A Novel Idea

Excerpts from the yet unpublished nover Under the Sun

By Yonason Goldson

 

            The fog lifted enough for us to push off after breakfast.  By afternoon, however, we had still not found our way back onto the main channel of the Waterway.  The fog thickened again, and we dropped anchor.

            Only a stone’s throw off the port rail lay a number of houses built right on the water’s edge.  Hezzi suggested swimming to shore to ask directions or use a phone.  Frank contemplated swimming to shore to call his wife and see about buying food.  Paul considered swimming to shore to stock up on cigarettes.  None of them wanted to play cards anymore, so we all sat around the cabin schmoozing.  I was perfectly content to strum my guitar and listen to their stories.

            “What’s your real name, Hezzi?”  I asked.

            “Hezekiah,” he said.

            “Hezekiah?”

            “King of Judah,” he explained, not helping me much.  “Pronounced Chizkyahu in the original Hebrew.  I looked it up once, though I can’t imagine trying to use it.”

            “Were your parents religious?”

            “Not really.  Mother just had a passion for pretentious names.  She gave them to all her boys.  All eight of us.”

            Something clicked in my mind several levels down below consciousness.  “Where are your brothers now?”

            “I couldn’t tell you.  None of us stays pinned down anywhere for very long, and we don’t get around to writing much.  We just seem to bump into each other from time to time and keep in touch through the grapevine.”

            This was all eerily familiar.  I knew I had had this conversation not all that long ago, but I couldn’t quite find its reference.  “What do the others do?”  I asked, feeling the answer lurking just beyond the fingers of my memory.

            “You name it, they do it; we change vocations as often as we change locations.  One was a pilot, last I heard.  Another ran an international courier service, though no one’s heard from him in quite a while.  Phineas has been a hobo since his fourteenth birthday, and I doubt if he’ll ever give it up.  My twin has a jazz band in New Orleans, or at least he used to…”

            That was it, but the odds seemed unreasonably high.  “Not your identical twin,” I said, not even bothering to phrase it as a question.

            “I hope not,” Hezzi laughed.  “He’s the ugliest son of a gun to ever walk the face of G-d’s green earth.  And I’ve never met a sweeter, finer person in all my life.  I wonder what he’s up to these days.”

            “Driving an eighteen-wheeler,” I said.

            “Could be.”

            “I’m telling you.  I hitched a ride with him only a month ago.”

            “What’s his name?”  Hezzi asked, his eyes narrowing slightly.

            “He never told me,” I confessed, afraid that he wouldn’t believe me.

            “Well, that’s him all right.  He hates his name; doesn’t like to tell it to anyone.”

            “Why?  What is it?”

            “Bartholomew.”

            “Well, you can’t blame him, can you?”

            “It’s not the name per se,” Hezzi explained.  “He doesn’t like the association with St. Bartholomew, one of the apostles.  He’s sort of a spiritual freelancer, if you follow my meaning.”

            “Yeah, I sort of figured that out about him.  Why doesn’t he go by Bart?”

            “Mother didn’t like it.”  A certain awe tinted Hezzi’s voice.  “He always felt that to shorten his name would somehow be disloyal to her.”

            Hezzi hadn’t demonstrated any surprise at my having bumped into his brother, but I could hardly contain myself.  “What do you think the odds are of my meeting up with both of you in so short a time?”  I asked.

            “Odds are a game for statisticians and gamblers,” he said.  “Reality doesn’t pay attention to probabilities.”

            I was almost as astonished by his lack of fascination as by the coincidence itself.  “I don’t understand you, Hezzi. You act like this kind of thing happens every day.  I can hardly get over it.”

            “Get over it,” he said.  “Because, in a way, it does happen every day.  People who are close, especially family, are like drops of water in a stream.  They follow the same currents and eddies, never staying separated for too long, and are always near to one another even when they’re on different continents.  Time and chance keep bringing them back together.  If you live a little longer, you’ll see that its true.”

            His eyes seemed to be aflame, as if he knew he were intoning a prophecy.  “Besides, you have no idea how many people crisscross your path and change your life every day in ways you never see, like a cosmic billiards game with every ball and every shot affecting every other ball on the table.  If you could see it, it would boggle your mind.  You’d be paralyzed by the complexity of the events that shape your life.

            “Anyway, there’s no such thing as coincidence; everything is part of the Big Guy’s master plan.”

            I chose not to pursue the discussion.  I was uncertain where it would take me, and a little scared of what I might find there.

 

 

            The morning of our fourth day out was gray but clear, and by noontime the crew found the way back onto the main canal.  We sailed into Green Cove Springs on our seventh day out, three days behind schedule, and immediately set to work unloading the boats.  It was quick work compared with loading them up in Key West, and as we schlepped the last of our gear onto the dock I turned to Hezzi and asked, “What happens now?”

            He rubbed his beard.  “Good question.  I’m not sure.”

            The crew on the other two boats, having arrived the morning before, had long since packed up and headed back to Key West.  The plan had been for me to ride back with them, and although I felt relieved to be spared a twelve-hour trip in the back of a U-Haul truck, none of my companions knew quite what should be done with me.

            The boss, whom everyone called Sally — except for me — offered to let me bunk on one of his tugboats for as long as I wanted or to send me back to Key West by Greyhound whenever I cared to go.  I told him I’d stay one night and see how things looked in the morning.  As he was counting out three hundred and sixty dollars cash, enough for me to live on for at least a month, Hezzi leaned over to him and whispered something in his ear.  The boss nodded thoughtfully but said nothing.

            After the luxury of the schooner, I regretted my decision to stay on the tug from the moment a stepped aboard.  A thick coat of gritty slime covered every surface, even the pots and pans in the kitchen.  Parkinson had said to help myself to anything, but I wondered as I poked around the fridge and the cupboards what he had imagined I would find here to choose from.  My foraging finally turned up a sealed can of hash, and I reflected how appreciative I should have been of Frank’s cooking.  At least my bunk was comfortable, but when I failed in my attempts to manipulate the controls of a cramped, incrusted shower room, I knew it was time to return to the relative opulence of my condemned youth hostel down south.

            I stuck my head into the boss’s office first thing the next morning and found him bent intently over a pile of invoices.  “Mr. Parkinson?”  I said.

            He looked up briefly. “C’mon in John,” he said, and I didn’t think it worth the trouble to correct him.  After a few moments he broke away from his paperwork.  “What are your plans?”

            “Nothing, really.  I thought I’d hang out in Key West until it gets warm enough to hitch north.”

            “You interested in more work?”

            “Sure,” I said automatically. 

            “We have a tug heading out for six or eight weeks.  Same pay.  Want to go?” 

            I quickly worked the math.  Two thousand dollars or more would keep me comfortably afloat for half-a-year.  Maybe a few weeks on a tugboat wouldn’t be so bad at that.  “Sure,” I said again.  “When will it leave?”

            “Tomorrow morning.  It’s on its way from here to Key West already.”

            “Tomorrow?”  This was happening too fast.

            “Is that a problem?”

            “No,” I said, not thinking about the question at all.  “How will I get to the boat?”

