Author: Timm, Uwe
Date published: October 1, 2011
TRANSLATED BY ROBERT C. CONARD
She climbed the steps. Where they widened by the wall, in the corner of the stairwell, she stood for a minute, waiting to catch her breath. Her knees trembled, she thought that's from the fright, it still sticks in my limbs. She started up again, supporting herself with her left hand on the banister. Most of the brass strips on the edge of the steps were torn away, the linoleum was frayed and covered with the dust of gray plaster. The banister on the second floor wobbled. Drawn on the walls were large stick figures, and in large script were initials and names that meant nothing to her. When she moved in twenty-six years ago, the janitor lived downstairs. He swept the steps every day and cleaned the stairwell every other. Now, once a week two Africans came and mopped the stairs.
She heard steps coming from above and stopped, tried to breathe calmly and to hide her trembling hand. A young man came toward her carrying a red bicycle on his shoulder. He nodded to her. She said hello. Then she turned her back to the wall, making room for his bike, but really to hide her back. I should never have worn the coat, she thought. It was a mistake. I should have worn my brown cloth coat even though the sleeves are worn to a shine, and sometimes frayed threads have to be snipped with a nail scissor, but it isn't warm. The other coat as she called it was warm, really warm. A nutria coat, made of the best pelts. It had turned cold overnight, and the apartment was cold in the morning. She had turned the heat up just before supper for three hours. For the last two years she had been thinking of selling the coat. Once she even went to the furrier on Oster Street, the last such shop in the neighborhood. A few years ago there were four- no five. Now just one. And in its window are just leather goods, seldom a fur coat.
She looked the coat over carefully, repaired two seams in the lining, put it over her arm, went to the furrier and laid it on the counter. The furrier examined the coat: its fur, and its silk lining.
Good work, he said.
Yes, she said, and as good as new. I've seldom worn it.
I can see that, he said.
He paused for a moment and named a price. She thought at first that she had misunderstood, but he repeated it again: 650 marks. He must have seen the disappointment in her face. He said, I'm sorry, it simply isn't worth more. Really not. It's better you keep it. No one wears fur coats anymore. Not even expensive ones like mink or nutria. The fur business is dead.
She stood there, thought about the glasses she needed and the electric bill coming due. She drew her hand down the fur. In the light it looked like liquid gold, soft and warm; then she rubbed in the other direction and watched it turn a deep dark brown.
I'll keep it, she said.
As she stood up, she said aloud to herself: it's the right thing to do.
Until four years ago, before she retired, she had worked sewing furs. She would have preferred to become a furrier. But that was before the war. Then only young men became furriers. She would marry anyway, her father said. Why spend three years as an apprentice when you can learn to sew furs in two years. And you don't have to stand to do the work. For forty-six years she sewed, first the silk linings and then the furs themselves: Persian lamb, seal, mink, ocelot, nutria, and beaver. The furriers stood at the work tables, sorted the furs, cut the squares and the strips, and pinned them together for coats, then the women at the sewing machines took over.
What's beautiful about this profession, Blaser told her one day, was that no two furs are alike. And that was the difference between working with fur and cloth. With cloth you had to pay attention only when cutting the material or the pattern, after that, working with one bolt of cloth was like another. With furs there were differences, differences in color, in length and thickness, many little differences that had to be taken into consideration. And furs that came from the wild were often damaged, had imperfections where the animal had been bitten or had injured itself on a thorn or a rock. These scars and bald spots had to be worked on and carefully repaired. It was an art.
For a while she had worked in a factory, in a battery factory where she earned more than sewing furs. But the work at the conveyor belt, packing batteries, was boring, so she went back to sewing for a major furrier in Hamburg.
In winter the work was most pleasant when she could look out the window and see the snow fall, and she knew that what she was sewing would keep someone warm.
The women sat across from each other as they sewed the linings. The work was pleasant. They talked about what they liked or about what frightened them. If she still worked there, she would go in tomorrow and tell them of the incident she had today.
She reached the next floor. Here, too, the steps were covered with fine dust, sand, and mortar. The going and coming of shoes had worn away the linoleum in a few places, and the wood was showing through. For months, actually for over a year, they had been working in the building, on the fourth and fifth floor. When the work started, she swept the steps and kept the landing clean on her floor where there were three other apartments. But after a while she gave up sweeping and cleaning because a few hours later the dust and the footprints were back. A few months ago two Africans, whom she could not understand because they spoke only English, started coming. They each carried a bucket of water, put on rubber gloves, and began to clean. She watched them through the spyhole in the door, saw one of them stick the scrubbing brush with a rag wrapped around it into the bucket and begin cleaning without first sweeping the floor. She asked herself if that was the way it was done in Africa. Two buckets of water for the whole stairwell.
