The Goalie's Anxiety At the Penalty Kick
WHEN JOSEPH BLOCH, a construction worker who had once been a well-known soccer goalie, reported for work that morning, he was told that he was fired. At least that was how he interpreted the fact that no one except the foreman looked up from his coffee break when he appeared at the door of the construction shack, where the workers happened to be at that moment, and Bloch left the building site. Out on the street he raised his arm, but the car that drove past --even though Bloch hadn't been hailing a cab--was not a cab. Then he heard the sound of brakes in front of him. Bloch looked around: behind him there was a cab; its driver started swearing. Bloch turned around, got in, and told the driver to take him to the Naschmarkt.It was a beautiful October day. Bloch ate a hot dog at a stand and then walked past the stalls to a movie theater. Everything he saw bothered him. He tried to notice as little as possible. Inside the theater he breathed freely.Afterward he was astonished by the perfectly natural manner of the cashier in responding to the wordless gesture with which he'd put his money on the box-office turntable. Next to the movie screen he noticed the illuminated dial of an electric clock. Halfway through the movie he heard a bell; for a long time he couldn't decide whether the ringing was in the film or in the belfry outside near the Naschmarkt.Out on the street, he bought some grapes, which were especially cheap at this time of year. He walked on, eating the grapes and spitting out the skins. The first hotel where he asked for a room turned him away because he had only a briefcase with him; the desk clerk at the second hotel, which was on a side street, took him to his room himself. Even before the clerk had gone, Bloch lay down on the bed and soon fell asleep.In the evening he left the hotel and got drunk. Later he sobered up and tried calling some friends; since most of these friends didn't live in the city and the phone didn't return his coins, Bloch soon ran out of change. A policeman to whom Bloch shouted,thinking he could get his attention, did not respond. Bloch wondered whether the policeman might have misconstrued the words Bloch had called across the street, and he remembered the natural way the movie cashier had spun around the tray with his ticket. He'd been so astonished by the swiftness of her movements that he almost forgot to pick up the ticket. He decided to look up the cashier.When he got to the movie, the theater's lights were just going out. Bloch saw a man on a ladder exchanging the letters of the film for tomorrow's title. He waited until he could read the name of the next film; then he went back to the hotel.The next day was Saturday. Bloch decided to stay at the hotel one more day. Except for an American couple, he was alone in the dining room; for a while he listened to their conversation, which he could understand fairly well because he'd traveled with his team to several soccer tournaments in New York; then he quickly went out to buy some newspapers. The papers, because they were the weekend editions, were very heavy; he didn't fold them up but carried them under his arm to the hotel. He sat down at his table, which had been cleared in the meantime, and took out the want-ad sections; this depressed him. Outside he saw two people walking by with thick newspapers. He held his breath until they had passed.Only then did he realize they were the two Americans. Having seen them earlier only at the table in the dining room, he did not recognize them.At a coffeehouse he sipped for a long time at the glass of water served with his coffee. Once in a while he got up and took a magazine from the stacks lying on the chairs and tables designated for them; once when the waitress retrieved the magazines piled beside him, she muttered the phrase "newspaper table" as she left. Bloch, who could hardly bear looking at the magazines but at the same time could not really put down a single one of them before he had leafed through it completely, tried glancing out at the street now and then; the contrast between the magazine illustrations and the changing views outside soothed him. As he left, he returned the magazines to the table himself.At the market the stalls were already closed. For a few minutes Bloch casually kicked discarded vegetables and fruit along the ground in front of him. Somewhere between the stalls he relieved himself. Standing there, he noticed that the walls of the wooden stands were black with urine everywhere.The grape skins he had spat out the day before were still lying on the sidewalk. When Bloch put his money on the cashier's tray, the bill got caught as the turntable revolved; he had a chance to say something.The cashier answered. He said something else. Because this was unusual, the girl looked up. This gave him an excuse to go on talking. Inside the movie, Bloch remembered the cheap novel and the hot plate next to the cashier; he leaned back and began to take in the details on the screen.Late in the afternoon he took a streetcar to the stadium. He bought standing room but sat down on the newspapers, which he still hadn't thrown away; the fact that the spectators in front of him blocked his view did not bother him. During the game most of them sat down. Bloch wasn't recognized. He left the newspapers where they were, put a beer bottle on top of them, and went out of the stadium before the final whistle, so he wouldn't get caught in the rush. The many nearly empty buses and streetcars waiting outside the stadium--it was a championship game--seemed strange. He sat down in a streetcar. He sat there almost alone for so long that he began to feel impatient. Had the referee called overtime? When Bloch looked up, he saw that the sun was going down. Without meaning anything by it, Bloch lowered his head.Outside, it suddenly got windy. At just about the time that the final whistle blew, three long separate blasts, the drivers and conductors got into the buses and streetcars and the people crowded out of thestadium. Bloch could imagine the noise of beer bottles landing on the playing field; at the same time he heard dust hitting against the windows. Just as he had leaned back in the movie house, so now, while the spectators surged into the streetcar, he leaned forward. Luckily, he still had his film program. It felt as though the floodlights had just been turned on in the stadium. "Nonsense," Bloch said to himself. He never played well under the lights.Downtown he spent some time trying to find a phone booth; when he found an empty one, the ripped-off receiver lay on the floor. He walked on. Finally he was able to make a call from the West Railroad Station. Since it was Saturday, hardly anybody was home. When a woman he used to know finally answered, he had to talk a bit before she understood who he was. They arranged to meet at a restaurant near the station, where Bloch knew there was a juke box. He passed the time until she came putting coins in the juke box, letting other people choose the songs; meanwhile, he looked at the signed photos of soccer players on the walls. The place had been leased a couple of years ago by a forward on the national eleven, who'd then gone overseas as coach of one of the unofficial American teams; now that that league had broken up, he'd disappeared over there. Bloch started talking to a girl who kept reachingblindly behind her from the table next to the juke box, always choosing the same record. She left with him. He tried to get her into a doorway, but all the gates were already locked. When one could be opened, it turned out that, to judge from the singing, a religious service was going on behind an inner door. They found an elevator and got in; Bloch pushed the button for the top floor. Even before the elevator started up, the girl wanted to get out again. Bloch then pushed the button for the second floor; there they got out and stood on the stairs; now the girl became affectionate. They ran