Her phone rang. It was someone downstairs trying to get buzzed in. In Mal’s apartment building, they routed the buzzer straight to your phone instead of through an intercom. Although everything else about the building was dilapidated, it did have this modern convenience.
“Inspector,” said the voice on the phone.
“No!” said Mal, because she hadn’t called 311 and wasn’t expecting anyone. She hung up the phone. The voice—whoever he was—called again, but this time Mal didn’t even pick up. People were always trying to get into the building by buzzing random apartments. It was one of many small nuisances in Mal’s life that formed part of a much greater dissatisfaction.
Mal got dressed and an hour later she left for dinner. It was a Friday night. She was having dinner with her friend JJ, who would pay, as she often did, since JJ was in a much better financial situation than Mal. When she was a child, JJ had recovered from a rare disease and her struggle had been made into a documentary, which had then been fictionalized in a feature film. It meant that JJ was able to capitalize on her history through the speaking circuit and a bestselling memoir that had been ghostwritten by the same person who wrote Rachael Ray’s.
At dinner, Mal complained about her tedious office job, and JJ complained that her boyfriend was unlikely to commit to her unless he accidentally got her pregnant. “Not that I’m hoping!” she always said, because they both loved cocktails. They were an odd little pair—two lethargic girls with anxious tics that they were constantly trying to calm with drugs or alcohol.
“I know I’m going to be hungover tomorrow,” said JJ. “Sometimes I wonder if I do this on purpose. It makes sense—sickness feels comforting because it reminds me of my childhood.”
Mal laughed. She herself had no excuse for her drinking, except what she had long known to be true: that she was a weak and cowardly person.
The drunker she got, the more Mal hid her own financial stress from JJ. “Having Juan Lado around is great,” she said, “although I don’t really need the money—I’m mostly doing him a favor.” Juan Lado, whom everyone referred to by first and last name, was a friend of a friend who rented out Mal’s living area to house several racks of clothes that he sold on an online thrift store called “Bunker Finds.” He whispered in and out of the apartment at odd times. Sometimes Mal didn’t know he was there until she heard the jumpsuits rustle.
“He doesn’t even find the clothes in a bunker!” said Mal, resentfully. “I think the whole thing is a little fake.” What she really resented was how aloof Juan Lado was.
Mal took public transportation home around midnight, saddened that this was how she needed to travel. Her phone lit up with promotional emails and no personal ones. Although she briefly envisioned changes she might make in her life, she was too tired to do anything but lock the apartment door behind her with paranoid, trembling hands.
She heard a sneeze and said, “Juan Lado?” Juan Lado didn’t answer, and then she was momentarily distracted by the ugliness of her manicure. Suicide crossed her mind, seemed like too much work, and she passed out on her bed.
In the morning, hungover, Mal heard the sneeze again.
Juan Lado didn’t answer. Mal’s brain worked sluggishly to understand. Her mind offered up this piece of information: once, her hairdresser had told her a story about hearing a mysterious fart in her apartment when she was all alone. “But,” the hairdresser had said, “it turned out that it was my snake. Did you know ball pythons could fart?”
The problem, Mal understood, was that she didn’t have a snake. And this was a sneeze, not a fart.
She investigated. Her living room was a wilderness of clothing racks and wretched secondhand furniture. Mal searched through the clothing racks. When she didn’t find Juan Lado, she knew it had to be an intruder. It’s good how calm I am, she thought. I should pick up a weapon. Even though she congratulated herself on the wisdom of this idea, she didn’t do it.
While thinking idly about a documentary show she’d been watching (Mal loved documentaries) she discovered a tiny man with a large collar sitting on the back of Juan Lado’s dusty shoe shelf. The man looked about eleven inches tall and was in historical dress.
“Excuse me?” she said, stupefied.
“Stop right there!” said the man in a garbled voice, and pointed a tiny device at Mal. She fell to her knees and gasped with embarrassing sexiness. The pain in her sternum was like a large paper cut doused in lemon juice.
“Apologies, I need your assistance,” said the man, standing up on the shoe shelf and bumping his head. “Forgive my hasty discharge!” He sneezed, just as he had before. Mal looked up at him from her place on the floor, still recovering from the pain. The man, besides an overcoat and a poetic shirt, had two collars—one old fashioned and askew like batwings and another beneath it, almost like a necklace, made of plasticine or similar.
“I have no doubt that a rescue team is already on their way,” said the little man, with a scientific tug at his overcoat. When speaking, he pressed a tiny button on the plasticine collar and the garbled voice blared from his neck. “All I need is your cooperation in allowing them access to this location. Is my translator working properly?”
“It’s working great,” said Mal. She stood up, holding herself. She didn’t ask herself if she was dreaming because the man’s technological presence was undeniable.
“If any unauthorized intruders have tried to gain access to your apartment, please alert me.”
