Wake Up Mom

 


Photo: Oren Biran

Wake Up Mom

(Excerpt from a Novel)

By Eldad Cohen

Translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston

 

If there’s a hole in one leg of my pants, I cut a hole in the other leg. If the hole I cut is bigger than the first hole, I go back and make the first hole a little bigger so it’ll be the same size as the hole I cut in the second leg of my pants. If the first hole is bigger than the hole in the second leg of my pants, I make the second hole bigger so it’ll be the same size as the hole in the first leg of my pants. Sometimes this happens on the way to school, when I’m sitting in the back seat because my mom won’t let me sit in the front seat, at least until my bar mitzvah. We drive to school, and I’m busy with my pants the whole time. Sometimes when I get to school, my pants are completely torn apart. You’re not allowed to walk around school in your underwear. That’s a rule everyone has to obey. Even the principal isn’t allowed to walk around in his underwear. So my mom has to make a U-turn and drive back to the Machane Yehuda market, where we live, because there’s no place to buy pants near the school, even though such a big neighborhood deserves to have a store that sells pants.
 
That’s why my mom is late again for her class and afterwards has to listen to the principal shout at her that he will not tolerate tardiness. Certainly not from the teachers. She passes that yelling on to me when we get home from school. I understand and don’t get angry back at her. I just try to explain that it’s not my fault. I didn’t create the pants equality law or any other laws for that matter. I can’t explain where those laws came from. The Knesset didn’t pass them, that’s for sure. And I don’t know anyone else who lives according to those laws. It’s something in my body that creates them. I try really hard to make them go away. I’m even thinking about going to a psychiatrist for help. I don’t tell my mom that because she doesn’t like psychiatrists. And she has a good reason. My dad is a psychiatrist.
 
1
 
My father is the head of a department in a hospital in a large city called Tel Aviv, which, even though it’s much smaller than Jerusalem, is still considered a big city. And that’s basically wrong, because Jerusalem is much larger and it’s also the capital.
 
My mom always said that my dad is a doctor. But today is the first time she also said that he’s alive.
 
Now she’s in his office in the hospital, having a conversation with him. She left me in the hallway because there are things a father should know about his son before he meets him. For instance, the fact that he has a son.
 
So now I’m waiting for the door to open and I can finally see the person directly responsible for who I am. My mom always told me that he has a big fat stomach, but I can’t see it from here. I can’t see my mom’s stomach either. Hers happens to be thin and high. She must be sitting in front of him, looking at him in a way he hasn’t been looked at in a long time, her sharp eyes not moving even a millimeter.
 
My mom is an arithmetic teacher and she teaches six hours every day. She’s very good, and the principal wants her to teach even more hours, but that’s all the Ministry of Education gives him a budget for. My mom loves her job and tries not to miss a single day, but yesterday she got a phone call from the bank and decided to change her routine and take a day off. She asked the bank clerk to be kind and considerate, to understand that there are other people in the world besides him. She tried to follow the rules of politeness and not shout at him, and she managed that pretty well. The clerk didn’t say anything for a while, and then finally agreed to think about it. It was only after we left that my mom allowed herself to vent her anger. She called him an old fart and said that he’d think about it her ass, and by the time he finished thinking, the interest would have grown and grown until it blew itself up and there would be nothing left to think about.
 
“We’ll be in jail,” she said. “You and me. I should have spit at him. But he’s not worth it. We’ll go to see your father. Now. We’ll take a taxi and go to see him. It’s about time you met your father. Don’t you think?”
 
“I thought he was dead.”
 
“So now think he’s alive! And you have half an hour to think about that. Maybe we’ll ask the taxi driver to be considerate and drive slowly. But you think he’ll be considerate? No. Did you ever meet a man who was considerate? No, you didn’t. Your father was never considerate either. He didn’t even plan to come to the hospital to see you after you were born. The thought never entered his mind. So now you’ll go to his hospital and when you see a round fat man, you’ll know that’s your father.”
 
My mom is tall and beautiful. And she earns a good living for us. She’s also very smart and always knows how things are going to turn out. But when it comes to time, she doesn’t have a clue. Sixty kilometers separate Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, and in the end, we don’t take a taxi but drive our small car, even though it moves slowly and may not even make it to Tel Aviv, and there are traffic jams on the way, so the trip takes two hours. But even if it took three hours, or even a whole day, I’m not sure that would be enough time to imagine my father alive. After all these years, I’ve gotten into the habit of believing he’s dead. You don’t know me, yet that’s my main problem – changing habits.
 
