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from the January 2016 issue

Getting Undressed, Yes, Getting Dressed, Too

Is it me? Am I next?

No, you’re not next, no.

No? I’m not?

No, you’re not. No matter how many times you ask.

You? And you?

What about me?

If you’re next? No?

I’m not and you’re not. Neither of us is next. Whether you like it or not.

Good. I thought so. No?

What was it you thought, take your time, tell me what it was you thought, we’ve surely got long enough for that.

That I was next, I thought. Or you. One of us. Me first and then you. I thought.

Of all the people here, look around you, where do you get the nerve to think you’re next. I don’t get it.

 

Doctor Thaler’s office, hello. On Monday, Mr. Pinter, on Monday we’re going on vacation. Not until Monday. You can still come before then, just medication, yes, I understand, please do stop in again. Katherine, should I bandage up Mrs. Miller now?

 

It really can be irritating, when someone else, usually a new patient, thinks that you want to get ahead of them in line or get some other special treatment, I have to admit, it bothers me too, because it happens all the time. It’s always the new ones who think they’re next. And what about you? For what condition are you placing yourself at the doctors’ mercy?  You’ll only be sent from one doctor to another. You’re better off just asking which doctor they’ll be sending you to next. Three times I week I go to the Café Central, more as a ritual than an inner necessity. First thing, every day. I don’t know why, out of habit? I have no idea how I find my way there and I don’t know how I get home, but I still manage it every day.

 

And can you still see well? Mrs. König, can you still see well enough?

Pardon me?

How is your vision, still good?

Pardon? My husband would have been very upset, yes. If he’d even noticed.

Mrs. König, can you read what’s written here, can you see it? Read it to me?

Pardon? I’m doing well, thanks. They just won’t let me swim anymore.

 

I feel revived when I walk through a forest and look at a tree. But there’s hardly a tree to be found in the city. So I go to the Central and pretend that I’m sitting like a tree next to other trees. But not because these trees mean anything to me, please understand, I look at the newspaper. I don’t really care to see anyone. Die at the right time, comrade, I always say. But what is the right time, since no one ever wants to. They’d all rather go to our dear doctor than exit when they’re meant to, as would be fitting for people like us. I’m no different.

 

If you have any discomfort, Mr. Gärtner, Cervoflax, two at a time, twice a day. Now and tomorrow and every day. Two each time.

 

What do you think? It might be possible, I mean, perhaps not really, no probably not, in fact. What do you think? Am I right?

And what do I think about what? I didn’t say anything. What is it you might be right about, tell me that.

That it would probably be better not to see the doctor at all, I mean, that it might be better to leave before that. If no one even knows. Do you think I should worry? That the doctor might prescribe me a jacket? Should I worry about it, I wouldn’t want that, you understand. But I also don’t want to offend him.

It’s your first time here. The doctor you’re waiting for is a woman doctor. But you’ll realize that. This doctor won’t prescribe you a jacket, why should she? You will have to get undressed. Even in your case, it probably can’t be avoided, on the first visit, I mean. You’ll have to take some clothes off. This doctor may want to help you get dressed as well, you understand, not to speed things up, or so that you don’t slow down her business, but because she wants to help. That’s possible. But that she might make you wear a jacket you’ve never worn before, I simply can’t imagine. Getting undressed, yes, getting dressed too, I wouldn’t deny that since it’s your first visit.

 

Mrs. Hatzer, wouldn’t you like to sit down, now that we’ve finally found a place for you. There, there’s a place for you, you see?

It doesn’t matter. I can stand. I’m not missing anything if I stand, and I’m not missing anything if I sit. But as long as I can still stand, I prefer to sit, you know. Sitting, it all slips away more easily.

 

If the doctor might try to offer me a jacket, which I really don’t want, you see, then I shouldn’t even go in.

As far as I know, she hasn’t ever given any of her patients a jacket. Since my wife passed away, I’ve been coming to her practice. And all this time, what has happened again and again is that someone, apparently here for the first time, claims that I’ve jumped the queue. But the doctor prescribing a jacket for a patient—never.

She hasn’t?

That you can believe.

So everything’s fine. It would simply be too much. Such intimacy, you understand, on the first visit, I couldn’t have that.

Yes, I do understand. But it’s not going to happen. Not with this doctor. Besides, if even if it did, what’s so bad about a jacket? Why does it get you all upset?

