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A Guest Quarters story
And so understand that ordinary people are messengers of the most high. They go about their tasks in holy anonymity, often, even unknown to themselves. Yet, if they had not been there, if they had not said what they said or did what they did, it would not be the same way it is now. We would not be the way we are now. Never forget that you, too, yourself may be a messenger. Perhaps one whose errand extends over several lifetimes. —Lawrence Kushner
They say a tzadik, a righteous one, is born and dies on the same day.
My Grandmother, of blessed memory, was wearing one of her long, shapeless black house dresses when she was dying. I sat with her, hulling strawberries. She was past needing to wear a scarf over her hair anymore. The weight of them on her balding, wisp-covered head was too painful. She lay in the hospital bed in her mint green living room, breathing quietly, while my knife flashed in and out of strawberry flesh, leaving their blood on my pale hands. I was nineteen. I wasn't ready for the weight bearing down on me, of her illness, what it was doing to my family. There was a bulky black tape recorder between us, tape hissing away.
"Your great-grandmother would hold the Pesach seder beneath the dining room table, under the tablecloth. She would draw the curtains and lock the doors before she began. She would pray in a whisper."
Gleaming silver cut into red, bleeding flesh; like a mesmerist's trick, my knife and hands moving as if on their own as she spoke to me. I would look up like a twitch of a dog's tail, constant and reflexive, to look at her too-wide blue eyes.
"Your great-grandfather was just as careful. He would draw the trailer curtains before he lit the Sabbath candles when we would leave every summer. He never said the prayers loud enough for someone outside to hear them. Never."
The green heads of the strawberries dropped with quieter and quieter thuds into one pot, as the rest of the berries tumbled from my hands into the other. My jeans were spattered with strawberry juice and seeds. "Tell me about Zayde, Gram."
"He was a reporter. For one of the papers back east. But he and my mother could never get along. After they married they changed. She forbade him to pray in the house, to put up a mezuzah, to talk about his parents. That drove a spike between them." She coughed, and brought her water up to her mouth, thin wrist trembling with effort. There were only light pink stains on her hands, having long given up on having the strength to hull strawberries.
"He started praying again when they divorced. When he took me on the circuit every summer, he would pray in front of me, all the time. But it was too hard for me to learn, and he never offered to teach me. He never hid it, he just.... There are things that can be open secrets. You see them, hear them, but they never tell you. You have to make your own way to the answer."
She closed her too bright eyes while I watched her, knife slowing and finally silent in my hand, the last hull and berry separated.
"Take the berries to your mother. She'll show you what to do."
I shut the tape recorder off before I excused myself, tucking her in with red hands and a pale face, before I went to find my mother. I would talk to her, a few more times before we left that night. My Gram would die the day she was born, a scant month later. They say a tzadik is born and dies on the same day. But they never told me what a tzadik was. Some secrets you have to learn yourself.
At twenty-four, I moved back in with my parents. I'm the middle-child, a college dropout, and no longer married. I'd say I'm a glorious failure, but Gram was married twice and had a guy on the side by the time she was in her forties. By that sort of track record, I'm behind.
I stared at the basement ceiling, wondering if I want to bother getting out of bed. It's snowy outside. It's probably noon by now. This gave me about three, four hours until Shabbat. If we were at my parents place, I wouldn't give a shit. But we're at Gram's house and I feel distinctly uncomfortable here.
Aunt Miriam's having her third kid, and since she's the one who lives in this house now, I guess...we're at Aunt Miriam's, for a baby shower. I'm…so excited. Color me thrilled beyond comprehension. Still, there's daylight to burn, so I get out of bed. I weigh eating with my family, dealing with the silent looks, and getting drafted to help make little party favors for the baby shower.
I decided I'd rather shove my yarmulke down on my hair, and sneak up the basement stairs, with an escape plan of 'out the back door.' I've got my jacket and boots in hand, purse slung over my shoulder, when Rivy spots me. She's got my back, though—I catch the smell of coffee and pastry as she shuts the door to the mudroom at the back of the house, loudly proclaiming "It's too cold to have the door open, Mom. You'll catch your death."
