1 – Dawn Becomes Amnesia

Yellow light rusts aging fire escapes into gold foil.  Anja inches back from the ledge, watching the sun sink below the rooftops then slip beneath the isle’s curve.  At dawn or dusk, one should never panhandle nor nap.  When stars poke through and glimmer above the smog, casting violet rays around the circle of her tower, Anja can follow all of New York as it comes and goes.  Shadows drift in from other watertowers, higher and lower, making for an odd citizenship of gnomes, a congregation of steel-belted huts above concrete and glass, wooden stand-ins for gravity, witnesses to the rise and fall of housing, hoisted far above the pavement, still higher above the spies peering up at her from subway grates.  As gray clouds coast in, as twilight traces East River docks, chased by streetlamps popping on along Broadway, as the stonehenge of skyscrapers blink their screens on for those condemned to work forever, Anja buttons up her jumpsuit and braces against a rising wind.

Anja lies flat behind the roof ledge, scans the street for spies, crouches to the ladder, places both feet carefully on each rung, climbs above the city, turns, draws a wedge from the cap, eases down and vanishes into her tank backwards, slowly.

She learned to find fascination in every step, to stay invisible, a natural in heights and sure footing, too thin to be detected by a random glance.  Anja cultivated a radar for eyes scrutinizing her behind her back.  A bored tenant could contrive a friendship with the super, bum a smoke, point her out and call the cops.  The bored need to spot a girl on a tower.  The bored and their mimics are legion.  “And destroy my approach!” Anja sighs.

Anja eases down a knotted rope from her tower top just before dropping into its cedar body.  She prefers the control of her rope to the fixed, wooden stairs.  She learned to manipulate, to work the rope.  Watertowers store water to pressurize taps and showers on the building’s top floors, but she could never figure out why her tower is defective.  She barely understands how watertowers work, let alone hydraulics, but feels thankful she found not a squat but a crow’s nest to watch for the spies, enemies, and moles who scamper in and out of their nasty holes, below.

She draped the suspended float, which should activate a pump to maintain water level, with dandelions, covered her rusted inflow pipe neatly with clothes and contrived a tiny library with a plastic milk case, and ringed its base with candles and salvaged silk.  She knotted her rope tight to the tank lip so she could drop to her mat for a soft, clean landing.  It is her home above the city, her problems — above people.

If the sky clears, streetlamps will sway and braking taxis will blink down 2nd Avenue.  The spiderwork of girders facing her will fade from rust to cobalt.  Curtains will drop as penthouse Edens conceal their rites from those who inspect their trashcans below.  Anja will follow the corner dealer who shuffles from foot to foot, and the security guard who rambles solo every midnight following his cane.  Rain means noise and a night of careful ventings.  It’s rough to live aloft, yet Anja’s still above the rascals who peer at her through grates.  A mole, a subway squatter, got her when she first hit New York.  She will live above him, them and us, clear sky or storm, forever.

Anja is a good girl.  No mole would ever paw or soil her clean skirt, nor would local dudes try their “I will help you” routine again, staggering up every step, anxious to nail a watertower waif, spilling her reputation over beers to bar crones, “I nailed this crazy bitch … who sleeps in water towers!  No, man, I mean it!” She let the imagined voice echo.  One has to be stone sober in self-council and avoid cheap whiskey when climbing.  Night is more than a shadow cast by the earth facing the universe without the sun.

*    *      *

Anja is proud of never being spotted.  One New Year’s Eve she let a teenage girl spot her at another tower.  She reminded Anja of an eerily familiar but buried past.  Her young eyes haunted Anja’s night like the windows which dot the uptown skyline with boxes of blue irises.  She let the thin ray of the girl’s eye scan her silhouette as Anja pranced, then evaporated.  It was perverse yet Anja needed to cast a cameo across the pale moon that New Year, needed a comrade, and the lift of admiring innocence.  Yet just as diesel trucks snort exhaust pipes at the sky, as tires make wet asphalt whisper, each sound can confirm a creak on her tower step.   And if that creak mean a foot — or a paw — if it mean a mole, enemy or spy, her future is history.

