Toto’s Anti-Aging Machine

 

One meter, ninety-nine centimeters. Six feet, five and a half inches. I’m just a girl who’s always high.

From this kind of height, you can’t get your head in a huddle, and even the most parasitical flea that I know won’t risk such a suicidal leap. And when you don’t huddle your head nice and close, secrets don’t get whispered. Without secrets, there’s no trust. No trust, no friends.

From this kind of height, it’s also hard to bump your head against electricity poles – they’re just too low.

At the end of some boring program about dinosaurs on the documentary channel, they interviewed some expert from the Center for Spinal Research, or something like that, and he spoke about the data from a study comparing short people to tall ones. My ears, which were lolling at “Stand Easy” pricked up to “Attention.” The research showed that tall people were at much greater risk of falling down, but they almost never bumped into things. Short people, on the other hand, almost never fall down, but they develop a frightening tendency to collide with objects around them. I switched the TV off with a sigh. With findings like those, it’s hard to decide where to belong. Although, when I think of the stray vulture that almost nested in my hair, it’s obviously better to join the head bumping club but I haven’t yet found the haulage firm I could trust to take me there.

“Tell me,” my mother roars at me every day, closing the accounts book with a loud slap, “Yes, you up there, what does the future hold in store for us, and when will your father invent a magic to make himself disappear?”

And I glance at the clouds. Zero, zilch.

She goes on: “I bought a lottery ticket. What about it? Do you see a win there? No? Come on, be useful, both of you.”

When mother says “both of you” she means me and father, leaving herself out, although we, as a threesome, are considered a freak-show that runs, never walks, every day of the year, here in Sderot. And since there’s no theater here, even shows like ours are not to be sniffed at.

I once thought of selling tickets to the show and calling it “When Einstein and a Kibbutz Girl Meet up at the Top,” but in Sderot they like their shows to be free. Street plays are doing great here right now.

We lead an “instead of” life here, detached from the ways of the big city: Instead of marrying a good girl from the old country, between the Atlas Mountains and the Mediterranean, a girl who can cook and is generally one of his own crowd, my father, Toto Einstein, erroneously named in his ID card as Michael Ben Na’im, fell in love with Shulamit Neuman, a kibbutz girl from Ein Halohem, near Sderot. And she, instead of marrying a good guy from the old country, between the Baltic and theBlack Sea, fell in love with Toto during the brief two days during which he was serving as the factory electrician, funnily enough precisely when the total outage occurred there. Yes, instead of playing it safe, they played it blind.

And, instead of crowding another few good souls into the world, my parents decided to rub up against each other and produce only me, Na’ama Ben Na’im. And that’s how I joined the odd couple: Dad, a self-employed inventor amongst the cogwheels of whose brain you can find flexible padlocks, robots, all kinds of tricks, and Mom, who brings money home in her capacity as an immunization nurse and who is always worrying about matters of livelihood and debts. And she has plenty to worry about.

Toto, who has a puppy-dog look, with drooping ears, that gives him his name, dreams of doing a little good for his grumbling wife, perhaps at long last inventing a contraption that works not only inside his mind but also outside of it, like in the patent office inJerusalem.

“I’d like to turn into a fly and sit inside your brain and read your operating instructions really well and perhaps understand what makes a man of your age make more and more thingamabobs that don’t do anyone any good,” Mom tells him, out of a genuine perplexity. Mom, a true kibbutznik looks at life from the top down. She buys watermelons, and throws the garbage out and bakes cakes without a lot of sugar, looking from the top down all the time, and she still calls the health maintenance organization “the clinic.”

“When we go back to the kibbutz,” and “When I go back to working with the milkers” are her two favorite sentences. But year after year dragged by, and we have stayed in Sderot. Toto loved Mom, and he was prepared to move to the kibbutz, even though he didn’t always grasp why he should have to waste time on meetings instead of rummaging around the garbage dumps looking for stuff he could use.

However, the road back to the kibbutz wasn’t strewn with roses. We had to pass a selection committee, even though Tzipkeh, the chair, had been dumped together with Mom straight into the children’s house back then. So we tried to get accepted, but at the second stage, I think, Mom broke, swore at Tzipkeh, who didn’t really make it any easier for us, hustled us into the car and on the way back to Sderot she didn’t say a thing. After that, she changed the record to “When Tzipkeh dies, I wish. Amen, Selah.”      

