Calcium Commune

© John Currin. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Robert McKeever

Harry the Tooth, Mycosis Muriel and Parkinson’s Paula are back from the gourmet market. They cross the grassy back courtyard and slowly steer towards the rotten picnic tables we’ve had out here since May. Muriel pushes Paula in front of her, who clutches the armrest of her wheelchair with her right hand and gets jostled side to side like a dashboard bobblehead doll with every bump. Her left arm clutches a bulging bag. Fancy preserve jars stretch the plastic, bottles clink: they were successful, looks like. Paula’s rigid, ointment-smeared face, telltale sign of her illness, nods in time with her tremors. It sits like a greasy stone mask above the collar of her fraying knit ethno-jacket. Muriel pants, her withered frame lumped into jeans and an olive-green tank top. A yellowing Kangol cap sits atop her stubbly white hair, the bill facing backwards. From afar she’s still very much the raving Miss Love Parade, Summer ’99. Only when she comes closer can you see the traces of year 2050: clusters of veins that wind over her bare ankles, age-spotted hands with thick arthrotic knuckles. You can smell the perfume we all wear, eau d’incontinence. We all leak a little bit, when we laugh, when we cough, or when we run. None of us can afford the absorbent Attends Ultra brand of adult diaper, and it hurts to wipe. When it makes your head swim and you feel biting pains in your joints from disuse, you’re less eager to reach for your body’s musty parts.

Harry the Tooth is a good five meters in front of the women. His heavy backpack drags his osteoporotic shoulders down almost to his knees. Big beads of sweat soak his worn cotton shirt, grinning out from which is the ecstatic face of long-dead pop monster Robbie Williams. “Prosciutto, Pomodoro Secchi, Ciabatta!” He groans at me, grinning and doing his name justice. At almost 81 years old Harry the Tooth still has a complete set of teeth, all his own, and as such is the sole resident of Calcium Commune, as we call the apartment the six of us share, who wasn’t named for a bodily flaw. He’s pretty damn proud of the fact, and can kind of get on your nerves. “Toothpaste, my friend, every night, no matter how much you’ve had to drink. And brush after every meal, not just in the mornings, so all that sugar doesn’t rot on you. Even after the chocolate bar you had stashed in your desk drawer. Me, I always brushed. No matter where I was. And I got around. New York, Hong Kong, Rio, Peking. Always had a travel toothbrush with me.”

Like I said, Harry can be annoying. As if he—a sales rep. for a cell phone company, didn’t even finish college—had foreseen state-mandated extraction for those over 75. Horse-yellow, single-piece prosthetics made of hard Chinese plastic for anyone with damage to over 30 percent of their teeth. “Those who have taken precautions will be in no way affected,” the minister of health at the time—it must have been 2040—had pronounced, and flashing a pearly white smile had quite convincingly spelled out just how stimulating an effect the elimination of expensive tooth decay treatment, crowns, and implants for two-thirds of the population would have on the overburdened health system. The new rules applied to everyone whose monthly pension fell under 600 Euro. Other than Harry I don’t know anyone whose mouth they didn’t pry open. Myself included.

I’m known in Calcium Commune as Bag Benny, by the way; the thing hangs from my right thigh, holds around 400 milliliters, and makes it so I’m a bit more fragrant than the rest of the crew. Enlarged prostate, typical old man problem. The catheter leads from my urethra to the bag on my leg. You learn to live with it.

“There was really only the one guy in the store. He’d just unpacked a box of almond macaroons. Paula, with my help, crashed right into the back of his knees, that knocked him down. Meanwhile, Harry packed everything up. By the time he’d dialed 112, we were already out the door. ‘Help, a senior citizen gang!’ he blabbered. And us? Out through the back exit. Didn’t hear a thing, no sirens or anything.”

Still panting, Mycosis Muriel throws herself down on a tattered deck chair and lets the June sun shine on her fissured complexion. A rusted, black-green piercing quivers in her left nostril—a dragonfly. The hole has stretched ever wider over the decades, so the insect always seems to be moving. Tattooed roses wither on her shoulder blades; every petal is wrinkled and seems to cry out for water. Groaning, she removes her tennis shoes from her feet and starts to scratch. Good friend fungus has taken hold, hence the name.

