A Father like You

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A story about an encounter between an aging vagabond hitchhiker and the yound driver who picks him up

Submitted: March 01, 2010

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Submitted: March 01, 2010

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A Father like You
Ruvik Danieli
 
The mid-September day was sizzling hot, even by the standards of the AravahValley. After eating a lunch consisting of a tuna-fish sandwich and a crumbling wedge of halvah—a mismatch no doubt, but all that was left of his provisions—Willie lay in the hammock, thinking to wait for the heat to break. Shortly, though—grudgingly compelled to acknowledge that that was not likely to happen anytime soon, if at all—he bestirred himself, swiftly broke camp, and packed everything in the rucksack. After a last round of inspection, to satisfy himself that nothing had been forgotten and not a single trace of his presence remained, he turned and trudged out of the shelter of the big acacia tree in the wadi, which had been his home for the past week.
The going was easy along the hard-packed conglomerate of the path at the edge of the canyon wall, which even afforded some shade. After that, though, came several hundred yards of shifting sands, out in the open. By the time he slogged through the difficult stretch to the side of the highway, he was soaked to the skin. Swinging the rucksack down from his shoulders, he stripped off his shirt, rinsed his torso with water, retrieved a fresh shirt from the pack and put it on, and drained what was left in the bottle. That left just one more for as long as he would have to wait. Adjusting his cap to the sun's angle, he assessed his situation.
Away to the south stretched the valley, shimmering in a dusty haze through which he could nevertheless clearly see the looming flavescent emblem of the MacDonald's at the bus and truck station some fifteen kilometers distant. To both the east and west the haze thickened impenetrably at the valley's flanks, obscuring the mountains beyond. The highway ran almost straight as an arrow to where he stood, but at his back the road curved sharply and climbed up into the pass between two low but steep hills, which meant that traffic would have to slow down anyway approaching the bend. Willie decided there was no sense in going any further and stuck out his hand to catch a ride.
For more than an hour, one convoy after another whizzed by, the SUVs and family sedans laden with camping gear and full of vacationers having departed the resort of Eilat at the country's southern tip, hurrying to arrive home before the onset of the holiday eve. There were no more trucks running, hence little chance of a tired, solitary driver seeking company. As midday imperceptibly edged into afternoon, the stream of traffic began to thin, the intervals between convoys to lengthen.
The sun kept beating down with incandescent fury; Willie had already half-emptied the remaining water bottle, and he realized he couldn't stay where he was much longer. For a brief while he entertained the notion of trekking to the truck stop, where he would be able not only to directly approach the drivers in their vehicles, but also grab something to eat, refill his water bottles, and place a call to the kids to tell them he was running late, very late indeed. They would be already at Tamir's apartment in Tel Aviv, getting everything prepared; their mother had decided to travel abroad for once this holiday season, giving them the rare opportunity to invite their vagabond father to join the two of them for the holiday dinner; they were much looking forward to the occasion, the first such since both had been toddlers, and Maya had borrowed a car from the kibbutz pool and driven in especially from the Galilee. They would be mortified to hear he might not make it in time, or not at all. But then again, likely enough it was exactly what they were expecting of him.
Going to the truck stop was dismissed. The only thing left was to start in the opposite direction, up into the defile between the hills. It might be less conducive there for the purpose of hitchhiking, but nobody had been stopping anyway, and at least he would find some shade. Willie swung the rucksack to his shoulders and turned to follow the curve up to the pass.
He'd taken barely three steps when a car that was overtaking him from the rear honked harshly, though he was at the side of the shoulder and well away from the roadbed. Instinctively he half-turned, thinking to flash a finger in an obscene gesture at the unrequited rudeness, but to his surprise the automobile slowed after passing him, swerved to the side and stopped several dozen yards farther up the ascent, its taillights blinking.
It was a sleek, handsome, marine-blue BMW, which bespoke luxury all the more for the understatement of the exterior décor, with silvered rear and side windows, he saw as he drew closer. The trunk cover clicked open, released from the inside, from whence a gruff voice issued through a momentarily slotted aperture, instructing him to deposit his rucksack before entering the sanctuary. Willie willingly complied, strode over to the side of the car, cast a long, last glance south, opened the door and slipped inside.
