(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Asaf Schurr
Translated from Hebrew by Dalya Bilu
This time of day there’s no one home, I thought. Only old people and the children playing hooky from school, if there were any left in the building. I could start with the Greenbergs, I thought. They lived a floor and a half below us and always had a spare key in a kitchen drawer. My mother reminded me of this every morning, in case I forgot my satchel in the bus again and when I got home from school I'd find myself in front of a locked door. Of course I never forgot. Not after the first time it happened and we had to call in a locksmith to change the cylinder. I wrote my name and family name on all my copybooks, and then the street number, the neighborhood, the town, the country, the continent and so on. All the kids wrote the same: the Milky Way, the Universe. There we stopped. We didn’t think of the time, but on my arithmetic copybook I added the floor and the apartment number. ‘Do you understand what a stupid thing you did, Omer?!’ my father said angrily. ‘Now anyone can come with the key and simply walk in. Imagine if it happens when your mother is alone at home. Or you.’ From then on I was careful.
Greenberg, announced the plastic letters stuck onto the wooden plaque years ago. Definitely before we left the building. Maybe even before we came to live there. No first names, no ‘Family’. Just plain Greenberg. I knocked on the door.
‘Hi,’ I said when she asked who was there. ‘It’s Omer. Levy.’
‘Just a minute,’ she said. ‘I’m opening the door.’
One lock clicked. And then she tried the handle. She jiggled it again and again, but the door stayed shut. ‘Just a minute,’ she said, as if she was asking someone else holding the handle, not her, to be patient. ‘There’s another lock.’
The spring bolt jammed for a moment before she succeeded, and there was a pause and then came the clatter of the chain on the inside of the door.
Once, when the handle was on a level with my eyes, I would hang on it and open the door and charge straight into the living room, and they were always glad to see me. Sometimes, at summer, they would leave the door open to get some air in, and Greenberg would sit in his undershirt on the armchair in the living room with a book or the newspaper, and from time to time raise his eyes from them to nod to people going up and down the stairs.
Now the big living room window was shut but light flooded in from the end of the passage and slanted onto the dark carpet I remembered. ‘Omeriko!’ she said. ‘Look at you! Come in, come in. To what do we owe the honor? Greenberg, you won’t believe who’s here.’
I followed her down the passage to the kitchen. Greenberg was sitting stooped over the Formica table and didn’t look up when I came in.
‘Look who’s here, Greenberg!’ She looked at him for a minute and turned back to me. Her face was still plump and smiling, but her scalp was visible among the fair hairs, and her cheeks were softer than I remembered, swollen under the thin skin. ‘Don’t take offence, Omeriko. He doesn’t recognize anyone anymore. But I’m sure he would be happy to see you if he knew you were here. You would have been happy, right, Greenberg? My goodness, how you’ve grown, just look at you. What can I get you to drink?’
‘Nothing, really,’ I said. ‘Wow, it’s a long time since I've been here. Ruhama, excuse me, but do you still have a key for the upstairs apartment? I have to take care of something there urgently.’
‘Did the boiler burst again?’ she asked.
‘No,’ I said. ‘The tenant called me. She said there was someone there who wouldn’t leave.’
Ruhama put her hand on her heart. ‘A burglar?’ she whispered.
‘No, no, I don’t think so. I don’t know what the story is, exactly. Some kind of boyfriend of the tenant’s or something. But he won’t leave.’
‘So he’s not running away, is he?’ said Ruhama. ‘But don’t let a crazy old woman keep you. I won’t force you to have a cup of tea. But you can just sit down for a minute while I look in the drawers.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘You’re right. It’s not as if he’s running away.’
I sat down. ‘So how are you, Greenberg?’ I asked in a loud voice.
‘He’s not deaf,’ said Ruhama. ‘It won’t do any good to shout. Not that I haven’t tried. Not that I haven’t tried, eh, Greenberg?’ she raised her voice. Greenberg did not react. She rummaged through the drawers. ‘I’m so sorry, Omeriko. I don’t see any key here. Would you like to have a look?’
I nodded at Greenberg and stood up to look. The drawers were surprisingly tidy, with can-openers and lighters, egg-beaters and nail clippers, an empty pepper mill and a bundle of expired gift vouchers. There was no key there. I removed the vouchers. ‘Would you like me to throw these out? They’re past their expiry date.’
Ruhama waved her hand. ‘No, no, leave them there. So the children have something to play with when we’re gone. Perhaps you’ll change your mind about the tea?’
‘Maybe later,’ I said and sat down anyway. Ruhama sat down opposite me.
We were silent for a minute. ‘Has he been like this for a long time already? Greenberg?’ I asked.
‘Two years already,’ she said. ‘You remember how he used to be? And all of a sudden. Like turning off a switch. A stroke, they said. Nothing to be done,’ she nodded and pretended to spit on the back of her hand which was covered with liver spots. She rubbed them with her fingers and laughed. ‘You see? Life leaves stains that won’t come off.’
