Five Seasons

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Five Seasons Page 9

by A. B. Yehoshua


  THE WIND HAD DIED DOWN and the sky was clearing. Dark, fallen leaves lay in the street. He felt pleased with himself, even joyful, at having passed the test, whatever it was for. Most of all, he was proud of his initiative with the girl. That’s what really won their hearts, he told himself. How odd it was that barely two and a half months after his wife’s death he was already on the matrimonial circuit! He did not go straight back to his apartment but rather drove past the sleeping old-age home, from which he strove to make out the legal adviser’s house, but the night proved too dark and at last he gave up and went home. It was after midnight. Suddenly parched, as if by his own inner excitement, he opened the refrigerator to look for a drink, settling in the end on a big dish of strawberry ice cream. Then, remembering how as a boy in Jerusalem he had never been allowed to eat ice cream in winter, he went to bed.

  In the morning he awoke in a triumphant yet anxious mood. The next move was up to him, and not only she but her whole family would expect him to make it; the smallest gesture on his part would have all kinds of meanings read into it. It had happened too quickly, before he was ready, before he had even heard again from the matchmaker who had phoned him two weeks ago. It was unimaginable that he should already be permanently linked with this woman. Why, his children, to say nothing of his mother-in-law, would be sure she’d been there all along, that he had simply waited for his wife to die to bring her out of the woodwork! The whole next day, even while hanging out the wash and hoeing the little garden that he kept behind the house, he thought of nothing else. In the afternoon the college student came for lunch, and he and his sister decided to make a feast for all their friends. At first, Molkho hovered over them to make sure they didn’t cook too much, not wanting to eat leftovers again all week long; but in the end, laughing merrily, they threw him out of the kitchen, and he went for a walk in the neighborhood, thinking of his wife while glancing up at the sky in which a new storm was brewing. What, deep in earth, was still left of her? Her body must have rotted completely by now, its vanished outlines surviving only in his own frail mind and memory. He tried imagining its weight, lifted and carried by him so many times, now lighter than the flight of dust. And then a strong wind blew up, and he returned home to a kitchen frill of steaming pots and bowls heaped high with food to say, “Take it easy, kids, don’t overdo it,” but they were all in a fabulous mood, and soon friends came, and everyone let down his hair, and he saw how quickly they had forgotten her. That’s how they’ll forget me too, he thought quietly. The party lasted all afternoon. More and more youngsters kept coming, and in the evening they all decided to go to the movies, where a new comedy was playing, and he felt like going too and said jokingly, “Maybe you’ll take me along,” but he saw at once how upset they were, as if certain he would spoil all the fun. Why, they don’t even feel sorry for me, he marveled, and indeed, they saw no reason to. “Never mind,” he said out loud, “it doesn’t matter. Go without me. I’m too tired anyway.”


  HE KNEW THE NEXT MOVE with the legal adviser was his, yet he kept putting it off. What move can I make. It’s too early. Why can’t she wait. For two days he deliberately avoided her at the office, keeping to his room, but that Tuesday afternoon, as luck would have it, he met her in the street, practically running right into her. For a moment he hardly recognized her, for she was wearing a short, broad-shouldered fur coat of a yellowish, leopard color and her face glowed ruddily from the cold. “I’m so glad to see you,” he said warmly, his hand lightly grazing the soft fur. “I’ve been looking for you. I wanted to thank you for a lovely evening. I enjoyed it so much. And what a darling your daughter is!” “Everyone liked you too,” she said—which set him off on a blue streak, especially about her daughter, as if it were the girl he were thinking of marrying, after which he asked if she was really going to Germany. “Of course,” she replied, thus leading him to inquire, as though seeking his good offices, about her brother-in-law the travel agent and where he worked. She gave him the information at once, writing down the address and several telephone numbers while standing in the street. “You’ll find him useful,” she confided. “I’m sure he’ll be glad to help.” Though Molkho would have been happy to end the conversation right there, he could feel her impatience, her expectation of something more. Three years had passed since her husband’s death, and she wasn’t getting any younger. He glanced at her small, almost miniature face, her darting, Tatar eyes, and her body, the sharp angles of which stirred his anxious compassion. Just then, though, an acquaintance of hers happened by, and Molkho was given a chance to excuse himself.

