The Jewish day begins in the calm of evening, when it won’t shock the system with its arrival. That was when, three stars visible in the Manhattan sky and a new day fallen, Charles Morton Luger understood that he was the bearer of a Jewish soul.
Ping! Like that it came. Like a knife against a glass.
Charles Luger knew, if he knew anything at all, that a Yiddishe neshama was functioning inside him.
He was not one to engage taxicab drivers in conversation, but such a thing as this he felt obligated to share. A New York story of the first order, like a woman giving birth in an elevator, or a hot-dog vendor performing open-heart surgery with a pocketknife and a Bic pen. Was not this a rebirth in itself? It was something, he was sure. So he leaned forward in his seat, raised a fist, and knocked on the Plexiglas divider.
The driver looked into his rearview mirror.
“Jewish,” Charles said. “Jewish, here in the back.”
The driver reached up and slid the partition open so that it hit its groove loudly.
“Oddly, it seems that I’m Jewish. Jewish in your cab.”
“No problem here. Meter ticks the same for all creeds.” The driver pointed at the digital display.
Charles thought about it. A positive experience — or at least benign. Yes, benign. What had he expected?
He looked out the window at Park Avenue, a Jew looking out at the world. Colors were no brighter or darker, though he was, he admitted, already searching for someone with a beanie, a landsman who might look his way, wink, confirm what he already knew.
The cab slowed to a halt outside his building, and Petey, the doorman, stepped toward the curb. Charles removed his money clip and peeled off a fifty. He reached over the seat, holding on to the bill.
“Jewish,” Charles said, pressing the fifty into the driver’s hand. “Jewish right here in your cab.”
Charles hung his coat and placed his briefcase next to the stand filled with ornate canes and umbrellas that Sue — who had carefully scouted them out around the city — would not let him touch. Sue had redone the foyer, the living room, and the dining room all in chintz, an overwhelming number of flora-and-fauna patterns, creating a vast slippery-looking expanse. Charles rushed through it to the kitchen, where Sue was removing dinner from the refrigerator.
She read the note the maid had left, lighting burners and turning dials accordingly. Charles came up behind her. He inhaled the scent of perfume and the faint odor of cigarettes laced underneath. Sue turned, and they kissed, more passionate than friendly, which was neither an everyday occurrence nor altogether rare. She was still wearing her contacts; her eyes were a radiant blue.
“You won’t believe it,” Charles said, surprised to find himself elated. He was a level-headed man, not often victim to extremes of mood.
“What won’t I believe?” Sue said. She separated herself from him and slipped a pan into the oven.
Sue was the art director of a glossy magazine, her professional life comparatively glamorous. The daily doings of a financial analyst, Charles felt, did not even merit polite attention. He never told her anything she wouldn’t believe.
“Well, what is it, Charles?” She held a glass against the recessed ice machine in the refrigerator. “Damn,” she said. Charles, at breakfast, had left it set on “crushed.”
“You wouldn’t believe my taxi ride,” he said, suddenly aware that a person disappointed by ice chips wouldn’t take well to his discovery.
“Your face,” she said, noting his odd expression.
“Nothing — just remembering. A heck of a ride. A maniac. Taxi driver running lights. Up on the sidewalk.”
The maid had prepared creamed chicken. When they sat down to dinner, Charles stared at his plate. Half an hour Jewish and already he felt obliged. He knew there were dietary laws, milk and meat forbidden to touch, but he didn’t know if chicken was considered meat and didn’t dare ask Sue and chance a confrontation — not until he’d formulated a plan. He would call Dr. Birnbaum, his psychologist, in the morning. Or maybe he’d find a rabbi. Who better to guide him in such matters?
And so, a marrano in modern times, Charles ate his chicken like a gentile — all the while a Jew in his heart.
At work the next morning Charles got right on it. He pulled out the Yellow Pages, referenced and cross-referenced, following the “see” list throughout the phone book. More than one listing under “Zion” put him in touch with a home for the aged. “Redemption” led him further off course. Finally he came upon an organization that seemed frighteningly appropriate. For one thing, it had a number in Royal Hills, a neighborhood thick with Jews. The listing was for the Royal Hills Mystical Jewish Reclamation Center, or, as the recorded voice said, “the R-HMJRC” — just like that, with a pause after the first “R.” It was a sort of clearinghouse for the Judeo-supernatural: “Press one for messianic time clock, two for dream interpretation and counseling, three for numerology, and four for a retreat schedule.” The “and four” took the wind out of his sails. A bad sign. Recordings never said “and four” and then “and five.” But the message went on. A small miracle. “For all gilgulim, cases of possible reincarnation, or recovered memory, please call Rabbi Zalman Meintz at the following number.”
Charles took it down, elated. This was exactly why he had moved to New York from Idaho so many years before. Exactly the reason. Because you could find anything in the Manhattan Yellow Pages. Anything. A book as thick as a cinder block.
The R-HMJRC was a beautifully renovated Gothic-looking brownstone in the heart of Royal Hills. The front steps had been widened to the width of the building, and the whole façade of the first two floors had been torn off and replaced by a stone arch with a glass wall behind it. The entry hall was marble, and Charles was impressed. There is money in the God business, he told himself, making a mental note.
