My brother has all the answers, even to the
questions I don’t ask. He says that the human brain contains 100
billion neurons, 900 billion glial cells and 1,000 trillion
receptors. When hit by dumb shrapnel, its contents scatter like a
smashed watermelon. Something to ponder when you study a foreign
language or memorize poetry.
I nod. I’ve been always dumbstruck by such
unfairness. You evolve: you crawl out from the sea, you lose your
scales, you grow fur and then shave it, but in the end a simple
kaboom does you in.
It’s a Sunday. My brother and I share a train
seat in the midst of a large group of Israeli soldiers returning to
their bases from the Sabbath break. We were also soldiers once. Red
Twenty years ago, my brother and I emigrated
from the Soviet Union. He left for
Israel, and I came to
America. We haven’t seen each other
ever since. Until now, of course, and even that was an accident. I
published a book which should have been rejected, and got a pile of
money that was enough for a roundtrip plane ticket and a bus to JFK
Some of the soldiers carry cool automatic
weapons. Others are unarmed. My brother packs a
pestic. It’s the Russian
baby name for a pistol. Some things are allowed to have baby names
even when you are a grown man who has skipped his youth.
Before I left my Upstate New York home for
Israel, my friend Robert told me to
watch out for people with bulging waists. He has never been outside
but he has a nose for danger. A small button of a nose, to be exact.
I told him that bulging waists mean a high-fat diet and lack of
exercise. He laughed and slapped my shoulder. “Oh, naiveté! Or
He also knows Greek. I’m proud of him.
When my brother and I boarded the train, we
noticed two Arab women in long black dresses and white scarves. I
checked their waist lines. They were thin like
tamar, a palm tree from
the Bible. One of them observed me with vacant eyes. I had no idea
what she thought about my waist. I knew it was bulging.
The train heads south. The vegetation turns
sparser and dustier. There hasn’t been any rain since spring. The
air conditioner struggles. The soldiers speak Hebrew and Russian
into their cell phones. Some of them are girls.
My brother says the girls are mostly non-combatants. To say
that I like girls is a self-evident truth. It’s so obvious that it’s
the same as to say that you can’t get suntan on the back side of the
The day before I left for
Israel, my brother phoned me.
“Let’s agree on one thing,” he said. “You won’t
ask me ever again why I chose to live in Israel.
We had enough fights because of that. What is done is done.”
“Let’s,” I said. Now, I will never find out
why. That’s OK.
I find solace in dreams. I often dream of nonsense, such as
running in long strides with a bunch of people who wear passports in
neck pouches, and I have nightmares such as sprawling vistas of
naked women covered by the skulls of flowers.
We are heading for the
Yam HaMeleh, the Dead Sea. I’m the American guest of honor and my brother
is my Israeli host. It’s supposed to be two days of relaxation,
solidarity and brotherhood in a 5-star hotel. Our parents financed
the outing. Our wives remain behind in their respective homes. My
wife said that we don’t have enough money for her plane ticket. In
reality, she can’t get along with my brother’s wife. They are
similar in many ways, and that is one of the roots of the problem.
They are like a lynx and wolf, like a shark and a killer whale, like
a falcon and a raven. No nature magazine has ever claimed that a
shark and a killer whale like to visit each other for tea.
“You’re going to like it,” my brother tells me.
“It’s the land of dreams.”
The soldiers carry giant bags and MP3 players.
Some boys sport beards and long hair. They are reservists. My
brother and I were reservists, too. We had to cut our hair when
called for service.
Half an hour later, the vegetation is nearly
gone. The desert is clay. It’s so hard that the rain cannot
penetrate it and causes flash floods. Low hills are criss-crossed by
narrow wadis, canyons.
Robert told me not to fly an Eastern European
airline. “Three words to describe third world planes: unreliable,
unreliable and unreliable.” He even made a phone call on my behalf
to the Transportation Safety Administration. He reported that they
agreed with him. Actually, the flight on the Hungarian
Malev was nice. Yes, I
was a tall sardine in a short can, but the plane crew tried to make
me feel good. They spoke English with an accent Robert would have
described as funny. I didn’t laugh.
In Be’er Sheva, we board a bus full of Russian
retirees. The road is winding and the driver takes the payments from
the passengers while negotiating the bends and the terms of
The retirees converse loudly about the costs of
the bus tickets and the benefits of Dead Sea water. A
woman who is the height of two peanuts balanced one on top of the
other says the bus is cheaper and the water cures arthritis. A man
with sunken eyes and a neatly trimmed beard claims that the shuttle
is more convenient and that the water cures psoriasis. Their voices
rise and fall. The bus descends below sea level. My ears pop.
We should have taken my brother’s car, but I
insisted on public transportation. First, I wanted to see how an
average Israeli travels. Then I wanted to prove Robert wrong. Not
all bulges are suicide belts.