Now and then she met the workers themselves on the stairs. She greeted them, but could do no more because she did not understand them, either. Maybe they were Poles or Russians. She could hear the noise everywhere in her apartment even when she was sitting in the kitchen: hammering, drilling, thumping month after month. She asked herself what they were doing up there so long. Sometimes they carried up a bucket of sand and sometimes tiles. Then it was silent for a while, for a week or two, but the gray dust was still there every day until Friday morning when the two black men came. In the evening the stairs were again gray, and there was a crunching sound with each step. She sat down on the little bench in the corner of the landing, set down beside her the worn-out imitation leather bag that she would not throw away. It was a present from Karl, Karl Lorenz. Lorenz worked in the land registry office. They met once a week, usually on the weekend. He wanted to marry her, he said, for tax reasons, but that was said more as a joke. It was nice when they were together in the apartment, had breakfast in the morning and told each other their dreams. She liked exchanging dreams, but she did not want to marry him. When her relatives asked her why she wouldn't marry him, she said I like him, but not enough to marry him. Lorenz died nine years ago. He just keeled over at a bus stop and died.
Since then she was alone.
She sat there a while and wanted to lean back against the wall, but stopped herself.
It was not much farther to her apartment, there she could take her coat off. Maybe it was ketchup. She could wash it out. It was red, she could see that. It happened so quickly. It was something red. She was sure of that. And the people laughed. She saw that, too. That bothered her most, how the people in the department store just laughed. She was in the food section, not far from the cheese. Maybe nothing was there. She felt only a slight touch, Uke someone brushing against her back, nothing hard, just a stroke, a light touch. When she left with the people laughing, she wanted to scream. On the street she stayed close to the show windows and the walls of the buildings. She walked a little diagonally with her back half turned toward the walls. She thought for a moment of taking her coat off. But it would have been embarrassing to stand at the crowded crossing holding a coat that she could not put on again.
Actually the coat was not right for shopping at that department store or for that street in this part of the city. Twenty years ago, yes, but not now. The people in the store seemed pleased, the way they grinned. In her apartment she could wash out the ketchup and tack up the spot so the leather would not lose it shape. That was important in the making of the coat: the precision in the cutting, the use of a tack stitch so the length of the hairs would be perfect and the color exact, then a different tack stitch to hold the strips of furs in place at the right length, then the leather was moistened while still tacked up so the furs received their correct shape before they were sewn together. Not a single hair could be sewn over or the beautiful silky light brown of the fur would have dark lumpy spots. The hair was unbelievably fine, and no one who wore the coat had the slightest idea of how difficult it was to sew these seams, how steady one's hand had to be and how with tweezers every hair had to be put in place so the tacking seams could be sewed together.
How precisely, quickly, and elegantly you do that, Mr. Blaser said to her one day.
From one of the apartments came the rumbling again. Two young men had moved in, probably students. They were listening to music. Sometimes the odor from the apartment on the second floor made her nauseous. She could not determine what they were cooking, what spice or spices it was, but she could not stand the smell. And the people above her watered their window flowers with so much water that it ran down over her windows that she had just cleaned. But still they had flowers. Only she and the people above her had a window box with flowers. Two families lived there from the sound of the feet on the floor, although their apartment had only two bedrooms, like hers. The other two apartments were empty. That is where the work was being done, where the hammering and drilling came from. She wondered how they could bear the noise.
