasn’t doing anything. Maybe they had at least thought of that, teach her to remember a fucking cell number, to make her memorize it, so that someone could at least fucking call them. Once he’d run into a little boy at the grocer’s, he was crying, had lost his mother, on Christmas Eve, when everybody thought of shopping like five minutes before closing time, but this boy at least knew his mother’s number, it was amazing really, he rattled it down like a poem. “Let’s call mommy and daddy, okay?” How could he have been so stupid, he’d read that they all went to a normal school nowadays, they were mixed with normal pupils, weren’t they? They taught them how to write, that’s what schools are for, teach them kids to write, doesn’t matter if they’re normal or a downie or have to sit in a fucking wheelchair.
He made his hand light as a feather, closed his eyes, stopped breathing: He felt her hand going up and down, left and right. “Go on. You’re doing fine.” He waited until she stopped moving and then opened his eyes again. She’d drawn the sun. And the moon. And the stars. “I wonder who will pick up if I dial that,” Karl said.
She looked at him. If it weren’t for the eyes, really, he wouldn’t be able to tell. And it was not that he didn’t like them. Fucking honest eyes, he’d say. Like, these eyes wouldn’t tell no lie to nobody. A little sad maybe, but with that smile on her face, who knows. He gently pulled the pen out of her right hand, reached for the piece of paper, discovered the word in the upper left corner. It was hardly decipherable but eventually he was sure that it couldn’t mean anything but LEYLA. “Is that your name? Leyla? Gosh, that’s beautiful. Are you an Arabic princess?” Of course not, with that fair hair. “So what is your father the sheikh paying when I return you? A million? Two million?” She laughed and he said, “Five million euros? Wouldn’t that be awesome, Leyla?” He looked her in the eye and smiled. “So that’ll be my last cleaning job I assume. Let me finish it properly then.”
Without a warning she threw her arms around his neck. He stopped breathing, his heart pounded against his chest. Her arms hung on to his neck, and the only thing he could do was put his arms around her too and they sat there until she decided to let go of him again and when she did, he said, “Right. Let’s do that now.”
He was cleaning the dishes when the doorbell rang. “Holy shit,” he whispered. They were early. No fucking way that they were early. He had to hide her, but where?
Karl turned off the TV, lifted the girl, carried her to the bathroom. “You stay here, don’t move. If you move, the monsters will come and they will eat you alive, you understand?” He shut the door, threw a last glance over the place, and then went to the front door and opened it. A woman in her fifties stormed in. A man her age, supposedly her husband, followed suit and behind him, there was a guy of maybe twenty, whose face was the image of guilty conscience. “I’ll kill you if something happened to her, you stupid moron!” the man hissed.
“She’s here,” the woman shouted and the rest of the family joined her and Karl stood in the hall, waiting for them to finally address him, apologize at least, explain to him how all this had been possible, but they didn’t even turn around, and neither did the girl who reached for the man’s hand, while the other guy was hugging her, crying like a fucking baby. Eventually they led her out and the woman looked at Karl as if she only now realized his presence. “Who are you?”
She turned around and ran out. The door downstairs fell into the lock with a big bang.
Karl looked around for a few moments as quiet settled around him. Then he went back to the sink, added hot water, and reached for a dirty plate.
Copyright 2017 by Jesse Falzoi