Translation: Jessica Cohen
Avram lay in bed hoping his erection would subside before his wife woke up. He kept his back to her and the comforter between his legs. Dreams—what a rotten invention. Why not just sleep in peace? Lousy sub-conscious. And why did it all have to be in color, with sound, with close-ups? A veritable home entertainment system.
But you’re still a man, after all, aren’t you? Even at fifty. And you’re not really surprised by these dreams and involuntary occurrences at dawn. Especially when there’s someone like Ayah, your son’s girlfriend, living down the hall. The girl hasn’t heard of bras, jiggling her nipples at you all day long, and they’re red like someone painted them. She used to have curly red hair until she decided to shave her head. This, from a girl who doesn’t shave under her arms, and whose lips are always slightly parted. Who at twenty-seven doesn’t work and has no intention of working but is planning to get another piercing somewhere and when she laughs it looks like she’s mocking the whole world. Ayah who gets up to pee naked in the middle of the night, and if Avram has fallen asleep in the living room like he usually does and he happens to wake up, she smiles at him stupidly, puts a lazy hand on her breasts and shuffles on, eyes half-closed, heavy thighs moving slowly, as if she’s wading through water. And she doesn’t bother shutting the door all the way. Maybe she’s sleepwalking, who knows. One night, not very late, she was thirsty and went to the fridge wrapped in a towel that fell down, of course, the minute she held up the bottle to her mouth, and maybe she really was startled, it almost seemed as though Avram had pulled it off her with the force of his gaze, but instead of covering herself up again, Ayah tripped and fell, like some junkie, parting her legs in the most salacious way you could imagine, all the while laughing out loud.
Avram breathed in loudly and sat up in bed, covering his penis with the blanket.
“What’s the matter, Avramiko? Heartburn?”
“Then what? A bad dream?”
“Something like that…” He sensed his wife’s suspicion and explained: “I dreamed I lost Herzstein’s stone, the forty-carat.”
“God forbid! Don’t say that. That mustn’t happen, not even in a dream.”
Avram got up, tiptoed over to his slippers, put on his thick terrycloth robe, the winter one, and went into the en-suite bathroom. The urine took its time, leaving Avram prey to thoughts about his son Dori’s life, and Ayah’s.
How did we, as parents, allow this to happen? The endless giving in—that was the root of the problem, indisputably. The indulgence. A special school, open, democratic, all that nonsense. Grades a chimpanzee could get. He wanted a guitar—he got it. Could he play? Of course not. I say go get a driver’s license—No, you drive me, he says. Then he doesn’t want to do his army service, and I say that’s not an option! So he tries to commit suicide. Fine, do what you want. You don’t want to go to the army? Don’t go. The country will be safer for it. You want to study? Go ahead. Tuition? I paid it. What the hell is a B.A. in general studies, anyway?! What exactly will you do with that? And now this Ayah is in cahoots with my parasite. All of a sudden at the age of fifty I have another child. A year and a half I’ve been feeding her, watering her, financing her… They’re a generation of users. Can’t understand a word they’re saying. We acted wild too—you think we never went wild? It was the sixties: long hair, parties, a joint here and there. But we wanted to live, and these kids just want to sleep, and lose themselves in their computers. They want to die… Stomach pumps, psychologists, psychiatrists, pills, treatments… It’s our fault. It’s my fault.
Avram brushed his teeth. His erection was completely gone, and the only thing throbbing now was the anger, the frustration.
Shitty generation. Although when I think of Herzstein’s sons…totally different story. Off in China doing business! And they’re exactly the same age as him. China! Connections in Antwerp. Selling enhanced stones like new ones. And the way they dress—Parisian suits, Italian shoes. And my son? Lies around all day screwing and smoking. Dad, buy me this, Dad, buy me that. Eating cornflakes like five-year-olds!
Avram frothed milk in the espresso machine, but while he was pouring the coffee he noticed Dori sitting in the living room, wide awake, unusually frenetic yet more sober than he’d looked in a long time.
“Did you have a fight?” Avram asked. Dori nodded. “You guys are worse than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
“Funny, Dad. We broke up.”
“Not again. This is the last time. She found someone else, she moved in with him. This time it’s over. You and Mom can crack open the champagne. I’m done with her.”
