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Mud City is an online literary journal promoting the ideals and vision of the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) Low Residency MFA Program.

J.A. Bernstein

J. A. Bernstein’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Boston Review, Kenyon Review Online, World Literature Today, Tampa Review, and other journals. A Chicago native, he is an assistant professor of English at the University of Minnesota Duluth and the fiction editor of Tikkun. Previously, he lived in the Middle East for five years and completed a doctorate in creative writing and literature at USC. His website is writingwar.com.

J. A. Bernstein’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Boston Review, Kenyon Review Online, World Literature Today, Tampa Review, and other journals. A Chicago native, he is an assistant professor of English at the University of Minnesota Duluth and the fiction editor of Tikkun. Previously, he lived in the Middle East for five years and completed a doctorate in creative writing and literature at USC. His website is writingwar.com.

The hit 


1            

           One evening in March, beyond an arched canopy of banyans, a bougainvillea hedge, and a pear tree soaking up rain, a young woman bolted up the stairs of her building. Like most in Rehovot, it was a four-story walkup of Bauhaus design with a weather-stained, limestone facade.

            She was lugging a backpack of plastic containers, which were filled to the brim with moghrabiehmaluhiya, lentils, fatayer, and pretty much anything else her zealous mother could concoct. In truth, it was about twelve days' worth of meals, but Nadia always told her mother four. Why she didn't cook, she didn't know, though she didn't care to dwell on it presently, since she was seven minutes late for her show.

            Slamming the door, she sprinted to her couch and clicked on Channel Two, where Yellow Peppers was playing. The show centered on a family struggling to raise an autistic child, and it was incredibly hammy, she knew, but also close to home, since Nadia taught special ed. 

            Just as she'd ditched her coat, snagged the remote, and plopped herself down on the heavenly abode of her sofa, the lights in her apartment flicked out. As did her television. She was left with a tiny green eye, like a discarded caper, peering out from her screen.

           “Kuss uhtak,” said Nadia (“your sister’s cunt,” in Arabic). The power was out again. It must have been the Romanian hag across the hall, who always insisted on drying her hair while vacuuming late at night.

            Groping through the dark, nearly tripping over her backpack, which was leaking along the tile floor, Nadia lighted her way with her phone. Her mother, she saw, had called twice, which was surprisingly little considering Nadia had left only four hours back, and only spoken to her twice while driving along the winding expanse of Route 4, risking her life to placate the woman, as she seemed to do every night. Her mother had accosted her, as usual, for being single at age twenty-eight, which was more than a crime in her eyes; it was a veritable abhorrence, and attack upon God, and though no one in their family was religious or had been to church in years, apart from her niece's baptism in Jaffa, her parents harassed her nonstop. Their latest suggestion was a cousin in Rameh, a dentist with a three-bedroom condo, including a “new marble bath.”

            She’d sooner cut her wrists, Nadia thought. And where was the fucking power? There were five other units in the buildings, yet she didn't hear any complaints. Was it a Jewish holiday, she wondered. Maybe they'd all gone to war.

           Outside, Nadia tried to locate the breaker. A full lake had pooled by the stairs, ruining her Asics, which she'd need for Pilates tomorrow night. Wading forward in the darkness, feeling the damp on her toes, she could smell the pear blossoms, night jasmine and sage, the lemon verbena and thyme. It all reminded her strangely of church, where she thought she should go more, even though she didn't believe.

            As she brushed along the wall with her hand, she wished that her parents could see this and know how independent she was. Fuck them if they thought she needed a man for this.

           Then she tripped and fell on her wrist.

           She heard herself shriek; she thought that was her and realized, as she fell, that it was.

When she opened her eyes, she was leaning knee-deep in the mud, her sweater vest soaking and her blue jeans—her good ones—ruined. Fuck.

 

2

Three weeks after his discharge, Ivan Kopelev was summoned to the Szechwan Palace in Rehovot, twenty minutes south of Tel Aviv. Sporting jeans and a ripped t-shirt, as befitted the young veteran, and one who’d spent the last twenty days frying his brain in the Sinai, Ivan exited the shuttle van and located the sparsely lit nook, which was just off of Herzl Street. It stood adjacent to a tailor’s and a used Russian bookstore, which was still draped with Novy God lights.

