The Book of Norman

 

TheBook of Norman

(Excerpt from a Novel)

By Allan Appel

 

When I had returned to New York after my father Paul’s funeral, I already knew that something about his death and my presiding over his grave had changed everything. Oh, did grief ever become me and did I ever use Paul’s passing as well to explain to Leifman, Leibman, and Schneur my aloofness from seminary activities that now ensued.
 
My three-times-a-day prayer dwindled to two, then one, then none. Then instead of joining the daily minyan, I pulled Ecclesiastes off my shelf to try to find some relief in poetical Jewish stoicism. I tried some Philo of Alexandria, whose skepticism had always appealed to me, but what did I care now about reconciling God with Aristotle? There was a sentence or two in there about transmigration of souls, the great gilgul, but it was a footnote, and one of those Greek things our teachers considered primitive, polytheistic, and lacking any real religious imagination; we had skipped over it entirely in philosophy class.
 
What did any of this have to do with my dead father? I kept an unsmoked pack of Lucky Strikes beside my hard metal bed in the seminary dorm because Paul had taught me my letters by holding up his pack of Luckys with the bright black and red target: LSMFT: Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco. Now that had meant something.
 
“You’re floating off again on me, Norman.”
 
“No, I’m not,” I lied to my mother.
 
“That’s okay. We’re both tired, and oh are my dogs ever barking, honey. It doesn’t get any easier. You’ll come by the restaurant tomorrow?”
 
“Sure.”
 
“You can practically walk over from camp, you know. A short hop from the park.”
 
“Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll visit everyone, even Paul.”
 
“Excuse me?”
 
“I guess I was thinking of him. At the cemetery. I’ll of course come by Canter’s is what I meant.”
 
“Well, that will be very nice. I still get compliments there, and especially from the women at temple about what you said at your father’s funeral. Such a beautiful speech.”
 
Had we been at the same funeral? What had I really said at the funeral? Although only ten months had passed, to me it seemed as far back in Jewish time as the burial of Moses himself. Denied entrance to the Promised Land, though he got to see it from afar. Boy, did that ever seem nasty on God’s part.
 
Yes, I’d relied on that story. I had likely hit all the pastoral points they’d taught us in intermediate homiletics. I’d explained the blessing you’re supposed to recite, the formal formulation, statement of faith, that you’re obliged to declare on hearing of the death for a first time: Baruch dayan emet. Blessed is the true judge.
 
I hadn’t believed a word of my little graveside sermon and had acted the whole thing out. The wonder of it was that my hypocrisy apparently had not been noticed, only my clever wordplay. I think I must have been unconsciously thanking Paul for the career-reappraisal moment his death was providing, as if saying to him, Thanks, Dad. You see how easy it is to put one over on them! If that’s what being a rabbi is about, maybe it’s time for a reconsideration.
 
For me the best part was after they all had hugged me and my brother Jon and my mother Paulene, and we were walking up the grassy hummock for the kiddush, the wine and cheese reception, in Mt. Eden Cemetery’s little bungalow—we of course had selected the low-cost 250-dollar option—and I broke away from my family for what I told them was to be a private moment.
 
I walked back down to where the little excavation machine stood, and three cemetery workers had picked up the shovels we had used to drop dirt on Paul’s pine box.
 
He would have given each of them a ten-dollar bill had he been able to stick his arm out of the box. I upped the ante and gave each of the gravediggers a crisp twenty.
 
The smoke floated about the room, my grandmother Ida stirred, and Paulene said, “Let’s get Grandma to bed, and then you.”
 
So we began our routine: I cradled Ida, one arm under her shoulders, the other under her legs, and carried her into the bedroom. Paulene pulled back the old knitted brown comforter and I centered Ida on the mattress; she looked so tiny. Then I left the room so Paulene could undress her and put on her nightgown, and position a walker beside the bed.
 
Mom was very quick.
 
