When we met neither Imma nor I had sufficient funds to base our relationship on financial benefits so we married for love. We bought a car and filled it with two young girls, the fruit of our sensual feeling for each other. We lived a modest life in what was called the well-educated-not-so-well-but-not-so-bad-either-to-do socioeconomic group, which accepted many of our childhood and former high school friends. We would have been the pride and joy of our forefathers had they not been dead for three thousand years. I was not easily tempted when the phone rang one day and a voice introduced itself:
‘I am calling from America. May I speak with Yiftah, please?’
To this day it is common for voices from America to refrain from introducing themselves when speaking to people in the Levant. What could possibly be more appealing to well-educated-not-so-well-but-not-so-bad-either-to-do people like us than an opportunity to speak to an American? However, my grandmother was American and she lived down the street so I was not impressed.
‘Would you like to come to America?’ the voice offered.
‘I am quite happy in the land of milk and honey,’ I said.
‘Don’t you want more than milk and honey?’ asked the voice.
‘We also have wheat and barley and grapes and figs and olives and pomegranates,’ I answered, annoyed that the voice did not understand milk and honey were just a figure of speech or better yet, a metaphor.
‘We have all these fruits and vegetables here and I can offer you a job,’ said the voice.
‘Not only do I have a job, I have two and so does my wife.’ I shot back triumphantly.
The voice said it would be happy to talk to me again once I thought through its offer and hung up.
Expecting support, I shared my phone conversation with my mentor who taught me everything I needed to know in order to keep my two jobs. Instead he looked at me as only a father of a really dumb child looks at his offspring. In a slow and quiet voice he explained that he too had been called by such a voice many years before. He went on to mention a long list of people I knew and respected, all of whom had received such a phone call from the voice. After he gathered the pile of names, he referred to them collectively as we. ‘We took the offers’ he said, ‘because we were not idiots.’
With the reputation of the well-educated portion of our socioeconomic status on the line, Imma and I packed the girls and flew to America to settle in the Silicon Valley. When we got there everybody had a job, and there was one for me as well. Imma had to wait a year for a green card which ended up being pink. She shopped while she waited. To secure my happiness and loyalty I was offered magical contracts called ’employee stock option’. They promised these papers would turn into money provided I remained with the company for at least one year. The conversion of paper to money would continue on a monthly basis from then on. We were definitely in good hands. The company was run by executive role models who were themselves led by an almighty figure called a CEO. A CEO is an individual which could be man, woman or Carly Fiorina whose word was law. I was amazed to what great lengths our CEO went to validate the buying power of my annual salary. So much so, he took in and spent its equivalent on himself every week, so he could adjust my wages way before I was aware of any financial shortfall. I believe he extended the favor to a few other select employees as well.
One day job was all we needed to make ends meet, and a two day weekend to enjoy our prosperity. Pretty soon we had two boys. My superiors became concerned I was an ignorant socialist expecting capitalism to provide for so many middle-American children. One day, shortly after our fourth child was born I was approached by an executive vice president at a company picnic. Corporate America used to hold such events to please the masses. It was easy for him to find me because I was the only one who did not put ketchup on his wiener. I was holding it in a bun, the fragile insides of a roll, stuffing it into my mouth before it fell apart when I saw him approaching. He was tall, his gray hair lightly colored with dabs of brown, made him appear as young as social codes required. Employment rights assured us we would not be discriminated against based on our race, sex or religion, but said nothing about the ripe old age of forty five. He wore a pressed white shirt which contrasted with my blue Young-Judean’s-are-Tough-Cookies T-shirt. His crimson tie blended with the ketchup stain on his shirt and his brown shoes went well with his black pants. His demeanor oozed leadership and authority, his voice was a bit higher than the deeper rasping voice I grew to expect from a corporate executive. He was polite and direct, as I expected him to be.
‘Yiftah, how is it that all Israelites have at least three children?’
