The Mime Artist
By Wendy Brandmark
Milo had run out of Hungary. He was a dark broad guy with not a hint of the pain he must have felt leaving everyone behind. I imagined the secret police grabbing at his heels, the pricks of their bullets wounding just enough to make him run faster.
Since no one on the kibbutz knew Hungarian and he spoke no other language, he had to mime his escape. The Israelis believed him because the communists would never have let him out, would they? I was happy to have someone who could not converse. There were too many words around me, and what I didn’t hear, I had begun to guess.
Milo joined us in our half of a whitewashed concrete cabin above the tarry beach. For weeks it had been just the Dane and myself. He was always ‘the Dane’ to me even though his name was Jon because he was blonde and upright with blue eyes which never wavered. We had been calm with each other, each keeping to his side of the room, grateful we were not sharing with the Americans next door.
We heard them talking and banging their feet against the wall. They were both draft dodgers waiting for the war in Vietnam to end. Jim was a big hulking guy who filled any space he encountered. Gloomy, too. I kept away from him and his roommate Barry, a small already balding boy whose voice was like the sting of a particularly noxious mosquito. I didn’t want to be tainted because the Israelis didn’t like Americans. They thought us lazy, careless workers. Worst of all, spoiled. We were all comfortable suburban Jews who had rejected our parents and were full of disdain for our country, but never tried to understand people from anywhere else.
I could be different. I made up a little story about myself which included a cultured European father and an artist mother in an East Village brownstone cluttered with beauty. I never told anyone this fable but if I repeated it to myself when I went to bed every night with the Dane in the corner masturbating quietly and Milo juggling two oranges, then I could forget what I had left behind.
Jim was always late for work. I’d see him sitting down to breakfast alone, huddled over his egg like some tramp off the street. Joel, a lean thoughtful Israeli who ran the orange groves, was patient at first as we sat in the chill morning on wooden planks at the back of the truck: the Dane, Milo, Cleo, the French woman, and the Swiss girl, Beatrice.
“I don’t understand. What for is he doing?” Joel said when he saw Jim walking slowly along in a kind of slouchy swagger.
He made us wait every morning until one day Beatrice said, “Why do you do this?”
His usual reply to any question was a shrug or grunt. Sometimes he might blurt out, “Just fuck away.” But he looked into her exquisite little face. “I don’t do anything.”
“But you do,” she said, “You keep us waiting.” There was something so pristine about her. She was not Jewish, not remotely so. She looked like a fairy with her slim body and halo of white blonde hair that I’d never seen on anyone past the age of baby.
Jim looked bewildered. With his large, awkward hands, he pushed back his long hair which never looked clean. “Sorry,” he said. But only to her. The rest of us shivering on the wooden planks could go to hell.
Joel started the truck and we jolted down the road to the orange groves. I didn’t understand at first why women were assigned to orange picking. Men were surely stronger, faster, could more easily carry the buckets of oranges. But what the women lacked in strength, they made up for with industry. They never stopped to smoke or slouch around like Jim. Only the Dane could match them in intensity of purpose. And the tall Frenchwoman Cleo was as strong as any of us. With her fierce dark eyes and upright stance she was like a Jewish Joan of Arc.
Beatrice was a picker and she was fast up the ladder. She was now working with Milo, who was content to empty her bag into buckets. I got stuck with Jim. It seemed his roommate Barry had been thrown out of the kibbutz for having crabs. So Jim told me in his laconic way. Barry had threatened to leave a critter from his privates on everyone’s bed before he exited but the Israelis were too quick for him. They weren’t having an itchy workforce. They scooped him up early, packed his stuff, and drove him to the bus.
“They are completely without pity,” Jim said, as if he ever showed concern for anyone.
I couldn’t stop myself. I said “Better check yourself. Those things spread fast.”
“You think we’ve been screwing each other? Barry is a closet hetero.”
Some days later the Russians arrived. I guess looking back on it, we were a pretty dismal bunch, apart from the good-humoured Milo, until Ivan and Mikhail moved in next door. They more than the other nationalities fulfilled their stereotype to satisfaction. They smoked and drank and sang in their loud throaty voices. Milo watched them carefully, and when they had left our room– for they had come to borrow matches and talk their broken English– he began to mimic them. He was good, Milo, because he not only caught their flamboyant gestures and Mikhail’s pop eyes but Ivan’s sadness that you could see when he stopped his hearty laughter.
I wondered how Jim got on with them. He said nothing on the truck out in the morning. He looked tired and perplexed. For once he was not late. Perhaps this meant getting up extra early because he needed time to emerge into day from the woven dream he lived in.
