Wicked Ch. 06byMetamorphose©
First things first:
Thanks to rexbrookdale and Cambria Rose for helping with the editing.
Wicked Chapter Nine
Two months later
Slap. The sound of leather against leather bounced off the Golden Gloves club walls. It found a window to escape through, and flew outside into the humid Tel Aviv street. From Hassan Beck mosque rose the monotonic muezzin call for Zuhr, mid-day prayer, and it entered the club through the same window.
Dan jabbed twice with his left; the second one connected, and the ending twist opened up a nasty cut in Mahmud's cheek. The little bulldozer of a man had dodged, protecting his right side and jabbed with his left.
The punch went way too low and Dan snuck in a massive counter cross, past his unprotected flank. Kinetic energy exhausted its potential and Mahmud's head snapped sideways.
He is really going to feel that one later. Should have insisted on helmets.
Mahmud punched blindly; it flailed, way off mark.
Dan went left, right, left hook, right, left hook. Faster than the eye can follow, forcing Mahmud to put his hands up, protecting his head. Seizing the moment to dig down into the now-unprotected body, he opened another cut with a massive punch.
Mahmud jumped back, but no more punches followed.
"Stop!" Dan said. "What happened right now?"
Mahmud's passive face went blank.
"You can stop the dupe, kid. I know you understand Hebrew perfectly well."
Another blank look.
"Have it your way, kid, but the only way I can help you is if you stop playing games with me."
Mahmud looked around. It was early morning and the Golden Gloves club was almost empty. "How did you know?" His Hebrew was actually very good.
"I wasn't sure. Though I am now."
"You always go for a right hook," Mahmud said, "and my jab was too low. I'll be ready next time."
"Well, that was your first 'ass up'. Fighting someone taller and experienced, never throw your jabs below the shoulder, but that's cool." Dan threw him a towel and took one himself. "Everyone makes mistakes. But you fucked up when you panicked. That's the worst thing that can happen to you in a ring. Old timers like me can smell panic miles off; if this was a real fight I'd be on your ass, no matter how tired I was. Never lose your focus."
"Shit, I'll never ace this like you."
"Not with that attitude. Come on, let's take five on the balcony, I've got a business proposal I wanna talk with you about."
Mahmud stared at him with a sneer.
"Stop eyeballing me like I'm taking you to the casting chair. I ain't gay and you ain't my type. Go up to the balcony, I'll grab us a beer."
"I'm a Muslim."
"Yeah. But Isam and Samir both got a day off, and the balcony is empty, so, this will be just between you and Allah."
"I'll take a Heineken, then."
Mahmud sipped his cold beer silently, with a little contented smile he hid behind the raised bottle.
It occurred to Dan that he had never seen Mahmud with anything but tightly closed lips. Probably because of the two missing front upper teeth. Dan scanned the waterline. He liked to watch the Mediterranean going about its business because waves always helped him focus, and because of the many Tel Avivian chicks who packed only a bikini on their trips to the beach.
"How old are you, Mahmud?"
"You work for Sharif, right, the contractor? How long've you been working in plaster and structure?"
"Since I was twelve."
Goddamn this comeback of striped bathing suits. "And do you have some sort of a master plan?"
"For life, you know, for the future." If there is justice in this world, somewhere in Africa there's a tigress wearing the skin of a divorced, Tel Avivian skank.
"Earn some money from construction and boxing, then I can get the fuck out of this stinking place."
Dan's internal striped-skank diatribe paused, as he turned to Mahmud. "Where to?"
"I dunno. Barcelona, London, New York; anywhere that's far from here."
"Running away from something?"
"Sure, from crazy fuckers like Isam and Samir who think they have Allah in their back pocket. And racist fuckers like Vladimir, who calls Arabs cockroaches and sand-niggers. Also from old fuckers who think that because they bought me one beer, they can nose around."
"Does it look like I think that?"
"You said you had a business proposal."
"What's with the act, Mahmud?"
"Why pretend you're a dumbo all the time?"
"How can you tell I ain't?"
"Seen you a couple of times with the slow kid from the kiosk, the one that hangs around here almost every afternoon. What's his name? Yusuf?"
"So I've seen kindness, and patience, and smarts, and.... Like when he wouldn't let go of the stupid golden cup, and even Maor was starting to lose it. You just sat with him for five minutes, you talked it out at eye level and he just let go. You remember that one?"
