Saturday, October 20, 2018

The Saudi Investigation

We Didn’t Do It; It Didn’t Really Happen:
The Saudi Case for Innocence in the Jamal Khashoggi Murder,
As Shown by the Monthlong Investigation

by David Hartley Mark

(Scene: A small interrogation room belonging to the Saudi State Security Apparatus, located adjacent to the Royal Throne Room. Three Saudi operatives are looking worried as they watch a Turkish Police video of themselves, as well as Jamal Khashoggi, walking in and out of the Saudi Consulate in Ankara—that is, all walk out except Khashoggi.)

Op 1: Maybe we can say that he fell and hit his head on a desk.

Op 2: Yeah, that’s it: Jamal killed himself.

Op 3: When you pushed him, Ahmed.

Op 1: Me? Why did I push him? Maybe you pushed him, Abdul.

Op 3: Hell no. I was in the can.

Op 2: Calm down, you guys! MBS could be here any minute. We have to get the story straight.

Op 1: Straight like this, you mean? (Removes one of the Khashoggi’s fingers from his pocket. The other two crack up.)

Op 2: Stop it! Oh please, stop it, Ahmed. You’re killing me.

Op 1: Hey, it could happen. Watch yourself.

(Op 2 quietens. Op 1 puts the grisly souvenir back into his pocket.)

Op 3: Settle down. What do you hear from the Americans?

Op 1: I saw that Pompeo guy, grinning like a fool and talking to MBS. Bless our ruler and exalted sovereign! (The other two genuflect and nod vigorously.)

Op 2: MBS will think of something. Except—

Op 3: Except what?

Op 2: Well (whispering)—he’s not very bright. I mean, look at who he pals around with.

Op 1: You mean Jared and Trump?

Op 2: Yeah.

Op 3 (pointing at the security camera in the corner): Will you guys just shut up? We could end up like Jamal, you know? Are you looking to get us all killed?

Op 1: Yeah, Sultan, you’re right. Well—what’s our story?

Op 2: He fell.

Op 3: And hit his head. Yeah.

All Three: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, that’s it.

(Enter General Ahmed al-Asiri, one of the main architects of the Saudi war in Yemen [The New Yorker]. He looks worried. The three Ops jump to their feet and salute.)

Asiri: At ease, soldiers (They stand down.). Well: what excuse did you come up with?

Op 1: Sir, General, Sir, we decided—

Asiri: Yes?

Op 2: That Khashoggi fell and hit his head on the desk.

Asiri: What, that excuse again? That’s what we said about the last three dissidents we killed.

Op 2: Oh—yeah. I forgot.

Asiri: Listen, Boys: this is what I thought of: Khashoggi got all upset, because the clerk told him it would take a month to process his divorce. He went crazy-like, and began to attack our Security Contingent.

Op 3: All fifteen of them, Sir? Will the US Congress believe that? Jamal was kind of chubby, Sir.

Asiri: Fifteen, twenty—who cares? Anyway, Khashoggi was killed during the struggle.

Op 1: What about the bone saw?

Asiri: Oh—um—well, he got his fingers caught in a desk drawer.

Op 2: Brilliant, Sir!

(Asiri smiles.)

Asiri: Hey, I have a gift for this kind of thing. That’s how I got to be commander of the Yemen operation.

Op 3: And doing, an excellent job, too, Sir!

Asiri (looking thoughtful and distant): Yes. The war—um, pacification—in Yemen. Just imagine it! Thirteen million of those Yemeni cockroaches facing famine, and millions of children without food or water. And that cholera outbreak is helping things, nicely.

Op 1: And they owe it all to you, Sir.

Asiri: Yes, well, I don’t require flattery, though I do love it (The Ops all smile). Well. In case MBS comes in here—you know, he himself is heading the cover-up—I mean, the rationalization for the Americans—we have to get the story straight.

Op 1: We decided how Jamal died, but what happened to the body?

Op 2: You mean this? (Taking bone saw out of his pocket; some blood still remains on the blade)

Asiri: Oh, God. Will you put that damn thing away? I thought I told you to toss it into the Gulf.

Op 2: Sorry, Sir. I will take care of it. (Salutes, and begins heading for the door—which opens, to admit Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, the absolute dictator of Saudi Arabia.)

