I wasn’t sold on the idea at all. But experience has taught us that in our book club, the nerves are on edge pretty fast, and you better bite back on any objections, and I have to be careful anyway: Because I once, a long time ago, said that, to me, Dostoyevsky’s novels were religious kitsch, I’m on the hit list Walter, our book club president, keeps. Walter considers Dostoyevsky the greatest. He also obviously believes I am, independently from my verdict on Dostoyevsky, slightly mad. At any rate, he likes to roll his eyes anytime I say anything. You can see it quite clearly now because our meetings take place as Zoom conferences only. I believe he wants to get rid of me. Therefore, in order not to provide him with any cause, I replied to the idea I wasn’t impressed with at all with the word: Sensational. But now I’m stuck in it, deeply. Two hours to go before my turn. A live reading, on the internet, of The Plague, as if we were pioneering that idea in times of the pandemic. The internet is filled to the brim with readings of this text. All the book clubs around the world have been doing it. Not only reading but proclaiming it. And here we are now, too. Our book club was set up to talk about books, not to read them aloud. But as I mentioned earlier, I bit back on my objections. My reading part starts on page 80. Johannes, that lame jerk, will go on reading before me. He’ll stop at the bottom of page 79, regardless where the content is at that point, that is the agreement, he will stop, even if the sentence is interrupted by the page turn and not yet finished on page 79. Such a reading, everyone taking exactly ten pages, was Marianne’s suggestion. Her idea met with Walter’s approval; he stated that he found Marianne’s idea to be just and original. Ten-page shares were determined thus, and I simply waited to be given any one of those.
Did everyone have the book at home, that was Walter’s question at the end of last week’s Zoom meeting.
“Everyone has The Plague,” I said.
I thought my interjection was funny.
“What?”, Walter asked.
I said, “Nothing”.
Now I’m standing at my bookshelf looking like an idiot. A sight Walter would most likely register with a sense of joyful satisfaction. I see The Stranger, I see The Fall. I even see The Myth of Sisyphus. But The Plague is nowhere to be seen. Now it’s even less than two hours before I go on. But this can’t be it. Of course, I own a copy of The Plague. It must have landed somewhere else on the shelf. I let my eyes wander across all of the shelf, beginning with the French literature section: Madame Bovary, Atomized, The Little Prince, but no The Plague anywhere. Despite my neatness. I always took pride in the fact that I never had to order any book to be discusses at our book club commercially first, but that I could always claim: I own that. I am sometimes even suspicious of Walter, who authoritatively dictates the choice of titles to be read, and that his only goal in selecting them has narrowed down to finally exposing a gap in my library. So I, off all people, do not own a copy of The Plague? This can’t be. Because I have a vivid recollection of the book, its shape and color. It was a hand-me-down from my parents’ bookshelf. That wasn’t such a large bookshelf, not many books secretly migrated into my boxes when I moved out, many years ago. But The Plague was among them, I am one hundred percent sure of that. It was a Rowohlt paperback. My father’s name was written on the inside cover.
Did I lend it to someone? Lending books, it happens, not a lot, though, but from time to time, and I regrettably do not keep a list. Or could Brigitte have taken it with her? Her departure last week was quite nasty, I have been missing my espresso maker since then. She pinched it, who else could it have been, although she’d given it me as a gift. Back on holiday in Naples.
The Name of the Rose, The Betrothed, Gomorrah, now I am scrolling through the Italian section’s titles, but to no avail, The Plague didn’t go astray to land here. Brigitte has to have bagged the book; that must be it. I give her a call, I let it ring for a while – For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Corrections, The Hotel New Hampshire, nothing among the Americans, either -, Brigitte doesn’t pick up the phone. That’s typical of her. She sees my name on the display, and she lets it ring. Thinking: Now he’s found out. Now he’s been looking for The Plague, without finding it. I put on the coat, slip into my shoes, because Brigitte doesn’t live far from here. And it’s still twenty minutes before curfew, I can do it in that time, reach her and get back. I am already on the staircase, putting on the protective mask. I meet Mrs. Klinger on the stairs, she lives on the floor above mine.
