Translation: Jessica Cohen
“Sit down, please. Sit down.”
“We have a problem. All of us. The whole branch. It can’t go on like this. As you know, some of our patients have been quitting their treatment half-way through, and they’re at risk of developing immunity to Isoniazid. I don’t want to keep sending orderlies out to drag them back off the streets. Look, these aren’t just homeless guys. They’re a problematic population, they don’t trust the authorities, including medical ones. You know better than I do about this kind of thing.”
“You’re Russian, aren’t you? Oh, I mean: a Soviet Jew.”
“Absolutely! So listen—hey, would you like some cheesecake? Crumb base. Shula from radiology made it, it’s her specialty. I’d like to try a more humane method. We need someone who speaks their language, who knows their mindset, who can build trust. Someone who’s gone through the hardships of immigration himself, who has found himself wondering about this whole Oriental Middle East thing.”
“But I never—”
“It’s all right, I sometimes curse my grandmother for not just staying in Czechoslovakia too. Although obviously then I think about the Holocaust, and… Bottom line—do you have a problem with Shula?”
“Take some cake, it’s free!”
“Doctor, with all due respect, I don’t think I’m the right man for this job.”
“Arieh, please, you’re not a child. How old are you, by the way?”
“I’ll be fifty-two in August.”
“All right then! The physician’s oath says, ‘And you will aid the sick irrespective of whether they are converts or gentiles or citizens, whether they are ignominious or respected.’ People are suffering, Arieh.”
“But I don’t—”
“Look, you work here as a supervisor, right?”
“Well, a supervisor has to make sure people with TB come here every day and take their antibiotics.”
“But they’re not coming, these homeless guys of yours! Do you want there to be an outbreak? Sixty per-cent of them are carrying the virus – this is serious business. There are countries where they send rats to sniff out the consumptives. We don’t want to cause mass hysteria here, could you imagine rats running around Dizengoff Square? That is the target population’s congregation point—the city’s navel. This is a mission of the utmost importance. I trust you. Go out there, put up notices in Russian, talk to them, do whatever you want but just bring them here, otherwise they’ll shut down our branch. And have some cake, for God’s sake!”
And so Arieh walked the narrow streets of Tel-Aviv, which all looked like alleys, and his reluctance to carry out the task shortened his right leg and made him limp. Still, he walked on—he too, after all, was a man. He had made aliya in the early seventies, giving up his medical studies to come to Israel. He’d eventually found work as an orderly, mostly cleaning out bedpans and wheeling beds around, and not long ago he got a job as a supervisor with the League for Prevention of Pulmonary Disease.
Pinning notice after notice onto wounded tree trunks bleeding resin, Arieh suddenly discovered that the word obratits’ja (‘turn to’), which he himself had penned in childish Cyrillic script, contained a typo: the soft sign, ь, a character that has no sound. More of a note than a letter. A symbol that cannot possibly be articulated and the only evidence of its existence is the way in which the preceding letter is softened. He had not written Russian in over twenty years, and it turned out the hand could not remember what the mind could not forget.
Here was Dizengoff Square, “the target population’s concentration point,” the home of those who have no home, the lungers’nest. It was a warm evening. On the power line overhead, a bird encountered a pair of sneakers hanging by their laces and pecked at a lace as though wishing it were a worm. Arieh stood at the bottom of the steps leading up to the grey island, high above ground, and hesitated as he might before climbing a mountain.
“First I’ll introduce myself,” he thought, and his inner voice sounded as high-pitched as his outer one. “It’s a simple antibiotic treatment, a little pill, every morning for six months. But wait—all that has to be in Russian. How do you even say ‘League for Prevention of Pulmonary Disease’? And how will I translate Take Care of Your Lungs – They Give You the Breath of Life?What if they see me as an alien, a local?” There was a tinge of pride in that last thought.
He inexplicably recalled a frog that had once leaped onto his face when he fell asleep on the pebble beach at Carolina Bugaz, near Odessa.
“My friends,” he said to himself as he started climbing, “it’s for your own good. No one wants to have an orderly come and drag you away into quarantine like criminals. This is an infectious disease! Do you want there to be an outbreak? I’m all too familiar with the Russian mystique surrounding TB. I wrote an article entitled ‘On Tuberculosis as a Metaphysical Disease.’ (True, it was never published, but only because it was never submitted!) Think about all the stories Gorky never got to write…” But when he reached the top step he shuddered and recoiled. “What am I talking about? What do they know about Gorky? And when was the last time I read any Gorky myself? Besides, didn’t he write enough as it is, before he succumbed to TB?”