Mal thought of the “inspector” she’d hung up on the evening before. She was frantic to please the small man. “Don’t worry, I didn’t let them in here. I made sure they stayed out!”
“Idiot! That might have been my rescue team!”
Mal shrank away, her chin trembling. “What are you doing here? What’s your name?”
“As far as our purposes go, you should think of me as a time traveler. I am Ludwig van Beethoven, and I have time-traveled to this time and place erroneously.”
“But . . . why are you so small?”
Ludwig became agitated. “I have answered your question! It’s a much, much more complex situation than you can possibly understand! All you need to know is that errors have been made in transmission and I necessitate assistance!”
The man looked about eleven inches tall and was in historical dress.
She dropped a curtain over the shoe shelf, muting him.
Mal lay on the couch to recover from the shock and woke up two hours later. She sat up quickly, remembering little Ludwig. The only thing Mal had ever read about Beethoven was on a laminated poster in the 5th grade music room. The little man definitely looked like the poster. She went to the kitchen, heated up a saucerful of lentils, and then filled a bottle cap with water.
When she went back into the living room, she gathered all of her personal fortitude and pulled back the curtain, ready to leap backwards if needed. She steeled herself for further name-calling. But Ludwig was sitting still, his eyes closed, his shirt sumptuous, a mysterious device clasped between two tiny hands.
He opened his eyes. His expression was fiery, like the Beethoven of the poster. “I’m working on sending out a distress signal! Leave me be!”
Mal put the lentils down in front of him. “I just want you to know that you’re safe here. It could be much worse, couldn’t it? You could have landed in some time period where people . . . where people have no framework for technological advances! You could be persecuted by ignorant people just because they don’t understand you!”
Ludwig stood up, turned around, and delicately urinated into one of Juan Lado’s shoes.
“Stop that!” said Mal, beginning to cry, but Ludwig only dismissed her, fluttering a musical hand.
That night, Mal smoked a joint by herself and had an entire bottle of wine to calm down. She had left Ludwig alone, avoiding that area of the living room. This should have happened to a stronger person, she thought, still teary. She hoped he would be gone in the morning.
He wasn’t. The next morning, he opened his eyes when she pulled back the curtain and said, about the lentils, “Is this what you call food?”
Once more, her feelings were terrifically hurt. Mal called JJ for advice.
It was a strange phone call to make, and Mal was embarrassed by JJ’s initial disbelief, and then by her confusion. “I know it doesn’t make sense,” she said, apologetically.
Upsetting silence on the other end, for a while. But when JJ finally spoke, she was excited and uncharacteristically alert. “This is a huge opportunity for you. Don’t you understand? If you play your cards right, you could dine out on this story for the rest of your life! Just the way that I did with my moose-girl disease!”
(Because this was what JJ’s disease had been nicknamed by the media—it had given her many small, mossy cysts which resembled the beginnings of antlers.)
This statement was how Mal understood that JJ had long resented picking up the checks on her own. It destabilized her. “Sorry!” she said.
“I’ll make a few calls,” said JJ.
“Are you going to call the media?”
“Of course not!” JJ explained that while a little man showing up in Mal’s house was interesting, it didn’t constitute a story on its own. “We need to make you a protagonist. What we need is an arc, the way that my parents ended up remarrying because my sickness brought them together.” Mal agreed—this had been what made the documentary about JJ’s disease so compelling. That and the fact that after JJ recovered, she’d turned out so attractive.
A “call waiting” showed up on Mal’s phone: Downstairs gate.
“I think his rescue team is trying to get in again!” said Mal. She was hyperventilating from the effort of keeping back tears, talking, and thinking all at once. “What do I do?”
“The second this guy leaves your house, you’re nothing more than a footnote in this story. Don’t let them in!”
Mal, obedient, ignored the downstairs gate. Appreciation for JJ flowed through her body like a sedative. She had provided some much-needed clarity.
A few hours later, a documentary crew showed up at Mal’s apartment, along with a good friend of JJ’s who introduced herself as a “producer and story consultant.” Her name was Tara and she looked exactly thirty-seven years old—a reassuring age. Her eyes were each of a slightly different color, like farm fresh eggs.
Tara the producer observed Ludwig, inert on his shelf, and remarked to her film crew: “We need to get him verbal and active.” To Mal she asked, “Why Beethoven? Why is he here? Who sent him back in time? The government?”
“It’s so random!” said Mal, agreeing passionately in lieu of answers. “He’s probably on a special mission that only Ludwig van Beethoven could perform. I bet there were technical difficulties, which is why he shrunk!”
At that moment Ludwig’s eyes opened and he observed the crowd in front of him with happiness. “At last!” he cried out. But his happiness evaporated. He must have realized, perhaps through their incorrect uniforms or demeanor, that these were not his rescuers.
