The Coat

She was on her way up the stairs. Where the steps got wider in the corner of the stairwell, on the side toward the wall, she halted for a moment and waited till she caught her breath. Her knees were trembling a bit, and she thought: That's the shock. It's found its way to my limbs. Still there. She climbed further and held on to the railing with her left hand. Most of the brass borders along the edges of the steps had been torn off, and the linoleum was tattered and covered in gray plaster dust. Giant stick figures had been drawn on the wall, along with abbreviations and names in expansive, rolling handwriting; they meant nothing to her. When she had moved into this building twenty-six years ago, there was still a superintendent who lived downstairs; he swept daily and mopped every other day. Now there were two men from Africa who came once a week and wiped down the stairwell.

She heard steps coming from above and she stopped, trying to breathe quietly, and to stop her hands from shaking as well. A young man came toward her, carrying a bicycle on his shoulder. He gave her a quick nod. She said: Good day. Then she turned so that her back was toward the wall, as if to make room for him and his bike; in actuality, though, he was not supposed to see her back. She thought: I shouldn't have put on the coat. That was a mistake. I should have put on the one made of brown fabric. It was already pretty shabby, with the fabric rubbed shiny on the sleeves; every now and again she had to clip off the frayed threads at the end of the sleeves with her fingernail scissors. And it didn't really keep her warm. Warm, truly warm, was the other coat, her finest piece (as she called it), a nutria coat. It used to get pretty cold during the nights, and in the morning she would be freezing there in the apartment. She only turned on the heat in the evening, right before supper, just for three hours. Over and over in the last two years she had considered selling the coat. Once she had even gone to the furrier's on Oster Street, the last furrier in her district. Earlier there had been four--no, it was five--such stores here. And now just that one. And most of what lay in the window display was leather goods, with hardly any fur coats.

She examined the coat carefully and repaired two stitches in the lining; then she carried it over her arm to the furrier's and laid it on the counter. The furrier had a look at the coat, and the fur, and the silk lining.

"Fine work," he said.

"Yes," she said, "and as good as new. Hardly ever wore it."

"One can see that."

He mulled it over for a moment and then named a price. At first she thought she hadn't heard him properly, but then he said it again. Six hundred fifty marks. He must have seen the disappointment on her face, and he said: "I'm sorry. It's not worth any more than that. It's really not. You'd do better to keep it. Nobody wants to wear fur coats any more, least of all an expensive one. Mink or nutria. Nope, this business is dead."

She stood there, pondering, and thought of the bill for the new frames for her glasses and the year-end payment to the electric company, which would be coming any day now. With her hand she stroked the fur, and it looked like liquid gold in this light, soft and perceptibly warm to her touch; she ran her hand over it once more, gently, this time against the grain. Now the fur revealed a rich, dark brown color.

Indeed, I would rather keep it!

And when she found herself standing outside the shop again, she said out loud (but just for herself): "This is the proper thing to do."

Up until four years ago, when she retired, she had worked as a finisher. She would much rather have become a furrier. But back then, before the war, only men did that. At any rate she would get married, her father had said, and what was the point of such a long apprenticeship? In those days, it lasted three years. Compared to only two years for a seamstress. And you didn't have to work standing up, either. For forty-six years she had put silk linings in fur coats and stitched furs together on special machines. Caracul, seal, mink, ocelot, nutria, and beaver. The furriers stood at the workbenches and sorted the furs; they cut jags and strips and assembled the furs into coat-lengths; only then did they come the finishers' way.

But that is the wonderful thing about this profession, Blaser had said once. No fur is like another. And that's how it really was different from working with cloth, where you simply cut out the material. At most you had to pay attention to how the patterns fit together with stripes or checks. But otherwise any given panel of material resembles another. With furs there were differences, variations in color, in the length of the hair, in its density--they were often tiny differences, but one had to notice them and take them into account. And the furs, if they came from the free-range animals, had little flaws. In places where the animals had bitten each other or had injured themselves on thorns or rocks, there remained scars and bare patches. Bald spots. Places like that had to be repaired. It was an art.

For a while she worked in a factory, one that made batteries. You earned more there than by sewing furs. It was monotonous labor, standing at the conveyor belt, packaging up batteries, and so she started back as a finisher in a big store in downtown Hamburg.

