It had been twenty minutes already since Rabbi Eliezer Gad pulled into the cul-de-sac and parked under the basketball net, but still no one else had arrived from the funeral. It would be a blessing to arrive to a shiva before the mourners and their guests, if it didn’t mean that everyone—everyone!—had gotten lost on the way from the cemetery. Probably what happened is the limo driver had turned onto Liberty Ave. in Union rather than Liberty Road in Shadow Falls, and the entire caravan of overwrought friends and family had followed. If this were a shiva for God himself, the mourners surely would have chosen the correct Liberty. And if Saul, may his memory be a blessing, had been in charge, well, everybody would be inside praying this minute.
Rabbi Gad waited in his gold-hued convertible Mercedes 380, the car Saul had recommended and helped finance, because it was ‘worthy of respect but not envy.’ The high morning sun jabbed the blue June sky. He considered lowering his car roof, but decided it would not be appropriate for the occasion. Usually, he listened to JM in the AM around this time, but no radio during mourning. Rabbi Gad flipped through his pocket Torah and reviewed the kaddish—the shiva and mourning prayers he would lead the minyan in. He closed his eyes and prayed silently for the soul of Saul Hiller, his dear old friend, financial advisor, and tennis partner—the closest thing he’d had to a father. Then he removed his thick brown glasses and dragged his blazer sleeve across his forehead and eyes.
When he finally opened his door and stepped from the roasting interior, the air stroked his face like a breeze, like an old friend’s cool hand. He should have worn a thinner shirt. He could feel it bunching in his armpits. Sweat beads rolled down his back. He pulled at his collar, pulled at his sleeve, noticed black ink from the prayer book on his fingers, inky finger prints on his sleeve, soggy finger indentations on the prayer book pages. He placed the open Torah on the car roof, and a hot gust flipped the pages.
He removed his yarmulke and looked in the window reflection at his clean-shaven, somewhat pudgy face. He combed his fingers through his brown hair, still thick though sprouting from a high forehead. At forty-nine, Rabbi Eliezer Gad was healthy and not-so-bad looking, except for the two indentations like sinkholes high in his forehead, products of metal rods that dug in to hold a neck cast in place following a car accident fifteen years earlier. His wife had been driving (though, to be fair, it wasn’t entirely her fault).
Roger Bloom, Saul’s son-in-law, the man whose cul-de-sac Eli now waited in, once joked that these marks were ‘right where horns would be, if Jews had horns.’ This was years ago at a Jewish National Fund dinner in Tel Aviv. Roger’s causticness didn’t surprise Eli, and though Eli would always be self-conscious, he couldn’t deny the joke was at least a little funny. But Saul had slammed his fist on the Hyatt conference table, had always taken an insult to Eli personally. There was something special about being loved by a giant. Eli wanted this to be a really nice, traditional shiva, one Saul would be proud of.
Finally, Eli heard the crunch of gravel. He looked up to see the stretch limo carrying Saul’s three daughters and Roger roll down the private pebble road, the caravan of ten or twelve cars crawling behind. Eli centered his tie knot and slipped his pocket Torah into his blazer. The limo rolled by him and parked at the end of the drive by the garage. Eli walked over.
“Hey there, Boss,” he said to Roger, who’d kicked open the limo’s front passenger seat door. He hadn’t been wearing his seatbelt, and in what Eli’s wife had referred to as the suicide seat. As Roger rolled out and fell onto both feet at once, his white, combed-over hair flopped forward. His face was red, a glowing exhaustion. Roger shot the rabbi a glare and headed up the rose-and-thorn-bush-lined walkway to the house. Roger’s shirt had come untucked. Its light-blue-and-white-striped tail peeked under his black suit coat. A breeze peeled off strands of Roger’s brambly hair, which he always wetted to his scalp. The hairs stood up then fell the other way to drape over the top of his ear and touch his jacket collar. Eli could practically hear Saul muttering—Saul never whispered, nor did he yell—“the boy’s hair.” Though Roger was successful, to Saul he’d never stopped being the long-haired greaser who’d taken his daughter to the US Open for their first date twenty-eight years earlier.
