Gastarbeiter

by Peter Jurmu


“You cannot call us ignorant.  After all, we captured Berlin and Vienna and we know how to find the best restaurant in town.”

—Russian officer to Time correspondents, 1945


The previous tenant has left a suction cup leeched to an arm of rotting wood itself glued to a wooden block on the linoleum wall of my new shower.  He left a lot of other shit, feminine objects, curling irons, and a bag containing seamless open-crotch body stockings and straps and a long black shaft, all in a pile by the front door that I haul down four flights of blue-lit stairs to the dumpster adjacent my building.  Later, I watch from the concrete ledge that doubles as my balcony while scavengers cut open the bags—one, in a long coat, pockets the dildo like a banana, another wearing several sweatshirts puts a tampon in her sock.  On the shower wall, though, the protuberant vinyl remains.  The first time I try to remove it, my fingers slide along its scummed cone and the non-serrated kitchen knife I apply to it only cuts into the wood, not the cup, and I realize I don’t have any tools, really, besides a screwdriver and a pair of pliers.  Before I go buy a crowbar and, I guess, a hammer, my landlord shows up to fix the dead outlets in my kitchen so I can plug in my travel adapters and microwave—there’s no oven in here, just a blank spot and closed pipe where it should be in the kitchen like the apartment’s lost a tooth.  All landlords in the city, I mean the ones who aren’t Austrian, are Russian, or at least Eastern European, but no Turks.1 Mine’s name is Gregor, my favorite Russian name, and he enters at a mousy gait that contradicts his bulk.

When I’d walked into his apartment-office on the first floor—his blinds were drawn, big pots gargled on a kitchenette stove and someone on cassette was playing a balalaika medley of German classical music and American showtunes—my first question was, in English, “English?”

Gregor looked up from the book he’d propped against a toaster on the round-top checkered table, where he’d been eating soup. Deutsch, he said.2

I produced, from the pouch I’d worn over my neck (under my shirt) since JFK, the signed sublease agreement, which I’d needed my old German teacher to translate for me, my letter of acceptance from the tour company to take English-speaking tourists on English-speaking tours, my type D visa, my work and residence permits, and my American passport, stamped in Amsterdam and again in Vienna.  I hadn’t slept in thirty hours.

Gregor tapped the tabletop, and I set the small stack next to his book.  After finding the sublease, he sifted through the other papers, looked at me a second time, and rubbed his forefinger and thumb together.  I handed over first month’s rent in the form of eight one-hundred Euro bills, which he folded and put in the breast pocket of his gray cardigan with the hand not full of spoon, and when I made a key-turning motion with my hand and said Die Schlüssel? he pointed into his soup bowl.

Now, which is two days later, he comes to fix my outlets.  While he’s pulling the faceplates off, I find the index card I’ve written questions on and ask him if there’s any chance of my getting an oven.

He snorts.  Der letzte Mieter hat er gebrochen.  Eh— he wraps his thick fingers around an invisible steering wheel and makes several turns, then draws a large box and places it gently where the oven ought to go.  Then the spreading of the hands, raised eyebrows, down-titled head that say, Satisfied?

Er hat auch auf meiner Dusche Dachpfannenmodelle ein Stück Holz verklebt.  I motion with both arms for him to follow, pull aside the curtain in the bathroom, in which we both barely fit, and point at the wooden arm and block and suction cup,3 put my hands together next to the whole unit, and pull them away from the wall.

Gregor stares at the unit, says something in Russian,4 and applies a pen knife to the cup, leaving a dimple but not puncturing the vinyl.  The same knife he tries to wedge under the side, then under the block itself, but without success.  He shoos me out of the bathroom, goes to his toolbox, and returns holding a battery-operated drill like an Uzi.  As he drills into the cup—why there, I don’t know—the apex depresses until Gregor is drilling into the wood and moldy sawdust is spraying the tub.  His forehead is beaded with sweat and his lower lip is in his mouth.  When he’s stopped the drill and reverses the motor, the bit remains embedded.  Gregor pulls on the drill, eventually with both hands and such force that I clear the doorway, but seems to have, on final examination, actually lost ground.  He shouts, Ebanatyi pidaraz! into the tub, which, I mean, your guess is as good as mine.