“You’re going out now?”, she asks.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” I say.
I don’t want to lower my guard on that: My book club reads The Plague, and only me sitting around without a damn copy. But that’s just like Brigitte to put me in such a situation. She likes that. She feels good when I’m embarrassed.
On the street, one of a number police sound cars passes, announcing in perpetual repetition that the evening curfew is about to begin. Alright, alright. I just have to reach the next intersection, then a turn to the left. There’s a hustle everywhere, because everybody’s hurrying home. I bump into a man, he doesn’t say: I’m sorry. I don’t, either. A car races past on the street.
The house at the end of the street is the one in which Brigitte lives. I will skip a detailed account of the benefits and drawbacks of living this close as a couple, I don’t have time for that now. I see a light overhead in her window. So, she really has been sitting on the sofa, letting the phone ring.
The front door is open, I charge up the staircase. Third floor. Arriving at Brigitte’s door, I catch my breath for a few seconds, then I keep ringing the doorbell. It takes a while before I finally hear steps.
“Yes?”, Brigitte asks without having opened the door.
“Me,”, I say.
“Yes, damn it.”
“What do you want? It’s curfew soon.”
“I know. So please don’t make any trouble, and don’t start yelling. Cough up The Plague, and I’ll be gone.”
Brigitte remains silent. Do I hear a men’s voice in her apartment?
Brigitte says: “You’re nuts.”
“Brigitte, listen: Who’s nuts out of the both of us, that is a good and legitimate question which we can gladly discuss, but please let’s do it at some other point, because I don’t have the time right now. I would, therefore, be very much obliged if you just handed me the book without any further ado, and that’s that.”
“The Plague, I told you that.”
“I don’t have that.”
“Brigitte, let’s call it a day. You’ve embarrassed me, bravo, well done. But please end all the posturing right now.”
“I really don’t have it.”
“You were the last person at my apartment. Because I adhere to the contact restrictions.”
I listen for the male voice but don’t hear anything.
“Yes, well?”, Brigitte asks.
“Naturally, you have it, The Plague. As well as my espresso maker. But we don’t have to sort out that last one now.”
“I do have the espresso maker because it’s mine. But I don’t have the book.”
“Cut the crap.”
“That is no crap.”
Down on the street, another police car passes, announcing, in menacing and booming tones, via speaker, that curfew is beginning soon, in earnest.
I say: “I don’t have the time.”
“You’re such an idiot.”
“We can gladly sort that out later.”
“No, it’s perfectly fine to sort it out now. Because it’s so typical of you. Seeking to immediately blame me. A book has gone missing? Of course, Brigitte has it. Avoid admitting your own mistake at all costs. I’m so, so fed up.”
“And it is typical of you to dish out such an unwarranted condemnation.”
“Of course. Because what does that even mean: Always seeking to blame you?”
“Because you screwed that one up yourself.”
“See. That’s what I mean.”
“You bend reality to your liking. Just so you’re never wrong.”
“You lent Johanna your copy of The Plague. Shortly after the beginning of the pandemic. Because they wanted to stage a live reading on the internet with their writing workshop. And as is your wont, as if no book exists you don’t own a copy of, you patronizingly handed her the book. It was so shameful. But, of course, you forget something like that, and then I’m to blame.”
“Yes, damn it.”
I suddenly remember. It’s true. I had scoffed at it back then, a reading of The Plague, how utterly unoriginal.
Brigitte says: “Now get lost.”
I fly down the stairs while fumbling for my phone, dialing Johanna’s number.
“Hello Johanna, it’s me.”
“Well, listen I lent you a copy of The Plague, right?”
“Yes?... Yes! That’s right! You told me that now, with everyone, every idiot, reading it, you wouldn’t need the book anyway.”
“Right. But couldn’t you give
it back to me regardless?”
“Yes, of course.” “And could you do it soon?”
“Whenever you want me to.”
For a moment, there is silence.
Johanna says: “But the curfew starts any minute now.”
“I know. Still, I’d like to swing by your place briefly.”
