Passover

Word count: 3480

Published in ‘The New Writer’ UK magazine, July/August 2007, as a winning story in the Prose and Poetry Prizes 2006.

I’m taking a stroll before the sun goes down and our Passover guests arrive. I stop and lean on the railing by the sea cliffs. Warning signs, black on yellow, show a tiny figure tilting off a high edge, arms clutching at space. Way below, jagged triangles and crests suggest rocks and surf. The message conjures up unwanted images of Ezra Lowen, my friend on the list of missing persons some two years now. I pick flecks of white off the railing and stare at nothing. A seagull screeches in the blue above the cliff line. Two nights back Susie, Ezra’s mother, phoned me wanting to know what time to come for Seder dinner and what to bring. After her antics of last year, I had privately hoped she would go some place else. But where? Most of her friends had died and her daughter, Eve, senior programmer with Miratech, had accepted a promotion in Montreal. ‘Just bring yourself at seven,’ I told her. Static hummed on the line, then, in a voice soft as drizzle, Susie said, ‘Ezra is alive, Howard, I know it in my bones.’ Once more I begged her to give up the idea, said her hope was misplaced, unhealthy. She met this with silence. My fist tightened around the receiver. I breathed out and said how we were all looking forward to her company on Passover.

Sarah greets me at the front door, already dressed, slim and elegant in her lime-green satiny outfit, coral earrings swaying off her earlobes.

‘You look nice,’ I say.

‘Thank you, how was your walk?’

‘Unusual.’

Sarah’s eyes and a corner of her mouth lift in that distinctive way of hers.

‘Bloated corpses were bobbing on the ocean, Egyptian soldiers. Also their horses and some smashed-up carriages.’

‘Gee, Howard, Moses too? Showing off the Ten Commandments?’ She kisses me on the cheek, holds me square at the elbows, ‘Howard,’ she says, ‘be nice to Susie tonight.’

I make a face and nuzzle her hair. I think of the stacking up of grimy plates in my café, each one a spent day. My tiredness reaches deep, a reminder that faith in godly schemes eludes me, faith in any schemes really, so adding weight to my days. This is the truth, and Ezra Lowen’s mysterious exodus adds to my forboding as I negotiate the middle years. In moments of despair all I can do is thank Sarah for the children we have created because, despite myself, I am embracing the future.

I draw Sarah flush to me, feel the full warmth of her. Yes, I must be nice to Susie the mother who conjures up Ezra the son, for tonight we celebrate historical escapes and miracles. Susie escaped nineteen-forty-four Budapest as a child of fourteen, no plagues or parting of seas, just daily thanks to Jesus and the nuns who ran her safe haven, the boarding school for Catholic girls. The school taught Susie the lesson of hope. I recently thought that If a mortician showed Susie Ezra’s corpse, she would proclaim it a trick designed to steal her hope away.

Sarah plants a kiss on my ear, tells me to say hi to the kids before I take my shower.

Martin, gangly for fifteen, is hunched at his desk, pencil in hand. For my first-born son the idea of time out is the dismantling of maths equations and, when possible, their reassembly in fresh ways. Stuck to the walls of his room, his expanding hit parade of maths mavens look out from grainy photographs.

‘Hey, Martin,’ I say, ‘you promised to tell me about the new man by the window.’

He flicks back his long hair. ‘That’s Vincent Doblin, French mathematician.’

‘Dead or alive?’

‘Dead. Was a Jewish probability whiz. Finished his Sorbonne doctorate when he was twenty-three-’

‘Daddy, Daddy!’ It’s Lucy, tugging at my arm.

‘Hey, my girl, how’s your day?’

‘Come see.’

‘Martin is telling me something.’

‘Go, Dad, she wants to show you, we’ll talk later.’

Lucy pulls me by the hand to her room. Three days now my ten-year-old has been drawing pictures of biblical events in Egypt, keepsakes for our Passover guests to take home.

‘Wow!’ I say, scanning her work, a riot of colour strewn across the carpet.

‘And Dad, I made Elijah a name tag this year.’

‘How come?’

‘Susie asked me last Passover.’

‘Well done, sweetie.’ I pinch her freckled cheek. ‘I’m sure he’ll feel welcome.’

‘Susie said maybe this year he’s coming.’

‘I don’t think Elijah is coming, Lucy.’

She gives me a look, takes an apple from the bowl of fruit on the bedside table, tosses it into the air, deftly catches it one-handed and turns cheerfully back to her artwork.