The rusty fountain spouted lusterless water; it resembled a toy that had swelled up and started to decompose. A one-eyed cat licked melted pink ice cream off the ground. And there was the target population: two homeless men asleep on concrete benches as if they were upturned graves, and a third, with a mane of curls, skipping around, peddling an invisible bicycle andtalking to himself. Arieh stared at their swollen bare feet covered with bleeding ulcers, their sun-charred skin, sunken chests, undoubtedly lice-infested hair, tortoiseshell nails, and the smell. The stench of disease. All these would not deter him—after all, he was a sort of doctor, wasn’t he? Not a certified one (Father used to say: Be certified!) but he’d seen a patient or two in his life. He smiled crookedly and tucked his shirt in to declare a fresh start.
When he stood in the check-out line holding a bottle of Absolut, the young cashier’s look embarrassed him. “It’s not for me,” he mumbled in her direction, but she didn’t even hear him. He deliberately stopped by the newspapers, glanced at the headlines and remarked, “Country’s going down the drain.” When he got no response, he walked back to the grey island.
“Good evening,” he began in Russian. “Here, I’ve brought you some…” He heard himself from outside and recognized a prominent Israeli accent. But neither his words nor the bottle he held out penetrated the curly-haired pedaller’s sensory field. Then he blurted out a soft, round word which, to his surprise, showed up in its diminutive form, a sign of affection, as though someone had put the wind instrument he had tried to play as a child back into his mouth: “Vodochka.”
The musical tone worked its magic only on Arieh. The curly-haired man kept on peddling, while the other two did not rouse from their slumber. Arieh looked at the curly-haired one for a long time. He wore a torn coat on this steamy Mediterranean night and kept running his finger up the bridge of his nose in an involuntary tick—perhaps evidence of long-gone glasses—and blowing innocent words that sounded like curses into the air. Arieh noticed a long scab on his neck and diagnosed his cough as chronic, guttural and mucous.
“Just to think,” Arieh said to himself, “that this man once stood in Domodedovo or Boryspil and showed his passport, then handed over a battered suitcase he’d wrapped in plastic so no one would dig through it, and as soon as he stepped onto the escalator he felt that he was already in another country. Perhaps he had time for one last Russian cigarette in the smoking area before taking an aisle seat and choosing beef not chicken and another drink please and the flight attendant seemed to be smiling, which irritated him a bit because what the hell did she have to smile about, and now here he is like this. No. It’s inconceivable. Did things really have to come to this?” The man looked a little like Syoma, a Jewish classmate of Arieh’s who went on to medical school with him and they said he once kissed a woman’s body in the morgue. “The things people do to themselves…”
The imaginary-bicycle rider eventually stopped at the bottle-sign and a simple thought went through his mind: One Absolut is worth three bottles of Gold; such a pity, but if that’s how it is then why not.
“I’m a doctor,” said Arieh the minute the man’s hand gripped the bottle.
One of the sleepers opened his blue eyes as wide as his swollen eyelids would allow. When he sat up and turned around, he turned out to be an Albino, unless a terrible disease had turned his skin white. A mouth opened wide amid his sparse, filthy beard, displaying a set of rotten teeth. “What’s that, Zhenya?”
“Bottle,” replied the curly one, who was now a man with a name: Zhenya. “This guy brought it.”
“Who’s he?” asked the albino suspiciously.
“I’m a doctor,” Arieh repeated.
Plastic cups materialized. They handed one to Arieh.
“No, no thanks. I’m here for something else. I wanted to tell you about…”
“Why not? Did you poison it?” Zhenya looked wary.
“Now really, why would I poison you? What a crazy idea! Here, pour me some. Stop, stop, that’s enough.”
The albino asked for a cigarette, in Hebrew for some reason, and Arieh gave him one. He crumbled some of the tobacco out, like they used to do there, so the tightly packed cheap tobacco would light up properly. How did this white giant end up here? Arieh wondered. He looks like a ghost, with a Cossack’s face and a bear-hunter’s eyes—what is he doing in Tel-Aviv?
But before Arieh could elaborate on the analysis, which was supposed to help him establish trust with the members of the target population, they poured him another. And he drank it. Arieh remembered that he had three mints in his pocket, and he handed them out. They talked, but not about tuberculosis treatment or the League for Prevention of Pulmonary Disease. The albino scratched the flaking skin on the back of his neck and cursed the heat, the passersby, and his lousy fate. In retort, Zhenya launched into a patriotic monologue in which he claimed that Israel was a paradise for the bomzhi, those who lacked a fixed abode. And besides, only suckers lived with a roof over their head in this country: Israeli winters were “child’s play,” people threw entire meals in the trash, you could find practically whole cigarettes at any bus-stop, free showers at the beach…
A punk decked out with his mother’s credit card crossed the square and spat out: “Priviet, Albino!” as if to prove to himself that he was a friend of the night creatures. Then the square emptied out. They spent some time in a heavy, physical, bomzhaic silence. Moped hornets passed under the square and their buzzing startled the bench-dwellers. Arieh felt nauseous. The albino crouched down, dropped his pants to his ankles, and gave a vacant look at the radiant night, while Zhenya lay down and screamed until he was overcome by a coughing attack and started spitting up blood. Arieh fell asleep.
