Dog Day Poetry

Jarrod stared at his laptop. The lines he typed an hour ago lurked on the screen, unmoved, uninspiring, uninteresting. He read the stanza from the top, hoping to jump-start his brain and add a few more lines to complete the poem. Nothing brewed in him. Instead, something else became clear. This was not a poem. Not even the beginning for one. It was a poor attempt at being smart, unique, thoughtful. He pondered whether to save it or junk it, and finally decided on the latter. The screen blinked and turned white again, the cursor blinking at the top left, challenging him to go at it again. He sighed, a little louder than was appropriate, given the circumstance.

The sound attracted some attention at the coffee shop. A woman seated at a table a few feet away from him raised her eyes from her book and glared at him admonishingly. Jarrod smiled apologetically and straightened in his chair. The laptop screen glared at him, like a teacher staring down a student tardy with his school work. He placed his hands on the keyboard, as if hoping they will start typing away and do his work for him, relieving his anxiety. But to no avail. The screen remained black, as was his mind.

Frustrated, he closed his laptop and looked around. The woman at the table near him read her book and ignored him. A couple at the corner table was having a conversation over salads, but he could not hear them. The two baristas organized items behind the counter. Outside on the street, the traffic hummed its casual city theme. Jarrod deliberated whether to leave the coffee shop or stay. His coffee cup sat empty, and he had no desire to refile it. The woman with the book looked attractive. He might try to stark a conversation with her, perhaps mention his writings. He will read her a poem or two, impress her, maybe invite her to have dinner with him. Oh, who was he kidding? He could impress no one. He was an unknown poet, one of millions just like him. Creative, hopeful, frustrated. Spending his afternoon at a coffee shop with nothing to show.

Over the years he read some of his works at different gatherings of local writers. He attended a number of regional conventions, listened to the lectures and tried to interest some publishers in his writings. One of them, an older man who resembled Jarrod’s high school shop teacher looked at his folder, and returned it to him after a quick scan, sneering “Keep working and see me in five years.” Five years?! He has been honing his poetry for more than twelve! He thought he was a good poet. He knew he was a good writer. But sadly, he was the only one to recognize those facts.

Jarrod wanted to get noticed, to be successful, he very much wanted to do so. Get published and earn a living from his books. Be the one everyone waits for before starting a poets’ meeting, come to seek advice from, try to befriend, wish to be like. He wanted to be everything he was not. But he could not achieve that to save his life. Hack, even the woman reading next to him did not pay attention to him. She kept to her book, turning page after page, enjoying herself. The only time she noticed him was when he sighed. Well, at least that was something. The couple in the corner did not turn their heads toward him even once. What does one need to do to get noticed? What??

Get noticed, he thought. Be famous. Be known. His endless efforts at writing clever, engaging, original poetry yielded no results. Maybe he should get recognized for something else, and let his poetry rise naturally to the surface as people learn of him. He needed to perform some heroic act. Save someone in a dangerous situation. Someone’s life, just like in the movies. His heart raced, imagining him throwing himself into danger while bystanders look on. Save a person. Save the day. Be famous. Be known. Oh, come on! He was no hero. Only in his dreams. He wouldn’t offer to help an old lady to cross the street, afraid she will mistake his offer for a purse-snatching attempt and smack him with bag, yelling for bystanders for help. He sighed again, careful to do it quietly. He was always misunderstood. His poetry. His ambitions. Everything he was. His entire life was one long saga of misunderstandings. But he was going to change that, he decided. He was going to change that today.

Jarrod looked outside, hoping to find a clue in the urban scenery. He found it quickly, standing across the street under a green and white sign. He gathered his belongings into his bag, threw his cup in the trash can by the door, and left. He crossed the street, careful with the drivers who had to negotiate his jaywalking. His intended target had a glass door that felt heavy and cool to the touch. He pushed it in and entered the lobby.

“Welcome to Merchant Savings Bank. May I help you?” the teller in the middle window motioned from him to approach.

“Just a second.” Jarrod took out his folder and opened it, as if searching for some paperwork. He looked to both sides. There were no security guards visible. One would occasionally stand by the front door or somewhere in the lobby. If a robber walked in right now, no one would be there to stop them. No one but him. He will be the one, that hero, the one everyone will recognize, the one who will give interviews on TV later on. Jarrod noticed a sitting area to the right; two sofas and a table. A self-help coffee machine stood near it. He walked over and sat down, facing the front door. He reopened his folder and shuffled the papers in it.

“Good afternoon, sir,” a lady came out from the office to his left. “Is someone helping you?”

“Umm, I… I mean… not yet,” he fumbled his words. “I… I’ll be ready in a few minutes,”

“Well, let me know when you are ready, and I will be happy to help you,” she smiled and returned to her office.

Jarrod checked his watch. If a robber was not going to walk through the front door in ten minutes or so, he will have to come up with a new plan. He couldn’t just sit here the whole day and wait. Someone was bound to get suspicious and call the police. He will need to answer questions, be embarrassed, or worse. The worse part worried him. He would not be able to afford a lawyer. He would lose the small savings he had. No, he realized. Unacceptable solution. He needed to think of a different plan.

Jarrod stood up. The banker who addressed him earlier rose from her chair.

“I’m sorry, I don’t have all my papers with me,” he said before she made it out of her office. She nodded and returned to her work. Jarrod walked toward the front door. He needed to think of something.

