The Watchman of Ephraim Street
His Israeli identity card lists his name as Saaid Abed Kalaf. It is spelled out there, in Hebrew, along with his identity number, his age and address, his mother’s name and his father’s name, where he was born, what year. It is laminated, carefully cushioned in its slate-colored plastic folder. Tucked into one side of the folder are the names and identity numbers of his wife and five children. There is also an old black-and-white photo of his parents, the edges folded slightly, so that it can remain tucked behind the identity card. In between these things, held like pages bound to the spine of a book, are several small pieces of paper, with names, addresses, and phone numbers written in luxuriantly curled Arabic. There is also a carefully folded letter, the folds precise and even, square, a photocopy of a photocopy of a letter, wedged between his sister’s new phone number and the address of the store in Abu Dis that sells the part he needs to repair their kerosene heater.
He takes these items out of his back pocket, and sorts through them several times a day. It appears that he is searching for a certain slip of paper—a certain address or phone number. These forages always begin the same way, with Saaid taking out the wad in his back pocket, passing it from one hand to the other, and then sorting through it, his thumb flicking through the pieces of paper, finding the one carefully folded letter, opening it, flattening it out, smoothing it out with both palms, looking at it, a small smile crossing his face, a nod, maybe two nods of his head, and then the letter is meticulously folded again, returned to its home, wedged between his sister’s phone number and the address of the store.
When he arrives at the building site, it is four in the afternoon. Just a handful of workers remain. He sees that a large order of stone has been delivered, and it is sitting there, four tons of Jerusalem stone, pink and yellow veins running through it, here and there a slash of deep red, sitting carefully stacked, wrapped in blue plastic, piled up on the wooden pallets. The rain sits in small pools on top where the plastic sags.
“Ahalan,” he says to his boss, the Israeli kablan, the project manager. Uri is a nice enough guy, a bit rough around the edges, blunt, but also businesslike and careful. He is even-tempered, not like the last man Saaid worked for. That boss was slightly lunatic, barking at the workers all the time, his voice raw and raspy by the afternoon. It was fairly easy to just ignore him, say hello, collect his money, and lock up. He asks Uri how the day went, nods at the piled up pallets of stone.
Uri laughs. “If it ever stops raining, we will be able finish the outside.”
“Inshallah,” Saaid replies, “maybe tomorrow it will stop.”
Saaid makes his way toward the back of the shell of the house, toward a tiny room (this will one day be a small study). Opening the flap of plastic hung to create a semblance of privacy, he switches on an old and crusty work lamp. He places the small plastic bag he has been holding onto the floor next to an up-ended mattress, and hurriedly he changes into paint-spattered pants and a torn gray sweatshirt. He pulls on a knitted cap and adds a flannel shirt to the layers of clothing. He carefully hangs the clothes he was wearing on three nails that have been pounded into the wall.
He straightens a large piece of heavy plastic on the floor and takes the grubby mattress that has been propped up against the wall, and sets it on top. He then goes to a makeshift wooden bin in the corner and removes two large plastic sacks. One is filled with sheeting and the other holds a ratty quilt. Saaid spreads these things out on top of the bed. He pulls a small transistor radio from the bag, and he hangs the heavier plastic bag on one of the empty nails.
Saaid goes back out into the hallway of the house. Uri has been standing there waiting for him. Uri says, “Please lock up after me. Will you be okay here tonight?”
“Not to worry, Inshallah, I will turn on the heater and I will be fine.”
Uri smiles back, but he sighs and in a low voice says, “I heard last night about another building in the neighborhood that was robbed. A great big truck pulled up and emptied the building site of all its power tools, about 24,000 shekels worth of ceramic tiles, and the heaters and work lamps.”
Saaid stares back at Uri. “Where was the watchman?”
“Not watching,” says Uri sarcastically.
Saaid looks seriously at Uri. “Not to worry, I do not sleep much, nor deeply. I will watch and listen. Not to worry. No need of worry.”
Uri gives him what amounts to his best smile, zips up his raincoat, and turns toward the front door.
“Stay warm, Saaid. The cold makes you sleepy.”
“Not to worry. Do not worry.”
Saaid closes the corrugated iron fence behind Uri and locks the two sections together with a massive iron padlock. He walks over to the heavy wooden plank that acts as the temporary stairwell, linking one level to the next. It is part of his ritual each day. He climbs to the top floor of the house, examining each room, each space, noting the progress of the workers, the slow and careful creeping toward completion, but he has a sense of what they will one day be. He cannot read Hebrew well enough to tell on the blueprints what these rooms are called.
