It was the last summer before they gave the Sinai back to Egypt. I was thirteen and I drove with my parents and their friends down to Ras Burka. I think that must have been our last big family trip. After that, I preferred going with my friends. In any case, one of the families traveling with us had a son with cerebral palsy. They put up their tent a little bit away from the rest of us so it took a few days before I even noticed him. And that was purely by accident too. I went into the water to snorkel and the current carried me too far out. The waves were high, salt water seeped into my snorkel and my mask steamed up. I wanted to go back to the shore but didn’t know how. After a long momment, I found a sandy path that wound through the corals and swam along it till I reached the shore. I rested there for a while, got my breathing regular again, took off my fins and started walking back toward our tent, swearing to myself that this was the last time I’d go underwater myself.
And then I saw him.
He was sitting in a wheelchair near his family’s tent.
I couldn’t decide whether to go over to him, but he seemed to be smiling at me, so I turned away from the shoreline and walked toward him. When I got closer, I saw that the smile was actually an involuntary twitch that distorted his mouth.
But that wasn’t the main thing.
Dozens of flies were sitting on his face. There were flies on his lips, on his nose, inside his nose, in his ears, on his cheeks, his neck, his chin, his hair, his weird thick glasses. Big flies, small flies, flies that weren’t moving, flies that were rubbing their hands together in pleasure. Where were his parents? How could they have left him there like that?
“Do something,” his eyes pleaded from behind his glasses. “Save me from this torture.” He moaned, the sound an animal makes. A wounded animal.
I peeled off my shirt and started flapping it wildly around his body. Some of the flies took off. And some didn’t. I waved my other hand too, and kicked the air with my foot, close to his face. I did everything but touch him. I jumped and stamped, even went into their tent and brought out a piece of cardboard meant for fanning the barbecue coals, and waved it hard next to the back of his neck where an especially stubborn guerilla of flies was hanging on.
Finally, after a few minutes of hard work, I managed to cut down the number of flies by half. I knew that as soon as I left him, the flies would come back and retake his face easily. But there was no choice. I had to go back to the main tent for help.
“I’ll be right back,” I said. He didn’t nod his head and he didn’t shake it. I thought I could see a thank you in his eyes, but I wasn’t sure of that either. “I’ll be right back,” I repeated. And again, not a muscle in his face moved.
I started running back to the main tent, the soles of my feet burning in the sand, but before I reached it, I ran into his parents, who must have been on their way back. The mother was carrying their new, blond baby girl. The father was carrying two folding chairs.
Your son, I blurted out, he’s there… alone… the flies. The words were all jumbled in my mouth.
We know, the father said in a firm voice. Confident. What can we do, the mother said with a sigh. We can’t stand next to him all day and swat them away.
Yes, but… I wanted to object. To demand. To wave my fins around. But my protest couldn’t find its way into words, into a coherent argument. I was only thirteen and still a little bit afraid of grownups.
But thanks for taking an interest, the father said, and started walking again. She has sensitive skin, it isn’t good for her, being in the sun like this, the mother apologized, gesturing to the little blond girl, and walked past me. The little blond girl herself was asleep, her face bright and beautiful.
That night, I told my parents about it. I was sure they’d be outraged. That they’d use the same expressions they used when I did something to make them furious: “shameful,” “disgraceful,” or worst of all – “deplorable.”
To my shock, they were indifferent. Even worse: it turned out that it was nothing new for them. The boy had been with the group on their vacation at Lake Kinneret, and then too, he sat in his wheelchair outside the tent and the flies set up residence on him.
I agree with you, it’s not a pretty sight, my father said. But what can they do? Stand next to him all day and swat away the flies?
I actually think it’s nice that they insist on bringing him, my mother added. After all, they could leave him in the home. But they want him to grow up like a normal child.
So why do they hide him? the question burst out of me at full volume, volume that was fine for home, not the Sinai. If it’s so nice and they have nothing to be ashamed of, why did they put up their tent so far from everyone else?!
Because it took them a little more time to get organized and that was the only place left for them, my father said.
Yes, my mother backed him up – I hadn’t heard her back him up on anything for a long time – it’s purely by chance. At the Kinneret, they were right in the center of things.
Their arguments, added on to his parents’ arguments, paralyzed me. It all sounded so logical and convincing. But still, I had the feeling that an injustice was being done here. My father put out the candle and in the dark, my mother said it was nice that I thought about others, not only about myself, and maybe I should put that virtue to use by washing the plastic plates every once in a while because it makes no sense that she’s in the Sinai and the only thing she does all day is cook and wash up after us.
When we woke up the next morning, we saw that a lot of other Israeli families had come during the night and planted their tents on the beach. You can’t imagine, Rina, the whole country came to say goodbye to the Sinai, my father said after finishing his morning exercises outside the tent. Oh my God, my mother said when she went outside, the whole country really is here.
I hated it when they talked like that. As if they weren’t actually part of the country. But I didn’t say anything. I went outside and scanned the beach. The boy’s tent wasn’t on the edge of the camp anymore, but right in the middle of the rows of tents that now filled the small inlet from the little hill to the dunes. Terrific, I said to myself, now the whole country will see that boy being tortured on his wheelchair and someone will definitely say something to his parents.
That day, when the sun had begun to sink toward the hills, I went into the water with my snorkel and swam back to the spot where the narrow sandy path wound between the large fire corals. After I came out of the water and dried myself off on the beach, I began looking for their tent. It wasn’t easy to find anymore because there were so many other tents surrounding it, but the flash of the sun’s rays on the iron of the wheelchair showed me the way.
He was sitting there in the same small square of shade. I searched his eyes for a sign that he recognized me, remembered something. And didn’t find it. There were a million flies on his face. A billion. The whole country has been walking past him since the morning, I thought. And didn’t do a thing.
I started the work of swatting them away. This time, I was determined to get all the flies, every last one. I wanted to see his face completely clear for once, I wanted to give him a few seconds of grace free of irritation.
It took a long time – the sun was already turning the hilltops golden – but in the end, I did it. The last three flies turned out to be dead, and I peeled them off his cheek with my fingers. But while I was moving back a little to check if any flies had gotten away from me, four new ones landed on his nose.
Furious, I went back and slapped the air next to his nose until they gave up and flew away. Then I stood beside him for a few minutes to make sure that not a single fly dared to come back. It was starting to get dark and I hoped my parents were already worrying about me, so I promised the fly boy that I’d come back the next day at the same time, and left.
I’d like to say that I went back the next day and the day after that. I’d like to say that, in the end, I started a protest demonstration, maybe even a hunger strike, near the fly boy’s wheelchair until his parents had no choice but to stand on either side of him waving huge palm fronds all day long.
But at the moment, the truth is stronger stronger than me
That evening, near one of the circles of people listening to a guitar player, I met a fifteen-year-old girl. I lied to her, said I was fifteen too, and she believed me and told me that in Ashdod, where she lived, there are some girls who’d gone all the way with older boys. She had big green eyes and chocolate skin, and she always wore a white bikini, day and night, and spoke loudly about her boobs, how big and beautiful they were. I fell in love with her instantly, of course. And I spent the next few days playing endless games of backgammon with her and her cousins, trying desperately to impress her.
One afternoon, her cousins went into the water and just the two of us were left on the beach. The sun was behind us. I didn’t turn around, but I could picture it turning the hilltops golden now.
We didn’t talk. I felt that it was my responsibility to rescue us from the silence.
There’s this kid here, I said. He has some disease, I don’t what. Anyway, his parents leave him in a wheelchair outside their tent the whole day, and all the flies in the Sinai come and sit on his face.
How disgusting, she said.
Yes, I agreed. And added, spitting out the words quickly, I go to see him every once in a while and swat away the flies. Want to come with me?
What, now? she asked and buried her tan legs in the soft sand like someone who has no intention of going anywhere.
No, I said, alarmed. Who said now? I was thinking later, tomorrow.
We’ll see, maybe, she said, and jumped up suddenly. are You coming to the water?
I didn’t see the boy with the flies anymore. I was sure I’d see him the last day when my parents’ whole gang took down their tents and gathered together to make the trip to Eilat in a convoy of Subarus. I planned to tell his parents a thing or two, or at least say goodbye to him and apologize for not keeping my promise, but when we got to the meeting place, his family wasn’t there.
They left yesterday, my mother explained. Their little girl had a bad upset stomach.
And what about the… I started to ask, but my father changed the subject. Son, he said, take one last look at the beach and make sure you remember what you see. Inside of a year, the Egyptians will build an army base here. And that’s the end of the corals and the fish.
No, my mother said, I think they’ll develop the place for tourism.
And he answered her.
And she answered him.
And they were off, arguing till Eilat, and maybe even till we were on the Arava Road, I don’t know, because after Kibbutz Yotvata, I fell asleep.
A few months later, the Sinai went back to Egypt and became cleaner and quieter.
Ras Burka was taken over by an obnoxious blue-eyed Egyptian sheikh and his German wife. They let Israelis in the first few years, but then the intifada started and they hung out a little cardboard sign saying that only people with European passports could enter.
The pretty girl from Ashdod starred in my fantasies for a few months. And when I couldn’t summon up her face anymore, I replaced her with Sharon Haziz, the latest, hottest singer.
