By Sidura Ludwig
Irving would like you to understand that the world has rules, and that these rules should not be ignored. You should not kill another human being. You should not steal. You should make an effort to look after your community and help it to flourish. And you should never, not under any circumstances, fly one country’s flag underneath another’s.
“It’s degrading!” he is yelling at the religious, Jewish man with the black velvet skullcap. “It’s disrespectful! I can’t even stand to look at what you’ve done. You want to honour Israel, but you’ve done just the opposite!”
The man, a principal in fact, principal of the very school Irving has barged into, is nodding his head politely, albeit with his arms crossed in front of his chest, his back very straight, feet shoulder-width apart. As Irving berates him, the principal wonders if the time has come to organize proper security at the school. Don’t ask how Irving (however elderly, short, inconspicuous) managed to just walk right into this building. Other schools in this predominately Jewish neighbourhood just north of Toronto have elaborate security checks, offices positioned right by the front door, secretaries with panic buttons. But Irving was just out on his morning walk. He was taking the route he always takes, past the elevated brownstone townhouses, past the strip mall filled with kosher shops, a bakery, a pizza parlour. Past the Lubavitch community centre and then past the houses on the boulevard, which are starting to look tired from all the children who live in them. Tired the way a favourite t-shirt gets frayed and faded on someone who, over the years, has put on ten pounds. He walks past all the bicycles and scooters, the double strollers, and then passes this school, which he never noticed before. Until today. On the flagpole there are two flags instead of one. And the Israeli flag is flying below the Canadian.
The principal takes a breath when Irving appears to have paused.
“You know, it was never our intention to degrade Israel. This week is Israel’s birthday, in fact. Every year, the week of Israel’s birthday, we fly the Israeli flag in its honour. Many of our graduates go on to make aliyah. We have a proud affiliation with the State.”
“So invest in another flag pole!” Irving yells.
“We’ll take your suggestion under consideration.” The principal places his hand on Irving’s shoulder, leading him to the front door.
“No you won’t! You’re going to ignore me. You know, there are 192 flagpoles at the United Nations. This is about international law!”
One of the teachers, a young woman in a knitted beret and ankle-length denim skirt, has stopped to watch the commotion.
“Rabbi,” she says, her voice quiet but shaking, “should I call security?”
The principal shakes his head. Of course there is no security. They would have to call the police. And Irving, while certainly irate, is hardly threatening.
“The gentleman was just leaving.”
“I’m still waiting for an answer!” Irving bellows. Indeed, before today he never knew the depths of his voice. He never understood the power of his words, the strength of his vocals. He feels like an opera singer, a baritone reaching his climax, his mouth wide open, his hand outstretched, and then clenched as he comes to his resounding conclusion. And yet he doesn’t want to finish. He could argue like this all day.
“You’re a caring man,” the principal says, opening the door, pushing Irving firmly but gently through the doorway to the spring air, cool against the principal’s hot face. “Really, I appreciate you bringing this to our attention.”
And then, before Irving can say any more, the door is shut, the principal locks it, making a note to send a memo to all staff that the front door must be locked at all times until further notice.
Irving stands facing the door for a long time. Long enough to watch the principal walk back down the hall and up the stairs to his office, where Irving knows he will ignore everything that has happened in the last fifteen minutes. Irving is standing in the shadow of the double flag. He steps away from it to be in the sun. He looks up and wonders if he can’t just take the flag down himself. But there are men from the synagogue next door taking a cigarette break in clear view. And there are all the children in the classrooms. Irving walks away panting, his heart beating wildly like an animal planning an attack. So wildly, it beats against his ears and he feels as if his whole face is pulsating.
That night he has supper with his landlady, Mona, a Russian seamstress who uses her living room as her workshop. They eat in front of the television. There are swatches of material draped over folding chairs, cascading down from bookshelves.
“These girls, they don’t know,” she is complaining. “They just want to be sexy bridesmaids. But they bring me this crap material and it’s going to hang on them like crap. And you know what? They will be shitty bridesmaids. And I don’t want no one telling no one they came to see me.”
They are eating cabbage soup and pumpernickel bread. Irving is already on his second bowl. He dumps the bread into the soup, laps up the broth, and loves his landlady for saving him from a Stouffer’s microwave meal. They are watching Jeopardy. The topic is Chinese Geography for 500 dollars.
“Dongguan,” Mona calls out, the correct answer.
“You’d have a lot of money by now,” Irving tells her. He knows the bridesmaids are not good about paying. They’ve been late with their deposits. They’ve been trying to bargain.
“I want you to make me a shirt,” he says suddenly. Her wide-set eyes go soft. Irving counts the wrinkles by the tops of her cheeks as she smiles.
“Oh, I could make you such a nice shirt,” she tells him. “Such a nice one for your broad shoulders.”
