All the Same to Him
Translated by: Matthew Glasser
Artwork by Jean-Paul Riopelle
Then the Finn rang. A broad man with a taut face, a trenchcoat over his arm, a caramel-colored diplomatic briefcase before him on the floor between his feet. Smiling, he looked at me; didn’t say anything, and looked at me, with an expression of frank and calm appraisal. And before I could ask him anything, he gave me a satisfied nod, picked up his briefcase, and walked into the kitchen, bringing with him a smell of vinegar.
“We only lack for money,” I said. “Nothing else. We have everything we need otherwise.”
He shook his head, made a movement with his hands at once taken aback and defensive. His face took on a look of distressed surprise -- from which I concluded I wasn’t the first person he’d visited in his affairs. Then he regarded the kitchen, went over to the scratchy sofa, tested the springs by giving the material a couple of quick, jerky presses with his turned-out fists, and finally sat down on the stool by the drain sink. I looked at his plum-dark suit -- the pants had a wide flare, like the ones sailors wear, and he had a turtle-neck sweater on under his jacket -- and told him I couldn’t buy or sell anything without my wife, that for the time being she was the sole provider for the family. At this, he gave me a wink of pained understanding, took out a cigarette case , and offered me one of his last two cigarettes. We smoked silently. He observed the gas stove intently, got up suddenly and said he was a Finn, and that he'd had something to take care of in the city. His compact body lightly swayed forward and back, his lips opened as though searching for a vanished taste, and he looked out the window down at the empty playground and nodded and smiled to himselfwhispering something I didn’t understand. I felt the fatigue return, thought of Elsa, who would soon be coming back, and turned to him with a gesture of definitive regret. He understood the gesture -- the unspoken invitation that lay in it. He came up to me, and asked if I was ready to rent him the kitchen. He turned about slowly, stretching his hands out to demonstrate the narrowness of the room and the modesty of his request, as though to say: “This only, nothing more.”
If there’d been no Elsa, I would have accepted the arrangement with no hesitation, but as I knew how much the kitchen meant to her, I repeated that I couldn’t make a decision in the absence of my wife. He doubtfully regarded the walls of the kitchen, where indistinct stains were spread out like faded maps; he looked at the sofa and the shelf, where Elsa’s hair-curlers lay: he didn’t take back his decision. He approached the gas stove, turned the knob by way of testing it, without taking up a match or igniter , bent his upper body down in the hope of hearing the hissing noise the gas makes. I waited until he’d righted himself again and explained that the stove wasn’t paid for yet, that we paid it off by inserting a coin into the slit each time we used it. This explanation seemed to satisfy him, for he nodded approvingly and asked me -- in a tone, as though the decision had already been made -- when he could take the kitchen. And, as though to demonstrate to me that he would make good use of the stove, he shoved his hand in his pocket and rubbed some coins together. I had no wish to make conversation with him, to find out what he was doing in our city and what induced him to rent our kitchen. I only had the feeling that I should stay out of his affairs, take no part in them -- no knowledge, no speculations.
Then he came up to me. I smelled his vinegary breath, saw his reddened eyes, which miscarried a solicitous wink: the last prod, the last approach with which he hoped to win me over. Smiling, he pulled out his saffron-yellow wallet, opened my hand, and counted out all the moneyit contained – three green twenties. Then he closed my hand, and shoved the empty wallet into his jacket. A new superiority filled him, the superiority of legal claim. Now that he’d been able to slip me the money, and with a familiarity that didn’t surprise me, he laid his arm on my shoulder, looked up at me slantwise, broad and pleased, then stepped back and observed me from the front, walked around me once, and said he had no intention of depriving us of our kitchen for long. Just as long as it took, is how long he would stay, he said.; he didn’t plan to stay out the full sixty marks, the rest of the afternoon might be enough.
The bills were real. I shoved them loosely into my jacket pocket and decided at the same moment to pick up Elsa at work. The Finn showed me some coins and asked me if they would be enough. Since I wasn’t sure, I gave him all the coins I had on me, made a gesture with which I ceded the kitchen to him, pulled the knot of my scarf tighter, and went to the door. Before I closed the door, I heard him fall down onto the sofa and pull off his shoes, which made a plopping sound as they fell to the floor.
