A Time of No Redemption
by KJ Hannah Greenberg
Sometimes, we merit to be emancipated. Other times, we remain enslaved in lethal circumstances.
The bag lady peeled her orange ever so slowly, enjoying the fine spray of misted citrus, which filled the air like an expensive atomizer. Her smile allowed her entire upper body to momentarily release its stiffness. Although her back was braced against a stone wall, cold in Novembers chill, she felt heat radiate to her torn meniscus. For a brief span, she was lifted away from Tsfats autumnal breeze and resituated in the inner sanctum of the Dead Sea Spa that she had visited lifetimes ago.
The grandma tucked each piece of peel into a plastic bag. It was as important to bring along tools when sitting in public as it was to keep her hair shampooed and her face free of grime. Her contemporaries espoused the utility of looking tattered, but that woman remained intolerant of rank odor, unkempt clothing, and other signs of personal disregard. It was better to receive fewer handouts because folks doubted ones social station than to get double fisted charity because of shoddy grooming.
The moment passed. The orange was gone. The wall again felt cold. Once more, her knee throbbed. As she said grace, a cloud covered the sun. Hobbling, the woman moved toward a popular coffee shop, where, sometimes, one of the waiters let her sit at an outside table and order, for no cost, a mug of hot water. Whenever his manager noticed that kindness, though, the berated younger man screamed at the older woman to leave the premises. As she deposited her bag of peels into a streetside can, she wondered whether or not the café manager would be on duty that day.
The cracks in the sidewalk became lines on a driveway. She was riding in circles with her two sisters and only brother. The children whooped and screeched, insisting that some bikes were pony and some were donkeys. Streamers flying, they pretended to be racing offerings to the Temple. Neither scraped knees nor raindrops interrupted their play. Only their mother hollering about lunch made them pause.
In route to the cafe, the bag lady checked her cell phone, the only item of worth she hadnt pawned. Mordechai still hadnt texted. That fair child, red-headed like his mother, and sulky like his father, was her only grandson. Her own children were often too busy to see her, but Mordechai made delivering his daily message to his Grandma his most important event. She wondered if the boy would have liked a bike with streamers, and resented, for a minute, that she couldnt buy him one. Inhaling deeply, she comforted herself that this worlds tests would elevate her to The World to Come and that whereas she was poor in coin, she had a rich life.
She regarded her phone again. Sometimes, she and Mordechai would volley half of a dozen texts in a single day. Other times, she received just an isolated regard from him. Either way, those links helped to keep her away from her roommates illicit merchandise and from the towns missionaries. Whats more, had she and that dear one not had the habit of daily messaging, when she had fainted from low blood sugar, her silence would have gone unnoticed. No one would have been summoned to bring her to her communitys hospital.
The woman regarded the fingers on her right hand and the ones on her left. She had kept all of her digits as well as her eyesight thanks to the texting habit of her daughters boy. She sighed. Her grandchild was that much more of a wonder than were her own miracle babies. Conversely, nothing could ever surpass the marvel of her own children. She nodded to herself; life taught through paradoxes. She was a matriarch of generations, who lived absent of family. As well, she was an impoverished, trained professional.
As she walked the block to the coffee shop, she stopped at a bench to rest. Thirty years earlier, she had birthed her grandsons mother. That labor, her second, had been relatively swift. Rather than the twenty-eight hours she had endured with her oldest, her grandsons mom had taken only ten hours to move from heaven to earth. Besides, that child had been positioned more favorably than had been her first born. As such, that daughters passage had caused her only ordinary labor pains.
When that daughter emerged, her head had been full of so many dark curls that she had seemed costumed. The woman fell in love again, realizing that maternal sentiment can be divided without losing potency. Thereafter, she remained the fierce champion of both her first child and her second one and of all of her children yet to come.
Later, when that second daughter birthed the grandmoms sole grandson, she reported none of her mothers awe. Rather, she spoke crisply delivery and maternity ward and commented that the hospital blankets were eminently washable.
