Cloudburst — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

The man who grunted into a chair at the table next to me at Aroma Sokolov had fleshy overworked fingers with hair thicker than he had on his head. A tan sweater, a size too tight for him, outlined the bulge of his belly, and his eyes and nose were watery from the droplets of exhaust that shiver in the air on a Holon winter morning. He unfolded his free copy of Yisra’el Hayom and, in response to a query from a young man at the counter, held up two of those fingers. He flipped the paper to look at the forecast, shook his head, settled back in his chair, and addressed me.

illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz
“Dry January, right? But then each year is drier than the last.”

I nodded and gave him a smile with which I tried to say “You know it!” And also “I’m kind of busy so leave me alone.”

“But that cloudburst last night? Did you catch it? At two in the morning?”

When I didn’t respond, he nodded in the direction of the counter. “That’s my son, Niv. He’s getting married next week.”

“Mazal tov,” I said, without an exclamation point.

“He’s a good kid. Great girl, too.” Niv, drumming a riff on the counter while he waited, had a runner’s build and a frazzle of rusty hair.

“Looks it,” I said, keeping my eyes on my laptop screen.

He gave up and returned to the newspaper. “Niv!” said a loudspeaker voice and a minute later the son placed a tray on the table and sat down. He carefully, respectfully lifted a glass mug of kafe hafukh from the bright orange tray and put it in front of his father, followed by a small plate bearing a jelly donut and two tiny metal jugs of hot milk. Tearing a packet of sugar with his teeth, he sweetened his own hafukh, which remained on the tray. From a pants pocket he drew an iPhone and positioned it next to the coffee. The two of them sipped silently, long enough for me to get focused and forget they were there.

“Did you catch that cloudburst at two a.m.?” the father suddenly said.

Niv glanced outside and shook his head. “I saw it was wet this morning.”

“It reminded me of when I was on maneuvers in the paratroopers in ’75. Out in the desert near Nebi Musa.”

The son looked quizzically at his Dad. The father hesitated, as if ready to check himself and return to silence. “I’d just met your mother. We weren’t really, like, romantic yet, but I knew that was coming.” He spooned foam off his coffee and shook his head. “It’s too bad …” Suddenly he cut his thought off in the middle. He squeezed the mug hard and went on.

“We were practicing our company’s act for the battalion exercise later in the week. We were supposed to capture the Marsaba monastery. Did you guys do that? It’s a bitch. Of course you can’t do live fire on a monastery, it would be an international incident, so you do it a couple hills over, pretend-like. That’s what we would do in the battalion exercise, but Jabbo, our company commander, who was a real dick, decided we should do a dry assault on the real monastery, and there we were all afternoon—and you know that down there by the Dead Sea it can get hot as hell even in the winter—running like idiots up the side of the mountain shouting ‘Fire! Fire!’ with the monks staring at us and probably taking notes about our tactics to send to the Arabs.”

Niv looked straight into his Dad’s eyes, but the father quickly averted his gaze.

“So the sun set behind the mountains above us and that freezing desert evening wind began blowing, chilling the sweat on our fatigues and turning them into air conditioners, if you know what I mean.”

Niv nodded sympathetically.

“And we’re looking up, waiting for the stars to come out, and you know down there they blaze, you see stars that no one in Holon knows exist, and no stars come out. And then my buddy Guy wipes something out of his eye and we realize that there aren’t any stars because black clouds have blown in and out of the black, with no warning, the hillside lights up like a huge flashbulb going off and there’s an explosion like nothing we had in our arsenal. There’s no air, it’s all water, like a river coming down from the sky, and in five seconds we and our gear are totally drenched. And we’re freezing, shivering like someone pushed us into a refrigerator, but also happy because we know that there’s no way we can keep exercising in this weather, we’ll all get pneumonia, and probably a flash flood is already thundering down the wadi from Jerusalem, But Jabbo calls out ‘One more time, guys! This is a cloudburst, it’ll be over in five minutes!’ And he runs along our line, bopping us on our helmets and kicking our bottoms and he has us running up the mountain shouting ‘Fire! Fire!’ even though we’re sinking in the mud and the only difference is that the monks, who are ten times smarter than we are, have gone inside where it’s dry.”

