Shiva for Gerbils
By Zachary Solomon
The paper posted on the peeling elevator wall featured a portrait of an old man with large glasses and pointed patches of shadow on his chin. Beneath the picture was the name “Maxwell J. Rosenbaum.” Beneath that, taking up most of the white space, were the words, “In lieu of kugels and flowers, please consider making a donation in Max’s name to the American Gerbil Society (AGS).”
In the elevator, Eli stared at the portrait of the dead man. The poster had been given a kind of naïve arts-and-crafts embellishment, with a faux gold felt border that was beginning to mildew. Eli noticed the same trim looping around the top of the elevator, where the walls met the ceiling. It was the sort of elevator typically found in the aging coop buildings in the Bronx, Queens—those nondescript blocks of brick that were home to thousands and thousands of grandparents. In fact, Eli was there to visit his very own pair. He had allowed the guilt of not calling them to boil until it evaporated, charring the bottom of his conscience and leaving a burnt smell in his head. He knew the only way to clean it out would be to visit with them, if only for a half hour. He brought Patrick along for support and distraction.
Patrick was studying the dead man on the wall. “We should go. We should check this out.”
“To the memorial service. Sheeva? Is that how you say it?”
Eli laughed. Patrick did this all the time, suggesting asinine things to get a rise out of Eli. He had the uncanny ability to make him nervous at will, and Eli would squirm out of his eye sight, desperate for Patrick to say something to make him feel safe again. The two of them had been partners once, but a doomed chemistry had simmered their relationship into something more platonic and brotherly. Patrick pushed too much; Eli was generally fine wherever he stood. He was not one to test the boundaries of his comfort zone.
“It’s shiva,” Eli said. “And no, I don’t think so. We’re here to see my grandparents, and I’m dreading that as it is. That’s why I brought you—if you don’t recall.”
“Of course I do,” he said. “Did you tell them we were coming?”
“No.” Eli looked above the elevator’s door, expecting to see the number of each floor light up as they ascended, but the old-fashioned bulbs had all burned out. He hoped they would get stuck. Spending time with his grandparents made him uncomfortable. To Eli, hell was a place where all the coffee table books were Holocaust photograph collections, where the wallpaper’s floral patterns resembled the faces of ghoulish men with clover mustaches. Worse, hell was a place where the national currency was guilt, somehow accrued through an algorithm involving how long one can spend in their grandparent’s company before pining for the door. That was his grandparent’s house; that was the kind of hell they were heading towards.
“I forgot,” Eli finally said. “I guess it’ll be a surprise.”
“I thought you said they hate surprises.”
The elevator stopped and the doors opened. Eli and Patrick followed the long hallway, moving under the pulsing glow of plastic chandeliers. The same gummy, yellow felt raced ahead of them over the doors, simultaneously adding color to the hall and sharply reminding Eli of the maddening sadness present behind each door. At least, that’s what he assumed was there. Since most of his interactions with the elderly were with his grandparents, Eli couldn’t grasp that someone could actually die with a smile on his face.
At the end of the third turn, two doors stood adjacent. The one on the right was Eli’s grandparents’ apartment. The one on the left was labeled with a familiar paper that bore the face of Maxwell J. Rosenbaum. Eli and Patrick stood in front of them.
Patrick put an elbow into Eli’s side. “Five minutes,” he pleaded, with hints of a demand.
“For the gerbil enthusiast? We don’t—we didn’t even know him.”
“Doesn’t matter. All old people love young people.”
“It’s like you’ve done this before.” Eli squinted at him.
Patrick tilted his head and bared his teeth, a handsome, impish grin—a smile that had long ago become an auspice of disquieting things. Now, it had the knee-jerk effect of making Eli nervous. “They’re neighbors,” Patrick said. “This is serendipity at its finest. Come on, let’s do it.”
