s if there were a God, and as if He were a dark magician—Look at my hand, watch very carefully, are you watching?—while all the time the trick is being performed elsewhere, or has already been performed and all this hand business is distraction. . . So, Joseph worried and worried about his son Ben, his only child, though Ben’s in his early twenties. When would he find a wife? Would she, as he hoped, be Jewish? Would Ben’s career as a writer get off the ground? Ben was helping run and write for a Jewish giveaway newspaper, distributed in Brook-line, in Brighton, but received barely enough of a salary to pay for the apartment by the Fenway he shared with friends. Joseph worried: Should Ben be per-suaded to get a master’s in journalism or maybe a law degree . . . .
What Joseph should have worried about he never let himself imagine: that Ben would get up early one weekday to attend a morning minyan, a prayer group at a local syna-gogue—Ben had never done that before, but Tim, his editor, who had lost his father, asked Ben to help make a minyan, ten adult Jews required to say Kaddish—so Ben walked to the synagogue that gray morn-ing through slush, through ice, maybe sleepy, and stepped in front of a truck making an illegal turn.
Just when he was on his way to perform a mitzvah, a holy deed!
And the dark magician? What was He thinking? Of course it wasn’t God who ran the light, but neither did He stop the driver. It’s not even worth cursing God, as Job’s wife suggested before she died. Like a disillusioned lover, Joseph wants nothing to do with Him. There was a time when he had faith and struggled with doubt. In college he took courses in religion and even considered studying to become a rabbi. But for a long time he’d not been taken in by God. Who could be fool enough to imagine that Ben’s beauty of soul would protect him?
Though he was without faith, Joseph had stayed more or less observant; he’d attend, alone or with Ellen, maybe once a month, Saturday morning services. But that was for the communality, for the friendly nosh after services. Now he’s stopped going altogether: a kind of protest against his own foolishness, making demands of God. He feels a little like a furious mock-prophet—“O People, you’re all being tricked by the dark magician. It is prophesized you will sicken, you will die, your wife or your child will die. Your ticket of admission to this world has an end date.”
Job’s response to God’s presence makes sense—how else respond to an amoral power, benign or punishing, but to concede:
Indeed, I spoke without understanding
Of things beyond me which I did not know.
. . . I had heard you with my ears
But now I see you with my eyes
Therefore I recant and relent
Being but dust and ashes.
Joseph, one more lump of dust and ashes, no longer attends services, even once a year, on Yom Kippur. After all, for what should he atone? We have sinned against You unwillingly and willingly. Really? In the Great Book, God inscribes who will live and who will die. The fact is, all will die. And what worse than Ben’s death, Ben so young, could happen to him or to Ellen? Our light is gone. At the same time Joseph goes through the world not making a fuss. Goes to work as a therapist, though maybe he’s the one who needs a therapist. He doesn’t curse God or demand his money back from the Heavens.
For months the two of them, Joseph and Ellen, father and mother, wandered past each other in their old house in Brookline, wandered like ghosts, not looking into each other’s eyes. As if it’s not just a truck—a trick of the magician—that killed Ben, but as if they, Joseph and Ellen, were somehow guilty—ashamed to be seen by the other. Each, somehow, angry at the other, as if the other were some-how to blame. Reminders of Ben—his miniature silver skates for first place in speed skating, his certificate of becoming a Bar Mitzvah—wordlessly they remove from the walls. They light a memorial candle, then another, as if the only thing to remember is Ben’s dying. After little quarrels and a growing distance between them, Ellen packs her bags and goes to stay, “just for a while,” with her brother’s family in Newton. Joseph finds it, night after night, hard to sleep.
In a story in the Talmud, an important rabbi, Elisha ben Abuya, sees a boy obeying his father by climbing a tree for a bird’s eggs. As the Torah commands, the boy shoos the mother bird. “If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or the eggs, do not take the mother with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life.”
And so the boy obeys two Torah injunctions—he honors his father, and he doesn’t take both eggs and mother bird. What reward does he receive?
