The Last Move

by Winfried Strathmann

As Heiner Schechtriem tried to move off the plane after the long flight, his bones were aching. The people in front and behind him in the crowded aisle were mostly bulky and ill-mannered as they were pulling their overweight and oversized carry-ons frantically from the overhead bins. A beefy fellow almost killed him when his crammed bag came suddenly flying out of a bin after some frenzied pulling and missed Heiner’s head by an inch. He did not say “sorry,” or anything else, as he stared, mesmerized, at his smart phone. An elderly lady who had wisely remained seated in a row further back and had observed the incident whispered “sorry” to herself.

Heiner had looked forward to this trip with anticipation and apprehension. He had to leave where he was living; that much was clear. But he did not really know where to go, and how to go about it. This trip was his fourth attempt at coming to a decision. The previous three had not worked out: in one case, the town was too small; in another, the weather was too wet and a cold wind was blowing without ever letting up; in the most recent one—almost two months ago—the people in that midsize southern city spoke with a dreadful twang and were very nosy. They had kept poking their reddish noses into his business: where was he from, what was he doing here, and why was he so interested in the medical services and facilities of the town? Was he a private investigator of some sort, an insurance dick perhaps trying to dig up some dirt, or a medical cop of some kind from the FDA? Or was it his own growing paranoia that had begun to distort his perceptions? That thought kept recurring and intensified as time went by.

On that last trip, some of the people he had met were actually quite friendly and even helpful—their nosiness notwithstanding. The lady at the stationary store with the memorable name of “Valhalla Stationers” gave him detailed and patient directions to what she called an “alternative pharmacy” nearby and to the local hospital a bit further off, where doctors and nurses were “good, very good.” Her erstwhile husband—“may God have mercy on him”—had died there, and everybody had been “very, very good.” The Pakistani guy at the newspaper stand was sullen at first and of little help. He pretended not to know where the nearest Starbucks was, but then suddenly broke into a big smile which revealed four missing teeth and said, “Welcome to America. Starbucks long way to the left. Good luck, God willing.” A block down the street, a man of the cloth stopped in his tracks and asked if he could help. It was almost scary.

There was something about Heiner that made people take notice. He stood out in an inobtrusive way. He was tall and lanky, no bulk, no sneakers, no baseball cap. A new breed of terrorist perhaps, polite and low-key on the outside, but lethal beneath the pleasant façade? Or just another European trying to make fun of America? This time Heiner would do it differently. The place was anyway different from the others in one important way: he had been here many times before and knew it well. He would check into his hotel, have a bite to eat, and then just drift. No talk, no questions, just look, just listen, just go with the flow. He needed to find out if he could move here, if he could live here, with no real friends, no family, getting older, with medical issues and worries, all by himself. He also had one other less pressing piece of business to take care of: he had to kill someone.

He liked the anonymity of the place, but was worried about it at the same time. He had been too alone in the past few years. Contrary to their reputation, people in this city were friendly and helpful, even if they were always in a rush. They would give you the time of day or their opinion on the papacy, same sex marriage, or credit default swaps—if you ran beside them. Was the energy too high for him, too frantic when he really yearned for stillness and peace? A former friend had once said, “The best place to meditate in this city is a packed subway at rush hour.” Was that really true? And what had meditation to do with anything?