Eli sighed through his nose. “Okay,” he said, resigned. Anything to postpone the wriggling discomfort waiting for him in the apartment on the right. He had put his faith in Patrick before, and while oftentimes the payoffs were slim, Eli had confidence that Patrick would take care of him.
Patrick knocked on Maxwell’s forehead and then opened the door.
Eli’s grandparents were survivors. Most survivors spent the war in concentration camps. Then they emerged into two groups: the seemingly lucky and the hopelessly cursed. Same people, different lenses. Some of them exhibited extraordinary resilience and perseverance, looking to all the world like they were powering through the sludge of their memories to raise families and provide for them, proving to the universe that they still had the capacity for life—and the apparent capacity to enjoy it. Others, however, buckled under the weight of what had been done to them, never truly regaining their humanity and living entirely in their nightmares.
The last time Eli saw his grandparents was for brunch at his parent’s house after Rosh Hashanah services. He had knocked a glass of orange juice into his grandmother’s lap, elbowing her in the face when his reflexes failed to catch the glass. Taut skin connected with soggy flesh. Eli saw himself douse his grandmother in orange, singeing acid, the liquid seeping into and festering nearly closed wounds. Re-opening the terrible past, sending her spiraling down into a hell of swirling memory and misery. He was devastated by what he thought he had done. He couldn’t even hand the poor woman a napkin.
Eli’s grandparents were among the cursed.
It’s not that Eli didn’t love or care about his grandparents. It’s just that he was profoundly afraid of them. The Holocaust was too big for him, too abstract. He could never reconcile the ubiquitous images of the shirtless, angular, rib-caged people in photographs with the present visage of the two somewhat ordinary elderly folks who sat and stared at him when he came to visit with his parents. How they could be the same people, he didn’t understand. Because if it were true—which, in fact, it was—then they were far too fragile, too delicate, and too wounded to be around him. He felt clunky and disoriented in their presence, embarrassingly insecure in his body. He could crush them with a breath if he didn’t pay attention to his exhales. Even on the phone, he imagined he could shock them through the wires, end their lives with a single syllable. Something about his vague ability to enjoy life at deliberately occasional intervals—he forever felt that constant enjoyment of life was not a privilege to which he was entitled—made him feel like his world was perilously incongruent with his grandparents’. He couldn’t stomach the idea of causing them anymore harm. So he never called.
The first thing Eli noticed was the smell: a bouquet of pet store with shades of preservative agents smacked him in the nose within an instant of the door opening. Then he spotted the source: innumerable lipstick-pink bags of Supreme Premium Gerbil Food piled from floor to waist in every corner and against every wall of the living room. They formed trenches, lining the walls and coursing under tables, upon which elaborate systems of gerbil-sized tubing wobbled. The orange plastic veins joined others of their kind at centralized hubs—fifty-gallon aquariums replete with exercise wheels, sand pits, plastic castles, imitation shorelines pressed against imitation oceans, and miniature Adirondack chairs that faced hand-painted sunsets. Elsewhere, a black-and-white simulacrum of New York City was re-created in a tube featuring hanging traffic lights and manhole covers. Another tank on the opposite wall appeared to be the home of an Amazon tribe. And caked on everything: a thin crust of gerbil shit.
“Guess we’re alone,” Patrick said. “Kind of.” Highways of pattering gerbils occupied most of the space and sound waves. An impressive society always on the move. The activity of it all struck Eli as disturbingly efficient.
As the two of them took in the scene, Eli felt himself slink back into his head. “This is exactly like my grandparent’s place.”
Patrick had bent down to examine the rainforest tank from ground level. He was slack-jawed and his eyes were wide. “You didn’t tell me they were into the gerbil scene too,” he said. He looked up at Eli and pantomimed surprise, a silent, Munchian scream.
Eli knelt beside him. “It’s not that,” he said. “It’s the same sadness. The same desperation. It’s like putty, covering everything when you walk in and you can just feel it all over.”