He was right. Of the fifteen hundred employees in the company, three of us were from Israel. Two were in senior positions and their demographics were known to all. My family status was well known because I used to send happy e-mails to mass-gathering mailing lists each time I celebrated the birth of a child. Most people spammed my messages, but the rumors of the size of my clan spread nonetheless.
My timing was very bad; I had already bitten off half of my wiener, so as to relieve the torque on the bun. I pointed to the hotdog in my mouth, forcing a smile around it. He gave me an understanding nod, and stood by me looking thoughtfully downwind as I munched through the dry mix of meat and flour. I swallowed, gasped for air and answered.
‘Peter, it is because the instructions on the contraceptives are in English.’
He let out a short cry of anguish and walked away without another word. We never spoke again. A few weeks later I was out on my own working for a two-man startup.
Unlike Corporate America which offered secure but limited benefits, startups offered a hundred-fold prospects, albeit at somewhat higher risk. A wise friend who was one of the last to sell a company which created real products explained it to me: ‘If you multiply the risk by the stock value you come up with the number you seek as your financial goal.’ All one had to do to adjust the numbers was inflate the risk or take more paper stock. Only schizophrenic pessimists doubted the possibility the paper one-penny stock we owned would one day be worth at least ten dollars. There were new drugs on the market to treat such people. In the beginning there was one dent in this otherwise flawless menagerie – you had to build real products and sell them to customers who actually tested their functionality before they paid for anything. Consequentially, I was forced to work very long hours so Imma and I could no longer reproduce whenever we wanted. Sensual deprivation got many people thinking and pretty soon a refreshing wind started blowing through the valley.
A man named Jim Clark came up with an idea how to get over the hurdle posed by customers not willing to pay for low quality. Everybody loved freebees so Jim started giving away a web-browser created by a company called Netscape. This allowed people to browse the web using computers rather than by staring at the darker corners of their attics and back yards. It was a smashing success. A wise imitator called Bill Gates followed suit and actually managed to make money by forcing Michael Dell who preferred to remain anonymous by not putting his first name on his computers – to bundle Bill’s browser with every computer Michael sold. Uncle Sam stepped in and slapped Bill on the wrist for monopolizing a free product, but it was too late the genie was out of the bottle.
Before we knew it I had an Internet startup of my own, with no business plan and no earnings, just like everyone else. Things were just fine until some people in the industry got really greedy. A company called Webvan which promised to take online orders for groceries and deliver to every house in America ordered a fleet of two thousand trucks just for starters. Unfortunately the plan hinged on Michael Dell giving a computer to every home owner, so they could order groceries through Webvan. Michael refused to give his product away for free and the web-browser bubble burst – sending everyone including myself to find a real job, but enough about me.
As the saga of HTTP, XML and other acronyms was driving men crazy, Imma’s maternal instinct told her she could not pay at the Wal-Mart register with stock options of an Internet startup, so she went to 7-Eleven where she discovered her own solution to financial risk management, but enough about her.
When I came home one evening, Imma was happy to see me. It was not the regular happy-to-see-me responding to my happy-to-see-you. It was not the got-my-dream-job happy, because she had already gotten her dream job a few years earlier. She was looking at me waiting to strike up a conversation. It could not have been it’s-boy-or-girl happy because our youngest child was fifteen years old. She had that guess-what look, the look children bring home when they get an A on their first spelling test, but she aced languages so that could not have been the reason. As one can imagine, this created emotional tension. There I was, facing the woman who would be by my side come what may, the woman who was always there for me with a hug, a kiss, a pat on the back, a kind word, a sandwich or a pair of clean underwear and all I could do was stand there looking into her eyes a dear in the love lights and say nothing. Her smile was beginning to freeze over and the moisture of happiness in her eyes was transforming into tears of disappointment. The voice from inside, which is always there in the literature, screamed ‘Say something, fool,’ but I am a private and reserved man, projecting social behaviors some might find on the fringes of language deficit disorder or worse. I am not the type who initiates a conversation on the premise of a hint something has changed. I need concrete facts so as to avoid embarrassing myself beyond redemption. You have to see the world through my eyes to understand. The inner voice did not have time for a complex emotional novel to develop, ‘say something now or it will all be over!’ it said. Over the years I have come to realize that it meant that good things will turn bad. Not exactly shit hitting the fan; disappointment was a better word. More like shit hitting the fan when the fan is not working.
