I’ve been summoned
. Thursday, at ten sharp.
Lately I’m being summoned more and more often: ten sharp
on Tuesday, ten sharp on Saturday, on Wednesday, Monday. As
if years were a week, I’m amazed that winter comes so close on
the heels of late summer.
On my way to the tram stop, I again pass the shrubs with the
white berries dangling through the fences. Like buttons made
of mother-of-pearl and sewn from underneath, or stitched right
down into the earth, or else like bread pellets. They remind me
of a flock of little white-tufted birds turning away their beaks,
but they’re really far too small for birds. It’s enough to make
you giddy. I’d rather think of snow sprinkled on the grass, but
that leaves you feeling lost, and the thought of chalk makes you
The tram doesn’t run on a fixed schedule.
It does seem to rustle, at least to my ear, unless those are
the stiff leaves of the poplars I’m hearing. Here it is, already
pulling up to the stop: today it seems in a hurry to take me
away. I’ve decided to let the old man in the straw hat get on
ahead of me. He was already waiting when I arrived—who
knows how long he’d been there. You couldn’t exactly call him
frail, but he’s hunchbacked and weary, and as skinny as his own
shadow. His backside is so slight it doesn’t even fill the seat of
his pants, he has no hips, and the only bulges in his trousers are
the bags around his knees. But if he’s going to go and spit,
right now, just as the door is folding open, I’ll get on before
he does, regardless. The car is practically empty; he gives the
vacant seats a quick scan and decides to stand. It’s amazing how
old people like him don’t get tired, that they don’t save their
standing for places where they can’t sit. Now and then you hear
old people say: There’ll be plenty of time for lying down once
I’m in my coffin. But death is the last thing on their minds, and
they’re quite right. Death never has followed any particular
pattern. Young people die too. I always sit if I have a choice.
Riding in a seat is like walking while you’re sitting down. The
old man is looking me over; I can sense it right away inside the
empty car. I’m not in the mood to talk, though, or else I’d ask
him what he’s gaping at. He couldn’t care less that his staring
annoys me. Meanwhile half the city is going by outside the
window, trees alternating with buildings. They say old people
like him can sense things better than young people. Old people
might even sense that today I’m carrying a small towel, a toothbrush,
and some toothpaste in my handbag. And no handkerchief,
since I’m determined not to cry. Paul didn’t realize how
terrified I was that today Albu might take me down to the cell
below his office. I didn’t bring it up. If that happens, he’ll find
out soon enough. The tram is moving slowly. The band on the
old man’s straw hat is stained, probably with sweat, or else the
rain. As always, Albu will slobber a kiss on my hand by way of
greeting. Major Albu lifts
my hand by the fingertips, squeezing my nails
so hard I could scream. He presses one wet lip to my fingers, so
he can keep the other free to speak. He always kisses my hand
the exact same way, but what he says is always different:
Well well, your eyes look awfully red today.
I think you’ve got a mustache coming. A little young for
that, aren’t you.
My, but your little hand is cold as ice today—hope there’s
nothing wrong with your circulation.
Uh-oh, your gums are receding. You’re beginning to look
like your own grandmother.
My grandmother didn’t live to grow old, I say. She never
had time to lose her teeth. Albu knows all about my grandmother’s
teeth, which is why he’s bringing them up.
As a woman, I know how I look on any given day. I also
know that a kiss on the hand shouldn’t hurt, that it shouldn’t
feel wet, that it should be delivered to the back of the hand.
The art of hand kissing is something men know even better
than women—and Albu is hardly an exception. His entire head
reeks of Avril, a French eau de toilette that my father-in-law,
the Perfumed Commissar, used to wear too. Nobody else I
know would buy it. A bottle on the black market costs more
than a suit in a store. Maybe it’s called Septembre, I’m not sure,
but there’s no mistaking that acrid, smoky smell of burning
Once I’m sitting at the small table, Albu notices me rubbing
my fingers on my skirt, not only to get the feeling back
into them but also to wipe the saliva off. He fiddles with his
signet ring and smirks. Let him: it’s easy enough to wipe off
somebody’s spit; it isn’t poisonous, and it dries up all by itself.
It’s something everybody has. Some people spit on the pavement,
then rub it in with their shoe since it’s not polite to spit,
not even on the pavement. Certainly Albu isn’t one to spit on
the pavement—not in town, anyway, where no one knows who
he is and where he acts the refined gentleman. My nails hurt,
but he’s never squeezed them so hard my fingers turned blue.
