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Payback by Elisha Porat

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Payback

by Elisha Porat

In Memory ofShaya Cohen

A.

At the canteen in El-Arish

In the summer of 1968, I went south with my battalion to take part in a big army exercise in the Sinai Desert. On our arrival that afternoon, I entered the huge canteen that sprouted like an oasis at the El-Arish junction. The mob of soldiers in the hall created a deafening din. Hungry men crowded around small tables overburdened with heaps of food and queues of diners. While I mulled whether to join the long, jostling line or settle for the lunch box my wife had slipped into my pack, I heard voices calling my name. I searched through the crush in the giant hall, wondering which of my long-lost friends had chosen this place, this time, to renew severed ties. My eye alighted on a knot of soldiers smiling at me from their seats at one of the tables. A hand waved hello and invited me to join them. Steering a careful course through the tray-laden men dashing around me, I went towards the group.

"So, how are you? How long has it been since we last saw each other? Ten years? Can it be more?" I shook hands and nodded my head in greeting to men I didn't recognize. Only Yeshayahu Barak I knew at once. Shaya hadn't changed a bit. The same cigarette nervously clamped between the fingers of his left hand, the same dark, drooping mustache that seemed never to have been trimmed, the same fine eyes radiant with light.

"Come down with the others for the big exercise? Let's thank reserve duty for bringing people back together and reviving the past." Shaya shifted his chair, pushed another forward and said, "Come on, take a seat, it'll be years before we meet again. Don't be in such a hurry to get away from me this time."

One of his comrades rose from his chair. "Shaya, for you I'll even give up my seat." "Thanks a lot," Shaya shot back. "You slept on my shoulder the whole stinking ride from Tel Aviv." I took the vacant seat. The bedlam in the huge canteen was forgotten, as though I were sitting with Shaya Barak in the open Sinai under a shady tamarisk tree surrounded by the desert's perfect, silent tranquility.

We had been dear friends ten years earlier. Military service threw us together entirely by chance, but we instantly became inseparable. Yeshayahu Barak took a close interest in those matters that I shielded from others, including him, while I was interested in precisely those things that he didn't trouble to hide. Friendships like these bloom and wither during your years in the army, and you can never guess if they'll stand the test of time, but ours grew stronger through the ups and downs of our military service. We even felt the need to exchange short notes in the first months after our discharge, when each of us was busy finding his way for the first time in the new world of civilian life. Eventually, however, even we grew apart. Now and then, we still dropped each other a line like this: "You schmuck, I came looking for you today, but you weren't in. When can we meet???" Later, even that stopped. The closeness between us slowly became a memory. I missed his coughing and hacking on cold mornings, I pined for his long-range spitting and the Arab curses he growled when truly enraged before seeking silent solace in the smoke of a cigarette. He was an expert at brewing aromatic coffee, which he always served with an instructive story drawn from life before induction and told in his hoarse morning voice. Looking back, I realized that the days we spent in our army tents were numbered from the start and only our youthful naivete had misled us into the expectation that they would last forever.

"So," Shaya needled me, "tell the truth now, how many books have you written?" His question flustered me. Who had given him permission to speak in public of my secret desire to write? If I had yet to write a single line, if no book or newspaper had printed so much as a word of mine, I had whiled away many an idle hour dreaming of being an author. I was in such a daze that my answer was uncharacteristically feeble, lacking my usual wit and humor, as if I had been caught in a blatant lie. "What, you still haven't written a book?" Shaya persisted, apparently unaware of the confu-sion gripping me. "That's strange. I was sure you would have at least 10 books to your name by now."

Suddenly, I felt ill and sweat poured over my body. I feared that my face was turning a shade of red. I'm in the hot, stifling army canteen in El-Arish one afternoon, the air thick with the coarseness of hundreds of milling soldiers, when an old friend suddenly pops up and asks me, straight out, a question so painful I'd never had the courage to put it to myself. It might as well have been a terrible, swift sword slicing my flesh. I had the feeling that he was right; it hurt, but he was right. It wasn't just that I ought to have written 10 books but that I should have become a well-known author, if not to the hundreds of soldiers on their way south for the large exercise in the Sinai, then at least to my comrade Yeshayahu Barak. He was an old friend, we went way back. Was that why he dared foretell what I would write? Didn't he sense the chutzpa in this challenge to my future fortunes?

