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by Kevin Blahut
illustrated by Pavel RÛt
twi sted spoon press
Translation copyright © 2002 by Kevin Blahut
Illustration copyright © 2002 by Pavel RÛt
Copyright © 2002 by Twisted Spoon Press
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or
reproduced in any form, save for the purposes of review, without
the written permission of the publisher.
si nce hi s twenti eth year Franz Polzer had been a clerk
in a bank. Every morning at quarter to eight he would go to his
ofﬁce, never a minute earlier or later. When he stepped from
the side street where he lived, the clock in the tower would strike
During the entire time Franz Polzer had been a clerk, he had
changed neither his position nor his apartment. He had moved
into the apartment after giving up his studies and entering his
profession. The woman from whom he rented the apartment
was a widow, about as old as he was. She was in the year of
mourning for her husband when he moved in with her.
In the many years of his time as a clerk Franz Polzer had
never been on the street in the late morning, except on Sundays.
He had forgotten what the city was like during the day, when
shops are open and hurrying people are pushing each other on
the streets. He had never missed a day at the bank.
The streets through which he walked in the morning offered
the same picture every day. In the shops the shutters were being
pulled up. The workers stood in front of the doors, waiting for
their bosses. Every day he met the same people, schoolgirls and
schoolboys, tired female clerks, ill-tempered men who were hur-
rying to their ofﬁces. He walked behind them, the people of his
daytime, as hurriedly, thoughtlessly, and unnoticed as one of
People had predicted that, because of his talents, Franz Polzer
would attain a leading position in his profession through dili-
gence and perseverance. The entire time he had never considered
that, basically, the hopes he had attached to his career had not
been fulﬁlled. He had forgotten these thoughts. He forgot them
in all the small tasks that had carved up his time since the very
beginning. He would get up in the morning, wash, get dressed,
glance at the paper while still eating his breakfast, and set off
for the bank. He would sit at his desk, on which piles of papers
had been heaped. These had to be compared with the entries in
the books in the shelves around him. Every sheet that he had
checked over, he marked with his initials and then put in a folder.
Around him in the room and in the cubicles many other men
and women sat at desks that looked exactly like his. The smell
of these men and women, the sound of their monotonous occu-
pation and conversations, pervaded the whole building. Franz
Polzer was completely suited to his occupation. It offered no
occasion for distinction, and thus also no opportunity for
attracting the attention of his superiors.
At midday he would eat at a small tavern near the bank. The
afternoon passed like the late morning. At six p.m. he would
organize the papers and pencils on his desk, lock his drawer, and
go home. The widow would bring him a simple dinner in his
small room. He would remove his shoes, jacket and shirt-collar.
After dinner he would read the paper thoroughly for one hour.
Then he would lie down to sleep. He slept badly. But he seldom
dreamt. When he did dream, he dreamt that he had forgotten
his initials, which he had to write hundreds of times every day,
or that his hand was paralyzed, or that his pencil would not write.
In the morning, Polzer would get up like every other morn-
ing, and begin his day, which passed like every other day. He
was sullen and morose, but it never occurred to him that there
could also be something else besides sitting at his place in the
bank every day, that it was possible to get up later, go for a walk
through the streets, to eat two eggs in a glass for breakfast in a
café and eat lunch in a good restaurant.
Among the interruptions of this monotony, one had made a
particular impression on Polzer. This was the death of his father.
Polzer had never been close to his father. What probably con-
tributed to this was that Polzer’s mother had died soon after his
birth. Maybe she would have been able to mitigate some of the
conﬂicts. His father was a small shopkeeper in a country town.
Polzer’s room was attached to his father’s shop. His father was a
stern, hard-working, unapproachable man. From his early boy-
hood Franz Polzer had to help his father in the shop, and hardly
any time remained for him to do his homework. Nevertheless his
father demanded that he get good grades. Once when Polzer
had a bad mark, his father refused to give him dinner for four
weeks. At the time Polzer had been seventeen.
One of his father’s sisters lived in the house, a childless widow,
who had moved in with his father in order to manage the house-
keeping after Polzer’s mother had died. Polzer had the murky
idea that his father’s sister had forced his dead mother out of
the house, and from the very ﬁrst moment had opposed her
with undisguised aversion. His aunt also made no secret of her
feelings for him. She called him a bad boy who would never
amount to anything in the world, dismissed him as gluttonous
and lazy. She gave him so little to eat that he was forced to have
an extra key made to her cupboard, and at night to steal secretly
in his father’s house.
A problem resulted from this, which can only be spoken of
with great reserve. At the time Polzer was fourteen years old and
had the easily excited imagination of boys, which is further stim-
ulated by hate. Of the relations between man and woman he
had no other idea than that it was something gruesome, in and
of itself nauseating. The thought of a naked female body ﬁlled
him with disgust. He had once entered his aunt’s room when
she was washing. The image of her wilted upper body, her tiredly
drooping ﬂesh, made an impression on him that would not leave
his memory. One night he was standing in the dark threshold of
the shop, in front of the open bread cupboard, when the door to
his aunt’s room opened. He pressed himself against the wall.
His father stepped from the bright frame of the door, wearing a
nightshirt. For a moment, behind him, the image of Polzer’s aunt
appeared like a shadow. She bolted the door from the inside.
His father walked right past him. His shirt was open, and
even though it was dark Polzer thought he could see his hairy
chest. For a moment he was brushed by the smell of fresh rolls
that his father always took from the shop. Polzer held his breath
and remained motionless long after the door of his father’s room
had closed behind him.