Asiri: Sir—your majesty! Ten-Hup!

(All three ops snap to attention, and salute.)

MBS: At ease, at ease, Gentlemen. Well: which one of you landed the first blow against the head of that miserable traitor?

(All three Ops raise their hands, and wave frantically.)

MBS: Good. It may save your going to a death—I mean, prison camp.

Op 1: Sir, your majesty, we have discussed and concluded how Traitor Khashoggi lost his fingers, as well as died.

MBS: Good. We only have twenty-nine days to prepare some sort of excuse—I mean, explanation—of Jamal’s death. I must not be implicated—is that clear, Dogs?

Op 2: Clear as crystal, Majesty. Anyway, we have decided that Jamal caught his fingers in a desk drawer—while falling—and his striking his head against the desk, caused his demise.

MBS: Fine—yes, I had concluded the same, myself. Only, what are we going to say about where the body is?

Asiri: Um—Sir—we hadn’t quite gotten that far.

MBS (sitting at the desk, and steepling his fingers): And when will this happen?

Op 2: Majesty, we will have the entire excuse—um, story—emailed to your secretary tomorrow!

MBS: And why not tonight?

Op 1: Um—um—Majesty, we are trained to assassinate, not rationalize.

(MBS takes a Glock pistol out from under his robes, and shoots Op 1 in the head. Op 1 falls without a sound. The others recoil in fear.)

MBS: I will say it one more time: why not tonight? And please, do not ask me to repeat myself.

Op 2: You will have it, Majesty! An entire report of the Incident, typed out, bound, and delivered to your desk in the palace.

MBS: Good. See that you do. (He sweeps out, grandly, followed by a smallish entourage—as many as could fit into the room.)

Asiri: (pointing to Op 1, body): Get that—that—thing out of here.

(Op 2 and Op 3 carry the corpse out. Asiri sighs.)

And now, if the World will forgive us, that is exactly what happened to Jamal! Only in pieces, I mean. It’s going to be a long night....

Vayeira: Abimelech, Sarah, and Abraham: The Dream of God

King Abimelech, Sarah, and Abraham
(Genesis 20)

