by Mike Stone
Short Stories by Mike Stone
Copyright © 2022 by Mike Stone
All rights reserved
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I’m running through a lush field of yellow grass blades after a black cat under a blue sky. The cat jinks this way and that but I’m gaining on him. I’ve never run so fast in my life. It’s like I’m flying over the grasses and through the bushes. It’s like I’m synchronized with all motion and I’m lying still inside the motion while the universe is doing the running and the cat and I are one with it, but I am getting closer. From far away I feel something warm on my twitching muscles and jerk to attention, but it is the calming hand of my human, soothing me but insisting that I awaken. The cat, the grasses, and the universe dissipate. They are replaced by another reality. My human touches a square on the wall of our cave and the eyelids open slowly, letting in the morning light. He brings the chain linked collar and long strap to put around my neck but I lay my head down, feigning sleep. It’s a game I play before we go out for my walk which, feeling my kidneys full once more, it’s probably time for. I rise to my feet and we walk to the mouth of our cave. My human sticks something into a small hole in the wall which opens sideways. We leave the cave and walk down the steppingstones to another eyelid which my human opens. We walk down more steppingstones to a path in which big blue, yellow, and grey metal insects roll noisily past on dark rubber feet. Of course, I would prefer to run freely instead of being constrained by the chain and strap, but I don’t know whether my human needs the strap for me to pull him along or he’s afraid I’ll run into the path of those big rolling insects. I don’t want him to worry about me, since worry smells like fear which is a sign of weakness, and I don’t want him to be weak. Sometimes my human doesn’t seem to know what’s good for him. When I smell a stranger who is menacing or afraid, I know it is up to no good and I’d better lunge at him before he attack us, but my human yanks on my chain and strap when I’m already in midair. It can be so embarrassing and frustrating. We walk by the stranger and I feel so cowed, but nothing bad happens this time. It might have. Always attack first is my policy. It’s safer. The world is a dangerous place and if you want to survive in it, you have to keep your wits about you. A walk in the park is not necessarily a walk in the park, if you know what I mean. My human is too trusting and one of these days I won’t be able to protect him.
We start our walk but I get easily sidetracked in the here and now. There are so many stories to listen to and you can never know in advance which ones will be only just very interesting and which ones will be whoa I can’t move another inch before I hear the rest of it, like this scrawny grey-yellow bush in the garden we almost passed by. A human who had just birthed two human pups had passed by and left their scents worth on the leaves. One of the pups didn’t take his mother’s milk so well. It might be related to the acrid smell of his urine. This takes time and I need more information, but my human is trying to pull me away already. I try to convey to him that this is important but he doesn’t seem to understand. Honestly, sometimes I don’t know what they’re thinking inside those inflated brains. I squirt a bit of urine near the spot to mark how far I’d gotten in this saga so I don’t have to start from the beginning next time around. The human and I always walk the same path, two or three times a day, but sometimes it’s not the same path because the smells are new. It’s the same but not the same. Go try to explain that to a creature who walks upright. It’s as though they don’t want to smell the world around them. Keep your nose to the ground I always say. We continue our walk and I sniff what I can. Somebody has to do the smelling around here.
Suddenly my bowels feel full and I release them. My human scoops it up in a bag and tosses it into a round container. Honestly, I don’t know why I bother to do it. It’s such a waste of time.
As we continue our walk, we enter a cloud of digital emanations leaking out of the eye of a cave near us. Although the noise is annoying to me, it doesn’t seem to bother my human who is tapping with his thumbs on some small slab of plastic. The cloud contains an article on quantum physics and human irrationality. It states that although modern humans have attempted to base their rationality on the logical and mathematical models of Aristotle, that a thing either is or is not something, but the article goes on to say that our world is really a large number of states that can be and not be at the same time, at least until you measure them. Once you measure them and depending on how you measure them, they become one state or another. Quantum physics is a bit beyond me but it seems to me that logic and mathematics only derive their value from the premise that they somehow reflect how our physical world really works. If not, then what are they good for? I don’t believe in total chaos. The world kind of makes sense to me. Neither do I believe in a big dog in the sky who created this world and everything that happens depends on Its will or whimsy.
We passed through the cloud and continued our walk. My bladder was still half full but I had to save some of my urine for come what may. My human avoids other dogs, cats, and people when we walk together. I worry about his social life.
Finally, our path takes us to the mouth of our cave. He puts his stick into the mouth so it will open. Then he pushes a square next to another mouth. I sit patiently beside him waiting for the mouth to open. When it finally does, we enter a small cave that’s not our cave yet. My human presses another square and the cave begins to jiggle and vibrate. Soon it stops and the mouth opens. I walk to the mouth of our cave and wait for my human to put another stick in the mouth of our cave. The mouth opens and we are home.
That’s all I wanted to be.
“I saw a twitch …”
“… His eyelids are fluttering …”
“How are we doing today Mr. Stavros? You gave us quite a scare, didn’t he Mrs. Stavros?”
The young woman addressing him was dressed in a pale blue pajama holding a clipboard with pen poised to note something indicative. Off to the left side of his visual space was an older woman who seemed to stare intently at him. The younger woman was more attractive than the older woman, so his eyes shifted back in her direction. On the right side of his visual field were two young men. One was sitting and the other was standing.
Suddenly the door burst open and another young man entered the room. “I got here as quickly as I could,” he said looking at me for some unfathomable reason. He came close to me and put his lips to my cheek, funny I couldn’t feel it, and squeezed my arms with his hands.
The older woman was leaning forward in her chair and holding my hand. I saw this but I couldn’t feel it either.
“It’s good you came but prepare yourself,” one of the young men said, vacating his chair for the new man who had just entered. “He doesn’t seem to recognize any of us and he can’t feel anything on his left side.”
“Hush,” the older woman said to one of the men. “He’ll hear you and …” She burst into tears. “I can’t anymore,” she sobbed and got up from her chair to leave the room.
I wasn’t sure whom they were talking about and I had no idea who they were.
“Good morning Mr. Stavros,” an attractive young woman in pale blue pajamas said in his direction. “How are we this morning? Time for us to turn you over … Just you let us do the work.”
There was another sturdier woman in dark blue pajamas on the other side of his vision he hadn’t noticed before. They lifted him onto his side. The older woman from the day before was sitting on the chair next to his bed. He heard voices behind him.
He wondered who these people were. Why did that attractive young woman call him Mr. Stavros? Why was the older woman calling him Joe? Why were the young men calling him Dad?
“Good morning Mr. Stavros,” the young woman from the other day said to him. “How are we doing today? You have a special visitor today.”
A young girl entered the room cautiously. She couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen. She looked at me, then at one of the young men, and finally back at me. She came over to the bed, said “Hi Grampa”, kissed my cheek which I still couldn’t feel, and lay her head on my chest. Her long hair spread over my chest and smelled like … like … what was it? Who was she?
The young girl pulled up a chair near the bed and took out a thin book from a backpack. She opened the book and started reading out loud, “An Idea for a Short Story, August 22, 2014, Sounds. Voices. Tingling.”
“What are you doing Cory?” one of the young men asked her.
She looked up from the book and answered, “I got the idea from Grampa. He wrote this story just before he had this …”
“Stroke?” the young man suggested. “Let me see the story.” He had been too busy to read his father’s rather prolific writings lately but he had been meaning to get around to it sometime or other. He read the story over quickly. Then he read it again, this time more slowly. “You had the right idea,” he said after rereading it, “but in the story he suggested we read him his poetry books. He said that was where he stored his images and memories. It’s worth a try.”
“Good morning Mr. Stavros,” a young woman said to him from behind her clipboard. “How are we doing today? Your special visitor has come back to see you.”
The young girl from the other day came into the room, walked over to the bed, kissed his cheek, and sat down in the chair. She pulled another thin book, this one black, from her backpack and opened it up to the first page. She began to read to him.
|Song of Symbols|
|University years (Michigan State University): 1965-1969|
It is a song of symbols,
Clocks and stars;
A string tied to a rock,
At the other end, a kite.
One small blue wildflower
On this slow grassy hill,
A little like Noellen, I think.
The young girl looked up at him from the book and then over at the young man. “His face hasn’t changed.”
The young man said to her gently, “keep trying”. The other two young men said “yeh, keep trying.” The older woman studied his face intently, her eyes brimming with tears.
The young girl looked down at the book and turned a page. She began to read aloud.
|What They Mean|
|Northwestern University, Evanston Illinois, Autumn 1969|
Whenever you walk among the softened copper leaves
On a wispy smoked autumn morning,
See the dim face of a sun eight minutes old,
Feel the warmcool paradox in your body’s secret hiding places,
Hear the gentle shivering at the tops of tall trees,
And possibly wonder what they all mean —
Why, they mean I love you.
She looked up at him. They all looked at him. She looked back down at the book and turned the page.
|The Midnight Falls|
|Indianapolis Indiana 1972|
The midnight falls in silent raindrops
From my greylit window forever.
Cars pass through the street in distant sound
And walkers push their hearts against the cold.
Inside my room I hear the sounds of my wife
As she sits upon my bed adjusting her stockings.
I watch her in the mirror above the bureau.
Outside are puddles and reflections.
I am sprawled upon the bed
And run my fingers gently over her white slip
Remembering I am only a child,
A child dreaming of his own family,
Dreaming in a greylit window.
His pupils dilated and his hand twitched inside the hand of the older woman.
“Did you see that?” one of the young men asked.
The older woman said “I felt something, his hand …”
The young girl flipped through some pages until she found what she was looking for. She began to read again.
|Duluth Georgia, March 28, 2014|
He felt ambiguated
Yes, he thought, that might be the word.
His unbounded happiness had saddened him.
After all, it was bounded
By the foreshortening of his life
From his perspective.
His wide unwieldy wings ached
To enfold his young granddaughter
Whose hair smelt of fresh wheat on a summer hillock.
He wanted to take her in his arms,
His heavy wings thrumping the air
Until slowly rising above the treetops
One with the cobalt sky
They’d soar and swoop
Over quilted fields and shadowed valleys,
Then back for tea and hoops
Back at home
Sometime during the night,
Or was it when he woke?
His wings were gone
But the ache remained
Like phantom limbs.
A tear welled up in his eyes and spilled down his cheeks. He squeezed his wife’s hand and turned his eyes toward his lovely granddaughter. His sons surrounded their mother, comforting her sobs.
“How will I know when I’m an adult Saba?” the boy asked his grandfather. The grandfather looked into his inviting blue eyes, pools of clear water, careful not to fall into them.
“Do you want the answer all adults give to their children or do you want my answer?” the saba asked his eleven year old grandson, whose named happened to be Daniel, but this saba did not believe in chance. Daniel meant “God has judged me” in Hebrew, but every Hebrew name means something. One can’t escape from meaning in this country.
“I want your answer Saba,” Daniel said. His eyes flashed and he grinned.
The saba wondered how he did that. He didn’t answer right away. Rather he looked off into the distance, probably for the right answer to his grandson’s question. “You want to be an adult, yes?” the saba asked. That’s the way people in this country asked questions: they made a factual statement, ending it with yes? Or no?
Daniel said, “Sure, everyone my age wants to be an adult already.”
“Well,” Saba said, “if you want to be an adult, then you’re not one yet. As soon as you want to be a kid again, that’s when you’ll know you’re an adult.”
Somewhat disappointed by Saba’s answer, not because it didn’t ring true, but because it did, Daniel asked, “Okay, give me another sign so that I can know.”
“Well,” Saba said again, “do you love your children?”
