This week’s Translation Tuesday draws us into the mind of a middle-aged woman named Maria, who is struggling to find a job. As she moves through her humdrum morning routine, Maria’s thoughts stray to her parents, her husband, and her former employer, and, from these fragmentary memories, we begin to piece together the circumstances that led to her current situation. In a prose colored with pathos and loneliness, Anna Weidenholzer, in Elisabeth Lauffer’s translation, nevertheless maintains a lightness and humor that make this story a pleasure to read.
When he opens the door, I’ll say, Thank you for the invitation. I’ll say, My name is Maria Beerenberger, pleased to meet you. Have a seat, he’ll say, offering me a chair. I will have known what to wear. I will have thought about how I’d describe myself as a person. He’ll be wearing a necktie and a silver wristwatch. He’ll say, Frau Beerenberger, tell me a little bit about yourself. Gladly, I’ll say, gladly. I am familiar with the material. At least I’ve accomplished what I wanted to accomplish. And now we wait. What are you saying, he’ll ask. Frau Beerenberger, what are you talking about. Well, I’ll say, I am sitting across from you because I know the things people say, people who know what life is all about, because I’ll be one of those people. I didn’t believe in myself, you see, I didn’t believe in my future. Why, he’ll ask. Please explain. Then he’ll fall silent, lean back in his seat. Very well, I will say. As you wish. The day goes on, the light goes out, my neighbor used to say. Let’s start at the end.
54 The Mirror
The kitchen clock hangs to the left above the stove, between the kitchen cabinets, the hands gliding along the numbers. Eight fifty-five, Maria reads on this Tuesday morning, sitting at the kitchen table across from the clock. Maria is wearing the light blue terrycloth bathrobe she wears every morning, except in summer when she eats breakfast in her nightgown because the bathrobe would be too warm, even on cooler summer days. The material at the right elbow is worn. Maria rests her head in her right hand after breakfast while reading the paper or staring into space, drinking coffee, watching the steam rise from fresh coffee. Maria takes her coffee with milk and no sugar. It’s easier to drink coffee without milk, Herr Willert would say in the break room, as Maria poured milk into her cup and stirred, watching the milk curdling. Then you don’t need to buy any milk, he would say, slowly stirring the milk in his coffee, then tapping in two sweeteners from their dispenser. Maria thinks of Herr Willert on this Tuesday morning in the kitchen and takes a small sip, because there’s not much coffee left in the cup and because she doesn’t want the cup to be empty, to have to get up, to have to get more coffee, which is always three sips too many. Three sips that Maria will still drink, because she doesn’t want any left over.
The window is not far from the kitchen table. Maria looks out the window into the inner courtyard, which is big. Bigger than a soccer field, Walter said, stretching his arms wide as he said it. We have our vegetable garden in the front section, and the children play out back; we don’t have children, didn’t you know that. The sandboxes must be covered at night because of the cats. The spruce has grown taller. The spruce has blocked all the light and doesn’t even let it through in winter.
Under her terrycloth bathrobe, Maria is wearing a cotton nightgown. Cotton allows the skin to breathe—Maria would wear nothing else at night. She swallows the last sip of coffee on this Tuesday morning, then raises the cup to her lips once more, till a tiny drop trickles out. Then she goes into the bathroom, which can only be reached through the kitchen, pink tiles, walk-in tub, the sink beside it. There are no windows. Maria alternates: first wash face, then take off bathrobe. Comb hair, separate at the part—annoyed that it already needs retouching—take off nightgown, brush teeth, take off underpants, apply face cream, take off slippers, make up eyes, put on underpants. Further articles of clothing require no intermediate steps, and Maria dresses without interruption. Do a lot, and do it consistently, systematically, simultaneously, and fast. On this Tuesday morning, Maria puts on white socks, white underwear, a light blue blouse, and white slacks.
The mirror hangs to the left of the front door, there wouldn’t be any space for it to the right. The wall to the right is occupied by a wardrobe storing jackets, bags, winter coats. The wardrobe reaches the ceiling. Storage space, Maria and Walter said when they picked out the wardrobe, Storage space is important. There’s a spot for whatever you’ve got, the salesman said, and Maria eyed his shirt—the second button from the top had come undone, or had it been open the whole time—and nodded. That’s no way to work sales, Maria said in the car later, as she rode home with Walter. Someone just pulled into the right lane to make a left-hand turn, replied Walter. When you work in sales, you have to be mindful of your appearance, Maria said. How much longer will it take for him to realize that he’s on the wrong side, replied Walter and honked. That’s no way to work sales, Maria said. Sure it is, replied Walter.
