Plagued

 

Plagued

By Maureen Sherbondy

 

My youngest son, Joseph, became obsessed with the plagues shortly after his tenth Passover Seder. He was at the age where he could lead the entire service, should we need someone to do so. But as usual, my oldest son, Zeke, ran the show as he had done so since my husband Henry disappeared.
 
Joseph, of course, sang “The Four Questions,” and we all took turns reading the different sections. In the five years since Henry vanished, the Seders had grown shorter and shorter; in fact, the recent one lasted a record of forty-three minutes. We were all tired and there seemed too much to do. Zeke ran off to call his girlfriend, and Joseph helped me in the kitchen cleaning the good china.
 
“Whenever we open the door for the prophet Elijah, you look disappointed,” I said to him.
 
He set the stack of clean dishes in the cabinet, paused, then said, “I think Dad will come back when we open the door. But that doesn’t happen.”
 
I rubbed his soft black hair and gently kissed his nose. He looked like Henry did when we first met at Edison Middle School. Except Henry didn’t have freckles. Joseph’s light brown spray resembled a question mark. “I’m sorry,” I said.
 
After five years of therapy, the subject came up from time to time: the missing father. No one knew what had happened to him. One night Henry ran out to pick up a bottle of red wine to go with supper.  He didn’t come back. We were hosting a dinner party for two other couples that Saturday in March. I figured he’d hit traffic, so we started without him through appetizers, the main course of roast chicken, mashed potatoes, and carrots. All the while, I checked my phone and my watch and every passing headlight visible from the dining room. When Henry hadn’t returned by dessert, panic rose in my throat.
 
“He’ll show up soon,” said Rachel Goldstein, hugging me at the door. Her husband David nodded.
 
“Call us tomorrow, Mimi,” added Bruce and Helen Baumlin.
 
But Henry never showed up. Hospitals were called, police reports taken. Nothing. His silver Accord had vanished, too.
 
“I still miss him,” said Joseph, startling me back into the present: two sons to raise, one salary to make ends meet.
 
“Of course you do,” I said.
 
He wiped matzoh crumbs from the table, then said, “I had a dream. Just like that other Joseph. But there was no dreamcoat. There were plagues.”
 
“Interesting,” I said, trying to use my calm voice, the one I’d adopted since Henry vanished.
 
“And the odd thing is that now there are frogs everywhere. I heard them last night, the noise they make. They’re in the yard. I squashed two on my bike ride this morning.”
 
“Maybe it’s just frog season,” I said. This was Henry’s specialty. I knew how to code insurance claims, talk medical jargon, and calculate estimates. Henry, a zoology major in college and a veterinarian by profession, knew about living creatures. Remnants of his profession still surrounded us: veterinary medicine textbooks, photos of various dogs from customers, a brass sculpture of a basset hound that once sat on his bookshelf at work.
 
“I don’t think so,” Joseph said. “I think that happens in summer. Anyway, all these frogs go with the dream. Two days ago, puddles in the street looked red. Like blood.”
 
I shrugged. “Muddy puddles can look red. Maybe the water was reflecting the neighbor’s red Jeep.”
 
“Or maybe the first plague,” Joseph said.
 
Odd kid, that Joseph. Zeke was more like me with his wavy auburn hair and green eyes. He was also interested in art and legal thrillers.
 
But maybe Joseph had a point. I recalled the reddish water pouring from the faucet when I’d bathed earlier. Rusty pipes, I decided.
 
“Am I done?” Joseph asked. I nodded, then tried to hug him. He squirreled away from my grasp, something he’d begun doing when he turned ten.
 
“Yes, thanks.”
 
Joseph opened the door to go outside. Two screw holes remained in the doorframe, staring at me like empty eyes. This is where a mezuzah once hung.
 
I turned on the porch light and watched through the bay window. Fist-sized creatures jumped from the grass. Joseph caught a few, sat on the front yard bench, and held the frogs close to his face. Was he speaking to them?
 
I hung up the apron, then checked my phone. A man named Moishe from JDate had sent a text wishing me happy Passover. Chag sameach, I wrote back. Forced to sign up on Jdate by my sister Leah, I had yet to actually meet one man for coffee or drinks. What was the point? No one could fill Henry’s big shoes. Other friends who had become single after ugly divorces had shared their sad stories from the world of dating in mid-life. Drunks, cheaters, unemployed liars. Of the three divorced women I knew, none had found Mr. Right, or even Mr. So-so. I was getting lonely, though.
 
When Jacob returned with tales of the frog invasion, I nodded, yawned, and went to bed. The kid had an active imagination.
 
