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A Decent Life

ISSUE:  Winter 1982

Hannah Broch didn’t like the way her husband dressed, drank, drove, walked, talked, cleared his throat, made love (too noisy) or water (likewise). In the morning he’d try to fold his pajamas but they always looked like a lump. His belly was large and soft. He had one of those minds which, given, say, a telephone number, could concentrate on it for a few seconds and almost immediately would not only have forgotten the number, but whose it was and to whom he was talking. In the evening he’d waddle in smelling of beer and try to kiss her. She could have poked his eyes out. And now he had a mistress! She could have kicked in his teeth.

Hannah shook her head sometimes, wondering why she held so tenaciously to the little bastard. The truth was, she was competitive. She would rather pull out her hair and set it on fire than lose at anything, whether it was cards or cribbage, chess or conversation. To get a divorce, then, would be to admit a great Defeat, and she was not about to do it. Therefore, when she discovered her husband was having an affair, she called the Authorities.

She was uncertain what they would do or even what they were supposed to do. But she knew they were there—they were everywhere—and they had ways of smoothing over all difficulties. People often resented the amount of paperwork generated by the Authorities, but everyone admitted they got the job done, and life was better.

She had first become suspicious when Stefan began whistling again. Before they were married he had been a great whistler; he had a real talent for it. He liked best the famous arias from operas like Pagliacci or Carmen— he would actually prance absurdly like Escamillo the bullfighter when he whistled the toreador tune—but he could also whistle long stretches from works like Tosca, that nobody else could remember. After a few years of marriage, however, they had stopped going to the opera, and soon after that he had stopped whistling.

—Hannah says we can’t go, she has nothing to wear, Stefan would ruefully explain to their friends.—And she’s perfectly right, she has nothing to wear. He’d spread his hands out. They were soft and pudgy, stained with purple ink from the stamp pad at the post office where he worked as a clerk all week. The pay was low, and by now there was little chance of advancement. But they had enough to eat, and a comfortable apartment on Krolewska Street, nicer than most of their friends’, and in a good section of the city, though all the sections nowadays were more or less alike. At any rate, people no longer moved from job to job, but stuck with the one they were assigned and hoped for the best.

There are two basic attitudes toward life: when confronted with the possibility of a new experience you can either say yes or no. Both answers are correct and will be equally regretted, experience being what it is. But the attitudes are incompatible and cause most of the difficulties between married couples. In the early years of their marriage, Hannah and Stefan quarreled bitterly along those basic lines. Stefan would want to leave the city, or even the country; change jobs, collect butterflies, buy a car, have children; Hannah would patiently point out the impossibility, the danger, of these ideas. They weren’t ready, they couldn’t afford it, their apartment was too small, they had no contacts. Because she was the stronger of the two, they had settled down and were reasonably secure. He had stopped whistling, but that was all right with her: she was tone-deaf and mainly held the impression of his fat cheeks puffing ludicrously in and out.

Stefan, like many men, was neither a leader nor a follower: he was a loner. People tend to mistake loners for leaders— this was Hannah’s mistake when she met him—but in truth, most of them make atrocious decisions for others: their abilities are limited strictly to their own rhythms. So it was with Stefan, at any rate, who had had his chances that he didn’t really want, and blew them completely, to the chagrin of his more ambitious wife. Once, replacing someone who was sick, Stefan directed a small branch post office for a week and caused so much confusion with the first-class mail that they had to have a military investigation.

In most ways, except for his corpulence, he was a remarkably nondescript man. He wore a modest beard and too-small wire glasses that he was always pushing up his nose with a one-fingered gesture that made him go cross-eyed. At parties women didn’t notice him until late in the evening: he had a kind of staying power, the ability to look hopeful after midnight, that touched their hearts, particularly as the men of that District tended to drink themselves gloomily into oblivion. Someone gave him a cruelly affectionate nickname: the Social Butterball, an appellation that made him smile but turned a knife in his wife’s heart. How undignified to be married to the Social Butterball!

Hannah hadn’t paid close attention to his habits for many years, but when the whistling started, she came alive again as her competitive juices began to flow. Stefan noticed her renewed attractiveness right away. She was a large, handsome woman, with a deep voice and a mane of dark hair piled on top of her head. She had an ample bosom that was almost formidable, if such a word can be applied to those feminine softnesses. This was in marked contrast to Eva, who had almost no bosom at all. Eva, in fact, with her slender figure and short blonde hair looked like a young boy, and this combined with her wide grey eyes gave her such an air of vulnerability that Stefan’s heart had reached out for her as soon as she entered the post office about six months before. She had some complication in paying her telephone bill, and Stefan had made it seem even more complicated than it was, so she had to come see him several times, and he had the opportunity to ask her to lunch. Thus the affair had begun.