The mirror frame is golden, like the keys sticking in the wardrobe doors, only the gold on the keys has worn off in some spots. Maria looks in the mirror, she smiles and gets annoyed at the wrinkles that form, decides not to smile anymore and pulls the sleeves down a bit over her upper arms. Customers with flabby upper arms should be advised against choosing a sleeveless top, said Herr Willert, but you must never mention their upper arms. Express enthusiasm whenever you like something on the customer. Suggest other articles of clothing, should one appear unsuitable. Should you dislike something on the customer that she likes, don’t say a thing. Maria looks at her eyes in the mirror. They are always duller in the morning than in the afternoon. Maria has lined them in black, her green eyes that need a little time after waking to clear, and applied mascara to the lashes. She brushes away an eyelash under her left eye with her index finger. She runs her hand through her hair, she straightens up.
The mirror frame is wide and provides plenty of space for the notes. Maria secures them with bits of adhesive tape that she first applies to the back of her hand, so it doesn’t stick as much and strip off the gold paint. The sentences are written in capital letters, otherwise Maria would have to lean in too close to the mirror to read what the slips say. On this Tuesday morning in November, Maria looks at herself in short sleeves in the mirror and notices that the hair on her forearms is standing on end. Oh no, she says and goes to the bedroom to get a cardigan. White goes with blue and blue clashes with black. Pay close attention to colors, said Herr Willert. Herr Willert wore gray and sometimes dark blue. Muted colors, as he always said, Men and women in muted colors have a respectable air, as do women in pastels. In the bedroom Maria smooths the sheet, plumps up the pillow, and spreads out the duvet evenly. She plucks at the corners of the duvet on Walter’s side, so the creases disappear. The sheets on Walter’s side are changed every four weeks, on Maria’s side every two. In even months, Maria pulls the green bedclothes from the wardrobe, in odd months the yellow. Since Walter’s sheets are only changed every four weeks, there’s always a spare set for emergencies and for guests, Maria would say, were she to talk about her linens with someone. On this Tuesday morning, she takes a white cardigan from the wardrobe, which she locks after closing the door. She leaves the key in the lock—she never takes it out.
It’s only a few steps from the bedroom to the mirror. The letters lie on the sideboard in the hallway, unopened, gathered there from Tuesday through Friday. No mail came on Monday. The animal rights group wrote, the wireless service provider, the rewards club, the employment agency, the aid organization for children afflicted with leprosy in East India, and a boutique where Maria had applied for a job. Maria sorted the letters by category: animals, bills, ads, maybes, musts. She tears up the bills and hides the letter from the employment agency in the top drawer, under the phone book. Then she bites her lower lip and breathes deeply, in and out. She goes up to the mirror and puts on a smile. She reads from left to right: I am familiar with the material. I have a nice picture of you feeding pigeons. At least I’ve accomplished what I wanted to accomplish. She jumps at the sound of ringing, turns and reaches for the telephone, lying between the letters on the sideboard, holds it to her ear and says: Beerenberger. A woman is on the other end of the line, she gives her name—which Maria will immediately have forgotten—she says: I’m calling on behalf of your local bank. It’s important to us to maintain regular communication with our customers, which is why I’d like to ask if you’re satisfied with our services, Frau Beerenberger. I’m satisfied, Maria says, Everything’s fine, please excuse me, I don’t have time for this, I’m busy. May I call back at a later time, the woman asks. Your feedback is important to us, Frau Beerenberger. And may I ask you quickly if you’ve changed your address. Maria waits till the caller pauses. Then she hangs up. Nothing’s changed, anyway, she thinks. If she calls again, I won’t pick up, and if I do answer accidentally, I’ll say: I’m so sorry, I lost service, I live in a dead zone. Maria moved into this apartment with Walter twenty-five years ago. A co-op, ground floor, with a view of the courtyard and a view of the street. Walter’s mother said: We have enough space, just stay with us.
