Sunday, October 26, 2014

Quite the Man





Chul Moo placed a lock on the nursery.  “The room is not healthy,” he said to his wife Hyo. 

“I find peace in that room,” she pleaded.  She collapsed in a chair, face cradled, and sobbed.  Chul Moo stared at her, then retreated to a wood-working project in the garage.   He knew Hyo would not go there.   He removed the design for the baby crib from the back of a tool drawer.  He tore it into small pieces.  He sometimes wondered if he wouldn’t be happier with someone like Margot who worked long hours as a chemist in the isolation of a laboratory.  Later that evening he and Hyo would meet with her and her husband Clayton, at Fritz’s.  Chul Moo frowned and sighed.  I suppose she’d like me to be more like Fritz, he thought, who seemed to know everything about women. 

  
That evening, they were greeted by the smell of dinner, Rachmanioff in the background, and Fritz’s usual wide-open arms and playful teasing.  He pinched Chul Moo at the door.  “Oh smile you big beautiful hunk.”  Chul Moo felt ill.  “Well, I guess that will do.” Fritz said, assuming a studious look at Chul Moo’s face. 
 
     Chul Moo would not be with any of these people had he a choice.  Hyo befriended Margot, who worked with her at the lab.  Both worked with Fritz, who had, as only someone like him could, ingratiated himself deeply into their personal lives.  His wife was so vulnerable, he thought.  Margot’s husband, Clayton, a dark Brazilian who taught Tango, was almost as bad as Fritz, with his boisterous laughter and those wide sweeps of his thick arms.  Margot could not be more different than her husband, he thought.  He would prefer to have dinner alone with her.  He glanced again at his watch. 

When the moment came, Fritz raised his glass, insisting the others join him. 

“I’m going to be a Father!”  Fritz looked from one to another of his guests.  The thought was so preposterous that Chul Moo found himself smiling with the others. 

“You’re adopting?” Chul Moo asked.

“No silly,” Fritz said.  “I’ve managed to get your wife pregnant.  “And for that matter,” he said, turning to Clayton, “Your wife too!”  Only the women smiled.

Fritz was in no hurry.

“Poor boys,” he said, locking into their gaze,  “Low on octane?”
  
 “Quite the man,” Margot said. 


Monday, October 13, 2014

Blue Spruce Mountain




The Black Diamond Coal Company owned the mining rights to Blue Spruce Mountain, but for Elmore Beasely, it stopped there. “Them city boys act like they was the good Lord’s own architects, ripping up the land, and moving us out like we was vermin.”  He drove his Ford pickup to each house in the early days:  “We can whip these shirts if’n we stick together,” he pleaded, but one by one the twenty-seven families sold out.  Mabel Jefferson, whose family had lived in Holy Oak, West Virginia, for seven generations, finally sold as well.

  “Now Elmore, you know I’m as sentimental as a sow in labor, but my boys ain’t gonna stay here if ain’t no jobs.  They’ll sure as sun comes up go off to South Carolina or Georgia, and start shrimp’n or who knows what?  I wanna see my grandbabies Elmore, and have a little retirement money so I ain’t no burden.  You gonna tell me that’s the wrong thing?”

“No, I ain’t gonna say that.  Don’t matter.  Holy Oak done dropped off the map.  Now it’s one stubborn old man obstruct’n progress.”

“Don’t you talk that way.”

“It’s what they a say’n.”

“Pay em no attention.  They scared is all.”

A sudden storm rolled in, covering the mountains in a shroud that turned darker by the minute.  The last two residents of Holy Oak stepped out onto Mabel’s porch and looked through a curtain of rain into the dancing streams and emerald hills.  The two stood silently listening for thunder.  “Them mountains and hollers were our playgrounds,” Elmore said, “You remember old friend?”

“Course I do, you old fool.  My great, great, great grandpa played in them mountains, just like your folks.” 

“I’m a thinking it’s time for this old fool to quit.  It’s just me and old Cannonball.”  The hound lifted his head a second, then dropped it as he curled on an old rug outside Mabel’s door.

Through the darkening sky the distant silhouette of Blue Spruce Mountain rose like an amputated breast bleeding black dust. “She’s not much more for this world,” he said.  “Never thought I’d outlive that old mountain.” 

“You miss her?”  At first, he thought she meant the mountain.  He wiped his eyes to see the strange site of the stripped plateau.

“Reckon so, after 40 years.  Tired of being alone.  Just wanna go home.”

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Family Honor





Each Sunday morning, Jacob stared through the window for the white bearded figure with his long coat and dark wide-brimmed hat.  Seeing his grandfather, he would run out the door to where the old man always kneeled with open arms to catch the boy, who wrapped around his neck, and sneezed as his grandfather’s beard tickled his nose.

