It was totally accidental that I became friends with Billy Mirsky at all. I had first met his roommate, Phil Krome, during our freshman year at Hirsch College, the stately Orthodox Jewish university in Belvedere Heights in upper Manhattan. Those were the halcyon days for Hirsch, when they had more applicants than they could accommodate; Vietnam was raging, and we boys didn’t want to end up in Danang dodging Viet Cong bullets. It was ironic, in the end, that Billy decided to make aliyah; that is, move to Israel permanently—because Israel’s frequent wars were a lot more dangerous than Vietnam ever could have been.
Still, I get ahead of myself. It was Phil Krome who brought us together; Phil, the devil-may-care ladies’ man from Boston, Mass., whose “pahk the cah” accent couldn’t help but charm the New York Jewish college girls—sirens with long, curly brown-black hair and deep-dark eyes a guy like me could drown in, if he ever got the chance. The problem was, I never did. I had met Phil in English Comp class, and he was, by a simple twist of fate, assigned to be Billy Mirsky’s roommate. Phil was a handsome six-foot-one blond Jewish-Nordic type from Newton, Massachusetts, with a killer smile, who had fallen into Orthodoxy during his senior year in high school. Like everything else he tackled in life, he went into Orthodox Judaism “full-tilt boogie,” as he put it, forcing his quiet, unassuming Reform parents to make their house kosher, and nominally Sabbath observant—at least, when Phil came home to visit.
When Phil wasn’t hitting the books—it was hard for him to make up all the years of not getting a proper Jewish education, with half the day spent studying Torah subjects, and the other half secular—he was taking the subway down to NYU, Columbia, and other girl-hunting grounds, and afterwards coming back to the dorm and bragging about his exploits to Billy and me. Then, we would all go out to Shabtai’s Kosher Pizza and split a mushroom pie three ways, listening to Phil’s advice on how to snag the ladies. I can still remember his “getting her undressed” mantra: “your shirt comes off, then her shirt; your pants, then her pants.” Not that I ever used it, but it did roll off the tongue.
Sometimes he took us along, but we were only the cabooses on the Krome cherchez-les-femmes train. I can remember innumerable times when Phil ran off in pursuit of some tight-sweatered Naomi or Rebekah, leaving Billy and me sitting on some broken-down old vinyl couch in the NYU co-ed dorm lounge, with the sickly-sweet smell of pot in the air, and each of us holding a paper cup half-filled with Black Cat Chianti –chilled and distilled, as we used to say, for fifteen minutes on a subway platform, with Eric Clapton’s tinny voice wailing “Layla” on a crappy stereo. Billy was too thin, and I was too chubby to appeal to the ladies, so, eventually, we stopped going along with Phil on his weekend excursions. We only cramped his style.
And so, while Phil was off downtown, leaving us in Goldfisz Residence Hall, Room 575, Billy and I quietly got acquainted. He was Phil’s exact opposite: a soft-spoken, slightly built (but wiry; I once tried to armwrestle him, and lost) Southerner from Durham, North Carolina, who was majoring in Hebrew Literature. He spent most of his time reading obscure Hebrew novels—deadly-boring stuff by long-dead Zionist Socialists, mainly—and making long lists of nouns and verbs, which he was always asking me to quiz him on.
“This is esoteric stuff, Mirsky,” I would say. “What do you need it for? Professor Malowitz isn’t going to put it on the final.” This was true; indeed, Malowitz, a bony fossil of a tenured Hebrew prof, who smelled like library stacks and chalk dust, had been giving the same final exams for so many years, that Xeroxes of all of his past tests were openly circulating among us students—a fact known to one and all, but blithely ignored by the Hebrew Department, which was hoping only that Malowitz would live to retire, rather than drop dead one day while teaching a class the fine distinction between the active and passive Hebrew sh’va. As though any of us cared, but it was mother’s milk to Malowitz.
“I’m going to make aliyah, Teddy,” Billy would answer in a low but firm voice, squinting at me through his thick glasses, “And I’ll need it for Israel.”
And so I would quiz him, verb after verb, noun after noun: reflexive, ablative, simple, and on and on, until we both got tired and dozed, when Phil would come crashing in, with his million-dollar grin of triumph, and the (imaginary) scalp of yet another downtown Jewish girl on his belt.
