MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Here too, like always, timing was everything.
Five hours before painting the southern wall in his apartment for the 250th time, Guy sat at the small café and tried to sip his coffee in a deliberate, calculated way.
His body was tilted back a bit from the table, leaning in a position that was supposed to suggest a calmness engendered by years of self-discipline, with the small coffee cup gently cradled between his fingers like a precious seashell. From the corner of his eye, he followed the progress of the second hand on the large clock hanging above the cash register. As always, in the final moments before implementation, he felt the same frustrating awareness of his breathing and his heartbeat, which occasionally drowned out the ticktock of the seconds.
The café was half full.
He glanced around at the people and again saw in his mind the spiderwebs that traversed the air, the thin and invisible connections that linked them.
Sitting across from him at the other end of the café was a round-faced teenager, resting her head against the windowpane, allowing the music produced by marketing alchemists specializing in teenage romance to flood her thoughts via thin earphone wires. Her closed eyes, her relaxed facial features—everything radiated serenity. Guy didn’t know enough about her to determine whether it was indeed genuine. The young woman wasn’t part of the equation at the moment. She wasn’t supposed to be part of it—just part of the background buzz.
An insecure couple on a first or second date sat at the table opposite the young woman, trying to navigate through what was perhaps a friendly conversation, or a job interview for the position of spouse, or a quiet war of witticisms camouflaged by smiles and occasional side-glances in order to avoid the prolonged eye contact that would create a false sense of intimacy. In fact, this couple was an example of all hurried relationships that anxiously revolve around themselves. The world was full of such couplings, regardless of how hard it tried to prevent them.
A bit toward the back, in the corner, sat a student busy erasing the face of an old love from his heart, at a table full of papers covered in dense handwriting. He gazed at a large mug of hot chocolate, immersed in a daydream disguised as academic concentration. Guy knew his name, medical history, emotional history, musings, dreams, small fears. Guy had everything filed away somewhere … everything he needed to know in order to guess the possibilities, to try to arrange them in accordance with the complex statistics of causes and effects.
Finally, two waitresses with tired eyes—who were somehow still smiling and standing—conducted a quiet, intense conversation by the closed door to the kitchen. Or rather, one of them spoke while the other listened, nodding occasionally, offering signs according to the predetermined “I’m Paying Attention” protocol, though it seemed to Guy she was thinking about something completely different.
He also knew her history. Anyway, he hoped he did.
He put down the cup of coffee and counted the seconds in his head.
It was seventeen minutes before four o’clock in the afternoon, according to the clock above the cash register.
He knew that each person in the café would have a slightly different time on his or her watch. A half a minute before or after didn’t really matter.
After all, people were not only differentiated from one another by place. They also operated in different times. To a certain extent, they moved within a personal time bubble of their own making. Part of Guy’s work, as the General had said, was to bring these times together without generating the sense of an artificial encounter.
Guy himself didn’t have a watch. He’d discovered that he didn’t ever use one. He was so conscious of time that he had no need for it.
He always loved this warm sensation, which nearly permeated the bone, during the minute preceding the execution of a mission. It was the sensation that came from knowing he was about to reach out a finger and nudge the planet, or the heavens. The knowledge that he would be diverting things from their regular and familiar path, things that until a second ago were moving in a completely different direction. He was like a man painting great and complex landscapes, but without a brush and paint—simply with the precise and gentle turn of a big kaleidoscope.
If I didn’t exist, he’d thought more than once, they would need to invent me. They would have to.
Billions of such movements happened every day, corresponding with each other, offsetting each other and swinging each other in a tragic-comic dance of possible futures. None of the protagonists were aware of these movements. And he, in one simple decision, saw the change that was about to happen, and then executed it. Elegantly, quietly, secretly. Even if it were exposed, no one would believe what stood behind it. And still, he always trembled a bit beforehand.
“First of all,” the General had told them when they began, “you are secret agents. All the others are first of all agents and secondly secret, but you are first of all secret and to a certain extent, also agents.”
* * *
Guy inhaled deeply, and everything started to happen.