Watertowers have tin man’s caps, Anja agrees, even though they are made of wood.  She knows of the tin man, the rain-rusted guy without a heart, striking for Oz.  She saw the film inside a video store, drying out before an air conditioner one hot summer day.  She knew the young clerk behind the counter let her stay because she has a wonderful body and wasn’t wearing a bra.  “Watertower girl knows no despair.  Only the spies and liars walking down there,” Anja hums.  It’s her own song.  Her Watertower Girl song.  Or part of it.  She likes herself better in the third person.  She believes in nothing and wipes her nose on her sleeve, “Hey, there is nothing but light and its splintered lack called night to end my twilight here … ‘If I only had a heart’ What?”

Surveying New York for pavement dwarfs, Anja hates lies more than the rich love money.  Lies are a decayed poetry, fictions which a liar could never embody while laboring with a camera or facing a blank page or screen, or facing death, or the horizon.  A lie, for a real liar, is more precious than truth and confesses a cramped creativity gone rot.  Anja knows this to her bones; indentured to her father’s lies, she now must climb above lying looks, the jostling and posturing which animates the streets and scorches the fur of those rascals below.  “They are all slaves!” she whispers to herself.  When a handsome guy eyes a lovely girl in the street, so a gay man another man, so a lesbian another woman, and so on for a straight women, and on, and on, vanity, like the wind from that incoming front, escorts them straight to hell.  Anja knows the look.  The lie of the look.  She never wishes to be seen again.  She conjures mystic invisibility.  If actors are worshipped here, not God nor state, then Anja sleeps in exile.  A chill wind rocking her tower, cumulonimbi piling up in brooding gray peaks laced with lightning, hunger, the filth, the funk of living without washing machines or toilets, that’s enough stuff!   Yuk!

Anja will leave no epitaph.  The poor may envy the rich or famous who make the tabloids, indeed they may inherit Earth, but they’ll worship the famous like slaves, anyway.  “Inherit the earth — for Christ’s sake what heaven?” Anja wonders, at a loss, staring at her tar-smudged left hand.  “What am I thinking about?” Anja was not born to drink herself to death.  Once night crawls by, dawn becomes amnesia.

*   *   *

Now Anja owns secrecy, not her father. It was precisely when she ceased to be owned, after Germany united, when her father’s job with the Stasi made the papers.  At first she plotted to strap him to his brown leather armchair where he pulled all his mental levers, and to hand him his black revolver.  Her mother left before Anja turned twelve, not for another man, but to escape the armchair dictator who barged through the door drunk every evening, providing a bourgeois income and perks after dealing in betrayal, violated privacy, electrodes, caviar, and jail.  Her mother watched the man she slept with grow a robot inside him called boss.  When local women dropped by to ask her for favors, every compliment, every “helpful hint,” a transparent mendacity!  Anja’s best friend, Gabi, escaped in a suitcase in the trunk of a car a year before and left Anja alone.  Gabi was small and Anja tall.  Gabi wrote postcards while studying in Ireland then fucked off with a conga player in Amsterdam.  What Gabi did next Anja never heard.  Gabi made it out before the Wall’s fall.  Anja stayed behind, yearning to escape.  Then came ’89.   Her father’s crimes made Der Spiegel in ’91.  The next day she arrived with her rucksack in Berlin only fourteen years old, hiked through a winter of dirty snow, squatted in another X-East German town, Greiswald, nearly froze her ass off in a shed, then peddled it as a prostitute in Prague for a year (not even stepping off the train as it passed through Dresden), hitched to Paris, lived with an old guy way past thirty for two years, who finally sprung for a flight to New York.  She would not prostitute again.

No super has had the heart to repair or bear this scrap away.  And what scrap there is in this beautiful relic!  Someday, when the moles catch on, all these watertowers will end up in deserted lots tipped on their sides being picked apart for firewood, or slept in while being torn apart.  Or worse, utterly plastered with advertisements, for soap or luxury condos.

