Kate Becker

The Newel Post

BoConcept stood out as a beacon above Bayerische Ringe. The sign, visible from several angles of the six ring exits, was easily spotted by cars moving around the circle. The ‘ept,’ looked solid during the day, but actually flickered undetected until the streetlights powered down. Large bubbled letters continuously retained their bluish hue through the translucent glass. Max Weiss’s bedroom window, situated directly above the entire word, allowed the flickering strobe light in. All night long an uneven rhythmic blinking came from the far end of his room. Max slept in the same room, other than a break during the war, his entire life. Nighttime problems never plagued him until the new occupant of the space below and the placement of their impaired sign hindered his sleep.

The bedroom drapes, installed years ago, originally kept light from the gas streetlamp below out of the room, but did not block the power of a neon beacon. Frayed on the edges and weighted from years of dust, when the morning sun broke, the drapes permitted slivers of brightness to slice through the dark room. Who needs an alarm in the morning when you have the sun to kiss you awake, recalled Max, the memory of mother’s soft voice repeating to him as he shielded his eyes on school mornings. School days long over, yet the drapes, faded, and discolored, still hung heavily from the large wooden rods above the long windows.

During the war, Max and Muriel hid in the attic of the four-story building, and the Goërlinger family from the first floor cared for them.  Herr Goërlinger told the authorities his children would take over the Weiss’ apartment when old enough to manage on their own, thereby allowing them to let it to another displaced family in the short term. As far as the government knew, an appropriate German family with three blonde children lived upstairs. Hidden in the attic, after their parents were taken to Sachsenhausen, Max and Muriel survived. Hannah and Jacob Weiss’ names, engraved on small brass plaques hammered onto the stones, lay outside the front door. The Goërlingers sold their apartment to a commercial broker a decade or so after the war’s end and prior to the brass plaque’s arrival. Upon the war’s end, Max and Muriel returned to the vast apartment as teenagers and the Goërlinger family helped them to finish their studies in order to gain entry to respectable professions; Max, a professor of philosophy at the newly formed Freie Universität, and Muriel a secretary for Herr Goërlinger’s law firm.  After years in the attic together, Max and Muriel heavily relied upon one another and that sufficed. Neither thought to marry, move or change their mother’s décor. Their friends and ilk no longer remained in Berlin, and while the Goërlinger family helped them in many ways, they did not know how to guide two Jewish teenagers socially.

It never occurred to Max to switch rooms. The living room sat farther away from the blinking ‘ept’, and the light’s rapid illumination was therefore less apparent. Heavy green brocade curtains, only meant as decoration, and for Max’s mother to show to her friends when they came to tea, still hung in the living room as well. It pained Max that Hannah Weiss did not live to see how useless the curtains in Max’s bedroom now were, nor learn about the Goërlingers’ move to Potsdam. However, he took delight in that his mother knew nothing about the street level apartment morphing into a doctor’s office with a large white and red cross sign, and then the fancy overpriced furniture store with the broken neon sign.

Changes to his trancelike sleep came when the last three letters of the BoConcept sign no longer held their steady glow and the flickering began. Originally the light did not bother him with its constant Illumination. Ever since the on-off of the ‘ept’ started, his sleep ebbed between long in coming and short on lasting.

The Ringe, large as it was, remained relatively quiet most of the time.  Other than a steady hum of traffic, people rarely honked and bicycle bells dulled by the din of white noise. Small children straddled pedal-less bikes and young mothers pushed expensive strollers.  Fathers once seldom seen in the daytime, now sat in front of computers working from coffee shops, and older ladies with matching shoes and purses, sat at local outdoor restaurant tables also sipping specialty coffees. Max’s day began early, and had a comfortable retirement routine to it. He ate two soft boiled eggs with one piece of dark bread for breakfast, put dinner on the table at 6pm, and with little else to do, took a daily walk before lunch to the library where he chose and returned books on a daily basis, other than Sunday. Lunch consisted of a cheese and salami sandwich with dark coffee at Proust’s Café on the corner at noon nestled in between men with cuffed jeans and thick tufted haircuts, and the once fashionable older women. Post dinner, he lay in bed reading, from 7-9, before lulling off to sleep.

