Caught in the Meshwork — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

When Nir woke up in the dark, Heli was crying in her sleep. At the foot of the bed, Ben Ha-Ha, the cat, was crouched in defecating position, and from the balcony, outside the sliding door, a pigeon screamed. As none of these things made sense, Nir assumed he had only dreamed of waking. He turned over to his other side and, back to all the apparitions, descended to another plane of slumber.

When the alarm roused him, some time after dawn, Nir groaned, turned over, and opened his eyes. Heli was out on the balcony, looking up at the meshwork roof of the pergola they had installed just before the holidays. The balcony, which opened from their room, faced west; a last bit of night remained there. Nir groaned again and then propped himself up on his elbow.

“I feel like I didn’t sleep at all,” he grumbled. “I had this horrible …”

illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz
“There’s a dead pigeon on the roof.” Heli, in her porcelain-patterned robe and frog slippers, hugged herself against the chill. Her voice was flat. The floor of the balcony was wet—the first, very late shower of the year must have arrived in the early morning hours. “Wake up the kids and then take a broom up to the roof and push it off.” Nir groaned once more, loudly, for the record, and avoided Heli’s eyes. As he flung the blanket off him, he heard a soft plop as something hit the floor. When he swung his feet over the side of the bed, one of them landed straight on a cat turd.

“Shit!”

Heli brought him toilet paper and wipes and a rag to cleanse the dirty spot on the floor. She also reminded him that she had told him not to give in to his mother’s insistence that they adopt her cat.

Nir put on t-shirt, rinsed his foot in the shower, and then tiptoed into the boys’ room. Ben Ha-Ha, a miniature panther curled up blackly in the crook of Elisha’s elbow on the lower bunk, opened phosphorescent eyes as Nir began to sing. For two minutes nothing happened, but then Omer, in the upper bunk, suddenly sat up, eyed his father with exasperation, and dove down to bury his head under his pillow. In the pale dawn Nir thought he caught the glimmer of the first faint fuzz on his older son’s upper lip. Could it be? Wasn’t it too early for that?

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Peck of Pickled Pollsters — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz
Remember my friend Frank from Fifty-Ninth Street, whose feelings for fairness are so fine-tuned that any abuse sends him into an ardor of alliteration and assonance that invariably infects me every time we have a heart-to-heart on Hangouts? Frank requires forbearance and a willingness to lapse into his lingo. I can talk perfectly normally, and here’s proof, but you know how it goes with people who hold powerful political perceptions—if you can’t chant their cant, they negate your notions and insist you are insipid.

I used to try to contain his cascading consonants and viva voce vowels, but then relinquished all resistance. Frankly, I was happy that there had been a hiatus—for some four fortnights my Skype had been silent, but then belatedly on my browser, just as I was autographing my absentee ballot, his avatar aparated.

“Hey, Frank, wherya been?” I queried on my qwerty keyboard.

Post-pregnant pause, Frank formulated: “Brooding on the blight that plagues the planet.”

“As always,” I answered.

“I have been agonizing over William Butler’s legendary lyric: ‘a kind of chaos is unleashed on the universe, the blood-blinded tide is untethered.’”

“You mean Yeats?” I yammered. “But you revise his vocabulary.”

“Dare you doubt my veracity in verse?” Frank was awfully offended.

With a sad sigh I said: “Apologies, amigo. This señor is at your service.”

“I call with concern in connection with your far-off franchise.” My chum chided: “As our buddyhood began before our birth, I have grave grounds for goosebumps. Do you value your vote? Do you take your suffrage seriously?”

“Absolutely,” I affirmed. “In fact, my ballot is before me.”

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Besieged — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz
The door handle jiggled. Chaya, sitting on the bed, her breasts still bare, shivered, then grimaced, knowing what the next move would be. On the colorless street, beyond the drawn shade behind the bed, men and women murmured as the water cart pulled up. She knew one of the men’s voices well. Just two days ago an Arab Legion shell had fallen a hundred meters down the street and a fragment had cut the throat of Mrs. Teitelbaum’s sister-in-law, killing the horse, and shattering the cart. Where the water was not mixed with blood, people had mopped it up with handkerchiefs and squeezed moisture into their mouths.

Chaya glanced at the boy in the bed. He was lying on his back, staring at the mildew on the ceiling. His sun-fired head and neck looked as if they had been grafted on to his pale body. She quickly pushed her arms into the sleeves of her smock and stood up. The smock did little to warm her and floor was icy. Now the whole door shook and the boy’s friend shouted: “Hey, you two going into overtime?”

“It’s Ari,” the boy said matter-of-factly. He stroked the line of his hairless chest with his left hand and his right moved down under the corner of the blanket that covered his loins.

She brushed her hair, stooping before a tiny mirror propped up on a rough wooden table against the wall. “Should I let him in?”

