The Shirt Off His Back — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Itzik feels a little hand tugging at his but keeps his eye on the shirt. The hand belongs to Lior, his three-year-old. The shirt belongs to him, to Itzik, but Itzik is not wearing it. A stranger is.

illustration by Avi Katz
It’s the early hours of a Shabbat morning. Lior crawled into his parents’ bed before six a.m.; Itzik jumped up, pulled on a t-shirt and shorts, and whisked him off to the park across the street so that Stav, eight months pregnant, could get some rest. How long has the stranger wearing his shirt been sitting there, on a bench on the other side of the playground, reading a newspaper? Itzik sees him only when he climbs up after Lior to the sliding board’s upper platform.

The shirt is purple, long-sleeved, one that Itzik would never have worn on such a hot summer morning. The stranger wearing it has a sculpted, lean face and sits poised, erect but relaxed. Other than the shirt, he has on khaki cargo shorts and New Balances.

“Abba, watch,” Lior pleads, tugging again at Itzik’s hand. Itzik looks down into his son’s bright eyes, which seem to take up most of his face.

“I’m watching, I’m watching!” Lior smiles broadly, but when he sits down on the edge of the slide, his face clouds.

“Go on!”

Lior shakes his head slowly, turning it a full ninety degrees each way.

“Ok, I’ll go catch you.” Itzik clambers down the ladder and goes to the bottom of the S-shaped slide, a tunnel at its top half. Lior lets loose with a child’s primal cry and a few seconds later lands on his bottom on the rubber below. Lior screams, more insulted than hurt. Itzik looks away from the stranger, heaves his son up into a big hug. The stranger looks up at them.

The shirt is old but a favorite. Itzik has had it for years. He bought it at a second-hand shop in his single days, just before he enrolled at Sam Spiegel. When he tried it on in the store and looked in the mirror, he was pleased. Slightly too large at the shoulders, with the sleeves rolled up one turn and the shirttails out it gave him, he thought, just the right look. It placed him perfectly among that small group that had no truck with either formality or the torn jeans and ragged t-shirts that seemed to be the uniform at the film school.

And it had been a lucky shirt for him. He had it on when he had that first inspiration for the graduate film that won him prizes at three festivals, where he’d also worn it; he chose it for the job interview at the production company where he now works; and he’d chosen it, over his mother’s objections, for the wedding of a cousin where he’d first spied Stav from afar. He’d kept an eye on her but had been too shy to approach. But after the wedding week was over he’d asked the cousin for her number and screwed up his courage to call her.

Itzik jerks his head away. Lior is pulling his beard.

“Again!” the boy says brightly. Itzik helps him climb up the ladder.

“Don’t worry, I won’t miss this time,” he reassures his son.

But Lior waves his hands and refuses to slide until his father takes a few paces back. Only then does Lior push off. When he lands on his bottom again he winces but then laughs.

The stranger wearing Itzik’s shirt folds up his newspaper and lays it on the bench beside him. He stretches, raising his hands high in the air and arching his back, performing a series of arm rotations and abdomen twists, as if he has been sitting too long and needs to limber up.

The mistake he made, Itzik reflects as he watches the morning breeze ripple his shirt, was not wearing it for his first night out with Stav. He actually put it on at first when dressing for that evening, but it was summer—Itzik realizes with a jolt that it had been the night after Shabbat Nahamu, the Shabbat of Consolation, exactly five years ago today—and the shirt was too heavy. He wore a blue polo instead. Maybe that’s what went wrong.

Lior, having bottom flopped twice more, pulls his father over to the swings and demands to be pushed.

“Hold on tight,” Itzik cautions as he settles his son on the swing and begins pushing it gently.

“Higher!” Lior insists.

The shirt is being unbuttoned now, revealing a sleeveless undershirt below. The stranger has his head down, as if the release of each button requires his full concentration. The shirt is folded neatly and placed on top of the newspaper. The stranger crouches, his legs spring back, and he begins to do pushups.

Courting Stav was not easy. The attraction he felt the instant he saw her dancing at his cousin’s wedding quickly grew into infatuation. Her beauty was of a mysterious kind that went far beyond the physical; she spoke obliquely, in surprises, and he marveled at how much meaning she packed into a few words. When he showed her his graduate film she had not, like other girls, said, “Amazing!” or “Wow!” She sat silently, then began to weep, touched his hand, and then asked to go. She could not, she said, go on with the evening after the film.

