Scaffold as Cold as Gdansk – Jonah Howell
November 15, 2019
Krzysztof shivered at a crossroads, specifically that between Johannisstrasse and Papendiek, though it may as well have been eight or even nine streets that converged on him, for all the difference it would make. He shivered and was stuck: He craved, but he could not manage to crave in any particular direction. An orange umbrella to his left, presumably before a bar, emblazoned with beer steins, a brewery logo; to his right, a scaffold. He craved and his stomach turned in circles and ate itself and he knew that he could give it nothing. He turned right onto Papendiek.
Steel and straight, the scaffold stretched for half a block. Across the narrow, cobbled road, shopfront signs declared with style and verve a range of unknowables, their hieroglyphs familiar but in the wrong orders, taunting cryptograms. Krzysztof focused on the scaffolding and squinted so that his peripheral vision would blur. Straight steel lattice capped in phosphorescent yellow—he knew each path a worker might take, each ladder step that should be skipped, each unstable angle, the job within each prism. He saw them there, with their hats and buckets of mortar and their lack of thoughts, only wondering when the next cigarette break might begin or when they might be home, and his heart palpitated, and he craved and grew indignant. He knew the job of each prism, and he could have built this scaffold just as straight or straighter, and no one would have to skip a step on the ladder. All this in a glance.
He had, supposedly, an interview the next day in a place called Schleusingen, but he did not know where that was or how to get there or what he would say in an interview, which cryptographic order he should use…around the corner came a gaggle of students, he assumed, who sang a language clearly not their own but not his either. From the notes he knew it was a song of longing, but their voices carried carefree up and up, and he grew indignant, he steamed. At this moment it became clear, so clear he had to slump against the fence before the scaffold, that the geographic border he had crossed did not exist but in a smattering of bureaucratic papers, archaic rites of entry—that he had entered a world in which there is no border but that between those in-the-know and those not-in-the-know; and that, by entering, he had proclaimed himself not-in-the-know; for he could sing no song of longing with a rising voice; and he could only read the scaffold, not the shopfronts; and therefore he could join no gaggle without disintegrating it.
Rising, walking on, Krzysztof studied the scaffold and loudly ground his teeth to drown out the now-distant drunks. The scaffolding and its fence terminated at the corner of an ancient church. On a placard he read, “1331.” Further down Papendiek the buildings looked the same: External wood, secret contents, mostly dark. (Twilight crisped the streetside elms.) He turned into the courtyard between the church’s wings. An orange sign advertised something, and its arrow pointed through the glass door of a central passage between, he presumed, the old chapel and the new. He craved. His stomach snaked its ouroboric round. Otherwise he would not move; he’d freeze: He followed the arrow.
Inside, an information desk lay laden but unoccupied. Signs advertised. One offered another arrow, and he followed it upstairs to a room with more information desks and a coat check. A couple suits sat bored behind the desks, but he seemed so outside—so plantlike, so sculptural—that they said nothing to him as he carved his way through foreign semiotic, following the arrows.
He found himself at the back of a long, arched lecture hall, its walls lined with books that looked as ancient as the church. Every seat was taken, suits for sixty, maybe seventy rows, and at the front a bespectacled suit stumbled his way through a lecture—stumbled, yes, like on a tightrope, and Krzysztof could tell that the man could speak the language but had not done so for a long while. While he stumbled, he clicked through a series of pictures that projected above his head.
Hawks flew through a mountain range. One must have had a camera mounted on its back, for its beak protruded in sharp focus before the blurry peaks. It looked left and right. Its black eye watered; and it seemed to stare, suspicious, at the camera. But it flew on. Krzysztof stood, transfixed, in the middle aisle behind the hindmost row of seats. Contrasted with this hawk, he found the church’s arches fake, shameful imitations.
The hawk ceded its place to a topographic map of central Europe. Violet lines leapt along the mountaintops, hopping peaks to Mozambique then back. The speaking suit seemed hopeful. But then he waved an arm, and the hawk lay still on someone’s laminate floor, bleeding. The camera protruded from its back, aimed at the unseen photographer’s feet.
Krzysztof ran from the chapel back into the cold, and he wept.
That is, Krzysztof was a welder, he told me, and a mason; and he’d killed a cop in Poland.
