The Wallet – Shalev Ben-Elya_Israel
Energheia Israel Prize 2016.
Translated from Hebrew by Raz Amitai-Preiss
“Daddy, where’s Mommy?”
“I’ve already told you, Noa, I don’t know.”
Where was Mommy? Ronen had called her twice. No answer. Efrat did indeed return late sometimes, but she had never missed an entire family dinner. Ronen stared at Noa and Michal, who had eaten their fill of the macaroni and cheese with salmon that he had cooked for them, and were now retuning his gaze, following him closely in order to ascertain his next move in her absence.
It was eight o’clock. Ronen had no choice but to turn to his daughters and command – though from the look on his face, it seemed more like he was guessing: “Okay you two! Into the shower!” He rose and cleared the empty bowls from the table, putting them into the sink. “In fact, you were supposed to have been out of the shower half an hour ago!” He encouraged Noa and Michal with a gesture of his hand to rise as well, and they obeyed, leaving behind the fourth dish, now cold.
It was only at the bathroom door that Noa made her protest: “But it’s always Mommy that gives me a shower!”
“Mommy’s not here and she’d be angry if she came in and saw you still haven’t taken one!”
“NO!” Noa’s voice rose to an unpleasant high pitch, like only a child’s her age could. “I DON’T WANT YOU!” she stamped her foot and sat down with a thud.
“Daddy, I can take a shower by myself”, bragged Michal, ignoring her sister’s tantrum, but Ronen could only sigh wearily.
“OK, Michal, you go first”, and Michal sprinted joyfully, keen to show her father her skills. Ronen, on the other hand, remained standing still, gazing at Noa, who was sitting on the floor and staring at it glumly. Once he heard the water running, he said calmly: “You go after Michal.”
“No”, Noa said and pulled at her nose.
“Noa, don’t make me make threats!” Ronen’s voice steadily rose as he spoke, reaching a scream by the end. It was lucky Noa wasn’t staring at him. He moved uncomfortably on his spot, sweat trickling down his spine. “If Mommy were – ”
At that moment the turning of the lock was heard and the door opened. Efrat entered the room and left Ronen frozen, mid-sentence.
“Mommy!” Noa ran to Efrat’s leg and hugged it.
Ronen followed suit. “Where have you been?”
Efrat gave him a surprised look. “What do you mean? At work.”
“I called you twice and you didn’t answer.”
Efrat advanced towards the table, pulling her phone from her coat pocket impatiently as she did. She seemed hungry and tired. “I didn’t notice.” Having taken off her coat and laid it on a back of a chair, she asked: “Where’s Michal?”
“Taking her shower.”
“Now?! And what about Noa?!” She eyed the girl on the floor.
“Right after her. Isn’t that so, Noa?” He demanded threateningly.
“I want you to shower me”, Noa stared up at her mother and smiled through teary eyes.
Efrat looked at the cold bowl, then at Ronen. Her disappointment showed. Finally she gave Noa a weary reply: “OK… I’ll shower you. C’mon.”
Ronen’s mouth remained a little open as his wife took his daughter’s hand in hers and vacated the room. He washed the dishes, cleaned the table and finally took Efrat’s coat to its hanger. After hanging up the coat, he stopped and stared at it suspiciously for a whole minute, before succumbing to the urge to grope at it from the outside. His hands suddenly felt a protrusive object, and, after glancing sideways briefly, he shoved his hand in its pocket and pulled the object out.
It was just a wallet, and he smiled with some relief. But upon opening it he noticed a driver’s license carrying the photo of a handsome man of 40, most probably wearing a suit.
Who was he?
“Meir Koren.” He read it three times, trying to prevent the suspicions running through his mind from obscuring his reading. He passed his hand on his bald head in an attempt to catch his hair, smearing his fresh perspiration in the process.
This doesn’t mean anything.
He advanced determinedly towards the bathroom, wallet in hand. A pyjama-clad Michal was seen leaving it angrily, and Efrat was sitting on a stool at the door, calling after her daughter: “You should have remembered you had homework before eight thirty at night! If you’re not done by the time Noa finishes getting dressed, we’re calling it a day.”
Ronen swiftly turned on his heels, walked to the office and shut the door behind him. Alone in the silent room he re-opened the wallet and perused its contents. He pulled out a stack of visiting cards, which read Meir Koren – Private Eye. As if to increase his growing suspicions, the cards sported an edited photo of a headless man and woman, clutching at each other’s waists. Ronen plucked the phone from the table and dialled the number on the card hastily. He waited for a reply while tramping nervously in circles between the book cabinet and the window.
“Hello?” a pleasant feminine voice answered him.
Ronen was a little taken aback: “Eh.. Have I reached the Meir Koren’s office?”
“Ah, yes.” Ronen wasn’t sure if a note of pity could be discerned in her voice. “Who should I tell him is calling?”
“Ro – Yuval.”