The teenage girl at the table across from him moved a bit as one song in the playlist finished and another began. She shifted the position of her head on the windowpane, opened her eyes, and stared outside.
The student shook his head.
The couple, still sizing each other up, chuckled in embarrassment, as if there were no other type of chuckle in the world.
The second hand had already completed a quarter of its circuit.
He pulled the wallet out of his pocket.
Exactly on time, a short and irritable summons tore the two waitresses from each other, sending one of them into the kitchen.
He placed a few dollars on the table.
The student began to collect his papers, still slow and pensive.
The second hand reached its halfway mark.
Guy put down his cup, still half full, exactly three-quarters of an inch from the edge of the table, on top of the money. When the hand on the clock reached forty-two, he stood and waved to the waitress who remained outside the kitchen, in a motion that communicated both “thank you” and “good-bye.”
She waved back to him and started to move toward the table.
As the second hand passed its three-quarter mark, Guy walked toward the sun-drenched street and disappeared from the view of the café patrons.
Three, two, one …
* * *
The cute student in the corner prepared to leave.
Though it was Julie’s table, Shirley would apparently have to take care of it, now that her coworker was in the kitchen. Not that she minded. She liked students. She liked cute young men. A cute student was a winning combination, as a matter of fact.
Shirley shook her head.
No! Stop these thoughts immediately! Enough with “cute” and “charming” guys and every other adjective you feel obliged to toss around.
Been there, done that. You tried, you checked, you soared, you crashed. And now you’ve learned. Enough. It’s over. You’re taking a b-r-e-a-k.
The other young man, the one with the melancholy eyes, waved to her as he began to leave.
She knew him, if one could know a man from weekly, silent visits. He usually drank every drop of coffee, leaving the half-muddy sediment at the bottom, as if waiting for a fortune-teller who would never come, and the money gently folded underneath the cup. He left the café, and it seemed to her that she detected some tension in his steps. She approached his table and made a point of not looking at the student.
After all, she was only a human being. And an entire year had passed. Clearly, she still felt the need for some type of human warmth. She still could not get used to the thought that alone was the new together. That she needed to be strong, genuine, a lone and beautiful wolf in the snow, or a leopardess in the desert, or something like that. Years and years of chick flicks, sugary pop songs, and superficial books had managed to construct a well-built fortification of romantic illusions in her mind.
But it’ll be okay.
It’ll be okay.
She reached out her hand, a bit lost in her thoughts.
She heard a soft noise behind her and turned her head. It was the girl with the earphones, humming to herself.
Even before turning her head back, Shirley realized she had made a mistake.
Her brain now perceived the events as they transpired, predicting them, timing them with the precision of an atomic clock, but always a thousandth of a second late.
Now, her hand was moving the cup a bit instead of grabbing it.
Now, the cup, which for some reason was placed so close to the edge, was losing its balance.
Now, she was reaching with her other hand, trying to catch the falling cup; and she was failing and the cup shattered on the floor and she cried out, a sharp, frustrated cry.
And now, here was the student—that is, a young man, a young man who wasn’t interesting at all—lifting his head toward the cry, moving his hand in the wrong direction, and inadvertently spilling hot chocolate on his papers.
And now, Bruno was coming out of the kitchen.
* * *
“Sometimes you’ll need to be a bit ruthless,” the General would say. “It happens. It’s necessary. I, myself, really enjoyed this. But you don’t have to be little sadists in order to understand. The principle is quite simple.”
Guy walked down the street, counting his steps until he could permit himself to turn around and look from afar. The cup should have already fallen. He would take a look, just one quick glance, to be sure everything was okay, to confirm. This wasn’t childish, this was healthy curiosity. No one would notice. He was on the other side of the street. He was allowed to do this.
And then he would go sabotage the pipe.
* * *
Shirley saw the student curse, his arms flailing in an effort to rescue the pages covered in dense handwriting.
She bent down quickly to collect the broken pieces of the cup, and bumped her head on the table.
She tried to collect the large pieces without getting cut. Her shoes were spotted with small coffee stains, like the splotches of a hesitant giraffe.
Did coffee stains come out in the laundry? Were these shoes even washable?
