Morton stood at the stop and waited for the bus – for the seventh bus. So far, each time one had folded open in front of him with a hydraulic hiss, he’d been obliged to let it go without him – sometimes he was irked by the adverts on its flanks, other times the driver was too grumpy. Morton shortened the wait with a risky game: he played Top Trumps with destiny. If he managed to spot four cars built the same year in the traffic that streamed past between two red lights, then by the time he retired, the pension adjustment factor would be 1%; if not, it would be minus 1%. He was trailing by 1:3 (meaning an adjustment factor of minus 2%) when the next bus approached – which also pulled away without him. Its yellow was too garish, Morton found, and even after the bus had long disappeared from view, he screwed up his eyes in memory of that blinding, blazing yellow. The next bus lurched, the one after that braked too jerkily. Others clanked, squealed, smelled of smouldering rubber or had indicators blinded by dirt. There were bugs stuck to windscreens, dented fenders, over-inflated tyres and badly adjusted rear-view mirrors. Drivers struck him as gruff, wily, derisive and bureaucratic, passengers as cranky, psychotic, contagious and brutal. If he carried on like this, thought Morton, while not boarding a bus whose driver was quite obviously both underage and undead, if he carried on like this, he’d be late for work today.
Later, at home, once he’d called in sick, he stepped out onto the balcony, rested his forearms on the balustrade and imagined himself gliding up the outside of an office building in a glass lift. At the top, he stepped out into a rooftop garden where girls twined themselves round the slender trunks of flowering mandarin trees. Morton wandered through this celestial grove like a king, until the dew on the balustrade had soaked his shirtsleeves. Shivering, he went back inside, closed the balcony door, and made himself a pot of tea.
The next day, he boarded a bus where the stench of sour filter coffee rose from forty throats.
The autumn remained bleak and foggy, the winter was hazy, and after a brief respite in spring, the summer was a washout. One cold, wet September morning, the bicycle he’d bought during the thaw in March was nowhere to be found, and he had to take the bus again. Climbing on board, he noticed immediately that the other passengers had fallen victim to a strange illness. It was as if they’d been freeze-dried: unable to move, with crumbling brains, they stared into space. Presumably, toxic plasticizers from the upholstery had eaten their way through the seats of their trousers. Morton remained standing and tried to keep his balance while the driver gave the bus the spurs, causing it to bolt like a bull at the rodeo. There was a smell of sulphur.
The phone extension for his former payroll clerk was indelibly stamped on his mind, the way other people never forget their teenage sweetheart’s number, and every time he got into a tight spot he compulsively murmured the sequence of digits to himself, 21143, as if the mere memory of permanent employment promised safety; whenever his composure, his belongings or his life were in danger, he murmured 21143, 21143, and it was very probable that his last words, whether the cause of death was lightning, cancer, arteriosclerosis, murder or misadventure, would be 21143.
A synthetic bell sound. Looking up at the display he compared the number now flashing with the one on his ticket: twenty-one, fourteen more before his turn. He checked the clock: he’d been waiting three hours. 21-14-3. It wasn’t the first time he’d asked himself whether this facility was the waiting room for the afterlife and his caseworker a demon charged with assessing his clients’ eligibility for the various post-mortem states: blessed, unblessed, undead, execrated, cursed, damned to all eternity.
The Reaper had upgraded his equipment, swapping the scythe for a high-power rotary brush-clearing saw. What hadn’t changed, however, was the way he granted Morton a few minutes before the inevitable to ponder his waning life one last time. In a fluster, Morton tried to put his finger on a few definitive moments, but they eluded his grasp and all he was left with was the memory of a dream. In this dream he, Morton, was on his way to work. Catching his reflection in the window of an underground train, he noticed he had inadvertently been shaving only one side of his face, clearly for some time. Later, in the canteen, a female colleague sat down at his table – probably out of sympathy, for she, too, wore a one-sided beard, although, in contrast to his bushy tangle, hers was geometrically clipped. Morton regretted never having courted the bearded dream woman’s real (unbearded) counterpart. She had been the only ray of light at his work, which offered nothing else worth thinking about now, and Morton rued never having switched jobs, a move he had often contemplated. It grieved him to be leaving so many things unended at the end – facial hair removal, romantic odyssey, choice of career. To take his mind off this, he talked shop with the Reaper about the best place to make the cut.
The weight of expectation is making me ill, thought the Reaper, grimly. And I don’t even know if the departed really expect something specific, or if it’s all in my mind. Perhaps I could still make an impression with a conventional scythe, a tool less prone to malfunction. The ignition coil of his motorized model, one with a chisel-tooth circular blade, was broken again, rendering him sadly unable to mow down Morton, this total loser. Fucking loser, he thought once again, and if there had been a salivary gland between his bare bones, he would have spat.
Originals © Claudius Hagemeister
Translation © Nicholas Grindell