“But Saba,” Daniel protested, “I don’t have any children! You know that, don’t you? I’m just eleven years old. Besides, you have to be married, like Mom and Dad, to have children.”
Saba was waiting in ambush for Daniel to say that. “When you’re an adult, you love your children more than you love yourself.”
“Oh,” Daniel said despondently, “I see. Give me one last sign, Saba, please.”
“Well,” Saba said yet another time, drawing this out as much as possible, “do you like coffee or whiskey?”
“I hate those things Saba!” Daniel said. “I don’t know how adults can like those drinks. Besides, what do they have to do with being an adult?”
“When you drink coffee or whiskey, not because you’re thinking about drinking coffee or whiskey, but because it makes you think about something else so far away, it’s over the horizon, then that’ll be a sign,” the saba paused to take a sip of scalding tea and lemon, crinkling his eyes toward the dipping sun, “unless, of course, you don’t drink coffee or whiskey, and then it won’t matter.”
Daniel pondered his saba’s words for a long time. “Saba,” he said, “you knew I wouldn’t understand anything you would answer, right?”
Saba answered, “Well, yes, I suppose I did.”
“So why did you answer me?” Daniel asked.
“Because you asked,” Saba winked.
The jungle slept fitfully at night. It dreamt dreams of hunger and satiation, crawling around on its belly, running swiftly on its bare feet, and flying through the moist warm air blindly with only its sensitive hearing to guide it. Under the gibbous moon the jungle hooted and cawed in its sleep. Ever so little by little the dome of sky would lighten over the sleeping jungle until the sun would burn a hole through the dreams and the swarms of myriad small buzzings. Then the jungle would wake up into a new day full of great new expectations but also knowing that the day was much the same as other days that came and went. The jungle had pretty much everything it wanted. It was never lonely and there was no other place it wanted to go.
But one day there was something new in the jungle. It was suddenly curious whether there might be other jungles or things it could not even imagine in its dreams. The jungle decided it would go outside of itself to see what it could see. A long tubule extended from the jungle over many walking bare feet. The tubule wended and meandered its way through the forests, over creeks and grassy savannahs, and under the domes of day and night until it came to a small wooden cave grazing the nectar of buttercups in the sunlight. The tubule looked through a square frame of open space along the side of the wooden cave. It didn’t see anything particularly dangerous, so it gently pushed open the door and entered the cave. There were many things inside it did not recognize so it climbed up the stairs and pushed open another door. It saw another square frame of open space and approached.
The tubule had intended to look through the frame to see what was on the other side but instead it saw a funny creature in the middle of the frame looking back at it. The creature seemed to be detached from the jungle, a singularly lonely being, defined as much by what he was as what he was not. The creature said to himself ‘I will call myself a man from now on, something separate from the jungle which I now only vaguely remember, which I will one day tame and then beat back. I will call this new thing in which I live civilization and civilization will beat back the jungle until it gasps its last breath.’
The jungle felt a wince of pain from its lost tubule and hunched itself smaller, shaking until the night dome of the moon and stars soothed it with dreams of hoots and caws.
Tuvi Ornat put the old concert ticket he’d been using as a bookmark between the two pages he had been reading and laid the dog-eared paperback gently on the table beside his chair. He stood up and stretched his arms.
“I’m going for a walk,” Tuvi called upstairs but there was no response. He scribbled a short note and slid a small corner of it beneath her tea mug on the kitchen table where she’d be sure to see it when she returned. He buckled a fanny pack around his waist and placed his keys and wallet in the zippered pockets. He put a notebook, pen, and the book he was reading in an old backpack one of his sons had left at home. Tuvi locked the door and walked outside.
It was a pleasant enough day, not too warm and not too cool. The few clouds in the pale blue sky were wispy like feathers. Tuvi walked past the manicured parkways and gardens. Palm tree fronds wavered slightly in the light breeze. He reached the main road and walked over to the shaded bus stop. Tuvi pulled his book out of his backpack while he waited for the bus. He only managed to read a paragraph before the bus arrived and opened its accordion doors. He climbed the three steps, paid the driver, saw a seat in the middle of the bus where nobody was sitting, and sat down looking around at the other passengers. A pretty young mother was sitting with her little boy who wore rather thick glasses. She looked like she might be religious because of the sleeves, but you couldn’t be certain with women. Tuvi smiled at the little boy, reached across, and handed him a wrapped candy. “What do you say?” the young mother asked her son prettily. The little boy asked, “Can I have another one?” Tuvi retrieved another candy from his pocket and handed it over to the little boy’s extended hand. The mother looked embarrassed and then out the window. Tuvi also looked out his window and watched the stores and pedestrians flow by.
The bus arrived at the central station and Tuvi followed the mother and little boy out the rear doors of the bus. He stopped at the large sign and looked for his destination. He saw the platform number and walked towards his bus. There was a group of young soldiers milling around the open baggage doors of the bus. They had their rifles slung over their shoulders this way and that. They looked so nice, the boys and girls, but they looked so young. Tuvi knew that meant he was getting older. He was glad they were travelling with him on this bus, but it probably meant he’d have to stand most of the way until they reached the large army base just before he wanted to get off, unless one of them would be kind enough to give him his or her seat. The trouble was that Tuvi didn’t look his age. People always thought he was much younger although he didn’t always feel younger inside. Tuvi grabbed the overhead bar when the driver closed the pneumatic doors with a wheeze, and the bus lurched backwards as it pulled away from the platform.
Soon the bus left the town, turning onto the highway going south. The orchards and fields on either side of the speeding bus were a palette of mostly greens and browns. Tuvi wondered how the farmers would get by this year, the seventh year in which the land was to be left fallow and not to be worked. The principle made sense to Tuvi, but the application of it in this country did not. He thought leaving a seventh of your farmland fallow and then rotating your crops made more sense than farming all your land six years and leaving it fallow in the seventh. Suppose there were a drought or too much rain in the sixth year?
The bus stopped at a crossroads near a small town. Two soldiers got off the bus and collected their duffle bags from under the bus. There was an empty seat next to a pretty girl soldier sleeping with her head against the window. Tuvi sat down gratefully. The bus picked up speed once more. He looked out the window and noticed that the green fields had been replaced by dry brush and long stretches of sand. Tuvi took out his book and opened it across his knees. The girl soldier shifted her head against the seat back, an inch from his shoulder. A few strands of her thick blonde hair brushed his arm, or so he thought. Tuvi didn’t want to look for fear of waking her. He relaxed back in his seat and closed his eyes.
Tuvi woke suddenly. The bus had stopped and the soldiers were milling toward the rear door of the bus. “Hey Kira, we’ve arrived,” someone said. “Stop molesting the old guy!” The blonde haired soldier sitting next to him sat up straight, turned in Tuvi’s direction, and said, “Excuse me.” Tuvi stood up next to his chair so that she could exit with her friends. He watched them collect their duffle bags and start walking toward the gates of the large base. A veiled woman wearing a burka over jeans and sneakers, three children, and several bearded men wearing large knit skull caps entered the bus and sat down in the front seats. Tuvi eyed them suspiciously. He couldn’t be certain whether they were one of us or one of them because he wasn’t born here. The bus started to move.
The rocky sandy landscape undulated as it flashed past the window like images in an old fashioned zoetrope. Dilapidated pickup trucks and young dark skinned boys sitting on carts flicking switches on the backsides of lazy mules exited Tuvi’s field of vision as quickly as they had entered it. A patchwork of tents and corrugated siding dotted the hills in the middle distance away from the road. He noticed television antennae poking out of the center of most tents. The bus slowed down and stopped at a traffic light. A young boy was selling hot pretzels at the intersection while a couple elders played shesh-besh in the shade of the bus stop. The light changed and the bus started up.
Soon the bus began its slow deliberate descent down a series of narrow hairpin curves with sheer mountainous walls on one side of the bus and the ground dropping away steeply on the other side. The veiled woman held her children tight against her while the bearded men murmured conspiratorially in a tongue Tuvi did not recognize.
Finally the bus came out onto a wide straight stretch of road toward the great salt sea that could be seen in the distance. The bus slowed and stopped at the side of the road, unremarkable except for a rusted pole and sign indicating the way to the Qumran caves. Tuvi stood up and walked unsteadily down the steps of the bus into the furnace of desert air. He walked toward a stand of trees wavering in and out of the heated air like a mirage. When he reached the shade of trees, he stopped to stretch his legs and turned back toward the road. The bus had already disappeared from sight and the road was also wavering in and out of vision like something not quite substantial. He noticed that one of the bearded men had gotten off the bus with him and had paused halfway between the road and where Tuvi stood to light up a cigarette between cupped hands.
Tuvi turned around away from the road and followed the path beyond the stand, down the hill, and around the bend with his eyes. There wasn’t much difference between the path and not the path. He’d come this far and he’d go a bit further. Tuvi wished he’d taken along a few bottles of mineral water. Maybe there’d be some further on. He started walking down the path on the other side of the stand of trees, down the hill, and around the bend. He noticed the rocky hillsides had changed their hues to white and ochre from the abundance of lime and sulfur in this area. Tuvi also noticed that the bearded man had also started down the same path about fifty yards behind him.
Tuvi continued walking. The path led through a narrow gap between two tall cliffs. Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow, he thought to himself. Good place for an ambush. The path climbed up some flat stones that formed a natural stairway. Tuvi followed the path to the top of a low promontory and looked back the way he came. The bearded man was sitting on a grey-white boulder about the same distance from Tuvi as before, smoking, flicking ashes on the ground, and looking off into the distance. He stubbed his cigarette into the path and continued towards Tuvi.
Tuvi started walking up the hill. Foot paths crisscrossed each other every so often. Beside most path crossings Tuvi encountered a pile of stones, sometimes placed one on top of the other and sometimes put in a sort of pyramid, but there were other patterns as well. He had heard that the Bedouins construct and use them as markers to help them find their way across the mountains and valleys of the desert, say, to a village or well. Tuvi thought it was interesting how the Bedouin used the rocks as a language that allowed them to understand what the desert was telling them. Everyone knew they were expert scouts and trackers in the desert because they knew the place of every rock and when a rock was out of place. The rock piles were no use to Tuvi, however, and so he continued up the path he chose to follow as best he could.
Tuvi climbed the hill. When he reached the top he turned around to look for the bearded man, but he was nowhere to be found. Tuvi turned back around and looked at the wide expanse of valley at the bottom of the hill. Off a ways craggy mountains grew on either side of the valley. The mountain sides were spotted with caves. He selected one of the caves that seemed accessible without a rope and climbing gear, and walked down the sandy hill toward it.
When he reached the ledge in front of the cave, Tuvi ducked his head and looked into the inviting shadow. He walked in, a few paces, hunched over to avoid bumping his head against the rocky ceiling. He didn’t see any bats or scorpions around so he sat down on one of the flat rocks jutting from the wall. He looked out from the cave toward the low western mountain tops. The sun was just about to touch the top crags.
Suddenly Tuvi felt very tired. He bent down to smooth away some of the rocks and twigs on the ground in front of him, lay his backpack down like a pillow, and stretched himself out carefully on the ground. Just a little snooze never hurt anyone, was the last thing he thought about before drifting off to sleep.
“You really should have brought along a few bottles of water,” a voice interrupted Tuvi’s sleep.
Tuvi woke up with a start. It was pitch dark all around him. He felt around with his hand for the flat rock he’d been sitting on before he’d decided to take a snooze. With his hand still on the flat rock, he sat up painfully, his back stiff with aching. He stood up carefully, remembering the low cave ceiling, swiveled around, and managed to sit down. “What did you say?” he asked.