 
Joseph became obsessed with the plagues, searching the Internet for details about what would come next. When I scratched my scalp one morning, he eyed me hopefully and mouthed, “Lice.”
 
“No, Joseph, just an itchy scalp. Not lice,” I answered.
 
“There was hail yesterday, you know,” he announced, grabbing his backpack.
 
“That happens sometimes with spring storms,” I said, then shook my head.
 
After work at Northside Insurance, I decided to agree, finally, to a date with Moishe. The kids were busy with classes and clubs, and I needed to get a life. Even though I’d heard the scary and funny dating stories from friends, at the very least I’d be entertained.
 
Moishe turned out to be average-looking and bald, but smart and funny, so after a meet-up for a cup of coffee in a well-lit café, we agreed to go on a second date the following day.
 
I put on a ten-year-old green dress that I hadn’t worn since a nephew’s bris. Joseph stared accusingly from the kitchen table. “Where are you going?”
 
I felt a twinge of guilt in my chest, as if Henry hovered in the room with us. The brass basset hound glared at me. Brushing Joseph’s thick, uncombed hair with my hand, I said, “Out. Dinner with someone.”
 
“Someone who?” he asked.
 
The room felt cold. Rubbing my arms to warm the chill, I paced between the wall mirror and the refrigerator. The sound of the clock grew louder. This modern, blue clock—a gift Henry had given me for my thirty-seventh birthday. As if he knew time was running out. 
 
“How can you leave when Zeke has a fever?” Joseph crossed his long arms.
 
“Zeke said he’s fine. I gave him Tylenol. He’ll call if he feels worse,” I said, mothers’ guilt spreading to my fingertips. I slipped off my black heels, checked my phone. Perhaps I should call it off. This was the same phone I’d checked over and over the night Henry didn’t call. His number remained in my contact list. I didn’t have the heart to erase it.
 
“What if they come for Zeke while you’re out? They could take your firstborn. The mezuzah is gone. You never put it back up.”
 
The night Henry had vanished, a screw came loose and the jade mezuzah had fallen from the doorway when the Baumlins left. That night, I’d set it aside in a drawer and never hung it back up. Every time I stared at the two holes in the doorway, sadness gripped me.
“This plague thing is ridiculous!” I raised my voice, something I hadn’t done in five years. “You saw some frogs, that’s it! No flies, livestock pestilence, boils, locusts, or darkness. You just saw some damn frogs!” 
 
Joseph started crying. I reached out to hold him, but he slapped my hand away. “Don’t. Just don’t. There are plagues. My dad is gone! Taken from us! Don’t you care? How can you go out with someone else? How could you?” Hiding his face with his elbow, Joseph sobbed like he’d done as a three-year-old when his dad had left for work one morning without saying good-bye.
 
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I can’t get your dad back. I’ll put up the mezuzah.”
 
Searching every drawer in the kitchen, I finally found the green metal object. Digging through another drawer, I discovered a screwdriver and some screws. When I opened the door, Moishe greeted me with a big smile and a bouquet.
 
“You look lovely,” he said, handing me the flowers.
 
“Thanks,” I said, shifting the mezuzah to the other hand with the screwdriver. The screws fell onto the front porch. Moishe bent down, retrieved the screws. Seeing the holes in the doorway, he said, “Here, let me.”
 
As I set the yellow and purple flowers in a vase, Joseph wiped away his tears, got up, and watched Moishe attach the mezuzah back in its home. Joseph silently mouthed the prayer.
 
Moishe handed the screwdriver to Joseph and shook his free hand. “Nice to meet you, young man.”
 
Hesitantly, Joseph reached out his hand and said, “Joseph.”
 
Upstairs, I checked Zeke’s fever, which had subsided. When I returned to the kitchen, Joseph and Moishe were discussing how unusually dark it had been lately and how early the flies seemed to have invaded.
 
Joseph managed a grin, then left the room.
 
On the way out, I stopped to kiss my finger, then gently touched it to the green mezuzah that now hung perfectly on the doorpost. I imagined the mezuzah protecting my sons from any plague that might come our way.
 
Copyright © Maureen Sherbondy 2021

Maureen Sherbondy’s most recent poetry book is Dancing with Dali. Her first YA novel, Lucky Brilliant, was published in March, 2020. Her work has appeared in European Judaism, Litro, The Stone Canoe, and many other journals. She teaches English at Alamance Community College in North Carolina. Maureen lives in Durham, North Carolina. Website: www.maureensherbondy.com


 

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