I wonder what the Mayor of Leipzig is doing right now. Terrorizing other people in other cities. Or walking in a park with a wife and children.
Or eating soup alone.
There are types of cruelty that are not at all personal.
The next day I went to a museum that a German man in the breakfast room, the former chapel, recommended. I had never heard of this museum and wondered why Birgit hadn’t mentioned it, which made me doubt whether it was worth visiting, but I like to trust people, which is part of what this story is about, and so I went to the museum that the man in the breakfast room recommended.
When I got there, the stern woman at the desk told me my Artforum press pass would not admit me, even though it’s supposed to grant admission to any museum in the world.
Artforum gave me the pass after I did one of those “Top Ten” lists for them, where you name a bunch of stuff you think is cool so that other people will know you’re cool—whether you’re actually cool or not, you can make yourself seem cool by the stuff you choose for your Top Ten— and then the editors rewrite the thing to make us illiterate artists sound like we are academic art historians, which isn’t very cool, but no one acknowledges how uncool it is because to do that they’d have to admit that the little twats who edit the magazine rewrote their Top Ten entirely, and everyone pretends that didn’t happen to them, even though it so obviously did because all the artists chosen for the Top Ten feature sound exactly the same, like heavy metal singers through a vocoder, but in this case, it’s the Artforum vocoder and it adds French words. It’s a silly ritual, the Top Ten (one of my own, number three, was The Dumpster Behind My Apartment Building, whose description was supercharged with words I had to look up in a dictionary when they sent my list back to me, rewritten).
I paid the full entrance fee at the museum and went up a steep concrete stairwell whose dim lighting created a sense of magisterial gloom.
At the top of the stairs was a statue of a woman holding a baby, the woman was obviously Mary and the baby Jesus, and she was offering him, not her breast as you might expect, but a juicy red grape from a bunch she cradled in her alabaster hand. His little mouth was open to accept the fruit she held to his lips. The statue was painted in bright colors, which accentuated the fecundity of Mary’s offering to the baby, and at first it seemed symbolic of seasonal change: birth, renewal, the grape harvest, cycles of life on earth, and so forth.
But as I looked I began to have a creeping feeling that Mary’s offering was about something not wonderful and instead terrible. That it was about death. The grape’s juice was the blood of Christ, I all at once understood, and the statue, if celebrating anything, was hooraying the eventual crucifixion, suffering, and profound sacrifice of the man this baby would become. He would go from zero to thirty-three and the time in between would be eclipsed: his destiny was to die, as his mommy told him, by putting that plump and beautiful grape to his sweet little mouth. Have a grape. Take in the news of your impending death by drinking your own transubstantiated blood.
Who won’t die, you’re retorting, silently, as you read this, but it’s different if you’re Christ. We are not born to die. We are born to live. That’s a big difference.
At this museum in Cologne they had old religious tracts and good contemporary art and it was all very hushed and heavy and German. The building had been constructed on the site of a Romanesque church destroyed in the war, with catwalks suspended over the damp and moldering cavern of the old bombed structure. The curtains in the building were made of dark-brown leather that hung in thick and heavy towering panels, the leather both elegant and atrocity-suggestive. The ceilings were composed of poured artillery shell, according to the English-language brochure.
The place had been engineered to produce a crushing, melancholic effect, and by the time I was leaving, tears wetted my cheeks. I was sad but also, I’ll admit it, I was vainly proud that I was having this experience, because it proved I was capable of a deep feeling, which, when it’s happening, is superior to most other states. Crying alone in a museum without having a personal crisis is top notch and it didn’t matter that I was alone: true vanity needs no witness.
Who gets to not have to cry?
As I bought a postcard of the Madonna in Ruins, the museum’s patron saint, I said to the woman who had snubbed my Artforum card, “This is an amazing place,” my throat constricting with feeling.
She handed me the paper sleeve with my postcard inside it, and said in a bureaucratic tone, “Yes, of course.”
C*nt, I thought at her. But I also felt glad, instead of angry, to be scolded. It was part of the experience I was having of Germany and Germans.
That reminds me of an email Rachel Kushner apparently got while she was working on this story, which was originally meant to appear in the Financial Times newspaper, but didn’t pass its censors. The FT editors wrote her to remind her gently that this commission was for a holiday story, which, they said, didn’t have to be exactly Christmas themed, but should be uplifting, or at least not too dark, and should not include any four-letter words. If, in a playful mood, she might have chosen to go ahead and write the story but literally remove all the four-letter words and not just the dirty ones, she instead got mad and threatened to write a story called “A Christmas Carol,” which would be about a woman named Carol, a plus-size escort who smokes bath salts.
