My short story, Calculated Moves—the second-place winner of the 2021 ‘Moment-Karma’ short fiction contest—has been published in Moment Magazine (founded by Elie Wiesel in 1975), both in print and online. The story, “Calculated Moves,” is a timely exploration of aging, COVID, memory and loss.
But first, below is what the contest’s final judge, the author Susan Coll, wrote about the story, and then my reflections on her verdict.
“Calculated Moves is the poignant, affecting story of aging in the time of COVID. The protagonist, an elderly occupant of a Jewish retirement center, believes he has become part tree. Resentful of his son and daughter-in-law for forcing him to move into this new living arrangement after observing his forgetfulness, as well as a recent fall, the narrator considers his new home an asylum, self-identifying as an inmate rather than a resident. His struggles with the onset of dementia blend lyrically into the realm of magical realism, creating a moving and memorable story.”
Naturally, I’m inclined to agree. I particularly like, and would explore here a little, the definition of ‘magical realism’ in the context of this story. Because ultimately, that’s what I’ve tried to do: inject some magic into the dreadful reality of the coronavirus pandemic we were—still are, to a degree—facing. Especially at the onset of this plague, it was so, before we had vaccinations and some norm of control over the spread of the disease. Indeed, it had turned our lives upside down in the most ruthless, unexpected ways. And that, in part, is what I’ve tried to convey in this story.
I’m a great admirer of the late, Nobel Prize-winning Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez, specifically his novels One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, both of which I’ve read twice, in Hebrew and in English. And so, it’s a great honor and compliment for me to be attributed this praise, ‘Magical Realism,’ in the context of my short story. After all, it’s a definition and an art form that Márquez is widely regarded as the modern inventor of.
Throughout the process of writing, Love in the Time of Cholera was on my mind in particular, and for obvious reasons. Even those of you who haven’t read this magnificent novel yet can infer from its title the said connection. And so, whether as a young man you are consumed madly by love, or as an old man you are eaten away by regrets, depression, and the onset of dementia, the horror and seclusion of a global pandemic manage to highlight and heightened your ailments.
And yet… one has to find a way to keep going. To keep the struggle to the end. To not only stay the course, stay alive, but maybe find some extra meaning still, some pure magic in the heavy burden of reality. And in your own life, too. Which is what—without giving too much of the story details away here, since I hope you’ll read it, and would certainly like to hear your thought about it—I tried to do both in my life in the time of corona, and in the life of the hero of this story.
An old, fragmented story, published here for the first time in its entirety.
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.
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.
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.
Below is the final segment of ‘The Mysterious Texture of Memory,’ a new short story—based, however, on my award-winning short memoir, the ‘Sweet Life.’
But the need to find out the meaning of the words in the film’s title remained. And so was the need to learn the name of the actress I’d fallen in love with on the roof that night. It would take some years, though, before I would find that out. Not before graduating from high school; not before serving in the army’s paratroops brigade (jumping was my thing, I concluded); not even after returning to the kibbutz and working for a year in its grapefruit orchards. Where it so happened that driving a tractor on the summer road one hot day, I heard an inner voice calling on me, instructing me to leave the kibbutz, conquer the world and find that woman.
My first stop was the big city of Tel Aviv. And it was there, in a small art-house cinema theater that I joined an all-night retrospective and discussion of Fellini’s films. Among them, of course, La Dolce Vita: The Sweet Life. Starring Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg.
I never met her at the end. I never made it big enough as a filmmaker. And though I’d made some films and had met some film stars, our roads had never intersected. And then she died. Just like my two friends, both of them dead now. And even though when I’d left the kibbutz—a backpack with some clothes on me, some change jingling in my pocket, the rhythm of the wheels beating the open road piercing my heart—I hadn’t heard yet of the saying about the world being a book, about the need to travel if one wants to read more than one page; innately, I knew what I had to do.
But now, as I keep staring bleary-eyed at the old picture of Anita Ekberg on my laptop’s home screen, I’m baffled still by the mysterious texture of memory. How it comes and how it goes. How hard it is sometimes to decipher its meaning. And yet, I’m thankful to her for tempting me to leave my birthplace. No regrets now, or almost none, in my old age. Because if life is but a fleeting moment, then that was my moment: Lying there on the roof under the bright stars, a sprinkler raining cold water on me, the people of my beloved village lying on the grass below while she—a woman of celluloid dreams—was having fun under the fountain.
So no regrets now, in my old age, for being tempted by her to leave my birthplace. Well… maybe some regrets. Especially on my walks by the river bank, where on the meandering horse trail, beneath my feet, I can still feel the ground of those narrow dirt paths of my home village. As if I never left.
