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- The Prose of Alfred Lichtenstein - 2/12 -
marriage, of which I have no need yet. I am by trade a woman. I am small (but wow!). I am tired of having boy friends and therefore am looking for a relationship with a steady man. If you find my proposal agreeable, please send me a photo of yourself. I remain your devoted
When they had embraced and kissed enough, they made up games. Ilka Leipke showed great talent in showing the happily giggling Mechenmal how her friends would behave in corresponding positions. She bent herself into the most surprising positions. She grimaced comically. Mechenmal was able make up fictitious names by the hour, with which he could make reference to certain parts of her body in the presence of other people, without their being able to tell what he meant. So the evenings and the nights that Ilka Leipke had set aside for her friend went by. Often Mechenmal did not have the time to go home. Then she got up, if he was still asleep. Made coffee. In her slippers, dressed only in an old evening wrap, she went out and got pastry from a baker. She placed a white cloth on the table. She arranged everything in an appetizing manner. She prepared some sandwiches for him to take with him. She disappeared again into her bed, where she slept well into the afternoon. Mechenmal, however, somewhat sleepy and weary, but in a good mood, hurried off to his kiosk.
Late evening crept like a spider over the city. In the light of Kohn's little lamp the upper torso of Kuno Kohn was a bit bent over the table. On the sofa, breaking the circle of lamplight and stretching beyond it, lay Max Mechenmal, half in the dark. Windows glittered in lush, flowing black. Swollen and blurred objects rose up out of the darkness. The open bed shone with a whiteness. Kohn's hands held papers with writing on them. His voice sounded gentle, dreamy, singing with feeling. He often became hoarse, and coughed like someone who had read much. One could hear: "The old, splendid stories about God have been slaughtered. We must no longer believe in them. But the knowledge of misery drives us to need to believe--the longing for new, stronger belief. We are searching. We find nothing anywhere. We torment ourselves because
we have been helplessly abandoned. Why doesn't someone come, teach us non-believers, who thirst for God." Kohn was quiet, full of expectation. Mechenmal had secretly been amused during the lecture. Now he broke out. Then he said: "Don't take this wrong, little Kohn. But you certainly have funny ideas. This is really crazy." Kohn said: "You have no feeling. You are a superficial being. It is also certain that you are a psychopath." Max Mechenmal said: "what do you mean by that?" Kuno Kohn said: "You'll find that out soon enough." Max Mechenmal said merely, "Ah, so." He was angry that Kuno Kohn had called him superficial. He thought of Ilka Leipke.
Then Kuno Kohn said: "Death is an unbearable thought. For those of us who are without God. We are damned to live through it in advance hundreds of nights. And to find no way past it." He became very quiet. Mechenmal wanted to show his friend Kohn that he too could express himself about perverse problems. He thought it over, and said: I have different version, little Kuno, little Kohn. However, it is an emotional matter. I also tell myself thank God for those who have no God. God is nonsense. To waste a word on the topic is unworthy of a thinking man. But listen, I have no need of God--not in life, not in death. Death without God is very beautiful. It is my wish. I think it's wonderful simply to be dead. Without heaven. Without rebirth. Utterly dead. I'm can't wait. Life for me is too hard. Too stimulating.."
He wanted to speak further. There was a knocking at the door; Kohn opened it. Ilka Leipke quickly came in. She said: "Good evening Herr Kohn. Excuse me for disturbing you." She screamed at Mechenmal: "So, I catch you here. So, for this you have abandoned me. You're only using my body. You have never grasped my soul." She wept. She sobbed. Mechenmal tried to calm her down. That irritated her even more. She shouted: "To betray me with a crippled Kohn... I'll report you to the police, Mr. Kohn. You should be ashamed of yourselves, you swine..." She had a crying fit. Kuno Kohn was incapable of responding. Mechenmal pulled her up from the floor upon which she had thrown herself screaming. He said with a changed, stern voice, that her behavior was unseemly, that she had no grounds for jealousy, for after all, he had no obligations. Then Ilka Leipke looked at the hunch-backed Kohn humbly, like a beaten little dog. She was very quiet. She followed the angry Mechenmal out the door.
When Kohn was alone, he gradually became enraged. He thought: such a rude person... and at intervals: How upset the cow had become. How jealous she is of me. One of the few women who please me... and she goes and chooses the little animal Mechenmal. That is atrocious.
