Tuesday, January 22, 2013

#65: "Midrash" by Sandell Morse


~This story was previously published in the New England Review (1997).

             Bessie Feldman parks her car in front of Hebrew College in one of those spaces marked with the symbol of a wheelchair. She does and she doesn't like this privilege. Her hip replacement is healing slowly, and even now, months after the operation she feels pain and walks tilted, will probably always walk tilted, the doctor says. Now, he says this. Not before. But that's the way life goes. It happened with Erv, her husband, the year before. A "routine" operation, gall bladder, and then, his heart stops, and they take her to the meditation room. A small room with quiet walls, quiet chairs and a closed door, and Erv's regular doctor isn't there. Some emergency. And she's standing with a thin young man, who has somehow been singled out, and Bessie wonders what he's done to get this job. "Mrs. Feldman... I'm sorry." Later, Sally, her daughter, says that in ancient Greece, they killed those messengers, the ones who carried bad news.
            Bessie reaches for her purse, a small leather shoulder bag. She lifts the strap over her head. "Carry it this way," Sally has told her. "It frees you." Frees me. Sally worries about her hip. She calls every day. She wants Bessie to sell her house, to move to one of those retirement places. Aaron, her son, wants this too, but not as fiercely as Sally.
            Bessie eases her body out of the car and reaches back for her cane. She slams the door. Then, she sees her canvas bag still inside on the seat. Her lunch, her pad, and her pen. She steps off the curb and leaning hard on her cane, she opens the door and takes her bag. She sighs, deeply, and slams the door a second time.
            Bessie is short, and she's heavy, too heavy for this new hip. She tries to lose weight, to exercise. To do what the doctor tells her to do, and in the supermarket, she buys low-fat milk and tasteless no-fat cottage cheese. Then she throws a half-gallon of chocolate ice cream into her cart. Alone, at night, she opens the carton and without even scooping the ice cream into a bowl, she spoons the cold sweet treat into her mouth  This she does for company. Ice cream is company.

            Bessie taps her cane as she walks, and she feels, not only like a cripple, but a blind cripple, and even though Sally tells her she's not supposed to talk this way, and she doesn't not out loud, she is crippled, and it's autumn; leaves are falling. They cover dips and cracks. Bessie pauses on the sidewalk. She looks up. Hebrew College is a mansion. Made of stone with pillars and wide steps. A portico. Donated, Sally tells her, and Bessie wonders who used to live like this. Certainly Jews. Who else would give such a building to a Jewish school? Bessie imagines a horse drawn carriage, a driver wearing a tall hat, a woman dressed in velvet and silk. The woman steps down and the narrow toe of her leather boot touches the walk, and because she's not paying attention, Bessie stumbles. Her cane sinks down. Her heart, oy, her heart beats fast, and her hip pushes like a rock into her side. She imagines voices: Watch where you're going. Pay attention. You dreamer, you.
            Bessie examines the hole. With the tip of her cane, she digs out crushed leaves. The slate reminds her of mountains, and she remembers a trip she took with Erv, long ago, even before the children were born, Bessie and Erv, driving into the White Mountains and stopping to look at the Old Man, his granite face shaped by the seasons, cold and ice, wind and sun. At first, Bessie couldn't see him. You had to direct your eyes, just so, and even with Erv's directions, she had to find his face on her own.
            Slowly, Bessie approaches the entrance to Hebrew College. Ivy clings to the outside walls. It creeps around windows and up a chimney. Bessie hangs onto an iron railing and climbs the steps. Inside, she reads a sign: "Finding Women's Voices in the Bible. Room 12."
            What Bessie knows about the Bible she can fit into her mother's brass thimble. Hers is a familiar story, favored brothers studying for their Bar Mitzvahs, her father davening the morning prayers and thanking God that he was not born as Bessie was, a woman, and growing up Bessie knew that she was unfit, unclean, unworthy to stand on the bima and read from the Torah as her brothers had done, and oh, how she'd wanted to, and oh, how her brothers had flaunted their privilege until nothing was left for her, not the warmth of shabbos candles, not the strength of Sarah or Rebecca, only her anger hardening into bitterness. Let the rabbis rot in hell. You think I care about the synagogue?
