Death in Vienna
This piece was sent in by Brendan Byrne, creator of theorphan.org. The quote, “The Orphan is incomplete, unpublishable, moloch-less, disrespected, bizarre and roundly rejected.” Though based out of New York City, Brendan does a fair amount of traveling, as illustrated in the story below. His stories have been featured on flurb.net, and he has number of novels in the works. The story below is a sad, somewhat eerie account of both a woman and a city. As I’ve said before, there’s something irresistible about comparing the two. But I’m not sure “romantic” would be the word I’d use to illustrate this tale; it’s more haunting – a story about loss, decay and giving up. Certainly a heartbreaker. I hope you all enjoy it as much as I do.
There were cripples in the street. Old men, young women, university students: they had frozen knees, stiff gaits, double canes. I was in Vienna, in Europe in general, to get away from cripples, away from death. My father, who suffered from CP, had finally committed suicide at the age of 56, leaving my mother with medical bills and a long political-historical treatise, which will probably never be published. I’d spent the last few months hanging out with him in Providence where he was recovering from serious hospitalization. I didn’t blame the old man in the slightest. I’d just had enough of cripples for a while.
Vienna, however, was different. In the hot spring sun, everyone still wore black. Their faces were pinched, their paintings were fierce and fucked-up, they all smoked, even the infants. Even better, they were polite to a fault, which was good because I wasn’t looking for human interaction. The city was beautiful, but its soul was ugly. It suited me perfectly.
I met Neza at a bar on the outer corner of the Inner Stadt I ducked into when it started to pour. She offered me the seat opposite of her with an outstretched palm, odd for Austrians, who seemed singularly unnerved by the presence of other living creatures. Over my pils and her red wine, we began to talk. Her English was sweltering, blinding, completely unlike the severe accents of most Austrians or Germans. She asked me questions about New York. I was happy to answer them, so I wouldn’t have to talk about anything else. I discovered she was German, from Hamburg, so I questioned her about that. We split a pack of Lucky Strikes and got slowly drunk together while it rained. It was the most I’d spoken with anyone for two months. I didn’t hate it nearly as much as I thought I would.
I woke up to find her regarding me. She was small, her features were small, her face was small, her raven-black hair was cut at the dip of her ear, her eyes were cat’s green and I could never tell when she was smiling.
OK, I said, but could she show me around first?
At the Cafe Sperl, sipping melange and staring at the smoke-yellowed walls and hundred year old chandeliers, she told me about her lover. At the Hietzinger Friedhof, sharing a bottle of Zwickl at Klimt’s grave, she told me about her failures, as an artist, as a human being. At her favorite bar, a real beautiful kind of shithole called Coco, she told me of anxiety attacks, of the two months she didn’t leave her apartment, the seventeen days she didn’t leave her bed. She told me, back at my pension, sitting across from each other on the twin cots, haggard and pale and birth-marked beautiful, how nothing was going to get better, there was no better. I told her about the one time I had attempted suicide. Not fun. She assured me this would be no attempt. She would succeed, no matter what. If she took so many drugs it ruined her kidneys and sent her to hospital, then, even on her bed, she would acquire a gun and send a bullet through her soft palate.
When I woke, she was gone.
On the fifth anniversary of my father’s death, I came back to Vienna.
Elsa stayed on in Berlin, preferring the cheap frisson of mirror-world customs. I walked the place for two days, getting deliberately lost, finding new intersections of streets, discovering the flakturm in Augarten anew, coming back to my pension on aching legs, thirsty and stupid.
On the third day, I saw her.
She was standing at the head of a line outside a bookshop on Lerchenfelder Strausse, dressed all in black, from her suit jacket, to her brand new Converse, to her thin, oblong shades. All save a single, blinding white t-shirt. She leaned upon a pair of ebony walking sticks, hunched over herself, limp yet tense, a cigarette clutched between her knuckles. Her man was next to her, hawk-nosed and old in his youth, with shoulder length dark blonde hair, royal in his crumpled suit, as he asked a well-known author who I’d never heard of, laughing, for an autograph.
She saw me, and I saw her.
She tugged at her man’s jacket. He turned, and she said something severe in German, and then she limped away.
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