Then we methodically turned off all of the lights downstairs, except for the paced series of nightlights that led from the bedroom down the short hall to the bathroom, which Ida, if necessary, could still manage.
 
When we were done, we moved down the hall quietly in what felt almost like a weird ceremony, and out the door. On the way up to our place, we paused on the porch, where the night air had some citrus in it that suddenly revived me, or at least yanked me back from my ruminations on flesh, bone, decay, and the irritating unknowability of all things postmortem.
 
The perfume on Paulene’s clothes as we slowly climbed up the steps to our place in the upper unit of the duplex was still strong; it seemed to mix with all of that cigarette smoke and with the aroma of the oranges, lemons, and the bougainvillea vines and their small pink flowers growing lush in the driveway beside the house.
 
On the landing just after I pulled the screen door open wide for the two of us to enter, she gave a sudden tickle to my ribs. I was surprised at how peeved, even angry, I suddenly felt at the playfulness.
 
Inside she shouted hello to Jon. He shouted back to her, but he didn’t bestir himself from behind the closed bedroom door.
 
She occasionally barged right in—Paul had always done that—but not this time.
 
“Love you, younger son,” she called back to him. “What are you doing in there? Top-secret stuff?”
 
“Nope. Performing evil deeds.”
 
“Nothing I wouldn’t do, right?”
 
“Love you, Mom. Take a load off,” Jon called back.
 
While it all sounded the same, it also was so different, as if I were hearing the mundane exchanges like responsive readings that suddenly were not conveying the real meaning of what was floating through the duplex, and through our family life.
 
Now Paulene walked to the far end of the hall, where she paused in front of her bedroom. This cul de sac always collected the outside aromas of the flowers, Paulene’s powders and perfumes, and the Canoe cologne that Paul used to buy at the discount counter at Thrifty’s Drugstore, and it all was particularly concentrated this night.
 
Before turning in she said, “You’re getting to look more and more like a handsome young rabbi.”
“How’s that?”
 
“Your brow is furrowed as if you’re weighing some mighty decision. My little Solomon.”
 
“Solomon was a king, not a rabbi.”
 
“King, rabbi, I’ll take either one. You just listen to me, young man: I’m so proud of you, and Mr. Footlick is. The whole temple family in fact.”
 
The detective of Paulene’s susceptibility to clichés, I particularly cringed at this one: temple family indeed. Still she went right on, not noticing, ticking off her points as if she were telling a customer the three kinds of soup Canter’s is offering this night.
 
Where she landed, however, really caught me off guard. “But, honestly, you boys have to keep an open mind. I don’t want you making Mr. Footlick nervous.”
 
“What’s the problem? I waved to him, didn’t I?”
 
“I don’t want to feel I have to negotiate every little common human courtesy with you boys. Just don’t forget who got you your scholarships. And now the camp jobs as counselors.”
 
“I know, I know.”
 
“Jobs don’t just appear out of thin air. You prefer to bus tables again? You were pretty good, Norman. You only dropped three platters that whole summer. You want me to arrange for that? Rabbis don’t clean tables.”
 
“I don’t know why not. But drama? I haven’t been in a play since high school.”
 
“Yes, and what a wonderful Nathan Detroit you were. The best Guys and Dolls ever! You’ll do fine. You know how I know that? Because you’re a born faker.”
 
Paulene leaned wearily against the door jamb to her bedroom. “The Jewish people need young men like you. You have no idea what joy it brings me to have both my sons working together at Camp Tikvah.”
 
“It’s just summer camp, Mom. It’s not Mt. Sinai or the Golan Heights.”
 
“Oh, no? Mr. Footlick tells me he’s arranged with the Jewish Agency for two counselors who just served with the army in Israel. In the war. Girls, talented and very, very pretty, he says. Young heroes, pioneers. And they know how to shoot. So watch yourself.”
 
“Really?”
 
“Yes, commandos.”
 
“Great. Girl commandos.”
 