I haven’t thought about the boy with the flies for years, but during my last stint in the reserves – I was posted in Nablus, and when it was over, I asked for a transfer to a different unit – I suddenly remembered him. I was sitting alone in the small shed at the Ein Huwara checkpoint counting stars, listening to fragmented conversations on the radio, and I don’t really know why, but that boy’s face floated up before my eyes and my heart swelled all at once to the size of a watermelon, good God, there were even flies on his eyelashes, in his nostrils, in his ears. And I’d promised him I’d come.
A thought buzzed in my mind: it’s funny that I never mention the incident to anyone. After all, I’ve revealed more embarrassing things to the world – secrets, lies, perversions – but for some reason, not that. I promised myself I’d tell my wife when I got home, I felt that I had to tell at least her, but when I got home, the twins had fever and we took turns sitting with them and hardly had any time to talk –
Later I forgot about it. And I have no idea why I remembered it now, of all times. That terrible reserve duty was a year and a half ago, and I’m sitting at the computer now to prepare a laser optics marketing presentation for tomorrow morning. All the company’s head honchos will be there, and I still have a lot of work, so many slides that aren’t ready yet, so many slides I have to proofread, and obviously, this is a text I won’t show anyone. Obviously, it’ll be buried in the depths of my hard disk, where it’ll keep buzzing.
In my other life I lived in a suburb of Ohio or Michigan with Paul-Marc, my husband, and the child. The houses were planted on manicured lawns that stretched as far as the eye could see, circling an artificial lake, all of them were similar, nearly identical, manufactured on the same assembly line, with the same faux brick siding and grey gables, two front steps and a large wooden front door or was it faux-wood I couldn’t tell and in any case no one ever used the front door except when delivering groceries or take-out, everyone always used the garage door entry, which was also identical in every house, and every garage was equipped with a second refrigerator and had a side-door leading to the kitchen and various items stuck in that uncertain realm between utility and garbage, crammed in between the two cars.
The houses looked so much alike that when I took the child out in his stroller for a walk the first week we moved in, I couldn’t find my way back; I finally managed to recognize the house thanks to two old ladies who were still standing there with their dogs, chatting, when I returned. There were no fences and therefore the endless green grass was also everyone’s own private backyard and no one added much to it, as if all those miles of grass had suppressed their impulse to garden, at most there was a single tree, a shrub or two, or a few tulips in spring that needed to be sprayed with a smelly solution in order to keep the deer from eating them up. The deer were a real nuisance and once Paul-Marc almost ran one over, but the child was enthusiastic about them and about the squirrels and he would tirelessly point and call out: “Squiwel!”, “Mamby!”.
Sometimes at night, lying beside Paul-Marc who slept as if knocked unconscious after a long day at work and the commute, I would listen to the rain, fighting the urge to jump out of bed and go to the window to see whether it was real. The sound of the wind in the trees was wonderful until I realized it sounded precisely every 2:15 minutes and I also remembered that there weren’t enough trees outside to generate that sound, but I was afraid to get up because if I stepped on the laminated wood floor it would unavoidably creak twice on my way to the window, and wake the child, who could wake Paul-Marc, who needed to be up at five thirty a.m. for work. The monthly payments on our mortgage kept rising and were more than we had planned for, and I hadn’t returned to work after the child was born, in any case the cost of childcare would’ve swallowed up my paycheck and the child was better off with me than with a stranger during those early years.
I tried saving up by using coupons, buying things on sale, and special offers for Christmas and Thanksgiving, and once in a while I shopped online, without Paul-Marc’s knowledge, either ordering an item of clothing that was too tight – it’s hard to get the sizing right on the internet – or something too pretty that was left hanging in the closet, some fancy bath toy for the child, which admittedly, required removing other toys, but still, most definitely stirred up some excitement at least twice or three times, or kitchenware (only some of which ended up adding to the pile in the garage) and of course, plenty of beauty products which are so much cheaper online, especially if you buy one and get the second one half price, or buy two and get one free, shipping included.
I tried walking on the treadmill that I got from Wal-Mart – which was fairly expensive, but I explained to Paul-Marc (I couldn’t hide the treadmill) that eventually the investment would pay off, help me get back in shape, back to myself, back to work – but most of the time I sat in front of the tv, the couch too soft to get up from, and rocked the child’s stroller vigorously, to be honest, even when he wasn’t supposed to be sleeping, and watched fitness and healthy living programs with tips for well-being that I tried to commit to memory, most if not all of the commercials were for diet products and cosmetics that presented body and face as a battle there is no chance at winning, the most you can do is minimize the damage with the help of buy-one-get-the-second-half-off or buy- two-get one-free.
Apart from that I didn’t do much during the day, sometimes by the end of it I couldn’t recall a single real thing except for the sharp motion when rising from the couch and hitting “off” on the remote control while attempting to quickly quiet down the child as soon as I heard the garage door opening for Paul-Marc’s car, but the days slid through my fingers somehow and when the weather was decent I would go out with the child. Once I had settled in the neighborhood and took every possible route from the house to the artificial lake, I began to discern subtle differences between the houses, ones that indicated their financial states, for example, the families that were more well-off had built-in swimming pools, while the others had round plastic ones that were far cheaper but had other advantages, for example, you could take them with you when you moved. I got ours on sale at Amazon for only 299.99$ and it took Paul-Marc two weekends to install. For an extra 59.99$ you could add a safety fence for the pool but that made the whole deal a lot more expensive and as long as the child was small we didn’t find it necessary.
Alright. You don’t need to have read The Iliad or Crime and Punishment (in any case I hadn’t read them in my other life) in order to guess the end, to picture me staring at the tv then suddenly becoming aware of the strange silence or the strange lightness of the stroller that I’m still rocking, getting up from the couch and seeing the child gone, running up the stairs and not finding him in our bedroom or in his room or in the bathrooms, going downstairs again to the living room and suddenly spotting the open front door, I didn’t shut it after the grocery delivery, freezing in terror for a moment and then racing outside to the pool, seeing from afar, face-down, floating in the water, the worst sight I would ever witness in my entire life but still running – and sometimes I cannot bear such a cruel fate for my other life and I reach the pool, the scream still stuck in my throat, and I see a large stupid squirrel that fell in and drowned, his eyes open and his paws still outstretched, and Paul-Marc Jr. sitting on the grass and staring at me puzzled.
I was away from my children for a while. They’d gone to the seaside with my sister and my mother, I stayed in the city, my mother was angry at me because I wrote and showed myself nowhere often enough. I’d talk about work appointments, none of which existed. I lived in a small hotel whose caretaker reeked, the smell of her body and her dress had risen violently with the heat. I’d head to the office every day, but I worked very little, I mostly went to the office to pretend I was a man, I was tired of being a woman. Everyone seems to enjoy entertaining for a while a role that isn’t theirs, the role I played was that of a man, I’d sit at the filthy office table and eat at an osteria, lazily hang out on the streets and in cafés with friends, come home late at night. I’d surprise myself thinking how different my life had once been, when I cradled my children and I cooked and I washed, how there’s always so many ways to live, and each of us can make a new being of ourselves, at times even enemies of each other. Then I got bored of that new role I was playing too, I’d be living the same life without any of the pleasure in it. But I wouldn’t go to my mother’s, at the seaside, I wanted to be away from the kids, be alone: I thought I couldn’t show myself to them as I was at that moment, with that loathing in my heart, I felt like I’d loathe them too if I ended up seeing them. I often thought it was like elephants and how they hide away to die. They hide to die, they spend a long time in the jungle looking for a secluded spot, full of trees, to hide the shame of their big, tired body dying. It was summer, summer was hot, blazing in the big city, and whenever I cycled on the tarmac under the trees, my heart was choked by a feeling of loathing and love towards every road, every house of that city, and several memories were born of different natures, burning like the sun, as I fled, ringing my bell. Giovanna was waiting for me in a café: when I left the office, in the evening, and I’d sit next to her at the table, I’d show her my mother’s letters. She knew I wanted to die, that’s why we no longer had that much more to say to each other, but we still sat one opposite the other, smoking, blowing away the smoke through closed lips. I wanted to die because of a man, but also because of so many other things, because I owed my mother money, and because the caretaker stank, and because summer was hot, blazing, in the city full of memories and roads, and because I thought that I could be of no use to anyone, in that state.
