‘On the Edge of Our City’: A Short Story for Yom Kippur by Aharon Appelfeld
A Holocaust survivor wrestles with the angel of history on the beach in Tel Aviv
Tel-Aviv in July is a sticky city. You can’t touch a railing or lean against a wall. I bought a pair of gloves to separate myself from the murky substances that surround me.
Everything is sweaty, and I spend hours in the shower. But the steamy sweat outside penetrates my house, sullying the air and stifling. I turn on the classical music station and sit in an armchair. An hour or two of music pluck me out of the boiling pot and restore my thoughts to me.
Only toward evening do I dare to leave the house. Even at six o’clock the heat doesn’t disperse. I flee to the sea and fool myself into thinking that I’ll find a little cool air there. That’s wrong. Only late at night does the sea wind reach the shore, slightly release the tension in my limbs, and cast slumber upon me. Once I fell asleep on the sand and woke up at dawn. Since then I’ve been careful. When I feel slumber gripping me, I gather all my strength, cross the streets, and steal into my lair. Then my small, eternal dilemmas arise: should I open the west window, turn on the fan, or maybe the air-conditioner? The air-conditioner is the enemy of my bones. I only turn it on when my distress is acute. If it weren’t for the winter, it’s doubtful whether I could keep going in this place. At the end of March I start longing for winter.
In the winter I’m another man. I open the my apartment door and step out, standing straight. My hat and coat immediately give me privacy, and I feel isolated. People who scurry about always depress me. In the winter few people are in the streets. I walk along them, and my liberty returns to me.
Not many years ago I used to bathe in the sea during the winter. Now I don’t allow myself luxuries like that. I go out and enjoy the open sky, the chilly air, and the empty streets. In the winter I return to Devora’s small café. Devora remembers me, asks me how I am, reminds me that I wasn’t there all summer long. It’s hard for me to explain the tangle of my life to her. I hate explanations and interpretations. I do what I do, but I never explain. In that respect as well I’m a strange creature in this city. Here arguments, excuses, and explanations are very widespread and acceptable. At night I sometimes hear a man walking and explaining to his wife why he refrained from doing the greatest deal of his life. You never know what’s an explanation, what’s a deception, and what’s just boasting. Talk, in any case, wearies me.
Sometimes it happens—actually it did a year ago—that in mid-July clouds cover the sky of Tel-Aviv, as if rain were about to fall. Rain didn’t fall, but a pleasant coolness blew in from the sea for for a few hours. Miracles like that happen once every three or four years, but that’s enough to pluck me out of despair and restore the desire for action. But why complain all the time? I live the life that suits me. I have a roomy apartment, a nice shower, a device that produces classical music, a library, and savings sufficient to support me.
True, women ruined my life, but not without leaving a few pleasurable memories. Not of my ex-wife, of course. From her all that’s left for me is the buzz of words. I’ve learned that only passing, swift meetings are bearable. The rest is just a tangle. It’s better to long for a woman than to be with her over time. I have a good memory of Tina, who lived in Jaffa, actually in Jibalia, in the fifties. I met her several times. Every moment with her is imprinted in me. Her eyes when I entered her room, the way she stood and let down her hair, took my coat, bent her back when she served me a drink. She didn’t ask who I was or what I do, as people do, and I didn’t ask her, as though we had both agreed that, while the past was important, its importance wasn’t decisive.
Tina was thirty, maybe less. She had a nobility that’s already disappeared from the world. All her movements said, “Let’s be good to each other, as much as possible. Who knows what tomorrow has in store for us?” She was like all of us, a refugee, but refugee nature didn’t cling to her. She spoke fine German and French, like all well-brought up girls from my home town of Czernowitz. Her words were few and shaped with grace. She apparently knew what it took me a long time to learn: words are only confusing or wounding or leave a prolonged dispute in the soul, and it’s better to avoid them.
One evening she announced that she intended to travel to Africa and work as a nurse in Albert Schweitzer’s hospital. She spoke about the trip in an ordinary voice, and that deceived me into thinking she only intended to stay there for a short time. Later I learned she had converted to Christianity and gone to live in a convent to prepare herself for a monastic life. Now I know I wasn’t worthy of her. A woman like Tina you meet only once in your life. I apparently didn’t know how to appreciate what was given to me.
Afterward I sought tranquility with many women. As I have yet to reveal, they only left muddy feelings. Sometimes it seems to me that the women aren’t to blame, only the city. A city subject to the fiery sun’s dominion, to humidity and sticky sweat, can only produce clumsy words. The words, like the fans in cheap cafés, don’t bring relief or understanding, just buzzing.
