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Necessary stories

The Azedarach Tree

What a father sees from his window in the dark of an October night triggers painful memories, in Haim Watzman’s new Necessary Story

Haim Watzman is the author of Company C, A Crack in the Earth, and Necessary Stories. For more information on his books, and an archive of all his Necessary Stories, visit Southjerusalem.com.

Illustration by Avi Katz
Illustration by Avi Katz

Chill autumn gusts whipped the gaunt branches of the azedarach tree across the road and the wind above propelled ragged clouds across the sky. A pale gibbous October moon flickered in the heavens as the clouds passed; the wan light of a streetlamp lit the earth below it. Off to the right, past the tree, in the parking lot by the jerrybuilt shopping center, a heavy man was shouting at the top of his lungs as he emerged from the driver’s seat of a taxicab. It was a quarter to two in the morning, and Eli watched from a half-open third-floor living room window, having just spent ten minutes singing Kobi, his five-year-old, back to sleep.

“Avner!” the cab driver shouted, facing the dark display window of a narrow store that sold candy, lottery tickets, and cheap school supplies. “Avner! Kus emak! I know you’re hiding in there!”

A police car sped past, its siren in unhurried and silent rotation. The Azedarach tree seemed to beseech it with its branches, but the cruiser evaded its grasp.

Eli was dead tired and had to get up early in the morning, but the shouting man had pierced the fog of drowsiness he’d managed to maintain while singing in the kids’ room and he felt his heartbeat speeding up.

The driver reached into his car, pulled out a bottle of something that glinted dimly in the moonlight, and took a swig. He walked up to the store’s padlocked metal door and banged on it. “Avner! I know you’re inside! Your ex told me!”

Eli heard Kobi whimper and pursed his lips. Didn’t the police notice that this drunk was waking up the whole neighborhood? He wondered if he should call 100 but that would wake him up completely. He headed back to the room where his three children slumbered, deliberately shuffling his feet in the hope that if he acted sleepily, he would stay that way.

He knelt down by Kobi’s bed and whispered in his ear. “Don’t wake up.” He was about to add something else besides, but could not. The boy opened his eyes just for an instant, saw his father, let out a deep breath, and closed them again. Eli stroked the blanket that warmed his youngest and, when he was certain that his sleep was sure and deep, he got up. He crossed the hallway back to the bed he shared with Hava and sat down slowly so as not to disturb her. Curling up on his side and pulling the blanket up over his head, he put his right hand into his boxers and, focusing on the lovemaking of a couple hours past, sank into a soft erotic reverie that was broken by the deafening VROOM VAROOM of an unmuffled motorcycle speeding down the road and screeching to a halt. Eli refused to open his eyes and tried to pretend that it hadn’t happened, but a minute later it happened again and then again and Kobi was wailing once more.

Eli threw the blanket aside and glanced wearily at Hava, who stirred but did not wake. He got up and rubbed his chest and cheeks and made himself decent and crossed over to the kids’ room. The two older ones slept on as if the Holon night were as peaceful as a deserted beach in the Sinai, but Kobi’s eyes were open wide with terror. Eli knelt down and gave him a hug.

“It’s ok.” He smoothed the blanked over the boy. “Just some crazy kids on motorcycles.”

“Is it over?” Kobi whispered, his eyes darting around the room in search of monsters in the shadows.

“I hope so. I don’t know why the police don’t stop them.”

Kobi shuddered. “Are you going to die?”

Eli smiled. He wanted to say: “No, of course not. Abba’s going to be with you for a long time.” But he could not.

“You’ll die sometime.”

Eli closed his eyes tight. He decided that it was better to sing. He sang the cart and the horse song and the hyacinth song and the one about the train with the children on it. Kobi gradually stopped trembling, then closed his eyes, and soon his breathing was soft and even. Eli heard the cab driver shouting and went back to the living room window. Swinging back and forth in the wind, the azedarach tree looked like a keening mourner. The three motorcyclists had pulled up around the cab and were dismounting and removing their helmets. The cab driver motioned them forward. In the distance and dim lighting, they looked like a trio of identical giant gym rats.

“I brought some guests for you, Avner!” the driver shouted. “They’re some guys who like to beat in the faces of cheats like you.”

One of the motorcyclists pulled a giant bolt cutter out of the backseat of the cab and applied it to the padlock on the door, which clattered to the ground. He pulled open the door and his two companions followed him in. They emerged a few seconds later, dragging a man in cutoffs and a t-shirt who struggled vainly to break free. Two of the gym rats held him erect on display to the cab driver and the third punched him in the belly. The wind suddenly stopped and the Azedarach tree’s branches fell earthward. The man went limp and groaned.

“What’s going on?” Eli felt Hava’s presence behind him but could not look away from the scene below. He felt her touch his shoulder. A blast of wind through the window pummeled his chest.

“Oh my God!” she exclaimed as she took in the sight. “Did you call the police?”

“I was just going to,” Eli mumbled.

“No wonder Kobi was crying!” she said as she punched the three numbers into her cell phone.

The cab driver’s voice was no longer loud. He was speaking to the guy from the store but the wind carried away the words. The storekeeper looked desperately around him, then nodded. The two guys holding him pulled him up and switched their grip from his forearms to his shoulders. They walked him back into the store.

“No, I don’t want to identify myself. And I certainly won’t give you my phone number.” Hava gave an exasperated sigh. Then she looked up. “She said they’ll send a cruiser right now. She asks if you see any firearms.” Eli shook his head.

Kobi was crying again.

“Go tell him everything will be ok,” Hava told him. Eli shook his head again and stayed by the window.

“What’s wrong with you?” she said, first with annoyance, and then again with concern. She put a hand to his eyes and found a tear.

“I was just remembering …” Eli said, then stopped to watch the three young guys march their prisoner out. He held a wad of money in his hand and began counting out bills and laying them in the cab driver’s palm. Twice he stopped and twice the gym rats shook him and he resumed counting, until all the money he had brought out was in the cab driver’s hand. The cab driver nodded and shouted: “That’s more like it, ya hatihat hara!”

“My father,” Eli said softly. “When I used to wake up, when the sirens went off, or when my mother screamed at him in the middle of the night, or when he went off to the army, he’d pat me on the head and say that he’d never leave me, that everything would be all right.”

The wind screeched and the Azedarach tree raised its branches to fend it off.

Hava hugged him. “And it wasn’t.”

Eli choked back the boy’s wail that was trying to get out. One of the gym rats gave the storekeeper a final punch and he crumpled to the ground. The three of them mounted their motorcycles and sped away. The cab driver kicked the man on the ground, laughed, and got into his car and drove away. Kobi’s sobs were growing louder.

A police cruiser came down the road. It slowed down as it passed the shopping center but did not stop. The officers inside either didn’t see the body on the ground or chose not to. They continued on their rounds.

“When you’re five years old and you wake up and the world seems scary,” he said to his wife, “no one tells you how right you are.”

“Abba!” Kobi’s voice grew louder. “Abba!”

Hava stroked his face. “So what will you do?”

Eli sighed. “I’ll sing him a song. The one about the azedarach tree in the fall, hoping for a little peace and quiet.” He took a deep breath and headed for the kids’ room. Just before going in, he turned to Hava and smiled. He kept singing to Kobi for a long time, long after the boy had fallen into a deep sleep.

****

Haim Watzman’s Necessary Stories appear in The Times of Israel every four weeks. He is the author of Company CA Crack in the Earth, and a collection of his stories, Necessary Stories. For more information on his books, and an archive of all his Necessary Stories, visit Southjerusalem.com. To receive an email notification each time a new story appears, sign up for the Necessary Stories mailing list.

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