It’s six thirty-five a.m. as I pull my bike into Jerusalem’s Malha train station. The sun is rising over the seam where the Pat neighborhood’s low, long public housing projects abut the houses of Beit Safafa. A handful of inchoate off-white clouds float through the air like empyrean amoebas, seeking to grab unwary prey in fluffy pseudopods. I lock my bike at the rack and take the escalator up to the station two steps at a time. The security guard, usually stationed downstairs, has set up her table at the top today, to escape the chill. She’s padded in a thick parka, but I’m warmed up from my bike ride and raring to get on the train. I’ve got work to do.
The train ride from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv takes an agonizing 80 minutes—agonizing if you are in a hurry to get to a meeting or if you are one of those high-powered high-tech guys who get apoplectic when they discover that there’s no cell phone reception for half that time. But if you are on your way to visit your mother-in-law, as I am, it’s heaven.
And I don’t mean that longer is better when the trip is to my mother-in-law’s apartment. We get along just fine. What I mean is that in the two hours and forty minutes that I will spend on the train today, to Tel Aviv and back, I’ll get nearly an entire day’s work done. The cars are comfortable, roomy, and quiet. They’re equipped with tables to put your laptop on and sockets to plug it into. There’s no Internet to tempt me and none of the distracting paperwork that sits on my desk in my office at home. It’s just me and the book I’m translating, and there’s nothing a translator needs more than a place he can focus. And in this modern age, such places are few and far between.
And I’m way behind, both in my schedule and in my bank account. So I really need this time. Thank God I have a mother-in-law.
I usually make the trip in mid-morning and had feared that the 6:43 would be filled with commuters. But the car I walk into is practically empty. There’s a single guy, heavy and bearded, in a thick sweater, sitting in the backward-facing seat closest to the door. I settle one seat down and opposite, draw my computer and cord out of my backpack, and get myself set up.
“Excuse me, do you know where I get off for Bialik Street?” he asks me.
“I don’t know Tel Aviv at all,” I say, giving him a polite smile that says that I’m not available for chatting.
“Me, neither,” he says, eyeing me curiously. He’s got a laptop in front of him, too, but it’s closed. “I’m going there to close a deal. What’s that you’re doing?”
Translators don’t do deals. People who do deals make or lose millions with the stroke of a pen. We do words. Words are our raw material, our product, and our currency. Translate a word and—ding!—a coin drops into the piggy bank. To cover the family’s expenses you need a lot of dings. More, usually, than you actually get done. Maybe it would be better to close deals. But playing with words is all I know how to do. Show me a deal and I wouldn’t know how to ding it.
“I write,” I said.
“Actually,” he says, “I need a writer.”
Rough-edged voices outside, a man’s and then a woman’s. They approach and grow louder. The couple joins the Dealer and me in our car. He’s my age, more or less, that is, mid-fifties, in nondescript brown pants, black shoes, and checked shirt. He’s got a sort of puffiness about him that reminds me vaguely of the clouds I saw outside. From the way he treats the woman, who is maybe a quarter-century his senior, I can tell that she’s family but not mother. Maybe an aunt. No, a mother-in-law. She’s thin, sharp-featured, and dressed for a day of shopping. They choose the seat just behind mine.
“… and Mazal never fries the meatballs any more,” he’s telling her. “Says it’s too many calories. Too much cholesterol. But look at my father, I tell her, never cared what he ate, everything fried and in oil, and he lived to be eighty. His brothers and sisters, too.”
“They all lived long lives,” she agrees.
“But you know his older brother Sasson never forgave him to his dying day.”
“Sasson never forgave him?” She takes off her coat, folds it, and places it on the seat opposite. “He never forgave him for what?”
I don’t usually mind background conversations when I work. On the contrary, a little talk is better for concentration than total silence. I think it’s because the rhythm of the language my ears take in harmonizes with the rhythm of the language I’m producing. But these two are speaking way too loud, as if they were on opposite sides of the car. I glance back and give them a nod, just to let them notice that I’m right there. But the volume remains the same.
The train begins to move. The Dealer is up and pacing, talking intently into his cell phone. On the right side of my screen I’ve got the Hebrew version Chapter 5 of Anat Helman’s Young Tel Aviv: A Tale of Two Cities, and on the left side I am tapping out its English mirror image. The book is about popular culture in the modern world’s first Hebrew-speaking city, during the 1920s and 1930s. Helman is telling me about a reporter who went up to people in the street in 1931 and asked them to make three wishes.
