Stirring : A Literary Collection

A.C. Koch


"This is the dirtiest whore of a city you'll ever see," Otto said with smoke spilling from his mouth.  He was grinning.  Streetlights washed over us in a rhythm, interspersed with pockets of darkness, repeating.  We sat rocking on the wide seat of a taxi hissing over dark streets past factories and grey stone buildings. 

The cabbie yelled something through the grill at us.  I understood nothing through his thick Liverpudlian dialect.  Otto said, "Oh, right, sorry," and tossed his cigarette out the window.  Then he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out his rum.  He took a slug and handed the bottle to me. It tasted vile and warm but the effect was undeniably delicious.  It had been a very long day and our appetites were fearsome.  The city unrolled around us.

Otto was crouched on the wide floor of the taxi, between the facing benches, scuffling around to peer in all directions out the windows. Old houses were going past, dark behind the trees.  Now he had another cigarette dangling from his lips.  He lit it and took another slug from the bottle without removing the cigarette.  "Almost there," he said with childish excitement.

"This better be good," I said, taking the bottle and the smoke from him and tasting them both.  The cabbie was yelling again.  Otto said, "Right!" but kept on smoking. 

"Now listen here," Otto said to me, "I'll introduce you to my mates first off so you can get set up or whatever, but then you probably won't see me for awhile.  I've got quite a lot of business to settle with Dede, know what I mean."  I judged by his grin in the shifting lights that his appetite was probably a little more fearsome than mine.

"Sure, fine," I said.  "Just set me up with some sweet little bird and I'll be fine for the week."

"Tweet!  Tweeeeet!" screamed Otto in my ear.

The cabbie pounded on the grate.  "Hey, shutup back there!  Jesus!"     "Otto, man," I said, lowering my voice, "just don't leave me to die or something.  I mean, don't get carried away.  You gotta connect me."

"Right.  Relax."  He put the bottle in my hand.  "Tweet, tweet."

We pulled up in front of a great decrepit mansion overgrown with ivy and dark behind boarded windows.  We paid the cabbie in heaps of change and then staggered across the drive to the shadowy portal.  Otto was pounding on the huge front door.  Music thudded within.  A girl opened the door and immediately took Otto into her arms, her face an oval of surprise and joy.
She smothered him with kisses and exclamations of delight.  I stood holding my bag and drinking the rum.  The night was cold.  We went inside.


Otto and I had met in a youth hostel in Paris only two weeks ago.  He was a resident of the hostel because he was too lazy to look for an apartment.  I had just been thrown out by my girlfriend and was not far from sleeping on the streets.  Compared to the
mostly clean-cut travelers in the hostel, Otto and I looked like kindred brothers, rough around the edges and permanently hungover.  After our first conversation in the smoking lounge -- some nonsense about Rimbaud and the myth of the American west -- he had fixed me with his finger, laughing about some ridiculous comment I'd just made, and he said, "I'm gonna write a book about you!"  We were drunker than ten men.  I blurted out, "That's just what I was going to say!" and we ended up getting kicked out of the smoking lounge for our whooping laughter and the fact that no one could stand either one of us when we were together and drinking.  No one likes overhearing conversations where every other word is in italics.

A week later he announced to the smoking lounge in general that there was a party in Liverpool and would anyone like to hitch there with him?  He had a girlfriend there and friends who could provide couches or floor space. Leaving tomorrow.  He grinned at me like it was the best idea ever.  Right on the spot I said sure.  I was running out of money and I figured it would be cheaper to bum around a week on the road than to keep forking out money for the damn hostel.  I could find an apartment when we returned, when my next unemployment check might be in.  There was no reason not to.

I wrote a postcard to my estranged girlfriend from London when Otto and I passed through looking for the motorway north.  The postcard said something like, I've gone to Liverpool and I might not come back.  I want you to know I've always loved you. If you come looking for me, I'll be down by the docks.  It was a ridiculous postcard to write, especially that part about the docks -- I didn't even know if any such thing existed.  After I'd mailed it in the Victoria bus station I began to worry that she might actually show up, and who knew where that might lead?  All I wanted was a
good time, and I was hitching to Liverpool to get it.


    I followed Otto and Dede through the massive door into an envelope of heat and noise.  It was a rave.  Music thudded everywhere, resounding in the guts as much as in the head.  Bodies moved through one another in a high-ceilinged room hung with dark paintings in heavy frames.  A dormant chandelier swayed overhead.  Strobe lights flickered from the corners. Smoke wafted carrying shadows.  Light undulated around everyone's edges. Dede grabbed Otto and they went lunging into the crowd, twisting.  He pinwheeled through the bodies holding his cigarette high over his head.  I watched as he moved into another room and disappeared into an even greater mass of bodies.

