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16 February 2006

Seder ("Order")

[Sorry about paragraph-spacing issues. Did the best I could; don't assume anything is meant by paragraph breaks.]


(Unpublished work © 1998 Douglas P. Tarnopol)

Seder (“Order”)

To the Reader:

Let the Reader be forewarned that what follows is a mere Satire, and, as such, the Reader has to expect a certain amount of Stereotyping and Caricature.

In the hypersensitive Atmosphere of contemporary America—in which the Perception of the slightest spoken or written Affront to any Race, Ethnic Group, Nationality, Creed, Belief System, Life Style, Gender, Sex, Intersex, Age Group, Differently-Abled Non-Victim, Sexual Orientation, Class, or any other similarly arbitrary division of Humanity, is, regardless of Context, greeted with universal Excoriation by those whom, however tightly they may cling privately to the most despicable Hatreds, pine publicly for Civility in order to prevent the very Downtrodden (whom they so diligently defend from Insult while doing nothing to improve their actual Conditions of Existence) from rising up and depriving them of their fancy Homes & Four-By-Fours—in such an Atmosphere it behooves an Author to disabuse his Reader of any potentially distasteful or unpleasant Notions about the Work he-she-one-s/he-they (let us not forget Conjoined Twins) has in front of him-her-one-s/hem(?)-them, lest the Reader swoon from the horrendous Trauma of reading printed Matter whose main Object is not to be Nice, but to seek imperfectly after a kind of literary Truth, which, not being Quantifiable, as in the Sciences; or Certain, as in the countless Religions and Pseudoreligions of our great, enlightened Nation; but nevertheless unabashedly Judgmental, and thus unacceptable to the Postmodernist Movement in the Humanities, has been epistemologically downgraded by each Subculture to: Bullshit, Moral Relativism, and Moral Absolutism, respectively.

To wit, it has been claimed that the present Story is Anti-Semitic, a Serious Charge that demands a Serious Answer.

The Author acknowledges that he has limited his Satire to upper-middle-class Jews living in the northeastern United States, and he assures the Reader that, after much Thought & Soul-Searching, he has attributed this to Accidents of Birth on the part of himself and his Wife. The Author regrets that, due to these Accidents, his Experience has been limited in this Manner, because it has not only circumscribed the present Work, but has also required him to spend far more Time than he would have preferred in the Presence of the two Families satirized herein.

Therefore, let the Reader stave off whatever dangerous Palpations this Story may engender by resting assured that the Author believes in the Depths of his Heart & Soul that, based on what little he knows about History & Human Nature, had he been raised in a different Time or Place, or in a different Socioeconomic Stratum or Ethnic Group with a different Set of Cultural Beliefs and Practices, he would have found equally ample Evidence of the same Detestable Selfishness, Uncontrollable Cruelty, Childish Lack of Self-Knowledge, Fearsome Lack of Self-Love, Tragic Miscommunication, Conflicted Views on Sexuality, Perverted Love of Misery, and so forth, that the Reader will find here attributed to American Jews—albeit these Behaviors would have shone through the differently shaped and colored Lenses of that Time, Place, Socioeconomic Stratum, or Ethnic Group, with its associated Set of Cultural Beliefs and Practices.

Thus, the Reader, now properly prepared, can settle back into his-her-its-one’s-s/his (?)-their Chair, Bed, or other Place of Repose—or he-she-it-one-s/he-they can stand if that accords with his-her-its-one’s-s/his-their accepted Cultural Practice—and read on, safe in the Knowledge that the Author is free from all Prejudice, and that this Story is not meant to offend Anyone—certainly not You, Dear Reader, to whom this satirical Critique could not possibly apply.

Seder (“Order”)

Every seder, Phyllis offers the same menu. No deviation has been recorded in thirty years.

Perhaps she prepared a massive amount of seder-food in the late 1960s, hid it in the basement, and has been depleting it ever since. None of the meats, at least, would have spoiled. According to sacred tradition, Phyllis broils to the point of fossilization. Any enterprising bacillus alighting on, say, Phyllis’ brisket would find no organic purchase.

The food is arranged buffet style on the kitchen counter, aligned to within one degree-second of the usual configuration. The same dishes hold the same foods in the same order. First, the meats. Brisket fit only for making a saddle glistens in a pool of melted fat next to a silver tray of roasted chicken drier than a lunar sea. Next to the chicken, of course, is a matching tureen filled with liquefied chicken fat. (See Comment One)

After the meats come the sweet courses—which is to say, everything else, save the steamed broccoli which is tucked away at the back of the counter, a nod towards newfangled ideas, such as “fiber,” “roughage,” “health,” and “living past thirty five with an intact and functional heart.”

Sweet is perhaps an understatement. One needs at least six pancreases to survive a normal portion of Phyllis’ sweet potatoes. Her kugel is a miracle of chemistry, a sticky orgy of fat and sugar molecules twisting around each other in a heretofore unforeseen variety of compromising positions. Even her salad dressing is shockingly cloying, like the liquid version of a vinegar-based candy popular only in
Holland.

Phyllis has a bit of a sweet tooth. She clamps her jaws down tightly against all the pleasures of life. But desire swells and cannot be forever denied, so pleasure rushes in through that one breach. Consequently, Phyllis has a bit of a weight problem, but only to the extent that you age more slowly in her vicinity.

Matzo-ball soup burps thickly in a cauldron on the stove. A scum of fat is congealing on the surface. This process is periodically interrupted by a bubble from the depths, which, fighting the increasing surface tension, expands and bursts in slow motion, the ripples jostling the waxy carrots and matzo balls trapped like sea birds in an oil slick.

This is what
Paul sees as he walks through the kitchen door. Family members—a category to which he had been grudgingly but unavoidably assigned since marrying Phyllis’ daughter Rachel—enter the household through the kitchen, which is Phyllis’ exclusive domain.

Phyllis is bouncing around the kitchen like a pinball, fretting, marking her maternal territory with her conspicuous anxiety.

She waddles toward
Paul and Rachel like a bloated praying mantis, wrists limp, hands fluttering, as though their arrival is almost too much to bear. She is so happy to see…well, at least Rachel, so worried that they were late (even though they had arrived exactly when they said they would), so concerned that they had taken a bus from Philadelphia to Lower Merion (I mean, on a bus…with those people), so afraid to say the wrong thing to her daughter, who has become increasingly bewildering to her, and so ill at ease around her daughter’s husband, whom she holds solely responsible for her daughter’s transformation.

“Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!” Phyllis whines, getting several syllables out of the two-letter word, each inflection heavy with the burden of her love and motherly responsibility.

She leans forward and kisses her daughter, emitting little moans and hums, clutching Rachel to her bosom as if she had just pulled her out of a burning building.

“I’m so glad you came.”

She turns to
Paul.

“Hiiiiiiii.” Not so many syllables for
Paul. She used to hug him, but they keep their distance now.