“If I met you, that would be an offense.”
“Yes, alright. But it would only be a really short handing over. And I’ll hurry. Maybe I’ll be at your place in about ten minutes, the curfew will only just have started by then. Or how about this idea: Just place the book on the doormat. Then there’s nothing you have to reproach yourself for.”
A brilliant idea.
She says: “Okay.”
I walk the street back to the intersection, glad that everything will be alright in time. Turning right then. Traffic has almost ceased on the road. Just one taxi races past, once. A taxi so close to curfew, I couldn’t afford that, the rates for a ride at this time have reached previously unimaginable heights, you could actually get yourself a used car for that amount. But Johanna’s place isn’t that far away anyway now. I’m running faster and faster. My head pulsates, my whole body pulsates. It was a long time ago that I last engaged in any sports. All sports clubs have closed down because of the pandemic, that includes my table tennis club. Good thing I have the book club. Without the book club, there would be nothing left.
Sirens blare from every direction now for the duration of thirty seconds. What sounds like the coming of the apocalypse is the signal the curfew has started. From here on out, what I do will be illegal. But the road where Johanna lives is a small back road; I tell myself the police won’t patrol here too frequently. Quickly bag the book and head back home. What’s the worst that could happen? Yet, on the doormat lies nothing. I ring her bell.
I breathe heavily, manage a nod and hold out my hand. But nothing happens. No book is being transferred to me. I stare at Johanna.
“Why didn’t you pick up your phone?”, she asks, “is it on mute? ‘Cause I tried to reach you umpteen times just now. I remembered I don’t have the copy of The Plague anymore. I lent the book to Robert. He absolutely wanted to read it. Sorry.”
“Never heard of him. Do you have his number?”
“Unfortunately, no. But I know where he lives.”
Johanna gives me the address: A street that is located in another quarter. A sigh escapes. But if I set out immediately, I will make it smoothly before my performance. I would be back home in time to sit down in front of my laptop and continue reading from page 80.
“I’m so sorry,” Johanna says.
I run. Underground or public busses aren’t in service now, of course. Occasionally, there are special busses for indispensable people, hospital staff, waterworks and power plant employees, but you’ll need special identification to ride on these busses.
I tell myself that I should probably better avoid the larger streets. If the police catch me, I’m done for. They have increased the patrol frequency again, that was reported on the news some days ago. Also, their equipment has been improved, people say, they bought night-vision goggles. In the sky, supposedly, there are now helicopters carrying thermal imaging cameras. But I guess that’s just scaremongering. The amount for the penalty, however, has definitely changed. You’re not being charged 50 € any longer, but 500 €.
It is not in my nature to violate the rules. I stole chewing gum as a kid, but my father found out, and he didn’t speak to me for days. A stealing son, he didn’t come to grips with that. Honesty was paramount to him. I’m even honest with my tax declaration. And now here I am running through the darkness like a complete lunatic.
Not a single human soul, no vehicles, nowhere. Images from dystopian movies and novels immediately spring to mind. I, the last human. Night Work. A novel I suggested that was rejected by Walter for our book club because Walter has only disdain for novels that are younger than fifty years.
I reach a large intersection that will be difficult to cross. The giant curved-arm lanterns bathe everything in their natrium-yellow light. It is far too bright. All of a sudden, I notice a movement. I stop in my tracks, waiting. My breathing is heaving and lowering like a hammer constantly struck an anvil. Then I see him: A fox. Shimmering in the light. I have to follow his lead. Stay behind the thicket. Stooping, I run from one planting to the next. Thank you, fox. Learning from the animals. I have reached the other side of the intersection. From here, I can turn into a dark side road again.
Up until now, I didn’t meet anyone on my way, no police, no one like me. I have never experienced the city in this stillness. Only somewhere far away, a siren is blaring. It doesn’t come any closer. It disappears.
It’s not far now. If only my steps weren’t so loud. I automatically feel like a dangerous criminal.
I have to think of Albert Camus. He was an active Résistance member, as far as I know, during the war, writing for a newspaper the Germans had banned. He is said to have been quite brave, transporting copy from one editor to the next during the nightly curfew. He was facing execution. Me, a fine.