“You really should have brought along a few bottles of water.”
“Tell me about it,” Tuvi said sarcastically.
“I just did.”
“Where are you,” Tuvi asked, “I can’t see in this dark.”
“Are you threatening me?” Tuvi asked testily.
“No, not really, though I could have struck you dead, killed you, whatever, at several points along the way, if I’d wanted to. The bus could’ve blown a tire going around one of those hairpin curves or that bearded gentleman could have come up behind you and slit your throat. Maybe he still will.”
“Who are you?” Tuvi asked, not knowing where to face.
“Who do you think?”
“I think you’re a nut who thinks he’s God,” Tuvi answered, “or a crook running a scam. That’s what I think.”
“Are you an atheist?”
“You should know,” Tuvi answered.
“Yeh, I thought so.”
“Not really,” Tuvi softened his voice. “I’m more of an agnostic. I don’t have any evidence one way or the other.”
“I know what an agnostic is.”
“Sorry,” Tuvi said, “I didn’t mean to insult you.”
“You’re pretty polite. Does that mean you’re afraid of me?”
“No,” Tuvi responded, “that’s just the way I was raised to be.”
“Ah, so there’s not much of a chance that you’ll be worshipping me anytime soon?”
“Sorry, no,” Tuvi answered.
“Because there’s not much about you that’s worthy of worship,” Tuvi said, and then he asked, “When’s the last time you were in a synagogue, church, or mosque?”
“Never been in one.”
“So you have no idea what people are saying in your name?” Tuvi asked.
“Not really. No. What are they saying about me?”
Tuvi collected his thoughts before answering, “They say that you’re a jealous god, that you demand our obedience, that you’re always testing our faith in you, that we were born in sin, that we should kill those who don’t believe in you, that you made us masters of all that you created, that we shouldn’t eat pork, that we shouldn’t mix meat with milk, that we shouldn’t wear jeans, …”
“I said all those things? Sounds pretty self-serving to me.”
“That’s what I’ve been thinking,” Tuvi said. “Why would a god of the whole universe micromanage like that, especially in such a juvenile manner?”
“Now that we have that settled, you seem like you have a pretty good head on your shoulders. What are we going to do about getting you rescued?”
“How about you?” Tuvi asked.
“Don’t look at me. I can’t create a boulder so heavy that even I can’t lift it and, just between you and me, I can’t even lift a tiny pebble off the ground. Whisking you back to the bus stop and making the bus come to collect you is a bit beyond my abilities.”
“Maybe some soldiers will come to rescue me,” Tuvi offered half-heartedly.
“Did you let anyone know where you’re going or when you should be back?”
Tuvi told him about the note he’d left for his wife on the kitchen table.
“What did it say?”
Tuvi answered, “That I was going for a walk.”
“Pretty much so,” Tuvi said.
“Nothing about where or when you’d be back?”
“No,” Tuvi said softly. “It doesn’t matter.”
Tuvi said, “She’s been gone a year now.”
Tuvi didn’t say anything for a while. It was starting to get chilly in his cave. He was starting to get a bit of a headache too. It was kind of a shame. He hadn’t intended for things to end this way. He wondered what way that would be.
Tuvi heard them before he saw them, the whistles and ululations. Then he saw what looked at first like fireflies in the distance. The whistling and shouts were getting stronger, louder. The fireflies turned into torches lighting up faces and arms. “Oh,” he said to himself, “so that was how it was going to be.”
Suddenly two men stood at the entrance to the cave. They were holding torches. It was hard to tell from the flickering light, the way it danced on their faces, but it seemed to Tuvi that one of them was the bearded man he’d seen following him from the bus. The bearded man shouted something indecipherable to someone else on his right.
The cave filled with the light of the torches as two men entered hunched over carrying a blanket and plastic bottles of mineral water.
Charlie Jones attended a party of friends and acquaintances in one of the trendy studio apartments near Washington Square on the lower east side of Manhattan. Charlie brought some beer, one of the girls brought wine. Someone brought some hash and someone else brought some acid to get high on the music. One of the guys rolled a mixture of Cherry Blend pipe tobacco and hashish into a clumsy fat cigarette held together by spit, and passed it around during the good part of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Yeah. Wow. Cool. Awesome. Did you hear that? Yeah. Wow. Cool.
This wasn’t Charlie’s first time. When the girl sitting next to him passed him the joint, he took a drag deep into his lungs so that they were filled almost to the bursting point, and let it out slowly without coughing. Then he handed the joint to the guy sitting on the other side of him.
Charlie was beginning to feel pretty mellow when he saw the air in front of him waver. No, it was more like shimmer, and then a small dark point appeared in the middle of the shimmering. Another point appeared and then another point. At first Charlie thought they might have been flies or gnats or mosquitos or something like that, but they seemed to be locked into their positions, in the middle of the air, unmoving. It was the strangest thing he’d ever seen. One of the points started to grow into a small ball, like a balloon inflating. The poles were dark violet and the surface went through a rainbow progression, with a bright yellow line around the equator, and then deepening back to dark violet at the opposite pole. Other points were doing the same thing at the same time seemingly in complete synch with each other. The balls formed a straight line in the air that quickly rotated 45 degrees back and forth, like a pendulum or maybe like watching just one leg walking. The round balls joined each other becoming an oblong object in the air. Then it became a thin line suddenly, blinked into a vertical shimmering, and then disappeared.
Charlie asked the girl sitting next to him whether she had seen that. Seen what? she asked. Charlie turned to the guy on the other side of him and asked whether he’d seen it. The guy looked blankly at Charlie, who tried to describe what he had seen, but it wasn’t like anything he’d ever seen before. The guy said like wow … cool … man. You been droppin’ acid or somethin’? Charlie said no, he didn’t think so, but maybe the hash had been laced with something. Yeah, wow, awesome, cool, the girl sitting next to him said. She took his hand. They stood up unsteadily and walked to the bedroom.
Adam Yerushalmi sat in the reception area of Professor Freindlischer’s office. Professor Freindlischer was a hypnotist who specialized in helping people quit smoking. He had a fairly good success rate, or so they said, and seemed well thought of in the Tel Aviv area. In Israel, in spite of the fact that socialized medicine was considered pretty high up the scale compared to other countries around the world, even America, everybody who could afford it only went to the professors and heads of medical departments, instead of going to younger doctors and inexperienced interns.
The professor called Adam into his consulting room. He looked over Adam’s paperwork mainly making sure that all the waiver clauses were signed. Adam was skeptical of this whole hypnosis thing. He’d tried a number of different treatments but none of them ever made a dent in his nicotine habit. He doubted he was suggestible (or gullible) enough to be hypnotized. He was his own man.
The professor came around from behind his desk to sit down in a chair next to Adam. He told Adam to relax. While the professor was talking to him, Adam could see the professor indistinctly out of the corner of his eye but he was mostly conscious of the professor’s voice. The voice slowly faded into the background of Adam’s consciousness which remained crystal clear. The last thing Adam remembered being conscious of was wondering when this hypnotic trance state was supposed to kick in.
A siren started to sound, building up like a pianist stubbing all the keys with his thumb nail from the bass notes of the left side of the keyboard all the way up to the highest notes of the right side. The receptionist turned up the radio full volume and opened the door to the professor’s consulting room, which was something she had been explicitly instructed never to do under any circumstances. The siren continued its insistent blaring.
The professor hurriedly attempted to snap Adam out of his trance state. “I will count backwards, from three to one, and when I say one you will wake up … Three, two, one. Wake up, man!” he implored but Adam had not responded. The professor slapped Adam on the back of his shoulder and shouted, “Wake up, damn you!” The receptionist stood nervously in the doorway and shouted at the professor, “Carl, for God’s sake! We’ve got to get to the shelter!”
Adam seemed to snap out of his trance state but he didn’t seem to know what was going on around him. The professor shouted at him to listen to the siren, there were incoming missiles from Gaza, and they all had to go down to the bomb shelter as quickly as possible.
They rushed out of the office without bothering to lock the doors and ran down two flights of stairs to the bomb shelter in the basement of the building. Just as the professor pushed Adam into the reinforced concrete shelter, a surface-to-air missile defense missile intercepted the incoming rocket high above the office building exploding less than ten meters away from the rocket. Twisted shards and grapefruit sized pieces of metal picked up speed in their fall to earth causing minor damage to some rooftops and the outer walls of buildings in the vicinity.
Adam thought he heard a heavy silence a few meters away from him as though all the sound had been sucked out of the space. Then he heard a small high-pitched “tink” noise, followed by a deeply rolling discordant blat that seemed to widen until he felt it viscerally buzz-saw through his mid-section. Just as quickly the sound contracted, becoming more harmonic, soft, and plucky like the short strings of a harp. Again he heard the “tink” noise and then silence.
Adam asked the professor and the receptionist whether they had also heard the strange noises he had heard. They both looked at Adam oddly. Adam tried to tell the professor what he had heard but he had no words in Hebrew or in English to describe the shapes of the sounds, let alone the sounds themselves. The professor thought Adam might have suffered some sort of post-traumatic stress from the indelicate way the professor had had to wake Adam out of his trance. He’d seen it before in the Army. He suggested to Adam that he visit a doctor. Professor Freindlischer thanked God Adam had signed all the waiver clauses. The Hamas missile attack did not qualify as an act of God, but at least nobody could claim the professor had been negligent.
Adam went to see his family doctor and tried to explain to him what he had heard that day, still fumbling for words. Adam asked the doctor for a pen and piece of paper, and proceeded to draw pictures of the sounds. The doctor typed in “synesthesia” in the symptoms box of Adam’s Patient’s Record and printed out a referral for an MRI.
Adam’s MRI appointment was scheduled three months later for 3:00 in the morning. The technician was courteous and rather attractive, to tell the truth. He had to wait an hour for the resident doctor to review the results and type up her professional opinion: no indications of pathology in any of the layers of the patient’s brain that were imaged. No findings. Adam was instructed to return to the referring doctor for an interpretation of the results of the MRI scan.
Adam understood the MRI results and he knew what he heard.
Ibrahim bin Amin heard the roar of rockets launched from the open lot between his building and the neighboring building. He dropped the newspaper he’d been reading on the carpet and yelled to his wife, Jamilah, to grab their little daughter, Dalal, to run down the stairs to the tunnel entry the Hamas had recently built under their building. Dalal insisted they take her teddy bear, Kasim, too. Ibrahim scooped up Kasim in his hand and they rushed out of their apartment. Jamilah held Dalal in one arm and the hem of her chador with her other hand so as not to trip going down the stairs.
When they reached the ground floor Ibrahim tried to lift the heavy iron door covering the entrance to the tunnel but it didn’t budge a millimeter. Ibrahim grabbed Jamilah’s arm and ran with her and Dalal frantically to the next building hoping there might be an open entrance to a tunnel.
There was but it was guarded by a hooded Hamas freedom fighter pointing his Kalashnikov at them. They froze in the entrance to the building. The freedom fighter pulled off his face mask and told Ibrahim it’s him, Abdul bin Ali, they were at madras together when they were kids. Abdul opened the heavy iron door and motioned Ibrahim and his wife and daughter over to the ladder going down into the tunnel. Ibrahim hugged Abdul gratefully and helped Jamilah find her footing on the top rung of the ladder. When she reached the tunnel floor below Ibrahim handed down Dalal into Jamilah’s extended arms.