This experience awakened impressions in Polzer that would
have lasting effects on his later life. Even though he had seen
only his aunt’s shadow, he convinced himself that she had been
naked. From then on he was haunted by the idea of the vile scenes
that his father and his aunt must be acting out at night. Polzer had
no other reasons for this suspicion than this one experience. And
even later nothing occurred to clearly corroborate his opinion.
Polzer spent his nights, until morning, without sleeping. He
listened. He believed he could hear creaking doors and careful,
tentative steps on the rotten ﬂoorboards of the old house. He
emerged from a light slumber and felt that he had heard a sup-
pressed cry. He was ﬁlled with bitter revulsion. At the same time,
curiosity forced him to tiptoe past his aunt’s door at night. He
could never hear anything but her breathing.
Polzer’s father often beat him, and his aunt held him. In
dreams his horror for the sight of his father was inﬁnite; horror
for his ﬁlthy clothes, his blunt, red dream-face. And behind this
face he could see his aunt, encouraging his father to torment
and beat him. When Polzer had such dreams, he wanted to be
beaten again during the day. It was as though he needed to make
everything true, also his hatred for his father, by actually feeling
the blows of the heavy ﬁsts on his back. At the same time he
felt that he was already an adult, but then he thought that he was
weaker, much weaker than his father.
A maid named Milka worked for the people who lived on
the second ﬂoor of the house. She wore a loose blouse and often
came to the shop. Once Polzer saw his father touch one of Milka’s
breasts. That evening Polzer dropped a plate on the ﬂoor. His
father beat him and his aunt dug her ﬁngers into his lean ﬂesh.
He did not cry, and because of this his father beat him more
severely. This is what Franz Polzer wanted.
Whenever he had the opportunity, he would leave the shop
and walk around the streets of the small town, just so that he did
not have to be at home. He often spent the entire day in the
house of a rich man named Fanta, whose son went to Gymnasium
with him. A deep friendship bound him to Karl Fanta. At ﬁrst
Polzer had been reluctant to enter the Fantas’ house. He knew
that the Jews had murdered the Savior and that they worshipped
their God with dark, cruel customs. He thought it must be sin-
ful and dangerous for a Roman Catholic to visit the house of a
Jew. Milka told his aunt that she had worked for Jews before,
and that she had run away before Easter. Because she had been
afraid. Polzer was able to overcome his fear only gradually,
through his love for Karl Fanta. Karl Fanta saw that Polzer was
unhappy, and often both boys embraced, kissing each other while
Polzer did not dare to open his heart to Karl Fanta. He grew
up in the small, narrow house, in the dirty shop where he was
forced to spend his free time between sacks of ﬂour and pepper,
pickle jars and boxes of candied fruit, asking insigniﬁcant peo-
ple what they wanted, or sweeping the ﬂoor. He was ashamed of
this shop. He was ashamed of his father, whose jacket was always
covered with ﬂour, who deferentially got out of the way when a
rich bourgeois walked toward him. And he was ashamed of his
aunt, who did not wear a hat, and whose black hair was slightly
graying at the temples and disheveled by the wind. She also did
not wear a kerchief on her head; one always saw the white line
where her hair was parted, between the black hairs on the left and
on the right. His friend’s mother was a large, digniﬁed woman,
who wore jewelry and dark clothes. She had a pale face with
ﬁne features, like her son, who bore a great resemblance to her.
She also had black hair like his aunt, but it was combed into a
crest. At her temples, as was the case with her son, one could
see small, shimmering blue veins. The most beautiful thing
about her, as with Karl, was her narrow white hands. Karl’s
father was a corpulent gentleman, who spoke softly and delib-
erately, full of conﬁdence and dignity. In this environment, in
front of Karl, who was so beautiful, Polzer could say nothing
about his father’s small shop.
Polzer brushed his suit and pressed his pants under books. He
wanted to look like a Gymnasium student from a bourgeois
household and not like an old widower’s son. He concealed his
hands, which were thick and red from his work in the shop, a
habit that contributed to the impression of great uncertainty
and awkwardness, which, even later, he never shook off. When
a stranger was visiting Karl’s parents and quietly asked the mas-
ter of the house about Franz Polzer, Polzer was aware that he
blushed. It was as though this question were asked as quietly
and unobtrusively as possible. Franz Polzer did not hear it; he felt
it with an excessively sharpened inner ear.
He wanted nothing more than to be from a good home. He
blushed a long time afterward when someone asked him more
speciﬁcally about his background. He always answered evasively.
Sometimes he lied and said his father had been a Gymnasium
teacher, or a judge. Once he even said that he was the son of an
industrialist. In the next moment he felt the scrutinizing glance
of the questioner glide over his suit, and, with humiliation,
became aware of how wretched he looked.
Karl Fanta’s father made it possible for him to attend the
university in the capital. Polzer moved in with Karl. He decided
to study medicine, while Karl studied law. Polzer was happy to
have left home. He no longer had to see the shame of the shop
before him, to obey his father’s strict commands, to see the part
in his aunt’s hair and feel her words of abuse. From home he
took a single memory that had always been dear to him: the
memory of his mother. He had hardly known her. However, he
believed he could remember that she had had him brought to
her on her deathbed, where she lay with her hair undone. She
pressed him to her and his hair became wet with her tears. This
memory always warmed his heart. He ﬂed from his aunt’s hate
to his mother’s love, which grew in the same measure as his
aversion for his aunt grew stronger.
