One Dance Too Many
The night I first met Ziegler he was wearing a ridiculous wig. Not only was it too big for him, but it was also on back to front. I hope he hasn’t got his underpants on back to front, too, I thought.
It was about two o'clock in the morning and Ziegler was standing at the bar in the Banana, a live house in West Berlin, drinking a glass of wine and bobbing from side to side to the jerky rhythm of the reggae band on stage. A tense-looking girl in a red beret held his hand and looked around nervously, as if she were expecting a police raid.
They were an odd pair, out of place, even in the laid back Banana, and that interested me.
“I like your tie,” I said, tongue in cheek, to the old man as I approached him.
“Do you?” he said, and his eyes started sparkling. “Gisela Ulbricht gave it to me in 1938, just before she left for America. She was a wonderful woman, Jewish, and rather liberal with her favours, but everyone loved her. No pun intended.”
He lifted the tie very close to his face and peered at it like someone trying to read the hallmark on the inside of a ring.
“Ziegler,” he said suddenly, offering me his hand. “Artist and poet. Charmed to meet you. It is a long time since I have been out so late, but I'm enjoying myself immensely.”
I turned to the girl and was about to introduce myself, but she cut me off. “Wilhelm and I were having such an interesting conversation before you interrupted us.”
I could feel her hostility and had no wish to argue with her; so I wished the old man a pleasant evening and left them standing at the bar.
Back at my table I soon forgot about the two odd characters as I got involved in an argument with a Scotsman about the origin of the bagpipes. I was just bracing myself to smack him on the nose when someone rapped on our table. We all looked up.
“It would have been nice talking to you,” said Ziegler. “See you here tomorrow.” Then he turned and walked out.
The next day I was sitting at a table on the sidewalk when Ziegler approached. I would not have recognized him if he had not been with the girl for he was not wearing his wig, and he was completely bald. This time the girl was wearing a black beret.
I called out to him as he got to the door and he tuned and peered in my direction, but apparently couldn't see me until I got up and started walking towards him.
“I didn't see you,” he said. “It's my glasses. They are too old.”
We went inside and sat down at my regular table. The usual people were there, including the Scotsman with whom I had argued the previous day. This time he was still sober.
“This is only the second time I've been out so late in the past twenty years,” said Ziegler. “Yesterday was Bettina’s birthday, and I promised to take her to dinner. On the way back we passed this place and it looked so jolly that I just felt drawn inside. I thought it might give me some inspiration for a painting.”
“Is that what you do?” asked the Scotsman. “Are you a painter?”
“It's one of the things I do,” answered Ziegler. “What do you do?”
“Me? I'm a musician.”
Ziegler suddenly burst into song. Then he jumped up and began to dance around the table, singing wildly out of tune. Somebody turned the music off and everybody in the place stood gaping at the old man as if he were stark naked. Almost as quickly as he had started, he stopped, did a flurry of steps in imitation of a tap dance, bowed and sat down. The Banana exploded with applause and Ziegler’s smile lit up the whole room.
“A glass of wine for Caruso,” screamed the Scotsman as he stood up to shake hands with Ziegler, who then went on to entertain us for the next few hours with impersonations of famous people we had never heard of. He had a way of putting the unfamiliar to us so that we felt as if we had grown up with them.
“How about Alfred Hartmut, then?” He began to mutter in a voice that was so deep none of us could catch a word. Nevertheless, we were in stitches. All the while he entertained us, he sipped away at his wine until he finally slid forward and passed out.
When he came to, I was on the stage with my band. We had just started a Joabim number when I noticed Ziegler , supported by the girl, staggering forward to get a better look. As he peered in my direction without actually seeing me, I realized just how bad his eyesight was.
“How long have you had those glasses?” I asked after the set was finished.
“Quite some time, but it's not just the glasses that are the problem, it's the light. I need a nice bright light before I can see clearly. That's the trouble with my flat at the moment; the light is not very good. I can hardly see to work.”
It must have been the wine, but without thinking too deeply of the implications, I volunteered to take a look at his lighting the next day.
The next day I got up with a vicious hangover just around noon. I guzzled about a litre of water, dressed and then staggered round to the address Ziegler had given me before he had left the Banana. Fortunately it was only five minutes away from where I was living at the time. His flat was in an elegant-looking old building that had survived two world wars and a ferocious assault on the city by Russian infantry in the last stages of the second one. Yet it had not lost any of its dignity.
I was pleased that Ziegler lived on the ground floor because l did not feel up to climbing any stairs. Charmed by the facade of the building, I was unprepared for the surprise that awaited me.
It was a few minutes after I rang the doorbell before I heard Ziegler bumbling his way along the corridor. As the door opened, I sobered up. The most unpleasant smell that I had ever come across burst through the door and nearly choked me. It was as if I had just stuck my head into an eighteenth century thunder-box.
