First Edition | Prose

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by sherril jaffe

The temperature was in the nineties for the whole week before my religious school confirmation.  It was one of those unbearable hot spells, one that will sometimes occur in the midst of the spring, catching you unawares.  Spring was supposed to be cool, fresh, and very gradually to grow warmer, following the pattern laid down in early childhood, when the weather was normal; it was not supposed to get broiling hot like this in May.  The sky was supposed to be blue, not heavy or brown.  You were not supposed to feel uncomfortable in the spring, your clothes sticking to you, lethargy in your muscles.  A hot spell such as this one cheated you out of the springtime and shoved you brutally right into summer.  You never thought to prepare for this; it wasn’t supposed to be this way; and yet you knew that this had happened before, other springs, similarly cut short, other hot spells, other years.  Why haven’t you remembered these other hot spells inside other springtimes, until now?  It must be because, as soon as they were over, the seams of your memory closed up around them, sealing them back inside, but now those seams were being rent once again.  This was how you found yourself, returned to a place you hadn’t remembered being. 

I slouched in Howie Greenberger’s basement with several of our buddies, all sophomores at Kensico High.  The fan was on, but we were all drenched in sweat, even though it was close to midnight. 

“We should go take a dip in the Kensico pool,” Howie suggested.

He wasn’t serious, of course, because the pool was closed, and we would have to break in to take a dip there; we would have to climb the fence, and if we got caught, we would be in a lot of trouble because there were no lifeguards in the middle of the night.  Howie must have been making a joke.  But it did sound cool, deliciously so. 

“Okay, let’s go,” Blair said.  Howie’s suggestion had provided him with an opportunity to sound brave.  We all wanted to be thought so, of course, but I didn’t think he was being serious; however, if I made any objection, I would now sound cowardly, especially since everyone else was saying, “Yeah, let’s go.” 

We stole quietly from the house, dressed only in our shorts and shoes, and made our way through the woods to the pool.  It wasn’t hard at all to climb the chain link fence.  A hum came from the pool house, where the motor for the filter was running.  Otherwise, all was quiet. The pool glowed in the moonlight. 

Trying not to make any noise, we slipped into the water.  It felt great, and very soon we were splashing and laughing. “Quiet!” I said to Howie, but he pushed me under.  When I came to the surface, I saw the beams of flashlights in the air and heard the booming voices of men yelling something I couldn’t decipher.  We had been discovered!  We all started racing for the side and hoisting ourselves out, grabbing our shoes and climbing the fence.  Then we were running, dripping wet, through the woods, the hot night in our wet hair.  I stole a glance over my shoulder.  The men were still behind us, shouting and waving their flashlights.  Somehow, I had lost one of my shoes; I was hobbling.  I turned my face forward again – into the sharp branch of a tree – and felt the sudden stab of pain and then something dripping down my forehead, but I kept running.

We all kept running, whooping and laughing in the dark, our lungs burning, until the flashlights behind us fell away, and so, in the end, the men didn’t catch us, and we all made our way back to Howie’s, where we picked up our clothes and dispersed to our own houses, safe.

When I got back home, the house was dark, and I tiptoed down to my room, where the light was on.  My mother had hung the new suit she had just bought for me to wear to my confirmation, on my closet door.

* * * * *

When I came upstairs in the morning, everyone had already had breakfast; their bowls were stacked in the sink.  My mother was on the phone.  I poured myself a bowl of cereal.  “No!  No!  Thank you for telling me.  He’s not going to get away with this!  And today’s his confirmation!  I can’t believe it!” she was exclaiming into the mouthpiece. 

“That was Frieda Greenberger,” she said, turning to me, after hanging up.   “Howie told her what you boys did last night.  Jeffrey, how could you disgrace your family like this?”  She was standing over me now.

I tried in vain to hide behind the cereal box.  I couldn’t believe Howie had told.  What had possessed him?  

