The flight to Luxembourg took thirteen hours. From the airport, Jed Lomax rode a cab; the driver a flaxen-haired man who chain-smoked as soon as they hit the road. The highway snaked north from the city past Walterdye, Steinsel, Lorentzweiler, Lintgen, Mersch Berschbuch, Colmar-Berg Ettelbruck, and Ingeldorf before reaching Diekirch. Jed paid the cabbie, who lit another cigarette and sped off.
The Hotel Felix was a drab two-story building at the bottom of a hill. The beer garden was empty. In the hotel cafe, a couple of Italian tourists sat by the windows. Jed ordered a double espresso. If he ate less during the day, he would get drunk earlier in the evening; the drunker he got, the easier to leap the bank of the River Sauer.
A homeless man sat next to the donkey statue in the square, ranting to himself in German. Jed flipped through his phrasebook.
“Are you hungry?”
The man stared at his knees.
“Haben Sie Hunger?”
“Why?” said the man.
“Why are you here? You fly to Diekirch and ask if I’m hungry? Back to England. Before you flop in the Maison Soeur.”
Jed stepped away and the bystanders went down the Grand Rue. A police officer escorted the man to his car.
At the Hotel Felix, he asked for a Kronenbourg and water.
“What’s the Maison Soeur?” Jed said.
The bartender leaned forward. “A brothel.”
“Is it dangerous?”
“Only if you don’t pay,” he said. “For an American—no problem.”
Jed rang the bell and a young woman in overalls answered the door. The woman looked at his collar, muttered in Russian, and led him to a well-furnished parlor that served as a waiting room. A man with a short black beard sat on one of the couches.
“First time at the Maison?” he said.
The woman walked over. “She is ready.”
“Who?” Jed said.
The bearded man nodded: “Your girl.”
“No one told me who she was.”
“We have two girls,” the woman said. “Right now, one is busy.”
She brought Jed down the hall to a small bedroom facing an alley. On the bed sat a woman the same age as the madam. She wore black leggings and a black leather jacket over a pink blouse.
“Thirty minutes,” said the madam.
Jed stood nervously by a dresser near the door.
“You’re English?” the woman said.
“She told me English,” she said.
“Look,” Jed said, “if you don’t feel well, or you don’t—”
“I mean—if you’re uncomfortable.”
“It is cold here.”
“It is cold,” Jed said.
Feeling his stomach tighten, Jed sat down on the bed. “Is this—is this really what you want from life? I wasted my life. You see, that’s why I came to Luxembourg . . .”
“Do English men talk so much?”
A knock on the door. The madam came in and looked at the woman, then at Jed: “Something wrong?” she said. “Tell me if she is not satisfying.”
“I’ll be right back,” he said. He shuffled down the hallway, out to the Rue Gravitaine.
The first bar on the Grand Rue was the Bar Hospitaller. Most of them had red awnings, and looking down the street Jed saw five others.
The Hospitaller was dark and had no radio or television. Jed ordered a Diekirch lager and thought that if a stray dog could drown itself, it would. Since he was a man, endowed with reason, suicide was the right course.
He drank two pints of Diekirch until the silence of the Hospitaller unnerved him. The next bar was the Cafe Ardennes. Unlike the Hospitaller, the Ardennes was bright and had two large windows open to the street. Jed took a seat at the bar, bought a pilsner, and watched the pedestrians.
He drank another two pints and saw it was six o’clock. Jed called to the bartender and, instead of beer, ordered a neat scotch.
On the far side of the Grand Rue, Jed spotted the man from the brothel.
He turned his head so that he faced the bar. The bearded man ordered a drink in German and sat next to Jed on the corner.
“The Maison,” the man said.
Jed finished his whisky.
“My name is Nicholas,” the bearded man said. “I’m from Belgium.”
“Jed is not an English name.”
“Ah,” Nicholas said. “I would never have guessed. You are too quiet. And drinking too fast.”
“Places to go.”
“The next three bars.”
“I doubt you make it across the road.”
“Well,” Jed said, “It’s part of my plan, to get drunk.”
“Why? The Maison?”
“Since it doesn’t matter, I’ll tell you—to kill myself.”
Nicholas burst out laughing, then dabbed his lips with his wrist. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I didn’t—”
“I wasn’t expecting it. Fuck, man. Why kill yourself?”
“It is unnatural,” Nicholas said. “It’s against God.”
“I don’t believe in God,” Jed said. “And if you do, why were you at the Maison?”
Nicholas smiled. “God is everywhere. He never leaves me when I visit the Maison: He walks me up those steps, glides me through the door. When I saw you walk in, He was with me.”
Jed sat dumbfounded on his stool. “Two more scotches,” he told the bartender. Confidentially he said to Nicholas: “I don’t believe in God. You have something, you lose it, and then you lose everything.”
“That’s what happened?”
“Things went wrong too many times.”
“Wife left you?”
“She was going to have my kid. At least, she said it was mine.”
“A blink in the cosmos.”
“Easy to say.”
“You think I’ve always sat in brothels? Talked to strangers in bars? This is Luxembourg. There’s not a thing out of place on the Grand Rue. But sometimes you find a crack. It spreads and shoots you down to freezing water . . .
