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June 21, 2006

Dominik Baur

Translated from the German by Elisabeth Carlson

Small Columns Maintain Friendship (Volume Two in the Trilogy of Two)

Ulf is doing it again. Casually he steps off the sidewalk and wanders, one hand in his trouser pocket, over to the other side. The two pugs always behind him. They polish the cobble-stone pavement with their fat bellies. This has been going on for three weeks. This is not accidental. My neighbour is avoiding me. But why? I am going to confront him. After all, Ulf and I are almost friends, in spite of the age difference. And even though he is not the type of person whose friendship I would seek. But there is something that ties us together.

But now he is avoiding me. Did I make a mistake? Maybe I didn't clean the staircase, or maybe I said something unflattering about those dogs; one never knows ... People his age who still tie their hair up in a pony-tail might take things the wrong way. That's my feeling anyway. And Tiffany says I have no idea about human beings.

I need to speak to him. No, not now. Another time. Right now I've got no time, I am in a hurry. I am always in a hurry and never have time. My doctor says we are ruining our health with that constant stress. He meant mine, I am sure.

Now he is standing over there – Ulf, not my doctor. Pretending to look at the boutique showcase. The nasty dogs are relieving themselves against Mrs. Wondrazil's bicycle. Will she ever be pleased. Darn, I am late again. Just because Tiffany can never remember where she parked the car. I just hope she didn't leave it in the disabled spot again.

Tiffany does not like Ulf. I am not allowed to bring him over to our apartment. And she won't come with me when I go over to theirs for a glass of wine. Even though his wife often says »Bring your pretty girlfriend along. I'll cook something really special, maybe Königsberger Klopse, she must like that, don't you think?« No, Tiffany does not like Klopse, or pugs, but most of all, she does not like Ulf.

At first I really wondered when, over a beer, Ulf confessed to me that he was Death. Well, not actually The Death, he explained while leaning very close to me to make sure that I would not miss a word. There would have to be more than one Death. Can you imagine, with so many people dying every day. After all, I don't believe in only one Santa Claus either, who brings presents to millions of children, and all in one night.

My meek confession about not believing in any Santa Claus but rather seeing them as ill-fed students with red headgear was ignored by Ulf who then proceeded to explain to me the system of dying. He, for instance, would only be responsible for our district. He could have done a lot worse, since there is rarely more than one death per week. Okay, so there is always still the paperwork to be done but, after all, things have to be neat and in proper order on the other side. This still leaves time for his wife and dogs.

At first I did not believe a word Ulf was saying. But then he asked me one day if I knew Mr. Selhuber, mid-forties, lives in the back building, always has a friendly hello when he jogs past me. I almost felt a pang of guilt when he was run over by a bus the very next day.

Still. Ulf's job does not bother me. I am proud of my high level of tolerance. Others do even filthier jobs. Ulf is a nice guy – and a good loser at chess. We play chess a lot.

Darn it, why won't he talk to me? Now I really want to know. Right now. Work will just have to wait. I run across the street, behind me brakes are squealing. Ulf walks faster, tries to escape me by taking the stairs at the end of the street. The stairs lead up to the streetcar stop. The sun is blinding me. As I come up to the top of the stairs I see Ulf heading for a waiting streetcar. But I am faster. I grab him by his smelly trench-coat and ask him in no uncertain terms for an explanation.

Ulf struggles. The two pugs give me dirty looks. The streetcar driver curses and closes the doors. I should understand, Ulf finally explains, he has this rather unpleasant order. His words almost drown in the noise of the traffic. He just wanted to keep personal and business matters strictly separate. And then he smiles at me one last time.

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