|Apr/May 2012 Nonfiction|
Poetry, Auden once elegized, makes nothing happen: it survives in the valley of its saying where executives would never want to tamper... The world nevertheless being philistine, poets must console themselves writing poems. They may regard themselves by virtue of poetry harmless, although when I recall a short journey to the Holy Land, it seems my innocence offered temptation to some executive or other.
During 1963-1964, the year we lived in Florence, an invitation from the office of Israel's President Shazar arrived out of the blue in May of '64. Booked on the maiden voyage of the S.S. BILU, Haifa-bound out of Civitavecchia, we sailed east for three days on a placid Mediterranean. The sun's easy progress over the world made it seem as if we were fixed in a vast translucence of time. If you imagined Homeric days, you could almost believe you were like his hero wandering over a magical sea far from our confused, tedious, vexing affairs. A sentimental fancy. Ancient mariners hugged the shoreline, whereas we plowed the deep on our first day. On the second morning, for hours we watched Crete gliding past just five miles to the south, an arid hulk whose cliffs, steep, craggy, barren, dropped into the swell much like those of Santa Cruz and Catalina, the Channel Islands of our Southern California. At intervals I scanned its harsh contours through binoculars: not a trace of smoke, not a shepherd's shack or shelter visible. Yet inhabitants must be there, wild herders, wretched descendants of the original troglodytes, crusader Franks or escaped Turkish slaves, among them maybe a ruddy Oxford student or two in shorts, well-booted and lugging his travel-stained rucksack. Yet Crete gave no sign. More sentimental fancies.
In fact there was no need to look out over those seas: an odd lot was collected on the BILU. She was a car ferry with air-conditioned cabins comfortably if plainly furnished with the maple-stained, foam-rubber-padded furniture you'd find in a Nevada motel. Her corridors and public rooms were utilitarian, designed to withstand turismo di masse. By the end of day one we were acquainted with several of her passengers, what with cafeteria-dining that set you down at any formica-topped table, grousing to your neighbor about the stuff they dished out, singed and leathery pot roast garnished with soggy vegetables. After our ten months' sojourn in Italy, such food seemed an insult. Not only was the food cause for complaint, but the busboys and stewards were rude, lounging about, blocking access to the decks, usurping deck games, sauntering, smoking here and there, and stretching out on deckchairs, chattering in Hebrew. One might have thought they were on holiday while the rest of us were brought on board to entertain them. Someone remarked, Every Israeli thinks he's an officer. Another said, This ship will fail. It's a good idea, but with a crew like this it'll fail. To which a third added, I heard they're building another ferry like this one, to have one sailing each way all the time, to which came the gloomy reply, It will fail too. Not even in Mea Shearim can a Hasid fast for three days.
We'd felt sorry for the North African-looking peasants who squatted shabby in corners and guarded burlap sacks from which they extracted bread, onions, cheese, and olives; they reeked of garlic and oil and seemed to know it, for they covered their mouths as one passed, lowering their eyes as though ashamed of their poverty in the presence of "rich folks" who could afford the mess hall. After the first day's travel, it seemed to us a mistake not to have provided ourselves a stock of canned food, dried fruits, and sweets. Cooking, it was said, was the one thing Israelis couldn't do. That seemed true enough.
As the only Americans on board, we thought we were to be limited to that sort of banal chatter with the few who spoke English. In any case, on the first afternoon I joined a poker game in the bar on the top deck that was to run for the duration of our voyage and found a few men with whom to talk. After dinner we met in the ballroom, where the evening was passed drinking and doing the "twist" to the same tunes that blared from jukeboxes in Italy the year past—inevitable given that three-piece group of Italians: Sabato Sera, Non Importa Il Mondo, and that standby, Volare... Beneath the squalling of the microphone and head-splitting cacophony from the electric guitar, we exchanged non sequiturs in polyglot pidgin. As to poker, we played for agorot, three to the penny, offering a pastime no more expensive than reading magazines on the sundeck, so I stayed with it, having done 20,000 noisy Italian kilometers in our VW with our six- and eight-year-olds.
One of the big bettors was a handsome, blond man about my age with typically German looks: long, sun-bleached hair and tanned gold face from which pale blue eyes smiled. His name was Herman Baron, an Israeli with a British Council accent.
Another was a gaunt, gray-skinned, hook-nosed fellow about 50, with that big frame of some Eastern European Jews and a guttural voice that spilled from him in a mishmash of German, Yiddish, and English, half-sentences muttered and scarcely comprehensible. Not that he needed more for poker. His gaze was concentrated on the table's pot as if it held a hundred dollars. And he won a lot of rounds: when he raked in what amounted to two dollars, his poker-face would be softened by a gloat he couldn't conceal: his eyes moistened, the corners of his bitter mouth trembled almost into a smile. Later I realized that his expression was always the same, that his life itself must have been a poker game played for mortal stakes.
Another player was one of the bartenders.
Yet another looked to me like Ludwig Erhard's twin: the short, stubby cigar in an amber holder, his bulk encased in a fine dress shirt with a tight collar tab and a silvery silk tie; spectator shoes; houndstooth-checked gray trousers; round, glistening face; strong, thick fingers. Most of us wore polo shirts, shorts, and sandals, so his formal attire, his speaking only German and looking at us with Teutonic contempt, that fat gold signet ring—it was somewhat disconcerting. I imagined him as a Ruhr industrialist sailing resentfully to Israel to hand out reparations money or sell irrigation pumps and diesels. How mistaken I was. Herman Baron set me straight about him.
The last regular was Henrik Martin, who later turned out a piece of work.
Martin was a thin fellow with sparse, silky, mouse-colored hair. His face was taut, something too old for him, as though his pale skin was stretched tightly over his skull. He had flat, no-colored eyes that bulged when he spoke; a blue vein wormed on his temple almost like an old sabre scar whenever he forced a sentence from between gray, square teeth. He had a way of licking thin lips that seemed to make him grin at some concealed joke of his own. Humorous remarks by others puzzled him. He sported a white ascot held in place by a golden "H." That unsmiling smile, that singsong voice with its sibilant accent, reminded me of Peter Lorre's wheedle. My wife cautioned me not to mistake Martin for a pre-war Warner Brothers' Gestapo character. That wasn't easy because his constant wiping his palms with a balled handkerchief made me uncomfortable. Naturally, we were nice to him. He persisted with awkward questions, which suggested some ulterior motive. After our having knocked about third class through Southern Europe that year following John Kennedy's assassination, an American was accustomed to abrupt, even insinuating questions from people anxious to have our extraordinary ways explained. Yet Martin was dissatisfied no matter what response we offered. His body language hinted a contained malevolence. There are people like Martin who come off at first unlikable yet turn out decent enough, unlike those all-too-many lesser devils who roam through the world tampering on behalf of who knows what supervisory execs. It was however too soon to know much of anything.
Martin at poker bid hesitantly. One might have supposed him poor as the two Yemeni busboys who stood kibbitzing in Arabic at his back. True, those kinky-haired lads were loud, and when he asked them to stop their noise, they stared at him as if to say, Why, we're only discussing your hand, and you can't understand us anyway! Martin hissed—Zeess barbars! Later that night in the ballroom, he began apropos nothing at all to talk about Jews, pronouncing "]ewish" as Julius Streicher himself might have: through locked teeth, sibilant with contempt ... Zsdiuwiss. He said—Zeess are all Zsdiuwiss people here on ziss BILU, ja?
—That man's not, I said, nodding at my presumed ex-Nazi industrialist waltzing by with a plump, redheaded frau, Prussian wolf-eyes slitted with pleasure.
—Of course he is, laughed Herman Baron. With Israelis you don't go by appearances. In fact he's a farmer from Netanya, one of the pioneers from the 1920s. There's a community of early Zionists around there—an exclusive bunch of Germans. They won't speak Hebrew. They were in Palestine before the national language debate: whether we were to adopt for a nation to come German or Hebrew? They still resent Ben-Gurion for pushing Hebrew.
A bit of enlightenment there. Herman continued, pointing out people around the dance floor, telling us who they were and where they came from. He knew something about everyone. When I asked about himself, he said he owned two of the best little restaurants in Israel: Middle Eastern and French cuisine, both in Jaffa. In his line he saw every kind of person, and he was too good a judge of people to take my money in a bet about this or one that. Further, he'd grown up in New York, where he was brought as a child from Frankfurt in '37. He'd been the maitre d' at El Morocco for a couple of years before making aliyah, partly because his wife, a sabra, was homesick after three years' modeling on Seventh Avenue in the rag trade and wanted to open her own couture shop in Tel Aviv, and partly because he'd been offered a setup for a new club of his own on 55th Street.