"I remember Vladimir saying it was just one dumb beast talking to another dumb beast."
"Yeah, I remember that too," Dan said.
"Funny what people say in your face when they think you don't understand them." Mahmud's face, as always, was a blank mask. The kid played poker with life.
"Fuck Vladimir. You're different from all of the retards here. They make a sport out of giving the poor kid a hard time. You're different. Mature."
"My brother's got autism, too."
"Okay. But why the act?"
Mahmud shrugged. "It helps. Makes you not there."
"If you look stupid, can't speak, like dust, you're not really there. Usually, that's enough. If you're not there they ... you know ... just uh, move on. I guess I got used to it."
Dan had a sad, fleeting image; wearing a khaki IDF uniform at the Hawara checkpoint, arguing with an old Palestinian, the age of his granddad. Not arguing. Arguing is an act between peers, and there is never equilibrium between the man holding the gun and the man looking at the gun barrel. How many checkpoints had Mahmud passed, during his short life, on his way from Ramallah in the occupied territories to Tel Aviv? Dan knew exactly what was the point of 'not being there'.
People adapt, no matter how bad the situation is... Was I willing to adapt to a life without balls? ...they take the beating and humiliation and they bend. But if they don't break they adapt. Ana couldn't adapt to life with an emotional zombie; she had snapped.
He didn't want to dwell on it. "There's an old lady I met two months ago," he said.
"You date old women?"
"I met her in a hospital, you cheeky tick," Dan was happy to see Mahmud peep out from his shell, "and I've completely forgotten about her. She called me, out of the blue, three weeks ago."
"This old lady, she's a billionaire who likes to throw money at charity projects. She bought an old boarding school near Hertzeliya that's been closed since the eighties. She wants to turn it into a shelter for youth at risk."
"Kids from broken homes, abusive families, violence, you know. Kids that need protection and somewhere that can help them. Both Jewish kids and Arab kids, by the way. She gave the renovation to a sub-contractor, but he's been dicking the dog for two years now, so she's suing his ass and trying a new approach. She hired me to pick up that project and to follow through from A to Z. She wants me to renovate the old school, and then she wants me to run it."
"Why did she pick you?" Mahmud looked sadly at the declining beer level in the bottle. "I thought you were the guy who did computers and stuff."
"I've done big projects before, I've worked in a shelter and I was recommended by a young doctor that she really appreciates. Anyway, I have some experience working in construction with my dad twenty years ago. But it's an outdated skill. I know things are done differently today, so I need help."
"You do that thing a lot?"
Dan lost his line of thought. "What thing?"
"When you need a favor from someone, you buy him beer and you think that makes you his friend?"
"I just figured you'd want beer; it's hot."
"I ain't your friend, Dan."
"Works for me."
"You're an Israeli Jew, I'm a Palestinian."
"Does it mean we have to be enemies?"
Mahmud scanned him from head to toe with a look that said, even though Dan was almost twenty years his senior, he had some growing up to do. "Just wanted to make sure you understand that. Maybe I'm just twenty-one but I won't let anyone screw me. How big is the ... how big, is the shelter thing?"
"Classes, a gym, warehouses, dormitories area, and they all need some heavy renovation. She wants me to build stables too."
"Inside the school?"
"There's a thing called riding therapy."
"I'm not a contractor," Mahmud said.
"I'm not taking a single big contractor, so I would need someone smart like you who can navigate the ship, our ship; someone who knows the ins and outs of working with subcontractors." Dan was already talking in terms of us, hoping his enthusiasm was touching the young skeptic sitting in front of him. "I need someone with experience who can tell me when a contractor is trying to pork me. I don't need a new friend; I need an assistant, someone reliable."
"I could hire a construction supervisor but from my experience, you always find later that the guys they hired were their own buddies. Plus I know you and you're--"
"Cheap," Mahmud smirked for a second, then closed his mouth, a blank mask again.
"No. Not that. Okay, no bullshit, the woman may be a billionaire but she ain't stupid, she's running a tight budget and you are cheaper than any supervisor. But there's more."
"I've talked her into turning an old warehouse into a boxing gym. Somewhere the kids can punch out their aggressions. And I would need a boxing instructor, someone who's good with kids and speaks both Hebrew and Arabic."
"What do I know about teaching problematic kids?"