I hear engine noises. A car draws closer. I stop still. It’s no good where I stand. It’s like I’m on display. As soon as the car swerves around the corner, the passengers will immediately see me. I jump back behind a parking minivan. From my hideout, I see that I was lucky. It actually is the first patrol I encountered. A police car. Did they see me?
No, they’re driving away. I wait for a few seconds. A short catching of my breath can’t be wrong. I am a bit dizzy. I count to ten, then I have to leave. Two streets to go until I reach the address given.
I could have saved myself all those inconveniences, if only I’d taken an earlier look at the bookshelf. On the other hand, I had been so sure: Do I own a copy of The Plague? What kind of a question is that!
I finally reach my destination; I see the house. It is a large building. Light emanates from numerous windows. That is a good sign. Yet my worries that said Robert who is the current keeper of my The Plague exemplar could have gone out are really unnecessary. Where would he have gone? All the cinemas and bars are closed.
I open a large metal gate and walk through it. I ascend the staircase, almost stumbling on the steps because my legs started trembling all of a sudden because of all the running. I calm down and walk on until I recognize Robert’s name on one of the doors. I can’t find a doorbell. I rap on the door. Much too faintly. I rap again, this time more forcefully. Then I listen. People who meet with other people at this hour will also be fined 500 €. It is said that the police do spot checks, ringing random apartment doors. There is a heated debate among the country’s intellectuals what people ought to do if there were an emergency happening in front of their own door. Leave the door closed? Ignore the incident? The police tell you to notify the police.
I lean against the doorframe, pressing my mouth close to the door panel.
“This is an emergency,” I whisper.
I haven’t heard any steps yet. Still, I am certain there is someone on the other side.
I repeat: “An emergency.”
Then I hear a faint click. There actually is someone on the other side of the door. I wait.
“Did something happen to Melanie?”, a cautious voice is asking.
“No,” I whisper, “everything is fine with Melanie.”
“What is it, then?”
I clear my throat.
“I am here on important business.”
“And you can assist me. You are Robert, right?”
“Good. Then you are indeed who I was searching for.”
“You shouldn’t be here now at all.”
“I know, Robert.”
“You’re also endangering me, you know that, don’t you?”
“Of course. And I am grateful you haven’t yet called the police.”
“What is this about?”
“It is about a really important issue.”
“Don’t tease me now.”
“It’s about a book.”
“A book that is currently in your possession. Yet I am the book’s actual owner. You can verify this by looking up my father’s handwritten name on the inside cover.”
“And which book is that supposed to be?”
“A crappy book.”
“Okay, but some say: A classic.”
“I didn’t like it.”
“All in all, I also believe it’s overrated.”
“I only got to page 80. So, and this is yours?”
“As I’ve said, you can verify it through my father’s name.”
“Johanna lent it to me. Told me it was mandatory reading. I don’t agree.”
“Be that as it may. I would be much obliged if you handed it to me. Give it to me, and I’ll immediately disappear.”
“Can’t do that.”
“Because Melanie has it now.”
“Melanie? Oh, you’ve got be…”
“She thinks it’s alright, I guess. Hasn’t finished it, though.”
“Can you reach her by phone?”
Robert lets out a laugh.
“That would be great,”, he says, “I tried that a while ago. But do you know what happened next?”
“A phone rang. In my hallway. Melanie, by accident, left her phone with me. That is why I panicked when you knocked.”
“But she lives nearby.”
“Yes. There is much to be said about the benefits and drawbacks of living this close to each other, but I guess you won’t have the time right now.”
He gives me the address. A stone’s throw. I pluck up courage again.
“Now, say,” Robert starts.
“What is it like out there now?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, there is a lot going round. Rumors. About wild beasts. And about ominous figures that run around at this time.”
“I didn’t meet any.”
We say our goodbyes. I descend the staircase, leave the building. As soon as I stand outside, I feel as if I’m invisible. Or the other way around, as if everybody else was invisible. Such confused thoughts quite possibly go to the heads of all those, like me, who are illegally moving through empty streets. I push them aside. I have to remain awake and alert.
