Skip to main content


Rating: PG

The pockmarked yellow sign said the elevator was out of order. Tenants had added two extra words, one in thick blue marker and the other scratched carefully into the cold, tin-plated surface: "The elevator is always out of order again."

Demian Kessel stood in front of the gray elevator doors, and looked up at the sign. It was the size of his hat, which he removed to scratch his scalp for a moment. Afterwards, he turned the old brown fedora by its brim in his thick fingers, and looked warily to his right, to the bright orange, heavy steel door marked, "Stairs."

"Sheisse," he whispered, glancing behind him at the empty lobby - faded mirrors with floral etching for borders, flattened orange carpet and mud-colored wallpaper, and somewhere below, the sound of the furnace bursting into flame - like a schoolboy worried at being caught swearing. He smoothed down his gray hair before replacing his hat.

"I had hoped this would be repaired today." He had a quiet, breathy, efficient voice when he spoke to himself, slowly tasting each word, as if still practicing correct pronunciation. "The elevator is always out of order again. Yes."

He repeated it while he picked up his two disheveled bags of groceries and trundled towards the stairwell. His German accent was noticeable, but twenty years of living in Canada had smoothed it over considerably.

At the other end of the hallway, the outside door opened. He felt the wind like a sword point through his scarf. The air smelled of the empty cold, and he turned to look.

"Well, hello Mrs. Yeung," he said, jovially. "Let me help you."

He put his bags down awkwardly, and half-jogged the length of the brief lobby to the front door. The small woman was trying to hold the glass door open with her foot. She was weighed down with plastic bags and carried a brown paper-wrapped parcel under each arm.

"Let me help," he said. "I can take these for you. They're heavy. I thought you had finished moving in last week. Just a few more things, yes?"

"Yes," she laughed, catching her breath. "M-goy, m-goy. Thank you. I'm still moving. Many things. Too many."

She spoke slowly, emphasizing each word. She ended some of them with an "ah," as if the force of the word and her effort to say it carried beyond its completion, making a quiet, laughing sound. Demian smiled at her accent.

"Come, come in. It's warmer back here. You should have told me you were doing this. I would help. It's too cold to do this alone." His voice was loud, confident.

"Yes. Too cold." She brushed snow from her white wool coat.

She was not much shorter than Demian, he noticed, and her face was shaped like a butterfly. Her wide, slightly square cheekbones would be the top half of the wings, separated from the lower half by a strong, shadowed crease. The body would be her thin, oblong chin, and the antennae were her high eyebrows.

"And I am too old," she said.

"That's not true." He touched her shoulder lightly, while they walked towards the stairwell. "You must be younger than me, yes? I'm eighty this year."

Her thin-shaped eyes made her seem to be smiling.

She said, "Seventy-seven."

"Ah, see? We're contemporaries. The elevator is still not working. Can I take your bags?"

She shook her head. Her hair had been rolled into a flat, round bun perched at the back of her head, and appeared ready to slide off if she moved too quickly. No worry of that, thought Demian. She was bundled thickly by her overcoat, which was becoming threadbare in places, and her neck was wrapped with an old red scarf. Her feet, taking short, determined steps in salt-stained, black, fur-lined boots, were so small, it occurred to Demian that she may have had her feet bound as a girl. She stopped for a moment.

"I have more," she said, turning around. "Outside."

She shook her head in quiet frustration.

"Sun-foo," she whispered, and tapped her forehead, as if trying to shake loose the correct word. "Unpleasant."

She laughed briefly.

"My English is no good. I forget. I have more to carry, outside."

"I can come back," Demian interrupted. "Come, I will walk with you upstairs and we can talk along the way. I'm a very good neighbor."

She thanked him, and the pair began their ascent. They both lived on the fourth floor, so it would be a slow climb.

The stairwell was bright white and metallic. Every sound reverberated: their shuffling steps, the harsh noise of the plastic bags, the brush of their sleeves, and their voices, mostly Demian's.

"In truth, I don't mind walking upstairs. I used to run the mile, you know. And I was a fencer. Very good, too, as a young man. You know fencing? Fechten? Escrimer?"

He placed the bags down for a moment and waved his right hand at her as if he held a sword.

