by Olivia Kate Cerrone
|Before I broke my mother’s heart for good, I watched Rabbi Levi break his son’s nose in the middle of the Shuk Hapishpishim bazaar. Moshe Levi was a friend of mine, and my ticket out of Jaffa depended on him, in spite of all the warnings I’d heard. People called him a hustler. Some said he was crazier than a shithouse rat. What further proof did I need than to witness how he knocked the tomes of Talmudic study from his father’s grasp and kicked the holy books into the dirt? His father was quick to lunge at him after that. Like son, like father.I was fifteen and restless then, still a few years away from the IDF. I enjoyed visiting the open air markets after school, cutting through the long rows of vendors and their glittering tables showcasing trays of jewelry, trinkets, perfumes, and scarves, then out onto the main intersection, where my mother and I shared a tiny flat off of Yefet Street. My father had long deserted us for a more prosperous life in Los Angeles. I was still in diapers when he moved us over from Fez. Like us, the Levi clan made Aliyah from Morocco after the French left in 1956, ushering in a new era of anti-Semitism under the rule of Mohammad V. Their mother took a liking to my own ima, and they’d been close friends before the leukemia put an end to Mrs. Levi. Growing up, I saw much of the Levi boys, and likened them to cousins, especially Moshe, the youngest of the three brothers and my senior by about seven years.
That’s why I found myself at Moshe’s side, helping him to his feet after his father knocked him to ground. Blood wet the space above his lips. He wrapped an arm around my neck and pulled me closer into his scent of figs and King Solomon cologne.
“You should see what he’s like when he’s angry,” Moshe laughed.
The elder Levi, in his wide-brimmed hat and black suit, hurried off before a crowd could gather. He was not a rabbi in practice, not anymore at least, but still thought of himself as a man of serious study, trading in Conservatism for Orthodoxy. He spent most of his time at the Ajami Yeshiva, despite the daily terrorist threats. Some claimed its construction was part of a plot bent on further Judaizing the area, one that’d already started replacing Arab street names with Hebrew ones. Their threats could not distract the former rabbi from mourning his late wife, which occupied much of his attention. What his sons did was of their own concern.
Moshe and I left the bazaar for Jaffa Port. On the way, we passed the abandoned café bombed a month ago. The storefront was burnt out, the remaining walls inside covered in soot and the faint brown markings of blood. I looked away. A life-sized cutout of Gilad Shalit stood by the open doorway of an electronics store across the street. The boy had been returned to us alive a little more than a year ago. I held Gilad’s cardboard stare until it was no longer possible. Moshe held the sleeve of his jacket to his nose as we walked.
He moved his free hand against his black hair, which he wore long, slicked back into a greasy ponytail. He muttered something about changing the arrangements of our deal. It was only a summer job selling Dead Sea cosmetics at a mall kiosk in Miami, but I was desperate to take it. A pair of soldiers passed us on the street. They looked no more than eighteen, their faces pinched with a gravity that inspired gooseflesh along my arms. Soon would come the day when we went to war with Iran. It wasn’t serving that frightened me, but the anticipation of war, of explosions. Growing up, I listened to neighbors who’d survived the Six-Day War or witnessed the Jaffa Road bombings. Stories webbed across my subconscious. Some nights as a boy, I’d dream of missiles falling like a rain of stars upon the earth and I’d wake up screaming. A life lived in constant tension oppressed me. I wanted out.
“What about the job has changed?” I asked.
We reached Pasteur Street, which led to the waterfront promenade. A cool evening breeze cut across the water and skimmed over my nose and lips. The harbor was deserted, save for a few fishermen docking their boats. I gazed out at the lighthouse and a handful of small anchored vessels before us, their painted turquoise and yellow sides reflecting the last of the day’s mercurial light. The honey-colored clay faces of ancient buildings surrounded us, and the heads of palm trees hung above or between them.
Moshe sat against one of the steps that descended into the sea. From his jacket pocket he withdrew some rolling papers and a plastic baggie of hash. It was a habit he sometimes shared when we were alone. We hung out once or twice a week, but I often saw him around Jaffa when he was in town, sidling up alongside some merchant, scheming. Jobs were scarce in these parts. You worked because of who you knew and seldom what you knew.
I couldn’t blame Moshe for doing what he did, even after I discovered the full treacherous extent of his plans. What I knew at first was innocent. After his IDF training, he spent a few years living in Miami, attempting his own businesses—namely a plus-sized lingerie store and a kosher pizzeria—both of which fell apart within the first nine months. Each time he failed in the States, he’d come back to Jaffa with some new, jaded theory about the American consumer, which always, unwittingly ended his luck by no fault of his own. But in a few months, he’d have licked his wounds, having had enough of the local prostitutes or sitting around kvetching, and decided to try out something new. Now he was in league with some ragtag gang of Russian Israeli Jews distributing knockoffs of Ahava bath salts and face creams. They rounded up young twenty-somethings mostly, kids straight out of IDF training with no plans for college, and sent them to work in the States.
