Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Those Who Go Down - Eric Maroney

Those Who Go Down

[Yordim, Hebrew for ‘those who go down,’ referring to those who emigrate from the State of Israel to live abroad.]

1. “Let’s play the game…,” she said, “you’re the Arab and I’m the Jew.”

“But I’m always the goddamned Arab!”

“Too bad,” she said, squaring her shoulders boldly, as she had seen Abba do to Imma a thousand times -- as if she would hit her brother Micha.

Micha looked up at Yehudit with a practiced, studied contempt. Like gymnasts going through a well-rehearsed routine, they knew which part of the exercise caused them most difficulty, and which they performed faultlessly.

So Micha was the Arab and Yehudit was the Jew. Or more precisely, on the field of play Micha represented the combined Arab armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. Yehudit was always the bold and unerring Israeli Defense Forces in the 1948 War of Independence, The Sinai Campaign of 1956, or The Six Days War of 1967, which was Yehudit’s personal favorite because she could most doggedly trounce Micha’s hapless Arab armies. She stormed across the Sinai in coordinated armored columns to the lapping banks of the Suez Canal. Her paratroopers daringly captured the Old City of Jerusalem and wept at the Wailing Wall. Her gun boats shelled Gaza.

She was less enthusiastic about reenacting the 1973 Yom Kippur War, since history allowed Micha an early advantage while Yehudit, caught by surprise by the Arab attack, was forced to call up her reserves, to defend and then counter-attack. But by the end of the twenty days of fierce fighting, Yehudit had deftly repulsed the invasion and secured the borders.

Neither of them dared to stage the invasion of Lebanon.

Yehudit had read a great many books. She had a firm grasp of Israeli military history, tactics, strategy, and equipment, and she also possessed a sense of the necessity of a flexible but firm command and control, and the challenges and pressures of calling up an army composed largely of reserves.

Micha knew close to nothing, so he was forced into the role of the Syrian commandos, or a brigade in Jordan’s Arab Legion. In each engagement, he never tried for victory but merely to hold his own. But both history and his sister’s superior knowledge led him down the inevitable road of bitter, disheartening defeat.

He knew in the end Israel would win. Otherwise, as Yehudit always reminded him, the Arabs would drive the Jews into the sea.

2. “You just lost Gaza,” Yehudit declared joyfully, manfully. “I outflanked you.”

“Fuck you, Judy,” Micha said, calling her by her school name. He was just about to counter-strike, to try and maneuver around the encirclement with a quick jabbing thrust, when there was screaming in the house.

Abba and Imma were quarrelling. It started with screaming in English and ended with cursing in Hebrew. Both Yehudit and Micha stopped playing and gazed at the house as if it was a hill or wadi they had stormed only to be repulsed again and again, never able to capture or secure it. Through the kitchen window they could see Abba waving his hands in the air: always the prelude to a punch or a slap. Then he moved away from the window, and whatever happened next was out of sight but nonetheless known to Yehudit and Micah, like action taking place in the wings of a play.

Imma emerged from the back door, her sobs and screams a seamless, fused artifact. She held her eye or nose, and was fumbling for her car keys. Abba soon followed. His sleeves were rolled up, exposing his round, hairy forearms. His white shirt was open at the collar, even on this cool, late fall day, giving him the appearance of a Labor Party leader from the 50’s or 60’s. He followed his wife slowly, assured of victory, or in the least, certain of victory in a future rematch.

“Where are you going, Ruth?” he barked in Hebrew.

“I’m going to the battered women’s shelter in Floral Park,” she said in English, and then concluded in rapid Hebrew. “The police will be involved. You’ll go to jail like you deserve, you cowardly bastard!”

“Do it! Do it!” Abba screamed in Hebrew. “You don’t have the guts,” he spat in English, laughing. “Where is my shelter, huh? Where?” As Imma peeled away, Abba slammed his fist down on the hood of the car. When she was out of sight, peeling around the corner, he went back into the house by the same door he had left. But first he looked at his son and daughter playing in the sandpit.