Oh Rivy, you are my champion.
I owe her big time, and that starts with not foiling my escape. I slip my boots and my jacket on, zipping up quickly and skulking around a corner of the house, as quietly as I can manage. The hill is a trick and a half, but there are no windows on this end of the house. I nearly take myself out on the neighbor's picket fence. After jamming my hands in my pockets as I do my damndest to speed walk through the winter air.
Colder than a well-digger's ass is what my Dad says. My head's full of asinine family sayings, and her voice, my Gram's voice, while I make for the bodega. I keep my hands balled into fists in my pockets, focusing on the pavement, and the fur trim on my boots. I don't want to be here. I'd rather be back at the paper, but the internship's done and there's no way they can get the budget for one more reporter. It was six months free labor, walking in Zayde's shoes. I'm warmer, when I cross the bodega threshold, unzipping my coat.
Still bitter, though. I zombie-walk my way through the aisles, warming up my frozen feet. It's only six tiny blocks, but its freezing. I grab an orange soda and a bag of chips, listening to the soft strains of mariachi music turned down low on the little stereo behind the counter. There are a handful of other people here. It's winter break, Friday afternoon. There are two neighborhood kids, a trio of snowboarders discussing cheap wine choices, a guy who looks a little too hipster, even for this neighborhood.
I'm kneeling next to the kids on the floor, purse on the ground a few feet away where I dropped it to dive for the bins, focused single-mindedly on angling my hand into in pursuit of a piece of tamarind candy, when the door bells chime. It takes me about three heartbeats to feel the change in the air. The kids don't feel it, but I hear the snowboarders hush. My hand closes on the tamarind candy as I hear a voice from near the door. I drop the candy with a spasm when his voice hits the air, rock-hard and empty of hesitation. "Get down on the ground! Nobody move!"
I flatten out next to the kids, the three of us taking up an entire middle of an aisle, as I lace my hands over the back of my head. I startle, bite down on my lip when I hear the discharge of a gun. The girl in the trio of snowboarders shrieks.
She quiets, after he hits her, moaning softly on the floor. My ears are still ringing as I feel like my whole body is too-tight, on fire, nauseated, and terrified. I'd come by for candy and a pack of cigarettes. I can feel both kids stiff beside me, reaching across my back to clutch each other's hands. I can smell gunpowder and blood, and I shut my eyes. I can hear him empty the till in its entirety, down to coins. When he's digging pennies out, I start praying. My lips brush against the tile while I try to form words, fingers shaking on the back of my neck, my head.
Sh'ma Yisrael... (Hear O Israel...)
I stop, when I hear his boots on the tile, near the aisle where the kids and I are facedown. Something about his pausing spurns me on, and I keep going.
...Baruch Shem... (...Blessed be the Name...)
I only consciously register a few words out of every five, maybe. But I keep praying. And he keeps walking past. And I just keep praying. I say the Sh'ma over and over, lips kissing dirt and tile wax. I hear the bells over the door jingle. I say it a few more times, even as the only other sounds in the bodega are children whimpering, the girl crying, and the wheezing breaths of the clerk.
I have no idea what just happened.
I get home in time for Shabbos dinner. Rivy is the first one to spot me, taking in the jeans smeared with dried blood, blouse speckled with the same, from where the clerk had coughed while I knelt over him, checking his pulse. She's the only one brave enough to wade into our suddenly concerned family, everyone shouting at once, brown eyes wide as she looks up at me. She takes my trembling, pink stained hand in her clean ones. "Is it your blood, Johanna?"
My father is the one to convince everyone to step back, and let him and Rivy take me upstairs. While Rivy turns on the bath water, he asks me if any of the blood, any at all, was mine.
He asks me what happened.
I tell him; briefly, in flat, small words. I went for a walk. I had gone to stretch my legs. I went to the bodega, and an armed man in a mask came in. He pistol whipped a girl. He shot the clerk. He took the money and left. I went to help the clerk. The police came. Medics. They had taken our statements. We had been allowed to leave. He kisses my cheek, squeezes my elbow, and leaves the bathroom.
