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Measures of Time by Andrea Eberly

Andrea Eberly lives in Seattle, WA. Her fiction has appeared in Hobart, Green Mountains Review, Southwest Review and elsewhere. She was the 2016 winner of the Carve Premium Edition Contest. She is currently revising a novel set in late 1990s Germany. Visit her website: https://andrea-eberly.com

Paul sat on the toilet and held his hand out the window, cigarette hanging from his fingers. Der Spiegel lay on his hairy thighs opened to an article about the European Union’s newest member states. And then he heard it. The ticking. It’s one thing to time the boiling of an egg, but Henrik timed other things too.

Paul dropped the stub between his legs. It hissed as it hit the toilet water. “I haven’t even had my cigarette yet,” he said toward the door. 

“I smell the smoke. Anyway, your daughter called. She just got on the bus—she’ll be here soon.” Henrik pushed the door open, just wide enough to slide an arm through, and set a mahogany pyramid on the bathroom floor. Behind the yellowed Bakelite front, the wand flipped back and forth.

The night before, Paul and Henrik had sprawled out on the bed with the sheets kicked to the floor. Nighttime air streamed through the window and Paul’s skin pulled into goosebumps as the sweat dried from his body. Henrik said, “Not bad, only twelve minutes.” Paul had laughed as he reached for the covers.

Paul did not laugh this morning. He pulled the last cigarette out of a soft pack of Luckys. A light breeze lifted the hairs of his forearm while the heat from the radiator bathed the rest of his body, the part not hanging outside, in dry heat. The pyramid, a metronome, ticked and ticked, timing each breath in and each breath out. Paul flicked the half-burned cigarette out the window. Goddamn 40th birthday. His daughter was throwing a party at his house, and she had invited her mother.

.  .  .

Kathrin yelled, “Hallo!” as she crashed through the front door. The flesh of her forearms swelled where the bag handles cut in. “Papa, can you take all this—I gotta use the toilet.” Paul untangled the bags from his daughter’s arms. She added, “But don’t look inside!”

“Is it booby-trapped?”

“Maybe.”  

Paul carried the bags to the kitchen and smiled, touched that his kid was taking his birthday so seriously. In the past year Kathrin’s voice had switched from being the squeaky one of a child to a fuller timbre. Rich and raspy. Like her mother’s.

“Papa! Why’s the metronome in the bathroom?” Kathrin returned to the kitchen holding the mahogany pyramid with the Bakelite front. She could still make her voice like a child’s when she wanted.

“Ask Henrik,” Paul said. He looked to the backdoor. Henrik’s sandals were gone. The days were getting longer and weeds burst from the dirt, so Henrik was always in the garden when he wasn’t editing shows for his TV job. His counting was put to good use timing inserts of B-roll and seconds until commercial break on his current project, a Brothers Grimm documentary.

Kathrin held the pyramid up and read the bottom inscription. “Made in German Democratic Republic.”

“Just like you, my East German princess,” Paul said. Kathrin was a just a baby when the Wall had come down, so while she might have been born in the former German Democratic Republic, she wasn’t of it. No Young Pioneers and their blue neckbands. She smeared Nutella on her bread, not Nudossi. No idea how loud the streets of Stuttgart were compared to those in East Berlin, because, in those days, you never knew who was listening.

“They didn’t quite get the English right. It’s missing the the,” she said. 

“So you get full marks in English class, right?”

Kathrin wrinkled her nose and twisted up her lips into a piss-off face. She picked up a mineral water and drank straight from the bottle. “Henrik’s going to help with the food,” she said. Plastic crinkled as she reached into one of the bags. She looked at Paul. “You can’t watch me unpack—it’ll ruin the surprise.”

“When is your mother arriving?” Kathrin lived with Antje during the week along with Andreas, the new husband. 

“Five. She’s bringing the cake in her car—I baked it last night. But watch, she’ll be late.” Kathrin’s dark brown hair tumbled over her shoulders. Cheekbones cut through the last traces of baby-fat. Paul remembered something Henrik told him about the first version of the Grimms’ Snow White—the evil queen was the girl’s biological mother. What insight about mothers and daughters did this fact reveal? Not that Antje was going to task her new husband with cutting out the lungs and liver of their daughter, but Paul recognized there was something in that navigation of the ebb and flood of beauty.

“Antje mentioned you might want to go to America for an exchange?” Paul said.