Harry relieves Parkinson’s Paula of her bag. He lets the backpack slide slowly to the ground and opens it. His crooked fingers fumble a bit with the clasps. He proudly unloads various delicacies. My mouth starts to water. I nod in appreciation, weigh a small fennel-salami in my hands. “You guys did great.”

“Great, you call it? Have you got Alzheimer’s now? If the cops are on to you then it’s Sunshine House for all of us!” screams Jutta. She swings out the door on two rusty crutches and reels across the courtyard. Severe arthrosis, her hip joints are worn down completely, her movements stiff and minimal on account of the pain. Jutta’s hearing aid is switched to the highest setting and squeals like a hysterical rat. Her lips are prune blue, she breathes in halting bursts. “They tie you down. Arms and legs to the bed frame. Food through a tube. You piss and shit in a diaper. Once a week they hose you off in a stall. Lights out at 4 PM, and then comes Rohypnol by the tablespoon. Thirty people to each caregiver. And these types, they’re quick to hand out the beatings. Soldiers from some African banana republic—nobody else wants the job. They help themselves to the psycho-pharmaceuticals till they can’t see straight. And it’s no hairbrush they’re hitting you with—they use a clothes hanger.”

Beta-blocker Boris comes outside. Slow and stooped. Cautiously he pushes a bottle of nitroglycerin spray between Jutta’s quivering lips, squeezes twice. It wheezes needily, almost empty. He feels her pulse, shakes his head. “Jutta, you’re in Calcium Commune, not Sunshine House. And today, Calcium Commune wants to celebrate. Jubilæum, Jutta. Five years, that’s something. You’re here, and you’re staying here. And when Benny and Harry come back from the pharmacy, then there’ll be a new pumpspray, Nitrolingual, the best. And Novalgin for the pain. You’ll see, you’ll sleep like a baby.”

Sunshine House, run by the Phillip Mißfelder Foundation, is a home for criminal and behaviorally suspect seniors and persons of advanced age. It lies on the edge of the city, earlier it was a private maternity clinic. Jutta is the only one of us who knows the place from personal experience—she flew the joint. Before retiring she worked at a television network, behind the camera; she filmed news stories and documentaries, didn’t earn a bad wage. And didn’t budget. No kids. Just like all of us. And then came the usual: mini pension, nothing set aside, unpayable costs for rent and medicine, 10,000 Euro for new joints. Then she raised a bit of hell in the health center, broke a few potted plants and a receptionist’s nose. She was shipped off to Sunshine House straight away. One day she was standing at our door. Still in her bright green gown, legs like two matchsticks, undernourished and filthy. We’re not Caritas or something like that, we don’t let every Tom, Dick and Harry join up. Jutta is stone deaf, rather feeble, her lungs don’t really work right either. But learned is learned—she’s better at handyman work than the old tech bungler Harry the Tooth; she can screw and bolt and tap illegal power sources, and so we took her in. She fits in well with us. It’s only sometimes that she gets herself all worked up. Like now.

Boris sits down next to Jutta on the bench, groaning. With Boris, our outfit is complete. Three guys, three girls. An uncommon ratio. Among most seniors in shared apartments there’s a surplus of women, due to feminization. Higher life expectancy among women leads to catfighting. With new arrivals we adhere to strict gender parity, otherwise there’s trouble. Like in Bismarckstraße Commune, just around the corner. Seven women and one guy, a former auto mechanic and bodybuilder. Sometimes the ladies there get to screaming so much it shakes the whole neighborhood.

