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December 2018

Eighteen Lashes: A Novel

An exclusive excerpt from the English translation of Assaf Gavron's forthcoming novel.

“The English, they do like the cane.”
Menachem Begin, The Revolt

“Life is stronger than love, but the moments when love shines – we live for them.”
Lotta Perl, passenger

 

(10597 words)

Chapter 1: Taxi to the Cemetery

I dropped my sweetheart at school, ordered an espresso, sucked it straight into the brain while still standing, and walked in the light rain to the cab, parked in the prohibited parking space in front of the café, hazard lights flashing. The second I sat down, a call came in: Bin-Nun Street, corner of Habashan.

As a cab driver, you enter your vehicle in the morning and you don’t know where it will take you. You drive and drive, eight hours, ten hours – different directions, different people, different conversations – but you actually don’t get anywhere.

She was old, elegant. Despite the rain, she wore large sunglasses which concealed her eyes; a colorful scarf covered part of her hair. The uncovered part was silver and lush.

“You’ve arrived quickly.” For a cabbie, the passenger’s first two words usually reveal the person’s tone of speech, enabling me to guess the rest – her age, when she immigrated to Israel and from where, Holocaust or no-Holocaust. My radar started working. I thought to myself: a typical Yekke – a German Jew from before the war.

“I do my best,” I said and looked in the mirror, waiting. I felt her eyes gazing at me, a penetrating look, despite the double filter of the sunglasses and the mirror. And then her lips, a little full and a little young for her age, painted with vermillion lipstick, widened into a half-smile and said, “Trumpeldor Cemetery.” I started moving.

Until I turned onto Ibn-Gvirol Street a few minutes later, we were silent. Then I said, “Do you know that where I picked you up was the house where Begin once hid from the Brits?”

I like telling my passengers about the streets where they get in or out of my cab. In most cases they don’t know the stories – who was Masaryk and who was Frug and even who was Arlosoroff. I have a book in my glove compartment, “The Tel Aviv-Jaffa Street Guide,” which I like browsing through whenever I have a couple of minutes.

Her lips curled up a little bitterly and her head turned toward the window. “Do I know?” she said. “The question is how come you know, kiddo. I’m from then. I remember.” She looked at her iPhone. “I like the way you drive, Eitan, calmer than other taxi drivers. You’ve earned your five stars already, and the ride has only just begun.” The red lips half-smiled again.

“Thanks, Lotta Perl,” I smiled back. We drivers can also see the passengers’ names. We said nothing after that for the rest of the trip. The sun suddenly appeared between the clouds and shone on the windows of the cars moving slowly ahead of us. The winter was about to end.

In nine out of ten cases, my passenger radar is spot on: it is not only the language or the manner of speaking, but also the way they enter the cab, what they wear, their body language, even their walk. I can tell if the passenger is from the rough part of Bat Yam or from bourgeois north Tel Aviv and all the levels in between, whether there will be a tip, how they will relate to me. But that morning, either the radar was disrupted or Lotta Perl was simply the odd case, the one-in-ten. There was something more free-spirited in her than I had assumed when she got in the cab. Suddenly I wasn’t sure whether she was a Yekke or an Israeli-born Sabra, and I wondered about her age too. She tipped me way more generously than I had expected. It all got me a little confused.

Several people were standing in the entrance to the cemetery, holding black umbrellas. One hurried to my cab, opened the door for Lotta, helped her out, and closed the door. He then came around, gesturing at me to roll down the window.

I pressed the button and the window obeyed with a hum. “Didn’t you know that car windows no longer open by winding the handle?” I smiled. He didn’t smile, probably didn’t understand Hebrew, because he replied, in posh-sounding English, “Excuse me, would you complete a minyan? Only for the Kaddish prayers. It is important for the family. You will be performing a mitzvah. You can leave the meter running and I will pay for your time.” He uttered the words “minyan”, “Kaddish” and “mitzvah” with the weight on the first syllable, not like we would in proper Hebrew. I looked at him, at his shiny tie and wavy, slightly long, brown, damp hair, at his wide lips turning into the smile of someone used to being obeyed. His suit, perhaps Armani, blinded me despite the rain. Probably in his thirties, he looked like someone who had money, although it was obvious by the order he presented things – first “important for the family,” then “mitzvah,” and only then the offer to pay – that he preferred not to spend it.

It was a cheeky request. Couldn’t he see that I was working? And yet I said yes; and not only did I say yes, I said, in my passably good English from home, “Forget the meter, a mitzvah is a mitzvah,” also emphasizing the first syllable in “mitzvah”, for some reason. I killed the engine. The moment I did I was angry with myself, for the time and money lost because of this cocky man. But I also knew why I agreed: because I could see Lotta standing and watching our exchange, with an understated smile, holding a yellow umbrella. I wanted to impress her, for some reason.

The moment I saw the earring, I knew it was hers. And as soon as I had discharged the passenger, I turned the cab toward the retirement home in Herzliya.

Trumpeldor is the smallest, most crowded, and most beautiful cemetery in Tel Aviv, and the only one in the center of town. To get a plot there you need to lay down, alongside the deceased, about a hundred thousand shekels, if not more. But it has style. A few trees, some famous graves, former mayors, Bialik, Dizengoff, Sheinkin, Arlosoroff – the guys who have streets named after them, whose stories are compiled in my guide.

Cocky Boy with his shiny tie was reading the Kaddish prayer, so I assumed he had a family connection with the deceased. Apart from him and Lotta Perl, there was a small group of people wearing rain coats and holding umbrellas, most of them old, most of them men. But there was also a pretty young woman, who suddenly appeared next to Lotta and hugged her. Her long brown hair snaked down the back of the old lady, whose head was lowered and whose shoulders were shaking as she put a tissue to her eyes. Closer to the grave, an old man with thick glasses and a black puffy cap was sitting in a wheelchair, mumbling to himself. A short, sturdy Filipina was holding onto the handles of his chair. After scanning the crowd, I looked up at the treetops and thought of my sweet Noga. I still could not believe that she was already in first grade. We had had so much fun over the weekend – I suddenly felt the urge to go back home just to look at the drawing she made for me, of us hugging, which she had attached to the refrigerator with a magnet.

