Two Stories by Etgar Keret

BOMB 95 Spring 2006
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Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company


Your Man

When Abigail told me she wanted to break up, I was in shock. The cab had just pulled up at her place, and she got out on the sidewalk side and said she didn’t want me to come up, and that she didn’t really want to talk about it either, and that most of all she never wanted to hear from me again, not even a Happy New Year or a birthday card. And then she slammed the cab door so hard that the driver cursed her through the window. I just sat there in the back seat, numb. If we’d had a fight or something, maybe I’d have been more prepared, but we’d had a really great evening. The movie sucked, but otherwise everything was fine. And then that monologue, out of nowhere, and the door slamming, and bam! Our whole six months together gone, just like that! “So what now?” the driver asked, looking at me in the rear-view mirror. “Want me to take you home? If you’ve got a home, that is. To your parents’ place? Friends? A massage parlor downtown? You’re the boss, you’re the king.” I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself. All I knew was it wasn’t fair. After Ronit and I split up I swore I wouldn’t let anyone get close enough to hurt me like that, but then Abigail came along, and everything was so wonderful, and I just don’t deserve this. “You’re right,” the driver grunted. He’d turned off the ignition and tilted his seat back. “Why drive when it’s so cozy here. Me, I don’t care. The meter’s running either way.” And that’s when they announced the address on the radio. “Nine Massada Street. Who’s up?” And that address—I’d heard it before, and it had stayed in my memory as if someone had scratched it in there with a nail.

When Ronit split it was the same, in a cab, the cab that was taking her to the airport, to be precise. She said it was over between us, and sure enough, I never heard from her again. I was left that way then too, stuck alone in the back seat of a cab. The driver that time yakked and yakked, and I didn’t hear a word. But that annoying address on the radio I actually do remember very clearly. “Nine Massada Street. Whose call?” And now, maybe it’s just a coincidence, but still, I told the driver to go there, I had to find out what that address was all about. As we pulled up, I saw another cab drive away, and inside, in the back seat, was the silhouette of a small head, like a child’s or a baby’s. I paid the driver and got out.

It was a private house. I opened the gate, and walked up the path to the door. I rang the bell. It was a dumb thing to do, and I don’t know what I’d have done if anyone had opened the door, or what I would have said. There was no reason for me to be there at that hour. But I was so mad I didn’t care. I rang once again, a long ring, and then I banged on the door, like in the army when we used to do door-to-door searches, but nobody came. In my head, thoughts about Abigail and Ronit began to get all mixed up with thoughts about other breakups, and everything sort of got lumped together. And this house, where nobody opened the door, was getting on my nerves. I started to circle around it, looking for a window I could look through. The place didn’t have any windows, just a back door, mostly glass. I tried to see inside—everything was dark. I kept trying, but I couldn’t get my eyes to adjust. It seemed as if the harder I tried, the blacker it all looked. It blew my mind, it really did. And suddenly it was as if I was seeing myself from a distance, bending over, lifting a rock, wrapping it in my sweatshirt and breaking the glass.

I reached in, careful not to cut myself, and opened the door. I groped for the light switch, and when I found it, the light was yellow and dim. One bulb for that whole big room. And that’s exactly what the place was—an enormous room, no furniture, completely empty, except for one wall that was covered with photographs of women. Some of them were framed, some just stuck on the wall with masking tape, and I knew them all: there was Dalia, my girlfriend in the army; and Danielle, we went steady in high school; and Stephanie, a tourist who stayed; and Ronit. They were all there, and in the left-hand corner, in a delicate gold frame, was a picture of Abigail, smiling. I turned out the light and collapsed in the corner, trembling all over. I didn’t know the guy who was living here, why he was doing this to me, or how he always succeeded in wrecking things. But suddenly it all fell into place, all those breakups, all that jumping ship out of the blue—Danielle, Abigail, Ronit. It was never about us, it was always him.

I don’t know how much time went by before he came home. First I heard the cab pulling away, then the sound of his key in the front door, and then the light went back on, and there he was, standing right in front of me and smiling, the son of a bitch, just looking at me and smiling. He was short, like a kid, with big eyes, no lashes, and he was holding a colored plastic schoolbag. When I got up out of my corner he just gave a weird little laugh, like he’d been caught red-handed, and asked how I’d gotten there. “So she left too, huh?” he said when I’d gotten closer, “Never mind, there’ll always be another one.” And me, instead of answering, I slammed the rock down on his head, and when he dropped I didn’t stop. I don’t want another one, I want Abigail, I want him to stop laughing. And the whole time I was bashing him with the rock he just kept whimpering: “What’re you doing, what’re you doing, what’re you doing, I’m your man, your man,” till he stopped. When it was over, I threw up. And when I’d finished throwing up, I felt lighter sort of, like on army hikes when it’s someone else’s turn to take the stretcher from you, and suddenly you feel light lighter than you ever thought possible. Light as a child. And all the hatred and the guilt and the fear that I’d be caught—it all just disappeared.

Behind the house, not far away, were some woods, and that’s where I dumped him. The rock and the sweatshirt, which were soaked with blood, I buried in the yard. In the weeks after that, I kept looking for him in the papers, both in the news and in the missing persons ads, but there was nothing. Abigail didn’t answer my messages, and someone at work told me they’d seen her in town with this tall guy with a pony tail. It broke me up to hear that, but I knew there was nothing I could do about it, it was over for good. A little while later, I started going out with Mia. Right from the start, everything with her was so sane, so okay. And unlike the way I usually am with girls, with her I was very open right from the start and let my defenses down. At night I’d dream sometimes about that dwarf, how I got rid of his body in the woods, and I’d wake up in a panic, but then I’d remind myself there was no reason, he wasn’t around anymore, and then I’d hold Mia and go back to sleep.