The job was nicest in winter. She could look out the window and see the snow falling, and she realized that what she was sewing right then and there would fend off the cold.

The women sat across from one another while they were putting linings in the coats. It was quiet work; you could carry on a conversation and talk about what you were looking forward to or what you were afraid of.

If she were still going to the workshop, then tomorrow she'd be able to tell people about the fright she'd gotten today.

She made her way up to the next floor. Here, too, the hall was covered with a fine dust, with sand and mortar. The linoleum, and the wood below it that was already visible in several places, had been ground away by the shoes going up and down these stairs. For months now, actually for over a year, there had been construction in the building, upstairs on the fourth and fifth floors. In the beginning she had been sweeping and mopping on her floor, where three other apartments were to be found as well, but then at some point she'd stopped the sweeping and mopping, since every time it only took a few hours till you could see the dusty footprints once again. For a couple of months now the two black men had been coming. She couldn't understand them, because they spoke English. They each hauled a bucket of water upstairs and then, wearing rubber gloves on their hands, they began to mop. Through the peephole in her door she had kept watch as one of them dunked the mop with the scrubbing cloth wound around it into the pail and then used it without having swept first. She wondered if people always did that in Africa. Two pails of water for the entire stairwell.

Once in a while she ran into the workers on the stairs. They said hello, but beyond that she couldn't understand them either. Maybe it was Poles, or perhaps Russians, who were working up there. In her apartment the banging could be heard everywhere, even when she sat in the kitchen--hammering, drilling, knocking, for months and months. She wondered what was taking them so long up there. Sometimes pails with sand were toted up, sometimes bricks. Then, for a week or two, nothing could be heard; there was nothing but the gray dust that was always there, day in and day out. Until Friday mornings, when the two black men came. Then by evening the stairs were gray again and crunching with every step. She sat down on the little bench that was made into the corner of the stairwell. She placed her purse beside her. It was a faux leather bag, worn shiny with use, that she was unwilling to throw away. A present from Karl. Karl Lorenz. Lorenz had been on the staff of the land registry office. They got together once a week, usually on the weekends. He was separated and wanted to marry her. He said it was because of the tax break, but he probably meant that more as a joke than anything. And: it would be nice, after all, if they were together in one apartment. They could eat together, and in the morning, over breakfast, they would tell each other about their dreams. The part about the dreams she liked, but nevertheless she did not want to marry him. When her acquaintances wondered why not, she said: I like him, but not in that way. Not in a marrying way. Lorenz had died nine years ago, suddenly. He keeled over in the street. At a bus stop.

Since that time, she had been alone.

She was sitting there and wanted more than anything to lean back against the wall for a bit. But she did not allow herself to do it.

It wasn't much farther to the top, where she could then take off her coat in peace. It was probably ketchup. She could wash it out. It was red; she'd seen that much. It all happened so fast. It was something red. Yes. Most definitely. And the people laughed. She had seen that. That was what had confused her the most, the way the people standing about in the department store had laughed. There in the grocery section. Not far from the cheese counter. Maybe it was nothing, she thought. Maybe it was nothing at all. She had sensed only a gentle touch, as if someone were running a hand over her back. Not a blow, but a caress, she thought. It was like stroking. But she could have wailed, just wailed, when she walked out, with all of them staring after her, and a large number of them laughing. Out on the street, she had moved crookedly past the shop windows and apartments, her back half turned toward the buildings. For a moment she considered just removing her coat, but it would have been embarrassing to stand there at the busy intersection holding a coat that she had no desire to put back on. Strictly speaking, the coat was not suited for this department store, and it neither fit this street or nor belonged in this neighborhood. Earlier, yes-twenty years ago. But not any more. The people would have just smirked maliciously, as they had done down in the grocery department. She would wash the ketchup out with water and then drape the damp spot over something, so that the leather wouldn't pucker. This was important, this precision--on the job, too, when making the original incisions. In order for the length of the hair and the coloration to match up, the furs were joined together with a scalloped hem, cut into strips, and trimmed to coat length. At that point, the strips were stitched together and the leather was sprayed with water and pinned up, and that's how the individual pieces of fur took on their shape. Not a single hair could be caught up in the stitching, or else there would be dark, lumpy spots in the fabulous, silky light brown of the hair. The fur itself was unfathomably fine, and nobody who wore the coat had any idea how difficult it was to sew these seams--what a steady hand it took to flatten the delicate hairs over and over again with a small pair of tweezers in order to stitch together one of the scalloped seams.