Everything buzzes here. No wonder big, boisterous women pop up in every corner. Fat men sit under tattered awnings, and streams of sweat drip on their faces. Who are they? How did I end up here? How did I get to be their neighbor?
Sometimes it seems to me that everyone is trying to escape the sweat and the noise. The sticky sweat won’t break up, the noisiness grows from day to day. From my apartment it sometimes sounds like series of curses and sometimes like violent merriment.
I’m considering installing double windows and doors to separate myself once and for all from the sweat and the turmoil. Clumsy words and sticky sweat are a murderous combination. More and more I burrow into my apartment, and the thought that I don’t belong to this turmoil hugs me the way the bunker did during the war.
Tel Aviv in July is a glaring city. Everything is squashed and molten underfoot. You’re trapped when you leave your lair. Worse than everything is the ugliness stamped in every doorway and gate. Once it seemed there were hidden aspirations in this blazing city. I even imagined that one day they would raise me up. But in recent years powerful emptiness has engulfed me, clumsy words, and a dark avidity that threatens to swallow me. I’m not afraid. Sometimes I have a strong desire to open the window and shout: Murky city, hollow city, I can’t bear your stifling emptiness! I know my shout won’t shake anything. The emptiness here is solid. The people are bastioned in these paper tenements as in metal castles.
To cope with the heat and the emptiness, I seldom go out, just to the grocery store, just to the seashore at night. As I said, women muddy my spirit. Sometimes they seem to me like the embodiment of this emptiness. Tina, where are you? How come I didn’t hear your cry? I just felt your goodness of heart, the understanding you acquired in the ghetto and the camps, but I didn’t see your determination to struggle against the ghosts of emptiness.
When I heard she had converted to Christianity, I wanted to go to her, and I even made some preparations. It didn’t work out. I’m far too connected with what I’ve accumulated to go after a beloved woman. What I didn’t do, Tina did. Presumably she uprooted me from her thoughts, but within me she grew from year to year. Sometimes she seems to loom up like a bell tower.
To vanquish the emptiness I have stratagems. I listen to music for countless hours. The music fills not only me but the space around me. Music, as I have learned, is an elixir that seeps into all your limbs.
Some time ago my cassette player broke. It was already night. I couldn’t bear the house, and I raced from street to street, maybe I’d find a repairman, maybe I could borrow a cassette player, maybe I could buy a new one. All the stores were locked. I sat in the doorway of a building and wrapped myself in despair. A man approached me, leaned over, and asked, “What’s the matter?”
I didn’t ignore him: “My cassette player broke.”
“One doesn’t mourn for a cassette player,” he reprimanded me.
“I can’t manage without music,” unintentionally I told him the truth.
“Can’t you control yourself?” he scolded me.
“It’s hard for me, can’t you see,” I spoke the way I never speak.
“It’s beyond my understanding,” he said and turned his back to me.
But another man, who had overheard our conversation, immediately sympathized with my distress, approached me, and asked, “You need a cassette player?”
“Right,” I said and rose to my feet.
“I can lend you one,” he said in a plain voice.
“Just until tomorrow. Tomorrow I’ll buy a new one.”
“Wait a minute. I’ll bring it right away.”
Before much time had passed, he brought me a cassette player, almost new. I wanted to pay him, but he refused. He wrote down my name and address and said: “Every evening after nine o’clock, I”m home.”
“You trust me?”
“Yes,” he said with a smile.
“I promise I’ll return it.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
I hadn’t imagined that there were such generous people in this city. I ran after him and shouted, “Thank you.”
“Think nothing of it. I’m sure you’d do exactly as I did.”
That night I didn’t sleep. I sat in the armchair and listened to music. I didn’t fall asleep until dawn, drugged with coffee and cigarettes.
The next night I went out to return the cassette player. The man greeted me at the door. He was shorter than I had pictured him. Probably a janitor or a government clerk. Not a trace of nobility in his face. “Thanks,” I said. “You saved me.”
“Without music, I choke. You also listen to music.”
“Not every day?”
“So how did you notice that I was in distress?” I asked stupidly.
“I didn’t notice.”
“So why did you lend me the cassette player?”
“I saw you needed it.”
The man’s laconic speech stunned me. I wanted to thank him again, but I didn’t. I don’t like to annoy people. But since then, every time I operate my cassette player, I remember him and it seems that I’m not alone in the world. You can’t depend on women to be faithful; but a man who gives you a cassette player because he sees you need one—there’s a man I can count on.
To my ordinary enemies one must always add my ex-wife and my son. I don’t know which of the two has the fiercest power. The heat and humidity here have many faces, but my wife and son have constant faces. They each lie in wait for me. True, I’ve developed means to fight them all, but it’s a constant struggle, exhausting. In the winter I feel lighter and fit in a way. In the winter my enemies weaken, and I’m bolder.