Early the next morning Kuno Kohn stood in Miss Leipke's drawing-room, trembling like an actor with stage fright, When the maid brought Kuno Kohn's card, Miss Leipke was reading the forbidden pamphlet, "The suicide of a fashionable lady. Or how a fashionable lady committed
suicide." Her eyes were filled with tears. When she had finished reading the entire pamphlet, she freshened her make-up. Finally, covered only by a silk morning-coat, she appeared in the drawing-room. Kuno Kohn was red up to his ears. Groaning, he said that he had come to apologize for yesterday's scene, that Miss Leipke did him wrong, that she knew him too briefly. He had, after all, inner worth. Then he spoke in praise of his friend, the worthy Mechenmal; but he did not disguise the man's lack of a refined inner feeling about life. Miss Leipke looked at him with beguiling eyes. He turned the conversation to art. Then he turned the conversation to her legs; she said frankly that she too liked her legs. She had lifted her morning-coat somewhat. With his shy hands, Kuno Kohn carefully lifted it higher-That evening Kuno Kohn sat dreamily in his room. He looked out through the hole made by the open window. In front of him the gray inner wall of the house dropped a short distance. With many quiet windows. There was no sky, only shimmering evening air. And a gentle, occasional breeze, which could scarcely be felt. The wall with the windows was like a lovely, sad picture. Kuno Kohn was surprised that it was not boring. He stared steadily and deeply into the wall. It seemed kind. Friendly. Full of loneliness. Secretly he thought: the wind against the wall is doing this. He sang inwardly: Come, be... loved--a bell startled him.
The postman brought him a letter from the Clou Club. The Clou Club requested Mr. Kohn to read from his works on a certain evening.
Eight days before the appointed evening a placard went up on the city's pillar for notices. On it was written:
Kuno Kohn will read from his own works at the Clou Club. Young girls and lawyers kindly requested not to attend.
As the evening approached, Kuno Kohn became increasingly agitated. Two hours before he had himself shaved. When the man asked whether the gentleman wanted powder, Kohn shook his head no, but said: "yes." An hour before Kohn went into a police station and asked for ten five-pfennig stamps and a ten pfennig postal card. (tr.--thinking that he is in the post-office).
When Kohn stepped on the podium, he became calmer than he had expected to be. First he made a slip of the tongue, but then his voice gradually became firm and clear. Very few people were in the little hall, but some critics from the large, influential newspapers were in attendance. The next day one of them declared, in the widely circulated Alten Buergerzeitung, that the poems the poet Kohn, who enlists our sympathy because of his physical handicap, brought to the attention of a sparsely attended hall were not yet ready for publication; however, one might expect something from his muse when Kohn has matured. Another declared, in the Journal for Enlightened Citizens: the overall impression is pleasing, but the poems are not all of the same quality. In addition, the poet had not read well. But the first line of the first verse of the poem "The Comedian" was movingly pithy in expression and feeling.
After the reading, the president of the club, the gifted Dr. Bryller, thanked the poet, whom he called a budding genius. One of the few whom he personally knew. In spite of the ban against young girls, Ilka Leipke had somehow managed to gain entrance. Mechenmal, who had at first said that he would not come, also appeared. At the break, however, he said that he was hungry, that he was going, and hadn't she had enough of the nonsense. If she did not want to come with him she could stay. She seemed suddenly interested in Kohn's hunch-back. He wished her much luck, asked if he should play the pimp, and left. Ilka Leipke cried a bit, and remained until the very end. She applauded enthusiastically. On this evening she loved Kohn. In a strange mood she took him to her place.
Towards morning a small, hunch-backed gentleman skipped like a ballet dancer along grey, uncertain streets...
Kuno Kohn from now on avoided meetings with Mechenmal. He no longer invited him. He bought newspapers in another kiosk. That suited Mechenmal just fine. His beloved had told him, with a provocative smile, that she had spent a lovely night in her bedroom with the hunch-back.
The hump had not been unpleasant for her; it was not as big and hateful as it seemed to a superficial observer. One could easily become accustomed to the hump.
Mechenmal was furious at Kohn. He was gentler and more indulgent towards Ilka Leipke. He did not show her his jealousy, and never mentioned the rival's name. Ilka Leipke was happy. She no longer thought of the drunken night with Kohn. Kohn was now no less repugnant to her now than he had been before; she rejected further attempts by the poet. She acted towards Mechenmal as though she were still very much in love with Kohn. Once, however, she could not repress making an unseemly joke about Kohn and his hump. Mechenmal laughed heartily.
Sadly, Kohn went to the shore. A publisher had made an unexpected, favorable offer, and paid an advance. Mechenmal happened to find a poem that Kohn sent from the shore to Ilka Leipke. He read:
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