There is still enough time before my reading cue on page 80, provided everything runs smoothly now.
Somewhere, a dog is barking.
Somewhere, a heavy door snaps locked.
Was that a movement over there? No, nothing. So, onward. I see my own shadow scurry by on the lowered shutters of a restaurant. Askew and distorted as with a monster. The Golem comes to mind; another book I once suggested for our book club and that Walter also rejected, of course. The story is set in Prague, darkness and fog mostly prevail, and everybody is hunting the Golem, including the first-person narrator. Yet as the story progresses, a suspicion grows that the first-person narrator himself could actually be the Golem. Walter offered his opinion and deemed it dubious fantasy rubbish.
My fascination for the Golem almost cost me 500 €. Because there is a police car right before me. I only now noticed it. For a moment, I am paralyzed with shock. Then, I jump behind a large dumpster.
I carefully take a peep. No-one is sitting in the police car. Fortunately.
It doesn’t take long after that before I hear steps. I spot a figure at about 50 meters away, moving towards the police car.
“Negative,” the figure says. A policeman. Holding a walkie-talkie to his mouth. Unintelligible stuff spouting from the walkie-talkie.
“Alright,” the policeman says, “I’ll wait here, then.”
He has reached the car, leans against the autobody and takes off the protective mask. He lights a cigarette. A few minutes later, another policeman turns up.
“So?”, he asks.
“We’re supposed to wait for operations management.”
The second policeman also leans against the autobody. Both look up.
“Crazy, right?”, the first one asks.
“What’s crazy?“, the other one asks.
“Well, everything getting worse all the time. Now somebody only has to breathe at you lightly, and an hour later, you’ll be knocked out.”
“Those are mutations, the virus is changing.”
“Do you know such things?”
“A bit. And not limited to the medical aspects.”
“I am interested in the phenomenon as a whole. The sociological aspects. And the religious ones. Take, for example, the age-old conviction that epidemics are supposed to be God’s punishment. Or the opinion that something went into disarray and now, order has to be restored.” “My brother-in-law recently caught it. He was really worse for wear. Perspiration, shaky legs, chaotic thoughts. And I had phoned him right before that, and he was perfectly clear. Told me he’d been reading some interesting book.”
Engine noise comes up, the one policeman flicks his cigarette away and puts his face mask back on. A big police transport comes up, stopping next to the two policemen. The rear side-window is lowered.
“He escaped us right here,” the one policeman says.
“We almost had him,” the other one says.
An unfriendly voice can be heard coming from the transport: “That would have been him. Damn. Don’t hesitate next time.”
“Nonsense. But be on the lookout. That guy is dangerous.”
“Some claim: Like Batman.”
“Have you been reading too many comic books lately? If you repeat such drivel, you’ll be shredding paper at the archive in no time. So: Look alive, men.”
The window goes up again, the transport rolls away, humming.
“You fool,” the one policeman says to the other one.
“What is it?”
“Batman. You shouldn’t have said that. Now the chief thinks we’re full-blown dimwits.”
Both get in the police car. They drive away. Again, I’m waiting for a few seconds. There can be no further delay. As soon as I think that, I hear noises. I cannot allocate them yet. They are very close. They emanate from the dumpster.
“Hello?”, I cautiously ask.
“Hello,” says a voice.
“Are you in there?”
“Yes, I couldn’t see any other escape. Are the police gone?”
“Yes,” I say, “all gone.”
“And now?”, I ask.
“I would like to get out.”
“Can you do it on your own?”
“If you could just lend me a hand? I would be much obliged.”
Frankly, I don’t have the time. I do it anyway. Perhaps that is rule violator solidarity.
I open the dumpster lid as quietly as possible, but the hinges creak despite my care. A stench cloud billows to meet me.
I try holding my breath.
“Very kind,” the voice says.
Between waste bags and other debris, a black protective mask is peering at me. It doesn’t just cover the mouth and the nose but all of the face. The rest of the body is also clothed in black. Seems to be a professional, in contrast to me, at least, because I am wearing a light-colored coat.
