F a c i n g Z a y d a
Zayda looked like he just happened to fall asleep there on top of that ice, like he had surrendered himself to a nap as usual. But this was different. Even asleep Jackie could always see Zayda’s chest moving. Like when Jackie and Davey played cops and robbers, and Jackie would pretend to be dead. His lungs had their own ideas.
Jackie had lain awake many nights and turned on his side and watched his younger brother, Davey, his small chest moving up and down. Then one night, Jackie lulled himself to sleep with his little brother’s steady breathing, and afterwards didn’t suffer from insomnia again. Not until Davey got pneumonia and was put in the hospital for two weeks. Then Jackie had to figure out something else to sleep to.
“Did you try counting sheep?” his mother had asked.
“Where would I get sheep?”
Miriam laughed. “It’s not real sheep Tateleh, it’s imaginary sheep. Don’t ask me. I have the opposite problem. I can’t stay awake.”
It seemed all the grown ups had this problem. Especially Zayda, who, at his age, complained all the time about losing his battles with the sofa, the armchair, the bed or any other place he could possibly doze off.
His ice bed was brought up in ten large pieces by Mendel the ice man, who had three hired men help him. The ice was so cold it steamed. The men placed old blankets and rags on the floor, then a long plank of plywood on top of them and then more blankets. Then they set up the ice so it formed a long rectangle, just a little longer than Zayda’s body, which was now only maybe five seven though he started out in life supposedly six feet.
Jackie turned away when the men lifted Zayda’s body from his bed and laid him down on the ice, adjusting his arms and legs. He crossed his own arms over his chest and rubbed himself, as if to warm up. He had stopped crying for now. Had taken a few deep breaths then tried to think of something instead of Zayda on the ice bed. He thought about his bar mitzvah next month and that made him nervous, but at leastit distracted him. Then he thought about playing stoop ball against Mushy Tushy and how easy it was to beat him. But this didn’t bring the pleasure it used to. Zayda used to call it “stupid ball” because even after all his years in America his English still wasn’t so good, and it sounded the same to him.
“Again with the stupid ball?” he would ask when Jackie ran out to play. Jackie had taught Zayda the difference between “stupid” and “stoop.” He even showed him the steps outside their building so he would understand. After that, of course, Jackie could never be sure what Zayda really meant when he called it “stupid” ball.
The spring day had just given way to evening as the boy and Mr. Soda sat side by side in the parlor, in the apartment of Jackie’s family. But the boy’s chair faced away from the body. His zayda had died that morning and since it was Friday, he couldn’t be buried until Sunday, after Sabbath. Meanwhile, Mr. Soda, from the burial society, was there to sit with the body. He was the “shomer,” the guard, making sure Zayda’s body was never left alone while waiting to be put in its final resting place.
“So Jackie, you had your dear zayda a long time!” Mr. Soda said.
“My whole life,” Jackie said.
Jackie had asked permission to stay with Mr. Soda and be a shomer also. But his parents had already arranged for him to spend that night and the Sabbath with his cousins on the next block.
Jackie had overheard them talking in the kitchen.
“He’s too young to sit up all night,” his mother had said. “Especially in this circumstance.”
“He’s a bar mitzvah next month. If he wants to do it, let him,” his father had said.
“He’s too sensitive. He’ll have nightmares. He’ll never be able to fall asleep again!’”
“He’s not your little baby anymore, Mimmy. If he wants to sit up, why not?”
His mother’s silence told him she had lost the argument. He wouldn’t have any nightmares and he wouldn’t have trouble falling asleep afterwards either. He would show them he could do it.
“You’re sitting that way all night, Jackie?” Mr. Soda asked. “What kind of shomer doesn’t look at the body?”
“I don’t want to see him like this.”
“Like this is just his body. His soul is still your same old zayda.” Mr. Soda said nothing for a while, then, “Maybe you’re a little afraid? It’s only natural to be afraid.”
Jackie said nothing. He had seen Zayda dead in his bed already that day, but only for a minute before his mother rushed in and shooed him away. He looked exactly like he always did when he slept: his head leaning way back on his pillow, his mouth wide open. Only he wasn’t snoring. That was the big difference.
Mr. Soda smiled. “Your zayda was a smart man. Very well respected.”
