The sky above Yonina’s porch was empty, only a bit of cloud flat as a handkerchief floating there. Look at it, I said to her, all alone in the great blue, but she didn’t give it a glance. Yonina doesn’t look up at the sky before she finishes taking care of what’s on the ground, because so what? if you look up you’ll see the signs of the storm that will wreck what’s down below. She was weeding the geranium planters, throwing bits of couch-grass into the yard, sullenly and silently tearing off dry leaves, she loosened the soil with her strong fingers and said, You’re not thirty-nine yet, are you really going to live there? Are you serious? She pointed a muddy finger at the sky and said, He’s completely freaked you out.
Leave God out of it, Yonina, it isn’t his business, I said.
He ruined your life and it isn’t his business? I don’t understand you.
What’s there to understand here? It’s not God. It’s an arbitrary collision of metals that cut into my life and left me three options: the graveyard, the lunatic asylum or sheltered housing, and I chose the third.
Not God, not at all… and that word, arbitrary, where did you get that from? In any case, those aren’t the options, Nava, don’t be ridiculous.
I didn’t take her advice and I went to check out the place in advance. I saw a wide, blank iron gate standing between the trunks of two tall palm trees, above it a sign saying ‘Blue Skies, Sheltered Housing’, high above the gate the windswept palm fronds beating against one another, and above them immeasurable azure. I said, the main thing is that you can see the sky, and called them.
They asked me, for your mother, your father, both of them?
For someone in urgent need.
Lucid? We don’t take dementia patients here.
And thus on my thirty-ninth birthday I brought two suitcases and a backpack with me to apartment number seventeen, and I’ve been here for a month since then. My kitchen window, like the windows of the other apartments, overlooks a flourishing garden with a big fishpond in the middle, as far as the eye can see pruned rose beds, tall pines and weeping willows, wooden benches painted blue, and paths leading from here to there paved with pink flagstones. The building surrounds the garden in a square. Three wings of the square hold fifty-one apartments, and the fourth a magnificent lobby, dining room, office, clinic, gym and synagogue. My apartment is tiny but it has a porch overlooking the back yard, and praise be whoever refrained from covering the back yard with pink paving stones and left the ground free to breathe, tall poplars allotting its light and shade, the grass changing according to the seasons, and the budding and wilting governed by nature. Musa the gardener retires to it at noon, spreads a mat, kneels to his god and sits, and dips his pita in tehina. A gray stone wall surrounds the place and shelters the eleven widowers, thirty-one widows, among them myself, and four couples fate has not yet separated. The wall is higher than a man, but it does not block out the sounds of the unsheltered life outside: barks, wails, uninhibited laughter, ambulance sirens, and here: and there a despairing human cry. It’s hard to say that they were glad to see me here; for a couple of days they were bewildered by my presence, asked what I had to do with them, some stole secret looks at me and others stared, and after that they went back to their own affairs. And if anyone talked about me on the benches, at twilight they withdrew into themselves and forgot about me when darkness fell. Only Tania said to me, I understand that you didn’t come here because you were so happy. If you like there’s a free place at our table. She sat with two others, the fourth seat was free. I joined her at the table, and when she got up to get herself a glass of carrot juice, I got myself one too.
The management, too, were not overjoyed at my presence. When I came to register, Tuvia, the director, looked me up and down, distributing his astonishment in rapid and equal measure over every inch of my body, and said that the old people would find me an eyesore — people feel comfortable in the company of those like them, you will stand out, he said, and he didn’t understand what I wanted in a place like this, but that was my business; what concerned him was the welfare of his residents, and in his opinion a too concrete reminder of their lost youth would not be to their benefit. There was no need to force comparisons on them and make them jealous. Oh come on, I said to him, What, don’t they have daughters? Granddaughters? Daughters-in-law? Don’t they ever go out? See young women? They go out, he said, but their reference group consists of the people who live here, and the people who live here are old, and you don’t mix one species with another. I told him not to be deceived by appearances, that in certain senses I was as old as the hills, that life had already done a number on me, and what a number… What do you care, this month three of your residents have died, you have three free units… After a lot more words on my part and his, a contract was drawn up between us, in which he reserved the right to evict me on a month’s notice in case of problems arising from the age gap between me and the other residents.
At noon there was a muffled knock at my door. I opened the door a crack and Ezekiel from apartment nineteen bent over the opening and asked. Excuse me, can I come in? I opened the door wider and the bony curve of his spine arched through it, he came in, and shuffled his cane over the hairy rug. He asked if he could sit down, and before I could say yes or no, he sank the bundle of his limbs into an armchair, stood his cane between his knees and gripped it in his hands, sank panting and sweating under the hump besieging the base of his nape, stretched his sagging chin, and turned his face toward me. I stood opposite him, spread out my arms and held onto the edge of the narrow marble counter in the kitchenette, facing the little living room. Barefoot after kicking off my shoes, still in the purple dress I had worn to work. The old man’s face looked as if the network of a grill had been pressed against the skin and dug grooves into it; his sweat trickled down the long furrows, the fluorescent light above the sink was caught in his eyes and drained them of color. The black skullcap on his head had fallen sideways to his ear, and he took his right hand off his cane, moved the skullcap to the middle of his head, and returned his hand to its wooden anchor.