—I wasn't tempted, he said, even if it was flattering they thought well enough of me to drop a few hundred grand in my lap to open fpr business. You front for the Mob, you're trapped. Free, you'll be never again. Five years time doing maitre d' was enough. No thanks, I told them. Picked up my passport that week. Doping out people's my business. I never let it rust.
Just then the band blared a flourish, the purser scurried out on the dance floor and began pulling numbered wood squares from a sack. The nightly lottery. The Pole sitting with us came to life. Sure enough, he was a winner: with a grunt of triumph he jumped up. They were handing out toys—he'd won a yellow plastic truck. He seemed delighted when I asked him what was so pleasing, and he answered trucking was his business. He ran produce out of Munich. In his strange triple tongue, he talked about his first wagen, a semi, that big and that heavy, drove it ten years—that's what I caught in the rush of words. Then he turned up his sleeve and exhibited the blue numbers on his left forearm, making a muscle to show us the sinewy reward of a decade on the road. Abruptly he launched into lamentation.
—Alle gone, alle totet, alle dead. Buchenwald. You wissen what is Buchenwald? Mayne weibele, und mayne kinderlach. Sibben kinderlach fun mayne. Alle verbrennt, alle! Boined op!
He alone survived to tell his tale. In Munich he had a new family. Whom had he married, out of that whirlwind of fire? He'd found his bride right in Buchenwald, a girl of 13 from his shtetl whom he literally carried way. He struck his chest with his fist —Dreizehn, so small, and me bin ein mann von forzig jahre! Bot I vuss on life, I must to liben, no?
So painfully earnest he was, we could only murmur sympathy. What words to offer a man who'd lived through the unimaginable?
—You're a strong man, I said.
For the first time, he smiled.
—Strong, I strong! he said, making a fist at us. Big trucks I drive. I am so work hard.
That noise of music started up, half-twist, half-Calypso, and he jerked his gaunt frame from the chair and bowed, croaking an invitation to my wife to dance. We watched them, and I wondered how she, a lithe, athletic American, as tall as he, would handle that wretch for whom every day was merely an afterlife. His hands flew up, she took them and held him away as he stomped a peasant polka, spastic, flatfooted. Compassionate, she followed as best she might.
Baron muttered —Poor man, is he? Him, a poor man? A liar! That bastard doesn't just drive a truck: he owns a fleet of Mercedes lorries! Buchenwald? True. How come he got out? What did that swine do to make it to the end? Collected reparations for his lost family, and has the chutzpah to set himself up in Munich wholesaling fruit in that Nazi cesspool. Does he live in Israel? After all, he could just as easily export our lemons from Tel Aviv as import them to Germany. On top of it, he builds himself a villa on a bombed-out Gestapo estate and buys up citrus groves from Ashod to Ashkelon. Bastard.
—You can't blame the guy for success. Even Job got back into business. And he's no Job.
—I can't stand goniffs. Didn't you see him cheating today? Why do you suppose he's the poker maven?
—What maven? Two whole dollars he rakes in?
—That's not the point. He'll do anything to anyone, just so he comes out ahead. His type's the worst in the Lager. Even for a Polak.
As they shuffled by, my wife grinned tautly, showing she could take it. The man thought she mocked his clumsiness. Heedless of my sitting right there, he growled at her, Nicht lachen! Nicht to lachen! She shrank in his grip as they circled the floor along with other couples.
Henrik Martin sat down and talked at us, his filtered Mercedes cigarette in a corner of his mouth dropping ash, eyes popped, a-glow with brandy. He challenged Baron to guess, since he thought he knew so much, whether he, Henrik Martin, was Zsdiuwiss? Herman shrugged a tough I-could-care-less maitre d' shrug. Martin drew out his wallet and with clammy, trembling fingers, nail-bitten to the quick, extracted some photographs. They showed the corner of a white salon: three little girls seated on a crimson carpet all in lacy party-dresses, their blonde curls beribboned with silk, faces shining; behind them a Christmas tree, all about them a litter of tissues, empty boxes, morsels of pastry, discarded toys. They'd opened their presents.
—Zeess are my nieces, Martin said. Zoss pictures we snapped six months before now in Sweden, ja? Stockholm. Stockholm iss where I live. I am Swedish national, you see?
We passed the snapshots. Pretty children, we said. We handed them back, but Martin urged us to look at them closely. We did. Very pretty, we said. He chuckled, wiping his palms with that gray handkerchief.
—Now let me ask: don't zey look to be zo Aryans, typical Swedish, na?
Yes, we nodded. So?
—So? You could not say zeess are Zsdiuwisses, you could not! Look at zoss blonde hairs, zoss retroussé noses, zoss blue eyes, blue like ziss Mediterranean sky. But zoss girls are Zsdiuwisses, ja!
If he said they were, they were. What was his point? The point was, Jews disguise themselves in every nation, hide in every race. The point was you couldn't tell who was, who wasn't. All that we'd heard before, seen before, not just in this lifetime, but many lifetimes.
Herman shrugged: physiognomy told the same story. Martin's point, we said, was not just obvious, it was irrelevant. Yet he insisted we'd not understood. He glared at me, holding out his nieces at their Christmas in Stockholm. The Buchenwald trucking magnate brought back my wife. Sweat ran from the top of his head, and I got a whiff of his breath. My poor girl, I said to myself.
With a nasty glance at him, Martin thrust those snapshots at her and commenced riddling about how the Jews even passed as Master Race. The Pole, instead of thanking her for letting him hold her in his arms, said something about you Americans can afford to make fun of those you left behind in the Old Country; you Americans hadn't suffered; you Americans understood nothing because you grew up jitterbugging, not lugging sacks of cement like the slaves in Egypt before Moses rescued them.
At that my wife broke in —Yes, I grew up dancing! I danced for years and years. I did the Lindy hop! Meanwhile my grandparents and my uncles and my aunts and my little cousins, all 14 of them, were gassed in Auschwitz and went up the chimneys in ashes and smoke. Eichmann didn't leave one behind, not one to marry and have children and dance on a ship! You step on my toes for ten minutes and now you add insult to injury. I may be a spoiled American, but I understand more than enough!
The man was startled. He stuttered some Polish syllables, stuffed his toy truck in his pocket and lurched from our table.
—A swine. A thieving, stupid Polak, that's all he is, Herman remarked. Let him go pester someone else.
After dinner the next evening, as we sat with Herman in the ballroom, we were again joined by Henrik Martin. The Pole stayed clear, though he'd sat for poker all afternoon, winning a pile of agorot he cashed in at the bar for 20 Israeli pounds, all of six dollars. The cards were hot, and I picked up a couple of dollars myself. Though I'd watched, I didn't see him gypping. Anyway, before Martin came over to us carrying a black leather briefcase with expensive-looking clasps, Herman Baron had told us he'd been in Germany the last six months for his back. The best doctors and convalescent care were along the Rhine, so, what with lost uncles' and aunts' reparations cash for treatment and so on...
I wondered whether there weren't good doctors in Israel, not to mention a milder winter... Herman shrugged, looked away without comment at Martin and said anyway he'd be glad to get back to his restaurants in Jaffa after his long stay in Deutschland. I let pass Baron's talk about his own American life and reserved my credulity regarding the rest. Maybe we might meet again in Israel, I said. Martin, however, went right on with last night's blague about Zsdiuwiss people, the line about his little nieces, his "full-blooded" Zsdiuwisses. He even suggested he was part Zsdiuwiss himself by virtue of this and that chain of relations, though which part was in him and how near its source was vague. Baron, drumming his fingers on the tabletop, broke in to ask him why he was coming to Israel? The answer Martin put out was as garbled as his Swedish pedigree.
—I am a student of economics, he began, so I must be interested not only in races but nations. For an economist the theory of the Zsdiuwiss economic system of penetration into markets and development of resources out of proportion to such a little population iss the most fascination, na? It iss mine belief you Zsdiuwiss people must make tomorrow a contribution in the desert. Not so? With such superior intelligence and genius for organization and energy, can you expect them not to beat down those Semite tribesmen in Palestine, such lazy fellahin and backward soldiers and ignorant villagers as they are? I am going to write my thesis in Israel. I am going to travel in Israel for two years and study possibles for zat wonderful economy the Zsdiuws somehow always invent. If zey let me. Zey will also need such outside planning and investment I must promise. Who knows? Perhaps I can make for them chances even zey never think of. But zey have brains for anything, so soon zey will have enough workers, think of zoss refugees every month coming. Anything!
