berlin : skin waving goodbye
excerpt from My Red Heaven
Every evening the dead gather on rooftops across the city. Bodies, sexes, injuries, illnesses shed, they become aware over and over again their lives are going on somewhere else without them.
Maybe they imagine others taking up where they left off, Anita Berber half-thinks, heroin heat seeping up her arm. She is sprawled across Otto Dix’s bed. Vinegar fills her mouth. Love happens. She extracts the syringe and the thought lands within her that everything wasn’t all right and now everything is because her bobbed hair is red tonight, her thin heart-shaped lips.
Next year Anita will collapse on a stage in Damascus during her cabaret tour of the Middle East. Four months later she will succumb to consumption in a Kreuzberg hospital. On a November afternoon feathering with snow she will be lowered into a pauper’s grave in Neukölln. The only people present will be two cross-dressers, three ex-husbands, her lesbian lover Susi, a hooker named Hilda, and Otto Dix himself.
But all Anita knows at present is it is sometime past midnight. It is June 10, 1927. It is her twenty-eighth birthday and earlier this evening a dumb cop mistook her in her tuxedo and bowtie for a man.
Her slackening awareness attempts performing an idea: maybe that’s what they do, the gathering dead, standing on those rooftops, faces raised to the flaming ocean of desire above: watch their lives going on without them. A stubby woman surprised last summer by influenza hearing her silver brush (she can still smell the horsehair bristles after a lavender bath) huff through a stranger’s hair. A gaunt widow whose heart gave out last month while barging up the third flight of stairs to her fourth-floor flat picturing her husband encounter the shock of a young woman’s jasmine-and-lily perfume at the nape of her neck.
Everything wasn’t all right and now everything is.
She is sure everything will succeed.
She can feel it in her —
Anita got so high last night she turned up half an hour late to her own dance number at The White Mouse. In the middle of her solo she tripped over herself. Several assholes started laughing. So she took a swig from the brandy bottle on a table up front and spat it over them, the smug fuckers.
Only that isn’t now.
Now is simply this soft heat breathing through her. Now is this overwhelming love. Anita loves that love, how she can feel everydayness leaving her, how she can watch herself drifting into her special silver light.
She sees the world as if it is not within her but beside her. Below her. Not within her but across the room, the country, the ocean, the solar system.
Her body sheds away like those of the dead.
She lingers above her not-her in Otto’s cluttered studio.
Linseed oil. Mildew. Late-spring leafiness.
She studies how the skin people call Anita Berber allows the skin people call Otto Dix to position her limbs whichever way he wants across his narrow disarranged bed because — because he has paid her to become his little marionette — because —
Just a minute. Just a minute.
— because Anita adores cocaine. That’s it. Yes. Because after the second line she knows she will live forever.
Yet her favorite is chloroform and ether stirred in a porcelain bowl, whisked with a white rose, the petals of which she eats like lotus flowers. The twilight sleep that drowns her is a miracle followed by another miracle followed by another.
Except Otto couldn’t score any today.
Heroin is fine.
Heroin will have to do.
And so Anita Berber allows the skin people call Otto Dix to position her limbs whichever way he wants because his strong face, his slicked-back blond hair.
Because he earned the Iron Cross on the Western Front. Because he was wounded in the neck and almost bled out. Otto says he still can’t remember hearing the grenade explode. He was squatting in a trench in a fog at dawn and next waking up in a hospital tent, panicked because swallowing had become an incongruity.
Sometimes Otto tells Anita the dream that won’t leave him alone. He is crawling through narrow passage after narrow passage in bombed-out houses that have proliferated to become the universe. An incinerated corpse with shattered jaw attempts whispering something to him as he drags himself over it.
In place of words, a handful of thin gold necklaces and rotten teeth pour out of the corpse’s mouth.
Only that isn’t now.
Now is how Otto painted Anita for the first time two years ago. Oil and tempera on plywood. One hundred twenty centimeters by sixty-five. He made everything in her portrait a great upsurge of red except her charcoaled eyes and penciled black brows and pale angular face and pale long-nailed hands.
The canvas appeared to Anita like what lust and cocaine feel like.
