By Dan Savery Raz
Tom Zimmerman is in a foul mood. It is the hottest day of the year in Tel Aviv, 44ºC in August, and he is running 33 minutes late for work, thanks to the batteries running out on his alarm clock which caused him to miss his usual bus. Tom, already swimming in his own sweat, considers taking a taxi to the office but looks into his wallet to find that he has less than five shekels left. The nearest ATM machine is a 10-minute walk away, so Tom weighs up the pros and cons and decides to wait for the next bus which is 21½ minutes late. There is no seating room on the bus: it is filled with soldiers, students and dwarflike old women. Tom pulls out his MP3 player and switches it onto “shuffle” mode. He listens to some early 1990’s techno, a song from The Beatles’ Revolver and a reggae tune called “Young Tree.” For 24 precious minutes he forgets that he is now one hour late for work on the day of an important conference call to New York.
WINASCOM, the hi-tech financial company that Tom works for, is located in an ultra-modern skyscraper in Ramat Gan. Every day as Tom passes under the huge logo, he thinks what a stupid name it is: “WINASCOM” (World Investment News, Analysis and Strategies Company). Like every other day, Tom takes the elevator to the 12th floor; while he ascends he unplugs his earphones, turns off his MP3 player and mentally prepares himself for the day ahead. Morally, there are worse jobs, thinks Tom. I could be selling anthrax to militia groups.
“Baruch Hashem!” says Avi Berman, the bald overweight office manager as Tom enters the open-plan office. “How nice of you to visit us today! What the hell happened?”
“My alarm didn’t go off, then I missed the bus, then the bus was late.” Tom knows he sounds pathetic. He surveys the office, which is filled with the hum of computers and air conditioning vents. There are even some human beings scattered here and there.
“Listen, we’ve still got a lot of work to do for this conference call this afternoon, so I’ll come over to see you later this morning. I’m just going into a board meeting now.” Avi waddles off carrying a bundle of papers and Tom is momentarily struck by how much his office manager resembles a penguin.
The course of Tom’s morning continues the way it started. When he turns on his computer he is simply greeted by the blue screen of death. The IT guy can’t fix it and Tom is forced to use another machine. He connects to the company server and realizes that the important document he needs for today’s conference call is not backed up. So he has no choice but to spend the whole morning re-writing a 2,000-word document, full of marketing jargon. Luckily, he can do this in his sleep as he has been writing this bullshit for over three years now. These documents always include terms like “profit margins,” “investment strategies,” and lots of meaningless statistics. Tom had never been a writer before, but he was hired by WINASCOM because he was a native English-speaker from Toronto. Tom is tragically aware that he is not “fulfilling his potential.” He studied philosophy and always wanted to spend his days puzzling over the nature of reality, but now he describes himself as a “seller of words.”
As Tom types away he occasionally catches a glimpse of sexy Isabel. She is sitting about 30 meters away from him, but directly in his line of vision. Isabel is from Paris and Tom thinks 80% of Parisians are cool. Isabel’s long brown curly hair and angelic face are a real distraction. She is so out of place in this grey office with its grey people, Tom types in the middle of his jargon. Or is she a caterpillar disguised as a butterfly or a butterfly disguised as a whisper?
The film is sad and surreal. Like most Israeli films it has English subtitles, but Tom tries to ignore them and listen to the Hebrew voices. As the end credits roll and a Chopin-esque piano piece fills the darkness, Tom touches Isabel’s hand and she smiles at him.
They drift out of the cinema and float across the late night streets of Tel Aviv. Tom hears the piano music playing over, note for note, in his mind. Shafts of melancholy light pour down from the midnight street lamps reaching out to be near the couple. Palm trees droop and sway in silhouette. The pavement becomes an Arabian carpet.
Later on Isabel stands only wearing a bra and thong in Tom’s living room, offering her French body to him. The lights are dimmed and Tom approaches her, walking slowly across the soft rug spilled out on the floor. He draws nearer to her body, her eyes look up at him, her hair hangs down to her breasts and she waits for his touch. He is about to hold her in his arms and feel her soft skin, gentle curves and the kiss of her lips.
“Tom, have you printed out the document yet?” Avi Berman shouts from across the office.
“Just give me two more minutes, I’m just doing the spell-check,” answers Tom. He clicks on the “ABC” icon and a pop-up screen appears, highlighting words like “WINASCOM” and “Weizner.” Tom clicks on “Ignore all,” and prints the meaningless document that really should be ignored.
