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Walter Cummins

 

Seeking K

I stood at the edge of the old cemetery made dizzy by its jumble of tilted headstones, the lettering worn to shadows, vapors of strange shapes. A voice behind me said the corpses were buried ten layers deep. And that made me shiver. I sat against a wall and gasped breath, as if I were one of the people at the bottom, all of those caskets piled on top of me, a great smothering weight. Perhaps being dead is just like being alive, except that you’re even more helpless.

But that’s why I was seeking you in the first place. You thought thoughts that I was always thinking too. Unlike me, you could put your thoughts into words. Each time I read them, I kept nodding “Yes, yes, yes,” at every sentence, every paragraph, every page. You could read my mind, strip bare my soul. “You know me,” I wanted to tell you, speak those words the moment I found you. I’d fall to my knees, abasing myself before you, revealing the shame of my existence, begging your help.

Even before I went to the cemetery, I knew it was a foolish choice. Why should you come to a place where they stopped burying the dead hundreds of years ago? I went because I wanted to see what you had seen as a young man, as a boy, when you were still making sense of what you knew in your heart, moving it from your heart to your brain, to the place within you that held all the words you would release on paper. You saw those stones, felt the weight of those layers of broken bodies, and knew that this was the worth of a human being, to be thrown into a pit.

~

As I walked from the cemetery, I told myself I was finally in your city. This was the air you breathed. A paper map in my hand, I prowled the streets, knowing it would be useless to ask any of the hundreds I passed to tell me where you were. They’d pretend they didn’t hear or shrug or shake their fists. Some might even reach back and slap me. I met the eyes of a woman in a fur collar and my face stung.

Of course, I wouldn’t enter the places that bore your name – the restaurant, the bookstore, the building that claimed to be on the site of your birthplace, the souvenir shops in narrow alleys that sold tee shirts with the dark shape of a man alone on an empty street. Awaiting the assassins. I could barely bring myself to look at those shirts. These were the last places in the city, the last places on earth, where I would find you.

I understood what it must have been like for you to see your name spelled out on signs, printed on cheap cotton. I blinked and saw my name there in place of yours. I would flee. You would flee. What could be more terrible than to have your name exposed to the world, to have people consider a source of diversion, to flaunt their association with your fame? If they truly absorbed your words, understood what you were revealing to them, they would tear the shirts off their backs. They would shrivel.

That must be why you put so little into print yourself, why you gave instructions to have your manuscripts thrown into a fire, reduced to ashes. Your best friend ignored your wishes, betrayed your plea. But you probably expected that he would because it’s what humans do. They fail each other. They betray. They aren’t to be trusted. I have never known a person I could have faith in. Except you.

When we meet, we have so much to say to each other. No, that’s not right. You will speak and I will listen. Just hearing your voice will bring tears to my eyes. I will weep. I want to weep.

~

As I walked, I found not you, but between a synagogue and church, a statue dedicated to you, a large bronze figure, human-shaped but with a hole, an oval vacancy, instead of a head. And perched upon the shoulders of this thing, a little man with a face like yours, his little legs dangling. I stood beside the statue, barely reaching the waist of the figure, and I understood this object was revealing my insignificance. Even you, far above me, sat atop a nothingness.

~

It was our fathers who first gave us this feeling of being worthless. We had fathers in common. Like mine, yours was a bully and a tyrant who belittled you and made you feel like vermin, like dirt beneath his feet. Though you never mailed the letter you wrote him, I know he must have felt every word of it driven into his brain while he thrashed in sleeplessness. You told him, “What was always incomprehensible to me was your total lack of feeling for the suffering and shame you could inflict on me with your words and judgments,” and I spoke that sentence into a telephone when I dialed my own father’s number. But, like you, I didn’t let it connect. Still, I’m sure he heard me too, heard me again and again, day and night until the moment he died. A shriveled object.

~

The paper map notes all the places you lived and worked and studied in the city. I found myself on a cobblestone street where your family occupied flats in buildings almost directly across from each other. In one of them your father kept his shop on the ground floor – Hermann, he was called, selling novelties and fashion accessories. What triviality. The meaningless ways people earn their livings. Now that building was a shell, sheets of metal nailed across the front, a conveyer contraption suspended to carry out the debris. Where Hermann had his shop, where you lived, now stood an emptiness of dust and naked brick. In your unsent letter, you told him how much you hated his business. Now it was a ruin. What he deserved.

~

Blocks away, where you endured oppression as a functionary of the Worker’s Accident Insurance Company, the building had become a hotel. I don’t know how any person could find pleasure sleeping in such a place, in rooms haunted by the spirits of men in stiff collars and starched cuffs suffocated by tedium. My own work was like that. Trapped in a miniscule cubicle of gray slab partitions, I saw nothing, heard only the grind of machines and garbled voices. Every few hours a person would step through the opening to gather the folders I piled on the edge of the desk and replace them with a new stack. Even though I was released every evening, I felt a prisoner, the partitions closer when I returned the next morning, my space in this world shrinking each day. I would pull my arms tight against my sides, huddle in my chair, knowing those partitions would squeeze the life out of me.