“How are you, Phyllis?”

“Oh!”

She grimaces and backs away from
Paul in terror, waving her hands to show him how utterly unimportant she is. Nothing makes Phyllis more uncomfortable than talking about herself in public. She makes herself invisible at social gatherings, a silent preparer of foodstuffs. Speaking out is not Phyllis’ style; if she expresses herself at all, she does so indirectly. She has been trained to defer publicly and attack privately.

The poodles have been bouncing between
Paul and Rachel since they entered. Phyllis has always had male standard poodles. Upon death, the defunct poodle was instantly replaced, creating the illusion of decades of unbroken poodledom.

The poodles get their daily treat after dinner. Phyllis goes to the pantry, dogs in tow, and pulls out two “chewies.” Phyllis waits for them to bark,
dangling the treat above their heads—and God help them if they try to jump up and grab it. They whimper and whine and shift uncomfortably, as if they were trying to figure out a way to get their treat while keeping their dignity. But Phyllis is stubborn: if the dogs don’t perform on command, they don’t get the treat.

Phyllis has a metal can filled with screws and nails. To discipline the dogs, she’ll hide the can behind her back, come close to the offending poodle, and like lightening her hand will flash out shaking the can mightily. To the terrified dog, it must sound as if a canine version of Pandora’s box has burst open. For years, Phyllis has been talking about writing a book on how aspiring mothers can learn to raise children by first raising poodles. This is her dream.

One of the poodles jams his snout into Rachel’s crotch. Phyllis is mortified.

“Oh, Mikey, stop it! Bad, bad! Be good like Teddy.”

Teddy is carrying a stuffed toy hedgehog in his mouth, looking for a playmate.

Phyllis is bright red, completely flustered, hands flapping like hummingbird wings.

“I’m so sorry. He doesn’t mean it lasciviously. Oh!”

Phyllis’ face is contorted as if from extreme pain; she can’t look her daughter in the eye.

“He doesn’t mean it,” she says, begging
Paul and Rachel to believe that no poodle of hers could ever, ever think that…would ever want to….

“That’s not lascivious?”
Paul asks, smiling. He tells himself he’s merely amused that Phyllis is so intent on defending the chastity of creatures who spend the bulk of their waking hours fellating themselves on the couch.

He glances at Rachel; she laughs.

Phyllis looks up at
Paul, her eyes as disdainful as his, but an avalanche of saccharine buries it in a strobe-flash.

“Nooooooooooooo,” she whines, “he’s a good doggy.” And she resumes her zigzag trajectory around the kitchen.

Paul pushes Mikey’s snout away and whispers in Rachel’s ear, “That’s my job.”

She smiles and kisses him on the cheek. Public display of affection between nonconsanguinous members of the opposite sex is taboo in the Steen household.

“I remember,” Rachel had told
Paul years ago, “when I was in high school, a friend of mine told me that her parents were best friends. That seemed completely alien to me, that a person’s parents should be friends, let alone best friends.”

Phyllis has always viewed men as another commodity to be acquired. A smart woman made her choice based on a calculation combining earning potential with a quasi-eugenic assessment of the prospective mate’s capacity to beget upright, intelligent, well-behaved, God-fearing, Mosaic-law-abiding members of a close-knit Jewish community located in an upscale, white suburb somewhere on the Main Line (although Appleton, Wisconsin, Phyllis’ home town, would do) comprised of large, antiseptic houses (with Judaica-filled living rooms no one ever enters unless company is over) and a Conservative synagogue—no doubt a drab, functionalist building coated with hideously ostentatious perversions of Chagall, inside of which, in honor of the great Jewish tradition of anonymous giving, every possible fixture sports a donor’s name, e.g.:

· “This light switch made possible through the generosity of Leon and Mitzy Schlumpkowitz;”

· “This air conditioning vent was donated by the loving children of Abe and Sadie Cohen on the occasion of their fortieth wedding anniversary;”

· “This toilet seat commemorates the bar mitzvah of Aaron Blitzstein, given by his loving parents, Ruth and Morrie Blitzstein;”

—a synagogue in which Phyllis’ pious offspring could observe the Sabbath and keep it holy by dressing expensively, forming business contacts, and gossiping incessantly, a synagogue in which they could pray earnestly to God to keep the shvartze out of the Main Line, to watch over the stock market, and, above all, to protect Israel from being overrun by the swarthy, unshaven, turbaned, scimitar-brandishing, mounted Arabian horde with nothing but the ravishing of pure Jewish matriarchs on their filthy little desert minds.

Phyllis had made two such calculations in her life. The first resultant was Stanley, another Jewish Wisconsinite, who had struggled against the vortex of his family’s expectations until the irresistible tide had ripped him from painting and art history, sucking him into that singularity of twentieth-century American Jewish aspiration where it seemed possible that knowledge and effort would dissolve ethnicity, where the clawing covetousness of the immigrant outsider could be cloaked in the priestly white befitting a people oppressed by moral terror—

That modern-day Levite caste!

That secular Rabbinate!

That heavenly portal through which the Chosen People may partake of the Fruit of the American Vine!

O, Allopathic Medicine, most Divine of Callings, lead us to the Promised Land

Where the Milk of Martyrdom is sweetened with the Honey of Money!


Stanley had always felt unaccountably unfulfilled as a physician, and had once suspended his usual disdain for his eldest, artist daughter to tearfully bemoan his abandonment of painting to her.

The way Phyllis tells it, one day, after three daughters and a dozen or so connubial years, Stanley had announced out of the blue that he didn’t love her anymore. She threw him out, got a divorce, and made her second calculation within a year.

Saul, resultant number two, himself divorced, was selected because he was a pediatrician, which Phyllis felt would ensure both financial solvency and loving parenting. Thus, Saul moved in with his two sons, Isaac (who by his teen years had adopted the more rakish sounding Ike) and David.

The children were all within six years of each other. The birth order—supremely important not just in poodle but also in human litters in determining the precise contours of personality, from whether a child will be rebellious or obedient; to whether it will show more mathematical than poetic ability; to whether it, in its thirty-second year on a cool, moderately humid spring evening in a temperate climate four hundred feet above sea level under a gibbous moon with Jupiter in the second house, will order a kosher entrée or will choose scampi, thereby defiling itself and disgracing its parents and their parents’ parents and their parents’ parents’ parents back to Abraham and Sarah including of course all the many martyrs and victims of 6,000 years of sustained persecution by all parties especially The Six Million who were not incinerated just for being Jews so you could eat shrimp and renounce your faith you ungrateful spiteful evil monstrous nazi CRIMINAL!—was as follows:

Saul’s kids: Ike, David

Stanley’s kids: Leah, Rachel, Sarah.

If these birth orders are superimposed—which of course they must be, since the children were so young (between six and twelve) when brought together by Saul and Phyllis’ marriage—one gets:

Leah, Ike, Rachel, David, Sarah.

