Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Kibbutz


Dimitri drove the combine with all the discipline his twenty-one-year-old self could master, none. From behind the wheel six feet above the arugula field in Kibbutz Hadarat Haderech, the Kats residence in  Northeast Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., North America might have been on Mare Nostrum, the Moon. His brother the surgical resident was a mythical undead. His Law Review brother could have been on the moon Deimos, not at Duke. His younger sister, who only dated rich men at least ten years older than herself, could have been an exhibit at the wax museum in Hollywood. 

And och, Bozhe moi, those parents! What was Khrushchev thinking when he gave these people their exit visas, anyway? The Katses were nobodies, not like the usual refuseniks with Ph. D.’s who got stuck cleaning toilets, or worse, while waiting for their exit visas. Obviously, intelligence skipped generations. Dimitri had grabbed the first lifeline: a program offered by Habimah, the national theater company of Israel. Life on the kibbutz.  A steady diet of rehearsals. Driving heavy equipment during harvest seasons. Casta divas for the taking. Even a Jordanian on a good night. No Palestinians, though. The intifadeh was on. A death wish? No, thanks. Later that summer, the company was off to Moscow. Dimitri hadn’t signed up to go find any long-lost relatives at the Bolshoi; his role was far more humble. He’d just run the rehearsals and accompany the theater school while the company performed in the country of its birth.

“Hoi, Raf, hitarrarta ktzat? Have you woken up a little yet?” Dimitri shouted out the tractor . He made a habit of teasing the poor loser who draws Halivat-Haboker, morning milking, for his or her chore. Dimiti had it inserted into his contract that under no circumstance did he need to participate in any Kibbutz activities that commenced before 6 a.m. Halivat-Boker began at 4:30. It was 10:30, midmorning. Rafi had eaten breakfast and taken a nap already. A yeled hakibbutz, a son of the farm collective, Rafi had made y’ridah and  aliyah  five times in four years, this time because of a Russian flutist whose name sounded a little too much like “sex.”
“Yes, who did you have last night?” Rafi was a young 24, but at least he had a degree. A couple of them. At 21, Dimya had no degree, no focus, but most important for Dimitri, no parents carping on him for the first two “no’s.”

“Nothing much, habibi, it was men’ sectional last night.”

“What, no cute tenors?” You weren’t an Israeli man if you didn’t bust on your chevre for being “homo.”

“Fuck, I just played music and went to bed. Rafi, wanna come tonight? It’s the women’s sectional, and beside, we’re auditioning a new flutist.”

“Cus-a-mak!” Rafi leapt up on the grille and started flagellating Dimitri with his shirt, fresh from the laundry.  Rafi was chunkier than Dimitri, although Rafi was the distance athlete and Dimitri was the smoker. Dimitri’s thin, pale frame disappeared under Rafi’s broad torso, richly tanned from miles of distance running. 

“Homo,” Dimitri took his turn. “Get your ape-ass off me and smoke this joint.”

Rehearsal started at 8pm, right after aruchat-arev in the common dining hall. Dimitri was covering as the rehearsal pianist for Joel Engel’s 1917 score to The Dybbuk, the centerpiece behind the upcoming exchange program with Moscow. At a kibbutz rehearsal, the feel was more like an annual “Messiah-sing” at Christmas than an earnest preparation for an international cultural event of historic significance. The ranks of the chorus swelled from fifteen singing actors and twenty-five extras to almost a hundred voices. Hed-Arzi sold almost a thousand dollars of complete scores. Nobody performed from complete scores. These tomes would receive the autographs of Mira Rafalowicz, who published the 1977 edition, and Joseph Chaikin, who was producing the Moscow event. The task of repetiteur, the banging of notes on the piano for the sake of the musically illiterate, fell to Dimitri. 

“You can conduct this blind,” said Dimitri, handing Rafi a score. “Go.”

“Rachem alai, ani iver,” Rafi spoofed a line from Ivrit Chayah, one of the popular Ulpan (Hebrew intensive) programs. “Have pity on a blind man.” Drafted. Was this Habimah, or was this amateur hour? After a bit of dithering, the pros took over once the amateurs sounded like they had heard of the piece before tonight.  The leading lady, Leah’le – or at least her understudy – didn’t show up until 9:30. 

No matter, thought Dimitri, jutting his jaw out just a bit more than usual. 