Rivy waits until he begins the descent of the staircase before she turns off the faucets. "Do you want new clothes, Johnny?"
I smile at her, eyes watering. "I'd like that."
She slips out like a ghost, leaving me sealed in the bathroom, ass going numb on the edge of the claw foot tub. I do what I need to. I slip off my sneakers, peel out of my jacket, my blouse, my jeans. I drop my underwear in a separate pile from the blood stained clothes, subjecting my bra to careful examination. I drop it on top of the underwear, before I slip off my watch, my rings, and pull my hair down before I get in the water.
The smell of blood makes me think of—sirens like screams—how much I don't want to think anymore. I let myself sink down into the water, holding my breath before I screw my eyes shut to dunk under the water.
Baruch Atah... (Blessed art thou...)
The first two words of the blessing linger on my tongue, unvoiced, as I dunk under again, water nearly sloshing out of the tub. They go unsaid after the third dunk, blinking water off spiked eyelashes as I wrap my arms around my legs, bringing them to my chest as I sit in the tub, one finger idly touching the bracelet on my right wrist. I don't feel grateful. I don't know if I feel supported, or protected. I don't know a lot of things, right now, and that's what makes me close my eyes and say the prayer anyway. I can remember my Gram, eyes bright, the first time I prayed for her.
...Melech ha'olam, shecheyanu... (...Sovereign of the universe, who has kept us alive...)
I scrub at my skin, washing off the blood and soap, thinking about how there's so little blood to wash off, because it seeps into the cracks, past the faded tan and freckles. I scrub anyway, because you need to, after you kneel in someone's blood, after their blood seeps into your skin, your flesh, and your dreams.
No one bothers me in the tub. I find the clothes outside the door when I finally bring myself to pull the beaded chain, sitting there wrapped in a towel to watch the water drain away. Olive green pants, cargo pockets, tank top. Underwear. Bra. I get dressed, braid my hair back, and take one last look in the mirror, before I shut out the light and go downstairs.
I stop long enough in the dining room doorway, eyes downcast, to murmur "Erev tov," before I walk out on my relatives. They don't say anything as I make my way to the basement, and I don't really blame them. Once I get the door open and shut it behind me, I stand barefoot on the cold wood for a minute. My family has never asked me to talk about anything in my life. They didn't ask me to talk when Gram died. They didn't ask me to talk about all the reasons I was leaving the States, or why I came back. They never asked about what happened while I was gone.
That's why coming down the stairs to see Rivy sitting on the guest bed is a surprise. I take a deep breath, before she breaks off a piece of the bread in her hands, offering it to me. "Your Dad made you a plate. It's in the fridge. But I know you like my Mom's challah." She swallows, looking at me with those wide brown eyes, and I let the breath out, crossing the carpet to sit down beside her, taking the proffered bread.
We eat together, perched on the edge of the bed, chewing and swallowing, sesame and egg glaze sharp with salt on the tongue. My duffel bag has been moved to the floor, the tightly folded clothes draped out of the unzipped bag; evidence of Rivy's hurried search for my clothes.
"Were you scared?"
I swallow my bite, pondering the question. "Yeah. S'why I prayed."
"Mom says you're not religious." Rivy voices her mother's sentiment with uncertainty, watching me from the corner of her eye. Her bites are smaller, taking her time to work through the bread.
"It's not..," I sigh, looking at the wall. "Rivkele, it's not like I hate Him, or something. I don't..," I exhale again, frustrated. Thinking. "There are all sorts of different ways to be religious, okay? And some of the stuff we do to be religious, I have a hard time with right now." I lick my lips. "I've just got some stuff to deal with." I pop the last shred of challah into my mouth, suddenly not hungry but wanting to buy myself time. I chew slowly, as I wipe salt off my fingers on the edge of a cargo pocket. "Look, is there something you want to talk about? Is that why you're down here?"
