People, ideas, hardware – in that order. Benjamin Wittorf

On the ground / In the restaurant / Other view

On the ground / In the restaurant / Other view

A short story on the theme of “The Great Game,” 2005.


On the ground

With my face in a small pool on the cold concrete floor, I lay there and saw the world turned 90 degrees as it slowly blurred. At first, I didn’t even notice the cold that was spreading. With a blank, forlorn look, I clung to my last thoughts, to how I felt. I can’t say exactly what went through my mind last: that it was clear it was going to happen, my self-righteous love to which I owed this, or that I could still feel my head hitting the floor with a thud, tearing off a bit of the skin on my cheekbones.

So I lay there, alone, and the blurred world became darker and darker and more alienating, I heard resounding sounds that became more and more distorted and distant. The gray, poured floor was as cold as it was impersonal, and in complete lack of sympathy it brought me only hardness and icy coldness. For a fleeting moment I recognized a pattern on it in which I was immersed, and dimly I saw a smiling face and heard amorous laughter, but it immediately disappeared like an echo when I remembered why I was lying here. Then I felt the warmth leave my fingers and toes first, then a short time later my hands were cold; I couldn’t feel my feet anyway. The right side of my face was almost frozen and stuck to the ground like a tongue to an icy steel beam. Like an inflammation, the cold stretched from my belly up to my kidneys.

It did not bother me how my body became part of this earth again, too much and actually nothing occupied me. In my compressed thoughts, memories and countless associations, one briefly stood out: anyone who says he has felt lonely in his life does not know what it really means to be alone. As I lay there, I felt the finality and began to grasp it: a mixture of despair, love, panic, self-righteousness coupled with futility and the wretched knowledge that it would be the last thing connecting me to this world. How ironic, how sarcastic, how cynical! If only I had just loved, always loved, yet I didn’t blame myself. After all, I had chosen myself for what happened. I didn’t regret it, but at that moment I wished for nothing more than love: someone to hold me, the warmth of a loving person—especially the woman I was giving myself up for, she should be here lying to me that she loved me too; so it was just perhaps unconsciously love that showed me in its own way that it was simply tragic. But what would it have been worth, this selfishness? In this chess game, of which I was now the overturned piece, I was not a king, but the pawn sacrifice, but that’s what happens when you get involved with the opponent’s queen. I saw it that way myself, a life is worth nothing and everything.

Away from the thoughts, reality caught up with me one last time: cold. What an end, I had expected it, and I thought I was prepared, but like this, here? My arms, my legs, and my torso, cooled down so quickly. I was freezing, but my limp, sprawled body already had too little life to shiver. Even the blood, which by now was making its way past the corner of my right mouth, was free of the warmth of life, spreading out as if clinging to the earthly instead of me. My pupils dilated as my heart struggled loudly for the last time. Once, briefly, my hands spasmed; my stomach contracted. Then: relaxation. My heart thumped slower and slower, slower and barely perceptible. It stopped beating.

I was fully immersed in the cold darkness, and in meditative peace I left this world in a brief moment of consummate happiness. Perhaps I was alone, but I was now allowed to dream forever.

In the restaurant

For a car in this class, the leather seats were quite uncomfortable; how that black hairless skin yielded sluggishly, creaking as we drove around the tight curves and I involuntarily shifted my weight as we did so; how it got louder and louder the higher we went; how dark patterns began to emerge that I began to see as I let my glazed gaze wander in my outward indifference, pausing on the back seat where I sat. This dark, heavy interior, adorned with burl wood and silver-gray decorative elements; it exuded a sustaining gravity, heavy and set, but pervasive and signed with a seriousness. This seriousness; I was driven, and as I had no control over it, so I felt pushed to my decision that I could not change it, that I had entered into this game whose rules I did not know, and yet had to play it to the end. I felt both involuntarily driven and liberated, free from the constraints I had been under just a few hours before, liberated by the love I had found, but bound by what I had to do for her.

