Benjamin Sloan ~ Sardine

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.