Once upon a Jerusalem winter's night - short story

The graffiti inside the tunnel is third-rate, the work of an angry teenager. The air hangs heavy with the stench of urine and stale weed.

 Rain falls along Jaffa Road in downtown Jerusalem on January 19. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Rain falls along Jaffa Road in downtown Jerusalem on January 19.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

Russian Compound

It’s dusk, and the Taklit bar on Helene Hamalka Street in Jerusalem’s Russian Compound is doing beaucoup business when Eli and Guy grab the last available table. The Taklit is a hive of students, professors and the odd tourist. Tonight, the bar’s speakers boom out a soundtrack relentlessly dedicated to 1980s pop. The musical stylings of A-Ha, Duran-Duran and early U-2 flood the airwaves.

“What are you on, son? I swear you’re aging backward,” Eli says while adjusting his undersized kippah with one hand. A server with long black hair, a cherubic face and cold blue eyes leaves Eli and Guy’s table with their order and heads back to the bar inside.

“Hah! Sun’s going down is all. Once it’s dark and after a few drinks I’ll start looking like Brad Pitt.” Guy winks at his old army buddy. Eli smiles broadly. Once a strapping officer in an IDF infantry combat unit, the frenetic energy that had fueled 30-kilometer boot camp treks has been doused. Hunched and with a disheveled mop of hair, only Eli’s eyes show any signs of life: the blinking has become more rapid-fire, the furtive sideway glances more frequent.

All that remains of the 24-year-old Eli is a faded army jacket that clings uncomfortably to his back.

“You look like dog food. What’s going on?” Guy chides his former platoon commander. Trim, tanned, and well-groomed, Guy gets the most out of his slight frame. He used his growing bald spot as an excuse to burn a ridiculous amount of money on the latest Fedoras, Panama and Bowler hats. Guy believes that people who wear beanies should be placed under house arrest.

 Israeli commercial beers ''Goldstar'' and ''Maccabee'' (credit: Wikimedia Commons) Israeli commercial beers ''Goldstar'' and ''Maccabee'' (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“Garbage. Lots of garbage,” Eli replies.

“That’s right. I forgot about the new gig. How’s that working out?” Guy asks.

As Eli starts to mouth a reply while resetting his blue and white kippah, their server resurfaces from the smoke-filled bar with their drinks.

“Here you go.” She sets down the beers on the table.

Guy winces at the drinks and then glares at the server. “What’s this swill?” he growls.

“Yeah... Well... So the taps are broken. All we have right now is Maccabee or Goldstar. You two look like Maccabee guys,” she offers up a weak smile.

“Thanks a lot,” Eli cracks a wry grin.

“We’ll throw in a couple of chasers for your trouble,” the server says.

“Sure. Whatever.” Guy has quickly grown bored with the conversation.

“Enjoy.” The server flashes a brilliant smile at Guy, turns on her heel, and wanders off to parts unknown.

A pack of American Yeshiva students, dressed in dark slacks, white-collar shirts and black velvet kippot barrel into earshot. They set up shop at an empty table right next to Eli and Guy.

“Bar Yochai was a total badass,” a heavyset guy with stubble bellows.

“Yeah, but the Rambam invented Yoga. For real,” retorts a much shorter, pale-faced youth with a distinct New York accent.

“I’ve died and gone to hell. Bad beer AND bad neighbors? Throw in Hitler’s German shepherd, why don’t you... ” Guy fumes.

“Why’d we come here in the first place? This place isn’t even kosher,” Eli says.

“Kosher pubs are a rip-off,” Guy retorts.

Guy bolts from his rickety wooden chair. Eli follows his lead, grabbing his army coat. Guy throws two 50 shekel notes on the table as they head out into the Jerusalem night.

“That’s a hell of a tip, no?” Eli asks.

“I slipped her my phone number.” Guy replies evenly.

Sacher Park

With the weather suddenly turning cold and rainy, Eli and Guy – two bottles of Maccabee in tow – find their way to a tunnel inside Sacher Park. Guy was ready to call it a night, hop in his cherry red Mazda 3 Sedan and drive back to Tel Aviv. But one hard look at the dark circles under Eli’s eyes caused Guy to make a mental U-turn.

The graffiti inside the tunnel is third-rate, the work of an angry teenager. The air hangs heavy with the stench of urine and stale weed.

Eli and Guy are facing each other, leaning against the tunnel’s walls. Eli is adjusting his kippah at an increasingly frantic rate. His head is hung low.

