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M A R C H 1 9 9 9
HEY considered the table. Charles and Sue stood at opposite ends, appraising the job the maid had done. It was admirable.
On a paper tablecloth were paper cups and plastic wine glasses with snap-on bases, patterned paper napkins that matched the pattern on the plates, plastic forks and plastic spoons, and a few other things -- cheap but not disposable. Knives, for instance. The knives were real, new, wooden-handled steak knives. Sue had even gone to the trouble of finding a decent bottle of kosher wine. One bottle. The other was a blackberry. Charles wondered if the blackberry was a warning of what continued religiosity might do to the refined palate. Screw-top wine. Sugary plonk. He was going to comment, but looking again at the lavish spread, both leaves inserted into the table, the polished silver on the credenza, he reconsidered. This was more than a truce. It was an attempt to be open -- or at least a request that the maid make an effort.
"Mortifying," Sue said. "Like a child's birthday party. We've got everything except for a paper donkey tacked to the wall."
"I appreciate it, Sue. I really, really do." He had sweetness in his voice, real love for the first time since he'd made his announcement.
"Eighty-eight dollars' worth of the blandest food you've ever had. The soup is inedible, pure salt. I had a spoonful and needed to take an extra high-blood-pressure pill. I'll probably die before dinner's over, and then we'll have no problems."
"More and more," Charles said, taking a yarmulke from his pocket and fastening it to his head, "more and more, you're the one who sounds like a Jew."
HEN Charles answered the knock on the study door, he was surprised to find Zalman standing there, surprised that Sue hadn't come to get him.
"She is very nice, your wife," Zalman said. "A sensible woman, it appears."
"Appearances are important," Charles said.
Zalman brightened, and exuded joy as he did. "It will be fine,'' he said. He hooked Charles's arm into his own and led him down the hall.
Sue and Dr. Birnbaum -- sporting a yellow sweater -- were already seated. Charles sat at the head of the table, and Zalman stood behind his chair.
The most painful silence Charles had ever experienced ensued. He was aware of his breathing, his pulse and temperature. He could feel the contents of his intestines, the blood in his head, the air settling on his eardrums, lake-smooth without sound.
Zalman spoke. "Is there a place where I can wash?" he asked.
Before eating bread, Charles knew. "Yes," Charles said. "I'll come too."
He looked at Sue as he got up. Charles knew what she was thinking. Say it, he wanted to tell her. Point it out to Dr. Birnbaum. You're right. It's true.
Ablutions all the time.
ABBI Zalman made a blessing over the bread, and Dr. Birnbaum muttered, "Amen." Sue just stared. A man with a beard, a long black beard and sidelocks, was sitting in her house. Charles wanted to tell her she was staring, but he stopped himself with "Sue."
"What!" she said. "What, Charles?"
"Shall we eat?"
"Yes," Zalman said, his smile broad, his teeth bright white and Californian. "Let's eat first. We can discuss better on full stomachs." Reaching first one way and then the other, Zalman picked up a bottle and poured himself a brimming glass of blackberry wine.
They ate in a lesser but still oppressive silence. All showed it in their countenances except for Zalman, who was deeply involved in the process of eating and paused only once, to say, "Jewish name -- Birnbaum," before going back to his food. The other three took turns looking from one to the other and back to their plates. They stared at Zalman when they could think of nowhere to put their eyes.
"The barley is delicious." Dr. Birnbaum smiled as if Sue had cooked the food.
"Thank you," she said, snatching the empty container from next to Zalman and heading to the kitchen for another. Dr. Birnbaum took that opportunity to broach the topic with Charles.
"I don't think it's unfair to say I was startled by your news."
"Just your everyday revelation, nothing special."
"Even so, I would have hoped you'd feel comfortable discussing it with me. After all this time."
Sue returned with a quart container of barley, the plastic top in her hand. Charles cleared his throat, and no one said a word. Sue cocked her head. A slight tilt, an inquisitive look. Had such silence ever occurred at one of her dinner parties? Had her presence ever brought conversation to an abrupt end?
She slammed the container onto the table, startling Zalman. He looked up at her and removed a bit of barley from his beard.
"I was about to explain my presence," Dr. Birnbaum said. "Let Charles know that I have no secret agenda. This isn't a competency hearing. And I'm not packing a syringe full of Thorazine."
"That was before," Sue said. "Last week, before your patient started pilfering Judaica. Before he started mortifying me in this building. Do you know that on Friday night he rode the elevator up and down like an idiot, waiting for someone to press our floor? Like a retarded child. He gets in the elevator and keeps explaining it to everyone. 'Can't press the button on my Sabbath, ha ha.' He can't ask people outright, because you're only allowed to hint."
"Very good," Zalman said. "A fine student."
