He looked at me from across the counter.
People had told me about him. He looks just like you, they said, You could be twins.
I’d known about him for years but I’d never gone until now.
He looked at me. It was like looking in a mirror. He was in better shape, of course, since I hadn’t been eating well. His skin a bit darker.
He was getting ready to leave. He was cleaning the grillroom, a little shoarma counter off the Dam.
You want something, he said. Maybe he was too tired to formulate a proper question. His accent was just as thick as mine. I had learned Dutch by reading Lagerkvist’s Barrabas, looking up every word I did not know in a dictionary. It took me months to read that book. But by the end I hardly needed the dictionary at all. People laughed at my Dutch. You sound like a character in a novel, they’d say.
It had taken me so long to read that book that I became Barrabas. I looked back across the counter, screwing up my face as if I really were looking in a mirror. Did he know Barrabas?
What? he said. Arms crossed, looking me over, taking his time. It was just like looking in a mirror, except in an ordinary mirror your reflection is reversed. It’s not who you really are.
His hair longer, thicker. His eyes not ringed like mine, his forehead not creased, even though we were still young, late twenties. Same height but broader. I’d dropped a lot of weight.
We were both tired, though. I’d been wandering around Amsterdam all day, with nowhere to go since I was once again “between homes,” as they say. He’d been standing behind the counter since the morning. Tomorrow he’s been invited to lunch with his boss, who was also his future father-in-law; they’d spend the afternoon on the living room couches with the brothers and uncles and cousins while his fiancée served them tea. Her mother fussing about, saying: She cooked everything herself, you know. I did practically nothing.
On the grillroom walls were posters of ancient Greece, Constantinople, the faded glory of Egypt, of Beirut, of Palestine, browned and curled and cracking from years of smoke and grease and the exhaust fumes from the tour busses that stopped in front of the grillroom while the tourists roamed the Walletjes, the red light district, snapping photographs on the sly.
We were looking through the shop window. It had rained earlier in the evening and the cobblestones still glistened, flickering with red light and the movements of the whores in their windows.
His feet hurt. My feet hurt too. I’d spent the day wandering about, as I often did, having nowhere to go. An ex-girlfriend had taken pity on me; she’d given me the key to the storeroom in the basement of her building. But I could come back at night, after the other residents had all gone to bed. Her bedroom was just above the closet and she’d wait for me; she had a new boyfriend by then and she wanted me to know she was in love and she was happy.
From time to time I picked up work as a reader of English books for a publisher, but it wasn’t enough to rent my own place. The publisher’s offices were on the quay along the old port of Amsterdam, in a building that had once served as a warehouse for the famous Dutch trading houses of yesteryear, the windows tall and solid and looking out over the Amsterdam’s ancient sea. I’d type out my reports on my old manual with its skittish letter “I”. My reports were invariably negative, for my heart was black with jealousy.
I’m closing up, he said, What you want?
He looked at me. Maybe he saw the resemblance now. Maybe he’d known there was someone in Amsterdam who looked just like him, like two drops of water, as they say. He’d been waiting for so long he was not at all surprised to see me.
He dropped a few leftover bits of falafel into the fryer, added a handful of already cooked fries. He brought out a plate of salad, the leaves gone black about the edges and shoved that along the counter in front of me.
People can tell when you’re hungry, when you haven’t eaten for a long time, when you’re hard up enough to eat their leftovers. They look at you like you’re a dog. They watch you eat and they half-expect you to drop to your hands and knees. They always seem disappointed when you don’t. But they don’t look at you the same after that.
He served up the falafel and fries and settled back to watch me eat. He was thinking there is worse in life than eating like a dog. He was thinking of his mother, how she’d held his father’s hand, the hand and part of the forearm, all they could find of him amid the dust and smoke and shattered windows. He looked at me and saw himself and said: So where you from?
It’s possible he thought he was looking at a ghost. After all, Amsterdam was haunted by ghosts, Amsterdam was filled with ghosts, especially here in the center, the oldest part of town, the very heart of Amsterdam. There were so many ghosts packing the narrow alleys and twisted passages of this neighborhood, that at times, what with the hordes of tourists and the junkies and the pickpockets, the squatters and the artists, the prostitutes and the evangelicals come from all over the world to save them, it was quite difficult to move.
But I was not a ghost. Not even a ghost! Oh, it hadn’t taken me long to alienate everyone I knew, and when they passed me in the street they pretended they hadn’t seen me, as if I’d become invisible. But I was not a ghost. I had become quite solitary, a regular hermit, I had taken to avoiding everyone, I felt disfigured, deformed, stigmatized. I was still young but I’d already ceased to exist, at least, so it seemed. By then I barely spoke at all. Days would pass, even entire weeks, where I wouldn’t speak, not a single word.
