I first saw him on my way to a post office one sweltering August morning. He sat on a low stone fence, in a precious spot shaded by a tree where the last traces of the night’s relative coolness still lingered — not easy to find a place like that in Israel in August, especially in the humid realms of Tel Aviv’s surroundings. He shared this strategic position with three elderly women who were busy chatting. He was a frail, grey haired man dressed in shorts and a white sleeveless undershirt. Something in his dull, bent posture and fogy glance made me think about Alzheimer’s, as if an aura of dementia was spreading from him in tangible ripples.
And then it caught my eye, his tattoo. Thin and shaky bluish letters on his right upper arm proclaimed: “нет в жизни счастья“(“there is no happiness in life”). The words got stuck in my mind. Long after I hurried by the old man with the Russian tattoo, I kept wondering how this unhappy statement got there.
The first twenty-five years of my life spent in Russia informed me well enough that people most often got their tattoos in prison. Some sailors had tattoos as well; a small percentage of tattooed individuals got their marks in the army. On the average, if it wasn’t prison or fleet, tattoos signified a difficult childhood and questionable company.
My first impulse was to imagine this old man as an innocent victim of Stalin’s labor camps, shuffled to Siberia for one false accusation or another. There, amidst cold, hunger, and frustration, he acquired his “there is no happiness in life” slogan. It made perfect sense except that he seemed too young for Stalin’s labor camps — he was about my late dad’s age. This meant this man was in his twenties when Stalin departed to organize purges and labor camps in hell. Unless this old guy was a real troublemaker or a uniquely unlucky person, the labor camp hypothesis seemed not too plausible.
So, I opted for the army possibility and imagined a letter from home telling this man that his girlfriend married his best friend. That’s when “there is no happiness in life “was carved on his upper arm. It made sense — to me, at least.
Two mornings later I saw him again, at the same shadowed spot. Now he sat not on the fence, but on a camping chair. He was dressed in the same white sleeveless undershirt which must have been his favorite summer outfit. A white cap was perched on his grey head, and his company consisted of the same elderly women. But now his left side was turned to me …
[ More Fiction365 highlights ]
- Strangers at Sea, by Jonathan Deane (this one’s long but outstanding)
- The Studio, by Chloë Gladstone (very short and long-lasting)
- Naproxen Sodium, by Cary Tennis (smart short and funny)
- HOODOO, a serialization of Caitlin Myer‘s novel — this is a link to the second and latest post, which includes a link to the first — new posts every Sunday