upstairs together. The elevator was on the top floor; they got in, rode down, and went out on the street.Bloch walked beside the girl for a while; then he turned around and went back to the restaurant. The woman, still in her coat, was waiting. Bloch explained to the other girl, who was still at the table next to the juke box, that her friend would not come back, and went out of the restaurant with the woman.Bloch said, "I feel silly without a coat when you're wearing one." The woman took his arm. To free his arm, Bloch pretended that he wanted to show her something. Then he didn't know what it was he wanted to show her. Suddenly he felt the urge to buy an evening paper. They walked through several streets but couldn't find a newsstand. Finally theytook the bus to the South Station, but it was already closed. Bloch pretended to be startled; and in reality he was startled. To the woman--who had hinted, by opening her purse on the bus and fiddling with various things, that she was having her period--he said, "I forgot to leave a note," without knowing what he actually meant by the words "note" and "leave." Anyway, he got into a cab alone and drove to the Naschmarkt.Since the movie had a late show on Saturdays, Bloch actually arrived too early. He went to a nearby cafeteria and, standing up, ate a croquette. He tried to tell the counter girl a joke as fast as he could; when the time was up and he still hadn't finished, he stopped in the middle of a sentence and paid. The girl laughed.On the street he ran into a man he knew who asked him for money. Bloch swore at him. As the drunk grabbed Bloch by the shirt, the street blacked out. Startled, the drunk let go. Bloch, who'd been expecting the theater lights to go out, rushed away. In front of the movie house he met the cashier; she was getting into a car with a man. Bloch watched her. When she was in the car, in the seat next to the driver, she answered his look by adjusting her dress on the seat; at least Bloch took this to be a response. There were no incidents; she had closed the door and the car had driven off.Bloch went back to the hotel. He found the lobby lit up but deserted. When he took his key from the hook, a folded note fell out of the pigeonhole. He opened it: it was his bill. While Bloch stood there in the lobby, with the note in his hand, the desk clerk came out of the checkroom. Bloch immediately asked him for a newspaper and at the same time looked through the open door into the checkroom, where the clerk had evidently been napping on a chair he'd taken from the lobby. The clerk closed the door, so that all Bloch could see was a small stepladder with a soup bowl on it, and said nothing until he was behind the desk. But Bloch had understood even the closing of the door as a rebuff and walked upstairs to his room. In the rather long hall he noticed a pair of shoes in front of only one door; in his room he took off his own shoes without untying them and put them outside the door. He lay down on the bed and fell asleep at once.In the middle of the night he was briefly awakened by a quarrel in the adjoining room; but perhaps his ears were so oversensitive after the sudden waking that he only thought the voices next door were quarreling. He slammed his fist against the wall. Then he heard water rushing in the pipes. The water was turned off; it became quiet, and he fell back to sleep.Next morning the telephone woke Bloch up. He was asked whether he wanted to stay another night.Looking at his briefcase on the floor--the room had no luggage rack--Bloch immediately said yes and hung up. After he had brought in his shoes, which had not been shined, probably because it was Sunday, he left the hotel without breakfast.In the rest room at the South Station he shaved himself with an electric razor. He showered in one of the shower stalls. While getting dressed, he read the sports section and the court reports in the newspaper. Afterwards--he was still reading and it was rather quiet in the adjoining booths--he suddenly felt good. Fully dressed, he leaned against the wall of the booth and kicked his foot against the wooden bench. The noise brought a question from the attendant outside and, when he didn't answer, a knock on the door. When he still didn't reply, the woman outside slapped a towel (or whatever it might be) against the door handle and went away. Bloch finished reading the paper standing up.On the square in front of the station he ran into a man he knew who told him he was going to the suburbs to referee a minor-league game. Bloch thought this idea was a joke and played along with it by saying that he might as well come too, as the linesman. When his friend opened his duffelbag and showed him the referee's uniform and a net bag full of lemons, Bloch saw even those things, in line withthe initial idea, as some kind of trick items from a novelty shop and, still playing along, said that since he was coming too, he might as well carry the duffelbag. Later, when he was with his friend on the local train, the duffelbag in his lap, it seemed, especially since it was lunchtime and the compartment was nearly empty, as though he was going through this whole business only as a joke. Though what the empty compartment was supposed to have to do with his frivolous behavior was not clear to Bloch. That this friend of his was going to the suburbs with a duffelbag; that he, Bloch, was coming along; that they had lunch together at a suburban inn and went together to what Block called "an honest-to-goodness soccer field," all this seemed to him, even while he was traveling back home alone--he had not liked the game--some kind of mutual pretense. None of that mattered, thought Bloch. Luckily, he didn't run into anyone else on the square in front of the station.From a telephone booth at the edge of a park he called his ex-wife; she said everything was okay but didn't ask about him. Bloch felt uneasy.He sat down in a garden café that was still open despite the season and ordered a beer. When, after some time, nobody had brought his beer, he left; besides, the steel tabletop, which wasn't covered by a cloth, had blinded him. He stood outside the windowof a restaurant; the people inside were sitting in front of a TV set. He watched for a while. Somebody turned toward him, and he walked away.In the Prater he was mugged. One thug jerked his jacket over his arms from behind; another butted his head against Bloch's chin. Bloch's knees folded a little, then he gave the guy in front a kick. Finally the two of them shoved him behind a candy stand and finished the job. He fell down and they left. In a rest room, Bloch cleaned off his face and suit.At a café in the Second District he shot some pool until it was time for the sports news on television. Bloch asked the waitress to turn on the set and then watched as if none of this had anything to do with him. He asked the waitress to join him for a drink. When the waitress came out of the back room, where gambling was going on, Bloch was already at the door; she walked past him but didn't speak. Bloch went out.Back at the Naschmarkt, the sight of the sloppily piled fruit and vegetable crates behind the stalls seemed like another joke of some kind, nothing to worry about. Like cartoons, thought Bloch, who liked to look at cartoons with no words. This feeling of pretense, of playing around--this business with the referee's whistle in the duffelbag, thought Bloch--went away only when, in the movie, a comic snitcheda trumpet from a junk shop and started tooting on it in a perfectly natural way; all this was so casual that it almost seemed unintentional, and Bloch realized that the trumpet and all other objects were stark and unequivocal. Bloch relaxed.After the movie he waited between the market stalls for the cashier. Some time after the start of the last show, she came out. So as not to frighten her by coming at her from between the stalls, he sat there on a crate until she got to the more brightly lit part of the