She couldn’t stop contemplating how Otto saw her. It proved if you gave her fifteen minutes she could seduce any man or woman on the —
Just a minute. Just a minute.
Now is Otto working on another one in his murdered-women series. Anita can’t understand why. It’s not that the idea bothers her. Why should the idea bother her? The problem is everyone is doing murdered women these days. George Grosz. Karl Hofer. Even Murnau with that movie starring Max Schreck in his frock coat, pointy ears, bad incisors, and broody shadows.
What Anita wants to know is why anyone would want to do what everyone else is doing.
It takes effort to make yourself into yourself.
She adores Otto, absolutely she does, but he’s almost forty, for God’s sake. Old men should know better.
Old men should know the secret is if you need to act in films with titles like The Skull of the Pharaoh’s Daughter, you act in films with titles like The Skull of the Pharaoh’s Daughter. The secret is if you need to dance nude at nineteen, show up to parties draped only in a borrowed mink and your pet monkey hanging around your neck, participate in the odd private-ish blue movie, you reach for your zipper.
You become your own little marionette while pretending to be other people’s.
It simply stands to reason.
Why do you insist on painting this shit? Anita hears herself interrupting herself.
Her voice surprises her. It’s slurry, listless, nearer than she would have guessed. She thought until this second she didn’t have anything to say. She had been focusing instead from a great distance on Otto’s generous touch, how he is tenderly draping the upper half of her torso over the meticulously disarranged bed’s edge so the top of her head barely grazes the wide wooden floor planks.
She takes slow pleasure in the way his studio flips in front of her. Down is up. Up is sideways. The emerald tile stove top hats on the ceiling.
Such shit? asks Otto.
He is on his knees all of a sudden, arranging props around her.
Ugly dead women, darling, Anita says. Everybody’s doing them. Would you like a bit of advice?
Otto stops adjusting a fallen desk chair.
You need to paint me more often, she tells him. Everybody knows how gorgeous I am. It would do wonders for your bank account.
Otto laughs a little and Anita imagines the double row of bushy trees running up the middle of the cobblestone street outside the window. The brown-sugar sand running up between them. How in this city you have the impression countryside is always only a few steps away.
Don’t forget, Otto says. I also paint ugly dead men.
Anita parts her thin red lips because she has something more to say, a comeback, a quip, only she forgets what it is because —
Just a minute. Just a —
— because the myriad leaves, thousands and thousands of them on this street alone, the dewy green scent tinged with coal fumes.
Anita senses her concentration smearing into the yellow blur you see when you stand on an U-Bahn platform and refuse to blink as the cars rush past, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.
What? she says.
I said I also paint ugly dead men.
You’re missing, Anita says. My point. Do you happen —
The rest of her sentence misplaces itself.
And they’re not ugly at all, Otto responds. They’re beautiful. Just like you.
— happen to have a pillow, darling? I’d like to catch a catnap while you genius along.
Everything’s beautiful, he says, handing her a red satin cushion from the bed somewhere up by her heels. Geraniums. Barbed wire. Gas masks. Radio waves. Those endless runways at Tempelhof. They’re beautiful because they’re the world. By definition, they can’t be anything else.
Anita doesn’t care.
She tries to, but it’s just not in her.
All she can do is stare at the dead staring up from those rooftops. They’re bodiless, yet somehow she can still make out their mouths, atmospheric vibrations that used to be their mouths, opening in astonishment, one by one, at the immense flaming ocean churning in the sky.
The way they lift their right arms, perhaps pointing, perhaps waving goodbye.
The way, as she looks on, the gesture resolves into a salute.
LANCE OLSEN is author of more than 25 books of and about innovative writing, including, most recently, the novel Dreamlives of Debris (Dzanc, 2017). A Guggenheim, Berlin Prize, D.A.A.D. Artist-in-Berlin Residency, N.E.A. Fellowship, and Pushcart Prize recipient, as well as a Fulbright Scholar, he teaches experimental narrative theory and practice at the University of Utah. His piece in this issue of HBR is an excerpt from his novel My Red Heaven, forthcoming from Dzanc in 2020.