~

Gone was the apartment building where you wrote the story of a man transformed into an insect (about me, about us all), replaced by a luxury hotel, large black vehicles lingering in a concrete courtyard where limp flags dangled from a semicircle of poles. I imagined a guest just back from a luxury shop, arms laden with expensive packages, leaving his Mercedes to a scurrying attendant. He would ride a silent elevator to his floor, unlock the door to his room, and discover a despicable creature clinging to a wall, a rotten apple festering in the crust of its shell. My own back burns with pain; my own legs wobble as if they are wisps of straw.

~

Just steps from the hotel an arched bridge crossed the river. I stood on the edge of the bank, watching the rippling current, suddenly chill, folding my arms against my chest, my body trembling. Then I remembered your letter that told how often you “rowed up and then, all stretched out, floated down with the current, passing under bridges.” You thought how comical you must have seemed because you were so thin, how someone said you looked like the Last Judgment, “that moment when the coffin lids have been removed but the dead still lay there motionless.”

~

Under the bridge, lashed to a thin pole, a rowboat bobbed in the small waves. I knew what I must do. Creeping backwards down the riverbank, I clutched at rocks for balance but lost my grip and slid on my knees, ripping holes in my trousers. At the river’s edge, I stepped in the water to reach the boat, an iciness spilling into my shoes. I slipped the rope over the top of the pole and pull myself in. Two oars lay on the wooden bottom, and I used one to push away, bracing it against a bridge piling, feeling vibrations from the vehicles overhead. A current drifted the boat to the middle of the river.

The boat leaked. At first, only a film of water coated the bottom, but soon it was up to my ankles. The sideboards were gray and splintering. I suspected the boat had been abandoned for years. Had it been meant for me, just waiting all that time?

Even after just a few strokes, an agony ate into my arms, muscles burning with each pull. I am not a strong man, not a healthy man. Every minute I had to stop and hope the current would carry me forward. Then, far ahead, I saw the shape of another boat and the figure of a man, hunched forward, pulling at his oars with a steady rhythm. It had to be you. Despite the fierce pain, the tearing in my shoulders, I rowed as hard as I could, desperate to reach you.

~

The castle and the church spire loomed over the city. You must have seen it every day whenever you came near the river, every moment of your rowing. Did you dream of escape? Was your goal to build up strength for the morning you would climb into your boat and row for hours, for days, down the river, miles from that castle and that spire, away from the city with its narrow, twisting streets and its graveyard of tumbled stones? You knew you would never be allowed to enter that castle. Even if you were amid the thousands of visitors who climbed the long steep steps up to the castle grounds, clutching tickets that would allow them inside, you would have been stopped, a hand thrust into your chest. “Not you!”

~

I could feel the water creeping upward, saturating my trousers with wet chill, and I refused to look down. Each pull of the oars brought a terrible hurt. My own whimpering rang in my ears. The smell of the river ate deep into my lungs, sucked in with my gasping. It wasn’t the taste of water, but foul, as if the layers of corpses in the cemetery, centuries of death, had seeped beneath the city into the river.

~

My boat passed under another bridge, and I was closing the distance between us, certain I would catch up to you just after the next bridge, the one ahead, the famous one every visitor feels compelled to cross. I could see its parapets, the heads of the endless march of tourists, the gaunt statue of a twisted man on a cross.

By the time I reached that bridge, your boat was only a few yards ahead. I called your name, trying to shout it over the splash of the river, the din of human voices, the blare of music. I called your name with a cry from the pit of my being. But you didn’t turn, just sat staring straight ahead, revealing only the back of your head.

~

Under the bridge, I lost you in shadows, and emerged to a wall of slanted pilings that blocked the river. Ahead, a falls dropped the water to a lower level, the pilings meant to prevent danger. You had to stop, I thought. You will stop and turn, and then you will acknowledge me, know me.

But your boat slipped through the pilings, speeding toward the falls, and you rowed fiercely, even as you dropped over the edge. Then you were gone.

I let myself drift, alone on the dark surface, no longer caring where the currents took me. My boat bobbed against a piling. Eventually I would vanish too, plunge into a vast nothing. And I knew, if you had ever spoken to me, that would have been your message.

 

 

 

Walter Cummins has published more than 100 stories in literary journals, as well as memoirs, essays, and reviews. His story collections are Witness, Where We Live, Local Music, and The End of the Circle. For more than 20 years, he was editor of The Literary Review and is now co-publisher of Serving House Books. He teaches in Fairleigh Dickinson University’s MFA in creative writing program. Contact author. Visit author's website.

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