As in Gogol

By Siegfried Lenz

Translation Ingrid G. Lansford

I’ve known this transit junction for eight years now—this confusing distribution pool where street cars, buses and subways converge to trade their cargo, passing it on from one to the next. The instant the doors fly open with a hiss, people rush, speed, and zoom toward one another, mingling and interlocking—like unarmed opponents sinking their teeth into each other. Their march is so confident, the multitude forges so recklessly ahead, it’s best to stop and wait until everything has passed, though you have a green light. Were it only this parade of bobbing backpacks and swinging briefcases, were it just this grumpy morning procession, you might be able to keep track, but here, where the commuter traffic feeds into a many-branched delta, you have to be prepared for the unexpected move: a lone wolf’s sudden swerve, obstructive types, or little runners dashing from behind parked cars to sprint across the street.

I knew all that. After all, for eight years I was one of them myself, carried along by their impatient stream from the subway to the bus that stopped in front of my school; I’d taken part in their recklessness long enough.

Yet all this knowledge didn’t help me, nor would it have helped anyone, not even a driver with twenty accident-free years behind the wheel. What happened was statistically inevitable and did not result from my inexperience as a driver, nor the fact that my first car, which I’d taken to work less than a week, was a used vehicle. Though there was nothing gloomy or unusual in the air that morning, though there was no reason for special alertness— I was only scheduled to start with two back-to-back geography classes—I slowed down early as I approached the transit junction and didn’t speed up even when the traffic light changed to green with a little flicker, which looked like a wink to me, like an invitation to hurry up and get away before the two buses turning toward their stops on the other side of the street opened their doors. The cobblestone pavement was covered with crushed snow grimily melting from the bite of the scattered salt. The car wasn’t doing more than 20, and I kept an eye on the buses, whose passengers would explode out any second.

He had to have come from the subway exit, then spotted the number of his bus and tried to reach it come what may, just like the rest who had timed their morning commute to the last minute. First I heard the impact. The steering wheel kicked out. Then I saw him on the hood, his distorted face under the visored cap, his arms reaching toward the windshield, looking for something to cling to. He had run against the car from the right immediately behind the traffic signal; I braked and watched him topple to the left and roll into the lane. No parking, no parking anywhere, so I went into reverse and backed up a few yards, pulled the handbrake and got out. Where was he? There, at the curb, attempting to get on his feet by grabbing the barrier chain hand over hand—a little man, a flyweight in a worn-out coat. A few passers-by were already with him, trying to help him, and had promptly taken sides against me; they had decided the issue of guilt. The man’s olive face showed fear rather than pain; when I approached him, he looked at me as if to keep me away, and he attempted to calm the pedestrians with a forced smile: no big deal, not worth mentioning.

My eyes strayed from him back toward the car. The right fender had an oval dent, fairly regular, as if made by a wooden club; threads stuck to the edges where the paint had flaked off; the hood was also dented and the latch had sprung; one windshield wiper had broken off. He watched me, holding on to the chain with both hands, while I estimated the damage, and he repeatedly glanced at the departing buses.

Skin lacerations on his forehead and the back of his hand—I didn’t observe anything else when I walked up to him. He looked at me with a smile admitting all of it: his carelessness, his haste, and his guilt. Trying to play down the consequences and prove to me how easily he’d gotten off, he raised each leg in their frayed narrow trousers, turned his head right and left, and gingerly flexed his free arm: Look, everything’s fine, isn’t it? I asked him why he’d crossed on red; hadn’t he seen the car—regretfully, guiltily, he shrugged his shoulders, unable to understand me. Fearfully he kept repeating the same sentence while strenuously gesticulating toward the railroad track; as I guessed by the intonation, the words he used were Turkish. I could tell that he wanted to get away and understood what kept him from it; but he was afraid to diagnose the aches within his body, or even acknowledge them. He cringed at the compassion and curiosity of the passers-by; he seemed to understand that they were accusing me and felt bad about that, too. Doctor, I said. Now I’ll take you to see a doctor.

How light he was when I put my arm around him, pulled his arm around my neck, and walked him to the car, and how anxiously he explored the damage to fender and hood! While earlier passers-by told newcomers what they’d seen or only heard, I maneuvered the man onto the back seat, eased him into a relaxed, reclining position, gave him an encouraging nod and started along my old route to school. Several doctors lived or practiced nearby; I remembered the white enamel signs in their front yards. That was where I wanted to take him.

I watched him in the rearview mirror. His eyes were closed, his lips were trembling, and a thin streak of blood ran down his neck from his ear. He braced himself and lifted his body off the seat—not to ease his pain, but to look for something in his various pockets, hunting through them with stiff fingers. Then he pulled out a piece of paper, a blue envelope which he handed to me across the seatback: Here, here, address. He sat up, bent toward me across the seat, and, stressing the syllables contrary to their usual pronunciation, urgently repeated in a hoarse voice: Liegnitzerstrasse.