At least I still had the rum.  With my bag slung over my shoulder and holding the bottle high I went into the crowd.  The smell was intensely wicked:  sweat, beer, perfume, marijuana, everything else.  I brushed past bare skin, guys in sleeveless shirts, girls in bikini tops and hotpants, all that flesh glistening in the sheen of the dance.  There was a moment of supreme claustrophobia, the heat of all theses bodies, this seething, roaring room -- and also, somehow, the enormous distance I had crossed to come here:  all of these things gripped me in the heart of the rave.  My
vision went spotty, my breath short and sharp.  I shoved my way through to a wall and pressed my forehead against the plaster which was as wet and warm as a dancer's body.  I drank the rum.  I needed beer, a smoke, anything. 

A shirtless guy with close-clipped hair appeared beside me tapping my shoulder.  He had to yell over the thumping beat.  "You're Otto's friend, right?  The French guy?"


"Come on then."  He moved back into the crowd and I squeezed after him, going through a congested hallway to a larger room where neon signs flickered cooly from the far wall.  Here it was calmer, less crowded. There were bodies sprawled over couches and on the floor with pillows.  I realized that this was no nightclub.  It seemed to be some abandoned mansion occupied now by freaks and lunatics, squatting.  Posters covered over large sections of dark red wallpaper.  A different music played in this room, not so much rhythmic as melodic.  I recognized the song, a familiar snippet.  "Ah," I said.

"You want a pint?" the guy said.  I followed him to the far side of the room where a bar had been improvised out of tables and crates.  The floor was soggy with beer.  Before I could fish my coins out of my pocket he handed me a plastic cup spilling over with froth.

"It's Robert," he said, clinking my cup with his.  I wasn't sure if he meant his name or the beer.  "Otto said you may be a bit disoriented. Anyway, I guess you'll be staying at the house?"    "Oh?"

"Yeah, me and Stevie have got a big house down above the campus, couple other mates.  Otto used to live there too, actually.  It's none too pretty, but there'll be a bed or a floor or something for you."


He led me to a group of people occupying one corner of the room, sprawled across the floor behind a ring of couches arranged like a barricade.  Here he hollered that I was Otto's French friend and then pointed at each of a dozen people and rattled off their names.  Otto was nowhere around.  I was greeted with distracted waves and a couple shouts of "Vive la France!"

Robert climbed over a couch and sat on the floor among his lounging friends.  I sat on the arm of a couch, beer in one hand and rum in the other.  A girl near me yelled, "Don't worry, we don't hate frogs!"  Another chimed in, "Yeah, your country's shite, but you're alright!"  This got
laughs from everyone.

I smiled.  My brain automatically started making up couplets about England and Liverpool, but they were in French it was pointless to say them.  There was still a little of that feeling, suffocating from the heat and the strangeness of everything.  "Cheers," I said.

They didn't pay much attention to me.  You could tell this was one of those intense, close-knit groups of friends, the kind of group I've never really been in.  I understood quickly that such a tight group was not going to take much interest in an outsider, whether a frog or not.  Otto had, of
course, told me about all the incredible girls he knew, implying that all I had to do was show up and they would be mine, no problem.  But now here they were, sprawled before me, intertwined with their lovers and laughing with their friends.  One guy was talking intensely with someone else's girl as her boyfriend buried his face in her belly and rubbed her thighs.  It had always seemed to me that a group of friends would deteriorate once they started coupling off - that's why so many married people were so lonely - but there people were tight, like one great body massaging itself, murmuring in a dozen voices.  I watched them, following bits of conversation around like blowing leaves, gradually assembling their names and faces in my head.

That's when Otto burst into the room.  He was electric with excitement, his eyes bugging and his mouth blabbering.  His arrival caused a general uproar in the languid gathering.  Dede behind him looked mussed and sated. Otto punched me hard in the shoulder and hollered, "Git over here!"  He was waving at everyone to gather on one long couch for a photograph.

We crawled clumsily over one another, a heap of bodies like survivors on a raft.  Otto had his camera out and Dede had her own.  Someone else pulled out a Polaroid.  All the commotion drew the attention of random partiers. The three cameras were handed off to strangers, instructed to press the right buttons.  We all piled together.  Otto was next to me, half crushing me.  Somehow he had a fresh bottle of red wine which he put to my mouth and tipped up.  The wine gushed into my mouth, sickeningly warm, and I instinctively resisted swallowing.  Otto yelled at the photographers, "Go! Go!  Go!" as the wine spilled in rivulets down my face and neck.