by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

            Greetings, Stranger! You may approach my throne, and touch the tip of my scepter. Why? Why, to show that I am your liege lord and ruler, for as long as you visit my kingdom, that of Philistia, in this, my capital city of Gerar. Yes, I know that my capital is not very large—just my mud-brick hut—I mean, palace—a bit of defensive rampart-wall, and some lesser huts for my followers and warriors. We have also, a number of sheep, goats, and cattle, of which we are very proud. Gerar is not large, but we will persist: indeed, thousands of years hence, it will be excavated and noted as the Wadi al-Jerdr, in the Valley of Nahal Gerar. It was not strategically sound to build a settlement in a valley—defensive tactics would require us to build on the high ground. One never knows when those pesky Egyptians might come to attack us, again, as they did under Pharaoh Ramesses III. Still, live and let live, say I....
            What’s that? Oh, you are curious as to my encounter with that—Hebrew, he calls himself? Abraham? Yes, I recall meeting him and his beauteous wife, Sarah. This, despite scholars of later years claiming that our meeting would have been a chronological impossibility—my people did not arrive in this land from the sea (for we are a seafaring folk, and farming did not come naturally to us) until 1131 BCE, and your Abraham and his mini-tribe flourished in 1921 BCE. Your Torah-book of Genesis plays fast-and-loose with historical dates, does it not? Hey?
            Oh, the story—well, can you blame me for falling love with Sarah? My own wife, Baalimah, was a termagant; I married her only to seal the covenant with her father, Amraphel, king of Moab. He was mighty and numerous; we Philistines, alas, were few. But what a bruising did Baalimah give me on our wedding night! She was so impossible to live with, that I sought refuge in my palace, sleeping right here on my royal throne which, truth to tell, is not very comfortable. That bullying wife of mine took over our entire house!
            I resolved to die a bachelor. Still, a man grows lonely for female companionship, and when Sheikh Abraham arrived in town with his family and cattle—so many cattle!—he told me that Sarah was his sister. I was too entranced with her modesty and flashing eyes to fully comprehend; I was smitten, can you blame me? Abraham also hinted at establishing a future alliance between his tribe and mine. He reminded me of his military prowess during the War of the Seven Kings (We hear everything that goes on in the neighborhood), when he rescued that hapless nephew of his, Lot. It all sounded very promising.
            “I would be highly interested in marrying your sister Sarah, Lord Abraham,” I ventured. It was a win-win, as far as I and my people were concerned; a tribal alliance, along with my gaining a fresh wife (barring Baalimah, that scold and albatross of mine) of passing beauty. Sarah fluttered her eyelashes at me from behind her veil, and Abraham smiled through his beard, that wily desert fox!
            The wedding-feast was magnificent—my royal cooks and bakers outdid themselves, truly—and I gently ushered my new bride, Sarah, into our bridal chamber, built specially for the occasion by my most talented contractors. One was the great-great-grandson of a craftsman who had assisted Noah—I spared no expense, I can tell you! I climbed into the bridal bed, but was immediately smitten by an overwhelming fatigue—probably all the barley-beer and honey-mead I had drunk, more than I should have. I tucked my new wifey in, and myself fell into bed, snoring away.
            Gradually, I fell deeper and deeper into my slumbers—to sleep, perchance to dream, as my retainer, Shakes-club likes to say—and did, indeed, dream—of the Hebrew God, can you imagine? Thereafter followed the strangest dialogue I have ever had, whether in heaven or upon the earth:
            “See here, Abimelech,” the Voice of the Hebrew God said, “you will surely die, for you have taken to wife and to bed another man’s wife.”
            “Not so, Hebrew Lord God,” I answered—a great deal more coherent in my dreams than in my drunkenness, I can tell you! “for the man Abraham told me that she was his sister, and why was I not to believe him, Your servant? And furthermore, will you slay the innocent with the guilty? Indeed, I and my people are truly righteous, for I have not approached her; no, not at all.”
            The Hebrew God appeared to be thinking, at that point: “Hmm—you are right, Abimelech,” he said, and I inwardly rejoiced; He was not going to destroy my people and me—especially me—after all. “For I know that you have a simple heart (Now, that stung), and did this deed in all simplicity.”
            “I thank you, Hebrew Lord,” I said, humbly (at least, in my dream; in my heart, I was angry at Abraham, truly livid, and already thinking of revenge on him for fooling me).
            “Nonetheless,” returned the Hebrew God, “lay not a hand upon this man, for he is a prophet, no mistake, and will pray on your behalf to spare your life, on the off chance that I change My mind, which I am known to do.” I gulped. “You certainly do not want your tribe and you to be destroyed by Me, hmm?”
            I bowed my head, wishing the dream over, and so it was.
            The next morning, I gathered my servants and my household guard, and told them of Abraham, Sarah, and the Dream—a great deal of which they knew about already, for several of them had had the identical dream, edited to include their names in place of mine.
            “Summon Abraham immediately!” I ordered, and had a side-chair placed for Lady Sarah, whom I now knew to be Abraham’s wife, not sister. The guards went and fetched him, but, on my express orders, did him no harm; I was well cognizant of his God’s warning. True; but I did give him a tongue-lashing:
            “How dare you pass this winsome creature off as your sister?” I raged, while Abraham stood, proud, smug, and impassive—the Hebrew certainly knew himself to be his God’s favorite, and feared no man, least of all me—“And now, I demand an explanation?”
            Wily Abraham stated, “It is true that she is my sister, for my father bore her, but not my mother, and the laws against incest do not yet apply, until the future time of the Torah of Moses.”
            “Hmph!” I snorted, but had to accept his explanation; after all, his God’s might and power were behind him.
 “Boys,” I commanded my soldiers and servants, “Gather a nice flock of cattle, add male- and female-servants, and present them to this fellow.”
            My men were aghast. “But, Majesty,” they protested, “This fellow did you a bad turn—why are you gifting him with such largesse?”
            “Never mind,” I said, “just fetch the goats and the people, and escort this—this—four-flusher out of town.”
            Abraham smiled through his beard and turned on his heel to leave, without even a by-your-leave from me, a king. I called to his back, “Lord Abraham! I curse you, for committing the sins of pride and deception. May there be eternal war between your Hebrew tribe and that of my people, Philistia; for we will forever dwell on the Canaanite seacoast, and you will hear from us again. We will come, bearing not cattle, but war, eternal war.”
            And the Hebrew God blessed us with children, if not prosperity....

