Suddenly, just like that, Peterson didn’t know where he was.
Houses on one side of the street, a clump of shops on the other, ahead of him a T-junction with stoplights, the cars turning either right or left. A normal-looking street, the kind of street you might see anywhere in Germany.
Except that Peterson had never seen this street before in his life.
Just five minutes ago, or maybe more like ten, he’d said goodbye to the student he was giving an English lesson to over on the east side of town, gotten into his car, turned the lights on because the days were already growing shorter and started driving toward the center of town.
When suddenly here were all these houses on one side of the street, a clump of shops on the other, and down at the corner a T-junction with cars turning right or left.
He pulled his car over to the curb and stopped.
Interesting, thought Peterson. His not knowing where he was. Perhaps even amusing.
Of course, there had to be a logical explanation. He thought back on that five minutes, actually more like ten. Yes, he definitely remembered saying to his student, “Until next time,” getting into his car, turning the lights on and backing into the street looking out for oncoming traffic. And then? Well, surely, he must have turned down the hill, gone around the sewage disposal plant and turned left at the corner to take the shortcut behind the river. He must have come that way because that’s the way he always came.
So perhaps along the way he’d started thinking about something, this and that, nothing important, maybe taken a wrong turn, followed some other cars.
It was all very interesting, really. Amusing. To not know where you were in your own hometown of Wilms. Or at least your own new hometown of about eight years since coming over from the United States. A town he’d driven around in pretty extensively by now. How the mind could play these kinds of tricks.
Of course, Peterson told himself, he wasn’t really lost. Of course not. As soon as he started driving again—and it really didn’t matter in which direction, any direction at all—he would soon come to a part of town he recognized. That was for sure.
Except he had to admit to himself that when he looked ahead and saw the taillights of the cars lined up to turn either one way or the other, right or left at the T-junction—yes, he had to admit this to himself—he had the strangest sense that if he chose the wrong way, left when he should have turned right, or right when he should have turned left, he would fall away, lost, never to return again.
Which was an amusing thought, really.
He would tell his wife, Birgit, about all this when he got home. About turning the corner and suddenly not knowing where he was. And about his little fear of turning right or left. She would find this amusing, too.
And he could tell her another amusing notion that had just popped into his head: he wasn’t in his hometown of Wilms at all. He had suddenly been transported to another city, maybe Frankfurt or Munich or Berlin, or even perhaps, who knew, Hong Kong. This would explain why he didn’t recognize the street in front of him. Maybe there were holes in the Universe. And those holes had lined up just for a fraction of a second and he happened to be in the right place at the right time, or the wrong place at the wrong time, and had been snapped through.
Maybe he should find a public pay phone and call Birgit. Hello, he would say, you’ll never guess where I am. And she would say, my goodness, what are you doing there? He would say, I don’t know, it just happened.
Except obviously, clearly, come on, here he was in Wilms and not Berlin or Frankfurt or Hong Kong. And what had actually happened, the logical explanation, after all, was that the days were getting shorter, it was growing dark already, and he’d told his student, “Until next time,” gotten in his car, turned on his lights, started down the hill and around the sewage plant behind the river and had begun thinking about one thing or another, this and that, nothing important, and turned the wrong way following some other cars.
Peterson turned the key in the ignition, the motor caught, he looked in the rear view mirror, saw the lights of some cars approaching, waited until they were past, made sure his own lights were on, and pulled out into the street.
Left or right? he asked himself. Which way? He found himself in the right lane, but it wasn’t too late to change. Go left! he said to himself. But as soon as he switched lanes he said out loud, “Go right!” and switched back to the right lane. And was trapped because other cars had pulled up beside him on the left side. Now he was going to be forced to go right.
Calm down, Don, he told himself.
The light changed, all the cars started up, he started up with them and turned right when the cars in front of him turned right.
There it all was: the street lamps marching along the bridge crossing the river, and beyond the bridge the lit spiral of the Lutheran church at the center of Wilms.
So everything was all right. He knew exactly where he was.
How amusing, thought Peterson.
He aimed his car across the bridge. Soon he’d be home. Beyond the bridge he’d go around the little park, then past the Rathaus, then turn into his own street where he lived: Knappenstrasse.
But it wouldn’t do any harm at all to watch everything along the way as he went, pay attention, not start thinking about other matters, this and that, important or not.
