(If you missed it, see Maybe I Should Write About It).
The view from their living room window -- dry hills interspersed with grasses and low-lying bushes -- was oddly familiar, in that I could have mistaken it for the California of my childhood.
I had parked the car on the street above. There was plenty of parking; most residents in this area don't know how to drive a car and cannot afford one. The early afternoon air was hot and still. The inside car temperature approached that of an oven from the moment I shut off the engine.
I crossed the sidewalk, paused, and headed toward the double flight of stairs. To my left, three middle-aged, dark-skinned men squatted over a flattened carton, dealing cards. The stairs, framed by simple metal railings, abutted a series of dirt-filled, half-meter brick tiers in an uneven stack like some child's haphazard block construction. They led me down to one of a series of dreary dun developments, each four stories high and six living units across, fronted by an empty patch of dusty soil. Most of the buildings carried a rusty sign vainly remarking a municipal-sponsored refurbishment in 1976, and despite this, they all looked as though they had somehow survived five decades or more.
As expected, there were no signs pointing the way toward the house of mourning. The numbering was haphazard and I could not find the right building. In response to my query, an older man placed his hands on my shoulders and literally rotated my body to the right and downward.
His murmuring suggested I had a ways to walk, and the apartment I sought was in fact the last one in the staggered row of developments. As I followed along the row of buildings, there was a smell, of pungent, unfamiliar spice and slightly fermented grains, which seemed to grow in intensity as I approached the entrance.
The door of one of the ground-floor apartments had been left wide open, and the spotless living room floor reflected an image of a hefty woman lounging on her sofa. She jumped in with an answer before I could get the question out. "Where -- ?" "Up on the third floor."
The door was closed and had no markings on or around it, save a mezuzah with a cheap plastic cover. Inside the house, the extended family -- his mother, sister, two brothers, four aunts, three uncles and a cousin -- nearly filled the small living room. His mother had a black mourning cape draped over one shoulder, and as I entered she glanced up, sighed and shifted the cape to her lap, stood, and clung to me. She sat down, sighed, and offered me a chair near the middle of the room. "My heart..."
A foursome of aunts and uncles sat around a coffee table playing cards, throwing each card onto one of four piles with an aggressive THWAP. Somehow, it felt only slightly out of place. His sister poured me a cup of cola, which his mother refilled after every sip I took. She exchanged a few words with her daughter. I was waiting for a translation, some statement about how it was all over, or referring to his time in the hospital. But no.
He had some new clothes, the sister related. They're in G's office. Do you think you can talk to him about getting them back?
Of course. His brother would be needing those clothes, so carefully chosen only two months before.
The mother continued her conversation with an aunt who was sitting across from us, while I talked to the sister and made a few phone calls in an unsuccessful attempt to contact the cable TV representative and ask him to come pick up the cable box which nobody in the household now has a use for.
Sometime later, we exchanged good-byes and I made my way back down three stories, along six dreary buildings, and up two outside flights to street level. I got in my car, drove out of the neighborhood and back into to my infinitely more complex, familiar -- and for now, sadder -- world.
Keep the balance,