She whispers something, and I swallow reflexively. "What did you say, Rivy?" Her voice starts to crumple a little, chest shuddering as she takes a deep breath, raising her voice to where I can hear her.
"I s-said that," the crying starts in earnest, words barely out of her mouth, "I keep having b-bad d-d-dreams about you."
I hold her, one small fist crushing challah in it as she presses her face against my chest, weeping while I rub her back, confused and worried. I rock her as she puts her arms around me, kissing the top of her head. "Shh. Shh, tsatskelah. It's okay. It's okay Riv, I'm here, kiddo. Just take deep breaths." I coach her, just like—no, don't want to think about it. I just take deep, slow breaths, chest rising and falling under her ear, slow and steady, hissing through my lips, my teeth. It's like the sound of oxygen through tubing, and I rock her in my arms, steady as the sound, while she keeps crying.
We're like that for a long time, until her tears dry up. My chest is damp when it's done, and there are crumbs of challah on the quilt, the floor. Bread crumbs aren't blood. I simply wipe them off the quilt with a hand, guiding Rivy into the bed while she hangs on like a spider monkey, pulling the quilt up around us. She's still too upset to talk, so I keep rubbing her back, pressing kisses into her hair, holding her close to me.
It's been too long a week, too weird a day. I'm good with this; I'm more than fine with just helping Rivy calm down. My heart's slower than her heart, my breathing is still more even then her breathing. That's what's going to do the trick. People synch up. Parents do it with their kids, husbands do it with their wives, and cousins, one who can at least try and pretend she has it together, can do it for a younger cousin.
It works both ways, though. Hearts pull on each other, it's not one way. So when sleep comes for one heart, it comes for the other.
It's weird, because I expect to have nightmares. I have nightmares, sometimes, when I don't count on them jumping out at me again. The therapist says it takes time to get over trauma. But I just dream about the last time I saw her, while we hulled strawberries and the tape recorder hissed, just like oxygen through tubing. I dream about every moment of our last conversation. Her pink stained hands. She opens her mouth to speak to me, but only the sound of the tape recorder emerges; ceaseless, endless hissing.
I wake up to Rivy sitting next to me, watching me sleep. I can see the start of morning light hitting the basement steps, her brows drawn in with worry.
She smacks me on the shoulder, light. "You're supposed to say Boker Tov, jerk."
"Boker Tov, jerk."
She wrinkles her nose at me, before she lets the expression go. "Boker Or."
I look up at her, taking in her halo of light brown curls, the slowly returning expression of concern. "What is it, kiddo?"
"I had the dream about you, again."
She shrugs, brushing her hair out of her face with one hand. Rivy blinks hard for a minute before she forces a smile, looking me in the eyes. "But it's just a dream, right?" Her voice is strained. "Nothing bad's gonna happen to you."
"Hey. Hey, Rivy. Come here." I hold my arms open for her to burrow into, cradling her head against my chest. "It's okay. I'm okay. Why don't you talk about it, get it out."
Ani lo margish tov. Hatzilu. (I don't feel well. Help.)
I swallow, closing my eyes as I wait for her to speak, focusing on the here and now. Cotton sheets, thick quilt. Rivy, so skinny and young, sheltered in my arms.
"It's...your birthday. In my dream." She's whispering, one ear pressed to my chest, listening to my heart. I can feel the tears hitting my shirt. "You die."
"Uh huh." She sniffs, before making a snorting nose, placing a hand under her face. "Aunt Leah and Uncle Solomon throw you a birthday party. And a man comes and kills you." She hiccups, cuddling closer against me. "I don't want you to die on your birthday like Gram."
She looks up at me with red rimmed eyes, unflinching as I use fingertips to wipe tears from her face. "Rivy, I'm not going to get killed on my birthday. It's just a bad dream. I'm not going to die on my birthday, either. Gram died on her birthday because..," I swallow a lump in my throat, "...people die, when they die. It's just how things are."
"How do you know?"
