This story is the first place winner of the 2010 Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest. Founded in 2000, the contest was created to recognize authors of Jewish short fiction. The 2010 stories were judged by novelist Nicole Krauss. Moment Magazine and the Karma Foundation are grateful to Krauss and to all of the writers who took the time to submit their stories. Visit momentmag.com/fiction to learn how to submit a story to the contest.
The adults had been there for hours—the ones from out of town for days—and they all seemed happy, huddled in little groups that opened up whenever I passed to let me in. They were offering me a space to receive their congratulations and slurred life advice. I smiled gamely and kept walking through my grandparents’ house—through the sunroom, past the living room picture window, past the silver platters of food, the crystal decanters with little nametags chained around their necks. I had nowhere to go. I had changed out of my bar mitzvah suit into an aqua leisure suit with a polyester shirt depicting a crowded seafloor scene. I had blow-dried and sprayed my hair into a kind of helmet. I was ready for someone my age to show up. I was ready for a miracle to take place and a cool bar mitzvah party to assemble on the screened back porch. A bar mitzvah was, after all, a religious celebration, and in those days it was religion alone that lifted me out of despair, inspiring in me the fervid hope that everything would be all right.
I happened to be in the front hall to witness the spectacle of Aaron Elkins making his entrance. It was July, it was Savannah, my grandparents’ air conditioner had broken, and so the attic fan was on. I stood in the insuck of hot air through the open front door and watched Aaron navigate his way up the crisscross redbrick walkway. Massive cockroaches, illuminated in the front porch lights, flew across his path, causing him to skip and dodge and do a minstrel-like little dance. At one point his hands shot up and his palms pressed against either side of his head. He had been born a blue baby and was a fellow regular at the first table by the steps in the lunchroom pit. He struck me as a puny and contemptible figure, but I was grateful he had come.
He didn’t see me till he got to the front steps. He said, “There’s about a million cockroaches out there.” He had stopped on the front porch and was wiping his forehead with a shredded Kleenex. The corners of his purple mouth tilted down in a textbook frown, his shoulders were hunched, his entire physical presentation reflecting the effort it took him simply to get there. “Well, about nine hundred ninety-nine thousand left.
I stomped about a thousand of them. Oh, unless they’ve been doing it.” He leered at me—I’m sure that was the intent as he stood there catching his breath. “Then there’d be more of them than when I got here. Have you ever seen two gigantic flying cockroaches doing it?”
“Come in,” I said, taking a deep breath against an impending flow of tears. This was only my first guest. I had an entire night to endure.
“Are there any girls here yet?” he asked, stepping under the fanlight, his yellow eyes aglow from the blazing chandelier.
Getting girls to come to a party hosted by me was a known problem whose solution I had left in God’s hands. “You’ve got pieces of Kleenex stuck to your forehead,” I said.
He raked his forehead with his long bluish nails, then did his version of a grin. “Which girls did you invite?”
“All of them.” Who was I to exclude anyone in the class?
“Leslie Lee?” he asked.
“I said all of them.”
“Oo, Leslie Lee,” he said dreamily, his eyes closing. Then he opened them and grabbed ahold of an invisible pair of skinny hips, pulling them into his groin three times as he goatishly intoned each syllable of her last name: “Des-Bouil-lons.”
“Come on,” I said, looking around, in case anyone had seen.
I took him through the kitchen.
“You look like you’re about to cry,” he said from behind.
In the kitchen the two maids, ours and my grandparents’, looked up from the trays of hors d’oeuvres they were arranging and smiled simultaneously. This struck me as a kind and classy gesture for which I felt absurdly grateful. My mother was giving them orders and ignored me. My luck ran out in the dining room. Everyone was engaged talking with someone else except for Harry Sandman, my godfather, who was standing at the window looking out at the garden. The other men were wearing coats and ties, but he was wearing a striped sports shirt and a pair of slacks, as if to call attention to his bachelorhood, to confirm all the rumors. The reason he lived in a carriage house downtown, an aunt had once said, was to be closer to the “nafkes he ran with.” The carriage house was a block away from the auto-repair garage he owned, but this was apparently a secondary convenience. He turned just as I passed behind him, pinning Aaron and me to the dining room table.
His hairline started very high on his head; below that, he had a deep reddish tan and spots like watermelon seeds here and there. “Ho, ho, the bar mitzvah boy! Look at that shirt, that’s a voyage to the bottom of the sea.” He put his arm around me, then stuck out the other one at Aaron. “Harry Sandman, glad to meet you. Did you know I held this kid in my hands?”