Avram opened his eyes wide, padded over in his slippers and handed Dori the coffee he’d made for himself.
“Dorik, don’t worry, you’ll get over her. Why don’t you go away for a few days? London, New York, wherever you feel like. On me. And I’ll tell you something else: you’re a lucky guy. She was a two-timer, she was diabolical. Trust me. I wanted to tell you, but there was no talking to you when you were with her. She took advantage of you, I swear.”
“You’re right, I should have listened.”
Avram almost choked.
“I’ve been thinking about it a lot, Dad, and I’m quitting school.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Come work with you at the polishing factory.”
Avram stared at his son. This was no joke. When Dori was born Avram had cradled him in his arms and let him hold a tiny diamond. He remembers it clearly: it was a three-carat teardrop, and the boy wouldn’t let go. Avram had wept with joy, convinced his heir had been born. It was too scary to think about that now, after all the disappointments. How could he take Dori to the factory looking like that? He’d have to shave, get a haircut, bathe… On the other hand, Dori was only thirty. Everyone started late these days—army, university, travel. He had a pretty good analytical mind, and good hands—genetics, after all. So was the boy really going to sit there next to him at the cutting bench in the factory? Go downstairs for coffee with him at the Diamond Exchange? Accompany him to meetings, like Herzstein’s sons?
“I can hardly believe this. I can’t tell you how happy it will make me if you come and work with me. Take two or three days, get a haircut, and when you feel ready—you’re invited.”
“Tomorrow,” Dori said decisively. “I’ll get my hair cut today and tomorrow I’ll go to work.”
While his stunned father went to the bedroom to give his wife the news, Dori texted Ayah: “He’s in shock. I start tomorrow. Wait for a sign. Love you.”
“The world of sports was never accessible to me,” Dori thought to himself, his eyes still closed. His soul always woke up first, horrifyingly lively and garrulous compared to his body, which still lay corpse-like in bed, tangled in a shroud of musty sheets. “They left me no choice but to follow the winding paths of our perverse world. I am a victim of genetics: glasses at age ten, waning heart-lung endurance, and a susceptibility to scoliosis. As compensation, my Jewish genes did bestow me with intellectual potential, but it was never fully realized due to a stale, close-minded education system. My mental somnolence results primarily from geography: a Jew such as myself could have evolved superbly in the Diaspora, even in areas with anti-Semitic tensions, but not in glutted, derivative Tel-Aviv. Not by the cold flames of the tribal fire, not with eskimo-pie-dripping-on-hot-sand, not with ‘Do the best you can’ and ‘Accept me the way I am.’ They worship you as a child and abandon you as a boy, and when you grow up they ask: What have you done with your life? As if it’s a direct continuation of ‘What are you going to be when you grow up?’ As if nothing has happened between the two questions.”
“Good morning! Time to get up. I’ve made coffee.” Avram hovered in Dori’s doorway, delicate as a butterfly. His sick child had recovered, he thought to himself, although Dori’s supine body still gave no signs of life.
“It was so weird to sleep without Ayah all night. Does most of the world really wake up this early for work?”
“Dori, I ironed a shirt for you for your first day of work.” That was his mother’s voice. She was so happy that she was afraid to be seen, in case Dori changed his mind, so she launched the words from the middle of the hallway into his darkened room.
“But why am I like this? What makes me take this ugly step—and it is ugly, I know it is.” Dori kept philosophizing, postponing the moment when he would have to get up. “They destroyed my brain, that’s the answer. Filled me with vacuous options. What is a B.A. in general studies? If you ask me, there’s no such thing. And there’s no art history either. Or philosophy. Academic intellectualism is no less of a fraud than the careers offered by Capitalism. I keep smelling something burning. Maybe the smell will go away in London.”
“So, are you getting up or not? We’ll be late,” called his father. “If he’d done his army, he’d know what it means to get up on time.”
“Starting work at Dad’s factory… What a crazy joke! Off to behold the glory, to get my foot in the door of the diamond business. To hold those stupid stones the whole world gets so excited about.” Dori hoisted himself up but crashed back down immediately, on his stomach this time. “But what if we screw it up? What if it doesn’t work? What if they set off an alarm or something…”
“Come on Dori, what’s going on? Cold feet?” Avram tried to sound businesslike.