The next floor down has what must be more bedrooms, and then the first floor has large and open spaces that Saaid is sure will be living room, dining room, kitchen, and this strange thing Israelis call a family room. He wonders what families do in family rooms that they can’t do in living rooms and kitchens?
Saaid notes the pallets of stone, the bags of cement mix hastily covered with plastic. He mentally records the position of things, the amounts of them. He is very good at telling when things are missing, when things are being pilfered. Saaid could close his eyes, right now, this very second, and tell which rooms have the huge, bright work lamps, their orange extension cords winding a lazy path through them, how many, in which corners. He knows that the other workers think him simple, feel sorry for him spending night after night alone in a cold, empty unfinished house, but he doesn’t care. He is good at this, this watching. Nothing goes unnoticed. Nothing will be stolen.
Saaid stands in the darkening space, staring out through the open places where the windows will be. All around him are other homes and apartment buildings. They are all filled with Israelis. Families, old people. Young couples. Men and women living alone. On one side of the house is a newer apartment building with four floors, three apartments to a floor. On the back side of the house is another apartment building, four floors, sixteen apartments, eight in view. The third side looks out onto two majestic old homes, hidden by giant carob and eucalyptus, palm and fig trees. Only at night do they become visible, as the windows glow yellow and crisp.
About nine o’clock he heats up the small primus stove for tea, and he takes the plastic bag off the hook on the wall. Inside are three plastic ice cream containers. Inside of them is his supper, still warm, wrapped in aluminum foil; pita, meat and onions and lentils, all fried together, tabouleh with extra mint, the way he likes it, and small doughy pastries filled with meat and potatoes. He turns on the radio, and listens to the news on the Arabic station. He listens and eats, cradling the containers in his lap, finishing one dish and starting on the next, listening to the water boiling in the small pot on the tiny stove. Afterward he closes up the empty containers, piles one on top of the other back into the plastic bag, and then makes his tea, tearing off several leaves of sage from a bunch in his bag. He shuts off the radio and sits, listening to the rain, cupping his tea, watching the steam curl idly into the air before it disappears.
He dozes, sitting up, leaning his back against the cold cement wall. At 4:30 he hears the muezzins call from the Old City, and he reaches over into the corner for a large bottle of water. He washes his hands and wrists three times, rinses his mouth, and snorts water up his nose. He then washes his face, runs water through his hair, and wipes the inside and outside of his ears. He takes off his socks and shoes and washes his feet, and then he turns and faces south, toward Mecca. He sits down stiffly on his haunches and begins his morning prayers.
Cleansed, he goes to stand at the opening in the next room, and he looks down on the quiet street below. He sees the car of the paper man, stopping, throwing newspapers through the open car window over the high locked gates of the private houses, into their gardens. A light goes on in the second floor of the old stone house on the corner. He sees a silhouette walking down the stairs: a man. Saaid watches another light go on in the adjacent window, sees the man walk across the room and disappear. Suddenly the tall metal doors creak, one opens, and a disheveled-looking man in a grey-green bathrobe shuffles out and down the stairs, toward the front gate. He stops, he stoops and retrieves the newspaper, turns and pads back up the stairs, and shuts the door. Saaid looks up and sees a second silhouette cross in front of the window. It is a woman, clearly a woman, wearing something tight. She stops at the window and looks up at the sky, her face pressed close to the glass. Saaid steps back into the shadows of the building.
About seven a.m., Saaid goes and unlocks the padlock. Men stumble out of doorways, make their way up the tiny street next to him, to the synagogue there. Saaid nods courteously to them, they return the nod. People rush out, dressed neatly, toting briefcases and backpacks, purses and umbrellas, cell phones already in use, car keys in hand, they are talking and sipping their coffee, juggling these items, trying to open the car door, talk on the phone, nod a greeting to their neighbor all at the same time. In another half an hour come the children. They have heavy, weighted backpacks. They look drugged, half asleep. Most of them have ear phones on, a wire stretching into a coat pocket. Saaid imagines to himself that the headphones are repeating directions over and over, “walk, keep walking, turn right, keep walking.” His children never had such silly, mindless things.