He releases the bit from the drill and says he’ll be back later to remove it, he promises—promise auf Deutsch is Versprechen which, if you break it down, like the same German instructor who translated my sublease once did, into prefix and stem yields ver and sprechen, the latter of which means “to speak” and ver, or vér (this is how it’s pronounced, but German has no diacritics), descends from Old Norse and was used by kings to refer to the royal person we, so since Old Norse kings descended from divinity, Versprechen translates to I-God Speak, and your soul is that much more damned if you break your promise.5

I don’t expect him to return that night, and he doesn’t.  Three of the four other apartments on my floor house families, and in the fourth a slight man, who, when he goes out that night, carries with him a covered, freakishly gargling birdcage, and who by all indications lives alone.  They don’t speak English, either, if I judge the revving cadences the air vents pump into my studio.  Tomorrow I meet one of my new bosses, another American who insists I call him Alex, and has said four times already how happy he is to have another American guide—from Detroit, no less, but I’m actually from Farmington Hills, which doesn’t, if you know it, conjure up the image he probably has of where I grew up.  I drink a beer in the shower before bed, and hang my latherer over the drill bit.  When I pick it up again to use it, it’s completely dry.  In fact, the unit isn’t wet, either—I detach the shower head and direct a shot of water at the wood.  For a few seconds, the water runs over it and down the side of the tub, but then not only does the dripping stop, the beads of water on the wood disappear entirely, as if the unit’s absorbed them while I watch.  Several more shots, each with the same result.  I pour beer on it.  Even the suds.  Another test—even piss.  I turn off the water, get out, and close the curtain.  The drain gurgles.



The next morning, I spend several minutes on my mattress, staring up at the cracked plaster ceiling, remembering a dream about being lifted out of a box of packaging peanuts by a giant suction cup run through a pulley by a bloody rope whose tensile snaps arc wide sickles of frothy red across the translucent vinyl.

To my knowledge Gregor maintains the entire building and has a pretty Viennese wife.  This much I gleaned last night from the kids next door, who speak English well.6 (The children are Spanish, and since school has just ended, I hear them playing soccer with desperate school-free intensity in the early morning street, which is never busy in this district, although such inductive reasoning is wasted on their mother, they say, using the words loco and cuidado con lo que haces.)

When I do get out of bed—the apartment faces east, so the sun has been sitting on my unshaded face several hours already—and stand my mattress up against the wall, I resolve to let the unit go until Gregor has time to collect his bit, or until I go buy a hammer and crowbar, which I’ve meant to do all along, and will probably do today.  Gregor didn’t finish the outlets, either—one faceplate eyeball dangles by several wires.  I throw water from the bathroom sink on my face—the unit blankly watching my moving shape from the other side of the closed shower curtain—put on jeans and a solid-color t-shirt, fill my pockets with coins, and lock the door behind me.  FUCK OFF USA BUSH = IDIOT7 is stenciled in red on the pay phone, which stands across the street from the S-Bahn8 stop.  Alex shouts my name into his mouthpiece when I call, and demands I join him for breakfast.  I’m to meet him in Stephansplatz, via the 39 S-Bahn and the U2 metro, take a left and right this way and that—“Not being able to find Stephansplatz is like walking east from Ottakring and not finding the Donau,” I say, and wait for Alex to laugh until I realize he hung up as soon as he’d finished giving me directions.  It’s Saturday morning, so I wait for the train alone.  Already the heat, the worst, humid kind, refracts the sunlight over the pavement, producing that wave effect, that mirage, and my breath sticks to my face while I wish for rain.

In Stephansplatz, a cobbled plaza watched over by St. Stephen’s (Stephansdom) white cathedral—one of the stops, I think, on the basic tour I’ll be giving at first—there are many cafés.  From the center of the plaza, you can see umbrellas clustered like tents in the corners, and among one of these clusters, in front of its corresponding indoor café, I meet Alex.  His slight gut bulges through his polo shirt, and he has close-cropped curly hair, a face free of worry lines, crooked teeth.  He pumps my hand, asks if I want coffee, answers his own question, orders it for me, all while standing, then sits and gestures, beaming, to the open seat next to him.  “Sit down, setz dich!  Sit down!”

