Harvitz, As To War
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Ben Nadler
I was released from Fort Knox after serving eight months, which constituted the required minimum of one third of my sentence for desertion. The Army had made its point, and they weren’t interested in wasting any more time and money on me. They gave me a dishonorable discharge, and a kick in the ass.
I called my dad as soon as I found out I was going to be released.
“That’s great, Sammy! That’s really great!
“Yeah. It’ll be another couple weeks, at least, until all the paperwork goes through. Military bureaucracy, you know.”
“I can imagine.”
“But, I mean, it’s a sure thing.”
“Oh, buddy, I’m so glad to hear that. I can’t wait to have you back. You can stay with me as long as you need, to get back on your feet.”
“I appreciate that. We’ll see what happens…”
“Sure, sure. Of course. But hey, first thing off, I’ll take you out to the diner. Just like old times. We’ll have us a couple of nice ruebens, and onion rings on the side, and chocolate milkshakes. How’s that sound?
“Sure it does! And I’ll make sure I have a cold sixer in the fridge. I bet that’ll taste real good after being away.”
“Actually, I don’t know about that one. I’m thinking I might be done with all that.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet! Ha! But hey, Sammy, I’m so glad you’re gonna be back. Things here. Sammy. I loved your mother until the day she died. And now that Linda’s gone.” Who the hell was Linda? “Sammy, I’m just so… It’s just so…”
“Someone else has to use the payphone, Dad. We’ll have plenty of time to talk when I’m out of here.”
“Sure thing, Sammy.”
We hung up without making any real plans.
When the time came, I found myself standing outside the front gate of Fort Knox. I was free now, and I tried to be excited about that. But standing on one side of a fence felt about the same as standing on the other. You were just a guy standing next to a fence.
I didn’t have a dime in my pocket. They don’t give you a chance to cash out your commissary balance. All the money I’d had in the world previously had been in cash, and on my person when I was arrested. I guess the MPs had confiscated it or something.
I figured I ought to hitch hike on down the road. As free men do. I would go from town to town. I would eat what was set before me. If I was not welcomed in a town, I would wipe the town’s dust off my feet in protest.
A young army wife picked me up in a Mustang right outside the gate. She said she was going East, and just a little ways. I said that was great, I was going East too. It became true as soon as I said it. I felt a great power in my speech then. The army wife and I did not speak again until she dropped me off at her turn off.
“So long,” she said.
“So long,” I said. “Thanks for the ride.”
I easily caught a few more rides – good citizens who assumed I was just a solider from the base with a three day pass– but nothing too fruitful. Locals, mostly, not going too far. Five miles down the road. Ten miles down the road. State roads. In this slow fashion, I turned the day into distance.
Some hippies picked me up around dusk in an old Astro van. They were young, younger than me, but their whole deal was from the seventies. Their clothes, their slang. Bellbottoms and ‘groovy.’ Jefferson Airplane was playing on the tape deck. No, Jefferson Starship. The girl sitting next to me in the back wore a low cut peasant blouse. Her big breasts were rolling out of the thin fabric. They were beautiful breasts. Her hair was long and thin, her face eager and dumb. She was cozying up to me because she could see I was strange and damaged. I hadn’t been close to any women in three quarters of a year, and the attention made me excited. At the same time, I was racked with newfound Christian guilt. Or social anxiety. It wasn’t clear. I was racked with something.
A small faced boy sitting in the seat in front of us kept turning around and offering me different kinds of dried fruit. Apples. Apricots. Banana chips. This seemed like a form of hostility (maybe he was jealous of the girl’s attentions?), but I accepted each fruit he offered because I was hungry. The hippies lit up a couple spliffs to pass around, and that made things less clear. I wasn’t smoking, but just being in the van with the smoke was making me feel loopy. I suddenly felt like there a lot of people in a very small van. I couldn’t count them. They were all talking to me, asking me questions, telling me stories about horses and scarecrows. The girl with the breasts asked if I wanted to spend the night camping with them. We would have a fire, she said, and dance under the stars.
I had he hippies drop me off at a truck stop off I-75. The girl protested, but I insisted. The driver shrugged and pulled over. The first moment outside of the van felt good. I stood on the solid ground and breathed in deeply. As soon as I exhaled, I was cold and lonesome. I wished I was still inside the van. I went inside the truck stop. It was a sort of convenience store, really. There were lots of things to buy – candy and potato chips and little pocket knives – but I still didn’t have any money. I went right up to a trucker and asked him to buy me a cup of coffee. He did, but not in a manner which encouraged me to push things father by asking him for a ride.