“Huh.” Patrick bit his lip. “What do you mean?”
A gerbil brushed past Eli’s shoe. An escapee, no doubt. Eli scanned the floor and noticed the dark-coated thing dashing around table legs, occasionally disappearing into the black tiles of the floor’s checkerboard design. “It’s not obvious? Maxwell must have been so desperate for company or whatever to do something like this. To be into something so out there. You don’t just do this if you’re happy. If you’re happy you, I don’t know, join the mahjong club or something—you don’t do this.” He gestured, his hands like a game-show host’s. “Do you know what I mean?”
“I guess. So then what are yours into?”
“Mine? Well, nothing like this. No. But I mean they framed our childhood jackets, you know, our little outfits from when my dad bought each of us one of those kid-sized motorcycles, the kind with four wheels that only went two miles an hour. They bronzed our shoes. They’re everywhere in there, on every shelf. It’s so bizarre. Like a shrine.”
Patrick pursed his lips. “That’s called being old, Eli. Or it’s called being lonely. Maybe it’s a little desperate, but it’s not crazy. This is crazy.”
Eli stood up and put his hands in his pockets. “They think it’s because I’m busy that I don’t call. Like I don’t have ten minutes to spare every three months.”
Patrick looked up at him and shrugged.
A sound behind them made them jump. Down the hallway a large woman appeared with a comb-over the color of a traffic cone. Her head was halfway to bare and Eli could tell it had been dyed recently—even some of the hair too. Eli guessed that she was at least as old as his grandparents if not older. The woman strolled toward them pushing a baby carriage, an impressionist smile on her face, her red lipstick struggling to define the lines of her lips. “Oh, hello boys!” she called out at them, in a shrill, grating voice.
She entered the living room, navigating around a bag of Supreme Premium that had spilled out into the hallway. A petite, nearly hairless kitten in a cheetah-colored collar blinked up at them from the stroller. It licked its paw. “This is Bernie, and I’m Edith, but you can say ‘Edie.’ It is so very nice of you to come. Maxwell would be overjoyed to know that such handsome young men had come to remember him.” She bent over the carriage and patted the kitten’s head. “Wouldn’t he, just wouldn’t he?” she cooed.
Eli glanced at Patrick, who appeared stunned, as if watching a video of his own death. He prayed Patrick would compose himself and speak up, anxious to avoid the role of spokesman. Finally, Patrick extended a hand.
“Thank you so much, Edie. We are so terribly sorry about Maxwell.” Like most things Patrick said, Eli couldn’t tell if he was being sincere or irreverent. “We are so very sorry for your loss,” he added, teetering on mawkish.
“Oh yes,” Edie said. “We do miss him dearly.” She cupped Bernie’s head. “Isn’t that right, Bernie? We do, yes we do.”
“That’s a great name for a cat,” Patrick said.
“We named him after our Bernie. Well, no, not named him after really. Named properly,” she said, hanging on the last word like a teacher repeating a student’s answer, but stressing the correction. “He’s come back to us. We lost him, but now he is back and we’re all just so pleased.”
“I remember my cat running away when I was little. I was so—“
“Oh, he didn’t run away. Well, they all did, the children, the young children. Everyone lost their children. We knew a couple who found each other after everything, and even their little girl.” Edie paused and her eyes shrank a little. “But nearly everyone lost theirs and that’s just how it was but Bernie came back and he’s here now and that’s what matters. Isn’t it?” Patrick and Eli nodded, but the question was addressed to the kitten. Bernie pressed its small face into the cushion and purred. “Come, let’s all be comfortable.”