"Mm. Yes, yes." She nodded, thoughtfully.

He picked up the bags, adjusted his balance for their weight, and the two continued upstairs.

"Do you," she spoke haltingly. "Have children?"

"Yes," he said, with a kind of pride, even though he hadn't seen his children or grandchildren in months. "I have a son and a daughter, Rudolphe and Anna. They visit me sometimes. You will hopefully meet them soon. They have children too. And you? What is your first name, Mrs. Yeung? You can call me Demian."

"Mai," she said. "I have five."

She held up her open hand, displaying her wrinkled fingers.

"One here, in Toronto. The rest, everywhere." She waved her hand sideways. "But all live in Canada."

"How long have you lived here?"

"Two years. I lived one year with my son, and one with my daughter. She lives," Mai stopped to pronounce the name correctly. "British Columbia."

Satisfied, she took a deep breath and continued climbing. Demian saw how difficult the stairs were for her.

"This is terrible, no elevator. They must fix it soon. I should call them. I think I will, tonight. They can't think we'll let them leave things broken. What if someone falls?"

While he spoke, Mai would nod and say, "Mm, yes." But Demian didn't think she understood most of what he said. No matter. He liked to talk, and told her.

"It's good, your talking," she said. "I need to practice. My hearing, my understanding. The same with my speaking."

"Good, good. Then we can both exercise our language, yes?" They reached their floor and stopped to rest. Demian patted his wide waist. "Good exercise."

He had always been a stocky man, with a wide, thick forehead, sunken black eyes and a crooked nose that had made his friends nickname him Max, after the boxer Max Schmelling. They could have been twins were it not for Demian's graying hair, which had begun to turn around his thirtieth birthday. His face had long since fleshed out, but the square lines of his forehead, mouth and jaw were still there, only softened, turned down, saddened somewhat by the loosening of the skin covering them. He still joked as he had years earlier that his head was shaped like upright, slightly dented shoebox. His white hair had thinned over the years but he wasn't yet bald. He kept his hair neat, combing it straight back.

The hallways on every floor were thin and dim, with low ceilings. Every floor followed the same layout, and every apartment looked basically the same: walls eggshell white, florescent lights, and light blue carpets. Most apartments had large windows to make up for the ugly overhead lights. The entrance foyer would be short, a kitchen to the right, then a large living room. Further on, there would be a bathroom to the right, then a spare room and a bedroom on the left. It was a simple design, spacious enough to ease the lonely, boring feelings of being left alone by your family, as many elderly tenants had been. Many had also chosen for themselves this ersatz condominium life. Their spaces were relatively cheap, and they usually lavished the interiors with a fancy television and new appliances, amongst antique, heirloom furniture and possessions. Demian wondered why the superintendent was being so slow in repairing the sole elevator. Maybe it was because the landlord came by so rarely, and had forgotten. In his more sinister moods, Demian thought there might be a plan to clear out the old tenants, many of whom had fixed-rent status, in order to open up space that could be rented at a much higher rate. Sometimes he thought it was a combination of both.

"Here you are." He spoke brightly when they reached her front door. "Now, you say there is more downstairs? I'm sure it's enough for me to carry in one trip."

Mai made a slight expression of protest, but Demian insisted, speaking with his hand on his chest. She patted his arm before he left.

"Daw-tse, daw-tse. You are so polite," she said. "Please, siu sium. Be careful."

He puffed out his chest a little, and laughed.

"Not to worry. Strong, remember?"

The walk down seemed to take longer than the walk up. Strange, he thought, how quickly he became tired. How he had loved to walk when he had lived in Berlin. He remembered the long strolls alone, or boisterously, often drunkenly with his friends. He remembered the strange, beautiful mix of the elegant and ugly along the Kurfurstendamm, the Ku'damm, where he would walk its four kilometers and back several times a day, through its crowds: the tourists, street performers, shoppers, beggars, prostitutes, sidewalk vendors, punks, drunks, con artists and women in expensive clothes.

