Category Archives: Crime

MEET ME IN BAGHDAD AT SUNDOWN

An old, fragmented story, published here for the first time in its entirety.

dolan-air.com

Finally, at 11:50 on the clear desert night of February 26, his wife closes the door behind her and leaves the room. He re­mains motionless, sitting on the edge of the uncomfortable wooden chair, surrounded by semi-darkness, yet able to see through the narrow gap between the heavy curtains an airplane taking off from Amman International Airport. He could have been on that plane, Akef figures, on his way to London. Or maybe even to New York. And therefore to freedom. But instead, in exactly ten minutes, the black telephone – resting so ominously beside him on the small Arabian coffee table – would surely ring.

“Five rings, no more,” his wife Layla had said before she left to her bedroom (where he is no longer welcome). She urged him to stay put, and alert, before leaving him alone. On purpose she did that, tightening the noose she had already looped around his neck beforehand. Five rings – enough time for him to pick up the phone and confirm the deal. And seal his fate.

At the other end will be her father, his father-in-law, and the father of all the people of Iraq. He would fulfill, by speaking to him personally, the one condition Akef had set and vehemently demanded. He had stood his ground stubbornly like his old village mule, refusing to budge on that. He wanted to hear his familiar voice, not that of his son, his sworn enemy – the head of the Ministry of Internal Defense – and the leader of all the murdering squads. Akef will be able to deduce, he is still convinced of that, if her father would be lying to him; even without seeing his false, deadly smile. But, if Akef won’t pick up the telephone, if he will let it ring through – the deal will fall through as well, and he may never again see the sad old eyes of his mother; may never again kiss the full, warm lips of his mistress; may never again touch the hard, ancient ground of his beloved homeland.

It is now nine minutes before midnight, and the perfect time for him to light a cigarette. Enough time, he is sure of that, to smoke it all the way through before the telephone would ring. He feels how his whole life – past, present, and future – is crystallizing in this small Camel cigarette. An American cigarette it is, of course, yet depicting and selling the allure of the Arab world. The same cigarette he had smoked, he now shivers in remembrance, on that fateful morning, after he was jolted out of a ter­rible dream, covered with a blanket of cold sweat. In his dream, he was walking with Layla in the marketplace of Baghdad when suddenly – while she seemed to be gaining ground on him, chatting loudly with the other women there – someone touched his shoulder lightly. He halted and turned back, facing so very close to him her father: the Supreme Ruler himself. He smiled his big sinister smile at him, allowing the full effect of this shark-like smile to terrorize him for a long moment, before saying: “Meet me in Baghdad at sundown.”

And only after her father had turned and left, disappearing among the crowd at the marketplace like a phantom, that it became clear to Akef who in fact he was: The angel of death.

But as he kept lying in the big bed, awake and shivering with fear, careful not to wake up his wife – who slept peacefully beside him, oblivious to his tormented state of mind – he could’ve sworn that in his dream he was actually in Baghdad, in the marketplace, and couldn’t figure out this riddle. Yet it was then that the misty road ahead of him began to clear up, and together with the creeping morning light it dawned on him that the time had come for him to flee. He had to leave his beloved city behind, he felt certain of that, and head for the border.

Akef was, after all, the executioner of so many lives in Iraq. He had made his way to the top – heading the Ministry of External Defense – by stepping on countless corpses. He knew too well, and too much, to be easily fooled. And therefore, he was absolutely sure that the Great Executioner himself, who was, in fact, the one to order all these killings Akef had carried out, had decided already whose head would be cut off next: that of his son-in-law.

Akef takes a good, long drag on his cigarette, now at eight minutes before the expected, dreaded phone call. He then tastes for the first time the black Turkish cof­fee in front of him. Layla had prepared it for him, so considerate suddenly, after the much trouble and crying she had inflicted on him lately. But the taste of her coffee is still good, and unlike her, warm and strong. And she is right, he is forced to admit, she always was her father’s favorite daughter: the olive of his eye. And she knows him best, too. To her, she had said, he never lies. Nor ever will. All is forgiven, then, and the letter of remorse and unconditional surrender is accepted without conditions. Even her father – who danced merrily after so many funerals, those of his enemies and those of his friends, and who drank their blood as if it were but sweet wine – even he wouldn’t hurt his own daughter, his own flesh and blood, and his own grandchildren and their father. After all, he and Akef have been through so much together, at war and at peace. And if not for his snake-eating son, the cold-blooded murderer who would readily, if the opportunity were to present itself, kill his own father without a second thought, this whole sad affair – their defection to Jordan – would never have happened. As the son, Akef is sure of this, was the one to convince his father to get rid of him.

But now, Layla promised him, her father himself is losing all trust in his son and his days are numbered. She spoke with him by phone and got all the right assurances. As a matter of fact, her father had said, Akef is needed now more than ever before. His “baby” – the biological-bomb-for-mass-annihilation – is in deep trouble. Only Akef, by taking charge again of these mad scientists, can resurrect it now. At the same time, the damn Kurds are gaining ground again, up north. And who else if not her husband, so he had told her, would be able to suppress and eradicate them once and for all. And after that – Jerusalem!

And suddenly, at seven minutes to midnight, for the first time in these long six months of exile that Akef feels at peace with himself. He is almost happy it is all going to end pretty soon. Even the splitting headache that follows him everywhere and the deafening whistle in the core of his brain have mysteriously disappeared. He won’t be in need­ anymore of those amateurs who call themselves doctors, over there at the Royal Hospital of Amman. Oh no, he is confident again; he is ready for action; he is resolute once more. Most probably he will be able to sleep tonight, after the telephone conversation, for the first time in a long time. He won’t be surprised, even, if his wife will join him in bed. And just as he is thinking about that he feels – no, he is not dreaming – an erection coming on. It is a sign of life he hasn’t felt since leaving Baghdad. And it feels so good, oh Muhammad son of Allah, so normal again – even if, after the short moment of elation, it quickly wilts down.

He sucks on the cigarette as hard as he can when only six min­utes remain, then releases the rings of smoke as slow as possible. He promised in his agreement letter to reveal all the contacts he had made here in Amman, name all the names of the people he had met, and disclose all the places he had visited. He swore to reveal where they hide, all these traitors who call themselves patriots, the “sav­iors of the homeland.” They had called him a “war criminal” to his face, his hands still dripping blood of comrades, they had said. He will show them a pool of blood, an ocean in fact. They refused to name him their leader, refused to crown him the next king. Work with us, they had told him, here in the marketplace of the old city, here in the darkness of the narrow alleyways. Be one of us: a foot soldier. Then we shall see. But he wasn’t ready for that: then, now, or ever. He wasn’t, still isn’t, a foot sol­dier. He is a general! He will personally command the unit of brave men that will penetrate their ranks and kill them all. In one swift move. The same way he had used to cut wheat with his scythe, back at the village of his lost childhood and youth.

He now drinks the rest of the coffee in one quick gulp and, angrily, gets up at five minutes to midnight and crosses the room. He stands close by the window, in the shadow of the cold wall, and looks outside at the lights of the majestic city of Amman. The smooth desert breeze, which plays so gently with the curtains, takes the cigarette smoke away into the dark Arabian night. Maybe it will reach the old king, so safe and cozy in his big palace, and he too will smell it. He remembers the spacious rooms with the high ceilings; he remembers the comfort of soft chairs and large beds, and he remembers the servants. Thinking about it, he is boiling with rage all over again at the old desert hawk, who after a while had removed him and his family from the palace, away from the hills overlooking the old city, and moved them down here into this crummy apartment on the way to the airport. He will pay heavily for that one day, the king. When Akef – so isolated and poor now, deprived of rank and dignity, without any troops to command – would be the ruler of Baghdad, the ruler of the desert and the ruler of the whole Middle East.

He bitterly throws the butt of the cigarette out the window, doubt­ful of his own grandiose schemes and illusions. His eyes follow the tiny red sparkle as it parachutes down onto the street, wondering whether that is to be his fate as well. He prays for the telephone not to ring as of yet, and turns back quickly to find the green electronic digits of the clock signal that, mercifully, four minutes still remain.