The change of environment was not only abrupt, but so extreme it made him wince. All at once the temperature had dropped precipitously; he could feel the skin at the nape of his neck tingle and crinkle, the arteries throbbing in his temples. Momentarily the desert's expansive quietude had followed, was indeed even refined inside the plush, muffled interior, but as soon as Willie had shut the door and the car swung back onto the highway, the driver punched the "mute" button on the dashboard stereo console, and the music that must have been playing before thundered out again—blaring, isochronal trance music, blistering in pace at over two hundred beats per minute. Outside, through the semi-darkened windows, the barren landscape—whose languid stillness he had been reveling in—was now rushing past at over a hundred kilometers an hour, as the BMW emerged from the short pass and hurtled down the incline marking the start of the great valley's gradual sloping descent to the shore of the Dead Sea in its midst.
"I'm Dan," yelled the driver, rocking back and forth in his seat. He was a young man, at most in his mid-twenties, dark and swarthy, with merry eyes and delicately chiseled features beneath a pair of startlingly bushy eyebrows. He was wearing a tight, black T-shirt, and a pair of faded, cutaway short jeans with tattered fringes. On the bicep visible to Willie was tattooed a distinctive motorcycle—one of the old British marque models, but he couldn't remember which—and the tip of another, only-to-be-guessed-at tattoo peeked out above the collar on the nape of his neck, beneath a single, slender braid which belied the tangle of curls around it.
"Willie," the hitchhiker responded in kind. "Thank you very much!!!" And though Dan might not appear the type to own such a luxurious vehicle, Willie respectfully tipped his cap to him anyway—indubitably he was driving it, and furthermore he'd had the decency to stop and pick him up.
"Been waiting long?" It was a rhetorical question. With a sidelong glance at his passenger, Dan proposed: "You look like a cup of coffee would do you some good. We'll stop at the next station…"
Willie didn't want to shout, so he nodded and tipped his cap again to show his appreciation, then he leaned back in the upholstered bucket seat, shut his eyes and relaxed, indulging in the sensuous bliss of climatic adjustment. In the delicious, air-conditioned chill, his breathing gradually grew calm and regular, the fiery sting in his face and arms abated.
Although he hadn't yet made any inquiry how far this ride would be taking him, Willie had a good feeling about it. Coupled with the absolutely exquisite physical comfort he was experiencing, which the car would no doubt continue to provide, the thought that with any luck, he might even still make it in time to disappoint the kids' expectations made even the obstreperous monotony of the music endurable.
Pleasurable repose and rumination both were soon interrupted, however, when the car turned into and stopped, as promised, at the next station. While Dan made a beeline through the small crowd to the coffee-shop counter to place their orders, Willie excused himself and went to the men's room first to wash up and to fill his water bottles. Returning, he found that Dan had already claimed a table in the corner of the shaded patio for them, was waiting there with not only the coffee he had asked for, but tasty fresh croissants for both of them as well.
"Going home for the holiday?" chirped Dan brightly, stirring sugar into his cup.
"I need to get to Tel Aviv," Willie carefully measured his answer.
"Well, I can take you as far as ----," Dan offered, giving the name of a small village, whose residents in bygone days had been notorious for their parochial obtuseness, but which was also, Willie recalled with satisfaction, near Rehovot and only twenty-five kilometers south of the big city.
"Whatever did you misplace there?" he genially prompted.
"My family," chuckled Dan and garrulously continued, obviously proud and pleased to speak of his antecedents: his father was a pillar of the community, a prosperous merchant in construction materials, and he had lent Dan his car to vacation with friends in Eilat for a couple of days, but only on condition that the son return in time for the family get-together on the holiday eve. Sure, he'd had a great time with his friends, who were staying on, but he wasn't unhappy to be going home: his mother and grandmother would have been hard at work in the kitchen all week, and the spread that they'd prepared, he assured Willie, would more than compensate for cutting short his vacation.
That explained that, as far as the fancy BMW was concerned. But to Willie a great deal more was imparted besides: that Dan was currently residing with his parents—in a spare mobile home on their property, others being rented out to regular tenants—but only because he'd recently returned from a long stint abroad, in Miami, his fourth since completing his military service. On previous trips he had toured Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand, then India for an entire year, followed by South America. He was now finally back in Israel to stay, so it seemed, and wondering what to do with his life. Paternal pressure—including subtle blackmail, such as the loan of the car—was being exerted on him either to join the family business, like his two older brothers, or enroll at the university to study law. Dan himself thought his aptitudes were more of an artistic bent: in India he'd dabbled in jewelry-making, and lately in the United States he'd been rather successful peddling cheap counterfeit oils by Russian émigré artists at shopping malls—until he was caught working without a green card and deported by the authorities.
