By Amichai Shalev
Translated from Hebrew by Ilana Kushan
“Where are we, Boaz? Are you sure you didn’t take a wrong turn?”
A dark blue night. Endless rows of oak trees. Sheep, cats, cows. And several stars that light up the sky. Tiny pimples of light. The air tastes of ash.
“I didn’t, you’ll see.”
Sheila looks out the window. I look at the thin lines on her cheeks. I see the layers, the dimensions, the porousness. I almost can’t bear it.
“What’s that? Do you hear that?” Robbie pulls out his gas mask and rests it on his head like a top hat.
“What? What are you talking about? Did you see a fox?” She furrows her brow. “A fox? It’s a siren!”
We poke our heads out of the window of the car to make sure. Robbie chuckles, twists, blushes.
“She’s right, Boaz,” I say. “What are we going to do?” The band’s front man is always the one in charge. The one who decides when to unload. When to start up again. When to go out. Which song to open with. He has it all in his head, in his heart, in his hands. And it’s not just the music. He’s the one who always drives, because he’s the only one with a car. We're like kids. But he’ll know what to do.
“Okay, what are we doing?” Sheila is practically laughing.
Boaz doesn't look stressed. But his eyes dart back and forth in their sockets. He speeds up. But it’s a bit of a Catch-22, because the more that he advances to the west, the closer he gets to danger, and he can’t turn back either, and there's no way he can just stand there.
“Where are you going?” Sheila yells.
Robbie chuckles from the back seat. Boaz scratches his head. He brings the car to a screeching halt. He puts it in reverse. Sheila raises her hands in the air as if in surrender.
“There’s a house over here, let’s go inside.” It's a single square house with a red roof covered in a network of antennas beneath a thick canopy of black oaks.
“I don’t think so.” I am shaking.
“We have no choice,” Boaz insists.
“We’ll knock on the door and ask if we can stay with them until it’s okay to come out.” Sheila looks like she agrees with him. He drives the car nearly up to the door. We exit quickly. The siren rages in the air. That continuous wailing tone that pierces our eardrums. Like a million cars honking. Like the shrieking of cows brought to the slaughter.
“Come on Robbie, what are you waiting for? For a missile to land on your head?”
When we are outside, I am pressed up against Sheila, smelling her body from up close as I try to figure out the name of the family that lives in this house. A vine is wrapped around the mailbox, and the air stinks of urine, sewage, fresh paint, and plastic take-out containers. Boaz rings the doorbell. We look at one another anxiously. All except Robbie, who found a cat and is crouching and saying, “Here, kitty, kitty.”
“Maybe there’s no one home?" Sheila asks.
“No chance, they're probably in the sealed room. Maybe they can't hear us,” Boaz ventures, and rings the bell again, this time pressing harder. As if he is singing. “And if they don’t hear us, then what will we do? Barge into their house on our own and look for their sealed room?” Boaz grins. The siren makes us dizzy. My ears are exploding from the pressure, and I can barely keep my balance. I cover my ears. Boaz looks at me sympathetically.
“That's an interesting idea.” He winks. She smiles. I fall to the floor.
“Control yourself, dude, we're about to go inside. This is really not appropriate now,” Boaz says. I can feel Sheila’s gaze piercing my back. I can’t bring myself to look in her eyes. The smell of lambs bleating, wailing, bleeding. So many lambs invading my sense of smell. Lambs flying overhead.
“I hear footsteps.” Boaz tenses.
Robbie chuckles. The cat runs away from him. A key turns on the inside of the door. Sheila leans close to Boaz, in fright. My heart bleats like a lamb.
Boaz’s words still hover in the air. This night actually got off to a good start. Outside the sky was pink. Inside the walls were covered in egg cartons to block the acoustics. The ashtrays were overflowing. The smell of mold was seeping out of all sorts of pipes and holes. We arrived with musical instruments in one hand and gas masks in the other. Sheila has a designer mask with a red and black drawing of a skull. It goes well with her goth make-up.
Those moments before we take off have an energy that is hard to describe. Like being in a spaceship, wearing spacesuits and helmets. And then to blast off from earth. To float in space. To hover weightlessly. I coax a riff from the guitar. A thundering distortion sound disturbs the room. Everyone grimaces. I smile. Then the guitar regains its composure. It begins to play as if by itself.
Robbie’s hand begins to dance over the drums. The top of his gas mask almost hits the ceiling. Sheila moves at her own pace. As always, I don’t know when she will spring an attack. She is always lying in wait for something.
