With A Strong Hand And An Outstretched Arm
The story, as I have planned it, as I have imagined it over these last five years, unfolds in most dramatic part at a Passover Seder had in a dining room and around a dinner table like the ones in … Read More
The story, as I have planned it, as I have imagined it over these last five years, unfolds in most dramatic part at a Passover Seder had in a dining room and around a dinner table like the ones in my grandparents’ old apartment on Bailey Avenue in the Bronx. These were my mother’s parents, refugees who fled Austria before World War II. My grandmother had understood early what Hitler had in mind for the Jews. She left for America, where she worked to bring her parents and her brothers and their wives and her husband across the Atlantic. My grandfather and my grandmother’s brother, Rudy, were the last two to escape. After the anschluss, after the Nazis had arrested them, at a station outside Vienna, while the train that would have taken them to a camp idled on the track, a guard told my great-uncle and my grandfather to run. Then he turned his back.
The story of grandfather and great-uncle’s flight east across the Soviet Union and through Japan to the United States survives only in the fragments. It is a good story, but not the one I mean to tell. So, let me apologize for what I’ve just done even though I must warn you that I plan do it repeatedly. If it is possible for me to tell this story, I will have to tell it through digression. This is one of the things I have learned over the last five years.
According to my mother, who was born in New York after her parents had reunited, my grandparents struggled to keep the Holocaust out of their home. Much of the story I want to tell you now takes place in something like that home, the two-bedroom apartment where my grandparents finally settled when my mother was twelve years old. The apartment had windows that opened onto a courtyard where children played and Van Cortland Park was nearby. You could hear people on the street calling to each other. There was, as I recall, a piano in the cramped dining room, one that would have been played mostly by my mother. On one wall hung a framed picture of the Old City of Jerusalem as seen from Mount Scopus, with the gleaming Dome of the Rock so prominent. At the room’s center, sat a wooden table large enough to seat eight. The table had a smooth finish. When I was young I always wanted to roll my toy cars across it. They would have rolled so much better there than on the plastic runners leading from room to room in that apartment or on the thin carpet that had been put down when my mother was a teenager. Sometimes, when my grandmother was cooking, I would take one of my cars to the table and pretend to roll it across that smooth expanse, and she would come out of the kitchen and pretend to be angry with me.
What I am trying to convey here is that the apartment was a happy home, certainly as happy as might be expected. There were, to be sure, squabbles about money. And, for many years, my grandmother did not approve of my father. (Again, another story.) But the central tragedy in my grandparents’ lives, the Holocaust, was treated with circumspection. My grandparents did not ignore it but they did not dwell on it either. On those rare occasions when my grandmother would describe her girlhood on her parents’ farm outside Vienna and the pleasure she had taken in going to school in that old city, as she recalled friends and relatives there would always come a point when she would sigh and say, “Hitler killed them all.” And that was always the end. When I was about eight years old, around the time of Passover, my parents brought my sister and me to the Bronx to stay for a week. This would have been not long after my grandfather had sold his luncheonette and retired to pass his days reading the Times and the Daily News and chatting with the other men at the Van Cortland Park Jewish Center. During that trip, my grandfather took me up the hill to the Center to sell his chametz through the old rabbi. The rabbi, a man who bore more than a passing resemblance to Ariel Sharon, bade me sit in one of his office chairs. Years before, he told me, there had been a woman in their congregation who had fallen on hard times. She and her children were nearly destitute. At Passover, she could not pay the rabbi’s small fee for the selling of her chametz. My grandfather, the rabbi explained from behind his desk, had paid for her. He had bought her groceries as well, and had helped in other small ways. He had done all this without having been asked. “Abe Sambol knew this woman was in trouble,” the rabbi said, “and he came forward.” In my mother’s kitchen there is a wonderful picture of her father. The photograph is in black and white. It shows him in middle age. He is wearing a checked shirt that is open at the collar and a white apron, and his features have a central European thickness that suggests industry and good humor. In the photo he gazes directly at the camera. If you saw it, you would say that he looks like just the kind of man who would do what the rabbi said he had done for that woman.