Later, while Tel-Avivians dreamed summer dreams under their comforters in air-conditioned rooms, Arieh half woke up and beheld a wondrous vision: due to a technical error of some sort, the fountain had started spinning as it did on holidays, and a flame erupted from its peak—an architectural wonder that had long ago stopped exciting the city’s residents. Zhenya, the albino, and the third homeless man, who had been asleep all this time, slowly approached the fountain with curious looks and started circling around it in the opposite direction to its motion. They picked up their pace,and at some point Arieh noticed they were floating inmid-air. He heard peculiar calls, like seagulls screeching—it was the joyful, tearful yelps of the lungers.
Arieh awoke at dawn on the bench. His head was spinning and there was a bitter taste in his mouth. A soldier on a bike tossed a coin at him, which clinked loudly. “What’s that?” he asked, astonished. Then he realized Zhenya’s lousy head was in his lap, while the albino was leaning heavily on his shoulder. Next to his shoe he saw bloodstains tinged with phlegm. He stood up sharply, knocking the two dulled bodies onto each other without them waking or responding. He shook himself off and quickly walked away, whispering to his feet: “Home.”
“Home” was a rented studio apartment towards which Arieh had no particular sentiments. This was immediately apparent: a sheet was draped over a couch that sat facing an old television, the fridge was almost bare, and the walls were naked and peeling. The rent was low but even that was a stretch for him. He needed to find another job. Maybe as a parking attendant. That was just like being a supervisor, but instead of breathing in TB germs he would be inhaling exhaust fumes. In the shower he remembered the drunken hallucination of last night, when he’d seen a vision of lunger-gulls. Not only was he not amused, he was extremely alarmed. That was all he needed now—archaic Russian diseases.
Arieh got up shortly before noon, drank half a bottle of water, and looked awkwardly in the mirror, where he saw looking back at him an experienced physician who had behaved childishly and failed. He rubbed his eyes, blurted an apologetic giggle, and decided to go out and correct the error—“to aid the sick irrespective of whether they are they are ignominious or respected …” He packed some old bread, a piece of dried salami he found at the bottom of the fridge, and three not-very-fresh apples. If they were still in Dizengoff Square, he reasoned—after all, they were sort of friends now, weren’t they?—he would take them to the clinic right there and then and start treatment. And what was so terrible about the treatment, which would cure their TB?! One little pill, once a day, for six months. That was it. Five minutes a day and no more coughing up blood—this was the twenty-first century, wasn’t it? And what was the meaning of all these Russian memories that flooded his mind and distracted him from his mission?
The homeless men were on the benches in the square. But someone else was there too, ayoung man in a nurse’s uniform bending over the third vagrant. Zhenya and the albino stood some distance away with a look of helplessness bordering on indifference. Arieh realized the man he had thought was asleep might have already been dead last night. And as far as seeing him hovering over the fountain—that was nothing but a drunken fantasy. Passersby rushed over to help, but when they saw it was a homeless man they walked away with an arrogant murmur of pity, as if to say: Well of course, it’s to be expected, they open up the country to all sorts of…
“What’s his name?” asked the nurse and covered the body’s face with a piece of fabric. His trembling hands testified that he was new to the corpse business. When no one answered, he patted the dead man’s pockets looking for identification. When he rolled up the man’s sleeves, he exposed arms pocked with holes and covered with bruises. In the right pocket of the filthy jeans he found a rubber band and a few tubes of sugar, the kind easily nicked from café tables— the candy of choice for many a junkie.
“How long has he been like this?” The nurse tried to catch the glassy eyes of the homeless men. “Who is he? What’s his name? What do you know about him?”
Arieh, who was standing very close now, without having noticed when he’d drawn near, translated into Russian for Zhenya and the albino.
“How should we know…” said Zhenya. “He was here lying down… A good man, but he shot up.”
“They don’t know his name?” The young nurse turned to Arieh. “It’s a real problem with these homeless guys. They don’t speak Hebrew, and when someone dies, if he has no papers, it’s a whole mess with the burial society. They have to know if he’s Jewish.”
“What difference does it make now?” Arieh asked.
“For the burial. They’ll have to try and match his fingerprints at the police and in the welfare files, and if they can’t, they’ll look for relatives.”
“And meanwhile the body just sits there?”
“Well, what would you suggest? Go ahead and bury him like a Jew?”
“He is a Jew,” Arieh said abruptly.
“How do you know?”
“I knew him.”
“What’s his name?”
“Ilya Ehrenburg.” He didn’t even think twice.
“Well, I’m not really the one who makes these decisions…” the young man backtracked.
“I’m a doctor, he was a patient of mine.”
“You can explain all that to the police and the autopsy lab.”
