In those days I talked a lot about weapons. There was Alex, the lone soldier who lived with the old lady. It was unclear whether they were related. On Friday afternoons Alex was always out on the balcony in boxer shorts and an undershirt, cleaning his short barrel M-16 in the sun, smoking and sweating for an hour or two, and I would watch him from our balcony and say, what a waste of manpower.
The first time I thought about it was when I overheard him talking on the phone, he was saying that the IDF is the biggest whorehouse in the country, everyone is all over each other ‒ male officers and female soldiers, male soldiers and female commanders, female commanders and male ones, male commanders amongst themselves. Alex was tall and fair, he had the arrogant air of a proud Russian. His pale hairy legs shone in the sun, and the shadow underneath his armpits brought up memories of days long past: crumpled-up newspapers featuring lipstick ads that were scattered all over the floor of the army tent during basic training.
I had it all figured out, right down to the last detail. I spent hours on the balcony with the door closed behind me while Alex sat on the oil stained railing, the old lady had tried cleaning it but never managed to get the stains out.
Apart from the old lady, Alex didn’t have any family in Israel. My family was merely background noise: my wife, Iris, who took care of behaviorally challenged kids, and the twins, Ben and Beth. Ben took an immediate liking to the scouts; he once dragged a gigantic wooden beam home to prove his devotion, and Beth started her own blog online. I don’t know what she did there.
In the free community newspaper they deliver to every house, I read that the security situation was heating up and caution should be exercised. Children should not be out alone after dark; power locks should be installed in the car; a home security system indoors; they even steal dogs, it said. When we started giving things up, when it became a struggle to buy things for the house, when I gave up cigarettes, we used copies of the community newspaper that had piled up – seven, eight or nine in the front entrance of each house – to line the boxes we packed and placed in the reinforced security room.
I studied Alex’s short, jagged toenails, the way he played with them in the hot air and tried to think about Iris. The way he sits with his legs wide apart, concentrating, dismantling the weapon down to its smallest parts, using a brush and a flannel cloth to clean them. When Iris would return from one of her conferences, she smelled of other counselors’ perfumes. It was summer, and the average temperature was thirty-eight degrees Celsius.
I missed the city. I slept outside, on the balcony, at night, and whenever the security jeeps drove by, they would temporarily blind me. All we ever wanted was a nice house in a quiet area. Well, we got it. Beth started attending Yoga for Children, which drained our checking account, and Ben was always in need of a monthly check for the scouts. Alex would spend weekends with the old lady, and when I sat on the balcony and Ben came out with a question about his homework, I tried to figure out why he couldn’t see Alex and only I could.
I began thinking about what would happen if he agreed to give me his weapon. I’d go over all of the details with him. He’d file a report with the Military Police and tell them that it was stolen when he was attacked by a group of terrorists on his way to the base. He struggled, they were trying to kidnap him and one of them even attempted to inject him with something, but he managed to break free and they just got his weapon as he ran for his life.
Tell them that you wounded one of them too, I planned on saying.
He’d clean his weapon one last time, for my sake, and then hand it over along with the ammunition.
The night the children disappeared began by someone alerting the neighborhood security watch. The jeeps started circling around, driving at full speed. Their Kojaks blinked like crazy. Police cars joined in, and searchlights lit up our dark silence. A group of scouts had gathered their equipment and gone hiking or went out to earn a badge or whatever it is that scouts do. It was Ben and his friends, like that kid who always comes over to our house smelling of iron. Beth disappeared too. Iris came home late. She stepped in from all of the noise, dropped her keys and said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
The police stopped by every house. Ben and his group, there were ten of them, weren’t the only ones missing. There were two girls missing, and Beth. We answered questions. The streets were filled with police cars and SUVs. They asked us for photographs. The police officers went through the children’s rooms and returned embarrassed, speechless. Reporters began arriving. That’s when it got really scary. Iris burst into tears and fled to the bathroom.
We were cooped up in the house. Then they asked us to come out and join the search. I heard someone say that the first night is the most critical. They have less than two hours to get them to the territories of the Palestinian authority. Someone said, how could they make twenty kids disappear, and someone else said, thirteen, they’re thirteen. I grabbed the keys and went out. Standing on our front walk, I could see Alex heading towards the old lady’s house. His army shirt was unbuttoned, he wore an undershirt underneath it, and his duffel bag was slung over his shoulder. He was looking at the police cars.