“Hello!” JJ said, eager to help out. “You must be so excited to learn about how we’ve progressed musically since your time period. We can’t wait to tell you all about cell phones, abstract art, and antibiotics!” JJ laughed in a friendly way intended to gain his trust. “I’m a pretty big fan, I can tell you that.” The truth was that neither JJ nor Mal had even taken the time to read Ludwig van Beethoven’s Wikipedia page.
Ludwig pressed the button on his collar and said to Mal, “You with the big ears! Were you contacted by my rescue unit? They should have initiated contact.”
Mal’s hands flew to her ears in a fit of self-consciousness. He was so cruel! “No! I haven’t heard a peep from your rescue unit! You must not be working hard enough to contact them!” While she felt guilty about this lie, it was, she reasoned, consistent with her weak character.
Ludwig’s eyes became gloriously crazed. Mal felt sure that a musical genius would become crazed in precisely this manner. She was in awe. “You really are the Ludwig van Beethoven, aren’t you?”
“I am not!” Ludwig said. “Don’t be an imbecile! I’m merely a Ludwig van Beethoven impersonator! I’m not from the past, I’m from the future! How else could I time travel?” He looked for and couldn’t find his weapon (which JJ had carefully swiped out of his reach with a chopstick).
This revelation surprised everyone. Tara the story producer crawled forward professionally, her Nikes soundless. “Fascinating, Ludwig. And why would a Beethoven impersonator need to travel back in time?”
“I can’t share the details of a confidential mission. Do your worst to me! I’ve been trained for this scenario!” The antiquated collar of Ludwig’s shirt, in front of his translator collar, flopped impotently. His hair frizzed like a timid substitute teacher in front of a bloodthirsty classroom. In his frenzy, he accidentally stepped off the shoe shelf and fell to the ground, landing with a heavy and (to Mal, in her aggrieved state) satisfying sound.
It was a bad scene for a moment—they thought he was a goner. But he stirred and sat up, supporting his top-heavy body with his tiny arms. Tara crept closer and said, “Tell us a little more about yourself, Ludwig.” She took out a notebook and a ballpoint. In her egg-like eyes, Mal could see exactly what Tara was thinking: An unlikely love story! What an arc!
“Why Beethoven? Why is he here? Who sent him back in time? The government?”
Mal turned her head in disgust. She would not fall in love with that man, even if he were famous! Even if she could dine out on that story for years! He was so small. And he was so mean and his manners were so bad!
Sounds of a disturbance—Mal looked up and saw that Ludwig was headed towards the open window. He had grabbed Tara’s ballpoint pen and stabbed her with it.
Tara caught him tenderly as if he were a kitten. On her hand, Ludwig had made a single blue dot with the pen—barely any blood had come out.
Mal drank heavily to recover from the emotional distress of the afternoon’s events. The worst thing had been immobilizing Ludwig with duct tape and tying him to the leg of a chair so he wouldn’t escape. Afterwards, Tara took Mal aside and squeezed her hand. “You have no idea how hard I work most of the time to get what we in the business call ‘the cry.’ I never thought I’d have to ask this, honey, but would you mind crying a little less in front of the cameras? It cheapens the impact.”
“Sorry!” said Mal, who hoped that this was a kind of compliment.
Once immobilized, Ludwig was even less willing to answer questions—not even innocent ones about what he liked to do for fun, or if he had any trauma in his past that he would feel comfortable sharing on camera.
Mal, to Tara’s disappointment, had no trauma except for divorced parents. But everyone had divorced parents—and besides, that was JJ’s thing.
Tara said, “And did you ever play an instrument?” Tara asked these questions where Ludwig couldn’t hear them: in the bedroom. The film crew was in the bedroom too. Mal’s sad possessions—her bowl collection, her earplugs and empty wine bottles—were well-documented by the cameramen.
“No, I don’t know anything about music.”
“Does this guy remind you of anyone? A father? A relative? Does this situation remind you of a struggle you’ve had in the past that perhaps you could describe to us? Maybe something you could resolve through your conflict with Ludwig?”
Mal hated letting people down, especially nice and imposing women, but she had to answer all these questions in the negative. What a disappointment she always was.
“What you need to do now,” said Tara, “is find a personal connection. From there we can determine some emotional stakes. Let’s think out of the box—do you like to cook? Perhaps you and Ludwig could bond over the cuisines of your respective eras.”
Mal didn’t like to cook, and Ludwig had already insulted her food. “I get the feeling you want me to fall in love with him but I can’t do it. I hate him, I really do!”
“That’s great,” said Tara. She was enthusiastic. Her jewelry was delicate, tasteful, and gold. “It’s good that you don’t like him! What we want is dynamism, Mallory. In order for change to occur, we need somewhere to move from.”
