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Das Ehepaar

A short story ("The married couple") by this German-language writer.  You can read the original here.

So bad is the general state of business affairs that every so often, when I have some spare time in the office, I visit clients personally and lug along the samples kit.  Among other stops I had planned for a long time now to go see N., with whom I had once been in constant contact over business matters – a connection that, for reasons unknown to me, had all but disappeared this past year.  There doesn't really need to be any actual reason for such disturbances; in the feeble relationships of today, often a trivial matter or a mood will be the determining factor.  By the same token, a trivial matter or a word can be enough to right the situation.  Yet it is a little burdensome to push one's way through to N.'s place; he was an older man, very ill of late, and if he couldn't gather all business matters together then he wouldn't do business anymore.   To speak with him one needed to go into his apartment and hope to coax out of him some sort of business transaction.

Nevertheless, yesterday at six in the evening I was on my way to his place; it was, admittedly, no longer the window for normal visiting hours, yet this was not a matter of societal norms but of those of a salesman.  I was in luck: N. was home.  He had just returned, as I was informed in the vestibule, from a stroll with his wife and was now in the room of his son who lay sick in bed.  I was asked to go in there as well.  First I hesitated; then I was overcome by my desire to finish with this exasperating visit as soon as possible.  Thus I let myself be taken, still in my coat and hat with the samples kit in my hand, through a dark room to a faintly lit room in which a small group had gathered.

Out of pure instinct my glance was first drawn to a business agent whom I knew all too well; in fact, he was to some degree my competition.  So he had crawled his way out here ahead of me!  He was comfortably seated by the invalid's bed as if he were the doctor.  He sat there so mighty in his beautifully open and baggy coat; his impertinence was peerless; the invalid might have come to a similar conclusion as he lay there, looking over at him now and then, his cheeks mildly red with fever.  Besides, the son was no longer a young man, he was approximately my age with a well-trimmed beard that had with his illness gotten wild and scruffy.  Old N., a large, wide-shouldered man who, to my great astonishment, had become gaunt, hunched over and unsure of himself because of his mounting grief, was still standing just as he had come, that is, in his fur coat, and was murmuring something to his son.  His wife, small and fragile but extremely lively – at least as far as N. was concerned, she hardly acknowledged the rest of us – was busy trying to help him take off his fur, a rather difficult task owing to the spouses' difference in size, but which eventually occurred.  Perhaps the real difficulty arose from the fact that N. was very impatient and restless with fidgety hands that immediately sought out an armchair, which his wife quickly pushed towards him once his fur had been removed.  She took the fur, under which she almost disappeared, and carried it out the room.

Now it seemed to me that my time had come or, rather, it had not come yet and would in fact never come.  If I wanted to do anything at all, I had to act immediately since I had the sense that the conditions and environment for a business talk could only get worse.  And sitting here endlessly, which seemed to be the agent's intention, was not my style, either; I did not wish to pay him any attention whatsoever.  So without further ado I began to plead my case.  I noticed, however, that N. really wanted to chat for a while with his son.  Unfortunately, once I've gotten worked up – and this happens rather quickly and happened in this sick room sooner than normal – I have the habit of getting up and pacing as I talk.  But as in one's own office furniture is well-placed, it is burdensome in someone's else apartment.  I could not control myself especially since I didn't have my usual cigarette.  Now, everyone has his bad habits, but in comparison to those of the agent I must praise my own.  What, for example, should one say about the fact that he now and then, sometimes quickly, but in any case quite unexpectedly, placed his hat – which was on his knee slipping slowly here and there – back on his head?  True, he would remove it again right away, as if it had been a mistake; but he had held it on his head for a moment and this was something he kept doing time and again.  Such a performance truly deserves to be called impermissible.  This did not disturb me; I kept pacing and was completely involved in my own affairs.  I looked past him.  There may be people whom this whole hat debacle could unnerve.  In any case, I not only eagerly ignored such a disturbance, I also did not look at anyone at all.  I saw what was happening but, to a certain extent, did not acknowledge it, provided there were no objections and I still had something to say.