He retreats back into the room and, though he doesn’t feel any ur­gent need to use the bathroom, he steps inside anyway and turns on the light. He looks at the mirror, where he finds a stranger staring back at him. And then – so unexpectedly, and for no apparent reason – he smiles. Most probably, it is his first smile since his arrival here at Amman. He looks straight into his own tired eyes and wonders why this silly smile has appeared so suddenly on his face. And then, with the sharpness of a knife slicing clear water, he realizes what a fool he was, and still is: a fool to believe in false promises, a fool to trust the wolf to squat quietly beside the lamb. He knows now that he has lied to himself as of late. He knows, as well as he knows these dark brown eyes of his staring back at him, that the “Butcher of Baghdad” – as the papers in the west had labeled the Supreme Ruler – will eat him alive. How can he of all people, Akef Abd al-Aziz, believe in this fairy-tale of a deal? How can he, with all his experience and knowledge, even for a minute deceive himself that his fate, with ab­solute certainty, would be any different from the fate of the lamb: a quick and brutal death. The shark will close his jaws the moment he, his biggest fish yet, will enter his mouth. A shark is a shark, after all. It’s in his nature. His own wife would be ordered to spit on his head (he had seen that happened once to a close friend) when the fa­vorite son will bring it to the table on a silver platter. And she will obey, of course she would. And will watch without protest how the crown prince will dig out her husband’s eyes (he had seen that happened, too), and how he will throw his tongue to the dogs.

He turns off the light and steps back into the living room, realizing that only three minutes remaining before the dreaded telephone would start ringing. What should he do, then, if the picture is so bleak and so clear? And if the picture is indeed so, why is he still pacing the small room so ner­vously to and fro? Why is he so restless, so indecisive? Is it because he is afraid he would be left alone, without his wife and children? Or is it because he will soon run out of money?

He is unable to find satisfying answers to these troubling questions. Helplessly, he drops down heavily on the hard chair, while his mind is drifting towards the American option. He is certain, though, that he will end up in jail there, accused of  “crimes against humanity.” And as for London, or any other major city in Europe, it will be more dangerous than even here. The gang of murderers will be after him day and night. They will get him in the end, he knows that for certain, just as they got to all the others. They will pee on him, then cut him to pieces. And if that is to be his fate, well then, he would rather die in his homeland.

Only two minutes remain before midnight when Akef thinks about the two women in his life. His wife, who in fact had encouraged him to leave Baghdad, is no longer on his side. She is on her father’s side. She can’t live for long without all the amenities and privileges she was accustomed to since childhood. It is like second nature to her now. And all the promises and vows to stick by him no matter what, to kill herself if he would be killed – are worthless. He is certain of that. Ab­solutely worthless. She begs and cries and terrorizes him constantly with her quest to go back. She is ready even to sleep with him again, like in the good old days when he, not her brother, was the chosen heir to the throne. And this willingness on her part is a sure sign, above all else, that something is wrong here. Very wrong.

And at the same time he knows, with the same certainty but with­out any proof to support it, that the one real woman in his life, his young mis­tress – is dead already, a victim of gang rape and brutal mutilation. (Recorded on videotape, no doubt, for the enjoyment of his enemies.) He was allowed to keep her only because everybody else – upon reaching a cer­tain position of dominance and influence – was allowed, required al­most, to do so. It was a sign of maturity and power, a privilege of sorts. But it was, still is, no secret; as there are no secrets at all in this barbaric, if modern regime.

He longs for her so much, misses her so terribly, but at the same time he knows deep inside his heavy heart that it is futile: she is in a different world already.

And it so happens that when only one minute remains till mid­night, Akef still can’t decide what he is going to do when the telephone would finally ring. He finds himself caught between the hammer and the anvil, as the elders used to say back in his village, and can’t see a way out of it. But, as he looks with dismay at the peaceful, yet so menacing black instrument, and then stares fearfully at the electronic clock, as if trying to prevent it from moving forward, he suddenly thinks about Allah: the one and only God. He must put his trust in Allah, and in his son Muhammad, to guide him out of this dark tunnel. After all, Allah is the real Supreme Ruler, and in his name he did all those terrible things he was forced into doing. He just obeyed the damn orders, anyway; he was always an obedient servant. And suddenly – as if it were not so much by his own volition, but rather he is forced into it by a power much greater than himself – he falls to the floor and puts his head on the rug in the direction of the window, and hopefully Mecca. His eyes, however, are full of tears; he is praying silently for forgiveness and guid­ance, for…

The telephone rings while Akef is praying and catches him by surprise. He raises his head from the rug and glares at it, just when it rings for the second time. He crawls on the floor towards it and stops by the small coffee table, as the third ring sounds. He then raises his hand above the telephone, hesitating still, his mouth dry like the mouth of a dead man, when it rings for the fourth time. It is as if Akef didn’t expect this call at all, as if he didn’t anxiously wait­ for the telephone to ring for the last ten minutes, the last six months – since that terrible dream in Baghdad. Or, as a matter of fact, waited for it his whole life.

His wife, Layla, picks up the receiver on the fifth and final ring. He did not hear her opening the door, nor did he see her coming in. But now, as she stands above him smiling, reminding him of her father more than ever before; it seems so right, so befitting, so natural – the telephone cord resembling a hanging rope – that she would be the one to hand him the receiver. He takes it from her, his hand shaking heavily, even though he knows with absolute certainty who, carrying what message, is waiting for him at the other end: The angel of death, instructing him to meet him in Baghdad at sundown.

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Phantom John

The short story ‘Phantom John’ is an excerpt from my novel ‘Very Narrow Bridge.’ It was posted here back in 2014 in eight parts. Now, for the first time, the complete story is published below.

jordanmfriedman.wp.com

The train that brought Joy Plummer to Washington, D.C., entered Union Station on time at 1:37 p.m. on Wednesday, March 9, 1988. It was a cloudy, cold, but a rainless day so far. Joy’s state of mind, though, a mixture of low anxieties and high expectations, was not altered by the weather. Her inner weather was mostly sunny and warm.

She was grateful to the elderly couple, especially to the woman, who’d woke her up earlier and handed her the book, which had fallen to the floor. She was thankful because it was close to noon already, and while she was drinking the cup of coffee the elderly man had kindly given her, she had a chance to see some of the countryside: the view of Maryland and the view of the Capital from afar, getting closer.

She thanked them again when they got off the train and thought, as she watched them walking ahead toward the exit, hand in hand, how nice it would be to find such love. And grow old together this way, so in tune with each other.

Like the size and the beauty of this train station, which so overwhelmed her at first, she couldn’t even move. A luxury she could ill afford, as time was of the essence that day, and she didn’t want to waste any of it. Not even on food and drink, or on anything else, like going to the restrooms. The place though, a large, impressive mall, was crowded with opportunities. But not for her, and not today, she had to get out and find the Vietnam Veterans Memorial; find her father’s name on that wall. Which will become then, in her eyes at least, his grave.

A grave, however, needs flowers. So she bought a bouquet of a dozen red roses. She had enough money on her, due to the generosity of her mother, who had opened a bank account in her name back in Springfield, which helped facilitate this trip.

She bought a map, too, as she wanted to be independent, and not dependent on others for directions. She wanted to remain in her zone, alone in her bubble, and be self-contained as much as possible. The map was great, and gave her all the necessary info about the city, the Capital Beltway, and all the Monuments and Memorials. Including – most importantly – the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Everything she wanted to know about the memorial was there. Especially a line that she memorized as she walked along Constitution Avenue: “Its black granite walls are gritblasted with the names of more than 58,000 who gave their lives or who remain unaccounted for.” “… who remain unaccounted for,” she kept saying to herself again and again.

She was shocked by the huge number, 58,000, and didn’t exactly understand what the word “gritblasted” meant. But she didn’t let that, or the amazing sight of the Capitol, or all the other beautiful buildings, distract her from her goal. Nor did she let the cold air, or the many people coming and going, interfere with her march. The steady march of a grown, mature woman. No longer a waif; a runaway kid; a loose and confused teenager; an easy lay; an airhead. No – a determined person now. Not yet complete, though; in search of the one thing that would make her complete.

That one thing was waiting for her over there, she believed, not so far away. Where she first saw the white, imposing building of the Lincoln Memorial, the president of all presidents. And then, after she’d already passed the Constitution Gardens, it was there suddenly, as if buried in the ground. So black, so simple, yet so different from everything else around it. Causing her to halt her march, her heart aching with fear.

But she overcame her fear like the true warrior she sought to be, and approached the wall with a steadfast walk. And right away, among the crowd of strangers, she spotted the elderly couple from the train. They were standing still by one of the black panels, hugging each other, the head of the woman leaning on the shoulder of the man, his arm around her waist. United in grief.

A thought had crossed her mind in a flash: maybe, just maybe, they are his parents. Her grandparents. Why not? She would find out in a minute. So she hurried to join the few people waiting quietly in line beside a man, a Vietnam Vet, holding a thick book in his hands. She figured he could help her. And even though most of the people ahead of her, unlike her, were not by themselves, she didn’t feel lonely at all. Maybe because of the elderly couple, and maybe because of the folded piece of paper in her windbreaker’s pocket, which she now pulled out and unfolded. And read, not for the first time since she’d left her new home yesterday morning.

