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But in the foul mood in which he'd left his home, in the damp and desolate morning that heralded the rest of the dreary day, it seemed to him that he had slid from the threshold of his home, as from a quay or from the deck of a ship, into icy, muddy, dirty water, which was bearing him along. The sentence had placed within his grip a life belt that could keep him on the surface, and had offered him something firm and permanent.Skip to next paragraph
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''I tell you: I am so very happy!'' rang in his ears.
Had she received some news that morning which had made her so happy: a better job in the enterprise where she worked, so she wouldn't have to go out so early, into such foggy and unpleasant mornings, or spend her working hours pushing her way through crowds in packed, stifling buses? Or perhaps she had simply been pleased by a small sign of attention - a present for her birthday from her husband and child.
For, Alimpije Markovic asked himself, did human happiness always require a great and important reason? Or did a kind, pleasant word, a small sign of attention and goodwill, sometimes suffice? And this very simple realization of the modest causes and reasons for human happiness seemed to light one light after another within Alimpije Markovic, as he walked to his office, until he was glowing inside, festively lit like the New Years trees they had decorated at home while the children were still small.
He pushed his head out of his coat collar, like a tortoise poking out of its shell. He paused on the corner, and before crossing the street, looked back down the road he had covered.
''I tell you: I am so very happy!'' He seemed to hear the woman's voice again. This time, no longer silvery clear, but somehow caressing, dovelike, cooing and warm, like an invitation just for him. Judging by that voice, the young woman might not even be as rough and soldierly as he had thought in passing. Perhaps she was even pretty, or at least attractive and sweet, with something good and gentle in her expression, Alimpije Markovic thought, and wished he could see her again, for just a moment. Forgetting the piles of papers waiting on his desk, and his decision not to be late for work that morning, he turned and retraced his steps, hurrying between the pedestrians, dodging or brushing aside those who blocked his path.
But the two women in grey conductors' overcoats were nowhere to be seen. They had gone too far, turned off into a side street, or perhaps dropped into some shop.
Entering his office building, he thought that perhaps it was better this way. There could only have been one answer to his question, perhaps completely insignificant, nothing to do with him, his moods, and troubles. This way, with no precise or complete explanation, that statement of happiness would remain to him an isolated, joyful cry!
Bright and smiling as he walked, late, along the stairways and corridors past his surprised colleagues, Alimpije Markovic had the feeling that, this morning, someone completely unknown had accidentally made him a great gift. Alimpije Markovic, law clerk in the Palilula Municipal Assembly, felt enriched and happy because he had noticed those unusual words, had picked them up, out of the dirty street, and, taking them with him, had placed them in honoured and respected positions.
Translated from the Serbian by Maja Samolov. Excerpted from a longer story that originally appeared in ''Relations,'' a Yugoslavian literary review.