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M A R C H 1 9 9 9
HARLES read the books at work the next day and filled his legal pad with notes. When his secretary buzzed with Dr. Birnbaum on the line, inquiring about the sudden cancellation, Charles, for the first time since he'd begun his treatment, $15,000 before, did not take the doctor's call. He didn't take any calls; he was absorbed in reading A Hedge of Roses, the definitive guide to a healthy marriage through ritual purity, and waiting for Rabbi Zalman. When Charles heard Zalman outside his office, he buzzed his secretary. This was a first as well. Charles never buzzed her until she had buzzed him first. A protocol governed entry to his office. Visitors should hear buzz and counterbuzz. It set a tone.
"So," Zalman said, seating himself. "Did you tell her?"
Charles placed his fountain pen back in its holder. He straightened the base with two hands. "She sort of half believes me. Enough to worry. Not enough to tear my head off. But she knows I'm not kidding. And she does think I'm crazy."
"And how do you feel?"
"Content." Charles leaned back in his swivel chair, his arms dangling over the sides. "Jewish and content. Excited. Still excited. The whole thing's ludicrous. I was one thing and now I'm another. Neither holds any real meaning. But when I discovered I was Jewish, I think I also discovered God."
"Like Abraham," Zalman said, with a worshipful look at the ceiling. "Now it's time to smash some idols." He pulled out a serious-looking book, leather-bound and gold-embossed. A book full of secrets, Charles was sure. They studied until Charles told Zalman he had to get back to work. "No fifty-minute hour here," Zalman said, blushing and taking a swipe at the psychologist. They agreed to meet daily and shook hands twice before Zalman left.
He wasn't gone long enough to have reached the elevators before Walter, the CEO, barged into Charles's office, stopping immediately inside the door.
"Who's the fiddler on the roof?" Walter said.
"Of what?" Walter tapped his wedding band against the nameplate on the door.
"Commodities," Charles said. "Metals."
"Metals." Another tap of the ring. A knowing wink. "Promise me something, Charley. This guy tries to sell you the steel out of the Brooklyn Bridge, at least bargain with the man."
HEY had a few nights of relative quiet and a string of dinners with nonconfrontational foods, among them a risotto and then a blackened trout, a spaghetti squash with an eye-watering vegetable marinara, and -- in response to a craving of Sue's -- a red snapper with tomato and those little bits of caramelized garlic that the maid did so well. Sue had for all intents and purposes ignored Charles's admission and, mostly, ignored Charles. Charles spent his time in the study, reading the books Zalman had given him. This was how the couple functioned until the day the maid left a pot of boeuf bourguignon.
"The meat isn't kosher, and neither is the wine," Charles said, referring to the wine both in and out of his dinner. "And this bourguignon has a pound of bacon fat in it. I'm not complaining, only letting you know. Really. Bread will do me fine.'' He reached over and took a few slices from the basket.
Sue glared at him. "You're not complaining?"
"No," he said, and reached for the butter.
"Well, I'm complaining! I'm complaining right now!" She slammed a fist down so hard that her glass tipped over, spilling wine onto the tablecloth she loved. They both watched the tablecloth soak up the wine; the lace and the stitching fattened and swelled, the color spreading along the workmanship as if through a series of veins. Neither moved.
"Sue, your tablecloth."
"Fuck my tablecloth," she said.
"Oh, my." He took a sip of water.
"'Oh, my' is right. You bet, mister." She made a noise that Charles considered to be a growl. His wife of twenty-seven years had growled at him.
"If you think I'll ever forgive you for starting this when I was crippled with Novocain. Attacking me when I could hardly talk. If you think," she said, "if you think I'm going to start paying twelve-fifty for a roast chicken, you are terribly, terribly wrong."
"What is this about chickens?" Charles did not raise his voice.
"The religious lady at work. She puts in orders on Wednesday. Every week she orders the same Goddamn meal. A twelve-dollar-and-fifty-cent roast chicken." Sue shook her head. "You should have married an airline chef if you wanted kosher meals."
"Different fight, Sue. We're due for a fight, but I think you're veering toward the wrong one."
"Why don't you tell me, then?" she said. "Since all has been revealed to you, why don't you enlighten me as to the nature of the conflict?"
"Honestly, I think you're threatened. So I want you to know I still love you. You're still my wife. This should make you happy for me. I've found God."
"Exactly the problem. You didn't find our God. I'd have been good about it if you'd found our God -- or even a less demanding one." She scanned the table again, as if to find one of his transgressions left out absentmindedly, like house keys. "Today the cheese is gone. You threw out all the cheese, Charles. How could God hate cheese?"
