Mirrors covered and front door ajar, collar torn and sporting a shadow of beard, Larry leans against the granite top of his sister’s fancy kitchen island. He says, “Everyone’s staring at me. All of your friends.”
“That’s what people do,” Dina tells him. “They come, they say kind things, they feel uncomfortable, and they stare.”
It’s only hours after the funeral and, honestly, Larry hates himself for bringing it up. He really thought nothing could add to the despair of his father’s loss. But this, this quiet, muttering stream of well-wishers has made it, for Larry, all the worse.
What he’s taking issue with is the look that he’s getting. It’s not the usual pained nod one naturally offers. Larry’s convinced there’s a bite to it—condemning.
He doesn’t know how he’ll survive a week trapped in his sister’s home, in his sister’s community, when every time one of the visitors glances over, Larry feels himself appraised.
And so he keeps raising his hand to the top of his head, checking for the yarmulke, sitting there like a hubcap for all its emotional weight. Its absence at his own father’s shivah would be the same as standing naked before them.
Sneaked off into the kitchen with his sister, their first moment alone, Larry unloads his complaints in a hiss.
“Tell them,” he says, “to stop looking my way.”
“At a condolence call? You want them not to look at the—” Dina pauses. “What are we, the condoled? The aggrieved?”
“We are the grievances.”
“The mourners!” she says. “You want them not to show that they care?”
“I want them not to judge me just because I left their stupid world.”
Dina laughs, her first since they put their father into the ground.
“This is so like you,” his sister tells him. “To make it negative, to complicate what can’t be any more simple. This bitterness in the face of what is pure niceness is on you.”
“On me? Are you kidding? Are you really saying that—today?”
“You know that I am, little brother. I love you, Larry, but if you choose, even, yes, today,
to throw one of your fits—”
“Don’t yell, Larry. People can hear.”
“Fuck the people.”
“Oh, that’s nice.”
“I mean it,” Larry says, thinking that “fit” may not be a completely inappropriate word.
“Go on then. Curse at the terrible people who will cook for us, and feed us, and drive carpool for me all week, and make sure that we don’t mourn alone. Yes, curse at the nice men who washed our father’s body and prepared the shroud, and laid the shards atop his eyes, and now come to make a minyan in this house.”
“Spare me, Dina. It’s my mourning too, and I should get to feel at home, in your home, as much as them.”
“Who’s saying different? But you have to understand, they aren’t used to it, Larry. Used to what you do.” Dina takes a breath, reorganizing her thoughts. “Memphis Jews are even more conservative than the ones we grew up with. In Brooklyn, even the edgeless have an edge. Here, if you’re going to be radical, people may, a little bit, stare.”
Larry is now the one staring. He stands before his older sister, giving her the best of his blank looks. About what he was doing that anyone could think radical, Larry has no clue.
“Tell me you don’t know,” she says. “Honestly, tell me it’s not on purpose. That you’ve actually forgotten so much.”
“Honestly, honestly, I don’t. I”—and here Larry was going to swear, which Orthodox Jews are forbidden to do. In deference not so much to his sister, but to the opportunity to prove his innocence (that he is not as odd a duck as they think him, that he isn’t doing anything anyone could consider wrong), Larry rights his sentence and, with a stutter, ends it on the word “promise”—“I promise,” he says.
“You really need me to tell you?”
Dina rolls her eyes as she has since Larry was old enough to understand what it meant, and likely before. She explains what she’s sure he knows and is—without a doubt—doing on purpose.
“You step out into the yard. You read a book,” she says, with true sisterly fury. “You sit, like it’s nothing, on a regular chair.”
Larry straightens up at that, pushing with his hands against the counter, stepping back into the radius of his offense.
He gives himself a moment, letting the blood flow to his cheeks, his face reddening, as if, like a chameleon, he can change color at will.
“It’s no reason to treat me like a freak,” he says. “They’re just stupid rules.”
But even as he says it, rebellious little brother that he is, black sheep, and, yes, apostate, Larry understands that for Dina, they’re much more than that.
For him to step out of the house. To read a page for pleasure. And, above all, to reject that special shivah perch—the low chair, the wooden box, a couch with the cushions removed. It is too much. That ancient pose, the mourner sitting slope shouldered, ashen faced, and close to the ground, it represents for Dina pure sorrow.
“A stupid chair isn’t what makes it mourning,” Larry says, doubling down.
Though he knows, for his sister, a chair absolutely did.
There lies Larry, wedged in his nephew’s narrow bed, in his nephew’s narrow room, freezing under a thin polyester comforter in Dina’s arctically over-air-conditioned house.
Sleep does not come on the first night of mourning, when Larry, mustering all his Zazen-based mindfulness, cannot disengage from the shock of his own thoughts.
He wants to scream “Daddy.” And he wants to scream “Mommy.” And it’s that pure regression, on top of the grief, that has him so alarmed. A grown man, frustrated with his frustration, wrestling to keep his hurt pent up.
If Larry wasn’t already headed there on his own, Dina had nudged him the rest of the way back to childhood by sticking him in an eleven-year-old’s lair, instead of settling her thirty-year-old brother in the more uncle-worthy den.
But the den is where their father had taken sick during his Passover visit. It’s where he’d convalesced between the many trips to the hospital, until his final, fateful admittance. That room was blocked off in Dina’s mind.
And so this skinny bed for Larry, on which he flips to face the glow of his nephew’s aquarium.
Its watery light bathes him while illuminating the wall opposite, the fish gliding before a shelf of giant trophies, the likes of which Larry—in his sporting years—had never won.