“I won’t let you go until you make me sneeze,” the boy would say, and the old man, as he did every morning grabbed in the air for imaginary sneezes, batting them away.  “Get away from my Jacob” he yelled at them.  But then the boy would sneeze, and the old man would mourn or feign great anger:  “One got away grandpa!” Jacob squealed as if it was for the first time.

On their final morning together, Jacob pulled his grandfather toward the shedding jacaranda tree outside Moshen’s bakery.  The boy’s mouth watered as he imagined the green, blue, and orange iced pastries awaiting him behind the bakery window.

Jacob already felt the heat of the sidewalk pushing through his sandals.   A hummingbird whirred just above them.  Jacob pointed to the little creature.  “He sparkles, Grandpa.”  The tiny bird darted in their direction several times as they moved toward the bakery.   “He’s following us,” Jacob said. The boy danced in circles as he followed the bird’s movements. “It is Yaweh’s smile upon us,” his grandfather said.

The old man walked faster at the boy’s lead.  When they reached the jacaranda, a tall hooded figure wearing the black and white keffiyeh of the PLO stepped from a nearby car.  His grandfather pushed Jacob hard as the stranger took several steps, and lifted his weapon.  The boy rolled onto the ground as the roar of gunfire and shattered glass filled the morning air.  Rivulets of blood pushed against the purple blossoms.  The rain-bowed icings were spattered with bits red and gray. 

For months after the assassination, Jacob did not speak.  Miriam, his mother, held him through the night, often awakened by the twitching and cold sweat of his body.   

When the boy’s trembling subsided, Miriam would quietly return to her own bed.  Eventually, the boy did not ask for his mother again.  He regained his voice, but his words were few.  Not once did he mention that day with his grandfather.
 
In the same year his grandfather died, Jacob began the traditional study of the Talmud at the Jewish day school near East Jerusalem.  At age 16, he began Yeshiva with the local Rabbi.

 “Jerusulem is our eternal capital.  It cannot be parceled by mere men,” the Rabbi said.  But daily, as Jacob grew into manhood, the truth of Israel’s divisions was everywhere.  The walls of the old city, the temple mount, were in the Palestinian sector.  135 miles of fencing stretching from Gaza to Jerusalem separated “them” from “us.”  The fence, like a growth chart his grandfather kept at his bedroom door, marked a decade of Jacob’s life from age six to sixteen. 

“Rabbi,” Jacob asked when he was twelve, “why do other nations not accept that Jerusalem belongs only to us?”  “Child, we are people of the Book.  These scriptures are given to us so that we may know the plans of Yahweh.  These are things they cannot know.  We alone are the Chosen.”

When Jacob was sixteen, he enrolled in the military academy, wearing his uniform to school even on days when it was not required.  One day, the local commander, a veteran with a limp, toured the Academy with a general looking for recruits. 

“Who is that boy?” the general asked. 

“Cadet Jacob Moskovitz, sir.”

The two old soldiers watched Jacob doing his drills.  The General’s trained eye followed the sharp turns and sudden spins as the young cadet moved his weapon with textbook perfection. 

“Who taught him to do that?”

“He teaches himself sir.  He’s here everyday, watching, asking questions.”

The general walked over to Jacob, who stood to attention, and executed a sharp salute.

“At ease Cadet,” the General said.  “Son, your discipline puts our regulars to shame.”

“That’s not my goal, General.”

“What is you goal, cadet?”

“Israel.”

“You have the makings of a soldier, Cadet Moskovitz.”

“Thank you sir,”

“Would you like to train with the men?”

“Sir, more than anything, sir.”

“I’ll arrange it,” the General said. 

Cadet Moskovitz quickly impressed his superiors.  His cadet commander assigned him to a checkpoint at the East sector to examine Palestinian identification cards.  He questioned each person, probing for reason to have them expelled from the City. 

When Jacob turned 18, his childhood friend, Laban, enrolled in the Yeshiva. 
“You’ve only joined the Yeshiva to avoid your duty” he hold Laban.

“I’m only doing what the Tal law allows,” his friend answered.  “Besides, I’ll serve later.”

“You’re lying.  We both know the Yeshiva is a haven for cowards.  Somehow you all manage not to serve.”
            Laban felt a wall rise between them, as high and thick as the security fence encircling the city.
“Must it end this way?”  
“You’ve made your choice,” Jacob said.