Naschmarkt. Behind the lowered shutter in one of the stalls, a telephone was ringing; the stand's phone number was written in large numerals on the metal sheet. "No score," Bloch thought at once. He followed the cashier without actually catching up with her. As she got on the bus, he strolled up and stepped aboard after her. He took a seat facing her but left several rows of seats between them. Not until new passengers blocked his view after the next stop was Bloch able to think again. She had certainly looked at him but obviously hadn't recognized him; had the mugging changed his looks that much? Bloch ran his fingers over his face. The idea of glancing at the window to check what she was doing struck him as foolish. He pulled the newspaper from the inside pocket of his jacket and looked down at the letters but didn't read. Then, suddenly, he foundhimself reading. An eyewitness was testifying about the murder of a pimp who'd been shot in the eye at close range. "A bat flew out of the back of his head and slammed against the wallpaper. My heart skipped a beat." When the sentences went right on about something else, about an entirely different person, with no paragraph, Bloch was startled. "But they should have put a paragraph there," thought Bloch. After his abrupt shock, he was furious. He walked down the aisle toward the cashier and sat diagonally across from her, so that he could look at her; but he did not look at her.When they got off the bus, Bloch realized that they were far outside the city, near the airport. At this time of night, it was a very quiet area. Bloch walked along beside the girl but not as if he was escorting her or even as if he wanted to. After a while he touched her. The girl stopped, turned, and touched him too, so fiercely that he was startled. For a moment the purse in her other hand seemed more familiar to him than she did.They walked along together a while, but keeping their distance, not touching. Only when they were on the stairs did he touch her again. She started to run; he walked more slowly. When he got upstairs, he recognized her apartment by the wide-open door. She attracted his attention in the dark; he walked to her and they started in right away.In the morning, wakened by a noise, he looked out the window and saw a plane coming in for a landing. The blinking lights made him close the curtain. Because they hadn't turned on any lights, the curtain had stayed open. Bloch lay down and closed his eyes.With his eyes closed, he was overcome by a strange inability to visualize anything. He tried to tell himself the names he knew for each thing in the room, but he couldn't picture anything; not even the plane he had just seen landing, though he might have recognized in his mind, probably from earlier experience, the screeching of its brakes on the runway. He opened his eyes and looked for a while at the corner where the kitchen was: he concentrated on the tea kettle and the wilted flowers drooping in the sink. He had barely closed his eyes again when the flowers and the tea kettle were unimaginable. He resorted to thinking up sentences about the things instead of words for them, in the belief that a story made up of such sentences would help him visualize things. The tea kettle whistled. The flowers were given to the girl by a friend. Nobody took the kettle off the hot plate. "Would you like some tea?" asked the girl. It was no use: Bloch opened his eyes when he couldn't stand it any more. The girl was asleep beside him.Bloch grew nervous. If the pressure of everything around him when his eyes were open was bad, the pressure of the words for everything out there whenhis eyes were closed was even worse. "Maybe it's because I just finished sleeping with her," he thought. He went into the bathroom and took a long shower.The tea kettle was actually whistling when he came back. "The shower woke me up," the girl said. Bloch felt as if she were addressing him directly for the first time. He wasn't quite himself yet, he replied. Were there ants in the teapot? "Ants?" When the boiling water from the kettle hit the bottom of the pot, he didn't see tea leaves but ants, on which he had once poured scalding water. He pulled the curtain open again.The tea in the open canister seemed--since the light reached it only through the small round hole in the lid--oddly illuminated by reflection from the inner walls. Bloch, sitting with the canister at the table, was staring fixedly through the hole. It amused him to be so fascinated by the peculiar glow of the tea leaves while inattentively talking to the girl. Finally he pressed the cap back on the lid, but at the same time he stopped talking. The girl hadn't noticed anything. "My name is Gerda," she said. Bloch hadn't even wanted to know. He asked whether she had noticed anything, but she'd put on a record, an Italian song with electric-guitar accompaniment. "I like his voice," she said. Bloch, who had no use for Italian hits, remained silent.When she went out briefly to get something for breakfast--"It's Monday," she said--Bloch finally had a chance to study everything carefully. While they ate, they talked a lot. Bloch soon noticed that she talked about the things he'd just told her as if they were hers, but when he mentioned something she had just talked about, he either quoted her exactly or, if he was using his own words, always prefaced the new names with a hesitant "this" or "that," which distanced them, as if he were afraid of making her affairs his. If he talked about the foreman, say, or about a soccer player named Dumm, she could say, almost at once, quite familiarly, "the foreman" and "Dumm"; however, when she mentioned someone she knew called Freddy or a bar called Stephen's Dive, he invariably talked about "this Freddy?" and "that Stephen's Dive?" when he replied. Every word she uttered prevented him from taking any deeper interest, and it upset him that she seemed so free to take over whatever he said.From time to time, of course, the conversation became as natural for him as for her: he asked a question and she answered; she asked one and he made the obvious reply. "Is that a jet?"--"No, that's a prop plane."--"Where do you live?"--"In the Second District." He even came close to telling her about the mugging.But then everything began to irritate him more and more. He wanted to answer her but broke off in mid-sentence because he assumed that she already knew what he had to say. She grew restless and started moving about the room; she was looking for something to do, smiling stupidly now and then. They passed the time by turning records over and changing them. She got up and lay down on the bed; he sat down next to her. Was he going to work today? she wanted to know.Suddenly he was choking her. From the start his grip was so tight that she'd never had a chance to think he was kidding. Bloch heard voices outside in the hall. He was scared to death. He noticed some stuff running out of her nose. She was gurgling. Finally he heard a snapping noise. It sounded like a stone on a dirt road slamming against the bottom of a car. Saliva had dripped onto the linoleum.The constriction was so tight that all at once he was exhausted. He lay down on the floor, unable to fall asleep but incapable of raising his head. He heard someone slap a rag against the outside doorknob. He listened. There had been nothing to hear. So he must have fallen asleep after all.