Below is the seventh segment of ‘The Mysterious Texture of Memory,’ a new short story—based, however, on my award-winning short memoir, the ‘Sweet Life.’
I wished it were me down there, under the fountain with that mythical goddess. This fabulous creature from Rome, or elsewhere in Europe. Or from the moon, smiling on me knowingly from above. I didn’t know women like her, looking so unearthly, even existed. Or could exist. Blood was shooting madly through my body, from my heart to my head and down. I fell in love with her right then and there, not knowing her name, and forgetting all about Nechama, my elementary school teacher.
Maybe that was the reason why—a strong, sudden infatuation, feeling so very hot—I welcomed at first the shower of cold water raining hard on me. It made me feel as if I were down there with her, under the fountain. Problem was: though it was a hot early summer, the nights were still rather chilly. I was wet down to my bones soon, shivering madly, while up on the screen the man took the half-naked woman away from the fountain in his flashy sports car.
At the same time, my hold on the tin roof got slippery, and I felt myself sliding down despite all my efforts to hold on to my blanket. Not only I fell in love that night, but I fell from the roof as well, since the rope and carrots’ box had inexplicably disappeared. My coward friends, the schmucks, had taken with them all evidence when they fled.
Or the man who’d turned on the sprinklers had done that. Either way, I half jumped down, half fell from the roof, twisting my ankle badly when landing. And as I limped up to my class-house by the mountain, where King Saul and his son Jonathan spilled their blood fighting the Philistines, I left behind a trail of blood of my own, gushing down from my wounded chin. Worst of all: my wet winter blanket—my initials imprinted on it, sewed with a red thread—had remained at the scene of the crime.
From there, naturally, it all went downhill. Summer camp, with the promise of meeting boys and girls from different kibbutzim for fun in the sun, was fading out quickly. Fading in instead, threatening to bring with it only sweat and toil, was a long summer of working in the fields. Life as I knew it and loved it, was over for me.
Below is the sixth segment of ‘The Mysterious Texture of Memory,’ a new short story—based, however, on my award-winning short memoir, the ‘Sweet Life.’
Dani, usually the most ardent tormentor of stray cats among us, was scared out of his wits when that cat suddenly appeared in front of his eyes, blocking his view of the screen.
He cursed loudly first, then reflexively smacked the cat. Who in turn—as if repaying him not only for this time, but also for all those other times—scratched Dani hard on the nose, generating a cry of pain, then gave a terrifying warning cry to his gang of hungry cats. Together, they flew away upon the tin roof like a flock of bats, leaving behind a scene worthy of the one playing on the big screen down below.
“Children go home!” was the dominant shout coming from the arena on the lawn, directed at those on the balcony roof. We could even see someone getting up, his silhouette passing through the screen, obscuring the film momentarily.
This was enough of a threat for Dani and Yair, who knew not what kind of punishment awaited us, but knew very well how severe it would be. Like the cats, they reacted quickly and noisily. They jumped down from the roof, forgetting in an instant The Three Musketeers’ motto—“All for one, one for all”—which the three of us boys had adopted as our own before setting forth on our dangerous mission.
As for me, I was so consumed by the imaginary world playing up on the big screen that I paid no attention to the real world playing down on the ground, oblivious to its dangers and regulations. I understood nothing of the film so far, yet I was completely captivated by its rapidly changing images, the beautiful scenery it depicted, and by the people living in it.
Furthermore, the meaning of the words “La Dolce Vita” was still haunting me, and the mystery of their melodic resonance was yet to be solved. In fact, my curiosity had run so deep that during the planning stages I’d forgotten not only that there were cats on the roof, equally curious, but sprinklers as well.
During the hot summer days in the Jezreel Valley, where there were no air conditioning systems yet in the kibbutz as I was growing up, water was the main cooling source: on the floors and on the roofs, in dirt valley pools and in clear mountain streams, at the fields and orchards and fishing ponds. And it was especially needed on the roof of the sewing-room, where it could get real hot real fast.
I was aware of the sprinklers’ existence, of course I was, but had forgotten about them altogether. Just as I’d forgotten about the man who’d got up from the lawn, and apparently had turned them on exactly when my eyes, about to pop out of their sockets, were glued to the curves of the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. This fairytale blonde, who was dressed in a revealing black evening gown, went straight under this spectacular fountain, showering herself under its waterfall, laughing and having fun, calling on the man who’d brought her there to join her.
Below is the fifth segment of ‘The Mysterious Texture of Memory,’ a new short story—based, however, on my award-winning short memoir, the ‘Sweet Life.’