Polzer’s relationship with Karl was as intimate as such a rela-
tion between two young men of the same age could be. Polzer
was happy to be able to live beside this beautiful young man,
whose self-assurance and irreproachability he admired no less
than the noble proportions of his body. Karl was always friendly
to him, and Polzer felt a great need to be able to read Karl’s
wishes from his eyes and help him in small ways. He prepared
his linen for him and made sure that there was not a single speck
of dust on Karl’s clothes. Karl had black hair that felt like silk.
Despite his friendly conﬁdences, Polzer often felt that Karl,
inwardly, took no notice of him. He longed for a small show of
tenderness, a repetition of those boyhood kisses. But this longing
was not fulﬁlled.
At the university people praised Polzer’s industry and intel-
ligence. He passed the ﬁrst preliminary examinations with
excellent results. Then Karl became sick and the doctors sent
him to the south, where he was supposed to stay for a year. No
longer the companion of his rich friend, it was impossible for
Polzer to continue his studies, and he was fortunate that Karl’s
father found him a position in the bank.
After a short time in the bank he became a different man.
Everything melted away. Regularity, punctuality, and the
inescapable certainty of the next day destroyed him. He became
consumed in duties that carved up his time. In these seventeen
years he had hardly ever met with anyone socially. Thus he
became uncertain whenever he had to do something other than
what he was accustomed to. If he had to talk to strangers, the
words he was supposed to say would suddenly not come to him.
He always had the feeling that his clothes were inappropriate,
that they did not suit him, that they made him look ridiculous.
The most minor irregularity confused him. In his room he also
valued the most painful and familiar order. Every day the news-
paper had to lie on exactly the same spot, parallel with the edges
of the table. His pedantry went so far that he became annoyed
when the curtain chords were not arranged equally in their length
and did not lie bent in the right corner on the windowsill. Dis-
gruntled, he arranged them properly.
Franz Polzer had been working in the bank for ten years when
his father died. The burial was on a Sunday, which meant that
he would not have to miss a day at work. On Saturday afternoon
he took a train out of the city.
The day of the burial always remained Polzer’s most unpleas-
ant memory. On the way there he couldn’t ﬁnd a seat on the
overcrowded train, and had to remain standing the whole
time. His feet, unaccustomed to such exertion, hurt for days
afterwards. He arrived in a bad mood and was greeted sullenly
by his aunt, who probably believed that he had come to cause a
dispute over his father’s shop. Despite the bitter winter cold, he
found his room unheated. He slept on his old bed, tormented by
bad dreams. In the morning no breakfast had been cooked for
him. He found the idea of going to a tavern inappropriate, and
had to remain hungry until the burial. People came whom he
scarcely knew anymore. They shook hands with him. His aunt
stood in the middle, beside his father’s body, laid out in state.
Polzer stood like a stranger in a dark corner of the room.
When the consecration began, he had to go to his aunt’s side.
Now he saw his father for the ﬁrst time. He was wearing a black
jacket, which made folds over his chest. His hair had become
completely gray. His face looked small and haggard. The sight
of the body made no impression on Polzer. It affected him no
differently than the sight of an unfamiliar object. He did not
feel reminded of his father.
In the cemetery his aunt took his arm and wept loudly. Polzer
stood in the light snow and felt the dampness seeping into his
shoes. He knew his susceptibility to colds and stepped uneasily
from one foot to the other.
The glances of all the people who had come to the burial lay
on Franz Polzer, as though testing him. The attention he
attracted made him uncomfortable. In his helplessness he felt
several times for the buttons of his pants to make sure that they
were closed. He was ashamed of this conspicuous movement,
but after a few minutes the feeling of his nakedness irresistibly
forced him to do it again.
After the burial, Franz Polzer told his aunt that he did not
want to inherit any of his father’s legacy. His father had left no
money behind. The house was heavily mortgaged. Polzer did
not want suits or pieces of furniture. He wanted no memories.
after karl fanta’s departure for the south, Polzer
moved in with the widow. At that time she had been pale and
skinny. The clothes of mourning hung loosely about her body.
It was in the ﬁrst months after the death of her spouse. Her skin
had the yellowish color of old paper. Only later did her shape
become fuller, her hips broad and round.
Her name was Klara Porges. Later it seemed to Polzer as
though her name had contributed to everything. From the very
ﬁrst moment this name had disturbed him. The combination
seemed to him outrageously ludicrous and annoying at the same
Polzer lived alone with Frau Porges. One of the rooms was
empty, the chairs draped with linen covers. Because there was no
servant, Frau Porges had to take care of all the domestic chores
alone. Polzer’s shoes were the only things he cleaned himself.
The widow also wanted to take this occupation from him, but
he would not let her. He had always thought it important to
brush his shoes himself, and had never met anyone whose boots
shone like his; with a quick glance it was possible to believe they
were made of patent leather. When he was living with his father
and his aunt, he had also been responsible for polishing their
shoes. But he had never worked very hard at it. Every morning
he cleaned his own shoes for half an hour. He used, in succession,
several brushes and polishes of varying quality. Frau Porges
thought this was an improper occupation for a man. However,
Polzer knew how pleasant and refreshing it was to have reliably
cleaned shoes on his feet in the morning. He also knew that
there could be nothing unmanly about this occupation, because
wherever there were servants, in hotels or in the homes of the
rich, this task was performed by men. He reminded Frau Porges
The widow had taken care of him from the very ﬁrst day. He
let her assume responsibility for everything that disturbed him.