I’d be happy to solve that problem before I see my dad. On the other hand, maybe he can help me with it. After all, he’s a doctor. And not just any doctor, a psychiatrist.
 
When I once asked my mom where my dad was buried, she said his place of burial is unknown. But where he lives – it seems she always knew that.
 
My mom and my dad are probably talking about money. I can’t hear them from here, so I figure the conversation is polite. I mean, no yelling. I imagine my dad beginning the conversation with questions like where is she living now, what kind of work does she do, how did she get here, and my mom replying in kind: “Today I live where I didn’t live yesterday and today I work where I’ll work tomorrow,” the answers she always gives to people who ask her straightforward questions but really mean something completely different.
 
It’s hard for my mom to hold polite conversations when all she wants to do is scream. She has to use her entire body to keep the screams inside, and anyone who knows her can see it, especially in the veins along her throat, which keep swelling as the conversation gets longer until they look like they’re about to burst. I always feel sorry for her at those times. She gets angry a lot at school, but never screams there, definitely not at her pupils. And when she feels like screaming at the principal – which happens a lot – she’ll wait, even though she has a big, wide mouth that stands out because of her small nose. Usually, she only lets herself use that mouth to shout curses at home, where only she and I can hear, and I let her scream at me because I know it’s important for her. The veins in her throat relax after a whole day of politeness at school, and she puts a Julio Iglesias record on the phonograph – he’s the singer who calms her down the most – goes onto the balcony to sit in her rocking chair and asks me to make her coffee while she lights a cigarette.
 
After half an hour in the hospital corridor, I start picturing my dad in all sorts of shapes and sizes, once with a nose like this, then with eyes like that, then with a long chin and a thin one, and just when I feel like I can’t control myself anymore, a man with a tag saying Head Nurse comes out of the office. I didn’t know men could be nurses and I wonder if he took that shirt from the head nurse or if he could really be the head nurse himself. In any other situation, I’d spend time trying to find an answer to that question, but right now, that’s impossible. The nurse leaves the door open, and I try to see my dad through the opening. It’s hard to see his face from here. My mom’s back is blocking it. There’s a desk between him and my mom, and the papers she brought to show him are lying on it. They’re not talking, so I guess he must be reading them now. I wait for my mom to move her back a little or even her head so I can see a part of my dad – at least to find out if he really is fat and round like my mom says, but all I can see is that he’s bald and I have to make do with that. I try to fix the image in my mind. So I won’t forget it. Who knows when I’ll see him again.
 
When the head nurse comes back, he gives me a knowing smile before he goes into the office. I think he’s a really good guy, maybe he left the door open on purpose because, like me, he believes I have a right to see my dad.
 
All of a sudden the silence turns into screaming. I’m sure she tried very hard to follow all the rules of politeness. But that’s it, she can’t be polite in front of him anymore. It all comes pouring out of her. She can’t keep all her feelings inside any longer and she doesn’t care whether her veins explode or not. She attacks him with all the thoughts that have accumulated in her mind over the years she hasn’t seen him, sprinkling them with some curses I know from home. Then she storms out of the office and keeps walking. She doesn’t even call me. She knows I’ll follow her. I peek into the office, see my dad still busy reading the papers, his stomach hidden behind the desk, but you can see that he’s fat and round like my mom said. I almost say goodbye to him, but at the last minute, I give up on the idea and chase after my mom to the car.
 
On the way home we don’t talk about what happened. Or about anything else. My mom is letting her throat relax, and I absolutely understand that. The drive from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem passes in silence, and even when we reach the city, we still don’t speak. Only when we get to Sacher Park does my mom stop the car and ask if I want to play soccer. We go there often to play. Usually when my mom wants to kick someone. Sacher Park is very close to our building. In less than ten minutes, we’re there. And you can always find a ball people left there, or you can ask for one from someone who’s finished playing. And that’s exactly what happens now. We see a ball in the bushes and my mom picks it up and says we don’t need two goals, we’ll go straight to penalty kicks. We arrange two rocks as posts. My mom signals for me to stand at the goal, walks eleven steps away from me, puts the ball down and gets ready to kick. My mom kicks very hard, like Uri Mamilian, the player from Beitar Jerusalem who the vendors in the market love, and every time Beitar wins they chant his name. She takes two steps back, shouts “Ready?” at me, then runs to the ball and kicks it with that strong foot of hers. I don’t even try to stop it, I let it pass me and veer off to the side. My mom laughs, but I don’t think it’s funny. The ball almost took off my head.
 