She quietly cursed everything and everyone. It was the third time this had happened to her at the café. Bruno had made it very clear what would happen the third time.
“Leave it,” she heard a quiet voice say.
Bruno crouched next to her, crimson with anger.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Really. It … it was an accident. I just lost my concentration for half a second. Really.”
“It’s the third time,” Bruno muttered angrily. He didn’t like to yell in front of customers. “The first time, I said it wasn’t a big deal. The second time, I warned you.”
“Bruno, I’m sorry,” she said.
Bruno glared at her.
Oh. Big mistake.
He really didn’t like to be called by his first name. She didn’t usually make mistakes like that. What was going on with her today?
“Leave it,” he said quietly, accentuating each word. “Return the uniform, take your share of today’s tips, and leave. You’re not working here anymore.” And before she could utter a word, he stood up and went back into the kitchen.
* * *
Now Guy was running.
He still had a lot to do. Everything could not be prepared in advance. There were things he had to execute at the last moment, or at least check that they were occurring as they should.
He had yet to reach the point where he could let the cups fall and then sit and watch one event follow another. He still needed to give the events a small push, in real time.
* * *
He would need to photocopy most of the material again.
One of the waitresses—not the one who was collecting the pieces from the floor and looked like she was about to burst into tears—came to him with paper towels and helped him mop up whatever the pages had not yet absorbed. In silence, they quickly cleaned the table. He left most of the papers there. “You can throw these away,” he said to her. “I’ll just photocopy them again.”
“What a bummer,” she said and pursed her lips in sympathy.
“Bring me the bill please,” he said. “I think I’ll get going.”
She nodded and turned around, and he caught a whiff of her perfume. A small, old alarm quietly resonated in his head. Sharon’s perfume.
He needed this like a hole in the head.
He blinked and continued to stuff the papers that were still dry into his bag. Then, with the table sparkling, the waitress gave him the bill.
He didn’t even notice that he had stopped breathing when she came near, just to avoid smelling her by mistake.
When she moved away, he lifted his eyes from the bill and saw the second waitress, the one who knocked the cup over, leaving the café, dressed in regular clothes.
* * *
Guy sat at the bus stop and opened the little notebook.
He was in a spot where she wasn’t supposed to see him, but just in case, he pretended to be reading the notebook.
He opened it to one of the first coincidences he had worked on. The mission was to cause a particular employee at a shoe factory to lose his job. The person was a brilliant composer who had never discovered his talent for music. In the first stage, Guy had to arrange for him to be fired; in the second stage, he had to expose the man to music in a way that would induce him to try to compose something.
It had been a fairly complicated task for a fledgling coincidence maker, and less exciting than other missions he dreamed of.
Guy remembered being quite pretentious at that time. He tried to do something that far exceeded his planning abilities. Reading from the notebook, he remembered that he used a particularly jumpy goat, flu shots, and a power outage that paralyzed the entire factory.
He failed, of course. They fired someone else because he didn’t correctly calculate the employees’ times of arrival. That was back when he only took the individual person into account, instead of looking at that person’s connection to the broader picture. He hadn’t paid sufficient attention to the pattern of traffic jams on Thursday mornings in his composer’s neighborhood, and someone else was at the factory at the time Guy thought his mark would be present.
The entire maneuver he’d tried to execute was sketched on four pages in the notebook. Four pages! Damn, who did he think he was?
Someone else arranged for the man to be fired five months later. He also managed to return the man Guy had mistakenly fired to the newly vacated position. Guy had no idea who did this. He figured several musical compositions would never be written because of his mistake.
Not all of his mistakes were corrected in this way. There wasn’t always a second chance.
Across the street, he saw the waitress who knocked over his cup arrive at the bus stop.
* * *
At that moment it seemed like the entire world revolved around the rhythmic tapping of her steps on the sidewalk. That and the small swish her arm made as it brushed against her clothes, and the touch of the label in the back of the blouse. When she was irritated, she paid attention to unimportant details.
She’d discovered this not long ago.