            Inside, the dark restaurant was furnished with crepe-paper lanterns and an oily blue fish tank that glowed. Towards the back, a Georgian-looking creature in a V-neck and suit was chewing on a seared hunk of beef. Two associates lurked at his side, one sipping lemon tea, the other clawing his phone. Neither looked up as Ivan slowly approached.

            “Zdravstvuite,” Ivan said. He regretted having not dressed up.

            The Georgian kept chewing. A hazy green stare lit his face.

            “Sit down,” said one of the associates in Russian, still typing into his phone.

            Ivan sat down. He was surprised they didn't frisk him, nor even appraise him.

            “You're the friend of Anatoly?” asked the texter.

            Ivan just sighed. The Georgian picked at his teeth.

            “Did you come here alone?”

            Ivan nodded slightly.

            “Tell us about your service.”

“All bullshit,” said Ivan. “You know how it is…twenty-four months on the line. Nine months of training. One in a marksmanship course. Two more in sniper's. Never did commander's school. Mostly I just scratched my ass, sat around a lot. Killed a couple people. Beat off.”

            The Georgian smiled flaccidly. “How are you with guns?”

            “Fourth in my course,” Ivan said. “The rest were all Russians.”

            The man rubbed his shaved scalp, which was knotted like a wanton. “We need you for the next seven weeks. If you don't fuck that up, there could be more. Disobey, and you know how things work. You want some rice noodles?”

            Ivan glanced at the wall. Inside the lit fish tank, he faintly descried—and would later swore he saw—what looked like a thumb resting on its white gravel floor. “No, thanks.”

 

Anatoly, Ivan’s friend, had received a medical discharge seven months earlier, and he was still touring Cambodia. Ivan hadn’t heard from him since and doubted he would ever come back. Ivan trusted no one in Israel, much less his platoon, but Anatoly had a certain panache, a certain swagger and strut that betrayed his basic intent: to get rich, get laid, and try to stay alive, in roughly that order. Having a family, he’d said once, would be nice. There wasn't much to him, and Ivan respected that.

            Ivan, for his part, still wrote science fiction. He read it avidly as well. Finding that he had little talent for penning it, however, he set his sights on other things. The first was cheap hashish in Dahab. The second was diving, which he had never done terribly well, though he had conquered the Blue Hole—the world’s most lethal dive—after ingesting a week's worth of coke. Finally, he had completed his military service, which was more than he could say for most.

            He regretted this choice of profession, but he also thought, if nothing else, it would give him a story to tell. At the very least it was better than enrolling at the Technion and landing a job in high-tech. The last thing he wanted to do was follow his brother’s path: bachelor's in computers, master's in transistors, part-time gig at Intel, relocate to Silicon Valley and squander away life with 2.4 kids in a house you could barely afford, only coming back yearly for Pesach, or whenever your parents fell sick.

            Ivan hadn't yet told his parents about this, but he suspected they'd understand. The mob had a certain clout back in Russia, more than a respectable job. In Saint Petersburg, his mother had been a ranking oncologist. Here she changed bedpans and sheets.

 

The next evening, pulling up in his father’s used Citroën, which barely cut a wake in the rain, Ivan arrived at the flooded construction site. Ringed with a chain-link fence, it spanned a building-sized lot on a banyan-lined section of Yavetz. He checked the address, which the texter had sent him, and ascertained this was the place.

            Towards the front of the lot, a bored-looking kushi in a soaking Fox sweatshirt was huddled against a low wall. He'd already spotted Ivan as the Citroën sloshed to a stop.

            “Ee-wan?” he mumbled, rising to unlock the fence.

            Ivan extended a hand. The black didn't shake it. His eyes darted over the lot. Then he reached in his cargos and removed a pack of Winstons. Come, he said with his chin.

            They rounded some poured cement walls, which must have spanned the foundation. Then they stopped beside a grader—a huge, mud-splattered truck—and the Ethiopian knelt by its cab. Raising his sweatshirt, he unzipped a pink fanny pack. In it was a Parkerized Glock. “You know how to use this?”

            “Yeah,” Ivan lied.

            “If any Arabs come here, don’t pull this out. They’re probably just getting their shit. If it’s Jews, though, or anybody else, make sure you keep them at bay. Most of the time it’s just locals or buyers trying to see what’s up.” He cupped his Bic with his palm. “You see, a whole bunch of people bought units here already, and they don’t understand the delay. You tell ‘em you’re security, and you don’t know shit. That’s all you say: you don’t know.”