            And even when she buried Erv, Bessie held his service in a funeral home, not a shul, and a friend, not a rabbi, chanted prayers.
            So what am I doing here, standing inside a Jewish school?
            She saw an ad in the local paper; she read it through, stopping at the last sentence: Bring lunch. When you live alone, you eat alone, breakfast, lunch, supper, day in, day out, and having a place to go without calling a friend and making plans, just having a place for four weeks appealed to her, still appeals. And maybe, just maybe, she'll learn something. She's not stupid. And doesn't Sally tell her she needs a course? Something to take her mind off the hip.
            The entrance hall is large, the walls paneled with dark wood. Portraits hang from silk ropes. Mostly, they are paintings of men. One is a woman. She wears a simple navy dress with a collar, luminous pearls at her neck. Her gray-white hair is pulled back into a bun, but not severely. Her eyes are blue. Her skin looks soft. She smiles with closed lips. She lived here. She looks the type. Rich and plain. And Bessie imagines the woman walking down a long staircase that curves and ends here in the entrance hall where a young man sits in a one armed desk, reading, head bent, a blue velvet yarmulka perched on his crown. Bessie asks him for directions.
           
            The corridor is narrow and it jogs, connecting the mansion to a newer building that Bessie hadn't noticed before. Room Twelve is a disappointment. Here the walls are cement brick. No elegant panels. No carved moldings. The windows are classroom windows, tall and ugly. They have shades, no drapes. The floor is linoleum tile. Someone has arranged the desks in a semi-circle with one in the center that faces the others. This is where the instructor will sit. Bessie chooses a desk to the instructor's left. She rests her cane, takes off her jacket, and eases herself down into the seat. The room is empty, and Bessie eats alone, a tuna fish sandwich on rye bread, a bottle of cranberry-apple juice. She shakes her head. For this I left my television set?
            By ones and twos, women enter. A few nod, those who have brought their lunches, eat. Bessie sips her juice. Obviously, she has arrived too early. At precisely noon, the instructor, a large woman, carrying an armload of books strides in. She wears a long skirt and overblouse, a jacket. Good. Not one of those skinny minnies. Bessie remembers her name from the ad: Dr. Miriam Kaplan.
            Dr. Miriam Kaplan pins a yarmulka to her thick gray hair, and Bessie knows that for more than twenty years, now, women have worn yarmulkas and read from the Torah; still pleasure ripples under her skin. She imagines her brothers' laughing faces. She hears her father, saying no, her mother telling her she must accept.
            Miriam Kaplan smiles. She asks everyone to say her name and a sentence or two about herself. Bessie says only her name. She learns that the young woman on her right, the one with her long hair bunched up into a pony tail is called Ruth. She's thinking about a graduate degree. In what, she doesn't know; that's why she's here. The one who sits opposite the instructor is Deborah. She's taken a course with Miriam before, and already, Bessie knows that Deborah will be the "smarty pants." Look at the way she sits, back straight, eyes bright. A little squirrel.
            After the introductions, Miriam thanks them all for coming, and Bessie thinks this is a nice touch, a teacher thanking her students. Bessie responds. "My pleasure."
            Miriam nods.
            A pleasant face. Wisdom in her gray eyes.
            "How many of you have brought a bible?" Miriam asks. Bessie has, but she doesn't raise her hand. It may be the wrong one, but  when Miriam says that any bible will do, Bessie reaches into her bag. The Holy Scriptures. She opens to the title page. The Jewish Publication Society of America. Copyright 1917. Twenty-first Impression, January 1947. The paper is thin, the red edge, faded and water stained. A bible from Erv's family. Reform.
            "We'll read together and discuss in English. But when necessary, I'll go to the Hebrew." Miriam says.
