“Mel Rothstein called me this morning. He had such tight anger in his voice. Like he was trying to stuff it back down. Showing me how in-control he was.”
Malachi was sitting across from his mother at the kitchen table. She had spilled some sugar as she was adding more of it to her coffee. She pushed the crystals around on the slick tablecloth with her finger as she spoke.
“What did he say to you?”
“He said, ‘How could you?’ He said I had fomented an insurrection. An armed insurrection. At the temple. The ‘temple’ he called it. He said I had ruined the reputation of the whole congregation that he had worked so hard to make and that tweets or posts or whatever they call them had been posted across the internet. Pictures of me. Rage on my face. Leading a mob of radical Jews against the police. Calling them Nazis. Threatening them.”
“I saw the pictures.”
“He said that he expected more from me, which I know is a lie because he has never expected anything from me or any other woman beyond dull, mute, subservience and a look of thankful awe.”
She presses her finger into the mound of sugar she had created and picks up what has stuck to the finger into her mouth. Her lips curl, her chin wrinkling. She begins to cry. Malachi reaches across the table to toward her.
“I feel so terrible,” she says “I’m glad your father wasn’t there. I don’t know what he would have done.”
“Ma, I feel so bad for you. I know you meant well. In the most genuine, human sense, you saw a danger and you wanted to save everyone. You weren’t crying wolf, or ‘fire’ in a theater. You thought those cops were terrorists intent on shooting everyone in the room. The whole congregation was sitting like obedient sheep waiting for the doors to open and the shooting to start.”
“That’s what Rothstein called me. A terrorist. Worse than a terrorist, he said. He said I should be ashamed of myself for risking everyone’s lives for my own neurotic mishegas. He said I needed to get help.”
“Rothstein, ran out himself. He ran out without looking back, without offering to help anyone. He burst through the side door. He knocked down the officer there. He ran out of the building the second he heard you scream ‘get out!’ It’s only now that he feels embarrassed. He shouldn’t feel embarrassed. He did the right thing. You did the right thing. They had guns. They were acting like real active shooters. They meant to scare the shit out of you. Out of everyone. And, I may be wrong, but I think they got some sort of charge out of scaring the shit out a bunch of cornered Jews.’’
“Rothstein. I never liked him. But that is totally separate, Malachi. For the first time in my life, I feared for my own mortality. Not in the philosophical sense. Not just in conversation over cocktails. Not in that casual, intellectual, sense of ‘let’s all talk about death’ in some abstract, manageable, way. But in the real gripping fear of death in that very moment. Certain that you’d be shot and killed. Ripped through with bullets, and that my body, me, my mind, my thoughts, my very self, would be lost. Gone. Lost to consciousness. Lost to all reality, to all eternity. It is a fear unlike any other human feeling. That instant awareness of imminent death.”
“I can only begin to imagine how you felt, ma. When I was twelve or thirteen, at night, in bed, if I would think of the vastness of the universe or infinity. The blankness. The unending black void. I could feel my body exploding with fear. The fear of nothingness.”
“I don’t remember that. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I wanted to. I’d get out of bed in the middle of the night like I needed to escape my thoughts as though they were a physical being. As if death and nothingness were physical beings. Even though the total lack of physicality of them are really what is the most incomprehensible and frightening of all. I needed to get out. Just like you did. I left my room and I went to your bedroom door. It was closed and I didn’t want to knock. I didn’t.”
“You should have, Malachi, that’s what parents are for.”
“It’s not that I didn’t want to wake you. It’s that I didn’t want to frighten you.”
“I thought talking to you about death with you older, closer to death, that it would bring up those morbid fears for you. So, I just sat there until I went back to bed.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“That’s when I started saying a prayer at night.”
“What kind of prayer? I never taught you prayers.”
“The one with, ‘Our father who art in heaven.’ The one with ‘give us our daily bread’ and ‘the valley of death’. ‘Forgive us our trespasses.’ I didn’t know if it was a real prayer. It just made me feel better to say those things. And I’d say bless my mother and father and list of all the people who I wanted to protect, and say them in exactly the right order or I’d have to start all over again to say it right, no matter how many times. And then there was one night, when I was going to bed and I’d always say ‘good night’ and ‘see you in the morgen’ like ‘guten morgen’, but instead I said see you in the morgue.’ And my god, I apologized a hundred times and then I cried and cried and all I could think of was that what I said would really happen and that you’d die because I said that.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry, ma. And don’t be sorry for doing what you thought was right and good, no matter how it turned out. And forget about Rothstein. He’s not thinking of you, only himself.”
They look at one another. Eye to eye.
“My coffee is cold and I spilled sugar all over the table. Sit, I’ll make us fresh. And let’s talk about something else.”
“Critical Race Theory?”
“Oh, yeah, that’s a good one. You should hear what your aunt Frieda has to say about that. Like she might know what it means.”
4 thoughts on “Malachi and His Mother: The Aftermath of the Altshul Incident”
Hello Joe: Again you weave a tight story, although it presumes the reader is up to date on some current events. This could be confusing to the uninformed reader. We need to talk. Best wishes, your buddy, Joseph N. Muzio
Hi Joe, I thought you took some heavy stuff and still provoked smiles. I liked the rhythm of the parent/child interaction. I laughed out loud about “critical race theory” as a topic of conversation having been part of so many consciousness raising events during my long life where such topics ended in angst and chaos no matter how fine the intention…Thanks!
You reveal your characters’ deep mother-son connection so deftly, Joe. It’s beautiful!
May I just say what a relief to uncover somebody that really knows what they’re discussing over the internet. You definitely know how to bring an issue to light and make it important. A lot more people need to look at this and understand this side of your story. I was surprised you’re not more popular because you definitely possess the gift.