 

Breathe through your nose, Mr. Runger, through your nose. Breathe nicely through your nose, yes, slowly through your nose. Through your nose, Mr. Runger, yes, that’s right.

 

Maybe you’ll feel better if I promise to have a look around. When I’m in with the doctor, I’ll keep an eye out for any jackets. Do people offer you children’s or women’s jackets as well? With your luck, I wouldn’t be surprised. In any case, I’ll speak to the doctor about you.

I’d rather you didn’t. Why draw her attention to such things if you don’t have to? You understand, I’d rather you didn’t ask. Or maybe you should? You think?

You really should come to the Central. No one is ever offered a jacket in the Central, you don’t have to worry about that. You would be the first person ever to be given a jacket in the Central. Stolen, yes, that could happen in the Central, your jacket could go missing. But to get a jacket as a gift, in the Central, believe me, you’d be the first.

 

Mrs. Gigele. Mrs. Gigele? Mrs. Gigele.

 

Who would come up with such an unspeakable idea, in the Central, I mean. Not even the lawyer Steindl, who’s now completely confused, would hand you his jacket just like that. As for the accountant, Strobl, I wouldn’t know, I can’t vouch for Strobl on this. But he wouldn’t force his jacket on you either. So, no need to worry. In the Central, you’re as safe as you are here. You’ll see, not one jacket far and wide. That is, there are jackets of all kinds, but none for you. About the lawyer Steindl, I would, in certain circumstances, not be too sure, that he, in his confusion, might not come up with the idea after all if not of offering you his jacket, then of wanting to lend it to you, in case he might mistakenly be under the impression, that you shouldn’t be without a jacket, you understand, if someone told him so. But who would do that? And on his own, the lawyer Steindl would never in his life come up with the idea. Someone would have to have whispered it in his ear, and if someone were to do that, he would be the last one to deny anyone their wish. You would just have to ask him. You’d only need to give him a hint, a sign, you understand, a tip. Steindl doesn’t need more than that. We’ll just ask him.

What are you going to ask him? I don’t want a jacket, don’t you understand why I’m here. And if this doctor can’t help me, I don’t know I’ll do.

The best thing would be for you to come to the Central tomorrow. Then we’ll see what we can do. You’ll get your jacket and the case will be closed. Because we will find a remedy, you and the doctor, the lawyer Steindl and I, together we can solve your jacket problem, but you have to make an effort and you have to believe.

 

Mr. Euler, today, only medicine, Mr. Euler?

Today only medicine, yes.

Do you also go away, Mr. Euler, do you go away in the summer?

I also go away, yes.

Where do you go, then? To Lignano as well? Mrs. Lechner goes to Lignano.

To Lignano? I go to Chemo Island. Third time already. Always in the summer. My head this time, you see.

 

I can suggest something for your situation, should it go so far, though please understand me, I don’t believe it will, but even so, should it be the case that you go in now, if you are, in fact, the next one to be called in to the doctor and it should so happen, although I’ve already told you that it never has yet, but even so, if it were to happen and the doctor prescribed you a jacket, or, which I think even less likely, if she should want to knit a jacket for you herself, only if, don’t get worked up, as an exception, so to speak, I can suggest to you that you come with me to the Central tomorrow. There, we’ll hang your jacket up on a coat hanger and we’ll watch from our table whether or not anyone walks off with it. Although I believe, I’ve said it already, I doubt anything has ever gone missing in the Central. The Central is the most secure place in the city. The likelihood of escaping your jacket there is not really very great. But even if your jacket won’t get stolen there, you could always leave it hanging. It would be worth a try. Still, we’ll have to reckon with the waiter’s attentiveness. Much too often I’ve seen a forgotten umbrella or coat brought to a guest all the way out in the street.

 

Mama, where’s Chemo Island? Kerstin and I want to go to Chemo Island too. Say we can go. Daddy can come too, he’ll like it there.

 

Maybe you’re right and she does, in fact, give you a jacket, which she’s been secretly knitting for years behind that door. Maybe she dropped a stitch after each patient and now she sees in you all those people for whom the stitches were dropped. She is an enveloping kind of person, you’re not wrong there. But maybe you’ll get lucky and I’ll be the one to get her jacket. Then you’d be out of danger, at least as far as being first goes. Because it will take time before she can knit a second jacket.