Groucho, Saul’s eleven-year-old, still picture-perfect Dalmatian, guarded the storm door, partly camouflaged by the sun’s glare on the glass. Groucho had moved into the Blooms’ house with Saul when Saul became sick. Groucho stood on hind legs, baring his fangs, tapping his fore-claws and growling steamy clouds over the glass. Like the watchdog of Hell’s gates. Roger marched right up, whipped the door open and hollered, “Down!” The moment Roger’s foot crossed the threshold, Groucho licked Roger’s hand and turned to follow him into the house, tail wagging.
Friends and family, food platters in hand, trickled from the cars and greeted each other. More cars rolled down the road to find space in the cul-de-sac. Saul’s three grandsons marched up the front steps and into the house.
Eli wanted to greet Saul’s daughters, and turned to open the limo’s back door, but was intercepted by the driver, Lenny, an older black man.
“Excuse me, sir,” Lenny said, backing into the rabbi.
“I can get the door,” Eli said.
But Lenny, opening it and backing farther into him, said, “Let me do my job. Thank you. Thank you.”
Susan, Saul’s second daughter and Roger’s wife, stepped from the car. Her black, high-heeled shoes slapped the drive. She had fit tennis-calves, hollow cheeks, and silver-blue eyes inflamed and frightening from the stress of her ordeal. Sharon, Susan’s younger sister, followed, clunking onto feet swollen from the heat as her mother’s had always been. Her skin curved over the ankle rims of her black shoes. She was a trained dancer, had even been an ensemble player in A Chorus Line on Broadway. But now, even though she was a dance teacher at an inner-city school in Detroit, she was the heaviest of the Hiller sisters, with wide hips, bullish nostrils, full lips, and a face more square and freckled than her two sisters’ narrow ones. Sharon had had a quite clean and amicable—even admirable—divorce half a year earlier. Eli was glad she’d gotten divorced before he did. It cushioned Saul’s disappointment in him. Eli wanted to offer her his arm now, but he was trapped behind Lenny and the door, and a thorn-bush, lamppost, and dewy lawn prevented him from going around.
“Suzy,” Sharon whimpered, not noticing Eli. “Aren’t you gonna wait for me?” But Susan kept on up the thorny walk. “Susan!” Sharon screamed.
Susan stopped, turned her shoulders as though her neck were stiff, her eyes large like her father’s, though cold, and said, “Fine. But would you stop crying, please?”
“Oh, real good, Dad,” Sharon replied, limping, then slipped into a sustained horn of weeping, not the pulsing, Morse code crying, but the heavier, suffocating kind—the body cry. Susan, Eli knew, didn’t want to cry. She didn’t think her father wanted her to. Her sisters were the dramatic ones. They provided enough tears for ten funerals. Susan, like her father, was supposed to be the rock.
As Sharon swayed on her heels, her hip brushing the rose bushes, cars continued to trickle into the cul-de-sac. Car doors slammed, bodies floated toward the house. Eli recognized many of them: distant family, members of the congregation.
Shirley, the oldest and smallest of the sisters, who Eli hadn’t noticed emerge from the limo, caught up to Sharon and wrapped her arm around her waist.
“I got you, sweetie,” she said. “Let’s just take a seat.” Shirley, with coiled, yellow-blond hair and a slight pigeon-toed gait, guided Sharon to the steps. “Breathing exercises,” she said, pulling a menthol one hundred from her purse. “Stanislavsky.” The cigarettes had wrinkled Shirley’s skin. It was Saul’s belief they had stunted Shirley’s growth too. Eli couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t just stop.
The storm door opened, Groucho’s bark escaped, and Susan, holding Groucho back by the collar, poked her face out. After a moment, Shirley turned to look at Susan behind her and said, “Oh, do you want me to smoke in the backyard?”
“You’re killing me, Shirley. I didn’t want Roger’s parents to see you, but it’s too late for that.” Susan pulled Groucho and let the door slam as she disappeared inside, leaving the watchdog in place.
When the limo door slammed, Eli circled to meet Lenny at the driver-side door.
“Today is a sad sad day,” Eli said, “and already this operation is slipping off course.”
Lenny opened his door with rough brown hands spidered by black wrinkles. He stroked his silver-stranded mustache.
“How could you get so lost?”
“I never get lost, sir.”
Eli expected Lenny to go on. “Then what took you so long?”
“Mrs. Hiller asked to take the scenic route. She said there was no rush.”
“No rush? First of all, Lenny, I’m in charge here.”
