Authors: Evan Fallenberg
From his first meeting with the boys Joseph recognized the enormity of his mistake. Time and distance had wedged him out of their lives; his gifts were paltry compensation, like the offering of a barely tolerated cousin from overseas. Moreover, the boys had grown spoiled and undisciplined. Where once they had been boisterous, now they were impossibly loud and wild. They argued with one another, paid little attention to their father, and generally did exactly what they pleased. He felt he did not know these children and, because he had nothing to do with their upbringing, could not criticize or correct. When he wrote Rebecca about it, offering to help devise a way to raise them successfully in tandem, though apart, he got no response. He gave up planning outings and packing food. The boys were unhappy no matter where he took them. Joseph tried again to form groups conducive to good behavior, suspecting it was Daniel who was instigating and modeling this conduct. But even without his lead they were frightfully contentious. It became more and more difficult to convince them to do things with him, and Joseph took to inviting them one at a time for fear of losing them completely. He did not wish to plead for their company, knowing this would make them less inclined to spend time with him, but there seemed to be no other way. He paid large sums of money he did not have for tickets to sporting events that would entice them. He began to believe he had dreamt that perfect day at the beach.
Joseph could not have known it at the time—might have shot or drowned himself then, in the autumn of 1977, had he known—but he was beginning a slump of sorts that would last, with a few brief exceptions, until he met Pepe sixteen years later. His career would progress slowly, his well-researched but plodding articles rejected more often than not, his classroom demeanor under fire from semester to semester, his cantankerous and imperious nature increasingly an irritation to colleagues. His social life would never blossom during this period; he would shy away from potential friends and ignore admirers, preferring solitude and silence. He would have only three sexual liaisons, all errors of great magnitude in his eyes, a capitulation to weakness and an insult to the memory of his lovemaking with Yoel. And his relationships with his sons would dwindle and diminish until he could not remember ever really having been a father.
He would almost, but not entirely, forget what it was to love, or to be loved.
FRIDAY, MARCH 1, 1996
ANIEL STAGGERS TO THE
bathroom, folds down the front of his pajama bottoms, and releases a swift and steady stream into the toilet. He has promised his roommate, Elyasaf, whose girlfriend has complained, that he will put the seat up before peeing, but once again, bleary eyed and barely conscious, he has forgotten. The clothes he wore yesterday lie in a heap next to his bed. Inside the sweater is a flannel shirt and inside that a T-shirt, and Daniel slips all three together over his head, hopping up and down several times until they find their accustomed places on his body. His skullcap, small and soiled, falls from the right sleeve of the sweater and he clips it to his head, a tiny tent in the forest of his long, sandy curls. He zips up his trousers over his pajama bottoms and steps into work boots, which he will lace up at various stop-lights en route to his first job. His morning prayers last fourteen minutes, including the time it takes to lay and then rewrap the
. He adds enough milk to his coffee to cool it to the point where he can drink it straight down, leaves the empty cup in the sink with yesterday’s dishes, and is out the door and in his van by seven o’clock.
There are four messages on his beeper and three on his cell-phone voice mail. Daniel reads and listens while driving, swerving to keep to his lane. Five of the messages are plumbing jobs that require his attention. The sixth is from his brother Ethan, asking how long before Shabbat he plans to arrive at their father’s this evening. The last message is from his mother. “Ha toilet ist zatoom,” she announces, and Daniel laughs aloud at her crazy mix of Hebrew, German, and English in one short sentence. He calls her immediately.
“What’s wrong with the toilet, Ma?”
“Hello, Daniel. It’s the toilet in Grandfather’s cottage, all backed up. The water won’t go down. I tried using the
but nothing happened.”
He figures she is referring to a plunger but does not bother to find out. “Tell Grandfather to use the bathroom in the big house for now. I’m on my way to a job but I’ll come up to Sde Hirsch after that.” Daniel curses as a taxi cuts in front of him.
“If you come early, I’ll make you a big breakfast. How about an
? I’ve got lots of challah bread left from last Shabbat and all the right fruit.”
“OK, Ma, sounds good. See you later.” He remembers how Rebecca used to scoff at Polish mothers enticing their children to visit with a meal of home-cooked delicacies. Is she changing with age? Or is she just happy to get rid of aging leftovers, ever resourceful?
Daniel parks half on the sidewalk in front of the building he has been searching for. All at once he realizes he is only blocks away from his father’s apartment. He has been there only once and found it too luxurious for his taste. And uncomfortable. Pepe, the painting of the nude man, the door-man who mocked him for ascending to the penthouse, unaware that he was a son and not a, a—it had been too much for him. Besides, he had nothing to say to his father, while Joseph had too much to say to him. The more his father expects of him the less Daniel is inclined to deliver, a pattern they established at least twenty years ago.
