Writing

Writing

Excerpt from FAITH FOR BEGINNERS:

For two weeks, their troika of air-conditioned buses shuttled them up and down the Holy Land, up from the snows of Mount Hermon (no snow in summer) down to the sandy wastes of the Negev (hot, poisonous winds and dreary scenery).
Mrs. Michaelson applauded for an orchestra of Russian immigrants playing Gershwin at a kibbutz in the Galilee, though she didn’t really like Gershwin. Too showy.

She ate pita pounded thin and then toasted over an open fire by Bedouins in a desert camp in the Negev. “Good?” they asked. “Good, good!” she reassured them.

She watched Mr. Michaelson, who’d mysteriously dropped the title of “Doctor” when he got sick, rape the Holy Land of its souvenirs: heart-shaped blue glass eyes, inflatable camels, Dead Sea mud masks, a book of Golda Meir’s favorite falafel recipes, an antique Roman coin that came with a certificate of authenticity.

She received a welcome kit with a miniature cake and an airline-sized bottle of kosher red wine (she confiscated Jeremy’s bottle while he was in the shower), a Michigan Miracle Daily Bulletin Xeroxed on goldenrod paper, and a plastic bottle of FROM SAND TO LAND sand, which Jeremy dumped into her glass of wine one night at dinner to prove he wasn’t the least bit tempted to steal a sip.

She pressed flesh with the mayors of Tel Aviv, Rishon LeTzion, and Eilat, where they stayed in a nice hotel with free samples of peppermint foot lotion, which she used to massage her bunions.

She witnessed a phalanx of ten women dressed all in black standing by the side of the highway near Megiddo Junction. Perfectly silent and still, the Women in Black carried signs in Hebrew, English, and Arabic calling for the end of the “Occupation.”

She quickly learned the two ways to say, “No thanks, I’m stuffed,” in Hebrew, a matter of life or death in a country where tourists were apt to be pelted with unwanted extra helpings. The first expression meant, “I’ve had enough to eat.” The other, which wasn’t particularly nice, was, “I’m so full I’m going to explode like an Arab.”

She posed for a picture beside a camel tied to a parking meter and invited Jeremy, standing a few feet away from everyone as usual with one of his cigarettes, to pose too. And just for the picture, could he take out the safety pin he’d seen fit to stick through his nose? (There was nothing they could do about the green stripes in his hair, though by pretending to pat him on the head, she often managed to smooth out the sharp edges of his “faux Mohawk,” a pyramid of hair cemented with gel.)

It wasn’t a safety pin.

“It looks like a safety-pin,” Mrs. Michaelson said. “What’s the difference?”

Jeremy pulled at the metal, stretching out his nostril. “This is sterilized. Also, for your information, camels aren’t the least bit Biblical. They weren’t domesticated until six hundred years after Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

At times like this one she saw some of her own awkwardness in him, and she couldn’t help laughing. “Why do I open my mouth?” he said. “You never listen to me, anyway.”

So Mrs. Michaelson stood alone by the un-Biblical camel, blinked away the beads of perspiration dripping into her eyes, and said she enjoyed it. She recalled the dignity of the Women in Black silently protesting near Megiddo, and imagined that by taking the picture, she too was staging a silent protest. As soon as the camera flashed, several charming Bedouin boys jumped down from the olive trees and came running at them, shouting, “Money! Money!”

She clipped a photo of Barak from the Herald Tribune because he looked exactly like her father when he’d been Ehud Barak’s age. Back then, her father woke up at six a.m. to work at his grocery stand, then came home late, his hands chafed raw from washing vegetables in ice water. She loved him, but she used to hate touching his hands.

Mostly she sweated. Miserably. They all sweated. Everywhere the Michiganders traveled, guides and drivers and souvenir hawkers told them how unlucky they were to visit Israel during a Sharav (Hebrew) or a Hamsin (Arabic), a blistering heat wave. These Hamsins, (most Israelis preferred the Arabic name), scalded the Levant every summer, but there hadn’t been one this bad in a while.