Some days I think Ezra could have used a sample of my daughter’s joy, just enough to have lightened his dark side a coupe of shades. Sprawled on the carpet now, Lucy strokes a scarlet pastel back and forth, darkening the surface of her Red Sea. Back and forth, the rhythm lulls me into a dreamy frame of biblical Egypt, directly into Pharaoh’s court. His land is reeling from God’s punishments. ‘What kind of God kills innocent Egyptian children?’ he yells. His remaining boils flare off skin puffy and pale after the plague of darkness. He swats a hand at two hopping frogs, misses, grabs a pewter goblet and hurls the thing across the chamber, narrowly missing the liver-spotted head of a fawning adviser.

‘Daddy,’ Lucy says, making snapping sounds with her fingers, ‘you’re dreaming again. Go and get ready for Passover.’

Warm water sluices off my torso, washing away the day’s grime.

I must be nice to Susie who refuses to accept, even though the door to Ezra’s apartment was found unlocked, his keys and wallet on the mantelpiece, while his banking facilities remain untouched to this day – a dire sign, apparently, in missing-person cases. Yet Susie continues to hope and I have heard it all – how Ezra knows the spot where she hides her house key, how any day now the vanishing will stop, how in the end her only son will make her proud. When Rabbi Feldman visited her on the first anniversary of Ezra’s disappearance, he suggested it was time for the mourner’s prayer. Susie’s face darkened, she shooed him out. ‘He’ll come home soon!’ she yelled after him. And maybe he will. And maybe if Martin or Lucy vanished, I too would invest crazy hope in the Elijah tradition, eagerly lay a place for him at the table, pour him a glass of wine, open the front door wide on the darkness and not close it until the prophet himself stepped through – with my lost child in tow.

Lucy hurls herself at Uncle Zeldon who’s wearing his sky-blue suit and carrying bundles of cellophane-wrapped gifts. She kisses him on the cheeks then turns her attention to my father. As she hugs him, he holds aloft his precious Haggadah, leather-bound with gold trim pages. He will read from it tonight, conduct the Seder, which suits me fine. My father is seasoned at the job. For many close-knit years we celebrated Passovers at his table, singing, drinking and feasting on mother’s dishes, and when she passed on, the venue simply switched to this house.

My mother-in-law arrives, releases her trademark, ‘Hi everyone!’ from behind a fruit basket big enough to have housed Moses in the bull rushes. Morris Berman, the squat, penguin-chested car dealer and his family come next. His wife, Prudence, ‘please call me Prue’, wears a cut suit and too much perfume.

We are waiting only for Susie.

I call my father to the hallway alcove for a private moment. ‘Listen, Dad,’ I say, ‘how about we scrap Elijah tonight? Forget his table setting, skip the door opening?’

He just looks at me.

‘It sets Susie off, you know it does.’

‘Howard,’ he starts, ‘you know we honour tradition. In decent Jewish homes we pour the prophet wine, open the Passover door for him. Kids need tradition.’

I don’t know if he is being serious or mocking. ‘But what about Susie?’

‘What about her?’

‘She really thinks Elijah will rock up one year, you know that. With Ezra.’

‘Susie will take her loss with a little time.’

‘It’s been over two years, already.’

‘So?’

‘So each year just stokes her belief. Elijah and Ezra – missing persons due to return any Passover now.’

‘Do you really think so? Besides, how would you explain Elijah’s absence to the children?’

The craggy bastard is right and he knows it. He sips his scotch, squeezes my shoulder. ‘Relax,’ he says. ‘Let Passover happen the way it was meant to.’

I must be nice to Susie despite last year when she eyed the door like a convict, asked repeatedly if it was time for Elijah yet. When one of the Berman daughters finally opened the door on the empty night, Susie looked genuinely aghast when nobody entered. I wanted to shake her, slap some sense into her. Civilised adults have to contain their moods, so why not her? When Sarah served the soup, Susie proposed a bowl for Elijah’s table setting, said let’s give him hot chicken soup, let’s give him a real incentive to come. That did it. Who? I said, Elijah or Ezra? Susie swivelled to face me, her glare unswerving even as a single tear escaped through her eyeliner. A tight silence followed. Sarah was first to react: she skirted the table, claimed Elijah’s seat, drew Susie in close. They made a little island, the two of them in a veil of steam rising off the soup, my wife and the survivor who couldn’t envision out-surviving her son, couldn’t entertain the thought of his premature death, perhaps by his own hand – the son who was spit in Hitler’s eye, her and her Adam’s gift to the promising new world. I slouched low in my chair, jabbed a toothpick at some matzah stuck in my teeth, wondered at my impatience over a gentle old woman who misses her son.

Sarah hugs Susie, takes her heavy coat and a gift of flame-coloured tiger lilies. Arms full with the coat and flowers, out of general view, she does a little shimmy while sending a sexy smile in my direction. I smile back and take a mental snapshot of her, this woman I love more than she knows, this family lending me the impetus to keep on stacking the days and charting the rocky wilderness of my years.