“But this is terrible! He’s all tied up in there!” Mal appealed to JJ, who stood in the corner. “You’ve seen how he is! He’s not going to cooperate, even if we do figure out how to produce this!”
“I know it seems tough,” said JJ. “But think about the future—one day, you and Ludwig are going to be laughing about this, I promise.”
Tara used a voice of gentle expertise: “If I’ve learned one thing in the business, it’s this, Mallory: people want to connect. That’s the power of storytelling. Sooner or later, he’s going to open up.”
Before Tara left with her camera crew, she gave Mal a contract in a manila folder that guaranteed Tara and her crew a percentage of all future earnings. She explained it clearly. Mal liked her and the reassuring mass that was the camera crew—she didn’t want them to leave. “What if something happens when you guys are gone?”
“Don’t worry. You can just tell us about it, and we’ll back-produce it.” Tara reminded Mal that she’d written down suggestions for “drawing him out” and put them in the living room. “And if you can, try to figure out the context. It’s going to be a big question for the audience if we don’t know why a Beethoven impersonator is time traveling at all.”
JJ left too, and Mal was all alone. She didn’t like being left alone with a guy duct taped to a chair. It felt wrong.
Mal took off work and spent Monday trying to connect with Ludwig. She followed the suggestions on the worksheet for building trust and gratitude. She brought Ludwig crumbles of a cookie, and put fresh duct tape on him. She asked him about his parents. “I bet we have things in common, don’t you think?” she said, trying to make it seem casual. But Mal couldn’t be casual—her voice was stilted and quavering. She pushed his translation button for him, but instead of speaking, Ludwig shut his mouth and defecated himself, smiling.
“Ugh!” cried Mal, who would now have to unwrap him, wash him, and then wrap him up again.
Ludwig pushed his translation button with his chin. “I’m sorry, does this bother you, Mal? In the future, this is how everyone shits.”
Mal had never been the brightest, but even she could tell that he was making fun of her. She cut a tiny piece of duct tape just for his mouth.
At that moment, Mal heard a whispering sound amid all the jumpsuits.
She turned around and saw Juan Lado, his mouth open. He had come in with an armful of plastic mailers and a stack of hand-stamped “Bunker Finds” business cards to put in his latest packages. “Oh no,” he said. “Absolutely not.”
“Wait!” said Mal.
Juan Lado’s vinyl trench coat and vinyl pants zipped against each other as he fled. Mal chased after him and just managed to catch him on the landing. “Let me explain!” she said. She needed Juan Lado—she couldn’t afford her apartment if he stopped renting.
Juan Lado was a few steps below her and he pointed up and over, at the apartment. “You know what my last situation was like. I told you I’m trying to get away from drama, and it feels like you aren’t respecting that.”
“It’s not my fault!” Mal tried to explain the sudden appearance of Ludwig, but to her surprise, she found that her explanation wasn’t getting more streamlined with each retelling—instead it just felt more confusing. The distinction between Beethoven and Beethoven impersonator felt meaningful, but it didn’t lend itself to a narrative.
After she’d told him the whole story, deploying tears as a tactic (and because she couldn’t help it), Juan Lado was marginally sympathetic. “I understand you’re trying to make this work for you. I know the hustle more than anyone. But at the moment, it looks messy, and I don’t like mess.”
None of her own words were convincing, so Mal used JJ and Tara’s arguments. “Soon, Ludwig and I will be laughing about all this. Dynamism is important. Without change, there isn’t a story!”
“Huh,” said Juan Lado, looking behind her, at the apartment. She could see that his horror was giving way to curiosity. He came up the stairs, attracted by the mystery of Ludwig. “Let me take another look,” he said, and Mal led him back into the living room, where Ludwig was now taped to the wall, for convenience, his old-fashioned shirt ballooning out of his bonds. “Anyways!” she said thrusting out her arm nervously, as if Ludwig were a dinner of humble quality.
(“Mmpphgh!” said Ludwig.)
Juan Lado put a hand over his mouth, and then his nose. The smell of Ludwig’s waste was not good. He backed up into the kitchen and Mal followed. He came close to her and whispered, using a voice of confessional intimacy, “Is it so terrible that I have this urge to . . . this urge to . . . ”
Yes. Mal had always wanted to plunge through Juan Lado’s aloof demeanor! To consummate, at last, a friendship with this person who merely rented out her living room, evaporating like a ghost when she called his name. She completed his sentence herself, with excitement: “The urge to stomp on him? Yes! Me too! I feel the same way!”
“No, I mean—” Juan Lado was confused. “I meant the urge to sew tiny little clothes for him to wear.”
“Ah,” said Mal, embarrassed. She justified herself. “With things that small, I think it’s natural to think about stomping on them. Several people have agreed with me.”
“Certainly,” said Juan Lado, flicking his hair like a beautiful horse who can’t be caught.