            “Well, let’s find out,” he said, picking up the phone.  “Yeah,” he said into the receiver.  “When’s the next bus to Key West?  Nothing before that?  Okay, thanks.”  He hung up.  “Greyhound won’t get you there in time.  Let’s see what else we can do.”  He dialed again.  “Hi, Sadie?  It’s Sally.  Fine, thanks.  Sadie, how much is a flight to Key West?  Yeah?  When’s the next flight?”  He looked up at a clock on the wall.  “And the one after that?  Okay, book a flight on that one.  No, not for me.  For John…”  He looked up at me.

            “Uh, Fink,” I said.  John Fink was my tenth grade English teacher, and his name popped unbidden into my mind.

            “Fink,” he repeated into the phone.  “Thanks, Sadie.”  He hung up and shouted into the next room, “Mike!”

            A man appeared in the doorway.  “Yeah?”

            “Find Paul and tell him to drive John here to the Jacksonville airport.”  He turned back to me.  “Meet the tug at ten tomorrow.  Same place as before, okay?”

            “Okay.  Thanks.”

            “Don’t mention it.”  He shook my hand.  “Paul will drive you to the airport.”

            “Thanks again,” I said.  “I appreciate it.”

            “Have a good flight.”

            “Let’s go,” said Paul, who had materialized at my shoulder.

            From Parkinson’s office, with a plane change in Tampa and twenty minutes waiting for a bus back to town, I made it door to door to the Key West youth hostel in just over three hours.  The bus would have taken twelve.  As I stretched my legs full length down the center aisle of the ten-seat commuter plane, which I shared with only one other passenger, I felt as if I had finally gotten myself straightened out a bit.  Surely, flying at no expense on a de facto semi-private plane was a big step up from those long, uncertain waits by the roadside.  No, I hadn’t deluded myself into believing that I could expect more of the same, and neither did I imagine a career for myself in the merchant marines.  But with everything going so right, this moment seemed to be a critical turning point in the course on which I had set myself.

            I swaggered into the hostel and made myself at home.  Marti came bouncing out of the kitchen and stopped in surprise when she saw me.  “Well, look who’s come back,” she said.  “We certainly didn’t fancy seeing you again.”

            “And why not?”  I asked.  “Is there any place I’d rather be?”

            Marti laughed and gave me a peck on the cheek.  “You’re sweet.  How long you staying for this time?”

            “Just tonight.”

            “And then where, if I may ask?”

            “The high seas.  Adventure.  Romance.  Glory.  All the usual stuff.  You know.”

            She laughed again.  “You really do have a flare, love.  I don’t know when to take you seriously and when not.”

            “I have the same problem myself,” I said.  “You think you’ll still be around in two months?”

            “Doubt it.  I’m off for London soon.  Don’t know when, exactly.”  She looked at her watch.  “Have to run, now.  I’m almost late for work.  I’ll see you at eight.  It’s dollar-pitcher night.”

            Nothing had changed much at the hostel, but the knowledge that this was my last night restored the vibrancy to our clique’s undergraduate antics.  Flip made the most of the dollar-pitchers that night, picking a fight with a guy who turned out to be a black belt in tae kwan do.  Fortunately, the other guy ducked Flip’s first punch.  Flip fell over onto the bar and passed out. 

            As the evening ran its course, I began to regret that I was saying good-bye to this place and these people.  Still, I knew that within a few weeks’ time this felicitous ingathering of exiles would again be scattered to the four corners of the diaspora.  Even so, it took an act of will to get myself to load up my pack the next morning and head out to the dock.  But there was no good reason not to, and I knew I would never forgive myself if I chickened out.

            I found the tug already docked when I arrived at the waterside.  The crew had taken on most of the supplies up north, and before noon we were headed out to sea, me without much sense of what exactly we would be doing for two months.  Tugs, of course, pull bigger ships into port, and I gathered that we would be making the rounds of various Caribbean harbors in which the local talent could not keep up with the shipping industry’s needs.  I also hadn’t bothered to ask what would be the full extent of my duties, but I assumed they would be similar to those on my trip to the customs docks, and I guessed that I would find out everything I needed to know in good time.

            The crewmen kept busy as we headed out to sea, but busy in a casual, semi-productive manner suggesting that there was no work that needed desperately to be done.  The captain, a tall, gaunt, taciturn man named Casey, seemed uninterested in the details of who was doing what, and we hardly ever saw him. 

            The crew accepted me cordially and kindly, directing me with patience and tolerating my ignorance.  They bantered back and forth, and included me as an equal right from the start.  I had been delighted to find Paul among the little ship’s company, but so forthcoming were the rest of the crew that soon I stopped looking to him for support and guidance.  I had expected to find Hezzi on board, assuming it had been he who suggested that the boss hire me on, but presently I would understand the reason for his absence.

            A crewman called Gaffy had been giving me a laborious lesson in knot-tying.  Over, under, and around, I tried to follow his directions, but I might as well have been taking lessons from a spider in how to spin a web.  “Enough!”  I finally cried, after the dozenth variation on a theme.  “When I know as much about life as you do about knot-tying, I won’t need to work on a tug anymore.”

            “Is that right?”  said a voice from behind me.  “Sounds like we got a high-class intellectual on board.”

            I should have gleaned from the tenor of this remark and the accompanying tone of voice that the speaker did not share the good spirits of the rest of us, but I was enjoying myself too much to take notice.  “Indeed, my good man,” I said, turning to face him.  “Cambridge, Eton, and Wellesley; captain of the polo team and champion varsity draughtsman.”

            Nobody laughed, least of all the hulking, sunburned figure scowling at me from only an inch or two beyond my nose.  I didn’t need more than one guess to know who this trash Dumpster of a man had to be.  It was Ricco, of course, and so stunned was I by his appearance that I neither flinched nor cringed from before him.  This seemed to irritate him all the more.

            “So we don’t got just any old stupid punk on board this time,” he fumed.  “It’s our lucky week.  We got a English stupid punk faggot on board who’s gonna teach us all about how to sail a boat.  Ain’t that right, Mister English faggot?”

            That he should call anyone as green as I was faggot was hardly surprising.  That he should identify me as English requires some explanation.  It wasn’t my references that gave him the idea; he would have been no more familiar with Eton and Wellesley that he would be with advanced quantum theory.  Rather, after keeping company with so many representatives of the commonwealth, I had acquired both an accent and style of speech that utterly obscured my origins.  Englishmen knew I wasn’t English, Aussies could tell I wasn’t from down under, but no one could quite put their finger on just where I was from.

            “I asked you a question, faggot!”  he bellowed.

            As it turned out, Ricco had been down below with a violent case of dysentery since before I had come aboard.  This accounted for both the previous jubilant mood of the crew and the present exceptionally foul mood of the mate.  At that particular moment, the mystery of Ricco’s sudden appearance should have been irrelevant.  But as my mind sought wildly for some conciliatory response, it raced off in almost random directions.

            “YOU GOT JUST ONE MORE CHANCE TO ANSWER ME!”

            My high school English teacher, John Fink, the one whose name I had appropriated for this very position, was, in his own words, a wimp.  He once told us the story of his first day on the job as a teacher, about to set foot in the toughest class at an inner city school.  A senior faculty member offered this sage advice:  “When you walk into class, the first thing you do is walk straight up to the biggest guy in the room and punch him out.”  Mr. Fink was five-foot-five.  He weighed a hundred and ten pounds.  His glasses had Coke-bottle lenses.  He lisped.  He had a funny name.