Everything is ready for the conference call this afternoon, and Tom can even afford to give himself a 30-minute lunch break, where he eats a falafel with hummus, tehina and some spicy harif sauce that he is addicted to, even though it tangs his tongue. He plugs in his MP3 and listens to Radiohead’s “Street Spirit” while sitting on a plastic chair on the busy street corner, watching as Israelis in shades drive by, hooting at each other to hurry up. Across the street a group of Orthodox boys, dressed in the traditional black hat and suit, hand out religious flyers selling a different kind of words to passersby.
After lunch, Tom checks his personal emails and Facebook messages: Sean, one of his old friends from Toronto, has uploaded some photos of his recent trip to Nepal. The white tops of the Himalayas in the background of every shot look like they are from another planet.
Barack, Isabel’s Israeli bodybuilder boyfriend, strides into the office carrying his motorcycle helmet. He comes into the office every day to meet her for lunch. Tom usually tries to time his lunch break so that he doesn’t see him, but today he can’t escape bad luck. Every day he wishes he was someone else instead. Today he wants to be Sean.
Barack kisses Isabel on the cheek and they both turn to leave the office. Then suddenly Barack turns around and sees Tom. Danger. Tom tries to hide behind his computer monitor, but it is no use. Big butch Barack walks over to Tom’s desk.
“Hey, leave my girlfriend alone!”
Tom pretends this isn’t happening.
“Did you hear me? Stay away from her!” Tom looks up to see Barack now towering above him, an insane military look on his face. Barack was a commander in the army and knows a thing or two about the art of combat.
“Look, I don’t want any trouble…” Tom’s voice cracks like a pre-pubescent schoolboy, not helping his situation.
“Too late,” Barack says, slamming his helmet down onto Tom’s monitor. “You’ve got trouble.”
Tom quickly surveys his desk and picks up a staple gun. As Barack leans over to put his hand on Tom’s shoulder, he fires three staples into his muscular arm.
“Ahhh!” Barack winces in pain. “What the hell are you doing?”
Tom doesn’t wait for Barack to respond and he throws his boiling hot cup of coffee over his chest. Barack grits his teeth and pushes Tom onto his desk. Tom reaches behind his back and picks up the first object that comes to hand. Without hesitation he smacks Barack in the jaw with his cordless keyboard. Barack is looking defeated and spits blood on the floor.
Isabel is screaming, “Stop it! You’re killing him!” But Tom doesn’t stop. Barack rises from the floor only to be greeted by Tom smashing his monitor over his shaved head. Glass and plastic explode in slow motion. Barack writhes in pain. To complete the assault, Tom picks up his swivel chair and repeatedly rams the plastic wheels into Barack’s bloody face. As a crowd of office workers stand dumbstruck, Tom, with his new-found superhuman strength, picks up Barack, who now feels as light as a feather, spins him above his head and throws him through the nearest window. The glass shatters and Tom peers out of the hole to see Barack’s body fall past twelve floors and splatter on the concrete pavement below, right outside the falafel stall. Tom, victorious, wipes the sweat from his brow and says to his co-workers in an Arnold Schwarzenegger voice, “Game over.”
Isabel returns from her lunch, sits down and smiles to herself as she reads a text message. Her hair looks slightly different. She just had sex with Barack, Tom assumes and spends the rest of the afternoon trying so hard not to think about it that it is all he can think of.
At 4 PM Tom is called into the boardroom for the all-important conference call. The boardroom consists of a large round table, with a speaker phone in the centre, fifteen chairs and huge windows that look across the jagged skyline of Tel Aviv. From this tower he can see the rooftops of the already crumbling 50-year-old white Bauhaus buildings overflowing with satellite dishes, cell phone masts, and cables. He can even see a sliver of the Mediterranean Sea through the high rise office blocks and hotels.
Besides Tom, taking part in this crucial meeting are Avi Berman, Isabel, David, the monotone accounts director, and last but not least, Michael Weizner: the CEO, the big American cheese at WINASCOM. All the employees have heard the story of how Weizner founded the company from his grandma’s dining table ten years ago and now it has become one of the leading financial news providers on the Internet. As king of all he surveys, Weizner always sits at the head of the table. He has perfect fake teeth, silver hair, an immaculately pressed sky blue shirt, and flashy gold jewelry. Everything about him says “money.” At the other end of the phone line is Patrick Crimble, CEO of QUANZA, a huge investment company based in Manhattan. Another big cheese, in fact, so big that WINASCOM wants a slice of his cheese, and the very point of this meeting is to get him to merge some of his cheese with their cheese, to form a mega conglomerate cheese fondue.
The conference call begins with the usual pleasantries before Weizner gets down to business. “Last year our website was expanded and we received an additional 60% increase in web traffic. Now the market trends suggest that next year we will boost our USPs even further.”