Once home, she allowed her husband to turn off all of the heat in their apartment and to reduce her nesting space to their small bedroom. Although that man had bought her a space heater, a week into her lying-in, he left her and their baby to undertake an international adventure. He had declared no one in his company could work in his stead. Then, as now, the old lady had sighed; that same son-in-law had gone drinking with friends the night her daughter had bled from inappropriate latching.
Nonetheless, that second daughter, who had shooed her mother away from attending her in the hospital and at home, called whenever she experienced fear or pain. For half of a night, for instance, her mother worked with her on positioning. Thereafter, when her mother urged her dear one to follow up with a lactation consultant, to join a support group for nursing moms, and, in general, to surround herself with loving others, that daughter, did nothing. Rather, she exacerbated her weakness by doing laundry and by cooking, and by claiming, after her husband had boarded his flight, that it was best for her and her newborn to be alone.
One business trip led to another. A complication, from an infection, which that daughter endured during that postpartum period, led to fertility problems. By the time that the grandson was ten, he had texted his grandma that his father hit his mother. He had written, too, that he had rushed at his father to drive away the striking hand and the debilitating fist. He had been thrown against a sofa.
The scenario repeated itself. The third time that the grandsons father had pushed him with force, the boy had lost consciousness. The next day, he texted his grandmother, telling her that his mother, one of her own eyes swollen shut and her lip still oozing pus and blood, had used a combination of layer blankets wrapped around his body and chips of ice applied to his forehead to revive him. She refused medical care for either of them.
As for the father, he left noodles burning in a pot on the stove and didnt return home until his family was asleep. He muttered something about having to help out at a free loan society. In the middle of the night, when he tippy-toed to the bathroom, his son saw him surfing Internet pornography.
The grandchild implored his grandmother to do something. She did. She cried. She prayed. She cried more. His mother had never told him that Grandma lived in a single room, available to her only because of meager government subsidies, which she shared with three other women because she also had to pay for heat and running water. Instead, his mother had painted his grandma as a crazy woman, who, gypsy-like, floated from community to community in search of New Age fun.
The worried grandmother had gone to her mentor. She also sought aid from a charitable organization.
Her spiritualist had waved his hands at her and had intoned that hardships are cosmic gold dust, i.e. invaluable opportunities to raise above mundanities. Affliction, he had espoused, is delivered to a select few as a means to keep them mindful of directives normally forgotten.
The do-gooders had pushed a stack of forms across their desk at her. When the grandmother had completed them, more than an hour later, the clerk on the new shift pointed out a problem. Since the grandma lived in Tsfat, but the crisis being reported was occurring in Haifa, there was nothing the agency could do.
The old lady arrived at the eatery. No manager was in sight. She eased herself into a seat at an outside table. The befriending waiter appeared. He smiled and asked if she wanted her usual.
A dumpster cat came up to her table. It sniffed her and spent a long minute entwining itself around her legs. Thereafter, it dove for the bits of sandwich that had fallen to the ground by her seat. The previous customer had been sloppy.
The womans parents had sheltered cats as had she when her husband was alive and their children were small. Their pets were rescue animals of the most pitiful sort. One was blind in both eyes. Another had just three legs. Plus, there had been the two runts, which had been left in a book carton by their door; their neighbors were aware that the family willing helped unwanted critters. Those two tiny kittens had initially had to be fed with droppers and had had to be tucked in with whichever family member was resting on the sofa. The novelty of fending for such wee creatures was quickly lost to her children, so the woman and her husband had provided the greater portion of those kittens care.
The waiter brought her mug of hot water. She thanked him with words and with her most gracious smile. After he left, she winced; it was getting increasingly difficult to find a position in which her knee did not spasm.
