Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 4 of a new online serial novel, Outside the Bubble, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every week. Click here for previous chapters.
Copyright © Israel Bookshop Publications.
Anyone passing him on Emek Refa’im Street would be sure that he was an old man who had emerged at dawn to seek the rising sun: legs thrust forward, a short, dusty jacket, and a peaked cap pulled low over his face. That was what Benny thought when he passed the bench and glanced quickly at the figure sprawled on it. He didn’t give the matter more than three seconds of thought—something along the lines of “these strange kinds of people”—before continuing on to his pizza store and café.
The noise of the metal shutters being rolled up startled the figure out of his place.
“Oh!” he said, in a very normal-sounding voice. “I was waiting for you.”
“You…were waiting for me? Oh, it’s you! The British student from around here—remind me what your name is?”
“Canadian, not British,” the youth replied in his heavy accent. “And my name is Martin. When will the first pizza be ready?”
“A few more minutes.” Benny switched on the light and went to the sink to wash his hands. “You can sit down in the meantime,” he said with a yawn. “Take down a chair.”
He tied on his apron and opened the door to the freezer. The ready-to-be-baked pizzas were arranged in stacks, and he pulled a few of them out and popped them into the oven.
Martin sat down on a high wooden stool and rested his forearms on the Formica table. He had had an exhausting night, and as it was very suspicious to return to his room at five-thirty in the morning, he had opted to stay outside all night.
The faint smell of pickles emanated from the clean table, making him thirsty. These Israelis! What was the connection between pickles and pizza?! He would get up in a few seconds and ask Benny to make some coffee. Maybe the words tag mechir would be written on the cup, or perhaps Benny would suddenly disappear and Dan would appear in his place and ask him to go spray up the walls of Arab homes, because for some reason everything had been erased and the dogs were still barking… And maybe Grandma would come on a direct flight to the counter to say that she was taking him home right away to eat soup or rice pudding, but in her house, there would not be any soup or rice pudding, because she was quite old already and had no strength to cook anymore… Maybe the social worker would come, wanting to take him back to the dorm. In the dorm there would be the aroma of good food, but he wouldn’t want to take part in their holiday choir, because he was Jewish, and he didn’t celebrate the Christian holidays like the others. So he would go back to Grandma’s, and even though she didn’t have strength to cook entire meals, she could still make pizza for him. Pizza with lots of onions and hot corn, whose delicious aroma was getting stronger and—
“Here you go, Martin—your pizza.”
It was not Grandma, not at all.
“Martin?” Benny tapped his shoulder “Good morning, Martin. Your pizza! Do you want some coffee to help you wake up? On the house.”
Martin raised his head from the table, and for a moment, he was confused. But he grinned right away. “Sure, thanks. Nice of you, Benny.”
There were no signs of tag mechir on the cup of coffee Benny gave him. Martin smiled to himself and kept eating. Since the early evening hours of last night, he hadn’t eaten or drank a thing besides his apple juice.
Benny sat behind his counter the whole time, looking at him bemusedly. “What now?” he asked, after Martin finished his breakfast.
“Nothing, thanks. How much do I owe you?”
“The coffee is free. The pizza …what did I give you? Oh, with corn. One second—let me listen to this message that was left for me.” He pressed the speaker button, and a voice with a heavy American accent filled the store. “Good morning, Benny. This is Michoel Perl. I’d like to order half a pie of pizza, with mushrooms, no olives. I’ll pay for it by credit card, and I’ll be over soon to pick it up, or I’ll send Gronam.”
“You know him?” Benny asked Martin. “An older American guy, wears a brown suit, friendly to people he meets in the street…”
“I think I know who you’re talking about,” Martin said. “He has a small white beard? I see him on the street sometimes, and I’ve heard and seen him speaking to one of the beggars in the area.”
“That’s the Gronam he was referring to.”
“Oh.” Martin looked at Benny, who was sitting and drumming his finger on the counter with a worried look. “Is everything okay?”
“No,” Benny said. He pressed a button on the phone again. “Not at all.”
“Why not?” Martin took his wallet out as Michoel’s voice filled the room again clearly. “Do you think I’m not paying?”
“Who’s talking about you? I’m talking about this message.”