The woman, a 28-year-old Yemeni bombshell whose frumpy headdress and casual clothing could not conceal the sparks jumping off her evergreen tan, started a long pas-de-deux with the rehearsal pianist, while the conductor gesticulated at, rather than shaping the curves of the score. Three hours later, Rafi left Yasmeena sharing a smoke with her pianist and went for a run. A long. Long. Run.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Magda


Fulgencia, Anna’s mom, had returned to Puebla several times during the first year after her fancy clothes and her Bible had tiptoed out when Anna was 8. Each time, the mother became more sarcastic toward the daughter, gradually moving to open rage. It was as if the mother returned only to throw aside her previous life by destroying the links that bound her to those who loved her. Anna, try as she might, could not move past the place that children go when a parent leaves, by abandonment, divorce, or death.  One morning, she would look up at the crucifix she took off the wall – that wall in that room with that empty bed for one alone – and hurl invective at a God she had started doubting long ago. The very next morning she would kneel in front of the crucifix, with its cast-iron martyr peering out from under his crown of thorns, and beg Him to care for her mother and to remember her among the myriad billions of believers on this world or any other.
When she was eleven years old, she had discovered her classmate Magdalena sitting cross-legged in front of the giant sycamore tree in the school’s courtyard. This deciduous gift came from the Archdiocese of Seville as part of the earthquake reconstruction effort sixteen years earlier. The tree towered above the stumpy palmeras of the native climate, its bark looking like an endless row of greenish chameleons by comparison to the scaly brown exoskeleton of the much smaller palms. Magdalena’s light skin and blond hair marked her as an outsider. Anna felt like an outsider on the inside. Since Magda’s Danish mother had divorced her father and returned to Copenhagen, Magda and Anna shared parallel lives, but until this Tuesday in October, a bright sunny interpause in a month of solid rain, they had never spoken.
Wordlessly, Anna sat down on an exposed root of the great tree. Unlike the sticklike Magdalena, Anna had hips to tuck under herself even as a sixth grader. Noticing the slighter girl’s shoes neatly placed next to her schoolbooks, Anna placed hers the same way. The girls sat in lotus position like two yogis.
“What are you reading?” Anna asked.
“La Indagacion de la Poesia.”
“Mande?”, which is the Mexican idiom for, “I did not get that. Again, please!”
“It’s one of my brother Marco’s textbooks. When I was born, I was careful to choose a family that would have a brother ten years older, so I could read his books.”
“With my luck,” replied Anna, “he would have been a naco futbolista.”
“That was part of the bargain. If he wasn’t a reader, I don’t get born.”
Si, claro. Por supuesto.”  Anna had never heard the white stick-girl talk before. She liked it. “What would he do if he knew you had his book? I’m telling, jajaja!”
“You don’t know where I live. In fact, you don’t even know my name, do you, burra?”
Magdalena’s tone, the little toss she gave of her rich Mexican brown hair, and the furtive wink of her Danish blue eyes put the lie to the harsh words she had just uttered.
“Magdalena da Silva Jort. Burrona.”
Mande? How did you know my matronymic?” Magda’s eyes widened, and her thin lips remained parted slightly at the end of her question. She blushed, more from embarrassment than from anger. The idea of a nearly-complete stranger knowing such a personal detail, especially as she perceived her mother as having abandoned her, felt like a violation.
“I do my research.” When the girls were in fourth grade, Anna had noticed a tall, blonde woman in the school. Perhaps it would be better to say that the tall, blonde woman penetrated Anna’s consciousness, striking a silent blow to Anna’s self-image and placing a permanent chip on her shoulder. Anna walked in the tall woman’s shadow to the office, and hid in the stairwell until she saw which girl left, hand-in-hand, with her goddess mom. Anna had the classroom responsibility of running messages to and from her classroom, so she spent the last three periods praying that the Sra. Morales would ask her to take something to the office. The moment finally arrived in art class. A new poster and English phonics game had arrived earlier in the day, but Sra. Morales had left it in the copy room by accident. Her lesson for last period depended on having this material, so she sent Anna to retrieve it. Anna feigned casual disinterest when she glanced at the early dismissal sheet, and there it was:
Heike Hjort         Magdalena da Silva
Now Magdalena da Silva Hjort was reaching for her shoes.
“No, don’t,” Anna pleaded. “I didn’t mean any harm.”
“It’s just… just… nobody talks – uses matronymics. I was just surprised, that’s all.”
“So tell me about, who is that, Villanueva?”
“Yes. He says that the central moment in the creation of a poem is like the moment of consciousness. Like the way the first man realized that he was a man and not an ape.”
“Yes! I think that this is the big idea in being human. Every moment is a new awareness…”
“A new possibility! And a whole universe is contained in it!” Magdalena gushed.
“Magda, would you read that passage to me?”
Magdalena read from the book. The entire passage occupied a page and a half, but it took up most of recess to read. That is, to read a single paragraph of it. The language was dense for an adult, and these were eleven-year-old girls. But they savored the language, the thoughts, the seriousness, the ADULTness of it, and they interrupted themselves interrupting the reading. Occasionally, Magda would look up whenever an older boy took up position nearby. She would shoot the boy a cross look and try to pick up where she and Anna had left off.
“I wish they wouldn’t do that,” Magda sniffed.
“Do what? Who?” Anna replied.
“The boys. They haven’t stopped coming since you sat down. Do they do that to you all the time?”
“No, but maybe,” speculated Anna, “I just don’t notice. That’s bruto. Barbaro.
The bell rang, indicating that the children had five minutes left to go back to class. Both girls gathered their shoes, replaced their lunches, barely touched, in their book bags and caught each other’s gaze. Anna spoke first.
“Do you want to come over after school?”
“I’d love to! But I have to take my younger brother home. Then I have to…” The words froze between Magda’s larynx and tongue.
“My mom left too.” With that, Anna placed her free hand on Magda’s shoulder. The girls hugged. “I’ll come to your house, then. My father knows I usually stay in the library, so he won’t expect me.”
Even to the European thinness of their lips, the girls saw themselves reflected in the other.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Song of Himself