Eventually they’ll thaw out, the way they do when it’s freezing
cold and you come into the warm. The worst thing is this feeling
that my brain is slipping down into my face. It’s humiliating,
there’s no other word for it, when your whole body feels
like it’s barefoot. But what if there aren’t any words at all, what
if even the best word isn’t enough. I’ve been listening
to the alarm clock since three in the morning
ticking ten sharp, ten sharp, ten sharp. Whenever Paul is
asleep, he kicks his leg from one side of the bed to the other and
then recoils so fast he startles himself, although he doesn’t wake
up. It’s become a habit with him. No more sleep for me. I lie
there awake, and I know I need to close my eyes if I’m going
back to sleep, but I don’t close them. I’ve frequently forgotten
how to sleep, and have had to relearn each time. It’s either
extremely easy or utterly impossible. In the early hours just
before dawn, every creature on earth is asleep: even dogs and
cats only use half the night for prowling around the dumpsters.
If you’re sure you can’t sleep anyway, it’s easier to think of
something bright inside the darkness than to simply shut your
eyes in vain. Snow, whitewashed tree trunks, white-walled
rooms, vast expanses of sand—that’s what I’ve thought of to
pass the time, more often than I would have liked, until it grew
light. This morning I could have thought about sunflowers,
and I did, but they weren’t enough to dislodge the summons.
And with the alarm clock ticking ten sharp, ten sharp, ten
sharp, my thoughts raced to Major Albu even before they
shifted to me and Paul. Today I was already awake when Paul
started thrashing in his sleep. By the time the window started
turning gray, I had already seen Albu’s mouth looming on the
ceiling, gigantic, the pink tip of his tongue tucked behind his
lower teeth, and I had heard his sneering voice:
Don’t tell me you’re losing your nerve already—we’re just
Paul’s kicking wakes me only when I haven’t been summoned
for two or three weeks. Then I feel happy, since it means
I’ve learned how to sleep again.
Whenever I’ve relearned how to sleep, and I ask Paul in the
morning what he was dreaming, he can’t remember anything.
I show him how he tosses about and splays his toes, and then
how he jerks his legs back and crooks his toes. Moving a chair
from the table to the middle of the kitchen, I sit down, stick
my legs in the air, and demonstrate the whole procedure. It
makes Paul laugh, and I say:
You’re laughing at yourself.
Who knows, maybe I dreamed I was taking you for a ride on
His thrashing is like a forward charge disrupted by an
immediate call to retreat. I presume it comes from drinking.
Not that I say this to him. Nor do I explain that it’s the night
drawing the shakes out of his legs. That’s what it must be—the
night, seizing him by the knees and tugging at the shakes,
pulling them down through his toes into the pitch-black room,
and finally tossing them out into the blackness of the street
below, in the early hours just before daybreak, when the whole
city is slumbering away. Otherwise Paul wouldn’t be able to
stand up straight when he woke. But if night wrenches the
shakes out of every drunk in the city, it must be tanked up to
high heaven come morning, given the number of drinkers.
Just after four, the trucks begin delivering goods to the row
of shops down below. They completely shatter the silence,
making a huge racket for the little they deliver: a few crates of
bread, milk, and vegetables, and large quantities of plum brandy.
Whenever the food runs out, the women and children manage
to cope: the lines disperse, and all roads lead home. But when
the brandy runs out, the men curse their lot and pull out their
knives. The salespeople say things to calm them down, but that
only works while the customers are still inside the store. The
moment they’re out the door they continue prowling the city
on their quest. The first fights break out because they can’t find
any brandy, and later because they’re stone drunk.
The brandy comes from the hilly region between the
Carpathians and the arid plains. The plum trees there are so
dense you can barely make out the tiny villages hiding in their
branches. Whole forests of plum trees, drenched with blue in
late summer, the branches sagging with the weight of the fruit.
The brandy is named after the region, but nobody calls it by its
proper name. It doesn’t really even need a name, since there’s
only one brand in the whole country. People just call it Two
Plums, from the picture on the label. Those two plums leaning
cheek to cheek are as familiar to the men as the Madonna and
Child are to the women. People say the plums represent the
love between bottle and drinker. The way I see it, those cheekto-
cheek plums look more like a wedding picture than a
Madonna and Child. None of the pictures in church shows the
Child’s head level with his mother’s. The Child’s forehead is
always resting against the Virgin’s cheek, with his own cheek at
her neck, and his chin on her breast. Moreover, the relationship
between drinkers and bottles is more like the one between the
couples in wedding pictures: they bring each other to ruin, and
still they won’t let go.