So my children – just as they had lost their father one day – would also lose their mother but it didn’t matter, because the loathing and shame assault us at a certain moment in life, and no one has the power to help us when they do. It was a Sunday afternoon, I’d bought some sleeping pills from a pharmacy. I walked all day in the empty city, thinking about me and my children. Bit by bit I was losing awareness of their young age, the timbre of their young voices had died in me; I told them everything, about the pills and the elephants, of the caretaker and what they should do when they grew up, how to defend themselves from what would happen. But then I suddenly saw them as I had last seen them, on the floor, playing with bowling pins. And the echo of those thoughts and words resounded in the silence, I was stunned by seeing how alone I was, alone and free in the empty city, with the power to harm myself as much as I desired. I went home and took the pills, I dissolved all of their contents in a glass of water, I couldn’t figure out if I wanted to sleep for a very long time or die. The caretaker came the following morning, she found me asleep and after a while went to call for a doctor. I stayed in bed for a week, and Giovanna would come every day and she’d bring me oranges and ice. I’d tell her that those who have a loathing growing in their heart should not be alive, and she’d smoke in silence and watch me, blowing away the smoke through closed lips. Other friends would come too, and everyone gave me a piece of their mind, everyone wanted to teach me what I had to do now. But I’d reply that those who have a loathing growing in their heart should not be alive. Giovanna told me to leave the small hotel and move in with her for a while. She lived alone with a Danish girl who walked around the place barefoot. I didn’t feel like dying now, but I didn’t feel like living either, and I lazily hung out at the office or in the streets, with friends, people who wanted to teach me how to save myself. In the mornings, Giovanna would slip on a prune-coloured towelling robe, brush the hair away from her forehead and wave at me with disdain. In the mornings, the Danish girl would walk barefoot into the bedroom, and start writing all the dreams she’d had the previous night on a typewriter. One night she’d dreamt that she picked up an axe and killed her mother and father. But she really loved her mother and father. They were waiting for her in Copenhagen but she didn’t want to move back, because she said we all need to live away from our roots. She’d read out loud to us her mother’s letters. Giovanna’s mother had died and she had arrived too late to see her die, when she was still alive they had tried to no avail to talk to each other. I’d say that a mother is only needed by children when they’re small, to feed them and cradle them, but then she’s pointless and it’s pointless to talk to her. You can’t even tell her the simplest of things and so what can she do to help? She becomes a burden with that silence that is born out of trying to talk to each other. I’d say that my children no longer needed me, because they no longer needed to be fed and cradled, kids with dirty knees and patches on their shorts, and they weren’t old enough to be able to talk to each other either. But Giovanna would say that there’s only one good way to live, and it’s to get on a train headed to some foreign country, possibly at night. She had everything she needed for a trip at home, she had several thermos holders and many suitcases of all sorts, and even a sick bag for the plane. The Danish girl would tell me to write down my dreams, because our dreams tell us what we’re meant to do, and she’d tell me I should think back to my childhood and talk about it, because the secret of who we are is hidden in our childhood. But my childhood felt so remote and distant, and so remote was the face of my mother, and I was tired of all this thinking about myself, I wanted to look at others and understand what I was like. So I started watching people as I lazily hung out in cafés and on the streets, men and women with their children, maybe some of them had once had that loathing in their heart, then time had passed and they’d forgotten. Maybe someone had waited pointlessly on the corner of a street once, or someone had walked for a whole day in the silence of the dusty city, or someone looked at a dead person’s face and asked them for forgiveness. One day I got a letter from my mother, telling me that the kids had scarlet fever. And so the ancient motherly anxiety paralysed my heart. I took the train and left. Giovanna came with me to the station, and she smelled the smell of trains with desire, brushing the hair away from her forehead with her disdainful smile.
With my forehead stuck to the glass, I watched the city move further away, empty of any evil power by now, cold and harmless as spent embers. The ancient, known motherly anxiety was turmoiling inside me along with the thundering of the train, crushing like a storm the Danish girl, Giovanna, the small hotel’s caretaker, the sleeping pills and the elephants, as I wondered bemusedly to myself how I could’ve been so interested in such trivial things for a whole summer.
When I think back on it, I feel like digging a hole in the ground and crawling right in. I want to crawl right in this minute, so I’m thinking back on it.
Someone once gave me this blue pill; God, what a feeling that was. He said, Down the gullet, so I downed the gullet, whatever that means. I downed that pill, and while I was doing this bummer trip, I followed a guy who told me to get lost on Melchet Street. It was getting late, and I was under the influence of that pill. I didn’t know exactly what belonged where, or whether all the knots I was seeing were causes that had become entangled in effects, or buses going uptown.
I downed that pill and waited downstairs for the guy. What a fuckup that turned out to be. He went and phoned his real girlfriend, who, as you can figure out, wasn’t me. He went and phoned her to tell her something. I waited downstairs – how embarrassing, how I’d let myself go. He came down and said: Listen, my real girlfriend doesn’t buy my story, so I’m off, bye. That was long ago; I was twenty-two and a half.
You leaving? I asked him, and he said he had to. You can just imagine what I felt like on Melchet Street back then. There wasn’t a drop of moisture left in my cheeks, just that slap in the face. How did I get home? Down the main road, I guess. I got my legs over to the main road and they took it from there.
I was consistently disoriented and lost in those days, so I figured I might as well be told to get lost and then drift on; I’d wind up somewhere eventually.
I let myself go, all the way home. Boy, what a downhill trip that was. Nobody saw me, I hope.
It’s been light years since then. Sometimes I still look around for the guy who told me to get lost. I want to tell him I was under the influence of that pill, and if there’s one thing I regret it’s that I wasn’t sober enough to tell him: “Mikey, you got a dime for my bus fare?”
Life is a snowball of lost meaning. I let myself go day by day, trying not to lose my innocence all at once, in a matter of days, but gradually, in a matter of years. My hourglass is running low, and I get it going again with sublime feelings of freedom and complacency. My sanity scores are playing tricks on me, and I don’t understand the rules of the game. One day I’m cool, and five minutes later I’m hypnosis or a talking extrasensory system – I’m not me any more; they call me all kinds of names, and I answer to all of them and none of them, or else I turn around just as suddenly when they call someone else.
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
*Translation © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
My father died at six in the evening.
After the doctor told us the news, we went home. Ariane drove, and I sat next to her. Neither of us spoke. The taste of the coffee from the machine at the hospital still lingered in my mouth. I looked at the road illuminated by the headlights of our car and the cars coming towards us. There weren’t many; it was on a Friday evening.
When we got home, the kids were already asleep. Ariane paid the babysitter and walked her to the door. I went into the kitchen and sat down. I could hear Ariane saying goodbye, and the door closing. She turned off the living room light, came into the kitchen, and put on the kettle. Then she asked me if I wanted a cup of coffee.
I told her I did. I listened to the spoon clanging against the mugs as she poured in the boiling water.
“It’s better this way,” she said. “He was only suffering. In the last few weeks, he was only suffering. Believe me,” she said. “It’s better this way. For everyone.” Then she said, “It’s not just the last few weeks. It’s been going on for a few months already. He never used to sit on the porch that way. I mean, a year ago, for example. He didn’t sit on the porch that way.”
“I don’t know,” I said. I thought about it.
She put my coffee on the table next to me, and stood there for a minute with her hands on the back of the chair. She touched her face. “I’m wiped out,” she said. “And I’m hungry, too. Do you want anything to eat?”
I said no. “But you go ahead,” I said. “Make yourself something to eat.”
“O.K.,” she said. “I’m wiped out.” She stood there for a minute, her hands on either side of her neck, then lit a cigarette and started taking things out of the refrigerator. While she got her food ready, I drank my coffee and tried to think about what had happened and what I was feeling. I thought about the last few days.
“I’ve got to call my mother,” said Ariane. “I almost forgot. I’ll call her right now.” She carried her ash tray over to the phone. She left the food on the counter.
There was still a lot to do before the funeral, and I had no idea where to begin. How would I publish a death announcement, for example? When my mother died, my father took care of everything. This was the first time I ever had to deal with these things myself. I could hear Ariane talking to her mother in the hall. I lit a cigarette and tossed the match into the sink. I thought about my father.
About a year after we got married, he started pestering me about the apartment. He didn’t like the fact that we lived with Ariane’s parents. Especially after the child was born. He kept on telling us that it wasn’t good for our son and it wasn’t good for us. But at the time, we had no choice. We didn’t have any money. He said he was willing to help us out, but I didn’t ask him how much he could afford. He didn’t have a lot of money, that much I knew. Not even enough to get us started.
It took another year or so until I was able to take out a mortgage and could finally buy this apartment. We moved in over the summer, while the building was still being renovated. I was still fixing things inside the apartment. Mirrors, closets, bathroom shelves, things like that. Ariane and the baby slept in the small bedroom, and I slept in the still-empty living room.
The day we installed the kitchen cabinets- and they were still empty, I hadn’t even had a chance to clean up the sawdust- my father came to visit.
We stood in the new kitchen. He was so happy that he was smiling to himself every time there was a pause in the conversation. He brushed some dust off the counter, and I looked at his hand, the hand with the ring. That’s how I always remembered his hand, ever since I was a little boy. A hand with a wedding ring.
After a few minutes, Ariane came back and lit up another cigarette. She sat at the table and put the ashtray between us. She glanced at the candlestick holder that I was using as an ashtray. “It’s O.K.,” she said. “We shouldn’t have any trouble. You can do everything over the phone. But it can wait. Tomorrow’s Saturday,” she said, “there aren’t any papers. There’s nothing we have to do right now.”
Her coffee was tepid, and she went over to the sink and spilled it down the drain. I could see from her hair that she’d been pressing her forehead to her hand while she’d been on the phone.
It was a relief, that it was all over, I’m not denying it. At least I don’t have to go back to the hospital. I don’t know how many hours I spend sitting on that bench in the ward, staring at the doors. Almost ten days, almost all the time. I went home to shower and occasionally to sleep, but I spent most of my nights there. Sometimes Ariane took my place. Sometimes we sat there together.
