Arnon Grunberg

After Ibi began collecting the rent there were fewer complaints about moisture on the wallpaper, radiators that didn’t work, a window that didn’t close well. Her smile took away the complaints, her legs made the sneaking suspicion that one was paying way too much to vanish into thin air. Her eyes compensated for the leaky faucet. Ibi was more important than any defects in the furnished apartment.
And then, one autumn evening, on the first of the month—always the first of the month; when Hofmeester looked back on his life he saw an endless series of paydays—she stayed away for a long time. Hofmeester was reading the evening paper as he listened to one of Elgar’s cello concertos, but when he got to the page with ‘readers’ opinions’, for he read the newspaper from cover to cover, like a book, he became worried. She had been gone for more than half an hour. He read on, but the readers’ opinions no longer sank in. After each sentence he got stuck, and his thoughts wandered to Ibi.
Of course you couldn’t just grab the money and run, sometimes you had to stop and chat a little. He remembered that from when the unwelcome task had been his to fulfill. But half an hour was no chat anymore. That was a conversation, that was half an evening meal.
He had already walked to the door twice to see if she was coming, the way one looks for streetcars that refuse to arrive. The ridiculous assumption that looking made any difference. That a peremptory glance can summon that which apparently will never show up.
She couldn’t have been mugged, she didn’t even have to leave the yard.
It puzzled him, and it kept puzzling him. His wife had gone out to pick up Tirza, who was playing at a friend’s house. Hofmeester had no one with whom to share his anxiety. He turned off the Elgar, went into the garden to look at his apple tree and then peered up through the branches at the windows behind which the tenant was concealed, but could see nothing unusual. The curtains that always hung there and that actually needed washing. No movement. It was a lovely evening for early October. Nothing rustled in the bushes. No screams. Silence. Eternal silence.
He went back to the living room, for what else could he do, and picked up the newspaper from the couch.
A few days before, Ibi had turned fifteen. Some of the presents she’d received were still on display on the buffet. They always did that when it was one of the children’s birthdays. The “gift table” was what they called it. They still did it, even now that Ibi had turned fifteen. The paper streamers, too. Hofmeester hung them from the ceiling the way he had once collected the rent: systematically and diligently.
He stared at the presents, including the watch he had given Ibi, she had asked for that. And he had picked out a good one for her, had shopped around for days. It was an expensive watch, but why shouldn’t it be when your daughter had just turned fifteen? He had wanted to buy one she would be pleased with, one she really wanted to have, one she could show proudly to her friends.
There was a pair of slacks on the gift table as well, and a game he couldn’t figure out. A bathing suit. Two books. A drawing Tirza had made, a drawing of a boat. The rest had already been taken away, eaten or put to use.
Then he decided to ring the bell. This was taking too long. He was sure she was being bothered with all kinds of ridiculous complaints with which the tenant—Andreas was his name, a young German architect—had already harassed Hofmeester when they met on the street. On the street! Tenants these days had no manners. No refinement. He sensed it, he saw it and he read about it. People had become reckless, that recklessness hung in the air like a greasy pall. That was what Hofmeester smelled in the evening when he went out for a walk in the park. A combination of laziness and recklessness had taken hold of the people in the city, a combination that frightened Hofmeester, that locked him out, because he couldn’t take part in it, because he had realized early on that recklessness was the natural enemy of his deep-rooted ideal: the children had to be better off.
Counting on everything to go wrong that can go wrong is the opposite of recklessness.
He shook his head, although no one could see him. It was downright rude to confront a fifteen-year-old girl with the defects of a furnished apartment.
Hofmeester rang the bell of the door beside his own. Firmly, but not too persistently. As landlord one had to remain polite. The wooden doorframe could stand a lick of paint, next year perhaps. Not now. Now he had to save money, otherwise he could forget about financial independence.
Perhaps Ibi had gone off shopping. But she knew she always had to give him the rent first. She had always been reliable. She understood the importance of the ritual. She knew what it meant to her father.
No one opened the door. The bell had been rung, but the door did not open. Apparently the architect was not at home, or else he was sleeping.
Hofmeester’s unrest grew. He took his key ring from his pocket and searched for the key to the tenant’s door.
On weekdays, when he happened to be at home during the day, he would sometimes sneak into the tenant’s home. Not really to spy on him, just to see what was really going on, who he was actually dealing with here. Just to know one’s bird, as they say. He opened cupboards and drawers, but rarely found anything damning. At most a little pornography, a notice from the debt-collection agency, love letters. He always leafed through them. You could never be too careful. But one thing had become clear to him: if people have secrets, they don’t hide them away in their pied-à-terre.
Again he rang the bell. Just to be sure. A little more persistently this time, but still not for too long. That would be impolite.