As in other cities and countries in which he had lived, Heiner was drawn to train stations, subway hubs, bus terminals, and airports—places where he could immerse himself into a unique blend of other people’s energies and emotions: the joy and anticipation—and sometimes the sorrows—of leavings and departures; and the anticipation of arrivals and reunions with friends and loved ones. The comings and goings of passengers and their families and friends, especially at airports, made him invisible, except, probably, to Homeland Security and the police who might have been on the lookout for people exactly like him. But there were others, the pickpockets, the luggage thieves, and the limo hustlers who should have been of greater interest to the authorities. And there was always the other sort, the lost souls, the homesick and the heartsick, and the bums who were not waiting for anyone, coming or going, certainly not Godot, not anymore. But unlike them, Heiner Schlechtriem still had some business to take care of: he had to move, and he had to kill someone. Like the low-level sound of a climate control system that never stops, there was always the noise of a lingering anxiety in his head: did he have enough money to last him to the end? He could always move the end forward a bit—even quite a bit if he had to—to make his money last. But that thought never stopped the noise. Also, there was the nagging worry that he might not have the mental or physical wherewithal when that moment came, like it had for his friend Bob who had died a few years earlier, destitute, unhappy, and insane in a nursing home in the North Bronx. He had counted on Heiner to shoot him, but Heiner had not been able to do it. It was a breach of promise of monumental gravity. Bob had counted on him, and Heiner had let him down. Hopefully Bob had forgiven him. In a cosmic sense, it didn’t matter, but it had mattered a great deal to Heiner in all its cosmic insignificance. If nothing else, it was proof that in the end one could depend only on oneself, and maybe not even that.

When Heiner left the coffee shop and began his extended city stroll, the bum’s “Hey, buddy, can you spare a couple of bucks” came as a jolt. Heiner was used to “can you spare a dime,” “spare a quarter,” or even “change for a cup of coffee,” but a request for two bucks was new. Did it reflect the higher cost of living in this town? Was it a new form of aggression? A day later, Heiner was approached in the park by a middle-aged, well-dressed, and respectable-looking woman with these words: ”Sir, forgive my intrusion. But I am in dire straits. I am about to be evicted from my apartment where I live with my two children and my bedridden old mother. It’s a fourth floor walkup. One of my children, my eleven-year-old son Walter, is retarded. You must help. I am three months behind in my rent. Here is the last rent statement by the landlord, and here is the eviction notice.” She waved both documents at Heiner with an expression of dismissive disgust and deep worry. “We’ll wind up on the street. My very ill mother will not survive it. Please do help. I need eighteen-hundred-and-sixty dollars. Please, Sir.” I must look like a million bucks, Heiner thought, or maybe like a sucker. But her presentation was so heartrending and so sincere and the request so stunning that Heiner’s right hand began drifting toward his shoulder bag and the zipper of one of its pockets, where he kept his checkbook. For a moment he was ready to throw all caution and all skepticism, acquired over a lifetime, to the wind and write her a check.

“What’s your name?” he asked. And then, “Can I see that eviction notice again?”

“My name is Charlotte, but I am known as Countess Lotte around here, and why don’t you go to hell with your obnoxious requests, you son of a bitch, before I beat the shit out of you?” With that she stepped toward Heiner and kicked him very hard in the shin. At that moment, a couple of cops were strolling toward them, pretending not to have seen the incident, except that the younger of the two waved the back of his hand in the direction of the woman, signaling to her to move on, in a “get lost” sort of way. He obviously had dealt with her before. Charlotte, if that was her name, took off and disappeared, but not in a hurry. The cops kept strolling. The older of the two was short and bowlegged. He poked a bum with his nightstick who was woven pretzel-like around the dividers of a park bench. Dogs were barking in the dog run. Swings were screeching in the playground.

In the Times Square subway station two Colombian schmaltz-kings were singing “Besame Mucho” and playing their guitars, with some recorded schmaltz in the background. While stopping for a moment, Heiner saw on a large screen in what looked like a video arcade behind the Colombian duo, a boxing match in which a stumbling and bloodied black boxer was being punched hard in the face by his huge black adversary and eventually dispatched with a final knockout punch through the ropes into the first row of excitedly screaming spectators. Near the Shuttle to Grand Central, two middle-class, middle-of-the-road ladies were holding up copies of The Watchtower. The Salvation Army was not far off. Heiner encountered numerous other scenes and characters on his first few days of drifting, and it all began to blend into one large canvas of seemingly odd and unrelated events and people, a huge puzzle whose composition defied logic and precedence; and yet, it all seemed to fit in mysterious ways. It was a city of nutjobs and the certifiably insane, as well as people of high accomplishment and sophistication. Abject poverty and obscene wealth lived side by side, and connecting and animating it all was a palpable and pulsating energy, the accelerated pulse of a city that never slept. It might go into brief coma-like blackouts—as during a recent Christmas blizzard or a near hurricane-strength storm—but it always bounced back in a great hurry and with seemingly redoubled zest.