“Vaginal dryness doesn’t guard against jealousy,” Boris would say. Beta-blocker Boris is a real lucky find. We lured him away fair and square from the old panthers on Mansteinstraße. Like headhunters in the good old 90’s, casting bait for IT-types on the street, we hooked Boris. Here he enjoys all the privileges you can imagine: extra rations at all meals, supplementary cigarettes, exemption from bathroom cleaning and other household chores, two rooms to himself. He’d have gotten all of this from the panthers as well, but what they don’t have is Muriel. She drew him in, a wrinkled girlie with light blue nail polish on her moldy toenails. The tube of lubricant ever inviting on the nightstand. They were at it constantly at first. Paula was a bit sour; after all, she is the most damaged in the group. Kept on screaming, “the slut smears herself with estrogen cream, no way she could do it so often.” Yeah, women.

Boris was a pharmacist in a giant pharmacy–slash–department store on Mönckebergstraße until he was 75 years old. He’s a more than respectable shot giver; he takes our blood pressure and treats our myriad ailments with the appropriate drugs. A real doctor could write prescriptions, and so lend a bit more legality to our medical treatment. But really, there wouldn’t be much use, not with the high co-pays on all our drugs.

Together we unload everything onto the courtyard’s big wooden table. It’s made of plantation teak and once stood on my balcony, before my retirement, a thousand years ago. I had my own place back then—three rooms, fully renovated, outside the city in Blankenese. The décor was Art Nouveau—on every surface bloomed a different kind of flower. Oak wood floors, Colani toilet, wooden countertops and cabinets for the Italian-style kitchen, the balcony framed by two columns, like the Acropolis. I often think that my table would gallop off like a spooked dressage horse if it ever got wise to the crap we burden its slender legs with each day. It’s already had to tolerate cans of catfood, moldy toast, and half-rotten fruit from behind the bargain market. Now it can feel like old times, for there will indeed be a celebration this evening. Five years of Calcium Commune, an occasion to lay off the usual grub sources—supermarket discards or the dumpster outside the finance workers’ canteen on Gänsemarkt—and risk something.

Five years of independence! I was 76 when we moved in, Harry the Tooth and I. One year after retirement, with a pension nowhere near sufficient to keep up my customary lifestyle.

I had to sell everything: car, stereo system, 500 CDs, cellphone, bottomed-out stocks, eventually even the furniture. No one had suspected a thing. We’d slaved away, 30 percent taken out in taxes for social justice. Otherwise, we’d done our best to live. Once in a while a letter would arrive from the BfA—it was all gravy, the pension was growing at a reassuring rate of 1.5 to 3.5 percent annually, nobody saw any serious cause for worry. Who was really as paranoid as the budgeters, the misers? Who believed the doomsayers about a gap in state benefits and shopped exclusively at Aldi? We saw how well our parents had it, where every other pensioner owned property and spent half the year in Spain or on the Turkish Riviera. Papa Pamplona and Mama Pamukkale. At some point they started cashing in on the old folks. Pedicure: 7 Euro. Wipe your ass: 15 Euro. So there was nothing left of our grand inheritance, no lousy townhouse we could call our own.

Then it came down to the last espresso I’d drink on my balcony. Harry was there, May 2046, we had already been neighbors for a good fifteen years. He too had to vacate, and for the same reasons. He jabbered on like a madman about old times, the groovy days, afterwork parties, raves, girls with sunflowers on their tits. Always the same stories, we went around in circles. The sun slumped down between the rooftops like a rotten orange, and suddenly I started bawling. “Goddamn it, I’m not going to the Mißfelder Foundation, I’d rather kick it first!” Harry was pretty far gone, naturally we’d pulled out the grappa bottle. And then, all of a sudden, he went off. “Why don’t we set up shop for ourselves? Back then, East Berlin, right after the wall fell, the building on Rigaer Straße, man, that was a cool place. We just walked in, threw our mattresses on the floor, built it up a bit—nobody cared, the whole dump was empty.”

And so it came about. Better to spend every day with Harry the Tooth, with his flatulence and his repeat loop reminiscing about foam discos circa 2003—better that than state-regulated liquid nutrition supplemented with tranquilizers!