            “What if the cops come?”

            His smoke drifted wetly. “You won’t have to worry about that.”

 

3

Later that evening, across the street from this lot, beyond the dark canopy of banyans, Nadia lay crouched in the mud.

“You okay?” said a voice through the gloom.

Startled, she saw a dim figure approaching, like some kind of ape through the haze.

He had spiky blond hair and a worn army fleece, and a cigarette glowed on his lips. He didn't look like one of her neighbors, though she'd only met one or two.

Stopping to regard her briefly, he flicked his cigarette, which arced and hissed in the weeds. Suddenly, she found herself rising, being pulled up by the hand.

            “Thank you,” she said, a bit flustered.

His chin was stubbly, his narrow lips chapped, and he was wearing a bulging pink fanny pack, oddly, across his tattered fleece. He wasn't bad-looking, albeit shorter than her.

“Name's Ivan,” he said, eyeing the street, removing his packet of Kools.

            “I'm Nad...Neta,” she said, using the Hebrew version.

            “You want one?” he asked through a flame.

            “Why not?” She'd never smoked in her life. He lit it for her, as men do in movies. She slowly breathed in, and she coughed. He didn’t seem to have noticed, however; his eyes were still scanning the street.

“You gonna be okay here?” he asked.

            “I guess…I was just trying to find the electric—”

            “Whole damn block is out. Must be a line down or something.”

            “I wonder if it was the storm,” she said. But by then he was gone, having stamped off, his smoke purling up through the leaves.

 

            Back inside her apartment, with two candles lit on her stove, her mouth fully rinsed, and her Asics strung up on a line, she watched him through the slats of her shutters. He was leaning on a fence across from her building, smoking methodically, watching every car pass. She had noticed that for weeks now young men had been loitering by this construction site, though nothing seemed to go up. A few times she'd heard some workers arguing but hadn't paid them much heed. Tonight though, kneeling on her sofa, trying to conceal herself, she found herself mildly attracted to this person, whoever he was, in the rain.

4

His shift was endless. So was each subsequent night's. In the army he could play Tetris on his phone, text, or even read. His greatest fear had been a disciplinary sentence. Out here, his sentence was death. Maybe not. But he knew better than to fuck with the mob.

            His third night in, shortly after midnight, when he was thinking about nothing at all, as he'd trained himself to do in such settings, just drowsing and watching the sky, he heard footsteps along the far curb. Plenty of cars had splashed by him at this hour, but very few people on foot. Kneeling down slowly, unzipping the fanny pack, he quietly fingered the gun.

            A hooded figure emerged by the gate.

 “Who's there?” Ivan shouted, trying not to sound too afraid.

            “Ivan?” asked a soft voice. It was the woman he'd helped pick up. Cowled in an enormous black parka, her shiny face beaded with rain, she was carrying a steamed-up, plastic container. “I just wanted to thank you,” she said. Her brown eyes were glinting, her dark lashes curled, her cheekbones narrow and raised. She looked almost Turkish…or Georgian, he thought. Rising, he unlatched the link fence.

She handed him the container, which was filled with pirozhki, or some flaky white pastries, garnished with lemon and mint. “Have you ever had fatayer?”

He hesitantly took one. It steamed and cracked in his mouth.

            “I hope you like minced meat,” she said.

            “Do I look like a vegetarian?”

            “What are you doing out here?”

            “Security.” He grimaced. “These are pretty good.”

            “Well, if you want more,” she added, “you know where I live. I’m just on the second floor. In fact, I was thinking that if you want to stand guard from up there—”

            “Thanks, but I gotta stay.”

            “Okay,” she said, frowning, turning abruptly, nearly tripping over the fence.

5

 

Here she was, a virgin at age twenty-eight, and she'd just offered herself to a man. Well, not exactly offered, concretely. But when you're an Arab woman, and you live alone, and you invite a man to your home, you're basically saying do with me as you please. For all she knew, he could have knifed her. And perhaps that was part of the appeal.

            She continued to watch him that night. And the next one as well. She noticed he stayed until dawn, sometimes until she left for work in the morning. Others paced by there: more Russians, a black. None as good-looking as him. They were mostly older, hairy and fat, wearing tracksuits and tropical shirts.