When one considers all the crisscrossing forces of early- and late-borns, honorary early- and honorary late-borns, middle-borns, step-borns, step-early borns, honorary step-borns, honorary early-borns, step-late-borns, early-late-borns, late-early-borns, early-middle-step-late-early-middle-borns, etc., and the various combinations of rebelliousness and obedience associated with each category, one eventually reaches the inevitable conclusion that binary, reductionist thinking is a genetically determined trait of a certain subspecies of simple-minded intellectual which invariably engenders a Cambrian-scale adaptive radiation of special pleading when applied to any given real-world situation.

The problem with Saul was that, his medical specialty and reported sweetness during the much-abbreviated woo-pitching phase of his relationship with Phyllis notwithstanding, he was a tortured, miserable, self-loathing, perpetually-enraged powder keg of a man on a fuse most profitably measured in angstroms. Even though he sensed the forces seething within him and did his best to bottle them up by adhering to a Spartan routine of work, sleep, and prayer, he nonetheless terrorized his new family. At best, he treated Phyllis like an endearingly slow house pet; at worst, he would publicly humiliate her. He had been violent towards both sets of children, once lifting one of his sons off the ground by his hair, once smacking Sarah in the face while she was drinking milk because she had used the wrong glass. Saul seemed to enjoy himself only during Jewish holidays.

Stewing ever since Paul and Rachel had come into the kitchen, Saul’s tea kettle starts to keen. No one dares touch it. Saul likes the noise, which is not unlike a chainsaw cutting through steel. Saul drags himself into the kitchen, sagging under the weight of his demons. He does not acknowledge Paul or Rachel. Still holding a grudge, apparently.


Saul constantly radiates ill-humor, mistrust, disdain, and quite often outright hatred. He reserves the worst of himself for Stanley, whom Saul believes badly mistreated Phyllis. Not that Saul had ever voiced his disapproval to Stanley himself; like the rest of the family, he lacks the courage to communicate directly. For example, the “sex talk” Rachel and her sisters had to endure as pre-teens, at Saul’s insistence. He had convinced Phyllis of the need, no doubt couching his argument in progressive pediatrics. He forced Phyllis to do the talking.


She told her girls that they should not be ashamed of sex, that it was a natural, beautiful, wonderful, holy thing, a gift from God they could proudly enjoy—providing said sex was limited to the one white, upper-middle-class Jewish man they married, and bearing in mind that when I say “sex,” I mean conventional missionary position on the bed under the covers with the lights off—coitus only, of course, but: no doggie style, no female superior, no standing up, no other weird, unholy, exotic positions that I wouldn’t know about; no cunnilingus—I don’t care how good it feels, it’s filthy down there—no fellatio…oh, well, if he simply won’t leave you alone and you really want something from him, maybe, but certainly not to the point of swallowing for God’s sake…as soon as he gets close, pull his thing out and either catch it in your hand, leap into the bathroom, and scrub every last filthy wriggling microbe off your hallowed skin, or bend his thing up towards his stomach—that way he’ll make a mess on himself (serves him right), and, if you’re lucky, he’ll get himself right in the eye—no spraying of semen in wild abandon on back, butt, or upturned, open-mouthed face followed by deep tongue kissing either, you little hussy: I know how you think!; and no contact back there of any kind: no fingers inserted during sex, no oral contact—God forbid!—the germs…Oh, who would want to do such a thing?; no spanking, no oils; no mutual masturbation; no outfits; no role playing; and, above all, please, please grant your poor, helpless, selfless, suffering, saintly, martyred mother one request: don’t experiment when you get to college—you know what I mean—I have nothing against those people (they’re so athletic) and you know I believe that they should be free to do whatever they want as long as I never see any evidence of it, but if one of my daughters ever told me she was a…a… Lesbian, it would be the worst tragedy ever to befall your dear, poor mother whose entire life has been sacrificed for you, my darling, precious angel!

Now, where was I?

Oh, yes: no phone sex when you’re separated, no talking dirty when you’re together—I don’t ever want a daughter of mine to yell out to a man to fuck her harder, to pull her hair, so that he grabs her hips and pounds away really hard so the head jabs at her cervix, fingering her clit at the same time, timing it so she starts convulsing just as he shoots his scalding load deep in her hot cunt—no talking of any kind in fact, just hurry up and stick it in there if you must, Saul, and make it quick so I can go to sleep; I have a lot of ironing to do tomorrow morning.

Then Phyllis told her daughters about orgasms. Under Saul’s watchful eye, she said that she had never had an orgasm with Stanley, but that she had multiple orgasms with Saul. Apparently, there were certain circumstances under which Phyllis would drop her feigned innocence.


Saul’s kettle has been screaming for thirty seconds to no avail. Saul is waiting for a complaint, a look, any excuse to get the demons’ claws out of his flesh, if only for a moment.


Saul tries to pass off his rage as an admirably strict morality. Examples of this were like the dust of the earth. In high school, if Rachel lingered in bed after her alarm went off, he would burst into her room and rip the covers off of her. This was to teach her promptness. He had business cards printed up which read, “Your smoking is offensive to me,” which he always kept on his person and distributed with silent contempt in public places. He practiced medicine in a tough neighborhood in
Philadelphia, treating many poor, black families, but he was virulently racist, once claiming that his clientele was innately incapable of learning Standard English: when returning phone calls, Saul was known to announce scornfully “This be the doctor” to his patients. He expected to be praised for giving proper medical care to people who didn’t deserve it. In his own eyes, he was noblesse (or at least more noblesse than his patients) and thus he must oblige; the more undeserving they were, the greater Saul’s nobility. Such was his sense of duty.

Saul covered a bulletin board in the kitchen with the business cards of the two dozen or so liberal groups to which he made donations. All could look upon it and know that, verily, Saul was a good boy. He was staunchly Democratic, but of the more free-market-, law-and-order-worshipping, violently-anti-affirmative-action wing. In other words, he hadn’t quite talked himself into following the rest of his people into the Republican party. Whether this was due to principle, or to the fact that his stubborn loyalty to the traditional political home of American Jewry in general (and of his supposedly impoverished Chicagoan family in particular) was in itself merely a measure of his unthinking piety was anybody’s guess. Until very recently, his loyalty to the United States of America had been such that he had refused to travel abroad—Israel excepted, of course.

Saul finally takes his kettle off the burner and pours himself some water. He drops his tea bag into his mug, and, without making eye contact with anyone, slouches out of the room.

Phyllis is obviously distressed. She had begged Saul to behave before Paul and Rachel came by, and Saul had agreed, but he was obviously taking a typically strict interpretation of his promise, saying nothing negative by saying nothing at all—feeling both clever and self-righteous about it, no doubt.


