This story is the second-place winner of the 2021 Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest. Founded in 2000, the contest was created to recognize authors of Jewish short fiction. The 2021 stories were judged by novelist and president of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation Susan Coll. Moment Magazine and the Karma Foundation are grateful to Coll and to all of the writers who took the time to submit their stories. Visit momentmag.com/fiction to learn how to submit a story to the contest.
So troubling was the dream, and so restless was he as a result, that he stayed in bed longer than usual. He was lying on his back, his arms laced behind his head, and looked reassuringly at the mighty redwood tree outside his window. Just before closing his eyes for sleep at night, he’d asked the tree to keep the world safe and sound, and to bring him a new day in the morning.
Since his wish had been granted, he should’ve been happier. But he was not: inside him an anxious feeling was growing, its origin unknown. He had no idea why he was feeling this way, or of the remarkable rebirth about to take place inside him. It would turn out to be a more subtle change, slower in progress than that of an insect, say, or a golem, but equally dramatic in nature.
For now, though, he kept observing with guarded pleasure how outside his window the beginning of a new day was taking a familiar shape. It was not so ridiculous for him to ask the tree to bring him a new day, safe and sound, if one took into consideration that at the time—finally, as far as he was concerned—the danger of the coronavirus pandemic was beginning to sink in throughout America, among those fortunate enough to still be alive and uninfected.
Even here, in this Jewish retirement center where he now lived, management was beginning to take the dire situation half-seriously. Resident G.P., as he was known to all—or Inmate G.P., as he was better known to his next-door neighbor and best friend, who considered this place an asylum—had relocated here three years ago, well before the outbreak of the pandemic. He’d moved in not because he’d wished to live here or had any urgent financial difficulties, but because of his ungrateful son, who, together with his son’s conniving wife, had concluded that he was losing his mind, forgetting important matters and stumbling into things. Probably because of that accidental fall at his bookstore, they’d figured, and the terrible hit he’d suffered on his head when unloading boxes of precious books.
He’d resisted the move, but not too strongly. Living alone, following his devastating divorce, pushing 80 and not in the best of health had forced the hand of destiny in their favor. He’d therefore given in to them too easily and had resented it ever since. Go figure how he’d survived for so many years in this cruel world, which had taken away from him his beloved daughter—a linguistics professor, just like he once was—due to breast cancer at the tender age of 52. It had left an infinite black hole deep in his heart.
But don’t dare call him old yet, or insane, because he’d give you a piece of his mind. After all, he was the first person in this retirement place to realize the severity of the plague, descending like a tsunami wave. He was the first to stop going to the communal dining hall, which had reminded him so much of the dining hall in that kibbutz in Israel where he’d stayed and worked as a volunteer many years ago. He began receiving his dinner, delivered by his favorite young and pretty server, directly to his kitchen. That was another good reason, plague or no plague, to keep receiving his dinner at his apartment.
These thoughts about the coronavirus, and about his resentful son, too, were now permeating his head, magnified probably by that frightening dream he’d woken up from. He closed his eyes and again saw this young boy, a child really, who refused to obey his father’s order to not cross that busy street on his bicycle while disregarding the heavy traffic. He opened his eyes, terrorized by that image, and kept staring at the redwood tree. He felt a deep connection with that tree, a yearning even to be outside with it, where he belonged. Just then he saw a grayish squirrel riding merrily on one of the branches, chasing food or his mate, and realized that he too had better get moving, since he had things to do and places to go.
But first, he did what needed to be done when getting up in the morning and starting a new day, before brewing a cup of tea to warm up his shivering bones. No coffee for him since that old kibbutz, where the kibbutzniks in charge of the banana orchards drank tea, not coffee. Since he was a frail Jew from the diaspora, he imitated those strong Israeli sabras in all matters, so it had become his habit also to drink tea first thing in the morning.