In our wedding picture, I’m not carrying flowers and I’m
not wearing a veil. The love in my eyes is gleaming new, but
the truth is, it was my second wedding. The picture shows Paul
and me standing cheek to cheek like two plums. Ever since he
started drinking so much, our wedding picture has proven
prophetic. Whenever Paul’s out on the town, barhopping late
into the night, I’m afraid he’ll never come home again, and I
stare at our wedding picture until it starts to change shape.
When that happens our two faces start to swim, and our cheeks
shift around so that a little bit of space opens up between them.
Mostly it is Paul’s cheek that swims away from mine, as if he
were planning to come home late. But he does come home. He
always has, even after the accident.
Occasionally a shipment of buffalo-grass vodka comes in
from Poland—yellowish and bittersweet. That gets sold first.
Each bottle contains a long, sodden stem that quivers as you
pour the vodka but never buckles or slips out of the bottle.
That stem sticks in its bottle just like your soul sticks in
your body, that’s how the grass protects your soul.
Their belief goes together with the burning taste in your
mouth and the roaring drunk inside your head. The drinkers
open the bottle, the liquid glugs into their glasses, and the first
swallow slides down their throats. The soul begins to feel protected;
it quivers but never buckles and never slips out of the
body. Paul keeps his soul protected too; there’s never a day
where he feels like giving up and packing it all in. Maybe
things would be fine if it weren’t for me, but we like being
together. The drink takes his day, and the night takes his drunkenness.
When I worked the early morning shift at the clothing
factory, I heard the workers say: With a sewing machine, you
oil the cogs, with a human machine, you oil the throat.
Back then Paul and I used to take his motorcycle to work
every morning at five on the dot. We’d see the drivers with
their delivery trucks parked outside the stores, the porters carrying
crates, the vendors, and the moon. Now all I hear is the
noise; I don’t go to the window, and I don’t look at the moon. I
remember that it looks like a goose egg, and that it leaves the
city on one side of the sky while the sun comes up at the other.
Nothing’s changed there; that’s how it was even before I knew
Paul, when I used to walk to the tram stop on foot. On the way
I thought: How bizarre that something so beautiful could be
up in the sky, with no law down here on earth forbidding
people to look at it. Evidently it was permissible to wangle
something out of the day before it was ruined in the factory. I
would start to freeze, not because I was underdressed, but simply
because I couldn’t get enough of the moon. At that hour
the moon is almost entirely eaten away; it doesn’t know where
to go after reaching the city. The sky has to loosen its grip on
the earth as day begins to break. The streets run steeply up and
down, and the streetcars travel back and forth like rooms ablaze
I know the trams from the inside too. The people getting on
at this early hour wear short sleeves, carry worn leather bags,
and have goose pimples on both arms. Each newcomer is
measured and judged with a casual glance. This is a strictly
working-class affair. Better people take their cars to work. But
here, among your own, you make comparisons: that person’s
better off than me, that one looks worse. No one’s ever in the
exact same boat as you—that would be impossible. There’s not
much time, we’re almost at the factories, and now all the people
who’ve been sized up leave the tram, one after the other. Shoes
polished or dusty, heels new and straight or worn down to an
angle, collars freshly ironed or crumpled, hair parted or not,
fingernails, watchstraps, belt buckles: every single detail provokes
envy or contempt. Nothing escapes this sleepy scrutiny,
even in the pushing crowd. The working class ferrets out the
differences: in the cold light of morning there is no equality.
The sun is in the streetcar, along for the ride, and outside as
well, pulling back the white and red clouds in anticipation of
the scorching midday heat. No one is wearing a jacket: the freezing
cold in the morning counts as fresh air, because with noon
will come the clogging dust and infernal heat.
If I haven’t been summoned, we can sleep in for several
hours. Daytime sleep is not deep black; it’s shallow and yellow.
Our sleep is restless, the sunlight falls on our pillows. But it
does make the day a little shorter. We’ll be under observation
soon enough; the day’s not going to run away. They can always
accuse us of something, even if we sleep till nearly noon. As it
is, we’re always being accused of something we can no longer
do anything about. You can sleep all you want, but the day’s
still out there waiting, and a bed is not another country. They
won’t let us rest till we’re lying next to Lilli.
Of course Paul also has to sleep off his drunk. It takes him
until about noon to get his head square on his shoulders and
relocate his mouth so he can actually speak and not just slur his
words in a voice thick with drink. His breath still smells,
though, and when he steps into the kitchen I feel as if I were
passing the open door of the bar downstairs. Since spring,
drinking hours have been regulated, and consumption of liquor
is prohibited before eleven. But the bar still opens at
six—brandy is served in coffee cups before eleven; after that
they bring out the glasses.