Here we go, Maria says and stands up straight in front of the mirror. She throws back her shoulders and starts from the beginning: I am familiar with the material. I have a nice picture of you feeding pigeons. At least I’ve accomplished what I wanted to accomplish. That isn’t funny. And now we wait. You did not conduct yourself properly. Well, we certainly hope so. No, they have money to burn. Everything’s fine, please move along. Oh my heart, no one understands you. Goodbye and have a nice weekend—the same to your pets. Maria closes her eyes after the final sentence and starts over, speaking more loudly. She stops at the third sentence and opens one eye. Of course, she says, I’ve got this, and closes it again. On her second attempt, Maria does not need to open her eyes. Good, she says and goes to the sideboard, takes a letter opener from the drawer. The letter opener was a gift from Maria’s parents at the end of her apprenticeship. Now you’re standing on your own two feet, her father said, and Maria laughed and said, I can open letters with my finger, too, you know. Her father shook his head. You have so much left to learn, he said and sat down in the spot he had occupied since his retirement, his spot in the kitchen with a view out the window. Maria sets the blade against the edge of the envelope. Those who want work will find it, her father always said, whenever he was talking about their unemployed neighbor. How can he live with himself, he asked. Hubert, said Maria’s mother, quiet, the window is open. How long has he been out of work, Maria’s father asked, and her mother closed the window. Think of your brother-in-law, she said. She left the curtains open.
Maria runs her index finger along the inside of the open envelope, touches the paper. Because I suspect that invitations to job interviews are printed on higher quality paper, Maria would say, to explain her behavior, then: Unfortunately, I am unable to sufficiently identify the quality of the paper used in printing this letter. It’s regular paper, but not cheap. Maria leaves her finger in the envelope and looks in the mirror. Extended benefits, is that what it’s come to, her father would ask. Yes, Maria would answer. She would not tell him that her money had been cut. But wait till I’ve opened the letter. I’ll think positive thoughts. Life is a series of challenges. If you just want it badly enough, then everything will work out. Maria takes her finger out of the envelope, she lays the letter aside, she says: I’d like to do a little more work on my visualization, and goes into the kitchen.
42 The Last One Out Turns Off the Light
There are different types of light switches. There are simple switches, there are double switches, there are beige, white, brown, black switches, there are those with a dial you can turn to dim the light. As you dim the light, it gets darker and darker, till it disappears altogether. At first, objects lose their shape in the dark, then they slowly start to regain their contours. There are some days when Maria will sit in an armchair next to the light switch in the living room, turning the dial.
She darkens the room, waits a while, then back to light, then back to dark, slow, fast, slow. She is always careful to close the shades first, so the neighbors won’t worry, so the neighbors won’t take it upon themselves to knock at her door, to find out who’s playing with the light, even if it’s unlikely that the neighbors would think someone had broken in if they saw the light flashing on and off. However, they might think I was in trouble, Maria thinks, and she smiles at the thought of someone from across the way knocking on her door and asking if she was in trouble. No, Maria would answer, I’m not in trouble, I’m just playing with the light. Thank you for your concern, would you like some coffee. Yes, please, the person from across the way would reply and follow Maria into the kitchen, It may be a little late in the day, but a cup of coffee with you would be nice. Have a seat, Maria would say, taking a coffee filter from the box, the environmentally friendly kind cleansed with oxygen. Maria would insert the filter, pour in coffee, fill the designated tank with water, close the coffee maker, switch it on. How did you get into the building, Maria would ask, You didn’t ring. The door was open, the person from across the way would say. No, Maria would say. Oh yes, the person from across the way would say, the doorstop was wedged under. Hmm, Maria would say, then: It’s dangerous for the door to be left open, you never know who might get in, they could be questionable characters. Have you read the papers lately, the person from across the way would ask. This world is a terrible place to live, can you make any sense of it. Can you make any sense of what it means for you, Frau Beerenberger. No, Maria would say, I’ve lost any sense of the bigger picture. Do you know what positional vertigo is, Maria would ask. Positional vertigo is dizziness that comes about without spinning, positional vertigo is dizziness sparked by fear. How do you know that, the person from across the way would ask, Do you work in healthcare. No, Maria would answer, I am a saleswoman in textiles. Interesting profession, the person from across the way would say, You must know a lot about clothing. Yes, Maria would say, I’ve learned the unique characteristics of certain materials. I’ve learned how various garments should be washed. I’ve learned to advise. Where do you work, the person from across the way would ask.
On this Monday Maria is sitting across from the old woman from the fourth floor, who draws her curtains in the afternoon and washes her windows every two months. She washes her windows very thoroughly, she even wipes the window ledges, which she cannot see, which the neighbors cannot see, which no one could ever get close enough to see, except the pigeons, Maria reflects, and they don’t have an eye for clean ledges. Things become dangerous when the woman from the fourth floor washes the outside of the skylights, which do not open. She puts one foot on the outer ledge, holds tight to the frame with her right hand, and wipes the glass with her left. The process takes several minutes, during which time Maria stands at her window watching the woman, ready to run to the phone. Maria would run first to the phone, then down to the fallen woman. She has thought this through many times. Because the woman would probably be beyond helping, anyway, Maria would first notify emergency services, she would—as she ran down into the street—hope that she was not the only one, that someone else would already be kneeling beside the woman, that her neck snapped cleanly. Watching the woman wash her windows, Maria often considers refreshing her first aid training. Yes, I should do that, she says without taking her eyes off the woman, but she’d probably be beyond helping, anyway.