After we said our final “Amen,” I looked around one last time before returning to the cab. I saw Lotta standing away from the others with her yellow umbrella, staring right at me. She waited to make eye contact before approaching me. “Eitan,” she said in my ear, “Start the meter and wait for me, I’ll be there in a bit.” Her eyes were wet with tears.

“Thanks for agreeing to stay,” she said softly, a few minutes after we started to head north. The sun was out and the large sunglasses were once again covering her eyes. She gave me the address of a retirement home in Herzliya.

“A mitzvah is a mitzvah,” I said, this time with the correct pronunciation. I didn’t speak any more. When I see that my passengers are crying or preoccupied, I don’t barge in. I let them open up if they want to, but I don’t initiate conversation. Again, I felt my radar was distorted – on the way to the cemetery she seemed amused, now she looked devastated. I liked that. The passengers I could not decipher made my job a little more interesting.

A couple of minutes later she said, “She’s pretty, my granddaughter, isn’t she?”

“Beautiful,” I replied without thinking, adding, “Well, she’s her grandmother’s granddaughter, it is not really surprising, is it?” I was taken aback by my flirting. Lotta was way beyond my red line in terms of age, and she clearly was not in the mood for fooling around. But she chuckled, the round tops of her plucked eyebrows revealing themselves above the frame of the sunglasses. I smiled through the mirror and asked her the name of her granddaughter. When she told me I said, “Are you serious? Get out of here! It’s my daughter’s name! Does she spell it with one g or double g?” “Double,“ she said. I didn’t tell her that mine had only the one.

***

Only after a few hours driving around town – elegantly-dressed lawyers to the stock exchange, impatient mothers with energetic kids to Judo class, pale European tourists to a hotel on Hayarkon Street, a bearded man with an American accent to the domestic airport in north Tel Aviv – a dark young man with a shaved head told me, “Hey, driver man, some lady has lost an earring here in the back.”

The moment I saw the earring, I knew it was hers. And as soon as I had discharged the passenger, I turned the cab toward the retirement home in Herzliya. I didn’t know whether she had left it on purpose or by accident, and I didn’t even know what exactly my own expectations were – when people forget stuff in my cab, I usually hang on to it and wait for them to contact me – but my cab was already on its way.

Her retirement home was one of the prettiest I had seen. I had made trips there before, and I had seen what kind of people lived there and what kind of people visited them. I went to the reception and left the earring with my business card, and explained that Lotta Perl had left it in my cab. I could have phoned her because I had her number through the app, but I decided to leave the card and let her choose whether to call or not.

She called the next day. “Eitan?” she asked. I recognized her voice immediately and replied, “Yes, Lotta.” She chuckled, and said “I want to make you an offer.”

As of the following day, I drove her every morning from the retirement home to the cemetery. Once there, I waited in the cab for ten or fifteen minutes until she returned, and then I drove her back home.

The appointment was always for eleven, but each morning I would arrive a few minutes early, and she would already be waiting for me, with her sunglasses and her subtle vermillion smile, and the turquoise scarf that covered part of her hair and part of her neck. Sometimes she would wear a long, pretty, velvety dress; sometimes a tracksuit. Sometimes it would rain; she’d wait in the lobby, and when I’d arrive she’d skip outside holding her yellow umbrella. Sometimes she was full of energy and spoke nonstop, about a game of Bridge or a rehearsal with the retirement home’s choir. Sometimes she would be silent all the way there and back, and a few times I caught her wiping away a stray tear. She always gave me five stars and a twenty-percent tip.

One day she told me that the deceased had been her partner, a long time ago, before the establishment of the State of Israel. He had returned to his country of origin and they had lost contact. Recently he had come to Israel for a visit and a week later he died. It was as if he had felt his death was coming, as if he wanted to say goodbye.

On another ride, she told me his name. Edward O’Leary. I looked in the mirror; she was looking out of the window. “British?” I asked. “Irish,” she said, “but he was here with the British army.” “So why is he buried in a Jewish cemetery? Why did I need to complete a minyan, if he’s an O’Leary?” She looked at me through the mirror. “Turned out he was also a Jew,” she said.

Another time she told me, “You know, Edward was also a driver once.”

“Really?” I asked, “Where?”

“In the army. A truck driver.”

“So how did you two meet?”

She didn’t answer then. But when we got to Trumpeldor she asked, “Do you want to come to the grave with me?” I did. She suggested that I should leave the meter running but I said, “Forget the meter, a mitzvah is a mitzvah,” incorrectly emphasizing the first syllable. She laughed. The grave did not have a headstone yet. A sign was stuck in the loose earth, with the name of the deceased written on it.

She traced the letters on the sign with a manicured finger and said, “I was a young girl.”

“Tell me, Lotta,” I said, “why do you come here every day? This loyalty is even more extreme than ‘’til death do us part’ – death didn’t part you. Even women who were married all their lives, and had good marriages, don’t visit the graves of their dead husbands every day, and definitely do not drive half an hour in each direction. So, why do you? Especially after not being in touch with him for so many years, so long after your love affair actually took place? Not that I have any problem with love,” I added, “on the contrary, I’m the last one to doubt it.”

Lotta Perl sat on the grave of O’Leary’s neighbor, a person called Sharabi, and laid her angular fingers, the nails varnished with the same color as her lips, on its rim. She said, “When we bought this double burial plot, he told me that if, God forbid, I died before him, he would come here every day and sit on this stone and tell me about everything that happened to him. But it turned out the other way around…” She looked at me and said, “Love is everything, Eitan.” Her words surprised me, but I felt them, I understood them. I nodded in agreement and she continued, “Especially, after you’ve waited for it, after you loved from afar, and regained it. You appreciate every moment. You realize that life is stronger than love, but the moments when love shines – we live for them.”