"Go!  Go!"

The wine was burning my mouth until I realized that all I had to do was swallow and it would be alright and this seemed like such a brilliant revelation that I gulped like a thirsty man.  The wine went down, and then another gulp and then another, and it seemed Otto had actually forgotten that he was upending the bottle into my mouth, and all I could do, pinned beneath the bodies, was gulp it down if only to avoid drowning - and then, at that instant, the flashes all went off, more brilliant even than the strobes all around, and I was at that moment twice as drunk and three times as famous as a moment before.

We watched the Polaroid develop.  Otto was a  blur of motion.  My face was obscured by the upturned bottle except for one eye which glinted out like the glossy and terrified eye of a Gericault horse.  All face were flush with ghoulish colors, blurred and shadowed.  "It's a fucking masterpiece!" howled Otto, slapping the photo against his forehead again and again. 


I resolved to talk only to the girls, afraid that the guys might be too much like Otto.  Of all the girls in Otto's group, two had the wonderful name of Emma.  The first Emma was a very tall beauty with short blonde hair combed and parted like a boy's.  She wore a silver lamé dress and silver platform shoes.  She looked like a fashion plate but she was very cordial. We were squished together on the couch after the photo and she asked me if I liked the music, if I liked Liverpool, if I liked Otto's friends.  I invented my responses, as all of these things were entirely foreign and a
little terrifying to me.  She said she was a model and she was counting on getting famous.  I didn't say that I doubted she would - she was too pretty to be a really famous model, because the really famous ones are fantastically ugly aliens who are made to appear desirable through surreal photography and make-up.  But you can't suggest that to a pretty girl who wants to be a model.  She was the girlfriend, it turned out, of Robert. "Nice guy," I said.  "I owe him a beer."

The first Emma pointed out the second Emma.  She was dancing nearby and I watched her closely.  She had the most beautiful eyes of any animal I've ever seen.  Her eyes were these enormous suns, blinding in their darkness and depth, set in a childish round face, dark hair hanging down.  I watched her dance and you could see her eyes flashing from across the sea of bodies through the smoke and strobes.  She moved with astonishing grace, navigating with her breasts and steering with her ass, like the gait of a schoolgirl just beginning to bloom.  But she was no schoolgirl, and what seemed to be innocent stumbling sexuality was really, I believe, a gorgeous, calculated, deadly machination.  She was a fleshy cyborg feeding off of sexual energy, a machine made to radiate lust like sweat.  I watched her, fascinated and terrified.

Emma number one watched me watching Emma number two.  Then she leaned over and said in my ear, "There's no way you can tell me that a thing like that was made for anything but fucking."

This got me to laughing so I could barely breathe, not so much because I thought it was funny but because it was definitely among the last things I expected to hear from this girl.  I wracked myself with a nervous runaway laugh.  Otto met my eyes and grinned.  He was kissing Dede, and actually licking her face.

It occurred to me now that this might be more than just a tight group of friends.  This could be some kind of bizarre sex clique, with interchangeable partners and no rules.  That would explain why all the couples were so comfortable with each other.  And Otto had delivered me into the center of it.  Then I began laughing about that until it seemed I would never stop.


A gust of energy caught up with me and I danced.  I left my pack under a couch and moved into the crowd, letting myself be threaded from room to room, sometimes caught in knots of bodies stuck in a  hallway, suffocating, then breaking free.  Every room in the house was filled with people, all of them seemingly maniacal, gyrating to the techno thump or leaning, glassy-eyed, against a foggy window.  There was a great wide staircase where people reclined rolling spliffs and wallowing in smoke.  Upstairs the rooms were smaller, some of the doors closed but emitting the sounds of sex or violence.

This was no party, I realized:  this was a factory of drunkenness and lust.  We were all being sent down some assembly line to the electric rhythm of the drums.  Industrial music, industrial drinking, industrial sex.  I passed a couple screwing right on the carpet in a hallway that was littered with cigarette butts and beer bottles.  I stepped over them and gazed openly at the girl's face.  I passed through her line of vision but I don't believe she saw me.  Her expression was far away, desperate.  Her mouth worked silently.

A tangible cloud of lust hovered about me.  I breathed it in and it stirred in me like a crazy heat.


I found Otto back in the room with the couches.  He was nearly passed out, curled up on the soggy carpet.  I shook him.  "Hey, Otto, where do I go tonight?  Is there a place for me to stay?"

