No decorative plaster, no mirrors, no runner. Whatever unpretentious beauty the stairwell might once have had, it could never have been comparable to the grandeur of the facade, and it was long gone in any case. The red paint on the stairs had worn through in the middle, the stamped green linoleum that was glued on the walls to shoulder height was rubbed away to nothing, and bits of string had been stretched across the gaps in the banisters. It smelled of cleaning fluid. Perhaps I only became aware of all this some time later. It was always just as shabby and just as clean, and there was always the same smell of cleaning fluid, sometimes mixed with the smell of cabbage or beans, or fried food or boiling laundry.
I never learned a thing about the other people who lived in the building apart from these smells, the mats outside the apartment doors, and the nameplates under the doorbells. I cannot even remember meeting another tenant on the stairs.
Nor do I remember how I greeted Frau Schmitz. I had probably prepared two or three sentences about my illness and her help and how grateful I was, and recited them to her. She led me into the kitchen.
It was the largest room in the apartment, and contained a stove and sink, a tub and a boiler, a table, two chairs, a kitchen cabinet, a wardrobe, and a couch with a red velvet spread thrown over it. There was no window. Light came in through the panes of the door leading out onto the balcony--not much light; the kitchen was only bright when the door was open. Then you heard the scream of the saws from the carpenter's shop in the yard and smelled the smell of wood.
The apartment also had a small, cramped living room with a dresser, a table, four chairs, a wing chair, and a coal stove. It was almost never heated in winter, nor was it used much in summer either. The window faced Bahnhofstrasse, with a view of what had been the railroad station, but was now being excavated and already in places held the freshly laid foundations of the new courthouse and administration buildings. Finally, the apartment also had a windowless toilet. When the toilet smelled, so did the hall.
I don't remember what we talked about in the kitchen. Frau Schmitz was ironing; she had spread a woolen blanket and a linen cloth over the table; lifting one piece of laundry after another from the basket, she ironed them, folded them, and laid them on one of the two chairs. I sat on the other. She also ironed her underwear, and I didn't want to look, but I couldn't help looking. She was wearing a sleeveless smock, blue with little pale red flowers on it. Her shoulder-length, ash-blond hair was fastened with a clip at the back of her neck. Her bare arms were pale. Her gestures of lifting the iron, using it, setting it down again, and then folding and putting away the laundry were an exercise in slow concentration, as were her movements as she bent over and then straightened up again. Her face as it was then has been overlaid in my memory by the faces she had later. If I see her in my mind's eye as she was then, she doesn't have a face at all, and I have to reconstruct it. High forehead, high cheekbones, pale blue eyes, full lips that formed a perfect curve without any indentation, square chin. A broad-planed, strong, womanly face. I know that I found it beautiful. But I cannot recapture its beauty.
Excerpted from The Reader by Bernhard Schlink. Translation copyright 1997 by Carol Brown Janeway. Copyright 1995 by Diogenes Verlag AG, Zurich. Excerpted by permission of Vintage International, 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.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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