My first draft of a story set in Queens and Israel/Palestine… be kind!
Eli could hear the soft hesitant click of Hess’s ceramic cup with the wooden table as he let it fall a bit out of his hand. While he had never seen it, Eli imagined Hess had a white cup stained with brown from the coffee each Saturday he would pour for himself and not finish during these conversations.
“Hess, the neighbors moved out. You know the ones I told you about. The girls who interrupted our conversation asking for a spatula last month,” Eli looked towards the door just beyond the kitchen and the structured rack of his sneakers organized by color and size. The door led out to the small hallway he had shared with them.
Hess seemed to move the white cup back to the table controlled and more calmly this time. “That’s right, how was the goodbye?” Eli imagined his pale fingers would open, his wrinkled rough hands soft against the table.
“Kind.” Eli said looking toward the CVS bag still half floating on his small table. They had come by quickly as they were moving out their things, their boyfriends still dripping with sweat under their hip dark framed glasses, and insisted he take the menorah. They wrapped it in a CVS bag, as a way to keep it kosher for now they said, gently laughing and smiling goodbye as they closed the door behind them.
“Oh no, two Jewish girls just got away,” Hess laughed, the chair squeaked a bit with a delineated pattern as he moved his frail body with laughter that seemed to be filled with the lightness of eighty years.
Each Saturday for three years, Eli called Hess at 9:15 am. After a night shift at his diner in Midtown and a long subway ride home to Astoria, he clicked on the switch on his hot water boiler with his right hand as he used his left to get the Turkish coffee. Eli used the smallest spoon from his drawer, as a way to proportion the coffee which a soldier from his unit had brought on a visit from Israel last year. At 9:15, he called Hess.
They had never met in person. While he first called him three years ago, Eli first got Hess’ number about five years before that, when his grandmother back in Tel Aviv reminded him to call our cousin Hess, he’s in New Jersey.
Eli waited a few years, holding the number on his fridge until one Yom Kippur on his way home from his shift. The sun was entering the city slowly, a sun that seemed to slow dance on the window panes that traced the subway. He thought of Tel Aviv and remembered that today was Yom Kippur, the day of repentance. When he called, he heard Hess smile, “so is this your repentance?”
Eli had always seen a picture of Hess on his grandmother’s table in Tel Aviv, Hess’ formal and stiff appearance, his elderly body an ocean away from the Jersey beach he had always seen on television. His shoulders relayed the stiff size of his space on his bunk where they had slept five in a bed, he would tell him. His arms the weight of a shovel that would build buildings that would be for work camp, they had told him. His hair thinned by the winds that carried his neighbors. He clearly stood out from the rest of the family, almost like his five years in Birkenau had moved into his bones, readjusted his shoulders and crept into his skin.
Unlike the rest of the family who made it to Israel from Ukraine, Hess had been too old to emigrate with the rest. Hess’ story was a worn and woven piece of cloth the family would keep safely under their pillows, it sometimes seeped out of the bedrooms into the dining room during holidays but it often remained hidden there. Despite ten years away from Israel, Hess found the story amongst the sheets he had brought from his mother’s house years before.
“I couldn’t sleep again” Eli said to Hess, his leg still pulsating with the sounds of the alarm.
“Damn alarms,” Hess said. Perhaps Hess moved his hand back onto the table where it now moved anxiously.
The fire alarms in Eli’s building had been under construction for the last few weeks- and each evening he had been awoken with the sound. He would quickly put on his clothes and run towards the front door, only to see his face in the mirror, determined and fearful.
With each alarm, Eli was brought to the winding roads of Gaza. To the passing face of Houda who passed his check point each morning- and who would tell him about her kids on her side of the fence. In Queens, he would reach into his jeans pockets, expecting to find the small ball of wrappers from the gum he would chew nervously through his weekly post in Gaza. When Houda came he would often accidently let go of the wrappers. Then suddenly the alarm would sound and this meant she would not be allowed back across to her children. Slichah, Sorry. Border closed for the rest of the day.
“This is a month now Hess,” Eli said, knowing between his words Hess heard the checkpoints, the bomb scares, the gunshots, the gum wrappers in his pockets.
When the alarm of the large apartment complex rang, he heard kids laughing on the floor above him. He remembered Houda’s face- she must have seen the wrappers sticking out from his pocket and he hoped she would see his eyes were small and soft.
“What are you doing for Shabbat?” Hess asked.
They both laughed together at this. Eli imagined the coffee from Hess’ hands may have fell a little as he dropped it to the rhythm of his laughter.
“You think because I have a menorah, so then suddenly I keep Shabbat?” Eli said, looking at the CVS bag and the menorah, still sitting on the table.
“Come this week,” he said.
When Eli entered the home, he recognized the order of the plants in the small front yard. They stood in a diagonal and met again in another straight line. There was an order to things here, the stones leading up to the driveway freshly swept of their fall leaves, the house a new and clean yet also sunny blue.
“I’m glad you’re here,” Hess said motioning to the kitchen just behind him. In person Hess’ stiffness moved, and he noticed how his hands moved with an energetic fragility.
His kitchen was like he imagined it except the wooden table was a white linoleum that stuck a bit to his fingers and seemed to sweat with the years of conversation Hess had gathered around the table.
Hess looked at Eli with the same eyes of the photo, except with more eagerness. Eli wanted right there to tell him everything. Houda, the small wrappers in his pocket, the night he walked through Houda’s town, walking in even before their call to prayer.
“Hess, you’re right you’re more handsome in person!” They laughed, and moved their chairs a bit closer together, the squeak of the chairs the same squeak on the phone.
“Don’t flatter me Sof, we’re friends, you have enough admirers,” he said with generosity in his eyes.
Eli’s feet moved a bit to the right, away from Hess. Whenever someone complimented him he moved his foot a little. He thought of the wrappers in his pocket sometimes out onto the sides of the road in Gaza. He wanted to reach into his pockets and spread the wrappers on the table for Hess. Throw them all over the kitchen.
This morning more attacks in Gaza, more Palestinian rockets into southern Israel, more Israeli bombs with made in USA logos destroying entire neighborhoods in Gaza. Eli’s soldiers from his unit that he oversaw had emailed, “here we go again, they don’t seem to have learned from the last.” He was surprised at the directness of their language, as if their new positions as commanders had helped them paint over Houda and her children into a them, and consider that death taught only one lesson.
Sometimes he would blur her face, but often it crept in through his pocket, and followed him to the subways of Queens appearing on the reflections of the glass, screaming into his ears with each false alarm, pulling at the bottom of his t-shirt with each child who passed in front of him through the turnstyle of the subway.
“I don’t deserve any admirers.”
There Eli had put it on the table, and asked Hess to stare at it, to not turn away. Face the screams, the casual way he had led his soldiers into other family’s homes, the casual way he had chosen who to shoot while rocks rained down on his soldiers.
Hess moved his body away from the table a bit, using his light arms to push himself up, leading him to look briefly above them at the ceiling.
“Well, who do you think G-d hates more?” Hess said, with his light laugh, but his words ushered in all the words that had been hibernating in the cord between the phone and the wall.
“I haven’t seen what you have,” Eli responded, he felt the gum wrappers in his pocket.
“Right,” Hess responded.
“I was on the lucky side,” Eli said, his tongue cringing with the word lucky but it also felt so familiar after so many family dinner conversations, Hess’ photo bearing down from its place in the living room, entering and taking up the air of the room. In Israel we are lucky and we must never forget how close we could be to being destroyed.
“Right, you’re lucky,” Hess repeated, repeating the words as if they were never his and would never be.
– Story by Jessie Lanoil
– Photo by Aria Fani