Above all these were the unusual events that the day brings
along with it. Everything that he did not do on a daily basis, no
matter how small, ﬁlled him with anxiety and consternation.
The knowledge that he would have to go into a shop on the
following day in order to buy something unsettled him; without
interruption his thoughts revolved around this theme, the fear
of neglecting it tormented him, he calculated the amount of
time that would be necessary, he prepared the sentences he
wanted to say. Immediately he felt that there was no time for
anything else, as though his entire life were no longer sufﬁcient
for anything but this. Accidents could happen, and there was
no way to take them into account beforehand. Above all, the
asking price could be higher than the amount of money he had
with him. Payments, like the rent, which were due on a certain
day, would not let him sleep for weeks in advance. At night he
counted the necessary money. During the day, occupied with
other thoughts, or asleep at night, he would suddenly realize
with horror that he had, at this moment, forgotten, and he
reproached himself because he could not forget it, and yet was
capable of forgetting it. But Frau Porges was prepared to accept
his salary at the beginning of the month and take care of every-
thing herself. Every week she gave him a few crowns, with which
Polzer was able to pay for his lunch and his tram tickets. She
even bought new clothes for him, without him ever having to go
into a shop or knowing anything about it.
All of this went on, even though Polzer’s attitude toward Frau
Porges was defensive. Her gaze, with which she tried to embrace
him in a tender, maternal way, frightened him. There was some-
thing about it that was too close, something that desired greater
proximity. Polzer saw her only in the morning, when she brought
him his breakfast, and in the evening, when she brought him
his dinner. He evaded her gaze and did not speak to her. His
door was directly opposite hers. At night he heard her breathing,
heard her bed creak when she moved in her sleep. But all these
years he had never been with her in the same room for more
than a few minutes.
From the ﬁrst moment, Klara Porges’s presence had made
him feel uneasy. Her hair emitted a smell that reminded him
vaguely of soap. She wore it parted in the middle, like his aunt.
As a result, the sight of her made the thought of her naked body
come involuntarily to his mind. This made him deeply ashamed
of himself and ﬁlled him with revulsion. It was the thought of
a vaguely black body. As her body became fuller, the force of
this idea increased.
From the time of his earliest youth such ideas had ﬁlled him
with loathing. Polzer would not have had anything to do with
women, if Karl, who did not understand this, had not brought
him to women and coerced him into sleeping with them. Polzer
often vomited after leaving the house to which Karl had brought
him. Even as a boy he had feared the sight of women. He avoided
Milka because he thought her round breasts were constantly
changing shape beneath the ﬂuttering of her loose blouse, which
drew one’s glance. He did not dare to look at Milka’s breasts.
When he learned from Karl that boys would wait for Milka in
the woods, he avoided touching Milka’s hands whenever he was
alone in the shop with her and had to take a coin. Because he was
terriﬁed of Milka’s hands. And Milka noticed that he ﬂed from
her, and often tried to grab him and press him to her. Once she
met him on the dark stairwell. He pressed himself into the dark
niche, where a wooden cross of the Savior was hanging. He could
no longer ﬂee. She approached him, and laughed because she
saw that he was afraid of her. Her hands grasped him. He did not
move. Her hands fumbled at his buttons. Polzer trembled. She
took hold of his penis. Milka laughed when his semen came.
Then she slapped him, and he staggered.
As soon as the shadow of his aunt fell across the lighted door,
Polzer had known that a woman’s nakedness was something hor-
rid. Even before seeing his aunt’s shadow, he was tormented by
the horrible thought that her naked body was not closed. He
felt the same way in the presence of Frau Porges — like he was
plunging endlessly into a terrible slit. Like open ﬂesh, like the
folds at the edge of a wound. In galleries, he never wanted to
see the pictures and statues of naked women. He never wanted
to touch the body of a naked woman. He felt it was the locus
of impurity and a disgusting smell. He only saw Frau Porges
during the day, when she was fully clothed. Yet he was tormented
by the thought of her fat, naked body.
Whenever Frau Porges entered the room, Polzer would read
his newspaper and avoid looking at her. Nevertheless, he noticed
that she became fuller from year to year. Sometimes he felt her
glance on him, and he did not dare move. He could never under-
stand how their ﬁrst conversation had come about. He had
believed that she scarcely paid any attention to him either. It
happened in the evening, when she brought him his food. This
evening was the beginning of everything.
Polzer was sitting at the table when she entered. He lifted
his gaze to the paper, but he did not read. He waited uneasily for
the door behind him to close again. He heard her steps approach
the door. Suddenly he was aware that she was standing in the
door and looking at him. He looked steadily at his newspaper.
He sensed that she wanted him to say something, but he
remained silent. He wanted to wait and not to move until she
Then he heard her sob. He looked up. She threw her hands
in front of her face and began to weep.
It disturbed him that she lost her breath while she wept,
gasping for air. He understood that he would have to do some-
thing, and stood up. He did not know what to do. Helplessly, he
asked her to calm down and tell him the reason for her pain.
But Frau Porges kept crying. She had sunk to the ﬂoor and,
more and more alarmingly, continued to gasp for air. Then he
walked up to her and tried to remove her hands from her face.
At the same time he lifted her up.