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Dirge for Jamal Khashoggi

Dirge for Jamal Khashoggi

By David Hartley Mark

                  I believe that, by next week
                  I will be forgotten.
                  What’s another dead Arab
                  Amid hate and suspicion?

                  I was not thinking that
                  As MBS’s goons
                  Beat and tortured me,
                  Careful to sever my fingers
                  Which I used to write the Truth
                  Before cutting my head
                  (The one that thought independently)
                  From my body.

                  So my wedding plans
                  Became a funeral,
                  And my fiancĂ©e
                  Is left alone and bereft.

                  It was clearly murder,
                  Murder most foul
                  Carried out by my countrymen
                  Condoned by my Government
                  Which hated my writings
                  And was jealous of my freedom

                  Spin doctors, spin away!
                  Let the Blob in the White House
                  Wave his hands and lie:
                  It is true I was a writer of freedom,
                  Killed for my writings,
                  Dead for being
                  An independent thinker;
                  Living in Virginia,
                  The Cradle of (most) Americans’

                  My spirit will hover
                  Over the pig-palace in Riyadh,
                  The White House of the fool
                  Who lies, lies, lies
                  (Aided by Jared the Brainless),
                  And the Capitol, stuffed
                  With silent Republicans.

                  No Republic will bloom
                  From the dust of my bosom:
                  No Arab Spring
                  Will come to fruition:


                  My gory remains
                  Will lie under the sand

                  Of the country I thought
                  Might be free someday.

                  Instead, it killed me
                  Dismembering for oil.

                  No justice to be meted out,
                  No investigation:
                  My death had some meaning,
                  But it doesn’t matter;
                  The World will forget it
                  And spin on.