Smart, yes. And Zayda was sometimes nice to Jackie, but he wasn’t that nice even to Papa and Mama. They had fights all the time. Sometimes Mama ran out of the kitchen crying and Zayda stayed at the table reading his paper like nothing happened. Once, when Jackie was younger, he ran to Mama and hugged her and asked her why she was crying and Mama said it was nothing important. But if it wasn’t important why was she crying? And why was Papa yelling at Zayda? If he wanted to know the truth, Jackie would have to watch and listen and figure it out for himself.
And now that he was almost a bar mitzvah he wished he hadn’t. Because now he knew why Mama cried and Papa yelled at Zayda. A baby could have figured it out. But it took Jackie some time to sneak around and overhear his parents to learn that Zayda had never liked Mama and thought Papa married “below” himself. He wanted Papa to be a rabbi and not get married so young, but then Papa married Mama anyway and instead of being a rabbi, he went to work with jewelry.
“For a woman you threw away the chance to be a rabbi and a scholar!” Zayda had yelled at Papa back then.
“I love her!” Papa shouted.
“You could have been a rabbi with a big congregation and married the daughter of a doctor or a scholar!”
“I married the woman I wanted to marry.”
“You married the first woman who would have you,” Zayda said calmly. Papa stepped across the room in one big step and grabbed the old man under his arms as he sat at the table. He lifted him up but Zayda didn’t get his footing and stumbled. The crash brought Mama rushing into the kitchen, holding her head. “God in heaven!” That was a long time ago.
It was only last week that Jackie had his first argument with Zayda. It wasn’t the same as arguing with his parents about his bed time or homework or Hebrew study. This was a real adult argument, he could tell. His zayda changed completely. It was like he was arguing with one of the men in synagogue. And he wasn’t a good-natured arguer either. Some of the men argued and all the while they were smiling, Jackie noticed. As if an argument were only a game and who won didn’t matter so much anyway. But with Zayda it was different. When he argued his neck muscles tightened. You could tell he was disgusted with whoever he was arguing with. His finger always poked too close to the other man’s face and he was lucky if the other man just walked away or laughed at him instead of getting angry. One time Shmuel Goldsmith said, “Berel, the whole world doesn’t spin on your words.”
“Ach!” Zayda had growled and walked away.
Though it confused Jackie why someone would argue like they were angry and at the same time smile, it somehow felt more comfortable than the way Zayda argued. And sometimes it seemed he took Jackie too serious too. Learning Torah, Hebrew, how to be a good Jew, all these things Zayda insisted he learn, even though Jackie’s parents didn’t seem to care so much. To Zayda it was the most important thing of all, and he was very demanding of Jackie. And this is also why Mama had fights with him.
“Let him go outside a little, Berel,” Mama would beg sometimes. “Fresh air is good for a child.”
“The street is only for getting into trouble,” Zayda would answer.
There was a lot of time between Friday evening and Sunday morning, when Zayda was to be buried. A lot of time for people to come and go and say things. What a good Jew he was, for example. Everyone agreed on that. Almost a scholar. Always willing to make the minyan, to do his duty to the Jewish community. But no one said a word about kindness or love. Jackie remembered all the nickels Zayda had slipped him, and the gum he had bought for him, and how Zayda used to take him on his bony lap and smile at him. He could still remember his very first Hebrew lesson when he was only five years old, and Zayda gave him a lick of honey for every letter he got right.
His Mama and Papa were nervous, not knowing where to put themselves while Zayda was stretched out on his ice bed in the parlor. At least they didn’t have to go passed Zayda to go from their bedroom to the bathroom, like Morris Simon, the border had to. Poor Mr. Simon bowed his head and averted his eyes every time he went back and forth to the toilet. Mama tried to calm down the nervous man: “It’s only until Sunday morning, Morris. Then the funeral.”
Morris Simon just nodded and said nothing. Mama had said he was all alone in the world. That’s why she took him in. Sure, they needed the money too, but she had her pick of borders and she picked him. When Jackie asked about Mr. Simon, Mama explained that a person could be part of a family one day and be all alone the next.
“Doesn’t he have any kids?” Jackie had asked.
“Kids grow up and move away,” she said and patted his head.
“I’m never moving away,” Jackie promised, and hugged Mama.
