Jerusalem

Dan Gutstein

Dr. Sylvia does want some sunscreen. She says, “The hand of Moses. The windmill. The Mount of Olives. David’s walls like stones at the knees of the Ottomans.” Dr. Sylvia’s contempt for misinformation. Her delicate eyebrows and her stern cigarette. “The Dome of the Rock. Jaffa Road.” A money changer already fanning his brown face in the August shade.

            *

Dr. Sylvia knows where an Arab girl, who may have a lightning bolt tattooed on her shoulder, serves a good hummous and a good phul. Friday afternoon. “We no speak Hebrew,” she says. “No English. We no speak.” The mosques empty and the streets, electric. Mules. A Mercedes Benz surrounded by women in headscarves. The men in white hats, long white shirts, and white pants so numerous we must step off the cobble, up, to let the fifteen or twenty minutes of them pass.

            *

The tile vendor selling maps. The licorice of the candy merchant. A guide loitering, knee bent, sole to wall, on a loose corner of the souk. “Come,” says Dr. Sylvia. “I no get us lost.” Only mourners and pilgrims and Stations of the Cross. A soldier. Soldiers in a joke-telling circle. “We no get lost in this alley.” How shadow turns the corner with us.

            *

The Palestinian boy giggles. “Arbah-ah,” he says, in Hebrew, clutching an instamatic camera behind his back. “Four shekel; three.” Dr. Sylvia lights a cigarette. I dig into my pocket. The silly prayer I wrote last night unfolds a few coins that splatter the macadam on accident. “Thank you,” the boy shouts, after a third lunge. No flowers in his teeth. His clean fingernails while the dirty flashbulb pocks. Dr. Sylvia almost defending herself in the photograph.

            *

We turn another corner. Dr. Sylvia leads me up another rampart. The noise of the Old City falls down, a breathless echo that cannot keep a date. The two of us like a woman stepping out of her dress. Dr. Sylvia knocks on the wrong door. She knocks on the proper door. When the tall Ethiopian monk answers, she explains to him in his own language that we wish to rest. To dwell beside him for a few moments. And in stepping aside he admits us into a rooftop gardens. A small paradise.

            *

“You know where you are?” says Dr. Sylvia, seating us in the shade of an oleander. “On top of the church. The Holy Sepulchre. Where Jesus rise from the vault.” The monk, robed in a thick brown sack, sweeps dirt beside the stall in which he might sleep. The peaceful heat doubles back on slight currents. There can be goodness. There can be a life enhancing return. There must be time.

            *

Dr. Sylvia’s occasional grin. The Armenian Quarter. Gethsemane. The Church of the Redeemer. Her graduate students must come here. “They no find the armory, let’s say, or Damascus Gate, they no get passing grade. They no get diploma.” Dr. Sylvia says, “Feh.” She will now take me to the Wailing Wall. Beauty spots on her hands.

            *

“You are Dutch,” says the black hat. “You are not American but you are Dutch you are Dutch. Cover your head, sir, before the Lord!” The black hat blocks my path to the wall. “There is a problem?” he says. Dr. Sylvia has drifted back into the shade beside a long staircase, her cigarette twinkling, a solitary constellation. Sometimes the Palestinian boys throw rocks at the Jewish worshippers here. Then the soldiers or the police must reply. “For a small donation,” says the black hat. “There is a problem?”

            *

“Why you no put that in the Wailing Wall,” says Dr. Sylvia. “On account of some black hat?” But I have already lit my silly prayer with Dr. Sylvia’s lighter. “Suit yourself.” We sit in the courtyard of the hotel at the American Colony. Even the rug merchant shivers, in August, in Jerusalem, the cool dry air. “I think the boy catch my good side,” says Dr. Sylvia, holding the instamatic photograph beside the small fire in the ashtray. For the dead, I wrote the prayer. The paper blackened, lifting. May my words peak where the day dims.

            *

Thick, oily brushes of nightfall. Lights roll up and down the hills outside the Old City. Like waves. Or warnings. Calm can mean an interval. Time between the second and third stars. A far ceiling. Neutrality. Reason itself stealing among those who refuse to bow. In the fist of the rocky heights, in the gold of the song, in the moment before sleep catches.


Dan Gutstein works at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Md., and teaches at both George Washington University and the Writer's Center -- both in the Washington, D.C. area. Jerusalem appears in his collection, non/fiction, which appeared from Edge Books in 2010. His writing has been published in more than 65 journals and anthologies, including Best American Poetry.

Jerusalem first appeared in the South Loop Review at Columbia College in Chicago.


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