But I noticed that N. was hardly receptive at all.  His hands lay on the armrests and he turned them in discomfort back and forth, not looking at me and instead senselessly seeking something in the emptiness of his surroundings.  His face looked so uninvolved, as if no sound of my talk was getting through to him, perhaps not even a feeling of my presence.  All this behavior, which was offensive and inspired little hope, was clear to me, yet I kept on talking as if I still foresaw that, through my words, through my advantageous offers – and here I frightened myself with the concessions I was making, concessions that no one had asked for – I could ultimately bring everything back into balance.   It did give me a certain pleasure that the agent, as I noticed in passing, finally left his hat alone and crossed his arms against his chest.  My actions, which had been partially directed at him, seemed to have thrown a large wrench into his plans.  And I would have gone on speaking in the feeling of happiness that this gave me if the son, whom admittedly I had hitherto ignored as a sort of secondary personage, hadn't suddenly sat up halfway in bed and brought me to silence by waving his fist menacingly.  He clearly wanted to say something, to show something, but he didn't have the strength.  I initially imputed this to febrile delirium; but then, after I accidentally cast my eyes upon old N. again, I understood it better.   

With open, glassy, swollen eyes that had but minutes left on them, N. was sitting there, trembling and bent forward as if someone had hit him or was holding him by the neck.  His lower lip, even his entire lower jaw with his gums now very exposed, drooped down uncontrollably, and his whole face had gone to pieces.  He was still breathing, if heavily, then as if liberated he fell back against the seat and closed his eyes.  The expression of some kind of huge strain passed over his face.  Then it was over.  I quickly leapt to his side and gripped his lifeless, cold hand, which gave me the chills.  There was no pulse.  So that was it, it was over.  He was, of course, an old man.  May our deaths not come any harder.  But now there was so much that had to be done!  And what was I to do in my haste?  I looked around for help, but his son had pulled the covers over his head and one could hear him sobbing his heart out.  The agent, as cold as a frog, sat unmoving in his seat two steps away from N., but clearly determined to do nothing at all and just let the time run down.  It was left to me, therefore, to do something, right away to do the hardest thing, namely to inform his wife in some bearable way – in a way that did not exist in this world – of the news.  And already I heard the bustling, shuffling steps from the neighboring room.           

She had brought – she was still in her street clothes as she had had no time to change – a oven-warmed nightshirt that she wanted her husband to wear.  "He's fallen asleep," she said, smiling and shaking her head, when she found us all very quiet.  And with the endless trust of the innocent she took up the same hand that I had just held with unwillingness and dread, kissed it with that playfulness unique to a married couple and – how could the three of us have looked on! – N. started.  He yawned loudly and let her put the shirt on him, tolerating with an annoyed and ironic expression the tender reprimands of his wife regarding his overexertion during that far too lengthy stroll they had just taken.  On the contrary, he told us, he had fallen asleep somewhat out of boredom.  Then, so as not to get cold on his way to the other room, he lay down temporarily next to his son in bed.  Next to the son's feet his wife rapidly brought over two cushions for him to rest his head.  After what had just happened I no longer found anything odd about all this.  Now he asked for the evening paper, and took it up without the slightest consideration for his guests.  But he didn't read it yet; he only cast his glance here and there on the page and said to us with an astoundingly sharp, business-like look some rather unpleasant things about our offers, while he with his free hand immediately began to make dismissive gestures.  His tongue-clicking indicated the bad taste in his mouth with which our business posturings had left him.  The agent could not abstain from making a few inappropriate remarks; in his vulgar sense of things he even believed that, after what happened here, some kind of compensation should be made, but in his way of doing things this of course was the least effective ploy of all.  I quickly bid farewell and was almost thankful to the agent.  Without his presence I would not have had the decisiveness to leave so soon.

In the vestibule I once again encountered Mrs. N.  One look at her meager shape and I said to myself that she reminded me a bit of my own mother.  And as she was standing there silently I said to her: "Whatever one may say, she was able to do miracles.  What we had destroyed here she was able to make good again.  I lost her when I was still a child."  On purpose I had spoken with exaggerated slowness and clearness since I suspected that the old woman was hard of hearing.  But she was completely deaf, since she asked in a non sequitur: "And what about my husband's appearance?"  I also noticed that she had exchanged a few words of parting with the agent.  I wanted to think that she otherwise would have been more trusting.

Then I went down the stairs.  The descent was harder than the ascent had been and even it wasn't easy.  Oh, how many failed business ventures there are and what a burden we must continue to bear!

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