This story is the third place winner of the 2022 Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest. Founded in 2000, the contest was created to recognize authors of Jewish short fiction. The 2022 stories were judged by novelist Allegra Goodman, author of the National Book Award finalist Kaaterskill Falls. Moment Magazine and the Karma Foundation are grateful to Goodman and to all of the writers who took the time to submit their stories. Click here to learn how to submit a story to the contest.
Steven’s dad’s funeral is on a Wednesday afternoon. My parents pick me up from school, and in the back of the minivan, I change into the itchy suit my mom brought for me. On the way to the temple, I keep tugging at my collar. It’s been a while since I wore a suit and tie.
I haven’t seen Steven much since eighth grade, and now we’re juniors in different high schools, so it’s been three years. It doesn’t seem like that long when you think of the number three, but it does when you think about what’s different since then, and the thing that changed is one of your dads died.
The funeral is at Temple Emanuel, the Reform synagogue in Grand Rapids where I had my bar mitzvah. Steven’s was there, too. There’s a police car parked out front, just like always, at least since they found swastikas spray-painted on a synagogue in Northern Michigan about a year back. Or was it since the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh? Not sure.
Steven and I used to be friends when we were kids, maybe until seventh grade. Nothing bad happened between us, we just both made new friends and stopped hanging out as much. But back when we were about 11, I used to go over to his house to play air hockey in his basement. One time Steven’s dad came downstairs and called the next game, and when Steven beat me, I handed his dad the striker. They started to play the most vicious game I’d ever seen, sweat dripping down both of their temples, in January, in their cold-as-hell basement. They had the same crazed look in their eyes, and Steven looked a lot like him anyway, just a foot shorter with blond hair instead of brown.
When Steven smashed the puck off the barrier, it slipped into his dad’s goal, almost completely flush with the short end of the table, and his dad yelled, “FUCK!” My mouth opened so wide you probably could’ve thrown the puck right down my throat without hitting any teeth. Steven’s dad took one look at my face and completely lost it, he was laughing so hard he was just shaking without actually making any noise.
I can’t believe he died. He’s so alive in my head, red-faced and doubled over laughing.
My parents and I seat ourselves about ten rows back from the front of the sanctuary, and soon our whole row is full. As the room quiets down, my mom whispers, “Here, Joey,” and hands me one of the flimsy black kippahs from the box in the entryway, and I prop it on my head.
The rabbi gives some opening remarks, and I tune out a bit, but eventually, Steven rises slowly from the front row of the synagogue where he’s been sitting with his mom and sister. Seeing him at the lectern, I have a flashback to his bar mitzvah and the way the monotone words of his speech tumbled together, all run-on sentences. I bite my tongue to keep from smiling. That was the day he became a man, in theory, but you wouldn’t have known from looking at him then. Neither of us looked anything like men. He’s grown a few inches since, and even from the middle of the sanctuary I can see some stubble on his chin.
Steven tells some stories about his dad and some of the things his dad would always say to him and his sister. Be good. Ask many questions. Ice cream is God’s gift to humanity. He only speaks for four or five minutes, but by the end, I can hear tissue packets rustling in the pews and sniffles all around.
“I would trade all the ice cream in the world to have you back, Dad,” he concludes. “None of the questions I want to ask have answers. And this speech doesn’t have an ending. But I don’t think you’d mind.”
After the funeral, my mom says that she thinks Steven did a good job, and my dad agrees with her. I do too, I guess., I don’t know what that even means for a funeral. If he’d cried, that probably still would’ve been a good job. I’m not sure I could get a single word out if it were me. Maybe the way to think about it is that it mostly matters that you showed up: you say something, or you say nothing, and whatever you manage should count.
The burial is family only, so we head home. I change out of the suit into jeans and a t-shirt, then open a snack bag of potato chips and sit at the kitchen table, where my mom is peering over her glasses at her laptop screen.
“How was school today?” she asks, without taking her eyes off the screen.
“Did you learn anything interesting?”
“No.” I pour the dregs of potato chip crumbs into my mouth.
“Some education,” she says, rolling her eyes at me.
“Actually, we did learn something. Have you heard of Kristallnacht?”
My mom looks straight up from the screen. “Of course. You haven’t?”
