Jakob writes - A race for rats

in Portfolio, Stories, Web

A Race for Rats

A portrait

He always uses the same parting words. Maybe he pats him on the shoulder, maybe he rests his hand there for a moment, his jacket slung over his own shoulder. More often than not, he leaves his newspaper behind.

They rarely have a conversation. He arrives, acknowledges the other’s presence at the table, seats himself opposite the old man and proceeds to open the paper he has brought. Sometimes he drops a comment on what he’s reading, sometimes he shakes his head. He wears a striped shirt and a tie in always changing combinations. I haven’t yet sorted out the correlation between the days of the week and his outfits, or if there is any. He has short hair that is a dark brown, and it won’t be long before it will start to thin out. His shirt stretches over his massive torso. My guess is he works as an administrative executive. The person opposite from him is small and bony, with slumped shoulders and gray and white hair pointing at the ceiling. From where I sit I can only see the old man’s back, but when I arrive with my colleagues, he always smiles warmly when we greet him.

And I don’t think he is hard of hearing, even though his table partner always addresses him in a loud voice, trying to speak and to express himself clearly, the way one would admonish a child, or with the intensity used to address the mentally ill. Only that he seems to be lacking a bit on the patience side.

The younger one doesn’t look up from his paper until the food arrives. The old man has nothing to do than watch him. They continue not talking during the meal. He sits leaning back in his chair, spooning the soup into his mouth looking straight ahead. The younger one is looking down into his soup. Both slurp audibly, one hurriedly, the other sort of drawn out, in a two to one rhythm. For one, the meal is nothing more than lunch break, for the other it is a social event, an encounter with other people, us and the waitress included. He doesn’t fill out the old and brown jacket he’s wearing completely. He looks too small. Only his big hand resting on the left of his plate adjusts his bodily proportions. His hands don’t shake during the meal, and he uses both of them during the main course.

Something keeps him upright, there is a dignity about him that comes naturally, as if he has not yet lost himself to old age. I don’t necessarily dislike the younger man opposite from him, but he seems to have no sense for the calmness of the old man.

After he has finished his meal, the young man begins to talk seriously: “Well, then you’ll have to get one of those phones where you can store other people’s numbers – if you keep forgetting them. And always hang up when you’re done, do you hear me? Memory training is on Thursdays. I wish you’d go there. It’s exactly for people like you, they help you remember things there. On Thursday!”

From behind, I only see his hair moving up and down a little. The old man is nodding and just says, “ja, ja.” He has the right of old age to know things better.

As it is nearing one o’clock, the inevitable moment arrives. I know exactly how it will be, yet I’ve been waiting for it all along, just to make sure it will be the same as always: the parting. He rubs his stomach, sighs and gets up laboriously with the handicap of a belly recently filled in haste. The same words: “Well, I’ll run along then.” His hand on the shoulder of the old man, just briefly. In the next moment, he’s gone; puffed outside and disappeared in the parking lot.

This is all I see and all I know of him. I imagine his “running along then” as the return to his daily rat race. He’ll squeeze that full body of his into a small European car and burp once or twice during the return ride to his place of work. He’ll punch the clock there only thinking of what’s ahead, the in and out bins on his desk and their contents.

The encounter I just witnessed was just another routine for him. A daily task. A necessity like eating lunch. I only ever see the two of them for the duration of my own lunch break. My coworkers and I eat there because it is a two minute walk from where we work, the food is okay and cheap, and you get as much bottled water as you can drink along with it. The place is a modern retirement home, located in a residential area. The residents can choose to have lunch in their rooms or downstairs in the lobby, which is open to the public. The atmosphere is actually quite enjoyable. And I find it rather soothing to hear the old people there talk about their every-day problems, the weather, local politics and the ever-rising grocery prices.

I took an instant liking to the two. Being an odd couple, they stand out. Yet it took me a while to sort out that they were actually father and son, because of the lack of affection the son displays. Only the strictness and sometimes impertinence with which he allows himself to address the old man made it clear after a while of tuning in to their talking that he was indeed speaking to his father. I have no way of finding out if they ever see each other on other occasions as well, since they don’t talk about it and I am only there for lunch, but somehow I know they don’t.

Talk at my table is, of course, centered around work most of the time, so I have taken to watch the couple for a bit of distraction. After their parting, we have to return to work as well. A short walk is all that separates us from the race, so a colleague of mine will force a cigarette into her lungs as quickly as possible; on a bad day, two.

I’m sure the son pays for his father’s stay in the retirement home, and at least some of the arrogance I can hear in his voice when he is talking to his father is based on that fact; as if it allowed him to demand something. But what?

I wonder, what kind of life does the son lead? I don’t see a wedding ring on his hand, and even if he’s working overtime, his job cannot take up all of his time. I don’t see him involved in an intensive social life, either. Why does he keep this sort of relationship with his father, withered down to a routine he could carry out half asleep? Why does he move along the same tracks everyday? His car probably accumulates the same mileage every day, adding up evenly over the year so he knows exactly when the next service inspection will be due. What does such a person demand?

I worked at that job for little more than a year and didn’t find out. I moved away, but as far as I know, he still sees his father for one hour during lunch break on weekdays. I remember how after his son had left each day, the old man would remain sitting at the table for a while, and although I could only see his back, I knew that he was smiling.


This portrait first appeared on Capital of Nasty.

Featured image licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).