I was paired with Jim. Normally he worked with Cleo, but Joel had to break up Mikhail and Ivan when they started playing catch with the oranges. Cleo could make anyone work; I saw her prodding Mikhail with a branch when he lazed around instead of emptying her bucket.
I was the one on the ladder reaching for oranges still wet from the dew. I cut the oranges off the branches with care. Joel told us nobody would buy them if you pulled out the stem. I imagined Jim ripping them from the tree.
We stopped for a breather. Jim peeled an orange and ate it without asking if I wanted some. Not like Milo who was the most community-minded man I’d ever met. He had come with nothing, and had no money beyond the small weekly allowance the kibbutz gave each of us. And yet he shared everything he bought: the waxy chocolates, the small vodkas, even sticks of chewing gum. He wanted us to have a part of everything he possessed, as if we could make his broken life whole.
“How is it in there?” I asked, “With them?”
“They’re not so crazy as you think,” Jim said. “You know Mikhail was in one of those gulags?”
“So he says.”
“He lost an eye there. That why he looks like he’s staring at you all the time. He’s got a glass eye.”
“You believe that? He could’velost it in a fight.”
“What the fuck do we know about anything? We’re like the gulag of the rich.”
“Speak for yourself. I’m not rich. Never was.”
We lapsed into silence. He broke open another orange. I climbed up the ladder again with my empty bag slung over my shoulder.
“Let’s switch,” he called out.
I knew why he wanted to change. Beatrice was up in the next tree with Milo down below. “You couldn’t ask before I got up here?” But I didn’t feel like arguing. As I stepped down off the ladder, I asked, “Have you ever been up there?”
He didn’t answer, just started climbing, such a big guy, not fat but tall and broad-shouldered and clumsy looking. I should have warned him to go slow and not lean back. The ladder seemed suddenly wobbly beneath him. Maybe his weight and the fact that he was moving so unsteadily, maybe that’s what made him fall.
He grabbed for a branch of Beatrice’s tree before he hit the ground. The fall was messy like everything about him. But it meant he broke an arm not his back. He didn’t know that right away. Milo ran for Joel. His other skill besides mime was the speed of his running. We gathered around Jim, who was moaning, mumbling how fucked he was. Ivan pulled off his jacket and put it tenderly under Jim’s head.
Beatrice kneeled down and asked, “Where is your pain?”
“Everywhere.” He took her hand even though she hadn’t offered it. “Just everywhere.” He shut his eyes to show just how bad it was.
I thought he had done this for her. How else would such a beauty pay attention to him?
With his broken arm he was no use to us in the orange groves. I wondered if the Israelis would get rid of him like they did Barry. I wouldn’t have to see his sullen face anymore, and there would be no other Americans but me. I could be that other man with cultured parents, a European Jew who just happened to grow up in America.
But he stayed on. They put him to work in the roses. He could spray and water with his good arm. He and a flock of Israeli women who ran the place. Beatrice told me she had been there first of all, but she didn’t like to handle pesticides and fertilizers. I thought it was poetic of the Israelis to place her among the flowers, though she was not like the blood red roses they grew and exported to Europe.
We talked more now after Jim’s fall, Beatrice and I. I even entertained thoughts that she might consider me, just a small melancholic guy from Connecticut whose wife had left him. But I was years old than her, probably by a good measure. She had just graduated from university back in Switzerland and I had hit thirty. I soon realised that she thought me a trusted friend. It came out one morning when she placed her silverish hand on mine.
“I dreamed about you last night,” she said.
I was glad we were next to Milo who smiled at us both but could not understand her words. I was blushing at the thought that I could be in dreams as pristine probably as she was.
“There were people. Drug addicts bothering me. I was so afraid.”
I thought of Jim and wondered if he featured as one of those. He looked like he had taken something long ago.
“But you came and saved me.” She even took my hand.
As they say in novels, my heart sank. I was the reliable man again. Whose wife preferred danger. “She walked out on you?” My mother couldn’t understand how her son had come to such a pass. As if one day Maria had just stepped out of the house and never come back, when in truth it happened slowly, her affair, until she simply wasn’t with me anymore.
“I’m glad I could be of some help,” I said.
“You were such a good person.” She looked into my face. Was she checking to see if I was really the one who appeared in her dream?
They needed fewer people picking oranges as the winter settled in. Beatrice was moved back to the roses. I thought of the two of them there, Jim moving around to catch her as she pricked her small perfect hand with a thorn and was sent into a deep sleep from which even I, the good man, could not wake her.