Because there was this notion he’d used to play around with as a kid. That the only real part of the world was what you saw right out in front of you. The rest of the world wasn’t there. It only came into being when you looked at it. And the part of the world you had been looking at fell away behind you as soon as you weren’t looking at it.
Sometimes, Peterson remembered, he used to try and trick it. He would walk one way, pretending to be interested only in walking that way and looking at what was out in front of him, then suddenly spin around to catch the world not being there. But he could never spin fast enough.
My God! Peterson discovered he was stopped at the red light in front of the Rathaus.
How had he gotten here? The last he remembered he had been on the bridge crossing toward the little park.
And now he was here.
He must have started thinking. Again. About something. No, no, not about something. His childhood. He had gotten off the track thinking about his childhood and how he used to spin around to catch the world that wasn’t there.
Which explained why he was now sitting at the light right next to the Rathaus.
The light changed and he started the car up, and, yes, there was the fork in the road he always came to, and, yes, there was the fountain and the flower bed, then the Chinese restaurant, and, yes, he watched himself take the right turn into Knappenstrasse.
He lived on Knappenstrasse.
As always the numbers of the apartment houses progressed from lower numbers to higher numbers, on the right side the even numbers, 8, 10, 12, 14 and so on, and on the left side the odd numbers, 9, 11, 13, 15 and so on. Except that, unlike in the United States, here in Germany the numbers didn’t parallel each other. That is, sometimes the odd numbers got way ahead of the evens or the even got way ahead of the odds.
Stop it! thought Peterson.
Off the track again!
But no harm done. He’d only been thinking about those numbers, the odds and the evens, the evens and the odds, for a few seconds. Maybe five. Or ten. And now, he told himself, he was fully concentrating again. He had just, for example, passed apartment house 38. And he had seen a parking place in front of 42 on the right side. I’ll park there, thought Peterson.
And he did. He backed in and eased the car to the curb, turned off the motor, got out, locked the car and looked up and down the street.
Knappenstrasse. Looking like it always did, the street lights illuminating the yellow apartment house he and Birgit lived in, and next to it the strange pink apartment house with the glass penthouse, then the black building with the lawyers’ offices, then all the other apartment houses up to the corner at the end of the street where the cars had to turn either right or left. That nice park was to the left. It had lots of grass and trees and he and Birgit often used to go there on long summer evenings to walk around.
It would be nice to go there now, to the park. Walk around. Wander. Except, of course, not now. In the dark.
Peterson took the apartment keys out of his pocket, walked toward the yellow apartment building, and was just about to fit the key in the main door of the building when he saw the moon hanging in the sky.
That’s strange, thought Peterson. Very strange. Why hadn’t he seen this moon before—for example, when he got out of the car?
Or had it suddenly appeared, transported in from somewhere?
No, no, of course not. It had been there all the time. For some reason he had just missed seeing it when he got out of the car.
Peterson inserted the key into the door of the apartment building, opened it, went up one flight of stairs and unlocked the door to their apartment. He hung up his coat in the hallway and collected the day’s mail from a side table near the telephone.
“Hello,” Birgit called from the room down the hall she’d made into her office.
“Hello,” Peterson called back, leafing through the mail. Except for two bills, he saw all the rest of it was junk mail. Terrible, he thought, this junk mail.
“Hello?” Birgit called again.
Peterson walked down the hallway to her door. There she sat with the papers and folders from her law firm piled up around her. He could see she was in the middle of a lot of work.
“Teaching go well?” she asked, looking up.
“Quite well. And your day?”
“Not so bad.”
“But not the best.”
“I’ve had better.”
“Look at this,” said Peterson, holding up the pieces of the junk mail.
“Well, don’t read them.”
“I won’t. You can bet on that.”
“Throw them in the trash.”
He went into the kitchen, poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot Birgit always kept at the ready when she was home, stirred in sugar and cream, walked down the hallway to the living room, turned on the lights and as he dropped the junk mail on the coffee table had a look around the room.
Same as ever: the window at the end of the room overlooking the street, the sofa up next to the window, the two other overstuffed chairs, the several lamps, the coffee table, the magazine rack, the TV set, the stereo, the pictures on the walls.
Sometimes Birgit and he had parties and invited people over. Then they moved things around, the sofa over there, the easy chairs more toward the side of the room, brought in an extra table and a few more chairs. But after the party, sometimes that very night but usually the next day, they put everything back to where it had been before.
