The Empty Chair

What’s the point? wonders Jack, laying out knives with their blades facing the plates, the little desert forks across the tops, the folded napkins down the other side. His hands moves swiftly over the tablecloth, adjusting and readjusting in staccato bursts, as he finds clusters of errors — six settings sans spoons, three with wine glasses on the wrong side of the plate — all Marie’s fault. Frau Altbäumer said there would be thirteen people, but half of them are antisocial and the others will ignore each other in their rush to speak. Will any of them really have a good time? Will any of them return home happy? Will any of them speak English?

Jack knows there is only one answer to these questions, but he isn’t the one calling the shots. Frau Altbäumer, a tall, fiery, thin-lipped lady with a glassy orb of blond hair, is. She and her corpulent, silent husband are hosting Jack as a favor to Jack’s father, Herr Altbäumer’s business partner, who believes that a winter in a conservative Bavarian household might cure his son’s recently revealed “condition.” Jack, it must be noted — without euphemism or tiresome allusion — likes men. Frau Altbäumer told him, when she picked him up from the airport, that he should expect neither to speak English nor touch her dear eleven-year-old Johann. Jack replied that he was a homosexual, not a pedophile. Frau Altbäumer told him, with the last English he heard from her, to speak German or be quiet; Jack, knowing none, held his tongue.

Since that delightful car ride, Jack has picked up a few words — mostly the vocabulary of a waiter. He has also learned how to get around Munich, the nearby city, with the help of Marie, the Altbäumers’ daughter, who is older than Jack and speaks English fluently. She is home for the holidays from her school up north, and having been exposed to the philosophy of Berlin, laughs off both her parents’ homophobia and her host-brother’s homosexuality as equally chimeric. She is getting ready for the party now, straightening her hair and listening to the stray cats howling like babies at the slabs of meat that the Altbäumers hang, from rotting twine, on their veranda during the winter. She is thinking of Jack.

Frau Altbäumer enters the dining room, ejects a stream of German, ponders the place settings and lights the Advent candles, looking out on the marshland — the marshland stretching for thirty dreary miles before them. Johann trails behind her with a box of ornaments for the Christmas tree and starts to say something but soon shuts up; his mother pays no attention. It was Johann who found the MADE IN INDONESIA sticker on the set of ornaments that Jack brought for them, and it was Johann who let Jack know that the house had been a Gestapo headquarters. The Altbäumers need never fear that Jack and Johann will get too close.

Frau Altbäumer greets the guests as they arrive: the Langweiligers (what bores), Frau Reiche and the Russian professor visiting her (a scandal were Reiche not so decrepit), the Schatzsuchers (such talkers). She shuts the door and has Jack take their coats. Onkel Lamm will be late, as always; they should start without him. The Langweiligers, a mellow couple, own a nearby brewery; Frau Reiche is a literary translator with a blind, deaf poodle she refuses to leave home. Herr Schatzsucher, another business partner of Herr Altbäumer’s, is a broad-shouldered man with a pockmarked face and full suit and vest, his wife an accountant with a passion for calendrical oddities, their pimply-faced adolescent son Jakob just another German name for Jack to remember. Barely two years Johann’s senior, Jakob shifts from foot to foot until he gets his first glass of wine, which he promptly spills, eliciting a cascade of giggles from Marie.

The party moves from the front hall to the parlor, where Herr Schatzsucher admires the wine bottles’ age, their necks pressed against the insides of his chubby elbows (always thinking about the price) and the Langweiligers yawn behind loose fists. Frau Altbäumer fears, as she frets with the tablecloth and humors her husband’s tedious ministration of the red wine (he pours it into a decanter and swirls it until the lines sear themselves into the glass), that Jack will not serve the appetizers without prompting. She prompts him; he heads to the kitchen to get the bruschetta.

Johann is making spätzel there, pouring dough through a strainer into boiling water and then spooning the finished strands into a nearby bowl. Every time a little hot water touches his skin, he whines softly to his mother, who is busy entertaining her guests in the next room. Jack gives the boy a curt nod, grabs the plate he needs, and exits.

