Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Christmas Tree




This was inspired by my time on a kibbutz in Israel.  It was there I met my wife.  I was young and found myself running a bar in a shack that once served as the pottery work shop.

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KIBBUTZ TREE
Copyright 2012 kevin r. hill

"You can't use the tap water to make drinks!  Didn't you hear?  They found a dead bird in the water tank.  Cholera, Philip!" said Robbie, leaning through the curtained doorway so the crowd at the bar wouldn't hear, his voice all high-pitched like some pome school teacher's.
"And what the hell am I supposed to do with these bottles of booze?" I asked, turning the spigot, glancing past Robbie toward the crowded dance floor.
"Dear me!" he giggled. 
"Look, the pipe is full from the tank to here. That's probably forty or fifty gallons before there's any danger.  I'll just mix a few drinks so every one can have a nice time, and I can make some money.  No one ever knows, right Robbie?"
"My lips are sealed," he said, drawing a thin hand across his lips, as though closing a zipper.
"Good, now bring these screw drivers to the Dutch couple at the bar."
Robbie flapped his hand at me. 
"Would you stop that fag shit," I said, stepping through the curtain.  "What would you like," I asked two Finnish girls at the bar.
"Two Gold Stars, please; in brown bottles."
"Brown bottles," I repeated, nodding.  Our beer, Gold Star, came in brown and green bottles.  Suddenly the volunteers decided the beer in brown bottles tasted better, and I couldn't give away the green ones.  That had baffled me for a day.  Now I just wait until everyone is sailing along, and shout, 'all I have left are green bottles.'  For a split second a decision races through my customers’ minds: stop drinking or go green. The threat of sobriety changes everyone's opinion. 
"Is thes water from the tap?" asked a Dutch man, tapping his glass, waiting for Robbie to answer. 
Robbie's mouth dropped open and his face flushed red.  His brow crinkled and his scalp shifted back an inch as he turned right and left.  I knew he would burst into tears if he had to lie, so I intervened. 
"Don't worry, I made the drinks a couple of days ago."
"Oh, wery good."
"Get two browns for the Finns there," I told Robbie, pulling him away from the bar.  "And keep that curtain closed!  If someone sees us using tap water we'll get lynched."
Music pounded as I looked across the bar room.  Most of the volunteers were doing the bump to the Police.  Tal, the Israeli beauty who works in Citrus, was dancing in a corner with the new German kid.  She always went after new guys before they learned better.  The Danish girls were dancing in a circle, holding hands and laughing.  Two of them smiled at me, but Maibrit, the one I hadn't visited for a week, turned away.  Old Charles, one of last surviving English hippies, was over beside the loud speaker as usual, dancing slow and probing his deaf ear with a finger, leaning close to the blaring music, his long hair swaying from side to side.  Akkad, an Arab I had invited from a neighboring village in hopes of making a hash deal, had already propositioned nearly every woman in the bar, and I was getting annoyed.  I watched him watching a Danish woman.  Three times he reached for her bare shoulder, and each time she pushed his hand away.  Then crack! She slapped him.  
Akkad jumped back and squared his shoulders like an angry baseball player ejected from a game.  He looked at the dancers around him and walked toward the bar.  Something caught my eye on the opposite side of the dance floor and I turned to see Moshe, the Volunteer organizer, coming toward me, shoving people aside.
"Oh no, here comes World War Three," I said, leaning across the bar in front of Vince and Paul, two Aussies. "Moshe and that Arab are coming over here.  Look, tell Moshe I haven't been here."  I grabbed the money box and pulled the curtain aside.
"You ain't gunna squeeze out o’ this one, mate," said Vince.
"Hey, you guys owe me."
"Owe you?  Not since we helped you swap toilets with the ceramic shop--at two in the morning--we don't.  If it weren't for us, your customers would still be queuing up at the bush out back."  They laughed and left the bar.
Moshe and Akkad rested their hands on the bar and leaned forward to speak.  Before a word escaped from either man, they glanced at each other and drew back, as though from a snarling dog
"Philip! Do you have permission for him to be here?" asked Moshe.  "Yes, of course you do.  You never miss a trick! You promised to keep the music turned down tonight!"  He pounded a fist on the bar and pounded me with a look.  "Half the kibbutz can't sleep!"  He rushed across the sagging floor, tore the speaker from the wall and ripped out the wire while glaring at my customers, daring them to take the speaker. 