Anger did not worry me that much. However, unlike anger explodes, disappointment is emotional acid which worked its way through the sinew and cartilage of one’s relationship, causing irreversible arthritis. I could not let that happen, I had to utter at least one intelligible word above a grunt.
‘Yeeesss?…’ I said, starting with a louder than normal Y, slowly lowering my voice as I got to the hissing s’s at the end of the question, sending the message I was willing to engage in intellectual foreplay, not to mention the use of ellipses which clearly indicated that there was more we could talk about. Was there a better way to put it?
‘I won some money in the California lottery,’ she blurted.
All I could do was stare into her brown-around-the-iris-hazel-farther-out eyes and realized the pattern differed a bit from one eye to the other.
‘Weeellllll’ I managed, reapplying the rhetorical device I had used to get us so far.
She understood exactly what I was talking about and the smile vanished from her face.
‘I felt we needed some financial security’ she stammered.
‘How much?’ I was surprised at how forcefully I asked the question.
‘It cost five dollars,’ she answered barely above a hush.
‘How much did you make?’
‘Eighteen thousand dollars,’ she said, her lips trembling.
We both knew this was bad news. What are the odds of a person winning the lottery to begin with? A once in a lifetime chance had come, left a measly eighteen thousand dollars and left. It was a bitter pill to swallow. We had the sense this was a part of our lives which was truly over. We embraced for mutual support and resumed staring into each other’s eyes. I flinched first and had to make a confession of my own.
‘The team pitched in for a lottery ticket and I contributed five dollars of my own’ I admitted. There was no reason to explain – she knew the story. As my company was spiraling down to the ground towards a muffled bone-breaking thump, we were grasping desperately at the robes of our more robust customers, perhaps they would have the kindness to cushion our fall, or better yet acquire our shame for a handsome fee. 0.03Com came to our rescue, with a hostile takeover. Shortly thereafter we realized that we had boarded the Titanic of the networking industry. As our ship was going to the bottom, our team grabbed for lottery straws anything to save the company. We failed.
‘So we’re even?’ she declared even though she put a question mark at the end.
We hugged tenderly as the moment demanded.
At the dinner table we took stock of where we were. We were now known as Middle America which was not doing so Aye-aye-aye.
‘It seems the delicate balance between fear and greed in corporate America has been disrupted,’ Imma said, ‘which explains the cataclysmic fallout of the sub-prime mortgage scam.’
I chewed on my potatoes.
‘Didn’t the perpetrators learn anything from the fates of their twelve hundred incarcerated predecessors convicted for all forms of fraud?’
I wanted to say there was no limit to human ingenuity, but her question was rhetorical.
‘It’s not that they should not have stolen, in fact as corporate executives they have the responsibility to venture capital where no one has gone before, it is what keeps the markets vibrant,’ she said.
‘But why did they have to exceed the capacity of the market to manage the risk?’ Imma leaned back in her chair, moving the string beans back and forth with her fork. She had switched to eating green.
‘With the market losing five percent of its value every day, we have until New Years before the economy will be worth a dollar.’
‘Maybe the new president will save us?’ I asked.
Imma looked at me as only a person who ever worked closely with a president could.
‘So where do we go from here?’ I asked.
‘Vegas, we must go to Vegas,’ she said, the evening light casting the silhouette of Vivien Leigh on the wall.
The kids watched us as we packed. They were used to seeing us working. The boys towered over me and the girls towered over Imma. ‘Where are we going?’ they asked in hostile unison. They were much younger than we were. If they turned on us things could get ugly.
‘We’re going on a road trip, just the two of us,’ Imma said.
They melted away into the house. At their ages, road trips had become detrimental to their cause.