Monday, October 15, 2018

A Cup of Bad Coffee: New Jewish Supernatural Fiction

A Cup of Bad Coffee: New Jewish Supernatural Fiction

By David Hartley Mark

          I don’t get into the City much anymore. My parents are both gone, and there’s no one left to visit. I teach in Jersey, at a small private college called Briarly-Mickelson, and it takes all I can do to keep teaching, grade papers, write articles, and suck up to the right officials in a quest to get tenure. A few hundred out-of-work or under-employed adjunct English teachers would love my job, and I am always watching my back. In the course of all this tension, I’ve developed a caffeine habit which continually sends me to Dunkin or Starbucks, looking for that next coffee fix. 
          The other day, I was in my college office, preparing yet another article—this one on “Hebraic Elements in Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost,’” even though I knew no academic journal would touch it; part of the research was spurious—I was claiming that John Milton, that self-centered Puritan poet, knew more Hebrew than he actually did, a theory that went out of fashion in the 1920s. Still, as an ABD, I felt I had to keep hammering and hammering away at the topic.
          Partway through the article—I had reached the part where I was attempting to link Satan’s War in Heaven with the character in Exodus, of Pharaoh at the Splitting of the Sea of Reeds—I sat back, exhausted and disheartened, and rubbed my eyes, trying to get rid of the throbbing in my skull—a sure sign of a caffeine-induced headache. Suddenly, I just got up, leaving the computer on and both Satan and Pharaoh hanging fire. I put on my trench coat—it was a Jersey autumn, and the winds were blowing hard and cold outside—and went to my car in the parking lot, leaving my article just sitting there, and my jump drive hanging forlornly in the USB port of the computer. I had to get away.
          As soon as I felt the rungs of the George Washington Bridge under my old VW Passat’s tires, I began to feel better. I even opened the sunroof—it opened with a crank—and inhaled some chill New York City air. I didn’t even think about where I was going, until I hit the East River Drive and began to head downtown. I decided to go to the Garden Cafeteria: I needed a fix from my Old Neighborhood.
          I parked near the Seward Park Library, which I had read from wall to wall growing up, coaxing the shriveled old-lady Protestant librarians to let a poor Jewish yeshiva boy take out “just one more book.” Going across the street, a driver—he looked Asian—even slowed down and waved me across, letting a mere pedestrian hustle past his van, which said SHIN SENG NOODLE CO. I dodged around an old hydrant, and it stood before me: the Cafeteria.
          I pushed open the ancient door, which opened with a whoosh. Taking a ticket from the thin old man in a worn, grey cardigan, sitting on a three-legged stool, I headed for the steam tables. I remembered Heshy Mortkowitz, who had stood at attention day after day, ladle in hand, ready to scoop up the vegetarian goodies—stuffed cabbage, kasha varnishkas, protose steak, whatever you wanted. Heshy was long gone, and his place was taken by a tall young African-American teenager, sweat gleaming on his forehead beneath his white paper cap, and wielding the ladle expertly. I got a cup of coffee, light, three sugars, and a slice of the Garden’s famous apple strudel, though the Danish looked tempting. And I took a seat in the corner, the better to watch my fellow diners.
          There they were: the Hebrew philosophers, the Workmen’s Circle crowd, and a few Yiddish theatre types declaiming speeches from Hamlet or King Lear to each other, in Yiddish. Also a sprinkling of Chasidim, here and there. I sat back and sipped slowly—the coffee was “eh,” as everyone knew, but it was worth it, to savor the atmosphere of the Garden. I saw the old mural of Orchard Street that some poor, itinerant painter had done back in the 1930s, to pay his considerable meal tab. It was fading, but the characters in it were still visible: pushcarts, women bargaining, the pickleman, the bialy baker—it was all coming back. I sat back on the rickety wooden chair, and closed my eyes, head pounding lightly. No John Milton here; no Satan, no—
          “Hey, Schuster!” came a raspy voice, “’Vus machst ah Yid?’—How is a Jew doing?”
          My eyes snapped open, and I looked unwelcomingly at the face of Billy Lebenthal, with whom I had attended Hirsch Yeshiva High School, and, afterwards, Yeshiva College, ‘way back in the Seventies, so many years before. In school, he had somehow attached himself to me—behind his back, I called him “The Human Limpet.” He was shy to the point of self-negation, though a fine Talmud student. I knew he had gotten a NYC Board of Education Teacher’s License in English, and was teaching inner-city students at Peter Minuit Middle School, which was over on Canal Street.
          I did not envy him. Upon graduating, my parents had tried to urge me into teaching in the Board of Ed—“You can’t go wrong, working for the City; the City’ll never run out of money,” my Old Man had said—but I had resisted, and was now teaching college English for a pittance, with no promise of tenure, and totally unpublished—