“I think maybe fifty years, giving or taking,” said Baruch, their Israeli driver, as they churned up Highway 1 from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. She preferred Baruch to Igor, who stank of dill. Beside her snored Mr. Michaelson, leaking threads of drool from the corners of his mouth. She was so glad to see him enjoy a good sleep, she didn’t care how he looked. Jeremy sat four rows behind them and pushed up his hair. He’d caused a sensation that morning by pinning his nametag to the zipper of his camouflage cut-offs.

“The last time we had such a Hamsin, it was a few weeks after our War for Independence,” said Baruch, his shirt unbuttoned down to his navel. He was always trying to impress her by careening around the edges of sheer cliffs or aiming their bus at fruit stands in picturesque stone alleys. “I was a boy, but I still remember everywhere there was shooting and crazy men with guns in their hands.”

“Terrifying,” she said as if she cared, but she’d heard so many Hamsin-stories by then, they blended together. She was surprised there was no commemorative T-shirt.

“That’s only the start, my dear Shoshana.” Baruch always called her “Shoshana,” the Hebrew word for rose, though it wasn’t her name. “In a Hamsin, a man can get all turned around. Normal becomes crazy and crazy becomes normal.”
Mrs. Michaelson had dreamed of exactly that kind of transformation for her son when she’d signed them up to visit Israel. No luck so far, and now they had only five days left before they returned home. She felt ashamed when she thought of how naively she’d pushed them all to come, and at such expense.

Their bus grunted uphill, slouching beneath a heraldic banner across Highway 1: Peugeot welcomed them to Jerusalem, Mrs. Michaelson’s final, though perhaps best, hope. If Jeremy was going to find himself, where could be more fitting than the capital of the Jews’ home turf?

Faith For Beginners

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Excerpt from THE VIEW FROM STALIN’S HEAD:

On May Day, 1955, two years after the death of Josef Stalin, a 14,000-ton granite memorial statue (the largest monument ever built in honor of the great leader) was unveiled on the edge of Letna Park, a bluff above the Vltava River and the heart of Prague’s Old Town.

Stalin stood thirty meters high in front of a line of workers, his right hand stuck inside the flap of his trench coat, Napoleon-style. The pose inspired such jokes as, “Why is Stalin reaching into his pocket? He’s getting out his wallet to pay for the statue.”

Otakar Svec, the monument’s sculptor, chose an obscure electrician from the Barrandov film studios as his model for the late party chief. The electrician, who earned the nickname of “Stalin” for the rest of his short life, became an alcoholic and died three years later. Svec himself committed suicide the day before the statue’s unveiling.

A week after Nikita Khrushchev’s 1962 speech denouncing Stalin as a mass murderer, the Czechoslovak Communist Party received orders from their Slavic big brethren to dismantle the monument. Too heavy to move, the statue had to be blasted apart with eight hundred kilograms of explosives and one thousand six hundred and fifty detonators, set off over the period of a month.

Legend has it that during the first series of explosions, Stalin’s head broke off cleanly at the neck and rolled down the bluff into the river, right to the bottom. Minnows darted into his ears and eyes and under his nostrils, looking for sustenance.

The remains of Stalin’s body were paraded in an open truck through the narrow streets of Old Town. Seven months later, the truck driver died in an accident on the highway to Poland.

The space on the bluff has remained empty ever since, except for a twenty-five foot statue of Michael Jackson, which stood there for a week in 1996.

Now you can understand why young Franta Smolenek, upon hearing from his best friend Javor that he’d actually seen the legendary head of Stalin in a friend’s apartment, reacted in a somewhat doubtful fashion. Then again, Javor was the kind of boy who could say he’d killed a man and make you believe it.

When Javor began at their secondary school three months before the incident in question, Franta had no close friends his own age. Instead he had his doting mother, who dressed her thirteen year old darling in short pants with pleats and peasant blouses with blue flowers embroidered on his breast. His nickname in school was “Daisy.”

Franta spent his free time helping his mother with the housework. He’d often tie her apron around his own waist and fix their meals while she rested on the sofa after a hard day. They kept no secrets from each other. Franta knew all the names of the students in her chemistry class and which ones she favored. She knew he hoped to be either a painter or a ballet dancer when he grew up. If Franta’s father walked in on them huddled together, he’d say with a smirk, “I do hope I’m not interrupting anything.”