Interestingly, despite the damage Saul had inflicted on her daughters, Phyllis, the self-advertised epitome of matronage, had never thrown Saul out—though she did throw him down a flight of stairs on one occasion. Phyllis had already been divorced once—what would people think if she was shown to have made a second mistake? And, after all, Saul made money.


Nothing was more important than money because money bought status, or, as the American-Jewish version of that clinically sociological term goes, “Standing in One’s Community”—the very thing Phyllis feared she would lose if she got a second divorce. Money and the ability to earn it were direct reflections of one’s moral worth. Being raised by immigrant parents in
Wisconsin in the 1950s, Phyllis had absorbed equal parts of nineteenth-century Eastern European post-serf urban Judaism, Nordic Protestantism, and post-war American consumer capitalism. Somehow, the interaction left Phyllis with the worst personality traits each subculture had to offer. She might have ended up sporting an earthy, Jewish warmth and vigorous sense of humor, supported by a Scandinavian liberal sophistication, and humanized by a uniquely American hedonism—like an educated, American Zorba with family in Norway. Instead, she mixed ghetto ultrafrugality and mistrust with Lutheran frigidity and vulgar consumerist superficiality. It was as if one had combined the split-screen dinner scene in Annie Hall and taken only the negative.


But the Eastern European heritage dominated. Hoarding, saving, scraping, scratching, scrabbling, scrambling, scrimmaging, scrounging, denying oneself the pleasures of life: these and all the other unnatural behaviors forced upon the poor by dire need, without which they literally could not survive, because of which poverty is considered a social evil, and from which they wished to save their children, were, due to guilt, recapitulated at least in ritual form by those very children. This was to be expected. The immigrant parents, trapped in a harsh economic system, had made a virtue of necessity; their children, lacking necessity, felt they also lacked virtue.


Phyllis’ father had been a tyrannical workaholic who had shown little love to his family aside from the procurement and the often niggardly, always selective distribution of material goods. He arrived penniless, according to Phyllis, and with no help whatsoever had gone on to make a small fortune selling apples in
Wisconsin. Of course, he had enjoyed the initial assistance of a brother already established in Wisconsin, and had spent the tail end of the Prohibition years delivering fruit near the Canadian border…. In any event, Phyllis’ father was a Manichean figure in her mind: he went to all her ballet recitals, but invariably slept through them; he had worked like a serf to support his family, but had driven her mother insane. Phyllis’ mother had had a long bout with Alzheimer’s, and Phyllis must have known that her father was blameless at least in this instance, but her conviction was indicative of deep resentment.


Zadeh’s reach extended beyond the grave, to which he had recently departed. Phyllis was convinced that he watched over her, an almost corporeal omnipresence in her life. Mind you, Phyllis’ father was no Deist clockmaker. Among his many direct interventions in the world of the living had been the manipulation of airline scheduling so as to ensure that all of Phyllis’ daughters could attend his wife’s funeral, which had occurred a couple of years after his own. More tangible was the fi
nancial Partnership he had set up, in which his children and grandchildren shared the money he had left behind. The money was frozen solid; the only way to use it was to pull out completely, which no one could do without the family’s unanimous consent. Phyllis and her brother insisted that the money be spent only for those things of which her father would have approved, such as a free-standing house or “education”—defined of course as “that which leads to a professional goal, and thus more money and status.” Consequently, at least two generations were locked into the moral outlook of a man born in a different century, on a different continent—and into a different culture, despite Hebrew school propaganda.

You see, money was not quite Mr. Smith’s lofty, rational, enlightened medium for the exchange of mere goods and services. Oh, it was an invisible hand all right, but it was suspended, clenched and Damocles-like, over all members of the family ensuring that intergenerational obligations would be honored. And not only did monetary transactions always carry an emotional rider, but the emotional interactions themselves also had an economic character. A stark, ghetto rationale permeated the emotional nexus: one did not give more than one received.

Paul looks at Phyllis as Saul leaves.

“What’s his problem tonight?”

Phyllis looks at the doorway from which Saul exited and shrugs warily.

“Oh, who knows,” she says unconvincingly.

Phyllis and Paul had a strange relationship. She would tell him things her own children didn’t know because they would never think to ask, trained as they were by Phyllis to see her as a self-sacrificing cipher. Her protestations notwithstanding, part of her seemed to appreciate that Paul asked about her, listened to her, even helped clean up after Friday night dinners—a breach of gender roles in the Steen household on par with cross-dressing. Phyllis didn’t really trust Paul. He was male, after all—and an attractive one at that. Perhaps this was the main source of her disdain and discomfort.


“All my friends are lusting after your hunky boyfriend,” she chortled to Rachel on the phone before the wedding. “That’s just what you wanted to hear, I’m sure.”

Paul was totally unlike anyone she had ever known—except perhaps Stanley, which didn’t help. But she acknowledged Paul’s love for her daughter even as she envied it, and for a time this kept her relationship with Paul alive. Sometimes she would even drop her maternal role and pepper her conversation with mild profanities as an uncharacteristic sophistication about the world showed through the cracks of her studied naiveté. As is usually the case, Phyllis, the happy camper, was far more cynical at heart than Paul, the ironist. As for Paul, having barely survived the wreckage of his childhood, he had been desperately seeking parent substitutes, in his teachers, in his friends’ parents, in his professors, and, finally, in Rachel’s parents.

Paul once asked Phyllis why she hadn’t divorced Saul when he had turned out to be less than expected. Phyllis had told him that she could not have kept her house and raised her three daughters without a man. Paul hadn’t asked about her career as a journalist, or Stanley’s alimony payments; nor had he told her that he knew that Stanley had agreed to pay for the girls’ college education; nor had he reminded Phyllis that her daughters’ college and post-graduate education would be heavily discounted because Stanley was a professor at Penn; nor had he pointed out that Phyllis’ father had plenty of money, and prided himself on taking care of his family, if only financially; nor had he pointed out that being deprived of a four-story house in the suburbs and ballet lessons might have been worth being deprived of Saul.


Paul had told himself that he had not pressed her because he had sensed that the myth that she needed a man—even one like Saul—to survive was a retaining wall in the edifice of her self-image, and that he had wanted to protect her from the consequences of her choices, even though her selfishness and cowardice disgusted him. Such was Paul’s sense of filial duty. What he didn’t quite admit to himself was that the very posing of a question to which he already knew the answer could only serve to rub Phyllis’ nose in the consequences of her own choices. He was in some ways a kinder, gentler Saul.


Brightening, Phyllis turns to
Paul and says, “At least he’s taking me to Ireland this summer.”

“That’s good.”