Ariane put more water in the kettle. “Do you want some more coffee?” she asked.
I said no. Then she started putting everything back in the fridge. She hadn’t eaten a thing.
I rubbed my face. I felt tired and dirty. I felt the fatigue in my bones. But I didn’t have any desire to go to sleep. While Ariane was making the coffee, I stared at the table and tried to figure out what I was feeling.
“Do you want to shower first?” she asked. She threw her spoon into the sink. “Or do you want to have more coffee now and I’ll shower?” I looked at her coffee. She was holding it in the air, between us. She had just stirred it, and it was still swishing around inside the cup, a tiny whirlpool. One of us would have to drink it, and the other one would have to shower. That’s how it stood.
I closed my eyes and tried to calm down.
“Do you want it or not?” Ariane asked.
“I don’t want any coffee,” I said, “O.K.? You already asked me, and I told you I didn’t want any. Stop making me coffee. Go take a shower.”
She shrugged her shoulders and put the coffee on the counter. Then she said, “I’m going to shower. I’m falling asleep on my feet. I’m really wiped out.” She put her hands on my shoulders. “I’m falling off my feet,” she said. “Take a shower before you go to sleep, O.K.? Take a shower. You’ll feel better after you shower.”
“O.K.,” I said. I looked at her back as she left the kitchen.
A few years before my mother died, I suddenly noticed that my father was an old man. I hadn’t thought about it before. But one day, I think it was on Pesach, or maybe Rosh Ha-Shanah, I suddenly understood. It was a few months after I got married. I had brought them a toaster-oven as a holiday gift. For a long time, I’d been urging my mother to buy one, but she didn’t want to. And it irked me. She never liked new things, my mother. We’d always argue about it. But I knew how useful it was, so I bought them one anyway, for the holiday. It was a big one, top of the line. We took it out of the box, and my father and I went into the kitchen to try it out. But nothing happened. Nothing. We couldn’t even get it to turn on.
My father took out the instruction manual and we read through it a second time. Then he spread a sheet of newspaper over the floor and put the toaster oven on top of it, upside-down. It upset him that it didn’t work. We crouched down on all fours, unscrewed it, and took out the base. And then I looked at my father. He’d taken off his glasses and set them aside, on the newspaper. He looked strange without them. Like he was naked. He looked into the toaster oven, but I could tell he had no idea what he was looking for.
At that very moment, it dawned on me. I realized that all his life, my father’s had lousy luck. Life had screwed him over, and he’d never retaliated. I thought that whatever gift I’d brought, it wouldn’t have worked. It was doomed from the start. I could have brought him a television or a stereo or a lawn-mower or anything, and it wouldn’t have worked. But the worst part of it was that he always felt like he had to apologize. I watched him bending down, without his eyeglasses, telling me he was sorry I’d brought him something that didn’t work. That was the day I realized he was an old man. When I went to sleep that night, I couldn’t get that image out of my head. My father, without his glasses, leaning over the toaster oven.
I sat there in the kitchen and listened to the water running in the shower, then stopping. I thought about that young doctor who came out and told us that my father had died. And I suddenly wanted to hit him. I don’t know. Maybe it was the way he said it. I hadn’t noticed it when he spoke to us at the hospital, but I remembered it later. From the moment he opened his mouth, I knew. I shouldn’t have listened to the rest of it. He spoke like he knew exactly how he was supposed to do it. To make it easier for the family. He was pleased with the way he spoke. With the way he told me that my father had died. At that moment, when I remembered it, I could have killed him. I could have done it with my own two hands.
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
*Translation © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
The last item on the shopping list was bread. Two o’clock in the afternoon. August. And the insistence to walk all the way to the bread shop. Specification is the sign of affluence and civilization; that which accommodates variety. I direct my steps toward the comforting scholasticism of bread, options of grain, types of pastry – and the choice made earlier, in a past time, at home – the thrill of finding the shape of a will. Despite the heat, this is what I need to pull myself together, the ritual of the hostess preparing for guests. The extended negotiation and the giving preceded by strategy. If I give as I wish, I could find rest in the giving. I take my place in line. An elderly couple: they too know in advance what they want, but somehow they lack the joy of simulated choice; pointing in itself is a sign of lost chances, of losing one’s hold on life. Having inquired what half-loaves are left and sampled some morsels, they decide in a whispered consultation to chose the sunflower bread once again. Though a bit pricy, it’s the best, they tell the saleswoman. The woman in front of me, dressed in red with large black-framed glasses, is hiding behind a big woman laden with shopping bags whose turn is coming up. The woman in red is ceaselessly groping the boxes of cookies stacked on our right, the ones you’re meant to take on your own. She takes one and puts into a plastic bag. Out of the
corner of my eye, only half seeing the motion of the theft, I am so stunned to see a thief in action, that immediately my face shows too great an interest, spoiling all her secrecy. Not looking at me she fiddles with the box of cookies, rattling it slightly, as though masking the secret by this delicate noise. By letting something slip by she leaves room for doubt. But I do not doubt. She backs away toward the door, giving me her place in the line. I know you, I tell her voicelessly. So shut up, her face retorts. We’ll see, I don’t know, I reply. I’ll kill you. You can’t – we’re surrounded by people. Profusion will protect me. You don’t say, she mocks – profusion whirls you in the wind till you rot in motion. Once a day I deserve something nobody knows of. Today it’s sesame cookies. And what about the young saleswoman and stocktaking and the boss’s accusations – who will pay for your desires. God
will pay. Oh, God, I pant. The only one who doesn’t surprise
himself, which is why we can no longer find refuge from the daily shock of loss. I feel her staring at my back. I’ve taken her place in line and she has withdrawn to its end. Other people press into the store. I see her turning to the shelves, taking the box out of her bag, replacing it among the cookie boxes. I feel somewhat disappointed. After all, who am I to know what she needs, and can one prevent matter from overflowing beyond its bounds – her obsession infects me, I’m already nearly drunk with some dark invisible substance that binds us together like love. No, not like love – we are each other’s riddle and we’re seeking an outlet for the wonder – how is it possible to recognize that which is sealed
inside its own nature – and the code, we already know, has been completely destroyed. I glance at her again. Once more she places the cookies in the bag and once more our gazes cross from behind. I am the victim of a crime. I want to tell the saleswoman politely, this woman is a thief, please. But my night is already lying there in mid-day, and my sins revealed to her – naturally, only sinners recognize their kind. I am familiar with all the motions of theft, the distractions, and the small noises of innocence. But she frightens me. The risks you take. The poorness of the truth. And the panic, the terrible panic that we shall never receive as much as we give, this
panic in its turn protects us from the disappointing feebleness of our generosity. The two of us, dreaming of robbery and revenge, standing in line for bread. She must have cookies, I must leave home. She wanted to have it for free and I’ve already made her pay with the anguish and rage of discovery; I want to betray effortlessly, with a kiss, but keep paying the price. Take it, take the goddamned cookies, I say, while asking for poppy-seed cake and three kinds of rolls – and I am overtaken by black vertigo.
No banister. No alliance. No word of accord. Only seeing. And sedimented seeing. While I pay she gets back in line with the concealed cookies to continue the game – stay away from me or I’ll kill you, I signal to her as I step out of the store. Don’t worry, she replies – your kind I can recognize anywhere.
What you might think just after you’ve said goodbye to him and just before you leave the house:
1. What’s that photo on the wall?
2. Is that her in the photo on the wall?
3. She’s standing in front of a not very high wooden fence separating her from a small herd of geese, you might think. Her body taut, her head thrown back. You can’t see where she’s looking.
4. The photo is hanging on one of those small stretches of wall jammed between corners and doors; the kind of wall on which people hang calendars and not pictures; not the kind of wall you face as you walk through rooms; the kind of wall that gets walked straight past.
If you don’t walk straight past you see a photo she would never have hung on the wall when she was alive: standing in front of her fence, in front of her geese, while they waddle happily through the shallow puddles almost everywhere around their fanned feet. The geese aren’t looking at her, they’re looking at each other or at their own feathers. Their plumage isn’t dirty; quite the opposite, it’s very white. Some of them don’t have their beaks pressed to their chests; they are stretching their necks as though trying not to cross the puddles but to heave themselves out of them. And she too, you might think, looks like she’s trying to get herself out of something, out of a great big mess into extremely clean air, so deliberately strained that she must have briefly forgotten all notions of cleanliness she acquired over the years.
What you might think:
That she must not have noticed being photographed, her behaviour becoming a picture. She never engaged in excesses of the body; at most of her mouth. A remarkable number of people poorly disposed to her for certain reasons – idiotic reasons, she said – had died shortly after she quietly cursed them.
The path in the photo would lead her to the house, were she to continue along it: alongside the fence, over the edge of the photo, to the place where her photo is being looked at now, this picture of a body collapsed in almost stubborn permanence, which seems to have straightened up very suddenly, vertically towards the sun, towards the wind blowing on high, into which she has stretched. That’s how she’s standing there in front of the fence while on the other side of it common or garden geese waddle, avoiding looking at her directly as consistently as if that gaze had been practiced for centuries from the Baltic Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, migrating birds having flown it in from the most African of all countries and dropped it from the air onto these animals like heavenly providence.