Kathrin shrugged. 

“She said you’d quit dancing. Was that so you could spend more time on the band?”

“Papa, really, I need to get some of this in the fridge.”

Paul touched his daughter’s flushed cheek, drawing his finger along her jawline before turning from her and walking into the salon to his piano, a shiny black beast that filled its corner of the room. Paul set the metronome on the polished top.

In Snow White the king didn’t have a name and only seemed to exist to have fathered the girl. His fate was never mentioned in the story. A phantom. Paul glanced at the door to the kitchen, behind which he could hear his daughter humming.

Sheet music for Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor lay open on the piano. Paul placed his hands on the keys, fingertips just barely touching the white. This was the last piece his belle-époque piano instructor, Frau Hoffmann—all frizzy gray hair falling out of a bun and high-necked silken shirts—had coached him on, and he was her only student to ever master it. Body lifted and tensed, he sucked in one quick breath. But he did not press down the keys. 

He needed no metronome to keep time. And so why did he reach out and slide the weight to allegro and release the wand from its catch? His finger pads caught on the chipped corners of the shellacked wood and he tapped the Bakelite front closed. Frau Hoffmann had given it to him not long before she stopped teaching. 

With the metronome’s tick as duet partner to the music, he smelled Frau Hoffmann’s mix of rosewater and pipe smoke and cat piss. He looked at the kitchen door. Instead of feeling the presence of his daughter behind it, he felt his big brother on the other side, listening to Paul play while waiting for his own piano lesson.

Paul’s fingers tripped and he punched the keys. Sound waves banged against each other, a clang bounced off the walls. Wrong notes, wrong fingers, wrong country, and wrong time. He jammed the metronome wand back into the clip. When Paul had messed up during a lesson, Frau Hoffmann would just scale the metronome back a few beats a minute and tell him to keep going, to play through the mistakes.

Through the kitchen door he heard Kathrin banging cabinets and turning the tap on and off as she started on his birthday dinner. Kathrin didn’t even know he’d had a brother.

Well, no one could say Paul hadn’t played through his mistakes. 

.  .  .

Piles of green weeds lay in regular intervals, white roots wriggling in the air—things so used to dark places, they looked obscene in the daylight. Henrik, who wore nothing but a speedo because he didn’t like get his clothes dirty, picked up one of the bigger weeds and waved it at Paul. “You’ve been pacing around all morning. Why don’t you help me with this and relax before the party?”

Paul shook his head. His fingers twitched—he shouldn’t have already smoked that last cigarette. Behind Henrik, who dug his gloved hands into the black earth, stood a wooden shed shellacked to a gleam. Red and white paint outlined the door and roof. Henrik was a Dane and he’d picked the color scheme. 

When Paul was growing up, his family used to go to a little cabin, a datscha, outside of Berlin in the summer. A garden extended from the cabin and he and his brother had to pluck the weeds from around the rows of vegetables and sunflowers. Father would sit under a weeping-willow and read, a sweating beer bottle always in his hand while Mother worked inside the little house baking cakes. Later, the family would gather around a wooden table, ghost-gray from weather and age, to enjoy coffee and cake. Long rays of the afternoon sun bathed the world in gold. Or maybe that was a trick of memory. Different images played as cheap video footage—sharp, jerky. Washed out. Memories of sitting under cold office lights while a man questioned him. What did he know about the play his brother had helped to write?

A weed rolled off one of Henrik’s mounds and Paul kicked it. Paul still wanted a cigarette. He felt in his pocket for some change. There was a cigarette machine a few blocks away. “I’m gonna get some more smokes.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t tell your patients.” Henrik chucked a weed. It bounced off Paul’s leg. 

“I’m not a cancer surgeon,” Paul said and stepped toward Henrik. Muscles and bones rippled under Henrik’s white skin and Paul traced the outlines of his scapula. Henrik leaned into Paul’s hands.

Henrik sighed. “I’m spending too much time hunched over my keyboard—editing’s due at the end of the week.” 

Paul pressed his fingers into the knotted muscles before mussing up Henrik’s blonde hair. “See you in a few.”

Their house was at the top a hill so steep that the shortest walking route to downtown Stuttgart was hundreds of concrete steps. Paul did not take the stairs, instead he went up to the main road. Loose gravel kicked up behind him. He turned to see Kathrin following.

“Where’re you going?” She looked at his feet. 