Susie approaches Martin and I by the drinks trolley, surprisingly straight-backed for a woman of seventy-plus. I greet her with a kiss on each cheek. Her white hair looks faintly purple under the lights. She turns to Martin.

‘Here you are,’ she says. She holds a silvery metallic object in her outstretched palm. ‘It was Ezra’s.’

‘Look, Dad,’ Martin says, ‘it’s a wind-up racing car like yours.’

‘Mine’s red. Ezra and I found them at Paddington markets a couple of decades ago.’

I look at Susie as Martin winds the key in the side of the car. I’m wondering about this gift when she asks me to pour her a lime and soda. I mix the drink, hand it to her. Soon she has joined the others.

‘So, Martin,’ I say, ‘what happened to Mr. Probability in the end?’

His gaze shifts from the car to me. ‘What made you think of Vincent Doblin?’

‘I don’t know.’

He gives me a quizzical look.

‘Really, tell me.’

‘He became a soldier on the Maginot Line. When it was obvious the Line was going to fall to the Germans, he burnt his research papers and shot himself in the head.’

‘Crikey, Martin.’

‘So why did you ask?’

Everyone says how good the table looks. The ceremonial plate in the centre triumphantly holds the Passover symbols: the matzah, the haroset, the bitter herbs, roasted eggs, the parsley, salt water, a lamb’s shank – the symbol of God’s strong arm. The dining area pulses with sound: general chatter and ooh aahs for Lucy’s biblical artwork in each setting, scraping chairs on the parquetry, the tinkling of cutlery. Susie is seated next to Sarah with her back to the lounge and front door.

At the table’s head, my father politely clears his throat. ‘Passover is primarily intended for our young,’ he says. ‘I didn’t make this up, the rabbis tell us this.’ He beams at the children and welcomes each to Passover night.

‘Hear, hear,’ says Uncle Zeldon.

My father sends pieces of parsley round the table and then recites its blessing. Because the children are peckish he brings forward the blessing of the matzah and the haroset and we take turns piling the sweet apple mixture onto our unleavened bread. We drink the first cup of wine. The children ply into the haroset and chatter happily at the far end of the table.

Then Melissa, the youngest of the Bermans at seven, reluctantly gets up to ask the four questions. Her small hands are shaking. We smile at her and murmur encouragement. She half sings, half reads the questions in a lilting voice. ‘Ma nishtana ha leila ha ze mikol ha leilot?’ Why is this night different from all other nights? I can think of many reasons. Melissa continues, confident now of getting through her scary Passover task. As boys, Ezra and I used to deliver the questions in unison, a happy double act, each allaying the fears of the other. And after Passover dinner we would hide under my mother’s piano, discuss in low voices and pure innocence our planned vocations. My favourite had been minesweeper; Ezra had fancied oceanographer.

My father proceeds with the Passover story. A short way into the narrative, a thirsty Morris Berman proposes an extra toast to Bacchus and a diversion into a Passover song. Father happily agrees. The wine drunk, Morris uses his forefingers to conduct us in dayenu: ‘If he’d only taken us out of Egypt and not punished the Egyptians,’ we lift our voices in Hebrew, ‘dayenu!’ – it would have been enough for us! ‘If He’d only punished the Egyptians and not destroyed their gods, dayenu!’ – it would have been enough for us!

If He, I muse, would only organise a drop in the interest rate, dayenu. And if He would perhaps ease our tensions, thwart our demons, double dayenu.

Somewhere in the night a dog howls and the narrative reaches the plagues. We dip a finger into our glasses of wine or grape juice ten times, dropping each plague onto our side plates. The settings and spillage on the table cloth comes to resemble a biblical scene. Two serviette holders symbolise the gates of Egypt. Apple gratings are Egyptian chariot riders on the verge of drowning. A random line of matzah crumbs represents Hebrew slaves exiting the Red Sea. The sweep of empty cloth before them marks forty years of desert which stretches to the ceremonial plate – the mountains, with Sarah and the Promised Land beyond. As I sit, sheltering in the company of my family, I consider the historic wails of Egyptian womenfolk on the banks of the Red Sea, pining for their slain male first-borns, wondering at God’s collective punishment. Why, the mothers want to know, didn’t God merely slay Pharaoh, the one responsible for holding the Israelites.

Susie sits calm in her place, following the story, eating her matzah. And then, as if in mockery of my observation, she flicks an urgent look between me and the door, opens her mouth as if to talk, wrings her hands.

‘First the matzah hunt,’ I say, ‘then Elijah.’

‘Thank you,’ she says, unclenching her hands.

My father tinkles his fork against the glass water jug. ‘Time to hunt for the aficomen,’ he says.

‘Lucy is not here,’ Martin says.

‘We can’t start without her,’ father says.

‘Lucy!’ my mother-in-law calls.

No answer.

