Two or Three Years Later - excerpt
“The Next Story”
The next story I’d like to tell I already told on Monday, and would not like to tell it again. So I’ll tell the story from Tuesday. But now it occurs to me that absolutely nothing happened on Tuesday that I could talk about, so the next story should begin on Wednesday. Wednesday . . . what happened Wednesday? I don’t remember Wednesday, and Thursday even less so. And Friday the least . . . Friday, Saturday, and Sunday the least. I don’t remember any of these days, so I’ll tell the story from Monday. It began in Olm, or rather in Ober-Olm, in the northernmost part of the city. In Olm there was a man, a cigar dealer, who was so disappointed with his life that he decided to move to another region. Upon arriving there, he came up to me and engaged me in conversation. The man said he had heard noises, as if someone yelled something like: Help, help. Then he saw a person, who yelled something like: Help, help. And next to this person he found a note on the ground—on the street—and on this note, written in almost illegible handwriting, was something along the lines of: Help, help. This man—named Netzenstein—who stood there, facing me and talking incessantly, was employed as a cigar dealer and was from the north of Olm. I haven’t forgotten him, and will now direct my reader’s attention to Netzenstein, a man exhausted by the stress of travel. Netzenstein told how he perpetually had unpleasant feelings, not only in the north of Olm, but also here, where my story takes place. For example: if he threw away a match after lighting a cigar in a tavern, he would have to go back later—in an hour or a day—to check if the tavern had burnt down. When he drops a letter into the mailbox, his disposition compels him to go to the post office in order to get the letter back, so he can tear it open and check what he wrote, and above all, to whom he wrote. Netzenstein said, that in Olm, or more precisely in Ober-Olm, he occasionally toyed with the idea of shooting a bullet into his body, through his urethra. Netzenstein closed his cigar store a half a year ago, and now travels around bars, frightening patrons with the specifics of his life in such a manner that they all flee from him. He eats alone, and said he does so gladly and with a healthy appetite, but he has a number of unpleasant feelings. Encouragement won’t help here, he said, I’m making a point of letting you know that it’s no help at all. He said, absolutely no encouragement, and I’m asking you not to test me on this fact. He walked out into the darkness and unzipped his pants. It is unfortunate, he said, that he has these feelings right now, where he used to have great plans and speeches. Once, when I walked with him along the Mosel, he suddenly screamed: Away, away, and jumped into the river. I’m drawn to the water, Netzenstein said at this point in my story, it wants to swallow me whole. He had to come to shore, and immediately. If I understand it correctly, he considered himself lost. At this moment I thought: Certainly this man feels things, touches them, but they do not make an impact on him. He’s afraid of things that mean nothing; however, because he is surrounded by meaningless things, he will always be afraid of them.
In the meantime, I’d become quite accustomed to this man—I even benefited from his presence. Netzenstein certainly seemed to have no clue as to what he was doing in my story, especially at this point. As he stood across from me on Monday, he was a fat, somewhat pale, translucent man; I’d never seen a man with such a beautiful hat. He says he has to die soon, meanwhile his heart beats in his stomach, his nerves are already dead, and now his heart is being compressed, it’s bursting out, in the air. During the course of the day I had resolved to ask him something, but I no longer found the right words.
This man, who seemed to be all skin, suddenly cried out. The particular reasons with which I could have tied it all together didn’t come to me. He cried out and began to stagger. His involuntary bodily movements—the shaking, for example, shaking and twitching, the process of breathing, swallowing, above all the swallowing—were unfavorable for the progression of this story. In the end, he was so fat that he wheezed when he walked. He loved oatmeal and overripe fruits, prepared as a thick porridge with near-raw meat, black and green plums, pumpkin, turnips, and kitchen scraps. His entire behavior was in no way human, though perhaps a bit swinish. Having said that, he was in the habit of becoming intensely terrified by unknown apparitions. He would back up a bit, trembling, and shut his eyes in despair. The first time he saw me, on a cloudy afternoon, he dropped to the ground as if he’d been shot, but then got up again and continued, without uttering a single syllable.
I believe he died from fright. A storm caused him distress. Seeming dazed, he immediately jumped at a flash of lightning, turned his ears to the rolling thunder, looked wistfully at his hands—wet from the rain and shaking from this tremendous incident—shook his extremely heavy head up until the moment a blow ended his life. This man, Netzenstein, was the uncle of the Honorary Consul from Honduras, who was greatly shocked over the outcome. He immediately cancelled his vacation in Stanz and appeared in my story. This sequence could have been entirely different.