The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief and pain,
For promis’d joy.
—Robert Burns, “To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough”
Ka Pau was humming with gamblers. Coins clinking into machines echoed throughout the casino punctuated by winnings jangling in metal trays.
“Hey, Andre!” Honesto bounced his friend on the arm and leaned over his shoulder to peer at the images crossing the screen. “How yuh goin’?”
Andre looked up from his twenty-five-cent game and grinned. “Not bad. What’s happenin’?”
“Nothing much,” Honesto yawned. “Yuh winning?”
Like clockwork, Honesto showed up at the casino each Friday night looking for his friend. He and Andre had met a few months earlier when he had arrived in Trinidad from the Philippines. Twenty-nine-year-old Honesto been recruited to work in Trinidad as a pharmacist. Andre drove a taxi and was looking for a return fare from Piarco Airport when Honesto had emerged from Customs. Since then, they had become friends, with Andre providing taxi service for Honesto and his Filipino buddies.
“Win some, lose some,” Andre shrugged. “But,” he winked, reaching into the white plastic container for more coins, “mostly winning.” They laughed as Andre pulled the lever, the screen blurring and whirring before abruptly stopping. Immediately coins rattled into the tray.
“Way to go!” Honesto slapped Andre on the back.
“If this keep up,” Andre declared, “I go make my car payment this month. This machine hot. Before you came, I hit three lemons and made an easy hundred. This better than driving taxi.”
“I hear yuh, man. Sometimes it’s like that. Yuh get lucky and hit a good machine.”
The cocktail waitress appeared with Andre’s Carib. He reached into his pot and dropped some coins onto her tray. She turned to Honesto. “Yuh having the same as your brother?”
“Yeah, but he’s not my brother,” Honesto grinned. “He’s not good-looking enough.”
“You lucky to look even a little like me, boy.” Andre scooped more coins, inserted them into the machine, and pulled the lever. Two cherries appeared as coins clanked below. Again Andre fed the machine. When the spinning stopped, there was silence. He deposited more coins. The reels whirled and twirled then stopped. Nothing.
“Hey, you’re losing your touch.” Honesto edged closer. “Let me try.”
“Find your own machine,” Andre replied. “Yuh may be my friend, but there’s no way I’m sharing this cash cow with yuh!” He fed the machine again. The machine hummed like a blender, followed by clattering coins just as the waitress returned with Honesto’s beer.
Honesto reached into the winnings for her tip. “Timing is everything!”
“I need another pot,” Andre bragged. “Go get me another pot. This baby is set to pay.” While Honesto went to the cashier’s cage for the container, Andre dropped more coins into the slot. The reels raced, then stopped abruptly—three cherries on the pay line, more jangling in the tray.
“Thanks,” Andre said, taking the plastic container from Honesto and scooping up the coins. “Stay here and keep my place. Whatever you do, don’t give up my machine. I’ll be right back.” He drained his Carib.
“Hey, man, can I play with your money while you’re gone?”
“Use yuh own money,” Andre retorted, standing the empty bottle sentry-like behind the plastic pots.
“What the hell yuh mean yuh broke? Is payday!”
“You know I send my money home to the Philippines on Friday. Hey, you don’t want to chance letting her get cold while you’re gone, do you?”
“Okay,” Andre laughed. “Just don’t get too attached.” He turned to leave and then stopped. “But what if yuh win with my money?”
“It’s yours,” Honesto said.
“No, no, that’s not fair,” Andre protested. “If yuh pull the arm and win, the money’s part yours.”
“But it’s your money and your machine.”
“Hear what. If yuh win, we go split it, 50-50. How that sounding?”
“You sure?” Honesto asked.
“Yeah. Keep she warm!” Andre grinned. He turned and headed for the washroom, maneuvering among throngs clustered around the slots and tables, drinking beers while waiting for a machine.
“Good evening, good evening, Mr. Persad,” beamed the manager. “How is everything tonight?”
“Real good,” Andre grinned. “Just don’t go resetting my machine before I come back!” They both laughed.
When Andre returned from the washroom, an annoying bell was clamoring like a car alarm. Then he realized that the flashing amber light was above his machine.
“Yes, yes! Honesto! We win!” he shouted, craning to see the face of the machine through the crowd that surrounded Honesto. He caught a glimpse of the manager conferring with Honesto. The manager straightened and worked his way through the crowd past Andre. “How much is the jackpot?” Andre asked.
“Twelve thousand dollars.”
“All right, man!” Andre yelled. He shouldered his way to the machine. Three magenta sevens crossed the pay line. “Hey, Honesto!”
Honesto stopped scooping coins into the plastic container. He jumped up and hugged Andre. “Jackpot!” he beamed, pointing to the screen.
“I knew this machine was going to pay big!” Andre crowed. “Twelve thousand dollars! I calling Mary.”
While Andre was on his mobile with his wife, the manager returned and handed Honesto a check. He shook Honesto’s hand then left. Andre pressed off and shoved his cell in his pocket. He rubbed his hands in anticipation.
“Lemme see that beautiful piece of paper.” Honesto handed him the check. “Hey,” Andre stared. “This check is only in your name.”
Honesto shrugged. “The manager said they only put one name on it.”
“So let we change it now and split it,” Andre said.
“They don’t pay out that kind of cash,” Honesto explained. “That’s why he gave me the check. Monday on my lunch hour I’ll go to my bank and cash it. I’ll give you your half when you pick me up after work.”
“Okay,” Andre answered. “But I really wanted to go home and throw money all over Mary.” They laughed and finished gathering up the coins. On their way to the cashier’s cage, they passed their cocktail waitress. Andre tilted one of the brimming containers above her tray. “Is good luck to share the wealth,” he grinned.
The cashier handed Andre over three hundred dollars for the coins. “We hafta celebrate, Honesto. Where yuh want to go?”
Honesto paused. “Now that’s a tough one—seeing as we can go anywhere we want!”
On Monday, after collecting his boys from school, Andre headed for the San Juan SuperPharm to pick up Honesto. He hated traveling in Port-of-Spain at eight in the morning and three in the afternoon because that was when parents were delivering or retrieving their school-age children. Parents refused to risk possible kidnapping by letting their children travel. Soon the rainy season, with its intermittent downpours, would increase the congestion.
When he finally reached the pharmacy, it was after four. Honesto was not outside. He never waited in the tropical sun if Andre was late.
Andre turned to Brandon and Adam. “Allyuh wait here.
Don’t touch nothing. I’m coming back just now. After I drop off Honesto,” he added, “I go carry allyuh to MovieTowne in the arcade and we go celebrate.” He disappeared inside the pharmacy.
Soon he and Honesto emerged.
“Hi, guys.” Honesto nodded to the boys as he got into the front seat. They smiled back.
Andre slid behind the wheel and turned expectantly to Honesto. “So where my money, boy?” he asked with a smile.
Honesto looked down. “Sorry, Andre.” Andre stared. “What yuh mean, ‘Sorry’?”
“We were really busy today, Monday and all. I didn’t have time to go to the bank.” Honesto looked up. “But I will tomorrow. I promise.”
Andre was silent. He felt a sick churning in his stomach. “I hope yuh not lying to me.”
“Of course not,” Honesto said quickly.
Maybe too quickly, Andre thought. “Because I really counting on that money,” he continued slowly. “Where Mary working, they closing down by the end of the month, and I have to keep up the installment on this car.” He paused. “And yuh know long time we putting off Brandon operation.”
“Don’t worry. I was just busy,” Honesto assured him. “I’ll cash it tomorrow.” They rode in silence for a while, and then exchanged small talk until they reached Honesto’s apartment.
“So I go pick yuh up after work again tomorrow?” Andre asked.
Honesto handed him the fare. “Yeah. Four o’clock at the pharmacy.”
But the next day Honesto was not there. The clerk told Andre it was Honesto’s day off.
“He tell me to pick him up here this afternoon,” Andre insisted.
“One of you must have made a mistake,” the clerk shrugged.
Andre left. He sat in his car dumbfounded. Then he pulled out his cell and dialed Honesto’s number. The phone rang and rang. No one answered, not even voice mail.
“Yuh sonofabitch,” Andre said softly. His jaw set as he started up the car and headed for Honesto’s. How he could stiff me like that? For months I chauffeur him and his friends wherever they want to go, give him priority over my other customers. I invite him to my house for Christmas, not just because he was alone and far from his own family, but because I like him. Mary and the boys and me, we even organize that birthday party for him and invite all the Filipinos. “That sonofabitch,” Andre repeated as he swung onto Jerningham Avenue.
A few cars were parked outside Honesto’s whitewashed, two-story apartment building. Andre pulled into visitor parking, got out, and strode to Honesto’s door. He pounded on the painted metal, then stepped aside so he could not be seen through the peephole. He waited. There was no sound from within. Further down, someone was blasting Machel Montano’s “One More Time.” Andre banged on Honesto’s door again. He in there, all right. He just too coward to face me. Angrily, Andre started back to his car. “He can’t hide from me,” he fumed. “He must go to work.”
“Andre!” Honesto stood, head bowed, in his doorway, a cowering child called to the principal’s office.
Andre turned. “Give me my money now,” he demanded. “I want my money, boy.”
“I don’t have it.”
“What the hell yuh mean you don’t have it?” Andre shouted.
Honesto glanced around the complex nervously. “Please keep your voice down.”
“I go keep my voice down when yuh give me my money.” “It’s gone,” Honesto said quietly. “I sent it home to my mother.”
“No,” Andre said. “Yuh send your money home for yuh mother, not mine. I want my money now.”
“It’s too late. I don’t have it. Besides,” Honesto added defensively, “it was my money. I won it, not you.”
“But we agreed to split it.” Andre’s voice rose again. “Yuh used my machine and my money!”
“But I won. The money was my winnings, and now it’s gone.” Honesto stepped back and reached to close the door.
“Yuh lying sonofabitch!” Andre shouted, lunging at the door. The lock clicked.
That night as they lay in bed, Andre told Mary what had happened. “But he tief yuh money. How he could do yuh that?” she wailed.
“He just do it,” Andre responded wearily.
“To me, all the money was yours,” Mary declared. “It was your machine, and Honesto play with your money.” She shook her head. ”I just don’t understand him. He’s a pharmacist and he working for more money than you, and he won’t even split it. And you was his friend.”
“All he care about is the money,” Andre sighed. “Money is the only reason he come to Trinidad.”
“I still can’t believe he could tief from us like that and get away with it.”
Andre shrugged. “Tell it to the judge, I guess.” “Why not?” Mary demanded. “Why not what?”
“Why not tell it to the judge? Sue Honesto for the money!” “I thinking about doing that,” Andre said glumly, “but there isn’t enough money involved for that. After time off from work and legal expenses, it might cost me six thousand to get my six thousand.”
“Six? Go for the whole twelve! Honesto obviously don’t believe you have an agreement to split it.”
“That is true,” Andre agreed. “But it still risky to sue. There’s no guarantee, and if we lose, we go be in more expense.”
“There must be something we could do,” Mary sighed, turning off the bedside lamp. “Even with all the crime in Trinidad, being victims like this is the last thing I would have thought.”
Andre lay awake, his stomach churning. He tief my money. It was my machine and my money he sent home like clockwork to his mother. And I trusted him, that sonofabitch. My money, and now it’s gone—he stopped. That’s it! Why didn’t I think of that before? Excited, he began to make a plan. Yes, it just might work. Life may not be fair, he thought grimly, but that don’t mean I can’t try to right the wrongs.
The next morning, after dropping Brandon and Adam at school, Andre drove directly to Honesto’s complex. This time he parked outside on Jerningham Avenue. As he opened the car door, a pair of screeching keskidees flew from an overhead wire to a neighboring branch plumb-lined with ruddy mangos. He hastened to the nearest door on the first floor of the complex and glanced at the lock. Kwikset. Then he hurried back to his car and drove to the Priority Mall in San Juan.
In the locksmith shop, a middle-aged woman was seated behind the counter talking on her mobile. “Yuh think I pluck myself and get money? Yuh understand?” she was saying. She nodded at Andre and added, “Customer come. Call yuh later.”
“Where Moony?” Andre demanded.
The woman slowly looked up from putting her mobile in her purse, rolled her eyes, and steupsed loudly. “What? Yuh don’t even say hello? Where yuh manners gone, boy?”
“Sorry,” Andre said sheepishly. “Good morning.”
“That’s more like it. I don’t know what this country coming to,” she continued, shaking her head. “First people don’t have no time to talk with people, now they don’t even say good morning! What you in such a rush for, boy?”
Great, Andre thought. A talker. “No rush. I just thinking ’bout all I have to do today, is all.”
She shook her head. “Yuh going to have a heart attack, yuh keep up like that. This is Trinidad, boy. Nothing can’t wait.” To Andre’s relief she turned and called out, “Moony!” A stocky East Indian appeared from the back room. “Lightning Man!” Leo Moonsammy beamed, giving Andre a bear hug. He and Andre had played football together at San Juan Secondary Comprehensive and remained friends through the years.
After exchanging small talk, Andre said, “Listen, Moony, I need a bump key.”
“What for? Yuh turning to a life of crime?” Moony joked. “Anything gotta be more profitable than driving taxi,” Andre laughed. “Adam lock a door in the house I need to open.”
“What kind you need?”
“Kwikset. So you find is a lot of breakins using bump keys?” “That’s usually what they’re for. There’s a lot of all kinds of crime in this country. If the PNM don’t hurry up and do something about all the homicides, our people going get elected.”
Andre pocketed the key and was soon heading back to Honesto’s apartment. Honesto will be at work all day like the rest of the Filipinos here. No one will hear me banging on Honesto’s lock. By now rush hour traffic had dissipated. Andre tuned in to 91.9 and leaned back to soak up the soca and enjoy the ride. “Tonight I’m in the mood, I want to wine and behave rude / So anyting you want to do, I dare you, I dare you …“
When he reached Honesto’s building, Andre again parked on Jerningham Avenue. No one was in sight. He opened the trunk, pulled the rubber mallet from his sports bag, and hurried to Honesto’s door. Except for the usual symphony of chirping, squawking, and whistling, everything was as still as a Sunday sunrise. Andre inserted the bump key into the lock and banged the key with the mallet. Nothing. He banged again. No luck. He listened to hear if the noise had disturbed anyone. Satisfied that it had not, he pounded again, slightly turning the key at the same time. The lock opened. Andre reached for the knob, then hesitated. This is breaking and entering, he thought. No! Taking back my own money ent no crime. Quickly he slipped inside.
He stood in the tidy kitchen and looked around. “Now where would I put that check?” he wondered aloud. He noticed that everything was orderly. Even the breakfast dishes stood drying in the rack. Impulsively, he opened the cupboards beneath the sink. Each item was lined neatly across the space, three deep. “Backups for his backups,” Andre mused. “Like a buller man.” No, the check wouldn’t be in the kitchen or the bathroom. He walked into the dining room–living room which was as spotless as the kitchen. A light hung above the dining room table with its four chairs. Beyond a black leather recliner and matching sofa faced the wall with the flat-screen TV. On the right was the door to the bedroom.
The bed was made. Remote controls for the portable TV and overhead fan lay on the bedside table, along with a copy of Aelred’s Sin and some journals, Pharmacy Times and dotPharmacy. Andre pulled open the drawer—miscellaneous papers neatly stacked, pens, paperclips, coins, cash. Eight hundred dollars. I ent no tief. He closed the drawer and opened the double doors of the armoire. Shirts hung on the left neatly grouped according to color. On the shelf below was a row of neatly folded underwear, and behind a row of neatly folded socks. On the right was a fold-down desktop. Behind the desktop were pigeonholes filled with envelopes, bills, receipts, and—jackpot!—a Ka Pau check for twelve thousand dollars. Just like I thought, Andre gloated. The check not cash yet. He do everything like clockwork: He always on time, he always stop by the casino every Friday exactly at 7:30, and he always go in the bank and send money home on Friday afternoons.
Andre rifled through the envelopes until he found one that said Republic Bank. Months earlier, he had driven Honesto to the San Juan branch to open the account. He continued rummaging until he found Honesto’s passport. He pulled a chair over to the desk and taking a pen and blank sheet, he began copying Honesto’s signature. The big loop on the H, the pointed n, the squat t with the downward cross. Printed capital M. Over and over he practiced the signature. Satisfied, he copied Honesto’s account number on the sheet, then replaced the Republic envelope in its pigeonhole. He pocketed the check and passport, closed the armoire, and exited the apartment, leaving the door unlocked. I go return soon. It not worth having to bump the lock again.
He drove back to San Juan, to the Republic branch on Eastern Main Road. The Ka Pau check drawn on a Republic account, he figured, so Republic can check funds and cash the check immediately. He knew he was taking a chance going to the branch where Honesto banked, but he thought they would be less likely to question his cashing the check there. He parked on First Street just beyond the bank. “Showtime,” he sighed, removing his aviator sunglasses from his shirt pocket and reaching into the backseat for his Boston Red Sox cap.
As he entered the bank, he noted the uniformed security guard standing by the back wall, and in his peripheral vision, the surveillance cameras. He averted his face as best he could and stood at the end of the short line. Just like I thought. Not many people here at this hour on a Wednesday morning. Suddenly, the security guard was walking toward him. Andre froze. The guard passed and opened the door for an elderly lady. Gotta relax, he told himself, exhaling slowly. It gonna work. Me and Honesto about the same height and coloring. I just a little taller and more built. He smiled to himself. And better-looking.
The woman ahead moved away from the counter. Andre stepped forward. Don’t say nothing yuh don’t have to. He handed the teller the check. “Cash, please.”
The teller looked at the piece of paper. “Do you have an account with us?” she asked. Andre pulled the sheet from his pocket before realizing it was covered with his attempts to forge Honesto’s signature. Quickly he lowered the sheet below the counter and folded it so only the account number showed. Then he placed it on the counter facing the teller. She typed the numbers onto her keyboard. While they waited, he slipped the paper back into his pocket. “I’m sorry, Mr. Manalo, but you don’t have enough money in your account to cover this check. I can deposit the money into your account and you can withdraw the cash after the check has cleared.”
“But why I need to wait?” Andre blurted. Easy, easy, he told himself. “It’s a Ka Pau check written on a Republic account,” he continued evenly. “Why can’t I cash it now since Ka Pau has an account and I have an account?”
“One moment. I’ll ask my supervisor.”
Andre forced himself to appear calm as he watched her walk to the back of the room and disappear. Cool yuhself. The worst that can happen is they won’t cash the check. No, he corrected himself, the worst would be if the manager comes over and sees I’m not Honesto. Andre turned slightly. The security guard had returned to his place and stood idly glancing about. Just then the teller emerged with an older man dressed in a suit. She was showing him the check and talking. The man examined the check, looked across at Andre, and nodded.
The teller returned and slid the check toward Andre. “No problem, Mr. Manalo. Just endorse the back, please, and I’ll need to see some identification.” Andre handed her Honesto’s passport. He picked up the pen attached to the silver chain and stared at the blank back of the check. The teller was waiting. Andre carefully drew the large loop on the H. Pointed n. Short t, down-slanted cross. Hook the final o‘s backwards. The teller took the check and compared the signature with the one in the passport. Andre tensed, ready to bolt. Then she recorded the passport number on the check, stamped the back, and asked how he’d like his cash.
Gleefully, Andre jumped into his Nissan Wingroad. He looked around quickly. No one was watching. He removed the fat stack of blues from the envelope and fanned the bills. One hundred twenty of them. And all his. No way any of this belong to Honesto. He forfeit he right to half the winnings when he try to cheat me. He tossed the Red Sox cap onto the backseat and started the engine. All he had to do now was drive back to Honesto’s, replace the passport, and lock the door.
