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"Hi," Akiva says, looking up from the laptop that has become as permanent a fixture in his life since retiring as his perch at this particular outdoor cafe. "How're ya doin'?"
The passerby to whom he has addressed his greeting - well-known in the whisper circuit as a former Mossad agent suffering from some form of post traumatic stress syndrome - stops immediately to chat.
"You know what the definition of a nudnik is, don't you?" he asks Akiva, who nods, aware that this will not prevent him from being told anyway. "Someone who gives a real answer to the question of how he is."
Akiva laughs politely before resuming the writing of Chapter 1 of what he fantasizes will be the greatest Israeli novel of all time. When he figures out the plot, that is.
"Which is precisely why I won't," adds the white-haired man in the unevenly buttoned plaid shirt.
Akiva lifts his balding head again.
"Why you won't what?" he asks in the tone of someone engaged in something else and not quite listening.
"Tell you," the man says, making no move to budge from the spot on which he is standing.
"Tell me what?" Akiva asks, this time having to curb his irritation at the interruption.
"How I am," the man answers proudly, clearly waiting for an invitation to sit down.
Akiva is torn between his desire to be left alone and his sympathy for this man. No, empathy would be more accurate a word. After all, he thinks, the guy is basically lonely. Kind of disheveled, a man who has been womanless for as long as he has been out of work. Rumor has it that his wife couldn't stand playing second fiddle to his other - secret - life. One she assumed included other women. Maybe even other kids. Unbeknownst half-siblings to her own children. Ones who didn't speak Hebrew.
Not that Akiva has any home life to speak of any more. Not since his heart was broken by the woman with whom he'd had a short, passionate affair during a long-standing, stable marriage. The woman who dumped him the minute he left his wife for her. An irony one of his envious cronies came to call the "terrible two-fer." A tragedy his grown daughters refuse to forgive him for.
"May I?" the man gestures toward Akiva's cigarettes - Gauloises, no filters.
"Sure," Akiva says, extending the man the pack and a plastic lighter.
"Personally, I never could get used to these things," the man says, his attempt at producing a flame thwarted by arthritic fingers and a mild alcoholic tremor.
"Why?" Akiva asks, not so much seeking an answer as trying to mask his annoyance with a layer of compassion. "What brand do you prefer?"
"Oh, no," the man says, inhaling deeply and thoughtfully, as someone about to deliver a sermon. "I wasn't talking about the cigarettes; I meant the lighter."
"Oh?" Akiva again feigns interest, forcing his eyes not to wander to the screen of his computer. Or to the sidewalk, where a steady parade of gorgeous girls in various states of dress and undress keeps marching to his attention. "You're more of a feinschmecker, I take it? Who only uses gold Dunhills?"
"Once upon a time, perhaps," the man says, shaking his head and mimicking wistfulness to give credibility to the gossip about his past. "But those days are gone."
Akiva tries to imagine this frail, dingy-looking senior citizen waltzing around the world wearing expensive suits and wielding shiny gadgets, among them a Walther pistol with a silencer on its barrel. And a cyanide pill, in case of emergency. But all he really sees is an old Jew in need of a shower and a shave.
By instinct - born of unconscious imitation - he touches his own chin, which, too, he realizes, could use a few strokes of a razor. He resists the impulse at this point to smell his armpits, though he has to admit that he can't remember the last time he put on deodorant.
"So how do you light your cigarettes?" Akiva asks, growing more and more ill at ease about not inviting this man, with whom he has now been engaged in conversation for a good 10 minutes, to join him for a drink.
"With matches, of course," the other spits out, as though stating the obvious. "I collect them," he adds hurriedly, to provide no pause in the banter that would enable Akiva to bring their encounter to a natural end.
Akiva wonders why a collector of matches doesn't carry any.
"You mean, like a hobby?" he asks, suddenly - and surprisingly - intrigued.
"I suppose you could call it that," the man says, removing his glasses and wiping them with slow deliberation on a dirty piece of flannel he has removed from the cuff of a frayed sleeve.
"LET ME buy you a capuccino," Akiva insists, shutting the lid of his laptop and sliding it onto a nearby seat. "Here," he points to the antique sofa next to him - the latest coffee-house gimmick, geared at giving the impression of homey warmth and campy, bourgeois bohemianism.
The man hesitates, as though not wanting to appear too eager. As though deliberating on whether he's available.
"Never liked sitting in soft furniture," the man announces, adjusting the back pillow.
"Why is that?" Akiva expresses genuine curiosity.
"I've got a bed for resting in," the man says, clearing his throat in preparation for what he senses has become an interview. "Meetings should be held in hard, uncomfortable chairs."
"Why?" Akiva asks, totally focused, signalling to the waitress without even glancing in her direction.
"Only despots conduct business with their butts on cushions," the man says, helping himself to another cigarette, which he taps on the armrest several times before lighting it with a matchbook he produces from his pants pocket - the cover of which has Arabic letters on it.
"Give me an example of such a despot," Akiva says, with the ecstatic hush of an author whose subject has blessedly revealed itself to him.
"I couldn't possibly do that," the man says, with the knowing smile of a subject whose author has blessedly revealed himself to him, "on an empty stomach."
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