It starts with one, rubbing against your legs, which are too tired to kick it away. The tire goes deeper than your bones. It is a tire brought on by a different world, far away from this one. Germany in flames. Your ID, too, besmirched with political allegations and dubious war crimes.
You are 31 and a wounded child on cold American pavement. Unflinching, hard concrete.
Amerika, you say, mother tongue too pummelled in to soften your consonants. The accent will grow meeker in time, smothered by American vowels, but in moment of distress you'll revert back.
The landscape stretches out in front of you, light giving everything a yellow hue. The worn trailer in front of you will be your new home, at least till the stress over World War II dies down. That's what your allies tell you through secret telegrams, ending with a phrase you have come to despise. The money is undeserved, but you take it anyway, despite wanting nothing more to do with your cloudy past. America represents a fresh start, yes? A new life?
Jaw set so tight you might've swallowed worlds, you swear, 'I will make the most of this chance.'
Starting with the cat.
"Are you lonely?" you ask it. It rubs against your legs, purring. You imagine it being loved, petted, and fed with fish and fresh milk, before it all stops when the owner gets sick of it. "Are you far from home?" You name it Engel. Welcoming the cat into your trailer is easier than you anticipated. The space is cramped, filled with boxes and your old books. But big rooms mean empty spaces, and you have enough of those in your head. Engel makes lovely company.
Letter writing is a nice way to pass time. Your sister is the only remaining link, though. Months pass without response, but you keep on writing. You try to imagine her grinning with a front tooth too big, smoking cheap cigs and sucking on the C vitamin pills she swore to, reading it out loud for potential nieces and nephew. But what you really think of is those war reports of Berlin women on the streets, selling their bodies. The strong mothers, the supportive sisters, the winking schoolgirls... all sell themselves for the sins of a country. Among them is your sister, vacant eyed, mouth forming an o and whispering "Warum, warum, warum—?"
You try to find other family. A distant uncle immigrated here long ago, and tracking them down is not difficult with your resources. The family owns a house with a white picked fence, and they invite you, childishly curious of anything foreign. It is hard to tell the difference between American warmth and American enthusiasm. It is a young country, and this is mirrored in its habitants. A teen cut off from the world, opinionated and inexperienced with a somewhat dumb black and white mentality. They joke about Nazism and you press your lips together so hard you think they might rip. You thank them for the hospitality, and they give you their number which you have no intention of ever using.
Engel has found a boyfriend and he, too, is welcomed into the family. He's half wild and you name him Floh. You devote yourself to simple passions. The cats. Landscape photography. Literature. You try to live like a little fly, never hurting anybody, flying around the same little light. You stop sending letters after 4 years and no answer. You still write them, though. (It only ever counts if you say I love you in the mother tongue.) You leave the letters around in the trailer, dog eared from wear and kitten teeth.
You send letters to Alan, but he reminds you too much of your past, so you stop. The only friendship you have (except with the cats, of course) is with the neighbours in the trailer opposite from you. It is a Mexican immigrant family, too many and too hopeful. In a night when mosquitoes bite your ankles and Engel sleeps on your lap, the father raises his booze to your wine bottle; a tourist's salute. "This is a country of tourists," he tells you afterwards in his broken English, "some just know it better than others." One can live in America their entire life and never feel at home. Some have skin too cracked, or too brown. They don't fit in tight American skin. Too spicy for apple pie. Here, immigrants are born. When the family invite you over to dinner—a cornucopia of oregano and pepper—the food is so spicy your face reddens, horribly, but they all laugh and pat you on the back like you're an old friend. The grandmother tries to give you a Bible, the children's wilderness echo even after they've gone to bed, and when you pass out because of too much moonshine (too much love), some of them take the floor so that you can sleep in their bed.
2 years later they're deported back to wherever they came from and you watch from the sideline, clutching Engel. You're terrified of being found out, of being sent back, and of half lidded black eyes which say You made it and we did not. Something shatters. You're a wolf in sheep's clothing. You need to try harder, need to fill your mouth with American soil and swear allegiance to the flag.
For America, you must die a thousand times.
For Germany, you only died once.