"No," I answered in a faint voice. "No, I still haven't managed to write even one book." I was so ashamed the instant I replied, and felt so guilty in his sight, that I nearly sprang from my seat onto the table to shout, "Here I am, I'm guilty. The 10 books I haven't written stand against me as so many indictments. I can't deny them. Charge me with them, accuse me of everything if you wish, of indolence and sloth, of addiction to life and neglect of my duty to compose. But for God's sake, do it quietly. Keep your voices down and don't make a scene of my condemnation. You can see for yourselves how hard it is on me to stand in the dock."

We parted as abruptly as we had met. The men of Shaya's battalion were summoned on the loudspeakers to their buses. I accompanied him to the parking lot. Camped far apart, we wouldn't meet during the maneuvers. He called to me through the window of the bus and made me swear that my first book would be written and published by the time we met again. His neglected mustache drooped over his lips and the eternal cigarette burned between his fingers. He brushed the hair from his eyes, smiled at me and waved goodbye with no idea how his words had disturbed me. The convoy of buses set out in the summer afternoon heat. The desert swallowed it in shafts of dust and shimmering light. A few moments later, every-thing settled down and no sign of the column could be seen.

Shaya's comments had brewed in me such a storm that I could think of nothing else. How had he divined what it was that secret-ly never ceased to torment me? The stories with which I had regaled our outfit, the word-pictures I painted at night when we kidded around in our long barracks after a march, the impressions I did of the way our officers spoke, even in our commander's presence, "That all testified with the strength of 100 witnesses that you were born to wield an author's pen," Shaya's words echoed in my ears. "I was sure of that even then, and that's why I never doubted for a moment that you had put 10 books under your belt a long time ago." I can't say just how many years I bore within me Shaya Barak's pointed question. I'm certain, however, that his question, and the kindness and affection that had prompted it, set in motion for me thoughts and actions that ripened into my first composition. His unwavering faith in my talent, his pride in our friendship, his child-like amazement at anything I did, all did something for me that no others, even people far closer to me than he, had done.

B.

At the kibbutz headquarters snack bar

I sat at a table with Yeshayahu Barak at the snack bar in the United Kibbutz Movement headquarters in Tel Aviv. He gnawed at the edges of the mustache. Did his lopsided mustache conceal a birth mark? Did it screen an ugly mole beneath his nose? I remembered clearly how, chewing with his lower l, he lapped up the last of his drinks. He would dip his handlebars into the cup, on purpose it seemed, as though slobbering were a natural part of his drink-ing, wait a few minutes while some drops rolled off the strands of his mustache, and then suck them up one by one. He did this very loudly, breathing hard, as if this slurping gave him a sublime pleasure. It was just like that time, many years before, when I had first observed this strange habit and told him that it was unsightly. Was this show specially for my benefit? Had he dredged up this quirk from years gone by just for me? Did he wish to impress me with a hint of his new inner strength, as if to say, "Even if I am a mid-level functionary in the UKM offices, here I'm still master of my body and soul"?

We met on a boulevard near Kikar Atarim. I was walking arm in arm with Nicole, a young American poet staying at my house for one surprised-filled summer. We had roved through museums to exhaus-tion and returned that afternoon to her rented room. I was jittery and acted on impulse, while she was easy-going by nature. My impatience annoyed her. She hopped into the shower and put on her bathing suit. Then we left for the beach, where she rested her head on my knee and dreamed aloud of her future. The coast was deserted at this season. I tired of her reveries and begged her to get up so we could go back. As enthusiastically as she described for me the life ahead of her, her studies and her writing, I could depict for her my own future veering away from me in an unforeseen direction, her imminent return to the United States, the two of us torn apart, our chance to unite missed. Everything that sparked in her the joy of promise pricked me with the pain of separation. I told her all this, but only in a nutshell, for I didn't want to be infected by her overwrought state. She grumbled that I would make something of my life too, if I burst out of the cage into which I had crawled to let myself feel more and act more freely.