"You," she said to Zalman. "Interloper!" And then, turning back to Dr. Birnbaum, "I heard it from old Mrs. Dallal. She's the one who pressed the button. Our poor old next-door neighbor, forced to ride the elevator with this maniac. She told me she was talking to Petey, the doorman, and couldn't figure out why the elevator door kept opening and Charley wouldn't come out. She told me that she actually asked him, 'Do you want to come out?' Now, is that insane, Doctor, or is it not? Do sane people need to be invited out of elevators, or do they just get out on their own?"
Charles spoke first. "She turned the light off in the bathroom on Friday night. She knows I can't touch the lights. I had to go in the dark. She's being malicious."
"We are at the table, Charles. Paper plates or not. A man who holds his fork like an animal or not, we shall have some manners."
Zalman laughed out loud at Sue's insult.
"Those are manners -- embarrassing a guest?" Now Charles yelled. "And a rabbi, yet."
"He, Charley, is not even Jewish. And neither are you. One need not be polite to the insane. As long as you don't hose them down, all is in good taste."
"She's malicious, Doctor. She brought you here to watch her insult me."
"If I'm supposed to put my two cents in," Dr. Birnbaum said, "I suppose now is the time."
"Two cents?" Zalman said. "What does that come out to for you -- a consonant?"
"Thank you," the doctor said. "A perfect example of the inane kind of aggression that can turn a conversation into a brawl."
"It's because you're not wearing a tie," Charles said. "How can you control people without a tie?"
"I'm not trying to control anyone."
"It's true," Zalman said. "I went to a shrink for twelve years. Started in seventh grade. They don't control. They absolve. Like atheist priests. No responsibility for your actions, no one to answer to. Anarchists with advanced degrees." Zalman spoke right to the doctor. "You can't give people permission to ignore God. It is not your right."
"Sir," Dr. Birnbaum said. "Rabbi. I invite you, as Charles's spiritual adviser, to join me in trying to help the situation."
"Exactly why I'm here," Zalman said. He pushed his chair back and rested his elbows on the table. "One way to help would be to give Charles your blessing, or whatever you call it. Shrinks always say it's okay, so tell him it's okay, tell her it's okay, and then all will be better."
"I can't do that -- don't, in fact, do that," the doctor said. He addressed his patient. "Should we go into another room and talk?"
"If I wanted that, I'd have come to our sessions. All the therapy in the world could not bring the simple comfort that I've found in worshipping God."
"Listen to this," Sue said. "Do you hear the kind of thing I have to endure? Palaver!" The doctor looked at Sue, raised his hand, and patted the air.
"I'm listening," he said. "I actually do want to hear it. But from him. That Charles has gone from Christian nonbeliever to Orthodox Jew is clear. It is also perplexing." He spoke in sensible rhythms. The others listened, all primed to interrupt. "I came to dinner to hear from Charles why he changed."
"Because of his soul," Zalman said, throwing his arms up in frustration. "He's always had this soul. His way of thinking has always been agreeable, but now God has let him know He wasn't pleased with the way Charley was acting."
"It's true," Charles said. "That's how it feels -- like it was always in me, but now it's time for me to do God-pleasing work."
Sue didn't speak but clenched her whole body, fists and shoulders and teeth.
"And God-pleasing work is living the life of the Orthodox Jew?" The doctor was all softness. "Are you sure it might not be something elselike gardening or meditation? Have you considered philanthropy, Charley -- I mean, as a for instance?"
"Do you not see what he is doing?" Zalman said. "The sharp tongue of the philosopher." Zalman jumped to his feet, still leaning heavily on the table, which shook under his weight, though silently, devoid of the usual collection of silver and crystal and robbing him of some drama. "Tell him what the King of the Khazars told his own sharp-tongued philosopher five hundred years ago." He pointed an accusing finger. "Thy words are convincing, yet they do not correspond to what I wish to find."
"Just shut up. Would you, please?" Sue said.
"It's all right, Zalman," Charles said. Zalman sat. "That's not how I would have put it," Charles said, "but it's how I feel. You see, Doctor -- with your eyes, I mean. You see how I look, how I'm acting. No different from before. Different rituals, maybe. Different foods. But the same man. Only I feel peaceful, fulfilled."
As Charles spoke, Sue slipped from her chair and slid to the floor, as might a drunk. She did not fall over but rested on her knees, interlocking her fingers and bowing her head. She rested in the traditional Christian pose of prayer. His wife, who was mortified by a white purse after Labor Day, was on her knees in front of company.
"Sue, what are you doing? Get up off the floor."
She raised her chin but kept her eyes shut.
"What?" she said. "Do you have a monopoly on God? Are you the only one who can pray?"
"Point taken. Your point is taken."
"I'm making no point," she said. "I understand now. You were as desperate as I've become. God is for the desperate. For when there is nothing left to do."
"There is always something," Zalman said. No one acknowledged him.
"There are options, Sue." Charles was perspiring through his shirt.
Sue opened her eyes and sat leaning on an arm, her legs at her side.
"No," she said. She did not cry, but all could tell that if she hit the wrong note, the wrong word, if she was in any way agitated further, she would lose her composure completely. "You don't seem to understand, Charles. Because you don't want to. But I do not have any idea what to do."
