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Authors: Etgar Keret,Nathan Englander,Miriam Shlesinger,Sondra Silverston

Suddenly, a Knock on the Door: Stories

BOOK: Suddenly, a Knock on the Door: Stories
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TO SHIRA
 
“Tell me a story,” the bearded man sitting on my living-room sofa commands. The situation, I must say, is anything but pleasant. I’m someone who
writes
stories, not someone who tells them. And even
that
isn’t something I do on demand. The last time anyone asked me to tell him a story, it was my son. That was a year ago. I told him something about a fairy and a ferret—I don’t even remember what exactly—and within two minutes he was fast asleep. But the situation is fundamentally different. Because my son doesn’t have a beard, or a pistol. Because my son asked for the story nicely, and this man is simply trying to rob me of it.
I try to explain to the bearded man that if he puts his pistol away it will only work in his favor, in our favor. It’s hard to think up a story with the barrel of a loaded pistol pointed at your head. But the guy insists. “In this country,” he explains, “if you want something, you have to use force.” He just got here from Sweden, and in Sweden it’s completely different. Over there, if you want something, you ask politely, and most of the time you get it. But not in the stifling, muggy Middle East. All it takes is one week in this place to figure out how things work—or rather, how things don’t work. The Palestinians asked for a state, nicely. Did they get one? The hell they did. So they switched to blowing up kids on buses, and people started listening. The settlers wanted a dialogue. Did anyone pick up on it? No way. So they started getting physical, pouring hot oil on the border patrolmen, and suddenly they had an audience. In this country, might makes right, and it doesn’t matter if it’s about politics, or economics or a parking space. Brute force is the only language we understand.
Sweden, the place the bearded guy made aliya from, is progressive, and is way up there in quite a few areas. Sweden isn’t just ABBA or IKEA or the Nobel Prize. Sweden is a world unto itself, and whatever they have, they got by peaceful means. In Sweden, if he’d gone to the Ace of Base soloist, knocked on her door, and asked her to sing for him, she’d have invited him in and made him a cup of tea. Then she’d have pulled out her acoustic guitar from under the bed and played for him. All this with a smile! But here? I mean, if he hadn’t been flashing a pistol I’d have thrown him out right away. Look, I try to reason. “‘Look’ yourself,” the bearded guy grumbles, and cocks his pistol. “It’s either a story or a bullet between the eyes.” I see my choices are limited. The guy means business. “Two people are sitting in a room,” I begin. “Suddenly, there’s a knock on the door.” The bearded guy stiffens, and for a moment I think maybe the story’s getting to him, but it isn’t. He’s listening to something else. There’s a knock on the door. “Open it,” he tells me, “and don’t try anything. Get rid of whoever it is, and do it fast, or this is going to end badly.”
The young man at the door is doing a survey. He has a few questions. Short ones. About the high humidity here in summer, and how it affects my disposition. I tell him I’m not interested but he pushes his way inside anyway.
“Who’s that?” he asks me, pointing at the bearded guy. “That’s my nephew from Sweden,” I lie. “His father died in an avalanche and he’s here for the funeral. We’re just going over the will. Could you please respect our privacy and leave?” “C’mon, man,” the pollster says, and pats me on the shoulder. “It’s just a few questions. Give a guy a chance to earn a few bucks. They pay me per respondent.” He flops down on the sofa, clutching his binder. The Swede takes a seat next to him. I’m still standing, trying to sound like I mean it. “I’m asking you to leave,” I tell him. “Your timing is way off.” “Way off, eh?” He opens the plastic binder and pulls out a big revolver. “Why’s my timing off? ’Cause I’m darker? ’Cause I’m not good enough? When it comes to Swedes, you’ve got all the time in the world. But for a Moroccan, for a war veteran who left pieces of his spleen behind in Lebanon, you can’t spare a fucking minute.” I try to reason with him, to tell him it’s not that way at all, that he’d simply caught me at a delicate point in my conversation with the Swede. But the pollster raises his revolver to his lips and signals me to shut up.
