A new diaspora of Israelis living abroad has taken Hebrew literature far from the concerns of the State. In this short story, paranoia and coincidence turn an encounter between an Israeli businessman and an elderly gentlemen on Parisian streets into a meeting with the uncanny. –Adam Rovner, Zeek’s Hebrew translations editor
I was in a rush to get to work yesterday. The clouds that hung in the morning sky emitted a colorless drizzle. Thoughts ran through my mind like electricity through a high-voltage cable: the traffic, Joe lurking in wait for me in the office, all the telephone calls that I’d put off from the day before yesterday to yesterday and then to today. I turned on the Peugeot’s radio to France Inter, to hear the anchorwoman’s caressing voice.
Ever since Rama bought the blue Peugeot, after my arrival in Paris, she, the host of the station’s news and talk show, has been my constant companion in the car. I can’t manage without her. She calms me, her gentle voice chaperones me from the underground parking garage, along the Boulevard Périphérique, to my job in Saint-Denis, and on the way back from work along the Périphérique’s outer and inner lanes, to the Twelfth Arrondissement, where I live.
I passed the pharmacy and out of the corner of my eye spotted the gas station, at the corner of Rue de Picpus, right near the library and about fifty meters from the Rothschild retirement home. I stopped to wait for a traffic signal to turn green. The radio host’s slightly hoarse, throaty voice filled the car and made my body go slack. Suddenly, my gaze turned sharply to the other side of the road. An old man fell to the ground on the opposite side of the street.
I immediately pulled the car over by him so that I was as close to the sidewalk as I could get. I got out, raised the old man up with both hands, and helped him into the car.
I should tell you something about myself. Ever since I came here, I’ve been afraid to leave home. I get really anxious when I go out to the street. A pit opens up in my stomach. I get dizzy, beads of cold sweat appear on my skin. “Something horrible could happen at any moment, and you’re invisible,” a strange voice whispers inside me, “and no one will know who you are.” Only at home, in the car, and at work does that wild, uncontrollable voice stop reverberating within me.
I conduct whatever business I can from my apartment. My connection to the world outside runs through the telephone receivers and wires. I order my lab equipment from catalogues, maintain my contacts with other people by telephone and my sense of hearing. Shopping, my little girl’s preschool, library, renting the apartment, the bank–Rama takes care of all of that. She bought the car, too. Big and blue. This way I can go from one container to another, and to my office, which is also a kind of container.
When I drive the car, I try to get behind an ambulance or police car. “If something happens to me,” I tell myself, “they’ll see who I am and help me, that’s their profession.” If a police car goes by, I get right behind it and try to keep up. “If something happens to me,” I tell myself, “they’ll help me. That’s their job. They’ll identify me. They’ll talk to me, they’ll know who I am.” When I’m about to get on the Périphérique I check the time to see that twenty minutes have passed. At the interchange I have to see the pharmacy, where at just this time a woman, probably the pharmacist, is supposed to quickly sweep up the fallen leaves, she probably knows English, so if I need to I can talk to her. But what will I tell her? The pharmacist?
From there I drive another twenty minutes on my way to work with no point of reference at all. Only the curving freeway. My pulse speeds up, I feel my heart pound, my hands sweating, and when forty minutes have passed I approach the interchange where I exit to go to work. I wait to see the gas station, where the policeman always stands. “And what if the policeman isn’t there? Or if it’s not the same policeman? The one with the little moustache who’s always there?” Off the interchange I turn left, arrive in the little town, and breathe a sigh of relief.
The wall of the cemetery extends before me. The sight soothes me. I drive alongside the large stone wall. An avenue of trees. It’s comforting. I’m almost at work.
I stayed close to the car. First I helped the old guy in and buckled him up. But then, when he sat there and looked at me with his watery blue eyes, and his gnarled hand with its crooked fingers closed on mine, I felt a sense of relief. I suddenly felt that I was part of something. I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t invisible.
The old man looked at me with glassy eyes.
“Monsieur,” he said in French with a slight Yiddish accent, “I beg of you, take me home.”
“Take you home?” I put my thoughts in order. “Where do you live?”
“There,” he replied unfalteringly, pointing straight down the street.
He directed me toward the Bastille, through the morning traffic jams, in the opposite direction from my office. I realized that Joe would be waiting for me, would be angry, furious, but it didn’t matter. It wouldn’t be the first time.
When we first got here I was afraid to drive alone, and Rama would take me and the girl on the Metro, each to the appropriate destination. Who will take me back from work?
I don’t take the Metro alone, I don’t go out on the street by myself, only when I have no alternative and I have to take my daughter to school. We reach the big circle at the corner and I’m overcome with panic. “If something happens,” I say to myself, “then my daughter is with me. I’m not alone. The girl can tell you what happened. She’ll explain it.” I grip her hand, but she’s actually gripping my sticky hand. There are a lot of people around me, a commotion, noise, cars careening dizzily around the circle, the stairs down to the Metro are in the middle, people walk toward them in a hurry. The carousel with the wooden horses that stands next to the Metro station, and the crêpes vendor, it all spins so fast. Children riding the colorful ponies and the two German shepherds at the entrance to the station, where are the police? Aren’t there policemen? There always are.