“Again,” she says, steps back from the ball, runs at it, kicks it as hard as she can and laughs again. After five kicks that I can’t and don’t even try to stop, it looks like she’s managed to forget everything we went through today.
 
“Let’s go home, Yuda,” she says. “I think you’ve had enough exercise for one day.”
 
At home, my mom goes into the bedroom and collapses onto the bed with her clothes on. I go onto the balcony and look down at the people coming and going. We live on the second floor and have a great view of all the comers and goers. I think each one has both a mom and a dad, and that’s the thought that really makes me cry. If I look hard at them, I can actually see their mom sitting on one shoulder and their dad on the other. A couple taller than everyone else is standing next to the Ben Ari Brothers’ stall, waiting patiently on line to buy parsley or coriander or other herbs. In the meantime, they’re kissing and it looks really nice. You can actually see each one’s mom and dad on their shoulders, and then the moms and dads of their moms and dads on their shoulders, and then the moms and dads of those moms and dads. A very tall tower of moms and dads that reaches up to the sky.
 
2
 
My mom is the tallest, most beautiful woman in the market, and when she’s there, you can’t keep your eyes off her. Everyone in the market calls her “The Witch,” and I think that’s because she’s not afraid of anyone. When she fixes that look of hers on a vendor who asks for a price that’s way too high, he instantly feels a pain in his stomach that doesn’t go away until he lowers the price to the floor.
 
When we go to the market to buy vegetables or happen to meet our neighbors on the steps or just bump into strangers on the street, I always smile and say hello, how are you, so they won’t think I’m unfriendly too.
 
It’s hard to have a conversation with my mom. She doesn’t have a lot of patience, and not only at home, but in school too. The only person she talks to is the gym teacher. She has no contact with any of the other teachers, and the principal is a story in itself. She tries to keep out of his way because she doesn’t like the idea of having someone above her telling her what to do. But she loves teaching arithmetic. And except for me, that’s almost the only thing she cares about in life.
 
Her pupils love her too. When someone loves something so much, people love it too because love is catching and it has nothing to do with being friendly.
 
In order to teach arithmetic in elementary school, you have to be in school at a quarter to eight, which means eight at the latest. The principal is very strict about the teachers getting to school before the pupils. It’s very important to him that classes start on time. It’s a lesson for life, he says. He was a pilot in the air force and understands time. One minute can save many lives, he always says. My mom says that’s true. But that truth means she has to leave home early and cut short her favorite pastime, which is sitting on the balcony and looking at the stalls in the market before the crowds arrive.
 
Our school is in the French Hill neighborhood, which is far from our building and means that our lovely little car has to behave well for a long time. My mom would have liked to teach closer to home so she wouldn’t have to deal with transportation, but in the meantime, she’s teaching where she can. There are traffic jams in the morning and we can’t pass other cars because no matter how small our car is, the police can still see it, and if there’s something that really scares my mom, it’s policemen. She will never pass a car when there’s a policeman around, even if the law allows it, even if she’s late to school, even if the car in front of us stops in the middle of the road for no good reason. Her fear that the police might turn up is enough to give her a heart attack. Captain Abut, who I’ll tell you about in a minute because he’s my best friend, says that’s how it is with honest people. They always feel guilty.
 
Our car is a Prinz 1000. Not too many people have that car. You can recognize it easily by its tail lights. It’s the only car that has a row of three small tail lights on each side. My mom received the car as a gift from someone who died a long time ago and asked her to take care of it until he came back to life. He knew he’d never come back to life, but he told her that because he wanted to make her smile one more time before he gave the world his last breath. And it worked. She really did smile. That man was her English teacher. She took private lessons from him for three years because she wanted to improve her level of English, which, believe it or not, was already very high. But not high enough for my mom, so she took private lessons, and when, one day, her teacher became ill, she found out that he had no family to look after him and took the whole responsibility on herself. She took tender loving care of that teacher, as if he was her son, even though he could have been her father. Almost every day, she took two buses to see him, and she went to the hospital with him in his car. At first she sat next to him, and when he couldn’t drive anymore, she became his driver. And once a week she took the car in to be washed.
 
