By Greg Baxter
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An American living in London receives a phone call from a German policewoman telling him the nearly inconceivable news that his sister, Miriam, has been found dead in her Berlin apartment-from starvation. Three weeks later the man, his father, and an American consular official named Trish find themselves in the bizarre surroundings of a fogbound Munich Airport, where Miriam’s coffin is set to be loaded onto a commercial jet and returned to America.
Greg Baxter’s bold, mesmeric novel tells the story of these three people over the course of three weeks, as they wait for Miriam’s body to be released, grieve over her incomprehensible death, and try to possess a share of her suffering–and her yearning and grace.
With prose that is tense, precise, and at times highly lyrical, Munich Airport is a novel for our time, a work of richness, gravity, and even dark humor. Following his acclaimed American debut, Munich Airport marks the establishment of Greg Baxter as an important new voice in literature, one who has already drawn comparisons to masters such as Kafka, Camus, and Murakami.
WE’VE BEEN SITTING for an hour or more here, up high, in the airport’s main food hall, which overlooks the duty-free, clothes, electronics, accessories, and souvenir stores below. The airy, immense space is gleaming artificially because beyond the tall glass walls, where the tarmac, runways, and mountains ought to be, there’s just fog, a soupy black fog that has covered the airport and delayed everything. The inbound jet got diverted, and will not even depart from its current location until the fog starts to burn off. Our layover in Atlanta was going to be more than six hours—we booked the flights just two days ago, so we took what we could get—but now it’s going to be tight. It’s possible we could miss it, but we haven’t yet begun to worry about that. We—my father, me, and Trish, a US consular officer who was assigned to our case, my sister’s case—have been quietly monitoring the departures board near our table.
My poor father, my poor sister. I push my seat back, stand, and excuse myself. Because of the delays, the terminal is badly overcrowded, and I have to step over lots of feet and suitcases. But everybody is calm and polite. There was madness at check-in, but here there is serenity—the anxiety just dissolves into the air and light of the terminal. I excuse myself as I walk, and the people I step over, or whose bags I step upon, beg my pardon for being in the way.
At the restroom, I have to wait in a line of men leaning against the wall of a long, plain, windowless, glossy-blue corridor. A line of women wait on the other side, too. We let people with children go ahead. They don’t ask to go ahead, we urge them ahead, we wave them forward. The line for the men’s room moves swiftly. We apologetically pass the women in their line, who do not move. I walk into an empty stall even though I do not need to use the bathroom. I just stand there and rest—and realize that I cannot rest, I don’t have the energy to rest, and the first chance I will have to rest is when I am crammed into my seat on the airplane. I think I might start to weep, but I do not weep, I just open the door, walk to the sinks, and wash my hands for a long time. Then I dry them under the hand dryer for a long time.
My father and I have been here since early morning, since darkness. We overnighted in the Airport Mercure Hotel, which is in fact five miles from the airport. We could have stayed in the city, in a nice hotel, but it seemed right to stay somewhere that made our last night in Germany feel less pleasurable and more businesslike. I was awake until three or four. I watched television until midnight, then I opened a book. I haven’t been eating, and I find it hard to get regular sleep. I took notes from the book, because it’s my habit to take notes when I read. The room was hot, and I couldn’t find the thermostat, so I opened the window. I drew back the curtains and saw fog rolling in. It came swiftly, and in patches, and it created the sensation of flying, of the hotel flying through clouds. The fog thickened in a hurry. I put my book and my notebook on the little round table by the window and leaned my arms on the windowsill, and I felt as though I was piloting the hotel. I stood there for a long time. It was freezing outside, but the air refreshed and calmed me. The hotel was a lot like an American motel—low and sprawling, with a big parking lot. Streetlamps shined copper-colored light brightly on a handful of cars. After a while I couldn’t see the cars. There was just a fast-moving fog that had copper-colored lights distantly within it. I left the windowsill. I closed the curtains but not the window—I left it slightly cracked. I took my shirt off. I took my socks off. I’d been wearing those socks forever, and taking them off made me drowsy. I fell asleep on the end of my bed, with my pants still on, legs off the bed, feet on the ground, like I’d been drinking. Around five, there was a knock on my door. It was my father. He couldn’t sleep, he said, and was thinking about heading to the airport. He was distressed. There wasn’t any point trying to convince him he needed the sleep.