All the films that came to the kibbutz, crisscrossing the Jezreel Valley from place to place, were in 16mm, usually black and white. As was the film that night. They came spooled in tin reels, usually three or four, which required regular breaks in the action for the projectionist—by far the most important person in the kibbutz, in my opinion—to replace them and start again. In addition, the film itself would break occasionally during each screening, evident by strange noises and pictures running at high speed on the screen. These unexpected breaks in the action would always occur, at least the way I saw it, at the most critical, suspenseful moments.
The adults, however, didn’t seem to mind one way or the other and used these breaks for a variety of activities. First among them was the lighting of cigarettes, as almost everybody in the kibbutz smoked back then, especially the men. Small flames flickered here and there, dotting the canvas of the dark lawn with color, before dying out into oblivion. Another favorite pastime activity was watching the stars, searching for the various constellations, and in later years pointing at the Sputniks and Satellites floating by slowly across the nightly skies. Some men used these breaks as an opportunity to take a leak in the nearby bushes. Shouts of all kinds, mainly announcements of urgent meetings or changes in the work schedule, could be heard as well. A new mother would often be called to the babies-house since her baby was crying for milk. There were hugs, kisses, and feel ups on the lawn. And under the blankets, rumors circulated through the grapevine, a baby or two were actually conceived.
Not me. I was conceived either on the boat of refugees bringing my parents, Holocaust survivors from Hungary to Israel from Europe, or in the internment camp the British had brought them to after capturing their boat. It was probably a vacation for them there, compared with what they’d gone through in the German concentration camps, since it was set up on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea. Somehow, they’d both survived the horrors of that war. But they’d left behind in the burning gas chambers, among other relatives, my grandparents on both sides. Come to think of it now, there were no grandparents to be found in my kibbutz at all as I was growing up.
Nevertheless, it was a paradisiacal childhood. Children had fun galore there, especially the three musketeers on the roof on that clear, starry night. It went on for a while, the fun part, but not for long. We were so contented with the success of our endeavor, and so absorbed by Rome’s stunning sights and beautiful people, speaking this exotic, strange language that we’d failed to notice that we had company on the roof. Cats. It was their territory, after all, which we had invaded. One cat in particular, a big black one, was brave enough to check out on us. And with good reason, since by force of habit Yair had brought along some dry, yet smelly biscuits for us to nosh on.
Below is the fourth segment of ‘The Mysterious Texture of Memory,’ a new short story—based, however, on my award-winning short memoir, the ‘Sweet Life.’
Our opening move was brilliant, but it brought with it some complications as well. We sneaked quietly through the hardly used, narrow dirt paths, known only to us kibbutz’s boys we believed, and arrived at dark behind the big lawn some ten minutes after the film had already started. But no matter: we reached our destination safely, since the attention of the enemy was distracted by the sights and sounds of the film. At the same time, the consequences were that we’d missed the titles and credits at the beginning, and therefore the chances of learning the meaning, in Hebrew, of the three magical words in the film’s title—important especially for me—were reduced dramatically.
Still, I was undeterred. And fortunate enough, as my friends and I knew very well the layout of the big lawn, stretching like a giraffe’s neck between two rows of shacks. On the one side, farther away from us, the shacks were used mainly by young people during their army service, and by new Olim in the Ulpan, here in the kibbutz to study Hebrew. They could, had they wanted to, watch the film from their windows. On the other side, from where our young and small commando unit was launching its attack, the shacks were used as the clothes’ warehouse of the kibbutz, and also as its sewing-room. It was there that some of the clothes we uniformly wore were fixed and sometimes made. Twice a year, before Rosh Hashanah and Passover, we were fitted there with our holiday best.
Behind one of these shacks, our hearts beating madly, our threesome unit came to a stop. We used the carrots’ box as a stepladder and tied the rope to a post supporting the shack’s roof. We climbed up one after the other, and used the thick winter blanket I’d brought along as a silencer to muffle the sound of our crawling on the tin roof. Once our daring operation was accomplished, we lay down quietly on the blanket at the edge of the roof.
The scenery in front of our eyes was magnificent. Down on the lawn there was a large pile of people huddled together, as if hugged from both sides by the bushes, the trees, and the shacks. Two-hundred fifty people or so, about the entire adult population of the kibbutz, were spread beneath us on the big lawn. Most of them were couples in each other’s arms, but some—like my father—were alone with their film-recliners. At the back there were two rows of chairs for the elderly and the infirmed, and in their midst stood the film projector, sending beams of bright lights to plow the field of darkness ahead, and hit the big white screen in front. It stood tall and wide there, that screen, supported by two wooden posts. Behind it, the main dirt road traversing the kibbutz was winding, where the occasional tractor or car would pass by even during the showing of the film.
Below is the third segment of ‘The Mysterious Texture of Memory,’ a new short story—based, however, on my award-winning short memoir, the ‘Sweet Life.’