An intense, much too intense, relationship that had lasted for nearly two years had just exploded painfully. She was wary, frightened. He was eager, sure that Stav was the woman he wanted to spend his life with. After pushing too hard at first he pulled back, waited patiently, cultivated her confidence. It took a long time. He finally put the question to her—shyly, diffidently—at a spring outside Jerusalem, alone under a summer sun. She said yes. He was overwhelmed, overjoyed, but also felt, although she denied it, that a part of her heart was not there. It was as if she decided to screw up her courage and go for it, come what may.

“More,” Lior demands as he feels the swing slowing down. The stranger strides past eucalyptuses to the fitness equipment.

She loves him, of course. It’s not like this stranger picked his shirt out of his closet after sleeping with Stav. He doesn’t believe that for a minute, although he can’t help thinking about it. Sometimes he senses that he does not provide all her needs, not emotional, not sexual. But here have Lior, and another is on the way. They are a family and have found a way to live that combines the stuff he wants to keep from the religious home he had grown up in with the stuff that she wants to keep from the non-religious one she comes from. It’s complicated but it works. So he doesn’t think that, not for a minute, even if the stranger certainly looks far better at the chin-up bar than Itzik would.

In fact, Stav doesn’t like the purple shirt, which is why he seldom wears it now. She says that with a steady job he doesn’t need to wear second-hand clothes anymore. She makes a big deal about a couple stains that were there when he bought the shirt, which you can only see if you really look for them. But the shirt continued to hang in his closet and he resisted every time she suggested, once a year, putting it into the bag of stuff she was taking over to the thrift bazaar that their synagogue sponsors every year before Pesach. Maybe he hardly ever wears it, but the luck is still there. He gives Lior one push too hard. The boy yelps as he nearly loses his grip. Itzik runs at the swing and catches his son in mid-arc. He holds Lior close. The stranger is deep into his workout, facing the other way.

Lior now wants to be on the horse on springs at the far end of the playground. Itzik hoists his son up and grabs the cloth bag with Lior’s water bottle and extra diaper. As he passes the bench where the stranger had sat, he leans down, grabs the shirt, and stuffs it into the bag.

His hand tingles at the touch of the fabric. It’s been a tough pregnancy for Stav. She’s morose and distant and nothing he does seems to help. There are nights he wakes up and finds her far from him, nearly falling off the edge of the bed, as if is trying to stay out of reach. He needs the shirt desperately, much more than the stranger does.

The shadows of the eucalyptuses have contracted and the sun shines down on the playground. Itzik wipes his forehead with the diaper bag. He glances at his watch. Stav must be up by now and the morning service begins in half an hour. He’ll go home and get dressed and take Lior to synagogue.

“Time to go,” he tells his son.

“I want to stay,” Lior pouts.

“What do you want in your goodie bag for beit knesset?” Itzik asks. Lior recites a litany of junk food. Itzik carries Lior quickly out of the park and then, when it is well behind them, he props Lior up on a garden wall and removes the purple shirt from the diaper bag, slipping it on over his t-shirt without buttoning it. He sweats twice as much, but he smooths it down and picks up his son.

At home, Stav is lying in bed with her eyes open, face expressionless. Lior wiggles out of his father’s arms and jumps on the bed to tell his mother about the sliding board. Stav listens listlessly. Itzik sits down on the bed next to her. Reaching over Lior, he touches her cheek. He lies down next to her.

“Why,” says Stav, her voice on edge, “are you wearing that shirt?”

They lie there for a few minutes longer and then Itzik says: “I need to get dressed.” He rolls over and out of bed and opens the closet.


Necessary Stories, a collection of twenty-four of the best of Haim Watzman’s short fiction, is now available as an e-book, paperback, and hardback on Amazon and all other vendors. Click here for purchase links and more information.

Read more Necessary Stories here on South Jerusalem!
Hear Haim read his story “Bananas” at Jerusalism’s Word Play event on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 7:30 p.m., at May Books in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market.

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