We rose from our nest in the warm sand. She dressed while I brushed off grains that had stuck to the back of her lovely neck. From behind, I gave her a belated hug, but she resisted and slipped out of my hands, as if beholden to the clear command of her body ordering her to sever the rash and empty physical bond between us. We slowly climbed the steps from the beach, walked the length of the new promenade and turned onto the boulevard. And there I heard Shaya calling my name with undisguised elation. Oblivious of Nicole on my arm and the faint halo of soured love encircling us, he pounced on me and insisted that I drop into the UKM offices with him. He had a cubicle there, a sort of office, and the coffee at the snack bar next door was always hot and ready to drink. I introduced him to Nicole. The meeting had caught me off guard. I felt uncomfortable and sensed that Shaya did too. Nicole, however, took a youngster's delight in my friend Shaya. In an instant, all reserve between us melted away and we escorted Nicole to her room.

"Excuse me, Shaya," I said, "I want to see Nicole off by myself."

"Sure," he replied. "Say goodbye. I'll wait for you here."

I faced her in the chilly stairwell. She pushed away my hand, rejecting the lips I offered and my body quivering through and through for hers. I too knew that everything between us was over but, like a little boy who can't stop sucking a candy, so I craved her sweet pleasures and couldn't restrain myself though I knew all too well that I had to stop. Now, when she implored me to leave her alone, and I was obliged to let her ascend the stairs to her apartment on the third floor, I wasn't doing the decent thing. I simply couldn't control my body. Just one more brief caress, another kiss, a final, wet lick of her salty skin.

Our words flew past us. We both knew they were hollow. There would be no more secret calls from secluded phone booths, no more letters invariably concluded with the cute pictures she drew, no more notes scribbled in her distinctive script and pressed into the books she borrowed from me. There would be no more outings in the last light before sunset and no more steamy, breath-stopping clinches in "our" path through the rushes on the bank by the bridge.

I slowly dropped my hand from her back as she turned up the stairs. "Write to me, Nicole," I bade her. "I always look forward to your letters." She promised to correspond, even to send me recordings of her poems. If I didn't understand some of the obscure words in her verse, I could still appreciate the unique way she chanted them. "Now go," I heard her voice at the top of the stairs. "Your friend is waiting for you outside."

I returned to Yeshayahu Barak killing time by the stone wall. He was leaning back, chain smoking just as he had when we were boys in the army. Fine plumes of smoke, streaming through his mustache like twin rivers, converged above his head in a single limpid cloud. "At our age," he intoned gravely, "it doesn't pay to get stuck in these affairs. They end with a lot of heartache."

"These American girls can make anyone's head spin," I an-swered. "Anyway, it's all over between us. Nicole is flying back to the United States tonight." But deep within me, I cherished her promise that we might meet again the following summer, when she had to return to finish some translation projects. Still, our relations had been fundamentally altered. We would never be close again. The most I could hope for was to preserve our good fellow-ship. Please, let it be so. I sighed aloud, took a deep breath, put a cheerful expression on my face and said to Shaya, "Lead on to the snack bar at the UKM offices." As I followed him, I never looked back towards the window of Nicole's room always opened to the sea.

"By the way," said Shaya, "I saw your childrens' stories in the kiddie paper I read to my son. You see, I was right. You were meant to be an author." He reminded me of our chance encounter at the army canteen in El-Arish some years earlier. "Why did you deny everything? You were writing even then, weren't you?" I remember-ed my distress at his pointed questions and the quizzical looks his buddies had cast me, the shame suddenly overtaking me like the flush on an adolescent's cheek and how I had squirmed under their gaze, wanting nothing more than to flee at once to some place far away.