"Hey!" shouted one of English lads, as Moshe left the bar. “Do we work in their bleeding fields all day so they can ruin our piss-up?"
"That's all right," I shouted, jumping over the bar.  "Let's sing a song for Moshe, come on!"  I hurried to the door and looked out at Moshe who was crossing a field with the speaker in his arms.  "I ain't gunna work on Maggie’s farm no more," I sang.  "Come on, every body." 
Volunteers joined in, singing the same line over and over until we had a chorus roaring into the night.  "Yeah, free beer for every body," I shouted, pumping a fist in the air. I was nearly trampled to death before I managed to escape over the bar.  When I had thinned out the thirsty masses by handing out half the contents of the refrigerator, I turned to Akkad who stood pawing a German woman.  She pushed him away and shouted, but that wasn't enough.  He just wiped his mouth, looked the woman over, and reached for her again.
"Hey Akkad!" I shouted.  "Come on,  I'll buy you a drink."
He staggered to the bar and stood looking at me with a drunken, proud smile. "Now the men will drink together," I said, shaking his hand.
"The men."  He smiled and nodded.
I stepped behind the curtain and filled a glass three quarters full of what the Israelis call vodka, adding just enough juice to color it.  In my glass I poured a splash of liquor and filled it with orange juice.
"Here you go," I said, stepping through the curtain.  "All of it."  I tilted my glass back and drank it without stopping, so he would get the idea. 
Akkad's eyes widened as he drank.
"Ah!" I exclaimed, slapping my glass on the bar and moving toward customers, secretly watching Akkad as I carried beers and counted change.  He sat his empty glass down and grabbed the bar with both hands.  His head wobbled and his eyes rolled back in their sockets as a peaceful smile came to his mouth.  Gradually, as if his legs were melting, Akkad sank to the floor.
"Robbie!  Help me carry him outside," I called, pointing over the bar.
"Oh dear.  Philip, I suspect foul play, you brute," he said with his angry mother's voice, lowering his head toward me.
I jumped over the bar, but Robbie walked out the back door, past the bathroom, and came hurrying across the dance floor. 
"You take his feet," I said.  "We'll lay him on the back patio until he sobers up.  Don't worry," I told customers as I staggered with Akkad's weight, "he's just drunk, that's all."
"Yeah," shouted one of the Aussies, "that's what the greenies'll do to you."
We sat Akkad on the patio and walked to the front of the bar.  I hopped up on the porch and was about to enter when the bathroom door opened.  The same moonlight which touches the olive trees and makes them shimmer at night as though draped with silk, this light touched Maibrit's blonde hair as she stepped out of the bathroom, struggling with her zipper, hair trailing across her face as she looked at me.
Her presence engulfed me like the fragrance from a newly opened bottle of perfume.  I thought of my other lovers and my seesaw conscience spoke of sin and satisfaction, as though I had a demon on one shoulder and an angel on the other, each whispering what I should do.  Well, the demon won that one.  I rushed forward and kissed her, squeezing her against me, licking her teeth and lips, my hand sliding across her belly, touching her panties.  Once I was so close there was no turning back, so I pushed her into the bathroom and closed the door.  When I went back to work Robbie was rushing about behind the bar, handing out beers and stuffing shekels into the money case.
“Philip says he made the drinks two days ago," he kept telling customers."
"How's it going?"
"Oh, Philip, is your midnight rendezvous finished so soon, you nasty pervert?"
"Some people do have sex lives, Robbie."
"It's disgusting if you ask me," he said, looking at me as he passed. "Disgusting ... like your after shave."
"I washed."
"Sure you did.  I'll bet you wiped it all over yourself like head hunters do with victim's blood.  Philip, the great hunter!"  Robbie went through the curtain in a huff, saying, "Number two is looking for you ... at the end of the bar."
A relaxed, calm feeling swept over me when I saw her leaning on the bar, looking at me with that sly little smile, shaking her head as though trying to look stern for a naughty but amusing child.
Her name was Katy, but everyone called her Corner.  Once, during a rainy afternoon's lovemaking session, her kerosene heater turned on high, cardboard pulled off a broken window pane, letting fumes seep outside, rain tapping on the tin roof with rapid flurries, she told me how her mother used to call her a tomboy.  'You're as hard to keep clean as the corner behind the stove,' her mother had shouted when she came home from romping in a muddy creek. Corner's brothers and sisters overheard, and the nickname was born.