Phyllis had justified her marriage in economic terms, so it was no surprise that she was constantly angling to profit from it. Despite nearly twenty years of marriage, Phyllis and Saul kept their fi
nances separate, even to the point of splitting up bills like college roommates. Phyllis kept things from her husband in order to appear more impoverished than she really was; she was predisposed to feigning poverty anyway. Courtesy of Zadeh’s apples, Phyllis’ daughters each had a trust fund, and, after Phyllis’ parents died, she and her daughters had inherited the Partnership. All was kept secret from Saul, who had recently sold his practice to an HMO for quite a lot of money. Soon thereafter, Phyllis had taken Paul and Rachel out to a victory lunch, proudly stating that she was going to get Saul to spend more of his money on her, and she had worked on him to take her to Europe until he relented.

It wasn’t simple avarice; it was complex avarice. Phyllis had married Saul because he seemed to promise financial security and good parenting. (Love, incidentally, was never mentioned as a possible reason for the marriage.) She had crapped out on the good parenting; if she didn’t get Saul to pay for as much as possible, then she wouldn’t be able to leave as much of her own money for her daughters as a kind of posthumous apology for inflicting Saul upon them.


Perhaps Phyllis wanted love after all, and what better proof of Saul’s love was there than the amount of money he spent on her? If Saul outspent Zadeh, maybe that would heal Phyllis’ wounds. Saul was certainly at least as stern and domineering as her Zadeh had been. Part of Phyllis reveled in Saul’s rages, thrilled at the way he abased her—the more scorn the better. Maybe this was why she had multiple orgasms with him.

Ike and David enter the kitchen from the den. They are laughing. Ike keeps talking to David for a while before he says hello, keeping Rachel and Paul waiting as if he were an important executive.

“Noonie!”

He steps past Paul and grabs Rachel, hugging her close, kissing her. Noonie was Rachel’s nickname when she was a girl. Ike, like Phyllis and everyone else in the family, thinks of Rachel as “Rachie Noonie,” a cute, quiet, shy, demure, presexual angel. They don’t know what to make of the Rachel of twenty seven years, a woman on the verge of graduating medical school who is no longer shy, more sexy than cute, and actively exfoliating her demure layers.


Ike can’t seem to let go of the completely nonthreatening little girl he used to know. He’s pawing at Rachel, planting kisses all over her face. She is making a half-hearted attempt to push him away, not wanting to compound the awkwardness by “making a scene.” Phyllis’ training runs deep in her daughters. It’s all supposed to be a big joke and everyone laughs, even
Paul. He recognizes the trap: if he keeps quiet, Ike will continue mauling Rachel—no one else seems to find it inappropriate. If he speaks up, he’s afraid Ike will launch a condescending attack along the lines of:

Ike: [Backing away from Rachel and holding his hands up theatrically.] Gee, Paul, I didn’t realize you were so oversensitive. If it bothers you that much, I’ll stop. [Shaking his head.] Wow.

Paul: [Feeling silly, even though he knows he’s right.] I don’t mind a little sibling affection, but this is overboard.

Phyllis: [Horrified.] Paul, it’s clear you’re insecure about Rachel, but to accuse Ike of incestuous desires! Get your jealousy under control!

[Rachel’s sisters titter and exchange knowing looks.]

There’s constant tension in the Steen household. They’re like a pride of lions, poised to strike, just waiting for a member to show the slightest vulnerability, which is understood to be weakness. Ike, perpetually the butt of his own jokes about his sexual failure, forces himself on Rachel as a challenge to Paul. How dare Paul take his little girl away!


Ike turns to
Paul and offers his hand.

Paul.”

“Hello, Ike.”

David, towering over everyone at six foot five, lumbers over to Paul and Rachel and hugs both of them. He and his brother are utterly unalike. David is soft-spoken and introspective; he almost became a rabbi, but chose to study comparative religion instead, having decided wisely that agnosticism was a handicap to a cleric. Ike works for a PR firm; he has recently represented Disney in its attempt to strip-mine Civil War sites in Virginia for a historical theme park, and Hooters in its noble battle not to have to hire male waiters. Pushing thirty, Ike’s fundamental motivation has remained unchanged since he was twelve: to appear “cool.”


Saul makes a glum reentrance, and, oblivious to everyone but his sons, resumes midstream a debate he and Ike have apparently been having on and off all afternoon. Saul and Ike make no attempt to include the others; it’s as if Phyllis and her daughters weren’t in the room, to say nothing of
Paul.


The sisters strike up a conversation of their own, each group ignoring the other in a house divided unto itself.


Ike often vies with Saul in ritualized verbal combat. David, however, rarely argues at the dinner table—which is to say, he has extricated himself from the American Jewish gladiatorial arena in which henpecked, insecure males try to recoup some of their masculinity by making pig-headed, ridiculously sweeping pronouncements on (usually political) subjects about which they know little and have thought less, which they subsequently defend for hours by exchanging cheap, legalistic debating points of utterly no consequence while the women clean up. Some common topics for pontification:

1. The Holocaust,

2. Israel,

3. The President,

4. Any Jewish Person Who Did Anything Noteworthy Anywhere in the Known Universe, Divided Into:

a. Mitzvahs, or, “Good Deeds,”

b. Nachas, or, “Accomplishments,” i.e., “Things Which Could Be Posted on the Refrigerator,”

c. Shondas, or “Horrible Deeds which Bring Shame Upon the Perpetrator, the Perpetrator’s Family, Community, and Synagogue, and upon American Jewry, World Jewry, and the History of World Jewry, Including, Of Course, All the Many Martyrs of 6,000 Years of Unrelenting Persecution—Especially the Six Million who did not die only to have their memory desecrated by a feculent vermin like YOURSELF!

5. The Holocaust and Israel,

6. Israel and the Holocaust,

7. American Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust,

8. Why Blacks Shouldn’t Receive Affirmative Action,

9. Why Intermarriage Should Be Punishable By Death,

10. Aluminum Siding and the Holocaust.


Phyllis interrupts in her sing-song official hostess register, struggling to integrate the conversation so as to put on a good face before the imminent arrival of company.


“Did you all watch the Olympics?”


Phyllis loves the Olympics, especially since they have now removed almost any trace of sports in favor of the type of “human interest stories” out of which she has made a career:

First Announcer: [In the studio.] OK, let’s go to the women’s downhill event, taped earlier today and brought to you live.

[Cut to a multicolored blur zooming past the finish line at 80 miles an hour.]

First Announcer: You know, the winner of today’s women’s downhill ski race was a plucky young American named White Bread who overcame AIDS, SIDS, Ebola, a cold sore, Mad Cow disease, prostate cancer, bad air, acephaly, demonic possession, dysthymia, dyslexia, anorexia, bulimia, fear of heights, fear of open spaces, fear of inclines, fear of snow, fear of cold, fear of fear, and fear to compete successfully at the highest level. Let’s go to Laser-Cleaned Smile at the finish line, where the celebration continues.