By the time Heiner went back to his hotel, he was exhausted and exhilarated. He had made up his mind. He would stay in this town, at least for now. He could always pick up and move to Utah or West Texas or New Mexico if he really needed solitude or the Big Sky. But for now, he wanted to become part of the Big Mess, in all its depravity and glory. He needed to change his appearance so that he would seamlessly blend in and become just another face in the crowd. The kick in the shin by Countess Lotte had driven that point home, painfully. He needed new clothes, new shoes, new glasses, and maybe even a baseball cap, even though he had sworn years ago to never don that dreadful piece of clothing. For his own peace of mind, he wanted to become invisible. For the implementation of his other mission, the killing, diminished visibility was also a good idea, though not essential.

That killing was only an act of house cleaning, an attempt to do some justice, and to bring closure to an unsettling recent episode in his life. His second wife, Hannah, whom he had divorced over twenty years ago after eight turbulent and sometimes happy years of marriage, had been diagnosed with a brain tumor four years ago. While their divorce had been painful, there had still been love between them. Neither of them had married again. Heiner was determined to help his ex-wife to the best of his ability through her final stretch of life. When he began sorting through some of her financial paperwork at her request, it became quickly apparent that she had fallen prey to a Ponzi-type scheme involving subprime mortgage securities. The money she had invested had been intended as an emergency fund in the event of a major illness or some other calamity. It was all gone, and she had to forego a possibly life-prolonging procedure. She died two months later, practically penniless. One particular broker at a major investment bank had pushed a worthless product while his firm was betting against the whole industry segment. At first, his ex-wife had put up some pretty tough resistance against this broker’s relentless entreaties, but had finally given in just after her brain cancer was diagnosed. The broker, who over the years had become something of a friend, was aware of her condition when he made the final and successful pitch. His commission on that one sale must have been in the high five figures, at least.

The man’s name was Ted Blank, and it was obvious that he had to be killed. But for the killing to have meaning, it would have to be conducted in a way that would permit Blank to link his death with the shameless crime he had committed against another human being—a friend, no less. At the very least, Heiner would have to confront him with a picture of Hannah and the question, “Remember her?” To just push him in front of an oncoming truck wouldn’t do. Heiner might anonymously send a picture to Blank’s office with “Remember her?” written across it. He had found out that Blank took the subway from the Upper East Side to his office in the Wall Street area usually at around 7:30 a.m. and back up again in the evening at around 7 p.m. Platforms and trains were packed at these hours, and an accidental push in front of an approaching train might do the trick, or a fast and deep poke into the upper thigh with a sturdy syringe loaded with a fast-acting and lethal agent in a packed car. That method would allow Heiner to whisper “Remember Hannah?” into Blank’s ear just when the car doors opened and people were bursting and bulging out onto the platform, carrying the dying Blank with them.

The thought of the whispered “Remember Hannah?” made Heiner almost happy with dark pleasure. He pictured the shock and then the sudden gleam of realization in Blank’s widening eyes: retribution was at hand at last for his ghastly deed.

At the nondescript small hotel where Heiner was staying, the Indian-looking fellow behind the reception desk with the unlikely name of Olaf was keeping up an aloof air. There was something formal—and sneaky—about him. He was a tall guy with a horse-like face, sort of friendly but in fact weary. He wore a permanent and exhausted smile, with anger barely concealed beneath it. It was a thin smile, a pained smile. Eyes and ears were alert. Even though he must have known Heiner’s name by heart after the third time, he asked quite sternly every time Heiner came in, “Your name, please? Room number?” Heiner gave him the wrong number once, just to see what would happen. “No, Mr. Schlechtriem, that is not your room number. Your room number, please?” To which Heiner responded, ”Schlechtriem is my name, which is my business. The room numbers are your business. You can change them at will. You can call my room XYZ 6004, or nothing at all. You could say ‘there is no room.’ Or you could say, ‘What you call a room is in truth a henhouse, or a chapel, or the place where we store the bodies. It used to be the place where we hung people upside down before we skinned them alive, but we don’t do that type of work anymore. A bit noisy and messy, and the fees came way down thanks to the Chinese competition. We have outsourced it to some people in the Sanitation Department, Kosovo Albanians who want to earn a few extra bucks after work.’ Or you could say, ‘It is the twelfth hole-in-the-wall on the third floor on the left.’ You could burn down the whole building, room numbers and all. Or I could do it for you. Now give me the damned key.”