  That evening he ached all over and his eyes began to smart. Soon he noticed shooting pains in his back, and when the television news was over, he climbed into bed and took his temperature, surprised to see it was high. Along with a small flash of pleasure, this produced a shiver of fear, for he had not run a fever in years, whereas now, as though he were a small boy again, he suddenly had one. Although he waited for the symptoms of a cold to appear, there were none; the trouble, he reasoned, must be something else, as yet unidentified, as if a last squall of the tropical storm that had raged in this room were now brewing inside him. The next morning his son was alarmed to find him in bed with the lights off, unshaven and listless. Aspirin had not brought down the fever. “What’s wrong?” asked the boy, who never had had to worry about his father before. “Just a little temperature,” Molkho reassured him. “It’s nothing. Go to school.” He tried phoning his mother-in-law, but she was out. And though he was sure the fever would pass during the day, it did not; on the contrary, it knocked him out totally, dropping each time for an hour or two only to return as though bubbling up from some mysterious source deep within him. Still, capped by a pleasurable stupor, he felt it was under control. For hours on end, he lay fetally beneath the blankets in a darkness real or delusory, rising only to go to the bathroom, and though his urine seemed to have turned a greenish color, this, too, may have been only imagined. He was too weak to make lunch, yet when his son, who had meanwhile come home from school, wanted to call the doctor, Molkho refused. “It’s nothing,” he said. “Just bring me some tea and crackers and make something for yourself. And don’t forget to do the dishes.” From under the blankets he watched the boy move about, enjoying a bed’s-eye view of the house, his glance sweeping over the floors and the bottoms of doors and furniture.

  After the boy had eaten he went off to do his homework, the radio playing softly in his room, from which he emerged now and then to look in on his father and ask how he was feeling. “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine,” said Molkho. “Just don’t come too close—I don’t want you to catch it,” though he had no idea what precisely there was to be caught.

  When evening came, he asked the boy to call his grandmother and tell her that he was sick. “What did she say?” he asked him when he came back from the phone. “Nothing,” said his son. “She hopes you’ll feel better.” In the middle of the night he awoke as if on fire; his temperature was nearly one hundred and four and he felt as dry as a desert, though still not unpleasantly so. Now it’s me who’s dying, he told himself with a smile, contemplating, as he put on the earphones to listen to music, a brief expiration followed by a more lasting resurrection.

  It was late when he awoke the next morning. The house was empty, the high school boy’s room neat and orderly. At noon the concerned college student arrived, and Molkho, speaking feebly from under the blankets, dictated a shopping list. Perhaps, suggested the student before going out with it, he should ask his grandmother to come. “What for?” Molkho asked. “She’ll just catch it from me.” But the student called her anyway, talking in hushed tones on the telephone. “What did she say?” “That you should call a doctor.” “And what else?” “Nothing.” But Molkho did not want a doctor; deep down he wanted his mother-in-law to come sit by his side, as she had sat by the side of his wife. However, no one came at all, and the telephone was silent all day; his temperature sta
yed as high as if an internal combustion engine were working away inside him. The old woman, he told himself, must be angry.

  The hours went by indistinguishably. The reddish, wintry light of a cloudless sunset poured through the west, seaward window. Another night passed and then another morning, and still his mother-in-law did not come or even call to ask how he was. His fever was down a bit, yet he kept to his bed, unwashed and unshaven between the crumpled sheets, enjoying a detached convalescence, his main link with the world the soft music that he played on the tape machine. Though he phoned his mother each morning as usual, he did not inform her of his illness, keeping the conversation to a minimum to prevent her from becoming suspicious.

  When he awoke early on the morning of the fourth day, the fever was gone. Pale, weak, and slightly thinner, he opened all the windows to air out the house, made himself two eggs, and was leafing through the newspapers in bed when suddenly he heard his mother-in-law opening the front door with the key she still had in her possession. She had come to see him at last, and now she sat facing him in the armchair from which she had watched her dying daughter, her cane between her legs and her coat still on as if already eager to depart, regarding him more severely than worriedly through her thick lenses with a look that was, except for its slight squint, genetically coded just like his wife’s. And yet, as they talked—and not at all about his illness—it struck him again how close they had grown, how much they had in common. He had been thinking, he told her, of visiting their cousin in Paris, but now, having just read in the newspaper about the latest economic decrees, including a new travel tax, he had his doubts. The new taxes, for some reason, interested her; she wanted to know all about them. One might think, Molkho thought, that she were planning a trip herself—and indeed, why shouldn’t she? She certainly could afford one: there were new sums all the time from Germany, where her husband’s suicide must have put her in a lucrative category. Two years ago, in fact, upon turning eighty, she had astonished everyone by going on an archaeological tour of Turkey sponsored by the Geographical Society. Soon, though, the talk shifted to more practical concerns, such as the high school boy, who should perhaps eat lunch with his grandmother at the home and sleep at a friend’s house until Molkho recovered. The idea seemed a good one; he even envied the boy for being able to dine with all the old folks. Outside the sun was shining. His mother-in-law rose, made a quick tour of the apartment with her cane, and was already on her way out, apologizing for having an appointment. He put on his bathrobe to walk her to the street. “I see you’re all better already,” she said, as if realizing she had wasted her time on him. Forced to confess that he was, he opened the front door of the building and was blinded by the sudden winter light. It was a cold morning, scrubbed clean by the rain. Slowly he walked her to the street, where, sitting in an ancient fur coat at the bus stop like a peasant in an old painting, was the little old woman from the concert. She rose smiling to greet them, as round-cheeked and rosy as if fed on a diet of potatoes, bowing genially to them from afar. “Who is that?” Molkho asked. “Stasya,” said his mother-in-law. “She’s the friend from Russia I told you about, the one who arrived a few months ago.” Molkho smiled back at her. “Why didn’t you bring her up to the apartment?” he asked, already on his way to introduce himself in his bathrobe and floppy slippers, lured onward by the crisp morning. “No, don’t,” his mother-in-law warned him. “It’s too cold for you. You have to take care of yourself.” “So I do,” Molkho said, turning to go back upstairs.

