Umbrella

 

Umbrella

By Leonid Pekarovsky

Translated from the Hebrew version by Yaron Regev

 

I admit it - I’m a junkie! If I don’t get my fix in the morning, I feel sick all day, and tormented by bitter feelings. The drug I’ve been addicted to for many years is not morphine, nor is it heroin. It’s books. And I shoot them straight into my brain. There, the drug is absorbed by my intellect and penetrates my heart and my soul. In the next stage, my drugged consciousness, ready for the metaphysical journey, holds its breath. It takes me far-far over the Earth, way up high above the clouds – assuming, of course that there are actually clouds at that particular moment in the utterly faded Tel Aviv summer sky.
 
Well, it is eight times now that I’ve read all the books in my little library, the ones I brought with me from the diaspora to the Land of Israel. As for new books, I cannot afford to buy them as they are very expensive and I am a poor man. No, my poverty isn’t absolute, of the kind when you have nothing to eat, your clothes are tattered and torn, and you sit in the old central bus station begging for alms. I am relatively poor, because as a guard I earn a minimum wage and can barely make ends meet. After paying all the bills mortgage, property taxes, electricity, water, telephone and gas there’s still a little left for some food and inexpensive clothes I buy from a clearance boutique. Forget about classical music concerts which purify the soul, or buying a book I have long been dreaming about, for example, Creative Evolution by Henri Bergson.
           
One day, I found that book at a chain bookstore in Allenby Street. I was filled with lust for it as I skimmed over the introduction. I read, The book Creative Evolution, published in 1907, has earned Bergson world renown as a thinking man and an author. It is mainly due to this publication that he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1927.
 
In my youth, I had wanted to be a thinker, a philosopher, but no philosopher had emerged from me because of my limited mental capacity. I admired the great Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. Both had been genius philosophers and accomplished writers. Now I stood in that bookstore in Allenby with Henri Bergson’s book in my hands. I turned to the back cover and looked at the price. The blow to my financial consciousness was immediate and crushing. There was no way I could have bought it…
 
And now here I am, sitting in my guard booth, thinking about Henri Bergson and his book, Creative Evolution. I am wondering how I can get my hands on this book. How? How could I do it without draining our meager family budget? At the same time, with an unfocused gaze, my eyes skim over the objects that are with me in the guard booth. Over the years, I have become so used to them that I feel they are close to my heart. A radio tape – I listen to the Russian channel on it. An electric kettle – I make a brew five times a day; three cups of tea and two cups of black coffee. Three windows. Above them, there are shutters I open or close, according to where the sun is in the sky as it moves on its circular course above Tel Aviv. To my right, on a hook, hangs an umbrella.
 
Stop!
 
I jerk myself back to reality and focus my total attention on that umbrella. It is black, a child’s umbrella, a small one. Someone forgot to take it with them about eight years ago. I hung it in my guard booth thinking that should anyone remember the loss, and come to claim it, I would be able to return the umbrella. But no one ever has. Which is how it has gained its place here for all time among the other items in the booth. That umbrella, if not used for a child to play with, is of no use at all. Once I tried to use it in heavy rain. My head remained dry, but my back was completely soaked. So I just put the umbrella aside. It was the only object in the booth that didn’t have a role.
 
Perhaps the other objects considered it to be a parasite. I don’t know. But over time, I gradually got used to that umbrella, and now I can no longer imagine an inner view of the booth without it. Umbrella… Umbrella… Now a sudden revelation, and in this instant an idea is born that seems utterly brilliant. An umbrella can be used for protection, not only from the rain but also from the sun. Furthermore, it was invented some three thousand years ago in China or Egypt (historians cannot seem to come to an agreement regarding which) as a means of protection from the sun. What if I added an additional service to my job: accompanying the company’s employees and customers, holding the black umbrella from my booth over their heads? First, this would protect them from the scorching Israeli sun, blazing and sparklingly blinding. And second, it would add an aristocratic finesse to the way the company’s clients were welcomed, which might, in turn, influence their mood, and to a certain degree even their decision of whether or not to purchase an expensive product, i.e., a vehicle.
 
The idea seems revolutionary to me, because no parking lot in Israel offers a service like it. And, of course, it would be provided free of charge. But I have to admit, deep in my soul, in its darkest recesses, a dim hope stirs. Perhaps someone would feel they should tip me for this ‘gratis’ service. Small change, perhaps, but over time, if I let it accumulate long enough, it would allow me to save the money to purchase Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution.
 
The next day, at about nine in the morning, my first customer arrives. He gets out of his car. He looks to be in his mid-forties, curly hair, his skin tanned enough to be deemed unafraid of the blazing Israeli sun. A man who does not normally use suntan lotion or visit a dermatologist to have the dangers of skin cancer clearly explained.
 
I open the umbrella and take a step towards him. He smiles sarcastically and says, “But it’s summer, not winter. What do you need an umbrella for?”
 
I explain to him, in all seriousness, that in a company like ours the umbrella is an additional service, aimed at protecting the client from the insufferable summer sun on his way from the car to the building.
 