Is still early, he thought, as he descended Lady Young Road, passed the Hilton, and approached the St. Ann’s rotary. Honesto won’t be back for hours. I have plenty time to drive to Ellerslie Plaza and deposit the money in my Scotiabank account. Better than carrying all this cash around. Is Trinidad. Anything could happen.
Half an hour later, his deposit made, Andre was again circling the Savannah, passing the Emperor Valley Zoo and the Botanical Gardens as he headed toward Belmont. The pink pouis were in bloom, their delicate, fleeting brilliance paralleling his excitement at everything the jackpot made possible. It ent often that justice happen, that nice guys finish first, he reflected. He swung left onto Jerningham Avenue and pulled up just before the entrance to the apartment building. He got out and scanned the surroundings. Deserted. Nice. Suddenly a ripe mango dropped before him. A good omen. Smiling, he stooped to retrieve it.
Andre knocked quietly on Honesto’s door. He waited. Nothing. After double-checking to make sure he was unobserved, he slipped inside. He took the passport from his shirt pocket, marveling at how easy it had been to get his money back. If I wasn’t such a basically honest guy, I might even be tempted— He stopped in the bedroom doorway.
“What the…?” Papers and clothing were scattered everywhere. All the drawers were out, socks and underwear hanging from them. The armoire and its fold-down desk were open, the contents of the pigeonholes strewn about. Then he saw the arm.
“Oh god!” He dropped the passport and walked around the bed to where Honesto lay on the floor. His head rested in a pool of blood—geyser blood from slashed carotids. His throat looked like it had been machete-chopped. Mechanically, Andre felt for the pulse he knew wasn’t there. “Who do this?” he wailed. Call the ambulance. No, the police. He pressed 999 on his cell. Oh god. Who could do this? Motive. Someone who heard ’bout the jackpot must have brought Honesto back to the apartment to steal the money—
Andre froze. Motive. I have motive.
“Hello? Hello?” And my fingerprints all over the apartment. Quickly he hung up and looked around wildly. From the floor he grabbed a shirt and began wiping the armoire pulls and the desk. The pen. The envelope from Republic Bank. The passport—what I do with the passport? Frantically, he searched for the green passport. There it was on the floor. He wiped it furiously and shoved it into a pigeonhole—then stopped. Everyone know, he realized slowly, how Honesto cheat me. I just deposit twelve thousand dollars in my account. And I on the security cameras at the bank—at both banks, dressed in the same clothes… He leaned against the armoire and slid to the floor, laughing uncontrollably.
*This story is taken from: Trinidad Noir Ed. By Lisa Allan-Agostini and Jeanne Mason, ©2008 Akashic Books.
A moral romance
The restaurant, which offered simple but excellent fare, was lit by a large artificial moon augmented by some weak recessed lighting in the walls. The owner oversaw proceedings from the till. At one table, oblivious to the comings and goings of the waiters and the other customers, a man and a woman were trying to downplay their excitement at the conversation they were having by occasionally looking out of the window. Down below, the river was dancing, the lights from the homes that lined the shore glinting playfully off the water.
They’d finished their meal and were drinking aropi liquor in little sips. Flugo, a well-built redhead, wore his ugliness well. Otami was tall and stunning: perfectly proportioned blue eyes, short hair the colour of dates, a ravishing nose, beautifully angled upper incisors and a lower lip that wobbled slightly, like a tic, a subconscious effort to right a slight unevenness. A moment before she’d missed the rim of her glass, and some of the liquid had splashed onto her chin. She wiped it away then lowered her eyes and took off her jacket. Flugo tried hard to keep his saliva in check. She stretched out her arms to show off the special features underneath her bracelets. Flugo’s hairy arms only had functional enhancements. He showed them to her. Both were fidgety and irritable, as though something with no discernible odour were cooking between the two of them. The bill was brought to the table, and Otami declared that as she’d invited him out she’d pay. Suddenly they heard an inhuman roar. Flugo’s hair grew redder, and Otami’s back glowed.
A flame emerged from the entrance to the kitchen, right next to the counter where the owner stood at his post. It was already racing up the hiluven screen. With the rapidly spreading flames snapping at their heels, the chef and his assistants ran out as fast as they could while the robotios backed away, ineffectually spitting out their water reserves. New tongues of flame slithered along the floor like fiery snakes. While the owner stepped back, slapping at his cuffs, his customers ran for the exit. Seeing that Flugo was about to use his wrist extinguisher, the man asked him not to come any closer. Flugo looked down at the remains of their meal and the clipboard with the bill. He took out his money pouch and fingered the notes while the bar went up in flames. Otami made a grab for him and tried to pull him away, but her sweaty hands slipped and she went on alone. The owner hesitated like the captain of a ship before heading out the back. Caught between the fire and the night, Otami turned around and called to Flugo until, eventually, he agreed to come out with her. On the esplanade, about fifty metres away, they watched as the fire consumed most of the restaurant and the windows began to crack. Eventually the firefly units arrived. Calmed by this reassuring sight the crowd dispersed, and they were left alone under the stars. Flugo was torn between melancholy and Otami’s gleaming shoulders. They’ve all gone, she said. And none of them paid, Flugo replied. Still clutching the money, he made as if to go back inside. She pressed herself against him. It’s cold, she said. Aroused by her whisper, he realized that now was the time to put an arm around her. They went down to the seafront to look for a taxi before driving to a tall residential icosahedron. In her studio, which, like her, was beautiful and uneven, they rutted like fugitives from the law. All the positions, all the orifices, all the juices. While Otami made an effort to be industrious, Flugo strove to be liberated. He was disoriented, as though he hadn’t yet come to terms with the new horizons opened up by their unexpected escape. He looked down at his uncommonly firm trombon as she begged him to plunge it into her and wondered what to make of the two fingers she’d shoved in his arse. She clung to him tight, making a strange sound, a kind of purr begging for succour or a timid mantra to ward off oblivion. They slept well but not blissfully. In the morning she stroked him but didn’t cling to him like she had the night before; she was distracted. He, however, was trying to concentrate. In this minor difference, Flugo found the room to mill his incredulity into anxiety.
It was a tragedy, he said. What happened to that man was a tragedy, and people… like us… such a good meal… We need to pay for it.
She reminded him that all the covers put together wouldn’t come to anything like what he’d be getting from his insurance. Also, it had been her treat. He said that it wasn’t about the money so much as paying what one should, acting responsibly. Basic human decency. The resulting silence suggested that for him this was no trivial matter. Flugo stifled a yawn. He’d never thought about how important such things were before. He didn’t say that neither had he ever slept with a woman like her before, but it was obvious that he was somewhat flustered by their exertions. She stretched, rubbing against him. The fact that she was able to do two things at once piqued Flugo’s trombon, and they went at it again. By the time they’d finished he was braying while she was pleading, as though she had begun to founder. But then she recovered immediately: she was ephemeral as a dolphin. She kissed him, slapped his arse and sat down on an elegant-but-dirty sofa with a quarnaklo draped over her legs. The night before she’d told him that she didn’t deal very well with confrontation and that she designed persuasive images for neural links. She plugged in to the Panconscious. Flugo was left staring at the only painting in the house, a landscape of very different places: a reed bed, a lake on a high mountain, a hall in a cheap hotel and more. Then he left for work. He was a quality-control officer at a factory that made fluid injectors.
Several days passed before he went back to the restaurant. A pair of cyborgs was guarding some furniture that hadn’t been burned too badly, and a pile of brickling, woodpaste and metal had been placed alongside the two surviving walls. He noticed a fluttering tablecloth; it wasn’t the table that he had sat at with Otami, but the clipboard with the unpaid bill was still there. Flugo blinked, and the board disappeared. However, the boy piling up the objects that were still serviceable was certainly real. Flugo told him that he’d come to pay the bill for that night. The boy told him not to worry, Don Mayome had other things on his mind. Flugo left reluctantly without asking any more questions.
He couldn’t forgive himself for the delay. And yet he could, because to his surprise Otami called him, and they went out together not once but twice, and on both occasions they screwed like lost souls, once on an empty boat. Three fucks usually constitute a relationship, but this time that wasn’t entirely the case. They were tied together but not bonded. They grabbed, bit and stroked each other violently, mixing their breath, saliva, semen and juices, their eyes brimming over. They squeezed at each other greedily, until it hurt, but it was all for naught; neither could actually steal anything from the other’s body, they couldn’t physically merge, which is what they really wanted. When it seemed that they’d squeezed out all the pleasure they could and were finally sated, it only took a moment of contact to, unlike the fire at the restaurant, revive their flames and fury again. Otami was as crazy about Flugo’s trombon and mouth as she was for her own holes and emissions, as he was for every part of her, even her toenails. She revered Flugo’s bulk. She nuzzled her forehead into his chest and stroked his head, mumbling, You give me everything, moaning that if he let her go she’d fly away or drown, and so he would thrust, push, suck and try to reassure her, even though she never seemed to need consolation after the climax. Sex isn’t the only bond; it was more like when they were copulating a bond appeared that couldn’t seem to raise its head otherwise.
Flugo stammered that one must own up to the consequences of their actions. She gave a half-smile and massaged his shins without bothering to say that all they did was go to dinner, but it was probably what she was thinking.
But who will atone for the thoughtlessness, the selfishness of the people who left? he asked.
She glanced at him without irony, pity or the slightest irritation, without even reminding him, once again, that she was the one who was supposed to have paid the bill.
When Flugo went back up the hill the next day, the boy told him that Don Mayome had died. He was his stepson. Flugo bit his lip.
Of course, after a calamity like that, he murmured.
No, sir, he died of something he already had.
What about you…?
I helped him to die, and he left me this. I don’t know if I’ll be able to sell it.
Flugo said that he didn’t think it would be hard. The stepson said that he didn’t understand; it wasn’t that he didn’t know if he could sell it, he simply couldn’t sell it.
Of course, Flugo said, there are unpaid debts.
Telling the boy again that he hadn’t been able to pay that night, he took out his pouch.
The stepson stopped him there: Don’t insult me.
No, no, it’s what I owe.
Sir, you don’t get this business at all.
Flugo considered arguing further but just nodded. He walked down the hill, clutching his side, as though he had a stitch, as though he were trying to climb up a cliff but couldn’t make any headway. One morning, after a sleepy but indulgent encounter, he asked Otami why they never did it at his house. It took her a while to answer: I feel better here. He looked at the only painting on the wall. Today it seemed as though the images had changed: palfreys galloping across the tundra, a morgue, a village in the mist, but it might have been an optical illusion. As usual, for breakfast they had tea, bread and oil and bunaston strips. They ate, and Flugo stopped himself from asking how she knew she felt better there if she’d never been to his house. Otami sat in her work chair looking so languorous, glossy and long legged that it was almost intimidating. Suddenly, he got up and exultantly slapped himself on the forehead. The noise distracted Otami from the Panconscious. She told him to take care, he was liable hurt himself; one needs to know how to handle an excess of endorphins.
At the former restaurant the owner’s stepson had cleared away the rubble. He was saying goodbye to a professional-looking lady, who then got into her autopod and drove away. When he saw Flugo, he sighed, not quite exasperated but certainly weary. He asked Flugo to try to understand that he had things to rebuild. Flugo smiled with a cunning expression he hadn’t seemed capable of. He looked at the three cyborgs struggling with a shipment of various different materials. He told the boy that he was very good at organizing construction teams, partly because he worked alongside them, too. He seemed so enthused that the stepson reluctantly agreed to let him help out. And so, help he did.
Three afternoons a week Flugo parked his patacycle at the dock and went up the hill to work with Mayome’s stepson. He checked budgets, talked to suppliers, negotiated with paralaws, set the ratio for the adobaster mix, struggled in vain to hurry the insurers up and made improvements to plans for a facility that would have to wait. He lifted loads of brickling and helped the boy to manage the money that the prescient Mayome had set aside – two years’ rent – before the boy helped him to die. Flugo asked him what that help had consisted of.
It was just something I used to do, the boy said.
On the mornings following his afternoon at the construction site, Flugo had coffeto and biscuits with cream and jam for breakfast. The other afternoons he patalated home before heading out for consummation with Otami, sometimes after a quiet walk, a quick dinner and a prologue of dirtilthian words. Even with what little we know about Flugo, we can tell that he found this routine unsettling.
Late one night, looking at the painting of different landscapes, he said quietly: I have to do some research.
What, hunny? she asked.
What kind of a job is helping people to die?
Otami was asleep, but he didn’t notice. His monologue went on to reveal that trying to make up for the debts of so many people was wearing him down, except when he was cavorting with Otami. But he wondered whether what was wearing him down was his obsession with whether or not everyone should have paid, or whether his malaise was caused by exhaustion and he’d invented an excuse to avoid the bigger issue. One might say that the work he put in avoiding the issue was beginning to bore him, and it was the fact that he was bored that saddened him. He woke up with Otami licking his ear, and from the oblivion of sleep slipped into the oblivion she had to offer. Like an island rent asunder by an earthquake, Flugo was torn between sadness and satisfaction. Looking away, she put on a T-shirt and gave him a compliment: Hunny, I have so much fun with you. I’ve never had so much fun with anyone. Flugo blinked, his eyes shone.
I had so hoped it would be like this.
She got up and spent almost half a minute hesitating between going to the bathroom and the kitchen, as though she didn’t know what to do first or wasn’t completely in control of herself. Eventually, she decided to sit on the sofa, and the decision pleased her. He lingered in the soft embrace of the duvet. A couple of minutes later he heard Otami’s voice from the kitchen, like a neural advertisement whose soundtrack was the bubbling of the coffeto pot. You shouldn’t tire yourself out like that. What if you end up wearing us out, too?
Like a paradoxical pill, Flugo found the phrase reinvigorating. Three afternoons a week, once he’d finished work at the plant, he committed himself to paying off society’s debt to the restaurant. The remaining nights he recharged his batteries with Otami’s eagerness. Sweaty and chaotic, she squeezed, twisted and pushed him, telling him in a hoarse, cracked voice never to let her go, to seal the deal, to be there with her, but after the climax she was always the first to extricate herself. Outside of the bedroom she never asked him for anything. Neither did she seem to expect any answers. Caught between the dock and the buoy, it seemed that poor confused Flugo was only able to anchor himself when he was putting his back into the work for the stepson. It was his way of overcoming his doubt and bewilderment. This would appear to be a therapeutic story about the different lives a man can lead.
But Flugo never congratulated himself for having discovered such a satisfactory balance between duty and pleasure. One afternoon, when it was time to go home, Mayome’s stepson was cleaning a sink they’d just put in. He said to Flugo: Flugo, you work like a convict.
Flugo wasn’t surprised by the comment. In fact, he replied, I see myself as a researcher.
What are you researching?
We-ell, I’d like to find out how to take ownership of myself.
The boy turned off the tap and dried his hands.
Why? he asked eventually.
Flugo’s face flickered into a smile before returning to its usual earnest state. I don’t know; so I can have a relationship.
The boy also began to look earnest. What kind of relationship?
A relationship like the kind where your breath is interchangeable, said Flugo. The words took him by surprise. The boy, too.
Like a romance? he asked in a quiet voice.
Maybe, said Flugo. One hand washes the other and both wash the face.
That night he was watching the screenatron, trying to consolidate his feelings into a single emotion, when the psyphone rang. It was Otami. With no help from him, her face appeared, looking surprisingly easy to read. Her smoky voice conveyed nothing more than the words themselves: Tomorrow night. Can I come to your house tomorrow night?
Of course, said Flugo.
Grandz, she said. Then we’re doing something new.
Flugo hung up and quickly gave his flat a once-over, but there wasn’t much to do. Everything was neat and tidy. It was a nice flat. The last we heard of Flugo he was in the supermarket buying bunaston strips.
There are those who invent lies, and there are those who believe them.
In an ideal world Jerry would spread his wings and fly away from there. For as long as he can remember himself, he has felt them. Felt that they were sewed to his spinal column beneath his skin, and that one day they would be released. Sure they would. For sure. For as long as he can remember himself, he has also felt the notebook of lined paper pressed inside his left pocket, rolled up and tied tightly with twine. He sometimes dreams about the characters that amble between the lines, imprisoned in the darkness of his pocket. He fears they will get lost. And then there are the characters who still want to get inside, who will lose their way…
But now, as he stands in the older man’s bedroom, he feels as if skin is not the only thing confining his wings, but that they are also fastened by a cord that is contorting his entire body, as if he were one of the characters rolled up between the lines of his notebook.
Jerry’s gaze lingers on his reflection in the long mirror hanging on the inside of the wardrobe door. “I’ve looked at myself in the mirror for a long time today. It’s been a few days since I’ve looked at myself in the mirror, maybe two weeks…” he says, wondering if the older man discerns the contortedness of his body.
The older man snuffles. He stands leaning on the doorpost of the bedroom door, following Jerry’s movements. “You can come over whenever you want to…I don’t keep the apartment locked.”
“I don’t know,” Jerry shrugs his shoulders. “It’ll stress me out.” He looks into the eyes of the skinny adolescent like a grayish line staring back at him from the mirror, thinking: I need to slip inside, and the closet door will close on both of us.
“Yes. Everyone runs into everyone else here…I’ll try to move into the far apartment,” the man thinks aloud. “I brought you a gift,” he moves closer to Jerry, producing from his pocket a small box wrapped in lined notebook paper and tied with twine.
“Yes.” Jerry takes the gift.
“Yes, what? Don’t you want to open it?”
“It stresses me out…”
“What stresses you out?”
“That everyone runs into everyone else. That they’ll run into me when I come over to your place.” Jerry passes the gift from one hand to the other, his fingers working the paper as if searching for his own character between the lines.
“No one really cares…It only seems that way to you. Besides…you’re allowed to come see me, aren’t you? It’s about work. That’s what you’ll tell whoever asks.”
“Yes.” Jerry looks out the window. A man and a woman pass by. Brief laughter rolls into the room. “…I told you so.”
Five seconds pass like the heavy beats of a bass drum. Neither one of them move. “Wings, wings, open!” Jerry whispers.
The man moves really close to him, really reaches over to him, his hand really, almost absentmindedly, unbuttoning Jerry’s pants.
As if he were busy, Jerry tries to untie the knot in the twine.
“Tear off the paper already…” the man says, in a slightly annoyed tone.
His palm is warm. Boiling. Burning.
Jerry closes his eyes. How much time is passing? What disaster is underway in the world? What’s gone awry in the order of nature to start the fire?
“It’s not getting hard,” the man says.
Jerry shrugs his shoulders.
“Don’t be afraid.”
“I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid of you.”
The door of the wardrobe moves and the entire picture of the room shakes as if in an earthquake. Only the man’s hand remains steady. It grasps Jerry’s dick so hard it hurts. Be careful, Jerry almost whispers, I have wings. They’re about to open up, and then I’ll fly away, Jerry almost says. But the man is not careful. Or maybe that’s just the way it is at the beginning – brutality, no concessions.
“You look wonderful.” The older man searches for Jerry’s eyes. For a moment he traps them, as if insisting on exposing the fraud. Jerry looks down, his eyes stopping on the bulge in the man’s pants. He has a big one.
What am I doing? What does he want me to do? What do I need to do?
“What exactly do you want?”
