Read an Excerpt
I sit halfway up the staircase and
listen to no one in particular. There are fifty-three people standing in the
wide front hall of this new house. I counted. There are even more in the living
room and some outside on an eating tour of the raspberry bushes. They keep
arriving. Some carry wine bottles but most have flowerpots or tinfoil plates;
the Litmans brought a Bible wrapped in newspaper comics. It’s weird that a house
full of people can sound like one thick and rumbled voice; a bass-y group chant
that coughs here and there. Some of them have much smaller heads than others.
Like the difference between cantaloupes and apples. I close my right eye and
pick some of the fruit with my thumb and index finger. Pluck. Squish.
A “housewarming” party is what my
father calls this one. The six of us are up before the sun: vacuuming, hiding
unpacked boxes, calling to confirm the Saran-Wrapped platters and ice-sculpted
G. Every friend he’s ever made is invited, along with a dozen or more colleagues
from the firm, temple congregants, new neighbors, and a waitress named Patty who
served us the night before at the Ground Round.
My father wheels his tiny amp into
the front hall. It makes a zapping noise as he kneels to plug it in. When he
stands, he slaps the knees of his slacks and calls us over for a look before the
introductions. Asher nearly passes but for his ratty brown hair that he likes to
let hang in his eyes. He doesn’t brush it on purpose, like he thinks he’s one of
the Sex Pistols. I happen to know he’s got his “Eat Shit!” T-shirt under his
button-down. He flashed me a peek as
I struggled with my tie. My father removes a comb from his pocket and walks
toward my brother.
“I’ll do it,” Asher says annoyed,
taking it from my father’s hand. Asher gets a stare for being aggressive but it
ends quickly: there’s a show to do. Dara does okay. She’s got a loosened bow on
the back of her yellow party dress and gets accused of cereal breath, but it’s
not a bad showing. My father spins her to retie the floppy bow, his brow ridge
crinkled as if defusing a bomb. I do poorly. My tie is so askew that it needs to
be removed like a snapped whip before being redone. From his knees, my father’s
nose nearly touches mine and I can see his bearded jaw beginning to churn with
impatience. I keep my eyes lowered and my breath held; I too had Cheerios within
the half hour. When he finishes he gets to his feet and begins to untangle the
“Daddy?” Dara says.
“What is it?”
“I have to go to the bathroom.” She
He jiggles and tightens the knot of
his tie and releases a long breath with his eyes closed. He then points his chin
outward to get some slack in the skin of his neck. “Asher . . . where’s
“I’m right behind
“Make sure the mike stays plugged
in. If you want to tape it, fine, just do what you have to do to make it stay,
all right? I want to avoid any of that buzzing or . . . or what’s that . . .
“Right. That.” He holds his dark
frames in the air looking for smudges. “Remember the last time? Couldn’t even
hear the opener.”
“Give it a try,” Asher says from his
My father puts his glasses back on
and lifts the mike to his lips. “Hello, hello.”
Dozens of heads turn our way. I get
butterfly stings in my gut as some of the eyes meet mine. I wipe my palms on my
new checkered pants and stand with my shoulders square. I’ll just wave, I tell
myself, then step behind Asher. At the “moving to Piedmont” party I chose to
salute the audience just before my wave. It was a last-second decision that I
wish I hadn’t made. My father said it was “flip” and “discourteous to veterans”
and made me apologize to Eli Gessow because his son served in Vietnam. Eli said
he was in the crapper during the introductions and couldn’t hear a word. He then
kissed my forehead really hard and told me to get him some more lox.
“Okay, let’s try it. Jacob, Dara,
come stand by me. Enough, Asher, it sounds fine, up off the floor now. Let’s see
some smiles, yes? They’re here for you. The Greens are in town today, right?
Here we go now. Here we go.” My father lifts the mike to his chin. “Hello and
welcome to our new home.”
“If I could have-what? Can’t hear?
Can I-can I have everyone’s attention for a moment? Hello. Hi. Thank you, hello.
Just settle down for a second or two. I want-thank you, Judith. Judith Meyer,
ladies and gentlemen, helping me quiet the troops.” He blows Judith a kiss. “Can
you all hear me? Can I be heard?” he says, and taps the head of the microphone.
“Can’t hear you,” says a voice from
somewhere in the living room.
“Okay, how about now?” he says
“All right. Hello and welcome.
I-please, I need it quiet. I’m not sure if everyone can hear me. I see a thumbs
up. Does that mean you can hear me, Liv? Okay. Thank you. If-no, no, still no?
Perfect? Okay, here we go. Jacob?”
I step forward and
“No!” he says, covering the mike. “I
haven’t introduced you yet. Where’s your mother?”
“I don’t know, Dad.” I step
“Where the hell is she? I’m trying
to start a party here.”
“I saw her in the kitchen,” Asher
says. “She was hittin’ a bag of ice with a hammer.”
“Should I go find her?” I
“No. Don’t move. We’ll go without
“Hello and welcome to our new
The amp whines. My father cringes at
it. Asher hits the top with his palm. The noise fades then
“I . . . I hope you’re all enjoying
yourselves and getting enough to eat. Before I begin, has anyone seen my wife?
Claire, are you-she’s-kitchen? Okay, would you tell her to come out here,
please? I’d like to introduce you to my family but I’m missing my Gabriel and my
wife. They’re usually together.”
Some audience laughter.
“Here she is, here’s my lady.”
Applause as my mother walks out from
the kitchen with Gabriel in her arms.