Later the mothers come with the babies. They seem to be juggling the most; strollers, diaper bags, their own pocketbooks and briefcases. They look haggard and hurried. Saaid feels sorry for them. He reflects that it is much easier for a woman to stay home, keep her own babies to herself, tend to her own four walls. His wife did this. She still does. In all the years they have been married, he cannot ever remember her being dressed and rushing out of the house at eight in the morning. She would always rise before everyone else, start the coffee, turn on the water boiler, and light the kerosene heater. Saaid would hear, from their bed, the routine clatter of his wife preparing their lunches and breakfasts, the reassuring clip-clip of her knife cutting tomatoes and cucumbers on the stone counter. She would make the kitchen warm, start things on the back of the stove, pots of garbanzo beans, lentils. She would wake the children, see that they were dressed, washed, and fed. Then she would send them all off, mid-morning breakfasts in hand, coats on, hats on, as she clucked, tucked, buttoned. She would stay behind in her long robe, her hair in a scarf, a baby in one arm, a toddler on the floor. Saaid knew that during the day the floors would get mopped, the laundry washed and hung on the lines off the balcony. He knew their supper would get cooked, their beds made. He knew that the baby would get fed, bathed, played with. He knew she would call her mother, her sisters. She would turn on the TV in the afternoon, watch her favorite soap opera. Once a month her older sister would come and henna and cut her hair for her. He knows she spent her days carefully spinning the fine threads that kept them all bound to her, to their home, to one another. Saaid knows she was happy then, knows she was content by the way she turned to him in the night, by her sweet compliance and her blushing desire there under the sheets.
By Eight Uri is back, the workers are arriving. Saaid goes into the little room in the rear and changes into his regular clothes, leans his mattress against the wall, rolls up the bedding and stuffs it into a bag. He hides the radio and the stove behind the mattress, hangs his dirty watchman clothes on the nails, and combs his hair. He finds Uri, gives him the key to the gate.
Uri looks at him questioningly. “A quiet night?”
Saaid understands the question, and replies, “Very, very quiet. Nothing but quiet.”
“Good,” Uri says, rubbing his hands together. “See you tonight then.”
“Inshallah,” Saaid responds.
Saaid makes his way out of the building. The workers nod and say hello. He is an anomaly. Not quite a regular worker, not quite required to work the way they work, but he is Arab, just like them, an Arab working for a Jewish builder, building a house for Jews, building it in Jerusalem, and so by default he is also one of them, one of the Arabs who do the messy building work, who build houses for others in neighborhoods where they can’t and won’t live.
Saaid leaves the building site, turns the corner, and slowly makes his way down the narrow streets, out of the neighborhood and toward the main boulevard where he will catch a bus that will take him to another bus that will take him back to his village.
At home all is quiet. His youngest child is twenty, away at school in Amman. It is just Saaid and his wife. She has a warm plate of food, covered with a dish towel, waiting for him. He comes into their apartment, removing his shoes at the door. It is small but immaculate. He and Fatima have raised five children here in these four rooms. She asks him how the night was, if he was warm enough, had enough to eat, if he stayed dry there in what she imagines to be a vast, empty, wet shell of a house. He pats her arm, tells her everything was fine, could she please come and sit down with him. She is busy taking the empty containers of food from his plastic sack. After she has served her husband, washed and dried the plastic containers, his plate and silverware, she returns to him with two cloudy glasses of tea laden with mint and sugar. He sits there, his lids heavy, his head drooping, holding his wife’s hand. Saaid is fifty-eight years old. Fatima is fifty-two.
He is too old for this kind of work. They both know he is too old. But they need the extra money. They have put all five children through technical school, nursing school, and university by scrimping and saving. When their oldest child was twelve, Fatima began to cook and sell her sweets and almond cookies at the small grocery store in the village. She took in sewing. She babysat other people’s children. Every single shekel was saved. She sold all her gold jewelry, her inheritance, piece by piece. Four necklaces paid for Shahir’s school in Cairo. All her bracelets sent their oldest daughter to nursing school. Now their second youngest son, the one the headmaster in the village told them showed such promise, is in London, England, getting a degree in electrical engineering. Fatima and Saaid are dumbfounded by what things cost there in London, England. Even though their son Ahmed is working while he studies, even though Saaid’s brother is helping, Fatima’s mother paying for his books, they can barely make ends meet. Saaid must work these two jobs. He must work at the family hardware store in East Jerusalem, must work nights as a watchman. He must put this son, this brilliant son full of promise, through school.