No illusions.  That’s the news her sunset bled as night absorbed every drop of red on its blotter.  Few see that fame or riches are mirages as each human being dissolves before a fresh replacement, while each spirit shrinks compared to the billions who only know salacious details about you if you appear in tabloids.

No lights at night.  She quit smoking so that she never would light up and give herself away.  She loved smoking.  She went to school, read books, learned English on the sly, and smoked, well, like those smokestacks near the East River.  “Throatstack,” Anja mutters to herself.  She always wanted to see the States, craved to walk New York.  But her craving to smoke calls back a cozy childhood with Mom, as clouds crowd her horizon, enpurpling copper roofs and fire escapes.  She prepares to spot Polaris sinking off starboard, before it’s swallowed by smog.  She nearly got herself in trouble with the number of boys she made.  She knew boys loved to do it.  So did she.  But Anja did it by her rules alone.  And, perhaps, because her father was so dreadful in Dresden, they often fled with their tails between their legs, fearful of crossing their or their father’s jailer.  She abused the privilege and she had sometimes been bad to perfectly fine boys.

New York threw her off-guard.  She shivered in the streets of Berlin, and they were as hard by European standards as any American city.  Yet New York was another story.

Anja peeps over the ledge.  Not quite night.  Must be saving money on streetlamps because a whole block to her right remains unlit, while the other, with few exceptions, casts pale yellow circles on dull asphalt.  Everything remains dry.  The Chrysler building resembles a crystal spaceship.  The big clock on fourteenth street with lit dial atop declares seven, someone’s lucky number, not Anja’s.  The uptown MetLife colossus recalls a refrigerator or an old car grill wrapped around a suitcase.  Anja sighs, must be time to write a new song for no one, since she alone hears them in her head.  To sing!  Sang once underwater, gurgling.  She will sing from her grave.   “Watertower Girl!” She sings in her head.  She will sing under mango trees lounging like a princess in Fiji ordering former Hong Kong execs in drag to serve her frosted vodkas and lemonade.  No, she will sail away before every monsoon season — to the Australian desert.  Best to stay dry.  Rub sticks and smoke pipes with Aborigines.

Her eye catches a tousled top of a man’s head poking from a window below.  She draws hers in: turtle in a shell.  He looks up.  She reads a smooth face with a left eye rolling in its socket to its brow.  What a strange word for a floor, story. What a strange language, English.   As if every floor is a story.  There are so many stories in one floor you’d go nuts learning them all.  Good thing she can’t hear the story under that bone island of seaweed hair.  Maybe it’s a wig?  He has a chance to sing but he’s a dummy because he can’t make up songs.  My, the clouds do sneak through the skyscrapers as the gusts kick in!  She smells rain in the wind, perhaps smells ozone.  Does ozone smell?  The spy revolves his palm upward to test for raindrops, drops the window.  Now he has a dry, amateur weatherman’s hand.  How banal!

Anja is forever tidying up, ever editing her few possessions.  She likes candles and books.  After she reads a book, though, she makes herself throw it away.  She’s thrown away thousands of pages, burnt histories, epics, tragedies, whole melodramas in ashcans!  Found just as many.  She wishes she could burn her own past, build a pyre of her frustrated exile and subway assault. Assemble some two-by-fours, nails, perhaps whittle a totemic message to the stars, then send it up in flames, collect the ashes, then blow them away, puff, like so much beer froth!  It’s been years since her country dissolved and Anja still can’t shake it off.  Why can’t the past dissolve when we will it so?  Why not like chalk, my past crumbling to its foundations, like a whole city, washing away in a flood?  She could be hypnotized.  Anja could see a shrink, indenture herself to a holy man’s feet, turn into a sage herself and lisp in angelic cipher.  No.  She’s perched instead, like a gull or a phoenix to rise, fly above her past.

She has to snuff her candles early to preserve oxygen. Just before settling to read, she must crack her hatch, and keep doing so, despite sleet, snow or rain, indeed, every two hours during any given night.  She might suffocate without having cultivated the habit.  She takes a weary pride in her discipline but it drives her mad, having to wake so, and sleep in spurts; a nightmare when it rains.