Would you like something to drink? I restrained myself from asking what had brought him to me. I hoped that as soon as he got his breath back, he would recover, ask for lemon or sugar, get up and leave.
Do you have a few minutes for me, Madame Nava? He was still short of breath and his lower lip trembled, but he did not wait to steady his breath and said, I have been a widower for thirty years now, and I feel, how to put it, that the end is near. That’s alright, I have no complaints against the Almighty, that’s how he arranged it. He also arranged for my thirty years without a woman, but as I said I have no complaints, the Lord gives and the Lord takes away, not only from me, from everybody. After she passed away there were a few attempts, introductions to this one and that one, but it didn’t work out. The bottom line is, I’ve been alone for thirty years.
My mother was alone for thirty years, too. If you’d met, maybe something would have come of it…
As if. My mother, even if she’d had a knife to her throat, would never have put another man into my father’s shoes. All the years of her widowhood she had lived off the broken void he had left, scratched herself with his potsherds, and her main business in life was death. She bought flowers to watch them wither, subscribed to a daily paper to check the obituaries, saw the first rose blooming in the garden and said, What will it get out of all that beauty? – it will last two days and die.
So, did she find someone? Is she married? His voice was flat, uninterested and impatient.
She died. She didn’t find anything.
Well, no point in talking about what was. What’s past is past. I, Madame Nava, have come for what there is now and I won’t beat about the bush, I’ll tell you at once what brought me to you. All my life I never had a woman except for my wife, I am a God-fearing Jew, I never went to a strange woman and I never paid money for that urge… you understand. Ever since my wife, may she rest in peace, died, for thirty years I never saw the body of a woman, which in my opinion is the most perfect of all the Almighty’s creations. So now that my end is near I said, I will go and see before I die. And as far as I know you are a single woman, and I am not leading you into sin, so I said, I will come to you and ask you, Let me see thy nakedness. Believe me, Madame Nava, it is not for lust that I came, but only for How manifold are thy works, O Lord.
No problem, I said. I left the counter, went over to him, and crouched down to the level of the armchair.
Undo my zipper, I said. I turned my back to him, his cane fell to the floor, his fingers hesitated on my nape, groped for the little metal tongue. For a moment it refused them, and then it slid down smoothly and stopped at the base of my buttocks. With my back to him I let down the top of my dress, stood up, and the silky purple fabric slid over my hips and fell to the floor. I removed my underwear, the lacy panties acquired in my good days rolled down, and the bra landed like a shot bird. I took a step away from him and turned to face him naked and indifferent.
How manifold are thy works, O Lord, he muttered. His hand covered his mouth, the swollen pockets of his eyelids swallowed his eyes and opened again. Musa raked up the dead leaves of the ivy outside, the sun shone, the bougainvillea bloomed, and Ezekiel contemplated the works of his God and was amazed. The veins on his neck stood out and he was overcome with reverence, as if a fraction of the revelation of Sinai had been revealed to him. He did not touch the tear on his cheek, nor the two which followed it, and I did not interrupt the silence of the occasion, nor did I offer a tissue, I stood before him in all my nakedness, limp, passive and indifferent as if I were standing fully clothed at the bus station waiting for a bus. I looked at the lilac pool of silk of my dress and at the waterfall of light collecting in it and I didn’t move until he said, Bless you, closed his eyes and shuttered his tears, wiped his nose and recited in a hoarse voice, Blessed art thou O Lord our God, King of the universe who has made his world thus.
Amen, I responded, and he bent down to retrieve his cane, clutched the arm of the chair in one hand, the handle of the cane in the other, and slowly raised the many decades of his life and stood. With his back to me he said thank you very much, and limped to the door, opened it, closed it behind him, and the rhythmic tapping of his cane rose from the paving stones. And instead of disappearing into apartment nineteen, he turned right in the direction of the synagogue. I picked my clothes up from the floor, changed into a tee-shirt and a pair of wide pants, let me see thy nakedness, he had asked, and it was as simple and unremarkable for me as brushing my teeth, as if taking off my clothes in front of an old man was part of my daily repertoire. I undressed, dressed, I gained nothing and lost nothing. Ezekiel, on the other hand, was astounded before what he had lost in his thirty years of solitude, and God, as expected, was the only one to profit from the whole story and gain a blessing from the windfall. Somehow this is how it always works out in the end: People are crushed in metal boxes, their flesh is mixed with tin and burnt rubber, and when the remains are buried they say, The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away may the name of the Lord be blessed, and magnify and sanctify his great name. And when the empty shoe of a child is found on the road, they cover their faces and say, O my, God, they take a minute to get back their breath, and blurt out the hackneyed mantra of praise, Great God Almighty.
Towards evening he and Eliezer Zarhi, his neighbor from apartment twenty, sat on a bench in the garden and looked at a last ray of sunlight dipping into the fishpond. Perhaps they saw it as a metaphor for something, or perhaps they were just looking at the goldfish and the light glimmering from their scales. I didn’t know if Ezekiel had told his neighbor, and if he had, whether tomorrow the neighbor too would say, I will go and see before I die, and come and knock on my door, and I would get undressed and gladly show him my packaging. Why not? I passed them on my way out. Ezekiel sat bent and silent looking at the water, and Eliezer raised his eyes from the goldfish and said, How are you meideleh?