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.”
“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–”
“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.”
Sid nodded, then said: “Old soldiers are like old dogs, Gideon, they never die. Were you in the Israeli army?”
“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.”
“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?”
“Then watch it and be quiet. I’m not going to take any money from an Israeli soldier.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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 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.