Time to ventilate.  She cultivated a daily vaulting routine with the rope, working out her shoulders, imagining it a fiberglass pole, bending, thrusting her feet high over the bar — to capture Olympic pole vault gold! Why didn’t they let females pole vault earlier?  They feared we would fly!  She soared, using a rough wooden pole in her backyard with a discarded metal high jump bar.  She vaulted as high any guy in school!  One must first sprint, plant the pole firmly in its box, pull one’s feet over one’s head, turn, roll, thrust the pole away, curl, tuck the stomach, fling one’s arms back then fall into undulating pits, gigantic pillows really, then watch the bar tremble, stay, toes tingling — and win — in an explosion of applause!  Olympic gold!  But what national anthem would they play for Anja? And what does Anja care for crowds?  The acclaim of the herd?  Who are they but spies, enemies or liars?  Damn them!

Anja resists poking holes in the side of her tower since the least change in its appearance, even viewed from the roof, is dangerous.  It always scares her to lift her hatch.  Even a small wooden triangle rising up can catch the eye.  She props it.  Her view is blocked.  Everything is dark.  A blown rag must cover her hatch.  A dead pigeon, a gull.  Dead eagle?  She pries it open further. There’s a pale, meaty, quivering thing between her and the sky.  Her eyes focus and she is staring into two green pupils, a shadowy nose.  Below, a mouth with tombstone teeth; on top, a black mound of hair: a terrorized face! She snaps back.  Vertigo pries her fingers from the rope.  She starts.  The spy gasps from the exposed metal ladder on which he balances.  She slams the hatch closed right against his goddamned nose!  Locks it.  Devil take the spy!

Now chaos invades Anja’s mind.  Plunders its capital.  He’s hanging on.  A spy has captured the top of my ladder!  Enemy face inches from hatch!  He’s jabbering, apologizing with blubber lips!

“No need to be afraid!”

“For you there is!  Bastard!” Anja shouts.

Outside, a young man in a castoff beige suit and black loafers blinks, then peers beneath his feet to the exposed rooftop.  All of New York roars around and below him and all that keeps him safe on the thin ladder and not falling to the roof then bouncing to the alley, are two hands moistening with sweat and the pads of his trembling feet.  The wind is blasting.  No one would see him fall. The fright of the sheer drop narrows his larynx, contracting a normally bass voice into a squeaky falsetto.

“I stay in the apartment below.  Heard this tower was broken … ” He draws a shallow breath, his voice cracks, “Top floors no water.  Sorry, go’n down now.”

“Go’n to hell!” Anja explodes, then invents an angle. “If you care for the homeless you will shut your big mouth and leave me be.”

“I will!”

“You saw me from below.”  Anja cracks the lid a little.

“No!”

“Moles sent you!”

“Moles?”

“Enemies!”

“I’m no enemy.”

“Enemy, I kick you!”

“Please don’t!  I’m … scared.”

“I kick you from my tower!”

She throws open her hatch, smacking his cheek and grazing the lobe of his left ear.  He clings tighter, not daring to move his hand to explore the cut nor its nasty sting, relentlessly pressing his chest closer to the tank. He tries not to peer below.  His shirt sleeves and pant legs flap in the gusting wind, nearly level with the tallest East Village and Grammacy rooftops.  Traffic lights blink green down every street to the East River.  Soho lay behind him.  Midtown roars to his left.  Anja swings into her pole vault routine, arches her back, lifts her feet above her head, and kicks him hard in the jaw with her right boot.  His head jerks mechanically back.  He whimpers for Jesus, yet his hands hold.  As he begins to scramble down the rungs, she grinds her heel onto his left hand and he screams, soundlessly.  She has no intention of killing him, for if he fell, he would hit the roof, flop, and roll over the ledge to the alley or street, and this would certainly draw cops to her tower.