Her phone buzzed and she saw a shocking text message from JJ: Hey girl I just found out I’m pregnant!!! Zach and I are finally going to tie the knot <3 <3. So anyways I don’t think I’ll be able to help out as much with producing.
The text message disappeared as her phone vibrated—someone was calling. Downstairs Gate read her phone. With relish, Mal pressed Ignore.
“Help! This woman has taken me hostage! I am a casualty of a most secret war!”
When Mal couldn’t take any more days off work, she left Ludwig alone in the apartment, restrained by a contraption that she was proud of having built from earrings and paper clips. It reminded her of a hostage suit she’d seen in a movie with Dolly Parton. The movie had been a comedy, so Mal felt reassured that this suit was definitely humorous.
“I’m really sorry,” she said to Ludwig before leaving for work. “It must be lonely for you by yourself. Is there anything you’d like me to bring home for you?”
She pressed his translation button, since he couldn’t reach it himself. He said, “If I have to die in this godforsaken place, I will!” From within the contraption, he jangled his ankles and wrists.
Mal knew that “Godforsaken” wasn’t such a horrible word, but it was the way he said it that was so hurtful.
On her way to work, fragile from yet another hangover, she texted JJ for sympathy.
Don’t worry about him. He’s just a little asshole, said JJ in response. And if it doesn’t work out between you two? Then who cares. A dead white man is a dead white man, even if he is only eleven inches tall.
Do you want to get drinks? said Mal. But now that JJ was pregnant, she didn’t want to go out to get drinks, and she was way less interested in Ludwig. It’s his TONE that bothers me, texted Mal, and JJ responded, That’s nothing. I got YELLED at today for littering. How can people be so mean to someone who’s PREGNANT??
Mal wished she were pregnant, so it would be wrong for people to yell at her.
At the end of the day, when Mal was walking home from the train station, she noticed—no! Ludwig was running towards her on the sidewalk, followed by at least three cats. He had escaped!
As soon as Ludwig saw her, he tried to change direction, but it was too late—cats in one direction, Mal in the other. Mal picked him up by his (now ragged) overcoat. Ludwig struggled, his hair flying, his overcoat askew. His clothing was tacky from being taped for so long. He tried to bite her and Mal gripped him by the legs and tipped him upside down. The blood rushed into his little face, and Mal dangled him over the cats, who were gnashing their teeth below. “Where would you even go?” she said to him, severely. Her grip was vicious. She’d had a terrible day at work.
“Let me go!” he cried out. “Help! This woman has taken me hostage! I am a casualty of a most secret war!”
Mal looked around, expecting the New Yorkers on the sidewalk to be conspicuously avoiding her gaze. That was the great thing about the city—everyone minded their own business. And yet, to her surprise, some of them stared at her. “She’s got a little man!” said a guy leaning on a car. He looked around, trying to get everyone to notice. He pointed. “That’s a little man she’s got over there!”
“It’s just my . . . ferret!” said Mal, and threw Ludwig into her tote bag. She held him down beneath a hardback book, pressing the book forcefully. She had an intrusive thought: if only she pressed a little harder . . . but then she wouldn’t have a story.
Faintly, she heard Ludwig say, “When my rescue team arrives you’ll rpoyuitgku your rqwabvc.” Mal had never heard these words before—perhaps they existed in the future. She walked away, the lower portion of her tote bag wriggling.
There were several more escape attempts. The contraption she’d built was unreliable, a failure. Mal was incompetent at work, but she’d resigned herself to this and so had her coworkers. Now she was confronted by her failures at home, too.
“I can’t take it anymore!” she said to Tara, over the phone, on a day when she’d come home to find Ludwig once more free of his bonds and vengefully ripping apart all her bedding. “He’s not like a regular person who asks questions and talks about things. He’s never asked me a single question about myself, and all that I ever do is ask about him! He’s so selfish!”
“And you’re the devil’s factotum!” said Ludwig, from the place on the wall where he was currently duct-taped.
Tara’s voice over the phone was soothing, almost medical. “Listen, Mallory. I still think the story pocket we’re going for is a little more whimsical, more heartwarming, but . . . hey. I just want you to know that if we need to make this a gritty story, we’ll make it gritty. Okay?”
Tara and the camera crew paid another visit. At their suggestion, Mal had deprived Ludwig of food for twenty-four hours, so that when they arrived with doughnut holes, garbanzo beans, and noodles, he would be overwhelmed with gratitude.
He was not grateful. He ate their treats with both hands, twisting in the necklace chains around his middle, but he refused to say anything except, “Damn you! This era’s edibles are a disgrace.”
“Where you’re from, is it better?” said Tara, slyly. “What era was it again?”
“You’re not going to trick me! Where I’m from csfjdghn. It’s cdjhfgnjh.”