I wrote a letter to Tina. I wrote about my distress in this city. I don’t like to talk about feelings and emotions. I hinted to her about the exhausting heat and about the sweat that eats up all the efforts I make against it. I’m sure she understands me. After all, she lived here and she knows exactly what I’m talking about. I didn’t urge her to answer me. The life of a nun, I imagine, is one of seclusion, laden with silence; if that’s the case I’m linked to her there, too. All my life I’ve been yearning for the arrival of silence. I often dream that the huge wheels that saw away at the city day and night have stopped turning. No longer violent music, no hollering about politics, only complete silence, pure like at the seashore I saw once in southern Italy.
Of course these are only wishes. The emptiness of this noisy city seeps into my bones without letup. If I were a believing man, I’d pray. Those who know say that prayer is an effective measure against emptiness and despair. I suppose, and maybe I’m wrong, that correct prayer isn’t muttering but heedfulness. If the rules of the convent foster heedfulness and cause the soul to rise up, I won’t say anything to Tina, but if not, it would be better if Tina came back to us. The arena is here and not in faraway Africa. Here we need people on her high level to fight against the noise and the empty tumult.
Recently I’ve been reading Primo Levi. Primo Levi is an author after my own heart. He provides facts without sentimental descriptions. Until I got to know him, I believed it was forbidden to write about the war. I was sure that our experience wasn’t one you could express, or rather, that it was forbidden to express it. Primo Levi knows how to tell what’s possible to tell. Only seldom does he step out and preach morality to us. He relates things as they were, with clear simplicity. Once I was sure it was forbidden to use the words we used before the war. It seems I was wrong. Primo Levi speaks the old language, without correcting it, without raising or lowering it, and in so doing he shows us who we are and what happened to us. The prophets spoke about future events, Primo Levi raises up the past and makes it present. The ghetto and the camp, he shows us, were not temporary prisons but patterns of life that peer out at us from every corner.
I wrote to Tina: silence and muteness are in my blood, but ascetic monasticism, with all due respect, I cannot take upon myself. I know that many upstanding members of our nation, in their despair, became attached to the Church and monasticism. To a certain degree I understand them. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, but still I added: here, too, in the land of perspiration, one can seek proper prayer.
She answered my brief letter right away. She didn’t respond to my reservations. She told me about her daily routine, which begins with midnight prayers that continue until two o’clock in the morning. They sleep until six. At six there are morning prayers and a light breakfast, and after that work in the field. During the day there is time for seclusion, three short meals, and reading of scriptures. From her letter, it’s hard to know whether she’s happy. Maybe the concept of happiness doesn’t suit her situation. I read the letter and grew sad. I sensed inadequacy and fear about the future, but still I reread it. She wrote in German. Here and there she slipped in a Hebrew word. Her handwriting was clear and without flaw. Tina, I answered her, everything that happens to you is mingled in my blood.
At the end of August, the sun weakens a bit, the heat abates, and the sea wind arises before the evening darkness. At six I go to the sea. Sometime it seems to me the cool wind dims the noise. My mistake. The loudspeakers know no respite. Big, fleshy women sprawl on the beach like lizards. I have a weakness for women, but not for women like that. Women like that are a blot on the image of humanity. I stay away from them. This time I couldn’t control myself, and I shouted to one of the women: “Why are you blocking the silence of the sea?”
“Me?” she lifted her head.
“What did I do?”
“You aren’t allowed to play a transistor radio loudly on the beach.”
I was about to go over and slap her. Indeed, I did go, but I didn’t slap her, because I saw a deep scar on her face. I don’t harm damaged people, but I still said to her, “I expect more consideration from you.”
“What kind of consideration are you talking about?”
“You know very well.”
She didn’t answer, just gave me a mocking look.
I let her be. It’s hard for me to argue with damaged people. They cut off my voice.
Even at the end of August the seashore doesn’t empty out. People lie on the beach and play big transistor radios. The music bursts out and saws through the air. I can’t overcome that commotion, but the sea won’t forgive them. Once I shouted, “The sea will take revenge on you,” and they showered me with curses.
But meanwhile we must suffer. Suffering does not appear to purify. I don’t know what the monasteries in Africa do to a person. My struggle, at any rate, is nerve-wracking. From year to year my patience grows shorter. Every time I go to the seashore, my fists clench, and I’m afraid I’ll hurt someone. A year ago I asked a man to turn down his radio. He not only refused but defied me: “Here I do what I want to do. Here no one will tell me what to do.” I threatened him, but he ignored my threat. I got as far away from him as I could, but the sound pursued me. I finally asked him to lower the sound again. He refused and defied me.
