Ornan was staring at his locker and muttering under his breath when I tossed my backpack onto the bench and felt for my keys in my pocket. I’ve had a bottom locker for years at the Jerusalem Pool, hard to see into but easy to pull my gear out of. He first showed up maybe a year and a half ago, when he was assigned a box in the middle-row to my right. He was tall and bony, with shiny, straight, dark hair that smelled of Head and Shoulders. A student, maybe, or just out of the army, from the look of him. He wore baggy trunks and swam badly, at least as far as style goes, raising his head out of the water each time his left hand swung up, splashing the surface with his palms. But, despite all my care with my stroke, he was much faster than I was. In the end, length and leanness of body wins out.
illustration by Avi Katz
It was hard for me to make out what he was muttering because I just then had a coughing fit. Some virus got me last week and whenever that happens I cough for two or three weeks after I get better. Even after I caught my breath I didn’t try to listen because Asher and Alfi, the two cab drivers who dress on the bench behind me, were joshing about a dispatcher. I like to listen to their banter. Ornan just stood there, not making a move to open his locker. Asher and Alfi went out to the sauna and by that time I was suited up and hanging my shirt up on one of the hooks on the wall. Over the heating system that filled the locker room with mildew air, I could make out Ornan’s voice: “I’ll kill him, I’ll murder him, I’ll stick a knife in his chest and slice down to his balls.” It seemed so out of character that I couldn’t help staring at him in surprise. He looked back and kept on muttering.
I was just about to ask him what the problem was when Asi suddenly straddled the bench and crossed over to stand between us. Like Asher and Alfi, he was gray at the temples and a bit pudgy from sitting in a car all day. But he was always in great spirits and fully of stories. Flashing a big smile, he twirled his keys on his index finger and used one of them to open the lock on Ornan’s locker. And he pulled out his gym clothes. Which was odd because his locker was on the bottom row of the bank by the door.
My throat got itchy and a second later I was bent over coughing again. Asi looked at me in alarm and asked if everything was ok. I got hold of myself, smiled, and waved my hand to indicate that it was nothing.
“You should have that checked out,” Asi advised. “You could suffocate.”
Ornan had stepped backward and stood, blocking the way to the toilets, in total silence. Finally he sputtered: “Where’s my stuff?”
Asi didn’t seem to hear. He patted his paunch and said to me: “I keep trying to run this thing off but there it is!”
Ornan repeated, more loudly: “Where’s my stuff?”
I jerked my head and raised my gaze to Ornan, to signal to Asi that he was being spoken to. Asi turned his head, looked Oran up and down, and went back to getting dressed.
“When I came here yesterday the locker was open and there wasn’t anything inside,” he told me. He frowned, took a plastic container of talcum powder off his top shelf and shook it, sending a cloud of flowery powder in my direction. “Alfi fingered it. He knew I’d been waiting for something here to open up. He said, no one’s using it, grab it while you can.”
“It’s my locker,” Ornan sputtered. “Where are my shoes? Where are my goggles?”
“Not a thing in it yesterday,” Asi told me. “Wide open. Why shouldn’t I take it?”
“You know it’s mine. You’ve seen me here,” Ornan protested.
Asi considered. He spoke to the locker itself. “Sure I have. But it was open. No lock. I figured you moved away, didn’t renew your membership. Happens all the time.” He snapped his lock shut, draped his towel over his shoulder, and walked out just as Asher and Alfi returned from the sauna.
“What’s eating him?” Asher asked me after glancing at the stewing Ornan.
Ornan placed himself in front of the disputed locker. “It’s mine, right? You’ve seen me here. Did you tell him to steal it?”
“Hey, slow down,” Alfi warned. “No one here’s a thief.”
Asher shrugged. “It was wide open. Nothing inside.”
“So where’s my stuff?”
“You mean someone took your stuff?” Alfi asked, in what seemed to be sincere surprise. He shook his head. “Must have been one of the Arab kids. Who else would break into a locker here?”
Ornan turned to face the locker, as if it were the Wailing Wall. “My running shoes. My bathing suit. My goggles. My shaver,” he intoned.
“You should tell the office,” Asher said.
“Not Asi’s fault,” Alfi observed. “He thought you had gone off somewhere. You know, people leave the pool without saying a word. Just disappear.”
Ornan shrugged and headed out to the office.
Asher wiped his sweat with a cheesy towel and pulling down his bathing suit.
“I mean, if I’d known he was still here, I’d have said something.”
“Looked like my six-year-old does when we tell her she can’t stay up to watch Master Chef,” Alfi said, heading toward the shower.
I was just about to head out to the pool when Ornan returned with Matti, the lifeguard who takes over at the office in the afternoon. Ornan, who had a pair of shoes and a bag in his hand, led him silently to the locker and pointed to it. Matti looked, shook his head, put his hand on his hips, and pondered. Then he went out.
“He gave me his shoes to use, and some clothes from the lost and found,” Ornan said glumly, but not quite as upset as he had been before.
When I got to the pool, I positioned myself in front of my favorite lane and took a deep breath of chlorinated air. That caused another coughing fit. Asi looked up from the plastic chair off to my left, where he was sitting and reading Yisrael HaYom.
“Go see your doctor!” he ordered.
I pointed. “That’s what I’m doing. He’s swimming in the next lane. Aren’t you going in?”
“I’m getting myself psyched up,” he laughed.
“So what’s the story with Ornan?”
“That kid? Hey, what am I supposed to do? Someone else has taken my old locker already. Am I supposed to get stuck without one?”
I shrugged. “I guess not.” He went back to his newspaper. “Well, I guess I’ll go in.”
Later, back in the locker room, as I was getting dressed, Asi walked in, stepped over the bench, and stopped short.
“What the hell!” he exclaimed. “I don’t like games like this.” And he stalked out. I heard shouting coming from the direction of the office.
In the meantime, Ornan came in, his borrowed t-shirt wet from the gym and smelling like it hadn’t been washed in weeks. He didn’t even look at me, just took out a key, unlocked the lock, and quickly changed without showering. Then he was gone.
Asi arrived, carrying a plastic bag with his clothes inside, just as I was about to leave. He had a big smile on his face and was shaking his head. He stripped off his bathing suit and wrapped his towel around his waist.
“I let him have his way,” he told me. “What a crybaby.”
“You seem to feel pretty good about it,” I said.
“Why shouldn’t I? What am I, an asshole? I let him have his way. It’s no big deal for me. I mean, he had tears in his eyes.”
I felt the scratchy feeling in my throat. I tried to hold the cough in, but it was no use.
“I just don’t like the sound of that,” Asi said, shaking his head.
“I’ll just go out and get some fresh air.”
Asi considered. “Fresh air is always good. But I’d still go to the doctor.”
I waved my hand and got control of myself. “Sometimes,” I volunteered, “a little fresh air is enough.”
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