You see.

What do I see? Help me out here.

You see, now you also think it’s not impossible. And if it did happen, then it would all be over. Whenever I don’t accept a jacket, it’s always the end.

You know what I’m thinking? That you are, in fact, completely bent on getting a jacket, that’s what I think. There’s no need to look at me like that. The truth is you are out to find the jacket of your life, because all your life they’ve stuck you in strange jackets, that’s the way it is, believe me. Between us, it’s obvious you’re missing something. The more I think about it, I mean, I want to be frank with you, so I have to tell you that even I, under certain circumstances would not have been immune from mentioning the, in my view, ideal jacket for you or from bringing it to you in the Central. I won’t do it, you don’t need to worry. Nevertheless, in your case, I am tempted, I have to admit. Not once in my entire life have I offered anyone a jacket. It’s never even occurred to me. How pointless life seems, when you’re in a waiting room, I mean.

 

And you, who are you? You’re Anna? How wonderfully Anna has grown. How old is she now, six?

Next year she’ll be six, yes. In the morning, she wants to be an archeologist, in the afternoon, a doctor, and in the evening, a waitress. And I tell her, if you can manage all that, then you’re good.

My Jacob still wants to be a cow.

He wants to be a cow?

Yes, a cow.

If he can manage that, then he’s really good.

Now we’ll bandage up Mrs. Miller. Mrs. Miller, will you come with me in the dressing room?

 

You see? Mrs. Miller. Mrs. Miller was next, I mean. Wasn’t she?

Mrs. Miller was next, yes. Mrs. Miller is always next. Ever since I’ve been coming to this doctor, Mrs. Miller has been the next one, or one of the next ones. In any event, she always goes before me. Several times a day, in fact.

And now?

What, and now? You really keep people busy, you know.

Who’s next, now, after Mrs. Miller. You? Or me? Mrs. Miller can’t be next again after Mrs. Miller. Can she?

She very well could. You see, Mrs. Miller waits in stages. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday she gets bandaged. Mummified. She’s practically embalmed, the poor woman. Do you remember what she looked like when she disappeared behind the curtain just now? See if you recognize her when she’s brought out. Sometimes Mrs. Miller comes out and sits down and is immediately called in again.

It would not be fine with me. That the doctor might knit something for me, I mean. I don’t need bandages either. My problems are all internal.

Mine, too. Everything is internal. Why worry about the jacket, then? It would be a shame, I mean, now that we’re just getting to know each other a bit, if you were to stop coming because of this jacket business. I’m on your side, and maybe we’ll get to know each other well enough today that I can give you my word that I will, personally, rip up any jacket anyone tries to foist on you. I could go that far.

 

Mrs. Gigele. Mrs. Gigele?

 

Good, then. I’ll tear them up, all of them, that is if they can be torn up, of course. As for jackets that can’t, I don’t know what I’d do. Leather jackets or jackets made of naugahyde or whatever you call it. That would be beyond me at the moment, but as for knitted jackets, I promise, I’ll rip them apart. Right here, in the waiting room. We’ll get right to work. You take care of getting the jackets and I’ll tear them up. You put them on and I’ll pull on a thread as long as it takes for each of the jackets to unravel and fall right off you. Or come with me in the Central. We can rip the jacket up there, I mean, why not in the Central? Maybe notary Strobl could help us with it. Strobl is sure to help. The lawyer Steindl, though, probably won’t, but the accountant Strobl won’t object, I think, at least he won’t mind if we finish it off right next to him. With Steindl, I doubt he’d understand the reason behind it all, you see.

 

Mr. Renk, please come for your IV in the recovery room, please, Mr. Renk, the doctor is waiting for you.

 

You see. I’m next after all. But you shouldn’t think I pushed in ahead of you. What would you think if I let you go ahead of me? Just this once, it wouldn’t be the rule. And if it so happens that you come out that door with a jacket, I promise you, I won’t go in to see the doctor at all, but I’ll sit here with you so we can figure out how we can get rid of your jacket. Now go in, don’t hesitate. It’s not your turn, but I’ll let you go first. And I’ll wait for you here. Deal?

 

From Im Sitzen läuft es sich besser Davon. © 2014, Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch GmbH & Co. KG, Cologne, Germany. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2016 by Tess Lewis. All rights reserved.

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