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THE RETIREE

 

 

 

His desires slowed as he grew older, and as they slowed there arose eddies and swirlings, back-currents, stagnancies, appetites that were previously unknown. These appetites were not as strong as the appetites of his younger self. However, Hauptman chose not to fight them, as his younger self might have done. He no longer had a particular view of his own nature.

Recently, two important things had happened: he had retired, and his wife had left him. He thought, ‘I spent a lifetime at the bank, and I supported her. Now I am free.’

He adopted the clothes of a man without responsibilities: a pale jacket, loose cotton trousers, and shoes of thin light-coloured leather. He felt that he was pleasantly vanishing, that he watched but was unseen. In this mood Hauptman wondered about the folk he passed in the street, about shopkeepers and their hidden lives, and about his neighbours – an angry businessman who rushed up the stairs, the newlyweds in the next apartment, and a lame old woman on the floor above who clumped about at night. He hid his interest. He believed that no one knew of it.

He also observed himself, because his nature was changing. He would wait to discover where the changes led.

Some of this waiting took place in cafés. It was a small town, and Hauptman sat and watched its people and thought for the first time that perhaps they might be entirely understood, all their connections of trade and friendship and passion. At the bank he had studied their business affairs, but now he watched the townsfolk pausing for coffee or greeting their friends, and he desired a fuller knowledge. In this pursuit, Hauptman found a helper.

Karle was a large man. His back was straight and his chest and belly strained against the buttons of his double-breasted coat, which was rather tight and no longer suited the spring warmth. He might have been a retired general, except for the large cheap ring on his little finger and a scarf of green silk which he encouraged to puff up under his chin. His hair was brown and full, combed straight back from a perfect hairline, with oily curls at the back that stained his collar.

He was a failed businessman, known to Hauptman from his years at the bank. How often Hauptman had conducted him to the manager’s desk, where Karle laughed and complained, seeking to delay a repayment or describing a ‘wonderful opportunity’ that deserved a further loan. But it seemed that Karle too had retired, or perhaps was discouraged, so that Hauptman saw another side to the man: he saw that Karle was a true citizen of the town. He gossiped with concierges; he bowed to housekeepers and cleaners; he leaned on the counters of the smaller shops, listening to shopkeepers while customers came and went; he greeted laundrymaids, their arms weighted with baskets, who paused in the street to discuss their clients; he idled with gamblers and travelling salesmen, and took coffee with a policeman who patrolled the merchants’ district. If an old woman was sweeping her steps, he would loiter to talk, his hat off in the old-fashioned way, clasped in both hands at his waist while she complained of her ailments and of the late nights kept by her tenants, while Karle tut-tutted and shook his head and remembered it all.

Hauptman thought, ‘He is a success in this trade at least,’ meaning that Karle exchanged gossip for gossip and was never without assets. For this reason Hauptman admired him, but also saw him like a servant, who brought him the secrets of the town.

The two men did not arrange their meetings, but it was understood that Hauptman might be encountered at lunchtime in certain cafés. No more than two or three such places were possible, so that Karle was pleased but never surprised to find him in one of the small squares of the town, blinking in the feeble spring sun, at his elbow a tiny coffee and a glass of water. The crumbs of a pastry would be visible on his clothes, for Hauptman had discovered gluttony and indulged this like his other new desires.

‘Cognac,’ Karle would call, snapping his fingers good-humouredly at the waiter. He was reluctant to sit down. He greeted Hauptman with a bow, his large face creased with good cheer, but would stay on his feet, turning slowly to the other diners, genial, as if expecting a friend’s greeting or perhaps the general acclamation of the crowd, though Hauptman had never seen anyone return his gaze.

At last Karle would sit, disappointed perhaps that his audience would again be small. But he soon recovered, because Hauptman was so attentive. Blinking like a cat in the sun, Hauptman smiled and murmured while Karle leaned forward with a whispered confidence or threw himself back in his chair, laughing at his own stories and turning to neighbouring tables as if to share the joke which they hadn’t heard.