“You don’t think I would have accepted any old job on your behalf, do you? I know how to check out the perks. Only Mr. Footlick—”
 
“Enough already, Mom, with Mr. Footlick and with camp. You’ve made the sale already. Several times over.”
 
“Fine, son. I just want to clear the air.”
 
“You have.”
 
“And stop staring. You want me to bring you a glass of milk like the old days?”
 
“Sure. That would be great.”
 
She went into the kitchen, and I knocked on our bedroom door and entered. There was Jon stretched out in his pajama bottoms and a white T-shirt. He was reading intently. He raised a hand in a silent hello.
 
“You heard?”
 
“No one’s thickened the walls since you left. I heard.”
 
“So it’s good. We’re camp counselors with girl commandos, and if we don’t behave they get us with their bayonets. What a summer this is turning out to be, and it hasn’t even begun.”
 
“Has for me,” he replied distractedly, without interrupting his reading.
 
I maneuvered around his big sweat-socked feet that dangled over the side of the bed near the passage by our childhood desks. The matching desks with silly golden pen holders and gray blotters hadn’t changed much, it seemed, except for the peeling veneer since we were doing sixth-grade homework on them. The bedroom was small and, of course with all my bags from New York now crowding in, it seemed even smaller and more constrained.
 
Tonight it felt minuscule.
 
As I got into my pajamas, Jon seemed instinctively to curl his body around his reading matter as if to conceal a Playboy magazine, the way we had when Paul had barged into the room. (Paulene’s way was far politer.) More often than not, Paul was looking to grab the Playboy for himself.
 
I knew what Jon was poring over, of course, and he knew I knew that it wasn’t Hugh Hefner’s monthly. I was weary of contending. All I felt was an urge to flight, to go off some place where people didn’t want me to be a drama counselor or an emissary, a religious explainer, a rabbi, or a future leader of my people Israel.
 
It’s, by the way, just at such times—so I was soon to learn—when the cerebral systems are fatigued and stalled, and then lock, that we begin to open ourselves up to recognizing angelic forces forming up near us.
 
To some extent, of course, they are of our own making. That is why it’s required to say a blessing of gratitude, a shehechiyanu, which is the blessing to mark a first, such as the arrival of an annual holiday, a wedding, or a newborn.
 
It’s especially propitious to recite the blessing, and really nail it if you can, when you sense your first angel might be near.
 
As Paulene whistled some tune from Oklahoma that drifted in from the kitchen, and Jon was on his bed reading his Mormon mishagas silently beside me, I lay down and believe I mumbled such a blessing.
 
At the time I had no idea why.
 
Blessed sleep finally began to weigh down my eyelids when, absolutely glowing, and in a satin bathrobe, Paulene knocked and entered bearing the snack.
 
Under his sheet went Jon’s Book of Mormon.
 
There suddenly was Paulene like a colossus bestriding the aisle between our two beds, like a model on a runway. Her hair was turbaned in a white towel, and her arms extended as she offered two tall glasses of cold milk that glistened in the half-light on Ida’s old silver platter.
 
“I don’t care how big you two boys get, I’m always going to do this for you. And, Norman, you don’t have to worry about the cookies. They’re only Fig Newtons knockoffs and don’t taste top of the line, but, I assure you, they are strictly kosher. See the little U on the box?”
 
“I see, I see,” I mumbled.
 
She placed the tray with the two glasses, white and shimmering in the semidarkness, on the nightstand between us. Then she kissed us each goodnight and clicked the door closed behind her.
 
*
 
I drank the milk and then sought sleep even while Jon continued to read beside me.
 
I stretched out my fingers toward the crisscross of shadows falling in from the window and along the stuccoed ceiling and then along the wall. I felt as if I were inhaling not only the air in the room but some of the leftover oxygen of childhood.
 
As a kid, when sleep hadn’t come I’d called out and, more often than not, Paulene, lying in her bedroom alone reading, smoking, and angrily waiting for Paul, would shout out, “Count your sheep. I’ll give you a nickel for each one that makes it over the fence.”
 