Fatima tells him she will wake him when it is time to go to the store. Saaid climbs into their bed, his head finds its familiar place on the pillow, and he is asleep instantly. He dreams of nothing at all. His whole body is focused on nothing but sleep, and keeping going. An hour later, Fatima gently nudges him into wakefulness. She has laid out a clean change of clothes on her side of the bed. He goes into the kitchen and sees that his wife is just tying up the plastic bag with his evening meal in it. She smiles at him, and tells him that there is something special in there for his evening meal. She wants to know if he needs more tea bags, more sugar. He kisses her on the cheek, tells her he will see her tomorrow morning.
East Jerusalem is not quite what it was twenty years ago. There has been a shifting of power here. The Muslims have slowly but surely been elbowing their Christian neighbors out. It will never truly become a Muslim enclave because of all the churches in the Old City, because of the Mount of Olives, the garden of Gethsemane, but like the shopkeepers in the Christian quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, slowly more and more storeowners have become Muslim. Saaid’s family’s hardware store has been there for forty years. It is on the main street in East Jerusalem: Sallah-El Din Street. They sell everything from nails and screws to spray paint, shower curtains, plastic buckets, toilet brushes, and kitchen knives. Saaid places his dinner back behind the counter, puts on one of the store’s employee jackets, pale blue cotton with “Kalaf and Bros.” embroidered in Arabic over the front pocket. The store is already full of smoking, yelling customers. All morning Saaid sells people things to build with, to paint with, to clean rust, to remove stains. By three o’clock the store is quiet and empty. His brother pats him on the back and asks him how he is holding up.
“Allah Akhbar, I am OK,” Saaid says. “Always tired, but I’ll make it. Ahmed got the highest marks in the class. We got a letter. Did I show you the letter?”
Saaid’s brother rolls his eyes and looks at the ceiling. “That letter is four years old. You are not sleeping enough, your mind is rotting away.” Saaid smiles sheepishly and takes his plastic bag of food out from under the counter. He kisses his brother on both cheeks and walks hurriedly out the door.
When Saaid gets to the job site, he sees that the men have begun putting the stone up on the exterior wall. Saaid knows that when the sun sets, this house will reflect that sun back in a thousand, million fragments of light. The house will glow as only houses made from Jerusalem stone can.
Saaid begins his ritual of changing, setting up his room, locking up, climbing the stairs, surveying the progress of the day. He sees many of the heating-and-air-conditioning ducts have been installed, secret corridors that will be hidden behind ceilings and walls, blowing warm and cool winds into rooms filled with people and things.
Saaid goes to the large picture window and looks down on the street below. The day is unseasonably sunny and warm. There on the street is a boy he thinks lives on the second floor of the building across the way. He has a soccer ball and a candy bar. He is suddenly joined by two other boys, bigger than he is. Saaid sees one of them grab the candy bar from the boy and take a huge bite out of it. The familiar boy lets out an outraged howl, drops his ball, and lunges to get his candy back. The larger boy tosses the candy to his friend and kicks the soccer ball hard, kicks it across the busier cross street and under a car. Saaid wants to yell down at them, wants to show them he is a witness to their cruelty, wants to go down there on the street, and pick up the bigger boy by his shirt collar, shake him, make him give the boy not just what is left of the candy bar but a few shekels as well, enough to buy two more. Saaid knows if he does this, it will be a much bigger incident than the stealing of the candy, the tormenting of the boy. It will make the papers: “Arab Man Molests Jewish Boy.”
Saaid whiles away that evening and many others just like it. He eats his wife’s carefully heated and wrapped food. He listens to the radio. He folds and unfolds the letter in his pocket. He dozes. He prays.
He holds up. Fatima watches him carefully, tends to him like a rare and sensitive plant, making him rich soups and healthy salads of beans and fresh herbs. She launders his clothing, saves him the newspapers to read on the endless Shabbats he must spent alone there in that house.
Spring comes. Some nights the air is sticky and engorged, heavily perfumed from the orange and lemon blossoms, from the jasmine and the wisteria exploding in the neighborhood. The windows have been installed in the house, thinly framed in iron, with brass handles that turn and swivel effortlessly. These are like nothing Saaid has ever seen. His windows at home are wood, and they swell and shrink with the damp and the heat, stick and whine and require small physical tugs-of-war in order to be opened. One evening Saaid goes and opens and shuts each window in the house. He notes the views out each window, determines that the master bedroom will have the most privacy, will have an old and wizened cypress tree shading and protecting the inhabitants of the room. He sees that the kitchen windows open out onto the garden, and that the two surviving almond trees will bloom each spring directly outside them.