"After the newspaper stories will come the book. Then another and another. Soon you won't be very far from the 10 books we talked about." During the course of this high-spirited chatter full of assurances, he showed me his small room at the UKM head-quarters. "I knew right away you'd become an author. I just knew it from thefirst time we talked. Didn't you feel it?"

"Enough, Shaya," I said. "Whether I'm a writer or not, what counts is that your children enjoyed the stories. As for what the future might bring, I can't say." As we sat at the snack bar, Shaya ordered coffee and sandwich-es, joked with the counterman and shouted out greetings to friends. He suddenly recalled a caper we had pulled years before, when we tricked our commanding officer, ignored his order and set off on an unauthorized leave. "Why don't you write about that? How we switched shirts and papers to fool the military police if we got caught? Remember? What a wild night. We were picked up finally by an army guard, a real stickler, who threw us into his wagon and drove to the MP building. You remember, don't you? But the wagon slowed down at one point. That's when we plucked up our courage, jumped off and got away in the dark streets. We hiked back to camp, singing and laughing all the way until the sun came up. Don't you remember how promising life seemed then?" Shaya asked. "Sometime you'll write about that night, too, right?" I never imagined that Shaya, too, was soon to leave me. Saying goodbye to Nicole was enough for me that day. I hadn't the strength for yet another separation.

C.

At the aid station

I met Yeshayahu Barak for the last time at the divisional reconnaissance battalion's aid station. battalion's physician, needed immediately at the station, quickly came to an agreement with me: if I delivered him speedily but safely, he would exempt me from the evacuation work. He jammed a helmet over his head and made space beside the driver inside the cramped armored compart-ment. Shells exploded along the road. From time to time, streak-ing jets dived in bombing runs on the convoy. After one errant attack, I banged my head on the cab of the old half-track. When I looked up, I saw that,nature's creatures carried on their lives despite the explosions. Frogs hopped madly over the pitted route. Lizards lounged on warm rocks. Meadow saffrons bloomed in a soft, mauve glow. Far to the west, beyond the smoke,and scorched tracts of basalt, sparkled the Sea of Galilee.

The unit medical crew was waiting for us at an abandoned settlement. The doctor, looking for the unit's own physician, jumped up to speak as we approached. "Follow us," the men bellowed before he could open his mouth. "Now, and no ifs, ands or buts." They broke into a gallop across the dry ground, raising clouds of dust in a rush to the aid station. "Sit down, doctor, sit down," I told him, "and let me hold up my end of the bargain." The doctor had gone pale. He looked to his left and his right. "Are you sure we're going in the right direction?" he asked. The hills around us, which all looked the same to him, had totally disoriented him.

Tank fire, thundering close by, occasionally closed off the narrow road. I spurred the aid station driver on. Our evacuation half-track was already locked against the vehicle ahead of us, but I wouldn't let up for even an instant. The driver swiveled his dusty face and I saw in his eyes that he understood what I wanted. We turned towards a hill at the shell-blasted crossroads and immediately arrived at the collection station. The work went quickly. Glad as they were to see reinforcements, the evacuation teams, dragging with fatigue, hoped their replacements would soon arrive.