She stopped crying and began to speak haltingly, interrupted
by sobs. She was upset because he was so unkind to her, an aban-
doned widow. She worked and slaved for him alone. In all these
years she had not even heard a soft word of thanks from him.
Polzer had stepped away from her again and did not interrupt
“You treat me like a servant,” she said.
She was silent, as though expecting an answer.
“I never intended to create that impression, Frau Porges,”
“Just as one treats a servant,” she said. “You have never asked
me what I’m doing, when I am ﬁnished with my work, how I
spend my Sundays. You go out, and I stay at home by myself.”
“I have neglected it, Frau Porges, because it never occurred to
me and because I didn’t know that you had any desire for my
company. But if it pleases you, on Sunday we could go for a
walk together, Frau Porges.”
She regarded Polzer happily. He was surprised by what he
“We will go to Kuchelbad,” she said. “First thing in the
“In the afternoon, Frau Porges,” Polzer responded.
That happened on Thursday. Polzer spent Friday and
Saturday in a state of agitation. In the kitchen he heard Frau
Porges arranging the silverware and singing. He met her on the
stairs. She regarded him with a friendly smile. Polzer decided
That was during the night between Saturday and Sunday.
He looked over his things and tried to think of a plan. He had
to leave the house in the morning, while she was still asleep. He
would have to ﬁnd an apartment in the suburbs, where he could
stay out of sight. He had seen notices hanging on buildings. He
resolved to be careful and to ﬁnd out before taking the apart-
ment if any young women or children lived there. He had been
afraid of children for as long as he could remember. He also
wanted to see if the people made an honest impression. Accord-
ing to the news, robberies, and even murders, were becoming
Near dawn it occurred to him that there was no way of saving
his luggage and that he had no money, since Frau Porges held all
of it for him. What was more, she could wait for him at the
bank at any time. He realized that ﬂight was impossible.
In addition to the disgust with which he awaited having to
spend several hours with Frau Porges, he found the peculiarity
of the event oppressive. Franz Polzer was used to taking the same
walk every Sunday afternoon. He left the house at four o’clock,
walked across Karlsplatz to the water and walked along the river-
bank for a while. At certain points he would stop and look at the
water. Then he would turn toward the center of town.
At ﬁve o’clock he would enter a small café and sit at a table
in the billiard room. He watched the billiard players. Watching
them always made him happy. He followed the smooth balls
as they rolled over the green cloth, and enjoyed the bright
sound they made when they collided. At the same time he stud-
ied the movements of the players, the way they bent over the
table and prepared to shoot. He attentively counted the good
points that each player scored. He wished one of them would
put together an endless series of winners. He held his breath
at every shot and was hurt and disappointed whenever it was
He longed to play billiards himself. But this longing was
never fulﬁlled. Polzer was horriﬁed at the thought of offering
his motions for everyone to see. Once, later, the doctor asked
him to play. Polzer picked up a cue and was aware that he would
have to chalk it carefully. Then he realized that he had held a
cue in his hands before. It seemed that there had been people
present. At the moment he did not know if it had been in a
dream. But of course it could not have been anywhere else. As
he began to chalk the cue, it grew and became heavy, and he
lost his balance.
Polzer was shocked by this memory and carefully put the cue
back in its rack.
Near dawn, Polzer wondered if he should feign illness. But
he discarded these thoughts because he had never been sick a
single day since he had started living with Frau Porges. There was
nothing else he could do to avoid her. Even if heavy rains were
to make the excursion impossible, he was still afraid that Frau
Porges would accompany him to the café. That would be even
worse than the excursion.
Polzer did not know what Frau Porges wore when she went
out. He had never met her on the street. Perhaps, like his aunt,
she did not own a hat. He did not dare to ask her. Under no
circumstances could he expect elegance. But even if she came
without a hat, he would have to walk next to her among the
Because Kuchelbad was a popular place for excursions, he
could expect a large crowd. Polzer thought of how he would
have to force his way through the people to get the tickets, and
of how he would have to stand on the small boat, crammed with
strangers, even if he were quick enough to be one of the ﬁrst on
board. He had sometimes seen the panic of such moments from
the riverbank. The pushing and shoving of the people as they
boarded the steamboat could also provide good opportunities
for pickpockets. Polzer decided to leave his pocketwatch at home.
On Sunday, he had scarcely put down his fork before Frau
Porges entered the room.
She was well-dressed. She was wearing a black dress with a
long jacket, a small black hat with a veil, black gloves, and she
was carrying a leather pocketbook and an umbrella. Polzer put on
his jacket and stuck the newspaper in the pocket of his overcoat.
The landing was full of people. Polzer saw that the price of
a second-class ticket was not too high, and decided to travel
second class. He had always gone in for traveling elegantly. Frau
Porges prudently secured two seats. Then she began to speak in
an inordinately loud voice. Polzer looked to make sure that no
one he knew was on the boat. He did not answer Frau Porges,
because it bothered him to think that the people standing there
might overhear their conversation. Then Frau Porges also decided
to remain silent.
In Kuchelbad, Polzer and Frau Porges climbed a hill where
there were not many people. It occurred to Polzer that he would
not be able to distance himself from Frau Porges if he needed
to. Shortly thereafter, symptoms began to appear that ﬁlled
him with apprehension. His discomfort increased when he
reached the point where necessity was no longer in doubt. No
opportune moment presented itself to give a plausible reason
for stepping off to the side. Meanwhile, what had been a tor-
menting desire became an increasingly painful pressure.
