Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Etgar Keret

She sat in a Cafe Greg grading her students’ flash fiction stories as her husband played with their two-year-old daughter at Gymboree on the first floor of the Herzliya mall, the one by the beach. They came there every Saturday during the winter so Maya could expend energy and so that Ms. Cohen (not Mrs. Cohen, she frequently and annoyingly - to both parties- corrected her students; she hadn’t taken her husband’s name) could grade papers. She sipped a chai latte and avoided the glares of impatiently waiting customers wanting her crappy table inside the mall, not with a view of the sea. She also looked down when the pretty waitress approached the table asking her if she wanted something else. She knew that "something else" was a euphemism for “Your 18 NIS Chai Latte isn’t going to pay for my trip to South America.” But alas, everyone had their cross to bare, and Ms. Cohen’s was grading papers on a Saturday instead of playing with her daughter and occasionally holding her husband’s hand. 

However, if she were honest with herself, she had no desire to step foot in the germ-ridden, dirty Gymboree with balls wet from saliva and snot dripping, symptoms of the winter illnesses suffered by seemingly every child in Israel. So she was thankful for the mall cafe’s comfortable chairs, the nutmeg on her chai latte, and mostly for her husband who was dealing with the aggressive children, the loud parents, and the bad smell of the decades old pop corn machine. She was finishing grading a story about a student not being able to think about anything to write for this assignment when her red pen began fading. She pressed hard to circle the apostrophe he had incorrectly placed. She wondered if her red pen had suddenly remembered that it was the Sabbath, and no one should be working on the Sabbath. 

She looked around for a shop to buy a red pen when she saw him. He was downstairs with his wife and preteen son in between the Gap Kids’ 50 percent off sign and the wannabee Shuk in the mall featuring a Hello Kitty table filled with products such as a razor kit that seemed nonsensical to brand itself with a  cat. Ms. Cohen hated Hello Kitty. She didn’t like cats in general and in Israel, where cats served the same purpose as American squirrels, had propelled her dislike in to pure
hatred. Also, why didn’t Hello Kitty have a mouth? She guessed it was a patriarchal statement that women should be seen and not heard. Had he stopped to look at the Hello Kitty table, she would have been appalled. But, thank God, he hadn’t. Why was he at a mall in Herzliya  anyways? He belonged in an independent coffee house in Tel Aviv drinking straight espresso, but not smoking a cigarette.  The cigarette would be cliche and she no longer tolerated cigarettes since her daughter’s hospitalization for RSV and subsequent asthma. She lost sight of him and immediately regretted not going after him. But what would she say? “My students read your Flash Fiction and now I’m grading their own pieces of creative writing.”  He’d respond with an awkward smile and a glance of “leave me alone.” She called her husband to report the celebrity sighting. He didn’t answer. Perhaps he was playing with their daughter and not reading a liberal blogger on his phone. She returned to her papers when after correcting yet another incorrectly punctuated sentence, her red pen officially called it a day and headed to synagogue. She hadn’t been to synagogue since she had moved to Israel. She had never been less religious in her life. The other day her daughter saw Shabbat candles and started singing "Happy Birthday." How pathetic to have a pen more religious than she! As she continued to shake the red pen trying to find some remaining ink she felt a tap on her shoulder.

“Do you need a something to write with?” Etgar Keret asked in English. That annoyed her. How do Israelis always know when they spot an American? He and his family were waiting for a table, probably one with a view of the sea and not Gap Kids.

“Yes, I do, thank you,” Ms. Cohen said watching Etgar Keret look at the sprawled stories, taking almost every inch of the small circular table.  

He handed her a sharpened pencil. How would she grade papers with a pencil? She thought back to her liberal professor in education school who blamed the red pen for demoralizing young people so that they hated writing. A special education teacher recently chastised her for using a red pen. But red was her favorite color so she ignored the professionals and continued to ruin the lives of her students.

“Thank you,” she said insincerely.

“What are these papers about?”

“Well, they are pieces of creative writing.”

“Why have you marked them up like that? Isn’t that mean?”

“It’s my job. If I’m not mean, I will be told that I’m not doing my job.”

“That’s ridiculous. What are your students’ reading?”

“Actually, they read five of your short stories.”

He looked pleasantly surprised and asked, “What did they think?”

“Well,” she stammered wondering if honesty was the best policy, “They read you after Oscar Wilde and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. So, some of them didn’t understand why we were reading them; others appreciated the brevity.”

“Yes, I am good, but I am not Wilde or Marquez,” he said humbly.

“They also struggled with the notion of a talking fish,” she added. “I tried to explain that it was a Hebrew translation that they weren’t understanding, but teenagers are always skeptical.”

“They didn’t mind the premise of a man never aging, only his portrait does?” he asked.

“No, they didn’t seem to mind that,” she said.

“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “I’m going to grade the rest of these stories for you.”

“Oh no, Mr. Keret, I couldn’t have you do that,” she said.

“I insist,” he said.

How could she refuse? What an opportunity for her students to be read by an internationally-renowned author. What if he didn’t give them back, though? What would she tell the kids, their parents, and the principal?  But for some reason, she trusted him. She handed him her binder with the multiple drafts, story outlines, peer edits and asked him to have them ready a week before the semester ended when grades were due.

When she returned that Monday, she handed back the papers she had graded to her students and told the others that Etgar Keret would be grading theirs. Their reaction ranged from not caring, to disbelief, to excitement, to, “What if he’s a hard grader?”  She reassured them that if they were graded “too hard” she would adjust the scores.

Just as she had requested, one week before grades were due the binder appeared at the security desk with a box of sharpened pencils taped to it.  Ms. Cohen looked at the papers. He hadn’t marked them up, no, he had written “100 percent. A+.  Great Story! Keep writing!” at the top of every paper with his autograph. One one of the papers he had doodled a talking fish.

“Figures,” Ms. Cohen thought. Later that day, when she returned the batch of papers, the students who had received lower grades from her protested.

“It’s not fair,” they chimed.

Nothing was ever fair.

The next day she was called into the principal’s office. He showed her an email, written by the students, demanding that Etgar Keret grade all of their papers. She looked at the principal and asked him what he wanted her to do.

“You don't have to do anything,” the principal said. ”I spoke to Mr. Keret last night and he has agreed to be a guest English teacher here next semester. He will be taking your classes. You can sub for him when he goes on tour, but you will only receive sub pay."


He was grading papers with his pencil when she asked him how he would like his eggs cooked. He had ordered the Cafe Gregg breakfast.

“Scrambled,” he answered, not looking up.

"Would you like to add parsley, mushrooms and onions for five shekels?"

"Sure," he muttered.

“Toast?” she asked.

“Light bread,” he said.  

“Would you like your coffee now or after the meal?” she asked still writing the order down with her red pen.

“After, Mrs. Cohen, after,” he said shooing her away with his dull pencil.

“It’s Ms. Cohen, Mr. Keret,” she said with annoyance, but then remembering the possibility of a big tip she changed her tone and said, "But please, call me Karen."  

She entered the order into the computer, "accidentally" putting in a fattening croissant instead of light bread, and then made her way to the next table. It was the most tables she had every had; many of the other waitresses had called off because it was a Saturday and the previous night there had been a huge party of some sort at the beach. After her shift, she would go home to play with her daughter at the park. Since she had been demoted, they couldn’t afford the Gymboree anymore. However, on the plus side, when she finished work she didn’t have any papers to grade.

She couldn’t say the same for Etgar Keret.  

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