The four segments from Tamar Gelbetz’s book, “The Dead and the Absolutely Living,” are four chapters, seemingly unconnected, from the life of a girl who has become a woman—chapters that illustrate four minute portraits, allegedly trivial, of her family, and focus primarily on the figure of the father from the narrator’s point of view.
These portraits are imbued with aesthetic and linguistic characteristics from a lost analogue world—the fiberglass car Susita, Starsky & Hutch, Dubek cigarettes, halva in cans, and mostly the leisurely, easygoing atmosphere of an unassuming café in the center of the Carmel in Haifa, in a relaxed afternoon, during a meeting that, as we learn only a short time after, turns out to be the last meeting between the father and the daughter. The girl’s adolescence and transition into a woman occurs in different stages of separation and gradual distancing: from the dogged attachment to the warmth and security of the parent’s simple and industrious household, to the personal awareness of the cruelty of the forced, final detachment that death brings—while at the same time providing a new closeness, with the identification that passes through the body and its vulnerability. Gelbetz’s writing, dense in detail, casts an anomalous emphasis on the materiality of language, and creates a sensual texture of flavors, contacts, and memories that are granted fierce tangibility, through the charged voice of humor and pain intertwined.
Translated by: Jessica Cohen
The Scouts Camp
When I was in 6th grade I went on a Scouts camp. Near Kibbutz Ginegar. In the Jezreel Valley. Three day camp. With a smoky smell in my hair and potatoes and canned sweet corn and water rations. It was my first camp. Sleepover and everything. We got there close to noon in wrinkled clothes and unkempt Scouts ties, hair tangled from the morning wind that blew into the bus through the wide open windows, throats gravelly from singing thunderously all the way to the camp. We pitched beautiful erect tents made out of military blankets, and we roared cheers and songs, and set off on field missions. At five-thirty, when the sun started to set, we put a huge pot of oil on the fire to make French fries, and filled our canvas-covered water canteens all the way to the lip from the rusty tap because the climax of our busy schedule was still ahead: the night drill. Which involved crawling on our scraped knees around rocks and prickly bushes while terrifying sounds and movements jumped out at us in pitch black. We were quiet and tense when the evening began to make itself in a dark chalky hue on the light, lucid slate of sky, and the feather clouds turned from orange to pale pink to powder blue to dark purple then to deep black.
Somewhere between the powder blue and the purple, before the really deep black, I sank into the early evening depression. The one I inherited from my mother, who to this day says: “I hate it when the evenings get long and the day is so short.” My thoughts wandered to the hot cocoa, which at that very moment was thickening in the pan, turning a deep chocolaty almost solid brown, over the valley and the range, let there be no dew, neither let there be rain, upon you, high up above where the lights twinkled on and off, and to the omelet with golden brown edges basking in a puddle of butter in the pan, and to my mother’s face flushed from cooking and my father with his checkered handkerchief and little transistor radio, turning the volume button all the way to the right in preparation for the seven o’clock evening news. The kerosene lamps were lit around the campground, those vintage field-lamps that looked like torches with glass covers and metal handles. The counselors sipped Turkish coffee cooked in a finjan, and a scorched sweet smell filtered through the cloud of French fries. The image of my father’s profile with his own finjan and his for-now coffee and for-later coffee danced in front of my eyes like Bond girl silhouettes. My little 6th grade heart was threatening to burst into a massive supernova.
And I knew. There was only one way. One safe and secure way. And that was to cry. Out loud. And I did. One long wail. Like a jackal in a field. Very, very long. Very, very sad. Piercing the hearts of every last counselor—those confident, commanding counselors who were themselves no more than 11thgraders. The tallest counselor, the one with the most authentic military cap, leaned over me, long and bending like a palm frond, because I was sitting cross-legged in the opening of the tent, its woolen edges waving proudly in the evening breeze, and she stroked my head. Over and over again. Politely but impatiently. Trying to silence or at least turn down my blood-curdling kill-joying jackal howl. But to absolutely no avail. On the contrary. Her miserly caresses fortified me and my vocal chords. And put words in my mouth. “Home, now. Now. I want Mom and Dad!” And at Daaaad I screamed up to the increasingly black evening sky like a pack of ten jackals. Behind and in front and all around me I heard squeaky but rude bellows of laughter coming from masses of little jackals, little sixth grader jackals who weren’t homesick at all, but I didn’t care. I sat there buttressed by the opening of my woolen protest tent with my arms wrapped around my knees, and I rocked my knees from side to side and back and forth and rock-a-bye baby. With pursed lips. And I waited to see. I waited but I knew that was it. My jackal howl had crossed over the valley and its echoes were rolling and climbing up the hills and soon.
