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from the December 2005 issue

The Secret Meanings of Unappreciated Words

Back then I was working at the paper factory. The workers shunned me for having been to such places as Singapore, for wearing black all the time, and for eating my mother's completely tasteless roast beef between thin slices of bread instead of the factory rations. Yet I was so lonely, so distressed. I passionately yearned for them to come up to me so that I could smash them from floor to floor, astonish them by wrapping them around my tongue, and drive them to frenzy when they finally grasped the meaning of what I had said after a week or two.

But they were keeping their distance with an animal-like instinct, and they would establish no relationship beyond giggling over the aphorisms I would mumble every now and then. As I was undergoing a distressing period, I was too lazy to get into their kind of clothing and ran around like an unfortunate, lonely wolf among little red riding hoods.

This sense of desertion was the reason why I had written the dictionary The Real Meanings of Some Unappreciated Words. I, who had succeeded in penetrating the heart of the most secretive societies all over the world by impersonating a variety of characters, would never have lived through the night's experience I'm about to narrate if I had not been pushed to write my dictionary by the obstinacy of the workers at the paper factory. That's why I'm grateful to my sisters who work at that factory.

That day, like every other day, everyone hurried to the gates upon hearing the bells ring. I was walking slowly because I had no one to meet and nothing to do—other than to go back to my dictionary—and I had no idea of how to triple this sentence. It was as if the five o'clock bell had been invented to remind me of how busy they were, and of how idle and free of appointments I was.

Upon reaching the front of the factory, I stopped and looked up at the two statues which the wrought-iron gates separated. Icarus and Pegasus. The two statues rising on top of white pillars and the iron gates which separated the winged figures were perhaps the only reason why I wanted to work at the paper factory. The monotony of work, the matchlessness of feeling like an extension of the machines, the bells, the rules, and the insidious pleasure of watching the workers were in fact responsible for my spending more time here than I would have ever imagined, but the gate of the factory was the seal, the signature of the time I spent there.

As soon as I left the gate behind, quickening my strides, I started walking as though I was late for something. No, tonight I could not endure the annoying dishes prepared by my mother nor the painful hours spent over the table extracting the meaning of an unappreciated word and making up its sentence. I turned into a street, and then into another. The restaurant, frequented mainly by single male workers, was right across from me with its steamed shop-window. I pushed open the door and entered.

The next day, on the road, I remembered in bits and pieces, in the company of a bad headache which was the souvenir of the red wine, the hours I had spent at the restaurant. This happens to me every time I drink a lot and fast. The incidents I will narrate might be more or less than the whole. Who could ever resist the fact that the whole is not equal to the sum of its parts; I beg you not to expect this from me here with this headache of mine.

I settled at a table for four in a corner. Contrary to my habit of ordering kidneys or pork chops at restaurants, I remember ordering a meat dish with carrots and peas, and after having eaten the meat, playing some sort of chess game by myself with the peas and the carrots aligned and facing each other. However, I was drinking the dry red wine which was placed in front of me so fast that I won't be able to go into the details of the game. I vaguely remember that the peas were pure spiritual states whereas the carrots were spiritual states which were polluted.

I don't belong to the tribe of human beings who can keep themselves busy for a long time. As the wine in the glass bowl was emptied, I lifted my head and shouted at the owner of the restaurant: "Sabartés! Sabartés, another bowl of red wine please."

The restaurant owner was a man of experience; he was not one of those immature souls who would question you for addressing him by this particular name. Also, distressed, dissipated, evil-hearted people like me, who are stricken with an affliction to behave as they feel, immediately sense how long they can dance on others' territories. Even in my half-drunken state, I had felt what a decent man the restaurant owner was—this world is full of restaurant owners who would feel threatened upon being called by a Catalan name.

Sabartés had just left the wine bowl on my table when the door opened and a tall, broad-shouldered dwarf entered. Since my childhood I have never been able to keep my eyes off a dwarf whenever I see one. Years ago a dwarf I had run into on a road in Peshawar, upon catching my eyes crawling like snakes all over him, had devilishly punished this habit of mine by turning somersaults and wrinkling his face as he madly swung his arms: There, isn't that what you expect of dwarfs!