As he was thinking of those glorious, youthful days, he squeezed a few drops of lemon into his cup, before putting the lemon aside and stirring the tea with a teaspoon for the sugar to mix up nicely with the hot water. He was about to take the first sip when he saw that a lemon seed was floating leisurely in his green tea. He contemplated digging it out with the teaspoon but gave up on the idea rather quickly, not only because this lemon seed was quite evasive, but because he knew that like countless others before it, it would eventually dive easily down to the bottom of the cup where, before washing the cup, he would find it and toss it into the garbage bag.
Could it be that a little twig was growing up there?
And yet, on that day… it was not to be. Resident G.P. was so consumed with the writing of his diary—sitting at his dining room table, using pen and paper, an old-fashioned guy if ever there was one—that he paid no attention to the lemon seed in his tea, or to the time flying by.
This habit of writing a diary, now a memoir too, began a week or so after he’d moved in. He stuck with it even after he’d fallen from his bed one night and broken his writing arm, requiring an operation and prolonged stay in the hospital. It meant, if he would be honest with himself, that not all was bad in this place. It was here, of all places, where he’d found a new calling.
So immersed was he with that calling, and with the thinking and remembering it brought along with it, that only when the morning sun had left his wide-open California window did he finally realize how late it was. He tore himself away from his words and sentences and carried his empty teacup to the kitchen sink and washed it, paying no attention to the fact that the lemon seed was no longer there. He washed a grapefruit too, his daily breakfast, before cutting it in half and separating, with a special knife, the meat of the fruit from its skin. He turned on the radio, tuned permanently to the local classical music station, and sat down to eat his grapefruit.
But then, when digging out a grapefruit seed carefully and putting it aside on the plate, he suddenly thought: What had happened to that lemon seed? It was not there, he now realized, when he’d washed the cup some minutes ago. He could swear to it now. Oh well, he probably had thrown it into the garbage bag without paying any attention to it. Or it could be, could it not, that he had swallowed it while drinking his tea? Not the end of the world, as sooner or later it would surely come out intact on the other side.
Alas, it must be mentioned here upfront that on that day, and possibly in the next day or two as well, nothing came out from the other side. Which, when Resident G.P. thought about it later, was also not such an unusual situation. Constipation, after all, was now part of his daily life. Furthermore, while he was savoring his grapefruit, an associated childhood memory flew in to visit him.
He remembered clearly that once, while eating a grapefruit, he’d erroneously swallowed one of its seeds. He was greatly alarmed by it, not the least because when he’d asked his father what would happen to it, his father had answered nonchalantly: “Soon it will come up as a tree out of your head.” Poor child. His eyes had filled with tears. Seeing that, his father had tousled his hair fondly and said that it was just a joke. That instead it would come out soon from the other side. Down bottom.
Which was what had actually happened. Now though, for whatever reason, Resident G.P. was greatly alarmed. After all, he was not a child any longer. He was, well, an adult. An old man in some eyes, who was well aware by now that things take different shapes as one grows older. That they accumulate unusual, strange dimensions at times. That who knows what could happen next…
He was getting delusional. And worried. Which, admittedly, was his favorite state of mind lately, and demanded of him to get moving. Get in the car and drive to his Judaica bookstore downtown and take care of business. Even though there was not much business these days. Most of the time he just sat there all by himself and stared at his enormous collection of old Jewish art books and albums. Collectibles of all kinds. Precious artwork, menorahs and whatnot. His life’s treasures.
Only on that day—how strange, he simply paid no attention, his mind roaming elsewhere—he ended up at the nearby park instead. Maybe his son was right after all, and he was losing his mind. But on the other hand, maybe it was not so. Because whenever he was worried, or upset, or had a lot on his mind, no medicine would do him any good other than to go out for a walk in the park, think about things and make decisions accordingly.
