In Altbau buildings, the wooden floors creak. They’ve been creaking for hundreds of years. Boots made them creak; heels, patters of paws, husbands and wives tiptoeing to meet their younger loves, kids playing hide and seek, kids fighting parents, and parents fighting kids made them creak. Someone is creaking in the other room; or rather, walking and making the floor creak; but, on second thought, I wonder if someone can creak, or if only things creak. I guess people can creak, Birke thought.
The neighbors are fucking again upstairs. She usually tries to keep the rhythm by snapping. If she hears cheeks clapping, must be him inserting from behind; if the floor is creaking, she is on top riding him. Today she must be on top. One and a two and a one and a two and a—did he really finish that early?? That’s two of the last three times under two minutes, I think. I should start timing it.
The Strassenbahn screeched down her street; church bells rang. It is either 7:00 or 7:15, she couldn’t tell. Usually, the man across the street comes home between 7:00 and 7:15. She liked to watch him. He didn’t creak. He was too far away to creak, not like the people upstairs who creaked and clapped, or her roommate who was creaking just in that moment. Fucking creakers—no, he just got home and put down his briefcase (she liked that he used a briefcase, because no one else uses a briefcase anymore), went straight to the fridge (you can see it through the flat’s second window), grabbed a beer (she guessed Gösser—green bottle), and then left to his bedroom (she assumed), where he stayed for a number of hours.
The wind blew against her window. She could hear it making that nasty thrashing sound that it makes when God is upset with the world. First it thrashes and then it whistles and then it thrashes again. God has his rhythm just as the couple upstairs does. But why is God always fucking with my rhythm. He either interrupts my thoughts or makes me focus on something until I want to kill that very thing because I cannot get it out of my head. Don’t you wish you could trade brains?
The man, he usually comes out of his bedroom around 9:00 in sweatpants and a black t‑shirt, with his head hung and shoulders slumped: the poor thing. He moves from the second room to the first, and then back to the second. Always, always, with a glass of water in his hand. A sign of survival, she thinks. He stays there for a while, flipping through magazines, or a thick compact book, the type you get at airports or train stations—just flipping pages, as if flipping pages is the new reading. The more books or magazines that you’ve flipped through, the more you have accomplished. Hoorah. After a while, he makes his cup of tea and then retreats into the bedroom, or that secret undiscovered part of the flat that Birke can’t see from her window across the street. Who knows what is in there.
The Strassenbahn screeched down her street again. A pack of sardines all dressed in scarves and coats are now filing out of their transport wagons, getting ready to load onto a “lift,” which will take them to the last phase of the packaging process. She could hear a man scream Woas iss mi dir d’ Oarschloach! An angry sardine. Those are the worst.
The wind whistled through Vienna’s maze-like streets. It flew through that labyrinth of imperial lore, through statues of forgotten politicians and statuettes of Greek goddesses, through once-palaces-now-museums where gathering crowds ooh and aww, through the Gürtel, through the Danube and her polluted waters, through Wiener Melanges and their servile waiters, through the Beatrixgasse and the Tivoligasse and up towards Birke’s Gasse, where the wind whistled against her window, until it finally slowed down and died out, because God decided that it was time for silence.
It is so quiet! It must be 7:05 or 7:20: the church bell has stopped ringing, the wind mellowed, the man gone into his bedroom, the couple cleaned up their mess, the roommate locked herself in her room, the sardines packed, and no one is creaking! Birke is finally alone, no one bothering her or interrupting her thoughts. Not even God can mess with her. Now she can finally lay in peace and relax, turning off her mind for a few minutes, just like the therapist suggested, even meditating maybe.
The silence lasts for fifteen seconds…twenty…twenty-five…
The door buzzed. The door buzzed. The door buzzed. She finally woke up.
“Scheisse,” Birke whispered to herself.
She walked to the front door and pressed a button on the wall.
Footsteps rang through the spiraling cylinder staircase. It reminded her of old churches on top of mountains, whose ancient walls selfishly keep all sound and cold inside in order to torture the believers. The stomp-stomp-stomp continued. The person should be there by now. It was only three flights of stairs; but, for some reason, the noise began to fade, until it grew fainter, until it was only just a sliver of sound lingering about in that cold spiral dungeon.
Must have been the wrong address and they figured it halfway up the stairs, she thought.
She walked back to her room. She knew which planks of wood creaked. A skip here and there and she was safely in her room, where, for some reason, none of the planks creaked.