While he was being transferred, he gazed down at the yet-untouched stack of exams resting on the table.
“Yes!” said Meir Koren and forced Ronen back into the conversation.
“Yes, how may I be of help to you, Yuval?” He spoke quickly, as if he were chewing gum.
“Em… I ..” Ronen cleared his throat awkwardly to stop his stammering. “I suspect…”
“That your wife is cheating on you”, Meir completed Ronen’s sentence with ease.
“Yes.” Ronen’s voice skipped a few tones, and he cleared his throat again.
“May I inquire how long you’ve been suspecting her for?”
“Since today!” This seemed to arouse Meir, and he sounded somewhat amused. “And what has caused this sudden suspicion of yours, if I may be so bold?”
Ronen’s face reddened and he lowered his voice: “I… I don’t know”, he almost begged, “I found something – ”
“OK, OK, listen – I’m a little busy today. Come over tomorrow at… Is four fifteen alright for you? And bring a photo of your wife, as well. Do you have my address? It’s Kiryat Motzkin, Ha-Irusim Street, number 19, apartment 2. It’s the ground floor.”
Ronen quickly took a pencil and, for want of paper, used the back of one of the exams as a scratch.
“A consultation meeting will cost you 350 Shekels, But if I may say so – you’ve reached the right guy!”
When the conversation was over, Ronen sunk into the office chair and stared vaguely at the door, his eyebrows raised in exasperation. A few seconds later it burst open and Efrat entered, her expression mirroring Ronen’s. A lock of her hair having dislodged itself and hanging over her forehead, she walked towards the book cabinet and gave it an appraising look.
“Do you know where Yael’s Home is?” She asked, her back turned towards him, and added, more to herself than to him: “She hasn’t wanted it in years.”
Ronen covered the address he had written on the back of the exam with the phone. “Try the top shelf.”
Efrat stood on her toes and stretched her body upwards and sideways in an effort to locate the book. Ronen watched as the tip of her shirt got loose from her pants and her waist was laid bare, but the sight only made his mouth turn to ashes. Efrat moved an old photo theirs of from the shelf and sighed as she pulled out the book immediately behind it. As she was exiting, Ronen picked up the edge of the phone and peeked at the piece of paper beneath it.
Upon hearing the door close he sprung from his chair and took the wallet, along with the photo from the book cabinet. It was eight or nine years old – his light hair was wild and glowed in the sunlight. He collected keys from the empty living room and closed the door gently behind him as he left the house.
Ha-Irusim Street was only a five minute drive from his house, but he had no recollection of ever passing through it. He parked in front of number 19 and watched apartment two’s lit entrance from his car. The street was deserted – Kiryat Motzkin had already turned in. The wallet lay on top of the photo, on the surface behind the wheel. With his left, he raised the photo and drew it closer, the wallet hiding his side of the photo. With his right, he opened the wallet once again, so that Efrat was made to be looking adoringly at Meir Koren’s handsome figure, smiling arrogantly from the license photo. Ronen stared upwards, at the car ceiling, and took a deep breath in an adamant attempt to prevent the tears from gushing out. He held the wheel fiercely – he wanted to yell, but only a small moan escaped his mouth.
So he returned the photo to its place and stormed out, wallet in hand, using the other one to shut the car door. He strode swiftly towards the building, stamping his feet on each of the six stairs leading to it, until finally he stood in front of that goddamn apartment. He paused, shaking with excitement like a boxer before a big fight, then raised his arm and chucked the wallet at the lit doorway. It fell on its face and suddenly seemed very pathetic in the lamplight streaming from above. Ronen fled back to his car, a mad laughter commanding his features for a split second as he jumped down the stairs. Efrat’s smile was reflected back to him out of his windscreen.
Ronen’s smile faltered immediately. He turned on the spot and bolted back up the stairs for the wallet. He had already leaned down to pick it up, when the house door opened and a warm, yellowish glow fell on his bald patch.
Ronen looked up and saw a plump older lady with a pleasant smile. She was wearing a pink sweater and white training pants, and her gray hair was pulled back lazily by a gigantic hair clip.
“Who are you?” Her voice was unmistakable – it was the secretary from the phone call. Ronen was bemused.
A moment later her eyes rested on Ronen’s hand, and she gaped and said: “Meir! Come, that guy came over to return your wallet.”
“I said that guy – ”
“No, no, I heard what you said! But…”
Meir Koren appeared at the hallway in a buttoned blue shirt, its front protruding from his black working trousers. He neared the entrance, his brow furrowed. His hair, too, had begun to turn gray, he looked at least five years older than the photo in the wallet, and yet – his arrogant expression left no doubt as to whom he was.
Ronen fidgeted uncomfortably: “I… no, the wallet isn’t…” He moved his empty hand to the back of his head and massaged his neck. Meir passed his wife, staring at his wallet, and Ronen automatically moved the hand holding it away.
