Mar 18 2013 2:00pm
Check out this excerpt from Ofir Touché Gafla’s The World of the End, out on Junes 25:
As an epilogist, Ben Mendelssohn appreciates an unexpected ending. But when that denouement is the untimely demise of his beloved wife, Ben is incapable of coping. Marian was more than his life partner; she was the fiber that held together all that he is. And Ben is willing to do anything, even enter the unknown beyond, if it means a chance to be with her again.
One bullet to the brain later, Ben is in the Other World, where he discovers a vast and curiously secular existence utterly unlike anything he could have imagined: a realm of sprawling cities where the deceased of every age live an eternal second life, and where forests of family trees are tended by mysterious humans who never lived in the previous world. But Ben cannot find Marian.
Desperate for a reunion, he enlists an unconventional afterlife investigator to track her down, little knowing that his search is entangled in events that continue to unfold in the world of the living. It is a search that confronts Ben with one heart-rending shock after another; with the best and worst of human nature; with the resilience and fragility of love; and with truths that will haunt him through eternity.
Some fifteen months after Marian lost her life under bizarre aeronautical circumstances, her husband decided to celebrate her fortieth birthday. Their old friends, well aware of the couple’s love for one another, were not surprised to find, amid the daily monotony of their mail, an invitation to the home of the live husband and the late wife. They also knew that he had yet to have his final word on the matter, and that, beneath the emotional prattle and the love-soaked murmurs, Ben Mendelssohn was a man of action. His friends, put at ease by the invitation, saw the party as classic Mendelssohn, which is to say a come-asyou-are, be-ready-for-anything affair. After all, Ben paid the bills with his imagination, crafting surprise endings for a living. Writers of screenplays, writers at the dawn and dusk of their careers, letter writers, graphomaniacs, poets, drafters of Last Wills and Testaments—all used the services of Ben Mendelssohn, righter. In intellectual circles he was known as an epilogist; among laymen he remained anonymous, never once asking for his name to appear at the close of the work he sealed for others. Over time, experts were able to recognize his signature touches and, within their own literati circles, to admit to his genius. Marian, who recognized his talent from the start, had a keen distaste for her husband’s enduring anonymity, but he, chuckling, would ask, “Do you know any famous towtruck drivers? All I do is drag miserable writers out of the mud.”
After his wife’s funeral, Ben asked his friends to let him be. At first they ignored his requests, stopping by his house and leaving messages on his machine, even though he had made clear, from the moment his wife had been tucked into the folds of the earth, that he had no interest in salvation. He lived reclusively, and they, in turn, stopped harassing him, convinced that he meant for his mourning to be a private affair. At their weekly get-togethers, they would bring him up and discuss his antics in the past tense of the posthumous, occasionally wondering what he was up to in the present. It took some time before they realized that they were, in a sense, simultaneously mourning both Ben and Marian, who, in death, had stolen the refreshing animal blue of her husband’s wide eyes. The day she died, his enormous pupils narrowed, his eyes dimmed, and his muscles seemed to release their hold on his frame, sinking his shoulders, curving his back, pointing his forehead downwards. His hands, limp at his sides, told a tale of detachment. Their friends tried to bring back the old Ben, the live Ben, but were forced to make do with alcohol and nostalgia, trudging down the alleys of memory and avoiding the cross streets of today, which were guarded by a mute wall, a wall of no-comment.
And then, out of the blue, the invitations arrived and put an end to their exile. A sign of life! Ben was back from the dead. They met immediately to discuss a delicate question—what to get a dead woman for her birthday? The poetic friends pushed for something Marian would’ve loved; the practical ones advocated for a gift for their cloistered friend. After three packs of cigarettes, twenty-six bottles of beer and fifteen variations on the word idiot, they arrived at a decision. No gift could make Ben happier than a painting by Kolanski.
Kolanski’s lovely wife turned out to be the perfect hostess. She did not ask for their names or their intentions, led them to a living room lined with artwork, served fruit and soft drinks, and then excused herself to call her husband from his backyard studio. His arrival brought Ben’s friends to their feet. The great Kolanski had put his work aside, crossing the room quickly in his electric wheelchair.
His black eyes filled with disgust. “Who are you and why are you eating my fruit?” he boomed.
His wife told him to settle down, but he lashed out at her. “What do you want from me? Maybe they’re murderers. She opens the door for anyone. What would you do if they were terrorists?”
His wife smiled tenderly. “As you can see, my husband suffers from paranoia.”
