"A deal. Man versus man, walker versus walker."
They gathered near the Knesset. High school girls in modest skirts color-matched with running tights, yeshiva students sporting brand-name running shoes. Soldiers in uniform and start-up employees before the start of their workday. Individuals, friends, youngsters and athletic adults, the experienced and those here for the first time, everyone wearing the same lime green dry-wear shirt. All waited for the announcement that would kick off the race.
The sky was blue and promising, the early morning air crisp and refreshing. A perfect day for the Jerusalem Marathon. The main event, 42.2 kilometers long, would take the runners through downtown Jerusalem and north all the way to Mt. Scopus. The race circuit snaked through the Old City’s Jaffa Gate and along the narrow alleyways of the Armenian Quarter. Out Zion Gate, around Mt. Zion, up a steep hill to the old train station and through German Colony. South to the Arnona neighborhood, back towards the city center, and down the home stretch to the finish line at Sacher Park.
A festive day, carnival-like, for both the runners and those who came to cheer them on. Municipality and national flags furled in the light breeze; colorful balloons with the Marathon logo rose into the sky. Loud music competed with the call of vendors at stalls selling sporting equipment and refreshments. Bottles of mineral water were handed out to all who asked. And of course, a platform awaited the medalists—the top three finalists in each race.
All of this Mordechai Hirschfeld saw on the small television screen hung on the back wall of the lobby. He leaned forward in his wheelchair with great anticipation for the race’s starting gun. The television camera scanned the anxious faces of the runners crowded next to the starting line, and Mordechai shifted his legs on their pedals, as if he, too, was waiting to run with them, to fight for position and push forward until he had a clear straightaway where he could pick up speed. He would show them, he thought.
“What are you doing, Mordie? Imagining you’re running in the Marathon?”
Mordechai looked over at Spiegel, his neighbor from across the hall in Beit Gilboa, the assisted living retirement home in southern Jerusalem. Spiegel was sitting on a hard chair, a silver-framed walker parked at his side. “I was a runner in my day,” Mordechai said proudly. “You should have seen me then. If it wasn’t for my legs, I would be there now,” he said, pointing at the television.
“You wish!” Spiegel said with a harrumph. “Turn that thing off and let’s play chess already. I’ll mate you in eight moves, maybe even seven!”
Mordechai and Spiegel played chess every morning in the games room. They had been keeping track of their matches for years, ever since Spiegel came to live in Beit Gilboa. At the moment, Mordechai was ahead, having won 426 times, while Spiegel had only won 376 games. There had been 235 draws. Wait a minute, Mordechai thought. Those numbers didn’t add up. Maybe he had won 624 times? He wasn’t sure, because he couldn’t remember. There were many things he couldn’t remember these days.
“I don’t think you have Alzheimer’s,” his daughter Sarita said to him later that day, on one of her Friday afternoon visits. “You’re just growing older, and older people don’t have good memories like they used to.”
“I remember you told me that last week!” Mordechai laughed. At least he hadn’t lost his sense of humor.
“I didn’t come last week because we were in Eilat,” Sarita reminded him. “We went for three days. The kids had a great time swimming, seeing the dolphins. I told you all this already! The hotel had an all-inclusive deal, so we didn’t go to any restaurants, but the hotel food was actually quite good. You should have seen Lior’s sunburn. My stubborn husband needs sunscreen, but he refuses to listen to me!”
The more Sarita spoke, the less Mordechai was interested in listening. Why should he pay attention? He knew she would repeat the same stories on her next visit. His mind wandered to the race he had seen on the television that morning. The delight in the runners’ faces, the sweat on their legs and arms, their clinging race apparel. Matching green shirts emblazoned with the logos of the Jerusalem Marathon and its sponsors. He could imagine himself racing with them, his muscles aching but propelling him toward the finish line, where he would check his time and raise his arms in triumph.
“Abba, you’re not paying attention,” Sarita complained, raising her arms in frustration. “Look, I brought you cookies. Shira baked them specially for you.”