In return for all the freely vouchsafed information Willie wasn't required to divulge much himself, but in answer to a direct question he had to admit to his own American antecedents—after thirty years in Israel, his accent was still a dead giveaway. Unwilling to have his belongingness doubted, however, with a few succinct queries of his own he turned the spotlight back to the younger man, skillfully eliciting his army unit, the names of his commanding officers, the nature of the duties he'd performed and the major engagements he'd been involved in during his service.
"I really haven't thought about all that very much lately," mused Dan. "It's as if it happened in a past life."
Willie gathered the pastry crumbs from his plate and licked them from his fingers. "So here's to no more past lives catching you by surprise," he said, downing the last of his coffee, and lit up a cigarette—he was sure that smoking would not be permitted in the BMW.
Dan refused to accept the money that Willie insisted on contributing to pay for his refreshments, and an incident was only narrowly averted by the older man's slightly belated but politic decision to defer to the younger. Dan went to the men's room, and Willie finished smoking the cigarette, loitering beside the car in the parking lot.
He was more than glad to get back in the car and on the road. Towards the air-conditioning he felt not only grateful, but a wondrous awe akin, so Willie imagined, to that of primitive man when he learned to make fire: how he could possibly have survived without it before became all at once incomprehensible. Furthermore, his earlier intuition had been confirmed, meaning that he was now definitely on course, in fact being conveyed the bulk of the distance to his destination in the speediest and most sumptuous manner. His contentment could hardly have been more complete, and the only thing he had to steel himself for was the resumption of the sonic assault.
"Why don't you choose the music?" he was startled to hear Dan offer, and the young man pointed to the glove compartment.
Leafing through the binder of CDs he found there, a majority of them of the home-burnt variety, Willie found no classic rock, no jazz either. There was a lot of hip-hop and grunge sprinkled in among the trance. Many of the band and album names were unfamiliar to him, and those he did recognize held no attraction for him. Finally he settled on a Bob Marley compilation; although reggae failed to stir the heartstrings of desperation in him like rock, the man had been a classic in his own way, and like the prototypical rocker he had lived hard, died young, not to say stupidly, and left an inspiring legacy.
Dan appeared well enough pleased with the selection. He was rocking back and forth in his seat again, drumming out the backbeat with his fingers on the steering wheel and dashboard, while the BMW sped smoothly down the road, the purr of its motor barely audible. Outside, the grandeur of the untamed wilderness continued to present itself, unfold alongside, and retreat to vanish in the lengthening distance behind.
"Do you have any family?"
Willie hadn't been expecting the question. Repressing his initial impulse, which was to tell Dan to mind his own business, he gave himself a moment's pause before speaking: "I haven't really decided yet."
That drew a puzzled glance from the younger man: "What does that mean? Either you're married, or not… What about children?"
Willie would not be drawn out, but he realized that barefaced stonewalling would only invite further inquisitiveness. "Look, Dan," he began hesitantly, "after everything you saw and did in Lebanon and the OccupiedTerritories, all that shit you had to deal with, just as soon as you got out of the army you went traveling, right?" Dan nodded, but his eyes betrayed his perplexity. "And that, in fact, is all you've been doing for the past few years, isn't it?" Willie went on, his voice growing softer, but nonetheless more assured. "And it's taken all this time and all that traveling—four continents, counting Australia—to put all that out of your mind and leave it behind you—'as if it happened in a past life'…"
Dan's face was scrunched in thought, the brightness of his gaze eclipsed for the first time by a cloud of introspective comprehension. "I never thought of it that way before," he conceded.
"Anyway, a long time ago—probably around when you were born—I got out of the army and went traveling too. And the truth of the matter is, even though I haven't been out of the country in over twenty years, I'm still traveling, never have been able to stop." Dan was listening raptly now, finding it hard to keep his eyes on the road, not on his passenger, whose voice rang out emphatically: "So maybe I do have a couple of kids, maybe not… That doesn't change the fact that I still haven't really decided whether I have a family."
Suddenly it seemed very still and quiet inside the car, even though the long departed Marley was declaring unequivocally, "Every man thinks his burden is the heaviest," and the background vocalists were moaning in reply, "Who feels it knows it, Lord." The moment extended itself, poignant with painful memory and consolatory acceptance.
"Sometimes I regret a thing or two about the way things have worked out," Willie admitted, frowning and shaking his head.
There seemed to be no more forthcoming, and Dan, taking the bait, asked: "Like what?"
"For instance, I would like to have seen Machu Picchu for myself."
