Lately I'm being summoned more and more often: ten sharp on Tuesday, ten sharp on Saturday, on Wednesday, Monday. As if years were a week, I'm amazed that winter comes so close on the heels of late summer.
On my way to the tram stop, I again pass the shrubs with the white berries dangling through the fences. Like buttons made of mother-of-pearl and sewn from underneath, or stitched right down into the earth, or else like bread pellets. They remind me of a flock of little white-tufted birds turning away their beaks, but they're really far too small for birds. It's enough to make you giddy. I'd rather think of snow sprinkled on the grass, but that leaves you feeling lost, and the thought of chalk makes you sleepy.
The tram doesn't run on a fixed schedule.
It does seem to rustle, at least to my ear, unless those are the stiff leaves of the poplars I'm hearing. Here it is, already pulling up to the stop: today it seems in a hurry to take me away. I've decided to let the old man in the straw hat get on ahead of me. He was already waiting when I arrived—who knows how long he'd been there. You couldn't exactly call him frail, but he's hunchbacked and weary, and as skinny as his own shadow. His backside is so slight it doesn't even fill the seat of his pants, he has no hips, and the only bulges in his trousers are the bags around his knees. But if he's going to go and spit, right now, just as the door is folding open, I'll get on before he does, regardless. The car is practically empty; he gives the vacant seats a quick scan and decides to stand. It's amazing how old people like him don't get tired, that they don't save their standing for places where they can't sit. Now and then you hear old people say: There'll be plenty of time for lying down once I'm in my coffin. But death is the last thing on their minds, and they're quite right. Death never has followed any particular pattern. Young people die too. I always sit if I have a choice. Riding in a seat is like walking while you're sitting down. The old man is looking me over; I can sense it right away inside the empty car. I'm not in the mood to talk, though, or else I'd ask him what he's gaping at. He couldn't care less that his staring annoys me. Meanwhile half the city is going by outside the window, trees alternating with buildings. They say old people like him can sense things better than young people. Old people might even sense that today I'm carrying a small towel, a toothbrush, and some toothpaste in my handbag. And no handkerchief, since I'm determined not to cry. Paul didn't realize how terrified I was that today Albu might take me down to the cell below his office. I didn't bring it up. If that happens, he'll find out soon enough. The tram is moving slowly. The band on the old man's straw hat is stained, probably with sweat, or else the rain. As always, Albu will slobber a kiss on my hand by way of greeting.
Major Albu lifts my hand by the fingertips, squeezing my nails so hard I could scream. He presses one wet lip to my fingers, so he can keep the other free to speak. He always kisses my hand the exact same way, but what he says is always different:
Well well, your eyes look awfully red today.
I think you've got a mustache coming. A little young for that, aren't you.
My, but your little hand is cold as ice today—hope there's nothing wrong with your circulation.
Uh-oh, your gums are receding. You're beginning to look like your own grandmother.
My grandmother didn't live to grow old, I say. She never had time to lose her teeth. Albu knows all about my grandmother's teeth, which is why he's bringing them up.
As a woman, I know how I look on any given day. I also know that a kiss on the hand shouldn't hurt, that it shouldn't feel wet, that it should be delivered to the back of the hand. The art of hand kissing is something men know even better than women—and Albu is hardly an exception. His entire head reeks of Avril, a French eau de toilette that my father-in-law, the Perfumed Commissar, used to wear too. Nobody else I know would buy it. A bottle on the black market costs more than a suit in a store. Maybe it's called Septembre, I'm not sure, but there's no mistaking that acrid, smoky smell of burning leaves.
Once I'm sitting at the small table, Albu notices me rubbing my fingers on my skirt, not only to get the feeling back into them but also to wipe the saliva off. He fiddles with his signet ring and smirks. Let him: it's easy enough to wipe off somebody's spit; it isn't poisonous, and it dries up all by itself. It's something everybody has. Some people spit on the pavement, then rub it in with their shoe since it's not polite to spit, not even on the pavement. Certainly Albu isn't one to spit on the pavement—not in town, anyway, where no one knows who he is and where he acts the refined gentleman. My nails hurt, but he's never squeezed them so hard my fingers turned blue. Eventually they'll thaw out, the way they do when it's freezing cold and you come into the warm. The worst thing is this feeling that my brain is slipping down into my face. It's humiliating, there's no other word for it, when your whole body feels like it's barefoot. But what if there aren't any words at all, what if even the best word isn't enough.