Tag Archives: Shelf Life

Shelf Life


There’s a story I’ve been wanting to tell you for a long time now. I’ve been telling it to myself time after time, for so many years, yet each time I hear it, I’m not sure if it’s quite the same story as the last time, or if it hasn’t changed just a little bit. Just a little bit from time to time, a little bit different each time I’ve told it, and so a little different from time to time, a bit, a bit different each time. I no longer remember the first time I told it to myself, nor if I was even really listening, that first time. I will try to tell it now, as I have told it to myself so many times before, but I can’t really say for sure if it will be the same story as last time, or the time before, but it will, nonetheless, be the same story, more or less, as the last time, and the same as every time I’ve told it, nearly, or at least as every time I’ve told it that I’ve been listening, if you understand what I mean. It begins like this:

I once woke up on a bed in a room I’d never seen before, next to a man I didn’t know, and I asked him, who am I? How did I get here? But he didn’t know, he told me, as he was, after all, about to ask me the same. I remember another room, I told him, not this room, but another, a different room. And before that another, different, room, very much like the other room, but not like this room, not at all like this room. And another bed, I told him, I could remember another bed. If he could remember another room,  I asked him. Yes, he said. And another bed, could he also remember another bed, I asked him. Yes, he said, he could also remember another bed. We said nothing for quite some time. How did we get here, then, I asked him. And he answered, perhaps we were sleeping.

(It won’t be very easy getting away from you; my story is so intertwined with yours that I can’t even say for sure what would be left of my life if I were to try to separate it from yours.)


I will never learn who you are, I will never know your name. Yet you know every detail of my face, every nuance of this gaze which has blindly brushed by yours scores of times, not recognizing in it the one who has intently followed even the slightest of my movements. I speak to you often, and I hear you tell me, yes, oh yes, I know these things you’re telling me, I know them very well. I long for you; if it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be able to live, I wouldn’t be able to carry on. I’ve never told anyone about you; our bond is all the greater because no one but you and I knows of it. Isn’t it a pleasure, this secret of ours?

I imagine you sitting at a window, gazing into the window opposite and thinking of how you might look seen from that window, half a shadow, barely visible. I imagine you getting up from your chair and looking for something to do to distract you from your thoughts. I imagine you sitting down, again, bending over to rest your elbows on your knees, and then looking down at your legs, and below them your feet resting on the floor. Suddenly a bird flying by overhead is reflected in the smooth pool inside a coffee cup beside them, remnants left over from the day before: a small trace of heaven quivering in the depths. I wish I could do something to comfort you now; I would lay my hand on your shoulder, silently. What else can one do, when confronted with someone else’s sorrow?


this small sacrifice


 I can no longer remember what time of year it was, but I can recall the shadows in the room falling very differently. The moisture had ceased to collect on the windowpane; perhaps the days were beginning to grow longer again, I don’t know. The trees outside, the walls, my hands and the cup they were holding were all bathed in the light of the morning sun, which warmed despite a chill still in the air…  of course, I remember it now: it was still the early part of Spring, and the magnolias were about to bloom.

It must be time to go and see if there’s been any mail; I think I heard the postman’s steps. I look down at my knees, and I see an airplane flying by overhead, reflected in the bathwater between them: I imagine trying to calculate the odds of this improbable occurrence. Suddenly, I feel overwhelmed by the desire to pack a suitcase and leave here, leave here immediately…  I know, by now, that even the shortest delay is enough time to allow a hundred doubts to enter the mind.

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.

Scrima pic

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.