This time there was a hard fight. He kept hitting me until, in a rage, I finally struck him in the face and knocked him down. If he hadn’t cursed, I would have let him alone. But he cursed me and added: “Too bad people like you were saved.” I hit him again, though I usually don’t hit people when they’re lying down.
People apparently saw that fight, or they heard about it. Since then, when I ask someone, “turn down your radio,” he obliges. Some people are stubborn, of course, or weak. They plead, “Let me listen to the radio.” I don’t like pleading, but I wouldn’t hit someone who’s pleading.
My ex-wife used to say—and I assume she still says it now: “He’s stubborn. He does what he wants to. He doesn’t consider anyone else.” Most of us are near-sighted, but she took near-sightedness to the highest possible level. Like me she was in horrible camps, but nothing remains of that in her. As if she hadn’t been there. Once I said to her, “After all, you were there and you saw and heard.” “So what,” she answered insolently, in a hollow voice.
I could have shot her then.
Sometimes the relief of September goes against me: I sink into deep sleep. Prolonged sleep takes me places where I don’t want to be, and when I wake up, I no longer have the strength to struggle. Prolonged sleep, you must know, weakens you. Once I slept without interruption almost all September. Now I’m cautious about this comfort. Now I force myself to get up and go out to the seashore. True, on the seashore, coarse life rumbles, but that’s preferable to pinching nightmares.
Some time ago a man approached me and said openly, “I read Primo Levi. He’s an author who purifies my thoughts. I don’t know what I’d do without him.”
“Me, too,” I said happily.
“Thank God we have an author like that.”
“When did you discover him?” I went on to ask for some reason.
“A short time ago. Since then my life isn’t what it was. It’s completely different. It’s found a strange kind of rehabilitation.” Why “strange,” I wanted to ask, but I didn’t.
I knew he was one of us, but I didn’t ask him where and when and that sort of probing. What can you do? We’re not so good at expressing, rather at suppressing words, which is why we’re glad when one of us finds words and tells what happened in those years.
“What kind of music do you listen to?” I asked nevertheless. I was sure that, like me, he was addicted to music. Upon hearing my question, he slipped away and disappeared.
On the shore, after midnight, you meet marvelous people, mostly our kind. They are drawn to the sea. Apparently that’s our real home. In the middle of the night I’ve found some of our kind, sitting on the shore and smoking, devoted heart and soul to the sea.
Sometimes it seems to me that they, like me, are struggling against sleep, which threatens to imprison us. Sleep, if I haven’t said so already, is one of our enemies. It weakens us every time it can. One has to sleep, but only the minimum.
September is a fateful month for us. You struggle against heat and sweat in July and August, but September is an essentially inner month. You struggle, as strange as this may be, with the ghosts of your sleep.
Last year it was unbearable. All the ghettos and camps where I was pressed into me. As if they were afraid I’d forget them. In sleep as well I repeatedly said and swore: I won’t forget either the ghettos or the camps, not my parents, not my brothers, not my sisters, but I cannot remember them every single hour. My voice apparently wasn’t heard properly, because the demands were repeated. In September nights I have no alternative but to stay out of the house. It’s better to roam about than to be subject to the dominion of nightmares. After midnight the seashore is populated by our people, not all of them are friendly, sometimes they’re so introverted it’s hard to speak to them. Some of them also fall upon you for no visible reason. I don’t get angry at them. Occasionally it seems to me that we are one family, which, for incomprehensible reasons, has scattered, but one day it will join together. I said one family, and I want to take it back. I don’t include my ex-wife or my son in the family. They removed themselves from our order. There are weeks when they’re erased from my memory, but in September, as though out of spite, they come back to me. As if there were still some connection between us. Most annoying of all are her registered letters. Always new, galling demands. I know exactly what’s written in them, but they still drive me out of my mind.
A few days ago, late at night, I approached one of our own and said to him openly: “Doesn’t emptiness oppress you, too, in this season?”
“What emptiness are you talking about?” He opened his eyes in surprise.
“Is there any need to explain?”
“I don’t understand what you’re talking about.”
“About the emptiness. I have no other word.”
“Excuse me,” said the man. “I live my life, and I don’t think about things that are beyond my understanding.”
“But at night, nevertheless, you come here. What brings you here?”
“I come here for fresh air.”
“And nothing threatens you?”
“No, to tell the truth.”
“But you’re one of us.”