“Won’t you get married and have a family of your own?” she teased.
“Then I’ll bring you and Papa and Zayda with me.”
“Oh I see! And what about your wife’s family? Will they all move in with you too?”
“Sure. Why not?” Jackie said.
That was when he was only eight years old and hadn’t noticed what was going on between his parents and his zayda. Now he knew better. His Mama would say, “You can choose your friends but not your family,” which Jackie wasn’t sure he understood back then, but now he was starting to.
Mr. Soda’s real last name was Sodagersky, and he was pleased to have Jackie keep him company.
“If you get tired, it’s okay,” Mr. Soda said. “It’s not easy to stay up all night.”
“Don’t you get tired?”
“Of course. But I have experience.” Then he paused. “Are you going to sit that way the whole night?” Mr. Soda asked, pointing to the chair that still faced the window.
“It’s allowed,” Jackie challenged.
“Allowed? I guess so. But maybe it’s disrespectful to your Zayda.”
‘Disrespect’ was the exact word Zayda had used during their argument. It was almost like Mr. Soda knew it.
“Some company,” Mr. Soda mumbled.
Jackie said nothing for awhile. His chair was still facing the wall while Mr. Soda sat facing Zayda. Jackie knew that everyone would think he was afraid to look at the body. That his mother would be convinced she was right for not wanting him to be there. But that wasn’t it. He was not afraid of Zayda being dead. Of seeing his body on the slab of ice. He wasn’t sure why he didn’t want to turn his chair around so he could sit and talk easily to Mr. Soda.
“You know how I know him?” Mr. Soda asked, suddenly, hungry for conversation.
“From the old country.”
“Which old country?” Jackie asked.
“Russia. We lived in the same village. Our families were neighbors. He was close to my oldest brother, Wolf. Our families got separated when his family came here to America and mine stayed behind. We finally came ten years later, but I didn’t find him until I moved to this neighborhood twenty years ago and walked into the synagogue.”
“Did he remember you?”
“Oh sure! He had quite a memory. Did you know that he could recite whole sections of Talmud by heart?”
“He was teaching me my Torah portion.”
“That’s right! Your bar mitzvah is coming up.”
“You’re all ready?”
“Almost. Zayda prepared me.”
“A real scholar. He should have been a rabbi.”
“Why wasn’t he?”
“Who could afford the time to study? His family…all our families were too poor.”
“I don’t want to study all day, that’s for sure.”
“Well, not too many boys do. I didn’t. All I wanted to do when I was your age was play. Then of course there were girls.”
“Zayda said that girls can lead to trouble.”
Mr. Soda laughed. “You can’t argue with that.”
“Girls can lead to trouble, that’s why.”
Jackie was quiet. At just thirteen, girls were starting to become interesting to him but were entirely foreign and mysterious.
“You know all about the birds and the bees?” he asked.
“Oh sure,” Jackie said. “It’s just that…I’m not so sure it’s for me.”
At this Mr. Soda burst out laughing and Jackie became deeply embarrassed.
“How come it’s not for you?” Mr. Soda teased. “You tried it already?”
Jackie wasn’t exactly sure what ‘it’ was, but he knew it was not something he wanted to talk about.
In fact he was starting to wish he had not fought so hard to stay up. It was getting late and he was tired. And Mr. Soda could do a good job all by himself. If an evil spirit came anywhere near them, then Mr. Soda would probably say something to embarrass it, too.
“I’m not laughing at you, you understand?” Mr. Soda said, finally. But Jackie remained silent.
“I think what you’re doing is remarkable. A young fella like you. So attached to his zayda, so loyal.”
“He said he was disappointed in me,” Jackie said.
“No! A smart boy like you? Why would he say that? Were you having trouble with your studies?”
“No, nothing like that. I asked a lot of questions,” Jackie said and retreated to his silence one more time. He feared being laughed at again, or, worse, having the old man agree with his zayda.
“What Jew doesn’t ask questions?” Mr. Soda said. Then he laughed again. “See? That was a question, too!”
“Mr. Soda, why do you have to stay up with Zayda anyway?” Jackie asked.
“Because I’m the shomer.”
“No, I know that. But why?”