For as long as I can remember myself, I’ve always been tall. In photos from my pre-school, I’m sitting on the carpet, at the lowest level, and I’m still a head higher than the teacher. In a small town like Sderot, tallness is a demeaning quality, and no one was going to keep quiet about it. Wherever I went there were whispers that receded as I approached. You get used to everything, and our neighbors and acquaintances and my fellow-students should have gotten used to my tallness and stopped making such a big deal out of it. But that’s not what happened. If I’d gone to play basketball and brought honor to the town and made up for our peculiar family threesome, well okay, but I brought no honor to the town, just the opposite. When all the students of my age got their final military call-up papers, I hadn’t even received my preliminary ones. My worst fear was to be exempted from the army because of physical unfitness and thereby, at the age of eighteen, to be stuck permanently with my parents, for life. Once a month, Mom sits us down in the kitchen, with aMontanacigarette in one hand and in the other the notebook she takes with her everywhere she goes. “Our budget is shot,” she begins. With her, there’s no bank account, just a budget. Then she starts running the numbers.

Dad sits facing her, spongy, shabby, his ears somehow looking longer and even droopier. And mother, slapping the notebook closed, announces: “Another hole in the budget. Are you ready at last to drop your inventions and find a normal job?”

“One day, my little Shulamit, they’ll call from the patent office in … “

“Shlomzion Street, number 15, I’ve heard,” mother interrupts.

“And you,” she turns to me, “a 17-year-old girl, can do some waitressing.”

“I’ve tried,” I whisper back. “They’ve never got any vacancies.”

“Why? How can they not find something for all that height to do? What a waste.”

And Toto nods and signals me not to provoke her by answering back. Because one day he’ll come up with it, that something that makes an invention work even when other people are watching. And the two of us will travel up toJerusalemand bask in glory.

Dad’s inventions worked excellently. The nutrichair, for example, in my opinion is no less than brilliant. Anyone wanting to lose his appetite for ever, all he had to do was to sit in the nutrichair. Dad had engineered an operatic voice into the chair that sang to its occupant: “Too much fat, too little calcium, Vitamin D declining dangerously, kidneys crying out for water.”

The chair worked fine. Even Mom waxed enthusiastic. But when Motti Sadan, the boss of the patents office came to our house after the mayor used some of his political pull, the nutrichair kept quiet. Dad tried and tried again. Red-faced, he made Motti sit down and get up. “The chair’s quite nicely constructed,” Motti Sadan told him. “You’ve got good hands, Mr. Ben Na’im. Why don’t you be a carpenter.”

That evening, even mother felt sorry for him, and she refrained from mentioning the budget, or the fact that she felt suffocated in this town and that she was sick of everything.

The same thing happened with the infra-turquoise rays that reflected atomic particles so that you could gauge their texture, and with the remote control that silenced car alarms, thanks to which on one Sabbath eve I had the chance to learn how people feel when they bump into things. At Dad’s request, I ran through the neighborhood bumping into cars that responded by sounding their alarms. Dad sat on our balcony, pointed his remote control, and silenced them, one after the other. “An exercise in sound waves,” he called it. But the next day, after he had persuaded a new patent office liaison official to come, it didn’t work, and neither did it when we made a videotape. It seems that a secret force that didn’t like strangers’ eyes had taken over our house.  Meanwhile, I have learned to recite each one of the patent office’s replies, even more accurately than the words of Hatikvah, our national anthem. Each invention, every contraption that could fly, or speak, or squeak or squeeze, that was meant to be Toto’s ship to the future, when it reached its destination, namely the patent office at15 Shlomzion Street,Jerusalem, would run aground and elicit the stock taped response: “The State of Israel does not require local inventions. Thank you.”  Sometimes the taped message was two lines of apology longer: “Our primary investment currently is in security. If you have something, try us again. Flak jackets, composite bulletproof ceramics, that sort of thing. Don’t give up.”

But that’s what was sad about the whole story: Toto doesn’t give up. He cannot despair, as long he has his cursed imagination. My junior sofa bed has long been not a bed, but a magic box, the kind that you put someone into and then saw him in half. To me, unfortunately, you can’t do that. And so I sleep with my legs in a dissatisfied state.