I had tried then, I really had, mainly for those nickels to supplement our $1.25 a week allowance, but I’d never been successful.
 
The sheep I’d conjured this time were jumping one by one over a rustic wall, leaning against which were an old paint can, two broken blue folding chairs, and an old tricycle with a bent wheel. It was an ensemble of detritus remarkably like the one at the base of the hedge in our backyard behind the duplex that Paul had never gotten around to cleaning up.
 
Now comes the weird part. As the sheep land, they transform into shapes unlike anything in our backyard or that I’d ever seen before, except maybe hinted at in a Busby Berkeley extravagantly choreographed dance number in the movies: the sheep are turning into angels—great rustling winged creatures who, in midflight over our fence, begin to shed wool, and to don sleek gowns as they morph into a human form, landing, elegantly reassembling themselves into a kind of heavenly chorus of exquisite female singers.
 
They help each other very politely to tuck their wings flat in back so their line looks smooth, and pretty soon the wings are invisible beneath white robes as they begin to chant in Hebrew, “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, Adonai tzevaot m’loh kol ha-eretz kvodo.”
 
That’s the line from the daily prayer that you’re supposed to chant while standing on your toes, elevating toward heaven. This variety of angels are called ophanim, which comes from the word ophan, meaning circle.
 
They are well named because their main job, over and over again, like crazy animals going around in a maze, is to sing and to praise God with continual choruses of holy, holy, holy in which they try to outdo each other.
 
What a dream to have my first night home!
 
Nobody bothered at school to ask why an all-powerful God, without human traits, would be so vain as to require continual singing of words of adulation. Maybe He just enjoyed good music.
 
I was asking that question in my dream state, I think, when I heard Jon’s deep voice interrupting. “Yo, Norman. You all right?”
 
“Sure.”
 
“Norman? You’re mumbling in your sleep.”
 
“What?”
 
“Holy, holy, holy.”
 
“Holy, holy . . . oh boy.”
 
“What you got going there, brother?”
 
“What?”
 
“I knew it.”
 
“What do you know!”
 
“Things are changing. All around us.”
 
“Will you stop it! I was dreaming. A dumb dream.”
 
“Don’t think so. You won’t tell me what it was?”
 
“Why should I?”
 
“You don’t believe in dreams?”
 
“Will you cut this crap out. Leave me alone.”
 
Now Jon folded up his book, and pushed up against the headboard of his bed in a way that suggested anything but repose.
 
He waited with this infuriating newfound patience of his—or was it an indulgence—until it was safer to go on.
 
Then, with his back straight and legs crossed in a kind of lotus position, he sat up in bed. He struck me more as a Buddhist meditator than an incipient Mormon.
 
“What did she say to you? About me.”
 
“Who?”
 
“Mom.”
 
“I thought you heard.”
 
“Come on, man.”
 
“Well, she thinks you have a girlfriend and that you just haven’t told her yet. That your girlfriend got you to shave and to get a buzz cut and to leave the man cave.”
 
“You don’t believe that, do you?”
 
“Oh, I don’t know.”
 
“I think you know it’s right for me, girl or no girl.”
 
“I know no such thing. Maybe you’ve got me wrong. Maybe I haven’t started working on you yet.”
 
“Norman.”
 
“Did I say I would talk to her? I don’t remember that I did.”
 
“Didn’t say you wouldn’t.”
 
“Hey, just don’t leave those calling cards around! And, for god’s sake don’t have them, the Mormon missionaries or whoever, come by.”
 
“Listen to you. Like it’s the Russians are coming. Relax. They’re really nice people. And they do these great barbecues every week out at Santa Monica. You should drop by.”
 
“Salt of the earth.”
 
Another silence.
 