That was all it took, and Dan, who had, of course, been there in his travels, was immediately incited to recount the experience, reveling in the description of the difficult journey to the site, the arduous climb, and the sublime majesty of the long-lost, enigmatic sanctuary city of the Incas.
With no more than a well-placed question here and there, Willie continued to elicit from Dan further accounts, of his visits to Ayers Rock and Mt. Olga—the huge sandstone inselbergs sacred to the aborigines, deep in the Australian outback—and to numerous hallowed, temple-topped peaks almost everywhere his feet stepped or, more accurately, his motorcycle wheels turned, during that year of migrating around the Indian subcontinent. For his part, Willie shared with Dan the recollection of an ascent he had made to the summit of Mt. Santa Katarina—traditionally reputed to be the biblical Mt. Sinai—and, alluding also to Jerusalem and its Temple Mount, summarized the topic:
"It's as if people simply can't help themselves feeling close to God in these high places. That's why I don't go too often—that kind of closeness can do you harm if you're not careful…"
The BMW had been eating up the miles as they talked, and they were now already driving through the wilderness of Zin, where the last great wadi which debouches from the Negev desert highland converges with the AravahValley, approaching Sodom at the southern end of the Dead Sea. The land outside the windows was tortured and desiccated, dirt yellow and gray, with accumulated layers of sedimentary deposits sculpted into a crazy labyrinth of buttes, turrets and freeform fantasies by the unceasing winds and the seasonal raging flood. Willie noted with satisfaction that Dan was keeping his eyes glued to the road, which wound dangerously along a series of hairpin turns to negotiate the wild, forbidding terrain.
The Marley compilation came to an end. Dan asked Willie to replace it with a Radiohead CD, which he would find near the front of the binder.
Willie was familiar with the name of the band, not its music. Dan turned up the volume. A torrent of sound surged through the car, with a very tight drum-and-bass combo holding down the beat and multiple, textured electric guitars. Willie liked what he was hearing, the pounding rhythm and the falsetto vocals, though it was hard to catch the lyrics on first listening; he thought he detected a few influences, like Talking Heads and the Pixies. Anyway, for someone who hadn't exchanged more than a few casual sentences with anyone in the course of several days, he'd had more than enough chitchat for the time being, and he was perfectly content to let the music do the talking.
They passed the last bus and truck stop, mutually agreeing neither needed anything more meanwhile. In moments they reached the Sodom junction, and Dan turned left, onto the road climbing steeply up out of the AravahValley to Dimona and Beersheba in the Negev. The BMW took on the ascent with a roar of delight, downshifting to lower gear without a quiver.
A couple of kilometers farther on, and already a few hundred meters higher in altitude, about half a dozen vehicles were clustered at the side of the road beside the lookout over the valley. The passengers had left their cars and were milling about the elevated ridge, some enjoying the view, others striking poses together for group photographs. Dan asked Willie whether he'd like to stop for a short breather as well, and Willie said that he would, but suggested that they continue a short distance ahead, where there was a spot he knew that afforded the same panorama, but without the crowd.
Past the next bend, Willie pointed and Dan turned aside off the paved road, drove between two hummocks and emerged onto a flat, gravelly shelf, perched high along the mountainside. They got out of the car and Willie led the way, skirting the low, crumbling wall of a derelict reconnaissance emplacement, out to the edge of the precipice.
Far below stretched the rift valley, from its confluence with Wadi Zin to the salt marshes and serried ranks of the potash works' evaporation pools, all that was left of what had once been the Dead Sea's southern basin. The sheltering shadow of the highland to which they were now climbing embraced them, but the rays of the lowering sun were still spilling across the intervening distance, probing at the Moab Hills that walled the valley on the east, casting every cliff and canyon into sharp relief, and coloring the entire in dazzling shades of pink and purple. The landscape was at once primeval yet ravaged and pockmarked by human hand, its most evident imprint the last truck station they'd recently passed, which was directly below, looking like a toy made of Lego bricks which could be gathered up in the palm of one's hand. Luckily, an extension of one of the hummocks screened their shelf at least from the official lookout, and from sight of the nearest and still audible human presence.
Having made himself comfortable, with his legs outstretched and his back to the corner of the emplacement wall, Willie brought out his tobacco pouch and papers, swiftly and expertly rolled a small but potent joint of hashish, and lit up. In a few moments Dan returned from having inspected the inside of the emplacement; he appeared initially to want to say something, but smiled when he caught a whiff of the smoke, and sat down silently on a rough pile of blocks at Willie's side.
"Smells like good stuff…" he remarked after awhile, and then, when Willie kept bogarting the joint: "Could I have a puff?"