It didn't take him long to wake up; as soon as his eyes were open, he felt exposed; as though there wasa draft in the room, he thought. And he hadn't even scraped his skin. Still, he imagined that some kind of lymph fluid was seeping out through all his pores. He was up and had wiped off everything in the room with a dish towel.He looked out the window: down below, somebody with an armful of coats on hangers was running across the grass toward a delivery truck.He took the elevator, left the house, and walked straight ahead for a while. Then he took the suburban bus to the streetcar terminal; from there he rode back downtown.When he got to the hotel, it turned out that his briefcase had already been brought downstairs for safekeeping, since it looked as if he wouldn't be back. While he was paying his bill, the bellboy brought the briefcase from the checkroom. Bloch saw a faint ring on it and realized that a damp milk bottle must have been standing on it; he opened the case while the cashier was getting his change and noticed that the contents had been inspected: the toothbrush handle was sticking out of its leather case; the portable radio was lying on top. Bloch turned toward the bellboy, but he had disappeared into the checkroom. The space behind the desk was quite narrow, so Bloch was able to pull the cashier toward him with one hand and then, after a sharp breath, to fake a slap against hisface with the other. The cashier flinched, though Bloch had not even touched him. The bellboy in the checkroom kept quiet. Bloch had already left with his briefcase.He got to the company's personnel office in time, just before lunch, and picked up his papers. Bloch was surprised that they weren't already there ready for him and that some phone calls still had to be made. He asked to use the phone himself and called his ex-wife; when the boy answered the phone and immediately launched into his rote sentence about his mother not being home, Bloch hung up. The papers were ready by now; he put the income-tax form in his briefcase. Before he could ask the woman about his back pay, she was gone. Bloch counted out on the table the money for the phone call and left the building.The banks were also closed for the lunch break by now. Bloch waited around in a park until he could withdraw the money from his checking account--he'd never had a savings account. Since that wouldn't take him very far, he decided to return the transistor radio, which was practically brand-new. He took the bus to his place in the Second District and also picked up a flash attachment and a razor. At the store they carefully explained that the goods couldn't be returned, only exchanged. Bloch took the bus back tohis room and also stuffed into a suitcase two trophies --of course, they were only copies of cups his team had won, one in a tournament and the other in a championship game--and a gold-plated pendant in the shape of two soccer boots.When no one came to wait on him in the junk shop, he took out his things and simply put them on the counter. Then he felt that he'd put the things on the counter too confidently, as though he'd already sold them, and he grabbed them back off the counter and hid them in his bag; he would put them back on the counter only after he'd been asked to. On the back of a shelf he noticed a china music box with a dancer striking the familiar pose. As usual when he saw a music box, he felt that he'd seen it before. Without haggling, he simply accepted the first offer for his things.With the lightweight coat he had taken from his room across his arm, he had then gone to the South Station. On his way to the bus stop, he had run into the woman at whose newsstand he usually bought his papers. She was wearing a fur coat while walking her dog. Even though he usually said something to her, staring all the while at her grimy fingernails, when she handed him his paper and his change, here, away from her stand, she seemed not to know him; at least she didn't look up and hadn't answered his greeting.Since there were only a few trains to the border each day, Bloch spent the time until the next train sleeping in the newsreel theater. At one point it got very bright and the rustling of a curtain opening or closing seemed ominously near. To see whether the curtain had opened or closed, Bloch opened his eyes. Somebody was shining a flashlight in his face. Bloch knocked the light out of the usher's hand and went into the men's room. It was quiet there; daylight filtered in. Bloch stood still for a while.The usher had followed him and threatened to call the police. Bloch had turned on the faucet, washed his hands, then pushed the button on the electric dryer and held his hands under the warm air until the usher disappeared.Then Bloch had cleaned his teeth. He had watched in the mirror how he rubbed one hand across his teeth while the other, loosely clenched into a fist, rested oddly against his chest. From inside the movie house he heard the screaming and horseplay of the cartoon figures.Bloch remembered that an ex-girlfriend of his ran a tavern in some town near the southern border. In the station post office, where they had phone books for the entire country, he couldn't find her number; there were several taverns in the village, and their owners weren't listed; besides, lifting the phone books--they were all hanging in a row with their spines out--soon proved too much for him. "Face down," he suddenly thought. A cop came in and asked for his papers.Looking down at the passport and then up at Bloch's face, the cop said that the usher had lodged a complaint. After a while Bloch decided to apologize. But the cop had already returned the passport, with the comment that Bloch sure got around a lot. Bloch didn't watch him go but quickly tipped the phone book back into place. Somebody screamed; when Bloch looked up, he saw a Greek workman shouting into the phone in the booth right in front of him. Bloch thought things over and decided to take the bus instead of the train; he turned in his ticket and, after buying a salami sandwich and several newspapers, finally made it to the bus terminal.The bus was already there, though of course the door was still closed; the drivers stood talking in a group not far away. Bloch sat on a bench; the sun was shining. He ate the salami sandwich but left the papers lying next to him, because he wanted to save them for the long ride.The luggage racks on both sides of the bus remained quite empty; hardly any of the passengers had luggage. Bloch waited outside so long that the back door was closed. Then he quickly climbed in thefront, and the bus started. It stopped again immediately when there was a shout from outside. Bloch did not turn around; a farm woman with a bawling kid had got on. Inside, the kid quieted down; then the bus had taken off.Bloch noticed that he was sitting on a seat right over a wheel; his feet slipped down off the curve the floor made at that point. He moved to the last row, where, if necessary, he could comfortably look out the back. As he sat down, his eyes met the driver's in the rearview mirror, but there was nothing important about it. The movement Bloch made to stow away the briefcase behind him gave him a chance to look outside. The folding door in the back was rattling loudly.While the passengers in the other rows of seats all faced the front of the bus, the two rows directly in front of him were turned around to face each other; therefore, most of the passengers seated behind one another stopped talking almost as soon as the bus started, but those in front of him started talking again almost immediately. Bloch found the voices of the people nice; it relaxed him to be able to listen.After a while--the bus was now on the road leading to the highway--a woman sitting next to him showed him that he had dropped some change. "Is that your money?" she asked as she fished a single coin out from between the seat and the backrest. Anothercoin, an American penny, lay on the seat between them. Bloch took the coins, explaining that he'd probably lost them when he'd turned around. But since the woman had not noticed that he had turned around, she began to ask questions and Bloch went on answering; gradually, although the way they were sitting made it uncomfortable, they began to talk to each other a little.Between talking and listening, Bloch did not put the change away. The coins had become warm in his hand, as if they had been pushed toward him from a movie box office. The coins were so dirty, he said, because they had been used a little earlier for the coin toss