Franta’s father was an ironic, distant man who affected the airs of a scholar. For example, if he wanted to look at one of the pornographic magazines he kept under the woodpile, he hid the porno behind his gold-stamped, leatherbound copy of the Iliad. Franta had browsed through these magazines once while his father was at work. He studied them like anthropological evidence of life and manners on another planet. Though he fully expected to have sex someday, he didn’t see the point in making a big fuss about it like most of the other boys his age. He classified sex with alcohol, video arcade games, pop music, and other modern annoyances.

When Javor appeared out of the blue at school that fall, no one liked him. He was thin and sandy-haired, with an insolently-twisted mouth. Every day he wore a pair of polished black boots with his pants tucked into them, like a Nazi.

“I’m no Nazi,” Javor said coolly when Aleksandar, the class thug, pushed him against the bus stop outside their school. “I’m a Communist.” Which struck them all as a good joke because the only Communists they knew were old people, always complaining about their increasingly worthless government pensions.

Javor never spoke in class except when the teachers’ backs were turned. Then he’d disguise his voice and call out: “Mickey Mouse!” “Michael Jordan!” “Hamburger!” He wore old-fashioned wool suits in dingy shades of grey or blue, and square brown sunglasses until the teachers insisted he remove them. He pickpocketed girls. He lit cigarettes in the hallways, and blew smoke rings right in the face of the headmistress.

“Why are you a Communist?” Franta asked him after school one time. He’d followed Javor onto a tram going in the opposite direction of his own home and studied the back of Javor’s head for several minutes without saying anything when Javor turned around unexpectedly. They bumped noses.

“I’m no Communist,” Javor said and glanced at Franta’s shoes. “It’s just something to say. Hey, where did you find your shoes?”

Franta was wearing brown Oxford-style dress shoes with laces. “My mother bought them for me in Austria,” he said.

“I’ve been looking for that same kind of shoes. All the old party bosses used to wear them. Do you want to come home with me?”

“I should call my mother first.”

“Why should you call your mother? I forbid you to call your mother.”

They spent the rest of the afternoon digging mud with loose branches in the woods behind Javor’s apartment building. Javor claimed there was a box of vodka buried somewhere by Soviet soldiers before the Velvet Revolution.

“Do you like vodka?” Javor asked.

Franta admitted he’d never tasted it.

“It’s delicious, though I prefer a good whiskey. How big is your penis?”

“I don’t know.”

“You mean you’ve never seen your penis before?”

“I’ve never measured it in centimeters.”

Javor handed him his stick. “Go behind that tree and hold this stick next to your penis, then come back and show me the mark.”

Franta did as he was told, adding a few centimeters.

“That small?” Javor asked.

“It’s bigger when it gets, you know, stiff.”

“Do you want to try some whiskey at my house?”

Though Franta was slightly afraid of his new companion, he didn’t want to show it. “Why not?” he squeaked.

Javor lived on the fifth floor of a monstrous grey panelak in a public housing complex formerly known as Red Bridge. The elevator was always out of order, so they had to take the stairs. His mother’s apartment was crowded with antique chairs and tables broken and piled on top of each other, a tray of tarnished silverware, a dirty breakfront with cracked windows, and rows of elaborately carved armoires, some with doors missing. From the bottom drawer of one of these armoires, Javor removed a bottle of whiskey, almost empty and wrapped in yellow newspaper. Franta downed half a capful. It tasted like perfume and scalded the roof of his mouth.

“The best stuff on earth!” Javor declared after downing a shot and beat his chest. He took off his boots and began to shine them with paint thinner, right on the living room floor, without even a newspaper underneath.

“Where’s your room?” Franta asked.

“I don’t have one. I share the place with my mother. I’m the man of the house.”

“What about your father?”

“What about him?”

Franta liked that, the easy recklessness of “What about him?”

An hour later, Franta’s father slapped his cheeks red for coming home late, then kissed him on the cheek and sent him to his room with no dinner. As soon as she heard her husband snoring in front of the TV, Franta’s mother brought her son a plate covered with a pot lid to keep it warm. She also brought some leftovers for herself and they sat on the bed together, eating and laughing.

The View From Stalin's HeadORDER THE VIEW FROM STALIN’S HEAD

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