With a thin smile and a slow and weary hand, a horse’s hand, Olaf handed over the key from which a large and heavy piece of metal dangled with the room number scratched into it with what might have been a nail. Olaf insisted on simplicity and clarity behind his small reception desk: when the key was on the hook, the guest was out; when the key was off the hook, the guest was in. Straightforward. Doesn’t get any easier. The police and Homeland Security didn’t always see it that way when they paid their occasional visits.

“We hope you are enjoying your stay with us, Mr. Schlechtriem.” Heiner looked around to see who the other members of the “we” might have been. It could not have been the sullen porter who lingered absentmindedly near the elevator with a rag and a bottle of brass polish in his hand. He didn’t look as though the guests’ enjoyment was high on his agenda. Olaf’s statements had an oddly sincere ring to them. “We also hope that you are enjoying our city, the damp weather notwithstanding. If we can make your stay even more enjoyable in any way, please let us know.” For Heiner, three “enjoys” in as many sentences were three too many. Horseface said, “Incidentally, what is, if I may ask, the purpose of your visit to our city and, if you don’t mind, the nature of your business?” Time to pack up, horse hand or no horse hand. Heiner went to his room, gathered his things, went downstairs, asked for the bill, paid cash, handed over his room key, and left. Horseface remained silent, with his weary and pained smile intact.

Now Heiner had to look at a few new options: rent a small place, sublet something for a month or two, move into one of the big machine-like hotel chains, where the rates would be very high but where his anonymity would be respected, by default if for no other reason. Nobody, presumably, would be interested in the nature of his business, or would have the time to find out. But you never knew, of course. On that day, he ran into Max, a previously well-to-do friend from a long time ago in another country, who had noticeably fallen on hard times. He was unshaven, his hair was sticking in all directions, his clothes were shabby and ripped in spots. When Heiner saw him on the other side of the street, he crossed and said, “Hey, Max!” At first, Max didn’t seem to hear him. He then stopped, turned, and then said, “Heiner, is that you?” When Heiner stepped closer to shake his old friend’s hand, Max must have detected or somehow sensed the shock in Heiner’s eyes or voice. “Yap. It’s me. Shit happens. Lost everything, and I am almost blind. Almost didn’t see you. But I remembered your voice.” Heiner’s impulse was to help his old friend, take him to a restaurant, buy him new clothes, find some kind of a roof for over his head. When he suggested that they have lunch at a nearby meat place, Max said, ”Sorry, I do have a prior engagement. We’ll do it another time.” Then he said, “But thank you anyway. Got to go now.” With that, he turned and limped away. After a moment’s hesitation, Heiner walked after him. When he caught up with him, he said, “Max, take at least some money. It might help a little. Here is a hundred. Please take it.” He proffered five twenties in Max’s direction. Max stopped, hesitated, looked at Heiner without really seeing him, and said, “I’ll take twenty.” He took twenty, and with that he hobbled on. Heiner was shocked, and deeply touched. Then the old worry crept in again: “Could have been me. Max, of all people. Who would have thought?”

Heiner took a room at a “Night & Day Inn” on the Upper West Side. On the very first night, he had a bad dream. The dream was populated with people he had met during his recent travels. The lady from “Valhalla Stationers” was there. So was the toothless newspaper vendor, both from his visit to Nosyville a couple of months ago. The two-bucks bum was there, the schmaltz-kings were huddled in a corner humming “Besame Mucho”; horse-faced Olaf and his brass polish porter, as well as Countess Lotte with her eviction notice, were there, and Max. But Heiner knew that someone was missing. But who? Was there someone hiding behind that closed green door in the back of the room? Was that person waiting to be invited in, or hiding to commit a deed of appalling violence, or perhaps engage in a homoerotic act? Was it a woman? Maybe it was the “alternative pharmacist” whom he had never met? Was she offended that he didn’t drop by and buy a twig of salvia?

