Crossing A River Twice


Crossing A River Twice

(Excerpt from a Novel)

By Yoav Avni

Translated from Hebrew by Tom Atkins


The storm had lost some of its power. The rain, pouring down in unusual amounts since Thursday, had calmed down, and the sun, which recently was a pale shadow of itself, peeked from behind the clouds, as curious and wary as if it had found that a cold-hearted burglar had invaded its world in its absence, turned it upside-down and left mud and puddles everywhere. Itamar turned the space heater on, pressed his palms together, and blew on them before turning to the computer to startworking.
He was basically hard-working, a trait that for some reason the quiet investigation agency brought out. Leisure, he had realized for some time, feeds action in the same way that oxygen feeds fire and water feeds life. To work, then. The novice graphic designer who had built the agency's website (Tshuva, the owner of the investigation office, had allowed only a miniscule budget for this) was horrified when she found out last weekend that the images she’d used weren’t copyright free, and his mailbox was overflowing with original replacements. Itamar noticed theirony.
So instead of the binoculars that adorned the homepage, he now placed the handgun she’d sent, and on the other page – “Who Are We,” “Personal Investigations,” “Financial Inquiries” etc. – he placed the other new images: sunglasses, a surveillance camera, the scales of justice, a magnifying glass, and a fingerprint. He also found a redundant double space on “Who is a private investigator?” and fixed a broken link on “Contact Us.”
Pleased with his newly generated wealth of spare time and free will, he surfed the web at his leisure, sideways and onwards. The world was at his fingertips – or so he felt.
The news, he found, was filled with oil.
Itamar read a scathing opinion piece concerning the way the industrial-military complex greases offshore drilling’s way to approval. He tried to imagine the schemes of greedy tycoons whose businesses dilute their morality and whose time is money and is traded as a commodity, but his train of thought was derailed and ground to a halt. These thoughts no longer elicited the same anger in him they once did.
Man is in the details, he thought contentedly, sipping the coffee he’d made for himself and feeling its warm, gentle bitterness brush against the hygienist’s fluoride. He excused himself from watching on the news sites the funerals of the oil rig explosion's victims. It was terrible obviously, but he knew that once he’d seen one, he would have seen them all. He also avoided the summary of the environmental organizations' demonstration, paling in comparison with the stain, which was expanding to harm the shore's flora and fauna, and he avoided even the expected coverage of political figures, each throwing the responsibility for last Thursday’s nautical disaster into the other’s lap. This might be the way of the world, but it didn't have to be his, aswell.
Looking at the same large picture of the explosion area featured on all the sites, he noticed that, from the sky, the line of polluting oil and the ruined rig resembled the smiley face’s sad counterpart. He wondered whether this was a status-worthy discovery. He hadn’t written on social media in a while. He decided not to – many others in his feed have mentioned the explosion. Facebook is the periodic table of people, and ultimately everything is made up of the same elements.
It isn’t a good era to be an outsider, with social networks feeding off of shares and mutual niceties, encompassing everything. He considered deleting his account, but that too was a statement, and Itamar was trying to avoid those. Besides, he used it for work, and maybe he wasn't ready to sever all ties with human society. He wasn’t Tarzan.
A reminder flashed on his phone (“Ask about Goldiehawn”), sending him to the fish-keeping forum on the Tapuz portal, where he had a quick discussion with “Briliiantfishy” and “Tsachi30.” His goldfish showed worrying changes in mood over the last couple of days– eating less, barely moving and tending to keep company with the plastic plant at the side of the round aquarium – and Itamar was seeking advice. The forum had an archaic and anonymous atmosphere that suited his needs. The recommendation was unequivocal: change the aquarium water to mineral water. During winters like this one, Fishy wrote, where there are precipitation, sediments, and fluctuations in the water table’s level, the quality of the tap water in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area may deteriorate, and this may harm fish. Tsachi30 also mentioned that depressing oil stain, which may have already penetrated thepipelines.
Not remembering the mineral water’s level in his apartment, Itamar added a reminder for 6 PM to buy a six pack on his way home, and then changed it to five. With all due respect to basic hard-workingness, if Tshuva doesn’t come in today at all, he’ll leave earlier. Indeed, an hour saved is an hour earned.
At lunchtime, people of various sizes, speeds and direction were walking outside, as if taking part in an elaborate screen saver mounted on the agency's display window. Most of them seemed busy, or at least busier than he was, and although Tshuva was hoping to expand his clientele, Itamar was glad that none of them approached the door and made their way in. He had some time on his hands, as a falcon on a hunter's arm, but even a narrow opening could scare it away.
He turned the heater off and texted “finished updating the site. Going out for lunch, want to join?” but the investigator didn’t answer. They frequently ate together, and Itamar had grown accustomed to, and even started to enjoy, their lunches together. Conversation didn’t flow, that was true. Tshuva was a man of action and Itamar wasn’t, but his employer respected the fresh spring of freedom that bubbled up on every lunch break, and even when talking about work, he did it with a warmth Itamar hadn't encountered on his previous incarnation, at Dreamachine, where lunches were marred by sputters of projects and assignments, and became what he thought of as “timecompiling.”
When Tshuva described interrogation techniques, surveillances, and misdirections, he was wise enough not to mention their darker aspects: clients, filing and deadlines, all the while peeling or patiently slicing seasonal fruit with the ivory-handled folding knife he carried in a leather case by his cell phone.
Tshuva, in his multi-cased belt, reminded Itamar of Bob the Builder (every morning Itamar watched the JimJam channel, hoping that it is never too late to have a happy childhood, and the English was music to his ears). A simple, good man, which was more than he could say for many others - in other channels and in the life theymirrored.