The building had been empty forever, like a lot of them here in the Generalsviertel. Before it had been a chic residential area, the price for square footage was inhuman, there were only yuppies, one tapas bar after the other. Today there’s hardly a ground floor still available—the other elderly among us also take care to reside in circumstances befitting their age—but otherwise the whole place is falling apart. Population decline. Rats, crumbling plaster, chickweed and quitch grass shooting up from the asphalt. Worse than after the wall fell. The young and well-heeled live on the edge of town, more often than not in guarded communities. No cop squad could find its way around here anymore. We’re safe. And tonight, we’ll have our party.

Parkinson’s Paula offers her commentary on our bounty, fumbles with a package of Dececcho pasta: “For sure there’s something can be made out of this. Lasagna, definitely. And something sweet for dessert. Now it’s only the drugs that are missing. Without Methixene I can’t eat a thing.”

Paula is an eco-chick from way back, a former elementary school teacher—worn corduroys, plant-dyed wool sweaters, hennaed hair, and silver jewelry in her giant earlobes. It’s odd how our faces change. Huge tufts of hair spring forth from our nostrils. The women get moustaches. Warts pop up. And the ears fold out like elephants’, even the ones with piercings all over them.

Paula knows her way around herbs, intently gathers a bouquet garni for the week’s tomato sauce from the selection in the city parks, without our having to fear being poisoned; she makes jam from elderberries and rose hips which she harvests from the same source, and dries all kinds of plants for keeping in winter; and she’s wheeled by Harry the Tooth into the city’s woodlands to find mushrooms, including the kind that can give you a mild buzz. Witchy shit. “But when it comes to real illnesses, none of it helps. Had to get past 70 to figure that out.” A fat pack of penicillin from Boris’s supplies saved Paula from pneumonia and a sure departure three years earlier. Since then she’s come to doubt homeopathic pills, Bach flower remedies, and healing crystals, and has made a radical turn towards conventional medicine. The rest of the Commune swears unreservedly on the friendly family of antibiotics: Amoxicillin, Cefuroxime, Oflaxacin, each of them has spared a member the trip over the river Jordan at least once.

For the most part, we make out alright. Everyone has their tasks: cooking duties, cleaning duties, shopping, no different than in an apartment of young singles. And we have fun, too, if only within the bounds of our respective capabilities. With a urinal fixed to your leg you can’t really fill every spot on the playing field any more, and women are quick to make a face—when they haven’t put enough ointment on, that is. They tend to prefer cuddling, tickling, or spooning, soundtracked by Paul Weller, Element of Crime, or Blumenfeld. But we have grappa; we almost always have lightly fermented beer; we have a small plot of many-fingered green plants, which Jutta cares for. And so when we sit in the courtyard in the evening—naturally with heated chair cushions to keep our kidneys warm, and fleece blankets pulled over our rattling knees—and Sven Regener is on the stereo, howling at the moon, it’s almost like it was before. But just almost. For example, we are in dire need of medicine.

It’s risky, breaking the law twice in one day. But we have no choice. We go through pharmaceutical supplies at a considerable rate, and after eight hours in line at the state health center you get maybe a ten pack of Acetaminophen, but no psycho-pharmaceuticals, no pain medicine, and also nothing for Parkinson’s tremors or heart problems. “Those ailments arising from normal aging and decline must be paid for privately. The government can only be responsible for basic care.”

Thus Harry and I have to go out again today. After all, Calcium Commune wants to actually enjoy its anniversary celebration. While the girls, with Boris’s help, tote the edibles into the kitchen, we swing ourselves onto my bright-red Ducati. Year 2000 model, but still runs great. “Very inconspicuous, Benny, fantastic camouflage,” Jutta says, shaking her head. “It’ll be fine!” Harry bleats and wraps his stringy ape arms around my waist. The Ducati coughs, wheezes, and starts up with a jolt. We sputter through trash-strewn Eppendorf towards the city center, maybe hit 20 miles per hour. Between Harry’s haemorrhoids and my bag, we can’t take much more.

