(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Yitzhak Gormezano Goren
Translated from Hebrew by Yardenne Greenspan
Siesta in Alexandria. An hour of siesta in the midst of an Alexandrian summer, a Mediterranean summer, a summer of the early 1950s. An hour in which everybody floats above ground, in which every word is uttered as a whisper, so as not to desecrate the serenity of the moment. Only the antique grandfather clock in the darkened hall keeps swinging its pendulum patiently, and every fifteen minutes it erupts in sounds from a faraway world, laden with yearning: doyng-doyng-doyng!
“Finally!” says Robby, who is not among the sleepers.
Meaning, finally, it’s three o’clock. “Kudjoocome! Kudjoocome!” the voice echoes throughout the apartment.
“Kudjoocome”—a mispronunciation of “Could you come?” and in Robby’s family, a sacred ceremony not to be missed, an hour of pure happiness, caressed by the afternoon sun.
They emerge from every corner of the house and convene in the parents’ bedroom, around the wide bed with its rumpled summer comforters. A ceremony of familial privacy. No guest shall dare enter this holy place. Once, Victor Hamdi-Ali tried to sneak into the room, and was immediately pushed out shamefully by Grandma and Robby.
Robby’s father is already sitting on the bed, reclined against an abundance of pillows, leisurely and distractedly flipping through an Émile Zola novel. It’s a 1925 edition, and the pages are already yellowing, their edges crumbling.
Robby’s mother is in the room too, wearing a robe over her nightgown, her straight black hair running along her pure ivory face, tainted only by its rosy cheeks.
Robby puts away his coin collection, inherited from his brothers who migrated to Israel a year ago, and runs into the room, bouncing on the bed and wrapping his arms around his father’s neck to get a kiss that smells of cologne and Player’s Navy Cut cigarettes. Robby immediately spots the aforementioned surprise: a long envelope, no doubt a letter from his brothers. The letter, indeed, is from Israel, but the envelope and the stamps are from France. Three weeks ago, maybe a month, his brothers wrote to their parents in Alexandria, but sent the letter to the town of Périgueux in France, to the house of Suzette Charnière. They met Suzette a year prior, during a training session run by the Jewish Agency on a farm in France. The training was meant to prepare the young men for agricultural life in Israel, but was mostly spent running around with local girls. Suzette fell head over heels for Robby’s middle brother, and even after he left her all by her lonesome and went to Israel, she still hoped he would return and marry her. Whether out of practical calculations or pure altruism, she agreed to mediate between her beloved and his relatives, and never even asked Robby’s brother to pay for the postage. At first, Robby’s brother added to the Alexandrian letter a long letter for Suzette herself. Later on, the letters addressed to her grew shorter, and their passion dwindled, and finally the letters to the parents arrived on their own. Suzette swallowed the insult and continued to serve her role dutifully, as was fitting of a true Christian.
Robby yearns to rip the stamps off the envelope, but, seeing his father’s stern expression, holds his horses. Order must be maintained in the Kudjoocome ritual.
Grandma joins the meeting, commenting on the hopelessly slow servants: “Haraganos primos, first-class bums.”
Silence. Robby watches the daggers of sunlight invading between the shutters. In a moment, Salem will enter, pushing out the shutters to the expanses of air and light. The sun will burst inside with a lighthearted frivolity, and the ceremony will begin. This is all contingent on Robby’s sister joining them on time.
“Where’s Miss Anabella?” Father asks, using his nickname for Robby’s sister.
“She’s always late!” Robby tries to incite his father.
“It takes her forever to grace us with her presence, esta cocona!” Grandma adds her own fuel to the fire.
Steps approach. They all exhale, prepared to torment the tardy party with their righteous rebukes, and Grandma already begins spewing her share, but they are disappointed when it is only Salem the servant who enters the room. He carries a tray of small cups of Greek coffee and glasses of ice water with pearls of condensation. Finding his masters laughing, he joins the hoopla, not knowing what it is about, but trusting his heart that playing along will win him his masters’ favors. He hands out coffee and water by way of a little dance, while Grandma tells him off, saying that his twirls will cause the coffee to lose its kaimak, that layer of brown foam, without which the beverage can barely be called coffee. He immediately puts on an expression of grave servitude, continuing his waiter’s ballet in moderato.