I open the umbrella over his head. He pushes away my umbrella-holding hand, obviously seeing this whole situation as a miserable joke, or, even worse, as mockery and derision.
 
“What, can’t you tell by my tan that I’m not afraid of a little sun?”
 
“The skin is one thing,” I say, “but the sun’s rays also strike at the head like a hammer.”
 
“I have a strong head. It could even take a blow from a real hammer.”
 
I stand there looking at the customer. I have to overcome his skepticism and distrust. I am convinced my revolutionary idea will work. I call on my imagination to help. It obediently comes, bringing inspiration with it. In bright, verbal colors, I begin to recount the history of the umbrella. I tell the client, who first listens to me incredulously, then with growing interest, that the nation that gave birth to the umbrella was either China or Egypt, no one yet has been able to determine with certainty which exactly. To have an umbrella, along with the fan was considered a privilege reserved solely for monarchs and government ministers. It was invented somewhere around the eleventh century BCE, and was used exclusively for protection against the sun.  From the east, use of the umbrella spread westward until it reached ancient Greece. From there it migrated to Rome, where it was mainly used by women. It was only in the eighteenth century that the umbrella was used for protection against rain.
 
“For our clients who don’t need protection from the sun,” I add on a final note, “we offer this service to stress just how much we respect them, and how much we appreciate the fact that they come to us.”
 
I stop speaking. The customer, overwhelmed by that torrent of tumultuous information, is left shocked. But upon hearing my last words, about the great honor bestowed upon him by the company, and about all the appreciation we have for him, he snaps out of his state of shock.
 
“I’m ready!” he says. “And just how much does this service cost?”
 
“It costs nothing.”
 
By this time, he is utterly appeased. We start marching, with me holding the umbrella over his head. You should have seen how he walks the twenty meters from the parking lot to the building. He holds his chest out, lifts his head, and his gait has suddenly become regal and calculated, like that of a Chinese mandarin. His self-esteem has swelled to humongous proportions. When we reach the entrance to the building, he pats my shoulder and says:
 
“Thank you, my good man! Your company certainly has excellent customer service.”
 
In that same way, I serve three more customers. Towards noon, the fifth one arrives. Not very young. Fairly tall. With a beautiful white beard, echoing Ernest Hemingway’s. His skin testifies to the fact that he hasn’t been made for exposure to sunlight. I notice little red lumps on his hands and pigment stains. I tell him about our new service. His face fills with a boundless expression of self-importance, as if he is telling me, “If such a service exists in your company, then serve me!”
 
Before he goes into the building, he throws me a quick, “Thank you,” and extends a coin to me. One shekel. And that is how I discover the cost of this service I have invented – one shekel.
 
Over the course of three hot summer months that transform Tel Aviv into a kind of inferno, I run with the childish umbrella back and forth across the concrete lot. My idea has proven to be a little less brilliant than I originally thought. True, I have received tips, but only in the following proportion: out of every ten customers, only two have given me a shekel. But even that has been enough for me to save, over the summer, the necessary amount.
 
At the end of September, when Rosh Hashana is drawing near, I arrange a holiday gift for myself. I buy the book Creative Evolution by Henri Bergson. In the first two days that follow, I sniff exaggerated doses of the drug. In other words, I read fervently. Under the influence of that foggy intoxication, I completely forget about running back and forth across the scorching parking lot, and the humiliation of marching with an umbrella with one hand, holding it over the heads of the customers bobbing beneath it.
 
And how could I not forget all that with such a powerful dosage of words and ideas penetrating straight into my sensitive brain? For example: … the more he advances down the trajectory of time, the mental state grows wider, due to the dimension it absorbs: as if he rolls within himself like a snowball…
 
Next summer, I intend to repeat my tiny business within a business so that I will be able to buy myself another book for Rosh Hashana. This time it will Conversations with Goethe by Johann Peter Eckermann. 

Copyright © Leonid Pekarovsky 2021

Leonid Pekarovsky (the author), born in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1947, is a writer, journalist and art critic. Pekarovsky served in the Red Army before studying art theory and history at the Fine Arts Institute in Kiev. He worked for the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture for many years, where he organized art exhibitions both in the USSR and worldwide. His essays on art theory and history have been published in professional journals. After he immigrated to Israel in 1991, he worked as a gardener and a printer and, in 1995, became a security guard until he recently retired to focus on his writing. His stories and novellas have been printed in the Russian press as well as in the Haaretz Culture and Literature Supplement. His first book, Broom and Other Stories, was published in 2012. His second book, A Parabola of Success, was published in 2015. His third short story collection, Ten Agorot, published in 2018, was shortlisted for the prestigious Israeli Sapir Prize.

Yaron Regev (the translator) is an author and translator. He is the author of two graphic novels, the 2019 published Ghosts of Love and Country, the soon to be released Descartes’ World, an upcoming YA fantasy series called The Door Behind the Sun, the short play Until the Children Will Return, and several adult novels.



 

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