Since Middle America was beginning to look more like Central America we decided to drive through the Northern passage of the Tioga Pass. The ascent to the pass was as symbolic as the ranger closing the pass for winter behind us telling us we would not be able to come back the way we came. His somber words followed us down the descent, so much steeper and all the more symbolic. Searching for rhyme and reason we drove to see the tufa towers on the south shores of Mono Lake. The place reminded us of the Dead Sea, where one could sink no lower.
As we turned off the highway we saw a sign saying ‘Beware of Hitchhiking CEOs.’
‘We must be nearer to CEO City than we thought,’ I said.
‘What’s CEO city?’
‘It’s a nickname for a new low-security penitentiary built just east of Crater Mountain, between routes 395 and 120 to hold corporate executives.’
A dust cloud approached from the south east. An Arnold Hummer with a paint ball gun in its turret drove to the shore a few hundred yards away from us, leading a convoy of All-Terrain-Vehicles. Four more Hummers rode the flanks and rear in sheep dog patterns. Men in their fifties and sixties were riding the ATVs dressed in modest Nike tennis apparel. The ATVs stopped along the shoreline facing the water edge. Four Hummers split into pairs and positioned themselves one hundred yards opposite each other, eight yards between the members of a pair. A man dressed as a soccer referee stepped out of the fifth Hummer.
We stood there and watched the soccer game. It bothered me that many of my fellow Middle Americans could no longer afford such Hummers or ATVs. ‘Isn’t that sweet?’ I said. ‘First they rob us of everything we have and then we pay for their day-at-the-lake ATV trips.’
Imma shared my frustration. We began to boo and jeer; honking the car horn and flashing the high beams. The players looked in our direction struggling to curb their aloof attitudes. Try as they may, arrogance got the best of them. Some touched themselves before resuming their game.
The fifth Hummer turned and drove towards us.
The two of us formed a column and we marched parallel to the shore to face our destiny, whistling the background music of Dodeskaden. The Hummer stopped ten yards in front of me and the driver stepped down. Imma peeked over my shoulder. The paint ball gunner leaned casually against the gun, attempting to make the encounter less confrontational. His partner stepped out of the driver’s seat and walked up to us. Knowing officers of the law were instructed to deal with the public politely but sternly, I was surprised by his smile. I recognized him only when he took off his Ray-Ban sunglasses.
‘How have you been?’ He asked.
‘We paid the ticket and moved on,’ I said, forcing myself to hold out my hand. He shook it warmly. Imma stepped out from behind me. They fell into each other’s arms. Ever since graduating with honors from driving school, Imma thought it wise to befriend every public servant who took the time to refresh her memory as to how one should drive in the western hemisphere. The officer was one of many such friends.
‘I noticed you folks were annoyed with the beach party we were having for this group of executives.’
I regurgitated Lou Dobbs’ narrative summary of the state of the union. He nodded empathetically.
‘The public is a menace to the inmates. We built the penitentiary away from civilization to keep them safe,’ he explained. ‘While their way of life might seem cynical, we are forced to reduce their standard of living gradually. The shock of a fast transition could push them to depression or even worse.’
‘Well, they’ve pretty much pushed all the rest of us to a fast transition,’ Imma interrupted, her emotions getting the best of her. I held her close, pulling the side of her face against my chest, stroking her other cheek with the tips of my fingers. The lawman held my shoulder with one hand, scratching around his buttocks with the other, grasping for words. He changed the subject. ‘We bring them here in groups to expose them to hardship in a controlled environment on the sun-baked salt flats, where the water is too saline to swim with your head in the water.’
We moved closer to the waterline and stared at the convicts. From a distance we easily recognized Jeffery Skilling from Enron, Mark Swatz and Dennis Kozlowski from Tyco, Sam Waskal from ImClone and Kirk Shelton from Cendant.
A lone figure stood knee deep in the water.
‘Isn’t that the Mercury’s former CEO?’ I asked.
‘It is,’ Imma answered. She turned to the law. ‘Why is he standing all by himself?’
