| Diwan Special issue|

Arnon Grunberg

Born in 1971 in Amsterdam (the Netherlands), lives in New York (USA).

THE FARMACY

(excerpt from the novel ”Blauwe maandagen”

- Hangover Mondays -)

After the holidays I went to work for a man I knew from the synagogue. His name was Hausmann and he collected dwarfs. My parents thought that it was OK for me to go and do something. My father said that it’s good for you to get the general idea of time and money. My job was to deliver various medicines to the people who couldn’t walk anymore or could walk but were blind.

I would get tips everywhere I went but the best place for it was the old people’s home. There was a woman there who would always give me at least a tenner. In return she would ask me to eat her meal. I wasn’t really happy with that. See, the food would already be chopped and mashed. Somebody just had to sit and eat it. Once she whispered in my ear: ”I don’t want to eat. Not anymore.” I couldn’t care less about what she did and didn’t want! I told her: ”You must do everything that’s good for you”. But still I did eat her pudding. That small piece of pudding got me twenty Guldens. ”Please, do help yourself ”, she said, ”I most certainly don’t plan to take it with me to the ’other side’”. I took the bill and looked at the chopped, cold steak on the plate thinking, ”No, I wouldn’t eat this for twenty Guldens, it looked way too disgusting”. I was already warned not to take large tips but I still thought: I earned it. So I thanked her and said: ”You just go ahead and eat it, mother.”

She said: ”God bless you”.

A few days later Mr. Hausmann said that I should get a bicycle. Apparently I was too slow. He said that the boy who worked before me was three times faster than me.

However, it didn’t go much faster with the bicycle either. There were always many people where I had to stop for quite a while. Among them, there was an old baldie with two birds in a cage. He had to wear those large diapers for adults. He once said to me: ”Stay a bit longer boy, they can sing, they’re just about to start singing.” It was clear to me that I would not move an inch until they start to sing. I mean I could have scrammed, but without my money. The pharmacy paid me 3,5 Guldens and if these birds start to sing I will get three times as much. But this started to take a while and I was becoming overwhelmed with the desire to grab them by the neck and say: ”Start already or I’ll strangle you!”

But the worst part was when he would start singing to his birds. He would start coughing after the first verse and the fit would last for half an hour. I had to tap him on the back so the entire room would be spattered afterwards. He would also soil himself during these coughing fits. The room would fill up with an unbearable stench. When all of that was over, he would start again, ”Maybe we should give them some more seed pods”. So I would have to look for some. Everything in that room was sticky. The Closets, the doors, the floor, the cage, the chairs, the seed pods, the newspapers, even the money he gave me was sticky. It always smelt of urine. Even the light in the room was the colour of urine. It would take me some time to recover after finally leaving the room, brother.

Then one day, one of the birds died. The old man didn’t sing anymore. He just sat in his chair. A piece of cloth was thrown over the cage. The dead bird was still lying on the table. A bad smell started to spread. ”Shouldn’t we get rid of this”, I asked him.

”Leave it”, he mumbled. I didn’t get a tenner anymore. So be it, I can’t help him. It’s his own fault, he wanted to drop dead together with his bird. Later on, when I’d ring the bell I would just give him the diapers and run off.

There was also an old Mrs. Cohn who openly hated my guts. I always had to go inside her house in Roer street. I was never supposed to wait outside because she would catch a cold. Even if it was 30 degrees outside she would still catch a cold at the door. And once I was inside I would have to sit down and eat some kind of a biscuit. She did all this just so she could ask me:”Good, and where is your kippa?”

She didn’t really want me to answer, because she already knew the answer. She would run to the closet and she was a lot faster than she pretended to be! She would take out her late husband’s kalot from the drawer. Then she would make me put it on my head. A big, black kalot, and then she would say: ”There, and now we’ll say a prayer together.” After we did that, I’d eat the biscuit. However I had to struggle with it because the moment I touched it, it would turn into crumbs because it was stale. Finally she would give me 25 cents. ”But this is not for you, this has to go to the piggy bank”. Jumping with joy she would bring a blue INF – piggy bank. It seemed to me that she kept putting the same 25 cents into it and then taking it out over and over again. It would be a genuine act of charity if I hit her on the head with that piggy bank!

A few days later, the lady that made me eat her pudding died. When I showed up at the door the nurse said: ”She passed away quietly, in her sleep.” How could she know that she passed quietly? As a matter of fact that was a real blow for me. I was just starting to earn money off her. I was willing to eat five bowls of puddings for a couple of tenners. ”I will take those medicines”, said the nurse. She must have planned on selling them. I was full of understanding for the nurses. Some of the patients were real assholes. For example, Mrs Saenredam who kept complaining how late I was all the time and that she was dying of pains and that I to blame for that. And to me she didn’t look that bad at all. There is no way that a person who is about to die can curse as much as she did. And not only at me but at everyone else as well. Even at the cook. Even at the cleaning ladies who couldn’t understand her anyway. She couldn’t care less about it and she would just go on cursing and swearing. She never gave me a cent even though she was filthy rich. She pretended to be deaf. I know her sort of people who, when the tax collectors arrive, all of a sudden go deaf. And if you stop for a moment and wait for your tip they suddenly go blind or get a heart attack. People like Mrs Seanredam would rather have a heart attack than tip you a cent.