“Vamos,”
he says. “Stop making excuses. Sit down over there, and out with it.” “Out with what?” I ask. The truth is, now I’m pretty uptight. The Swede has a pistol too. Things might get out of hand. East is east and west is west, and all that. Different mentalities. Or else the Swede could lose it, simply because he wants the story all to himself. Solo. “Don’t get me started,” the pollster warns. “I have a short fuse. Out with the story—and make it quick.” “Yeah,” the Swede chimes in, and pulls out his piece too. I clear my throat, and start all over again. “Three people are sitting in a room.” “And no ‘Suddenly, there’s a knock on the door,’” the Swede announces. The pollster doesn’t quite get it, but plays along with him. “Get going,” he says. “And no knocking on the door. Tell us something else. Surprise us.”
I stop short, and take a deep breath. Both of them are staring at me. How do I always get myself into these situations? I bet things like this never happen to Amos Oz or David Grossman. Suddenly there’s a knock on the door. Their gaze turns menacing. I shrug. It’s not about me. There’s nothing in my story to connect it to that knock. “Get rid of him,” the pollster orders me. “Get rid of him, whoever it is.” I open the door just a crack. It’s a pizza delivery guy. “Are you Keret?” he asks. “Yes,” I say, “but I didn’t order a pizza.” “It says here Fourteen Zamenhoff Street,” he snaps, pointing at the printed delivery slip and pushing his way inside. “So what,” I say, “I didn’t order a pizza.” “Family size,” he insists. “Half pineapple, half anchovy. Prepaid. Credit card. Just gimme my tip and I’m outta here.” “Are you here for a story too?” the Swede interrogates. “What story?” the pizza guy asks, but it’s obvious he’s lying. He’s not very good at it. “Pull it out,” the pollster prods. “C’mon, out with the pistol already.” “I don’t have a pistol,” the pizza guy admits awkwardly, and draws a cleaver out from under his cardboard tray. “But I’ll cut him into julienne strips unless he coughs up a good one, on the double.”
The three of them are on the sofa—the Swede on the right, then the pizza guy, then the pollster. “I can’t do it like this,” I tell them. “I can’t get a story going with the three of you here and your weapons and all that. Go take a walk around the block, and by the time you get back, I’ll have something for you.” “The asshole’s gonna call the cops,” the pollster tells the Swede. “What’s he thinking, that we were born yesterday?” “C’mon, give us one and we’ll be on our way,” the pizza guy begs. “A short one. Don’t be so anal. Things are tough, you know. Unemployment, suicide bombings, Iranians. People are hungry for something else. What do you think brought law-abiding guys like us this far? We’re desperate, man, desperate.”
I clear my throat and start again. “Four people are sitting in a room. It’s hot. They’re bored. The air conditioner’s on the blink. One of them asks for a story. The second one joins in, then the third …” “That’s not a story,” the pollster protests. “That’s an eyewitness report. It’s exactly what’s happening here right now. Exactly what we’re trying to run away from. Don’t you go and dump reality on us like a garbage truck. Use your imagination, man, create, invent, take it all the way.”
I nod and start again. “A man is sitting in a room, all by himself. He’s lonely. He’s a writer. He wants to write a story. It’s been a long time since he wrote his last story, and he misses it. He misses the feeling of creating something out of something. That’s right—something out of something. Because something out of nothing is when you make something up out of thin air, in which case it has no value. Anybody can do that. But something out of something means it was really there the whole time, inside you, and you discover it as part of something new, that’s never happened before. The man decides to write a story about the situation. Not the political situation and not the social situation either. He decides to write a story about the human situation, the human condition. The human condition the way he’s experiencing it right now. But he draws a blank. No story presents itself. Because the human condition the way he’s experiencing it right now doesn’t seem to be worth a story, and he’s just about to give up when suddenly …” “I warned you already,” the Swede interrupts me. “No knock on the door.” “I’ve got to,” I insist. “Without a knock on the door there’s no story.” “Let him,” the pizza guy says softly. “Give him some slack. You want a knock on the door? Okay, have your knock on the door. Just so long as it brings us a story.”