In any case, Resident G.P. was a walker—constantly moving from place to place. And at this stage of his life, walking daily in the nearby park was like second nature for him. He did so in the afternoon usually, after coming back from his bookstore. It was the highlight of his day, because there among the trees and the creeks, the birds and the ducks, was where he lived most intensely, breathed most deeply, thought about his diary writing, about his life passing by and relived his dreams. It was there that he finally forgot the troubles of the night and enjoyed the rewards of the day.
And yet, from that peak, the day began its gradual descent into the deep of night. Nothing much had happened thereafter of any importance except this: In the middle of the night, deeply asleep already, Resident G.P. suddenly woke up with a most terrible headache, supplemented by an alarming whistle, piercing the top of his head. It was so severe, it felt as if an electric drill was cutting through the core of his brain. It kept him awake for so long that eventually he had to swallow an aspirin pill, and even then it hardly subsided.
He walked straight now, as if a heavy load had been lifted off his body and mind.
Even more alarming: When he touched his head right at the center where the drill was doing its most damage, he felt his fingertips touch something foreign. As if there was a little wound there, possibly the work of his long fingernails, with which he’d unintentionally opened the scar of the accidental fall at his bookstore. Or maybe, he shuddered at the thought, something else entirely: Could it be that a little twig was growing up there?
The next morning, when combing his long and messy hair—in the time of the coronavirus, he stopped cutting his hair and was now sporting a short ponytail in the back and a growing beard at the front—the same thing occurred: His comb hit this little shoot, or whatever it was. His heart skipped a beat, thinking that what was growing up there might be skin cancer, a malady Resident G.P. was no stranger to. He definitely felt it and tried the rest of the day to pay no attention to it. He was unsuccessful, however. But how could he not be? It was there, after all. It was growing!
And so it continued. So much so that one morning a month later, opposite the mirror, a little thin stem of a tree was quite noticeable coming out of Resident G.P.’s head. He couldn’t even comb his hair around it, so straight it stood there. And so damn painful, too, when he tried to dislodge it by force. To no avail: It was there to stay.
But Resident G.P., regardless of what some other residents thought of him, was a resourceful man. Surviving the trials and tribulations of his life—the Vietnam War, his daughter’s death, the late divorce, the early end (termination, really) of his university career—had not only prepared him well for this moment, but were all leading up to it. So he did what he saw young people do these days, especially European soccer players, and collected his long hair into a ponytail right at the top of his head.
This man bun worked well enough for a few days, as far as driving to his bookstore, going out to the park, taking care of his garden outside and feeding his stray cat. Problem was, he couldn’t wear his hat any longer on top of the bun. And his head was expanding, too, though miraculously it stayed intact. No blood was coming out, thankfully, other than occasionally from his nose, which he was able to take care of with a handy supply of cotton balls.
Still, in the park and in the halls of the building where he lived, he was on the receiving end of some strange looks, even some nasty comments he thought he heard being said behind his back. Most disturbing, though, was receiving his dinner at the door from the young, sexy server with whom he was constantly flirting. She giggled, seeing his hair standing up like that, while spontaneously playing with her own soft, silky blond ponytail.
Stylish, don’t you think, he said. Sure, she lied, and giggled yet again. He hurried to take his dinner in, not even waiting to see her trailing away from him. He knew then and there that it was all over for him. It was the last time he would see her. He would be the talk of the center—all the residents were getting their dinners at their doors now, as the dining hall had been shut down due to the coronavirus—if not the talk of the town. He was not going to go out anymore. Not before seeing his doctor.
But man, there was a problem with that too. No way he was going to see his doctor like that. How would he walk into his office, in the hospital, with this thing growing out of his head? He’d already stopped shopping altogether, ordering everything online. He didn’t answer the door any longer when occasionally there were some knocks, some elderly lady admirer with her agenda in mind, little presents and such. And of course, he also stopped receiving his dinner in person from that giggling server, who kept knocking on his door too. So she left his dinner for him outside by the door on an antique wooden stool he’d placed there for that purpose.
