"I am afraid so."
Perspiration broke out on my chin as Mr. Gelber said without preliminaries that my father had died. "You of course have my most profound sympathies," he said in Hebrew, "but there are some-- urgent matters to discuss, else I would not call you on the holiday."
It was only April but the Toronto weather was freakishly hot and my cheap one-room apartment on Spadina Avenue was baking in the heat. My sole white shirt, which I had put on for an evening out with Jenny, was soaking with sweat, as Jenny kept massaging my neck, the back of my head, the veins at my temples. I again had a migraine after last nights black dreams. It often hit me when evening fell and so we rarely went out. I had hoped tonight would be better; but it wasnt. Why Jenny was willing to put up with it I didnt know. As her fingers kept battling the pain, I dabbed at my face with a dish towel and tried to concentrate on Mr. Gelber's voice, which was explaining in my ear how someone had broken into my fathers shoe store the previous night while he was taking inventory, and following the robbery (an unsuccessful attempt, really, since nothing of value was taken), my father was stabbed in the heart with one of his own knivesthe one used for cutting soles. It was probably an Arab robber, Mr. Gelber said, his voice neutral, because the body was also mutilated. He never had a chance to use the telephone-- you of course knew he had a telephone in his store."
"No. I didnt.
Mr. Gelber began to explain at length how my mother, three years ago-- a mere month before her death -- had made my father install a telephone in the store. "Six months it took her to get to the right people, to speed up installation-- six months! Here he was, Isser Starkman, the hero of the Castel, the slayer of Abu Jalood, alone in the store-- without a telephone, and his heart not strong-- and nobody cares! Can you imagine? Finally Gershonovitz himself intervened. Gershonovitz! It's a shame, a bloody shame, that she had to go to this big shot for such a thing. Two hours she had to wait in his office! Two hours! Abase herself before that scum, may she rest in peace! And she and your father not even living together anymore." Mr. Gelber paused. "But I am sure you know all that."
I didn't. "Inventory." I repeated. A tickling started in my nose and the room rotated in a semi circle around me.
Jenny whispered fiercely that I should lie down and rest, not talk on the phone, but I waved her away and tried to concentrate on Mr. Gelbers voice which, calmer by now, was speaking with legalistic precision about the funeral, the Kaddish prayer, the reading of the will, and some obscure points regarding National Insurance and a Pension from Germany for loss of schooling. "And there are a few other matters which we have to discuss. Really small, minor matters."
"Tz, Mr. Gelber clicked his tongue. Not over an open phone line."
This was a military expression I hadn't heard for more than ten years. "Mutilated how?" The tickling in my nose had descended into my throat and I found it difficult to pronounce the Hebrew words.
"Mutilated, nu, Mr. Gelber snapped. "Like what the Arabs did in '36, in '48, nu. What they did to Rubin, and to all the others."
"To Paltiel? What they did to Paltiel Rubin? In Yaffo?"
"Yes, yes!" Mr. Gelber shouted. "Yes."
He went on, about my uncle Mordechai, or perhaps the police, but the line burst into a fury of crackles and hisses like a tank-radio when a jet swoops low overhead and I couldn't make out a word. I dabbed at my chin, at my throat. The towel was soaking wet.
"So you will come to the funeral?" Mr. Gelber asked. "It must be before Saturday, you understand."
I said I understood and that I of course will come to the funeral. "Tonight. I will leave tonight."
Excerpted from The Debba by Avner Mandelman. Copyright © 2010 by Avner Mandelman. Excerpted by permission of Other Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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