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- The Prose of Alfred Lichtenstein - 1/12 -
The Prose of Alfred Lichtenstein Alfred Lichtenstein
Max Mechenmal was an independent manager of a newspaper kiosk. He ate and drank well; he had relations with many women, but he was careful. Because his salary was insufficient, he occasionally permitted himself to take money from Ilka Leipke. Ilka Leipke was an unusually small, but well-developed, elegant whore, who attracted many men and women with her bizarre nature and apparently silly ideas, as well as with her actually tasteful clothing. Miss Leipke loved little Max Mechenmal. She called him her sweet dwarf. Max Mechenmal was angry all his life that he was small.
Max Mechenmal came from an unfortunately impoverished family. He had enjoyed an excellent education in an institution for retarded children until he was forcibly dismissed at a very early age. The reasons for his dismissal were not available; it seemed to have more to do with the poverty of Mechenmal's relatives than with the fact that he was clearly unbearable. For a while he wandered about homeless, since his family no longer took any interest in him. He supported himself mostly by petty larceny. Once the police picked him up and he was brought to a home for neglected children. In the home he was trained as a locksmith. He knew how to ingratiate himself with his superiors by showing unusual dexterity and willingness. He secretly tormented his younger, weaker comrades, or he set the stronger ones against each other. He had no friends; when he had completed his training and was released, the others were happy.
The unusual skill that Max Mechenmal, because of his technical gifts, had developed in making keys and opening difficult locks he would very gladly have used for breaking and entering, and burglary; he would have liked to have become an infamous burglar. The proceeds from the burglaries would have permitted him to dress elegantly, to show off with the finest women. The sickening, massive fear of being caught prevented him. He was content to seduce the daughters and servants of the masters for whom he worked, and to commit occasional burglaries that involved little risk. His ambition remained unsatisfied.
By chance the direction of Mechenmal's life was changed. At the end of a day's work, tired and in a bad mood, he was walking the streets. Lights were scarcely visible, although it was very dark. In an elegant ground-floor room, an elderly lady was arranging the fold of her body.
In front of a basement, dirty little girls were singing the song of the Lorelei. The windows were etched into the pale, sleeping houses like black panes with bright crosses. The conglomeration of houses resembled large, venturesome ships, which lay at anchor or were gliding to a distant, beckoning sea. The little locksmith thought about the last six women he had loved. His attention was attracted by the hideously ringed eyes of a horribly hunch-backed gentleman who smilingly, with marked pleasure, although somewhat fearfully, was looking at him. The locksmith thought: hm--for fun, he remained stopped; with his clear eyes, which shone like polished black buttons on his face, he slyly watched the even smaller gentleman. Embarassed, he took his hat off his head and spoke, stuttering, said that his name was Kuno Kohn, and excused himself--little else could be made out. The hunchback hid part of his face behind thin fingers, coughed, and quickly moved on. The locksmith thought: hm, and went on his way.
Then there was a tug on his arm. He turned his face: the hunchback again stood next to him, still somewhat breathless from moving quickly. Kuno Kohn was very red, but he could, without stuttering, say: Excuse me for causing you more trouble. I always know afterwards what I want to say." This he spoke extremely loudly, to overcome his embarassment. Then he said: "Perhaps you have the time... Perhaps I may invite you to look for a restaurant with me...or may I assume that you have not yet eaten this evening." The locksmith was not against the idea.
In a huge tavern, Kuno Kohn ordered food and beer for Max Mechenmal. He himself did not eat, and he drank little. He enjoyed watching how pleased the locksmith was. Later, probably, he sometimes stroked him timidly on the chin. That pleased the locksmith. At first they spoke of the misery of being alive, of the injustice of fate. After Mechenmal drank his third glass of beer, he boasted of his beloved. That was unpleasant for the hunchback. Up to that point he had permitted the locksmith to talk. And his interest was indicated only by the fact that he shut his blue eyes theatrically and approvingly, as a result of which, for a few seconds, only miserable shadows were visible, or he slowly shook his shapeless head, or he pressed his nervous fingers sympathetically against Mechenmal's leg. Now he began to express his own opinions. He cursed women. His voice seemed at every moment to crack with excitement. He contended that anyone who had the misfortune to be a woman must have the courage to be a whore, that the whore is the essential woman, and that relations with women, incidentally, are more or less degrading. When they left the tavern, Kuno Kohn placed the hard, miserable bone that was his lower arm upon Mechenmal's thick, flabby lower arm. A gold bracelet struck the hunchback's wrist. On the way Kuno Kohn asked Mechenmal to spend the night at his place. The locksmith agreed to the request.