I counted down the hours. These trips became the highlight of my days, aside from the time I spent with Noga – provided she was in a good mood and not missing her mom. With Lotta, I longed even for the days when she was in a bad mood. I liked the good smell she filled the cab with, enjoyed asking her how she was doing, talking to her, answering her questions. She wanted to know everything: about the shawarma I was eating, about my rides before picking her up, about my boxing practice in the cellars of the Dizengoff Center, about my daughter Noga, and my ex-wife Duchi. I loved discussing things with her, like how someone like me, with a university degree and a former job in hi-tech, ended up driving a cab, or the source of my name.

Once she said, “You are a curious creature, Croc.” She went on, “If I were forty years younger…” and I replied, “Don’t even dare go there!” She burst out laughing, and I joined in. We continued laughing until we arrived. She tipped me generously as always and got out of the cab, wiping with her fingertips the tears of laughter under her big sunglasses.

***

My name is Eitan Enoch, but everyone calls me Croc. I am a taxi driver, I am forty-four-and-a-quarter, I am an unprofessional boxer, and a father as much as I can be. I am divorced – an ex-husband, ex-celebrity, ex-hi-tech man, ex-Jerusalemite and ex-detective. Eleven years ago, I was famous for a few days after surviving three terrorist attacks in one week, thanks to appearances on chat shows on TV and the radio. I sometimes pick up passengers who look at me and say, “Hey, where do I know you from?”, and I would usually reply, “You know how many people tell me that? I must have a typical Israeli face.” But there are those smartasses who Google my name during the ride, and then I hear the cry coming from the back seat, “Ohhhh! Yes! I can’t believe it! A typical face, yeah right…” Fortunately, they have to pay for spending time with me, which means that I usually get rid of them pretty quickly.

Duchi and I were dating at the time. We were going to get married, but her mother died on the day our wedding was supposed to take place, and after that, with all the mess of the terrorist attacks and my strange kind of fame, I lost my mind, and we parted ways. But then I must have found it and came back to my senses, because we got back together. We got married and had Noga, and then I probably lost it again because we broke up again, and this time, I think, for good.

I also lost my hi-tech job during that period. I couldn’t concentrate, and couldn’t get any work done. I wandered about for a few years, a little detached, getting job offers here and there from my friends in hi-tech, working a little, resigning, getting fired, sometimes living off Duchi, who had become a partner in her law firm, and so on. It’s not easy, life in post-trauma, although I know it is not an excuse, because most people in our country are in a similar situation, and most of them manage to carry on somehow.

During that long period of starts and stops, my friend Barr invited me for a falafel and a fruit shake. Barr and I worked together eleven years ago in Time’s Arrow, the hi-tech startup where I worked when I lost it; like me, he was a pretty crummy employee. I was in marketing and he was a programmer, and most of his time was spent on programming a numerological software he invented and dreaming about solving crimes. That was his real passion, and once we investigated a case together, a mystery. I’ve never seen Barr as enthusiastic as he was during the months of the investigation – using methods he had learned in the secret army intelligence unit in which he served, and also from detective novels: hours of scanning evidence, arranging meetings, analyzing possible scenarios, questioning people.

After Barr, like me, was fired from Time’s Arrow, he worked as a programmer for another company for two years. The company was sold for tons of money to a large American firm and he received a small but decent enough piece of the pie. He then managed to sell his numerological program and a Bible app that he had developed. They supply him with nice royalties every month. Some time ago he married his sweetheart Nirit, and they had three children. Barr had got it made.

So, a few years back we sat at the falafel stall and he said he had a bright idea. “Why don’t we set up a detective agency on Facebook? We’re a good SIU, we’ve worked together before and solved a case, which wasn’t an easy one. This is my offer: we set up an online detective agency and conduct the investigations together. I will pay you one year’s salary, as a trial, and if by the end of that year the baby isn’t standing on its feet and isn’t a success, we’ll close up shop. You will be able to keep your salary regardless. It won’t cost you anything and you won’t owe me a thing.”

“What is an SIU?” I blinked.

“Special Investigations Unit.” He waited patiently.

“A detective agency on Facebook?” I scratched my head. “I’ve never heard of anything like it.”

“Exactly.” He smiled through his ginger stubble, and reversed the tattered baseball cap he always wore on his bald head.

I couldn’t really turn down an offer like that. He was offering a regular, adequate salary, regardless of the amount of work or how successful we are, even if no cases came in, or if cases came in that we couldn’t solve and the clients ended up not paying. He explained that it would pay off anyway, for tax reasons.

So, we set up a detective agency on Facebook.

The baby didn’t stand on its own feet and wasn’t a success. We closed up shop after less than a year, during which four cases came our way:

  1.      1. A woman who lost a diamond ring and suspected her good friend.
  2.      2.A man who wanted to settle a score with his former boss, who had fired him, by showing that he had embezzled company money.
  3.      3.A woman who suspected that her husband was cheating on her.
  4.      4. I can’t remember the fourth one.

 

Eleven years ago, I was famous for a few days after surviving three terrorist attacks in one week, thanks to appearances on chat shows on TV and the radio.

It was a pretty poor record, and even Barr admitted it. We weren’t able to incriminate the friend of the woman with the missing ring, or the boss who fired our client. The husband was indeed cheating on the wife – it took us half an hour to photograph him French kissing in some backyard with a co-worker. And the fourth case that I can’t remember, I can’t remember. After we closed up shop, I thought that at least some good would come out of it – Barr would at long last give up on his detective fantasies and realize that the real world was not what he read in books.

***

Lotta Perl asked to hear more about that time in my life. Maybe someone had told her that I had had my fifteen minutes of fame, or perhaps she herself googled my name (I googled hers, but only found her entry in the Herzliya residents’ directory.) One day, she asked me: “What does it mean that ‘you survived three terrorist attacks?’ I don’t understand it. And why did it make you a celebrity?”

“Not really a celebrity,” I said.

“I heard that actually you really were a celebrity. Even in the retirement home, Batya Elkayam said she remembered you. So, do tell.”

“It was eleven years ago. I don’t remember anything,” I tried.

“Come on, out with it,” she said.

And, although I hate reminiscing about that period, and I do my best not to talk about it, I did tell her.