Yehudit’s tanks were barreling through the Gaza Strip on the way to El Arish with little resistance. Micha had no choice but to retreat. He thought of a rear guard action, but knew it would be fruitless against the Jews.

3. “Come on, they’re not home,” Yehudit pulled Micha by the arm into bedroom. He squirmed to pull free, but she was too strong.

“Don’t be a baby,” she said in English, and then continued in Hebrew. “They won’t be back for hours.

“But we shouldn’t,” Micha pleaded, wide-eyed. “We were told not to.”

“If you want to learn things, you need to gather intelligence,” she said, again in Hebrew. “This is what the Mossad would do. They’d get what they wanted and then blow this place sky high!”

She opened Abba’s bureau. Within were a number of forbidden items which had been reconnoitered on previous secret operations. A carton of Abba’s Marlboros; a box of condoms, unopened; a vibrator; a manual of sexual positions in Hebrew, illustrated with pen and ink drawings; some Israeli coins and bills in an old ash tray.

But what they sought this time was more illicit than the dark building blocks of matrimonial life. Yehudit pulled out a shoe box and gently placed it on the floor. After an appropriate pause, she opened the lid. The smell was of a faint mold. The first visual impression was of items embedded in a plate of armor.

There were about half a dozen medals: shining pieces of brass or silver with pieces of colored ribbon trailing like dragons’ tails. Some bore the coat of arms of the State of Israel -- a seven-branched menorah on a two-storied base. One bore the likeness of David Ben Gurion in profile, looking more like Caesar than a dumpy kibbutznik with elf-like tufts of hair ringing his bald head. There was a stack of photographs, some in black and white and some in color. A young Abba on a tank, wearing a helmet with long ear flaps which looked oddly like the hat Snoopy wore when his doghouse transformed into a fighter plane. Abba in khaki next to a burnt out transport on an expanse of desert. Abba at the base of Mount Harmon, its snow-capped peak in the distance, frosted like an almost finished wedding cake, brandishing an Uzi and a half-finished smile. Micha and Yehudit handled each item like the accouterments of the Temple -- long now in disuse, but still worthy of trembling awe.

Then a folded paper in a faded envelope. Yehudit opened it and looked at the page of typed Hebrew. She read it aloud. She had been in Israel long enough to learn to read, whereas Micha could only speak the language.

“September 1st, 1982… Dear Captain Amos Shalom,” she read Abba’s name, and then a long list of Abba’s division, brigade, company, and command affiliation, followed by the engagements in which he had fought. Some of the words flew by Micha without his comprehension. Psychological reports and evaluations, fitness summarizations, cowardice in the face of the enemy, Hebrew words he had never heard before at the kitchen table or in his sister’s room. But he understood the final sentence well enough.

“…due to the erratic nature of your command, it is recommended by this board that you be discharged with full benefits, rank and pension pay…” and it was signed by some Deputy Minister of Defense.

Just as Yehudit was folding the paper and placing it back in its envelope, and then attempting to arrange the items in the box in their primordial state, they heard the car pull up the driveway. So Yehudit stuffed the items into the box with haste, and jammed it into the bureau. Then they both fled from the room, like soldiers eager to leave the scene of some atrocity. They knew the box was in disarray. But better that then getting caught in the act.

4. Yehudit and Micha stepped off the bus. As they did in school, they still spoke English and called each other Judy and Mike. But as they came closer to the house, their English became punctuated by Hebrew words and phrases. By the time they broached the threshold of the door of the house on 11th Avenue, the ratio of Hebrew to English was one to one. And they were Yehudit and Micha again.

They entered the kitchen. Imma had not returned last night, but here she was now, sitting at the table, smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee while reading the Daily News. She looked at her children.

“Hello,” she said flatly. “Do you want a snack?”