Also, the window in our living room isn’t a window, but the natural base for ladders, pulleys and ropes, a base that is there in order to confirm time and again the force of gravity. Our front doorway is not merely a way of getting in and out, but rather a sophisticated identification screen with a multi-colored control panel that also classifies sounds. (“A quarter of an hour ago, there was a door here,” said mother despairingly. “Where is it now.”) Steady, quiet knocks turn on the green light, most times. In response to “Who’s there?” the yellow light goes on, and banging on the door by someone impatient sets off the alarm, as well as activating a colorful disco ball that dazzles the banger. Not that anyone ever comes to our door, or bangs impatiently on it, and moreover, the invention doesn’t work on strangers.   

 

                                                          * * * * * * * * *

Nothing that day indicated that something unusual was about to happen. Mom went to the clinic, and on the way dropped me off at school. Dad came to take me out of it, because I’m cheap labor and once again I was forced to drag my feet from factory to factory schlepping his inventions. After that he shut himself up in his little room, and while I was chewing cold pasta in front of the TV, the usual explosions were going off.

And then Mom came back from work, raring for a fight, and asked why I was home already and I said they let us out early and she said with all these early closings they could forget about getting any money from her this year, and anyway there was a free education law, wasn’t there? Then she went into Dad’s little room and demanded that he stop the explosions. “I’ve been bombed enough in my life,” she told him, “and what I didn’t go through myself, I heard from my parents, so stop that noise, now, right away.” And Dad, insulted, said, “It’s not noise, and just you wait, my little Shulamit, one day …” and stormed out of the house.

But there was something dancing around in the air when Dad came home with the newspaper in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other. He slammed the door shut and began dancing around the living room.

“What now?” asked Mom, who was sitting in the room with her feet up and smoking one of herMontanas. “Have you invented a tourniquet for overdrafts?”

“My little Shulamit,” Dad ignored her tone, “Read,” and he tossed the paper at her. She scanned the page and said, “Well I never …  and I was already thinking that tonight I would be able to sleep like a baby. Now, explain, what is this nonsense?”

“Nonsense? Na’ama,” he turned to me, “read and tell me if a grant of one million shekels and all living expenses covered for five years by the Ministry for Trade and Industry is nonsense.”

I picked up the paper. A headline screamed: “Invention Competition” and a few sentences beneath it that were less clamorous nevertheless managed to convey that the most original invention in the field of home-use geriatrics would win what Dad so passionately desired.

“If I win,” Dad said, “the patent office inJerusalemwill run after me. But,” he continued with a vengeful expression, “I’ll leave them a message saying ‘Michael Ben Na’im is busy working on a new invention. Please speak to his secretary ...”

Forget about it,” said Mom. “It’s enough that I left the kibbutz for your sake. Find yourself another secretary.”

“… who can be found at45 Fig Street, next to Moshko’s grocery store.”

“Is this how you’d cheat on Shlomzion?” Mom riposted, and her face turned serious. “Toto, we received two warning letters from the debt collection office today. The repo men are on their way.”

“Quite right, and that’s why I have to enter this competition. Na’ama, are you coming with me tomorrow?” he asked me.

“Tomorrow, Toto, the girl will be going to school,” Mom blew out a cloud of menthol smoke.

“My little Shulamit, don’t be like that. Think of my chances. I already have an idea of what to invent. Come, you rest here and I’ll fix dinner for us.”

But not even dinner placated Mom. After it, from my bed in the next room, I heard the reverberations of a conversation that became stranger and stranger as the night grew long. At first, they spoke of our enormous debts. “This is it. If the repo men come to our door, it’ll be like a Catholic marriage. Don’t you realize they’ll cling to you like leeches?” Mom asked, almost yelling.

Then the voices became hushed. I heard fragments of sentences that contained some peculiar combinations. “The ring,” “That mystic,” “No he was a magician,” “Stop correcting me,” and “You are not going to use it.” My ears pricked up when Mom suddenly blurted out: “She’s grown tall enough already. Because of you. Only you. Over my dead body you’ll use it. If I could only manage to throw it into the sea.” Despite my curiosity, sleep gradually overcame me and, because the words for “it” and “her” sound the same in Hebrew,  I wondered as I slipped away why Mom wanted to throw me into the sea, and if she really thought it was possible to drown almost two meters so easily.