Shooing the bird, he falls and dies.
Rabbi Elisha sees and at once speaks heresy: “There is no judgment and no Judge.”
Unlike Elisha, Joseph didn’t expect—or rather, until they lost Ben he never knew he expected—that in the material world he’d be treated with justice, compassion, special favors. It seems absurd, irrational, that on the first anniversary of Ben’s death, the yahrzeit, year-time, he finds himself planning to attend a weekday service in the small sanctuary at the synagogue and recite Kaddish—the very thing Ben was on his way to do when the truck turned the corner.
He wakes in his empty bed in the 2 a.m. dark in early February, hours before he has to leave. Middle-of-the-night in an empty house. At 3 a.m. he goes to sit in a wing-backed chair by a bay window in the bedroom and looks down at the street, snow piled up between cars, streetlamps gouging pockets of light and shadow in the snow. Growl of an engine: A truck spitting sand and salt rolls by. Time passes. At 5 a.m. someone walks to the corner to take an early trolley to work.
Joseph has lit a memorial candle that will last for 24 hours. In the glow of the candle, for just a moment, a shawl dangling from the arm rest of a chair becomes a snake with open jaws. From a patch of wall that long ago took a little water damage, just for a moment the face of a Botticelli virgin mother stares at him. The old sheep dog, Sandy, whom they had to put down last year, looks up at him out of shadows in the dim corner of the room, looks up, panting, with love. For just a moment, wherever he looks, creatures appear. He doesn’t feel he’s gone crazy. It’s a trick of the dim light; it comes, he thinks, from imbuing fragments of the visual field with feeling other-wise unexpressed, smothered.
ith Ellen gone, Joseph’s only relief has been his work. He’s a clinician and director of a clinic for troubled youth in the South End of Boston. Clients are mostly remanded to the clinic by the courts. It’s absorbing enough that when he works with an individual client or runs a meeting, Ben almost disappears. Joseph doesn’t ache. But the session over, his son comes back in a wave—as if he’s supposed never to forget him; as if not thinking of Ben for an hour floods him, deserves to flood him, with guilt.
Yet in the sessions, he believes he does good work, is deeply present. His conscious-ness buzzes with felt connections, filaments in a web. For instance, today, his client Dennis: Joseph feels echoes between the boy’s explosions last month and how “bummed” he feels today.
Dennis, just sixteen, tall, gangly, even more hidden than most of Joseph’s clients, goes through bouts of anger. He throws his long, blond hair back from his eyes and breathes out fire. Joseph remembers Dennis’s big gesture before his second appointment. Words with the receptionist. Angry, he pushed on the five-gallon office water bottle in the waiting room, just a gesture, but it toppled and cracked; water drained over the tile floor. At the crash, Joseph burst from his office and, grabbing a towel from the kitchenette, swooped the half-full bottle away to the sink, called to Sylvie, the recep-tionist, to get a mop, leaned the empty, cracked bottle by a waste bin. He waved Dennis into his office, asked, “What was that about? What got you angry this time?”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to really knock it over. Sorry. I’ll pay for it.”
Lots of things get Dennis angry. His father stays away for a week, a month, comes back drunk, slaps his son around. But it’s not his father Dennis got back at—it was his mother’s sometime boy-friend. That’s what brought him to the clinic in the first place. Sick of Dennis bad-mouthing him, the man shoved Dennis out of the house and put the chain on the door. So Dennis smashed the man’s windshield with a baseball bat, and the man pressed charges. The social worker attached to juvenile court got the judge to give Dennis a choice: restitution and therapy, or juvenile detention.
Joseph asks: “You say ‘bummed.’ Pretty general. You mean angry? You mean humiliated?”
“What-ever.” A word that, spoken in spite, cuts Dennis off, makes him feel tougher. Joseph asks, “Tell me: Do you sometimes feel eyes watching you and judging?”
The boy shrugs.
