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from “What You Wished For”

The Kid was back. Ziggy heard the dog’s toenails clicking on the floor while he did his usual dance. But for the Kid the dog also added yelps of joy to the ritual. The dog was more attached to the Kid than to Ziggy, or to his Wife or to the Uncle, who was his original owner.

“Lucky, you goddamn sonofabitch you,” Ziggy heard the Kid say to the dog in a babyish tone of affection. He was seventeen, his only son, tall and thin and fair-eyed like his mother, clumsy and distracted like his father.

“Hey, Dad,” said the Kid, standing in the study doorway.

“How were things in the educational system today?” asked Ziggy. He knew the answer.

“Shitty,” said the Kid.

Ziggy was surrounded by one hundred and fifty photographs of Zhilonich. They covered the desk and the chair and the armchair. Some were arranged on the floor in one long crowded row that stretched from wall to wall. The twenty drawings and a copy of the town map were pinned to the corkboard over his desk.

“What are all these fucking photographs?” asked the Kid. He went over to the wall and examined the exhibit.

“What does it look like?”

“Another shitty artsy movie that no one’s interested in?”

“Yes, a movie,” Ziggy heard himself answer.

In any event, his Wife had advised him to find out about this Ben-Nun, or “Pillar of Salt,” whose name was signed on the portfolio. He had to look into who owned the copyright and maybe even draw up an agreement that would prevent legal misunderstandings. But he had no idea how to start his search. He would have to ask gallery owners or consult with local art experts.

“So what’s the story?” asked the Kid.

“Story?”

“Yes, the plot,” the Kid said impatiently, “what is the plot of this shitty movie? One can assume that someone wrote a screenplay of some kind for this thing, or am I wrong?”

Ziggy looked over the pictures. What was the story? The Kid’s question echoed through his mind—what was the story? The little children looking curiously but fearfully at the camera? The young girls whose giggles teased the photographer? The merchants hurrying to their businesses? The elderly people with their stern expressions? The hard-faced women behind market stalls? The village idiot’s smile? The yeshiva headmaster’s gaze? The shouts of the peddler hawking her wares?

“To tell you the truth, there isn’t any story,” said Ziggy. “For now,” he quickly added.

“Look at these losers,” the Kid said suddenly and pointed to a photograph of five men standing next to each other in rubber aprons, each holding a fish by its tail. “What’s up with them? Are they fishermen or something?”

“I have no idea.” The comic, self-aware stance that the fish-holders presented to the camera lens gave Ziggy the feeling that it was this group photo—such an anomaly in the Zhilonich portfolio, a picture that seemed to have found its way there by mistake—which held a clue to the significance of the entire collection. They were not displaying fish, but dead fish. They were not proud of their catches, but of their own vitality in the face of the meaningless death of the creatures they held. Ziggy suddenly understood: all the people of Zhilonich were dead. All of them. The children, the young women, the merchants, the yeshiva students, the peddlers, the idiots, the rabbis, the fish men. They had all vanished, erased from the face of the earth, and the Zhilonich file was the only memory of their existence.

The Kid took the silver phone off the desk, held its antenna between his thumb and forefinger, swung it in the air as if it were a dead fish, thrust his left fist on his hip and stood facing Ziggy with his legs apart. “Close?” he asked. Boyish fuzz darkened his chin, which he held up in a posture of ridiculous pride.

“Especially the beard,” Ziggy said.

“Funny,” the Kid said, hurt. Then he left the room and Ziggy heard him open the fridge and move some dishes around. He came back a moment later. “Is there anything to eat in this fucking house?”

“Why don’t you heat up something from the freezer?”

“Come on, do me a favor, not another lousy frozen pizza. Give me some money and I’ll go get a shawarma.”

Ziggy gave him a fifty-shekel note.

“Should I bring you some too?” asked the Kid.

He expected his vegetarian father’s usual reply, and when it came, they recited it together: “I don’t eat donkey meat because I’m not a cannibal.” When the Kid was still a Kid, that silly line used to make him laugh. Now it was just one of the codes that signaled their intimacy.

“And take Lucky with you,” Ziggy said, “he deserves an afternoon walk.”

Ziggy heard the dog break into his dance again as the Kid directed him with a dangling leash and ugly words spoken in a saccharine voice. The door opened and slammed shut. Heavy skips echoed down the stairwell until they disappeared.