“What’s that big gash on your forehead?” my mother was shrieking in my face.  “Don’t you have any consideration for anybody besides yourself?  You’re in big trouble, Mister!  How could you get a big gash on your forehead!  It’s going to be in all your confirmation pictures!  If your grandparents weren’t already on their way here, I would call and tell them not to come.  How can you be confirmed with a big gash in your forehead?”  She started looking around for something to strike me with, but just then the front door opened.  Zayde Sol and Bubbe Rose walked in, their arms extended.  “Hello!  Hello! Hello!” they said, and my mother wiped her hands on her apron.

I ran to give my grandparents a hug, and took the opportunity now opened up by their arrival to escape from my mother, downstairs.  I had to put on my suit, anyway.  I began to do so, and in a few moments, there was a knock on my bedroom door. 

“May I come in?” Zayde Sol said. 

He came in, sat down at my desk, and began watching me dress.  I could tell that my mother had told him everything that had happened. 

“Did I ever tell you about when I was a boy in Russia?” he asked me.

“Yes,” I said, buttoning my shirt.

“When I was a boy in Russia, we were very, very poor.  We hardly had enough to eat and had only rags to wear.  We got new shoes only once in four years.  By the third year, our feet would be sticking out of our shoes on all sides, especially on the bottom.”

I had heard all this before.  I struggled with my tie.

“Every day I had to walk home from school past an apple orchard.  And it was full of big, shiny, beautiful, red apples.  It was torture to have to walk past them.  They looked so tempting, so juicy, so crisp and delicious.  I wanted one so badly, and one day when I was walking home from the orchard on my way home from school, I just couldn’t stand it any longer, and I climbed over the fence to take just one apple, but just as I was reaching to pluck one from a low-hanging bough, I glimpsed the farmer running toward me waving his pitchfork.  He was yelling something terrible in Russian, which I couldn’t understand.  I turned and ran for the fence and was almost over the top when I felt the farmer’s hand on my shoe. 

“What could I do?  I wriggled my foot out of my shoe and brought my foot over the fence with the rest of me.  Then I was hobbling to the little cottage where my mother was waiting for me with a big stick to beat me for losing a shoe.  What you have to remember is that a shoe was a fantastically expensive item in those days, in Russia.  What made matters worse was that this shoe that I had lost had been a new shoe.  I wasn’t due to get a new pair of shoes for almost four years. 

“Ah, don’t you look nice.” 

I did not look nice.  There was a big gash in my forehead.  I did not understand why my grandfather had just told me this story.  Was it the traditional story grandparents always tell their grandchildren on the morning of their confirmation?  Or did this story relate to the incident at the Kensico pool?  In that case, was Zayde Sol trying to tell me that that sort of thing happened to everybody, it always had, down through time?   

Bruce appeared in my doorway.  Mother had already put him into his little suit.  “Grandpa Morris is here,” he said.  “It’s time to go to Temple.”

* * * * *

I was told to ride to temple in Grandpa Morris’ car, in order to show the old man the way.  I was relieved I didn’t have to ride with my parents.  My mother had told my father about the incident at the pool, and now he was furious at me, too.

“Did I ever tell you what it was like when I was a boy in Poland?” Grandpa Morris said to me, after we had been riding along in silence for a time.

“I think you did,” I said.

“When I was a boy in Poland, we were very, very poor.  We were so poor, we had nothing to eat, and we only got new shoes every four years, and our feet would be sticking out on all sides.  Shoes were worth more than gold.  One day I was walking home past an apple orchard where all the trees were laden with big, red, juicy apples, and something just came over me.  I started to go crazy; I couldn’t resist any longer; I climbed over the fence and was just about to reach up and grab a great big juicy apple that I could almost taste, when the farmer started running toward me, waving his pitchfork and screaming something at me in Polish, which I couldn’t understand, but it sounded terrible.”

“You’re kidding,” I said.

“I’m not kidding,” Grandpa Morris said.  “This sort of thing happened all the time back in those days.  But that’s not the end of the story.  Anyway, I almost made it over the fence, but the farmer grabbed my shoe.  What could I do?  I wiggled my foot out and escaped over the fence.  Then I hobbled back to the little hovel where my mother was waiting to beat me to a pulp with a big stick for losing my shoe.”

“Was the shoe you lost a new one?” I asked, pretending I didn’t know the answer.