Saaid now knows everyone who lives around the house. He has been watching out these windows for over two years. He knows the elderly couple who live across the street on the third floor, knows the husband wakes at four a.m., and knows he sits alone in an unlit room with the television on. He knows that every Shabbat their children and grandchildren come to visit in a beat-up Subaru station wagon with an orange ribbon tied to the antenna. He sees the old man, in his undershirt, pull these grandchildren onto his lap there on their balcony, feed them sections of oranges that he has peeled, sees him teach them to eat sunflower seeds and spit the shells over the side of the balcony.
He knows the family next door to them now has a son in the army, sees the army-green pants and shirts hung on the laundry line each Friday afternoon. He knows the old woman on the top floor has stopped going for her customary morning walk up and down the street.
One night at three a.m., he sees flashing red lights outside his window and he looks to see the medics wheeling her into an ambulance. For three nights there are no lights on in her apartment and then there are signs posted in Hebrew outside the gate to the building, on the stone wall there, and then all the lights are on in her apartment, there are people coming in and out of the gate all day, for a whole week there is a stream of people, and then, a few weeks later, a for-sale sign is out in front of the building.
He listens in the late summer evenings to people’s televisions, to babies crying, and to stereos being played. He stands on the numerous balconies of the house, finished now except for the painting of the elaborate ironwork, and he watches, he watches, as the people all around him live. He hears couples fighting late at night, old men talking far too loudly on the telephone.
Saaid is made to understand that the family who will live in the house is French. French Jews. They will be coming in two more months, they will move in, and Saaid will no longer be needed. The final finishing of the house amazes Saaid. The crystal chandelier, hung in the center of what will be the dining room, fascinates him. Sometimes in the early evening he pulls his mattress into the room and he gently, very gently removes the plastic draped over it, and he lies down underneath it. When the sun hits the roof of the building across the street, this chandelier will explode into brilliant fireworks of light. An entire spectrum of light and color will twirl and spin and bounce off the pale yellow walls, and Saaid will lie there, delighted, enchanted.
The kitchen puzzles Saaid. There are so many strange and intimidating appliances, so much of everything. There is not just one sink, but three. Three sinks! The kitchen has a mirror image of itself on each side. There are gas burners, and another set of electric burners, two massive ovens, slick and stainless steel. There is a huge island in the middle, with another, smaller sink. There is an ice machine and a small refrigerator with row after row of tiny shelves. Saaid looks at this little refrigerator day after day, trying to solve this puzzle, to understand the use of such of thing. He finally has to ask Uri what in the world this is. Uri explains this is the latest trend in gourmet kitchens. It is a thermostatically controlled wine cellar. All those tiny shelves will hold wine.
Saaid wishes he could bring Fatima here, wishes he could show her this kitchen. He has counted the drawers and cabinets. She asked Saaid what would go into such a kitchen, how many families were going to live there? The light is perfect. The countertops are marble, a cool, gray marble that is cold to the touch, cold and silky under Saaid’s fingers. He can imagine how the house will feel in the summer evenings. He thinks that a chair set right before the huge family room window would be nice, that a big chair there, the kitchen window and the other window behind, opened, would create just the right amount of breeze. The late sunlight pours through the window and no one would need to turn the lights on until after eight o’clock.
Upstairs are three bedrooms and what he now knows is an exercise room. The master bedroom has another smaller room that is nothing but a large closet. Saaid thinks how much he would love for Fatima to have a huge closet full of pretty things; drawers of headscarves, socks and nightgowns, hanging racks of robes and skirts and housecoats, shelves of soft sweaters, in every hue. He is just the tiniest bit ashamed. All of her things, every dress and shoe she owns, would fit in two drawers and hang from ten hangers.