That evening Jacob opened the door to his mother’s house to the aroma of sambousak pie and vegetable gratin.  He imagined his grandfather sitting at the end of the dinner table, as his mother laid out the plates of rice and bulgar pilafs, shwarma, falafel or hummus.  His grandfather would pronounce the Kiddush on Friday evening, between the time of the setting sun and the appearance of the first 3 stars in the night sky.  Jacob would wait in the garden.  With each new star, he jumped into his grandfather’s lap.  “I saw the third one Grandpa.  Now say the blessing!”   On this  night, two decades later, it was Jacob who said the Kiddush, repeating the scriptures exactly as his grandfather did.  That evening, as they ate, he told his mother he had signed on for six years in the Special Forces. 

“Why did you do this?” his mother asked.

“To honor our family.”

“Has violence worked for us?”

“Sometimes we have no choice.”

“And sometimes we act as if killing is the only choice.”

“I’m joining.”   

“Why not defer, like the other men?”  

“I’m needed now.”

When she saw he would not relent, her voice softened.  “You mustn’t die.”

“I won’t die.”

Frustrated, she asked again, "Why did you do this?”
“Grandfather,” he said, his voice distant and faint.

“Grandfather? Grandfather died working for peace.”  

Not knowing what to say, he shot back, “You dishonor him.”

His words pressed against her like spikes, leaving her breathless.  Each anniversary of her father’s death, she lit a candle at his picture, watching the flame sputter past midnight until the last play of shadows on the walls was overcome by day.  For each of those 24 years, the candle goaded Jacob.

Seeing his mother’s mouth agape at his words, and her eyes unblinking, he searched for an argument: 

“Grandfather was a warrior, and prepared to die,” he said

“He loved peace. He wanted an end to this.”

“There can be no end until they are crushed.”

“They?”

“The Palestinians.”

“All of them?”  

“Every one of them.”  His voice turned shrill and his words shot like bullets in her direction.

“Your neighbors?  The people you work with?”

She walked to him, as if he were still a boy, and placed her hands on his shoulders. He was nearly a foot taller than she.

“Our enemy is not among us, but within us,” she said.

He pulled away, and left quickly for the military compound.  His mother’s talk was crazy.  Had she lost sight of the dangers?  The enemy would never go away.  He knew force was the only answer.

He finally relaxed as he drove past the guard gate into the compound.  He felt most at home here, away from his mother’s misguided softness.  Had she forgotten how grandfather died because of such wishful thinking?

The old man had joined a peace group whose motto was ‘One people, One peace.”  Together the neighbors formed a committee covering ten blocks of Jerusalem.  Five Israelis and five Palestinians crossed invisible barriers to draft a peace manifesto, citing from both the Koran and the Pentatuch.  The ten signed on behalf of 30,000 in the city.

The manifesto irritated both Likud and the PLO.  Agreeing on nothing else, the old enemies discovered a common goal in discrediting the Committee’s hold on the world’s imagination. 

One morning, after reading the words of the prophet Isaiah, Miriam rested in the deep cushions of her father’s old worn chair.  She loved the way she could sink into it, nearly invisible in its massive padded arms.  In it, she separated from her fears.  She had turned 55, her father’s age when he was killed.  Sitting in his chair all these years later, she heard the cooing of morning doves in the garden, and prayed for her son’s safety.  She did this every morning, as if the trees were minarets, and the doves were the Muezzin.

Late in the afternoon, she listened to news reports of angry young Palestinians gathering in the streets only a few blocks away.  She turned off the reports.  Still, she heard the faint sounds of protest, and police sirens through her garden window.   The phone rang.  It was Rosha, her childhood friend, asking her to join several other women to go to the site of the protest to make a statement for peace.  She was tired, but to honor her father’s memory, she joined her old friends.

“Why do you do this?” Jacob argued with his mother over the years.  “Besides, no one listens to you.”

And it was true.  She knew it was true.  She knew it was true each time an Israeli or Palestinian sneered at her, or crushed a pamphlet in his fist, making sure she saw him toss it away. 

Miriam gathered at Rosha’s house with their friends.  The women had shared so many passages of womanhood, from newly weds to motherhood, and now as grandmothers.  Holding their signs as their only weapons, the five women looked at one another for a moment, without speaking.  Miriam patted a shoulder, grasped a hand, straightened a collar, or smiled an encouragement.  Then they began to walk toward the frenzied shouting.

Their few signs for peace were met by hundreds of other signs moving down the street like steaming lava.  “Death to the Zionists,”  “Exterminate the Jews,”  “Israel kills Palestinian children,” “Israel killed my father,” “Death to the Invaders,” “Death to the Zionists,” “Death to America.” 

“Go home you old fools,” one the youths screamed.  “Get out of here!” another young man ordered, his voice and eyes wild at seeing troops gathering in battle position at the end of the street.

A protestor, his eyes red from tear gas, his clothing smeared with sweat and grime, accused the women of being Israeli stooges.