He wriggled his toes. Blue striped socks with Birkenstocks. “I’m getting cigarettes.” 

“I’ll walk with you.”

“What about the cooking?”

“Party isn’t until tonight. I’ve got plenty of time.”

“Henrik will keep you on time,” Paul said as he put his hand over his mouth to hide a smile.  

Kathrin glanced at him and furrowed her brow. She didn’t get the joke, not that Paul expected her to. Suddenly a thought entered his head—had his daughter been in love yet? Did she know how important laughter was? How would he teach her and would she even listen. She said, “My friends can’t believe you’re only going to be forty. You know, my friend Bettina just went to her father’s fiftieth.”

“Well, in the East we got apartments faster if we got married and had kids.”

“So I was just a tool to get an apartment.” She squinted in a flash of light as the sun popped from behind a cloud. She turned her chestnut eyes to meet her father’s. The same brown as his eyes, as his brother’s eyes. In the distance, the smudgy horizon signaled rain for somewhere else. Not here.

Paul shrugged. “Things were different back then.” His breath shook a little as he inhaled, the words weighed so heavy in his mouth. Everything had been so different. The State sanctioned Paul’s medical studies. The State could take it away. You couldn’t take any risks. Before the fall of the Wall, a letter had arrived from the West. From his brother. The East had deported him. Paul burned the letter—including the envelope with the return address.  

How could he have known that something as endless as the East German State could ever end?

Paul had a musician’s ear and a surgeon’s nerves—he knew how to make his voice convincingly light. “There are perks to having young parents, kiddo. Don’t you like when people ask if your mother’s your sister?”

“Oh yeah, that’s my favorite.” Kathrin put her hands in her pockets and said, “You know, we went to the sauna and all these men kept looking at her.”

“Well, she’s still an attractive woman.”

“I don’t think Mama had any more children because she wanted to keep her figure.” This wasn’t the first time she’d brought this up. Antje’s brother didn’t have kids either. Our family’s a river in reverse, getting narrower and littler until there’ll be just me, Kathrin had said last summer during the long drive to Berlin, where Paul’s mother still lived. She complained endlessly about the dog shit all over the gray streets, but she also snapped photos of the graffiti, the bullet-hole-covered walls, the East-style Plattenbau apartments. Yellow U-Bahn cars on elevated platforms gliding past blackened tenement buildings filled her photos. Blown up photos from the trip covered the walls of her room. A corner of East Berlin resurrected in Paul’s modern house. 

Before the Berlin trip, the only thing remaining in Paul’s home from his life in the GDR was that metronome.

Something peeped and Kathrin pulled her phone from her jeans pocket. Her index finger with chipped blue nail-polish waved toward Paul and she stepped away. Hallo Mama was all Paul could make out, but he didn’t really want to eavesdrop so he continued to the machine. Paul dropped in a coin and pulled down the lever. A pack of Lucky Strikes emerged and Paul yanked them from the dispenser. 

Waving hands. Back and forth pacing. Flipping hair off her brow. Paul lit his cigarette and watched his daughter run through the choreography of an angry kid on the phone with her mom.

Kathrin really seemed to think she had her mother all figured out, certain that her mother’s vanity about her figure had kept her an only child. At her age, Paul had been certain of things too. But really, why hadn’t Antje just told her she was to trying have a baby? A few months back he had dropped by to give Kathrin her birthday gift, an electric guitar. Antje answered the door and motioned for him to come in. Said Kathrin was out with friends. She held a wine glass and her lips were tinted a deep maroon. Nearly done with the whole bottle, to look at it. Paul and Antje volleyed a round of: How is work? Work is good. How is Andreas? He’s good. What about Henrik? Yes, he’s good. But Paul jumped from the script and added that one of Henrik’s sisters was pregnant and wasn’t Antje glad that she was all done with diapers? 

Antje’s maroon lips disappeared into a thin line and she folded her arms under her breasts, one hand clutching the glass. Empty. When did she finish it? 

“You’re always so sure what makes other people happy.” Slurred words, but sharp as broken glass.

“Huh?”

“You have no idea.”

This time Paul didn’t even make a sound—he just shook his head, slow, like he was trying to get a better look at something.

“I’m still bleeding from the last miscarriage.” She turned away from him and she whispered so softly that Paul could only imagine what she’d said, but in his memory he never had any trouble understanding the words. “I’d give anything to be changing diapers.”