‘He’s in for backdating stocks,’ the law answered, ‘that’s shoplifting to most of them. They have their professional pride. If we had more of his lowly caliber we would put him in a juvenile wing where he would feel more comfortable.’
I felt bad for him. We used to carpool together, he had three kids. Tears welled in my eyes and I rubbed them dry against the back of Imma’s neck. The inmates smelled the pheromones and stopped to sniff the air, turning towards us.
‘Sir’ the law was getting nervous.
I continued to rub my nose against the back of Imma’s neck.
‘Please Sir; Martha has been the only woman in their recent lives.’ His voice was pleading.
A vicious glee swept over me as I realized there was some aspect of life where I had it better than the inmates. I pulled Imma to a spooning position. I felt her ribs; she had lost a lot of weight. I moved my hand down to feel how defined her hip bones had become.
‘Not here,’ she whispered.
The inmates were aroused. It wasn’t me they savored. The law sprang into action, the gunner fired a few paint ball rounds over their heads, and the driver wished us well, hopped into the vehicle and drove off to reign in the herd.
We stood at the waterline. At this time of year all the alkali flies in the western hemisphere come to eat algae along the shore. The shoreline looks as if an oil spill of flies had been belched from the lake. These flies had no interest in humans; if they did, they would not waste their time on the shores of a lake which is hostile to all life forms. I had no interest in them. Imma had no interest in me. Women are pickier about their surrounding if they are to be swept into passionate behaviors. I desisted without bitterness, comforted that our love outgrew primordial urges. We drove on, and the sun disappeared behind the Sierra, painting the landscape in cliched pastels.
Darkness fell. The moon had the night off. The desert was dark and the stars filled the sky. We stopped by the side of the road and sat on the hood of the car and transitioned into an astrological mood.
‘You see three shining stars in a line from north to south?’ I asked.
‘Yes, I see them,’ Imma answered.
‘If you follow an imaginary perpendicular line from the middle star, a distance similar to the distances from the middle star to the other two, you see a very bright star.’
‘I see it.’
‘If you keep going down you see the string of stars curling like a fish hook, that’s Scorpio’s tail.’
‘What’s the bright star called?’ Imma asked, genuinely interested.
‘Is it not a class M super giant?’ She asked using more formal syntax.
‘Yes it is. It is so large that if you placed it in the center of the solar system it would engulf Venus, Earth and Mars, reaching as far as Jupiter.’
We sat there intellectually stimulating each other with the memories of Hera sending Scorpio to kill Orion which was high above us in the southern sky, Betelgeuse another of those red super giant marking his shoulder, his belt pointing towards Sirius the brightest star in the night sky, a member of the Canis Major, the dog following Orion. We went through the constellations for quite a while. I was thirsty and pretended to open a beer can with my right hand, snapping the left index finger out of my mouth creating a popping sound.
‘You’re better than Sarah Palin,’ Imma complimented. ‘You realize there was a lot more to her six-pack gig’ Imma continued in a slow and thoughtful voice, challenging me to think outside the box.
‘You have a point,’ I dodged.
‘What is my point?’ She persisted.
I looked into her hazel eyes hoping to see her soul, but the night was dark and I could just barely make out the darker circle of the iris let alone the pupil. We went inside the car and turned on the light so I could give her an after-all-these-years-look and she responded with an after-all-these-years understanding. We turned out the light and went back to sit on the hood.
I took a wild guess: ‘Palin was sending a social message.’
‘Go on,’ Imma said in an encouraging tone.
‘Pretty soon Middle America will not be able to afford to buy its beer cans and will have to imitate opening them.’ Imma responded with a loving pat on my head. I liked it when she did that, it helped build my character.
‘Sarah, was smiling in the face of looming hardship, showing us that living on air and drinking the insides of water bubbles is not the end of the world – and to think the Democrats ridiculed her social message!’
In an instant I was livid. ‘You know Obama is a terrorist?’