“She’s a good girl,” Mordechai said, smiling at the thought of his eleven-year-old granddaughter. She would be Bat Mitzvah soon. If only Leora were still alive for such a joyous event. How long ago was it that he lost her? Six years or seven? It must have been two years before he came to live in at Beit Gilboa. He missed her so much!
“I see you’re getting tired,” Sarita said, rising from her seat. “Let me push you back to your room.”
As they left the lobby, Mordechai nodded to the red-headed woman at the front desk, although he couldn’t recall her name. They passed the synagogue, where he ignored Mrs. Levinstein, the frail woman who was constantly inviting him into her room for tea. They walked by the door to the garden, and he refused to look at recently widowed Eleanor Cohen. He didn’t reply to the greetings of silver-haired Smadar Amadi, whose blouse was invariably mis-buttoned, probably because of the Parkinson’s that shook her terribly. No, all of those single women wanted just one thing, he told himself. They wanted him to become their partner, their next husband, their next…
“It doesn’t look like you’re running the Marathon now!” Spiegel teased, approaching them as he forcefully pushed his front-wheeled walker up the corridor. “And here’s your lovely daughter, Sarita. She certainly didn’t come to see you race!”
Mordechai shot a nasty look at his neighbor. He would show Spiegel one day, he vowed.
“Your wheelchair is squeaking, Abba. Maybe you should have someone adjust the wheels.”
“My wheelchair is just fine, thank you!” Mordechai said as he put the key in the lock of his self-contained apartment. An image of Leora popped into his mind. She seemed angry. Why was that?
“Never go live in a retirement home!” she had said to him long ago. “I may be dying from this horrid cancer, but I don’t want you to follow me to the grave. If you live in one of those homes, you’ll die soon enough. And if it isn’t your body, it’ll be your spirit. How could you even consider such a thing?”
She went on and on about it, and nothing Mordechai said could change his wife’s mind. “Over my dead body!” she threatened, and before he knew it, she was in her grave and here he was. Call it what you would—a retirement home, assisted living, an old age home—it didn’t matter anymore. It was his home, and Leora would just have to deal with it.
“Abba, I’ll call you tomorrow night, to make sure you’re okay,” Sarita said, after assuring herself that there was food in her father’s small refrigerator. “Shabbat Shalom!” she said as she kissed him on his cheek.
“Oh, is it Shabbat already?” he asked, but she saw he was joking. He may not have all his senses, but at least he still had his sense of humor. Wait. Hadn’t he already said that to himself earlier in the day?
“Ready for our chess match?” Spiegel asked him the next morning when the two men met in the lobby.
“I’m ready, but what about you? Are you ready for a beating?”
Spiegel set up the board. One of the rooks fell to the tiled floor, and it took him several minutes to bend down and retrieve it. Mordechai looked around at the other residents. Frail Mrs. Levinstein. Widowed Eleanor Cohen. Silver-haired Smadar Amadi with her Parkinson’s shakes. They were so old! Then he remembered he was just as old as they were.
In his youth, Mordechai had been quite the athlete. The fastest runner in his school. His classmates urged him to join their football club, but he preferred to run on his own. He would wake up before dawn in pre-State Jerusalem and take to the streets. Avoiding the Arab merchants and the British patrols, he raced along King George Street and turned down Jaffa Road, continuing through Mamilla until he reached the Old City’s Ottoman walls. He entered through Jaffa Gate, but when he came to the steps leading down through the shuk, he spun around to make his way back home. He would have time for a quick shower before he left for school.
“I’ll checkmate you in eight moves today,” Spiegel declared.
“Hardly likely,” Mordechai replied. “I’m ahead of you by at least 200 matches.”
“No need to wish it; it’s true.”
“Mordie, Mordie. Always the dreamer. You’ll never catch up with me.”
