This story is the first place winner of the 2009 Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest. Founded in 2000, the contest was created to recognize authors of Jewish short fiction. The 2009 stories were judged by novelist, satirist and poet Erica Jong. Moment Magazine and the Karma Foundation are grateful to Jong 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.
Margalit winds her way out of her small city, barely glancing at the well-tended cottages of Mevaseret Tzion, flower beds mulched for the winter, pine trees plunged into the ground like swords, couples piling into cars with plastic bags and backpacks and piles of books and umbrellas. She is late, speeding past the rows of houses, all of them topped with red roofs, squares of ceramic tile, all of them constructed from slabs of Jerusalem stone. That is the rock they are behind now, stuck behind a trailer truck with mounds of it lying on its bed. This uphill is so steep, its grade pitched at too sharp an angle. How can those rocks stand there without budging? Massive granite, or is it quartz? Heavier than a man, cut into wedges or unearthed in blocks. The size of gravestones. Grey or beige or honey or white.
If she were the kind of person who prayed, she would pray that these rocks not crush her. She would like to pass the truck, but the road is too curvy, and the painted stripes are solid lines. Behind her, one car after another revs its motor and somehow cruises by, noisily, as if to taunt her, as if to say: If you have got the guts, look how easy this can be.
A few pebbles fall from the rocks on the truck bed and ping, bouncing to the road before her, so she slows down. She is afraid they will rebound on her windshield and shatter it. Take a deep breath, she tells herself. It’s okay that you are late, she tells herself. It’s okay. The truck whines ahead of her, straining to take the steep uphill; a blast of foul black smoke trails behind him and lingers.
She should pass. She should get away from this truck with its massive cargo that could dislodge on a downhill and trap them in the car, crushing them.
But she is tired. She has not been sleeping well. She listens to the sounds of the night. There have been robberies: Her neighbor Brenda told her that the thief rummaged through her bedroom closet and drawers while she and Amos and the children slept. “In the morning we woke to a ransacked home.” Since then, Margalit has locked the windows, not just the doors.
She nudges the car out of the lane to have a peek and hears her son Gadi rifling through his backpack, papers and books and notebooks scattering on the floor in front of him. He likes to unpack, unsettle, unroll, unravel. Whenever she walks into the study she used to share with Adin, her husband, she has to toss the food Gadi has strewn beside the keyboard: half-eaten rolls, empty cans of Coke. Even if she makes meals, he has no interest in them. Even if she broils an entire chicken, he resists.
She brings the car back into her lane without passing. She does not turn to look at Gadi, at the earring that pierces the dark slash of eyebrow. “It’s only one hole,” he had told her, pinching the skin the evening he came home with the surprise symbol of rebellion. Or is it simply a fashion? She doesn’t know.
“Why the hell don’t you pass? What is the matter with you? Don’t be so afraid,” Gadi demands. Now she looks at him. He looks just like his father, his dark eyes colored like the bark of giant sequoia trees back home in California. Every time she looks at him, she feels her stomach clench, the way that a fist clenches around a baseball.
“Why do you have to use bad language?” she tells him, annoyed. She is trying to stay calm.
“Ima, give me a break. Hell is not bad language. You use it yourself.”
Suddenly the truck puts on its blinker and turns right. Now she can fly. The road is clear, almond trees lining its side still bare, the wild white abundance of their delicate flowers yet to come. She takes a deep breath. She looks straight ahead.
“Oh, no,” says Gadi. “Ima, we have to go back.”
“What?” asks his mother. “What do you mean go back?” She knows that she cannot turn around. There is no time. She has raced all morning: gulped the coffee, woken up her son, checked her email, finished the application for the new research grant. She rushes through so many moments of her day. Even at work, which was once her refuge, she has no patience. The way you do one thing is the way you do them all is a saying her mother was fond of. Funny, because her mother did one thing—drink. An alcoholism that was never named. Her mother with her starched napkins and before-dinner gin gimlets served in fluted glasses. Then there was wine and then there was whiskey and her mother falling asleep on the sofa before dinner, Margalit’s father waking her, dragging her like a child into her bed. Margalit and her father ate dinner reading—her father the business and sports pages, Margalit stories of Madame Curie, Margaret Mead, Rachel Carson, women who did something with their lives.