“Are we still going to work together in Miami?” I said.
Moshe handed me a generous-sized doobie.
“Smoke this with me,” he said.
I took a long, deep puff, then watched him do the same, until a familiar heaviness unfolded in me like waves of sleepy detachment and scattered the questions perched on my tongue. Moshe placed a hand on the back of my neck and stroked his soft fingers through my hair. I thought of other places his hand could go and then pulled away, drawing my arms around my knees to hide my erection. It wasn’t the first time his presence had aroused me. I’d known what I liked for years by then, though the furthest I’d ever gone was giving head in the men’s room at a club in Tel Aviv. To become further involved with someone from Jaffa, especially someone like Moshe, entailed a degree of exposure I wasn’t ready to take. I knew America through its reality TV shows and Hollywood films—everything gushed money and freedom. The chance to be with Moshe in Miami enthralled me.
“You don’t know my father, Sami,” Moshe said, paying no attention to my movements.
“That cheap, stingy manyak let my mother die because he didn’t want to keep paying her medical bills.”
He took a long hit off his doobie, as if to allow that much to resonate with me, before continuing. “And who do you think that old bastard came to when he couldn’t afford his own expenses? Baruch HaShem, he’s got a son like me to save the day. I lend him the money, he doesn’t pay, so I have to come after him. What else am I supposed to do? Do I look like a rich man to you?”
I eyed him over quick—his pressed jeans and his clean white shirt open a little at the chest, exposing a patch of dark hairs—then looked away, lest the lump in my pants continue to stir. It wasn’t that he was a handsome man; with his husky frame and Neanderthal-like brow, he struck an eerie resemblance to a young Chaim Topol from his Sallah Shabati days. His forward nature and brazen arrogance was the kind I’d come to expect from most Israelis I knew, but I remained drawn to Moshe’s relentless spirit: the way he’d begun to embrace me in his schemes.
“You think I’m crazy?” he said. “Those Ultra-Orthodox pigs that my father worships, the ones who spit at little girls on their way to school because their long skirts aren’t modest enough. Now those are the real crazies. Me? I’m just trying to make a few bucks.”
“So what’s changed about the American job?” I said again.
Moshe killed the doobie with one last drag. His cheeks drew in tight against his skull. He squinted at me like it was hard to see.
“Everything. But it’s not me that’s changed anything.” Moshe flicked the joint away and stood, twisting his neck to the side, cracking bones into place.
“Think of Shuk Hapishpishim,” he said. “All those new restaurants and designer boutiques moving in. Already rents are up because of it. Soon we’ll be driven out and divided into rich or poor, no in between.” His fists stabbed at the air, punctuating each remark with an underscore of mounting fury. “Think of all the new goyim coming in, the Filipinos, the Africans and all the rest of the world’s poor flooding into Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, becoming home aides and dishwashers and laborers, and taking away our jobs little by little, because they represent this fucking home-based outsourcing. It’s the new capitalism.”
Moshe turned to me, the whole of him trembling. “So let me ask you a very serious question then, Sami. Perhaps the most serious of your life. Do you like making money?”
Something strange and desperate lit up his eyes, like whatever mad thoughts rattled on behind those sockets were informing him of some great oncoming cataclysm that neither one of us could prevent.
“Sure, but I’d also like to see Miami,” I said, and rose to my feet.
“You will. But they’re sending others this round. Don’t ask me why,” he said, shaking his head. “But I’ve got another job for you if you’re serious about making good money. Wouldn’t you like to do something nice for your mother?”
I hesitated before nodding my head. We Israelis had a saying: Kabaydhu v’chashaydhu. Respect him but suspect him. There were plenty of reasons to distance myself from Moshe Levi. We left the waterfront for Eilat Street.
“What I need to know first is if you’d be willing to deliver some packages,” he said.
In Jaffa, sooner or later, everyone knew your business. My ima discovered my desires to travel to America through another mother of some jealous friend at school, no doubt, during her shift at the local laundromat where she’d spent most of her working life. It was all she could talk about during supper when I returned home that night, even after I told her it wasn’t happening. At least not yet. She flitted about the kitchen with enough energy to keep the house lights burning, hammering me with questions as she served spoonfuls of couscous and lamb onto my dinner plate.