“Couldn’t have found a place with some A/C, Alex?”  I pull the chair around the side of the aluminum table and sit.  Other people are looking over their magazines at us.  “And—coffee?  If this weren’t breakfast, I’d say beer, ice cream, anything—”

“It’ll cool off this afternoon.  A storm’s coming in.”

“So no tours today.”

“Tours this morning.”  The waiter, dressed in black pants, a white shirt, sleeves rolled up to the elbows, and a black vest, brings me my full cup, saucer, sugar cookie, and small water glass, and rushes back indoors.  “This afternoon, we’ll see.  Doubtful, but you’d be surprised.  Tourists bring umbrellas and expect discounts.”

“No.”

“Especially if they bring their kids.”

“When do I start?  Or where, maybe I should say.”

“You’ll be in a classroom for two weeks, learning the basics of our general tour, which—” he ticks these off on ten smooth fingers— “will include the Burggarten, the Leopold, here, the Stadtsoper and surrounding area, the National Library, the Hofburg palace, and three or four other places along the way.  You’ll have a script that you need to stick to, but when people ask you questions, naturally, you can improvise.”  Our waiter returns.  I haven’t even looked at the menu—if there’s a special today, I’ll order that, and there is, so I do.  I suspect Alex will pay.  He orders toast and marmalade, then continues.  “While that’s going on, you’ll shadow a total of ten tours to get a feel for the route.  After that’s done, you’ll go into the advanced part of the training, during which you’ll be shadowed by a native German speaker who will evaluate both your tour and any interactions you have with people outside the tour during it.”

“How long does this go on?”

“Another two weeks.”  He breaks his own cookie in half and dips it into his coffee.

I don’t want it, but I sip mine.  “And everyone has to do it?”

“Yes.  I sense incredulity.”

“Well, I thought part of the reason I’d been hired is I’m already fluent in German and have spent a great deal of time in this city.”

“It was.  You wouldn’t believe the inquiries we get from the States—kids who think we’re a study abroad program, ask straight up how much travel they get to do, and the best—”

“And even so, I’ll spend one third of my time here in training?”

“You thought we’d just hand you a flag and a group of twenty people to lead around and send you on your way?”

Well, no.  I had assumed some sort of training was in order, but I’d passed their inane entrance exam, their application process, their interviews with their American liaisons; I’d spoken in German on the phone with him, demonstrated my knowledge of Viennese landmarks.  “I guess not.”

“You’re not just here to party, are you?  Find yourself a European girlfriend?”

The way he says girlfriend—girrrlfriend, like a nine-year old—tells me he’s teasing, but I say, “I’m too hot to get mad at that.”

“Hey, listen.”  He leans across the table, almost spilling his cup.  “There’s no fucking around on these tours.  These people pay a lot of money to feel like they’re getting to know this place, and they will seriously fuck our shit up if you dick around, so I’ll seriously fuck you up if you do.”  He adopts the De Niro accent of an American who’s missed cursing among equals.  “You don’t like training?  Don’t need this job?  Fuck off, then.  I’ll tell them you got cold feet, decided to see Europe, get married.  You’ll see how well-lubed the EEA’s revolving door is as far as non-citizens like ourselves are concerned.”

Alex is married to a Hungarian surrealist who now holds American citizenship and lives in New York.  “Of course I’ll do the training.”

“Goddam right you will.”  He raises his cup in a half-empty Prost, junge.

Our food arrives shortly after—the special turns out to be a snake river of honey over two symmetrical pieces of toast, a boiled egg on a throne, fruit arranged like synchronized swimmers in a white china bowl with crimped edges—and while we eat Alex tells me about what he does to cope with being an American in Europe—”Truth, the Hungarian wife helps, when she’s here, but when she’s not?  Lots of vineyards”—and the questions most Americans ask on tours—”I have not yet answered one actually interesting question.  I’m dying for someone to bring up Hugh Bettauer”—and invites me to Schwedenplatz, “sometime,” to a bar called Cactus, which he says is “like a Viennese Coyote Ugly.”  I will say I’m amused to learn from Alex that the Hungarian enjoys her American citizenship in New York so much he has trouble getting her to return phone calls.