Lenny blinked four times.
“And none of the three sisters you just escorted all around North Jersey is named Mrs. Hiller. That’s their maiden name.”
“God!” a voice shrilled from the direction of the garage.
Eli rolled his shoulders back and lifted his chin, a habitual move since the accident, intended to ward off hunchback-dom. It resulted in an elongated neck, bird-like. “I’d like to know which one requested you to go off plan. Was it Shirley Sherpinsky, Susan Bloom or Sharon Winkler?”
“I don’t know about that, sir.”
“What do you know?”
Lenny smiled and shrugged. “I don’t know.” When the rabbi didn’t say anything else, Lenny looked to the sky and said, “Nice day. Yes, Rabbi?” He offered his hand, and the rabbi, after thinking for a moment, shook it.
“God,” Eli heard again as Lenny slammed his door. Roger stood under the half-raised garage door signaling him over. His back against the side, he peeked like a spy at the crowd snaking up the walk and indicated that Eli should keep quiet and hurry. “Let’s go, let’s go,” Roger said, pulling Eli by the sleeve into the garage. He pressed the button to shut the door.
“What’s going on, Boss?” Eli said as Roger pulled a wooden wine crate down from over the freezer.
“This isn’t gonna be some hagiography, is it?” Roger said, pulling two plastic cups from a bag. He placed them on the hood of his silver Porsche, squeaked a cork from a bottle, dumped four fingers worth of some sort of whiskey into each, and handed Eli one.
“Whoa, whoa, let’s slow down, Roger. First of all…”
“Cut the shit, God,” Roger blurted. “You’re a smart guy. Most rabbis are. So tell me, is today just another let’s-rave-about-how-Saul’s-the-second-coming day? I know he’s gone and all, but you know what I mean. Drink up.”
“My name’s not God, Roger. It’s Gad. It rhymes with ‘mad,’ okay?”
Roger cackled without smiling, sniffed the whiskey and raised his upper lip.
“I’m not drinking this. You shouldn’t be either. We need to focus today.” Eli pointed to his forehead to emphasize focus, but when Roger looked up, he regretted it.
“Rabbi, Rabbi.” Roger patted Eli’s shoulder. “This is your show. It’s my house—which I volunteered for this shindig, by the way, not that I had a choice; it’s not like Susan’s sisters could’ve hosted—but this is your show one hundred percent. This,” he pointed to Eli’s cup, “will loosen you up. You need this. Besides, this was Saul’s special rye. We drank it together once. He’d want you to drink it. It’s quality stuff, not that rye’s my drink, but I’m killing this bottle tonight. You gonna make me drink alone?” Roger’s eyebrows reached for each other; he shrugged—what can you do? “So let’s go.” Roger tapped Eli’s cup. “C’mon.”
Eli rolled his eyes. “Fine, Roger. If it’ll help you relax. I don’t want to argue with you.” Eli removed his glasses. The whiskey tumbled in his chest like clothes in a dryer. He coughed.
“Thank you, Rabbi,” Roger said, opening the door to the house and lunging through. “It was spiked.”
“Sorry?” Eli said, crossing the threshold to find Saul’s grandsons setting up a full bar on a fold-out table covered with an orange plastic tablecloth. Jonah, Shirley’s son, was eighteen, would soon graduate high school and not head directly to college. He was slicing a black butterfly knife through lemons and limes, then spooning olives into a dish. David, Roger and Susan’s twenty-four-year-old son, a writer, and his twenty-two-year-old brother Dougie, an intern at a hedge fund, lined up a dozen or so bottles of red and white wine, vodka, gin and whiskey, label out, against the wall at the back of the table. Eli was confused.
“Rabbi God,” David said, sipping a tall drink and approaching with an outstretched hand. “How are you? Can I get you a drink, perhaps sparkling wine?”
“David, your father just told me I drank spiked whiskey. What does that mean?” Eli wiped clammy hands on his blazer. He noticed the tablecloth was upside down. The letters, which he read backwards, announced, “Happy Birthday!”
David laughed. “He’s just joking. What’re you gonna spike whiskey with, acid?”
Then Eli heard the piano. The song—he recognized it—Billy Joel, Only the Good Die Young. Music and a full bar at Saul’s shiva?