They search for the foreigners, the blacks, the dark-skinned ones, the Arabs, the ones without visas–I’m a foreigner, too, where are they? If something happens they’ll do something, that’s their job, where are they? I grip the girl’s hand even harder. She is gazing, mesmerized, at the horses and the little elephants floating through the air.
“Daddy,” she asks, “We’ll come back here, right?”
“Of course,” I say. “Whenever you want.”
After saying goodbye to her I find myself alone on the outside of the locked school gate. How will I get home? Alone?
I go over my unvarying route in my mind. I know I have to get from one point to the next. Sweat pools on my upper lip, on my forehead, in my armpits. I pass the boulangerie, the traffic signal on the corner next to the cinema, and reach the gas station. Then it’s the hospital and then I’m home. I don’t need to think about the route, like the house of horrors in the amusement park.
It’s the same on the way back from work. I’ve found a solution that took me hours of planning and thought to reach. After casting around and worrying I realized that Monsieur Dreu, who works with me at the office, lives on the next street over from me, and he takes the 5:30 train. At five I would already be waiting in the hall, listening for his footsteps to make sure he didn’t evade me. At 5:20 he would leave the office dressed in a khaki-colored raincoat, usually holding an umbrella and walking erectly to the gate. This was precisely the moment I’d run after him.
“Monsieur Dreu, mind if I join you?” I’d say, matching his stride. This partnership cost me–I’d have to listen to him talk about his fossil collection, which was his only hobby. That’s what I did until Rama bought the blue Peugeot. And now the old man was sitting in it.
“At the Bastille,” he said, “Rue de Faubourg Saint-Antoine, number 12.”
I remembered. Varda and Joel live on that street. The old man pointed with a bent finger to one of the buildings and commanded:
I released the seatbelt and helped him out. He put on his coat and we got out. His limp body tensed. He gripped his cane in one hand and with the second dragged me eagerly after him.
We halted at the entranceway to a tall building and pushed open a heavy wooden door. In the courtyard, the concierge swept the cobblestones and raked the leaves that had fallen from the tree above.
A chilly autumn wind blew through the yard and the old man’s hand was cold in mine. He rushed to go inside as if unseen powers had infused his body with an elixir of youth. I pulled him back and turned to the sweeping woman.
“Bonjour, Monsieur,” she said with a chirpy voice, and smiled.
“Bonjour, Madame, perhaps you know which apartment this gentleman lives in?”
She examined him carefully, hunched her body into the corner of the entryway and said in a low voice that she was very sorry, but she did not know this man.
“I live here, on the third floor,” mumbled the man, pulling at my arm.
“Are you certain, Madame?” I asked.
“Yes, I don’t know him, but perhaps one of the neighbors knows something,” the concierge said impatiently, and turned to sweep up some geranium leaves.
A man of about sixty came down the stairs wearing a light-colored jacket and with thick-framed glasses on his face.
“Monsieur Horowitz, you said?” he asked, repeating my question. “Horowitz? I remember, perhaps he was here, but that was a long time ago, oh, yes, a long time ago… They were a very nice couple, it’s been a long time since she passed away.…”
“What am I going to do with him?” The thought ran through my head. Where can I take him? Where? Back to the streetlight, under the traffic signal?
I gripped his hand and he began beating me with his cane, shouting and lashing out in anger: “A ganif, a ganif, I’m staying here!”
I tried to persuade him gently: “Come,” I said, “I’ll take you back to where you came from, you don’t live here anymore.”
“I’m staying here,” he said, planting his slender feet firmly on the cobblestones.
I grabbed his arm and dragged him into the car. I fastened the seatbelt over him again, as he shouted: “Leave me alone, I’ll call the police, you’re kidnapping me!” The velvety voice of the woman from France Inter emerged from the radio, the same voice that always comforted me on my way out and back, now informed me about a light cloud bank over Normandy’s beaches that was headed in the direction of Paris.
I began to drive and Monsieur Horowitz twisted in his seat, banging right and left with his cane and screaming: “Kidnapper! A ganif! A kriminal! I’ll call the police!”
I began to get angry. Who knows what time I’d get to work now, what with the traffic, and Joe would obviously be furious, he’d stick out his lower lip, rounded and distended as if he’d been stung by a bee. And all my landmarks? What if the druggist on Boulevard Péripherique was no longer at her door? What if the policeman by the gas station was no longer on duty?
The old man grew weary, his head bobbed loosely with the rhythm of the car’s movements, but his clenched fists did not relax. We returned to the street, to the corner, to the traffic signal. I parked the car and unfastened the old man’s seatbelt. What will I do with him now? Don’t I have enough troubles of my own, what will I do? And he, frightened, quickly stuck his sticky hand into my damp palm and mumbled, What? What are you going to do with me now? Leave me here? Next to the traffic signal? Under the streetlight?
Nurit Kotler was born in Tel Aviv, where she lives today. She spent several years in Paris studying and practicing dance. Her short story collection Come, But Without Your Eyes [תבוא, אבל בלי העיניים], from which “Next to the Traffic Signal, Under the Streetlight” is taken, was published in 2007 by Sifriat Poalim and won the Miftanim Prize.
Haim Watzman has translated works by David Grossman, Amos Oz, Tom Segev, and other leading Israeli writers. He is the author of two books, Company C: An American’s Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel and A Crack in the Earth: A Journey Up Israel’s Rift Valley. He blogs at Southjerusalem.com.
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