during a soccer game. "I don't understand those things," the woman said. Bloch hastily opened his newspaper. "Heads or tails," she went on, so that Bloch had to close the paper again. Earlier, when he had been in the seat over the wheel, the loop inside his coat collar, which had hung over a hook next to him, had been ripped off when he had abruptly sat down on the dangling coattails. With his coat on his knees, Bloch sat defenseless next to the woman.The road was bumpier now. Because the back door did not fit tightly, Bloch saw light from outside the bus flash intermittently into the interior through the slit. Without looking at the slit, he was aware of the light flickering over his paper. He read line byline. Then he looked up and watched the passengers up front. The farther away they sat, the nicer it was to look at them. After a while he noticed that the flickering had stopped inside. Outside, it had grown dark.Bloch, who was not used to noticing so many details, had a headache, perhaps also because of the smell from the many newspapers he had with him. Luckily, the bus stopped in a district town, where supper was served to the passengers at a rest stop. While Bloch took a stroll, he heard the cigarette machine crashing again and again in the barroom.He noticed a lighted phone booth in front of the restaurant. His ears still hummed from the drone of the bus, so the crunch of the gravel by the phone booth felt good. He tossed the newspapers into a trash basket next to the booth and closed himself in. "I make a good target." Once in a movie he had heard somebody standing by a window at night say that.Nobody answered. Out in the open, Bloch, in the shadow of the phone booth, heard the clanging of the pinball machines through the drawn curtains of the rest stop. When he came into the bar, it turned out to be almost empty; most of the passengers had already gone outside. Bloch drank a beer standing up and went out into the hall: some people were already in the bus, others stood by the door talking tothe driver, and more stood farther away in the dark with their backs to the bus. Bloch, who was getting sick of such observations, wiped his hand across his mouth. Why didn't he just look away? He looked away and saw passengers in the hall coming from the rest rooms with their children. When he had wiped his mouth, his hand had smelled of the metal grips on the armrest. "That can't be true," Bloch thought. The driver had got into the bus and, to signal that everybody else should get aboard, had started the engine. "As if you couldn't understand him without that," Bloch thought. As they drove off, sparks from the cigarettes they hastily threw out the window showered the road.Nobody sat next to him now. Bloch retreated into the corner and put his legs up on the seat. He untied his shoes, leaned against the side window, and looked over at the window on the other side. He held his hands behind his neck, pushed a crumb off the seat with his foot, pressed his arms against his ears, and looked at his elbows in front of him. He pushed the insides of his elbows against his temples, sniffed at his shirtsleeves, rubbed his chin against his upper arm, laid back his head, and looked up at the ceiling lights. There was no end to it any more. The only thing he could think of was to sit up.The shadows of the trees behind the guard railscircled around the trees themselves. The wipers that lay on the windshield did not point in exactly the same direction. The ticket tray next to the driver seemed open. Something like a glove lay in the center aisle of the bus. Cows were sleeping in the meadows next to the road. It was no use denying any of that.Gradually more and more passengers got off at their stops. They stood next to the driver until he let them out in front. When the bus stood still, Bloch heard the canvas fluttering on the roof. Then the bus stopped again, and he heard welcoming shouts outside in the dark. Farther on, he recognized a railroad crossing without gates.Just before midnight the bus stopped at the border town. Bloch immediately took a room at the inn by the bus stop. He asked the girl who showed him upstairs about his girlfriend, whose first name--Hertha--was all he knew. She was able to give him the information: his girlfriend had rented a tavern not far from town. In the room Bloch asked the girl, who was still in the doorway, about the meaning of all that noise. "Some of the guys are still bowling," the girl answered, and left. Without looking around, Bloch undressed, washed his hands, and lay down on the bed. The rumbling and crashing downstairs went on for quite a while. But Bloch had already fallen asleep.He did not wake up by himself but must have been roused by something. Everything was quiet. Bloch thought about what might have wakened him; after a while he began to imagine that the sound of a newspaper opening had startled him. Or had it been the creaking of the wardrobe? Maybe a coin had fallen out of his pants, hung carelessly over the chair, and had rolled under the bed. On the wall he noticed an engraving that showed the town at the time of the Turkish wars; the townspeople strolled outside the walls; inside them the bell was hanging in the tower so crookedly that it had to be ringing fiercely. Bloch thought about the sexton being yanked up by the bell rope. He noticed that all the townspeople were walking toward the gate in the wall; one child apparently was stumbling because of the dog slinking between his legs. Even the little auxiliary chapel bell was pictured in such a way that it almost tipped over. Under the bed there had been only a burned-out match. Out in the hall, farther away, a key crunched again in a lock; that must have been what had roused him.At breakfast Bloch heard that a schoolboy who had trouble walking had been missing for two days. The girl talked about this to the bus driver, who had spent the night at the inn before, as Bloch watched through the window, he drove back in the almost-empty bus.Later the girl also left, so that Bloch sat alone in the dining room a while. He piled the newspapers on the chair next to him; he read that the missing boy was not almost crippled but had trouble talking. As soon as she came back, the girl, as though she owed him an explanation, told him that the vacuum cleaner was running upstairs. Bloch didn't know what to say to that. Then empty beer bottles clinked in the crates being carried across the yard outside. The voices of the delivery men in the hall sounded to Bloch as though they came from the TV set next door. The girl had told him that the innkeeper's mother sat in that room and watched the daytime shows.Later on Bloch bought himself a shirt, some underwear, and several pairs of socks in a general store. The salesgirl, who had taken her time coming out of the rather dim storage room, seemed not to understand Bloch, who was using complete sentences in speaking to her; only when he told her word for word the names of the things he wanted did she start to move around again. As she opened the cash-register drawer, she had said that some rubber boots had also just arrived; and as she was handing him his things in a plastic shopping bag, she had asked whether he needed anything else: handkerchiefs? a tie? a wool sweater? At the inn Bloch had changed and stuffed his dirty clothes in the plastic bag. Almostnobody was around in the yard outside and on his way out of town. At a construction site a cement mixer was just being turned off; it was so quiet now that his own steps sounded almost indecent to Bloch. He had stopped and looked at the tarpaulins covering the lumber piles outside a sawmill as if there were something else to hear besides the mumbling of the sawmill workers, who were probably sitting behind the lumber piles during their coffee break.He had learned that the tavern, along with a couple of farmhouses and the customs shed, stood at a spot where the paved street curved back toward town; a road between the houses, which