My brother has all the answers, even to the questions I don’t ask. He says that the human brain contains 100 billion neurons, 900 billion glial cells and 1,000 trillion receptors. When hit by dumb shrapnel, its contents scatter like a smashed watermelon. Something to ponder when you study a foreign language or memorize poetry.
I nod. I’ve been always dumbstruck by such unfairness. You evolve: you crawl out from the sea, you lose your scales, you grow fur and then shave it, but in the end a simple kaboom does you in.
It’s a Sunday. My brother and I share a train seat in the midst of a large group of Israeli soldiers returning to their bases from the Sabbath break. We were also soldiers once. Red Army soldiers.
Twenty years ago, my brother and I emigrated from the Soviet Union. He left for Israel, and I came to America. We haven’t seen each other ever since. Until now, of course, and even that was an accident. I published a book, which should have been rejected, and got a pile of money that was enough for a round-trip plane ticket and a bus to JFK airport.
Some of the soldiers carry cool automatic weapons. Others are unarmed. My brother packs a pestic. It’s the Russian baby name for a pistol. Some things are allowed to have baby names even when you are a grown man who has skipped his youth.
Before I left my Upstate New York home for Israel, my friend Robert told me to watch out for people with bulging waists. He has never been outside the US, but he has a nose for danger. A small button of a nose, to be exact. I told him that bulging waists mean a high-fat diet and lack of exercise. He laughed and slapped my shoulder. “Oh, naiveté! Or sancta simplicitas!”
He also knows Greek. I’m proud of him.
When my brother and I boarded the train, we noticed two Arab women in long black dresses and white scarves. I checked their waist lines. They were thin like tamar, a palm tree from the Bible. One of them observed me with vacant eyes.
I had no idea what she thought about my waist. I knew it was bulging.
The train heads south. The vegetation turns sparser and dustier. There hasn’t been any rain since spring. The air conditioner struggles. The soldiers speak Hebrew and Russian into their cell phones. Some of them are girls. My brother says the girls are mostly non-combatants. To say that I like girls is a self-evident truth. It’s so obvious that it’s the same as to say that you can’t get suntan on the back side of the moon.
The day before I left for Israel, my brother phoned me.
“Let’s agree on one thing,” he said. “You won’t ask me ever again why I chose to live in Israel. We had enough fights because of that. What is done is done.”
“Let’s,” I said. Now, I will never find out why. That’s OK. I find solace in dreams. I often dream of nonsense, such as running in long strides with a bunch of people who wear passports in neck pouches, and I have nightmares such as sprawling vistas of [naked] women covered by the skulls of flowers.
We are heading for the Yam HaMeleh, the Dead Sea. I’m the American guest of honor and my brother is my Israeli host. It’s supposed to be two days of relaxation, solidarity and brotherhood in a 5-star hotel. Our parents financed the outing. Our wives remain behind in their respective homes. My wife said that we don’t have enough money for her plane ticket. In reality, she can’t get along with my brother’s wife. They are similar in many ways, and that is one of the roots of the problem. They are like a lynx and wolf, like a shark and a killer whale, like a falcon and a raven. No nature magazine has ever claimed that a shark and a killer whale like to visit each other for tea.
“You’re going to like it,” my brother tells me. “It’s the land of dreams.”
The soldiers carry giant bags and MP3 players. Some boys sport beards and long hair. They are reservists. My brother and I were reservists, too. We had to cut our hair when called for service.
Half an hour later, the vegetation is nearly gone. The desert is clay. It’s so hard that the rain cannot penetrate it and causes flash floods. Low hills are criss-crossed by narrow wadis, canyons.
Robert told me not to fly an Eastern European airline. “Three words to describe third world planes: unreliable, unreliable and unreliable.” He even made a phone call on my behalf to the Transportation Safety Administration. He reported that they agreed with him. Actually, the flight on the Hungarian Malev was nice. Yes, I was a tall sardine in a short can, but the plane crew tried to make me feel good. They spoke English with an accent Robert would have described as funny. I didn’t laugh.
In Be’er Sheva, we board a bus full of Russian retirees. The road is winding and the driver takes the payments from the passengers while negotiating the bends and the terms of purchase.
The retirees converse loudly about the costs of the bus tickets and the benefits of Dead Sea water. A woman who is the height of two peanuts balanced one on top of the other says the bus is cheaper and the water cures arthritis. A man with sunken eyes and a neatly trimmed beard claims that the shuttle is more convenient and that the water cures psoriasis. Their voices rise and fall. The bus descends below sea level. My ears pop.