Sixty centimeters stand between the edge of the bed and the wardrobe door. They are four. Jerry watches them, imagining them struggling with one another, for life and death: their arms are wrapped forcefully around their bodies, there are no concessions. They fall. They rise. They push. They are drawn.
An earthquake begins, the mirror cracks, and one Jerry falls into the mirror. Now they are only three.
You three…you are the only ones who love me, a thought fleets through Jerry’s mind.
The large freckled ass glares in the mirror. It flashes at him. Dash dot, dash dash, dot…Jerry is excellent at Morse code. He follows the flashes, trying to decipher the message, as if it is already within him. The imprisoned message is somewhat frightening, confusing. The man’s ass is the opposite of that of a king, with small sores and all that.
Jerry is following a different message: “Come here, quick. Here, close. Hold it. Like that. Your mouth. Just like that. Do it right. Don’t rush it…” The man’s body blocks the flashes in the mirror, and to Jerry it seems to have gone dark. Suddenly. Darkness. His eyes are wide open but the world is in darkness and he is choking a little. I am trapped in the ruins of an earthquake. He tries to take a breath and feels his eyes popping out of their sockets.
“Take it slow. I love that. Love it. You do it great. No, no, no! Don’t look, not now, not now. What are you doing?”
Jerry inhales, fixes his gaze on the mirror, trying to receive more flashes. The older man reaches behind his back and slams the door of the wardrobe. “Later. Later. Don’t stop. All the way. Like that. Yeah, like that. Afterward I’ll do you, and you’ll watch yourself. And us, the four of us.”
With every breath of air, with every passing minute, Jerry tries to clarify the truth within him. But the truth contracts, or is hidden within the mirror, and Jerry asks the door to open. He counts: One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight…Hot. It’s too hot in his mouth. On his forehead. Sweat drips from his face.
“You drive me crazy. Your tongue. I’m alive. Keep it slow.”
With an abrupt motion, Jerry reaches up and manages to open the wardrobe door.
“No, no, no! Don’t look, not now. What are you doing?”
“Looking at the three of you,” Jerry says, and takes a breath.
He has been buried beneath the ruins of an earthquake before, and then he felt a kind of keep on moving, keep on moving, keep on moving. He has the same feeling now, flowing like some sort of program for his hands and his feet, and perhaps sometime: he grabs hold of the man, pushes him back, and knocks him onto the bed. He takes out a box of matches, lights one, and moves it toward its greenish cover. And once the flame catches, he extends his index finger and places it over his lips, as if to say: Hush!
“Say the magic word!” Jerry whispers. He raises his head and looks up at the man from below. His stomach is glistening. All the hairs on his forearms are glistening. What a commotion, that earthquake. The man is writhing, pressing Jerry’s head against his stomach, as if to say: ask my stomach, ask whatever you want!
Jerry feels that it takes mountains of strength to emerge from the ruins and begin walking. The earthquake occurred many years ago, he thinks. He walks along the path that runs behind the older man’s apartment. There’s a light on in the window. There never was an earthquake, he thinks. Life is just like that, broken. The man calls to him from the window: “Hey, you forgot your gift!”
Jerry stands erect out of physical recognition, like an animal that is sleeping or wounded. Out of the same instinct he opens the notebook. A mad wind blows, and the intensity of the madness causes characters to move in and out from between the lines. He feels as if he is being carried on their backs, like Nils Holgersen on the back of the wild goose. From this height, the fields look like hopscotch squares and the houses are tiny. He thinks about Nils who heard the language of the wild geese, which has only two words: one that is more or less the equivalent of what is known as sky, and another for all other things.
This vinegar is exactly ninety-nine years old, if the calculations I jotted down on my calendar of motivational quotes are correct, because the perfume was produced exactly a week before the enormous concrete head of Saddam Hussein hit the ground. The proverb of the day was: The kangaroo keeps her young in her pouch, the perfumer keeps his in his nose. The city was in chaos. The syrup factory workers were rushing home on their motorbikes, carrying empty tins that were no use to anyone and would be sold a few days later to a nursery as containers for growing carnations; as for the syrup, they’d left it oozing in the press. All of Basra was being pressed, and the syrup of agitation and anxiety was dribbling out of it; number one on the list of the top ten things being squeezed just then was the president’s head under the feet of the citizenry, while the factory’s syrup came in last. Numbers two to nine were large noses under angry feet.
I was sold it by one of the employees of the National Snot Bank, a rotund young man who has a nervous habit of fiddling with his collar and twitching his neck when he speaks to you. We’ve developed a close relationship, and he’s become my agent, so I no longer need to review the bank’s biannual report. He visits us and collects our snot reserves in insulated containers; the snot extraction process being highly delicate, and governed by strict legal terms and conditions, Salman Day By spends three hours with us each time—for that is indeed his name: Salman Day By. It’s said that his great-grandfather was deaf and mute as a child, and spent the hot afternoons on the banks of the Tigris (the Tigris was a small river which some theologians have speculated never existed and was in fact dreamed up by sinners, rakes and watermelon-juice drinkers). Day By Day, to use his full name, always clutched a lighter in each hand, the pockets of his dishdasha full of other, broken, lighters and his fingers ragged and torn from constantly flicking them alight. Between you and me, this great-grandfather was a simpleton nobody paid any attention to – but then he became famous in a matter of weeks when a short video of him speaking for the first time, to two American soldiers accompanied by an Iraqi interpreter, went viral.
The Day By Day clan went on to produce some of the most well-known businesspeople in the country, and amongst their descendants they count a TV presenter famous for his acerbic interviews of politicians, a gynaecologist, a pop producer, and a diminutive actor who appeared in one of Peter Spike’s films (in a five-second scene showing a confrontation between two great armies in the third century BC). And here, in the heart of Basra, we have the famous Day By Day mosque, now around 70 years old. I can’t imagine it will ever disappear, or its name change: the Day By Day mosque is a weighty icon in the citizenry’s collective memory, and you often see it on TV as a backdrop for whichever local media personality is appearing as a guest on the BBC. It was designed by a prizewinning British architect of Iraqi origin and is shaped like a rectangle; sprouting from the top by way of minarets are two palm trees, which incline slightly towards each other such that the azan comes out in stereo – the architect of the noble Day By Day clearly wanted to play with the symbolism of unity, harmony and longevity – and now, Salman’s family name no longer refers to the kid with the lighters but to these twin minarets. If he ever boasts to us, while draining our noses, of his remarkable professionalism or the bourgeois elegance and tact he brings to bear on the process of mucus extraction and storage, we don’t interrupt and give him the pleasure of listening to a human with a blocked nose, we just defy him by mocking the slogan of the National Snot Bank: ‘Ever tried singing with a blocked nose? It’ll make you happy, lucky and rich!’
Salman is in love with his boss at the bank, a woman in her fifties responsible for drawing everyone’s attention to the crook in his neck and his habit of fiddling with his collar and the second button of his shirt whenever he wants to speak: she rebuked him for it once, and kicked him out of her office, standing in the doorway as she spoke so as to be sure all the employees could hear her. After that, Salman’s tic became chronic; he’d do it unconsciously once, then on purpose dozens of times, to the point he became renowned for it. And not only did his boss reject him, she also insulted him and made fun of his face and his appearance, and even his family, mocking the fact they used to sell honey, vinegar and homemade hot sauce, leaving out the great mosque and the other more illustrious facets of their history.
This is the sort of thing Salman confides to me when we sit alone in the garden. I don’t like my children to hear when I’m evacuating my nose, and prefer the neighbours to listen instead: I actually want my neighbour to hear, as I’ve been trying to convince him for a long time that the sound of a man’s nose is a good indicator of his health and virility. Once, Salman got so annoyed at the sight of the neighbours’ heads popping up and disappearing again behind the wall that he packed up his metal containers and left, while I myself was pleasantly surprised.
Today I took out the vinegar I bought from him. The last of the children left earlier on the Euphrates train, with a warning that I mustn’t go back to licking the vinegar jar, and I swore I wouldn’t, knowing full well I’d slurp up a whole tablespoonful the moment he left the house, which is indeed what I did. And what a long and tedious farewell! He kept telling me I really ought to try the Euphrates train for myself, that it was so fast it would catapult him to the Gulf of Oman in just fourteen minutes, convincing passengers that the government’s decision to convert the dry riverbed into a tunnel hadn’t been so pointless after all. Once he’d said that, one eye on my index finger which was twirling in the air and dipping itself in imaginary vinegar, he left.
The snot is transferred from small vessels to large aluminium containers and transported north to the Gulf of Basra – the Inversion Project, which will convert south to north, is still in progress, by the way; I heard recently that workers are finding large snot reserves there, and that the project is running behind schedule: all that’s been achieved on the ground is the upending of the ground, while the hardest task of all still remains, namely to work out how people will be able to walk one way when they think they’re walking the other, or turn right when they’re turning left, by which I mean to say that the holdup is in the psychological preparations. They’re having to run opposite-direction induction workshops to train people in the new schema. Next comes the biological stage, which is slightly easier: take your stomach and your reproductive organs to your family doctor and have them perform a topical ointment massage and irrigation, and you’ll soon notice your body rotating to adapt to the new orientation – or at least that’s what the brochures and billboards and the posters in public toilets are promising.
Once that’s all over, I’ll be able to relax, and I’ll stop complaining to people, and everyone will understand that I’m just a regular guy who loves the inspirational sayings written in calendars. I’m just one in a long line of employees whose responsibility over many decades has been to draw the direction of the qibla in the Day By Day Mosque (should I have mentioned that sooner?), though I know my appearance might not be that of a lowly employee of the Day By Day family – and in fact my salary comes from the government, because the mosque belongs to the Ministry of Endowments.
But first, a week of intense work lies before me, because it’s me who’ll be responsible for reversing the arrows which mark the qibla after the enormous earthen prayer mat on which I and two hundred million other citizens reside has been flipped back to front. That said, compared to the fish in their marble pools, who will suffer immensely as the respiratory functions of their gills are inverted, my task should be quite fun; I used to do something similar as a child, when I’d scour the walls of streets frequented by lovers, and scrutinise tree trunks in search of their arrows, the kind they draw when no-one’s looking, and when I found them, scrape off their tips and make them point the other way. The fish and donkeys, with their innate sense of direction (not to mention their owners), will have a much harder time of it when their turn comes.
Salman Day By’s not scheduled to come tonight, so I won’t have the chance to show him I can drink an entire bottle of aged eau de toilette vinegar. Nor will I get to make fun of him for the fact his great-grandfather heard George Dubya’s first speech (“Day by day, the Iraqi people are closer to freedom!”) and uttered his first words – “day by day,” straight from the President’s lips – for two soldiers who got a kick out of poking fun at fat little boys, and in so doing became instantly famous. But all that’s become a fatuous refrain I repeat to irritate him and shut him up; I ought to summon up the spirit of the retired arrow-tip chopper instead and give him a free session on how to tie his shoelaces when the new orientational system comes into force.
*This story is taken from: “Iraq + 100: Stories from a Century After the Invasion”, ed. Hassan Blasim, Comma Press, 2016.
Six olives contain as many calories as a small steak. Could that be right? She’d read it out of the corner of her eye in a magazine belonging to a woman in a faded ski sweater sitting next to her on the metro. It came from an article about common dietary myths featuring surprising graphics: a large cup of cocoa is as fattening as a mid-sized ice-cream, fifty grams of peanuts or half a litre of beer; six olives were the same as a small steak, etc. Could that be right? She’d never really understood how calories work; it had never been an issue for her. Maybe they were just making it up. According to her Chinese doctor, calories weren’t what mattered; they were part of it but mostly it depended on your body and the type of food in question.
She walked hurriedly down the platform of Chacarita station. Now that she was about to see Espina, she began to ask herself why she had insisted on meeting in person and whether it was a good idea. What would the doctor think about what she was doing? What was she doing? Nothing. She was meeting up with Javier Espina so he could give her a copy of his next film and then maybe they’d go for a coffee. Espina had written to her out of the blue to ask whether she could translate some subtitles for him. She hadn’t heard from him for months. He could just have emailed her the script or a link to the film, but something made her say that she’d love to, why didn’t they meet up? She’d hesitated over signing off with a kiss, a hug or just ‘best’. The latter seemed too formal and the former implied some form of inappropriate physical contact. She ended it with a simple ‘thanks’. Espina answered four days later. A curt note saying that he could make her a copy. She said great, if it’s not too much trouble, and again got stuck over the sign-off: she could ask him to leave it at somebody’s house or with the secretary at school. But that would be too cold and distant. Then again, suggesting they meet for a drink would be too much. In the end, she said they could meet up one afternoon in the week; she got out of school at three and passed by Chacarita station on her way home. He liked that idea, but when he asked when, her mental schedule cluttered up instantly. This week was difficult, but next week was fine. Ten days of silence, no word from Espina. She was the one to get back in touch, apologizing: she’d been so busy, this week would be difficult, too, but next week for sure. A few days later Espina sent her a blank email without a subject line or anything, and she answered it with the suggestion that they meet at four at Chacarita station, if that was OK with him. On the Tuesday Espina wrote to confirm and gave her his new number, just in case. That Thursday, at lunchtime, she sent him a message saying that something had come up, sorry, they’d have to do it another time. In fact, nothing had come up apart from an inexplicable argument with Adrian that morning and an overbearing anxiety as the hour of their encounter approached. By putting ‘time’ instead of ‘day’ she hoped to clear away a mist that had grown stifling. Espina was patient and understanding. Or maybe he just didn’t care; maybe this was all in her head. After several more back and forths, they ended up arranging to meet at the same place, at the same time, on the same day of the week. A Thursday; this Thursday. A month and a half, twenty emails and fourteen text messages later, here she was.
It had been silly to suggest they meet in person, she realized that now. But not that silly. The silly part was the thirty-four messages. She’d calculated on arriving a little late, ten or fifteen minutes… but now she’d left it too long, and when she didn’t see him standing under the main arch of the station she regretted her tardiness. What if he’d got impatient and left? She scanned the faces of the passers-by with the same manic, flickering intensity as she looked at the newspapers and magazines in the kiosk in the main hall. She couldn’t help scrutinizing typos, lapses in grammar or bodily flaws: a woman who was so short and fat that she looked wider than she was tall; a guy who was missing an arm and had the empty sleeve tied around his neck; another with a pock-marked face, as though he’d suffered from a virulent form of chicken pox or had been spattered with a pan of boiling oil when he was a boy. Although she kept repeating to herself that there was nothing wrong with what she was doing, there was nothing wrong with what she was doing, what she was doing had been a little wrong ever since she’d started to feel guilty about writing to Espina and insisting they meet. She was stepping back into a minefield she’d thought long since buried many metres below ground. In a nuclear bunker. And now she’d insulted him by arriving so late. Guilt began to bubble up from some hidden deposit in her body.
How far could one flee on a train from Chacarita station? General Lemos. Someone tapped her on the shoulder. She was sure it was him, the sudden rush of blood left her in no doubt. Espina’s expression looked like that of a man who wasn’t very happy to have been kept waiting. Instead of apologizing, she asked him how he was with a shamelessness that surprised her, because somehow it seemed aimed at sabotage, ensuring that their meeting would be over in the blink of an eye having collapsed under its own weight. Espina stepped back to a respectable distance. Fine, he replied, barely opening his mouth. It sounded warm and welcoming, he wasn’t upset. There was something about his half-open mouth and the gleam in his eyes, the disproportionately large nose that somehow suited him. There was definitely something about him. After he’d been so prominent in her thoughts for the past few weeks, and having gone so many months without seeing him, she had to readjust the image she had of him in her head to fit the one standing right in front of her. She imagined that he must be doing something similar and tried to fix her features into the position that she thought suited her best. They’d last seen each other in the summer and had ended up so close to one another that all she’d been able to see were his cheekbones, eyes and some of his hair as he kissed her so passionately that there was no way she could have resisted, not that she had wanted to.
Espina wrongfooted her by asking whether she had time to come with him, he had to go somewhere close by. A short walk. She said she did, she was free until seven. They crossed the avenue to the entrance to the municipal cemetery. Then, as always, every day of the week, people were coming and going, wandering around the city of the dead with its neighbourhoods for the rich and poor. The idea of going for a walk around there came as a relief. It was an innocent setting, a neutral balm upon a potentially explosive encounter. There was nothing wrong with going for a walk with a man she’d kissed six months ago, a man she thought about every now and then, a man she wanted to see again even if she was ready to stop him short if he tried something. She wasn’t going to sleep with him, just for a walk. Not even a drink. But if there was nothing wrong with it, why was she feeling this combination of excitement and guilt?
She asked if they were going to the cemetery. Espina said they were going to a cemetery but not the municipal one. A small British cemetery next door. He had to take a photo of a particular grave to send to another film director, a friend of his. It was a slightly irritating job he’d been putting off for weeks because Chacarita was out of his way. They passed by the flower stalls and large portico and went on along the deserted pavement that ran around the cemetery wall. Espina was wearing a checked shirt, a heavy coat and dark trousers that had seen better days. She had made sure to wear everyday clothes: the black trousers that were a little tight on her, the green jacket, the shoes that Adrian had brought her back from his last trip and her favourite coat that winter, a black waterproof one with a hood. These were definitely her ordinary work clothes, but maybe she’d put a little more thought into the combination. Or maybe it was just the unusual touch of eyeliner and wearing her hair loose with a shaggy, side-swept fringe. There was definitely something. She’d noticed it this morning at school, the eager way in which a couple of colleagues and many of the fourth- and fifth-year students had looked at her.
The scant sunlight that filtered through the thick foliage of the huge trees lining Avenida Elcano was insufficient to burn off the perennial dampness. Across from the road curving around the cemetery was a railway line heading west from the station. On the other side of the rails and chain-link fences she saw the squat houses of a neighbourhood that looked completely inaccessible from where they were, although an iron footbridge appeared further on. They talked to the beat their footsteps on the pavement. Conversation flowed, hopping from topic to topic: they tried to decide whether it was cold or not, whether the temperature could still be described as mild, which of the books by a friend they had in common was their favourite, how exhausting it was to go back to work at the school after the winter holidays. A trip to a festival in South Korea that Espina had had to turn down.
Espina said that she looked different. So he remembered her face. Different in a good or bad way, she asked. Good, of course. His lips formed his characteristic half-smile, revealing just a couple of teeth. His eyebrows arched, and his eyes settled on hers as he waved his hands to lend emphasis to what he was saying. He had grown unexpectedly eloquent. Or at least they didn’t stop talking for the entirety of their walk. Ten minutes along the wall of the municipal cemetery, passing the occasional side entrance, the odd locked gate, not much else. At one point she started to worry. Where was he taking her? It wasn’t that she didn’t trust Espina – although if she thought about it, what did she really know about him? – but if something happened to them, if they were accosted by a stranger, for instance, they’d have to shout pretty loud for someone to hear. We’ll be there in a second, Espina said calmly with an adventurer’s aplomb. It was as though he were getting ready to grab her arm, drag her to the next station along the line and jump onto the first train that came along to take her far away from there. Far, far away. Not that they could go very far on that line. The suburbs, or maybe a little further.
Wasn’t it strange, he was saying now, that Chacarita Cemetery had been built on what had then been the outskirts of the city and now it was right at the centre? Why had she told him that she was free until seven if they were just going on a brief detour, with maybe a quick coffee at the station afterwards? Who was asking these questions? Were they coming from her, or was this Adrian’s voice echoing inside of her? The guilt started to well up inside her again, and this time it must have reached the surface because her neck and face had grown warm. She was blushing as if she’d been caught with her hand in the till. Now she didn’t know what to think or what to do. She checked the time on her phone and started to write something endearing to Adrian. Then she thought again and put the phone back in her coat pocket with the message only half written.