I knew what he was talking about, but still I kept bothering him. It’s hard for me to accept that one of ours doesn’t understand what I’m talking about. I told him that I was reading Primo Levi, and recently Jean Améry. “I don’t read,” he said, short and sweet.
“So what do you do?” I asked, and I knew nonsense had left my mouth.
“I’m a practical nurse in a hospital,” he answered and turned his back to me.
That night I wandered on the seashore for hours. I felt like a child whose face had been slapped. A few people tried to make conversation with me, but I slipped away from them. I circled the seashore on every side and returned to the lair toward morning. I was tired and didn’t turn on the cassette player. I sat in my armchair and fell asleep. When I woke up, it was already noon. In my sleep I had been far away and tangled in some argument whose remnants clouded up my mind. I didn’t remember what the argument was about. I just knew that my adversary had logical, detailed reasons, and I just repeated a single word like a fool. The more I repeated that word, the rounder my adversary’s face grew. Finally he stopped reciting his sharp arguments in my ears and a kind of thin mockery, the mockery of a victor, broke out on his lips. I was about to tell him, don’t make fun, but the words stuck in my throat. I made myself a cup of coffee and sat at the table. The pungent coffee seeped into me and made me forget the nightmare. Toward evening I went down to the grocery store, bought what I needed, and returned home with a feeling that I had to muster my forces and strengthen myself.
Before an hour passed, the special delivery postman knocked at my door and handed me a letter. My wife is the only one who sends me special delivery or registered letters. Happy Birthday, she wrote on a pink greeting card. I wish you years of happiness and health. I was about to rip up the card and throw it in the trash. The thought that, after many years of separation, she remembers my birthday stirred a hidden sadness in me. I put the letter on the table and rushed out of the house. On the way I remembered that I had delayed responding to Tina for many days. In her last letter she had praised Bible verses and mentioned our Bible commentator Nechama Leibowitz, who had shed light on several obscure passages. That objective letter actually made me weep.
In September, to admit the truth, there are also pleasant surprises. More and more of our people march on the beach. Sometimes they look like soldiers in a secret unit who have just arrived from some faraway place. They always walk alone, not involved with people, and some secret separates them from the rest. Sometimes I have the impression they have practiced not speaking for months, and now they have no further need for it. Speech, even minimal, disturbs them. Once I was sure that only I was driven out of my mind by the violent music. I was mistaken. Several times recently I have seen one of us threaten with his eyes: Loud music only within the walls of your house, not in public!
A few days ago I got a letter from Tina. She wrote to me about her reading habits. Every day she reads three chapters of the Old Testament and one from the New Testament. At first she had felt closer to the New Testament, but now she knows how to appreciate the factual speech, the silence and the heedfulness, that arise from the ancient Hebrew verses. I like her descriptions and her implied comments. Sometimes it seems to me that she didn’t go there to convert but to learn how to read the Bible.
I answered her right away and told her that here, too, the struggle is not over. It is very hot, the noise is oppressive, and emptiness devours all good things, but on certain sections of the beach in Tel Aviv, our people are seen after midnight, struggling against all those who stain the silence. I didn’t conceal from her that I follow them intensely, that I love their silence, and I’m proud of them.
One night this week one of our own appeared on the beach holding two baskets. One of them held sandwiches, and the other had little bottles of juice. He went from person to person and offered them a sandwich and a bottle of juice without asking for anything. Then he moved on. His way of extending his hand had a kind of nobility that touched my heart. I was about to approach him and thank him, but for some reason I was apprehensive. At last I went up to him and said, “Thank you for the gift.”
“Think nothing of it,” he said and smiled like a child.
“You’re not only giving a gift, you’re also teaching us generosity,” I spoke to him, for some reason, with an elevated tone.
“I don’t mean to teach. I like to make long, thin sandwiches. I also make the juice.”
“Do you come here every day?”
“No. Just twice a week, on nights when I’m not working.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a watchman in the new buildings.”
“A fine action,” the words left my mouth.
He shrugged his shoulders as if to say, I like to do it. I wanted to shower him with affection and compliments, but in my heart I knew that he didn’t need it, that it would only embarrass him.
That night I dreamed about the time when I was involved in business in Germany after the war. I sold weapons to the undergrounds in Africa, to Catholics in Northern Ireland, and to small undergrounds in South America. Those were times of great danger, but also times of spiritual arousal. If it hadn’t been for some complications and mixups, I would be a multi-millionaire today. I mustn’t complain. I have enough for my own livelihood and to provide for others. Sometimes I dream about big enterprises that spread out over continents. I hoped that my son would establish them one day. It seems he won’t do that, and it’s doubtful whether I will.
In September and sometimes in early October my son Emil appears. I see him twice a year, in September and March. Sometimes he calls, but aside from those brief meetings, I don’t see him.
