Five Seasons

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Five Seasons Page 12

by A. B. Yehoshua

  The opera seemed far away now, a forgotten figment of the imagination. Giving her two aspirins—just one would do no good—he suggested finding a drugstore and buying an athletic bandage to bind her foot for the night. “That’s hardly necessary,” she said, so clearly pleased by his solicitude that he had to warn himself not to overdo it, afraid to be trapped in a relationship that might not be at all what he wanted. At first, he proposed taking her key to let himself back in with, but she preferred to leave the door unlocked. Downstairs the hotel was quiet. The ten other keys were in their cubbyholes, a mute sign that they were still alone in the hotel.

  Once again there was a new clerk at the reception desk, this time a young student, who looked up from his heavy book to give Molkho directions in excellent English, as if helping guests find drugstores in the middle of the night were routine, even drawing a map of how to get to one that was only five minutes away. Molkho took several of the hotel’s cards from a box on the counter, stuck one in each pocket in case he got lost, and, quite proud of himself for venturing out in this city behind the Iron Curtain guided by only a slip of paper, strode jauntily into the narrow streets, whose shroud of desolate fog was pierced by the lights of bars and restaurants. Before long he arrived at the drugstore, which was visible from a distance; large and well lit, it was located in what seemed to be an old church or fortress or, at any rate, an artfully renovated old building, though the giant containers of brightly colored liquids on its shelves and the large straw hampers filled with tubes and boxes gave it more the appearance of a supermarket, over which presided the druggist, a stout, jovial man in a black cravat who seemed greatly to amuse his young assistants. Indeed, every sentence he uttered aroused peals of laughter, the cause of which, Molkho concluded, could not possibly be the man’s wit but simply his buffoonish manner. Slowly Molkho walked down the aisles, enjoying the special night mood of the place, examining the rows of medicines while looking for an athletic bandage. Poking about a bit in the hampers, where he noticed several over-the-counter drugs that in Israel were sold only by prescription, he suddenly came across the most familiar of them all lying innocently in its blue-and-white box. Talwin! Lovingly he turned it in his hand, feeling all the excitement of a chance meeting with an old friend whom he had never expected to see again. He consulted the price, figuring it in shekels, and was so angered by the enormousness of the Israeli markup that he went on calculating its precise, scandalous percentage all the way to the checkout counter, only to discover upon arrival that the elderly druggist, who bore a striking resemblance to Doctor Doolittle, didn’t understand a word of English, which not only failed to prevent him from making jokes that were translated for Molkho by an assistant but inspired him, to the merriment of all, to mimic the translation too. At last, producing several athletic bandages, he laid them on the counter, and Molkho bought the next to the cheapest, having already decided that he would not let the legal adviser reimburse him. As he started to pay, the druggist inquired with a wink about the box of Talwin, which was still firmly gripped in Molkho’s hand. “Ask him if it’s good for pain,” Molkho requested of the English-speaking assistant. The druggist regarded him with his merry blue eyes. Jawohl, he declared, it was wunderbar. “Then I’ll take it,” declared Molkho, already plotting his revenge on the drugstore in Haifa that had overcharged him.


  THERE WASN’T A SOUND in the hotel. Most of the lamps were turned off and the shades of the lit ones cast reddish brown patches in the corners of the lobby. Molkho took the elevator up to the room, knocked lightly, and gently opened the door. Still fully clothed, the legal adviser lay in misery on her bed, the night’s music having fled and left her with a sprained ankle, at which she stared in despair. Tearing its wrapper, Molkho took out the athletic bandage and vigorously bound her foot, which now looked like a fat little fish, informed by her cry that her threshold of pain was nothing like his wife’s, which had reached truly supreme heights toward the end. Indeed, what did she know about suffering? Her husband had dropped dead on the floor like a pot cover, her whole family pampered her, and intellectuals like herself had no powers of endurance anyway. Now she was gazing at him contemplatively, her close-cropped hair on the pillow, looking just like her daughter that night in her room. The aspirins, it seemed, hadn’t helped. He had suspected as much when he saw them, small, old, and crumbly; it was amazing how people didn’t realize that no drug was immortal. She was terribly sorry, said the legal adviser; she was afraid their whole trip would be ruined now. “I told you to watch out,” replied Molkho, unable to restrain himself. “I had a feeling you were going to slip,” he added, realizing too late that she might be blaming him for just that, for letting go of her in a hurry at the wrong time. Yet, how long was he expected to hold onto a woman he hardly knew—and one three whole civil service ranks ahead of him, not to mention car expenses, a subject that still bore looking into?