“What’s wrong with the message? Seems like a nice older man, this person.”
“Maybe.” Benny’s head was tilted slightly toward the phone, as if in this position he could hear more than what had been recorded. “I usually have no problem with his messages. Every Tuesday he eats pizza for breakfast. Sometimes he comes to pick it up, sometimes Gronam comes.”
“So who is this Gronam, exactly?”
“Like I told you, a friendly, homeless guy who wanders around Jerusalem. I think he sometimes works for Perl.”
“And each Tuesday he tells you he wants his pizza, and he comes to pick it up or sends someone for it?” Martin was taken aback. “I’ll bet that before he lived in America, he was born in Germany.”
“That may or may not be the case. But recently, it hasn’t been like that at all.”
“What’s not like what?”
“For the past four weeks, I’ve been preparing what he asks, but neither he nor Gronam comes to pick up the order.” Benny took out a huge orange container and opened the cover.
“And he pays. I mean, he leaves his credit card information, and I charge it, and it always go through.” He put the container down next to a circle of white, still partially frozen dough on the counter, and, using a large ladle, he spread the red liquid from the bucket onto the dough. “So he orders and pays each week, like clockwork, but these past few weeks he stopped picking up his food.”
“And is this what he always wants? Mushrooms without olives?”
“Always. He used to ask for corn as a topping, but recently, this message has been repeating itself, without any changes.” He tore the top off a bag of grated yellow cheese and generously scattered it over the dough. His eyes flicked to the door. “Now I’m wondering if he or Gronam will come. Or Moshe.”
“Who is Moshe? Someone else connected to this guy?”
“Actually, someone connected to me. Moshe is my worker. And, as you can see, he doesn’t always come when I’m waiting for him.”
“Are you looking for a new worker?” Martin sat up straight.
“Yes, but forget about the idea of hiring you. I don’t employ boys under the age of eighteen.” He sighed. “But now I’m really waiting for him, because I want to send Perl his pizza to his house.”
“Maybe Perl has Alzheimer’s or something?”
“Maybe. But it’s very strange that he remembers to order and pay, and the Alzheimer’s kicks in only when it comes time to pick up the food and eat.”
“Why don’t you try calling him?” Martin pointed with his chin to the phone.
“I did. The first time—it was only in the afternoon that I noticed he hadn’t come—he answered and said he’d forgotten and that I could give the pizza to whomever I wanted. The second and third times, he didn’t answer; I got his voicemail, and I left him a message. He never got back to me. The fourth time, I got sick and tired of running after him. Is he trying to make a laughingstock out of me, or what?”
“But he always pays.”
“That means he’s not laughing about it.”
“What? Oh, yes, you have a point there. Still, it’s very strange.”
“It is pretty strange,” Martin agreed. “Next time I come, tell me what you found out. I like mysteries.”
“If I remember. Where are you going now?” The pizza store owner studied Martin, who was standing at the door with one foot outside.
“To my dorm, to get some sleep.”
“You don’t have class this morning?”
“And if I do?” Martin laughed.
“Listen, I just want to finish with this story once and for all. If you are not in a big hurry right now, maybe you can pop over to Perl’s house with his pizza for me? I’ll give you an address, and I’ll pay you on a basis of thirty shekels an hour.”
“You’re going to make his order now?”
The boy glanced back at the street. “What if he doesn’t open the door?”
“Then the pizza is yours.”
“And if afterward, he or a messenger comes to you to pick it up?”
“I owe him for the past few weeks, anyway.” Benny suddenly became irritated. “And when he opens the door for you, tell him to stop with his messages; I don’t like working this way. It’s a recipe for things to go wrong.” He went over to the oven. “I don’t like owing people anything. So, can you make the delivery?”
“Fine,” Martin agreed.
Within two minutes, he was outside, walking with a carton of pizza raised in his left hand.
“Hey, waiter!” Joe Diamond, his roommate, almost collided with Martin as he was running. “What’s this? A surprise party for someone?”
“No, a favor for someone.”
“You?” Joe chuckled, but then grew serious. “Actually, it suits you. Who are you doing a favor for?”
“An old man. Or the guy from the pizza store. I’m not sure myself.”