On Monday morning at the outset of the daily walk to the library and lunch, Max rounded the corner of the building from the side entrance, once the maid’s door, and now the only entrance to the upstairs apartments, where the young man with colorfully decorated arms, fully clothed in black, swept the built-up dust and paper bits from the store’s front. The young sweeper, released a billow of smoky breath when he quietly said hello to Max, without removing the half-smoked cigarette from his slightly parted lips. Max, exhausted from his sporadic fits of sleep, had no interest in tipping his hat, nor uttering hello. Why they let the light blink nonstop consumed Max, but he said nothing. With severely hindered patience during waking hours, he found himself highly dismissive of the sweeper’s morning greeting in particular.

Max reached the library, held the handrail with his left hand, hugged the books in his right and pulled himself up the thick granite steps. Most days the glass on the top of the front library door held little signage other than perhaps an announcement printed on plain white paper with black lettering. Today’s sign, situated at eye level, was most certainly meant to be noticed, in fact, Max thought it was meant for him. SLEEP-DOES IT ELUDE YOU? in large red letters on a yellow sheet jumped out at him. Most days he ignored the signs, today he read this one several times before pushing through the door. Another one, posted at the checkout counter and more taped to the ends of several book stacks, ensured he absorbed the message. After the third message he knew that on Tuesday at 7. Edmond Reddington of Bristol University from England, would read excerpts from his recent book and answer questions at a coffee afterwards. He let the time and date settle in his mind and headed down the aisle to find his nightly read. He did wonder why they offered coffee if they wanted to teach people how to sleep.

On Tuesday evening Max sat down to dinner at 6. At 6:45, instead of brushing his teeth and tying the string on the waistband of his pajama bottoms, he removed his hat from the top of the hall coatrack and slid his arms into the sleeves of his overcoat. ‘ept’ began to flicker and dusk basked the Bayerische Ringe in a hazy light. Walking under the sign in the dim light of evening for the first time, he heard sitz-sitz as it blinked, flickered and blinked again. His upstairs windows, old and thick, made the sound inaudible from inside, the addition of sound to the flickering caused his shoulders to round in and intensify his sleep craving.

Pulling the coat closed at his throat, he buttoned it at the top. No one on the Bayerische Ringewalked in the direction of the library, but as he approached the library’s block, several others joined in behind him.  Normally he carried books when going up the front stairs, but without them he kept one hand in his pocket placed the other on the railing. The door creaked as a large woman, who smelled like a cross between stale cigarettes and mothballs from his grandmother’s wooden chest, held the door for Max and the others. Used to dusty daylight from the large library windows when he made his daily pilgrimage for new reading material, the brightness of the fluorescent bulbs overhead made him squint. Welcome, shouted a second woman from the end of a long hallway to the right, and Max and the group from the sidewalk moved towards the command. 

Double hooks lined both sides of the lecture room doorway. Max found an entirely empty hook, placed his coat on the lower one and his hat above it. He straightened his thickly knotted tie, buttoned his jacket, and crossed the threshold from the coat area into the lecture room. The lights dimmed slightly over the seating area and the podium’s bright light increased, indicating the attendees should find seats. Those who knew one another sat together chatting. Max chose a chair near the back on the far aisle for a quick exit in case he got bored or tired. The woman who guided them to the lecture room, stood near the podium opening a bottle of water. She handed it to a man who Max assumed was Professor Reddington of Bristol.  The man, in his tweedy jacket and leather padded elbows, similar to Max’s professor garb, helped Max to feel at ease in the room of strangers. A flit of himself, basking in the illumination of the podium light before eager questioning young faces, clicked in his mind.  Like the youthful questions he once answered, he now had the question and hoped the man with the elbow patches held the knowledge to getting him back to sleep.

Professor Reddington moved into place behind the podium. Wilkommen he said.

Max had listened to the overview from his How to Learn English in 30 Lessons review course earlier in the day, thinking the Professor might deliver his lecture in English. The author’s German was impeccable, and Max sighed, relieved he would understand the steps to regaining a full night’s sleep. 