“Well…they say a person’s soul might be stolen away by evil spirits right up until the moment they are buried. So it’s my job to protect the soul.”
“I know but…do you believe that?” Jackie asked.
“I’ve never thought about it.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“There are no evil spirits? So, there are no are evil people either?” Mr. Soda asked.
“Sure there are.”
“So, what do you think happens to their souls when they die? You think they become angels?”
“No. I don’t think there are souls…at all.”
“Ah,” he said. “Some people say the real reason we guard the body is because in the old days there were people who would steal a body if it wasn’t watched.”
“Steal it? Why?” Jackie asked. Now it was getting interesting.
“That’s a good question. I guess there was money in it,” he said, casually. Then he paused and asked, “Is this the kind of question you asked your zayda that got him so angry?”
“No,” Jackie shook his head.
The old man and the boy sat quietly for awhile, the chairs side by side but still facing opposite each other. From where he sat, Sammy Soda could see his friend, Berel, for all the world looking soundly asleep. It was midnight now and the family and the boarder were in bed. The candles that surrounded the body would soon go out. Thank God it wasn’t a hot spring and the ice would hold up until Sunday morning. Saturday night a different shomer would sit with Berel. Sammy was still among the living and needed his sleep.
He looked at the quiet boy beside him, facing the wall, and envied Berel his family. Sammy had married young and his wife had died young, before they could have children. He had met Ruchel on the boat, the third day. He was nineteen, she was seventeen. By the time they stood in line at Ellis Island, waiting for their new American names, they were holding hands and planning their wedding. Why God took her after only a year, Sammy never understood. Why did she suffer pogroms back in Russia, and sea sickness on the big ocean, only to reward her with a too-short marriage and then…death.
It wasn’t like he decided never to remarry, but the American women he met didn’t want a greenhorn and the greenhorn women wanted an American. By the time he was an American, even a citizen with a good job, and American clothing, and speaking the language, well, by then he didn’t care so much. Many people who knew him thought he had never married. They called him the bachelor uncle. And at his age no one tried to marry him off anymore. Sometimes he wasn’t sure if he was relieved or saddened by this. But he knew he wouldn’t mind having children or grandchildren around to add some distraction to his days. Like this serious minded boy who made Berel so angry…that the boy could not face him, even in death. What could this baby face possibly have done except go to school? His whole life was still ahead of him, Sammy thought, with a mixture of compassion and curiosity.
He startled himself awake and realized he had nodded off. The boy too seemed to be napping, his head slumped into his chest. The few other times he had been a shomer, Sammy passed the time with memories. All the talk about Berel made him think about his own grandfather, Itzy. Isaac Sodagersky had been a poor tailor in the old country. He was devout the way everyone was back then. Unquestioning. The way Sammy himself had been until he came to America. But here there were choices. There was freedom. Even for a Jew. The first time he tasted pork his taste buds went crazy for it! But he never did it again. God didn’t strike him dead but he didn’t want to take any chances. And now that he knew what he was missing, it was more difficult than before. Before, he had tasted it out of curiosity. Now he desired it from experience. We don’t need someone else to make trouble for us, we can always make trouble for ourselves, he thought.
The boy stirred.
“You took a little nap,” Sammy said.
“Why sorry? I did the same thing.”
Jackie looked at the clock. He was asleep probably an hour or so. His neck hurt and his body felt stiff.
“Sleeping like this isn’t like sleeping,” Sammy said. “You don’t feel rested.”
“Did you ever stay up so late before?”
“No. Last New Year’s Mama said I could stay up but I fell asleep.”
“It’s not worth it anyway,” Sammy said.
“She didn’t want me to stay up tonight.”
“I can understand.”
“But Papa convinced her.”
“Are you sorry now?”
“No. Why should I?”
“Well…it’s not easy to stay up all night. And these aren’t the best of circumstances.”
“Why would anyone stay up all night under the best of circumstances?” he asked.
Sammy laughed. “A good question! A soft bed is the best of circumstances, no?”
“You know, you’re very clever,” Sammy said. “You’re like Berel. Never one to brag. But as soon as a person engaged him in conversation they could tell. He had a great mind.”
“Everyone says that,” Jackie said.
“It’s true. That’s why they say it.”
“I’m not like him,” Jackie asserted.