            “What did you do?”  we asked.

            “Knocked them out with humor,” he said.  He told jokes.  He made them laugh.  He charmed them.  He taught them English.  He was awarded Teacher of the Year in his third year teaching.

            If it worked for him, it might work for me.

            “Faggot is pejorative and insulting,” I began, affecting a lisp.  “Gay is preferred or, if necessary, homosexual. Queer is tolerable.  But faggot is definitely out.  So are pansy, swish, and fairy.  I’m very sensitive, you know, and it’s almost more than I can bear already having all these attractive men around.”

            From the madness brewing in his eyes, I have no doubt that he would have killed me on the spot, had not the one force in all the universe that could have deterred him struck like the plagues of Moses upon Pharaoh:  namely, a recurrence of the condition that had kept him sequestered below at the outset of our voyage.  No man walks this earth who is so tough or hard that he can abide soiling himself in public.  No man has such resolve that he can refuse to grant an immediate response when summoned with urgency by this most basic urge.  Thus, cursing and squirming, Ricco hastened below.

            I had escaped for the moment, but my escape provided me with little comfort; neither my reprieve nor the reassuring words of Paul and the rest of my fellow crewman helped to assuage my fear.  I didn’t have to be a veteran of the sea to appreciate that a tugboat is far too small a place to stay hidden for very long.

 

            A sailor’s life has changed considerably since Richard Henry Dana served his two years before the mast, but at the same time it has stayed very much the same.  The twenty-four hour day was divided up into four-hour watches, which were largely ignored by day but scrupulously observed by night.  Time virtually disappeared as hours were swallowed whole by endless trivial chores intended to keep the boat “in order” — a code word, I gathered, for redistributing the grime and mess from fore to aft and from port to starboard.  Swabbing the deck we simply called mopping; whatever you called it, it proved a filthy, tedious, irrelevant job.  I had been correct, at least, in assuming that my responsibilities would resemble those on my previous trip:  I was a schlepper, and there seemed no end of schlepping in sight.

            Cook, of whom I had heard such colorful tales, manned the kitchen (or galley, as it should have been called but rarely was) by day and by night without ever seeming to leave.  Sure enough, our first supper consisted of pasta topped with marinara sauce that tasted like the specialty of a Cordon Bleu, and meatballs, which tasted like microwaved Styrofoam.  I tried to swallow them without wincing by cutting them into tiny pieces and losing them in the noodles, but my dull table knife could cut through them only with tremendous effort, and and I didn’t want to draw Cook’s attention by struggling.        

            “Delicious,” I said as I handed him my plate.  “Absolutely first rate.”  Of the pasta, at least, I was telling the truth. 

            He eyed me suspiciously, as if searching for some sign of sarcasm or insincerity, then broke into a smile the size of the crescent  moon.  “Here,” he said, snatching my plate and hurrying for the pot.  “Let me give you some more.”

            “Uh, gee, thanks, Cook, but really, not right now,” I said.  “My stomach’s been a little off, and I don’t want to overdo it.”  I ducked out the door and slipped away.

            With my evening watch ended, I made for my bunk, a metal frame built into the bulkhead of the steel closet shared by Paul, Gaffy, another crewman named Ike, and myself.  Casey and Cook shared a second cabin, while Ricco and Stu, the other senior crewman, shared a third.  I stretched out on my bunk and suddenly felt the long, hard work of the day catch up with me.  Even my anxiety about Ricco couldn’t keep me from dropping off into catatonic slumber.

            After what seemed only moments my eyes clicked open.  I was wide awake, and something felt terribly wrong.   I listened intently but heard nothing, nothing but the sound of the sea, the waves lapping against the hull.  It took a minute or two before I realized that that was precisely the problem.

            A boat reverberates unceasingly with the throbbing of its engines, and a boat at sea whose engines are silent can mean only trouble.  Frank had told stories about the faint terror of waking up to silence when I complained about the schooner’s engines troubling my night’s sleep.  Unlike our little boats on the Intracoastal Waterway, a tug has no place to run afoul on the open sea.  It has radar to penetrate the thickest fog, and it has been designed to withstand the flailing winds and mountainous waves of anything short of a hurricane, and perhaps even one of those.  A silent engine means a boat with a serious problem.

            For what felt like hours I lay awake, craning for some sound to indicate the source of the problem.  The others were awake too, but they kept mostly silent and, when they did speak, they spoke only in short whispers, and they did not take me into their confidence.

            I finally drifted off, stalked in my dreams through a maze of silent, empty corridors.  When I woke up to go on watch, the engines were humming again like normal.  I asked Paul and Gaffy if they knew anything, but they didn’t know and didn’t seem worried.  If anything was really wrong, they said, we would surely hear of it because it would be our fault and our responsibility to set right.

            I was relieved to learn that Cook, who also functioned as the ship’s doctor, had confined Ricco to his bunk until the passing of his affliction.  Throughout the morning and into the afternoon the whole crew enjoyed an era of guarded good feeling, but this ended abruptly when Ricco, for better or worse, reappeared.  Predictably, he headed straight for me, and Gaffy, who was working nearby, dropped his mop and discovered urgent business elsewhere.  I didn’t blame him;  I would have done exactly the same thing.

            “Well, well,” said Ricco, but he got no further.  Having my wits about me this time, I was prepared to grovel and take any abuse necessary to survive this voyage, at least until we reached our first port, where I would seriously consider jumping ship.  As Ricco approached, therefore, I backed away slowly in demonstration of my submission.  In doing so, however, I failed to notice that Gaffy’s mop lay fallen across my own, which I had set down a moment before he had dropped his.  It now lay positioned so that, as I stepped back, skidded on the slick deck, and recovered my balance by stepping back hard, my foot came down on the very top end of Gaffy’s mop, levering it up with such force that its soggy strings described a perfect arc that ended by catching Ricco square in the face.  I could never have repeated this maneuver, I am sure, had I tried a hundred times.

            Ricco let out a bellow like a bull elephant, his legs went out from under him on the slippery surface, and he came crashing down on his derriere.  Wondering with two percent of my mind why the fates had conspired to get me into this elaborate mess, I dashed off down into the hold looking for some place to hide.  I darted through the first open hatch I found, which turned out to be the engine room, and worked my way into an obstructed corner.  Standing there silently, breathing hard, I became aware of two voices speaking over the rumble of the engines.

            “This is even worse than we thought,” one of them was saying.  It was Casey.  “I never would have let us leave port if I’d seen this.”

            “It’s almost as far if we turn back now as if we keep going,”  said the other.  It had to be Stu, although I hadn’t spoken to him enough to recognize his voice.  “We should have turned around last night.”

            “We didn’t know how bad it was last night.  Anyway, we didn’t turn back, so that’s that.”

            “We should shut down the engines and radio for another tug to come get us.”

            “Sally’d blow his stack.  He’s already way in the red since Mathias ripped open the hull of his tug last month on those coral reefs.”

            “He won’t be any happier if the engine melts down, or if the fuel ignites.”

            “The fuel won’t ignite…”

            “You hope.”

            “We’ll shut it down again tonight to let it cool, then nurse it till we get to port.  It should make it that far.”

            “Hey, who’s in here?”  It was Ricco.

            “Whad’ya want, Ricco?”

            “Anyone else in here?”

            “Fidel Castro.  You want to talk to him?”