And yet, I had become fluent in Dutch. After I’d finished Barrabas I’d read everything I could get my hands on, books, magazines, newspapers I’d pick out of the trash, advertisements, political pamphlets scattered in the street, flyers for the live sex shows, brochures from this religious group or another, love letters, grocery lists, parking violations, whatever came to hand. I built up quite a vocabulary. And only then did I begin to speak, but only to myself. I spent hours simulating conversations, inventing dialogues, or ranting on and on in long monologues, lecturing on the most diverse of subjects, debating the major issues of the day, launching into long proclamations, haranguing my imaginary audience with sermons, diatribes, tirades and prophecy. I’d tell myself jokes and laugh at them.
Now I’m Hamsun, I’d say.
I’d become fluent. But as I withdrew from others, as I sank into my isolation, it became more and more difficult to speak. When I would try to speak, I’d find myself stuttering, mumbling, the words sticking to the tip of my tongue, finally producing little more than a collection of grunts and groans, barks and growls. People complained they couldn’t understand me. Babel, who?, they’d say, and they gave up speaking to me altogether.
Who? What? he asked. He was wiping down the counter, cleaning up the crumbs. Who’s Babel?
He watched me and saw himself. I watched him and saw myself.
He was thinking if he didn’t get out of here soon he’d miss the last tram and he’d have to wait for the bus and the ride would take forever to get to his own neighborhood, on the outskirts of the city. He was thinking about how different Amsterdam becomes once you go beyond the canals and the bridges and the cobblestones, the old churches and the skinny little houses. Where the buildings look more like warehouses, where block after block, street after street, everything looks exactly alike, so that you have the feeling you never get anywhere and nothing ever changes. He looked at me with my eyes, large eyes, dark and beautiful.
Good stuff, eh? he said as I finished the food on my plate, wiping the plate with my finger to pick up every last crumb and smear. He studied me, and in English said: So where you from?
Amsterdam, I wanted to say. But Amsterdam had rejected me. Amsterdam did not want me. I already knew I could not stay in Amsterdam much longer, not like this. But I had nowhere else to go.
That morning I handed in my last report to the publisher, three pages filled with strikeouts, bitterness and envy. The ribbon so pale by then that by the end the words were unreadable. The publisher’s assistant greeted me, looking over the pages with a bemused curiosity. They no longer required my services, she explained, gently enough. The publisher was dying of AIDS and a new editor was taking over and taking another direction altogether. She spoke slowly, her voice low and soft. Anyway, she said, we only kept you on because we felt sorry for you. We stopped reading your reports a long time ago. You’re exasperating. You like nothing. You go on and on about ghosts, writers no one remembers, Malaparte, Celine, Miller, Chandler ... All of your heroes are dead! The only one who isn’t dead is Cela. And even him…
Cela’s not dead? I said.
Here, take this back too, she said, handing me the envelope with the manuscript of my novel. I’d spent years on it, carrying it with me everywhere because I was afraid I’d lose it or someone would steal it. I had put everything into that manuscript. I had the sensation the manuscript had become more me than myself. As if I had translated myself exactly into its seven hundred pages and crumbs. It had grown very heavy, that manuscript.
The assistant watched me. She said: We can’t use it. And anyway, it’s unreadable. You really ought to change your ribbon from time to time. You know no one with a computer?
She reached into her handbag, brought out some bills, twenty-five guilders, placed them in my hand. She said: Maybe it’s time to go back home?
After I left the publisher’s I walked along the quay, listening to the suck and hiss of the black waters of the old harbor. It had begun to rain, the fine, persistent drizzle of Amsterdam in the autumn, which seemed to penetrate the skin and chill the bone. I hugged the manuscript to me but I had nothing to protect it from the rain. It was heavy and I was tired.
I walked along the quay, listening to the hiss and sigh of the water, the mockery of seagulls. I looked about: there was no one. I took the manuscript out of its envelope, raised the pages above my head and tossed them. The pages spread out across the black surface of the water, like a comforter, thick and soft. I was tired, so very tired; I wanted nothing more than to wrap myself up in the comfort of my own pages. But after a moment, they sank into the water and disappeared beneath the surface.
I’m Gogol now, I said, scratching an itch on the side of my nose.
He was watching me. He was thinking about his older brother, taller, stronger, straighter, and how they’d whipped him in the road in front of everyone, made him kneel in the dust, beating him so hard he finally shit his pants and weeping ratted out the others. They took him away after that and he was never seen again.