He and the other fencers at his club had once staged an impromptu sword fight out there on the sidewalk, one languorous summer evening in the 1960s after a few bottles of red wine. It was near the shopping center that held the huge glass clock made of clear pipes and colored water, the Fliessenden Uhr. Already an old man, already being called Herr Trainer by the younger fencers. Not Maitre Kessel, as he had long imagined, nor any Salle Kessel fencing school.

And coffees at the Cafe Kranzlen, how he had loved those times. Before the war he used to meet his friends at the cafe, at its old address on the corner of Unter den Linden and Friedrichstrasse, in what became East Berlin. He had loved sitting at the rod iron sidewalk tables, watching people. He had even followed the cafe to its second location after the war. Somewhere, he still had the small, flat, unpainted pewter figurines he had bought near the cafe years ago: gifts for a cousin from Rhede who had left them behind when she left. The figurines were from the Berliner Zumfiguren. There was the Potsdammer Soldat with his broken gun and crooked helmet, the Blumenfrau with her wilting roses, and the one of Friedrich the Great playing a flute. Demian knew they were in one of his old, unpacked boxes, but which one?

He stopped at the outside door to make sure he was bundled up warmly. It was a gray, unforgiving day. The wind made the dry snow spin like tiny tornadoes in the street. He pushed the door open, against wind that tried to keep him inside, and stepped into the biting cold. He saw a cardboard box, knee-height, near the steps to his left. He tried to pick it up, but it was very heavy.

"Gott. What is this?"

Stooping, he finally managed to lift it. He struggled through the door and to the stairs. This time the trip took much longer than before. He had to stop every few steps to rest.

"She's smarter than she seems, that one," he whispered to himself. "Getting me to carry this for her, pretending not to understand. She knows what she's doing, all right."

Every so often, he sat down and wiped his brow with the back of his hand. He wondered how he had ended up doing this? He remembered the old strolls, the ancient, solemn museums, the theatres and hotels in Berlin-Mitte, and Unter den Linden, so beautiful before they were bombed and taken over after the war. The same East German who had declared all that Prussian treasure - anything Prussian - to be imperialist, were the same people who inherited those buildings. He had always found that amusing.

And Potsdammer Platz, how wonderful it had been, now a wasteland. It made him feel he was inside a vacuum to think of it. How could it all vanish? How would it have looked if the war never happened? Would it look like Prenzlauerberg, derelict and crumbling, and the wall not split the square, his Platz?

"Ach. I'm too old to carry this. I could hurt my back." He struggled his way distractedly up a few more stairs. "I'm too good. I've always been too much of a gentleman."

Without even realizing that he had lost his grip on the box, it hit the stairs with a heart-stopping, sickeningly final crunch, and tumbled down the stairs to the floor. Glass, he thought.

"Sheisse!" His voice echoed around him, up and down the hollow stairwell. Dishes. China. "Meine Gute. Now what have I done?"

The box was still heavy, but a little easier to lift now that the weight was all at the bottom. He seemed to find his strength again, from the nervous energy. It was difficult to think. What would he say? How could he have been so careless?

It was also in part her fault, he thought. She had asked him, at his age, to carry such a heavy box. It was inevitable that he would have dropped it.

He stood outside Mai's door for a few moments, holding the box before him, before lightly tapping at the door with his foot. When she opened the door, she was smiling, but looked alarmed at his expression.

"I'm so very sorry," he said, entering her apartment. He stood, sheepishly, in the foyer. "It was just as I had said. The elevator was not working, someone could have slipped and it was I who did it. I'm very sorry. There was too much melted snow on the stairs. I slipped and fell. I think I hurt my hip, and my back. And I think I've broken what is in here."

He shook the box.

"Are they dishes?"

Demian set the box down. Mai tore off the strip of masking tape along the seam and opened the top.

"Dishes, yes. Very old dishes," she said.

She picked out pieces. It seemed every dish had been broken or cracked. They were pretty, too, Demian thought. Bright white, deep red, elegant. The light green rice bowls were so thin that he could see the shadow of her fingers through them.

"Haw-sik," she said, quietly. "Haw-sik."

"I'm sorry, what does that mean. I don't understand." Demian was ashamed of the quiver in his voice.

Mai closed her eyes before she spoke.

"It means, what a pity."