"Because—Rivy, I've seen people die, okay? While I was gone. I saw...I saw people die." I take a deep breath, averting my eyes as she clambers up to half-sitting, watching me. I lick my lips, trying to find more words. "People just die, Rivy. It doesn't make sense, and sometimes it sort of does, and for a lot of them it's just sad, and stupid, and nobody deserved it." I duck my head for a minute, rubbing fingertips against closed eyelids, hard, telling myself I'm here, now, and that's all that matters.
Ani lo margish tov. Hatzilu.
I open my eyes up again, and we wrap our arms around each other. "Gram died on her birthday because she was sick, Rivy. People die when they just don't have anything left. Blood, energy, oxygen. That's how death works."
They say a tzadik is born and dies on the same day.
I press a kiss into her hair, exhaling against her scalp. It's a few minutes of quiet like that, before she speaks again. "I should go upstairs and help Mom. We're making party favors for the baby shower." She slides from my arms awkwardly, standing up quickly as she brushes her bangs out of her eyes.
"Rivy, I didn't mean to make you—"
"It's okay." She nods, a brief head nod, like a bird. "It's true. What you said. People die." I come up to a full sit, confused, as I watch her tear up the stairs. I listen to the door open and shut, before I pull the chain off from around my neck, opening the black pouch that houses dog tags. They're silent, in the pouch. Cool to the touch, even after daily entrapment under my shirt. I don't know why I expect them to tell me anything they haven't already, pouring the tags and chain back and forth between my hands.
The week my grandmother died, I went looking for the interview tape I'd made on my last visit. No dice. I watch the dog tags glint in the dim, cupped in my hands. She'd met Yossi, on my last visit.
They say a tzadik is born and dies on the same day.
We went in May, to see her. I was nineteen. I was engaged, happy, and in love. And it all had a shadow cast over it; her cough, her trembling hands. I hadn't seen enough people die with my own eyes to know how close she was, how much she'd hung on to meet him, and to talk to me one last time. She died on her birthday, while I was packing to leave for Israel. I'm thinking about her, not the dream-her, who spoke in the hiss of tape and oxygen, but Gram from the last time I saw her.
...There are things that can be open secrets. You see them, hear them, but they never tell you. You have to make your own way to the answer.
I think about the last time I saw Israel, performing chest compressions after the child I'd pulled out of the wreckage had stopped talking.
The last time I ever willing opened a door so early in the morning.
Ani lo margish tov.
I rub my fingers over the Hebrew on the dog tags like a worry stone. Yossi had pointed at the picture of her on her wedding day, when we'd come back to the house after the funeral. "Just like my neshama. Beautiful as morning." The last thing my father told me before I'd gone to my gate was that I was so much like my grandmother. So very, very much like her.
I've wondered, since her funeral, what the Rabbi had meant when he said a tzadik is born and dies on the same day. I asked the man who gave me the dog tags to tell me what it meant.
If being like my grandmother is an open secret, then it means I shouldn't be here. I don't have children, and I haven't remarried, but I've...I know what it's like to be married, and then not be married anymore.
I don't know if it's real, or if it's true, if I should be scared that coming back was stupid, or more scared that my purse wasn't there when I looked up last night, when the shooting was done. If it had even mattered, that I was praying.
But I look like her and I have her name. That's enough to make me know that it's time to run for awhile. That I should go.
Because a tzadik is born and dies on the same day, and my birthday is in two weeks.
Lillian Cohen-Moore. Reared on creepy bedtime stories and bad 80's horror flicks, Lillian Cohen-Moore's brain is geared towards writing fiction to tantalize the mind and chill the soul. When she isn't torturing readers with the products of her mind, she spends her days as a freelance editor, a slush reader, and as a personal assistant to a variety of authors. From her blend of Jewish and Native American heritage, Lillian has amassed a collection of myths that will keep you awake at night. Her loves include her native state of Washington, journalism and corn mazes.
Story by Lillian Cohen-Moore, Copyright 2011
Image by Amber Clark, Stopped Motion Photography, Copyright 2011