Aaron shook his head, and it was unclear whether he meant yes or no.
“I had his legs spread as wide as I could, I was holding down his fat little calves—this kid was a kicker! One wrong move and he’d have been a little girl! Do you follow me?”
“Who’s your daddy?” Harry asked.
“Sure, I know who Simon Elkins is. Tell him hello. Tell him to bring his car into the garage for a checkup. On the house, free of charge. What is it, a black Dodge Dart station wagon, 69, 70?”
“Sixty-nine, heh heh,” Aaron said, recognizing a kindred spirit.
Harry looked at him for a second, then broke into a smile. “Your friend’s got a dirty mind,” he said into my face. “And one hell of a tan.”
“Well, we better get to the porch,” I said.
“I like that in a boy.” I was wondering if Harry meant the dirty mind or the tan when he kissed me on the lips. He tasted of pickles and booze. “I like you, too. This is a hell of a party you’re throwing. I think there are more people here than came to the thing this morning. Hey, Aaron, did you hear how this kid reads Hebrew, like a professional?”
“Yeah,” Aaron said sourly, “he read it for three hours straight.”
Harry considered this. “He did read for three hours straight, didn’t he?”
“It sure seemed like it.”
“It was a double parsha,” I said in my defense.
I was defending myself but I didn’t feel defensive. I had known what I was doing. The moon’s position in the sky accounted for why a double portion needed to be read from the Torah that day, but I alone was responsible for the hours of uninterrupted, practically tuneless Hebrew chanting coming off the altar. The cantor, my bar mitzvah coach, had suggested we do excerpts of the two long readings; a little here, a little there, then on to something else. I said we’d do it the way God wrote it, and it wasn’t a medley. The cantor, who’d escaped a Polish labor camp, eaten the soles of his shoes, hidden in the bare branches of trees, avoided being shot thanks to a miraculous nick-of-time snowfall, sighed. No one stands for more than two hours straight reading from the Torah, he said, especially at our middle-of-the-road synagogue, which prided itself on not being crazy liberal but not being crazy orthodox either. In addition, he said, to paraphrase his elegant, accented English, reading the two sections in their entirety and in Hebrew would bore the shit out of the congregation. I knew he was right, but I would not be swayed. To keep us on some kind of schedule we had cut out my today-I-am-a-man speech, we had cut out the rabbi’s speech, we had cut out the part where the zaftig Elizabeth Taylor–esque sisterhood president, Mrs. Glass, hands me a silver cup—we had cut out everything that could possibly be considered entertainment at a bar mitzvah.
The day came and I stood there reading the ancient words, feeling God’s breath rise up from my lungs and pass through my lips, and occasionally looking up and registering the emptying sanctuary. The endless lines of unpunctuated consonants, some of them crowned, rose and seemed to hover above the parchment, the letters black and watery but crisp-edged, and when I looked up I couldn’t make out faces, only the movement of bodies toward the door. At first they left one at a time, maybe pretending to go to the bathroom or have a smoke. Then they left in pairs. And then, abandoning all shame, they left in groups of three and four and more. I looked up for the last time when I was nearing the end, the part where the Hebrews, camped on the far side of the Jordan, within sight of the Holy Land, listen to Moses relay God’s commandments on whom their daughters may marry. The front two rows were still filled with family, zombie-eyed and dutiful, but the rest of the sanctuary was empty but for an odd man here and there, like the audience at a midnight showing of a Czechoslovakian animated film. I didn’t know where everyone else had gone, but they all reappeared in the social hall when it was time to eat.
Beethoven’s Emperor concerto was playing on the stereo, white tapers columned in glass rose from every surface, bowls of hydrangeas lay among the platters of food. Then we crossed over onto the porch, where the kids’ party was still waiting to begin. The cement floor was painted red, and it seemed to change color throughout the day; now, under the bare bulb, it looked like one great field of rust. It was a little sandy under our shoes. Lizards were mounted at various levels on the outside of the screen, and Aaron observed their undersides with uncharacteristic silence. Moths crashed wildly into the screen, and the only sound you heard were the crickets.
I walked over to the stack of singles by the record player. I had bought them all last weekend at the Kmart. Moonlight Feels Right, Afternoon Delight, Dreamweaver—I listened to the Top 40 every Sunday morning; I knew these were the popular songs, but buying them seemed futile to me.
Aaron turned away from the lizards, but I looked away before he could meet my eyes.
“Are you going to put some music on?” he asked.
“OK.” I put on Love Will Keep Us Together.