Arieh then accompanied Zhenya and Volodia, which turned out to be the albino’s name, on an exhausting bureaucratic journey. No one raised any suspicion of foul-play after seeing the man’s sieve-arms. An expert pointed coolly to one intact vein the deceased had kept “for a rainy day,” an addict’s custom. Arieh’s claims that the man was Jewish were treated dismissively and he stopped insisting.
His fellow travelers’ hoarse mumbles launched him back to his childhood yard in Odessa, and his mind was invaded by a delinquent masturbating in the dark, a drunk janitor, a girl with braids and a deformed leg, a puppet theater made of rags, a decorated war vet snoring on a bench. They say a Jew from Odessa is funny even when he’s sad, and here was Arieh, neither funny nor sad when he walked out of Abu Kabir Forensic Institute and headed to the cemetery.
At the end of his journey he watched a man with no past and no name sliding into a damp pit in the section for unknowns.
Arieh insisted on saying kaddish, though he could not specify the deceased’s name. He recited the prayer from a card he got for free (except for a twenty-shekel donation to charity he was talked into) from a beadle who didn’t ask any questions about identities.
The Hebrew and Aramaic words brought out a sentimental streak in Zhenya and Volodia.
“He’s praying for you,” said Volodia and beat his chest.
“So young… Still a baby. Fuck!” Zhenya swore.
Their noses ran and their eyes were red, although they had not the strength to shed actual tears.
“Okay, let’s cover it up and be done with this,” said the social worker, a young man named Slava from the nineties’ immigration wave, whose scruffy hair and bloodshot eyes were unrelated to the funeral. “Anyone born in Russia, even in their condition, has a tough time seeing someone buried without a casket like that.”
They picked up shovels and started piling sand into the open grave.
“Maybe he has a mother back there who doesn’t even know he’s dead,” said Volodia and hugged himself
“He doesn’t have anyone. Died like a dog,” Zhenya declared. He dug his fingers into his curls.
When the job was done, Arieh suggested an improvised shiva meal: stale bread, salami, and not-very-fresh apples.
“Remember the Antonovka apples we had over there?” Zhenya asked suddenly.
“Yes, they were good,” Arieh concurred, and with no particular disquietude, perhaps just a lip-curl attesting to the passing years, he thought back to his father’s funeral. His memory was aided by photographs of the dead which were affixed to some of the faraway tombstones, beyondthe borders of the unknowns section, just like they used to do there. He remembered especiallythe frequent and bothersome thud that turned out to be the sound of overripe apples falling from a weary tree onto the graves. I haven’t been a child for a long time, Arieh told himself.
Slava contributed a bottle of “777” to the shiva feast. Following suit, Arieh poured a few drops of the cognac from his cup onto the fresh grave, according to the Russian custom whereby the living must share with the dead. He lifted the cup to his lips but did not drink.
“They used to have ‘Kazachok’ vodka in Israel, and it cost three and a half shekels,” said Volodia.
“Yeah, we used to mix it with juice to get it down to sixty proof.”
The two sailed off on nostalgic reflections.
“It’s amazing,” Slava said to Arieh. “They can’t remember something that happened this morning, but then they come up with these details…”
“The truth is, I’m wiped out. I have another junkie I need to take to the doctor first thing in the morning.”
“Isn’t this hard for you? You’re a young man.”
“Narmaliok. It’s all good.”
Slava had no difficulty accepting the cultural and linguistic schizophrenia that came with the immigration package, and he seemed to live easily in both worlds. I can’t do that, thought Arieh.
“We’ll give them a few more minutes,” said Slava, “then drive them to the Submarine.”
“It’s a homeless shelter in Jaffa. They can get a hot meal and a bed. Between you and me, I think they have TB.”
Genius, thought Arieh as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He’d wanted to be the first to say it—these were his patients! But he just nodded. On the way home he made a last-ditch effort to exploit the two men’s exhaustion and persuade them to get treatment.
“It’s a small clinic, just me and three nice nurses. One little pill a day. For six months.”
“How long?” Volodia whispered, and the paradox of administering this sort of treatment to the homeless became clearer than ever.
“If you don’t start the treatment you may not be alive in six months.”
“A great loss to humanity,” Zhenya muttered.
“I’m begging you, I know you can get better. Let me pick you up from the Submarine at around nine in the morning.”
“They turn everyone out at seven,” Slava intervened.
“Seven? That’s inhumane. All right, I’ll be there at seven.”
He woke up at six-thirty from a sleep addled by Russian nightmares. Not that there were creaking tramcars, flushed generals, damp clothes on the central heating, a picture of Pushkin’s duel, or a red pioneer tie knotted too tightly, but there were a different outline and a particular light and a certain yearning.
When he got to the Submarine he met a mixture of creatures with swollen flesh and deadened eyes lying on cots like defective, reeking babies, emitting sighs, coughs and other bodily sounds. But Zhenya and Volodia weren’t there.