And now he does not want to yell for his parents, but yell at
his sister, furious over what, he couldn’t exactly say. Maybe it’s the light of the tank, turned blinding, keeping a sleepless man awake? Maybe it’s because, in their already tiny family, his big sister hadn’t been able to make their father not die? Or because, when he was his nephew’s tender age, Dina, older, wiser, hadn’t been able to stop their flaky mother from running off to Marin County with Dennis, her ridiculous, new-age husband—the newlyweds fresh from a marriage that took place the very day their dear father held the get
in his hands.
Their mother had literally gone from her divorce in rabbinical court straight to a chuppah in Prospect Park. She’d forced Larry to hold one of the supporting poles, while Dennis broke the glass, stomping it with his fat, Birkenstocked foot.
Larry shakes his head at the memory, and, pressing a pillow over his face until he sees stars, he figures he’s maybe mad at Dina simply for representing all that was left of the only family unit he’d ever known.
Now it was the two of them, alone.
Except Dina is not alone. She has her husband, and her three kids, and the hundreds of religious clanspeople who’d pour in all week. These southern, Memphis, Gracelandian Jews who’d never give up or go away.
Larry, overcome with exhaustion and emotion, with the endless exploration of his sorrows, gives up and crawls from bed. He yanks the fish tank’s plug from the wall with a force edging on violence and sighs with relief as a restorative darkness floods the room.
Feeling his way back under the boy’s blanket, tucking himself in, Larry floats toward sleep in that wonderful blackness.
But he can’t let go, haunted as he is by thoughts of death and of dirt, of gravel thrumming against coffin, and the literal specter of a soul formally separated from its body—his father’s ghost on the loose. With Larry’s own body stretched out in that narrow casket of a bed and chock-full of superstition, it’s as if he’d dug up his old religious self just as his father was buried.
Eyes closed, he tries again and again to let himself drift. But his ears train themselves on the fish in the tank, concerned with their well-being.
More and more, Larry worries that by pulling the plug, he’d turned off the whole contraption, that he’d somehow suffocate the fish, or undrown them, or whatever the term is for stopping things that breathe underwater from doing whatever it is that they do.
He can’t, quite obviously, hear them swimming, so he instead tries to isolate the sound of the water filter—separating it from the unfamiliar electrical hum of the house. But everything is overpowered by the drone of whatever tireless compressor is anchored nearby, and forcing all that icy air through the vent above his bed.
So Larry opens his eyes again, stirring further, and strains his vision against the darkness, hoping to make out the smokestack of bubbles rising from that stupid aquarium’s pump.
He is—and he knows it’s not rational—fully terrified that the family will wake to another set of funerals, all of them his idiotic, avuncular fault. He pictures them all crunched into the bathroom in their funereal clothing, now poised over one of the house’s stately, silent-flush, rich-person toilets. Larry’s nephew will preside while his two nieces, like pallbearers, hold a fish-heavy skimmer, the kids watching those murdered charges tumble off to their maker, just as they had with their grandfather the morning before.
Every time sleep comes, the fish pull Larry back, until he drags himself from bed to plug the damn thing back in.
With the light burning, Larry gives himself over to the endlessness of the night, lying there missing his father—loving his father—who, white bearded and full of faith, had been the only one from Larry’s old life, from their cloistered community, who saw his true nature, loving Larry for exactly who he was and cherishing the man he’d become.
“I want you to know,” his father had said, from his hospital bed, “that you, in this world and the next, will be fine.”
“You think?” Larry had said.
“Do you know what I think?”
“I think the World to Come is just a long table where everyone, on both sides, sits, men and women—”
“No pets,” his father said.
“Fine,” his father said. “Under the table, the dogs and cats. But no birds. I can’t picture it with birds.”
“Fair enough,” Larry said.
“This long table, with its perfect white cloth, is set not with food and drink, but with the Torah, copies for everyone, so that you can read to yourself or learn in pairs.”
“I can picture that.”
“And you know what happens at this table?”
“All you do for eternity is study. Nothing else. No interruption. No day, no night, no weekend or holiday, no y’mei chag
For it is the afterlife. Time unbroken—all of it given over to one purpose.”
“Sure,” Larry said.
“This is why, for the souls gathered, that single place serves as both Heaven and Hell.”
Here his father had gulped at the air, fishlike himself.
“It goes like this,” his father said. “If you have a good mind and a good heart, if you like to learn Torah and take interest in knowledge, then studying for eternity is, for you, Heaven.”
He had looked to his son, and Larry had nodded.
“And if all you want is to waste time on narishkeit
and bunk stuff, to think your greedy thoughts though the money is gone, and to think your dirty thoughts though your schvontz
is buried down below, then for you that same table is torture. Then sitting there, with your bad brain, you find yourself in Hell.”
Larry considered the idea, poised at his father’s side.
Partly, he’d thought it was funny, and thought about making a Larry-like joke. But being his father’s son, Larry also took it seriously. He was awed at the notion and somehow afraid.
His father, who could read him like no one else, reached out with his liver-spotted hand and, laying it atop Larry’s, said, “I’m sure, in that place, for you, it would be Heaven.”
Larry had gasped, not from surprise, but choking back the rush of comfort he took in his father’s ruling.
“Trust me, Larry, it’s all right that you don’t believe. This period in your life—it feels like it’s forever, but if you’re lucky, life is long and each of these forevers will one day seem fleeting. You think when I was your age that I could have pictured this? That it would be 1999—the edge of a new millennium—and I’d be saying goodbye to a handsome, grown son at the end of my days? I can tell you that even back then, I already felt old and thought I knew it all.” His father gave a weak squeeze to Larry’s hand. “You’re a good boy. And I pray that I don’t see you across from me until you reach a hundred and twenty years. But for you, my boychick, when it’s the right time to take your seat, that table will feel like a blessing without end.”
Copyright © 2019 by Nathan Englander. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.