Peterson went over to the sofa and was about to sit down, but instead looked out the window onto the street. All the apartment buildings were still there. Above the buildings the moon hung in the sky. Perhaps it had moved a bit in the last fifteen minutes. That was probably true, logically. But he couldn’t tell. Actually it seemed to him not to have moved at all.
Peterson sat down on the sofa, had a sip from his coffee and picked up one of the junk mail envelopes. It was bright red in color.
Goddamn thing, he thought.
He ripped at the envelope and a bright blue flyer dropped out. He picked the blue flyer up off the floor.
“CONGRATULATIONS!” it said. “YOU HAVE BEEN CHOSEN.”
The next day it happened again.
He had taken the train to Bildersheim, as he did each Wednesday, to teach some students near the university, and after his sessions with the students was walking back toward the railway station when suddenly, just like that, he didn’t know where he was.
All right. A downtown pedestrian zone. Very busy. Lots of people. Shops on both sides, a clothing store with mannequins in the window, a jewelry store, its expensive watches on display, a bookstore, people browsing through paperbacks at an outdoor display.
A pedestrian zone you might see anywhere in Germany.
Except that Peterson had never seen this particular one before in his life.
Not fifteen minutes ago, well, maybe twenty, he had said, “Until next time,” to his last student and had started walking toward the railway station. He must have crossed along next to the hospital and then taken that shortcut through the park. And must have started thinking about something, this and that, nothing important.
How amusing, he thought. How interesting.
Except that as he looked along the pedestrian zone he discovered it came to a T-junction and if he kept walking he would be forced to turn either right or left. If he turned the wrong way, right when he should have turned left, or left when he should have turned right, he might fall away, never to return.
Absolute nonsense, Peterson told himself.
It was merely a matter of getting a grip on himself
Because, obviously, he was in Bildersheim. He had to be. He had taken the train here earlier in the day.
Unless he wasn’t in Bildersheim. Unless he was in, say, Munich or Hamburg, or, God knew, Budapest. Transported again.
That other thought, too: out beyond him, around the corners and past the other sides of the buildings and behind him where he couldn’t see, the world fell away.
Stop it, Don, he said to himself. Stop it.
Just get going.
Only he couldn’t get going. For some reason he stayed right where he was.
Now! he said to himself. Go!
And he did. He started to walk. As he walked he wove in and out of the paths of people who didn’t seem alarmed, not at all, didn’t seem to understand, especially as he got closer to the T-junction and forced himself to keep pushing ahead until he had no choice. Left or right.
He turned right.
And there it all was in front of him: the broad avenue which led across the bridge to the railway station. He had walked across that bridge a thousand times. Well, hundreds of times. Tens of times.
All right, now, for sure, he told himself, he would keep his attention fixed. He wouldn’t wander off thinking about this and that.
Because that idea of the world falling away and not being there was rather like the question about the tree falling in the forest when no one was there. Did the tree make any noise if no one heard it? That’s how people posed the question. He remembered his professor back at college asking that question. Only for him, Peterson, now, the question took on another dimension. Because, you see, perhaps it wasn’t that no one was there to hear the tree fall. Perhaps it was more that the forest wasn’t there. All of it, forests, mountains, continents, you name it, everything had fallen away.
My God! Peterson discovered himself standing in front of the railway station. How had he gotten here? The last he remembered . . .
No more of that!
From now on he would watch everything, not let it go, fix it!
So: Peterson watched himself walk under the huge arch with the fake frescoes into the smokier air of the main hall of the railroad station, the ticket counters to one side, the restaurant, flower shop and the newsstand to the other, the giant board displaying arrivals and departures in front of him. He watched himself walk toward the newsstand, turn to the right where the international newspapers were displayed, pick out The Herald Tribune, pay the girl at the cash register and go back out into the main hall.
So far, so good. None of this wandering off.
He tucked The Herald Tribune under one arm -- he watched himself do that, too -- walked toward the gates to the trains, turned to the right at gate 12 and found the 4:34 train sitting on the track where it always sat. He entered the second car from the front, because that’s the car he always rode in, found a seat and sat down.
So, thought Peterson, he had watched all that, not wandered away. And now he could relax that watching because the train wasn’t going to wander off. There was only one set of tracks from this platform to Wilms.
