Author: Paula Köhlmeier
Translator: Maria Fink
She is sitting by the window. He is walking around the room.
She says, “Tell me the truth!”
“Which truth?” he says and with a pencil starts drawing in his sketchbook. He draws a train. A long, red train with heavy, sooty wheels. A train for travels far away.
She glances at the drawing. “Do you want to leave?” she asks.
“Because of that train.”
He draws a track for the train. She throws her hands up in the air.
They have been together three years. They met in a record store. They talked about Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. Sometimes they laughed; sometimes about themselves.
As a young woman, she once told a friend, “When it comes to a husband, you always know where he is. When someone asks, ‘Where is he?’ you can always answer immediately, without being afraid you might be wrong.”
The friend laughed. The friend had pretty lips and a pleasant voice. The friend ate buttered slices of bread for breakfast, two of them. She spread the butter evenly onto her slices. The friend kept both feet firmly on the ground. And the ground was carefully researched and free from adventure.
She first meets him in a record store. Both buy the same record. A coincidence that leads to a conversation. The salesman has already sold the record nineteen times this week. To him it’s no coincidence. Lovers are arrogant, though. And lonely. Lovers only see love, and everything is a message for that one love.
She clung to this first encounter for a long time. The name of the record was forgotten. The music was no longer trendy. They moved in together. No one needs two of the same record. She gave away her record and later he gave his away too, because, he thought, she still had hers.
She clings to this first encounter for a long time. At their first good-bye he said, “Maramba.” He said, “Maramba is a feeling.” “No word can describe it,” he said. A feeling you couldn’t explain and that only he had. He claimed.
She walks home. She skips across a sidewalk. Her head asks whether “Maramba” means something good.
At home, she looks for the word in a dictionary. The word doesn’t exist, and the word turns into magic.
They meet more regularly, and sometimes he says “Maramba” when they part. When he doesn’t say it, she gets worried.
Maramba turns into a whole city for her. A city full of lights, cool air, and with its own language and a wide overpass above the train platform. People step on each other’s feet when they are angry, but that rarely happens because everyone in Maramba has small, pretty feet. Men are sitting on steel pipes, drinking beer. She writes a story about the city. With a needle, she pins the story to his door, hoping he’ll write back. He reads the story early in the morning. The story scares him. It wants to know something he doesn’t have an answer for.
He doesn’t write back. He no longer says the word.
Now she says, “A husband is someone I don’t worry about when I don’t know where he is.”
The friend has gotten fat. Her lips are like two sausages stacked on top of one another. Her voice is still pleasant, but it no longer fits with her body. The friend is up to her neck in concrete. Her head is clear, but her feet are no longer moving. The ground she stands on is overgrown. But she doesn’t care.
He packs his bags and says he’ll be gone for two weeks. He says it in passing. So much in passing that she has to ask where he is going. He doesn’t answer. Says she shouldn’t ask so many questions. He wants to be alone for a while. She doesn’t know where he is and that feeling scares her.
“Everything was wrong,” she tells her friend. “I don’t know what a good husband is.”
Every night she dresses up, powders her face, sits in her kitchen, checks the time, and waits for him. He doesn’t show up. She takes her make-up off and goes to bed.
She feels like she has to be there when he returns. When she leaves the house in the evening, she writes him a note and hides the key for him. By Christmas, twenty-five notes are stuck to the front door. Twenty-five nights away, plus eighty nights at home, equals one hundred five days. That’s how long he’s been gone.
That’s how long he’s been gone, she thinks, and combs her hair in front of the mirror. The mirror is brown and heavy. The mirror doesn’t have a sense of humor. His parents bought the mirror. An inquisitive couple with a penchant for bad music and weird food. She puts the mirror on the curb. Five minutes later, it’s gone. She stands at the window and wonders who could possibly want a mirror like that. She imagines the new owner until late into the night. I should have put a note with it, she thinks while brushing her teeth. She doesn’t know what she would have said in the note.
He sends her a postcard. The postcard is from Paris. On the postcard, you can see the Eiffel Tower at night.
On the postcard it says, “Maramba means, I don’t know.”
She looks at the postcard again and again. She closes her eyes, puts the postcard aside and later reads it once more. As if the text could have changed. After two days, she puts the postcard in the freezer.
Years later, a publisher reads her stories about Maramba. The publisher drinks his coffee black. The publisher says, “A good start. I know this is going to be a success.” She smiles and lights a cigarette.
The stories turn into a book. The book needs a cover. She finds the drawing with the long, red train. She peels an orange. She throws the peel out the window. A man curses at the peel falling from the sky. In his hands, he’s holding the brown mirror. She puts the drawing in the freezer.
Her name is Ella. His name is Kurt. Ella gets on her bicycle and rides off. Kurt, far away from Ella, is drawing a truck in a sketchbook. A woman with short hair is standing behind him.
“Tell me the truth,” says the woman.
“Which truth do you mean?” Kurt says.
From: Paula Köhlmeier, Maramba. Erzählungen. © 2005 Paul Zsolnay Verlag Ges.m.b.H., Wien