"Hello, Ebling," said Rogler. "Everything okay?"
"Sure." Ebling switched off the phone.
The whole afternoon, he couldn't focus. The question of which part in a particular computer was defective, and how anyone could have arrived at the errors described in the dealers' cryptic reports - customer says reset activ. imm. bef. display but indic. zero - just didn't interest him today. It was the same feeling you got when something was making you happy.
He prolonged the moment. The phone stayed silent during the subway ride home, it stayed silent while he shopped for cucumbers in the supermarket, and all during dinner with Elke and the two children, who kept kicking each other under the table, it slumbered in his pocket, but he couldn't stop thinking about it.
Then he went down to the cellar. It smelled of mildew, there was a pile of beer crates in one corner, and the component parts of a temporarily disassembled IKEA wardrobe in another. Ebling switched on the phone. Two messages. Just as he was going to listen to them, the gadget vibrated in his hand: someone was calling.
"Now what?" She laughed. "Are you playing games with me?"
"I'd never do that."
His hand shook. "You're right. In fact, I'd... like to..."
"...play with you."
Ebling looked around. He knew this cellar better than any place in the world. He had put every object in it there himself. "Tomorrow. You say when and where. I'll be there."
"You mean it?"
"Up to you to find out."
He heard her take a deep breath. "Pantagruel. Nine o'clock. You make the reservation."
"You know this is crazy?"
"Who's to care?"
She laughed and hung up.
That night he reached for his wife for the first time in a very long time. At first she was simply incredulous, then she asked what had come over him and had he been drinking, then she gave in. It was quick, and even as he felt her still underneath him, it seemed to him that they were doing something transgressive. A hand tapped his shoulder: she couldn't breathe! He apologized, but it was another few minutes before he pulled away and rolled over on his side. Elke switched on the light, gave him a disapproving look, and retreated to the bathroom.
Of course he didn't go to Pantagruel. He left the phone switched off all day, and at nine o'clock he was sitting in front of the TV with his son watching a second division soccer match. He felt an electrical prickling, it was as if he had a doppelgänger, his representative in a parallel universe, who was entering an expensive restaurant at this very moment to meet a tall, beautiful woman who hung on his words, who laughed when he said something witty, and who brushed her hand against his, now and again, as if by accident.
At half time he went down to the cellar and switched on the phone. No message. He waited. No one called. After half an hour he switched it off again and went to bed; he couldn't go on pretending that soccer interested him.
He couldn't get to sleep, and shortly after midnight he got up and groped his way back into the cellar, barefoot and in his nightshirt. He switched on the phone. Four messages. Before he could listen to them, the phone rang.
"Ralf," said a man. "Sorry I'm calling so late ...but it's important! Malzacher is insisting that the two of you meet tomorrow. The whole project may be on the skids. Morgenheim will be there too. You know what's at stake!"
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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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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