‘He’s also a Barrack Muslim.’
‘And his wife is a radical anarchist, they burn flags in their fireplace.’
‘Where did you hear that?’
‘I read it on the cover of the New Yorker.’
‘That’s a much respected magazine; this will surely rock Middle America.’
We were aggravated and had to caress to sooth ourselves. Imma sighed and I sighed back. ‘I love it when you’re not cynical,’ Imma said.
We gazed at the reassuring order of the stars.
We continued south towards the beacon of hope shining from the top of the Luxor hotel. I found it ironic that two children-of-Israel were driving through the night searching for refuge in a pyramid. The roulette table was kind to us. We placed a dollar bet on 12 red and our number came up. We immediately left the gambling floor, in a symbolic acknowledgment of man’s ability to conquer greed. We had our intellect and thirty one dollars more than we had when we crossed the pass. We would split the money evenly among the kids and get them started in life. Everything we had made perfect cents. Happy to have each other, we crawled into bed and slept like consenting adults.
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I picture Tal waking up, it’s still too early; she will turn the corner of the living room when the sun is out – it’s been two years since she has been allowed such luxury. In my mind I see her walking, still drowsy, into the living room. She manages a smile with unevenly opened eyes, a gray sweatshirt hanging sideways exposes her left shoulder; baggy cotton pants with polka dots hang down to her bare feet. On her way to wash her face she takes a detour through the piano. She sits in front of it, slouched; puts her hands on the keys, looking down at her knees, its very quite. Two spiders rush from her wrists to the far edges of the keys; the music explodes through the house, then subsides as the spiders walk more slowly back towards the center of the piano, as if content that they had awakened the keys as far as the ends of the keys. She looks down at them as they hover back and forth over central accords, as if saying ‘you are mine to control’, and sends then rushing again, pulls them back towards each other and bounces them on all ten legs, left right and over each other, before she lets them rest. Her great grandmother watches from the bookshelf as she plays her own piano. She was in her fifties when the picture was taken. She is wearing a black dress with white polka dots and a white collar. Her arms are bare and full. The tan of her skin is in contrast with her great granddaughter’s paler shoulder.
I envision Tal as she raises her head and looks at the books of notes stacked on the left corner of the piano. I know it’s only a gesture; she will not drag herself through the pile before she is fully awake, still she acknowledges it – as if to say ‘I will get to you when the day is older.’ She turns to the notes in front of her, straitens her back taking a deep breath and plays. She holds her hands above the keys, the fingering technique the pride and joy of music teachers, fingers swooping down on the octaves from above. She throws herself into the music, following it with her body, neck and head. Grandma sits still, her head raised, you can see her playing, the same long fingers, her composure is more reserved, the passion is restrained but the music is just as strong, and clear. She played for thirty five more years after the picture was taken. When she could hardly walk, she asked to be wheeled to the piano, and continued to play. She did not live to see her great grandchildren playing. Tal awakens as she plays. Now she stops, half turns on the piano bench, throws me a smile, rises slowly, acting out morning aches and pains, and continues her journey to the bathroom. The bench in front of the piano is empty; I smile when I think how the boys would do anything to keep it that way. Alas, poor creatures have to play for their food. Like condemned men they step to the gallows of their great grandmother’s notes. They do not hesitate, with well practiced moves they set their phones to vibrate-mode and place them on the seat cushion under them. They sit quickly, thinking that grandma doesn’t see them. They play only what they have to, waiting for comforting SMS buzzes from between their legs to break the monotony of the practice. They play quite well, well enough to drop girls’ jaws – sufficient mediocrity as far as they are concerned. I can see grandma smiling to herself, allowing them to get away with it, knowing that too much pressure will make them hate the music.
When grandma stopped playing people we did not know came to pay their final respects. ‘How did you know her?’ ‘We didn’t, we only knew her playing coming from the window…we came to say thank you for the music.’ The notes and the music remain with us. Grandma sees her great granddaughter thank her everyday.
The sun is higher now; Tal walks into the living room…