“Why? You’re some kind of dumkopf?”
Jackie just shrugged.
“He wouldn’t have bothered to teach you if he didn’t think you were smart like him. You know how many families asked him to teach their sons?”
“I’m his family. That’s why he did it.”
“Is that what you think?”
Jackie did think it, but obviously Mr. Soda disagreed. “He taught my father, too.”
“Sure he did. Because your father had the makings of a great rabbi. And Berel knew it.”
“But Papa didn’t want to be a rabbi.”
Sammy didn’t answer so fast now. He knew a little about this business from years of hearing Berel talk about his son. So, now it seemed the boy knew a little something too. “No, you’re right. He didn’t.”
“He wanted me to be a rabbi, too,” Jackie said.
“Sure, why not? A rabbi is respected.”
“Did Zayda tell you about me?” Jackie asked.
“Oh sure. He told me how smart you are.”
“But…did he tell you he wanted me to be a rabbi?”
The boy was suddenly insistent. To be honest, Sammy couldn’t remember everything he and Berel had spoken about. “Sonny, I can’t remember,” he said and then, “Why don’t you go to bed now?”
Jackie hung his head. The gesture made Sammy feel bad, like he had let the boy down. “I wish I could remember everything we ever spoke about. But…I’m no spring chicken myself,” he said.
“I understand,” Jackie said, softly.
“Don’t blame yourself, Jackie. People don’t die from disappointment, if that’s what you’re trying to say.”
But it was not what Jackie was trying to say. Not even what he was thinking. He didn’t blame himself for Zayda dying. Zayda was old. So old that everyone was always saying it was a miracle he could even put on his tfillen every day. Jackie never imagined for a minute that anything he could say or do could harm a man like Zayda.
“He wasn’t a nice man,” Jackie offered.
Sammy was taken off guard. What a thing for a child to say about his own family! “Nice? Who said he wasn’t nice?”
“Everyone. They called him smart, not nice.”
“Well…” Sammy started, but stopped himself. It was true. He couldn’t recall anyone referring to Berel as ‘nice.’ Not even Sammy himself would use that word, to be truthful.
“I thought he was being nice to me,” Jackie added.
“Of course he was. He loved you.”
“I don’t know now. I don’t think he loved Papa. Or Mama. I saw. I heard,” he said.
Now Sammy was starting to get a hint of what was going on. “He had big dreams for his only son. And in America those dreams could come true if a person wanted it. But your Papa…”
“My Papa didn’t want it,” Jackie said.
“Right. A person has to want it. It’s not enough that a parent wants it for you.”
“Or a grandparent,” Jackie added.
“That’s why we had a fight,” Jackie said.
“Because he wanted you to be a rabbi and you didn’t want to?”
Jackie just nodded.
“Like your Papa.”
“You feel guilty you were angry at him when he died?”
“I wasn’t angry at him. He was angry at me.” Jackie waited, almost afraid to tell. “I told him I didn’t believe in God.”
“So you think he stopped loving you because of that?”
“He only loved me when he thought I would be a rabbi. That I would do it even though Papa-“
“Even though your Papa didn’t?” he asked.
“I was being a stupid baby,” Jackie said.
To this Sammy didn’t respond. Of course the boy wasn’t stupid, only upset, maybe even ashamed. Sammy stood to use the bathroom. “I’ll be right back,” he said.
Jackie stood up also and walked to the window. Outside it was dark and quiet. He had never been up so late even when he couldn’t sleep. Had never actually watched the daytime world become the nighttime world. The neighborhood was completely different without the noise of cars and trucks and kids yelling on the sidewalk. The people were all in bed. The lights from all the apartments were off, the buildings washed in shadows from street lights. Everything was heavy and still. It made him feel bad to be watching instead of being curled up next to Davey in their warm bed, dreaming of baseball. Like the nighttime street wasn’t meant for watching.
Soon he saw a person walking at the far end of the block. He could tell it was a man. He seemed to be carrying something, but what, Jackie couldn’t see. Who would be up at this hour, walking where? Why would anyone ever be out in this quietness, alone; going where at such an hour? It made him feel bad for the man and his night walking, being watched by people who shouldn’t even be awake to watch.
Mr. Soda came back and sat down with a grunt.