“It’s not his real name,” the boy said, turning to look at her.

“It usually isn’t,” she said. “Mine isn’t. Nor is yours.”

“You speak Hebrew so precisely. I mean, for someone who’s been here just two years,” the boy said. Then he quickly added: “I like that.”

“Get dressed and don’t forget to pay.”

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A Line of Who — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Dani turned his transistor on even though a gale from the north was banging on the Perspex windows of the guard post like the ghost of Keith Moon on storm-cloud percussion. The rays of the sun setting over an unseen Mediterranean occasionally broke through, outlining in deep orange the umbras of clouds lying just below and just above the nearby peak of Jebel Baruk. A ray caught the wind-ragged, frost-crusted Israeli flag as if to say that the outpost and its soldiers, so far from home, were trapped between the empyrean above and the hell of the war below. Setting the radio down on the metal ledge on which the MAG was mounted, he glanced over at Adam. Somehow, between the drumming of the sky and the drumming of the Lebanese progressive rock station, he heard that his companion for the coming six-hour shift was crying.

illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz
Considering his response, he unbuckled his vest so that he could settle comfortably into the high chair from which he was to survey the inscrutable landscape for alpine attackers.

Adam spoke.

“What was that?” Dani shouted over the pandemonium.

“It’s against the rules. Taking off your vest.” A shrieking squall filtered out whatever emotion there might have been in Adam’s voice.

“So’s the radio,” Adam went on. “Turn it off.” And then Dani thought he heard a choking sound, although he couldn’t be sure.

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Lerner in the Mirror — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz
I am just starting to shave when Lerner’s reflection appears behind mine in the big mirror in the locker room at the Jerusalem Pool. Lerner, somewhere upwards of eighty, preens like an eighteen-year-old. Not without cause—as men who were in their prime in the early fifties go, he looks pretty good. His figure is lean and he stands tall; while his white hair is thin, it fully covers his head. I don’t talk to him much because he’s usually deep in banter with his friend Bashan as they change in and out of their swimsuits each afternoon. I assume his remark is directed at me.

“America is lucky,” he says as he smooths his hair and slaps his cheeks lightly. “To have Trump, I mean.”

But maybe I’m wrong. Bashan’s reverse image moves into my field of view just as I offer a weak smile and start on the stubble on the left side of my face.

“Right.” Bashan grimaces at his reflection. Where Lerner is steely, he is malleable; where Lerner has angles, he has arcs. A lot less hair, too, on his head, that is. Still, he must have been a looker back in the 1948 war, when they conquered the Negev together. Bashan had been a platoon commander in the Palmach’s Yiftah Brigade and Lerner one of his soldiers. I’d heard about it time and again in the shower.

“In our day,” Lerner’s reflection says as it adjusts the shoulders of its backward t-shirt, “the world had strong leaders who stood up for their countries. Churchill. De Gaulle. Roosevelt. Ben-Gurion.”

Bashan’s reflection leans forward at me and wiped a grain from its eye. “The Old Man.”

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The Plowman Meets the Reaper — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz
Behold, days are coming, says the Lord, when the plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him who sows seed … And I will bring back the captivity of my people of Israel, and they shall build the waste cities, and inhabit them; they shall also make gardens, and eat their fruit. (Amos 9:13–14)

He knew her, she lived past the sands, in the part of Rassco where you heard German and the Philharmonic when the windows were open. He sometimes went to play soccer on the street there when he needed to get away from home. Her house, one of the tiny two-room cubicles that made up the neighborhood, had a small garden that looked as if she went out every morning to straighten and polish each leaf and petal. He’d often see her sitting on her front stoop with one or another lady friend, both in high heels, in long sleeves even on the hottest days of the summer. Sometimes she would have brushes in hand and an easel in front of her, painting scenes of a city that looked nothing like Holon.

Once he passed by and she wasn’t outside and he felt so disappointed that he threw a stone at her window and then hid to see if she would come out. When she did, a frown on her face, he felt so ashamed of himself that he avoided passing her house for the next month.

She had been on the early train to Jerusalem and here she was again, a straw hat with a flower over her bobbed blonde hair. The train was crowded and hot but he’d manage to squeeze through to get a window seat. She was already on the aisle. In the morning she had sat down right next to him, fanning herself with a twice-folded copy of Ha’aretz. When she looked at him he was afraid she knew that he had thrown the stone, but she just smiled and asked his name and age in a throaty Ashkenazi kind of voice and then said that her name was Alma and that it was very brave for a boy of eleven to take the train to Jerusalem by himself and was someone meeting him at the station in Jerusalem. He told her that his name was Amos and that his father had sent him to bring his mother home before the war began.