Sighing, she thought she would have called The Israel Association for Child Protection, had the other ladies, who sat with empty paper cups and equally empty smiles, not revealed that the government bureau would do nothing to stymie her son-in-laws actions, even if the IACP worked in conjunction with the national Family Court. Those ladies reported their own unmitigated cases of being battered and shared stories of others survival.
Placing his finger to his lips, the waiter returned. On his tray, he bore a bowl of thick soup and a handful of whole grain crackers. My mother just got up from shiva for my grandmother. Her name was Laya bat Yermiachu, was all he said. He gestured with his chin toward the book of Tehillim the woman had placed on the table next to her mug of hot water. Before returning back to the people inside the café, he laid, on her saucer, a bag of regular tea.
Only one of the womans other children had married. That daughter, though, had experienced nothing but miscarriages. Ironically, she worked as a doctor in a Tel Aviv clinic. Not her fancy Ramat Gan apartment, which her stockbroker husband had purchased, not her jewelry, which he bought her on every significant religious holiday, and not her small, squeaky dog, which he had given her, in compensation, on their tenth anniversary, mattered. In her spare time, or so she told her mother via phone messages, she lit multiple cigarettes, traded coupons, and broadcast chain letters. She tried to link experiences if not generations.
Those acts provided no comfort. So, she estranged herself from her nuclear family. She argued, in phone messages, against risking death via fertility treatments. She alternated between talking about her fear of the dark powers and her desire to side with them. Further, she embraced all rabbinical leniencies she could glean from the familys rabbis in an attempt to excuse her husband from his procreative obligations.
The old lady grimaced and then said a few blessings before spooning soup into her mouth. Beyond her two daughters, she had four sons, none of whom married and one of whom, she suspected, preferred men. Her grandson would likely remain her only grandbaby.
Before her bowl was halfway emptied, the woman felt a small hand on her shoulder. The appendage was attached to a girl roughly her grandsons age. He was eleven, almost twelve. Like the other female children with whom the grandma associated, that girl had been kicked out of her parents home for ringing her eyes with kohl and for favoring bright lipsticks. Since her choices in dress and, later, in comestibles, were unlike those of her family, she had been told to leave. They esteemed it was better for their daughter to wander the streets then to bring traif ideas, looks, and foods home.
The grandmother looked at the little girls loose blond-red hair. She shook her head; that preteen was too young to work at being alluring. She glanced at her bowl of half-finished soup and patted the chair next to her. If the girl finished quickly, the waiter would not see that his gift had been appropriated.
Without blessing G-d or thanking the older woman, the child grabbed the bowl, brought it to her mouth and slurped its contents. Usually, she got by with snatches of drink supplied to her by the men who sought her. Other times, she fought hunger with the pretty pills supplied to her by other street children. Sometimes, she found food in dumpsters.
The woman watched the small head bob in time to the slurps. The girl engaged in unseemly goings on, but so far, blessedly, she roamed Tsfat rather than suffer kidnapping to an Arab village. In such a village, she would be enslaved as less than a wife. The only unfamiliar place in which that child had woken up, to date, was the old ladys floor.
The old ladys roommates, unfortunately, had objected to that screaming little one, to that young girl who had demanded to be returned to the streets. They didnt care about her noise, as they, themselves, frequently engaged in loudly articulated hysteria. Rather, they worried about her use of a few precious centimeters of floor. Consequently, the young one had left the old ladys domicile, taking with her, the roommates maintained, ones favorite thimble, anothers best begging cup, and a thirds treasure of scavenged, wrapping paper. From the grandmother she took nothing, instead leaving on her bed a small family of cranes fashioned from the gift wrap.
Upon discovering the childs disappearance, the grandmother had cried and prayed. She wished herself to transform into the Mystic of Rosh Pina, a man rumored capable of: flying, reading anyones body language, pulling secrets from The Zohar, utilizing covert martial arts, speaking the worlds seventy basic languages, and, most importantly, showing true kindness to the poor. Later, she just asked heaven to help her relocate the girl.