No reaction this time either.
Cautiously he opened the door, a little like a thief in fact, with a vague sense of guilt, and climbed the steep stairs. Slowly. He was, he noticed, a bit short of breath.
That evening was the first time he realized he was getting old. Physical shortcomings brought with them the inevitable end to the final illusions of youth. And shortness of breath was a physical shortcoming, there was no denying that.
He panted. He heard music, something modern, but with violins. So there was someone home after all, or else the architect had forgotten to turn off the stereo. Leaving lamps on all day. Turning on the heater in winter with the windows open. They became more decadent and impertinent with each passing year. It wasn’t even decadence; it was a perverse indifference that Hofmeester took as a personal affront, because it was something he couldn’t permit himself. Because it was something he refused to permit himself.
The shortness of breath grew worse. Halfway up the stairs he paused. Hofmeester wasn’t developing heart problems, was he? Maybe he should go in for a checkup, have them do a cardiogram or whatever those things were called. A total and radical checkup, in any event. Once, long ago, he had smoked cigars, but when the wife was pregnant with Ibi he had given them up. It couldn’t be the cigars, it had to be something else. Another, unknown ailment was to blame for his shortness of breath.
The higher he came, the louder the music grew. He could make out every word of the lyrics, but he wasn’t paying attention. It had never cost him so much effort before to climb a little flight of stairs. So this was how death began, with a shortness of breath on the stairs. A joke, that’s what it was. Life.
Hofmeester entered the space that served as the living room. The door was open. There was no occasion to knock.
The tenant was standing behind Ibi. His pants around his ankles.
Hofmeester’s daughter was lying bare-chested on the dining room table he had once picked out himself, and which had seemed to him extremely well-suited for an apartment that was to be rented out in furnished condition. Her denim skirt was hiked up around her waist. Hiked up, that was the expression that stuck in Hofmeester’s mind. Hiked up. Hiked up.
The scene reminded him of certain movies broadcast by those unsavory cable channels after midnight. And then that music.
All worries about his shortness of breath had disappeared. His thoughts of an early demise, there on the stairs a few moments earlier, had been forgotten.
For one second he stood there and looked at Ibi. Then he took a step forward. With his left hand, he was still panting a bit, he picked up a little floor lamp the wife had once picked out for them, but which ultimately had been found less suited to their own home. Cast-offs found their way upstairs.
His daughter was being fucked like an animal. A sight one expected to encounter on a farm, in a stable. Not along the very best stretch of Van Eeghenstraat.
Hofmeester’s lungs peeped.
He tightened his hold on the floor lamp. He was nailed to the spot. It felt as though he himself were being fucked, hard and deep. As though the thrusts were not directed at his daughter, but at him. As though he were being debased, the landlord, the owner of this house, humiliated in his own home. His whole body hurt. His body was gasping for breath.
He had the peculiar sensation of being ripped open. The longer he watched, the more convinced he became that he was the one the tenant was fucking, hard and indifferently. With disdain.
At last they heard him.
At least, the tenant heard him. The man turned, saw his landlord, let go of Ibi, his hands slipped from her waist.
Then the architect did something Hofmeester couldn’t stand: he grinned. With his pants, a pair of gray trousers, around his knees. He grinned as though it were all a joke, an unfortunate yet comical encounter. The grin of hilarity was glued to the architect’s face. This may all have been a bit uncomfortable, but what a laugh! That was what he exuded. Hilarity, nothing but hilarity.
No shame, no fear. A grin.
Hofmeester tightened his grip on the floor lamp even further. He took a few steps towards the tenant, looked him in the eye and then, while Ibi was clambering off the dinner table as though it had only occurred to her now that an untimely end had come to the copulation, brought the lamp down hard on the tenant’s head. The sound of breaking glass reached Hofmeester’s ears, and then he saw spots, as though he had stood up too fast. He felt dizzy, but he did not fall to the floor. The tenant did.
Without making much noise at all, the tenant fell to the floor.
Perhaps it was also because of the music, which was playing so loudly that everything else was drowned out. How could people turn up the music so loud? Didn’t they have neighbors? Weren’t one’s ears punished enough as it was by the noise of traffic? The architect had fallen. Hofmeester stood there with the floor lamp in his hand and heard his daughter wail: “Papa.” Glass lay on the floor around him. The little globular lampshade had shattered to bits. And he was standing there with the remains of a floor lamp in his hand. A stick, that’s all that was really left of it. For one single moment he no longer knew where he was. And why he was there, what he come there to do. He had to get a grip on himself, he had to stop and think.
She wailed. Ibi was wailing like a baby. Like a hysterical woman.