Suggestions started with counting sheep, or any other animal capable of mentally jumping a fence and landing on soft clouds. The professor moved onto methods of meditation and ended with warm milk and chamomile tea. Max uttered a low hmm, as he considered the various possibilities and felt invigorated to try one of the remedies immediately. He could not turn off the light, but perhaps he could turn off his mind, as the Professor suggested. Professor Reddington closed the book, peered over the edge of his brown frames and said coffee would be served in the side room and to please approach him with questions. Chairs shuffled as people stood, stretched, and moved towards the side entrance to the coffee room. Max, satiated with sleeping techniques, feared caffeine and conversation would further disrupt his evening routine, and he needed to try one of the professor’s suggestions.

For several weeks he returned to his pattern of soft-boiled eggs, walks, dinner and restless fitful sleep. Night after night he tried a different one of Professor Reddington’s suggestions. Every night at some point he asked himself the question from the yellow flyer; SLEEP-DOES IT ELUDE YOU?  YES. YES. YES. He said it over and over grabbing the duvet with both hands and pulling it up to his chin. Thoughts of Muriel, his parents, the Goërlingers, the fraying curtains, soft-boiled eggs and library books swirled down into dark drains. Bursts of waking, sleeping, swirling heightened his grumpy dismissals of the young tattooed sweeper on his daily walk to return a book.

After three weeks of repeated sleep-inducing techniques, he exhausted the list. Max wanted to call the professor and tell him nothing worked. He knew better to do so in the middle of the night, and his gut tightened. If a student called him and told him his ideas did not hold merit, he would be mortified. Instead of lying in bed fretting, he decided that being frustrated out of bed would be better, and walked over to the window. The coolness of the floor startled him, only adding to his alert state. Reaching for the latch, he gave a stern pull up on the small metal levers of the sash and a gush of cool air wrapped around his mid-section. He inhaled the cool night air, and let a strong warm gust back out. His lungs expanded, the coolness refreshing. Blue light filled the entire room as he parted the drapes. On-Off. Without his glasses, it all looked a bit blurred, without letting go of the curtain he reached for his glasses on top of the dresser. Now able to clearly see, he glanced down at the sign and noticed a small black wire plugged to a larger wire. Following the black line in the glow, he saw it extended up towards the attic. The attic he left years ago with his sister. The attic to which he never wanted to go back to.

Youthful years of playing in the street, going to movies and eating ice cream with friends, lost by being kept safe in that attic. Because safe meant alive. Max and Muriel’s childhood ended between starters and entrées when their parents were deported to Sachsenhausen. In that attic, for years he and Muriel spoke in hushed tones to one another. Even after moving back downstairs and being allowed to walk outside feeling the sun on their pale faces, they bowed in close to one another to talk. Only now, years later did Max wonder why he never left Berlin. He went up to the attic a boy and come down a young man. Muriel experienced her first period in that attic. Turnips and potatoes still repulsed him. 

The desire of sleep, and the reality of moving in the middle of the night, brought Max back to the wire and the damp night air. He put his head through the open window, held the sill and leaned out as far as possible to follow the wire. The wire started behind the sign, ran along the far corner of the building near the last living room window and reentered the building somewhere higher up above his window.

“No, no, no,” he said, shaking his head at the thought of going up the two flights of stairs and opening the door he never wanted to pass through physically again or in his thoughts. But the wire took him up there. Elusive sleep and thought of another burnt saucepan of milk upon the stove at 1:00am in hopes of bringing on a dream-filled state flattened the fear. A craving for sleep won out as he pushed his toes into his heel-flattened slippers and pulled his woolen robe from the hook behind the bedroom door. He flicked the living room switch on and walked to the door. The hallway, other than some slight creaking, awaited in nighttime silence. His heart bumped on the backside of his ears, and his own steps on the carpeted walkway pushed against the powerful beat as he approached the stairwell he had not touched for over fifty years. Max placed his hand on the ball of the newel post. The thick brown paint felt cool under his clammy palm.

He froze for a moment, and lifted his right foot to the first stair. It sat like lead. Grabbing the newel post firmly, he began to slide his foot back and forth. The weight lifted and he looked up the stairwell. He noticed the carpeted stairs looked as worn as the hallway rug, but did not recall it ever being there. Fifty years between coming down those stairs and now seemed like a nanosecond. Repeating the question under his breath about elusive sleep, he brought his other foot up to the next stair and repeated the process until he reached the door. 