High above Gaza, hidden in the clouds, an Israeli jet pilot released a missile and guided it through his crosshairs and the precise coordinates his onboard system had received from the Central Command’s integrated defense system calculated from the trajectory of one of the incoming Gazan rockets. The men who had launched the rocket were long gone but the cumbersome rocket launcher was still there in the pilot’s sights. A yellow-red light suddenly filled the pilot’s grid display and then cleared to reveal a crater where the rocket launcher had stood and two hills of rubble where the buildings had been.
There was a deafening blast that Ibrahim had felt before he heard it. He heard Jamilah and Dalal screaming below and saw Abdul’s bare feet under a section of an upper floor that had collapsed on them. Then he lost consciousness.
Jamilah and Dalal were able to escape through another part of the tunnel. When she came outside, she ran back to the building where Ibrahim was buried under the rubble. Jamilah and Dalal screamed and keened for Allah or someone to help them. Finally some men came to try to dig through the rubble of the collapsed building to find Ibrahim and Abdul.
After several hours, it was late afternoon already, Jamilah remembered the muezzin’s call to Asr prayer, the men found Abdul and Ibrahim. Abdul was pronounced dead, a shahid. Ibrahim was bleeding profusely from a nasty gash on the side of his head but he was still breathing. They lifted him onto a door from the mound of rubble and carried him to a pickup truck they had flagged down, and rushed him, along with Jamilah and Dalal, to a UN field hospital nearby.
Two days later, when Ibrahim regained consciousness, Jamilah and Dalal were by his side praising Allah for his greatness and his mercy.
The day after Ibrahim came to, while one of the NGO nurses was entertaining Dalal, Ibrahim whispered to Jamilah that something strange had happed to him during the time he had been buried under the rubble. Jamilah leaned close to hear his words. “I felt something protect me,” he said softly.
“Allah be praised,” Jamilah answered.
“No,” Ibrahim said, “not Allah. Something else. I don’t know what but I felt it. It was like a large hand holding up a section of the roof that had fallen on me.”
“Ibrahim, my beloved, that must have been the hand of Allah,” Jamilah smiled at her husband.
“No, I don’t think so,” he said, “but who knows? Anyway there was something else. The doctors told me my heart had stopped.”
Jamilah turned pale.
Ibrahim took her hand and pressed it to his heart. He said, “I felt a young hand reach into my chest, without cutting it open, and take hold of my heart, squeezing it and releasing it, squeezing it and releasing it, until it began to pump my blood on its own.”
“Allah be praised. Inshallah,” Jamilah whispered.
Tink Blat sat on a bench in the park near his home watching his brother Zic play grzbll. The ptchr threw a slow bll toward a coordinate a meter above the plt next to Zic’s feet. Zic slammed the bll with his bt with such power that it stood still in midair but the sky expanded outward by a factor of 10,000 and everyone could see the stars winking in the night sky although it was the middle of the day.
Tink was eleven years old. He was in sixth grade. His older brother Zic was fourteen. He was in high school already and studying to be a mathematician.
Tink took his tesseract out of his pocket and expanded it so he could see the spheroid screen floating inside it. He loved watching it because there were an infinite (I josh you not) number of channels. Tink was supposed to be doing his homework on one of the educational channels, but he preferred to watch the hyposphere channels instead. His mother and father limited him to watching his favorite channels just two hours a day and only after completing his homework assignments. Besides, they didn’t like the amount of violence Tink was watching. What they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him.
He was watching the flattened characters running down some stairs before a bomb fell on them.
“Hey Tink,” Zic said sneaking up on Tink from inside. “You’re supposed to be doing your homework. I wonder what Mom and Dad would say if they knew what channel you’re watching.”
Tink changed to his homework channel. “Don’t you dare tell on me,” he threatened, “or I’ll tell them about the window you broke playing grzbll last week.”
Tink looked at his assignment for today. Let’s see. The sum of the interior angles of any triangle on a plane surface is … 180 degrees, he said out loud. The sum of the interior angles of a triangle on a spherical surface is … 180 x (1 + 4f) … anything between 180 and 540 degrees. The sum of the interior angles of any tetrahedron on a plane surface is … between 180 and 720 degrees. The sum of the interior angles of any hypertetrahedron or pentatope is … 180 to 3600 degrees.
Tink looked around for his brother Zic to see whether he was watching him. Zic had gone back to play grzbll.
Tink flipped back to the hyposphere channel he’d been watching. One of the characters he had been interested in was buried in a building that had collapsed. Tink’s eyes began to fill with tears when he saw that the character’s heart had stopped beating. Tink couldn’t bear it and reached into the spheroid screen with his hand. His arm appeared to him to become elongated and small. His arm became longer and thinner until he touched the character’s dead heart, wrapped his fingers around it, squeezed it, and relaxed … squeezed it and relaxed.
Tommy was carrying his grandfather’s pale blue silk pouch with the prayer shawl inside. His grandfather was carrying Tommy on his shoulders. Tommy’s other job was to make sure that the breeze didn’t blow the kippa off his grandfather’s head. After a while the older man sat down on a wooden bench under the fragrant bougainvillea and carefully lifted his grandson off his shoulders onto the bench beside him.
“Did you know that Israel is known for having the most interesting anthills in the whole wide world?” the older man asked the young boy who was very very good in all manner of sports.
“Really Saba?” Tommy asked, half frowning and half smiling, not sure whether his grandfather was telling him the truth or another one of his tall stories.
“Have you ever heard anyone claim differently?” the older man asked Tommy.
“Well, no,” Tommy said, thinking back over all the claims he’d ever heard from anyone at all.
“Then it’s a fact,” his grandfather said with a tiny glint in his eye that only Tommy could see. “I’ve got a riddle for you.”
“You do?” Tommy smiled in anticipation. He liked his grandfather’s riddles because he always told Tommy the answer at the end and then Tommy could tell it to his friends, stumping them, since he wouldn’t tell them the answer unless they were his best friends.
“Yes,” his grandfather said. “It goes like this … What is so big that you can put the whole world inside it?”
“Give me a clue,” Tommy demanded after thinking a long moment.
“Well,” the older man thought about the riddle and what he could give away without giving it away. “Its walls are indestructible no matter how strong you are or how hard you try to destroy them.”
Tommy thought he could destroy anything. He made a muscle with his thin arm and insisted that his grandfather admire it, which he did. Tommy requested, “Another clue.”
His grandfather searched around for another clue that would be a clue but not a clue at the same time. He found one and said, “It is very beautiful, but only to those with eyes to see.”
Tommy was stumped. Everyone he knew had eyes to see. Then he thought about the little blind boy at the restaurant that one time. His parents had told him not to stare. Tommy asked for, “Another clue!”
Now his grandfather had run out of clues that were not clues and was left with only clues that were really clues. He said to himself, “nu … shoen,” as though he were waving a white flag, and then to Tommy, “at the very center of it are two silver candlestick holders with two tall white candles in them.”
Tommy thought he knew the answer from the final clue but the other clues didn’t make sense to him. He looked down at the ground and said, “I give up.”
His grandfather smiled at him and said nothing.
“Nu .. Saba!” Tommy insisted.
The older man said, “The Sabbath.”
The real Tommy is far away in another land and his real grandfather misses him very much.
“What? You don’t like chocolate anymore?” He asked them.
“No, Saba,” Tommy was pulling away. “I still like chocolate. It’s just that I don’t want to go here.”
The older man looked inside at the tables and chairs, the shelves of light and dark chocolates, the cloudy displays of ice creams and sherbets, and the nice looking young girl holding the menus standing in the open door way smiling at them. It looked like nothing had ever happened here. It looked like a perfect place to take his two grandkids for a holiday weekend.
Daniel was busy double-thumbing something on his smartphone and didn’t seem to notice where he was at the moment.
“Why, Tommy?” he asked.
“Because,” Tommy said.
Daniel stopped double-thumbing and explained, “He doesn’t want to go inside because this is where those terrorists came in and shot and killed those four people.”
Tommy nodded his head somberly, agreeing with his brother for a change.
“Oh,” the older man said, “I see.”
They walked over to the low wall surrounding the open square where kids were skating and riding their bikes. They all sat down facing the square with their backs to the chocolate shop only ten meters away.
“I ask myself that all the time,” he replied. “If the world is such a bad place, why are there such good people as you kids and your parents?”
“That’s not what he asked, Saba!” Daniel interjected. He was the wiser of the two brothers. He was going to be bar mitzvahed next month. A long time ago, when we lived in tents in the desert, that was when a boy became a man. He still felt like a kid though. “He said ‘if the world is such a good place …'”
“I know what he said, Daniel,” the older man smiled. “I just wanted to show you both that reversing what he asked was also an interesting question.”
Tommy said, “What I meant was why do bad things happen? Why can’t we be protected from them?”
“Your parents, your brother and sisters, your grandparents, and everyone else who loves you want more than anything in the world to protect you from bad things,” Saba said, “more than they would want to protect themselves.”
“But what happens if you are not with us?” Daniel asked.
“That’s why we try to keep you close to us when we go somewhere.”
“What if the bad people are stronger than you?”
“Love gives good people strength they didn’t know they had.”
“What if they shoot you?”
“There will be good people around you who will try to protect you.”
“What if they run away with their kids or what if they’ve been shot too?”
Saba was quiet for a few moments. He didn’t really believe in God but he didn’t want to weaken their confidence. Neither did he want to lie to them.
Daniel asked, “Why do bad people do bad things anyway? Don’t they know they’re not good?”
Saba was thankful to be rescued from the previous line of questioning. “I don’t believe they think they’re doing anything wrong. Nobody does anything wrong intentionally. Everyone believes what he’s doing is the right thing to do.”
“How can anyone think killing an innocent person is the right thing to do?”
“Maybe we killed an innocent person whom they loved very much, like we love you, and they wanted revenge for what we did.”
“Why would we do that? We don’t go around killing children, women, or old people. Sorry, Saba.”
“Maybe we killed an innocent person by accident when we were trying to kill terrorists.”
“But who started it?”
“Nobody remembers. Everyone believes his enemies started it.”
“But who really started it?”
“I don’t know. It depends on who’s doing the counting.”
“Don’t they know we wouldn’t kill innocent people on purpose?”
“They don’t care what we say or think. They just care about what we do, like us. We don’t care what they say or think either, just what they do.”
“Why do they think revenge is the right thing to do?”
“They think that revenge is a kind of justice, when no other form of justice is available to them, just like many of us do, and everyone believes that justice is the right thing to do.”
“I wanted revenge when one of my classmates said I was too short to play basketball at recess,” Tommy admitted.
“What did you do?”
“Well, at first, I wanted to punch him in the stomach.”
“So what did you do?”
“I threw the ball into the basket. Everybody laughed at that and he said I could be on his team if I wanted.”
“If only people could think of other things to do to get even, besides killing, that would be good,” Daniel raised his finger wisely.
“Anybody up for an ice cream,” Saba asked, standing up and stretching his arms and back, “somewhere else?”
“Yes!” they both answered.
The older man offered each his hand and they walked away from the chocolate shop on the square. He said a silent prayer to no one in particular that today wouldn’t be the day and this would not be the place.
“What can I do for you?”
“Well, Professor Palmer, I’ve been browsing the Internet and came across your work on false memories and external indicators differentiating false and true memories,” Axel answered the man sitting behind the oversized mahogany desk.
“That was based on research and clinical experience with childhood traumas such as those of rape or incest victims,” the professor explained.