When he died, he left her his car. My mom calls that car “The Little Prince.” Not only because it’s a Prinz. She really loves it and treats it like a prince. She invests a lot time and effort on it. Once a week, she goes downstairs with a pail and a rag and washes it inside and out. Then she dries it thoroughly with a new towel she bought that day so it would know that it’s not like all the other cars that just get sprayed with a hose and then are left to dry, as if they were only objects that exist to serve people. Every time she turns on the ignition, she talks to it and promises that if it behaves well and doesn’t cause problems, she’ll take it on a trip to Germany to discover its roots. After it turns on, she tells it she will never replace it, even though sometimes it actually seems to be asking for permission to join its former owners in the next world. Especially when we drive a long distance and it feels too old to climb all the hills there are in Jerusalem.
 
That English teacher didn’t have kids, and that’s why he left my mom not only his car, but his apartment too. My mom thought that was a little too much for what she did for him. She didn’t really think she deserved it. But he was already dead, so she had no way of telling him that she objected. The municipality claimed that, according to the inheritance laws, now that the apartment was hers, she had to pay property taxes even if she didn’t live in it. Because that’s how it is, someone has to pay for the fact that the apartment exists. For two years, the municipality sent my mom bills and didn’t stop until she decided that if she’s already paying for the apartment, she might as well live in it. And that’s the apartment we’ve been living in since I came into the world. At 22 Machane Yehuda Street in Jerusalem the capital, two rooms and a balcony off the kitchen that faces the market. 
3
 
Habits are complicated things. You have to follow them exactly. For instance, if you have to touch a door before it closes, that’s what you do. And if you also have to touch the handle before you use it, you touch the handle too. And when you wash your hands, you have to wash your left hand first and then your right hand. But sometimes you forget to follow one habit or another, and if that happens, let’s say, before you go to sleep, when you have quite a few habits to repeat, and you don’t remember it until you’re in bed, you have to get up again because habits can easily turn into headaches if you don’t follow them exactly. Of course, you have to get up quietly so your mom won’t wake up. That’s how it is when you have habits. Even more complicated than life.
 
Now my mom is lying in bed, looking exactly the way she did when she got into it yesterday. In the same clothes and the same position, only her hands might have moved a little. I’m sitting at her desk, waiting for her to wake up. I want to tell her about the change I’ve been going through since we went to see my dad yesterday. At least five habits have suddenly dropped off me and I don’t even know how. I haven’t sniffed even once since yesterday, and of all my habits, that one bothers me the most because you can’t hide it. Definitely not when it happens in class. Sometimes I can’t control myself and I sniff so loudly that all the kids laugh their heads off. Once, my mom thought she’d take me to a doctor to check it. After all, it bothered her too. Which is understandable. She did in-depth interviews with a few doctors. She checked them out from head to toe to see whether they were good enough to treat her son, and decided they weren’t. One of them had long hair, another one hadn’t shaved, and they all smelled bad, something she really can’t stand.
 
My mother’s sensitivity to smell is well known. She doesn’t have to set the alarm clock to get up in the morning. The smell of the produce coming from the market early in the morning wakes her up at five-thirty. She sits on the balcony with her coffee and a cigarette and watches the market as if it were a movie. She watches the first vendors who open their stalls and the first customers who come to buy. At six-thirty, she comes into my room and wakes me up with hugs and kisses, and sometimes she hoists me onto her long back and carries me to the living room.
 
This time, nothing like that happens. I get up at seven-thirty without her waking me and go straight into her room, where she’s lying in bed, not moving. The smells of the market didn’t wake her up today. Not the smell of the herbs coming from the Ben Ari Brothers stall or the smell of the fish from Nissim’s stall. The noise of the trucks that arrive with the produce didn’t wake her up, and neither did the songs and shouts of the vendors, not even the ones coming from Sasson Potatoes, who is right under our apartment. I hug her and kiss her and say “Mom” fifty times, but it doesn’t help. She doesn’t move, but there’s no cause for panic. This isn’t the first time she hasn’t been able to wake up. Two years ago, she slept for two whole days, and there’s nothing you can do about it except be patient and check her pulse every once in a while.
 