Neither child said a word, but sat at the table and waited. Imma poured them both some Kool Aid and brought out some hummus and fried pita chips. During their first year on Long Island, they had tried “Jewish” food. Imma sent back every dish brought out to her by the long-suffering waiter at Woolfie’s Restaurant and Delicatessen. The overstuffed brisket sandwich on rye was as greasy as the offerings made in the tabernacle: pieces of fat tail, kidneys and the lobes of the liver, as mentioned in Leviticus. The matzah ball soup was as salty as the Dead Sea. Imma’s overarching distaste for American Jewish cuisine extended to the Long Island Jews themselves. A gregarious woman, she had been surrounded by friends, family and colleagues in Tel Aviv, but she could not adjust her social habits to the American Jew. If they were religious she mocked their watered down version of the faith of Moses. If they were secular, she called them little more than Jewish gentiles, half of them in mixed marriages. They couldn’t be Jews like Jews in Israel, simply by being alive in a Jewish nation. So they had to flaunt their Jewishness or deny it, and it enraged Imma. So after a disillusioning circuit among the Hebrews of New Hyde Park she kept to herself, whipping up hummus in the blender, or preparing falafel in a Fry Daddy. Dizengoff Street had been shrunk to the head of a pin, a kitchen twelve feet by sixteen feet with a window overlooked the pitted driveway.

Both Yehudit and Micha noticed the heart-shaped bruises on Imma’s arms. Her face was unmarked. She had blocked Abba’s blows at least to the point where her face was unblemished.

“We want to go out and play,” Yehudit said as she finished the Kool Aid. Imma looked at her through narrow eyes.

“Fine,” she said, turning her eyes once again to the newspaper. “But only for an hour. Then it’s inside to do your homework.”

5. “You are a Palestinian boy throwing rocks,” Yehudit explained. “And I am an Israeli patrol. I’ll stop you with tear gas and then rubber bullets.”

“No,” Micha screamed. “Absolutely not. Fuck you, Yehudit,” and Micha ran away. But Yehudit followed him.

“OK. You are the Arab Legion, and you are trying to protect the Temple Mount from being stormed and I’m…”

“I don’t want to play anymore, damn it!” Micha raged in Hebrew. Then, in English, “leave me the fuck alone.” A Long Island Railroad express, whose tracks ran behind their back yard fence, sped by at such a tremendous speed that neither child could hear the other, so the fight ended. But when the train had passed, they could hear their parent’s quarrel, filling the breach of silence.

6. “Can we have a Christmas tree this year, Imma?” Yehudit asked in Hebrew. Dinner conversation was almost entirely in Hebrew. Imma glared at her daughter coldly.

“Why the hell should we have a Christmas tree?”

“The Shapiros had one last year,” Yehudit answered firmly.

“That’s because their mother is Christian,” Imma answered, scoffing. “What Hitler didn’t do with the ovens the Americans here will do with the bedroom. Absolutely not!”

“Why the hell not?” Abba said, slurring his words. He had brought home a three liter bottle of Ernest and Julio Gallo Red Table Wine, and was well half done. “Those damn trees mean nothing to Americans. Putting one up is like hanging a fucking curtain.”

“It’s about Jesus’ birth,” Imma answered, looking at Yehudit only.

“It’s about shit,” Abba answered. “It makes no difference. Hang bagels on the fucking thing if you want to make it Jewish!”

“I won’t have a Christmas tree in my house,” Imma said softly but firmly, yet the thread of her anger was starting to unravel from its spool.

“My name is on the mortgage,” Abba slurred. “If I want to put a Buddha in the bathtub, I’ll fucking do it.”

There was silence for a moment, then only the sound of tense teeth grinding food in dry mouths.

“What did any of it mean?” Abba asked. He had reached the stage of drunkenness where he had stopped looking at the particular and moved to the universal. “Here you can live,” he continued. “If you are on a bus or train and there is a bag next to you someone left behind, all it means is some asshole forgot his bag. Or if a guy comes into the subway in August in a big winter coat, he’s just some harmless jerkoff in a coat who’s too retarded to tell winter from summer…”

Imma got up from the table and tossed her food in the trash. She strode briskly out of the kitchen, whispering something just beneath her breath. Abba watched her for a moment as if contemplating not only his next move, but how his next move would affect his position six or seven moves down the line.

