From the Umberplatzen

From The Umberplatzen: A Love Story by Susan Tepper is a remarkable book composed as a series of dispatches from the front that are not only about love but also about loss and the treacherous shoals of memory.  It may be slim, but this novella’s emotional aftermath expands outward long after the final page is turned. Written as a series of linked flash pieces set in page-long chapters, this unique compilation is structured in a way that delights and surprises. From every angle, syntactically and visually, from the ongoing conceit of the female protagonists’ memories taking form as she opens her abandoned lover’s mailed objects of almost obsessive desire, to even the punctuation choices, add to the overall gestalt, making this little gem a wonderfully realized whole. The love here is a bittersweet one, colored by the protagonist’s inner struggle with commitment and both character’s inability to honestly articulate their feelings to one another. This book is like a table full of delicate appetizers, each one more delicious than the last.
Syntactically, Tepper creates a tumbling, headlong rush of ideas and images through the use of short, declarative sentences used by the narrator as she recounts her relationship with the mysterious M in a series of flashbacks. A wife who had abandoned her husband and fled to Germany from the US, Kitty Kat had begun a two year affair with “M.”  We don’t know anything about Kitty Kat’s career other than that she has one, though we do learn that M has been a respected physicist and professor who has been married before.
As the book opens, Kitty Kat has already left M and returned to the states. We learn more about M’s interior thoughts and the depth of his feelings for Kitty Kat from the letters and mementos he sends through the mail after she has left him. These long distance reminders expose the depth of M’s loss, and they also reflect his desperation to win Kitty Kat back through their revelation of hitherto hidden aspects of his private self.  His sent mementos come clean about his feelings in ways he had balked at when they were physically together.
It becomes clear to readers during the journey through these short vignettes that M had much more invested in the relationship than Kitty Kat ever had: “No at home we have birds that fly away…”  Kitty Kat says to M as they cut through the Umberplatzen during a snow shower.  He replies to her, teary-eyed, “Here is home” (31), clearly wanting her to want to stay in Germany, fearing her talk of “home” signifies only a temporary sojourn until she can really go “home” and start a new life alone. This trope is repeated in another chapter, solidifying the idea that for Kitty Kat, living in Germany is temporary.
Each tiny story, told from Kitty Kat’s point of view, has its own title, “Leaves,” “Lock of Hair,” “Waterfalls,” indicating both the chapter’s content and also that it is capable of standing alone as an individual flash story, but as one reads through the book, it becomes clear that these stories compliment one another, that their themes entwine like the bodies of the lovers they reveal, that the whole becomes greater than its parts. The chapters are set up similarly in that each begins with Kitty Kat’s recounting of an experience she and M once shared, but it soon becomes apparent that she may be remembering the experience as a result of a letter or trinket she holds in her hand sent that day by M to remind her of their life as lovers.
The first entry, “Leaves,” offers readers some exposition.  Kitty Kat (whose real name, like M’s, we never learn) is back in the US. She had been in Germany, in flight from her ex, but she has now left M to come back home.  In the present, she has not returned to her ex husband, and it appears she is living alone. In each flash chapter, a sentence or two functions symbolically to imply something about the state of the relationship, past or present, between Kitty Kat and M.  In “Leaves,” the protagonist says of some Umberplatzen leaves M has sent her through the mail that the leaves themselves have “…dried into almost total powder. A few veins remain but that’s about it,” (3) symbolizing the current nature of their relationship–A few ties remain, but the vibrancy of the affair is gone, at least for Kitty Kat.  In this chapter, readers also get a sense of M’s desire to control Kitty Kat in a section that flashes back to their relationship when he has shoved a peanut butter sandwich into her face, then tells her to “…smile for real.”
It is not until readers reach the sixth entry, “Birds,” that they learn M’s nickname for his lover is Kitty Kat. The use of this diminutive, and a dehumanizing one at that, makes the narrator at first seem the weaker partner in the relationship, but by the conclusion, we realize the chosen name says more about M’s insecurities and desire for control than it does about the psychological strength of Kitty Kat.  We sense she prefers the non-name, that it is a choice made from strength, that she is a woman shedding her past and disappearing for a time in order to decide who she wants to become.