Years after that Passover visit, years after my grandfather had died, the rabbi repeated his story at my grandmother’s graveside. I was thirty then and had flown from Iowa, where I was living, to New York for the funeral. It was autumn and the leaves on the hills beside that cemetery in New Jersey were spectacular. The air held a last trace of summer warmth. Not two weeks before my grandmother died, I first tried to write the story I want to tell you now.
I will set the scene in a moment. I promise; I will get into things. But first, you need to know what inspired it. If you don’t know where this story comes from, I am afraid its people and events will seem flimsy and unimportant. What happened was that I was thinking about the last time I had seen my grandfather. I was fifteen then and he was in his eighties and very sick. He had shrunk in his final year. Gradually, he had stopped talking. I remember my grandfather lying in his pajamas on the sofa in his living room. My parents had hired a care-giver, a helper for my grandmother whose arthritis made it difficult for her to walk. The care-giver was a pretty Haitian woman in her twenties. She was there on the last day I last saw my grandfather. His eyes were watery and his gaze rarely focused. But when this woman helped him into a chair and put a towel over his shoulders, shaved his face and cut his wispy hair, he followed the movements of her hands with absolute devotion. When he looked at her you could tell he was smitten. I remember my grandmother tottering at the threshold of the living room, holding a heavy skillet in which she had fried something brown. She fumed and pestered my grandfather to eat. He closed his ears to her, beaming at the woman cutting his hair.
It is something approximating that jealous moment in which my grandmother stood on her arthritic feet as my grandfather watched the Haitian woman’s lovely dark hands that I have been trying to work toward. In Iowa, five years ago, weeks before my grandmother died, I imagined that I would tell a story bracketed by Seders that take place a year apart. Before the first, the grandfather of the boy through whom the story will be told is aging but not so old that he cannot take his grandson to sell his chametz. By the second he will be dying.
Early on, I decided to call the boy’s grandfather Solomon, hoping that this name, a big-ticket Old Testament name like my grandfather’s, is similar enough that a smidgeon of the man’s kindness would find its way into my prose describing the character. I imagine Solomon as a cross between my grandfather and my grandfather’s rabbi. He will be a bit of a frustrated academic, a man who would have worked with his mind had he remained in Austria but who came to America and had to work with his hands. I decided that Solomon won’t be quite as far gone as my grandfather was when I last saw him. He will be able to talk, albeit slowly and only with great effort. He will be conscious of the nearness of death and the petty foolishness of others will bear on him like the heaviest of burdens.
The grandmother in the story will be like my grandmother, except that her name will be Ruth. Like my grandmother did for her family, she will have worked to provide the money and visa Solomon needed to escape to America.
The boy will be David. What a name for a Jewish son; I still cannot decide if I like it or hate it. David will be in his freshman year at NYU at the time of the first Seder. David’s mother, Gloria, will only attend the second Seder. She is not going to be anything like my mother. She will be younger and ungrateful. She will have gone off to Berkeley for college in the 1960s (I cringed the first time I wrote that) and will have stayed in the Bay Area, and she will be divorced from David’s father. David’s father won’t be Jewish and he won’t have a role in the story.
I envision the middle part of the story, the part that takes place in the intervening year, as a time when David is exploring New York. His Jewishness, so easy to forget in California, will tug at him. I remember thinking I could tease something out of his unease that would make the moment when he sees his dying grandfather smitten and his hobbling grandmother jealous resonate in the way only fictions can. I envisioned a collision of amplified themes.
