Leah Browning is the author of Two Good Ears, a mini-book of flash fiction, as well as three short nonfiction books and six chapbooks of poetry and fiction. Her writing has recently appeared in The Petigru Review, The Ilanot Review, Necessary Fiction, Flock, and other literary journals and anthologies. “Elise in Austria” is the second of three linked stories. More information is available on her website: https://www.leahbrowninglit.com.
Elise in Austria
by Leah Browning
She’s lying in a hotel room in Vienna watching The King of Queens dubbed into German. It’s the episode where Carrie is in her home office upstairs, busy for days on end with a big project, and Holly the dog walker—who usually “walks” Carrie’s dad—starts cooking for Doug.
Elise doesn’t speak German, but the body language is unmistakable. The dog walker spoils him, making elaborate pancake breakfasts. She catches him drinking straight from the orange juice. When he offers a sheepish apology, she says something that Elise doesn’t understand, though she seems to be urging him to do something; he grins and drinks the rest of the juice in one long swallow. Admiringly, she hands him a dollar.
It’s as if Doug has two wives, and the best of both. Carrie asks him to sleep with her—to relax her, it seems, or to clear her head—and afterwards, as they leave the bedroom—Doug smiling, zipping up the long neck of his pullover sweater, Carrie calling “Danke” as she goes back to her home office to resume her work—he walks downstairs and finds Holly in the kitchen, just finishing frosting a chocolate cake.
Back at home, Elise has seen this episode in English, and she turns the television off before the fantasy starts to unravel.
The next day, she wakes up long past the alarm. She slept terribly the night before, still jet-lagged though she’s been in Europe for days now. She eats a late breakfast in the hotel restaurant and goes outside, rushing past the gardens of Hofburg Palace. There is no time to see anything now. She has paid €5 for a standing-room ticket to hear the Vienna Philharmonic, but she gets lost on the way to the ticket office and is almost late for the concert.
The room is crowded, and Elise regrets the standing-room ticket almost immediately. She wore running shoes under her dress, thinking that would help, but it’s no use. During the intermission, a group of students moves to the back of the room, where they sit on the floor along the mirrored wall. An older woman trips over one of their legs as she crosses the room from one side to the other. A tall, elegant-looking man catches the woman and narrowly prevents her from falling, but she jerks her arm away from him. She snaps at the man in German, and he turns on the students. “This is a standing room,” he says angrily in English. The students say nothing that Elise can hear. They have stopped taking photos of each other against the backdrop of the Golden Hall and are texting and listening to music on their headphones.
By the time the concert is over, it is already dark outside. Instead of going straight back to the hotel, Elise stops at the Christmas Market on the Rathausplatz, the square in front of the town hall. The weather was milder in Italy, and she’s forgotten her gloves, but she buys a brat with mild German mustard and a mug of hot spiked punch and finds an empty spot on one of the benches behind the booths of candy and Christmas ornaments.
Elise notices a young boy skulking around the benches, waiting for anyone who is too drunk or distracted to return his mug and collect the €3 deposit. Before she even finishes her brat, Elise calculates that the boy has made at least €12 on mugs.
On her way to the hotel, as she’s leaving the grounds of the Christkindlmarkt, Elise walks past a little building where she can hear a recording of a man. It startles her: this deep, booming voice reading aloud in German. Whole families walk up and lean toward the light from the windows. Inside, an animatronic bear as big as a grown man is sitting in a chair, reading a book of fairy tales to an odd assortment of other, much smaller animals that have been arranged throughout the room.
The scene should be charming, but instead Elise finds it creepy. The recording of the voice, the misfit animals.
She backs away from the building. It’s windy. Her face and neck are cold and her feet ache. Still, for the first time in months, she feels grateful to be alive.
As she’s falling asleep that night, Elise thinks of Doug Heffernan, walking into his kitchen and finding, unexpectedly, a chocolate cake.