“A Hebrew teacher wished for his past, present, and future salaries. A Yemenite newspaper hawker, 17 years old, wished for a measly but steady income, and a free pass to the movies. The reporter’s landlord asked to receive his tenants’ rent on time, and to build a third story on his house.”
The Dealer settles into the seat next to me.
“If you have time to come to Bialik Street,” he says, “It could be worth your while.”
I’m so focused that it takes me a few seconds to realize I’m being spoken to. I look up at him blankly.
“Back in Baghdad, Sasson and my father had a kind of unspoken agreement,” says the guy behind me. “One week Sasson would buy a lottery ticket, and the next week my father would buy one. Each one every second week.”
“They took turns,” his mother-in-law observes.
“They took turns. So one week Sasson tells my father, I don’t have money, I’m not buying this week. So my father decides that he’ll buy a ticket.”
“Even though it wasn’t his turn.”
“Even though it wasn’t his turn. And he wins.”
“I don’t remember how much it was, but in those days you didn’t need much for it to be a lot of money. So Sasson comes to my father and says, Sami, it was my week to buy the ticket, so you have to give me the money.”
“Even though he didn’t buy the ticket.”
“Even though he didn’t buy the ticket. And my father says, Sasson, I bought the ticket so I get the money. And from that day on Sasson didn’t say a word to my father, and neither did his wife or any of his children.”
“Sorry,” I say to the Dealer. “I’d love to hear about it, but I need to get this done.”
“Look, you can’t be making much with this academic stuff,” he says, peering at my computer screen,” says the dealer. “You could make so much more in business. Advertising, promotional material, web content.”
“And what happened to the money?” says the mother-in-law. “You never told me about this money.”
“That’s just it. No one knows. It wasn’t long after that that everyone had to leave Baghdad. I was just a kid then and they didn’t tell anything. My older brothers and sisters went all over. Some came here with my father, one went to India, one went to Iran, did you know that? My father never would say what he did with the money, but I think maybe he gave it to one of the others to help them. And if so it all went on bribes and bread.”
“No one had anything back then,” the mother-in-law agrees. “And you never knew who you’d have to pay off.”
“I can’t tell you here on the train what our idea is,” the Dealer says. “But it’s in high-tech, social networking, that’s the thing today. We need someone who knows how to write. For a modest investment of your time and effort you can get in on the ground floor of something that’s going to be really big.”
“Sasson was already dead when my father died,” Sami’s son says. “But right after his funeral Herzl, his oldest son, comes up to me and says, it’s the first word I ever remember him saying to me, he says we know that you’ve got gold bullion under the floor ties under your father’s bed. See, they were sure that my father had taken the money and bought gold and somehow brought it to Israel with him in 1950. And that he’d kept it hidden. And Herzl was demanding his share.”
“After all those years!” exclaimed his mother-in-law.
“After all those years. And you know what I said, I said welcome. Come dig. And Herzl brings his brother and they shove over the bed my father died on and pry up the floor tiles and dig down and what do they discover?”
“What did they discover?”
“A chest filled with some dresses and tablecloths and women’s stuff. A dowry for a sister who never got married.”
I type: “A storekeeper, whom the writer also described as a religious man, wished that his store would burn down so that he could receive the insurance money. A Mizrahi shoe shiner, 25 years old and father of four daughters, wished for a son, and a steady income of six shillings a day.”
The Dealer sighs and stands up.
“Look,” he says, “I tried to help you. In a few weeks you’ll see my name on the financial pages and you’ll wish you’d come to Bialik Street. I’ll be heading to the bank and you’ll still be a slave to your laptop.”
I look out the window. We’re just emerging from the Refa’im canyon, approaching Beit Shemesh. A kingfisher, flashing red and blue, shoots up from a cypress and disappears into a low-hanging, misshapen cloud.
“So that’s the way it is with money,” says Sami’s son. “Some people have it and some people don’t.”
“You people work hard,” says the Dealer with pity, “and us guys, who dare to be great, we don’t.”
“And we don’t,” the mother-in-law agrees.
And we don’t.