My father was a kind-hearted man but mostly sad. He made us hot tea in the winter and cold lemonade in the summer, always with toasted bread, then left us alone. He listened to the news constantly on the radio—television was yet to arrive in the kibbutz in the early nineteen-sixties, or in Israel for that matter—and read his left-leaning newspaper, On Guard, from top to bottom. When I asked him about the film, and what was the meaning of the title, he was surprised to hear about it since it was the first film to be screened outside on the lawn that year. In fact, he busied himself thereafter with getting ready for it. Out of his junk-filled little shade outside by his garden he salvaged his old film-recliner, a special device kibbutz members had invented and built, meant to support their backs and heads while lying down on the grass watching films. “I will let you know tomorrow,” my father said nonchalantly.
I heard that before, I said to myself, my curiosity far from satisfied. As a result, I skipped dinner with my small family that evening in the kibbutz’s dining room and returned promptly to my class-house. My roommates, Dani and Yair, were already waiting for me there, as we’d agreed ahead of time they would do, since eating was not as important that evening as watching the film. For that reason, we spent the next two hours—designed and meant to be spent doing homework—on devising and finalizing our plan of attack. Dani and Yair, unlike me, were not so interested in finding out the meaning of the film’s title, as in discovering the secrets behind the “Adults only” part of it. That was enough of an enticement for them and good enough for me, since all I needed was their cooperation in the planning and preparation stages, and participation thereafter in the daring operation itself. I got plenty of both, as it were.
But first, following a long secretive discussion—other boys, even girls, were not allowed into the room—we managed to come up with a plan. According to that plan Dani, the engineer among us (who later, after his army service, would work in the first factory to be built in the kibbutz), had to find and bring a sturdy rope; Yair, the enforcer (who later would fight and die, barely twenty, on the dunes of the Sinai Desert during the Six-Day War), had to find and bring an empty wooden carrots’ box; and me, the dreamer (who later would leave the kibbutz in search of his pipe dreams) had to find and bring a thick blanket. Which was an easy task for me, readily available. The difficult task was to summon the necessary determination needed to encourage my co-conspirators to stick with the plan, and not to give up on our quest no matter what, during the long night ahead.
Below is the second segment of ‘The Mysterious Texture of Memory,’ a new short story—based, however, on my award-winning short memoir, the ‘Sweet Life.’
Later that evening, there would be a meeting of the minds with the intention of solving these same crucial questions. But before that, the people I’d met and had asked about the film had no clue about it, or any interest in knowing anything about it. Upstairs at the crowded dining room—a large hall busy with members of the kibbutz not only eating lunch hungrily but discussing also, and with some urgency, matters related to work, family, war and peace—I was easily dismissed: “We will see the film, then we will know.”
Easy for them to say. For me: a question of life and death. A state of mind which even Nechama, my elementary school teacher (with whom I was secretly in love), had failed to notice. She usually had all the right answers to my prematurely inquiring mind, but not this time. “I’ll let you know tomorrow, bubeleh,” she said and continued on her way.
Oh, how I wished she’d stop talking to me like a child, call me by my real name—Hillel, the old, wise sage of Jerusalem—and treat me more like an adult. Which was, of course, the crux of the matter. Understood by none.
Case in point: Uri, the man in charge of the kibbutz’s vegetable fields. “Don’t be such a nudnik,” was his reply to my twice-repeated question about the film, “and jump on the wagon.” He then put the tractor in gear and drove some twenty of us school-kids down to the valley, where the fields outside the kibbutz stretched as far as the eye could see. And it was there, as we were leaning over rows upon rows of green-leafed carrots, pulling them out of the ground with our bare hands and putting them side-by-side in wooden boxes, that I caught a glimpse of Tirzah’s breasts as well. She was two years older than me, thin and tall, but when she leaned over the fruits of the earth she partly, unintentionally, exposed also the fruits of her own naked beauty.
Naked beauty that, I suspected then and there, had something to do with the fact that the film that night was for “Adults only.” I kept thinking about it, and about Tirzah’s partly hidden treasures while taking a shower after work, feeling new sensations coming alive inside me. I could hear the girls of my class talking, singing, and giggling in the adjacent shower, which didn’t help one bit in soothing my sexual excitement. I was used to it by then, or so I thought, because as kibbutz’s children of the same age we grew up together since our mothers had brought us back from the hospital shortly after giving birth to us, directly to the babies-house.
We did everything together as equals, going our separate ways only when visiting our parents’ homes in the early evening for an hour or two of “quality family time.” As I did that Wednesday when I visited my father. My young sister was there too, but not my mother. She was living and working in Tel Aviv by then since my parents were already divorced. Only on holidays, and occasionally on Fridays, she would come back for a visit, bringing us candies aplenty and entertainment magazines from the big city.