 
Robbie was seven when he told his first lie. His mother had given him a wrinkled old bill and asked him to go buy her a pack of king-size Kents at the grocery store. Robbie bought an ice-cream cone instead. He took the change and hid the coins under a big white stone in the backyard of their apartment building, and when Mother asked him what had happened he told her that a giant redheaded kid who was missing a front tooth tackled him in the street, slapped him, and took the money. She believed him. And Robbie hasn’t stopped lying since. When he was in high school he spent an entire week vegging out on the beach in Eilat, after selling the student counselor a story about his aunt from Beersheba who discovered she had cancer. When he was in the army, this imaginary aunt went blind and saved his ass, big-time, when he went AWOL. No detention, not even confined-to-barracks. Nothing. Once, when he was two hours late for work, he’d made up a lie about a German shepherd he’d found sprawled out beside the road. The dog had been run over, he’d said, and he’d taken it to the vet. In this lie, the dog was paralyzed in two legs, and he’d taken it to the vet only to find that the dog was never going to be able to move his hind legs again. That did the trick. There were lots of lies along the way in Robbie’s life. Lies without arms, lies that were ill, lies that did harm, lies that could kill. Lies on foot, or behind the wheel, black-tie lies, and lies that could steal. He made up these lies in a flash, never thinking he’d have to cross paths with them again.
It all started with a dream. A short, fuzzy dream about his dead mother. In this dream the two of them were sitting on a straw mat in the middle of a clear white surface that seemed to have no beginning and no end. Next to them on this infinite white surface was a gumball machine with a bubble top, the old-fashioned kind where you put a coin in the slot, turn the handle—and out comes a gumball. And in his dream, Robbie’s mother told him that the afterworld was driving her up the wall, because the people were good, but there were no cigarettes. Not just no cigarettes, no coffee. No public radio. Nothing.
“You have to help me, Robbie,” she said. “You have to buy me a gumball. I raised you, son. All these years I gave you everything and asked for nothing. But now it’s time to give something back to your old mom. Buy me a gumball. A red one, if you can, but blue is okay too.” And in his dream, Robbie kept rummaging through his pockets, hoping to find some change. Nothing. “I don’t have any, Mom,” he said, the tears welling up in his eyes. “I don’t have any change. I went through all my pockets.”
Considering that he never cried when he was awake, it was strange to be crying in his dream. “Did you look under the stone?” his mother asked, and clasped his hand in her own. “Maybe the coins are still there?”
And then he woke up. It was five a.m. on a Saturday, and still dark outside. Robbie found himself getting into the car and driving to the place where he had lived as a little boy. With no traffic on the road, it took him less than twenty minutes to get there. On the ground floor of the building, where Pliskin’s grocery store had once been, there was a dollar store, and next to it, instead of the shoe-repair guy there was a cell-phone outlet offering upgrades like there was no tomorrow.
But the building itself hadn’t changed. More than twenty years had gone by since they’d moved out, and it hadn’t even been repainted. The yard was still the same too, a few flowers, a spigot, a rusty water meter, weeds. And in the corner, next to the clotheslines, was the white stone, just lying there.
He stood in the backyard of the building where he’d grown up, wearing his parka, holding a big plastic flashlight, feeling strange. Five thirty a.m. on a Saturday. Let’s say a neighbor showed up—what would he say? My dead mother appeared in my dream and asked me to buy her a gumball, so I came here to look for change?
Strange that the stone was still there, after all those years. Then again, if you thought about it, it’s not as if stones just get up and walk away. He picked it up, gingerly, as if there might be a scorpion hiding beneath it. But there was no scorpion, and no snake either, and no coins. Just a hole the width of a grapefruit, and a light shining out of it.