“I’m coming!” Dori yelled. He got up and opened the blinds, letting in pale winter light, a morning chill, and the chirping of the bourgeois birds on Basel Street, where, unlike the city, nothing had ever been founded.
He continued to ponder his condition while he got dressed. In the void left by Ayah he seemed to be encountering himself for the first time in a long time. The room lacked her morning cigarette smoke, and for a moment he felt like a child again. “But that child doesn’t exist anymore. I’m here instead of him, a victim of genetics, nationality, geography, chronic weariness… A victim of language! The ancient, mystical language of Hebrew is only good if you’re ancient or mystical. And spoken Israeli Hebrew? I still don’t get the excitement. Yes, it’s flexible and evolving right before our eyes, and it’s slangy and trendy and gives voice to the different segments of society, but you have to say something, don’t you?!”
“Dori, with all due respect, as your boss, even though it’s your first day, if you don’t get up now you’re fired.”
Dori always thought diamonds were a glamorous business, so it was strange to walk into the sooty workshop and hear the screech of the millstones with polishing plates that resembled pottery wheels except they did 3,000 revolutions per minute and were covered in diamond dust. He fell completely silent when he saw the worn faces of the work-weary employees, the floor littered with sunflower seed shells, the stack of Turkish coffee mugs in the sink, the faded picture of a “Girl of the Year” who probably died twenty years ago from a heroin overdose.
People were aware of the plight of diamond miners who toiled underground, but had they only examined the bloodshot eyes of the polishers sitting in modern factories, anonymous artisans with frayed nerves, they would have realized that a chain that begins with suffering can only continue with suffering. And there was no need to state that it also ended with suffering—any groom who had tried to make his plump-fingered bride happy knew that.
Avram wanted to give his son a soft landing on the foreign continent, but the newly-businesslike Dori demanded a crash course in gemology. He befriended the workers, sipped Turkish coffee, and nosed around a lot. Is he my son or isn’t he my son? thought his father proudly. Avram opened a series of little envelopes called “briefke” and showed Dori dizzying amounts of merchandise.
“All this is yours?”
Avram laughed. “If this was mine, not only would I not have to work anymore, but your son wouldn’t either. Traders give me these stones. I polish them, get paid for the work, and hand them back.”
Right, they don’t call them diamonds. Stones, they say. And they really are stones. Especially in their crude form. Little stones, sometimes tiny ones. Fit right in your pocket. “A stone like this, say, how much is it worth?”
“This one’s relatively small, so five-thousand. But the one I’m working on now—half a million dollars.”
“What?! What’s so special about it? Anyone would think… It’s a stone! What if someone steals it?”
“Don’t say that, not even as a joke. This stone, the client who ordered it, you wouldn’t want to mess with him.”
“Okay, chill out, I was just asking.”
Dori held the magnifying glass, which they called a “loupe,” and was introduced to the marquise, the princess cut, the teardrop and the heart. Avram opened “windows” in the stones and let his son into the diamond’s inner world: gletzes, crosses, stars and triangles. Dori tried hard to think about what he needed to think about, about what he and Ayah had decided to do, but other thoughts kept interfering. Why hadn’t he ever visited his father at work before? He had imagined all this so differently: luxurious display cases lined with red silk or felt, diamonds presented by saleswomen with long legs, seasoned traders shaking hands and smelling of expensive cigars mingled with cloying aftershave. But instead of all that there was a guy like Hizki, who was missing one finger and lived in a pile of debt. “I’ve been here thirty-one years,” he told Dori, “breathing in diamond dust all day long. My lungs are probably thirty-carat by now.”
The polishers’ fingers were singed and scratched, and they worked with astonishing patience. Dori’s father was considered an expert: he could examine a rough, a grey lump that looked like any stone you kicked on the sidewalk, and tell you how to polish it, which shape to form, and how many layers it was worth removing to achieve clarity and beauty while sacrificing as few carats as possible.
The big surprise came when Dori went over to his father’s personal polishing table. There were family photographs on the wall: Dori’s mother as a young woman next to a wax figure of a movie star (could it be in London?), and Dori himself, aged five or so, sitting on a camel with a startled grin. He couldn’t remember ever riding a camel, and it bothered him now. Everything started to feel crowded. Real, and crowded.