Eli hopped the two steps into the foyer to cut off whatever idiot was playing and found Roger behind the piano, looking at him as though to ask if he liked the selection.
“Roger, listen,” Eli said. “This is your house, I don’t want to take that away from you, but you obviously haven’t been to your share of shivas, as I have. And as many of the people coming to pay their respects have. I explained the rituals to Susan and the girls before the funeral, but you weren’t there, as you should’ve been.”
Roger sipped Saul’s special rye, swiveled to face Eli, and tightened his lips into a mock smile.
“First of all, no music, okay? It goes without saying that this is a somber affair. It isn’t a party. Second, we gotta get these mirrors covered with sheets.” Eli paused, looked around. “Where is everybody?”
Groucho barked and growled, his claws tapping the storm door glass. Eli walked around the corner to see a crowd standing outside, a line extending all the way down the walk, at least thirty or forty people held at bay by Groucho and his fangs and steamy breath.
“Roger,” he said, but Roger had vanished.
Eli hustled back through the living room, past the three boys and their tall cocktails, and into the garage, but then turned and stepped back inside. “Boys,” he said. “Gentlemen, can I enlist you to help us out, here?” They shrugged, seemed amenable. “Just two easy things: we need to get the mirrors in the house covered with sheets. At a time like this, no one should be concerned with their appearance. And grab the three folding chairs from the garage that I brought for your mothers, and set them up in here. I appreciate it, fellas.”
“Yeah, okay,” Jonah said. “What’s with the chairs?”
Eli looked at his watch, took a deep breath, grabbed the doorknob and leaned into it. “It’s our tradition for the children of the deceased to sit on chairs no higher than thirty centimeters off the floor,” he said flatly. “Sitting this way symbolizes that they’ve been brought low, and it makes them accessible to everyone who’s come to offer their condolences.”
“Rabbi,” Dougie said, “how you holding up?”
Eli stared at Dougie for a moment, then swallowed and said, “We appreciate your help, boys.” He speed-walked out the garage and down the driveway. The line from the front door stretched to the cul-de-sac and continued to grow. Eli weaved through the line, excusing himself and trying to avoid the thorns. People greeted him on his way—there was the president of JNF Northeast; that colleague of Saul’s who was always dabbing the skin he shaved between his nose and mustache; and Dr. Egers, everybody’s gynecologist. People tried engaging Eli as he passed, but he waved them off and continued through the line. “Don’t you worry about Saul,” he heard the mustache guy bellow. “He’s looking down on you now, reading a finance book and sipping his rye. Mark my words. The man was generous to the congregation and to Israel.”
Approaching the front steps, Eli spotted a khaki tuchus and felt the inside of his chest glow. It was Jelena Slutskaya, a Russian, blond-haired, yoga instructing widow from the congregation. She was in her mid-40s, foxy.
“Shalom, Rabbi,” Jelena said, rolling the r with a thick Russian accent as he tried to squeeze by. “I’m so sorry for your loss. I know Saul was your friend.”
“Ms. Slutskaya,” he said at a private volume. “Please, call me Eli.” Without thinking, he reached for her slender hand, lifted it, and enclosed it in his hands. Sliding a thumb across her knuckles, he said, “Don’t you worry about Saul. He’s looking down on us now.” Then lifting his eyebrows and lowering his chin a drop, he added, “And don’t you worry about me either.” He winked, her lips twitched into a small smile, and as he climbed the steps to the fogged-up storm door, it occurred to him that what he had just done was unusual. And he remembered the large shot of rye he’d swilled.
He was feeling quite brave as he stepped up to Groucho. But when he slid his fingers through the door handle and touched his thumb to the button, Groucho’s ferocity escalated: a line of fur stood along his back, his lips quivered. Eli’s bravery ebbed. He felt Jelena’s eyes on him, felt everybody observing this moment to learn what holy bravery resided in this ‘man of God.’ He was the captain of a sinking ship.
He looked to the sky, its blue infinite. Saul, he said for strength, remembering how Saul had counseled him. “There’s nothing in this life that matters that you don’t have to work hard for.” Saul’d said it after the car accident, when he visited Eli in the hospital nearly every day for a month, a sergeant drilling him to health. He’d said it when the unravelling of Eli’s marriage could no longer be ignored. Saul had even said it when they first met, when Saul had treated Eli to lunch. This was following a B’nai B’rith charity event at Forest Hills in the early ‘80s, a doubles tennis match in which Rabbi Justice Rothenberger of Bensonhurst’s Congregation B’nai Isaac topspinned an unreachable lob, yet Eli had lunged after it and was just able to get his racquet on it and flick it. The ball hit the top of the net, the audience gasped, and it fell where Rothenberger couldn’t reach.