The cop was beating his friend, and Krzysztof had a switchblade knife, and he cared about his life, he said with a tired puff of his chest, but he wasn’t afraid to lose it. The same friend, once he recovered, offered to drive him to the border. There was a bounty.
Shivering at the corner of Johannisstrasse and Papendiek, he craved: Only a week ago he had walked off the job site in Gdansk, covered in dust, with a hundred Euros in his pocket, and he’d felt like a rich man. He’d bought bottles of Kozel Czerny for each of his buddies and hung around the job site block and drunk and stared astonished at his handiwork and gone home to his wife and made love, real love.
His friend had dropped him just over the border and handed him the forty Euros for a train ticket and kissed his cheeks and cried and said he’d visit. Krzysztof had pulled a scrap of paper from his pocket: “Göttingen, Tomasz, Groner Landstrasse 9.” A distant relation or a friend of friends, for all the difference it makes. He’d chewed the word, “Göttingen,” the full five hours on the intercity train so he wouldn’t miss it. He hadn’t slept in two days. He still couldn’t sleep. The square tattooed in his neck, souvenir of drunken teenage summer, had burned like it was new.
Shivering on the corner of Johannisstrasse and Papendiek, he craved and burned and nothing could satisfy him, even if he swallowed the city whole with all its pigeon-spikes and steep shingle slopes; he craved but craved nothing in space, nothing so close in time that he could grant it space; and so he couldn’t move at all but toward the scaffold, toward some semblance of safety; for he’d returned to the job site two more days after the stabbing and no one had come for him; and so when he’d stepped off the train in Göttingen, with the help of some student or other he had set up an interview, not knowing the job site would be somewhere so unreachable, so utterly unknowable; and the rest of the day he had walked, despairing, around the city, from street to indifferent, undifferentiated street, hearing Polish words and turning toward his wife, who always cruelly vanished just as he turned, who haunted his back and his peripheral vision and beckoned and had left molten mascara across the front of what was now his only shirt; so that now, exhausted, slumping, in front of the scaffolding on Papendiek, when he heard the singing gaggle, he had to stand and turn away and squint because he knew she would be singing with them, shifting behind their backs, just out of grasp; and he had to grind his teeth and gauge the scaffold, its familiar grit, its well-ruled angles, its sureness; and the singers sang—and I promise, I was there, I heard them—
Country roads, take me home,
to the place I belong,
and over and over because they were drunk and could remember no more of the lyrics; so when he found that row of symbols he could read, “1331,” his spine let loose a sigh; and he had to go into the church; and the arrow was only redundant confirmation; and, as every time he entered an unfamiliar place, he thought with fleeting comfort of the switchblade in his pocket, which at first he fondly fondled but withdrew his hand in shame; for he knew that gaggle of in-the-know had no such thoughts, could have none, and that this single source of comfort pointed, with every finger it could muster, to his outsideness in its every facet; and so he pulled his jacket down over his pockets and held it there, whiteknuckling the hem, as he followed the arrows upstairs and into the lecture hall; and he stretched the hem down and squeezed harder as he followed the hawk along the mountains; and he stood on the tips of his toes; and he lifted his chin; and his every muscle strained until the projector flicked to mountaintops and violet lines; and then he swayed, following, and leaned in and ground his teeth because his wife, on Sundays, sometimes wore a suit, so any of these sixty rows of backs could beckon; and then he saw blood and had to run.
It was not as cold as Gdansk, he promised himself outside.
Though the trees shivered beneath the frosted scaffold as he sped back down Papendiek toward nowhere, toward nothing that could be anywhere, it was not as cold as Gdansk. Though his toes burned even as they sprung his feet along; and though his knees had sucked numb up into his hips and out through his shoulders into orbit, thrown by the gravitational pull of his stomach, which had spun itself into a black hole; and though everything inside and outside him screamed all at once and at all onces the sharp outside he couldn’t comprehend and, if he could have, couldn’t hear above his grinding—no, now pulverizing teeth; and though his arms prickled and tingled and threatened to leap from their sockets in rebellion, their hands still clinging to his jacket’s hem and covering the knife like a childish atonement; and though he knew that he would never be in Schleusingen and would never see another Kozel and could not remember a sunrise and would not return to a bed and to love but to a laminate floor and cryptic shouts and the smell of long-stale cigarette smoke; still it was not as cold as Gdansk.