All Backs Were Turned

In this novel of breathtaking tension and sweltering love, two desperate friends on the edge of the law—one of them tough and gutsy, the other small and scared—travel to the southern Israeli city of Eilat to find work. There, Dov Ben Dov, the handsome native Israeli with a reputation for causing trouble, and Israel, his sidekick, stay with Ben Dov’s recently married younger brother, Little Dov, who has enough trouble of his own. Local toughs are encroaching on Little Dov’s business, and he enlists his older brother to drive them away. It doesn’t help that a beautiful German widow named Ursula is rooming next door. What follows is a story of passion, deception, violence, and betrayal, all conveyed in hardboiled prose reminiscent of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, with a cinematic style that would make Bogart and Brando green with envy.

The novel features a critical introduction by George Z. Gasyna, Associate Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois. Gasyna has written extensively on 20th century Polish literature, exile and immigration, and Jewish-Polish relations. He is currently writing a book about modern Polish borderland literature.

Excerpt from All Backs Were Turned

They entered the room and closed the door. It was difficult to breathe; even though they had walked a very short distance and climbed only one flight of stairs, they were both sweating profusely. Dov dropped his wet shirt to the stone floor. Outside somebody was singing in a high, shrill voice; whenever a bus roared past, the noise drowned out the song, but then it rose again.

“It’ll be like this until morning,” Israel said. He threw himself on one of the beds, first tossing the blanket covering it to the floor.

“Is that the beggar on the corner of Ben Yehuda Street?”

“Yes.”

“The blind one?”

“Yes.”

Somebody knocked on the door.

“Come in,” Dov said.

A man slipped into the room; it was the desk clerk. He held a towel in his hand and every five seconds or so he’d wipe his face and arms with it.

“What do you want, Harry?” Dov asked.

“You left something in the shower yesterday, Dov,” the man said. “Something you often use. Here, I brought them.”

Dov turned slowly in his direction and took the two leather wrist straps the man held out to him; they were old and dark with sweat. He looked at them for a moment and then gave them back.

“I won’t be needing them again,” he said. “I’ve found myself an easy job.”

“You didn’t use them for work,” the desk clerk said.

“I told you, I won’t need them,” Dov said. “You can keep them or throw them away.”

“No,” Israel said, holding out his hand to the desk clerk. “Hand them over. I’ll take them.”

“But Dov said I could have them,” the desk clerk said.

“Listen, Harry,” Israel said, “the guy who was staying here before us left something behind. I’ll give it to you if you give me the wrist straps.” He reached under his pillow, pulled out a shirt and showed it to the desk clerk.

“Okay,” the man said. He grabbed the shirt and gave Israel the leather straps. But he didn’t leave yet. His gaze wandered around the room, and when he saw their canvas bag standing in the corner, he pointed to it and asked, “Is that all you have? The two of you?”

“Whenever I have to carry it, I wish we had even less,” Dov said.

“We also have a jeep,” Israel said. He pulled the clerk’s towel out of his grasp and wiped his own face and shoulders with it before giving it back. “Now go away, we want to get some sleep. Hang that shirt in your closet together with all the other stuff you took from guests who couldn’t pay their bills.”

“I will,” the desk clerk said, reluctantly moving toward the door. “So now you have a jeep and that bag. Good night.”

“Good night, Harry,” Dov said.

When the desk clerk left, Dov propped himself on his elbows and turned toward Israel. “Why did you give him your own shirt? What do you want the straps for?”

“They might come in handy.”

“I don’t want that to happen,” Dov said. He watched Israel climb off his bed, untie the canvas bag, and put the two wrist straps, old and dark with sweat, inside. Then he looked at his wrists; two lighter rings showed where he used to fasten the straps. “My bones were always too weak. My muscles are too strong and my bones too weak.” He paused. “I once read a book about a man who had the same problem. Strong muscles and weak bones. I don’t remember what book it was. I’ve forgotten all the books I ever read.”

“Dov,” Israel said. His face was tired now, but alert nonetheless. “Were you ever in Eilat?”

“Yeah, in nineteen forty-eight,” Dov said. “When there was nothing there yet. Damn, what was the title of that book? It was the same as the name of the guy —”

“You think everything will go okay for us there?”

“We’ll see. God, I wish that beggar would stop singing. I can’t sleep. I keep staring at the floor tiles and I can’t fall asleep.”

He got up from his bed, took an empty beer bottle from the table, and threw it into the street. He heard the glass shatter; the voice broke off abruptly, but by the time he got back to his bed, the singing had started again.

“Dov,” Israel said softly, “that man must be deaf as well as blind. There’s nothing you can do if he wants to sing.”

“I can’t sleep,” Dov said.

“Dov, why don’t you make one more effort to patch things up with her? Maybe it’ll work out this time.”

“Does it ever work out?” Dov asked. He got up again and walked over to the window, his wide shoulders blocking it entirely. “What time is it?”

“One o’clock.”

“We can leave in an hour. Try to get some sleep.”

He took a green army towel and went out into the hall. Somebody was in the bathroom. He leaned against the warm wall to wait. A few moments later the door opened and a girl came out holding a pair of sandals in her hand.

“Oh, Dov,” she said. “Remember me? I used to go to school with your brother—”

“Put your sandals on,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“Put them on. Don’t walk barefoot around here.”

“Are you crazy?”

He tore the sandals out of her grasp and threw them down on the floor. Then he twisted her arm.

“Put them on.” He watched her slip her slim, tanned feet into the sandals, and then he knelt on the floor and fastened her sandal straps. “Now you won’t catch cold,” he said.

He entered the bathroom and locked the door behind him. He stood for some minutes under a torrent of cold water, then dried himself with his towel and came out. He saw a young man waiting by the wall; next to him stood the girl.