I went outside to drink my coffee. I knew that the only way I would get a ride is by starting a conversation with a trucker, developing a rapport. But my conversation skills were pretty rusty. I didn’t know how to establish a rapport.
I nodded to the different truckers, as they came in and out the door. I looked up at the sky. There a lot of stars in the sky down South. More than I could ever see growing up in North Jersey, anyway. I looked at all the different trucks. They were pulled into their giant parking spaces, the dinosaur snouts of their cabs faced towards me. They were different colors, different shapes. Some were dusty, some still glistening. I noticed with a start that one old white cab had a large cross affixed to its grill.
I walked up for a closer look. It was a cross all right, two earnest old boards nailed together where they met, and affixed to the truck’s grill with bailing wire. Well, I thought, this is the ride for me. This truck is bound for glory, and I better be in it. I sat down on the driver’s side running board and waited.
Eventually the trucker came to his truck. He was his late forties; thin, but looked like maybe he used to be fatter. He wore a multi-pocketed khaki vest like you picture photographers wearing, and a baseball cap with no words or logo on it. I think I had nodded to him on his way in the store, about twenty minutes earlier.
“Can I help you, friend?” he asked me, an edge of hostility in his voice, like he was struggling between his love of his truck and his love of his fellow man. I’d try to appeal to the latter,
“Yes,” I said, standing up. “I saw the cross…” I gestured, toward the front of the cad. “And I hoped maybe you could offer me some Christian charity.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t give you any money.” He gave me a reproachful look instead.
“No, I didn’t… I meant I need a ride.”
“Oh, I see. That’s something different. Though I don’t normally… which way are you headed, son?”
“Whichever way is OK by me.”
“You don’t care which way you go?”
“No, not really. Not as long as I’m going.”
“How’s that? You running from someone?”
“Running from the law?”
“You just get out of jail or something?”
“Yes,” I admitted.
“Out of jail, or out of something else?”
“Oh. Out of jail. A sort of jail. Jail.”
“How long were you in there for, son?”
“I don’t know. A while. Long enough to learn how to pray.”
“Fair enough.” He surprised be by letting out a little laugh. “Fair enough. Hop on in.”
We rode south through the hills. The Christian trucker took the curves fast and hard – we were alone on the highway – and I feared that the truck would topple off the road and into the shadows.
At first we rode in silence. As time went by, and he became used to my presence, he began to talk. He said that he was doing a long hall. He had some important animal husbandry supplies that he needed to get to Rupert, Florida. He wasn’t used to having company on the road. Normally he listened to recordings of the scriptures on the stereo. Sermons too, sometimes, but mainly scriptures, because he was an educated man – he had a masters degree in agriculture, and had made a small fortune consulting on corn fields in Kenya – and liked to form his own opinions.
“Do you know what has to happen before Jesus can return?”
“No,” I said, “Not… as such.” Truthfully, I was still wrapping my head around the idea that the Messiah had ever come once. The idea of him coming again was more than I was ready to deal with.
“Now a lot of people, say that they see the forces gathering. The State of Israel, firstly. The re-establishment of a Hebrew Kingdom. The European Union, which is really the re-formation of The Roman Empire. Which, essentially, has ten core nations… the very ten nations that will serve (or already serve!) under The Beast. Then you have the Russian Federation – that’s what they call the USSR these days. I call it the Northern Federation.
“Then you got the Chinese, the Persians… various Asiatic Peoples from beyond the Euphrates.
“And of course there’s the African Kings from the South. Your Ghaddafis and such.”
“So anyway, it seems this is all shaping in line with the Book. I mean, of course it is! It’s the damn book! So you think it’s coming to pass?”
“Sure,” I answered. I didn’t feel I had enough knowledge to make an informed opinion, but it was his car, so I figured I’d agree with his ideas.
“Well you’re wrong! You’re all wrong!”
“Now, don’t take it so hard. Big picture, this all lines up. But people, they miss the details. Not me.” He took a hand off the wheel to touch his capped head. I guess that’s where he kept his details. “None of this can happen until the Temple is resurrected in Jerusalem. And, thankfully, there are plenty of people working on that. But a lot of them are still too big picture.