“Not ’til today.” We’ve been studying World War II in AP World History, and when Mr. Jensen asked that morning if anyone knew what Kristallnacht is, no one raised their hand. He told us it means “night of broken glass” and showed us a slideshow with black and white pictures of Jewish storefronts with jagged, cracked window panes and a synagogue with the roof on fire, smoke pouring into the sky as a crowd of men in fedoras watch from the sidewalk.
I tell my mom about a photo of a drug store called Rosenbaum’s with a shattered display window.
“You think we’re related? To the store owners?” I ask. I know there are a million other Rosenbaums aside from us, but it’s not impossible.
“Hard to say, Dad’s relatives did live in Berlin, but I don’t know what they did. And it is a common name.”
When the photo went up, a handful of classmates turned to look at me. I wasn’t sure if it was ’cause my name is Rosenbaum or just ’cause I’m Jewish. I ignored them, but under my desk, my fingernails dug into my palm. In the next image of destruction, one of the onlookers sort of resembled my uncle, with his dark stubble and pointy nose. I wondered if that guy could be Rosenbaum, and if he wished he became a doctor or teacher instead of the owner of a shop with a window pane and a display case.
It was all hard to imagine, like the Crusades and the French Revolution and the Civil War, and I zoned out for a while, wondering what the Nazis used to smash the windows. I thought I could probably watch a Spielberg movie and find out, because it probably wasn’t baseball bats, which was my mind’s first hypothesis—the classic American wooden baseball bats printed with the word “Spalding,” which was so absurd I smiled, and Mr. Jensen frowned at me.
When class was over, as I headed towards the door, I saw this kid Lucas nudge his friend Tim and heard him say, “I bet the Jews had enough crystal at home to make up for it.” Fucking idiot. I considered giving him an accidental shove but decided it wasn’t worth my time or a detention. I don’t tell my mom about it either.
That evening, we get back in the car to drive to the shiva at Steven’s house. Death is such a hassle, I think, and then I feel guilty ’cause both my parents are safe and sound in the front seat.
When we arrive, I see that the house hasn’t changed much since I was last here, but the mirror in the hallway is covered with a black cloth, and the coffee table in the living room has been replaced with short little chairs, which are empty. Shivas are so weird. I’ve only been to a couple, but they’re weird in the same way. You don’t know what to say, and anything you can think of sounds dumb, and I guess that’s why everyone says the same things. I just cannot imagine the words “I’m sorry for your loss” coming out of my mouth and directed at another 17 year old. Where do your eyes look?
I follow my parents into the kitchen, and my mom heads straight to the freezer and maneuvers the lasagna she’s brought onto a shelf underneath a tray labeled “kugel.” We wait behind some people, and I watch Steven’s mom talk to a short old lady with white hair and sturdy black sneakers. She looks so old she might have been at Kristallnacht. Just kidding. I mean actually, she could’ve been. Steven’s mom keeps nodding and smiling, and then the lady pats her cheek.
Steven is next to his mom speaking to a Kristallnacht-aged man in a tweed cap and doesn’t look relaxed at all, in a way that almost makes me laugh again. Why do I keep laughing? I have to look down at my feet and exhale slowly to pull myself together. The man has Steven’s hands in an iron grip and is yammering away, which I can tell because Steven’s eyes keep losing focus over his shoulder. My mom taps me on the wrist then nods over at Steven and whispers, “Go help him out.” Now, I not only have to talk to him, but rescue him.
I shuffle over and stand awkwardly just behind the old man, and when Steven notices me, his eyes catch mine and mainly what I see in them is relief. He gestures with his chin, his only free appendage, for me to come closer, and I notice that the old man’s eyes are barely even open, and he’s still talking! Steven says, loudly, “Thank you Mr. Kaplan, I have to say hello to my friend Joey now,” and wrests his hands free of the man’s grip. I turn my laugh into a cough, and then Steven is laugh-coughing too.
But then that’s over, and we’re just looking at each other.
“Thanks for coming,” he says, and I nod.
“I’m sorry for—” I just can’t. “I really like your dad. Liked. A lot.” I feel my face turning red, but Steven shrugs.
“Yeah, I can’t get used to using the past tense either,” he says.
“How are you?” I say. My creative genius is evidently in full form. Steven shrugs again. “Dunno. Hard to believe everything was fine just like eight days ago.”