Robby does not get coffee, of course, because Grandma says that kids who drink coffee pishan preto—piss black. (The mere thought of a black spray painting the toilet water puts Robby in a state of panic. He runs to the bathroom. Thank God, the color is normal.) Instead, he receives sickly sweet cocoa, sipping it with a pleasure whose very memory brings sweetness to his stomach years later.
The tray is empty. Salem opens the shutters wide and then stands around, smiling proudly, as if he himself had created the sun. They all look at him gratefully and dismissively, but Salem does not budge. Perhaps he’ll hear a snippet of conversation, or maybe his master will inform him of a raise. All signs point to his expectations being met: Robby’s father says, “Listen, Salem, starting next month —” but Grandma foresees the future and quickly orders Salem to go and call “mamazel”” to join them for “kushkucome”—a mispronunciation of a mispronunciation, meant to awaken laughter and push aside the matter of the raise. Salem shifts from foot to foot for a moment longer, perhaps his master will recall his initial intention, but his alert black eyes, bouncing around like those of a smart animal, slam against the wall of laughter. He has no choice but to go do as he is ordered. Maybe next time …
Grandma is burning with curiosity, and pleads with Robby’s father to begin reading the letter without waiting for his daughter. But of course he won’t. The three thin pages of the letter make crispy rustlings in his hand, stimulating his appetite for words, but he restrains himself. When he placed La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret on the bed next to him, he also removed his glasses, so he wouldn’t be tempted to take a peek at the letter. Now he sips from the thick coffee, a wondrous mixture of spicy and sweet. “We’ll wait for Miss Anabella!”
“Ana-bella, Ana-bella, like a seesaw!” Robby grabs hold of his toes and rocks back and forth on the bed, Ana-bella, Ana-bella, Ana-bella, but he does not ignite sympathy or laughter, only reproaches, as he is about to spill someone’s coffee on the bed.
“Is there any coffee left for me?” sounds the relaxed, indulgent voice of the aforementioned Miss Anabella. She is wearing a nightgown, her auburn hair is wild, her eyes are puffy. An enormous yawn swallows the word “me.” Sleepwalking, she goes to the dresser and searches for the delicate china cup with the image of a marquis asking a marquise to dance. Only after taking a long sip and sighing deeply does she manage to open one eye and stare at her surroundings, her free hand grabbing the arm of her chair.
Grandma informs her that a letter has arrived from “the children.” Miss Anabella sits up and says, “Really? When?”
“This afternoon. Your father brought it back from the office. They sent it straight to Ford.” The fact of the letter, along with two more sips of coffee, completely erases the sleep from her eyes, and she is awake and smiling and rearing to go, even prepared to give Grandma a fight. Grandma wastes no time: “What does it say, you ask? How should we know? You think we’ve read it? Your father insisted that we wait for you, while you were lying around in bed like a cataplasmo.” One would not imagine she would make do with such a benign comment, especially seeing how the indifference and laziness on the face of her opponent only feed her desire to fight, but at that moment the father puts on his glasses with equanimity and determination that announce the commencement of the reading.
“ ‘Dear family, we apologize for not having written in so long …’ ”
“That’s right!” Grandma confirms.
“ ‘We were just very busy. We left the place where we lived until now …’ ”
“That’s the koobooss,” Grandma interprets needlessly, since the boys have already hinted in a previous letter that they’d been living on a kibbutz.