We eat quickly—Alex needs to get to the office on the first floor of one of the buildings on the Opernring, where I’ll meet him on Monday morning.  The bells of St. Stephen’s announce nine o’clock, people in mid-sentence lean closer to their companions’ faces, and, to the west, a long ridge of dark clouds hunches over and fiddles with its belt.  It’s been a long time coming, it knows, and it hopes we won’t mind.  Everything worth doing, it says, is worth doing slowly, and as it says this it sends a parabolic breeze that would look, if we could see on the molecular level, like a smile.  Alex hands me a twenty-Euro note.  “I’m sure you can handle the rest,” he says.  As he pushes his chair out, he looks west.  “I’d start for home if I were you.”  He flashes me a peace sign at waist level, makes eye contact with our waiter, who is wiping his face in the doorway, and points at me.  I pay the check with Alex’s twenty and a few two-euro coins, and leave for the hardware store in Hernals.  The clouds darken and correct their posture.



I take as little time in the hardware store as possible—a crowbar and hammer don’t require much finesse to purchase in any country—and, having traveled west to get there, rush even farther west toward the storm, which has still not yet begun, to arrive home, spine sore from the new hammer and crowbar hitting it from inside my backpack as I run.  I remove the straps and carry them upstairs to my door, which I had left locked, but is unlocked and ajar.  Across the kitchen, through the entryway to me, the wind that’s no longer a parabola, that is now a sine wave, blows through a window I need to shut.  I set down my bag and unzip it slowly.  I take out the crowbar.  Someone has turned on the bathroom light, is in the bathroom, on the floor—Gregor, his torso draped over the side of the tub, head resting on his cheek like he’s fallen asleep.  The towel I’d used last night is bunched up near his shoes, and his right hand is extended toward the wall, is impaled on the bit he’d left in the wooden unit.  A film of blood covers most of the tub’s flat surface area, and a small amount has dripped from his face down the outside of the tub.  I pat the cheek facing the ceiling, nothing, cup my hands under a running sink and throw water on his face, start pulling his hand off the bit, trying to tug gently, all without success because, more than impaled on the bit, his hand seems stuck to the wood.  I plant one foot on either side of him, my hands around his wrist.

I help him down the stairs and knock on his apartment-office door, which Angela (I presume) answers.  And she is beautiful, her dark hair put up, crooked mouth slightly ajar at the sight of her bloody husband with a hole in and almost all the skin missing from the palm of one hand, and the other arm draped over an unfamiliar man who’s half-smiling apologetically, as if the two of us are drunk.  Gregor and I had worked up frightening momentum on the way down the stairs, increased by the fact that his unconsciousness disposed him to pitch forward at odd intervals and leave flecks of drool on the walls, banisters, and my shirt.  I said “knock” on his door, but actually Gregor’s head banged into it, and I pounded with my fist a few times as much like his forehead as I could.

Angela grabs a set of keys from somewhere out of sight while I juggle her husband, and she and I take Gregor to a rusted Volvo sedan where she opens a door and we plunger the poor man into the ripped front passenger seat and swing his legs around under the dash, and without thinking I jump in the back as Angela closes Gregor’s door and runs around the front of the car, opens her door, is in her seat before the door has finished protesting, and starts the car, shifts into first, and kicks off the parking break in one fluid motion.  Through all this, from discovery to Volvo, Gregor hasn’t done anything but grunt, and bleed, and drool, and now his head rests against the window, his eyes tracking one passing shape, then another.9

The ER techs don’t let Angela or me into the area where they’re working on Gregor, nor do they give Angela enough information to slow the rate of her questions, which are relatively coherent under the circumstances, and not directed at me.  Someone in scrubs that look like dentists’ office wallpaper appears and leads her away to fill out forms.  Sind Sie der Sohn, a woman asks, and I say, in English, No, I’m a tenant in his building.  Really, there was no reason for my coming.  Now Angela asks me, in the hallway between the waiting room and the ER, what exactly did happen, then in English, It’s all right, they just need to know whether to give him a tetanus shot.

