Those goddamn Jew scientists were right.
Sol gazed into the top right drawer of his desk. There, in a neat row, they lay: pen, pen, toothbrush, highlighter, pen. For as long as he could remember — ah — Sol had always thought in full sentences, often in lengthy dialogues, had frequently been amused to the point of laughing out loud by his internal banter. This time was no exception: Sol chuckled— goddamn Jew scientists indeed — even as moisture welled up on the itchy lower rims of his eyelids. Like dewdrops on a windbent sundried wheatstalk. Sounds almost like something Sammy would write.
Oh, fuck off, Solomon. The hell do you know from wheat stalks?
Sol’s fingers caressed the plastic stem of the toothbrush, his thumb grazing the death sentence nestled between its bristles. Then, unbidden, his fingers curled into a fist, and began to strike at his left breast, like on Yom Kippur. Tender, tender Solomon, his fist struck three times, once for each word. Tender, tender Sol.
The ride to the airport was soothingly dull, the barbs at the edge of his consciousness almost receding into the soothing expanses of early-morning cornfields and soybean fields on either side. Like always, after typing in the address to the mainscreen and settling into the shotgun seat, Sol clicked on the radio, preset to NPR. The reporter, Suzanne Ziad, must have been on staff for decades by now, maybe a full century. Sol liked her. But she was talking, this morning, about a collapsed school building after yet another earthquake in Bangladesh, about the number of children assumed — Sol clicked the radio off. Not now. Not ever again. Not for Sol, at least.
At the entrance to the airport, the mainscreen beeped three times, question, and Sol hesitated for a moment, trying to decide whether to click left, and head into the parking area, or to go straight to drop off and then send the car home. He and Celeste had both been 22, the first time they’d gotten a car towed. Not their car, even: Celeste’s dad’s, Mr. Morris Raditsky’s. They’d parked in what they probably ought to have realized was a grocery store’s loading area the night before, there were signs and all, but they weren’t thinking of consequences, were thinking only of each other’s bodies, or at least Sol had been thinking of Celeste’s, her small, sweet breasts, the endlessness of her back. The next morning, they’d emerged from the bed and breakfast blinking in the sunlight, Sol headachy like he always got after drinking red wine, and, as if by magic, the car had been simply not-there, like it had been plucked up by some mischievous giant. They’d fought the whole taxi ride to the lot, hadn’t resolved anything by the time they arrived at the lot and paid the fat, unfriendly man there a goddamn $430. They’d driven home to Celeste’s dad’s, silence pluming through the cabin. Another silence had taken hold in the cabin of the car — their own car, by now — when they’d rode back from the doctor’s 11 years before, both of them 59. Dr. Marissa Lateman had told Sol and Celeste the test results in a soft voice that Sol assumed wasn’t how she usually spoke to patients.
“Sol, honey, you’ve got two copies —” Marissa had started, and then cleared her throat, her hand rubbing over the back of her neck.
“Two copies of what, Mari?” Celeste had asked.
Marissa was a goddamn professional, Sol knew, could be detached if she wanted to be. She and Luanne were also two of Celeste’s and Sol’s best friends. Marissa cleared her throat.
“Of the ApoE4 gene variant.”
Sol nodded his head a few too many times, like one of those odd bobble-things many goyim kept in their cars for some utterly unknowable reason. He didn’t know from gene variants, but he knew from tones of voice, especially Mari’s. He’d listened only for the first part of Marissa’s explanation, about high indication, increased risk, not definite, and then had floated off, and had stayed off for a while, in a sort of gentle blankness, only vaguely conscious of Mari’s overtight hug as they left, of Celeste’s arm linking through his as they walked back to the car. He startled back from off at the sound of Celeste crying.
“Hey,” Sol said. “Hey, my love. Hey, C. It’ll be alright. I’m a goddamn marathon runner, right? And Mari said something about it not being for certain, right? Not that I was totally listening. I’ll just keep on running, and eating only goddamn sprouted lentils and mung beans and kale. And chia pets, my love. Those little chia pets’ll keep me sharp till 119.”
Celeste laughed through her tears, and at the sound of her laughter, Sol started crying. It started raining outside. The windshield wipers switched on, and Sol sucked up his own snot.
“I think that the god you don’t believe in is weeping with us, Solly,” Celeste said, hiccuping softly. “Maybe she’s alright after all.”
And then silence.
Sol had the car drop him off, silence all around him. He hadn’t even written Celeste a goddamn letter. How could he, though? How could he put everything into one goddamn envelope? Or one thousand? He couldn’t, of course. But wasn’t he supposed to be a writer? What the hell else was a writer good for if not summarizing the unsummarizable? He’d write to her on the plane. And to Samantha and Adam and Yael. Oh god. He’d almost forgotten the kids. He raised his fist to his breast once more. Tender, tender Sol.