Boaz starts singing. He leans towards her and dances suggestively in front of her. I want to throw up. But the riff lifts me above it all. Almost to the sky. The regular evening missile report. Falling every which way: Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan, Ashdod. Half of them land in the sea. All that remains is to strum, to move, to dance. Sheila turns her back to him. I’m almost proud of her. But she doesn’t look at me. Robbie’s mask falls to the floor. He takes advantage of the chance to light a cigarette, but then he misses a few beats. We all fall out of sync.
“Fuck you, Robbie, you couldn’t wait to smoke until the end of the song?” Boaz turns flaming red, furious, self-righteous. Robbie straightens his shoulders. He blows out the smoke with a captivating idiocy. Boaz hurls the microphone at the wall. “Enough, I can’t do this anymore. It’s always the same story.” Sheila keeps playing. Maybe none of this fazes her. “I want us to quit. That’s it. I’m breaking up the band. I’m sick and tired of this.”
Sheila stops playing. A single note escapes my guitar, as if to punctuate Boaz’s words. I lay the instrument beside me. I light a cigarette. I plop down on a sofa. “Enough, this is going nowhere. I’m sick of this band, of this country, of everything.” And Boaz gets up and leaves as though a plane is about to take off. Now, of all times, right when I was starting to feel that Sheila gets me.
Whenever we get to my solo in “A Doomed Land,” I feel like something is lighting up for her there, the way I strum that chord coolly but decisively, and in those moments Boaz looks so helpless. I pack up my guitar.
A wooden door opens. A woman with white skin and curly hair looks at me in surprise.
“Hi, sorry to bother.” Boaz doesn’t waste time. “We were driving back to Tel Aviv when the siren went off a bit early today, right? We’d appreciate it if you could let us into your sealed room.”
Out of the corner of our eyes Sheila and I see a man hurriedly shoving dollars bills under the floor tiles. It doesn’t quite work at first. Some of the bills fly off in all directions, and he snatches them in mid-air, almost hitting them, as if they are unruly parrots that escaped from their cages.
“Wait a minute.” The woman does not shut the door, and Boaz sticks his foot in it. She goes to speak with the man. She grabs a dollar bill that has gone astray.
A moment later she returns hurriedly. “Okay, come in, but quickly,” she says. The man covers his face with a gas mask. The woman takes out hers. Next to them sits a girl who looks about twelve, holding a golden bowl shaped like a fish. A cat that came out from the front of the house can’t stop moving with all the tension in the room.
“Thanks so much to all of you,” Boaz says. They don’t answer because they are shut inside their masks. We sit down on the sofa. There is no room for Robbie. He turns around and tries to find a place for himself.
“Sit next to the girl, come on, Robbie, you're stressing us out,” Boaz warns. Robbie sits next to the girl. He pets the kitten. It bites his hand. The siren continues to shriek outside. It shakes the walls and pierces our ears. The man turns up the volume on the radio. We can hear the siren on it, too. The radio is next to a plastic vase. There are bottles of water which they don’t offer us. A blonde doll with the edges chewed off. Large bags of pretzels. And a rifle. A mini Uzi, hanging on the wall, the way you would hang a coat or an umbrella.
Suddenly Sheila bursts out laughing. It’s not clear why. No one has said anything, but she just laughs hysterically. And almost chokes. She takes off her mask. She is laughing so hard that she starts to keel over. She lies down on the floor. The man looks at her, dumbfounded. The woman smiles. The girl looks at her with an impenetrable expression on her face. Boaz looks embarrassed. “It’s just so funny, I’m sorry,” she says.
The siren stops. The radio announcer starts to speak. He talks about where it’s still necessary to stay indoors, and where it’s possible to go back to normal. Boaz takes off his mask. So do the mother and the girl. The father waits awhile. He turns up the volume on the radio. Then he takes off his mask. He looks at us. He has beady black eyes, like two screws.
Sheila calms down, but she is still holding her sides. Boaz sighs. “Okay, thank you very much, this was really nice of you. Okay, let's go.” He looks over at us. The father makes his way towards the rifle. He turns around to face us and says, “No one is going anywhere.”
The woman hands us cups. The girl puts the fish bowl on the shelf. She pulls out a copy of Alice in Wonderland. She doesn’t really read. She looks over at us with suspicion, embarrassment, fear. For a moment it appears as if she is giggling softly. Boaz scratches his head. He looks at the father, who rests a hand on the rifle. But for the time being he just holds it there. The woman looks as if she was expecting this. She serves us dry cookies, half-stale.
The husband waits for her to finish. Boaz opens his mouth to say something. The father signals to him to wait until the woman leaves. Until the girl collects herself. She appears to be deaf. We can hear the woman beginning to sing outside. A yawn escapes Robbie's lips. The father doesn’t care. The look on his face is impervious, focused. He waits for the mother’s voice to grow more distant.