"Yeah, yeah," he murmured.  "You'll find it."

"What do you mean?"

"Yeah.  You'll find it."

I sat on the couch and closed my eyes.  Emma number two, that lovely animal, was on the opposite couch with her head in some guy's lap.  He was rubbing her hair into knots.  Then Otto sat up and took the beer that I held forgotten in my hand.  He swigged and looked at me with a smile that left his face lined with fatigue.  "Don't worry, geezer," he said, "it'll happen soon."

"What.  What'll happen soon?"

He laughed.  "Anything."  Then he laid back down and passed out.


It was hours before I ran into Robert again.  He was sitting cross-legged on a table, rolling a cigarette.  His girlfriend was passed out under the table.  "You want sleep?" he said when he saw me.  I counted up the hours in my head.  Otto and I had hitched out of Paris something like 40 hours ago, with no rest since.

"Doesn't matter," I said.


We rode through the mist of early morning Liverpool in a stuffy taxi, me and Robert and his girlfriend and a couple of other guys who also lived in the house.  One of them, Stevie, told me to sleep in his bed in the attic because he was going over to his girlfriend's house.  His girlfriend, I overheard, was Emma number two, the sex cyborg.  "Sure," I said.  I imagined the lust that she must have sweated into those very sheets where I would finally lie down to sleep.  Those two ideas side by side, Emma and sleep, were so voluptuous that I nearly passed out right there from sheer, exhausted delight.  The sun winked over the jagged rooftops and smokestacks, hurting my eyes.  The taxi pulled up in front of a gray clapboard house.  I followed Stevie up to the attic where he collected a few of his things and, incredibly, took a couple long pulls from an open bottle of whiskey on his window will.  He offered it to me but I no longer had the energy to even lift a bottle.  I laid across the double bed and closed my eyes.  When Stevie was gone I crawled under the covers and knotted myself into them, reeling away into sleep at last.


I awoke with the girl wrapped around me.  Her face was buried in my chest, her legs entwined in mine, her arms cradling my head.  It took me awhile to understand that this was not the continuation of my claustrophobic dreams. This was morning, the sun was in my face, and the girl was wrapped around me.  She stirred, raised her head, and we looked at each other.  Her eyes were those enormous pools of darkness.  Neither of us said a word.

Somewhere in the house a phone was ringing.  It rang a long time and then fell silent.  The girl untangled her body from mine and climbed off the bed.  She was still in her clothes, as was I.  She stared down at me.

"I wonder," she said very slowly, "who you are."

The sun blazed through her tangled hair, across her face, glinting in her sleepy eyes.  I sat up, rubbed my head.  "I'm Otto's French friend.  I don't believe we've met."

"Hmmm.  Okay.  I'm Emma."

"Yeah, I know."

"Do you, then?"  She walked over to the window and peered through the blinds.  She seemed to be murmuring something to herself.  A full minute went by and I could think of nothing to say.  She picked up the whiskey bottle from the window sill.  "I suppose I've had enough of this already," she said.  "So, um, sorry about this, I don't really know what to say…Do you know where Stevie is?"

"He went over to your house, I think."

”I see.  Right."  She hesitated, then turned and went out the door, down the hall.  I gazed dreamily at the slats of light falling across the floor, my head pounding and my mouth swollen with hangover.  The birds were twittering outside.  Finally I got to my feet, still wearing my shoes, and
went in searching for a bathroom.


I found Emma standing in the kitchen downstairs.  She was bending over the stove trying to light a cigarette off a burner coil.  I bummed one from her and it and we stood there in silence in the sunny kitchen, smoking.  At last she began to laugh and suddenly she was different.  She covered her face with one hand, peering at me through her fingers, still laughing, and her laugh was like a snapshot.  I could imagine her laughing that way with her mother, or with long gone boyfriends, or with Stevie.  I wonder, I thought, who you are.  And wouldn't it be interesting to find out.

"Alright," she said, "just tell me what happened."

"Well, I don't think anything did.  I mean, I went right to sleep.  I never heard you come in.  If something happened, I guess I missed it too."

She laughed.  "So if you sin in your heart and that's infidelity, then what is it when you sleep with someone but you don't sin?"

"Hmmm," I said, watching my cigarette ash grow.  "I think that's just sleeping."

"Just sleeping?"

"Yeah.  Doesn't have to be a sin.  But I have to say, I didn't mind, you know, finding you there."

"Really?  That's nice."

We watched each other, grinning.  When the cigarettes were done, she said goodbye and went out the front door.  I made coffee and sat at the kitchen table feeling my blood pulse, feeling the sun on my face, waiting for the day to take me again and throw me somewhere. 


