Fear Of Red Tomatoes — Chapter 9
Human Lives, Re imagined — A Historical Novel
Read “Chapter 8” at
Chapter 9— Children Of The Grave
1984 — 1985, Lud, Israel
Part A — Ramleh Lud
Right down the road from Lud stood another large town called Ramleh. Over the years the two towns grew to the point where they were practically connected. In ancient times, Lud was a Jewish Maccabean town. Then it became a big center of learning and administration under the Romans. Later, it was predominantly Christian, clustering around St. George’s church and tomb. Ramleh on the other hand was a lot younger, built only twelve hundred years ago by an invading Muslim army. In the Middle Ages, when Lud’s significance has diminished Ramleh took its place as the big government center, gleaming with palaces and Turkish bath houses, controlling the trade between Cairo, Damascus, Jaffa and Jerusalem.
Both towns were important because they were centrally located, close to the Jerusalem road. And when the British took over from the Turks in the early 20th century, an airbase and civilian airport were built nearby. In the war of 1948 both towns were thoroughly “cleansed” by the infamous Nobel Prize Peace winner, Yitzhak Rabin. Despite the situation, just like in Lud, plenty of Arabs remained in Ramleh, clinging stubbornly to old crumbling houses in the center. The area absorbed a lot of Jewish refugees from the Middle East and south eastern Europe, and experienced a rebirth in the 1950s. Many successful agricultural villages were founded nearby, and by the 1980s those villages turned into luxurious suburbs. Famous generals, writers, doctors and scientists lived there, completely isolated from the poverty and misery just a few miles away.
In the same 1950s another “attraction” arose on the road between the two towns. A huge concrete pillbox fortress built by the Brits was converted into a maximum security prison. For many years “Ramleh Prison” held the most dangerous criminals in Israel. In the 1960s it had the dubious honor of being the place where the Nazi arch criminal Adolf Eichmann lived and died. In the 1970s, the prison was expanded and security prisoners from the territories were brought in. Then in 1985, a famous murderer who was painting the outside walls escaped. He was a former artist who decided that child abduction pays more. When he was finally recaptured, the judge took into consideration the beautiful floral murals he painted on the ugly prison walls when sentencing him.
In the summer of 1984 Joe finished eighth grade, It was time to think of a suitable high school to go to. It was his first chance to escape the ‘hood, but there was no money available to send him to a private school in Tel-Aviv. Luckily for him, there was one more “hidden” attraction in their area — a legendary high school that everyone simply called “Ramleh Lud”. It was very hard to get into, and the education it bestowed on it’s students was one of the best available in the country. Ironically it was located right next to Ramleh prison walls, which gave rise to many jokes about the school being a prison and vice versa. Just like the prison, it was founded in the 1950s. A group of young Math and Physics teachers from Romania settled in Ramleh and decided to bring old European educational standards to the area. Quickly growing and expanding, it became the school of choice for all the local kids who wanted to get into a University. The entrance exam Joe took was four hours long, and the interview with the principal was mandatory and dreaded by all applicants. Joe was one of only three kids from Memshalti who got in. The other two dropped out by the eleventh grade.
Ramleh Lud was a breath of fresh air. Studying there was like escaping into a universe of normalcy, where people were sane…
Back in eighth grade Joe’s biggest concern was how not to get knifed by one of his classmates after he refused to do homework for him. A week later it was how to make peace (“sulha”) and end their blood feud. Joe had no choice but to fight dirty, so he hit him on the head with a rock he hid in his pocket during their fight in the school yard. The guy was taken to the hospital with a contusion. Joe knew that unless they had a sulha by the time the guy was released, he would be stabbed that very week. He also knew that it could a a very serious deep stab that might kill him because now it was a matter of face and the guy had to regain his creds. So he took a bus to the hospital that very same evening, trembling inside. After a few hours of backgammon and surprisingly deep conversations about life, peace was re-established.
