The fatigue and failings of the protagonist in this month’s story reveal author Boaz Izraeli’s exacting eye for the details of contemporary Israeli society. One of the pleasures of reading today’s Hebrew literature is the discovery that an earthy, profound sense of place grounds the fiction of many of the best young writers. Perhaps this emphasis on stubborn materiality is to be expected coming from a nation so engaged in bitter disputes over territory. But in Izraeli’s short story the conflict is not over land. In fact, here Arab and Jewish Israelis live in tense mutual dependence, working together for dubious ends.
- Adam Rovner, Translations Editor
He's forty shekels short. A long, yellow car stands in the right lane of the freeway to Jerusalem, stuck in a traffic jam whose frozen flow faces east. The light of sunset begins to break through broad clouds floating high above the vehicles, lending volume, and softness, to Amir's sense of oppression. Forty shekels worth of oppression. It's not so hot but he can feel a wetness gradually developing in his armpits and on his upper lip. The car's air vents emit lukewarm air that smells faintly of motor oil, nothing enters through the open window. The cars move at the slow pace of the sun setting behind the Beit Dagan interchange.
But now a sign appears before him, signaling the exit lane to Ramle and beyond. Relieved, he parts with his traffic jam neighbors and turns to the right, where he is immediately invited to shift to third gear, and shortly after, with a feeling of tense release, to fourth. Now a hot wind blows in, and he inhales deeply, filling his chest, stretching his neck toward it.
The road bends a bit, rises with a winding momentum and then merges into a narrow byway that has become run-down and invariably inspires in him a slight and unpleasant thrill. This time there is, in addition, this oppressiveness; it's the first time he's going there without the full amount. Those missing forty shekels could definitely foil his burning desire to already be headed back in the opposite direction, on his way home, with his bag in his hand, the one with his name written on it.
Dump trucks maneuver heavily along the roadside. A tall surveyor stands with his legs apart, leaning and putting his face to the eyepiece of the small instrument at the head of the tripod. They're adding another lane here, for whoever may need it, including types like Amir. A signpost says: Roadwork will be completed in six months. Amir thinks: Will he still be here, when the new route is launched? Will he still be going down this road, in a back-and-forth cycle like sleep and waking, falling and rising, winter and summer.
He sighs in reply. Forty shekels. It's always a slow drive here. He passes the moshav houses beside the road, sees people sitting in their yards, talking, watering their gardens, collecting the fruit that has fallen from their fruit trees, living their clean, sweet lives. His gaze goes back to the road and he swallows his sourness and eats his heart out at the sight of those village homes and their inhabitants playing outside with their kids. Because they’re there and he’s here, worlds in parallel, his troubles and their troubles.
He goes on down the road, the steaming moshav ripens behind him, cows and people exude vapors, and in front of him are plowed fields. Beyond the fields several large factories spread out, seemingly abandoned at this twilight hour and surrounded by fences lined with pairs of guard dog kennels. He can't see the dogs, he can only hear their barking, forlorn like voices from the grave, evaporating beneath the din of the cars rising from the freeway.
The last part of the journey begins just after the industrial area, a turn on to a dirt road full of potholes and bumps. He slows, surveys his surroundings, peers in the rear-view mirror. All quiet.
When the group of little old houses at the edge of a partly decaying orchard appears before him, the tension in Amir's chest sharpens again, although no threat can be detected. His yellow Ford cruises slowly between the houses, which are different from those of that sleepy moshav, since here the inhabitants are Arabs, almost all Arabs. Here they haven't paved, haven't laid sidewalks, no one’s done anything and there isn't anything. Little kids run in the street, playing, yelling at him and at each other.
He turns off the radio, a contribution to the concentration required not to run over any kids, and lights a cigarette without taking his eyes off the road. Another couple of dozen meters and the car enters a square sandy lot surrounded by citrus trees, inside of which rests an old ghost of a bus: last stop.
There's a small group of young men here, some sit on seats apparently dismantled from the bus, two of them heap together boards and branches. Their conversation ends abruptly, some of the faces grow alert, those who don't recognize Amir and his car. With icy stares they follow the car, which stops at a polite distance from the crowd. Sami, a short guy with almond eyes, waves to him with a slight smile, gets up and approaches the car.
They stand near each other, in the passage created between the car and the bus, speaking quickly and quietly. Amir describes his problem. The entire ride, he tells the guy, it nagged at him: he doesn’t have a hundred. He's forty short. That's the situation. You have to admit, he says, this never happens to me, I always bring you the full amount. He tells Sami that he has to take that into consideration, and that the next time he buys, in two days at the latest, he'll return the difference. Sami agrees that Amir is indeed for the most part a perfect customer, but explains, with an expression signaling he has no choice, that he just can't sell him a bag for only sixty shekels; the boss decides these things, it's not that he’s against it personally. If it was mine, he says, then no problem, I'd give it to you on full credit, but I'm just an employee. I don't make policy.
