Mrs. Jung's bouquet of yellow
March 13, 2005
I smell something and wonder if someone has urinated in a corner
of the hallway. But no, the comers in the hallway are sparkling
clean, as always. The smell in my room isn't as pungent as that
in the hallway. I spray air freshener to cover the smell and take
another peek at the hallway. “Oh, it's from Mrs. Jung's.” Yes,
the smell is definitely from her apartment. That was nothing new,
but the smell was never this strong. “Poor old woman! She
obviously can't control herself.”
I return to my room and open the window. But it doesn't help. “Phew!” It
is the voice of the young, snobbish German woman, my next-door
neighbor, and opposite from Mrs. Jung's. Being a xenophobe, she
knows bad smells come from foreigners, especially eastern foreigners.
I met Mrs. Jung the day I moved in. She would open her door and
peek into the hallway at every sound.
“What country are you nom?” she had asked me.
She pouched her beautiful, small lips. "Oh, Iran, Khomeini?” Smiling,
she had stepped back inside.
She came to see me later with a big cookie that was half eaten. “Do
you know how to eat it?” she had asked.
She wanted me to help her with her shopping and with taking out
the garbage. From then on, she knocked on my door twice a week,
at exactly eleven o’clock.
In the spring, she invited me to coffee. She showed me her bedroom,
which was small, with a double bed. A picture of her and her husband
leaned on a small vase full of flowers. I laughed at her wide-brimmed
hat in the picture. She showed me the bathroom, kitchen and living
room. White sheets covered her furniture to keep off the dust.
She pulled out a chair from her dining table and offered it to
me. The coffee decanter was ready with a tiny candle burning under
it and a plate of chocolates and cookies beside it.
“You have a comfortable apartment” I said. “Are
you happy with it?”
“Oh yes.” She started talking as if she had stored
years of things to say in her chest. She spoke with calm articulation
until she began panting a bit. Her lovely blue eyes became tearful
as she recounted how she had spent her youth as a hairdresser.
She pointed to the varicose veins in her legs. “These are
keepsakes from those days.” She told me she is sixty-eight.
“My husband died twenty years ago,” she said. Her
niece and her husband sometimes came to see her. “Once a
year, in January.”
She turned her large, old TV off only at bedtime. Sometimes in
the evening, when the weather was good, she sat on her balcony
and watched children play. She always checked her mailbox at 10
in the morning. People from church came to see her sometimes too,
but she said their chattering tired her.
She showed me her closets and shelves of bed sheet and clothes
and her old books. When I was leaving, she put the remaining chocolates
and cookies in a plastic bag and gave them to me.
When she came to see me on New Year's Eve, she brought a glass
of champagne and a bouquet of yellow flowers. She told me to put
the flowers next to my wife's picture.
* * *
The smell bothered me. I peeked into the hallway again. Now I
heard moaning. She did not answer when I rang her bell and knocked
on her door. She muttered something incomprehensible and her moans
were getting louder. I asked the young German woman for help, but
she was unmoved. “If she needed help, all of our noise would
have roused her.”
I asked the building manager and the woman from the church for
help. When the paramedics arrived and broke through her window
and opened her door, an awful smell gushed out. Moans rumbled in
her chest and throat. She looked out from barely open eyes as if
she did not recognize anyone. The paramedics took her with them,
and the young German woman didn't even look out to see what was
* * *
Two months later, when a new tenant moved into her apartment,
I put the yellow flowers Mrs. Jung had given me on a different
corner of my small bookshelf.
Frankfurt, August 1988