Victory Gardens – Chapter 53


Mutty is sufficiently recovered from the shock of the massacre to think about returning to his yeshivah, now located in Jerusalem. Mutty and Zayit both realize Mutty must notify his parents that he is safe.

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Mutty and Zayit trotted silently along the narrow cobbled streets of Jerusalem. Mutty was deep in thought, wondering why he hadn’t chosen to throw himself back into the arms of the yeshivah, preferring to remain under the care and guidance of Shlomo Zayit, a stranger, who seemed to possess the answers to many of his questions, both spoken and unspoken. Only now did he realize what a strong state of shock he had been living in these past few weeks. He understood that it was time to move on, but he did not have a clear sense of where he wanted to go. He knew his father would tell him to return home immediately, and he wondered if that was why he had subconsciously delayed contacting his parents. He did not know how he would fit the expanded individual he had become into the narrow confines of 18th Street in New York City. As much as his parents loved him and he loved them, there was no way they could understand that the bright-eyed boy they sent away, the boy who ran for his life before collapsing from exhaustion on Zayit’s farm, existed no longer. He was reminded of the old story about the feathers that escaped from a down pillow. They could never again be gathered up, having already been dispersed into the wind.

He sighed as his thoughts tossed around in his mind like those feathers, and Zayit turned to look his way. “When the time comes to make the decisions, the answers will also arrive,” said Zayit, puffing mildly on his pipe. It wasn’t the first time he’d spoken directly to Mutty’s thoughts. It was a disconcerting habit, but in a way, Mutty found it comforting as well.

They pulled up in front of the hotel and Mutty eyed it curiously. The two-story building was lined with stalls on street level. Above were two floors of whitish-pink shoebox architecture. Mutty found the rounded windows and the small, individual balconies in front of each window charming.

“What’s the fellow’s name?” asked Mutty as Zayit prepared to dismount.

“I didn’t get it. I can describe him, though. I don’t think there are too many Americans inside this time of year, and even fewer Jews.”

“What do you mean?” asked Mutty.

Zayit decided to leave the question unanswered, and asked Mutty to stay in the wagon and keep his eye on the donkey. Mutty was happy to sit back and watch the teeming humanity around the place. It reminded him of the ocean waves he’d seen at Rockaway Beach in Queens, only with people instead of water, and his eyes moved back and forth, following each stream, as they had when he’d sat at the beach.

At least twenty minutes passed before Zayit re-emerged from the Petra.

“Did you find him?” asked Mutty.

“They said he told them he would return in an hour. So we’ll daven and then come back.”

“What about the telegram?” Mutty asked.

“Ah! Let’s do that first.”

He took a few minutes to lead the donkey to a nearby trough of water and let him drink his fill. It was Elul. The air was still warm and the atmosphere was still strained. Rosh Hashanah would soon be at the gate, and where would Mutty be when it arrived?

They moved on to the post office, and this time Zayit tied the animal to a post and led Mutty inside. After some rapid-fire discussion in Hebrew, the clerk handed Zayit a form for Mutty to fill out. The post office was crowded with all types of people, sending telegrams, exchanging currency and sending and receiving packages, and Mutty was distracted by all the activity. What should he say to his parents if he was not prepared to hear their response? He decided to be brief and to the point: “Alive and well.” He knew he should add: Please advise next step, but found that he could not, and decided to leave it with the three most important words. The rest would be figured out in due time.

Zayit smiled tightly as he looked over Mutty’s form. “That’s it?” he said.

Mutty nodded. “For now.”

“Very well,” said Zayit. He approached the telegram window and waited quietly while Mutty sat on a bench, facing away from the entrance. The line moved slowly as a ceiling fan spun lazily overhead. A fly landed on Mutty’s cheek, then his nose, then his arm, and he swatted it away. A low hum filled the room. He turned one eye towards Zayit to see where he stood in line, chiding himself for letting the older man conduct his business for him, and was surprised to see Zayit’s face light up, surprised to see him step slightly out of line and hold his hand out to be shaken. He was too lazy and too hot to turn his body all the way around, amused and distracted enough by the sight of Zayit looking so animated. It was hard to pick out one voice out of the hundred circling around him, and so the words of Zayit and his companion floated through the air with all the rest, like so many dust particles, one indistinguishable from the other. 

To be continued . . .