At the confluence of three streets stood Elisabeth’s building, anchored to the corner against the tides of the city. The house faced onto a small traffic circle ringed with older buildings, a discrete hub around which the rest of town unknowingly spun. She stood just behind the lace curtains in the unlit kitchen looking down onto the small patch of green at the center of the intersection, grass dotted with stray yellow flowers brought there by the wind. Mottled shadows played across the electric range of the stove behind her. On the curb closest to her building a girl stood staring up at the house. Elisabeth glanced at her watch. Both of them stood very still.
She rubbed one hand over the back of the other and reached for the envelope on the counter behind, put it in her apron pocket and shut the apron into the broom closet, leaning into the flimsy door and closing her eyes as she did so, extinguishing the uneven light that roved across the room.
It was early fall, and dead leaves scattered across the pavement outside. The sun glinted off the dirty windows of Blohm’s bookstore across the street. Elisabeth moved back to the window, but the girl had gone. She brought her face closer to the glass, as close as she could without disturbing the curtains.
A small bell clanged as Meike entered the bookstore. She had been there before, nearly every day now, since arriving in the country. The man behind the counter peered at her over his impeccable moustache, looking, as always, as though he were being rudely dislodged from someplace in the depths. There was an air of great dignity about him, though he wore it soused, like a good suit that’s been slept in.
“Going to see her today?” he asked.
“Maybe today,” she replied.
The first time she came she had bought a small paper book of baby names. Her name was in it, and so came her first dose of a cheap sense of belonging, available on paper for the price of two shots of vodka, or a kebab with cola, with fries, if you had a small.
He was glad she never bought anything else after that; it was difficult to look at her, with that bare-faced stare she gave him, blunt and glaring like a fresh scar. It was hard to evade her grey eyes, pale against her dark face, the way they roved idly around the room without motivation.
“Are you lost?” he asked the first time she came in, eyes glazed over in the way being lost can do. He recognized Elisabeth’s jaw line immediately when she nodded, the unmistakable way her neck tightened, chin stuck out, tensed the way hers got when she tried to hold herself in.
“There’s a tram you can pick up a few blocks from here,” he said, “if you keep on in this direction.” He gestured vaguely toward the window with one hand.
The words weren’t coming easily, so she said the first thing that arranged itself in presentable order in her mouth: “I’m going to need more help than that.”
Elisabeth heard the doorbell ring, and counted quietly to three before she opened it. She set her tea cup and saucer down on the table to stop it rattling in her hand.
“What should I tell you,” she said, as the girl sat across from her at the dark wood table.
The room was small and crammed to its corners with the accumulated bric-a-brac of the past decades. The portraits on the walls stared out of their hanging worlds with eyes that seemed to watch her, and Meike looked away. She sat with a piece of cake in front of her, pushing it around the plate with a fork.
In the bookstore Blohm sat in the glow of his reading lamp, hunched over the desk, pretending to read the paper. His mind wandered. He spent most of his days half-dozing now, eyelids drooping, hunched in his chair. Behind his closed eyelids a flash of light troubled him briefly, and a splash of remembered sun stirred in his mind’s eye, reflected on a face with freckles that spread as her face broke into a laugh. He lit a cigarette and smoked it slowly, though his eyes began to water in his ruddy face.
There was joy then, there must have been. She could feel the echo of it somewhere under her skin, whenever an old song would play. At least, a song that sounded old, that she thought must have been from that time, when (she imagined) her mother still danced and her father’s smile spread to reveal two rows of perfect white teeth.
This is what she saw when she looked at the photograph: light figures against a grainy black doorway. One whiter, one less. Two figures, under a roof in the rain. Almost touching. Almost not. One of them with eyes dancing. The other with a distant look and white, perfect teeth.
Elisabeth frowned at the photograph the girl had handed her. The clock ticked loudly on the other side of the room.
“Of course,” she said, rubbing the back of her neck with one hand, “I would have had you stay here, but it’s so small, you can see that.”
Meike’s expression stayed blank as she stared around the room, not seeming to recognize the things around her.
Her mother had just died. She sat with her hands gripping the seat of the chair, looking stranded in the middle of the room. Elisabeth got up, pushing her chair out abruptly behind her. She came back with the envelope.
“Here,” she said. She was still standing.
Around them the apartment slumbered in dark wood and olive greens, fantastic floral prints blooming up the walls, blackish blue with detailed pastel blossoms.
Elisabeth smiled weakly.
“Have more cake,” she said.