After one determined, stubborn hour I saw it. My rescue vehicle. Making its way down the dirt path, stuttering and loving, kicking up dust as it approached me. My father’s Susita. As I stared at the headlights, my pupils grew larger and larger, wider and wider, and the headlights got closer and closer in the dark until they went completely out of focus and became blinding like the starship lights in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The cascade of bright white burning light awoke the palm-frond counselor, who’d been screwed out of the night drill because of me and was grumpily dozing nearby. She leapt up to attention, straightened her stained, creased shirt, and mumbled matter-of-factly in an attempt to undo her deep sleep from the agenda, “Oh, finally. What took him so long? We phoned hours ago.” I gave her a cruel, condescending look and raked my equipment belt and water canteen and pocket flashlight and knapsack out of the tent, whose edges were no longer fluttering because the wind had died down, and I strode over the bed of prickly thistles and little stones and flung open the Susita door, which groaned on its rusty metal hinges, and I jumped inside like Starsky, or Hutch, I can’t remember which one used to jump in sideways with a perfect lunge, and I collapsed on the plastic seat and inhaled the smell of Dubek 10 deep deep inside and I looked at my father’s dark profile with his forelock chiseled in stone, and I stretched two cute little careless little feet onto the dashboard like a total slouch and slumped back in my seat.
“Are you sure you want to go home, Tzutzka?” That’s all he said. I didn’t answer but I waved presidentially at the palm-frond, leaned over to the radio and turned the dial. Only after we made a U-turn and the Susita’s ass pointed at the camp and its nose at the hills, I said, “Let’s go. Home.” My father gave me a quick glance, very quick, reached his non-driving hand out and gave me that fluttering caress of his, which had caressed dozens of cats, from my cheekbone to my chin, and said, “Let’s go. Home.”
My father adored halva. Halva, to him, was the essence of sweetness. All those fibers stuck together that partly melt on your tongue and partly stick to your teeth like glue, and if you have a cavity then god help you it’s like a halva filling absolutely horrible. But my father really had a thing for halva. Studded with almonds or pistachios or chocolate-covered. For some reason he even liked the ones that came wrapped in foil with that artificial chocolate coating called Tzimcao. My mother also liked halva. A lot. She was crazy about halva. And she always had stories about how before I was born Dad would bring home halva in round cans that you opened with a can opener. They were big round tins, like the ones you get olive oil in, she would explain and launch into reminiscences. When she talked about that halva from before I was born in olive oil tins she would accelerate the speed of her eyelash flutters and simultaneously slow her tone of voice down so it stretched out and got a little dreamy, and she would get this sort of semi-sexual aura. “The halva Dad used to bring home. In tins. That was long before you were born.” I wasn’t too fond of the way she talked about the halva in olive oil tins. It scared me and sent lightning bolts down my spine and frothed me up with anger. Why is she always going on about halva in tins like it’s some big deal? She used to eat her halva with bread in butter. That’s what she called it. Not bread and butter. Not bread with butter. Bread in butter. In in in butter. Like the butter was melted or injected into the bread and the halva was melted or injected into the butter, and the whole thing was some extra special grownup buttery deal. Mmmm. Halva on bread in butter, or on challah in butter. That’s what she used to say. What a delicacy. There’s nothing better. A real delicacy.
Especially halva from the lower city. That was to her and to my father the best possible delicacy. Halva from the lower city in Haifa. Once every two or three months, or whenever my father didn’t come home from work in a melancholic mood like King Saul, and this happened very rarely because he almost always came home from work grumpy and melancholic like King Saul, we would get into his Susita and completely spontaneously coast all the way down the hill and stop at the confectionary on the main street in the lower city and park recklessly right outside the shop, and inside all the Turkish Delights were lined up translucently like crystals, and there were stripy fruit jellies in thousands of radiant colors from pink to yellow, and giant burlap sacks of sugared almonds in white and pastel blue and pink. And halva of course. Of every kind. With almonds with pistachios with chocolate coating or completely smooth and sesameish with nothing inside. And there was the one. The queen of all halva. The one that was also my favorite. The one with three horizontal stripes in different colors. Chocolate on top, annoying halva of an indistinct shade between ivory and coffee in the middle, soft dark melty nougat on the bottom. I actually only liked the chocolate top and the nougat bottom, while the halva middle was the tax I paid for the top and bottom’s pleasures, but every time we rolled ourselves down the hill I would pray. That they took a piece of the tri-colored one. And you never could tell on these wild capricious outings whether they would or wouldn’t, but we always came back in a car laden with little packages tied with string, lots of little greasy squares of wax paper. And the higher we climbed back up the mountain, the bigger the greasy spots would grow and we would sit quietly the whole way. Each craving our own sweets.