Whenever I recall this incident, my hair stands on end. However, I was not able to keep my eyes off him; I was staring at him as if I were watching a skyscraper on fire. On top of everything he was a tall dwarf. It would almost be appropriate, if he were to portray himself as tall and broad-shouldered in the "Lonely Dwarf-Hearts" column of a newspaper for dwarfs. He was received with enthusiasm by the two dignified gentlemen sitting at the table right across from me. It was evident that he was a well-liked dwarf. But he was a dwarf nonetheless, was a dwarf, a dwarf, a dwarf, a dwarf.

I was so deeply immersed in thought that I didn't notice that the chair right by my side had been pulled out and that someone was sitting on it until the man turned his head and fixed his eyes on me. I guess it was not a common habit at this restaurant to ask for permission to sit at someone's table. The man talked with the deep voice of a heavy smoker: "Aren't you the author of the dictionary The Secret Meanings of Unappreciated Words?"

He had skipped "Some" and had replaced "Real" with "Secret". Wasn't his perhaps a more correct, a more attractive title? I was stupefied.

"Could you please move to the chair across from me?" I asked. "I can't see your face easily."

He moved to the chair across from me and sat down. He was a beautiful dark man. He had dirty hair which was combed back and glaring eyes. His upper lip was conspicuously thinner than his lower lip. This gave him a covetous expression. He was speaking in a fast and broken manner which would not be expected from a heavy smoker. Moreover, I remember he had long and slender fingers. I always try to be cautious with people who have slender fingers, perhaps because my fingers are so thick.

I pulled the wine bowl closer and reached for his glass. "I hope you won't say 'No' to a glass of wine."

Bending his head forward he smiled as if to say "Please." It can't be said that he really smiled, for he was one of those people who do not have smiling souls. I placed his glass in front of him after filling it up. At that moment, coming over to our table, Sabartés handed him and me a pair of woolen socks.

"One of the customs of this restaurant," he said. "At a certain hour of the night, customers whose feet feel cold get a pair of woolen socks as a present."

"I only have tonight to get used to the customs of this restaurant," I said. "Tomorrow I am setting out on a long journey."

"Then, you will be quitting your job at the paper factory," said the man.

"That job has never been important for me."

Narrowing his eyes, he again affected something which resembled a smile. He knew that neither this nor any other job was ever important for me.

"How do you know all this?" I said.

"I paid the price to find out," he said.

"The price," I said. No one can top me in meaningless conversations. I can talk for hours jumping from the ant to the clove. But I get tongue-tied whenever someone utters a meaningful word.

"You are someone who goes on journeys," said the man. "You always go on long journeys."

"But then, you are not capable of smiling," I said. "I wonder if this is the price?"

This is my quick-to-reply affliction with no remedy! I will drop dead one of these days because of the shame this affliction brings on me. I turned bright red; lowering my eyes, I fixed my gaze on the floor.

I was so ashamed that I could not sit at the same table with him for another second. I jumped up from my chair and within a second I was at the table where the dwarf and the two dignified gentlemen were sitting.

"Gentlemen, may I sit at your table?" I asked. "I am in need of a shelter at this moment."

"Our pleasure," said one of the dignified gentlemen, the one with the blue eyes. He had blond hair turning gray and a thick neck. He resembled a lion.

"Geishas speak of music, politics and poetry," I said. "What would you like me to talk about?"

"Our conversation was going just fine," said the dwarf.

This was more than I could take. I had gotten tired of this world where dwarfs gave me lectures on life. Calling Sabartés, I ordered a crème caramel.

"Please excuse my brother," said the man resembling a lion. "No one can surpass him in outspokenness."

"Your brother, eh?" I said. "The dwarf and the lion!"

"You said it so beautifully!" the dwarf burst out laughing. "Who are you? Scheherazade?"

I hardly restrained myself from saying: You are the one who belongs to the story books, my dear dwarf.

"Whatever you wish, sir," I said. "I would like to eat my dessert now, if you don't mind."