“It was new.  I wasn’t supposed to get another pair for almost four years!” Grandpa Morris said, a tremolo in his voice.  We had reached the temple.

“Grandpa, are you trying to tell me something?” I asked, as he attempted to park between the lines.

“I’m not trying to tell you anything,” Grandpa Morris said.  “It’s just a story.  But if I were trying to tell you something, I’d tell you that you have to go after the object of your desire.  There’s no choice.  And you have to suffer terrible consequences for doing so.  That’s just the way things are.”  And he winked at me.

We walked into the temple.  Grandpa Morris joined the rest of the family, and I was taken to the room where the other teens were gathering and putting on their white robes.  When we were all dressed we were led in a line into the sanctuary where our families were sitting in the pews.  The temple was decorated with flowers, and the light was streaming in through the stained glass windows, casting rainbows around the room. 

The speeches went by quickly.  I was not really listening to them; I was too busy trying to fend off the venomous glare of my mother.  And then the rabbi was standing before the ark, a beautiful burnished-wood cabinet carved in the shape of a tree. 

An interior light illuminated its contents as it opened to reveal the Torah reclining in its red velvet mantle, while, at the same time, a shadow passed through the room, as if clouds had suddenly arisen in what had been — for what now seemed an eternity — a cloudless desert of sky.  For a moment the glowing Torah contained all the light that had been in the room.  “It is a tree of life to all that hold fast to it,” the rabbi intoned.  “All its ways are sweet, and all its paths are paths of peace.”

* * * * *

That night, after the party, and after all my grandparents had gone home, I fell into a deep sleep.  I dreamed that I was looking downhill across a golden meadow to a grove of trees towering in the distance.  And then I was down inside the grove, making my way between the trees.  The canopy must have been high overhead, because I didn’t see it, only the gleaming burnished wood of the tree trunks.  And now I remembered that I had been inside this grove of trees before, more than once, though I had forgotten it until this moment.  I couldn’t believe my luck — to find myself here again — and I promised myself that I would never again forget that this grove was here.   I knew I was dreaming, and in the dream I knew it was not easy to return to any dream once one has awakened.  But surely if I could somehow manage to remember that this place in this dream actually existed, I would be able to find my way back.  And now I had come to the tree that had a door in its trunk.  It opened in, revealing a path winding down inside.

One might conjecture that this dream which I was having expressed a wish to return to the womb, to the time before I had failed my mother by breaking into the town pool at midnight and coming home with only one shoe and a big gash in my forehead that was going to appear in every photograph of my confirmation.  It could also be true that the path leading down inside the tree was the road to the land of the dead, and it could be that I would recognize this road when I found myself upon it, on the day that my life came to its end.  At that moment I might remember that I had always known that this road was here, and that I would find myself traveling down it, eventually, even though in the midst of life, I had forgotten about the tree, forgotten about the grove.

One cannot discount the possibility, of course, that the path inside the tree, and the grove itself, simply existed on the physical plane, where I had come across them from time to time as I traveled through the world, and that the dream was woven out of buried memory fragments from my waking life.

There is one final possibility, of course.  I did not think of this at the time of the dream, perhaps because it was the most obvious, or perhaps because I did not take my confirmation ceremony seriously.  This is the possibility that the tree was the ark, and the path inside was the scroll unwinding into infinity. 

On the scroll there was an account of every type of human behavior and the consequence of every act.  Now the scroll rolled into a circle, and every story it told, it told twice.  Indeed, if it told a story once, it told it a thousand times.  The path I was following down inside the tree was one of myriad paths – of peace.

I was sleeping peacefully now, as a steady rain fell on the flagstones outside my window.  The hot spell was over, and the seams of the springtime were closing around it once more, erasing it from all memory.

Sherril Jaffe is the PEN Award-winning author of 10 books, including her 2001 novel, “Expiration Date,” and her recently released collection, “You Are Not Alone and Other Stories,” winner of the Spokane Award for Short Fiction.  A professor of creative writing and literature at Sonoma State University, she lives in San Francisco.  “Confirmation” is a chapter from an as-yet unpublished novel-in-stories, “I Walked Into the Day.”