At their feet, vaguely visible: goosegrass, gooseberries, gooseneck loosestrife, gooseplant, gooseweed. Geese live on an earth named only after them, which expands productively upwards every morning out of growing gratitude at being sidestepped, until its foreseeable end, a fence. On the sidestep is where she is, not looking around and not noticing she’s being photographed. Her arms outstretched alongside her, ahead of her dull wood, above her circling air.
She never behaved that way, neither outside nor inside this house she had moved into, coming from the town. For love – later she said: for sheer idiocy – she had married a man who had joined Hitler’s bodyguards at the age of 18; later, he gained a PhD in ornithology.
The camera had collapsed her and only unfolded her again over a sheet of paper, in a generous gesture – indiscernible whether she was the depicted or responsible for the depicting, on this narrowly passing rectangle of wall you’re standing in front of now: with him. And about which he’s attempting to provide information; in other words, he goes over to his books, opens them and closes them and does so again three rooms along, as you hear him murmuring: Deuterostomia, Deuterostomia. That’s the superphylum of all goose species, in ornithological terms, but what’s the phylum? It must be here somewhere – and also, why insight comes about by hitting something to make it open and hitting so that it closes.
By the side of the tiny herd of geese is a tiny stream. The water flows horizontally into the air, from right to left – against the motion of the thoughts circling above the photo. Possibly, as opposed to their peculiar eye contact behaviour, the geese’s sounds, albeit proceeding on invisible paths, were directed at the person standing by the fence, especially the lower and stronger, female sounds. Possibly, the geese were not chattering but screeching. Possibly, that’s why their beaks are so wide open. Possibly, she was screeching back, her head tipped, vertical into mid-air. Her body launching itself upwards as she screamed, a motion she hadn’t made for a very long time, or only in secret. Cursing someone as she did so, this time very loudly because she was alone. Possibly, that’s why the photographer never showed the photo to anyone but her, and he survived because he hid the evidence of her acrobatic soul from others until her death. Whereby the question in that case would be: with what intent did the photographer want to photograph her; had the camera happened upon her by chance; or had she perhaps cursed him audibly days before and he had been trying ever since, sweating with fear, to capture her in a position undepictable for her, an inconceivably depictable position, and to blackmail her with it. – Possibly, she had said nothing in view of the geese, in view of a subphylum from the superphylum of Deuterostomia; possibly, the air had been taut around her in the pose caught in black and white, taut as a net with hard or thin thread, at its loosest around her chest and tightest at her neck; possibly, she had realized how pretty and useless perspectives are when everything is so close to you, even if everything close immediately vanishes, like the brightness does in the evening, having spent all day shining from a sky filled to the brim with light.
Will he come up with the correct ornithological term for the phylum if he chants the Latin name of the superphylum to himself, as he’s doing now?
Above the white-feathered heads, the outstretched head in front of which she is stretched out: the pale leaves of the hornbeams, or white beeches. Are they too, going by the logic of the previous plant names, named after the animals beneath them? The leaves of the white beeches hang close to their branches and the branches don’t grow far away from their trunk, the whole ensemble more shrub than tree.
You might think: her parting looks rather messy in the otherwise very neat surroundings.
The hornbeams are still standing back there, you might think, just after you’ve said goodbye to him a second time and just before you leave the house. The fence still in front of it. In front of that the path. Walks are taken along the fence and glances are cast over it as you leave the house. Among the walkers is a child who tries to stop and look through the fence, his hand held by another walker’s hand. The child is very small and clumsy and tries hard to see what the fence posts alternately hide and reveal:
the subfamily of geese.
The weather was excellent that day, you hear him calling inside the house, as if searching for you and then at a window: The clouds stood still above the geese, not moving an inch!
You might think something now, but:
The child doesn’t manage to stand still. The fence posts the child is pulled past recall eyelids, fluttering and blurring what is seen; if they were mouths they would chatter without revealing anything of what they were saying. The child tries nonetheless to get through to the hidden things behind the fence, at least with his eyes. It doesn’t look as though the child might be lifted up so as to see more. Someone tugs at his arm (the same someone who was holding his hand) and tugs at his arm until all walkers have passed the fence; continuing along the path, the child’s head is slowly lowered, so slowly that it’s hard to watch the disappointed onlooker.
‘From now on, I don’t want to know anything,’ said the man who no longer wanted to know anything.
‘I don’t want to know a thing.’
That’s easily said.
It is easily said.
And hardly had he said it, when the telephone began to ring.
And rather than ripping the wire out of the wall, which is what he should have done as he no longer wanted to know anything, the man picked up the receiver and said his name.
‘Hello,’ said the other person.
‘Hello,’ said the man.
‘Nice weather today,’ said the other person.
And the man didn’t say: ‘I don’t want to know.’ He even said: ‘Yes, you’re right, the weather’s very nice today.’
And then the other person said something else.
And the man said something else. Then he replaced the receiver in its cradle and felt very cross because now he knew the weather was nice.
And now he did rip the wire out of the wall and he shouted: ‘I don’t want to know that and I’m going to forget it.’
That’s easily said.
It is easily said.
Because the sun was shining through the window, and when the sun shines through the window, you know the weather is nice. The man closed the shutters, but now the sun shone through the cracks.
The man fetched paper, papered over the windowpanes, and sat in the dark.
He sat there for a long time, and when his wife came in and saw the papered-over windows she got a shock. ‘What’s all this?’ she asked.
‘It’s to keep the sun out,’ said the man.
‘But now you have no light,’ said the woman.
‘That’s a disadvantage,’ said the man, ‘but it’s for the best. I may have no light if I have no sun, but at least I don’t know the weather is nice.’
‘What do you have against nice weather?’ said the woman. ‘Nice weather makes you happy.’
‘I’ve nothing against nice weather,’ said the man. ‘I’ve nothing at all against the weather. But I don’t want to know what it’s like.’
‘Well, at least turn the light on,’ said the woman, and she was about to turn it on, but the man ripped the lamp from the ceiling and said: ‘I don’t want to know that either. I don’t want to know that you can turn the light on.’
When his wife heard that, she started to cry.
And the man said: ‘The thing is, you see, I no longer want to know anything.’
And because the woman didn’t understand, she stopped crying and left her husband in the dark.
And there he stayed for a very long time.
When the people who came to visit the woman asked after her husband, the woman told them: ‘The thing is, you see, he’s sitting in the dark and no longer wants to know anything.’
‘What doesn’t he want to know?’ asked the people, and the woman said: ‘Nothing. He no longer wants to know anything at all.
‘He no longer wants to know what he sees, such as what the weather’s like.
‘He no longer wants to know what he hears, such as what people say.
‘And he no longer wants to know what he knows, such as how you switch the light on.
‘That’s how it is, you see,’ said the woman.
‘Ah, so that’s how it is,’ said the people and they stopped coming to visit.
And the man sat in the dark.
And his wife brought him his food.
And she said: ‘Tell me something you don’t know anymore.’
And he said: ‘I still know everything.’ And he was very sad because he still knew everything.
When his wife heard that, she tried to comfort him and said: ‘But you don’t know what the weather’s like.’
‘I don’t know what it’s like,’ said the man, ‘but I still know what it can be like. I remember rainy days and sunny days.’
‘You’ll forget,’ said the woman.
And the man said:
‘That’s easily said.
‘It is easily said.’
And he stayed in the dark, and every day his wife brought him his food, and the man looked at his plate and said: ‘I know they’re potatoes, I know that’s meat, and I know that’s cauliflower – and it’s all no use; I’ll always know everything. And I know every word I say.’
And the next time his wife came, she said: ‘Tell me something you still know.’
And he said: ‘I know a lot more than I used to. Not only do I know what nice weather is like and what bad weather is like, I also know what it’s like when there’s no weather. And I know that even when it’s quite dark, it isn’t dark enough.’
‘But there are some things you don’t know,’ said his wife and was about to go when he held her back, and she said: ‘You don’t know how to say “nice weather” in Chinese.’ And she went out, closing the door behind her.
When the man heard that, he began to think. It was true he knew no Chinese, and it was no good saying: ‘I no longer want to know that either,’ because he hadn’t learnt any yet.
‘First I have to know what I don’t want to know,’ the man cried, and he tore open the window and opened the shutters, and outside the window it was raining and he looked out at the rain.
Then he walked into town to buy himself books about learning Chinese, and he came back and for weeks he pored over those books and drew Chinese characters on paper.
And when people came to visit the woman and asked after her husband, she said: ‘The thing is, you see, he’s learning Chinese now. That’s how it is, you see.’
And the people stopped coming to visit.
But it takes months and years to learn Chinese, and when at last the man had learnt all there was to learn, he said:
‘I still don’t know enough.
‘I have to know everything. Only then can I say that I no longer want to know any of it.
‘I have to know how wine tastes – bad wine and good wine.
‘And when I eat potatoes, I have to know how you grow them.
‘I have to know what the moon looks like, because although I can see it, that doesn’t mean I know what it looks like – and I have to know how to get there.
And I have to know the names of the animals, and what they look like and what they do and where they live.’
And he bought himself a book about rabbits and a book about chickens and a book about woodland animals and another about insects.
And then he bought himself a book about the Indian rhinoceros.
He was very taken with the Indian rhinoceros.