Paul drinks and is no longer himself, then he sleeps it off
and is back to being himself. Around noon it looks as if everything
could turn out all right, but once again it turns out
ruined. Paul goes on protecting his soul until the buffalo grass
is high and dry, while I brood over who he and I really are until
I can no longer think straight. At lunchtime we’re sitting at
the kitchen table, and any mention of his having been drunk
yesterday is the wrong thing to say. Even so, I occasionally toss
out a word or two:
Drink won’t change a thing.
Why are you making my life so difficult.
You could paint this entire kitchen with what you put away
True, the flat is small, and I don’t want to avoid Paul; but
when we stay at home, we spend too much of the day sitting in
the kitchen. By mid-afternoon he’s already drunk, and in the
evening it gets worse. I put off talking because it makes him
grumpy. I keep waiting through the night, until he’s sober
again and sitting in the kitchen with eyes like onions. But then
whatever I say goes right past him. I’d like for Paul to admit
I’m right, just for once. But drinkers never admit anything, not
even silently to themselves—and they’re not about to let anyone
else squeeze it out of them, especially somebody who’s
waiting to hear the admission. The minute Paul wakes up, his
thoughts turn to drinking, though he denies it. That’s why
there’s never any truth. If he’s not sitting silently at the table,
letting my words go right past him, he says something like
this, meant to last the entire day:
Don’t fret, I’m not drinking out of desperation. I drink
because I like it.
That may be the case, I say, since you seem to think with
Paul looks out the kitchen window at the sky, or into his
cup. He dabs at the drops of coffee on the table, as if to confirm
that they’re wet and really will spread if he smears them with a
finger. He takes my hand, I look out the kitchen window at the
sky, into the cup, I too dab at the odd drop of coffee on the
table. The red enamel tin stares at us and I stare back. But Paul
does not, because that would mean doing something different
today from what he did yesterday. Is he being strong or weak
when he remains silent instead of saying for once: I’m not
going to drink today. Yesterday Paul again said:
Don’t you fret, your man drinks because he likes it.
His legs carried him down the hall—at once too heavy and
too light—as if they contained a mix of sand and air. I placed
my hand upon his neck and stroked the stubble I love to touch
in the mornings, the whiskers that grow in his sleep. He drew
my hand up under his eye, it slid down his cheek to his chin. I
didn’t take away my fingers, but I did think to myself:
I wouldn’t count on any of this cheek-to-cheek business
after you’ve seen that picture of the two plums.
I like to hear Paul talk that way, so late in the morning, and
yet I don’t like it either.Whenever I take a step away from him,
he nudges his love up to me, so naked, so close that he doesn’t
need to say anything else. He doesn’t have to wait, I’m ready
with my approval, not a single reproach on the tip of my
tongue. The one in my head quickly fades. It’s good I can’t see
myself, since my face feels stupid and pale. Yesterday morning,
Paul’s hangover once again yielded up an unexpected pussycat
gentleness that came padding on soft paws. Your man
people who talk like that have shallow wits and too much pride
tucked around the corners of their mouths. Although the
noontime tenderness paves the way for the evening’s drinking,
I depend on it, and I don’t like the way I need it.
Major Albu says: I can see what you’re thinking, there’s no
point in denying it, we’re just wasting time. Actually, it’s only
my time being wasted; after all, he’s doing his job. He rolls up
his sleeve and glances at the clock. The time is easy to see, but
not what I’m thinking. If Paul can’t see what I’m thinking,
then certainly this man can’t.
Paul sleeps next to the wall, while my place is toward the
front edge of the bed, since I’m often unable to sleep. Still,
whenever he wakes up he says:
You were taking up the whole bed and shoved me right up
against the wall.
To which I reply:
No way, I was on this little strip here no wider than a
clothesline, you were the one taking up the middle.
One of us could sleep in the bed and the other on the sofa.
We’ve tried it. For two nights we took turns. Both nights I did
nothing but toss around. My brain was grinding down thought
after thought, and toward morning, when I was half asleep, I
had a series of bad dreams. Two nights of bad dreams that kept
reaching out and clutching at me all day long. The night I was
on the sofa, my first husband put the suitcase on the bridge
over the river, gripped me by the back of my neck, and roared
with laughter. Then he looked at the water and whistled that
song about love falling apart and the river water turning black
as ink. The water in my dream was not like ink, I could see it,
and in the water I saw his face, turned upside down and peering
up from the depths, from where the pebbles had settled.