had once also been paved but recently was covered only with gravel, branched off from the street and then, just before the border, turned into a dirt path. The border crossing was closed. Actually Bloch had not even asked about the border crossing.He saw a hawk circling over a field. When the hawk hovered at one spot and then dived down, Bloch realized that he had not been watching the hawk fluttering and diving but the spot in the field for which the bird would presumably head; the hawk had caught itself in its dive and risen again.It was also odd that, while he was walking past the cornfield, Bloch did not look straight down the rows that ran through to the end of the field butsaw only an impenetrable thicket of stalks, leaves, and cobs, with here and there some naked kernels showing as well. As well? The brook which the street crossed at that point roared quite loudly, and Bloch stopped.At the tavern he found a waitress just scrubbing the floor. Bloch asked for the landlady. "She's still asleep," the waitress said. Standing up, Bloch ordered a beer. The waitress lifted a chair off the table. Bloch took the second chair off the table and sat down.The waitress went behind the bar. Bloch put his hands on the table. The waitress bent down and opened the bottle. Bloch pushed the ashtray aside. The waitress took a cardboard coaster from another table as she passed it. Bloch pushed his chair back. The waitress took the glass, which had been slipped over the neck of the bottle, off the bottle, set the coaster on the table, put the glass on the coaster, tipped the beer into the glass, put the bottle on the table, and went away. It was starting up again. Bloch did not know what to do any more.Finally he noticed a drop running down the outside of the glass and, on the wall, a clock whose hands were two matches; one match was broken off and served as the hour hand. He had not watched the descending drop but the spot on the coaster that the drop might hit.The waitress, who by now was rubbing paste wax into the floor, asked if he knew the landlady. Bloch nodded, but only when the waitress looked up did he say yes.A little girl ran in without closing the door. The waitress sent her back to the entryway, where she scraped her boots and, after a second reminder, shut the door. "The landlady's kid," explained the waitress, who took the child into the kitchen at once. When she came back, she said that a few days ago a man had wanted to see the landlady. "He claimed that he was supposed to dig a well. She wanted to send him away immediately, but he wouldn't let up until she showed him the cellar, and down there he grabbed the spade right away, so that she had to go for help to get him to go away, and she ..." Bloch barely managed to interrupt her. "The kid has been scared ever since that the well-digger might show up again." But in the meantime a customs guard came in and had a drink at the bar.Was the missing schoolboy back home again? the waitress asked. The customs guard answered, "No, he hasn't been found yet.""Well, he hasn't been gone for even two days yet," the waitress said. The guard replied, "But the nights are beginning to get quite chilly now.""Anyway, he's warmly dressed," said the waitress. The guard agreed that, yes, he was dressed warmly."He can't be far," he added. He couldn't have got very far, the waitress repeated. Bloch noticed a damaged set of antlers over the juke box. The waitress explained that it came from a stag that had wandered into the minefield.From the kitchen he heard sounds that, as he listened, turned into voices. The waitress shouted through the closed door. The landlady answered from the kitchen. They talked to each other like that a while. Then, halfway through an answer, the landlady came in. Bloch said hello.She sat down at his table, not next to but across from him; she put her hands on her knees under the table. Through the open door Bloch heard the refrigerator humming in the kitchen. The child sat next to it, eating a sandwich. The landlady looked at him as if she hadn't seen him for too long. "I haven't seen you for a long time," she said. Bloch told her a story about his visit here. Through the door, quite far away, he saw the little girl sitting in the kitchen. The landlady put her hands on the table and turned the palms over and back. The waitress brought the drink Bloch had ordered for her. Which "her"? In the kitchen, which was now empty, the refrigerator rattled. Through the door Bloch looked at the apple parings lying on the kitchen table. Under the table there was a bowl heaped full of apples; a few appleshad rolled off and were scattered around on the floor. A pair of work pants hung on a nail in the doorframe. The landlady had pushed the ashtray between herself and Bloch. Bloch put the bottle to one side, but she put the match box in front of her and set the glass down next to it. Finally Bloch pushed his glass and the bottle to the right of them. Hertha laughed.The little girl had come back and was leaning against the back of the landlady's chair. She was sent to get wood for the kitchen, but when she opened the door with only one hand, she dropped the logs. The waitress picked up the wood and carried it into the kitchen while the child went back to leaning against the back of the landlady's chair. It seemed to Bloch as if these proceedings could be used against him.Somebody tapped against the window from outside but disappeared immediately. The estate owner's son, the landlady said. Then some children walked by outside, and one of them darted up and pressed his face against the glass and ran away again. "School's out," she said. After that it got darker inside because a furniture van had pulled up outside. "There's my furniture," said the landlady. Bloch was relieved that he could get up and help bring in the furniture.When they were carrying the wardrobe, one of itsdoors swung open. Bloch kicked the door shut again. When the wardrobe was set down in the bedroom, the door opened again. One of the movers handed Bloch the key, and Bloch turned it in the lock. But he wasn't the proprietor, Bloch said. Gradually, when he said something now, he himself reappeared in what he said. The landlady asked him to stay for lunch. Bloch, who had planned to stay at her place anyway, refused. But he'd come back this evening. Hertha, who was talking from the room with the furniture, spoke while he was leaving; anyway, it seemed to him that he had heard her call. He stepped back into the barroom, but all he could see through the doors standing open everywhere was the waitress at the stove in the kitchen while the landlady was putting clothes into the wardrobe in the bedroom and the child was doing her homework at a table in the barroom. Walking out, he had probably confused the water boiling over on the stove with a shout.Even though the window was open, it was impossible to see into the customs shed; the room was too dark from the outside. Still, somebody must have seen Bloch from the inside; he understood this because he himself held his breath as he walked past. Was it possible that nobody was in the room even though the window was wide open? Why "even though"? Was it possible that nobody was in theroom because the window was wide open? Bloch looked back: a beer bottle had even been taken off the windowsill so that they could have a better look at him. He heard a sound like a bottle rolling under a sofa. On the other hand, it was not likely that the customs shed had a sofa. Only when he had gone farther on did it become clear to him that a radio had been turned on in the room. Bloch went back along the wide curve the street made toward the town. At one point he started to run with relief because the street led back to town so openly and simply.He wandered among the houses for a while. At a café he chose a few records after the owner had turned on the juke box; he had walked out even before all the records had played. Outside he heard the owner unplug the machine. On