The avenue curved in such a way that the German Cemetery almost snuck up on them. Espina told her that it was just a few metres more, and before they got to the end, or the beginning, of Avenida Elcano, on the western side of the gigantic expanse that was Chacarita Cemetery, opposite the first stop on the Lemos line, they arrived at the British Cemetery. They went in through a gate in the iron railings. It looked completely deserted. They walked up to a chapel. It was like a small park, a veritable secret garden of peace and quiet with paths wending around carefully tended lots, austere monuments and a silence broken by the remote sound of cars and buses heading down the avenue, the occasional train stopping at the station and intermittent birdsong. It was the meadow on the other side of the rainbow, an oasis in a bustling city. Espina seemed to know where he was going, and she let him take the lead. He had to take a photo of a grave he and a British friend of his had visited ten years ago. The grave belonged to the friend’s grandfather. He remembered that it was to the left and next to the wall but not much more. He knew the name and surname: they could go and look it up in the administrator’s office, but that wouldn’t be so much fun, he said.
They wandered around, peering at gravestones, reading names and inscriptions. No one else was to be seen, although there was ample evidence of the caretakers’ work: a rake and a shovel leaning against a tree, a neatly coiled-up hose, a tap with an erratic drip, recently mown grass and a wheelbarrow that was empty save for a metal watering can. Most of the trees were pines and limes, but there were others she didn’t know the names of. Was Espina the kind of man who knew the names of plants and trees? From the night that he’d kissed her on the film producer’s patio she remembered the warmth of his lips and how her body had throbbed and her left leg had juddered. Plus the sweet smell of summer flowers. It must have been jasmine.
The main asphalt path was criss-crossed with narrower gravel ones that were in turn crossed by even narrower trails only wide enough for one person. As they walked along them, they brushed against each other, or Espina stopped to let her pass and she could feel his eyes on her – they were rather less discreet than his half-smiles – on her back, the back of her head, neck and hands. They stopped in front of an ivy-draped grave. It belonged to the Hermosilla family. Her eye was caught by an inscription: Nemesia C de Hermosilla. 19th December, 1865–4th May, 1958 next to one for Sara Hermosilla. 16/11/1896–10/5/1958. One was much older than the other, but they’d died only six days apart. As though after the death of her mother, the daughter had died of sadness at the age of sixty-three, she said. Or maybe they were in a traffic accident and the mother died immediately but the daughter lingered on for a week, said Espina, who was immediately distracted by a stone that read: Peter Doherty, died 20th November, 1938. And then by one for Alejandro Rendina, who died in February 1968, two days after he was born. Espina said that he found the death of a baby devastating but also perfectly pure.
Espina pointed to a wooden bench sitting in a pool of winter sunlight. How long had it been since she’d slept with someone who wasn’t Adrian? Was that a good thing? Was that what it meant to be in love or was she just doing her duty as a girlfriend? Would five years with Adrian be the equivalent of three or four months with a guy like Espina, like with the olives and the steak? An extended, three-month weekend before he left you for the star of his next film. But what did that have to do with anything? They cut across a section of plots without tombstones or inscriptions. The earth was disturbed as though someone had recently been buried or old remains had been dug up. The soil had a different consistency under their feet. It was still loose and their shoes sunk in deeper than elsewhere.
It was originally called the Non-Conformist Cemetery, and its first location was on the corner of Juncal and Esmerelda. The first occupant had been one John Adams, a thirty-year-old carpenter. Before that, non-Catholics had been buried by the side of the river. As well as the British, it was also occupied by Germans, Americans, French and Jews. It quickly filled up, and they opened a second one, Victoria, which was shared by the British, Americans and Germans. Victoria Cemetery was at what’s now known as Pasco and Alsina. She knew where that was; her grandmother lived a couple of blocks away. You know where the plaza is now? Well, a hundred years ago it was a cemetery, but the city grew and the local residents campaigned to have it moved. So land was set aside behind Chacarita Cemetery: one section for the British and other Anglo-Saxons and another for the Germans. Meanwhile, Victoria Cemetery was abandoned. The decades passed, and it became a wasteland. A little while ago they turned it into a plaza. The graves weren’t moved, at least not the ones belonging to families that couldn’t afford to pay for the transfer. Any that were at least a metre and a half below ground were left intact. A few years ago they were doing renovation work in the plaza, and when they dug up the sandpit they found a marble tombstone for the grave of ten-month-old German girl along with bones, necklaces and bottles.
She rummaged in her bag for cigarettes. It was her first of the day. She couldn’t stop herself from telling him that the Chinese doctor she went to, whose name was Alejandra but she was fully Chinese, had told her not to smoke more than one or two a day. She had enough fire in her lungs already. But that wasn’t a bad thing at all, she hurriedly explained. Every time she went to see the doctor she got her talking. She valued everything she had to say about health and life in general; the doctor had a special kind of wisdom. Ever since he’d managed to get control of his vices, Espina had discovered that tobacco was the most pernicious but also the most inoffensive. To smoke a cigarette, he said longingly.
Espina asked her how her classes were going. Suddenly, talking to him about her work at school or the fact that he was showing interest in her everyday routine made things seem different, more vivid. She was glad that he was close by. It made her feel calm, bigger, inspired, and she didn’t think it ridiculous to assume that he was feeling the same way. He asked her if she was translating anything, and she made something up about a book of essays that were turning out to be pretty difficult, it was taking her longer than she’d expected. Maybe being close to Espina would mean that she lived life more intensely and stopped putting off what was really important. Then he asked after her students, how it felt to teach a class of teenagers, and she started to say that it was fine, it could be unbearable at times, but she liked it. He was a disaster at secondary school, but if he’d had a teacher like her, he said, he’d have learned English just to please her. He broke into another of his half-smiles.
Right behind the bench where they were sitting was a tombstone commemorating the Byrding family. Over the years it had been split in two by a tree trunk, very gradually, millimetre by millimetre. She could count the number of times they’d met on one hand, but each encounter had revealed a new facet of Espina. She was gradually beginning to sense that behind the womanizing dandy was something genuine and fragile, brilliant, if a little petulant. Her posture was defensive, as though she were anticipating some kind of move. The time he kissed her, an impartial observer, someone from the outside, a linesman or arbitrator of seduction, would not have ruled that she tried to push him away. But neither did she fully go along with the kiss. Rather, she allowed herself to be kissed until Espina pulled back a little to breathe and broke the spell. Then she’d said that she had to go, that this was wrong, very wrong. She had a boyfriend, please understand. She said sorry several times and then please as he walked her to the door.
Some time ago, when he’d just started out in the world of films, he’d worked for a film festival in the city. It was his job to accompany the foreign guests on their visit, day and night. One year he was tasked with accompanying Keith Reitzal, a kind of cult director. He was fun and jolly in spite of his years and asked very little of him. Except for one morning, the second to last, when Reitzal asked him to go with him somewhere: it was a ‘matter of life and death’. We got on the metro at Abasto and got off at Lacroze. I thought that he wanted a slice of pizza from one of the famous places around there, or maybe he wanted to visit Chacarita Cemetery to see the tombs of Gardel or Gatica. But we passed by the gates of the municipal cemetery and went on down the same pavement we came down today. I was surprised to see him walking so confidently through a little-known part of the city, somewhere I’d never been before. I suggested we take a taxi, it might be dangerous around here, but Reitzal said no. He was determined, he had to walk just like he’d done the last time. So you’ve been here before? Years ago the same festival had organized a retrospective in his honour. This isn’t my first visit to the city, but I fear that it might be my last, he said. He walked faster than I did. I had to make an effort to keep up. I started to worry about him, he looked as though he might collapse at any moment. When we finally got to the British Cemetery we went in and he led me straight to a grave at the back, to the left, next to the path that runs along the wall. There, we found a tombstone for someone with whom he shared a name: Keith Reitzal. His paternal grandfather. A British engineer sent to the Argentinian affiliate of a shipping company. He’d come with his wife and three children. My father was the youngest, he was just two at the time. Shortly after his arrival my grandfather was in a fatal accident at the port. At first, Keith’s grandmother decided to stay in the country: the company gave her a very generous pension and the house where they lived was a small mansion. But she couldn’t manage, she didn’t know the language and she had to raise three children on her own, so they went back. There were attempts to repatriate the remains, but then the war came and after that… Reitzal said, waving his hands in the same gesture he used to illustrate matters of ‘life and death’, it came to seem less important. His father always talked about his own father’s far-off grave in Argentina with a pain that was only alleviated by the knowledge that he had been moved to the British Cemetery, as though it were a foreign embassy of death, a small, neutral outpost of posthumous diplomacy.
Ever since his father’s death Reitzal had wanted to come to the country, but he’d never had a chance. He wasn’t going to go all that way just to visit a grave. Then he was invited to attend the festival. Back then he was still young and had walked on his own. But this time, he told me, as strange as it might seem, he’d agreed to come to talk about one of his films, something that he didn’t really do any more, just so he could stand in front of his grandfather’s grave. So what happened? she asked. Reitzal stood quietly for a few minutes, said Espina. The old man’s expression grew solemn but peaceful. I held out for as long as I could, but eventually I asked him if he’d rather be alone. That’s the last thing I want, he said. I don’t want to be alone. Like the sun, one should never look death in the face for too long. Take me away from here. Before they left the cemetery, Reitzal looked up at a Latin inscription. I asked him what it meant, and he told me in English that it was something like: ‘He who believes in me, shall live in death’. We hailed a taxi, and he asked me to take him for a drink. He had a craving for a herb-based German liqueur, but the closest thing we could find was Fernet, which he drank on its own with ice. Then he had another, and then we took a taxi so he would arrive in time to answer questions from the audience at the theatre where they were showing his film. That was at least ten years ago. He’d seen Keith at several other festivals across the world, but he’d never come back to Buenos Aires. A little while ago Keith had asked him to do him the favour of taking a photograph of his grandfather’s grave. He needed it for the cover of a book he was writing, an autobiography of a seventy-eight-year-old man, he said. Espina couldn’t decide whether he thought it was a great idea or just macabre.
As the afternoon went on, she felt them growing closer and closer. Their bodies, however, didn’t move at all. Espina sat upright and moved his arms as he spoke, his eyes shining. Every now and again he rubbed his nose and energetically scratched his head. There was something in his gestures, in his posture, in the way he was, a grace that could overwhelm any form of resistance. At one point he stretched out his hand to swipe at a mosquito, and she leaned back instinctively. Easy, he said. Espina was handsome. When he gave her an envelope containing the DVD with the copy of the film, he moved a little closer. A couple of nights later, watching the film alone in bed, she couldn’t help remembering his warm lips, the crazy beating of her heart, the mental effort it took to keep her leg still and the sweet smell of jasmine. But there was also the afternoon in the empty cemetery, hidden in a corner of the city, whiling away the afternoon with their chatter, as though they’d been teleported to the north of Europe for an hour and a half.
Throughout the afternoon she’d been worried that Espina would try to kiss her before they said goodbye and had mentally prepared a number of different ploys to evade him. Please, please. Actually she just had one: she’d been with a man for years. It had been right there, on the tip of her tongue, so much so that even though Espina never made a move, she said it anyway. He’d asked whether they lived together and she’d said, We have moved in together. It was an odd, stupid choice of words by which she’d meant that they had lived together in the past but it hadn’t worked out. But, of course, he’d interpreted it differently. He’d thought she’d just moved in with him and was living with him now, a misunderstanding that took a long time to clear up.
They would see each other again, many times, but they didn’t know that then. She asked him about the German Cemetery. It was similar to this one but neater, better looked after. Why don’t we take a peek? It’s just about to close; maybe they could do this again some time, he said. She thought that now the silent walk back to Chacarita would be awkward. Maybe it was better to say she was in a hurry and take a taxi. Had he meant to say that he wanted to see her again? She’d have agreed in a second, she’d have signed up right there and then, although she didn’t like to lie to Adrian. Telling him that she was going on walks around secret corners of the city with Espina was out of the question. Was it? She’d have to do something about this.
As if he knew that a kiss in these circumstances was out of the question, Espina had been cautious and carefree. He hadn’t made a move, or if he had it was imperceptible, millimetre by millimetre. She felt a mixture of relief and disappointment. What if he wasn’t attracted to her any more? She stood up and, rubbing her arms, said that the cold had got into her bones, they’d better go back. It was getting late.
I met Olegario and his son William in the town cantina. I’d been on the run for weeks, travelling drunkenly from one place to another. I slept in the car and ate when I was hungry. I didn’t care which town I’d arrive in. Eventually they all came to look the same: a plaza with a newspaper kiosk, a church, a cantina and cobbled streets.
Olegario spoke to me in English. I’m not a gringo, I said. He was about fifty and wore a hat, a Zapata moustache and cowboy boots but also an Oakland Raiders sleeveless vest. Can I buy you a drink? he asked. I told him he could, and he called Labios, a boy of about fifteen with a pink scar that split his mouth and palate in two. Another glass for my friend, he ordered. What are you drinking? he asked. Whatever.
Labios looked over to his boss, a thin old man called Cristino who was playing dominoes in the corner. The old man nodded and noted down my drink on a piece of cardboard he was also using to keep score.
I wasn’t in the mood to talk, but that didn’t discourage Olegario. He told me that he had been born in this town but had gone to California when he was very young. He’d returned to present his first grandson to the Virgin of Talpa. He said that she’d performed a miracle for him. Two miracles, in fact: she’d given him a grandchild and brought his son home safe from Iraq.
Miracles, I thought. Diego, I thought. Then I finished the Cuba Libre and started to chew on the ice.
His son came in a little later. He had a bottle of beer in his hand and was already swaying. I recognized him: he was the kid who’d been chasing girls around the plaza on a motorbike. He drove up onto the benches, charged at them and laughed when they ran away. As though it were funny. This is my Willy, the father said, wrapping his arm around the boy’s head and neck. His son wriggled out of the hug, said, Pleased to meet you, and laughed when he clinked his bottle against my glass and the foam flowed over my hand.
Labios came over immediately to clean up.
Willy had all the tics of a cocaine addict: he wrinkled his nose when he drank, blinked a lot and spoke over other people. When he’d finished his beer he took out fifty dollars and told Labios to serve another round on him. No, his father said, I’ll pay for it, and tucked the bill back into his son’s pocket, but Willy shouted in English, I’ll do what I like with my fucking money. His face was red and one of the veins on his head was throbbing. I earned it, didn’t I?
Labios picked the wrinkled note up from the floor and took it to Cristino. I don’t know how much we drank, I just remember that night fell. And that Cristino climbed up on a chair to turn a lamp around and the room was light, then dark, light, then dark, until it was all lit up and someone, maybe me, kicked over a beer and Labios mopped up. Olegario said, Don’t worry my friend, don’t cry, and everything inside me went dark, the sky was grey and black, and yellow light shone from a taco stall, and all I could think about was Diego …
I can’t remember how much I said, but Olegario told me to trust in the Virgin, She took care of my son in Iraq. I called William and asked him how he’d survived because sons always die on us, and he said that first he went to Australia and then to the African coast and then he came back to the States for two weeks. After that, the shooting began, they went into Baghdad to look for Saddam, and things were easier than they thought because the bastard had gone. So they started to look for him everywhere and killed all the sons of bitches they could find.
Olegario started to get upset about the things that his son was saying and at one point told him not to exaggerate. Will laughed. No, Dad, we were just picking flowers. Then he went for a piss, and Olegario apologized to me. He’s seeing an army psychologist, he told me. It’s normal.
Later, Will asked me if I’d seen YouTube videos made by terrorists when they blow up the American army’s tanks. I said that I had, and he started to talk about the videos, he couldn’t understand how someone could plan something like that and then record it so calm and calculated. He said that the worst thing was the moments immediately beforehand. A tank appeared on screen in a field, and you know what’s going to happen, I’ve seen how it ends, he said with sunken eyes. The tank rumbles on as though it were on a routine patrol, the people inside have no idea that someone’s filming them and especially not that we can see them, no one knows when it’s going to happen. That’s the worst part, he said, and then he made the sound of an explosion that had everyone in the cantina turning to stare at him.
Olegario blushed. He turned to look at everyone else, especially Cristino, who surveyed the scene from his game of dominoes. It’s not good for you to think about it, Willy, his father said. It’s in the past, you did your duty.
You talk like the men in suits, Will shouted. He was dangling his beer bottle from two of his fingers. They try to tell me how to act, but they never get their hands dirty, he shouted. The beer spat out foam and spilled onto Cristino’s wooden floor. What do you know about it, Dad? he said, just a few centimetres from his face. Olegario leaned backwards, more and more embarrassed. Thank God you’re OK, he said. The Virgin protected you. What fucking Virgin? Will shouted, and then he said in Spanish that the Virgin wasn’t worth shit, or Balls to the Virgin, or The Virgin can suck my cock.
Then Cristino, who’d put down his dominoes, said, Have more respect, young man, and William said, Fucking old cripple, stay out of it, and Cristino said, You can’t come here and act like that. Learn some respect. Will started to insult him in English, he said fuck you so much that Cristino had him thrown out. The old man’s dominoes buddies, three fat farm hands, crowded around the soldier, and he smashed a bottle over the heads of one of them.
I found an account by Raymond Cross, another soldier in Iraq, on a blog. The translation is mine:
“After the operation in the terrorists’ training camp, we went on a recon mission. Among the bodies of the bastards who were getting ready to blow up our tanks and planes, and even trains and buses with innocent civilians on them, I recognized a man.
“I nudged him with my boot. He didn’t move. Then I bent down and touched his neck. I’d seen him two or three weeks before, during a mission after the bombardment of a terrorist village. The ground was still smoking and there were small fires everywhere, as well as that white dust you get after bombings. The man appeared in the rubble with a dirty beard and face. He was shouting for someone and tried to come over to Panda, but we pointed our guns at his head and the bastard stopped. Friend, friend, he said with his hands raised. Danny searched him. He was clean. The sergeant came over and started to talk to him in Iraqi. We didn’t understand what he was saying, the translator hadn’t come with us, but he seemed truly desperate. Then he started to cry and pull his hair and said, Boys, boys, several times, in English. He went back off into the rubble and disappeared.
“When the mission was over – there was no one left in the village – and we got back to the armoured car, we saw him again. He was crying over the body of a small child, maybe eight or nine, lying on a cart full of mangled melons that gave off the only sweet scent there was that afternoon. The boy was wearing a Ronaldinho shirt, the one the Barcelona footballer wears, and blue flip-flops dangled from his little toes.
“When he saw us, he started to curse.”
After the funeral, Amalia left with her sister. She locked herself in a dark room and refused to see me. I couldn’t sleep in our bed. I woke up at the usual times – twelve, three and five in the morning – as though I still had to turn Diego over to keep his blood circulating. I went to his room and looked at his empty cot with the rails still up to stop him from falling. Gravity weighed more than his body. In the shadows I saw the chair that Amalia sat in to talk to him even though he couldn’t understand. I saw the harness and swing we used to move him when he got older, the wheelchair, folded up, unmoving, the stand for his drip and the nasogastric tube.
I thought that with time … but Amalia refused to see me. Her sister told me that she refused to eat and cried all day, looking at photographs of Diego. I tried to get her out of the room, to make her eat, but she accused me, from the other side of the door, of not suffering enough. It’s as though you wanted to get rid of him, she said.