The shuttle-bus driver was asleep on the couch in the hotel lobby. He was a little man in a big black jacket, a jacket with a furry hood, and I felt bad about waking him. My father and I stood over him for about a minute, watching him sleep. I could see that he was dreaming about his wife, or someone he loved, and that it was a good dream, and I could also see that he had good dreams very rarely, that normally he had nightmares, normally he could not sleep. I knew that when we woke him, he would hate us. So I did nothing, and my father did nothing, but our proximity to him must have made its way into his dream as a dark force. Perhaps suddenly his wife was drowning. He opened his eyes in a panic but did not move. There we were, standing in front of him, over him. The lobby was dark and empty, though there were a few people making noise in the restaurant, where breakfast was. The driver was small, slight, younger than me, but not by much. He was Turkish, for sure. He had black hair and dark-brown eyes, he had a very subtle mustache. We told him we needed to get to the airport. We had our bags, we had checked out of the hotel, and we were ready to go. For a little while he didn’t understand that we were reality, that his dream had ended. When he did, he sat up straight, coughed, and shook his head, and swallowed the cobwebs in his mouth. He suggested we wait. The conditions were treacherous, he said. I explained to him that it was urgent, and he didn’t argue. We walked outside into the freezing and fogged-over morning. I told him his jacket looked warm and he said it was, yes, warm. I couldn’t see the shuttle. I couldn’t see anything in the parking lot. I could barely see, behind us, the glass doors we had walked out of. The driver went ahead. We heard a door open and the engine start, then the headlights came on, as though from far away, but they were right beside us. The driver jumped out and grabbed our bags and threw them in the back. My father’s was an old, heavy, burgundy suitcase, one of a set of bespoke cases he’d received half a century ago as a wedding present. It was in pretty dire shape, but that seemed to be what he liked so much about it, and why he refused to consider, on more than one occasion over the past three weeks, my suggestion that he upgrade to something that I didn’t have to carry for him. He also had a brown leather satchel as a carry-on. My big case was black, rectangular, tall, extra-thin, and could roll on four or two wheels. I had a carry-on that was the same case in miniature. The driver closed the back door and opened the sliding door on the side. My father got in first. I helped him. He held my arm and I told him to watch his head. I got in after him and the driver closed the door behind me. The seats in the shuttle were ice-cold. The driver took a rag out of his coat pocket and wiped the fogginess from the inside of the windshield, then he blasted the defroster, which filled the shuttle with a cold breeze. My father pulled the hood of his coat over his head and stuffed his hands in his pockets. I pulled out some gloves and a hat and put them on, and I pulled the collar of my wool coat up, and held it tight around my neck. The driver obviously knew the route, and he must have sensed that there was nobody else on the roads, because he drove as he liked. We hit a few curbs and drove over an island at a roundabout. I saw the man’s eyes in the rearview mirror. He was sleepy. My father said, Sir, would you please drive a little slower? The driver said, I can see fine. My father said, But we can’t.
About three weeks ago, my sister, Miriam, was found dead in her modest, cheerless apartment in Berlin, and my father and I went there to make arrangements. It had been four or five years since I last saw her. My father flew from home, and I flew from London, where I’ve lived for twenty-five years. And for three weeks we’ve been in Germany—mostly in Germany—waiting for her body to be released. We couldn’t decide what we’d do with her body—bury it here or fly it home and bury it there. A cremation would have been cheapest and simplest, and probably what Miriam would have wanted, but my father, after a lot of contemplation, couldn’t do it. So we flipped a coin—heads, burial in Germany, tails, burial at home. The difference was twenty thousand dollars, for starters. We were sitting on a park bench, and my father said, after a deep breath, Forgive us, Miriam, and I flipped a coin. Now her body is somewhere in a cargo hangar, having been signed off by a German undertaker, and is waiting for departure on our flight.
I come back to our table to find my father once again thanking Trish for being here, for waiting with us. She works at the US embassy in Berlin, but her husband recently moved to Munich, and she spends most weekends with him. Her flight back to Berlin isn’t until later in the evening.