Ziggy hurried to the window and looked at the Kid, whose stride was full of joy, as if his feet knew exactly where to lead their owner. The stumpy dog dragged after him like a wind-up toy. He was old and fat and had trouble running. His tongue hung out from the corner of his mouth.

What is the plot of this shitty movie? Ziggy heard the Kid say once again. There is no plot, he answered himself. There’s no screenplay. No dialogue. No speech. In fact there’s no cinematography either. It’s not a movie at all! The idea suddenly took shape, and its title was the same as the collection of photographs: “Zhilonich Resurrected.” Yes, that’s the idea. To rebuild Zhilonich, here, in Israel. Ziggy would reconstruct the shtetl precisely, even more precisely than a movie set could. It would be Zhilonich with all its streets, its squares, its houses and yards. And in the reconstructed Zhilonich there would be people. Living people. All the residents of the shtetl, immortalized in Ben-Nun’s photographs and drawings, would be played by actors who would be dressed and accessorized to match the originals exactly. It would be a grandiose, unprecedented reconstruction of an Eastern European Jewish shtetl from the turn of the twentieth century. A historical park where visitors could walk through the streets, go into houses, meet the inhabitants and feel almost exactly what a traveling salesman would have felt when he stopped off in Zhilonich for twenty-four hours between trains.

After about an hour the Kid came back. He appeared in the study doorway and smiled insolently. His lips glistened with meaty grease. “So, have you come up with the story for your lousy movie?” he asked.

“There’s no story,” Ziggy said. “It’s going to be a movie without a story, without a screenwriter, and without a director.”

“So I guess there’s no need for cinematography,” the Kid laughed, “or a soundtrack.”

“Exactly,” Ziggy declared. “Only actors, sets, costumes and props. That’s all.”

“And the audience?”

“The audience,” said Ziggy, “will simply come to the site, buy their tickets, and walk around the sets among the actors for as long as they like. And anyone who wants to can rent costumes and props and join the actors, who will play the shtetl residents from nine to five.”

“Dad, you’re the most unnecessary genius in the world. It’s time the world recognized your total unnecessariness.” He laughed.

But Ziggy, who usually took the Kid’s cruel signs of affection lovingly, felt a certain insult this time. He really did think his idea was verging on genius, and saw no reason to mock it. “Where’s my change?” he demanded with unexpected aggression.

“I donated it to some guy collecting money for children in distress.” The Kid giggled and left.

***

Thursday seemed no less of a good day to visit the Uncle than Friday, which was always such a short day, and certainly better than Saturday, which for people like Ziggy, who don’t have regular jobs, was a day entirely devoted to pangs of guilt and remorse over the sin of idleness. But when he saw the Uncle’s emaciated face waiting for him impatiently at the window of his third-floor apartment in the assisted-living facility, it occurred to Ziggy that for the old man the days had lost the significance assigned to them by their place in the weekly order.

The Uncle waved at him and disappeared, and Ziggy knew that when he got upstairs the tea would be ready, a dish of cookies would be waiting on the coffee table, and that this time, too, the Uncle would recite a new poem he had written in starched Hebrew, its sharp edges rounded with Yiddish syllables and its corners padded with Slavic bulk.

But something had gone wrong with the schedule. The tea was not ready, and there was no dish of cookies on the coffee table. The Uncle plodded out from the bedroom, making clumsy attempts to pull up the suspenders that hung from the sides of his trousers.

“‘Strike,’” said the Uncle.

“Strike?”

“‘Strike.’ That’s the name of my new poem.”

“I’m listening,” said Ziggy. He pulled up the suspenders over the Uncle’s shoulders. Then he helped him thread his arms through his jacket sleeves and tied his tie.

“Sit down first,” said the Uncle, “you can’t listen to poetry standing up.”

Ziggy pulled a chair over from the dining area. He hung his canvas backpack on the back, sat down opposite the Uncle, crossed his arms and waited.

The Uncle straightened his neck and declared: “Strike.” Then he cleared his throat and recited:

One harsh strike forever
The artery throbs in the chest
One small look of murder
A moment that cannot rest
Tattooed on the forehead, a cipher
Strike after strike we wrest

The Uncle lowered his chin to indicate that the poem had come to an end, and Ziggy applauded. But the gesture did not satisfy the Uncle. “Please give me a critique, Ziggeleh,” he said.