When she met Adin at the University of California at San Diego, she knew he wanted to return to Israel. And she was not sorry to leave her parents behind. She speaks to her parents once a week, Sunday evening for her, morning for them, before her mother’s first drink. They don’t understand the life she has chosen, they have never visited. “The trip is too difficult for your mother,” her father says on the phone, in a complicit tone that begs for understanding.
From the corner of her eye, she sees Gadi fiddling with his cap, moving the bill from the front to the back of his head. “Why do you need to go home?”
“What project? Turn in your project tomorrow. Your teacher will understand, believe me. Just explain, people understand.”
“No. I can’t. It’s not just mine. It’s a group of us, we have a special project in geography where we make up maps and create a country. We design a flag and make a menu of foods. We’ve been working on it for months.” He is looking at her, but she can’t look at him. She has to keep her eyes on the road.
“I told you. You’re always on the computer or the phone or your Blackberry. Or maybe you’re deaf, getting old,” he says taunting her.
“Don’t be rude, Gadi.”
“Ima, I told you. We made up a country called Askanistan. I had a really cool idea. In this country when people wake up in the morning, they live the rest of the day according to what they dreamed. If they dream that they find an iPod, then the rest of the day they walk around looking for an iPod. And then later, in some doorway or on a street, they find one.”
“That’s beautiful, Gadi.”
“But you don’t listen. You don’t care.”
“Gadi. Please, I’m under pressure today. You should have told me about your project before. You can’t expect me to turn around. Why do you tell me everything at the last minute? Why don’t you plan? I can’t work on such short notice.”
“Just let me out of the car, okay?”
“Gadi…” she says, pleading.
She doesn’t have time for him this morning. She is supposed to make the opening speech for the awards ceremony in exactly 23 minutes.
“Just let me out of the car. I’ll hitchhike home.”
“No way, Gadi. Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Let me out of the car.”
They are at his junior high school, on Rehov Emek Zetim, a long gray concrete building that looks unplanned, rooms railroaded on in no particular aesthetic fashion. Students are sauntering into school in groups.
He gets out of the car, stuffing papers into his backpack and walks away from her without closing the car door, without saying goodbye. “Maybe I’ll hitchhike home,” he threatens.
She has to get out of the car, but she cannot bring herself to rise from the driver’s seat and walk around to shut the door.
Her cellphone is ringing.
His black pack bounces on his back as he lobs toward the doors of the concrete building, giving the guard a “high five” on his way. The car door is still open. She looks at the dashboard. The gas gauge is on full. She filled the car last night. She even laid out her clothes—jeans and a white linen shirt, which she wishes she had ironed. Her husband was the one who ironed. Adin did the shopping and cooking as well. He loved to bake cheesecake, banana bread, chocolate cake. He said that it was a break from working on the computer all day designing programs.
The guard, a young Ethiopian man listening to a transistor radio, nods at her, looks at her quizzically. He’s wearing a black wool cap and a green army parka. He walks up to her car. “You can’t park here,” he says. “You know…it’s not a good idea to have a car parked here. You know.” He closes the passenger door gently.
She knows, terrorists. There is always the threat of terror. Every school has to be protected. People murdered by terrorists are honored, part of Israel’s history. Her husband had no such luck. He was hit by a car as he stopped to help fix a tire for an older woman who was stuck on the side of the road with the doors locked and a white handkerchief draped outside her closed window. This woman came to her crying during the shiva, saying she was sorry, saying she hoped Margalit forgave her.
Margalit told her that it was okay, that it wasn’t her fault. What she thought was no good deed goes unpunished. As a scientist, she knows that every atom is governed by natural law, but she believes that her husband died only because of chance, rotten luck.
The same chance that brought her to Israel. Their wedding was at a hotel on the cliffs of San Diego, their honeymoon at the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth. Now it seems like a harbinger of their life together, a plunge from beauty to disaster—a widow at the age of 39.
