It was a drizzly day in Heidelberg, a town with the oldest university in Germany. I believe the university was founded centuries ago–perhaps 400, or maybe more, it just depends how you look at it.
It was a drizzly October day in Heidelberg, and some 21 year old American exchange student walked down the cobblestop Haupstrasse, smoking a thin cigar. He’d be switching to cigarettes within a few weeks, but he didn’t know it yet.
It was a drizzly October afternoon in Heidelberg, and some 19 year old French exchange student waived to the American exchange student she’d met the other day when all the exchange students had toured the exercise complex.
Let them go, let them slide apart, let them go without meeting, let him just politely wave back and keep moving on, let him drift on past her pretty young face. Don’t let him notice how cute she is, how bright her face shines, how clean her face curves and how big her eyes smile.
Oop! Too late.
Mr. Mann lived next door. Well, not in October, but a little later. In October the girl from Arizona lived next door. She moved to pursue a slightly bigger room on the other hall. There were two halls, and they met at the entrance to the kitchen.
Mr. Mann, who at some point lived next door, was short and homely losing his thick brown hair on top and grown as a beard down to his concave little chest. Each night Mr. Mann comforted himself with a double-sized wine bottle. He liked to talk but had nothing to say, and his forehead was bunched up like lamp shades fashionable in the olden days.
Mr. Mann had things to say, but he was too lonely to organize his thoughts and so just bounced them off you like a fipped-up ping-pong table. Mr. Mann studied something or other, not because he wanted to become that something or other, but because he liked being a student.
At some point, this short man, perhaps early thirties and with a glossy pate, a skilled musician and able scholar, disappeared.
A pupil–a young blue-eyed man in a loose-fitting square-cut T-shirt–of Mr. Mann’s found his way up to the hallway. His blond hair plopped beautifully on his long pale head like a bowl of angel-hair spaghetti. “Do you know where he went?” No one does. The kid looks angry. Maybe he already paid for a bunch of lessons. Or maybe he’s just sick of Mr. Mann’s shit, sick of wanting to learn to play like a man who’s never learned to live. Speculation, pure speculation. The truth is that we don’t know what made that handsome, soft-featured young fellow scowl and pout up his face into some kind of angry ashtray.
Who is Mr. Mann? Why did he come to town? Why did he leave? These questions were scarcely raised. He was there, shuffling with his professorial little wine gut out front, perpetually drunk but never noticeably so. And then he was gone. The whole thing lasted a couple months. The young American exchange student knew the most about him, but no one asked him for the particulars, and in time he would forget most of what he’d learned in their few conversations. To this day, no one from that floor of an old dorm building slated for demolition come summer knows what became of Mr. Mann. I guess he died. Actually, there’s no reason to suppose that. For most 30 year olds living in the glorious West in our prosperous era, twenty years pass amiably enough and death still looms far off in the distance, a worry but still not anything approaching a certainty.
This was Mr. Mann’s chapter. Will he get so much as another sentence?