grete | mutti | papa |the servant girl | the chief clerk

serialized excerpt 1 of 5 from Lance Olsenís Anxious Pleasures :

an unwriting of Kafkaís Metamorphosis that will be published spring 2007 by Shoemaker & Hoard.


óquarter to seven, Gregor, says Mutti from the hallway. Werenít you supposed to catch your train, dear?

Hanging in the soft grayness between sleep and waking, I listen for a little while to her voice, the heavy raindrops slapping the windowpane, the tram clanking several blocks away. 

Then a vivid stillness presses in, as if someone were waiting on the other side of my big brotherís door, deliberately refusing to answer, and I know something isnít right.

They say the time you spend in a foreign country isnít part of your own life. The same is true with music and dreaming. You live somewhere else in someone else and never want to leave. The shock is how, when you finally do, you discover everything in exactly the same place as before. What an extraordinary act of will: to seize hold of the contents of the room around you just where you left them, as though you have never been gone, the instant of coming back the riskiest of the day.

óGregor, Papaís voice joins in from the living room. He is unintentionally loud like the deaf. You want to tell him Calm down, Papa, we can all hear you very well, but he canít help it. His voice is naturally clumsy, the way a reindeer looks. 

óWhatís the matter with you? he is asking. Whatís going on in there? 

He is knocking quietly on my big brotherís door, yet using his fist. 

I listen, not wanting to rouse, step up onto the shore of a fresh day, but next, in the gap between two breaths, I find myself standing beside my bed, pulling my dark dress with the pretty embroidered chrysanthemums on the collar over my head, searching for my shoes. It is still dark outside. The only light is the pale sheen on the ceiling and upper surfaces of furniture cast by electric lamps from the street below. The rainy morning makes our flat seem as if it has somehow fallen out of alignment.

When he was my age, Gregorís favorite subject at the Gymnasium was geography. Isnít that funny? He used to read Sven Hedinís accounts of his voyages to the far corners of the earth. The cannibals in the South Pacific who during feasts spat out their enemiesí teeth onto the sand around them like cherry pits. The stringy parasites in Asia that twist across the whites of your eyes on their swim toward your thoughts.

After he returned from the service, he lost interest in such things. He never left this province again. And all that chatter about travel. All that business about seeing the world. He started talking about taking a degree in chemistry instead. Chemistry! And Gregor having done so frightfully in math. 

Still, when Papa got into trouble Gregor changed his mind straightaway and became a traveling salesman in cloth. There was no discussion, no weighing of options. It happened so rapidly you would have thought it was what he had been planning all along. He became a traveling salesman and, soon as he could afford it, found us this flat divided into regular segments likeólike a brown bugís belly, Georg would have said. If he were still with us. If this flat had somehow been aligned differently.

I was twelve. I was seventeen. Like dreaming or music, when you are gliding through those years, they feel they will never end. Once they are finished with you, you have such a difficult time recalling them in any sort of detail it seems they very well may have happened to a friend you no longer see, and you just heard about them secondhand, or maybe you read about them in a letter. It isnít you anymore. Imagine all the people you no longer are.

Gregor looked down at his hands with those long, thin, pretty fingers of his when I asked him why he did it, why he became a traveling salesman overnight, and he said:

óThatís what brothers are supposed to do, isnít it?

He didnít seem sure of the answer himself. 

Gregor works very hard. He has never reported in sick a day in his life. Every morning at four a.m., hanging far back in that soft grayness, I hear his alarm rattle alive next door. If I concentrate, I can just sense myself rolling over, tugging up the covers to my chin, snuggling back into the drowsy warmth, and then I am away again.

Until this morning, that is.

Until now.

Because something isnít right. Mutti is speaking at the door leading into Gregorís room from the hallway. Her voice is kind yet uneasy. An asthmatic rasp has colored it a phlegmy amber. I can hear her shuffling back and forth in place in her delft-blue robe, doing a nervous waltz with herself. 

She is a piccolo, Papa an oboe. They are playing the same tune, but in different keys. My big brother is a rest held bar after bar. There is no reply from his room, only a silence not so much silence as a sound waiting to express itself. 

My stomach crumples into a jackdaw trapped inside a wooden box. Passing my window, buttoning my dress, I glance down at the hospital across Charlotte Street . The pavement beneath the electric lamps is so wet it looks as polished as Gregorís desktop. Stonegray in the rain, the long low building stretches on down the block until it disappears altogether in the dim fog like an imperfect memory. 

Spiderwebby, I cross to the door connecting my room with Gregorís. I lean my forehead against the cool white paint, listening to my parentsí voices, inhaling last eveningís cabbage and the too-warm sour fumes from the coal-burning tile stove. 

Eyes shut, picking at the frayed cuticle on my right index finger, I wait for a lull and ask gently into the darkness:

óGregor? Arenít you well? Itís Grete, Gregor. Is there anything I can get you?



Two breaths, two breaths more, and my big brother replies.



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grete | mutti | papa |the servant girl | the chief clerk

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