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Loyal to None but Himself

chapter 1

Just like that? An entire bus, off a cliff? That's unfathomable.


(Prog. 151, 1989)

The party was a huge success – against his every expectation. Most of his friends and loved ones showed up, clearly risking their public images. Needless to say, they came more out of a dirt-dishing curiosity than from any overflowing love for him. They came to see the outcast, the infamous, to get a glimpse of Public Enemy Number One. But who cares?  They came and that’s all that mattered. The only thing that mattered was that someone came. Saul gazed at his guests and momentarily felt that he was clinging to each and every one of them for dear life. If he were them, he wouldn’t have shown.

His guests huddled around the garden heaters, sipped from their drinks and indulged in inane party banter. To be perfectly honest, there were two or three people he wouldn’t have invited, but even they couldn’t dampen his satisfaction. It was his birthday, and he was being celebrated, his life was being celebrated – even in these dire times. True, here and there he let loose a hypocritical smile, but most of the people he saw, he liked. Sigri, in her typical wisdom, had picked and chosen well; at least ninety percent of his guests were welcome. Perhaps eighty, to be precise. Okay, seventy-five percent, but no less than that. Or maybe just a little less. He liked at least half of them.

The booze was too good and Saul resented his wife for going to such expense in these times of uncertainty. Two crates of Castel wine that cost close to 2,000 shekels (said a quick search on his phone); three bottles of Macallan, aged 18 years (another 3,000 shekels); three bottles of Ed Hardy Vodka (a little over a grand); four crates of a local craft beer (96 bottles, ten shekels a pop, another grand) – an outrageous fortune that was making its way to his guests’ bladders, only half of which were wanted, as aforementioned. At this unpleasant instant Saul lost track of his calculation, because Sigri was asking him why he was glued to his phone in the middle of his birthday party.

He decided to enjoy himself. It cost what it cost, he thought reproachfully, you only celebrate your 50th birthday once. A silly notion, needless to say. You only celebrate every birthday once. As silly as resolving to enjoy a party.

He had yearned for a party like this and didn’t realize it. He noted to himself: we think we yearn for the global and noble, like wealth and health, love and happiness, world peace and tranquility. In fact, most of our hopes are for the trivial and mundane: finding exact change, getting a long enough green at the traffic-light, having the “perfect” surprise 50th birthday party. As a young man, Saul had fantasized about a grand festival in his honor, a ball in some long-curtained palace, a stage packed with ass-kissing VIPs, an honor guard raising swords, a medal pinned to his chest by some sash decorated South-American style president, the unveiling of his very own oil portrait. Esteemed and charismatic, he would mesmerize the crowd with a swaying sermon—mainly a vindictive bitter indictment against his archenemies from high school—culminating in ecstatic applause.

Years went by and Saul met quite a few VIPs and realized he preferred not to be even in the same town with them. But now he was holding against them their avoidance of his party. True, the Secretary of Communication had come, but Gill was a friend from the service; it didn’t count. Deep in his heart, Saul wondered whether he had any influence left at all. He guessed Sigri had invited the Prime Minister, and some of the other ministers and Knesset members, but they more than anyone probably preferred not to be seen in his company. A month earlier they would have stood in line to kiss his ass.

His eyes measuring the small crowd, seeking out celebrities, he mocked himself for this teen-like provinciality. What did he need famous people there for? What if he was no longer “influential” or a “public opinion generator”? What if he was a has-been? There was also some comfort in such a fate, wasn’t there?

He failed to find any comfort.

Guests shook his hand, kissed him on the cheek, offered well-crafted puns. That Ben-Attar guy from the union secured him in a greasy hug and whispered in his ear: “We won’t let them win, don’t worry!” without explaining who “they” were, what the war was, and how exactly the union was preparing to emerge victorious. Over Ben-Attar’s shoulder, Saul spotted Ohad Rosen leaning against the wall, bottle of beer in hand. He almost felt sorry for the poor bastard, who obviously felt compelled to come, and would clearly have rather been anywhere else in the world then. Tally stood in the middle of the backyard with her girlfriend, whose name escaped Saul, glass of wine in hand. Grovelers pranced in front of her sphynx-like face. She still got her ass kissed.

“A has-been,” Saul sneered quietly. He who once was and is no longer. We couch the harshest ills of our lives in catchy, heroic soundbites, devoid of all pain: Disabled Veterans. Bereaved Mothers. Rape Victims. Terminal patients. Has-Beens. If he had been holding a mic, he would have let it rip.

The station hadn’t announced his termination officially. They probably didn’t want to dish out the severance, or were trying to avoid another scandal. Currently, they referred to a “vacation,” not even “suspension,” parroting most of the papers. Yet everyone knew the truth, everyone had heard it on the radio. If they missed the live show, they got the WhatsApp version. Elias told him it was on the “Whats-Hots,” and all over Facebook and Twitter.

“You’ve gone viral,” smirked his tactless friend. “They’re doing impressions of you on TikTok.”