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Summer of ’88 — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

I didn’t understand why the woman with the wispy hair looked so worried or why she kept glancing behind her, in the direction of the corridor of her apartment on Carlebach Street. I stood on her threshold, holding out a Labor party pamphlet and launching into my spiel about why Israel needed change that only a Labor government could bring. With the right leadership we could achieve peace with our neighbors and form a more just society, I promised. Suddenly a rhinoceros bellowed from the hallway. A man with a huge belly distending a threadbare undershirt charged in and then halted, readying to pounce, his mouth frothing. He stared first at me and then at the woman.

illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz
“Labor party,” she whispered in his direction, as if against her will. He lunged at me shouting “They’re paying you to come here! Paying you!” The woman slapped the door shut just before he tackled me. As I ran down the stairs I heard him beating on the door and his wife trying to calm him. When I got out to the street, he was shouting at me from the balcony and holding a flower pot over his head, ready to cast it at me like a cyclops repelling lost Greek sailors. From another window his wife called out, “Please go away!”

In the summer of 1988 I had been married three years, had two small children, and a mortgage on a housing-project apartment. Israel was in crisis—what else was new? And I was sinking into the obligations and routine of family life. Even though I’d just returned from a long month of reserve duty battling Palestinian teenagers in the villages around Jenin, I felt I was betraying my country.

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Fifteen Characters in Search of a Better Author — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

The rapid, staccato knock, perk and businesslike, startled me out of the beginnings of the trance I sink into whenever I write. Sometimes a fully-formed character emerges out of the trance, but much more often I just get a really good nap. I was startled because my office, which is really a basement storeroom stuffed with boxes, camping gear, and a dismembered eternal sukka, seldom gets visitors. Good thing, too, as there is barely enough room left over for me, my computer, and my bike. I sighed at the disturbance to my carefully-honed creative process, pushed myself out of my expensive, well-upholstered, and really comfortable executive chair, and opened the door.

illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz
I found myself facing a thirty-something woman wearing an unzipped parka over a long, dark-blue dress. She looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place her. She held out her hand assertively and frowned when I hesitated before shaking it. Behind her I spotted a middle-aged woman with a hiking pole, but she quickly disappeared into the shadows of the corridor.

“Peppy Samuels,” she said. Then, seeing that the name didn’t connect, she added “Number 70. ‘Hooligan Oil.’”

“Oh, right,” I said. “It’s been a while.”

She wrinkled her nose at the sweaty gym clothes I’d hung up to dry over my bike and took in the general mess. Coming to my senses, such as they are, I drew a plastic folding chair off a hook and opened it for her.

“Have a seat,” I suggested. She took a glove out of her parka pocket and wiped down the chair before sitting down. Then, turning toward the door, she called out “Looks like the rest of you will have to stand out there!”

“The rest of you?”

“We’re a delegation,” she explained. Leaning over, she pushed the door open wider so I could see her companions. She gestured toward a sandy-haired young man with a dreamy expression, dressed in IDF fatigues. His arm was draped casually over the shoulder of a tousle-haired teenager with downy sideburns. “This is Ami, number 62, ‘Nobody Smiles,” and number 64, ‘Odysseus Eats.’ He’s representing the soldiers. His friend here is Felix Mendelssohn, number 43, ‘Piano Lesson,’ representing the classical composers.”

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Savta Levana Cooks a Cat — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

“For what is the cat?” Savta Levana asked as Tamar smoothed the creases out of the apron she had just fastened at her grandmother’s back.

illustration by Avi Katz</eillustration by Avi Katz


“Just something I made. Now stand over by the sink so I can check the light.” Tamar had positioned her video camera at the entrance to the tiny kitchen. The good part was that she could leave the camera largely unattended. Savta Levana wouldn’t move much because there was practically no counter space left for her to work on now that she had all the modern conveniences. A mini-dishwasher grabbed most of the corner on the left side of the sink, between it and the refrigerator, and a microwave oven took up the bulk of the small stretch of counter between the sink and the window on the right. Tamar had already given instructions not to move the chicken over to the small table opposite, on which the cat sat. Even though that’s where Savta Levana really did most of her prep for the stove and oven, the camera would not see her there.

“What is just something you made? You just made it like that? A busy girl like you? You have time to make cat dolls?”

“Savta, we’re making tbit,” Tamar reprimanded her.

“I’ve made tbit every Friday for more than fifty years and I never had someone watch me,” the grandmother complained, eyeing the big-headed blue cat with the heart in its paw with more than a pinch of suspicion.

“I’m going to make you famous. Savta Levana’s Iraqi recipes on YouTube. People all over the world will make your tbit. They’ll make pilgrimages to Holon to worship at your kitchen. I’ll even add English subtitles.”