Her eyes seemed larger to him than earlier. Perhaps she knows that he lied, Demian thought. She had just been on the stairs a few minutes ago. She must have seen there was nothing to slip on. He tried not to think about that, and looked around for something to distract him, something he could talk about.

Mai's apartment was still strewn with full cardboard boxes. Two well-traveled, dented, black steamer trunks and several suitcases stood like sentries in her living room. All of her furniture was already in place: a brand-new, three-piece, living room couch and armchair set, covered with a hypnotic, floral and vine design that wound across a background of peaceful, sky blue. There was a large television in its own jet-black cabinet; a VCR perched on top. Against the wall stood two tall wooden bookcases filled with rows of equal-sized paperbacks of old Chinese folk stories, or so it seemed from their covers, the spines and faces detailed with drawings of elaborately fighting characters. An old rocking chair was covered with a yellowed, gold velvet cloth. Next to that was a short, fat wooden chest, with a scene on its glossy black surface like an ancient landscape painting: white mountains, golden rivers, raised stone figurines of flying birds and three women in flowing red and yellow robes. The corners of the chest were turned up like pagoda tops. It had ornate brass hinges and handles.

"Your cabinet needs polishing," Demian said quietly, wiping off fingerprints with the cuff of his coat. "Do you miss your home?"

There was no answer. He saw that she was still sorting out the broken dishes. Perhaps she hadn't heard. Then she looked at him.

"My home?"

"China," he said. "Do you miss it at all? I miss Berlin. Very much. I have lived in Canada almost twenty years. I still miss my old city."

"No. Sometimes. I was born in Canton province, lived in Hong Kong for many years. All of my family is here now." She stood up, carefully. "All of my family moved. They live in Canada. It's a good country. The government, the life in China was very bad. Do you understand?"

"I saw on the news--"

"They were very bad. For a long time, my family had many - a lot of land. It's all gone. My husband died in the war. I don't miss anything. I live here now."

"I must go." Demian was embarrassed. "I'm very sorry about your dishes. I will call the super immediately. I'll tell him what happened and demand that he buys you new dishes. I'll do that right now."

He made his exit as quickly as his back allowed, and entered his apartment, further along the hall.

He sat on his beat-up old couch. All of his furniture had been new and expensive when he had bought it, almost twenty years ago. He had moved several times since then, and had never bothered replacing any of it. Now it was as much a part of him as his gray overcoat and rough work boots he had brought with him from Germany. They never wore out. He looked at his uselessly elegant wooden chairs, the long wooden cabinet with the built-in television, speakers on each side. On top: a turntable to the left, radio tuner on the right. The dusty, tube-driven unit still worked, stubbornly. Demian was just as stubborn in refusing his children's and grandchildren's appeals to buy him a new set. The same went for his patched and creaking, leather armchair, his old dishes - the first purchases he made in Canada. They were white, flower-printed, with a faded, pale blue border. The same went also for his familiar down duvets and his electric blanket. So much, and him, tucked into his boxy apartment. All of his as-yet-unpacked boxes and trunks, packed into the closets and the spare room, when would he ever unpack them?

He remembered a movie he had seen several years ago, with Paul Newman in it, who had said, "I feel like every minute I've ever lived is written on my face." Demian thought, my face has looked the same for twenty years. And now?

"I wonder what it will look like tomorrow," he said, shaking his head.

When he tapped on Mai's door with his foot, he was holding a stack of his own dishes.

"I'm sorry, I wasn't honest with you earlier." He didn't know where to look, and shuffled his weight slightly.

"Actually, I didn't slip. I dropped your box. It was an accident. I'm too old to carry that sort of thing. I know I can't replace them, but I would like to give you these. They aren't as nice as yours are. I hope they'll be all right."

Mai was quiet for several moments, and didn't seem to know how to respond. Demian felt his uneasiness creep like a snake along his back. Suddenly, she looked surprised.

"Oh, ei-ya. This isn't necessary. I understand. No," she said.

Demian insisted, as best he could.

"Daw-tse, daw-tse. Thank you," she said. The weight of his dishes must have shown on his face. Mai opened the door wider. "Come in, please. Would you like tea?"

"Thank you," he said, relieved. At that moment, Demian realized he was still wearing his hat.