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Authors: H. G. Adler

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BOOK: Panorama
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It’s always best when someone is there, but at school there are too many, three kids on each bench, and whoever sits in the middle, like Josef, can’t get out unless a neighbor makes room. Josef sits way up front, because his vision is so bad, and in front of him is Fräulein Reimann, for when she teaches she likes to stand in front of the first row, her hand resting on the back of the bench. All the children like her, she is so nice, and she likes to lead them in songs, the children taking up the “Songbook of the Fatherland” in its red
binding, the teacher announcing the page number so that the children can open to it, all of them standing up and singing as one in chorus. Fräulein Reimann also has a violin, which she likes to play, yet she is also unsatisfied and calls out a name. “You’re droning along, you’re not singing! You have to sing out, open your mouth just wide enough to fit two fingers in. But the fingers should be one next to the other!” And she shows how wide the mouth should be. They all stick their fingers into their mouths and she praises the children who do it right. Josef also likes to sing along, though he doesn’t like the exam, for then there is no chorus and you have to sing on your own, and the violin is of no help, it lies on the lectern, the teacher liking to have only the bow in her hands.

At recess, all the children have to head to the courtyard, except when it rains, the mother having said that Josef should take his cap in order not to catch cold, but he doesn’t like the cap, for on it there’s a name written,
, which he doesn’t understand, though the mother said that it’s a ship that belongs to the emperor in Vienna. Everything belongs to the emperor, but the cap belongs to Josef, even if he doesn’t like it, which is why he was not unhappy when Hugo Treml ripped off its band and tore it badly. However, when Josef got home the mother was beside herself. “Your beautiful cap! The good emperor would be so upset.” Nonetheless, Josef was not upset, and there are other clothes that he doesn’t like, such as a white sailor suit that annoys him, yet the mother is especially fond of it, saying that it looks so cute on Josef, though he hates the tie more than anything, the bow is hideous. It’s a shame that a boy should have to wear such a suit, the bib under the shirt, which is attached to the underwear, is terrible with all those buttons, for they take forever, the mother saying, “You’re dawdling again! One needs the patience of heaven with you! The coffee will be completely cold, and you need to be off to school already!” And the tall laced boots take a lot of effort, the mother not helping at all, or allowing Anna to help, but when Anna checks to see if the laces have been properly done up the mother says with agitation, “Anna, I’m asking you again! Please don’t indulge him. A child must learn to fend for himself.”

Because the mother wants Josef to do everything on his own, the mornings take forever. The cold milk coffee has such a grotesque skin on top of it that Josef is disgusted and pulls it off with two fingers, even though the
mother has forbidden it, saying that you should only shove it to the side with a spoon if you aren’t going to just swallow it, but never touch your food with your fingers. What the mother really wants is for Josef to drink his milk, but he can’t stand it, he is unreasonable and simply doesn’t see how good it is for him, how it would make him much less anxious, the doctor having said that Josef needs to drink a lot of milk, because he is always pale and anemic. The doctor had then wanted to prick his finger in order to examine his blood to see how anemic he is, but he let loose such a scream that the doctor had to stop, the result being that everyone now says that Josef is a sniveler. But he can’t stand the sight of blood, Frau Robitschek’s carp also bloody, the poor fish unable to cry out but only flip itself off the table as she beat it with a hammer.

Because it involves so much blood, Josef has no idea why the mother wants him to become a doctor, and when children fall they scream, are bloody and covered with dirt, someone saying, “You got what you deserved, you rascals!” But the father says he doesn’t care what Josef will become, only that he make a decent and honorable living, while Aunt Betti says, “One has no idea what children will be when they grow up.” But Aunt Gusti says, “Nothing can be made of lazy and unremarkable children. So who says that Josef has to study. Working with your hands has its rewards.” Then the mother is unhappy when everyone says such things, and she says, “He should study no matter what. I’m hoping that he’ll be a doctor. It’s the best profession, because you help others.” But Josef doesn’t know how you help others if you cause them pain, and wherever there is blood there is no help involved, only a lot of pain. Only cough medicine is okay, it tastes good and is so gooey when you take a big spoonful, as Josef holds it for a long while in his mouth and swishes it around, the way he does when he brushes his teeth, normally the mother wanting him to spit it out, though not so with the cough medicine, which he needs to just swallow.