“When we’re butchered, will you still call me paranoid?” he barked.
“Can’t you see that these people are harmless?” She pointed to them, rolling her eyes to the ceiling.
“We are . . . ,” Kobi, the self-chosen representative of Ben’s friends, began, before losing his nerve at the sound of the artist’s hate-doused voice.
“Art students? Art teachers? Art critics? Artists? I can’t stand any of them.”
Tali, Kobi’s wife, cleared her throat. “Mr. Kolanski, we have nothing to do with the art world.”
The artist swiveled in her direction and shouted, “What do you want?”
“Mr. Kolanski, we have a very close friend; his name is Ben. He has always admired your work, never missed an exhibition. A year and two months ago his wife Marian died. They loved like children. The kind of love you don’t see every day. Ben mourned her so intensely he severed ties with the outside world. Till yesterday. Yesterday we were all invited to her birthday party. We thought about what would make the best present and came to a decision that nothing would make him happier than a portrait of him and his wife, drawn by his idol. . . . We know that . . .”
“Okay, I’ve heard enough,” the artist said, “You want me to paint your wacko friend and his dead wife. Love conquers all and all that shit. She’s dead, he’s alive, and they’re still in love. Kitsch. Camp. Colors. Romance. Get out of my house or I’ll vomit on you.”
“Rafael!” his wife called, giving his chair a kick and stiffening her lips.
“Oh, of course,” he mocked, “you’re probably moved by this nonsense, right? Think about it Bessie. If I were dead, would you be happy to get a portrait of the two of us?”
She responded at once, “Absolutely.”
“Absolutely,” her husband mimicked, “but not for one moment do you consider what he will do with this portrait? Shove it up his ass? Stare at it all day? And since when do I paint portraits? I’ve never done a portrait.. I don’t believe in portraits. They stifle creativity. They habituate the mind to a single paralyzed expression, and over time your loony friend will look at the portrait and forget, more and more, what she really looked like. All he’ll have left of her is a single, awful expression. Listen to me—don’t document a thing! Not a thing! The more a person documents, the faster his memory betrays him. He knows he can rely on his wretched little photo album. You follow? You’ve all grown accustomed to indulgence! You can keep everything, everything, up here!”
Ben’s friends huddled together, exchanging bashful glances. Tali, summoning her courage, pulled out a picture of Ben and his wife and extended it to the artist. She whispered, “Just in case you change your mind . . .”
The artist snatched the picture, glanced at it, and nodded. “Hmmm . . . your friend was a lucky man. The woman, on the other hand, must have had some trouble with her eyesight. Or maybe there’s really something special. This is good, like me and Bessie—the flower fell in love with the thorn, that’s the strongest love. The thorn pokes the flower and the flower drugs the thorn. Awake and asleep. Clamorous and quiet. No other love can endure. Two flowers bore each other to death, two thorns prick each other to death, and all the rest are just weeds. I’ll give you some free advice. You say the thorn is celebrating the flower’s birthday? If you love him, ignore him. After all, it’s the woman’s birthday, right? Hers! Any present for him will carry the mark of unnecessary pity, as though you know the present is for him since she’s dead, and in a failed attempt to make things right you’ve tried to skirt the problem with a present that ties the two of them together, like the portrait. Think of the woman, eh? Get something she would like if she were alive. And try to find something she would love and he would hate. As far as he’s concerned, she still exists, so if you get him a present that hints at death, he’ll be offended. That’s my advice. If you take it, great; if you don’t, go to hell!”
As they reached the door, he charged after them. “What do you think you’ll do about your friend?”
Tali smiled, “Why do you ask?”
“It’s not me, it’s my ego.”
“We’ll have to think it over.”
The old man growled and slammed the door.
A month later, Kolanski’s ego chalked up a victory, which its owner, having suffered a sudden stroke and slipped into a coma an hour after the guests left his house, was regrettably not aware of. Bessie, despairing, took up permanent residence at the small hospital, never once straying from her husband’s side, refusing to heed doctors’ advice and get on with her life, shuddering each time she heard the vile e-word spoken.