The demonstrators spat and yelled as they passed Miriam.  “Zionist whores.”  “Liars.”
“Murderers.”  A bare chested man with a red and white-checkered scarf across his face pushed her hard, causing her to fall.  Then he turned to join the others in the crowd yelling threats and throwing rocks at the soldiers who stood with shields behind a barricade.  Someone in the crowd fired shots into the phalanx of soldier moving toward them.

When field Commander Jacob Moskovitz received a radio report that one of his men were under fire, his smile surprised even him.  He looked around to see if any of his men had witnessed the change.  With a voice bordering on exultation, he commanded his gunners atop nearby buildings to commence firing.

In the melee, Miriam tried to run, but she could only hobble.   “Save us Jehovah,” she prayed, but the words turned to stone in her mouth as she watched a rip of bullets spread across the mass of people jammed into the street.  A swath of Palestinian men collapsed as if an invisible knife had sliced through the crowd.

On her son's command, a second gunner opened fire from another perch, on the opposite side of the street.  The crazed men around Miriam shoved or pulled her out of the way.  She saw the head of a man explode just in front of her, his brains like curdled milk spotting her face.  Something like a steel rod thrust into her back, slamming her into her into the arms of one of the protestors.   “Why are you looking at me that way?” she wanted to ask the young man, who held her for a few seconds,. staring at her.  His sweet frightened face reminded her of Jacob’s so many years ago when she cradled him against the nightmares.  She looked down to see a circle of blood at the center of her chest spread like an enlarging eye until it covered her breasts.  In the last seconds of consciousness, she heard Jacob’s voice as he yelled orders to his men. 

The news the next day reported there were five Israeli women inexplicably mixed into the crowd.  When Colonel Jacob Moskovitz saw his mother’s name on the list of dead, he insisted there was a mistake.  He knew that going to the morgue, he would confirm the mistake.   But when he pulled the sheet from the body to see his mother’s blood drained face, a roar rose in his chest, filling the room until it ended with a rhythmic moaning.  Several of his men, standing outside rushed into the room to see their commander curled on the floor, gasping for air.    For the second time in his life, he could not speak.  

“You must call the rabbi,” his commander told him. “It is disrespectful to delay the funeral.”

Jacob only stared into his mother’s garden.  Seeing what needed to be done, the commander ordered one of his men to fetch the rabbi, and designated two of his lieutenants to act as “Shomers,” the traditional watchmen who stay with the body until the burial. 

“We need to call the Chevra Kadisha to do the ritual of purification,” one of his mother’s friends whispered in his ear.  He turned toward her, his face void of expression.   When he did not answer, she patted him on the arm.  “I will see that they are called,” she whispered again.    

On the day of the funeral, Jacob dressed in his formal military uniform.  He looked at the black ribbon one of the women had given him, then threw it aside.  He went to his mother’s sewing kit, found the scissors, and cut a wide tear across the left side of his coat.   He remembered the day his mother explained the custom when his grandfather died.  “When a parent dies, the child is to wear a black ribbon or cut a tear in his clothing on the left side, to show the tear between life and death.” 

“What Psalm would do you want me to read at the burial?” the Rabbi asked him.  Staring into the Rabbi’s thick spectacles, Jacob walked over to his mother’s copy of the Torah.  He opened it to a place she had marked.  He remembered her reading it to him so long ago to help him fall asleep.  Turning to the rabbi, he pointed to the Psalm, then let himself sink into his grandfather’s chair.

The rabbi read the words:

Declare me innocent, O Lord,
For I have acted with integrity;
I have trusted in the Lord without wavering.
Put me on trial, Lord, and cross-examine me.
Test my motives and affections
For I am constantly aware of your unfailing love,
And I have lived according to your truth.

For the seven days of Shiva, the traditional period of mourning, Jacob was granted leave of duty.  He spent the days sitting in his mother’s garden, listening for the cooing of doves in the morning, and again, as the day ended.  Each day, he cut the tear in his uniform a bit longer.  By the seventh day, the coat was un-wearable.

On the eighth day, he handed his commander his request for immediate discharge. 

“And if I do not grant it?” the commander asked.

“Then I will not serve.”

“You will be dishonorably discharged. I can also have your court martialed for dereliction of duty.”

“Yes, you can do that.”

“Think of how that will dishonor your family.”

“I have thought of that all my life.”

The Commander’s voice lowered as he realized Jacob’s resolve.  “Your thinking is clouded by your grief.  The military is your family.  How can you leave it?”


“Like this,” Jacob answered.  He saluted, turned sharply, and walked out the door.  Outside, he paused to watch the jacaranda blossoms drop one by one.