She moved with such feminine grace that it was difficult to imagine her a tomboy.  Although her Eurasian features contrasted with a harsh Australian accent, her mannerisms and movements were purely feminine.  During my first months on the kibbutz I wondered what made her sad, for the dark shading around her eyes gave her a mournful look, as though she had recently been crying.  People often mistook that look for one of vulnerability, but I knew better.  One night when a Kibbutznik's hand mistakenly got under her dress, I saw Corner put a shoulder behind a snappy little punch that broke the man's nose.
Having been raised in an Australian family with nine other children taught her to fight.  Was it this tough femininity which attracted me?  During months shared on the kibbutz we developed a relaxing understanding.  We experimented upon each other sexually without the confines of a 'normal' relationship, satisfying needs other partners couldn't.  As the months passed I began to enjoy the tender moments after our sexual lessons as much as the sex itself.  The insights and stories we shared during those times--our bodies tingling--became the power which held us together.  I didn't feel the need to escape as I did with other women after the sex question was answered.  There were no expectations to live up to, no perceived responsibilities from family.  We met as equals, asking for nothing but passion, and because our feelings were not weighted down with a web of needs and wants, they slowly grew.  Now, looking back, it seems strange we never spoke of our feelings or relationship.  Maybe we sensed that defining it would establish limitations and perimeters, as it had so many times before.
"Hello Corner," I said, sitting on my stool before her, popping open a beer with my Sikh bracelet.
"How bloody smug you look; the lion surveying his domain.  I saw your little scene on the porch."
"I was going to resist, but I got a hard-on and my controls switched to manual."
She laughed and brushed her shiny black hair.  "I'll stay and help you close.  I have a surprise.  Do you have any ... energy left?"
"A surprise?  I'm looking forward to it."
"You're not really making drinks with the bad water, are you?"
"Robbie's lips are sealed, uh?"
"You're a real piece of work, you are.  Cholera water.  You better watch your step, Phil.  They're just looking for an excuse to throw you off the kibbutz."
"Nah, they need me here. I supply morale.  Where else can they get enough of what makes them happy?  Hell, half the kibbutzniks sneak in here to get lucky, men and women!"
"Maybe that's why they want you to leave.  A lot of husbands and wives wouldn't like what you've seen." She looked around the bar room.  "It just dawned on me, Philip. This bar is the real you, isn't it?  I mean look at it; pieced together with scraps from everywhere.  This place makes you thrive ... what with your little network of black marketers, and your schemes."
"Are you seeing what you want to see, Corner?"
"Too soon, aye?" she asked, lowering her head.
I drank half my beer at once and stared at the ceiling.
"You know what," she said after a few moments. "You need a Chrisy tree, brighten the place up a bit.  It's not far off, you know,  a couple of weeks.  A tree would make a lot of volunteers feel less homesick."
"A big Christmas party ... invite the neighboring kibbutzim, sell twice the booze."
"Not for the money, to make people happy."
"Of course ... happiness."
"By the way, I have some sad news for you.  They have you down to work in the factory tomorrow?"
"Oh no, you're joking."
"I just read the work assignments."
"I'll have to change my name with one of the new guys again. That white-out is worth its weight in gold."
"You just can't keep to the rules, can you?"
"I told them I wouldn't work in the factory when I first arrived.  I didn't come to Israel to punch a time clock."
      It was after two in the morning when I pushed the last drinker outside.  Corner, pulling off clothing as she worked, dropping each piece to the floor without a second thought, helped me round up empty bottles, sweep the floor, and blow out candles.  She smiled when I approached, took my hand and stroked it, never raising her eyes to mine.  We climbed over the bar and walked through the curtain to the pealing, wrought-iron bed in the back room.  Lying on the lumpy mattress, the bed rocking to and fro with our movements like a bed of kelp on the sea, Corner finished undressing and took out the surprise: a bottle of Tiger balm.  She dabbed it in secret places and told me to describe the sensations as she sat atop me, massaging my shoulders, her lips trembling as she whispered in my ear.  In the morning my body ached wonderfully.  Her nail marks stung beneath my shirt, and I didn't have any skin on vital parts of my anatomy.  If I became excited the pain would surely kill me, and I loved it.