Arnon Grunberg
De geschiedenis van mijn kaalheid

Otto Rents Room, Too

When I got back, a man was sitting next to Mica. A little man in a hat. One of those English hats. Nobody in Vienna wears hats like that.
His cheeks were hollow. His mouth was a thin line.
‘Marek,’ Mica said, ‘this is Otto.’
I put the glasses on the table and shook his hand.
He was wearing jewels around his neck.
I remained standing, but Mica said: ‘Have a seat, Marek. We don’t like looking up to people.’
I borrowed a chair from another table.
‘Otto makes statues,’ said Mica.
I nodded.
Otto himself didn’t say a word. He was looking at me attentively.
He had a plastic bag with him, full of vegetables.
I would never walk into a cocktail lounge with a plastic bag full of vegetables. Shame was the cork on which my body floated. Mama liked it when men knew no shame, especially when they were poor and artists. Only rich artists were supposed to know shame, because money generates shame.
When I saw the vegetables, I knew it was time for me to go home. Papa and Eleonore would have started dinner already, and Eleonore would say: ‘The boy is unhappy, you can see it in everything he does. Doesn’t he have a girlfriend yet?’
Papa would say nothing, because he regarded unhappiness as a disease against which no vaccine had yet been discovered. And talking about unhappiness was tantamount to calling the devil’s name.
Moving slowly, Otto pulled a pack of cigarettes from his inside pocket.
‘Otto rents rooms, too,’ Mica said.
Again I nodded.
Otto made statues, Otto rented rooms; the sort of information at which one can only nod in response. Every word I said here could be misconstrued.
One of the men whose socks I’d been examining swore loudly a few times, and I looked at the suitcase that wasn’t an accordion case.
‘I really must be going,’ I said.
Otto inhaled. I stared at the smoke he blew slowly from his mouth.
He had a brooch on his sweater. A silver airplane with little diamonds at the tail.
‘Marriage is a prison,’ Otto said slowly.
‘They’re waiting for him with dinner,’ Mica said.
‘What do you do,’ Otto asked, ‘with your life?’
‘I go to school,’ I said. ‘I’m a tutor.’
Otto smiled. The word ‘tutor’ seemed to please him.
He had jewels in his ears as well, I noticed then. His lips were so thin that it almost looked as if he didn’t have any. He was looking at me expectantly. Mica said: ‘Otto, don’t scare the boy.’
I got up and was about to walk to the bar, but Otto said: ‘Don’t pay, Marek, let me do that.’
He had a slight accent, one I couldn’t pinpoint. His voice was hoarse. Talking seemed to cost him effort.
I slid my chair up to the table, a habit, the vestige of an upbringing. The bag full of vegetables fell over. The next moment I was squatting down, busy picking lemons, pears, plums, and green onions off the floor.
Mica laughed.
The patrons of The Four Roses were looking at me.
Even the man who had sworn so loudly was quiet.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said, ‘I’m sorry.’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ Mica said. ‘Otto washes everything very carefully.’
A couple of plums had rolled to the other end of the cocktail lounge, and were badly damaged. I offered to pay for the damage, and Mica said: ‘Aren’t you an extremely genteel young man!’
‘So tell me, what’s in the suitcase?’ I asked after I had put everything back in Otto’s bag.
Otto hadn’t lifted a finger to help. Mica hadn’t either. But then they were old, and maybe they both had stiff legs.
‘Clothes,’ she said.
I smiled, the answer was as obvious as that. Suitcases contained clothes, with only few exceptions. Some suitcases had skeletons in them.
‘Neatly washed and ironed,’ Mica said.
I heard myself say: ‘How thoughtful of you to have ironed them, ma’am.’
I try not to ask questions, out of fear for their answers and to avoid being impolite. Maybe Mama had left her half wardrobe with one of her needy artists, who had decided after a few years to give it all back. Or was it an artist who never cleaned the house and had found the clothes only now?’
‘We had agreed to call each other by our first names, Marek. Every time you say “ma’am” I feel so old. If you like, I could sell them to you.’
‘The clothes.’
‘No,’ I said, ‘no, that won’t be necessary.’
A phone rang, the barmaid answered it. I heard her snarling at the caller. In her profession, you did a lot of snarling. Maybe a profession like that was something for me, Pavel always said that I should learn to snarl at people and stand up for myself.
‘Otto was very keen to meet you,’ Mica said. ‘And now he’s met you.’
First I shook Mica’s hand, then Otto’s. Then I picked up the suitcase and left The Four Roses.