“Powerful,” said Ziggy.

“It’s brand-new,” said the Uncle, “I just wrote it this morning.”

“Brand-new.”

The electric kettle on the kitchen table exhaled its last breath and turned itself off with a click.

“Yes, after I watched the news this morning,” said the Uncle. He leaned over to the kettle and poured boiling water into two teacups. The steam clung to his glasses and covered them with an opaque film. “I had no choice, you see, because downstairs, in the dining room, the television is always on, without a break. It seems someone here has an interest in stupefying the old folk.” He removed his glasses and wiped them with his fingers. “As if they’re not stupid enough already.” And he quickly added in the same pathos-filled voice, which always had a slightly hoarse cynicism clinging to its edges, “As if they weren’t stupid to begin with, when they were young.”

“You never know,” said Ziggy. The belligerence did not surprise him. The Uncle was sometimes like a boxer who rushes into an empty ring and pumps his fists in the air. Within a short while, Ziggy knew, he would start to exhaust himself and then he would grow tired, soften, and curl up into a ball of melancholy.

“Trust me,” said the Uncle, “this country has ruined everything the Jewish people managed to achieve in two thousand years of diaspora.”

On the far end of the table was a row of pills in varying shapes and colors, like a necklace without its string. The Uncle popped them into his mouth one by one and swallowed each with a sip of water and a backward flick of the head.

“Like what?” Ziggy encouraged him to continue his attack. He knew exactly what he would say, but still pretended to listen curiously.

“Like what, like what,” the Uncle grumbled, “like the ability to think logically. To tell jokes. Or the desire to live, for example.” He added sugar to the teacups, stirred, fished the teabags out and placed them in a little dish. His hands trembled. “Come and help me, Ziggeleh, we’ll sit in the living room.”

Ziggy carried the teacups to the living room, and the Uncle followed him with wobbly steps, mumbling, “Careful, careful, careful,” and pointing with his shaking hand to the two high-backed chairs that sat opposite the balcony window with a little table in between them. A lawn dotted with muddy bald spots sprawled in front of them, surrounded by bougainvillea shrubs and covered with the light-blue canopy of a clear winter morning.

“Look what a beautiful day,” said Ziggy, “what do you think, Uncle Srul, maybe we’ll take a walk later?” The Uncle hung on Ziggy’s arm and sat himself down in the chair. He groaned. Ziggy could see the pain seizing his facial muscles, seizing and not letting up.

“Those medications . . . they’re not really helping you, are they?”

“It’ll pass soon,” the Uncle murmured. He was a thin old man with dark skin, a squashed nose, and pale eyes that looked out in amazement, like an amphibian’s, from behind the magnifying lenses of his glasses. There was no resemblance between him and his only remaining relative, Ziggy Ben-Artzi. And besides, their familial relationship was never entirely clear. Apparently he was the second cousin of Ziggy’s mother, but he may also have been the son of her grandfather from his second marriage—meaning, her uncle. Either way, Ziggy’s mother had died before he could question her about the complex family tree, and there is even some doubt as to whether she herself knew all the peculiar branches. The Uncle probably did not know his exact place on that genealogical tree either. But the lack of clarity did not stop him from taking upon himself, with the utmost gravity, the role of representing the parental generation in Ziggy’s life.

“And you? How are you, Ziggeleh?” asked the Uncle. “Look at how you’re dressed. Aren’t you cold like that?”

“No, I’m not cold.”

The Uncle got up with some difficulty, and Ziggy knew he was headed to the closet and would soon return with an elegant article of clothing that he would insist on giving him.

“I don’t want anything, don’t give me anything!” Ziggy tried to stop him, but the Uncle ignored him and was already hobbling over to the bedroom. He came back with a fine wool coat, the manufacturer’s label and price-tag still dangling from the lapel. “Here, this will fit you,” said the Uncle and placed the coat over Ziggy’s shoulders. “English wool. Finally you’ll look like a cultured person and not some punk.” They weren’t the same size, nor did they have the same taste.

“I don’t want this coat,” Ziggy said. He held his arm out again and helped the Uncle sit down.

“Then give it to Assafi.”

“Assafi won’t want it.”

“Then I’ll give you a thousand shekels and you buy yourself a nice coat.”

“No, no, calm down,” said Ziggy. He got up, went over to the dining area and pulled a blue cardboard folder out of his backpack. He took an envelope out of the file and placed it on the Uncle’s lap.