Living this kind of alternative reality every day was scary and very stressful. Ramleh Lud was different. In ninth grade Joe’s biggest concern was how to get an A+ in Chemistry, despite screwing up his carboxylic acid synthesis experiment. His nemesis, a kid from Kfar Shmuel (one of the wealthy agricultural suburbs nearby) produced a perfect batch and was 15 points ahead of Joe. But Joe had a hunch that he could catch up and overcome him when they went deeper into Newtonian mechanics in Physics. By the end of the year it was clear to everybody that Joe and the other kid, who’s name was Jim, were the two brightest freshmen in all the incoming ninth grade classes.
Joe did not like Jim. They were studying in different classes and only met each other in the schoolyard several times a week. To him Jim represented everything that he did not have. Easy childhood, normal parents, money, gadgets, books, and freedom. Sweet freedom to go anywhere he wanted and do whatever he pleased, whenever it pleased him. On some level it was painful to watch and Joe had to admit to himself that he was a little jealous and bitter. On the other hand, he did not dislike the guy either. Jim’s situation was an accident of birth and certainly not his fault. The guy was not really hateful and his arrogance was mostly bravado that Joe saw through very easily. It was interesting to talk with him once they cut through the routine bragging bullshit. There weren’t that many truly smart people in Joe’s life, now that Abe was gone. He always appreciated a chance to chat about history and philosophy with somebody who could keep up.
To him, Jim was an unfinished book, it was kind of like: “Let’s wait and see who is the better one of the two of us, mothafucka”. Jim felt the same way, and they afforded each other grudging respect.
Joe’s best friend was a guy named Jake that studied in the same class. A kid from the “normal” part of Ramleh who liked him and followed him around. They did everything together and Joe helped him study. Jake in turn introduced him to Heavy Metal. Specifically to AC/DC, Sabbath and Maiden. That resulted in instant love. A big, powerful, life long love! Together with poetry, which Joe started writing shortly after Abe’s death, Heavy Metal music and especially the Ozzy period of Black Sabbath, were the fuel that kept Joe’s emotional engine humming.
Every morning Joe jumped out of bed, got dressed and prepared for his day. He grabbed a quick breakfast that mother left for him before catching her bus to work, and started his journey through Lud. As he walked, familiar sights accosted him. Used syringes and needles, trash and broken bottles littered the streets of his neighborhood. There was also the burnt out husk of a Ford Escort that belonged to a neighbor. The guy was released from jail just a few months earlier, and the B. family sent him a message, stuffing two fragmentation grenades into his new Escort at night. The guy understood the message well and took a bus south to Beer Sheba the very next day, never to be seen again in Lud. The burnt out Escort remained as a living lesson for anybody else who needed one.
As he got out of Memshalti he passed Banit neighborhood, where the Georgian kids from Tbilisi sat and played cards as they had their morning coffee. Their parents had various businesses at the old Central Bus station in Tel-Aviv so they did not go to school much. They had large piles of green $100 bills at play, but when Joe passed by they lifted their heads, waved and yelled “Hello Bijo” at him. Joe waved back, smiled and continued walking.
He continued towards the road to Ramleh, passing the only bank in town. It was a Bank Hapoalim where his mother stood in line every month to receive the meager salary she earned from her three teaching jobs, and pay all the bills. As he thought of that, his mind that was usually busy with some new poem he was working on, or some complex astronomical equation, started drifting darkwards. It went back to Oscar and that horrible day when they lost Abe. His veins burned with the pain of that loss and the humiliation inflicted upon them by their only surviving relative, Sima’s very brother, the last remaining Glickman. Frankly, he did not give a flying fuck about Oscar, but he felt bad for his mother, who — missing her own mother, felt some kind of weakness towards that asshole. What Joe did miss was Abe, and he missed him terribly, horribly and simply unbearably. In fact, he missed him so goddamn much he felt like his insides were melting whenever he thought of his sweet grandfather!