Mia and I broke up in a cab. She said that I had no feelings, that I was clueless, that sometimes she’d be suffering in the worst way, and I’d be sure she was having a good time, just because I was. She said we’d been having problems for quite a while, but that I hadn’t even noticed. And then she started to cry. I tried to take her in my arms, but she pulled away and said that if I cared about her I should just let her go. I didn’t know if I should go up after her and keep trying. On the cab radio they gave an address: “Four Adler Road.” I told the driver to take me there. Another cab was already standing there when we arrived. A couple got in, about my age, maybe a little younger. Their driver said something and they both laughed. I kept going, to Nine Massada Street. I looked for his body in the woods, but it wasn’t there. The only thing I could find was a rusty iron rod. I picked it up and started walking toward the house.

The house looked just the same, dark, with the broken pane in the back door. I reached inside, groped for the handle, careful not to get cut. I found the light switch right away. It was still all empty, except for the pictures on the wall, the dwarf’s ugly schoolbag and a dark, sticky stain on the floor. I studied the pictures. They were all there, in exactly the same order. When I was through with the pictures, I opened the bag and looked inside. There was some cash, a used bus pass, an eyeglass case, and a picture of Mia. In it, her hair was up, and she looked a little lonely. And suddenly I understood what he’d said back then, before he died, about there always being another one. I tried to picture him on the night Abigail and I broke up, going wherever it was he went, returning with the picture, making sure, I don’t know how, that I’d meet Mia. Except I’d managed to blow it again this time. And now it wasn’t so sure I’d ever meet another one. Because my man was dead. I’d killed him myself.

 

The Night the Buses Died

I was waiting on the bench at the bus stop the night they died. Checking the punch marks in my bus pass, trying to figure out what they reminded me of. One of the holes looked like a rabbit. That one was my favorite. The others, no matter how long I stared at them, just kept looking like holes. “An hour we’ve been waiting,” an old man grumbled, half asleep. “Longer in fact. The bus company, those two-timing bastards, when it comes to sponging off the government, they show up in no time, but when you’re waiting for them to come—you could die first.” The old man completed his litany, adjusted his beret and went back to sleep. I smiled at his shut eyes and went back to staring at the holes, waiting patiently for something to change. A sweaty young man whizzed past and without stopping, he turned to look at us and shouted in a parched and breathless voice: “There’s no point waiting. The buses are dead. All of them.” He went on running and he’d gone quite a ways before he clutched his side with his left hand and turned to look back at us, as if remembering something important he’d forgotten to say. The tears on his cheeks glistened like beads of perspiration. “All of them,” he shouted in a hysterical voice, then turned back and ran on. The old man awoke, startled. “What does he want, the mishigenner?” “Nothing, Gramps, nothing,” I mumbled. I picked my backpack up off the ground and started walking down the street. “Young man—you—where are you going?” the old man shouted after me.

By the old chocolate factory there was a couple waiting, playing one of those finger games whose rules I’ve never figured out. “Hey,” the guy called out at me. The pad of the girl’s thumb was touching his outstretched palm. “Any idea what’s up with the buses?” I shrugged. “Maybe there’s a strike,” I heard him tell her. “You’d better stay over at my place. It’s already pretty late.” The strap of my backpack was cutting into my back, and I straightened it out. The bus stops along the entire main road were deserted. Everyone seemed to have given up and gone home. They weren’t at all disturbed by the fact that the buses hadn’t come. I continued south.

On Lincoln Street I spotted the first corpse, lying on its back, misshapen. An opaque layer of black brake oil was smeared across the cracked windshield. I knelt down and wiped off the stains with my shirtsleeve. It was a number 42. I’d never actually taken that one. I think it runs from Petah Tikva or something. A gutted bus lying on its back in the middle of Lincoln Street. I didn’t quite know how to account for the sadness I felt.

At the central bus station, there were hundreds of them scattered here and there, rivulets of fuel oozing out of their disemboweled bodies, their shattered innards strewn on the black and silent asphalt. Dozens of people were sitting around, despondent, hoping to hear the purr of a motor, their tearful eyes scouring the landscape in search of a spinning wheel. Someone wearing a bus inspector’s hat was walking through the crowd, trying to offer some hope: “It’s probably only here. There are lots of them in Haifa. They’ll be here any minute. Everything’s going to be fine.” But they all knew—him too—that none had been spared.

People were saying that the malabi vendor had set fire to his cart and walked home, that the cassettes at the music stands had cracked in agony, that soldiers who’d been waiting at the station with bloodshot eyes weren’t smiling as they walked back home. Even they were sad. I found an abandoned bus stop bench, lay down and closed my eyes. The punch marks in the bus pass in my pocket were still looking like ordinary holes.

—Writer Etgar Keret is one of the leading voices in Israeli literature. His writing has been translated into more than 20 languages. Keret has published four books of short stories and novellas, two comic books and two feature screenplays. His latest collection of stories, The Nimrod Flipout, will be published in April by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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Originally published in

BOMB 95, Spring 2006

Interviews Dana Schutz, Harrell Fletcher, Tacita Dean and Jeffrey Eugenides, Frederic Tuten and Bernard Henri-Lévy, Lynne Tillman and Paula Fox, Judd Ne’eman and Janet Burstein, Charles Atlas, and Marsha Norman and Adam Rapp.

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