Translated by Shira Atik
Roy (Roee) Chen aims to do for Israel’s cultural capital what Gogol and Dostoyevsky did for St. Petersburg. Stories of pathos and tales of the fantastic all make their appearance in Chen’s vision of a tarnished yet magical Tel Aviv. His bittersweet story, “The Stamp,” appeared in Yiddish translation in 2007, and makes its English debut in our pages. – Adam Rovner, translations editor
Old Max loved to talk. Here is one of the stories he told in the stamp shop on King George Street. He began in the usual way when he went to pick up the stamp he’d ordered a month earlier:
“Let me tell you a story. Believe or don’t believe.”
“A story is one thing, belief is another,” said the merchant. He held a plastic fork and ate rice with raisins, a recipe he’d learned from his third wife, may her soul rest in peace.
“A few days ago, before dawn, I felt this warmth on my neck, like a cat had fallen asleep on me. And as you know, I don’t have a cat. I open my eyes and don’t see a thing because I’m not wearing my glasses. It’s hard for me to breathe. I reach for my inhaler and take a breath, but I’m still wheezing. Then I reach for my glasses, and all of a sudden I realize someone’s standing there trying to strangle me. ‘Why’re you strangling me?’ I ask. ‘Why aren’t you choking?’ he shoots back, while his hands are still wrapped around my neck. And you know me, I’ve had asthma all my life. Choking doesn’t faze me.”
“So?” the stamp merchant asked, his mouth full of food.
“If you don’t mind, I want to smoke a cigarette. I promise to put it out as soon as someone comes in.”
“You know nobody’s going to come in,” the stamp merchant said as he reached under the counter for an ashtray.
Max exhaled slowly.
“So?” the stamp merchant said.
“Fascinating, huh? I knew you’d like this one. Can I taste your rice?”
“After you finish your cigarette, and your story.”
“You’re a miser. A glutton. Anyway, to make it short, eventually he gave up. Turns out he was a thief. Told me so himself: ‘I’m a thief,’ he says.”
“A junkie,” the stamp merchant sneered.
“What makes you say that? Does every thief have to be a junkie? Did it ever occur to you that maybe he just didn’t have any money? I told him I didn’t have any cash and that they cancelled my credit card two days ago.”
“You lied?” the merchant asked.
“What’re you getting all self-righteous about? You would have told him something different?”
“I wouldn’t have said anything. I would’ve…”
“You would’ve had a heart attack on the spot! I asked him to leave the room for a minute so I could put my pants on. A young guy, twenty-something, unshaven. Reminded me of myself when I was his age.”
“I know. He looked so troubled. He stared at my bookshelves like he’d never read a book in his life, then asked if I owned any electronics. You know, like a DVD player, all that modern stuff. Chose the wrong door, nebech.”
The stamp merchant laughed good-heartedly; he knew his old friend so well. He turned on the electric kettle.
“I offered him the vacuum cleaner,” Max continued.
“The hand-held vacuum?” the merchant raised his voice. “The little one?”
“The one I gave you?”
“Yes, the one that broke two days later, and you know exactly why!”
“Well? Did he take it?”
The stamp merchant huffed.
“But the thief still looked troubled. He wanted more. He started walking over to my stamp album, but I made it clear that would be a mistake.” The merchant’s eyes flickered with pride. “And then he went for the closets and ransacked them.”
“I lit a cigarette, and when I finished it he was standing in front of me, panting, with a small jewelry box in his hand.”
“You have a jewelry box?” the stamp merchant asked, amazed.
“It was Manya’s,” Max replied.
The kettle boiled.
“We opened it up and found a small photograph. It startled him. He said the man in the photo looked like him. I told him it was me. I hadn’t seen that box in at least twenty-five years. Her brooch was there, too, the silver one with the… never mind. I explained why he couldn’t take it. ‘Okay,’ he whispered, and put it back on the table.”
“A junkie tzaddik.”
“Can I have a cup of tea?”
“What do you think I’m doing?” the stamp merchant snapped.
“He wandered around the room like a sleepwalker, desperate to find something of value. We haggled over everything until I tired out and went to the kitchen to make a sandwich.”
“Before dawn? You’re going to ruin your health!”
“I was hungry!” Max said. A strange sadness clouded his eyes.
Cars drove back and forth along King George Street, back and forth..
“You know,” Max said, “last night I thought how lucky it was that she’s already dead. She would’ve been petrified. She hated all those strange characters I used to collect, and he was that type.”
“I’m that type too.” The merchant smiled, and the two men drank their tea without taking their eyes off each other. During this brief silence, the sadness in Max’s eyes spread across his face. He thought for a moment. “When was the last time you were with a woman?” he asked.
“Pardon me?” the merchant stammered.
“After the thief left, I suddenly started thinking about it. Because of the brooch. There was something to it. To sex.”
“Absolutely. Sex was very nice.”
“Nice? Nice is feeding the pigeons in Meir Park. Sex was huge, awesome, glorious,” Max practically whispered. He remembered his last time, decades ago. A summer day. He had been sitting on his porch on Ehad Ha’Am Street and Manya’s sister came out wearing a thin robe. She was staying with them for what would be her first and last visit to Israel. She asked him to teach her some Hebrew words; she was very interested in Israel.
Max lit another cigarette.
“I try not to think about it,” the stamp merchant said. “Anyway, it was such a long time ago.” Still, he remembered his last time. She was about his age, which is to say, on the cusp of old.. Her hair was dyed; her eyes were green. They spoke Romanian, but during the act they were quiet. She was very flexible, he discovered, with the body of a child. At the time he had felt like a hero, but woke the next morning feeling unsettled. Why the hell did Max make him think about these things?
“So the junkie went home with my vacuum cleaner?”
“Yes,” Max sighed.
“He should use it in good health.”
“Do you think this city needs us?” Max asked.
“Do you think another city needs us?”
“I like talking to you,” Max confessed in a voice that was, somehow, uncomfortably honest.
“Yes,” muttered the stamp merchant. Then, to make things easier for both of them, he added, “You know, I also had a story about a thief once…”
“I have to go,” Max cut him off.
“Oh. OK. See you.”
Max took his crooked cane and walked out.
“Wait!” called the stamp merchant. He turned to follow Max, but first he licked his finger to pick up the stamp Max had ordered. A stamp featuring a picture of the city of Lodz.
Outside, the sound of the cars caught the merchant off guard. A young delivery man pushing a dolly made the sound of a horn with his mouth and gestured for him to move. Max, who was on the other side of the street, turned around. He saw the stamp merchant standing there, confused, his hand in the air like a student who wanted to ask God a question. The two of them stood there, piercing one another with hopeless eyes, and then the wind came and carried off the stamp.
About the Translator
Shira Atik, a literary translator living in Springfield, Massachusetts, has translated for the Jewish Publication Society, the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature, and numerous authors and playwrights. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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