It was there when he woke up. Presumably also when he slept. The blot. Standing alone at the back of the sparsely populated ferry to Kladow, mercifully sheltered behind safety glass against the chill of the lake at evening, Alexander Bruno could no longer deny the blot that had swollen in his vision and was with him always, the vacancy now deforming his view of the receding shore. It forced him to peer around its edges for glimpses of the mansions and biergartens, the strip of sand at the century-old lido, the tarpaulined sailboats. He’d come to Berlin, half the circumference of the world, two weeks ago, whether to elude his fate or to embrace it he couldn’t know.
He’d been biding his time in Charlottenburg, breakfasting at the quiet cafés, watching the days grow steadily longer, overhearing more spoken English than he’d have preferred, running through his last funds. His tuxedo had remained in its hanging bag, his backgammon case latched. All the while the blot had been with him, unacknowledged. Bruno its carrier, its host. He’d passed through customs with the innocence of the accidental smuggler: Nothing to declare. It was only after having at last called the number provided him by Edgar Falk and consenting to visit the rich man’s house in Kladow, only upon his waking, this very day on which he’d dusted off tuxedo and backgammon case, that the blot had insisted he grant its existence. An old friend he’d never met but recognized nevertheless.
Why get too fancy about it? He might be dying.
Under the circumstances of Bruno’s dread, the slide of the S-Bahn through the endless roster of stations from Westend to Wannsee had seemed as long as his voyage from Singapore to Berlin. The German city, with its graffiti and construction sites, its desultory strips of parkland and naked pink water pipes, had its own sprawl and circumference. Berlin wended through time. On the S-Bahn toward Wannsee the tall girls in black leggings with bicycles and earbuds, so prevalent in Charlottenburg and Mitte, had thinned out, replaced by dour Prussian businessmen and staring grandmother types, slouching home with briefcases and shopping bags. By the time of the ferry there was little to defeat the irresistible illusion that the city was newly vanquished and carved into sectors, that the prevailing silence and gloom derived from remorse and privations not seventy years past but fresh as smoldering rubble.
When Bruno had called to ask his host for directions to Kladow, the rich man told him that the ferry across the lake at evening was an experience he shouldn’t miss. Bruno, the German had said, should keep his eye out on the right for the famous Strandbad Wannsee, Berlin’s traditional resort beach, and, on the left, for the Wannsee-Konferenz villa. The site of the Final Solution’s planning, though Bruno had needed this legacy explained by his hotel’s concierge. Of course, scanning for it now, Bruno had no way of distinguishing the site from other mansions arrayed on the western shore, each of which heaved into the void at the center of his sight.
For how long had Bruno considered the blot nothing but a retinal floater grown mad or the looming ghost of his inattention? Only a fool wouldn’t connect it to the perennial headache that had caused him, as he’d walked from the Wannsee S-Bahnhof through the steep park leading to the boarding dock, to shuffle his fingers into his tuxedo jacket’s interior pocket in search of his packet of paracetamol, that incomparable British aspirin on which he’d grown dependent. Then to gulp down two pills, with only the shimmering lake before him for water. He’d accept the verdict of fool if it meant the paracetamol repaired his sight. Made a full cake of that which was presently a doughnut: the world. He raised his hand. The blot obscured his palm as it had the shore. Bruno noticed he’d lost a cuff link.
“Excuse me,” he said. He said it to a tall girl in black tights, one of those who’d journeyed in his car of the S-Bahn, all the way from the fashionable Mitte, to board the ferry. She’d maneuvered her bicycle into the ferry’s rack before joining him at the back windows. Bruno spoke to excuse crouching at her knees to feel on the floor, on the chance that the cuff link had only tumbled down at his feet. A hopeless impulse, like the drunkard in the joke who, wandering at night on a side street, and discovering he has lost his key, searches not in the place he believes it was lost but instead beneath a lamppost, simply because the light is better there.
The joke came to mind because the girl crouched to help, without knowing what she was looking for. In the joke, the drunk was aided by a policeman, who searches for a while beneath the streetlamp too. Now, as she bent to join him, Bruno saw that girl wasn’t actually the right word. Her lined face was both severe and attractive. So many women in Berlin, athletically slim, dressed in a universal costume and couldn’t be judged for age by their outlines.
“No . . . no . . . ” The Berliners all spoke English, and even when they didn’t, the meanings bled through. In Singapore the alien tongues of Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil had left him happily sealed in his cone of incomprehension. Did she guess that the problem was with his eyes because he groped like a blind man?
“Kuffenlinksen . . . ” he bluffed, pinching his loose sleeve. He doubted it was a word in any language. Additionally I am probably also soon losing my life, he added in pidgin telepathy, just to see if she was listening. She showed no sign of having read his thoughts. He was relieved.
Alexander Bruno had forsaken thought transference years ago, at the start of puberty. Yet he remained vigilant.
Excerpted from “A Gambler’s Anatomy” by Jonathan Lethem. Copyright © 2016 by Jonathan Lethem. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House.