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Clean Slate

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Clean Slate
By Elisha Porat
Translated by Alan Sacks


I.

Yes, for me too, that was my first encounter with a real impostor. Of course, I did not believe it at first. I behaved as everyone did. No one wanted to believe that our Yehoshua, Shuka Mashiah, the platoon clerk, was an impostor from so far back that a long-standing dossier of suspicions against him amounted to a thick file. As later became clear, he was no mere impostor but a cruel one. He worked as a junior associate in a small town law office in Gush Dan. His manners were so refined that I could not imagine that he was capable of such despicable acts. But these were professional airs he affected, a magisterial flourish of the hand when signing a document, the aura of a haughty sense of confidence while examining a contract's fine print. These were the clever traps he set at his desk. He was a small man, slightly built, not strong. He was quick to redden at the slightest matter and whined like a woman. "Shuka, come here, girl," the men taunted him. "Shuka, hey, don't go. Be a good girl, Shuka, and bring us something to drink." The jeers thinly veiled the revenge they sought for the man who had betrayed their trust, who had cheated them like faceless clients of his law office, as if they had not cowered together, shoulder to shoulder, night and day, under mind-numbing bombardments. He was called up some days after the war broke out. He was not easy to find, he told us, which was why he joined us late. We could not possibly lose the war, he teased: every position in the platoon had been filled before he arrived. A spot was found for him as assistant to the platoon clerk but he soon took control, ensnaring our apathetic commander in a craftily woven web of compliments and flattery. Why had he not been found at home? Why had he been late arriving at the emergency depot? Pure idiocy, the blockheads in mobilization forgot that he had recently changed addresses. He had moved to a run-down Orthodox neighborhood in Bnei Brak of small, crowded homes forever steaming with heat and dampness in summer and cooking fumes in winter. From their cramped porches bursting with children rose swarms of flying bees and a melody of foreign Hebrew mixed with Yiddish. There was no post office or telephone, nor any conscripts to be rounded up. His call up order skipped from one end of town to the other until he was finally located.

The neighbors watched in surprise as he went down the peeling steps. Still unsure what to make of him, they accompanied him with muttered prayers of mercy. "Yes, go, don't worry. We will pray for your safety without rest. Fear not, my servant, be not afraid, O worm Jacob." And then, quietly, they whispered to him, "The war won't be over so quickly. Some crumbs of the cake will be left even for you."

Bnei Brak is a small town in the Gush Dan region, built long ago on swamp land overrun with brambles. There is nothing behind it but dense groves of oranges. In his dreams, the dark groves were like the patches of children's forests back in Europe. Twice each day, the train to Jerusalem whistled just outside his window. On rainy winter mornings, puddles of water lapped over the sidewalks and doorways into the little houses. He never spoke so much as a word about the family he once had, even on evenings dripping with heart-rending nostalgia. When we sat in the dark, sealed in our bunkers and frozen hilltop outposts, hearts opened and the men recalled events of their former lives buried for years. But Shuka Mashiah did not soften.

Yes, its true, he once had a family. The battalion gossiped about the two small daughters and a wife he had been obliged to place in a hospital. They had scattered to every corner of the land. He had erased them from his life and now, though he was certain they knew he had been called to the northern front, they did not even write him. He really did seem truthful describing the breakup of his family. We secretly inspected his personal mail for some weeks. No word at all came from his kin, only those scented pink and blue letters from the divorced woman in Tiberias whom he deceived free of any guilty pangs of conscience.

He was a junior associate, shuffling papers from one desk to another in the law offices where he was employed. He raced after the attorneys when they called on clients, set out refreshments, served them cups of tea and cleaned up when they left. How easy it is to see him, a foppish smile on his face, taking on extra tasks as he did with the platoon's papers. The work, though not exceptionally demanding, by its nature was humiliating. He makes that a game with them. They move him about like a piece of office furniture. "Fine, but we'll see." He labors like an Arab porter. There is something in the joke that changes the entire picture. Shuka Mashiah, a junior associate in whom their confidence was still reserved, very reserved.