            The following Thursday morning, as she was backing out of her drive, clutching her coffee and fretting over the fact that she was running twenty minutes late for her commute, she saw him clopping down the sidewalk, fanny pack and all, his spiky hair coated with rain. For whatever reason, she decided to follow him, even though she knew she'd be late.

            She saw him round the corner on Ya'akov and enter the Szechwan Palace, where she'd never seen anyone go. Its front door was curtained. Its sign said CLOSED. A health warning plastered the door.

            She double-parked. She called her head teacher. “I'm sicker than hell,” she explained.

            Finally he emerged again twenty minutes later. She quickly leaned back in her seat, trying to conceal herself, not sure why she was here. Her stomach was growling. Her mother had called. Behind her, traffic was backed up a full block. A policeman had already threatened to ticket her. “Dumb Arab,” he'd said, stamping off.

            Along the curb, outside the restaurant, Ivan was searching his pockets. Suddenly, he saw her and stopped.

Her coffee went flying. Her phone started ringing. A dozen cars anxiously honked.

 

6

The fucker hadn't paid him. And he probably wouldn't, Ivan knew. He was simply guarding day in, day out. And for what? To get arrested, or killed?

            “This is your test,” the associate had said, still typing into his phone. “We wanna see how well you behave.”

            “That’s bullshit,” Ivan had said. “I've been freezing my nuts off.”

            “Give it another week.”

            “Fuck that. I'm going diving.” Then he’d risen and stormed out of the place. He hadn’t even bothered to glance at the fish tank, with its rotting little member inside.

            Now, outside on the street, beneath the wet sun, Ivan realized he had just signed a death warrant. One didn't curse or walk out on the mob. What was he thinking? How stupid.

            As he reached for his cigarettes, who did he see, but Neta inside of her car. She was watching him avidly, as she'd been doing all week. She was obviously connected as well. And he should have known better. She was a Georgian, and one who dressed quite well. He had even seen her through the restaurant windows talking outside to a cop.

            But why was she here now, skulking like that, slinking down in her car? They must have put the hit on. That's all he could figure. Maybe she would do it herself. And he had to give them credit, tapping a woman, which was about the last thing he'd expect.

            He considered fleeing. But where would he go? He doubted he would get very far. He thought about shooting her square in the head. But the cop was still up the street.

            Gravely, he approached her. She lowered her window.

“Are you gonna do me right here?” he asked.

            She smiled darkly. “Let's go to my place.”

            He realized he couldn’t run.

 

7

Inside her Aveo, they rode in silence. Neither one muttered a word. She saw that he was sweating and shivering lightly. She figured it must be the food.

            Back at her place, where she hesitantly took him, she quietly led him upstairs. Outside, the Romanian was sweeping the landing. She curtly avoided her eyes. Fuck her, thought Nadia. Someone around here should have fun.

            As they approached her front door, Ivan, she saw, kept gripping the handrail. Maybe he was nervous, like her. She'd had men over a couple times before, though things had barely advanced. Both of them were Christian, from her own village, and disinclined to do anything bad, if only because they knew that her reputation preceded her, and her clan was as large as this town.

            This boy, however, was even more frightened. He slowly traipsed in, pausing at the threshold, his eyes flitting over the room. And he kept digging around inside of his fanny pack. Maybe he'd forgotten a condom.

            “Don't worry,” she said, gripping his arm. “I've got all sorts of protection.”

            He winced.

            “You know, it looks like you could stand to loosen up a bit. Why don't I fix you something? Here, have a seat.” She patted her sofa. “And you better not run anywhere.”

            In the kitchen she poured two glasses of sherry and cut hers with water and ice. “You like it neat?” she yelled through the hall. “I have a feeling you're a straight shooter.” No answer. “If not,” she hollered, “I could put you on ice.” She sliced up a couple of lemons.

            In the living room, she found him perched along the sofa. She tried to hand him his drink. But he was clutching his fanny pack, bobbing back and forth. His eyes were glazed, almost reddened.

            “You must have eaten something awful,” she said. “You gotta be careful with Asian—”

            “I don't want to do this.”

            “What?” she said.

            “I don't want to go through with this here.”

            “What?”

            “You know, hit you,” he said. “Or have to get whacked. I've barely even gotten involved.”

            “That's okay,” she said, drawing down the shutters. “We don't have to do anything at all.” Then she set down her glass, winked at him gently, and slowly unbuttoned her shirt.