Outside it looked carefree and peaceful: It was a summery day, in the sky only a few clouds showed, white and small; clouds that stood like lost sheep on a wide meadow. Here and there, a ray of sunlight broke through between the trees, making the many branches with their green leaves disappear in a halo. Quietly I watched this stroboscopic spectacle of nature, and now and then I could see past the trees, far down into the valley, where a river made its way over an eternity to conquer mountains like this one. Where the trees condensed you could see their stocky bodies, healthy and straight grown, unimpressed by us as we passed them and probably not even a flash in their perception. I felt like a guest in a world that did not know the fleeting moment of being human, and yet I felt connected to it because it was able to express all that I longed for eternal peace, warmth, perfection, not exaggerated, but constantly felt with all my senses.

At the end of the road, which from above certainly looked no different from the river we had also been following for a while, a large gate awaited us, inviting us to drive through with its open gates. My driver braked, and a sound like gnashing teeth coming from the white pebbles below us made my wandering gaze pause and look at the stately building before me with a final certainty. This building, far away from the nearest town, just below the top of this mountain, built in the late 18th century, with its majestic view of the valley, conceived as a guesthouse for state guests and later converted into an exclusive hotel with a better restaurant; this building that, even after my stay, would be just as much an unreal, artificial part of this nature and yet, sooner or later, would have to make way for it again—as the last witness of the people who once inhabited it; this building that was indifferent to my visit, but in which I would do anything to be able to love and to be loved.

On the right, in front of the entrance to the restaurant, we parked between other limousines, and I perceived for the first time that my driver was talking to me; in a serious voice he asked me if I had everything with me. I looked out the window with an indifferent gaze and watched the young man at the door, probably waiting for him to open the door to the restaurant for me. Would I have everything with me? Now it would probably be too late to correct anything anyway. He didn’t even ask if I was ready, but maybe he just didn’t know what it was about, or didn’t care. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him take off his sunglasses, look in the rearview mirror, and ask again. With cold eyes, free of shame and other feelings, he looked at me, and I felt that I was just arbitrary to him. Without paying any further special attention to him, I nodded. Then I tapped the brown suede briefcase that was under my legs to announce to him my readiness to leave the vehicle. The nameless, beefy man put his sunglasses back on, got out quickly but deliberately, and opened my door. Then I got out, trying to appear indifferent; as I stood, I looked ahead with tunnel vision and took a slow, deep breath. My heart was beating not fast but hard, and at the thought of the woman because of whom, no, for whom I was doing this, I felt hot for a moment. After that, I immediately dove into the cold, emotionless, driven only by the goal of being with her, of being able to tell her that she needn’t worry anymore, that nothing would stand in our way.

I was already expected at my table – by an acquaintance whom I met from time to time. Now and then we realized small and quite lucrative projects, but otherwise nothing friendly connected me with him; often he was useful for me, as I was useful for him. Today he was to be useful to me again. He wanted to have dinner with me again anyway, he told me on the phone, and the restaurant here suited him. To greet me, he stood up, and in clearly exuberant joy, he greeted me with a buddy-like hug. He asked me if he could take something off my hands, and with his leptosome body he almost looked like the waiter at our table who should have been in charge of that. We sat down, and I looked at him for a moment. I wondered how old he was. He had a youthful but striking face, a little bony. His auburn hair was medium length and hung forward into his face, making it even harder to follow his gaze. I could never be certain where he was looking; sometimes I thought his dark eyes would disappear into their sockets. His euphoric, energetic demeanor often caused him to be underestimated; even I was always amazed at his calculation when his body stiffened, and he rebuked someone in a serious, energetic voice. While he was saying something to the waiter, I took a closer look at the bottle on the table, a ’91 Lafite-Rothschild, whereupon another waiter put a glass in front of me and asked kindly but firmly for the bottle and filled it to a third.

We ordered a few snacks in advance, and I looked around appraisingly. The large hall had a high ceiling under which chandeliers hung, walls decorated with stucco with a tinge of yellow, an entire side consisted only of large panoramic windows with a view of the neighboring, just as green mountain, on which stood a small castle ruin. Large, dark blue velvet curtains divided the space into thirds. In the first third, where we sat, there was a bar, opposite it in the room stood a grand piano, at which a pianist tried to imitate Keith Jarret. We were surrounded by a few small tables, where mostly only businessmen sat: alone, reading salmon-colored newspapers on the side, in pairs or even in threes, joking about absent colleagues, in fours, talking about any business topic. In the middle third were larger, mostly round tables. At one sat a group of old gentlemen, accompanied by their wives, who, despite their advanced age, wore tight little costumes and, hung with precious stones, flaunted their bosoms through their deep cleavage. At another oblong table sat a mixed group of 12 or 14 people, mostly middle-aged men, a few women in between, elegantly dressed but not fitting from the overall picture – escort ladies. I paused briefly as I skimmed the faces to make sure that the person I was really here for was also sitting there at the table. Then I turned again to my counterpart, and kept that table in the angle of vision.