When he knocks on my door, my body shrinks. It’s hard for me to meet him. Meeting him cuts into my flesh. Let me say right away: he’s no different from other people, not in his manners and not in his way of speaking. On the contrary, in him you can see certain outlines of a person settled in his mind, but his essence is the absolute opposite of what I am. He has, I won’t deny it, several of my traits, but the build of his body, his movements, and his way of thinking are all his mother’s. When he was young, I hoped he would change. Not that I wanted him to resemble me, I just wished he wouldn’t resemble his mother. That hope dissipated fast. His mother’s features are stamped in him. Now he’s a copy of his mother. A person mustn’t be a copy, I want to shout every time I see him. Apparently features like his can’t be uprooted. They run deep in all his limbs. Even worse, in his thought—his thinking is like his mother’s: petty and practical. The thought that my son owns a mini-market shouldn’t disturb me. Lots of decent people, with noble thoughts, run small businesses, voluntarily or against their will. A person can run a mini-market and be perfectly respectable. My son Emil is all petty commerce. He seems to like that occupation, and he’s immersed in it up to the ears. I could be satisfied and say that it’s good for a person to be happy in his business. But what can I do? The thought eats me up, really and truly. When I wake up at night, Emil and his mini-market immediately flash before my eyes, and my body shudders.
He was five when I divorced Frieda. I used to see him once a week, sometimes more. In the short times available to me I tried to plant my thoughts in his soul. Sometimes he seemed to get it, but the years, his mother, the friends who surrounded him, did their work. I had no control over his upbringing. Often I would keep him with me until night so that he could view the sea and our people. I drilled it into him again and again, that I, and therefore he, are different from the others because of that. Different because we have seen and heard things that other people have neither seen nor heard.
When he was very young, my words used to inspire him. He would ask me questions, and with great enthusiasm I would heap up words. I would talk about nobility, greatness, and broad-mindedness. I would repeat to him that we had the responsibility to preserve the image of humanity. I loved his questions, and in the depth of my heart I hoped that one day he would summon up the strength to rebel against his mother, come to me, or run away and live in another city. I even hinted to him that if he wanted to go abroad, I’d help him.
But as he grew older, the attention he paid to me weakened. A suspicious tone accompanied his questions, something that weakened and annoyed me, but I didn’t let up. I wanted so much to influence him that my words sounded exaggerated and pathetic, even to my ears.
From year to year he resembled his mother more. Once, when he was seventeen, he said to me, “Dad, I don’t understand.”
“Not even after I explained to you?”
“What isn’t understandable?”
“I’m willing to start all over again,” I said angrily.
“You don’t have to, Dad,” he smiled as if he had caught me out.
Then I understood that his mother was sunk deep in his body. An ax couldn’t root her out of him.
When he appeared the day before yesterday, it seemed to me that he’d grown. I knew that at his age, people don’t grow, but still I said, stupidly, “You’re taller, aren’t you?”
He lowered his head without answering me.
We didn’t linger in the house but went to a café. After sipping the coffee, I expect him to make his requests. It’s not easy for him to ask, apparently. “Dad, I want to ask you for something,” is how he usually begins. The word, “Dad,” more than any other word, gives me the chills. This time I answered with restraint and said, “Just what?”
“I want to expand the mini-market,” he got straight to the point.
“I can buy the cosmetics shop next door.”
“How much does it cost?”
He mentioned the sum.
Until now he hadn’t dared to ask for so much. “I have to think,” I said.
If it weren’t for his mother’s features, it would have been easier for me to talk with him, I assume. What can I do? Those features drive me out of my mind.
Emil is thirty now. Over the years we’ve developed mutual suspiciousness. I, in any event, have learned to use few words. Sometimes I sense the reason he won’t speak isn’t only that he has no words. He laid his eyes on me and then lowered them. It’s hard to get complete sentences out of his mouth. I, too, surprisingly, lose words with him. I speak brokenly, the order of the words in my mouth breaks down, and, to tell the truth, I’m perplexed. He would do better not to come. I greet him without joy and bend my attention to him.
Emil’s appearance is somewhat deceptive. He’s broad like his mother and sturdy, but not quick. His reactions are slow. Sometimes it seems to me that what I explain to him isn’t grasped, or it’s grasped very partially. Because of that feeling, I repeat my words two or three times. That, I assume, wearies him, but he’s patient, like his mother. It’s hard to upset him.