the benches sat schoolchildren waiting for the bus.He stopped in front of a fruit stand but stood so far away from it that the owner behind the stand could not speak to him. She looked at him and waited for him to move a step closer. A child who was standing in front of him said something, but the woman did not answer. When a policeman who had come up from behind got close enough to the fruit stand, she spoke to him immediately.There were no phone booths in the town. Blochtried to call a friend from the post office. He waited on a bench near the switchboard, but the call did not go through. At that time of day the circuits were busy, he was told. He swore at the postmistress and walked out.When, outside the town, he passed the public swimming pool, he saw two policemen on bicycles coming toward him. "With capes," he thought. In fact, when the policemen stopped in front of him, they really were wearing capes; and when they got off their bicycles they did not even take the clips off their trousers. Again it seemed to Bloch as if he were watching a music box; as though he had seen all this before. He had not let go of the door in the fence that led to the pool even though it was closed. "The pool is closed," Bloch said.The policemen, who made the usual remarks, nevertheless seemed to mean something entirely different by them; at least they purposely mispronounced phrases like "got to remember" and "take off" as "goats you remember" and "take-off" and, just as purposely, let their tongues slide over others, saying "whitewash?" instead of "why watch?" and "closed, or" instead of "close door." For what would be the point of their telling him about the goats that, he should remember, had once, when the door had been left open, forced their way into the pool,which hadn't even been officially opened yet, and had soiled everything, even the walls of the restaurant, so that the rooms had to be whitewashed all over again and it wasn't ready on time, which was why Bloch should keep the door closed and stay on the sidewalk? As if to show their contempt for him, the policemen also failed to give their customary salutes when they drove away--or, anyway, only hinted at them, as though they wanted to tell Bloch something by it. They did not look back over their shoulders. To show that he had nothing to hide, Bloch stayed by the fence and went on looking in at the empty pool. "Like I was in an open wardrobe I wanted to take something out of," Bloch thought. He could not remember now what he had gone to the public pool for. Besides, it was getting dark; the lights were already shining on the signs outside the public buildings at the edge of town. Bloch walked back into town. When two girls ran past him toward the railroad station, he called after them. Running, they turned around and shouted back. Bloch was hungry. He ate at the inn while the TV set could be heard from the next room. Later he took a glass in there and watched until the test pattern came on at the end of the program. He asked for his key and went upstairs. Half asleep, he thought he heard a car driving up outside with its headlights turned off. He asked himself why he happenedto think of a darkened car; he must have fallen asleep before he figured it out.Bloch was wakened by a banging and wheezing on the street, trash cans being dumped into the garbage truck; but when he looked out, he saw that the folding door of the bus that was just leaving had closed and, farther away, that milk cans were being set on the loading ramp of the dairy. There weren't any garbage trucks out here in the country; the muddle was starting all over again.Bloch saw the girl in the doorway with a pile of towels on her arm and a flashlight on top of it; even before he could call attention to himself, she was back out in the hall. Only after the door was closed did she excuse herself, but Bloch did not understand her because at the same time he was shouting something to her. He followed her out into the hall; she was already in another room. Back in his room, Bloch locked the door, giving the key two emphatic turns. Later he followed the girl, who by then had moved several rooms farther on, and explained that it had been a misunderstanding. While putting a towel on the sink, the girl answered yes, it was a misunderstanding; before, from far away, she must have mistaken the bus driver on the stairs for him, so she had started into his room thinking that he had already gone downstairs. Bloch, who was standing inthe open door, said that that was not what he had meant. But she had just turned on the faucet, so that she asked him to repeat the sentence. Then Bloch answered that there were far too many wardrobes and chests and drawers in the rooms. The girl answered yes, and as far as that went, there were far too few people working at the inn, as the mistaken identification, which could be blamed on her exhaustion, just went to prove. That was not what he meant by his remark about wardrobes, answered Bloch, it was just that you couldn't move around easily in the rooms. The girl asked what he meant by that. Bloch did not answer. She replied to his silence by bunching up the dirty towel--or, rather, Bloch assumed that her bunching up of the towel was a response to his silence. She let the towel drop into the basket; again Bloch did not answer, which made her, so he believed, open the curtains, so that he quickly stepped back into the dim hallway. "That's not what I meant to say," the girl called. She came into the hall after him, but then Bloch followed her while she distributed the towels in the other rooms. At a bend in the hallway they came upon a pile of used bedsheets lying on the floor. When Bloch swerved, a soap box fell from the top of the girl's pile of towels. Did she need a flashlight on the way home? asked Bloch. She had a boyfriend, answeredthe girl, who was straightening up with a flushed face. Did the inn also have rooms with double doors between them? asked Bloch. "My boyfriend is a carpenter, after all," answered the girl. He'd seen a movie where a hotel thief got caught between such double doors, Bloch said. "Nothing's ever been taken from our rooms!" said the girl.Downstairs in the dining room he read that a small American coin had been found beside the cashier, a nickel. The cashier's friends had never seen her with an American soldier, nor were there many American tourists in the country at this time. Furthermore, scribbles had been discovered in the margin of a newspaper, the kind of doodles someone might make while talking. The scribbling plainly was not the girl's; investigations were being made to determine whether it might reveal anything about her visitor.The innkeeper came to the table and put the registration form in front of him; he said that it had been lying in Bloch's room all the time. Bloch filled out the form. The innkeeper stood off a little and watched him. Just then the chain saw in the sawmill outside struck wood. To Bloch the noise sounded like something forbidden.Instead of just taking the form behind the bar, which would have been natural, the innkeeper took it into the next room and, as Bloch saw, spoke to hismother; then, instead of coming right back out again, as might be expected since the door had been left open, he went on talking and finally closed the door. Instead of the innkeeper, the old woman came out. The innkeeper did not come out after her but stayed in the room and pulled open the curtains, and then, instead of turning off the TV, he turned on the fan.The girl now came into the dining room from the other side with a vacuum cleaner. Bloch fully expected to see her casually step out on the street with the machine; instead, she plugged it into the socket and then pushed it back and forth under the tables and chairs. And when the innkeeper closed the curtains in the next room again, and his mother went back into the room, and, finally, the innkeeper turned off the fan, it seemed to Bloch as if everything was falling back