          “So, Teddy, howyadoon?” asked Billy, pulling out the remaining chair, and seating himself without even asking me, “What brings you into the City? Don’t you have some high-powered job chairing the English Department at that college in Jersey—whatsisname?”
          “It’s called Briarly-Mickelson,” I said, trying to be patient, even when part of me wanted just to get up and walk away, “and I’m not the department chair. I’m just a professor.”
          “Oh, I see I was mistaken,” said Billy, in his shy, quiet, Mr. Peepers voice.
          “Well, it’s been nice seeing you,” I said, hoping to get rid of him. Through the steamy window glass, I could see night coming on over East Broadway—the days were certainly growing shorter. But Lebenthal made no move to get up or leave.
          “I’ll see you the next time I’m down here—“ I ventured, but he still didn’t take the hint. Instead, he sat down, uninvited, pulled out a crumpled pack of Winstons, offered me one—I declined—and lit up. Blowing out a huge cloud of smoke—it hit my lungs and made me cough, but he paid no attention—Billy said, “Did I ever tell you about that girl—that girl that I met, when you and I were chairing the Literary Magazine, back during senior year in Hirsch?”
          “I really don’t remember,” I said, thinking back to those fear-ridden days of wondering whether I would graduate, if Dr. Liss would pass me in College Calculus.
          “That’s too bad,” said Lebenthal, “Wanna hear a story?”
          I sighed: maybe that would get this guy away from me.
          “Sure,” I said, and sipped my coffee, which had gone cold. Still, that little caffeine hit was enough to drive off the initial twinge of a migraine. And I was in no hurry to hit the rush-hour traffic, going up the East River Drive.
          “See, the whole thing was, the Hirsch Student Council had given us just one hundred dollars to put out a poetry magazine,” said Lebenthal. “I met this girl—her name was Rebecca, Rebecca Shadenberg. She was the chair of the Ludomir Women’s College’s literary magazine. We called and set up a meeting. It turned out that their Student Council had given them two hundred dollars. By “marrying” the two magazines, we had a good chance of putting out a quality publication.”
          “Oh, yeah,” I said, “Now I remember.”
          “Well, this Rebecca girl was really—really, very pretty,” said Lebenthal, licking his lips. “It turns out that she was a convert to Orthodoxy, which didn’t matter to me—I wasn’t going to marry her, after all; my dad was really strict, and he would never accept a convert, even if the Ludomir rabbis would, and did. But I started to see her, on the sly.”
          I sat up: this was getting interesting. “What did you do with her, Billy?” I asked.
          “Nothing much—museums, the Cloisters, Central Park, and a couple of movies—they were only 99-cent cheapies, anyway,” said Billy. “One summer Sunday, I took her to Coney Island Beach on the F train. She was very fair-skinned, and lay in the sun without any Coppertone. When I took her home to meet my mother—that was safe; my mother was OK with her, and my dad was doing bookkeeping at the string factory. Poor Rebecca was in serious pain—first-degree burns all over her shoulders. My mother gave her an oatmeal bath.”
          “Did you help?” I teased. He didn’t get the joke, and shook his head vigorously.
          “Hey, I’m a yeshiva bochur,” he said, “I don’t go in for any of that funny stuff. Until that—that—“
          “That what, Billy?” I pressed. I really could have used another cup of coffee, but didn’t want to interrupt the narrative.
          “Until her birthday party,” said Billy, blushing furiously and looking down at the table.
          “What happened there?” I asked.
          “First, I have to tell you what happened in the movies,” said Billy, “it was just a little thing, but it was strange.”
          “What happened?” I asked.
          “It was Halloween,” said Billy, looking guilty, “so I took Rebecca—I was calling her Becky, or Rivkaleh, by then—to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Neither of us had seen it before, and we were very surprised to see how the other people in the audience were dressed up in weird costumes, and kept calling out the different lines of the movie. After a while, we got used to it, but I have to admit there were parts that made me jump. There was this one scene where a character jumped out of a closet—“ He shuddered.
          “So what happened then?” I asked.
          “Well, we were holding hands,” said Billy, whispering—
Touching a strange woman—that is, one to whom you are not married—was forbidden by Jewish Law, I thought; Billy should have remembered that.
“And, while I was holding her hand, there was another scary part of the movie. She squeezed my hand—so tightly, that I thought she would cut off my circulation. Besides, it felt like a thousand needles were running through my hand—it felt like claws! I tried to let go, but she wouldn’t take her hand away. When I finally managed to grab it away, I saw that it was all red and blue and swollen—What had she done to me?—The girl turned to me in the halflight, and gave me a strange smile and then, she licked her lips, slowly, like a—a—snake, or a lizard. It was scary, Teddy. I had to turn away.”
          “Did you break up after that?” I asked, “She sounds like a weirdo chick, for sure.”