The guy doesn't want to go on talking; the conversation’s a familiar one. He's already heard himself say the same things in similar situations. And in any case Amir has run out of arguments, and doesn't have anything he can offer as collateral -- a gold bracelet, a valuable watch. But the possibility of returning home the way he came frightens him, it’s unthinkable. The evening, moreover, has just settled, after which the whole night awaits him, stretching out slow and wooden without the powder, the minutes will refuse to pass and will pile up densely between the walls of his room and deplete the air. Sami reads the agitation in Amir's face and after a short silence advises him to wait there quietly. Someone will come and buy, he tells him, you take him aside, offer to buy a bag together, fifty-fifty. A lot of people come here looking for a partner, he smiles, believe me, you won't have to wait more than a quarter of an hour.
Amir sits back in the car and his entire being focuses on that arbitrary estimation, fifteen minutes -- a deep pit of time with no way out. He knows you can never tell; in another minute someone might come along, a needy someone like himself, who only has, say, fifty shekels and will be overjoyed to find an investment partner; but that someone might only arrive in another three hours. And in any case, he could very well decide that Amir looks suspicious and that he'd rather wait for a partner who seems more trustworthy. Sorry, he might say to Amir, but you just don't look like a user. That could also happen.
He tries to concentrate on the radio -- people are calling the station and talking -- but it's hard for him to follow what they're saying. Nothing happens; just that same block of iron the size of a football pitch crashing down on the roof of his car, not allowing its passenger to breathe.
The despair has had no time to rise, the present caller has not yet finished talking when a white cab enters the lot, a small cloud of road grit rising behind it. From it emerges a guy with eagle-like features and close-cropped hair, walking briskly, purposefully, a bit hunched, with his money held tight in his fist. Amir gets hastily out of the car and calls to him. The guy is surprised; he stops and his expression darkens. When Amir approaches him with rapid steps he asks angrily, What is it, do you know me from somewhere? No, says Amir, I just wanted to ask if you're okay buying one together. He tries to sound both nice and desperate in proportion, so as not to provoke rejection. The guy signals "no" with a brief wag of his finger. No, it's not okay, he tosses the words back over his shoulder and keeps on walking, I don't know you and I don't need partners.
Amir backs off and returns to the car, his shoulders drooping. A very short time later, as he lights a cigarette he sees the close-cropped guy skipping along back to the cab, his fist held tight again, this time warmly nesting within it his intimate little acquisition. The cab sails away, putting an end to Amir's taxi episode. Sami looks at him with a poignant smile of compassion. Patience boy, he yells, there'll be others.
Two youths kneel by the small campfire they’ve lit and try hard to blow life into the weak flame, persuading it to pass from the small twigs to the boards. The others toss them bits of advice, snickering but without any real malice. In the orchard around them the darkness thickens, and as it thickens the light of the flames grows stronger.
Sitting silently in front of the wheel reminds his restless limbs of sitting in the traffic jam half an hour earlier. Except that now he has nowhere to go. There's no point in trying to score anywhere else in the area, there's no one out there who'll be more generous to him than Sami.
Once in a while someone from the group outside shoots a sour look in the direction of Amir, still in his car. It's clear to him that they don't like his presence there -- foreign, conspicuous, stuck, in a place where briskness and efficiency are the rule, get the stuff and clear out with no delay. He knows that if Sami weren't sitting there the others might demand that he leave. That's the only card he can play: a certain fondness that Sami apparently has for him, thanks to which, Amir believes, he might succumb in this war of attrition and finally give him a bag despite the missing forty shekels.
His body, it seems to him, is showing the beginnings of a nervous exhaustion caused by his fear of failure. A high, thin noxious sound flows from his head to his limbs, an early hint of the great noise that will develop in him in a few hours if he has to return home empty-handed. Total darkness envelops the car. He's closed in a box. The world is outside. He glumly scans the dashboard, the speedometer, the small steering wheel projecting sporty excellence, the gear shift with the transparent knob on its end.
Suddenly he has a flash of inspiration: the car. The thought of selling it to them, its suddenness, washes over him in an optimistic fever. And the thought that this time it will be he who’ll receive money instead of giving it away, as usual, seems refreshing. As for alternative means of transportation, he'll think of that later.
His body wants to get out immediately and call Sami. But first he needs to clarify the details of his offer: how much stuff to ask for it, and how much money. He recalls that one of the youths always hanging around the place asked him one of the first times he bought there whether he wanted to sell the car. After making some hasty computations he flashes his headlights, turns them on and off just once.