 “With a boulder off my shoulder, and feelin’ kinda older…”

The Manfred Mann song had blast out of Hollywood in 1975, when Dimitri was only eight. A decade later, he was shape-shifting the lyrics to suit his situation. Maybe I’ll be the teen-age diplomat. Maybe I’ll have diplomatic immunity. Wonder what the legal age is there, for some Silicone Sister action.

“Torresdale Station,” called the conductor.

Markus is probably still waiting for my call this week. I wonder if he got anything good in? I hear they have really good hash in Israel. 

The Walkman in his brain started the quote from “Chopsticks.”

“Do you mind?” A fiftyish black guy from the bench across the bus from Dimitri scowled.

Bozhe fucking moy! I guess it’s true what they say about geniuses thinking out loud.

“Sorry.”

Dimitri was fingering with both hands now, verse in one hand, chorus in the other.  The black guy unzipped a slightly weather-weary canvas bag. He peered into it, riffled through some paper, and extracted what he was looking for. He presented for Dimitri’s inspection a manila folder, clean but for a fresh crease that resembled  the oversized strap of a handwoven diaper bag from Ecuador. Where the free shoulder would have been, the file label bore, in crisp jazz script, the title.

The One True Love, huh? OK. It’s gotta be better than Chopsticks.

Dimitri started fingering the left hand while humming the melody. Now neither the young pianist nor the older musician noticed or cared about the presence of other midday travelers on the R-7 to Trenton.

“Bb?”

“Yeah. Clarinet.”

“You didn’t think about tenor sax?”

“No, man, alto maybe. Tenor’s too brassy. You can’t make sweet honey with a tenor. Think (    ). “

“On tenor?”

“Naw, (   ) played clarinet. You didn’t know that, didja? S’prised you recognized it wasn’t a hobo.”

“Oboe?”

“C’mon.”

“The melody only makes sense with this chart if it’s in Bb. Nice tune, though. Maybe you should have written it for a hobo with an oboe.”

“Naw, man, then it would have been the blues.”

“Y’right.”

“How’d you know, kid? You probably don’t know who Bill Monroe is.”

Dimitri tried to ignore the older man’s change in address from “man” to “kid.” Instead, he tried to think back to jazz club at Interlochen the past summer, but all he could think of was Wild Bill Hickock and Buffalo Bill Cody. His eyes drifted from the upper-right focus of database searching to the centered point of memory.
Rob Morris, Trombone Instructor. Tyrone Maguire, the kid on drums who really played vibes. A vocalist who could do anything in any octave at the same time, Bobby McFerrin. A saxmaster, Howie Smith, in his late twenties already. Another sax guy, Quintin Moore, who made a living as a programmer on a DEC PDP-8. Interlochen – between the lakes. Upstate Michigan. Magic. Meredith McIntyre. Damn her, I came so close. The girl from the #9 green. What was her name? I can trace her navel but I can’t remember her name. A wash of major 7ths, half diminished 13ths, chords built on altered notes. Meredith changing backstage after playing tennis. A golden ray hits her rich hay-blonde hair, disappearing under her t-shirt. Was it olive? Her skin was a matching tan. She had no tan lines. I was about to check the piano. Tux already on. Shit.

“Sorry.”

“Bill Monroe (    ). Never mind, kid. Can you hear it?”

He must mean the music. I hope so. I learned about misdirected pronouns in 9th grade. 

“Yeah. Pretty nice. You playing it?”

“I wrote it.”

“I’m mostly a classical player. But I can tell a well-crafted progression. And I like the melody.”

“You can hear it, if you’ve ever loved a woman.”

“You don’t think I’m a virgin, do you, old man?” There was a note of tension in Dimitri’s voice.

“I don’t think nothing about nobody. Not ‘til I played with them, at least.”

Ray Leopold. “Is this a stage name?”

“Yeah. I’m Raymont Leathers. I don’t figure any of your Curtis Prep teachers have a name like that. It’s strictly Clef Club, Raymont. Ray Leopold. You can’t even tell that this composer ain’t white. How ‘bout you, kid?”

“Dimitri.”

“Dimitri who? Dimitri Rasputin? You do sound a little bit Sovi-Et to me. Born here, or there?”

“Here. Kats, actually. My parents came in 1964.”