He went to the zoo and found it there, standing in a big cage and not moving.
And the man saw plainly that the rhinoceros was trying to think and trying to know something, and he saw what a lot of trouble that was giving the rhinoceros.
And whenever the rhinoceros had a thought, it was so pleased it went running off. Round and round the cage it went, two or three times, forgetting the thought as it went, and then it stopped and stood still for a long time – one hour, two hours – until the thought came back, and off it went again.
And because it always ran off a little too soon, it never really had any thoughts at all.
‘I’d like to be an Indian rhinoceros,’ said the man, ‘but I suppose it’s too late for that.’
Then he went home and thought about his rhinoceros.
He now spoke of nothing else.
‘My rhinoceros,’ he said, ‘thinks too slowly and runs off too soon, and that’s as it should be.’ And he forgot what it was he had wanted to know in order to no longer want to know it.
And his life continued much as before.
Only now he knew Chinese.
*This story is taken from: Kindergeschichten by Peter Bichsel. © Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt am Main 1997.
Many stories have happened. This is one of them. You have a wife, you have kids, you have a job, you have a car, you have a house in the suburbs. It appears you’ll die happy, your children will cry at your funeral, and your neighbors will be sorry you’re gone. Then one night as you’re driving home in the last evaporating tendrils of light, going no faster than usual, there’s a thump, you hit something. You haven’t seen anything, there was just this thud against your car. You stop, you get out to see what’s happened. There’s a child lying under your car, seven, eight years old, you’ve got one just like him waiting for you at home, he could’ve been yours. He doesn’t move. A pool of blood is forming under his head.
You cry out, bend down, feel for his pulse, find nothing. You look around, there’s no one about, the street is deserted. You drive along this street every day without knowing anyone, a housing development, gray and disheveled. There’s no one looking on, all the lights are out.
What now? What do you do when something like this happens to you? You know: were the child to moan, it would be simple. You’d load him in your car and rush him to the hospital. Or call for an ambulance. But you can see there’s nothing to save. When you calm down a little you see the street lamps haven’t come on. You see there are no cars in the street. You turn and look around to see if anyone’s coming, if anyone’s lurking behind the dumpsters, looking on. But there’s no one anywhere.
You’d like to make a call, but to whom? Besides, your phone’s battery has suddenly run out and you realize that nobody would answer even if it did still work. You look at the child again. He seems to have been lying there for hours, his face has grown colorless, the blood under his head dried. You look around again and the buildings along the street seem to be crumbling, the asphalt crackling, huge fissures appearing in the night sky, through which the void will begin to seep in at any moment. You’re still holding your car keys, you look at them, you look at your car and know it will never move again. You drop the keys, they slowly fall into the dark beneath you and you’re not even surprised when you don’t hear the metal strike the asphalt. There is no sound left anywhere. No dogs barking, no televisions buzzing, no phones ringing. Again you bend over the child. He’s getting tinier and tinier and more and more dried out, you look at your hands and wait for the cracks to appear on them. You think: I had a wife, I had kids, it appeared I would die happy. Now things will happen differently. Many stories don’t have happy endings. This is one of them.
This happened back in the day when I still had a full head of hair, way back than it seems now, but back then it was all right here, every night was right here, but let’s not, I don’t want to go into that now.
I’d rather talk about that night, about how she caught my eye out of all the women there, how I said: my, she looks fine! and the laughter broke out, my friends saying, are you out of your mind, she? fine?
I let them scoff, say what they would, and I went over and asked her to dance, and she laughed and said: you sure your mom’s okay with this?
It wasn’t mean the way she said it, though, not mean at all, just nice and warm.
And then I said I’d buy us a drink, and she laughed again and said it was okay, that was nice, and that’s just how it turned out to be, nice, and I didn’t go home with the guys.
And then she told me she’d got the scar on her belly from a captain she wanted to get away from fast, too fast to his mind.
And she said that after that she’d preferred to stay away from the coast, despite being asked to come; the coast’s dangerous, some other captain could happen along.
But then comes a time one must face one’s fears, must go where it’s hard to go, so now she’s here, and she’s having a ball.
She talked some more, she went on and on about stuff I didn’t think was real, or at least wouldn’t happen to anyone I’d ever know, but it had to her, and still did sometimes if she let herself go.
And then I had to, I had to say I had to go, I had to be in my bed in the morning or I couldn’t go dancing anymore, and she laughed and said she knew, that she’d known all along that I’d have to, that I’d go.
And that it had been nice.
The last thing I said was at the door: will you come dancing again?
And now every time I walk by that place where nobody’s danced in years, the hall razed to make room for what’s always going to be the biggest hotel for miles, owned by a new developer every few months and then all the work dies, every time I walk by that place I remember the look on her face as she said: no, I have to go back tomorrow.
What look, you ask? Sad.
And I knew even back then that it had been the way it had, so that I would remember every time I walked by, and many other times as well, in sleepless nights, how it had been, then and there, way back when I still had a full head of hair.
*The story “Cracks” is taken from: You Do Understand, Dalkey Archive Press, 2011.
Date: Mon, August 19 20:41:42-0700 (PDT)
To: Customer service
Re: Your microwave
To whom it may concern,
I’m writing to you regarding a matter that may seem trivial, even irrelevant at first glance, and far be it from me to draw attention to myself because of a plain frozen donut with dairy-free coconut-vanilla filling, namely that UniversalFood donut, which I thawed in just fifty seconds to my complete satisfaction in your microwave (model: MagicWant Single) on June 6th at approximately 6:34 p.m., as is my custom. By which I mean to say, firstly: I’m aware that you are faced with tasks that not only appear more urgent to the outside observer, but which, all factors taken into consideration, actually are so. Please allow me to dispel any misunderstanding in advance: I am not writing to notify you of any malfunction of said microwave or any of its numerous accessories or functions in my housing unit, all of which perform their tasks irreproachably, or at least I suppose they do (?). Were there to be a technical defect, the matter would be clear and could be easily identified (and you would have long since learned of the defect, I believe; I’ve been told that the devices notify you of malfunctions themselves, and that you can even sometimes remedy the problem remotely without deploying your specialist locally?). Thus I feel myself compelled to explicate, expressing myself as succinctly as possible, that I am aware (or at least I assume, without wishing to question the degree of automation attained by your devices) that the time that you can devote to individual users is limited (and who, after all, am I talking to; you yourselves say the same right at the beginning of your mission statement, you transform your many years of experience into data, with which you guarantee your customers countless amenities including time-saving conveniences, which individually may be minor but which taken together are considerable—and in this context do you not also use the word “revolution” and, presumably wishing to emphasize the peaceful character of the matter (?), also the compound “HomeRevolution”) (If you were to ask me directly about my associations—though I suppose as far as that goes, you already have sufficient insights into the habits and preferences of your users, or at least I infer so much from one of your company’s recent advertisements—first and foremost, I would think of your biometric locking system, the intelligent refrigerator Freeze! with its exclusive ordering application for UniversalFood products, the robotic vacuum cleaner DustDeath including its companion, the window vacuum cleaner AlwaysOnTheBrightSide, and particularly the intelligent recliner Belacqua, I could go on, your toaster e-Sunbeam, which can either burn the the opening price of your favorite stock or your personal systolic and diastolic blood pressure figures onto your toast (or one on top of the other), which is doubtless just a lark that borders on the childish, and yet one that counts among my morning’s simple pleasures).