But he laughs at all of us, the soldiers and commanders and lawyers, even his landlord. He grunts with effort. A glow suddenly flickers on his red face deep in heaps of paper. He winks at us watching him with trepidation. Then, in military jargon seasoned with a dash of the hybrid language of Bnei Brak, he says, "We'll see who is really the boss around here." Not all his virtues and charm were revealed when he became our platoon clerk. Still, with Moshe from the motor pool and Franco the driver, I made the effort to travel to the law offices where he worked. It was clear from the earnest descriptions the people in the office provided that they too saw him as a strange bird ill suited to his tasks. But it never crossed their minds either that they were dealing with a skilled con artist.

I learned from them about his movements, his appealing delivery, his clownish games. He would spend hours glued to the telephone, head bent over the receiver, in hushed tones whispering every imaginable term of endearment to women far, far away. The boys once accidentally overheard a call. It seems he was engrossed in pledging marriage to a nubile secretary he knew in another office. What didn't he promise her? What words didn't he speak? He boasted that there was nothing he couldn't do for her, even going AWOL and deserting the trenches. The way he coaxed her, he was nearly kneeling before the telephone. They were not exaggerating in the least. I confirmed their accounts and even added to them. What I could not forget were the long telephone conversations with his betrothed, the beautiful, innocent divorcee in Tiberias.

"My little darling, sugar, listen to me. Listen to me for a minute. You just don't know what you're saying. You're such a simple innocent, they'll eat you up. Listen to me, I know my way around this sort of business. It's not just because I'm an experienced lawyer. I work magic over the clients. They simply can't resist me. You'll see." The men were utterly bewildered by this flood of sweet talk. Not once could we determine the subject of his conversations with the naive little darling. Lots for sale in a Tiberias neighborhood? The battered car he urged her to sell? Money she and her elderly mother kept in a savings account? This swindler, inflicted with the disease of selling lots and buying apartments, cheated his women without a qualm. Like a busy spider, he spun his webs of fine silk. He snared them the way he might drape their bodies in a new dress he had bought just for them. None of the men attributed much importance to his burblings. There was a war out there, and it shook up everything else. Nothing was as solid as it had been before. Men seduced women on the telephone or on long rides to the front or in the dance halls of Tiberias. No evil was apparent yet in any of his actions. How could I guess that Shuka Mashiah - "Fear not, O worm Jacob, go, we will pray for you" - how could I guess that he was a criminal charlatan?


II

I remember one icy morning clear and crystalline as the tang of a glass bell. Shuka Mashiah rose early as usual and flung himself into the snow accumulated in the encampment. He undressed and rubbed his red body with handfuls of packed snow. Where had he learned such alien habits of hygiene? He gargled cheerfully, danced on the snow and inhaled the cold, translucent air. Each morning, he made a short run around the basalt compound. Burning his skin, he leapt over low stone walls and hopped into the armored personnel carrier encrusted with ice. The boys set an ambush for him and waited for the right moment to bring him down. His morning acrobatics disgusted them. When he was done, he would do nothing the rest of the day. He stuck like a leech to the tongue-tied cook, bullying him and shooing him to the coffee on the stove. He pestered the platoon's blasé commander, meddled in our files and fixed the rosters for guard duty and leaves.

When he finished his exercises and dashed home to the glowing hut, the boys blocked him outside the door. He was dragged just as he was, in his long underwear and winter issue undershirt, back into the snow. The daily ceremony of pampering his body enraged the boys. Franco the driver swore to pay him back with a good whipping. "Shukeleh you cuteseleh, I'm begging you, take off that undershirt for just a minute. Come on, let's see that manly body of yours you tend every morning." He groveled before them in the snow, naked, but the boys showed him no mercy. "Shukeleh you cuteseleh, come on, let's see what you have under your long johns." The boys pulled off his underwear and pounded his genitals with fistfuls of crushed snow. He screamed and pleaded and tried to alert the platoon commander. No one heard his cries for help. Sobbing, he turned red to the roots of his thinning hair and tried to kick the boys assaulting him. "Shukeleh you cuteseleh, show us the jewels between your legs."