“Look around, maybe you’ll find them,” said the director.
“No, I know my guys. They’re not here.”
I cannot recall whether this has been noted, but Arieh did not have a beard. He did, however, have the soul of a bearded man: he hated shaving and wanted to hide his face. It might have been his ex-wife, Yael, who got it into his head that all Russians had beards. Whatever the case, in the past two days he’d grown prickly stubble on his cheeks. He had to go to the clinic, admit defeat, and remind them that he hadn’t been suited to the task from the beginning. Walking beside the long wall down Trumpeldor Street, he spotted Shula from radiology. To avoid her, he had to slip into the cemetery. Was it her vocation that made it seem as though she could see through clothes? Examine kidneys and hearts? And another thought came to him as he looked around: It’s not good to be in cemeteries so frequently.
“Is Arieh here?” Shula asked at the clinic. “He ducked into the cemetery when he saw me, he thought I didn’t notice. Something’s going on with him, he needs a break. Why hasn’t he been here for two days?”
“Maybe he’s getting back together with his wife?” suggested a bored orderly.
“No way!” answered the all-knowing Shula. “Mixed couples never work out. It’s a different mentality. How can I put it? They dream in different languages. That poor little girl, I saw her with her mother once. Where did she get that height? Not from him, that’s for sure. He hasn’t seen her for maybe two years—you’d think Netanya was at the end of the world. Another symptom of divorce: a girl born here in Tel-Aviv gets dragged by her mother to her parents, and sometimes they happen to live in Netanya, unfortunately. And what about him? A man wrecks a home in Russia, comes over here, builds another home, and wrecks that one too. What kind of a life is that?”
Arieh went home, paced back and forth across the room like a fly, and only went outside again under the cover of darkness. He took off his leather sandals and skipped across the hot sand to the water. The traces of sunlight tinged everything in a coral shade, the color of rotting oranges, while the moon was already suspended up on the other side. Families were leaving the beach: children shuffled in flip-flops, tired parents with burned shoulders lugged heavy, wet towels full of sand. A lone sailboat turned black on the horizon.
Only then did the memory become lucid: it wasn’t a frog that had jumped on his face that day. He was lying on a pebble beach on the shores of the Black Sea when a dark shadow, like a creature, suddenly fell on his closed eyes. It was his father waving his hand over Arieh’s face to see if he was awake. He jumped back, but Father laughed: “What’s the panic? You’d think a frog jumped on your face!”
Arieh gazed down at the sand and wandered around. He saw castles abandoned by children, deep pits, popsicle wrappers, watermelon peels. Yael didn’t like the Tel Aviv beach; she preferred Turkey. And what did they get out of that godforsaken all-inclusive club? He kept walking. There were bird tracks, as if someone had drawn on the sand with a fork, and dog prints, a paddle ball, seaweed, shells. When he caught sight of the familiar torn coat, he stopped.
Arieh looked around and soon saw him standing waist-high in the water. “I might be imagining him,” he thought; “No, that’s him.” Zhenya didn’t respond when Arieh called, and hehad no choice but to take off his button-down shirt and trousers, which he folded and placed beside the coat.
“Don’t you recognize me?”
Zhenya was quiet, like a rock covered with scum, his oozing sores getting wet and his curly hair dripping. The daylight orange was rapidly being squeezed out on the horizon, and the sea was lit up by the city lights, which beat the pale moonlight rays to a pulp.
“Doctor.” Zhenya nodded.
“The salt is good for the sores,” Arieh explained and splashed water on his own face.
“The sea is warm. Like soup.” Zhenya smiled, showing infected gums.
“It is. I’m from Odessa so I’m used to the sea.”
“Omsk… No sea there, huh? Siberia. Cold.”
“Yes. You know?” Zhenya sounded suddenly perfectly sober. “When I got off the plane I thought I could smell it. They had that… what’s he called… the clerk who gave me money. He asked if I had family waiting for me, and I lied and said yes. I was afraid they’d send me back. The taxi driver spoke Russian so I asked him to take me to the sea. He dropped me off here. And that’s it.”
“What do you mean ‘that’s it’? What did you do?”
“At first I set up deck-chairs on the beach. And then… Then that’s it.”
“Just look at this guy,” Arieh said to himself, as though conversing with a much younger man. “They tell you a man is broken, ruined, but you go and start a conversation, without any condescension, and he gives you a that’s it—just the basics, the whole story, no aspirations. You never had a that’s it like that.” The waves must have awakened a propensity to philosophize, although perhaps it had always been there, in a faded form.
“What did you do there, if you don’t mind me asking?” Arieh continued.
“Oh, there. I was a porter, at a train station. My mother sent me here because they told her the heat made people stop drinking. She hoped I’d find a wife here.”
“Your mother? How old are you?”
“Thirty-something, I think.”