"The way you do that! So tightly, so quickly--it's quite simply elegant," Mr. Blaser had said to her once.

Once again you could hear that thudding bass-line coming from one of the apartments. Two young men, students most likely, had moved in there. They listened to music. Even in the mornings. There were now many foreigners, and students, living in the building. Sometimes the smell that came out of the apartment in the second floor turned her stomach--kitchen smells. She could not determine which spice or spices they were, but she didn't like them. And when the people on the floor above her watered their flowers, the water ran down over her window--the window that she had just finished cleaning. But, for all that, those people had flowers. She and the people above her were the only ones who had put out flowers in the window boxes; and there must be two families living in that apartment, to judge from the galloping of so many feet--and this despite the fact that the apartment had only the two rooms, like hers. The other two apartments were empty. That's where the work was going on, the hammering and the drilling. And she wondered how the people upstairs could stand that noise.

Her feet had warmed up now, and gotten downright hot, even the one that she'd broken once, many years ago. That happened shortly after she got the news that Helmut had died as a POW in Russia. A letter had made it to his parents, and they had sent her a copy. They had wanted to get married on his next leave in 1944. But then he turned up on a list as missing in action, in the area around Tcherkassy. Half a year later came the notification that he had been taken prisoner. She waited for him for eight years. Until the news of his death arrived. Whenever she thought of it, she got furious, not at him, or at herself, but at the people who had made all that mess, as she put it. She would get hot then, and she could feel her heart--this heart that sometimes beat so wildly and then would skip. Yes, she would say, it's skipping again, shutting off, as if it were considering whether or not it should beat again. And when it acted like this, she couldn't breathe for a moment. This happened to her frequently in summer, when it was hot, and even more often in the winter, like today, when it was cold. This damp cold, that came creeping out of the grayness. I should not have donned that coat, she thought. There were warnings. There were signs. Back when she was still working, the year before she retired, she arrived at the fur store, as always, and she saw the people: the two police officers and the owner. The owner was crying and one of the policemen was comforting her. Then she saw what was painted in large, white letters across the pane of glass: Murderers! The place she worked last was not a big store; it was a little shop, nothing elegant. Most of the customers were only interested in repairs, and barely any in new garments. The department stores were considerably cheaper, and no one could compete with them. They outsourced their production work to Greece, and later to Hong Kong. Mink coats for two thousand marks. She had mended a lot of them. Pure junk. As soon as you opened up the lining, you could tell as much. Tufts of sewn-in hairs poked through all over the leather inside. And on the fur side you could see the seams. Full-blown creases. One giant piece of junk. But the people had no regard for such things.

Blaser had been a connoisseur. Yes, he was an artist who sat there, calculating, drawing, and making the incisions in the furs with a razor knife. She admired how quietly, how precisely he did it. Only a few, a precious few, furriers could cut as precisely, as marvelously straight as he could. She then stitched the strips together, equally as carefully and accurately, so that nothing got misaligned, so that there were no nicks or scars in the leather. So that no stretching resulted. And, above all, no hairs could be sewn into the seams. For that, the sewing machine had to be on exactly the right setting: not too hard, or else the leather would crinkle, and not too gentle, or else the stitches would be too loose. An intricate matter. You needed practice, a calm hand, a good eye, and experience. A sure grip when cutting, and a steady grip when sewing. She would have liked it most if she could have worked for Blaser the whole time. Even if she couldn't talk on the job there. You had to concentrate. It was demanding work. She sat at her machine, and sewed, and if she raised her head she saw the back of another seamstress who was bent over her furs. The whirring of the machines was constantly audible. Seven seamstresses sat lined up at their machines. The thing that distressed her was the time. Time was short. Very short. The time clock showed how much time you were allowed to spend working on each piece. Now and again the lengths were shortened. And sometimes she had to continue working after closing time, so that no money was deducted from her pay. That was often the case when she worked for Blaser.