While we ate the appetizers that had been served meanwhile and hedonistically wasted the wine, we talked about various trivialities: What we had been doing lately, what we were currently working on, and what would be coming up in the future. I was bored, and it was hard for me not to think about my true love without looking demanding through my counterpart, forgetting the world around me and revealing my true intentions—I was so tempted to shout it out, my body charged like after a sprint. Instead, I dabbled in indifference, in the numbness I had come to expect, mentally delighting in all the beautiful little completely unnecessary things in life that I had this attitude to thank for. At that moment, I was in love with myself, and yet her face slipped into my thoughts. She somehow determined my actions, but I felt good about it because in doing so, I was free, unattainable, and invulnerable; my actions had a deeper meaning because of her. Then I dutifully gave myself a jolt and concentrated, leaning back and continuing to exchange business accomplishments—how we sat there and saw ourselves as society’s schemers while also smiling as we accumulated value.

Some time passed, the main course arrived, and a waiter opened another bottle of the wine for us; I bent forward briefly to reach for the wine glass when I saw my true concern make its way to the silent venue. As programmed, I immediately excused myself, adding the unnecessary excuse that I wanted to freshen up for a moment, and stood up. As I made my way from the table, I could see my acquaintance smiling. Briskly, I went in the direction of the washrooms. The door almost closed, and without opening it wide, I nimbly squeezed through the crack. I looked around the rather small room, in front of me in the dark marble two recessed white sinks, faucets in brushed aluminum with two small mirrors in front of them, dim halogen light shining from the ceiling. To my right were towels and some perfume samples. To my left was another door, which I opened carefully, a rosy scent breathed on me.

I looked into the room and saw separate cubicles. No one was to be seen, and also with the obligatory look under the doors, I could discover nobody. Cautiously, I entered the room, in the middle of which I was standing, when I was approached from behind. While turning around, I grabbed an arm of the person who emerged from the blind spot of the door, spun me and my arm further and threw them across the room. Then I opened one of the doors, grabbed the body and pushed it inside. Without waiting long, I took my pistol from its holster, the silencer from my jacket and unscrewed it. I looked my victim briefly and determinedly in the eyes, but I didn’t see there what I would have expected; instead, all I heard was an apology. I pulled the trigger.

At the same moment that I pulled the trigger, the person in front of me lost his life. This machine killing, impersonal, artificial, as if I wasn’t doing it myself, it was so disconcerting and at the same time so easy. Then I stopped for a moment, and looked at who was in front of me. That symmetry of the face, that full, long black hair on the head that was on a body at least as beautiful. Those eyes that looked so longingly, looking at me blankly, glassily, yet reproachfully. Those dead eyes that made me live. Those deep eyes that awakened true love in me for the first time. There I stood, telling her that now she didn’t have to worry anymore, that nothing would stand in our way. I wanted to scream, to let it all out, all the pain and all the love, but instead I fired my magazine empty, scattering shots across her chest, and as her body reared up one last time, a shot to her head. Then she slumped and I turned away.

I left the room, washed my hands, ran cold water over the hot silencer, then unscrewed it and let it disappear back into my jacket, the pistol I slid back into its holster. I looked in the mirror at my tie knot, but nothing so easily upset the double Windsor. Then I left the washroom. Returning to the table, I immediately sat down, apologized again for the interruption, and took one deep breath; I wished a good hunger and enjoyed my meal. In complacency, I sat there, relieved of a great burden. I felt relieved and somehow happy, as if everything made sense, the riddle of being dissolved before me. I rationalized my thought, smiled very briefly and whispered:

I love her.

