Stephen Spicehandler: “In the Way Station”

Author’s note: “In the Way Station” is one of six stories I have written inspired by roles I have played in various theatrical productions when I was pursuing acting.  I think of them as “interpretations,” the way a musician interprets music or an actor interprets a role, as versus a translation or novelization.  I only take the architecture of a play—or more specifically, of a portion of the play—and combine that with my understanding of the character as well as memories of what it was like to play that character in those particular productions.  So the original material is a jumping-off point and I let it combine with my imagination to ultimately create an architecture more or less of its own. 

The evening light is getting nearer dimming time. It has cast itself across the parlor floor and will slowly make its way across the room, blessing each piece of glassware with a tragic goodnight kiss. I live in a jewel box surrounded by my life’s accumulated collection: my mother’s Empire cabinet, the gilt-framed semi-clad lovers fleeing from a storm, the mantelpiece photo of a mother and daughter, my Queen Anne dining room set. Yes, I am rich; I feel I am so; I am clothed by the objects I have gathered to envelop me with. And, approaching my own dimming time, my own evening light, I have had sufficient time to accumulate them.

Louise bends solicitously over me, offering to unburden me of my dessert bowl, which I have carefully unburdened of its cream. It isn’t exactly true that I enjoy my pampering, but I am accustomed to it. I have come to expect it and having expectations met is all I ask for as a solitary gentleman in his own household, nestled neatly on Drottininggaten, not far from the park. And Louise is a lovely adornment to my establishment, a blushing country girl new to Stockholm, her blond hair coyly straying in whispers, reminding me that she is neither woman nor child but rather both in one. We take care of each other; that is all I really want in feminine attachment now at sixty-seven, other than that attachment which I have for the now-lost-to-me images in that mantelpiece photo that Louise temporarily obscures, exiting to the kitchen. My eye follows her as she floats through the netherworld beyond the reach of lamplight, light gray into dark. The burning embers of a good cigar could light the dark nicely and my fingers itch to hold one. None in my jacket pocket, I will have to search one out.

Not a cigar, I find Karl Frederik instead. He is in the distance out the bay window, conversing with Mr. Stark who sits on the public bench outside. I have been expecting my brother’s customary call, but see he has been distracted. The August warmth has encouraged us to leave windows open and I call out to Karl.

I’ll be ready in one moment! Louise is mending my glove!”

He waves contentedly, my younger brother, much handsomer than I, dark as a Laplander and sturdy in his health. Strange Mr. Stark nods his head in my direction. My brother is a generous socializer and it must do Mr. Stark good to relax in good company, being cooped up with his wife all day making jellied sweets in the basement. Quite a variety of flavors this building has in tenants, alarmingly democratic. But I would not move if I can help it. Ann-Charlotte once traipsed across these rugs, her laughter a rushing fountain of mirth. This is the apartment that was designed for wedded bliss, that Gerda breathed young life into and I can remember that fantasy here and forget the rest.

But when I leave my apartment, as I do now, puff-puff-puffing on my cigar for locomotion, I leave the doll house behind me. When I gaze at the sturdy sandstone structure, it has none of the warmth or music of my apartment, and I wonder that I can find such serenity in this amorphous building. What has it to do with me? What makes it a home? Nothing, I realize, nothing other than the memories that attend to each object that I commune with, alone with the past. Now, outside, puff-puff-puff, I am a citizen, a critic, I observe rather than feel, and what belongs to me belongs to the city and to the other tenants equally, and my magic music box is but a way station between the sugary furnace below and the corporeal goings-on of my new, mysterious neighbors above me: a once-empty space that will one day be empty yet again.

Has the banker moved?” That is Karl Frederik. We are sitting on the bench facing the house and he has noticed the red shades of the second floor apartment, something very unlike what one would expect from Mr. Sørensen. If it was Mr. Sørensen who lived there, such an embellishment would be quite alarming: that one can change so radically from proper burgher so concerned with taste in all things to someone sumptuous, almost libidinous, in their sensibilities. As if a school teacher was a pornographer in his spare time.

Yes. I mean, no, he hasn’t moved exactly. He’s dead. Typhus.”