I hadn’t seen much of Jim since the accident. I’d hear him through the wall separating our rooms, telling Mikhail to shut it. Sometimes I’d pass him in the shower. The bathroom was a plain stone building with open shower stalls and no heat. On cold mornings the hot shower threw mists around our bodies but once I glimpsed his long pale back.
At dinner the kibbutz liked to put us at different tables, all the volunteers spread out among the Israelis. If you stayed long enough and showed yourself to be a good citizen, you might even be adopted by a family and asked to tea. So I couldn’t sit with Beatrice but I saw her with an Israeli family, nodding her head with beautiful seriousness. I wondered what they made of her.
Once I passed her coming into breakfast as I was leaving. The one advantage of working in the greenhouse was the late start: while I was walking to my 6 a.m. breakfast, Beatrice and Jim would just be waking up. I asked how her dreams were working out.
“I have you, so no more bad people,” she said. “And you?”
“I don’t dream,” I said.
When I left the dining room I met Jim straggling along, late as usual. He looked different somehow. The sling was gone and he was functioning with both arms. He caught me looking at his belly.
“They have cake every day. Like they’re fattening us up,” he said. “The roses are killing me. I think I’ve got pricks on every part of my hands.”
I waited for some mention of Beatrice. But that was as much as he would say. We must both of us be the most quiet Americans the Israelis had ever known.
I saw them in the distance once when I was on the truck coming back into the kibbutz. They were walking over the little hill from the roses to the dining hall to have lunch. She moved ahead quickly, while he, head down arms hanging, was like her faithful dog trotting behind.
Even the Dane noticed how Jim followed her around. ‘’She will never go with him,’ he said.
“You don’t know.”
“It would be, you know, the story of beauty with the beast?”
“Sometimes women choose men you wouldn’t expect.”
I was thinking more of myself. Yet it would make more sense if Beatrice had come to me. I was the right size for her, taller, but not like Jim, who towered over her and in his current weight might even crush her.
I sat with them one breakfast when, because of the rain, we delayed our picking. They were each peeling a hard-boiled egg, not speaking, almost like a husband and wife. I asked how it was in the roses. He said, “Probably we’re poisoned. Yesterday I started sweating pesticide.”
“You make it hard for everyone,” she said. She had done a beautiful job of peeling her egg, not a bit of the white lost.
He said nothing to this. He’d abandoned his egg, half-eaten with the bits of shell clinging to the broken yolk, and was drinking from a mug of strong tea the Israelis liked. They sugared it and added lemon, but his tea was black and probably as bitter as his face.
Milo arrived, his hair wet, his great brown eyes with their firm black brows glistening. He mimed swimming. He and the Russians went in the sea even when it rained.
He shook hands with each of us, that was his way, every day, sometimes several times a day we’d join hands. I thought it was because he couldn’t talk to us, but he knew enough English to say, “Hi guys.” Yet the handshaking went on. He was a charming man in a completely unaffected way. A compact brown bear of a man.
Beatrice handed Milo a napkin. “To wipe your face.”
Jim looked up from his mug at her with something like scorn.
By Chanukah Milo had picked up enough Hebrew to chat with the Israelis and had basic English. But he continued to mime and he loved the ridiculous: Mikhail hiding pieces of chicken from dinner because he could not believe that food would be there every day, Jim’s sullen slouch of a walk, and even me with my faraway eyes and hands picking at my beard as if foraging for meaning. He kept doing one mime over and over. A kind of dance with gestures I didn’t recognize. Maybe he was remembering a girlfriend back in Hungary. Poor guy. But he looked ecstatic as he moved.
The kibbutz celebrated Chanukah with a big menorah lit up on the hill, wine at dinner and dancing till midnight. Ivan and Mikhail had gone on drinking the little bottles of vodka we could buy from the kibbutz store. They had this idea that we should all go into the sea together but no one joined them. I heard them come back singing and Jim yell at them to shut it. Then I heard nothing.
Nights on the kibbutz could be so silent because our cabins were a distance from the dining room and surrounded by trees. Below us the sea came and went without a sound. If I had to go to the bathroom, I kept my eyes ahead because if there was someone beyond the dark path where I walked, I didn’t want to know. I had that sleep of the first nights after Maria had well and truly left. Nights when I could be dead, I was so deep in blackness.
And then I woke with the sound of a scream from somewhere beyond our cabin. Maybe there was more than one scream and then yelling. I was the first one out of the door running towards the commotion, which seemed to be coming from the women’s cabins.
The lights were on in one of the cabins and the yelling continued. I knocked and asked: “Are you all right?” And then I walked in. It was a scene. The Frenchwoman Cleo was standing over Mikhail, shouting at him, “Bête, bête,” while he sat hunched over.