Strange, but it wasn’t her abrupt firing that disturbed her now, but the feeling that it hadn’t occurred as she imagined it would. Just like that, in a second, everything changed? Life was not supposed to treat you this way. Life was supposed to slowly bring you the tidings, good or bad. It shouldn’t throw stones into your pond and point to the circles disturbing the water’s tranquility with a malicious smile. Why did she have the feeling that what happened was like a head-on crash with a distant acquaintance just as you were turning the corner?
It had rained earlier, and despite the bright and warm sun that now bathed the street, there was the smell of something new in the air. A small brown stream flowed at the edges of the street, to the sewers, allowing a rude bus to splash her as it passed by, wetting her shoes again. She had missed her bus. Of course, it was one of those days.
She just had to get through it without serious bodily injury, or something like that, and tomorrow would be more reasonable. Tomorrow there would be time for damage assessment, for a meticulous inspection of her basic fortifications, and for a rational decision about how to move forward, and where.
She scolded herself for her histrionics. So she’d been fired from work, big deal. It wasn’t a formative experience she would recount to her grandchildren or to a psychologist. It was just a lousy day. You’re quite familiar with days like this. You’re good friends. No drama, please.
She stuck out her hand. It could be an hour until the next bus came. It would be better to just get a taxi, take a long shower, and climb into bed until tomorrow. And tomorrow we’ll see. We’ll see if there’s work somewhere. We’ll see what to do about next month’s rent. We’ll see what the instructions are for washing shoes.
* * *
Guy was worried. She didn’t seem despondent enough. He had expected a medium-high level of despondency.
Actually, it might be good that she wasn’t so despondent. She’d remain open to new ideas.
On the other hand, some light frustration peppered with a dash of sadness was likely to make her yearn for someone to lean on.
Or it could simply encourage her to stay away from people.
I should have taken this possibility into account, Guy thought. I’m such an idiot. I should have calculated her level of despondency in advance, precisely. You need to minimize the chances of error in all things pertaining to choice. It’s the first lesson. Okay, not really the first. Perhaps closer to the fifth.
Perhaps it’s the tenth. I don’t really remember anymore.
In any case, she doesn’t appear to be sufficiently despondent.
* * *
“What’s happening?” he asked.
One of the passersby on the sidewalk stopped. “What?”
“What’s happening?” he asked again. “Why aren’t the cars moving?”
“A water pipe burst,” the man said. “They closed the street.”
He’d drive around it. If he turned right here and then left, he should be traveling parallel and come to … no, there’s no entry there. Maybe he’d turn right twice and then left via that one-way street. Or maybe it wasn’t a one-way street, but a dead-end street? Sharon always laughed at him. “How did you complete officer training if you can’t even navigate around the city?”
“In the city it’s different,” he would tell her.
“It should be even easier,” she would say.
“I didn’t have you in the course,” he would tell her. “You completely ruin my concentration.”
She would smile that smile and tilt her head a bit. An offside Mona Lisa smile.
“No, no, really,” he would say. “Maps, streets, diagrams, directions. I get everything jumbled. Right now, there are only two places—by your side, and not by your side. So how am I supposed to remember how to drive to the movies, huh? You tell me.”
And she would lean over a bit and whisper in his ear, “Left, then right at the end of the block, and straight at the traffic circle, commander.”
* * *
So the pages were ruined—so what? He wouldn’t let that spoil his day … or any day. Any day at all.
He would go home, toss all of the lousy papers into the darkest corner of the apartment, download a comedy, the most inane comedy he could find—something with college students, or neurotic Brits, or Spanish women who spoke really fast—and then he’d sit with beer and peanuts and enjoy them without any feelings of guilt.
Then he’d go to the beach. That was also a possibility.
In any case, beer was an important ingredient. The beer would be insulted if it were not involved. You don’t mess around with beer; he had learned that the hard way.
He tipped back his head and roared with pleasure. Every time he postponed a task related to his studies, he got into a good mood. So alive. He loved this “zone”—his happy, nice zone, the one that managed to see life beyond its obligations, as something through which you needed to flow.
One day I’ll be a Zen teacher, he thought. I’ll put people in cars and watch them roar and laugh themselves to life.