Everything okay? asks my father. Everything’s okay, I say. You were gone for a while, he says. Trish gives our untouched plates commiserative glances. She ordered omelettes for us when she arrived. We needed food, she said. My father and I agreed, but then we didn’t eat. My father cut his omelette in half and the cheese and ingredients spilled out, and, as inconspicuously as possible, without trying to appear ungrateful, he pushed himself half an inch back from the table. I said mine was too hot, I’d let it cool off, and I never touched it.
The first week in Germany was a surreal and solemn week, an ordinary week, emotionally, under the circumstances. We kept ourselves busy, we saw many things, but we were, essentially, waiting. We were waiting with the expectation that something might happen at any moment. We assumed the coroner would release Miriam’s body quickly. I have no idea why we assumed this. We didn’t know that, in Germany, people are not buried in a hurry. We also didn’t understand how dispassionate German bureaucracy could be. Trish telephoned the coroner’s office every day to check on the status of Miriam’s case, and every day, during that first week, she was given no information. There was no point complaining. We had the freedom to feel wronged, but that freedom was meaningless. Finally, at the end of that first week, Trish spoke with the coroner. It would be another week at least. So we took a vacation. My father rented a car and we treated ourselves to a road trip. My father was born in Germany, but at the age of nine he emigrated to the US with his mother. We drove around some places he wanted to see, since it was likely he would never get here again. During our road trip, we ate too much, drank too much, and stayed in expensive hotels and B&Bs. I guess we were temporarily deranged. The night after we came back to Berlin, back from our travels in the rental car, we went out and had some drinks, and on the way home we actually sang Happy Birthday to a man who said it was his birthday. He was sitting on the curb and looked a bit lost, so we started up a conversation. And before we left him, we sang Happy Birthday to him. The next morning, a third and final phase of our stay in Berlin began, a phase in which my father and I, until Miriam’s body was released, spent very little time together.
This is the airport from which my father decided he wanted to fly—he didn’t want Miriam’s body on a plane out of any other airport. He said he knew it sounded strange but he wanted her on one flight out of Europe, not two connecting flights, and he wanted her flying out of an airport that was—he searched awhile for the word—classy. There are two Berlin airports, both grim and claustrophobic, and neither operates direct flights to Atlanta, which is the airport my father wanted us to land at. I arrived, three weeks ago, at Schönefeld Airport—that was the day I identified Miriam’s body. My father, the next morning, first thing, arrived at Tegel, on a one-way ticket—I went to pick him up in a taxi. They are not airports to be stuck in, and I am sure I couldn’t bear an eight-hour wait in either one.
We’ve been in the food hall since Trish arrived. Time has oozed by, it is seeping. The mezzanine level is very large, but narrow relative to the great pentagonal breadth of the level below. The food hall stretches almost all the way around, in a sort of horseshoe, and we are sitting close enough to the edge to see much of the level below. In the center of everything—a typical if slightly larger-than-normal airport bazaar—there’s a race car, an actual Formula One race car, which, I presume, you can win in a raffle. Spreading outward from the center are hundreds and hundreds of seats, seats in irregular rows, all of them swamped by bags and bodies, and the spaces between the seats are swamped with bags and bodies. And from there, in two directions, the terminal stretches outward toward a circulatory system of long corridors to the gates.
Trish is, I would say, in her mid to late twenties. Or possibly she is just a very young-looking thirtysomething. She served in Afghanistan, with the army. She did ROTC at Vanderbilt before that. She’s black and has a mild and appealing Southern accent. She is wearing brown pants, a white blouse, and a dark-brown suit jacket. She is heavy, but her clothes make her look athletic. A wool coat hangs on the back of her chair. In our time here, I have seen her wear it on a number of occasions, and it makes her extremely handsome. Would you like, she asks my father, anything else, some coffee, a cup of tea? My father contemplates the question by moving his plate around in small circles, and then he says, I haven’t slept, not a wink, maybe there’s a lounge somewhere I could lie down in, is that possible?
Trish says, You’d like to sleep?
Just rest my eyes, he says.
