An Excerpt from “Teetering”

Alex Miller

We are sitting at a table by the window. The street is deserted except for a group of black men standing at the entrance to the park, as if they are on duty, or perhaps are charging a fee for entrance to the park. They say things to people who go past, but are mostly ignored. Every now and then someone, usually another black man, will stop and speak with them. They seem menacing to me and make me feel aware of being old and a stranger here and vulnerable without a word of the language. There is rubbish blowing about in the street and in the gutters. Paper and plastic and broken bottles. Large garbage collection bins are parked on the footpath next to the black men. My wife and I of thirty-seven years. So we don’t have a lot to say to each other. It is small signs and a kind of telepathy these days. Our silence embarrasses me. Young people see our silence as if it is an aura of old age. Sainthood. We wear it uneasily and would rather be at home where there is no need for us to talk to each other.

When I look out the window again, the black men are staring back at me. They speak to each other and laugh and look across at me sitting in the café window with my wife. It worries me that they might decide to come over and enter the café and say something to me. A challenge of some kind. I will not be able to answer them. I will not know what they have said. I fear to be shamed by them. My wife and I look out the window frequently. We do it anxiously and together, like the queen’s guardsmen turning their heads to salute the passing of their monarch. But our daughter is not coming along this strange street in Berlin. The black drug dealers on base at the park gates opposite are at the same time idle and alert in the windy sunshine. I can’t help looking at them. Lilac trees thrash about behind them. Theirs is a manner I could not hope to mimic. I think of the German Erich Auerbach’s wonderful book, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, and the great pleasure and consolation it has given me.

In the park behind the group of black drug dealers, through a small green opening between the wall and the lilacs, I see girls and young men jogging. They are wearing little shorts and singlets. And there are dogs running after balls. And then, as I watch, a young man goes past pushing a pram. He is smoking a cigarette and talking on his mobile phone. This little window of normality reassures me. All the young people smoke. I, too, loved to smoke when I was young. Every wall surface is covered with graffiti tags, as if this is the language of a newly arrived alien civilization. Doors, too. Everything. Undiscriminating. Everything. I stare at it and understand nothing of it. In its presence I am illiterate. Like Australians looking helplessly at the intricate knowledge maps of Aborigines and claiming the Aborigines had no written language. I am silenced by it.

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