But until then, we’ll make do with being nice. We’ll help some old lady, we’ll pick up a hitchhiker, we’ll buy a flower and give it to a random young woman in the street. He was roaring with pleasure again.
* * *
People respond to things in different ways.
People also had different weaknesses. Guy discovered the student’s weakness somewhere in the middle of conducting his research.
None of these weaknesses worried Guy in particular, except for the student’s difficulty with finding his way around the city.
So he arranged for the student to watch a military documentary the previous evening. He loved to influence people’s thoughts by changing the television schedule. It was relatively easy, and it had the pleasant aroma of a wager. And he no longer dared risk a larger wager than that.
After the student had watched the film, Guy felt there was a chance that when the student asked himself where to drive after leaving the coffee shop, something similar to “left, right, left” would come to mind. In any case, the other roads would not be open.
* * *
Too much time had passed. She had to catch a taxi. She lazily lifted her arm again and tried to calculate the chances of finding a new job that week.
She reached the conclusion that there was no chance, and just then a small blue car stopped next to her, and the window opened.
Distractedly, she conducted the short conversation about her destination and entered the car. A moment after closing the door, she realized that it wasn’t a taxi. She had inadvertently been hitchhiking, apparently, and now, seated next to her was the student from the café who was sure that she had waved at him.…
He put the car into gear, smiled at her, and began to drive.
And now, as they were moving, the ground could not swallow her up even if it wanted to.
* * *
She was cute, and quiet too. A dangerous combination from his point of view.
It seems you cannot refrain from fantasizing a relationship with any creature of the female persuasion you encounter, he scolded himself. And now get on with your life, my friend.
But, actually, if I’m going to the beach with beer …
* * *
He made a real effort, it should be said to his credit.
She silently counted nearly a full minute before he broke down and started to speak.
“I hope he didn’t yell at you too much?” he asked with a small smile.
“No, he’s not a yeller. When he’s upset, he simply speaks in a very accentuated way.”
“Each and every word. Like gravel.”
“How accentuated was he this time?”
“He fired me.” She shrugged her shoulders.
Half a look, half worried. “Really?”
“Really.” Never had the word “really” been uttered so sharply and curtly. That was the last word in the conversation, my friend, she thought. Hope that got through to you.
* * *
Part of her was like this. A part that liked to be abusive in small talk. To break the accepted continuity of question and obvious response, to say the inappropriate word or the sentence that would make everyone fall silent, feel unpleasant, squirm in discomfort and think: Okay, she apparently r-e-a-l-l-y doesn’t want to talk.
Don’t talk to me about work. Don’t talk to me at all. Drive. I’m just here by chance. Simply drive.
* * *
“I, um, I’m sorry to hear that.”
“I’m sorry about your papers. I saw that everything spilled onto your notes.”
“It’s nothing. I’ll just photocopy them again.” Now it was his turn to shrug.
“It’s really nothing.”
“I understand. Okay. So I’m not sorry.” She smiled to herself.
* * *
“I have a cousin named Shirley.”
What do I care? “Really? Wow.”
* * *
Guy counted breaths again. It was supposed to be more effective than counting seconds, he knew, but it became problematic when the pace of his breath was irregular.
He took the cell phone from the bag and waited a bit.
And a bit more.
You could call this conversation an “insurance policy,” no?
He punched in the number.
* * *
“I’ll drop you off at the corner before your street, okay? If I go down that street, it becomes a one-way, um, I think.”
“Great. No problem.” She allowed herself to flash a smile.
“Your apartment is close to the beach, right?”
“Yes, quite close.” A step forward.
“Do you go to the beach often?” he tried.
“Sometimes. Not so much.” Two steps backward.
“I go there occasionally. It really clears your head.”
“Actually, not at all. The noise of the waves breaks my concentration.”
“You don’t have to concentrate to clear your head.”
“Whatever you say.”
She smiled. It’s a good smile. That is, a smile is good in general, right?
“I might go this evening. Do you feel like joining me?”