"Here we are, Doctor," I told the battalion physician. "Our deal is done. I've brought you to the aid station." I climbed out of the half-track and left without a glance at how the staff was getting along. Some wounded soldiers were resting beneath a tent flap lashed to the side of a disabled tank. As I came forward to offer what little help I could, Shaya Barak stood up and called me. I rushed to him in surprise. He had been lightly wounded in the leg and evacuated to the aid station, though he had asked to remain with his squad. He felt fine, just dead tired from the nights of battle. I sat beside him under the tent flap and told him of the deal I had struck with the battalion physician. Encouraged by the smile that brought to his face, I described the bombardment of the field hospital I had endured the day we went up to the Golan Heights. No one knew what was happening, people fled in confusion and panic, a number of operating tents received direct hits. I amused him with an account of trucks loaded with medical supplies maneuvering over the narrow road until it was completely clogged. Immense convoys backed up in two directions while their commanding officers dis-mounted to try to untangle the mess. It was fortunate that the barrage lifted as suddenly as it began, or the scene would have ended in tragedy. Shaya fought back his weariness to tell me about the blocking action his battalion had conducted. A raging fire had threatened to ignite the ammunition column to which he was attached. In desperation, the commanding officer asked for volunteers to drive the trucks through the inferno. The drivers prostrated themselves in a ditch of water, too fearful to raise their heads. Then one young fellow from the battalion staff, in whom you would never have suspected such courage, got up and quietly went from truck to truck, starting the engines and extricating them from the flames. Eventually, the drivers couldn't bear their shame and just as they were, ashen and splattered with mud from the ditch, loped to the trucks and moved them out of danger.

Now it was my turn to tell Shaya how we had arrived at the charred fences of an abandoned farmstead. Turkeys running free from their shattered coops became trapped among the rails. Some birds, skewered on fence prongs, bled white in the distance. We thought of them as flags of surrender left as relics of the battle. In the deserted packing shed rose mountainous crates of tomatoes picked hours before the bombardment. The soldiers from our battal-ion infirmary, who hadn't tasted fresh food for days, attacked the crates and stuffed their mouths with tender tomatoes. They could-n't give a hoot about defensive measures. Afterwards, shrieking like children at play in a wild game, they loaded the boxes, ran to the convoy and emptied the contents, crate after crate, into the passing vehicles.

The wounded men at the aid station were soldiers whom Shaya didn't know from another unit. He was eager to have his leg tended so he could rejoining his comrades, who had carried on the assault without him. Even as we spoke beneath the tent flap, an evacuation vehicle pulled up and Shaya hoisted himself aboard with the rest of the walking wounded.

The doctor, who needed additional medics from the unit, welcomed my request to go with him to the battalion command post. I rode with Shaya Barak as far as the abandoned farm, where I got off at the battalion camp. We said goodbye.

"Don't worry," Shaya assured me, "the war will end, and we'll meet again at the UKM offices snack bar. Don't forget to bring along some young American singer."

But I felt that nothing, not even the snack bar, could be as it was before the war. I thought of my sweetheart Nicole and our farewell that summer. The beach where we had lain was sweet and the sand in which we had buried our limbs so tranquil that it confounded all thought of the coming war. Where was Nicole now, at this very moment? Was she, like all the Jews of the world, glued to her television? Had she tried calling my home to see how I was? Had she kept the promise to send her drawings enclosed in breezy letters? Had the war reminded her of the recordings of her poetry she hadn't yet sent?

I arrived at the battalion command post. While the evacuation vehicle was reorganized, I checked around the tents to find out what was new at the front. Someone mentioned that the armored carrier bringing wounded men to the field hospital from the aban-doned village had been badly hit. I dug my face into my shoulder. "It can't be," I said. "I just left them at the farm." We had already seen worse surprises than that, answered the soldier, a radio man. Anything could happen in this damned war.

I dashed out of the communications tent and wandered among the defense works around the post. I wept into my hands. Before me blew a dry wind redolent with the smells of smoke and dust while a medical column slowly formed up. It was a strange fit of brief, choking sobs. I knew that Yeshayahu Barak would never drink coffee with me at the UKM headquarters snack bar. We wouldn't sit in his little office in which he took such pride, nor reminisce of days gone by. He wouldn't chew his mustache just to annoy me or tease me through swirls of smoke, "So, we're writing, right? Dirtying paper, right? When will you write about your last friend?" Through my tears, I told myself that I would never forget him no matter how much time passed. I wouldn't forget to write about him, even if I had to produce one book more than the 10 he had foretold in his well-meaning jest that summer long ago in the dreadful commotion of the giant army canteen at the El-Arish junction.

© Elisha Porat

Translated by Alan Sacks



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