CL Writing Contest 2018 Top Ten (Fiction): Yontif

If this is your favorite story, vote for it at from Mon. Jan. 29 at 9 a.m. to Fri. Feb. 2 at 5 p.m.

The light was already fading from the sky. Nettie stood by the window and anxiously peered out, looking for the off-duty light of her husband's cab to round the corner. Across the narrow street, unobstructed by trees, she could see into the brightly lit windows of the attached brick houses. Candles were already burning and neatly dressed figures moved back and forth across the blinds.

“Why can't he ever be on time?” she muttered half to herself, half to whichever children were nearby. Her own table was ready. It was one of those rare occasions when Nettie allowed the sticky vinyl tablecloth to be removed and the white damask cloth reserved for the holy days was spread. The girls had set the table for dinner. Motley patterned stainless steel utensils lay on top of orange paper napkins folded into triangles, black and gold tumblers at the points. The challah sat on a scalloped platter in the center of the table between tall chrome candlesticks. Thick white candles rested in their holders.

Saul, the eldest at thirteen and the only boy, waited in his room, reading. The three girls milled about, impatient as their mother.

“Oh Ma, let us watch television while we're waiting,” one of the twins entreated.

“No, I said, it's Yontif. One day out of the year won't kill you. Read a book. Play a game.”

“I don't feel like reading. What's the big deal? There were no T.V.s in the old days, so who said it's a sin?”

“You're not supposed to, that's all. No electrical appliances.”

“The lights are on. The stove's on,” Goldie, the eldest sister, reminded her.

Those are necessities. Do you want to eat in the dark lit only by candles?”

A chorus of “Yeah! Let's try it!”

“Look, no is no. I don't follow all the rules like my mother did—she'd turn in her grave to see me so lax—but we must keep up a semblance of observance, a certain amount of tradition, or you kids will forget you're Jews.”

“Watching T.V. Will make us forget we're Jewish?”

“Don't be a smark alec. You're not too old for a smack, don't you forget that.”

“Why don't we just eat without him,” Rachel, the last born twin, demanded. “It'll be a lot pleasanter. Besides, I'm hungry.”

“Rachel! Don't you start anything now. Let's try for once to have a peaceful holiday, alright?”

“Ah, here he comes,” she exclaimed, spying his cab out in the street and wiping her hands on her apron. “Finally. Well, if he doesn't care that we eat after sundown, why should I?” and she turned from the dinette window and went back to the kitchen, turning up the fires under the pots of soup and knaidlach. 

The sound of a car door slamming confirmed Joe's arrival. Then the screeching of the garage door being lifted, and in another minute, closed. Soon they heard the slow, heavy tread of his footfall on the stair, and the sudden swoosh of the door. Joe appeared in the vestibule in his grimy cap and jacket, a stocky man with an enormous belly and a prominent nose. He surveyed the brightly lit table and the eyes upon him.

“Good Yontif,” he muttered as he pulled off his jacket.

“Good Yontif,” Nettie grumbled, not turning to him.

“Hi Dad,” Goldie said.

“Hello, Pop”, Renee piped cheerily, while her twin, Rachel, said nothing. “How come you're late?” Only Renee, secure in his affection, dared venture that.

“Traffic. Didn't realize the time.” His meaty face looked angry.

“Probably had a fare he couldn't pass up,” Rachel muttered.

“What's that you say, fatstuff?”

“Joe!” Nettie wheeled around, ladle in hand. “Joe, please, it's Yontif. Let it be quiet. Hurry up and change or you'll be late for shul.”

“Neilah isn't until tomorrow night,” he replied, his words edged with sarcasm.

“You shouldn't miss Kol Nidre,” Nettie persisted.

“God'll have to forgive me I don't have gym shoes like the rabbunim to run over there. I can say Kaddish any night. But this fat thing, this daughter of mine, she'll never say Kaddish for me, I can tell you that.”