In all her stories, Tepper is a master of the perfect final sentence as well as in crafting dead-on dialogue, and these flash pieces are no exception.  Final lines either startle or completely clarify ideas for the reader in many of these stories. The dialogue is written in such a way that there are no question marks or other punctuation other than a period here and there to make the reader pause, and there are also no paragraph breaks, creating a sort of breathlessness that mimics the emotional exhilaration of a love affair in its beginning stages, an argument, or interior musings that flow swiftly from one idea to another.
Sentence fragments pepper the book as well to heighten the verisimilitude of the characters’ recounted dialogue and interactions: “When I sell my flat I will buy Capri. All of it he said. Well naturally. How will I know where to find you said M. You could be in any one of hundreds of villas. Look for the prettiest one. With the best sea views.  He sends me a postcard of Capri. We can still do this it says in M’s familiar hand” (33). Switches from past scenes to the present are startling but feel right, as the narrator Kitty Kat is the only speaker, (and a deliciously unreliable one at that).
A repetition of physical details here and there throughout the stories is one of the strengths of the book.  It’s almost like the reader is on a treasure hunt and finds familiar objects sprinkled throughout the stories, like M’s kites, a Roman Wall, and especially, the Umberplatzen itself  with all its literal and figurative meanings for the couple. The neologism Umberplatzen is both a symbol of Kitty Kat’s resourcefulness, (she can’t pronounce the correct German name for the trees in the park that are the central locus of the story, so she makes up a name), and the word also suggests her vulnerability as a stranger in a strange land where the culture and the people are unfamiliar to her.  The word takes on symbolic resonance as the linked chapters progress, and the word Umberplatzen is used in some context in nearly every story. There are Umberplatzen trees, a forest of Umberplatzen, and the park itself is referred to by the narrator as The Umberplatzen.  The word serves as a touchstone for the reader, as it appears in all but one chapter and may imply the stories will wrap up with a satisfying denouement, but Tepper is too savvy a writer to give us a nice make-up kiss between the characters beneath the Umberplatzen leaves at the conclusion.  We must come to our own conclusions at the finish as to what lies ahead for these separated lovers and whether their affair is fated to resume or has ended forever.
The book is set in an old-fashioned, Olivetti typewriter-style font that adds to the reader’s sense that these flashbacks of the love affair are almost like dispatches from the front of a long-ago, but not forgotten, war of wills.  The type also adds to the idea that the characters are presently somehow ghosts of their former selves, fragile in their dealings with one another over a vast distance that is both physical and metaphysical. The look of the type on the page is pleasing and reminiscent of a style ex-pat writers in Europe during the 1920’s and 30’s might have used.
Though the protagonist in From The Umberplatzen is named Kitty Kat, by the final stories, readers know she is clearly not a docile, housebound creature, but independent and her own person, which adds interest and tension to the interactions between M and her. Readers slowly begin to understand the power dynamics between the two lovers through the series of letters and packages sent by a lonely and much more open M in the here and now and through the memories kindled as a result of these gifts he sends Kitty Kat.
M seems to be offering the whole truth that once lay hidden beneath their old conversations, something he typically avoided or obscured when they were together.  He seems to be desperate to show her he’s changed and to persuade her to return to him. But his gifts aren’t all sweetness and light.  His frustration and anger become clear through some of the objects he sends her.  For example, one day he sends her a garter and writes “{w}ear this when you’re with another man…” (39).  Another day, he sends her a box of confetti that she says “looks so lonely” as an apology for refusing to take her to a party on their first New Year’s eve as lovers.  He is telling her through these mementos that he remembers everything about their relationship, every conversation, even when she thought he wasn’t paying attention.  These mailings are M’s last effort to try to salvage a relationship he desires, and has always desired, much more than Kitty Kat ever has.
By Tepper’s final story, “Grafted,” readers can conclude that even though M tried to be the dominant partner in the relationship with his bluster, philosophical tendencies, and brilliance, Kitty Kat has somehow managed to slip from this relationship intact and seems to be heading into a future that does not include Germany or M.  I couldn’t help but feel sorry for poor, doomed M, he of the softer heart who now cannot look away, even though at the beginning he probably never saw her coming.
From the Umberplatzen: A Love Story