It’s just too bad that it’s happening this morning of all times, when I want to tell her that a few of my habits have dropped off me since we went to see my dad, and the most important thing of all is that I want to ask her if we can go to see him again before they come back. I know she won’t agree easily, but I have to convince her.
 
I really hope she gets up soon. For me and for her too. After all, she also has a good reason to get up. She doesn’t like to miss school.
 
To pass the time, I open her pupils’ arithmetic notebooks, which are lying on the desk next to her bed, and go over the questions and answers. She has at least twenty terrible pupils in her class who never manage to solve the problems she gives them, so sometimes I finish the work for them. It’s not their fault they’re not good at arithmetic. Not everyone is born the same. My mom probably knows I do this, but she’d rather ignore it and not make an issue of it. That’s how much she loves her pupils.
 
At ten o’clock, I feel like I can’t wait in the apartment anymore and go down to Sasson Potatoes, who always knows what I’m feeling before I tell him.
 
“What’s up, Yuda?” he asks. “Why aren’t you in school? Did something happen?”
 
“My mom didn’t get up for school.”
 
“She didn’t wake up?”
 
“No.”
 
“What? She fell asleep again, the Witch? I have to tell you that I don’t understand what she’s waiting for. All the guys here in the market want to marry her. Even the ones who are married already. You know your mom is the most beautiful woman in the market, right? Maybe take her a few potatoes. She’ll smell them and wake up right away. Don’t worry, you can pay me later.”
 
“No, it’s okay,” I say, and as usual, he tries to convince me to take them without paying, even though he knows I won’t.
 
Yalla, Yuda, if you’re here already, come give me a hand,” he says. “It’s Friday and I’m alone.”
 
I like to help Sasson. Even if it’s only to stand next to him and watch him sell. He still uses his father’s scale from the days when he worked here, even though most of the stalls have electronic scales. He’d rather sell the stall than the scales. So when there are a lot of customers, especially on Fridays, he doesn’t always put the bags on the scale because it takes time. He has another system. He holds the bag of potatoes in his hand and says how much it weighs from the way it feels. Anyone who doesn’t know Sasson thinks that maybe he’s cheating him and insists that he puts the bag on the scale. Sasson doesn’t get angry. He loves to show everyone that he didn’t get it wrong by even one hundred grams. And if he did get it wrong, which rarely happens, and the number he gave was lower than what the bag really weighed, he wouldn’t ask for the difference. Even if he lost a few shekels.
 
Meanwhile, I arrange the crates in the back, sort the potatoes according to size and quality, and when elderly customers or ones with a lot of bags come to buy, I help them. That way, the time really passes, but not the thoughts, which come to life every few minutes and ask if it’s time to go upstairs and see what’s happening with my mom. After an hour at Sasson’s, which really passes quickly, I think I hear a phone ringing in our building. I’m not sure it’s coming from our apartment. It makes more sense that it’s coming from the apartment of the doctor, who lives on the first floor, even though he’s already ninety and there aren’t too many people who would be calling him. Or maybe it’s coming from the girls’ apartment – I’ll tell you about them later. The ringing stops, and five minutes later, it starts again, so I ask Sasson whether he hears it and can tell where it’s coming from.
 
“I don’t hear anything,” he says, and I can understand. There’s enough noise on the street, and I ask myself if I really hear something or I’m just imagining it. But the third time I hear the phone ring, I tell Sasson I want to go see if it’s coming from our apartment. “Sure, go ahead,” Sasson says. “I’ll manage here.” So I leave the stall even though more and more customers are starting to arrive and Sasson really needs help now.
 
Walking up the steps, I already realize that the ringing is in our apartment and I climb faster, knowing that my mom hasn’t woken up, or she would have answered it herself, and I go into the apartment and pick up the receiver right before the caller hangs up. At the first “Hello,” I recognize the man behind the voice, and it’s none other than the principal himself. As you can imagine, he doesn’t like it when his senior arithmetic teacher doesn’t come to work on time and he sounds very angry. He says that he’s been trying to call since the morning and he doesn’t understand where she is and why she still hasn’t arrived, and forty children are sitting in her class like orphans and don’t know what to do with themselves.
 