She read the name: Raymond De Rosi. And read the date of his death: February 11, 1969. And read the force: U.S. Marine Corps. It was written in her mother’s clear, round handwriting. The last thing Joy had asked her to do yesterday morning before Ursula rushed out with Trent, taking him to school and then ahead for her first day back at work. She didn’t tell her mother why she needed her to write it down, despite her mother’s protests.

It was a secret, her own little secret, now within reach. Maybe that’s why she didn’t mind waiting in line, and didn’t mind the dark clouds, either. It seemed appropriate, the way the clouds encircled the black wall, making it less distinguishable, but at the same time, strangely enough, more prominent.

Even the white piece of paper in her hand was covered with a layer of gray, she noticed when she handed it over to the Vietnam Vet, who was wearing his army uniform, colorfully decorated with medals and stuff. He smiled at her, then flipped quickly through the pages of the thick book, full to capacity with names.

The process, she’d observed before, was rather fast and problems free. Not this time, though. The first sign that something might be wrong came when the Vietnam Vet halted his search and raised his eyes at her. Suspiciously, she thought. Or maybe it was all in her head, as right away he directed his eyes back to his book-of-names and continued his search.

Until he stopped altogether and handed her back the piece of paper. “Sorry, ma’am,” he said with a heavy Southern accent, “he’s not listed.”
“What d’you mean, not listed?” she almost shouted, refusing to take her note back.
“His name’s not on the wall,” he answered patiently.

Her heart skipped a beat. The color of her face, most probably, had changed dramatically. Because he looked at her more concerned now when he asked: “Are you sure, ma’am, about the spelling of his name?”
She nodded.
“Do you know anything else about his tour of duty, by any chance?”
“He was a marine. That’s all I know.”
“Good enough,” he said, unimpressed, and handed her back the piece of paper. “Go up to the information booth over there,” he pointed the way. “They might be able to help you better.”

She felt like arguing her case, but people were breathing hard on her neck, and she didn’t want to create a scene there. So up she went, past the black wall and toward the white Lincoln Memorial. She was oblivious to all, walking in a tunnel until she reached the lit window of the information booth at the end of it, where no one was waiting but her, of course: only she had trouble finding a name on the wall.

Troubles all over. Because even there, the woman behind the desk, computer and all, couldn’t find her father’s name listed anywhere. She even asked Joy to say the name loud and clear, and then searched again, looking for a Rossi with an extra s. To no avail, though: she marked something on a separate piece of paper and handed it to Joy, together with Joy’s own note.
“There must be a mistake somewhere. He’s not listed.”
“How…” Joy began saying, but couldn’t continue.
“I don’t know how, sweetie. Here’s the list of the dates on the panels. I’ve circled his date, February sixty-nine, panel thirty-three west, line thirty. Why don’t you look for his name there, all right?”

She smiled politely, but Joy couldn’t return the smile, even if what she’d told her to do presented a glimmer of hope. Her tunnel had just lost all source of light. And in it, Joy drifted down blindly, hovering between life and death, until she hit the wall again. Where she opened her eyes and read the inscription on the first panel: “1959 IN HONOR OF THE MEN AND WOMEN OF THE ARMED FORCES OF THE UNITED STATES WHO SERVED IN THE VIETNAM WAR. THE NAMES OF THOSE WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES AND OF THOSE WHO REMAIN MISSING ARE INSCRIBED IN THE ORDER THEY WERE TAKEN FROM US.”

“Who remain missing…” was all Joy could think of while searching for her father’s panel and line. But when she found it – he was still missing. She could not find his name among those who died, or remained missing, on that whole panel. Nor did she find his name written on the panel to the left. Or on the panel to the right. Or anywhere else on this big, black, threatening wall.

She wanted to weep for the dead – like everybody else did. She wanted to put flowers down under his panel – like everybody else did. She wanted to kiss his name – like everybody else did. But instead, how humiliating, she bumped into someone. A grieving stranger. And had to apologize, just as a sudden weakness in her knees, and a hard, knot-like sensation in her stomach, almost took her down to the ground.

She saw, behind a foggy screen, other people finding the names they were looking for. And she wanted – oh, how much she wanted – to be among them. She saw how they stuck flowers in the crevices, and small flags too, and she wanted to do the same. She saw how they lit candles, left notes and even dog tags, and how, using special papers and crayons, they rubbed the names of their loved ones onto those papers. She wanted to do that, too, as a personal memento. But she didn’t have a name on the wall.

Frantically, obsessively, she began to read all the names on the wall. Left and right. But soon felt hopeless. She couldn’t even see the elderly couple any longer. She was alone: no father, no grandparents, no one. She was so weak, she was afraid she was going to pass out. But she used to be an athlete, and remembered how to respond in a situation such as this one, and when to stop. So she managed to walk a short distance away from the wall, still holding the flowers, and under the first tree she found she dropped down to the ground.

She didn’t mind the wet, cold grass. She folded her legs up, put her arms around her knees and buried her head in her arms. She wanted to die, right then and there. Because the wall that heals, as she once heard it was referred to, didn’t heal her. Truth was, it opened a bigger wound inside her, causing her to bleed and cry. She was shaken like a leaf in the wind, receiving finally some help and sympathy from above. In the form of light rain, falling on her gently, its sound dissolving into her cry. Until suddenly, coming out of nowhere, she heard a voice asking: “Why you crying, child?”

She was certain she heard the voice only in her head. Still, she raised her teary eyes and saw, behind a silver screen of steady rain, only the black wall. But the strange, male voice, spoke again: “Want one?”

She turned her head sideways toward the voice and met two shiny, ebony eyes, and a black face covered partly by a rough beard, surrounded by long thin dreadlocks, growing out of a colorful knit cap on top of his head. He smiled at her, revealing missing teeth, as well as some brownish, rotten ones. A wet cigarette was defying gravity by hanging loosely on his broken bottom lip, fighting the falling rain at the same time.

He offered her one. His dirty, yellow-coated fingers, were sticking out of his torn woolen gloves. “C’mon, don’t go shy on me,” he said, blowing smoke into the cold, damp air.

She couldn’t resist, not at her present situation, him or the cigarette. And even though she’d stopped smoking before her reunion with her birth mother, and stuck with it as long as she was there in Springfield – vowing, in truth, not to smoke ever again – she took his filter-less Camel cigarette. And only when he leaned forward to light it for her, protecting the cigarette and matches from the falling rain, did she notice that he was sitting in a wheelchair.

It felt good, man, smoking again. Real good. Like finding an old friend. And it made her warm inside, too: the hell with her health. She’ll never win the gold medal anyhow, as she used to daydream in her early teens, in the eight hundred-meter dash at the Olympics. No, she won’t. She was ready to die, anyway. She was dead already: part of her, at least. So what’s the diff?
“The dead are dead.”

She looked at him amazed. Was he a mind reader or what?
His eyes kept staring at the black wall while he continued speaking: “Ain’t nothing you can do about it, kiddo. Learned that long ago.”

She inspected him now all over and noticed that he was wearing a windbreaker too, not unlike her own windbreaker. It was covered with army badges and stuff, though, ribbons of all kinds and colors. And other such things she knew nothing about.
“But his name’s missing,” she spoke for the first time. “It’s not on the wall.”

He took a long, lasting drag at his cigarette, then tossed it on the wet grass. It was still alive there, smoke spiraling up from it, when he spoke again: “He ain’t dead, then.”

He didn’t even look at her when he’d said that. His eyes remained fixed on the black wall. But not Joy’s eyes – they stared at him shell-shocked. She was unable to speak or move, while everything around her froze accordingly: the trees and the birds and the wind and the clouds and the rain and the people and the city. And time; certainly time.

“Watch your fag,” he said and pointed at her cigarette, which fell from her fingers down to the ground and was still smoldering in the grass. So she quickly stumped her foot on it, crushing it with her wet sneaker. And then, gathering some strength from this simple act, she turned back to him and asked: “What you mean?”
“What I mean what?”
“That he ain’t dead?”
He smiled at her and laid his hand gently on her arm.
“If he ain’t on the wall, child, he ain’t dead.”
She just stared at him. Dumbfounded.
“Ain’t missin’, either,” he said, reading her mind again. And as if realizing that he didn’t convince her yet, he added: “I’m an expert, child, believe me.”

But she was yet to believe him. Her birth mother was standing in the way. And then she heard him saying, “Who is he, anyways?”
“My father.”
“You never met him?”
She shook her head. “He died in Vietnam on February eleventh, sixty-nine. The day I was born. That’s what my mother told me.”
“She did?”
“Yes. He was…” she hesitated to use the word hero. “He got a medal, too.”
“What medal?”
“Of honor or something.”