“Oooooh. Bay of Pigs. How did they get out of there?”

“Khrushchev must of made a mistake.”

“Morning in America. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall ‘n stuff. Still, you read OK. Where you headed, Dimitri?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Try me.”

Dimitri reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out his fellowship letter from Habimah Theater.

“Holmesburg Station.”

“Well, well, well, a veritable Irving Berlinski. Whatever else do you expect? I thought the way it works was the Russkies came through Israel to come here. Live ‘n learn. Lessee. Y’got round-trip tickets, travelers’ checks, some letters saying you’re goin’ to a kibbutz and a technical school all while you rehearse these kids for a musical, and Lord knows whatever else when the parent company gets back from Mother Russia, OK, OK! Not bad. In my day, the only way we got to see the world was by goin’ to Korea. Later, Vietnam.”

Dmmm, dm, dm, duduummm, dit, dit, dudummmmmmm, dummmmm, diduddleduddlediddydayyyy. 

Take the A train. That’s the only lick I can remember from the whole damn summer, other than the one I didn’t get of Meredith. What do I say to this guy? This is like me talking to Pushkin because I wrote a short story once. 

“I played in Israel once, at Habimah no less. I played the clarinet in a jazz beat, psychedelic-pop thing. Lots of players, not much structure. Free formin’. Their food sucks, man. Shawarma. Baba, hummus. Salads that come in tiny little cubes, thinner than the skin of the vegetable itself. Their liquor. I took one swig of that ouzo shit, kid, and my eyeballs damn near popped out of their sockets. Like anise and gasoline. Stick to beer.”

“How were the girls?”

“Young. Very young. They’re all married by age twenty.”

“How old were you when you went?”

“Thirty-six. I was twice the age of any of the kids that hung out with the bands.”

Beat.

“Yep, I got some. We all did. A little ouzo, a little hash, these kids didn’t need an alibi the morning after. They wanted a Harlem experience, they got a Harlem experience.”

Dimitri’s eyes widened. He longed for a life outside the sticky, amoeba-like Russian-Jewish neighborhood of the Northeast. Everything he knew about Harlem came from the ‘60’s riots and Jelly Roll Morton as portrayed by a touring show called “Jelly’s Last Jam” that he had wangled an audition for, when the piano man got violently and passionately ill after the last show in Cleveland. The music was too easy, and the lyrics seemed like something a foreigner would write in elementary school. So he failed to focus on the improv and “mailed it in.” He was better than that. He didn’t get a call-back.

“We grew up with our instruments we got from the schools. All the schools had orchestra and band, and PS (151) had two bands. After school was swing band. We played Dizzy, we played the Duke, we even tried  to work through Miles back before he was Miles. Our band leader made the arrangements. It was just the basics – the chart, the changes – but then we could just play. Everybody got a break. Sometimes one tune would last and last and last – and then it would be 5 pm and time to go home for dinner. Then the lucky ones, me and the other dudes who had parents working the night shift, we’d go to the Apollo and warm up with the band. I got to sit in a lot. Most of the guys were in the horn section. I didn’t go that way. I played clarinet.

“Go your own way, kid. By playing clarinet, not sax, I got special props. Be your own dude. I ain’t heard ya play, but doin’ what you doin’ now, I know you got chops."

I’ve got to ask.

“Why are you here? Why aren’t you in a limo somewhere? No offense, but this country runs on the roadway.”

“Not too far off. I’d take the train in any case, but if I could afford it I’d take Amtrak. You too I bet. But some people can’t handle the life. Think of Cannonball, Bird. People go down on smack, booze, you name it, we did it. We busted on dudes with problems, lightweights and shit. Can’t handle your liquor. But it’s brought better players than me to sad ends, kid.

“Tullytown station.”

“You live here now?”

“Yeah, I take care a’ my mom, but she has the house, so I guess she takes care a’ me. I got sober about three years back, and the word got out. I got a call to audition for a show by a kid named Prince. Ever heard a’ him, kid?

“Who hasn’t?” He just cut an album called ‘Purple Rain.’ It’s going to change the world, I think.”

“I have some of the charts. I been practicing harmonies, but also making my own breaks. Trenton’s coming up in a minute. You wanna stop for a bit? I think I’ll play some tunes with my own solos.”

“OK, but just maybe for a half hour or so. You have to get in line for international flights early.”

“Flying El-Al?”

“Yeah.”

“Then you gotta make it more ‘n two hours early. Terrorists, you know. Hey, you don’t have anything nasty in that duffel, do ya?”

Dimitri thought about that. No, he had sold the pot he had bought for graduation. He could get better stuff in Israel anyway, as soon as he knew the scene. And learned the lingo in Hebrew.

“No, I’m good. No bombs, either.”

“Cool. You got a little accent, though. Be careful. Don’t act funny. Anyway, your flight’s not ‘til 8, right?”

“How long is the train ride to Kennedy?”