Then there were some people who were not placed in a home. In those cases I’d have to yell up and down the staircase: ”The pharmacy boy is here, I have your medicines, heart medicines, nose drops, a cure for your pains”. After this some of them would shout: ”I am not opening my door for anyone, I’m not expecting a visit!” Some of them were even more daring and said: ”You’re interrupting me with my desert, come by again in an hour.”

Mr. Hendriks would always open the door half naked and he always called me ’the nurse’. He had it in his head that he would never get to the toilet seat in time. He placed almost all the chairs in his house next to the toilet and the toilet door was always open. He was worth at least two and a half Guldens.

Towards the end of my round I’d always stop by Anita’s. She was an old bat too, but she told me the first time we met: ”Just call me Anita.” She was surrounded with plants so I felt like I was in a greenhouse. She looked better that all the others but we always had the same conversation.

Every time I’d get up to leave she would say: ”Take me to my man”.

”And where is he?” I would ask.

”Far away, very far away”

”But I’m working, I have to make a living”

She would then say: ”But if you come with me I will give you money.” She sat there in that dress of hers – she always wore the same striped, purple dress. She often wore a hat too. She once sat really close to me, holding me tight and not letting me go. She was awfully strong for the tiny person she was. She said:

”Take me to my man and you will not regret it.”

”Well, tell me where does your man live”?

”Very far away, very, very, far away”

”That is really impossible, I have a bunch of other medicines in my bag that I have to deliver,” I answered.

She stood in the doorway, blocking my way out: ”For Christ’s sake take me to my man,” she yelled, ”just take me away from here.”

So what else could I do but call a paramedic. He threw her into her chair and told her that if she continued to cause me problems, stuff could happen. From that time on she never said a word. Honestly, she had nothing to complain about.

A day before I was fired from the pharmacy, Rosie had left a letter for me. I was working only in the afternoon that day. Before I went on my rounds I had to put the kettle on for the ladies’ tea. One of the ladies

asked me, ”Do you by any chance play in a band?”

”Why?”

”A letter arrived for you this morning, from a girl”. They started giggling. They would giggle everyday, all day long.

I saw that the letter was from Rosie, so I put it in my pocket. Ever since I returned from Isreel, I never called her, even though I had promised I would. I didn’t even reply to her letters.

Mr Hausmann was waiting for me when I returned to the pharmacy that afternoon. He was pale but not more than usual. He was experiencing some problems with his nose.

”Many people called us complaining that they haven’t been receiving their medicines at all and I simply won’t stand it, I simply won’t.”

I said nothing. What was I supposed to say. It was true. I phoned Rosie from the phone booth and I used all the change that Mr. Hausmann had given me. I would have put all the medicines inside if I only could. I thought about the man with the bird and the smell of stale air in his room.

”Here’s the money for this week, but do not come anymore from tomorrow on,” he said. He looked at me with sorrow. ”You know, it’s is nothing personal.”

”It’s OK.” I said

My folks were sitting in the garden, eating cake. My mother said, ”You will be the end of me, are you trying to embarrass us in front of the entire synagogue!”

She poured me some coffee and said, ”Why do you do this to me, you don’t really want me to die of misery?”

Naturally, a few plates were broken into pieces that night as well. Actually it was just before that Autumn when a record number of plates got broken into pieces in our house. I reckon that more than a few thousand Guldens worth of dishes were broken in my house in that time period.

I had a date with Rosie that night. We were going to the movies.

My mother was shouting, ”Hold him back! Don’t let him leave the house!”

”I can’t keep him” my father said. He had already drank a bottle and a half of wine and plenty of schnapps, and once again sat with the Rabbi of Bacherah in his hand. I think that he’s read that book at least ten thousand times. There he was, sitting underneath his trees, at which he would stare every day as if they were the work of his own hands. In those times he would say: ”What did I do wrong, what did I do wrong?” I remember my mother once telling me: ”Your father is nothing but a drunkard, a drunkard who imagines to be nothing less than Heine himself.”

One night, my father was sitting peacefully and reading his paper. My mother entered the room with a pan full of spaghetti and dumped them all on top of his newspapers.

”What’s the matter, what did you do that for?” I asked my mother.

”I only wanted to show you what a drunkard your father is.”

My father remained sitting there peacefully with all that spaghetti on his papers. A bit later he just said: ”The world has gone crazy, completely crazy.” Then he told me: ”Alcohol destroys brain cells so be very careful.” After saying this he devoted himself to his crossword as if nothing happened. Mother cleaned the table and I went to the kitchen to get a bite to eat.

Translated by Edin Balaliæ

 

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