He checked again – Tshuva hadn’t answered. The investigator usually replied to texts. Unlike emails, Whatsapp messages and other signs of the time, Tshuva was actually proficient with texts and would usually send a short, quick answer. After Itamar showed him how to use the pre-made texts feature, he showed an absolutely childish devotion to “Message received. I’ll contact you later.” Itamar waited another short while before leaving and locking the office. There was no point in calling, since Tshuva was in the habit of turning his phone off while on assignment, to prevent an incoming call from needlessly uncovering his location and blowing the surveillance.
So – falafel or sushi? Such were the junctions strewn across his path lately. “Mevorach” was busy, with every seat of the few tables taken by knowledgeable insiders, and Itamar decided to take advantage of the relatively dry weather and eat outside, underneath the bridge. All through the weekend storm he had closed himself in his house, in front of the television, in the company of the series, while large clouds were conquering the sky like so many Trojan horses, and now he needed a breath of fresh air.
On his way back, with the hot falafel in one plastic bag and the cold can of soda  in another, he again crossed the neighboring shops: a beauty salon, a shoe maker, and an insurance agency – small businesses, also passing their days in a sort of enlightened tranquility. A lightning bolt plummeted from the heavens, and the investigation agency, still locked, was lit by a bright light that for a fraction of a second penetrated even the hidden, blue depths under Monet’s waterlilies in the replica on the wall over Tshuva’s chair.
Itamar descended a terraced rockery, slippery from recent rains, to Bnei Dan Street, crossed it to a grove of ficus and oak trees, and following the walking trail adjacent to the one devoted to bikers, reached the lawn stretching to the river bank. This is where he liked eating – level with the Yarkon.
It seemed as if winter had opened the taps after a disappointingly barren summer, and a rusty stream ceaselessly cascaded into the river.
The Yarkon, experiencing a growth spurt after the last storm rose in height (or actually depth), was turning in front of his watching eyes from a creek to a river. There was water everywhere, the air was filled with transparent, fluttering precipitation vapor, and a fleet of solid, severe-looking clouds hovered overhead. Onboard, water drops were waiting their turn. Perhaps it was a good thing, Tshuva's absence, he thought. Otherwise he might have tried to extract some sentence out of all of this during a conversation, and then try to explain, having neither a choice nor a chance of success, what he meant.
The bare concrete slab at the ankles of the Bar Yehuda Bridge served as a chair and tablecloth, and although the echoes were intensified here, and the traffic on Ibn Gabirol Street overhead sounded like a raging mob, the intimidating roof that spread above him gave him a (false) sense of security, like a shelter with four-sided ventilation.
The scent of falafel rose from the hot pita bread, laden with the exact amount of salads and condiments that he liked. The can of soda radiated carbonated coolness and the wind whipped the Yarkon into a bitter-scented murky shake the color of chocolate.
After leaving Dreamachine he had also quit the rowing club, and now the expected memories floated back. Inside the kayak the paddle became a direct extension of his arm. He loved the swaying of the vessel that could suspend his distrust in the world, a gentle rocking that solid land could never supply. He had even written a song about it – a mistake that eventually brought the same old shit back into his life, this time reinforced by his lawyers, and it also returned some other things to their former state. Again he realized, this time more than ever, that working for Dreamachine was a giant scheme, a pyramid in which modern pharaohs and slaves endlessly sail boats of aluminum foil to the shores of a sea of lost time that everyone must part for themselves. He had asked to talk with his team leader, but knowing he would lose him with the word “pyramid” (or, at the very latest, with “a sea of lost time”) he’d explained that he felt exhausted, and knew he was telling the truth.
And it was at the height of a race that he realized that the endless sweeping of the Yarkon’s water was just as useless as sweeping assignments through Dreamachine was. There had to be another alternative: if he just put his hands up – not to the point of surrender, but to the point where effort would not be important and nothing would be measured – he could slip forward and float. This way he could move forward and enjoy the journey, or that was the theory. And on his birthday, two days after he started working for Tshuva, he was celebrating its success.
By the way, he ended up returning the postcard to the hygienist without giving in to the temptation to add anything but his address. There is a pleasurable power in avoiding an unnecessary action, and having considered this again,he realized now that he had nothing of substance to write to his later incarnation, and that was just as well. His life was finally nourished by the passing moment, and not the aroma of tomorrow. The world made most people sacrifice their presents on the altar of the future.
If he had decided to finally scribble something on the blank side of the postcard, he would gladly have signed off on another six month of quiet, and that’s all – nothing more.
He wished he could stay here until the end of the workday and even later. Finish his lunch with a slice of spare time served on a bed of gray clouds coming in from the sky’s cauldron. Sit and watch, continually, the light breeze becoming visible while blowing through the stars-and-hearts pattern of the nearby Ossishkin East Bridge and descending to touch the rising river.
He wished he could listen to the water’s life’s work, ceaselessly gushing from nearby drains along the bank. But soon the rain returned, and little drops tattooed the Yarkon’s back.
Another lightning bolt slipped from the heavens, chased by a loud, dramatic thunder. The rain picked up and he hurriedly finished his lunch, first tearing what remained of the pita to pieces and throwing into the dark water little pieces of white, soft dough that were quickly pulled down never to be seen again.
Itamar got up and turned back toward the agency. He glanced at his phone, expecting to find a short text from Tshuva, confirming that business was as usual, nothing more, but the screen remained as blank as a postcard.


Copyright © Yoav Avni 2016

Yoav Avni is an Israeli writer and translator. He has written five books so far: a collection of short stories (Your Lights Are On) and four novels, including the bestselling Three Things for a Desert Island, the 2010 Geffen award winner To Be, and the 2012 Geffen award winner What If. His latest novel (from which this excerpt is taken) is Crossing A River Twice, which was published last month in Hebrew. Avni’s writing is influenced by authors Tom Robbins, Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut. Website:

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