Their city was not a happy one, to generalize wildly, but it had an erotic atmosphere, which was perhaps connected to its unhappiness. The weather was usually cold, and all the women wore tall boots and long skirts, and all one saw of their legs was the back of a knee or the top of a calf as they got on a bus or settled themselves on sofas. Stefan got a very Victorian frisson from such glimpses. The Victorians had many difficulties with sex, but at least they knew it was important. Yes, that was it: Stefan was a Victorian out of place in the New World.

Their affair was very tender. In her apartment, to which they would go during the long lunch break when her roommate was absent, she would stand shyly and passively with her arms at her side while he fumbled and trembled with her hooks and buttons. In bed he would say, Do you like this? Do you like this? and she would murmur, Yes. Yes. I like everything about you. I like everything you do.

And she loved the opera. Sometimes they would just lie there while he whistled scores from Traviata or Madame Butterfly. She was his Carmen, he was her Don Jose. The fact that these stories all ended with corpses littering the stage gave a certain poignancy to his whistling.

Hannah certified the existence of the affair in a very old-fashioned way. She found blonde hairs on his coat (he was such a pig!). Possessing a shrewdness that her husband lacked, she said nothing the first two times. Once could be an accident. Twice could be a coincidence. But three times is a pattern, and it was then that she called the Authorities. The voice on the wire had been noncommittal, as always.

—With whom is your husband having an affair?

—I don’t know. A blonde.

—Where does he work?

—At the Main Post Office.

—Thank you.

And that was all, the voice hung up. It had been surprisingly easy, Hannah thought. She had expected a long interrogation, perhaps demands for proof. The voice had given the impression of competence, of knowledge in this area, of efficiency derived from long and woeful experience. It was hard to tell if the voice belonged to a man or a woman. Hannah hoped it was a woman; men really were brutes, after all. She sat back, narrowing her eyes when her husband came home whistling virtuoso riffs from Figaro, closing them entirely when he made that disgusting throat-clearing sound, and waited.

Three weeks later, on the desk at the post office, Stefan saw the familiar blue envelope with the eagle stamped on it. Now what? he thought with irritation. He was sure all his bills were paid. A new tax? Something he said at a party? No one liked to get the blue envelopes; they were always trouble, even if it were just some computer mix-up, which was frequently the case. He opened it nervously, hoping his co-workers hadn’t seen it. But who put it there?

It was simply a notice that he had an appointment at 13:45 on Tuesday—that was today!—in Room 4230h at the Central Office. Nothing else. Just that and the eagle embossed over an indecipherable signature. Stefan’s hands began to sweat, what bad luck! He was supposed to meet Eva at two o’clock, but her room was in the other direction, and as she had no phone there was no way for him to get in touch with her. She would be worried, poor thing. In the new system most offices had a rotating lunch break, and they had arranged theirs to be from 1:30 to 3:00. What a lot of nonsense this was! Stefan muttered irritably all morning, giving people the wrong change, throwing their packages angrily into the big bins. No one argued with him, however, which was what he was looking for. Just let somebody try to get smart with him! Bam! Into the bin went another package. At 1:25 a young woman in maternity clothes, with wispy hair and a drawn face, came to his window with four packages. He studied the first package, frowning, for some time, weighed it, stamped it, tossed it in with the others, pulled down his window, and put up his Out to Lunch sign while the woman stood there with her mouth open. He hurried out the back door.

Stefan blinked for a minute in the harsh winter sunlight. Snow was still hard-packed over the streets and sidewalks, and on the corners clusters of little old women—Where do they find these creatures?—poked ineffectually at the larger piles with snow shovels consisting of a piece of plywood on a broomhandle. Real shovels were in short supply. He turned right, toward the old square. The new buildings, like the post office where he worked, were all quite modern, big beehives of interchangeable cubicles. But the buildings in the old section, they were something else. There were still mysteries there, and shadows, beautiful carvings, spires and minarets, hidden staircases, stained-glass windows, all in miraculous and irrational profusion. There were constant rumors that they would all be torn down because they were inefficient to run, but Stefan hoped this was not true. The younger people didn’t seem to care, but there were enough older ones left who could make things hot, even for the Authorities, if such a thing were done.