Baron grunted. —Two years?
Martin looked curiously at him. —Maybe. Well, who knows, maybe I collect information for my thesis in one year? Six months? You think iss not needed two years for ziss work? But now Mr. Baron, I ask you a question: You think zoss clever Zsdiuws will give me zair statistics? You think I can do my research by going to Israeli bureaucrats' office to ask for true numbers? Ah no, zoss Zsdiuws are too smart for that. Zey surely hide from me what I must know. Zey say between themselves, Why ziss Swede from Stockholm asks my numbers? Let him find out numbers himself! No, no, Mr. Baron, I know zey block my work. But I write my thesis, even against zair sabotage!
Martin sounded hysterical. Furthermore, they were already hurting him! How so? Had they not put him in a cabin with three Greeks or Albanians who stank of wine and onions, talked loud all night, and looked at him suspiciously? He must to carry his papers with him all the time now, because they would damage him somehow if he was careless. It is no accident, such accommodation they gave to him. And how foolish of them, when he explained he was thinking only for the good of the Zsdiuws, Zsdiuws like his own nieces, and wanted to do what he could to insure the new nation's survival, that it must continue as bearer of European civilization like an oak tree amidst those miserable Musselmen; yes, it must to continue, et cetera. To prove his assertions, he fumbled with the combination lock of the attaché case on his lap, saying he'd show us an example.
—Zees Zsdiuws, zair eyes are everywhere, he said, I must to be careful.
Was he trying to provoke Herman Baron? He pulled out a couple of spiral notebooks and handed them round. Flipping through, I saw tables and graphs. Charts I made no sense of, I said. All in German. Baron seemed uninterested, as though skeptical about what they were supposed to show.
Why this stuff in German if he was out of Stockholm? I asked. More complications followed. Well, he was not exactly at present in Stockholm, but working for an investment group in Basel. In fact for the time being he was living in Geneva. Replacing his notebooks and locking them up, he reached into his shirt-pocket and extracted a brass case that yielded his card: HERR DOKTOR HENRIK MARTIN, Consultant in Economic Affairs, et cetera, in German with a Geneva address. His "thesis" was not actually in the academic line, rather something commissioned by the group he was connected with, "men of vision," men willing to risk, et cetera. Baron yawned right in his face and stood up, saying that after six months away from his night life in Jaffa, he was out of training for these late hours. We broke up. I glanced back as we left the ballroom: Henrik Martin sat there, his elbows on his black briefcase, chin cupped in his hands, smoke curling from his hollow nostrils. It seemed he studied the people still dancing and drinking; meditatively, I thought, perhaps sharpening numbers tracking surviving Jews.
Sailing towards Haifa the fourth morning, we were to reach Israel in a state that had climbed from despair to confusion, from confusion to surprise, surprise to astonishment. The morning expanded brilliantly over a Mediterranean an ever-lighter blue, sparkling from a myriad of wavelets lifted by a fair sea breeze. Towards nine, news that Israel was in sight was announced in the cafeteria. People got busy collecting and setting their baggage in order, preparing to debark. Herman, who was bringing in a used Porsche, had warned us Customs was stricter than anywhere in Europe or the States, voicing irritation about the scrutiny that would hold him up for hours. Guests of the State, we were traveling light without a car. I'd been asked to Jerusalem by the president, slated to participate in a conference at Hebrew University, "History and the Writer," give some readings and talks on present trends in "Literature," and so forth, at his residence. Our arrangements were made by letter from his English secretary, and we were to regard them informal. We'd wondered how we were supposed to go up to Jerusalem from Haifa, and we hoped to find a hack or a bus.
Emerging on deck, we saw Mount Carmel, a high, dun slope in the distance veiled in haze. Haifa lay gleaming white below, its roads descending to the sea. We stood with many excited passengers lined against the rail. Through my binoculars, I made out the golden dome of the Baha'i Temple halfway up the mountain. Once or twice I tugged at the collar of our six-year-old when he leaned out to see for himself. He was full of questions about how a ship arrives and docks. His curiosity it was that brought about our morning's confusion, for a half-hour later as the BILU halted just outside the harbor, my wife cried out—Where is he!
I'd felt him against my knee, yes, but now he was gone! When did he slip away? I trotted around the deck calling for him. Busy exchanging addresses or pointing out landmarks, no one had seen him. He was simply gone.
My wife called a steward, and our anxious hunt up and down the BILU began, from our cabin through the salons. Ten fraught minutes passed as we stopped and questioned people. The boy was not; the boy was nowhere. She sagged to a deck chair, eyes swollen with misery.
The steward went for brandy. The purser quizzed us, reviewing our movements during the hour past, patting her arm to comfort her. It was possible, I admitted the thought, that the kid had leaned too far, tumbled out, and was swallowed in the ship's wake, his cries unheard. Some women gathered around my wife and daughter, the steward set down his tray and ran through the lower deck; the purser's voice rasped his name in Hebrew from the P.A.
Impulsively—what did I suppose could be done? stop the BILU?—I dashed forward and climbed to the bridge, thinking to force the captain to drop a launch, though the mere notion that a five-year-old would have survived falling into the sea, let alone the ship's propellers, was only desperation. As I mounted the iron stairs, I glanced out and saw a pilot boat jouncing towards us from the inner harbor, a naval officer leaned against the prow. In the shack stood the pilot, directing a helmsman. At the top of the ladder, I was barred by a gate with a posted placard: ADMITTANCE TO THE BRIDGE ABSOLUTELY FORBIDDEN. I jumped over, thinking of my wife weeping below. I hoped somehow the boy was not forever lost. To my surprise, upon gaining the bridge, I saw captain and first mate looking forward—with between them, a white officer's hat almost covering his eyes, my son, holding the wheel as they spoke their commands. He was "assisting" them to bring in the BILU. Of course he couldn't read that sign.
I went down again to find my wife still huddled on that deck chair, face buried in her arms, and led her to the bridge to see for herself that he was navigating our entrance to Haifa. She burst into tears of laughter. The steward had followed us with a tray of glasses and a bottle 777. We poured and knocked back that brandy. The captain, unaware the frenzy below concerned the tyke sharing his command, greeted her amiably. I left them and went to secure our things.
By then the pilot boat had come alongside. I heard myself paged and went down to the main deck where the purser took me to the officer I'd seen at its prow. He was a man of 40, say, with green eyes and sea-polished cheeks above a black beard. He introduced himself as Captain Amon. His ship being in port, and having heard about us, he'd hopped a ride to welcome us to Israel. He would get us off quickly without fuss. Had I passports ready? I did. He glanced at them and said something to the guards stationed at the gangplank. I signed a paper, and in ten minutes, while the gangway was hauled up to the portal, we were ready there with our things. The customs officials at the card table were setting out their papers as the captain waved us past. Queued passengers gaped as we went by. I noticed Herman Baron looking at us contemplatively, eyes narrowed as much as to say, Well well well! What have we here? As soon the gangway was locked, a woman mounted from the wharf and stepped aboard. Spotting Captain Amon, she called out my name. A Miss Rashi from the mayor's office. Taking my hand, she welcomed us to Israel on behalf of Haifa. This was something else!
Miss Rashi presented my wife with a bouquet and handed the children packets of candy. Looking out I saw a black Citroën crawling along the dock to the gangway. A soldier got out from behind the wheel, looked up and saluted the Captain, then opened the rear doors for a tall officer and a woman who looked up at the BILU.
Miss Rashi said —Lieutenant Colonel Rafid has come for you.
As she led us down, she said that car, which had two furled flags mounted on the front fenders, was the official car of the President, who'd sent it to make sure we'd have no trouble finding our way up to Jerusalem.