The master bathroom has a toilet and something else that looks similar to a toilet, double sinks, and the most enormous bathtub he has ever seen. There are stone steps leading up to it. It is encased in an alcove of frosted glass. There are chrome nozzles and jets sticking out of the sides of the tub. The tub has hills and valleys, contours one can lie against. He stares transfixed at this heroic bathtub. He climbs inside. The bathtub still has a plastic coating on it, to protect it from scratches and building debris. He lies there, imagining that this is his tub, his house. He sees the face of an old man in the shiny chrome, red eyes, lines around the mouth, white stubble. He is tired. He reaches behind him, into his back pocket, and removes the wad of papers. He sorts through them, finds the letter, and carefully unfolds it. He lays it open on top of his chest, and he closes his eyes.
Afew hours later he wakes up. The room is dark. There is light coming in through the windows, light from the street lamp, and he looks at his watch. Midnight. He fumbles for the letter, alarmed that he has misplaced it. He feels around there in the tub, his hands searching out the familiar folds and creases of the paper. He finds it crumpled up behind him and he lets out a tiny disappointed cry. He tries to get out of the tub, but he is stiff and his knees hurt. It takes him several moments of crawling and bending to get himself out. He is disoriented, and for the first night ever, he does not eat the dinner that Fatima has prepared for him.
Draperies are installed. They are heavy and ornate, with satin linings and tassels: bordeaux and shades of green. Gardeners come each day, planting grass and trees and shrubs and flowers. One afternoon just as Saaid arrives, a truck delivers patio furniture, a massive teak table and twelve chairs, lounges and small tables that sit in between. An old Arab man with a limp and no teeth comes and labors meticulously over a fountain, cutting and grouting Armenian tiles into a hand-painted scene of peacocks and gazelles.
Uri, proud of his work and giddy with the release of completion, takes Saaid aside one afternoon. He warns Saaid that he must be very, very careful now.
“Vandals come at the last minute,” Uri says. “In the middle of the night, a truck will pull up and then five or six men will jump out, and steal everything, the refrigerator, the appliances, the music system. I could tell you stories, Saaid, such stories. Once, when I was an assistant on a job, an entire kitchen from Germany was delivered. A two hundred-thousand-shekel kitchen. They left all the cabinetry in the front hall, and later that night, the same damn delivery boy and his friends pulled up and stole everything.”
He squints at Uri there in the afternoon sunlight. “Don’t worry. I watch everything. I never stop watching and you should not worry.” Uri smiles. Nothing has been taken during the night shifts. Not so much as a hammer.
The day of Saaid’s last night in the house, many pieces of furniture are delivered. Mattresses and a breakfast-room table and chairs appear. When Saaid arrives that afternoon, the house is buzzing with the electrician and the painter, the carpenter and the heating-and-air-conditioning man. Each of them is running his systems, double checking his work. Uri, nervous and wanting everything to be right, is jumping around, his cell phone ringing non-stop, a clipboard in hand. By 10 p.m., everyone has left, everything has been repaired, and the house is quiet. It is as if the house is holding its breath, waiting for its final occupants to arrive.
Saaid walks all night, from room to room. He stops at each of the windows, noting the views, remembering each of the families living across the way. From one of the second-floor bedrooms he sees a window illuminated across the street, and he sees a silhouette walking back and forth, in a dimly lit room, a tiny bundle on one shoulder. He knows this is the first child of the young couple who moved in last year, the couple that bought the old woman’s apartment. In the laundry room he stares at the matching washing machine and dryer, opens their lids and peers inside. He would like to buy Fatima a new washing machine, something like this, white and shiny, with lights and sensors and timers and all these words in English he cannot read.
He wanders through the house, thinks about the herbs Fatima would grow there in the small and tidy garden off the kitchen. In the kitchen there is a large pantry, and he considers the jars of olives and preserved lemons his wife would put there.
At five-thirty the sun comes up. Saaid watches the light play on the walls of the rooms. He sees the kitchen flood with warmth, sees the patterns made by the elaborate iron security grills installed over all the first-floor windows. With a towel he wipes the water drops from the sink where he has washed. He flushes the toilet again and wipes that seat as well. He cleans the doorknobs that he has touched, and he wipes and erases every fingerprint, leaving no trace of his presence.
At seven Uri appears. He is dressed up, wearing khakis and a sport shirt. He is holding a bottle of champagne and a houseplant with a gaudy red ribbon. Uri tells Saaid the owners are coming that afternoon. From his pocket Uri takes a folded check and a small white envelope. He hands the paycheck to Saaid, and then, shaking Saaid’s hand, he tells him there is something extra there for Saaid and his family, a bonus for being such a good watchman, for being so reliable and so trustworthy. He wants to know if he can call Saaid on his next project, if Saaid wants to continue being a watchman.