The mirror-like shine of the black smooth doorknob is what he remembered from his tiny hand grasping it to let himself and Muriel into the room with Herr Goërlinger standing behind them. His hand, now one of a man, made the knob feel small in comparison. When he turned the knob so many years ago, he never imagined a day or two would merge into seemingly endless years. As growing children, the Goërlingers brought used clothing, cast-offs from others who had outgrown them up to them, and their smaller ones usually removed.  But Max’s small, brown, creased dust-covered shoes sat to the left of the door. They had no need for shoes, as there was nothing but the attic floor on which to stand and the clicking on the wood planks would have been heard below. As a precautionary measure, in case the children forgot, Herr Goërlinger removed the single hanging light from the center peak of the ceiling. A proper ceiling fixture covered where the wire once dangled. Max rested his finger on the switch, drew in a long breath and pushed upwards on it. A golden mist burst into the room and the mustiness filled Max when he pulled the air into his chest. He took a few more deep breaths, and stepped further into the room.

He looked around. It had been so long, yet he thought the chairs and table looked familiar, but was certain they were never against the window side of the room. Various boxes marked BucherKleid, and Stoffe were piled on top of one another in the far corner. 

“The wire. The wire. I am here for the wire,” Max reminded himself.

He walked to the front window with the two chairs and table under it. In the hazy golden light, he examined the corner of the room where the eaves folded in and overlapped. Following the corner of the room down to the baseboard, he found the thick black wire he forced himself to walk up the stairs for. Unlike the old-fashioned cotton coating of electrical wires, this one was smooth, thick and rubbery. He put both hands deep into his robe pockets. He looked out the dormered attic window to the flickering blue.

“Is it so wrong to want to sleep” he asked himself in a hushed voice. He crouched down to get a better look at the plug. He pulled his left hand out of the pocket, grabbed the plug and tugged. It stuck and he curled his fingers tighter, wriggling it loose. The prongs released from the outlet. Carrying the plug with him, he walked back to the table and looked out the window. He pressed his forehead against the glass to glance downwards. The blue glass with its black backing looked almost colorless in the darkness, and did not change.

“Ah-ha!” said Max still holding the plug.

Max placed the plug on the floor gently, turned and exited the room. He pushed the light switch down returning the room to the darkness he remembered, and pulled the knob shutting the door behind him. 

His thoughts changed course to the sleep awaiting him as he put aside ruminating thoughts of the attic. The door to his apartment remained slightly ajar as he had thankfully left it, having not thought to bring a key with him. He turned off the living room light and crossed to his bedroom. No blue glow. No smoky, bar-like strobe beaming. He removed his robe, dropping it on the floor rather than returning it to its hook, too excited about a calm night ahead. He slid in between the sheets. Cool to start, but it did not stop him from lulling himself into another state.

Dreams filled his place between closed eyelids and the world outside. He and Muriel played once again in the street below. They grew and aged and went to the movies. They ate chocolate and crinkled the paper. Hours passed and when he awoke, the clock hands sat slightly past noon. 

The room’s air felt dry and still. Max went to the window and looked down where the tattooed sweeper stood smoking his lunchtime cigarette. Max watched as grayish clouds of smoke billowed around the man and floated into nowhere.

Max skipped his eggs, showered and pulled out a brightly colored shirt from the bottom of the drawer. He put his hat and coat on and went down the side steps of the building. As he passed the front of the building, the sweeper leaned against the building next to the store’s door. He met the Max’s gaze, and Max tipped his hat. Max glanced up at the unplugged sign and smiled.

“Hello,” said Max again locking eyes with the sweeper. Max clutched the library book closer to his chest, and continued walking, not caring about a returned greeting.

Kate Becker lives and writes in coastal Maine. Walking daily by the ocean, traveling, and food are her passions and the basis of her writing. Short stories and novelettes make up the bulk of her writing, and a novel filled with French food is underway. Creative writing courses at Sarah Lawrence, Fairfield, and Westport Writer’s Workshop, and an MS in PR/Communications (NYU), have honed her skills as a writer. To learn more about her fiction writing, visit katebecker.co and for food posts visit Bleuberet – Follow the Food!