“The first suicide bombing was on a No. 5 minibus. It was a time when bombs went off on a daily basis and everyone was very cautious. One passenger was suspicious of a dark guy who boarded the minibus, and got off. Another guy, a Jerusalemite, Giora, started talking to me. He asked me what I thought. I told him that everyone was just paranoid and the dark guy was just fine. I got off at my stop, Dizengoff Center; two minutes later the minibus blew up and everyone on it was killed. And since Giora, in our short conversation, had half-jokingly told me that if something happened to him I should take a message to his girlfriend in Jerusalem, I drove up to Jerusalem. And on the way there, at Sha’ar Hagay junction, there was a shooting attack on a bus that was ahead of me, and a few bullets hit my car and killed the soldier who was hitchhiking with me.”

I stared at her through the mirror. She was quiet.

“And then in Jerusalem,” I went on, “I went to Giora’s funeral and met his girlfriend Shuli. She told me that no one understood why Giora was in Tel Aviv on the day of the attack. He lived in Jerusalem, worked in Jerusalem, never went to Tel Aviv, and didn’t know anyone there. I was sitting with her in a café in the German Colony, when a third attack happened. Shuli went into a coma and I was in the hospital for a few days, and when I left, I started investigating what Giora had been doing in Tel Aviv. For her.”

“My God,” said Lotta.

“A guy who worked with me, Barr, helped me. He was in an intelligence unit in the army, and his dream was to be a detective.” I stopped there. I didn’t know what else to say. She didn’t say anything, so I added, “And we solved it.”

“What do you mean, ‘and we solved it?’ How did you solve it? You can’t leave me in the air like that, you know, I’m an old lady…”

“It was a little complicated. Some old guy… OK. Giora and Shuli worked in a hotel in Jerusalem – that was where they met. He was a security guard, and she was a chef. And one day some guest, an old guy from Tel Aviv, was talking to Giora and discovered that he had been in a commando unit in Gaza and had killed many Arabs… The old man offered him money to kill… To kill someone. Never mind. Giora went to Tel Aviv that day to meet him.”

“Good God, what a story!” She exhaled. “They should make a movie out of it.”

I smiled.

“I still don’t understand how it made you a celebrity. Was your investigation publicized?”

“No, no. The celebrity thing was before the investigation. It was because I survived the three attacks. When I was in the hospital, they called from the radio to interview someone who had been at the scene of the attack, and then when they realized that I had survived three attacks in one week, they invited me onto a popular TV show. And after the show, everyone recognized me.”

She asked me more questions and I answered all of them: how the fame had fucked up both my relationship with Duchi and my hi-tech job; the crush that I had on Shuli during the two days I’d spent with her; about her coma that lasted several months, and how it ended; and more about our investigation, which really piqued her interest. Then I told her about the failed Facebook detective agency.

“I actually think that you could be good at it,” she said.

“What makes you say that?”

“Well, knowing you a little, Eitan,” she said. “And you solving that investigation.”

“Barr did most of the work there, not me.”

“Don’t be modest.”

Actually I agreed with her. I believed in my qualities, instincts, and senses. The failed agency failed because of Facebook, which brought us poor and uninteresting cases; but Barr and I were not bad as an investigation unit and, deep down, I had never totally let go of the idea of becoming a detective.

Take my passengers’ business cards, for example. I like talking with passengers about their jobs, because people like talking about what they do and it is almost always interesting. I developed a habit of asking for business cards, which I keep in a special box. At first, I simply thought it was for a rainy day, if I ever needed one of them for their professional qualifications – a children’s therapist, a locksmith, a diving instructor, a tax clerk. Everyone rides cabs, and everyone has something to offer. But one time, during a long intercity ride, which is my thinking time, I thought about the professions of my passengers and realized that there was no way I would ever call on the services of most of them, yet I still kept asking for their cards – a chemistry lecturer, a hand model, a diamond dealer.

At some point, I realized that the endless pool of expertise hiding in my little business-card box, covering all aspects of life, could be used for investigations. And I thought, maybe that was the real reason I kept collecting them. Perhaps I still had the itch.

***

A few weeks passed since I had first met Lotta Perl. I kept picking her up every day, including weekends, and driving back and forth between the old-age home and the cemetery. Her red lips kept smiling, she tipped me very generously and always rated me five stars. She kept asking me about my life, and one time, after I told her about Noga’s mood swings and her mother’s new boyfriend, some Gadi who the kid described as “short,” and her mother as “over the moon,” Lotta burst out laughing. Then her face suddenly turned serious and she said, “Eitan, I have a proposal for you.”

I looked at her in the mirror and saw her pleasant face, covered as usual with her large sunglasses. I looked back at the road without saying anything.

“I think Edward was murdered,” she said.

I looked in the mirror again and then back at the road.

“I’m afraid that the person who did it might try to kill me too,” she continued. “Are you prepared to investigate? I will pay, obviously.”

I tossed a peanut into my mouth and crunched it slowly between my wisdom teeth.

 

Chapter 2: A Bleeding Lip and a Ship in Haifa

Boxing at the end of a working day is my twice-weekly treat. On Sundays and Wednesdays at 8 P.M., after hours of driving around the city in endless circles and selling miles for a handful of shekels, I park my cab in one of the parking lots of the Dizengoff Center and make my way down spiraling stairs into the bowels of the earth. There, in one of the exposed concrete shelters, punching bags hang from the ceiling, thin mattresses are spread on the floor, and Emil, in his yellow tee-shirt and blue track suit bottoms, bullies us, “Push-push, push-push,” and we push hands to shoulders in couples as part of our warm-up.

If the intercity rides are my thinking time. Then, I can analyze the events of my day and my life. Boxing practice, however, is meant to clear my mind of the day-to-day nonsense. Questions, worries and reflections are drained out; the brain locks down and focuses on a good punch, an accurate defensive feint, an ankle’s flexibility. When I started going, people always asked me, why the hell boxing? I would answer that I was too old for soccer. I’m afraid of injuries. At my age, the body heals slowly. Besides, I was fed up with team sports. I didn’t want to be a cog in the wheel anymore, a part of the whole. Just let me work out for myself, and be responsible for my actions, for better or worse. Don’t depend on others – that’s what boxing is all about. It’s a bit like being a cab driver for an app-based firm – you’re an individual.