And then Jon spoke again, and maybe it’s what I brought to my flawed listening—a  prejudiced view can feel as truthful as the truth, I’m sad to report—but he sounded to me not like the brother I knew, but as if someone had prepared a series of bullet points for him: here’s what you say to a mother, to a father, to a brother, to a cousin; here’s what you say to a family member when they have grown uncomfortable since you’re a new conscript in the faith’s zealous embrace.
 
And he was right. That’s the way I felt. Mea culpa.
 
“Norman?”
 
“Is there anyone else in the room?”
 
“Can I give you another example?”
 
“Of what?
 
“Of how to talk to her?”
 
“Well, if you know, why don’t you just do it yourself?”
 
Then, without waiting for my assent, he laid it right out: “Take baptism.”
 
“You told me.”
 
“I’m reminding you. So I know it’s a dirty word, so don’t use it. Like I said, tell her, you know, mikvah. Or maybe . . . start with the revelation that Moses got on Mount Sinai, the Ten Commandments. Have you seen the pile of Mount Sinai calendars she’s got collected! She’s into those. Only maybe don’t call it revelation, but I mean, why shouldn’t there be, after two thousand years, a new revelation, and the Mormons have been tapped for it this time, like the Jews were way back then? You get where I’m coming from? They like us because, well, they’re the new Jews. And as to baptism, like I said, it’s just a mikvah, the Jewish ritual bath. That’s what I mean. She’ll understand that. Points of tangency, sister faiths. If I get baptized, it’ll just be like a big mikvah. You with me, bro?”
 
Oh, I was with him all right. “Are you nuts! That’s just not right. Because after you’re dunked, you pop up cleansed not of the grime on your epidermis, man, but of your Jewish identity. Some mikvah.”
 
“You’ll make her understand the right way then.”
 
“Not if I don’t understand myself.”
 
“Look, the point is, I’m still going to be Jewish.”
 
“How’s that?”
 
“I mean I’m not going to wipe away my Jewish education, for example. It’s not a lobotomy! I’m still going to know how to read Hebrew. Not like you, of course. Mine’s pretty primitive and all that, but the Mormons really prize it, I’ll have you know.”
 
“Oh, I’m sure they do.”
 
“You probably think next I’m going to go and uncircumcize my dingus. But no way, José.”
 
“Thank you for that profoundly moving statement of faith. Score mikvah for the Mormons, dingus for the Jews.”
 
“A couple of times I have thought about telling her myself. Yet each time I couldn’t figure out quite how to begin. I kept on rehearsing the words in my head, but none sounded right. I’ve been praying to Heavenly Father for an answer, for the perfect words, for how to do it, a way to tell her that’s honest to me but won’t pain her. They haven’t come.”
 
“Because maybe there aren’t any.”
 
“I suppose that’s possible. But if it can be done, you can do it, man. I know you can. That’s why He sent you home this summer. And I thank Him for it.”
 
“Who?”
 
“Heavenly Father.”
 
“Heavenly Father didn’t send me here. United Airlines did. And I paid for the ticket. Come on, Jon, clear out your head.”
 
“Oh, believe me, I have.”
 
“When you say Heavenly Father, you mean God, right?”
 
“Sure. God. Let’s not get stuck on the nomenclature. God is God.”
 
“Then why convert?”
 
“Fine, fine,” he said, and then we fell into another of those silences where I felt my heart about to leap out of my chest and into the pocket of my pajama top that lay over it.
 
I took a deep breath or two or three. I tried to calm down. I vowed to do better.
 
I didn’t get very far.
 
Only perfunctory empathy came out of me, then disappeared like a passing cloud. When that drifted off, I took the all-familiar road that you will soon recognize: I became a Jewish cliché and I all but shouted in the deafening silence that followed: how could you do this to me! How could any brother of mine accept the Latter-day Saints’ thanatopsis with its elaborate, silly, infantile architecture of salvation? Such primitive nonsense!
 
While I recognized this rampaging egotistical tone in myself, I didn’t work very hard against it, didn’t really catch it and send it away.
 