  Still, he felt for her. The best thing, he told her, was to get a good night’s sleep and wake up feeling better in the morning. Gently he took a few things from her suitcases and stood there wondering whether to help her undress, only to decide it might embarrass her; and so, too much attention being as bad as too little, he left her room. It was 12:15 and as the elevator didn’t seem to be working, he descended the narrow, padded stairs. Clearly, there were still no other guests. What, apart from its low rates and cleanliness, had made her choose this place? Had she already stayed here with someone before him? Strangely, as if all the events of the day had never happened, he didn’t feel at all tired. Not ready for sleep, he sat in the armchair reading about Jesus in Jerusalem until suddenly it struck him that it was Friday night and he hadn’t even thought of his children. “How could I have forgotten them,” he reproached himself, trying to go back to his book. Yet, when he tried picturing Jerusalem, all he could think of was his mother sitting grumpily in their big, old house.

  Finally he undressed, put on his pajamas, got into bed, and turned off the night-light. It was after one. Just as he was dozing off, however, he heard someone hobble down the hallway. He rose and went to the door, through which the legal adviser asked in her brisk manner if he had anything stronger than the aspirin, which wasn’t doing any good. “I’ll be right there,” said Molkho. Dressing quickly, he took the box of Talwin and went upstairs.

  Her fully lit room looked a mess, its window wide open as though she were about to throw herself out of it, though she was in fact limping anxiously about in a flowery nightgown and light bathrobe while the radio played soft German songs. Her back pains, she told Molkho, were gone, but her foot was in agony. He nodded sympathetically, amazed how frightened she was of pain, showed her the box of Talwin, opened it, and pulled out a chain of little pills. Over the past year, he explained, telling her about his wife’s experience, he had become an expert anesthesiologist.

  The legal adviser listened eagerly to Molkho’s stories of his wife, who had suddenly turned into a role model. But why, she wanted to know, had he brought all those pills with him to Europe in the first place? He hadn’t, he explained; he had bought them just now at the drugstore, over-the-counter and cut-rate. She took a blue pill from him, swallowed it obediently, and suggested taking another. “Absolutely not,” he declared, slipping the box back into his pocket while feebly stifling an astonished yawn at the sight of her breasts bobbing up and down beneath her nightgown. “They’re very strong,” he said. “One is enough.” Regretfully she watched the box vanish. “Maybe you should leave them with me,” she said. “If one doesn’t work, I’ll take another during the night.” “One is enough,” he repeated, “you’ll see.” Yet, not wanting her to think he didn’t trust her, he left her the box anyway. Reassured, she hobbled back to bed, where he helped cover her with a blanket and was rewarded at last with a smile. “Now you’ll sleep well,” he promised, wondering whether he shouldn’t crawl in beside her, though he was more used to having the patient prone beneath him. The main thing was for her to rest her foot�
�the thought of which made him lift the blanket and decide to undo the bandage for another, last look. The ankle was good and swollen now. Expertly he rewound the elastic, feeling the flabby warmth of her flesh around the bruise, in which the blood had jelled like rubies, reminding him again of a fat, white, blind, stranded little fish. “I’m afraid I’ve ruined this trip of yours,” she said for the second time. There was something touching about the no-longer-fresh bloom of hopelessness on her face. “You haven’t ruined anything,” he answered quietly. “Tomorrow you’ll feel better. Just let me take care of you.” Overcome by fatigue at last, she fell back against the pillow, and he felt a faint stirring in his loins, as if the gray mouse had turned over in its sleep. He closed the window, drawing the blinds. “To let you sleep late in the morning,” he explained, offering to lock the door after him to keep the chambermaid out. “Never mind,” she said resignedly from her pillow, “you can leave it unlocked. No one’s about to burgle or rape me here.” Once again he considered sedating her with his body warmth, but her eyes were already shut, and so he switched off the light and descended to his room.