Nine people, plus Heiner, plus a ghost or two behind the green door. A large crowd for a tiny space. It was frightening. They were all staring at him. Olaf’s horseface had grown even longer, and he was now baring a pair of long and sharp tusks. Countess Lotte was wearing a pair of army boots with steel toes and steel heels and was doing a little hoofing number to warm up for the kick. The humming of the schmaltz-kings had receded, and the dominant sound was now the noise flooding in from a nearby highway, with truck horns careening from a distance into the present and on into the unknown, car tires relentlessly pounding the ridges between the concrete slabs of the highway, some fire trucks, and a bunch of ambulances screaming through the night. His uninvited guests were all staring at him and were now coming closer, moving in on him, the circle tightening . . . he could sense the heat of their bodies, and he could smell them. Countess Lotte was standing on a chair right in front of him, slightly bent backward, with her steel-toed boot lifted high, ready to kick him in the throat. Olaf was on his knees about to sink his tusks into his belly and rip it open. At that point, Heiner woke up and let out a terrified scream. The guests evaporated. The green door in the back disappeared.

At that very moment, the door to his hotel room opened, and in walked the man-of-the-cloth from Nosyville and the bulky plane passenger with his ominously bulging carry-on. From one of the partially zippered side pockets the handle of an electric drill was protruding. His smart phone was in his left hand. The priest began reading aloud from what might have been some kind of a manual. He also burned some incense and some myrrh and sprinkled a liberal amount of holy water on Heiner’s body and throughout the room. Then the two visitors taped Heiner’s mouth with duct tape while holding him down on the bed and tying his hands and feet with a length of flaky rope. Then the chanting began. Later, the bulky fellow took out his drill and began his work. He started in Heiner’s right ear. Soon thereafter, Heiner passed out. The last thing he remembered was a terrific stench of sulfur.

Years later, in rare moments of lucidity in the locked psych ward of a state hospital, Heiner thought of Hannah, his long-dead ex-wife, and of Ted Blank. But instead of whispering, “Remember her?” into Blank’s ear, he screamed, “Remember me?” looking in the mirror; but there was nobody there. The screams ranged from desperate and terrified to meek and almost inaudible. He sometimes closed his eyes and whispered, “Remember me?” Nobody ever answered. He did remember the beginning of the dreadful event that had pushed him into the night of insanity. That event had been the eviction of the devil, also known as an exorcism, and it had all begun with the drilling in his ear.

The devil returned after a reasonable absence and took up residence again. When he moved in, there was once more a noticeable whiff of sulfur in the air. He was still angry and determined never to vacate his dwelling again against his will, by force or otherwise. He knew, of course, that his dwelling’s days were numbered. His self-respect and his standards of civility would not permit him to reside in a decomposing cadaver for long. And the devil’s primary mission and purpose—to sow temptation and evil pleasures and to harvest suffering and death—required a pulse. His renewed tenancy was going to be short-lived, but he was determined to make it as productive as possible. The setting was not ideal. A locked psych ward offered only a limited range of opportunities, but it would have to do. And he did bring millennia of experience to the task.

Heiner’s last move had turned out in a way that could not have been foreseen. The drilling incident could have been a random cosmic episode. It might have been preemptive punishment by the universe for a murder not yet committed. And it might not have happened at all. This whole tale might be a figment of the imagination, a nightmare perhaps, or a hallucination. But whose imagination, and whose nightmare? The answer to this cruel question—if one were ever forthcoming—would have to be: who knows? Or, as Hannah’s brilliant daughter Rachel from her first marriage to the rebbe might have said, flippantly and wisely: whatever.

—June 20, 2013, New York

Dedicated to Andor—Charles Doria and Kathleen Goncharov’s elusive friend.

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