Although my mother’s home was, as I have said, happy, Gloria’s will not have been. The dining room in the apartment rented by Solomon and Ruth may look like my grandparents’ but Gloria will be a disappointment to her father and a source of frustration to her mother. She will miss the first Seder because she and Ruth have quarreled about Israel and the Palestinians. This will be the latest flare-up of an enduring battle. Gloria will remain in California and give David money to buy matzot. She will be a bitter woman, who cannot be in the room with her mother without feeling herself compelled to fight and argue. She will have said that what is happening in Gaza and the West Bank is a second Holocaust.
Also, I decided that this story will be funny. This story of Solomon and Ruth and bitter Gloria and David and the Haitian caregiver—I decided to call her Josephine, but made a promise to myself to think of something better—will allow for the kind of good lines we never speak in reality. The dark past and the present anger will yield to mundane humor. Ruth will be a little thick. Gloria will be self-important. Rather than having David study something of obvious weight like religion or philosophy, I decide to make him a Film & Television major. For all the great lines I am going to give him, I might as well have him pursue a special concentration in comedy. I worked out the first scene and a quasi-metafictional ending and I strung together three passable anecdotes as a middle. Then my grandmother died.
I had known she was sick. She was ninety. She had suffered a series of minor strokes and had developed an infection while in the hospital. The day before I left for New York, I told another writer about what I had been working on and what had happened. We stood in a university hallway as others walked past on both sides. I tried very hard to keep my voice steady.
“You didn’t kill her,” he said. His face was solemn. He was a notable writer, a man who had written a tough and honest memoir. “You did not kill her.”
“I know,” I said. Then I did something that I have written about many times but never quite believed was possible: I tried to laugh and instead choked up.
I was sure I had killed her, that in stealing a bit of my grandmother’s history, of her character, I had plucked a thread in some great, mysterious web that connects us, our physical beings, to everything that we have done or said or that has happened to us, that connects us to the people who love and hate us and the things that they have thought about us, that connects us to those who know us well or just remember us obliquely as unnamed persons passing in and out of their lives. I believed that web to be as fragile as my grandmother’s health. In plucking one thread, I had caused a rupture, a tear. Age had set her up and then I had finished her. I flew to New York. When I returned, I closed the file I had opened for this story and did not open it again for more than a year.
I keep drifting away from David and Solomon. I am sorry for that, again. I will come back to their story. I want it to mean as much to you as my grandparents’ stories mean to me. And, with the expression of that hope, I understand that this is slipping toward cliché. Metafiction was old when I was a baby. Every graduate student in creative writing I have ever known has written something about a particular struggle to craft a fiction that does justice to the characters they have imagined, something worthy of the sentiment we invest in our creations. Most of those writers have had the good sense to put what they’ve done in a drawer. I have tried to put this story in a drawer too, but I keep returning to it.
Originally, this was going to be called Next Year in Jerusalem. If you know the Passover Seder, you know where that comes from. Jews say that phrase at the end of the Seder. It is meant as an expression of hope, a statement made by exiles on the cusp of deliverance. Reading from the Haggadah, we say that in every generation, every person must feel as if he has personally come out of Egypt. As I was growing up, around my parents’ table, as we remembered the plagues visited upon the Egyptians and the Exodus, my father, who led, would look to my mother, my sister and me. He knew all the words by heart. “This,” he would say, “is on account of what the Lord did for me when he took me out of Egypt.”
My father was a barrel-chested man and the son of an abusive father. He knew before he had begun kindergarten that he wanted to become a doctor and so he became a surgeon, started working seventy-hour weeks in medical school, and kept going at that pace until just a few years before his death. Alone among people on both sides in my family, my father had blue eyes, eyes so pale that they often seemed gray. For many years, in the rural California county where my family eventually settled, he was the only surgeon within fifty miles. We lived in a house in the forest, ten miles outside of the county’s one real town. So many times, when I was in high school, I heard my father up in the middle of the night, the sounds of doors opening and closing, and him starting his car to make his way to the hospital in response to some emergency. He saved the lives of three of my friends. He delivered, by caesarian section, the children and grandchildren of several of my teachers. Once, when I was seventeen and a sheriff’s deputy found me with my girlfriend on a beach with a bottle of wine, the deputy, who was known to take special pleasure in arresting teenagers, let me pour out the wine and take the girl home. The next day, he called my father. What I am getting at with all this biography is this: when my father looked at you and said a line like that one from the Haggadah, it gave you chills.