Emil was suspicious at first. I didn’t fit the usual profile of his boxers: ninety percent Russian-born, and ninety percent under the age of thirty. But in time he learned to like me, although he continued to conduct half of every training session in Russian, which I couldn’t understand.

Twice a week for the past two years, I’ve been turning off the cab’s box at around 7.30, navigate the vehicle to the shopping center, and dive into practice. I shed the outside world and wear a boxer’s skin. I take off my work clothes, put on sports garb, wrap bandage around my fingers, fix the plastic mouthguard to my teeth, and don a pair of gloves and a helmet. At the end of the process, I become a kind of a boxer-Frankenstein – a partly disabled animal acting on the power of coarse and distilled bodily growls, devoid of finesse or minimal motor skills, concentrating on clumsy movements: to hit and to defend, to attack and to withdraw, to go forward and back. Another binary set of ones and zeroes, well beneath the place where, years ago, in my hi-tech days, I engaged in computer binary.

Every Sunday and Wednesday I fill up with adrenaline and sweat. I punch and get punched. With Ilia, who, emaciated and big-nosed, looks like he’d escaped from a Nazi concentration camp; little Anton, who is only fifteen but as broad-shouldered as a brick wall and the only one in the group with the potential to become a professional boxer; big Anton, who speaks perfect Hebrew and introduces himself as Nathan; Stas, a big guy with a big soul and scars on his hands; Anatoly and Arkady who switched from Taekwondo; and Yuval Gabbay, the Yemenite bank clerk, and Sami the Arab translator. But mostly Emil, with his flat nose that had sustained countless injuries, his rhythmic “push-push,” his ferocious Russian, which always sounds barking and dissatisfied and sometimes mad with rage, and who is so superstitious he never utters the number seven out loud.

After practice, I would usually eat something, take a shower and sink into a deep sweet sleep at the end of which I would wake up eagerly, on Mondays and Thursdays, to just a few hours on the road, followed by afternoons with my favorite person on earth: my Noga, with her straight black hair and her slightly Tatar eyes that she inherited from who knows who in the family.

As luck would have it, the day Lotta Perl made her offer to me was a Wednesday. I desperately needed the peace and the mayhem of boxing. I concentrated on Emil’s instructions and worked my balls off.  But my mind wasn’t really clear. Instead it just changed direction. What Lotta had said when we were at the cemetery some days earlier – “Love is everything, Eitan” – suddenly lodged in my mind and left me wondering. After a long and eventful life, is that what’s left? Is that all that is left – From eighty years of memory, from a long personal history? Even in old age, does it all boil down to that? Not that I looked down on it. On the contrary, I am the last person to be dismissive of love. I identified with what she said about waiting for love from afar and appreciating every moment it shines – I spend two days a week with my love, Noga; in between, I’m forced to stay away. But what does it tell us about all the other things our lives are made of, all of our experiences and, say, our quest for self-fulfillment and the ideals we uphold? What about scientific research and social activity and everything that we consider progress? In other words, what should one make of the relentless, endless attempts to improve life, to propel human society forward… Is love everything it boils down to? Or rather, is it all that remains for Lotta, who has lived through major historical events, who raised a famil…

WHACK!

My head jerked back and almost departed from my neck. What a blow! I saw stars. Blood trickled down my lip. And only when Emil screamed, “Croc! Not concentrate!” I returned to reality, to the freestyle exercise in doubles that we did for the final part of the session. I looked in shock at my opponent, whose grin exposed his sharp teeth. It was Ilia, pleased with his accurate hit.

After boxing, I sat in Agadir, the burger bar, and devoured a hamburger, as my last conversation with Lotta rushed back to me. After the detective agency debacle, I did not talk to Barr for a long time. I felt bad for all the money he had spent on me, and I really didn’t think my talent in crime investigation was anything to write home about. But Lotta talked about murder, the holy grail of investigations. It was the money time, the real thing. My phone rang.

It was Duchi.

“You finished your class?” she inquired.

“It’s not a class, it’s practice,” I answered, with a mouth full of meat.

“I need a favor. Any chance you can drop by for a few minutes to be with her? She’s on her way to bed. I must go out, for a short while, I tried a babysitter, but Ronit wasn’t avail…”

“Just a few minutes?”

“Half an hour, tops.”

***

The Tatar-eyed one was sitting on the sofa in her pajamas, watching The Cat in the Hat. “Hey Daddy,” she said, unfazed by my entrance, not averting her eyes for a second from the cat.

“Thanks,” said Duchi. She was made-up, a scarf wrapped around her neck, her bag heavy on her shoulder. She glanced at the ugly track suit bottoms I was wearing. “Adios,” I said, and moved to kiss Noga, who still didn’t break eye contact with the screen.

She returned after an hour and a bit. Opened the door quietly and whispered, “Hello,” as she entered gingerly. “She’s asleep?”

“She has been for ages.” I saw her eyes were a little red. “Everything OK?” I asked.

She smiled, nodded, and then started to cry. “Oh, Croc…”

She was drunk. The hour and a bit she had spent in short Gadi’s apartment were enough for her to finish the wine bottle that he had opened.

Drunk. And wet. And in need of warmth and proof that men were still attracted to her. It was our best fuck in the three years since our divorce. Now and again we stumbled into it, a sort of mutual aid, a way of unloading pressure without making too much effort or showing off, when both of us were in the right mood – single enough, relaxed enough, needy enough.

After the short and failed meeting that was meant to convince Gadi not to leave her, Duchi’s motives and needs were quite obvious. And mine too. I thought about it the next morning, as I was delivering an ice box with body parts from Tel Aviv’s Ichilov hospital to Hadassah in Jerusalem, munching on warm peanuts all the while. That sentence that Lotta said at the cemetery, “Love is everything,” bothered me. Perhaps it bothered me because suddenly, it brought home the years I had not experienced true love, the feeling I was wasting my life without it. I was afraid of disappointment and of being hurt, but I still needed love. I hadn’t spent a night with a woman for so long. The only woman I saw on a regular basis was an old lady who I drove daily to a cemetery. And the only one I had some kind of an ongoing sexual tension with was the married mother of one of my daughter’s friends, but I didn’t want to follow it up for obvious reasons. And then there was the blow from Ilia that evening, which was equally a blow to my masculine ego. What are we, if not a gang of injured egos aching for rehabilitation?