Then a white horse ate apricots in a thicket of trees.With every
apricot it raised its head and spat out the stone like a human
being. And the night I had the bed to myself, someone grabbed
my shoulder from behind and said:
Don’t turn around, I’m not here.
Without moving my head, I just squinted out of the corners
of my eyes. Lilli’s fingers were gripping me, her voice was that
of a man, so it wasn’t her. I raised my hand to touch her and the
What you can’t see you can’t touch.
I saw the fingers, they were hers, but someone else was using
them. Someone I couldn’t see. And in the next dream, my
grandfather was pruning back a hydrangea that had been frostburnt
by the snow. He called me over: Come take a look, I’ve
got a lamb here.
Snow was falling on his trousers, his shears were clipping off
the heads of the frost-browned flowers. I said:
That’s not a lamb.
It’s not a person, either, he said.
His fingers were numb and he could only open and close the
shears slowly, so that I wasn’t sure whether it was the shears
that were squeaking or his hand. I tossed the shears into the
snow. They sank in so that it was impossible to tell where they
had fallen. He combed the entire yard looking for them, his
nose practically touching the snow. When he reached the garden
gate I stepped on his hands so he’d look up and not go wandering
off through the gate, searching the whole white street. I
Stop it, the lamb’s frozen and the wool got burnt in the
By the garden fence was another hydrangea, one that had
been pruned bare. I gestured to it:
What’s wrong with that one.
That one’s the worst, he said. Come spring it’ll be having
little ones. We can’t have that.
The morning after the second night, Paul said:
If we’re in each other’s way, at least it means we each have
someone. The only place you sleep alone is in your coffin, and
that’ll happen soon enough. We should stay together at night.
Who knows the dreams he had and promptly forgot.
He was talking about sleeping, however, not dreaming. At
half past four in the morning I saw Paul asleep in the gray
light, a twisted face above a double chin. And at that early
hour, down by the shops, people were cursing out loud and
laughing. Lilli said:
Curses ward off evil spirits.
Idiot, get your foot out of the way.Move, or do you have shit
in your shoes. Open those great flapping ears of yours and
you’ll hear what I’m saying, but watch you don’t blow away in
this wind. Never mind your hair, we haven’t finished unloading.
A woman was clucking, short and hoarse like a hen. A van
door slammed. Lend a hand, you moron. If you want a rest you
should check into a sanatorium.
Paul’s clothes were strewn on the floor. The new day was
already in the wardrobe mirror, the day on which I have been
summoned, today. I got up, careful to place my right foot on
the floor before my left, as I always do when I’ve been summoned.
I can’t say for sure I really believe in it, but how could
What I’d like to know is whether other people’s brains control
their good fortune as well as their thoughts. My brain’s
only good for a little fortune. It’s not up to shaping a whole life.
At least not mine. I’ve already come to terms with what fortune
I have, even though Paul wouldn’t consider it very good at all.
Every other day or so I declare:
I’m doing just fine.
Paul’s face is right in front of me, quiet and still, gaping at
what I’ve just said, as if our having each other didn’t count. He
You feel fine because you’ve forgotten what that means for
Others might mean their life as a whole when they say: I’m
doing just fine. All I’m talking about is my good fortune. Paul
realizes that life is something I haven’t come to terms with—
and I don’t simply mean I haven’t done so yet, that it’s only a
matter of time.
Just look at us, says Paul, how can you go on about being
Quick as a handful of flour hitting a windowpane, the bathroom
light cast a face into the mirror, a face with froggy creases
over its eyes which looked like me. I held my hands in the
water, it felt warm; on my face it felt cold. Brushing my teeth,
I look up and see toothpaste come frothing out of my eyes—it’s
not the first time I’ve had this happen. I feel nauseous, I spit
out what’s in my mouth and stop. Ever since my first summons,
I’ve begun to distinguish between life and fortune. When I go
in for questioning, I have no choice but to leave my good fortune
at home. I leave it in Paul’s face, around his eyes, his
mouth, amid his stubble. If it could be seen, you’d see it on his
face like a transparent glaze. Every time I have to go, I want to
stay behind in the flat, like the fear I always leave behind and
which I can’t take away from Paul. Like the fortune I leave at
home when I’m away. He doesn’t know how much my good
fortune has come to rely upon his fear. He couldn’t bear to
know that.What he does know is obvious to anyone with eyes:
that whenever I’ve been summoned, I put on my green blouse
and eat a walnut. The blouse is one I inherited from Lilli, but
its name comes from me: the blouse that grows. If I were to
take my good fortune with me, it would weaken my nerves.