On the contrary, my sophistry was such that the very recognition, so went my puny philosophy, somehow gave me the illusory notion that I wasn’t acting out of knee-jerk prejudice when I was already deep in its thrall. Can’t you see it, Jon? It’s for your own good that I refuse to be your personal ambassador of religious bullshit.
 
And, moreover, wasn’t I, by refusing, also trying to protect Paulene?
 
I lay there in the bedroom with my brother, and this passed between us, one wave of emotion after another back and forth over the abyss between our beds, hammering him, then me, well, it was as if the path I was about to follow through these waters that summer—until the angels finally came to my rescue—was already being fashioned: despite myself, I was being transformed into a monstrous Jewish John Wayne.
 
No, better a Kirk Douglas. Like Kirk in The Indian Fighter, I must circle the wagons, that is, the arks of Torah, family, faith, and even the Temple Beth Ami “family” including Mr. Footlick and this ridiculous Camp Tikvah summer that loomed, all for the purpose of warding off this surprise attack by the Mormons on my mother and on my family.
 
And the defense had to be strong because the attack was of the most brazen and potentially virulent variety: heretical, fraternal, and from deep within our very midst.
 
I turned angrily on my side, faced Jon, and spoke with a tone far more combative and accusatory than I expected: “But why of all the loonies in the world, the Mormons, man? Just because they happened to knock on your door?”
 
Jon seemed to catch these repeated questions like lozenges on his tongue that he would taste fully before answering.
 
He rolled back my way and his eyes sought mine in the semidarkness. With a deliberateness that gave his face, now latticed by slats of shadow from the streetlight, an eerie cast as if we were in a sci-fi film, he just stared at me, through me.
 
He seemed on the verge of speech, so I waited. But he didn’t speak. So I waited some more. And with each hesitation my fury built.
 
That moment, which I see now these many years later in vivid memory, was perhaps another turning point.
 
“All you’re telling me over and over is how silly the Mormons seem to you. You haven’t told me one good thing about the Jews.”
 
“No?”
 
“No. Sell the Jews to me. Go on.”
 
“They’re not a product. They’re—”
 
“—Just tell me: why should I stay?”
 
That last remark gripped me with a sudden panic: I don’t think I fully understood then it was not so much that Jon might be leaving the Jews that was eating away at me but a fear even greater: that he had found something wonderful, some superior set of symbols, rituals, language; a channel for transcendence that I, if I were honest with myself, might still be seeking, though no longer through the dumb old seminary. But being honest with myself was not something I specialized in that summer.
 
I looked away.
 
I heard Jon take a long breath. Then his sheets and blankets rustled. Now there he was lying even closer to me than before, his head propped on his hand at the edge of the bed, just two feet away from me, his eyes intense with a light fraternal and genial, but also relentless.
 
“Norman, the Mormons are very very good people, like I say. Warm, wonderful people.”
 
“Warm? So maybe there is a girl?”
 
“Oh, man.”
 
His forbearance shamed me, although it didn’t shut me up. In fact, it seemed only to make the clichés and the stereotypes fall more and more out of me like autumn leaves from a shaken tree.
 
“In that case, very cool. More than one babe? Two or three at a time? Plural marriage? Sign me up, man. Today. Where’s the paperwork?”
 
Jon just stared and waited.
 
“Okay. Is there some cute missionary?”
 
“No.”
 
I simply refused to believe Jon on the merits, and his equanimity seemed to grow in inverse relation to what a jerk I was being.
 
“I just feel comfortable with them the way I never did in, you know, the temple, ur temple. You don’t feel comfortable there either, do you?”
 
“That’s not the point. You don’t go . . . change temples, religions, gods; you don’t go from . . . Adonai Elohenu to Heavenly Father like you do from Coke to Pepsi. You have to have a reason. ‘Good people’ is not a real reason. ‘Warm and comfortable’ is not a reason.”
 
“Why not? All right, if you insist on something else, I do have another reason.”
 