“Remem-ber, we spoke about it—when you talked back and your father smacked you around and you got furious at him—as you had every right? I see the bruise on your cheek. Is that from your father? I wonder why didn’t you take it out on him. Does it make sense to look at your angry feelings—not pretend it’s just the situation?”
“You think you know everything.”
“You really think I think that, Dennis?”
“No,” the boy sighs. “No, Doc, I don’t.”
This admission goes to Joseph’s heart; his breath grows hot. At once Ben is here. It’s not that Dennis takes Ben’s place, even for a moment. But in his rush of feeling, Joseph opens himself, and Ben enters to fill the open space. After Joseph says goodbye to Dennis—“We’ll pick up from there next week”—he sits, staring at a blank wall, and the room fills with Ben.
It would be a relief to weep. But hasn’t he wept plenty? Besides, he has one more client coming in this afternoon; he doesn’t want her to see him with red eyes. Now, as he sits, eyes shut, a hum permeates his body. Maybe it’s a form of meditation. Or maybe not. It’s strange, whatever. He quiets. Quiets. As if in a lucid dream, Joseph feels himself slowly lifting up, slowly up, from him-self, till he sees himself from above, his body down below in his desk chair. From this place above, he sees the bald spot on the top of his own head, a circle, negative yarmulke of scalp. In moments, touched by electric fear of dissolution, he restores himself to single conscious-ness. He’s inside his body again. His heart is beating like crazy. But the knowledge of separa-tion—that a part of him can be below, a part above look down—stays with him. He thinks it will always stay with him.
So. It means he is more than a physical being with awareness, with mind. If some portion of soul can truly separate, can be experienced beyond the self, then why is it so certain Ben is gone into absolute nothing, into non-being? Ben’s presence fills the room. Maybe a part of Ben is here—not as ghost, not as angel, but . . . somehow. Part of him forever alive. And part of Joseph.
Somehow Joseph gets through his final session of therapy and takes the Green Line home.
There’s a light on in the kitchen window. So he lets himself imagine—why not—that Ellen is back, waiting for him in the kitchen. Wouldn’t this be the day? A year gone by. He unlocks the door. Does he hear sounds from the kitchen?—is that the clink and clatter of pots and dishes? Did he leave the sink crammed this morning? Is she at the sink doing dishes? Or is it just the old refrigerator vibrating?
“It’s me,” he calls. No answer. Of course there’s no answer. “I’m so glad you’re back,” he calls out. “I guess it’s because of the anniversary, the yahrzeit.” He hangs up his parka. She’s not back. He knows it. He doesn’t go to the kitchen. It would spoil the illusion.
“I couldn’t stand being away any longer,” he imagines her saying. He imagines taking her in his arms. He tells her, aloud, “I said Kaddish for him, not that it matters. I suppose it’s foolish.”
He feels her lips on his cheek.
“Not foolish,” he imagines her saying. “I went through my journals. I took them with me. Funny things he said, pictures he painted, photos year by year—Ben and you, Ben and me.”
“He came into my office this afternoon,” he says aloud. “I mean I could feel his presence. He was his grown-up self; he was a little boy.”
She reminds him; or, rather, he pretends that she reminds him: “When he was three years old, remember?—you used to take him to those big, yellow machines, bulldozers, excavating machines, and you’d talk to the operator or a foreman and sometimes he’d get up in the cab and pretend to drive.”
“Or up in the cab of long-haul trucks.”
“Don’t speak about trucks.”
Joseph is silent and silent. Eyes closed, he says, “What we are, Ellen, you and me, he was so much the artist who shaped us into what we are. You know what I mean? When you left me, that work—what we’d made of ourselves—dissolved. I don’t know who we are now. And you—you obviously don’t know.”
He’s tired of this game of imagining. He goes to the kitchen, which is neat, empty. He takes from the fridge a stock he cooked a few days ago, cuts up fresh vegetables, makes soup. After dinner he retreats to his study to watch the news and read.