My brother tells me a story about his neighbor,
Shmulik, an ambulance worker. There was a bomb explosion in my
brother’s city. Many people were hurt. A woman bled profusely.
Shmulik gave her first-aid. He kept saying, “Don’t worry, Shmulik is
here. Shmulik was the best in his class. Shmulik is just
re-certified. Shmulik won’t let you die.” She died anyway. So he
quit his job, moved to Jerusalem, donned a black hat, grew a beard,
and devoted his life to Torah study.
“There is a war going on,” my brother says.
When we arrive at the hotel, I check out the
spacious room, the marble floors, and the well-stocked bathroom.
Yes, five stars, like a General of the Army, the title reserved for
war-time use. I observe myself in the mirror. Still handsome.
I take pictures from the balcony. I have to
clip them to my trip report. It’s so hot that my skin is about to
turn to ashes.
My brother asks me if I snore. I deny it. I ask
if he snores. He denies it. The sign in the bathroom warns against
drinking the tap water. It’s salty. My brother says that somewhere
in the neighborhood there is a salt statue that used to be Lot’s wife. This is something I have always wanted to see.
On the plane, I wrote a long and winding poem about her. It ended
with: “And no one remembers your name.”
When I meet her, we’ll have a discussion about
the future of the Middle East. She
who knows the past, holds the keys to the future. If she has the
pockets or a purse to store them.
We take a shuttle to the beach. It’s narrow,
two seats across, no sides, doors or windows. We take the last row.
A Russian retiree in a white terry cloth robe and tattoos squeezes
next to me. The driver says that he can’t allow three people in two
seats. The retiree says that he doesn’t understand Hebrew. The
driver repeats himself in Russian. The retiree shouts, “Poshel
na hui” at the top of his formidable lungs. It means that he
doesn’t like the driver and wishes him a sexual misfortune. The
driver replies. He wishes that the retiree’s balls get shoved into
his asshole. The retiree curses the driver’s mother’s vagina. His
saliva flies all over but can’t penetrate the hard ground.
My brother and I get up and walk. The sun has
no mercy on us. The sea is covered with floating Russians,
immigrants, and tourists. No woman is topless. On the contrary, a
few of them bathe either in long dresses or burkinis. They must be
natives. In the distance, I see bare mountains. It’s Jordan. The water is warmer than my
body and so salty that it feels oily. My skin tingles.
“It’s like another world,” I say. “A fairy tale
but with a bad ending.”
“You’re a dreamer,” my brother says. “Always
was, always will be.”
He sounds like Robert. I collect salt in a
water bottle. Isn’t this what dreamers do—bring home souvenirs for
their devoted friends?
In the evening, we have a buffet dinner. The
food is plentiful, kosher and salty. I load up on the pickled
herring, hummus, and blintzes.
The next table is occupied by two middle-aged Arab couples.
They and the teenaged Israeli waiters seem to be the only people in
the hall who do not speak Russian.
My brother criticizes my table manners. His own
manners are impeccable. So is his clothing and his Swiss watch.
“That’s the first thing they see, a man’s
watch,” he says.
My watch is at least ten years old. Robert
wears a digital watch from the early eighties. When people look at
us, they see two middle aged dudes. No watch would improve that.
“How about the man’s belt?” I ask. “Do they see
“You’re not listening.”
I wake up in the middle of the night. My
brother snores. I go out to the balcony. It’s still hot, but the air
is dry. Stars larger than life by at least twenty percent hang in
the sky. God told Abraham that his seed will be as numerous as the
stars. I raise my hands toward the heavens. If I wore a beard, I’d
look like a prophet.
On the balcony next to me, a woman smokes. She
wears a short-sleeved linen robe, barely covering her knees, and her
waist is bulging. She stares at me with vacant eyes. Her skin
glistens in the dim light.
I ask, “What is your name?” She doesn’t answer.
I lick my dry lips. It’s a desert, after all. “Do you speak
Russian?” Still no answer.
She must be deaf. She must hate me. She must be
dead. She must be Lot’s wife. I
want to call my brother—he has all the answers—but instead I pull a
small star from the sky, waltz closer across time, and offer it to
her like a rose. And the star explodes in a rainbow of colors, with
the most prevalent of them being blinding white.
Mark Budman's works have appeared or are about
to appear in such magazines as Mississippi Review,
Virginia Quarterly, The London Magazine, Iowa
Review, McSweeney's, Turnrow, Connecticut
Review, the W.W. Norton anthology Flash Fiction Forward,
and elsewhere. He is the publisher of a flash fiction magazine
Vestal Review. His novel My Life at First Try has just
been published by Counterpoint Press to wide critical acclaim. He
co-edited the anthology You Have Time for This from Ooligan
Press; a new anthology is forthcoming in 2009 from Persea Books.