"I make them very strong," Willie warned, "so you might want to take into consideration that you're not even halfway home."
"Don't worry about me; I've smoked my share of chillums…"
Willie passed over the joint. Dan took a puff, and immediately burst into a fit of coughing. Willie offered him the water bottle, but he refused, and Willie drained nearly a third of the bottle himself. Finally regaining his breath, Dan was considerably more cautious on the second puff, and passed the joint back to Willie. They sat, looking out at the view.
"So this is the kind of high places you usually avoid, huh?"
Willie may have grunted, it was hard to tell. He was communing with the abandoned universe, did not want to make conversation. When he passed over the joint again, the young man drew from it only once more before handing it back, and Willie was gladly compelled to consume it on his own. The tourists they'd seen must have quitted the lookout, for the sound of human voices had desisted; the breeze momentarily lapsed, and the entire world was bathed in a breathless silence.
As if at a signal, the two of them abruptly got up and tore themselves away, skirting their way around the emplacement back to the car. Willie went over to the side of the nearer hummock to urinate.
But as he was stepping back to the BMW, about to round its rear end to his side, something intuitively drew his attention: though Dan was already seated inside the car, he'd left his door wide open, and hadn't switched on the engine. Willie turned that way to take a closer look.
Dan was slumped in the seat, his face ghastly pale, his arms hanging limp at his sides. He glanced across at Willie, eyes wide with fear, embarrassment too, and muttered: "I don't know what's wrong… I feel weird…"
If he were to throw up where he was, not only would it be a hassle to clean up the mess, but nearly impossible to eradicate all traces of it so that his dad might never learn of the fiasco. Willie sprang forward, bent inside, reached out and took hold of the young man by the armpits:
"Come on, you've got to get out of the car, somewhere you can breathe."
Willie used the leverage of his lengthier frame to lift the young man and pivot him out of the seat. Dan's legs followed, and he stood and tried to steady himself, leaning heavily on Willie for support. But as the latter drew him away from the car, suddenly his legs gave out from under him and he collapsed full length upon Willie, sheer deadweight.
Maintaining a firm grip and nestling his head, Willie laid him down on the ground on his back, and tucked his handbag beneath the young man's neck. Dan was out cold, zonked no doubt by the potency of the joint. It had been quite awhile since Willie had had to deal with this type of emergency, but he hadn't forgotten any of the routine. He squatted at the young man's side and sprinkled water from the bottle over his face.
Dan's eyes fluttered open: "What happened…?"
"You passed out. Just lie still and don't try to talk."
Dan shut his eyes again, and Willie sprinkled more water on his face. Then he sprinkled water on the young man's arm and massaged his wrist, circled to the other side and massaged his other wrist too. The color was coming back into Dan's face, and there was even a hint of a smile on his lips. Willie ordered him to stay where he was, hopped over to the BMW, and rummaged in the driver's seat compartment, where he found a bottle with a small amount of soda pop remaining. Returning to Dan's side, he helped the young man sit up and made him drink the syrupy dregs.
"Thanks… I'm starting to feel alright," Dan said.
"Don't be in a rush," Willie admonished, and insisted that Dan drink more water as well.
A few minutes passed and Dan brightly announced that he was ready to go. Although Willie was skeptical, he helped him up to his feet. The young man started towards the car, but after only two paces he became woozy and had to lean on Willie again.
"We've got to get on the move…" he said worriedly, "My father will throw a fit if I show up late… Can you drive maybe, and I'll rest for awhile?"
Willie hesitated. He'd once had a driver's license, but its validity must have lapsed long ago. And besides, he probably hadn't driven an automobile in over a decade. On the other hand, he was confident he could take the controls and handle the BMW without any problem, and that the experience would be pleasurable. Furthermore, it was the afternoon of a holiday eve, traffic was rapidly dwindling, and it was unlikely that police were on the prowl along this remote stretch of highway; and if they were, their interest lay in everyone's getting home as early and safe as possible. That, indeed, was his own interest as well.
"Sure, I'll drive. You just take it easy."
With Dan's arm draped over his shoulders, Willie assisted him around the car and into the passenger seat. Returning to the other side, he got in himself, adjusted the driver's seat, and switched on the engine. Immediately both the air-conditioning and the music resumed full-blast, but Willie had noted where the "mute" button was and thumbed it right away, relegating Radiohead to an early retirement for the moment. Shifting into reverse, he backed out between the hummocks, cautiously regained purchase on the asphalt surface, and sped away again up the winding ascent.