Josef likes to be sick, but not too sick, though being a little sick is pleasant, because then the mother sits with him and doesn’t punish him but tells wonderful stories and puts a cold compress on his throat. She takes a wet hand towel and a dry hand towel, securing the outer wrapping with a safety pin. Then a thermometer is placed under Josef’s arm, which he likes to press, and slowly a silver thread begins to climb up it, ten minutes having
passed before the mother takes the thermometer and looks and says, “Your temperature is still up. You have to stay in bed.” The mother is almost a doctor, which saddens her, for she was not allowed to study medicine, though she knows a lot about it and has a thick book that she also shows to Josef, there being many pictures in it that he likes to look at, the book titled
The Housewife as Doctor
. Josef then asks why you call a doctor when you’re sick, since everything is in the book, and the mother explains, “A proper doctor has more experience. He sees many patients every day.”

For coughs and sniffles and sore throats the mother doesn’t call the doctor, since she already knows what to do, but when it’s something else the doctor comes, his lovely voice dark and deep, with his marvelous beard, as he comes to the bed and says, “Now, what have we gotten mixed up in this time? We’ll soon find out.” Then the shirt must come off, the doctor examining him and telling him to “breathe deep” and “hold your breath,” demonstrating just how to do it, then he places his big warm ear against Josef’s back while tapping with his fingers here and there, after which he looks into the child’s throat as he says “Ah,” always “Ah,” the doctor also saying “Ah” along with him. It’s just like in school when they sing “ah” or “la,” though Fräulein Reimann had also taught them beautiful and strange words that they sang up and sang down,
, because she said that was the way to do it. The doctor never does that, he only has Josef say “Ah” as he presses on his tongue with a wooden stick or the handle of a spoon, which is unpleasant, the doctor feeling around the throat, as well, to see if the glands are swollen, and then he scribbles something on a notepad, which says what has to be picked up at the pharmacy, telling the mother what she should do, and whether he will come again tomorrow or later. Now and then the mother takes Josef to the doctor, who has a waiting room with several chairs and two tables, on which there are magazines with pictures, though the mother doesn’t look at them or allow Josef to, because she believes they are filthy, most people not being careful enough, making it easy to pick up germs. Many people are waiting, but sometimes the doctor opens the door and calls out, “Next, please!” He then sticks his head in the waiting room and looks around at each of them until the person whose turn it is rises and goes in.

Sometimes Josef also goes to the dentist, where he sits on a strange
chair, like the one at the barbershop, and has to open his mouth as the dentist looks inside with his mirror, sometimes saying “Good,” and sometimes saying that a tooth needs to be filled, which is bad. Josef doesn’t know why Aunt Gusti always says, “The dentist has such soft hands. His touch is wonderful. One hardly feels a thing.” Josef doesn’t believe her, because the dentist sticks a drill inside his mouth which makes such a noise, the only funny thing being how he has to work the pedal with his feet like on a spinning wheel, as he sits there and pushes with his feet, the dentist standing, his mother having shown him in a book how it’s like pedaling a bicycle. But the dentist’s spinning wheel is noisy and rattles and scrapes like a thunderstorm inside the mouth, though eventually he stops and soon it feels better after he places a thick silver drop of quicksilver, just like in a thermometer, on the tooth. Once, Josef broke a thermometer, a shiny little ball of quicksilver showing up in his bed, the mother beside herself as she said that quicksilver is very poisonous, and that you shouldn’t put it into your mouth. Since the thermometer was broken, Josef had to get out of bed and move to the couch, as the little balls of quicksilver were gathered up, and he said, “Won’t the dentist be pleased when we bring him the quicksilver.” At first this made the mother angry, but then she laughed and said that it couldn’t be used, even though the dentist used it for the tooth and then said, “Nothing to eat for two hours!”