“See, what a lot of these guys don’t get is that there is a very specific process to all that. Do you know what needs to happen before the Temple can be rebuilt?”
“Don’t take it to hard. Most people don’t. But let me tell you: the first thing that’s needed is a Red Heifer. I mean, a truly suitable, pure red cow. The thing about this is that –“
“Para Adumah,” I interrupted.
“What’ that now?”
“Para Adumah,” I repeated, with more confidence in my pronunciation. “The Red Heifer. Pure red, not even two black hairs. Never yoked. There were eight. They were sacrificed, and the ashes were used to purify those who had come into contact with the dead.”
“Golly, that’s right! How do you know all that? I don’t expect they were teaching that at prison bible study.”
“I studied it in Hebrew, when I was a kid. That was going to me my haftorah portion, for my bar mitzvah.” The driver turned and looked at me intently. We were still moving fast. I wished to God he’d look at the road.
“You’re a Jew?”
“More or less. Less. Depending how you look it”
“But you are a Jew, by decent?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Well! How do you like that now! I picked up a genuine, Torah reading Jew. That’s great!”
“Yes,” I agreed, not because I thought it was great to be a Jew but because I was happy he was looking at the road again.
“As Christians, we must love the Jewish people. It’s a blessing for a Christian to be able to help out a Jew. And, I mean, I wasn’t even going to stop at that rest area. This is an important load, I’m on a tight schedule. But I became overcome with tiredness, so I stopped to drink some coffee. And I never drink coffee! And, you know, I never pick up hitchhikers. There’s a lot of wicked people out on these roads. Possessed. On drugs. Both, maybe. But it was God’s will that I stopped, and you found me! To give me the opportunity to help you!”
“Yes,” I agreed. “A blessing.”
“Listen,” the trucker said after a while, “It would be a great blessing for both of us, and an honor for me, if you would allow me to baptize you. “ I had already been baptized once in prison, but I got the impression that this guy considered it a real trophy to bag a Jew convert. I had a sudden idea that he wanted to drown me. He would say that only full immersion baptisms were valid. When I went under, he would hold me down under the pond water until I stopped thrashing.
“Why not,” I said.
The baptism took place at dawn, out behind another truck stop. I crouched down in the dust, and the trucker turned the spigot on over my head. The water rained down, the sun rose up, and the trucker said a few words. Then he bought us a big breakfast in the truck stop diner to celebrate. I toweled off with some paper towels in the restroom, but I was still pretty soaked when I sat down at the booth to eat. We had silver dollar pancakes, scrambled eggs and sausage, all drenched in syrup. I hadn’t really eaten anything for a day or so, and my stomach buckled as it was hit with the sweet syrup and the rich fat. I didn’t let that stop me from eating two plates. This was my first proper meal as a free man.
It was awkward between us back in the car.
“Is it too cold in here?”
“No it’s fine.”
“Cause you can roll up the window.”
“No, man, it’s your rig. However you like it in here is fine by me.”
“Well, sure. But you’re my guest… and it was such an honor–“
“No, the honor was all mine.”
It was like hooking up with a woman after a show in a different town, than having to catch a ride home with her in the morning. By the same token, there was sweetness to the situation. We had shared an intense moment, and were recovering together. We were out of the hills now, and riding high in the cab we towered above the fields on either side of us. The sky – blue, with a strange purple hue – surrounded us. There were clouds in the sky, but we were moving faster than they were.
The Christian Trucker chatted nervously about the load we were carrying. Apparently, the refrigerated rig was full massive amounts of bull sperm, from a cattle ranch in Nebraska. The folks at this cattle ranch where trying to breed a red heifer, so the coming of the messiah could be hastened. They were getting close but they had some issue, and they needed to get a bunch of different strains of bull sperm analyzed at a special lab in a little place called Rupert, Florida.
Ultimately though, this connected back to helping some of his brethren in Israel, who were preparing to rebuild the Holy Temple. They had building plans and funds and ritual objects and true Cohainim who knew their roles. The Trucker was involved with lots of people overseas. To tell the truth, he wasn’t just in Kenya doing agro-business. He was there helping to launch Christian missionaries who were entering Somalia in the guise of aid workers and English teachers.
“You see,” he explained, “There were church schools in Somalia until the 1970s, and the teachings are not completely forgotten. Just dormant. What’s more, there are certain ethnic groups who have been quite mistreated by certain Shia warlords, and are ripe for discovering the true faith.