He growled in the snow. The boys laughed in his face at his threats. "Listen to me, Shuka, listen to a man of experience. Stop annoying us with your ritual of skin creams and ointments, spare us your toupee. You're nothing but a platoon clerk, a lowly paper shuffler, no more. You are not the platoon commander's lieutenant. Nor are you the adjutant. Really, you are nobody. You do not plan the ambushes or decide where the guard posts will be. You can't deny anyone a pass. Make an impression with your papers on the recruits. What a miserable little clerk you are, a worm prettying himself with cosmetics." They planted themselves in a circle over him. He writhed in the snow, his pink flesh sparkling as far as the eye could see in the glass-like clarity of the morning. Finally, they stamped on his body as though he were a bag of trash.

Then the door of the shack slowly opened and the platoon commander stretched his limbs and yawned into the bright sun.

"That's enough, leave Shuka alone I say." The boys walked off, disappearing into the kitchen and the fuel depot and the ammunition dump. Some returned to the bunker to clear the door of snow that had drifted up during the night. Shuka Mashiah smiled at the platoon commander and quickly slipped on his long underwear. "Keeping in shape, eh, Shuka? I've never seen such a health fanatic. I swear, you're as fit and sleek as a cat. How do you manage it? Hurry up, Shuka, after breakfast we have to drive to battalion headquarters. There is plenty of work ahead of us. Come on now, get dressed." The platoon commander walked to the urination wall at the edge and leisurely relieved himself as though he had seen nothing and heard nothing, as though he did not understand what no one could have failed to grasp from the sight before him.

Meanwhile, Franco the driver grabbed Shuka and, out of sight of the others, dragged him away from the shack. "Just a moment," said Franco, "we're not done yet." A brief fist fight broke out, ending with Shuka once again prone and helpless in the snow. The boys rushed back, got him to his feet and helped him into the shack. "Hey, health worm, you heard what the platoon commander said. You have to get going." He was thrown into his bed and cried soundlessly on the soaking sleeping bag until his pale skin regained its unalloyed pink hue. In the motley language he had acquired in Bnei Brak, he muttered oaths of vengeance. It was not long before he made a complete recovery, truly a cat that always lands on its feet. Already, his sharp tongue had the cook serving him at his beck and call and heeding his command to fry up the pancakes at once for the early trip to brigade HQ. By the afternoon, he was seated again in his makeshift office between the tight rows of beds. He stretched out with the telephone, telling his little darling, the beautiful and innocent divorcelah, how pleasant mornings were here in the trenches.

And how quiet everything now was. The cannons did not thunder and fluttering flocks of black jackdaws flew past outside. Their chatter was music to his ears. They roosted by the camp's little garbage dump. "My sweet, did you know that a small, abandoned orchard was left there? Some bare almond trees and a poor poplar. Our cook is excellent and generous to boot. No homemade porridge can warm your heart like the chocolate porridge he cooks on chilly mornings. What is there for you to complain about, sugar? You know there was never a time when life was so kind to us. Oh, as for the price of the lot that cheat of an agent offered you, don't you dare listen to him. That crook, a liar and the son of a liar. He's another of those war parasites taking advantage of unsuspecting women in uniform. No signature, no notice and no documents until its time for a leave. Then together, my darling, together we will go and see about buying the lot."

When the platoon commander and his aides returned that evening from a long reconnaissance tour, the kerosene heaters were already burning, the shack already alight. The skittish motor of the generator raised a racket behind the earthen embankment. Shuka Mashiah, snapping at the cook's heels, drove him into the kitchen. "Hop to it, dinner for the platoon commander. And make sure its hot. And a small serving, too, for these bone-chilled men. You've wasted enough time today. You play cards the whole day long, shoot dice at night, drink against regulations, the works. Don't think we don't see or know it. This platoon's tireless clerk records it all in his files. It's our good fortune that he received first rate preparation in the law office."