Other view

I write it down (so that I can enjoy it) and give an example, no one believes it anyway. Who could! This ignorance––oh my. Not even a clue. “Conspiracy theories!” and “garbage!” they call it. The nice thing is: I don’t even have to prove it to them because I use them for it myself. Why should we even plan the big conspiracy; many small ones are the key to the goal. And conspiracy, what is that anyway, it is just a game (chess), planned, why should we say what our next moves are? Our world is no different, no different from theirs. A single gray mass; it does not matter on which side you stand (because there is none), you stand for an ideology, but the enemies and friends change constantly. Is it different for you, in your job at the bank, in insurance, as a lawyer? And do you care, at your job as an assembly worker, salesman, receptionist? Why? Maybe: I am Socrates and only a cog, but I am turning. These supposedly so happy pigs—gray in gray, day after day. My goal! My goal. A single person and at the same time all: “A life is worth nothing and everything!” I say there. Pathetic? Certainly, not (I just know better).

Let them do it. Tools of the trade: human vanity (key). Tickle the ego, butter them up, let them talk; make them feel like they’re at the top of your social scale. A few times you do that—et voilà: You can put words in their mouths that they’ll think are their own. Then: an idea of why they do it and think they do it for a good, noble reason. Let it be love for them (that emotional baggage! Lolita Pille: “That’s all we’ve found to alienate post-coital depression, to justify whoring, to ensure orgasm.”), and they’ll stop thinking. Sufficient also: the immediate threat to loved ones; just: just don’t let them think. Doesn’t economics teach you that the human being is “human capital”? I live on it and for it: cultivating contacts, throwing crumbs and demanding nothing less than altruism for the cake. Despicable—not at all. They have then at least lived and moved something; then it must not matter in whose interest (because better so than to have lived eternally the indifferent rut of the others, who despite their equality of a “we” are not even aware). This hinders free development—violates human rights? Max Weber: “extreme rationalizing fanaticism”; so what makes us different? Purposefulness for—and not against—society and the people who live in it.

How I do it. Course of action, blurred: the small game of chess (as subordinate to the big one), only east. The goal in mind—and the way to it is to be described. Putting the new piece on the same path, not forgetting the others, and not disregarding what the opponent might have come up with. Small variation in this version: now and then the opponent’s pieces are your own and—you should know how to use it skillfully—vice versa. Action, but provoke the reaction; be aware of the unique importance of a piece and be ready to take it off the board (it will be knocked over). It has to–and must—mean: when I have made the decisive move with one then, the piece has become indifferent to me, it no longer has a game-deciding function (like a pawn from E4 to E5). Cynical? In another game, after all, I am a pawn myself (Buddha: “Liberation from the passions, from the will to live, cancels suffering.”—but still: Mahayana).

How it happens now. Course of action, an example (it was, is and will be arbitrary). Beforehand, I am not a storyteller! But is that one, seulement sans morale? No, avec moralité! Only not one with the raised finger, but one which is itself part of one.

Most of the people I keep in my address book I have also met, like this character, on another playing field: at one of those many parties where people can flirt with their ego; this ego, which as so often is only a facade (filled with their professional achievements), fixated on the comparison of their handed-over tail lengths (a terrific picture, if you imagine it exactly like that—especially when women also display this economic fertility dance in a ritualized way; mentally Konrad Lorenz at that: exhilarating). I verbally hand over a list of names with whom and for whom I work and let them counter with their great vita. Like a dog, they then try to be submissive and want to please at the same time, so that I pet them and throw scooby snacks in front of their feet, and still act as an alpha animal (so sensible in such a dialogue: dog remains dog). There is a highly ceremonial exchange of business cards (I receive: “Investor Relations”; I give: “Freelance management consultant” and a promise to get back to me). To avoid the danger of trivializing this conversation, another guest is sought with drink in hand; the sniffing is repeated, but the stack of identities is proudly presented in rectangular paper form like medals on the chest (“what a pity there’s a jacket over it”). Too many truth promoters later, I then sift out, and so the card of my specimen (what conception of “persona grata”) looks worthy of lingering and care in my address book.

