the 1000-pager debacle

The Vienna Assignment36 Yalta Boulevard

Falling Sickness, First Chapter

There are some things you know, but forget. Truths that don’t stay in your head because you’re distracted by daily affairs, by the manic effort of living your life. Then, unexpectedly, the knowledge returns and changes you. It makes murder possible.

Standing on the terrace of the Grand Hotel Duchi D’Aosta, I looked down at tourists and pigeons vying for space on the damp marble floor of the Piazza Unità d’Italia, Trieste’s central square. On that cold terrace, a basic truth came back to me: Old men die every day.

They submit in overstuffed chairs across from blaring televisions, slip in the bathtub, sink deep into hospital beds. They tumble down the stairwells of barren apartment blocks and face heart failure in swimming pools and restaurants and crowded busses. Some, already sleeping on the street, go quietly, while others take care of it themselves, because that’s the only power left to them. Their wives are dead and their friends as well; their children have fled from the stink of mortality. Sleeping pills, razors, high terraces and bridges. Usually, old men go alone.

Before that week, I’d never been to Italy, though when I was still young I dreamed of it, and of a famous bridge in Venice that spelled out a metaphor I could understand. No longer. Metaphors help you boil the complications and ambiguities of your too-long life into a picture book. They help you lie to yourself.

My wife, Lena—she was the one who traveled, and for a long time I didn’t know why. Only later, at sixty-four years, among whining Vespas, garlic-scented streets and bombastic Italians, did I finally understand. I understood her, and I understood everything, for just a moment. To the right, beyond the square, the Adriatic glimmered.

The pedestrians below didn’t notice me. Bald on top, white along the sides, my one striking feature was that I had bright eyes that should’ve been on a younger man. Not tall—neither in height nor stature. That was me. A normal man in all ways, with the icy Adriatic wind flapping my loose gray blazer. I kept my still-warm Walther PP concealed behind the flap of my jacket so the tourists below wouldn’t be frightened.

I wasn’t thinking of the man I’d shot, who made quiet noises in the room behind me. No, I’d thought about him far too much over the last week. I was thinking, instead, about the greatness of life. All the sensations and people and moments that, if you don’t hold onto them, disappear forever. And once they’re gone, they might as well never have existed. That’s the second reason I’m telling this story. The first reason will explain itself.

I returned to the room. It was one of those Italian coastal hotels that never live up to the price, though it was the most expensive in town. The old man groaned on the blood-wet bed, clutching his knee. He wasn’t even looking at me anymore, because he knew it made no difference.

I settled into a chair and watched as the tremors began. He let go of his knee and seized up. His right leg shot out, then the injured one, and that movement made him scream. I didn’t react. This man, descending into epileptic spasms, had an unbelievable resilience. He’d survived so much over the last century; he’d been near death so many times, beaten down but always rising again, despite being crippled by the falling sickness. I even felt, briefly, a measure of respect. In comparison, my own life had been soft and simple. But old men die every day—yes, women too—and this day was no exception.