Mal was unnerved. “We can’t understand you.”
Ludwig tried to repeat himself. “You’re so idiotic. All that bhkgjnhpoqw won’t fool me!”
Tara smiled, sadly. “I’d bet you anything the battery on his translation collar is running out. Before long he won’t be able to communicate with us at all.”
This idea had never occurred to Mal. “What are we going to do??”
“We’re going to work faster.”
Tara took Mal into the bedroom and the camera crew shuffled after. Her notebook flipped open elegantly. “Let me run a few things by you. I can’t help but notice” —and she used the pink tip of her eraser to point at all the wine bottles littering the bedroom—“that you might have a drinking problem. So maybe once Ludwig comes into your life, you’re somehow inspired to get sober? That could be a good arc.”
This was unthinkable. “JJ wouldn’t have called you if she knew you were going to ask me to do that,” said Mal. “I’m not an alcoholic! And he’s still not cooperating, so it doesn’t matter.”
“He’ll crack,” said Tara, the pink eraser tip touching her chin. Her smile was one of great patience, like the good parent Mal had always longed for. “How about this, then? Have you ever thought about how . . . we’re all time travelers because we move through time? Do you have a relative advanced in age? Maybe only one time traveler can talk to another. Isn’t that a poetic idea?”
Somewhere in the electrical mass of equipment that was the camera crew, a male voice murmured with appreciation. The voice named a well-known radio program that would “eat that up.”
“A grandparent?” suggested Tara. “A great uncle?”
Mal did have a grandmother advanced in age—she’d been Mal’s primary caretaker during her parents’ divorce. This grandmother even reminded her of Ludwig. They were both insulting and callous, and both had made her cry many times. When Mal was a child this grandmother had punished her when she misbehaved by depriving her of food, which was, ironically—Mal wanted to laugh—exactly what she was doing to Ludwig!
But if Mal was to interact with her grandmother in front of a camera crew, at this sensitive time in her life, it was likely that she’d have to confront personal issues she’d never dealt with before. If Mal took a trip out to that Connecticut nursing home, toting along Ludwig in a doggy carrier—Ludwig, who, interestingly, was just as immobilized (but still highly verbal) as her grandmother was at this point—it would be way too emotionally taxing for her.
“Yes,” said Mal. “I mean, no. I had a grandmother, but she’s dead.” Inside she was triumphant—how well she’d shut that down!
“Too bad,” said Tara. The first telltale signs of frustration showed themselves in the late-thirties wrinkles around her eyes. “Mallory, I know that it’s more comfortable for you, but stasis isn’t good for a story. I get the sense that you like your own impotence.”
Mal clutched the sheets of her unmade bed. She writhed inwardly at the idea that she was, once more, disappointing Tara.
Tara said, “We don’t have all the answers, Mal. You need to think creatively, too.”
“I have an idea!” Mal shouted. “Actually—you know how you said this story might get gritty? What if I . . . well what would happen if I killed him?”
Tara turned to look at her camera crew for their reaction. The mass of electronics shifted. She turned back and said, “I suppose we could work with that. We’d have to calibrate the narrative, but it’s tricky, Mallory. It’s quite tricky.”
The door creaked open. They all turned to look. Ludwig stood in the doorway, a noodle lassoed around his neck, his lips white from powdered sugar, his shadow as long as a soda bottle. One tiny finger crept up to his translation collar and pressed the button. The distorted voice spoke. It was sarcastic, but also a little sad. “What happened, Mal? I thought I was fortunate to arrive in an era too advanced for people to destroy something just because they don’t understand it.”
The silence was awkward. Finally, Tara said, “I wonder if, once the battery dies, he’ll lose the ability to understand us, too.”
Ludwig’s battery died a few days later, when Mal was hosing him down. Juan Lado walked into the room and walked straight out again when he saw this. Mal shouted after him, “This isn’t what it looks like! I’m getting him clean! This isn’t a tactic to get him to talk!”
“You’re going to pay for this!” said Ludwig from inside the kitchen sink. “I remember everything! I’m keeping tabs on every crime committed against me. I’m cvbnuyer rtyoiuvyjdf. I’m—I’m wpeozxbjlhk! Qzpxhjvmf!” Ludwig clutched at his neck. Mal dropped him (bong went the sink) and he stood up in the stream of water, naked and shivering. He staggered backwards, his shrunken genitals moving minutely with every step.
Then the sound he made wasn’t even in the garbled voice of his translator collar—it was a new sound that reflected his size. It was high-pitched gibberish, in a language Mal had never heard before. Ludwig’s eyes widened, and when he heard himself, he seemed to age several years in a single moment.
Mal wasn’t religious, but she sent a wish out into the universe: may I only ever be a witness to pain like this, and never the victim.