“Will you be able to facilitate an SEO track on these new USPs?” asks Crimble, his nasal New York voice emanating from the black speakers and reverberating around the room due to the high volume.
Weizner leans over the phone, his gold necklace dangling. “Well, I’m glad you asked that, Patrick, because that’s something we are working on right now. All the signs are that it’s good to go. I’d like to bring in our office manager, Avi Berman, now. Avi, what is the ETA on this?”
Avi looks slightly surprised that he is asked this question, but leans over, speaking loudly in his best mock-English accent into the speaker phone. “By our best estimates we think that in approximately two or three months we will see this up and running. We have made strategic plans to hire more staff to facilitate this development and we are in negotiations with a new Web Master to oversee this project.”
Tom sits in silence and hopes that he is not asked to comment on anything important. He can write this shit but he sure as hell can’t talk it. That’s a bridge too far. As the meeting progresses, Tom picks up his pen and starts doodling an intricate spider’s web on the corner of his blank notepad.
The distant growls of the spider monkeys can still be heard in the Peten jungle that surrounds Tikal. As Tom and his friend Sean wander around this ancient place, they take hundreds of photographs of the rock temples and pyramids built by the Mayans over one thousand years ago. Sean passes Tom the bottle of mineral water. “Drink,” he says. “You can dehydrate without knowing it in this heat.” Tom sits on a furry log, once part of a great banyan tree, and sips the water. There are no other tourists around.
“This place is amazing,” says Sean. “It almost doesn’t seem real.” Tom nods his head in agreement. One day this will just feel like a dream. While Sean takes more wildlife photos, Tom explores a section of a ruined temple. He walks over the crumbled walls, with inscriptions depicting Mayan gods. There is an archway and inside nothing but blackness. Tom looks closer, but he doesn’t want to enter in case it’s a bat cave. He stops and stretches out his arm, reaching into the black hole. His fingers soon touch a thick spider web and he pulls back his arm. This is no domain for Man.
“Our profit margin indicator shows that we will top last year’s figures substantially,” says dull David from accounts. “Potential advertising revenue and direct customer transactions are likely to boost our shareholder’s dividends. We are confident that despite a volatile marketplace and amid interest rate cuts, we will be able to invest significant capital in order to gain profitable returns.”
Tom pours some ice cold water from the jug into his glass. The sound of the water snaps him out of his wide-awake sleep.
All of a sudden he is underwater, breathing without an oxygen tank or mask. Swimming through seaweed and schools of yellow- and red-striped fish towards a bright opening, Tom’s soul merges with the sunlight that is crystallizing the rocks on the seabed. He hears the sound of a woman’s voice, singing in a language he can’t understand. He swims to the bottom of the seabed and says, “Alive, here?” just as a burst of bubbles blinds his vision.
Tom wakes up at 8 AM in his apartment. He lifts his head from the pillow of dreams and looks out of his bedroom window. It is snowing in Tel Aviv. Remarkable. The palm trees are covered in white dust. Tom stares at the snow as it falls around, covering the ground. It’s so silent, it doesn’t make a sound. He opens the window and leans out, breathing in the winter air. Down the road some children are throwing snowballs at each other and laughing. It’s the middle of August in the Middle East, yet the snow feels so natural. Somewhere far away a fiddler plays a Yiddish lament.
“The situation with the Dubai market,” says Patrick Crimble, sounding like a computerized Woody Allen, “is at a key moment. Investment is primed for take-off and we believe that there are significant opportunities in competitive bidding. We already have a team of brokers executing customer orders over there and we hope to take advantage of divergence in the exchange rate mechanisms.”
There is a brief two-second silence as nobody is sure if he has finished speaking or not. Crimble momentarily thinks the line is down. “Hello? Can you hear me?”
“Thy voice soundest like a Meltrembian songbird, dearest Crimble,” says Michael Weizner, now dressed in Elizabethan attire, leaning over the table toward the phone. “Thy dividends and collateral are music to thine ears!”
“Then pray, sweet Michael, Lord of the Eastern Realm, that our meeting in person shant be too long. I beseech thee, oh CEO of WINASCOM, please yield thy frozen dollar immediately! Methinks the rate of interest hath been poisoned.”
“Poisoned! Poisoned!” David from accounts interjects, pointing at the speaker phone, dressed like Henry VIII. “If thou be correct, who doth poison it so?”
The voice answers from the speaker phone. “Ay, thou knowest that a plague hath descended on Wall Street’s treacherous walls. Thy housing market poisoned by profits and by fools. Behold! The doomsday and the hedge fund’s funeral pyre; unless we make steed our acquisitions will be in the fire. We must seek to converge in a covenant.”