The girl licked the bowl after drinking down its contents. She reached for the crackers, too, but the older woman put her hand on them because she, too, had to eat. At that moment, the waiter, who had silently been approaching the table, yelled. His eyes were wild having seen the girl eat up his gift. He was willing to risk his job for someones living grandmother, but not for a half dead street urchin.
The old lady bowed to him, tried to wipe up the droplets of spilled soup with the one of the napkins she hadnt pocketed, and quickly stepped away from the restaurant. She wondered if the Mystic of Rosh Pina could make the cafés owner charitable and the waiter brave and whether such a sage could help her young friend or her grandson.
On returning to her apartment, the woman picked through the trashcans, seeking refundable bottles. So as not to dirty her hands, she used a tree branch. She wrapped all of the suitable vessels in a double layer of plastic bags. She could not tolerate waste dripping on her clothing.
Again, she checked her cell phone. In spite of all of prayers, there was no message from her grandboy. Of the grandmas four unmarried sons, one was a manager at a branch of a Natanya grocery chain. Another still served in the army. A third DJed at some sort of club in Tel Aviv. He was the closest, both geographically and emotionally, to her doctor daughter. Her oldest boy lived in Florida, asserting that the United States economy was better. The manager didnt earn enough to support a family, the soldier had not yet begun a family, the DJ didnt seek a family, and the emigrant wanted only the companionship of the Key West sun.
For the second time in as many hours, a soft hand patted her shoulder. The woman turned around slowly. It was unlikely to again be the street girl. It wasnt. Rather, her greeter, also possessed of a youthful face, was the permanent tourist. That young wanderer practiced yoga by day and studied supernatural writings by night. She earned her keep by intermittently selling her services as a masseuse. A former Utah native, that woman, all dangling earrings and long, printed skirts, had felt called to Israel.
She motioned for the grandma to sit on a nearby bench and, uninvited, began to rub her shoulders. She tried to make conversation as she worked. Her rhetorical regionalism did not follow Mormonism, but Valleyspeak. Originally, she was from California. She had moved to Salt Lake City not to become a sister wife, but to immerse her practice of bodywork in a spiritual milieu. Eventually, she decided that of the Holy Land would better serve her.
That slim, thirtyish woman asked about the grandmothers grandson as it was one of the few topics that the older woman seemed to enjoy. The healers believed that a happy person was a healthy one.
The grandma weighed her answer. Something had pulled that younger woman away from her home community to places increasingly strange to her. Tsfat would never be Los Angeles and it was certainly not part of the Mormon Corridor. Perhaps, that young one sprang from a broken childhood. Perhaps, she misremembered a youthful trauma. Perhaps, her mother had turned a blind eye toward domestic violence.
The older woman lifted a pocketed napkin to her eye. She spoke of how her grandson had outgrown his longest pants and of how he seemed to need more regular haircuts. She told of his struggles with maths. She shared his desire to gain a puppy, too. She weighed implying, or directly stating, that all was not well in his home, but said nothing, not wanting to endanger a special relationship.
The woman who rubbed knots out of the grandmas neck and eased tension from her forehead might not want to recall her own critical episodes. Even if she remained oblivious to the fact that most religious men, who passed by her, filled their eyes with her, and to the fact that the woman, on whom she laid her hands, was smelly and disheveled, she might yet be vulnerable to references to childhood hardships. So, the grandma smiled and cooed, but censored her accounts of her family.
The healing arts woman smiled back. She looked at the wet napkin, at the grandmothers clenched lips, and concluded wrongly. Dear Grandmother, she whispered as she slipped her own bag from the local corner store onto the older womans wrist. Please take these. Within that thin plastic sheath were a package of cheese, some apples, and paper sacks of the sort that storekeepers filled with seeds or nuts.
As suddenly as she had appeared, that young spirit disappeared among the citys pedestrians. The old lady frowned. Without truth, Israel would be as spiritually vacant as other lands. Moving the bag a bit, on her wrist, she continued to shuffle home.