My God!” Karl Frederik looks stymied, momentarily abandoned by the sang froid he’s nurtured in the diplomatic service before he re-grasps it by means of the handle of his cane, an ebony as somber and dashing as his suit of clothes. He has only recently retired, only to hear of this immediate example of sudden dispatch.

After the family left, the apartment was empty for quite a while. I missed the sound of the footsteps at first. The house was so very quiet. But I grew to like it. If I were on a less-travelled street, it might have felt like a sarcophagus, but instead it felt like a private home. Now I am quite clearly in an apartment, very much in the city, so-to-speak.” Karl can tell from the way I close my eyes that my resignation is rather forced.

Well, what are these people like? Youngsters, I imagine. University students?”

I don’t know and I don’t want to know. I’m not looking for any more trouble in my life. I just want peace, and if the only way to get that is to ignore what signs of tumultuous life come my way through the floorboards, then that’s the way it must be. I pretend it’s Chopin or something like that, and, actually, sometimes it is, bizarrely enough. As if Gerda had not grown tired of the old geezer she once looked up to and continued practicing her repertoire.”

Karl Frederik looks at me quizzically.

My dear brother, correct me if I’m wrong, but I had thought it was you who had grown tired of her.”

Well, then, I shall correct you. It’s true I had left her, but it was partly because she had already tired of me. She acted as if I held her by a leash. She was almost thirty years younger than me and so you can imagine. . . . It’s true I hadn’t quite felt the restlessness she exhibited, and I imagine little Ann-Charlotte must’ve contributed to that pent-up feeling of hers. It’s not like I couldn’t understand her position. I had even anticipated it and told her so before we were married. And on top of that I’m the kind of man who would rather live alone than . . .”

Than what?” Karl Frederik prompts me.

Than live amidst the intrigues erupting all around me.”

August! Intrigues? No, I don’t believe it.”

Insofar as we were then living at my house on the islands, I came back here, returning her much-hungered-for freedom to her.”

We are now distracted by the unmistakable sound of a married couple in conflict coming from the second floor window where the light behind the scarlet shades momentarily reveals a woman’s figure as fleeting as an apparition, as fleeting as a triggered memory. I feel a surge of anguish for her, and then I feel the same for him. I have seen a woman’s pain, as I have experienced a man’s, and find lovers’ pains unbearable. I want to look away.

Let’s take a walk, shall we?” I hoist myself with the slight help of a gentleman’s cane and Karl-Frederik unintentionally mimics my action. He takes a moment to peer at my neighbor’s windows before he joins me in my escape.

*     *     *

We’ve had our walk, we’ve had our talk, we’ve ambled along park paths, seen mothers herd their children as if with their long skirts pushing them along, seen young lovers taking their self-conscious promenade, watching the scattering children around them with a mixture of amusement and trepidation. I suddenly remembered, I was due to call Mama. Karl Frederik has teased me about being a mama’s boy, so I tell him to run ahead and I will meet up with him so that I can call Mama from the pub to apologize to her and promise to speak to her later in the evening without having him around to pester me. I do so, then purchase my evening paper and, wrapped in thoughts of the wars in the east, corruption in the City Council, the murder of an industrialist by his anarchist mistress, and Mama, I make my way home with no sign of Karl to distract me from my distractions.

I sit at the dining room table, the world’s calamities spread out before me on inky thin newsprint, yet in the near distance, a demure Gerda and an innocent Ann-Charlotte tantalize me from within their thin golden frame of corsages and cupids. I want so much to be lost in my dream of a new family as it had once seemed possible. I suppose this is what opium must be like and if I could be left quietly in my opium den, looked after by Louise, my keeper, I could wither blissfully.

In my dream state, I hear the distant sound of cooing voices, a man and a woman consoling each other on the boulevard sidewalk. It’s hard to hear clearly, what with the occasional interruption of horses’ hooves and wooden wheels—it would’ve been worse if one of those Scania motor cars had been paraded for everyone’s admiration—but the voices draw my attention out the window, where suddenly a flash of summer lightning illuminates my brother standing there with a woman by his side, both staring in my direction, what woman I do not know, someone whose hair, gypsy-like, is scattered all around her shoulders as if in flight or struggle, a bewitching and troubling face, familiar, frightened and foreign all in one, but she is gone in an instant, leaving Karl’s figure standing hat in hand.