“Welcome to my humble abode,” said Ziegler with a smile that l would not have risked in such an atmosphere. “I've lived here since nineteen hundred and six.” He stepped aside for me to enter then, almost coyly, continued, “It's a bit cluttered up, but I'm sure that you can squeeze in.”
I was nauseated but I had promised him that I would fix up his lighting so that he would be able to paint again. I figured that if l were to breathe through my mouth only, it would not be so bad, so I entered cautiously.
“Since nineteen hundred and six,” he repeated. “The Kaiser was still on the throne in those days.”
A quick calculation and I realized he was talking of seventy-two years.
“Were you born here?” I asked, testing the accuracy of his memory.
“No”, he replied, “I moved here when I was five years old.”
“You must be seventy-seven years old,” I said.
“Seventy-six,” he said curtly, “my birthday's in December.”
“Well where's your studio?” I asked.
“It's at the end of the corridor. You'll have to be careful; there are quite a few things on the floor.”
He was not joking. As I struggled down the corridor, climbing over old furniture, stepping on piles of ancient newspapers and magazines, some of them over fifty years old, and squeezing past pictures piled up to the ceiling, I could hardly comprehend that I was in the domicile of a fellow human being. It was more like being in a dilapidated warehouse.
By the time I got to the end of the corridor, I should have been prepared for anything. But his studio was not just anything. As I stood in the doorway to survey the mess, I saw that it was a repository for every kind of junk imaginable; and it also seemed to double as his bedroom. And it had a broader range of unpleasant aromas than I had ever come across anywhere in the world.
Although I did not smoke, as soon as l spotted the packet of Gauloises lying, almost as if they had been deliberately placed, at my feet, I picked them up and asked him for a light.
The old man looked at me as if I had just asked him for a kiss. "I thought you didn't smoke!”
“I've just started,” I replied.
“Well, I don't know if I’ve got any matches,” he said. “I don't smoke, either. But if you can find any matches in there,” he gestured into the studio, “you’re welcome to them.”
Suddenly I lost the desire to smoke and I dropped the cigarettes where I had found them. Getting into the studio was more difficult than I had imagined. First of all, I had to step over a bucket of what seemed to be urine. I stood on a plate, breaking it as I did so, and I lifted my foot so quickly that I nearly knocked the bucket over.
The old man peered at me curiously and asked if I could see all right. I told him that it was a little dark and that some more light would be helpful. He produced a small flashlight and handed it to me.
“If you can get into the corner,” he said, “there is a socket. You can plug in the lamps then you'll have enough light.
It took me almost fifteen minutes to negotiate the five or six metres across the studio. There I found a host of cables and extension plugs, so I tried to figure out which one to plug in. I made the right guess for, as soon as I plugged it in, the whole room lit up.
I had never seen a room so bright and at the same time so dark.
Ziegler apparently enjoyed my surprise for he bellowed in mock Biblical oratory, “Let there be light!”
The light actually accentuated the clutter. The room was much bigger than I had expected. It was about thirty-six square metres, and the ceiling was very high. Nevertheless, there was almost no space at all, neither horizontally nor vertically.
"Now, where is the cable you wanted me to fix?" I asked him.
“It's under my desk,” he said, “to your right.”
I turned around but couldn't figure out where it was until he pointed at a piece of furniture completely buried under a mountain of newspapers and magazines, many of which, I noticed, were erotic.
To get underneath the desk, I had to drag out a very heavy wooden tea chest that he told me contained interesting stones which he had collected when he was a little boy.
“I started collecting stones when I lived briefly with my grandmother in Weimar Strasse,” he said, "that's in the East now."
“That's a long time to pursue a hobby,” I said. “You must have been collecting stones for over seventy years now.”
“Oh, no, I stopped collecting stones when l was eight years old. That's when I started collecting tin cans.”
I had no answer to that, so I took off my glasses and wiped the dust from my eyes then I climbed into the space where the tea chest had been. The cable was worn through and obviously dangerous. I asked him to turn the electricity off. I heard him climbing out of the living room and clattering along the corridor.
The air under the desk was repulsive; it was even worse that the stench above it. I wanted to get the cable fixed as quickly as possible so that I could get out into the fresh air, so I called out for him to hurry up. It went suddenly dark.
“Is that OK?” he yelled.
I groped around and found the cable but I couldn't see to work on it.
“No,” I answered. “I can't see a thing. Turn the electricity back on”
There was a flash. A fierce pain seared up my am and smashed me in the chest. My head almost split open as it crashed into the underside of the desk. Then everything went black.
I opened my eyes tentatively and saw a dim, blurred light waving in front of my face. I had the impression that somebody was trying to talk to me but I couldn't hear anything. In fact, my first perception was of a wet coldness, as if I were floating in water. Then there was the foul smell.