He studied her for a moment, curiously.
“What else you know?”
She shrugged her shoulders. But then said, “He was a marine, nineteen when he died. Like I’m now. Never knew I was born, even.”
“His name?”
“Raymond De Rosi.”
He was quiet for a while, as if searching his memory. Finally, he shook his head and said, “Never heard of him.”
“So…”
“So he ain’t on the wall.”
“’Cuse me,” she reacted quickly, “you know all the names on the wall?”
He nodded, smiling.
“All fifty-eight thousand something?”
“That’s right,” he said, a hint of pride in his voice. “Used to help people there myself, there by the wall.”
“I see.”
“Tell you something else, though.”
“What?”
“If he ain’t on the wall, he ain’t dead.”
“You said that already.”
“Correcto, dear child, correcto. Because, you see, if he ain’t dead, he must be alive.”
“Alive?!…”
He smiled at her and said, “Facto, if you ask me, facto. Must be kicking dust somewhere.”

She turned her back to him and looked away from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, her eyes stopping on a visible part of the Reflecting Pool, where she saw a reflection of a pair of big dark eyes. As if someone, deep inside the pool, was staring back at her, his eyes crying for help. But Joy, in horror, raised her eyes away from this frightening sight and looked at the city. A city unlike any other city she’d ever seen. Even more foreign to her now than when she first arrived here. And if her wishes at that very moment were to be granted, then that thick layer of dark clouds would have fallen over this city. Over the memorials and the buildings. Over him and her. And it would have buried them and everything else underneath it.

Instead, she heard his voice again: “Come with me, my child.”
And although she didn’t turn her head yet, she saw him coming into view in front of her, spinning the wheels of his chair on the wet grass. He didn’t look back and she knew that he wouldn’t. Deep down, she figured, he was still a proud soldier. But something – inexplicable as of yet – lifted her up from the ground, backpack and all, and pushed her forward until she reached him, until she placed her hands on the back of his wheelchair; leaving behind on the grass only her bouquet of red roses.

The black soldier led her first to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, then to the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial Iwo Jima Statue, and on to Arlington National Cemetery, to a place he called “Missing Men Hill.” There, her hopes high, she saw rows upon rows of somber white stones, without bodies in the ground, he told her.

She searched for her father’s name under the pouring rain, but couldn’t find it. So she wheeled the black soldier back to the city, as it got darker and the rain – answering her earlier wish – was falling harder, burying everything with its fury, including him and her.

She didn’t care anymore what happened to her. She just pushed him apathetically into narrow streets and dark alleyways, places she wasn’t, of course, familiar with. Nor did she want to be familiar with. But she pushed him anyway, why not, until he told her to stop, as they were in front of a shabby-looking building. A homeless shelter maybe, a flophouse or something. She couldn’t tell.

“Got me a room here, child,” he said. “You’re welcome to stay the night with me.”
She looked away from the building and studied him with unsparing eyes.
“Ain’t gonna touch a finger of yours, don’t worry.”

She believed him. Because she believed in him – even if the whole world would’ve said she shouldn’t. That this was a trap: a place and a man she shouldn’t trust. But Joy – unfortunately, or maybe not – was an experienced girl. And knew her turf well, bad characters included. From her adoptive father to the track team coach, from the boys at school to the men on the streets of L.A., from the runaway kids to the patrons at the strip clubs. She knew them all and figured she could trust him. So she went in with him. Didn’t even pay much attention to the other strange-looking men there, in the lobby, staring at her. Ready to eat her alive.

No such luck. She and the black soldier reached safely his small room on the ground floor. Where the walls – all four of them, all over – were covered with army stuff: pictures of him and his buddies in the army, some of the soldiers with black marking-pen crosses over them; pieces of camouflaged uniform and a helmet with a bullet hole in it; boots and shells and cartridges; guns of all kinds and ammunition; a long machete; a skull.

He gave her a dirty, much-used towel to dry herself, which she accepted. And didn’t hesitate much before taking off her rain-soaked T-shirt, remaining topless for a minute while digging into her backpack for a dry one, then putting it on. He then offered her a shot of whiskey, which she rejected, but asked him if she can order a pizza for them. He said yes and she did: a combination of cheese and salami for him, an extra-large pepperoni for her. She insisted on paying when the pizza delivery man arrived, then made a cup of tea for herself in his tiny kitchenette.

She sat on his old, worn, dirty-looking couch, preying on the pizza and drinking her tea. While he, after testing some pizza, drank whiskey straight from the bottle and smoked pot. She smoked too, his Camel cigarettes, and zipped open her backpack and brought out her book. She wanted to forget everything; she wanted to know if Florentino Ariza, the hero, would ever again win the heart of Fermina Daza, the heroine. But she couldn’t read. All she saw were black pages with white letters etched on them. With only one name, top to bottom: Raymond De Rosi, Raymond De Rosi, Raymond De Rosi…

Meanwhile, the black soldier (whose name she was yet to learn) sat in his wheelchair, drinking and smoking. Beside him, on his one and only crowded desk, there was (among leftover food, old magazines, empty bottles, artifacts, and drawings) an old, small record player. On it a single record was spinning, again and again. She wasn’t familiar with the song, but kept hearing these words: “Bye bye Miss American pie.”

It was the longest song she’d ever heard. Yet he didn’t seem to have enough of it. Because at the moment the needle hit the end, he started it all over again, without missing a beat. It helped put Joy into a certain mood as well. She felt at ease, and drank some of his whiskey, too, hoping it will help her forget her father. But it didn’t. So she sat on the desk beside him and tried his pot, believing that it might help her forget. But it only made her dizzy, causing her to drop onto his lap, swinging between crying and laughing.

True to his word and loyal to a marine soldier he’d never met, he didn’t take advantage of her and of the situation, even though she was his for the taking. He wheeled his chair to the couch and gently laid her down there, then covered her with an old army blanket. He locked the door, took a rifle off the wall and charged it.

He then lit a thick candle, planted it in the middle of his messy desk, and flicked off the overhead light with the muzzle of his rifle. Then aimed it at the door.
“Go to sleep, my child,” he whispered. “I’m on duty tonight.”
And again, he started that same old record, easing her journey into dreamland, singing quietly along: “Bye bye Miss American pie.”

***

A pie in the sky. High above the white city. Above even the dark clouds. Higher and higher into clear blue skies. Into celestial territory. Like a bird on wings alone, floating in windless air. Until boom – a shot. A black wall. But falling through a white hole; swimming among red roses; floating in a sea of green grass; sucking in a lot of water. Rainwater. Unable to stop the drowning; falling straight into the bottom of the pool. Where someone – who? – caught her in his arms. And saved her, lifting her up like a baby.

Was it her father, who had saved her? No: it was the black soldier, touching her arm now ever so gently. It was morning already, and the time, he showed her on his wristwatch, was exactly 7:00. His shift, guarding her, was over. Though the rifle was still on his lap.

She shook her head when he asked her whether she wanted some coffee. As suddenly, time was important again. She was yet to fully comprehend why. But she was in a hurry, and needed to catch the train. How did he know to wake her up on time, she couldn’t tell. But she returned the favor and gave up on the idea of the taxi when he insisted on leading her to the station. As this part of town, he explained, was a dangerous place for a girl like her to be walking alone. Even the taxis were no good here, he said, hanging his rifle back on the wall. He then opened the door for her, and that when she noticed – was she still dreaming or what – a bullet hole in the door; which wasn’t there, she could swear, when she entered the room last night.

Outside, a new day greeted them with lucid blue skies. The rain had gone away, leaving everything in mint condition. And again, she pushed his wheelchair while he directed her and protected her all the way, a long way, to Union Station. Where he refused to go in with her: it was time for her to walk alone, and go home. And for him, it was mission accomplished. She was safe.

She hugged him and kissed him on his broken lips. And he held her hand long and strong.
“Be happy, child. Your father is alive.”
“How can you tell?”
“I’m an old dog in this game,” he cracked a smile. “And if anyone ever asks you how you know he’s alive, you just tell them because I told you so.”
“You told me so?”
“That’s right, my child. Phantom John told you so.”

And only after he’d said that he released his hold on her hand and turned his wheelchair around. And rolled away from there so fast, he was gone in a second. Disappeared like a morning breeze. Like smoke in the air. A phantom.

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The Messiah

Below is my entire short story, ‘The Messiah,’ published originally in ‘Sambatyon, a Journal of Jewish Writing.’ The story is in an excerpt from my novel, ‘Very Narrow Bridge,’ published in 2011. Enjoy.

The heavy rain, powered by gusty winds, made it very difficult on Gideon Gold to navigate his way to Beach Lane. Not that it would’ve been easy to locate on a normal, sunny day, since it was just an enclave of sorts; stuck, shapeless, between Main Street and the beach. Not far from where, luckily, he found a place to park by the curb.