I’m checking the downstairs bathroom when the front door bangs shut. It’s Lucy, dishevelled, cheeks flushed.

‘Where were you?’ Sarah asks.

‘Checking for Elijah. I went into the garden to see.’

‘Why, sweetie?’

‘Well, what if he gets the wrong house?’

‘He won’t. He knows our house. Come quickly now for the matzah hunt.’

Again my father tinkles steel against glass. ‘Final call for finding the aficomen and winning a marzipan treat.’

The kids fan out, begin searching in the obvious spots: under sofa cushions, through Sarah’s pile of ‘Vogues’, behind the curtains. Martin idles, frowning. Maybe he’s too old to hunt. He ambles along the bookshelves, pauses to watch the others. Maybe he’s done the probability on finding the matzah but left out the core variable of actually trying.

‘I’ve found it, I’ve found it,’ one of the Berman daughters yells, but she’s just bluffing.

An image intrudes on me, of Vincent Doblin in his Maginot bunker, research papers in one shaking hand, a lit match in the other, while German guns boom and the smell of death hovers.

‘Hey, Martin’s got it! He’s found the aficomen!’ Rachel Berman yells.

This time it’s no bluff; Martin, stock-still, open-mouthed, inspects the matzah in its white serviette.

‘Where, where?’ call the others.

‘Under the stereo speaker,’ Martin says.

Sarah, smiling, starts to collect the side plates splotched with plague wine. An upbeat Martin fetches his treat from father. Zeldon pours Shiraz into his glass and calls Lucy over. All at once he picks her up, twirls her in the air, tickles her. ‘So Lucy, what are your plans for the future?’ he asks, returning her to earth.

‘Christ, Zeldon, she’s ten.’ Prue says.

‘Christ?’ Zeldon says, ‘Prue B, tonight we’re foraging in the Old Testament.’

‘Ha, ha,’ she says.

‘And excuse us anyway,’ Zeldon says, ‘the young lady and I are talking.’

‘A juggler,’ Lucy says, ‘I want to be a juggler.’ She breathes hard, makes a deft one, two motion with her wrists.

‘Really?’

‘Yep. I practise everyday.’

‘One of the trickiest jobs on the planet, juggling. I commend you my dear.’

‘Me too,’ Morris says, spilling out a little Shiraz as he lifts his glass.

After further Passover songs, father taps his fork against the water pitcher once more. ‘Who is opening the door for Elijah?’ he asks.

Rachel Berman says she wants to but is too scared to go alone. Prue agrees to chaperone her. I ask Sarah to pull Elijah’s chair back a little from the table. The room falls heavy with quiet. Susie half sits, half stands in her place. She clenches her upper lip between her teeth.

‘Okay?’ Rachel asks from across the lounge, her fingers on the door handle.

‘Let the prophet in, already,’ Morris calls.

Rachel and Prue twist the handle and pull. Rachel leans out into the night then shrieks and reels back into her mother.

‘What is it?’ Prue cries.

A figure is crossing the threshold. Susie is out of her chair and moving for the door. The figure wears a chequered jester’s hat, gym tights, trainers. It’s Lucy and she’s juggling four small apples in a neat arc of red and yellow. Her hands barely move. I flick to Susie. Mouth open, she starts clapping. Nearly everyone claps. My father, wide-eyed and hesitant about a major breach of tradition, soon joins in. Susie watches in awe, hands by her cheeks now, joy in the eyes. Lucy nearly loses an apple but regains her rhythm, continues shuffling into the lounge, the apples a blurry arc.

My talented daughter mesmerises me.

I see her leading a dreamy procession. There’s an irritable Pharaoh, frogs croaking at his heels, a long-bearded Moses clutching his staff, throngs of children – Jewish, European, Egyptian – wearing lopsided expressions, playing catch with apples of their own. Vincent Doblin too, blowing ash off folders that spill out original formulas. And then there’s Ezra blinking in the doorway. One side of his head is cratered, he drags a foot as he walks. He is wearing a suit faded and ripped from shoulder to cuff. Strands of seaweed hang off his head, a glistening black cluster of mussels cover his shoe and ankle. The smell of seawater permeates the air. Despite his damaged watery state, he wears a content expression on his face, the lips almost serene, gone the trademark mien of anxious cheer or downright brooding.

Lucy stops in the middle of the living room. She cups her palms, fields the apples, pulls them close.

‘Hooray, Elijah!’ Uncle Zeldon calls.

I blink twice. The images of Ezra and the others fade.

We all clap and cheer.

Lucy bows and grins so sweetly I could have cried. Susie has edged up alongside me.

‘It’s okay, Howie,’ she says, smiling hard, ‘Lucy is terrific, your whole family.’

I smile back, take her gentle hand in mine and thank her for coming.

End

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