My father was the first one to slice it. The only one to slice it actually. With a knife. Serrated. He’d unwrap it and cut off square after square, standing at the counter. My father was very fond of squares. He was an engineer. He even cut watermelons into squares, pruning the sphere all around until he was left with a square core. Every single watermelon every single summer. My mother would say: “Only a madman squares a watermelon, you’re absolutely mad to square the watermelon, what kind of normal person squares a watermelon.” But when it came to the halva she didn’t interfere. With halva she would shut up and wait. For him to serve her. Her square. And another square. Like a relay race. Behind his back. That’s how she stood waiting with her slice of bread in butter. Behind him. Bread in butter and then came the square. And with the knife she would smooth and flatten it into a thin layer of fibers and take a bite. Who flattens their halva like that into a thin layer of fibers? Talk about mad. But I would shut up too and wait for mine. Like in a relay race. For the tri-color with the chocolate on top and the nougat on the bottom and the tricky annoying grayish-mocha colored straw-flavored halva in the middle to be unwrapped. That one was always last.
On the few days a year when the lower city orgy took place we didn’t even sit down at the dinner table. The lower city days were the only ones all year without order without method without omelet and salad. Without dinner. Because the lust for halva broke all the rules, shattered propriety into smithereens, knocked down walls and procedures, crushed my mother’s strict catering regime into little pieces. And the tri-color was the apex, the raison d’être, the I-Claudius-ish intoxication of my family. Because by the time we got to the tri-color we were allowed to abandon all decorum and approach the counter. We all crowded around. Each with our knife. And we’d slice off pieces. Silently. Quickly. Straight into our mouths just standing there. Into our mouths we jettisoned juggled and flung the square golden striped bars with the different textures, soft and hard, creamy and scratchy, sticky and smooth, bam, straight into our mouths as fast as possible, just the tri-color, no bread no in butter no nothing.
The Last Time
The last time I met my father we shared a slice of streusel cheesecake. It was at a little café with metal chairs in the Carmel Center. Metal chairs were the height of fashion and the cutting edge of technology back then. The latest word in design. As was streusel cheesecake. The height of fashion and the latest word in confectionery. It was the mid-eighties. We’d never sat in a café before, my father and I. At the Carmel Center or anywhere else. It was very strange to sit in a café at the Carmel Center with my father, just the two of us. It was afternoon. Early afternoon. The beginning of summer. June, let’s say. When the sun is glaring but not blinding. Hot but not burning. Especially not at the Carmel Center where there’s always a slight breeze fluttering in the afternoon, gently swaying the coniferous pine tree branches. There is an abundance of coniferous pine trees on the Carmel. And their coniferous needles fall and scatter on the sidewalks and pile up in little hedgehog heaps. So do the pine-nuts, the fruit of the coniferous pine tree, and Haifaite children love to gather them and shatter their hard skulls against a stone or a piece of broken rock and bite into the ivory colored oily softness. So they pile up in little mounds on the sidewalks and everywhere else. Even on the patio outside the little café at the Carmel Center, with its tiles of crisscrossed vertical and horizontal stripes. I remember both the horizontal and the vertical very clearly because I stared at them up and down and side to side throughout the entire last meeting with my father.
I have no idea why he wanted to meet at a little café in the Carmel Center. I had come from Tel Aviv for work. And he had come from home. He was at the beginning of his retirement and the end of his life. I didn’t go to Haifa much at the end of his life. I hated Haifa at the end of his life and at the beginning of my adult life. I went maybe once every two months. And when I did, usually on a Friday evening, I would settle into my childhood room and my childhood disgruntlements, emerge with a grumpy mood and bitten lips at mealtimes, and shut myself back up there with my picture albums and tattered yellowing notebooks and the chest of drawers with peeling stickers from high school, and I’d leave for Tel Aviv on the first bus after the Sabbath ended, and rattle and bump my way down the highway that snaked around the hills from the Carmel to the coastal plains, with my head bobbing miserably, and I’d vow never to visit my childhood home again for another two hundred years, and I’d go back after a couple of months and the whole thing would start over again.