            Bessie thumbs the pages. No Hebrew, only English. Erv had a confirmation, not a Bar Mitzvah. And her children? For them, nothing. Not for Sally, not for Aaron. And for Terry and Lucy, Aaron's girls, a Catholic school. 
            "Since this is a beginning, we'll start with Genesis. The first three verses," Miriam says.
            Genesis? Adam and Eve. Bessie wants Sarah. Maybe Rebecca. She'll take Rachel. Even Leah. But Eve?
            "Before we begin, I want to say a few words about Midrash." Miriam writes the word on the board. Her writing is small. Bessie squints. That's it? One word? She wants more from this teacher; Bessie wants a river of words.
            "What we mean by Midrash is having a dialogue with the text. We fill in, explain, evaluate. We find morals. This is the white space. The black space of course is the text, the letters, the words, the black ink. Midrash is grounded in text. The kind of work we'll be doing in class is what the rabbis have done for centuries."
            Don't tell me what those rabbis have done.
            Miriam looks out over the half-frames of her glasses. "Who will start us off?"
            Ruth reads. Her voice is rhythmic. "Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters...."
             Bessie imagines God making land and calling it earth, growing grass and bringing forth seeds, forming stars, the sun, the moon, filling the water with living creatures and making birds that fly in the sky, and Bessie remembers a hawk she saw that morning, circling high above her yard, such a small backyard in a neighborhood of small yards, and still a hawk circled majestically, and creation, whether made by God or spun off from particles drifting out into space or evolving from creatures that crawled up out of a swamp is a marvel, is marvelous, Bessie thinks.
            "And now let's look at verse twenty-seven," Miriam says. She nods at Bessie.
            "Me?"
            "If you're comfortable?"
            Bessie clears her throat. She adjusts her body in the seat. Her voice trembles. "And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them." Bessie looks up. "A hermaphrodite." She tries to cover her outburst. "I didn't mean..."
            "No, no," Miriam interrupts. She walks to the front of a large desk and lifts herself up. She sits there with her flowing skirt and jacket and her yarmulka tilting on the back of her head. "It could be that male and female were united in one being. Maybe, androgynous. We even have Midrash to support that claim. But at the very least it would seem that male and female are equal here. Wouldn't you agree?"
            But not for long.
            Bessie has read on, and she knows. She can do without the rib, the fruit, the wily serpent, the big sin, and the feeling that follows her still, that she is weak, easily duped. That everyone else—her mother, her father, her husband, her daughter, and her son—know better than she does, what's best for her. She thinks about her aching hip, the stairs in her house she no longer climbs. She hears Miriam's voice and listens again. "Remember when I said we'd go back to the Hebrew? Can anybody read this verse in Hebrew?"
            Deborah, the squirrel, who else?
            Deborah translates. "God forms 'adham out of the earth." She pauses. "It's like a molding out of clay." She reads again. "And then God breathes God's breath."
            "Yes," Miriam says. "Rashi, too, uses the image of the potter. You know Rashi?"
            "I do," Deborah says.
            A rabbi from long ago. Bessie remembers her brothers' studies.
            "So we are earth and the breath of God," Miriam says.
            Ruth leans toward Bessie. She whispers. "I like that."
            Bessie likes that, too. Now, Miriam is reading in Hebrew. She takes off her glasses and says the words a second time. "'Ezer neged. Another corresponding to. Equivalent to. That's the Hebrew, and that's what 'adham looks for in a mate."
            "When?" Ruth asks.
            "When God creates the animals," Miriam says.
            "You mean 'adham searches among the animals for his mate?" Ruth says.