“It’s enough that she didn’t come to school yesterday and we had to find a substitute teacher. Where is she?” he asks again.
 
When I tell him she’s here, at home, he asks angrily, “What do you mean, at home? She should be in school. Is she sick?”
 
“No,” I reply.
 
“So what is she doing?”
 
“She’s in bed,” I say.
 
“What?” he says, sounding completely surprised, and a few seconds later he says, “Put her on, please.”
 
“She can’t talk,” I explain.
 
“Why not?”
 
“Because she’s sleeping.”
 
“What?” he asks. This must be the first time in his life he’s come across a teacher who would rather sleep than teach. He’s so angry that the words coming out of his mouth can’t keep up with the speed of what he wants to say. They crash into each other and block each other, some of them get lost and they seem to be having a hard time too. From what I manage to hear, I understand that he started calling us at eight in the morning, until he realized that the number she left at school was wrong, which in itself is incomprehensible, and it’s a good thing the gym teacher had the right number. And it’s clear that even if she gets up now and leaves the house, there won’t be much time left to teach because on Fridays, there’s nobody left to teach after twelve noon, and just getting to school from our place takes a lot of time, right?
 
“Right,” I say, happy that the principal understands the effort my mom has to make every morning to get to work and not be late, not to mention that she does it without passing other cars in traffic jams.
 
I don’t know how to calm him down. Maybe I should tell him that this happens to her sometimes, that I’ve already seen it and in the end, she’ll get up, so there’s no need to worry. The longest time she ever stayed in bed like this was two days, and that was two years ago, so on Sunday, she’ll definitely be in school. But he doesn’t want to hear what I have to say on the matter, he just wants to vent all his anger. That also happens to my mom a lot, so I definitely understand. He says that my mom isn’t the only teacher in the school, and he understands the whole business of being a single parent, but he’s not a social worker or a guidance counselor and he has no way of understanding why she never lets them know she’s going to be late or absent, and why she’s so sure that the school has the patience to deal with her moods. The more he speaks, the more I understand that he’s not speaking only to me, but also to other people who are in the room with him or to people who exist only in his mind, which is something I know all about too, because it happens to me too.
 
After a few minutes, his voice gets weaker and I’m actually afraid he’s collapsed on the other end of the line and I can’t help him. I don’t understand why he’s so hurt that my mother didn’t come to school. Maybe I have to explain to him that I suffer from it more than he does. That I’m also waiting for her to finally wake up. He asks me again to wake her up, and I tell him that I tried a few times, but she didn’t get up.
 
“Okay,” he says in a really hopeless voice. “When she gets up, tell her to call me.”
 
“I think she’s dead.”
 
“What did you say?”
 
“Yes.”
 
Now he doesn’t say anything. Neither do I.
 
“Did you check her pulse?’ he asks after a very long silence.
 
“No,” I say, feeling very pleased with myself. Now his words are clear. They come out of his mouth one after the other, in the right order. I guess that sometimes there’s nothing you can do but shock people to get them to behave normally again. Like what Captain Abut told me about the electric shocks they gave him in the hospital to treat his stress after the war.
 
“So why do you think she’s dead?” he continues in the clear voice I know from school.
 
“Because she’s not moving,” I say.
 
“So maybe you should call a doctor or an ambulance?”
 
I tell him that’s a good idea, and maybe I’ll really do it. Of course I know she’s not dead or even close to it, and I don’t plan to call either one, because that would only make things more complicated. But you can’t always explain everything, and the most important thing is that I think he’s calmed down.
 
He asks whether I want him to come over, and I tell him there’s no need, but he still says he’ll try to see if he can manage it. I realize that there’s no way I can object, so I say, “Okay, fine.”
 
I don’t know if he really plans to come all the way to the market with all the Friday traffic, but if he does, she really should wake up before he arrives. And you can’t trust my mom about that. I can’t wait until she decides she’s slept enough. I have to ask for help, and the first person I think of for that is Captain Abut. My best friend and the nicest person in the market. Everyone here loves him and calls him “The Market Guard,” because every morning, he stands in front of the girls’ Soup Bowl store in his uniform and guards the market against terrorists.
 