But that day I was very purposeful. I called, said I was in Haifa for work, that I may or may not have time to drop by, and hung up with the usual mutter. Surprisingly, my father called back a few minutes later and said, “I have a neat idea.” That’s what they used to say in the eighties. It was the height of fashion and the cutting edge of slang. I have a neat idea. That’s what he said. “How about we meet for coffee at the Center?” That’s what old-timer Haifaites used to call the Carmel Center. The Center. I was surprised but I immediately agreed. “Of course. Why not.” And the whole way there I wondered why coffee, why in the Center, and why he was suddenly so interested in making an effort to see me. I hurried through my morning business and killed time in the Center where the shops were closed for lunchtime, because that’s how it was in nineteen-eighties Haifa, and maybe it still is but I have no idea because I haven’t been to Haifa at all or to the Center specifically for years. The proprietors would lock up their shops with an ordinary key like a mailbox key and go home for a siesta and open up again at four. Refreshed. After coffee and cake. That’s how it was done. I sat down half an hour early and waited for him. There were no cell phones then so I didn’t have anything to do while I waited and I had no patience for newspapers because I was tense, so I sat there and played with my hair. Or rather I twirled one tuft of hair around thoroughly and nervously.
I saw him from afar. Parking. Slowly. Getting out. Slowly. Locking. Also slowly. They didn’t have remote clickers back then but just a key you turned. He glanced at the display window of the haberdashery next to the little café, which was covered with orange tinted cellophane to protect the merchandise from the sun, straightened his starched shirt, and combed his fingers through his wavy forelock. My father’s quiff was the typical 1940s throwback Israeli style, and he did not have a single white hair until the day he died a few months later. When he approached the table I got up with a noisy drag of my metal chair, nailing a few dirty looks from nearby patrons to myself, and gave him a fluttering kiss on the cheek. Even though there had never, never ever, either between me and him, or between me and anyone else in the family, been a tradition of fluttering kisses on the cheek. When he sat down hurriedly and heavily, barely squeezing his body between the two metal arms of the chair, I finally looked straight at him. He looked excited. Maybe not excited but enthusiastic. Maybe not quite enthusiastic but slightly on edge. Like me. Maybe both. A little enthusiastic a little on edge. And definitely longing to commence our afternoon enterprise in the little café at the Carmel Center.
“What are you having?” That was before how’s it going or anything else. “I think I’ll have a coffee,” I answered hesitantly. I always answer hesitantly. To this day. I think… I’m not sure… Maybe this but maybe the other… I don’t know… We’ll see… But he was already gesturing at the waitress and ordering two coffees. That was actually not a very complicated stage. The coffee was always simple. Espresso for him and for me. That’s what he always had. Either Turkish or a single espresso. Always. I copied that from him at a very young age and I’ve stuck to it to this day. Only espresso. No milk no sugar no nonsense. “Why don’t we have some cake?” he said, and immediately answered, “We’ll have some cake too.” “But to share,” I quickly sealed the deal in my favorite way. I still do that. The parasitical approach. One dish two forks. Doubling up. No privacy at all.
“So what do you feel like?” he asked and looked up at the waitress without waiting for my answer. “What do you have?” There was no mincing around back then in the eighties in the Carmel Center. “There’s chocolate cake, cheesecake, and dry cake.” Dry cake was code for what is now called a pastry. Danish, croissant, puff pastry, that sort of thing. “How about cheese?” Cheese means cheesecake with a streusel topping. Moist and swampy. The flavor of the thick sweet white swamp and the bitterness of the strong espresso enticed my greedy taste buds and I said, “Cheese is fine.” I muttered cheese dismissively like I didn’t care but I sure as hell did care.
Only then came the how’s it going. And my answer that everything was all right. And his concrete questions about what exactly I was doing here for work, and if everything had gone well, and why didn’t I just stay over at home for the night. At home. That’s what he called his and my mother’s home which used to be mine up on the Carmel. Since when was that home? But I didn’t say a word, just raised and dropped my shoulders and shook my head as if to say no of course not there’s no need. He retreated and took out a cigarette from the pack in his front shirt pocket. And lit it. And inhaled and exhaled and we both sat there in silence. Not a bothersome silence. A pleasant silence. Surprisingly pleasant. It really should have been bothersome after the why don’t you stay but it was pleasant. Extremely surprisingly so. Intimate. Close. Father and daughter. In the Carmel Center. Where the breeze is cool and the coffee is fragrant and the pine needle hedgehogs pile up comfortably. That was the last time.
The dead and the Absolutely Living
I never thought about what the body does at night without its soul before they bury it in the ground. What exactly does the body do in between, all night until morning or noon or afternoon, and what does the soul do meanwhile? How does the separation occur? Between body and soul. Until I was in hospital. After an accident. And I was pinned to the bed like a nail in a coffin and I couldn’t get up or roll over or move and I could barely breathe, and in the room next to me someone died. It was a Friday night. The end of the night between Friday and Saturday. No one talked about how someone had died but I felt it. By the speed of the footsteps at first, and the sounds of metal against metal and of metal trolley wheels which must have been the resuscitation gurney, and fast breathless talk in the hallway. Then the moving. Creaking. A huge storm of noise that flew up all at once. Someone rushing past. Someone bumping into someone. Russian words. Women’s voices. And Hebrew. Men’s voices. Nurses. Doctors. Beepers beeping. And beeping more. Instruments. Electronic. Digital.