            Ricco didn’t answer, so I assumed he had gone.  I waited until the others left, then waited some more.  I supposed Ricco could not get away with spending his whole day searching for me.  For the moment, at least, I was safe.  Matters could only get worse if I left my hiding place.

            After a long time I braved the short trip to the kitchen.  Cook broke into a huge smile when he saw me.  “Hey, there,” he said.  “How ’bout I whip up some meat balls for you?”

            “Thanks, Cook, but I can’t eat,” I said, honestly, and proceeded to spill out the whole sequence of events from the time I had come on board.

             Cook look sympathetic but unconcerned.  “Leave Ricco to me,” he said with a wave of his hand.  Having no alternative, I did just that.  I don’t know what Cook did, but it all worked out in the end.  At least for me.

            I hung out in the kitchen, and Cook whipped up an early supper, then told me to go sack out in his bunk.  “Casey’s on watch now,” he said.  “And Ricco won’t dare go into his cabin.”  I slunk off to do as he said, but without a fraction of his confidence.  I found it hard to believe there was anything Ricco wouldn’t dare to do.

            I managed to drop off, then awoke with a start at the sound of someone entering the room.  It was Casey, and I relaxed.

            “What are you doing here?”  he snarled.

            “Wasn’t feeling well.  Cook said to lie down in here.”

            “Well, you’re better now.  Get out.”

            Now I was in a quandary.  Should I go crawl into bed, or go up on deck to serve my watch?  It seemed ridiculous to try to hide for the rest of my time on board.  Sooner or later Ricco was going to find me out, even if I could avoid all of my duties.  But I did have marginal confidence in Cook’s promise to straighten the matter out, so I cautiously made my way up on deck and positioned myself in as inconspicuous a place as I could find, taking what little comfort I could in the darkness of night.

            Close to the end of my watch I felt a smidgen of confidence from the night’s uneventful passage.  I moved to the rail and looked down into the sea, able to make out faintly the white crests being churned up by the vessel’s hull.  As a boy I loved to sit on the beach at night, listening to the rush of the waves, sometimes for hours, almost hypnotized by the sound of the water, the sound of tranquility, the sound of peace, as if the source of all life projected comfort upon all the creatures it sustained, whispering to us over and over that all will be well, all will be well.

            Suddenly I sensed that I was being watched.  I turned and gasped at the shadowy figure advancing upon me.  I was about to speak, when a thick, salty hand clamped over my mouth, smothering my words and the yell that tried to follow them.  I shuddered with terror as a number of scenes skirted across my mind, every one with the same ending.  But even before I could assimilate these half-formed thoughts, I felt myself picked up like a corpse in a duffel bag and, in the next sickening instant, floating though the air before the cold sea closed over my head.

            I came to the surface quickly but did not waste my breath screaming;  my voice would be swallowed up like a hiccup in a full choir by the noise of the sea and the rumble of the ship’s engine.  Besides, since I had been hiding for so long, it was anyone’s guess how long my disappearance might go unnoticed.  Dawn was just breaking in the east, and I could still make out the shadow of the tug vanishing into the south.  By daylight it would be far, far out of view.

            I worked my way out of my shirt, pants, and shoes so that I could keep afloat more easily.  I could tread water for hours, if need be, but to what end?  I couldn’t do it forever.  Nor could I swim miles and miles, even if I knew in which direction lay the closest landfall.  And even if I didn’t end up as shark food, and even if a ship did pass this way before my muscles cramped up or I slipped under the water from exhaustion, how incalculable were the odds that any member of the crew would be looking in my direction for the few moments that I would be within their field of vision? 

            I replayed the whole episode in my mind.  What an absurd end to my journey.  I had hitchhiked five thousand miles with hardly an untoward incident.  I had finally achieved a little stability, a little safety.  And for what?  To be thrown into the sea by a maniac whose wrath I incurred through a sequence of events which, under other circumstances, would have been comic.  All the warnings and admonitions about the dangers of the road.  All the stories about the perils of the sea.  I had glided though it all indifferent to my unnatural good fortune, only to be done in by a psychopath with loose bowels.  I found myself laughing, aware in some remote part of my brain of an advancing hysteria that would surely prove my undoing faster than any of the possibilities I had already considered.

            What else was there but madness?  Was there any sense to be made of what had happened to me?  Better to have been hit by a car my first night on the road than to have come all this way to meet so ludicrous an end.  Better to have been strangled or beaten to death by this madman than left with nothing to do but vainly push the relentless sea away from my mouth.  For the love of G-d, why had this happened to me?

            The horizon turned orange with the sunrise.  No, it couldn’t be; I was facing south.  That was the direction in which the tug had disappeared, unless I had become turned around and disoriented.  But the sky was brightening off and away to my left, and when I looked forward again there was only darkness once more.  In the next moment I heard a distant roar, faint but sure above the roar of the sea.  Then this too was gone, taken back by the waves.

            I felt myself trembling as I recalled both the conversation I had overheard in the engine room and the ominous silence when I awoke the night before.  Was it possible?  Casey had seemed convinced that there was no danger of explosion, but Stu had been less confident.  Would such an explosion just damage the tug, or destroy it completely?  Could any of the crew have survived?  And if they had, to where could they escape?  Only into these same deserted waters.

            I cast and recast the possibilities into one and then another scenario, each of them leading to the same inevitable conclusion:  the others were all dead; only I was still alive.  And so it was neither cold nor fear that made me shiver, but a sense of macabre irony as, through the rush of the waves and through the mist rising from the water, Hezzi’s words from that evening on the fog-bound schooner echoed in my memory:  There is no such thing as coincidence; everything is part of the Big Guy’s master plan.

            I was sorry now that I had not then pursued the conversation.

 

 

 

 

 

            “Been in the country long?”  the man next to me asked in a New York accent.

            “About two hours,” I said.

            “Really?  Whatcha doing here?”

            “My boat sank in the Caribbean Sea, and I was picked up by a Greek freighter.”

            “Very funny.”

            Even the Consulate General was skeptical about my story, and neither my letter from the captain of the freighter, my stamped and sealed document from the port authority, nor even the police escort that brought me to the door of the American Embassy dissuaded him from letting me cool my heels for an hour before deciding he had no good reason not to issue me a new passport.

            After another hour and a quarter in a crowded, stuffy sit-and-wait room, my name rang out from the right hand side of the broad reception window, and I walked up to face the pretty young woman who had summoned me to approach.

            “You’re from L.A.?”  she said.

            “Born and raised,” I answered.  “But don’t hold it against me.”

            She laughed.  “I won’t.  I went to USC.”

            “That makes it even worse,”  I said, tapping my chest.  “UCLA.”  But we were both smiling.  This far around the globe, cross-town rivalry made for as strong a bond as almost anything.  Less than a minute had passed, however, before the young lady was all business again.

            “Passport lost at sea?”  she asked quizzically.

            “Is that unusual?”

            “Not at all.  Must happen once every five or ten years.” 

            Aside from the sarcasm she remained friendly and efficient.  The fee took a sizable chunk out of the hundred dollars worth of drachma that Nikolas had lent me.  He’d given it to me, really (along with a handful of peanuts, which I dropped into my pocket), although I insisted that I would pay him back the next time we met.  He laughed, we shook hands, and that was the last time I saw him during my short stay in Greece.