Different people from across the way appear in Maria’s kitchen whenever she plays with the light. The man from the fifth floor is the only one who does not enter the apartment, the man who does not turn on the lights even when it gets dark, and who hangs his underpants out the window to dry on the weekend. Because I’m afraid of him, Maria would say, were someone to ask her why. These days, Maria would say, these days underpants are easy to come by, why doesn’t the man from the fifth floor buy any, his have holes in them. And what does he wear while his underpants dry.
The amount of time Maria spends playing with the light depends on when Walter comes to mind. As soon as Walter comes to mind, Maria stops dimming the light. Do you know how much electricity that wastes, Walter said whenever Maria turned the dimmer switch, Stop that. The last one out turns off the light, Herr Willert would say when they all left the shop in the evening, when all the work was done and the next day lay ahead. Did you remember all the lights, the one in the break room, too, Herr Willert would ask as he locked the door and pulled down the security shutters, right before they parted ways on the street. Herr Willert usually ducked into Espresso a little farther down the street to enjoy a drop of liquid courage, as he said: Goodnight, I’m off for a drop of liquid courage. He never asked for company, and there were days when the liquid courage sounded like liquid urge. Herr Willert never asked for company, and nobody ever offered. He only came to Bistro Brigitte when there was something to celebrate, and it felt strange to have him join their regular table and say, The next round is on me, Frau Herta, I insist. Maria takes the newspaper lying in her lap, picks it up, sees the cover of the book she had hidden beneath it, the book she had taken out of the sideboard earlier. Every day of unemployment costs you money. Every day of unemployment lowers your market value. On the Monday morning that Maria reads these two sentences, she has been out of work for a year and four months. She thinks: Remember, remember, and brushes the tips of her toes back and forth across the carpet. Herr Willert did not want to be accompanied, at least that was how it seemed. If 90 days are up and you have not yet found work, please read the chapter, “Day 91: Last Days.” Herr Willert would say, The last one out turns off the light, and Maria liked it when the lights went out behind her in the evening. When everything was in its place, when it was quiet and she was the last to leave the boutique. When the day was finished. There are good days and there are bad days, Herr Willert would say, and at the end of the day, the day is always done.
Maria opens the newspaper, she reads: African woman dismembers streetcar conductor with saw. She sees a photo of a man in an undershirt, champagne flute in hand, no smile on his face. Maria clutches her head, she reads no further, she turns the page to the animal pictures. Axel is looking for a new home, Bonnie is shy at first, but then needs lots of love. Maria turns to the job ads and quickly closes the newspaper. She looks toward the window. Frau Beerenberger, you’re allowed to be angry, says the old woman from the fourth floor in the building across the way, Let it all out, it’s obvious you’re unhappy. Maria leans back. I say No a single time, and he cuts me off. Yes, he cut me off, my caseworker’s colleague, because my caseworker was on vacation and off lying in the sun somewhere, on vacation or sick, what’s the difference. What does that mean. What it means is that, following Paragraph Ten, my unemployment benefits are cut for six weeks. No, I’m not laughing, am I. I sent out three job applications of my own that week, but didn’t apply for the job at the gourmet shop. And because I didn’t apply, now I’m cut off for six weeks. You know, I studied how to work with fabrics, not sausages. Do you know what it’s like to submit three applications a week and to wait for letters, to wait for responses, for invitations. I don’t care. No, I really don’t care, I’m not as choosy as I used to be, if it says “shoe salesperson,” I’ll take a look, even though I don’t want to sell shoes. I’m open to anything, but sausage, sausage I won’t sell. That’s what I’ll tell my caseworker when I see her again, the day after tomorrow. Am I furious with Herr Willert. No, I understand him, Herr Willert is a good man. Am I furious with his son. How did you know about that. There are days when I’d like to gouge out his eyes, but I’m just saying that, I wouldn’t know how to gouge out someone’s eyes.
But I am furious with him, yes, furious. No, I don’t think that clean windows are important. No, I don’t think that my gaze is overly harsh. No, I’m not afraid of what the neighbors think when they see my unwashed window ledges. People should mind their own business, and you, you need to be more careful, you are far too old to be standing on a window ledge. Yes, you are old, and even if you weren’t, it would still be dangerous.