“Justice is served!” Saul’d hollered as the crowd of twenty stood and clapped. Saul had considered it a mystical moment. Over lunch, Eli reassured Saul, who’d been feeling insecure about some business dealings, that Jews did not believe in Hell. Not, at least, in the popular culture sense. A few weeks later, Saul brought Eli into Temple Beth El, helped him land a great job. Over the years, Saul joked many times about how Eli had ‘served Justice.’ Saul treated Eli like a son—Saul, who’d never had a son, and Eli, who’d never known his father.
Gripping the storm door handle with the killer dog on the other side, Eli sucked air up his nose, did it again, then pressed an index finger to the glass and commanded, “Sit!” Groucho dropped his forepaws from the glass, and Eli—bracing for pain-laden embarrassment—whipped open the door and threw his body inside. The dog wagged its tail and dug its nose into Eli’s crotch. And Eli let him while the guests filtered into the house.
Then he headed into the kitchen looking for Susan, and found himself staring at a bird cage. A bird—blue-gray with white stripes, a yellow face with orange cheeks, and a Mohawk that slicked back and curled, paced across the top of the cage. It chirped and thrust its neck at him, either calling him over or chastising him. Something poked Eli right in his butt. He turned around. Groucho, again, nosed his crotch. The bird launched from its cage and landed on Eli’s shoulder. It jutted its head and screamed at the dog, which withdrew from Eli’s crotch and booked it out of the kitchen.
“I see you’ve met our cockatiel,” Susan said. “This is Sonny.” She held a martini.
“Oh, Susan. I’ve been looking for you.”
“We should’ve put the dog in the kennel.”
“Yes, well, nothing we can do about that now. We’re getting off to a very slow start here. I told you before the funeral that we needed to get the mirrors covered with sheets…”
“You’re right, Eli,” Susan said, placing her drink on the black granite counter, ripping a paper towel from the roll and wetting it under the faucet. “Everything just feels so hectic. Don’t you feel the pressure to get things right? For Daddy?”
“I do, Susan. Thank you for saying that. It’s time we say the kaddish. We have plenty of men for the minyan now.” Eli, moving carefully to avoid startling the bird, wiped his palms on his blazer. “And would you ask your boys to stick the dog in the kitchen?”
Susan extended her arm and held her index finger over Eli’s shoulder. Sonny stepped onto it. “Take this,” she said, handing Eli the wet paper towel. “How’s my Sonny Boy?” She rubbed her nose against his breast, petted his back and wings with her whole palm, and closed her eyes. Sonny gurgled, a soft, rolling whistle. Then he lowered his head and Susan massaged his neck, her thumb and forefinger sliding under the feathers. “Sonny likes you,” she said.
“He does? How do you know?”
“He left a message on your shoulder.”
Eli looked and found poop, white with a black line spiraling through it, oozing forward. “Oh Jeez.” He wiped it with the paper towel, then took off his jacket and draped it over a chair.
“At the end, when the pain got worse and Daddy got moodier, he and Sonny bonded.”
“Daddy liked when Sonny hung out on his head. I think he liked how the claws felt on his skin. Sonny kinda reminds me of Daddy. How he thrusts his chest out. Proud. And his dark eyes. After dinner, Daddy would open his mouth and Sonny would stick his head inside and pick food from his teeth. Pasta, egg…”
“Susan, I wanted to say…you know I loved Saul. We were playing tennis twenty years ago in Fair Lawn, and he never charged me a penny for his financial services. So, I’m not only here as your rabbi to officiate the shiva, but I’m here as a friend and mourner. That being said, we have a full day ahead of us. There’s nothing wrong with taking the edge off, but please pace yourself, huh?” He slid his sleeve across his forehead, wiped his glasses with his tie. Susan held her hand out and Sonny flew back to the top of his cage.
Eli followed Susan into the living room where everybody was mingling, but then he touched his hip and realized he didn’t have his pocket Torah on him. Groucho was curled under the dining room table. He’d plunged his nose into his own crotch, and his leg fluttered. Eli paused.