What the fuck are you doing?
You saw the toothbrush, Raditsky-Silver.
We agreed: Nine more strikes after what happened in the woods. This was number 10.
Please don’t say ‘we.’ That’s too weird. Makes me feel crazy.
Whatever you say, Solly.
“Sir? Can I help you?”
Sol shook his head, realized from the young woman’s eyes that he’d been laughing to himself, his own eyes unfocused.
“Sorry,” Sol said. “Yes. Thank you. How’s your day going?”
“My day is just fine,” the woman said. She had a slight accent to her English. Sol couldn’t quite place it. Ethiopia? Brazil? Come on, Solly. He should be able to recognize this. Accents were always his thing. “Yours?”
“Oh, not great,” Sol almost said, but stopped himself. “I’m fine,” he said instead. “Fine, thank you.”
“Where are you headed today, sir?”
“I—,” Sol began. “I think I’d like to go to South America. Or Central America.”
Sol saw himself transform in the woman’s eyes.
“Do you have a ticket somewhere, sir?” Her voice was distant, cold.
“No, I don’t think — Do you, uh, do you do standby flights anymore? Or was that — is that… Would you just give me a moment,” Sol took a step back from the desk, unlocking his gaze from the woman’s, trying to steady his breath.
The woman fingers began typing quickly, long nails clacking on the keyboard, and Sol wondered, for a moment, if she was reporting him. If he’d be approached by a pair of goyish police officers. Sir, we’ve gotten reports from the desk that there’s an incoherent old shmendrick trying to flee the country without telling his own goddamn wife or kids where he was going or what he was planning on doing — Sol didn’t laugh at this one.
Sol glanced up, and took another step back, without fully realizing where his legs were taking him. His faithful legs. He’d run 16 marathons on these two knobby, blessed legs. The last race had been four years earlier. He’d gotten second in the over-65 category. That had been a good day.
“—leaving for Guatemala City in three hours.”
Sol thought to ask her to repeat herself, but instead, he nodded as somberly as he could, and tried to dredge up a word that might fit, from the muck.
“Yes,” Sol said. “Adelante.”
The woman smiled again, though just with her mouth. Sol was pretty sure that “adelante” was Spanish. Not positive. They’d all been mixing together in the soup of his mind for years now. By the time he was 50, Sol could speak seven languages: English, of course, and Hebrew, Arabic, Yiddish, Spanish, French, and more than a bit of goddamn Mandarin, believe it or not. It was when he started saying “Gut morgen” on a trip to Paris with the kids, and then, later, “Salaam aleikum” to the Rabbi at shul on Yom Kippur that Celeste began to get worried, Sol knew. If only he could have mustered a wink, in either case, it could have passed for another odd bit of Solism. And if either incident could have passed as a Solism, then maybe he wouldn’t have gone in to Marissa to get tested. And without the test, he might not have had to spend these past 11 years in a dull sort of terror, seeing everything forgotten as a warning flag, everything misplaced as a sign. He might not be on his way to goddamn — to god… Where did that nice Brazilian woman say he was flying to? Ethiopia?
Just fucking with ya, Solly. You’re going to Guatemala.
“Two fifty-nine,” said a spiky-haired white kid with bulging blue eyes.
Sol’s fingertips were pulsing with heat, wrapped around a cup of coffee that he did not recall ordering.
“Right, of course,” Sol said. Reached into his back pocket, panicked for a moment thinking he’d forgotten his wallet, remembered — ah — that he’d used it to pay for the ticket, that he’d… Put it in his coat pocket. He handed the kid his card. “Thanks, bud.”
Goddamn Jew scientists, Sol thought, apropos nothing.
Connect the threads, Solly.
Little Yaeli became a scientist! was the best he could come up with. And who would’ve thunk. A Raditsky-Silver doing something other than chattering. Yaeli with her microscope and vocabulary that no one else comes close to understanding. Sammy and Adam — chatterers. Sammy’s a writer, like me, like her pop, a pen-chatterer. And her writing, good god! Kid knows how to do a line break. Sol had no problem acknowledging that Sammy was better than he’d ever been — he delighted in it. On most days. Sweet Sammy. And Dr. Adam Raditsky-Silver, Sol and Celeste’s second child, Sol’s only son: a psychologist, private practice. The worst kind of chatter, Sol thought: costly as all fuck, and a waste of time, at that. Not that Sol was one of those gruff old caricatures of a bearded patriarch. He was all for a good cry, and in public, if need be. But still, couldn’t you find a friend, or go for a run, or take ayahuasca? The hell did you need to pay a goddamn 259 an hour for?
