The Wallcreeper

by Nell Zink

Over at Electric Literature, an excerpt from Nell Zink’s excellent debut novel, The Wallcreeper, originally published by Dorothy Project, a small American publishing house ‘dedicated to works of fiction or near fiction or about fiction, mostly by women’:

Elvis said he wanted to go dancing, which would involve staying out very late. Going dancing was his reason for being, and he wanted to share it with me. I wasn’t sure I could get that past Stephen, but I agreed to try. Stephen said, “That sounds like a date.”

“It totally is a date. Obviously this guy wants in my pants. But I mean, when’s the last time you went dancing? For me I think it was my sophomore year. And I wouldn’t know where to go. He’s a nice guy. I’m sure you know him. The guy with the beard at the gas station. He’s totally harmless. He’s a disciple of Slavoj Žižek.”

Stephen snapped the International Herald Tribune tight to turn the page. “That is the tiredest line in Christendom,” he said.

“I know. It’s not his fault he’s a tragic figure. It’s never a tragic figure’s fault. That’s what makes them tragic. But he says he knows this really fun place to go dancing, not a disco but, like, a bar where they play all kind of ‘mixed music.’”

“Do you need a chaperone?”

“Would you please?” I said. I couldn’t really say no. We picked Elvis up at his place. I had never been there. It was farther out of town, up at the edge of the woods. An old house. He came out as soon as the car pulled up. The street obviously didn’t get much traffic late at night. Elvis directed us to the most pitiful bar I ever saw. Young men unlikely to be in the possession of Swiss passports danced with eyes half-closed, snapping their fingers, while women in various states of disrepair jockeyed into their axes of attention. Lumpy, lantern-jawed, pockmarked, bucktoothed, short, tall, or simply drunken women, here to pick up devil-may-care subaltern gigolos for a night of horror.

I saw Elvis through new eyes. “You are so much beautiful,” he would often say charmingly as he worshipped at the altar of my body. Looking around, I could only think that a bar where I am the best-looking woman by a factor of ten is not a bar where I want to be, and that beauty is apparently relative. I felt both better- and worse-looking than before. Better because I was suddenly reminded that the world is not all college girls and secretaries and trophy wives, and worse because everything in the whole universe is contagious if you look at it long enough. Just opening your eyes puts you in front of a mirror, psychologically speaking. Garbage in, garbage out. Or rather, garbage goes in, but you never get rid of it. It just lies there turning to dust and slowly wafting a thin layer of grime on to every other object in your brain. Scraping the gunk off is not only a major challenge, but the chief burden of human existence. That’s why I keep things so clean. Otherwise I would see little flecks of Rudolf-shit everywhere I looked, from Fragonard to the Duino Elegies.

“I am not staying here,” Stephen said. “Do you want to stay?”

Elvis asked if he knew another place. Our next stop was called Mancuso’s Loft. It was running drum ’n’ bass. The proprietor waved us in. Here I saw Stephen through new eyes. Then I ran to the ladies’ room and stuffed my ears with toilet paper. Stephen led me to the floor and yelled, “I’m going to dance a little bit!” He then proceeded to dance as if he had never seen me, or any other human being, before in his life. Cranes came to mind.

Touching my elbow, Elvis remarked, “This club is so much beautiful,” and headed for the bar. Elvis was right. In Mancuso’s Loft, I felt below average-looking and quite conspicuously ill-dressed. My pants revealed nothing whatever. My shoes were comfy. My shirt had long sleeves so thick I was soon terribly hot.

“I like your husband,” Elvis said. I said that was not really his assigned task. “No, he has something. Un certain je ne sais quoi. You know what I need? A girlfriend. By myself, I am never getting into this place. You think they let me in? A brown man alone, with a beard? Ha!”

“You’re not brown! You’re lily-white anywhere but Denmark!”

“Many times, I am standing in the queue outside clubs like this. And all the time, I think I am living in Berne. But I am not living in Berne. I am living in the Berne that reveals itself to me, okay, a white ‘Yugo’ if you please but with no connections, with nothing. A cashier in the petrol station, with nothing to his account but a few women. Yes, I say it openly. I have nothing to offer this town but my body. My body to strike the keys of the cash register, my body to find other bodies and search for warmth. My body is my capital. You, this beautiful woman, are my social capital. And then I was taking you, you particularly, to this horrible bar. I see now it is so very horrible, this bar.”

“Elvis, calm down,” I said. “You’re a model of successful integration. You even speak Berndeutsch, and you’ve only been here eleven years!”

“Are they speaking Berndeutsch in this club? No, they speak French!” I didn’t know how he had decided on that one, because I could barely hear even him, much less other people. “I speak the language of the gas station! I have shamed myself. I hoped to leverage one woman to meet another. Not to earn a woman with the honest work and the natural beauty of my body! This crazy Swiss language has made me a capitalist of women! And what is my wages? I insult you, the most beautiful woman in Switzerland. This town has made of me a body without a brain. I will leave this place and go to Geneva,” he concluded, taking both my hands.

“Don’t do that,” I said.

“No, I won’t if you don’t permit it!” he cried ecstatically, throwing his arms around me.

Stephen drifted over, bouncing on the tips of his toes, and beckoned to me. “You need ketamine?” he whispered.

“Umm, no?” I said.

“I got three,” he said. “I think I might stay here. You want the car keys? I’ll take a taxi.”

“Don’t give Elvis any drugs.”

“I don’t take drugs,” Elvis volunteered. He had never been in a band, so he could hear much better than we could. Stephen and I were always stage-whispering about people sitting near us in cafés and drawing stares.

“That’s dandy,” I said. I pocketed the keys and took Elvis’s hand. “Let’s blow this joint. That okay with you?”

Stephen mouthed the word, “Arrivederci.”

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