Kathy Fish: "Düsseldorf"

This work first appeared in Yemassee 23.1.

I have not left the room in three days and the maids are impatient to clean it. It’s October and my husband has brought me along on his business trip. We’ve been to London and Paris. Now we are in Düsseldorf and the sun never shines. I keep the drapes closed, order room service, nibble kuchen under the eiderdown. The room smells like rotten apples.

There’s an art museum somewhere. I could take a cab or walk to the museum or I could lunch by the river. According to the map in the guidebook we are not far from the river.

In Paris, in a smoky brasserie, my husband spoke at length about his client. He said she is smarter than any man and young, but wise and savvy.

“I hate the word savvy,” I said. “And all women are smarter than men. It is no great accomplishment.”

When he talks to her on the phone, his voice changes register, as if he’s been told he’s won a major prize. I wonder what she looks like.

The maids pound on the door again. I go into the bathroom and lock the door. I can hear the rattling of keys, their stout, German voices.

The bathroom door knob turns back and forth. I wait for them to give up and leave me in peace.

“Frau? Frau?”

There’s nothing to it. I open the door, smiling, grab my sweater and my bag with the guidebook and an umbrella and leave them to the clutter.

There are no people on the street. It’s Tuesday, the middle of the day. I walk a long ways.  I turn corners and stop, forgetting which direction I came from. Nothing looks as it ought to. The gray and brown buildings stretch to the clouds.

I find a bench and flip through the guidebook. I don’t recognize anything from the pictures. All the streets appear the same. Only chestnut trees. Only plain, boxy buildings. Maybe I should return to my hotel. Lying on the grass, not two feet away, I see a dead squirrel.

A little boy in wire-rimmed glasses comes towards me. He’s eating a sandwich wrapped in foil. I ask him if he speaks English.

 "Yes. I speak English,” he says, around the bread and cheese.

“Good. Can you tell me where we are?”

He laughs and says, "This is the city of Düsseldorf.” He offers me the rest of his sandwich. I decline.

“But where are all the people? Where are the birds? I haven’t heard a single bird chirp or a dog bark. Where are the cars, the streets signs? If this is a city, where are the shops, the cafes, the restaurants, the bars? Where did you get that sandwich? Who makes the music and the art? Where are all the feral cats?”

The boy chews his sandwich and swallows.

I sniff the air. "Why, I can’t even smell anything. Can you?”

“Düsseldorf is a beautiful German city on the Rhine River. Its population is 11 million,” he says.

“I don’t believe you.”

The boy crumples the foil into a ball and throws it at my face. He tears off down the sidewalk.

Maybe the squirrel is only sleeping, but I’ve never seen a squirrel sleeping out in the open. It seems a risky thing for a squirrel to do.

Early in our marriage, my husband brought home a rescue dog. A border collie mix. We named him Rex. He mostly sat in the corner of the laundry room, chewing his paws. Gradually, Rex came to trust us and we took him everywhere with us. He slept between us, licked our faces  until we woke up. One day he simply disappeared.

The guidebook says that Düsseldorf is a city known for its fashion. If I can find a shop, I’ll buy my husband a tie. I’ll buy him a hundred ties in every color and drape them over our bed. I walk the streets for miles but there are no shops and no ties. For one crazy moment, I imagine Rex bounding toward me, like there you are, I’ve been looking all over for you!

Over the tops of the buildings, the moon rises. I am alone and Düsseldorf is empty. I stand in the middle of the street with my arms raised, calling my husband’s name. And it keeps coming back to me, over and over, like a verse.

Kathy Fish teaches for the Mile High MFA program at Regis University in Denver. She has published four collections of short fiction: a chapbook in the Rose Metal Press collective, A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness: Four Chapbooks of Short Short Fiction by Four Women (2008); Wild Life (Matter Press, 2011); Together We Can Bury It (The Lit Pub, 2012); and Rift, co-authored with Robert Vaughan (Unknown Press, 2015). She blogs at Kathy Fish.