He’s been married for five years. He has no children. Why don’t they have children? I never asked. I don’t like people to meddle in my life, and I don’t meddle in other people’s lives. Once though he hinted to me that his wife was having trouble getting pregnant. I didn’t ask any more. At that time I would make him a cup of coffee, and we would sit in the living room and drink. After a while I learned: that closeness wasn’t good either for him or for me. It was better to sit in a café among strangers.
In time I understood that sitting in a café for a long time wasn’t desirable either. After the café, we go on to a restaurant. I remembered that he wanted to expand the mini-market, and I asked: “Is it your initiative?”
“Mine,” he said, and a childish smile rose to his lips.
“Did you ever think about opening a supermarket?” I resumed my old ways.
“Big things expand a person’s horizons, don’t they?”
“True,” he said, but he immediately added, “if I buy the cosmetic shop next door, I’ll have a mini-market with a new shopping area, and it will be a real convenience store.”
“Is that all you want?”
“No need for more.”
I looked at him. There was compassion in my heart, but it wasn’t free of annoyance.
The wall between me and him grew higher from year to year. He finished his army service, married, and bought a grocery store. I helped him to buy the store, but the thought that my son, flesh of my flesh, would be stuck in a narrow grocery store all his life hurt me greatly.
“A grocery store of your own”—that was his mother’s dream. At a certain stage, to appease me, he called his grocery a mini-market. Why not a factory, I once tried to provoke his imagination. His mother’s words were apparently more effective than mine. She drilled into him: my grandfather had a grocery store, my father had a grocery store. They all made a nice living, and that’s how she narrowed his thoughts. She used to make fun of the words “impetus” and “daring.” She used to say it encouraged adventure. I knew the narrowness of her opinion, but I didn’t imagine that a big body like hers would succumb completely to small sizes. At our last meeting I couldn’t control myself, and I said to him: “Our order isn’t severe, but we demand one thing of every member: aspiration to greatness. You don’t have to be a man of means, but it’s important for you to be charged with a great aspiration.”
He looked at me as if I had gone out of my mind and said, “I’m satisfied with what I have.”
“So I see.”
“Is something the matter with me?”
“You’re absolutely fine.”
The meetings grew fewer and fewer, as I said, and now we meet twice a year. I invite him to a café and afterward to a restaurant, and meanwhile I give him a check, and we part without any disharmony, each to his own direction. A few times he surprised me with his wife. His wife has become like him. Heavy, bashful, and clumsy. The grocery store is stamped in her too.
“How’s work?” I used to ask repeatedly.
His requests were always modest. A sofa set for the living room or a refrigerator for the grocery store. It’s hard to be fond of modesty that arises from narrowness of mind, but I, like a fool, hoped that one day he would change, that something inward would rise up from within him, some anger, rebellion, desire for travel, even a desire to surprise me with a new garment that suits his height. I saw no change. On the contrary, from year to year the root in his limited world sinks deeper. His face grows broader, and redness blooms on his cheeks, like on creatures that grow up in closed places. At our last meeting I sensed something was twitching inside him and wanted to get out. I would say a kind of late desire to extricate himself from the vise of his mother and wife. I almost said to him: Get out while you still can. Don’t be afraid. I’ll help you.
Of course he quickly withdrew. His eyes lowered, and his big body said once again: I don’t know what to do. You know. A strong man like you is permitted to raise his voice, I almost burst out.
“I don’t know what to do,” he repeated, and there was an inarticulate expression on his face.
For some reason I wanted to shout: “You know. If you don’t know, your hands know.”
His big body suddenly shrank in discomfort, and in a near-whisper he said, “Why are you forcing me to do something I can’t do.”
“I’m not forcing you,” I looked straight into his eyes. “I’m asking you to make more of an effort. You’re my son, and, like me, you belong to our order. Our order isn’t a big one, but it’s very special. Believe me, it’s a big honor to be among its members.”
“What order?” His mouth opened.
“Is it a secret order?”
“No. Every night you can see it.”
We were sitting in the restaurant where we were used to eat twice a year. For a moment it seemed to me that everything would go the way it always went. We’d eat, exchange a few words, I’d give him a check, he’d go his way, and I’d go mine. But suddenly he turned to me and said: “What are you doing these days, Dad?”
I was so surprised that I said, “Why do you ask?”
“Interesting. You never asked before.”
“True,” he agreed.
“Since you asked, I’ll tell you. I listen to music, I read Primo Levi’s writings, and at night I stroll along the shore.”
Hearing my words, he lowered his head, as if I had scolded him.
“There were some years when you worked, right?” He asked again, annoyingly.
“Many years ago.”
“What did you do?” He spoke in a tone I didn’t recognize in him.
“It’s complicated,” I rejected his question point blank.
“All these years, I wanted to ask you, but I never dared.”