My father is in his mid-seventies. He retired about seven years ago. He taught European history in California, but he was always taking leave to teach, for short stints, at universities closer to home—by which I mean the South. He edited an academic journal—which was small but respected—for three decades. He published a lot of articles, and he wrote two books. The first was a highly specialized study of law codes in the time of Charlemagne. It was published by an academic press and went straight to libraries as a reference document. His second book was a generalist history of the Middle Ages. It had been written for bookstores, not libraries. He had a New York publisher, and he received a healthy advance. But it took him forever to write. He started it six or seven years before my mother’s death, and when she died he set it aside for a while. He finally returned to it and delivered it to his publishers, who had grown totally disenchanted with him, and who took a long time to get it to print. They also didn’t put a whole lot of publicity behind it, because in the intervening period between my father’s advance and the delivery of the book, another history of the Middle Ages had appeared, one with the title my father was originally going to use—The Middle Ages. Before my mother’s death, I think the failure of that book would have been devastating for him. When she was alive, I’m sure, success was something he would have welcomed—it might have allowed him to cut back on teaching and editing and spend more time at home, where he hunted, fished, bird-watched, attended small-town college football games, and used his study to smoke pipes and read and think. But after she died, his attitude changed, and he took the book’s failure with a cheerful fatalism. And he never started anything ambitious, at least on that scale, again—or if he did, he did so secretly, and it never came to anything, not even a mention, in all the conversations we have had since his book came out, and all the times we have seen each other, as a joke or an aside, or an earnest admission of a small disappointment. When I call him from London, these days, and he’s at home, he’s watching golf. He watches golf from all over the world, at all hours of the day—golf in Japan, in South Africa, in Sweden. I don’t know if days and nights mean much to him now. The only regularity imposed upon his life is the upkeep of the house. He has a man come by once a week to clean the swimming pool. Another man comes once a week—or twice in spring and summer—to look after the garden. And a woman comes once a week to clean the house. There isn’t much for her to do, because he disturbs only a fraction of it. He tells me, when we talk on the phone, about the wonder and frustrations of getting things done with the Yellow Pages. He can’t look at a computer screen for more than half an hour without fainting, he says. So the Yellow Pages are his Internet. He says things like, I found some guys who can build me a deck really cheap, or, I’m probably going to get solar panels on the roof. But he has not yet built the deck or got solar panels.
Trish says, answering my father, Of course we can get you a spot to lie down.
My father says, Maybe there’s nothing of the sort.
Trish says, They must have something.
Why not try the airline’s executive lounge? I say.
That’s a great idea, says Trish. I’ll go.
No, let me go, I say.
Trish thinks this is a bad idea. She is certain she is more likely to succeed. I am just an ordinary traveler, and she is from the Embassy of the United States of America. I know that she is right, and ought to be the one to go, but if she leaves, I will be stuck here, in this chair. My father will fall asleep and I will be alone to stare at the mess we’ve made on the table, the large plates of food we haven’t eaten, the napkins we have blown our noses with, and too tired to distract myself with something constructive, such as reading or working.
Go together, says my father. I’m fine, I’ll just sit here, shut my eyes, rather do that on my own.
Trish and I glance at my father to see if he is serious. His eyes are already closed. I say, Someone should stay with you.
I’m fine, just tired. If one of you stays I’ll feel obliged to stay awake and keep you company.
He opens his eyes. He digs in his bag for his sound-canceling headphones and puts them around his neck. Then he says, I’ve run out of Tylenol. Do you have some? I’ve got a headache.
I’m out, I say, but I’ll get some more. I push his glass of water toward him and tell him to have a drink. He takes a sip—perhaps to prove he’s rational, that he really wants to be on his own—then closes his eyes again and says, If they say I can lie down in the lounge, one of you can come back and get me.
My father is dressed in a flannel blue plaid shirt with various shades of brown in it, and a white undershirt that is tight around his neck. The flannel shirt is tucked into a pair of blue jeans hiked up very high, and he’s got on a very flash pair of fluorescent yellow running shoes. This is his travel gear. He likes to be comfortable when he travels—he also has the sound-canceling headphones and a neck pillow. In Berlin, however, and even during much of our trip to the Rhine, to the Ardennes, to Luxembourg, and to Brussels, he wore old suits, the suits he wore as a professor—suits that are now oversized on him. I don’t know what my father looks like when, back at home, he’s out and about. If I call him and he is not at home watching golf, he is usually down some megastore aisle of tools or groceries stacked thirty feet high on either side of him, looking for screws, or comparing prices of pasta, or considering a new weedeater that he will use once, maybe twice, then give to the gardener. Other than these places, I don’t think he goes anywhere. I don’t think he goes to the movies, I don’t think he goes for walks, I don’t think he drives to the coast—the Gulf—as he used to do, when we were young and he was home from teaching. So far as I know, he has no friends. We talk about once a month. When I catch him at home, we hang up the phone and go on our laptops, so we can see each other, and usually he’s in a white sleeveless muscle shirt, though his arms are just his bones, and he’s unshaven. About twenty minutes into any conversation, he says, I’m about to faint, gotta go. Sometimes, if it’s hot, he doesn’t wear a shirt at all. His skin is pretty loose, and you can see his ribs.