Arieh gaped. He’d been convinced Zhenya was around his age. Arieh’s own reasons for immigrating were completely different: his father had pounded the Zionist dream into him from a young age, as a subversive anti-Communist vision, and at twenty-three Arieh made aliya to fulfill the dream. His father stayed there, may his soul rest in peace.
“What happened?” Zhenya asked when Arieh suddenly jumped, splashing water everywhere.
“Nothing, I thought I felt something touch my foot. I thought it was a jellyfish.”
“No, the jellyfish won’t start for another month or so. You could say I’ve studied the topic… The sea is my bathtub.”
Aha! Arieh exclaimed victoriously to his inner conversant. The respect for nature, familiarity with the environment, survival skills: these are my people.
They turned to look at the row of hotels on the beachfront.
“Lots of hotels,” said Zhenya.
“Yes!” Arieh replied with excessive enthusiasm. Too many! And why, why so crowded? The garishness, the pomposity, the room service… How many years had he tried to play that local game? Overpriced dishes of watermelon and feta in the lobby… And that one time he got off on the wrong floor and ended up in the laundry room, with the steam, and the employees’ uniforms: vulgarities in Russian and Arabic, because what else was left for them but to talk vulgar in that steam all day long, unable to breathe. “I don’t have time to wash the towels!” a young worker had shouted. “Then just throw them in the drier as is!” they’d answered. And even there, in those hotels, he and Yael sat watching TV and she’d say: “Arik, call my mom and find out how the girl is.”
In Russia he had been Lev—a lion. But when he arrived in Israel and learned the meaning of his name in Hebrew, he realized that his parents had in fact named him for an internal organ:heart. Despite his fondness for medicine and anatomical research, this was too much. The Absorption Ministry official told him that Arieh was a lion in Hebrew, and so he agreed tochange his name and once again become a beast.
Arieh’s musings were disturbed by Zhenya wheezing.
“What’s the matter?” Arieh asked.
“Gotta get out.”
But when they reached the shore Arieh found his clothes had been stolen. He shouted and cursed while Zhenya kneeled over and spat up blood.
“Aha!” Arieh started laughing wildly. “But you didn’t take this, you idiots!” Raking through the sand with his fingers, he’d found his apartment key, which must have fallen out of his pants pocket. “Enjoy my lousy clothes and empty wallet!” Once he calmed down, he turned his attention to Zhenya. “Blood. You have to see a doctor.”
“I’m seeing you, that’s enough.”
“I don’t even have a first-aid kit here, I’m—“
“Don’t fuss. You hear me? The worst thing for a man is to run fuss. Don’t make any unnecessary movements. No fanaticism. Go home.”
“You have a home, don’t you? Right. Then go home. I’m fine. There’s nothing you can do here.”
“What a man,” Arieh thought as he walked away. Fortunately he found a hotel towel someone had left at the edge of the beach. He picked it up and wrapped it around himself. “So true, everything he told me. Go home. Home. But it’s different now.”
The few people who passed him saw a middle-aged, pot-bellied man in wet underwear, his thinning hair stuck to his slightly wrinkled forehead, eyes darting around awkwardly. But no one heckled him, no one called the authorities. In this city a man could walk around in his underwear if he wanted to, as long as he hadn’t forgotten to drape a towel over his shoulder, the hallmark of a beach-goer.
He stopped a short distance from his apartment building when he saw his daughter, Dana, coming from the other direction. But was it her? She looked much taller, and what were those low-rise pants? It bothered him but he didn’t take a single step in her direction. It had been two years since they’d seen each other. And here he was, unshaven, wearing nothing but underpants and a hotel towel. Arieh hid on the street corner and hoped she’d walk past. Several minutes went by. When he peeked out, she was gone. What was the meaning of all these delusions? he scolded his unruly consciousness. But when he drew near the building a light went on in his apartment, the window slid open, and he heard Dana calling: “Dad? Dad?” She looked out. Hey, don’t fall! Quick—hide behind that tree. Oh, stupid palm tree—useless. He made himself as small as he could behind the bent trunk, which offered no shade, no hiding place—at most a few dates that were too high up to reach, and if they fell they were rotten.
Dana went back inside without seeing him.
Must have had a fight with her mom and remembered she had a dad. But why today, dammit? She’ll probably leave soon. I hope she eats something at least. Except the fridge is empty.
Arieh sat down on the bench at a nearby bus-stop. He wouldn’t draw any attention that way. He even studied the route map for a while. “Why the hell doesn’t it say where I am now? How are you supposed to find your way around?”
A woman with shiny earrings stood next to him. He smiled at her and thought she recoiled a little. His hands were shaking. She didn’t seem accustomed to waiting for public transportation. And why should she be? he thought to himself.A dame like that? She should be carried in someone’s arms. She took a slender cigarette out of her small leather purse and rolled it between her fingers, but as soon as she lit it with her fancy lighter, the bus came.