Margalit drives quickly up Rehov Templar toward the Begin Expressway. If the traffic isn’t too bad, she can still get there in time. As she stops at a light, she sees a mother pushing a stroller bend down to her young child, stooping to tie his boots, talking to him as she smoothes his hair. She takes the bottom of her sleeve and wipes his nose.
She remembers Gadi as a baby, his hair a tousle of red curls, the wide-open smile. She was so busy then, learning Hebrew, settling into a new home, rushing from day care to work, back again to pick up Gadi; he would cry when she left him.
This morning, he scowled at her as he drank a cup of Turkish coffee. “It’s not good for you with all that sugar,” she told him.
“I know what’s good for me,” he answered.
She let it go. Maybe he does know what is good for him. She certainly doesn’t.
In 13 minutes she is supposed to bestow the awards for innovations in research, a silly name. Isn’t all research innovative? She has supervised these projects for years, training her students to be rigorous, uncompromising. She has taught them to admire the rhythm of the periodic table, each element in its own square, measurable, unseen and seen at the same time. All of these years working to discover a new element, pitching atoms in the nuclear accelerator. Now another research team is close to fusing the nuclei of zinc and lead to create the heaviest element in the periodic table. She tries to concentrate at work, to execute her computer imaging programs. But when she looks at the periodic table, each element in its square looks like it is lying in its own grave.
As she waits for the light to change, she sits inert as stone. She has to go get her son. She should not take the chance of letting him hitchhike home. He could be picked up by the wrong people, he could be picked up by terrorists.
It begins to pour and a minute later turns into a light drizzle. She flicks on the windshield wipers and turns the car around.
The guard has one leg on the ground, one forked around the leg of a metal stool. He sits under the arch of a doorway so the rain doesn’t touch him. His nose has a few freckles, his eyes are two shining coins. She shakes her hair, brushes raindrops from her sleeves. She says that she is a mother from the school. Gadi’s mother. The one with the pierced eyebrow. He has a black backpack.
“I know. I saw you drop him off.” He smiles at her. “Gadi, yeah, we’re pals. Lots of days he sits out here with me. We share lunch. He has toasted bagels and cheese. Sometimes he gives me avocados and cashews. Once he brought me a perfect persimmon. You make him beautiful lunches.” He smiles at her, his dark skin moist from the rain.
She does not pack lunches for Gadi. He tells her that he doesn’t want her to make him anything, that he buys a sandwich at the kiosk across the street.
“He never told me,” she said.
“That’s what kids are like. You know—kids don’t always tell their parents. There’s a lot I didn’t tell my parents. Don’t worry. It’s normal.”
“It is?” she asks, questioning and agreeing at the same time. But she had imagined motherhood differently. She would be friends with her son, they would speak and laugh and drink hot chocolate together on the couch. Not sit in different rooms on computers.
“A teenager. He has to have his own life. Just be positive with him. Don’t criticize.”
“I wish I could do that.”
“Don’t take things so seriously. Besides, Gadi’s a great guy, he is an amazing kid. Every Sunday we eat together—my mother’s injera, special bread she bakes for Shabbat. She always makes extra for me and Gadi. Sunday is our day.”
She is shocked. Here is her son sharing lunch with this man, an intimacy she has no inkling of.
“Then Gadi will be with you for lunch?”
“Gadi would never miss my mother’s food. Oh man, he loves it.”
The mist of rain has stopped. She can go now. He is not going to hitchhike home, at least not until he has eaten.
She pictures an Ethiopian mother in her kitchen, her hair held back by a yellow scarf. She stands by the frying pan, listening for the sizzle of the butter that tells her it is time to pour the batter. She sings as she cooks.
Margalit kicks a rock with her foot and thinks that it is composed of hydrogen and nitrogen, and that the atomic weight of the new element they are working to discover is 122 times heavier than hydrogen. Each new element is formed by adding a proton, a simple addition that can only be inferred by computer imaging, by radioactive droppings—its disintegration is what identifies it.
She can imagine Professor Marcus shaking his head at the ceremony, whispering, wondering what has delayed her. Her cellphone is no doubt ringing in the car. She has never let them down before.
At night, next to Adin, she used to dream of the new element; she could see the traces of its radioactive footprint glimmering in the darkness. Now she longs to dream of Adin, for him to tell her what to do.