He was about ten steps from the door when a bearded, rough-looking man walked in. The man carried a dark object in his hand and headed straight to the tellers’ window. A charge went through Jarrod’s body. This is my lucky day! He redirected his steps to intercept the man.

“Stop! Don’t move!” he yelled. The robber continued to walk as he turned his head toward the source of the noise.

“Stop!” Jarrod yelled again. The robber realized he was the target of the holler, stopped and turned toward Jarrod.

“What is your problem?” he asked in an angry voice and looked around as if trying to assess additional danger.

“Put your hands up and get down on the floor,” Jarrod said in a stern, authoritative voice. “Now!” he said louder.

“You’d better chill before you get yourself hurt,” the robber stood in place. He was not going to obey Jarrod’s orders. Worse, he was ignoring Jarrod just like everyone else did all the time. He was disregarding Jarrod and about to rob the bank, just like that. Jarrod needed to act quickly before this robbery got from under his control.

“Is there a problem?” a man in a tan suit and blue tie featuring the bank’s logo on it approached them. The tag on his jacket read “William Hobbs, branch manager”.

The bearded man reacted first. “Hey, Bill. I came in to make my deposit and this weirdo started yelling at me,” he raised his hand to show the dark item he carried, a leather money envelope.

“And who are you, sir?” the branch manager turned to Jarrod.

“I’m… I’m,” Jarrod mumbled. “I thought he was robbing the bank.” He held tight to his folder.

“You’re damn crazy,” the bearded man dismissed him, and instantly turned his sight to the door. Everyone did the same, including Jarrod.

Two police officers walked in with their guns drawn. Blue light flashed atop a police cruiser stopped in front of the building.

“False alarm gentlemen,” the bank manager walked toward them with his hands up. “We had a simple misunderstanding here.”

“Thanks, Bill,” the first officer nodded at the bank manager and looked around. He replaced his gun in his belt. The second officer followed suit, and reported something into his shoulder mic.

“So, let me get the story here,” the first officer took a step forward.

 

About twenty minutes later the officer finished interviewing Jarrod, the bearded man, the manager, and the lady banker. He handed Jarrod a summons for disturbing the peace with a court date for nine weeks later. Deflated, Jarrod left the bank. A TV reporter rushed to him as soon as he stepped outside.

“Were you involved in the incident earlier today?” he placed a microphone in front of Jarrod.

“Yes, yes I was,” Jarrod ran his hand through his hair.

“What were you doing at the bank?” the reporter moved closer.

“My name is Jarrod, Jarrod Sunnyvale. I am a poet. I was at the coffee shop there, across the street,” he pointed behind the reporter’s shoulder.

“I meant, what were you doing at the bank?” the reporter repeated his question.

“Like I said, I write poetry, and I was at the coffee shop, writing, and…” The officer who interviewed them exited the bank. The reporter abandoned the interview and rushed to intercept him. The cameraman lifted the video camera with its tripod and rushed after him. A red Channel 3 News logo sticker covered the right side of the camera. Jarrod looked at the small crowd watching the scene and waited for the news crew to return and continue his interview. The reporter proceeded to interview the bearded man, and the bank manager. He and the cameraman returned to the news van and loaded their gear. Jarrod approached them but they ignored him and drove away. The street returned to its familiar hum. The sun rested low over the building to the west. Jarrod shuffled home slowly.

 

Hours later, Jarrod sat alone in his apartment. The court summons rested on the table, right next to his empty dinner plate. The 10 o’clock news came on, and he waited anxiously for his face to appear on the screen. Someone will notice, he thought. Someone is watching and is bound to recognize him. He was proud of his effort. It wasn’t the heroic act he imagined, but it was something. Not too dangerous, no one got hurt, and he got to talk to a TV reporter! He could not recall what exactly he said on camera, but he was pretty sure he mentioning his poetry. He was hopeful and eager to find out how he did. That story was sure to come up next, right after the weather report.

“And that’s the news for tonight,” the anchors returned to the screen. “Thank you for watching, and we’ll see you again starting at 5 tomorrow.” The program’s logo appeared, and a set of commercials began playing. That was it. Disappointed, Jarrod turned off the TV. There was not a single mention of his ordeal. Not a picture with his name lettered underneath. No recognition of his bravery or dedication to the written word. No chance at fame and success. He remained unknown, the same as he was before, the same he will always be. He opened his laptop and began to write.

 

December 3, 2014

Mikel

Mikel froze in place and listened. He could sense movement anywhere the building through his feet. The wood floor hummed like an orchestra, telling of and pointing out creatures large and small, moving about, walking, running, sneaking, hunting. The wood building was not very large. It had a below-ground level, an above-ground level, and an upper floor. Despite its size, it had plenty of room for all of its inhabitants. The temperature inside held steady most days, and no predators ever came in. Well, other than the giants, of course.

There were three giants living inside. They used every room, but rarely in the below-ground level. Mikel preferred to stay there for that reason. To be out of sight. To hide. The giants ate twice a day in the eating room, where the food was stored. Once in the morning after they cleaned themselves, and again in the evening after they returned from hunting and gathering, and before they moved to rest in the upper level. Mikel kept inside at all times. His choice. Leaving the building was too dangerous. He learned that through numerous painful lessons since he was young. Every time someone left the building to gather food, he would never see them again. None of them ever returned. Predators, no doubt, go them. Animals, maybe even other giants. The group became smaller and smaller until a week ago when it was down to just him and Moona. Oh, poor Moona.