Hearing this, Mordechai went red in the face. Spiegel always thought he was better than him, but it just wasn’t true! So what if Spiegel was more handsome, attracting more attention from the women residents of the home? So what if Spiegel was more worldly, able to quote Menachem Begin and recite Bialik’s poetry? Mordechai was certain that he was better at chess. And what about his health? Mordechai knew he was in better shape because Spiegel had suffered at least one heart attack. He supposed the man even had a pacemaker.
“Check!” Spiegel announced.
Mordechai stared at the board and realized he needed to concentrate on the game. He moved his queen to protect his king.
Zehava! That was the name of the red-headed woman at the front desk! Why did her name just pop into his head now, in the middle of his game? Oh, of course. Yesterday, when Sarita wheeled him back to his apartment, he couldn’t recall Zehava’s name as they passed through the lobby. The fact that he couldn’t remember it had troubled him all evening. In fact, he had woken up in the middle of the night, sweating, and all he could think about was what he couldn’t remember thinking about. Something important had slipped his mind and because of that, he couldn’t fall back asleep. But eventually he did, the question escaping him like the youth he no longer had.
“You’re not paying attention, Mordie,” Spiegel said triumphantly when he boxed Mordechai’s king into a trap. “That’s another victory for me and now I’m ahead of you, 325 wins to your 275, although admittedly we’ve had nearly two hundred draws.”
Mordechai fumed and spun his wheelchair around. He would go out to the garden, get some fresh air and recuperate from another humiliating loss. Then he had a second thought. He turned back to Spiegel, still sitting smugly at the table, admiring the chessboard.
“You think you’re so good, Spiegel. I challenge you to a race!”
Spiegel looked up from the board, confusion in his eyes. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“A race, to see who’s faster.”
“You’re out of your mind!”
“No, I’m not. This is serious. You think you’re so much better than me? We’ll see who’s faster. You and me, a competition right here in the home. We’ll stage a race down the corridors. Past the physical therapy room and the offices, and then back to the lobby.”
“Ha, of course you’ll win with those shiny wheelchair wheels!”
“I won’t be racing in my wheelchair. I’ll use my walker, just like you.”
“A walker race? Now this sounds interesting.”
“Interesting? I’ll show you who’s interesting. I’ll beat you fair and square.”
“You think so, Mordie? Do you want to bet on it?”
“A bet? Of course! Shall we say one hundred shekels?”
“That’s not enough, Mordie. Let’s raise the stakes and make it 150.”
“Okay, 150 shekels it is. Winner takes all.”
“When do you want to race? Right now?”
“No, not right now. I need to take my medicine,” Mordechai said.
“Already chickening out, are you?”
“Tomorrow morning. Seven o’clock sharp.”
“It’s a deal,” Spiegel said, sticking out his hand.
“A deal. Man versus man, walker versus walker. Seven o’clock tomorrow morning in the lobby.”
Spiegel laughed and began placing the pieces back in their box. Mordechai wheeled himself to the garden door. What had he gotten himself into? He hated his walker and was out of practice using it. Still, a challenge was a challenge. He would show Spiegel, once and for all.
When the State of Israel was established, three weeks after Mordechai’s eighteenth birthday, he put aside plans for a university education and donned a Palmach uniform instead. While he didn’t take part in any major battles, three of his classmates died in the line of duty. He attended their funerals, tears in his eyes, thinking of his friends’ ultimate sacrifice in the name of their country. He would find a way to contribute to the new state, he vowed.
A few years later, he began working in Israel’s fledgling defense industry, helping to manufacture ammunition and other weaponry for the Israel Defense Forces. Some months after that, he met Leora, discovering that she had a passion for folk dancing, just like him. The two married, bought an apartment in Jerusalem, and started a family.
Sarita was their second daughter. She lived closest to them and helped take care of Leora when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, much more than her siblings. Sarita was the one who, despite his initial fierce objections, helped Mordechai settle in to his new apartment in Beit Gilboa. Unlike her sister and brother, Sarita visited him every Friday afternoon, and called at least three times a week.
