“Mitzvah,” by Etgar Keret - The New Yorker

3 months ago 21

Yogev says he can’t be bothered to get up, and then he heads off. But not to the kitchen. To take a shit. I watch the model do a hair toss at the camera, and I can finally feel the Molly kicking in. Yogev keeps up his soundtrack: “Now she’s saying, ‘I’d kill to be sucking on some dick right now, but only with a hot guy who knows what he’s doing.’ In other words”—he flashes his gross smile at me—“you’re outta luck, loser.”

Through the thumping bass line, I hear Yogev hollering in the bathroom like he’s trying to lift a two-hundred-pound weight. And then a plop. Or maybe I just imagined that. It almost sounded too loud. Like someone threw a brick in the toilet. A minute later, he comes out, sweating, and says, “Let’s go.”

Outside, the sky is blue and reddish. The colors of the cars and the traffic lights get all mixed up in my head, but in a good way. A dry breeze cools my face. A bendy bus honks and almost runs me over. Yogev turns seaward, moving fast: every second we waste on Allenby Street is a second with no hot tourist. I try to keep up.

By the Great Synagogue, a bald guy with a big black yarmulke stops us and mumbles something about a mitzvah. “Not a penny on us,” Yogev lies, but the bald guy keeps talking. Says he’s not after money. Tells us about some eighty-year-old dude called Sasson, who comes every day for evening prayers and on Saturday mornings, too. Sixteen years the man hasn’t missed a service. But today he didn’t show up. So they call his cell phone and his son answers: Sasson’s in the hospital. Broke his pelvis in the shower. And now the sun’s setting and they’re short one man for a quorum. “If we don’t get ten men for the minyan, it won’t work,” the bald guy says with a sigh, like the prayers are a cell phone that has to be charged with the right cable. “Do a mitzvah, guys, make up the minyan for us.”

Yogev laughs like an idiot. At first, he thought the bald guy was a bum, and now he’s confused. “Me? Now? Prayers? Are you for real?”

“You don’t have to be religious,” the bald guy insists. “You don’t even have to believe. Do it for your fellow-man. It’s like if my car got stuck and you helped me jump it.”

“Right,” Yogev says. “And what makes you think I’d help you jump your car if you got stuck?”

The bald guy comes close and puts his hand on my shoulder. He smells. Like airplane food. He looks at me with his enormous eyes—the eyes of a cow the second before it’s slaughtered. To me, in my state, it looks like he’s about to cry.

“Let’s do it,” I say to Yogev. “Let’s pray, no big deal. Come on, it’s going to be a blast.”

Yogev shakes his head and walks away, toward the sea. Splitting off from Yogev and staying on my own in the middle of Allenby, high as a kite, seems like a bad idea. But I also can’t leave the cow-eyed bald guy. I want to fuck, but I also want to be a good person. And praying is super easy. Much easier than talking to girls.

The synagogue is huge but empty. The bald guy brings me a prayer book and a white yarmulke with golden embroidery. It has a stain on it. Not exactly a stain but a kind of sticky patch caked with dirt. It’s a gross shade of brown, but it’s on the side that doesn’t touch your head, so I put the yarmulke on and fasten it with a hair clip. I haven’t opened a prayer book since my bar mitzvah. Nine years, and I still remember my portion by heart, and how I was so afraid to mess up, and how they threw candy at me afterward and one piece hit me in the eye.

There are eight guys there in addition to the bald one. Almost all of them have one foot in the grave. There’s only one young dude, with an earring, and eyebrows plucked like a girl’s. Of course he’s the one who stands next to me, really close. Shows me where we are in the book. The letters are a blur, and they look blue, but all I have to do is mumble anyway. When we get to the end of the page, he turns it for me. Maybe he’s not gay. Maybe he’s just nice. Or maybe he’s gay and nice.

My phone rings. It’s Yogev. “Where are you?” I ask him.