Robbie tried to peek into the hole, but the light dazzled him. He hesitated for a second, then reached in. Lying on the ground, he extended his arm all the way up to his shoulder, trying to touch something at the bottom. But there was no bottom and the only thing he could reach was made of cold metal and felt like a handle. The handle of a gumball machine. Robbie turned it as hard as he could and felt the handle respond to his touch. This was the moment the gumball should have rolled out. This was exactly when it should have made its way from the metallic innards of the machine into the hand of the little boy waiting impatiently for it to emerge. This was exactly the moment when all those things were supposed to happen. But they didn’t. And as soon as Robbie had finished turning the handle, he’d showed up here.
“Here” was a different place, but a familiar one too. It was the place from his mother’s dream. Stark white, no walls, no floor, no ceiling, no sunshine. Just whiteness and a gumball machine. A gumball machine and a sweaty, ugly redheaded boy. Somehow, Robbie hadn’t noticed him before, and just as Robbie was about to smile at the boy or say anything at all, the redhead kicked him in the shins, as hard as he could, and Robbie dropped to the ground, writhing in pain. With Robbie down on his knees, he and the kid were now the same height. The kid looked Robbie in the eye, and even though Robbie knew they’d never met, there was something familiar about him. “Who are you?” he asked the kid, who was standing in front of him. “Me?” the kid answered, showing a mean smile with a missing front tooth. “I’m your first lie.”
 
 
Robbie struggled to his feet. His leg hurt like hell. The kid himself was long gone. Robbie studied the gumball machine. In among the round gumballs there were half-transparent plastic balls with trinkets inside them. He rummaged through his pockets for some change, but then remembered that the kid had grabbed his wallet before he took off.
Robbie limped away, in no particular direction. Since there was nothing to go by on the white surface, except the gumball machine, all he could do was try to move away from it. Every few steps he turned around to make sure the machine was becoming smaller.
At one point, he turned around to discover a German shepherd standing next to a skinny old man with a glass eye and no arms. The dog he recognized at once, by the way it half-crawled forward, its two forelegs struggling to pull its paralyzed pelvis along. It was the run-over dog from the lie. It was panting with the effort and excitement, and was happy to see him. It licked Robbie’s hand and looked at him intently with glistening eyes. Robbie couldn’t quite place the skinny old man.
“I’m Robbie,” he said.
“I’m Igor,” the old man introduced himself, and gave Robbie a pat with one of his hooks.
“Do we know each other?” Robbie asked after a few seconds’ awkward silence.
“No,” Igor said, lifting the leash with one of his hooks. “I’m only here because of him. He sniffed you from miles away and got worked up. He wanted us to come.”
“So, there’s no connection—between us?” Robbie asked. He felt a sense of relief as he said this.
“Me and you? No, no connection whatsoever. I’m somebody else’s lie.”
Robbie almost asked whose lie he was but he was afraid the question might be considered rude in this place. For that matter, he’d have liked to ask what this place was exactly and whether there were a lot more people there, or more lies, or whatever they called themselves, other than him. But he thought it might be a sensitive topic and that he shouldn’t bring it up just yet. So instead of talking, he patted Igor’s handicapped dog. It was a nice dog, and it seemed happy to meet Robbie, who wished his lie had had a little less pain and suffering in it.
“The gumball machine,” he asked Igor, when a few minutes had passed. “What coins does it take?”
“Liras,” the old man said.
Robbie said, “There was a kid here just now. He took my wallet. But even if he hadn’t, there wouldn’t be any liras in it.”
“A kid with a tooth missing?” Igor asked. “That little scum steals from everyone. He even eats the dog’s Ken-L Ration. Where I come from, in Russia, they’d take a kid like that and stick him out in the snow in nothing but his underwear, and they wouldn’t let him back in the house until his whole body turned blue.” With one of his hooks, Igor pointed to his back pocket. “In there I’ve got some liras. Help yourself. It’s on me.”
Robbie hesitated, but he took a lira coin out of Igor’s pocket and, after thanking him, offered to give him his Swatch in return.
“Thanks.” Igor nodded. “But what would I do with a plastic watch? Besides, I’m in no hurry to get anywhere.”