“I bet,” I say. That’s the part I can’t get my head around either, that Steven’s dad was a completely normal guy in his 40s just a week ago, picking up groceries on the way back from work and helping Steven and his sister with their science homework. I guess he hadn’t been that normal, if cancer was low-key ravaging his internal organs, but no one knew. If a tumor is in your body and no one knows, is it really there? Yes, it turns out, and it probably has friends.
“Do you want to go play air hockey?” he says.
“Absolutely,” I say, and then, “Is that allowed during shiva?”
Steven snorts. “Who cares,” he says, and I don’t know what to do with that, but when he scoops a handful of cookies off a tray and shoves them into his pocket on the way out of the kitchen, I do too.
The basement is pretty much how I remember it—unfinished and freezing. We pass the puck back and forth a few times and then start a game. He kicks my ass over and over, and I see that his forehead is getting moist. We don’t talk, and all you can hear is the black plastic puck bouncing off the strikers and the walls of the table and the whooshing of air blowing out of the tiny holes.
After he beats me for the fifth time, we take a break, and he shakes his head.
“You’re rusty, Rosenbaum,” he says.
“I’m just getting warmed up,” I say, but my right upper arm is sore, and my whole life I’d never stood a chance against Steven, and we look at each other and both burst out laughing.
“Fuck, dude,” he says. “You always could make me laugh.” And then at the same exact time, we both yell, “FUCK!” and start laughing all over again, and I can barely take a full breath.
Steven is laughing so hard he’s crying. He manages to croak out a few words, “The look on your face that day, I will never ever forget it.”
“And the look on your dad’s face when he saw mine,” I say, shaking my head.
Steven’s laughter eventually dies down, but the tears keep streaming out of his eyes, which seems to surprise him. He keeps wiping them with the back of his hand and peering at his wrist like he doesn’t expect it to be wet. He doesn’t try to hide it though.
“You want to play another game?” he says, and I say sure.
I score a couple times, but he scores way more. I don’t mind, though. Once again, the only sounds are the tapping of the puck against the table and the blowing air.
And then we both hear glass break upstairs and a gasp, and we throw the strikers onto the table and sprint up the staircase, the table still humming.
We burst out of the basement stairwell and into the kitchen, where the ruckus is coming from, and we see that glass has shattered all over the floor and someone is helping Steven’s mom into a chair. My eyes fly right to the kitchen window, which faces the street, as if, for a crazy moment, I expect to see a jagged hole and maybe some baseball bats discarded in the yard, maybe a cloud of exhaust or a swastika spray-painted on the driveway, but the window is intact, and the street is quiet and dark.
“What happened?” Steven bellows in a voice I’ve never heard before.
“Don’t worry Steven,” says a tall man with glasses. “You mom is just exhausted, she dropped a bowl. She needs to drink some water and sit down.”
Steven sits next to his mom and lays the back of his hand across her forehead, then he picks up a cup of water on the table and holds it out to her.
“Drink, Mom,” he says. “Uncle Dan says drink.” Steven’s mom gives him a weak smile and then presses the back of her wrist against his forehead.
“You’re sweating, Steven!” she says, and Steven grins. “I was just destroying Joey at air hockey,” he brags.
Things quiet down after that, and I find my parents in the living room chatting with another former classmate’s parents. My mom seems to notice I am also a sweaty mess and raises her eyebrows but doesn’t say anything.
On our way out, we stop by the kitchen to say goodbye. Steven and his mom are talking to some other people. Steven looks like he is half listening to whoever he is talking to, but he keeps touching his mom’s shoulder every few seconds, the way you do when you’re rushing out of the house and tap your pocket over and over to make sure everything is there.
I wave at him, and he notices and nods at me. It already feels like our game in the basement happened long ago, even though it has only been an hour. Some things are like they always were: He can still beat me 50 to 1 at air hockey with his eyes shut. But on the car ride home, I keep seeing the image of him laying the back of his hand over his mom’s forehead while all that broken glass lay at their feet. I’ve never touched my mom that way. Did his dad used to do that? I don’t know.
Ilana Marcus is the third place winner of the Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest. Marcus is a data journalist and writer. Her fiction explores identity, coming of age and American Jewry. She grew up outside of Boston and resides in the Washington, DC, area.