We took the car towards the southern part of the fence. They told us to contact the officer in charge of the area and he’d instruct us where to search. Alex sat down, lit a cigarette and asked, “Can you turn on the AC?” I drove the dark, circular road, perspiring. The air conditioned air crawled out of the vents and onto my skin. We could see flashing lights. Dogs were barking in the distance. My ears were ringing. Alex smoked. Dogs again. I thought to myself, Beth came out taller than her brother. And they’re both dark, they look more like their mother. I thought I was speaking aloud, but Alex sat and smoked, and I drove silently.
An hour later, Alex and I were walking through a thorny field carrying large flashlights that the local security team had provided us with. I yelled, “Ben!” and Alex yelled, “Beth!” The only things we could see were the thorns just before us and an occasional porcupine fleeing the light and the noise. The air became heavier. The dust rising from the thorns burned the throat and eyes. My shirt and underwear stuck to my body. Alex’s undershirt went transparent, dirty in the middle. His chest was smooth and shiny.
We could hear the police radio screeching in the distance. We heard a helicopter too, but it was only there by coincidence and continued flying north. I yelled, “Ben!” and Alex yelled, “Beth!” I couldn’t remember the names of the other kids, maybe just Gilli, the one with the large braces and the retainer; I gave up because I thought I got the name wrong.
After four, just before sunrise, we returned to the car. I notified the officer that we didn’t find anything. He notified me that they didn’t either. I was tired and preferred not to find a damn thing. We headed home. I drove. I left the radio switched off. Alex stayed in his undershirt and had tied the army shirt to his belt. We reeked of sweat. I was embarrassed that my sweat was sharper than his. Alex took out his cigarettes and offered one to me. I took it and he lit them both for us. I said, I’m not going to cry now, speaking the language that my parents spoke, the language Alex couldn’t understand. The cigarettes were strong and I coughed. I had to take a piss but kept driving. I thought that I was sensing some smell coming from the air conditioning, but it was just the army boots that smelled of diesel fuel and shoe polish.
“You got two kids?” he asked.
I felt a stinging sensation in my stomach. I Nodded.
“No more?” he asked, taking another drag.
I signaled right to turn into the neighborhood. The clicking of the signal broke the silence. Our windows were rolled down and we passed some jackass in flip flops and socks who was standing outside. He told us that they found a torn green scout kerchief. We ignored him and continued driving.
“What do you do? For a living.”
“I’m a photographer. But I’m thinking of quitting. Leaving. Don’t know. What kind of weapons do you guys have?”
“Short caliber M-16’s. American military surplus.”
I rearranged myself in the seat and my foot hit the gas pedal. We momentarily leaped forward.
“What do you photograph?”
“A sign saying ‘Welcome to the Municipality of Hod Hasharon.’ Dishes in a restaurant in Ra’anana. A piece-of-shit dump that belonged to the Turks that a subsidiary of the Ministry of Agriculture is holding on to. A few fashion models. There’s plenty, more than enough.”
Alex bounced his leg up and down. He took a drag on his cigarette and blew out the smoke.
I realized that a smell of alcohol was coming from him. “It doesn’t have to do with art?”
Alex chuckled. We heard helicopters above. This time they were intended for us. For the children.
I swallowed. The air was rough, with a combination of nicotine and dust.
Later, Alex told me that The Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers had fixed him up with the old lady. She was looking to lend a hand, to help soldiers because they help us and so on, and he was on the lone soldier list so the two had been brought together.
“Ten months with the woman,” he said, lighting another cigarette. I had already gotten used to the smell of our sweat. “How long have you been neighbors?” Alex asked.
“Here? Four years.” I looked at the reflective yellow light on the shoulder of the road.
The next morning the search continued, and when I got home, I felt that something had changed. I hurried inside with my keys, the car remote always gets tangled up in them, I nearly threw everything on the floor and kicked the pile of community newspapers, but the reporter who tried to interview me was there. The children’s photographs were printed again and again. They called it “The Night of the 13,” A Heinous Crime. She was waiting in the living room with Iris, who wouldn’t agree to talk, but had made tea for them both. I told her that unless she wanted to go home on all fours and have her kids ‒ if she has any ‒ see their mom a cripple, she’d better get out fast.