In the morning we went to look for materials.

“Let’s go to the forest,” said Dad. “The forest” is no more than a patch of dirt, sooty from the scouts’ campfires, with a rather scraggly clump of no more than 50 trees. More of a bald patch of ground than forest, actually, but nevertheless, in an almost desert town, there’s no better name for it than forest. We were wandering around hither and thither when, standing next to a fleshy shrub covered with microscopic thornlets, Dad suddenly let out a yell of joy: “It’s an orenagon! Incredible! What are you doing here?” he asked the plant, which chose to remain silent.

I asked him if he’d decided to switch professions and become a botanist – not that I’d have anything against that, but Mom would drop stone dead, stuffed and mounted,  on the spot. And then he told me his idea. “People are getting old all the time,” he began. “Wrinkles wreck their mood. My mother, may she rest in peace and God have mercy on her soul, used to use this plant, and she never had a single wrinkle.”

“Isn’t it genes, the wrinkle thing?” I asked skeptically.

“I’ll simply build a machine that renovates the facial skin. The machine will radiate the seeds into the skin. A machine for home use, simple, without all kinds of tricks with tubes of silicon, there won’t be a woman without one at home, I have to watch out for law suits, this could be serious competition for …” I tried to stop him because when he starts with these kinds of hallucinations, you can build a skyscraper before he stops, but he went on waffling: “The functional infra, that’s what I need. Radiation via refracted x-rays, and from there on via the converse formula up to the blue integral. Terrific!” Dad looked feverish.

I went: “What the heck are you going on about?” but he dismissed me with a wave of his hand. That’s how it is. Next to his integrals, I’m about as noticeable as a comma. Dad told me to pick the orenagon. That was not a pleasurable experience, but did I have a choice? When Toto insisted, a mule would be like a mouse compared to him.

When we walked home, loaded with smelly seeds, Moshko was stacking boxes outside his grocery store. “Mr. Einstein,” he called out.

“Come quick,” Dad hissed at me.

“Mr. Toto Einstein, what about your debt?”

“I’ll pay it, really,” said Dad.

“When?” asked Moshko. “When you’ve built a golden donkey for the messiah? Or when you cut your daughter’s legs short?”

When we were climbing the stairs, Dad never looked at me. To soften the embarrassment, I went, “Dad?”

“What?”

“What about the glowworm-lamp invention?”

“The glowworms,” Dad sighed. “At 15 Shlomzion, where else. Waiting in line. It’s from the boondocks, they’ll take their time.”

There was one week left for the competition. At night, when they thought I was sound asleep, my parents continued their argument. In the daytime, Dad continued working on his machine. He cut a boiler into two, and joined the two halves together again by means of a thick pipe. He covered the bottom half in canvas, because of its excellent preservative qualities. After soaking the cactus plants that we’d picked for a few days in a light blue alroine solution, he shoved it into a pot and cooked it until my and Mom’s noses began turning blue from the vapors spreading through the house. He stuck the paste that resulted onto a broken folk-music CD and waved it around on the balcony until all the doves stopped gurgling longingly and fled for their lives.

“So now you’re working on doves?” Mom teased him.

“The doves were just dazzled, but they’re not what counts,” Dad explained seriously. “If you take a good look at the balcony railing, you’ll see that the droppings have vanished because of the radiation.”

Dad was right. There were no droppings. But he had also been right about the nutrichair, the remote control and the self-protecting door. He went on working on his machine. Without buttons, of course, it would do. So he soldered some operating buttons onto the machine. Somehow, the machine began to take on a human appearance. Dad called it Colgen, and it even succeeded in winning Mom’s affection.

Two days before the competition, the debt collectors turned up. Actually, their knocks were nice and gentle. Dad, of course, wasn’t in.

Mom opened the door and went pale. She looked at me and held her cigarette close to her heart, as if to say, “Please, not myMontana.” What she did say, to the door, in a smoky voice, was: “My husband’s not home.”

“That’s okay, we don’t mean to take him. That’s your good luck, or bad luck, whatever you decide.” A not-so-burly guy came in and with a practiced move whipped a piece of paper from his shirt pocket.