The dining room, through which he passes on his way back, is dressed in baroque maroons and darkly stained wood. A Persian painting depicts a softly sleeping couple in a four-poster king-size bed, and a supple hand emerging from underneath the bed. (Safely stowed adulteress or suspicious wife?) Candle flames bob to the sporadic rhythm of the conversation from the parlor.

A door opens and Marie, her hair sufficiently straight and her lithe, almost boyish body clad in a black dress, narrows her eyes at him, but lets him hold the door to the parlor for her. She is mad because I told her three weeks of Madonna was enough for me and went off to sled with Johann the other day. And Johann had left him for his real friends anyway — leaving Jack, with his pathetic reflexes, to crash on his own and wait at the bottom of the slope, fearing the results of a second attempt. All about him the snow had fallen heavily. Many children in multicolored jackets had successfully descended on their thin wooden slats and Jack had tried to appreciate the way the scene looked like something out of a Dutch Renaissance painting, but panic had paralyzed his pleasure. Now, watching Marie go through the door, he sighs; she has been hurt.

The guests sit waiting in the harrowing light, listening to Frau Reiche discuss in what ways French translations of German philosophy fail. Jack catches snippets and translates them for himself: “There are…half of a change [or did she say diamond ring?]…from any language as beautiful as German.” Jakob squirms and dodges off to a bathroom. When he returns, having popped a prominent pimple on his forehead, Marie smiles. Jack thinks the violated blackhead looks like nothing so much as a Nazi banner: black, red, and white. The conversation gradually shifts to the auto industry; will it survive? “What’s the point?” asks the Russian professor, provocatively, but he’s no communist, just a foreigner to German economics. Jack, taking a hint from Frau Altbäumer, clears an appetizer while the party sits down to dinner.

Johann is examining the duck, while Marie tells him about an illegal party she attended in Berlin last year on New Year’s Eve. As Jack enters, Johann exits in relief. Marie switches to English: “It was in the basement of this gigantic parking garage under construction in the middle of a park.” Jack chops celery and glances at the newspaper. The past, he decides, is a cross we bear, the future our crucifixion. “There was no heat, no electricity, no running water. There were all these young people standing around with their coats on, drinking out of dirty cups from a sketchy bar, smoking. I was shivering and could not go to the bathroom. There was no bathroom. So I decided to leave, except I was kind of drunk and on my own, so I got lost in the tunnels of this construction site, and they were all dark, and I only had a cell phone with me for light, and that started running out of batteries, until I stumbled into a guy who also seemed lost, and—”

No more stories about sexual awakening, prays Jack. Over the past few weeks, neither of them having other friends around, they have covered every conceivable topic, but she always returns to sex — specifically, how Jack is so sure that he is not bisexual. Jack starts to stir the duck.

“—he turned out to be a lapsed Jesuit. He helped me find the way out and to the train station. And as we walked, he told me why he had quit the faith.”

Jack stops and looks up. “Why did he?”

“He said he couldn’t keep waiting for salvation all of his life. He got to the point where he needed to either die, so he could go to heaven, or stop believing in Christ. But that alone didn’t do it. Because you can’t just decide to stop believing in God.” She pauses and bites her lower lip, takes her hands out of her hair and rubs them against each other in the air, as if she is washing her knuckles in a sink. “Then he was on the street one day, and he saw a guy he had known growing up — a guy whose father had given tons to charity — and this guy was, well, homeless. Begging for bread. He couldn’t understand how the children of the…what’s the word?…righteous, could go hungry.”

“Wow,” says Jack. She has been gazing at the duck, and only now do they make eye contact. After a moment they look away; he notices a mole on the top of her left breast. Her cleavage, normally pale, is rosy. He looks back up to find her watching his eyes. “Do you believe in God?” he asks, feeling childish.

“I don’t know,” she says. “If there is one, He would be saving us, wouldn’t he? But if there isn’t one…could life really be that meaningless?” Another pause. The knuckles stop moving. “What about you?”

“No, but if I did, I guess it wouldn’t be the same one anyway.”

“You mean because your mom’s Jewish?”

Jack nods, his eyes shifting over to the plate of pistachios he has brought back. After a pause Marie remarks, “I guess both religions think you’re a sinner.”