            I accepted my temporary passport with thanks and acknowledged that I would have to come back with two passport photos before my permanent one could be processed.  Repeating my thanks, I turned away from my side of the window and collided with the man who was also turning away from his.

            “Excuse me,” we said in unison, then both smiled our absolutions.  He had an inch or two over me, and at least fifty pounds as well, with a full salt-and-pepper beard and rectangular, steel-rimmed glasses.  A black fedora hid his hairline, and a medium-gray suit made him look slimmer than he really was.  “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop,” he said as we walked out the door, “but did you say you lost your passport at sea?”

            “Forget it,” I said.  “You wouldn’t believe it.”

            “Try me,” he said.  I gave him the abridged version of My Voyage to Greece, and he shook his head appreciatively.  “You should send that in to Ripley’s.”

            I shrugged my shoulders.  “They probably wouldn’t believe it either.  Anyway, I have other things on my mind right now.”

            “Such as?”

            “Such as what I’m going to do in Greece with no friends, no money, and no prospects.”

            “Isn’t there someone you can call or wire for help?”

            I wasn’t about to get into the whole story of my life.  “That would be cheating,” I said evasively.

            He laughed.  “Whatever you say, my friend.  Listen, I’m sure there’s a youth hostel in town where you can stay.”  He produced a business card, scribbled a phone number on the back, and handed it over to me.  “Give me a call tonight.  A man who almost gets blown up and drowned deserves to be treated to dinner.” 

            I looked at the card.  The name Shamayahu Zuckerman stretched across it in block lettering.  He was executive director of something, but neither his title nor his place of business drew my attention as did his peculiar first name.  “Do you have any brothers?”  I asked.

            “Two.  Why?”

            “It’s not important.  Just a hunch.”

            We reached the embassy gate.  “Call me,” he said again, touching the brim of his hat as he headed off down the street.  “I may have a suggestion for you.  If that’s not cheating, of course.”

            I waved good-bye and pocketed the card.  The guard at the gate knew the youth hostel and gave me directions, but he said it probably wouldn’t open before five o’clock, and it was barely two now.  With nothing else to do, I went about obtaining the required passport photos and returned with them to the embassy.

            It was a quarter past five when I found the hostel.  A line of young people, almost all of them carrying, sitting on, or leaning against backpacks, trailed down the block and around the corner.  Opening time was five-thirty, so I sat down on a step at the end of the queue and waited.

            The line moved quickly once the doors opened at a quarter to six.  I explained to the manager, a jolly Swede named Otto, that my backpack had been stolen, and my hostel card along with it.  Hans made sympathetic noises and apologized for having to charge me for a new card, siphoning another fifteen and a half dollars worth from my dwindling cash supply.  With sudden acute awareness of the value of a free meal, I asked for the nearest pay phone and dialed the number on the card I pulled from my pocket.  The call went through, and a storm of static attacked me over the line.

            “Mr. Zuckerman?”  I said into the receiver when the noise had died down.

            “Who’s calling, please?”  a woman’s voice asked.

            “Gilligan,”  I replied.

            “Uh, just a minute.”

            A few seconds later I heard the rattle of the receiver on the far end being picked up.  “Hello!”  boomed Zuckerman’s voice over the line.  “I’m so glad you called.  Can you be here about seven?”

            “Just give me the address and I’ll be there.”

            He spelled out the street name letter by letter, along with a few relatively prominent reference points.  “It might be best to take a cab,” he added.  “They’re very cheap.”

            “Don’t worry,” I said.  “I’ll find my way.”

            An attendant at the hostel desk provided me with a blurred, photocopied map, and I innocently asked him to point out the address Zuckerman had given me.  Ten minutes later, after a feverish meeting of the hostel’s joint chiefs of staff, I stepped out onto the street figuring the odds an optimistic eight-to-five that I was headed in the right direction.  Allowing for an hour to cover the three miles to my destination, I should make it right on time, assuming I didn’t get lost.

            I did get lost, but still managed to arrive by seven-twenty.  My host received me graciously and introduced me to his wife, whose first name neither of them offered, and who disappeared immediately to somewhere else in the apartment.

            “I hope I didn’t keep you waiting, Mr. Zuckerman,” I said as we shook hands.

            “Call me Shimi,” he said.  “And don’t worry about it.  We were only concerned that you might have gotten lost.”

            “I did, but that’s normal for me.”

            “Well, you’re here, and that’s what’s important.”  He prompted me into the small salon and dropped down onto the sofa, motioning for me to help myself to an easy chair.

            Tall as he was, it was only when Zuckerman sat down that I noticed the black, velvet yarmulke perched on his head.  I had crossed paths with the traditional Jewish head covering only a few times, mainly in junior high school at my contemporaries’ bar mitzvahs, and once in Wichita when a friend took me to his Conservative rabbi’s house for the Friday night repast.

            “Are there many Jews in Greece?”  I asked. 

            “Not as far as I know,” Zuckerman said, putting his feet up on the coffee table.  “We live in Israel, and we just rented this place for a week while I’m here on business.”

            “What sort of business?”

            “Research for a book,” he answered.

            “No kidding?”

            “Not at all.  I’m working on an historical novel about a boy who escapes from the Nazis and has to make his way across Europe in the midst of the war.  It’s hard to write convincingly about places you’ve never been.”

            I nodded appreciatively, reflecting on the way travel had stoked my own creative fires, wondering when I might again have the chance to match words with music. 

            “Do you write full time?”  I asked.

            “No, there’s not much money in it.  In real life I’m an administrator at an institute for the study of Jewish legal history and theory.”

            “That sounds interesting,” I said politely.

            “I should say it is,” Zuckerman said.  “Certainly more interesting than what I was doing before hand.”

            “Which was?”

            “Studying for my doctorate in physiology.”

            “That’s quite a switch.”

            “As a matter of fact, I was two-thirds done with my thesis left when I dropped the whole thing and got involved in this.”

            “That must have taken guts,” I said, suddenly leaning forward.

            Zuckerman rolled his eyes.  “You have no idea.  I thought my mother was going to kill me.  She didn’t talk to me for over a year.”

            “But she finally got over it?”  I asked, as if the rest of my life depended upon his answer.

            “Eventually, but it took a long time.  Years, really.  Now that I’m married and have a position it’s a lot easier for her to live with.”

            I sank back in my seat.  Marooned on the Balkan peninsula with nothing but fifty bucks in my pocket, marriage and a career seemed an impossibly long way off.

            “That and grandchildren have smoothed things out pretty well ” concluded Zuckerman, not seeming to notice my reaction.

            I looked around the apartment but saw no sign of childlife.  “How many children do you have?”  I asked.

            “Four,” he said.  “But they’re back in Israel.  We farmed them out to friends while we’re here.”

            “This is no place for children,” Mrs. Zuckerman added as she appeared from the kitchen and began setting the table, which occupied a little alcove off the main part of the salon.  “Besides, we virtually never go away, and it’s only for a week.”

            “This may be work for me,” Zuckerman said, “but it’s a vacation for my wife.  She works harder at home than I do at my job.”

            “You work plenty hard at home, too, dear,” the wife said matter-of-factly.  “At least you do when you’re not leaving footprints on the furniture.”