  HE AWOKE AT 6:30 A.M. Outside the window the darkness and silence seemed total, infinite, as if the night were just reaching its peak. The thought of the woman in bed a floor above him and of the bond he had formed with her last night, as though she now were part of him, made him feel an inner glow. Soon, however, he fell back asleep. Upon awakening a second time, he rose, washed, dressed, and even made the bed, after which he gazed at the rooftops and strips of gray sky that ran between them, and then on the toilet, read about the crucifixion of Jesus. He descended to the lobby, hoping that the legal adviser was feeling better and might be already downstairs. But she was nowhere to be seen. The student on night duty was gone, his place taken by a plump girl of about eighteen who was feather-dusting the old swords. Reddening at the sight of him, she murmured, “Good morning,” in German. Through a narrow, half-open door behind the counter, next to the cubbyholes of keys, he caught a glimpse of a kitchen, dinette, and hallway in which a schoolbag was lying on a chair. It was, it seemed, a family hotel—but where was the family?

  Breakfast was already waiting in the dining room: several varieties of sliced bread, little baskets of sausages and cheeses, and a hot plate with a canister of coffee and a bowl of hard-boiled eggs. He regarded the food with satisfaction and went up to the legal adviser’s room. At first, he knocked lightly, gently trying the doorknob only when there was no response. True to her word, she hadn’t locked the door. A thin shaft of light accompanied him into the darkened room and fell on her bed, where she lay soundly sleeping like a baby. Possessed by an old feeling of well-being, he went downstairs again.

  The plump girl was still dusting the swords. “Madame is asleep,” he informed her when she glanced at him curiously; then, seeing she failed to understand, he pointed to the ceiling, laid a cheek on two folded hands, and went off to have breakfast in the dining room, making sure to take no more than his share, which he piled high on his plate. He poured himself a cup of coffee and began to eat, thinking as he chewed of his wife, who had refused to visit Germany, and of what she might have thought of the odd circumstances that had brought him here. Not that he hadn’t respected her principles, of which her death had freed him, but the fact of the matter was that, had she not been so principled, so critical, so brutally judgmental that he never knew what would annoy her next, she could have enjoyed being here with him. Well, she had had her say, and now he was recuperating from her with a big breakfast in Berlin, of all the places in the world.

  He finished eating, even appropriating a slice of bread and a wedge of yellow cheese from the legal adviser’s share of the food, and wrote her a note that said, “Good morning, I hope you’re feeling better and slept well. I didn’t want to wake you, so I ate and went out for a walk. I should be back by nine.” Then he went upstairs, slipped the note beneath her door, descended to his room, donned his coat, and continued on down to the lobby, where he handed his key to the girl with the feather duster, took two more of the hotel’s cards, stuck one in each pocket, and sallied forth. To his amazement, the snow from Paris had arrived silently during the night, thinly blanketing the city. The sidewalks, the fire hydrants, and the house-fronts were all daubed a streaky white, amid which he carefully made his way, heading in a hitherto unexplored direction, along a path already trodden by early risers that soon led him through a maze of little side streets. Thinking of the opera, he recalled how the bare proscenium had suddenly filled with performers, and he imagined faint music playing again while he—only an extra, of course, but an indispensable one nonetheless—took the stage himself, watched by an audience beneath the distant, white trees. He strode on energetically, climbing a little rise until he came to an old church with a golden rooster on its belfry and pausing there for a while, breathing in the frozen air and straining to hear the far-off drums, which were followed by a short flourish of trumpets. Then, as the violins struck up, he walked back down again, surrounded now by schoolchildren who, as though at an agreed-upon signal, had burst from all the houses at once with their bags. Crossing streets and sidewalks, he maneuvered past housewives with their shopping baskets and waited at frozen red lights with men on their way to work while the soft, light, now-familiar snow squished underfoot and the music played stubbornly on. “Just keep going, just keep going,” an invisible director was telling him, and indeed, in the distance, where a golden light had begun to glow in the east, the audience was watching him, transfixed by the new opera in which he was taking part.