Daniel will turn twenty-eight a few weeks after this family reunion. He is earning a very handsome living now, a fact he chooses not to share with anyone, especially his father. He does not want to ruin his reputation as the family’s greatest underachiever, refuses to ignite his father’s hopes for him. Nor does he admit to the odd happiness that has come to him in such a surprising fashion: the joy of fixing things, the comfort of routine, the bustle of city life. Daniel likes paying house calls much more than he thought he would. He had never thought himself curious about other people’s lives, but the more he gains admittance to their kitchens and bath-rooms, the more he wants to know about them. He enjoys, too, the attention of the women he finds in those kitchens and bathrooms. They invite him for coffee, even bake him a cake or cookies while he is working; sometimes they touch him when his head is wedged under a sink and his legs are sticking out, vulnerable. One teenager in a particularly swanky building in north Tel Aviv felt compelled to take a bath while Daniel was replacing the bidet.
He ascends to the fourth floor, where he is greeted by a thin, very dark young woman—Persian or Yemenite, he believes. Her hair is raven black and falls to her shoulders. He cannot tell if she is eighteen or twenty-eight. He does not know whether she is the lady of the house or the daughter or the hired help. She offers no clues.
The malfunctioning dishwasher proves a cinch to fix. The dark young woman flits in and out of the kitchen while Daniel tinkers. In and out, in and out, with the speed and silence of a sparrow. He finds himself slowing down, checking his work, tightening bolts, taking all precautions. He is lingering in spite of his heavy workload and the unexpected trip north to fix his grandfather’s toilet. He does not know if this is because he wants to find a way to talk to her or because he wishes to make very sure she will have no additional plumbing problems. He wants to ease the burden of her life.
Eventually Daniel cannot find anything more to check. He stands to his full height and in his work boots he feels too large for this kitchen and the young woman it contains.
“Please don’t go yet,” she chirps from across the room. In an instant she is in front of him, he with his back up against the dishwasher. Indian. He recognizes the accent now, the rich brown of her lips.
She reaches up and caresses his chin, cupping her hand and moving it along his jawbone. He closes his eyes, waiting for himself to pull away and quite surprised at himself when he does not. She is using both hands now, gently massaging his shoulders and chest, and he leans in to catch her scent. Daniel’s eyes spring open when she kisses his lips, but her own eyes are closed; there is no gaze to meet. He closes his eyes again, acquiescing. She settles her cheek against his chest and his feet seem to take root, right there in front of the dishwasher. They breathe together, slow and quiet.
Down in the van, out of sight of the apartment, after a wordless parting, he shreds her bill and voids the copy.
* * *
On mornings like these, when he awaits the convoy of jeeps and armored vehicles that will ferry him back across the border into Israel, Ethan feels a tug of anxious energy. He has learned, over the course of these many months that have sprawled out across a year, that his apprehension has little to do with the dangerous beauty of the journey ahead of him, sixteen short kilometers of roads that float and sink through the deep valleys and craggy mountains and tiny, silent villages of southern Lebanon, which provide a hundred thousand perfect hiding places from which to lob a Molotov cocktail or aim a machine gun. He has an officer’s faith in the intelligence and might of the Israel Defense Forces and a fatalist’s resignation to luck and destiny. Nor does it have anything to do with the competence of the command of his first lieutenant, Guy, who will be in charge during his three-day leave. His anxiety today is not even about the reunion weekend with his father and brothers that has crowded into his waking thoughts these past weeks. He is simply afraid of missing something—that undefined, unscheduled event he has prepared himself and his soldiers for during endless hours of drills and exercises and marches and simulations.
There is little to pack or prepare. Ethan’s two lives— military and civilian—have almost nothing to do with one another and, aside from dirty clothes for washing, very few objects make the crossover with him: a book, a pair of
, a wallet. He sheds his everyday uniform, shoving it into his laundry sack, and dons his dress uniform. His two lieutenant’s bars gleam on the shoulder. He idly wonders how long it will take to gain the third, when he will be made a captain.
He managed to sleep this morning for two hours, right here on the cot in his office, under a plastic-covered map that shows every building and every tree in his sector. As commanding officer of this outpost he cannot sleep in the barracks with his hundred or so men, so he spends his nights in their company awake, visiting their guard posts, ostensibly offering help in keeping alert during the long, dark night hours but really in search of their aid in staving off his own deep and hungry loneliness.