Irving lives in a basement apartment, the darkest basement he has ever had in his seventy-two years. But when he is home, he leaves on the small, wide-screen TV his younger brother gave him for his last birthday.
“You need to get out and meet people,” his brother said, as though the gift came with a caveat. “It’s not healthy for you to stay in here all day. You’re forgetting how to be with people.”
But still, Irving leaves the TV on TSN during the afternoon and pretends he is wandering through the PGLA tournament, shaking hand with Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus. The colours from the TV reflect off the floor tiles and Irving even turns up the brightness on the screen. If it’s a sunny day on the course, he will put his face to the TV and feel the heat from the electricity, like a California sun, burning his nose.
Irving has lived in many places–seven countries out of the 192 whose flags each occupy a pole at the United Nations. Of all of them, Israel was the most beautiful. There he was on kibbutz in 1969, turning the desert into fertile farm. His arms were a sabra brown. His forehead blistered from the heat. When he showered at the end of the day, the water ran brown off his body, as brown as the roads they were paving in Tel Aviv. Brown, he once thought, was the true colour of renewal, the beginning of a seed, the colour of potential. And all of Israel was brown then, and there he was, fading into the landscape.
But now here? In Thornhill, north of Toronto? Irving sees a lot of white. Even when it isn’t winter, he sees clean white pavement, white stucco houses, pale white people translucent in the spring from hibernating for the winter. Forget multiculturalism, Canada is the whitest country he has ever known, as if everything is always frozen.
Tonight Irving leaves his home when it has already gone dark outside. His landlady is sleeping in front of the news as it announces that the Canadian Armed Forces have lost another soldier in Kandahar. She is snoring while a mother about her age weeps on the TV screen for her son who died, she said, trying to protect Canada’s fragile free state.
“There’s a man who would know better than to hang a country’s flag below another,” Irving mutters. There’s a man who knows about respecting world freedom.
In the night, the neighbourhood glows beneath the street lamps, white light streaming onto the pavement like spotlights. There is a lilac bush near the curb that sparkles beneath this. Other people are out too. They wear spring jackets and look down as they walk. Irving passes a religious woman and wishes her a good evening, but she doesn’t look up. He is not wearing a jacket and he does not feel the cold. When he tries to greet someone else who passes him and is ignored, Irving thinks, Yes, I am invisible.
The double flag is still up. He stands beneath the pole and pins a skullcap to his head, black velvet, the one he keeps in his sock drawer to take with him whenever he visits his religious nephew and niece for a Friday night meal. They will like this story, he thinks as he reaches up for the cords and pulls. They are going to love it.
Nobody stops him as he stands there on private school grounds, lowering the flags and removing the Israeli one from its position. Maybe that’s the trick to thievery, to make the act into an illusion. Irving pretends he is a caretaker removing the flag as has been requested of him. He stands the way a caretaker might stand at the end of a long day, his shoulders a bit stooped. He even takes a break to arch his back, which is not at all aching. Once he removes the flag, Irving folds it up and carries it back home like a gift, a blue-and-white striped gift he will present to his landlady and say, “Here. Make it with this. Let me pay you double.”
“Now this is material,” Mona might respond. “You are a man with good taste.”
“It’s nylon!” she exclaims the next morning. “How am I supposed to sew with this?”
“I don’t know,” he tells her. “With a needle and thread?”
“You trying to be Israeli? You think you are a sabra?”
“I think,” Irving says, “that this will make a good shirt.”
She looks at him through her squint. She says, “You pay me double.”
The shirt hangs heavily on Irving’s shoulders. He sweats as he walks in it. The cuffs feel like weights against his wrists. But the people who pass him see him now, the blazing Star of David on his back. In this neighbourhood they give him the thumbs up. Two religious teenaged boys with knitted kippahs yell, “Am Yisroel Chai!” from across the street. Irving waves to everyone. “Mona made this,” he tells them, though no one knows or cares who Mona is.
And then Irving reaches the school. It is ten o’clock in the morning and no one is out for recess. He stands in front of the windows with his legs apart, his shoulders back, two blue stripes running down his chest. He stands there until he hears someone opening the front door. He hears someone yell, “Hey!” and come charging out of the school. He turns around to walk away, his back and star florescent. He spreads his arms out as he walks, and the wind blows down the back of his neck and puffs out his shirt. He hears the material flutter against the breeze as the footsteps catch up to his aging frame.
Copyright © Sidura Ludwig 2012
Sidura Ludwig was born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her novel, Holding My Breath, was published in Canada, the U.S., and the UK. Her work has appeared in several magazines, anthologies, newspapers and on radio in Canada and the UK. She is the recipient of the Canadian Author and Bookman Prize for Most Promising Writer, and her novel was recently voted by CBC.ca as a top-10 read for Manitoba. Sidura lives, writes and teaches in Thornhill, Ontario. She is currently working on a new novel. For more information, visit her website: http://www.sidura.com.