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The Night Hall — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Mor felt her way down the hall in the dark. Her hand touched a photograph hanging lower than she remembered and sent it swinging, but she steadied it before it fell. She would make no noise and turn on no lights. If Bar and Ayala woke up she would have no quiet to think in. Halfway down she turned back and peered at Aryeh. He was on his back. Suddenly an arm rose and flopped down where she had formerly lain. A hand searched, fruitlessly. Soon he would snore. He would not stir, though, even if Bar and Ayala began to cry, because, by his account, he had averaged just four hours of sleep for the past week and a half. Now he was home from the army for two nights. She closed the door softly and went back down the night hall.

 illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz


The armchairs cast shadows. Street light, filtered through translucent blinds, penumbraed the room. She sat in the closer chair, older but more comfortable. Looking down, she touched the sore spot on her left breast. Aryeh had fallen right on it after he came. Why did men do that? Couldn’t he hold himself up? She was not made of foam rubber, she had told him many times. “I can’t help it, it’s like everything inside me has come out,” he said. “Not everything, just some semen,” she’d correct him. Then he’d kiss her and roll off and take her in his arms and drip everything inside him all over her. And the sheets. No wonder she could never fall asleep afterward.

If this night were a story, she reflected, here would be the point where the bombshell would come. “She reached under the sofa cushion and drew out a photograph of Eli.” Or, “It was time for her to leave.” Or “The gun felt cold under her nightgown.” But she did not have another lover, she was too tired to leave, and she was wearing a sweatsuit, not a nightgown. It was December, after all.

He was always so eager when he came back from the army. Affectionate, and intense. If it weren’t for the children he would lead her straight from the kiss at the door to the bedroom. Like he used to do.

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Against the Odds — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

“The harira didn’t come out so great today,” the waitress advised. “If you want soup, I’d go for the sweet potato.”

Instead of standing, the waitress had pulled up a chair. The father and his grown daughter were the only clients in restaurant, which looked like it had been flown in from the West Coast, with its small tables and back-breaking chairs ranged around a large central unfinished wood counter. It was squeezed between an Ethiopian bar and a high-end Middle-Eastern grill, both of them similarly empty, on Borochov Alley, a bit east of the shuk, between Jaffa and Agripas. The stabbings were keeping people home, so the waitress had time on her hands.

illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz
She looked Oregonish herself, slender, with straight hair and large round glasses, clearly ten or maybe even fifteen years older than the standard student waitress. She was a single mother of two girls, she told the daughter and father, and had just returned to her job, a few weeks after her baby had been born, because how was she supposed to live? Her face was overcast, perhaps because she hadn’t been getting much in tips from absent diners.

“Did you have a celebration here?” the daughter guessed.

The waitress’s face brightened. “Yes! Just last night! It was the manager’s present to me. Just something small. Family, a few friends. All presided over by my grandmother, the Frau Doktor Dora Berman, who didn’t like the food at all. She sat very stiffly over there, on that high chair at the end of the counter, in a black dress, nibbling from dishes we brought her and making faces. Mama was beside herself.”

“How’s the vegan lasagna?” the father asked.

“Abba, she’s telling us about her baby!” the daughter chided him.

“But she’s our waitress,” he pointed out. “And I’m hungry.”

“You can wait,” the daughter said, and then asked the waitress: “Your mother and grandmother don’t get along?”

“It’s complicated,” the waitress sighed. “Mama can be a pain. But the Frau Doktor is one of a kind. Do you know what she said when I brought the baby in?”

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Brine Drain–“Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Avi Katz -- Brine Drain

illustration by Avi Katz

When Daniela woke up she saw Jupiter glowing brightly in the sky. Or was it Venus? She would be able to tell if she could find her binoculars. Jupiter would have its four Galilean moons ranged around it and Venus would show a phase. Sometimes, while out camping in the Negev, she had been able to see, or think she saw, those distinguishing marks with her naked eye. But everything was blurry now. She felt for the binoculars, which should be here beside her in the tent, but she couldn’t find them. B, her little brother from hell, must have taken them. Whenever she needed something badly, it turned out that he’d run off with it. She tried to lift herself up on her elbows to see if B was with her in the tent, but her head suddenly went woozy and she fell back down on her back.

“It’s ok,” a friendly voice said. “Take your time.”

Daniela glanced to her right and saw a woman who looked like a Fox News anchor sitting in a wooden chair next to her. She herself was lying on a cot. What she’d thought was a planet was in fact a naked light bulb. The walls were bare. She knew the scene from countless movies. And now she remembered the raid on her lab at Georgia Tech. She was the planetary geophysicist who had come in from the cold.

“My name’s Cindy,” the anchorwoman said. “I’m really sorry we had to bring you here. Rich, your research partner, and your grad students are just fine. You’ll get to see them in good time, after they all wake up.”

“CIA?” Daniela asked. “NSA? FBI? Shin Bet?”

“YKVK,” Cindy said. “But that’s just a moniker. The real name is ineffable. Far more secret than all the others.”

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