Eli and Patrick followed Edie down the hallway, their eyes on the pictures lining the walls. Mostly, they were of children, grandchildren, great grandchildren—pockets of families here and there, group photos arranged in backyards and living rooms. The kind of places Eli grew up in. Near the end of the hallway, there was a small collection of faded, black-and-white photos, older and smaller on worn, serrated paper that had yellowed into sepia. These featured a couple looking tired but stoic: the man, young and clean-cut in the way that all men were in the 1950s, wearing the kind of broad-shouldered, double-breasted jacket that became so popular after the war; and the woman, dressed in a plaid pencil skirt, a loose sweater, and a tilted feather cap. Eli had no sense that there was color dormant behind the photograph’s monochrome. The oldest pictures showed the couple with a little boy, no older than four. Black pen had marked “1940” in the corner. A gilded caption on the frame read, “With Bernie.”
These same types of photos were hanging next door, always signifying to Eli a kind of pre-survivor that he couldn’t conceptualize—that his grandparents might have worn feather caps and tweed sport coats and maybe even gone to the beach on the weekends was inconceivable. He had memorized pictures like these, thumbing their frames, curious about the familiar strangers. Eli could not imagine that anything had ever happened before the war. People coming and going, dressing according to the fashion of the era, working, living, doing. Now, he would go over to their apartment, the one next door, and see no evidence of any of that. They had moved into the place twenty years ago, after his grandfather sold the tailor shop. Eli would sit on the scratchy couch from the 1970s, and they would serve him stale kosher for Passover sugar fruit slices in December. He would look across the living room at them while they stared back at him with tired eyes and weak smiles. Smiles so loving and earnest that he would feel himself sink into the couch, desperate to disappear behind the cushions.
At the end of the hallway, Edie turned into a second living room, a perfectly square room that had previously been the bedroom. It smelled much less like gerbils and offered plenty more space. In fact, the space made the room seem barren and institutional; a single couch sat against the far wall, and an outdated TV sat opposite. In between was a table holding with a single spiral-bound photo album.
Patrick trailed Edie and sat down on the couch, picking up the book. He began to flip through the pages. Eli watched the two of them and swayed, picking at the helpless cuticle on his thumb. “Where is everyone?” he asked, regretting immediately what he had just said.
Patrick looked up at him and made a face.
Edie didn’t seem to hear at first. She was bent over Bernie again, telling him how peachy he was, how splendid a kitty. Eli relaxed a bit, but then she said, “They’re coming to visit for the holiday. The kids send pictures.” She pointed at the photo album in Patrick’s hands.
“They’re beautiful,” Patrick said. “Your family.”
Eli shifted toward the couch, glancing over Patrick’s shoulder at the book. The pictures were labeled; they were all at least two years old. Patrick closed the book and put it back on the table. He stood up and looked at Eli, whose face was exploring new gradations of pale. “I think we should—”
“I have to use the bathroom,” Eli said, interrupting him. He took a spastic step backward then jumped. There was a crunch beneath his foot, like he had stepped on a pillow case of potato chips. He took a deep breath and looked down. The broken body of the black gerbil was lying on the floor dead. He looked at Edie, who was busy speaking to Bernie, and then over at Patrick, who had seen everything. Eli knelt to the floor and scooped the small, dead rodent into his hands. He made a fist over it, and then turned and left the room.
Patrick excused himself and followed Eli, entering the bathroom behind him. The gerbil lay on Eli’s hand, deflated and motionless, quite cute, but quite dead, only tiny bones and fur. Eli looked at himself in the mirror; he had panic in his face, written in the crinkles of his forehead and breathing out of the space between his lips. “What should I do? What the hell should I do?” He asked Patrick’s reflection. Patrick was behind him, his hands on Eli’s shoulders, steadying him.
“Blame it on the cat,” he said.
“Blame it on the cat,” Patrick repeated, his tone implying this was the obvious answer.
“I can’t do that. Bernie would never—did you see her? She’d be devastated.”
“The woman. Edie.” Eli looked down at the gerbil. “I’ll have to bury it,” he said. “She can’t find out.”
“She won’t care.”
“And how do you know? You’re wrong. It would crush her.”