But my sadness wasn't likely to be appeased with crème caramel alone. Calling Sabartés, I ordered a potato salad. I like eating something sweet when I am distressed. And something salty after I eat something sweet. The dwarf and the other two plunged into deep conversation. They were talking about Burma, the price of lapis, giraffes and such things. I was watching the dark man, doing all I could not to be too obvious. He ate a plate of pork chops.

Sabartés, picking his plate up from in front of him, said: "How strange! Weren't you the one who always ordered a dish with peas and carrots and played some sort of chess game with them?"

"Tonight is different, Sabartés," said the beautiful man.

Sabartés? Wasn't I the one who gave this name to the restaurant owner? Paying the bill, he got up from the table. He walked out. There went half of my heart with him. And he left me with the desire to plunge the other evil half into a river to cleanse it. Or, I felt that way for five minutes.

Five minutes or so had passed when the second gentleman who was the friend of the brother of the tall dwarf, or of the lion of a man, said: "Don't be saddened, please, he was trying to change you. They would give you a little bit of love, not at all uncalculated or unlimited love, mind you, a little bit of love with their miniscule scales, a little bit of intuition; and in return they would want to mold you from scratch. Not that you would be better or worse, but simply that you would be molded by their own hands."

"You're right, sir. I am glad to have met you," I said. "After all, it only lasted five minutes."

"There are some instances when it lasts for five weeks, five years, five thousand hours," said the man.

"Unfortunately mine lasted a little bit longer. Do you see my eye? This right eye of mine?"

"Yes, sir, I see that your right eye is artificial," I said. It was hard not to notice it. His left eye was brown, whereas his artificial right eye was blue and gleaming like a glass bead. He had light auburn hair and a thin, flat nose. Honestly speaking, he was a fine man and he was very well-dressed. If you met him on the street, you would definitely say Harvard anthropology major. Or at worst, Columbia social anthropology.

"I lost it during the war," he said. "I was eating soup at a table with a white tablecloth—with my two children and my beautiful wife. Suddenly I felt as if I was swimming in the soup bowl. It was stupefying. I was swimming but it wasn't possible for me to get out of the bowl. I still continue to live at home with my wife and my two children. I just don't go home for dinner, that's all."

I tried to say things such as, "I understand, sir." But I was so shaken that my heart was full of a desire to run away from their table. Furthermore, my head was spinning violently. Asking their permission, I returned to my table.

"Yes, it is better if you return to your table," said the married, artificial-eyed gentleman from Harvard.

"And also, you have a new guest, a hard-to-find guest. Mister Elya will become a rabbi in two weeks. Furthermore, he is a convert himself, he wasn't born as one of the chosen few. He became a Jew with his own sweat and blood. Quitting the Music Academy in order to walk through the labyrinths of religion! Tonight the stars are shining for you."

"Thank you, gentlemen," I stuttered. "And please, good night."

As soon as I reached the table, I said: "I heard that you have been walking through the labyrinths of religion. What's more, you have quit the Music Academy which you enrolled in with great difficulty; you have quit everything I'm afraid. But your yarmulke looks good on you, I must admit. Do you take it off when you go to bed?"

"There is nothing in life that can't be quit," said Mister Elya. "Everything is worth quitting. We exist in this world in proportion so the value we attach to this truth: to quitting, and our existence in this world is our conduct in a prison yard. Don't misunderstand me-by quitting we should not only widen the yard; we should define our status at the time of our quitting this world, in other words the yard."

"Don't be afraid of my misunderstanding you, Mister Elya," I said. "Because I do not understand you at all."

"Principally, your vulgarity is a threat to the guardians," he said. "And please, how about leaving the 'Mister' aside. My name is Elya, only Elya."

"I understand, sir," I said. To tell the truth, this word was my lifesaver tonight. The moment I grasped the little bits, I would jump on it.

I filled his glass, which was emptied of wine, and while he was taking his first sips I examined him carefully. He had curly, fluffy hair and green eyes with long lashes. His complexion was whiter than white, almost transparent. For some reason the complexion of those who stroll through the labyrinths of religion is either transparent or has become transparent. This must be a small compensation for moving away from the works of the world. He wore a dark green shirt with the first three buttons undone. A black T-shirt with the word "first" in white letters was visible under the green shirt.