There was not much to do inside, and less so to see. That would not have been such a big problem had he been able to eat normally. But gathering food was incredibly challenging, and became even more so since the giants discovered them, his group. Every time one of them found a new way to gather, the giant would defeat it and the food would be hidden again in harder to reach places. The smallest of the three giants was also the most careless and would leave pieces of food everywhere; on the floor, on the plate, in the bucket. Mikel thought it did that on purpose, so it could watch them eat it. Very strange. There was that time when Mikel found some food on the floor in the eating room and started eating it on the spot. He was so hungry. He almost lost his mind when he realized the small giant watching him silently from the stairs. Mikel ran and hid so fast he forgot to take the food with him. What a loss. Damn it!

Movement! Mikel listened intently to the heavy steps. It was one of the giants. It descended the steps and walked into the eating room. It was so close, right on the other side of the wall! Mikel shrunk his body and lowered himself to the ground, trying to disappear into the wood crevices. He hoped his stomach will not growl. He had not eaten in three days, maybe more. Getting discovered, he knew, would mean certain death. He held still. The only part of his body that moved was his heart, and it was racing.

The giant stopped. Mikel recognized the steps instantly. It was the large giant. Despite its mammoth size, this giant was fast. Very fast. In a flash, Mikel remembered it chasing after Moona while another giant, the long-haired companion, howled from the top of the stairs. Mikel shivered in horror as he recalled Moona’s scream when the giant lowered the large wood on her body, killing her instantly. There was no hesitation in its move, just pure evil. It picked Moona’s limp body with its enormous fingers and carried her outside. When it returned a short time later it howled at the other giant, and they both started looking for Mikel and the others. They did not know he was the only one left. How could they? Lucky for Mikel he anticipated they would do that and hid quickly behind the curtains in the sitting room. He knew all the good hiding places. He also knew not to panic and run when the large giant came near him and moved the curtains from side to side, searching. Mikel just hung there with his eyes closed, thinking of Moona. It was the scariest moment of his life.

Mikel broke his thoughts and returned his attention to the giant. It made tearing sounds in the eating room. Curiosity overwhelmed Mikel. Was it preparing food? Not at this time. The giants already ate and would turn to rest soon. So, what was it? A new sound emerged, sharp, high-peached squeaks. Metal rubbing against metal, he guessed. Was the giant building something? He wished he had a better vantage point, but moving while the giant was near was risky. He needed to think of something. Maybe if the giant was so busy with this activity it would pay less attention to its surroundings? Mikel carefully considered where to move to. He had to stay in this room, in the dark, and go somewhere with a direct line of sight to the giant. The sounds the giant made came from the counter, which made sense. The giant only did things on the counter, never on the floor. It was too big to get down, and the counter probably made it easier for it to do things, like preparing food. Mikel listened again. The giant continued with its activity. It’s time, he decided. He moved slowly along the wall, careful to avoid the squeaky floor areas, not to disturb objects along the way, do anything that could alert the giants to his presence. He stayed in the dark, keeping a good distance from the patch of light that fell on the floor from the eating room. He reached the other side of the room and hid behind the structure that held the wonder thing. Many times, one or more of the giants would gather in the room in front of it and watch as other giants made of light appeared on it and howled. But it was now quiet and dark. Mikel crouched in his hiding spot and looked at the giant. It stood with its back to Mikel and did something with its hands. This was not good enough. Mikel needed to find a better spot.

STOP!

More steps came from upstairs. Mikel instantly recognized the small giant. He heard it walking down the stairs before it appeared and stood next to the giant. They howled at each other a number of times. Mikel retreated slowly, letting the darkness cover him, hide him, protect him. He could still see well. With both of them only steps away from him he could not move anywhere. He waited. Shivering. Scared. Hungry.

The giant stopped making the metallic sounds and turned to the smaller one. It held something in its hands and showed it to the other. Mikel did not see anything like this before. It was a gray-colored device, probably a little larger than Mikel. The giant manipulated parts of the device and howled, but the smaller one did not howl back. Instead, it looked around the eating room. The giant howled again. Still, the smaller one remained mum. It now looked straight at Mikel’s direction. Could it see him? DID it see him? It was too late to move. Mikel closed his eyes. They were big and dark, but could reflect in the light coming from the eating room, exposing him. He listened and hoped. He felt no movement on the floor, only the giant continued howling.

Mikel peeked through the cracks. Both giants still stood facing each other. The smaller one howled, but in a lower voice. The giant opened the food door and took out a piece of soft cheese. Cheese! Mikel gulped. This was his favorite thing to eat! Oh, if he could only get one piece of this, just a taste, he would be so happy! If the giants would only drop it on the floor and not notice, forget to check, and leave. He would get it and eat it, and leave nothing behind, not a trace for them to find.

The howling stopped. Mikel watched as the giant placed the cheese into the device. It slowly pressed on it, which made the squeaky metallic sound again. The giant placed it on the floor. Mikel was stunned. Why was it doing that, placing food on the floor? Was it doing so on purpose? The giants were clean creatures that never left food behind them. Perhaps this was a new way for the smaller one to eat? Mikel could not figure this out. He waited.