The room is dark. The news is dark. He wonders what Ben would make of it. We deserve a better world. These words come simply to Joseph’s mouth, not from outside as hallucination.
If he goes to sleep now, he’ll wake in the middle of the night, but it’s hard to keep his eyes open. At the edge of sleep he hears a muffled voice, not clear speech but a voice with the timbre of Ben’s voice. This time it’s not his own words. He listens down and down to make out words, know-ing, certain-ly, they’d be his own invention. He hears a baritone murmur. Words from the next room.
He half dozes, slumping in the leather armchair he and Ellen bought at an antique shop in Brighton a few years back. He falls into a dream for how long?—a minute, ten minutes? The ring of a telephone wakes him. Reaching to the table beside his chair he picks up. No one’s on the line. He holds on to the phone, not knowing why. But slowly he understands what’s being asked of him.
He calls her cell, Ellen’s cell, his heart pump-ing like a teen’s. He catches at a memory: the first time he ever called her. He’d been dating her housemate—this was in graduate school—but he so wanted Ellen; he rehearsed, trying to make his call sound unrehearsed. But his heart thumped away, as it does now. He blabbered; she stopped his blabbering, laughing, saying, “Hello. Finally. I wondered when you’d call me.”
Thirty years later, he rehearses: Hello, Ellen. I’m calling because today was his yahrzeit. It’s been a year, a whole year. He expects to leave this message, but on the third ring she picks up. He says, “It’s been a year, a whole year.”
“I knew you’d call. Yes, I know it’s his yahrzeit.”
“How are you feeling? Did you go to the cemetery?”
“I went through my old journals.” She stops, and there they are, in the silence, the two of them, breathing into the phone.
“I went to synagogue to say Kaddish.”
“Did you? Of course you did. And what for? Aren’t you finished arguing with that God of yours? You know, Joseph, I think that’s why I needed to leave.”
“It makes me sick to see you in such pain. I don’t mean sad, grieving. Of course we’re grieving. But you, you’re so bitter, so angry. That’s why I left, it’s why I stay away. Look at you. You invent a God of justice. Out of Nothing. Out of thin air. Then you attack Him for not being the righteous God you created. I’ve said this before. I have absolute faith in the Nothing. Nothing beyond our own projections. Why isn’t that good enough for you? Please. It’s time to get rid of the burden of demanding a different human life. It’s bad enough losing Ben without blaming a make-believe God.”
He clears his throat. “Ellen? Come home.”
She doesn’t answer.
week goes by. Dennis is back in Joseph’s office, and, greeting him, Joseph looks him over. The boy pulls off his sweater; his shirt underneath is clean. Which translates into Dennis being not-too-down on himself today. He can also look into Dennis’s eyes, read his shoulders, not weighed down today. When Dennis turns against himself, is smothered in self-loathing disguised as anger, Joseph can tell simply by looking at Dennis’s clothes and hair and eyes. Today is a good day partly because, Joseph believes, of the new story they’re shaping between them.
Instead of seeing himself as an angry, worthless victim who deserves what he gets—a beating from his father, bullying at school—Dennis has begun, perhaps, to see himself as a young man struggling to become a good person in a tough, tough world. He’s on his way to making real changes, Joseph believes. A deeper, truer Dennis may become accessible as his story changes.
The boy is so smart—almost dangerously so, because he can easily fool himself, fool Joseph, into a pretense of health. Can cover up his wounds so intelligently, make up a story of easy and complete change. Joseph has to watch out. Especially because he feels for the boy. Dennis is not like Ben was at sixteen. Dennis can’t substitute for Ben. But some of Joseph’s feelings for Dennis arise, yes, from love for his lost son.
He worries about the boy. As Dennis zips up his parka, about to leave the office, Joseph hands him his card—his contact information. “Just remember, in an emergency, before you blow up and get yourself in trouble, you can call me or text me. We can talk about it. Okay?”
“Really. Call if you need me. Even if I’m home. And don’t wait until you’re up a tree.”
Dennis puts the card in his wallet and turns back to Joseph. “Can I ask, Doc, something about you? I know the rules. You’re supposed to be this blank page I can write anything on, but I look at you and feel like you’re . . . suffering.”
The word surprises Joseph. He tries not to show it. “It’s all right asking. Last week,” Joseph says, “was the first anniversary of my son’s death. He got run over by a truck. He was twenty-four.”
Dennis looks down at the floor. “Hey. I’m really, really sorry.”
“Does that change your picture of me? How does it make you feel?”
Dennis laughs. “Nice, Doc. Nice. You turn it back on me, right?”
Joseph holds out his open hands, serving up, “Well, Dennis, after all, whose story is this?”
ut on his walk to the Green Line train, the question speaks to him; he repeats it aloud: “Whose story?” Suppose the story that Dennis has been living, suppose it’s also Joseph’s own story? Bitterness and all. Anger and all. Who, then, is the therapist, who the client? Has he, Joseph, imposed his own story on Dennis? Or is he able to see the story because it’s also his own? Dennis’s anger has nothing to do with God, but isn’t it the same bitter claim of injustice, the same demand for justice denied and compas-sion denied that he, Joseph, has dressed up in God clothes?
Whose story is this? If it’s partly his own, then can he, like Dennis, go on to live a different, fuller story? How might he reimagine God—replace the God who overpowers Job, God the magician, the benign and punishing father, who takes away and restores health, who takes away and replaces family, who demands that Job be silent and accept. How about, instead, a God who has no such tricks; a God we don’t blame, a God of tenderness and silent wonder, who mourns with us, who holds us. God whose one light shines through all of us. We hold it for a little while. It shines through every creature, radiates through each single life—like the torch carried by Olympic runners, handed from one to another to another. Ben carried the light for just a little time.
gain, there’s a light on in the kitchen window. This time he’s not willing to pretend it’s Ellen, to hope for restoration. But even before he turns the key in the lock, he hears music. He hears music and clatter from the kitchen; he’s not imagining. “Ellen?” He finds her in the kitchen in jeans and a turtleneck putting away dishes to the accompaniment of a quartet by Haydn.
“Here. Let me help.”
“I’m practically finished.”
“Will you stay for a while? Please stay.”
“Let’s see how it goes.”
At this, out of the hope within her words, tears well up. He turns off the music. “I’ve been hard on you, I know.”
“We’ve been hard on each other.” She sits with him at the kitchen table. They’re talking again. How can they bear to be together—constantly reminded of Ben in each other? How can they bear not to be together with the one person who fully shares their grief?
“It’s not just you,” she says. “You’ve been angry at God? I’ve been angry at you. I’m even angry at Ben for dying. You know what I think? Anger helps us cope. You know, and I know, we’ll never be the same. We’re broken. To live with Ben gone, we blur our grief with anger.”
They sit in silence. Even with Ellen there, the house feels empty.
As he has seen, as if in a movie, for a year, a year and a week—a truck swings around the corner. Joseph has so often rewritten the scene, has seen Ben stepping back onto the curb. This time, he lets himself see: Ben is struck. Ben is under the wheels, the light is fading, his light. Not lost, it’s not lost. He imagines light passed on, imagines absorbing it into himself, into himself and Ellen. The same light coursing through Dennis.
Is this just another magic act, another comforting false story?
He looks into Ellen’s face. She doesn’t glance away.
The house is silent. Or almost silent. For there’s the whoosh and hum of the oil furnace coming on and the high-pitched buzz of the old fridge. Outside, tires hiss over the wet street—a car, and then, singing at a different pitch, a truck. And now, faintly, a phone rings. From the house next door? Or from his own mobile phone—left in his coat pocket in the hall? Or a phone in his head?
“Is that my phone ringing? Did you hear a phone?” He walks into the hall and reaches into his coat pocket. But the ring, if there was a ring, has stopped. He looks at the phone in his hand. No one called.
“Who was it?” Ellen asks.
He goes back to the kitchen. “No one.”