It was astonishing. Only in retrospect did I suppose what effect the scene, that car and officer in dress khaki, may have had on eyes watching from the BILU. Nor would it have crossed my mind I could have been of interest to anyone there. Our bags brought down; we got into the Citroën and were driven past saluting sentries at the pier's gate, out into Haifa and thence to Jerusalem. Along the 150 kilometers people turned to look at us, soldiers stood to attention or saluted as we passed, so well-known was that black Citroën. Rafid told us in British-accented English, he'd come to greet us, partly curious to see what I looked like, partly to visit a friend in Haifa. Naturally I believed him, so candid was he in remarking he knew nothing about poetry, history his subject at Cambridge. After settling us into the Mount Moriah Hotel, he vanished. And that was that.
Unnecessary to this narrative were the events that occupied us during the weeks ahead. At the end of our third week, we found ourselves free. There remained a few days before we were to re-embark on the BILU, destined this time for Naples. Bus transport was promised for those passengers who'd traveled out from Civitavecchia. Having spare time, we went down to Tel Aviv to visit scientist acquaintances and tour the Weiszman Institute. We were dropped afterward in Jaffa, the ancient Arab port town contiguous with the 20th century city. Its buildings were picturesque, merchants' dwellings and warehouses abandoned during the war in 1948 at the urging of the Arabs invading from Egypt now being rehabilitated as artist studios, cafès and nightclubs, a sort of touristic bohemian town burgeoning at water's edge. We wandered through narrow streets and silent alleys paved here and there with the stones typical of Roman roads. Cats dozed on shady doorsteps or window ledges. No one was about during the siesta hours.
Herman Baron had mentioned his restaurants. We saw his signboard over one entrance and went in. The place was dark, chairs upended on tables. At the rear, one dim light hung over one of them. We went to it and sat hopefully. A waiter came out to say the cafè was closed, but he would offer tea. Ice cream cones were brought to the children, who took them outside, intending to explore. To our delight, the next person to emerge from the kitchen carrying iced glasses on a tray was Baron himself. Sitting down to join us, he said he'd just returned from a trip around the Galilee, and what a pleasant surprise to find us in his place! Weren't we sailing on the BILU tomorrow? I recalled having said we'd be in Israel a few weeks, but nothing about departure. We told him about our stay in Jerusalem, our trip to Kfar Blum, an English-speaking kibbutz, the obligatory swim in the Dead Sea and so forth, which seemed not to interest him. He talked instead about people on the voyage from Italy.
—You remember that Polak bastard? Well, he got himself nailed, and how! Smuggling. Imagine, that schwein was bringing in a Mercedes stuffed with goodies: in the wheels, in the cushions, in the tank. My god! A fortune in watches and gold and uncut stones. That car was packed with contraband.
—Was he cleared to bring in a new auto?
—No trouble there. I was interested in a Mercedes myself. I'd never risk his trick with Customs. In any case, I don't have that guy's nerve. I saw you got off the ship quick and easy. A plain citizen like me doesn't get first class treatment from the mayor of Haifa, let alone top army brass. How come you never mentioned you were somebody? Not that I didn't make you for special.
—Ah, never mind...
—Anyhow, the other one I couldn't dope out was Martin. That Swede's the first oddball who's ever stumped me. Did you believe him?
—He sounded cuckoo enough for economics.
—Not a bit of it. That's just booshwah. Something fishy there. I've been trying to figure him since I got off the BILU. You must have some ideas, huh? Come on, give!
—I can't even guess.
Herman looked oddly at me and fumbled in his shirt pocket for a cigarette. Meanwhile, I'd seen a shadow outside. It belonged to a man crossing to and in front of the house opposite. He would pause and peer into the cafè, looking at Baron but hesitating to approach while we were there. Finally, as though pressed for time, he stepped in to address him in Yiddish. He may have thought we might be Hebrew-speakers and had no Yiddish. Herman scowled at him. We sipped our tea and played dumb.
—Herman, baby, he said, I'm looking all over for you! You said you'd be back last month, right? So where the hell you been hiding like a lost potato?
—Up in Safed davening with my reb, if you please? Tomorrow, jerk! Baron muttered.
—Herman, we're waiting and we're waiting. So how long can we wait? It came in safe, not? You sitting on it, baby? Not safe to sit; not safe, Herman.
—Tomorrow, Baron repeated, gritting his teeth.
—You hold out on us, ketzeleh, better you should think twice. You know what means waiting? We're tired waiting.
Baron stood up and shoved him out, cautioning him to take care of business, tomorrow, not now. At the entrance, they bumped into our kids. We got up to leave. Baron, embarrassed, made no sign to hold us.
—No, no, refreshments on the house. So long and goodbye! Bon voyage!
We stood and chatted outside a while. I supposed he thought of fishing to see if we'd taken in that ruffian's Yiddish. He returned instead to that Swede, remarking on economic research monkey business, annoyed he couldn't figure out his racket. Finally, We shook hands and picked our way over the old flagstones. At the corner we saw his impatient pal smoking in the angle of a doorway. I nodded, but he gazed blankly above our heads as if we were invisible. The children were puzzled by their mother's muffled laugh. What was that about?
My first night out on the BILU was anguished: a galloping dysentery. That Bedouin's hospitable little cup of coffee served as we squatted beneath his fetid tent in the Negev. Drink it, our Israeli guide had advised, or don't pay visits. In the semi-delirious morning following a strong dose of paregoric the purser provided, my wife brought bouillon to my bunk and said she'd spotted our Swede flitting along a corridor. That evening, as I took hope from a snifter of brandy, who should turn up at our table but himself? Paler and thinner than a month earlier, Martin looked positively malignant... or unhappy... it was hard to tell which. Recalling we were to return by this sailing, he decided he'd had enough of Israel.
—Weren't you going to drive around a few months to get a feel of the country? I reminded him.
He looked like he'd never left a hotel room. And there had been a hamsin blowing over Israel for a week of parching heat.
—Yes. No, rather the contrary! I drove more than enough around that damn country. Two weeks were enough. I saw what there was to see.
The BILU had shaken down during its month's service, and the routine was better managed. As for food, there were mainly Israeli tourists used to cafeteria stuff. As the weather remained hot out on the open sea, we drank more than ate. In the bar we struck up an acquaintance with a young Dutch journalist and his wife headed to Amsterdam for a long-needed rest. She was Hungarian, an archaeologist working at Masada. They were people who could sit and drink American-style.
With us at evening was a handsome girl of 19, Havah, leaving Israel for the first time, so she said, to work au pair for eighteen months in Geneva, intending, so she said, to improve her French and learn German. She had passable English and used it, questioning us about us and our Israeli weeks: where, when, who we met? Like many Sabras, she seemed unable to accept ways that we took as matters of course in our American world, which we thought no more corrupt than the air we breathed. In other words, Havah was blunt and humorless.
The Hollander had gone to Israel as a journalist during the '56 War to write a book, and written it he had in six months. But when he read his galleys, he realized he knew nothing about the country, absolutely nothing, and trashed them. Then he married and felt yet more ignorant, living in Israel and seeing its life from the inside, which proved hard to bear. What was the point of journalistic chatter, he asked himself? So he'd given up writing about Israel and turned to archaeology. Presently he was contentedly piecing together a mosaic floor from an Alexandrian synagogue. Given another seven years, who knows? He might think of writing a book. He put his arm around his wife's shoulder and squeezed her.
—Hey, Margit? What do you say?
Martin looked stunned by that confession of impotence by this tall, blond, blue-eyed Dutchman. Confusion flitted in his slate eyes. He licked his lips and blurted —But... you are not one of zeess Zsdiuwiss people! How can you live with them already for seven years? You think zey will let you in? Show you zair secrets? You think zat country can remain? Ha! And you married one of zem? I mean to say, I am studying zair economic structure. It iss impossible, impossible for zem to live after ziss war tomorrow. I don't give zem two years peace! Zen... poof! The war tomorrow will finish them off.
Henrik ground his cigarette out. Havah stared at him, her tanned face flushed, black eyes wide with anger. The Dutchman leaned across and drew the left sleeve of Margit's blouse above her elbow, revealing the blue numbers tattooed on her forearm. She showed no emotion, sitting wordlessly and smoking. Martin clamped his jaws, knocked back his chair, and stalked off.
The weather remained humid and hot. Martin would pace the lower deck wearing that white silk ascot, his birdcage chest showing through the striped caftan he affected. He had just the bulge line of the thin man's potbelly to hold his gabardine shorts above his hips. His blue-veined feet were stuffed bare in old slippers, bony and clammy as his twitching fingers. He was to be seen sitting at one or another of the bars, highball in one hand, Mercedes cigarette held aloft between thumb and index finger of the other. I thought he brooded—perhaps he had matters to brood over?—but I offered no opening. Though he would glance my way as if wanting to speak, somehow he'd lost his brash nerve. My wife, perversely, felt pity for him.