“Fine weather in Jerusalem, huh?” Guy’s attempt to lighten the mood falls flat. “Sure don’t miss living here. Neve Tzedek is where it’s at. You’re right next to Jaffa. The sea. Nothing here but rocks and riots. We should hang out there next time.”

“Won’t be a next time for a long time,” Eli mumbles – almost to himself.

“What are you talking about?” Guy asks.

“I mean... I don’t sleep much anymore. I can barely stand up.”

“Corona, Flu, Flurona?” Guy prods while taking a swig from his beer.

“That’s not it. I wake up every morning at 2:45. Like clockwork. I pace around the apartment for a good 20 minutes. Then, I watch whatever YouTube feeds me until my phone dies. I’m always losing my charger. After that, it’s just me and my out-of-control mind. At some point, maybe it’s 3:30, maybe 5:30, I finally start to doze. But then the bombs start to go off: every mistake I ever made, every regret I ever had, and every hope that’s been dashed... It’s like a minefield. Just as I’m falling into a deep sleep, I’m jolted awake...”

“That’s some dark shit. What does Dina think?” Guy asks inelegantly.

“Dina? She married a 24-year-old Golani brigade captain who could run up a mountain carrying a man on his back. Now she’s got me,” Eli says.

“You’re still that stud!” Guy isn’t following the direction Eli is going in.

“I’m a zombie. I walk. I work. But I’m dead.

“How’s the leg? Saw you walking down Jaffa... limp’s gotten worse,” Guy says.

“Yeah. I stopped going to physiotherapy a few months ago. What’s the point? The ride to the doctor every week was too much. Let’s just call the shrapnel in my leg a parting gift from the army for services rendered.”

Guy’s phone starts to vibrate. He fishes it out of his pants pocket, does a couple of finger scrolls and winks at the phone screen: “Hey, that waitress chic invited us to some party near Bezalel.”

“Us?” Eli asks suspiciously.

“Well...me. C’mon, it’ll be fun. You can wow some wannabe artists with your war stories,” Guy suggests.

As Eli is shuffling his feet and adjusting his kippah, a couple stumbles into the tunnel. They’re kissing passionately, sloppily. Their hands are all over each other. The young man, little more than a boy, is groping for the girl’s belt. They reek of Maccabee beer.

“Time’s up. Let’s make tracks... before we catch something.” Guy grabs his newest hat – a black Biltmore Dijon Braid Porkpie – buttons up his stylish gray trench coat, turns up the collar, and leaves the warmth of the tunnel for the pouring rain.

“OK,” Eli listlessly obeys the man he once commanded.

Zion Square

Eli and Guy are walking on Jaffa Street, where the new light rail has transformed Jerusalem’s famously congested traffic artery into a pedestrian promenade.

Guy points to Eli’s kippah that once again is sitting awkwardly on his unruly main.

“When did you start wearing that anyways?” Guy asks.

“Probably around the time I started going to synagogue every week,” Eli muses.

Guy lets out a high-pitched laugh.

“Funny?” Eli morosely asks.

“When you lectured the platoon about lessons learned from the Sinai Campaign, or Six Day War, whatever, you’d say: “God may be on our side right now, but he’s keeping his options open.”

A glimmer of recognition washes over Eli’s face as he recalls one of his stock lines. “It’s not about Torah, but tactics...”

“Exactly. So when did you join the God squad?” Guy pushes the point.

“Dina’s dad’s a famous rabbi. I figured if I couldn’t be the super soldier she married, least I could do is try to fit in to the community.”

“Community?” Guy asks.

“Neve Yaakov. I married for love, my friend, but as a wedding present I got a rabbinic dynasty for in-laws. Dina has 100 relatives within spitting distance of our apartment. That’s how I got the job with the sanitation department. Dina’s uncle pulled some strings...”

“Neveh Ya’acov... I hear they don’t have running water there,” Guy chides.

“Urban legend. Don’t believe everything you hear,” Eli retorts.

The hard rain eases into a light drizzle.

Guy wraps an arm around Eli as they reach Zion Square. “Sounds like a fate worse than death. But what do I know: I’m just a single guy in his 30s still hitting on college girls. Sounds like you have it all mapped out. Nice and neat.”

“Dina wants us to buy a place. We can get a good deal. It’s all about the long game...Right?” Eli responds with a child-like lilt.

The square is usually buzzing with local youth, street performers and tourists. But on this night the rain and cold keep them away. Besides Eli and Guy, the only other people around are a few homeless ranting about politics, and some taxi drivers having a smoke.