40 Between the Trees
When your house pet freezes to death in the refrigerator, you’re faced with an unpleasant situation. Sitting on the bench on the balcony, Maria can stretch out her legs till her feet touch the railing. She is wearing her lambskin-lined winter shoes, and when Maria stretches out her legs, she cannot feel the rails—which she can grab with her toes in summer—through the soles. The paint is flaking off in one spot, revealing rust underneath, and in summer Maria picks at it with her toes till a chip of paint separates and falls to the ground. On sunny winter days, she gets a cushion from the living room and lays it on the bench, because otherwise it would be too cold to sit there. Sometimes Maria forgets the cushion outside, and it gets damp overnight. Unpleasant is the wrong word, Maria thinks and pulls in her legs. When your house pet freezes in the refrigerator, you have to account for a death. There is no cushion under Otto’s box, it sits on the bench as it sat, until recently, in the crisper. Until this morning, when Maria opened the refrigerator and noticed the ice that had formed on the back wall of the refrigerator. Maria looks over at Otto. Jump, she says. Come on, jump, don’t just sit there. But Otto cannot jump, the box is closed. Maria has placed the box out of the sun, so he would not thaw too quickly. She carefully removes the lid. Then she waits, it is a mild winter day. Snow and ice fall from the houses, and everything is dripping. As if the houses were crying, someone once said, Be careful the ice doesn’t kill you.
I regularly made sure he had enough air, Maria thinks, his bowels were emptied, I prepared him well. I filled the box with soil, then added a layer of moss and leaves. I always kept the moss and leaves damp, but not wet. I made sure he had enough air. Maria looks over at Otto. She wants to stay seated till the frost has disappeared from the top of his body and the leaves have loosened from his underside. This time he won’t twitch when I touch him, Maria thinks and smiles. She runs her finger over Otto without touching him. Like she did with the tomcat in the courtyard whenever he came over to the vegetable patch. From his head down over his back, hovering two centimeters above his body, the tomcat liked that, and he would purr with his mouth open. He did not like being touched. Whenever he was touched, the tomcat would flatten his ears against his head and bite down hard on the offending hand. The tomcat was homeless, Walter said, but Isolde put out a bowl of kibble for him every day. The homeless tomcat grew fatter than the cats living in the building, whose ears he would shred if they ever strayed into his territory. Otto’s box sits where the tomcat would sometimes try to cross the balcony to get into the kitchen, till Walter threw his slipper at him.
I made sure he had enough air. I let him rest. I opened the refrigerator quietly. I monitored the temperature with a thermometer, five degrees, never above eight degrees Celsius. At temperatures above eight degrees, Otto would have woken up. The frost on Otto’s back begins to break away, his eyes are still covered by a layer of white. His body is hard, but Maria does not touch him. Maria sits next to Otto, she says: Let’s wait, leave no stone unturned, every man is the architect of his own fortune. You know, there was a man on television recently, well-to-do, a good-looking man, well-to-do men know how to dress. He had cancer and the doctors said the cancer was inoperable. They operated anyway, the man has a clean bill of health. Because he believed in himself, he said on TV, the most important thing you can do is to believe in yourself. Life is a series of tests, and only those who pass will ever win. That’s what he said.
translated from German by Elisabeth Lauffer
Anna Weidenholzer, Der Winter tut den Fischen gut © 2013 Residenz Verlag Gmbh
Anna Weidenholzer was born in 1984 in Linz, Austria and now lives in Vienna. She studied comparative literature in Vienna and Wroclaw, Poland, during which time she also worked as a reporter for a local newspaper. Her fiction has appeared widely in literary magazines and anthologies since 2009, and her first collection of stories, The Dog’s Place, was published in 2010. Ms. Weidenholzer’s 2012 novel, Winter is Good for Fish, was nominated for the Leipzig Book Prize in 2013. Why the Men Are Wearing Starfish, published with Matthes & Seitz Berlin in 2016, was longlisted for the German Book Prize. Her new novel will appear this fall.
Elisabeth Lauffer is a German-English translator based in the US. She majored in German Studies at Wesleyan University and obtained her master’s in education from Harvard. In 2014, she received the Gutekunst Prize of the Friends of Goethe New York, which marked the start of her work in literary translation. Her book publications include Michael Ohl’s The Art of Naming and Christian Welzbacher’s The Radical Fool of Capitalism for the MIT Press as well as Alexander Pschera’s Animal Internet, published by New Vessel Press. Her translation of The German House, by Annette Hess, will appear this fall with HarperVia.
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