“They didn’t tell you? You’d be lost, kid. Fuckin’ lost! “

“Huh?!” Dimitri had never considered the possibility that he might not get off at the airport. After all, in Philly you took the R-1 and you were there.

“You get off at New York Penn Station, and then follow the signs to the Long Island Railroad. LIRR, the locals call it; I f’get what the signs say. Kennedy is on the Queens line. I think there’s an express train there now. Otherwise, the line that go to Huntington stops at JFK. Plan an extra forty-five minutes, half an hour if you’re lucky. You bein’ a kid and all, you can bet on at least an hour. Don’t talk to any funky people with too much jewelry up there. They’re pimps, and they troll the places where kids get stuck looking for fresh meat.”

“I think I should skip the busking at Trenton.”

“Naw, kid, I’ll walk y’ over to the Long Island Line. I need the run-through.”

“Only if you start with The One True Love.”

“Deal.”

“Trenton Station. Last stop. Make sure to check for all your belongings. Transfer to the New Jersey Transit train to New York – Penn Station on Platform 2. Purchase tickets in the station upstairs, or you may pay a three dollar surcharge on the train. Have a good day and thank you for riding SEPTA.”

Graduation

“OK, fuck you, cretin!”

With that, Dimitri slammed the door to the row house that huddled behind a fa├žade of Wissahickon schist on Harbison Street. The green duffel bag with the black trim and more than one fibrous scrape or snag had come from a classmate at Central High. Rather, it came from the older brother of said classmate, swiped while the sibling was off at tennis camp. For the day. At whitebread Philadelphia Cricket Club, on grass courts so thick that, from a distance, you could be forgiven if you thought that the cross-hatched pattern on the forest-green carpet had been painted, not mowed. Dimitri’s friend was right. His brother wouldn’t even notice that it was gone until fall, when it was time to head back to college. Dimitri wasn’t going to college, really, although he had matriculated, by scholarship, at the Jezreel Valley College in the Galilee, Israel. He was going away. If he had won a competition to accompany the Sidney Opera Company in Australia, he would have gone there.
Chortyonok!” You will never listen. Disrespectful sukin ..”

Dimitri’s mother, Fanya, shot an icy blast over her husband’s furious tongue, freezing it to the roof of its cage in an incipient sibilant. This was not the first time that Maksim had used this epithet, impugning the species of the mother of his children, but the last time she didn’t talk to him for three days. There was no time for silence this time. Fanya threw the door back open – BANG! with a report as staccato as in its closing.

“Dimya, you cannot leave with your father beset with grief. Give me minute…”

Dimitri broke his stride angrily, like a tight end breaking off a pass route in front of a defensive back.
Dimitri’s father, Maksim, never had any use for his son’s passion for music. Dimitri’s mother, Fanya, pushed all the children to learn the piano. Dimitri paid for his studio time with a G. P. A. that never fell below 3.5, even though he had to do some first-class sucking up to his physics teacher to get that B he didn’t earn. He harvested nine college credits by taking the Advanced Placement tests, but he told Maksim that the subjects were biology, chemistry, and math, but he had taken English, history, and Russian. Russian! They believed him! They paid for his testing fees, and they snapped it up like matza balls eat salt.

“Trust me, my little durak, you could go be lawyer, doctor, President, but piano? We coming to America to make you MUSIKANT? Nyet! For last time, you come back here and you go to Temple and you become surgeon like your brother!”

Now, Maksim had just banned his youngest son from returning to the house, even though Dimitri’s older brother and sister were free to come and go as they pleased. She was beautiful, and he was in medical school.

Dimitri half-strode, half-stumbled to the bus stop at Frankford and Hawthorn, unzipped the duffel just a bit, and took out a thick paperback book with the tattletale yellow and black cover. War and Peace. The Cliff’s notes version – in English. Dimitri flipped through the pages like a fresh deck of cards. He had written quotes from class in Russian so that he could read the quotes before the test. Now he hit a page describing a society party in which the patroness discoursed in nothing but French. “SKUCHNAYA!!” Dimitri had buried the text under four colors of highlighter. “Boring!”  The 66 bus appeared a few blocks away. Dimitri tore the book in half at the spine, and tossed it in the trash can, one half at a time, first like a basketball, then like a Frisbee.