“ ‘To the place where Felix’s family lives.’ ”
“To Tel Aviv,” Grandma adds. This language of riddles is a necessity, since the Egyptian secret police occasionally opens letters addressed to Jewish families, and those must not contain any express details about Israel. That’s why the authors of these letters make up primitive codes in order to provide important information. Some even agree with their relatives in advance that Italy means Israel, Genoa means Haifa, Milan is Tel Aviv and Rome is Jerusalem. There is a story about Raoul Picciotto, who went to Italy with the Israeli Basketball League to play basketball for two weeks and invited his old mother in Alexandria to visit him in Genoa. Virginie Picciotto, the widow, immediately understood that Genoa meant Haifa, and was overjoyed that her son finally remembered her and invited her to join him in Israel. She did wonder how her soft son managed to convince his wife, her daughter-in-law, that witch, to have his mother live with them, but she quickly erased any doubt or embarrassment from her mind, and two weeks later was on a ship bound for Israel. When the ship entered the Haifa port at the agreed upon time, her son was waiting for her at the port of Genoa.
“And the expression on the face of Elvire Picciotto, her daughter-in-law, who stayed in Israel, when she saw her mother-in-law at her doorstep, was a sight to behold!” Madame Marika always concludes the story, which very well may be merely a figment of her imagination.
“Money is worthless here!” Robby’s two brothers announce unanimously in their letter. This is, of course, the time of austerity in Israel of the early 1950s. Even those who had funds could not buy any more than what was allocated to them in their food coupons. Naively, the two boys remained blind to the flourishing black market, where money buys everything, just like anywhere else in the world.
“‘Here they eat money, because there’s nothing else to eat!’”
“Wy-di-mi-no!” Grandma calls, prepared to lament, but her son-in-law stops her by raising his voice, and indeed the next sentence is more encouraging: “‘But all in all, the atmosphere is cheerful and we’re happy! Except that we miss you. Come join us!’”
“You see?” Robby’s mother rebukes her mother. “No need to worry. They’re young, they’ll be all right.”
“They say that people work in construction in Palestine. Yes, even educated boys. A grandson of mine, putting his hand inside the cemento? Wy-di-mi-no!”
“Bass-ba’ah! Enough, Grandma, knock it off!” This time Robby’s father is forced to explicitly demand silence in Arabic. Grandma swallows her insult along with her tears and makes a face like a punished baby’s.
Near the end of the letter, Father reads: “‘Is it true what people here are saying, that David Hamdi-Ali is going to marry Lilly Elhadeff?’”
All goes quiet. Even in Tel Aviv, where people buy meat for food points, David Hamdi-Ali’s love life is a conversation. All eyes turn to Robby’s sister, but she just shrugs. A blush spreads across her cheeks and contradicts her indifferent expression. It’s true, she does not fancy Hamdi-Ali the son, but neither is she prepared to release him from her leash. And the idea that Lilly Elhadeff … of all people … who doesn’t even have any tits … no matter, justice will be done …
While she ponders this new discovery, trying to draft up a revised action plan, Grandma’s response already sings through the air: “I’m glad. I’m glad! You see, bovica, you fool. How long do you think he’ll wait for you? By the time you move your como-se-yama, he’ll be married to that Madame Ouevo, that egg-face.”
Robby’s sister blows out an indulgent exhale and announces that she’s going to get dressed, because she is invited to a cruise at the Nautical Club.
“With David Hamdi-Ali?” Grandma asks, all atwitter. But “Miss Anabella” feels no urge to satisfy her grandmother’s curiosity and turns to leave with a mysterious smile. Grandma nevertheless appeases the others: “It’s with him, it’s with him!”
“Why are you meddling?” Robby’s father asks her reproachfully and shakes his head. His motto, “Never interfere”—in English—goes for his sons and even his daughter. One cannot expect, of course, that Grandma also adopt this sort of inglese habit. His eyes fall on La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret, rolling around between the folds of the blanket, like a raft lost among waves. His eyes reflect a yearning for faraway worlds he’s never visited. How did the ambitions of the past sink into oblivion? How did the taste for adventure that pulsed through him in his youth become so dulled? Travels to foreign, mysterious lands, dabbling in writing… everything evaporated inside this lovely, loosening comfort. This Alexandria … this laziness … this Kudjoocome.