On the second day out, she invited him to take coffee with us. She talked about our tour plans in coming weeks. He took her easy tone to mean his outbursts were pardoned. When he learned I was to take a bus from Naples to Rome, he offered to drive me. He'd drop our family at the pensione booked for them, and we'd scoot up the Autostrada. I agreed, hoping I could persuade him to carry me out to Civitavecchia where our VW was garaged and save me a half-day. I lauded the zuppa di mare they made and told him how pleasant it was to dine at the shore.
—You won't mind going out of your way? I asked. It may cost you an extra night before heading home?
—No, no. I have a fast car and plenty of room, you will see. Besides, I zink your company proves most interesting, he grinned.
Havah hovered nearby as the afternoon passed, curious. Had she'd heard something regarding Martin? There could well be more like him in Geneva.
The next morning I took our luggage down to the garage by nine. The deck down there looked like a strip of the Lincoln Tunnel at rush hour, four queues of cars bumper to bumper, 50 or so at rest beneath the fluorescent glare reflected from the fresh-painted white of the ship's walls. I spotted Martin descending the flight of iron stairs opposite, waving me forward. I had a surprise coming. The first car, concealed by a microbus piled with baggage, was a model I'd seen nowhere in Europe: Oldsmobile, a new F-85 Starfire convertible with a Swiss license and Geneva plaque! Compared to the files of minicars, it was huge and luxurious. It promised a treat after my year's confinement in our beetle. Martin started it up, put the top down, and we piled my bags into the trunk. He tossed a light canvas bag atop my cases and kept his black briefcase with him. How had he planned months in Israel, let alone the two years he'd rambled on about? He guessed my thought and said everything else had been shipped, so sailing home it was bothersome to dress like a civilized person on such a car ferry for peasants like the BILU, ja?
The Dogana officers came up the car ramp, glanced here and there, and waved us out. My wife and kids waiting on the dock climbed in, and off we drove to our pensione to see them in and arrange reservations for the next day's bus to Rome. That done, I settled back for our drive. Martin said he was happy to have me along because I could communicate with "zees people." Italian had he none, never having strayed farther south than Nice. When I remarked that the Campania around Naples was beautiful this time of the year, he muttered —Ah, how I hate zeess filthy people zey have down here...
I understood his Swiss qualms as we navigated the garbage-laden streets, anarchic traffic scooting recklessly at and around his yacht. He pulled over for gas at a curbside pump, and we were promptly swarmed by ragged urchins, barefoot, noisy and impudent; they caressed the Oldsmobile in that way they have, which makes you feel every touch of a grimy palm carries away with it the luster of its paint and a bit of chrome strip, and if they weren't shooed off, before you knew it you'd be sitting inside the frame of a car stripped to its chassis. Those boys were more or less innocent, marveling at the Starfire while dramatically scouring with bits of oily rag at mirrors, lights, grill, bumpers and all. When one brazenly reached in and punched at the radio button, I slapped his wrist. Martin cringed, gripping white-knuckled hands on the agate-marbled wheel. The fellow at the pump smiled —Not to worry, Signori, harmless kids. Then Martin yelped, cursed in a suddenly guttural German, and whirled round to chop at an arm reaching for his attaché case on the rear seat.
—You have to keep your eyes open, I offered, when you stop a machine like this in Naples.
He didn't hear me. He was twisted round and fumbling at its straps and locked snaps. When he stuck his hand in to check it out, I was startled to see under notebooks and pamphlets a .38 Walther PPK. That little economist from Stockholm or Geneva or wherever was packing. Martin's dangerous? Nervous, yes. Crazy? Perhaps. I thought it prudent to be ginger with him.
I steered our way on the shore streets past the crowded, half-destroyed or bombed-out tenements in the lower districts of Naples and turned him east, following the marked truck route signs, heading us northward to the Autostrada, which bypasses Naples. As we climbed those steep streets, Martin kept a watch on his dashboard. He was worried because its temperature gauge trembled hovering near the red, and that F-85 engine was huge.
—Zoss stupid Israelis! Have zey have no mechanics in zat filthy country? I voss crazy to drive with my car.
—Where did you go?
—I went here. I went there. Nobody knew what to do. Then I was in the Negev, to find that reactor, zat "peace reactor" for making fresh water, oh yes, ha ha! And you know, ziss machine it kept heating into ze zone red! And what zey did, zoss stupids? Smile, smile, Okay, we fix. One takes something out from inside and says, All right, now you go!
—He probably yanked your thermostat. You left it set at Swiss winter? No good out in the Negev.
Martin had no idea what I was talking about. I assured him I'd seen it done in our Mojave Desert—which was okay if you carry a spare. So his red zone was to be watched. It relieved him somewhat, the thermostat info. We tooled up to the Autostrada, an American-style freeway like Hitler's autobahn—no speed limit. I suggested holding her at 55, because its engine could boil over. He mumbled about sabotage. Did I really suppose Israelis could be so stupid about cars?
—Perhaps unfamiliar with an Oldsmobile?
No, the more he thought about it, the more he suspected dirty work, He had come from Switzerland to investigate Israel and looked pure Aryan. No, they wrecked his thermostat and yanked it on purpose! His uncertain foot on the gas pedal worried me. I watched the needle bouncing into red and reminded him I had to be in Rome early, so if he wanted to make it to Geneva, he'd best watch the speed.
At the first opportunity I had him turn into a TOTAL for gas at Afragola. I'd felt the radiator's premonitory tremors through the floorboard. We jumped clear as the mechanic opened her up: steam billowed out of that brute from top to bottom. I hoped it wasn't as bad as it looked. We had the radiator flushed and refilled. No leaks. Worth a chance.
Heading north, we kept the Starfire at 45. The Autostrada runs along high embankments above a dense, green countryside. Everywhere spreading out into a vast, intense silence of the Neapolitan Campania, that very paradise Casanova described more than two centuries ago, lay misty fields of artichokes, tomatoes, grapevines, lettuce, tobacco, bean fields, and orchards neatly trimmed. At Caivano we pulled off again. The attendant was no mechanic, though posted to a new BP station. He could change your tire or grease a joint, but he refused to touch anything under the hood. He whistled when he looked at the ominous signs. So, were we stuck? Puo darsi, he said; but there was a mechanic of truly sharp talent, out there going down from the Autostrada that way, towards Acerra, four or five kilometers, watch for fork in road, take Cancello road to left, couldn't be missed, garage just after turn.
We might as well try it, I thought. Henrik Martin wanted to wheel her about and head back to Naples, much as he hated that ancient city. But I assured him it was minor, a thermostat problem, it could be hooked up again—if anyone knew how. Besides, if we got stuck, I might well miss tomorrow's bus to Rome and lose the car ferry to Sicily. Well, since he must make Geneva that night, he'd risk it.
We left the Autostrada and drove onto the potholed two-lane road for Acerra. On both sides looming over us, the densely-planted fields were hot and moist; you almost sensed vegetables stirring and exhaling pulpy musk. A quarter mile from the Autostrada, its levee was lost from view, so deeply were we plunged into that hothouse. It was as if we'd escaped our century. The cappanas of bamboo and reeds standing in the fields, the drumming of cicadas, the enveloping hedgerows almost forcing us to grope through dazzling light. We were lost despite the map open on my lap. Southern Italy's richness can do that, wrapping a cloak of warm fog over one, its strange forest like a mesh of steaming creation. The rustling life of that countryside drenched us in rays yellow and green reflected from clouds floating overhead like Baroque ceilings. If you stopped to walk out from the road on such a day, would it surprise to step into a ring of nymphs sprung from the loam and dancing around yourself somehow translated into a marble satyr suddenly stirring to life? And if I was sensible of the enchantment of that place, what did poor Martin feel, that strange fellow like a weedy stock of Edelweiss plucked from some rock crevice in the Alps and potted in poor Swedish moss? Was he even faintly roused by ripples of ancient passion? He drove on, eyes slitted behind the dark-green aviator's sunglasses he affected.
—Zo, where iss zat fork? You are sure we are on ze correct way? Ziss road, did he say? You have mistaken, ja?