            Zuckerman quickly lowered his feet from the table.  “When we don’t have guests,” he said to me in a voice clearly intended for her, “my wife doesn’t even let me walk on the carpet.”  His wife smirked and continued preparing the table.  I found myself enjoying their banter and began to relax.

            Mrs. Zuckerman made one more trip to the kitchen, from where she called out a moment later, “Supper, gentlemen.” 

            I followed Zuckerman to the round, formica table, oddly set with plastic cups and cutlery on laminated place-mats.  My hostess presented our meal on paper plates, upon which she had heaped seasoned rice, sauteed vegetables and baked potatoes.  I wondered if they were vegetarians.

            “We do eat meat,” Mrs. Zuckerman said, reading my thoughts.  “But we couldn’t have relied on the quality of kosher meat here, if it’s available here at all.”

            “But isn’t a lot of Greek food vegetarian anyway?”  I asked.  Surely there couldn’t be any prohibition against eating steamed vegetables.  Could there?

            “It’s not quite that simple,” Mrs. Zuckerman began, but her husband quickly held up a hand for her to stop.

            He leaned over toward me, glanced guiltily around the room, then said in a collusive whisper, “We’re some of those radical, right-wing ultra-Orthodox fanatics you’ve been reading about in Time magazine.”

            I had to laugh.  Zuckerman was dressed simply in a white button-down shirt and slacks, and he wore a short, neatly trimmed beard, same as mine.  Standing beside him at the embassy window I hadn’t given him a second glance, except when his jacket flared and I had caught a glimpse of the long, white threads dangling at his side from the waist.  Mrs. Zuckerman wore her hair attractively at shoulder length over a colorful, paisley blouse with a stylish skirt and sandals.  The idea that these people could be religious extremists was ludicrous.

            “Right,” I said, “and I’m the Pope.”

            “Have it your way,” returned my host.  “Amo, amas, amat …”  We all laughed.

            Much to my surprise, Zuckerman had been only half-joking:  he and his wife did associate themselves with those curious, long-coated, unkempt throwbacks from the dark ages who reportedly threw stones at passing cars and publicly berated any woman not swathed in canvas from head to toe.

            Zuckerman didn’t phrase it that way, of course.  In fact, he seemed eager to avoid the subject altogether.

            “What sort of subjects does your school teach?”  I asked, finding it hard to imagine that someone as sophisticated as my host appeared to be could find religious dogma intellectually stimulating.

            “What you might expect,” he said.  “The basics of Jewish tradition:  Torah, Talmud, philosophy, and practical law.”

            “And that makes up a full curriculum?”

            Zuckerman laughed.  “We couldn’t fit everything into a dozen curriculums.  Aside from the basics, all but the most gifted and disciplined students have to balance an intensive specialization with an almost cursory survey of the full breadth of Torah knowledge.”

            And then, before I could pursue the point further:  “Do you think you’ll be staying in Greece long?”

            “I really haven’t thought that far ahead,” I said, more interested in Zuckerman’s school than in my own state of limbo.  “Do you have a field of specialization yourself?”

            “Um hmm,” Zuckerman said, distractedly.  “But it’s pretty technical, and I doubt it would interest you.  Be sure to see the Parthenon while you’re here.  It’s much more impressive than the pictures make it look.”

            And so the conversation went, with Zuckerman answering my every question with an air of indifference and encouraging the conversation to drift on to other matters.  I assumed that he wanted a break from the subject that occupied so much of his time and finally gave up pressing him in that direction.

            Still, it intrigued me how two people about whom there was nothing stereotypic at all, who appeared to be normal, open minded, college-educated Americans could label themselves — even satirically — as religious fanatics.

            I had taken one course in comparative religion during my years in the ivory tower.  The professor, Dr. Maury Yankelovitz, had a definite bias toward Lao Tzu and Buddha.  He had presented Zen and Confucianism with enthusiasm, Islam and Hinduism with respect, Christianity with condescension, and Judaism with undisguised contempt.  On one occasion, he had railed, gesticulating wildly with the chalkboard eraser, against the traditional practices of observant Jews.  “Can you believe,” he had cried, “that there are still Jews in world today who will not turn on light on Saturday?  Can you believe there are Jews in the world today who will not wear clothing in which wool and linen are mixed?  Can you believe there are Jews in the world today who will not eat with utensils that have not been immersed in a ritual bath?”  At that point, the student sitting directly in front of me called out, “Dr. Yankelovitz, this is fascinating.  Where are these Jews?  Can you tell us more about them?”  A man given to impulse, Yankelovitz let fly the eraser with a smooth, sure overhand.  Not designed for flight, a chalkboard eraser makes none too accurate a projectile, but his aim was close to the mark, and the eraser’s trajectory only a little high; it sailed over the head of his target and would have tagged me squarely between the eyes had I not had the presence of mind to duck to one side.  The girl behind me, however, who had dozed off, woke with a shriek when the eraser caught her full in the chest, raising a thick cloud of chalk dust and leaving a white Rorschach bull’s-eye splashed over the front of her navy blue Angora sweater.  I think I remember hearing something about a pending law suit.

            I never did find out more about the Jews who preserved those curious practices, and that student’s innocent question echoed in my memory on those infrequent occasions when I gave serious thought to my own Jewish identity.  Finding a human encyclopedia on the subject at arm’s length, I was tantalized by the contradiction between between his appearance and all my preconceptions, and I longed to drink from his reservoir of knowledge; he did answer my questions, but he refused to elaborate beyond the most terse and elementary responses.  The trickle of information I managed to extract from him was anything but satisfying, like lemonade sipped through a too-thin straw on a too-hot day.

            The meal, on the other hand, was delicious, and the company delightful, especially after nearly a month with only a single English-speaking companion.  Our discussions and our conversation so diverted me that only when I noticed Mrs. Zuckerman turn her wrist to glance at her watch did I think of the hour at all.

            “It’s ten forty-five,” my hostess said when I asked for the time.

            “Uh oh,” I said, getting quickly to my feet.  “I have to go.”

            “He must have a date,” Zuckerman said to his wife, who rolled her eyes.

            “I’m sorry,” I said.  “The hostel where I’m staying locks the doors at eleven.”  I would never make it back in time.  “Do you think I could call a cab?”

            “That’s silly,” said Mrs. Zuckerman.  Then, turning to her husband, she said, “He can stay here, can’t he, Shimi?”

            “Of course you’ll stay here,” he said to me.  “It’s not as if you left anything there, is it?”  I shook my head.  “Good.  That takes care of that.  The couch is very comfortable.  My wife made me sleep on it just last night.”

            “Oh, stop it, Shimi.  He might believe you.”

 

 

 

 

            Nikolas went off to tend to his ship, and Isaac appeared almost instantly in his place.  I hadn’t seen him since my outburst the night before, and I half-expected never to see him again.  “Ready to go?” he said.

            “I suppose so.”

            “Stick with me,” he said, and headed for the gangway.

            A uniformed Indian official stood beside a narrow opening in the chain-link fence that enclosed the port.  A number of crewman from our ship queued up just ahead of us, and several more fell in immediately behind.  Isaac positioned himself in front of me and, as the official looked at Isaac, then at his passport, then back at Isaac, the redheaded Greek snarled, “What do you think you’re looking at?”