“Here’s the warrant,” he said. Behind him, a mouse-man sneaked inside.

Mom glanced at the paper and glowered at the couple with dry and piercing eyes. TheMontananeeded an ashtray, but she never noticed.

“Well,” the first repo guy said to his partner, “shall we begin?” and they went into the living room and picked up the TV. Mom shook herself. “Why now? Why in front of the girl?”

“She’s tall,” said the first guy.

“Seems to me she can do without TV; she must get a pain in the neck from bending down to see it,” said the second.

Tears came into my eyes. My height. Again. Whenever I’ve forgotten about it, someone takes the trouble to remind me that it can’t be hidden away.

“Actually, in your occupation it seems to me that height would be useful,” said Mom, really trying to protect me. They made their way to the door with the TV.

“But why the TV? It’s the only normal appliance in this house. You know what?” Mom’s face lit up in a suspicious manner. “Look, come tomorrow, when my husband will be home and she’ll be at school, and meanwhile, as a guarantee, take his magic machine.”

“Mom, no!” I shouted.

“Magic machine?” asked the man, and he walked up to Colgen.

“Yes. A home face-renovator,” she explained. I rolled my eyes to the best of my ability.

“Ha!” the guy laughed, clapping the mouse on his shoulder. “You almost managed to pull a fast one on me. Magic. Really. Come on, will you let me do my job?”

Then mother began bombarding him with identity questions. And since we live in a small, hot country, and because even the sparrows hold class reunions over here, what’s the wonder that the not-so-tough guy was from kibbutz Ein Halohem, from the new neighborhood there, and in a few minutes they were already outside our  house, promising to return in two days time.

When Dad came back, Mom was waiting for him smoking back and forth. She began spewing all of her regular spleen at him, plus some from her emergency stocks. I decided to avoid peril, and got into bed earlier than usual, and this time I heard much more, and I also understood.

Mother went, “Is she asleep?”

And Dad replied: “Like a baby.”

“A baby wakes up every couple of hours,” she remarked dryly. Dad told her that he’d checked and I was asleep and she should calm down.

“I won’t calm down. I have already been burned once because of this nonsense. Who’d have believed that I, a kibbutznik and an atheist, a scion of the aristocratic Neuman family, would ever be scared of rings, but it seems that after Stalin, anything can happen.” Here, a Moment of silence was observed in memory of her parents, who had lost their minds inSiberia and under KGB interrogation.

“But this is our only chance,” Dad mixed some persuasion into his voice.

“Okay, but what about the ring? Why not use it yourself? What do you think, thatNewtonpointed a ring at the apple?”

“You must not belittle the magic powers. Enough that it works just one time, and then I’ll stop. I swear.”

There was a silence and then Mom said suddenly: “But how can you do it, after what happened to Na’ama. She hasn’t got a boyfriend, or any kind of friend, she’s a laughing stock everywhere, poor girl, and why? Why? Just because of your nonsense.”

A wave of self pity washed over me, me, the tallest of girls, and I wept silently into my pillow. When my tears ran dry, I discovered that I had missed the main part of the conversation, because Mom was now saying: “But you are so smart, Toto, so talented. why don’t you make something of yourself.” That was always mother’s surrender speech, and I knew the fight was over and he had won.

The next day was devoted to experimenting. Colgen was taken out onto the balcony, like bride on her wedding day, and I was tasked with finding volunteers.

“But it won’t work,” Mom told Dad. “You’ve already tried a million times.”

So as not to hear their squabbling, I decided on my own to go to our upstairs neighbor, Diklah, whose hobby was cosmetics and who kept herself busy with fraught questions like what’s nicer, platinum blonde or eggplant purple. she told me to come in and looked at me through the mirror. “Hi highness” she said as she made up her right eye with her tongue sticking out. “I’ve got a name,” I told her, and she began apologizing and mumbling that she was sorry and that she’d die to be so tall, because then she would for sure be accepted for a modeling competition.

I asked: “Where, on Everest?” and to myself I added, “And what about you face?”

“So, what was it you wanted,” she asked and started on her left eye.

“I wanted to invite you to a free experiment in making wrinkles vanish.” I said. She opened wide a heavily blackened eye at me. “Your father?” Now she also raised an eyebrow.

“You’re quick on the uptake,” I said.