Whenever I pause to consider my catalog of afflictions, I am visited with the memory of a certain rhymed yammering, a steady occurrence in former times: Ah woe, wherein have vanished my many happy years? About 50 years ago I was screwing Martha, who was getting her doctorate on some measly medieval poet by the name of Walther. In order to slither my way into her panties, I memorized a few of his verses in the original. Unfortunately my mind’s hard drive still works well enough that on restless nights the crap keeps swirling around my skull: Walther yowls, in rhyming couplets, about the young people that behave miserably; compares himself to a clear-cut forest, his happy days are like ripples in the sea, it’s his misfortune that he ever had to grow old at all . . . Martha is long dead, lucky girl. Had a stroke, it wiped her out in seconds. It’s only the likes of us who are still here, still plodding onwards. Personally, the thing I find most strange is the fact that Harry the Tooth is the one constant in my life. He’s been with me even longer than the teak table.

Our destination is the Jungfernstieg. One thing, at least, that doesn’t change, the stores are all as unbelievably expensive and exclusive as ever. You only see young folks here, a lot of women with kids, shopping and strolling about. Graybeards like us stand out immediately. Take our clothes, for example: old tennis shoes, work pants, Hilfiger shirts. Cool shit indeed, and comfortable too. Young folks today walk around looking like our grandparents did back in the 50s. The girls wear girdles and brassieres, you can only imagine. The guys fancy the super-conservative look, suit and tie, hair parted neatly to the side. Harry and I park the Ducati in the shadow of a potted palm by the Alsterpavillon. We stroll just like the rest, even if we get stared at. Our destination is the Schwanen pharmacy. Plump and golden, the bird sits in the coat of arms above the pharmaceutical shrine, preening. We hang back a certain distance, act casual, cast about for cigarette butts—a lot of them here get thrown away half smoked. I’m just getting ready to squat down for a fat, still-smoking Benson and Hedges that a busy youngster has tossed on the ground when I hear a rasp. Something rasps my name. “Benny, I haven’t seen you in forever.” The noise comes from up out of a luxury wheelchair, its broad, whisper-quiet tires rolling mercilessly over my quarry as it comes to a stop just in front of my dirty Nikes. In the chair sits a crooked bundle: all wrinkled up, I’d say at least two strokes. But very well cared for: ironed shirt, flannel pants, combed and creamed, no whiff of incontinence. “Florian?” I ask hoarsely. “Your brain still works then,” whispers the mummy. “Don’t look very good, though. Thin. And just a bit fucked up, yeah?”

Florian and I were in school together. Plus after graduation, too, it happened that our paths kept crossing. Or better yet, he had made sure that his path kept crossing mine. I’d always found him dull as hell. He was a budgeter of the worst sort. Didn’t allow himself a thing. Prized customer in every discount store, came to barbecues bringing boxes of wine and cheap factory farm meat dripping in antibiotics. Set aside every cent. For later, and for the kids. And kids he had indeed. With his darling Gesa, a shapeless something with beady eyes and unshaven legs.

Back then only idiots opted for offspring. Nobody really understood. Not one cent was given to those who stayed up nights with these screaming milk maggots, stuffing sticky baby shit into overflowing diaper bins. Government funds for child rearing were eliminated in 2005 to guarantee continued payments for pensions and unemployment. Things got even tighter, what with child care, school—if you wanted to avoid the dregs, you went private—plus doctors and hospitals, clothes and field trips. I can still hear the tirades from Florian and his old lady.

I take a closer look at who’s pushing the old bore. A young lad of around 50, every mother-in-law’s dream. To wit, he takes a blossom-white woven handkerchief out of his plaid pants and wipes a few strands of spit from the corner of Florian’s mouth. Wipes slowly, and considerately. Family caregiving, very trendy. It’s also the only option. The hordes of willing Poles, Russians, and Romanians that were meant to support the system have stayed away, not even Moroccan or black African helpers found their way in. The former eastern bloc countries have spun themselves into leaders of the EU, they bring forth children in sufficient amounts, enjoy their new prosperity and avoid the over-aged West, where marauding geriatric gangs make the decrepit streets of the capitals unsafe at night.