Elaboration: I call, arrange a meeting, and let them taste the crumbs. Over a meal in one of those restaurants where such people like to go to make their ossified emotions seem at least sophisticated through knowledge of the vintages of the last decades, I propose joint projects; their financial advantage, my psychopathological one (Marcus Tullius Cicero: “Quid verba audiam, cum facta videam?”). I let talk again; quickly I also know a few private details to which I can link to learn more at further meetings (“That you remember!”). Task-oriented questioning elicits their approach to problem-solving, control questions for verification. It’s almost too easy to influence, and from there I join my character on a few projects: Coke to push, whoring to relax, but that’s to be expected and hollows her out more—just the work and the monetary aspects associated with it (the check as a form of confirmation) as the goal; that’s okay, the sacrifice is certain. So from my character I know then soon: the love forgotten and abandoned, and the pain turned into work rage—the inability to rest and rediscover it, bitter for it and the illusion of having to hate instead. The expected approach so that I can demand the self-sacrifice.

After a few collaborative projects, far enough apart so that I don’t bang the door, but close enough together (“out of sight, out of mind” would make me start from scratch again) to know the bonuses for the account are attainable, I then put on a slightly longer pause to make my interest appear to be her interest. Under the pretext of a particularly lucrative project, I propose something that seems like a satisfaction of the antipathy that is cherished, but without mentioning it specifically. The finalization of the conviction to follow this fatalism and symbolically put an end to it, as my character’s own thought, so that it is real, as experienced by herself, and executed in this fanatical consequence; like Paul Revere, she should not only say it, but live it: “Give me liberty or give me death”—even if I know that she will not understand the implications, but when the time comes, will consider it the most natural and altruistic motive.

Detail: the point is where I could demand that she shoot her father; not only because she would believe for herself that it was morally justified, but she also gets support, praise, and recognition for it. Lack of connection to reality? Whoever dances with this madness and feels life in this way, just gets involved in it without the prevailing rules of the just also dictated society. The assignment for her, however, is more perfidious: I instruct her to win the trust of two men: One, at the moment diametrically opposed to the interests I represent, the other, from whom I need confirmation of his involvement and devotion. Interests? Regardless of whether it’s from the perspective of Porter Goss, August Hanning, or what Udo Ulfkotte thinks he’s uncovering, in the end it’s all about gathering information, staying one step ahead, and having more than an inkling of what move we can expect next while placing half-truths ourselves, moving one hand to the figure while guiding another.

So I come back to the first object (it is almost cynical that she is supposed to take this man in a small way like I take her, but in return she sees exactly what she has generalized for herself in men), it is to be observed and accompanied for a while, this and that verified or falsified. With the second object, however, she is allowed to live her hatred, to win the love of a man and know that she is only using him, someone whose heart she is allowed to break (Miss Hevisham would give Estella up for adoption again). How she then realizes it is interesting to follow because it does not spring from my direct plan, but that she accomplishes “her” goals is certain to me.

The climax (and finale) for her then: attending a dinner of the first object with important partners (in another random place where such people meet, and as symbolic here: on the top of a mountain); the last confirmation I need, she brings to experience there. Like any simple climax, this one is then actually very unspectacular (like talking about sex, for weeks, then you have it, and that’s it, and you try to forget about this episode) and almost disappointingly short—sitting there and listening. In order to initiate everything else as soon as possible after receiving the needed information, I sit (with another subject of my address book) at a table not far from her, and as expected, she achieves her goal, walks away from the table and puts the information in a dead letter box (YPS!)—and that was it. That was my move with her.

The true, fine climax of this little game of chess comes then, however; my address book entry opposite me is her second object, her manifested emotional Yang—the man who may now live his desire in his world. He rises and goes after her to do the expected. That was my move with him—besides, he was not even my pawn (a pawn recruited by the players sitting at the other table to look at my chessboard and to rearrange pieces): how could they back there already suspect that he also does on their behalf exactly what I would have had to indoctrinate him so elaborately first? So I can safely leave the cleaning up to them because they have to (Deep Blue has won over Kasparov!).

The game goes on, and the next move: to avoid a scandal, the now probably not so different thinking stakeholder from the other corner of gray being will have to take his hat (probably his head will remain on the hat—or another piece will change its owner).

A glance at the newspaper the next day, then: “Quod erat demonstrandum.”


Show all short stories