Then it all subsided. Not quickly. Very slowly. Less beeping, fewer voices, fewer footsteps, less and less light, turning to dim light, less and less everything until total silence and pitch darkness. And I knew. I was lying very close to someone who had died. No more than half a hallway away. Someone had stopped breathing. Someone’s soul was departing. Taking flight like a soap bubble. Or a speech bubble. And I had no one to ask. No one gave a crap about me in those moments when someone died really close to me, no more than half a hallway away. And since I was covered by a web of very strong and very disorienting medication, medication that killed the horrible pain, I wasn’t sure that all this was really happening. So I assumed I was just making it up. Maybe it was just nurses walking by innocently halfway down that hallway on their way to have a cigarette on the emergency stairwell. Maybe they were just chatting about how it sucked to do the weekend shift. Maybe they were hungry and going to rummage through the cabinet in the kitchenette at the end of the hallway to see if there were any biscuits or cookies left or disgusting cream cheese or anything to munch on.
But through the curtain of morphine I knew. I knew for sure. Someone had died. Really close. And I didn’t have anyone to ask so I shut up. And lay there. Hours upon hours I lay there afraid to breathe. I was afraid with a dead person so close. And me unable to move, to get up, to run away, to get out, to run further and further from the so-close dead person. I thought about how the deceased had died, and where his soul was flying to now like a speech bubble or a soap bubble or a spit bubble. And what his body was doing meanwhile. Or hers. Just lying there under a blanket or a sheet until they came to take it away and I was cold. And I waited. For someone to come see me but no one did.
In the morning when the nurse came, the meanest one, the one who gave the least crap about anything, I told her. “I know.” That’s what I said to her. “I know someone died. At night.” She didn’t say it was true. Or that it wasn’t. She didn’t confirm and she didn’t deny. She just said, “You worry about your own business.” And she shook the IV bag really thoroughly, and ran her hand swiftly up and down the bag to accelerate the flow of fluids into my veins, and gave a snooty blink as she walked out on her cushioned white New Balance shoes.
But that was many years after my father died. Maybe fifteen years after he died. When my father died I didn’t take an interest. In anything. Not in the technicalities at least. I didn’t ask. Where they took him. Where he was all night while he waited. While I waited. How or when they undressed him. How and when they wrapped him in parchment paper like a sandwich, in black and white and black and white striped shrouds. I didn’t ask, didn’t take an interest in anything. And I didn’t look. The whole funeral, I didn’t look. I stood there and looked aside. And ever since that day when he died and I didn’t look, now I always look. Deliberately. At every single funeral. I look at every single deceased. At the gurney. The shrouds. The pit. I look, I track the body as it makes its way in a glorious arc and a slow scooch off the gurney into the pit.
And I watch them meet. The body and the bottom of the pit. I stand as close as possible and I watch. I watch to see how it looks with the soul departed. Such wonderful words: departed soul. Soul departed. Departed soul. And how they part. Although actually when I look it’s at least one night after it departs. The soul from the life. And that scares me and makes me tremble but I look. Scares me and makes me tremble but I listen. Like I do when people fuck close to me. I listen then too. It’s exactly the same. Scares me makes me tremble but I listen. That’s what I do. Tremble and listen. The voices of people inside each other. It’s terrifying. But I still do. Listen. Prick up my ears and listen.
A week ago I was taking a walk. In the early evening. Not sun anymore but not completely dark yet. In between. Early spring and a heatwave. I wasn’t in much of a hurry. Just strolling. And suddenly I heard it from one of the houses. First her surging like a rising wave, then him hitting the rhythmic lows. I sped up till I was almost running and stopped at the corner. I pricked up and tilted my ear. Still. To know how it ends. I have to know. The end. Always. So my mind can be at ease. So it can be brought to its resting place. Final or not. Just some goddamn rest. So I pricked up and listened. But from a safe distance. And it went on. More faded but it went on. She surging up and up. Like a jackal. Howling. And him nothing. She going faster. Picking up her bellows. And him suddenly grunting. One short grunt and that’s all. And I kept walking. I kept marching. My knees made loud cracking noises I was so scared. Scared of the great noise. The one the dead make when they die, and the one the living make when they are absolutely living.
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