Trish and I stand at the same time. We leave my father alone at the table. He slumps in his chair. He seems instantly asleep. Just looking at him, I yawn. I hope this works, says Trish. Me too, I say. We go down the escalator, through the wide and weightless slow space of the terminal. I cannot think of anything to say. Trish and my father have spent a lot of time alone, but Trish and I have never been alone, or only so rarely and briefly that it doesn’t really count. I decide not to say anything. This is a solemn occasion, after all, and speaking isn’t necessary. Trish’s phone beeps. Throughout our hour together in the food hall, her phone has beeped several times. It’s her personal phone—she also has a clunky old Nokia for work. I know, from my father, that she and her husband are going through a difficult period. I don’t know Trish well enough to ask about it, or even to offer sympathy. But my father told me it seems destined to end, and it would not surprise me if it has just ended. She reads her phone. When she’s done, she looks up at me and I realize I’m staring at her. She gives me a funny smile. Sorry, I say, I was just lost in thought there.
How long will you stay at home? she asks.
For me, by now, home is London, I say.
Of course, she says—when will you go back?
Soon, I say. I can’t afford to stay away much longer. I’m supposed to be starting something new.
Surely they’ll wait, under the circumstances.
Maybe, but not too much longer.
What do you do?
I’m a marketing consultant.
I know, I was just wondering what you did as a marketing consultant.
I devise marketing strategies for clients.
She gives me a look that says, I know that, I meant what kind of strategies do you devise. But instead of pressing any further, she says, Your dad says you’re quite successful.
I say nothing. It doesn’t sound like something my father would say. For a moment I’m not sure I ought to believe her—maybe she’s trying to mend a rift she’s perceived between my father and me, a rift for which she may feel some responsibility. But she isn’t responsible. And I am not really successful—by which I mean not as successful as I once believed I should be. I did International Business in college—at Princeton, which was where my father went—and I did all right. I decided not to do an MBA. I wanted to work. I didn’t want to waste any time. But I also wanted to travel. I passed up some good job offers in the States. An internship in London came up—unpaid—and I took it. I never planned to stay a long time in London, but over the years I became increasingly convinced that I could not return home, that I could not leave London and somehow find contentment in a place like Tampa or Dallas. I’d grown accustomed to, and much preferred, the way people lived on top of one another in London. And I suppose I very much liked the fact that I was a boy from a place where we all drove big trucks on big roads and where space and solitude were easily attainable, and now I was living in a place where nobody I knew had a car and where space and solitude were not features of the landscape but conditions one had to manufacture in the mind. There was, yes, always New York, but I had been to New York several times while at college. There was something in the distance of London, something about a body of water between me and where I came from, and something in particular about being a foreigner. I have a nice, if very small, flat in Spitalfields, which I sublet from an architect. I run my own one-man consultancy now, and I keep busy. I’ve just left a client I’d been with for many years—a supermarket chain. It was a nice situation. I worked three days a week at the client’s main London office. I had a badge. The other two days of the week, I worked for other clients. Just before the news of Miriam’s death, however, I left the supermarket chain. I found something new—not necessarily better, but different.
We’re here, I say.
- ACCLAIM FOR MUNICH AIRPORT "Powerful and poignant...The novel's tone, together with Baxter's limpid prose and his narrator's clear-eyed confessions, keep us riveted until the bittersweet climax, when the fog finally lifts and each broken character can take to the sky."—Minneapolis Star Tribune
- "Fascinating and sad, unfolding...profound philosophical and psychological insight...The developing themes range from family and life's meanings to the role of memory and the passage of time, all illuminated by some of the best writing appearing in fiction today."—San Antonio Express-News
- On Sale
- Jan 27, 2015
- Page Count
- 256 pages