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“Grandfather, grandfather, can you tell us a story?”
The old man woke up with a start. His pipe had gone cold in his hand. He noticed that the ash had burned a small hole in the white tablecloth. The man stole a guilty glance at his daughter Annie, who was preparing some soup in the kitchen. He pulled the ashtray forward to hide the damage.
“Well, let me see, ugh ugh,” he coughed. The two boys sat down next to him, one on either side, their faces red both from the outside cold and from anticipation.
“The festive season is getting closer. Perhaps I should tell a Christmas story, humm?”
Many, many years ago, but several years after the Corona pandemics, I was earning my living in Hockenheim. Life was quiet if compared to the times of “The Great Upheaval.” Mind, people weren’t rich, and most of the stores in the Karlsruher Street had gone out of business… with the exception of a large number of bakeries and hairdressers. For some obscure reason, these had always managed to survive.
One day in early November, as I walked down Karlsruher Street, I noticed a mover’s truck parked in front of a small empty shop. Obviously, work persons were busy setting up a new store. They carried heavy wooden furniture into the building, and even the rain, which occasionally turned into sleet, didn’t distract them. It was too cold to stop and watch the scene, so I pulled up the collar of my coat to protect myself from the wind and moved on.
A new store indeed opened a few days later. It had a large sign above the shop window that read “Marie.” I found that intriguing, as it didn’t explain what type of products Marie was offering. And the shop window didn’t provide many clues about the articles either. Generally, it only had a few objects on display: a box of candles, a pen on a red velvet cushion, or a hairbrush. Sometimes an umbrella was the only piece, or a single book, a dress, or some vegetable. The objects were exchanged every day. No price tags were visible. I smiled sadly, as it was to be expected that this store might also soon go bankrupt. Like so many similar attempts in this lonely Rhine Valley town.
Now, I am not a person for idle gossip, but even I picked up some rumors about Marie’s. One Saturday morning, as I collected my bread at my favorite bakery, the owner, Frau Zeh, also mentioned that Marie’s store was surprisingly empty. She shook her head and the corners of her mouth dropped even further than usual. Herr Gelb, who had just walked in to get some fresh Bretzels, wasn’t happy either. He mentioned that he had entered Maries and had only found some clothing: a pair of trousers, a coat, and a single sweater. His gray goatee twitched from excitement, and he bit his mustache with obvious annoyance. An overweight woman piped in. “I bought some vegetables at Marie, but indeed only five different types were on offer. Can you imagine?” “Well,” I tried to pacify, “It may not be bad to just offer potatoes, pees or carrots… if they have the right quality?”
“Yes, but just ONE of each? One potato, One carrot, ONE pea?” Herr Gelb shook his head disapprovingly. We all fell silent. This was indeed surprising. Frau Zeh shook her head again and continued to look irritated. Herr Gelb inspected our astonished faces and chuckled triumphantly.
My curiosity was piqued, but I didn’t feel inclined to visit the new store. First, I had very little money, and second, as a bachelor, I tried to steer clear of the intricacies of village life.
The days and weeks went by. With the collapse of the Gulfstream (one of the first victims of climate warming) the winters had started to hit the Rheinvalley with great force. Heavy snow arrived from the east, and the villagers withdrew into their houses. I did so too. I could consider myself lucky, as I had a room with a tiny kitchen in the cellar of a half-timbered building, which had once been a restaurant. My dwelling was neither very cold nor very warm, yet by wearing a few woolen sweaters on top of one other, I could survive the coldest weather. In a small oven, I burned wood that I scavenged in the neighboring Schwetzinger Forest.
One evening, about a week before Christmas, there was a knock on my door. I glanced at the clock: it was nine; an unusual time for visitors. Yet, after some hesitation, I removed the latch, pulled the door open, and saw a dark shape on the stairway. Behind this form, an angry wind blew snowflakes through the air. I recognized an acquaintance, a man named Richard. He wore a heavy coat. His breath crystallized in the cold air.
“May I come in?” he asked. I heard his teeth clattering. Frozen snow covered his shoulders.
“Sure, sure,” I said and held the door open. He pushed past me through the narrow hallway and entered my room. I took his coat and we sat down at my small table. I poured him some hot tea from the samovar.
“Damned cold outside,” he said, “damned cold.” Richard was tall with broad shoulders and a rugged face. Dark curly hair crowned his head. He didn’t talk and held the cup with both his hands, obviously to chase the cold from his red hands and fingers.
“What’s up?” I asked. I was surprised by his visit, as we didn’t know each other very well. Why had he decided to turn up way at my place? After dark, with the streets deserted and the snow knee-deep?
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