“It’s him,” the girl said.

Dov stopped in front of them in a circle of dim light. His face was empty, deadlike; now, when his eyes were shadowed, his joined eyebrows gave his face the appearance of a mask.

“Him? That’s Dov Ben Dov,” the young man said and turned away.

The girl caught his arm. “Coward! Stupid coward!” She pushed him away and came up to Dov. “If you’re really going to Eilat, take me with you.”

He didn’t look at her face, which was very close to his; he was staring at her sandaled feet. “Give me your address,” he said.

“Will you write me?”

“I’ll tell you how it used to be in Eilat,” he said. “There were no women there, and many of the guys were ex-cons who weren’t allowed to leave the place. So five guys would chip in for a woman, buy her a round-trip ticket, and she would fly over for a day, sleep with all of them in turn, and leave on the evening plane. If things haven’t changed, I’ll write you.” He stepped hard on her foot with his heavy shoe and saw her eyes turn opaque from pain. “If you want that, be sure to give me your address.”

He shoved her aside and went back to the room. He closed the window, then opened it again and sat down on his bed, staring at his brown arms, already covered with fresh sweat. He wiped them with the towel, then wiped them again and threw the towel on the floor.

“Are you asleep?” he asked Israel.

“No.”

“I can’t sleep either. I think I’ll never be able to sleep. It’s all because of those tiles, Israel.”

“You can’t sleep because of the tiles? How come, Dov?”

“They remind me of her.” He was lying motionless with his arms crossed behind his head, trying not to feel his own sweat and not to think about sweating. “They remind me of the first time I took her to a hotel in Jerusalem. It was so hot that when she walked around the room, she left wet footprints all over the tiles. As if she had just come out of a river. But it was all fine by me. I didn’t care it was hot, I didn’t care she was wet. Then she came back to bed and each time we made love we’d put a mark on the wall. And in the morning she said to me, You made one mark too many, Dov. No, I told her, I’m sure I got the number right. And she said, Dov, I love you. I don’t want to argue with you over one little mark. She came up to the wall and wiped off all the marks. And she said, Let’s start all over again.” He fell silent.

“When did you last see her, Dov?” Israel asked.

“Eighteen months ago,” Dov said. “The day we were supposed to get our divorce. But I met her the night before the hearing and she went home with me, and when I told the judge this, he dismissed the case.”

“Why don’t you go to her now, Dov? Tell her you want to try again.”

“No, there’s no point.” He got up and walked over to Israel. “Can we trade beds? I want to lie with my face to the wall. I can’t bear to look at those goddamn tiles.”

“Go back to her, Dov,” Israel said. He looked at the man standing by his bed, at his heavy, lowered head and the crookedly joined eyebrows. “Why don’t you summon your courage one last time?”

“I’ve got something better than courage,” Dov said, withdrawing his wallet from his back pants pocket. He pulled out a snapshot and held it out to Israel. “See this guy? He doesn’t weigh more than a hundred thirty pounds. He’s small, cowardly, and stupid. Look at him!”

Israel sat on the bed without moving.

“Come on, take it,” Dov said. “Come on!”

“What for, Dov?” Israel asked, taking the snapshot. “Why do you carry a picture of your wife’s lover with you?”

“To help my memory,” Dov said. “There’s nothing people fear more than losing their memory. And I fear it more than others. That’s why. If I ever fall in love again, I’ll take out this picture, take a look at it, and say to myself, Watch out, Dov. Every woman can leave you for a guy like this.” He stretched out his hand. “Now give it back.”

“No,” the other said. “I won’t give it back to you. We’ve been together for a year now, and all this time you’ve had this picture. No, Dov. I won’t give it back to you.”

“Hand it over, Israel.”

“No,” Israel said, getting up and backing away from Dov. “I won’t give it to you, Dov.” He tore the snapshot into pieces and tossed it out the window. “Go ahead and slug me if you have to. I get slugged from time to time. Why not get slugged once for doing something good?” He looked at the other’s hands hanging helplessly alongside his body, then gently pushed him away, picked up the canvas bag from the floor and slung it over his shoulder. “Time to go, Dov.”

“We can leave in another two hours,” Dov said, sitting heavily on the bed. His hands were shaking. “We’ve got plenty of time.”

“No,” Israel said. “We’re going now. We’ll visit your wife. One last time.”

The desk clerk came in.

“Guests are complaining that you two are so loud they can’t sleep. Anybody who pays for his room has the right to catch a few winks, no?” He looked at Ben Dov’s sweaty arms. “I can make you some tea if you want. Two teas will be half a pound.”

“We’re leaving right now, Harry,” Israel said, turning to him.

“Stay here when you return. I’ll give you a discount. You know I like you, Dov.”

“No,” Dov said. He got up from the bed and put on his shirt. “You don’t like me and I don’t like you. That’s fair.”

“You sure you don’t want any tea? It’d do you good.”

“No.”

They walked down the dark stairs, got into the jeep and tossed the bag into the back seat. The beggar sitting on the corner of Ben Yehuda Street was still singing, even though the streets had been empty for the last two hours. Dov took out a pound note, crumpled it into a ball and threw it to the beggar. The man stopped singing and turned his empty eyes in his direction.

“You’re a good man,” he said. “And God will never forsake you.”

“There are two of us,” Dov said. “Why are you only talking to me?”

“You’re a good man,” the beggar said again. “And God will never forsake you.”

“I told you he was deaf,” Israel said.

“All right,” Dov said, turning to him. “Then what are you waiting for? I told you which way we’re going.”

“Yeah.” Israel let in the clutch. “The sun will be coming up in an hour. You’ll see her then.”