  It was only when he found himself back on the street of the hotel and heard the church bells strike nine that the dreamlike vision vanished. The girl with the feather duster was no longer in the lobby and had been replaced by an old lady in a black woolen shawl, who sat behind the counter knitting. He smiled at her. “Sechs,” he said in German, taking the key and adding an English comment about the snow. The old lady, however, did not know English. The legal adviser’s breakfast was still untouched.

  He hurried upstairs and knocked on the door of her room. Again there was no answer. Silently he opened the door, once more admitting a narrow shaft of pink light that lapped at the foot of the bed. His note was still on the floor and for a moment he experienced a delicious feeling of apprehension. Could she have overdosed on the pills, or did she always sleep late on vacations? Boldly he tiptoed into the room. She was sleeping too soundly to hear him, her face, from which the makeup had rubbed off, pale but peaceful. Standing above her and gazing down on the dry white roots of her dyed hair, he felt an urge to lift the blanket and see if the athletic bandage was still in place. Yet, fearful she might wake and think she had caught him in an obscene act, he turned soundlessly and fled. Descending the staircase thoughtfully, he returned to his room, changed into warmer, more comfortable clothes, and stepped back outside.

  The street was full of life now. Workers armed with hoses of hot air were melting the snow with German thoroughness, and vans were unloading large trays of fresh rolls and pastries. He walked around the block for fifteen minutes, fretting over his strange love affair. Could she, he wondered suspiciously, have gone and taken a second pill without asking him? He hurried back to the hotel and opened her unlocked door. Nothing had changed. Quite clearly the drug had knocked her out. He examined the box of Talwin, cursing himself for leaving it in her room. Sure now that she had taken a second pill, he called her name. She stirred slightly, and leaning down, he called again, doing his best not to sound worried. Slowly she gave signs of hearing, struggling to open her eyes and momentarily even succeeding, “What is it?” she asked. “It’s past nine,” he said. “That’s some sleep you had! I just want to know how you are.” Her eyelids drooped again, as if to give her time to think behind them; there was something poignant, almost adorable, in the effort of her once quick legal mind to extract an answer from the depths of her sleep. “I’m fine,” she said slowly and weakly at last, turning
over to go back to sleep again, but he was determined not to let her. “Does your foot hurt?” he asked. The silence before she shook her head was so long that it was not at all clear whether she remembered having a foot at all. “Do you want to sleep some more?” he persisted anxiously. “Then go ahead,” he finally added as if giving her permission, despairing of an answer to this too, glancing about the room on his way out to look for something else to do. He was already at the door when the thought occurred to him that perhaps she didn’t recognize him. Could she be brain-damaged? He went back and shook her lightly, his hand on her frail shoulder. “Do you know who I am?” he asked. This time, when her oval eyes opened, he was relieved to see a gleam of understanding in them. “Of course,” she said, not especially enthusiastically—or at least so it seemed to him, and indeed, he was perhaps fatiguing her with his worry and should go away and leave her alone. “Then sleep all you want,” he counseled. “I won’t bother you anymore.” And quickly, his duty done, he walked toward the door. It was, he reflected, a Saturday morning, and perhaps she was used to sleeping late then.


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