The giant howled again, and the two turned and left the eating room. The light vanished instantly, and the place fell dark. Mikel heard the heavy footsteps. The giants climbed up the stairs. Mikel wanted to leap out of his hiding spot and grab the food, but waited. He could still hear movement upstairs. He would not dare getting exposed. He decided to wait. His eyes adjusted to the dark. The device rested in the middle of the eating room floor. The cheese smell hit his nostrils. So good! His stomach growled. Soon, he would quiet his hunger.

Mikel did not move. He relaxed his body and waited. The floor vibrations conveyed sounds from upstairs. They gradually quieted, then stopped. The giants were probably resting. Mikel stepped quickly into the eating room, the cheese smell pulling him in. He reached the device and investigated quickly. The cheese rested in the middle of the device. This would be easy, he thought. He slowly circled the device, careful not to make a sound. The cheese smell hit his nostrils hard and caused him to salivate. He completed a second turn and figured that the best way to reach the food would be through the opening on the smaller side. He stepped in and felt the cool metal against his body. The cheese was stuck on one of the metal parts. Mikel held it between his nails. Eat, finally! He pulled.

 

October 30, 2019

Out of the Box

All beginnings are tough, but many of those difficulties become endearing moments in time. Moving to a new city is an example. The list of the personal adjustments you go through is endless and may last months, even years. The basic adjustments are common to all moves. Get to know the new neighborhood, locate the good supermarket. Find work. Learn traffic patterns to and from work. Make friends, and master the local customs. Now imagine doing all that as an immigrant. A new country and a new language. EVERYTHING is new.

Immigrants landing in a new country take these efforts and more to make their new home feel like one.  It may take them years to bridge language and cultural barriers and begin inhabiting local conventions. The first few weeks and months are the most volatile for the immigrant. Every aspect of life is foreign and odd, and the learning curve is at its steepness. Such was my experience when I arrived in the United States soon after graduating college.

The time was the late eighties. Flying overseas still carried a unique aroma. The information age was in its infancy, and physical distance played a significant factor in isolating people and cultures. Global trade meant something entirely different than the diverse bounty we enjoy on every store shelf today, not to mention the advent of online shopping and its far universal reach. Most of the products you were able to purchase at the supermarket, the pharmacy, and the furniture store back then were items produced locally or regionally. For those reasons, anyone who made an international trip was expected to bring back fruits of the foreign land they visited. Exotic chocolate, cheese and alcohol from Europe, stylish T-shirts and shiny sneakers from America, and hand-made crafts from Africa. So in that spirit, I left for the United States packing a request list, a short one at that. In fact, it had only one line – a bottle of Excedrin caplets, requested by my mother-in-law. “Mail it when you can,” she said, “no rush.” I promised I will do that as soon as I could.

And so I did. I have been in the country for a couple of weeks, and gradually became acquainted with basic Americana. I began to understand the differences between the dozens of choices of bread lining the supermarket bread aisle, or really just learned to identify the one we liked. I became tolerant to the constant aroma of burnt oil coming from the McDonald’s restaurant across the street. I enjoyed the freedom of turning right on a red light and the challenge of left-turn on green. Everything was new. After years of watching American life in the movies, I was finally living it all. So following a trip to the supermarket, I walked into a nearby drugstore looking for a bottle of Excedrin. And just like the bread aisle, I found it offered in many choices. Different forms of pills or gel tabs. For a headache, tension or a migraine. Different bottle size and different strength, for daytime and nighttime. Impressed and confused, I deliberated for a while. Finally, I settled on a value pack bottle of regular strength in a red box. Back at the apartment I wrapped it in brown paper and scribed the address on its side. Next stop, another first. U.S. Mail.

The suburban post office was neat and organized. Morning light filled the space through blue horizontal blinds. Dark rope directed the moderate line of customers toward three awaiting clerks. People stood quietly with ample space behind each other. Soon it was my turn. The large man with the shiny bald head standing in the far right station looked at me with a blank expression as I stepped over. I placed my box on the counter. “Package to Israel,” I said. The clerk lifted a custom-declaration form from his side and readied a pen in his left hand. “What’s in the box?” he asked with a black stare.

The question and the clerk’s menacing presence stumped me. I suddenly forgot the brand name of the pills and was not sure what to call my parcel. I tried to think of how to translate the Hebrew term for “medication” to English but was uncertain which word to use, as there is more than one. Think fast!

And then it occurred to me. I bought it at the drug store. Of course! “Drugs,” I said.

Everything froze. The clerk standing in front of me, the people in line, the other clerks waiting on customers, the dust particles glistening in the slowly moving air. The entire post office stood silent.

I looked at my clerk. I knew I said something wrong, but could not think of what exactly. I rushed back in my mind over what I said, but everything computed back to the same result. I was right but something was wrong. Badly wrong. I did not dare to move. My clerk did not move either. He only scanned the room with his eyes, then took a deep breath. He had a situation on his hand, and everyone waited for his next move.

With his shoulders still locked in a tense pose, he lifted the package by his left hand and looked at me. “What do you have in the box?” he asked again.

I knew better than to repeat the same line. I had to think fast and give the right answer this time, to save myself from further embarrassment. Simplify! Where did I buy it? No, never mind. What did I buy? Yes, that’s it! “Medication for headache” I managed to say.

Everyone in the post office exhaled together in collective relief. Motion returned to the room. The dust particles resumed their slow movement. My clerk relaxed his shoulders and wrote something on the custom-declaration form. I paid and turned to the door. There was a lot I had to learn out there in the new country.