“What is this?” asked the Uncle suspiciously.

“Have a little look, Uncle Srul. I have a feeling it will interest you.”

The Uncle held the envelope up to his eyes and read in a whisper: “Zhilonich Resurrected . . . Ben-Nun . . . The Pillar of Salt . . .” Then he turned the envelope over and read: “Zhilonich mein shtetl vi ikh gedenk es.” He looked up at Ziggy and translated: “Zhilonich my little town, as I remember it.” The packet of photographs and drawings slipped into his hand and he examined them closely, one by one. Finally he asked, “And why are you showing me this, Ziggeleh?”

“I thought something in here might look familiar to you,” said Ziggy. He knew, of course, that although the universe was small, crowded, and full of coincidences, the chance that the Uncle would recognize Zhilonich and its characters was non-existent. But to his surprise the Uncle declared, “Of course I know this shtetl.”

He leafed through the pictures again, this time with a card-player’s swift fingers.

“Really?” Ziggy asked dubiously.

“Metaphorically speaking, of course,” the Uncle said. “You have to understand, in the world I grew up in, Ziggeleh, there were hundreds if not thousands of these shtetls.” He pulled out a picture that showed the market square bustling with people busy shopping and selling. He pointed at the picture as if it contained the whole story, and went on, “In the world I grew up in, one of every three Jews in Eastern Europe lived in a wood shack with a thatched roof, made a meager living trading in rags, and died by the age of fifty.”

He put the picture back into the pile and drew out another one, in which a pair of young girls stood with their arms linked, giggling at the camera. “Anyway,” he said, “this shtetl does remind me of one particular place, somewhere I stopped on my way to Italy in the summer of ’32, when I was sent to represent Beitar at a congress of national youth movements in Milan. I was sixteen at the time, and when I was in this little town I met a lady who decided to teach me all sorts of things I didn’t know. I was naïve. Because of her I never made it to the congress.”

“At sixteen?” Ziggy cried out with a voice full of wonder.

“She taught me how to tie a tie properly. But more importantly, she taught me how to fold a suit so it wouldn’t wrinkle in your luggage. In those days these were very important things, and I knew nothing.”

Ziggy smiled forgivingly. He was used to hearing autobiographical fictions from the Uncle, who managed never to repeat the same tale twice, although he sometimes delivered different versions of the same invented plot. Even the date and place of his birth were variable. In some of his stories he tested the limits of Munchausen hyperbole. There was, for example, his fascinating report of how he trained a wolf pup while hiding out as a partisan in the woods near Minsk. Or how he swam all the way to Palestine after abandoning a sinking ship of hashish smugglers off the coast of Sidna ‘Ali. How he took part in a plan to blow up Big Ben. He was a secret agent. He had tuberculosis. He got better. He fought. Escaped. Was wounded. Studied. Loved . . . The forty-six years during which his relative Ziggy Ben-Artzi was present were the only uncontested era: before he got rich and moved into an exclusive assisted-living facility, the Uncle had lived his life of modesty and little glory all alone, in a small apartment in Tel Aviv where he wrote poems and raised four generations of fox terriers with docked tails, all of whom he named Lucky.

Ziggy took the photographs from the Uncle and put them back in the envelope. “M. Ben-Nun,” he said to himself, “Pillar of Salt. It seems this man hadn’t made up his mind what to call himself.”

“By the way,” said the Uncle, “I once knew someone who called himself Ben-Nun, I just can’t remember who it was now.” He knit his brow and massaged his forehead with his fingers. Then he took off his glasses, closed his eyes, and looked up as if expecting that there, from the ceiling, the memories would descend upon him and bathe him like the first rain at the end of summer. “Ben-Nun . . .,” he murmured to himself, “. . . the name is so familiar . . . Who was it? I’m sure I knew him, but at this particular moment I cannot put a face to the name.” He smiled awkwardly.

“Never mind,” said Ziggy. He put the envelope in the blue folder and stuffed the folder in his backpack. Then he stood up and held his arm out for the Uncle. “So where do you feel like going for a walk?” he asked cheerfully.

“We’ve already traveled enough for one day,” the Uncle replied wearily. He looked at his watch. “I’m so tired. I think I’ll lie down for a while now.”

© Agur Schiff. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2011 by Jessica Cohen. All rights reserved.