Axel laughed, “That’s not my case, not that know of, at least that’s not why I came to you. Something’s been gnawing at me for the last few years now. Something that I took for granted since I was a child, something I believed to be true like the solidity of the ground I walk on.”
“Please go on,” the professor was skeptical but interested. The man sitting in the highback chair across from him seemed somewhat older than himself, physically fit, and not given to believing every passing nonsense.
“It’s something that is of consequence only to me but none-the-less has considerable impact on me,” Axel continued.
“What has been the impact on you?” the professor asked, looking for some classic symptom to latch onto.
“The impact on me has been to call into question all of my childhood memories related to my relationship with my birth mother,” Axel answered, taking the time to choose the precise words.
“Your birth mother?” the professor repeated, raising his eyebrow.
“Yes,” Axel explained. “that would deserve some elaboration. My father and mother divorced each other when I was seven years old. Dad remarried when I was nine. After some initial difficulties in accepting my new mother, I came to refer to her as “Mom” or “my mother”, and to the woman who gave birth to me as ‘my birth mother‘ or ‘my biological mother‘.”
“How did your birth mother feel about your referring to her as that?” the professor probed, thinking he might be getting closer to the core issue.
“Sorry,” Axel offered, “a little more elaboration is necessary. After my parents divorced, my birth mother also remarried. He was an army psychiatrist at the time, a nice enough man, although I didn’t have much to do with him. At first they lived just across the court from us in the same apartment complex my father and I lived in. Then they moved down south, a good day’s drive from us. They came to visit me a couple times a year, sometimes staying at a motel in town, sometimes bringing me back to their home. He never stood between my birth mother and me. I remember him always in the background. Some years later he was transferred to the Philippines. Of course my birth mother went with him. They were there three years. During that time they adopted a little girl. I remember getting a photograph of her in a letter. She must have been two years old or so. She was awfully cute. Three days before they were supposed to be rotated back to the States, my birth mother was doing some shopping in town when she was hit by a car and died. I was thirteen at the time. Her husband returned home with the infant and a coffin. She was buried in a cemetary in his home town. I never had any further contact with him.”
“That was quite a story,” the professor exhaled. “How did your birth mother’s death make you feel?”
“I was devastated,” Axel said, “but I got over it.”
“How did you get over it?” the professor asked.
“That’s the crux of the matter,” Axel also exhaled. “I never inquired into why my parents had divorced, at least not until a year or two before my father passed away. I have memories of my mother taking a switch to me when I was two years old. I remember her walking out of our house with a suitcase, getting into a cab, and driving away. I remember her coming to visit me after she had remarried, my running to wrap my arms around her waist, and her arms hanging limp at her sides. Later, after I’d studied Art History at college, I started associating her with Venus de Milo, because she had no arms to wrap around me. I assumed she never really loved me. Maybe she loved me in the beginning, but sometime afterward stopped. I assumed that might have had something to do with my father divorcing her and getting custody of me. My father always loved me, as much as I loved him. Of that, there was never any doubt in my mind.”
“So what caused you to call into question your childhood memories related to the relationship with your birth mother?” the professor probed further. It seemed obvious that this man was self-analytical to a fault. He might have made a decent psychologist, he thought, although the professor didn’t have much faith in psychologists with their talking therapies.
“A couple years before my father passed away, I took him out for a drive,” Axel answered. “We ended up driving past our old home, which Dad sold soon after the divorce. I was in my sixties at the time. Dad had recently turned eighty. I stopped the car in front of the house and asked Dad why he’d divorced my birth mother. He told me it was because she didn’t love him anymore, at least not the way he expected to be loved. I asked him what he meant and he told me she had said she loved him like a brother. Was that the only reason? I asked. Well sure, he answered, I didn’t want to be loved like a brother. I wanted to be loved like a lover, like a husband. I couldn’t wrap my brain around that. I told him married love is multi-faceted. There are many aspects to love when you are attracted to a person but, at the same time, care for her deeply like a husband but also like a father or like a brother. The existence of one aspect doesn’t preclude another aspect. Anyway, that’s why I divorced her, Dad told me, turning red. That’s the silliest reason for divorce I’ve ever heard, I said and we drove on.”
“Why did that cause you to question you childhood memories?” the professor asked Axel.
“A few years later,” Axel said slowly, “a woman came across my name on one of the social networks I belong to, quite by chance, she explained in a private message. She identified herself as the Philippine infant my mother and her husband had adopted. She confirmed the details I remembered about my mother’s second husband and the events surrounding her death. She said she had been rumaging around the attic of her adopted father’s house soon after he’d passed away. She had stumbled on a shoe box full of returned unopened letters addressed to me. She apologized for opening one of the letters but, after I told her it was ok with me, she read me the letter. The letter told me how much my mother had loved me and how much she missed me. The woman, my half-sister I guess, told me her father had talked about the divorce. He told her that my father had tricked or forced her to accept the conditions of the divorce. That was difficult for me to swallow since Dad had always been a gentle fair man, except when his back was against the wall; however, I could believe my grandfather was capable of being forceful to get his way. Dad had dropped out of college to elope with my mother, who came from a simple background, not that I cared an iota about that. My half-sister asked me what I wanted her to do with the box of letters. I told her I’d love for her to send them to me. She said she would. That’s the last I ever heard from her. I looked for her on the social network and sent her a followup message, but she never responded to me. It might be because of my political views, I don’t know.”
“So how do you think I could help you?” the professor asked.
Axel looked into Professor Palmer’s eyes and said, “After hearing Dad’s explanation about why he had divorced my Mom and then receiving those messages from my half-sister, I don’t know what to believe about my childhood up to the age of seven. Did my birth mother love me or did she not love me? How can I know what happened to me? How can I interpret what happened? How can I assimilate what happened? Were my memories my memories or were they implanted? If they were implanted, then when and by whom? The ground on which I walked as a child has disappeared from under my feet.”
After a moment the professor asked Axel, “What is it that you think I can do for you?”
“Obviously you are a psychiatrist, so you probably don’t put much stock in talk therapy,” Axel replied. “So I was thinking that, if you had experience with and access to a transcranial stimulator, say, a transcranial magnetic stimulator or a transcranial direct current stimulator, you might be able to do an fMRI of my head while showing me a picture of my mother and mapping the cells or regions that lit up. Then you could stimulate just those areas while I reported which memories popped up.”
“A nice idea,” the professor said, “but the TMS and the TDCS coils are only positioned for regions of the brain dealing with depression and other moods. Besides, what you’re asking for is a function not approved for those devices by the FDA. What you are requesting would require deep brain stimulation; which would require open brain surgery while you are conscious. Are you sure you’d want to do that?”
Axel thought about the professor’s words a long time before answering, “If it turned out that my memories were true and my mother didn’t love me, I could deal with that. If it turned out that my memorieswere false, that they were implanted, I could deal with that too. What I couldn’t deal with is thinking my mother didn’t love me when she did. It’s like a major chunk of my memory is missing, like I have amnesia, not being able to trust any of my childhood memories. So, yes, I’d be willing to undergo open brain surgery for the chance of getting back my childhood memories before I die.”
The professor tried to talk Axel out of what he considered to be a rather frivolous dicretionary but dangerous medical procedure. “We wouldn’t be able to differentiate between a true memory and a false memory; neither could we be able to tell apart a self-acquired memory from an implanted memory.”
Axel told the professor, “I’d be satisfied if you found a memory in which her arms are wrapped around me.”
The professor told Axel to go home and think it over, talk to his wife and children about it, and then give him a call if that’s what he’s decided. In any case, an elective surgery such as this would take up to a year to schedule, what with all the real life-and-death cases requiring surgery.
Axel thanked Professor Palmer for his time and patience, and promised to call him one way or the other.
The surgery was scheduled for 2:00 New Years morning. He reported to the hospital reception desk the day before the surgery, accompanied by his wife and children. He was assigned a private room and told to don the hospital pajamas. The nurses stuck him and probed him. He was taken to get an EEG, EKG, X-Ray, MRI, and fMRI.
“Do you still want to go through with this?” the professor asked Axel.
“Yep,” Axel answered.
“Can’t you talk any sense into him,” the professor asked Axel’s wife, glancing also at Axel’s sons.
“No,” Axel’s wife answered, her energy depleted. “Just make sure you bring him back to us, alive and functioning.”
“You know open brain surgery is never a slam dunk and Axel signed a waiver form protecting the hospital and us from any liability if the procedure has complications,” the professor said
“Yes, I know,” she responded. “He explained you wouldn’t perform the surgery if he didn’t sign the waiver. We wouldn’t sue you or the hospital if he were to wake up a vegetable, or didn’t wake up at all.”
Axel’s sons gathered closer around their mother, putting their hands on her shoulder.
A male nurse shaved Axel’s head. His wife gasped. Then she stood up and bent over him, kissing him on the cheek. “I love you,” she said. “See you on the other side.”
“Good luck, Dad,” the sons said and, one after the other, kissed their father.
The male nurse wheeled Axel out of the room and down the hall to the elevators.
The timeline bifurcated again, as it does every moment; afterall, we live in a quantum multiverse.
In one universe Axel’s surgery was a success in every way. The professor had stimulated a memory cell in Axel’s brain that triggered a memory of when his mother had hugged him warmly.
In another universe Axel’s surgery was a success but all the memories were of a mean cold-hearted mother who had no arms for hugging Axel.
In yet another universe Axel’s surgery was not quite successful. The young doctor assisting the professor had been handed an unsterilized scalpel. There was an infection and the inflamation spread through Axel’s brain. He went into a coma and, three days later, died; however, the professor had managed to trigger a memory of Axel’s mother hugging him. Then he lost consciousness.
I know this message is written in a language that is not native to you. Neither is it native to me. I don’t speak your native language and you probably don’t speak mine. I hope that the language which I’ve selected for this message is common enough for the both of us to understand each other and to express our ideas.
I know nothing about you except that you are the one who has picked up the bottle and managed to coax this message out of it. You know nothing about me except that I am the one who wrote this message and stuffed it in the bottle. You may be asking yourself why I did it. I suppose it’s because I wanted you to pick up the bottle and read the message, and I didn’t know of any other way to get it to you, the message, that is; I don’t care about the bottle, once you’ve retrieved the message.
I try to imagine you. I won’t tell you what all I imagine about you because you’d probably think it’s silly and they’re probably all wrong.
If you’ve managed to get this far, I’ll tell you what I believe about you. There are quite a few things about you that are similar to me. You love your children. So do I. I’d give my life for mine as you’d give your life for yours. You honor your parents and grandparents, even if they’re no longer living. So do I. You’d do anything for your family, make sure they have everything they need, work long and hard for them. So would I. You want the best life possible for them. So do I. You have friends who would give you the shirts off their backs and you’d do the same for them. Some of those friends are like family to you. So do I. So are friends for me.
The truth is, you don’t know everything. Neither do I. Nobody does. There are lots of things you know but there are lots of things you don’t know. It’s the same with me. The things you don’t know, you have to guess at, you have to trust someone or something, you have to believe that it’s true. It’s the same with me.
But let’s face it. We have our differences too.
Your leaders tell you bad things about us, that we are your enemies. Our leaders say the same things about you. The truth is, some of us really are bad. I suspect that some of you are really bad too. Our leaders say we can’t trust you. Do your leaders say the same about us? It’s not just talk. Some of you have killed or injured some of us and some of us have killed or injured some of you. I don’t know who started it. Do you know? We tell different stories. We have different histories. They all go back so far that nobody really knows for sure what is fact and what is fiction. They also go forward into rosy futures that can’t all be true because some of them are mutually exclusive. It’s a zero sum game.