Besides, who am I trying to kid here? With Duchi, I don’t need to look for motives or excuses. I was always attracted to her. Even when she annoyed me and when I couldn’t stand living with her, I always wanted he mocha skin and the rolling laughter, I could never get enough of that smooth and silky intersection between her legs. I was always hard as a rock with her, and could always bring her easily to where she wanted to go. Fourteen years, on and off, I guess that counts for something.

Silk rubbed with rock and we both came when she was on top of me. Then she touched my lip carefully with her finger. “What happened?” she asked. “It’s really swollen.”

“A punch from Ilia,” I said.

“Isn’t it a bit dangerous?” she asked, looking worried. I caressed her cheek.

“Don’t worry,” I said, “I know how to take care of myself.”

“OK. Go now,” she summed up, “before the little one wakes up and gets all confused.”

***

The next morning, I drove back from Jerusalem straight to Lotta’s retirement home in Herzliya. She was waiting for me outside as always; she got in and sat down without saying a word. A million questions had run through my mind during that morning’s ride to Jerusalem and back: why did she think that Edward had been murdered? Who did she suspect? What exactly had happened? How did they meet? How was their contact renewed after all those years? But when I tried to speak, she immediately gestured at me and said, “Hold on.” We had rides like these, when I felt that she wanted to keep quiet and I, as always, went along with it. But when we arrived at the cemetery she said, “Do you want to park and come in with me again?” She guided me to O’Leary’s grave. Like the previous time, we sat on the same neighboring grave, Sharabi’s.

“I came to Israel as a child, illegally, on a Greek ship. It was before the war. The British restricted immigration, so we sneaked in at night. About two hundred of us made it to the shore before the Brits woke up and caught some of us. All my family made it. We lived in Haifa’s Hadar Hacarmel neighborhood. Mother hated every minute in the Land of Israel. ‘A cursed land’, she used to say in Yiddish – ‘a fahrshalten land.’ She didn’t forgive herself for leaving Germany, compared everything to Berlin and always threatened to return there, even in the middle of the war.

“Father went over the top in the other direction. He always tried to prove that everything was wonderful, that no place was as pretty, good and comfortable as our new land. They fought endlessly. She would speak with us in Russian, Yiddish and German and he – only in Hebrew. After high school, I started working as a secretary for Shell, the oil company, and she was my best friend.”

“Who’s she?” I looked at her. It was cloudy and she took her sunglasses off. I could see her eyes, brown as always, pretty, set off by her silver hair. Without the sunglasses, she looked closer to her age. The scarf was still wrapped around her neck.

“Ruti Spielberg. Like the movie director. But she was around long before him, they aren’t related. We were girls. Our gang would hang out in a small bar called The Nelson. A few girls, friends from high school, from work, and from the neighborhood. Most of the customers were British security forces personnel or clerks of the British Mandate administration, most of them young and bored. There were a few other characters – poets and journalists. Ruti was a waitress.

“Initially, the Jewish Agency encouraged girls to befriend the foreign soldiers, as they thought it would benefit Jewish interests. But towards the end of the Mandate that changed. When the British became the enemy, their soldiers were forbidden from frequenting Jewish establishments, and on our side, they didn’t like the connection either. Until then, we had had several good years. We didn’t give a damn about politics, we cared about the soldiers, and they cared about us.” She smiled.

“So you met Edward at The Nelson?”

“No. One of the officers invited Ruti to a cocktail party on a war ship that was mooring at the Haifa Port, and she brought me along. That evening there were three Royal Navy destroyers mooring, and they lit them all up. Ruti disappeared at some point, but it didn’t bother me, because soon afterwards someone tapped my shoulder with his finger; I turned around and saw his smile. He asked me if I wanted to dance. I danced with him all night. People don’t understand, Eitan,” she turned to me and smiled, “they think – wars, go out with them, don’t go out with them, terror, bombs… but the truth is that we were a young girl and a young man at a dance party aboard a ship – why should we have cared about anything else? Who thought about wars at all? I only remember how his eyes were set on me throughout the evening, not leaving me for a second, devouring me. The beautiful green eyes of an Irish soldier who came from the war, who had landed at Normandy. After Normandy, they were about to be sent to Asia, but the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan changed the picture and they were sent here instead. He had been here no more than a week when all his stuff was stolen: it was summer, so they went to the beach and went in for a swim and drank something and went to sleep, and in the morning, all that was left was the blanket they slept on. But I digress.”

“No. I want to hear everything about you and Edward. So, what happened after that? And what about Ruti?”

“Ruti was with Wilshire. I think they had met previously, at The Nelson, but on the night of the party they were busy in some corner of the ship. They didn’t dance.” She smiled. “Ruti had no fear. She did whatever she wanted to do. She spent her childhood in the boarding school at Ben Shemen. Her parents had sent her over from Kaunas, Lithuania, and she never saw them again… I, on the other hand, was a virgin.”

“Where is Ruti today? Is she still alive? Are you two still friends? Wilshire – who was he? Did they also become a couple? Did they remain in Israel? Were they at Edward’s funeral?”

“Ruti was fed up with Ben Shemen, and ran away to Haifa. She was actually supposed to go to America. A guy promised to take her to America and marry her, but when she got to the port they told her that the ship had sailed the previous day. She never found out whether that guy was bullshitting her or if it was a genuine misunderstanding. She never heard from him again. She stayed in Haifa and started working at The Nelson. That was where we met one evening. I came with another friend, but Ruti and I hit it off immediately. I admired her, for making it on her own, for knowing that she wanted to emigrate.

“After missing the ship to America, she moved to Plan B – finding a British man – and The Nelson was the place to do that. I was jealous of her: she had no parents, no one to tell her what to do, while I was at home with a depressive mother and a domineering father. Later I realized that growing up without parents is the worst thing possible. It can fuck you up for life, exactly like it did to her. But at the time I only saw the freedom she had.”