For years I had a dream in which Amalia and I went to a beach or a mountain, and we didn’t need to ask anyone for impossible explanations, I dreamed that we could sleep as long as we wanted without fear of death intruding, that we were alone again and she got pregnant. And there I was, crying in the middle of the night in the empty bedroom that still smelled of medicine, afraid that she’d go crazy and not yet realizing that I would never understand who our son, the stranger we’d fussed over for twelve years, was, why he managed to survive for so long and why we so keenly missed someone who never even knew we existed.
I don’t believe in God, but the Bible still has answers. There’s a scene in Genesis, I don’t know if it’s on heaven or earth, when three strangers visit Abraham and Sarah, nomads from the desert. After resting in the shade, drinking goat’s milk and eating curd, a voice that miraculously belongs to both Jehovah and the three men says, Sarah will have a child.
Sarah, who’s listening to the conversation going on behind her, thinks that she’s ninety-nine and has already gone through the menopause. She can only laugh. What are you laughing at, Sarah? Jehovah (or the three guests) asks. I wasn’t laughing, Sarah says, and in the text there is an explanatory parenthesis, one of those parentheses that are like suction pumps: (“She was afraid”).
I find something hurtful about the reticence. Is that all it has to say about a withered old woman discovering that she can finally have a child? As though we didn’t already know that to be a parent is essentially to live in constant fear. What if something happens? What if I die? How will it survive?
The Bible story goes on, and after a short, or long, life of 105 verses, God asks Abraham to kill his son. With a knife. On a mountain top. God asks him to burn the body.
(And all the narrator says is that it took them three days to get there: three days in a few words.)
We know how it ends, because in all good stories, especially good biblical stories, the end is revealed in the first phrase: it was one of God’s tests.
I could say that I have a congenital disease. At first I was unaware, but now we know how it ends: with Diego, my son. Amalia and I did tests, and the doctors said go on, you can get pregnant again, but fifteen weeks in it was confirmed that the baby wasn’t developing properly. One of Jehovah’s tests, the narrator of Genesis would say, but that’s all they’d say. No, I said, looking at my unmoving baby, thinking of my poisoned genes. And after visiting the doctor so he could kill him, Amalia locked herself in a dark room and refused to talk to me.
That was the first time.
I went back to the town three years later. During that period I dreamed I was back in Cristino’s cantina several times. I dreamed of William, most of all I dreamed of his voice. Provocative. Violent. Resentful. His words mingled with my pain, images of cold dunes in the Iraqi desert and Amalia’s silence and a tank being turned into a coffin.
The only hotel in town was occupied by a group of gringos. As I looked for a place to stay, I saw Olegario in a butcher’s. He was with a pair of other men who must have been relatives, trying to cut up a chunk of meat, or a cow liver, pancreas or kidney.
I went over to say hello, and he didn’t recognize me. I reminded him of when we’d met. He smiled for a moment and nodded. How’s Willy? I asked. You remember! he said and then bowed his head. He pressed down on the meat with one hand while the other reached for a huge knife and split it open down the middle. It was vividly red but didn’t bleed.
I thought that he’d have three convictions under his belt for domestic violence and two more for drunk driving, that he suffered from recurring insomnia, that the pills didn’t chase away the shades of his dead friends. Or maybe one night he’d tripped on the stairs in his building and killed his baby, or crashed his motorbike against the wall of a school, or had become a junky, or was awaiting death in a prison in Orange County for smuggling the organs of Guatemalan children.
He went back to Iraq and was killed, said Olegario.
After standing in silence for a while I asked him if I could buy him a beer. We crossed the plaza and went into the cantina. Cristino, sitting in his usual spot, nodded at Olegario. He looked at me but without recognizing me. Then he told the waiter to serve us.
Labios wasn’t there any more.
She had been married for five years – and still nothing. Her relatives felt pity and compassion for her; it was not usual for women to be barren in her large family, where children had always abounded. Every woman on her side and her husband’s side of the family had children. Lots of children! Big-eyed curly-haired boys and girls, in all sizes; they called her auntie, and it made her feel sick. She did not feel any hatred towards them; rather, it was the comments and reproaches of her husband and mother-in-law that had turned her into a taciturn and hardworking woman. She had no interest in chatting with the others on the doorstep. Rózka was big, strong, but nevertheless beautiful. Her hair was fairer than the rest of her kin, her skin was not as dark and her eyes sparkled with gold. This already set her apart from the others.
Rózka was healthy, so she devoted herself to her work, labouring in the fields and in the household until dark. Her husband had not yet come to terms with her not giving him a child, and drank all the more, until his tanned face stopped smiling. They lived in one room with his mother and father, and she would return there from the fields or from the cattle when dusk was falling.
Once when she came home, her mother-in-law and her husband weren’t in and her father-in-law lay drunk on the bed. She asked where the others were – he only muttered unintelligibly to the effect that her husband had taken his mother to town to his sister. Apparently she wasn’t well. Rózka ate her supper and went to lie down.
She was woken by his alcoholic breath and he was crushing her completely with the weight of his body. She couldn’t resist in any way, not even by screaming. He had covered her mouth with his huge hand and helplessly she looked into his crimson face … When he had finished he stood over her and told her she mustn’t tell anyone – anyway, they wouldn’t believe her. He slammed the door shut and she could only hear the clock clanging in time with the beating of her frightened heart.
Her husband came home about an hour later, didn’t even turn the light on, lay down next to her, turned over and soon fell asleep. He did not embrace her or even touch her, as if she were not there at all. She wanted to tell him everything, but had no strength left in her, and she spent the rest of the night staring into the dark; her thoughts, fear and humiliation mingled with the tears that streamed down her cheeks.
The old man continued to ignore her just as he had before, but her mother-in-law looked on with a smile as she threw up in the mornings and as her curves grew nicely. The smile returned to her husband’s dark face and he was kinder and more generous to her. The neighbours finally had something to talk about, while Rózka and her mother-in-law prepared the baby’s outfits and discussed what name to give it.
One month before the birth was due she had a dream. In it she saw her father-in-law and a child that resembled him. In the dream they were very evil and hurting her. When she woke up in terror, she could still hear their fearful laughter. She broke out in a cold sweat; she already knew that she didn’t want the child, that it would bring her damnation all her living days.
She gave birth to a son; they named him Karči, after the father-in-law. Rózka suppressed the strange repulsion she felt towards the baby and took it into her arms. Her son looked at her just like an adult and smirked malignantly as he narrowed his eyes. She quickly laid him back in his crib and shied away. Nobody noticed and everybody milled around and smiled at him; it was only she who saw that he was different from the other newborn babies, and that he was watching her with his coal-black, squinting eyes.
In the night, when everybody was asleep, a noise woke her. She sat up in bed and looked around: she discovered with shock that the boy was standing next to her bed with an eerie sneer on his face. She was surprised to find that he had teeth. He gave a sinister snigger and scampered back to his crib. She screamed until everybody woke up in alarm; they sleepily lit a lamp and asked her what had happened. She told them tearfully what she had seen. Her husband suspected that she had dreamed it, and her mother-in-law rushed to have a look at the baby, who was sleeping innocently. As it started to whimper and then cry, the old woman took it into her arms and comforted it. Then she came over to Rózka and scolded her for not loving her own child and ordered her to breastfeed him – the boy was surely hungry. Rózka was completely confused but took the child and offered her breast. The boy started sucking immediately. Suddenly she felt a sharp pain: the little one had bit her nipple to the flesh, and blood gushed out. She pushed him away onto the blanket at the foot of the bed and complained in tears that the child had bitten her. The mother-in-law picked up the baby and passed her finger over its toothless gums. Her daughter-in-law must be wrong. She chided her and everybody came to the conclusion that Rózka had cut herself on purpose so as not to have to breastfeed. The old woman decided that she would feed the baby cows’ milk and told the young mother that she would look after her grandson herself since his mother had rejected him. The grandmother took the child to bed with her and her husband; and so that night came to a close.
Nobody spoke to Rózka in the morning. The young woman felt miserable. She didn’t know what to do, how to tell them everything that had happened and that the baby was actually a sin about which she had kept silent; that he was actually the devil’s little helper in a child’s disguise.
Barely a week later they found the old woman dead. She lay in bed with her eyes open wide, and the child giggled next to her waving its arms and legs in the air. Rózka knew that it had killed her mother-in-law, and that it would continue to kill. Nobody listened to her; they thought she had gone crazy and was talking nonsense. They assumed the death of the old woman had been caused by a heart attack.
During the following night Rózka decided to stay awake and keep an eye on the child. When it thought everybody was asleep it slowly climbed out of the crib and scuttled over to her husband’s bedside. She pretended she was sleeping but watched the creature through her eyelashes to see what would happen. The child pulled the pillow from under the man’s head and pushed it down on his face. It had such strength that even when the man was kicking and trying to pull the pillow off, it still held him down and the man gradually became weaker. Rózka jumped up and tried to tear the pillow out of the baby’s hands. Its strength was tremendous: it pushed her over and continued to smother her husband. She picked up a chair and hit the baby on the head. It started to squeak and made noises like a goblin.
Suddenly a light came on and the old man and his half-dead son beheld an awful sight. Rózka was on the ground covered in blood: the small child, with bulging eyes and twisted face, was tossing her around and punching her face with its puny fists. Both men rushed to the young woman’s assistance. The goblin attacked them too. The younger man caught it by the legs and smashed it against the wall. It fell to the ground, quickly picked itself up and darted to the door, squealing. It turned around one last time before escaping into the darkness with a blood-chilling screech.
The young man took Rózka into his arms and wiped her face with a cloth. His hands were shaking and he was crying. The woman was barely breathing. The door creaked open and closed and she looked through it apprehensively into the dark night as though she expected the devilish child to return.
*This story was published in: Povídky: Short Stories by Czech Women, Ed. Nancy Hawker, copyright © Nancy Hawker, 2006.
Night has descended on the military headquarters. Darkness veiling the barracks like a dewy tarpaulin. A man’s shadow stretches from the top floor of the Ministry of Defense’s office like a large bird, then vanishes, leaving Yair alone in its calm decampment. ‘Like a killer around the corner,’ Psoriasis had said, while putting on his full pack in the dark. Yair knew how to hide his feelings, and would have given a lot for these moments to last for he loved his new army buddies, his comrades from all sorts of places across the country, all sorts of medical conditions. Among them was even an epileptic guy, as well as three asthmatics, four with ulcers, and two suffering from depression. All had been enlisted for one reason or another, and guarded for one reason or other the state’s most sensitive mastermind – not counting the U.S Embassy, which was guarded by Marine soldiers. Yair enjoyed sitting with them in their rooms, while they got ready for the night watch, and could have even forgiven his father, who forced this enlistment on him, for maybe this was what his father had had in mind, that he would go out a while into the world and make new friends. After all you can’t be caged up at home like a nocturnal reptile not even knowing the names of the kids in class (he knew, he knew, he knew very well, he only told his father that he didn’t know), and yet he will never forgive his father. After all, the joy flooding through him now has nothing to do with his enmity towards that shadow falling from the window, that transient fear like an invisible gust of wind, not fear, but a clear knowledge that he is doomed, and that he must not fear, for nothing will alter the verdict. Not murder, nor madness, nor suicide. Dad sits and watches over him here as well. He is here because of Dad, and Dad is here because of him. And no, not suicide. He would never commit suicide, he is of sensitive skin, and his life is not worth the drama.
He loved his friends from the unit, particularly because they made fun of themselves, called themselves by the names of their medical conditions – even though he was the only man in the platoon who was known by his real name, that is the one given to him by his parents. He too had wanted, hardly dared, but had almost asked to be known by his, but something prevented them from doing so. How very much he longed to be nicknamed like them with contemptuous names, only that his father did not allow him to mock himself, did not sanction this kind of humour, believed that with this kind of humour his son would never get well, that this kind of humour was too Jewish, not Israeli enough. So supposed Yair, for he had never told his father a thing of his friends’ customs and certainly didn’t dare confess that here too he was an alien, an outsider, and yet, on the other hand, here he loved them, a great love he loved them, and was capable of standing up and hugging everyone.
During the day, when they would see an officer marching their way, even if they were walking in a group, they would immediately disperse, and switch to walking in a long line, so that each of them could salute the same officer separately, and keep him saluted in earnest for a long time, with a muscular arm, and back stretched, for, as it’s written in the General Staff Order, an officer must return a salute to every saluting soldier. They did so because they were individualists par excellence, and yet also cultivated a platoon’s pride, a culture of collective memory, in addition to a sense of humour. They called themselves ‘The Swiss Guard, with no colours’. Psoriasis was the cadet on duty, and his roommate’s name was Gastritis. In the neighbouring room lived Bronchitis, and with him also lived Psychosis and Sclerosis. Those who knew nothing about diseases thought that the group in question was a bunch of modern Greek poetry aficionados, and those who knew nothing about modern Greek poetry, thought it had something to do with classical Greek poetry – classical Greek poetry being a heritage that belonged to us all, although Hitler too prided himself on it.
Today is the anniversary of Bronstein’s death and in front of the guard barracks flickers a memorial candle. The soldiers are sitting out in the open by the picture, and saying things about him, some things they had already heard and some completely new. They are stern. In the ‘commemoration corner’ of the Guard Room hangs an enlarged photograph of Bronstein, who was nicknamed ‘Meningitis’. Below the photograph flickers a memorial candle. Above the photograph inscribed in big letters are the dates of his birth and death; at hardly twenty years of age Bronstein-Meningitis had died in the line of service, from Meningitis officially (and in truth from suicide by hanging, once he found out that he was originally not enlisted only because he wasn’t Jewish). The commemoration corner for Private Bronstein was vigorously cared for, only during free time of course, and their own commander, Sergeant Nisim – no official disease, but in secrecy they called him ‘Borderline’ – was extremely proud of the red geranium garden and the nasturtium flowers which, according to him, he nurtured almost single-handedly. Beneath the photograph also lay a large book of commemoration. Once in a while the guards wrote in it in memory of Bronstein, and even urged officers passing through – some of whom were of considerable importance, their contribution to the state’s security invaluable, some even having won the Israel Security Award, or reached such grave heights as the Israel Prize for Literature, or for Social Work, only more confidential – to sign, as a sort of a yearly petition in memory of Bronstein. Many senior officers had written words of praise to the obstinate soldier.
Major General Zalman Zal – whose ass was kissed every two weeks in his own office by Israel’s writers and poets – signed as well, before dashing off to watch the new video for the ‘Ezekiel 4’ tank, which he had only just developed, much to the dismay of those who extolled the next armoured war. ‘Parachuting is dispensable too,’ ruled Major General Zalman, ‘and yet you don’t abdicate parachuting, so what’s it to you if more and more tanks are getting built? Yes, more and more and more.’ And since Zalman Zal did not know how to operate the VCR, and never learned, at his disposal stood one of the soldiers – not Yair, he did not want to go up there, and his friends understood, it not being so bad having to scrounge cookies with cheap chocolate filling, and see all the important people from the bureau telling each other military secrets. Besides, the soldier on duty’s task was simply to freeze, using the remote control, the picture on the screen at precisely the moment when ‘Ezekiel’s’ belly rose up over a deep-water obstacle.
Night after night Major General Zal would watch the video, as well as during lunch breaks. Every viewing he’d roar with pleasure, ‘Now, now,’ just as the tank stopped, rose, and revealed its undercarriage like the belly of a giant crocodile, hungry for pray after a long winter, or however those writers who kissed Zalman’s ass described it, because Zal had studied Philosophy just as they had. Each year a new movie about ‘Ezekiel’ came out. From what’s been said up till now, it should be understood that Israel’s writers also sat and watched the tank lifting its belly like the white marble horses of Piazza Venezia. And as mentioned, the task of pressing pause and serving cookies to the writers and painters was always given to one of the soldiers. When Zal screamed: ‘Where’s the dork?’ the soldier, who’d be waiting in the hall behind the door, would immediately come in, and say: ‘Here, Sir!’
‘Who’s here? What’s here?’
‘The dork’s here, Sir.’
When Yair’s father came to visit, Zalman Zal remembers… a gentle man, very complex, at nights he invented tanks, and in the mornings urged his office manager, Lieutenant Vered, to recite for his friends lines from the greatest poet ever to rise to military commission, Natan Alterman. And Vered would indeed recite: ‘And the land will grow still/ crimson skies dimming, misting/ slowly paling again/ over smoking frontiers,’ and sometimes she’d get the rhymes wrong intentionally (Vered Tsela may have been a big coward, but she loved to provoke danger, danger to be honest aroused her, and instead of ‘dimming’ she’d sometimes say ‘brimming’, or ‘slimming’, but it made no difference, because what mattered was the rhyme and the metre)… Well, only when Yair’s father came for a visit, did Major General Zal remember not to joke like that, because Yair too served under the Chief of Staff Guard, which was the highest up he was allowed, and that too only with Dad’s intervention with the Major General and the Major General’s intervention with another Major General and the intervention of that other Major General with a Colonel and downwards to Sergeant Borderline. Yair’s limited service pained his father. Not that he would have liked to see his son fall in the line of duty. On the other hand, most fighters didn’t fall in the line of duty and why must one always think the worst?
Evening. Yair sat on a prickly mattress covered by a wool blanket (emitting an odour of flee repellent and damp wool), watching the others, as they got ready for their watch. In the neighbouring room someone had forgot to put on his long johns, and everyone burst out laughing at how he’s have to take everything off again, in the dark, the full pack too, only to put on his long johns. Without complaint, they would agree to leave the lights off each night, before going out to their watch, making all their preparations in the dark, even checking the magazines, and Yair loved them for this sacrifice, for him. He was loved in turn, not only because he had brought so much candy from his leave (his father had wanted so very much for him to have friends, and so had, himself, baked abundant cookies and even bought a large quantity of chocolates). It’s possible that Yair’s friends noticed his efforts to endear himself to them, gently, without imposing himself. He would laugh at the drop of a hat. Any talk of theirs provoked his laughter, as if he had never come across unserious people, and now any unserious expression seemed hilarious. He himself did not know how to be funny. Yair was extremely handsome, and any laughter would tear him up like a child awoken from sleep. And if they went into a huddle, he did not squeeze in to listen, nor was he hurt, but assumed it of matters beyond his capacity. Perhaps he did not dare to be angry at them since he was in their debt. After all it was because of him that they were constantly being watched from up there.
Bewilderment would spread across Yair’s face every time he was asked too blunt a question. He never raised his voice. Sometimes he would picture himself with his head tattered, or hung, or both, veins slashed. Ah yes, why did they do it all in the dark? Because of the father’s observations from the window above.
After a four hour patrol around the fences, they would approach parked vehicles and peep, by command, into them, later they’d return to wake the next shift, take off their uniforms, put on civilian clothes, and through their connections in the next shift, would go out, without permission, from the base, into the city whose electric rashes were as colourful as an eczema. They would sit together in a bar – Yair would not come with them, afraid to run into his father with some woman, literature or film lecturer – speaking quietly, like a national minority, mocking themselves in the ear of the waitress. That’s how they would pass their nights and their days, patrolling, sleeping, taking walks in the city and sleeping again and again patrolling.
Yair did not partake in guard duty. He was exempt, a red written note which said he was prohibited from guarding, because of the night and the fog and the smog. Instead his duties included a weekly roll-call and a talk with the commander. Were his friends hurt by the fact that he did not guard? Not in the least. (Again, for this, he loved them). In their platoon they had plenty of guard soldiers, after all so many parents tried to enlist their sickly sons, and each of them got here thanks to some connection. Perhaps they were not angry with him because he was such a beautiful boy, pale and soft spoken. His gentleness he got thanks to his two older sisters who spoiled him – Yair had grown up without a mother, a son to his father’s old age.