Just then, the platoon commander spoke up in a loud voice audible throughout the little post. "Make any good deals today, Shuka? Did you sell cheap flats to half the battalion? Tell us, where do you get it all, eh? You're agent and broker and contractor all in one. Don't you gild the lily just a little, Shuka? No need for caution?" The boys stared at him. All the blows suffered that morning, all the humiliation, everything was blotted out as though it had never happened. He told them with a laugh how his pious neighbors in the cramped house in Bnei Brak had seen him off. But he omitted the whispers, "Fear not, O worm Jacob. Our prayers will protect you. Go, go, don't worry, your share of crumbs from the cake of war will still be there." Nor did he tell them that he could swiftly translate those words into Yiddish. He did not need to tell the boys everything. He had said more than enough that day.


III.

How much more do I remember of that eventful day? Nearly everything that happened. I am slightly uncertain only of the order of events. I remember the exhausting ride from the Golan Heights to Bnei Brak. I remember the tense return in the dark, then the way a vicious quarrel sprang up in our shack. Shuka Mashiah lost all control of his actions. He pointed his Uzi, cocked and ready, at Moshe from the motor pool. Only my own unexpected presence of mind in the crisis prevented a fatal burst. I pounced on him just as we had been drilled in basic training years and years before. I raised the barrel with my left hand towards the pocked metal sheeting on the ceiling of our decrepit shack while with my right, which was still nimble at the time, I pressed hard on the magazine catch and tried to re- tract it. Shuka squeezed the trigger in anger, and the bolt snapped free into the barrel. But the magazine had already ejected onto the sleeping bag and no shots were fired.

Then, and only then, when the magazine clattered to the floor, and each man watching breathed a deep and secret sigh of relief, the platoon's indifferent commander glanced up from the evening newspaper we had bought on the road. "Enough horsing around, boys," he said, "I want you to settle down now. Don't go too far. I know how to blow my stack, too." He lowered his eyes to the page again. I paled. So did Shuka Mashiah on his bed. Moshe from the motor pool bent over him, and the other men backed against the walls, also turned white. Suddenly, I couldn't breathe. Something heavy seemed to strangle me. I threw the empty Uzi at the platoon commander's bed and said, "That's enough for me. I need to get outside for some fresh air."

What I really wanted was for the platoon commander to step in and take charge of the quarrel. Instead, he merely drawled across his newspaper, "You're all just getting too excited. I'll bet any of you that Shuka would not have fired."

I stumbled to the door and down the wooden steps. The frigid air cut through me like a razor blade. A cold, dry night had settled over the hill. A freezing wind roared in from the east, shearing everything in its path. The sky was so clear, and the stars so close, I felt that, if there is such a thing in this world as the smell of stars, I could catch their scent. He should at least get up from the newspaper. He should at least say, "I'm confiscating the Uzi until the inquiry is over." He could have dressed down both of them: "You two, the shooter and the target, I'm putting you both in detention until the end of proceedings. Come on, don't dawdle, hurry over to the battalion stockade." His indifference drove me crazy. A sudden weakness seized me. I reproached myself for interfering in a quarrel that was not my own. On the other hand, it was true that only a split second separated ejection of the magazine from a burst of fire from the cocked Uzi. A shiver rippled through me at the thought of what might have happened after the shooting. I suddenly felt the gnawing urge to smoke a cigarette.

I stood by the shack on the side sheltered from the savage wind. A rime of frost glittered on the flanks of the vehicles and the silvery gas tanks and the glistening roofs. A dark night, yet so bright within. I could easily guess the location of the checkpost by the forest, where the road made its first sharp curve on the way to the quarry. Beyond the road, it was possible to see the outlines of the abandoned orchard, the thin limbs of the bare almond trees and the slender branches of the lone poplar. All this was real. It was no dream. This was truly happening. I stood bundled in layers of wool and cloth against the damp and the cold. The dumbstruck men still sat on the other side of the thin wall. Only after I left did they begin to understand the tragedy we had all escaped. I was wracked by the urge for a smoke.

What was it about Shuka Mashiah that so inflamed Franco the driver and Moshe from the motor pool? What was it that even the petite clerk in the law office bore him a grudge? Was he indeed an inveterate liar or did he merely affect the look of a crook? Did the lust for filthy lucre make his head spin and draw him into shameless, transparent lies? Until then, I had never met a real impostor. Here and there, I had heard stories, but I had never lived with him at close quarters, cheek to jowl, one bed next to the other. Is that how a real impostor looks? As



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