into place.He asked the innkeeper if the local people read many newspapers. "Only the weeklies and magazines," the innkeeper answered. Bloch, who was asking this while leaving, had pinched his arm between the door handle and the door because he was pushing the handle down with his elbow. "That's what you get for that!" the girl shouted after him. Bloch could still hear the innkeeper asking what she meant.He wrote a few postcards but did not mail themright away. Later, outside the town, when he wanted to stuff them into a mailbox fastened to a fence, he noticed that the mailbox would not be emptied again until tomorrow. Ever since his team, while touring South America, had had to send postcards with every member's signature to the newspapers, Bloch was in the habit, when he was on the road, of writing postcards.A class of schoolchildren came by; the children were singing and Bloch dropped in the cards. The empty mailbox resounded as they fell into it. But the mailbox was so tiny that nothing could resound in there. Anyway, Bloch had walked away immediately.He walked cross-country for a while. The feeling that a ball heavy with rain was dropping on his head let up. Near the border the woods started. He turned back when he recognized the first watchtower on the other side of the cleared no-man's-land. At the edge of the woods he sat down on a tree trunk. He got up again immediately. Then he sat down again and counted his money. He looked up. The landscape, even though it was flat, curved toward him so firmly that it seemed to dislodge him. He was here at the edge of the woods, the electric power shed was over there, the milk stand was over there, a field was over there, a few people were over there, he was there at the edge of the woods. He sat as still ashe could until he was not aware of himself any more. Later he realized that the people in the field were policemen with dogs.Next to a blackberry bush, half hidden beneath the blackberries, Bloch found a child's bicycle. He stood it upright. The seat was screwed up quite high, as though for an adult. A few blackberry thorns were stuck in the tires, though no air had escaped. The wheel was blocked by a fir branch that had been caught in the spokes. Bloch tugged at the branch. Then he dropped the bicycle, feeling that the policemen might, from far away, see the sun's reflections off the casing of the headlight. But the policemen and their dogs had walked on.Bloch looked after the figures running down an embankment; the dog's tags and the walkie-talkies glinted. Did the glinting mean anything? Gradually it lost its significance: the headlight casings of cars flashed where the street curved farther away, a splinter from a pocket mirror sparkled next to Bloch, and then the path glimmered with mica gravel. The gravel slid away under the tires when Bloch got on the bicycle.He rode a little way. Finally he leaned the bicycle against the power shed and went on on foot.He read the movie ad posted on the milk stand; the other posters under it were tattered. Bloch walkedon and saw a boy who had hiccups standing in a farmyard. He saw wasps flying around in an orchard. At a wayside crucifix there were rotting flowers in tin cans. In the grass next to the street lay empty cigarette boxes. Next to the closed window he saw hooks dangling from the shutters. As he walked by an open window, he smelled something decayed. At the tavern the landlady told him that somebody in the house across the street had died yesterday.When Bloch wanted to join her in the kitchen, she met him at the door and walked ahead of him into the barroom. Bloch passed her and walked toward a table in the corner, but she had already sat down at a table near the door. When Blotch wanted to talk, she had started in. He wanted to show her that the waitress was wearing orthopedic shoes, but the landlady was already pointing to the street, where a policeman was walking past, pushing a child's bicycle. "That's the dumb kid's bike," she said.The waitress had joined them, with a magazine in her hand; they all looked out the window together. Block asked whether the well-digger had reported back. The landlady, who had understood only the words "reported back," started to talk about soldiers. Bloch said "come back" instead, and the landlady talked about the mute schoolboy. "He couldn't even call for help," the waitress said, or rather read froma caption in the magazine. The landlady talked about a movie where some hobnails had been mixed into cake dough. Bloch asked whether the guards on the watchtowers had field glasses; anyway, something was glinting up there. "You can't even see the watchtowers from here," answered one of the two women. Bloch saw that they had flour on their faces from making cake, particularly on their eyebrows and at their hairlines.He walked out into the yard, but when nobody came after him, he went back inside. He stood next to the juke box, leaving a little room beside him. The waitress, who was now sitting behind the bar, had broken a glass. The landlady had come out of the kitchen at the sound but, instead of looking at the waitress, had looked at him. Bloch turned down the volume control on the back of the juke box. Then, while the landlady was still in the doorway, he turned the volume up again. The landlady walked in front of him through the barroom as though she were pacing it off. Bloch asked her how much rent the estate owner charged for the tavern. At this question Hertha stopped short. The waitress swept the broken glass into a dustpan. Bloch walked toward Hertha, the landlady walked past him into the kitchen. Bloch went in after her.Since a cat was lying in the second chair, Blochstood right next to her. She was talking about the estate owner's son, who was her boyfriend. Bloch stood next to the window and questioned her about him. She explained what the estate owner's son did. Without being asked, she went on talking. At the edge of the stove Bloch noticed a second mason jar. Now and then he said, Yes? He noticed a second ruler in the work pants on the doorframe. He interrupted her to ask what number she started counting at. She hesitated, even stopped coring the apple. Bloch said that recently he had noticed that he himself was in the habit of starting to count only at the number 2; this morning, for instance, he'd almost been run down by a car when he was crossing the street because he thought he had enough time until the second car; he'd simply not counted the first one. The landlady answered with a commonplace remark.Bloch walked over to the chair and lifted it from behind so that the cat jumped down. He sat down but pushed the chair away from the table. In doing this, be bumped against a serving table, and a beer bottle fell down and rolled under the kitchen sofa. Why was he always sitting down, getting up, going out, standing around, coming back in? asked the landlady. Was he doing it to tease her? Instead of answering, Bloch read her a joke from the newspaper under the apple parings. Since from where he sat thepaper was upside down, he read so haltingly that the landlady, leaning forward, took over the job. Outside, the waitress laughed. Inside, something fell on the floor in the bedroom. No second sound followed. Bloch, who had not heard a sound the first time either, wanted to go and see; but the landlady explained that earlier she had heard the little girl waking up; she had just got out of bed and would probably come in any minute now and ask for a piece of cake. But Bloch then actually heard a sound like whimpering. It turned out that the child had fallen out of bed in her sleep and couldn't figure out where she was on the floor next to the bed. In the kitchen the girl said there were some flies under her pillow. The landlady explained to Bloch that the neighbor's children, who, because of the death in their family, were sleeping over Peter Handke was born in Griffen, Austria, in 1942. His most recent novel is Crossing the Sierra de Gredos (FSG, 2007).