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Timothy Kenny

DEATH IN TEL AVIV

Of the three old men in the locker room only one is wearing pants, no shirt. The other two, also gravity’s victims, sit hunched and naked on a low wooden bench, towels raped.

The man wearing pants is listening, waiting his turn.

“He told me his wife died a few months ago and he still couldn’t get over it,” says one of the naked men, probably in his seventies. He sits like a younger man, with his forearms across his knees, head down. “He said he was just lonely all the time now.”

Locker rooms morph into different places as the athletes who use them age. When the supply of close friends dwindles, the locker room gives rise to stories of loss, blurted secrets, tales of illness and army service, never war. Old men take long showers and dress without hurry. They talk like young men but have dropped the pretense of invincibility. They say things they would not have mentioned when their bodies still made testosterone.

Once a man with his left hand bandaged asked me how I was doing. We often used the locker room at the same time but had never spoken. “I’m good. How’re you doing?” I said, gesturing toward his hand.“Oh, I’m fine. This is nothing.” He paused. Then he said, “I’ve been in the hospital before. One time I had to have a couple of feet of my colon removed.

“The doctors put me in a coma for four days. When I came out of it I had terrible dreams, hallucinations. Bad stuff. Really evil stuff.” He is buttoning a shirt and says this in flat, emotionless voice.

“It’s surprising what my mind can come up with. Sometimes,” he adds, “they still happen. The dreams. Once in a while.”

He is a fit man with sandy hair who might be sixty. He shuts his locker door and looks at me. “I guess now I know what it’s like to be crazy,” he says, and walks away.

Old men in locker rooms talk about time, the ways in which it has brushed past them and the inevitability of its sudden withdrawal, which they anticipate but ignore.

The second man on the bench, also naked and probably seventy-five, leans against the locker behind him.

“When I was a boy,” he says, “my brother and I were sitting near the edge of my father’s bed. He was in the hospital. He was dying. My brother is older than I am. I was maybe seven or eight. I’m not sure.

“I remember my mother kept saying, over and over, ‘George, don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me.’ George was my father. That’s about all she said. But he did. He died right after she said that.”

His back pulls away from the metal locker when he sits up; it sounds like a kiss. He tugs a sock onto his right foot and leans back again.

The guy wearing pants, now fully dressed and about to leave, stops packing his gear. He’s holding a tee shirt in one hand.

“My father, he was a pretty strange guy,” he says. He knows we are listening but he’s not looking at anyone; he’s staring, unfocused, in the neighborhood of the showers a few feet away. I guess he’s in his middle eighties, with a crazy flourish of curly hair that is dark and white and sprouts along the sides of his head but skips the top. I have seen him walking slowly around the elevated track above the basketball court, usually wearing light blue jeans that look pressed and are pulled tight at the waist by a belt.

“My mother died first. She had cancer. I was 16. My father remarried, which I was glad he did. I always wanted him to be happy. I think he was. He was a pretty young man then, I guess. I always got along with my stepmother.

His story arrives oddly, in detached, disjointed sentences that sound unrehearsed, as if he had never told this tale out loud. He reaches down and stuffs his tee shirt into the bag and zips it, transferring it to his left hand.

“He always thought he would go first. He told me that a lot. But he didn’t. My mother did. So he got remarried and then he had a stroke. It wasn’t long after he got remarried he had this stroke. Which was a few months I guess after my mother died. I thought it was fine, really. I wanted him to be happy.

“My father had a stroke and he got better but not all the way. He never really got like he was before. He never recovered, really. He got some better, but he wasn’t the same after that.

“That’s when he started trying to kill himself.”

He turns around and opens the door to his locker, checking that it’s empty, giving the rest of us time to absorb what he has said. The three of us look at each other, startled.

“He tried different ways. He tried pills and poison, I think. I don’t remember all the ways he tried.

“Finally,” says the man, clearly the oldest person in the room, “he jumped off the second story balcony of our apartment. We lived in an apartment then. I guess he cut off the electricity to half of Tel Aviv. He hit a power line on the way down. That broke his fall. He didn’t die right away. He broke his hip and that’s what did it. That’s what killed him. He died a little while later because he broke his hip.

“But he didn’t want to burden her. That was what he said all the time. My stepmother. That’s what he told me, that he didn’t want her to have to take care of him. I guess he was a pretty strange guy.”

He’s done now and checks his locker once more to see if he has everything. “Well,” he says, “I’ll see you later” and leaves.

One of the naked guys looks up. “Geez,” he says, a whisper.

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Timothy Kenny is a former newspaper foreign editor, non-profit foundation executive and journalism professor. His narrative non-fiction has appeared in The Louisville Review, The Gettysburg Review, The Kenyon Review Online, Irish Pages  and the Green Mountains Review, among others.