That seemed to be the only thing he wanted now; he spoke excitedly, his fear increasing: Doctor, no; Liegnitzerstrasse, yes, and waved his blue envelope. We reached the taxi stand near the school. I stopped and motioned for him to wait—I wouldn’t take long. Then I walked up to the taxi drivers and asked about Liegnitzerstrasse. They knew two streets by that name, but of course assumed that, since I was here, I wanted the closer one, and described the route they would take: past the hospital and through an underpass to the edge of a small industrial park. I thanked them and walked to the telephone booth, where I dialed the number of the school. My classes were to have started long ago. No one answered. I dialed my own number and told my startled wife, Don’t worry—I had an accident, but I’m not hurt. She asked, A child? – and I quickly answered, A foreigner, probably a guest worker. I need to drive him, so please let the school know. Before leaving the phone booth, I quickly dialed the school number again, but got a busy signal now.

I returned to my car. Two taxi drivers were standing in front of it, cheerfully using my damage as an opportunity to tell about their own collisions, trying to top one another. The car was empty. I bent over the back seat, patted it—the taxi drivers didn’t remember a man, but allowed that he could have walked up to the front and taken the first taxi. Still, a Mediterranean-looking man with a visored cap and injured into the bargain would surely have attracted their attention. They wanted to know where I’d had the mishap. I told them, and they estimated the damage—provided I got off easy—at eight hundred marks.

Slowly I drove toward Liegnitzerstrasse, past the hospital, through the underpass and to the industrial park. I passed a small wire factory whose yard was surrounded by a chain link fence full of holes; heavy crushers mashing car wrecks into convenient metal bales; gloomy buildings claiming to be repair shops and moving companies; and snowy storage lots without a single footprint.

Liegnitzerstrasse seemed to consist of nothing but a protective board fence covered with posters, with yellow cranes rigidly looming behind it; no homes; set back from the street, a shut-down industrial plant without doors and with broken windows, black tongues of soot still testifying about a fire. Through a gap I glimpsed house trailers, their wheels sunk deep into the ground. I stopped, got out of the car, and walked through the dirty snow toward the trailers. The workers were gone. Curtains covered up the windows, and the attached steps had remnants of road salt on them. Smoke rose from a metal chimney.

If a curtain hadn’t moved, if I hadn’t seen the ringed finger trying to smooth the crocheted gray fabric, I think I would merely have walked around the trailers and then left, but now I climbed halfway up the steps and knocked. A hasty, whispered exchange inside, then the door opened, and I saw the signet ring on the finger right before my eyes, on the door handle now. When I looked up, the man loomed above me alarmingly: black dress shoes tipped with white, narrow creased pants, and then the short, fur collared coat and the triangle of a silk handkerchief gleaming from the upper jacket pocket. Politely, in broken German, he asked me what I wanted; by that time, glancing past his hip, I had recognized the man on the lower berth of a bunk bed and pointed to him: There he is—that’s who I want to see. He let me enter. Four beds, one washstand, photographs pinned to the unfinished board walls—those were the furnishings that first struck me; later, after the conspicuously dressed man had offered me a stool, I discovered cartons and cardboard suitcases under the bedsteads.

The injured man lay stretched out under a blanket with the word “Hotel” on it. His dark eyes shone in the dim interior. He met my greeting with indifference—no sign of recognition, and neither fear nor curiosity.

Mr. Üzkök had an accident, the man with the signet ring said. I nodded and, after a pause, asked if I shouldn’t drive him to a doctor’s office. The man with the signet ring emphatically turned me down. Not necessary, Mr. Üzkök had been getting the best medical care, for two days now, ever since he had this accident at his building, at his construction site. I said, This morning, I’ve come because of the accident this morning. The big man brusquely turned to the invalid and asked him something in their native language; the hurt man gently shook his head. Of an accident this morning Mr. Üzkök knows nothing. I calmly said, I was involved—this man ran in front of my car when the light was green, and I hit him. The car is parked outside and you can look at the damage. Again the man shouted at the invalid in his native language, annoyed and irritated, seeking an explanation with theatrical vehemence. He had him expressly repeat a whispered sentence. All he could sum up for me was this: Mr. Üzkök is from Turkey. Mr. Üzkök is guest worker, Mr. Üzkök had accident two days ago. A car is unknown to him.

I pointed to the man on the bunk and said, Please ask him why he ran away. I wanted to take him to Liegnitzerstrasse myself, over here. They played their question-and-answer game again. I didn’t understand, and while the injured man looked at me with a pained expression and moved his lips, the man with the signet ring said, Mr. Üzkök did not run away after his construction accident; he has to stay in bed. I asked the hurt man, Show me the blue envelope you showed me in the car, and he listened to the translation. I couldn’t believe that my request was so much longer in Turkish and also required an argument. I was told with a mixture of triumph and regret that Mr. Üzkök had never owned a blue envelope.