“How was your Shabbat?” Sarita asked when she phoned on Saturday night.
“The same as any other Shabbat,” Mordechai replied, holding the phone out at a distance to read the screen, to see which daughter he was talking to.
“Did you go outside? It was a lovely day.”
“Yes, of course. I sat in the garden.”
“What about chess? Did you play against Spiegel? Who won?”
Mordechai didn’t want to discuss the game, but then his eyes went wide with delight when he remembered his challenge to Spiegel.
“We’re going to have a race!”
“Yes, to see who’s the fastest. I’m sure I can beat him.”
“Abba, what are you talking about?”
“Tomorrow morning at seven o’clock, a race against old man Spiegel in the halls. Man against man. Walker against walker.”
“Abba, that’s ridiculous!”
“I’ll show him, once and for all.”
“You can’t race around Beit Gilboa.”
“And why not? Everyone will be interested in seeing such a race. It’ll be a huge event, the most exciting thing the residents have ever seen.”
“First of all, the management of the home would never allow it.”
“The management won’t know anything about it.”
“You’ll just get in everyone’s way.”
“Everyone will be cheering us on!”
“Abba, you’re in a wheelchair.”
“So what? The race will be with walkers.”
“What about your health?”
“What about my health?”
“You’re 85 years old. You’re in no shape to run through the halls.”
“And Spiegel’s in any shape to run?”
“You’re insane, Abba. Do I have to miss work and show up there at seven in the morning to keep you from doing something so foolish?”
“Of course not,” Mordechai said, smiling to himself. “You can watch the race on television.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Nothing, just a joke.” Mordechai knew he still had his sense of humor, even if others didn’t always find what he had to say all that humorous.
“Abba, should I be worried?”
“No need to worry, Sarita. I’ll be just fine.”
He hung up the phone and prepared for bed. Mordechai knew he’d be just fine, just as he knew he could easily outrun Spiegel. What did he know about Spiegel, anyway? The man was maybe a few years older than Mordechai, or he could be a year or two younger—not that it mattered. Mordechai seemed to recall hearing that Spiegel had worked with the Foreign Ministry, maybe he’d been posted overseas for some time. Perhaps Spiegel had spoken of his past, but Mordechai couldn’t recall any important details. His memory was at a premium and he didn’t need to waste it on the minutia of Spiegel’s life.
The next morning, Mordechai pulled his walker out of the closet, where he kept it hidden from sight. It had a lightweight silver frame and his granddaughter Shira had attached green tennis balls to its back legs. Some of the home’s residents had rollators, with hand brakes and a built-in seat; Mordechai felt they looked ridiculous. Stopping for a rest in the middle of a hallway, just like that. A sign of old age, incapacity.
Mordechai rarely used his walker because he felt it made him look weak, a bit feminine. Real men didn’t use walkers, he told himself. Wheelchairs were much more comfortable. You could wheel yourself around, or you could live a life of luxury with someone else wheeling you around. Much more stylish than the shaky frame of a walker.
He opened his apartment door, locked it behind him, and made his way down the corridor to the lobby. To his surprise, it was already quite crowded at the early hour. Word of the impending race had spread through Beit Gilboa like wildfire. Frail Mrs. Levinstein put down her knitting and smiled at him, while widowed Eleanor Cohen leaned forward in her chair, clutching a handkerchief to her breast. Silver-haired Smadar Amadi stood to the side, her blouse buttoned incorrectly as usual. And there were others as well—a couple that had recently moved into the apartment vacated by an elderly gentleman who had passed away after a long battle with a disease whose name Mordechai couldn’t pronounce. Some other single women and a few men. All of them regarding Mordechai’s approach with a mix of curiosity, wonder, and shock.
The red-haired woman looked up from her spot behind the front desk, wondering why so many of the home’s residents were in the lobby before seven in the morning. Mordechai tried, but failed, to recall her name. He was sure it would come to him.