Greenberg coughed quietly and she hurried to pat his back. ‘He caught a little cold from the air conditioner,’ she explained apologetically. ‘He’s usually as healthy as an ox.’
Greenberg coughed again. ‘Frog,’ he said suddenly and sat a little straighter, but he didn’t look at her. Nor at me. ‘Frog bearing. Clouds.’
Ruhama nodded at him. ‘Yes, Greenberg,’ she said. ‘You haven’t seen each other for years, that’s right.’
He sank down in his chair again. ‘You see that?’ she said. ‘Quiet and quiet and quiet, and then suddenly he comes up with something like that. As if the wires got connected for a bit, but the wrong way round. Good thing I understand him. Right, Greenberg?’ she raised her voice. ‘Yes, after sixty years together you understand even when people get a little mixed up.’
She was silent for a minute and gathered a few crumbs from the Formica. After a minute she dropped them on the corner of the table. ‘You know,’ she leaned over to me, ‘I keep thinking that somebody's got to help him, Omeriko,’ she gestured towards him. ‘That’s what I keep on thinking. Somebody's simply got to help.’
I nodded and she reached out her hand and put it on mine. ‘You understand me, don’t you? This is no life for a person, living like that. To end up like this, on a chair, after all that living. But I can’t. So somebody else has to.’
Greenberg himself didn’t move while she spoke. Only when the lights flickered for a minute and the air conditioner fell silent and then went on again with a whistling sound a kind of tremor took hold of him. The edge of his white undershirt was revealed like a secret under his buttoned shirt.
‘Oh dear,’ she said, patted my hand once or twice, and withdrew her hand. ‘What do you say to me pouncing on you like that? And daring to ask for such a thing! But you forgive me, right? And you forgive me for talking like this. I haven’t even asked you how your parents were. But everybody cries where it hurts him, right, Omeriko? And there’s nobody to help us. I can’t ask the children. How can you ask your children for something like that? And I can’t do it by myself. I can’t do it to him. He’s suffering. I’ve known him for sixty years, I know what I’m talking about. And for the sake of his dignity too, it should be done. For a person's dignity. Look at how he’s sitting there. It’s not the man you remember. He himself would prefer it. Oy, I’m right Omeriko. You know I’m right. But I can’t do it. I can’t do it by myself. And even if I had the heart, my hands aren't strong enough.’
She brushed the table with her hand. ‘So that’s what I’m saying.’ She looked down at the floor. ‘That’s all I’m saying. That I wish someone would be prepared to help him. To help him get it over with. You understand me? You must understand me, Omeriko. You remember him the way he was, right? Of course you do. Here, come, come,’ she said and rose with an effort to her feet, beckoned him to follow her and opened the door to the little room in the passageway. ‘You see?’ she asked, almost triumphantly. ‘You remember?’
The tools were still arranged on the walls, the fine and rough files, the screwdrivers, the hammers, the saw.
I glanced back at the little kitchen where he was still sitting, drooping in the chair, leaning over the Formica table like a squashed cushion. He never raised his eyes to look at us, not once.
‘Come in,’ she said. ‘sit down. Let yourself remember. There’s nothing like the memories engraved on your backside, right?’ She giggled like a girl and then suddenly sighed.
She pulled the little stool out from under the table, gripped my shoulder unexpectedly hard, and turned me towards it, pushing me into the room and then downwards, until I was sitting with my knees against my chest.
‘What did you make here? A slingshot? You made a slingshot here? You fixed a radio? All the kids in the building went through this room. How can you forget, Omeriko? And how he loved you all! Come, come. We’ll make another cup of tea and you’ll tell me about yourself. And how your parents are. All alive, please God? Three sugars still? You see, I remember. The box here still works,’ she said and tapped her skull with a finger knuckle. ‘Let's sit and talk a little. And about Greenberg you’ll think and say nothing in the meantime. It’s not a simple matter, I know. Even talking about it isn’t easy at your age. That’s what I think, you tell me if I’m right or not. It’s a big thing to ask. Not something you get asked every day. You have to let it stew, you can’t decide on the spot.’
There was a faded colored photo on the cork board above the table. Three men in army uniform, two of them with tousled mops of hair, and in the middle, with a parting in his straight hair, Greenberg. With his pressed shirt buttoned up, and on his face the polite smile I remembered.
‘You recognize him?’ she asked. ‘The one in the middle, that's Greenberg. He’s easy to recognize. But here on the right, you see who that is? Saperstein. It’s Saperstein from the second floor. They were together in Sinai. Hard to believe, right? How young they are. That’s how we landed up in the building in the first place. It was Saperstein who told Greenberg about it. And we were already looking for a place in town, because of the university. Three doctorates aren’t so easy to come by, right, Omeriko? Let’s go back to the kitchen and make you a cup of tea. Three sugars, we said?’
I nodded, even though today I don’t take any sugar at all.
‘You see,’ declared Ruhama, ‘some things don’t change. Say what you like.’