This is how it went: Standing in the middle of the marble floor, feeling the cold space, the only thing familiar being his unfamiliar self. And then it was back. Ping! Once again, understanding.
Only yesterday his whole life had been his life — familiar, totally his own. Something he lived in like an old wool sweater. Today: Brooklyn, an archway, white marble.
Over here, over here. Follow my voice. Come to the light.“
Charles had taken the stairs until they ended, and he entered what appeared to be an attic, slanted ceilings and dust, overflowing with attic stuff — chairs and a rocking horse, a croquet set, and boxes, everywhere boxes — as if all the remnants of the brownstone’s former life had been driven upward.
“Take the path on your right. Make your way. It’s possible; I got here.” The speech was punctuated with something like laughter. It was vocalized joy, a happy stutter.
The path led to the front of the building and a clearing demarcated by an oriental screen. The rabbi sat in a leather armchair across from a battered couch — both clearly salvaged from the spoils that cluttered the room.
“Zalman,” the man said, jumping up and shaking Charles’s hand. “Rabbi Zalman Meintz.”
“Charles Luger,” Charles said, taking off his coat.
The couch, though it had seen brighter days, was clean. Charles had expected dust to rise when he sat. As soon as he touched the fabric, he got depressed. More chintz. Sun-dulled flowers crawled all over it.
“Just moved in,” Zalman said. “New space. Much bigger. But haven’t organized, as you can see.” He pointed at specific things: a mirror, a china hutch. “Please excuse, or forgive — please excuse our appearance. More important matters come first. Very busy lately, very busy.” As if to illustrate, a phone perched on a dollhouse set to ringing. “You see,” Zalman said. He reached over and shut off the ringer. “Like that all day. At night, too. Busier even at night.”
The surroundings didn’t inspire confidence, but Zalman did. He couldn’t have been much more than thirty, but he looked to Charles like a real Jew: long black beard, black suit, black hat at his side, and a nice big caricaturish nose, like Fagin’s but friendlier.
“Well, then, Mr. Luger. What brings you to my lair?”
Charles was unready to talk. He turned his attention to a painted seascape on the wall. “That the Galilee?”
“Oh, no.” Zalman laughed and, sitting back, crossed his legs. For the first time Charles noticed that he was sporting heavy wool socks and suede sandals. “That’s Bolinas. My old stomping grounds.”
“Bolinas?” Charles said. “California?”
“I see what’s happening here. Very obvious.” Zalman uncrossed his legs, reached out, and put a hand on Charles’s knee. “Don’t be shy,” he said. “You’ve made it this far. Searched me out in a bright corner of a Brooklyn attic. If such a meeting has been ordained, which by its very nature it has been, then let’s make the most of it.”
“I’m Jewish,” Charles said. He said it with all the force, the excitement, and the relief of any of life’s great admissions. Zalman was silent. He was smiling, listening intently, and, apparently, waiting.
“Yes,” he said, maintaining the smile. “And?”
“Since yesterday,” Charles said. “In a cab.”
“Oh,” Zalman said. “Oh! Now I get it.”
“It just came over me.”
“Wild,” Zalman said. He clapped his hands together, looked up at the ceiling, and laughed. “Miraculous.”
“Unbelievable,” Charles added.
“No!” Zalman said, his smile gone, a single finger held up in Charles’s face. ”No, it’s not unbelievable. That it is not. I believe you. Knew before you said — exactly why I didn’t respond. A Jew sits in front of me and tells me he’s Jewish. This is no surprise. To see a man so Jewish, a person who could be my brother, who is my brother, tell me he has only now discovered he’s Jewish — that, my friend, that is truly miraculous.” During his speech he had slowly moved his finger back; now he thrust it into Charles’s face anew. “But not unbelievable. I see cases of this all the time.”
“Then it’s possible? That it’s true?”
“Already so Jewish,” Zalman said with a laugh, “asking questions you’ve already answered. You know the truth better than I do. You’re the one who came to the discovery. How do you feel?”
“Fine,” Charles said. “Different but fine.”
“Well, don’t you think you’d be upset if it was wrong what you knew? Don’t you think you’d be less than fine if this were a nightmare? Somehow suffering if you’d gone crazy?”
“Who said anything about crazy?” Charles asked. Crazy he was not.
“Did I?” Zalman said. He grabbed at his chest. “An accident, purely. Slip of the tongue. So many who come have trouble with the news at home. Their families doubt.”
Charles shifted. “I haven’t told her.”
Zalman raised an eyebrow, turning his head to favor the accusing eye.
“A wife who doesn’t know?”
“That’s why I’m here. For guidance.” Charles put his feet up on the couch and lay down, as at Dr. Birnbaum’s. “I need to tell her, to figure out how. I need also to know what to do. I ate milk and meat last night.”
“First, history,” Zalman said. He slipped off a sandal. “Your mother’s not Jewish?”
“No, no one. Ever. Not that I know.”