Or, as Celeste would put it: “Get the fuck over yourself, Solomon.”
Still, things had gotten a lot better with Addy over the past 11 years, and especially the past six. He and Sol had even started going for breakfast every other weekend, with Adam’s two kids! Goddamn. Adam has kids of his own. Matty, six years-old, and Millie, four. Strange, goyishe names, but pure gold, those kiddos. He ought to write them, too. On the plane. On the —
“Sir, could you please buckle your seatbelt.”
“Mmhm,” Sol said, and reached for the strap. God bless autopilot.
In both senses, eh? Although, I did always like when there was a real person steering this goddamn hunk of floating metal.
Nu, what’s the worst that could happen? It’ll fall out of the sky? Isn’t that more or less the plan anyway?
Yeah, but what about all of these other poor sweet innocent schmucks?
Good point, Solly. I’ll pray to the nonexistent god for you.
“Excuse me,” Sol turned to his left, away from the aisle. The short, raven-haired woman seated next to him blinked. Perhaps she didn’t speak English.
“Tienes una boleta?” Sol ventured, smiling slightly and making a scribbling motion with his hand, as he did when he’d wordlessly ask a waiter for the bill at a crowded restaurant. He didn’t know where the sentence had climbed out from, but it felt almost right, and hopefully, along with the hand gesture, close enough. The woman’s eyes widened slightly, and then she laughed.
“Boligrafo, I think you mean,” said the woman. She smiled a smile filled with mostly pity and condescension, and only a bit of repulsion, a god-holy-fuck-aren’t-you-old smile. She fished around in her purse, and then handed him a pen. He remembered — ah — what “boleta” meant, but too late. Bilet. Billet. Tathkara. Piào!
But if I know all those words, now, still, then maybe I can go home?
No, Solly. You can’t go home, now. We counted to 10. It’ll get worse. You know this.
I know this.
While you’re still sharp.
While I’m still sharp.
And you’re still sharp, you stud. You over-sixty five almost-champion. Abu Samantha, who that one blogger called ‘ridiculously talented’ after her first book came out. You, Celeste Raditsky’s chosen one.
Her dark brown hair turned mostly gray when she was just over forty, and it looked so goddamn sexy on her. If he could have, Sol would have kissed every single strand. He told her this, and she just laughed. Celeste didn’t need reinforcement like Sol did. She knew she was pretty, and was at peace with how she looked, had been since they met, and before. Even after her mastectomy, Celeste was at peace with how she looked. She was smarter than him, and funnier, nearly as attentive a parent, not nearly as good at remembering — ah — facts and dates and names, earned more money, didn’t cook as well, baked better, was more sarcastic, less patient with strangers, more attuned to the needs of close friends. Less traditionally faithful, over the course of their 47 years. In other ways, though, more committed. They had a good marriage. A really, truly goddamn good one. They got married in a pine forest. Sol could still smell that resiny breeze. Sol thought that he ought to call Celeste when he landed, just to let her know… Sol glanced down at the pen still gripped in his hand. He’d doodled on a napkin, a strange pile of creatures that vaguely resembled bees, with a childish skull-and-crossbones flags jutting out of the top of the pile, but hadn’t even started the first letter. Hadn’t even brought a goddamn piece of paper with him. Celeste would probably be looking for him by now. Calling his cellphone. Calling friends. Calling the kids. Maybe she’d think he was out for a long run in the woods near their house, like he used to do.
Now the droplets gathered on his lower eyelid were falling down his cheek, shaken free as the plane bumped to a landing. His seat-mate put a small hand on his shoulder, offered him a tissue. He smiled at her, and shook his head slowly, and then raised, for some unknowable reason, his fist to his breast, once again.
We have sinned, we have betrayed.
Tender, tender Sol.
In the airport in Guatemala City, Sol was greeted by a row of diminutive airport employees, playing xylophones and drums and wearing sombreros and colorful capes. He wondered, for a moment, if he had begun hallucinating, in addition to forgetting. From the airport, he boarded a shared taxi toward Quetzaltenango, where he’d been, once, back when he was a kid, just 17. He and his older brother Adriel. Adri. They’d smoked a whole lot of crumbly pot and Sol had blushed and cringed and marveled as Adri buoyantly attempted to flirt with women at least 10 years older than them and was rebuffed again and again. They’d both picked up awful stomach bugs from drinking the water, against the advice of the guidebook Adri bought at the airport. And they’d climbed mountains there, Adri egging him on, including a craggy black inactive volcano.