“Sorry, I can’t right now,” she said.

“Why?” I asked.

“I’m very busy.” Now both her eyes were wide open.

“It renews the skin completely,” I tried, persuasively.

“With this makeup which I bought at a crazy sale, you can’t see any wrinkles anyway.” And she waved me away.

Dad and Mom were still bickering and when I went into the apartment, Mom quickly hid me behind her back. Not that it worked.

“Sometimes I think that you’re glad about all this.” Dad was really furious.

“You want to try it, do it to yourself, not to her.” Mom blew smoke at him, and Dad said: “Her? Why her? Look at her skin, it’s like a baby’s.”

“‘Baby’ again,” Mom fumed. “She’s got the skin of a seventeen year old girl who was spared pimples. You hear me, Toto? You do the experiment on yourself.”

“That seems to be what I will do,” he said and retreated onto the balcony. Mom kissed me on the cheek and went to work.

“Today I am letting you off school. Maybe when I come home, we’ll have a few hours of fun together.”

I nodded and she left. I watched Dad. He sat facing the machine, pushed a button, and then, before he leaned his face forward, I saw a quick flash.

 

That afternoon, after we oohed and aahed over Dad’s smooth skin, Mom took me to a café. I nibbled a cookie and prepared myself for a “what-will-become-of-you” speech. She did make the speech, and when she finally shut up, I decided, because of the festive circumstances, not to give the usual response that she hated so much, that what will become of all of us is to be eaten by worms, and instead of that, what came out of my mouth was, “I know everything.”

Mom lit aMontana. No one sent a no-smoking enforcer to stop her, because that’s what it’s like in the boondocks, there are some advantages too. I decided to try my luck again. “I know everything about the ring.” She blew smoke at me and kept quiet. “I’m not angry with you two,” I said, hoping that some hidden button would be pressed and that she’d start blabbing. “It’s because of those damned shelves, and mostly because of your Dad’s laziness,” she said at last, avoiding looking into my eyes.

The waiter was slumped over the counter, snoring, and all my hand clapping didn’t help, so I went to order her an orange juice, because in the movies the detectives always had a break in the interrogation, to get the suspect talking.

And then, she told me about their outrageous crime. How, back when I was a cute little baby, a stand-out even on the mother-and-child clinic’s graph, she had asked Dad to make the closet three shelves higher, and how he’d been lazy and had taken out of somewhere a simple golden ring that he’d once pinched from some big-time  magician in Tel Aviv.

“I had no idea,” she said, “that this nonsense would actually work, and when he pointed it at the closet, and you crawled into the center of the room and pulled at his leg, and the ring fell and rolled toward you, loaded for action, it was terrible. You stretched before our eyes. A thing like that teaches one a lesson for a lifetime. But not your father, the donkey born of a mule. I tried to get it away from him but he said that you can never ever tell what would happen and if you ask me, he hasn’t tried hard to this day, because he knew that  the ring put wind in his sails.”

I didn’t want her to know that this was the first time I was hearing all this, so suppressing my anger and curiosity with all my strength, I took a sip of her juice and I asked nonchalantly, “And where is the ring?”

“On his pinkie. He’s married to it. The one I gave him, he lost ages ago,” she said and, looking me straight in the eye, added: “Only the sea will save us.

I tensed up: “The sea?”

“If my mother, Nadia Tikvah Neuman, could hear me speaking, she would have wanted to go back toSiberia. But yes, apparently only like that will the ring lose its powers,” Mom told me, inhaling, exhaling and looking at me serenely.

 

The whole of Sderot came to theAshkelonstadium, officially in order to cheer for Toto Einstein, that talented self-taught physicist but unofficially to jeer at Toto Einstein, that moronic, no-goodnik, star-gazer who was putting on a free show. As usual, even an event like this provided an opportunity for election speeches. Our mayor was fiery, declaring that the way it was in the outlying areas, great minds went to waste, but he was not about to let that continue. His deputy, who always lost elections by small margins, because, he claimed, he never bought votes, also said a few words, notifying the dignitaries of the Trade and Industry Ministry and the Government Patents Office that Sderot would be a bastion of brainpower, and that he hoped that they would show their faces there a little more often. A third bigwig mounted the podium. The entire shopping center belonged to him, and if it were possible he would have bought the whole of Sderot, like in Monopoly. He spoke a lot about progress, technology and innovation and it was obvious that it taken him a long time to practice his speech. Then they gave the Ashkelonites a chance to speak. They were less euphoric, because they didn’t know what was in store for them. Dad was sitting next to me, and as usual at events like this, drowsed off. Mother had not come along with us. “Someone has to be a responsible adult,” she told him. “And I had enough kids’ stuff at the kibbutz children’s house.” She gave me a look fraught with significance and that’s how we parted.