RK told them no four-f*cking letter words? F*ck that.
Some people need to grow up. I don’t even need to say their names here, the ones who need to grow up, because it’s obvious who they are.
When she got that note, in the fall of 2018, it was the same week Donald Trump said the CIA was having an overly emotional response to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. R. Kushner, who says she’s not related to Jared, apparently found that hilarious, that the CIA was being overly emotional.
She said no one ever cared that Barack Obama sold the Saudis a whole lot of weaponry, but now that the Mad Prince had ordered this very public and vulgar assassination, an act that required a bone saw, liquefaction, and Shostakovich—everyone was in a moral crisis. And America’s own king of vulgarity was saying something, for once, nuanced, which is that foreign policy is realpolitik and always has been. It’s not about feelings.
But I don’t care about any of that. I don’t even read the newspaper. I look at ads in Artforum, and I scroll fashion websites. But according to R. Kushner, unrelated to Jared so she claims, people’s outrage about Trump and Trump talking about the CIA being too emotional was all just so hyperbolic and perverse that it called for “A Christmas Carol,” which would be a celebrational glimpse of lonely and depressed Carol putting holiday cocaine into her bottom, which is a more popular delivery method than generally understood by those who don’t partake.
But Carol, it turned out, was a minor aside in this story, and instead you’ve got me. My name, by the way, is
From Cologne, Birgit and I took a night train to Leipzig, to meet with a curator about a museum show there.
You might google the Mayor of Leipzig. I haven’t. That information, the person who inhabits that role, presently, will give you no insight into what you’re going to learn about him from me.
This man I haven’t told you about yet, the Mayor of Leipzig, he might not be the actual mayor. He could be the mayor. I don’t know if he is. It would be a pretty incredible coincidence if he was the mayor, but not impossible.
Coincidences happen or there wouldn’t be a word for them.
His name came to me with the force of a dream that clings after waking. He is the Mayor of Leipzig, which is the city where I encountered him. He didn’t encounter me. Or rather, he did encounter me, but only as one small and anonymous part of his large and faceless audience. My presence was necessary to his experience, although I could have been someone else; what mattered was an audience of people, and not that the audience be comprised of particular people.
I had never been to Leipzig, and so this man I’m calling the mayor came to represent that city, and thus took on mayoral qualities. Or instead, he replaced mayoral qualities with other ones, which, when I think about it, no one would call mayoral, and would instead call offensive.
To go from Cologne to Leipzig we had to change trains in Hanover, the effect of which was to cut the night in two, and a night cut in two is a lost night’s sleep.
Even before changing trains I could not sleep, which I blame on Birgit. Every twenty minutes or so she got up and went to the lavatory at the end of our second-class train compartment. The car was nonsmoking, as all train cars are now, and so instead of smoking at her seat Birgit smoked in the lavatory, and because the lavatory circulated the same air as the train, every twenty minutes the entire compartment filled up with cigarette smoke.
Birgit said this is what everyone did now. Smoked in the bathroom on German trains. “Good luck if you simply need to piss.”
That’s how Birgit talks. She dresses in black, but not in a posh way. Previously, as a young woman, she lived in anarchist squats. Now she sells art to rich people. Her talent for it is that she knows how to abuse a collector: insult them, talk down to them, make them feel dumb, blow smoke in their faces. People about to part with large sums of money like it rough. They like to be abused.
We arrived in Leipzig at dawn, to a station full of German police carrying semiautomatic weapons, and winos “sleeping it off,” and sad junkies inspecting cigarette butts. We passed the police and the junkies and the slumbering winos and wheeled our suitcases across the street to a hotel for 1970s-era GDR functionaries. Birgit asked one of the clerks, in her stiff hotel clerk’s jacket with huge, cruel shoulder pads, her thick industrial pantyhose, East German dead stock for state hospitality workers, if we could check in early.
The clerk in her state-issue communal hosiery said no. We left our suitcases and went to meet the museum people for lunch.
The restaurant where we ate was downstairs, a glorified basement that allowed patrons to smoke. Birgit had surely selected the place for this reason, and it turned out that the three curators and the two museum assistants all smoked as well.
