The afternoon was another hot one. Manny cranked up the air conditioning in the diner a little and wiped the counter by the faux-antique register. Look at my life, he thought bitterly. My only daughter spends more time dreaming online than she does with real people, and me, do I set a better example? No. This diner has become the shell I crawled into to avoid dealing with the world. I'm not a man. I'm a hermit crab. But even a hermit crab outgrows its shell...if only to move into a bigger shell.
Maybe Darla's right. Maybe I should have moved on, found her a stepmother. What good am I doing her, clinging to the past like this? Maybe I should call Agnes Neuburg back after all. Wouldn't anyone be better for me and Darla than this enshrined hole in my life, this fading security blanket of a lost love?
He reached for the register's keyboard, but his hand refused to tap the key. Instead, it went back across his chest to touch his shirt pocket as his eyes closed again, remembering. Almost twenty years, but the memories would never fade...
...the cab ride from Ben Gurion International had not been a pleasant one. Little Darla had been fussy ever since the landing woke her. Liz had not slept well on the last leg of their flight to Israel, and Darla's tantrum wasn't helping matters. More tsuris than either of them needed at the moment. But there was no helping it.
“COOKIE!” Darla hollered. She was flailing her little hands, wrenching at the child car seat she was strapped into. Her curly black hair, too short to hang down, waved as her head twisted angrily, making her look like a furious dandelion. “Cookie, cookie COOKIE!”
Manny sighed and met his wife's eyes. “Do we have any left? We should be there soon.”
Liz shook her head. “Just the Cheerios.” She didn't say it, but he could guess what she was thinking: it was his fault for gobbling half of the box. He felt a twinge of guilt. I should have bought two boxes. Or at least something other than chocolate chip. Maybe then I could have resisted the temptation.
“Here, zeisele, have some Cheerios,” he suggested, offering Darla the non-spill plastic bowl in its gimbals, such a clever invention. There was a handful of cereal left in it.
Darla struck the bowl out of his hands with one of her little pudgy fists. Blue eyes the exact shade of her mother's glared at him coldly. “Cookie,” she demanded sternly.
This was all his fault, and he knew it. For a moment he wallowed in the guilt of it. Liz had wanted to take the postdoctoral Standford had offered. But no, he had to talk her into starting their family first. If he'd only given in, they'd be sitting on a beach in California now, sipping drinks with those little umbrellas while she corrected papers or played with mathematics. Instead, they were trapped in the back of a cab with an unruly descendant. And then he had made it worse by suggesting the trip to his birthplace while she was still on sabbatical. His fault, every bit of it.
Liz saw his guilty face and guessed the cause immediately with the almost telepathic rapport they shared after three years of marriage. “Don't go there, luv,” she told him. “It's not like you put a gun to my head and got me pregnant. I had other plans, true. But I wouldn't trade her for all the degrees in the world.”
Manny took her hand. “I'm sorry, heart of my heart. If it wasn't for me, you could have married an Einstein like yourself, instead of a dropout like me. Why didn't you?”
Liz surprised him with a smile. “It was your Toad-in-the-hole, dear. You know I never learned to cook. One bite, and I was lost to other men. None of the University boffins had a chance, once I tasted your cooking.”
He cocked an eyebrow at her half-seriously. “I thought the way to a man's heart was through his stomach, not a woman's.”
She squeezed his hand and grinned. “No, luv, for men the route is a little lower down.”
He kissed her then, forgetting Darla for a moment. “So you're keeping me?”
“As long as you can hold a spatula, you're all the man I will ever need.”
“Wanna COOKIE!” Darla bellowed, ending the moment. Manny kissed her too, and was about to say something when they heard the chorus of Rule, Brittania! jingling from Liz's windbreaker.
Liz pulled out her phone and glanced at the caller ID. “It's an old colleague of mine,” she said in answer to Manny's look. “Won't be a minute.”
She held the phone up to her ear. “Hello, Shlomo,” she said. “How are you and Shayna? Technion treating you right?” She listened briefly. “You did what? No, I don't believe it. The energy requirements alone, would...I don't remember predicting that! You sure it was from my paper? Interesting, yes, but I don't quite see what...oh come on! They'd never fund it without more proof.” Another pause. “Yes, I could, but I've just arrived here on vacation with my family, and I...maybe tomorrow. Best I can do. All right. See you then.”