"I never figured you'd be the one to puss out of a challenge."
Mahmud didn't say anything for a long time. He scanned Dan, probably trying to find the catch.
A tough kid ... with issues. Am I making the right choice here?
"My daily is two hundred shekels," he finally said, "I got a real permit, you know; I'm not illegal."
"I'll give you seven-K, monthly. Plus I won't grab half your paycheck like Sharif does for the arranging your permit with the DCL. Think about it, it's an opportunity. I'll go buy us two more beers while you do. If, that's okay with you, Not-Friend?"
Fifteen, come on, fifteen you fat-ass slob, you can do it. "Every day in every way I'm getting better and better." His body rose slowly higher. The lactic acid in his muscles was telling him insulting stuff about his mom's occupation, but he paid no heed. Fifteen, come on, fifteen. His chin rose an inch above the bar and he let go with a whoosh of exhaled air and a triumphal scream.
"Yeah, that's the ticket, you fat schmuck," his brother said.
"Who's fat, Maor?" Dan slapped his stomach and checked the mirror. His abs were finally showing; nothing to write home about, but the padding was gone. He had been an athlete most of his life. His body just needed a little push and shove, to remember. "Not bad, eh?"
"I bet Ana is happy."
Dan tried to keep a nonchalant face. "Wanna bam with this fat schmuck?"
Maor gave him the bird and turned his back, but when he passed near him he turned, all of a sudden, and slammed Dan a hard one in the stomach. Dan folded to the floor. "Fuck, that's how you do it, bitch. Prison rules, mother fucker." Maor reached out to help his brother up. When Dan was up halfway he punched a hook into his brother's jaw, sending him back down. "Fuck, yeah. Are you coming on Friday? Edna is making shrimp sushi."
"Doesn't sound too kosher," Dan tried to pick himself up, wearily watching for another attack. "I thought she found the light, or God, or something."
"Lost it again. You gonna tag along that crazy-ass in-law of yours?"
"We need to get ready, you know; shine the bullet-proof vest, dust off the crucifix and the holy water, lock the kids in their room so they won't hear the language on that bitch."
"Get out of here, you're crazy about Alice."
"She's a cool cat, I'll give her that," Maor smiled, "not that I'd hook her up with someone I know or anything. I mean I would, but I wouldn't want to date someone like her. I mean I would, but not that I'd fall for her, or want to make little puppies with her ..." He paused in some grownup childish daydream, and then added, "Yeah, that would be awesome."
"When you're done wanking could you please get me the number for the Ramallah DCL guy who writes the permits, for Mahmud?"
Dan was about to answer when his mobile buzzed, and he signaled his brother they'd continue this later. He went back into the locker room, found a private spot, and dialed.
"How're you doing, Iriti?"
"Settling down, you know, it's a good place. Quiet."
"How's the new job?"
"Why?" Dan cried, "you said it was perfect."
"Until I found out one guy from middle management used to be a regular client of mine," she said.
"No, actually, he used to come dressed in shorts and school shirt, and wanted me to spank his buns, that's it."
"You shouldn't let someone like that put you down; it should be the other way around, especially if he's married."
"Shit, how are you holding? You know I could send a little --"
"Back off, Dan, I ain't taking money from you. Anyway I called to check out on you. How are things back home?"
"Cold war quiet."
"Ouch. And Ana, is she still...? "
"No, no she doesn't, no. Not since Crete. I'm not sure what happened but something shocked her back into her sane self. She's changed."
"I don't know, she's not her usual self; she's quiet. I don't know, maybe I've changed. But she didn't go out with anyone."
"Are you sure?"
"Pretty much. She works hard, comes home, brings work back with her. It's like she's drowning in work these days. She's ... maybe she's depressed ... I don't know really. She goes to sleep every night at eight-thirty."
"Sounds weird. And you two? I mean the nuki? I mean, you know what I mean."
"She sleeps in her bedroom, I sleep upstairs."
"We're like complete strangers living in the same house, we almost never talk anymore. I'd never thought I'd say this, but I'm really glad Alice is living with us. She's like an equalizer. If it wasn't for her, I think World War Three might have, you know...."
"Another round of peace talks will resume August 14th in Jerusalem amid fury over settlement construction, and following the release of 26 Palestinian prisoners. The White House released a statement today, calling both sides --"
"She's done something with her hair." Alice picked out a sunflower seed, bit on it, then spit the remains onto a small plate. One look from Ana, promising gratifying death after slow torture, sent her digging the sofa for the one piece of shell she missed. "Looks nice." She turned to Dan and rolled her eyes.