“If you could reach out and take my hand?”, the voice asks, “I threw myself in here so quickly, I am lying on my back, helpless as a bug now.”
I reluctantly stretch out my hand towards him. The glove that covers his hand feels squidgy. He pulls himself up on mine very forcefully before jumping out of the dumpster.
“Thank you,” he says. Now he is standing in front of me. A carnival Batman. Male, at least one foot smaller than I am. Perhaps ten years my junior.
“Are you Gustav?”, he asks.
“But I am supposed to meet up here with a certain Gustav.”
“I am sorry.”
“Then you’re the substitute?”
“Again, no. I am just here by chance.”
“By chance? And what about the money?”
“I don’t know anything about that.”
„You’ve got your own thing going on, right? A solo act. I get it, I get it.”
“I guess I’ll have to leave now.”
“Of course. We all have our appointments to keep.”
“Still, thanks again.”
“Don’t mention it. All the best.”
“To you, too.”
I start moving again, start speeding up, because I am lagging behind now. The Fall comes to mind, Albert Camus’ novel that was well on my bookshelf. If I remember it correctly, there’s a woman jumping into the Seine at night in that book, but the one person who hears the impact, a lawyer, does not help her. This omission then completely derails the lawyer. It could be the other way around with me. My readiness to help could cost me my book club membership. And what then? I would still have the books, but no-one to talk about them with. What I wouldn’t give if Walter weren’t book club president. I could be so much more relaxed. I wouldn’t have to hound around in the darkness like a lunatic. And some freaks in fantasy costuming wouldn’t take me as one of their ilk. But Walter wouldn’t hesitate one second, he would use my failure, he would open the biggest can of worms imaginable. He would question my loyalty if I didn’t continue on page 80. He would claim I didn’t care about the community. Because Walter does not only think I’m a kook and that my literary judgment is dubious, on top of that, he thinks I’m anti-social. Simply because I recently pointed out the contact restrictions to him. I had a gauleiter mentality, he then said. That was four weeks ago. We had just ended our discussion, our topic was The Strudlhofstiege, when Walter announced we had to postpone the following week’s meeting as his daughter would come visit.
If she came alone by herself, I asked.
“Why?“, Walter had asked.
“Because of the contact restrictions,” I said.
“If she brings her husband, that’s illegal.”
“Hans will stay outside in the car.”
Then the gauleiter accusation happened. And what’s more, I wouldn’t know what family meant, according to Walter. But I refused to engage in any discussion, I just had my own thoughts on the subject. So, we either all adhere to the rules, or we can just as well pack it in and surrender to the virus, that’s my point. In that case, we will all perish miserably, just like that. We will definitely perish with guys like Walter. Walter is a miserable hypocrite.
Preaches participation, preaches equal rights, but refuses all other book suggestions apart from his own. And his daughter’s husband didn’t just stay put in the car, that’s for sure.
I turn into the street Robert designated.
I don’t know Melanie at all. Nevertheless, here I stand at her door, nervous, as if I were her secret admirer. Everything is spinning around me. I haven’t felt this exhausted in a long while. I feel dim. I feel hot. Everything only because I have been running so much. I slowly gather my wits and concentrate on the reason I am here. But I don’t dare ring the bell, because who knows, it might echo through all of the house, startling her neighbors. Instead, I’m knocking softly. If Melanie opens, she’ll be liable to prosecution. If she doesn’t open to my knocks, it will be over for me. In that case, I will have given Walter a good reason to eliminate me from the oncoming Zoom conference. I knock again. I hear steps on the other side of the door.
“Is there someone?”, a voice asks.
“Melanie?”, I ask.
My voice is shaky, my knees are shaky. I prop myself up against the door frame.
“Who is there?”
“Don’t be afraid, everything’s alright with Robert.”
“Who are you?”
“We don’t know each other. Nevertheless, you’ll be able to help me. Melanie…”
I briefly forget what I am actually here for. Who I actually am. I stare into an abyss. From the abyss, something moves towards me, grows bigger, whizzes past me: A book. And with that, everything becomes clear again.