Getting on the bus, Dimitri could have glanced back at the block he wouldn’t see for twenty-five more years. He would have seen a row of freshly planted ginkgo trees, mercifully all male, standing between six and eight feet high – a class of leaf-bound preschool children in a line going to the bathroom, or the playground, or the lunchroom, with the row houses standing like teachers and administrators, fully grown and dour. The sidewalks would have been impossibly smooth, freshly laid to accommodate the expected foot traffic to the new shopping areas on Frankford Avenue. After all, there was a new concept in town, Chickie’s and Pete’s, the sports bar. Dimitri’s neighbors, the Cohens, wouldn’t have been caught dead there – it wasn’t kosher – but their freier family members often showed up after having more than one or two before Jewish holidays. As it was June, the men would have been out mowing, or the women out sweeping. Except the Cohens. It was Shabbes, and you didn’t work on Shabbes.  Dimitri might have noticed that the front door that he had abjured just moments ago, slamming it with a force that echoed through each of his eighteen years, had revealed his mother, sobbing openly as if she were still in Czarist Russia and Dimitri had just left for America. Dimitri thought, just for a moment, that he heard an automatic garage door opener creak open, banging every eighteen inches as the aluminum failed to fold over itself as neatly as had been advertised by the Sears salesman. Or was that the manual lawn mower banging in Maksim’s angry hands?

Dimitri didn’t look back. Instead, he slung the heavy duffel bag onto the baggage shelf of the number 66 bus. Then he unzipped the end pocket – damn, other end pocket -  and extracted the score to Joel Engel’s opera The Dybbuk. In it, he had placed his round-trip plane ticket to Israel, departing New York’s LaGuardia International Airport in six and a half hours. Passport? He thought he had stuffed it in the envelope with the ticket. Not there? A note in the score Dimitri had opened might have sung, “Panic!” but only if it were an eighth note. Before a beat had passed, Dimitri slapped himself in the butt with his left hand, and feeling the solid rectangle he had stuck back there, though he might as well have put a “Kick me” sticker on himself, as he enjoyed doing to the nerds, misfits, and Orthodox Jewish boys at school. Satisfied that he had no need to look back to that block that taunted him with the life he loathed, he sat on the stippled vinyl bus bench, working out passages with his left hand while holding the score in his right. Later, on the train from Frankfort Terminal to Trenton, he held the score with his left hand while making sure of the melodies in the right.  In each phrase of the music, Dimitri found the shape of his life to come. Israeli? Well, maybe, let’s see how the girls are. If I can handle the opera company, and I can get laid, maybe I’ll say I’m a sabra.

Anna




The sun hadn’t been up for an hour. It resembled a hot yellow bonnet, not a disc, and if you caught the Volcan la Malinche just right, it actually looked like a hungry Ms. Pac-Man chasing Akabei, the blue monster in the video game. You could find that game in every bar in the US and in Mexico.

Ms. Pac-Man’s arms stretched through maple louvers on the Garcia household. The family’s hacienda, or most of it, had been built in 1848, not long after Puebla fell to the Yanquis during the Spanish American War. Much of the northeastern face had fallen in the 1973 earthquake, as the southwest corner of the house sat on bedrock, but the soil on the northeast stayed soft for twenty feet below the surface. Dr. Enrique Garcia was newly married to Fulgencia Zamora, who was carrying their first child. Full of youth, professional admiration, and love, Enrique and Fulgencia not only rebuilt the sunrise corner of their mansion, but they added three-story turned Ionic pillars to the entrance.

Now the early morning rays narrated a different story. The writing desk where the Venetian blinds landed, usually pristine and shining with its unctuous leather inlay, now held a small clutter of looseleaf paper. All the pages bore the crisp sheen of refugees from a newly opened packet, not the tatter and smudges of homework, budgets, lists, and letters that yield evidence of being the usual state-of-affairs. A few were written on in pencil, in a tightly stitched hand that Fulgencia in 1973 would not have recognized. The books remained neatly pressed together by end caps, but space appeared that had not seen dust at least since the last time the leather had been oiled. The culprit? A missing Bible – in Latin and Spanish. 

On the other side of the northeast windows, the dresser was clean. Too clean. What was a woman’s dresser doing with a jewelry case and two carousels of make-up, now empty? And the drawers; always closed shut, the drawer with the underwear was held open by the edge of a dowdy matron’s undie. All the thongs had fought their way past. All that were left in the shoe tree were the sensible shoes, the office shoes, the gardening boots. The knee-high lace-up boot that was all lace and no boot? Gone. The set of 4-inch and higher heels in as many colors as Joseph’s coat? Gone. The smart platform leather boots that she hadn’t worn since Ernesto had last unzipped them with his teeth were gone, too.

In the clothes cabinet, the evening and ballroom clothing had left their more humble, quotidian sisters behind. Jeans, tattood in brocades of feather and fur, si,  neatly pressed nylon slacks,  no. Backless fantasy dress, si.  The prim blouses that Fulgencia used to wear to greet company, especially Ernesto’s professional associates? No, dust undisturbed. Careful inspection indicated that the alarm clock was missing. 

“Mami! Mami,” burst in eight year old Anna. Fulgencia had padded into Anna’s room much earlier, maybe at 3 or 4 that morning, saying, “No te preocupes. Necesito a irme. Voy a volver a los 8.” Anna was half awake, as usual, but she heard no footsteps, which was strange. Her mom was always so precise with the language, but this time, she said that she would return at eight – not at eight in the morning, which would be the customary level of exactness in Mexico to suggest she was running an errand. She could not be shopping, even the panaderias were not open until 5. Maybe she took a walk – she had been so sad lately. Maybe she had a lover? Flora, Anna’s best friend from school, said her mom would leave in the middle of the night, but she always got back in time to make breakfast.