He looks at his youngest son, at Robby, and says nothing. Wordlessly, Robby wraps his arms around his father’s neck and kisses the cologne on his cheek.
“Well then, it’s true!” Robby’s sister sticks the fork in the spongy flesh of a plump baba au rhum cake with a white crest of whipped cream. Her large, light-brown eyes fix David with an accusatory gaze. He turns away from her. They’ve just returned from a cruise on a rented sailboat, and David proudly proved that he could control not only a horse’s reins, but also the ropes of a vessel, all the while maintaining a smiling energy as Robby’s sister sat in the stern, staring at him with the ridiculing smile of the Sphinx.
She always makes me feel like an idiot! David says to himself as they sit in the café of the Nautical Club. For a moment, a hint of hatred flits through his heart. If she only said yes, simply, with a delicate smile and lowered eyes, with gratitude, with modesty …
“Well then, it’s true,” she repeats. She eats her baba au rhum lustily, as if to make him jealous. He cannot eat any, on account of his strict diet. Instead he sits there, watching the whipped cream disappear between her lips.
“You know that if you only say yes … if you only give me a sign …”
“Meaning, it’s true, Lilly Elhadeff, huh? You’ve made a laughingstock out of me!” she says, pushing away her empty plate. The fork scrapes the china in protest.
“I’ll make you a queen, if you only say yes. That’s all I ask!”
“How can I say yes while Lilly Elhadeff is waiting with bridesmaids and bouquets?” she asks with a half-smile. Simultaneously, she wonders: Will this cheapskate offer me another baba au rhum?
“Just give me a sign and I’ll tell Lilly Elhadeff to go to hell!”
“You don’t tell a girl to go to hell, my dear gentleman,” Robby’s sister admonishes. “And I won’t tell you what to do, David Hamdi-Ali!”
“I’m going crazy! Because of you I can’t even focus during races. Yesterday I nearly flew off the horse …”
“Soon you’ll blame me for all your failures, huh? What do you want from me? Go marry Lilly Elhadeff. Poor guy! I pity you, mon chouchou.”
“You’re suggesting that I marry her? You’re pushing meinto her arms?”
“Look, if you don’t have anything better, even Lilly Elhadeff is something. Not the brightest, but she knows how to cook, which I don’t. She isn’t exactly Cleopatra, but her father has a big store in Heliopolis. My father is only a clerk at Ford. And if she isn’t a dream girl for someone like you, at least …”
“At least she isn’t capricious!” David finishes her sentence, his patience about to run out. “What do you want? What do you want? Tell me!”
“Thanks for asking, David. I want … I want … another baba au rhum. Will you get me one, please?”
Sunday, the day the racing season commences, is to be David Hamdi-Ali’s day to shine.
All day Saturday David was seen striking any and all athletic poses that a strong, agile body can show off. In shiny white shorts and a blinding undershirt that accentuated his muscular chest, he pranced around the house, hopping and leaping and inhaling and exhaling and massaging himself, his fair eyes turned inward in introspection, as if saying, “There could be no other.”
He was so preoccupied, he hadn’t even noticed Robby’s sister as she ran to the balcony in a thin batiste dress and waved down to the Coptic lawyer, Maître Habib Ramzi, who waited downstairs in a black Citroën. David didn’t seem to even notice her about to go out with his chubby competitor, his skin the shade of café-au-lait.
“I’ll be right down,” Robby’s sister called to the lawyer, leaning against the railing. But when she returned to the hall she looked distractedly at the boy shaking his limbs every which way, the boy who could be hers if she only gave him a sign. Perhaps she recalled his declaration, made only a week before, at the casino in the San Stefano neighborhood: “I’ll make you a queen. A queen!” That’s what he repeated at the nautical club. She might have even thought at that moment, “Why not?” Perhaps she expected something to happen, for him to wave his hand, bat his lashes, show her she was more important than the Sunday race. But whether because this wasn’t the case, or because he was distracted, or maybe even due to a vengeful cockiness, this small, tender, fluttering moment was missed. Another honk from the Citroën, a stroke of sunlight from the balcony, eliminating the dimness of the hall, and the moment was gone.