Squeak squeak went Ludwig’s new little voice, Squeaksqueaksqueak. Mal clutched at the apron she always wore while washing him or making him his little foods. “Ludwig, stop that sound! We’ll help you! I’ll talk to Tara and we’ll figure something out!”
He banged against the sink with his little fists. All that squeaking, all that clanging! It was awful. “Can you understand me?!” she asked. But Ludwig only shivered, banged, squeaked.
It occurred to Mal that she could leave Ludwig to shiver to death in the sink. This result would be so in keeping with her assumptions about herself, that it would be oddly comforting. She would fall asleep while Ludwig suffered and say, somewhere deep in her brain, “I’ll pay with bad dreams, but at least I’m acting how I usually do.”
Instead Mal performed actions that resided outside her customary personality, perhaps for no reason at all. Perhaps because of nothing more than a change in the weather.
She filled the bathtub with warm water, shallow enough so Ludwig wouldn’t drown, and, resisting her disgust and fear, lifted his struggling body from the kitchen sink with barbecue tongs. She put him in the bath and watched as, gradually, he stopped squeaking. He closed his eyes in relief.
So! This was how it could be, could it? The alarming phenomena of possible selves opened up before Mal.
And her mind clamped shut like an eye exposed to too much light.
She heard a sound and turned. Juan Lado stood in the doorway, holding a tiny little jumpsuit that he’d sewn himself. In a whisper he said, “I want him to wear this when he gets out of the bath.”
“Okay,” said Mal.
Juan Lado kept whispering. “If I can take a few photos of him for the store, I think that would be good. If you let me do that, I promise I’ll keep renting out the room.”
JJ had stopped communicating with Mal at all. Besides her pregnancy and engagement, it seemed difficult for her to participate in a story in which there was no room for her as a character. Mal, too, had noticed how she’d been sidelined, and could sense that it was a problem that her celebrity friend had no role in the story. Perhaps, Mal was afraid, JJ was actually just trying to distance herself from the whole affair.
Mal wasn’t religious, but she sent a wish out into the universe: may I only ever be a witness to pain like this, and never the victim.
Mal called Tara and explained about the battery dying. “If we tried, we could probably figure out how to charge it, right? Couldn’t we consult some experts? Aren’t there always experts in documentaries?”
Tara’s silence on the other end was a thinking silence. “You know,” she said. “I think we’ve gone about as far as we can go at this stage. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the storytelling business, Mallory, it’s that patience is key. Let’s see what happens in a few years, when he hasn’t been able to communicate for a while. Think about it! We finally fix his little translator! What a big reveal that would be, eh?”
“Um.” Mal looked at Ludwig, who was on the windowsill, gripping his ankles silently and staring into space. The jumpsuit fit perfectly.
Tara said, “I’ll be honest with you, Mal. If he’s not verbal, that’s a real problem for character development.”
“It’s kind of an imposition on me to keep taking care of him.”
“Then don’t. You’re the one who hired me, remember?” Tara wasn’t unkind. Her honesty was purely professional.
Years passed. Mal changed jobs several times, and even had a meaningful long-term relationship with an architecture student. But this ended badly. Afterwards, she decided to take some time to be by herself, since she wanted a break from her constant feelings of inadequacy, and staying out late caused Ludwig to sulk. She became fixated on developing a hobby and spent many nights in, crocheting rugs and waiting for the peace that she was supposed to gain through meditative activity.
She and Ludwig still struggled to communicate, and mostly had to make use of signals and drawings which eventually stabilized into their own secret language. She got him a writing slate, and he drew grocery requests on it with a nubbin of chalk. He was difficult to please and most of their inside jokes—to the degree that they had inside jokes—were about his need to sleep on expensive fabric swatches, the ineptitude of his grocery drawings, or how much he hated her morning breath. Superficial things, really. She got him a toy piano, once, thinking that even a Beethoven impersonator would know how to play piano. But it seemed to depress him. The keys were too large for his hands, and he merely sounded each one mechanically. He came to the end of the short keyboard and stopped. Because it was a toy piano, it was only a single octave.
Mal wondered: Did he not want to play piano? Had he ever played piano? Was he really a Beethoven impersonator? Was he even from the future? She worried she might never know.
There were no more restraints. She had many times given him the opportunity to leave, and he had always come back, badly injured. The last time had been the worst—he’d come back missing part of his hand. When this happened, she gave up hope that he’d take an interest in the toy piano, and threw it out.
Nearly five years after Ludwig had first arrived, Mal called up Tara to give her an update on how things were going. “I’ve been sober for nearly a year and a half now, so really I ended up living the story arc that you suggested so long ago. And Ludwig was a part of that. Really, he was.” She was effusive about the ways they’d learned to live together, and Tara was receptive to the idea of pitching it around.
Tara was especially thrilled when she found out that he was missing part of his hand. “I bet that’s quite the story! I think when we pitch it we might say he’s missing his ‘hand’ though. It’s simpler.”