Plus, Flora’s mom had gotten more cocky, almost arrogant, since beginning her early morning trips. Anna’s mom was letting the remaining servants run everything as they liked, left her garden untended, and lately even skipped her –

Grooming! That’s right. Mom never showers anymore in the morning. Not even on weekends, when she sleeps in. But the floor was wet today

“Anna!” Dr. Ernesto Zamora, self-confident, calm, alpha male in every sense of the word, called to his eight year old daughter with a sense of panic just under the surface of his tone. Anna told her father everything she could think of. “You give Zunibel her breakfast, and I’ll call the police.”

To the police in Tehuatecan, this was a missing person case. To Ernesto, this was an all-too-predictable tragedy. To Anna, the elephants had just broken through the spider’s web.

Rafi



Rafi

“Wouldn’t you try just a little bit harder//Wouldn’t you try just a little bit more?” Rafi didn’t need headphones and a Walkman to listen to the Dead tape from a show at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland, USA. A hitchhiker he had picked up outside Boardman, OH not long after he moved from Israel to Cleveland called it “state consciousness.” Bah. Garab.  State consciousness, my ass, the guy just wanted to drive while he was drunk. Rafi had run drunk, he had run high, and famously, he had run while tripping. That time, in college, he had taken a friend who was straight to remind him not to take off all his clothes.  Now he was running away.
That girl. That. Girl. That. Girl. That… Rafi’s heart kept fighting his ears to change the mantra as his New Balance 875’s floated up Mayfield Road in Cleveland Heights. “That. Girl.”  led him to leave his dad’s 60th birthday party early for their first maddening sexual encounter. “That. Girl.” She was a Russian girl, a musician born Roza Sax, who took the Hebrew name Vered, which also means “rose,” when she arrived at the kibbutz as a talented teenage flautist. That. Girl. That. Girl. She could run with the best of them; she had left the Moscow Youth Symphony on a cultural exchange tour. Just walked out from the hotel in Venice, carrying her flute and the backpack she had stowed with the help of the young concierge. Little did he know that she was paying in advance for this favor with the time they shared in the steam room after hours. That. Gi….Wouldn’t you try..That. Girl.  Spoke English like an American student speaks Russian in tenth grade. Spoke Hebrew like a Soviet. Settled near Akron after making a modest living as a substitute for the Israel National Symphony and teaching privately. That. Girl couldn’t hook on with a university because she never bothered finishing tenth grade. She just lied when she reached Kibbutz Chovevei Zion and took a shift milking cows at 5 am, the chalivat boker, which nobody else wanted but she found romantic. That. Girl. That… would be up until then anyway. Yeah, playing her flute or somebody else’s.
They had met through a personal ad. The World Wide Web hadn’t been created by Tim Berners-Lee yet, nor discovered by Al Gore. Rafi, who turned his technical savvy and ease with five languages into a consulting business, called himself a musician (he composed well and played the piano badly), a business guy, and a student (oh, yeah, the MBA – BOOOOOOring, but he hadn’t gotten into the Ph. D. program in economics yet). She found the combination amusing, and when he answered the phone with a vaguely Israeli accent, she decided she could make room in her social schedule. On their first date, they played racquetball at her health club. Three games. He won, 21-16, 26-24, 21-17.  Rafi was a class B tournament player. How good was Vered? he wondered. Did she throw the games so she wouldn’t crush my fragile male ego? She put on a good act if this were so. She was out of breath and glowing; she peeled off her t-shirt, which had formed a second skin except where it covered her sports bra, and they finished their workout with her nipples doing push-ups through the Gore-tex fabric.
They practically closed down an all-night coffee shop, their conversation stimulated by the fact that neither of them had brought underwear to change into under their light summer clothing. She reminded him that she had an afternoon concert that began in only eight hours.
“I’d like to go. May I?” Rafi actually wanted to hear the girl play. Here was a cute, sensual, talented Russian girl who spoke a little Hebrew and was Jewish, to boot. He didn’t know about the defection yet, nor about the favors provided to the concierge in Venice.
“Sure. You can stay at my place, we’ll have breakfast, and we’ll go.”
Rafi and Vered had been wearing flip-flops a few hours ago, but had been playing footsie long enough that it really wasn’t clear which toes went with which ankles. It was socially acceptable for her to show her excitement through her summerweight pink tee, but he knew he’d better get himself under control, soon. The opportunity presented itself when Vered excused herself to go to the bathroom. His predicament was compounded when she padded off and he could detect every curve.
Savlanut, chamor, savlanut. Patience, jackass, patience. You’re playing for keeps.
Vered lived in an efficiency apartment on Akron-Tallmadge Road. Rafi had never been in Tallmadge, or Akron for that matter, until he picked her up before going to the gym. She was practicing flute, barefoot, in gym shorts and the sports bra, when he caught a glimpse of her through the French doors. The sheer apartment-complex drapes didn’t block very much; this was a young lady not given to privacy.  She had returned his hug with the kind of enthusiasm that would itself render this first date a success for most men. But now, he turned the 1984 Ford Tempo with the T-bird engine and brake upgrades into the parking lot without asking for directions.
She poured a White Russian for each of them. She made her White Russians with Kahlua and Stoly, back when the vodka was a new Soviet import with a bad marketing strategy. “Stuh-LYICH-na-ya,” intoned the Russian on the radio spot. “STOH-litch-NA-yuh,” sputtered the Amerikansky in response. After a few turns of this frustration, the Russian tried to make the other character say “RAH-dio” instead of radio. An alcoholic would have been pouring Smirnoff. After some chit-chat, Vered asked Rafi if he had brought anything to sleep in. Since she never slept in anything, would he feel comfortable?
“Don’t ravish me the first night,” Rafi half-joked. For keeps, remember?
“I try not. I have playing later.” No comment.
 Rafi, a ben-Kibbutz, had grown up sleeping cheek-to-jowl with kids in Israel, but this was way different. This was worse than containing any eleven-year-old fantasy from the other boys. This was worse than not showing anything when the teenagers snuck out of the dancing that happened after Sabbath ended most Saturday nights to swim naked in one of the creeks draining water from the Golan Heights to the Sea of Galilee, which they called Yam Kinneret. His erection was stifled half by will, half by terror.
Still, the chat that started five hours earlier at the coffee shop continued in three half-broken languages even as the form he’d admired through the cotton filigree she wore at the coffee shop revealed itself as she neatly folded first her pink tee, then her opalescent white shorts through which the decorative stitching on the inside of the pockets could be seen. He trembled as she stepped casually to him and took off his glasses.