Beyond a bend the road ahead seemed to end in thick brakes of bramble. The gauge hovered again at danger. I was anxious, fearing something was about to seize-up with a bang. Where would we be then? I had about eight dollars in lire, having assumed we'd reach Rome in time for me to pick up the monthly stipend waiting at the Via Barberini office. No choice but to barrel into that dead end. It turned out a T-junction, the road connecting Acerra and Aversa crossing ours. And at the crux an unpainted ramshackle building sagged to one side, its upper story a hayloft where swallows darted in and out through hatches swinging off their hinges. Faded lettering on its splintered face: AUTO. We coasted down and made out a sort of garage with rusting pieces of cars and cannibalized tractors. The hard-packed clay was oil-blackened and the ground all around littered with scrap: oil drums and jerrycans, torn car seats, broken chairs and sideboards, ruined sinks, toilet tanks, waste rags fluttering in the hot air that thrust them aimlessly in circles.
The place looked dead. We slid into the one space possible, braking half off the shoulder. All that was needed was to be swiped by a careening truck.
On the stony floor of that broken-down barn sat a half-built or half-dismantled pickup, its front end propped on wood blocks. What now? The Oldsmobile throbbed its muffled heartbeats under the hood. I switched off the ignition for Martin. He sat rigid. I blew the horn. I wouldn't have tried raising its hood. I got out, slammed the door, and shouted —Yo! Aiuto! Soltanto Dio a casa?
—Nemmeno Dio, macchè! replied a voice from somewhere nearby.
We heard a body drag itself from under the pickup. The stench pulsing towards us was an amalgam of oily waste, manure, and rancid hay. A man got to his knees and turned round. He was about 30, his wiry torso grease-smeared, undershirt scarcely distinguishable from his blackened shoulders. Still, he was handsome and alert, with a falcon nose and black eyes that danced when he caught sight of that F-85 convertible parked behind us. He looked ready for anything, despite his old army pants stiff with oil and dirt. His feet were bare in unlaced, broken field boots. He shuffled towards us, and I was relieved when he spoke plain Italian. It would have been rough going using sign language to converse with back-country dialect. Briefly I explained the Starfire's history and symptoms, as well as our having to reach Rome that day and Switzerland by midnight.
—Boh! he said, shrugging. And, Boh! when the hood jumped up and scalded his hand through the towel wrapped around it as he loosened the radiator cap, which blew off on a burst of steam. After the eruption subsided and the engine began to cool, ticking and beating like an ingot out of the forge, we began to parley. My Italian sufficed for everyday use, but the nomenclature of an automobile engine was not anything we'd been taught in Perugia at the university's term for foreigners. As if I ever had it in English! Troubled not at all, Ercole (that was his name) said how delightful it was to see such a car in his garage, how lucky we were to have come to him, alone among all mechanics from Salerno to Caserta (which went for Napoli, too!). How so? Because he, Ercole, was a specialist, the one and only artist of autos in the whole of the Mezzogiorno who comprehended the ways of such a motor... in short, our Mister Right.
He circled the car, looked over its interior with the eye of a used car salesman, as though it had something to impart regarding thermostat and radiator. Martin trailed him, watching those grimy, slender yet heavily-veined caressing hands that seemed to estimate its value pound per pound. Never having driven anything better than a second-hand Ford, I appreciated his respect for a Starfire. For Ercole the F-85 had materialized out of the blaze of noon, like a machine out of the god, so to say. On or off the Autostrada, a beauty like that was rarely glimpsed in those parts. That was the impression he gave.
—Why do you think he iss so confident? Henrik asked as he leaned over to retrieve that attaché. What can he do, ask him, please, ja?
I asked Ercole, who crooned over his shoulder, No worry, not to fear, standard Italian for This will hurt you more than it does me. Seriously, he added, we should rest easy and trust him. After all, he'd worked five years at General Motors in Milan, two years in Zurich, and a year in Paris. He knew these cars inside out, top to bottom. His hands congratulated one another, as though itching to renew their familiarity with the insides of that engine. Well, it was not my car, which was a relief. Of course, he admitted, this was the latest model. Obviously some changes were made in past years. Still and all... it was General Motors, not so?
Henrik was dubious when I relayed to him that Ercole was an expert in GM, or so he said. The Italian marked that expression and responded like an Italian: with a dumbshow of efficiency expressing most sincere sympathy as he reeled off a litany of technical jargon, hands flourished here, there, touching, demonstrating a believable virtuosity whether or not he knew a damned thing about that Starfire. An Italian's always a maestro: maestro of what he's maestro of.
Now with this model, he was saying, we have to take off its head before we can tell what ails it. I asked him what that had to do with overheating and a missing thermostat. That question was brushed aside in his insisting —Si, si, ma si deve levare la testa, è simplicissimo.
Who was I to knock his eight years with GM? —Va bene, I said. If he had to take off its head, he had to. I imagined he wished to examine the cylinder heads for oil leaks or flooding or something, if only to revel in their glory.
He brought forth wrenches and set to work. The cover flew off in a minute. As we watched, bits and pieces began to appear, tossed casually at an upturned hub cap lying in the dust, some hitting, some bouncing here, some there. Martin, horrified, scrambled to pick them up, wipe each with his silk handkerchief and set them out in a row according to the sequence of their separation.
—My god, he will lose pieces of my motor everywhere! he hissed.
—Vedete, Signori? said Ercole, glancing over his shoulder. See? nothing to it. I know my way around these GM monsters.
I relayed that to Henrik. At the rate Ercole worked, that engine I thought would be stripped to the block in half an hour. Whereas a mechanic in a GM dealer's shop in Detroit won't go into those rigs without a thick manual on the bench, this guy sitting in the nowhere of Campania says he knows his way into the Starfire? But I said nothing. Comforting himself, Henrik murmured that at least this guy seemed more sure of himself than those idiots from the Galilee to Beersheva. I said nothing. Ercole came out from under the hood, wiped his hands on those fatigues and explained what was what. I made out only that it was quite simple—all it needed was a gasket or two. At least I thought he meant gasket, costing two bucks in the States. Then again, 40 kilometers out of Naples, a Starfire's gasket?
Ercole thought there might be a GM dealer in Naples; he was sure there was one; there would in fact be gaskets galore. Of course, I agreed. But, how to get to Naples? He shrugged, meaning take a look at his truck up on blocks. Telephone? Yes, maybe. We'd find one down the road, a kilometer, at the cafè in Sammacerata. Closed during hours of riposo, which in the South run till 4 p.m. Of course, we could try to get at the phone by making noise. On second thought, before bothering those types down there, which might not be too smart, he proposed another way to go. There was a friend of his who stocked just about anything in the way of parts, a sort of salvager, you know? We could be lucky, who knew?
He led us out in back of the barn where we saw a battered Fiat 500, that ubiquitous topolino, the Mickey Mouse, Italy's go-cart for the masses. He motioned to squeeze ourselves in. It had one seat, the driver's; the rest was naked body looking like it had been blowtorched. Clutching his briefcase, Martin wriggled into the rear, while I squatted up front. Ercole said it ran okay, only a bit rough as just second and fourth gears worked. Still, for this emergency it might do. I said I was willing, Se vuole il Buon Dio.
—God? Ercole laughed, what the hell can He do about my damn transmission! No patron saint named for that... so far as he'd heard!
Choke yanked all the way out, we set off with a raucous jerking and mashing of gears. When I asked him, How far? he replied —Moh! Not too far even for this heap.
Martin gasped over the roar of the tiny engine behind him —How far does he say?
—Not too far, God willing.
—Ja, so he says. Gott in Himmel!
As things turned out, it was far enough,. That topolino fired on two cylinders, intermittently. We chugged up and careered freewheeling down two mountain ridges on a road buckled every 100 meters, and narrow even for this buggy. Anything like a pickup truck would have slipped us over and down the cliffs, because whatever shoulder might once have existed was long gone. Ercole was a skillful driver. I wondered at the way he jammed the stick from one impossible position to the other without stalling that lugged engine. As for that, it quit on the downhill swoops, and at the bottoms he gunned it to life, urging it on with recitatavos of baritone cursing.
The countryside we traversed was wild. Here and there goats and spooked cows glared down at us. Atop one summit, as I looked down, I glimpsed amid treetops a gray steeple with slate roofs huddled around it. That place looked overgrown and deserted. As we started our hurtling descent toward that cleft in the hills, the left rear tire popped and Topolino slewed into a ditch, landing with a jolt and turning half-over. Martin screamed and fell against me as that attaché slammed into my head.