"I can guess what is written on your T-shirt," I said. "It must be on sale at the synagogue. Is yours a special print for the rabbis? 'First There Was the Word' is written on it."

He smiled. His smile was a very soft, very forgiving and a very luminous smile. Our table and the neighboring tables were illuminated by it. The gentleman from Harvard blinked his eyes. Elya slowly unbuttoned his shirt. On it were the words,

First There Was the Rolling Stones

"Nobody would believe me if I told what happened here tonight," I said.

"You are individualizing everything," said Elya.

My mind had gone to the dark man again. What's more, I had no strength left to deliver ripostes to Elya. "How beautifully you put it," I said. "How beautifully you put it."

Right at that moment the dwarf sprang up right by our table. His eyes, looking at Elya, were gleaming with love. Apparently he wasn't only a loved dwarf, but a loving one as well. It was obvious from their manner that they had many topics to discuss.

I got up slowly, went over to Sabartés, and asked for my bill. "Your bill has been taken care of," Sabartés said. Reaching into the first drawer of the counter behind him, he pulled out a red rose with a long stem. "And he also left this for you."

"Good evening, Sabartés," I said. "Thank you for the socks."

"It is a custom here," he said. "Have a nice trip."

He was a man of dignity indeed. There was no need to stretch the word. Picking up the rose, I left the restaurant.

It was late in the evening; there was no one on the streets. As I walked I smashed the rose petals between my fingers. Breaking the stem again and again, passing through winding streets, I reached my mother's house. All the lights were out, my mother had probably gone to bed much earlier.

I entered the room which was allocated to me, and turned on the dresser lamp. A shaky light illuminated the surroundings. My rough leather suitcase was in its usual place—lying under my bed like a loyal dog. My heart full of delicate affection for it, I pulled it out and placed it on my bed. I packed my notebook with the blue cover, my three books, my soap dish, my little pillow, and a few pieces of clothing. I like living off what I get from the places I go. Traveling heavily is for people who don't know how to travel.

Sitting on one of the chairs at the round mahogany table which is right in the middle of the room, I wrote my letter of resignation. I started emptying the pockets of my jacket, as is my habit every night before I go to bed.

From the right pocket, which usually stays empty, came a ticket, a rose stem, and a handkerchief. My keys and the coins would be in my left pocket—I put them all on the table. A gleaming, blue glass bead, detaching itself from among the coins, came rolling out. I picked it up and looked at it; this was more than I could take! I threw it back onto the table. Picking up my pen, I wrote on a sheet of parchment paper which was lying right there:

Very Deserving Sabartés,I think that the artificial eye which came out of my left pocket belongs to the gentleman from Harvard who is the friend of the lionlike brother of Mr. Dwarf. No knowledge in my mind, nor in my hand is enough to explain how it ended up there. But of course, we can always say: Let an artificial eye be among the many occurrences tonight beyond explanation. I say so whether I like it or not, and I beg you to return the eye to its owner as soon as possible.

Thanking you in advance for all your assistance,

Signing the letter, I placed it in an envelope along with the glass eye. Sealing the envelope, I felt as if some great weight had been taken off my shoulders. Believe me, it isn't an easy task to get rid of an artificial eye that has entered one's pocket.

I immediately called one of the private messenger centers that are open all night. Five minutes or so had passed when a messenger boy rang the bell. Like all the messenger boys of this city, he had curly blond hair, clear blue eyes, and dimples. Like all the messenger boys of this city, he wore lilac and yellow striped pants buttoned at the knee, white stockings with pompoms, patent leather shoes with bows, and on top, a short jacket of the same lilac velvet with starched white lace at the collar and the cuffs.

"You can deliver this letter to the paper factory in the morning," I said. "And you will take this envelope to a restaurant with a steamed shop-window. The name of the restaurant owner is either Sabartés, or that's what I believe it is."

"I understand," he said.

"Good evening, Messenger Boy," I said.

"Good evening," he said.

He went out. He disappeared with fast and silent steps.

Read more from the December 2005 issue
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