“No clue,” he answers, but he sounds chill, like it’s all good.

“Turn it off,” Earring Dude whispers. “This is God’s house. It’s not right.”

I hang up, but Yogev calls back a second later. I don’t pick up, so he texts, but it’s just random letters that don’t form any words. I hope he’s O.K. I want to help him, but I feel bad about Earring Dude. And about God. They’re up to Shema Yisrael, and I remember that one, so I shout it out because I want everyone to know I know all the lyrics.

When the prayers are over, all nine of the men shake my hand and say I did a mitzvah. The fact that I hung up the phone when Earring Dude asked me to is what won them over. The bald guy asks if I need a ride somewhere. He has a moped. I try calling Yogev, but it goes to voice mail. “Take me to the beach,” I say, and the bald guy nods and hands me a helmet. He drives really fast. Or maybe that’s just how it feels because I’m high. I hold on to him and try not to tip over. When he drops me off at the promenade, I say thanks and walk away, but he calls after me, pointing at my head. He wants his helmet back.

Even though it’s dark, there are still people on the beach. Two women are walking toward me. One of them’s tall. Pretty. If I were Yogev, I’d probably say something to her. She and her friend walk past me, and I just keep standing there. But then the pretty one turns back. “Are you O.K.?” she asks. “You’re shaking.” It’s the pretty one who says that, not her pimply friend. It’s the pretty one who’s worried about me. She takes an interest. She cares about me. It must be a reward from God.

I want to tell her something. Something good. But I can’t think of anything. I try to remember what Yogev told that Norwegian girl, and I stretch out a smile and say, “If God comes down from a cloud right now and grants me a wish, I’ll ask for ten minutes to go down on you.” I know there’s another part, but I can’t remember it.

The ugly one says, “Let’s get out of here.” The pretty one makes a hurt expression and they both turn and walk away. Maybe it wasn’t a reward from God after all. Or maybe it was, but it didn’t work because I couldn’t remember the ending of the spiel. Only that it was funny. Something to do with peace in the Middle East.

I walk around looking for Yogev. Maybe he’s back at his brother’s place with a girl, and the lizard is in the living room watching the fashion network and dubbing some Chinese model with high cheekbones while Yogev blows his wad. No way. He has to be here somewhere. I just need to keep looking. All of a sudden, I fall on the sand. Or did someone knock me down? A guy is hovering above me like Superman. He’s kind of tall. He says something that sounds like a curse, and then he kicks me or throws something heavy at me. I think it was a kick. My head is spinning from being high. Or from being kicked. The pretty girl’s there, too, and so is her friend. The pretty one grabs Superman and pulls him off me. Maybe it was God after all. Maybe it’s my reward for not taking Yogev’s call in the synagogue. That stoner could be anywhere by now. But he’s probably farther down the beach, sitting next to a tourist, asking what her horoscope sign is in his crappy English. Superman gets away from the pretty girl, runs back, and gives me another kick in the ribs. “Doron, stop!” the pretty one screams. “Enough!” She has a gentle voice, even when she’s shouting. A pretty girl’s voice. He keeps kicking me.

I wake up on the beach. I can only open one eye. There’s sand stuck to my face. Stuck to the blood on my face. Superman is gone. But the pretty girl’s still here, handing me a can of Coke. She says they didn’t have any water at the kiosk. I try to drink, but I can’t swallow. A guy in a baseball hat comes over. The pretty girl tells him something about what I said or about that guy, Doron, who beat me up. The baseball cap looks at me and says, “He should lie down,” and the pretty girl tries to smile, but the smile is lopsided. She says something I can’t understand, and then the word “ambulance,” and although her mouth is completely crooked now and she’s almost crying, she’s still pretty. I’ve never been with a pretty girl. I don’t even mean sex—just sitting on the same towel at the beach, talking. It was really nice of her to buy me a Coke. ♦

(Translated, from the Hebrew, by Jessica Cohen.)

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