During the first nights, she curled up next to the artist and whispered in his ear the kind of syrupy sentences that, had he been alert, would have won her a sharp slap in the face. By the following week, the syrup had dried up and all that remained was a gummy abrasiveness in her throat. Tired, drained of all hope, she looked at her husband with a distant stare and prayed that she, too, would be stricken. The stroke never materialized and the kindhearted woman, in her third week of waiting, was seized by an unfamiliar rage. She began hurling insults at her husband—chastising him for all lost time, for his appalling selfishness, for his unfinished paintings, for the disappointment sprawled across the empty white plains of canvas, for his devastating laziness, his unconvincing simulacrum of a corpse—a somber flower next to a withering thorn. Certain that the change of tack would help her words pass through the hidden currents of the mechanized life-support apparatus, Bessie launched into long, fertile monologues, tyrannizing him, vowing that if he let go, she would wipe away all traces of his existence, destroy his work, and spread abhorrent lies about him. Seven days later, when she realized that her threats were not bearing fruit, she turned to her husband and said, in a conclusive tone, holding her voice flat, “Rafael, you remember the Edgar Allan Poe story about that cursed house, I can’t remember its name, the one where the owner couldn’t escape, until, in the end, it drove him crazy? You remember what he did? How he and his friend buried his sick sister and how, a few days later, the friend realized, to his horror, that the sister hadn’t been dead and that he had helped bury her alive? I’m sure you remember the story. I say this because, as time passes, I’m beginning to feel like the crazy owner of the house. What are you asking me to do, bury you alive? Because if that’s what you want, I’ll see it through. But I don’t want your death looming over my conscience. The doctors say you won’t wake up, and I don’t know, it’s hard for me to believe them but I’m starting to. Oh hell, Kolanski, it’s your sleep and my nightmare. What do you want? Their hints are getting thicker by the day. I keep hearing that word. Euthanasia. They say you’re suffering; that with the flip of a switch I could deliver you from this torment. I can’t stand the idea, but maybe they’re right. . . .”
The ward’s head nurse, eavesdropping at the doorway, smiled contentedly. She knew these monologues by heart, knew where they were leading. Within a week and a half at most, the woman would come to her senses and, after walking the weathered track of deliberation, would ask submissively to grant him eternal rest. If unexpected signs of optimism arose, the nurse would gently explain to her where true hope resided. She had, over the past decade, already nudged the spouses of ninety-nine men and women into proper bereavement, and it was now Kolanski’s turn. After all, ever since she first experienced the wonders of euthanasia, she had vowed that after the hundredth death she would opt for early retirement, secure in the gladdening knowledge that her calling had been answered in full. The fifty-year-old nurse saw herself as an angel of salvation, delivering the comatose from the anguish of their loved ones. The other nurses dubbed her The Angel of Death, a nickname that clashed eerily with her frail and fragile bearing.
She left the hospital early in the evening, in no rush to get home. As always, she walked the city’s main streets, perfuming herself with the pulse of everyday life, drinking in the notion that all the people in the cars, stores, cafes, restaurants, movie theaters, and on sidewalks, this mass of mankind, was not, at this very moment, engaged in the act of love. She walked her usual route, pleased by the sight of mortals immersed in their affairs, urban men and women of the cloth, who, for the time being, kept their chastity belts clasped tight, as did she. Her mind, at this point, still shied away from her sanctum sanctorum. Five minutes away from her house, she crossed the street and approached the final bend in the road, where an untamable, feral pounding erupted in her chest. The rational part of her mind stabbed at her repeatedly, for her childish excitement, for the crudeness of the whole affair, for the fact that a geographic Spot could charge the dusty battery of her heart and fill it to the point where she could almost hear the growl of an awakening engine in her ears, causing her to scan the street, to ensure that no one else had heard the ghastly noise. But no one heard and no one knew.