Late in the evening, when everything was quiet in the hall, he sneaked his arm out and grabbed the tray quickly. That was not even the worst of it, though, as next he stopped Skyping with friends. Just the phone, please, he insisted, talking or preferably texting. Sorry, cannot tell you why. Even worse, he canceled the weekly Zoom talk with his son and his two boys, his only grandkids, who lived in a different city by the bay. He was forced to lie to his son, too, telling him he just didn’t feel like talking on Zoom any longer.
Desperate, as a result of that conversation and feeling bad about lying to his son, he turned in despair to a more decisive measure. He tried to cut it off. Whatever it was. First, facing the mirror in the bathroom, with a pair of scissors. Then, when that didn’t do the job, with a sharp knife. However, not only was he unsuccessful, but he accidentally cut his head around the stem. It caused a sharp, terrifying pain first, then opened the dam: a gushing stream of blood poured out of his head.
Resident G.P. collapsed on the floor in pain and horror. As he was falling, he was able to grab a towel and managed to wrap it around the young tree growing out of the top of his head, right where his wound was most painful. He closed his eyes. He thought he was dying.
Not so. He kept on living for a while. Only now, in the time of coronavirus, and after he’d survived somehow the ordeal in the bathroom, and the wound had had time to heal, it was easier for him to just hide in the solitude of his apartment. Many problems remained, however, and even multiplied. For instance: at this stage of the tree’s growth, he was unable to sleep in his bed anymore. He just dropped at uncertain moments on the carpeted floor in the living room, exhausted, and dozed off, day or night, for a few hours at a time.
He no longer drove his car. How could he? The bookstore stayed closed and deserted. His son was pleading with him on the phone to sell both the store and the car, but he refused. Better days may still lie ahead. And yet, the eternal optimist he used to be was now dead. It was difficult for him to keep the flame of that hope burning, especially now that he no longer took his walks in the park. But again, how could he? People there had begun to stare at him strangely even before the tree really grew significantly. He therefore cut all connections with the outside world and sheltered in place. Just as government officials recommended. He was a model citizen.
A model citizen who no longer interacted with anybody. Just text messages, please. No visitors. No television. No computing. No showering. He even stopped eating. Just drinking tea and water from time to time. It was difficult for him, even in his small apartment, to walk around since the tree was growing by the day and was already hitting the ceiling. But he kept writing in his journal, describing everything that was happening to him. He did so standing up, placing his notebook on the wall, writing with his beloved fountain pen.
Sometimes though, when the pain and waves of desperation had increased unbearably, he seriously considered killing himself. Life was an illusion, he concluded, only death existed. And nature, of course. Problem was: He didn’t know how to usher in this blissful death. He had no gun. No poisonous pills. And while starving himself to death was an option, it didn’t work that well with the tree. It kept growing, the bastard, no matter what.
Better let the right decision come to him, he thought. And indeed, he woke up one day from a terrorizing sleep-no-sleep on the floor with a vision clearly in his mind, and a decision firmly in his heart. Just like that he knew, with a clarity he rarely achieved, what he was going to do. He had no qualms about it. In this fight, he realized, he was on nature’s side. It was just a matter of dragging his body and his tree along for the journey ahead.
But first, he wrote a farewell letter to his son, explaining everything. And of course, he left all he owned to him, yet asked him to donate whatever he didn’t need to a charity of his choice. He had no debts. Some small savings. No hospital bills to pay. No funeral service or burial costs to cover. No gravestone, even. He asked his son in the letter, most importantly, to take care of his bookstore.
To not just sell it, but to make sure that his life’s work—the massive Jewish fine-art book collection, in particular, the rare biblical scholarly books—would continue to be exhibited and sold somewhere. Or better yet, be donated to a prestigious Jewish library at an institution or university of his son’s choice. Finally, he drew a little map, directing his son to where he intended to go and stay forever.