Beatrice stood there in her gauzy nightgown. She was speaking French to Cleo.
“Is she all right?” I asked Beatrice.
She signalled me to keep quiet.
Milo came in, and behind him the Dane.
Suddenly Cleo smacked Mikhail across the head and he began to cry. Milo began talking to him in a low voice. I knew just enough Yiddish to recognise a few words.
Beatrice said, “He came in and threw himself on her bed. We all woke up and he was just lying there. He was too drunk to do anything.”
Ivan had begun shouting at Mikhail. Milo tried to quiet him down but he wouldn’t stop.
The door opened and Jim was standing there, rubbing his eyes like a child. “Hey what happened? You all right, Beatrice?” As if nobody else existed.
“Why do you ask me?” she said.
There was a din of languages. Only the Dane was quiet, and then he spoke in French to Cleo, and what he said calmed her. She said “Go” when I asked if I could do anything. I felt like I did on my first day in Paris when I knew that nothing I said would be understood in the way I wanted.
We all left, Mikhail who could hardly walk, still crying hard, while Ivan yelled at him, Milo whispering urgent Yiddish words in both their ears.
We were back in our own beds when Milo came in. It was late and we were tired from the whole evening, but I couldn’t help myself.
“So you speak Yiddish?” I asked.
Milo didn’t seem to understand. Maybe his English was still too basic. I mimed speaking and said the few Yiddish words I knew, but he smiled and shook his head. I did a poor version of Woody Allan mimicking a religious Jew. I didn’t even make myself laugh.
He looked puzzled but I wouldn’t let go. “I thought you only spoke Hungarian when you came.” Because if all along he knew Yiddish, he could have talked to the Israelis who had come over from Germany and Eastern Europe after the war. So many on the kibbutz were survivors. They often spoke Yiddish to each other, only stopping when the younger members of the kibbutz shushed them.
The Dane said, “Maybe he didn’t want to talk. He was too unhappy. Maybe talking pained him.”
“You could have told them what really happened,” I said to Milo. “How you escaped.”
Milo looked wonderingly at me.
I felt I had been tricked, though what would have been the point? Maybe he’d walked, not run, out of Hungary.
The kibbutz didn’t throw Mikhail out. Joel said, “He was just feeling his freedom.” They made him live with an older couple, German Jews who had immigrated to Israel after the war. The husband was a hefty guy so full of bitterness that he scared me. They’d keep an eye on him, give him the stability he lacked, and stop his drinking, though I saw him down on the beach with a bottle of wine once. All alone.
At breakfast on the day after all the mayhem, I mentioned to Beatrice about Milo’s Yiddish. She always clapped at his mimes. I wondered if it would bother her as much as it did me.
“Don’t you think he can say what he really feels in his little plays? How could words express what he has seen?” she said.
I felt ashamed. I wasn’t the good man she had relied on.
Jim came in at the end of this. He said, “The guy is a charlatan.”
Beatrice shook her head at him like an angry fairy. “You make everything and everyone soiled.”
Later when Joel and I were alone in the truck just before Milo came running up from the sea, I asked him, “Did you know that Milo speaks Yiddish?”
“All that time you knew?”
“He wanted to learn your language. The American language,” Joel said. When the others spoke to him, he said, “No more Yiddish in my mouth.”
“But he could have told you what really happened in Hungary.”
“What does it matter?”
Milo was running towards us, his face wet from the sea. “Look how happy he is. Just look,” Joel said.
I thought that he had always been happy.
Ivan stayed on with Jim, and quiet descended again. Milo could now converse in English but he continued to mime. Maybe to entertain us. All along he had had another language. I couldn’t get over the feeling he had been dishonest, and I felt less warm towards him. One day when we were in the shower he did his ecstatic dance again. He was naked, his arms clasped, his whole body gyrating. Then he raised his hands to the sky.
“What does it mean, Milo?”
He smiled at me and wacked his towel at his torso. He was like the Russians that way, beating himself after a shower.
Jim came out of the mist with nothing on. “He’s telling about how he’s fucking her.”
Milo had gone down the hill. I must have looked confused.
I shook my head.
I thought Jim was jealous of any attention Beatrice gave someoneelse. She felt sorry for Milo. She was that kind of girl.
Then I saw them together. Beatrice was sitting between his legs, and he had his hands on her shoulders. She spoke for him as if she knew some hidden language that he had been mouthing all along.
I understood Milo’s dance. It was all about how Beatrice had given him wings when he had lost his, how they could rise up together. A schmaltzy story. He had enough English words now to speak it, but I thought it was just as well he kept up the mime.