And, therefore, soon he’d be home. Knappenstrasse.
Peterson shook The Herald Tribune open and looked at the news headlines. As he was scanning them he heard the doors of the train crunching shut and saw the platform of the train station begin to slip by. He had seen and heard all this about a hundred times before.
He returned his attention to the newspaper. It seemed as if he’d seen these headlines before, too: more American soldiers killed, the president on a state visit, starvation in Africa, a picture of a naked child with a protruding belly holding an empty bowl.
Peterson started reading this last story. It seemed that there were at least two million people in imminent danger of starvation unless relief arrived very soon. A United Nations official stated that the situation was “critical.”
Two million people? Peterson put down the newspaper and tried to think about that. Two million? He made the effort to see two million people.
Two million people was, for example, a very large city. Only in that part of Africa he was sure there weren’t any big cities. Probably those people were spread out all over the place.
Peterson turned and looked out the window and watched the farmland slide past.
And realized he had never seen these fields and trees in his life. Not that country lane, not that bunch of trees, not that collection of farm buildings, never those pastures.
Maybe it was just because outside the light was beginning to fade. The days, after all, were growing shorter now.
Or, another possibility: he had gotten on the wrong train, gone up the wrong stairs to the wrong platform. Perhaps he was heading for, say, Gutschau or Rhorbach or Alsdorf and not toward Wilms.
He tried to remember. He had been standing outside the railway station in front of the huge arch. He had told himself that this time he was going to concentrate, watch everything, not wander off. He remembered buying The Herald Tribune at the newsstand, paying the girl, and he remembered climbing the stairs to the train platform. But he couldn’t remember for sure if he had checked the gate number at the bottom of the stairs. Nor could he remember looking at the departure board once he had gotten up on the platform.
Was it possible he’d gone up the wrong stairway and taken the wrong train? Just because it was sitting there?
Maybe, right now, he was heading east, not west.
Or perhaps he’d been transported. Maybe he was in some other country, France or Poland or even Hungary. Perhaps those holes in the Universe had lined up again.
Peterson looked out the window into the dusk and thought he saw more fields slide past, more houses and barns, more clumps of trees. Yes, but what about beyond that? Especially when it grew even darker? Because it seemed to Peterson that as the train moved along, the countryside ahead of the train continually reassembled itself just before the train came into view, then fell away, disassembling itself, as soon as the train had passed.
The question was: What if the world didn’t reassemble itself and the train fell away, too, taking him with it?
Thank God the train began to slow and the lit house windows of a village started running past. Five or six passengers got out of their seats, put on their coats and started down the aisle. Peterson thought of getting off with them - because it was probably safer to get off the train than to stay with it. And if he got off he would call Birgit. Right away. He would say, you’ll never guess where I am. And she would say, my goodness, how did you get there?
He was just pushing up out of his seat when a brightly lit train station appeared outside the window and he read a white sign showing the name of the village: “Eidenberg.” Eidenberg? Eidenberg was the first stop between Bildersheim and Wilms. That meant that all along he’d been on the right train. Was on the right train. Would be on the right train all the way to Wilms.
Peterson sank back into his seat and waited as the five or six passengers got off and two or three new ones got on. Again he heard the doors of the train crunch shut and as the train left the station and picked up speed he saw the lights of the village slip by faster and faster.
At the station in Wilms Peterson followed other passengers off the train and then down the stairway of the platform to the main corridor where he turned right. As he continued up the corridor he looked at the numbers of the train platforms descending in paired numbers, 12-11, 10-9, 8-7 as they always had, and saw the row of public telephones along one side, where they had always been. He walked past the coffee shop which was again under the clock at the entrance to the train station and then out onto the street. The line of taxis waited in front of the bus station which in turn was next to the post office. As it always had been. Ever since he had come to this city eight years ago. Or had it been longer?
Peterson started walking up the pedestrian zone. Yes, there was the kiosk at the corner of the department store, the one that sold hot pretzels. And there was the fountain next to it, the one with brass farm animals, hens and pigs and cows. The heads and legs of all those hens and pigs and cows were on hinges and he’d often seen the children swiveling them around. That was a nice thing the city had done for the children. Since he had come to Germany Peterson had seen many fixtures like that for children in pedestrian zones. He didn’t think the city planners in the United States did that sort of thing. Undoubtedly Germany was more advanced than the United States when it came to thinking of children in public places. Perhaps it had something to do with the socialist background of the government.