“Everything off but – how say – eyeballs?”
“Glasses.”
“Glasses.”
Vered sounded a lot more like Roza in this exchange, as “eyes” and “glasses” live one letter apart in Russian. She looked like a five foot tall Venus de Milo, except she had arms, and the index finger on one of those arms just brushed his left nipple.
An hour later, the first rays of dawn changed the hue of the now-dark room.
“Good night. I go to sleep now before sunlight. I sleep bad in sunlight.”
With that, she rolled over, turning her back to him. Even through the blanket, Vered’s curves radiated energy. Rafi did not sleep.  I have never, ever done that before. He had indeed been patient, excruciatingly so, limiting their intercourse to a rundown between second and third base.
Four hours later, Rafi sat at Vered’s breakfast table naked, scribbling away with one of Vered’s Oberlin Preparatory School pencils on music paper. The first page, already filled with music, read, “Flute Sonata #1.”


Dramatis Personae 1


3 Through History

Chapter 1: Dramatis Personae

"Come up to the Club. We'll watch the Steelers and have a few. I have $200 on the game."
“Huh?"
The driver, Rafi, a), damn near dropped the phone into the map slot in the car door, and, b), double-damn near drove off Rt. 73. And no, it wasn't for a beer.
 "You're supposed to be celebrating with Anna tonight. Didn't her plane ever get here?" Crashing the car and getting killed coming back from teaching Bar-Mitzvah lessons wasn't happening, after all.
 "I'll tell you about it when you get here." The exasperation in Dimiti's voice confirmed Rafi's worst fears. Anna missed the flight.
 The sound of Pablo Neruda buzzed through Rafi's ears, spoken by Anna's rich contralto. That day in June, when she was still drinking. That day she picked him up at the Collingswood train station - on foot. That day her son Alejandro, the  curly-headed eleven-year-old Tae Kwon Do junior champion of Mexico, was at the towering apartment multiplex, with acres of North, South, and East buildings rising like oversized obelisks out of what used to be a forest wetland. The day he tripped and fell into the dark chocolate vats of her sparkling sad doe eyes. Dimitri had as much as invited Rafi to go meet her. Was he that cocky, or am I so impotent? Did Dimitri not read his blog, or his notes on Facebook? But Rafi was like that - even when he was married, it was a fluke. The Rhinoceros was right to leave him.
"No sere un paracaidista," wrote Rafi in one of many exchanges he'd had with Anna since that first meeting. Spanish was his fourth or fifth language, but thanks to Streetwise Spanish, he knew that a "paracaidista," or parachutist, was a Central American term for someone who dives into someone else's game and steals the trophy. "But know that I am deeply moved by you. If I knew you longer, I would tell you that..."
 Swoosh. Rafi dodged off the ramp to Betsy Ross Bridge, barely escaping a loss of half an hour and $2 in extra toll.
 "Cus-a-mak!"
The Tacony-Palmyra tolls loomed dead center.