 

February 17, 2018

The Ukrainian

Igor and Anna in 2005

I have known Igor for many years. But to be precise, I did not know him at all. I knew Igor the same way you know many people at your synagogue. You know their name and who they are. A face in a familiar crowd. Enough to say hello when you meet them on Shabbat, during holidays services, and other synagogue activities. Igor was quite a bit older than me, and was perhaps better known at our synagogue as Anna’s husband. And everyone knew Anna. She played piano at many of the synagogue services and activities. Still, Igor remained just another face in the crowd we call our congregation.

All that changed one day a few years ago. Igor and I happened to sit next to each other at a Shabbat lunch, and naturally, we struck a conversation. As is often the case when two Jews meet for the first time, we played a game known affectionately in certain circles as Jewish Geography. Who are you? Where are you from? Where is your family from? How did you end up here? Jewish people are numbered by a few millions around the world, and this game offers its players an opportunity to discover common connections and relations through their Jewish ancestry. I was born and raised in Israel. Igor and Anna were members of a Russian Jewish group of people who came to Omaha following the fall of the Iron Curtain. Except that they were not from Russia, they were from Ukraine.

Igor asked about my life growing up in Israel, and about my family history. When I mentioned to Igor that my father was born and raised in Chernovitz, Romania, his eyes lit up. Chernovitz, Romania? That turned out to be a defining moment in our relationship. The moment we became real friends. Igor, as it turned out, knew Chernovitz quite well.

My father was born in the winter of 1929 as a single child to a sheet metal fabrication plant supervisor father and a homemaker mother. The Second World War found his small family as an oppressed minority caught between the Axis forces and the Red Army. Following the reincorporation of Chernovitz into the Ukrainian SSR, the remaining Jews who lived in the area left. I know my father’s family spent four years as refugees in Bucharest, the Romanian capital, before finally setting sail to Israel. And that was all. I knew little else about my father’s life and childhood. The most I dared to ask him about that time period was for a Holocaust Remembrance day paper I worked on in fourth grade. My father brushed off my inquiry, and I learned to not ask again. This was not unusual. Many Holocaust survivors chose to leave their past behind, and concentrate on their new life in in the young State of Israel. My father was an educated man who spoke seven different languages. But with us, he only spoke Hebrew, a language he learned for the first time as a twenty-one-year-old when he made Aliya in 1950. Dad spoke perfect Hebrew, without any trace of a foreign accent, the same way he spoke the other European languages he was fluent in. Chernovitz, Romania, and the life he had before he immigrated to Israel were left buried in a heap of a forgotten past.

Igor was younger than my father by a few years, but their makeup was similar. Both men grew up in the same region, and as young men suffered through oppression for being Jewish. They each were fluent in a number of languages. They worked and succeeded as engineers to build the world and better secure it. They both had multiple areas of interest, and possessed a vast knowledge in a number of intellectual fields. Above all, they were both loving and devoted fathers.

By the time Igor and I sat for that conversation, my dad had already passed. But here next to me sat a man in my father’s likeness. In his heavy Russian accent, Igor told me of the birthplace of my father, and of the life of a Jewish community gone for a long time.

Igor knew Chernovitz well from his many business trips to the region, while he lived in Kiev. Igor’s stories were informative and funny, and our many conversations interesting and enlightening. Igor’s homeland tales opened for me a new window of knowledge and understanding about a place I knew little about. They added form and details to my own family history, and gave me a new way of appreciating my father’s early life. Our conversations continued to soar beyond that town from a different world and time. Igor and I talked about politics, Jewish life and customs, world history, and many other topics Igor knew a lot about and was happy to engage on. Our conversations were akin to those I enjoyed with my dad at earlier times. Meeting and talking with Igor was always enjoyable.

There was another thing. Following that first conversation, Igor had a nickname for me. “Ukrainian.” A term of endearment. Each time we met, he would greet me with a big “Hello Ukrainian!” and a big smile. It sounded great in his Russian accent. He often introduced me to others in that way. Not everyone got the joke, but we had a lot of fun bantering in this way.

All this ended unexpectedly in January 2017. Igor passed away suddenly following a short illness. His untimely death left a hole in the hearts of many, first and foremost his wife Anna and his loving children and grandchildren. After his funeral, I sat down and wrote a note of condolences to Anna. I included part of this story in the note, and handed it to her during his Shiv’a, the seven days of the mourning period in the Jewish tradition. I am now happy to share this story here with Anna’s blessings and encouragement, as a testimony and honor in Igor’s memory. May his or her memory be for a blessing.

 

January 18, 2018

The Way to Jerusalem

I am on my way to Jerusalem. I am heading to the Jerusalem Cinematheque on an invitation to attend a screening of a movie produced by a friend. I drive from Tel Aviv, and chose to leave a bit earlier for the trip. Three and a half hours early to be exact. That is a long time. Most days this drive takes about an hour. But this is holiday time, and I chose to play it safe. My early departure proves itself worthy as soon as I leave the neighborhood. Traffic is a nightmare all around. Swarms of cars congest every street, merging in a slow and tense crawl into intersections and struggling to exit them. When I finally make it onto Netivey Ayalon, the highway that crosses Tel Aviv, I find it too overcrowded with traffic. More than an hour of stop and go traffic passes before I get on Highway 1, the road to Jerusalem. The situation there does not fare better. Traffic is mostly a standstill. The logjam gives rise to road stress. Drivers cut in traffic, change lanes, and tailgate for the mere illusion of getting there faster, anywhere they might be heading.