As he continued down the hall, he was glad to see that Sarita was not there. Obviously, his daughter hadn’t believed him when he said he was going to have this race. He knew she cared for him deeply, and worried about him all the time, but he didn’t need her to interfere with what he had planned.
The only person missing, Mordechai noted, was his competition. It was nearly starting time, and Spiegel was nowhere to be seen. Was his neighbor from across the hall going to be a no-show? Would Mordechai win the race by default? That would accomplish nothing, he thought, because the entire purpose of the race was to prove to Spiegel that he was better than him. Faster.
“I’m coming!” Spiegel called out as he left his apartment and made his way down the corridor. “What, you think I wouldn’t show up to our race, Mordie? Ha! I could beat you even if I gave you a ten-minute head start. Move to the side so I can turn my walker around.”
“I’m so glad you could make it,” Mordechai said. “I wouldn’t take pleasure in beating you in this race if you weren’t here to see it.”
“It’s not often I see you with a walker,” Spiegel taunted him. “Is your wheelchair out of commission? I heard it squeaking yesterday. You should have someone look at it.”
“Enough already!” Mordechai said.
“And I like your sports shoes,” Spiegel commented in a further attempt to get Mordechai off track. “What are they, Nikes?”
“As if you know how to race,” Mordechai replied. “Look at those old sandals. When was the last time you cut your toenails?”
“Good morning, everyone,” announced Ahmad, one of the orderlies who worked at the home. The dark-skinned Arab from East Jerusalem stood in front of Mordechai and Spiegel and faced the crowd waiting at the sides of the lobby. “I have been asked to officiate at this race between two fine gentlemen from our home. Let me assure you, this will be an honest competition and I hope the best man wins.”
Ahmad moved aside and blew his whistle.
Mordechai had planned the route and explained it patiently to Spiegel, so that there would be no misunderstandings. Through the entrance hall and past the physical therapy room and the offices. Around the dining room, where Mordechai occasionally ate his meals, and across from the door to the garden, where he enjoyed sitting when the Jerusalem weather was pleasant. Alongside the doors of the individual apartments of Beit Gilboa. Down the corridor where Mordechai’s own apartment was located, across from where Spiegel lived. And then back to the lobby.
Both of them knew the route because they knew the home like they knew the back of their hands. It was not the length of their course that mattered. All that mattered was who finished first.
Mordechai was off to an early lead. He pushed his walker ahead arduously, surprised that it was a struggle to make the effort. Nothing like riding in his wheelchair, where strength in his arms determined his speed. Now, everything depended on his legs, legs that hadn’t been exercised in years. He hadn’t run a race like this since, well, since he was a student in pre-State Jerusalem.
As much as Mordechai was out of shape, the effort was even more strenuous for Spiegel. Mordechai could hear his neighbor huffing and puffing, his walker clacking on the tiled floor. Although Spiegel had much more experience using a walker, he was not in good health. Racing through the halls was not something that Spiegel was up to.
Mordechai smiled. He would beat Spiegel by a kilometer, if not more. He would show Spiegel once and for all who was the better runner, the fastest, the best.
They turned the corner and pushed past the doors of the dining room. Inside, Mordechai spotted the breakfast crew cleaning up after the residents who paid for their meals. Everyone liked to get up early in the home, Mordechai realized, even him. But he preferred eating by himself. Why pay for meals if you could prepare your own?
“Am I too fast for you, Spiegel?” he called out as they neared the garden door. He glanced back and saw Spiegel pause for breath near the dining room. Mordechai slowed down, and then came to a full stop. When he saw Spiegel start moving again, quicker than before, Mordechai turned around and picked up speed. One foot and then another. Using a walker wasn’t all that bad after all, he thought.
As he headed down the corridor where his apartment was located, he could already hear cheering in the lobby. The crowd was going wild, he thought. The finish line was just ahead; victory was at hand. He should receive a gold medal when he won. He would be the champion.