          He shook his head. “She was beautiful,” he said, “and smart, and I talked to her for hours and hours on the phone. She had long blonde hair down to—to—and pale skin, almost translucent. Dark eyes, a little bit slanted, like a pixie’s. God. The most gorgeous girl I ever saw.”
“What happened next?” I asked. This was definitely getting interesting.
Next, she invited me to her apartment, up there in Benedict Arnold Heights, very close to Hirsch, for a birthday party. It seems that she had been dating a guy named Moishey Satanovsky, and had slept over at his apartment, here and there. They weren’t dating any more—she said that they were just friends, but he let her use the apartment once in a while.”
          “Sounds good—very good, Billy,” I said, smiling, and rooting through my pants pockets, looking for a mint to fight the coffee breath.
          He looked at me suspiciously. “Listen, Schuster,” he said, “I had absolutely, positively, no designs on that girl. I just figured, ‘Hey. It’s a party. Sit there, listen to some music, excuse yourself if she pulls the claw thing again, and go back to the Hirsch Dorm.’”
          “True enough,” I said, “but did things turn out differently?”
          He nodded soberly. “She was—was—a different kind of girl,” he said, “sure, she had converted Orthodox, but—“
          “But what?” I pressed.
          “Let me tell you,” Billy said, “I got to her apartment at eight o’clock, just like she said. She opened the door, all dressed in black, for some reason. I came in—I had bought flowers from the old Vietnamese woman who stood in front of the Potok Dorm. Just a dollar, and they were almost fresh.”
          “I have bought them myself, once in a while, when necessary,” I laughed.
          Billy didn’t laugh. “I gave her the flowers, she sniffed them, and the weirdest thing happened—the petals began falling all over the floor—those flowers must not have been fresh, not fresh at all. We chatted a little, and I suddenly realized that I was the only guest there.”
          “Good for you, Boss,” I said, popping a linty Wintergreen Life Saver into my mouth.
          “Maybe for you, it would’ve been,” said Billy, looking somber and serious, “but I took my role—job—calling—seriously, as a yeshiva bochur.”
          “Which meant?” I asked.
          “It meant, no fooling around, outside the confines of marriage,” said Billy, firmly.
          “Rav Pessin would have been proud,” I said, remembering the old Mashgiach Ruchani, the school Spiritual Adviser who used to come into Rabbi Magid’s classes after recess, to give us a mussar shmuess, or talk on morality. The only problem was that the Rav spoke in Yiddish, which most of us didn’t understand. I would sit there and stare at his long, flowing beard, which wiggled when he spoke, and his hands—he had enormous hands, like a farmer’s, though he had never lifted anything more challenging than a Talmud, all of his life. What’s the point of a speech that you don’t understand? Rav Magid tried to give us a synopsis, after, but it wasn’t the same….
          “We sat down on the couch—it smelled strange—sage, or some other kinda pungent plant,” said Billy, “and she reached out for my hand. Remembering the movie thing, I pulled back.
          “She made a face, and said, ‘What did I invite you for, Zev ben Chaim Lebenthal?’ She asked, using my Hebrew name—I’m named after a great-grandfather who died in the Holocaust. I take my name very seriously, and asked her not to use it. Kol nashim—the voice of a woman, and all that.
          “She scowled, but moved closer. I—I didn’t exactly respond. She sighed and started fiddling in her bag—it was a knit thing, I remember; she knitted a lot; she was very creative. Sometimes I would tease her, and call her Madame DeFarge. You know, that woman who knitted in the shadow of the Guillotine in Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities—“
          “I know,” I said.
          “—And she was fishing around in the bag, and came up with a joint,” Billy said.
          “Now, we’re getting interesting,” I said, looking into my coffee cup, which was empty, and cracked slightly on the bottom, “So what did you do?”
          “Well, I had only smoked once before, with my roommate Shimmy Farkas, on the roof of the dorm,” said Billy, “but the stuff wasn’t very good; I only got a sore throat. This was better—“
          “Better how?” I asked. The pounding was starting to begin, again.
          “We were passing it back-and-forth,” he said, “and she was showing me how to toke it. We were taking deep, deep lungfuls, and I didn’t cough at all. It was really smooth.”
          “Smooth,” I repeated.
          “I started feeling a little—not dizzy, but, but—“
          “High?” I asked.
          “Yeah—yes. And she started, um, I guess, coming on to me.”
          “Do tell,” I said, grinning, “What happened next?”
          “Well—well, she wasn’t behaving like a proper yiddishe maidel, a nice Jewish girl, anymore. She was pulling at my clothes, biting my neck, and making little animal noises….”
          “What sort of little animal?” I asked.
          Lebenthal gave me a look. “Look, Teddy, I’m not going to go on, if you’re not going to be serious.”
          “Serious?” I gave a snort, “Serious? This girl is all over you, you sorry virgin, and you’re telling me serious?”
          I sat back: the noises in the Cafeteria were increasing, with the dinner trade coming in.