He stayed in his car, watching hypnotically a narrow strip of gray ocean, thinking – as he was inclined to do whenever he watched the ocean, or at other unscheduled moments in time and place – of his life, and of home, and of the past and of the future. Longing for his apartment by the Mediterranean Sea, in Tel Aviv, where people spoke his language; where he showed some promise as a writer and filmmaker; and where he left so many beginnings unfinished.

He couldn’t comprehend, all of a sudden, what he was doing here in Santa Monica. He felt weakness in his stomach. A familiar feeling of dread, unreasonable dread, engulfed him like the sea. He couldn’t put his thoughts, in Hebrew, into words in English. He had no idea what he was going to say to Sid Landau, if he ever found him, and how he was going to explain to him his involvement in the mysterious disappearance of Raymond De Rosi and his daughter. He was his old self again: the consummate procrastinator. He was in trouble.

But trouble was Gideon’s current territory, his battleground – constantly triggering his memory. And he remembered, while apprehensively considering his next move, that there were certain situations, as a wise Jewish man once observed, when one had to break into the fortified city through the sewer tunnels. King David, he followed this line of thought, took a similar step with the water tunnels when he first captured Jerusalem. That’s how he remembered it, anyhow, from his bible lessons in the kibbutz. And remembering these things – even if their exact meaning was not yet entirely clear to him – helped Gideon and encouraged him to continue. Reenergized, he got out of his car, leaving his hesitations behind.

Ahead of him stretched a narrow-paved path, which led to the “Santa Monica Studios Complex,” and kept going straight in the middle of the lawn, splitting in half two rows of small bungalows. On the wall of the first one, being used as a laundry room, Gideon saw an old, over-used public telephone stuck on the wall, surrounded by graffiti. And on the next door, number two, above the mailbox slot, he found the name he was looking for: LANDAU.
He rang the bell once and waited. Then rang a second time and waited even longer.

He rang a third time, too, thinking of retreating and trying later, since the rain was still at it, and he was – true to form, as if a Californian by birth – without an umbrella. He already turned to go, cursing to himself, when the door opened suddenly and he found himself facing a pudgy man in his late twenties, standing behind a rusty screen door. He wore shorts and a dirty sleeveless shirt, holding an open, half-full bag of potato chips in his hand. He looked at Gideon with watery eyes and said nothing, chewing a potato chip loudly.

“Good morning,” said Gideon, “I’m looking for Mr. Sid Landau.”
“Who are ya?”
“Ah… he doesn’t know me. I’d like a word with him.”
“Why?”
“I’d rather explain it to him myself, if he is around,” said Gideon, and felt an itch in his arm, urging him to punch this mutant right on his fat mouth. Instead, he just added: “I’m not from the IRS, I can assure you.”
“Who is it, Ben?” a shouting voice came from somewhere deep behind the dark doorway.
“Donno,” Ben shouted back. “Wants to talk to ya.”
“I can hear an accent,” the voice kept shouting.
“Yeah, a bit.”
“Ask him where from.”
“Israel,” Gideon shouted back, deciding to cut a corner here, or he’ll never meet the owner of the voice inside.
“Israel…” the voice cried, “let him in, Ben, what you waitin’ for. The Messiah has arrived!”

And with these words, toned firmly as an order, Ben didn’t have a choice but to clear the doorway. Allowing Gideon, who opened the screen door himself, to break through him and face the darkness inside.
“Come here, young Israeli,” Gideon heard a voice calling him and made his way toward it.

What helped him was a large television set showing a video film, on pause now. It threw its blue light on the old man, who was seated in a wheelchair opposite the screen, his legs covered with a blanket. He was completely bald, wore thick eyeglasses but his face – in spite of his advanced age and apparent discomfort – radiated vitality. He stretched his hand.
“I’m Sid Landau. Take me with you.”
Gideon shook the old man’s hand, finding it determinedly strong.
“I’m Gideon Gold. Where to?”
“To Israel, dammit. Where else can the Messiah take me?”
“I’m not the Messiah, Mr. Landau. I’m–”
“Drop the bloody mister, all right!” ordered Sid. “Told you my name, didn’t I?”

Gideon decided to play the situation cool here and go with the flow, instead of against it; which was, usually, his immediate inclination.
“You sure have,” he said.
“Good. Take a seat, then. Movie’s free.”
“I’d rather stand, if you don’t mind,” said Gideon, who by then got accustomed to the semi-darkness and could see no chair around him; just piles of cloths, old newspapers and magazines, books and empty pizza boxes. The TV set and the VCR looked rather new, though, with plenty of videotapes on both sides of the set and on the floor around Sid. And, to top it all – looking like the real deal, in spite of a heavy blanket of dust – an Oscar statuette standing on the TV set, supporting a few movie scripts.

“Please yourself,” said the old man. “So stubborn, you must be a sabra.”
“I’m a double-sabra, actually.”
“A double-sabra… never heard of that one before.”
“Not only I was born in Israel, but in a kibbutz. That’s why.”
“A kibbutznik, I see. What brought you to this meshuga land, then?”
“A woman, naturally. Some dreams, too.”
“Big mistake, Gideon, big mistake. On both accounts.”
“You’re telling me.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” said Sid and hit a button in his remote control. The screen came alive with the sound and picture of war. From, Gideon identified right away, Stanley Kubrick’s film: Full Metal Jacket.
“If you’re not taking me to Israel, Gideon, to your kibbutz,” continued Sid, disregarding the film’s noisy soundtrack, “what the hell are you doing here in my digs, ha?”
“I’m looking for Mr. Raymond De Rosi. I thought–”
“Raymond who?”
“De Rosi. He worked with you in the Film Processing Department at Quality Labs.”
“Is that a fact?”
“I think so.”
“Forgot everything about that bloody place, Gideon. Still there, is it, on Lake Street?”
“Apparently so,” said Gideon, who was suffocating in this small, un-air-conditioned studio apartment, with all the windows closed.

“I was a film producer once, Gideon, you know. I lived in Beverly Hills.”
“I have no doubt about that, Sid,” said Gideon, somewhat doubtful; giving the Oscar statuette another look, though.
“So don’t treat me like shit. Hear me?”
“I hear you well.”
“Good. What happened to Ray?”
“I don’t know. He disappeared.”
“Disappeared… don’t tell me that. No one disappears, Gideon. You either lucky enough to be dead, or unlucky to go on living. No two ways about it.”
“You disappeared once, Dad,” shouted Ben, who was sitting at a small table in an open kitchen area, very much a part of the room, still eating his potato chips. “Remember the IRS?”

“Shut up, Ben, adults are talking now,” the old man raised his voice. Then lowered it, addressing Gideon while putting the film on pause again.
“Couldn’t they help you over there, at the bloody labs?”
“They don’t know a thing,” Gideon replied, happy to get his investigation back on track. “He
quit his job one day, out of the blue. Left no address, no telephone number. Nothing.”
“Good for him. I knew he had it in him.”
“You knew?”
Sid nodded, then said: “Old soldiers are like old dogs, Gideon, they never die. Were you in the Israeli army?”
“Sure.”
“Sure what, where?”
“Paratroops. Here and there.”
“No kidding. I was in Korea, man. What a bloody war.”
Gideon was tempted to ask him about his legs, immobile under the blanket, but thought the better of it.
“And Ray was in Vietnam, right?”
Sid nodded, suspiciously. “Is that why you’re looking for him, some old army business?”
“No, not at all. I was hired to find him. Family business.”
“What are you, a private dick or something?”
“Kind of. My first case here in America, actually.”
“I see… an immigrant trying to make a buck.”
Gideon nodded.

“What’s in it for me then?”
Good question, as far as Gideon was concerned. And the first sign that Sid knew, maybe, something concrete.”
“Name your price, Mr. Landau.”
“Now he’s talking,” shouted Ben from his corner, where he was busy watching a portable TV
set, resting on the kitchen counter. “Finally talking.”
“Shut up, Ben. What you watching?”
“Gilligan’s Island.”
“Then watch it and be quiet. I’m not going to take any money from an Israeli soldier.”
“Why not?”
“I’ve got principles, that’s why.”