“I want this to be perfectly clear, because I’m going to say it only once. I don’t know what hole you crawled out of, or what slimeball spawned you, because all of you with your earrings and tattoos make me want to throw up, and I’m sorry that my daughter even saw you, because she’s already autistic, and this is just going to mess her up more.”
He suddenly stops and clears his throat, as if something is stuck inside it, and then he continues, “I don't care what you did or did not see. You were never in this house. Is that clear?”
Boaz nods. Sheila looks scared. I don’t react. Robbie smiles. The father understands that he has to speak to Boaz. That we are just shadows, puppets, performers.
‘Are you asking me how I'll find out? Trust me, I'll find out. I never forget a face. I know exactly where you came from. From Anatoly’s rehearsal space, right? I knew it. I’ll find you. I’ll find you anywhere in the world. As you can see, I owned a company in Switzerland. I sold pistols and Uzis. I built this entire house out of it. I’m not going to let you destroy it.”
Boaz breaks out in a sweat.
“I don’t know what you think we saw, we’re not even . . .”
The father gestures to him to shut up. Boaz obeys. Sheila’s eyes are looking upwards towards the ceiling. Robbie is just smiling. His hands are no longer drumming in the air. He digs them into his pockets. Pulls them out. Digs them in again. He always has to be drumming on something. The pressure spreads throughout my body. “Excuse me, where’s your bathroom?” Boaz shushes me. We can hear the mother singing in the hall. Almost like a siren.
“Don’t play games with me, you little pisher, or I’ll bury you in the backyard. You got it? I’m saying these things for a reason, and you seem like a boy with a good head on your shoulders, so don’t give me reason to think otherwise. It’s not worth it for you. Boys like you used to work for me, and they, too, knew not to mess with me.”
Suddenly he grows distant and nostalgic, and something in him smiles, though his hand is still resting on the Uzi. “Those were the days . . . Not like now, when that shit sends missiles at us, and what do we do? We go like sheep to the slaughter, we don’t do anything, we wait for America to solve all our problems. So let me tell you something, and you can take it as a life lesson: No one is going to solve your problems except yourself, and I hope that you understand the irony, the double meaning, so that you don’t play games with me. If it were up to me, we’d send a missile with nuclear weapons to blow up all of Baghdad, and that bastard’s castle, with his two soft-skulled kids, Qusay and Uday, what a joke. What kinds of names are those? Twenty years ago, this never would have happened, but what can you do? We became America’s whores. Believe me, we should have sided with the Soviet Union, become a protectorate, but instead we bring all that American shit here, and in any case, the shit goes straight into our heads, to our brains. You haven’t seen anything, there was a time when I was the head of a Communist cell here, before I went to Switzerland – but that was another era.”
Suddenly he stops again, and his eyes stare off into space, as if to stop tears from welling up in his eyes. He exhales deeply. He opens a water bottle with his teeth. He drinks most of it. He offers it to the girl. She refuses. He passes it to us. Robbie takes it immediately. Boaz shoots him an angry look. Robbie chuckles and asks the girl, “So what are you reading? Alice in Wonderland? Can I take a look?”
Robbie lies spread out across the floor. He is clutching his cheek which is red, smarting, burning. He wants to laugh, to wail, to scream.
“My daughter is untouchable, you got that? You just crossed a line. What do you think, when I host you in my home, with my family, that you can just make a fool of me and of her? That’s just not okay.”
The father clenches and unclenches his hand. Sheila’s mouth is still gaping open in shock. You can still see the words “Leave him alone” hovering on the tip of her tongue. I don’t remember if they were actually spoken.
The girl is turning pages in her book. She looks at me with total serenity. A smile escapes my lips. She clenches up her face, as if she is about to burst into tears. The pressure seizes hold of my whole body. “So can I go to the bathroom? It’s urgent.”
Robbie chuckles again. Boaz groans. The mother sings louder. It seems that she’s switched to opera. And maybe the father has calmed down a bit. Something in his face has shifted. The mother goes inside. She is chewing over Carmina Burana. She looks at us like a doting aunt. “What, you didn’t want any cookies?”
I can’t stand it any longer. I get up and try to say that I need to use the bathroom. Robbie puts his hand on my shoulder as if signaling to me to wait.
“Okay,” he says to the man, “we get it. And now we just want to go home to our families, okay?”
The woman smiles, as if there is nothing doing, and the girl begins rustling the ear on a Mickey Mouse toy. Robbie’s eyes light up. He lives off sounds: sirens, toys, screeches. He collects everything he hears and tries to replicate it later on the drums. So he says.
It seems like the father is going to release us after all. He chews over Boaz’s words. Hesitates about whether he can trust us. And then he says, “Listen, I’m just not sure if I can trust you. I’m just not sure.” The mother looks surprised at this, but she goes on smiling, and the girl shakes her head.