On the way to the ice cream parlor I changed the first twenty, bought cigarettes and rum truffles for Elsa, debated whether I should pick up the shoes from the shoe repair, which had been ready for a while now, but walked past it through the damp, foggy afternoon that was riven by the droning ship sirens in the harbor. The cold, damp air lay over one’s lungs, ruined the women’s hair-dos, condensed in droplets on shopwindows. At the intersection before the bridge the ambulance had stopped. Two medics came by carrying a man with a lacerated face on a stretcher. Police were scattering flour over skid marks, measuring and photographing them. I bought a second bag of rum truffles to give Elsa next morning.
As I entered the ice cream parlor, Elsa’s relief came up out of the twilight, a small, bony woman in a black velvet dress. It took her a moment to recognize me, and she said Elsa was just over at the fish market -- she pointed at her coat, that still hung in the closet, and offered me a seat on a padded bench by the radiator. I didn’t want to wait, and took Elsa’s coat from the hook and went with it over my arm to the fish market. The market was across the street, I couldn’t tell if Elsa was inside, but when I saw a fleshy, scaly hand shove into the display case, snatch two big smoked mackerels by the gills and disappear with them, I knew Elsa was in there, and I knew what we were to have for supper.
She looked at me with brief surprise, handed me the shopping bag, put on the coat, and hooked arms with me steering me instinctively in the direction of our apartment. Shortly before we reached our street I began to oppose this steady pull -- this soft, instinctive urging -- with another of my own: I felt how our bodies lightly separated from each other like moored boats that slip into different currents, felt her stiff resistance, her confusion, and as I gently pulled her around and forced her into the street towards the exhibition grounds, she stopped and looked at me, perplexed.
I gave her a cellophane bag with rum truffles, which she held suspiciously in her hand, not taking any. She asked: “Where did you get the money?” And I said: “A Finn rented our kitchen, just for a short time, only in passing, perhaps just until this evening. He paid in advance.” Warily, she pulled her arm free, reached for the shopping bag, which I hid behind by back, and pressed the palms of her hands over her ears as an airplane flew low over us. “Come on,” I said. “We’ll go to the exhibition. Later we’ll get some food and go to the movies.” Elsa stretched out her hand for the shopping bag, which I refused her, and asked: “What is he doing in our kitchen? What? Is he using the stove? Did you tidy up?” A group of vocational school students coming from the exhibition approached, Elsa hooked arms with me again, and I said: “The Finn is a serious man. He paid me sixty marks in advance. Come on now -- today you are my guest. Time enough for everything else.”
After a while her grip grew firmer. She sought my wrist and encircled it with her red, rough fingers, and we went to the glass-roofed halls of the confectioners' exhibition. Men with dented baker’s hats, with white aprons and trousers of shepherd’s plaid, called out in welcome as we came in, pointed us to a coarse gravel path, handed us leaflets, brochures, educational booklets about “the essence of confection.” Elsa laid her cheek on my shoulder, took a bite from a rum truffle: I could see how much she enjoyed the light state of excitement this visit put her in, a visit she’d so often asked me to take her on.
Before the display cabinets she let go of my arm, happy and distracted, ran here and there in aimless amazement, poked the tip of her index finger against the glass wall of the display cabinets, called my name out loud, beckoned me over excitedly, shot over to a new discovery before I could reach her, smiled at a solemn confectioner, smacked her lips, rubbed her belly unselfconsciously, beckoned me over again: nothing made her happier than sweets. Meringues; puff pastry and short pastry,; the towers of the pyramid cakes glistening with icing; the flat weight of nut-crusted buttercream tortes; eclairs and chocolate marshmallows, even the vile, poisonous sweetness of red, green, and pink-colored fruit pieces as as well as the sickly white of whipped cream: it all put her into a confused state of excitation, she seemed capable of devouring everything there on the spot. She’d forgotten her suspicion and her disappointment with me, until we reached the hall with the foreign sweets. And then, before an unpretentious honey cake from Finland, she turned to me, scrunched up the empty cellophane bag and said, “I want to go home. Who knows what’s going on in our kitchen? The Finn is all alone there.”