His son answered that by filling his mouth with air, then punching his blown-up cheeks with both fists, producing a fart-like noise.
“Do you believe, Gideon, that I’m a man of principles?”
“I sure do.”
“Then you’re my man, son. Do you have anything from Israel that you can give me?”
“What: pictures, books, records?”
“No, I’ve got plenty of those. What else do you have?”
Gideon looked around, feeling caged – no escape in sight.
“An Ozi or two will do,” suggested Ben.
Gideon stared at him coldly and shook his head. But then he remembered something, and spoke before he had the chance to give it a second thought.
“I have some soil from Israel, actually, if–”
“Soil!” cried the old man.
“That’s right. From my father’s garden, in the kibbutz.”
“Then bring it over, son, on the double. I need it for my grave.”
“You’re crazy, Dad,” shouted the real son, “he’ll go out and dig some dirt outside. How can you–”
“Shut up, Ben, how many times I have to tell you,” said the annoyed father. “He’s not like you and me, got it? He’s an Israeli, born and bred. A kibbutznik, no less. A double-sabra. They don’t cheat over there. Right, Gideon?”
“Right,” confirmed Gideon, who was not about to dispute – not at that moment, anyhow – the old man’s idealized notion of his birthplace.
“So go home, young man, and bring me soil from the Holy Land. A place I will never see in my own dying eyes.”

Gideon felt the need to say an encouraging word here, but was afraid he would just aggravate the situation even more by doing so. So he retreated to the door and opened it, allowing a flood of bright sunlight to wash this dark cave. The rain was gone, it seemed, unforeseen as when it suddenly had arrived.

“You’ll get some valuable information about Ray in return,” promised Sid.
“Good. It will take me two hours or so. I live in the Valley.”
“In the Valley… what on earth for?”
“I’m a Valley Boy, Sid, I was born in the Jordan Valley. I guess I will die in a valley.”
“Suit yourself. I’m not going anywhere, as you can see,” said the old man and tapped lightly on his knees. “Bring with you a Supreme Combo pizza, too, with everything on it. If you don’t mind.”
“Sure thing.”
“And a six-pack of Miller Light,” shouted Ben from his corner, just before Gideon closed the door.

***
Gideon felt guilty when he opened the door to his apartment. He was about to hand over to a complete stranger the jam jar his father had given him before he left Israel, containing the dark brown soil – darker than anywhere else in the world, Gideon was convinced – he dug out from his garden. No wonder Gideon was remorseful. Even though he was certain that his father, not a young man himself, would’ve urged him to go ahead with it, had he known about it. What’s the problem, he would probably have said, I have enough soil in my garden.

Not only that. Gideon was planning on taking his son Daniel to Israel next Passover. And now, with some extra cash in the bank, he considered it a done deal. Which meant, quite obviously, that he would be able to fill as many jars, with as much soil from his father’s garden, as he could possibly take back with him. Maybe he’d open a business upon his return: “Soil from the Holy Land.” Why not. This is America, after all. Opportunity Land. And the business of America, as the cliché goes here, is business.

But the final argument that convinced him to reach for the jar, without demur, and take it to the dark cave with him, was this: His father, when he gave him the jar of soil, gave it to him for a reason. For a purpose. In the hope that somewhere, someday, someone might be in need of it. And what need could be greater than the need to please an old, bitter, ready to die Jewish man, who lost the hope of ever visiting Israel? Indeed, what better Mitzvah?

***
The door opened rather quickly this time, and Ben Landau grabbed the pizza and beers from Gideon’s hands without saying a word. He took it all to the kitchen table, filthy with leftovers, and dived right into it with the urgency of a man, if not that of a beast, who hadn’t eaten in the last two months.

His father, on the other hand, took the jar of soil with trembling hands and opened it. He put his index finger into it, gently as he could, and stirred the soil for a moment. Even smelled it. He then raised his index finger to his lips and kissed it, before setting his teary eyes on Gideon.
“I’m glad I’ve met you, Gideon.”
“So am I, Sid.”
“God sent you to me, I know that,” he said and recapped the jar carefully. Then turned his attention to his son, raising the jar.
“You see this jar, Ben?”

His son nodded, mouthful of pizza, still watching the portable TV.
“First thing to go into my grave, the soil. Right on my coffin. You hear me?”
“Sure dad, don’t worry,” said Ben and opened a can of beer. “Do I ever forget anything at the store, or the pharmacy, or the bloody video place? Do I?” He lifted the beer to his mouth, before his father could answer.
“No, you don’t,” said Sid quietly, as if talking to himself, his eyes caressing the jar of soil a while longer, before turning his attention back to Gideon.

“Now what about Ray. What happened to him?”
“He disappeared, apparently.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“He quit his job at the labs one day, as I told you. He no longer lives where he used to. Left no contact information. No trace at all.”
“It’s a free country, man, the last I heard.”
“Not when you kidnap your teenage daughter, then it’s not. Her mother–”
“A daughter!” exclaimed Sid in utter disbelief. “Don’t tell me that please. Just don’t tell me that!”

“That’s what Ray said, too, when he first heard of her existence.”
“Ha… strange,” said the old man, scratching his head. “Kidnapping his own daughter… something’s fishy here.”
“Exactly,” said Gideon, trying to capitalize on the momentum created by his latest revelation. “When was the last time you heard from him?”
“Oh, no way I remember that,” said the old man. “We were buddies only at the labs, see. No more than that. He had no friends, you know. Never mentioned women, either.”
“He was a fruitcake!” volunteered Ben from his corner.
“Don’t think so myself,” said his father.
“Did he use to go anywhere on vacations?” persisted Gideon. “Anyplace you may know of?”
“Of course. Catalina Island.”
“Catalina Island…”
“That’s the place, Gideon. Like clockwork he went there, every year.”
“At what time?”
“In the fall, I believe. October probably.”
“Where did he stay there, do you know?”
“Let me think,” said the old man and wrinkled his sweaty forehead. “He told me once.”
“Maybe a slice of pizza would help jump-start your memory,” suggested Gideon.
“Sure, son, sure,” said Sid gladly. “And a can of beer to keep it running.”

Gideon was happy to do that, as there was no sign whatsoever that Sid’s own son, still eating and drinking, would help him anytime soon in this regard.
“Did he like it there, in Catalina?” asked Gideon after Sid was already busy with the slice of pizza he’d handed him.
“Like it, man, you must be kidding. He adored the place, even planned to retire there.”
“Are you serious?”
“Never been more serious in my life. He used to hike there all over the place. Though he was wounded in Nam, did you know that?”
“Yes. He won the Medal of Honor, too.”
“No shit!” Sid blurted out so loud, pieces of pizza came flying out of his mouth.

Gideon nodded calmly.
“The bastard. Never told me a thing about it.”
“Did he tell you whether he stayed there in a hotel, or–”
“Inn,” the old man cut him short, “I can remember now. The Inn on mount something.”
“Mount something…?”
“Mount Ada, that’s it. Positive,” Sid reassured himself, as well as Gideon. “ Eat some pizza,
Gideon, it’s good for you.”
“No thanks,” said Gideon. He took out of his pocket a small pad and a pen – the way he saw detectives do in so many films he admired – and wrote the info down.
“That’s all the valuable information you have for me, Sid, I take it?”
“That’s all she wrote, man. He was a piece of work Ray, told you. No women, no drinking, no nothing. And now you’re telling me he won the Medal of Honor. I’ll be dammed.”

He hit the play button on his remote and soon the mayhem and noise of the Vietnam War, as depicted so aptly in Kubrick’s film, was on again. And the attention of the old man drifted toward the television screen, leaving Gideon no option but to drift himself toward the door, saying:
“I wish you good health, Sid.”
“Don’t say that, Gideon. Death is sittin’ on my nose already, staring back at me all the time.
Don’t you see it?”

Gideon shook his head, feeling for the doorknob while eyeing Ben, still drinking beer and watching the portable TV. He opened the door, sending a last inquisitive look at the Oscar statuette, contemplating a discussion about it before leaving.
“Shalom friend,” said the old man and raised the jar of soil, shaking Gideon out of his contemplations. “I knew you’re the Messiah the moment the bloody door opened. You’ve made my day, son.”
“Same here,” said Gideon – his voice sad, much more than the simple words could convey –and closed the door.

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The Messiah

Below is the last segment of my short story, ‘The Messiah,’ published originally in ‘Sambatyon, a Journal of Jewish Writing.’ The story is in an excerpt from my novel, ‘Very Narrow Bridge,’ published in 2011. Enjoy.

“Are you serious?”
“Never been more serious in my life. He used to hike there all over the place. Though he was wounded in Nam, did you know that?”
“Yes. He won the Medal of Honor, too.”
“No shit!” Sid blurted out so loud, pieces of pizza came flying out of his mouth.

Gideon nodded calmly.
“The bastard. Never told me a thing about it.”
“Did he tell you whether he stayed there in a hotel, or–”
“Inn,” the old man cut him short, “I can remember now. The Inn on mount something.”
“Mount something…?”
“Mount Ada, that’s it. Positive,” Sid reassured himself, as well as Gideon. “ Eat some pizza, Gideon, it’s good for you.”
“No thanks,” said Gideon.

He took out of his pocket a small pad and a pen – the way he saw detectives do in so many films he admired – and wrote the info down.
“That’s all the valuable information you have for me, Sid, I take it?”
“That’s all she wrote, man. He was a piece of work Ray, told you. No women, no drinking, no nothing. And now you’re telling me he won the Medal of Honor. I’ll be dammed.”