The food was first rate: sushi from Komoshida, his favorite restaurant, a kebab stand manned by Samir, who always did their BBQ  on Independence Day; crudité platters; mixed-nut bowls. For dessert: handcrafted chocolate pralines by Tania, Sigri’s idol, and a Golda ice-cream stand. Needless to say, his wife didn’t forget the sensational birthday cake by Miki Shemo, over which a pair of 5 and 0 candles held court. As he blew them out, Saul thought of his children and wondered where they had been sent off to. To Sigri’s parents, presumably. Or maybe just Tamir. Hagit was likely staying over at her friend, Galya’s.

People never know how to wait silently for the “surprise!” moment. He could hear his guests’ chatter from the street where he parked, but he let it go and went in as he should and turned on the lights as expected. Everyone yelled “surprise!” and he was dazzled by the attention, actually, his appropriately overwhelmed expression evoking corny joy among the congregated. Faces from every shred of his life gathered around in his living room—he was taken aback to see how many shreds his life actually had. Sigri had informed him about the surprise party in advance, “so you don’t get a heart attack, which always happens at these parties.”

“Always?” he teased her. “I seem to recall one or two parties that ended without casualties.”

“Don’t get wise with me. And moreover, don’t do me any favors and widow me earlier than I’ve planned.”

“A man isn’t allowed to offer a gesture of kindness anymore,” he mumbled. Then lied: “I don’t like this whole thing.”

“Nobody cares what you like, Sauli. There’s going to be a party and that’s it.”

“And I don’t have a say in it? I thought it was my surprise party.”

“Your surprise, my party,” his wife concluded. He laughed.

Ever since “The incident”, his organic laughs had become scarce, his joy a rarity. Occasionally, his wife tried consoling him one way or another, though Saul insisted he had no need for compensation.  “I spoke willingly and with a sound mind,” he declared repeatedly in the first few days, though that was far from the truth. It was all one giant mistake, a catastrophic one. Gradually, his concerns pecked and penetrated the shield of his vanity. When he learned they were addressing the whole thing as “The Blooper,” he happily embraced the effervescent, forgiving slang. A blooper. Just a little blooper. It happens. Happens to everyone.

Now Sigri and the guests ushered him from the living room to the backyard, where a DJ stand was improvised; over it stood the smiling Noam, huddled in a light coat, a broadcasting headset mounted on his tilted head. Naturally, the musical editor of Saul’s show opened with Steely Dan, Saul’s favorite duo. After Reeling in the Years, he played Bodhisattva, Gold Teeth 2 and Fire in the Hole. Towards the end of the evening, he went for Bad Sneakers, perhaps Saul’s favorite song ever. Impressively drunk, Saul mumbled the chorus: Yes, I’m going insane / And I’m laughing at the frozen rain / And I’m so alone / Honey, when they gonna send me home?

The speeches were few and awkward. Noam went first, presenting himself as “the show’s musical editor and much more: Saul’s close friend, I’d say, for the last… twenty-five years?”

“You’re doing an injustice to my complexion,” Saul replied in his deep baritone, and everyone laughed politely. Noam spoke of Saul’s “unique and meticulous” working methods and of his “vital role in the dying radio scene of our country, especially given this age of cheap entertainment and the voices that threaten to silence us…” And so on and so forth—all praiseful platitudes. Deep in his heart, Saul thanked his life-long colleague for limiting his speech to vague slogans and for shying away from the facts. The facts were all against him.

“I hope we go back to business-as-usual very soon,” concluded the baffled DJ, even though everyone assumed Saul’s radio days were over. It wasn’t for nothing that Noam had been the one to speak on behalf of the station, rather than someone with real authority, like Tally or Bar-Menashe. Not that anyone would want to hear the latter’s snake hiss.

After Noam, Ze’ev offered “a word from the boys,” and as usual told the tattered tale of the spacecraft Saul imagined he saw one night, while guarding the basic-training’s gatepost in Beit-Horon (House of a Little Hole—the name was perfectly apt), and how it turned out to be a satellite that had combusted into cosmic dust, crashing somewhere in Egypt. From that moment until his discharge, everyone called him “Han Sauli” (once even on air).

Last to speak was Sigri. Voice aflutter, she recited a sweet and well-rhymed poem that touched Saul deeply. As the guests applauded, he rushed up to hug and kiss her, feeling he had no other true friend in the world. She passed him the microphone. His time had come.

The microphone. His friend. His sword. His life. A double-edged sword, so it seemed.

A silence of anticipation took over the garland-lit backyard; Saul wondered how many times over the three decades since he had started broadcasting, a silence like this had descended. In cars and houses; clandestine offices and military bases; smothering cabs. He never thought silence could be visible, but there it was: a seen silence. He cherished the noiselessness, letting it sink in, consolidate, then thin out. Who can tell if he would ever speak to a crowd again, if he would get another chance to sculpt with the clay of their attention.