"I don't get what happened to me," grumbled Dan, inclining the back of the seat and slouching more comfortably. "It's never happened before."
"What did you drink today, besides the soda pop and the coffee?"
"I don't know. I wasn't keeping track."
"And what have you eaten, besides that croissant?"
"I had a late breakfast…" contended Dan.
"You are underfed and dehydrated, then you insist on taking a drag from a wicked joint, in the blazing heat, and you're surprised you passed out…? Your blood pressure just fell off the floor!"
"It's never happened before," Dan repeated, shaking his head.
Shortly afterward he shut his eyes, his body relaxed, and he fell into a deep slumber. Again an unconscious smile seemed to play on his lips, but so gleeful it could almost qualify as a grin.
Willie let himself relax, as well. What an unexpected joy it was to drive the magnificent machine. It responded precisely to his slightest depression of the accelerator, minutest manipulation of the steering wheel. Beneath the hood the powerful motor effortlessly revved up the torque to tackle the tight twists and turns, and the wheels clung to the road so tenaciously that not a shudder was felt inside the passenger compartment, even when Willie deftly swerved out of and then back into the lane to pass cars ahead of them, which seemed to be crawling at a snail's pace. Dan continued to sleep undisturbed.
Around the last curve the BMW accelerated into the straightaway, which continued the ascent through a picket of gnarled hillocks to the flatter upland. On the slope stretching to the right loomed the rigs and towers of the chemical plant complex, an incongruous blemish on the desert landscape. From it a railroad track debouched to join and run parallel to the side of the road, which widened into a proper four-lane highway soon afterward. On the left it was bounded now by a tall security fence, behind which lay a level, empty wasteland, and, in the distance, the gleaming dome of the top-secret nuclear reactor, emblazoned prominently by the sun, now directly in Willie's face. Civilization of sorts could be said to have been regained. He flipped down the sun-visor, leaned back and stepped on the gas pedal.
"It's a great car, huh?" Dan was awake, though he hadn't stirred in his seat.
"Oh yeah…" Willie had quite forgotten he wasn't alone, guiding a spacecraft through the galaxy. "It's a fun car to drive…" It occurred to him as well that he had also been conveniently ignoring the fact that this segment of highway was probably more closely monitored by remote surveillance than any other in the country. "I'd be tempted myself if these were the kind of enticements on offer," he ruefully admitted to Dan, letting up on the pedal.
In a few minutes they reached Dimona, and, without asking or being asked, Willie turned at the junction and drove into the truck station. At his insistence Dan came with him to the restroom and washed up, while he refilled his water bottles. Again at Willie's insistence, they stepped into the coffee-shop, bought peanuts and pistachios and soft drinks—this time Willie picked up the tab, but without any argument—and then sat and dallied at a corner table for awhile to eat and drink.
After shelling and consuming a small pile of nuts, Dan looked up hesitantly at Willie: "About what happened back there… I just wanted to say thank you." Willie grimaced and shrugged it off with a wave of his hand. "No, really," Dan went on: "You warned me, but I screwed up big-time, I made an ass of myself, and you… What I mean is… Just thanks for treating it the way you did, and for taking care of me like that."
"Welcome to the brotherhood," rejoined Willie. "Now you know the proper procedure at least, in case anyone ever conks out on you when you're sharing a joint."
"You know, it's weird," resumed Dan thoughtfully, after absently smashing open some more pistachios on the table. "When I blacked out, also afterwards when I fell asleep in the car while you were driving—both times it was amazing where my mind went… It was a good place. I felt protected…"
"It almost sounds like you want to go back there. Be careful."
"Don't worry; I've learned my lesson… It's just weird, anyway."
With a start, Dan noticed the time on the coffee-shop's hanging clock: a few minutes past four-thirty. "Come on," he exclaimed loudly, in English, "let's get this show on the road!"
Back on the highway in the BMW, Dan having retaken the wheel, Willie felt comfortable enough to allow himself the luxury of a brief nap: a half-hour of oblivion in the soothing, climate-controlled fastness. When he reopened his eyes and glanced outside, they were already at the outskirts of Beersheba, and Dan had taken the eastern bypass to detour around the town. On a low hill to the right stood the Negev Brigade monument, like a sentinel keeping watch at the edge of the desert, its concrete columns and geometric solids suffused with the ruddy, late afternoon sunlight. Across the way to the left, the earth was scratched and torn by ugly, gnarled fingers of urban sprawl, probing greedily in their direction, but escaping them they followed the road through a ridge of stunted bluffs, and a few kilometers farther on rejoined the main highway, but already outside the town.
