Frontier Psychiatrist

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Etgar Keret, Suddenly, A Knock on the Door

Etgar Keret, Suddenly, A Knock on the Door

The thin house–a house four feet wide and occupying a space between two buildings in Warsaw–isn’t a likely candidate to entertain the guests who show up unexpectedly and demand a story from the author on the spot in the title story of Etgar Keret’s latest collection, Suddenly, a Knock On the Door. While it would not be able to hold the action of the piece, it does explain the style of the Israeli author’s storytelling: as Steven Kurutz of The New York Times writes, the thin house, built with Keret in mind, is “small but complete.” There are a total of thirty-six stories contained within the 188 pages of the book, an average of five pages per story, though as we know averages work, many come in much shorter, with some barely stretching over one page. In these brief pieces, Keret packs in whole worlds.

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Dear Mandi,

My Dad died.  He’d been going downhill for months.

Last week the hospice informed us that he only had one or two days left.  So me and my sister Teresa flew home.

All night, me, Teresa, Justin, and Mom, we all sat around Dad, with our hands on his body . . . I nearly wrote corpse just then, but he wasn’t a corpse yet.  He was warm–for some reason this was really important to me.  Previously I’d thought that as people got closer to death their skin chilled and became harder to the touch, like oyster shells.

In the morning, sunshine was coming in the window, and his breathing stopped, then restarted a few seconds later.  And this went on for twenty minutes.  Stopping, silence, restarting, stopping, silence, restarting.  We held our hands on him the whole time.  Then his breath stopped for the umpteenth time, and Teresa said, “Was he always this stubborn?”  Then Mom said, “Yes.”  And Dad–that was it, his breathing didn’t restart.  It was intense.

For the hours before he died, he looked a little deathlike–but he was still warm, like I said.  Yet a few minutes after he died, there was no mistaking that he wasn’t there.  He soon become cold like an ice tray just after you’ve cracked the ice out of it.

Our other sister, Wendy, she lives in Arizona and wasn’t able to fly home to see Dad for his last moments alive.  She has three sons, she has her own problems.  Remember, one kid with ADHD?  Another with that lung deal, remember?  Her third son hasn’t got anything wrong and debilitating with him, not yet at least.  Wendy made it to Dad’s funeral, but she felt guilty for not being there when he died.  She kept apologizing to everyone.  Over and over, apologizing.  She’d open a door and apologize.  She’d pass the breadbasket and apologize.

And wow, my Dad knew busloads of people.  At the service and at the wake, it took hours for all of his friends and acquaintances to shell out their words of sympathy, hugging us if they knew us, shaking our hands if they didn’t.  Even when strangers came up to Wendy, she apologized.

Hordes of people I hadn’t seen in decades turned up from out of nowhere.  Where are all these people when you’re alive?  Am I stupid for asking this?

I haven’t stopped eating for a week.  Food everywhere. There was celery and cookies and peanut butter and coffee at the church.  I’ve never seen food like that at a church.  Is that standard fare for funerals?  Then there was a lunch–pasta and salmon and tons of finger food–at Mom’s house.  That night there was a meal at Helen’s.  People brought mounds of food.  It was strange.  The next day there was another mourning-slash-eating session at Dad’s lawn bowls club.

Why’d I eat all week?  Because I couldn’t stop.  I’ve no clue what food signified to me, but . . . .  There’s something about death and food that just goes together.

Are you coming up here?  I’m staying for a few more weeks, just to be here for Mom.  I think Justin’s leaving tomorrow, or he might be staying a week more, who knows.  We could play racquetball and I could show you our old high school.

Love, Jake.

Dear Mandi,

None of us have heard boo from you.  What’s going on?  Everything okay?  Everything not okay?  Something in between?

This has been the strangest week of my life.  Dad dying was just the start.  Jake–get this, this is absolutely crazy–he’s been eating nonstop since he arrived.  He’s put on so many pounds.  Every one knows that identical twins often act identically, but ever since Dad died, it’s as if Jake and I are been acting oppositely. Where as he’s been stuffing his face with food 24 hours a day, I’ve barely eaten a morsel.  Crazy, right?

I need to tell you about the morphine.  There was oodles of it.

What freaked me out was the day I arrived at the hospice, this nurse shows up with a portable fridge filled with morphine.  His name was Brian or Johnny or Dave, a nothing name, one of those everyman names.  I kept thinking that this particular nurse hadn’t talked with the other nurses–the ones who had informed us that Dad was only going to live for a day or two more.  He brought days worth of morphine.  And that fucking fridge . . . I bet it had seen so many dead rooms.  So, the nurse wheels the fridge into my Dad’s room like this is the end, like there’s no turning back, like hello death.  Fill Dad up with painkillers because, ladies and gentlemen, if we don’t then he’s not going to go peacefully.  That doesn’t make sense.  If this was an email, I’d backspace over that.  Ah well.

Back to Dad.  A few minutes after he died, this was around the same time that me, Mom, and Teresa took our hands off of him, I noticed that the fridge filled with morphine was no longer there.  That means that that fucking nurse had snuck in straight after Dad died, and had taken the fridge to the next death room!  Can you believe that?!

I played racquetball yesterday with Teresa.  Jake wouldn’t play with us.  He’s been walking–moping more like it–around our old high school, eating hotdogs like the world’s going to end.  By the way, have you given any more thought about when you’re going to tell him about us?

Write me.  Call me.  Just respond.

Love, Justin.

Lee Bob Black is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. He also directs a literacy program for Canteen Magazine.

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