Nettie sighed. Rachel stared at him in hatred. Goldie interjected, “Dad, come on, why don't you wash up? We're waiting.”

Without another word, Joe moved through the dinette and kitchen into the narrow hallway and disappeared into the bathroom. Nettie and the three girls looked at one another.

“You fool,” Renee whispered to her twin. “Why did you have to start?”

“Shut up. It's none of your business.”

“Girls! Now don't you two start in. It's bad enough he's in a black mood. I wonder what lit a fire under him this time. Rachel, promise me you won't say anything.”

But Rachel sat slumped in her seat at the table, staring sullenly into space.

“Oh Mother, pin a rose on me,” Nettie sighed. Then, “Goldie, please go get your brother.”

Goldie entered the hallway, walked past the splashing behind the bathroom door, stopped at the next door and knocked lightly.

“Come in.” Saul was sitting on his bed, crosslegged, an open book in his lap. Goldie gently closed the door.

“We're in for a bad one,” she said.

“What's the matter?”

“Dad's in a rotten mood, just came in late, Rachel opened her big mouth and they almost had a blowup.”

“Sounds like fun.”

“Yeah. Well, come on out and join the happy family,” she said as they smiled resignedly at one another.

Saul and Goldie returned to the kitchen to find their father seated at the head of the table in his undershirt, a look of dismay on their mother's face.

“Joe,” she said in careful tones, “you're not going to eat dinner like that?”

“Why not? I washed.”

“You may be clean, but your undershirt isn't. And it's full of holes. How does it look to eat Yontif dinner in a torn undershirt?”

“I don't give a damn how it looks,” Joe snapped, his double chins shaking. “This is my house. I'll do as I please. I thought you were in such a big rush.”

“I'll get you a shirt. It'll take just one minute,” and she ran out of the kitchen.

“When the shofar blows and the gates close without me,” he yelled after her, “I can tell the reb it's because of my fashionable wife!”

It was uncomfortably silent as the children took their customary places at the table, Saul and Goldie opposite each other by their father, the twins next to their mother at the other end.

Nettie came rushing in, unbuttoning a crisp white shirt. “Here, Joe, please put this on.” Joe extended a thick, hairy arm and roughly grabbed the shirt.

“Just so I don't have to hear you jabber about it all night.” He stood up and spread his bow legs, opened his pants and pushed the shirt inside. Nettie sighed in relief as another potential crisis had been defused and bustled into the kitchen. She took the jars of grape jelly and honey out of the refrigerator and set them on the table.

“Oh, where's my head!” she exclaimed. “The candles!”

Standing between Saul's and Renee's chairs, she lit the candles. The children watched silently and curiously as their mother circled her open hands over the darting flames and then closed the warmth over her eyes, murmuring a prayer they could not hear. Nettie opened her eyes and said “Amen!” with a smile and nod of her head. The children nodded back at her. She took a long serrated knife and sawed six slices from the challah. The first she covered with jam and gave to her husband saying, “May your name be inscribed in the Book of Life.” It was only at this moment, once a year, that the children saw their father and mother kiss, a quick peck at the sides of their mouths. Nettie leaned over, but her husband did not.

“Forget it,” Joe said. “I'll live another year without your kiss.”

The children saw the surprise leap into their mother's eyes, but she quickly shrugged and turned away from her husband and repeated the ritual with her son.

“The same to you, Mom,” he said gravely.

“And Goldie, you want honey, right?”

Three more times Nettie repeated her blessing. Finally, she jellied a sixth piece and give it to herself, at which point everyone began munching on their bread as Nettie went immediately back to the kitchen.

The soup plates clattered as she took them out of the closet. “Joe,” she yelled gruffly, “how many knaidlach you want, three or four?”

“As long as I'm not taking the food out of the mouths of my devoted children.”

The ladle splashed into the soup. “For God's sake, Joe, what's eating you tonight?

“I've been to my brother's house today.”

The children looked up at the mention of their uncle, a dangerous subject.

