On the Day Oded Carmeli Stood Up to Goliath

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I met Ben the bill collector in aggravated circumstances. At the time, in 2007, I was living in a hospital bed in the Florentin neighborhood, subsisting on sandwiches that I bought on credit from the Little Prince coffee shop − and when I say “credit” I am talking about something comparable to the U.S. national debt.

It’s true that, from my hospital bed, a primordial view of two centimeters of sky was visible, but I could see it only if I lay on the bed and turned my neck at a 45 degree angle toward the aperture. All the rest, about 16 square meters of apartment, was flooded night and day with neon lights of a closed psychiatric ward. I tried, then, not to get up from the bed other than to sit on the chair and write great neo-modernist poetry, poetry which would change the world forever ‏(it changed, right?‏). Until one morning I got up pregnant after a stroke.

Okay, I didn’t really have a stroke and I wasn’t really pregnant. I didn’t really get up, either. All that chair-sitting and bed-lying, without walking outside, made my back seize up, and I woke up like a Kafkaesque Gregor Samsa ‏(turtle-on-the-back version‏).

I commanded myself to wriggle my toe like Uma Thurman did. It worked, thus negating my initial diagnosis of a stroke in pregnancy, so I tried to stretch my arm to the phone. About an hour later, I had almost done it: the phone was already in my hand, but because I had a telephone pole instead of a spinal cord, I rolled over like a rolling stone out of the bed and onto the floor. Historians agree that shouts of pain of that intensity hadn’t been heard since the Battle of the Somme.
I dried my tears, shed my self-respect and called a poet friend. I gave him the following choice: either he publishes the complete works of Carmeli, prefaced by a gushing foreword by Dan Miron, or he comes over to rescue me. Apparently driven by writer’s envy, he came. “Caramel!” he shouted from the other side of the door, “open the door!” “I am unable!” I replied, floored and supine. “I am temporarily incapacitated! Break the door down,” I begged. “Bring a battering ram or a goat or a bull. Something!” In the end, we compromised on his shoulder.

A few days and a few hundred milligrams of Assival later, I called my landlord and told him about the broken door. I told him I would get someone to fix it − at my expense − but he said he had someone for doors. Some people have someone for everything. My lord was one of those people. He was the proud owner of a greaseball boutique on Jaffa Road, but we all figured he was selling heroin or Ukrainian girls, or heroin to Ukrainian girls.

“That’ll be NIS 2,500,” the landlord’s someone declared after examining the bent dents in the door. “Twenty-five hundred shekels? For the plastic on the door? You’re shitting me.” “You don’t want to pay? No problem. I’ll talk to your landlord and we’ll see what he says about it,” my landlord’s someone of doors threatened.
And you know what, my lord had quite a few things to say about it. He said about it that he would fuck me, that I was trying to fuck him, and a few more lovey-dovey phrases of the same general thrust. I told him I had someone of my own for doors, and that that someone would fix the door for NIS 500 and throw in an intercom of bird sounds. But the lord remained firm: his someone, or he would fuck me.

So I let him fuck me. I’d intended to leave my hospital bed at the end of the month anyway, in favor of my girlfriend’s place, and the landlord owed me NIS 2,500 for a “security” deposit for the first month of my hospitalization. So let him keep it, I thought, good for him, peace on earth, goodwill toward men and all. So I canceled the rest of the postdated checks and moved up north (north Tel Aviv). I’d been dying to leave Florentin. I didn’t realize that Florentin wouldn’t leave me without a fight.
“Hey, look who’s here!” the door-breaking poet exulted on seeing me when I went into the Little Prince to add another egg sandwich to my staggering debt. “Carmeli from the gray world! You heard? You owe money to Ben.” “Ben?” “Yeah, Ben. Ben left a number. Ben says you owe him money. And do you know how I know this? I know this because Ben knocked on my door like a maniac in the middle of the night. So I said to Ben that it makes perfect sense that you owe him money, because you owe me NIS 50, too.” “Thanks,” I said to my pal. “You’re a real pal.”

Ben the bill collector was looking for me. He looked for me at my friend’s place and in my previous apartment and in my Little Prince. Instead of dreaming that I was the president of the United States, I dreamed about Ben the bill collector. Instead of gazing rapturously at my girlfriend, I wondered what she would look like in a cast. I figured it was only a matter of time before Ben the bill collector would find me, my girlfriend or her watchcat. So I came to a really, really dumb decision.

Kids, don’t try this at home: I made a date with my bill collector. “Hi, Ben. It’s Oded Carmeli. I hear you’re looking for me. So here I am. I’ll be happy to meet with you.” I don’t know what I was thinking, but I do know I was thinking about getting someone to back me up. I didn’t tell anyone where I was going. And if you, nonetheless, find some sort of sex appeal in the decision of a strapped poet to set a date with a muscleman who’s on a bill-collecting mission, wait till you hear where he took me: Levinsky Park. Yes, I preferred a movie and dinner, but Ben the bill collector was adamant: midnight in Levinsky Park.

It wasn’t hard to recognize Ben the bill collector. He wasn’t just a muscleman, he was a Titan. I swear he had the biggest breasts I’ve ever seen. “Ben?” I gasped, swallowing saliva and a quarter of my tongue. “Car-me-li!” he roared, blanching the faces of the Sudanese in the park. “Car-me-li!” He galloped toward me and placed two horse-like hooves on my emaciated shoulders. “Car-me-li! Where’s the mo-ney?” ‏(Let it be noted for the record that Ben the bill collector was a few years ahead of Yair Lapid.‏)
Well, I thought, if this is to be the end of Oded Carmeli’s autobiographical novel, let’s at least give the hero an opportunity to declaim a last speech for the defense. So I rested my hands on the bill collector’s shoulders ‏(okay, on his hips, in a kind of slow dance‏) and explained to him.

Yes, I explained to him. I explained to the ruffian about my back and about the door. I explained to him about great neo-modernist poetry. I explained to him that his client is a felon, and not in a good way. I asked him how much he would get if he broke my hands. I asked if it wasn’t clear to him that I was the poor man and my right arm the lamb. I asked him whether he has kids my age, and how much rent they pay to crooked landlords.

I explained to him that I do not have, never have had and never will have another NIS 2,500 to pay for the door, and that even if I win the Nobel Prize for Literature tomorrow, the crook that sent him will still not see one Kroner from me. And he listened, my bill collector. He listened and listened and listened, until he shook my hand in farewell and went to break other hands.

Ben, if you happen to be reading this ‏(and not Israel Hayom‏), I wanted to thank you for a terrific date. Other musclemen would have come home with me, or brought me home in a casket, but not you. You were a perfect gentleman. And hey, we’ll always have Levinsky.

Oded Carmeli is a poet

Illustration by Mari Raissman.

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