Then he sprung up and his chair fell from him, as if it had been attached to his rump, and he began to follow Imma through the house, the wine glass hanging limply in his hand like a dead dove.

“What did you say?” he screamed a few paces behind her, but catching up fast. “Say it! Damn it! Don’t whisper it, Ruth. If you’re gonna say it, then fucking say it!” Abba had backed her into a corner. She turned around to face him.

“Coward,” she said evenly, firmly, but in a whisper. Abba stood still and tall for a moment. A broad, uneasy smile crossed his face, like a ripple moving slowly over a dark pond, changing its shape but not unsettling the surface tension.

“Say it again, Ruth, but louder,” he ordered. “I need to hear it clearly pronounced.”

“Coward,” she said louder. And then screaming:“COWARD! COWARD!”

“Just fine,” Abba answered, pleased with the results. “Just really fine…” and then he lunged for her. He quickly wrapped his beefy hands around her neck and began to squeeze. Imma struggled to break free as the children watched from the threshold of the kitchen. After a half a minute of gasping, rolling, and flaying her arms and legs looking for some advantage, Imma landed a knee in Abba’s crotch, and his hands fell from her neck as if a switch had been thrown and a current smothered.

Imma began to wail. She rolled back and forth on the ground, her eyes sealed shut, her hands wrapped around her neck, as if she could still feel Abba’s fingers.

“I can’t live like this… I can’t live…” she moaned.

“Then don’t live,” Abba screamed, and stooping over, burst out the door.

7. “I’m Moshe Dayan and you be a Jordanian General,” Yehudit explained. “We’ll sign a cease fire agreement right here on this picnic table. I get all of the Old City. I’ve even drawn up the papers in English and Hebrew.”

She held out a piece of ruled paper torn out of a binder. The top paragraph was in Hebrew cursive and the bottom, English. Micah took the paper and looked at it.

“OK,” Yehudit said, realizing he was cold on the idea. “I’m Menachem Begin and you are Anwar Sadat and we are about to sign the Camp David agreement…”

Micha crumpled the treaty in his hand and tossed it to the lawn.

“I don’t want to play this fucking game anymore…” he said, and began to cry. Yehudit sat next to him and placed an arm around his shoulder. But he brushed it away.

8. Abba and Imma sat across from Mr. Wasserman, Micha’s Principal. He had called them about a fight with another boy and they rushed to his office.

“Where is Micha?” Imma asked.

“He is with the school nurse, Mrs. Shalom,” he answered, stressing the last name, as if it had some overarching meaning for the couple before him.

“Is he OK?” Abba asked.

“Yes,” Mr. Wasserman answered. “He got a bloody nose. The nurse is cleaning him up. When we are done here, you can get him and bring him home.”

“What happened?” Imma asked.

“Well,” the Principal started, “We have a boy’s cousin from Israel visiting us. He is sitting in on some classes while he’s here. I guess Mike met him. They had some sort of words together. This boy, Yossi, said something to Mike and Mike took a punch at him and missed. Then Yossi took a swing at Mike, and hit him in the nose. I had a talk with Mike about fighting. I told him that no matter what someone says or does to you, violence isn’t the answer. If you hit someone, all they will do is hit you back. It doesn’t solve a thing. I’m sure you will explain that to Mike as well. I had the same talk to Yossi. And I’ll talk to his cousin’s father and mother too.”

“What did the boy say?” Imma asked. “The Israeli boy?”

“I’m not sure,” Mr. Wasserman answered. “The whole thing took place in Hebrew, and neither boy is being forthright.” Then, after a pause, he began again. “As important as this incident is, Mr. and Mrs. Shalom, I also brought you here to discuss some broader issues involving Mike. He seems depressed and withdrawn. I don’t think he has a friend in the entire school. I realize that kids who immigrate from other countries have adjustment issues, but in Mike’s case it has been nearly three years now, and he came here speaking fluent English. So I need to ask a blunt question, Mr. and Mrs. Shalom, and one which may offend you. Are there any problems at home?”