“Do you think you could charge up his translator again? I know that he might say things that would be compromising to me, but I’ve made my peace with that. I think the kinder thing would be to allow him to communicate again.”
“I hear you. Potentially that’s something that will interest people. Let me put out some feelers, okay?”
Mal gave Ludwig a thumbs-up, but he didn’t know what it was about. He didn’t smile at her. He pointed out the window, at their neighbor’s car. Ludwig had become interested in cars. She didn’t know what he liked about them, but he was always pointing at them. Cars and airplanes.
A few months later, Mal was packing up her apartment when Tara called her back. Mal was finally moving apartments, after all this time.
“Congrats on finally moving!” said Tara, exuberantly. It must be good news, Mal assumed, based on her energetic voice. “Listen,” said Tara. “I’ve gotten a lot of interest, a lot of really great responses from people. But I still think this is more of a wait-and-see situation.”
“Mallory, I just really want to hit this out of the park, right? And I think there’s still a lack of clarity in the premise. Why Beethoven? Or why a Beethoven impersonator? Why is he time traveling? What’s his purpose here? We can’t introduce this mystery and then never solve it for an audience.”
“But maybe if we charged up his translator collar, then he’d tell us!”
Tara laughed lightly. “I remember him being a pretty tough customer in that regard, Mal. And what happens if we invest a chunk of money in figuring out his little doohickey and he’s just the same stubborn, uncharismatic guy he was before? If he were a real character that would be different. But he’s not very entertaining. And you—generally for a protagonist we want someone a little more . . . active and a little more . . . just a little different.”
In the pause afterwards, without Tara having to come out and say it, Mal could hear all of her own deficiencies as a screen presence. “I cry a lot less now,” she said, lying. “And Ludwig has a soft side, I’ve seen it.”
(Ludwig was sitting on a packed cardboard box. A car passed by, and he didn’t even point at it.)
Tara said, “He traveled to the wrong time period, right? So we may just need to wait for this to become relevant. At some point, the purpose of a miniature Beethoven impersonator from the future might become clear—maybe that could help solve some large global problem. And wow! That would be a rewarding answer to that mystery, wouldn’t it?”
“He could have time-traveled from centuries in the future. He can’t even write to me in a language I might understand! We might never know!”
Tara talked about patience. About all the things she’d learned in the storytelling business. About how only ten percent of what she “scouted” made it into production. She talked about an award she’d recently won, for a documentary about a woman who, for years, posed as a theme park employee just for the joy of being in costume. “That’s an impostor we can sympathize with, because she’s such a happy presence, you know?” She said that she had another call waiting. “It was great to catch up!” said Tara, and hung up.
The day that she had to move, Ludwig went into Mal’s closet and sat against the wall. Mal had decided, for reasons she couldn’t quite remember, that he must have seen her packing up all these cardboard boxes and assumed that she would leave him behind. “Where did you get such a silly idea!” she said, and gestured at the doggie carrier she would use to transport him. Ludwig’s eyes, glimmering from the darkness of the closet, said, Go ahead and leave me. Or perhaps that wasn’t what he was saying at all. Maybe those tiny little eyes were saying, Leave so I can be alone at last. She put his slate and chalk in front of him, but he didn’t make a move to communicate. She’d been trying to get him to communicate all week, but he’d hardly even touched his food.
“I bet you could have learned to talk to me, if you tried!” said Mal, lapsing into familiar tears of anxiety. What a slob she was! Always crying.
Once the movers had come and gone, taking with them all the boxes, Mal called Ludwig’s name harshly. He was wasting her time—she needed to get in a cab to meet the movers at her new apartment. She gestured at the doggie carrier, but Ludwig was still in the closet, planted in the corner like a stone in a garden.
“Fine—go and be someone else’s problem now!” She said, and picked up her backpack. She was being strategic—she would scare him! She cast one last look over her shoulder as she shut the door. It was like looking at an empty apartment. Ludwig couldn’t be seen in the depths of the closet, and it was tempting to believe that he wasn’t even really there.
She had other thoughts about her history in the apartment, a mélange of desperate and happy feelings, nostalgia inevitably coloring even those worst moments. She shut the door. Just see if she was joking.
Mal went down the stairs and then down the street, intending to go back and get him any second. She kept walking and pictured how she would scoop him up around the middle, like a Barbie doll, taking him with her in the car. She stopped at the corner and waited for the car she’d called, reminding herself that it wasn’t too late to go back and get him. The car was now six minutes away. I might still do it. But she didn’t, quite. And every moment she didn’t go back and get him she thought, That’s just typical. It’s exactly the type of thing I’d do. And it became a perverse comfort to think that, even after all this time, she rarely surprised herself—instead she acted exactly as she was afraid she would.