by Susan Tepper
Wilderness House Press
ISBN 978-0-9827115-4-5, 56 pages

Off the Beaten Path

Father Unick makes love to Dick’s elegy from the stone pulpit. Prayers for the dead man are decanted like sacrificial wine. We four, three exes and one current, perch quietly, past beatings undetected, broken bones healed, elation unnoticed by the well-dressed mourners. For better or worse, we gaze through Unick, having exhausted our year-long discussion of the power of latent anger, the solutions we could have chosen. A heady idea, these choices one can make.

We could have been pulp. Buried. Compost. Maybe there in that wood. Instead, the bastard’s life was over before he could throw another punch. The arrow exploded skin. Eve’s always been a fine shot, and Sally and Dick’s final hunting trip a brilliant strategy. Flaps of bloody belly hung through Dick’s torn camo. Birds startled as the weapon whistled its Darwinian intent through air followed closely by odd, woman-sounding whoops that echoed over the deserted hunting ground. Dick toppled to the loess, a goon unfit for survival. Drool wet his chins as a great, mortal roar beat the blood-misted air.

Ex-wives and widow, we congregate. Diddle our rosaries. Spit-shine the twenty-third psalm through Altoid-scented breath. Afterward, other people’s tongues move thickly with, “terrible accident.” and “Yes, just awful.” Our Oakley’s shade glances that compare old bruises. Practiced deceit directs our muscles in bodies freed of torment by Eve’s deeply planted barb. We pat people’s hands, wipe away tears.

Later, as one, we empty Dick’s urn over the waterside cliff. Back at the church, Father Unick counts Dick’s money– his lucrative cameo concluded. Sally, Dick’s last punching bag, has access to the accounts. We share a final chance to fondle, sift through Dick’s ashes for bits of bone and toss them into the sea. Broken pieces of charred fist sink to lie on beds of sand. Our smooth worry stones are cast after them. Stepping over old scars on the path, we lock arms and head toward a smoky single malt.

First published at A-Minor in 2012: Nominated for Best of the Net.


We linger in the vague, blue hum of another summer. The sudden plummet from the middle dulls our senses and bends our spines closer toward some final ground. Bad decisions, mistakes, hard luck: scar tissue tightens in welts beneath the flesh in wishbone arcs. Deep wounds are always palpable, and blood sport rarely passes without lingering pain. Sparrows dive from the eaves, their love cries filter through the shuttered windows to disturb the white webs we’ve spun like shrouds around our skulls.

In the night kitchen, we pass in silence as televisions flicker, ghostly in the empty rooms beyond. Each morning breaks its fingers against the granite of our prison; no light enters here. Leaves hang from red oaks, quiver in surrender, a dusty patina settles over each moisture-starved vein. Tendons curl inward on themselves, and still the cleansing rain denies us relief. Yellow weeds choke garden space. There will be weeds next year, too.

We scavenge for crumbs in a world that rejects us, subsist side-by-side in a house of separation, crouch over screens in dark rooms, painting our pain into cartoon frameworks. Our lips recoil from touch. Tongues lie flat and silent through the hours. Necessary words flutter and fall like broken wings from our mouths. Unspoken, words like touch and kiss and love lie trapped between the curving bone while barbed words catch and pull at the air to carve more space between us.

Each blue grows muted within these walls, while outside, a red desert descends. The arm of a flagpole furls no flag, a dog run is undogged, a man buys a country, his currency the face of fear, another buys an arsenal to camouflage his impotence.

A June bug struggles on its back, its legs wave, frantic to climb the ladder of sun. A small boy tilts a magnifying glass over its fumbling trunk, his face passive in the numbness of this mossy age. The bronze carapace cracks and bubbles beneath the glitter that beams from his unforgiving hand. Lips spread in a death’s-head grin, the boy wanders off to seek another game to play.

A windlass creaks over a half empty well, its water wafts a lonely, brackish smell. I finger the pennies singing in my pocket. I close my eyes. I toss them in.

First published at Pithead Chapel, 2012: