Say A Prayer

Say a Prayer won The Short Story competition in the UK in 2013

Walter Bronsky kicked in his half sleep before opening one eyelid. The ochre skin of his little tent drew him towards the dim-dawning day. He sat up in his sleeping bag, cast around and groaned – he could make out the cash desk, display racks, ceiling fans. He had been dreaming of cliffs, the orange black sandstone aglow, rivers in the valleys glinting silver through the blue haze. The idea of a majestic outdoors synagogue came to him. He slumped back into the sleeping bag, closed his eyes and tried to dismiss reality.
But the very real sound of rain intruded – fat drops angling down sharp enough to pelt the shop windows. He got a hand to the zipper of the bag and worked it open. He parted the tent flaps and poked his head out. Blaring red “Fire Sale” signs hung from their hooks but not for much longer. Today the creditors were taking control.
If the heart attack hadn’t killed Dad, maybe the pair of them could have saved Bronsky Outdoors, challenged Kahn, gone on trading. And maybe he would be waking in his warm queen bed, snug against Esther. A line from the mourner’s prayer came to his lips but he stifled it. ‘Later!’ he scolded himself.
Walter clambered out of the tent and stretched his back and arms. After a month of last-ditch bargains, the stock had almost gone. He raked ten fingers through his leftover hair and headed for the bathroom out back. He bumped into a dangling sale sign, grabbed the thing with two hands and pulled it loose. Bits of paintwork fluttered down.
You should have taken Kahn’s offer, he heard Esther saying. You should have moved into the mall.
In the bathroom Walter splashed cold water on his face, some shaving lather. He cringed at the hangdog reflection in the makeshift mirror, his tufts of salt and pepper hair, the lines gouging his face. He gave the mirror a smile but it came back a snarl. He shrugged: after everything, this was all he could offer even himself. The dregs of his goodwill had soured, but really, what did it matter now? He brought the razor up to his cheek, trusted the sharp edges to do their job.
He lowered himself into the folding chair by the tent, lit his camping stove, set down a frying pan. He leafed through his plan once more. He sliced a piece of butter into the hot pan. When it sizzled he cracked in his final three eggs and watched them fry sunny side up. Walter lifted his head. Rain on the glass frontage was washing over the lettering: ‘Specialists of the Wild’.
After a mug of coffee he got to work. The chains went round his waist three times and he clicked shut the combination locks. He squeezed into his bulky overcoat, struggling with the last button. He checked the cash register clock. Time to move, before that bigwig bastard got there.
He stood in the centre of the store, gazing at the enlarged photo behind glass on the wood-panelled wall above the remaining backpacks. Dad and him steady on their feet atop cliffs, hamming it up for the promo, karabiners winking off harnesses at their waists, ropes snaking down orange black sandstone. And both their smiles had been solidly real.
Yes Dad. I know what I have to do.
He grabbed his keys. At the door he surveyed the silent camping store, wedged between the old-style butchery and the defunct two-dollar shop. One more year and they would have been celebrating their fiftieth.
Walter locked up.
Under the weight of the gear he lumbered along the sidewalk to the car. He squeezed in behind the wheel and started her up. At Oxford Street he turned right and glided slowly past the ‘for lease’ signs, the butchery, his place, and the rows of hungry meters like beggars. Peering through the rain splashing the windscreen, Walter drove onto the freeway. The chains were uncomfortable but soon he would be there. On the grey skyline ahead, Kahn’s logo loomed massive above the new mall. What would the tycoon’s useless sons be without him? He almost missed his turnoff, but then he arrived. He reversed into a free spot near the synagogue, back pain flaring as he twisted round in his seat. Shouldn’t he just quit and go home? But home had been the mustard-coloured dome tent since the separation. He laughed thinly. The plan was unfolding. The pain he had to take charge of, embrace.
After killing the engine, he stepped into grey daylight. At least the rain had stopped. His fingers trembled. Sweat beaded on his neck. ‘Easy, easy,’ he muttered. He pushed the door of the old Peugeot shut and didn’t bother locking.
He stopped walking a stone’s arc away from the entrance. Two guards stood on the landing outside the foyer, one blond with a buzz cut, the other tanned and jiggling some keys clipped to his belt. Walter looked down. Between the gaps in the slabs of concrete green shoots were pushing up.
‘Morning,’ the tanned guard said as reached the steps. ‘Too hot for you?’
Walter wiped his forehead with his jacket cuff and began dragging his feet up the steps. ‘I’m not what I was,’ he gasped admittedly.
‘You should try running in the mornings,’ the guard said, fiddling with his keys. His buzz-cut companion’s long face split into a jaunty smile.
Walter considered himself as they might: How could they know these sloping shoulders were once broad, this midriff lean? I am the butt of their jokes, he mused, reaching over his shoulder to massage the pain with a knuckle. The guards continued scrutinising him, a man past his peak, consoling himself with religion. Behind him now other congregants were clamouring forward. The guards exchanged hesitant looks. The buzz-cut nodded, the tanned one waved Walter through.
Inside the foyer the air seemed heavier, more hallowed. The marble floor reflected his bulging figure. He went to the restroom, re-checked the chains and breathed. He chopped the air in a series of Jackie Chan moves. ‘Ha,’ he said to the mirror. He rinsed his hands, doused his face and pressed the dryer button. After  rubbing his palms under the flow, he turned the heat on his face.
In the foyer Walter put on his yarmulke and glanced back at the guards as they focused on new arrivals. Good, they had relegated him to history. A small guttural sound escaped him. He turned to face the swing doors, and pushing them open stepped onto the maroon carpet. A familiar not-unpleasant smell greeted him, musty and formal. The place was already half full, congregants praying, very few children. He had once imagined having children of his own. He surveyed the women in the gallery section, no Esther yet. He had tried to keep her image out of his mind, but still she managed to gatecrash. The cantor’s sonorous chanting soothed him, and he breathed in a whiff of the varnish used on the pews. He fixed the weight on his torso one more time, squared his shoulders and headed for the front.
Larry and Eric from school days made darting eye contact. Other congregants glanced at him sideways, wondering why he had passed his usual seat in the second last row. ‘Third class’ he used to bitterly joke; Esther too was disgruntled with her seat high in the rafters of the women’s gallery. Even so, their membership had been denting his cheque account for two decades. For twenty years he had craned to see around pillars, peeked over skull-capped heads for a glimpse of the altar. How could a man welcome God’s blessing from such a lousy position?
Ignoring the stares and mutters, Walter paused by the front row, just shy of the altar where Rabbi Kellerman and Pinker the secretary sat facing him. He edged into the first pew, sidling past the hefty Natie Zimmer and the pale-skinned Stan Markovits, very big in white goods and insurance respectively, and each a major donor of the synagogue. He caught a whiff of expensive aftershave and noticed the pair of them trading glances. He ignored them, focusing rather on the brass name plates screwed to the wooden berths. He stopped in the middle of the row, where one name appeared three times over.
Kahn.
Walter turned to face the Rabbi and, smiling primly at Pinker, refusing to indulge glances at open-mouthed Zimmer or tssk tssking Markovits, lowered himself into the middle of the three seats where he breathed in deep the plush-carpet smell.
Jerry Kahn’s seat energised him. Here he was part of the altar action, in the front line, no pillars or heads cramping his vision. His back pain had eased. Not since climbing days had he felt this alive. He reached into a jacket pocket. Was that a gasp from the white goods? Slowly, nonchalantly, he pulled out his prayer shawl and settled it over his shoulders. He kissed the tassels. From this position his prayers would really count.
The watching eyes began to prickle Walter’s skin. Secretary Pinker on the dais had gotten up. He stood short and flat to the floor under a wide-rimmed black hat, the spiffy penguin, white-shirted chest puffed out, black jacket tails fanning his rear. He descended the three stairs. His palms were facing up, his eyes and lips settling around the word, ‘nu?’
Walter’s face darkened. He undid his jacket button revealing a glint of steel. Secretary Pinker’s face froze, he took three steps back, and began signalling urgently in sweeping arm movements. The rabbi stopped praying. A wave of fear rippled through the synagogue. People were standing up; the muttering rose. Now Pinker came towards Walter in slow motion. Walter freed two ends of chain from among the coils encircling his waist. The thick links clanked against each other. He passed each end over the back of the pew then through the gap below. One at a time, he pulled the chains taut around the wood and drew the lengths towards him, to the pair of combination locks connected at his midriff. In turn, he snapped the locks shut over the two ends.
The cantor stopped singing. Pinker laid a hand on Walter’s arm but Walter shook him off with a scowl and Pinker, white-faced, withdrew. Walter took a small tube from his jacket pocket. He twisted off the top and squeezed glue over a lock dial and also where the haft met the lock housing. He was squeezing glue onto the second lock when Pinker made a grab for the tube. Walter let him have it. He was done, mission accomplished, locks and chains nice and tight.
The congregation broke into tittering and chatter, a hint of panic mixing with a clear sense of relief. People shut their prayer books. Women crowded the upstairs railing for a better view. Walter folded his arms across his chest. He felt strangely liberated, and rattled his chains to confirm it.
‘You can’t sit there,’ Pinker hissed, while furiously trying to loosen the glue tube from his fingertips.
‘Who says?’  Walter said calmly.
‘Have you gone meshuga?’ Pinker said, sending a forefinger in a circular motion round his ear.
‘I’m not meshuga.’
‘You can’t sit in Kahn’s seat. He’s coming today.’
‘He can’t grab all the best spots in the synagogue. Who does he think he is, hogging all the spaces closest to God?’
‘What are you saying, Bronsky?’
‘I’m sitting here. Kahn can have my seat up the back.’
‘Move,’ hissed Pinker, yanking at the chains which rattled in response.
Walter folded his arms.
‘What do you want?’ Pinker asked, earnestly this time.
Walter pressed his lips together.
Rabbi Kellerman laid his black prayer book on the rostrum and descended the steps.
‘Tell me,’ he said, extending two hands in Walter’s direction.
The synagogue fell quiet, the air poised.
Walter said nothing.
‘What do you want, Bronsky, a doctor?’
The congregants chuckled.
‘Please,’ called the rabbi, lifting his head and raising his palms.
Silence returned. Walter clinked gently.
‘Walter,’ the rabbi said, ‘how many years have you been praying at Rose Bay? Twenty, twenty-five? And never any fuss – why now?’ Rabbi Kellerman crossed his arms. ‘What would your father say, may he rest in peace?’
‘He would praise me for making a stand,’ Walter said, clinking some more.
‘No, no,’ the rabbi paused, disappointed, then worried. ‘Um, you don’t have any weapons, do you?’
Walter cast his eyes low and tssk tssked. ‘Rabbi Kellerman,’ he said, ‘you’ve been watching the news too much.’
Homeless, chained Walter settled into Kahn’s seat as conversation buzzed around his ears.
‘What’s he doing?’
‘He must be a nutter.’
‘Hey, we all have issues, doesn’t mean we bring them to schul.’
‘Shhh, Monty,’ a woman called down from the gallery, ‘he might be dangerous.’
‘It’s true,’ a male congregant said. ‘We don’t know what else he’s got under his jacket; I’m getting out of here.’
The mood switched and the air seemed heavier. Congregants started edging out of the pews, the men taking off their prayer shawls as they went.
The rabbi looked up, perplexed. His flock was drifting away. ‘Walter, I’m going to call security,’ he said. ‘You’ll be banned from synagogue, you realise?’
Walter smiled angelically.
‘I want him gone, Pinker,’ the rabbi said, turning abruptly. ‘Fetch security – they let him in, they can let him out.’
‘What if Jerry Kahn arrives?’ Pinker said.
‘All the more reason for security.’
The tanned guard was tugging at the chains with one hand, clicking a thumb and forefinger in Walter’s face with the other.
‘Get your paws away,’ Walter said
‘Where are the keys?’
‘They’re combination locks, you idiot.’
‘I want the numbers.’
‘Ha ha,’ Walter said.
The cantor spoke up: ‘Such a shemozzle before the congregation – What is it, Walter? Pills, drink?’
Walter felt cosy, secure. He made music with his chains.
‘Okay, buster,’ the tanned guard said, ‘how about you give up the combinations and end this peacefully?’
Walter didn’t budge.
‘The combinations won’t help,’ Pinker said. ‘He used glue. We need bolt cutters.’
‘Who has cutters in this community?’ the cantor said. ‘Spreadsheets maybe, a scalpel, yes, but bolt cutters?’
‘What about sedating him? We must have twenty doctors here,’ the rabbi said.
‘And then what?’ the cantor asked.
‘The guy needs a shrink, that’s what he needs,’ the buzz-cut guard said.
‘Oh sure,’ the cantor said, ‘like we have thirty-or-so years to wait this out.’
A sudden hush enveloped the synagogue, its source near the foyer doors. Departing congregants hesitated as a group of three arrived. Walter felt a little giddy as the rabbi rushed to meet the tycoon and his sons striding down the aisle. Under a mane of silvery hair, Kahn wore an expression that said, what’s this, you’ve started without me? His sons, dressed in neat charcoal suits, moved ahead of their father dressed all in white.
‘What’s the fuss here?’ Davin, the younger one said, fronting up to Walter.
‘Hey,’ Walter said, fired up now. ‘Why doesn’t your Daddy open a synagogue in his shiny new mall? More seats all round, prayers in the market place, so handy.’ Walter pursed his lips, “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz, my friends all have Porsches, I must make amends….” Walter was clicking his fingers either side of Davin’s head while using his hips to jiggle the chains.
The brothers watched dumbfounded. Then the older, Jodi – freckle-faced, bolshy as a boxer – squared his shoulders and looked Walter up and down. He started shifting his weight from foot to foot. ‘What are you, buster, some kind of tin man?’
Walter laughed.
‘You’re in my Dad’s seat, move,’ Jodi said.
‘Today this is my seat.’
Jodi spluttered, Davin too, then Jodi cupped a hand to his ear and swivelled his neck round, wooing the rapt congregation as if he had heard wrong, as if the situation wasn’t clear-cut.
Rabbi Kellerman hurriedly approached the brothers and ushered them close. ‘Today you are sitting on the altar,’ he whispered, ‘a blessing for the whole family.’
Davin pulled a sceptical face. ‘We’ll have to see what Pa says.’
‘He loves the idea,’ Rabbi Kellerman said, ‘I checked with him already.’
‘Okay, let’s do it,’ Jodi said.
‘Position, position, position,’ Walter said.
‘Who asked you?’ Jodi said raising his fists.
‘Hey, hey,’ Rabbi Kellerman said, ‘this is a house of God, not a sparring ring.’
‘The bigwig cosies up to God,’ Walter said, ‘while the average shmendrik has to pray long distance’.
‘Enough, Walter!’ the rabbi said. ‘You’ll never set foot in this place again, you hear?’
Jerry Kahn put an arm round angry Jodi’s shoulder. ‘Don’t let him upset you son – the fellow clearly needs help.’
Jodi backed down, his father’s palm resting lightly on his back.
The Kahn threesome regrouped and stepped up onto the altar. Jerry’s white suit was expertly cut to show off his trim figure; his crown of silver hair flashed in the light. Congregants began drifting back to their seats.
Walter folded his arms across his stomach.
The rabbi raised his hands. ‘Does our Bronsky have a friend in the schul? Who will reason with Walter?’