“Maybe when you finish with him, you can do me a favor also, okay? Fresh pizza wouldn’t do me any harm. From the minute I woke up this morning, I’ve been smelling the fish that the cook has been marinating in some vinegary sauce for lunch, and I lost my appetite.” He wrinkled his freckled nose. “Where were you last night, by the way?”
“Here and there.”
“Your regular answer,” Joe said with a laugh. “And also, by the way, class starts in less than twenty minutes. Just saying.”
“It’s okay. I’ve missed a lot this past week, and it will be hard for me to get back into it. When I make everything up, I’ll come back to class. You’re also running late, aren’t you?”
“Why? I’m coming from my morning run. I should be back just in time.”
“Good. Maybe you’ll get the student-of-the-year award, huh, Joe?” He slapped Joe on the back with his free hand.
Joe grinned back. “Not sure about that one, but hey, it would be nice!” He studied the hill ahead and gave Martin a wave. “See you!”
Martin continued in the other direction. A new morning dawned on the street, and he turned at the next corner onto private property that was surrounded by a gray-brown wooden fence. His natural sense of direction told him that this was the house, even before he checked the name on the mailbox next to the gate. “Michoel Perl,” the English letters informed him, proving that he’d been right yet again. The house was built in an old Arabic style, tiled with small, shiny, gray stones. The entrance was curved, and on the facade, along the entire second floor, was a long balcony with an arched design.
Martin glanced at the empty mailbox on the gate. Something was strange about its structure, but he didn’t give it even a moment’s attention. He pushed open the gate—it was not completely closed—and stepped inside. Five cracked stone stairs led to a new heavy door that was adorned with ornate designs. He climbed up the stairs and knocked. Then he waited patiently as his eyes scanned the small yard.
It was rather neglected, and it didn’t look like anyone had tried to invest anything in it recently—or at all. Tangled brambles filled the yard from end to end, and only the path leading from the gate to the entryway stairs was clean and empty, as if someone had passed by with a lawnmower to forge a path in the middle of the yard. But the path was not made of earth; it was large brown stones, and on either side there were rows of blue stones, as if to set the boundary between the mess and neglect on both sides.
Martin turned back to the door and knocked again. After a few seconds, he pressed the intercom panel on the wall. A sonorous ringtone could be heard, and a blue light lit up in the white metal panel. After a moment, a voice came through the grooves in the panel that covered the speaker: “Good morning. Who is it?”
“I’m from the pizza store!” Martin leaned toward the bell. “Benny’s Pizza and Café! He sent it over to you special!”
A moment of silence. Then the voice said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t come to the door right now.”
“Should I leave the pizza here?” Martin asked. “No problem, especially since you paid for it already. I just suggest you take it in quickly, before the cats and the ants—”
“I’m sorry, I cannot speak to you right now,” Mr. Perl cut him off. “If you don’t mind, try to come back in another week.”
A crooked smile crossed Martin’s face. “With the moldy pizza?” he asked.
“Have a nice day,” was the answer.
Martin bit his bottom lip. He didn’t know this Perl guy personally, but if he had understood who Benny the pizza man was talking about, then Perl gave the impression of a really friendly person. Now he sounded very strange, though, bordering on apathetic.
Well, then the pizza could stay here; he didn’t care.
He was pondering where to put it when the intercom came to life again: “I ask you not to leave anything at the door.”
“What?” Martin straightened up with the box in his hand.
“I ask that you don’t leave anything at the door.”
“But it’s your pizza! Don’t you want it? Oh, and I forgot to say that Benny from the pizza store asked you to please stop leaving orders on the store’s voicemail.” He didn’t know what kind of answer to expect, but this time, the speaker was quiet. The older man must have gotten tired of talking to him.
Martin raised his eyes to the long balcony on the second floor. Large, ugly stains indicating dampness ran across the whole length of it. For a moment, he fretted that perhaps the whole balcony would come crashing down on his head.
He went down the stairs, back into the yard, feeling a combination of “sorry, but I did my best,” and gratification at having earned free pizza. Then he turned away from the path and left.
At a quarter to two he’d reheat the pizza in the microwave in the tea room, and Joe Diamond would be happy to find an alternative meal for him instead of the one he could not tolerate.