“Humble Crimble, thou speaketh the truth with valor and dignity!” says Weizner, his shiny collar framing his masterpiece of a face. “A business merger would surely boost thy rating in the Nasdaq and thy wretched Dow Jones.”
Weizner then stands up as if addressing the court of the king. He looks at the gathered assembly and proclaims, “By God’s holy decree, we shall gather all our shareholders and financiers in the creation of a new corporate charter.”
And immediately following this historic declaration there is a sudden blast of royal horns and everybody in the boardroom stands in reverence to sing the company’s anthem.
Lord, bless our company. Lord, bless our CEO.
May our competitors face bankruptcy and our holy profits grow.
Send us victorious, for WINASCOM is glorious,
May debt collectors ignore us, for evermore. Amen.
Isabel looks as bored as Tom. He looks at his watch, which reads 16:47. Another hour left and they can all go home. An hour isn’t that long, it’s only a third of Schindler’s List, Tom says to himself. Isabel is taking a lot of notes. Tom isn’t sure why Isabel or he is needed in the meeting. He hasn’t said a word in 47 minutes, but inside he is screaming like a spider monkey. The spider web on his notepad has evolved into a country house and an old tree with roots that reach down to the bottom. He notices Avi Berman looking at his elaborate scribble and turns the page over to another blank piece of paper.
The next day Tom is called into the same boardroom where the conference call was held. This time, only Avi Berman and Michael Weizner sit opposite him, the penguin and the Prince of Parmesan. Today Weizner is wearing a bright pink shirt and his hair is so slicked back with gel you could ski on it. It’s still blisteringly hot outside, but the air conditioning is on so strong that everybody has to wear long-sleeved shirts and vests.
“Okay, so you’re probably wondering why we called you in here today,” says Michael Weizner, sighing as if he is about to tell Tom his mother has died. “Well, I’m afraid that even though the merger is going ahead, we’re going to have to make some tough decisions. As you are aware, we’ve had to make some pretty big changes due to the economic climate.” Tom nearly smiles as he listens to his soon to be ex-boss. “So we’ve had to cut back and lose some staff.”
Tom is doing high-fives in his head. He wants to quit this job anyway and now he’ll get some redundancy pay or be forced to take “garden leave.” Perhaps he could hook up with his old friend Sean in the Himalayas and go traveling again. Or maybe he’ll write that novel, record that album, or make that film, he has always dreamed of.
Avi Berman looks at Tom, his usual frown replaced with a look of pity.
If only they knew.
“Tom, can you give a brief breakdown of our marketing strategy?” Tom is startled. He is back in the conference call meeting. Weizner, Berman, David from accounts and Isabel are all staring at him. He wonders exactly how long has this been happening.
There is a long, inhuman silence as Tom leans over to speak into the speakerphone.
“Errr… the marketing strategy.” The eyes all focus on him, waiting for something. Tom thinks of his bedroom – he likes his bedroom. It has clean white sheets, a comfortable pillow, and a good book by the side. He wants to be there now. But Avi Berman looks like he is going to kill him.
“The marketing strategy is to target people.”
Berman’s eyebrows have become nuclear bombs. “Use your imagination, Tom,” he whispers.
“So, the point I’m trying to make,” says Weizner the following day in the boardroom, “is that we are reshuffling our deck of cards and only keeping the meat of the company.”
Tom still hasn’t spoken. He is waiting for the axe to fall.
“The good news is that we think you are the meat and bones of WINASCOM,” says Avi Berman, lifting his head. “We are cutting down in all our other departments but this means we will need a new Marketing Director. And we would like that person to be you.”
No. God, no. This is Tom’s worst nightmare. He has been promoted, and his future career is a vacuum of Monterey Jack cheese.
“So what do you say?” says Weizner, grinning like Gorgonzola. “You in?”
Tom has never wanted to say “no” as much in his life, but for some ridiculous reason – perhaps the same reason why he never asked Isabel out, would never write that book, and would never go traveling with Sean again – he says, “Yes.”
Thursday night, 1984. Tom is five years old, sitting on the floor in his living room eating a bag of chips, dipping them into some red sauce. Suddenly an Ethiopian child stares at him, with flies buzzing around its head. Tom thinks it’s a boy but he can’t tell. Tom turns to ask his mum but she is talking on the telephone, so he turns back to the screen. The creature’s belly is blown up like a birthday balloon, the eyes – an unfamiliar glare, a misery inhuman, from a distant, desert planet. Dollar bills hang from the African trees. The number 3.333 recurs over and over. The signal becomes blurry and the child is gone.
