The Schimmer of the Assistant and Other Tales
Four short stories mainly set in late nineteenth century Silesia.
- The Shimmer of the Assistant: a surreal story about what happens after a clerk fails to get a pay-rise.
- The Last Act: a banker’s past deeds come back to haunt him during an evening in a tavern with old friends.
- The Grandmother: a grandmother with a reputation for saving dying people tries to save her grandson in the face of her son-in-law’s obstruction.
- The Spirit of the Father: an explorer in the Orient receives a visitation from his dying father.
After the assistant, Paul Förster, had spent a month in anxiously impassioned consideration of whether he was fulfilling the hopes which beset him from the eyes of his fiance and from the blessed base of his own soul alike, he tried to show some resolve.
He drafted a request for a higher salary and bore it personally to the offices of the directors.
And now he was standing in the office of the director of the “God’s Blessing Mine” and looking with extreme tenseness at the director’s face leaning deep over the large, densely written sheet. The assistant battled against fear and servility, which made him feel ashamed because he knew that it would startle him when the director straightened up and looked at him. In order to bear up in a manly way, he turned with an inaudible step to the long, yellow table which, littered with maps, payrolls and records, took up the entire centre of the large, cold room. He leaned on its edge and assumed a casual pose. For it was ridiculous, as a thirty year old, he could not behave like a young clerk, even if at the present time it was perhaps better not to stress independence and dignity too much.
Then the director lifted up his fat head of thick white hair, pushed the sheet away slightly with his hand on the writing desk, stroked his grey moustache thoughtfully and said with good-natured regret, “An accursed tale, my dear Förster.”
“Yes, Mr Scheithauer … Director,” the latter corrected himself, moved away from the table and returned to his old subordinate pose.
“A very inconvenient time,” the director continued, “the administration is contented with you. But they cannot initiate anything with their benevolence during the present miserable economic situation. You know that yourself. One cottage after the other is putting their fire out. The railroad is electrifying. The textile people are suffocating on their inventory. We are only operating with half the work force. For heaven’s sake, we even have to hold tight to every pfennig.”
Scheithauer had worked his way up from clerk to director and did not yet rattle his tongue lieutenant-like, in order to preserve his authority, as was now generally becoming a bad habit in Prussia, but behaved graciously and courteously to everyone.
The good, decent man had paused and was waiting for an answer, “You know, director, I have been with the administration for eight years and believe I have a claim for that reason,” Förster said with a wavering voice.
“If it came down to just you and me, certainly. But if we give you a raise then Schirsager will come after you, Mayer ditto, and before we could catch our breath, we would have to promote the lot of the entire suite of clerks.”
“I wasn’t meaning a promotion, director …”
“I know. You are only calling for a salary corresponding to your seniority.”
Förster paled and just nodded.
Scheithauer rose hastily and paced a few times back and forth with large strides by the long table.
“It is only twenty marks a month more, director … and they would, I think, suffice for the present,” Förster said pleadingly.
Scheithauer interrupted his wandering with a jolt and returned to the writing desk, emitting an impish whistle.
“Haha … so, so, hmhm, you think so? Ah now I understand! You want to marry.”
“Now yes, director, I am thirty. You know, I lost my father and mother early, you get sick of living at the inn and, well, in a word, it isn’t to be ashamed of that you yearn after your own home.”
There was a long pause. The director raised his brow in thought and looked out the window at the thick, white vapour streaming past which the wind was driving across from the coking plant. The machines sniffed wheezily like heavily laden horses being whipped up a mountain.
“Yes, my dear Förster,” Scheithauer came out of his solitary musing again, “that isn’t much to want.”
“I have been getting a hundred and ten a month for four years,” Förster said quickly and anxiously to preempt a negative reply.
“Well … need it be then?” the director asked and narrowed an eye impishly.
“How do you mean, director?”
“Ah … haha! … I mean, if you are forced … you know, we are all sinners.”
“Absolutely not, what are you thinking?”
“So, my dear, if you haven’t broken a leg — now I’ll speak as your older friend, not as your superior — then I would advise you still to wait before founding a family. No extra pay can be given. Impossible, quite impossible! Well, and what more do you have then? You will not be well-fed by love, and you manage comfortably now with your salary.”
“Well, yes, nobody can just make leaps, my dear, not even I.”
Paul Förster now looked out the window at the hulking wooden cooling tower. It was gagging in his throat, the brown stained tower swayed in the mist. For a moment, the fury boiled up in him, ‘Dammit, keep the money, it’ll work out the same.’
But it did not get any further.
Director Scheithauer saw the expression of dogged energy on his office assistant’s face and said, “Of course I don’t want to stop you from marrying, on the contrary, the king needs soldiers. Certainly. I even want to befriend you. You will receive a larger dwelling, a patch of garden will be found, the coal allowance will be increased. So, why shouldn’t it work out?”
The assistant, Förster, stood stiffly with a pale, desperate face and strove bravely to smile affably.
He would have liked to have made one last attempt to induce the director to at least an extra pay of ten marks a month, but it seemed impossible for him to bring any words forth. For he would then have become uncouth and — have been lain out on the street on the next “first”.
“Now think everything over again, dear Förster, and let me know your decision in fourteen days so that the necessary steps can be taken,” the director said with a sympathetic voice.
The assistant made an awkward bow in agitation, murmured some senseless phrase with an abject voice and stepped with a secret curse of fury through the door and into the hallway.