The pilgrimage to the holy city is a ritual thousands of years old. From a time when the Holy Ark stood inside the Temple on Mount Moriah, and a succession of kings ruled Israel and Judah. Taken three times a year, during the holidays of Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot, the pilgrims went up to offer sacrifices to God, and tend to some stately matters such as paying taxes. In those times pilgrims from the port city of Jaffa area would travel several days to the city gates. Today, the only standing remain from the Holy Temple is a portion of its retaining wall. The Western Wall, the most sacred place for Jewish people, attracts thousands of daily visitors. Many come to visit or pray. Some leave notes of personal wishes between the massive stones. The times are modern, but the tradition of pilgrimage is popular as ever, and it is in full force tonight.

After another hour of a slow crawl I reach Sha’ar HaGai, the first uphill portion of the road. Traffic is at a standstill again. Blue lights appear behind, and a police car zooms by on the right shoulder, rushing to address whatever is blocking traffic ahead, or so I hope. Three lanes of bumper to bumper traffic climb the hill at a walking pace. Quiet music on the radio and red taillights for as long as the eye can see. Tall pine trees lean in from the hills on both sides of the road, hover like dark giants against the silk black sky. I look at them and my thoughts drift away.

During the war for independence in 1948, this path remained dangerous and bloody. Many supply and rescue missions to Jerusalem, the besieged city, were defeated by armed Arab gangs hiding in the hills. When I was a kid I loved this road. Every time I would put my nose to the window and look for the armored vehicles remains that sat here as monuments to the people who risked and gave their lives trying to reach the city. You still need to know where to look in order to catch a glimpse of those vehicles, but it is nearly impossible to see them in the dark.

News flash on the radio. I raise the volume to listen.

The time is a quarter to seven. Less than an hour to T-time, and I am still in Sha’ar HaGai. I begin to doubt I will ever get the Cinematheque on time. There are no exits off the highway anytime soon, no alternate routes to take. I am certain that even if there were any, they too would be crowded with traffic. I do not remember highway traffic this heavy ever, and wonder if this snarl could reach all the way to the Jerusalem. Cars on the opposite side are flying by downhill, perhaps looking at my side with pity and dismay. I could have taken the bus instead, resting in my seat the whole way. I rode busses all the time when I lived here, never realizing what owning a car meant. I gaze at the glare of tail lights in front of me, and wonder how many drivers here are nervous about their diminishing gas gages, hoping to make it to a gas station before their engines sputter to a halt. The Motza exit, the high point in the area is near. I hope the downhill drive from there will run faster.

In the autumn of third grade, my dad took me on an Israel Nature Society guided trek to this area. A passenger truck picked our group early Saturday morning from the central train station of Tel Aviv, and dropped us at a location I cannot pinpoint. We walked through dirt roads, wild fields and wooded areas for a few hours. Then, as we made our way through a quiet pine forest, a roar of speeding cars became gradually noticeable. In a few minutes, the road to Jerusalem appeared through the trees at the bottom of the hill. Our truck waited by the side of the road, right about where I am now. Following the setting sun on the way back to Tel Aviv, members of the group praised me for keeping up with the pace. I was the only kid on the trek that day. I woke up when we reached the train station. It was dark outside.

I pass the Bait Meir and Shoresh exit. The road is leveled, and traffic flows faster. I see no accidents or other issues that could explain the traffic back up. Must be the overwhelming number of pilgrims today. Heavy tractor trailers, busses, and countless passenger cars. The narrow lanes are tight with drivers competing to enter the city. It is the third night of Hanukkah. Hanukkiyot lights twinkle in the windows of homes in Neve Eliezer to the left. On the right, a dark canyon rests, like a giant pool of dark ink. I have passed the midpoint of my trip. I succumb to the probability that I may not reach my destination on time.

It is a few minutes past seven, and I enter the city. The traffic snake passes under the Chords Bridge, and by Binyanei Hauma – Jerusalem’s International Convention Center. I continue downhill through the festively lit neighborhoods. The Cinematheque is located a walking distance from the Old City walls and the Tower of David, across the city from where I am. I will need to find a parking spot in an area that sees tourist activity almost twenty-four hours a day. More red lights ahead and I decide to bypass the busy city center. I navigate by general direction and soon find myself in an unfamiliar area. I pull over and roll down my window. The first pedestrian apologizes for not being familiar with the area, but the next one is more helpful. He quickly suggests a route. I thank him and follow his advice, but after a few minutes a sinking feeling is growing inside me. I pull over again to ask for directions. A couple rolls their eyes politely at me and sends me back in the direction I came from. Their directions are solid, and in minutes I am near my destination. The Old City walls glow in the yellow night lights. A clear and cool December evening rests upon the beautiful city. People dressed in warm coats walk the scenic boardwalk. I find a parking spot almost immediately, and quickly descend the wide stairs toward the Cinematheque entrance. The theater is packed, and I sink myself into a seat in the middle of the auditorium just, as the director of the movie takes to the stage and taps the microphone. The movie is a documentary of a struggling dairy farm in the Negev, and can be interpreted as an analogy to life in the Israeli microcosms. I think of my afternoon, my three plus hour commute, and write down a few notes. I may write a story about it sometime.