I describe the bit and the unit and how who knows what it was used for, and while I’m speaking I realize that Angela and I didn’t say a word on the way to the hospital, a solid fifteen minutes during which we breathed the eeriness of three people, two with smeared blood on their clothes and faces, one barely conscious, waiting to turn left at an intersection next to another car while the wind sways power lines, picks up dust and paper and the thousand cigarette butts along every street grate, while the rain waits for its moment to quench the pavement, to blow through the open window I hadn’t closed.  The nurse takes notes on the things that matter to her and says something in German to Angela that I don’t catch but that relaxes the latter’s face.  The nurse nods at me and leaves us, Angela translates: He’ll be fine.  He needs a transfusion and he severed a nerve.  Surgery soon.  She looks around for a women’s WC and points me toward the men’s.  Get his blood off you.

The storm begins while we’re at the hospital.  Long bands of electricity snake along the S-Bahn lines, saplings along the street are uprooted, lifted, dragged down the street.  Cars pull to the sides of the road, and try feebly to then pull farther over as the saplings approach.  Most bounce off, or scrape the car doors, but one becomes airborne just before it reaches one car and pierces its windshield.  From the window I see shapes moving in the backseat, and a brave trio of orderlies, who must have been watching, too, from downstairs, run, faces turned against the rain, to the car and open the driver’s side door, out of which a limp arm drops.  Angela turns away.  “We shouldn’t be so close to the window.”



She drives me home after dark, after Gregor is bandaged up and the rain and wind have slowed, and she asks if I would like tea, and says he would want her to offer.  I decline, say I have a bathtub to clean, and she offers me her hand to shake, which, after I do and start upstairs, strikes me as odd.  The blood in the tub hasn’t quite dried, but the unit is spotless.  Some blood has run down the bit and collected on the inner cone of the suction cup.  I retrieve the hammer and crowbar from my backpack and try the latter first, but can’t find a gap in which to leverage it, and begin to hit the block gently, then harder when gently doesn’t work, cracking the tiles around it, then switch to the hammer, start hitting the unit’s arm, on the end of which the blood in the cup has begun to inch toward the wood, or the other way around, and I dent it, I swear I do, and I begin shouting at it, begin saying things I wouldn’t otherwise like You fucker and Get the goddammed motherfucking hell off and as I say the “off” in that last one, with a sound like stone grinding on stone the arm splits lengthwise and one side detaches from the block on the wall and I can see a hole that goes farther into the wall than the light does, but both arms remain attached to the suction cup so the other remains stoically upright and extended, but in any case the water and the blood don’t gush out like maybe I’d thought they would—they’re somewhere else, or in the wood, or are the wood, and I’m panting over this when there’s a knock at the front door and I go to open it, hammer still in hand, hair in my face, eyes wide, Angela on the other side holding a plate of babka.



1 Turks have a hard time of it in Vienna, or at least as hard as the States’ imported workers.  In Vienna, supposedly as many as 200,000 Turks live, and from what I’ve gotten out of my neighbors, it seems these Gastarbeiter were wanted until Austria’s economy skidded during the mid-70s and previously distasteful menial labor became appealing under the circumstances.  These are times when legislation like the Aliens Employment Act passes.  When the recession ended in the mid-80s, Austrians were prepared to make up with the workers they’d even paid to leave, but only under certain conditions, e.g., Turkish women couldn’t get work permits if their husbands already worked in Austria.  These husbands, I’m sure, work in many different fields—some non-naturalized Turks have even run for office with the Greens and the Socialists—but the only ones I’ve seen run döner kebap stands and pizzerias in the First District and always ask when they hear me speak English to myself if I’m Canadian.

2 He slathers his accent on the word, but then so do I, and we can fit a two-minute conversation into ten minutes well enough.  But even so, we’re both silent unless one of us needs the other’s direct action, and when we’re not trying to understand each other’s German we use universal gesticulation, which usually devolves into pointing.