“Scuba!” he called out, shocking Billy into grabbing for his glasses—Billy had a strange habit of lying on his back in bed fully dressed in shirt, jeans, belt and shoes, folding his arms like King Tut in his sarcophagus, and falling asleep while wearing his glasses. I had laid my head onto Phil’s desk, and nearly banged it on his bookshelf when he woke me up.
“What are you talking about, Krome?” Billy asked, more used than I was to Phil’s strange habit of assigning sexual nicknames to his weekend conquests.
“Scuba, my good friends,” began Phil, “is my name for this sweet little girl that I met tonight at Columbia. She is a junior….”
“You’re playing with fire, Krome,” I interrupted, now fully awake. “Don’t forget that you’re just a freshman.”
“A tall freshman, Schuster,” said Phil, “Anyway, it doesn’t matter. We danced, we drank, we talked, we found a quiet spot—and then, she went down on me. That’s why I gave her that name. That, plus I understand she went to the Bahamas on last year’s spring break, and went scuba diving. That girl can certainly hold her breath!”
How could we resist? Billy and I laid aside his lists of verbs and nouns, and sat back to hear Phil’s tale of romance—or, at least, sex, which means a lot more when you’re nineteen, and heterosexual, and attending an all-male college, where the testosterone level is strong enough to blow the roof off the place. And so passed freshman year at Hirsch University.
The second year of school was tough for me: I had made Dean’s List the first year, but, halfway through my second, I was floundering, unsure what I should choose as a major. I had moved into the dorms at Hirsch, the better to get away from my parents’ apartment and their stifling rules and curfews, but my roommate, Zelig Hurwitz, was hardly a fun guy—his idea of an all-night orgy was sitting up with the Talmudic tractate on Divorce, and a bottle of Diet-Rite Cola. I would have hung out more with Billy, but he seemed more into his Hebrew word lists than ever before, and he was no longer rooming with Phil. Studying was breaking up our little trio: even Phil was spending more time on campus; having decided on a business major, he was buckling down to his books, and had less time for his nightly jaunts to downtown colleges. He came upon me one day in the Epstein Cafeteria. I was just sitting there, nursing a cardboard cup of that excrescence they called coffee.
“What’s the matter with you, Teddy?” he asked, after I snarled at his greeting.
“Life sucks, Phil,” I said. “I hate my classes, and my grades are in the toilet. I have no clue what I should major in, my parents are getting on my case, and Hirsch is a major bore. This place is a prison. Maybe New York is just one big amusement park to you, but I’ve lived here all of my life, and I’m going out of my mind.”
“What you need to do, Teddy,” said Phil, “is look into doing your junior year in Israel. Imagine: an Israeli university, with no parents to bother you, and loads of Israeli girls all around! That’s what I’m going to do.”
One thing I always knew about Phil: he was a born salesman. As he continued describing school in Israel to me, it seemed more and more like the Promised Land, indeed. Besides, although I had gone to Jewish schools all of my life, my Zionist feeling began and ended on Israeli Independence Day—that is, once a year, during the parade down Fifth Avenue, carrying the blue-and-white Israeli flag, watching the Beth Jacob girls’ Orthodox behinds go wiggle-waggle in their long but tight dark-blue Zionistic skirts. I would just as happily have applied to go to school in Timbuctoo, just to get out of New York and away from my parents. With their permission—I believe that, in retrospect, they were just as happy to be rid of me for a year—I applied to Yemin Orde University, outside of Tel Aviv—Orthodox, but co-ed—a smaller school than Jerusalem U, to which everyone else seemed to be applying, except for Billy and me.
“Yemin Orde is the place for me, too. It’s near a kibbutz that I’m interested in applying for,” he explained.
“What would you do on kibbutz?” I asked, “Are you a farmer?”
“Whatever they want me to do,” he answered, mildly.