“Uri,” he says, in his halting Hebrew, “I believe I am getting too old for this. I need to sleep in my own bed for a while.” Uri slaps him on the back, tells him to take his wife and go on vacation, take her to Eilat, or to the Dead Sea.
Saaid smiles. He has never been on vacation.
Saaid goes home to his wife, to his bed, to his routine. After a few months of eating his wife’s freshly prepared foods, after resuming his schedule at the family store that even allows for a quick thirty-minute nap in the afternoons, he feels better. The fatigue disappears. In the early fall, Saaid and Fatima’s second youngest son can return to them from London when his degree is finished. They have not seen him in five years. The plane fare was far too expensive. Every bit of money they had was sent to Ahmed in London and his younger brother Bilal in Amman.
Saaid decides they should take his bonus money and make a small family reunion.
They send their son his plane fare. They send Bilal money for the bus from Amman. Fatima begins the cooking preparations, sends Saaid off to the butcher in the Old City to order lamb, beef, and chicken. Saaid repaints the living room and the kitchen. He washes the windows. Fatima and her sisters sit at the kitchen table making cookies, small pastries stuffed with meat and pine nuts, kebabs.
At two o’clock, the sound of an approaching car sends Fatima and Saaid to the window. They run to the door and stand there, anticipation billowing around them. They hear the sound of footsteps, of men’s laughter, a suitcase being dragged. Slowly their boys, grown men, come into view, come to the top of the stairs; their oldest has picked up one brother at the airport and another at the bus stop. There are shouts of greeting, and Fatima cannot stop crying, cannot stop kissing her son’s cheeks. Fatima and her daughter and daughter-in-laws begin bringing out the platters of food, the salads and trays, the bowls and bottles of soda.
For the first time in many years, the house is full of laughter, of the satisfying sound of people eating, joking, talking. The grandchildren run back and forth from the table to the balcony. Babies are rocked and bounced on multiple knees and shoulders. The sky turns red, orange, pink, and then purple. Evening sinks across the horizon and the house quiets.
Saaid and Fatima’s older sons and daughter take their husband and wives and children home, toddlers sleeping, babies crying. Finally, the house is empty of all but Saaid and Fatima, Ahmed back from London and Bilal from Amman. Bilal tells them about Jordan, talks to them of his technical school there. Ahmed listens attentively. The brothers compare courses and curricula, textbook costs, the dating scene. Saaid and Fatima, understanding very little of this, sit and stare at their boys, amazed.
Very late that night Ahmed is sitting at the table with his parents. Bilal has gone out to a movie with old high school friends. Ahmed clears his throat and slides his index finger up and down the glass of soda, wiping the drops of condensation that have formed there.
“I would like to stay in London longer,” he says without looking at his parents. “I would like to complete a master’s degree in electrical engineering. I have been offered a small stipend, a small scholarship, and they have offered me an assistant teaching job for the undergraduates to help pay for the tuition.”
The fluorescent kitchen light casts harsh shadows on their faces, makes Saaid and Fatima appear even older, more tired, sadder. They thought they were finished. They thought that now their boy would come home, help out, get married. But here he is sitting across from them, asking for at least another two years of scrimping, of no sleep, of being alone, of eating food hours after it was cooked, walking blocks to catch buses to other buses, of watching other people live their lives. Saaid clears his throat. He asks Ahmed if he and his mother can sleep on it, discuss it.
Ahmed reaches out for their hands. “I want to thank you for everything you have done for me,” he says. “Everything. I know this has been so hard, so hard on you, Father. But I promise you I will pay you back, I will take care of you, I will give back to you everything once I start my own business. I will make so much more money. Anyone can have a degree in electrical engineering, but a master’s degree is something else. I will be promoted, I will be in demand.” He stops, realizing the words are tumbling out of him, rushing. He is overwhelming his parents. He hugs them and tells them he is beat, is going to sleep in his old room.
Exhausted, Fatima and Saaid lie in bed. “What should we do?” he asks. She says nothing. He hears her swallow, and he knows without even looking that she is weeping. He knows she is thinking of all the nights, the empty bed, the empty house, the lack of conversation, the loneliness. He knows she is worried for him, for the cold, the wet, the hardship. In the silence hovering there between them, everything is weighed, considered.