He hit the play button on his remote and soon the mayhem and noise of the Vietnam War, as depicted so aptly in Kubrick’s film, was on again. And the attention of the old man drifted toward the television screen, leaving Gideon no option but to drift himself toward the door, saying:
“I wish you good health, Sid.”
“Don’t say that, Gideon. Death is sittin’ on my nose already, staring back at me all the time.
Don’t you see it?”

Gideon shook his head, feeling for the doorknob while eyeing Ben, still drinking beer and watching the portable TV. He opened the door, sending a last inquisitive look at the Oscar statuette, contemplating a discussion about it before leaving.

“Shalom friend,” said the old man and raised the jar of soil, shaking Gideon out of his contemplations. “I knew you’re the Messiah the moment the bloody door opened. You’ve made my day, son.”
“Same here,” said Gideon – his voice sad, much more than the simple words could convey –and closed the door.

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The Messiah

Below is the sixth segment of my short story, ‘The Messiah,’ published originally in ‘Sambatyon, a Journal of Jewish Writing.’ The story is in an excerpt from my novel, ‘Very Narrow Bridge,’ published in 2011. Enjoy.

“You see this jar, Ben?”
His son nodded, mouthful of pizza, still watching the portable TV.
“First thing to go into my grave, the soil. Right on my coffin. You hear me?”
“Sure dad, don’t worry,” said Ben and opened a can of beer. “Do I ever forget anything at the store, or the pharmacy, or the bloody video place? Do I?” He lifted the beer to his mouth, before his father could answer.

“No, you don’t,” said Sid quietly, as if talking to himself, his eyes caressing the jar of soil a while longer, before turning his attention back to Gideon. “Now what about Ray. What happened to him?”
“He disappeared, apparently.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“He quit his job at the labs one day, as I told you. He no longer lives where he used to. Left no contact information. No trace at all.”
“It’s a free country, man, the last I heard.”
“Not when you kidnap your teenage daughter, then it’s not. Her mother–”

“A daughter!” exclaimed Sid in utter disbelief. “Don’t tell me that please. Just don’t tell me that!”
“That’s what Ray said, too, when he first heard of her existence.”
“Ha… strange,” said the old man, scratching his head. “Kidnapping his own daughter… something’s fishy here.”
“Exactly,” said Gideon, trying to capitalize on the momentum created by his latest revelation. “When was the last time you heard from him?”

“Oh, no way I remember that,” said the old man. “We were buddies only at the labs, see. No more than that. He had no friends, you know. Never mentioned women, either.”
“He was a fruitcake!” volunteered Ben from his corner.
“Don’t think so myself,” said his father.
“Did he use to go anywhere on vacations?” persisted Gideon. “Anyplace you may know of?”
“Of course. Catalina Island.”
“Catalina Island…”
“That’s the place, Gideon. Like clockwork he went there, every year.”
“At what time?”
“In the fall, I believe. October probably.”
“Where did he stay there, do you know?”
“Let me think,” said the old man and wrinkled his sweaty forehead. “He told me once.”

“Maybe a slice of pizza would help jump-start your memory,” suggested Gideon.
“Sure, son, sure,” said Sid gladly. “And a can of beer to keep it running.”
Gideon was happy to do that, as there was no sign whatsoever that Sid’s own son, still eating and drinking, would help him anytime soon in this regard.
“Did he like it there, in Catalina?” asked Gideon after Sid was already busy with the slice of pizza he’d handed him.

“Like it, man, you must be kidding. He adored the place, even planned to retire there.”
“Are you serious?”
“Never been more serious in my life.

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Messiah

Below is the fifth segment of my short story, ‘The Messiah,’ published originally in ‘Sambatyon, a Journal of Jewish Writing.’ The story is in an excerpt from my novel, ‘Very Narrow Bridge,’ published in 2011. Enjoy.

Gideon felt guilty when he opened the door to his apartment. He was about to hand over to a complete stranger the jam jar his father had given him before he left Israel, containing the dark brown soil – darker than anywhere else in the world, Gideon was convinced – he dug out from his garden. No wonder Gideon was remorseful. Even though he was certain that his father, not a young man himself, would’ve urged him to go ahead with it, had he known about it. What’s the problem, he would probably have said, I have enough soil in my garden.

Not only that. Gideon was planning on taking his son Daniel to Israel next Passover. And now, with some extra cash in the bank, he considered it a done deal. Which meant, quite obviously, that he would be able to fill as many jars, with as much soil from his father’s garden, as he could possibly take back with him. Maybe he’d open a business upon his return: “Soil from the Holy Land.” Why not. This is America, after all. Opportunity Land. And the business of America, as the cliché goes here, is business.

But the final argument that convinced him to reach for the jar, without demur, and take it to the dark cave with him, was this: His father, when he gave him the jar of soil, gave it to him for a reason. For a purpose. In the hope that somewhere, someday, someone might be in need of it. And what need could be greater than the need to please an old, bitter, ready to die Jewish man, who lost the hope of ever visiting Israel? Indeed, what better Mitzvah?

***
The door opened rather quickly this time, and Ben Landau grabbed the pizza and beers from Gideon’s hands without saying a word. He took it all to the kitchen table, filthy with leftovers, and dived right into it with the urgency of a man, if not that of a beast, who hadn’t eaten in the last two months.

His father, on the other hand, took the jar of soil with trembling hands and opened it. He put his index finger into it, gently as he could, and stirred the soil for a moment. Even smelled it. He then raised his index finger to his lips and kissed it, before setting his teary eyes on Gideon.

“I’m glad I’ve met you, Gideon.”
“So am I, Sid.”
“God sent you to me, I know that,” he said and recapped the jar carefully. Then turned his attention to his son, raising the jar.

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The Messiah

Below is the fourth segment of my short story, ‘The Messiah,’ published originally in ‘Sambatyon, a Journal of Jewish Writing,’ in 2006. The story is in an excerpt from my novel, ‘Very Narrow Bridge,’ published in 2011. Enjoy.

“And Ray was in Vietnam, right?”
Sid nodded, suspiciously. “Is that why you’re looking for him, some old army business?”
“No, not at all. I was hired to find him. Family business.”
“What are you, a private dick or something?”
“Kind of. My first case here in America, actually.”
“I see… an immigrant trying to make a buck.”
Gideon nodded.
“What’s in it for me then?”
Good question, as far as Gideon was concerned. And the first sign that Sid knew, maybe, something concrete.”
“Name your price, Mr. Landau.”
“Now he’s talking,” shouted Ben from his corner, where he was busy watching a portable TV set, resting on the kitchen counter. “Finally talking.”
“Shut up, Ben. What you watching?”
“Gilligan’s Island.”
“Then watch it and be quiet. I’m not going to take any money from an Israeli soldier.”
“Why not?”
“I’ve got principles, that’s why.”
His son answered that by filling his mouth with air, then punching his blown-up cheeks with both fists, producing a fart-like noise.
“Do you believe, Gideon, that I’m a man of principles?”
“I sure do.”
“Then you’re my man, son. Do you have anything from Israel that you can give me?”
“What: pictures, books, records?”
“No, I’ve got plenty of those. What else do you have?”
Gideon looked around, feeling caged – no escape in sight.
“An Ozi or two will do,” suggested Ben.
Gideon stared at him coldly and shook his head. But then he remembered something, and spoke before he had the chance to give it a second thought.
“I have some soil from Israel, actually, if–”
“Soil!” cried the old man.
“That’s right. From my father’s garden, in the kibbutz.”
“Then bring it over, son, on the double. I need it for my grave.”
“You’re crazy, Dad,” shouted the real son, “he’ll go out and dig some dirt outside. How can you–”
“Shut up, Ben, how many times I have to tell you,” said the annoyed father. “He’s not like you and me, got it? He’s an Israeli, born and bred. A kibbutznik, no less. A double-sabra. They don’t cheat over there. Right, Gideon?”
“Right,” confirmed Gideon, who was not about to dispute – not at that moment, anyhow – the old man’s idealized notion of his birthplace.
“So go home, young man, and bring me soil from the Holy Land. A place I will never see in my own dying eyes.”
Gideon felt the need to say an encouraging word here, but was afraid he would just aggravate the situation even more by doing so. So he retreated to the door and opened it, allowing a flood of bright sunlight to wash this dark cave. The rain was gone, it seemed, unforeseen as when it suddenly had arrived.
“You’ll get some valuable information about Ray in return,” promised Sid.
“Good. It will take me two hours or so. I live in the Valley.”
“In the Valley… what on earth for?”
“I’m a Valley Boy, Sid, I was born in the Jordan Valley. I guess I will die in a valley.”
“Suit yourself. I’m not going anywhere, as you can see,” said the old man and tapped lightly on his knees. “Bring with you a Supreme Combo pizza, too, with everything on it. If you don’t mind.”
“Sure thing.”
“And a six-pack of Miller Light,” shouted Ben from his corner, just before Gideon closed the door.