Laser-Cleaned Smile: That’s right, Talking Haircut. It’s truly a remarkable story. What a role model for all those youngsters watching! She really stepped up, responded to the challenge, took her game to a whole new level, and just did it. And I just want to add that Ms. Bread dedicated her winning run to her 96-year-old grandmother who was present at the race. She’s been in a coma for 43 years, and White says this one’s for her!

[Cut to a blonde, smiling, waving, Lycra-clad, ad-covered skier with her arm around a blank-faced old woman in a wheelchair wearing an Olympic hat, Olympic sweater, Olympic jacket, and Olympic warm-up pants. Even her mobile IV unit has a five-circle insignia on the saline bag. Her head is resting on her right shoulder, an icicle of drool hanging out of the corner of her mouth. She’s giving a thumbs-up with the aid of a Nagano ’98 pencil, to which her thumb has been taped. With Olympic tape.]

Talking Haircut: Just marvelous! [Talking Haircut pauses and puts his hand up to his ear.] Hold on, Laser-Cleaned Smile—this just in…. White’s golden retriever back on the Bread family farm in Americus, Kansas has just had fourteen puppies! Let’s go there live.

White Bread: [Gasping in joy, turns to her grandmother.] Did you hear that, Granny? Puppies!

[Cut to a sepia-toned shot of the puppies suckling at their mother’s teats in a splash of sunshine just inside a red barn. Above the doorway is a huge American flag. Just outside the doorway stand Mr. and Mrs. White Bread—he in overalls with a pitchfork, his face weathered, tears trickling down the creases, dripping on his flannel shirt; she in a flower-print house dress and a white apron, clasping her hands together, the Kansas wind lightly ruffling her blonde bangs.]

Mom: [Sobbing.] We love you, White! We’re so proud!

White Bread: [Sobbing.] Mommy, Daddy, I love you both so much!

Dad: [Sobbing.] You’re Daddy’s little angel, princess! Bring on back the gold, my sweet, precious baby! [He manages to compose himself.] Hey, we’re going to have a big parade down Main Street with the Boy Scouts and the veterans and the church choir is going to sing. It’ll be just grand! The mayor’s even going to give you the key to the city. And then we’re going to have a big square dance in the Union Hall.

White Bread: That’s just super-duper! I owe it all to the family values I learned in my hometown, where no one needs to lock his door.

Mom: [Bursting with pride.] Oh, tell her about you, Cletus!

Cletus: [Embarrassed, looking down at his boots.] Aw, shucks, Melva, I can’t.

White Bread: What, Mommy?

Melva: [Beaming.] Precious, your Daddy’s going to be leading the parade. He’ll be in uniform!

White Bread: [Enraptured, hand on her chest.] Oh, Daddy!

Melva: [Her arms sliding across Cletus’ shoulders.] Cletus, you’ll look so handsome with your private stripes for everyone to see! [She kisses Cletus on the cheek and giggles.]

Cletus: [Also beaming.] Heck, sugar, I’m even gonna dig up that Viet Cong skull to put on my bayonet!

Melva: [Flushed with excitement, in a near-swoon.] Oh, Cletus!

White Bread: See you real soon! I love you bunches and bunches!

Cletus: See you soon, honey-sugar-precious-darling-baby-princess-angel!

[They wave as the puppies romp and suckle.]

Laser-Cleaned Smile: [Wiping away tears.] So, White, what do you want to say to America?

White Bread: [Once again, sobbing hysterically.] I just want to say…I’m dedicating this gold medal to my Mommy and Daddy, my hometown, my fourteen puppies…and…most of all to my Granny, who has been the greatest influence in my life. She taught me never to quit. I love you, Granny! [The crowd behind her bursts into tears as White Bread hugs her Grandmother, who is still blankly motioning thumbs-up.] And I just want to thank my coach, my pastor, and my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who showed me the light and gave me the strength to compete—and who took time out of his busy schedule to reduce my wind resistance just enough so that I could complete the course one ten-thousandth of a second sooner than the next closest skier, whose name I have already forgotten. And I just want to say: God Bless the United States of America, The Greatest Country in the World! [The crowd behind White Bread burst into chants of “U-S-A,” fists pumping in the air. One particularly patriotic fan knocks over Grandma’s IV stand. No one notices.] And I also want to thank IBM, Kodak, CBS, Exxon, GM, Lockheed, General Electric, Microsoft, Coca-Cola, Nordyne, the Rand Corporation, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the John Birch Society for spending fifteen million dollars on me over the last four years in my quest for the pinnacle of amateur sports. And all they asked in return was my eternal, unquestioning support of their products and political positions, and to turn a blind eye to their corruption of American republican democracy.

Laser-Cleaned Smile: That’s just great! Congratulations again, White Bread. [Turning to the camera, face full of gravity.] An emotionally moving moment from Japan, where a plucky young American has just dropped another bomb, but this time a bomb of gutsy determination, the lingering aftereffects of which just might contaminate a generation of young Americans. This is Laser-Cleaned Smile reporting from the slopes of Nagano. Back to you, Talking Haircut.

“No, I haven’t seen any of that,” Paul says, making a face.

“You don’t like the Olympics?” Phyllis asks incredulously. Her tone suggests a moral failing equal to pedophilia.

“I like sports; I don’t like watching a hundred hours of soggy, jingoistic filler for advertisements.”

Phyllis glowers for a split-second, then turns away in confusion.

“I love the Olympics,” says Sarah, entering the room, claws at the ready. She is attracted to the possibility of arguing with Paul like a vulture to carrion.


Until very recently, Sarah had been in full contrarian revolt against Phyllis, as only an arrested adolescent can be, unaware that doing the opposite of one’s parents belies a lack of independence equal to total obedience. Sarah had waged a two-decade war of harsh, infuriated reaction, delivered with all the tact and aplomb of a coarse-grained industrial disc-sander.


A one-woman proof of Hannah Arendt’s thesis that opposite ends of the political spectrum attract, Sarah had given up shocking the bourgeoisie with her belly-button rings and leftish pronouncements for shocking the avant-garde with her Stars of David and rightish pronouncements. Only her position had changed; the rage remained the same. She still orbited Phyllis, attracted by desire for affection and respect, repulsed by their absence.


As Rachel had pulled away from Phyllis, Sarah—ever the outsider, never the favorite—had sold out her sister and rushed in, directing her rage outwards, orbiting closer, desperate for approbation.

Thanks to Stanley and Saul, Sarah had a small problem with men. She joked about castration with a frequency that would be disregarded as heavy-handed Freudianism had it occurred in a work of fiction. The epitome of her veterinarian studies was to be finding a way to artificially inseminate cows so as to protect them from vicious, rutting bulls. (Phyllis had begged her to get a Ph.D. as well, in order, no doubt, to shore up the status of such a lowly professional degree.) She was terribly lonely. Her boyfriends were invariably boyish-looking, meek, and intellectually inferior. In the long run, however, they always left her.