They held lit cigarettes and talked about how great the restaurant was for allowing them to smoke. I didn’t think it was so great, but I was outnumbered, and they had already begun ridiculing Americans for being neurotic and health obsessed, which effectively preempted my ability to say anything lest I confirm their fantasy.
The head curator of the Leipzig museum had just been abroad and said everyone in America was obsessed with drinking water.
“They are constantly guzzling water. People walking down the street carrying huge bottles of water, the size you put on the table for a family, not a single person. And in restaurants people kept asking me,” she said, holding her cigarette vertically like a burning Nazi torch, “if I want water. I tell them, Do you see I just ordered a beer? Or I say to the waiter, But I’m already having a vodka here! I’ve got a coffee, thank you. We have one drink here in Germany. One at a time, I mean. But these American people you eat with in New York, they’ve each got about five different beverages in front of them. It’s completely crazy.”
Ha ha ha.
They all laughed and I laughed with them, even as I knew that I, too, like those people in New York they made fun of, am obsessed with my water consumption, and I worried, as I laughed, that these German curators were dehydrated. But I pretended I was on their side in this, and I told them about a friend of mine, who had recently said to me, in a grave and confiding voice, “I live in fear that I will be trapped somewhere, on the subway, or in a taxi in midtown traffic, without my water bottle.” I quoted the line, in my friend’s grave tone, and the table erupted in laughter. I had sold my friend down the river. I didn’t name her, and it didn’t matter, but I was sure that what I’d done was wrong, based on the satisfied effect it produced on these Germans, who sucked and pulled their burning cigarettes shorter and shorter, the ashed tips piling longer and longer, the air in this basement restaurant displaced by a suffocating chalk-white haze.
After lunch we went to the exhibition space where I would have my show and that part gets technical so I’ll spare you. Upon finishing our meeting about this show they suggested a walking tour of some of the main sights in Leipzig.
Our first stop was a church with a pale pink and mint green wedding cake ceiling. The church was apparently the center of anticommunist protests in 1989, and its facade now commemorated that. I asked the curators if any East Germans felt conflicted about the loss of their old society. “Yes, of course,” they both said. “There were jobs and a safety net. Now so many people have nothing. The old people eat cat food. They die in the winter when they can’t pay the oil bill.”
But at least they had this beautiful church.
I was tired that night and told Birgit I wanted to order dinner to my room.
I can’t remember what I ordered because dinner was eclipsed by what happened after. I’m sure I just chose whatever nonmeat item they had on the room service menu, and after I ate whatever that was I looked at clothes online, items I would never buy.
What I do is look at things until they go out of style, and then I look at other things—it’s a way of owning this stuff by sight, until, by sight, I am tired of owning it. I was scrolling jumpsuits when a text popped up on my screen with a clean ding, from Birgit. She’s not in my contacts but it was a +49 number so I knew it was her.
go out on your balcony
I slid open the glass balcony door. Birgit was on her adjacent balcony, smoking.
This hotel was built in a 270-degree semicircle, so that from our balconies we could see most of the other rooms. It was past midnight, and most of the rooms were dark, and those that were not dark had their nighttime opaque blinds drawn,
as I’d had mine drawn until I got Birgit’s text a moment earlier. Only one room, on the ground floor of the hotel, and almost exactly across from our balconies, had all its lights blazing, and its curtains pulled completely open, so that it was like a showroom in which you could see everything, and most especially, the naked man lying on his back on the bed, working furiously with his right hand.
“Oh my god,” I said.
“Ja. He’s been at it for a while. This is my fourth cigarette.”
I didn’t really want to watch. Birgit thought it was a wonderful thing, just hilarious. There was another hotel guest, a straitlaced-looking guy on the balcony on her other side, to whom she had been chatting.
“Now I know why you business people like this hotel,” she said to him, between deep drags on her cigarette. “You don’t have to get pay-per-view, since the adult channel is free from up here.”
“Ha ha ha.”
The masturbating man turned onto his side, away from us, for what seemed like his grand finale.
I said goodnight to Birgit and her neighbor and went back into my room.
I tried to recoup my chill-out method of buying things by looking at them, exhausting the impulse to own them. When I grew sleepy, I brushed my teeth and went to bed.
I didn’t have my nightmare that night, at least that I can recall. And I wonder what it can mean to have a nightmare, if you have no memory of it. What effect can the dream produce in you, if it fails to make contact with your conscious mind?