Karl, who was that woman?”

Karl looks sad, or maybe puzzled. “No one. There’s no one here but me.”

I’m embarrassed. Perhaps it’s time to leave the opium den. My brother is pitying me.

*     *     *

I’ve set up the chess pieces, but there is no one to play black to my white. I sit and wait patiently. There’s no rush now. All time is my own. At sixty-seven, no imperative to get anything done, my perambulating memories rush in to entertain and dissemble. No, I don’t miss the Civil Service; I did my job and, I suppose, much of value to society was maintained under my watch, contrary sometimes to the impulses of subordinates. I will not miss them, especially not the laggards who thought it amusing to flirt with their boss’s young wife whose somewhat stifled—no doubt—joie de vivre made them impossible to resist. I do not miss those torturous parties, those roundelays of vapid betrayals. I don’t miss parties at all, though I can miss where they were held, the views of the vast gray Baltic were such a wonderful addition to my life. But they were accompanied by much pain.

No, I’d rather sit alone with my chess set, the kings with their subordinates all lined up in formation, devastating queens by their sides.

Louise, who quite clearly loves me—a love undeserved, but not to be gain-said—comes in to see if she is needed, and, if not, to occupy herself with sewing as we small talk away the evening.

Louise, have you seen Karl Frederik? He was going to join me for a brotherly game.”

She shyly replies but I’m not sure of the answer as there is an annoying hubbub coming from above, drawers being slammed, footsteps scuffled, anguished voices delivered as if via a distant wind. Oh, the stupid bother, to prevent me from enjoying the pleasure of a pretty servant girl’s company and a soothing battle on the chessboard.

I invite Louise to take my brother’s place at the table so I can guide her hand through the complexities of the game. As she pulls out her chair there is a rushing footfall coming from the stairway through the wall like a rapid heart beat through the building. My haven from the demanding world is being invaded, and to the surprise of Louise and myself, we have a second invasion in the person of Mr. Stark, a quiet invasion this, as Mr. Stark stands mouse-like in the vestibule bearing a tray of sweetcakes. Louise rushes over to relieve him of his handiwork and thank him and I am left in the room alone with our eccentric confectioner. The room feels cavernous as Mr. Stark stands meekly in the corner as if awed by the parlor-room light.

Well, Mr. Stark, how has business been for you and Mrs. Stark?” and he answers but I’m lost in his words as if he’s cast a spell. I feel the room slowly darkening around me as he discusses the hindrances of age; the room gets even darker as I concur. How nice it is to have reached the point where our hearts can no longer be throttled by affections as we grow comfortable in our separateness from the vibrant hectic world around us. Louise steps back into the room and the shadows scatter.

The lamplighter returns tonight,” Mr. Stark is saying.

Yes, it’ll be nice to have a little night again,” I answer. “A little night is nice. A little rest from the wearying midnight sun. It’s like the world can’t close its eyes. Well, now it can. For a little bit. Oh! Except for you and Mrs. Stark! You work through the night, don’t you?”

The confectioner nods his head and bids goodnight, off now to his night furnace in the bowels of the building.

Mr. Stark’s visit diminishes me. I fear aging makes all men mouse-like. Usually I’m resigned—even enjoy—the free time lent me by my inessentiality, but in Mr. Stark’s image I see myself shuffling into the basement, doddering over my chess pieces, pulling pastries from the oven to sell to the significant others who live above: men, women and children running, laughing, fighting, doling their entire lives out to each other. Men like my upstairs neighbor, tumultuous men, party-throwers. I see him in his tuxedo, hair slicked back, muscled yet feline, his waxed whiskers curling up in a winking irony, perhaps running a gambling house, even here on Drottninggaten, to mock us, I shouldn’t be surprised. Or even an upscale bordello, men and women crying out when their voices are not obscured by the edifying efforts of Chopin. Yes, that must be what those blood red shades are hiding.

I must complain about all this to Karl when he returns. I think he was just as suspicious this evening as I am. My righteousness will restore me to my human size.

*     *     *

There is Mama to be spoken to. I’ll call her now. Through the dining room doors I see Louise sitting before the chess set. She has returned to where we had left off before our candyman had invaded the premises.