“This is also possible,” Zalman said. “It may be only that your soul was at Sinai. Maybe an Egyptian slave that came along. But once the soul witnessed the miracles at Sinai, accepted there the word, well, it became a Jewish soul. Do you believe in the soul, Mr. Luger?”
“I’m beginning to.”
“All I’m saying is, the soul doesn’t live or die. It’s not an organic thing, like the body. It is there. And it has a history.”
“And mine belonged to a Jew?”
“No, no. That’s exactly the point. Jew, non-Jew, doesn’t matter. The body doesn’t matter. It is the soul itself that is Jewish.”
They talked for more than an hour. Zalman gave him books: The Chosen, A Hedge of Roses, and The Code of Jewish Law. Charles agreed to cancel his shrink appointment for the next day; Zalman would come to his office to study with him. A payment would be required, of course: a minor fee, expenses, some for charity and to ensure good luck. The money was not the important thing, Zalman assured him. The crucial thing was having a guide to help him through his transformation. And who better than Zalman, a man who had come to Judaism the same way? Miserable in Bolinas, addicted to sorrow and drugs, he was on the brink when he discovered his Jewish soul.
“And you never needed a formal conversion?” Charles asked, astounded.
“No,” Zalman said. “Such things are for others, for the litigious and stiff- minded. Such rituals are not needed for those who are called by their souls.”
“Tell me, then,” Charles said. He spoke out of the side of his mouth, feeling confident and chummy. “Where’d you get the shtick from? You look Jewish, you talk Jewish — the authentic article. I turn Jewish and get nothing. You come from Bolinas and sound like you’ve never been out of Brooklyn.”
“And if I had discovered I was Italian, I’d play bocce like a pro. Such is my nature, Mr. Luger. I am most open to letting take form that which is truly inside.”
This was, of course, a matter of personal experience. Zalman’s own. Charles’s would inevitably be different. Unique. If the change was slower, then let it be so. After all, Zalman counseled, the laws were not to be devoured like bonbons but to be embraced as he was ready. Hadn’t it taken him fifty-five years to learn he was Jewish? Yes, everything in good time.
“Except,” Zalman said, standing up, “you must tell your wife first thing. Kosher can wait. Tefillin can wait. But there is one thing the tender soul can’t bear — the sacrifice of Jewish pride.”
Sue had a root canal after work. She came home late, carrying a pint of ice cream. Charles had already set the table and served dinner, on the off chance she might be able to eat.
“How was it?” he asked. He lit a candle and poured the wine. He did not tease her, did not say a word about her slurred speech or sagging face. He pretended it was a permanent injury, nerve damage, acted as if this were a business dinner and Sue a client with a crippled lip.
She approached the table and lifted the bottle. “Well, you’re not leaving me, I can tell that much. You’d never have opened your precious Haut-Brion to tell me you were running off to Greece with your secretary.”
“True,” he said. “I’d have saved it to drink on our verandah in Mykonos.”
“Glad to see,” she said, standing on her toes and planting a wet and pitifully slack kiss on his cheek, “that the fantasy has already gotten that far.”
“The wine’s actually a feeble attempt at topic broaching.”
Sue pried the top off her ice cream and placed the carton in the center of her plate. They both sat down.
“Do tell,” she said.
“I’m Jewish.” That easy. It was not, after all, the first time.
“Is there a punch line?” she asked. “Or am I supposed to supply one?”
He said nothing.
“Okay. Let’s try it again. I’ll play along. Go — give me your line.”
“In the cab yesterday. I just knew. I understood, felt it for real. And — ” He looked at her face, contorted, dead with anesthesia. A surreal expression in return for surreal news. “And it hasn’t caused me any grief. Except for my fear of telling you. Otherwise, I actually feel sort of good about it. Different. But as if things, big things, were finally right.”
“Let’s get something out of the way first.’′ She made a face, a horrible face. Charles thought maybe she was trying to bite her lip — or scowl. “Okay?”
“What you’re really trying to tell me is, Honey, I’m having a nervous breakdown, and this is the best way to tell you. Correct?” She plunged a spoon into the ice cream and came up with a heaping spoonful. “If it’s not a nervous breakdown, I want to know if you feel like you’re clinically insane.”
“I didn’t expect this to go smoothly,” Charles said.
“You pretend that you knew I’d react badly.” Sue spoke quickly and (Charles tried not to notice) drooled. “Really, though, with your tireless optimism, you thought I would smile and tell you to be Jewish. That’s what you thought, Charles.” She jammed her spoon back into the carton and left it buried. “Let me tell you, this time you were way off. Wrong in your heart and right in your head. It couldn’t have gone smoothly. Do you know why? Do you know?”
“Why?” he asked.
“Because what you’re telling me, out of the blue, out of nowhere — because what you’re telling me is, inherently, crazy.”
Charles nodded his head repeatedly, as if a bitter truth was confirmed. “He said you would say that.”
“Who said, Charles?”
“You’ve started with rabbis?” She pressed at her sleeping lip.
“Of course rabbis. Who else gives advice to a Jew?”
Charles 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.”
They 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?”
EXTREME,” 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.”
Charles 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.”
The 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?
On 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.”
They 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.”
When 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.
Rabbi 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.”
Charles 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.