“Why can’t you find work in Israel? Even picking olives on a kibbutz would make me happier than this.” She spoke il’arabiyya dyalna, the language of her parents, forgoing Hebrew altogether, which she often did when upset. My mother was a woman of habits; she held on hard to what she knew. She resisted Western clothes and wore the kind of shapeless dresses only her grandmothers could admire. Her dark, elegant features remained framed by the kerchief she wore over her long hair. She prayed and kept kosher. A mezuzah hung from most doorways in our apartment, except the one leading into my room. She’d taken it down that night she found the vibrator in my sock draw and pummeled me with her fists. Afterwards, she wept and clung, her nails pinching my arms, because I was still all she had left.
“The money is good,” I said, but when I tried to state specific figures, I couldn’t recall if Moshe had shared that information at all. Regardless, my going away, especially to America of all places, was already a delicate subject. I couldn’t hold it against her. Her life was shaped by new starts and false promises. First her father sent her away from Sefrou for an arranged marriage in Fez, and then my father moved her to Tel Aviv, only to abandon us in Jaffa. Now I was bound to leave her too.
“You’re working with that terrible Moshe Levi too. Zichronah livracha, a blessing on his poor mother’s soul,” she said, and her hot, knowing eyes searched me.
I shoveled the last chunk of meat from my plate and chewed slow. What point was there in convincing her how the job was only temporary or what a great opportunity it was to work in America after paying my dues to Moshe (or so I believed at the time)? I no longer resembled the good Jewish son destined to take care of his mother. Through silence, I resisted.
“Selfish pig, just like your father. After everything I’ve done for you. Go make a whore of yourself. But don’t plan on coming back. Go on and let me die alone here in the care of some Filipino,” she said.
Threats were another of her habits I knew well. For the rest of the week, she reinforced them with her own stubborn brand of silence. Nights I found her on the sofa, watching television with supreme concentration, indifferent to my comings and goings. Grudges were my ima’s forte. She’d never forgiven my father for deserting us, and never forgave any other man for it either. There was no winning this game, so I was quick with the white flag and cooked dinners by way of making amends, sometimes even preparing matbucha, her favorite Moroccan dish. She refused to touch anything, though I continued to set it before her on the coffee table. With the appearance of each new plate of food, she pursed her lips, repulsed. Dark, terrible thoughts wormed through my imagination—how might she react to babka sweetened with boric acid or glass chips floating in her mint tea? I’d wrestled with such thoughts before. The violence I wished to commit against my mother disturbed me, though I resisted these demons and continued my offerings.
Moshe’s packages came wrapped in thick plastic sheaths the size of a large hardcover novel, varying in width and weight. They were placed exactly where Moshe said they would be, on a front table in the lobby near the entrance. They arrived unstamped and unprocessed, without any indication that they’d been through a postal service. They bore only my name and address, printed in large script across the front. I’d pick them up after school, hours before my mother returned from the laundromat, and learn of their final destination through a public phone at an internet café on Yefet Street. The speaker’s rough feminine voice carried an accent I could not place.
The first two packages I delivered unobstructed—one to a jewelry repair shop, the other to a tailor’s, both independent businesses and used to receiving personal drop-offs. Fronts for much larger, sinister operations, I could only suspect, and the prospect excited me. I likened myself to Robert DeNiro as a young Vito Corleone, dashing across rooftops to pursue a hit on some mobster. But what was in those packages? Moshe told me to be delicate in my handling, and so I imagined what was passing through my hands was, in fact, blocks of cocaine, containers of ecstasy pills, vials of heroin. While I was always curious, only the contents of the fourth package would haunt me for life. The third was apprehended by Saul Levi.
The eldest of the three brothers, Saul lived in Manhattan, where he worked in financial investing, herding the money of rich men through the stock market. Shepherd-like, with sharp, noble features, he stood a head taller than Moshe and dressed always in the most sophisticated suits. He was clean-shaven, his black hair cut close to his head. He did well in America from what I’d heard, but here in Israel, when he popped in on infrequent, unexpected occasions, he remained aloof and condescending. Sometimes he returned to his father’s house to check in on the old man and his brother Liran. That is where I met him, when I visited one afternoon the following week, looking for Moshe. We never hung out there, but I felt out of options. He wouldn’t pick up his phone, and seldom did he have much of a permanent address. The call had never arrived at the internet café, and I was left stuck with the mysterious goods.
Saul looked as if he’d come straight from meeting with some high-powered client. His smoke-gray suit appeared tailor-made for his physique, and he held an iPhone as if I’d interrupted him in the middle of an important call. He cringed at the mention of Moshe’s name.
“What could you possibly want with him?” he said.
“It’s business,” I said, trying to hold my ground. “Do you know where he is?”
Saul glared at me, as if a spot on my face disturbed him. “Come inside. Now.”