Before starting vet school, Rachel and Paul had talked her into taking a vacation. This was no easy feat, as Sarah outdid even Phyllis in tightfistedness. An effort on par with the Manhattan Project, with just as many proddings, was necessary to induce economic fission. Sarah had only acquiesced to Rachel and Paul’s entreaties when her first option—being a subject in a two-week-long darkness-deprivation study hooked up to an IV and various electrodes in a windowless room in Boston—had fallen through due to imminent menstruation.

“You’re going to imprison and torture yourself for two weeks?” Paul had asked incredulously, asking himself for the thousandth time why human beings insisted on re-enacting childhood traumas, unaware that by marrying into this family, he was in the midst of doing the same.

“Well, I’ll get a thousand dollars. It won’t be so bad. I’ll bring something to read. There’s a TV, too, with a VCR.”

Rachel doubted whether Sarah had ever really planned on going through with it; she saw it as a bid for attention and respect, paid self-torture being seen as the highest level of achievement in the Steen household. Sarah begged Rachel and Paul not to tell Phyllis every time she brought it up, protesting too much.

“Do you really need a thousand dollars so badly?” Paul asked.

Sarah had a trust fund worth at least $80,000, a chunk of the Partnership worth around $100,000, years of unspent income invested, no doubt, elsewhere—all of which was increasing double-digitally thanks to the March of Progress.

With the utmost disdain for such a prodigal thought, Sarah sneered, “A thousand dollars is nothing to sniff at, Paul.”

Paul gave up, but Sarah’s ovaries had come to the rescue. Sarah ended up going to Alaska, where she had crashed with an occasional pen pal of hers she had met at camp when she was sixteen. Originally another in a series of saved hotel bills, Mike and Sarah had hit it off. He had invited her to stay with him in the Alaskan wilderness, where he was a forest ranger. She had accepted, and two months later had come home with a ring—this time on her finger, and far more upsetting to Phyllis than any mere body-piercing could have been. At least the flesh that had been pierced was Jewish; Mike was an indistinct Protestant from, strangely enough, rural Wisconsin, a working-class guy with an army background and a Masters in natural resources. In other words, totally unacceptable. To allow such goyische, unrefined genes to intermingle with The Chosen Genes was unthinkable.

“I’m glad you’ve found someone, Sarah,” Phyllis had said when Sarah had finally broken the news. It was clear that she found this unlikely enough in and of itself. “He will convert, of course.”

“No. Why should he?”

Phyllis burst into tears.

“I’ve failed as a mother!” she maintained, perhaps more appalled by his indelibly lowly social status than by the unfortunate fact of his non-Jewishness, a feature she felt sure she could bully her daughter into insisting he correct. Or perhaps she was jealous that her daughter had bagged exactly the kind of man her father had forbidden her to fraternize with.

“Congratulations!” Paul had said. “When are you getting married?”

Instantly nervous, Sarah replied, “Oh, we haven’t set a date yet.”

“Yeah, but roughly when?”

“Oh, maybe in five years.”

Paul considered this, and said, perhaps a bit too dismissively:

“Oh, well, you’re not really engaged then.”

Sarah burst into tears and ran out of the room, leaving Paul stunned.

From the moment she had returned with her ring, Sarah had begun attacking Rachel, and especially Paul. Their ally had turned out to be a Talleyrand. She became offended by Paul and Rachel’s displays of affection.

On one occasion, after some unobtrusive public snuggling in Stanley’s kitchen, Rachel and Paul had left the room. Rachel went to the bathroom; Paul to sit in the living room. He could hear snippets of Sarah’s conversation with Christine, Stanley’s second wife, in the kitchen.

“…it’s offensive…adolescent…”

Paul walked into the kitchen. Stanley had wandered in.

Christine was saying, “Oh, you’ll do the same when Mike comes here.”



They noticed
Paul standing at the doorway.


Sarah snorted.


“I’d never act that way in public.”


Paul was mad.


“Well, I guess some people are ashamed of affection.”


Sarah turned on him.


“Yeah, well maybe you’re just trying to cover up for something that isn’t there!”


Paul understood instantly, and decided not to eviscerate her.


“Sarah, you’re such a sweet girl,” he said sarcastically.


He turned to
Stanley and started a discussion with him as if Sarah wasn’t there.


Needless to say, when Mike showed up, he and Sarah were physically inseparable. No one commented on this.


Sarah’s present mission was to tear down what little respect and affection her family, despite themselves, might have for
Paul, so that her man would look better in comparison.


“He’s really very smart,” she insisted to anyone who would listen, in this case
Paul. “He’s got a Masters’ degree. Natural resources is very complicated. There’s a lot of science involved.”


“I would imagine so. It must be nice to be with someone who loves animals.”


“Yeah, that’s nice,” she replied mechanically, annoyed with
Paul for changing the subject. “You know, you don’t have to go to an Ivy League school to get a good education.”


“I know,” said
Paul, holder of two Ivy League degrees. He smiled.


Selfishness and cut-throat competition—for all her purported radicalism, Sarah was a perfect embodiment of the Zeitgeist. And of the Familiengeist: none of the Steen brood more closely resembled Saul and Phyllis.

Paul glances at Sarah and smiles.

“How you doin’?”

Sarah slants her body away from Paul, suddenly shy, center of gravity on the edge of pulling her out of the kitchen.

“Good!” she says too loudly. “How about you?”

“I’m good, too.” Paul smiles again.

Sarah has just cut her hair short, after years of camouflaging her face with curls.


“It’s a big move for her,” Rachel had said to
Paul, “considering we teased her mercilessly for looking like a clown during her ‘ugly period.’”


That was the last time Sarah had worn her hair short. Like most preadolescents, Sarah had had an awkward stage before her body had pulled all its parts into equal adulthood.
Paul had seen the pictures: she had undoubtedly resembled Ronald McDonald.


Paul mused on the desperate insecurity associated with bodily imperfection in the Steen family. More quasi-eugenics.


Paul himself had gotten acne, glasses, and braces within one terrible month in sixth grade. His youthful cuteness gone, and adult sexiness still years away, he had had to spend some unpleasant time in physical limbo. Once during college, he and a couple of his friends had looked through a box of his old photos, roaring with laughter at that phase, thanking god it was behind them. Sarah had the misfortune of looking different than her two beautiful, older sisters. Not that she wasn’t attractive, or even that she was less attractive than her sisters—these things depending on the eye of the beholder. But her family, and thus she herself, considered her ugly. They let her know this by giving her patronizing compliments, which is like being punched in the face with a velvet-covered fist.


Paul is admiring her Parmagiana neck, and tries to give her a real compliment. He thinks he feels sorry for her, and while this is true, he also can’t stand her. His compliment is designed to boost her self-confidence enough to induce her to leave him alone for the evening.


“Good haircut, Sarah. You’ve got a pretty neck.”


Sarah looks away and doesn’t answer. Phyllis swoops in.