“It’s a damned hard place to operate, though. That’s why I had to base the operation in Kenya, and direct things from well across the border.”
The Trucker said he really shouldn’t be telling anyone about the red heifer sperm operation, let alone about the operations in Somalia. It was too important and too fragile and there were many people and forces who would like to derail it. He felt he could trust me though, on account of I was Jew and part of the plan in my own way and because we’d shared the experience of my baptism.
While he was still talking, I grabbed my knapsack from the back seat and started rummaging through it. As I didn’t have very many possessions in my bag, it didn’t take me long to find the Rosh HaShana card I’d received from Grandpa irving when I was locked up. I pulled it out and read the address from the envelope.
“Is Rupert, Florida anywhere near Clearwaves, Florida?”
“Clearwaves… Clearwaves… Well, matter of fact I believe it is. Why do you ask?”
“I have a grandfather there I think I should visit.”
“Well how do you like that. I knew that this was meant to be, that I was picking you for a reason. I thank God I’m able to help you on your way.”
The Trucker looked up Irving’s address on his GPS system, and dropped me off as close as he could get in the semi. I walked the lost three quarters of a mile down poorly lit drives. Leisure Kingdom was a ‘gated community,’ surrounded by shrubs and fences, and patrolled twenty-four hours a day by a private force. This premium security was no match for my US Military training, and I penetrated the perimeter without any difficulty.
It took me another half hour of navigating Leisure Kingdom Lane, Leisure Kingdom Circle, Leisure Kingdom Court and Leisure Kingdom Road before I found 96 Leisure World Way. At one point (I believe I had just turned onto Leisure Kingdom Road), I spotted security personnel approaching in a motor vehicle. I quickly flattened myself against the ground, in a strategic position. I was stuck on the ground for a long time, as I waited for what turned out to be a large golf cart make it’s approach, pass by me, and proceed onto another roadway. The guard was middle aged, potbellied, and had his headphones on. He never even glanced to either side. My evasive measures were maybe a little excessive. I stood back up and resumed my search for Irving’s address.
There were many high rises in Leisure world – they reminded me of the housing projects where my friend Batinkva;ss family lived, in Coney Island – but it turned out Irving lived in a little bungalow. A sort of freestanding apartment on the ground. He opened the door at the first ring. He was a very old man now. He had already been old the last time I saw him, but now he was much older. What was that, five years before? I guess I thought that once you were old, you were just old. But no, you could still get older and older.
He wore a black suit, with a little string tie and house slippers. He looked me up and down, sizing me up.
“Hello,” he said coolly, without any sign of recognition in his voice
“It’s me,” I said. “Sammy.” Had I changed so much that my own grandfather couldn’t even recognize me?
“I know who you are. What’s that on your arm?”
“My arm?” I looked down. “Oh. It’s a tattoo,”
“So I see. But a tattoo of a cross.”
“Yeah.... a cross. I’ve been getting…. I’ve been studying religion.”
“Religion, sure. Studying. But a cross on your arm.” He pantomimed spitting over his shoulder. He did a good job of it, and it took me a moment to realize he hadn’t actually spit on the floor. “Feh,” he snorted. “Better I should have a Jewish murderer than a Christian saint for a grandson.
“Fine. Then I guess you don’t have a grandson. “ I thought I said this loudly and fiercely, but maybe I didn’t, because it didn’t seem to register. He continued talking in the same even voice.
“Well, I didn’t get to choose. So come in. You came all this way. You might as well have some soup.”
I came inside and sat at the kitchen table while Irving prepared the chicken soup on the stove. It was the kind that came condensed and lumpy in the can, and you mixed with milk in the pot as it heated. The accompanying packaged bread products we had were: Osem soup mandel (the little yellow ones) in the soup itself, grocery store rye on the side with margarine, and low fat sugar cookies for desert.
We spoke over dinner.
“So, I guess you’re out of the Army altogether now.”
“I learned a little Arabic while I was in there.”
“I suppose you would have.”
A long silence.
“You were in the Army.”
“Yes. A very long time ago.”
“In World War II.”
“Tell me about it.”
“What’s to tell? I don’t remember. It was the Army. I had a job to do. We all had our jobs to do. There were a lot of forms. I filled them out correctly. Do you want some more soup? Yes? At least you still have a healthy appetite. That’s something.”