In the Yom Kippur War, almost all of his soldiers were killed. He was the company commander, and at least thirty of them died. For three days and three nights, he went from one to the other trying to resuscitate them, the whole time surrounded by the smell of the burning tanks. He’s sure that the smell entered his body and hasn’t come out to this day, and that everyone who comes close to him can smell it. Nothing can wash it away, he says. And no matter how many times I tell him he doesn’t have any smell of war on him, it doesn’t help.
 
Like always, Captain is standing in his regular place at the entrance to the girls’ Soup Bowl store, wearing his beautiful, ironed uniform, even though the war ended years ago, and he seems to be waiting just for me. I’m so happy to see that he’s there and smiling at me. I don’t say a lot, only that I need him to help me wake up my mom. He doesn’t ask too many questions and follows me. I don’t have any great expectations that she’ll be awake now, but even so, I open the front door carefully in case she is. I look around the living room, check the balcony, and understand that she’s probably sleeping.
 
Captain Abut has never been in our apartment, and I see that he’s a little stressed. He once told me that he doesn’t like being in places he doesn’t know. When I see him hesitate to come into the bedroom with me, I tell him not to worry, my mom is dressed.
 
“Maybe you should still go in first?” he says. “Maybe she’s up already.”
 
“Right,” I say, but when I go into the bedroom, I see that nothing has changed. I sit down next to her on the bed and Captain walks in and stands next to the door.
 
“What do you want to do?” he asks.
 
“I don’t know. What do you think, Captain? How should we wake her up?”
 
“Maybe I’ll sit down next to her,” he says. “She’ll smell me and wake up. You told me she’s very sensitive to smells.”
 
“You don’t smell, Captain. She won’t smell anything.”
 
“Let me try,” he says.
 
I really don’t think he smells of war or burnt tanks or any other bad things, but who knows, maybe he’s right and he has a body odor that will wake up my mom the minute she smells it. Captain sits down on the bed and moves his body really close to her nose. I watch her, hoping to see some kind of change.
 
“Come on, Mom, don’t you smell anything? It’s Captain Abut. Don’t you smell tanks? War?”
 
My mom doesn’t react.
 
“We have to think of something else,” I say to Captain after a few minutes. But Captain doesn’t give up. He keeps trying. He’s sure she won’t be able to hold out against his smell. After another few minutes, the doorbell rings and I leave Captain in the bedroom and go to open it. First I look through the peephole because you can never know who it might be, and I see the principal’s face. I open the door and see that he’s not alone. My home room teacher, the English teacher, and the social coordinator come in with him. It scares me that they all came because they thought my mom might be dead, and I want to tell them she isn’t, but I feel uncomfortable saying that I made them come for no reason, so in the meanwhile, until I can think of what to do, I offer them water. But the principal raises his hand and gestures that there’s no time to waste on drinking water, and the teaching staff remains thirsty.
 
“So did you call an ambulance?” he asks worriedly.
 
“No.”
 
“Why not?” he says, or more accurately, shouts. I start explaining to him, but he interrupts me and asks where my mom is now.
 
“In her bed,” I say, pointing to the bedroom. The principal looks in that direction and seems to want to go there, but feels awkward about it. He takes a step, stops, and says, “Maybe you should go check on her again.”
 
“Okay,” I say, but before I go in there the social coordinator asks me where the bathroom is.
 
“This is not the time,” the principal scolds him, and then tells me that he doesn’t understand why I didn’t call an ambulance, and if I want, he can do it for me. Then the social coordinator says he saw a sign on a first-floor door that said Doctor.
 
“Really?” the principal asks. “There’s a doctor in the building?”
 
“Yes.”
 
“So call him.”
 
“He’s ninety,” I say, adding that since his wife died, he doesn’t open the door to strangers. Which is absolutely not true, but I’m really afraid that if he comes up and examines my mom, he’ll say she’s dead just to prove that, at his age, he still knows how to take a pulse.
 
“Okay, Yuda,” the principal says. “I don’t understand why you’re so calm. Tell me the truth now. Is she just sleeping or did something really happen? After all, we came all the way here.”
 