The father’s heart would sink, almost give in to his son’s refusal to enlist, when he heard the boy’s screams at night. ‘I am not Erlking,’ he said to himself in horror, not knowing if his own dream was provoking those screams, or the child’s, and yet, at breakfast, from within the stillness, the boy’s plea fell on deaf ears, because the father knew he was doing this for his son’s sake, or at least he told himself as much, and told his son, and the two girls who wouldn’t dare argue, and Zalman Zal, yes, he said so too to Major General Zalman Zal. One can sympathize with the father. All his life he had wanted to escort a son to the Enlistment Office, and later escort him to the Absorption and Classification Base. All his life he had wanted to attend the Basic Training graduation ceremony, and had wanted to attend the section commander’s course graduation, and the officer’s training course graduation. Very gradually, when the child’s health did not improve, the father let go these dreams. But of an unglamorous military service, a grey service, he did not let go, could not have let go.
At first he would say these things to Yair with a smile, as if the son’s declaration of not going to the army was a sort of a joke. Of course it had nothing to do with the fact that the father was a national figure. All fathers are national figures, perhaps the other way around, all national figures are fathers, never mind. For he never said a word to him of the nation and its needs, because in any case Yair did not demand of him what the nation needs, paratrooper officers, for instance, rather it was all about, son – he called him son, his sad smile did not waver – he had a sad smile, the father, and his son hated that sad, photogenic smile – it’s all about, son, the duty bestowed upon you to overcome your ailments and to be like everyone else, after all one day I will not be in the world, and who will take care of you then? The son wanted to say: ‘When you won’t be in the world, I’ll take care of myself just fine,’ but checked himself (was terrified of his father; his father will never know this, because fathers are doomed not to know): ‘Arabs also don’t go to the army’. His father nodded in comprehension and did not reply. He had a deep comprehension of his son’s need to rebel against him. He did not comprehend anything that was not from within himself, as the son’s father, and comprehended the son only as the father’s son.
When Yair had persisted in his refusal to enlist, the father took him to Major General Zal’s office for a conclusive discussion. It was a difficult moment for the father. Up until that day Zalman Zal knew just a small portion of the father’s agony over the son. After all the father had never spoken of the son, always just of the girls. The Major General knew of the older daughter’s marriage and of the other’s doctorate, but even of them they had spoken very little and preferred to engage in nominating laureates for the Israel Prize, the Hebrew Literature, Science of Judaism, Social Work and of course the prestigious National Security Award. Yair, on his part, was not aware that the beautiful walk through the city, and along its beaches, would end in an office overlooking the guard barracks, in which he would be serving in two months time. It was truly a fun day. Dad had never had so much time for him. They went to the movies, later sat in a café, and even though many people approached Dad, Dad was not nice to them at all and insisted on sitting with Yair alone. Later they went to clothes stores, shopped for fragrant oranges at the market, and went to the port. They even tried to sneak onto one of the boats anchoring there, and in short, Yair tried to get his dad to do things that the dad was embarrassed to do, and dad went everywhere Yair led him to, because he was a good father. They stopped by a fishing boat, which had brought up in its net many revolting octopi, and since octopi are not only revolting, but unkosher, they had no buyers. Except for Yair who wanted an octopus. His father bought him one, under the condition that he would not ask him to carry the small bag after fifteen minutes, as had happened with the dog they bought him: Dad had to take him out every night so that he would poop outside and not in the living room, in front of the guests. So, Yair promised and picked the biggest octopus, and off the two walked down the streets, the son carrying a huge octopus in a small plastic bag, the father walking a little ahead, perhaps out of embarrassment, even though the town’s dogs were chasing both of them. A fight between two of the dogs shortly broke out – guessing that soon Yair would throw the octopus, and only one of them would win it – and went on and on, they almost bit one another. And people trailed behind the dogs. Maybe they were the dog owners, maybe they were passers-by who thought this was some sort of street theatre, Holbein or something. A few of the dance macabre participants knew the father, and followed him being dragged by his son holding a stinky octopus and ten dogs, two biting each other, through the city streets, and since Yair had now thrown the octopus to the dogs, the fight between the two big ones stopped, because a small dog, carrying away the small bag in his mouth, had escaped. Dad said something about Manfred Herbst, whose legs had carried him without him knowing where to. ‘Do you know who Manfred Herbst is?’
‘You’ve already told me this so many times and in relation to practically any subject… Is there any other book you know?’
Yair was tired and suspected his father of trying to improve his physical fitness. And it was as if by chance that they arrived at Major General Zalman Zal’s office. At the gate they let the father through without checking his documents, he was a regular bore there and the soldiers did not read anything of his whatsoever; what did they care? Zal was sitting, of course, in front of his VCR. As they arrived he was calling Vered, asking her to turn it off, and return the cassette to the video library, where all had been marked ‘Ezekiel 1’, ‘Ezekiel 2’, ‘Ezekiel 3’, etc.
The father didn’t know how to begin the meeting, after all they had gotten there by chance, as it were, perhaps embarrassed by the thought that the octopus odour had stuck to them. Zal did not stall, saying that he himself had ordered his granddaughter to enlist in the army, despite her being mad, as everyone knew, mad as a hatter, a drug addict and even more so a man-addict (worse than drugs, believe me, I know men), and that to be on the safe side he had ordered Vered to help his granddaughter in all sorts of matters which she could not manage herself, like renewing her driver’s licence, or managing her bank account, or paying her electric bill, because here we are all one big family. Yair too, of course, would be a part of this family, and Zalman Zal launched into stories of his clerks’ devotion, especially Vered Tsela’s, whom he loved like his own granddaughters, which is why she recited rhymes and metres for him, and she of course saw her service here as a great honour. Major General Zalman Zal, let’s be perfectly clear, did not screw any of his clerks. On the contrary. He took care that they would not be harassed by all kinds of males, and took care to make sure the girls kept secret all kinds of love affairs they had, with all kinds of officers, because crazy is the girl who’ll pass up the opportunity to fuck a little in the army, and here everyone is one family, said the Major General. Indeed all the clerks ranking all the way up to Lieutenant-Colonel had to listen to every phone conversation the Major General had, on the amplifier, and on the extensions – a part of their culture being an expansion of the Major General. On this rested their pride, or pleasure, or both.
Yair’s father had thought that his old and admired friend would have a few more convincing arguments, but all Zal’s explications came down to the importance of serving in the army, for the people and for the son of the people. For the people, why? Because the people need an army. For the son of the people, why? Because the son of the people must be a soldier for at least some time during his life, if not throughout his life. Well, Yair already knew all these arguments, and yet, Major General Zalman Zal was not finished. For a long time now he’d been suspecting: the instant coffee that you drank here, gave him gas, therefore he farted. He had no problem with farting. He who sits in a tank all his life, learns not to be shy. All you need to do is lift one side of your behind and let it out. Yair was stunned. He searched for his father’s eyes, but Dad pretended, as if he too farted whenever the need arose, and perhaps he did fart. At home – he didn’t.
‘You probably believe that the paratroopers are the force of the future. Am I right?’
The Major General spoke in a loud voice, looking over at Lieutenant Vered Tsela, whose eyes washed over beautiful Yair in jet streams of light. Ah, how Vered loved boys like Yair. Yair too. And the Major General, with the bitterness of a veteran of the Armoured Corps, spoke, and the son looked at his father, and the father was flooded with admiration for the Major General, or perhaps was flooded with bewilderment, in any case, his dismal and famous smile did not leave his face. ‘Nonsense, nonsense,’ cried the Major General, and waited for Vered to reiterate – she was an outstanding memoriser, but that said, as much as she was taller than Yair, and even older, she could not take her eyes off of him.
‘Nonsense, the next war will be armour vs. armour war. Anyone can see that. Tanks will pound along the deserts from here to Kuwait, and our soldiers of the Armoured Corps will gallop like the Formula Uno drivers, especially in the new tank, ‘Ezekiel 4’, watch the screen. Where’s the dork?’
The smile did not leave the father’s face, like a Chinese diplomat, and the dork came in, froze the screen, grabbed a cookie and left quietly, so all watched the rising tank, like a giant turtle, threatening never to land, ‘Ezekiel 4’, or ‘3’ froze.
‘Why would you volunteer for the Parachute Corps? For the parachuting? This parachuting business doesn’t impress me. I refused to take a parachuting course. I just didn’t want to. Not afraid, no. Because of the hassle. You see?’
Yair nodded. Zal went on, as befits a military leader, noting the slow penetration of his forces into the boy’s mind: ‘What do they do in those famous commandos of theirs? Sit and wait and wait and wait. What are they waiting for? For the day when they will be able to attack missiles bases in Caucasus’ mountains?’ Now he turned to the father, who was trying to say something, but Zal continued: ‘And in the meantime, I ask, in the meantime what do they do? In the meantime they kill people up close, with knives, or guns, in Tunisia, in Beirut. And to keep an entire army for this? Just because one day there will be a commando war?’
When they left – Vered had not dare say a word to them – Yair told himself that everything, this entire wonderful day, was just to get him to this talk with the commander. He’d been deceived all day. His great love for his father had swallowed a fruit, and in it a large pit, bitter, asphyxiating, stinging. He hated his father. They did not speak all the way home. In the cab he was suffocated by the desire to cry. The father was offended. It is unclear to us why, but every so often the father would get offended and would not talk about it – a nightmare for his kids – for hours, and all that they could do was guess what had offended Dad. Go deal with your father’s childhood memories!
Later the son surrendered. What had he gone through from his desire to cry in the cab to this surrender? A great deal. But in the end, he’d been promised that he would serve down there, beneath the office, and ever since his father has come everyday to spy on him from the high window. Every once in a while the father would walk over to the window, and the Major General say to him: ‘Sit, sit, he’ll see you watching him. It’s not good. Let him be a man already.’ And the father, his eyes shrinking involuntarily, as if he carefully selecting his words, would say without turning around: ‘He doesn’t know I am here’. The father knew of course that the son knew. After all the son had asked him during one of his leaves: ‘Why do you even go there so often? To spy on me?’ Yair had wanted to say so much more, wanted to say every night, wanted, since that walk in the city, to say something that swelled and swelled, and turned into something violent, contemptuous, offensive, like ‘I wish you had loved Mom the way you love this fat Major General, I wish you had loved us like you love him, I wish you had loved me like you love yourself, but you are not even in love with him for being him, you are in love with him because he is a Major General, and when you find another Major General, woosh, you will ride off to the other Major General. Why do you love Major Generals so much? You probably want me to become a Major General, that’s why I’m so sick, because you’ve always wanted me to become a Major General.’ He did not say all this balderdash, but once he dreamt that his father was pissing through him, holding him like in an opened-jawed stone fountain, and urinating through his mouth. Sometimes he thought of hanging himself in the guard barracks, in the light, so that his father would see him from up there convulsing, and would rush down to save him, but would be too late, and would only manage to get him down from the ceiling, a corpse. One day Dad will lose it, one day I will wipe that constipated smile off of his face.
Well, today, as mentioned, is the anniversary of Bronstein’s death, may he rest in peace. Everyone respects this anniversary, and as of last year, thanks to the petition, it has become a General Staff event, meaning an event of this base, ours. After a prolonged informatory effort, he is now mentioned, in the basic daily order, which Sergeant Borderline pins up on the cork boards, while two guard soldiers stand to attention by the candle. A soldier on duty asks the passers-by to lay a flower, or put down a few words in the commemoration book for the soldier who fought such a long battle just so the army would enlist him, in spite of his poor health. And here comes a Major General, Moti the moron. Conversing loudly, because that’s how he talks, with a girl soldier, an admirer, who also talks in big voice so that everyone can hear her talking with Moti the moron. Yesterday her father reprimanded her, when she told him how careful she was not to be alone in a room with Major General Moti. He was extremely insulted by this remark, her father. ‘I don’t like your delusions. I never liked your delusions. For as long as I remember you, everyone hits on you. One day you will say the same about me. It’s the fashion now, isn’t it? But Moti is a Major General in the IDF. You can behave like a human being and refrain from implying dirty insinuations.’
And since the guard soldiers had been preaching all day to the passers-by in their barracks to act appropriately, one of them now steps up to Moti as well. To the Major General’s credit, let it be said, he apologises right away, attempts to stretch his sloppy shirt, stands at attention for a moment, and suddenly salutes, sticking out his chest and forcefully stretching his palm to his temple. The soldier with him, being very moved by Moti’s invitation to escort him again to his office, she too salutes, and a button, exactly between her two squished breasts under a pointy bra, snaps. Gastritis, for his part, wants Major General Moti to end his salute, and approaches him cautiously, saluting, taking two measured steps backwards, standing to attention, saluting again – there is probably some kind of order, thinks Major General Moti but he is not familiar with the procedure. It does not cross his mind that he is being mocked here, who would conceive of it? – Later Gastritis says quietly: ‘Major General your honour, asking permission to speak’.
‘Make it short, I’m busy.’
‘Major General, I’ll make it short: we need help.’
The Major General hates requests for help, but Gastritis tells him, that the guard is trying hard to establish an award on behalf of the army in their friend’s name, Bronstein may he rest in peace. The Major General is impatient, although the soldier with him waits. He has already envisioned her in his mind’s eye pacing back and forth in his room, naked, with only the black army shoes and white socks to her feet. ‘Who is this Bronstein?’
‘I’ll make it short. He wasn’t enlisted on account of health problems, insisted on enlisting, and ran a public campaign. His parents turned to the army authorities, and participated in the public campaign for his enlistment, along with his high school friends. The press were also involved in the campaign. We have a bellicose press, like any democracy, and ardent editorial articles spoke of the struggle against this refusal to enter the Israeli army, which should begin with the positive, not the negative. In the end the army surrendered and despite the sensitivity he had been inflicted with as a child, he served in the guard platoon. He died in his uniform, while guarding. Recently we turned to the Base Commander asking him to establish an award for the sick soldier for distinctive service in Bronstein’s name. Our appeals have been to no avail.’
‘But why should someone who could have evaded the army and didn’t take advantage of that be given an award?’
‘Because otherwise life is not the same.’
The Major General looks into the soldier’s sad eyes, and promises to help.
Everything might have gone as planned with the committed soldiers, if it weren’t for the fact that the Major General tended to forget the promises he made, and perhaps his soldier’s naked parade made him forget this one. Luckily for us it was so. In that respect, a Major General’s flawed memory is a source of hope for the entire nation. May there be many such forgetful leaders and commanders. And anyway, it would have been a great embarrassment to us all, if the truth about Bronstein’s life and death were to come out. He did not have a memorial day, because he did not die, because he was not born, because there never was any Bronstein. Because he was the heart of our platoon’s service: we made him up in order to sanctify him and to mock the entire world through him.
When Yair was let in on this comical secret, that was of no interest to anyone, and gave us a strange satisfaction, he’d been explicitly asked not to reveal the secret to his father. He was not offended by the request. On the contrary. He felt very proud to have been given a chance to betray Dad. The idea of betraying Dad, and with this beautiful story of a soldier that never existed to boot, excited him, and he volunteered to tell the life story of the deceased. Yair wrote beautifully. If it wasn’t for his father, he would have really accomplished something through this, but his father did not like his writing, was afraid that he would only be praised because he is his son. ‘Bronstein’s Memoirs’ by Yair was the most touching chapter in the book, because it was written out of rage. No one could believe that the boy made the story up. We will never know what is real with people that do not hesitate to use their tongue.
Evening descended. Lights rose from the guard barracks. The father walked over to the window, but Yair was no longer there. He’d tricked his father again, taken off under the protection of the darkness, and instead of feeling gratification, felt a great sadness, once again seeing himself hung, his veins slashed, as he walked towards the gate. At times he thought of going on watch with his friends, but feared his father would take it as his triumph.
Outside the gate a Major General, Moti the moron, picked him up in his car, and asked: ‘Where are you headed, soldier?’ Yair shrugged and said in his typical impudence in places we have yet to encounter him: ‘Are you checking if I have a pass, or what?’ The Major General said: ‘No, no, I’m just driving to the north of town and thought you wanted a ride’. Yair went with him, and suddenly, just as he was about to get out, not far from the beach, he said: ‘Tell me something, this army really doesn’t bore you?’ The Major looked at him and said: ‘You know what? Now that you ask, I think so, yes. But they need us, don’t they?’ Yair said: ‘No, I don’t think so’. The Major thought a moment, then assumed Yair was joking. Yair looked at the grand night and the lights, and imagined seeing a huge bird flying and taking up with her the entire city.
David Lugasi, I think, never knew how much he really loved the Western Wall until he saw it completely dismantled, stone by stone by stone, and piled onto the three trucks of his hauling and renovations company, A.A. America Hauling and Renovations. Until that moment, the Western Wall had been a place. Just a place. But the Rabin assassination changed everything.
Lugasi is one of those rare types: people born to pray. No wonder he felt at home at the Wall. He wasn’t “religious” to the extent that he could marry the grandchild of a learned rabbi – any learned rabbi – but there are people who, when they pray, are happy. On Friday nights, for example, he’d go to synagogue with his father, return to his parents’ house for kiddush and a festive meal, and then get into his car and drive to a party. In the Lugasi home, that was considered an excellent Sabbath eve.
And that’s why he loved the Western Wall and hated Jerusalem: because the minute you pass Sha’ar Hagai on the road leading to the city, you have to choose. Right wing or left, religious or secular, orthodox or ultra-orthodox – like in a poor neighborhood in Hollywood movies, you have to choose a gang, or else you’ll be alone in a violent and sour city. Lugasi, who hated choosing and loved praying, would come back more and more upset from those visits to his beloved Wall. Until the last time, when he cracked. One night, a week after the assassination, he called me. It was one in the morning.
“You have to come,” he said. “Take a taxi and come to Jerusalem. I need your advice urgently.”
“Advice about what?”
“Where to put it, brother. The Western Wall. I finish loading in an hour. Come, I have no time to talk. The battery in my Nokia is conking out.”
* * *
Half a kilometer away from the square in front of the Western Wall, I came to a barrier put up by the Border Police. A Druze policeman stopped me and said, “No entrance, sir. The Wall is being renovated.”
“Renovated. They’re cleaning it. For Rabin’s shivah, a special operation.”
The policeman waited. I scratched my head.
“Listen,” I said, “I have to go in. I’m on the advisory team.”
“What’s your name?” the policeman asked and pulled a wrinkled piece of paper out of his pants pocket.
“You’re the famous Uzi Weill?”
“Famous?” I said. “Famous for what?”
“Why didn’t you say so right away,” the policeman said and tapped me on the shoulder. “The contractor told us to let you in. I want you to know that I’m with you a hundred percent. My people and yours are blood brothers.”
“I see,” I said cautiously.
He shouted for his colleague standing next to the barrier to move it, and added, “That’s why, even if I am Druze – I’m for your father.”
“My father?” I said, puzzled.
“A great man,” said the policeman. “Too bad there aren’t more like him. May he rest in peace.”
“My father’s not dead.”
He froze. “Really? Not dead? Begin?”
I didn’t know what to say. I smiled at him politely.
“You don’t say,” the policeman continued, shaking his head in growing amazement. “You don’t say. Begin’s not dead, ah? So – he’s hiding out?”
I shrugged cautiously.
“Good for him,” the policeman said, “he got really good at hiding out when he was in the underground. When’s he coming back?”