We should have taken my brother’s car, but I insisted on public transportation. First, I wanted to see how an average Israeli travels. Then I wanted to prove Robert wrong. Not all bulges are suicide belts.
My brother tells me a story about his neighbor, Shmulik, an ambulance worker. There was a bomb explosion in my brother’s city. Many people were hurt. A woman bled profusely. Shmulik gave her first-aid. He kept saying, “Don’t worry, Shmulik is here. Shmulik was the best in his class. Shmulik is just re-certified. Shmulik won’t let you die.” She died anyway. So he quit his job, moved to Jerusalem, donned a black hat, grew a beard, and devoted his life to Torah study.
“There is a war going on,” my brother says.
When we arrive at the hotel, I check out the spacious room, the marble floors, and the well-stocked bathroom. Yes, five stars, like a General of the Army, the title reserved for war-time use. I observe myself in the mirror. Still handsome.
I take pictures from the balcony. I have to clip them to my trip report. It’s so hot that my skin is about to turn to ashes.
My brother asks me if I snore. I deny it. I ask if he snores. He denies it. The sign in the bathroom warns against drinking the tap water. It’s salty. My brother says that somewhere in the neighborhood there is a salt statue that used to be Lot’s wife. This is something I have always wanted to see. On the plane, I wrote a long and winding poem about her. It ended with: “And no one remembers your name.”
When I meet her, we’ll have a discussion about the future of the Middle East. She who knows the past, holds the keys to the future. If she has the pockets or a purse to store them.
We take a shuttle to the beach. It’s narrow, two seats across, no sides, doors or windows. We take the last row. A Russian retiree in a white terry cloth robe and tattoos squeezes next to me. The driver says that he can’t allow three people in two seats. The retiree says that he doesn’t understand Hebrew. The driver repeats himself in Russian. The retiree shouts that he doesn’t like the driver and wishes him a mental misfortune. The driver replies. He wishes damage to the retiree’s external organs. His saliva flies all over but can’t penetrate the hard ground.
My brother and I get up and walk. The sun has no mercy on us. The sea is covered with floating Russians, immigrants, and tourists. No woman is indecent. On the contrary, a few of them bathe either in long dresses or burkinis. They must be natives. In the distance, I see bare mountains. It’s Jordan. The water is warmer than my body and so salty that it feels oily. My skin tingles.
“It’s like another world,” I say. “A fairy tale but with a bad ending.”
“You’re a dreamer,” my brother says. “Always was, always will be.”
He sounds like Robert. I collect salt in a water bottle. Isn’t this what dreamers do—bring home souvenirs for their devoted friends?
In the evening, we have a buffet dinner. The food is plentiful, kosher and salty. I load up on the pickled herring, hummus, and blintzes. The next table is occupied by two middle-aged Arab couples. They and the teenaged Israeli waiters seem to be the only people in the hall who do not speak Russian.
My brother criticizes my table manners. His own manners are impeccable. So is his clothing and his Swiss watch.
“That’s the first thing they see, a man’s watch,” he says.
My watch is at least ten years old. Robert wears a digital watch from the early eighties. When people look at us, they see two middle aged dudes. No watch would improve that.
“How about the man’s belt?” I ask. “Do they see it too?”
“You’re not listening.”
I wake up in the middle of the night. My brother snores. I go out to the balcony. It’s still hot, but the air is dry. Stars larger than life by at least twenty percent hang in the sky. God told Abraham that his seed will be as numerous as the stars. I raise my hands toward the heavens. If I wore a beard, I’d look like a prophet.
On the balcony next to me, a woman smokes. She wears a short-sleeved linen robe, barely covering her knees, and her waist is bulging. She stares at me with vacant eyes. Her skin glistens in the dim light.
I ask, “What is your name?” She doesn’t answer. I lick my dry lips. It’s a desert, after all. “Do you speak Russian?” Still no answer.
She must be deaf. She must hate me. She must be dead. She must be Lot’s wife. I want to call my brother—he has all the answers—but instead I pull a small star from the sky, waltz closer across time, and offer it to her like a rose. And the star explodes in a rainbow of colors, with the most prevalent of them being blinding white.
Mark Budman‘s works have appeared or are about to appear in such magazines as MississippiReview, Virginia Quarterly, The London Magazine, Iowa Review, McSweeney’s, Turnrow, Connecticut Review, the W.W. Norton anthology Flash Fiction Forward, and elsewhere. He is the publisher of a flash fiction magazine Vestal Review. His novel My Life at First Try has just been published by Counterpoint Press to wide critical acclaim. He co-edited the anthology You Have Time for This from Ooligan Press; a new anthology is forthcoming in 2009 from Persea Books.
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