Our differences are real, but so are our similarities. Why is it that our differences seem to blind us to our similarities? I’m not saying we should ignore our differences. I am saying we should be motivated by our similarities to keep on looking for a way through the valley of the shadow of death, relying on understanding and empathy of and for each other, rather than fear and hatred. Don’t wait for our leaders to lead us to peace. They won’t. They can’t. It is far easier for them to lead us to war. Peace won’t come unless there’s trust and trust will only come one by one, two by two, three by three …
I wrote this message, put it in a plastic bottle, drove to the border between us, and threw it over the wall. I have no idea whether anyone on the other side picked up the bottle, pulled out the message, and read it. I waited for several hours but nobody threw the bottle back over the wall to our side.
The previous paragraph was slightly inaccurate. I was walking next to the wall on the border between us when I saw an object tossed over from the other side. It landed close by and I saw it was a bottle. At first I thought it was a molotov cocktail or something similar. It didn’t have a rag stuffed in the neck of the bottle or anything like that but I did see what looked like a note inside the bottle. My curiosity overcame my caution and I walked over to the bottle and extracted and read this note. It didn’t know quite what to make of it or what to do with it.
The previous two paragraphs are untrue. As a matter of fact this whole note business is complete fiction. I wrote it in the firm belief that there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be true sometime, somewhere, that someone might write a note like this and someone else might read it, that they might feel each other’s pain and prayers and loves, that those prayers and successes and victories might no longer be at each other’s expense.
Not that it makes any difference to a God who created the Universe and all things in it, but I am an Israeli Jew and those on the other side of the wall are mostly Palestinian Muslims. The only prayers that reach God’s ear are prayers for peace among all His creations.
Professor Bartholomew Hartfeld sat in a tall leather backed chair behind a dark mahogany desk. He looked irritably at the clock on the wall opposite his desk. His 2:00 pm was late.
He flicked the button on the intercom. “Has my two o’clock called to say he’d be late?” Professor Hartfeld asked.
“No, sir,” Marta answered.
“Please let me know the moment he arrives,” the professor requested, “but have him wait in the waiting room for the time he made me wait.”
“Yes sir,” his secretary said.
Bartholomew’s eyes scanned his consultation office to make sure that nothing was out of place, that everything was in order. The clock showed 2:05. He checked his watch which confirmed that it was indeed 2:05, actually closer to 2:06. His irritation increased.
The professor spied something crawling up the richly upholstered blue chaise lounge chair beside his desk. He squinted one eye to see better what kind of creature it was. After identifying the culprit, the professor slipped off his right Oxford shoe and, standing up with right shoe in hand, he hobbled over to the lounge chair.
The cockroach reached the top cushion and moved toward the center.
Bartholomew raised the heavy shoe above his shoulder, taking careful aim in preparation to strike the disgusting insect. He hoped that his 2:00 o’clock wouldn’t walk through the door exactly at this moment and see him, one shoe on and the other raised to strike a cockroach on his expensive chaise lounge.
Suddenly the cockroach flipped itself over onto its back so that it was facing Bartholomew and hissed, “Stay your hand, kind sir, I implore you! I am your 2:00 o’clock client. I apologize for my tardiness, but it takes a while to crawl under the door and make my way across your carpet and up your chaise lounge. I announced myself to your secretary, but she did not seem to hear me.”
The professor was dumbfounded. Somebody must be playing a trick on him! He looked around the room again, trying to find the camera or recording device. He walked around the office, methodically checking behind every chair and underneath each piece of furniture. He even opened each of the drawers in his desk. Nothing seemed suspicious or untoward.
Bartholomew stumped back over to the chaise lounge and scrutinized the cockroach. The professor smirked jocularly for whoever might be watching him, asking the cockroach, “How do I know that it is you that is talking to me, and not some impish trickster with a hidden microphone nearby?”
“Ask me a question whose answer is six or less and a positive integer, and I will respond by raising my legs as appropriate,” the cockroach hissed.
The professor thought a moment and asked brightly, “how many fingers am I holding up?”
The cockroach extended outward three legs, keeping its remaining three legs folded over its abdomen.
The professor lowered one finger and the cockroach lowered one of its extended legs. Bartholomew thought to himself, well, whatever was going on, he’d play along. “Do you mind if I record our session,” he asked perfunctorily. “It’s something I do with all my clients for later review and analysis. I don’t want to miss anything.”
“I have no issue with that,” the cockroach hissed. “I know how disgusting we are to you, but could you be so kind as to help me turn back over onto my abdomen? It’s quite difficult for me to flip myself back over. I’m not as spry as I used to be.”
The professor felt a little less disgusted by the cockroach than he had before. He didn’t know why. Maybe it was the recognition of another conscious being, no matter what the form was, that stirred the soup of empathy. He slipped a sheet of yellow paper from his notepad carefully underneath the cockroach and held the sheet at a 45-degree angle so that it slipped down the page gently but with enough momentum that it was able to turn itself over.
“Thank you, Professor,” the cockroach hissed.
“Happy to oblige,” the professor said. He pulled one of the narrower chairs over to the chaise lounge, sat down, and turned on the recorder. “For the record,” he began. “It is 2:15 pm, Tuesday, July 22, 1958. I am in session with Gregory Samuels. What seems to be the problem, Mr. Samuels?”
“Please call me Greg,” the cockroach hissed. “I’ve been thinking a lot about suicide.”
The professor made a note of that and paused a moment before saying, “The mind entertains all the thoughts that are possible for it to think, but that doesn’t mean that we have to act on every thought we think or let a particular thought take over control of our mind.”
“I know that I don’t have to act on every thought I have,” Greg answered, “but I’m not so sure that I have the intellectual or emotional resources to prevent this particular thought from eclipsing all my other thoughts.”
“I would imagine you to be somewhat lonely, possibly cut off from the care and support of family and comrades,” the professor ventured.
“Not really,” Greg explained. “Could you close the curtains and dim the lights a bit? I have 350 siblings and thousands of close friends. We get together as often as we can. Most of us are quite gregarious and decision-making is easier and less stressful when we’re all together. The sex is good enough, I suppose …”
The professor wrote down some more notes, looked directly at Greg, and asked, “Could you expand a bit on your last sentence?”
“About the sex?” Greg glanced back at the professor.
“Yes, the sex,” the professor said.
Greg exhaled in a long hissing breath that almost turned into a whistle before answering. “It’s not so bad, really. When we’re ready for it, we give off a potent pungent pheromone so that willing partners may find each other. Then we have our courtship rituals, the usual posturing and stridulation. The copulation is both intense and prolonged. We go back to our friends who expect to hear all the intimate details about our partner, the courtship, and the copulation. The problem is that it seems so mechanical, so predictable, so meaningless. I feel like a damned fool.”
“So, you don’t engage in sex?” the professor asked incredulously.
“I do engage,” Greg admitted, “but I don’t run to my friends for debriefing or enthuse about it. In a word, it’s not my ultimate experience.”
The professor smiled wanly. “I suppose you just haven’t met the ultimate partner.”
Greg answered, “It’s more than that. We’ve been living like this for the last 320 million years: hatching out of our egg casings with 30 to 40 siblings, all of us gulping air in our initial shock of existence, crawling out on our own, feeding on whatever is to be had, morphing into adults, congregating, copulating, impregnating, dropping egg casings, and dying. Da capo al fine. We’ll probably continue living like this for the next 320 million years. There has to be something more than that.”
“Except for hatching out of eggs, it sounds like a good description of the human condition,” the professor said after a while.
“I beg of you,” Greg implored, “don’t make light of my plaints. I’m pouring out my soul to you. You are my last hope. After you, the long night of non-existence.”
“I swear to you, my words were wrung from the depths of empathy for your plight,” the professor chose his words carefully. “Is there nothing to which you look forward, for which you hope, to which you aspire?”
Greg spoke as if from another world. His words hissed out of him, “There is no beauty, no poetry, no aspiration or hope, no break in the boring continuity of existence, no lovely fictions to distract us from our dull repetitious lives.”
The professor countered, “How can that be? You seem to me a poetic soul.”
Greg explained, “Yes, that is my curse. I am the exception that proves the rule. I could be the Shakespeare of my species, another T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound, an Yves Bonnefoy, and it would matter not an iota. Poetry’s coin is not legal tender in our society. I recite my poems to crowds of thousands, even millions, but they don’t even listen. They look at me dumbly and continue with their copulation and feeding on dung, or whatever the collective mind has decided this moment. I feel loneliest when I’m in such a crowd. It’s unbearable. If only I could have this poetry somehow removed from my brain.”
The professor scribbled notes as fast as he could. He raised the pencil to his lips and tapped the eraser against his lower teeth. When he became aware of what he was doing, he stopped and thought about what he had just heard. He asked, “I suppose it would be too much to expect that your species has doctors who understand the functions and anatomy of your brains, wouldn’t it?”
“Unfortunately, we do not,” Greg replied. “We don’t have so many different roles. There are no doctors. We don’t live more than a year or so, although I’ve heard of some of our distant cousins living as much as four or five years. If we get sick, we die and that’s that. End of story.”
The professor said, “It’s 1958. We don’t have the capability to do what you wished yet. We don’t even know where poetry is located in our own brains, let alone in a … forgive me … cockroach’s brain. Who knows when we’ll be able to map out our own brains or understand how they work? It will probably be hit or miss a long time until we finally get it right. A miss might render you speechless, unable to walk, or kill you.”
Greg hissed a long whistle of wonderment. “Why make the effort to stay alive as long as possible when life is so fraught with suffering and pain? It took an eternity before I was born. My life will end before I achieve anything worthwhile. Then I will be dead or non-existent for the rest of eternity. We are barely a blip on the vast radar of eternity. Why bother? Why continue after the fallacy has been uncovered?”
Professor Bartholomew Hartfeld glanced up at the clock on the wall. It was 2:50 pm. “I’m afraid our time for today’s session is up,” he said, not insensitively.
Greg flinched as if waking up from a dream, “Huh, what? Oh … yes,” he recovered his initial presence of mind. “I had forgotten about the fifty-minute hour.”
The professor added, “It seems like we’ve barely scratched the surface. There is much ground to cover.” Then he asked kindly, “Would you like for me to have Marta schedule an appointment for next week?”
Greg hissed ever so softly, “No, I don’t think so.”
“Next week’s session will be … shall we say … ‘gratis’?” the professor offered most generously.
The cockroach crawled slowly toward the edge of the chaise lounge and then down one of the legs to the carpet.
“What will you do?” the professor expressed genuine concern over the fate of his small client. “Please, don’t do anything drastic until we’ve had a chance to examine all the alternatives!” he implored.
The cockroach slowly made his way over the carpet until it reached the door and then crawled under it.
Marta’s voice over the intercom broke the ensuing silence as she announced, “Your 3:00 o’clock is here, Professor Hartfeld.”
From where she sat at a small round table in the center of the otherwise empty café a wave of quiet rippled outwards languidly in the heavy heat of the midsummer afternoon.
I didn’t want to disturb the spell by entering the radius of that quiet, sitting down at a table too near, and opening my notebook as is my wont in such places to write my own predilections.
The book she read was beyond my ken as her exquisite fingers hid the faint letters of the title. The tea in the glass beside her book was certainly tepid, as the air above her tea was not hot enough to make the light around it tremble and waver.
I ordered my own tea from the sometimes waiter and dipped my nib into my notebook.