The reader who knows the Haggadah will also recognize this story’s present title. “And you, the Lord, did bring forth your people Israel out of the land of Egypt with signs, and with wonders, and with a strong hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terror.” This is from Jeremiah and it is pretty good for chills too. I was vaguely in awe of God and his Biblical terrors. Real awe I reserved for my father.
There is no room in the fiction I am still trying to spin for you for a character like my father. First, he would have never married someone like Gloria, and I have too many characters already. Also my father makes no sense as a non-Jew—there simply isn’t any way to convert him that leaves anything essential about the man remaining—and what I have in mind for David won’t work if he isn’t of mixed parentage. Incidentally, I say what I have said about my father’s Jewishness even though he was a gun collector whose tastes in film and music ran toward Top Gun and its soundtrack. Finally, there is another reason for leaving him out, one I will come to in time. Before that though, I need to describe the ending I imagined five years ago in Iowa. This last reason won’t make sense unless you’ve read that.
The ending that we’ll get to in a moment is properly the second one I imagined. In the original, on the evening of that final Seder, with David and Gloria in Solomon and Ruth’s apartment, Josephine shaves Solomon to get him ready for the Seder while Ruth trembles in anger at her husband’s infatuation. Gloria needles her mother for her jealousy. Their bickering rises into shouting and accusations. While Josephine tries to soothe the old man, David stands with his hands over his ears, gazing at his grandfather and realizing now, finally, the depth of his grandparents’ suffering.
Of course, that didn’t really make sense. Petty jealousy—I don’t read Solomon’s crush as a great betrayal—does not amount to suffering. And even if Solomon did betray Ruth, what he did doesn’t have anything to do with the Holocaust, which is the motherlode of their suffering. At least it did not in the story that I imagined. That left the epiphany at the end looking as squarely contrived as it, in fact, was. So, five years ago in Iowa, shortly after writing that first ending, I junked it. Instead this is what I imagined:
After Josephine finishes with Solomon and helps him to the table, she remains for the Seder.
Ruth doesn’t yell. She is sad instead.
Gloria is bitter. She suspects that her father has never loved her mother. She blames them both for everything that has happened to them and to her.
Josephine and David are united, in David’s view, in their embarrassment and discomfort. David wonders what it would be like to make love to her.
And Solomon is tired. At his Seder table, as his only grandson struggles to read the elementary Hebrew of a children’s Haggadah, he sits with his life’s disappointments arrayed, with no promise of relief or resolution short of death. But, for Solomon, death will not come. He is my character. He will go no farther than I take him, and I have no intention of writing any scenes beyond that final Seder. Solomon bears my grandfather’s kindness and I have contrived to abandon him. I understand that I need to apologize.
The door buzzes. David rises to answer. When he unlatches the chain, I walk into the apartment.
“I am not Elijah,” I say.
No one laughs. They all know me.
“Solomon,” I say, “I have led you into a Sinai of my own making and I have stranded you here. I have no path to offer.” I look each of them in the eyes. “There will be no Jerusalem for any of you. I am sorry.” Solomon nods then beckons me closer. He is not angry. “Sit with me,” he says. “Take a chair. We have food. We will make a Seder. Sit here with all of us and together we will wait for whatever comes.”
More than a year after my grandmother’s death, long after I had written that second ending, an ending that, to my mind, almost excused my tepid beginning and aimless middle, I re-opened the story’s file. I was still living in Iowa. It was the last of three winters I spent there. I was sharing a house with another writer and an anthropologist, and I had my computer in my bedroom, set on a desk in front of a window that looked onto the snow-covered bushes and walks of a peaceful side-street.