Robby’s sister turned to the door, smiling to herself. Walking down the stairs, she might have been thinking, “What a lucky break, that was a close one. I almost got myself into trouble.” With rollicking laughter, she walked out to the sidewalk. Maître Ramzi saw her mirth as a good sign and his face beamed. His features always reminded Robby of the Reclining Scribe, an ancient Egyptian sculpture of the pharaonic age.
From the balcony, Robby watched his white sister being swallowed up inside the black car. For a moment he wondered how she could go out with such a fat, ugly specimen, and a Christian to boot! He looked at the sky and recalled the iron cross pointing from the church tower in the Camp César neighborhood, and remembered his fanatical declaration, which shocked his parents: “One day I’ll climb to the top of that tower and break that cross!”
This didn’t stop him from loving the two Coptic sisters Thérèse and Juliette Murad, who, along with their mother, Angélique, rented the large room facing the sea. Thérèse with her white skin and black hair, and Juliette with her blond braids: on both chests—one round and the other boyish and flat—hung small golden crosses that pierced Robby’s flesh when the high school girls hugged him with motherly affection.
Suddenly he heard David’s tenor voice rumble from the cavernous hall, “Get out of here! Get out!”
Robby ran to the hall and saw a white figure in the dark: David Hamdi-Ali in his workout clothes. Slowly, from the darkness, rose two rows of white teeth, as big as a horse’s, a mane of mop-like blond hair and finally two watery eyes, groveling and rebelling at once, their lashes fluttering. Victor stood before his brother, as stiff as a martyr, only his protruding Adam’s apple bobbing, working to block the humiliation of oncoming tears. He stood there in his loose, slightly soiled underwear, a dry pee stain (Robby could not know at the time that it might have been something else) forming a strange halo around his crotch. For a moment, Robby’s heart was also filled with disdain toward the rebuked child. How different was this gangly, mean satyr from his virile, white Apollo of a brother. Without caring to find out the matter at hand, Robby immediately took the older brother’s side. He wanted to stomp the vermin, but his father had taught him never to intervene in others’ business, and especially not in familial feuds. Still, his presence seemed to encourage David, who stood up from his workout pose, walked over to his brother and muttered, “You’ll get out of here, or I’ll ...”
But Victor stood his ground, and Robby was already expecting the whack of the slap. His friend’s pointless stand annoyed him, and he couldn’t wait to see him defeated. That moment, Emilie walked in and called out in a soft, fearful voice, “Why do you want to hit him, David?”
Her fragile voice seemed to have popped his balloon of aggression. David put his hands on his head and said in a childlike voice that Robby had never heard coming from the lips of a man, “Mama, he’s annoying me. He brings me bad luck. Mama, I’m going to lose the race tomorrow because of him! Mama ...” He ran to her, perhaps to bury his head in her bosom, but then thought better of it and went into his room.
Emilie looked at her two sons for a moment and seemed to understand nothing. To her, life was so simple!
“Come have lunch,” she told Victor and was immediately relieved. For Emilie, just like for Robby’s grandmother, food was a cure-all. Her eyes lit up and she went to the kitchen.
Victor stayed in place, looking at Robby triumphantly. Without further ado, he pounced on him with fists pumping. The two boys rolled around on the rug for a while, and Robby could feel Victor’s sharp bones pushing against his body. Suddenly he felt his friend’s erect penis knocking persistently against his body. Chills of shame shook his entire being, and he tried to pull away from this embrace. His heart whispered to him that this was a new thing, entirely new. He’d never known such a feeling, not even when Thérèse and Juliette hugged him. Finally, he pulled out of Victor’s grasp. The two of them stood before each other, silent and breathing heavily.