Gradually my hearing started to come back. "You've knocked the bucket over," I heard him say. "You're all wet. Shall I get you a towel?"
I shook my head. "Just help me to get up."
He took my arm and started pulling, but he could only raise me to my knees before dropping me into the pool of urine again.
"It's OK," I said. "You just hold the torch so that we can find our way out and I'll get up myself," I said.
Then I concentrated all my strength and managed to get to my feet. I was shaking badly but at least I could move.
"You'd better dry yourself," he said, “you'll catch cold if you go out like that.”
But catching a cold was the least thing l was worried about. I wanted to get out of the stinking clothes and take a shower before I went down with something serious.
"Where's your bathroom?" I asked him.
"It's at the end of that corridor over there," he said, "but it's full up. You won't be able to get in."
"Where do you wash and bathe?" I asked him.
He looked surprised at my question. "In the kitchen."
I had not noticed the other corridor when l had come in and l had trouble locating it in the dark. Ziegler pointed his feeble flashlight in the general direction but it did not help much, so I gave up and told him that I would get washed and changed at home.
We set off to walk the short distance to my place. On the first comer, three old ladies and a poodle jumped out of my way in disgust. The poodle snarled at me and one of the old ladies made a disparaging remark about hippies, sewers, and disinfection.
Ziegler looked hurt. I think he thought that the old ladies were talking about him.
But worse was to come. We had almost reached my apartment when an Irishman, who played the bodran in a folk group, hailed me from the other side of the road. He darted across between the traffic, skidded to a halt in front of me.
"Christ!" he said, "Where did you get your aftershave? From a cesspool?” He turned and ran away laughing, and l knew that before long just about everybody l knew would also be laughing.
When I walked into the Banana that evening the Irishman was already there. He looked up, pinched his nose and rushed past me and out the door. It was well rehearsed, and the rest of our crowd rewarded his performance with an outburst of raucous laughter.
“I hear you've been swimming in insalubrious waters,” said the Scotsman.
“No, Jimmy,” I replied. “I had haggis for lunch and it didn’t agree with me."
“From what I heard," the Scotsman continued, "even the dogs couldn’t stand it."
There was no way I could talk my way out of it, so I didn’t even try. Instead, I described the state of Ziegler 's apartment, and said that I intended to help him out by cleaning it up.
"Any volunteers?” I looked the Scotsman straight in the eye.
“Will you get me a gas mask?” he laughed.
"Yes," I said.
"When do we start, then?"
Before long there were about a dozen volunteers, and we decided to start the following day at noon.
The Cafe Bleibtreu was packed when I arrived there for breakfast, just after eleven o'clock. The Irishman was the only one drinking beer: the others were on coffee.
"I should be on the schnapps,” said the Irishman, “if the place smells is as bad as you did yesterday, I'm going to need something strong.”
I was surprised but very pleased with the turnout. My fellow musicians had been accused of being shallow and selfish. They were nocturnal—most of them never went to bed before sunrise—yet here they were, way past their bedtime, ready to help an old man they had only known for a few days.
"Where's the gas mask?” shouted the Scotsman.
“He's drinking one,” I replied, pointing at the Irishman.
“I’ll have two,” was his response.
The breakfast seemed to go on for ages. Nevertheless, shortly after noon we made our way
to Ziegler's place. He was astonished when he opened the door and saw the crowd behind me.
“What are you here for?" he asked, “I wasn’t expecting you.”
“Don’t worry, even if you were expecting us, you wouldn’t have been able to clean up before we got here.”
The smell crept out from behind him. I felt as if were about to throw up everything I had eaten over the previous five days. But I stifled my feelings and cheerfully said, “We've come to clean up!”
Ziegler's brows furrowed: “To clean up?”
“Yes," I said. "We are going to bring some clean air into your life."
"What should I do in the meantime?"
"Go to Bettina’s. place," I answered.
Thirty minutes later, after I had had a bitter telephone exchange with the girl in the beret, Ziegler left for her place. The first thing we did after he had left was to prise open all of the windows—and that was no easy task. Then we set about cleaning the place up.
Carmine, who sang in a bossa nova group, organized the cleaning. She had arranged for a stack of cardboard boxes and large plastic bags, and she supervised us while we filled them. The things worth saving went in the boxes, and the junk was put in the bags.
Around six o'clock, although we were nowhere near finished, Ziegler returned. He was with the girl in the beret. She looked as if she wanted to rip my heart out.
“What do you think you are doing?” she screamed at me when she saw the boxes. “You have no right to touch these things. Some of them are valuable.”
“We are just trying to help a friend get himself sorted out,” I said.
“You're no friend of his.” She almost spat at me. “You've only known him for a few days.”
“Friendship knows no bounds of time,” I said. “so why don't you either beat it or take off that stupid beret and give us a hand! We need another duster. God knows there's enough dust here for all of us."