            English, I would soon learn, is spoken in India almost universally, if not very well — the common denominator in a country comprising a whole spectrum of ethnic groups and over a hundred languages and dialects.  The sun may have set on the British Empire, but its influence yet endured, decades after the glory days when it ruled the world.  In any case, rudimentary communication never proved much of a problem.

            Isaac, most uncharacteristically, had picked a fight over nothing and was now caught up in a full blown shouting match, with half a dozen of his fellow crew pressing in around the unfortunate customs officer.  As I looked on in wonder, a burly hand grabbed hold of my arm, and in the next moment I found myself hustled past the checkpoint until I was standing safe and secure — as much as possible — on Indian soil.  The crewman who had pulled me through to beyond the gate prompted me along until we were well out of harm’s way.  As I glanced back over my shoulder, I got my first good look at our vessel and only then learned its curiously appropriate name:  Felix.

            A few seconds later Isaac sauntered up next to me, grinning like the cat that had swallowed the curry.  “Welcome to Bombay,” he said.

            I tried to look disdainful.  “My, aren’t you proud of yourself?” 

            “Well, it couldn’t have gone smoother, could it?”  He was still preening as we passed out of the port and onto a busy thoroughfare.  His red crew cut shimmered in the sunlight.

            A whistle shrieked behind us, followed by the unintelligible shouting of angry voices.  I spun around to see two uniformed men running toward us at breakneck speed.  I froze, my pulse thundering in my ears, and before I could decide whether or not to run for it the men were already past us, tearing down the crowded boulevard after three men who were disappearing into the distance.

            I turned to Isaac, who appeared as disconcerted as I was.  “Serves you right for being so smug,” I said, trying to catch my breath.

            “I’ll try to remember that for next time,” he said without humor. 

            Isaac seemed to know where he was going and, since I did not, I walked along beside him.  “What are you going to do now?”  he asked.

            “I suppose my first stop should be the American embassy to report my lost passport.  I’ll have to make up a story so they won’t insist I file a police report.”

            “Do you have to go there right away?”  he asked.

            If Isaac had something on his mind, I figured I owed it to him to hear what he had to say; the sun was still high, and there would be plenty of time that afternoon to get my paperwork in order and find at least temporary shelter.  I didn’t know how long my money would hold out, but I guessed that I could get by on what I had for at least a couple of weeks.  Much later I would learn that many Indians don’t see in a year as much money I had then in my pocket.

            “Where do you want to go?”  I asked.

            “I know a quiet place a few blocks away,” he said.  “We can talk there.”

            The sun had grown hotter and the air stickier as the press of human traffic intensified, seemingly from block to block.  A quiet place sounded great.  “Lead on, MacDuff,” I said.

            Bombay reminded me of New Orleans’s French Quarter, albeit much more ramshackle, with dusty rows of quaint, terraced apartment buildings lined with unaffected iron railings.  It also resembled the Middle East, with broad, monolithic stone and stucco apartment buildings decorated abundantly with lines and lines of yesterday’s wash and circumscribed by mounds of debris spilling off the sidewalks into the streets.  Then again, it brought to mind images of New York, with high-rise apartment buildings dominating the skyline.  And it sometimes switched back and forth from one to another with dizzying frequency.

            Isaac walked on in silence.  I followed him across boulevards, around corners, down side streets and, as we walked, I devoted my attention entirely to absorbing the collage of images swirling around me, until I lost all sense of direction and orientation.  Women walking through the streets wore brightly colored saris, often carrying bundles or baskets balanced impossibly on their heads.  Children ran up to us, their hands extended, crying for money.  Unsteady bicycles wove in and out of traffic, then continued weaving even where there was none.  The fragrances of baked bread, cooked curry, onions, garlic, human sweat and excrement battled from moment to moment for supremacy.

            Suddenly, our narrow street opened up onto a vast square that undulated with a living mass of flesh and blood.  Isaac pushed and shouldered his way into the crowd, same as everyone else, and I tried to stay right behind.  The crowd surged and flowed, and I felt myself buffeted like a dinghy in an ocean squall.  An instant later, for no apparent reason, I found myself standing at one corner of the square with room to breathe, as if in the eye of the storm.

            “Hey you,” I heard a voice call from somewhere near by.

            I ignored it, having learned long ago that most people who shout in public are not shouting at me and that, if they are, then most probably I want nothing to do with them.

            “Hello, mister,” I heard again, and continued to ignore it.  I was searching the crowd for Isaac … there he was, his red head bristling above the mob, about twenty feet to starboard.

            A hand fell heavily on my shoulder and I whirled around, ready for anything.

            “Hey man, you don’t hear so good?”

            I nearly broke into laughter, so unlikely, so out of place, so resounding a non-sequitur of man stood opposite me wearing the most serious of expressions.  He was short, about five-six, sporting a snowy white goatee and wearing an olive green alpine hat, a thin gray suit and, of all things, a bright yellow bow tie.  In San Francisco, in New Orleans, even on Deisengoff in Tel Aviv he would hardly have drawn a second glance.  But here, amidst the violent collision of eastern cultures, he looked as out of place as a penguin in a tropical rain forest.

            “We need a senter,” he said.

            I blinked, certain I hadn’t heard him right.

            “We need a senter,” he repeated.  “Nu?”

            This cannot be happening, I thought.  I must be hallucinating.

            “Can you hear me?”  he shouted.  “You speak English, yes?  We need a senter, I said.  Come!  Mincha, mincha, you know.”

            Had I wanted to go with him, which I most definitely did not, my legs would not have carried me.  Having abandoned both Jewish observance and my spiritual homeland I now found, less than an hour after setting down a thousand miles away, this elfin caricature recruiting me as the tenth man to complete a quorum for the afternoon prayer.  It was too much for any sane mind to accept.

            “What makes you think I’m Jewish?”  I asked, forfeiting any hope I might have had of feigning ignorance.

            “Are you Jewish?”  he asked.

            “Well, yes,” I conceded.

            “You look it.  Now what’s the problem?  Come, the minyan is waiting.”

            “No, I can’t,” I protested.

            “Why not?  You already davened or something?”

            No, of course I hadn’t prayed already, nor did I have any intention of doing so now.  “I’m here with someone else,” I said.

            “Good!  Bring him along, too.  Where is he?”

            It was a good question.  While I’d been stuck in this silly debate I had lost sight of my friend altogether.  My eyes skimmed across the crowd this way and that, but Isaac the Red failed to materialize, and the square teemed so with humanity that even if I stood there until nightfall, it was hard to imagine that I would find him again.

            Nu?”  he said, grabbing my arm.  “Are you going to open up a kiosk here or can we go now?”

            Helpless, I let him take me away.

            Bow Tie led me hurriedly down a small side street and then down another that was even smaller, pulling at my sleeve and urging me with such haste that I continually tripped and stumbled on the cracked cobblestones and copious potholes.  Hardly reducing speed, he yanked open a door set innocuously in a a dingy plaster facade, unmarked except for a tiny brass plaque bearing microscopic Hebrew lettering.  I paused long enough to make out the name:  Anshei Shloime — People of Solomon.

            I had to duck under the stairwell leading up to the next floor, and as I straightened up my mouth fell open in disbelief.  I had been expecting a barren and dusty basement synagogue with a few rotting benches and wormy prayer books, moth eaten curtains drooping over windows that had not been cleaned since the British had departed, and one or two battered faux chandeliers with two-thirds of their bulbs burned out.  What I beheld instead, through the open double doors of a small antechamber, made me wonder if I hadn’t been transported through time and across space to a place of mystical dreams.

