‘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
Tel Aviv in July is a glaring city. Everything is squashed and molten underfoot. You’re trapped when you leave your lair. Worse than everything is the ugliness stamped in every doorway and gate. Once it seemed there were hidden aspirations in this blazing city. I even imagined that one day they would raise me up. But in recent years powerful emptiness has engulfed me, clumsy words, and a dark avidity that threatens to swallow me. I’m not afraid. Sometimes I have a strong desire to open the window and shout: Murky city, hollow city, I can’t bear your stifling emptiness! I know my shout won’t shake anything. The emptiness here is solid. The people are bastioned in these paper tenements as in metal castles.
To cope with the heat and the emptiness, I seldom go out, just to the grocery store, just to the seashore at night. As I said, women muddy my spirit. Sometimes they seem to me like the embodiment of this emptiness. Tina, where are you? How come I didn’t hear your cry? I just felt your goodness of heart, the understanding you acquired in the ghetto and the camps, but I didn’t see your determination to struggle against the ghosts of emptiness.
When I heard she had converted to Christianity, I wanted to go to her, and I even made some preparations. It didn’t work out. I’m far too connected with what I’ve accumulated to go after a beloved woman. What I didn’t do, Tina did. Presumably she uprooted me from her thoughts, but within me she grew from year to year. Sometimes she seems to loom up like a bell tower.
To vanquish the emptiness I have stratagems. I listen to music for countless hours. The music fills not only me but the space around me. Music, as I have learned, is an elixir that seeps into all your limbs.
Some time ago my cassette player broke. It was already night. I couldn’t bear the house, and I raced from street to street, maybe I’d find a repairman, maybe I could borrow a cassette player, maybe I could buy a new one. All the stores were locked. I sat in the doorway of a building and wrapped myself in despair. A man approached me, leaned over, and asked, “What’s the matter?”
I didn’t ignore him: “My cassette player broke.”
“One doesn’t mourn for a cassette player,” he reprimanded me.
“I can’t manage without music,” unintentionally I told him the truth.
“Can’t you control yourself?” he scolded me.
“It’s hard for me, can’t you see,” I spoke the way I never speak.
“It’s beyond my understanding,” he said and turned his back to me.
But another man, who had overheard our conversation, immediately sympathized with my distress, approached me, and asked, “You need a cassette player?”
“Right,” I said and rose to my feet.
“I can lend you one,” he said in a plain voice.
“Just until tomorrow. Tomorrow I’ll buy a new one.”
“Wait a minute. I’ll bring it right away.”
Before much time had passed, he brought me a cassette player, almost new. I wanted to pay him, but he refused. He wrote down my name and address and said: “Every evening after nine o’clock, I”m home.”
“You trust me?”
“Yes,” he said with a smile.
“I promise I’ll return it.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
I hadn’t imagined that there were such generous people in this city. I ran after him and shouted, “Thank you.”
“Think nothing of it. I’m sure you’d do exactly as I did.”
That night I didn’t sleep. I sat in the armchair and listened to music. I didn’t fall asleep until dawn, drugged with coffee and cigarettes.
The next night I went out to return the cassette player. The man greeted me at the door. He was shorter than I had pictured him. Probably a janitor or a government clerk. Not a trace of nobility in his face. “Thanks,” I said. “You saved me.”
“Without music, I choke. You also listen to music.”
“Not every day?”
“So how did you notice that I was in distress?” I asked stupidly.
“I didn’t notice.”
“So why did you lend me the cassette player?”
“I saw you needed it.”
The man’s laconic speech stunned me. I wanted to thank him again, but I didn’t. I don’t like to annoy people. But since then, every time I operate my cassette player, I remember him and it seems that I’m not alone in the world. You can’t depend on women to be faithful; but a man who gives you a cassette player because he sees you need one—there’s a man I can count on.
We gave the world Anthony Weiner and Michael Bloomberg, and even our holidays screwed up everyone’s summer