If only Leora could see him now, in his moment of triumph. She would be so proud of him, he thought. So proud that he was capable of winning this race, and at his age! He would dedicate his win to her, think of her when he held his medal up in the air and acknowledged the applause, the standing ovation that awaited him.
Mordechai turned the last corner, entered the home stretch. Just ahead he could see frail Mrs. Levinstein waving her hands at him. Widowed Eleanor Cohen moved forward, trying to get a better view. Silver-haired Smadar Amadi was shaking, but it wasn’t clear if it was because of her Parkinson’s or if it was because of her excitement.
Only a few meters more, Mordechai said to himself. He pushed his walker forward, urging it onward faster and faster. But then he heard a noise behind him. He slowed down, stopped, and looked around the corner he had just turned.
Out of sight from those waiting in the lobby, Spiegel clutched his chest, and strange sounds escaped his throat. He was precariously balanced on his walker and then, almost in slow motion, he fell to the floor and landed loudly on his side.
Mordechai glanced toward the lobby, at the cheering crowd. None of them could see Spiegel lying on the floor. The man was struggling for breath, it seemed, but the strangest thought went through Mordechai’s mind. Spiegel must be faking it! Afraid of letting Mordechai win, he was pretending to have a heart attack, anything to prevent Mordechai from finishing first.
“Come on!” Ahmad called out to Mordechai, seeing that the front runner had paused. “You can do it,” shouted Eleanor Cohen. Except for the red-haired woman from the front desk, who had a cross look on her face, they were all encouraging him to keep going, to make it to the lobby, to finish the race.
Mordechai went back up the corridor and around the corner to where Spiegel lay on the floor, his collapsed walker beside him. Mordechai thought he would find the man dead, but surprisingly Spiegel was breathing easier than before, although his hand gripped a twisted ankle.
“Are you okay?”
“Of course, I’m okay, Mordie,” Spiegel said, his voice getting stronger with each word. “I’m sorry I’m not as fast as you, that I didn’t let you finish the race, that you didn’t win.”
“Winning is not that important,” Mordechai said, balancing on his walker. “I thought you were dying!”
“Dying? Seriously? Did you think I’d beat you to the grave?”
“That’s the only race you’d win,” Mordechai joked. “Let’s forget about our stupid bet. Can you get up? Do you need help?”
“Here comes Ahmad,” Spiegel said, shifting his body to lessen the pressure on his ankle. “I’ll be alright. Promise me one thing, Mordie?”
“Let’s stick to chess!”
“Sure, because I’m ahead of you by 235 wins to 175,” Mordechai said.
“Are you kidding?” Spiegel replied. “I’m ahead of you by 345 wins to 210!”
“Ha, hardly likely!” Mordechai said sharply, but then, seeing Spiegel on the floor, his competitive spirit eased. “Don’t forget, we’ve had all those draws. Our chess skills are almost equal. Winning is not that important. It’s playing the game that counts.”
Ahmad helped Spiegel to his feet. Frail Mrs. Levinstein; recently widowed Eleanor Cohen; and silver-haired, Parkinson’s-shaking Smadar Amadi went back to their regular Sunday morning activities, Mordechai returned to his apartment. He didn’t like using the walker. It made him feel weak, almost feminine. He preferred his wheelchair, although he would need to have someone check its squeaking wheels. He would speak to the red-haired woman at the front desk about that. Zehava. That was her name!
Ellis Shuman is an American-born Israeli author, travel writer, and book reviewer. His writing has appeared in The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, and The Huffington Post. He is the author of The Virtual Kibbutz, Valley of Thracians, and The Burgas Affair. His short fiction has appeared in Isele Magazine, Vagabond, The Write Launch, Esoterica, Ariel Chart, Jewish Literary Journal, and other literary publications. Ellis lives with his wife, children, and grandchildren on Moshav Neve Ilan, outside Jerusalem. You can find him at https://ellisshuman.blogspot.com/