He texted Ayah: “What’s up?”
She didn’t answer. Where was she? What was she doing while he was getting ready to steal a diamond and risk his father’s life—who, it turned out didn’t even own the diamonds. Dori felt dizzy, maybe from the coffee. Either way, he realized he would have to spend a few more days here before he could pluck up the courage. He’d tell Ayah he didn’t have access to a big enough diamond yet.
The days went by. Winter blew its winds through the city and washed all the buildings, without discriminating between the Diamond Exchange skyscrapers and the little polishing factory, between the shut windows in the Basel Street apartment and the wide-open ones in Ayah’s friend’s place in Florentine, where she slept and smoked while she waited for Dori to send word that the job was done and they could begin their grand escape plan.
She sent him endless messages filled with curses: chicken, bourgeois, daddy’s boy. In others she was ingratiating and teased him with lurid descriptions that made him lustful.
He knew his father was supposed to deliver the big stone on Friday, and this was his last chance to steal it from under him, get away, and sell it through a friend of Ayah’s who worked in a bodega in Florentine (where he functioned as the neighborhood dealer) but knew someone who bought stolen diamonds. Ayah had Dori’s passport, and as soon as he gave the word she would buy tickets to London, where, in Golders Green, they would meet Mica, another friend, who they would stay with at first. This Mica’s parents had been posted in London by some Israeli organization, but they’d divorced and scattered to different corners of the world in pursuit of new loves, while Mica stayed in on in a small garden flat where she lived alone like Pippy Longstocking in Villa Villekulla with her horse, monkey, and god knows what else.
But against all this there was Dad, who whistled while he shaved, who looked at Dori with misty eyes. Sometimes he felt like slapping his father, but sometimes, especially when Avram was talking with traders, there was a mischievous spark in his eyes, a triumphant glimmer, and when they refused to pay his price he would say: Diamonds are forever; we’re not. And it always worked. They were so different, but he cracked each one of them, he had the key to the most important safe—the safe of human thought. He peppered his speech with Yiddish when he spoke to Jewish traders from Antwerp, identified Ganesha, the elephant god, when he arrived at the Indians’ office, exchanged recipes for tart au pomme with the French and shoulder-slaps with the Bukharians. Dori couldn’t help but admire his father, particularly at the end of the day, when the screen came down and the masks came off, and all that was left was the tired face, the sweat stains under his jacket, and the tie he loosened to finally breathe.
Is the gletz still there? Still there.
Dad told him to sit down, so Dori sat down. A large stone was being filed on the millstone, and Dori, like a real polisher, was supposed to check on the gletz every half hour. The gletz was what they called a feather-shaped fissure that diminished the stone’s value and had to be eradicated by removing layers, the purpose being to remove as few as possible. This sort of fissure was created in the rough, while the diamond was forming, perhaps in the volcanic eruption that pushed it up to the earth’s surface. Dori decided that this stone, which had beenpresented to him ceremoniously, would be the one to save him and Ayah. Hizki, who handed him the stone, declared, “Welcome to the world of nameless artists.” But Dori was still far from having mastered the art of polishing. His task was almost purely technical. The second the fissure vanished, he was to stop and call Hizki, or Avram if he was back—he’d gone to take the forty-carat diamond to the trader who had ordered it. Having missed the opportunity to steal that stone, Dori was happy to have the new one to work on, and while his father was gone he waited for the right minute to get up and walk out. The other workers sat around drowsily, as all slaves to routine are wont to do.
Dori assumed that the stone in its present, unpolished state, would be worth less. But given how large it was, that would still be a lot. And if this dealer’s friend didn’t want to pay what they asked, Dori would simply remind him that diamonds are forever—but we are not.
Is the gletz still there? Still there.
The millstone screeched, the tool kept filing the stone down, and Dori decided to wait a little longer. Perhaps the gletz would disappear. He’d been too nervous to sleep all night, and now his body was limp and thorns of doubt pierced his thoughts. His arms seemed as long as an ape’s, and when he tried to talk his voice broke and it sounded like he was blowing a shofar. How the hell would a friend of some bodega dealer get hold of hundreds of thousands of dollars? It occurred to him that Ayah might be a silly girl with big dreams—she knew nothing about diamonds. Crap!