In a fashion, I had been waiting with Solomon. Through all those intervening months, I had found myself repeating those final lines I had written. The problem of, as they say, earning them, daunted me. For a few days, as snow fell intermittently, I labored to sharpen the events. I muted Gloria. I made Jospehine a refugee too. David became younger, then older. I turned Solomon into the owner of a luncheonette, like my grandfather. Finally, when all simple improvements failed, I allowed myself to think of the story that I am now still trying to tell you in the way that short-story writers who are not especially honest with themselves allow themselves to think of those stories that are the hardest to write and that they hold most dear: I imagined it as a novel.
I had just begun writing a different novel. So thinking of this story as one that demanded that amount of room for its telling allowed me to close its file once more.
In August of that year I moved to Washington, DC to take a job teaching writing at a law school. The work was hard and it kept me busier than I had anticipated. For most of a year, I wrote nothing. Then, the spring semester ended. As I look back on the months that followed, what I recall is a sense of unhurriedness. By the middle of May I had finished grading my students’ papers. I needed only appear at my office for an hour or two a day to move along whatever bit of next-semester planning I had been assigned. And so, every day after lunch and all day on the weekends, I was free to take a sunny table outside a cafe on Wisconsin Avenue. I read and wrote, and watched the spring turn to summer.
Around this time, a friend from Iowa, who had happened to have moved to Washington at almost at the same time I did, sold her novel. Her agent, she told me, was looking for new clients. On the strength of a mostly-complete collection of short stories, this agent took me on. That fall, as she tried (without success) to sell the stories, I recall mentioning that I had another piece in the works—something that might be a novel eventually—a Passover story. That was an exaggeration bordering on outright dishonesty. No doubt I was trying to impress this agent, trying to say something that would compensate for the publishing market’s rejection of my stories. The truth was that I had not been thinking much about my Passover scene except that, during the long period when I had left it to sit, the story that I envisioned as David’s, as belonging to my proxy, had become Solomon’s. Sometimes, in the shower, I would repeat the words I had written as the ending just to feel them in my mouth. I would imagine the old man waiting patiently for me to make my entrance, meeting my dramatics with kindness and accommodation.
Also, that summer, I fell in love.
For reasons that I will get to in a moment, I took out a month’s subscription to an online dating services that catered to Jews. I asked out two women. With one I shared bad conversation over bad Chinese food, with the other good conversation over drinks. Then the woman who would become my fiancé e-mailed me. She was from Chicago and she ran athletic leagues for the Jewish Community Center. She suggested we meet at a Mexican restaurant in Adams-Morgan for Saturday brunch. At some point during the three hours we spent together that morning and afternoon on the roof of that restaurant, I realized I was captivated. She was wearing a knee-length, colorful skirt. She had broad shoulders, like a swimmer’s, and because she had been golfing a lot her arms were very tan. When we walked back to her apartment, she teased me a little. I would not call what I felt love at first sight. I might instead say that, from the first moment I saw her, I understood that her face would always be arresting to me. I might say that I knew seeing this woman laugh would always give me pleasure. I might simply say that it was the kind of first date that would make a young man begin to speak with conviction of things to pass in years ahead.
But I need to explain to you what drove me to the Internet and that Jewish dating website. As I have said, during my first school year in Washington, I wrote very little. I dated even less. I met a great many bright, attractive, charming women that year; they were my students. I knew almost no one from outside of work. When the spring term ended, I decided I would go on a few dates, telling myself that trying some new restaurants and bars would compensate for whatever might not happen in the romance department.
In Iowa my last serious girlfriend had been a woman from California who was a couple of years older than I was. Several times she had let me know that she thought it would be a good idea if we were to marry. This would have been a very bad idea for reasons too numerous to set out here. Once though, when she had gently raised the subject of marriage and I had tried to put her off gently, she brought up religion.
She let me know that she would be willing to do Chanukah. “I’d come down every morning,” she said, “and I’d light those lights.”