I say: “I am in dire straits. I wouldn’t be here otherwise. Not at this time of day. No, Melanie. So. The situation is really dire.”
“It is about a book that is currently in your possession. And I am here to fetch it. Because I urgently need it.”
“What book would that be?”
“Oh… but I am in the middle of reading that. It’s fascinating.”
“I’m glad to hear that. However, I would like to ask you to interrupt your reading for this evening, I will return the book back tomorrow morning, I promise.”
“Tomorrow morning, it’ll return to you.”
“You can fetch it tomorrow. I’ll have finished it by then.”
“But I need it today.”
“Melanie, please! No discussions!”
“You can have it tomorrow.”
“Melanie, now don’t be stubborn. That book you’re reading is not yours, it’s mine. It is my property. It was only lent to you. Therefore, I am in the right. I am only telling you this so you get the picture.”
“Go call the police, then.”
“Or should I call the police?”
“Don’t you dare.”
“Besides, you could be spinning tall tales. Your book. I don’t even know you. Robert gave it to me.”
“And he got it from me. Or rather from Johanna, whom I know by way of Brigitte.”
“Too complicated to go into detail. You see, I don’t have the time. That’s why I ask you, dear Melanie, I ask you from the bottom of my heart: Hand the book over to me. For you, it just makes for an interesting evening read. For me, my book club membership depends on it. The book club is the sole community left to me. Without the book club, there is nothing. Before that, I also had the table tennis club, but that closed down.And everything is going downhill with Brigitte, my girlfriend. I suspect she’s got another guy.”
“Well, you’re laying it on pretty thick.”
I hear steps behind the door, wandering off. A short while later, the steps return.
“So that’s really yours?”
“It has my father’s name on the inside cover.”
“So, the book actually belongs to your father?”
“Belonged. It now belongs to me.”
“Is he dead?”
“My father? No.”
“And what is your father’s name?”
I tell her. She sighs.
“Alright, fine. But you’ll return the book tomorrow?”
“I promise. Or you could, if you want to know what happens next even today, listen to an online reading of the text.”
“Definitely not, those pandemic readings are complete bullshit.”
The door opens to a gap. Subsequently, someone shoves The Plague through.
I immediately grab hold of it.
I yell: “Thank you!”
I am finally holding the book in my hands. But there isn’t much time left for celebration, I have to make haste. If nothing else goes haywire, it could still barely work. There is hope, because Johannes, who’s in front of me in the reading line, is such a slowpoke. He’ll read like snail; his sagging pace might well afford me a time buffer.
I sprint through the empty streets like someone hunted by invisible ghosts. Should I happen to run into a patrol now, I wouldn’t be able to hide anywhere for long, waiting, but I would have to gamble on the police’s surprise, hoping for a few baffled seconds they needed before realizing the situation; seconds that would suffice for me to continue running, and to escape.
I have reached the large, brightly lit intersection. Again, I am following the fox’s example like before, moving along the thicket. After that, I run through the street where Brigitte lives. There is light up in her living room. I try to suppress jealous brooding whether or not she is by herself. I am sweating. I am swaying. I feel as if the earth is trembling under my feet. I haven’t got the faintest idea how I am supposed to cough up the concentration to read something later on, sitting in front of my laptop camera. Before my eyes, there are only striations, dancing spots, billowing shadows. All the energy I can currently muster wanders to my legs. They are moving on their own, as if they knew the way better. I sweat more and more. I sway more and more. All of a sudden, I get the feeling the book club is not important, at all.
Honesty is important.
You overcome the plague with honesty. It says so in the Plague.
It is about me.
Is that a helicopter above me? Or does the clanging come from inside my head?
Where am I?
I vaguely recognize the street I am running through, yet it is not the street where my apartment lies. How much time has passed by now? Minutes? Hours? I stop in front of a small house. I ring the bell on the door. And now for the important part.
Somebody asks: “Yes?”
“It’s me,” I say.
Then I deposit the book in front of his door.