Asta & Jacob

John Bennett

Asta's teeth were bad. Some dentist had gotten in there and sliced a lot of nerves, and the teeth turned brittle and dishwater grey. They were big, horse-like teeth. Her skin was bad too, because as a child in the orphanage they hadn't fed her right. Also because she spent so little time in the sun. She did not especially like the sun, it had never done anything for her. She liked to wait tables at the Gasthaus and when things were slow sit at a back table reading cheap love novels. She could go thru a novel a day when business was slow.

Asta lived in a state of resignation. Her resignation was not apathy but a form of sadness, a sadness her mind understood in the vaguest way, a sadness that manifested itself in her movements, her eyes. She never grew angry. She spoke very little and what she did say was just right, demolishing cleverness. Nearly everything she said was in answer to a question.

Jacob was one of the few people to whom she spoke first. She asked him if he wanted to go for a walk and she asked him if he would like to hear her music and she asked him if he would like to go to bed with her. She lay down on the bed with her arms at her sides and waited. She was a virgin. She was a virgin with bad skin and bad teeth and she didn't ask for anything, she didn't even ask for comfort and reassurance afterward.

Jacob could go for days without talking, and Asta liked that. He could sit for hours in the sunshine with his beer and not bother anyone. She sat inside the cool Gasthaus as summer came on and read her novels, occasionally looking out the window at him, his hands folded peacefully over his stomach, his eyes closed and his head back to catch the sun. Or perhaps writing things on a pad of paper that she had given him from behind the bar.

Asta had come to the Gasthaus about the same time Jacob came to Munich, appearing out of nowhere and asking for the job. She had no experience, and Hans, the owner, unable to look her in the eye and unable to come up with the usual lies, found himself mumbling that he would give her a week's trial, but if she didn't work out, if she didn't catch on, she'd have to go. His wife was furious with him for hiring an inexperienced girl, especially one without personality and such atrocious teeth, but the week went by and another and then another still, and now she lived over the Gasthaus in a small room and the American lived with her and although it made them uneasy, there seemed nothing they could do about it.

Jacob never talked about his past, but Asta knew. She sensed all sorts of personalities stalking thru his mind, personalities and complexities and dilemmas. But his silence and his privacy meshed with her own, and she felt good with it, easy. It was this other thing, the restlessness underneath that she did not feel good with, it caused a stirring deep inside that her body did not know what to do with, did not know how to absorb. The weight of it was thrown against her mind, and her mind could not handle it.


At first Doris sent him forms to sign for the divorce, forms that he lost track of somewhere along the may, even as Doris finally lost track of him. Doris lost track and the Bulldog Collection Agency lost track and even the IRS lost track. Only Daniel continued to write. Every two or three weeks another letter came, an insane letter, a letter from a Kamikaze pilot high on laughing gas, doing aerobatics above the world's largest aircraft carrier equipped with the world's largest guns, e antics and the vagaries of the brown-skinned plane high up against the sun.

Daniel's letters were Jacob's only anchor to the past, and the casual mention of things like where he used to live with Doris and his son sent off explosions in his mind. Sometimes he would leave off reading in the middle of a letter, lay it face down on the table top, slip into reverie and never pick it up again.

Daniel was living with a woman in D.C. and he thought that Jacob should come live with them. Jacob had no objection, but he didn't want to move. And anyway, he had no money to move with. His mind was his to move around in as he wanted, but it took money to move his body, and he spent all his money as soon as he got it, spent it on drink and whatnot, he didn't know where it went. He gave it to Asta, she took care of it for him. Everything was fine, so why move? He left the letter folded in his shirt pocket and Asta took it out when she washed the shirt a week later, put it in the wooden box with the brass lock where she kept all the pieces of Jacob that flaked from him in his preoccupation.

 


Fall was descending on Munich, and the days were growing shorter. Asta saw Jacob being invaded, saw terrible things stirring in him as the leaves changed on the trees and fell swirling to the ground. She saw more than the pleasant melancholy that came over so many people when fall arrives. Jacob began staying in their room for days with the blinds pulled, drinking whiskey and not eating, missing work. And then one day he said he'd lost his job, that was it, no more money, no more money bitch, so throw me out, why don't you throw me out, and he hit her, he struck her and it wasn't him anymore, it was this thing in his mind. She waited for it to go away, she waited and willed it to go away, but she could not help him, the very sight of her drove him into a rage and more and more often he struck her, until finally she cried. She never cried, even when they used the straps at the orphanage, but she did now. She curled up small against the wall of this strange sensation, and the tears and sounds came from her. She didn't know what her body was doing, she didn't know how to classify this pain, she could not locate it. His arms were around her then and he was rocking her, his voice making sounds she did not understand in the language he used when he was very drunk or sometimes in his sleep. She pulled him tightly to her, a new need awake in her now, a need to kill this pain that she could not place. She pulled him as tightly to her as she could and she did not want to let him go.

 


The first snow came in late October, and he walked diagonally across the Teresian Wiese where the Oktoberfest had been, walked across the now barren field as the snow fell, turned and looked back at his black footprints etched into all that white. There he had been and here he was and what had transpired in between? A thought for the day. He pondered his footprints. Art. He'd made art in the great field. More art than the entire Oktoberfest had been able to muster. But fleeting art, and who in all the cars and Strassenbahn that swarmed busily around the Wiese, who would see it? Someone would. A small child, perhaps, his face pressed against the cold glass of a streetcar window. Or an old man standing in his retirement room, puffing his pipe and staring out at the world thru his diaphanous curtains. Someone would, someone was watching at that moment, and Jacob took a full bow. He bowed four times in four directions, bowed to the corners the earth, and then continued on his way.

At the American Express a letter from Daniel was waiting for him. He opened it in the steamy warmth of the building. Here it is, Daniel had written on a piece of scrap paper. Accompanying the note was a one-way ticket to New York.

 

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