“So you don’t believe in God? How did you come to this conclusion?” Mr. Soda asked.
Still staring out the window Jackie said, “There’s no proof. Not recently.”
“Why would God stop talking to us anyway? If he wanted us to believe in him and do what he said?”
“Maybe he told those people a long time ago and trusted them to tell their children, and their children to tell their children, and so on.”
“That’s what Zayda said, too. But it doesn’t make sense.”
“To trust human beings doesn’t make sense to you?” Mr. Soda asked.
“God should know better, right? He knows how people are.”
“And how are people?”
Jackie hesitated. Mr. Soda said, “You think people can’t be trusted? Is that it?”
“I don’t think Zayda really loved me. He just wanted me to do what he wanted,” Jackie stated, still staring out the window, then finally sitting down, still facing away from the body.
Mr. Soda said nothing for a while, then, “Sometimes you can’t tell if a person loves you. People love differently.”
“He pretended to love me. But only the me that he thought I was and he wanted me to be. That’s not fair.”
“I could use a cigar,” Mr. Soda said.
“So? Have a cigar.”
“A shomer doesn’t smoke.”
“That’s the rule?”
“I don’t know for sure. Better to be safe.”
They sat quietly, Sammy trying to find a way to get the boy to talk some more.
“A parent …a grandparent loves a child because it’s their child. God makes them like that.”
“But…on the other hand, it’s good that they demand things from us. Otherwise what would we do? What would we become?”
Jackie thought about this.
“The people who love us want us to be better, do better. Sometimes we don’t agree with them but –“
“He always gave me candy and nickels…he was only nice because of what he wanted.”
“What’s so terrible if he had big ideas for you?”
Jackie couldn’t really explain. It wasn’t that being a rabbi was such a bad idea. It was that he felt like a big baby for having been fooled, for believing he was loved and feeling loved, loved for nothing but himself, and then loving back. A big baby for not knowing someone could pretend to love, or give and take love like baseball cards.
He heard a car go by and was reminded of the night street outside. How he liked that sound when he was safe in bed, unable to fall asleep next to Davey’s soft breathing, and feeling the soft pillow under his head. How delicious it was to be wrapped in the blankets. How it reassured him to know he could close his eyes upon the world and slip away and know it would all be there when he awoke; that the sad clip-clop of a lone horse and wagon would be vanquished in the morning.
“It’s almost morning,” Jackie said.
“Another hour or so you’ll hear the milkman,” Mr. Soda said.
“Thank you for letting me stay with you,” Jackie said.
“Thank you for your company. Your zayda would be proud.”
Jackie thought about all the hours studying with Zayda. How the older he got, the fewer nickels he got, and then towards the end, it was only the old man’s small, almost imperceptible nod of approval. That’s all Zayda would give. All Jackie could get.
“Why did he care so much about me or Papa becoming a rabbi anyway?”
“Why did he care! You’re a smart boy! You shouldn’t have to ask such a question!”
“No, really, why? Just to make him brag to his friends? What about what I want…wanted? Or what Papa wanted? Zayda got so angry at him for marrying Mama that he made her cry! That’s not right!”
“You’re a modern child, Sonny. That much I see. But whatever your zayda wanted for his son, your father, is something you won’t understand until you have children yourself. One day they will come to you when you’re all grown up and love them so much your heart feels like a swollen raisin about to burst. They’ll tell you some mishegos like there is no God, or they don’t want to study, or accuse you of not loving them because you won’t let them do whatever they want. One day, I’m telling you the truth, you will hear this yourself. And when you do, then I want you to think about your zayda, who will be dead by then a very long time, remembered maybe only by you. And maybe then you will forgive him for whatever you think he felt or didn’t feel.” Mr. Soda paused. He took a drag on his cigar then stood up and motioned for Jackie to stand. Once he did, Mr. Soda took Jackie’s chair and turned it to face Zayda’s body.
“Sit,” he said softly.
Jackie walked to the window again. Now the sun was just coming up and there were people out, a whole world of people waking up to the relief of another morning, not knowing who was wanting something from them or why. And none of them, not the day people or the night people, none of them knew that his zayda was lying there, so cold, his jaundiced soul guarded only by an old man hungry for a cigar and a young man hungry for his future.
Then, he sat down