            Miriam nods, and in her mind's eye, Bessie sees a parade of zebras and lions, tigers and elephants, horses and dogs, all of them marching, two by two, animals without names, no names until 'adham, the human, calls to them. "You sheep. You goats. You, there, you are llamas." And all the while 'adham is searching for his mate, his ezer neged, his equal, his counterpart, and Bessie thinks of Sundays with Erv, the two of them doing the crossword in the Times, when Bessie would take the puzzle first and write, lightly, with a pencil careful not to darken the letters, so that when she erased, Erv wouldn't see the outline of an A or a Q, because he worked the puzzle later, and when he finished, he called her over. They sat together on the couch, and they talked. R2, D2. Five letters. Robot. Two heads are better than one. And so God knew something when God said that 'adham shouldn't be alone. No wonder the Holy One, Blessed Be, put 'adham into a deep sleep, and made another, and not just from a rib, Miriam explains, but from a whole side, adding earth, like before, and this, too, was divine creation, and after all these years, Bessie realizes that she is made of divine stuff, and here, Miriam says, is where the two sexes divide, not before, and maybe, just maybe the woman is the culmination, for doesn't it make as much sense to read the story this way as the other?
            Bessie sighs.
            "Of course," Deborah says.
            "Why?" Ruth says.
            "Why what?" Miriam says.
            "Why put the woman on top? Aren't you doing what the rabbis did in reverse?"
            Miriam slides down off the desk. She smiles mischievously. "If you can support woman's superiority with the text, then the story of her inferiority becomes inconsequential, doesn't it?" She looks at her watch. She takes the pins out of her yarmulka.
            "Wait," Bessie says. "You went too fast."
            Miriam smiles. "I did go a little quickly. Re-read the text. Bring in some questions next week. I'm sorry, but I have another class and it's all the way across town." She gathers her books and leaves the room.
            Ruth helps Bessie with the sleeve of her jacket. She hands Bessie her wooden cane. "Great course, don't you think? How did you find out about it?"
            "I saw it in the paper," Bessie says.
            "Cool," Ruth says. "See you next week."
            Cool, Bessie thinks as she limps down the long corridor, leaning lightly on her cane.

            In the kitchen, Bessie sets her cane against the counter. She runs water in the sink and rinses a chicken, thinking about how clever that Miriam is, turning that story upside down. Last is first. Second is best. Bessie takes a knife from a block on the counter, and she chops. Then, she sautés—onions and celery in a little butter, not too much, but it's better than the chicken fat her mother used to use, but God knows, her mother lived a long life, may her soul rest in peace, so maybe a little chicken fat isn't so bad.
            She adds a cup of dry stuffing mix to the onions and celery in the skillet. She pours in water and she mixes. She stuffs the chicken, sets it in a rack, and slides the pan into the oven, and as she bends, she feels the hip again, a lump in her side. Pain shoots. She closes the oven door and breathes deeply. She has to remember how to bend. How to stand. How to sit, her thigh at a right angle to the floor. She washes the skillet. She sets the table. She opens a can of cat food for Pisher, her cat.
            Pisher meows and rubs his fur against her ankle. Bessie remembers the December night Pisher appeared at her back door. She didn't feed the cat, didn't talk to it, and once, even though she hates to admit it, she kicked Pisher down the steps, but Pisher wasn't Pisher then, Pisher was a pesky stray, falling sideways, then righting himself, and waiting until Bessie closed the back door before he climbed up and meowed again. A storm blew in, bringing snow and gusting winds, and late that night, Bessie took pity on the cat and brought him in. She named him Pisher, the little squirt.
            A car turns and pulls into her driveway. She knows the sound of Sally's motor. Early, too early. Bessie reaches for her bottle of pills. She swallows two. Then, she splashes her face with cool water and dries herself with a paper towel. She pinches her cheeks to give them color.
            "Hi, Ma," Sally says, opening the door. She folds her wet. She kisses her mother's cheek. Then, she notices the opened package of frozen peas, the head of lettuce. She sniffs the air, and Bessie sees her disapproval. "I thought I said we were going out," Sally says.
            Bessie brushes her hair out of her face. "On a night like this? I picked up a chicken after my class." She tastes the words on her tongue. After my class.
            "But Ma, this is too much." Sally gestures.