Ercole laughed. —Oddiomio! Grazie, grazie ad il buonissimo Dio e Figlio e Spirito Santo! Macché!
We struggled out of his side as from a capsized boat. Martin ground his teeth —Ziss iss impossible, ja? Impossible!
His trousers were slashed at the knees. Nothing bloody. Otherwise we were okay.
—But I have another tire, Si si, Signori, niente problema, per favore, Ercole begged, I am prepared for everything! He got a spare out, a hard little tire smooth as a billiard ball, frayed threads exposed. It would have to do.
We were canopied by great trees, so shoving and heaving la Topolina right side up and onto the road wasn't that hard. We had her fixed soon enough and coasting down to that stony hamlet.
—Nobody there but the priest and his gaga biddies, remarked Ercole. Men gone to Torino, Switzerland, Germany, chissa? They never come home again. Mangiapane, we call it. Had it once upon a time a name? Chissa?
The walls of these houses, more like goat shepherd huts, were mossy. The light of the sun never entered this gorge. Winter would be brutal. We tooled around a corner, went through a low arch, and slithered to a halt before a crone who sat on a stool, white hair haggish over her black-clothed, stooped shoulders, pecking with a needle and thread at a piece of dirty muslin stretched on a frame. Ercole spoke dialect to her, and she replied in a treble quaver. It sounded like cadenzas they sang to one another, nightingales at midnight purling. Were they going on about GM parts, or what?
Martin bit his lip, repelled by the old thing in this shadowed cul de sac, by her goatish-smell, by the mold slimed on the walls. Perhaps he imagined her as the withered ghost of Wotan's Brynhildr? He shivered.
Ercole turned to us —She says her son's off somewhere pheasant-shooting. Who knows when he's back? She hasn't his key, she says. Anyway she shouldn't let us in where he keeps the parts. Still, who knows...?
I repeated that to Henrik, who surprised me. Pulling a thousand lire note out, he held it before her dim eyes. Without a word, she struggled to her feet and started to shove at the scarred wooden door behind her. We peered into a foul, smoldering cavern, his storeroom. Wreckage and auto parts were strewn over the stone floor: bumpers, headlights, windshields, transmissions, tires. Ercole tiptoed in and rummaged, only to emerge after ten long minutes empty-handed.
—Fiat, some Ford, some Volkswagen. No General Motors. Too bad. But you know you never know until you know you don't know, right?
There was a lot of what looked like new stuff in there, I thought. Pity his friend hadn't stocked up on GM. We thanked the woman, whose lined, toothless face wore a mask of indifference as she turned, mewing in that dialect, pulled the door shut, and sat down to resume her needlepoint, if that's what she'd been at. The banknote was of course no more.
After rolling Ercole's chariot back to the road and shoving it along a hundred yards to get her started, we crawled aboard. So there matters stood, another hour lost. Unfazed by Martin's silent rage, Ercole hummed as he rammed his gear box and fought our way back to Sammacerata, tumbling out into it at last from a side road. I considered us unhurt, if somewhat banged about.
Sammacerata lay along both sides of the road. On our right, behind the row of buildings shuttered against the sun's glare ran a rail track. On the left, cafè, grocer, a formal façade on a little building, its battered sign reading Albergo di Luxe, and a dozen houses leaning against each other. The cafè was open, a window thrown wide where a couple of men stood smoking. Inside, the jukebox blasted out Rita Pavone.
Ercole was let through to a phone. Martin passed him another thousand lire note. Ercole got connected to someone somewhere. We heard shouting on the line. At this end, "F-85! Starfire! Current model... Nothing? Sicuro? Too bad..."
He returned. They'd laughed at him: Was he nuts, asking for gaskets? In six months maybe, et cetera, who knows...? Just as well we'd wasted no time returning to Naples. One recourse remained. Rome. Rome, they said, your hope rests with Rome. GM parts in Rome for sure.
—Just how are we supposed to get to Rome? I asked.
The two men standing there holding espresso cups looked at one another. One said we could take the train. It could be flagged right here in Sammacerata. The other said, Sicuro! When? Tomorrow morning early. Where would we sleep? It happens we have our hotel, pointing a thumb up at the sign. Big room, big bed.
—Oh, no! Martin shrilled. Zey don't get me in zair trap. In ziss filthy hole? Not me!
Since we were stuck, it was our only hope, I said. We might even ask for a clean sheet, and anyway nights aren't cold.
—A trick, I know it. They want to catch me, zat iss what zey try now. In ze middle of ziss night. For zem I don't sleep! Zey don't catch me in bed!
—Well, what else is there? I asked.
Guessing our situation, one of them said a freight was coming through tomorrow afternoon, so the car might be loaded on—if an order went through tonight. Henrik didn't cotton to that proposition. The man offered further the possibility he could hitch a ride in his own car, why not?
—Oh, zat would be nice work for zem, zo zey zink. Very nice. I don't like ze lookout!
By that time, I thought he was confused, so I ordered coffee and sandwiches. Better put some food in this guy before he breaks down. Ercole and the other fellow meanwhile were gabbling away in dialect. Then he turned to me in that ingratiating manner of the South that makes the foreigner certain he's being taken and said, if we preferred, Honorio here was willing to drive us to Rome—right now—that was his car over there, pointing at a dusty, pre-war Fiat 1100 parked beside a gas pump. Such a car would carry us to Rome prestissimo. Moreover, Honorio was a driver top class. There'd be time to pick up gaskets and return to Sammacerata by midnight. That way his Oldsmobile would be ready to roll tomorrow, and my friend could sleep in it or in the hotel or drive to Switzerland, whatever he liked. What say?
Martin jumped for it —Yes yes yes!
—Fine, I agreed, pleased I'd get to Rome in good time.
Ercole, smiling broadly, added that he'd check out the car for us now, and my gentleman must not to worry as he was safe in the safest of safe hands. Martin stumbled after me, gagging on his sandwich, his attaché tucked under his elbow, sagging at the gun end.
As it turned out, the drive up was pleasant and quick, the Autostrada clear. We rolled north across burnt plains now, Honorio holding steady at 130km. Once he pointed to Monte Cassino high up on its hill to our right, but Martin, scrunched morosely in the back, case pressed to his lap, never looked. He knew enough about Monte Cassino, he said; it interested him not at all. His lips trembled constantly on a cigarette, and he was irritated at having to feed his fags to Honorio, who chain-smoked. I chattered away in Italian, to keep from paying attention to Martin's erratic moods.
Honorio declared himself a family man, and looked it: 45, pasta-fed plump, unshaven, tieless, shirt worn a week on end. He ran his car for hire, here and there, in and out of Naples, you know? I didn't know. Who booked him to drive around Caserta and Napoli? I asked. Honorio winked, observing that gas wasn't cheap and he wasn't paid much for the kind of driving he was commissioned to do. I supposed he transported things... cigarettes, say? Spare parts, girls, NATO soldiers? Honorio laid a hand on his heart and sighed as if to say no secret would drop from his lips.
Three hours later we reached Rome. As we approached the ring road, Honorio asked me to guide him, since he wasn't a native here and was not used to reckless, fast traffic and all. Besides, his license wasn't in order, okay for the country where he was known, but here, in the Pope's headquarters? I directed him to Roma Termini, and we pulled up to the station at 5:30. It was hot. Honorio looked unhappy at having to park just where gli stradali hovered and carabinieri patrolled. As soon as we got out and told him to stay put, taxis started hooting, their drivers yelling at him to go home to his boondocks and quit scabbing if he wanted to keep teeth in his head. We dashed for the phones. After several mixups, I appreciated the Italian adage that it was easier to make a call in the Congo than in Rome. I got through to GM and was switched around until a French voice came on. My question was briefly answered —Sorry. Moreover, I was crazy absolument if I dreamt they stocked gaskets for Starfires, let alone the current year; furthermore, what fou had brought such a car to Italy? It belongs to a Swiss friend, I said. The Parisian voice sneered —You know what you can tell to your Swiss friend what to do? You can make the most sincere suggestion that he should take his F-85 and he should...
—Oui, oui, certainement, I said, that he shall, naturellement, n'est-ce pas? Merci!