Groucho’s eyes panned to the rabbi. He withdrew his nose. His lips trembled, pulled back.
“Hey, boy.” Eli’s thick shirt bunched in his armpits.
Groucho stood, but his back half sagged.
Eli looked closer and saw that Groucho had an erection; his penis had emerged from his furry white sheath. It was large and gray with black lines crisscrossing it as though cooked on a grill. He’d never seen a masturbating dog before, and then he remembered something he’d read or heard about how pets and their owners come to resemble each other. He wanted to laugh. But remembering this was Saul’s dog, not Roger’s, he realized it wasn’t funny.
“Bad!” Roger yelled, startling Eli. “Get in there.” They followed Groucho, who sort of dragged his rear, into the kitchen. Roger pointed to the crate. “Lay down.” He closed the crate. “Rabbi,” he said, “you don’t look so hot. You need a Xanax or a Percocet or something?”
“Listen, Roger.” Eli pulled his prayer book from his jacket. “I was just talking with Susan and…are you wearing leather shoes?”
“I guess. Why?”
“Why?” Eli verged on yelling. “Because you’re not supposed to wear leather during shiva.”
“Oh? Well, I just gotta run out, and I’ll change when I get back.”
“Where’re you going?”
“Nowhere. The office. Right down the road.”
Eli removed his glasses and ran a sleeve across his forehead. “Roger, you can’t work today. You’re sitting shiva. Don’t you want to be here for your wife?”
“She’s got her sisters.” Roger shrugged and walked from the kitchen. Eli followed. “They like stewing in their misery together.” He stopped near the piano and turned to face Eli. “Understand?”
“No, I don’t understand, Roger. You’re not supposed to work today. For Saul. Don’t you think he’d appreciate a traditional shiva?”
“I guess.” Roger swallowed. “But it’s complicated. I know you care for Saul. And that’s great.” He cleared his throat. “But I’m not gonna stand around for this hagiography shit and pretend to like it.”
“Look,” Eli said, pointing his palms toward Roger, “Saul wasn’t perfect. Who among us is? But overall he led a good life, yes?”
“Nauseating, how he was always on the pulpit with you like he was head rabbi, sitting in his special little seat.” With two hands Roger pressed his silver hair to his head. “That smug smile, passing himself off as more than what he was.”
“Enough, Roger. You don’t know what you’re saying. Saul had the right. He fought and killed for this country. The greatest generation. And he did everything for our congregation. He earned the right to be who he wanted to be. The man helped me unquantifiably. He was righteous. Curmudgeonly, sure, but downright virtuous.”
“Yeah, well no one knew him like I did. Certainly not you.” Eli was about to say something when Roger added, “He treated you like a child.”
That stung. Eli didn’t know what it meant. Through the window he saw his gold convertible Mercedes closed in by other cars. Saul had put the down payment on that car, which had been pre-owned, good-as-new, only 5,000 miles. Eli had wanted to have the dealership install a CD player for $150, but Saul didn’t want to spend the money. Remembering this now, Eli wondered why he didn’t just pay for it himself. He could have, though at the time it didn’t seem an option. He lowered his hand to rest on the piano, but he landed on the low keys; they roared.
“You’ve benefited from Saul’s fruits, haven’t you?” Eli asked.
“His fruits?” Roger’s face was growing excitable-red. “He benefited from my fruits. He screwed me, for Christ’s sake. This isn’t your business but I’m gonna tell you. I brought Saul a client and when the client needed insurance, Saul sent him to someone else. He pocketed, what? Two or three thousand dollars. Peanuts.”
“By fruits I meant Susan.”
“When he screwed me, he screwed Susan too.”
“I only meant…it’s against God’s law to just zip down to your office.”
“God?” Roger tapped the wallet in his slacks’ pocket. “This was Saul’s God right here.”
When the storm door slammed, Groucho’s barks thundered through the house. Eli walked into the foyer, two steps above the living room, and looked at a gathering of fifty or sixty of Saul’s family, friends, and business associates crowded in and mingling, drinks and plates of food in hand. He felt he was on a pulpit looking down on his congregation, only sans Saul, and it felt strange. Shirley and Sharon sat in their low seats, each looking forlorn and cried out of tears. Shirley held a tall drink, her purse open in her lap, pack of cigarettes peeking out.