“Ah, your brother,” Nettie said loftily. “And what have I done to your brother now?”

“The Bar Mitzvah was two months ago, and still you haven't sent him a thank you note for Saul's gift?”

That's what's eating you? For that you'll ruin our Yontif?”

“Answer me, Nettie, did you send him a thank you note?” Joe's voice was rising.

“To hell with your brother! What kind of a man are you to carry on this way on Yom Kippur?”

“Man? Man? You dare to ask  me that question?” Joe was shouting now, so loud the sound pierced through the walls of the house. The frightened children stared at him.

“I've worked and slaved and supported this ungrateful bunch—and you too—for what? For a wife who doesn't know how to be a woman? Only a mother, that's all you are, from the moment Saul was born, always spreading your wings around your children. The gates of love have been closing between us for years. Now they're locked. You're no woman anymore, sleeping under separate blankets!”

“Joe!” Nettie cried warningly.

“What's the matter? Afraid your children will hear? They're old enough to understand, to know the truth about their mother. That's she's no longer a woman.”

“You—you're disgusting! What woman would want to share her bed with you? You never bathe. You wear the same underwear until it reeks and falls apart. You don't know what love is. For you it was whenever you were in the mood. You wouldn't even wear protection, not even after I had two babies on my hands. Ah!”

Nettie turned away, realizing what she let slip. Tears filled her eyes.

Saul and Goldie were looking at each other in panic. Renee was staring at her half eaten piece of challah. Rachel glared at her father.

“You're repulsive,” she said in a flat, hard voice.

Joe turned his gaze upon her.

“You! Pig! Fatso! You're the cause of all this! You turned your mother against me when you were a baby. Hanging around her all the time, crying if she left you, screaming whenever I tried to hold you. You were born rotten!”

“Leave her alone, Joe! She's your daughter, for God's sakes!”

“I'd rather be Hitler's daughter,” Rachel said through clenched teeth.

Joe rose from the table. “You fool! To say that! You have no idea how many of your relatives were murdered in Europe!”

“I wish you had been one of them!”

Joe lunged at Rachel. Everyone held their breath. It had been years since Joe had tried to harm any of them physically. Rachel jumped up and pushed herself away from the table.

“Animal! Animal! Don't you touch me!”

“I'll kill you!” Joe roared. “I'll teach you to say things like that to your father!” He ran towards her, shoving past Saul's chair.

“Joe, stop it, stop it! Oh, please, stop it! Nettie screamed.

Rachel ran past her mother into the hallway. Joe chased after, breathing heavily. Screams of “crazy bastard” and “I'll kill you” echoed through the rooms. The bathroom door slammed and locked.  They could hear Joe grab the handle, wrenching it back and forth, shouting, “Open up, you ungrateful pig!”

He began pounding his foot against the door. Suddenly a great shattering reverberated throughout the house. Nettie and Saul and Goldie and Renee came running to see Joe struggling to lift himself out of the enormous hole his body had made in the hallway wall.

Sobs were coming from behind the bathroom door. Nettie and Goldie were crying. Saul looked angry, Renee very sad. All were astounded, even Joe, as they gazed silently at the cavernous hole. On the floor a pile of white and grey rubble still settling gave off a faint haze of chalky dust. Muttering to himself, Joe lumbered out into the vestibule, took down his jacket and cap, and slammed out the front door. Then the screeching of the garage door only once. When she heard the cab drive away, Nettie put her wet cheek to the bathroom door and whispered, “It's OK, baby. He's gone. Please let me in.”

Saul went back to his room and Renee disappeared into the bedroom the three girls shared and lay silently on her bed, while Goldie stared in amazement at the jagged hole. She had never thought about walls before, but had always assumed they were solid. It was a revelation to find them empty and vulnerable as anything else.

Outside, in the twilight, dark-suited men with snow-white tallises draped across their shoulders could be seen at their front doors, kissing their wives goodbye and turning rubber soled shoes in the direction of the shul.

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