Her feet were warm now, really warm, even the one she had broken years ago, shortly after she got the news that Helmut had died in a Russian POW camp. A letter came from his parents and they gave her an address. They were going to get married on his next furlough, but he was reported missing in action near Tscherkassy. Six months later news came that he was a prisoner. Eight years she waited. Then came the notice of his death. Whenever she thought about it she became angry, not with him and not with herself, but with the others, those who had caused it all, that was the way she put it. Then she got excited, and her heart beat faster and skipped as if asking if it should go on beating, and then she couldn't breathe. That happened often in the summer when it was hot and even more often in winter when the damp cold crawled out of the grayness. I shouldn't have worn the coat she thought. There were warnings. There were signs. When she was still working, a year before she retired, she went to work one morning and saw from a distance a crowd in front of the fur store. Then she saw two policemen and the lady who owned the store; one of the policemen was comforting her. And then she noticed in white paint written on the window the word: murderer. It wasn't a large store; it was small and not even chic. Most of the customers came to have things repaired, they seldom wanted a coat made. The department stores had cheaper goods, we couldn't compete with them. The department stores had their fur coats made in Greece and later in Hong Kong. Minks for 2000 marks. She often repaired them. Really cheap work. When you opened the lining, you could see it immediately. On the leather side, hair was sticking out, everywhere sewn into the garment. And on the outside you could see the seams in the fur, real grooves. A piece of junk. But people had no eye for it.
Blaser was a perfectionist, a real artist. He sat there and calculated, made drawings, and cut with a razor-sharp knife the openings in the pelt. She admired him, how calmly he worked, how precisely; only a few furriers, very few could cut so evenly and wonderfully. She sewed the strips together with equal care so that nothing shifted, so there were no creases in the leather and no catches, and above all so not a single hair was sewn over. The machine had to be set perfectly, too much tension and the leather would pull, too little tension and the seam would be too loose. A tricky task. One needed practice, a steady hand, a good eye, and experience. A sure hand for cutting and a steady hand for sewing. In all her working years, those working for Blaser were the best. Even though she could not talk because the work required so much concentration. It was exact handwork. She sat at her machine, sewed, and when she raised her head, she saw the back of the woman sewing in front of her, leaning over her work. Always the hum of the machines. Seven sewers sat in a row at their electric machines. Her biggest concern was the shortness of the time. Each piece had to be done on a schedule recorded by a time clock. Sometimes the allotted times were even reduced. And sometimes, so she would not be docked in pay, she had to work overtime. That was often the case working for Blaser.
In the summer during her lunch break she sat at the open window. The workshop was on the eighth floor, and she could look across the street to the Jungfernstieg. From the harbor she could hear the screeching of the bucket dredge, the riveting from the shipyard, and the tooting of the ships. She thought how strange it was that all these sounds had disappeared, could not be heard anymore, not even when there was a southwest wind. One used to be able to hear the harbor everywhere in the city, and people wore fur coats in winter. More and more goods were mass-produced. And minks were raised in little cages.
Then came the people who protested. The shops began to close, furriers were laid off, the women who did the sewing became sales clerks, like Maria, whom she had met when they had worked together, and who now sells sausage at Karstadt's. That's where she bought the sliced sausage that was on sale today. Maria should have warned her, should have said: Watch it, be careful, but she was in the section where all the canned goods were, not far from the cheese where she wanted to buy a few slices. That's where it happened. She thought, maybe I should have gone to Maria and asked immediately for a rag. But when she saw all the people standing around staring, who had seen it all, she quickly left, wanted to get away from those people who looked and laughed- a stupid gloating laugh.
As she entered the building, she smelled it and as she went up the steps. Maybe it was some cleaning material. There were always smells since the work started, the smell of lime, cement, and some kind of solvent.
A couple of times she went up to the top floor to see what they were doing. But she could not see in any of the apartments. She could only see shadows through the opaque glass of the apartment doors. She heard voices but could not make out what was said. And she heard the sound of a drill. How can they keep drilling for so long? What are they doing? Once she called the office of the building manager to say it was unbearable: the dirt, the dust, the noise. But the woman who answered the phone just said they were modernizing the apartments. But when she said it was too much, all the noise month after month, then the voice on the phone- it sounded like a young woman- said: You can always move.
That's not so easy, she said. And she got excited, and when she was excited she could not think straight because her heart began to beat irregularly. Listen, she said: I've lived here twenty-six years. But the woman on the other end of the line had already hung up.
In the following days she considered going to the tenants' protection agency, but she gave up the idea, deciding the woman on the phone was just a little snippy and was not threatening to force her to move.
Behind one of the apartment doors there was yapping that could only have come from a puppy. But it sounded deep, loud, and threatening. The dog was also new in the building. She was always afraid that she would meet this dog on the stairs. Fortunately she had never run into the dog or its owner. Probably he walked the dog at night after she went to bed. She went to bed early. Evenings just before seven she would turn up the heat and watch a movie on TV while she ate, almost always a cold meal, bread, cheese, slices of sausage, and drank black tea. Sometimes she fixed an egg. She used to cook hot meals when she came home from work. Now she prepared food two or three days in advance and just warmed it up. She liked stew with pears, beans, and bacon. It was her favorite food. It reminded her of her mother because it was her favorite food also.