In the morning, over coffee, while Ahmed is still sleeping, the two of them sit at the kitchen table. They have agreed that Saaid will take on another job as a night watchman for another house. Ahmed will go back to London and stay there to complete his degree. They will not see him again for two, maybe three more years. When Ahmed wakes up, and has his breakfast, the three of them sit at the table, discussing his future, how they shall pay for it, what he needs at the barest minimum.
The day before Ahmed is scheduled to go back to England and Bilal to Jordan, Saaid and Fatima decide they should take their boys to a farewell lunch, downtown, in a nice restaurant. Fatima wears her nicest coat and scarf. The boys have on new pants, and Saaid has shined his shoes. After lunch, they walk toward the Old City and wander through the dark and narrow alleyways of the souk.
Saaid passes a stand of shiny, glittering aluminum pots and pans. Some of them are enormous. Saaid marvels at the amount of food it would take to fill such a pot, at the size of the stove needed, and he is suddenly seized by a crazy desire to show Fatima and the boys the house.
They have to change buses twice. As they travel, Saaid begins to excitedly speak of the chandelier and the brass handles on the windows, the three sinks, the tiny refrigerator that holds nothing but wine. He gestures as he speaks, his hands miming his words. Saaid sees an extra crease form on Fatima’s brow. His boys and Fatima have never been to this side of Jerusalem before. They get off the bus in a small, charming neighborhood. Fatima is acutely self-
conscious, pulling her scarf taut across her forehead. The boys feel out of place. They are quiet.
Saaid leads them off the main street. People are looking at them from over their walls, their balconies. They turn the corner, and Saaid points out the house. In the late-afternoon light the stones glow pink and red. They approach and stand gazing at it from across the street. Two small boys on bicycles ride by, staring. Fatima and the boys stand there, shifting their weight, as Saaid points out each room, the floors, what is on each level.
A man stands up from his chair on the balcony across the way, in the adjacent building. Saaid waves up to him, the man looks down, does not return the gesture. As Saaid is pointing to the side of the house, explaining where the kitchen garden is, a car slowly pulls up. A woman is driving, there are two children in the back seat, and she peers at Saaid and his family. Slowly the electric garage gate to the house begins to open and the car pulls into the house’s driveway.
Saaid, Fatima, and the boys see the woman watching them from her rear-view mirror. She is not smiling. The gate slowly, silently closes behind her and they hear the sound of metal against metal as the door shuts.
Bilal suggests that maybe they should be going. But Saaid keeps talking, faster now, describing the Armenian tiles, the mirrors and faucets, the music system, and the automatic-irrigation system that waters the plants even on the highest balconies. He points up to the huge picture window on the third floor, there is a window box there, and geraniums are dripping off of it. They see a face appear. Someone is there, behind the curtain, watching.
The boys shuffle nervously from one foot to the other. Fatima reties her scarf. Saaid’s voice gets louder, he speaks faster, he tells them there is a basement underneath, a huge parking garage, he points to the gate and explains that the driveway slopes below the house. He sees a figure at the living-room window staring out at them. He begins to tell them about the double sinks, the marble, and the closets. Fatima notices a woman in another window across the way. She interrupts Saaid, something she has almost never done, and suggests they should go. It is getting late.
Saaid stops talking. This is not what he had planned, not how he thought this would be. He realizes that his family sees nothing more than a house of stone, lovely, yes, and huge—but they do not see what he sees. They did not walk its rooms, open its windows, touch its most intimate corners.
Finally the four of them turn and silently, briskly walk back the way they came. At the corner, Saaid turns back one last time. There is a person standing at the front gate, standing, watching them leave.
On the bus ride back, Fatima and the boys begin to relax, begin to talk. Ahmed is discussing what he must pack for his trip. Fatima is planning their dinner. Bilal is telling them a joke he overheard the night before. The three of them sit talking, watching the cityscape change out the window of the bus, watching evening languidly roll in. Lights go on, awnings are rolled in, shutters pulled down. People are out crowding the streets of East Jerusalem, shopping, buying dinner, last- minute items, a hot tea, packages in hand, making their way home.
Only Saaid doesn’t watch, doesn’t look. He sits silently, staring at wrinkled hands resting in his lap, staring at the broken button on his shirt sleeve, already missing his boys, aching for Fatima, already fearing the nights alone, dreading that inevitable wanting of something that will not ever be his.