“I’ll tell you a story, since Americans are so fond of them. Once, in a former life, I had a beautiful wife and a young daughter. When I got a promotion, we all started preparing our move to Luxembourg City. That day my daughter and I drove a truckload of furniture to the apartment. Usually I would have left her with her mother, but she was eager to see our new home. I couldn’t refuse.
“The traffic was slow, and as we got closer to downtown her cold grew worse. It would’ve been no trouble to book a hotel. Back then, though, I always had to rush, to be efficient, to get somewhere. It began snowing near Strasbourg. She was asleep when the car slipped off the road. I never had time to react, I just sat there and watched it crash.
“All of the windows were shattered, the horn blaring. I had no more than a scratched cheek. Then I looked over and Anya was gone. The windscreen, you see, was broken. I won’t describe what I saw when I found her body.
“A year later my wife and I divorced: too many memories. I went from a man with everything—wife, daughter, new career, new home—to a man with nothing.”
“I’m sorry,” Jed said. “I’m so sorry it happened.”
“Don’t be sorry,” Nicholas said. “If something terrible happens, don’t ask, Why me? Instead, Why me at all? Why do I exist? The value is not in things but in loss. How do you know yourself until you lose something?”
“Maybe you’re right.”
“Of course,” Nicholas said, “I’m right.” He rose from his stool and patted Jed on the back. “Get me a scotch, will you?”
Nicholas walked to the end of the bar, stepped on an uneven board and hobbled to the restroom.
There goes a man, Jed thought. He was overcome by a desire to bring Nicholas back to the States. They could start their lives over, help each other. Jed’s friends in Liberty were drunk or dead or had skipped town years ago.
He ordered two glasses of Oban. On television was a soccer match; the bartender said Marseilles and Bordeaux. Both teams wore blue uniforms. For a moment Jed was mesmerized, then felt dizzy and a little sick. He asked for a glass of water.
“Do you care who wins?”
“Twenty euros on Bordeaux.”
“Oh . . . Do you have a favorite team?”
“No, I am from Luxembourg.”
Jed nodded and looked at his watch: seven-thirty. “When did my friend leave?”
“Half-time. Maybe twenty minutes ago?”
Jed sat back on his stool and hoped Nicholas would return soon. By the time he finished the two scotches, it was eight o’clock and the bar got crowded.
“Is your friend coming?” the bartender said. “If not, several would like his seat.”
“Pair of scotches,” Jed said. All evening he’d spent only a hundred and fifty euros. He laughed as he thought of his suicide plan and the fat wallet in his shorts.
When Jed reached in his front pocket, it was gone.
“Fifteen euros,” the bartender said.
“Can I start a tab?”
“I’ll be back in a minute,” Jed said. “My friend is just around the corner.”
The noise and chatter of the bar belied the quiet of the Grand Rue. After three lagers, eleven whiskies, and a Tom Collins, he was loose and unsteady and he stumbled over the cobblestones to the town square.
Now Jed was penniless. He deserved to be penniless, he knew, because he was so naive. And things went wrong too many times.
By the donkey statue, he stopped a woman with a red canvas bag and asked how to find the river.
Soaked from head to foot, Jed sat in the police station with a blanket over his shoulders. The captain was a curt man wearing a peaked cap and epaulettes. “You jumped into the Sauer?” he said. “Because your wallet fell out?”
“No—I mean, not the only reason…”
“You don’t look American,” the captain said. “Whether you speak like an American, I am no expert. You flew from Kansas—”
“—from Kansas to Luxembourg. You took a cab north passing X, Y, Z . . . and checked in at the Hotel Felix. You visited the Family of Man exhibit. Then a pickpocket stole your money, and you decided to end your life. That’s your story?”
“That’s what happened.”
“Another tourist on the Rue Superior reported her wallet stolen this evening. You will contact the embassy in Luxembourg City, but first you must go to the Cafe Ardennes and pay your tab.”
An officer came through the door. He spoke excitedly to the captain in Luxembourgish and rushed back to the booking room.
The captain turned to Jed. “We found a pickpocket in the Rue de Jardins. He stole a purse in the Bar Hospitaller. Chased down by an old sailor . . . Tonight you’ve been saved twice. If there’s a third, I hope you save yourself, Mr. Lomax.”
In the booking room, the man who called himself Nicholas sat in handcuffs next to the excited officer. “That’s him?” the captain asked Jed.
“Yes,” Jed said. “What’s his name?”
“He told me,” Jed said, “his name was Nicholas.” He walked across the room and stood in front of Martin. He stared at his face, at the greasy black hair and pocked cheeks which were remarkably ugly in the station light.
As hard as he could, Jed swung at Martin’s jaw and knocked him off the bench. He screamed and spit on him until the officer pulled the men apart.
“Not much of a fight,” the captain said. He and the officer chuckled.
“No,” said Jed. He knelt down, tried to catch his breath. The floor was freezing. “Not much of one at all.”
Max Thrax lives in Boston. His novella God Is A Killer (Close To The Bone) will be published in May 2022.