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New Fiction in Translation: “Island”

By Anna Weidenholzer & Tess Lewis

I drink with my hands and dance with my feet, Hans says, look over here, I’m right here. There’s nothing to see over there. A plastic bottle drifts along the shore and Richard says: the current is fast today. Not faster than yesterday, Hans says, you’re not going to find an answer in the water, look over here already. I know, Richard answers and sits up, how are you supposed to drink without hands; you can’t drink a beer properly without hands but you say it every time. Because I’m glad I’ve got hands, Hans says, that’s not a given at my age. Most people still have hands, Richard says, some might be missing a finger or two, but that’s rare and if so then it’s carpenters who lose fingers, not real estate agents. You have no idea how dangerous my life is, Hans says and takes a sip. I’ve got one more can; you want one? How about we go to the beer garden, Richard asks. No, Hans says, not yet. You’ve got dirt on your stomach, wipe it off. Richard looks at his stomach and Hans smacks him on the head.

Hans and Richard sit in their swimming trunks on the Danube Island when it’s a weekend and warm enough. It’s warm enough when the beer needs to be chilled, Hans says. The island is our lebensraum, he said on Monday when he told the florist in the third district how he spent the weekend. We need our island like flowers need dirt. Aha, she replied, so Hans asked: Have you ever been to the island, it’s not far from here, what’s your favorite part? You know, it’s late, my client should have been here by now, would you like to see the apartment, the third window from the right. Mezzanine, but still, not too dark, a small apartment with a false ceiling, just think what you could hide there. He laughed. You know what I mean? he asked when the florist didn’t laugh. She shook her head. You can hide all sorts of things. The florist gave him a long look then plucked at the flowers that stood in front of the store beneath the awning, pulling off the wilted leaves.

Richard smacks him back. Hans stands up, stretches, and yawns, holding one hand to his stomach. You need to lose some weight, Richard says, I can’t sit by and watch anymore. We’re not married, Hans says, as long as you can still see your swimming trunks, there’s no worry. You think, Richard asks, are you sure about that? A stomach suits a man like the Danube suits the island, Hans says. He looks to the left at a woman entering the water. She doesn’t use the steps in front of which Hans and Richard are sitting, but takes the path from the shore over the big rocks that are slippery with algae. She slips with her second step, grabs at a rock to steady herself, but it wobbles and she loses her footing. She swims out a few strokes then lets herself drift on her back. I’ll be right back, Hans says. Richard lights a cigarette and traces the outline of the tattoo on his upper arm with his fingertip. A rabbit peeking out of a magician’s top hat, its right ear is blurred. Richard never tells anyone he flinched under the needle. If anyone asks why the ear is blurred he says: the tattoo artist was drunk. But he’s rarely asked. Most say, interesting, if they say anything at all or: are you crazy? Hans says: you need to find yourself a wife, to which Richard answers: I only want one who can do magic tricks. At least place an ad, Hans sometimes tells him when Richard calls two days in a row. Do you have time now or not, Richard says after a short pause. Richard watches the family next to them as the parents help the children put on their bathing suits . He doesn’t want the family to think he’s watching the children getting undressed.

A plastic float is tied to shore to the right of the stairs. A dock leads to the sunbathing area near the water. Most of the swim pontoons on the island have ladders with which you can easily climb into the water, just not ours, Hans says whenever he tells anyone where they spend their weekends. Still, we’re grateful to the city of Vienna; the pontoons make it easier to get in the water. Keep an eye out for them. They’re not called swim pontoons, Richard says if he’s there. Floats, they’re swim floats. And what’s written on the signs, Hans asks him, the city of Vienna should know how to describe what they set up. Just read it. The children near Richard now have their swimsuits on and Richard wonders why the family is swimming here, where the water is deep, and not at the family beach. They must be out-of-towners, he thinks, stubbing out his cigarette in the grass and turning onto his stomach.

Hans walks up and down the waterside promenade a few meters from Richard. He’s keeping an eye on the swimmer, watching to see where she’ll come out of the water. He assumes it will be near the spot where she left her towel. Hans takes a seat there, crosses his legs, rests his arms on them, and watches the swimmer. When he notices that she saw him and swam to the steps a few meters further off, he goes to sit there instead. A couple sits down on the steps before Hans gets there. He swears and goes back to Richard. He says: she got away. Richard keeps lying on his stomach, too bad, he murmurs into his towel. Wake up, Hans says, you’re not supposed to sleep on the island.

On Monday the florist pulled off the wilted leaves, then she started plucking at the blossoms. Hans said: You can hide all sorts of things, whatever you’d like, whatever your secret is. He winked at the florist. She kept plucking. You know what I mean. The florist held the wilted leaves and blossoms in her hand. She turned to go. Hans noticed the birthmark on her upper arm. He thought of his own birthmark. He said: the gap, the storage space is big enough to hide a corpse. I haven’t looked in it yet, I don’t want to know what all the previous tenant stuck in there. Hans laughed. Shall I show you the apartment. It’s a good location, you wouldn’t be far from your shop. The florist said: excuse me, and went back inside.