There was a bit of cake left in the display box. He served me a slice of that. We watched a group of Dutch kids walk past the window, tall and blond and laughing.
We were not tall and not blond. I ate more slowly now. It had begun to rain again and it was still too early to return to my storeroom. He brought out a broom and began sweeping up. Now and then he glanced at the clock on the wall, but he’d missed the last tram and the next bus wouldn’t leave for another hour.
It’s good? he said, nodding to the cake. You want more.
I counted out my coins, slid them across the table. After leaving the publisher I’d bought a bicycle from a junkie behind the train station. It was a good bike and I’d spent the day on it, wandering about the city, rolling along the streets and canals and only returning to the old heart of town at this end of the evening. He looked at the coins. I said: It’s all I have left.
He pushed the coins back toward me, waved his hand. He opened a beer and placed it in front of me.
I would have done the same. It is exactly what I would have done.
You won’t join me? I asked, raising the beer.
No, he said. But then he went to the cooler and took out a can of cola and grinned. He had my smile, the teeth a littler whiter.
He was thinking about his uncle, his father’s brother, who’d sold everything to buy his ticket. And my mother? he’d asked, what will become of her? His uncle had looked at him, but he had the feeling his uncle had already begun to disappear. His uncle had said: I will take care of your mother.
He had never seen them again. He would never see them again. Even their village had disappeared, razed to the ground in a single night. He was thinking of them and we drank in silence.
We watched the rain, the drizzle like a fine chain mesh suspended in the air, as if the rain would never really fall but would simply hang there forever. It often rained like this in Amsterdam, for days or even weeks on end, entire months of this rain that never falls. Throughout the terrible, interminable months of winter the rain hung over the city, shrouding the city in gloom. Everything seemed hopeless. The city itself as dead.
He watched the rain. Tomorrow, he was thinking, he will visit the in-laws and in a few weeks he will be married, and soon he will have children and they will speak Dutch without any accent at all.
So, he asked, who’s Barrabas?
He’s the other one, I said, The one they let go.
He looked at me. He looked at me with my own eyes. He cleared away my plate and offered me a second beer and took another cola for himself. We raised our glasses.
To your health, we both said, with the same voice.
The church bells were ringing when we finally left the grillroom, the sound of the bells stretching out above us like a cage encompassing the city. It was very late. He had missed his tram and he would have to wait for the next bus in the cold and in the rain.
Listen, I said, as he locked up the grillroom and shuttered the security grill, Take my bicycle. It’s my fault you missed your tram. Take my bike. It’s a good one.
We walked over to the Oudezijds Achterburgwal, where I’d chained up the bike on the railing along the canal in front of my ex-girlfriend’s place. I gave him the bike. We watched the lights of the red light district reflected on the black water of the canal. They looked like stars. They looked exactly like the stars.
Mickey Laurence Cohen is an American writer living in France. His work has also been featured in Atticus Review and Smokelong Quarterly. He is currently seeking publication of a novel, The History of Human Invention, while working on a new novel-in-stories, written in French, and which will include a French version of "All Our Heroes Are Dead."
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: “All Our Heroes Are Dead” takes place in Amsterdam in the early 1990s, a period marked by the coming of age of the first post-Holocaust generation, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the first signs of new and growing tensions between the "old" Europe and the Europe of the future. The story is auto-literary.
Q: What writers do you consider to be your primary influences?
A: Ha! This is covered in “All Our Heroes Are Dead!” I have always been oriented toward European writers, particularly the great stylists. I am especially indebted to the works of Isaac Babel, Curzio Malaparte and Jose Camilo Cela, but also Celine, Knut Hamsun, Nikolai Gogol, Par Lagerkvist and more recently Jose Saramago and Edgar Hilsenrath. I consider Raymond Chandler to be the greatest American writer.
Q: What’s your ideal place to write?
A: I live in the farmhouse built by my wife's great-great-great grandfather, with the sunrise over the river valley and a cock's crow as my alarm clock. Can't think of a better place!
Q: When did you know you would be a writer?
A: I can't remember when I wasn't writing. When I was eight or nine I read Robin Hood—and bawled my eyes out when he died at the end. That depth of feeling... It was then that I knew I had to become a writer.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I just finished a novel in English, The History of Human Invention, which I'm currently shopping around to agents and publishers. For the last six months or so I've been working on a French novel-in-stories, called L'Attente, which tells the story of the manuscript the character tosses into the port at the end of “All Our Heroes Are Dead.” A French version of the story will also appear in this novel.