“Hi, honey. Come on out and meet
everyone. Many of you know my family but . . . I want you to see how wonderful
they are and how beautiful my amazing and gorgeous wife is. Ladies and
gentlemen, this is the mother of my beautiful children, Claire
Applause. Some whistles. My father
picks something off the shoulder of her sweater and puts his arm around her
waist. He looks out at his guests with a tilted head, the microphone held
loosely in his palm.
“‘Along the garden ways just now / I
heard the flowers speak; / The white rose told me of your brow, / The red rose
of your cheek . . .’” He reaches to touch her face. “‘The lily of your bended
head, / The bindweed of your hair: / Each looked its loveliest and said /
You’-Claire Green-‘were more fair.’” He leans in to kiss her.
An awwww rises from the
“A little balladry I found while
unpacking. A poem I just know was written with my wife in mind. I . . . can’t
begin to tell you what it’s like, to wake up every morning to this beautiful
He leans in to give her another
kiss, his hand on the back of her neck.
“Look at her,” he says, then places
a hand over the mike. “Want to do a small spin or . . . ?”
My mother shakes her head still
“Not one little
“And this-can I have it a little bit
quiet back there-please. This won’t take long. I’d like to introduce you to my
firstborn. This is my bar mitzvah boy. Two weeks ago, for those of you who
weren’t there, he became a man, a Jewish man in the eyes of God. My oldest son,
Asher. He skateboards!”
Asher steps forward and
“Can ride the thing on his
Asher rolls his eyes and lifts his
thumb in the air with a sarcastic smirk. The amp whines as his foot hits the
chord and climbs to a screech before fading out.
My father shoves him away from it,
back toward me.
“The blond boy,” he says, still
glaring at Asher. “Where’s my blond boy? Hiding behind his mother, of course.
This is my Jacob. Jacob is ten years old. He reads Hebrew so beautifully it’ll
make you cry. That’s what five years of yeshiva gets ya.”
“Doesn’t have a clue what he’s
saying but . . .”
“He also plays baseball. Show
everyone your swing, J.”
It’s not the first time he’s done
this. At last year’s Passover seder he ran into the garage to get me a Wiffle
He covers the mike. “It’s gonna kill
you to do one swing? Do it, please.”
I swing an invisible bat to a
smattering of applause.
“There it is . . . there it is. He
plays Little League for the Knights of Columbus. He pitches too. Show everyone a
pitch,” he says into the mike. “Come on, one pitch, here it comes . . . wind up
and . . . del-i-ve-ry, yes, beautiful. Sandy Koufax, ladies and gentlemen. And
no, he will not pitch on Yom Kippur.”
Some laughter for the joke. Some
applause for the pitch. I step back.
“And this,” he says, lifting her
into his arms. “This is my girlie.”
“She swims like a fish. The
butterfly. Always top three. You can all come and see her race. The Jewish Y on
Kingston Avenue. This is my Dara, folks. My one and only girl, my little flower.
“Now-although he needs no
introduction whatsoever-and I . . . I’d never say I saved the best for last
because it’s . . . a silly thing to say, but, here he is, my baby, Gabriel.
Gabriel Green,” he says over the applause. “He’ll be three in April. I made him
with my own two fists! Isn’t he beautiful?”
My father waves Gabriel’s hand to
the crowd. He turns and tucks his face into my mother’s neck. “Can sing
‘Matchmaker’ perfectly, all the parts. Can we have a little of that, beautiful
boy? ‘Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match.’ Come on,
Gabe shakes his head hard, his face
“All right, a little stage fright.
So . . . we’re so very happy every one of you is here. We love all of you, we
truly do. If you need anything, just let us know.” He covers the mike.
“Should I do a hamotzi?” he asks my
“They’re already eating,” she
“People, people, one more thing. My
son, Jacob, is going to bless our food in Hebrew.”
The burn in my stomach is startling.
My father hands me the mike and kisses the top of my head. “Relax,” he says.
“It’s just the hamotzi. Every word’s a jewel, right? Every
The head of the microphone smells
like ass. “Baruch-”
“Baruch . . . ata, Adonai, Eloheynu,
melech haolem, hamotzi, lechem min haaretz.” And the crowd says,
My father lifts me from my armpits
and floods my face with machine-gun kisses. His dark beard is like Brillo and
rakes at the fair skin of my cheeks and neck. I smile through the bristles and
the devouring of my face.
“One more thing,” he says, after my
feet touch the ground. “If you haven’t had a tour of the house, meet me here in
two minutes. I’ll be your docent so don’t be late. Enjoy!”
Some final applause.
He kneels to switch off the
amplifier, then stands to face us. “Not too bad, not too
The room grows crowded again with
the rumble of voices. Asher yanks his tie off and runs up the stairs. My father
watches him. “Where you goin’?”
My mother puts Gabriel on the floor
and begins to remove his jacket.
“Asher?” he yells.
I walk over to the banister and look
“Where’s your brother
“Just takes off,” he says, facing
me, and begins to coil the microphone wire. “Not too bad, Claire, right? Poem
“It was fine.”
“Could you hear me in the
“No, not really. It was
“Are there people still back
She nods and folds the jacket over
“Could they hear
“I don’t know,
My father licks his thumb and wipes
something off Gabe’s cheek. “Why do you think-I have to beg for a spin, a little
“Mommy, I have to go to the
bathroom,” Dara says.
My mother grips my sister’s hand and
faces my dad. “I’ve told you I don’t like that, Abram. When you do that. Haven’t
“Mo-mmy,” Dara says, her knees
“Go right now, baby, you know where
it is.” Dara runs into the dining room and disappears among the
She turns to
“I see nothing demeaning in
My mother ignores him and reaches
for my tie. “You can take this off now,” she says, and picks at the knot. “You
She faces my father with both hands
on my tie.
“The poem,” he says. “You’ve said
nothing . . . about the poem.”