“Who do you think the first girl’s going to be?” he asked when the song was over.
“I don’t know.”
“Come on, guess. Leslie Lee?”
“What if no girls show up?”
I figured somebody had to say it eventually.
“Hello,” a voice said. It was Mark Cohen, standing in the doorway between the sunroom and the porch. Instinctively I held my breath. He did not smell bad, but sometimes I gagged when I saw him—an inconvenient reflex, because he was another one of the guys who ate his lunch at the first table in the pit. One morning at Jewish day camp Mark shat in his bathing suit. We were five years old. We were lined up for roll call and I was standing behind him. He was as disgusted as the rest of us—he slipped out of his yellow trunks and ran naked into the building. I turned away and managed to keep myself from vomiting, and from then on even the name Mark Cohen carried with it the smell of shit.
Aaron covered his nose and mouth with his palms and moved away from the doorway, saying the muffled word “gasmask” over and over, proving, as if there had been any doubt, that a comradeship of outcasts is no comradeship at all.
“Happy bar mitzvah.” Mark handed me a long slim box. “I got you a belt. You can take it back if you don’t like it.”
This was something about Mark—he was as sweet as the memory he conjured was foul.
“Thanks,” I said. “You should get something to drink. There’s ginger ale and punch.”
“I think I’ll get some punch. Do you want some?”
Mark went out and Aaron took my elbow and said, “Come over into the corner.”
When we got there he said, “Do you know what you looked like up there?”
“At the synagogue. Reading from the Torah.”
I shook my head.
“You were swaying.”
“You’re supposed to do that.”
“Yeah, but you looked like you meant it.”
“You’re taking yourself off in a very extreme direction.”
“I am not.”
“And your suit pants are highwaters.”
I glared at him, insisting he come to the point.
“No girl is ever going to like you like that,” he finally said.
I looked at my friend, with his purple lips and yellow eyes and hangdog expression, and felt an immense pity for us all.
Standing on the altar swaying, shaking like a tree in a wind blown by the spirit of the Lord —I had meant it. My religious awakening occurred just a few months before, at Mama Leone’s restaurant in New York. It was night three of my eighth-grade trip.
Night one: Hurtling north through darkness on Amtrak’s American Spirit, Tally McPherson slipping across the aisle to sit with Leslie Lee Desbouillons, Sara Bousquet giving up her seat to slip across the aisle to sit with Chip Spenser, a car full of adolescents as beautiful as their names coupling in the darkness, silent against the noises of the night, the hypnotic chug-a-chut of the wheels, the lonely call of the whistle at the intersections of county roads, the snoring of the chaperones—the landscape of sound that I travel through, that the lovers surely don’t notice. Night two: In a grotesque twist, the TV in the room I share with Aaron Elkins shows adult movies for free, and so the entire class, 60 horny kids, is piled onto the beds and the carpet watching Confessions of a Window Washer. This is the happiest night of Aaron’s life and he’s not even watching the movie. Neither am I—the window washer is skinny and smooth-skinned and he has a huge dick, but if I look anywhere in the direction of the screen I’m sure the entire class will notice my fascination. That night I lie listening to Aaron’s rubbing against the sheets, his pitiful moans, wondering if these sad exertions will kill him.
By night three I am, apparently, ready to accept God’s salvation. A plate of veal parmesan is placed before me. Meat and milk in combination is forbidden, I had learned from Hebrew school, though we ate it all the time at home: veal parmesan, cheeseburgers, beef stroganoff. The chaperones have selected a five-course meal for us. I have no choice over what I am eating but I can choose whether or not to eat. It doesn’t seem like a conscious choice. It’s more like when Pharaoh tested the baby Moses with two piles, one of gold coins and the other of steaming coals, and if he chose the former, he would be put to death. Naturally he reached for the coins, but at the last moment an angel averted his hand and he touched a coal. His burnt finger flew up to his mouth, singeing his tongue, permanently impeding his speech. My hand doesn’t burn when I touch the plate to push it away, but after this silent refusal I barely speak for the rest of the trip.
Dennis Hornstein sprinted from the far end of the living room to the foyer, then out the front door. He had been running in and out all night and my grandparents were furious, which seemed to me some measure of the success of my party. It was not a wild party, but there had been surprises. All the guys from the loser table in the lunchroom had shown up and so had a couple of guys no one could consider losers —Dennis, who was actually going out with someone, was one of them.