She also suggested that if she could do that, I could do Christmas.
A thought I had in going with the Jewish dating site was that, if anything serious developed, I would be able to avoid that kind of negotiation. I should also admit that, when I was young, on more than one occasion my father had told my sister and me that we would be dead to him if we married non-Jews. But that was not something on my mind. By that dating summer in Washington, my father had been dead nine years, and even now I cannot be sure how serious his threat was. It’s my recollection that one of the times he made it followed a family outing to see a community college production of Fiddler on the Roof in Stockton, California. It could be that he was caught up in that story. Or it could be that he was horrified by what the goyim had done to it. He was a man who liked his pork fried rice. What I do know is that my father would be delighted by my fiancé.
I need to tell you now about the circumstances surrounding my father’s death. The ending here will not make sense unless I do. I’ve been going on about my fiancé and love and spinning out these happy thoughts. Well, here comes the darkness.
My father died on a Sunday evening, in early February 1994, in the Pan-Pacific Hotel in San Francisco. I had been in the City with my parents that weekend before and then driven back to Los Angeles, where I was in my second year of law school. They had stayed on for another night to visit with friends. Around seven o’clock, my mother went down to the front desk to see about a fax. When she returned to their room, she found my father dead on the bathroom floor.
According to the autopsy, my father died of peritonitis, toxic shock brought about by a perforation of his bowel. More fundamentally, he died of complications from metastized colorectal cancer. The first anyone learned of this cancer was in his autopsy. My father had been sick. For two or three years before his death, he had suffered from periodic fevers and abdominal discomfort. Early on, he had tested positive for giardiasis, an intestinal disorder caused by a one-celled microscopic parasite. At home, my family drew its water from a creek that ran beside our house. My mother had had the creek tested when we had first moved into the house; the technician she hired told her she could bottle the water and sell it. Still, it was a creek in the woods and animals came to drink from it and, presumably, some infected animal had died in it or along its banks and the parasite had been released into the water and drawn up through our intake pipe into our home.
My father took antibiotics and changed his diet. The symptoms faded and returned. There was a time, my mother told me later, when there had been blood in his stool. But that ended and he seemed to get better. She told me also that once, more than a year after the symptoms had begun, he had told her that if his illness was due to something besides what he thought he had, he should have been dead already. He didn’t trust the other doctors in our county to examine him. He would not go anywhere else to get a diagnosis. And, of course, my mother, my sister and I took his word about his health as if it had come from God. My father was a brilliant doctor. He saved lives. He knew his medicine. In the days leading up to that final weekend, he was feverish and had complained about his gut. He had just begun taking Tylenol for the pain.
On a snowy day in February, we buried him in the plot his parents had bought for my parents as a wedding present (another story I won’t go into). The plot is in a cemetery in Valhalla, New York that is tucked into a nice little valley. On that day the hills were white and the trees were bare. Caps of snow had formed atop the stones mourners had left at the other graves. I remember the wind hurting my ears and the parked backhoe that the cemetery people had used to tear open the frozen ground. A cemetery rabbi performed the service. We told him that my father had liked Michael Jordan and Joe Montana and that he had loved being a surgeon. The rabbi repeated these things in his eulogy. It was not a bad speech. I like the idea that my father is buried in a place called Valhalla. The name fits. After the funeral, my mother, sister and I returned to California. People—colleagues, patients, friends—called on us in the days that followed. I went through my father’s things. He had ordered a new handgun just before his death and the waiting period had expired. I told the shop to cancel the sale. In the leather briefcase my father took to his clinic every day, along with various papers and bills and the science fiction novel he had been reading, I found a thick pamphlet on colorectal cancer. There were no tabs or marks on the pamphlet, nothing besides its inclusion in the briefcase to indicate that it had been read.
