The Answer (I)
Heinrich has crummy yellow eyes. His hair is gelled into short hedgehog spikes. He smokes six cigs in a four-hour shift. Starting off he’s uneasy. He watches nervously for the approach of the floor bosses. He worries out loud that the local bully will come over and call him a faggot. When he lags behind the conveyor belt, he hisses, “Impossible! Impossible!” and hurls boxes to the ground.
Later he mellows. Sipping on a single energy drink for hours, he shouts over the conveyor belt about nineties electronic music and the shittiness of work cliques. He praises my precise stacks and frets over his own. Looking at the ground he jokes with the fork-lift driver. When the driver leaves, Heinrich frowns and informs me that the driver always torments him.
After the shift he invites me to sit on a concrete ledge with him while he smokes. He offers me half a chocolate bar. He tells me a secret: he lives at home, with his mother. But he can’t leave her, because his father is dead and she depends on him. He wants to see the world. To have adventures, to meet more people like me. Instead he works here at the warehouse, ruining his body and giving up his life for minimum wage. But after work on Friday nights, he goes into the city to have a small adventure. Would I be interested in coming?
All the drive to his house Heinrich fidgets. Cursing at the rain speckling the windshield, he worries that our night will be ruined. He turns up the bass woofers till it hurts, then turns them way down. He complains that I forced him to meet my wife when we dropped by. It had been a terrible idea, he says, she clearly had not liked him. I protest. He says we should drop it, he doesn’t want to fight.
The rain has stopped, he announces, leaning over the wheel and looking up at the black sky. He turns up the bass again. He cackles and slaps me on the knee and tells me that we’re going to have a wicked time.
Now he wants me to guess how long it’s been since he hung out with someone.
“I don’t know, a year?”
He frowns. “Four months. You must really think I’m a loser, huh.”
From an easy chair his mother greets me without looking up from her crossword. She is an indistinct mass behind heavy black glasses. I meet his sister – a rosy cheerleader studying psychology – and then Heinrich leads me down to his basement room. It’s got off-white carpeting, wooden paneling, and a seventy-inch TV with turret speakers. The entire wall behind the TV is covered by a glossy digital print of the Brooklyn Bridge under red skies. Heinrich gestures at a boss black armchair.
“Sit there, sorry – the room’s only set up for one.”
He runs up the stairs. I hear him ask his mother to make me a sandwich.
“Why don’t you make it yourself?”
“Mom! Come on! Please?”
Bearing a cold-cut sandwich and two beers, he comes back in factory-faded jeans and a tight black T-shirt with a skull-and-feathers. His hair has been freshly hedgehogged. He hurls himself down ass-first on the edge of his bed and then springs back up and turns on his sound system and LEDs; prismatic colors rinse through the speaker cabinets. He beckons me over to watch his computer tower’s wicked black fan pulse and vanish into blue glow. On the seventy-inch screen his desktop’s background cycles through pictures “of places that don’t exist”: Martian bubble cities, last-boss citadels, red Edens. He turns on a video comparing gaming laptops. He apologizes for his mom while I scarf the sandwich, then apologizes for the laptop video and turns on scientists talking about theories of time. He says he’d love to talk like them. He asks if there’s just like one big book he can read that will update him on everything that intellectuals know.
Heinrich offers to play me some music he made, then immediately rescinds the offer, shaking his head and muttering something I don’t catch.
He apologizes for his room. He had lived down in an apartment owned by his mother, but the neighbors complained about him playing loud music on weekend nights, and finally a man kicked in his door and slammed him against a brick wall and choked him. Heinrich moved back into his mother’s house the next day, but she wouldn’t give him his old room… so: life in the basement. He shrugs and drains his beer.
Upstairs Heinrich digs up an empty 2L soda bottle and dumps in grenadine syrup, a flask of Jägermeister, and two cans of extra-strength energy drink. Then he goes to the bathroom, and his mother struggles up from her couch and takes my hand in her two wet ones.
“I just want to thank you for spending time with Heinrich tonight. I hope you can be a good influence...”
I try to smile.
At midnight we rush off late for the bus to the city. Heinrich scurries in front, talking over his shoulder about all the different ways he’s worried our night might go wrong. His fist is clenched around a bulging red plastic bag that swings against his jeans.
On the bus we sit together. Crossing his arms and then uncrossing them, he sinks in his seat, leaning forward to protect his hair. He complains that the chamomile tea he chugged hasn’t calmed him. Peering out the window at farmland, his eyelids heavy, he murmurs that he hopes everything will go okay.