“Like you did to the gerbil?” He raised his eyebrows and smiled, angling his head toward the body. “Besides, how do you know?”
Eli did not return the smile. He glared at Patrick until the smirk melted off his face. “I don’t know,” he began. “But I do. It’s like this, this weight that wears on you every day after something big, enormous happens. Something awful. Like losing a child or all your family and your things. And everyday you feel it, and you try to hold on, but the older you get the more desperate you become and then all of a sudden you’re talking to the cat which you think is actually the reincarnation of your son.” Eli’s eyes trailed up toward the ceiling, as if he were watching the words he had spoken trail out of his mouth at astonishing speeds. His face was full of angst, but there was sweetness in the empathy in his eyes—angst and empathy of course being live-in cousins. He held the gerbil delicately, with a suggestion that even in death it deserved to be handled with care.
Patrick turned Eli around until he faced him. Then he kissed him. Briefly, but fully, for two seconds, his eyes closed while Eli’s were large and frozen. He pulled back and looked at Eli. “You need to relax,” he said.
Eli frowned at Patrick, a practiced look of familiar frustration. “I thought we agreed you weren’t going to do that anymore.”
Patrick released him and took a step backward. “Yes, well, desperate times and all that.” Hints of red swirled into his cheeks. “Maybe it’s time for us to go see the neighbors.”
Eli sighed. He looked down at the gerbil again, then back up at Patrick. Eli’s face was more condoling now, as if the kiss and the deceased gerbil in his palm were members of the same order of atrocity and that they required equal amounts of sympathy. They could hear Edie explaining something in great detail to Bernie through the door. Eli raised his lips, a mealy apple slice of a smile. “Pat,” he said. “I can’t return those anymore and you know that. I’m sorry.”
At that moment, Eli saw Patrick as child. He thought of him distraught and disappointed that his expectations were not fulfilled as easily as he imagined they would be. Eli felt the urge to press Patrick’s head to his chest, to explain that everything would be okay, to reason with him. This is what life is like sometimes, he’d say. You try to hold onto something that can’t be held onto. And you slip, maybe, sometimes irrevocably, into deep darks and long cracks. And then you buy miles worth of gerbil tubing.
“I know,” Patrick said. “My bad. Let’s get out of here.”
And sometimes you get over it and open a tailor shop and work your ass off.
There was a knock on the front door. Quiet in the bathroom, Eli and Patrick listened as Edie stirred, calling out to the knockers. “Are you ready?” Patrick whispered. “This is our shot.”
“I don’t know. I don’t think I can do this again. Not after this. It’s too much in one day. Let’s just go home. Really, I’ll come back. I promise.”
“Quit pleading, you sound like you’re bargaining for your life. We’re doing this now. You won’t come back and you know it. We’re so close.”
Once Edie was clear of the door, Eli and Patrick slipped out of the bathroom and followed her into the living room, sidestepping the felled bag of Supreme Premium.
All at once a gaggle of hunched women and cane-wielding men filled the cramped room, brandishing fruitcakes, kugels and flowers. There was crying, laughing, hugging, consoling. Foot-long streamers of wallet-sized photos flew in the air like kites of kaleidoscopic colors; fingers were poking everywhere, pointing out bar mitzvah headshots and vacation gems.
The two escaped through the crowd and closed the door behind them.
“Good God,” Eli breathed.
“Yeah.” Patrick nodded his head toward the gerbil bulge in Eli’s pocket. “We should take care of that.”
“Let’s just take care of this first and get it over with,” Eli said. He took a few steps over to the adjacent door. He looked to his left at Patrick, who seemed fine, if not a little shaken. Eli was tired. But then again, this was his world. He hated it, but at least he had experience in it—even if said experience didn’t make him any better prepared for subsequent visits. He could tolerate the pain, the guilt; he hadn’t collapsed from the weight of it all yet. He could take more, and he knew it, which was partially why the two of them were there in the first place. He wasn’t sure if there was a God, but if there was, Eli wanted to make sure he didn’t piss Him off. It was time.