“Oh, hints and clues…” thought Arieh as he stared at the burning cigarette on the sidewalk, with a clear ring of lipstick on its filter. “Absolutely not. I will not pick you up. Yes, this is all too obvious, a coincidence so banal it’s disgusting! Now I’m supposed to think: she was a respectable, hygienic woman, why not imagine that I simply asked her for a cigarette and she lit it for me? A flawlessly clean cigarette. Even more than that—a cigarette blessed by the lips of a beautiful women. Satan! That’s what this is. Tempting me to hit rock-bottom…yes…but a doctor can’t believe in Satan. Only in the coarse hand of chance.”
He was proud of his brilliant analysis, the analysis of a sober man with a good science education. He leaned back and sailed away in his imagination to strange heights he had never dreamed of conquering: conferences and research groups, lectures at foreign universities with simultaneous interpreting, surgery performed with admirable agility while students looked on.
“We have nothing to be ashamed of,” he told himself in Russian when he opened his eyes from his brief doze.
He went up to his apartment, whistling on the stairs to project confidence, and a moment before turning the key in the lock he combed his hair with his fingers. But he very quickly realized Dana was not there. Arieh was determined to find her: he had to explain everything—he’d go as far as Netanya. But he mustn’t look too eager. He got dressed and decided to walk to the central bus station, organizing his thoughts in a low voice on the way.
He calculated that he’d heard nine different languages en route: Arabic, English, Russian, French, German, Amharic, Georgian, Thai and Yiddish. This was a common occurrence, but adizziness originating in the Tower of Babel overcame him. He had to find the right words in Hebrew, but he had trouble—he, who had never even attempted to teach his daughter Russian.
Oh well, I’ll start to formulate my thoughts in Russian and then translate. But there’s no reason to start with an apology. The apology is there, it’s understood, it’s the basis for ourrelationship. You see, dear girl, somehow everything is all twisted around with us. The fact that me and Mom are like this… You were always her daughter. You see, I’ve gone through some stuff in the last few days. Spiritual elevation does exit in this world, and what they call independence, freedom, in the most profound sense… No. No good. I didn’t mean to burden you, you know, these sort of things should be said simply. You’reprobably thinking: My father is a small person. And maybe there’s some truth to that, but so what? So he’s small. So what if he’s small, for God’s sake? What is small? Small for what? For being a doctor? No, allow me to disagree here—a clever monkey can give injections, and I can do much more than that. Small for this life? Oh, Dana, now you’re getting into a philosophical realm which is, if you’ll forgive me, a little beyond the analytical skills of a girl who dressed up as a fairy at age seventeen and cried because she ran out of pink hairspray. You know what? I’ll stick with the costume metaphor if you don’t mind. My life as one long Purim. Just a minute, excuse me, I’ll just get on the—
“Nothing to wait for. The last bus left.”
“About twenty minutes ago.”
“What? Then what am I going to do?” Arieh sat down on the ground, out of breath.
“What’s the tragedy? Get a cab downstairs.”
What’s the tragedy… Smartass.
Do you see, Danochka, what I have to go through to reach you? And it’s not the physical distance, if you’ll allow me to wax poetic. But wait a second—how do you get out of this maze?
Arieh wandered around the empty corridors of the central bus station, where several of the fluorescent bulbs had burnt out. He passed by shuttered stores. Here was a Russian bookstore—Ah, yes, the complete works of Gogol, in grey binding, just like we had at home. Did my father ever read Gogol? The floor was slippery, having recently been mopped, to wipe away all the footsteps of the people who came and went in this urban port, and here was Arieh to make new footprints. He found the exit door and yanked the handles over and over, although it was immediately clear that it was locked, and he went off to look for another way out. The roaming continued. He stopped at a sex shop and gazed at a mannequin in a nurse’s uniform. He pulled himself together and went on, but he thought he’d already been down this corridor, and he turned back to try a different direction.
“What are you looking for?” An Ethiopian security guard scared him to death.
“Ah, my immigrant brother!” said Arieh with pathos. “How do I get out of here?”
The guard pointed to a big sign not two feet away: “Exit.” Arieh stepped out into the dark street. The central bus station area seemed to him like a puzzle whose pieces had been put together wrongly, by crude hands.
Yes, yes, you see, Dana, how many forms of life there are in the world? Look at that guy over there, with no shame at all, fallen asleep in his own vomit. And that woman—aren’t there supposed to be proper massage parlors? What is this? In the street like that? It’s enough to give you the chills. But I walk around here without fear. You might have been afraid, but I’m not. And if I’m not crying it’s only because I was weaned off crying as a baby. They forced me. Not like you: we let you cry as much as you wanted to. Cry, I used to whisper when you were a baby. Cry because this is the world and I can’t do anything about it. Cry for Daddy too. And about the costumes? I want you to know that I was in a costume for thirty years. Remember I once told you my name was Lev? I didn’t tell you? Right, maybe I didn’t. Well, see—that’s another sort of costume. And after all—Oh, crap. Wait a minute, I… It’s just that they stole my wallet on the beach and I was in such a hurry to leave that I forgot…
Arieh walked up to an old man in a cap waiting for a share taxi to fill up.