“Sarah, you’ve just been complimented.”


Sarah meets
Paul’s eyes with defiance.


“You know, Rachel has a nice neck, too, which you could see if you let her cut her hair.”


This is said with utmost disdain. Like Phyllis, Sarah feels
Paul bullies Rachel, and, like Phyllis, she will not rest until she has bullied Rachel into accepting that premise. Paul had encouraged Rachel to grow her hair out—away from the cute-little-girl-bangs look and towards a more mature, sexy mane.


All appears yellow to the jaundiced eye,
Paul thinks.


He sees deep sadness in Sarah’s future. He is pretty sure that she will never marry Mike, who seems to truly love her. He had left
Alaska and moved to Philadelphia, having never been to a city larger than Madison, Wisconsin, leaving behind wide-open spaces and self-sufficiency for the pleasure of pointing fat tourists in the direction of the Liberty Bell. Mike was miserable in Philadelphia, and this is how Sarah responded:


Rachel handed the receiver to
Paul.


“Hello, Sarah.”


“Hi.”


“So, how is Mike adjusting to Philly?”
Paul asked.


“He won’t stop talking about
Alaska!”


Paul hears a voice in the background.


“No, that’s not true. You bring it up all the time!”


“Maybe he misses it, Sarah.”


“Yeah, well, he doesn’t have to whine about it all day long.”


Sarah saw Mike’s abandonment of his entire life as her due, the minimum she would expect from anyone. In response to the obvious question, she had announced a couple of times, in front of her family and fiancée, that she wouldn’t transfer to another vet school—not even the one at Madison, where she would get a comparable break in tuition by passing herself off as a resident—nor would she even consider moving to the suburbs of Philadelphia to accommodate him if he got a job in Delaware, rural Pennsylvania, or New Jersey. Phyllis had drilled a pathological sense of entitlement into her daughters, thus ensuring that they would eventually disgust any potential mate and remain in a tight orbit around her in the vacuum of her stone house. Only mommy could provide the love they needed.


Paul had predicted that the relationship would last six weeks. It had lasted a year, mostly due to Mike’s love, or pliancy, or both. Paul had tried a couple of times to express to Sarah the depth of disapproval Mike engendered, the difficult times they would have with Phyllis, and the unimportance of all of it if they loved each other. It had made no dent; Sarah didn’t know how to process such information. She stuck her head in the sand, maintaining that she expected no problems whatsoever.


“Her stubbornness may save the relationship,” Rachel had told her husband. “She can’t admit she’s wrong, so maybe she’ll marry him out of fear of having to admit that she may have made a mistake.”


Paul shook his head and laughed.


“Law of unintended consequences. I hope you’re right.”


The park service eventually laid Mike off, telling him what he already knew, that he needed a background in history to make a career in
Independence Park. He had applied to jobs in the Philly area, but had found none. He finally took a temporary job in Taos—where Leah lived, coincidentally. Sarah was terrified that Leah would steal him away, so she went out to New Mexico the summer after her first year in vet school. Mike was still looking for a job in the north, possibly Alaska, but Sarah had forbidden him to take any offer until after the summer. She had arranged to do some animal research in Taos, after all, and wouldn’t want to be inconvenienced.


“Don’t be surprised if I come back married,” she had said.


“No, we’re not getting married,” she told
Paul a couple of months later.


“What happened?”


“Well, he’s staying out here, so that’s it. It’s OK, because I’ll be too busy in vet school for the next three years anyway.”


“Too busy to be in love? You know, life just gets busier.”


“That’s not true—”


Paul cut her off before she could descend into a comforting haze of meaningless detail-driven argumentation.


“Sarah, do what you want, but be careful. People click with each other this way very rarely in life.”


arah was briefly quiet, then dismissive. The conversation ended with a discussion of the weather in
Taos.


Phyllis is shooing everyone out of kitchen, refusing all help.


“No, no,” she says, flapping her hands. “You kids go into the family room. The Steinkopfs will be here soon, I have to hurry. Go, go.”


“Where’s Leah?” Rachel asks.


Withering disdain is swallowed as soon as it wells up and seizes Phyllis’ face. She waves her hands in frustration.


“Still getting ready,” she bleats, pushing Rachel out of the room.


Ike and David walk into the family room.
Paul, Sarah, and Rachel follow as klezmer music breaks out of the living room, the clarinet and strings fluttering over a driving percussion pattern, describing a musical arc that betrays an Arabic influence the Steens would not like to admit. In addition to an oil tanker’s worth of klezmer and traditional Israeli dance tunes, the Steen’s music collection consists of a few Mozart minuets, a couple of Brandenburg concertos, some Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Abbey Road. The last two are the only surviving members of Saul’s sixties rock collection. Phyllis only likes pre-Rubber Soul Beatles.

A low bookcase spans one wall in the family room. It’s a necropolis, holding the corpses of the kids’ English classes: A Separate Peace, Lord of the Flies, the usual suspects, all diligently read, underlined and held apart from their souls. A twenty-year-old World Book Encyclopedia takes up a third of one shelf, bought no doubt to “round out” the kids’ education. Being “well-rounded” is what a humanistic education has been reduced to in homes like the Steens’, the final step in the manufacture of flawlessly spherical people who glide frictionlessly on cue along paths predetermined towards a dark hole in the green ground.

In any event, Saul loves to run to the encyclopedia whenever a fact, regardless of importance, is disputed in conversation. The Steens treat knowledge as an opportunity to impress or to humiliate, never as the raw material of wisdom, never as life-changing. Knowledge was to be kept at arm’s length. It was welcome in Phyllis’ home only if housebroken. Nothing, not even knowledge, that supposedly primary Jewish virtue, would be allowed to interfere with the great surge up the social ladder.

Everyone takes a seat and the gossip begins to fly.

“Did you hear that Rivka Hershowitz came out?” Sarah says, testing the waters.

Ike, David, and Rachel all look at each other. Ike, the boldest, considers this gambit and replies, parsing his words as carefully as an unindicted co-conspirator.

“Yes.”

Sarah whirls on him.

“So? What do you think about it?”

Ike flies into the fray, meeting misanthropy with misogyny.

“I’m not at all surprised.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Just that she always seemed to be heading in that direction.”

[The rest was not perfected. Well, to be perfectly honest, it was abandoned. Whereas the Steen family is somewhat tragic and funny, Paul's family, which wa supposed to flutter in and out as the Seder got going is completely tragic, and not at all funny.]

Disclaimer

The characters and incidents portrayed in this story are entirely fictitious, and, in any event, were nowhere near this bad. No identification with actual persons, living or dead, institutions, places, buildings, and/or products is intended or should be inferred, and no validity can be assigned to the story’s arguments or descriptions since the author is clearly a misanthropic, scatological malcontent.

(Unpublished work © 1998 Douglas P. Tarnopol)