I’ve taken you too far away from the story I promised to tell. Worse, I’ve put a “true” story beside it and it seems these days that fiction cannot compete with non-fiction. That, I think, is a shame. I need you, for now, to hold onto both of these stories, to refrain for a moment from trying to sift what is literally true from what I have borrowed or abridged or invented. So, one final digression, then I will give you the end of this story I have been struggling with. In the end, it is only the end that matters.
A few months ago, after I had asked the woman who is now my fiancé to marry me and she and I had moved in together, a friend of mine who happens to be the literary editor of the magazine you are reading now and who has read sections of the novel that I am still working on, asked if some of it might be excerpted and made into a story. He was trying to help me out, give me an easy publication at a time when I was struggling to find time to write. Some of the characters in that novel are what I would call incidentally Jewish. Their religion is both as essential and as irrelevant to the novel as their hair color. My friend thought that was provocative in a limited way. He wondered what a short-story with characters identified as Jews but whose religion has nothing to do with the plot might say about being Jewish in contemporary America. I told him that nothing from the novel really stood on its own. Then I mentioned that I had a Passover story he might like. It needed, I told him, just a little work.
About a week later, as I was standing in the shower in the row house on Capitol Hill that my fiancé and I had rented, the end of Solomon’s story came to me. It is a stretch to ascribe to a moment of creative insight the clarity that is supposed to mark a garden-variety literary epiphany. But let me tell you, when I turned off that shower and dressed and came downstairs to write what you are reading now, what I felt was remarkable.
And so, after all this build up, here is the ending I imagine:
I’m still a character in Solomon’s story.
In the apartment, they still look at me when I walk into the dining room. Again, no one laughs at my Elijah joke.
“Ruth,” I say, “you are not my grandmother. Solomon, you are not my grandfather. Gloria, you are not my mother. David, you are not me. I have led you into a Sinai of my own making. I have no path to offer.”
“There won’t be a Jerusalem either. Not for any of us,” David says. “Big deal.” He waves a hand before his face. “Also,” he adds, “metafiction is cheap. You basically said so yourself.”
“Yes, but this story is important to me.”
“Which,” David says, “yours or ours?”
“They are the same story. That is what I have been getting at. It’s what I realized a few minutes ago in the shower. You all are helping me tell my story.”
“That,” he says, “is what makes this utterly solipsistic.”
“I hate it that you named me Gloria,” Gloria says. “You named me that because of Sally Struthers from All in the Family. You think she was whiney.”
“That’s true,” I say.
“You made me a bitch,” she says. “At least Sally Struthers was nice.”
“I’m sorry. But I have been carrying you around in my head for five years. I have some real emotion here. You are all important to me.”
David crosses his arms. “If you say that you couldn’t have written this without us, I’m going to punch you in the mouth.”
Ruth gives me a look of consternation. “What I don’t understand,” she says, “is why your grandmother would be vain enough to be jealous because of your grandfather’s puppy love but would allow herself to be seen in orthotic clogs and support hose.”
“Arthritis is tough,” I say. “It robs people of dignity.”
“You’re the thief,” she says. “You stole that awful, painful moment of jealousy from your grandmother and you would share it with the world even though it doesn’t even have anything to do with what you really wanted to write about. For that theft, you killed your grandmother.”
Solomon clears his throat. “A Sinai of your own making,” he scoffs.
“There’s some poetry there,” I tell him. “I’ve been repeating those words to myself for years. I can’t stop.”
“For five years you’ve thought about us from time to time. What is that compared with forty years in the desert?”
“Not much,” I say. “I admit that.”
“You are not God,” Solomon says. “A writer isn’t God. You made nothing. You haven’t created a world. You haven’t even created this apartment and this dining room. You stole them from your memory. And your memory was wrong. There was, for example, no piano.”
“There was,” I say. “My uncle played it. My mother’s brother.”
“Ha!” Ruth says. “Did you kill this uncle too?”
“I had to cut him out. There were too many characters. I’ve said that.”
“Do I not get to speak?” Josephine asks. “Or am I just a black prop here?”