In the summertime she would sit down by an open window on her lunch break. The workshop was located on the eighth floor, and she could look out over the street to the Jungfernstieg. You could hear the screeching of the bucket-dredgers from the port, and the riveting from the shipyards, and the hoots from the ships. How strange, she thought, that all the sounds that came from the harbor have disappeared. Even when the wind blows out of the southwest, you don't hear anything any more. Back then you could hear the port from all parts of the city. Back then you could still see fur coats. People wore them in winter, completely as a matter of course. They even became more and more common. Bulk commodity. The minks in their tiny cages. And then came the people who protested about it. So the time came when all the stores had to shut down. All the furriers were fired, and the finishers worked in retail, like Maria, whom she had mentored and who now sold sausage at Karstadt. That sausage that was on sale today—she had bought it from her. She would have warned her. "Holy cow! Watch out!" But she was already in this other section, with all the canned goods, not far from the cheese counter. Where she wanted to buy some sliced cheese. It happened there. Maybe, she thought, I should have gone to Maria and had her give me a cleaning rag, right away. But then, when she saw all the people standing around and staring at her, she left in a hurry. Indeed, she ran away from these people, especially from the ones who were laughing. An inane, gloating laughter.

Right away, in the entrance hall, she had gotten a whiff of it, and she smelled it now, too, here on the stairs. Perhaps it was some substance from here in the house, where there had been a perpetual odor of plaster, cement, and some solvent or other, ever since they'd been renovating.

She had made a point of going up to the attic once or twice simply to check out where and what they were renovating. But she could not see into any of the apartments. She glimpsed shadows through the fluted glass of the doors. She heard voices, without being able to understand anything. And she heard the sound of drilling. How can anyone keep drilling for so long? What are they drilling? Once she had called up the manager's office and stated that it was simply unbearable: the dirt, the dust, the noise. The woman on the telephone had said that the apartments were being modernized. And when she replied to the woman that this was uncivil, unreasonable, this annoyance due to so much noise, over a period of months, then that voice on the telephone (it must have been that of a young woman) had said: You can move out, you know.

I don't think so, she had said, and she got really steamed, and whenever she got hot like that, her thoughts became all jumbled, because her heart was then pounding so irregularly: Now, you listen. I've been living here for twenty-six years. But at that point the woman from the office had already hung up.

Over the next few days she considered going to see the renters' board, but she calmed herself down by thinking that the woman on the phone was simply being testy. She probably had not meant to threaten her.

Behind one of the apartment doors you could hear a dog yelping. The kind of yelping that only comes from big dogs. In any case this barking was deep and loud, menacing. This dog was also new to the house. She was constantly afraid of meeting it in the stairwell. Up to now she had still not caught sight of it, thank goodness, nor of its owner either. Maybe they didn't take it for walks outside. Or maybe only at night, when she was asleep, and she went to bed early. In the evenings, just before seven o'clock, she turned up the heat and watched a show on television. She ate a little something, usually cold—bread, cheese, cold cuts—and drank some tea, black tea. Once in a while she cooked herself an egg. She used to prepare a warm meal for herself when she returned from work. Now she made things in advance, for two or three days, and just heated the food up. Casseroles. She liked to eat casseroles, above all with pears, beans, and ham. That was her favorite dish. It reminded her of her mother, whose favorite meal it had been as well.

Just a couple of more steps, to be exact seven more, from here, and then she'll have made it. She took her time, because she told herself that a couple of minutes more at this point made no difference. First she would wipe the ketchup off, with a rag, and then rinse the spot with water. Doubtless it would have been better to have taken the jacket off right away and wipe the stuff off. But with all of them gaping, right there. And then there's the fact--yes, she was certain of it--that she would have burst out sobbing if she had seen it on her coat. By now, she thought, she had grown accustomed to the idea. She would just take a dishcloth, hold it under the cold water, and then carefully rub the ketchup out. And if that were not sufficient, then she would cautiously wash it out with some water. The nutria fur would turn gray and dull afterward. The fine, fine hair would coil up. But for that there was a little trick with an iron, something she had learned from Blaser. Dab the fur with vinegar and go over the area with an iron, hot, but not too hot. Then the hair would be smooth and fluffy and would gleam golden-brown. Once again it would look like silk, deeply shadowed silk, delightfully soft and pliant.