Just doorways before the building where she roomed, she met another acquaintance. That lucky other didnt have to use the community centers locker room to get clean; her
Artists Quarter basement room boasted a shower. She repeatedly invited the old lady to use it, but the old lady had thought the idea weird.
She invited the old lady to many opportunities, appointing herself the grandmas community bulletin board. There had been free music and poetry recitals, about which the grandma would have been ignorant had it not been for that woman. There had been free elder clinics, too. That day, though, the gal-with-the-shower was eager to share more valuable news.
The English Speakers Library had scheduled a book sale. Inventory would be sold for as little as one or two shekels per volume. She asked which kind of novels she ought to reserve for her friend.
The old lady smiled and shook her head. She couldnt afford such a luxury, even were the price to be dropped to mere agarot. She offered her friend an apple, which was gladly received. She offered, additionally, one of the still mysterious paper sacks. The lady declined, citing a diet.
Before leaving, the other one reached into her sack and passed the old lady two empty, glass bottles. She muttered about not being worth visiting the recycling center for such a pittance. She then promised to treat the old lady to a book of her own choosing; she would ask the reference librarian to await the elders order.
The grandmother smiled in answer and hobbled on. When the young woman was no longer in sight, she checked her phone. No message.
In her room, she fell asleep. It was best to nap during the day, when the ambient temperature was agreeable. At night, she moved around her buildings hallways or walked the streets to keep warm. Tsfat was lovely in the summer, being one of Israels literally elevated cities, but its winters were challenging. The heat she paid for merely kept frost from forming on the furniture.
When she awoke, she saw that her cell phone, which she had foolishly placed on her
chair-cum-nightstand, had fallen to the floor. Fortunately, none of her roommates were back. She again hid that device in her sweaters pocket. Sighing, she glanced around her room. There was not much space. Beyond her own shared bunk bed, her dwelling was filled with another bunk bed, a burner, and a small refrigerator, from which her roommates stole her food. Additionally, there stood a single dresser. In one corner was a slim door behind which were located a modest toilet and a tiny sink.
After washing, the grandmother pulled one of last weeks rolls from beneath her mattress. She tore around the places where rodents had nibbled, tossed those bits on the floor and prayed. That roll and similar treats had been delivered by Tomchei Shabbot, Food for Sabbath, a charity aiming to enable poor Jews to celebrate Shabbot. When possible, the woman concealed part of her allotment behind a loosened cement block next to her bed. If she wrapped her food in layers of plastic bags and covered those bags with vinegar, small creatures bypassed them. She fished her vinegar bottle out from the pile of clothes under her bed. It was almost empty.
Other times, leftover food got stuffed under her mattress or beneath the rags she called her pillow. Usually, two, four and six-legged beasts found her supplies. That loss would continue as she could neither quietly or easily move the cider block.
After eating, she washed again, dried her hands on a dirty shirt and prayed. One of her returning roommates interrupted her recitation to demand the rest of the food concealed beneath her bunk. The grandma proffered the apples to that violent, alcoholic roommate, but said nothing of the sacks of nuts or the brick of hard cheese secreted behind the wall block. After eating, the other dropped to sleep on the bunk reserved for a different woman. The grandma didnt wake her. Rather, she finished her prayers and then left their shared domain.
A block from home, she withdrew her cell phone from her pocket. There was yet no message from her grandson. It was bad enough that she was unable to gather all of the street girls, to feed and otherwise care for them, to teach them, specifically, life skills such as cooking, cleaning, and shopping and to give them, more generally, large doses of self-esteem. She wished she could magic their parents brains into welcoming them back home and could poof the local municipality into delivering them there safely. She wished, too, that she could transform her roommates anger and frustration from addiction to public service. Those broken women were wise in the ways of life. Their insights could help so many families if only they could be urged away from drugs and drink toward service. She wished, also, that she could conjure, for the California/Utah/Tsfat woman, a stable job, a steady spouse, and a solid sense of self. Above all, she wished she could deliver her grandson from harm.