Just give me one minute, Louise,” I say as I lift the receiver. “Mother awaits me.”

The connection leaves much to be desired. When Mama speaks loudly, her voice rises in pitch and can be hard to decipher under the static, and since we must always speak loudly on telephones I could be conversing with the ether.

How has my summer been? Have my new neighbors moved in? Are they good people? Well, let’s hope. Did I get any thunder and lightning? They had a huge storm there, but it has passed now. No damage, thank God, though it frightened her to death. She’s been visiting the family, seen them all, both the living and the dead, they send regards. How is Louise working out? She was always such a nice girl, a gift to her poor dear mother. It’s always so important to keep our mothers in mind . . .

I can’t keep my mother in mind. Because I hear Ann-Charlotte.

I hear Ann-Charlotte sobbing! Who is looking out for her? Where is her mother? Poor Ann-Charlotte! This is unbearable!

And suddenly the squall strikes: how am I hearing Ann-Charlotte’s cries? Past Mama’s seashore squawking I strain to decipher the tolling notes from afar, a girl’s—a woman’s—grief. From upstairs? That den of vice a nursery? There is too much unnecessary pain in this world. There truly is. But what can I do?

I return to Mama.

. . . . She’d make some man a very nice wife one day. Then I’d be jealous, being as I am, and wish I’d made a move. Well, the age difference never bothered me before. She thought I preferred young women, so innocent still, so virtuous. Oh, I shouldn’t talk of matrimony with such bitterness. I’ve just had such bad luck in women. One shouldn’t talk as if one’s too old. Why, old Mr. Nielsen just had a child and she hears . . . . She’s sorry she got involved. She didn’t mean to upset me. How are my eyes lately? Any better? Don’t say that! One day I’ll be glad I can hear my noisy neighbors. Well, it is getting late, the sun goes down tonight, she’ll let me go. It’s good to hear my voice.

I hang up the phone, exhausted. Sad. Poor Mama, poor Ann-Charlotte, poor harlots on the second floor. Poor defenseless creatures. One shouldn’t have to bear it.

*     *     *

Ah yes! The chessboard. The kingdoms both—I can see from here—lined up splendidly, their perfect formations waiting to be broken. And when the game is over I’ll be done for the night.

As I approach the board, I’m haunted by the possibility of having made contact in some way with Ann-Charlotte. I feel unsteady at the thought. Why, she’d have been just beyond the wall when she went up and down stairs if that was her I’d heard, here but not here, almost touchable. Would she call me “Papa?” Would she even recognize me? Do I even have the right to imagine it? Meeting her might actually be mortifying. No, no. That would be far too messy. Best to leave her perfectly within the picture frame in the dining room. I take my place at the table and brace myself against it with my palms, as if overlooking the vistas of kingdom.

Chess is such a wonderful escape. What am I escaping from, she asks softly, yet almost, I think, in a taunt. I can’t help smiling. The golden kingdom of white pieces has grown cloudy with the receding sun. I see her form expand and contract with anticipatory breath, a passion inappropriate for table top battle, yet quite, I admit, alluring, a young woman’s body in soft restrained motion. I would have preferred the comradely jousting with my Freddy, but tonight will be more electric.

But as I look up to meet Louise’s gaze, a damp August cloud has moved in to obscure it. I almost can’t make out Louise’s face, and for a second I am entirely lost, drenched in a summer storm that has descended from the north to darken the Stockholm summer and to drown me. Where is Louise in that visage across the way? Bring my Louise back, I’m thinking, this confusion will surely be my death.

But it is not Louise at all, I realize. No, it is Gerda!

She smiles. She smiling at me! Who let her in? What have I done? Louise!

But Gerda doesn’t move. She stares at me benignly, perhaps with trepidation. As if she’s afraid I will disappear as I have done before. I was expecting someone else. She blushes; she apologizes; she looks concerned. Am I still talking to my mother? She didn’t think that possible. I don’t know how to take such concern but I do so want to keep this encounter civil before it can be ended expeditiously. She was, after all, my wife, and I do love her in spite of her nature. I have led my romantic life as a moth to flame and I must protect myself from this mother, the mother of my child, the mother of my anguish, the mother of my fallen state.