After dinner we watched the news on the TV. Meth and murder in central Florida. Teen drivers. I’d always been a good driver, even as a teenager. Then there was documentary style news show about Iran. Then Irving said that he was tired. Before he went to sleep he placed a blanket, a pillow and a towel on the couch in his study for me. I was too restless to sleep. I’d been sitting all day in the car and at Irving’s table, and just being in Irving’s house had made me more nervous. I thought about turning on the small TV which sat in the corner of the room, but I was afraid the sound might disturb Irving, so I took a look at his bookshelf instead. There were a bunch of dental manuals and dental journals. A few non-academic books on Jewish subjects. The Holocaust. The Jews of Spain. The influence of Yiddish on the English language. There were some mystery novels, some thrillers. A few older paperbacks were mixed in with the glossy airport stuff. Their rough spines stood out from the sheen. One particular novel caught my eye.
Howard Fast’s My Glorious Brothers was the Hanukkah story retold through the eyes of Simon, the least glorious of the Maccabee brothers. It told the moving story of how he, as a young Judean villager, fights oppression and becomes a free man through a baptism by fire. I had owned this book as a child, and read it many times. My copy had been a Hanukkah gift from Irving, actually. He gave me many Howard Fast books as Hanukkah gifts. Spartacus, the moving story of a young Greek gladiator who fights oppression and becomes a free man through a baptism by fire. April Morning, the moving story of a young American farmer who fights oppression and becomes a free man through a baptism by fire. I wondered how many baptisms by water it would take to make up for the fact that I’ve never been baptized by fire.
I woke up around seven the next morning. I stretched, did a few sets of pushups, a few sets of sit-ups. I took a long shower, and went into the kitchen. Irving was sitting at the kitchen table, already in dressed in a suit. He was eating cereal with a soup spoon and reading the Wall Street Journal. Classical music played softly from a radio on the windowsill.
He looked up when I came in.
“Morning,” I said.
“Don’t you have anything but that same ugly GI undershirt to wear?”
“No. I mean, I have a few more. But they’re all the same. I have a jacket, too, if it’s colder.”
“Feh. You look like a hobo, wearing half an army uniform on the street. I’m sure I got an old suit back in there somewhere I could let you have.
I put on the suit he dug up for me. It was dark, cut conservatively. It was too tight in the shoulders, but the arms were the right length. The pants were OK around the waist. They pinched a little, but it wasn’t too uncomfortable. The legs were long, but that wasn’t a problem, I just rolled up the cuffs.
“There you go,” Irving said. You look like a million bucks. That’s the first step.” He gave me a silk handkerchief and an old wristwatch with a leather strap to complete the outfit.
It was decided without much discussion that there was no reason to draw out my stay in Florida. Around midday, we went down to the bus station in Iriving’s big car, and he bought me a one-way ticket to New York.
We ate some bagels at Dunkin Donuts – they have chive cream cheese there, now – then went back to the bus depot. My bus was already waiting at the gate. Irving gave me a hundred dollars in twenties, and said goodbye. He nodded solemnly as he said it. At the time I took it as him wishing me the best, but he may have just been affirming that my visit had ended. Either way, I got on the bus, and settled into a seat.
All the passengers were on the bus, we were just waiting for the driver. He mounted the stairs slowly, no expression behind his combed moustache and aviator glasses. He slid off his knee length fur coat off his shoulders, revealing the crisp greyhound uniform he wore underneath. “The bus driver is Jay Z!” a passenger shouted. “Yes sir,” agreed another voice,” A real rock star. The driver carefully folded the coat, placing it on the seat behind his own. No one begrudged him this delay; we were proud he was our driver.
He settled into his seat, and pulled the door shut with the lever. He checked his mirror, checked his settings. Then the bus rumbled to life and we pulled away from the doc. It must feel very different to be driving the bus than to be riding on it. I wouldn’t know. The bus pulled up the ramp and onto the highway. It picked up speed. I’d just come South the day before, and now I was headed North.
Copyright © Ben Nadler 2011
Ben Nadler was born in 1984, and lives in Brooklyn, New York. He received his BA from The New School in 2006, and is currently pursuing his MFA at The City College of New York. His writing has been published or is forthcoming in journals such as Soon Quarterly, Harpur Palate and The Fairy Tale Review. His first novel, Harvitz, As To War, is forthcoming from Iron Diesel Press in November, 2011.