He spread his overcoat out on the slope. They sat down next
to each other. He took the paper from his pocket and began to
read. Frau Porges reproached him half-jokingly. The setting sun
illuminated her face. He noticed that her cheeks were covered
with soft little hairs.
“You really don’t want to talk to me,” said Frau Porges, sigh-
ing. “You took a trip with me and now you just stare in front of
you without saying anything. I was enjoying it, but now you’re
making me very sad.”
“That is not what I intended, Frau Porges,” said Polzer.
“You really didn’t intend it? You didn’t want to ruin my
Frau Porges moved a little closer to him.
“No, I didn’t mean to, Frau Porges,” he said, without looking
“I think you are not at all what you appear to be. I’m right,
“That is beyond my judgement, Frau Porges, but let us
assume it, let us assume it.”
“Frau Porges, always Frau Porges! When we have been living
together for so long! Who would believe it if he heard it!” She
regarded him tenderly. “Call me Frau Klara!”
“No,” Polzer responded immediately.
It was already evening when they returned to the boat. Sitting
down, Polzer’s pain continued to increase. Nearby he recognized
a higher ofﬁcial from the accounting department. The boat was
overcrowded, and it rocked and listed to the side. Frau Porges
screamed and grasped his arm. It was completely dark.
“Let me go this instant,” said Polzer.
He pressed his thighs together. He was sure his bladder would
“What’s wrong?” asked Frau Porges.
“Something terrible,” he said in a ﬂat voice, “something
When they landed, he could hardly walk because of the pain.
Frau Porges took his arm and supported him. Polzer did not
He clenched his teeth against the pain and whimpered softly.
With every step he feared that the pressure would ﬁnally be
stronger than his will. They were passing through a dimly lit
street. Frau Porges stopped. She looked in every direction.
“So,” she said, “we’ve gone far enough. No one can see you.”
Polzer could not have borne it any longer. He was still able
to open his buttons quickly. Then he freed himself from his
The sound made him aware of what he was doing. It seemed
unspeakably loud, and he tried unsuccessfully to reduce the
At Karlsplatz they passed a brightly lit café.
“We’ll go have a coffee,” said Frau Porges.
He did not dare contradict her. They entered and sat at a
small table by the window. He saw no one he knew.
Polzer was ashamed of the weakness that had demeaned him
in front of Frau Porges. She looked at him. He understood that
he had to say something, however humiliating it all was. He
sensed that she was expecting it.
“Frau Porges,” he began, “you have the right to demand an
explanation from me. The thought that you were a lady did, I
admit, momentarily slip from the foreground of my con-
sciousness, although what you said might have had some effect
on my actions, Frau Porges. I almost believe that I never would
have done it on my own.”
“You are very considerate,” said Frau Porges. “It makes me
happy that you treat me like a lady, even when I am just a sim-
ple woman and no longer a girl.”
It seemed to him that she had not completely understood
him. He recalled the unseemliness of his behavior toward Frau
Porges at other times. For a moment he considered addressing
her henceforth as “honorable lady.” But he abandoned this
thought because he did not know how he would be able to
explain the change.
In the dark stairwell Frau Porges was overcome with fear and
clung to Polzer. He had no matches and managed to comfort
her with a few words.
When they said goodbye, Frau Porges mentioned how much
she was looking forward to next Sunday. Polzer avoided making
any premature objections.
over franz polzer’s bed hung a picture of his patron
saint. It was white and rectangular, not much larger than a post-
card. The brightly painted saint stood in the middle. The picture
was framed and covered with glass.
Polzer’s mother had given him the picture. The saint had
once hung in his mother’s room, between the colorful pictures
of other saints. Polzer’s mother had been a pious woman. Every
day she had poured oil into the lamp that hung at the foot of the
saints on the dark stairs. The lamp burned ﬁtfully day and night.
She also took him with her to church. Polzer still clearly remem-
bered his ﬁrst visit. He kneeled beside his mother, beneath the
dark pictures, stirred by anxious thoughts. He feared the bloody
images of the martyrs and yet was not able to look away from
them. They were half-dressed, their ﬂesh painted red and their
faces directed upward, torn by pain. Polzer left the church
oppressed by images of sin and torment, frightened by the
thought of having offended the holy. He went to church regu-
larly until he moved in with Karl Fanta. Thereafter he seldom
went to church, and always kept it a secret.
The picture of his patron saint had also hung over his bed
while he was living with Karl. He had a special relationship with
the picture of Saint Francis. He would never have slept a single
night without the picture hanging over his bed to protect him,
and he even took it with him on short trips. He felt his destiny
was bound to the picture’s. At the same time, he had never imag-
ined a personal saint who was protecting him. He always thought
of the picture and never of the person.
The picture hung over his bed at night. Polzer had never had
a good night’s sleep. At night he lay awake. He heard a buzzing
sound. He felt as though shufﬂing steps were approaching him,
and he was afraid. In the evening he would read the murder
reports in the newspaper and the descriptions of trials, even
though they increased his anxiety. He cut these reports out of the
newspaper, marked them with the date, and ﬁled them in his
In the evening he also used to read the books that Frau Porges
borrowed from the library. They contained the descriptions of
crimes and the stories of detectives. He read all of this because of
the uncertain desire to prove that his nightly fears were justiﬁed.
There was no question that danger was at hand. One thought
comforted him on such nights: the thought of the picture over
his bed. He never wondered if it were capable of protecting him.