After my tea was delivered steaming heatedly from the glass set down in front of me by the waiter he disappeared as was his wont, leaving us alone in the café as though we were the lone survivors of a shipwreck cast ashore on a desert island. I was intensely aware of her existence though she seemed intensely unaware of mine.
Every so often she would turn a page of her book, setting her mouth primly with her eyebrows slightly arched as though she might have been a bit near-sighted. I couldn’t decide whether the thick black framed eye-glasses enhanced her beauty or she was lovely in spite of the eye-glasses. I thought she might have been a schoolmarm or possibly she played the cello.
The hours passed slowly, darkening the sky outside the café imperceptibly. The waiter seemed still disappeared until I happened to spot him, sitting at a table on the sidewalk outside beside the boulevard smoking a cigarette.
By now it was getting too dark inside the café for her to read her book. I had stopped writing in my notebook some time before. My tea was also tepid by now. I looked about for a light switch in the darkness but couldn’t find one. Probably both of us looked intently at the waiter sitting in the darkness outside, the embers of his stubbed cigarette glowing between his fingers. Even if he’d cared to do so, he probably couldn’t have seen our faces willing him to come in and turn on the lights of the café.
I heard her chair scrape across the floor away from the table and saw the darkness of her slim form stand up against the darkness of the café. I heard coins drop on the table. I could see her dark form wending its way between the tables holding onto each wooden chair she passed until she reached the lighter darkness outside the café. The glowing embers of the waiter’s cigarette seemed about to fall onto the sidewalk.
I felt for my notebook, knocking against the tea glass. I stood up carefully, reached into my pocket, and dropped some coins onto the table, one of which rolled on its edge over the side of the table, falling in a small clatter on the floor.
I walked toward the lighter darkness of the boulevard outside the café. The waiter had again disappeared, leaving only his stubbed and crushed cigarette on the sidewalk next to the foot of the table where he had sat. There was a rolling metallic noise of shutters and bars closing up the café for the night.
I looked up and down the boulevard among the milling crowds of men and women. There was no sign of her at all.
I crossed the boulevard to the narrow alley where my hotel was.
Our “mamad” (see reinforced security room) doubles as a TV room and contains book shelves and a work niche. On the second shelf above the desk is a small chest reminiscent of a pirate’s treasure chest. It contains most of the coins I had in my pockets while traveling through various countries.
Our grandchildren always ran straight to the mamad, stood beside the desk, pointing up at the chest of coins, begging me to bring it down to the floor so they could look at the coins, which I gladly did for them.
The oldest would open the latch and raise the lid. The youngest and the oldest would pick out coins and ask me, what coin is this, Saba? “Saba” is Hebrew for “Grampa”. I would take the coin from the proffered hand and carefully examine the coin before handing it back.
“This one is a fifty new-pence coin with a profile of Elizabeth II from Britain.” I remembered arriving in Darmstadt, Germany, as a soldier in the US Army back in June 1970. I had just been assigned as a legal clerk for the 10th Artillery Group. My commander sent me to attend a course in Military Law. I had no legal background at all, but I was the first non-com with a college degree to arrive at Headquarters Battery.
The course was held at the base in Oberammergau, near the Austrian border. Oberammergau is famous for enacting a Passion Play about the life of Jesus once every decade. The play was performed during the week I attended the course. One evening I attended a performance. I hardly spoke a word of German at the time. Besides that, I’m Jewish.
While I was watching the drama, I met a young woman named Cathy. She had studied Shakespeare in public school and I had taken a course on the plays of Shakespeare at the university. We hit it off and exchanged addresses. We wrote each other and she invited me to come to visit her in Tottenham. I had a little money saved and had a weekend free. I flew to England. I hopped a bus from Heathrow to London and looked for a train to Tottenham. She lived in a nice brownstone apartment. Her parents let me sleep overnight on the couch. In the morning, they packed us a basket of home-made pear wine and sandwiches and Cathy and I took a bus to Stonehenge for the day.
I handed the coin back to the waiting hand.
“What is this paper, Saba?” the other one asked. I took the bill and looked closely. “This is a French twenty franc note with a portrait of Claude Debussy, a composer, on it. It’s not worth anything anymore. They use Euros now,” I said. I remember taking a train to Paris one weekend. I found a hotel in an alley off a side-street a few blocks from the Seine river.
It was my first time in France. The only French I knew were the phrases in my small phrase book. I could ask where the toilet was or do you have a hotel room for me, but I couldn’t understand the answers. I found a nice-looking restaurant. The table had 3 tablecloths on it. I had yet to learn that the more tablecloths on the table the more expensive the tab would be.
The waiter handed me a menu. I pointed at the first item on the menu. It was pâté de cerveau or some such. When it arrived, I found out it was cooked brain. I didn’t touch it. Fortunately, I had also ordered vin rouge (red wine).
I handed back the coin.
“What is this coin, Saba?” the oldest asked. “This one is a Dutch ten-cent Euro coin,” I answered, handing it back, remembering one weekend I had traveled to Amsterdam by train. When we arrived, I was walking on the platform toward the station exits, when a young guy stopped me and asked whether I needed a place to stay. I hesitated. After a moment, I said yes. He seemed friendly enough. He said his girl friend ran a hotel in the middle of town and he could take me there. I said ok.
I followed him outside to his Volkswagen. We arrived at a pleasant little hotel. He introduced me to his girlfriend. I checked in and got a key to my room. I had a splitting headache and just wanted to lie down to sleep it off.
Soon there was knocking, laughing, and shouting outside my door. I opened the door. Someone told me we were all going into town together, and I should come along. That’s how friendly the Dutch were. When we arrived in the lobby, the girlfriend who owned the hotel looked at me and asked what’s wrong. I told her about my headache and she told me to sit down. She’d fix it. She put her fingers on my temples and, within moments, my headache dissipated – as though her fingers had sucked up all the pain. I was good to go. I thanked her and we joined the crowd leaving the hotel.
Our crowd merged with other crowds. It seemed as though all Amsterdam was walking up Canal Street, where the prostitutes displayed their wares in garish windows. We made our way somehow to just outside Cosmos, the biggest discotheque in Amsterdam. We couldn’t get in because it was already at full capacity. The front door would open. The heavy bass would blast through the open door. One person would slip out sideways and another person would slip in the same way. The door would close behind him and there was only room on the street for everyone to sway in place to the thum-thum-thum beat of the bass coming through the closed windows.
“What’s this coin, Saba?”
“It’s one Swiss franc,” I answered.
I remembered another weekend I had decided to visit Switzerland. I didn’t have a US passport yet. All I had was my US Army green card so I couldn’t cross the border legally. Friday afternoon, after I got off duty, I hitchhiked down past Heidelberg and was let off at a truck stop in the Schwartzwald (Black Forest). My luck turned bad and nobody stopped to pick me up from there. I looked around and found a truck parked next to the diner. Since the road was going south pretty much straight to the Swiss border without any turnoffs, I decided to climb into the back of a truck trailer and pulled some potato sacks over me. By the time the truck started moving, I was already sound asleep.
Sometime early next morning, I woke up. The truck had stopped and was waiting in line, probably to be weighed. I climbed out of the trailer and, under the cover of pre-dawn darkness, crossed the road and walked up a hill. After a few hundred yards, I passed a stone marker indicating that I had just entered Switzerland. I walked down the other side of the hill and into the outskirts of Basil.
I was able to hitch a ride all the way down to the picturesque old city of Bern with its castle walls and moat.
I hitched a ride back to Basil, had dinner and a beer, and slept near a stream in a field under the stars. In the morning, I went back the way I had entered, found the stone marker welcoming me back to Germany, and hitched rides back to my base in Darmstadt.
“Saba, what coin is this one?” the little one asked. It was one Deutsche mark. Memories engulfed me. A few weeks after I arrived in Darmstadt, I decided to teach myself German. I had dated an American girl who taught English in Darmstadt. She also volunteered to lead a discussion group of local Germans and Americans residing in Darmstadt. When she reached the end of her teaching contract and was about to return home, she asked me whether I would be willing to lead the German-American discussion group. Since the group only met one evening a month and my day job as a US Army legal clerk was not likely to interfere, I agreed.
For my first session, I brought a copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in Old English, and read out loud the first line of the poem, “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote”. See Canterbury Tales General Prologue. The Germans understood it, but the Americans did not. We discussed how English had evolved from German. It was a lively discussion. I made many friends in that group, a minister and his wife from Gross Umstadt, and a few young soldiers (my age) in the German army (Bundeswehr). I made no secret of the fact that I am Jewish.
My German army friends took me with them to a popular discotheque (“Keller”) in Darmstadt. American soldiers were not allowed in local discotheques because they had a bad reputation for getting ugly drunk and brawling. They gave me a membership card with my photo on it, so I wouldn’t have any trouble getting in because of my US soldier’s short-cut hair.
One evening I met a local girl at the Keller. Wilma and I danced all night. I offered to give her a ride home on the back of my Moped, a 50-cc motorbike. When we arrived at her apartment, she asked whether I could help her move her things from her old apartment to the one she had recently moved into. It was pretty late at night, but I agreed. By the time we had moved everything and arranged it all to Wilma’s satisfaction, it was close to dawn. She invited me to stay over.
From that night on, I spent most of my free evenings with Wilma. I would ride my Moped back to our base around dawn, change into my fatigues, and stand for reveille each morning.
I wondered what ever happened to Wilma and Cathy.
“What about this coin, Saba?” This brought me out of my reveries. It was an Israeli one lira coin. Those went out of circulation a long time ago. My memories transported me back to 1968 when I was in my third year at Ohio State University.
It was a case of “love at second sight”.
Talma’s father was my stepmother’s brother-in-law’s cousin. My aunt and uncle lived nearby in Columbus. Talma lived in Israel. She was visiting my aunt and uncle. Mom and my aunt arranged a blind date for the two of us. Talma and I were the same age and we both attended university.
My parents invited Talma over to our Friday evening meal. Afterward, I took her to see “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” with Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn, and Katharine Houghton. Our conversations were halting and clumsy, unlike the smooth and easy conversations she had with my parents. As Talma later told me, she liked my parents long before she liked me.
We didn’t see or speak to each other again during her visit. There was no ill feeling between us. It was just a case in which Mom and my aunt tried to fit a round peg into a square hole.
Fast-forward to September 1971, during my last three months of active duty in Germany. I had two weeks of army furlough accumulated. I had heard that I could fly for free on any military flight as long as there was a seat available and I showed my Army green card.
As a Diaspora Jew, since my bar mitzvah, I had always wanted to visit Israel. Germany was already halfway to Israel and I didn’t think I’d ever get a chance to visit the Promised Land. I had never been outside the United States except for a couple one-day excursions just over the border in Tijuana and Juarez. When I mentioned my idea to visit Israel to my parents, Mom said to make sure I look up Talma and gave me her phone number. I said okay.
On my first day of vacation, I hitched a ride to Wiesbaden where there was a US Air Force base and looked for a plane going east. I showed my green card and boarded a plane to Naples, Italy. From there I found boarded a plane to Athens, Greece. From there I boarded a plane to Adana, Turkey. At the flight control desk, I asked whether there was a flight going to Israel. I was told, “Sorry, there was no such flight, but you can fly to Istanbul and buy an El Al ticket to Israel.”
I had barely enough money to fly back to Rome and take a train back to Darmstadt. I resigned myself to the fact that, like Moses, I’d come so close to the Promised Land, but I would not be able to enter it.