Kathrin’s voice pulled Paul out of his thoughts. “Mama’s getting held up at work and is going to be late.” Kathrin’s lips pulled into a thin line and she folded her arms. Such a familiar position.

.  .  .

The downstairs of Paul and Henrik’s home pulsed with people. Crates of full beer bottles transformed into crates of empty ones. Kathrin had set the food up in the kitchen. Platters of cheeses, meats, and vegetables covered the countertops. A panini press smoked as the next person in line brushed butter on it before smashing a sandwich between the hot plates. Kathrin had waited until everyone else had served themselves before filling her plate from a massive bowl of cherry tomatoes, tiny balls of mozzarella, and basil from Henrik’s garden, all glistening under a coating of greenish oil.

Paul rubbed the back of his neck; the room was a little too hot. He sat on the piano bench with a near-empty bottle of beer on the floor next to his feet. No drinks allowed on the piano. 

“Scoot over,” Kathrin said. She sat and ate a few bites of salad. 

A man holding a small pink plastic box approached Paul and handed it to him. He snorted with barely contained laughter and told Paul it was a present, you know, something useful for his advanced age. He was one of Paul’s friends from the hospital. The plastic was cool under Paul’s hands and whatever was inside was hard; it knocked against the sides of the box. Paul flipped open the top. Two crescents of teeth. Dentures. His friend said in a too-loud voice, “Hah, you’d be surprised what gets left behind in the emergency department. You’ll need these, old man.” 

Guests within earshot had slowed down their conversations with one another and turned toward Paul to watch him open the gift. Antje sat on the sofa across from the piano. One hose-covered leg crossed over the other and her hand with freshly painted nails wrapped around a stem glass. She laughed.

“Oh, let me get my gift for you,” Kathrin said as she set her salad on the floor and ran into the kitchen. She returned holding an orange tissue-paper-covered rectangle. A red tissue-paper flower sagged over it and his name in his daughter’s loopy handwriting peeked out from under a red petal. “Papa, your present from me,” she said.

Inside was a black book about the size of a magazine. He flipped it open and a black and white baby in a basinet stared up at him. A baby picture of him. He flipped to the next page and saw two small boys standing in front of a wood shed with sunflowers towering behind them. He closed the book.

“You love it right?” With lips pulled into a broad smile and hands clasped, Kathrin watched until he had registered what the gift was, then wrapped her arms around him. “I went through old photos with grandma and made you a book with the best ones!” She pressed her eyebrows together and added, “You never told me you had a brother.”

Sharp inhalation, held breath, words turning over and staying dumb.

“Grandma said he died,” Kathrin continued, not realizing that Paul was well and truly speechless.

Antje looked away from Paul and stared into the top of her wine glass, swirling it slowly. She was the only other person in the room who had grown up in the East. Did she, like Paul, still have her old passport? In the back of Paul’s sock drawer a small tin cigar box contained a passport, some aluminum coins, and an old blue scarf. Passport and currency for a country that no longer existed. Paul glanced toward Antje and widened his eyes to grab her attention, desperate for that quick connection. But that would be the connection of a husband and a wife and Antje just swirled and swirled that red wine.

The brother was not dead. Antje knew that. She knew the brother wrote something seditious about the state and hung around folks who were connected to people who had attempted to escape. It was dangerous for them, for the family. What she didn’t know was that Paul talked to the Ministry for State Security. That Paul had been the one to set the Stasi on his own brother because they had photos of Paul with a seventeen-year-old. A boy, though the boy part wasn’t the real issue. Seventeen was not the age of consent—Paragraph 151 in the penal code. He’d lose his spot studying surgery. Antje was pregnant. She’d agreed to marry him, to start a family. They were getting an apartment. It would have all fallen apart.

“Well, that’s why we don’t talk about him.” Smooth words, not a hitch in his voice. He opened to a photo that showed a boy Paul wearing a white button-up shirt and black pants. His eyes squinted above fat cheeks and he hugged a decorated cone half as tall as he. “See, in the East we did the first day of school just like you bunch of capitalist pigs!” Laughter erupted from the crowd. Paul remembered that his cone had been filled with pencils and candies and even a green Cuban orange. Those oranges were juicy, but half seeds. Antje stopped swirling her glass and took a drink. She looked at Paul and Kathrin and made a half-smile. 

Kathrin sat next to her father on the piano bench and picked up her plate. She stuffed food in her mouth. 