Kuno Kohn lived in a large, ordinary room, in a summer-house on a side street in the western section. However, the bed was exceptionally wide, almost ostentatious. On the pillow lay yellowish and red flowers. In front of the window stood a writing-table on which there were some books--perhaps Baudelaire, George, Rilke. Near it and on it lay sheets of paper, which were apparently covered with finished and unfinished poems and treatises. On a shelf at a window stood volumes of Goethe, Shakespeare, a Bible, and a translation of Homer. On the table and chairs lay perhaps newspapers and pieces of clothing. Somewhere lay yellowed photos of old people and children. The locksmith looked at everything with curiosity.
They soon sat down. The conversation, which was lively at first, gradually faltered. Kuno Kohn turned the lamp down. Later he spoke softly and imploringly to the locksmith. Then he offered him the bed. He himself would sleep on the sofa. The locksmith agreed.
Kuno Kohn arranged for a subordinate position for his friend Mechenmal at a newspaper publishing office. Mechenmal picked up his new trade with surprising swiftness, and very soon obtained sufficient knowledge of salesmanship. He changed positions and managed, by means of energy and all kinds of dirty tricks, after a year and a few months, to hold a position of trust as an independent manager of a newspaper kiosk.
Because he had a pleasant way of speaking as well as a face that looked like that of an intelligent doll, the former locksmith soon had won a very large number of steady customers, for the most part female. In the morning a dozen saleswomen from a nearby department store, having purposely arrived too early, gathered around his kiosk to enjoy the dirty jokes and cheerful comments of Mr. Mechenmal. The bank officer Leopold Lehmann, who always arrived punctually at eight o'clock, to buy illustrated joke books and theological tracts, sometimes became impatient, because the cheerful saleswomen disturbed him as he tried to make his selection. And the school-teacher Theo Tontod, who tirelessly, and, as a rule, uselessly asked for the modern newspaper, "The Other A," often got to school too late. Around noon, almost every day, the choral-singer Mabel Meier came, on the arm of an old man. She bought colorful, spicy newspapers, or sentimental ones, with long lyrical poems. The old man, who always had a whining expression, sighed as he paid. She was reserved with Mechenmal. At odd hours, Mieze Maier, a teen-ager, also came, and asked whether Herr Tontod had been there. Once Mieze Maier remained longer; from that time on she did it more frequently. Sometimes a fat, agreeable servant-girl of the salesman Konrad Krause was at the kiosk. She said to Mechenmal that he was good-looking, that he had passionately dark eyes and a kissable mouth, asked if he had time on Sundays to go dancing--she liked him very much. Mechenmal answered that he would not object to satisfying Miss Frida's inclination occasionally. The servant girl reminded him embarrassingly often of his promise.--Every Tuesday afternoon a certain Mr. Simon, who lived in an open sanitarium, and was always accompanied by an attendant, asked for the magazines for undertakers; if there were not enough available, he went off peeved, cursing the crematorium.--Kuno Kohn also came a few times every week, rarely to buy something, mainly to visit his friend and to make an appointment for the evening rendez-vous.--Students, ladies, officers, workers bought their newspapers. Only Ilse Leipke, in spite of Mechenmal's repeated requests, refused to come to the kiosk.
This was a whim of Ilka Leipke. She had much time for herself and complained to her beloved many times that the days were more boring than the nights. Ilsa Leipke also loved her sweet dwarf no less than in the early days of their acquaintanceship, even though Mechenmal was increasingly high-handed and nasty in his treatment of her. It went so far that he enjoyed it when she cried; he was never content until he had brought her to tears. Then it gave him pleasure to comfort her. Afterwards, however, he was very good to her; basically, he loved her. He let Ilka Leipke caress and kiss him. He was a bit larger than she, but she held him on her young body like a child. They told stories to each other. They laughed. They kissed. They often went over the story of the way they met. They discovered thousands of new details, or made something up because it was fun. The girl found, a box in which small items lay, a clipping from a newspaper, which read like this:
A young, somewhat small, very good-looking man, tired of being alone, is looking for a similarly inclined lady, with honorable marriage in mind. Money an advantage. Send friendly replies to Max Mechenmal.
Or Mr. Mechenmal took out of his wallet a blue letter with violet red spots, which he held out smilingly to the girl. Miss Lepke then read it well, in a gentle, loving voice:
Very honored gentleman!
Read your request for marriage. To my regret I cannot supply capital. For my part I could do without the
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