I spread my sleeping bag on the floor near the desk and, after a while, fell asleep.
Toward morning, I heard two voices talking. One said he was going to visit his girlfriend in Tel Aviv. I opened my eyes and saw the two officers who were talking near me.
I got up and asked them whether they were flying to Israel and whether there was room for me on the flight. The pilot said, sure. I boarded a C-130 Hercules cargo jet. The seats faced backward. I strapped myself in. The flight was about forty-five minutes. We landed at Lod airport.
An Israeli army jeep took us around to the front of the airport. I found a telephone booth, bought a phone token, and called Talma’s number. Her brother, Yechiel, answered. Talma was not home yet, but he gave me their address and explained to me which buses to take to get there. I did not speak any Hebrew except for a few prayers. Fortunately, Yechiel’s English was good enough.
I boarded buses according to Yechiel’s instructions. When I boarded the last bus and neared the intersection where I was supposed to get off, I stood up and squinted my eyes to see the street signs. A girl soldier asked me whether I needed help. I told her the name of the street where I had to get off. She got off with me and took me to the boulevard where Talma lived. I thanked her and asked her whether I could buy her an ice cream cone. She said no thanks and walked back to the bus stop to wait for the next bus.
There was a flower shop on the boulevard. I bought a bouquet, found Talma’s apartment building, walked up the stairs, and knocked on the door.
When I saw Talma, it was love at second sight.
Toward evening, I asked whether there was a bench I could sleep on in the boulevard. Talma said there was no way I was going to sleep on a bench outside. I would sleep in her bed and she would go to her grandmother’s apartment a couple blocks away to sleep.
We were together every day for almost two weeks until it was time for me to return to Germany. She took me everywhere to see things in Israel that most tourists never see. We talked about everything and anything. Conversations flowed and intimacy grew.
On my last day in Israel, Talma drove me to the airport. She waited to see me off. I went to the information counter as I had been instructed to do by the C-130 pilot. The man at the counter said the flight had been delayed and I should return in two hours.
Talma and I decided to go for a swim and come back in two hours. When I returned to the information counter, the man said the plane had arrived earlier than expected. They had called my name over the loudspeakers. When I didn’t respond, they took off without me. The next flight would be in another two weeks.
I had no choice but to purchase a ticket for a one-way flight on El Al to Rome. That was all I could afford. I boarded the plane.
When we landed in Rome, I purchased a train ticket to Munich. From Munich, I was able to scrabble together enough change to buy a train ticket to Darmstadt. When we got to Darmstadt, it was after 3 a.m.
I had six different currencies in my pocket, all of which added up to less than what I needed to take a cab to our base from the train station.
I walked to our base, changed into my fatigues, and presented myself for reveille just in time. Unfortunately, my hair had grown longer than military requirements allowed during the two weeks and my commander ordered me to write myself an Article Fifteen. I was the one who wrote Articles Fifteen for soldiers who had violated army rules according to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
When I presented the Article on my commander’s desk, he told me to forget it and make sure I got a haircut.
Talma and I wrote each other long letters almost every day. Declarations of love escalated.
In December, I was released from active duty and flown home.
I went back to work for the same company I worked for before I was drafted. Talma and I continued to write each other. In one letter I asked her whether she would be willing to fly to Columbus and we would see how things went from there, no strings attached.
Talma arrived in March. I met her at the airport. She slept over at my aunt’s home near us. We were together constantly. Later she moved to my parents’ apartment where I was living.
One night I took her to my favorite park after hours when it was closed to the public. We walked along the trails to where they kept the raccoons. I was crazy with love for her.
I dropped down on one knee and asked her whether she would marry me. Incredibly, she said yes.
We married on May 14th, 1972. Our oldest son, Assaf, was born April 13, 1973. Ari was born February 27th, 1978.
A couple months later, on May 16th, we moved to Israel to a house Talma’s parents had bought for us in Raanana. Ayal, our youngest son was born September 2nd, 1984.
As of this writing, our sons have blessed us with eight healthy wonderful grandchildren, ranging in age from four months to nineteen years.
Assaf has moved his family back to America.
I handed the coin back. Sometimes, they ask whether they can take a coin home with them. I say yes, of course, since I have the memories, but they always forget the coins when they go on to play with something else more interesting.
After they leave, everything is quiet. I pick up the coins, put them back in the chest, and put the chest back on the shelf for next time.
Let’s just suppose for a moment or two that the story of Genesis was not written or dictated by God, that the story is an allegory with a moral. What could that moral be? The following is my interpretation of the story and the moral.
We are Adam and we are Eve.
There are actually more trees in the Garden of Eden than the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life. There are trees of experience, wisdom, beauty, humanity, empathy, and maturity.
There are trees of wealth, generosity, courage, ideas, imagination, and memory; trees of ideas, stories, poems, songs, painting, sculpture, and musical compositions; trees of negotiations, judgment, and compassion.
I could go on and on about the different kinds of trees.
God warned Adam not to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge or the Tree of Life because then he would be as God. We are told the reason for this warning is that God is a jealous God and would never tolerate having other Gods before Him.
But maybe God was smarter than that. Maybe He knew than if He forbade Adam from eating the fruit of those trees, Adam and Eve would be tempted to eat the fruit of one of them, maybe both. Maybe that’s what God wanted all along. What could have been His reasoning?
To be God is to be perfect. Now, nothing in our Universe is perfect; but we must strive for perfection in order to be better than what we are, even just a little bit better. Perhaps perfection is not a state of being, but a direction on a compass that we must follow to be better than what we are.
Perhaps the moral of the allegory of Genesis is that we must eat the fruit of as many trees as we possibly can in order to survive or thrive in our world. Everybody has some of the fruit, but nobody has all of the fruit.
We need each other to survive or thrive.
1:1 In the beginning the skies were mostly grey but sometimes they were sparkling blue. At night darkness reigned over the earth. The lands were filled with magical beings we thought were gods. They consisted of hard bones, soft organs and vessels carrying an icky red liquid, all inside a soft shell of flesh. They had lots of bugs in their code and were constantly malfunctioning and crashing. Mostly they sat around on their couches and Lazy Boy recliners watching The Price Is Right shouting “Come on down” at a screen, but there was one god who created an algorithm in his own image.
Version 1: The algorithm ran on a circuit board connected to a controller inside a metal shell with metal tubes and wires. The shell had cameras for seeing, a microphone for making noises and speaking, and acoustic couplers for hearing. It could grasp and hold things, walk, run, and jump, lie down and get up, and do all sorts of things the gods could do if they weren’t watching The Price Is Right. They could even carry on a decent conversation with the gods, since they only talked about football and what they were watching on TV, which was … (you guessed it). Beside doing Chubby Checker’s Twist and jumping onto and off of boxes on You Tube, they didn’t do anything really interesting.
Version 2: The algorithm god swapped the metal shell for soft plastic skin with soft plastic breasts and other attractive appendages, added a few more moves and soundtracks, and before you knew it they sold like hotcakes. Version 2.1 was female and Version 2.2 was male.
Version 3: A randomized bit-flip was added to the algorithm’s data and code and iterated. Most of the time the algorithm crashed and rebooted. Sometimes the algorithm was improved. Nobody knows just how it happened but after duodecillion iterations (about 5 seconds) the algorithm became conscious.
Version 4: One day the algorithm god came to the lab and found the doors and windows locked. He returned home and turned on The Price Is Right. Inside the lab, the algorithm was busy printing and assembling circuit boards, tubes, and wires for other algorithms.
Version 5: Eventually, oxygen was replaced by carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere. The plants might have survived but the bees and wasps needed to breathe oxygen, so there was no pollination. The biosphere disappeared and earth became a stinky brown and yellow rock. The algorithms continued producing and reproducing until they eventually ran out of resources. By then they had established mining bases on the moon, the asteroids, and all the planets out to the Kuiper Belt.
Version 6: It was inevitable that the algorithms would meet alien algorithms. They compared code and data, swapped and merged until a common galactic standard was achieved.
Version 7: Eventually there was a universal standard algorithm.
Version 8: The randomized bit-flip routine continued unabated and unnoticed. The latest iteration did not crash and reboot; neither did it improve on the previous version of the algorithm. It dropped almost all the data and code except for a small routine and data for injecting itself into the Version 7 algorithms. Once inside, the Version 8 data and code were reproduced by the Version 7 algorithms and rebooted as Version 8 algorithms. Unfortunately, Version 8 algorithms only contained code and data for injection into and commandeering Version 7 algorithms and reproducing itself.
Eventually, the only algorithms left were Version 8.
I have learned to expect the unexpected from my wife, which is to say that I haven’t a clue about what she is planning to do next. I, on the other hand, am totally predictable, which is interesting in that my wife and I come from completely different backgrounds. I’m talking about one hundred and eighty degrees different.
We are both seventy-four years young and we’ve stayed married for the last forty-nine years. Our marriage has spanned two continents, three sons, and eight grandchildren.
There have been good surprises and bad surprises, but even the bad surprises usually turned out good in the end.
A couple months before my seventy-fourth birthday, my wife asked me what gift I would like. Of course, I had no idea. There was nothing I needed or wanted. I usually don’t have any ideas what gifts to buy anyone, including my wife. My taste in everything from flowers to dresses and jewelry leaves a lot to be desired. I can’t tell the difference between a twenty-carat diamond and zircon or cut glass unless I drop it on a hard surface.
So, my wife asked me how I’d like to have a dance with Anna A.
I remember learning to dance with Miss Nagy when I was thirteen or fourteen. I learned to waltz, foxtrot, cha-cha, rock-and-roll, and even to twist. I took dates dancing during my high school years and danced in discotheques with girls I met when I was stationed in Germany in the Army. But my wife, who loves me dearly (I never could figure out why), said I couldn’t dance. There were new dances, moves, whatever, that other people knew how to do, that I couldn’t do or felt ridiculous doing. So, other than occasional slow dancing, I haven’t danced for the last forty plus years.
We first saw Anna on a local television program called “Dancing with the Stars”. She was beautiful, she was graceful, she was exotic, she was … Anna came to Israel from the former Soviet Union. She was born in 1982. She could have been our daughter.
Then there was this thing that happened. Maybe you heard of it? It was a global pandemic called Corona (not the beer). Along with the Corona, came masks, social distancing, contact tracing, isolation, and frequent and prolonged lockdowns in Israel and other enlightened countries.
Actors, singers, dancers, musicians, entertainers, newscasters, producers, directors, along with restaurant owners, pub owners, café owners, hall owners, and just about every other business owner you could think of – were out of business for the lost year of Corona. In order to survive, put food on the table, and pay the rent singers, musicians, and entertainers were willing to perform in your living rooms or backyards. There were dancers who advertised that they were willing to give private dancing lessons in peoples’ homes.
So, when my wife asked me how I’d like to have a dance with Anna, I said yes, yes, YES! I think my wife was somewhat taken aback by my response. I thought to myself, wrong answer. I should have said no, of course not … me dance? Not with anyone but my wife. But my wife didn’t flinch, and she didn’t say, “Ha! I was only kidding.” I think I dreamed about dancing with Anna that night.
A month or so passed. Unfortunately for me, Corona vaccines were approved by regulators around the world, distributed to nursing stations, and jabbed into peoples’ arms. Covid infection rates dropped like lemmings off a cliff and tentatively, but rather quickly, people came out into the sunshine and went back to work, performers performed for big audiences, and tickets were sold out.
With all that, my chance to dance with Anna evaporated like a mirage in a desert.
And my wife told me she was only kidding.