I wasn’t exactly happy, but I knew it could be worse. Aaron knew no such thing—he had one measure of success and the count of girls remained at zero. When Dennis showed up on the back porch again, still out of breath, Aaron cornered him and demanded to know where his girlfriend, Karen Karesh, was.
“She didn’t come,” Dennis said.
“Duh,” Aaron said. “Why didn’t she come?”
“Uh, I don’t know.”
“Did you ask her?”
“She knew I was coming but she didn’t want to come.”
“Well why not?”
He shook his head.
“Don’t move,” Aaron said, going into the sunroom. He came back with a phone trailing a cord. “Call her.”
“He doesn’t have to call,” I pleaded. Why, after all, did I want to know why someone wouldn’t come to my party?
“I already talked to her today,” Dennis said.
“Give him a break,” I said.
“Call her and ask her why she isn’t here,” Aaron insisted.
Dennis shrugged and dialed. Two little moths had gotten onto the porch and as he waited he watched their little suicide flights into the bulb.
“Hey,” Dennis said softly into the receiver.
“Ask her,” Aaron said.
“Uh, hey,” Dennis said in a normal voice. “Do you want to come over?” He looked at us as he listened, then looked back at the phone when it was his turn to talk. “Is it fun? Kind of.” He looked at us again, then looked back at the phone. “Well, why don’t you want to come over?”
When he hung up he informed us she didn’t want to come over because she didn’t think there would be any girls there.
Aaron made two loose fists and pounded them against his own head.
“Aaron,” I said.
“Aaahhhhhh!” he said, still pounding.
Everyone on the porch was watching this.
“Stop it,” I said. “You’re going to hurt yourself.”
“I hate girls.” He dropped to one knee and rested his elbow on the other one, gently panting. “How can there be any girls if no girls show up?”
“I think they’re just waiting for someone to go first,” Mark said reasonably.
Aaron looked at him and stood up. If he hadn’t been such a runt he would have been right in Mark’s face. I thought Aaron was going to lunge at him. Instead he said, “What’s your sister doing tonight?”
“I don’t know,” Mark said. “Nothing.”
“You don’t know or she’s doing nothing? Which is it?”
“She’s 11 years old,” I said when I realized what Aaron was doing.
Aaron picked up the phone, which had somehow got set down in the middle of the floor, and said, “Call her.”
“All right,” Mark replied.
She came over. She was wearing white shorts and a frilly white blouse and I think she ’d done something with her eyes—the lashes appeared to have been greased and somehow separated. She sat in the center of the room, under the bulb, on a beach chair with the back frayed into a hole the size of a grapefruit. It was the best of the lot we found stacked against the wall. She sat on this throne without a trace of self-consciousness. There was something uncanny about her. She was a little 11-year-old girl, but she sat there with the air of an adult, of her mother specifically, I suppose. She had not been tainted by her brother’s reputation. She crossed her legs and maintained a constant smile and did not seem to mind that everyone kept running past her or around her, but no one spoke to her. She seemed aware of her power here—the queen bee, the blank space that defined the walls around it, the absence around which everything we wanted was gathered. She knew that now that she was here, the party had begun, but she didn’t seem at all conceited about it.
“Would you like something to drink?” I asked her.
“I would, thank you kindly.”
“We have ginger ale and punch.”
“I believe I’ll try the punch,” she replied, folding her hands in her lap.
In the sunroom a cherub with a fig leaf listened with his head cocked to a great conch shell. A lightbulb rose from out of his curls and cast a warm puddle of light on the Oriental rug. It was a house full of wonders and flowers and music and light. And adults so intensely engaged with one another, so lost in their merry drunkenness, that by this point in the evening they had stopped congratulating me, stopped trying to catch my eye. There were exceptions. Sympathetic souls like my grandmother. Standing by the Knabe baby grand with a tumbler of bourbon in her hand, she smiled sweetly at me—she didn’t blame me for the wildness of my friends. My uncle Ben, who was recently divorced and now took me as his date to the symphony, stood by the mahogany radio console, glowing from its deep polish, and winked at me so discreetly that discretion itself seemed the point of the gesture. He seemed to be signaling that we would not talk or even acknowledge each other—but he wanted me to know he had not forgotten about me. In the middle of a house full of people, we could share this moment completely unnoticed; no one but us could know the depth of our connection—and it was all right. This seemed to me then to have something to do with becoming an adult.