He felt relieved, writing this letter. He felt at peace with himself. And in that state of mind Resident G.P. went through the rest of the day, while listening to one album only, stored in his computer, of Itzhak Perlman playing those old, sentimental Jewish melodies. After listening to it once he kept it on a loop, listening to it again and again. Before leaving, he decided to fool the enemy outside his door by playing it from beginning to end, on and on, as if he were still there inside.
Before turning off the lights, he took one last look at his apartment’s walls, covered with old pictures and modern paintings, artwork here and there, full of good memories. He stood there tears welling in his eyes first, then rolling down his cheeks. He turned off the lights and stood quietly, listening to the requiem of his life.
Finally, well after midnight, he opened the door slightly and listened carefully. Nobody moved outside. All was quiet. In this institution people were old, mostly, and went to bed early. He opened the door wide and, stooping almost to the floor, managed to sneak out through the low-ceiling door. He steadied himself first, feeling quite dizzy, and at the same time balancing the tree on his head. He looked for the last time at his name by the door, Resident G.P., before stepping very slowly, very carefully over to the next door. Resident D.L. also had a small stool by his door for his dinner to be placed there, so resident G.P. placed his diary there—the only thing he’d taken out of his apartment—giving it a lasting, longing look. Now his one good friend here, who never bothered him during the pandemic other than his short, courteous weekly phone calls, would know the truth. Would tell the truth.
He turned away and began to walk, taking small steps and walking very slowly, unsteadily, in the long corridor toward the stairs. It was all about calculated moves for him now. Execution: Think before you move. Execution: Look straight ahead, never sideways. Execution: Don’t fall, since you’ll never be able to get up again. Execution: Don’t get distracted, as you normally do.
The first distraction came fast, though: The ceiling was too low, the tree was too high. And as he was walking, passing by his fellow residents’ doors, the top branches of the tree were sweeping the dust off the ceiling. White powder was falling on him like soft snow, bidding him farewell. His heart was pounding rapidly, either from the exertion of walking with the tree on his head, or from the worry that someone would pass by and see him. Or would open a door suddenly.
He knew then and there that it was all over for him.
But no one did. He was able to sneak out of the building through a side door undetected. He stood for a moment there, free at last, and breathed the fresh, chilly air outside with deep, sensuous pleasure. He stepped closer to his nearby garden plot, feeling bad for the neglect all around, when the second distraction appeared: his cat, the stray one who’d adopted Resident G.P. following the death of his old cat two years ago. The cat, a whitish female, apparently didn’t hold his long absence against him. Oblivious to the pandemic, she had been waiting for him all this time to return, knowing full well that eventually he would. He couldn’t lean down to stroke her, but the cat did her thing, brushing against his feet and ankles, meowing.
The cat’s name was Luba. He had named her after a woman he’d met and fallen in love with on that old kibbutz. Rather beautiful she was, even exotic, with curly brown hair and single still when he was there. He thought about her now, fighting this painful third distraction, and what might have happened had he been more persistent in pursuing her? Had he stayed there in the kibbutz longer instead of going back to Jerusalem to complete his studies at the Hebrew University? He would never know, would he, what kind of love, what kind of life, the two of them might have had the chance to create and share. But he’d opened the gate and left that small village. Just as he did now, leaving the building and walking into the street.
She followed him, Luba the cat, as well as that painful memory of Luba the woman. The last woman he would remember. He walked slowly ahead, yet it was very difficult for him to stay in balance and not fall. But, choosing narrow, dark side streets, he made it all the way to the park without being noticed. Traffic was very light at this hour, maybe two or three in the morning, and nobody paid any attention to him anyhow.
In the park finally, he was surprised to see that his cat was still with him, keeping him company on his last journey. No one was there but them. The birds were on the trees, asleep. The ducks were under the trees, asleep too. Even the squirrels, always restless, were asleep somewhere. He walked straight now, as if a heavy load had been lifted off his body and mind. A brilliant full moon, up above in the clear starry night, welcomed him to his beloved park, its moonlight guiding him to his chosen spot.