At night I dreamt that the children came home. Ben just walked in, and I looked at him and said, “but you’re dead,” and he shrugged and went into the living room. He was all beaten up, but I couldn’t tell which parts of his body were hurt. I asked him where Beth was, and when he turned to me I said, “Doesn’t all of this have to do with your death?” Later we went out to the balcony so I could show Alex to him.
In the evening, Iris collected pairs of shoes and dismantled bicycle handlebars and school books that belonged to Ben and Beth, and she placed everything in boxes lined with copies of the community newspaper. I asked her what she was doing. She said that if she couldn’t see the children, she didn’t want to have to see their stuff either.
“Are you out of your mind?” I asked.
I was standing in the doorway of Ben’s room and I called out to her several times. I told her, “Don’t you ever talk to me like that,” but it didn’t help. She was throwing nightlights and electronic mosquito repellents into the boxes lined with newspapers, and muttering, “Now’s the time to start smoking again, right?” I turned and bumped into the metal window frame. Outside the sidewalk was filled with parked cars. People were walking down the street, clustered in small groups. The scouts handed out maps of the neighborhood and the surrounding area. The small wooded area facing our block had been cordoned off with red tape but it was only tied to the bushes on one side, the other was dangling in the wind. “Is that the kind of advice you give to people in these situations?”
Iris sniffled behind me and dragged a box down the hall. “I’m not a counselor every moment of my life.”
We stood there, Iris and me, the box being the only thing between us.
“It’s about time that you open your eyes,” she told me, sniffling again. “Open your eyes and do something. Pay attention to the news. Listen to the radio. Children don’t come back to this place after they disappear.”
That weekend Alex was home on leave again. The Police task force had spread out on both sides of the neighborhood. Police representatives, National Security Agency representatives, even one from the Prime Minister’s office, had spoken with us. The old lady sat hunched over near her balcony door, then got up to prepare Shabbat dinner in the kitchen. A dark Mazda was parked on the street with its engine running, waiting for Alex. After they had dinner on the balcony, he went out. I stayed up waiting for more than half of the night and when the Mazda brought him back, stumbling and singing in Russian, I closed the door behind me and got into bed with Iris.
It was late in the afternoon when he came out on the balcony, barefoot, wearing light jeans and without his cigarettes. He sat there wordlessly, his head in his hands.
We drove out of the neighborhood. “Thanks for helping me with this, man,” Alex said. We passed the empty guard post that was manned lately with police officers enforcing a checkpoint. Alex took out his cigarettes and lit one for us both.
“Hang on,” I said, “let’s get out of here first.”
He held the two burning cigarettes. “Where do we search now?” he asked once we were on the highway. “Let’s get out of here first,” I repeated.
I was trying to think what would happen if everyone had a home security service, the kind that they recommend you get, and then all of the homes were broken into at the exact same time; what would happen then; how many houses would ten hired security guards, in five patrol cars, manage to save; and what if everyone’s children went out after dark at the same time? I slapped myself on the back of my neck. Alex turned on the radio. I turned it off.
“Thanks for helping me with this, man,” he said again. “I don’t know how I forgot the rifle. I always feel it. I have a hole in my back because of it.” He pressed on a point under his back ribs and furrowed his brows. “It’s jail, for sure.”
We passed a sign that read Hummus, Falafel, Tahini, Pickles sold by Wait and had red arrows pointing the way. “How many bullets does your rifle hold?” I asked.
Alex raised his eyebrow and answered. “Thirty. You load twenty-nine.”
“And you shot one of your own?”
We drove and drove until we passed Ra’anana Junction, the entrance to Givatayim and its exit, and then Alex said, “Stop there.” I pulled up into a gas station. The blue neon lights were blinding. Alex said, “Be back in a sec,” he asked for four hundred Shekels, got out of the car and walked into the convenience store. My heart began to pound. I turned off the air conditioning. Alex disappeared from sight. I thought about the children. Two images were going through my mind: the wind blowing over the sand, and a boy and a girl running into the sea. How come you always run into the sea and never just walk? I pictured Ben, blindfolded in a basement, the smell of urine and iron all around him. I couldn’t imagine Beth. I couldn’t get a view of Alex from the car.