3 It can’t possibly be a seat, and it isn’t even positioned to encourage sodomic impulses, which anyway the unit’s material seems to discourage.  Whatever is interesting about it was attached to the suction cup, which appears to have been expendable relative to the dismounting of the entire object.

4 Gregor’s last names are Новиков and Novikov, and his first name isn’t only Gregor, but Grigori, Grigory, Grigoriy, and Григорий, too.

5 The real story (probably) is, ver can have both positive and negative effects on the direct object of the stem, depending solely on the capriciousness of the German language.  It means that you will do or become the direct object, do or become the direct object independent of your will, or you won’t.  So the word presently means, Maybe I will, maybe I won’t, which is all a promise really means, anyway.  But I’m just a tour guide.

6 His wife is very beautiful, she wants everyone to call her Angela, she goes door to door collecting rent from people who haven’t brought it by, but she is nice to everyone and once near Christmas even brought everyone sweet babka with apples, have you seen Gregor’s blackened thumbnail, he got it fixing our ceiling fan, even though we put it in ourselves, where are you from, Gregor can speak English he’s just bad at it and embarrassed, but sometimes he drinks and stomps up and down the stairs and says Колумбия! Я, ваш президент! and then repeats it in English (“Columbia!  I, your president!”) until he tires himself out.

7 If you spent any time in Vienna, or the EU in general, during the Bush administration, you learned three things: Bill Clinton was more popular than the current president, restaurants—particularly those run by Turks—might not serve you if they asked (and they did ask) whether you favored the Bush administration and you answered in the affirmative, and, even after Bush vacated the White House, the vestiges of European hatred for the man remain.

8 Vienna’s public transit system is, as you’d probably expect, punctual, rather clean, and stops at midnight.  Busses, however, run 24 hours a day (after midnight on routes different from during daytime hours).  Its central stops—especially Karlsplatz, directly beneath the Stadtsoper, where you can get seats for €2—is patrolled by body-armored cops carrying automatic weapons.  This is not overkill—lining the main corridor of this stop are what Americans call “creepers” or “critters”—meth-heads who seem oblivious to foot traffic, who likely have slammed thereabouts, and almost seem to be waiting in line for something.  It’s the closest thing to an opium den you will see on your way to a cathedral.  The metro also runs more or less on time, and the U4 from Heiligenstadt to Hütteldorf is even air conditioned, but the street-level cars have to obey traffic signals and are ventilated only by tiny, horizontally- and inwardly-opening windows.

9 First you learn to look out windows.  Someone familiar ties you to a seat like one quarter your crib’s size and climbs into a chair closer to the front of this room that seems built to hold these seats.  Maybe turns to look at you, or doesn’t, or maybe reaches back with one arm to verify you haven’t freed yourself, and the room shudders till something under and ahead of you locks into a low hum.  The steady earth through the window brings itself wherever the room turns, but in different shades of green, brown, shapes that don’t have names yet, or have names like this room, which isn’t any particular kind of room—just room with more surfaces, more tactile impressions that you express in terms the familiar in the front chair can instinctively grasp the essence of but lacks the wherewithal to probe their intricacies.  Just as instinctively you could understand “bonds” if you heard it often enough while bound, but clearly understand your stymied reach by the time you begin to cry out and the familiar searches frantically with the only hand in view to put a rectangle into a slot above glowing segments on black plastic.  More sounds, more words, all alien, but outside your window, more colors, and sometimes the room stops moving, and you’re somewhere else for a broad moment but then off again.  What you see out the window, or the rate at which you see it, that becomes how fast you think, how much you process.  Your entire life might depend on how fast your familiar drove, while the sounds, that condescending way all people speak to babies, like enthusiasm’s the only thing anyone has in common with an infant, enthusiasm and that stupefying tone—none of that matters or even registers.  Your eyes swallow every blur.  The alternator squalls like a blind rat and then it’s the stop sign, the semi cab, hairy arm out the window, a kids’ entertainer clapping his hands one-two-three to major thirds on cassette.


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