It was a small hill, which in daylight reality was no more than a mound of soil and grass, some 15 feet above the fishing pond. And while the park was full of trees, at his chosen spot there were none, just the bushes behind it and the creek flowing into the fishing pond. He looked at the placid water, illuminated brilliantly by the moonlight, and marveled at the beauty of it all.
Suddenly, there was an unfamiliar meow and another cat—a black one that he’d seen here before, lurking around the pond—appeared nearby, trying to befriend Luba. This unexpected development, the fourth distraction, shook Resident G.P. into action. He took off his favorite tweed jacket and dropped it on the grass. He was wearing a pair of brown leather loafers, easy to shake off his bare feet. Next, he took off his denim pants, and was left wearing only blue boxer shorts and a white T-shirt.
He moved back a couple of steps, planting his feet firmly on a piece of grassless ground. It was cold and damp, the bare soil, but it felt good to his feet. And as he stood there, frozen in place but getting adjusted and comfortable with nature, a single bird suddenly flew by and, from all the trees around the pond, chose him. It was a turtledove, he thought, which came to rest on top of the tree growing out of his head. He truly felt it, perching up there on the tip of his top twig.
All was quiet now. His cat was nowhere to be seen, but to compensate for that another bird came along to keep him and the other bird company. Maybe they were getting ready to build a nest there, on top, and raise a family. How cool. How cool indeed, he thought, as he watched, fascinated, the grass around his feet growing slowly, covering his sinking feet.
He wanted to think about his life. To review everything, from his cherished childhood to his sorrowful adulthood; from his army service and war to his days traveling and studying in the big cities of the world; from his parents, Holocaust survivors who never forgot, to his children, American-born who never remembered; from his…his mind turned blank now. His power of remembering was fading away quickly. He could not think, or imagine anything. A blissful, thick fog was covering him and the park.
There was no longer time. There was no longer space. He felt how the trunk of the tree was widening, taking hold of his body and in the process tearing apart his shorts and shirt, bursting them at the seams. And he knew then with certainty, as he’d seen earlier in his mind’s vision, that people walking in the park tomorrow morning would find—where there was none the day before—a new, full-blooming lemon tree on the low hill, overlooking the fishing pond.
The last thing he remembered, the last thing to visit his fading mind, was a single line from an old Hebrew poem he’d learned at university. He couldn’t remember who wrote it, or what the title of the poem was, but he could remember distinctly one line: “If it would be again—let it be no different.”
His eyes were closed now, sinking into the trunk of the tree. His hands were numbed, as new, sturdy branches were growing out of them. His blood was draining and his flesh was drying, yet he felt new sensations, new cells forming inside him, as the tree was taking hold of his body. He felt the morning breeze rustling his leaves, as his feet were growing like roots, digging deeper and deeper into the ground.
What contest judge Susan Coll has to say about this story:
“Calculated Moves” is the poignant, affecting story of aging in the time of COVID. The protagonist, an elderly occupant of a Jewish retirement center, believes he has become part tree. Resentful of his son and daughter-in-law for forcing him to move into this new living arrangement after they observe his forgetfulness, the narrator considers his new home an asylum, self-identifying as an inmate rather than a resident. His struggles with the onset of dementia blend lyrically into the realm of magical realism, creating a moving and memorable story.
Hillel F. Damron was born in Kibbutz Hephzibah to parents who survived the Holocaust. He was an officer in an elite paratrooper unit and was wounded in battle. He studied film at the London Film School and became a director of TV documentaries, video shorts and a feature film. He’s the award-winning author of a sci-fi novel, War of the Sexes, short stories and film reviews, and the winner of Moment Magazine’s 2011 Memoir Contest. He’s a past executive director of the Hillel House at UC Davis.
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