I nearly honked in order to break the silence, as Alex appeared holding a heavy plastic bag that the blue neon lights turned to yellow. He got in the car and pulled two cold, metallic-blue cans out of the bag. “Is that what they’re drinking at places nowadays?” I asked. Alex smiled and coughed. I saw that he was missing a tooth deep in his mouth.
He poured two shots of vodka into plastic cups. “It helps with the taste.” I drank just as he did. I shifted in my seat and had to pass gas. My body was heavy from the past few days and I laughed coarsely, loudly, how it all hurts, and Alex laughed too. We drank whatever was left. In the distance, rather close by, we could see the hypnotic lights of the city arranged in geometrical shapes, precise, well-formed, like something unbelievable, something that doesn’t even exist. I asked whether I should keep driving. Alex hummed a Russian melody, not anything familiar, not something the first settlers sang, but some disgusting, heavy, loud crap that young people dance to. He threw the empty cans on the car mat. We drove through the city’s narrow streets. Drops of moisture thickened over the window panes. Where do your friends live? I asked. Alex hummed and tapped his fingers on the window and dashboard. Just tell me already, I said, Where’s the weapon, and he laughed again. He had that bitter smell of alcohol again. I kept driving and yelled, Where’s your damn weapon? The steering wheel shook in my hands. He said, it’s on Mandevoshkes or something street, and burst out laughing. Then he gave me vague directions by memory. We progressed slowly. We reached Mandevoshkes Mocher Sforim Street and stopped before a neglected building. Alex put his hand on my shoulder, then looked at me, narrowing his eyes. He drew closer and said, “You’re under a lot of pressure now,” and burst out laughing.
His gaze wandered to a small balcony on the second floor. There were four tall guys standing there, talking and drinking. Two of them were peeling the paint off of the banister, and the thick flecks fell into the darkened yard. They looked very much like Alex and seemed shiny, freshly showered. My diaphragm was hurting as if I had just come back from a run. “Is this where your friends live?” I asked. Alex nodded.
“Then get lost.” He pushed the door open and got out of the car.
I parked not far from the shrub marked by the dangling tape and walked towards the house. The old lady came out with empty plastic bottles in her hands, heading for the recycling bin. She had left the lights on behind her. She stopped and approached me on the sidewalk. Her eyes were small, blue, and ugly, and she had wrinkles on the sides of her nose. She extended one hand, which remained in the air. “This is not easy,” she said, looking me in the eye. Afterwards, we walked up and sat on her balcony. She offered me a chair. I sat and stared at the oil stains on the stone banister, eating her dinner.
That night Iris fell asleep in Ben’s bed. I looked at her. Her eyelids were shut, puffy and soft. A few boxes lined with copies of the community newspaper were filled with things. I didn’t look inside, but I went into Beth’s room, stepping by accident on a pink flip flop at the entrance. The air smelled of tangerines and coconut, the fabric softener Iris uses. I sat down in the chair facing the small silver computer that we once bought. I leaned over it and blew out air. I had to breathe deeply and keep from looking around. The computer’s mouse was covered with sparkles. I rested my palm on it, and the screen turned on with a whir of static electricity. A line ran through in purple. God damn it. Beth Mautner’s blog!! Everything you could possibly want to say!!
The latest entry date appeared beneath the line running across the screen. It was the day the children had disappeared. After which came the lines: In those days I talked a lot about weapons. There was Alex, the lone soldier who lived with the old lady across the street. It was unclear whether they were related. On Friday afternoons Alex was always out on the balcony in boxer shorts and an undershirt, cleaning his short barrel M – 16 in the sun, smoking and sweating for an hour or two and I would watch him from our balcony and say, what a waste of manpower.
The rest was familiar too. It continued with Tell them that you wounded one of them, I planned on saying. He’d clean his weapon one last time, for my sake, and then hand it over along with the ammunition.
And further down, highlighted in purple:
My dad is in love with the neighbor’s soldier…!!!!! OMG!!!!!!!!!!
I sat back down in the chair. It was several sizes too small. Fine hairs of dust moved like long arms from the computer’s air vents. The silver table that we bought was there, the same as always. A chill went through my body. I pressed ENTER after along with the ammunition. And I began typing. The night the children disappeared began by someone alerting the neighborhood security watch. The jeeps started circling around, driving at full speed. Their Kojaks blinked like crazy. Police cars joined in and searchlights lit up our dark silence.