“Excuse me, sir. I have to get to Netanya, to my daughter… My wallet was stolen on the beach. Do you think you could… Give me your address or phone number and I’ll send you the money. I’m a doctor, I’m—”
“It’s okay, have one for me.” The old man handed him a handful of ten-penny coins.
“What? No, you don’t understand…” What an odd character, Arieh thought. After a short walk among the various waiting cabs, having scanned and recorded in his mind the expressions of the people waiting to leave Tel-Aviv and return to their faraway homes, Arieh knew he would not be going to Netanya and that the conversation with Dana was over and that, in fact, everything had already been said.
Before noon, Arieh walked into the League for Prevention of Pulmonary Disease clinic. A silver-haired man met him at the entrance.
“Hello,” Arieh said. “I don’t know you.”
“Moshe. Nice to meet you.” The man held out a gaunt hand.
“All right, we can shake hands, why not? Where’s the doctor? Is Shula here?”
“They’re at a conference. It’s just me here.”
“What? I don’t know you.” Arieh tittered. “Since when do you work here?”
“A month yesterday. It doesn’t pay much, but there’s not a lot of work. All in all, a good place.”
“A month? I don’t understand.” Arieh started coughing sharply.
“Sit down, sit down. It’s hot today, huh? Here, have some water.”
“Water? No thank you,” Arieh said and gulped down the contents of the disposable cup. “I was afraid to come, if you want to know the truth.”
“That goes without saying. There’s always some fear.” Moshe nodded.
Arieh went on without paying any attention. “The boss here, the doctor, he’s a bit of a… How should I put this… Not an easy man. Also… Well, a horrible man, if I’m being honest. And that Shula—”
“Yes, she’s an angel,” said Moshe.
“Why are you turning your head away?” Arieh asked after a pause. “Do I smell bad? Is that what you’re trying to say?”
“There’s a shower on the second floor that you can use. I can even give you a pair ofscissors, for your nails and hair, although it’s not exactly part of my job as supervisor.”
“What are you talking about? Telling me about the shower on the second floor! Buddy, I know this building like the back of my hand, and if I want to go up to the second fl—Wait a minute, what did you say your job was?”
“Supervisor. If you need tests, that’s with Shula. And by the way, it’s all funded by the clinic. Afterwards, if God forbid you need daily medication, you’ll come to me. What’s wrong? Wait a minute, you can sit here a while longer, hey! Where are you going? Isn’t it nicer here in the air-conditioning? What did I say? Crazy man…”
As he did every morning, Arieh walked into “Shekelovka,” a soup kitchen where you could get a hot meal for one shekel.
“Good morning, Doctor,” the cook greeted hm.
“Good morning, Tsiyona. I’ll have my usual.”
“Why don’t you sit down and eat something yourself?”
“No, no, I’m in a hurry. If I don’t bring them food, they don’t eat anything.”
“Are you sure I shouldn’t add some rice?”
“No, no, just a little fish, and if I can, a piece of that bread.”
“But it’s completely stale.”
“They like it stale.”
From there Arieh went to the sea. He walked barefoot alongside the long breakwater that joined up with the beach, the one the amateur fishermen usually used. Pale-blue-green waves shattered peacefully against the rocks. Diagonal rays of sunlight lit up the city gently, mercifully.
“Okay, friends, the doctor has arrived: no one will go hungry.” He found them in their usual spot, rummaging through a pile of trash, and they were undoubtedly happy to see him.
“Kak, kak?” One of them yelled when he saw the stale bread.
“Vot tak, and no arguments. It’s good for you, trust me. What a beautiful day, huh? January, and it’s like the middle of summer. Back there in our place it’s definitely snowing. Slow down, Zhenya, I know you’re hungry but you’ll choke if you eat like that.”
They ate eagerly and eventually Arieh relented and took a bite of fish. He undid one shirt button, scratched his chest and filled his lungs with air. But the air decided to come back out as a cough mingled with spit.
“Don’t worry, Syoma, it’s not what you think. It won’t be the TB that kills me—I’m vaccinated. We doctors have to get the vaccine. Where’s Volodia, why isn’t he here?” He suddenly shouted:“Hey! Syoma, don’t take his—no! No! That’s not yours! He deserves some too!” He stood up and waved. “Hey! Hey! Come back, I didn’t mean to shout. I’m sorry. Oh,come on, I’m just trying to do things fairly around here.”
All the gulls took off in a panic, spread their wings and flew far away.