A few years ago, some good people here in Berlin began putting together a project for NPR Radio called “Berlin Stories,” a collection of short pieces about the city read aloud by the authors who wrote them.
I adapted an excerpt from A Lesser Day (2010, Spuyten Duyvil Press), a scene set in 1993. I was living next door to an old woman who’d been the building’s superintendent throughout the rise and reign of National Socialism; one of the last of her kind, she’d been presiding there for over sixty years.
The piece is currently offline; I will repost the link when the archive is complete.
The above image is taken from a series of installations titled Shelf Life. The pinned notes of the shelf lives of perishable goods were found on the inside of a kitchen pantry door of an old woman who had recently died. English translations (sample):
The following keep for:
1/2 year fats, cereal products, dough products
1 year meats, fish, berries
2 years light fruit
2 – 3 years spinach, celery, tomato paste
3 – 4 years legumes, green beans, kohlrabi, root vegetables, mushrooms
One night, the smell of smoke sent me hurrying out into the hallway. I began to knock on her door, calling out Frau Chran, Frau Chran! as I stared at the sign above the bell with her name written in a shaky hand, and then I began knocking more loudly when all at once I heard Frau Chran fumbling with a set of keys from behind. And then the door opened a crack, and I pushed against it, only to discover that the chain was still attached. Let me in! Something’s on fire! and Frau Chran, with a look of fear and confusion in her eyes, obeyed and slid back the chain. I hurried past her into the living room, where a Christmas decoration hanging above a sideboard had caught fire, one long burning garland strung across the wall, and beneath it a smoking candle. I ran into the kitchen and found a bucket under the sink; I turned the knob of the faucet as far as it would go, but nothing more than a thin stream of water trickled out. I have to call the fire department, I thought frantically, but then I remembered that Frau Chran had had her number disconnected, and I realized that I would have to get her out of the apartment somehow. All at once Frau Chran began to whimper. Frau Chran, we have to leave, we have to call for help, I said as I tried to guide her out of the kitchen, but she pushed my hand away and cried out What? What are you saying? And I shouted We have to leave! and yanked her by the elbow, but she struck out with her cane and lost her balance and nearly fell to the floor as I caught her just in time. I’m not leaving, I’m not leaving, she screamed, her hands clasped around my arms, and then I saw that the bucket was nearly full, and I freed myself from her grip and pulled the bucket out of the sink, ran into the living room, and threw the water onto the flaming garland as a loud hiss rose up in the room. Frau Chran came hobbling in; she was wailing now, you won’t tell anyone, will you? Then a crafty expression crept over her face. I have a little savings, she began, if you could find me a nice young man who’ll paper the room, and then I heard myself telling her that everything would be alright, but I knew it was only a matter of time until someone would assess the danger she was beginning to present to the rest of the building’s inhabitants and notify the authorities.