“I came to Israel as a child, illegally, on a Greek ship. It was before the war. The British restricted immigration, so we sneaked in at night.”

Lotta shut her eyes and turned towards the pleasant sun that suddenly appeared between the clouds. I didn’t interrupt her. I looked at the time. I had one hour before I needed to pick up Noga. Lotta said, “I’ll continue in a minute, Eitan, don’t you worry.”

“Not worried at all,” I smiled. “Take your time.”

“After that night, Eddie and I did not see each other. We hadn’t exchanged contact details. We must have missed each other at The Nelson, because I didn’t go there much and he didn’t know where else to find me. I went crazy thinking about him. It turned out that he was thinking about me all the time too. Two weeks later we met by chance in a pharmacy in Hadar Hacarmel. I went there to get some medicine for my father. He, some ointment for a friend. Suddenly he was there, with those eyes.

“That look. Nothing in my life made me feel a woman like his look. And that was that, we didn’t leave each other after that. We were so much in love, we met every time we could, we went for walks on the beach. My parents liked Ruti, so I had an excuse to go out. She also used me for cover: she was going out with Wilshire, but she had other boyfriends that he didn’t know about – high-ranking officers, older guys. One would come to The Nelson with his wife, who always complained about the heat – Barbara Newton-something; she volunteered in the canteen – and when her husband made it to The Nelson without her, he would take Ruti in his Jeep to a forest on Mount Carmel and they would do their stuff. To Wilshire she always said she was with me. I was her alibi and she was mine. But I wanted to tell you about Eddie, and something funny about Wilshire, and yes, I know that you want to get to the matter of the death and my suspicions. Come, let’s walk back to the taxi.”

She rummaged through her handbag, fished out a lipstick and applied it carefully, looking at a round mirror she held as she did, then got up, straightened her skirt and put her sunglasses on. Her elegance made her look younger than she actually was. She grabbed my arm and we crossed the cemetery to the parked car.

“He was seventeen and a half when he arrived in Palestine. In Dublin, they had drafted him at sixteen to the Irish unit of the British army, and sent him immediately to Normandy. They landed him from the sea in a truck. He didn’t know how to drive, didn’t have a driving license. He drove in the opposite direction from where he was supposed to go, and that was how he and three other soldiers missed the battle. Those three admired him and thanked him all his life. Had he driven in the right direction, they would have definitely been killed…”

I felt my swollen lip with my tongue, as I listened to her story.

“He came to Palestine on a ship called HMS California together with two thousand soldiers, and Arab snipers shot at them. One of his friends went overboard and was killed. Eddie was stationed with a supply unit in the Gibraltar base in Haifa as a truck driver, delivering water and equipment to the British units in the north of the country. In his free time, he played soccer and tennis, and tried to learn Arabic because he was planning to work for the Iraqi oil company.”

We were already in the cab on the way to Herzliya. Even though she was wearing sunglasses, I knew her eyes were wet with longing. I could see on the navigation app that there was a horrible traffic jam ahead of us.

“Would you mind if I took a small detour to bypass the traffic?” I asked her.

“Do I look like someone who would prefer a traffic jam?”

I drove up Ibn-Gvirol Street to the end and went straight ahead, past Sde-Dov Airport, turned towards the Mandarin Hotel, and cut along the dirt road that went along the beach. “Waze doesn’t know this way,” I told her, “it’s definitely the prettiest way to get to Herzliya. Did you know that Dov Hoz, after whom Sde-Dov Airport was named, was killed in a car crash?”

“The Arab part of Haifa was out of bounds for British soldiers,” she continued. “But we would sneak in, wander the alleys and the nargila stalls of the Arabs. Every evening when Eddie was free and I managed to get away, we would be together. He would smuggle me into his tent in the camp when his friends were on guard duty. We would walk to the port, the market, the caves on the beach, to rooftops and backyards… When he drove out with his truck on a military mission I was always nervous because their convoys were sometimes blown up by mines and drivers were killed…” she paused. “What a nice route you have chosen!”

The sea to our left was clear, and she asked me to stop for a moment. I did. She rolled down her window and stared at the sea.

“Am I boring you? I know you are more interested in our wonderful final week together, and in hearing why I think Eddie was murdered.”

“You aren’t boring me at all, I want to know it all. Besides, I’ve never talked to someone who lived then.”

“There’s no one in your family?”

“My parents came here from the United States in the sixties. Our family had no experience of the Holocaust and none of the Mandate.”

“Of course,” she said with a laugh, “you told me about your family. And I said that I didn’t understand how you became a taxi driver with your background. But I am too old to judge, neither you nor taxi drivers. And anyway, Eddie, the love of my life, was a driver, so why should I be patronizing?”

I rolled down my window. The salty breeze caressed my face. “My parents think I’m a wasted talent,” I smiled, “and the truth is, I am an underachiever. Maybe it’s a shame, I might have contributed more to the world. If I had been, say, a lawyer with twenty years of experience, life would have been easier and more comfortable, I guess. But I’m not sure I would have been happier. I am who I am, I won’t be rich, but I won’t go hungry either. That’s something.”

“That’s a lot. It is good that you are who you are, and I am not at all sure that a lawyer contributes to the world more than a taxi driver.” She stretched her hand between the front seats and touched my shoulder lightly. “Drive. Drop me off and go to your child.”

I started driving slowly on the dirt road until we entered Herzliya Pituach, the city’s fancy seaside district. Something she said earlier, a name she had mentioned, stuck in my mind. “So who is this Wilshire, and why did you say you had something funny to say about him?”

“Did I say such a thing?” I saw her frown as she was trying to fish the thought out of her mind. “My brain is full of holes.”

“I’m actually very impressed with your memory. Sixty-something years later, you seem so lucid when you talk about it. I can’t tell you in such detail what happened to me a month ago.”