And so please allow me to turn to the incident at hand; or, better put, to depict the circumstances incident is too heavy a term in this context, one which might arouse false expectations, as would episode, or even occurrence. Perhaps it’s possible to speak of a series or sequence of events (in which multiple factors play a role and whose precise function and mechanics remain obscure to me, although I myself as an individual and actor inevitably embody one of these factors), without being able to differentiate with sufficient clarity between causes and effects, in reference to the evening in question, June 6, when as usual I returned to my living unit between six and six-thirty after work. I moved into the living unit exactly one year ago, on August 1st with great expectations and up to this point to my complete satisfaction—you can probably gather as much from the profile you’ve compiled on me (and if it isn’t too much trouble, I would like to have a glance at it some time; I say this free of any ulterior motives and purely out of curiosity as to the format of said profile (whether it takes the form of a protocol, a file, or a dossier; organized chronologically, typologically, or synoptically as a user history or biography; in fact, I recently read an article in which the author even claimed that the great mountains of data turn users into downright novelesque characters à la Oliver Twist, except that for the readers or evaluators of this data it is no longer so easy to distinguish between fictional and real protagonists?), and I would in no way deny that perhaps vanity plays a role in this request for my profile, but perhaps revelatory insights are also contained for me therein (I mention this, and it just occurs to me at this moment, only because I happen to be writing to you now)). As you are probably aware, I enter my apartment with a certain impatience (slightly elevated pulse, shallow breathing, etc.) at least two days per week (and it really is an enormous relief that I no longer have to fish a set of keys out of my pocket—I was one of those people who always had to search through all of his countless possible pockets for his keys each time; not infrequently would I be seized by sudden panic at the thought of their loss, and the panic led to increased sweat production, although in my fifty-three years I’ve never yet lost the key, and at the last moment to my great relief, but without betraying this relief, I’ve always found it). When I enter my unit these days, still in a state of inner disquiet, matters are different than in the days of metal keys. Now there is nothing behind my impatience besides the desire, as simple as it is instinctive, to bolt myself behind the door of my unit as quickly as possible (which of course happens automatically; only during the unlocking process does my haste sometimes lead to the termination of the verification process, so that I must step back again and take another step forward; I count to five while stepping back, since stepping forward too quickly leads to even greater delays), turning my back on the world in order to shut it out, allowing me to finally retreat at the end of a long day into what is by now a keenly desired peace. Even in this emotional state, my new unit has always inspired a profound sense of happiness in me, perhaps owing to the gesture of laying my hand on the biometric doorknob while entering the unit, my head tilted slightly back in order to stare into the eye of the small camera (which is mounted a hair too high for my taste, but wasn’t it precisely the case in the futuristic films I watched passionately in my youth that the protagonists had to look up with a slight left or right twist of the head?—but sometimes the image of an old woman also presses itself upon me, her hands folded and head raised like a film actress, gazing up at the figure of a saint in a Catholic church, as I observed her as a child together with my parents on a family vacation; all of which I internalized from that church visit initiated by my mother which was not the depiction of heaven but rather the image of this diminutive woman, although it’s certain that we saw ceiling frescos of great significance (Michelangelo, etc.). But ultimately it’s the sum and constellation of the numerous small gestures and sensory impressions that trigger a simple release of dopamine, giving me the ridiculous but happy notion of having just entered a spaceship that will glide into the silent expanses of the universe, gently lifting me out of all of the day’s petty concerns?) (If my information is correct, your business has an investment interest in a business that is attempting with visionary zeal to offer private moon and Mars voyages soon?) (Documentary films, but also novels—I’m unsure if you’re already informed of my preferences; if so, I needn’t tell you myself—covering all aspects of journeying to Mars and other planets are still among my great passions). To make a long story short, I enter my unit happily and with high expectations. I also clearly sense its potential and satisfaction, which consists in focusing on what’s important (as your products’ tagline goes), and which life offered up to me (and mustn’t other people be faring just the same?) with my new living unit. When I enter my unit these days still in a state of inner disquiet, it’s not because of your automatic devices; on the contrary, I carry the affliction and agitation of the outside world into my unit. In brief: I’m referring to my cravings (which are limited to sweets, or perhaps appetites would be more accurate; to call them binges as they’re known in the DSM and ICD 10 (F50.81), would be markedly too extreme (it is above all imperative to make clear here that it is not a clinical case under discussion)), which might be subconsciously connected to the aforementioned desire for isolation, though I profess no expert knowledge on either sensation, appetite on the one hand, seclusion on the other (regarding the two, as of yet I know of no pertinent study dedicated to these phenomena, and the few details that occur to me and which might contribute to a deeper understanding date to my boyhood— even then I was among the first children to exit the school building at the end of the day to hurry down the most direct path toward home; actually I stormed down the street, withdrawing to my own four walls once again after my inescapable incorporation into a social structure, rather than lingering on the steps with my classmates awhile longer, for example, purchasing stickers or sticky candies out of big convenience store buckets, or even bumming around the city).
The fact is that on those two (on average), sometimes three, and only very seldom (yes, those are consistently the weeks during which social situations strain me in some indistinct way, more than usual and beyond my means, wreaking havoc on my mood) four days per week, I dash directly to the cooking unit immediately upon entering my living unit, although it is at odds with my habits and even more so my sensitivity to hygiene to step into my apartment and especially the cooking niche wearing street shoes and still in my jacket. Without delay I open the freezer (often the motion is reminiscent of tearing, but that is only due to the door’s rubber lips, which release from the aluminum refrigerator casing only with reluctance, requiring a corresponding application of force), removing a freezer bag from the freezer containing two donuts, one of which I immediately place in your microwave for thawing. During the fifty seconds in which your microwave thaws my donut (and warms it slightly, just a touch, but it’s perfect), I pour myself a glass of almond milk (fortified with calcium and vitamins E and D, 7 oz), and then remove the donut from the microwave. I always consume the donut and milk standing in the cooking niche (I first take a bite from the donut, then drink a sip of milk to wash down the remaining bits of donut). I mention this in order to emphasize the high priority as well as the threshold position occupied by this first donut following my entry into the unit, from my inner, psychological, and ultimately and in all honesty psychosomatic agitation, to the relaxation that spreads from bite to bite throughout my body (perhaps comparable to the watery fog emitted by your competition’s intelligent shower head (model e3250 X), slowly encompassing my body, first gradually forming droplets and then tiny rivulets of water, now automatically suffused with a carefully measured spritz of soap, rolling down my upper body (tickling lightly around the hips) and then my legs, slithering down to my ankles and feet like little foam morays). After that, I breathe deeply, running both hands through my hair. I stretch. Then I ease into my sensitive slippers, which perfectly regulate their interior temperature using feedback on my pulse and blood pressure. Only then do I place the second donut in the microwave. This one I’ll enjoy in my armchair in the ComfortZone, with the full-wall screen in front of me. All in all, I approach the climate-controlled ComfortZone with a modest, highly fragile and also temporary feeling of happiness, the aftertaste of the first donut and milk still fresh on my palate (an aftertaste that incites my anticipation for the second donut). Sometimes I carry it wrapped in a napkin, sometimes on a saucer. My favorite music automatically starts playing in the background as soon as the apartment door closes automatically behind me after I enter the unit. Simultaneously, the indirect LED illumination and the accent light in the living area turn on, the rolling shutters are half closed, as I prefer it, perhaps the robot window vacuum cleaner is darting over the glass. Often I imagine that it discovers a shadow on the pane that only becomes visible in steeply slanting rays of sunlight, like a backwards glance that happens to fall from an unexpected angle on the chrome-plated kitchen shelving, which was just meticulously wiped down moments before, and suddenly another, previously unseen streak leaps into view (although of course I’m aware that the AlwaysOnTheBrightSide doesn’t see shadows and streaks as I do; that it doesn’t see anything at all, but rather follows an inscrutably pre-calculated course that is never precisely the same, a true mystery in my estimation). Everything is maximally peaceful, maximally quiet. As mentioned, I’m aware that the equilibrium I experience at this moment in my unit may be fragile; after all, as we read and hear almost daily, we live in uncertain times. When I’m standing in the ComfortZone (just as I’m lowering myself into the intelligent recliner Belacqua—my buttocks haven’t yet touched the surface of the seat, the music fades from the speakers, the light dims to low, and on the wall across from the recliner, which acts as a screen, a video image appears—I’ll return to this—a recording taken from space by a probe, maybe even a spaceship, which is transmitted in realtime, that is, at the speed of light), it makes me dizzy to think that it would take very little, if just one link in this finely tuned chain deviated from its track, it could throw a whole system into chaos or foil a whole mission. (Did you take note of the report of late about the growing masses of trash in space? The article was prompted by a crew who had to evacuate their spaceship due to flying scraps of debris. I don’t know if you’ve staked a clear position on the subject of space debris? Or if you’ve perhaps even considered taking measures yourself, or influencing a third party to take such measures?)
But I want to finally turn to the stated series of events or processes (insofar as they are that and ultimately not nothing?). After moving into the unit and bringing aforementioned microwave into operation, I gradually became aware of—communicative and, I believe, causal—coherences, or at least the impression has accreted that there exists a discrete relationship, which ultimately must be sustained via my person or my behavior, between aforementioned microwave, aforementioned UniversalFood donut, and aforementioned images of outer space. Initially I didn’t think twice about the text-based messages I received on various devices informing me of beneficial or less beneficial nutritional strategies and containing charts linked to further pieces of encouragement or offers. I often also received coupons for those very donuts with my preferred hazelnut vanilla-cream filling, which promised, for example, to include the little balls of dough extracted from the donut centers for free with your next purchase of an XL freezer bag. I would even be hard put to say exactly when the Space Channel began to show commercials, which became the norm, instead of images of space. If I remember correctly, initially it was the Apple-A-Day campaign: a formation of green apples flew through a lush garden then swept into a blue sky and escaped visual range, only to pivot directly into a planetary orbit. The images, so it seemed, were taken from perspective of the camera on my Space Channel, and the transition to the Space Channel stream was artful, hardly perceptible to the untrained eye, particularly since the associated encouragement to join the Apple-A-Day movement, as well as the elucidation of the associated discounts, reached me not via the screen but rather were text based, without interrupting the flow of images. A few days later came images of donuts arranged as entire galaxies floating through the universe; this impression was actually first provoked when upon closer inspection a single planet revealed itself to be a DonutClassic shrouded in white icing in an accompanying formation of pastries, which, when the camera panned out, once again transformed into a small but nonetheless independent solar system. At any rate, the fact that the messages and images stood in relation to your microwave crystalized one evening when I was greeted on the Space Channel by a doctor identical to my general practitioner (or was it actually him?). He emphasized the imperative to take a certain number of steps, which everyone used to automatically absolve by running numerous errands each day to the supermarket or to the post office. Today, however, this quota had to be filled actively (10,000 steps daily; 400 stair steps completed within the framework of a 15-minute jogging routine) (I received multiple messages about your associated device, which saves one the trouble of leaving the apartment for physical strengthening.) (Though at this point perhaps I can inquire regarding an application; so far I could only find applications which lead to weight loss, but none which targeted long-term weight gain?). As my physician’s address reached its end, the camera zoomed away from his face and the HomeTrainer came into view, on which he had been seated the whole time. At a farther remove, it became clear that the HomeTrainer was in a spaceship; the doctor smiled one last time (more than once I thought I detected the gleam of recognition in his eye), hoisting one thumb in approval before the camera swung sidewards to a round cabin window and out into space, merging with the Space Channel images so familiar to me. Now and again a physician’s assistant or a consultant from my insurance company took his place, or the manager of UniversalFood’s supermarket chain competitor, sometimes in a space capsule, sometimes from the billowing dust and reddish iridescence of the surface of the planet Mars.