I said, “Another year or two.”
“Tell him we’re waiting,” the policeman said. “Even though I’m a Druze, I’m waiting. You know why?”
“Because my people and yours are blood brothers?” I tried.
He looked at me with new respect. “Good for you!” he said. “I see your father taught you well. Good for you! You’re a good family.”
“True,” I said. “Benny turned out a little…”
“Too serious,” the policeman said.
“Oh well…” I shrugged.
“Never mind. A Begin is a Begin. You’re all a good family.”
“I’ll tell my father,” I promised.
He lowered his hand from my car window and I drove in.
The square in front of the Wall was brightly lit, and dozens of workers were dismantling the stones. All that remained of the Wall itself were the two bottom rows of stones. Two workers worked on each stone, and after detaching it, carried it to the huge truck parked at the edge of entrance area. The other twenty-nine trucks were already waiting in line, full of stones, on the street leading away from the Wall.
On the roof of the last truck, which was in the process of being filled, sat David Lugasi. Next to him sat the driver, and they were drinking coffee from a large thermos. I stood rooted in place, stunned. Lugasi saw me.
“Brother!” he called to me and stood up. “Come on up and have something to drink with us.”
I climbed onto the door of the truck, the driver gave me a hand, and I found myself looking down at the workers who had begun destroying the last row. It was a shocking sight. The Western Wall looked like a stone path. I sat in silence.
A few minutes later, Lugasi said, “It’s really something, huh?”
“Tell me…” I began, but couldn’t go on.
“I’ll explain it to you in a minute,” Lugasi said and moved his head very very slightly in the direction of the driver. He didn’t want to share his plan with too many people.
“Good coffee, huh?” asked the driver.
“Terrific. Listen, if you wouldn’t mind, we have a few professional matters to discuss.”
The driver looked at me suspiciously. Then he spilled out the remains of his coffee, stood up and jumped to the ground.
Lugasi watched him move away. “What do you say?” he asked when we were alone.
“What can I say?” I extended my arm. “It’s…”
“Yes,” I nodded, “you could say it was great. You could definitely say that. But why?”
“Those Jerusalemites don’t deserve it. They don’t deserve to have the Wall.”
“Aahh.” I looked around. The workers had started taking apart the last row.
“You tell me,” Lugasi put his hand on his heart. “Tell me if I’m not right: last week, two days after they killed Rabin, may he rest in peace, I went to the Wall to pray. For Rabin, and for the country, and for… I don’t know. My heart, from so much sorrow, became… especially after his funeral. Did you see how his granddaughter cried?”
“Then, do you understand? It was tough. On the way to the Wall, I put on my father’s kipa, may he rest in peace, and there I was, with my beard and all, you know – at least five people grabbed me, told me how good it is that Rabin’s dead.”
I nodded. Lugasi took a deep breath, and shook his head incredulously.
“Then I finished praying,” he went on, “took off the kipa – and on the way back, three other people jumped on me, told me to come to an anti-religious happening, they’re all murderers. So I decided – I, David Lugasi, am moving the Western Wall.
I didn’t know what to say. Under us, the workers were finishing their job. They worked diligently. Another twenty stones, and the Wall might never have been there.
“Some operation, ah?” Lugasi smiled proudly. “A hundred and twenty workers.”
“And where will you put it in Tel Aviv?”
“That’s what you’re here for. Advise me where the best place is. A pretty place, no arguments, no politics, where people will come to pray with goodness in their hearts. A laid back kind of place?”
“The beach?” I suggested. Lugasi smiled.
And that’s how it was.
* * *
Half an hour later, the convoy of trucks began leaving the place that once was the Western Wall, and was now a naked hill. Lugasi and I, in the Peugeot, passed the canvas-covered trucks and the bus carrying the workers, and reached the Border Police post. Lugasi got out and tapped the policeman on the shoulder.
“Finished for the day?” the policeman asked.
“Yes,” said Lugasi. “You can move the barriers. Do you have the permit from the City?”
“Right here,” the policeman said, patting his shirt pocket. “ Do you need it?”
“Keep it,” said Lugasi, “in case they ask any questions.”
He got in and closed the door. “An original permit,” he said, “from the City. From the time I fixed the sewer in the Convention Center. It says: please follow the contractor’s instructions.”
The policeman knocked on the window and waited for me to look at him. He pretended to be locking his lips with a key. I gave him a thumbs-up as a gesture of thanks.
The convoy began to move.
“Tell me,” I said to Lugasi, “aren’t I little young to be Begin’s son?”
He shrugged. “Policemen,” he said.
And so, smiling and serene, Lugasi continued leading his convoy of trucks along the deserted Ayalon Freeway. At three in the morning, we reached Sheraton Beach. We got out to survey the territory. The workers waited in the bus.
“What do you say?” he asked, looking around, hands on hips. “Maybe between Sheraton and the marina?”
I tried to imagine it. “I don’t think so,” I said, “the strip of beach is too narrow. You need enough room for the prayers and for the sunbathers too.”
“You’re right,” Lugasi said. “And it has to be far from the water. So the waves won’t erode the stones in winter.”
We looked around, and all at once, our gaze fell upon the slope leading down from the Hilton, under Atzmaut Park. We shook hands, and Lugasi went to the workers’ bus.
“Ya’allah, let’s go, everybody out,” he told them.
They started whispering to each other in Romanian. One of them got up and acted as interpreter.
“Mister Lugasi, we’re all very tired,” said the chosen leader. “All night work, work,” he said in English.
“Tell them everyone gets another two hundred dollars,” said Lugasi. “They work till morning.”
In a flash, they were all outside, unloading the stones. Some of them began setting up scaffolding on the slope under Atzmaut Park. They worked with astonishing speed, unloading the stones in the exact order they’d been put on the trucks, but despite their diligence, they’d only managed to put up a third of the Wall when the sun rose. Lugasi, who saw in advance what the problem would be, sent them to sleep. At six in the morning, the second shift arrived.
This time, they were Arabs, and Lugasi managed without an interpreter. At seven, we collapsed in the Peugeot. Lugasi turned on the radio. We listened to four news broadcasts, switching from one to the other: none of them mentioned the fact that during the night, someone had stolen the Western Wall.
“Maybe they’re keeping a lid on the investigation,” I said. “Censoring it.”
“They’re censoring the Voice of Cairo too? And the BBC?”
I shrugged. “It doesn’t matter,” I told Lugasi. “My father, may he rest in peace, always used to say: a man needs to have faith and never to worry, except when he hears the hoo-oh of a police car approaching. Now, let’s go to sleep.”
We nodded off on each other’s shoulder for three hours of fitful sleep. At ten-thirty in the morning, a knock on the window woke us. It was a City inspector. Lugasi lowered the window.
“Are you the contractor?” the inspector scratched his head.
“What is that thing?”
“The wall of peace,” said Lugasi, “in memory of Itzhak Rabin.”
“Ah,” said the inspector. “It looks familiar, that wall.”
“There’s one like it in Jerusalem.”
“Ah,” said the inspector. “My wife’s from Jerusalem. Maybe that’s why.”
Lugasi called to one of the workers and asked for coffee. The inspector sat and drank with us, and told us how much he earned working for the City. When he left, we turned on the radio again: still, not a word about the Western Wall disappearing.
Lugasi got out and stretched. Then he said, “Strange, isn’t it?”
“Let’s go,” I said.
He looked at the laboring workers and said, “Wait, we’ll wash our faces and then take off.”
* * *
We reached Jerusalem at noon. We parked not far from what was once the Western Wall, and approached cautiously. Twenty different scenarios passed through our minds, but none of them even came near what we actually saw: everything was going on as usual.
The prayers prayed. Men on the left, women on the right.
Policemen, as usual, guarded the square.
Tourists, as usual, had their pictures taken wearing cardboard kipot on their heads. The only thing different was that the Wall wasn’t there. We walked towards the square. A policeman stood there in his regular place and handed us black kipot.
“Tell me,” – Lugasi asked the policeman – “where’s the Wall?”
“Being renovated,” said the policeman.
“Renovated where? Where are they renovating it?”
The policeman shrugged. “Ask the Rabbi of the Wall, that’s what he said. Are you going in or not?”
We went in. A large group of chassidim was praying very intently, but their attempts to push notes into the dry hill failed utterly. They occasionally looked around in puzzlement, but in general, it seemed that the explanation given by the Rabbi of the Wall satisfied them. We left the square and went to eat at a small place Lugasi knew, not far from there.
Lugasi ate hummus and pita, and drank tea. He looked preoccupied. When he finished, he took out his cell phone.
“Hello,” he said when someone answered him, “is this the office of the Rabbi of the Wall? I wanted to ask something. I was at the Wall just now, and it wasn’t there.”
“That’s impossible,” the clerk replied, “the Rabbi has been here since the morning.”
“Not the Rabbi,” said Lugasi, “not him, it. The Wall. The Wall wasn’t there.”
“Ah,” replied the clerk. “It’s being renovated.”
“You don’t say,” said Lugasi. “Who’s renovating it?”
“The City,” she said. “I don’t know exactly. This morning, the Rabbi spoke to the Border Police, they took the stones away for the renovation. It’s a special operation.”
“The Border Police? Who’s that, the Druze guy at the barrier, you talked to him?”
“Yes, yes,” replied the clerk. She was starting to lose her patience. “It’s from the City, a special operation. In honor of Jerusalem’s three thousandth anniversary.”
“Thank you,” Lugasi replied and hung up. We looked at each other.
He said, “We pulled it off. I think next week, I’ll move the vault from the Leumi Bank.”
* * *
We worked like crazy that whole day and night along with the workers, and the next day – right before sunrise, at the end of the Romanian’s second shift – it was all finished. We stood in the water, the waves lapping at the edges of our rolled-up pants, and looked at the new Western Wall. It looked great.
“The Jewish people’s holiest site,” said Lugasi. There were tears in his eyes.
“Don’t be cute.”
He paid the workers and they got on the bus and disappeared. We remained standing there, looking at the fruit of our labors. A few minutes later, I started feeling hungry, and remembered that we hadn’t eaten since that humus in Jerusalem. We went up to the Café Regatta, took a table near the window, sat down silently and looked at the beach.
“The Temple Mount is ours,” said Lugasi, like a general after a successful battle.
* * *
At first, everything went smoothly. The beach-goers did show a certain puzzlement, but the wall had yet to be born that would keep them from getting a tan. The tourists, on the other hand, were very enthusiastic. A rich American from Chicago named Joe Rivlin, Chairman and owner of Rivlin & Rivlin Buttons and Zippers, outdid himself, and sent the mayor a letter of congratulations from Milan, enclosing a check in the amount of one hundred thousand dollars.
“A brilliant way to bring tourism to Tel Aviv and to Israel in general, period,” he wrote, “if only the American government had your courage, we wouldn’t have to travel to Beijing Grand Canyon to see the Beijing Grand Canyon, period.”
The religious public in Tel Aviv received the new Western Wall with mixed feelings, but quickly got used to the idea. First of all, no one said in so many words that it was that Western Wall – The Rabbi of the Wall still insisted that the original was being renovated – and secondly, even if it was that one, what was so terrible if it stayed in Tel Aviv for a few years? Pilgrims came from the four corners of the country and proclaimed that the new location was not only more convenient, it was also a lot safer – considering the security problems Jerusalem’s Old City had been having for years.
Amazingly enough, even the sacred status quo was not damaged, despite the dangerous proximity of the prayers and the sunbathers. The former faced the Wall, the latter faced the sea, and they all met on the number five bus, of which there were now another fifty. Even the homosexuals in Atzmaut Park finally got used to the idea. Many of them, so the city council representative of Meretz, the leftist liberal party, discovered, came from a traditional background, and the proximity of the Western Wall surprisingly improved their sex lives.
The problem began when the mayor realized what he had. After the shock of the first week, when all he did was throw one fax after the other into the waste basket and fire any person who dared suggest that the Western Wall be moved to his jurisdiction, he finally decided to go down to the beach and see what was happening there. When he realized that the people – again, dammit – were right, the trouble started.
First, he declared that the Western Wall was now to be called “The Kings of Israel Wall” – compensation for the Kings of Israel Square, a name which, after the assassination, was taken from them and changed to Rabin Square. The next thing he did was commission Yaacov Agam to paint the Wall in shifting iridescent colors. “Yaacov Agam,” he said at a press conference broadcast live from the seashore – “is an international artist who combines kinetics and Judaism, and he will put the Wall on the map of the next millennium!”
And then a special sound system arrived and was installed next to the Wall. It broadcast commercials from the Municipality and Israeli music twenty-four hours a day.
Before a day had passed, Channel Two announced that it would broadcast live a series of summer performances to be called “Rock ‘n Wall”, direct from the new, revolving, pneumatic stage purchased expressly for that purpose in Germany and flown to the Wall. Dudu Topaz, the TV entertainer, would be the emcee, Dudu Dotan, the comedian, would tell jokes, and Dudu Shmulevitz – head of the city’s electrician’s union – declared that if the City didn’t reach an agreement with the union before the program, the beach would be blacked out.
At that point, Lugasi stopped returning my calls. But he too could take no more when the army championship games were held there, and hundreds of infantry fighters hang-glided down from the Wall. On that day, at four in the afternoon, he called me.
“Did you hear?” he asked in a defeated voice.
“That’s nothing,” I said. “The local newspaper is organizing a squash league on the beach. Guess what they’re using for a wall?”
“One hour, at the Hilton,” he said and hung up. I guessed that he would bring a rotten mood with him, but I never imagined how rotten. When I got there, I saw him from a distance, standing stooped over next to a kiosk on the beach, a cigarette in his hand. That was the first time we had dared approach the Wall since we moved it from Jerusalem, and it did not look good.
On the top of it, along the uppermost row of stones, an electronic sign was flickering: “The Western Wall brought to you by Yediot Aharanot newspapers and Isracard.” And David Lugasi didn’t look any better than his Wall.
“What are we going to do?” he asked. His eyes were red. He dragged hard on his cigarette.
“Maybe people will calm down. Give them time. It’s still new.”
He nodded. We moved closer to the police barricade separating the swimmers from the prayers. At one end of it was a small booth. We took kipot from an old worker wearing an orange uniform with a drawing of the Wall facing the sea on it. The kipa was also orange and had the same drawing, along with the words: “Sunset at the Wall – An Experience!”
We passed the barrier and went inside.
“Wait, wait a minute!” the old man called after us in a Russian accent.
“What?” I turned to him.
“Fifty shekels to go in, please,” said the old man in the orange uniform.
I looked at Lugasi. He returned the look.
“Ten tonight,” he said. “Be ready. I’ll pick you up.”
* * *
That same night, we returned the Wall to Jerusalem. We finished the whole job in eight hours of strenuous labor. The two crews, Romanians and Arabs, worked together and when the sun rose, the Wall was back where it belonged.
Lugasi stood and looked at his Wall. He wiped tears from the corners of his eyes. “We tried,” he said.
The workers were already on the bus, ready to go. The empty trucks left the parking lot one after the other. We were standing quietly when suddenly, from behind us came the sound of the bashful clearing of a throat. It was the Rabbi of the Wall.
He said, “Ah… the renovations are finished, sir?”
We turned to him. His eyes were red, his hair slightly disheveled, and he looked as if he’d aged a hundred years in a single week.
“Finished,” Lugasi said gently. He looked at the old man, and he was filled with great, inexplicable sorrow.
“And… everything’s okay?”
“Everything’s shiny and shipshape, Rabbi. We added screws to strengthen it, poured cement, it’s like new. A cinch to last another three thousand years.”
“Thank God. Thank God!” the Rabbi heaved a huge sigh and was silent. Then he said, “More power to you, young fellow. Just tell them at City Hall that next time, I’d like to know in advance when they do something like this, fahrshteist?”
“There won’t be a next time,” said Lugasi. “If I take it away again – you better believe I won’t bring it back.”
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
*Translation © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
When I think of Ireland, John-Paul Finnegan said as we stood on the deck of the ferry while it pulled out of Holyhead, I think of a limitless ignorance. And not just an ignorance, but a wallowing in ignorance, akin to the wallowing in filth of a pig or a naked, demented savage. Ireland and the people of Ireland wallow in ignorance much in the way that a child or a lunatic wallows in its own filth, smearing the walls with it, grinning and cooing loudly, smearing the walls and itself with its own filth, its own stinking self-made filth. This is definitely how the Irish people are, he said. This is their primary characteristic. Absolutely. Elsewhere in the world you can find qualities in people, both individuals and groups, which correspond to words such as spirit, life-force, vitality, passion and curiosity, but in Ireland you will find no such qualities. No such qualities at all. This is what John-Paul Finnegan, author of Nevah Trust a Christian, told me as the ferry, the Ulysses, began to move out of the harbour at Holyhead, propelling itself away from the British coast, towards Dublin.
Consider the name of this very ship, said John-Paul Finnegan. In fact, don’t even get me started on the name of this ship, he said. But it was too late, because he had already got himself started on the name of the ship, which was Ulysses. Not a single fucking dickhead in all of Ireland has actually read Ulysses, said John-Paul Finnegan. Except me, of course, the biggest dickhead of them all. Yet everyone in Ireland pretends to have read Ulysses, or acts like they’ve read it, but none of them have. The last person in Ireland to read Ulysses was James Joyce, and even he only read half of it, said John-Paul Finnegan. Come to think of it, there were a few professors who came after Joyce who also read Ulysses, or rather, they didn’t read it, they killed it, they killed Ulysses by James Joyce, just like they have killed almost every other book that was once worth reading. And not only did they kill Ulysses, but first they mutilated it, subjecting it to the most mental forms of torture. And how did they kill it? he asked. I will tell you, he said. They killed Ulysses by rendering it a desiccated literary relic; they wrote a slew of murderously dull articles about Ulysses, and thereby killed it. They killed Ulysses by making it seem to anyone unfortunate or depraved enough to read one of their hateful papers that Ulysses is the most boring and flaccid book in the world, when of course it is anything but the most boring and flaccid book in the world, it is in fact deeply subversive, scatological, irreverent, perverse, and above all, diabolically deviant. That is, the form and the content of the book are deviant: they deviate from good taste, from literary classicism, from the boredoms of morality and plot, and from sentimentality — in other words, from all the shit of literature, said John-Paul Finnegan, the typical and all-too-prevalent shit of literature. Like any decent author, said John-Paul Finnegan, Joyce ignored the shit, he sidestepped it, the hideous shit of literature, because he couldn’t be bothered and he wanted to write a new kind of book, which is the only thing worth doing if you call yourself a writer of any description. Yet if you read one of the papers, any of the papers by those unconscionable fucking dickheads who write about Ulysses, you will soon if not immediately come to the conclusion that this book, this Ulysses, is not worth reading precisely because, judging by how these academic fucks, these sick, life-hating, evil, mental, and spiritually crippled fucks write about it, Ulysses must be the least interesting of all books, said John-Paul Finnegan as the ship, the Ulysses, finally pulled out of the harbour and commenced upon open water.