9. In the car no one said a word. There was blood on Micah’s shirt and a white bandage around his nose. Finally, Imma turned and spoke to her son.

“What did that Israeli boy call you?” she asked in English.

“I don’t know,” he answered in Hebrew.

“How the hell can you not know when it was bad enough for you to take a swing at the little bastard?” Abba yelled.

“What did he call you or we’ll take away your Nintendo for two weeks!” Imma turned away from him. Her face was florid.

“Yordim,” Micha screamed, even louder than Imma and Abba, louder than he imagined he ever could. “He called us all fucking cowardly yordim!”

10. That night Abba and Imma screamed. Each one taunted the other to leave, but neither would budge. A chorus of this is my house, this is my house, sliced through the night, like a curtain being torn in half repeatedly, into ever smaller swatches. Then objects began to fly. Glass against brick. Wood against linoleum. Objects, shrouded in the dark, revamped as projectiles and hurled across some delineated chasm. Then muffled cries arose, and the fighting moved from distant barrage to close quarters, from fixed positions to a fluid, mobile front. There ensued crying, yelling, cursing, screaming: I’ll kill you I’ll kill you in male and female voices, in Hebrew and English.

Micah lay in bed and listened. He also heard the voice of his sister relating all those battles in his head. The Latrun Salient. The War of Attrition along the Suez Canal. Fighter jets and tanks in the desert; men in green uniforms crouched low in a long row along a pitted wall in Gaza City. The sounds of crashing and screaming and sonic booms and artillery. It all came to Micha through the medium of his sister’s voice, authoritative, commanding, unyielding.

“Kill me, you bastard,” Imma taunted in a lull. “You didn’t have the balls to kill our enemies, so now you’ll kill me!”

There was a hand on his shoulder. It was Yehudit. She was fully dressed.

“What?” Micha asked at the level of a whisper.

“Get dressed…” she commanded. “We are getting out of here.”

“Why?” he asked.

“Retreat,” she answered, pulling him from bed. “I’m ordering you to retreat.”

11. The 1:50 AM train to Penn Station was empty. The conductor looked askance at the two children with their hastily packed bags and sleepy eyes, but he stamped their tickets and walked down the swaying car without uttering a word.

“Where are we going?” Micah asked.

“Away,” she answered gruffly. “Retreating.”

“Where?” he asked.

“New York City…” she answered, and then, “anywhere. We have to retreat in order to regroup and mount an assault. We can’t win until we regroup,” she said, looking out at the lights going by in the train window. “It is a necessary part of military strategy.”

“But I’m scared,” Micah said, tears falling down his cheeks.

“But how can we stay there?” Yehudit answered. “Isn’t staying there scarier?”

To this, Micah had no response. The train dipped into the tunnel under the East River. Their car’s lights had malfunctioned, so as the train pulled into Penn Station and the doors opened, the yellow station lights flooded the dark car. Yehudit grasped Micha’s hand, but he shrugged it off. He bolted up from his seat and dashed for the doors. He sprinted down the platform and toward the stairs. Yehudit called after him, running. “Stop! This is to be an orderly retreat! I order you to halt! This is not a rout, but a strategic retreat! Not a rout, a regrouping! Stop! I order you to stop!”

But it was too late. She could not find Micah. She had become a commander without an army. She was the last Jordanian on the Temple Mount and could hear the Hebrew shouts in the distance, closing fast. She had been cast across to the East Bank of the Jordan River. She had lost her Promised Land, and she had lost her way in Penn Station. She could not find the direction back down to the track or up to the street, and all at once she felt an urge to cry and an urge to run and only by biting her hand so fiercely she almost drew blood did she suppress them both.

First published in The MacGuffin, 2008

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