But I look just fine, she assures me, I haven’t grown older at all, not as much as I had led her to believe. She, however, looks the worse for wear—I will not tell her that—she who should look not a day over thirty looks like middle age is encroaching, her reddish hair has darkened and looks tempest-tossed, and time and motherhood, no doubt, have swollen her somewhat. What can I say in response to this young woman with bags under her eyes? Tend to your daughter whose crying breaches the walls of the next room over? Tend to your marriage to the criminal upstairs? Have I heard Ann-Charlotte’s cries? she asks alarmed. Have I heard her cries! What’s more, now that I think about it, I’m sure I’ve seen her. We met on the stairs once. She looked at me adoringly and called me “uncle.” Can you imagine how painful that could be?

I have Gerda trembling now. She had no idea. She had no idea! A tear escapes her and she wipes it sloppily with the palm of her hand.

Well, what did she expect? I find it hard to maintain my rational equilibrium as our conversation careens down across the table. Has she brought her family to live above me on the second floor, practically in my very brain, to murder me? I suppose she thinks it justified what with my having saved myself at her expense. And Ann-Charlotte’s! she reminds me. And Ann-Charlotte’s, yes. I realize that now, but when I left she, Gerda, seemed the stronger of the two of us, the more vital, never to lack for the attention of men just as prosperous and much more ferocious in a way that entertained her. She even smiled at the security guard in my factory in a way she never smiled at me. Not to mention my own brother who never could deny her anything! She gasps, she sobs, she laughs—I cannot tell the difference—but it is satisfying nonetheless. She is far from perfect and she was probably less so at eighteen when I first charmed her with my gentlemanly warm disdain and the secure embraces of a man of property and even distinction. But she had loved me, loved me like an idol, and now she is twice idol-less as she hears across a game table the ravings of a broken man. She herself, when broken by me, thrust herself into desperate straits to secure a home for Ann-Charlotte, I couldn’t possibly know how desperate, rather than humiliate herself by begging me for help. She has not come to murder me; she’s come home in the only way she knew how. She has come to be near where she believed I wouldn’t have dared remain, with her presence in every room, on every wall, and she has found it as empty as she thought she might, even emptier now, truly devoid of any breath of human kindness. I can rest assured, she claims, that her life is as debased as I might hope, but so, unfortunately, is Ann-Charlotte’s.

And now, I realize, I have been checkmated.

*     *     *

From upstairs, a thunderous collapse, as if of piano notes after a body has been thrown against it. There is the sound of a young woman’s scream. A very young woman.

*     *     *

I excuse myself from this torrid dance of death. Gerda’s pain, Ann-Charlotte’s, Mama’s smothered in small talk, even Louise’s inevitable bruises descend upon my chest, upon my longing, maybe upon my loins, like blows. Gut-punched, I push back my chair, stand up, fall to my knees. This is what comes of caring and it is something a man should never stoop to. I am a weakling, I know that now, for all my girth, for all my solidity, and the fragility of a woman is my very enemy as well as my bait. I abjure them. I condemn their very softness, that inexactness that shifts under your grasp, only finite when it holds you tightly in its alluring throttle.

*     *     *

From up the way, little by little, small dull stars approach. Mama sits next to me on the bench as we look into the apartment, where in the stage-bright parlor, Karl Frederik and Louise busy themselves without me. It is a doll’s house; how have I even fit inside its pristine walls? It looks emptied out, just an interstice between the syrupy sweetness wafting up from Mr. Stark’s caldrons directly up to the wrestling sexes on the second floor.

Look! Here comes the lamplighter. Finally!”

Mama pats my hand. Isn’t it nice?

I don’t answer.

We sit in silence, we merely witnesses to the new night as it finds its way to Stockholm.

[This story was inspired by characters from the play “Storm Watch” by August Strindberg.]

Stephen Spicehandler is the author of the novel Run Away on the Heavenly Express which grew out of the short story he wrote entitled “To Calvary” published by The Iowa Review.  His story “Rotten Apples” appeared in The Madison Review Spring 2022 issue and a piece he has written called “Ella” was published in Eclectica Magazine.