Just a few more steps, just seven more, then she was there. She gave herself time. A few more minutes she thought didn't matter any more. First she would wipe the ketchup off and then wash the spot carefully with water. It would have been better to have wiped the ketchup off immediately. But in front of all these staring people. She was also sure that if she had looked at her coat in front of all these people she would have cried. Now she was more used to the shock. She would wet a dish cloth with cold water and carefully wipe off the ketchup. And then if that didn't work she would wash it out with water. The fur would turn gray and get stiff. The fine hair would stick together. But she knew a trick with a hot iron that she had learned from Blaser. To rub the spot with vinegar and then iron it with a hot iron, but not too hot. Then the hair would loosen, turn smooth, and shine golden brown again. It would look again like silk, a deep shaded silk, dehcate and soft.
The furs themselves she bought sixteen years ago after she had sewn many nutria coats. She was able to buy a bundle of furs wholesale. She used all her savings. She had the Swiss Blaser explain everything to her. He was very patient and an artist. She liked him but never knew how to show her affection. His friendly readiness to help, though, was a little intimidating. Actually it was because of him that she bought the nutria. Not Persian lamb, Persian lamb was easier to work with, but a nutria coat when perfectly made was a work of art. Blaser was a master like no other. You could never see where one fur joined the other, where the color, the thickness, the smoky quality, or the length of the hair was different at the head or at the rump as one called the hind quarters, and only at one place, a few millimeters wide, was it possible to join the furs with a tack seam. Blaser took the time after work to mark the places where she could cut the fur. He sat there like a surgeon in his white starched coat with his glasses and sun-tanned face and his gray hair. She liked to hear him talk with his calm Swiss accent. He sat at the table and blew on the fur, looked, compared, searched for nuances in the fur. When she finished the back, the part most noticed, he made sure the transitions between the furs aligned by dabbing on a color solution. A solution only he used and told no one about, not even her, which could be used on no other coat. A secret he said, a tincture that does not dissolve in the rain. Never use benzine he said. Never!
She already knew that. Never put benzine on fur, never clean fur with benzine! She had to wash away the ketchup. She thought then how everything could have been different when she and Blaser worked together after hours. He explained the work patiently in the finest detail. He even did some of the work as he talked about how it would snow soon in the mountains. He wasn't married. She knew that.
For two months they had worked late together. Finally she lined the coat with dark red silk, the best, the most expensive silk the wholesaler had. When all was finished, she brushed the fur lightly with vinegar and ironed the coat so the lining gleamed. It hung there on the dummy, and she and Blaser sat in front of it and made a toast to the coat with the Deinhardt champagne she had bought for the occasion.
You ought to have become a furrier, he said, that is a true work of art.
They toasted again, and he asked her to put the coat on. It embarrassed her a little, but because he asked, she did, and then they went for a walk along the Jungfernstieg to the subway station Gänsemarkt on a cool but sunny October afternoon. It was a perfect day for the fur coat: the silky sheen, the shadowy golden brown. She was close to Blaser and asked if they could walk arm in arm. He said he would like that. They went over the Jungfernstieg so naturally, just as she had wished with all the coats she had worked on. An elegant couple. At the entrance to the subway they parted. For a moment she hoped he would invite her for a drink, for a short bold moment she thought of inviting him, but they shook hands and she entered the subway to go home.
She opened the door. In her apartment it smelled of solvent. She stopped to take a deep, calm breath. Then she went in the kitchen, put her artificial leather bag on the table, kept her coat on, shivered, screwed up her courage and took the coat off, turned it around and saw the great red spot, still damp. It had run down the entire back of the coat, a glowing red. She dabbed it with her finger, smelled it, but when she touched it she knew what it was: paint, oil paint, and she would never be able to get it out. She sat down, laid the coat on her lap and pressed her face into the soft fur, not noticing she was smearing herself with red, her skirt, her knit jacket, her arms, her hands.
Uwe Timm is an award-winning German writer. Robert C. Conard is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Dayton. "The Coat" was a finalist for the National Magazine Awards in the fiction category in 2010.