Its presence comforted him. It proved to him that everything
was as it should be, that everything was in its proper place, that
even in the uncontrollable darkness nothing had changed, and
that he himself had done nothing that could disturb the careful
order, opening the door to the extraordinary.
Karl had made fun of the picture when Polzer was living
with him. Karl called him superstitious. It did not occur to him
that Polzer’s relationship to the picture could be a relationship
to order, or that superstition could be precisely the anxious atten-
tion to order and regularity and the fear of the extraordinary.
For decades, Polzer had used a fountain pen he had purchased
as a boy. It was a simple fountain pen, black and foldable. As
a young student he had never dared to write his essays with
another pen. Even as a university student and now as a clerk
he continued to write with this pen, which he always carried
with him. Suddenly the black fountain pen was missing. This
happened when the widow was making her ﬁrst attempts at
drawing closer to him, and he did not doubt that Frau Porges had
gotten rid of it because she knew how much its disappearance
would disturb him.
Polzer was never able to separate himself from his posses-
sions of his own free will. His boxes and his drawers were full of
old forms, newspapers, and pieces of clothing that were no longer
wearable. The terrible thought of robbery never left him. He
constantly feared he might lose possession of something and not
notice it was gone. Polzer found no way of overcoming the con-
stant unease this thought created in him. All his senses had to be
constantly on guard, because the danger was real. He could not
overlook any change. Every week he counted his possessions:
books, newspapers, old forms, linen, clothes. He wanted to be
certain that nothing had changed.
Polzer knew that he owned no treasures. There was no doubt
that his belongings, his patched-up linen and his shabby suits,
were not worth very much. It was hard to imagine that anyone
might want to take them. Nevertheless, he could not rid himself
of this fear. It overcame him as soon as darkness fell. Night
concealed all the dangers. He was defenseless and did not trust
his solitude. Something was hiding, the conspiracy breathed
from the darkness, and Polzer could not do anything against it.
The attack rasped, breathed, and skulked at the door. It could
break through a gap once it had loosened the ﬁrst stone where
it could ﬁnd a foothold. Polzer’s belongings had been counted,
the curtain line lay in the right corner, order had not been dis-
turbed. The picture over his bed bore witness.
Polzer longed to share his room with someone, someone
whose presence would silence the menacing solitude. He longed
to sleep beside a human being. He heard the bed creak beneath
the burden of Frau Porges’s body and decided to ask her in the
morning to allow him to sleep in her room. He wanted to buy
a screen that would separate his bed from hers. He also wanted
his nights to be restful and peaceful, like hers. In the morning
he discarded these thoughts. The friendly look in her eyes scared
him away. He was afraid that she would not understand the real
reason for his request. It did not seem unlikely that she would
take the opportunity to walk up to him and embrace him, as
she always seemed prepared to do. The possibility of this hap-
pening destroyed his courage. His posture stiffened when the
widow entered the room, and he let his arms hang limply. He
pushed his head back. This was his silent defense.
On Polzer’s desk there was a box of letter paper. He corre-
sponded with no one and seldom had to write a letter. But it
seemed necessary to him always to be prepared for this possi-
bility. After a sleepless night, he often felt the need to count the
sheets of letter paper and reassure himself that not a single sheet
Once, just as he was counting the sheets of paper, Frau Porges
entered the room. She was bringing him his breakfast. She
regarded Polzer silently. It was as though he had been caught
doing something shameful. At the same time, it bothered him
that she had entered without knocking.
“You didn’t knock, Frau Porges,” he said.
He sensed that by saying this he had only made the situa-
“Herr Polzer,” said Frau Porges, “I have known it for a long
time. You go out of your way to offend me. I think you should
ﬁnd another place to live.”
She was angry at him and stepped closer. He retreated to the
“You know I am the only one who ever comes in here,” she
said. “And you suspect me of stealing from you?! I will ﬁnd a
tenant who trusts me better.”
“Frau Porges,” said Franz Polzer, quite startled. “Frau Porges,
you can’t be serious. If knocking on the door bothers you, then
don’t knock, Frau Porges! Come right in without knocking! But
you shouldn’t throw me out of the apartment, Frau Porges! You
know that the cupboards are full of my things. I don’t know
where everything is. How will I be able to move them? How
should I pack them? How will I ﬁnd honest people without
children, Frau Porges? I could only move on Sunday. Who will
carry my suitcases for me on a Sunday? The whole thing is
unworkable. You don’t want to hand me over to strangers, Frau
Porges! It is unworkable, Frau Porges, unworkable!”
“You count all your things and suspect me of stealing your
letter paper. It is true that I am poor, Herr Polzer, but I would
never steal anything! I would never do that, Herr Polzer!”
“I have never believed otherwise, Frau Porges,” he said.
She dried her eyes with a handkerchief.
“Sit down, Frau Porges,” said Polzer, “sit down. Please believe
me, I am not suspicious of you! I am not suspicious of anyone.
I just have a habit of counting everything, Frau Porges, a habit
I have from the bank, nothing more!”
Frau Porges had sat down. She forgave Polzer, but she was
still crying. It was twenty minutes to eight. Frau Porges was
becoming more and more upset. She felt sorry for herself because
of her loneliness and complained that a poor widow was open to
every type of insult. Her gentle emotion was powerful. Polzer
glanced nervously at his watch. It was almost a quarter to eight.
He mentioned this to Frau Porges. However, because she was
so upset, she considered this unimportant.