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The Messiah

Below is the third segment of my short story, ‘The Messiah,’ published originally in ‘Sambatyon, a Journal of Jewish Writing,’ in 2006. The story is in an excerpt from my novel, ‘Very Narrow Bridge,’ published in 2011. Enjoy.

“Please yourself,” said the old man. “So stubborn, you must be a sabra.”
“I’m a double-sabra, actually.”
“A double-sabra… never heard of that one before.”
“Not only I was born in Israel, but in a kibbutz. That’s why.”
“A kibbutznik, I see. What brought you to this meshuga land, then?”
“A woman, naturally. Some dreams, too.”
“Big mistake, Gideon, big mistake. On both accounts.”
“You’re telling me.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” said Sid and hit a button in his remote control. The screen came alive with the sound and picture of war. From, Gideon identified right away, Stanley Kubrick’s film: Full Metal Jacket.
“If you’re not taking me to Israel, Gideon, to your kibbutz,” continued Sid, disregarding the film’s noisy soundtrack, “what the hell are you doing here in my digs, ha?”
“I’m looking for Mr. Raymond De Rosi. I thought–”
“Raymond who?”
“De Rosi. He worked with you in the Film Processing Department at Quality Labs.”
“Is that a fact?”
“I think so.”
“Forgot everything about that bloody place, Gideon. Still there, is it, on Lake Street?”
“Apparently so,” said Gideon, who was suffocating in this small, un-air-conditioned studio
apartment, with all the windows closed.
“I was a film producer once, Gideon, you know. I lived in Beverly Hills.”
“I have no doubt about that, Sid,” said Gideon, somewhat doubtful; giving the Oscar statuette another look, though.
“So don’t treat me like shit. Hear me?”
“I hear you well.”
“Good. What happened to Ray?”
“I don’t know. He disappeared.”
“Disappeared… don’t tell me that. No one disappears, Gideon. You either lucky enough to be dead, or unlucky to go on living. No two ways about it.”
“You disappeared once, Dad,” shouted Ben, who was sitting at a small table in an open kitchen area, very much a part of the room, still eating his potato chips. “Remember the IRS?”
“Shut up, Ben, adults are talking now,” the old man raised his voice. Then lowered it, addressing Gideon while putting the film on pause again.
“Couldn’t they help you over there, at the bloody labs?”
“They don’t know a thing,” Gideon replied, happy to get his investigation back on track. “He
quit his job one day, out of the blue. Left no address, no telephone number. Nothing.”
“Good for him. I knew he had it in him.”
“You knew?”
Sid nodded, then said: “Old soldiers are like old dogs, Gideon, they never die. Were you in the Israeli army?”
“Sure.”
“Sure what, where?”
“Paratroops. Here and there.”
“No kidding. I was in Korea, man. What a bloody war.”
Gideon was tempted to ask him about his legs, immobile under the blanket, but thought the better of it.

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The Messiah

Below is the second segment of my short story, ‘The Messiah,’ published originally in ‘Sambatyon, a Journal of Jewish Writing,’ in 2006. The story is in an excerpt from my novel, ‘Very Narrow Bridge,’ published in 2011. Enjoy.

“Good morning,” said Gideon, “I’m looking for Mr. Sid Landau.”
“Who are ya?”
“Ah… he doesn’t know me. I’d like a word with him.”
“Why?”
“I’d rather explain it to him myself, if he is around,” said Gideon, and felt an itch in his arm, urging him to punch this mutant right on his fat mouth. Instead, he just added: “I’m not from the IRS, I can assure you.”

“Who is it, Ben?” a shouting voice came from somewhere deep behind the dark doorway.
“Donno,” Ben shouted back. “Wants to talk to ya.”
“I can hear an accent,” the voice kept shouting.
“Yeah, a bit.”
“Ask him where from.”
“Israel,” Gideon shouted back, deciding to cut a corner here, or he’ll never meet the owner of the voice inside.
“Israel…” the voice cried, “let him in, Ben, what you waitin’ for. The Messiah has arrived!”

And with these words, toned firmly as an order, Ben didn’t have a choice but to clear the doorway. Allowing Gideon, who opened the screen door himself, to break through him and face the darkness inside.
“Come here, young Israeli,” Gideon heard a voice calling him and made his way toward it.

What helped him was a large television set showing a video film, on pause now. It threw its blue light on the old man, who was seated in a wheel¬chair opposite the screen, his legs covered with a blanket. He was completely bald, wore thick eyeglasses but his face – in spite of his advanced age and apparent discomfort – radiated vitality. He stretched his hand.

“I’m Sid Landau. Take me with you.”
Gideon shook the old man’s hand, finding it determinedly strong.
“I’m Gideon Gold. Where to?”
“To Israel, dammit. Where else can the Messiah take me?”
“I’m not the Messiah, Mr. Landau. I’m–”
“Drop the bloody mister, all right!” ordered Sid. “Told you my name, didn’t I?”

Gideon decided to play the situation cool here and go with the flow, instead of against it; which was, usually, his immediate inclination.
“You sure have,” he said.
“Good. Take a seat, then. Movie’s free.”

“I’d rather stand, if you don’t mind,” said Gideon, who by then got accustomed to the semi-darkness and could see no chair around him; just piles of cloths, old newspapers and magazines, books and empty pizza boxes. The TV set and the VCR looked rather new, though, with plenty of videotapes on both sides of the set and on the floor around Sid. And, to top it all – looking like the real deal, in spite of a heavy blanket of dust – an Oscar statuette standing on the TV set, supporting a few movie scripts.

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The Messiah

Below is the first segment of my short story, ‘The Messiah,’ published originally in ‘Sambatyon, a Journal of Jewish Writing,’ in 2006. The story is in an excerpt from novel, ‘Very Narrow Bridge,’ published in 2011. Enjoy.

The heavy rain, powered by gusty winds, made it very difficult on Gideon Gold to navigate his way to Beach Lane. Not that it would’ve been easy to locate on a normal, sunny day, since it was just an enclave of sorts; stuck, shapeless, between Main Street and the beach. Not far from where, luckily, he found a place to park by the curb.

He stayed in his car, watching hypnotically a narrow strip of gray ocean, thinking – as he was inclined to do whenever he watched the ocean, or at other unscheduled moments in time and place – of his life, and of home, and of the past and of the future. Longing for his apartment by the Mediterranean Sea, in Tel Aviv, where people spoke his language; where he showed some promise as a writer and filmmaker; and where he left so many beginnings unfinished.

He couldn’t comprehend, all of a sudden, what he was doing here in Santa Monica. He felt weakness in his stomach. A familiar feeling of dread, unreasonable dread, engulfed him like the sea. He couldn’t put his thoughts, in Hebrew, into words in English. He had no idea what he was going to say to Sid Landau, if he ever found him, and how he was going to explain to him his involvement in the mysterious disappearance of Raymond De Rosi and his daughter. He was his old self again: the consummate procrastinator. He was in trouble.

But trouble was Gideon’s current territory, his battleground – constantly triggering his memory. And he remembered, while apprehensively considering his next move, that there were certain situations, as a wise Jewish man once observed, when one had to break into the fortified city through the sewer tunnels. King David, he followed this line of thought, took a similar step with the water tunnels when he first captured Jerusalem. That’s how he remembered it, anyhow, from his bible lessons in the kibbutz. And remembering these things – even if their exact meaning was not yet entirely clear to him – helped Gideon and encouraged him to continue. Reenergized, he got out of his car, leaving his hesitations behind.

Ahead of him stretched a narrow-paved path, which led to the “Santa Monica Studios Complex,” and kept going straight in the middle of the lawn, split¬ting in half two rows of small bungalows. On the wall of the first one, being used as a laundry room, Gideon saw an old, over-used public telephone stuck on the wall, surrounded by graffiti. And on the next door, number two, above the mailbox slot, he found the name he was looking for: LANDAU.

He rang the bell once and waited. Then rang a second time and waited even longer. He rang a third time, too, thinking of retreating and trying later, since the rain was still at it, and he was – true to form, as if a Californian by birth – without an umbrella. He already turned to go, cursing to himself, when the door opened suddenly and he found himself facing a pudgy man in his late twenties, standing behind a rusty screen door. He wore shorts and a dirty sleeveless shirt, holding an open, half-full bag of potato chips in his hand. He looked at Gideon with watery eyes and said nothing, chewing a potato chip loudly.

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