Inside the house, bookshelves lined the four walls, and a leather sofa sat in center of the room, draped with a paisley-print blanket. A bronze floor lamp stood on an orange shag carpet. On a wall hung an oil painting that Mrs. Levi had painted herself of a street in Casablanca. It was all the same as I remembered it years ago. Ima used to take me here for our play dates when the Levi boys were much younger. The living room emptied into a hallway of bedrooms. From one of the rooms drifted music I recognized as Mor Karbasi, singing in her seductive Ladino tongue. Saul offered me a spot beside him on the couch.
“I know your mother, Sami. Our mothers were great friends once. I know she wouldn’t raise an idiot. Why are you hanging around that criminal?” he said.
Before I could answer, a voice called from the room of Sephardic singing, and then a short, bald man appeared from the hallway. Tinted glasses rested on the high bridge of his nose, concealing the aftereffects of a failed suicide attempt. The bullet cut straight through his temples and left him blind in one eye. It’d been years since I saw Liran in person. The gossip kept me at a distance. People said he’d never recovered from his mother’s death and became a recluse, spending his days trolling the internet for porn. But I’d always known him as solemn and distant. He did something practical with computers outside of the possible porn scouting, and still slept in the same childhood room that all the brothers once shared.
“He stole money from our father,” Liran said.
“Almost a hundred thousand at least. Maybe you know something about it? Some investment in a bullshit line of Dead Sea cosmetics. Is that what you’ve got there?” Saul reached for the package but I turned fast, bolting out through the front door and down the street. It was Liran who caught up with me first and ripped it away. Saul locked his hand around my wrist. Moshe came down the street in his designer jeans and white pressed shirt open slightly at the chest. He froze in place at the sight of us, gaping at Saul first, and then narrowing his eyes at me.
“We were just heading to the police station with this,” Saul said, releasing me. He grabbed the package from Liran and gestured with it, advancing upon the youngest Levi.
Moshe charged at us, a rhino in his deranged ferocity. He cuffed a fist against Saul’s jaw. They traded punches and I tried to get in beside Moshe, to remind him of whose side I was actually on. His knuckles caught me across the face, but it was the savage look he gave that really stung. I went to my knees hard. The brothers continued their fighting. I took my chances and sped off, glancing back a few times to see Moshe standing over a fallen Saul. He stabbed a finger at me, firing curses from his lips.
For days I hid in my bedroom, feigning illness. I knew that no matter how long I resisted the outside world, Moshe would not forget me and my apparent betrayal. Things would never be the same between us. Ima continued her silence, no longer concerned with the constant stream of gossip filling her ears. She came across the fourth package in the lobby one evening after returning home from work. It was the same as the others, wrapped up in thick white plastic, about the width and length of a textbook. I never imagined I’d receive another.
“You want to tell me what this is?” she said.
We stood together in the living room with the television already on. The local news warned against bomb threats in the Ajami district.
“Don’t open that.” It was the worst thing I could’ve said.
She sneered, the shadows deepening across her face. In one violent gesture, she tore open the package, then the one inside that, and drew out a small hand pistol. She shrieked. A chilled sweat glazed my face and neck, though I should’ve expected such contents, coming from Moshe. I grabbed for the weapon to discard it, and a brief tug-of-war ensued. What can I say to defend myself? How can I defend the way my grip formed around the barrel or the ease with which my fingers fit into the trigger? A shot fired. Ima slammed back against the sofa. From her thigh a tiny black hole grew. Her screams followed me long after I ran out from the apartment and into the streets, the gun still hot against my palm.
I reached Jaffa Port, as if half-expecting to meeting Moshe there, only to find the marina deserted. Night pressed in from the ocean, filling the spaces between the date palms and sand-colored buildings with ink. Each moment expanded, infinite and slow. Never in my life did I know a solitude so complete. The warm silver glow of Tel Aviv sat across the harbor. A road stretched out snake-like before me, and I followed it to the street of city-bound traffic. Cars emerged and passed, one after another. Each driver obscured by a fast-moving, tinted windshield. At last a sedan decelerated, washing over me in headlights. I hid the gun beneath my shirt and stepped into my next life.
Olivia Kate Cerrone’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in a wide variety of literary magazines, including The Portland Review, The Dos Passos Review, Word Riot, and Italian Americana, where she won first place in the journal’s 2012 short fiction contest. She is completing work on The Hunger Saint, a novel set in contemporary Sicily. Chapter excerpts have appeared in Hot Metal Bridge and were translated in the Italian literary journals El-Ghibli and ScrittInediti. Ms. Cerrone is also pursuing work on a novel absorbed by the lives of three estranged Sephardic brothers, whose dysfunctional paths reunite with explosive consequences. “The Rabbi’s Son” is an excerpt from this manuscript.
Write to her at Olivia.Cerrone@gmail.com or visit her at: http://www.oliviacerrone.com/