You don’t mean you’re losing your nerve already—we’re
just warming up.
I’m not losing my nerve, not at all: in fact, I’m overloaded
with nerves. And every one of them is humming like a moving
They say that walnuts on an empty stomach are good for
your nerves and your powers of reason. Any child knows that,
but I’d forgotten it. What sparked my memory wasn’t the fact
that I was being summoned so often—it was sheer chance. One
time I had to be at Albu’s at ten sharp, like today; by half past
seven I was all set to go. Getting there takes an hour and a half
at most. I give myself two hours, and if I’m early I walk a while
around the neighborhood. I prefer it that way. I’ve always
arrived on time: I can’t imagine they’d put up with any lateness.
It was because I was all set to go by half past seven that I got
to eat the walnut. I’d been ready that early for previous summonses,
but on that particular morning the walnut was lying
there on the kitchen table. Paul had found it in the elevator the
day before. He’d put it in his pocket, since you don’t just leave
a walnut sitting there. It was the first one of the year, with a
little of the moist fuzz left from the green husk. I weighed it in
my hand: it seemed a little light for a good fresh nut, as if it
might be hollow. I couldn’t find a hammer, so I split it open
with the stone that used to be in the hall but has since moved
to a corner of the kitchen. The brain of the nut was loose inside.
It tasted of sour cream. That day my interrogation was shorter
than usual, I kept my nerve, and once I was back on the street,
I thought to myself:
That was thanks to the nut.
Ever since then I’ve believed in nuts, that nuts help. I don’t
really believe it, but I want to have done whatever I can that
might help. That’s why I stick to my stone for cracking nuts,
and always do it in the morning. Once the nut’s been cracked,
it loses its power if it lies open overnight. Of course it would be
easier on Paul and the neighbors—not to mention myself—if I
split them open in the evening, but I can’t have people telling
me what time to crack nuts.
I brought the stone from the Carpathians. My first husband
had been on military service since March. Every week he wrote
me a whining letter and I responded with a comforting card.
Summer came, and I tried to figure out exactly how many letters
and cards we would have to exchange before he returned.
My father-in-law wanted to take his place and sleep with me, so
I soon had enough of his house and garden. I packed my rucksack
and early one morning, after he’d gone to work, I stashed
it in the bushes near a gap in the fence. A few hours later I
strolled out to the road, with nothing in my hands.My motherin-
law was hanging out the laundry and had no idea what I was
up to. Without saying a word, I pushed the rucksack through
the gap in the fence and walked to the station. I took a train
into the mountains and joined up with some people who’d just
graduated from the music academy. Every day we trekked and
stumbled from one glacial lake to the next until it grew dark.
Each shoreline was marked by wooden crosses set in the rocks,
bearing the dates on which people had drowned. Cemeteries
underwater and crosses all around—portents of dangerous
times to come. As if all those round lakes were hungry and
needed their yearly ration of meat delivered on the dates
inscribed. Here no one dived for the dead: the water would
snuff out life in an instant, chilling you to the bone in a matter
of seconds. The music graduates sang as the lake pictured
them, upside down, taking their measure as potential corpses.
Hiking, resting, or eating, they sang in chorus. It wouldn’t
have surprised me to hear them harmonize while they slept at
night, just as they did at those bleak altitudes where the sky
blows into your mouth. I had to stay with the group because
death makes no allowance for the wanderer who strays alone.
The lakes made our eyes grow bigger by the day; in every face
I could see the circles widening, the cheeks losing ground. And
every day our legs grew shorter. Nevertheless, on the last day I
wanted to take something back home with me, so I picked
through the scree until I found a rock that looked like a child’s
foot. The musicians looked for small flat pebbles they could rub
in their hands as worry-stones. Their stones looked like coat
buttons, and I had more than enough of those every day in the
factory. But those musicians put their faith in worry-stones the
way I now put mine in nuts.
I can’t help it: I’ve put on the blouse that grows, I bang
twice with the stone, rattling all the dishes in the kitchen, and
the walnut is cracked. And as I’m eating it, Paul comes in, startled
by the banging. He’s wearing his pajamas and downs one
or two glasses of water, two if he was as blind drunk as he was
last night. I don’t need to understand each individual word. I
know perfectly well what he says while drinking water:
You don’t really believe that nut helps, do you.
Of course I don’t really believe it, just as I don’t really
believe in all the other routines I’ve developed. Consequently
I’m all the more stubborn.
Let me believe what I want.