Five days before, Blohm had plucked up the courage to ask if she and Elisabeth were related. Meike smiled at him, a bent, sardonic smile, as if he’d told an off-colour joke. For a moment the light off a passing car dazzled his eyes and he had to squint at the girl in front of him. Blohm nodded when she told him Elisabeth was her father’s sister. He vaguely remembered Elisabeth mentioning a brother who was dead now. Died young, and suddenly, somewhere in the United States.
“This is what he looked like,” Elisabeth said, holding the envelope out to Meike in the half-lit room. She tried to keep her voice light: “I thought you’d be curious, maybe.”
Elisabeth put the envelope on the table in front of her. Meike blinked, and looked at her passively.
They did not talk about the plans for the memorial service, though Meike could still see her mother sitting up in the hospital bed, only a week ago, face contorted, choked with the sudden urge to speak.
She could not remember this woman’s brother, the man in the photographs laid out before her. The cups in the kitchen rattled faintly against their saucers from the vibrations of the subway running below. She had one image of him in her mind, the one her mother described as the words poured rapidly out of her mouth, loosed from her lungs with such force into the climate-controlled air of the hospital room. How he climbed into the sea one day with his shoes still on. A day in February when the sky was grey.
“What is she doing?” Meike asked Blohm, three days before she knocked on Elisabeth’s door. The bookstore was open late Thursday nights, and they sat in the glow of his desk lamp with smoke wafting to the ceiling.
Across the traffic circle they could see Elisabeth’s shadow framed against the light from her window, moving strangely back and forth in the same spot.
“She irons her husband’s shirt collars twice a week,” Blohm said. “She stands by the window to get the breeze while she does it. Usually she has the radio on.”
“You’ve known her for a while then,” Meike said. He nodded.
“Do you see her often?”
“Not so much as before,” he said. His eyes watered, and he batted the smoke away, the air grown suddenly too thick.
“Why did your mother want to be buried here?” he asked. The light from the desk lamp cast a pool around them, leaving the rest of the store in relative darkness. He had turned the fluorescents off, unable to stand their buzzing in the heat.
“Not exactly here,” she said. “Where my father was born.”
“Ah. So your mother was a romantic.”
Meike shrugged, and asked about Elisabeth’s husband.
“Who knows where he is,” Blohm said. “No sign of him for at least four years now.”
He thought about this for a moment, squinting into the street. “Or maybe she hears from him now and then, I wouldn’t know anymore.”
They looked to the window again, watching the shadow move laboriously back and forth.
The light drew itself out as the sun went down behind the surrounding buildings, its glow lingering above the city. It was late. The girl had gone, and Elisabeth stood by herself in the kitchen, window open to the humid dusk. The last light went off in Blohm’s shop on the corner. She saw him rummaging for the key in his jacket pocket, standing on the stoop underneath the streetlamp’s light. His paunch had grown over the past year. A cyclist pedalled his way past.
Old ghosts come out at night, she said to herself, watching Blohm cross the small patch of grass. She pictured her mother saying it, when she was a girl and their father turned up. She shut her eyes. Too soon, she said. Take it back.
In Meike’s mind the sea was unbearably blue in front of him, rushing loud over the beat of his heart as he walked down the beach, over the snow. A vivid, bright blue against the grey of the sky, his polished shoes, his coat as he threw it off behind him. That blue got into her head like a sickness. It was strange what a person could get used to, what you could go without wondering about for years.
Blohm went to knock, only to find the door already open.
“I told you not to come here,” Elisabeth said. “Don’t turn on the light!” she added, though he already had. Her skin was yellowed under the light, more shrivelled than he remembered. He sighed and walked past her before she could speak a word of protest.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she called after him, as he switched on the light in the bedroom and threw open the closet, exposing a straight row of white men’s shirts. He started ripping them off the rack with manic speed, throwing them to the floor and stamping on them even as he reached for more, grinding them into the carpet under his feet. He worked with the energy of a man half his age and with much better lungs, and when he was finished he looked at her, deflated, and moved forward to leave.
“No. No,” she said. “What makes you think …” she trailed off.
The floor was covered in white, crumpled arms pointing in every direction.
He straightened his collar and the cigarette in his mouth, inhaled and exhaled slowly. Sweat beaded on his face.
She opened her mouth but no sound came. He went out. She moved towards the window, straining for the sound of traffic outside, for the cool of evening descending on the street, something to block out the starched waved of shirts before her, the only sound in her ears the retreating rush of the sea.