“Really, nothing special. I’ll bring beer and you can bring something if you feel like snacking. Just to sit, to talk. I’m serious.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Usually, I would wait until a conversation developed between us, of course. Charm you with all sorts of banal insights. I’m not one of those guys who rushes things, but it’s just that we’ll be arriving in a moment and…”
“I’m not into that.”
“Sort of like a nun?”
“More like a sort of strike.”
“How long have you been on strike?”
“I don’t think it’s worth … what’s that noise?”
“I think it’s from your bag.”
“Ah, it’s my cell phone, shit.” Searching, groping, fumbling for it. “Hello?”
“Is this Donna?”
“No.” She felt her eyebrow rising up on its own, annoyed.
“No, no. It’s not Donna.”
“There’s no Donna here. Wrong number.”
“Wrong number! Wrong number!” she shouted.
She closed her cell phone and tossed it into her bag, on the floor by her feet. “Ugh! What a crazy day.”
* * *
Guy put the cell phone back into his pocket.
Okay, now all he could do was hope and go home.
And paint the wall.
* * *
“Okay, we’re here.”
“So I won’t see you there anymore?”
“No, I was fired.”
“And there’s no chance you’ll break your strike?”
“I’m sane. Completely. I’ve been examined by leading experts.”
A last smile, eyebrows raised. “Not even a chance of one in a thousand? You won’t leave me a telephone number?”
He should’ve given up a long time ago.
“No, thank you.”
I’m outta here.
* * *
A huge and detailed diagram of the last mission was sketched on the wall. There was one circle with “Shirley” written in it, and a second circle with “Dan” written in it, and countless lines branching out from them.
On the side were long lists of character traits, aspirations, and desires.
And there were a great many circles linked to one another with blue lines (actions to execute), red lines (risks), broken lines (things that might happen), and black lines (connections that must be taken into account). A note was written inside each circle in small and hesitant lines—“Bruno” and “Julia” and “water pipe” and “bus no. 65” and other several dozen elements that ostensibly had no connection at all, such as “basic training and dreams—documentary film” and “David, cable company technician” and “Monique, David’s wife.” In the left corner at the bottom was a space for calculations. The amount of coffee that would make the falling cup sufficiently spectacular, how much perfume had to remain in Julia’s perfume bottle, how much water flowed per hour in the pipe, the desired depth of the puddle that the bus encountered on its route, the songs that girls liked to hum.
There was also a list of air conditioner technicians and conversation topics related to pelicans, and entry codes of at least nine banks, and ingredients of Irish beers, and television schedules of channels in three countries, and the way in which the words “good luck” were spoken in various languages, and time zones, and associative connections that could be created between Peru and goat’s milk, and hundreds of other details in small letters in different colors, with lines stretching back and forth for all of the possibilities and subpossibilities, and the contexts and the thoughts and the combinations that could lead to a single point.
Yes, definitely, he was long past the stage of working with a notebook.
* * *
“It seems I left my telephone with you.”
“Yes, it was on the floor of my car.”
“I guess I dropped it there instead of in my bag.”
“Apparently. So it seems you did indeed leave me your telephone number, or at least your phone.”
“So it seems.”
Half a silence, a quarter of stillness, a tenth of tense expectation.
“Um. Could you come by and bring it to me?”
“But I have a better idea.”
“I’m at the beach. You’re welcome to come and get it.”
“It’ll take me about fifteen minutes.”
“I’m not in a hurry.”
“And … Shirley?”
“I have drinks here, so bring something to snack on if you can.”
Precisely calculated angles of tossing a telephone in anger, thin and long cracks in dams of solitude, roars of pleasure that echoed in a car for several minutes—everything would ultimately converge at this single point.
* * *
Night. The sea. Another young man and young woman sat to talk. Nothing out of the ordinary. Small smiles, discreetly protected by the darkness. Newspapers spread on the floor and another coat of paint added to a wall that had seen the world from all sides.
On an electronic sign somewhere in a nonexistent airport, another entry was added under “Love—Arrivals.”
Under the Reason column, the words “coincidence of the second degree” was illuminated.
And another day passes.
Copyright © 2011 by Yoav Blum
Translation copyright © 2017 by Ira Moskowitz