“Too bad,” I said, for some reason, and I added. “Too bad you took your mother’s path.”
“What do you mean?” He raised his eyes to me.
“It’s hard for me to explain to you now. I’ll just say one sentence. You followed after little things. I wanted to lead you differently. Our people mustn’t pursue small things, understand?”
“I don’t understand,” he said in a tone with a bit of arrogance.
“If you don’t understand, I can’t explain it to you. Still, I’ll tell you. For many years I expected you’d come to me and ask: Dad, why are you different from other people?”
“I wanted to ask, but I was afraid to.”
“Were you afraid of me? Did I ever hit you?”
“So why were you afraid of me?”
“You were always quiet,” he said, and a smile rose on his lips, as if he had overcome an obstacle that had stood in his way for years. I wanted to rise to my feet, as was my custom at this hour, but, for some reason, I didn’t get up, and, not only that, I added: “All these years I was hoping that what throbs within me would also throb within you.”
“You know very well.”
“I don’t understand,” he said and his shoulders twitched.
For some reason it seemed to me that his obtuse face, slightly inarticulate, had become a mocking face. As if he had climbed up to the place from which he was permitted to mock me, to call my thoughts what his mother had called them: great illusions.
“I can’t explain it to you, but still I say it. Big transactions, like the ones I arranged, aren’t carried off with illusions, but with drive. Only drive can bring you to the heights, like music. Now do you understand?”
His full face smiled again, as though my mouth had uttered foolishness.
“You can laugh as much as you want.”
“I don’t understand you,” he twisted his shoulders. That movement contained everything I hated in him. I rose to my feet and said: “Do what you want. I won’t mix in. From now on, I won’t tell you what to do. When the day comes, they’ll tell you what you inherited, but until then, do me a favor, don’t come to me.”
It was evening and I walked on the shore for hours. I couldn’t forget the difficult meeting with Emil, but I didn’t feel any ache. It seemed to me he would come back soon, and I would give him the check I forgot to give him. The silence grew deeper. Without noticing it, I was standing in front of Devora’s café. Devora was glad to see me, asked how I was, and she immediately served me a cup of coffee and a croissant. I thanked her and sat in my place. Hardly had I sat down when my son’s wide face rose before me. I tried to ignore his smile, but the smile, as though to spite me, grew redder on his lips. Without delay I paid and went out.
The silence was dark and deep, but from the distance a thin and dissonant sound reached out for me and began to saw at my temples. I tried to ignore it, and for a moment, it seemed to weaken. I was wrong. The sound grew sharper and sawed in my ears again. I changed direction, but my ear caught it from that direction, too. “Enough!” I shouted, as if I could silence it.
I hastened my steps, the way I always do when music from a transistor radio pursues me, but this time it wasn’t thundering music, just one sound that escaped from a transistor.
After an hour of painful walking I reached the source of the sound. A man was sitting by the water and listening to music that emerged from his transistor radio. The sound was soft, but the sharp noise that came out kept sawing at me very powerfully.
“Sir,” I knelt, “I would be grateful if you would be so good as to turn down the sound. True, the volume is low, but what can I do? It buzzes in my ears. If you turn off your transistor radio, I’ll give you twenty dollars. This is a very personal request, but not arbitrary, believe me.”
“What do you want from me?” the man responded, turning his shoulder toward me.
“It hurts me. Don’t you see that it hurts me?” I spoke to him as if he were my brother.
“The music is barely audible.”
“But I can hear it.”
“Block your ears with cotton.”
“Take pity on me,” I went out of my way.
“Get away from me,” he waved his right hand as if I weren’t a man but an annoying mosquito.
That motion drove me crazy, and I slugged him. The man, who looked thin and short and sunk into himself, rose to his feet, and with an athletic leap, hit me. I felt his fist and the blood flowing on my cheek, but I recovered fast and hit him back soundly. He didn’t surrender but returned the blow. I knew he was one of our own. Maybe we were in the same ghetto and maybe in the same camp and maybe we marched on that march of punishment from which only a few remained. I knew, but still I didn’t subdue my hand.
Finally he didn’t collapse. I did. Apparently I fainted. When I woke, toward morning, I was lying on the sand. My body ached, and blood had clotted on my face and stung me. I didn’t remember the man’s face, but I did remember his agile movements. My tactics were of no use this time. He beat me to everything. Finally I rose to my feet and dragged myself to my lair.
Translated from Hebrew by Jeffrey Green.
Copyright © Aharon Appelfeld. Originally published in Hebrew in Keshet Hachadasha.
We gave the world Anthony Weiner and Michael Bloomberg, and even our holidays screwed up everyone’s summer