Dan punched the start button on his laptop. The desktop screen had somehow flipped, bottom-side-up and none of the icons were responding. "Who looks nice?"
"Yonit Levi, she's done something with her hair."
"Amazing how you can summarize watching news to a trivial remark about the newsreader's hair. Goddamn this fucking...!"
"What's new about peace talks?" Alice said.
"That's why people like you shouldn't be allowed to vote."
"We've been there a million times before, you condescending, kiss-ass lefty. It's a dead-end. The Palestinians want one thing and one thing only."
"That too, but they want to fuck me."
He checked the Windows processes. All looked fine. "You mean us. Israelis."
"Not us, me," Alice pointed at her body. "Everyone wants to fuck me."
"Everyone wants to fuck you, sure."
"We'll give them Judea and Samaria and East Jerusalem. Two days later, give or take, they'll be knocking at my door. 'Knock, knock, who's there? It's the Palestinians, we've come to fuck you'."
"That's the Alice-centric religion? Where do I not sign in?"
Alice stared at Dan and crossed her eyes. He couldn't help laughing. "Some computer nerd you are. We should call my grandma. She has more technical aptitude than you."
"I've no idea how that...." He suddenly noticed the mirth at the corner of her mouth. "Alright, what did you do, Alice?"
She burst out laughing.
"Goddamn." It took him another ten seconds. "You replaced the Theme with a picture of an upside-down desktop; these aren't icons."
It took her some time to stop laughing. "God, you should have seen your face," she burst out laughing again.
"You've got way too much free time on your hands."
She wiped away her tears. "Actually, I asked Tom to do it, I wouldn't know where to start. Tom," she shouted, "he fell for it."
"Why didn't you call me?" Tom came running downstairs, carrying with him a race game disc.
"It would have been too suspicious. God you should have seen him going at the keyboard." Alice pantomimed a hysterical version of Dan punching, and both she and Tom burst out laughing.
"You two are grounded."
"Can you play Mario Race with me, Dad?"
"I'm watching the news. Why don't you play Scrabble with your mature aunt, instead?"
"Hey, not nice," Alice tousled his hair, "'Firnafir' is a real word. A kind of an Armenian armadillo."
"I googled it," Tom said. "No such thing."
"It's technologically shy, like your aunt. It doesn't know where Google lives, so Google never had a chance to put it in his Google-y notebook."
"Would I lie to my only nephew?"
"Can I get some respect here, Dan?"
"On a plate or in a sandwich?" Dan hugged his son close, and tickled him into a giggling fit. "Know what? Get the Scrabble board and I'll join you two. I'm in the mood for revenge, big time."
"Oh, smell that, Tommy? That's the sweet smell of a serious humiliation coming your way, you and Alice better give up now, I won't hold it against you."
"As if." Tom ran upstairs for the Scrabble.
For the past half-hour Ana hadn't really been doing any work. She had observed from behind her laptop screen; a scientist, supervising a social experiment behind a one-directional glass. What was wrong with this scene? Alice, Dan, and Tom, had played Scrabble, joked, teased, and had a riot of a time. Even Liana, enticed by the mirth she had heard, came down and was allowed to stay out of bed on Dan's lap. The house had been once again full with the sounds of laughter, dearly missed for a very long time. The perfect family portrait. So ... what was wrong with this picture?
She was not in it. It wasn't Alice's family ... it was her family.
Dan was a new man, bursting with energy. He was filling the kids' heads with promises of the new youth shelter and a stable full of gentle horses. Everyone in the house, even Alice, seemed to be swept by his newfound enthusiasm. Everyone, except for Ana.
The green-eyed monster slithered into her ear and found in her an avid listener to ugly lies and wild allegations. Every time Alice said something that had sent them all into a round of giggling, she felt a twist in her chest. Every time Alice had touched Dan with too much familiarity, it felt like a tiny dwarf was using her heart as a pin-cushion. She should be sitting there on the sofa, not her sister. Envy turned to bitterness, and bitterness to anger that lit a flame. Doctor Dom had placed a mirror in front of her nose, and what she saw had sent her running into a dark cave. Now, she wanted out.