Jacob doesn't mean to disappoint his father, but he can't help thinking the most unthinkable (and very funny) thoughts about public-school humiliation, Hebrew-school disinclination, and in-home sex education (with the live-in nanny!). If only his mother hadn't started college at thirty-six (and fallen for her psychology professor). If only he were more like his rebellious older brother (suspended from Hebrew school for drawing the rabbi in a threesome with a lobster and a pig). If only Jacob could confront his overbearing father and tell him he doesn't want to sing in synagogue, attend est classes, write the perfect thank-you note, or even live in the same house with Abram Green. But, of course, he can't. That would be unthinkable.
This self-assured, comic, yet piercing first novel deftly captures the struggle of an imperfect boy trying to become a suitable son.
About the Author
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 striped
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 microphone wire.
“Daddy?” Dara says.
“What is it?”
“I have to go to the bathroom.” She is five.
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 Asher?”
“I’m right behind you.”
“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 knees.
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 louder.
“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 wave.
“No!” he says, covering the mike. “I haven’t introduced you yet. Where’s your mother?”
“I don’t know, Dad.” I step back.
“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.”
“That’s just great.”
“Should I go find her?” I ask.
“No. Don’t move. We’ll go without her.”
“Daddy,” Dara says.
“Hello and welcome to our new home.”
The amp whines. My father cringes at it. Asher hits the top with his palm. The noise fades then stops.
“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 Green.”
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 room.
“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 face.”
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 smiling.
“Not one little one?”
“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 waves.
“Can ride the thing on his nose!”
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.”
Some audience laughter.
“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 ball bat.
“Just one swing.”
“I look stupid.”
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. Dara everyone!”
“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, Gabey.”
Gabe shakes his head hard, his face still hidden.
“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 mother.
“They’re already eating,” she says.
“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 word.”
The head of the microphone smells like ass. “Baruch-”
“Louder,” he says.
“From the beginning.”
“Baruch . . . ata, Adonai, Eloheynu, melech haolem, hamotzi, lechem min haaretz.” And the crowd says, “Amen.”
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 bad.”
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 up.
“Where’s your brother going?”
“Just takes off,” he says, facing me, and begins to coil the microphone wire. “Not too bad, Claire, right? Poem read well.”
“It was fine.”
“Could you hear me in the kitchen?”
“No, not really. It was muffled.”
“Are there people still back there?”
She nods and folds the jacket over her arm.
“Could they hear me?”
“I don’t know, Abe.”
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 spin?”
“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 I?”
“A little spin.”
“Mo-mmy,” Dara says, her knees touching.
“Go right now, baby, you know where it is.” Dara runs into the dining room and disappears among the bodies.
She turns to him.
“I see nothing demeaning in it.”
My mother ignores him and reaches for my tie. “You can take this off now,” she says, and picks at the knot. “You hungry?”
She faces my father with both hands on my tie.
“The poem,” he says. “You’ve said nothing . . . about the poem.”