It was good to be back in her room. She looked at the clock on her bedroom wall, just under that sketch by Matisse, the one that she inherited from the last tenant or maybe the one before her, or maybe Matisse himself. It was 8:56. Fuck, I had been asleep for almost two hours. The man across the way should be on his way out of the bedroom by now. She sat on her bed waiting. She looked up at the clock: 8:58. She stood up and prepared herself by the window. She stared without blinking, out through her own window, across the street into the man’s living room, which was lit up by a dainty antique lamp, its green hood scattered with ornamental designs and geometric patterns. Matisse’s model was giving Birke a funny look, but she didn’t notice. She was focused on the man who—yes, there he is, right on time. He walked to the kitchen. She watched his gait salaciously, nearly salivating at how beautiful she found his rhythm. How can someone live so simply? Every single day doing the same thing, drinking water from that same glass, flipping through the same airport books about bank heists and scandalous affairs, until the blur of printed letters pushes his decaying tendons and joints back to the kitchen where a brand-new water cooker and valerian-lemon-orange sleepy tea are waiting. Ah! What a sight. Look at those fingers flipping through the book. I bet it’s a Krimi, Birke thought. A young journalist named Kat has been tailing a man in the town of Dachau she suspects of being a serial killer. The man goes for walks in the forest near the old KZ camp every single day at 4:03 in the afternoon. He walks for an hour and then comes home, makes an herbal tea, and then takes a nap until 7:00. At 7:30, he rides his bike to a bar, the Burning Chicken, where he sits at the long bench outside on the patio and watches women until around 10:00 when the man puts his Krimi book back on the coffee table and proceeds, as expected, to go back into the kitchen, where he fills up his new titanium water cooker, drops a tea bag into the Tetris designed mug that he uses every day, and waits. Birke waits with him. This is Birke’s favorite moment: when both her and the man across the street wait together. She feels like she is there with him, lawfully abiding this rhythmic universe he has designed. How nice it feels to be on the same page with someone for just one minute—two Gnostics silently heeding God’s most wonderful creation: the water cooker! This one minute is nearly transcendental. Birke likes to enjoy it and soak in the moment. But like anything good, it’s over as soon as you know it. The man pours the water and the teacup is filling up and it is time for him to retreat back to the third room that Birke cannot see, and although she is sad that their moment is over, she nevertheless experiences a moment, a rush of relief, because the man has not deterred from their agreed-upon plan, and now, like any other day that she watches him as he walks out of the kitchen, back to the living room, where he tugs on the string hanging from the green lamp and its geometrical designs turn dark, just like the rest of the room.
Birke let out a sign. She gathered her pouch of tobacco, papers, and lighter from her desk and brought it to the windowsill. She rolled a cigarette, put on a hoody, opened up her window, and lit the smoke.
One puff, two puff, three puff, four sardines are downstairs, standing in a circle, drinking a beer. She could only pick out a few words and sounds—tinder, retard, ahah!, hauu ab, getthefuckoutofhere.
The cold wind entered her room. She felt as if she had just met an old friend whose voice she only knew through the telephone, and now that old friend has finally come to see her in person; but for some reason, after cordially shaking her hand, he decides to gently run the back of his hand against her cheek. What audacity this man has to think that on our first meeting he can approach me and lay his cold fingers against my cheek! I should slap him, or worse—I should burn his hands with the end of my cigarette! Men think they can do anything to you, but I’ll show them. I’ll show them! Except, Birke kept the window open, because something about the cold winter wind appealed to her. Its chill snuck in between her teeth as she took drags from her cigarette. The chill burned her gums and reminded her that she was not yet a sardine.
Arghargharghargh! One of the drinking men below was imitating a dog barking. Birke flicked the rest of her cigarette out of the window, where it would hopefully land inside the barking man’s beer can. She closed the window and pulled down the Jalousie. Her roommate, the creaker, was playing a song louder than she should have. Birke decided to take a pill and put her leaky machine to sleep.
Ben Sloan is an American writer living in Vienna. He moved to Austria after studying History at UC Berkeley, where he published his undergraduate thesis on art and socialism in East Germany. Ben has taught English and History in San Francisco, small “cow towns” in the Austrian countryside, and in Vienna. His fiction explores both large scale and intimate histories of the regions he has lived and worked in. He is also addicted to watching movies and wants to be like Agnès Varda when he gets old.