‘On the Edge of Our City’: A Short Story for Yom Kippur by Aharon Appelfeld
A Holocaust survivor wrestles with the angel of history on the beach in Tel Aviv
The wall between me and him grew higher from year to year. He finished his army service, married, and bought a grocery store. I helped him to buy the store, but the thought that my son, flesh of my flesh, would be stuck in a narrow grocery store all his life hurt me greatly.
“A grocery store of your own”—that was his mother’s dream. At a certain stage, to appease me, he called his grocery a mini-market. Why not a factory, I once tried to provoke his imagination. His mother’s words were apparently more effective than mine. She drilled into him: my grandfather had a grocery store, my father had a grocery store. They all made a nice living, and that’s how she narrowed his thoughts. She used to make fun of the words “impetus” and “daring.” She used to say it encouraged adventure. I knew the narrowness of her opinion, but I didn’t imagine that a big body like hers would succumb completely to small sizes. At our last meeting I couldn’t control myself, and I said to him: “Our order isn’t severe, but we demand one thing of every member: aspiration to greatness. You don’t have to be a man of means, but it’s important for you to be charged with a great aspiration.”
He looked at me as if I had gone out of my mind and said, “I’m satisfied with what I have.”
“So I see.”
“Is something the matter with me?”
“You’re absolutely fine.”
The meetings grew fewer and fewer, as I said, and now we meet twice a year. I invite him to a café and afterward to a restaurant, and meanwhile I give him a check, and we part without any disharmony, each to his own direction. A few times he surprised me with his wife. His wife has become like him. Heavy, bashful, and clumsy. The grocery store is stamped in her too.
“How’s work?” I used to ask repeatedly.
His requests were always modest. A sofa set for the living room or a refrigerator for the grocery store. It’s hard to be fond of modesty that arises from narrowness of mind, but I, like a fool, hoped that one day he would change, that something inward would rise up from within him, some anger, rebellion, desire for travel, even a desire to surprise me with a new garment that suits his height. I saw no change. On the contrary, from year to year the root in his limited world sinks deeper. His face grows broader, and redness blooms on his cheeks, like on creatures that grow up in closed places. At our last meeting I sensed something was twitching inside him and wanted to get out. I would say a kind of late desire to extricate himself from the vise of his mother and wife. I almost said to him: Get out while you still can. Don’t be afraid. I’ll help you.
Of course he quickly withdrew. His eyes lowered, and his big body said once again: I don’t know what to do. You know. A strong man like you is permitted to raise his voice, I almost burst out.
“I don’t know what to do,” he repeated, and there was an inarticulate expression on his face.
For some reason I wanted to shout: “You know. If you don’t know, your hands know.”
His big body suddenly shrank in discomfort, and in a near-whisper he said, “Why are you forcing me to do something I can’t do.”
“I’m not forcing you,” I looked straight into his eyes. “I’m asking you to make more of an effort. You’re my son, and, like me, you belong to our order. Our order isn’t a big one, but it’s very special. Believe me, it’s a big honor to be among its members.”
“What order?” His mouth opened.
“Is it a secret order?”
“No. Every night you can see it.”
We gave the world Anthony Weiner and Michael Bloomberg, and even our holidays screwed up everyone’s summer