He cracked a “thank you” and cleared his throat. His opening words were dedicated to Noam and the rest of the crew, those listeners “who did not forget me with all the… blooper business, I hear that’s what they call it.” At this point he looked up and saw what he expected to see: eyes lowered in embarrassment. Donny and Lilac swapped whispers, Bar-Menasha said something, leading to a collective faux laugh; after all, Bar-Menashe was boss. Saul was afraid they would think he had missed the joke – everyone was already talking about his impaired hearing behind his back – and so waved his hand dismissively in a gesture that could have been construed as either taking the punch or requesting quiet. A bolt of lightning zagged in the distant sky.

He should have had his ears examined when it started. How many times did he close the mic mid-interview and ask Tally in alarm, “What did he say?! I didn’t hear!” Or yell: “The line isn’t clean, clean up the line!” – before realizing the line was perfect, the interviewee was speaking clearly, the problem was him.

Vanity, vanity, accursed vanity.

He went on to thank the friends who had gathered—requisite dramatic pause—”and more than anyone I would like to thank my Sigri. My precious Sigal, Sigal, I am but a slave to you,” he crooned, and pointed to her like a two-bit Aris San; everyone cheered, though the words cracked in his mouth like dried twigs, along with his voice. Sigri, tearing up, collected him in her arms. Everyone clapped.

Next: Hugs from Noam, Ze’ev and Elias, followed by all the others. Saul ran out of hugs before he ran out of huggers, and so let them wrap their arms around him while wondering if it wasn’t, when all was said and done, a farewell party.

***

In the morning he didn’t even have a hangover – objectively a “huge success” in and of itself. He made an espresso and marveled at the tidiness of their home. Such well-behaved people, he thought to himself and snickered at the pompous choice of words. Sheesh, you’re getting old. With a reluctant finger, he turned on the radio, preparing himself for the pain that came with listening to his “temporary” replacement, Ohad Rosen. A permanent temporary, that is. But it wasn’t Rosen he heard, but Ofra Hausner, and he remembered it was Shabbat, and there was no show today; and he was relieved.

The guest bathroom was squeaky clean; even his dull nostrils picked up the floral scent, and he recalled that late at night Maggie and Nava had banished Sigri and him to their bedroom, not letting them empty so much as an ashtray. Now all the dishes were stacked in the caterer’s crates by the front door, next to a neat row of folding chairs Sigri had rented. Saul imagined Ze’ev and Elias slaving away and bitching about it, and smiled as if not everything was a complete disaster. These guys had gone all out—not a speck of dust to be seen.

These are real friends, he noted with satisfaction. But what are friends? A man is no friend even to himself.

Snug in a TV blanket, he went out to the backyard and sat on the garden sofa. Then he remembered his regular day-after-birthday tradition and played Have a Good Time by Paul Simon on his phone, listening to the lyrics in silence. Yesterday it was his birthday. Did he have a good time?

“That’s one way to put it,” he murmured.

He listened to Paul Simon’s soft voice and his clever words, until the song came to an end. Then he tuned in to other sounds: a gutter dripping. A dove cooing on the ledge. The complaint of a vacuum cleaner from a nearby flat, or maybe a faraway leaf-blower? A truck’s backup beeper. A kid shouting some unintelligible rant.

“A radio broadcaster going deaf,” he snorted. “The irony.”

He refused to succumb to melancholy. His party was a huge success, no doubt about it, and this whole affair would peter out, eventually. People were quick to forget, were always hungry for the next scandal; everyone deserved a second chance. He’d likely have to put up with an off-the-air exile for a few months, but the love of the crowd would bring him back. He was only 50 and this profession had an eternal shelf-life. Look at Alex. Look at Aryeh. Look at Razi.

He knew he was deluding himself. Alex, Aryeh and Razi were one thing, he was another: a hard-core current events crusher, weekdays prime-time. He didn’t have Razi’s compassion, didn’t broadcast a soft wake-me-up like Alex, and he was definitely not as empathetic as Aryeh. Moreover: none of his competitors were as stupid as he was. They didn’t get themselves in such a tangle.

You can’t give in, Sigri’s voice nested in his head. He recalled the action plan she laid down the very day of the incident: “You’re going to get yourself a hearing aid, go to another station and strike that snake where it hurts him the most – in his ratings.”

“You don’t just leave a home,” he replied.

Flooded with fear, he lowered his tearing eyes to the ground. That’s when he saw the shells.

Not a big mound, but not a small or random one, either. Someone had stacked it deliberately. Whoever it was sat where Saul was sitting right now, conveniently cracking those pistachios and placing their shells in a single spot, in the heart of the herb garden Sigri so painstakingly tended. Saul leaned over to make sure his eyes were not deceiving him. There they were, piled up on the moist earth. Appalling.

“What kind of a person would do such a thing?” he grunted. Probably Bar-Menashe, that baboon. Or perhaps Donny, he was always chewing something.

He tried to suppress his rage for another minute, then rose and furiously treaded to the kitchen, where he snatched up a broom and a used plastic bag. He went back to the herb garden and was about to sweep up the shells, but decided to wait for Sigri. She had to witness with him this display of vulgarity by those who called themselves their friends!

“Well-behaved people my ass!” he grumped.

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