And yet it was not enough, none of it was enough. What was wrong with me! The crumminess of my party on the porch was clear to me, as was the elegance and warmth of the party in there—and yet I felt I belonged at neither of them. Dennis and Mark raced past me. Where were they going? How did they know where to go? We were no longer children; we didn’t just run around and around for no reason at all. And yet this is what I was seeing, my friends always describing some orbit in the house or on the grounds. The adults standing in their circles were also revolving, slowly, so that when I passed back through the sunroom with Sally’s punch, the adults whose backs had been to me were now facing me, though still they paid me no mind.
I stood on the threshold between the main house and the back porch. I Honestly Love You was playing out there. And standing under the now-dark bulb, Aaron and Sally were holding each other and standing in place, leaning in one direction for a while, then leaning in the other. Aaron was barely taller than she. Their hands were pressed deeply into each other’s backs. Their eyes were closed. The chair had been pushed over to the side. Nobody else was on the porch but them—and me. It had gotten a little cooler and the attic fan seemed less useless, so that instead of a rush of hot air, you were standing in a breeze. Now that the light was off you could make out the camellia and hydrangea bushes beyond the screen. Moonlight silvered the tops of the power lines and from someone’s yard a dog barked.
From Rameses they came, from Succoth, from Etham, from Marah. They came from Elim, from the Red Sea, from the wilderness of Sin. They came from Dophkah, from Alush, from waterless Rephidim. From the Sinai wilderness, from Rimmon-perez, from Libnah they came. From Rissah, from Kehelath, from Mount Shepher, from Haradah. They started in Egypt and stopped in dozens of places lacking everything but a name. Every destination also a place of departure, every from also a to—but only provisionally. They were always leaving. It is the final destination alone that matters, the encampments along the way dutifully recorded but usually without a syllable of description, nothing to impede the way to Canaan, every place a stone in the desert over which the human stream can swiftly pour, but also a piece of a caravan fixed in place in the sacred text, with one end in Egypt and the other always in the Holy Land.
And then the people stop moving. Sitting on the wrong bank of the Jordan, they listen to Moses tell them what God has in store for them, what they are commanded to do and what they are forbidden. And this is where the reading ends.
A cliffhanger. But everyone knows what happens. They get where they’re going. They fulfill their destiny.
There had not been much time between my Mama Leone’s conversion and my bar mitzvah. Barely enough time to learn how to chant the ancient words. I had read the translation maybe once. I barely knew what I was saying. I didn’t care—it was an ecstatic experience I was after; I wanted to lose myself quite literally. And yet somehow up there, reading the chain of untranslatable place names, things made a kind of sense to me. Sense—I tried to get it to go away. The words rose from the parchment and I would not let them settle, I poured myself into the letters, I confined myself in their shapes. It didn’t work. Chanting the place names, I identified with the Hebrews on their journey, I was on the journey myself. My adolescent egotism disgusted me; it was banal, it foreclosed ecstasy, it trapped me in myself. In my Pierre Cardin suit I was there in Rephidim, in Kehelath, in Tahath, in Terah—and I wondered how I could possibly believe I was going anywhere, much less making progress to a land of milk and honey. Just because some guy who had conversations with God said so? I was fleeing slavery but into what? How could I possibly believe I would ever escape that endless chain of bumfuck towns—the Vidalia and Valdosta of the desert, the Elabelle, Eulolia, Cordelia, Waycross. Savannah. The towns were bad enough—were they even towns, or just bunches of palms in the desert?—but how to have faith on the shores of the Red Sea or the middle of barren wilderness? Endless pineforest and marsh surrounded Savannah on three sides, the ocean on the other—but why resort to analogies when it was the wilderness of myself from which there was no escape?
I was thinking about all this as I stood there in the darkness watching Aaron and Sally dance. Something had to happen, didn’t it?
The song ended. They did not pull apart. The string to the bulb hung behind Sally’s back and I went over and pulled it and snapped the light on. I felt so alone. Aaron opened his eyes and smiled at me over her shoulder. I smiled miserably back. His forearms were crossed on her back, his palms were pressed into her. He did not let go. The bottoms of his hands remained firmly planted. But the tops of them inclined slowly away from her, his hands swiveled on his wrists, his thumbs flexed. He was giving me a double thumbs-up.
He would be dead in three years. He must have known it. He reached over and pulled the string, he squeezed her to his chest and they swayed to a music you could almost hear.
Jason K. Friedman’s work has appeared in literary journals and anthologies including Best American Gay Fiction and the cultural-studies reader Goth. He has published two children’s books, Phantom Trucker and Haunted Houses. His novel The Creek Is Gone was the runner-up in the Associated Writing Programs Award Series in the Novel. He lives in San Francisco and works as a technical writer.