The skinny guy fell to the café floor. His stomach hurt more than he thought it ever possibly could. A series of involuntary spasms shook his body. “This is what it must be like when you’re going to die,” he thought. “But this can’t be the end. I’m too young, and it’s too embarrassing to die like this, in shorts and Crocs, on the floor of a café that was once trendy but hasn’t been making a go of it for years.” The guy opened his mouth to scream for help but didn’t have enough air in his lungs to let out a scream. This story isn’t about him.

The waitress who went over to the skinny guy was named Galia. She never wanted to be a waitress. She’d always dreamed of being a preschool teacher. But there’s no money in teaching kids, and there was in waitressing. Not an awful lot, but enough to cover her rent and all. That year, though, she’d started studying special education at Beit Berl College. On the days she was at school, she worked the night shift at the café. Not even a dog came to the café at night, and she earned less than half the tips, but school was important to her. “Are you okay?” she asked the guy on the floor. She knew he wasn’t, but she asked anyway, out of embarrassment. This story isn’t about her, either.

“I’m dying,” the guy said, “I’m dying, call an ambulance.”

“There’s no point,” said a dark-skinned bald guy who had been sitting at the bar reading the financial pages. “It’ll take about an hour for the ambulance to get here. They’ve cut their budget down to the bone. They work Saturday hours all week now.” While the man was telling Galia this, he was hauling the skinny guy onto his back, and added, “I’ll take him to the ER. My car is parked right outside.” He did this because he was a good man – because he was a good man and wanted the waitress to see that. Five months had passed since his divorce, and those few words he’d spoken to Galia were the closest he’d come in that period to having an intimate conversation with a pretty girl. This story isn’t about him, either.

In a story, you’re God. If your protagonist failed, it’s only because you made him fail. If something bad happened to him, it’s only because you wanted it to. You wanted to watch him wallow in his own blood.”

Not about them: Dizengoff Street cafe, Tel Aviv. Anatoli Axelrod/Wikimedia Commons

Traffic was jammed up all the way to the hospital. The skinny guy, who was lying in the back of the car, moaned in an almost inaudible voice and drooled on the upholstery of the dark-skinned bald guy’s new Alfa sports car. When he got divorced, his friends told him that he had to replace his family-sized Mitsubishi with something else, a bachelor’s car. Girls learn a lot about you from the car you drive. A Mitsubishi says: Wiped-out divorced guy seeks shrew to take place of last bitch. An Alfa sports car says: A cool guy, young at heart, seeks adventure. That skinny guy convulsing in the backseat was kind of an adventure. The bald guy thought, “I’m like an ambulance now. I don’t have a siren but I can beep for other cars to let me pass, go through red lights, like in the movies.” While he was thinking all that, he floored the gas pedal. While he was thinking all that, a white Renault van crashed into the side of his Alfa. The driver of the Renault was religious. The driver of the Renault didn’t have his seat belt on. The crash killed him on the spot. This story isn’t about him, either.

Whose fault was the crash? The dark-skinned bald guy who accelerated and ignored the stop sign? Not really. The van driver who didn’t buckle his seat belt and was driving over the speed limit? Not him, either. There’s only one person responsible for that accident. Why did I invent all these people? Why did I kill a guy wearing a yarmulke who never did anything to me? Why did I make a nonexistent guy have pain? Why did I destroy a dark-skinned bald guy’s family unit? The fact that you invent something doesn’t exempt you from responsibility, and unlike life, where you can shrug and point up to God in heaven, there’s no excuse here. In a story, you’re God. If your protagonist failed, it’s only because you made him fail. If something bad happened to him, it’s only because you wanted it to. You wanted to watch him wallow in his own blood.

My wife comes in the room and asks, “Are you writing?” She wants to ask me something. Something else. I can see it on her face, but at the same time, she doesn’t want to interrupt me. She doesn’t want to, but she already has. I say yes, but never mind. This story isn’t working. It’s not even a story. It’s an itch. It’s a fungus under my fingernail, I tell her. She nods as if she understands what I’m talking about. She doesn’t. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t love me. This story is about us.

Translated by Sondra Silverston, from the collection Fly Already (Granta Books, £12.99)

 

Etgar Keret was born in Tel Aviv in 1967 and is a leading voice in Israeli literature and cinema. He is the author of five bestselling story collections, which have been translated into 46 languages. His writing has been published in The New York Times, Le Monde, the Guardian, The New Yorker, The Paris Review and Esquire. He has also written a number of screenplays, and Jellyfish, his first film as a director alongside his wife Shira Geffen, won the Caméra d’Or for best first feature at Cannes in 2007. In 2010 he was awarded the Chevalier medallion of France’s Order of Arts and Letters, and in 2016 he won the Charles Bronfman Prize. His memoir The Seven Good Years was published by Granta Books in 2015. Fly Already is out now in hardback, with stories translated by Sondra Silverston, Nathan Englander, Jessica Cohen, Miriam Shlesinger and Yardenne Greenspan.
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Author portrait © Ania Kaim

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