          Lebenthal looked hurt. “Well, anyways, we wound up in Moishey’s bed. The sheets were sort of clean.”
          “Sort of,” I said, still grinning, “and then, what?”
          “Well, we did it,” he said, not happily.
          “Congratulations to my friend who is no longer a virgin!” I said, so loudly that two elderly women sharing a prune Danish and a baked apple turned around.
          “Sha! Sha, Teddy—you’re embarrassing me,” said Billy.
          “Nothing to be embarrassed about,” I said, “you have set the bar for the rest of our graduating class. So, there you are in bed—“
          “It was something,” he admitted, “she was all pink and white—“
          “Big boobs?” I asked, “Big Orthodox girl-boobs?”
          He blushed again. “That is none of your business. And she helped me—“
          “—Because, obviously, you needed help,” I said.
          “And we were—rocking, I suppose you would call it, and the bed was squeaking—she told me that Moishey had gotten it used—and I remember that there was an Allman Brothers album, “Allman Joys,” playing on a small record player in the background, repeating itself over and over and over—“
          “Very nice, Old Friend,” I congratulated him.
          His face changed; he looked down, embarrassed again.
          “Not very nice, after a while—“
          “Why, what happened?” I asked.
          “It was like—like—she changed,” he stammered.
          “How so?” I asked. The pounding in my head was receding a bit, but was still there.
          “She was—was—lying underneath me, and I was hugging her, hands on her back—she was nice and soft, but not too fat,” he said.
          “OK, so far, so good,” I urged him on.
          “But then, her back—changed.”
“Changed? Changed how?” I asked, not making a joke of it.
“It got—got—rough-feeling, and it was like little spikes started to spring out of her flesh. I was keeping my eyes shut, but the spikes made it hard to hug her. I tried to pull out, to push her away. Only, only, I couldn’t—she was gripping me, holding on to me—down there.”
          What? This was no joke. “Did you say anything?” I asked.
          He nodded, vigorously. “You bet! I said to her, ‘Becca, Becky, you’re hurting me—let me go!”
          “Her face had changed, too—‘I must hold on to you, Billy-boy! Oh, my little Zevele, Zevele, Zevele—’ She breathed into my ear. I pulled away, again, but she wouldn’t yield me. Her face—her face—“
          “What happened to her face?” I asked.
          “It had turned all black, and her nose—such a cute little nose! had changed to a long and pointy one, like a crow’s beak. Her body wasn’t—wasn’t pink and white, any more. It was stubbly, and black—and she wouldn’t let me go! She kept panting, and making animal noises, and crying out, ‘Oh, my little yeshiva bochur—I must have you! I cannot let you go!”
          He lit another cigarette, and sat quietly. I saw him lean forward, as a tear rolled down his cheek.
          “Oh, come ON, Lebenthal,” I said, “you can’t leave me hanging. What did you do, finally?”
          “Psalms,” he whispered, “I started reciting Psalms, while she was holding me fast—‘O Lord God, you are my shelter and my fortress; free me from the plague, the arrow that flies at noonday’—As soon as she heard what I was saying, she gave a long, loud shriek—I was afraid that the neighbors would hear. But she let me go—I guess that my Psalms did the trick. I didn’t hesitate—while she was writhing on the bed, I grabbed my clothes and ran. I got dressed in the elevator, went back to Potok, and learned Talmud all night, to do teshuva, penance.”
          “Wow!” I said, as he reached out and crushed out his smoke in my coffee dregs, “Did you see her again?”
          He ignored my question. “I did some research, and I decided that she was a demon. I won’t tell anyone else but you, Teddy: please keep my secret. I’m thinking strongly of entering the Hirsch Rabbinic Program, and I don’t want them to reject me because—because of this. She was a succubus, a man-seducer, a man-sucker—I’ve done some reading. She might have been the chief demoness, Agrat bat Mahlat, possibly, or a lesser succubus.”
          “You’re crazy, you know that?” I laughed at him, “It was the grass, Fool! You said yourself that it was the most powerful weed you had ever smoked.”
          The Cafeteria was starting to empty out—and I had to get back to Jersey. Papers to grade.
          Lebenthal held out a hand: “Well, good-bye, Teddy. I wish to God you would believe me, Chaver-Comrade.”
          “Why good-bye?” I asked. Strange: as I touched his fingers, my headache completely disappeared.
          “Just good-bye,” said Billy, “I have to meet someone.”
          “How about, ‘See you around’?” I asked, joking. He said nothing, but shambled towards the door. The elderly patrons parted before him, like a wave, as they carried their vegetarian goodies to the battered formica-topped tables.
          I shrugged, and reached for my old trenchcoat: strange—what were several blonde hairs doing in my pocket? How had they gotten there? Better ask Lebenthal, I thought, and turned to the door—too late.
          Through the steamy glass in front of the Cafeteria, I caught a glimpse of long, golden-blonde hair. Pale, skin translucent as a water-drop—it was Rebecca—or was it Mahlat?—her arm in Billy Lebenthal’s, walking up East Broadway toward the subway, in a swirl of early winter snow.