 

December 22, 2011

Free Fall

Herod sat on the floor, hugging his legs tightly between his arms. Cold air seeped in through parts of his outfit, puncturing his skin with spills of tiny thorns. He surveyed his surroundings. All alone. The floor moved beneath him. It’s time, he knew. Decisive, he rose, his body heavy. He covered the distance to the door in four quick steps, placed his hands against the opening, and jumped. His stomach refluxed as he fell. Cold air pressed his body, arching his limbs behind his back. The thoughts that plagued his mind seconds ago had vanished. Deep calm overcame him, flooding his psyche with near euphoric happiness. The ground rose toward him like a giant, silent mammoth. He felt free, happy, and painless. A hundred miles per hour falling star.

One evening, when Herod was seven years old, he went to plug in the reading lamp in the living room of his boyhood home. Unbeknown to anyone, danger loomed inside the wall. Rainwater seeped through the ceiling and soaked the aging electrical wires inside it. When Herod came to insert the plug into the mustard-colored outlet, it happened. An unseen force shot through his hand, grabbed him like a million tiny needles, and threw him back. His little body sailed through the air and landed on the floor six feet away. The shock and surprise froze him. He rested there for a second. That brief state of surprise quickly changed to fear. His crying brought in his mother from the kitchen. The practical woman stopped at the door, touched her wet hands to her apron, and quickly evaluated her son. Herod held his left hand close to his chest, crying at a high pitched voice, and looked at his mother with a blank stare. The young boy did not understand what had just happened to him, and could only offer a fearful cry as an explanation. After repeating her question twice to no avail, his mother surveyed the room for clues. Her eyes rested on the blackened outlet, and she instantly understood. The quick conclusion relaxed her mind somewhat. She stepped forward, picked up her son, and checked his body for signs of injury. Herod was physically fine, but emotionally scared. The power outlet stared at him from the corner with darkened, squinted eyes, like a devilish creature ready to strike at him if he came near it again. His mother walked with him to the next room, and soon Herod found himself immersed in his Lego’s. The pain and sensation of the electrical shock quickly rescinded, but the memory remained with him for a long time after.

A week before his fourteenth birthday Herod jumped from the window of his bedroom, sixteen feet above the ground. He landed in his mother’s flower garden, and rolled on the ground a few times. His injuries included a broken ankle, two cracked ribs, and some minor bruises, mostly on his hands. The physical injuries did not alarm his parents so much. Their concern rested with Herod’s unwillingness to explain the reason for his leap. That reluctance, combined with his general gloomy mood in the days leading to his jump gave them reason to act. Over the next three months, Herod spent every Tuesday afternoon visiting with Dr. John Wayne, a local child psychologist who came highly recommended by their family doctor. Dr. Wayne had an impressive array of framed diplomas and professional certificates decorating his clinic wall. Unlike the real John Wayne, the doctor was a short, balding man, with a voice that better suited a young girl than a grown man. Following their twelfth meeting, Dr. Wayne invited Herod’s parents for a final consultation, and informed them that in his professional opinion, their son’s act was most likely experimental rather than suicidal. A type of behavior he described as “something that adolescent boys are sometimes prone to”. Herod was cleared to continue freely with his youth.

Herod’s eyes widened. The air pressure on his face pushed his skin up against his cheekbones, forcing his expression into an awkward smile. The earth below resembled colorful covers on a giant bed. The landscape seemed frozen in place, void of motion and life. A pillar of dark smoke arched in the distance, painting the horizon with a narrow line of disappearing black ink. The line reminded him of Helena’s hair. Dark, long, and wavy. Throughout their long romance, and even before they realized their feelings toward each other, they loved to explore physical challenges together. Helena’s room at her parents’ house was larger than Herod’s, and missed the suspended light fixtures that decorated his ceiling. One spring afternoon, they sat on her bed, working on their chemistry lab report. While Helena marked coordinates on graph paper, Herod walked to her large dresser, cleared aside some makeup paraphernalia, and climbed on top. He leaped into the air, and landed in the middle of the bed, sending Helena and their schoolwork into disarray. “You crazy dummy!” Helena screamed. “What are you doing!?” Herod grinned at her, exposing his teeth in a teasing smile, and without a saying word climbed again on the dresser. By his third jump, she joined him, and together they spent the next hour challenging each other to see which of them would make the highest jump, do the best air flip, or stay the longest in the air. The sound of a car door slam outside sent them rushing back to charting pH levels. By the time Helena’s mother peeked her head into the room, their breath rate returned to normal. The following summer this same bed would become a nest for their young love, but through it all, their game remained. They became addicted to it, perfecting their mid-air acrobatics with each session. On the last Thursday of their senior year, they laid on the bed, resting in each other’s arms. Small drops of sweat rolled from Helena’s neck, down her breasts, and onto Herod’s chest. “I don’t think we’ll ever outgrow this game,” she whispered. Her eyes narrowed in a thin smile, and she landed her lips on his. The memory of her taste flooded Herod’s body now, and he smiled, matching his expression to the forced smile the air pressure sculpted his face into. He turned and looked down. The ground was closer now. Only a few more seconds, and it will be over.

It has been years now since he and Helena parted ways. Their relationship continued on and off during college. In the years following that, they made a couple of attempts at making it work, only to realize it just was not meant to be. Helena moved on with her life with greater ease than Herod. It took him more than a year following their final breakup to try for a new relationship. He managed to lead a few successful affairs, one even landing him close to the altar. Still, every once in a while he found himself traveling back to his time with Helena. Remembering, missing, and wondering. Jumping, even alone, felt better than anything else he could think of. It was almost time. He was ready now.