Stop it! Peterson interrupted himself.
Just stop it!
Don’t wander off in your thoughts like that. Pay attention. It’s not important about children swiveling the heads of brass farm animals or socialist governments or anything like that. Watch it! Keep your attention! Fix it!
And thank God he hadn’t wandered off in his thoughts all that long, maybe only five seconds, or ten, or at the most, fifteen, so nothing had happened, no falling away.
And he definitely knew where he was. Just now he was passing the Internet café, and just past the Internet café he saw that new discount jeweler’s shop which displayed all those gaudy watches in the window.
Actually, as far as he could tell, there seemed to be more and more of those kinds of discount shops in the pedestrian zone. When he had first come to Germany he didn’t think there were so many. Although it was hard to remember. But since the long economic decline had set in, some of the better shops in the pedestrian zone had begun to fail. So now there were more discount stores, mostly clothing stores and drug stores, but also jewelry stores as well.
Peterson caught himself.
He almost said this out loud. Almost so other people walking past would have heard him.
“Stop it!” This he did say out loud.
Again, he told himself, it hadn’t been very long, this gap. He was just now passing the big, stone Lutheran church at the Platz with the bell tower all lit up from spotlights. He had passed this church hundreds if not thousands of times, or more, when he came to the market with his wife.
And now he was beyond the church and walking past Heim’s grocery store, and now he was past Heim’s grocery store and walking along the little alleyway which emptied out on his street, Knappenstrasse.
Yes, now he was on his street, not that far at all from his own apartment house, no chance of being transported, and he was watching the numbers on the fronts of the apartment houses ascend, evens on his side of the street and odds on the other. It wasn’t like the United States. Here the odd numbers could get way ahead of the even numbers, or the even numbers could get way ahead of the odds.
Stop it! he said to himself.
In front of the door to his apartment house, Peterson pulled out the key from his pocket and wondered if it would fit. Maybe it wouldn’t.
He saw the moon hanging in the sky.
He stood there, the key in his hands, and looked at the moon.
It was like a click. A snap.
Peterson felt himself emptying out, upside down, inside out.
Now, now, the moon was calling, come to my land. Out here, over the buildings, to the left, not to the right, past the trees to the park while it is still dark. Hurry.
And Peterson did hurry. Up the street. Before Birgit could ask where he was, how it happened. Take off your shoes, the moon called, you won’t need your shoes. And Peterson did take off his shoes, right there near the end of the street where the cars had to turn either right or left. And he took off his coat, too, flung it on one of the doorsteps. Because where he was going he wouldn’t need shoes or coats or anything at all.
He followed the moon, turning left, left, toward the park. Even though his feet stung it was all right because he didn’t need shoes where he was going. Later, when he got there, he would take off all his clothes.
A slash. A tearing.
It straightened him up.
He was back. He knew he was back. That he was forever back. Don Peterson, a grown man, forty-six years old, without any shoes and without his coat, standing in the darkness next to the park, in the middle of the evening in his new hometown of Wilms, Germany, about three blocks from where he lived.
He found his shoes and coat near the corner of the street where he had thrown them. He even found his keys hanging in the lock of his door to the apartment house. He turned the key, the door opened, he went up the flight of stairs and unlocked the door to his apartment.
Birgit was sitting in the room she had made into her office, at her desk with papers from her law firm piled around her.
“Teaching go well?” she asked, looking up.
“Yes, quite well,” he said. “Good day at the office?”
“I’ve had better.”
“Then I won’t bother you.”
He went into the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot Birgit always kept at the ready when she was home. He mixed in sugar and cream and taking his cup of coffee he went down the hallway to the living room, turned on the lights, put the cup of coffee on the coffee table and sank into the sofa. He looked at the easy chairs, the magazine rack, the TV set and the pictures on the walls.
He was back now.
No question at all. He was back. He knew he was.
He reached for his coffee cup and saw the pieces of junk mail on the coffee table, a red envelope ripped open and a piece of bright blue paper next to it.
He lifted the paper and read it again: “CONGRATULATIONS! YOU HAVE BEEN CHOSEN!”
How amusing, thought Peterson.
Karl Harshbarger lives with his wife in Germany, where he writes, teaches English as a foreign language, and plays squash. His stories have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. He has just completed his third novel. (5/2009)