She had bought the furs for herself sixteen years ago, after making nutria coats for so long. A bundle of them, nutria, that she got wholesale and still paid out her whole savings for. She had everything explained to her. She had Blaser, the Swiss, demonstrate; he was patient and he was an artist, friendly, and she liked him, but she was never able to show him that and didn't know how to. It was this very helpfulness and friendliness that had something intimidating about it. As a matter of fact, to be honest, it was because of him that she had bought nutria. Not caracul. Caraculs were easier to make, but nutria coats, when they were so perfectly processed, were works of art. Blaser was such a master of this, greater than any other, and you could barely tell where one piece of fur met another. To join furs in two locations, one could only use a zigzag seam. They were where the color of the hair and its density and length vary--namely, at the top and on the peplum, as the back part is called. And even then you could only do it in a tightly circumscribed area a few millimeters wide. Blaser made the time, after closing, and he had stayed and marked the spots where she could make the incisions into the furs. He looked like a doctor, the way he sat there in his starched white smock and glasses, with that suntanned face and the hair that had already turned gray. She liked listening to him speak with that beautiful Swiss cadence. He sat at the table and blew softly into the furs and bent and flipped them over again and again, searching, comparing, looking for nuances of color. And so, then, when she had the back portion ready--that is, the largest and most conspicuous surface--he had fixed up a few of the transitions from fur to fur by dabbing on a color solution. But a solution that he had never betrayed, not even to her--and she indeed neither wanted to nor would be allowed to make any further coats. It's a secret, he said. The tincture could withstand rain, too. But not gasoline. Never!

She knew that much, of course: furs could never, ever be cleaned with gasoline! She would have to wash out the ketchup. She thought about how it might have changed everything, back then, when Blaser stayed behind with her in the workshop. He explained the process to her patiently, demonstrating the tricky things to her with his own two hands, and otherwise talked about the clouds that would soon bring snow up in the mountains. He was not married, but otherwise she knew nothing about him.

For two months she worked on the coat, always after the workday ended. At last she put in the lining, of dark red silk, the best and most expensive silk that the wholesaler carried. When everything was finished, she combed vinegar gently into the hair and then ironed the coat till it took on that silky sheen. And then, there it was, hanging on the mannequin, and she was sitting in front of it with Blaser. She had bought a bottle of Deinhardt champagne and clinked glasses with him to celebrate the finished coat.

You should have become a furrier, he said. This is an excellent piece of craftsmanship.

They toasted again, and then he had persuaded her to try on the jacket at once. It embarrassed her a bit, but because he really fancied the idea, she put it on, and then, on the cool but sunny October afternoon, she went across the Jungfernstieg with him to the Gänsemarkt subway station. There was just enough light remaining for people to be able to see the coat, the hair, the silky luster, the golden brown color that flitted between light and dark. She had walked at Blaser's side and asked if she could walk arm-in-arm with him. "But of course." And thus they moved across the Jungfernstieg, so naturally—just what she had hoped for during her work on all the other coats. An elegant couple. At the entrance to the station they said good-bye to each other. For a moment she had hoped that he'd ask her out; for one brief, bold instant she had even seriously considered just inviting him to go somewhere, but then she had shaken his hand and gone downstairs and ridden home.

She opened her door. It stunk of this solvent inside her apartment, too. First she paused, to let her breathing quiet down. Then she walked into the kitchen and placed her plastic shopping bag on the table. She kept the coat on for another minute, because she was shivering. Then she screwed up her courage and removed the coat, flipped it over, and saw the large red spot. It was still damp and had run down the whole back in drops, a blazing red in which she dabbed her finger with a mind to giving it a sniff, but right when she touched it she knew what it was: oil paint, enamel, and that was something you could not get out of the fur. She took a seat, slowly, and put the coat in her lap and pressed her face into the soft hair without paying any attention to the way she was besmearing herself with the red--her skirt, her cardigan, her arms, and her hands.

The translator gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Keith Kaplan in translating the technical terms in this story.

First published as "Der Mantel" in Nicht morgen, nicht gestern (München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 2001). By arrangement with the publisher. Translation copyright 2007 by John K. Cox. All rights reserved.