“Is that your son, the little pisspants?” I ask. The mummy breaks into a grinning fit of nods. “I live with him and his wife. Two grandkids and already six great-grandkids. I took care of everything, all at the right time.” Harry comes closer, he looks as pissed off as I feel at the moment. “But your teeth, they’re fake for sure,” he snarls. Florian giggles and flashes his teeth. No yellow China plastic there. “Porcelain implants. Private insurance paid for them. Gesa and I, we definitely budgeted. For later.” Florian’s son fidgets at his post. “Dad, I think, we’ve got to…our list is pretty long.” He leafs through a mountain of pistachio-green prescriptions and squints longingly in the direction of the Schwanen pharmacy. We say our goodbyes. I call after them as they roll away. “Things are going great for me, me and a few friends—women, mainly—we’ve got a place. We have a lot of fun, anyway you look at it!” Hopefully he’ll be envious. Sex was his complex, even back in college. By second semester he was already bound to the no longer quite skinny Gesa, who brought her needlework to lectures and loosed a torrent of talk about family. Meanwhile I never missed an opportunity: parties for the start of the semester and for the opening of the cafeteria, Love Parade and Carnival of Culture, later shrimp grill-outs with colleagues from the practice and wild nights in the boat house of the firm’s rowing club, which the ladies were particularly glad to let themselves be carried off to. Florian would always listen with glossy eyes and then go back to his own lump and the two squealing brats. “Asshole,” I murmur, and sense for the second time in five minutes a fit of envy that drives the bile up from my stomach to my jaw. “Bored to death, no question. Wouldn’t be the thing for me, family all the time.”

“Damn right,” Harry agrees and bestirs himself. “Plus there’s no way his daughter-in-law lets him close the door when he wants to fuck.” “If he even can fuck anymore,” I add, feeling better already. “We’ve still got something to do too, you know. Take a look at the Sheila, the one with the stroller.” I remember our task: sport, play, and excitement are all in store. “A brave little daughter,” Harry whispers. “For sure she doesn’t need those papers for herself.” I hope he’s right. But now in fact the well-brushed blonde produces a heap of papers from her purse that are exactly the same color as the ones Florian’s sprout was carrying. The private Super-Silver-Insurance Group caters above all to budgeting pensioners,  providing them with everything their hearts desire.

After a quarter of an hour Miss Medicine wheels back out the door, pharmacy bags in both arms. With her hip she pushes the stroller across the threshold and onto the sidewalk. “Benny, you’re up!” Harry shouts. It all goes like clockwork, it’s not like it’s the first time we’ve done this. I snatch the stroller—a brat in a hat snoring inside, he doesn’t notice a thing—and make like the bad guy. Grimaces, growling, the usual. Mommy squeals like she’s been stuck, her little hands open automatically, it’s maternal instinct, her save-the-kid reflex. That’s Harry’s opportunity, he grabs all the bags and beats it back to the Ducati. I give the baby Rolls a shove, it hits momma head on, she screams even louder and now Junior’s awake, too. Finally I take off, and from here it’s really got to be quick. Goddamn arthrosis! And then—I’d seen it coming—the bag bursts. My piss runs stinking and warm down my right thigh and drips onto Jungfernstieg. Souvenir, souvenir. Naturally the young folks can run a thousand times faster than we can, but with every advanced-age mugging you can count on a few helpful seconds of shock.

Taking back roads through the Karoviertel and then on through the Schanze district, we make it back to Eppendorf, the bags hanging casually from the handlebars. “Was a good choice, our little sweetie. Definitely shopping for two, mommy and daddy. Take a look: heart, pain, tremors, sleep, it’s all here. In family packs.” Harry fumbles jolly Ativan out of the pack. “Give it here, I need it now.” He stuffs a pill down his throat. I help myself as well. With significantly slackened pulses and a deepening sense of well-being, we turn back home. The sun starts to sink over the roofs of the Generalsviertel.