"A woman who thinks peaches are too suggestive for the fruit bowl could give in on a quirk or two."
"You think I don't notice what's going on -- that I don't notice you making ablutions in the morning?" She dipped her napkin into her water glass. "I've been waiting for your midlife crisis. But I expected something I could handle -- a small test. An imposition. Something to rise above, to prove my love for you in a grand display of resilience. Why couldn't you have turned into a vegan? Or a liberal Democrat? Slept with your secretary for real?" She dabbed at the wine stain. "Any of those, and I would've made do."
Charles scrutinized her. "So essentially you're saying it would be okay if I changed into a West Side Jew. Like if we suddenly lived in the Apthorp."
Sue thought about it. "Well, if you have to be Jewish, why so Jewish? Why not like the Browns, in 6K? Their kid goes to Haverford. Why," she said, closing her eyes and pressing two fingers to her temple, "why do people who find religion always have to be so Goddamn extreme?"
XTREME," Charles felt, was too extreme a word considering all he had to learn and all the laws he had yet to implement. He hadn't been to synagogue. He hadn't yet observed the Sabbath. He had only changed his diet and said a few prayers.
For this he'd been driven from his own bedroom.
Occasionally Sue sought him out, always with impeccable timing. She came into the den the first morning he donned prayer shawl and phylacteries, which even to Charles looked especially strange. The leather box and the strap twirled tightly around his arm, another box planted squarely in the center of his head. He was in the midst of the Eighteen Benedictions when Sue entered, and was forced to listen to her tirade in silence.
"My Charley, always topping them all," she said, watching as he rocked back and forth, his lips moving. "I've heard of wolf men and people being possessed. I've even seen modern vampires on TV. Real people who drink blood. But this beats all." She left him and then returned with a mug of coffee in hand.
"I spoke to Dr. Birnbaum. I was going to call him myself, to see how he was dealing with your change." She blew on her coffee. "Guess what, Charley. He calls me first. Apologizes for crossing boundaries, and tells me you've stopped coming, that you won't take his calls. Oh, I say, that's because Charley's Jewish and is very busy meeting with the rabbi. He's good, your shrink. Remains calm. And then, completely deadpan, he asks me -- as if it makes any difference -- what kind of rabbi. I told him what you told me, word for word. The kind from Bolinas. The kind who doesn't need to be ordained, because he's been a rabbi in his past nine lives. And what, I asked him, does one man, one man himself ten generations a rabbi, what does he need with anyone's diploma?" She put the mug down on a lampstand.
"Dr. Birnbaum's coming to dinner next week. On Monday. I even ordered kosher food, paper plates, the whole deal. You'll be able to eat in your own house like a human being. An evening free of antagonism, when we can discuss this like adults. His idea. He said to order kosher food once before leaving you. So I placed an order." She smoothed down her eyebrows, waiting for a response. "You can stop your praying, Charles." She turned to leave. "Your chickens are on the way."
HARLES had no suits left. Shatnez, the mixing of
linen and wool, is strictly forbidden. On Zalman's recommendation, he sent his wardrobe to Royal Hills for testing and was forced to go to work the next day wearing slacks and suspenders, white shirt and tie. Walter hadn't left him alone since he'd arrived. "It ain't Friday, Charley," he said. "Casual day is only once a week." This he followed with "Why go to so much trouble, Charley? A nicely pressed bathrobe would be fine."
Charles had worked himself into a funk by the time Zalman entered his office. He'd accomplished nothing all morning.
"I am weakening," Charles said. "The revelation lasts about a second, comes and goes, a hot flash in the back of a taxi. But the headache it leaves you with, a whopper of a headache -- that persists."
Zalman scratched at his nostril with a pinkie, a sort of refined form of picking. "Were you in a fraternity in college?"
"Of course," Charles said.
"Then consider this pledging. You've been tapped, given a bid, and now is the hard part before all the good stuff. Now's when you buy the letters on the sly and try them on at home in front of the mirror."
"Wonderful, Zalman. Well put. But not so simple. I've got to tell my boss something soon. And tensions have risen at home. We're having dinner on Monday, my wife and my shrink versus me. She's even ordered kosher food, trying to be friendly about it."
"Kosher food." A knee slap, a big laugh. "The first step. Doesn't sound anything but positive to me. By any chance has she gone to the ritual bath yet?"
Charles spun his chair around, looked out the window, and then slowly spun back.
"Zalman," he said, "that's a tough one. And it sort of makes me think you're not following. Sue refuses to go for a couple of reasons. One, because she hates me and our marriage is falling apart. And two, she maintains -- and it's a valid point, a fairly good argument -- that she's not Jewish."