He knew that hearing “Children Of The Grave” from Sabbath’s Masters Of Reality always helped, and he rushed to do that. There was no point coming to school an emotional mess. Joe did not own a walkman, so he queued up the tape in his mind and pressed Play as he walked. Geezer Butler’s rhythmic tapping on the bass set his atmospheric mood up. As Bill Ward’s intensifying drums built up the unforgiving, scary, explosive rhythm, Joe felt his body shiver. Then, as Tony Iommi’s tortured, down-tuned, whiny guitar erupted into the main riff he felt the incredible emotional release thunder through his body. It was wild, crazy, magical! It took all the dark sorrow that floated in his body and drained it through his chest, out upwards into the beautiful blue morning sky.
Air drumming aggressively with his hands the crazy riff as it echoed endlessly through his mind, Joe got to the “Bab El Lud” ruin. Some people said it was a Sheik’s tomb. Others quoted a famous 13th century Arab traveler that mentioned a gatehouse on the road from Ramleh. For him, it was the place where Lud ended and the real world began. Where every morning he left behind him all the pain and fear of his personal life and the ‘hood he lived in and entered civilization.
Next was Subhi’s restaurant. There were rumors that Arab workers peed into the hummus of Jewish patrons over there. Still, their pita with Hummus and Chips tasted awesome and Joe often ditched school to go eat it. And then — finally, there it was, the familiar brown fence! Impatient to get inside already, Joe climbed over the side gate. It was frowned upon but he knew that he was saving at least five minutes of walking, and he loved the exercise. As his feet landed on school ground, he breathed a sigh of relief. He was home.
Part B — Under the Olive Tree
Joe’s special place at school was a big olive tree in the very back, close to the running track and the lunch kiosk. The tree was at least one hundred years old, and it had huge roots that protruded from the ground upwards. They made up a comfortable nest for him to sit in without being visible from more than a few feet away. The nest was so big it could fit a few people comfortably. As soon as he saw the place he knew that this would be his “office”. Fonzie had his “office” located at the men’s bathroom at Arnold’s, the olive tree was Joe’s place.
His class attendance was selective. He came in if and whenever he wanted to. He always submitted all the papers and did the sciences labs. He showed up for all the exams and did brilliantly. Whenever he was called to the board he improvised the homework that he did not bother doing the day before, so his grades were all straight A’s and school administration let him get away with this lifestyle. They knew that he was always at school and would show up eventually if interested in the subject, or if they sent for him. They could always find him in his “office”, chewing a mortadella sandwich from the kiosk, reading some large Heinlein book in English.
Most of his early poetry was written under that tree. His friends came and hang out with him there, then convinced him to return to class or join a soccer match. Whenever somebody needed help understanding something or just a spot of assistance with homework, they all went to Joe’s “office”. He was always glad to help. That made him universally loved in Ramleh Lud, even among upper class students.
Sometimes he just enjoyed watching people running on the track during gym classes. He always skipped gym as a matter of principle and personal conviction. His logic was flawless, sooner or later he would have to go to the army and do the same things. So why bother busting his hump in the meantime? Seeing people run the same path again and again, idiotically trying to pass each other, amused him. In his mind the only competition worth investing effort into, was a mental one. Being one of the school’s top students got him a free A in gym anyway. That and the liberal attendance policy were the main “privileges” he was entitled to.
It was a beautiful clear winter day. Joe was in his “office”, dreamily watching some runners nearby, when he saw two girls separate from the group and head toward his area. He recognized Abbie from Jim’s class, but he did not know her friend. He was trying to catch a fleeting inspiration to finish his latest poem and did not relish having any company just then. Visitors had to be entertained, and he did not feel like entertaining just then.
He was not a prude by any means. Growing up in Memshalti, he was lucky enough to have spend some charming moments in eighth grade with a girl who wanted to get to know him better. Much better… He knew the moves and he knew what was achievable if you mastered those moves. Thanks to his lovely classmate, he learned at a relatively young age that the way to be successful was to smile a lot, look straight into the other person’s eyes with a measure of care, interest and a little indifference. He just did not feel like doing any of that just then. His poem was not coming together and it was annoying.