“Who was that?” said Manny, rummaging in the foot well for the plastic bowl. “And what's so important that he wants to show you on your vacation?” He offered the bowl to Darla again. She scowled but accepted it this time and grabbed some of the cereal.
“He was a visiting Fellow at Cambridge,” she told him. “Particle physics boffin. He says he's followed up on one of my papers and found a way to induce highly energetic particle cascades without an accelerator.”
“We'll be at the Sharon in a couple of minutes,” he told her. Then, because he could tell she wanted to talk about it, he took the bait. “What's a particle cascade?”
“Imagine you're a tourist who wants a hot dog, but all you have is a hundred dollar bill,” she said. “No debit cards in your wallet. What would you do?”
“That's easy,” he said. “I'd find a store and buy something to break the bill.”
“Exactly,” she said. “When an particle with too much energy, say a cosmic ray, hits an atom in the upper atmosphere, some of the energy is converted into more particles, like breaking a hundred dollar bill into twenties. Some of them smack into other atoms and break it down even further, like breaking some of the twenties into tens and fives. You start with it all in one package, one energetic particle, and by the time it's finished you have a whole slew of particles. This one-turning-into-many domino effect is called a cascade.”
“And this happens every day, you say?”
“Yes, all the time. With lower-energy particles, say from the Sun's solar wind, the Earth's magnetic field deflects them toward the poles, where they cause the aurora Borealis and so on. But cosmic rays are so energetic, they're harder to turn north or south. They drill right in and initiate cascades of particles, some of which reach the Earth's surface.”
“Okay, but what has all this got to do with you?” he wanted to know.
“Accelerators have gotten exponentially more expensive in the last sixty years, as they made them bigger and bigger to reach higher energies. It's getting pretty hard to afford to build new ones. Fermilab was important for a while, but then CERN's setup eclipsed them. Shlomo says he found a hint in one of my papers and used it to generate cascades without a reactor or accelerator. If he's right...he could be in for a Nobel prize in Physics.” She sat silently for a moment. “He wants me to partner with him on it, prove it out and get funding to explore the applications.”
“My wife, the celebrity physicist,” he smiled. But then his expression changed to one of alarm. “What kind of applications? Please tell me we're not looking at another Manhattan Project.”
“Of course not. If he's right, the yield...would be incredible. No one needs a bomb that powerful. Even one would be too much. It would crack the Earth open like an egg! No, it could be more useful for energy production. Imagine the possibilities if it could be controlled! We could have nuclear power without using uranium. Reactors with no fear of meltdown...and no worries about people using them to make plutonium for bombs.”
“You are scaring me,” he told her. “Getting a Nobel would be a fine thing, yes. But if the Arabs even suspected such a technology was being developed, especially here, they might be scared into a preemptive strike, like when Israel bombed their reactor. Love, I am afraid I am hoping it all turns out to be a dead end.”
“I think you're a little paranoid,” she said. “Shlomo's keeping quiet, afraid someone else will get the Nobel before him. I'm the only one he's told so far. He's sending someone to pick me up tomorrow to go have a look at his results.”
The cab was turning into the Sharon Hotel now. “We were going to ride down to Jerusalem tomorrow to see the Western Wall,” Manny reminded her, unstrapping Darla from the child seat.
“I know, I know.” She sighed. “I'm sorry, luv, but I have to check this out. Will you forgive me? Why don't you and Darla come to Haifa with me tomorrow? We can see the Wall the next day.”
He just shook his head as he got out of the cab. “It's going to be hard enough for our little hellion to ride all the way to Jerusalem. Haifa is ever farther away, way up the coast to the North. You'll be gone all day, most likely.”
Liz lifted Darla out of the seat and followed him into the hotel lobby. “You're right I guess. I'm sorry, I know this isn't what we planned for our first day in Israel. I'll make it up to you, I promise.”