“No,” I say. “My grandfather was smitten.”
“Not with me he wasn’t. You remember the look on your grandfather’s face. You don’t remember the face of the woman he was looking at. You know that she was black and an immigrant. You know that when your grandmother was declining, your mother hired a woman from Ghana to help her. You’re pretty sure your grandfather’s helper was from the Caribbean. Haiti was a guess.”
“This is not a workshop,” I say. “I don’t have to take this.”
“Yes,” David says, “but all this present tense writing makes it sound like you think this is a movie. And it doesn’t make sense to use the present tense to describe past events. You’re a writing teacher. That’s basic.”
“The experience of reading is a present tense act,” I say to him. “So is creation.”
“You’re spouting on about creation again,” Solomon says. “A writer is not God. He should not make himself superior to his characters. Look what you did to David. You had him slobbering over Josephine. You had him reading in poor Hebrew from a children’s book. But will you admit to your readers that you had to confirm much of the Judaica that appears here using Google? Doesn’t that say more about a certain kind of Jew in contemporary America than anything you’ve created?”
“The things I checked were spellings mostly.”
“Will you admit that at your grandmother’s funeral, when the rabbi, who was himself sick and old, asked you to bend to read the Hebrew name on your great-grandfather’s gravestone, you guessed?”
“There were no vowels and I’m pretty sure I got it right. And none of that has to do with this story.”
“Don’t sit with us,” Solomon says. “We are not waiting for anything. You,” he says, “you are the one who is waiting. You will wait for the rest of your life, forty years if you are lucky and you don’t die young as your father did.”
“I don’t know about that,” I say.
“Yes you do,” Solomon says. “Tell me,” he demands, “why did you change the name of this ‘story,’ as you keep calling it? Why not Next Year in Jerusalem? You changed the title because you realized it wasn’t going to be just a clever way of alluding to how you had abandoned us. You changed it when you shifted your focus away from me, because the old title would have made you uncomfortable. You changed it because it’s for you that there will be no figurative Jerusalem.”
With this, I banish my characters. I will not think of them again or, at least, I do not believe I will want to. Solomon, as befits a man of his name, has my number cold. I will be waiting for the rest of my life to know if my father knew that he was going to die. I will live the rest of my life wondering why, if he did know, he told no one. I will never have my answers.
All the other untold and unknown stories, the ones about the escape from Austria that my grandfather and great-uncle never shared, the precise reasons for my grandmother’s early contempt for my father, his own story of abuse and early unhappiness, the stories of the Austrian guard who turned his back at that station, of the women who cared for my grandparents before they died, of the woman my grandfather helped, of the old rabbi, of my mother’s brother, of the friends of mine my father saved, of my high school and Iowa girlfriends, of my teachers and the children and grandchildren my father brought into the world: I don’t and won’t dwell on any of these. I have no mind for the future. I needed to create Solomon to admit my Sinai. And now, having admitted it, you will understand why I cannot disguise my father as one of my characters. Think what that would have done to the story. I would not have waited for the second Seder. I would not have waited for David to open the door for me. I would have appeared in the dining room on the first night, asking, begging him to tell me what I want to know. There wouldn’t be much drama in that. No arc. No development. You would be entirely within your rights not to care about any of it.
As for the new title, which has come to me as I have been sitting here writing, it is, I think, a less commanding, less arresting phrase than “Next year in Jerusalem” or “This is on account of what the Lord did for me when he took me out of Egypt.” It is also, I think, a little nonsensical, perhaps the product of some careless English translator working just a few centuries ago. But the line has a bit of magic to it for me. My father always said it with flair. As he spoke, he would outstretch his own arm and open his own strong, surgeon’s right hand. He had small hands for a man of such a large personality, but they were hands that could reach into the most delicate places. When he pronounced the old words, I could believe that I had been delivered out of bondage. Reading them now reminds me of him, and I miss him very much.