Paul lets that one go, since we both know it’s not right to
quarrel before the interrogation, you need to keep a clear head.
Most of the sessions are torturously long despite the nut. But
how do I know they wouldn’t be worse if I didn’t eat the nut?
Paul doesn’t realize that the more he pooh-poohs all my routines,
with that wet mouth of his and the glass he’s draining
before clearing it off the table, the more I rely on them.
People who are summoned develop routines that help them
out a little.Whether these routines really work or not is beside
the point. It’s not people, though, it’s me who’s developed
them; they came sneaking up on me, one by one.
The things you waste your time on.
What he does, instead, is consider what questions they’ll
ask me when I’m summoned. This is absolutely necessary, he
claims, whereas what I do is crazy. He’d be right if the questions
he’s preparing me for really were the ones I was asked. Up
to now they’ve always been completely different.
It’s too much to expect my routines to really help me. Actually
they don’t help me so much as help move life along from
one day to the next. There’s no point expecting them to fill
your head with lucky thoughts. There’s a lot to be said for moving
life along, but there’s essentially nothing to say when it
comes to luck, because as soon as you open your mouth you jinx
it away. Not even the luck you’ve missed out on can bear being
talked about. The routines I’ve developed are about moving
from one day to the next, and not about luck.
I’m sure Paul’s right: the walnut and the blouse that grows
only add to the fear. And what sense is there in shooting for
good fortune when all that does is add to the fear. I am constantly
dwelling on this, and as a result I don’t expect as much
as other people. Nobody covets the fear that others make for
themselves. But with luck it’s just the opposite, which is why
good fortune is never a very good goal.
On the green blouse that grows there’s a large mother-ofpearl
button which I picked out from a great many buttons at
the factory and took for Lilli.
At the interrogation I sit at the small table, twisting the
button in my fingers, and answer calmly, even though every
one of my nerves is jangling. Albu paces to and fro; having to
formulate the right questions wears at his calm, just as having
to give the right answers wears at mine. As long as I keep my
composure there’s the chance he’ll get something wrong—
maybe everything. Back home I change into my gray blouse.
This one’s called the blouse that waits. It’s a gift from Paul. Of
course I often have misgivings about these names. But they’ve
never done any harm, not even on days when I haven’t been
summoned. The blouse that grows helps me, and the blouse
that waits may be helping Paul. His fear on my behalf is as
high as the ceiling, just as mine is for him when he sits around
the flat, waiting and drinking, or when he’s barhopping in
town. It’s easier if you’re the one going out, if you’re the one
taking your fear away and leaving your fortune at home, and if
there’s someone waiting for you to come back. Sitting at home,
waiting, stretches time to the brink and tightens fear to the
point of snapping.
The powers I’ve bestowed on my routines verge on the
superhuman. Albu yells:
You see, everything is connected.
And I twist the large button on my blouse and say: In your
mind they are, in my mind they aren’t. Shortly before he
got off, the old man in the straw hat turned his
watery eyes away from me. Now there’s a father with a child on
his lap sitting on the seat facing me, his legs stretched out into
the aisle. Watching the city go by outside the window isn’t
something he can be bothered with. The child sticks a forefinger
up his father’s nose. Crooking a finger and hunting for snot
is something kids learn early. Later they’re told not to pick anyone’s
nose but their own, and then only if no one’s watching.
This father doesn’t think that later has arrived yet; he smiles,
perhaps he’s enjoying it. The tram halts in the middle of the
tracks, between stops, the driver gets out. Who knows how
long we’ll be stranded. It’s early in the morning and already
he’s sneaking a break when he should be driving his route.
Everyone here does what he wants. The driver strolls over to
the shops, tucking in his shirt and adjusting his trousers so no
one will notice he’s abandoned his tram in mid-route. He acts
like someone who’s so bored that he finally got up off his couch
just to poke his nose into the sunshine. If he’s planning to buy
anything in one of the shops over there, he’ll either have to say
who he is or else he’ll have to wait in line. If all he’s after is a
cup of coffee, I hope he doesn’t sit down to drink it. He doesn’t
dare touch brandy, even if he does keep his window open. Every
one of us sitting on the tram has the right to reek of brandy
except for him. But he’s behaving as if it were the other way
round. My summons puts me in the same position as far as
brandy is concerned. I’d rather have his reason for abstaining
than my own.Who knows when he’ll be back. Ever since I
began leaving my good fortune at home, the kiss on
my hand doesn’t paralyze me as much as it used to. I crook up
my finger joints so that my knuckles keep Albu from speaking.