The best is the eye doctor, where you sit for a long time in the waiting room, because everyone is in with the doctor for a long time, and there are many more waiting. This is why the mother always brings along something to read, as well as some needlework, though Josef is impatient and beats time with his legs, which his mother doesn’t like at all. But finally they are called, and then it’s wonderful as the doctor takes Josef into a dark chamber, no one else allowed to come along, not even the mother, as the doctor sits him on a stool just like at home in front of the piano, though here the doctor sits on the other side of a machine that he turns this way and that as he covers one of Josef’s eyes and Josef looks in one direction and sees a red light and a green light. Then the doctor sits even closer to Josef in the darkness and holds a tiny glittering light that is like a star and which Josef has to look up at, but which then goes out as the doctor places a heavy set of glasses on him that have no lenses, then opens a chest with lots of lenses, as he takes
out one and drops it into the frame, one after another, turning the lenses around in the frames. Josef is given an “E” made of metal and has to show where the same “E” appears on a board, one after another, and in rows above and below, right and left, the “E” getting ever smaller until it is so small that it can no longer be seen. When the doctor has finally found the best lenses, he is satisfied and says to the mother that the eyes are better, after which he marks down the prescription and says, “Well, then, let’s see him in another six months!” Meanwhile everyone thinks the doctor is too expensive, the father saying, “I’d like to be able to pick people’s pockets like that!” Once Aunt Gusti got angry at that and said, “Sight is our most precious gift. Better deaf than blind.”

Josef doesn’t want to become a doctor, but he pretends that he is Uncle Doctor with Bubi. That’s his best friend, who is a brash kid with a little sister named Kitti. Whenever the house is being cleaned from top to bottom Josef spends almost the entire day with Bubi, though when the painter is there he stays overnight, Bubi also coming to him when something is going on at his house, though Josef prefers to go to Bubi’s because his mother is not as strict. There is also a young aunt there named Tata, who tells wonderful stories and is very pretty, and Bubi’s father always tells jokes, for he is much more at ease than Josef’s father. Josef plays with Bubi for hours at a time, the two of them making up their own games that no one would understand, while before they know it Kitti is hauled out of her little chair because they need it for their game, since it works well for playing doctor, one of them sitting on it, the other acting as a dentist who takes care of teeth, the sewing machine serving as the operating table after Tata has loosened the belt so that the machine doesn’t get broken as the patient is placed on the iron grate that serves as a pedal but now is where the operation is carried out. The mother never allows such a thing to happen at home, but one can do it at Bubi’s, even though he tends to boss others around a lot, yet Josef doesn’t mind, for though normally he wouldn’t put up with it, he does take it from Bubi because he’s so fond of him.

Josef also has another friend named Ludwig, whom he also really likes, though he isn’t as rambunctious and playful, which is why they play different games. Ludwig is terribly shy and serious, but he seems to know everything, and he has many toys and loads of books, and he loves plants and little
animals and stones, which he collects while always keeping a lookout for something new. He shows Josef how to press flowers, the best way to catch flies, and Josef never feels disgusted by the earthworms that he holds softly in his hands and carries around, capturing caterpillars as well, though he knows there are some that should not be picked up, having long hairs like stinging nettles, Ludwig finding a leaf on which to carry them home. Yet he’s not afraid of stinging nettles, for Ludwig says that you just have to take them firmly in hand and then they won’t sting, while you can sting others with them if you just tickle someone’s leg with a leaf.

Bubi can’t stand Ludwig, and they always get into a fight in the park, Josef upset, because he wants to be good friends with both, Bubi once having said to Josef in front of Ludwig, “I can’t stand Ludwig. It’s up to you, Josef. It’s either Ludwig or me.” This makes Josef very unhappy, Bubi should either get along with Ludwig or let Josef stay friends with him, but Bubi will have none of it and says, “Either Ludwig or me, you can’t have both!” This makes Josef incredibly upset and he nearly cries, but he holds it back and says that he wants to be Bubi’s friend. But Bubi is really mean and wants Josef to help beat up Ludwig, at which Bubi tackles Ludwig, who, though strong and agile, is quite small, nor does it matter that he’s so small, and even though Josef helps by blocking Ludwig’s way, he also sticks out a leg and trips Bubi, so that Ludwig scrambles loose and darts away and is gone. Bubi, meanwhile, can’t catch him and is too late. The next day the mother goes to Ludwig’s mother, though Josef says that he won’t go with her. “Why?” asks the mother, but he won’t give any reason, though the mother is like iron and will stand for no secrets. Josef has to say why, and then he has to go to Ludwig’s, both mothers talking for a long while before the two boys reconcile and everything is all right once again. But the mother is not entirely satisfied, and she also talks to Bubi’s mother, such that Bubi and Ludwig must make up, though they don’t really do so and don’t want to, Bubi looking away whenever he sees Ludwig.

BOOK: Panorama
10.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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