Next to the school is a park and she wanders in. There are a few rusty slides, a desolate metal red rocking horse. A little girl in a red slicker sits on the swing, pumping her legs, her black hair flying, her head pitched backwards on the upstroke, smiling. A minute later she is crying and screaming, the swing pitched so high that it looks like it might loop over the wooden frame that holds it.
Margalit runs to her and grabs the wooden plank of the seat, slows the swing down, lets the girl off gently. A mother rushes toward them, bends down and takes the crying girl in her arms.
“Why did you scare her?” she yells, wiping her daughter’s tears with her fingers. “Why did you interfere?” The mother is wearing a green raincoat, the daughter a red slicker, the two of them looking like signals in a traffic light.
“But the swing was about to flip over the top,” she says. “Your daughter was crying.”
“That’s between me and her, not you.”
Margalit turns around and sits on the bench nearby, feeling the sting of cool air. She wishes that she could call Adin and tell him what has just happened. No good deed goes unpunished.
On the ground is a piece of stone. She picks it up, examines it, palms its wetness. It is pale pink limestone. Suddenly she realizes that it is a fragment of Jerusalem stone. Of course—she wasn’t thinking this morning—the slabs in the bed of the truck this morning weren’t granite, they were limestone. She had a piece of limestone in her childhood rock collection—gold limestone, gray granite, green tourmaline. When other little girls asked for Barbies, she coveted her candy box of rocks, each nestled in its own square. While her mother sat with a drink and watched TV, she tapped on her rocks with a coin or a knife, gauging hardness on the Mohs scale.
The stone rests on her palm, formed from the bed of an ancient sea. Marine organisms are compressed inside of these rocks, their origins completely hidden to the uninitiated. Sometimes you can find fossils in them.
She tucks the stone in her pocket. Jerusalem stone—soft, easily chiseled. We put stones on graves because in ancient times, there were robbers who dug up graves and this way, the grave is protected. That is what the rabbi said after they had lowered her husband’s body, after the shovelfuls of dirt had been thrown on him. The custom makes no sense to her.
She walks back to the school, slowly. She stands across from the entrance and sees Gadi sitting with the guard. It’s the 10:00 break. They play backgammon, Gadi with his head cocked to the side, deliberating his next move, a smile playing across his mouth all the way to his eyes.
He is happy. She has not seen him happy at home since his father died.
She has not been back to her husband’s grave all year. Last night, she dreamed that they were sleeping together in a bed with a blanket of birds, and she woke up when she felt a bird peck her finger.
She begins to cry, and her cry spreads like a rock thrown into a pond, each sob a circle that expands and dissolves. She leans against a building and covers her face with her hands. She feels the stone in her pocket. She herself feels like stone. But she is not like Lot’s wife who was told not to turn around and did. She has not allowed herself to look back.
The last time she saw Adin, he and Gadi were sitting in the kitchen, eating pita and labane, listening to the radio, laughing together. When she asked them what was funny, they both looked up and said: nothing.
Gadi went to school. She left with a friend; Adin took the car. No kiss. No goodbye. The last thing Adin said to her was nothing.
She starts to cross the street and then she turns back. Gadi is happy with the Ethiopian guard. She can still attend the ceremony, late. Professor Marcus will look up at her with a curious smile.
Then she will come back and pick up Gadi and they will drive to Har Menuchot, the Mountain of Rest. They will drive the narrow winding paths, the graves horizontal, close to the ground, laid out so close to one another that to step is to walk on somebody’s grave. She will find the plot and take the piece of Jerusalem stone from her pocket and leave it there on the grave so that robbers do not dig up the bones.
Sherri Mandell won a National Jewish Book Award for her spiritual memoir, The Blessing of a Broken Heart. Translated into three languages, the book was adapted into a stage play, which opened at the San Diego Repertory Theater. Mandell has an MA in creative writing and teaches writing in Jerusalem. She made aliyah in 1996 and lives in Tekoa with her husband and children. She co-directs the Koby Mandell Foundation, founded in honor of her son Koby who was murdered by terrorists in 2001 when he was 13 years old. The foundation runs summer camps in Israel for bereaved children and mothers.