Paul and I have rehearsed this kiss. In order to approximate the
importance of the signet ring on Albu’s middle finger, to see
how it affects the finger-squeeze, I made a ring out of a strip of
rubber and a coat button. We took turns wearing it, and we
laughed so much we completely forgot why we were going
through the exercise in the first place. I learned not to crook my
hand up all at once but gradually. That way the knuckles can
block his gums and keep him from speaking. Sometimes when
Albu is kissing my hand, I think of my rehearsal with Paul.
Then the pain at my fingernails and the slobber on my hand
aren’t so humiliating. You learn as you go, but I can’t show that
I’m learning, and whatever happens I cannot laugh.
If you’re walking or driving around the leaning tower,
where Paul and I live, you can’t really keep more than the
entranceway and the lower stories under surveillance. From the
sixth floor up the flats are too high, so that you’d need sophisticated
technology to see anything in detail. What’s more,
about halfway up the building, the façade angles out toward
the front. If you stare up at it long enough you’ll feel your eyes
rolling back into your forehead. I’ve tried it often; your neck
grows tired. The leaning tower has looked like that for twelve
years now, says Paul, from the day it was built. Whenever I
want to explain where I live, all I have to do is say: In the leaning
tower. Everyone in the city knows where it is. They ask:
Aren’t you afraid it might collapse.
I’m not afraid, I say, it was built with reinforced concrete.
Whenever I refer to the tower, people look down at the floor,
as if looking at me might make them dizzy, so I say:
Everything else in this city will collapse first.
At that they nod, to relax the veins that are twitching in
The fact that our flat is high up is an advantage for us, but
it also has the disadvantage that Paul and I can’t see exactly
what’s going on down below. From the seventh floor you can’t
make out anything smaller than a suitcase, and when do you
see anyone carrying a suitcase. Individual items of clothing
blur into big splotches of color, and faces turn into little pale
patches between the hair and the clothes. You could guess at
what the nose, eyes, or teeth inside those patches might look
like, but why bother. Old people and children can be recognized
by the way they walk. There are dumpsters located on the
grass between our building and the shops, with a walkway running
alongside them. Two narrow footpaths leave the paved
sidewalk and circle around the group of bins, without quite
meeting. From up here the bins look like ransacked cupboards
with the doors torn off. Once a month someone sets them on
fire, the smoke rises and the garbage is consumed. If your windows
aren’t shut, your eyes start stinging and your throat gets
sore. Most things happen outside the entrances to the shops,
but unfortunately all we can see are the rear service doors. No
matter how often we count them, we can never match up the
twenty-seven doors in back with the eight front doors belonging
to the grocer, the bread shop, the greengrocer, the pharmacy,
the bar, the shoemaker, the hairdresser, and the kindergarten.
The whole rear wall is riddled with doors; nevertheless, the
delivery trucks stop mostly in the street, out front.
The old shoemaker was complaining he had too little room
and too many rats. His shop consists of a workbench enclosed
in a small space that is partitioned from the rest of the room by
a makeshift wall of wooden planks. The man I took over from
was the one who fixed the place up, the shoemaker said. Back
then the building was new. The space was boarded off then too,
but he couldn’t think of anything to do with all those planks,
or maybe he just didn’t want to; anyway, he didn’t use them at
all. I knocked in a few nails and ever since I’ve been hanging
the shoes up by their laces, thongs, or heels, they don’t get
gnawed on anymore. I can’t have the rats eating everything—
after all, I have to pay for the damage. Especially in winter,
when they’re hungrier. Behind those planks there’s a great big
hall. Once, back in the early days, during a holiday, I came
down to the shop, loosened two of the boards behind the bench,
and squeezed through with a flashlight. There’s nowhere you
can put your feet, the whole floor skitters and squeaks, he said,
it’s full of rats’ nests. Rats don’t need a door, you know, they
just tunnel through the ground. The walls are covered with
electrical sockets, and the back wall has four doors leading out
to the bins. But you can’t budge them so much as an inch to
drive the rats out even for a couple hours. The door to my
workplace is just a cheap piece of tin—in fact, more than half
the doors in back of the shops aren’t doors at all, they’re just tin
plates they built into the wall to save on concrete. The sockets
are probably there in case of war. There’ll always be war all
right, he laughed, but not here. The Russians’ve got us where
they want us with treaties, they won’t be showing up here.
Whatever they need, they’ve shipped off to Moscow: they eat
our grain and our meat and leave us to go hungry and fight over
the shortages.Who’d want to conquer us, all it would do is cost
them money. Every country on earth is happy not to have us,
even the Russians.