            "What too much? Hang up your coat. Not in the closet. Watch the drips. Over there, on the door."  When Sally returns, Bessie hands her a bottle of wine and a corkscrew.
            "You have wine?"
            "You think I don't know how to entertain? You think I forgot everything? Didn't I ever have people over?"
            "I didn't say that."
            Bessie relents. "No, you didn't. Pour me a little. I'll join you."
            Sally turns the corkscrew. She glances sideways at her mother. "You know, I forgot to tell you, a woman I know is in your class. Beth Silver."   
            Beth Silver. Beth Silver. Bessie can't place her.
            "Anyway, she says that Miriam is fabulous. Radical." Sally pulls and the cork pops. "So how did it go? You like it?"
            "Your friend is right. That Miriam is something. If I had a teacher like that when I was younger, I might have been a rabbi myself."
            "She's a rabbi?"
            Who else knows Torah? "I think so. Why not?"
            "I think she just has her doctorate."
            Just.
            Sally stirs her wine with her index finger. "My friend Beth sells real estate."
            "So?" Bessie is wary.
            "I thought if you knew what she did, you might place her. Didn't everybody introduce themselves?"
            "Sure. But I don't remember. Why is it so important?"
            "Ma, talk to her."
            Bessie stiffens.
            "I know she's looking for small houses, and this neighborhood is perfect. She'll get you a good price." Sally leans back against the counter and sips her wine.
            "If it's so perfect, why should I move?"
            "Ma, you can't even walk up the stairs. You have to sleep in the den, and if Daddy hadn't added that bathroom, you wouldn't even have a place to shower, and as it is you can't fit a chair in there, and Aaron and I are scared to death you'll fall again, and then what?"
            Bessie picks up a baster. She opens the oven door and bends, carefully. It was a night early in July when she got up to turn on the fan, then go to the bathroom. She doesn't remember the fall, although she likes to think she tripped on the carpeting. She remembers the way she lay, curled around the base of the toilet unmoving because she knew that if she jarred that hip, she'd never bear the awful pain, and so she drifted in and out of sleep, or was it consciousness, hearing the ringing of the phone, and then, finally a key in the lock, and Sally was bending over her, then rushing into the kitchen and dialing 911.
            Bessie closes the oven door and stands. "I'm not falling," she says to Sally. 
            "You're not falling? Mother, please."
            "Once. I fell once."
            Sally walks outside and stands on the back porch. Through a window in the door, Bessie watches her daughter smoke. Hers is a life of these times, marriage, divorce, no children, men who move in, then move out. Sometimes, Bessie meets Sally's men, sometimes not. Her daughter does what she wants, and now that Bessie is alone; now that Erv is gone, Bessie asks nothing more than what Sally has, and if she's wrong, well, she's wrong. The worst that can happen is she won't be around to hear her say: I told you so.
                                                                             
            The next week, Bessie scans the faces in the classroom looking for Beth Silver. A real estate agent Bessie figures would dress. Three of the women wear suits, blouses, stockings, little heels. The rest wear slacks, shirts and sweaters, socks and sneakers or clogs. They sit in the same seats, and Bessie notices that one desk is empty. Let it be Beth Silver's. This week, a few women arrive early, including Ruth, and as they eat—sandwiches, yoghurt—Bessie and Ruth exchange small talk, mostly, about videos that Bessie should rent. Bessie makes a list. "Shirley Valentine."  "Women in Good Company."
            Miriam sits facing the class. A woman Bessie doesn't know reads. Beth Sliver? "Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made...." And Bessie remembers. This is the week of the serpent. And now Miriam is asking why the serpent talks to Eve and the class is strangely quiet. Not even Deborah wants to talk. Bessie knows why. Who wants to say she's a patsy?
            And Bessie imagines the Edenic serpent, standing because he doesn't crawl, not on his belly, not yet, talking to Eve: Eve, you doll. So God told you not to eat. Have you ever seen such gorgeous fruit. What will it hurt? One little bite?