We disembark in the old city square. A medieval fortress, a cobbled plaza lined with antique townhouses home to pubs, strips clubs, discos, casinos, brothels and fast food. We park ourselves on a grassy ledge in front of a particularly grimy disco and he rummages in his plastic bag and takes out the 2L bottle of Jägermeister and energy drink. He pours the mix into two red plastic cups and hands me one. Slurping happily he grins out at the crowd.
I pee behind a pee-smelling wurstwagon and when I come back Heinrich’s talking to a leonine blonde who smiles at him through fake lashes, and her shorter but otherwise identical friend who stands off to one side, inexplicably shaking her phone like it’s a mixed drink. Heinrich is complaining that people think he’s a weirdo for always coming alone. The lioness, glossy and self-assured, keeps interjecting, but Heinrich just speaks over her, apologizing abjectly, desperately, and then yammering on, telling stories with friendly outrage about all the times he’s been publicly shamed. Eventually she stops trying to reply, and she and her friend stub out their cigarettes and go back inside.
Rain dots the sidewalk.
Heinrich yells, “Tim! TIIIIIIIIIM!”
Tim looks like a melancholy brown bear that only uncomfortably walks on two legs. He plods over with his diminutive friend Devin and after a round of backslapping and introductions little Devin pipes up that they were just going to do some coke, and would we like to buy in?
Heinrich swings his red plastic bag like a windmill, then drops it, punches the air, and screams YEEEEHAAAAAAW!!
We creep under some scaffolding and up over a low wall into a parking garage, where we sit cross-legged in an arc against a low wall, our sneakers almost touching. Heinrich and I dig up bills while Devin cuts four equal lines and then snorkels his up with aplomb. Tim follows suit, slugging his chest afterward and hallooing into the echoing garage. Heinrich rails his and then snuffles around with his 20€ proboscis after stray powder. I put a rolled-up five to my nose and snort, but only a few flecks vanish.
“Faster! Faster!” shouts Heinrich. He gets up on his knees and points at me imperiously. “Try the other nostril!”
“It’s just as blocked! Haven’t you ever noticed how nasal my voice is?”
I give him what’s left. He’s stunned. At first unwilling to believe. He weakly pushes it back at me. Then a look of awed happiness rises through his face.
“Wow man, you’re a real friend, aren’t you?”
The tiny dose of coke never confronts me. There’s a gentle buoyancy and a certain impatience to get my words out. Tim corners me. Heinrich has mentioned that I’m a writer. Tim, whose bulk blocks my view of the others, says things like, “If you examine it from through the lens of the late Marxism of the Frankfurt School …” He talks slowly, eyelids half-closed as his furry voice lumbers after a single gigantic thought that he never quite catches.
When he casually mentions that he has "been to known to go crazy on coke,” I chuckle and shut up for good.
Tim tells me a story: once he was drinking screwdrivers with some university friends and one of them, playing around, pushed him. He fell backward, onto his open book-bag, and smashed the vodka bottle and some beer – all the booze he had till he got paid. Everyone laughed. His back was cut by broken glass and blood ran down onto his new white capris. And he was too broke to buy more booze. But no one had any sympathy, in fact they mocked him and said it was his fault for getting so wasted... so Tim went to a construction site and fetched an iron rod and threatened to beat their heads in. The guy who’d pushed him – an expert on Derrida – wrestled away the iron rod and smashed up Tim while everybody stood around and watched. The next day, home from the hospital, Tim tried to commit suicide for the third time.
I ask Tim what he thinks about Heinrich.
“Heinrich? He’s a nice guy, but he … he needs … I had a friend, he used to sell speed, right … and one day, Heinrich comes up to him in the grocery store, and wants to buy some speed … this guy doesn’t have any … I mean he’s in his jammies, on a chips-and-cola run … but Heinrich doesn’t believe him, he thinks the dude is fucking with him, and he breaks a beer bottle – full, from the shelf – and shoves it in the guy’s face, and screams at him to hand over the speed…”
I glance over. Devin is bent and solemn with ear cupped, listening to Heinrich jabber. They’re both smoking hard.
At three, Tim suddenly announces that he and Devin have to leave.
Heinrich claps him on the shoulder.
“Hey man come on, we’re all have such a good time,what’s another hour or two?”
Tim removes Heinrich’s hand, laughing.
“Sorry dude, gotta work in a few. You know what it’s like.”
He turns to go, but Heinrich snatches at his arm and pretending that its a joke he gets down on his knees and clasps his hands and prays to the sky that Tim and Devin will stay around and have some more fun.
Tim scowls. “Dude!”
He’s already walking away.
(to be continued)