Most of his men have girlfriends back home or posted elsewhere in the army. During the day they grab precious free moments to phone their families, offering quick reassurances that they were far away from whatever recent attack their parents saw on the news. But nighttime is for phoning the girlfriends, who are resigned to receiving calls at two, three or four o’clock in the morning. He tries not to listen to their quiet proclamations of love or to the indiscreet boys who tell their girls how and where they will touch them on their next leave. Ethan prefers to catch their tone, that mix of machismo and tenderness and prayer that floats above them like static heat. At those quiet moments when the guns are still and the jeeps are grounded for the night and the phone does not ring and the sirens are silent, and the only noise is a young man blowing bubbles of love through a phone line to a young woman in a nightgown with sleep in her eyes, then Ethan leans back and laps at the air like a dog, inhaling her soft and powdered love like a sprinkling of angel dust. He thinks this must be the taste of heaven.
Ethan’s hair is quite straight, the sand color of Daniel’s but without a single one of Daniel’s curls, and it has thinned considerably in the last year or two. In fact, he is the only Licht man—including his four brothers, his father, and even his ninety-year-old grandfather—to be developing a bald spot. His best feature is his full and sensuous lips.
Ethan has gray eyes the color of a winter sky and a nose that seems to come from an earlier generation—narrow and a tad hooked. He is stouter than his brothers, fuller, with the look of a scrappy but bighearted guy. He has a quick smile that fades even quicker, and his eyes rarely smile along with his mouth. His two upper front teeth are whiter than the others; they are false, the real ones sacrificed to the side of a swimming pool when he was twelve. He is also missing the tip of his left pinkie, the result of a mishap with a piece of rusting but sharp farm equipment (an imperfection that kept him out of a certain crack army unit), and he has a scar that runs a parallel course to the fine line of hair on his belly— from a ruptured appendix that nearly killed him at fourteen. He has also endured major knee surgery and a tonsillectomy and worn braces on his legs to correct a severe orthopedic disorder. As a child he was forever falling and tripping and bruising and cutting himself, so that there was one first-aid kit for the entire family and another just for Ethan. Squeezed in so tightly in the three-year spread between first-born Daniel and the irresistible Noam, getting hurt often was Ethan’s best bet for attention.
Ethan was sent to officer training school earlier than usual. He signed on for an extra two years, and then more. He has fallen into an army career without really ever deciding to do so. He knows about the army benefits—medical, pension—and mentions them when anyone questions him about his future, because it would be impossible to explain that he stays because the army is the first thing he has fully understood in his life. He loves the camaraderie, the respect he has earned. He loves the ease of wearing the same uniform day after day, the advancement and citations he has received. He loves the army’s lack of color, the way it throbs and swaggers. If he stays much longer they will send him to study at university, but he wishes he could keep doing what he is doing now forever.
At 2:00 a.m. he had gone to keep Asher company. He could hear the sergeant from several feet away, before he reached the guard post, since Asher was noisily cracking sunflower seeds in his teeth and deftly sucking out the meat while spitting the shells onto the floor.
“That’s quite a pile you’ve built up there,” Ethan said, pointing to a mound of shells that reached the laces on his boots.
“Nothing else to do here.” Asher did not move his eyes from the empty dark in front of him. All of Ethan’s soldier’s have learned to talk, listen, crack seeds, or pee while giving their full attention to the scenery ahead, even and especially at night, when a terrorist could touch the end of your M16 before you even knew he was there.
Ethan stared ahead for a while into the blackness with his soldier. Nothing stirred. Asher moved his helmet back to scratch his scalp, then tugged at his crotch. “I think I’ve got lice or some skin disease. Can’t stop scratching.” He continued to rub himself violently for several minutes.
“What you need is a good shower.”
“That’s easy for you to say. You’re the one leaving in a few hours.” Asher stopped scratching, munched a few seeds. “Got any special plans?”
Ethan threw his head back to catch sight of a spray of stars. The words came out clipped from his stretched throat. “My father’s having a fiftieth birthday party for himself, a reunion at his place in Tel Aviv. All my brothers’ll be there.” He thought about his sister-in-law, Batya, but said nothing.
“You know,” Ethan said, looking down at Asher, “my dad left home when I was about six. Left my mom with five boys under the age of eight. It was hell on her, God love her, but I think it’s what made me a good soldier.”
Asher looked up at him then, trying to gauge whether his CO was serious. When he had confirmed Ethan was, he looked straight out again into the darkness.
“No, really, Asher. Without a father, a male role model, I had to be my own man of the house. I learned to take responsibility at an early age, I became a leader. And it just goes to show that you can overcome nearly any obstacle if you know how to turn it around to your own advantage.”
Asher did not say a word. He cracked a few more seeds, spit the shells onto the pile. Finally he stood up, unbuttoned his trousers, and fished his penis out for a long piss, his eyes all the while fixed on the middle distance. “Take this, you Hezbollah shits!” he shouted into the darkness and let fly a noisy fart.
It is after nine o’clock and the convoy of jeeps is ready to depart. Ethan takes a last look around the office, passes a set of keys to his second in command, and begins the slow journey back to Israel, where people are expecting him.