            The shul was enormous, with three columns of at least fifteen benches each fanning out in a neat, semicircular pattern across the pie-shaped room.   The benches were of the heavy, rounded type that haven’t been crafted for half a century, and the largest of them, the ones in the back row, could seat ten or twelve people comfortably.  They were made of dark, polished wood, as were the railings leading up to and surrounding the raised central dais that held the bimah, the altar-like, oversized lectern from which the Torah scroll is read.  Fashioned of the same wood was the banister running the full length of a two hundred seventy degree balcony that was the women’s section, along which hung yellowed but intricately designed lace curtains.  Overhead glistened the sparkling glass or crystal of an elaborate polished brass chandelier, its dozens of tiny bulbs bestowing a dazzling vibrancy throughout the room as their light reflected in the gleaming white marble tiles that covered the floor and ran halfway up the walls, and in the wooden appointments that stood out in sharp relief.  So immaculately kept was the shul that it seemed more a museum piece than a place people actually used.

            But the undeniable jewel of this holy place was the aron haKodesh, the holy ark in which the Torah scroll resided.  This aron must have stood nearly twenty feet high and half as wide — it dominated the front corner where, with obvious intention, it had been set at the focal point of the sanctuary.  It looked to be hand-carved from cherry or mahogany, and its craftsman had gilt it sparingly to accent but not overpower the intricate etchings that made it seem alive, a veritable “tree of life, for all who take hold of it.”  That very verse had been stitched upon the paroiches, the curtain which fell from twice a man’s height at the aron’s center, a thick, worn but regal expanse of  deep blue velvet tinged with purple, trimmed along its bottom with gold and silver fringe.  Across its breadth there had been rendered the likeness of a lush, deep-rooted tree in ornate, copper embroidery.  Mirrored by three sets of velvet curtains tied back to frame the three windows of frosted glass that lined the right hand wall, this splendid paroiches breathed into the sanctuary an air of comfort and succor and serenity.

            I stood transfixed, unable to imagine how such a place ever came to exist in this dismal corner of the world and how, beyond all reason, it had been so meticulously preserved.

            So absorbed was I in the splendor surrounding me that I gave no notice to the others in the room, nor did I recall the reason why the man in the yellow bow tie had brought me here.

            Nu?”  shouted one of the eight ancient men who had been waiting for us to arrive, making a pitiful quorum for such a grand house of worship.  “Daven!  You know how to daven?”

            Yes, I did know how to pray, and how to lead the service, though I was not about to do either.  They didn’t need me to pray to make their minyan; I only had to answer to the responsive parts.

            “I’m not frum,” I said, indicating my irreligiousity.

            “So?”  he shouted.  “Du bist a yid?”

            I nodded.  It was too late to deny that I was a Jew.

            “So — daven! “  He waved wildly with a wooden walking stick toward the omud, the lectern from which the prayer services are led.

            “I don’t have a kippah,” I said, patting my bare head, grasping for any excused to decline the distinction being thrust upon me.  A yarmulke was provided, however, and I walked to the front of the shul without asking for a talis; a prayer shawl was neatly folded in plain sight atop the omud.  I spun the talis over my shoulders with a practiced hand and called out the words most familiar to any observant Jew in the world,the words from King David’s famous Psalm with which the afternoon mincha prayer begins: “Ashrei yoishvei veischo …  Fortunate are those who dwell in Your house …”

            I don’t know how I made my way through that ten-minute service.  I had resolved, when I fled Israel, never again to observe the precepts of Torah observance; yet here I was, chanting the praises and attributes of the Almighty in front of the Almighty himself, and as the representative of the congregation to boot.  Words I had recited fluently from memory only two weeks before now stuck in my throat, and my tongue felt numb and swollen as it labored to pronounce the litany of requests and extolments.  My stomach contracted, and I flushed with the shame of a renegade dragged before the king’s throne straight from the dung heap.

            Finally, gratefully, I reached the end of the service and collapsed on the nearest bench, enervated and slimy with sweat.  But even then, rather than relief I found instant notoriety as the old men all gathered around and began shooting off questions in bursts like semi-automatic rifle fire.

            Yes, I was new here.  No, I was not working.  Yes, I needed a job.  No, I did not have a place to stay yet.  Yes, I was here on a tourist visa …

            Tourist visa?  My brain clicked back on, and I remembered that I had to get to the embassy, all the more urgently because it gave me an excuse to extricate myself from these over-friendly inquisitors.

            “My apologies, gentlemen,” I said, struggling to my feet and edging toward the door.  “I must get to the American Embassy this afternoon or I’m going to have terrible tzuros.  Perhaps one of you can give me directions?”

            “You’ll never find it,” said Bow Tie.  “I’ll drive you.”

            That sounded worse than staying.  As long as they were a together in a group they spent so much time interrupting each other that I hardly had to answer them at all.  One by himself would be purgatory.  “Thanks,” I said.  “But I really can’t trouble you.”

            “So I’ll walk you to where you can get a cab.” he insisted.  That sounded tolerable, and out we went.

            I followed him through a maze of streets and alleys until we came out to another noisy boulevard.  Deafening, would be a more accurate description:  mufflers, it seemed, were prohibited by law, and horn-honking obligatory.

            “You will daven with us tomorrow for shacharis?”  Bow Tie asked, but he stated it more as a fact than as a question.

            “I don’t think so,” I shouted over the traffic.  Tomorrow morning’s prayer service was the last thing on my mind.

            “Tomorrow night then, for Shabbos.”

            “No, I’m afraid not,” I said, trying to sound apologetic.  Today’s brief mincha prayer had been draining enough.  There was no way I would subject myself to the intensity of the service inaugurating the Sabbath.

            “But you must!”  he shouted.  We are only eleven men here.  One is sick, and the other is recovering from a bone spur and cannot walk.  Without you we will have no minyan on Shabbos for the first time ever.  Why else has the Riboinoi shel Oilom brought you here if not for this purpose?”

            The question made me shiver.  Why the Master of the World had brought me here was a matter I wanted desperately not to think about.  But so tragic were this odd fellow’s expression and entreaty that I could not bring myself to refuse.  “All right,” I conceded, immediately regretting my capitulation.

            “Wonderful!”  he cried, clapping his hands together.  He proceeded to flail his arms about like a man having a seizure, and the next moment a yellow taxi that looked as if it had seen action in Lebanon pulled up with a screech.  Bow Tie pressed his card into my hand and shouted,  “Call me, and we’ll figure out how to get you back here.  Remember, we need you.”

            As he slammed the door, the driver slammed the pedal to the floor, and the air was ripped from my lungs as I slammed into the back seat of the cab.  “American Embassy,” I gasped, although the driver had seemed perfectly content to go on with no knowledge of our destination.

            It was explained to me later that in America cars drive on the right; in England cars drive on the left; in India it’s optional.  For the next fifteen minutes I was nearly paralyzed with fear until the taxi squealed to a stop in front of the American Embassy.  I stepped out on watery legs, my ears ringing from the double orchestra of horns and engines, my brain dizzy with terror.  And I had thought Israel was a land of extremes.

 

Copyright Yonason Goldson

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