Is the gletz still there? Still there.
How long had he been sitting there? The disappearance of the gletz had become the purpose of killing time. Dori put a weight on the diamond seating to gently weigh down the stone so the layers would come off quicker. After half an hour he picked up the loupe and examined the diamond again: the fissure was still there, a thin hairline running through the transparent, glistening, multi-faceted world of the diamond. Dori now felt that it wasn’t just a crack in the stone—it was a crack in his own mind, in his thoughts, in reality. An explosion, a cleavage, a feather that irritated him from inside, a stye that blurred his vision. A fissure that undermined everything.
He who stares at a diamond on the polishing wheel will find himself hypnotized. His eyes will tear but he will find it difficult to look away, not because of the riches embodied in the diamond—not at all! It is the silence of the inanimate that has the magnificent power to affect any restless human creature. Sisyphus was doomed to roll his boulder up and down over and over again, and Dori asked himself how he was any different, sitting here removing invisible layers from a stone. But his father was different! And so was Hizki!
Is the gletz still there? Still there.
His thoughts sailed far away, uncontrollably. In the refracted light of the diamond he saw many drops, then he began to hear them. The tapping become thunderous and only then did Dori realize they were real raps on the window. A violent banging threatened to break the glass—was it Ayah come to get him? No. It was hail. It’s hailing! Stones falling from the sky! They beat down mercilessly on the Diamond Exchange towers and on the windows of the little factory. Hizki got up and shut the window, shouting, “Great! Great! Good for you, winter! Flush away this whole filthy city!”
Is the gletz still there? Still there.
It turned out the heating was broken, and the factory became instantly freezing because of one broken window. The workers put on sweaters and Hizki covered Dori’s shoulders with an old coat of his, which reeked of cigarettes and pungent aftershave. Dori blew on his fingers to warm them, the stone spun, and he held the loupe and looked around: all the sights, all the cups, all the polishers, the safes, and the hopes, shattered in a kaleidoscope.
Is the gletz still there? Still there.
Rock paper scissors… Which weighs more, a pound of feathers or a pound of stones…? Dori’s consciousness threw countless nauseating contemplations onto him as he waded through its waters. He shut his eyes.
He must have fallen asleep for a minute. Or maybe longer. Much longer, apparently. He looked at the millstone: instead of the big thirty-something carat stone, he now beheld a tiny diamond, the kind used for earrings or bracelet studs.
How long was I asleep?!
Dori looked around: the polishers were each working in their own corners. Only Hizki gave him an enquiring glance. Dori mechanically picked up the loupe and held the stone up to his eyes. No gletz. Obviously not. There was nothing, the diamond was miniscule. How many layers had it lost? Did the weight slip while I was sleeping and press down too hard on the diamond? Could it be that all the layers had been removed until there was almost nothing left?
Dori got up and wiped his face on his sleeve. Hizki’s coat fell off his shoulders but he didn’t notice, nor did he feel how cold it was. He walked quietly to the bathroom. There was a sharp pain in his chest and his legs were shaking. How would he tell his father? It wasn’t his stone. It is worth remembering at this juncture that a polisher is just a polisher, a transit stop between trader and retailer. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars. But he’d been planning to leave his father without the stone anyway. How could he have wanted to do such a thing? Everything was lost now: his dream, and Ayah’s, and his father’s life. He went into the toilet stall and wrapped his belt around his neck.
Hizki arrived just in time: “Hey, dummy, come out of there!”
Dori’s foot kicked the door gently.
Hizki slammed the door open with his shoulder, took the belt off Dori’s neck and said, “Take it easy, stop it, shhhh… Your generation is so weak, I can’t believe it. They were just pulling your leg, don’t take it so badly. It’s a sort of hazing for polishers. A joke! They switched the stone, get it? You fell asleep and they switched it. It’s not your fault. Did you really think a stone could wear down like that? It would take days and days to remove so many layers. Even that gletz will need three or four days.”
“Three or four days?” Dori murmured.
“Sure, what did you think?”
“No, that’s actually a good thing. That’s good…” Dori hugged Hizki for a long time. In his heart he knew he would not be going anywhere with Ayah. Change of plans. He would come here every day, until the gletz was gone, until the fissure vanished, even if it meant one day he’d have thirty-carat lungs.