My year in Israel was wonderful. I took half the courseload I would have taken had I stayed at Hirsch, and I got to sit next to real, live women in class, unlike the segregated, more right-wing Orthodox atmosphere of Hirsch. Real women, who were worth looking at—even though I didn’t dare date them; the cultural divide was too great. There was, of course, the class on “Twentieth Century American Plays” I took in the spring, where everyone except me came in pregnant—in Israel, you see, young people don’t enter college until they’ve done their three-year army commitment, and a lot of them were eager to get married as soon as they were discharged. Yemin Orde was small enough so that most of us knew one another. The days flew by, and, before I knew it, I was on the El Al plane to go home.
As for Billy—or Zev, as he now called himself—he had applied to Kibbutz She’ar Yashuv (literally, “A Remnant Shall Return”), a new settlement near the Golan Heights, which had a large contingent of Western Jews—Americans, Brits, and a few Australians and South Africans. I had his address and phone number somewhere; we had hugged and promised to write one another, but, after my last few weeks in Israel, had fallen out of touch. Somehow, I didn’t feel the need to call him before I got on the plane to go home to my family—don’t ask me why. Something in my nature makes and casts off friends with little difficulty. Of course, I hoped that everything would go all right for him. Have a nice life, Zev, and all.
Still, I thought about him, again, when war broke out between Israel and Egypt and Syria on Yom Kippur in 1973. It was a great shock to all of us Diaspora Jews: the first war in its history that Israel came closest to losing, which would have meant, of course, a second Holocaust. I knew that Zev, as a young soldier, would be on the front lines in the army. I had no idea what sort of unit he was serving in—tanks? Infantry? Medevac? Air Force? I wondered about him and my other Israeli friends, including my rough-and-tough roommate from the Yemin Orde dorm, Moshe, a red-headed paratrooper who wolfed down avocado sandwiches and watery yogurt from the college cafeteria, took ice-cold showers, and laughed at my attempts to write Hebrew poetry. We American Jews prayed for Israel’s safety, and were amazed and thrilled when General Arik Sharon pulled off a brilliant counterattack that bottled up the entire Egyptian Sixth Army on the Egyptian side of the Suez Canal. Israel won, but it was a near miss. Otherwise, we couldn’t do anything except pray and send money. In the end, it paid off; later, in 1977, Anwar Sadat had the chutzpah to propose making peace with Israel, and Menachem Begin and he signed an accord. Those were heady times. As for me, I had fallen out of touch with Phil. I had heard through the Hirsch alumni grapevine that he had married an Israeli girl, of all people; she was supposedly the daughter of the assistant mayor of Kiryat Or—which meant that his main job was playing shesh-besh—backgammon—with the mayor. But where was Billy?
I was plenty surprised about five years later when I got a letter from him. “Dear Teddy,” it read, “I am in charge of the lool—the chicken coop—on my kibbutz. Have you any idea how many eggs two hundred chickens lay, every day? Not to mention the other stuff they make. I’m also learning how to drive a tractor—that diesel smell is disgusting! My Hebrew is pretty good by now—all those night writing out lists of words really helped, and I thank you for testing me. I think Prof. Malowitz would be proud, too. I’m a newbie, not yet an official member of the kibbutz, but I still get some money from communal funds to visit the U.S. for two weeks. I should be arriving in early June. Can I stay with you for a bit? Regards, Zev Mirsky.”
Of course, he could. By this time, I was living in a ratty apartment in lower Manhattan, and trying to find a job as a visiting lecturer in college English at some community college or other. Besides that, I was working as a substitute teacher in the New York City Board of Education, which was certainly combat duty, but it paid the rent for me and the eight-hundred-odd cockroaches I lived with: forty bucks a day. Still, there was enough room for Billy—I mean, Zev—to bunk down. He was used to roughing it.
On the day Zev was to fly in, I borrowed my brother-in-law’s old, pea-soup-green Dodge Dart and went out to Kennedy to pick him up at the El Al terminal, which was bristling with security—this was the mid-1970’s, and the Black September terrorist gang had recently murdered the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. Some Hebrew-accented guy with an enormous pistol on his hip asked me for ID, and I answered him in Hebrew. He still looked at me suspiciously, and searched the trunk of the car pretty thoroughly, before letting me into the airport parking garage.
Zev and I hugged one another. He looked older, thinner, more angular and worldly-wise, somehow. And yet, when he smiled, he didn’t look any different from the guy I had known in school. Just a little more skeletal: his cheekbones showed out more.