Jutta and Muriel have stuck a few garden torches in the ground and have hung paper lanterns—Paula’s handiwork. Middle school art class, a bit crooked, but romantic. Boris sits at the table with a Cutasept bottle and cotton swabs, carefully disinfects bared arms and then meditatively pumps drugs into willing veins, distributes little piles of pills. Our faces grow calmer, our breathing more relaxed. Promising aromas waft out from the kitchen. With a trembling index finger Paula shows me which platters, plates and trays I should carry outside. It turns out to be a proper celebratory feast. Our Chinese craws tear into sun-dried tomatoes, Serrano ham, herb-encrusted olives stuffed with crunchy almonds, crusts of ciabatta. Tomato sauce drips, spaghetti and gnocchi flood noisily into our gaping mouths. “We’ll be farting all night long,” Muriel groans. “Actually, I had something else in mind,” says Boris and pinches her bony hip. She giggles, her eyes shining.

She turns the tuning knob on our likewise elderly Sony radio, searching for the Oldies station to which we’re all more or less addicted. It’s an illegal station. From Oasis to Eminem, on up to Rosenstolz. Spun by DJs our age. Youth today really only listen to Bach, Handel, Brahms. Brahms above all, it’s unbearable. Classical tootling on every station, worse than in Adenauer’s time. Now Muriel pauses, lingers on the news: “The Government Office for Statistics today at noon revealed the latest numbers for senior crime across the country. At 15 percent above last year the crime rate among those over 75 years old has once more increased slightly, going up to precisely 50 percent, meaning that one in two elderly persons has been involved in criminal activity at some point. The speaker for the department noted as particularly shocking the increase in cases involving grocery stores, liquor stores, and pharmacies. It appears that ever-fewer elderly persons are shying away from violent crime. Their preferred targets are defenseless victims, particularly mothers with small children and adolescents. Elderly criminals, as a rule, act only in large groups. The Federal Minister of the Interior issued a brief commentary shortly after the new numbers were released. ‘Notwithstanding the legitimate questions directed at the causes of senior crime, our society cannot afford to treat this kind of crime as a petty offense. We will direct all our striving and all our endeavors to the protection of the long-neglected younger generation. I therefore urge once more that suspicious individuals be placed in forced confinement at the smallest sign of criminal tendency. For the good of the children, of the families in this country—and to do what’s best for them as well.’ ”

Muriel shivers, her bony shoulder blades crinkle under her sweaty top. She lifts her glass. “We’re part of the statistics. He means us! Heightened preparedness for violence, you can say that again. The guy flew off down the pasta aisle.” She giggles and shakes her head. “Looks like now we’re doing everything we’d never have dared to do before.”

I look around and feel proud, somehow. Of all of us. In spite of the diapers, the knobs in our ears and the calcium deposits in our heads, we’ve taken back what’s ours. Fennel-salami included.

We’re not the grandmas from last century’s 20s, who turned on the gas or hanged their hungry, featherlight bodies in the closet, silent and despairing. Too proud to beg, not enough guts. We fight for every can of cat food. Help ourselves, even without health insurance. No gods descend to help us like with those old Greek geezers. Philemon and Baucis, isn’t that what their names were? Childless but still not society’s dregs. Transformed into greenery at the end. Not a bad idea, but in spite of all the genetic research they still haven’t managed any breakthroughs there. No geronticide, no long march for social welfare, no Sunshine House, but instead: “Seniors to Potted Plants!” For my part, I would gladly be a well-pruned boxwood on my old balcony. I snuck back by there again recently. The building is still a top address. Two blond brats tumbled around between the columns, yelling and shooting water guns. Their mother, a sharp trollop with a peachy complexion and a double row of pearls around her neck, dished out some kind of organic mush. She smiled blissfully down at the howling pair—no wonder, the little shitters are pure cash cows. Father State pays 1,000 Euro a month for such a collision of egg and sperm. And on top of that, far-reaching income tax exemptions, free kindergarten, free admission to school and university, medical care, vouchers for clothing and gas, all of it taken care of, we understand. They had all kinds of greenery, very well tended. A boxwood, that’d be just the thing. But please, when you go to pick out the pot, make sure to choose only original tuscan terra-cotta. And please, be sure to fertilize once a week. Thanks.

—Translated from the German by Marshall Yarbrough

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