She chuckled. “But I am not telling you everything,” she stressed, “only the things related to Eddie. That’s love, it sharpens things, especially everything that is related to it. After sixty-odd years the memories come flooding back, thanks to love and the pure and distilled force of its renewal. I read about it. There are neurons in the brain that certain senses stimulate – for example smell or the sound of a voice, and of course touch. The memories are lucid, but they may be misleading because they are selective. You must be careful not to take them for granted. Here, you said I promised to tell you something about Wilshire, and I haven’t got a clue…”

“Something funny,” I prompted.

“Oh yes, I remember! But we’re here already. OK, tomorrow, then. Eleven as usual?”

“Of course, but give me a hint, a beginning of the story. So that tomorrow I’ll be able to remind you.”

“Excellent idea. I wanted to tell you why Wilshire actually started going out with Ruti. It was very romantic. It was related to that little guy from the Stern Gang who became prime minister, what’s his name… Yitzhak Shamir!”

“And you will tell me about Eddie’s death and why you suspect and what exactly you want me to do?”

“Of course, of course. Tomorrow. Goodbye!”

***

“Daddy!” Noga came running out of the school gate. I stretched my arms and squeezed her supple body, stroked her smooth hair, breathed her in. “Let’s go,” I said. She entered the back seat of the cab.

“How was school?”

“Fun.”

We sat in the living room and she did her homework in Hebrew and math, and then filled up coloring books, and then made rubber bracelets, and then sat on the sofa beside me and watched The Cat in the Hat, and then asked me to make ganuchi, which is her way of saying gnocchi, with gru-gru, which is her way of saying Parmesan, and on the side some avokid, which is her way of saying avocado, with salt and squeezed lemon and some cherry tomatoes.

All this time I just sat there and didn’t do anything, just helped her when she asked. When I am with her I always think about how I just sit there and let time go by, not caring one bit about it, not needing anything more than to be beside her. I remember how I used to chase after time when I was young. It wasn’t just Noga, I had managed to cool down before she came along, but Noga was the final turn of the screw. I changed, I think for the better. This is what children do to you – they slow you down. True, they also inject pressure and tension, worry and nagging, but Noga also imbues me with a lot of calm.

She said, “Daddy, where did you go today?” I thought a bit and said,

“To Jerusalem. And Herzliya. And the Trumpeldor cemetery.”

“Tumpeldor again? You are there every day!”

“That’s right,” I smiled.

“What do you have with this Tumpeldor!”

“Do you know who he was?”

But she changed the subject: “And last night after you left, mommy cried a little bit.”

“How do you know?”

“I heard.”

“You heard? You didn’t sleep?” I wondered what else she had heard.

She shrugged and said, “But this morning she was in a good mood.”

“Good.” I felt a pang. While driving that day I had been thinking that Duchi had used me. Thinking only about herself, she had used me for her needs. I was a vehicle for her regaining confidence in her femininity. Which is OK. She can do that. I already mentioned that I had also been in need, I needed to rehabilitate my own ego issues, to feel loved and desired. It became a part of our relationship.

“But don’t make her cry again, daddy. OK?”

I made her cry? “OK, my sweetheart. Did you finish eating?”

***

The next morning, on my way to Herzliya, I tried to calculate the number of times I had taken Lotta to the cemetery since that first time, when she called me from Yehoshua Bin-Nun Street, corner of Habashan. It added up to eighteen times. And each time she was already out waiting for me when I arrived, even when I got there a few minutes early, which happened often. But this time she wasn’t there.

So I waited.

I tried to remember whether I had told her on that first trip about the biblical warlord Yehoshua Bin-Nun, about the rumors that he was gay. Some claim he was the first gay man in history, because in the Bible there is no mention of any women related to him and no mention of family.

Then I thought about the stories that Lotta had told me the previous day, about her love. And once again, I returned to her claim that “Love is everything,” about life being stronger than love and that we live for the moments love shines. I once thought that this was true only when you’re young and naïve, but no way. Here, look how Duchi fell in love now. And Lotta, how her eyes twinkle when she speaks about Eddie and the Mandate days and meeting again. And what about me, I thought, will I not fall in love again because of my fear of getting hurt? But if I stop myself from loving, I will lose life. I will lose “everything”.

And I waited.

I liked Lotta. She reminded me that my cab was a box of infinite surprises, which in turn reminded me that I needed to go and pay the rent to Morris, the owner of my cab and its license.

At 11:10 I called her number. There was no answer.

At 11:15 I got out of the cab and went into the lobby.

At reception I said, “Lotta Perl booked a cab for eleven and didn’t show up. This is unusual. I have picked her up from here every day for the last two and a half weeks.”

The receptionist, tall, dark and heavy, with eyeliner which ran off the corners of her eyes, said, “Right, sure, you’re Eitan. She talks about you all the time. She even said you’re famous so I googled you. You’re the Croc!” She flashed her sparkling white teeth.

“She isn’t answering her phone,” I cut her off with a serious tone.

“Yes. She’s not answering her room line either. Let me call security.” She didn’t look worried. I assumed that in a retirement home it is not unusual for the residents not to show up to meetings or answer their phones. In the large lobby, two elderly men with hearing aids played billiards. Others sat on sofas in front of TV screens, some of them dozing off. The notice board announced Feldenkrais class with Dalia and a water gymnastics session with Abbed.

The security officer arrived and the receptionist explained the situation. I asked if I could come along and he said, “Sure. You’re Eitan, right? She talks about you.”

We went up to the third floor and on the way he whistled to himself. On the walls along the corridor were posters from old movies – my gaze fell on one with Rita Hayworth – and through the windows I could see the patio garden, blooming and sun-swept. I licked my swollen lip again.

He knocked on the door. “Lotta?” he called, “Lotta?” There was no answer.

He fished out a master key-card, slid it in the slot, opened the door a little and then called again, “Lotta?”

He entered slowly, and I followed.

“She’s in bed,” he said in a low voice, and then, “Lotta?” She didn’t respond.

He moved the blanket gently. She was lying on her stomach, motionless. All we could see was her silver hair and her neck. The security officer placed two fingers on the upper part of the neck to feel for a pulse. I don’t know what the tips of his fingers told him, but he quickly got his walkie-talkie out from his belt and barked into it, “Shiri. Ambulance. Urgent. We have a body at 36.”

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Silence is Golden