“Today you will get there a little later,” she said. “You can see
how upset I am! Can’t I expect you to support and comfort me?”
“You can be sure of it, Frau Porges,” said Polzer.
She smiled and began to get up.
Polzer rose stifﬂy.
The clock struck quarter to eight. Frau Porges said some-
thing else, but he did not hear it. He rushed out and arrived at
the bank on time.
When Frau Porges entered his room that evening, it seemed
that she wanted to continue their conversation. He did not glance
up from his newspaper. Then she left, and for the ﬁrst time
Polzer noticed that her gaze contained something hostile. The
thought of her gaze still bothered him that night as he lay in
That summer Polzer was not able to take his usual Sunday
afternoon walk to the river. He loved this walk dearly. The water
was full of people bathing and swimming, of rowboats and
steamboats. The sound of military music came from the islands.
Polzer walked among families and others who were out taking
walks. He seldom saw a face he didn’t recognize; sometimes they
were people from the street where he lived, or people from the
bank or the café. He walked slowly and saw how his shoes shone
in the sun. He stepped carefully to avoid dirtying them. Because
of his fear of thieves, he kept his hands crossed behind his back,
over the pocket where he kept his wallet. Sometimes he felt awk-
ward when he sensed that someone’s glance was resting on him.
He would quickly look down at his suit to make sure all the
buttons were fastened. He was aware that his suit was not of a
fashionable cut, and this bothered him. He could not help
attracting attention. Children and adolescent girls seemed espe-
cially dangerous, and he was careful to avoid them. He walked
in the sun until he reached the theater. Then he turned toward
the city and went to the café.
These walks were no longer possible, because every Sunday,
right after lunch, Frau Porges would enter his room. She always
wore her black Sunday dress. He could not imagine walking
with her among all the people by the river. Karl Fanta also lived
by the water, and Polzer had to pass beneath his windows. His
memory of Kuchelbad was still too powerful for him to want
to take another trip with Frau Porges. The only option that
remained was going to the café with her. He sat with her at a
small table in the billiard room.
The ﬁrst time Polzer entered the room with Frau Porges, the
students lowered their cues to the ground and looked at her.
Polzer hid behind his newspaper. Frau Porges wanted to talk,
but Polzer remained silent. He felt that they were being watched
from all sides and was afraid that the people at nearby tables
could hear what they were saying.
The third time he went to the café with Frau Porges, a stu-
dent sat down at the table with them. Frau Porges had met him
on a tram. He was tall and thin, with blond hair and a sparse
growth of beard.
Frau Porges conversed animatedly with him. She laughed
loudly and often. Polzer watched the people playing billiards
and did not take part in the conversation. He wanted to ask
Frau Porges not to laugh so loud, but found no opportunity to
say it. The two of them continued talking and did not look at
him. The student accompanied Frau Porges all the way to her
front door. Only there did he take his leave.
The following Sunday the student brought some of his friends
to the table. The chairs had to be placed close together. The
conversation was loud. When Polzer looked around the room, he
noticed that the young man who worked at the desk across from
him at the bank was sitting by the window and smiling at him.
Polzer decided to leave the café immediately and rose. Frau Porges
put her hand on his and gave him a pleading look. The young
man noticed and nodded to Polzer. Everyone asked Polzer to
stay. A heavy woman at the next table watched the excitement
through her lorgnette. Polzer knew her. Her husband was a pro-
fessor at the Weinberger Gymnasium. Polzer sat down, helpless.
The man next to Polzer, an elegantly dressed young doctor,
turned to him:
“I envy you! Your wife is so beautiful!”
He spoke softly and slowly. When he smiled, his brilliant
white teeth shone beneath his mustache.
Polzer turned to him. He wanted to use the appropriate words
to explain the situation. But Frau Porges had heard what the
doctor had said.
“If you only knew, Doctor,” she said, “if you only knew!”
She looked at Polzer and couldn’t stop laughing. Everyone
began to laugh with her and to look at Polzer. The doctor was
the only one who wasn’t laughing.
Polzer noticed that his table had attracted the attention of
everyone else in the room. He was overcome with consterna-
tion. Tears were running down Frau Porges’s cheeks. She dried
them with a handkerchief.
“Oh, Polzer, Polzer,” she said.
This only increased Polzer’s bewilderment. She had addressed
him simply as Polzer. He felt that she was trying to humiliate
him. He noticed that the tall student was stroking the backs of
her hands, and he wanted to say something. The young man
from the bank had stood up and nodded at Polzer, laughing.
Frau Porges put her hand under the table; the student’s hand
followed. Frau Porges’s blouse had moved out of place. Polzer
was horriﬁed to see the movement of her breasts through the
opening. The young man disappeared through the door. Polzer
had not returned his greeting. It was too late to run after him.
He must have already vanished into the crowded street.
Frau Porges spoke softly to the man next to her.
During the night, Polzer was bothered by the thought that the
young man, Wodak, might say something in the bank about
having seen him in the café. Polzer did not know what he should
do when he saw him again. If his relationship to the widow were
misrepresented, it might undermine his position.
When Polzer arrived at work the next morning, young Wodak
was already sitting there. He smiled. Polzer waited for his attack
and for his own enormous humiliation. But Wodak said nothing.
His manner seemed more polite and deferential than usual.
Polzer was reassured. He did not think that Wodak had devised
a plan to harm his reputation.
That was on Monday. At the end of the week something
happened that fundamentally changed Polzer’s life. This event
concerned his hat.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?