Sami detaches himself from the group and comes over. He listens to Amir's offer with a blank face and calls out in the direction of the campfire. His younger brother, a youth of seventeen or eighteen, joins them. The two brothers exchange a few sentences in Arabic, which Amir doesn’t understand. The youths in the improvised living-room quiet down, straining to listen; the details interest them. The younger brother, with a stern expression, asks how much. A thousand shekels and twenty bags sounds modest for a car like this one, says Amir, and Sami smiles skeptically. Amir describes with excitement the treatments the engine has received, exaggerates in describing the car’s performance. The brothers exchange another couple of quick sentences, the youth's eyes glide over the car's old curves, and Sami says: money like you said and ten bags. I won't have anything left to sell if I give you twenty, he laughs.
Now it’s Amir's turn to smile skeptically. Sorry, but I can't, he mumbles firmly. Less than fifteen is just not worth it, especially since I won't have a car to come here with. He fixes Sami with a piercing stare. Meet me halfway, he says, I'm not new around here. Again, Amir craves for all of this to be over; the pit is growing and spreading and must be filled in fast.
Sami seems to hesitate, weigh the options; as if measuring the basic morality of his conversation partner. Hold on, he whispers. The younger brother takes off in the direction of the nearest house. My brother went to get our dad, says Sami, he was a mechanic for years. When he comes we'll take it for a short ride, he'll definitely want to hear the engine, eh? If he says the engine’s okay, we'll sit down together in our house, talk it over and close the deal. Because, see, my little brother, explains Sami with a slightly embarrassed air, he fell for your car the first time he saw it. He'll take it, paint it, make it new. He's getting his license soon, in a few weeks, and then he'll already have a car ready for him, a present from our dad.
Nice present, Amir makes an effort to smile.
Sami reacts with a sober nod, says nothing, as if still wary of relishing the gift.
What do you say? Amir insists on getting an answer. Nice, isn't it?
Aywa, drawls Sami as if compelled, Yeah, nice for a kid to drive around the neighborhood in.
Right, Amir presses, And nice for going to Eilat with that engine renovation that I did, like I told you.
Sami answers with the same nod, placid and reserved.
The little brother emerges from the house with the father and they mount the dirt path and approach, the son is eager, trying to speed up, but the father is in no hurry, and they walk at his pace, in silence, the youth finding it difficult to slow his steps. Sami introduces his dad and Amir shakes his hand. The father is upright, properly moustached, his voice is thick and quiet. He looks the car over, asks Amir some questions, raises the hood and even pulls out a pocket flashlight. Finally he pronounces his judgment that the car looks okay in general, but needs to be taken for a ride.
Immediately after the father takes a seat behind the wheel, the younger son beside him, and the car moves away with sounds of crunching gravel, Amir turns to Sami with a hoarse appeal: Look, my nose is dripping already, I'm really starting to get sick. It’s not nice talking to your dad when I’m like this, he squirms, so do me a favor, give me a little before they come back.
Sami's gaze is fixed thoughtfully in the direction of the car moving off. I can't open a bag and take out any, he begins to explain, ‘Cause what am I gonna do with it after. But Amir senses that he's less resolute now. Sami hesitates, Yes, no, well why not, and Amir says with the silly and joyful smile of a dog whose wagging tail realizes before he does that the food will soon arrive, Man, I think me and your dad will close a deal. Wait, what's the hurry, Sami smirks, Nothing's final. When Amir stares at him with round eyes he concedes: Okay, for you, because you're a good guy. Wait here. Amir hears him and closes his eyes in gratitude to the world.
Sami returns speedily and like a magician, lays a plastic baggie in Amir's outstretched hand. He also says, just so there's no mistake, that if in the end they don't take the car, he’ll of course have to pay for the bag that's been opened for him. He suggests that Amir seclude himself with his purchase on the bus, and returns to the campfire.
The bus is dark. He gropes his away inside by the light of the campfire and the moon, chooses a clean seat and begins to get ready for a serious sniff. Through the pane-less window next to him he sees the backyard of the family house. It’s surrounded by a short white concrete fence. A few light bulbs hang on a thin wire strung between the pine trees, and beneath their light two women sit in long dresses. They are seated on small stools with their backs to the wall. The mother, the grandmother. Maybe that's who and what they are. Beside them are two diligent young women, peeling, chopping, talking, scolding the boy scampering around them. The scene arouses in him a vague longing for some other place. But here, the lines are already cut and ready for him. He leans forward, inhales, sits up, and almost immediately his body is filled with an amazing grace and his eyes close.
Zeek's Hebrew translations are made possible by a grant from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, supported by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency. Please direct submissions and queries to editors[at]zeek.net.
Boaz Izraeli (b. 1960) is the author of two collections of short stories and a volume of novellas. This story appeared in his recent collection, Architect [Adrichal. HaKibbutz HaMeuchad, 2004]. Izraeli is a journalist and writer who lives in Tel Aviv.
Anat Schultz (b. 1973) is a translator and editor living in Jerusalem. She holds an M.A. in Comparative Literature from the Hebrew University. Her translations of poems by Israeli poet Efrat Mishori can be found on Poetry International.