He clings for his life as she defends hers.  She must scare him down the stairwell.  He shall go!  He metamorphoses into a mole in the crucible of her fear and she will grind his eyes, desocket each.  He becomes her father and she will shove a hammer and sickle, a Stalin bust up his ass!  She begins to chase him down the ladder.  She’ll finish the job!  It begins to rain, sporadically. Thick, leaden pellets splotch and spatter the roof and her tank. A spring thunderstorm is blowing from Jersey to Manhattan and moist foregusts strafe the roof.  Maybe it’ll blow him off?  Anja grins.  She’s now at the top of the ladder and he is inching lower, still half way to the roof.  She checks her open hatch, fearful that her still dry bed will soon, even with the small opening, be flooded.  Her clothes, passport, song lyrics, her life could be afloat in minutes.  The tank, after all, is built to store water!

Low, fast clouds obscure the Empire State, Chrysler and MetLife buildings, divided by spires, flowing, fogging down, charged with lightning, detonating with thunder, trailing blue sheets of rain tumbling for her tower.  The spy slides down to the roof, then rolls away from the rail.  He shimmies on his stomach like a dog.  He peers up like one: stricken, whipped, his wet snout and torn shirt stained with gravel, blood, and smears of tar.  Anja must panic him.  He must retreat!  She climbs further, midway down the ladder, then decides otherwise, high-steps back up, nearly slips on the now slick steel ladder, ripping her sleeve on a rusty nail.  She crawls backwards, angry that the intruder follows her with wild eyes, grabs the rope and stops before she shuts her hatch against the mounting rain, then juts out her head.  “Fuck off my tower!”

“I am fucking off!”

“Now!”

“Now.”  He complies, scrambling for the stairwell, slamming the door behind him in terror, then pulling it shut again.

Alone now, the noise mounts.  Chaos reigns.  Anja’s world inside the tank has been invaded and there is no way, when the mole, enemy, the spy, stumbles downstairs, he’s not going to whine, display his wounds, lie, denounce Lady Macbeth at the top of the stairs, then stride back, within fifteen minutes, trailing cops.  Anja’s finished!  Wind begins to sway as rain pelts her tower.  She extracts strings of soggy blonde hair already pasted to her cheek, examines her soaked yellow jumpsuit, then laughs. She never before considered the word “jumpsuit” in English.  The irony inspires her.  She bought it since it’s hard to force off or up.  Yet, all along, it’s been her secret suicide costume.  If only she had the foresight to buy a Bozo wig and jumbo shoes!  Why hadn’t she shot herself the day she understood her father’s crimes?  Why not after giving a blow job to that dirty Serb when he insisted on pulling her hair back to watch her after ripping the condom off?  Why not when she was kicked in the face by that Nazi burgher cop after freezing in that abandoned garage with Bulgarians in Berlin?  Why not when Gabi stopped writing her?  Gabi could go anywhere she wanted and Anja had to endure the first wave of Ossie rejection when the West Germans wanted their Wall back?  Why not the night in Paris when she answered an ad for English conversation in the paper and was met by a balding sonofabitch with a knife in his sock, screaming at her on the Seine because she wouldn’t screw him? And why not when she wandered around in the New York subways, met some moles and then a guy, also with a knife, who held it to her chin, ripped down her jeans and probably gave her AIDS?  Who was she kidding that she squatted happily up here?  There was never anywhere to go but down!  Going down is Anja’s destiny!  Life is just a slide, a fall — or a leap!

Lightning explodes not a hundred yards away on another rooftop, casting all aerial objects around her tank ghostly white, then instantly shudders her tank as she springs back and crushes her wrist jumping to its opposite end.  She’s inside a lightning rod!  A magnet for aerial electrocution!  She clings desperately to her rope, then finds the strength to swing up.  She kicks open her hatch, thrusts out her head, swearing like a maniac, scans the rooftop for moles, cops, spies, enemies, liars, slides down the ladder to the rising water on the roof and slops to the far ledge, where the drop to the street — and death — lay free of fire escapes.

