The Ballad of Sigurd Jorsalfare
Israel; Police Station
Monday, August 17, 1990
Inspector Yossi does not approve of me.
“Who’s he?” he asks without looking at Nissim the driver.
“That’s Nissim the driver,” I tell him.
“Big star,” he says, more matter-of-factly than criticizing.
“No big star. Just a driver,” says Nissim.
“I wasn’t talking to you,” says Inspector Yossi.
“I didn’t think you were,” says Nissim, relaxing into his chair.
Inspector Yossi looks up from his tedium, lifting a good portion of it up with him. I don’t like tedium and I don’t think I like inspector Yossi.
Inspector Yossi senses it right away.
“I don’t like big stars,” he says. This time, looking at me.
“Aha,” says I.
“Just so we understand each other,” he says.
We stare at each other. Two Middle Eastern Men.
O.K. You blink first.
No — You blink first.
“Took you long enough to get here,” he says, tapping the table with a ball-point pen, “I hope it wasn’t too much of a bother,” he sneers.
Now I’m sure I don’t like him. I thought I knew it already, but now I’m really sure.
“So, big shot, what are you doing with yourself in America that you don’t have time to take care of your father?”
“I’m sorry?” I say.
“Tell your father you’re sorry,” he says, “I don’t need your apologies.”
I just stare at him, incapable of thinking, incapable of talking, incapable even of getting angry at this insufferable prick.
“Let me show you something,” he says and shoves a framed picture under my nose. “What do you see?”
I see a very ugly old man standing by a donkey, in front of a palm tree. All three resemble each other.
“That’s my grandfather, Yaakov,” he says.
“Which one?” I ask innocently, as innocently as I can ask, which is a lot.
“My father’s father,” he answers, missing my innocence by a mile, thank God. One of these days I’ll get killed.
He puts the picture on the desk and straightens his shirt, brushing off a piece of dust, or lint. He has a nice, starched, ironed blue shirt that contrasts beautifully with his black mustache and dark brown eyes.
“My grandfather Yaakov used to beat my father with a stick every day. You know why?”
I decide to play it safe and just arch my eyebrows.
“Respect. That’s why. To teach my father respect.” He examines my face to see if I’m getting it. Apparently not.
“A son should respect his father,” he says to the first grader in front of him.
“I agree,” I say. Good boy.
“He’d also beat his wife every day with a stick. Do you know why?” He asks.
“Respect?” I offer.
“No. Because he hated her guts, that’s why. OK?”
My expression puzzles him.
“A man is a man. You understand? Even a Vusvus such as yourself can understand that, no?”
The term Vusvus is a derogatory nickname given to Jews of European descent by Jews of Sephardic or oriental descent. It comes from the Yiddish word ‘Vus’ — for ‘What’. That’s what I am, a ‘whatwhat’.
“My grandfather Yaakov brought every one of his relatives with him to Israel. Even the ones he hated; even his wife. He bribed Iraqi officials. He spent all his money on bribing those dogs, everything he worked for, but he brought every relative out with him. A man!” His eyes are burning.
I nod. Not much else to do at this point. That is, if I still feel like walking out in one piece.
“From a beautiful, big house. Big house, you understand? A big, big house in Baghdad to this fucking shit hole!” he pounds the desk with his fist, trying to break it. “Near who? Arabs! For this he ran away from Iraq?”
“M’igra rama l’bira amikta,” he suddenly throws in a Talmudic phrase meaning ‘From a city on high to a deep hole’. “You understand? He was so angry, so depressed he beat my grandmother with anything he could get his hands on. He told her they stuck them in Yaffo because she was too ugly to fit anywhere else.”
He opens a drawer and pulls out a pair of keys and slams them on the desk.
“Me — I never touch my kids with a hard hand. Nothing! Not even a spanking — you understand? Just candy. Yes? Also my wife.”
I guess. I don’t know anymore.
“Because my father, Shmuel, Alav Hashalom — may he rest in peace — he cried like a baby when he’d tell me about my grandfather beating him and his mother. You understand?”
I decide to just keep on nodding until evening falls or until a new war breaks out — whichever comes first, whatever it takes.
“But, crying — no crying — respect! That’s what I’m trying to tell you today.
Because in America you don’t understand respect. I watch TV, OK?”
He pulls out a piece of paper from a folder and pushes it at me.
I look at the printed paper as though staring at a moon rock.
“In Hebrew. You still remember how to write in Hebrew, right?”
“What am I signing?” I ask meekly.
“The keys to his house, Alav Hashalom.”
He hands me the keys, as though handing loose change to a leper. Having finished his rant, he leans back on his chair and sighs, folding his hands behind his head.
“A war hero like your father. A man. Raised you in — what do you call that place?”
I shake my head. I’m not playing this game anymore.
“A villa you grew up in and how do you let your father die?” Now it’s his turn to shake his head, only he does it way better than me.
“I guess people die like this also. Like dogs,” and he puts his shoes on the table, showing me he’s done with me.
I stand up and look at the room. It’s small. It’s gray, kind of, the color of a room that has given up on wanting to be any color at all long ago. The tile floor is clean and speckled, having never gotten over the measles. The windows are barred.
I look at inspector Yossi, reclining away from me, repulsed. We are separated by his family, standing sentinel on his desk, framed and ready. Surrounding him with beatings, kisses, love, humiliation, and pride.
How is a man to do his work? With Grandpa Yaakov and his donkey and their palm tree and the journey and the story and the fury and all the contempt the world could hold in one man, in one room, with the windows barred?
And I say: “Thank you,” and we leave, Nissim the driver and I.