Henrik dropped a metallic bag with gold and green ribbons tied around the handles into Paul’s lap. Tissue-paper exploded out the top. He kissed Paul on the head and whispered, “From me.” Paul reached in and his hand met a velvety soft bag at the bottom. From the bag, Paul removed a cold, metal object. A hand-wound pocket watch with a foggy patina. Henrik said, “I got the idea from the re-enactments on the Grimm show, both the guys playing the brothers had these great old watches.” Henrik leaned over the piano and released the metronome wand. Tick, tick. “Besides, you love ticking things.” 

Kathrin dropped her plate. She held her throat and opened her mouth and closed it a couple of times. Kathrin knocked into the piano. The metronome fell over, still ticking away at allegro.

It takes one to two minutes to pass out. Brain cells begin to die at four to six minutes. Figures from medical school. Paul could count too. Brain cells, sweeps of the mouth, chest compressions. Rosy cheeks taking a blue blush. Time as ticks. How many ticks.

He grabbed his daughter from behind and shoved his hands into her belly, pulling up under her ribs. He didn’t pull hard enough, he didn’t want to hurt her. It was like trying to run or punch in a dream, nothing moved fast enough. 

Tick. Tick. Tick.

No way was she going to choke. She was going to choke and die. A person can hold two thoughts, two beliefs, two prayers at the same time. 

Paul’s muscles bunched up. Strong muscles that hacked and pulled and cut and sawed in the surgery theater. Strong muscles attached to balled-up fists. He jerked back his hands into the belly of his daughter, forcing her diaphragm to squeeze her lungs and eject the thing that was choking her. 

Again, he interlaced his fingers and with such violence he pulled up under her ribs. Swift. Hard. Sudden. He used all of his strength and he felt like he was punching bread dough. In fairy tales things happen in threes, sometimes in real life too. Maybe he imagined the pop, but he did not imagine the red globe, the tomato, flying from her mouth. He did not imagine the way her chest expanded with breath. He did not imagine how red her cheeks became, flooded with nervous, oxygenated blood. 

Antje had hovered to the side while Paul worked. Now she wrapped her arms around her daughter and her ex-husband. This being they created, this child, between them, warm, breathing, damp with sweat. The three of them touching for the first time in years. For the last time for years. Antje was thinner than when they’d married, and her shoulder blade rolled under Paul’s hand.

And then the moment passed. Antje backed away. Paul’s knees unlocked. He stutter-stepped. Kathrin coughed and stumbled to a chair and she slumped into it. 

Paul felt something touch his back and turned. Henrik. 

“Only fourteen seconds.” He patted Paul’s back in a half hug.

Kathrin picked up the saliva-slimed tomato. “Shit.” Her body shook. Tears pooled in the corners of her eyes and her voice squeaked. “God in heaven, can you imagine dying from a caprese salad?” She was laughing. A couple of chuckles echoed from the other guests. Antje and Paul looked at each other, neither getting the joke. Antje stood and said, “I, for one, need some more wine.” 

“Oh Mama, nothing would’ve happened. Papa’s a doctor!”

Paul did not say that an orthopedist has little experience managing airways or resuscitating patients. That’s why there’s an anesthesiologist on each case. He’d seen the Heimlich done in a movie, maybe.

Ticking. The metronome still ticked. The Bakelite was cracked in half and a section of shellac the size of his thumb had flaked off. The wand was bent, but not even this abuse stopped it from ticking; he had to make it stop ticking. He bent and picked up the shellac flake, the broken half of the Bakelite cover, and the battered metronome and slipped the wand back into its clip.

He set the metronome on top of the piano. He noted the tiniest tremor in his hands. Someone in the crowd must have mistaken the gesture for him stretching his hands to play because that someone hollered, “Hey Paul, you gonna play something?”

He knew a few songs by heart. Moonlight Sonata, a couple Chopin Nocturnes. None of these would do, such sentimental music would cut open his sternum and display his quivering, timid heart. He picked up his beer and drained the bottle. A dribble ran down his chin. He wiped his face and knew what he wanted to play. 

Within the first bars a few people in the crowd recognized the song and stood up. The guests began to sing while waving their beers back and forth. A drinking song. Bier her, bier her oder ich fall um. Paul played it by ear, by rote, by memory. A wrong note wobbled against a chord, a few bars later Paul hit another one. He did not stop playing.