If there was one sacrifice Charles had thought she would not be able to make, it was this -- to be open in front of outsiders, to look tired and overworked in front of a table set with paper plates.
"Is that what you want to hear, Charles? I'm not resigned to a Goddamn thing. I'm not going to kill you or have you committed or dragged up to the summer house for deprogramming." Charles was at once relieved and frightened -- for she had clearly considered her options. "But I will, Charley, be thinking and waiting. You can't stop me from that. I'm going to hope and pray. I'll even pray to your God -- beg Him to make you forget Him. To cast you out."
"That's wrong, Sue." It sounded wrong.
"No, Charles. It's fair. More fair than you've been to me. You have an epiphany and want everyone else to have the same one. Well, if we did, even if it was the best, greatest, holiest thing in the world, if every person had the same one, the most you would be left with is a bright idea."
"I don't know if that's theologically sound," Zalman said, twisting the pointed ends of his beard.
"It's wonderful," the doctor said. His face was full of pride.
Charles got down on the floor and sat cross-legged in front of Sue. "What does that mean, Sue? What does it mean for me?"
"It means that your moment of grace has passed. Real or not. It's gone now. You are left with life -- daily life. I'm only letting you know that as much as you worry about staying in God's favor, you should worry about staying in mine. It's like taking a new lover, Charles. You're as dizzy as a schoolgirl. But remember which one of us dropped into your life and which of us has been in for the long haul. I am going to try and stick it out. But let me warn you: as quickly as God came into your life, I might one day be gone."
"I can't live that way," Charles said.
"That is what I go to sleep hoping."
From the corner of his eye Charles caught Dr. Birnbaum trying to slip out of the room without interrupting the conversation's flow. He watched the doctor recede, backing away with quiet steps, and then turned to Sue. He turned to her and let all the resentment he felt come into his face. He let the muscles go, felt his eyelids drop and harden, spoke to her as intimately as if Zalman were not there.
"The biggest thing that ever happened to me, and you make me feel that I should have kept it to myself."
She considered. "True. It would have been better. I would much rather have found a box after you were gone -- prayer books and skullcaps, used needles and women's underwear. At this point, at my age, I'd have had an easier time finding it all after you were gone."
Charles looked to Zalman, who was, like the doctor, slowly making an exit. "You're leaving me too?"
"Not as elegant as the doctor, but not so stupid as to miss when it's time to go."
"One minute," Charles said to his wife. "One minute and I'll be back," he pleaded, untucking his legs. "I'll walk him to the door. Our guest."
Charles followed the rabbi down the front hallway. Zalman put on his coat and tilted his hat forward, an extra edge against the city below.
"This is a crucial time," Charles said.
They were by the umbrella stand. Zalman pulled out a cane. He scratched at his nose with a pinkie. "It's an age-old problem. To all the great ones tests are given. I wouldn't be surprised if the King of the Khazars faced the same one."
"What happened to the King?" Charles asked. "How does it turn out for the great ones?"
Zalman leaned the cane against the wall. "It doesn't matter. The point is they all had God. They knew in their hearts God."
Charles put a hand on Zalman's shoulder. "I'm only asking for you to tell me."
"You already know," Zalman said. The joy drained from his face. "You know but want me to lie."
"Is that so bad?"
The rabbi's face looked long and soft; the rapture did not return. "No hope, Mr. Luger. I tell you this from one Jew to another. There is no hope for the pious."
HARLES made his way back to the table only to find Sue gone, the table clean, and the chairs in place. Could more than a minute have passed? He saw the pantry garbage can in the middle of the kitchen, the paper tablecloth sticking out the top. A disposable dinner, the dining room as if untouched. He started toward the bedroom and stopped at the study door. Sue was standing at the window beside the tarnished candlesticks, which were fused in place where wax had run off the bases. She picked at the hardened formations, forcing her nail underneath and lifting them away from the painted wood of the sill.
"It's not sacrilegious, I hope?" She picked at the wax that ran over the silver necks in braids.
"No," Charles said. "I don't believe it is."
He crossed the room to stand beside Sue. He reached for the hand that scratched at the fine layers of wax on the sill. "So it'll stay there," he said. "So what?"
"It will ruin the paint," she said.
"It will make the window frame look real. Like someone lives in the apartment and uses this room."
Charles looked around the study, at the lamp and the bookcase, and then out the window at the buildings and the sky. He had not read far into the Bible, and still thought that God might orchestrate his rescue.
He took hold of Sue's other hand and held them both in place. He wanted her to understand that a change of magnitude had indeed occurred, but the mark it left was not great. The real difference was contained in his soul, after all.
Sue's gaze fell past him before meeting his eyes.
He tried to appear open before her, to allow Sue to observe him with the profound clarity he had only so recently come to know. Charles was desperate with willingness. He struggled to stand without judgment, to be only for Sue, to be wholly seen, wanting her to love him changed.
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.