“That’s my wallet!” Meir stared Ronen straight in the face. His gaping eyes showed a mixture of anger and bewilderment. “What are you doing here?”
Ronen’s face was as red as a beet. “I came to… I can’t return it to you right now.” He felt the beads of sweat all but evaporate on his burning cheeks.
“What do you mean by can’t?! Aren’t you here to return my wallet?” Meir stretched out his hand towards it and Ronen took a step back. “What are you even doing here, if you haven’t come to return it?” This time Meir took hold of Ronen’s arm. He was half a head shorter than him, but was undoubtedly more menacing. Meir’s wife stood behind him, switching her concerned gaze between the two men, her arms half raised in defence.
“No, please”, Ronen pleaded. “I found it in my wife’s coat.” His panting forced him to chop every sentence up into small pieces his lungs could cope with. “She doesn’t know I took it. She’ll return it, for sure.”
Meir tugged the Wallet out of Ronen’s hold, ignoring his words. He had already stepped back into the house when his wife inquired of Ronen in her soft voice: “why haven’t you told your wife that you took the wallet?”
“Because I was scared… I was scared that… that… I was scared…” The tears he had attempted so hard to hold in burst out one after another, washing away what had remained of his dignity.
“Wait a minute, you ring a bell…” Meir slowly turned to Ronen. His eyes grew suddenly large: “You’re the guy who spoke to me this evening on the phone! What did you say your name was?”
“Yuval”, his wife put in.
“Yuval! Right.” It seemed this new discovery had boosted his spirits. “You said you had suspicions concerning your wife.” Only then did it hit Meir. His mouth opened wide: “Because of the wallet?” Ronen kept standing there mortified, pulling at his nose, but that seemed to count as a reply. “Did you think she was cheating on you with me?” He asked in amusement.
Ronen’s throbbing cheeks were on a par with the rate his heart was going. More than anything, he wanted to flee the place, but he could not go empty handed. Not now.
Meir laughed. His wife eyed Ronen with pity: “Why haven’t you asked her?”
“What?” Ronen looked at her through red eyes.
“Why haven’t you asked her: ‘Where did you get the wallet’?”
“Dunno.” Ronen pulled at his nose again. “I was scared.”
“Just ask her. She’s your wife.”
Ronen shook his head. “I can’t ask her now.” He watched the last of his tears shatter on the ground, and used the back of his hand to clear his eyes.
Meir’s wife put her palm on her husband’s shoulder and whispered to him: “Give him back the wallet.”
“What?!” Meir cried.
“His wife promised you she’d return it to you tomorrow, didn’t she? Give him the wallet.” She looked at her husband, her pupils almost touching her eyebrows.
Meir sighed audibly, but capitulated and handed his wallet back to Ronen. Ronen tried to smile in thanks, but that only made his lips contort, so he stopped before the need to cry would renew itself.
He returned to the car in large, swift steps, trying not to fall into an outright run, while Meir called in his wake: “And your wife better return it to me by tomorrow. I know how to find you!”
Ronen opened the door slowly. The house was silent and the only light was that in the kitchen. Ronen trudged heavily towards the hanger with the coat, and shoved the wallet back into the pocket whence it came, without sparing it a single look. The photo was chucked along with the keys in the living room. The dining table now bore only Efrat’s empty plate, so he put it in the sink and turned off the light. On his way to his room, he passed by the girls’ room and opened the door gently, in an attempt to avoid its creaking. It was just after nine, the room was dark and the girls lay silently in bed.
“Daddy?” It was Noa.
“Good night.” He closed the door and continued to the bedroom. He was aware of every step taken, as if he were walking for the first time. He looked down at his hand on the doorknob, and felt like a stranger, not knowing whether or not it could open the door. A lamp was on within, and Efrat was reading a book. Ronen followed her eyes, wearily roaming the pages and finally noticing him. He pulled off his trousers and quietly climbed into bed, then stared steadily ahead at the dark TV screen. He didn’t know what to say and couldn’t see if she was still looking at him.
“How was your day?”
“OK,” he answered quietly. “Normal.”
Efrat was silent, probably expecting a question in return, but he kept his silence stubbornly.
Finally, she said: “I’m sorry I was late.”
Ronen took a deep breath in an attempt to gain courage, clenching his fist. But as his silence endured, Efrat closed her book, turned off the lamp and turned in the other direction.
“Do you admire me?” He heard himself ask.
Silence. His heart plummeted and he focused his gaze on the edge of the blanket covering him. She probably hadn’t heard.
“Sometimes”, Efrat’s voice materialised out of the darkness, “when you cook.”
An immense sense of relief flooded him: he felt as if it was the first breathe he had taken that evening. Ronen turned on the Sports Channel without the sound and watched the commentators on the screen, even though it was hard to read the subtitles through wet eyes. Only when he was certain she had fallen asleep did he allow himself a small smile of satisfaction.