I tell him that when we came home yesterday she went straight to bed in her clothes and still hasn’t woken up, but I’m sure she’s not dead. Every once in a while, she falls asleep for a lot of hours and doesn’t wake up. Maybe it’s some kind of sickness we need to find out about. Once she didn’t wake up for two whole days.
 
“So why did you tell me on the phone that you think she’s dead?”
 
“Because I had to calm you down.”
 
“What?”
 
“Yes, Sir. You were very angry. Your words kept bumping into each other and I thought you were going to choke. I had to save you, or at least the words. I had to say something that would calm you down.”
 
“So you told me your mother’s dead?”
 
“I said I thought she was dead.”
 
“Definitely reassuring.”
 
“The fact is that you calmed down. You started speaking quietly. I don’t know if you remember, but you told me to call an ambulance.”
 
“Yet you didn’t.”
 
“Because why should I, she’s not dead.”
 
“Okay, Yuda,” he says, “we’re going. Tell your mother to call me when she wakes up.” He signals the staff to follow him.
 
“Wait,” I say, “maybe you’ll have something to eat? There’s delicious soup in the fridge. The girls who live downstairs from us have a soup store, and they bring us some every evening.”
 
“There’s no need,” the principal says, and I look at my home room teacher and the English teacher, who clearly would be happy to eat some good soup now, definitely they’d like the girls’ soup, and I’m sorry that they can’t have any. I feel really bad that I made them come all the way here.
 
“Let’s go,” the principal orders them. But just as he opens the door, I hear my mom call me from the bedroom. The principal, home room teacher, English teacher, and social coordinator stop in their tracks, and I dash into my mom’s bedroom. She’s sitting up in bed and Captain is sitting on a chair in the corner of the room. He doesn’t say a word.
 
“What’s going on, Yuda?” she says. “What time is it?”
 
“One in the afternoon,” I say.
 
“I didn’t get up to go to school?”
 
“No,” I say.
 
“How long did I sleep?”
 
“You still haven’t broken your record. Only twelve hours.”
 
“You’re sure?”
 
“Yes.”
 
“And what’s all that noise in the living room?”
 
“The principal came, together with some of the staff. He was worried about you.”
 
“The principal?”
 
“Yes.”
 
“Where is he?”
 
“In the living room. Waiting for you.”
 
“Why did you let him in?”
 
“He came to see what was happening with you. I couldn’t tell him to go away. He was worried about you.”
 
“You should have sent him away.”
 
“He didn’t say he would definitely come. He just showed up and left me no choice.”
 
“Okay, go,” she says, “I want to get dressed.”
 
“All right,” I say and signal Captain Abut to come with me. I don’t think she even sees him, but he shouldn’t be there while she’s getting ready to see the principal.
 

 

We go into the living room together and I introduce Captain Abut to the principal, who looks very surprised to see the new person in the apartment. What can I tell you, not everyone knows Captain. Not everyone comes to the market. The principal has never seen Captain and he doesn’t know about his past or his present. And I don’t bother to tell him, because why not let him use his imagination? I look at the principal – maybe he thinks Captain is my mom’s friend or her lover. The idea makes me want to laugh, but I try to keep a straight face. I feel a little sorry for the principal. I think that on the first day my mom came to teach at the school, someone should have told him that one day he’d fall in love with her. Someone should have warned him.        
 

Copyright © by Eldad Cohen. English Translation Copyright © Eldad Cohen. Translated by Sondra Silverston. With thanks to the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.

Eldad Cohen was born and grew up in Jerusalem. He has an MA in clinical psychology from Tel Aviv University and he lives and works as a psychologist in Tel Aviv. His military service as a combat soldier (1983-86) deeply affected him and found its way into some of his short stories. Cohen has written three plays, three books of adult fiction, and one book for children. His play Repertory Theatre (2012) received awards in major theatre festivals all over the world, including the Edinburgh Fringe, and Cohen won Playwright of the Year at the Israeli Fringe Theatre Golden Hedgehog Awards (2013). Other awards include: Ministry of Culture Prize for debut works for Look  At Me (1998); Best Play and Best Playwright, International Festival of Plays for children in Haifa for Summer Holiday (2004). Wake Up, Mom is Cohen’s first novel. Published in 2019, it became an immediate bestseller. It was selected as one of the recommended books of the year by the Ministry of Education, and has been adapted for the stage by Cohen and Dori Parnes.


 

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