I hung up, thinking Henrik Martin's chances unclear and Sammacerata remote. My next step was obvious. Before he could ask me for information regarding gaskets, I was dialing the office on Via Barberini. They told me they'd wait only until 8 pm or keep my check on hold. Meanwhile Martin was plucking at my sleeve, and though I had an urge to knock him down, I contained it.
—What iss going on? he pleaded.
—Bad news, Martin. No parts. Gaskets aren't in demand down here. In Switzerland maybe, who knows...?
Henrik was stunned. He'd actually hoped for a gasket in Rome.
—Aber ziss iss Rome! General Motors iss ze biggest corporation in ze world! How iss possible zat? How can zey say no?
Honorio approached, having grasped the situation from our expressions.
—I have to go, quick, before I am arrested. The stradale is observing my machine, you see?
There was a motorcycle cop in front of it, lounging on his bike, helmet on knee, smoking a cigarette and regarding that mud-spattered Fiat 1100 with its rusted-out Naples plates. He was taking his time. Roma Termini: interesting stuff shows up here. I realized we'd neglected in our haste to shake hands with Honorio.
—How much do you want for the trip?
Honorio looked Henrik solemnly in the eye as I translated —Since it was my day off, I'll make it cheap for you. In fact I'll make it reasonable since you were kind enough to put gas to it. How's 100,000 lire? Good? Non è vero, Maestro?
That was near a hundred-fifty dollars. Henrik Martin, with no Italian, was economist enough to calculate a number in any language.
—A hundred thousand lire! Aber, zat iss not possible! Ziss filthy Italian can't take zo much! For an afternoon taxi? I must have him arrested for zat! I call zee carabinieri!
To Honorio I said —Be gentle now, how can you take advantage of the poor man like that?
Henrik had pulled out his wallet. He unfolded three 10,000 lire notes and waved them over his head. —Ziss is all I have! Tell him so!
—Thirty thousand lire for such a little ride, I said. Take it, Honorio. You can quit driving for a month. Va bene? If he paltered, I knew he'd take it. But he surprised me.
—Macché! Ma, non va bene per nulla e per niente!
Without glancing towards Martin, Honorio in a newly-grave voice ticked off five reasons to spurn the offer, folding one finger at a time: Primo, Signor, with all due respect I must inform you this man is German, not Swedish. Secondo, you are departing on your own affairs. Terzo, he has another 120,000 lire in his pocket, also American Express, not to mention other valuta he carries in his portatutto. Quattro, he does dirty business. E cinco, so far as I am concerned, he can go straight home direct from Roma Termini to Munich where he comes from and live another day. Let him station his broken-down barco di lusso with us—we'll hold it for a piccolo anticipo? After all, he must wish to see tomorrow, non è vero? If he likes to pay also a little tax, un piccolo morso di pagimento comè tassa, we will arrange to put his wheels on a train north domani, puo darsi... o altremente un bel giorno, per Natale, chissa? Facilissimente! Lo giuro! Tell him so. Tell him he has not to worry, he should hold faith we take care for him... eventually. Lo giuro! We are honest in Sammacerata, honorable people. If his life is of any worth to him. He has perhaps a wife? Dunque? Summing up with that interrogative, he rapped his pudgy, nicotine-stained fist against his heart.
Henrik Martin got the gist of Honorio's discourse. He guessed his car was hostage, if not shipped tomorrow, then whenever, if ever. That gesture, its grand sincerity, convinced him he was for it. His money, his Oldsmobile, or his life. All, maybe? I feared he might try something rash as he fumbled the combination lock on that attaché. He looked desperate enough. I thought if he was operating out of Geneva, it meant money, not necessarily his own. He'd be lucky to get away. I supposed Ercole and Honorio ran things down there between Aversa and Acerra. They'd care for Henrik Martin. I thought that was already decided.
—Martin, I said, you have no way out. Hand over that 100,000 lire. Do you have Traveler's checks?
—You know I am expected in Switzerland!
—Honorio says you have Traveler's checks.
—Will you call your bank tomorrow?
—I can, maybe. Or, yes.
—Call them if you hope to get your car on that train. Honorio will drive you to Naples in the morning where you can wire for cash.
To Honorio I said —You'll drive Signor Martin to Naples in the morning to get money?
Hand crossing heart, Honorio smiled that Southern smile and crooned —Ma certo. Certissimo! Surely you don't take us for malefici?
Waving that cop off, he scurried to the Fiat. Martin dragged after him, face livid and blotched with fear. He looked back with an expression that beseeched me to accompany him, as though I could save him from those goodwilled Italians, as pitiless as they were logical. And I might have considered it, had I not glimpsed his PPK. Martin could prove dangerous in a fair match, if fairness was known to their game. I waved him Addio. Good luck? I had none in hand.
I strolled through the entry hall of Roma Termini and saw there'd be two hours to wait for the local to Civitavecchia. Behind me someone called out —Professor? Hello? Havah sat at a table in the cafè. She was perturbed at not having seen me in Naples. She was waiting for her night train. What was I doing here? How did I get here?
—By car. Long story.
She studied me.
—With Henrik Martin.
—So? And where is our Mr. Martin, if you please?
—Gone. He dropped off me here.
She seemed very disappointed. Had she had dinner, I asked. No, she was hungry, but these prices... I asked her to eat with me. We stepped out to dine al fresco on a real table-cloth. The sun was sinking beyond the buildings near the station, and I was famished. She relaxed over a second glass of wine and mentioned to me her plans for Geneva. Light housework. Companion to businessman's wife.
—I wondered why you were studying German.
Blunt as usual, she snapped —Why not? Should I not?
But the way she dropped her eyes suggested she wanted something. Not coquetry. Ulterior motive? The day's hectic passages weighed on me, a new puzzle was now added. As we waited for our dessert, she hesitated to bring up what she ought not. Abruptly, all warmth, she smiled.
—May I ask you a question, Professor?
—Don't play with me. Everyone on the BILU called you so.
—Not to my face.
—Not to your face. So, you are a professor?
—If you say so.
—From Los Angeles?
—So. They were talking on the BILU about why you came to Israel.
—Ship's officers. Others. And brought your family.
—What about my family?
—I find you alone. That was your wife and children on the BILU? So where are they?
—And you are here.
—So I am.
—See what? I'm in Rome to pick up my car.
—You don't need to tell me a story.
—I left my car in Civitavecchia to be serviced, and I'm taking the train out there at 9 o'clock.
—All right, all right! So why did you come to Israel?
—If anybody talked about me, they read something in a newspaper. I gave some lectures. I read some poems.
She looked doubtful. Another puzzle wouldn't have surprised me at that moment.
—Poems? In Jerusalem? Lectures?
—Come on, Professor. Everyone knows the writers are in Tel Aviv. For writers you don't go to Jerusalem. Jerusalem is government.
—I was invited by the president.
—For poems? No, you went for the hradah.
—Hradah, the hradah! Don't act stupid.
—Excuse me, Havah, what is hradah?
—You know what is hradah. Airplanes, missiles, electronics—everything has hradah.
—Radar, hradah, yes! What you came to Israel for.
—Havah, you must be mixing me up with someone else.
—Not so. I know Colonel Rafid from the Chief of Staff went to Haifa to meet your ship. Did not Rafid take you to Jerusalem in the president's car? Don't tell me it was somebody else!
—You seem well-informed.
—I know what I know. But why? You can tell me the truth—I'm sabra.
—Truth you want?
—Truth, yes. And now!
This was absurd. Or was it? She leaned, intent across the table, her spoon poised over that cassata Siciliana melting to sludge.
—President Shazar brought me to Israel... to read poems.
—Impossible! You joke! I won't stand for that. Poems, he tells me?
—You think poetry worth nothing?
—I think you must be crazy! Havah stared at me, incredulous, furious.
—The president of Israel doesn't think so.
—The president thinks poems good for Israel like hradah?
She dashed her spoon into the puddled dish and jumped up, bursting out, —Are you mad? You must be mad! Mad, absolutely mad!
—And the president is mad! Israel is more mad! Wait! You shall pay! They will all pay! Just wait!
She snatched her heavily-laden straw purse, took up her valise, and rushed away into the station. Diners at nearby tables gaped. For their benefit I shrugged, then called for the check.
—Signor, the waiter said loudly enough for our audience, I think there must be another man in your affair, non è vero?
—Si, si! Un altro, puo darsi...
Another man? Chissa? It seemed not impossible, after all, that our pilgrimage to the Holy Land suited a game played by others, willing and able to tamper.