Sighing, she limped to a nearby stoop and sat. The air was taking on a chill and the sun was setting. She drifted back to her life with her husband as lived in a Haifa apartment.
One Purim, their son-in-law had taken a bus from his district to theirs to deliver their mishloach manot, their Purim basket. In addition to his basket of goodies, he had brought them a basket full of baby. His ten month-old son was sleeping under a light blanket in the second parcel that he had left at their door.
His father had dressed that little one as an ethereal butterfly. That Purim costume, an onesie decked with fabric paint and strung with gossamer wings, glittered in shades of purple and blue. Although the sleeping baby seemed more radiant than the shiny ribbons and glistening sequins decking his pajamas, it was all that his grandfather could do not to tackle his father. Quietly, he asked about his daughters whereabouts.
In the hospital, the son-in-law replied. Fell down a flight of stairs. Oh, and would you watch him for a while; I have more baskets, in the car, to deliver.
While her husband went next door, to the apartment of a family bursting with children, to borrow diapers, formula and baby food, the not-yet-old lady called the city medical center. Her daughter had been admitted. She suffered from a broken arm, a few broken ribs, and a concussion. She was patched, but being held for observation. The nurse answering the phone said nothing of the police officers guarding her hospital rooms door. She said nothing, too, about the cigarette burns on the patients arms and face.
The grandma called her doctor daughter and asked her to stop by her hospitalized sister. She called her son, who assisted in a big grocery store and pleaded with him to leave work immediately to help confront her son-in-law. She rang up her child in Key West and asked him to fly home. Regrettably, her American boy was disinterested in tangling in family affairs. Her music jockey, who didnt answer, was likely sleeping off a late night. Her soldier, assigned to an invisible unit was unreachable. Her store manager son got stuck in traffic on Route One. When her son-in-law returned to their apartment, all sweet smiles and nonchalance, only she and her husband were there to refuse his admission. Their best effort consisted of chaining their door and drawing the bolt.
He screamed at them and then set off the fire alarm in the hallway when he threw lit matches at the ceiling. In the end, a few months after he had left his baby in their apartment, he successfully sued them. His wife returned to him. The courts ordered the grandparents to return the grandbaby. When the grandmas husband died of heart failure, her son-in-law again sued her, thus depleting her finances and causing her insurmountable debt.
As she massaged her aching knee, the woman thought of the bravery of Naami of the Bible. Naami had not shied from taking her daughter-in-laws baby, Ruths child, Oved. Heroic, Naami had even obliterated, sort of, Ruths connection to the boy. She remembered the Biblical verse that stated Naami took the child and placed it on her bosom and became nurse to him. If only it would have been as simple for her to protect her grandson.
The old lady looked both ways before crossing the street, despite the hour and the relative quiet of her neighborhood. In a nearby dumpster, cats were scavenging for dinner. A random Arab threw stones at them, causing them to scatter under cars.
The woman had mistakenly believed that when her grandbaby got older, he would be saved by some religious schools mandate that boys dorm at school. She had not considered that her daughter, pressed by her son-in-law, would seek permission for their child to sleep at home.
After the Arab passed onto a side street, the cats returned to the dumpster to seek their dinner. The woman shambled along. At the local makolet, she would trade in her bottles for money. Maybe she would have enough to buy another bottle of vinegar.
While she was trading empty vessels for sour rinse, her phone, at last, rang. She did not recognize the caller I.D. When she pushed the communication button, she heard weird background sounds. Her DJ sons voice greeted her. Behind him screamed not club music, but sirens; he was calling from a hospital emergency room. His sister had reached out to their doctor sibling, who had, in turn, dispatched him to make a rescue. Beyond patient care, that medico refused anything to do with children.
His lone nephew had been pronounced Dead on Arrival. He thought his mother would want to know.
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