Her enemies’ faces dance maliciously before her. The prospect of her legs bent up beneath her broken back, her skull caving in, of snapping her spine, of making a bloody mess of her fine body, loses to the salacious jeers of her enemies.  They’re laughing in her face!  They are all ridiculing her and she can say nothing back.  The bad guys are winning.  They always do!   She will grow old, ugly and poor, if she lives, or die young, soon, anyway, of AIDS.  Are cops rushing the stairs?  Did I see a rat scampering from an iron grate?  Climbing my leg?  She stumbles away from the watertower, then looks up.  She left her hatch open.  Rain stings her cheek.  Her blonde hair hangs like a hag’s.  She is Lady Macbeth, not Dorothy.  Her jumpsuit is filling with water.  Thunder!  Mayhem!  I’m just a loser refugee.  Am I drowning in the air?

She once thrilled at wild theatrics in the sky, used to jump and laugh at the mess lightning could make of a tree.  It meant action on a boring night, creeping around their stupid flat outside Dresden with her armchair dictator Daddy spreading his fat ass across the couch.  “So, kill yourself!” she repeats, twenty times, giving the finger to the storm.  A rush of freedom fills her, warm, sensuous, blank, like heroin, infiltrating her veins.  Her parents, her country, her enemies, her fears, evaporate.  It’s over.  Why delay?  Like a seagull winging home over Brooklyn, Anja is already above her body.  It was odd being alive.  My tower was broken.  So?  Whose tower is not?  We’re all meant to fall.  Like tiny empires.  Anja screams at the tempest laying waste to her mind.  Offers a sardonic Nazi salute then a finger to the earth, to life itself.  Good-bye thunder, skyscrapers, smokestacks, alleys, bridges, building-slabs – all dead tombstones.  In a moment Western Anja Time, with all memory, will disappear.

As Anja crouches to leap, she feels her jumpsuit pull tight at the collar, like a noose with two rough knuckles buried in her neck, pulling her up and back in a falling arc.  She thuds on the tarpaper roof.  She’s on top of the chest of a panting, swearing man sweating with fear and maniacal resolve.  She writhes, then half-realizes what just happened.  The bone of his skull just thumped against the tarry roof and his ears are submerged now in polluted rainwater.  She feels his heart pump beneath the small of her back and a jet of his hot breath on her neck.  He’s no Übermensch but the fool just wrecked my suicide.  Is there no privacy?  She rolls over away from him and catches the frightened grimace of the same black seaweed-haired stranger with the white of his green eyes rolling like a harpooned seal’s — ready to flop, to outweigh her again.

“You?”  Anja feels for his warm blood clotting her hair, then rises to her knee.  “Who sent you?”

“No one!”

“It is my life!”

“Now you still have it.”

“Go piss yourself.”

“I have.”

“Do you think you can make my life your own?”

“No.”

“You my judge?”

“No.  Not your victim either.”

She turns from him, the killjoy!  His voice, able to suppress fear but not exhaustion, loses the sheen of its normally low resonance for a raw, earthier bass.   His features become less hideous to her, as she droops silent, wary.  She can sense him read her like an owl, or a bat, in the balcony of her inner theater, yet why must she stay on stage?  Her thoughts roll, breezing away with receding, indigo clouds, following a dancing tail of rain.  She wades into a warm limbo, secure like a dolphin, all wet and cool of surface, snug and eerily half-conscious and mocking inside.  It’s still raining.  Steam rises from their torn clothes, but for Anja each puff resembles a smoke signal sent to another galaxy.  She lies still, her arm and skull near his armpit.  Neither of them move.  She fears no evil now.  Thinks none either.  If she can take her life, if he can risk his, then what worse can happen?  Anja is not afraid of death.  It is her right to forget the whole evening and sleep.  She can always end it later.  What is better — this or suicide?  What does it matter?  Who could it matter to?  Anja is rolling with the watery rivulets off the roof, cruising with the claws of cloud across the Hudson, across the Atlantic.  A lightshow retreats as she retires into a dream in which she flies like a gull over silent, plunging waves.  She can spot tiny movies glimmering inside leaden troughs, fireflies landing on bronze, algae’d rock …