This uncertainty—suddenly I felt this familiar uncertainty, as so often in the classroom when I’m faced with the risk of a final decision; and because I was sure that the injured man would still be wearing his shabby coat, I went to his bed and simply raised the blanket. He lay there in his underwear, clasping something in his hands he obviously didn’t want to give up on any condition.

When, on my way down the steps, I asked about the number, the house number for the trailer, the man with the signet ring laughed and barked a command at the injured man. When he faced me again and, gleefully spreading his arms, said, Forty to fifty-two, his open mistrust struck me for the first time. Much address, he said, maybe five hundred yards. When I asked if this was Mr. Üzkök’s permanent residence, he covered up his suspicion with enthusiasm and gave an evasive answer: Much work everywhere. Sometimes is Mr. Üzkök here, sometimes there—he pointed in opposite directions. Though I said good-bye, he silently followed me out to the street. He walked to my car, brushed across the dents the slight man had made in the metal, raised the hood and asked for confirmation that the latch would no longer snap shut. Was he relieved? I got the feeling that, though none of this needed to concern him, he was relieved after checking the damage. He rubbed his soft chin and then his sideburns with his big thumb. Was I planning to call my insurance company? I gave him to understand that I seemed to have no other choice. He then began another, more thorough inspection of the damage and to my surprise, named a price just below the one the taxi drivers had suggested: seven hundred-fifty. He grinned and gave me a sly wink as I got in and turned down the window. As soon as I started the motor, he extended his closed hand. For repair, he said. Mr. Üzkök, he needs rest now.

I started to get out, but by then he was walking away, his fur collar turned up, irrevocably, as if he’d got the formalities over with. After he had disappeared behind the fence, I looked at the money in my hand and counted it—the sum matched his estimate. I hesitated, waiting for something I couldn’t name, and, before heading for school, left the car at the shop.

In the teachers’ lounge, of course, there was Seewald, seated as if he’d been waiting for me, with his red face and his uncontrollable belly which presumably would drop to his knees if he didn’t rein it in with an extra wide belt. I heard the news, he said. Now tell me what happened. He offered me tea from his thermos flask, in fact, thrust it upon me as insistently as if the tea would entitle him to every detail of my accident—Seewald of all people, who at every chance he got touted his conclusion that there were no original experiences any longer. He claimed that everything we encounter or experience had already happened to others before us. We had come to the end of fresh experiences and conflicts, and even an odd situation did not merit being regarded as anything but stale.

I drank his heavily sweetened tea, startled to notice how much my hand was shaking—less on raising the cup than on putting it down. All right then—the drive, the accident, the injured man’s escape; and finally, when I described to him my encounter in the trailer, I witnessed the start of his typical smile, a superior, opinionated, know-it-all smile, which immediately irritated me and made me regret having spread everything before him. It was, after all, my accident, my experience, and so I had to have the right of evaluating it in my own way and narrating the encounter in the trailer in particular with its appropriate open-endedness. For him, for Seewald, everything was settled: Just as with Gogol, he said, didn’t it occur to you, my dear friend—exactly as with Gogol. I was glad when the bell summoned me to class and spared me his explanations, especially the inevitable reference to the prototype for my experience. I’m not going to tell him that both the taxi drivers and the man with the signet ring had overestimated the cost of the repair. I had more than two hundred marks left over, because the dents could be hammered out. And I’m definitely not telling Seewald that I drove back to the Liegnitzerstrasse at dusk while snow was falling, to return the rest of the money to the stranger or Mr. Üzkök.

The window had been blacked out and the trailer looked abandoned, or at any rate locked; but after I knocked several times, the door opened, and the tall man stood before me again, holding the red silk kerchief he’d probably used to fan himself. At least six men sat on the bunks, short, timid men trying to hide their glasses of red wine when they saw me. They sat there as if they’d been caught, and every last one of the faces showed anxiety.

I asked about Mr. Üzkök; but the man with the signet ring didn’t remember him, had never met him, had never cared for him. Then I knew he would also have trouble remembering me, and when I tried to return the surplus money to him, he looked at me in almost surly bewilderment—he was very sorry, but he couldn’t take money that didn’t belong to him. I looked at the silent men. Every one of them seemed to resemble Üzkök, and I just knew that if I came back the next day, they too would deny ever having seen me. Several trailers sat right next to each other; could I have picked the wrong one? But there’s one thing I’m very sure of: I put the money on a folding table before I left.

 

From Einstein überquert die Elbe bei Hamburg, by Siegfried Lenz
© Hoffman und Campe, Hamburg
Translation © Ingrid G. Lansford