Eli knocked on the door.
After a minute, his grandmother answered.
“Eli? Abe, it’s Eli, come over and see! Eli you came to visit, how nice. Come in, please. And who is your friend?
Patrick stepped forward and extended a hand. “Patrick, ma’am. Very nice to meet you.”
“Esther, please. Nice to meet you too. Come in, come in. You both look wonderful.”
They followed Esther inside. Eli breathed in deeply and was surprised and comforted by the indistinctly generic smell that met his nose. The kind of smell that’s common in the homes of the elderly—a musk, but not offensive, like a questionable aftershave on an old friend. Eli knew the apartment well, but after coming from next door he had a fear that his grandparents might have adopted their own version of a gerbil metropolis. Some kind of nightmarish combination of hideous personal taste and errant Home Shopping Network purchases.
Eli’s grandfather rose from his reclining chair, a patchy, green and beige La-Z-Boy chair that they had owned since the 1970s. Rising was a labored process that involved one hand on the arm for support, and another on a cane for leverage. He made it halfway to standing before falling back into the chair again. “Give me a hand, would you?” He reached out to Eli.
“Definitely, Grandpa.” Eli grabbed his grandfather’s hand and elbow and helped him out of the chair.
“That’s a boy. You look good. You look good. I like what you’re doing with your hair. You look very handsome.”
Eli had to strain to hear what his grandfather said. It seemed like his capacity for volume had dropped with every annual visit; Eli assumed it had begun its decline into near-silence after the war. “Thanks, Grandpa. You look good too.”
“Are you hungry?” he asked. “Do you and your friend want anything to eat? We have leftovers. There’s challah you can eat. Dr. Brown’s in the fridge. Do you want anything? It’s no problem, please.”
Eli suspected the food to be long expired. Even if it was fresh, he couldn’t eat in front of them. Not if they weren’t eating too. And they weren’t. At all. His grandmother was so thin she seemed emaciated, as if a vacuum had been fed through her throat and switched on. His grandfather was significantly overweight, but Eli’s mother had said on the phone two weeks before that he had stopped eating. His parents were trying to get them to at least drink those revolting nutritional supplements that Eli imagined would make someone feel all the closer to death even if it was simultaneously keeping them alive. It wasn’t working out.
“No thanks, Grandpa. We can’t stay for long. Patrick—my friend here—has to catch a train in an hour, so we should really leave in forty-five minutes. Actually, probably thirty minutes just to be safe. I just figured we’d drop just to see how you guys were doing and everything. Sorry we can’t stay long.”
“That’s okay, darling,” Esther said. “Come, sit down. We were just watching the television.”
“It’s nice to have just five minutes,” Abe added. “We just heard from your mother a few hours ago. She sounded good. It’s good to hear from family.”
Eli’s face mimicked a smile. He took Patrick’s arm and went over to the sofa, and the two of them sat close to each other. Eli felt the urge to use Patrick as a kind of human shield, but he knew his grandparents would pay no attention to him. He also knew that there was a world of immediate difference between Edie next door and his grandparents, and that Patrick, he figured, was probably at a complete loss as to how to act and would therefore be unhelpful and quiet. Edie, for all her oddities, at least seemed to operate by some of the same standards as the rest of the world. Not his grandparents, though. They moved at a very different and very peculiar speed. Eli began to feel heat rise up in his body and flush through his cheeks. He was getting more distraught by the moment. He took a glimpse at the door. A new record.
All around them on the walls hung needlepoint portraits and landscapes of destinations found in waiting room travel magazines. Large, ornate frames that housed an art his grandmother was no longer capable of creating. Her hands had long since been stripped of the necessary dexterity and stillness needed to thread a needle. A lamp with a stained glass shade stood in the corner, giving the room a vaguely prismatic light, and under it stood a circular coffee table adorned with photographs of grandchildren. Eli noticed the photos were quite recent. He looked toward the kitchen and saw a familiar calendar tacked on the wall. A second cousin had made a number of them for family and friends, each month with a different photo of her children. It was the kind of gesture that makes sense for grandparents and no one else. For the kind of people who would leave an outdated calendar up on the wall just to look at the pictures.