The Scotsman had apparently found a bottle of something while he had been cleaning and, rather than throw it out, he had drunk it. It must have been strong stuff for he staggered up to where the argument was taking place and pointed his finger at the girl. “What’s it got to do with you money grabber? How long have you been friends with him? Not long, I bet! Just waiting for him to croak, are you.”
It was Ziegler who calmed things down. He had been standing there taking it all in. Suddenly he started to sing a drinking song about the value of friendship. Within minutes everybody joined in, even the girl in the beret. When the singing stopped, even she was smiling.
Ziegler strode from room to room, astonished that he could actually walk around without standing on or falling over something. He even sang as he went. When he entered the study he stopped singing and glanced nervously to where the erotic magazines had been.
“By the way,” said the Scotsman, “I found some magazines other there. They must have been left by the previous tenant. It's a wonder you didn't find them and throw them out. They were filthy.”
"I put them in a box out back. You might want to get rid of them when you have a minute."
Ziegler’s smile appeared again. "It's wonderful. It hasn't been this clean since my mother passed away. Let's have a party."
We were ready to drop our dusters and start drinking immediately, but Carmine stepped forward and put her foot down. It would take another two days to finish the cleaning. After that we could have the party, she told us. And we all knew that she was talking sense, so nobody argued.
It was actually four days later that we had the party. The flat was sparkling. Every nook and cranny had been disinfected, scrubbed and polished. The spacious rooms had been tastefully decorated under the supervision of Carmine and the girl in the beret, who claimed to be an art historian. The smell of flowers had replaced the dankness that had existed there for so long. And the freshly painted white walls highlighted the brightness that had been missing.
I was stunned by the number of people who tuned up for the party. Word of mouth travels fast in musicians’ circles. Friends that Ziegler had never heard of turned up to celebrate the cleaning of his flat. By eight o’clock there must have been more than fifty people there.
A stereo with huge speakers had been set up in the living-room and on the improvised dance floor people gyrated and twisted to the sound of Bob Marley. There was so much smoke that it was difficult to breathe, so I went outside for some air. There were people sitting all around the step at entrance to the building, and most of them held either glasses or bottles. They, too, had surfaced for air.
On the wall around a flower bed, a good way from the others, sat a solitary figure. It was the girl in the beret. She had a wineglass in one hand and a cigarette in the other. She looked incredibly depressed.
“Mind if sit here,” I asked as I sat down next to her.
“You’ve ruined my relationship with Wilhelm,” she said without emotion.
“Wilhelm? I don’t know who you’re talking about,” I said.
“Who do you think he is?” she snarled at me, pointing in the direction of Ziegler’s flat.
“He’s my only friend.”
“He’s just acquired about a fifty other friends tonight,” I said, “and if you’ve got any sense, you’ll capitalize on it. If he’s your friend, then they’ll be your friends as well. Come on inside. Let’s dance.”
She followed me inside. The air was heavy. The music reverberated through every room. The pulse was hypnotic. The living room was as tightly packed as when I had left. I could see almost nothing through the smoke. Then a strobe flashed across Ziegler’s bald pate. In the second that he was highlighted, I saw the ecstasy in his smile. I grabbed the girl in the beret and pushed my way through the crowd. We started dancing our way across the floor to Ziegler. When he saw the girl in the beret he reached across and touched her hand. That was the first time I had seen her really smile.
Carmine, who was dancing with Ziegler , looked at me and shook her head. “I’m beat. I can’t go on.” She took Ziegler by the am and led him out of the room. We followed.
In the kitchen, Carmine poured herself a drink, looked at Ziegler and said, “You’ve worn me out.”
Ziegler’s eyes grew even brighter and he bowed. “Do you know that you are the first woman who has said that to me for almost thirty years?”
Then he turned to the woman in the beret and said, “Do you want to be the second?” Without waiting for an answer, he grabbed her hand and dragged her back to the living-room.
It was hard to believe that a man of his age could have so much energy. But there he was, almost eighty years old and dancing like a man in his twenties. I stood in the doorway drinking a beer, looking on in amazement. Ziegler bobbed up and down, backwards and forwards and from side to side. And the girl in the beret was smiling.
I was on my way to the kitchen to get another beer when l bumped into the Scotsman in the corridor. He, too, had been impressed with Ziegler’s stamina, and expressed himself in a sexual simile, as was his usual turn of speech. But I didn’t get my beer. There was a horrific scream followed by a crash in the living room. I ran back in. Everyone was in a state of panic. Ziegler lay on the floor gasping for breath.
“Call and ambulance,” I shouted as I forced my way through the crowd to Ziegler. He looked at me and a faint smile spread across his face.
“That was just one dance too many!” he said. Then he let out one last rasping breath.