  Part II



  MOLKHO’S WIFE DIED in early autumn, toward the end of September, and at the beginning of January he left for Paris. They had been together in that city three times, each time reconfirming their special love for it. Now, the fourth time, he arrived by himself. His wife’s cousin, who was ten years her junior, and her husband, a non-Jewish doctor, hugged him hard at the airport and bundled him off to their home, where they so insisted he stay with them that he abandoned his original plan of putting up at his old hotel. As if feeling guilty for merely sending him a telegram instead of coming to the funeral, they showered him with warmth. On the first night they did not go out at all. Once more Molkho told the story of his wife’s death, describing the days before and after it, enjoying sharing all its details with his two eager listeners. The doctor asked professional questions and Molkho did his best to answer them, though he did not know many of the medical terms in French or how to pronounce the names of the drugs. It was late when they turned in. His hosts lived in four small rooms, one of which belonged to their eight-year-old daughter and year-old son, and though at first they had planned to put him up in it, the mess there was so great that over his loud protests they gave him their own room and spent the night in the living room. After sleeping for a year in a single bed, it was hard to get used to the width of a double one.

  It was still dark out when, crawling into bed with him and babbling in French, the baby woke Molkho in the morning. Though the little fellow seemed not at all disturbed to find a stranger in his parents’ place, his mother soon appeared in a flimsy nightgown and gathered him up with an apologetic smile. Molkho, however, saw no need to apologize. After months of waking up to silence, he was greatly pleased by the morning bustle of the French family. They all left the apartment together, and after driving the girl to school and the baby to his nursery, the doctor and his wife dropped Molkho off in the Latin Quarter, where beneath a gray sky he walked the long boulevards past places he already knew and loved. As soon as the department stores opened he began to go from floor to floor, checking prices and looking for gifts.

  That evening the three of them had dinner at a little neighborhood restaurant, during which the doctor and his wife questioned Molkho about Israel and its prospects. “Are you trying to commit national suicide?” the doctor kept asking with an anger of obscure origin, forcing Molkho, who explained things as best he could, onto the defensive. “I really don’t know much about politics,” Molkho confessed at last.

  The next day was windy; the temperature dropped sharply and the weather forecasts on the radio had a menacing tone. Molkho joined a small bus tour to Versailles, listening to the guide’s pedantic descriptions while slowly traipsing with the other sightseers from one coldly ornate room to another. Rigidly symmetrical, the elaborate gardens of Louis XIV could be glimpsed through the windows.

  Once back in Paris, he huddled in a café to warm up, waiting for his wife’s cousin, who worked as a technician in a research institute. Lively discussions of the weather went on at the surrounding tables. When the cousin arrived, they drove to pick up her daughter from school and then her son from his nursery. The children took a liking to Molkho, who was playfully physical with them. Clearly, though it did not spend much time together, the family was a boisterous one that lived in great disorder, even filth. Beneath his bed Molkho discovered some underpants and socks of ancient vintage, while, half-crawling on all fours and half-tottering on two, the baby took his food everywhere, smearing and dropping it in secret places. And yet Molkho felt at home, and his hosts did their best to feed him well and keep him in good spirits. Indeed, he ate a great deal, the cold weather doing wonders for his appetite.

  On the third night of his visit they had planned to go to a small theater, but the doctor came home late from the hospital and they ended up watching television instead. Much of the news program was devoted to the weather. The announcers showed maps and diagrams, even satellite photographs, and predicted snow for the next day. Afterward, his wife’s cousin decided to call Molkho’s mother-in-law in Israel. She spoke to her in German, and at first, the old woman kept confusedly talking the same language when Molkho got on the phone. He inquired about his children, told her about Paris and the snow, and asked about the weather in Israel. His mother-in-law, however, had trouble following his questions and answered him a bit crossly, her voice slow and groping, as if his trip abroad had caused a sudden deterioration in her condi
tion. Then he and his hosts discussed the next day, and Molkho suggested they all go to the opera; he had never been to one, he said, and had heard it was all the rage. Though the doctor and his wife, who felt bad about the missed night of theater, seemed to welcome the idea, Molkho noticed a hesitation in their voices. Opera tickets, apparently, were very expensive, and for tomorrow only the best seats would be left. Well, then, he insisted, let them be his guests! Hadn’t they saved him the cost of a hotel?


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