When he saw Robbie looking around for something else to give him, Igor stopped him and said, “I owe you anyway. If you hadn’t made up that lie about the dog, I’d be all alone. So now we’re even.”
Robbie hobbled back as quickly as he could in the direction of the gumball machine. He was still smarting from the redhead’s kick, but less so now. He dropped the lira into the slot, took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and turned the handle.
He found himself stretched out on the ground in the yard of their old building. The dawn light was painting the sky dark shades of blue. Robbie pulled his arm out of the hole in the ground. And when he opened his fist, there was a red gumball inside.
 
 
Before he left, he put the stone back in its place. He didn’t ask himself about the hole and what exactly had happened down there. He just got in the car, backed up, and drove away. The red gumball he put under his pillow, for his mother, in case she came back in his dream.
At first, Robbie thought about it a lot, about that place, about the dog, about Igor, about other lies he’d told—lies he was lucky enough not to have to meet again. There was that bizarre lie he’d told his ex-girlfriend, Ruthie, when he couldn’t make it to Friday-night dinner at her parents’ house—about this niece of his who lived in Natanya whose husband beat her up, and about how the guy had threatened to kill her, so Robbie had to go over there to help calm things down. To this day, he had no idea why he’d made up such a twisted story. Maybe at the time he thought that the more complicated and warped it was, the more likely Ruthie was to believe him. Some people when they bail on Friday-night dinner say they’ve got a headache or something. Not him. Instead, because of him and those stories of his, a lunatic husband and a battered wife were out there, not far away, in a hole in the ground.
He didn’t go back to the hole, but something about that place stuck with him. At first, he continued to tell lies, but they were the kind where nobody beats anybody and nobody limps or dies of cancer. For example: He was late for work because he had to water the plants in his aunt’s apartment while she was visiting her successful son in Japan. Or: He was late for a baby shower because a cat just had kittens on his stoop and he had to take care of the litter. Stuff like that.
But it was much harder to make up all the positive lies. At least, if you wanted them to sound plausible. In general if you tell people something bad, they buy right into it, because it strikes them as normal. But when you make up good things, they get suspicious. And so, very gradually, Robbie found himself winding down the lies. Out of laziness, mostly. And with time, he thought less and less about that place. About the hole. Until the morning when he overheard Natasha from Accounting talking to her boss. Her uncle Igor had had a heart attack and she needed some time off. Poor guy—a widower, who’d already lost both arms in an accident in Russia. And now, his heart. He was so alone, so helpless.
The head of Accounting granted her time off right away, no questions asked. She went to her office, took her bag, and left the building. Robbie followed Natasha to her car. When she stopped to get her keys out of her bag, he stopped too. She turned around. “You work in Acquisitions, don’t you?” she asked. “Aren’t you Zaguri’s assistant?”
“Yeah,” Robbie said, nodding. “My name’s Robbie.”
“Cool, Robbie,” Natasha said with a nervous Russian smile. “So what’s up? You need something?”
“It’s about that lie you told, earlier, to the head of Accounting,” Robbie stammered. “I know him.”
“You followed me all the way to my car just to accuse me of being a liar?”
“No,” said Robbie. “I didn’t mean to accuse you. Really. Your being a liar is cool. I’m a liar too. But this Igor from your lie, I met him. He’s one in a million. And you—if you don’t mind my saying so—you’ve made things pretty hard for him as it is. So I just wanted to—”
“Would you get out of my way?” Natasha interrupted him icily. “You’re blocking the door of my car.”
“I know this sounds far-fetched, but I can prove it,” Robbie said, feeling more and more uneasy. “This Igor doesn’t have an eye. I mean, he does, but only one. At one point, you must have made up something about how he’d lost an eye, right?”
Natasha was already getting into her car, but she stopped. “Where d’you get that from? Are you a friend of Slava’s?”
“I don’t know any Slava,” Robbie muttered. “Just Igor. Really. If you want, I can take you to him.”
BOOK: Suddenly, a Knock on the Door: Stories
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