You read Hemingway and your lips thin. You read Plath and your eyes soften. Engel crawls underneath the trailer and dies alone on a spring day. You shed a tear and bury it in the back garden. Floh follows shortly. But there are still cats, though, cats everywhere. When there isn't enough space in the bed you place them in drawers, and on the counter, and in your bed, and everywhere cats can go. A graveyard develops behind the trailer.
Alan Turing commits suicide after being tortured with hormone therapy, his only crime being loving another man. An apple is found near his corpse but it is not checked. There is irony in that, somewhere. It fills you with a sort of hollow sadness. He is 41 and you are 47—and although you are worse, you live. 'That's how it is with the kittens, too,' you think after another batch has come: 'the worst always survive.'
Landscape photography does not soothe you anymore. In lieu of treasures the alligator swamp outside the trailer becomes a corpse disposer in your head. You imagine lovers and immigrants floating facedown in the swamp, leeches on swollen fattened thigh, rotting faces, eyes gone dull and white like catfish. Your cats, once your family, become chores. They swarm around your feet like fish in an aquarium, blurred by the water.
A shady corporation contacts you. They will not say who let them know about you, or what the job entails, but the pay is good and the trailer smells like cat piss so you need more cash. When getting cash, you adopt four new cats from a local shelter. They are ugly and shy. One of them have been beaten half to death by previous owners. You give them American names.
The men in suits—Murkoff, you soon learn—presents your new job's goal with smooth practiced words and flat American vowels. You never could tell the difference between American warmth and American enthusiasm, it all sounds equally fake. What they want you to do is simple: use Alan's work for bad purposes. What they want is even simpler: power.
You are tired again. You want to fit into a system and blaze again. You take the job.
The system hugs you like one would one's child, and you slip into the embrace, shutting your brain off because you recognize this ordeal. Your conscience is leaking out. Work days become work months.
Your bosses introduce you to Jeremy Blaire. You take one look at him and decide that he's an eater. You've seen cats like him, cats that watch everything with lazy eyes until they kill a female cat's litter because they can. Blaire eats his way through the hierarchy, using the bones to fix his teeth, smile never reaching his oyster eyes. He's a picture book example of capitalism and CEO sociopathy. Perfect for Murkoff, really, and you know he will lie, murder and fuck his way to the top. Because that's all that matters to Jeremy Blaire: the top. If his climb comes to a halt he will go insane, like a dog, gnawing on its foot. And if he ever becomes obsessed with someone you will pity the person endlessly.
You give him the job of taking care of your cats. He smirks, knowing you see his potential, but he will grow tired of it, in the end.
Work months turn into work years.
You realize, little by little, that America does not love you—it loves your sweat, your toil. Your knowledge. Your tire. Your loneliness. It licks you with a rough tongue and purrs, and uses you for all that you're worth. As a tourist, you do not live anywhere, and Murkoff is just a new place to seek tenancy in. Theodoor Rombouts' Prometheus hangs on your office's wall, as you sometimes feel like an eagle is picking at you liver. The mad whispers in the asylum claim you are creating God. You don't know why. Murkoff is rotten. Over a heated phone call (blasé from your end, though), Blaire tells you he doesn't want to feed the cats anymore. You tell that's alright, but then he has to take care of it. English does not contain enough words to describe your current state of mind. Language is not about communication. Language is about power, and you lost yours long ago. You look at Billy Hope, and you thank whatever god (except the Walrider) that you're nearing 90 and will leave this body soon. You think your soul died back in Germany.
A little later, the policemen show up at your office door, unexpected.
They tell you they had to use gas masks to enter the trailer.
(The big bad rookie bleaches at the mention, and you know he was there and that he flashed on the grass outside, hands on his belly, spew at the corners of his lips, going "Why why why?")
Only 5 of 47 cats lived, the policemen say, but they had to be put down shortly afterwards, too crazy to function. Peeing on themselves. Flinching at any movement. Their claws and paws were ruined after scratching crazily at the walls, trying to get out. They'd tried to live by cannibalization—it was proved as some of the dead cats were partially eaten. Mother cats eating baby cats. You can see in the policemen's eyes that they will never forget it, never forget those black plastic bags, never forget the look of the live ones. They will not sue as they know the stakes.
But this does not stop them from looking at you like they want you to say something, anything, anything at all—and you turn away and say nothing.