As we drove back to my apartment, Zev lit up a cigarette and flicked the ashes out the car window. From the smell, I could tell it wasn’t an American blend, but one of the Israeli brands. The whole Jewish State was always on edge: Israelis smoked too much, and drank more coffee than was good for them.
“When did you start smoking?” I asked.
“Nasty habit I picked up in the army,” he said, taking a deep drag. “It helps my nerves.”
“I can imagine,” I said, and the rest of the ride was spent in silence.
As I shlepped his khaki duffel bag up the three flights of stairs to my apartment, I asked, huffing and puffing, “What are your plans?”
“I’ll be with you for two nights, if it’s OK,” he replied, “And then I’m going to kind of work my way down the coast, visiting different relatives, until I get home to Durham.”
“OK by me,” I said.
That night, we went to a little Mexican place I knew around the corner, and I sprang for a big pitcher of sangria. Zev ate hungrily, but even after finishing the large vegetarian burrito plate, didn’t seem to put on any weight.
“Don’t they feed you on kibbutz?” I asked.
He only smiled.
Back at my place, I put a record by Arik Einshtein on the turntable: “On Avigdor’s Lawn.”
“Bring back any memories?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, as Arik’s gentle tenor sang, “You and I/ Will change the world/ They said that we couldn’t/ But they were wrong, so wrong….”
“Want a drink?” I asked. My brother-in-law had given me a bottle of Chivas Regal that his boss had gifted him with last Christmas, and I had never touched the stuff. Jews don’t drink; Jews eat. Still, it seemed as though this was a state occasion.
We clicked glasses, and said “Le-chaim”—To life, and tossed it back into our throats, Shabbat-kiddush-style, afterwards coughing. Neither of us were drinkers. As the warm scotch took effect, we leaned back on the pillows of my worn corduroy couch and listened to the music. When the Arik record was done, I put on Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” that we used to listen to in school.
“So, Zev, how have you been doing?” I asked.
He seemed quieter than usual, and he had never been that much of a talker.
“OK, I guess. How about another drink?”
I was surprised, but filled his glass.
“Don’t give me so much. Look at that moon!”
A full moon was rising over the downtown office buildings on Lower Broadway. We sat back and watched it.
“You got moons like that in the Holy Land?” I asked, hoping to prod my silent buddy into some of his old, college days behavior.
“For sure, Schuster,” he smiled, “And we have to defend our right to look at it, every day.”
“I can imagine. What did you do in the war, Zev?”
I heard the clink as he put his glass down on my ancient coffee table.
“In the army, they made me the driver of an Armored Personnel Carrier, an APC,” he said.
I said nothing.
“They call it a Zelda.” He lifted his glass, gazed at the moon through the dark, smoky liquid, and sipped at it, slowly. “We used to call it a Zippo, because if the Syrians hit it with a grenade, or an RPG, it went up, just like—Boom! All that crappy, thin armor, and the gas tanks too close to the surface.”
It was dark; I could barely make out his face.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” he asked.
“It’s OK,” I said, and got him an ashtray, an old copper one in the shape of a map of Israel, a souvenir that I had brought back. He smiled when he saw what it was.
“My best friend in the squad was named Shimon. He rode on top, manning the machine gun. I was the driver. We communicated by helmet radio. They sent us to the Golan.”
Maybe it was the scotch, but he seemed to be choosing his words carefully, making sure that he got the story right. I listened without saying anything. The moon was getting higher and higher in the sky.
“They had made me the driver because I was the littlest guy in the squad, and they figured that I could squeeze down into the compartment better. I was a little worried, because the thing could go up like a torch if it was hit in the fuel line. But Shimon said I shouldn’t worry. He had been through the 1967 Six-Day War, so I trusted him. And we had been through a lot of exercises and drills together. The APC was clumsy, but I thought I could drive it pretty well. Shimon gave me confidence in myself, which was important, because we knew we were supposed to go in first during an attack.”
He pulled on the cigarette; it made a red circle in the dark.
“Shimon knew that Zelda like the back of his hand. He used to call her ‘Zona’—‘whore’—because he said that if the Syrians touched her in the wrong spot, she would get all hot and bothered. Then he would laugh.”