The girls, who did not see him, sat down under a smaller tree about ten feet away and started adjusting their bra straps under their gym shirts. They were gossiping fiercely about somebody and they were way too loud. He sighed, dropped the mental thread in which he was working on his poem, and stepped out from behind his tree. Adjusting his smile and straightening his blue school shirt, he walked straight towards them.
Abbie and her friend were a little surprised but not unhappy to find him there. He greeted them:
“Well, well. Welcome to my office! Can I offer you refreshing drinks after all this running”? He opened his igloo cooler where he kept soda and some wine coolers that his friends from the ‘hood supplied him with.
They settled down under his tree with Spring Mango drinks. First they talked about the new Math teacher they all agreed was a douche. Abbie said that he was very mean to their friend Limor, and told her that even if he spent all the time in class just teaching her, she would still never understand how to find the volume of a pyramid. Poor Limor started crying after that, right there in front of everybody. The verdict was uniform, Mr. Helman was a meanie and did not know how to talk to people. Joe, who had Ms. Moskowitz who was about 100 times meaner, smiled a slightly condescending smile but still grunted a sympathetic affirmation.
After more idle chit chat about mutual friends they started working on their second round of Spring Mangoes. They were all quite cosy in his tree nest. The atmosphere was warming up by the minute. Abbie smiled and said:
“Joe, this is my friend Sylvia. She lives in Nir Tzvi and she just started here a month ago. She loves poetry. I told her that you are a poet.”
Joe blushed, but then smiled. He looked closely at both of them, and then, gesticulating and looking straight into their eyes, recited:
“How beautiful you are, my darlings
How beautiful you are!
Your eyes are like doves;
Your hair is like a flock of goats
That have descended from Gilead.
Your lips are like a scarlet thread,
And your mouth is lovely.
Your temples are like a slice of a
Your breasts are like two fawns,
The twins of a gazelle
Which feed among the lilies.
Until the cool of the day
When the shadows flee away,
I will go my way to the mountain of
mirth, and to the hill of frankincense.
To admire your beauty…”
There was a moment of silence and then Abbie blew the air out of her chest and said:
“Wow! This is a little bit old fashioned but sooo romantic. Good job Joe! Keep it coming.”
Joe laughed and bowed to the girls:
“That’s not me. That is King Solomon. He was a real poet. I am just an amateurish rhyme slinger.
He was looking more carefully at Sylvia now. At first she seemed unremarkable. Petite Abbie was more attractive. But looking deeper into Sylvia’s eyes he saw things there that he did not see before. Intelligent Hazel eyes, alive with little secrets and reflections of a far away distant sea. She had a lively oval face, brown hair that fell down on her shoulders in random curls. She was curvy, perhaps a bit too curvy for her height… The bra straps she was adjusting earlier were holding in place a rather large and inviting pair of fawns.
“Mmmm, not exactly my style” thought Joe, but her smile was so mysterious and intriguing. Also, while Abbie rambled on and on and on, Sylvia spoke very little. Joe liked that.
As if to contradict that thought, all of the sudden Sylvia looked straight into his eyes and asked:
“So? Is quoting the Song of Songs all you know how to do Mr. Poet? How about something original?”
Joe laughed, then keeping her gaze, he responded with one of his favorite poems:
“Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light.
I would spread the cloths under your feet.
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”
Abbie, who was ignorant in literature and easily impressed, went:
“Wow! They should publish it in the school newspaper! It is so powerful”.
But Sylvia just laughed:
“C’mon, you really think I’ve never read Yates before? Let’s go Abbie, this guy is a poser and fake”! and got up to leave.
Before Joe had a chance to explain that he was working on a similar poem but could not find a proper ending, and in any case, he was not one to read his own poetry to some girls he hardly knew, they left. Joe stood there open mouthed. Then he laughed, grabbed his backpack and went to class.
Read “Chapter 10” at
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