Two years ago, the bend in the road was just another curve on the way home from work, and she had no reason to believe that a health club would be built right there, firmly and unavoidably in her way. And then it happened. Since then, had anyone noticed her, they would have had some trouble interpreting the expression draped across her face—a lethal concoction of embarrassment, paralysis, disdain, attraction, disgust, agony, excitement, jealousy, resentment, indignation, pretension, and happiness. For the past two years she had been shuffling past the club, feigning nonchalance as she glanced through the front window, behind which sweaty and sleek men and women exhibited their bodies’ achievements. For two years she had been experiencing a tiny pleasurable heart attack, averting her eyes whenever they happened to meet those of any male club member. For two years she’d endured tedious, ten-hour shifts at the hospital in order to reap the reward of five blissful minutes on the walk home. If she could have it her way, she’d be waylaid for a while longer, but she feared that her sinewy heroes would spot her and creep into her forbidden thoughts. So, after five probing minutes, she marched on. Every once in a while, with the arrival of a new member or the disappearance of a regular, a wild sheen invaded her eyes, as if her mind had, with secretarial diligence, filed away every possible twist in the usual plot. A year before, she chose her protagonist. She had been tracking him since then, focusing on his mute attributes. The man frequented the gym every evening, never mingling, devoutly safeguarding his privacy. She was reminded of her first glimpse of him: tall, well-groomed, in his early forties, with brown hair cropped close to his scalp, whimsically spiked; blue, void and immobile eyes; a thick nose, thin lips, and body language that spoke of firmly harnessed sensuality. Over the course of the year, she wondered why the once-scrawny man distanced himself from the humming social scene at the health club, especially as his body revealed its clear intent to join the gym’s pantheon of well-defined Herculi. To her delight, he did not turn into one of those formidable monsters that treat their bodies like a sacred temple. He kept his humanity, immersing himself in his demanding workout, determined to carry on with the addictive mission, as though he expected some great reward at the end of the road.
Taking the bend, her eyes widened in surprise. Tonight, for the first time, he was not there, his absence creating a chasm between the perky-breasted blond to his right and the expressionless blind man to his left.
At 9:00 P.M. the bell rang. One after another, Ben’s friends, heavy with longing, poured into the house that had been off limits for a year. Beyond the dozens of balloons, wall decorations, overflowing plates of food, blaring dance music, and the enormous sign for Marian, the guests had no trouble recognizing the familiar guest room and were delighted to see that the owner had made no changes—the overloaded shelves still groaned under the weight of books, CDs, LPs, and videos, and the works of art, so loved by the woman of the hour, were still immaculately strewn all over the house.
Still, his friends struggled to make sense of their old friend’s new appearance, wondering what stood behind the dramatic shift and whether it conveyed a specific intent. The masculinity gushing out of every pore of his hardened body did not suit Ben, and not for aesthetic reasons. They circled around him relentlessly, hugging him, treading carefully around the thin ice of Marian’s name. Yet Ben, the life of the party, threw his head back and laughed, open-mouthed, constantly bringing Marian up, signaling that he was aware of the delicate situation and eager to put everyone at ease. With each passing moment it became clear that Ben refused to accept even the slightest gesture of pity. The blood that drained from his friends’ faces—when he joked that Marian had perfect timing, leaving when she did in order to avoid having to deal with a midlife crisis—slowly resumed its normal course as they began to realize that Ben could only relate to the crushing loss with humor, and so they played along, chuckling on cue when he announced that his wife had found the most original manner in the world to leave a man without hurting his feelings. After an hour of verbal ballet, Ben suggested opening the presents. He failed to conceal the moistness in his eyes when he ripped open the wrapping paper, revealing the newest works from his wife’s favorite writers, musicians, and fashion designers. But before the evening was stained with melancholy, he brought his palms together, rubbed vigorously, and said it was about time he revealed his second present for his dear wife. When one of them asked what the first present was, he posed for her, struck a malemodel pout, and pirouetted three times, arms extended, enchanted by his own inane performance. “This body—Marian always wanted me to put some work into it.”
His friends, rejoicing at the simple explanation, rose out of their chairs and clapped him on the back, some of them wiping away tears.
Ben waited for them to settle down and then repeated his earlier statement. He walked over to the window, pulled the curtain aside, and nodded. Before his friends had the chance to fully interpret his actions, their ears picked up the crack of gunpowder from outside and, at the sight of Ben, smiling, nodding his head toward the door, they rushed out and stood dumbfounded in the front yard, their eyes tracing the arc of the fireworks in the sky, the wealth of stunning colors crowning the night with festive circles of light. The eye-and-soul pleasing shades flared across the night sky, drawing hearts and roses, baby blue fountains and emerald gardens, orange suns and regal purple stars. As Ben’s friends oohed and ahhed, the neighbors came out of their houses and joined them, enjoying the breathtaking pyrotechnic display on the eve of an ordinary day.
But it was not, the friends learned, a regular evening, nor was it an ordinary day. Twenty exhilarating minutes later, they filed back into the house to thank Ben for the generous display but were rudely denied the chance. Ben lay in a puddle of blood, seeded with parts of his brain. In his right hand he held a warm gun, and in his left a note asking them to open the fridge and take out the towering birthday cake with the maple syrup script that read “And They Died Happily Ever After . . .”
The World of the End © Ofir Touché Gafla 2013