I sighed. John-Paul Finnegan was right, I thought. But then again, maybe he wasn’t right. Maybe he was entirely wrong, as he had so often been entirely wrong before, about so many things, nearly everything in fact. After all, I had read Ulysses, so he wasn’t entirely right. Likelier he was entirely wrong. After all, I was Irish, and I had read Ulysses. What about me? I said to John-Paul Finnegan, suddenly indignant that he would so casually disparage the entirety of the Irish race, myself included, on the basis of such a truly sweeping generalisation. What about me? I said again. To which John-Paul Finnegan looked at me, clasping his hands as the ship cut across the waves. What about you? he said warily. I read Ulysses, I said. That’s right, he said, I’d forgotten that. He seemed to be having a moment of self-doubt. So there’s you and then there’s me and then there’s James Joyce, he said finally. We three have all read Ulysses. But no one else in Ireland has ever read Ulysses, he added. This I know. I know this simply because I know it, he said, his confidence returning. In other words it is what the philosophers call a priori knowledge, the kind of knowledge which we can possess prior to, indeed independently of, empirical verification. I simply know, as you know, as everybody knows, that everyone in Ireland, everyone except you and me, is too fucking dim-witted, too altogether stupid and moronic, and above all too terrified by the very word literature, to have bothered to read Ulysses. That’s how I know. You think I’m fucking joking, he said, jabbing a finger in my chest. I am not fucking joking, he said. I am not even exaggerating, let alone joking. Irishmen are terrified of the word literature. I can guarantee you that if I were to suddenly turn around, on this deck, with these couples and old drunken builders and traveller families and whatnot, and if I were then to roar the word literature at the top of my lungs, the vast majority of these people would run to the sides of the ship and hurl themselves over the edge to be drowned. They would sooner drown than confront a man roaring literature. And the rest of them, John-Paul Finnegan added, would simply collapse on the spot, they would die of the sheer horror that the word literature provoked in them, the boundless sense of nausea, terror and repulsion it provoked in their Irish hearts, that is to say their pig-hearts, their flaccid dickhead hearts. Some of them would have heart attacks, others aneurysms. Others would simply keel, causes unknown. For they know nothing of literature, of Joyce, and they care for less, these Irishmen, said John-Paul Finnegan, glowering at me now with a ferocity and yes, a hatred which I had done nothing to deserve, or so I felt. I may as well roar Allahu akbar, added John-Paul Finnegan, as roar literature. I may as well wrap a towel around my head and roar Allahu akbar while ripping off my shirt to reveal a suicide vest, as to roar literature, for the effect it would have on these Irishmen, in other words these cretins, these fuckheads, these unconscionable morons and idiots, these fucking heartless and mindless pricks, these pigs and sheep and rodents that call themselves Irishmen, when in truth they should call themselves sheep and pigs and rodents, if not total fucking spanners, said John-Paul Finnegan, who now had flecks of foam collecting at the corners of his mouth, and whose eyes had not left mine. But it seemed to me that the boundless hate had drained from John-Paul Finnegan’s eyes, and what remained was a childlike fear, a pleading, a remorse even. I imagined that John-Paul Finnegan was flailing out in the sea, not the Irish Sea which our ship, the Ulysses, was cutting across at a decent speed, but the metaphorical sea, the Black Sea or the Dead Sea, the sea of loneliness, self-hate and dread that is the fate not of all men, but certainly of all thinking men, as John-Paul Finnegan had himself told me, in one of his more vulnerable moments, when we had lived together in London, in a crowded and unsanitary house near Finsbury Park.
These pricks! he shouted. These unconscionable mental pricks! How I fucking loathe them, he muttered, shaking his head violently, too violently I thought, he might do himself damage. He drew sharply from his hip-flask, neglecting to pass it to me. How low can you go? he asked. How fucking low? I will tell you how low: all the way to Ireland. That’s how low you can fucking go. I let it pass, that inane comment, and fell to thinking about our lives in London, the lives we were leaving behind, standing as we were on the deck of this ship, this Ulysses that was cutting across the Irish Sea, the coast of Britain fading behind us. It was in the house near Finsbury Park that John-Paul Finnegan had written the last three volumes of Nevah Trust a Christian, his novel in eleven volumes, as he always called it, with bottomless perversity, the fact being that there were no fewer than thirteen volumes in his novel, if it even was a novel. I had moved into the house when John-Paul Finnegan was nearing the end of volume twelve, which he had titled Who’s Ya Daddy? I write eight thousand words per day, he had told me on the night we first went out for drinks in the Twelve Pins pub on Seven Sisters Road. I replied that eight thousand words seemed like a lot, in fact it seemed like far too many words to write in a single day. Absolutely fucking correct, it is too many, it’s far too many words even for the most deadline-haunted hack, let alone for a writer of literature, such as myself, John-Paul Finnegan said, pouring a shot of whiskey into his Guinness, as was his wont, a concoction which he called Guinnskey. It was then that John-Paul Finnegan had explained to me his notion of paltry realism, the genre in which he claimed to write, and which he also claimed to have invented. Paltry realism means writing shit, he said. What I mean to say is, what is art, only a howl against death. Are we agreed on this, Rob? he demanded. I nodded my head. Good, he said. Then we are agreed that art is a howl against death and nothing more. Yet why is it, he said, that so much art tries to do the opposite, to ignore, even to deny death? Have you thought about this? he asked. Art, and especially literature, has a thousand clever ways of denying or ignoring death. One of these ways is literariness itself, that is, literary imposture, said John-Paul Finnegan. By which I mean the ceaseless attempt by practitioners of literature to achieve beauty and perfection, to write well, in short to craft perfect and elegant sentences. This is infinite bollocks, said John-Paul Finnegan. If you write slowly, carefully, then what are you doing if not indulging in vanity — the vanity of writing well. It’s no different from wearing a nice coat or a frock or a shiny pair of shoes to a bourgeois dinner party — and I will tell you now, he added, I am not nor have I ever been the kind of man to attend dinner parties, bourgeois or otherwise. And death is no fucking dinner party. The point is, though, said John-Paul Finnegan, trying to write well is vanity and nothing other than vanity, and when I say vanity I essentially mean the fear of death expressed in self-framing, as you will have guessed. That is where the technique of paltry realism makes its stance. Paltry realism means writing rapidly, and yes, even writing badly, in fact only writing badly, and not seeking to impress anyone with your writing, with either its style or its content. Paltry realism means writing eight thousand words per day, he said. Eight thousand words — far too many for any decent or tasteful writer, but perfect for the practitioner of paltry realism, a school which, for the time being, consists solely of me, said John-Paul Finnegan, fixing another Guinnskey. I was intrigued by his theory of paltry realism and urged him to say more, though I needn’t have bothered, as he was already talking over me, caught up in the swell of his own oratory, aflame with the zeal I was to observe in him many times over the course of our friendship, which began that night in the Twelve Pins and continued to the afternoon when we stood together on the deck of the Ulysses, which was now at full steam as it tore across the Irish Sea, the British coastline having faded completely to the stern. Another indicator of the vanity and ultimately the self-delusion of literature, even in its so-called avant-garde, modernist or experimental guises, is that its practitioners invariably display a craving, a very unseemly craving, to have their work published, John-Paul Finnegan had said that night in the pub, him downing Guinnskeys and me downing Guinnesses. All of them, the brazen slags, all they want is to be published, he said. They want an adoring or a scandalised public to read their works, thereby granting them a kind of immortality, or so they would like to think. This goes for Céline, Kafka, Pessoa, Joyce, Marinetti, Musil, Markson, Handke, Hamsun, Stein, Sebald, Bernhard, Ballard, Beckett, Blanchot, Burroughs, Bolaño, Cioran, Duras, Gombrowicz, Pound, Eliot, and any other dickhead of the so-called avant-garde that you might care to mention, as much as it goes for McEwan, Self, Banville, Tóibín, Auster, Atwood, Ellis, Amis, Thirlwell, Hollinghurst, Smith, Doyle, Dyer, Franzen, and any other arsehole active in mainstream literature today, said John-Paul Finnegan. To them, the value of a work of literature is dependent on its being published. If it is not published, it has no value. There is an ontological question at work here, he added: if a book is unread by anyone except its author, can it be said to exist? More pertinently, can it be said to be any good? My response, and paltry realism’s response, is simply to bypass the whole squalid agenda. What is the point in sending my writing out to publishers, said John-Paul Finnegan, so that they might accept or reject it? What is the use in that? I will tell you now: I reject the publishers, every last one of them, even the ones I admire, the ones I revere, the good and the best of them, because I am a paltry realist, and publication, Rob, is not among my aims, not among my aims at all, it is not among my aims, I am simply not fucking interested in being published, he said, slamming his Guinnskey on the table. I write for other reasons, he added, though he neglected to say what they were. On several occasions, while we were living together in the house near Finsbury Park, John-Paul Finnegan had permitted me to read sections of Nevah Trust a Christian, his gargantuan work allegedly in the paltry realist mode. True enough, the writing was very bad, and obviously written in great haste (handwritten, that is — John-Paul Finnegan hated typing on a laptop). The prose was utterly devoid of literary flair and displayed not the slightest effort to seduce or entertain the reader. Not that the writing was hostile to the reader, as can be the case among the severest of modernists; rather, the writing seemed indifferent to the reader, perhaps even unaware of the reader’s existence. There were few paragraph breaks and no chapter breaks. There was no discernible story and no characters. The word fuck, or one of its variants, appeared at least once on every line, more often twice or three times, or more. The word cunt was almost as frequent; the words bastard, dickhead, rodent and moron riddled the text. Several pages consisted solely of fuck-derived words repeated hundreds of times, punctuated by bastard, mongrel, cunthawk or dickhead. Others offered perfunctory descriptions of dusty towns and hurtling trams, giant mounds of waste and crumbling ridges, or glibly vicious references to contemporary events. I had the sense of an inner monologue; not exactly a stream of consciousness, more like a machinegun of consciousness, or a self-bludgeoning of consciousness, or just an interminable, pointless spewing of language, a kind of insane vomiting of language, page after page of it, a dozen volumes stacked on the floor beside John-Paul Finnegan’s desk, which was a backstage dressing-table salvaged from a closed-down strip club.
But this is not even the worst of it, John-Paul Finnegan said suddenly as we stood together on the deck of the Ulysses as it bounced over the waves, away from Britain. This ship, this Ulysses, is not even the worst of it, he repeated. The worst of it is Bloomsday. Have you ever seen Bloomsday? he asked. What I’m talking about, he said, is the national day of celebration in tribute to a book that no one in Ireland has even fucking read! That is what I refer to, said John-Paul Finnegan. Until a decade or so ago, Bloomsday was merely a kind of minor national stain, a silly and moronic venture that no one really bothered with, and which you could safely ignore. But then the government, that gang of dribbling pricks, that moron collective, as I have so often labelled them, saw in Bloomsday a serious marketing opportunity, one which they, in their infinite hatefulness, decided was far too lucrative to ignore. There was more money to be squeezed out of Joyce, they decided, as if Joyce were a sponge or a testicle, and even though not one of them — this I know — not one of them had ever read Ulysses, or even Dubliners, or any of Joyce’s books at all, said John-Paul Finnegan. In fact, these morons that I’m referring to, these are the kind of people who, if you suggested to them that they might read Ulysses or Dubliners, would laugh out loud. And I’m not talking about an embarrassed or a social form of laughter, he said, but a bellowing, hearty and spontaneous laughter, from the guts, a laughter of delight at what they would consider the mad and uproarious idea of reading Ulysses or Dubliners, said John-Paul Finnegan. He drew again from his hip-flask, then passed it to me. I drank. These morons, these dickheads, these unconscionable fucking arseholes decided to commercialise this so-called Bloomsday, said John-Paul Finnegan, the day when the fictional Leopold Bloom fictionally wandered around Dublin city, drinking, ruminating, chatting and so on. In other words, the sixteenth of June, he said. It would bring in the tourists, they reckoned. It would bring in the Yanks and Japs, the French and the Germans, the Swedes and the Slavs, the vulgarian Bulgarians and the roaming Romanians, and all those grinning tourists would spend their money admiring the Irish people and their literary heritage, even though the people of Ireland no longer read, are too stupid to read, let alone to read Ulysses, the book that this whole moronic fiasco of Bloomsday purports to celebrate. You don’t need me, said John-Paul Finnegan, to point out that the two Irish writers widely considered the greatest of the twentieth century, even by people who have never read and never intend to read either of them, namely Beckett and Joyce, had nothing but hatred and disgust for Ireland, and for the Irish. These two writers spent a huge amount of energy actively disparaging the Irish and Ireland, said John-Paul Finnegan, in their letters and conversation, and frequently in their published work too. Yet here we have a situation, this so-called Bloomsday, wherein all the fat waddling morons on the island gather in the streets to celebrate a book by Joyce which they never bothered to read! Pink pudgy dickheads. Mindless flabby wankers, trailing their moron progeny. Useless bastards one and all. They celebrate Ulysses in the most nauseatingly self-conscious of ways, prancing about for the snapping tourists, dancing like twats, like true dickheads for these snapping tourists, who gaze on in a euphoria of mindlessness, clicking their cameras, their smartphone cameras, their video cameras, recording the Irish, this literary nation, making absolute fools of themselves by aping the characters in a book they have never read, a book they never intend to read, for they hate books, they hate all books regardless of provenance, the only exceptions being Harry Potter and football biographies, said John-Paul Finnegan. Bloomsday, he said, shaking his head in disgust. Bloomsday. Fucking Bloomsday. Blooms-fucking-day. Bloom-fuckings-day. Fuck off, he said. Fuck right off. I mean it, fuck all the world. Listen to this, John-Paul Finnegan said. A few years ago I was back in Dublin, don’t ask me why, I was back in Dublin at the time of Bloomsday. I went into town, not to partake in the celebrations of course, but for unrelated reasons. And while I was in there I walked up O’Connell Street and listen to this, it will sound like the stuff of broad satire or lunatic fantasy but it is neither, Rob, I assure you. I walked on to O’Connell Street and what did I see, along the pedestrian island running up the middle of Dublin’s great thoroughfare, but hundreds of fat grinning idiots, together with their chortling wives and their chubby, shrieking children, all sitting in rows along either side of an immensely long dining table, said John-Paul Finnegan. I am not kidding you. And listen to this. Over their heads was a massive dangling banner, a dangling banner that read Denny Sausages Celebrate James Joyce’s Bloomsday. Yes! Denny fucking Sausages! As if the sausages themselves were bursting in ecstasy. This because somewhere in the scatological sprawl of Ulysses, between its intimate depictions of flatulence, defecation, masturbation, blasphemy, and unbridled male and female lust, there is brief mention made of Denny fucking Sausages, said John-Paul Finnegan. So here they were, hundreds of these fat chortling twats, crowded around a long dining table replete with white tablecloth, being served plate upon plate of sausages, each of them cramming their faces with sausage, a veritable orgy of sausage-gorging in honour of James Joyce, high-modernist and high-mocker of Ireland. Here is your legacy, James Joyce, John-Paul Finnegan roared over the waves, here is your legacy — two hundred chortling fucks eating sausages! You have really left your fucking mark, James Joyce. Oh yes you have! You are the KING OF MODERNISM! Presently John-Paul Finnegan produced his hip-flask, swigged on it, and passed it to me. I drank self-consciously, for despite the roar of the turbines and the waves crashing against the prow, many of the other travellers on deck had heard John-Paul Finnegan’s outburst and were looking warily in our direction. John-Paul Finnegan was oblivious to their gazes, or just indifferent. Fat waddling pricks, he muttered, more subdued now. How they waddle. Like fat, mental penguins. Fat chortling penguins, grinning like lunatics. Penguins of depravity, penguins of hate. Will I tell you what I did? he said, turning to me sharply. I will tell you what I did. I made it my business to at least attempt to fathom this unprecedented display of public idiocy, this linking of high-modernism to pork consumption. I walked along the rows of chortling, sausage-cramming Dubliners, through the gauntlet of snapping Japs, the lens-faced legions. Then I stopped and asked one woman who was sitting with a pile of sausages on a plate in front of her, whether she had actually read Ulysses, said John-Paul Finnegan. She stared at me for a long time, her expression conveying sheerest bewilderment and horror. Her child began to cry. Eventually the woman came out of her trance, and she said to me, very slowly, Ulysses. Just the word Ulysses, nothing more. I never saw a woman so afraid. Her little boy had his head in his hands now, weeping through his fingers, wailing. That was when the father turned around. He looked me in the eye, a long and disdainful look it was. Then he said, I think you’d better leave. What the fuck, said John-Paul Finnegan, recollecting the incident. What the fuck? All I had done was ask her if she had read Ulysses. They ran me out of there, he said. They’d have lynched me, that sausage-mob, if I had not made off with myself. A black day for Ireland, and a black day for me, said John-Paul Finnegan. And yet here I am, here we are, on a ferry, on the fucking Ulysses no less, gliding across the sea not away from, but in the direction of the accursed land, the steaming hole, the potato field, the literary and intellectual silence of Ireland. Would that it would crumble into the sea, he added. Would that the entire stinking mass, the whole abominable island would groan, keel and tumble into the sea. Dissolve in the sea. Dissolve like a man who is made of salt, a man who fell into the sea, he said. He was silent for a time, looking out at the waves. I thought about London, about Dublin, about our position now, suspended between the two cities. We must be the only two Irishmen returning to Ireland rather than fleeing from it, I reflected, not for the first time. I thought about Irish pubs, the many of them back in London I had drunk in with John-Paul Finnegan, and it seemed to me now that they weren’t pubs at all, but cages, or bear-traps. I began to fantasize about climbing the rail and flinging myself to the sea, vanishing in the foam with a truncated yell.
The journey was nearing its end. John-Paul Finnegan was muttering away by my side, as if in tense dialogue with the waves, or the treacherous forms that squirmed inside his head. I sensed that the closer we got to Dublin, the less sure of himself he became. Very soon we would be at Dublin port. I could already make out the Poolbeg towers hazed on the horizon. I thought of all the time we had spent away, John-Paul Finnegan and I, and the hatred he bore within him, the hatred that is purer than any other, the hatred for where one comes from. And now John-Paul Finnegan turned to me, gripping the rail. I could feel his gaze on me. I turned to face him. What the fuck did they do to me? he said quietly, referring to what, I did not know. What the fuck did they do to me, Rob? The words had to them a tone of revelation. The coastline was expanding across the horizon, sinister and domineering. John-Paul Finnegan shook his head. What the fuck did they do to me? What the fuck was going on, Rob? What the fuck was going on?
I turned away, facing the coast. Neither of us spoke for a time. John-Paul Finnegan went to speak again but hesitated. I did not look at him. Finally he said, I hate what I’ve written. I hate every word of it. That moronic and sickening fucking book. That so-called novel which I hate more than anything. He seemed calmer now, even as the coast grew closer, firmer, filling our vision to the prow of the Ulysses. Paltry realism is nothing, means nothing, he said. I wrote what I wrote because I thought it would heal me, but there is no healing, you just learn to live with your wounds and your mutilations, and you stagger onwards, crippled and bedraggled, towards your death. One day your energy fails you and you keel over, and that’s that. You have not been healed. In a way you died from your wounds. Every hurt and every humiliation lasts for ever. There is no healing. Writing changes nothing, it’s an infliction. You inflict yourself on the page, and then on the reader, and on the world. Better to have no readers, better not to write at all. There was no worth to what I wrote, nor to anything I have ever done. Nothing in my life has had any worth. Writing has no worth. Nothing has any worth. Nothing. We were both silent as the ferry sailed into the mouth of the port, the twin red and white towers looming like sentries. Now John-Paul Finnegan seemed truly calm, self-possessed once more, neither raging nor afraid. I will not forgive, he said. Fuck it all. I have decided. I will not forgive them, not forgive any of them for what they have done, for what they have done to me. I will not forgive them, he said. I will not. No. Fuck it, he said.
*This story is taken from: This Is the Ritual By Rob Doyle (Bloomsbury, 2016).
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