The Authorities’ Central Offices were in the largest of the old baroque palaces untouched by the War. Usually when Stefan walked through the square in the Old City he would stop, twirling his umbrella, and admire the ancient clock on the Town Hall with its figures of Death, Greed, Lust, and Time who turned mechanically on the hour while the heavy chimes sounded sonorously over the tiled rooftops. But today he was preoccupied, and hurried nervously onto the dark cobblestones of Celetna Street, turned the corner by the beerhall of the Two Cats, and arrived in front of the palace six minutes early. Wide stone steps led up to its many doors but as usual in this city, only one of the doors would be open, and there was always a crowd of pale men and women bumping into one another as they entered and left the building. Excuse me, excuse me, he said, excuse me, as he made his way into the cavernous hall where people seemed to race haphazardly back and forth like the poor souls in Limbo, as if someone were actually tippng the floor so they would scurry first one way, then another. Plunged into the darkness of the hall after the bright light of outdoors, Stefan felt himself unbalanced, and he put a hand on a marble column to steady himself. Soon, between gaps in the ebbing and flowing crowd, he could make out in the gloom a single unmanned desk, marked information.

When he reached the desk, there was no one to help him, but behind it was a small sign with numbers and arrows. 4000—4499 had an arrow pointing to the left, so he struck off in that direction. The surgings of the crowd made more sense to him as he followed the arrows around corners, across hallways, down and up stairs, seemingly circling back on his steps as if in a mad hotel designed for minotaurs. At last he came to a dead end with an open elevator; he was surprised to find himself suddenly alone. Stefan stepped into the elevator and pushed #4, looking anxiously at his watch. But he was only three minutes late—he could hardly believe it, it seemed he had been walking for ages—as he scurried down a long impersonal corridor where all the doors were the same except for the numbers, and entered Room 4320h feeling absolutely and irrevocably guilty.

Stefan had always felt guilty when he was near the Palace, he didn’t know why. He had been in their branch offices many times: visas, work permits, travel passes when he visited his sister in Katow; and he felt guilty in those places, too. Lord knows he had often said uncharitable things about the Authorities and had thought even worse. But he had never done anything even remotely subversive, outside of the little cheating on his sugar stamps that everybody did. Still, he felt guilty. He even felt guilty about feeling guilty. It seemed to be part of his temperament. If he didn’t buy anything in a grocery store, for example, he would all but disrobe on the way out to prove he had stolen nothing. Since the beginning of his affair with Eva, despite surges of enormous happiness, he felt he was swimming in Guilt Soup, a particularly thick broth of his own concoction. Therefore, facing the stern-visaged indeterminate-aged woman who stared at him from behind a large well-ordered desk, he was tempted to cry out, I confess!! instead of the weak, Good afternoon, he finally managed.

She asked his name. He told her. His address, age, occupation. She was a short lean woman with spectacles, almost a caricature of what a strict Latin teacher is supposed to look like. It was not a face that fitted easily into a smile.

—You are overweight? she asked. You eat too much?

He didn’t answer. He wasn’t sure he heard right. For one thing, the answer was obvious. For another, what was this, a medical examination? He looked around nervously. For the first time he saw a soldier standing motionless by an inner door.

She repeated the question. Her voice was like an iron bell.

—Yes. His knees began to shake. There seemed to be no place to sit down. It was as if he knew what the next question would be, and he shuffled his feet aimlessly in an attempt to postpone it.

—You are having an affair with Eva Levandoska, yes?

—No, he said, and she looked up at him so suddenly, so sharply, that he said Yes. Yes, he said hoarsely, looking not at her but at the soldier, who was really just a boy, though tall and stockily built.—Do I have to answer these questions?

The matron’s face turned black, and she shouted. —How can you justify such piggish, anti-social behavior? She stared at him with such violence that he almost fell down.

Stefan swallowed, or tried to. He had never thought his behavior was justifiable. But he raised his chin and said in a quavering voice, —I think when two people come together in love, it is a kind of miracle.

She stared at him coldly. —Perhaps. But it is an inevitable “miracle.” She said the word sneeringly.—Repetitious. Childish. And basically harmful to society.

Stefan regretted he had said “miracle.” He didn’t want to get into a religious argument with the Authorities. Being half-Jewish put him in a difficult spot. His Jewish friends, Peter and Bo—two of the few Jews left in the city—were always afraid. But of what? They no longer seemed to know. In the old days, Stefan’s mother had taught him not to talk about religion.—Religion is all right, she’d say, lopping the head off a chicken. It just doesn’t apply to every case. That’s why we have the Authorities.

But the woman dropped the subject and went on with her questions, her voice once again controlled and low. She continued in this way for some time, asking the most intimate questions as if this were a civil service examination. Positions? Perversities? Did he sweat a lot? Stefan, answering, head down, in barely audible monosyllables, was sweating profusely, his shirt soaked and sticking to his skin. Was the soldier listening? He made no sign.

—You are noisy?

—Pardon me?

—When you copulate, you are very noisy, yes?