Mesmerized, we walked through the leaves, Otto and I, and the sound was like a rhythm machine, an ambient wave of shush and whish.  We were in the middle of everything.  Trees stood at the fringes of the park but their leaves were everywhere, brown and red, dusty.  The whisper of our shoes threading through the crisp leaf fall carried us across the park under a bright morning sky like I hadn't seen in months:  it had been months seen I had risen before noon.

I was acutely hungover.  So was Otto, through he seemed to carry it better than I did.  It was his natural state, as far as I could tell.  He was getting a cold, he said, and he needed to purge the germs in his veins by poisoning them with alcohol.  It seemed to be working.  Instead of being sick, he was always hungover.  "You wanna get something to wake up?" he said.


I thought he was talking about coffee.  We went into a pub on a shady street facing the park and ordered a fry-up with coffee.  Then he called for two pints of bitter.  The barman brought them over. 

"Do you really expect me to drink this, Otto?"

”So what are you, a tee-totaller all of a sudden?"

”Well, it's ten in the morning -- "

"Right!  Time to get started."

He took a sip of his bitter and I followed suit.  It was warm and biting. Otto was grinning at me with an expression he must have seen in A Clockwork Orange and taken as his own.  This insight made me grin myself, just watching him make that face.

"You know," I said, "I think I'll just take you as an example of exaggerated destructivity and do everything exactly opposite of you.  Maybe that way I'll live to thirty."

"Impossible," he said, lighting a smoke with the wave of a match.  "I've already destroyed you."

"Hmmm.  That's a distinct possibility."

"So, did you get a good snog off some old bird last night or what?"

"I woke up today with the most beautiful girl."

"Yeah?  Go on then."

"She was beautiful, Otto, I have to say.  I don't really remember what happened, you know, but this morning she was all wrapped around me."

"Right on.  Who was she?"

"Christ, how could I remember her name if I don't remember sleeping with her?" 

"You could have asked her to refresh your memory, over the cigarette.  Or I forgot - you don't smoke.  There's your problem."

"Tweety," I said.  "Her name is Tweety."  We clinked our glasses and drank a draft. 

"Or actually," he continued, "your problem is not being able to hold your drink.  There's no excuse for forgetting a good shag.  No excuse.  Unless you didn't even shag her.  Eh?"

"Don't you think," I said, "that we've been drinking an awful lot lately?"

"Oh, Christ, not this!  You goddamn hypocrite American puritan freaks just love to talk about your vices while you're holding them in your hands."  He clinked my pint glass with his hard enough to spill froth on the table between us.

"Hey, I'm not saying I'm not a hypocrite, I'm just saying that I think we're drinking an awful lot.  And here's the proof."  I took another sip.

"But it's all about drinking, geezer," he said, his voice rising like it did when he had something particularly ironic to say.

"What's all about drinking?"

 He spread his arms in a broad gesture that took in the two of us, the pub, this whole city, all the time we had spent.  "This!"

Whatever that meant.  Looking out the window of the pub I saw the houses and cars, people passing by in the street whom I would never meet, doing things unknowable and inscrutable, like snippets of a song heard but nor recognized.  We ate our fried eggs and finished our pints down to the froth it the bottom and walked back through the shushing and whishing park.  The sky was going hazy.  The world seemed smaller than it had only an hour ago.


Otto and I parted ways in the park under the hazy sky.  He had to see his girlfriend that afternoon, and she lived a long ways across the city.  We arranged a rendez-vous for later that evening at some pool hall down by the docks.  I watched as he ran through the leaves, the sound of it, all the way to the other side of the park where he hailed a cab and jumped in, gone.  There was a moment then, standing alone in the middle of all those fallen leaves, of pure vertigo.  It was the feeling of looking down on myself from space, seeing myself standing in this empty place, in this city which is totally foreign to me, in the north of England, surrounded by sea, so many hundreds of miles from anything which I belong to or which belongs to me.  It was only a moment.  It was just a feeling of dizziness or distortion, seeing myself from that height.  Then I saw Otto in my mind, spreading his arms, saying, "This!" and it sounded like the leaves whispering.

I turned and struck out through the day in no particular direction.


A.C. Koch
Date of Birth: 6/6/70
Location: Zacatecas, Zacatecas (Mexico)
Publications: Mississippi Review, In Posse Review, Eyeshot, River City, Tower of Babel, Nexus, Rocky Mountain Arsenal of the Arts , etc.

Stirring : A Literary Collection

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