“Was Shimon your commander?” I asked, vaguely remembering an Israeli friend describing his own battle experience in tanks, and where the commander would customarily ride.
With the lamplight behind him, it was hard to see Zev’s face, but I could sense the steel in his voice. He answered me sharply:
“I never wanted to let Shimon down. We were all in it together. He was the lieutenant in charge of my APC squad, but he was a really laid-back guy. All of us Zelda guys wanted to do our best for him. And he was my friend. He used to call me ‘oleh amerikai katan’—the ‘Little American Immigrant.’ And once he heard the other ‘foreigners’ calling me ‘Billy,’ he started calling me that, too. ‘Bee-lee, Bee-lee,’ he would laugh….”
He crushed out the butt of his cigarette, and immediately struck a wooden match from his pocket box and lit another.
“Our Air Force had pretty much bombed the shit out of the Syrians by the later part of the war, and Assad, the Syrian president, was getting scared, because, by this time, Sharon had the Egyptians neutralized at the Canal. So, we figured that our taking back the Golan would be pretty easy, that the Syrians would be retreating back to Damascus, and that we would just be fighting a rear-guard action.”
He paused, and flicked his cigarette onto the copper map of Israel.
“We were wrong.”
He stopped speaking, for a long time. Finally, I whispered, “What happened, Zev?”
He looked out the window at the moon, and said, more quietly than before,
“When we got over the crest of a low hill, a bunch of Syrian soldiers with shoulder-held RPGs started firing at us. Their missiles were wire-guided, so they had plenty of time after they fired to make sure that they hit us. The Zelda in front of mine was hit from two sides and blew up, blocking the road, and we had no place to move. I yanked the control wheel to the left, to try to get around the flaming wreck. Shimon yelled, and I realized that my quick move had caught him off guard and made him lose his balance on the turret ladder. He fell forward, and a Syrian bullet must have caught him in the neck. He fell down into the APC. He was gushing blood from a neck wound. Some of it got on my hands and boots. I couldn’t help him; I had to close the front view ports because of the Syrian machine guns, and was driving blind. It all happened so fast, but to me it was like in slow motion, like in a dream. I still dream about it, a lot. My radioman, Avi, was yelling for air support, but it didn’t come. I can still hear him yelling into the radio, our call number, ‘four:’ ‘Arba arba arba arba! Arba arba arba arba!’ The fighter jets were supposed to come and drop napalm on the Syrian positions. They never came.”
As he drew in deeply on his cigarette, I saw that his hands were trembling. Pink Floyd sang, “Us us us/ And them them them/ And after all/ We’re only ordinary men/ With with with/ Without out out out/ And who knows what/ All the fighting’s all about….” A few long minutes passed.
“I would have liked to help him; I would have done anything for him; what could I do? He was dying—I—I—“
His voice died down to a terrified whisper. Suddenly, he stood, and ran his hands through his hair. Walking to the window, he looked down to the street.
“How high up are we?” he asked.
“Just three floors,” I said. “Going somewhere?”
He shook his head, so hard that his long brown hair flew in all directions, and sat down on the couch, again.
“Let me tell you about my great-grandfather.”
“Your great-grandfather?” I asked, wondering at the sudden change of subject.
“My great-grandfather—we called him ‘Opa’—had moved to Durham, North Carolina, after coming to this country from Bavaria after the First World War, and he had opened a little general store, mostly serving the local farmers. They would come in to town on market day, sell their produce and vegetables, and use the money to buy cloth, sugar, and other stuff—what they used to call “notions”—from him. Sometimes, they would trade what they had with him for what they needed.”
His voice had taken on a wooden quality, as though he was reciting from a history book.
I was puzzled. “What does this have to do with the battle?”
“Let me finish!” his voice rose, slightly annoyed.
“One day, a farmer came to town, ready to sell his tobacco in the market and buy goods from Mirsky’s General Store. Unfortunately, he had miscalculated the date, and found out that he had missed the tobacco auction day. A lot of those back-country farmers were barely literate, anyway; he probably couldn’t read a calendar, even if he had had one. But he had come a long way with his wife and children, and they couldn’t go home empty-handed. So, they went to Opa’s store, only to find it closed, with a sign in the window: ‘Closed for Jewish Holiday, Yom Kippur—Day of Atonement. Will Open After Dark.’”