* * * * *
The next morning, Manny was feeling the jet lag. Liz seemed immune…or maybe it was just that she was excited about the science, as always. Manny groaned when she woke him up at eight. “Is it morning already?”
“I'm off,”she said. “Promise you won't hate me for abandoning you like this? I can't tell you how important this could be.”
He tried to sit up, but settled for rolling on his side to face her. “Go ahead,” he sighed. “We'll all go see the Wall tomorrow, or the day after. I'll keep Darla in Tel Aviv today, maybe see the beach or take in a movie. Like you said, the Wall will be there when we're ready to see it.”
Liz bent over to kiss him, then straightened and headed for the door. As his eyes closed, Manny thought he saw her stop by the closet and slip something into his jacket. He wondered what it was, and then closed his eyes and fell back asleep.
* * * * *
He woke to the sound of Darla crying. Still groaning, he made himself get up and change her. He felt like collapsing again, but she was wide awake now. Liz had made a pot of coffee, which explained how she had managed such an early start. He downed two cups, ordered breakfast for the two of them, and felt nearly human by the time room service knocked on the door.
Darla seemed in better spirits after her juice and oatmeal, although he could see her peering around the room wondering where Mommy was. “It's just you and me today, kiddo,” he told her, wiping oatmeal off her chin with a napkin. “What do you want to do?”
Intelligent blue eyes stared at him. “Cookie?” she suggested hopefully.
He laughed. “You are a persistent little devil, aren't you? Yes, we'll find you some cookies.” But then what? He tried to remember what he had told her mother. Something about a movie. Involuntarily, he grimaced, imagining trying to make her sit still for two hours in a local theater. The room service cart had a local paper. He scanned the local listings but couldn't seem to find anything he could imagine both of them sitting through.
“Tell you what,” he said. “Why don't we grab some cookies and juice for the ride and just go see the Wall anyway? It'll get us out in the fresh air, and we can always go see it again with Mommy tomorrow. You won't tell her, will you?”
“Cookie,” Darla agreed.
What with one thing and another, it was past noon by the time they got there, and crowded. With a start Manny realized he wasn't sure what to do. His people were in two groups, the men and women separated from each other on the pink marble. What about men with daughters?
“I think we should keep our distance, today,” he told Darla. “Tomorrow, with your mother you can go in that group, with the women, maybe.” My God, he thought with dismay, have I been away so long that I've forgotten my own heritage?
He thought about Elizabeth, up the coast at Haifa by now. If her friend wasn't crazy, and wanted her to collaborate on the discovery, would they have to live here? It seemed likely. He wasn't sure how he felt about that. Would he find and fit in with the kibbutzniks he had grown up with? That was his past. His life was with Liz now.
Carrying Darla over the marble paving to an empty table, he set her down and tried to think. What am I doing here? Am I trying to prove I'm still Jewish? Part of him wished he'd stayed in London. Another part of him was angry, angry at him for leaving Israel, angry at him for dragging Liz back here with him, and angry at his wife for leaving him to spend his first day in his homeland alone with their child. And then came the shame, for feeling the anger. And then more anger, resentment for feeling guilty about his feelings.
I'm a mess, he thought. How can I be a decent father to this child, when I can't even decide who I am? Without planning it, he found his hands coming together on the tabletop to pray. God of my fathers, he prayed, should I move my family here? I'm feeling so lost today. Please give me a sign...any sign at all.
Suddenly it was very quiet. He had thought it quiet before, but while those nearest to the wall doing their rocking and praying had been silent, the people further back where he was had been making the same sounds as any well-behaved crowd. But that had stopped. Now he heard absolutely nothing. And then he heard a low moaning, as if the crowd were a single organism, a being in its own right, that was shocked and dismayed into silence by something terrible, like a boy who hears his parents fighting.
He opened his eyes and turned to see what their unbelieving eyes were looking at. And then it struck him too, and he heard his own throat making that same terrible sound.
A mushroom-shaped cloud was rising in the northwest. Over Tel Aviv.
Then a flash brighter than the sun, and another cloud, farther to the north. With a sinking feeling, even worse than before, he knew without asking that it was over Haifa.
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