"I want you to come on Monday, Zalman. A voice of reason will come in handy after the weekend. I'm going to keep my first Shabbos. And if Sue remains true to form, I'm in for a doozy."
"Find out where the food is from. If it's really kosher catered, I'll be there."
HE clocks had not changed for the season, and Shabbos still came early. Charles put on the one suit jacket that had been deemed kosher and his coat and went home without explanation. He didn't touch the candlesticks on the mantlepiece, didn't risk raising Sue's ire. Instead he dug a pair, dented and tarnished, from a low cabinet in the overstuffed and unused butler's pantry. The maid passed, saying nothing. She took her pocketbook and the day's garbage into the service hall.
In the absence of wife or daughter, the honor of ushering in the Sabbath goes to the lone man. Charles cleared a space on the windowsill in the study and, covering his eyes before the lighted candles, made the blessing. He paused at the place where the woman is permitted to petition the Lord with wishes and private blessings and stood, palms cool against his eyes, picturing Sue.
The candles flickered next to the window, burning lopsided and fast.
Charles extended the footrest on his recliner. He closed his eyes and thought back to his first night away from home, sleeping on a mattress next to his cousin's bed. He was four or five, and his cousin, older, slept with the bedroom door shut tight, not even a crack of light from the hallway. That was the closest to this experience he could think of -- the closest he could remember to losing and gaining a world.
The candles were out when Charles heard Sue pass on her way to the bedroom. He tried to come up with a topic of conversation, friendly and day-to-day. He came up with nothing, couldn't remember what they'd talked about over their life together. What had they said to each other when nothing was pressing? What had they chatted about for twenty-seven years?
He got up and went to her.
Sue was sitting at the far window on a petite antique chair that was intended only to be admired. She held a cigarette and flicked ash into a small porcelain dish resting on her knee. In half silhouette against the electric dusk of the city, Sue appeared as relaxed as Charles had seen her since long before his revelation. He could tell, or thought he could, that she was concentrating on ignoring his presence. She would not have her moment of peace compromised.
This was his wife. A woman who, if she preferred, could pretend he was not there. A woman always able to live two realities at once. She could spend a day at work slamming down phones and storming down hallways with layouts she'd torn in half, and then come home to entertain, serve dinner, pass teacups, in a way that hushed a room.
How was he to explain his own lack of versatility? Here was a woman who lived in two realities simultaneously. How was he to make clear his struggle living in one? And how to tell the woman of two lives that he had invited over Zalman, who carried in his soul a full ten?
N Sunday, Charles was reading a copy of Leon Uris's QB VII when Sue ran -- truly ran -- into the study and grabbed him by the arm. He was shocked and made the awkward movements of someone who is both dumbfounded and manhandled at the same time, like a tourist mistakenly seized by the police.
"Sue, what are you doing?"
"I could kill you," she said. Though smaller, she had already pulled him to his feet. He followed her to the foyer.
"What is this?" she yelled, slamming open the door.
"A mezuzah," he said. "If you mean that." He pointed at the small metal casing nailed to the doorpost. "I need it," he said. "I have to kiss it."
"Oh, my God," she said, slamming the door closed, giving the neighbors no more than a taste. "My God!" She steadied herself, putting a hand against the wall. "Well, where did it come from? It's got blue paint on it. Where does one buy a used mezuzah?"
"I don't know where to get one. I pried it off 11D with a letter opener. They don't even use it. Steve Fraiman had me in to see their Christmas tree last year. Their daughter is dating a black man."
"Are you insane? Five years on the waiting list to get into this building, and now you're vandalizing the halls. You think anyone but me will believe your cockamamie story? Oh, I'm not a Nazi, Mrs. Fraiman, just a middle-aged man who woke up a Jew."
"It happened in a cab. I didn't wake up anything."
Sue put her other hand against the wall and let her head hang.
"I've invited the rabbi," Charles said.
"You think that's going to upset me? You think I didn't know you'd drag him into this? Good, bring him. Maybe they have a double open at Bellevue."
"This is very intolerant, Sue." He reached out to touch her.
"Go back to the study," she said. "Go paw one of your books."
The online version of this story appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one. Click here to go to part three.
Nathan Englander lives in Jerusalem. His work has appeared in American Short Fiction and Story. His story in this issue will appear in For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, a collection of his fiction to be published by Knopf next month.
Illustration by Gürbüz D. Eksioglu
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 1999; The Gilgul of Park Avenue; Volume 283, No. 3; pages 77 - 90.