“What did they do?” I asked.
“After puzzling out the sign, the farmer said to his family, ‘We are going to wait. If these Jewish folks’ holiday means so much to them that they close their store, then we are going to respect them and wait.’ And they did: they waited all day until nightfall, when the holiday ended. But, after Opa broke his fast and came to open the store, and he waited on them, he found that all they had was a wagonload of tobacco leaves, which he couldn’t use. But he couldn’t let the farm folks go without what they needed.
‘Do you have anything else to trade?’ Opa asked.
“The farmer thought. ‘Only this,’ he said. He showed my father a Bowie knife. Now, Opa had no use for it; after all, we Jews don’t hunt, and have no use for a hunting knife. But he didn’t want to insult the farmer, and so took the knife from him in trade.”
“What happened to it?” I asked.
“We used to joke about it. After all, what Jewish family has any use for a huge knife like that? When I was born and the rabbi came to circumcise me, my father pulled it out to show the rabbi, just for a joke. I inherited it from my parents, and just casually packed it with my stuff when I moved to Israel. I figured I might need it on a nature hike, or something. When I went off to war, I strapped it onto my belt—though I wasn’t sure why.”
He held out his glass.
“One more drink,” he said. It was more a command than a request. I poured; he drained it dry, and continued:
“After Shimon was killed, I felt another RPG hit the Zelda, and smelled the stink of burning fuel. I didn’t know how much time I had, but figured it was time for me and Avi, the radioman, to leave the APC or be burned alive. I unstrapped from my seat, dropped my helmet, and squeezed through a back window—it was pretty small, but then, so am I. And fear is a great motivator.”
An ambulance suddenly went by in the street, its siren wailing. We both jumped.
“I dropped to the ground from the Zelda, and ran away, keeping low. When I came to a shell crater, a big hole in the ground, I jumped in, and ducked down. I heard the explosions as the fuel went off. I don’t know what happened to Avi; I hope he got away OK.”
“You were lucky,” I said.
“Very lucky, yes,” he said.
“When were you rescued?” I asked.
He gave me a sharp look.
“As I lay there, I realized that I had a sharp pain in my ankle. I had twisted my leg when I jumped into the hole. It didn’t really hurt all that much: I guess it was the adrenalin rush, or something. I lay low, as a few Syrian soldiers ran by. I heard a boom from the sky, and figured it was one of our jets, strafing. That was when he jumped into the hole, along with me.”
“Who?” I asked.
“One of the Syrians.”
Again, he stubbed out the cigarette, and immediately struck a match to light another.
“He seemed a little dazed—probably from all the concussion bombs that we were dropping over their lines. I was a little in shock, too. We stared at each other for a minute.”
“My God, Zev! What did you do?”
He gazed off into the distance, and his eyes had gotten a dreamlike quality.
“I remember exactly what he looked like. He was a young guy in his twenties, I figure; he had a mustache, and needed a shave. And he smelled—the same, funky, smell of sweat and piss and fear that I had on me. And the two of us just lay there, mostly in shock, not sure exactly what to do. I was breathing very hard.”
“Did he have a gun?” I asked.
“Not that I could see—but then, he moved his hands up, slowly—why? I don’t know; maybe he was going to surrender; maybe he had a pistol under his shirt; maybe it was just a reflex. There we were: two guys in a hole. I had seen those photos that came out in the first days of the war, of the Israeli soldiers who had been taken prisoner by the Syrians.Their hands were tied behind them, and they were shot in the back of the head. I wanted to live, Teddy. I knew one thing. I had to kill this guy, or he was going to kill me.”
He rose suddenly, and stretched, and began to pace the floor. Then, he stopped abruptly, and turned to the wall, not to me, and began speaking, as if he were addressing a classroom of students.
“I know poetry. I memorize poetry. I love Yehuda Amichai. Do you know Yehuda Amichai, Teddy?” His voice was rising, and getting more frantic.