“Condemned to shell pistachios for eternity,” he jokes, and she laughs the way Frau Altbäumer never does at one of his quips. Then she looks serious again. Seemed hurt when I said I’d go sledding instead. Should apologize. But how many Madonnas can you stand — even if you’re a medievalist like her? Jack opens his mouth.

“If only you were into girls…no hell then,” she says, picking up a plate of stewed prunes and exiting as Frau Altbäumer enters and tells Jack to finish clearing the hors d’oeuvres. Moving through the house, Jack considers death. If we fear death, our lives will be unhappy, and insofar as death is an end to life, death will end our suffering—so we should welcome death. But if we do not fear death, our lives will be happy, and death will end our happiness — so we should fear death. Can the same thing be both feared and welcomed? He clears the hors d’oeuvres.

Frau Altbäumer rules the dinner itself with a steel grasp. Every self-applauding comment she makes involves her beloved Heidegger. Jack, who has never heard of the man, asks Marie if he is a family friend; she laughs and (because her mother has forbidden English at their dinner table), replies, “Nein, er ist tot.” She adds, “Ein Philosoph.” Getting the gist, he nods.

Frau Reiche, gripping her jittery dog between her feet, drinks too much seltzer and becomes drunk first out of everyone because of the carbonation. Frau Schatzsucher explains intercalations to the Russian professor, who drinks periodically.

“Sehr wichtig für den Menschen der Antike,” says Frau Schatzsucher.

“Die Ente, bitte,” says the Russian professor. Jack passes him the duck.

Marie, after making sure her mother is otherwise occupied, promises, “I won’t make you speak German,” reassuringly squeezes his shoulder, and begins to tell him about a themed New Year’s Eve party she is excited about; she promises to bring him along. Jack wishes they would talk about theology. When she wonders about God, she runs the back of her hand over her jaw as if stroking a beard; then she fascinates. But even talking to him is a favor, so he endures. Useless without her. Should apologize.

Indeed, just this afternoon Jack had rejected her company and the Christian art in favor of the only modernist museum in Munich. He couldn’t understand Mary; was she incestuous or were there two different godheads? He was sure there was a reasonable theological explanation, but it eluded him. Judaism requires none of these theological maneuvers — just an answer to the question, where’s Elijah?

The museum used a handful of surrealist paintings as a springboard for its true interest: eclectic art by current painters. Looking at a picture of a naked woman with alarm clocks instead of breasts, Jack became aware of another visitor: a tall man in a long black overcoat, who looked at the same pictures as Jack, just moments afterward. From painting to painting the two of them hopped, the other man always a painting or two behind. He was clean-shaven, with flowing black hair and blue eyes, but it was the grace of his stride that most impressed Jack. He walked as if crowned with laurel.

At the end of the exhibit was a dark room with a short experimental film. The two men sat on the only bench there, watching as nebulae coalesced into stars, which amassed matter due to gravity, and then, suddenly, lit up as nuclear fusion commenced. They watched as Red Flowering Gum bloomed, pushing up out of the sand, shedding grains carelessly like underclothes, sucking in the Australian sun. They watched as the electrons in an atom of uranium buzzed around, as the substance decayed, releasing alpha particles in swift jets. Jack watched as the other man got a massive hard-on, looking nervously at Jack between segments, and finally got up and left. Jack sighed with relief. He had almost lapsed. Then he checked his watch; he was late for the dinner preparations. So he straightened his own pants and took a few deep breaths, suppressing his shame. As he rushed back by bus, he wondered whether mere desire constituted a sin. But had it been mere desire? Had they not watched each other, waiting for the other to advance, each wanting to be fed the apple by the other? Their lust had been physically realized, even if they’d never touched each other. Jack shuddered and walked into the Altbäumers’ still thinking of blooming nebulae.