Tom takes a deep breath and speaks. “We hope to target ABC1 types by advertising quarterly in leading newspaper weekend supplements. In a bid to attract offshore investors we will use multimedia marketing gateways such as streaming, online social networks and economic forums. Strategically speaking, our research has shown that 84% of investors are more susceptible to web-based marketing than traditional methods…” And so on and so on. Tom proves that even he can talk “the talk” when called upon.
After the conference call, which is viewed as a resounding success by the management, there is much back-slapping and handshakes. Dull David is now as cheerful as a child who has just tricked his mum into a day off school. Michael Weizner’s white teeth are beaming with such intensity that they are probably picking up messages from NASA satellite dishes. Avi Berman holds his arms aloft, unafraid to reveal the two great sweat marks under his armpits, as though he has just won the fat-bald-bloke-in-the-office World Championship. They all leave the boardroom on a cloud of smugness, leaving Isabel and Tom behind.
“So that went well,” says Tom, picking up his notepad. Isabel rolls her eyes as he holds open the door for her.
“God, it was so boring. I thought it was never going to end!” Isabel smiles and walks past Tom, gently brushing her curves against him.
As the sun goes down on the hottest day in Tel Aviv, Tom leaves the office and decides to walk down the twelve flights of stairs instead of taking the elevator. Near the top of the staircase he bumps into Barack, helmet in hand.
“Yo! What’s up, gever?” the boyfriend asks.
“Nothing much,” answers Tom, mis-timing his part in the high-five. “Did you just walk up twelve floors?”
“Yeah, I figured I need the exercise.” Body-building Barack winks at Tom and continues his ascent. Tom momentarily imagines Barack and Isabel having some late night office sex on his desk.
“Shut up,” he says out loud to himself. As Tom descends, he pulls out the MP3 player, unravels the headphones, and plugs in. The working day is over: the wild jazz of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew paints his walk to the bus stop in Ramat Gan. The music changes into an African percussion track as his bus slowly progresses through the Tel Aviv traffic lights.
He sits next to a young soldier who is half asleep, one hand resting on his rifle, the other on the window ledge. Secretly Tom dedicates the next song on his shuffle to the unknown boy sitting next to him: a sad country ballad, “Tired Eyes” by Neil Young – it fits somehow.
When he gets back to his apartment, he switches on the TV to fill the silent void.
“Five more rockets were fired on the town of Sderot today… The economic downturn is continuing to affect global economies… At least 40 people were killed by a bomb blast in Baghdad… A boy was found dead in a car…” The deep boom of the newsreader’s voice becomes the familiar background noise as Tom cooks his dinner.
Across the street a saxophonist is practicing. A motorcycle whizzes by, a car alarm goes off, and a choir of cats meow in unison.
At midnight, Tom walks to the beach alone and sits for a while on a rocky sea wall, staring at the Mediterranean waves in the saxophone moonlight. Nothing much happened today, he thinks, his ears focused on the soothing crashing of the water. He closes his eyes to soak up the symphony, just as a gigantic wave
rises high above
his head and
The meowing cats are now being drowned out by the barking dogs as Tom walks home through the half-empty streets of Tel Aviv. Suddenly he sees himself on the other side of the road going in a different direction. He looks as an outsider at this individual and sees a young man listening to music on his headphones, completely inside his own world.
Intrigued, Tom crosses the street to meet himself.
"What time is it?" he asks out loud.
"2 AM," he answers, still wearing the headphones.
"Do I know you?"
"No," Tom smiles. "We don't know each other at all."
They stand for a while looking at each other through the inverted mirror while billions of spinning worlds collide around them. But like all visions, it is just a fleeting moment, and before long Tom is tucked up in bed, head on pillow.
The sound of the waves crashing fills his mind. Music is beyond sound, he thinks, as he shuffles in and out of sleep. In and out.
Copyright © Dan Savery Raz 2011
Dan Savery Raz is the co-author of the Lonely Planet Israel & Best in Travel 2011. Originally from England, Dan now lives in Tel Aviv with his wife, where he shuffles his time between writing, listening to music and walking his dog, Boots. Dan has written articles on travel, socio-economic issues and education for a range of publications including HaAretz, Time Out, The Forward, easyJet Traveller and The Jerusalem Report. He has an MA in Creative Writing from Bar Ilan University and his poetry has been published in Private Photo Review, Cyclamens & Swords and Mediterranean.nu. In 2009, Dan founded a poetry & music collective in Tel Aviv and is currently editing an anthology to support African refugees entitled The Last Stanza. For more see: www.danscribe.com