I recall no dream, but I woke up with a start, in that hotel in Leipzig.
There was someone in the room with me.
I could not see anything. I’d taken special care to block out all the light and cover both the clock and the red dot from the television with hotel towels, and it was so dark in the room that my vision could identify no shape, nothing.
All I knew was that I wasn’t alone. Whatever was in the room wasn’t a flesh-and-blood person. It was a malevolence, like an air, and it was strongly there. I turned on the light to shoo it out.
A long time ago, I learned of a small-town mayor in rural Maryland who was a flasher. This mayor had a habit, a need, of exposing himself to strangers.
He would go out onto the interstate in a trench coat, and when someone drove past, he opened the coat wide.
“There’s the mayor,” the understanding citizens would say, and keep driving. Not all of them were understanding. The mayor didn’t preside over the town without some rancor and controversy.
There were newspaper articles, which was how I found out about him (I said I don’t read the news, but I used to), some expressing amusement that this mayor managed to get reelected despite exposing himself to his constituency. Some town residents were angry and wanted a different mayor for Friendsville, which was the name of the town. I’m not lying, by the way: you can look this up.
The mayor’s name was Spencer Schlosnagle. Thomas Pynchon didn’t make that up, although it sounds like it, and neither did I. It’s real. I believe he is still the mayor, for his eighteenth consecutive term. It is a modestly paying job, so Schlos, if I may, works at a motel. I don’t know if he still flashes people. But when he did, we can assume he didn’t want to do it. I mean, he did want to, but as a compulsion, not a measured choice. It wasn’t in his best interest. But probably in the moments leading up to it, he was overcome by the need to stand on the roadway and open his coat.
I guess this is also how one might think of the Mayor of Leipzig in his brightly lit showroom, but he is more mysterious to me than the Mayor of Friendsville, and worse, because after I was forced, by Birgit, or by the mayor himself, to watch his lewd performance, evil slipped into my room.
The next morning, I woke up with the bedside light still on. It was early, 7:00 a.m. I packed and double-checked the room and shut the door behind me, wheeling my suitcase down the hall of this East German business hotel. I figured I’d have breakfast alone while Birgit slept.
We were booked on an 11:00 a.m. train back to Cologne, and from there I was getting on a plane to New York. I got into the elevator and watched the doors shut.
Moving the story forward for a moment, to after I returned home to the United States, what happened is I never called my analyst again. I didn’t feel like going to his office anymore.
And I didn’t want to inform him of this decision, because if I contacted him, I would reinsert myself in the loop. If I spoke to him, even merely on the phone, he would become, again, the analyst. The resolve I needed, in order to terminate my biweekly sessions, would be weakened by speaking to him, even if it was the last time we spoke. There is no last time with an analyst. To address the analyst at all is to already be in that relation. So I never called.
The elevator began to sink downward.
On one of the lower floors, the sixth, I believe, it came to a stop.
The doors rolled slowly open. No one got on. We, me and the elevator, stayed there.
I pressed the < > button for the doors to close. They didn’t.
The elevator dinged again, as if alerting whoever had summoned it that it was ready, and here. Still no one got on.
The doors finally began to close. When they were almost shut, they paused, as if someone had thrown an arm into the gap. The doors reopened all the way.
After a moment, they shut. The elevator commenced moving downward, and I was sure that someone was in the elevator with me.
The same person, or thing, that had been in my room the night before, was here now, in this elevator. It had gotten on at the sixth floor.
I punched the lobby button over and over, to hurry it. But an elevator cannot be hurried.
It went slowly, floor by floor, and after it stopped moving, on the ground floor, it paused for an excruciatingly long time before letting me out.
As I waited, I stared at the closed doors, which were actually mirrors. The whole elevator was made of mirrors, from which gazed thousands of fragmented me’s.
Finally the doors opened. I got out. Had breakfast. Met up with Birgit. Went past the armed military police and the winos in the train station to our track, and to Cologne, and after a final night in Cologne, I eventually arrived back in New York, but I can’t be sure that whatever was with me in my hotel room in Leipzig, and in the elevator moving from the sixth floor to the lobby, didn’t follow me all the way home.
I probably should speak to someone, like the analyst, about this malevolent presence I sense, a ghost, but I ghosted him.
Whatever this thing is that I encountered, it could be here this very moment, as I tell you this story. Which doesn’t comfort me at all. But fiction isn’t designed for that.