“Finally. Okay. Let’s have at it.”
 
“I’m looking at the reason right now. You. And another reason’s down the hall in her bedroom. Paulene. And Ida downstairs. And the fourth reason is up at the Mt. Eden Cemetery. Well, his body is there anyway.”
 
And then Jon explained it to me yet again and in more detail: life after death, eternal celestial life according to Joseph Smith, how through the Mormon faith he was going to remain with his nuclear family, sealed, linked, joined, welded together for all time.
 
When I pointed out that Jon didn’t yet have a nuclear family of his own to remain with—a remark both sarcastic and typical, I fear—to his credit my brother once again let it pass in suffering silence.
 
When I told him I hated the phrase “nuclear family” because it implied to me not closeness but that sooner or later everything was going to blow up, he ignored that .
 
He meant, he patiently repeated, that all of us would remain together, a large, extended celestial family, in eternal life after death. Paulene, Paul, Norman, Jon, Ida, the uncles, aunts, and cousins, most of whom we hadn’t seen for years because we were no longer on speaking terms with several, the whole team, even the Family Tot, the distant unknown relatives of Ida, the dead in the Holocaust.
 
They would join us in happy, happy communal, picnicking-and-barbecuing eternal life. Not individual life after death. Oh, no. A notion even bigger and better than the original Christian message of individual salvation. If faith were a toothpaste, this would indeed be labeled a “new and improved” product. Not individual salvation, but family life after death, on and on and on and on. That was the Mormon gift the missionaries had shared with Jon and that he wanted to share with me.
 
“Whoa! Our family life is not exactly Ozzie and Harriet. In fact it’s a disaster. You want that, I mean this, to be eternal?”
 
“It’s easy to joke. It’s hard to believe. What do you believe, Norman?”
 
“I believe that we just let each other alone, try to be nice, tell a few jokes, have a few tokes, and we stumble along as best we can.”
 
“And after we die? It’s what? Just over?”
 
“Yes.”
 
“You pay your check, you go out the door.”
 
“You don’t forget to tip. But yes, out the door. With luck you close it quietly.”
 
“Drift off into the sunset. Like that? Adios, partner?”
 
“Pretty much.”
 
“That’s what you’ve concluded from being at the seminary? From all your Jewish studies is adios?”
 
“Yes, that’s about it. I’d say not adios but ‘shalom, pardner.’”
 
“Got to be more, Norman. What do the Jews believe about life after death?”
 
“Oh, I don’t know. Screw the Jews and screw the Mormons. And most of all, screw the afterlife.”
 
“Whoa. You do go to the Jewish Theological Seminary?”
 
“Did go. Past tense.”
 
“What?”
 
“I mean . . . I’m taking a break from all that . . . struggling. I’m off duty. You know. I’ve vowed not to read another Jewish book. For the summer.”
 
“A person of faith is never ‘off duty.’”
 
“That’s what you think.”
 
“No, tell me.”
 
“Don’t press and maybe I will.”
 
“The Jews are not so good on the afterlife, are they?”
 
“No, we’re not.’’
 
When I heard that “we” issue from my mouth, I felt something sag within, some tremor I’d never had before and did not recognize. It was as if I didn’t know the person who had uttered it, or I didn’t want to know him.
 
Hadn’t I just left the “we” behind? Make that three thousand miles between New York and LA. Make that two thousand years of Jewish literature and traditions and beliefs. By my calculations that added up to five thousand good reasons I no longer needed the Jews with their brilliant, tortured commentaries on impossible questions like life after death. Nobody knew anything, and at least the Jews had the good sense and humility, more so than other religions, to be reticent, to shut their mouths most when it came to the unknowable. I was going to be a drama counselor; that was bad enough. Let’s leave philosophy out.
 
I began to think more and more about Jon’s stash of old joints. I didn’t need the Jews and they didn’t need me. That was to be the point of the summer, and my life beyond. Now all I was suddenly thinking about was the marijuana. Were the joints still in the Nabisco Fig Newton tin? Who had just said, “No, we’re not”? Just who the hell was this “we”?
 