Herod brought his hands together to his chest as if preparing to pull his heart out. He took a deep breath, and closed his eyes. He pulled the ring, as if ripping a bone out of his rib cage. A great force grabbed him, punching at his crouch and chest, and compressing his guts into his bladder. His lungs emptied at once. It was over.

He opened his eyes. Bright light blinded him. He squinted. He raised his hands over his shoulders, and followed them with his eyes. Dark green lines grew from his body, like perfect stems of a large flower bouquet. A white canopy bloomed above him, ferrying him down to earth like a large wing. Life had returned to the landscape below. Small cars trailed on a road like busy ants out on a harvest. A train horn sounded from afar. The distant smoke pillar was still visible on the horizon, but Herod turned his attention to the green smoke signal near the landing marker below him. He pressed his ankles together and bent his knees slightly. It was time to land.

 

March 23, 2011

The Visit

The first message arrived by the way most personal messages travel these days, via email. It announced the passing of my friend Sylvia’s sister. I called Sylvia immediately. The phone barely rang twice before Sylva answered it with her usual happy greeting.

“I heard” I said. “How are you?”

“I’m fine, sweetheart”. Her voice sounded calm and purposeful, in oppose to her normal direct and inquisitive. Her mood appeared somber, as you might expect of someone who had just lost her only sister, but her spirit was good. I listened as she described her sister’s illness, the hospitalization, the hospice care, and her recent decline in health. I never knew Sylvia’s sister personally, and the news of her death was not shocking to me. Besides, my real concern was with Sylvia.

Sylvia’s state of mind was solid and decisive. Her focus was on coordinating the funeral arrangements, and receiving the family members flying into town. We spoke for a few minutes, promising to talk again at the funeral the next day.

When the clock turned ten-thirty the next morning, I set aside my work, and prepared to leave. The cemetery was not far, and I arrived there in less than ten minutes. A small crowd had gathered at the designated grave site, talking quietly in small groups. About fifteen minutes were left until the funeral was to start. I walked downhill a few rows, and looked for a particular grave near the edge of the section.

I remembered the morning less than two years before, sitting in my bedroom. The phone rang. I looked at the display and answered with a happy Hello. My friend Susie was on the other end.

“How are you?” she asked in a tone I failed to notice.

“Great. Doing real well. How are things with you?” I answered happily.

“You don’t know” she whispered. Only now I detected the foreign tone in her voice.

“Know what?” A chill rose inside me.

“It’s Michael” she said, her voice awash with tears.

The horror unveiled itself word by word, like a movie scene projected in slow motion, frame after frame. The death of our friend Michael revealed to be violent and untimely, and more than anything, unexpected. Susie and I combed over the past few months, helping each other to construct the story using our different perspectives. We attempted to make sense of the painful facts, and console each other through the shock we both experienced. Every conclusion we arrived at felt heavier than the preceding one, mostly because they all illuminated a past we could do nothing about now.

Later that day, after Susie and I hung up, I stayed in the quiet bedroom, letting the air cool around me. Disbelief can act as an effective shock absorber, as it maintains an appropriate amount of emotion’s drip in a situation that is ripe for overdose, loss, and blindness. The incredulity trickle continued to affect me during the funeral that took place a couple of days later. Michael’s young children eulogized him in front the dense, emotional chapel. Later, after most of the mourners had left for the reception, I stood over the freshly covered grave, and whispered into the frozen air “What have you done Michael, what have you done?”

In the months since that day I drove by the cemetery a number of times each week on my way to and from home, but never stopped to go inside. Sometimes, when I waited in the red light in the intersection adjacent to the cemetery, my gaze would wonder over to the thick line of trees that keep shade over the flat gravestones. For a quick moment I would wander back to that winter day and the times that lead to it. I would sit there, thinking and wondering, fighting off disappointment and pity.

With time came perspective and wisdom, and it became clearer to understand how life unraveled for Michael. But you never really know. I still catch myself sometimes, wondering about what could have been done to change the course. How can you prevent something from happening if you are bound from seeing it? If you missed this one, what else are you not seeing? Where should you look? How much do you really know?

You can only hope you know enough.

Now, first time in almost two years later, I walked between the graves. The ground sank softly under my feet, evidence of the recent storms. I reached the area where Michael’s grave was located, and scanned the headstones for his name. It appeared near the edge of the section, and stood out from the other markers. Two flower vases flagged the headstone, which was covered with an assortment of stones. Small rough rocks, round river stones, color decorated stones, – made no doubt by a child – covered the face of the marker. Only the engraved name and date were left exposed. A silver toy car rested atop one of the flat river stones. One vase laid on its side, knocked down perhaps by weather, a high school commencement pamphlet tucked against it. I leaned down and placed it back to its upright position.

The place remained quiet, even at this late morning hour, and despite its proximity to the busy road. I stood silent, and looked down at the plush green. The air breezing from the shaded area refreshed me from the warm sun peering between the trees. I whispered a quiet hello. The wind carried the words away, leaving only the murmur of the leaves above. No words came back. The difficult questions and hard wonders were left unanswered the same way they stayed on that cold winter day. I looked up. The crowd at the top of the hill was bigger now. A man wearing a miss-matched suite and fedora called for the pallbearers to gather at the back of the hearse. I walked up the hill between the headstones and joined my friend Sylvia.

 

June 28, 2010