“Yes, Zev, yes, of course, I know him. Don’t you remember, we took a course on him? Rabbi Bernstein taught it—what a goof that guy was! Remember his thermos full of hot tea, and how he would drink it out of a yahrzeit glass?” I said, desperately trying to lighten his mood.
He ignored me. “Amichai wrote a poem; shall I recite it for you? One of my favorites. It goes like this: ‘Half the people in the world/ Love the other half,/ Half the people in the world/ Hate the other half. Must I, because of this half and that half/ Go wandering and changing ceaselessly/ like rain in its cycle/ Must I sleep among rocks/ And not feel my cheek against the cheek of angels?’”
“Sit down, Zev. Take it easy.”
He was crying.
“I took the knife…I took my knife…”
I bent over the couch and moved to hug him. He moved away, pushing at my shoulders.
“Let me finish; I have to finish. The knife was hanging on my belt. I slid it out. It felt long and cold and heavy in my hand. Do you know how long a Bowie knife is? It’s about a foot long, shiny and sharp. Before this guy—this man—this human being could make a move on me, to surrender, or whatever he was planning to do, I pushed the knife into his belly, as far as I could.”
He fell backward on the couch, exhausted, and rubbed his eyes.
“Blood began to bubble out of his mouth. His mouth opened and closed, like a fish. And then, he died. Do you understand? I was happy. I killed him. I lay there, in the hole, thanking God, and my Opa, and that old Carolina farmer with the tobacco.”
“You had to do it, Zev. It was his life, or yours.”
A minute or two passed. Zev stood up again.
“I had to know more about him. I went through his pockets. I found a wallet. It had this photo in it.”
He reached into his shirt pocket, and passed me a folded-over paper. I opened it, to see a stained, color photo of a young woman, olive-complected, chubby, smiling, holding a black-haired toddler.
Zev smiled crookedly.
“I didn’t kill a man; I killed a family.” A sob came from his throat.
I swallowed, hard.
“You had no choice, Zev. It was war. They started it; not us.”
He stood, not responding.
“I’m out of cigarettes.” His voice was flat and dull, almost mechanical. “I saw a shop on the corner. Need anything?”
“No, I’m OK. Wait, I’ll go with you.”
The phone rang, as Zev opened the door. I picked it up.
“Teddy? It’s me, Phil! Actually, I’m Pinchas, now. How’ve you been, man? Long time, no hear! I had a hell of a time tracking you down, man. I finally got ahold of your parents, and they gave me your new number. You remember Meechal, the girl I married, from Kiryat Or? She and I moved to Teaneck, New Jersey, and we’ve got a baby—little Aminadav. We’re gonna move to Israel this summer—“
“Great to hear from you, Phil—wait a minute—there’s someone here you might want to say hello to—hey, Zev! Where’d you go? Phil, can I call you back? Give me your number….”
I jotted it down, hung up the phone, and looked in the hall for Zev, but he had gone downstairs more quickly than I had thought possible—and from three flights up, too.
“Jeez, that Carolina farmboy can sure run fast,” I muttered to myself, running out the door. As I rounded the rail of the first stairway, I heard tires squeal in the street outside, a single scream, and then, silence.
“Zev? Zev? Where are you?” I called down the stairwell. He was gone; disappeared. As I yanked open the squeaky, rusting door to the street, I saw a crowd gathering near a stopped taxicab, parked at a crazy angle. A blue-and-white NYPD cruiser pulled up, its flashers blinking, and a cop got out, hurrying towards the gathering mob of people.
“Move along, folks!” he shouted, “An ambulance will be along in a minute.” I looked back and forth wildly: where was Zev? The mass of people parted for a second, and I saw a thin, crumpled form lying on the ground, arms and legs askew like a broken puppet, a gathering pool of blood around its head.
I elbowed my way through the murmuring crowd, feeling as though I were sleepwalking. There was a voice with an Indian accent saying, “I am just driving along, and he is suddenly running in front of my cab. You have got to be believing me, Mr. Officer. I am not hitting him on purpose—why is he running in front of my cab?” In the circle of light cast by headlights and the unforgiving moon Zev lay, a slight smile upon his face. His lifeless eyes looked upward. Following his gaze, I saw, in the shadow cast by the streetlamp, a single pigeon descend, downward to darkness, on extended wings.