Miss you, Adri, Sol thought. If only I believed in the garbage that told me I’d see you soon. Who the fuck knows though, right? Maybe I will.
On this taxi ride, a grayblond-haired woman was speaking loudly, in English, about the history of US-supported dictatorships here, right here. It took Sol a few minutes to realize that she was speaking to him; once he realized this, he made sure to smile and nod at various junctures. The Americans had helped killed so many of these poor, poor people, she explained loudly, so she’d started an NGO in Berkeley to give voice to the voiceless through selling hand-knit bags and donating some of the proceeds. Sol knew, in some part of his mind, a bit about the dictatorship, the slaughter, the CIA’s involvement, but he couldn’t focus his mind on the details, or even on a focused critique of the woman’s enterprise. All he could think was that he was sorry to be leaving these poor people with yet another American mess to clean up. Perhaps, then, a canyon so lonely and isolated and no one but the birds —
What in God’s name do you think are you doing, Solomon?
That wasn’t his voice. It some scrawny facsimile of his mother’s.
Yisgadal v’yiskadash for both of us, mama. I’m doing what’s best for everyone.
For everyone? Or for Solomon?
I don’t know, mama. I can’t remember.
“Say, uh, Karen?” Sol asked.
“Sorry,” Sol said. “Never been good with names.”
“Do you happen to know any guides who could take me up into the mountains?”
Celeste always loved the mountains. Samantha and Adam did, too. Sol himself was a bit afraid of heights, especially without Adri around, and so was Yael. By the time Sammy and Addy were teenagers, Celeste started taking the two of them hiking without Sol and Yael. Yael and Sol started their tradition, then, starting from when Yael was nine, of paying for a movie in the Cineplex nearby, early in the morning, and then spending the rest of the day sneaking into other movies, emerging from the dim light just to restock on popped corn and sugar. “It’s only okay to bend rules when the rules are stupid, Yaeli,” Sol would say. “Or when you really want to.” Yaeli would giggle, her tongue stained blue from sour patch straws.
It was almost nighttime in Guatemala when their bus bumped into Quetzaltenango, which Sol remembered — ah! — that people just called Xela. Celeste would be panicking by now, Sol was sure. And the kids would be scared, too. Celeste knew Sol too well. She couldn’t know that he’d be here, exactly, because he hadn’t planned it, exactly, but she had a way of knowing things that she should have no logical way of knowing.
Would Interpol take on a case like this?
Sol laughed to himself. Before he could start weeping again, before he could lose his nerve, Sol forced himself to approach the front desk.
“Puedo usar el telefono?”
Not bad, Solly.
As the mustached receptionist watched, Sol dialed the number of the guide the woman on the bus had given him, which he’d miraculously — or horrifically, depending on how one looked at the situation — managed not to misplace.
“Hello. Javier? I got your number from, from Karen. Do you— do you speak English?”
“Okay. I — I need to get out to the mountains.”
“Sure thing. When were you thinking?”
“It’s almost eight at night.”
“I can pay extra.”
Javier sighed. “Alright. Okay. What did you say your name was?”
“Sol—,” Sol paused, and wondered if he should give a fake name. “Solomon.”
“Solomon the Wise,” Javier said. “Alright, your highness, what hotel are you staying at?”
They set off wearing headlamps, Sol wearing a small backpack-size bag that Javier had brought for him, Javier wearing a bag nearly five times the size. The night was slick velvet around them. The fiery orange orb of sun had sunk beneath the earth’s edge. Breezes licked at Sol’s face. They walked fast. Sol had told Javier he wanted to get as high up as possible before they set up camp for the night. Javier had shrugged, rubbing one of his eyes with a fist, and taken off at Olympic racewalking speed.
“So, King Solomon,” said Javier, who was wiry and handsome, with long dark hair pulled into a ponytail, and a sparse mustache. “Midlife crisis?”
Sol laughed, a real laugh. “I wish.”
Sol’s legs were still strong, carried him upward. He wasn’t going to ask Javier to slow down. Goddamn blessed legs. He’d thought running could stave it off. Two years ago was the first time he gotten severely lost on the path through the woods he’d run probably six hundred times before. He’d been confused a few times before, but never like this. He’d set out for a five-mile run, and hadn’t come home for almost four hours. Seeing Celeste’s face when he finally did make it back that day was what made him decide. You’re stronger than that, Solly. Goddamn better than that. You have to go before you’re gone.