Jon swung his legs out of bed. A small flashlight flicked on. Jon now shined it on the Book of Mormon that he was extending toward me. “Would you mind if I read you just one passage?”
 
“Are you nuts?”
 
“No, I’m not nuts.”
 
“I’m sorry, man. I apologize. It’s just that now’s not the time for that.”
 
“Okay. But you sure need something.”
 
“I was thinking of aspirin.”
 
He tapped his book. “Stuff in here is much more powerful than acetylsalicylic acid, man. Shall I show you?”
 
As he enthusiastically flipped through the pages of his new book, I felt a crazy fury rise inside of me. He was trying to proselytize? Me! Right here. Now? In bed! My own brother.
 
I put my hand on his forearm and pushed the book away.
 
“Ratchet it down, Norman.”
 
“You ratchet it down.”
 
“I’m not the one who’s yelling. You’ll wake up Paulene.”
 
“Shut the darn book.”
 
We paused. We were like boxers suddenly in a clinch.
 
“Okay. Okay,” he said as he lowered the black cover over the pages, but then drew the book toward his chest, pressed it to his heart like some damn holy thing. He may as well have read me a thousand pages; that gesture hurt so much.
 
Then Jon stood in the aisle between the beds. He lifted up one of my blankets that had fallen three-quarters over the foot of the bed onto the carpet and tossed it over me. Then he walked the few paces toward the closed bedroom door.
 
A sense of panic struck me. For some reason I just didn’t want him to leave the room. My heart raced; I felt a film of sweat on my forehead. A moment ago we were going to be together in heaven for all time. Now, already, here on earth, in this bedroom, it felt as if he were abandoning me; we were miles apart.
 
“Where you going?”
 
“You said you needed some aspirin. Relax.”
 
When he went out, I flopped back down on the bed and studied, as I had when I was little, the patterns of the little dimples of painted white plaster on the ceiling above. By counting them I tried to calm myself.
 
 heard a quiet shuffling of bottles in the medicine cabinet down the short hall. Then the light went off. I closed my eyes. Suddenly there he was.
 
“Open your hand.”
 
When I did, he placed the two small white pills on my palm.
 
I looked at them with the magical hope they would cure me. Of what I wasn’t sure, except that I needed curing. I washed them down with what remained of the milk Paulene had brought.
 
Then Jon said a simple, “Sleep well.”
 
That’s how we drifted into sleep that first night home: two brothers, one a zealous apostate-in-training and one a defector from the faith become its sudden and reluctant defender.
 
Maybe.

 

Copyright © Allan Appel, 2017. This selection is from The Book of Norman, A Novel, to be published by Mandel Vilar Press (www.mvpress.org). 
Until December 1, 2017, readers of Jewish Fiction .net can buy a copy of this novel for a special discounted price of $14.00 plus free shipping within the U.S. Send check to Mandel Vilar Press, 19 Oxford Court, Simsbury CT 06070. 

Allan Appel, born in Chicago and raised in Los Angeles, is a prize-winning novelist and playwright whose books include Club Revelation; High Holiday Sutra, winner of a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Award; and The Rabbi of Casino Boulevard, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. His work has appeared in the National Jewish Monthly, the Progressive, National Lampoon, and Tablet, and his plays have been produced in New York, Chicago, New Haven, and Provincetown. The Excommunication of Mrs. Eaton, about Puritan theocracy in early New Haven, won the Connecticut Heritage Productions full-length play award in 2011. He has published 14 books, including eight novels. His most recent novel, The Hebrew Tutor of Bel Air (Coffee House Press, 2010) is being optioned for television. The winner of two fellowships in fiction from the Connecticut State Office of Arts and Tourism, Appel lives in New Haven, where for the last decade he has been a staff writer for the online New Haven Independent.



 

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