“Let them go, just like that?” The man straightens his shoulders. Tightens his grip on the Uzi.
I turn towards the bathroom. Boaz holds me back. “So what are you going to do? Force us to stay here? With your gun? Seriously, come on.”
The man smiles to reveal crooked teeth and a misshapen jaw that resembles a swan. Sheila’s eyes well up in tears from the strain. She is desperately in need of comfort. But my bladder is killing me. Robbie tries to make the girl laugh by making funny faces. She looks at him in wonder. The father’s face is still frozen in a smile.
Suddenly he tenses up, lowers the Uzi from its holster, and aims it not exactly at us, but a bit beyond us. Sheila starts to scream, “What are you doing? Put down that gun!” The mother looks confused, but she just keeps smiling. And she starts singing again. This time it sounds like Mozart’s Requiem. But then the man raises his gun, returns it to its holster, and says with a smile, “I was just kidding. I was testing you. You can go, it’s okay, your families will be worried. Just remember what I said, and remember that today, at this very moment, you understood once and for all that America is worthless, and if this country needs an ally, we should look elsewhere, because it starts with some missiles over Ramat Gan or Tel Aviv, but then it’s all downhill from there. Remember what happened during the Holocaust? Do you think that America didn’t know what was going on over there? Bullshit, they knew it all from day one, and I'm telling you, they're going to have some serious explaining to do.”
He hangs up the Uzi. And then he leaves the room, leaning down to stroke the cat. It does not react. The woman comes over and smiles. “All the best to you. May we see each other only on happy occasions.”
We’re out. The night is already pitch black. The air is cold, smoky, thick.
“Sorry, give me a minute.” I head off to the side by the great oak tree and unzip my fly.
“Come on, let’s get out of here already, before he changes his mind,” Boaz threatens.
“Just a second.”
In the meantime, they pile into the car and Boaz revs up the engine. I pee it all out, groaning heavily like an old woman, as if I have kept it inside for weeks. And then, when the stream thins to a trickle, and I zip my fly back up, I notice her, the girl, standing there, apparently standing right there the whole time. Looking straight at my pants.
The radio broadcaster says that there were missiles that landed in the Tel Aviv area, but as usual, he does not elaborate. We sit there in silence. Boaz looks tired, but never for a moment does he consider giving someone else a turn at the wheel. Sheila sits there squeezed into her corner of the car, sucking on her cigarette in exhaustion.
Robbie falls asleep next to me, behind her. His mouth is open. He looks like a little boy. The outline of the father's fingers is still visible on his cheek.
Other people come on the radio. They start to talk, to mumble, to yell.
"Maybe put on some music?" Sheila suggests. Boaz nods. He inserts a disk. It is “Doolittle,” sung by The Pixies. We all move our heads in unison, as if under the influence of something larger than ourselves.
We don’t want to speak about where we were. About the dollars, the father, the mother, the girl, the fish in the bowl. The oak trees dwindle as we head further west, and soon we can see the partially lit industrial buildings, the asbestos roofs, the honking ambulance – another paranoid person probably injected himself with atropine.
“Isn't this an awesome song?” Boaz asks Sheila, and she nods. “Yeah, it’s just terrific, so appropriate. Let’s just listen.” It looks like they are holding hands for a second. Something grabs me by the throat. So tight. I want a missile to fall on me. Now. On top of this car. On top of everything. Okay, maybe not really. I look out the window. Everything is wide open, and there are hardly any trees anymore. We’re getting close.
“Listen,” Boaz says to me and Sheila. “I gave it some thought. Let’s give the band another chance. What do you guys think?”
Sheila smiles and nods her head. Robbie will definitely agree, no question. The two of them look at me. “What do you say?” Boaz asks.
I take a deep breath and open my mouth.
Copyright © Amichai Shalev 2014. Translation copyright © Amichai Shalev 2014.
Amichai Shalev is an Israeli writer, an editor and a lecturer. He studied history and literature at Tel Aviv University, and screenwriting at the Camera Obscura School of Art. In recent years, he has worked as editor of the literature and art section for the internet edition of the daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth (Ynet). At present he is a professor in several colleges, teaches writing and critical thinking and also writing critical essays about literature for the press, and working as an editor in Am Oved Publishing house, one of the biggest publishing houses in Israel. The Mentals is his second novel and was on the final list of nomination for the Sapir Prize (The Israeli Booker). The book is also being adaptated into a film. His first novel (Days of Pop, 2004) has recently been republished to critical acclaim. His third novel, Big Girl came out in April 2012. His fourth book, On Subversion, was published in 2014 and contains two novellas. Shalev is the recipient of the 2012 Prime minister's Prize for Literature.