Sol waited in his tent for a few minutes until he heard Javier’s breath flatten, a slight whistling sound accompanying each inhale. He unzipped the flap, and stepped as lightly as he could onto the earth, walked a few paces, and glanced back. Javier’s tent was still, but for the rustle of a slight breeze. It’s goddamn cold up here. The rock was black-sharp crystal, the air crisp-needled Sol’s lungs with each inhale. He walked for a few minutes up the path he and Javier had walked on, and then found an opening in the brush, and started upwards, toward a ledge. He had to use his hands to climb the rock face there, and when he pulled himself up, he was hit with a blast of even colder air, nothing blocking him from the wind on the other side. Nothing between him and down. At least four hundred feet before the first ledge, he reckoned. Enough. He hadn’t written any of the letters he’d meant to write. Or left a note for Javier.
Sol breathed in through his nostrils and felt the icy wind behind his eye sockets. He took a step forward. Two more and he’d be gone. His tongue felt swollen and foreign in his mouth, like that one time, after he and Celeste had fucked on the kitchen table of their new house, and she’d bitten him, aiming for his lip, like he liked, but catching his tongue instead. They both laughed and laughed as he spit blood into the empty chipped porcelain sink, Celeste rubbing his hips, pressing her breasts into his lower back. Another step. The wind rustled through his hair. He still had enough hair. His shoulders seized with an invisible weight. Samantha on his shoulders: banging her little fists on his head, telling him to look, a bird! A hawk, Abba! A flying hawk! And there it was, hovering over the sundrenched clouds, and then turning and diving toward them, above the trees and shrubs. A blur of feathers, beak and nail, and he wondered if it was dangerous, if it would try to pick off a four year-old, but Sammy was laughing and bouncing and pointing, and so he laughed, too, and stood still, and the hawk veered away, of course, long before it passed go, or collected two hundred dollars. All those games with Adam and Yaeli. Adam was so good. Yaeli would always lose interest. She told him, right before her 15th birthday, that she’d only just realized they weren’t called Bored Games. Adriel, holding hands with that one woman, a French-Canadian tourist, the two of them sitting in a hammock, their bodies pressed tightly together. Adri told Sol the next morning that they hadn’t kissed, or anything like that, just held hands till their fingers grew sore. Celeste humming tonelessly to the radio. She couldn’t even come close to carrying a tune. Celeste!
What I always wanted to say to you, C. What I’ve always meant to tell you, is that — You already know. I think you know it. You know it, right, C? Right, my love?
Shuffling forward, strong feet at the end of these blessed legs. There it is. The final step.
Okay, Sol. That’s all, Solly. You did it, Solomon. I’m proud of you. You did the right thing. I love — And then he lost his balance, and for a moment, he thought to turn around, and try to grip onto something, after all, to grab the rockface, to hold, to wait just one more moment, to hope that maybe just, but then he shook his head, Tender, tender Sol, and the wind fluttered, and he leaned into his fall, as though mid-run, or as though in prayer, bending toward the canyon, and then Solomon Raditsky-Silver started to fly. He flew, Celeste. Solomon started to fall. He fell until his body hit the earth.
Sol saw two bare feet padding across the carpet, twisted nails, purple-painted nails and sagging arches, prominent tendons, bulging veins: home.
“Solly? Are you okay, babe? Why are you lying on the floor?”
“I found my toothbrush in the pen drawer,” Sol said, moisture clogging his throat. He turned his head from Celeste’s feet and toward the ceiling. Then the ceiling was covered, mostly, by a face, by the face that he loved the most in the world, a face he still knew. A face he would not always know.
“That’s okay, my love, that’s okay” Celeste said, and Sol felt raindrops falling from the sky of his wife’s eyes onto his forehead, heard Celeste groan slightly as she lowered herself onto the ground next to him, felt the warm skin of her forehead press against his cheek, heard her voice in his ear. “I’ve always thought you should brush your teeth right after you finish writing.”
Sol tried to laugh, and half-managed. Then he said. “I’m so scared, Celeste.”
“I know, Solly. I am too.”
Moriel Rothman-Zecher is a Jerusalem-born novelist and poet. His first novel, “Sadness Is a White Bird”, was a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the National Jewish Book Award, the winner of the Ohioana Book Award, and longlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. Moriel’s poetry and essays have been published in Barrelhouse, Colorado Review, The Common, The New York Times, The Paris Review‘s Daily, and ZYZZYVA, and he is the recipient of the National Book Foundation’s ‘5 Under 35’ Honor, two MacDowell Fellowships, and Yiddishkayt’s Wallis Annenberg Helix Fellowship. Moriel’s second novel, “Before All the World”, will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on October 11th, 2022, and by Corsair Books / Little, Brown, UK, in 2023.