A silence swelled. There was a rustling of siddur pages. The rabbi tilted his head. Someone coughed in the women’s gallery. The sound ebbed off the ceiling and petered out. A woman rose to her feet in the second-to-last row of the highest section and started descending.
Esther Bronsky stood planted before Walter, wearing the pill box hat he loathed, a miniature fort above her eyes like gun emplacements.
‘What are you doing, Walter? You’re embarrassing both of us, you know.’
He rose laboriously, dragging the chains along with him, and stood statue still. Walter looked straight at her, her body still trim, her face which had radiated derision these last years, youthful. He began at last.
‘Yit’gdal v’yit kaddash sh’mei raba…’
‘Walter, people are staring,’ Esther said.
‘…b’al’ma di v’ra khir’utei…’
‘Why are you saying the mourner’s prayer?’ Esther asked, ‘Who’s dead?’
Walter carried on chanting, an all-knowing look in his eye.
‘Shame on you!’ Rabbi Kellerman said, ‘reciting the kaddish over the living.’
Walter, arms folded, head raised, continued, trance-like, the Hebrew flowing out of him like blood from a wound.
Esther backed away and wrung her hands.
When Walter finished the prayer he started again. This time he used a stabbing forefinger in the air to mark his morbid stresses. He moved the finger like a divining rod, between Esther and Rabbi Kellerman, between Kahn on the altar and the congregation behind him - the whole complicit lot of them.
‘Walter!’ Tears came to Esther’s eyes.
He looked right through her. He sent sharp lines of the prayer in her direction. On the altar the three Kahns studiously ignored the commotion. They nodded to eager congregants, put on their prayer shawls, opened their siddurs.
Cheering began by the synagogue entrance. A man in blue overalls had entered the double doors. He was flanked by the security guards and Pinker, a little entourage. He stood a head higher than security and under one arm carried steel pincers glinting in the light. Walter drew his chains close and sped up the prayer. The bolt cutters looked like the beak of a hungry pelican making straight for him.
‘Keep your hands clear, we don’t want to hurt you,’ the man in blue overalls said to Walter as he slipped the cutters around one of the chains.
‘…shm’ei d’kud’sha b’rich hu,’ Walter chanted.
The man closed the blades on a link and a dull crunch followed.
‘Hooray,’ a congregant called, as the chain came free.
Walter continued chanting.
The rabbi and cantor watched, indignant, as Walter punctuated the air with his prayer, and the bolt cutters crunched through the links. Esther sat immobile, slumped on the edge of the altar, chin cupped in her hands. Kahn was on the far side of the altar, crouched down, chatting to a congregant, his back to the commotion.  As one chain fell away and swung limp, Walter kicked out. The buzz-cut guard quickly crouched and grabbed hold of his legs. Walter stopped struggling.
‘b’al’ma di v’ra khir’ute…’ he sang.
The bolt cutters closed and crunched one last time. The man stepped back and the guards pulled Walter clear. Chains dangled off his waist. The congregation clapped.
‘Yitg’dal v’yit kaddash, shmay raba.’
A note of urgency had crept into Walter’s lines.
Now the security men were shunting him out of the pew. Kahn was back in his altar seat and watching, his face taut as Walter aimed a line of the prayer at him. The guards held him under the armpits, frog-marching him to the doors. His feet skimmed the ground; he felt lighter than tent material. A wall of congregants lined the aisle either side,
‘…b’al’ma di v’ra khir’utei…’
‘Quite an exit,’ one worshipper said.
‘Self-hater,’ hissed another, landing a fleck of yellow spittle on Walter’s skewed prayer shawl.
They passed out of the double doors and into the foyer. Walter stopped chanting, his feet barely skimming the marble. When daylight touched him he whooped at the sun jostling for space in a clouded sky. As they neared the stairs, security increased their pace. They launched him off the top stair. Walter was airborne. He felt utterly free. He picked up the scent of orange sandstone on the breeze and half smiled, pretty sure how best to land.
End

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