Eli’s grandparents made their way over to the adjoining sofa and sat down. The television was on—an episode of some unfamiliar soap opera.
“Everything is great with me,” Eli bellowed, his voice loud, hectic, racing. “Work is going pretty well, which is great you know, because in this economy it’s been really hard for college graduates to find jobs and so many of my friends still can’t find them. Even Patrick couldn’t find anything for a few months, right Patrick? But I got lucky I guess, so that’s good, and I really like what I’m doing. And I feel good, my health has been good, I haven’t been sick in a while which is nice, but who knows now that it’s starting to get cold out. There’s always a chance that I could get sick, which I do every year around now, but oh well, what are you going to do? And I love where I live, it’s such a great place and there’s so much to do and I’ve been meeting friends and Patrick just moved back home which is cool and everything.” Eli took Patrick’s hand and held it on the side, between their legs where his grandparents couldn’t see. His forehead was glistening and sweat was gathering in his thick eyebrows. His body was tense and his heart rate accelerated. He felt a severe anxiety creep up, the same kind he felt after too much coffee and not enough sleep.
“Hey do you know Edie, Edith, she lives next door, well Maxwell died which you probably knew and Patrick and I went over there just to say sorry and they—she has gerbils everywhere and I accidently stepped on one and killed you and I felt terrible about it but you know everything is going pretty well, I can’t complain really, it’s so good to see you.”
Eli caught his breath, felt the tension in his body slacken, and sunk back into the sofa. He realized he had been holding Patrick’s hand and let go of it, then looked over at his friend, whose face was calm, if not a little concerned for his friend’s mental health. Eli turned back toward his grandparents. They were still nodding.
“Listen,” his grandfather said. “As long as you have your health. What more can you ask for? Thank God.”
“Kenahora,” his grandmother agreed.
Eli wasn’t sure they had heard a thing.
And then the smile.
They looked at him, their heads leaning a bit at the same angle, a curl of a smile on their pink lips. Their eyebrows mostly gone, their hair thin, white, and wispy. Eli looked back at them, mouth open, exhausted from his speech and unexpected confession. It was all here now in front of him: the onus of the past and the sadness of the present, taking the shape of two loving, nearly nonexistent people who were in the process of getting their fix. That’s how Eli finally saw it. He was a drug to them, a narcotic—something they could get lost in. Staring at him was a right, in fact, that they had earned. It separated them from the gerbil in his pocket, growing stiffer by the minute—separated them from skinless bones in a mass grave. His grandparents weren’t survivors for nothing; they made his mother and they made him. They were entitled to look, just look. He could sit there and suck it up and let them stare at him for twenty minutes if it made them happy. And at least for those minutes, maybe it did.
Even the cursed are entitled to their moments. Eli smiled back.
In the elevator, Eli removed the flyer for Maxwell J. Rosenbaum’s shiva. He wrapped the gerbil in the paper, folding it neatly four times over the fury body, twisting the corners to make sure it wouldn’t come undone. Patrick helped him with the paper, holding the base while Eli sealed the makeshift coffin.
Outside, around the back of the building, Eli bent to one knee and dug into the hard earth with his hands. The soil clotted under his fingernails and stained them black, ruining his cuticles and scratching his fingers. It was painful and it frustrated him, making so little progress with such enormous effort. Finally, he scooped out a gerbil-sized hole in the grass and buried it. Eli rose and looked up at the building, a brick monolith with corroded scales of fire escapes snaking up its sides. He was glad he and Patrick had taken the time for a proper burial. The gerbil deserved it.