“We want to go out to eat after this,” I said. “You promised.” An expression of hesitation appeared on her soft face, which could never hide anything. “What if something happens?,” she asked. “What if he only rented our kitchen to . . .” She sighed, looked at me fixedlyand encouragingly, smiled sadly, as though she wanted me to understand she was up for anything, as soon as she had the uncertainty about what was going on in our kitchen behind her, but I said: “We’ll go to the movies first, then,” and she fell silent, and came along, still unable to completely free herself from her suspicion.
In the movie theater, it was warm and dank. The paper that held the mackerels began to soak through. I placed the bag on the floor. The feature had already begun, a movie about a singer who felt she must have lost her voice on some particular occasion, and was now attempting to get it back through a desperate journey into her past. As long as she was on this quest, Elsa held my hand, and by the shift in pressure from her fingers I could feel how involved she was in this search that took the singer though hotels of varying price ranges, to men of different incomes, and finally to a small, chalk-white church in the mountains of Abruzzi, where her voice came back to her as expected. From then on the voice took on the lead role.
The pressure from Elsa’s hand gradually let off, and suddenly she got up without a word, without any notice, pushed down the row of seats as though she didn’t belong to me, went in a crouch to the exit. I felt for the shopping bag in the dark, the seat whipped back, a low grumbling and shuffling went through the row and accompanied me to the aisle. Elsa was waiting for me in the theater’s drafty lobby; she took the shopping bag from me with a quick grasp as though it were loot, nodded at me with a helpless look on her face, and went ahead of me to the street.. I followed her slowly, didn’t make any attempt to overtake her or even keep her in sight, as she ran to our apartment in the thin, sun-bleached coat she’d forgotten to do up. A ship’s foghorn rang out again behind me, near and urgent and direct, so that I turned around half expecting to see a ship’s bow approaching down the wet asphalt, a bow reaching up to the insulators on the telephone poles. As I turned back, I noticed an ad for a new filter cigarette on a tobacco shop. I bought a pack to check it out, went back onto the street: Elsa was nowhere in sight.
In front of the post office, a few children were teasing a wild old man. He had a dirty, meter-long bandage hanging out of his pantleg like the forgotten stern line of a ship, which,gesticulating and threatening, he was trying to pull in hand over hand, , while the children frustrated his efforts by stepping on the end. As soon as he’d gotten hold of a piece and stuffed it into his pantleg, a handsome young lad would make a well-timed jump and land on the end that was still hanging out.: a single pull brought the scrunched ball of material back out of the pants. The old man threatened mutely, worked mutely, his lips moved in silent revolt. Then a police officer appeared and gave him the opportunity to recover the bandage in peace. The old man pulled himself along the handrail up to the post office and I went off in no hurry to the building where we lived.
Elsa was nowhere to be seen. The doors of the downstairs apartments were open, neighbors were standing out in front; on seeing me their conversation stopped, they instinctively recoiled and nodded at one another as though in furtive confirmation, and I could sense them coming back out as I went up the steps, accompanying me step for step to the next storey, where the apartment doors likewise stood open, the neighbors hushing their whispered conversations as soon as they recognized me, and following me with barely contained revulsion. On the second floor I noticed a slight smell of gas that grew stronger and stronger the closer I came to our apartment. In our hall a woman rushed up to me, her hand flew up, her small mouth opened to cry out, but I can’t remember if I heard her cry. I looked beyond the woman out at the other faces, and even in the eternal twilight of the hall I could make out their silent contempt. Before I entered our apartment, I knew someone had already come to get the Finn.
**Riopelle, Jean Paul. Sur les traces, 1958, McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinburg Ontario, MicMichael Canadian Art Collection, Web. 27 March 2015.
Siegfried Lenz, though less known in the English-speaking world than his contemporaries Günter Grass and Heinrich Böll, was a major, widely read writer in Germany. He had his first big success in 1955 with the publication of So Zärtlich War Suleyken (“So Tender Was Suleyken”), a collection of humorous, wistful short stories about the lost world of the East Prussian city of Lyck (now Elk in Poland) where he spent his boyhood. In 1968, he won international acclaim with Deutschstunde (translated as The German Lesson), a novel about a police officer in the Third Reich who, out of a perverse sense of duty, enforces the ban against an artist friend’s painting. Lenz, though a very popular writer – his works were perennially on the German best-seller lists – was more ambivalently received by critics, who considered his writing, which by and large dispensed with the formal experimentation of his contemporaries, old-fashioned. He died in 2014 at the age of 88.