Niv’s cell phone vibrated. He glanced at it and a smile played over his face as he picked it up. “Hedvi,” he said, and the way he said it make me look up and think how much meaning two syllables can bear. He listened for a few seconds and said “I’m having coffee with my Dad. I’ll call back when I’m done?” He listened, nodded, and put the phone down.

“She’s ok?” the father asked.

“She forgot to turn the heat off before she went out,” Niv said. “I’ll go by after I take you home.”

The Dad wiped donut jelly from his face. He looked into his coffee. Sipped some. Looked some more. The son fidgeted.

“So you were soaking wet. And getting pneumonia.”

“Right. So finally Jabbo is convinced we can conquer any monastery in any weather and tells us to pack up. Some cloudburst, it’s still coming down, and we have three kilometers to walk back to camp. With all the gear on our backs it takes us half an hour to get there.”

“Wow,” Niv said.

“It was different then,” the father continued. “We slept in pup tents. We each got half a tent, just a piece of oilcloth, and poles, and you teamed up with a buddy and built a pup tent. Well, you remember meeting Guy. He was just as huge then as now. So he took up pretty much the whole tent and I had to squeeze in next to him. Of course, the tent was soaked, and everything was mud, even though camp was on top of a hill it was all washed out, but you know that a soldier can sleep anywhere, in any situation, all he wants to do is sleep, so we get to our tent and Guy crawls in and before I can even take my vest off he’s snoring. I can’t see a thing, of course, so I take out my flashlight, it’s a miracle, the rain hasn’t shorted it out, and I shine it in and, well, you know how when you wet a sponge it soaks up all the water and doubles its size? Well, Guy was like a sponge. I look in and he’s pressing up against the sides of the tent on all sides and there’s not a crevice for me to squeeze into.

“And then I think, why should I even try, and I don’t know how it suddenly came to me, I wasn’t any more a man to pray then than I am now, but I said to myself, hey, I bet the synagogue tent is dry, the religious guys must have made sure that their Torah wouldn’t get wet, so I trudge over there and look inside and it’s empty and there are a few rows of wooden benches and even wooden pallets on the floor and the benches are dry. And there’s a blanket covering the table they read from, and another on another table, and four more stacked in a corner, and that’s better than my waterlogged sleeping bag, so I push three of the benches together and put down a blanket and take off all my clothes, every last stitch, and dry myself with one blanket and cover myself with the others and let me tell you I’ve never slept better. And when I got woken up in the morning by the religious guys coming to pray the sun was out and ravens were cawing and Jabbo was shouting and I was dry and warm and my back was so sore I could barely move. Also, I was naked. They called the medic, who examined me as they were swaying and chanting and he said I needed to rest and I ended up spending the whole day sleeping in the infirmary and dreaming about your mother and it was maybe the best day of my life up until then.”

The father looked at his son as if expecting a response but not knowing what response he was expecting. He waited.

“It’s a good story,” the son said, glancing at his phone.

“I’m telling you this,” the father said urgently, “because …” His voice faded. He poured the warm milk from the two metal jugs into his coffee and drained the mug. “Because you’re getting married.”

The son gave him a questioning look and the telephone vibrated. He told the phone “We’re just finishing. I’m already on my way.” And to his father: “I need to get going. I’ll take you home. I’ll just go to the bathroom and I’ll be right back.”

“And when I woke up at two in the morning,” the father continued, and I didn’t know if he was speaking still to his son, or to me, “alone in bed, and I got up and went to the bathroom and then walked into the living room and looked out the window and suddenly the rain began coming down, just like that, a huge storm, like from the beginning of the world, and I stood there watching it streak under the streetlights for five or six minutes until it ended just as suddenly as it began. ‘Oh, a cloudburst,’ I said to myself, and smiled, and remembered that day, lying in the infirmary and dreaming …”

The son was back. “What were you saying, Dad?”

The father glanced at me. He shook his head. “It’s too bad you missed it. The cloudburst. It was like love.”

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