As he was getting out of the subway car, the phone rang. It was Elke, telling him to buy cucumbers on the way home tonight: the supermarket in their street was offering a special on them.
Ebling said he would and hung up fast. It rang again and a woman asked him if he'd thought it over, only an idiot would give up someone like her. Or did he see it differently?
No, he said without thinking, that's how he saw it too.
"Ralf!" She laughed.
Ebling's heart thumped, and his throat was dry. He hung up.
He was confused and nervous the whole way to the office. Obviously an original owner of this number had a voice similar to his own. He called Customer Service again.
No, said a woman, they couldn't just give him another number unless he paid for it.
"But this number already belongs to someone else!"
Impossible, she said. There were -
"Security measures, I know! But I keep getting calls for ...You know, I'm a technician myself. I know you're inundated with calls from people who are absolutely clueless. But this is my area. I know how - "
Nothing she could do, she said. She would pass on his request.
"And then? What happens next?"
Then, she said, they'd see. But that wasn't part of her job.
That morning he couldn't concentrate on his work. His hands trembled and he had no appetite during his lunch break, even though there was Wiener schnitzel on the menu. The canteen didn't have it very often, and normally he was already looking forward to it the day before. But this time he put his tray back on the rack with his plate still half full, went off to a quiet corner of the dining room, and switched on his phone.
Three messages. His daughter, wanting to be picked up from her ballet class. This was a surprise to him because he hadn't even known she was taking dancing. A man, saying please call back. There was nothing in his message to suggest which one of them he meant: Ebling or the other one. And then a woman, wanting to know why he was making himself scarce. This voice, deep and caressing, was one he hadn't heard before. Just as he was about to disconnect, the phone rang again. The number on the screen began with a plus sign and 22. Ebling didn't know which country code that was. He knew almost nobody in other countries, just his cousin in Sweden and a huge old woman in Minneapolis who sent a photograph of herself every year at Christmas, raising a glass with a big grin. To all the dear Eblings it said on the back, and neither he nor Elke had a clue which one of them she was related to. He picked up.
"Are we seeing each other next month?" a man asked loudly. "You're going to the Lucerne festival, aren't you? They're not going to make it without you, not the way things are, Ralf, you know?"
"I'll be there," said Ebling.
"That guy Lohmann. Should have expected it. Have you spoken to Degetel's people?"
"C'mon, it's time! Lucerne can really help, like Venice three years ago." The man laughed. "Apart from that? Clara?"
"Yes, yes," said Ebling.
"You old dog," said the man. "Unbelievable."
"I think so too," said Ebling.
"D'you have a cold? You sound funny."
"I have to ...go do something. I'll call you back."
"Okay. You never change, do you?"
The man hung up. Ebling leaned against the wall and rubbed his forehead. He needed a moment to get ahold of himself: this was the canteen, he was surrounded by coworkers eating schnitzel. At that moment Rogler was going past, carrying his tray.
Excerpted from Fame by Daniel Kehlmann Copyright © 2010 by Daniel Kehlmann. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher
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