Eli and Guy huddle by a concrete street piano at the bottom of Ben-Yehuda Street. Guy’s phone vibrates. He looks at the screen, sends a text.

“Jasmine’s shift ends in a couple of minutes,” Guy reports.

“OK. Before I forget: Here you go,” Eli says as he’s going through his army jacket and pulls out a couple of hundred shekels. He hands it to Guy.

“What’s this?” Guy asks.

“You spotted me some cash last time we met. I’m working now, so here you go...” Eli answers.

“Anytime. But that’s not what I meant... What’s THAT?” Guy points to a bright red envelope that had fallen out of Eli’s jacket.

Eli takes the envelope from the ground: “Oh...Just something from...”

Eli is about to tear the envelope in half when Guy swipes it from him.

“Wait...” Eli protests weakly.

Guy shifts his left arm away from Eli, shielding the letter from him.

Guy scans the letter. He looks up, turns toward Eli and leans in. The two men are nose-to-nose.

“If you rip this up, you’re dead to me. I’ll never speak to you again. Understand?” Guy barks.

“Dina thinks it’s time we try again to start a family again...” Eli begins.

Guy cuts him off: “Harvard University wants you for its International Security program: all expenses paid. This is amazing...The golden ticket.”

“Maybe in a few years...” Eli says nonchalantly.

Guy takes two steps away from Eli, turns away, takes a deep breath, and then faces him again.

“You remember the final 60-kilometer trek you led us on at the end of basic?” Guy begins.

“Sure. You were right up there with me, rallying the guys, running back up and down the line. You earned your stripes that night,” Eli replies.

“Yeah... You remember the night before?” Guys asks.

“No.” Eli adjusts his kippah.

“I was all set to go AWOL...” Guy trails off.

“What? No way. You were our best soldier...” Eli eyes open wide in disbelief.

“I became the platoon’s best soldier because you saw me that way. The week of our final trek I got a letter too. It was from my first girlfriend, Shoshana: pregnant. Her parents threw her out of the house as soon as she told them.”

“I didn’t know...” Eli interjects.

“No one knew. I didn’t want anyone to know...” Guy’s eyes have gone glassy. “I made a decision,” Guys says.

“I don’t know what to say...” Eli is grasping for words.

“Don’t talk. Listen. I was all packed and set to jump the fence. To hell with the platoon. I was going to be with her. But you talked me out of it,” Guy tells Eli in a quavering voice.

“How?” Eli asks plaintively.

“You believed in me after everyone else wrote me off. ‘Disturbed.’ ‘Angry.’ ‘Loser.’ That’s all I ever heard. Somehow...I don’t know...you got inside my head. You made it sound so easy...so right. You thought you were just hyping me up for the big trek. Funny...”

“What...” Eli mumbles to himself.

“I was gonna bust out, meet Shoshanna, rescue her or something...without a pot to piss in. I would have wound up in the brig for desertion, and things would have only gotten worse from there. You changed the course of my life that night. Now it’s your turn to...take your life back. Bust out of this prison you’ve built for yourself! So you never became chief of staff. So what? I never got the girl or the white picket fence. Life moves, Eli. You gotta move with it. All you’re doing now is...marking time until guard duty is over,” Guy concludes.

Guy’s phone goes off. He reads the text.

“Well...I gotta make tracks. Sure you don’t want to come?” Guy asks.

“Nah,” Eli demurs.

“OK, then...bring it in.”

Eli and Guy embrace. “Gimme your new address after you buy a place in that slum. I’ll throw rocks at your window until you decide to come out,” Guy says.

Eli is looking at the letter from Harvard. He folds it and puts it back into the red envelope. Eli is holding the acceptance notice so tightly that his knuckles turn white.

“We won’t be buying a place just yet.”

“That’s more like it,” Guys says. He turns toward the Russian Compound and walks back to the Taklit bar.

“Hey. Wait a minute. Whatever happened to Shoshanna?” Eli ask Guy.

“What? Oh. It was a false alarm. She left me for a medical student at Hebrew University after boot camp. Funny...”

The dark clouds above have blown away. A few stars appear in the night sky.

Eli starts walking to the bus station to catch the final ride home. As he’s crossing Ben-Yehuda Street, he spots an old homeless man on the ground, shivering. Eli takes off his old green army jacket and places it on the homeless man.

That night, for the first time in months, Eli sleeps a deep, untroubled sleep. In his hand – still – is the letter from Harvard University. ■