Marie’s voice penetrates his memory: “You should hear Onkel Lamm. He used to think he was gay, but one night a woman dressed up as a man and he didn’t know the difference. Blew his mind.” Jack looks toward the empty chair at the table’s foot, where Lamm will sit if he ever arrives; a glass of red wine awaits him. The hostess motions for Jack to clear the table and bring the equipment for Frau Reiche’s favorite drink: a complicated concoction of rum and wine. As he does so, he notices that a fake plant on a table in the kitchen appears to have shed a leaf. Carrying back desert, Jack has the peculiar sensation that he is looking at the room from far away, perhaps a mountaintop. Everyone is so small, so distant, like lecturers in a shadowed valley. He cannot shake the feeling and is happy when Frau Reiche takes over.

In a pot is a large quantity of heated red wine with spices and fruit slices; she rests this over two candles. She lays a metal bar across the diameter of the pot and a sugar cone on the bar. Then she takes a bottle of rum of over 100 proof and saturates the cone with it. She lights the cone on fire and the party watches as the cone sizzles and melts into the wine, carrying the rum with it. The entire pot burns with a naughty blue flame, a fire that refines. When the sugar melts entirely, Frau Reiche drunkenly doles out the wine, which they drink with mango slices.

Johann ends the lull with a whisper to his mother. She directs the four children into the southern wing of the house, to play a board game. Marie cops a bottle of rum. She and Jack take swigs from it as Johann sets up the board and Jakob creeps off to the bathroom. Jack, going to pee, finds Jakob not picking zits but vomiting into the toilet with relish. Jakob, mortified, shuts the door, so Jack returns to the game and asks Marie if there is another bathroom he can use. Getting up, she seems amused. Maybe she isn’t angry after all.

Marie leads the way through dark corridors and turns on the light only when they reach their destination. When Jack finishes, he finds her waiting in the dim hallway. His reflexes are inadequate as she approaches, slides a hand up his shirt, and with his back against the wall, presses her mouth to his.

He detaches his lips and tries to dodge away, but her thin body is somehow everywhere. Should apologize, but not this way. “Marie, Marie —” but she silences him.

“Relax,” she says. “Just pretend I’m a man.”

“It doesn’t work like that. I’m not your Onkel Lamm.”

“Would it help if I gave you some better motivation?” Jack edges his hips away from hers at the thought. Maybe if I promise to go back to the museums with her? Couldn’t alienate her…useless otherwise. “I guess so,” she says, her voice suddenly steelier.

“I can call the others,” says Jack before she continues.

“But will they come when you call?” asks Marie. Then, pressing her body more firmly into his, she raises an eyebrow. “You know how my parents would kill you if they thought you’d touched Johann?” Shit.

“Marie, that’s blackmail.”

“Think of it as coercive enlightenment. I’m not above it.” Looking into her eyes, mere glimmers a few inches from his face, he knows she isn’t. Jack knows what happened to Joseph in Potiphar’s house; he can’t afford the same fate.

“How do you expect me to perform for you? I can’t even get it up with a girl.”

“Relax,” she repeats, victory in sight. “Pretend I’m a man.”

He sighs, and they commence. Making out and undressing cause no extraordinary problems. He arouses her, trying not to cringe at her sour odor. They move into the bathroom, go down on each other — he closing his eyes and grasping for a man, she up on the sink. He keeps his eyes closed and thinks back to the man in the Museum of Surrealism, to the blooming particles, to the phallic plants. Intercourse begins; Jack remembers the overcoat, the walk of laurels. When she begins to moan, he pretends she is a lithe castrato.

She becomes louder. She’s not howling for me. Like prayer, her ecstasy is mere apostrophe. But unable to ignore her femininity, Jack tries to imagine that he is about to impregnate her, that via the seed of a Jewish homosexual her ancestors’ fantasy of the Aryan Race will become irrevocably sullied. He conjures the swastika, the Fuhrer’s mustache, the Sig Runes of the SS, all submerged in mud. He sees his father, Herr Schatzsucher, and Frau Altbäumer, unholy trinity, washed away by a howling torrent. On, on, on, they rush, and behind them rushes the river of oblivion.

Jack is returned to reality by the voice of Frau Altbäumer calling from the living room. He is slumped against Marie, who pants, with sated lust, into the sink. “What is she saying?” asks Jack, disengaging himself for the first and last time from a girl.

Marie contentedly closes her eyes. “Onkel Lamm has come.”

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