When you sleep, you keep your eyes open, Hans says, but only a little bit so only the whites of your eyes are visible. At some point your eyes are going to dry up. They’ll be as withered as the florist’s flowers when they aren’t watered. The florist curls her hair, but not every day. The florist has brown eyes. The florist has small hands. Stop already, Richard says, I don’t want to hear about her anymore, give up, Hans. On Thursday she wore a short dress because it was hot out; her dress was short but decent, it covered her knees. Then it wasn’t short, Richard says into his towel, short dresses end further up. Women are like apartments, Hans says, the good ones go quickly, once you’ve set yourself up, it’s hard to move out and the defects come with the years. Knock it off, Richard says, be quiet. He turns over and sits up. I’m thirsty, let’s go to the beer garden, we can still swim later. Fine, Hans says, let’s go.

Hans and Richard drape their towels over their shoulders before they leave. Hans slips his feet into his sandals. Richard goes barefoot, but not for long. He complains about the stones and slivers on the path. Towels are important to both of them, they sit on them when they get to the beer garden. Because the benches are too hard, because the benches leave marks, they explain when anyone asks why. Two beers, please, Richard says to the waitress at the counter and she nods. Richard watches Hans drink half his beer in one go. If you didn’t drink so much beer, your stomach wouldn’t get bigger, he says. We’re not married, Hans replies and sucks his stomach in a little. He sits sideways on the bench so that his legs are on the right and left of the bench. He doesn’t turn to face the table even though Richard is sitting right across from him. What are you looking at, Richard asks. At the world, Hans says.

The previous week, Hans got to Löwengasse too early every day. He had scheduled the apartment viewings when the flower shop was open. He told his clients: You’re going to get mold here soon, the neighbors are loud, they’re just out at the moment, did you notice how run down the staircase is, that’s how you can tell what kind of care the property management takes of the building. I’m just pointing it out, it’s your decision. Hans told the florist about the island every day, about the swimming pontoons, the young couples, the teenagers who jump in the water even when it’s much too cold. You have to be careful, he says, or your heart will skip beats. On Wednesday, the florist’s blouse was strapless. You have lovely shoulders, Hans wanted to say, but he talked about Richard instead. He said: he won’t bother us, he can keep himself busy, he lies on his stomach and thinks about magic tricks. Whether or not that’s really what he’s thinking about, I obviously can’t be sure because. Hans didn’t get any further because a customer came into the flower shop. What would you like, the florist asked with a smile and Hans thought, that’s how you do it.

Richard says, the world is big enough. For what, Hans asks. For us, Richard replies, for me, you, and your stomach. Hans doesn’t answer, then he says: why are you in such a bad mood. The magic store closed, Richard says after a while, gets up, and pulls up his swim trunks. The tie, Hans says and points at Richard’s trunks. Thanks, Richard says. It happened all of a sudden, from one day to the next, I still wanted to buy the hand guillotine. I saved up all month. Hans takes a sip and says, too bad. He asks: what did you want to buy. The hand guillotine, Richard says, it’s a popular trick. You look for someone in the audience you’d like to punish. You ask him to come up onto the stage and show him how the guillotine chops carrots and cucumbers. Then you ask your audience member to put his arm in the top hole and you put another carrot or cucumber in the bottom one. You can also use zucchini, an aubergine, a stalk of celery, a radish if it’s not too thick. And then, Hans asks. The vegetable is chopped in two, but not the arm, Richard says. Does it take practice, Hans asks. It’s like love, Richard says, you’ve either got it in your blood or you don’t. Did I say that, Hans asks. Richard nods. When Richard performs magic tricks, he uses a black cape his mother sewed for him. Abracadabra, he says with a deep bow. Hans learned not to laugh at this part. He claps and says: you’re ready to go public. No, Richard says, I don’t have enough tricks, I don’t have the right equipment. I’ve got to go back to the magic store soon. You can get the hand guillotine somewhere else, Hans says when Richard puts his head in his hands on the beer table. Where’s that, Richard says, you only know flower shops, not magic stores. One flower shop, Hans says, only one.

On Friday Hans went to the flower shop without having an appointment later. He had prepared what he was going to say: I’d like to buy a flower. I’d like to purchase a rose. I dreamt that in the hidden room over the false ceiling, you know, I dreamed someone was living there between four and five in the morning and that it was you. Would you like to come to the island with me, Hans cleared his throat before he entered the flower shop, but there was a man inside. How can I help you, he asked. Hans looked around for a while, then said: I’m looking for the owner. I’m the owner, the man said. This is Gerald’s Flowers. Aha, Hans said, then I’m looking for your colleague. The man put his hands on his hips. He was shorter than Hans. His hair was pulled back in a ponytail. Why, he asked.

And then, Richard asks after a long pause. Listen closely, Hans says, we’re going to sit here today until the beer garden closes. And then, Richard asks. Then we’ll go to your apartment. You’ll throw on your magic cape, you’ll put on your hat, and don’t forget your wand. Then we’ll go to my apartment. I’ll take a quick shower, put on my best shirt, comb my hair. When that’s all done, we’ll take the streetcar to Löwengasse. We’ll wait in front of the flower shop until morning. Hans nods, takes a drink of beer and says: that’s what we’ll do. I don’t know, Richard says. Why not, Hans asks, it’s a good plan. Hans and Richard watch as an inline skater passes them, turns around just before the parking lot and passes them again. What about the hand guillotine, Richard asks. We’ll buy it after, Hans says. After what, Richard asks. Hans gives him a long look, then shakes his head.

Published Jan 18, 2016   Copyright 2016 Anna Weidenholzer & Tess Lewis

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