Did these images rob me of my long-awaited peace or cast me into despondency?
No, not at all.
On those days when I did not activate the microwave, the messages and images were usually absent, as suited my mood, since on those evenings, free from inner tension, I was sufficient unto myself. Sometimes on those days I even consumed an apple, the idea of which occasionally provided me with nearly the same amount of pleasure because I was alone with this choice, although the members of the Apple-A-Day movement or my physician would have eagerly advocated it (it may be an egotistical pleasure, which contradicts your entrepreneurial communal spirit, but I am merely describing what I felt). The very next day I noticed that even as the donut was circling in the microwave, the second resting frozen on the shelf, I was already thinking of who would greet me on the Space Channel today, from what location, and with what message. I was utterly certain, or rather I believed I knew that the messages and images necessarily reached me as soon as I placed a donut in the microwave, because both were embedded in this aforementioned relational structure, and I’ll say it plainly: this knowledge, not of controlling the images and messages with my behavior, no, but perhaps steering them in a certain direction or simply influencing them, giving them a nudge so to speak, gave me a modest sense of satisfaction. In retrospect, it even seems to me that these images and messages from space, whose origin of course lies with the respective interests of their broadcasters, nonetheless reflected an interest which fortuitously converged with my own and intersected with it, where an invigorating but also soothing effect took root. Where could my needs be granted ample space if not in outer space, and wasn’t it so unfathomably large that those images and messages that slid across the screen of my MindScape each evening must serve as anchor and solace, assuring me that I was not completely alone out there with my needs?
On the 6th of June—if I’m not mistaken in my reconstruction of the events, this day marked the turning point or sea change in the processes depicted above—I returned to my unit from work as usual. And also as usual, I consumed my first donut standing in the kitchen. During the second, I was beset by a slight tension, which had already begun to dissipate in the ComfortZone. As I sat down, the screen sprang to life, but it only played the Space Channel’s soundless images. Suddenly it seemed that I could reach out and grasp the deep black of space in my hands; the vast expanse was illuminated only by tiny, scattered light sources, which emitted their waves by consuming themselves and doing nothing but glowing toward their own demise—a demise that was already irrevocably underway. That evening, I didn’t give a second thought to the lacking images or messages from an advertiser or agent. My consternation grew when this process repeated itself the next day, and in the days and weeks that followed, it became the norm. I have no recollection of having done anything different or differently on Tuesday the sixth. The messages and images did not reappear, no matter whether I returned to my unit in a state of agitation or calm, whether I used the microwave or not, whether I placed a donut or nutritious vegetables on the rotary platter. Neither my doctor nor his assistant nor anyone else has greeted me on the Space Channel since then. The question that has troubled me since is simply whether this discrete communication between aforementioned microwave, aforementioned donut, and aforementioned messages ever existed? And should it actually have existed, I wonder why it has since been cut off, or whether it simply was transposed in fashion that is not yet recognizable to me? Far be it from me to express suspicion that your microwave may not be capable of identifying the products with which it is supplied. But does that mean, conversely, that your microwave suddenly no longer sees the necessity of communicating this information to third parties? Or is the information possibly now addressed to other third parties? Of course I’m convinced that things will all come together for the good, and perhaps the matter will clarify on its own—don’t they say that time heals all wounds? Now and again I still sense this befuddlement, and yes, despondency, without being able to precisely detect its locus within my body—and yet I associate these moods with the processes on the aforementioned Tuesday. In brief: the images of outer space which once freed me from by daily sorrows and elevated me into that still, sublime expanse now suddenly threw me into a keen agitation, as if the same images now wanted to drag me into a void as immense as it was dark, and alone at that, left completely to my own devices. Isn’t it appalling to think that outer space, with its indefatigable compulsion to diverge from itself and to diverge from itself ever further, annexes nothing but new spaces of utter emptiness?
No, I don’t know if I can make myself understood, nor whether my discomfiture actually stands in relation to your microwave, insofar as the latter ever stood in the discrete relationship to the objects and events in my unit as I suspected? In so saying, I won’t deny that a telephone call would have been a better way to articulate my malaise. In fact, I invested a non-insubstantial amount of time and effort (eleven calls over the course of three days, conscientiously calling at different hours of the day to avoid possible high-volume periods and to catch possible slumps; surely you’re in possession of reliable figures on them, but unfortunately I was unable to locate the relevant data) reaching your customer service agents (is it true that after 10 p.m., you’ll be transferred to a call center in India or Bangladesh, if you are put through, which would be absurd, however, if the statements that I’ve read or heard are true, to the effect that most of the calls are now administered by voice software machines?). I was calling for the eleventh time (at that point I no longer really believed that anyone would answer—I was lost in thought, though in retrospect it’s impossible to say concretely which thoughts it was that occupied me; I don’t know if this potentially may have been of interest to your research in service of improved service?) when a bright female voice jolted me into a momentary state of confusion. Even after the third Hello? followed by the inquiry of the service agent (who perhaps is only employed by you via a sub-agency) as to whether anyone was on the other end of the line, it suddenly seemed impossible to me, or rather I no longer had the will to depict my concern orally. I mean no reproach to your operators, who carry out their work under high pressure (I believe I’ve read that operators in call centers are generally compensated based on performance, that is: based on the number of conversations concluded?), but it may have had something to do with a certain impatience, which in my estimation grew noticeably from one Hello? to the next, the no doubt hardly perceptible tone of a burgeoning agitation, to which I am perhaps disproportionately sensitive, and with each Hello?, an increasing and ultimately insurmountable distance separated me from my intention to articulate my concern by phone rather than by mail. It seemed futile to want to explain to a potentially impatient person things that can only be directly detailed with difficulty, as seen above, and which therefore are reliant on the patience and a certain goodwill on the part of my counterpart, particularly since I don’t like to burden other people. I swiftly and wordlessly hung up the phone.
To conclude, I’d only like to emphasize that my letter does not fit within the rubric of typical customer complaints. (Of late I reread another article that described the tone in which customers express their complaints; their lack of tact, their blunt rage and venom. I’m likely no different than they: extremely alarmed, disappointed as well as aggrieved, though despite everything I see no reason to resort to cultural pessimism. I pay all the more respect and congratulations to you, your team, or staff engaged by you via a sub-agency, in the case that you have actually extensively automated the hotline service.) But of course in this context I would be in no way surprised, or rather I more or less assume (and I say this without any approbation or disappointment) that this letter will first be machine-read and evaluated (tagged with keywords? provided with a synopsis or an urgency assessment?—unfortunately, my knowledge of such matters is limited) (the databanks and storage that you draw on probably aren’t even entirely in your possession, but rather are outsourced to other countries, preferably cold regions (permafrost)?), which means that some time may pass before one of your employees finds the time to take up the matter. But maybe none of your company’s employees will ever actually read this letter (or maybe only by chance, as part of random sampling that may be regularly conducted, I believe I’ve heard similar in another context regarding a comparable service provider, although that case regarded the deletion of offensive images, a task which apparently cannot yet be completed by software?). Be that as it may, I am no judge of whether a computer-generated response would be better or worse than one drafted by your service experts (isn’t it conceivable that your machines had come across a very similar letter, perhaps even to the point of tone and syntax, from a former user, of which your customer service agent couldn’t possibly be aware, and to which due consideration had already been paid?). Moreover, it would be presumptuous to view my matter as a unique case deserving of special attention, and even if that were so, it would be presumptuous to demand increased attention on your part for this unique case, precisely because it has no general relevance, I’m well aware of that. And so the only question remaining is whether in writing to you I am addressing the correct party? If need be, I request that you ignore my letter, or inform me that you are not responsible for this matter and therefore have left my letter unanswered. UniversalFood, whose product portfolio includes aforementioned plain donut with dairy-free hazelnut vanilla-cream filling, addressed their responsibility in the matter with an unambiguous disavowal (which was only to be expected, it was just that the easily accessible customer hotline on the freezer bag, which immediately connected me with a friendly employee on the first try, induced me against my better judgement, and don’t they say that it’s sometimes best to approach one’s goal via a process of elimination); the same goes for the general contractor from whom I purchased my unit on credit, and yet so far no one has been able to assist me regarding the correct contact person.
*This story is taken from: “Vor Anbruch der Morgenröte” by Philipp Schönthaler © 2017 Verlag Matthes & Seitz, Berlin/Germany.
The Short Story Project C | The Short Story Project INC 2018
Lovingly crafted by Oddity&Rfesty