“It’s good that Roger left,” Susan said, standing beside Eli and leaning her head into his arm like a sister. She sipped her drink, swayed a little. “We’re so glad you’re here. This place’d be a zoo without you.”
“Susan,” Eli said. “Remember when Saul made me change my forehand grip, and for a while I’d completely whiff like every fifth shot? He called me a spaz.” On the bookshelf behind Susan was a picture of Saul, a caption beside it: Poppa Saul, 1962, 45 years old. Saul stood shirtless, a wrestler’s chest, wearing a fedora and a thick gold ring, like a gangster. About Eli’s age now, but supremely handsome. “Do you think he treated me like a child?”
Susan half giggled and half grunted. “Welcome to the club, pal.” She sipped. “Imagine if you’d actually been his kid, let alone his son. It’d have been a lot worse.” On the wall next to the bookshelf was a recent picture of Saul, thin and in a wheelchair. It was his 88th birthday, a cake in front of him, his smile wide and helpless as Dougie blew his birthday candles out for him.
After a moment, Eli said, “God,” and shivers ran through him. Then he pulled his shoulders back, lifted his chin, and said to Susan, “Go and sit with your sisters.”
He opened his prayer book and was about to address the room and begin the kaddish when he heard, “God. Rabbi God,” and saw Jonah and Dougie at the back of the room waving. He rolled his eyes, fired air from his nostrils, then heard Saul tell him, Nothing matters if you don’t have to work hard for 5it. He closed his book and walked over.
“Rabbi God.” David poured chilled vodka into five shot glasses set up along the bar. “You know Jelena Slutskaya. She thought you might like to join us in a toast to our grandfather.”
“Rabbi,” she said, rolling that r, smiling with small, shy lips. “Again, I am truly sorry for your loss. I really liked Saul, and I know he loved you.”
“Guys,” Eli said, “it’s not God.” Jonah stuck a shot glass in his hand. “It’s Gad. It rhymes with sad.” He looked at Jelena. “And glad.”
She smiled and said zazdarovje. Without thinking, Eli said amen. Then Jelena, the three boys, and Eli downed their shots. Jelena licked her lips and said l’chaim. She touched Eli’s elbow and said, “Yes, Rabbi?”
Eli wiped the shot glass’s cool condensation from his fingers onto his pants. “Hey,” he whispered, cleared his throat. “Let’s take it easy, huh? Try not to drown our sadness?”
“Honestly, Rabbi,” David said, “Poppa Saul was in agony before he died. He lived a good and long life, and our mission tonight is to celebrate it.”
“Of course, of course,” Eli said. “Of course.” He touched his tie knot, then the hinge of his glasses, stepped back and looked at the floor.
“Besides,” Dougie said, “whether or not we get drunk has no bearing on the fact that Poppa Saul is gone. Either way, we have to deal with the loss. Might as well get a little sloppy.”
“I understand,” Eli answered. “But I would caution you against thinking of your grandfather as totally gone, in the complete sense of the word.”
“True,” Jelena said. “This very moment he is here. To challenge you perhaps, to test how much we care.” Eli nodded and sniffled. She said, “Perhaps he is here as shidduch.” The boys looked at her. “That is right word? Matchmaker, yes?” She blushed.
“Oh.” He cleared his throat. “Yes, Jelena, that’s the word.” He felt guilty for a moment, but then thought it was okay. It was just nature. And nature is God. Surely Saul understood. Surely Saul was in the room.
Saul: his father, his fire, his flawed, domineering champion.
“Everybody.” Eli’s voice reverberated throughout the room. “We will begin our celebration of Saul’s life with the mourner’s kaddish. This is a prayer for better days ahead, and thankfulness for the world God created according to His plan.” Eli opened his book. But he did not begin. “God’s plan. Sometimes it feels like His plan is that nothing goes according to plan, doesn’t it? I think Saul would agree with that. We better close our eyes and pray.”
Richard Squires is an adjunct writing professor at Kean University in New Jersey, where he lives with his wife, their five-year-old son, and three-month-old daughter. Recent fiction publications include Upender: Art of Consequence, and The MacGuffin. Richard earned his MFA from Stonecoast, University of Southern Maine.