Today’s subject was a schoolmate of the son of his tailor, who had seduced a Jewish girl, the daughter of a rich bookseller, well-known in the next town. ‘Very well-known,’ Karle repeated with relish. And of course this made the matter all the more entertaining, the thought of this rich Jew humiliated: ‘One anticipates his anger, his shame!’ said Karle happily, leaning forward, his thick fingers holding for a moment the cuff of Hauptman’s sleeve, Hauptman smelling his meaty breath. Then Karle leaned back, glowing with pleasure, turning again to the nearby tables.

At these moments, Hauptman suspected that others in the café knew Karle, and perhaps had been his grateful audience until they decided that, well, enough was enough. For the moment, though, Hauptman was content: he was learning the secrets of the town.

And sometimes – most rare and therefore most precious – these secrets would be linked, so that Karle might say, ‘Yes, and this was the gentleman whose daughter I mentioned with regard to the paperweight taken from Herr Wolfowitz’s parlour.’ What joy at that moment! How Hauptman held his breath and blinked more slowly and was moved as if by profound music, seeing these events secretly connected, like a tunnel under the town, arch after groyne after arch, coming in this way to a consumation.

But what was this? It seemed that Karle had taken up the menu. He didn’t open it. It was merely in his hand as he looked contentedly around the square. Then he laid the menu down and Hauptman was irritated. Every day Karle would lay the menu down again, his hand flat upon it, while he shared another anecdote or admired the pretty townhouses with their windowboxes of spring flowers. Then once more he would take it up, and this time open it, holding it one-handed, somewhat to the side, glancing at it while he talked of other things. It was understood that Hauptman would pay.

When at last the menu was read and the waiter questioned, Karle would place his order with many shrugs, as if he were not a hungry man who had eaten only a bread roll since his last lunch with Hauptman.

Hauptman didn’t eat, his appetite spoiled by the sweetmeats whose powdered sugar stained his coat. Karle would not take such risks with his clothes, instead lifting the hem of the tablecloth and tucking it under his chin, hunching forward as he ate, his broad shoulders over the plate. It was startling, a little disgusting, but Karle declared that he had learned this fashion in the salons of Vienna, where he had spent several happy months during his fiftieth year, and where a certain bohemian freedom was tolerated, even admired.

‘This small town,’ he said, looking around discontented, his mouth full, no one meeting his eye. ‘Provincial is the word, sir. No doubt you agree.’ And he would look sulky, perhaps feeling that his audience had betrayed him. Hauptman smiled, but really he did not like this business with the tablecloth, so that perhaps there were limits to his tolerance, and perhaps Karle was a vulgar man and in his own way dangerous.

For the moment, though, Hauptman would indulge himself. He had spent so many long afternoons at the bank! And hadn’t he been happiest there when he learned the affairs of others? He had not sought the highest office, preferring to watch and not decide, so that his present role was a continuation of his career, to see the town laid out, its secrets revealed, albeit through this rather vulgar man, whose face was now red from feeding, who scraped his plate with the edge of his knife, and slipped a bread roll into his pocket, and said, ‘Herr Hauptman! Do you recall the magistrate’s son? The magistrate who is the fishing companion of my friend the policeman? Whose neighbour was burgled by the gypsies?’

Hauptman prepared himself. His chest grew tight with anticipation. It seemed that another of those great linkages might be completed, another tunnel under the town that showed how one gallery led to another, the townsfolk revealed, and what they wished to hide laid bare. ‘Herr Hauptman, that young man is mightily disturbed. His new wife has found that their disgusting old neighbour is watching them. In their most intimate moments. The wretch has placed a mirror – can you imagine? – on the balcony of his apartment. He thinks it will not be noticed, but he is mad, the thing is obvious. Naturally the boy has informed his father. There will be a scandal. Yes, a fine scandal!’

Here Karle stopped in surprise. ‘But Herr Hauptman, are you leaving? Are you not well? Here, you have forgotten your hat. My dear sir, this is very strange. And must I pay? Herr Hauptman, this is unfair. If I may ask you, who will pay?’


////ENDS



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