Dan pressed the accelerator to the floor and the BMW sped on northwards, never leaving the passing lane, and overtaking the vehicles in the right lane as if they were standing still. The land outside was already the northern fringe of the desert tableland, crisscrossed by shallow wadis, with some of the low-lying tracts divided into plots, which had been plowed in preparation for the sowing of winter wheat by the local Bedouin, whose shantytown encampments dotted the terrain.
"Is it okay with you if we put on some music again?" asked Dan, glancing at Willie irresolutely. "What I mean is, if you'd rather not, that's fine…"
"Sure, no problem… Anything you want."
"In fact, I think I've got something you'll really like." And Dan asked Willie to leaf through the binder, where he would find a CD called Grace, by a singer named Jeff Buckley. "It's his debut album," Dan explained, as Willie picked out the disc and inserted it in the player, "and it was very successful, both with the critics and commercially. But he died only a short while after making it. He drowned in the Mississippi River."
"I remember a singer named Tim Buckley, from the Sixties. He was a West Coast character… his music just kept getting stranger and stranger. He died in the mid-Seventies sometime, of a heroin overdose, I think…"
"Yeah, that was Jeff's father. But he never met him… Anyway, as you might imagine, he's already become a legend…" And Dan turned up the volume even louder than before.
Initially, despite the obvious—an acute rock 'n' roll sensibility, a tight-knit band, the excellent sound of the mix, and the slowly emergent but virtuosic electric guitar, more rhythm than lead, which Buckley himself played, so Dan informed him—Willie struggled to take in the music with acceptance, let alone liking. There had always been in the rock counterculture a strain of rebellious anti-estheticism, a solicitation to scornful avoidance of anything that might be construed as ideal beauty unspoiled by ugly reality; yet in him now was an odd resistance to it, which he found hard to admit was in fact a silly resentment, as if something that was uniquely his generation's had been appropriated.
His attitude softened; lyrics took shape sensibly here and there as he kept listening through the next few tracks, the instrumental playing commanded his respect, and he began to appreciate the eclectic togetherness of the songwriting. But even more than that, the singer began to get through to him. Beneath callous insolence and sharp-edged menace Buckley's voice—at times visceral, at times ethereal—projected a soft vulnerability. With deceptive ease he hit and held the high falsetto notes, or segued from plaintive lament to angry snarl.
"You can hear that as a kid, he grew up listening to Robert Plant and Roger Daltrey," said Willie, but Dan only shrugged and shook his head questioningly. "… Led Zeppelin… The Who," Willie identified the bands, to which the singers he'd mentioned had belonged, at which Dan nodded comprehendingly:
"Yeah," he earnestly concurred, "but there is also a real hard rock influence that you can hear, like Kiss."
The statement amused Willie, but he didn't let on. The song that had begun to play was a moody piece, resting upon the foundation of an unworldly chord progression on the guitar, the words—insofar as he consciously grasped them on first hearing—evocative of love unconsummated, love fated to languish, of a groping after something that refuses to take solid shape. Halfway through the song there was a short bridge of harsh discordant rock guitar, as if deliberately to confound the otherworldliness, and then the progression resumed, Buckley on top of it, in his fugitive falsetto repeatedly keening the refrain of the chorus, "All that was so real." Willie was indeed starting to like what he heard, to greet that strain of anti-estheticism as just something that Buckley—like Dylan, like Hendrix, like Cream and Purple and Zeppelin and so many others—employed to fashion a new vision of ideal beauty out of ugly reality.
Unadorned electric guitar sketched a haunting intro to the next track, and Dan turned up the volume even more: "Listen to this," he said reverentially.
To that lone accompaniment, Buckley began singing, and Willie recognized the song right away: Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." It wasn't from the classical period of Cohen's output in the Sixties and Seventies, but a later work—Willie couldn't really remember when he'd first heard it. He did know, however, that it had been covered extensively by other artists, some of which versions he was familiar with. But none of them, in his humble opinion, including Cohen's, did justice to the song's liturgical majesty. He sure would have liked to hear some band with a kick-ass drummer and slashing lead guitar going at it full throttle, blowing out all the stops, taking it to the heights it was capable of scaling.
Buckley's rendition took exactly the opposite approach. There was no band, only him and the guitar. Besides a hint of dissonance in the intro and in a brief transitional passage, the accompaniment remained sweetly harmonious, while Buckley intoned the successive verses, his voice tautly restrained, yet vibrantly expressive. And, even though he left out what Willie considered to be the most telling and revelatory verse, by his final delivery of the incantatory title phrase he left no doubt that even though it all went wrong, he'd stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on his tongue but hallelujah.
