"Missiles, Small Talk," by Etgar Keret
Translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston
The pretty young woman in the airless stairwell won’t stop crying. “I don’t want to die,” she chants over and over again, like a mantra, “I don’t want to die.” The old woman next to her looks like she doesn’t care if she herself dies, and would care even less if the girl next to her got killed by a direct rocket hit. At least then, there’d be some quiet here. The number tattooed on her wrinkled arm is like a perpetual reminder that this lady has already seen a thing or two in her life that were a bit more threatening than an air-raid siren in Tel Aviv. “You won’t die,” I tell the frightened girl. “No one’s going to die. Even if a rocket manages to get this far, the Iron Dome will shoot it down. Trust me, I understand these things, I’m an aeronautical engineer.”
The girl is still crying, but she’s stopped muttering. Her left hand is clutching my arm as if it’s some kind of safety railing. I’m not really an engineer, I’m a writer, but in emergencies, I tend to pass myself off as the kind of professional most likely to instill a feeling of safety in the people around me. This tradition began twenty-one years ago, during the first Gulf War. Then too, I specialized in calming down young women during missile attacks, but I was still young myself then, and single, while today, the entire time I’m speaking to her, all I can think about is my seven-year-old son, silently hoping that the older kids don’t trample him on the way to the school shelter.
The explosion is loud, but high above us. “Iron Dome,” I say to the girl and smile, as if it were my invention, and I wanted to be sure to get the credit.
“God sent you to us,” she says, and wipes her nose on her shirt sleeve. “What are the chances that of all the people in the world, the one I’d be standing next to in the stairwell is an aeronautical engineer?” The old woman doesn’t wait for us to calculate the probability together, and goes back to her apartment on the floor above us. Judging from the pungent smell coming from inside, she left something cooking on the gas range.
Read the rest of this essay in Unstuck #3.