Dad was all slack, his mouth open, but he didn’t snore. His right hand was drooped over the back of the next seat.  On his pinkie, sparkled the ring which I had always believed to be a regular wedding band.

I thought hard about it. I thought about everyone who would be nearby. Someone could creep up, or could just happen to be there, someone who’d get short, or get tall, or whose smile wrinkles would vanish. I reached out a hesitant hand. In the background, the speechifying continued. The cool outdoors helped me, the pinkie showed almost no resistance. And lo and behold, the ring was in my hand, a lot heavier than I’d thought.

When the speeches ended at last, with everyone clapping violently to make the gabbers get to the end already, it was Dad’s turn. I woke him up, and he took leave of me with a kiss that pinched my heart and soul, and went down to the stage, where Colgen was already waiting, in all its glory. I covered my face with my hands, leaving just a tiny eye hole. I saw his raising his hand up, and when I couldn’t watch anymore, I got up and ran away.

The whole thing took me less than half an hour, including a farewell speech to the ring, but I was scared of the encounter with Dad, and I preferred to roam around and get to know, down to the last detail, all the malls in Ashkelon, and there are quite a few, for a rather remote coastal town. It was evening when I got back to Sderot.

Sderot means “boulevards” in Hebrew, and in the road lined with dusty eucalyptus trees that gave the town its name, I stopped for a moment and took in my surroundings. No need to hurry. A condemned person would never hasten his execution, I said to myself as my eyes climbed to the tops of the eucalyptuses. I went on walking, rapt in thought, and I bumped into an electricity pole, rubbed my aching forehead, but the truth had not yet dawned upon me.

In the stairwell, there was a wonderful aroma of yeast cake. One step and then another, and then I was facing the door. Look at me, the traitor. From now on, forever, my name would be uttered in the same breath as that of Judas Iscariot.

I sniffed the air. No doubt about it, the yeast cake smell, mixed with orange marmalade, was actually coming out of our doorway. I pushed the door open in grief and shame, feeling as wicked as Haman. Haman, Iscariot, what was to become of me?

A sixties love song was playing, and Toto was cradling Mom in his arms. My eyes shifted to the table, which was laid with all kinds of good things. Mom shyly extricated herself from Dad and he popped the cork of a bottle of wine that exuded prestige.

“Here you are!” the two rejoiced at my arrival.

I gaped at the two in wonderment. “You won,” I gasped.

“In a big way,” said Mom. “I’ve always said Toto’s smart, and that only fools need miracles.”

Dad let out a happy shout and danced a quick polka around Mom, and then he took a swig of wine and pulled a face, as if to show that swigging wine was a routine thing for him.

Mom came over and hugged me. Little ripples stirred the air, a strange kind of a feeling enveloped me. I felt shrinking wrinkles running all over my body. Instinctively,  I reached out for the wall, but the wobbles never came.

First the eucalyptus trees, then the pole, and now the hug. The implications sent a thrill through me. Dad joined in the hug and we both looked up at him.

“You look good like that, Na’ama,” he said, and Mom chimed in with “This little girl used to be big,” which is exactly the opposite of a blessing said over baby boys when they are circumcised.

And when I discovered the sense of solidity that a height of one meter sixty gives a girl, I began dancing around like a happy lunatic.

Dad opened another bottle. The phone rang. “Do not answer,” Mom ordered.

The answering machine began working and a woman’s voice filled the room: “Mr. Ben Na’im, congratulations on your win. Patent application number three hundred and fifty nine has passed both the committees. You are requested to call at our office at15 Shlomzion Street,Jerusalem.”

“My secretary will be in touch with you,” yelled Toto.

Our heads bumped into one other as we pranced and danced together, but nobody cared. 


Translated from Hebrew by Ronnie Hope