"Hallelujah," Willie reiterated softly in the ensuing quiet between tracks.
"Amen!" responded Dan, nodding in vigorous affirmation.
While they had been engrossed in the music, the car had continued to forge relentlessly northward; unheedingly they'd sped past the Plugot junction near Kiryat Gat and the Kastina junction near Kiryat Malachi, and were already fast approaching the Gedera junction. The elusive dividing line between the desert and the country's central region had been crossed: at the sides of the highway, fields of rich brown earth thick with golden sunflowers alternated with patches of scrubland and stands of fruit trees, and the sun dropping toward the unseen sea in the west cast a shimmering glow over everything. It was getting near the end of the ride for Willie. His mind had begun to wander off in the direction of the assignation awaiting him, but though he was no longer listening intently to the music, as they were passing through the junction a couple of lines from the next track impinged clearly on his awareness:
Too young to hold on
Too old to just break free and run
The throwaway couplet struck a chord, spoke to his situation in some way. He sank into a contemplative reverie. After awhile, Dan turned down the volume for the remainder of the CD, and, when it ended, considerately did not replace it with another.
In silence they drove the last few kilometers in each other's company and arrived at the Bilu junction. Dan turned right and stopped immediately at the bus station; his village lay a short distance ahead to the east, whereas Willie would need to continue north on the highway through Rechovot, Nes Ziyyona and Rishon Lezion to Tel Aviv.
"I'm sorry… I'm sorry I can't take you all the way," stammered Dan, "but I just can't afford to be late… I'm cutting it fine as it is…"
"That's alright," Willie replied automatically, still rousing himself from the semi-stupor, swiftly glancing around to reorient himself. After the long spell of unbroken travel, it felt strange and unreal to be suddenly at a standstill. "You're almost late, and I'm almost ahead of schedule," he added, "and both of us are right on time anyway."
Reassured, Dan beamed at him: "Come on, I'll help you with your stuff."
Both of them opened their doors, stepped out, rounded the BMW, each on his respective side, and met at its rear. Dan pulled Willie's rucksack out of the trunk and helped him lift and strap it to his shoulders.
"Are you sure it's alright?" asked Dan, uncertain again. "I could maybe take you into Rechovot at least…"
"No problem, I'll be fine," Willie dismissed the offer. "Thanks a lot… thanks a lot for the ride, for the music, for letting me drive, everything… Really, it was good of you to pick me up, and we had ourselves an interesting journey too. So thank you, and shana tova."
"It was my pleasure," rejoined Dan. "Thank you—you know, for helping me out… and for letting me share your journey… Shana tova." But still he stood in front of Willie, hedging him in between the car's rear fender and the bus stand wall, seeming to want to say something more. "I'm really glad I met you…!"  he finally blurted out taking another step forward, gazing up straight into Willie's eyes. "It's good to know there can be a father like you…" With that, Dan threw his arms around Willie, embracing him.
For a few moments they stood thus, Willie first patting the younger man on the back, afterward releasing himself awkwardly from his grip. "Go on," Willie said, pushing Dan away, "your folks are waiting…"
"Yeah… Thanks again. I hope you catch another ride quickly. Goodbye."
Dan returned to the side of the car, gave a wave of his hand, got inside, and drove away. Willie stood gazing regretfully after the sleek, handsome vehicle which had conveyed him so expeditiously, even gainfully, to this spot. After it disappeared behind the towering eucalyptus trees that lined the winding road on either side, he quickly turned and marched to the intersection, crossed it at the green light, continued the short distance to the bus stand in that direction, and came to a halt. Swinging the rucksack down to the ground, he adjusted the angle of his cap and took stock of his situation.
It was just past the golden hour of sunset and the twilight was beginning to thicken. However hot it may have been in the central region throughout the day, the temperature was now quite comfortable, and a refreshing wind had in fact begun to blow. The traffic wasn't heavy, but appeared to be picking up, as people were getting on the move to wherever they were going for their holiday dinners, like him. His prospects for catching a ride looked good.
Besides, he had two almost full water bottles with him, and, as he'd told the gracious young man, he was almost ahead of schedule. Preparations at Tamir's apartment in Tel Aviv, he reckoned, would be nearing completion. There could be no harm if he tarried a short while to smoke a c


© Copyright 2020 Ruvik Danieli. All rights reserved.

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