Stefan looked around wildly. Hannah! They had talked to Hannah. She knew. She had turned him in! The matron had been staring at some papers but now she looked up again. She placed a photograph of Eva before him. You admit everything, yes?

Stefan didn’t hesitate; his heart was beating so hard he could scarcely hear anything. Yes. Yes, I do. He couldn’t look at her. Instead, he found himself staring at a small printed placard on the left side of her desk, by a calendar, that said: PASSION AND THE DECENT LIFE ARE INCOMPATIBLE.

—Good, she said, standing up and pushing a document at him. We understand each other, I hope. Please sign here. And here. Somehow she looked even smaller when she stood up. Her dress was black or dark blue and hung on her shapelessly. She looked at her watch.—You still have half an hour, she said in a businesslike tone. That should be enough time. Please take off your clothes.

—Pardon me?

—Take off your clothes, she repeated sternly but not unkindly, as if to someone retarded.—Hang them by the door, and go in. The door was by the soldier, an immovable statue. The matron sat down, busy at her desk. Stefan stood behind her, on the right, in front of the uniformed boy who now seemed to Stefan to have the bland face of a killer, a mass murderer. Stefan had always hated uniforms, even policemen and boy scouts, and he was terrified as he disrobed in front of this robot. Oh, God, God, God, he thought, they’re going to kill me, they’re going to gas me and take the gold fillings out of my teeth. And my new shoes, he added absurdly. But he was not a fighter; not knowing what else to do, he hung his clothes on the hooks by the inner door, dropping them several times; and, feeling helplessly ridiculous and defenseless standing naked with his round and hairy belly shaking between the matron and the soldier, he turned and plunged through the door, which the soldier immediately closed behind him.

It was a small room, bare except for a large clock hanging on the green wall, and a medium-sized cot. Even in his fright he felt the lowered temperature, and he shivered. Just as he noticed a door opposite from where he had entered, it opened, and Stefan backed into a corner with a strangled cry. A figure came towards him, coming into focus as the door closed behind it.

It was Eva. She looked at Stefan with the startled eyes of an animal, tried to cover herself up, then ran to him. Both of them began to cry as they embraced, rocking back and forth in the corner of this barren room where the clock loudly ticked to 2:08.

They kissed. They sat down on the cot. He pulled a blanket over them; they were both shaking from cold and fright.

—They’ve been watching us, Eva said, they know everything.

—I know. But what do they want with us? What are they going to do? Suddenly, from behind the wall by their cot came a series of gasps and moans. After their initial fright, it soon became clear to them that a couple was making love in the adjoining room.

For a while Eva and Stefan were silent and embarrassed. They felt their nakedness for the first time. Stefan awkwardly embraced her.

—Stefan, I can’t.

Stefan looked down. —I obviously can’t. But this made them laugh, and they huddled together under the covers. The sounds from the next room started up again. They lay with their arms round each other and, as the clock ticked to 2:22, he was surprised to find himself excited. They didn’t speak; they seemed to be in a situation in which nothing they could say would make any sense.

They were scarcely finished when the door opened and the matron looked in. Did she nod approvingly?—Quickly, she said, time’s up. Stefan almost ran to the open door, scarcely looking back at Eva, sitting up on the cot with the covers clutched to her chin. He dressed hurriedly before the unblinking soldier in a fury of shame and fear. He hardly heard the woman as she announced, —Your next appointment is at 14:00 a week from tomorrow. We will send you a reminder. Stefan went blindly out the door, through the corridor, down the elevator, following the arrows in reverse order until he reached the front door. It was impossible, but the sun was still shining, though thinner now, and the old clock on the Town Hall was just striking 3:00. Death was ringing its bell, Time waved its sickle, Greed and Lust made ambiguous movements with their hands. Stefan stared up at them, transfixed in complicated thought.

He was late for work already, but he was too shaky to go back to the post office anyway. He could call in sick. He looked for Eva in the crowd but she was nowhere to be seen. He decided to head for home.

On the long walk back to Krolewska Street through the already darkening city, Stefan began to cry. He cried for perhaps a half a mile, passersby stepping aside for him solicitously. But by the time he neared his apartment he was feeling better. The tears stopped. For the first time in months, he realized, he did not feel guilty. He was free! He had an image of his heart bobbing to the surface from a dark and densely pressured depth. The relief was so great that he was surprised by a rush of affection for his wife. She had known what to do after all. And what were Authorities for if not to lighten the burdens of their citizens? He took a deep, deep breath. Twirling his umbrella, Stefan waddled up the steps and into his flat. Hannah sat in the big chair, chin held high, drumming her fingers on the armrest. He went up to her, put his hand on her shoulders, began to whistle, stopped, and cleared his throat.


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