She ran to one corner of the room and then back again. She covered her breasts. She pulled her denim skirt down around her hips. She didn’t forget to do that. She wasn’t that hysterical. She kept tugging at it, she held onto it, she clamped onto her own denim skirt as though it were a lifebuoy.
If you only heard her wailing you might think: a mental case, a fugitive from the psychiatric hospital down the street. You might say: she’s in the grip of madness, her madness has got the best of her.
Her face looked older than her body. Probably because of the makeup. By pretending to be grownup so often and with such verve, she had actually grown up a little. You could see it in her face. In her eyes. In the way she looked.
But her body told a different story.
Her upper arms were thin as thin could be. Thin as a child´s. There was no flesh on her backside. That was all still to come. The story her body told was childlike.
No reason to wail like that, no reason to act so hysterical.
Her tennis shoes, of a brand extremely popular at the moment but the name of which Hofmeester could never recall, made a touching impression in combination with her denim skirt.
Everything, he saw everything, took it all in while his daughter ran back and forth across the tenant´s living room, as though she didn´t know what had happened to her, which was perhaps precisely the case. An animal, driven to panic by a thunderstorm of a summer´s evening.
But the father couldn´t utter a word. He stood there with the remains of the floor lamp in his hand.
He saw an envelope on the table. The rent.
That was why Ibi had come here. It had been lying there waiting for her, the envelope. But something had happened and the envelope was still lying there. Innocent and untouched.
The money brought him back to his senses. Money was like a bucket of cold water in the face. The thought of the rent freed him from the overpowering sense of paralysis.
Slowly, the tenant´s body was showing signs of life as well. He was moving. He struggled to his feet. He stood up. He pulled himself up on the edge of the table. Blood was dripping from a wound high on the left side of his forehead.
His trousers were hanging around his ankles again.
Fortunately, the grin had been wiped from his face.
Then Hofmeester realized precisely where he was. It registered. He looked for Ibi. His Ibi. That´s why he was here. Ibi had not come home.
He had been listening to Elgar and reading the paper, until it started taking too long, until he became suspicious.
He put the floor lamp, or in any case what was left of it, back down and cleared his throat.
The tenant looked at him, confused, as though he too had no idea what had happened, as though no one here understood exactly what had been going on.
But Hofmeester remembered the humiliation, the tenant standing behind Ibi, triumphant and hungry, that´s how he had been standing there. The triumph of the beast, he wouldn’t be forgetting that soon. The triumph of the man. Because that’s what sex is for a man, a conquest. I have her, I take her, I use her, I put her to use.
And because of that memory, Hofmeester remembered what it was he was planning to say. What he had to say, what he had been meaning to say for quite some time.
“Turn off that music,” he shouted.
He remembers that too, now, he didn’t speak, he started shouting. He could shout louder than the music, he could shout and drown out everything and everyone.
The young architect stepped back and only then, when he tried to walk, did he notice the awkwardness of his situation. How unpleasant it was to face one’s landlord with one’s trousers and underpants around one’s ankles.
He pulled up his trousers, quickly and clumsily. On his forehead was that big, bloody spot. The blood hadn’t clotted yet, it was still fresh and it dripped. But apparently the nakedness bothered him more, the nakedness was more urgent.
The architect was wearing boxer shorts, Hofmeester saw. He hated boxer shorts.
And he noticed something else: the man was not wearing a condom.
Hofmeester was disgusted by the architect. He’d disliked him from the very start. Too jovial, too ingratiating, too submissive and, when it came right down to it, too difficult. If his daughter hadn’t been there he would have put his hands around the architect’s throat and throttled the life out of him, the way you squeeze the life out of a kitten. Just bear down a little, don’t let up, just stay focused and the life is gone.
Once the architect had more or less tidied himself—his shirt was still unbuttoned to his navel—and he was beyond Hofmeester’s reach, he went to the CD player and turned it off.
“Well, well,” Hofmeester said, “it was about time. Christ Almighty.” He licked his lips and gestured to the tenant, but the tenant didn’t understand.
“Button it,” Hofmeester said, “your shirt. I can see everything. I don’t want to see everything. I’ve seen too much as it is.” Ibi was standing at the door, her upper body swaying rhythmically back and forth. She was crying without a sound.
The tenant buttoned his shirt, all the way to the top.
Then Hofmeester brought his right fist down on the table so hard he hurt himself, and the tenant took two steps back. “You pay for this apartment,” Hofmeester shouted. Because he remembered that he needed to shout, that he had resolved to roar wildly, like a wounded animal. “You pay for the furnishings, for the gas and electricity, for the view of Vondelpark, for the privilege of living on the best part of Van Eeghenstraat, in the best part of Amsterdam and that at a reasonable price, extremely reasonable I might add, but you don’t pay for my daughter. Do you read me? Not for my daughter.