             She thinks of Erv in a restaurant, ordering dessert with two forks, after she'd refused, not once, but three times, then taking a little chocolate mousse cake on his fork and holding the fork to her closed lips until she'd feel the eyes of the waiter, and other eyes looking out of nearby heads, waiting to see what she would do, and of course, she opened her lips even though on Monday, she'd have to weigh in, and she'd be no closer to losing the twenty pounds she needed to lose than she'd been the week before.
            Miriam smiles. "The truth is, we don't know. No one tells us why the serpent approaches Eve. Oh, we all know what we're supposed to believe, that Eve is easily misled. Misguided."
            Bessie reads, examining the text very closely. She looks for a reason. Not there. So nobody knows. All these years and nobody knows. And that's not all. There's more than one tree. If you pay attention, you see there are two: the tree of life, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Miriam tells them the fruit of only one tree is forbidden. She says that Eve embellishes. "God says, 'thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.' But what does Eve tell the serpent?" Miriam asks.
            "She says, not only can't we eat, but if we so much as touch it, we will die," Deborah says.
            Miriam stands. "Yes. Eve's building a fence."
            A fence? What fence?
            "It's what the rabbis do," Miriam explains. "You add prohibitions like pickets. Imagine a circle of pickets with something precious in the middle that you want to protect."
            "So she's the first theologian," Ruth says.
            The women laugh.
            A rabbi. Eve, the mother, a rabbi.
            "I can't help thinking about this idea of knowledge," Ruth says. "It's knowledge she wants, not everlasting life, and it seems to me that this whole story is written down so that men can have the Torah. If they can prove that a woman is weak and untrustworthy, then they can keep knowledge for themselves."
            And Bessie remembers a story her father used to tell of the famous Beruiah, wife of a rabbi, daughter of a rabbi, a learned woman herself, who became a teacher, until her husband set her up, got a Yeshiva student to seduce her, so he could prove she was weak, wily, sexual, sensual. Unfit. Unworthy. And finally, Bessie understands that Beruiah's story is Eve's story, is her story, and that she, Bessie, has taken this tale inside of her, this false image of who she is, a woman, morally weak, a person who can't stand on her own two feet.
            "And this is what we have to counter," Miriam says, "this deep seated image of ourselves."
                                                                             
            That night, Aaron calls from California. "Ma, I'm thinking of flying out there."
            "It's almost winter. You hate winter."
            "I know, but it's been a while."
            A year and three months, his father's funeral. With the hip, he called her every day. A dutiful son. "So, will Catherine come with you?"
            "Not this time."
            So when? "Maybe you'll bring the girls."
            Catholic girls who cross themselves, but, what can I do? I’m their grandmother, and I love them.
            "Ma, they're in school."
            "So come for Thanksgiving. I'll cook a turkey."
            "You know we go to Catherine's mother's for Thanksgiving."
            "And for Christmas."
            "Ma, you don't even celebrate Christmas."
            But it would be nice to see the children. To cook for them. To celebrate a holiday. On Christmas Eve when Sally comes, we cook Jewish-- flanken, a potato kugel.
            "Do you have your calendar handy? How's the weekend of the seventeenth?"
            His voice is steady. Bessie's is not. "Look, Aaron don't bother."
            "Ma, I want to see you."
            "So tell me about the girls. What are they doing?"
            He talks about dancing lessons, flute lessons, gymnastics and a play. He tells her that work is fine, that Catherine is going back to school in January to study law. "We've already hired an au pair," Aaron says.
            Bessie remembers when her own children were small and she had to sell encyclopedias door to door to earn money. Her mother used to walk the four blocks to their rented duplex to take care of Aaron and Sally. How nice that was for all of them.
            "I know you don't approve," Aaron says.
            "It's not my business to approve."
            "But once, maybe just once, you could."
            "Look Aaron, you have a wife, two lovely daughters, a successful business, and a mother who loves you. So you'll fly east, you'll tell me to sell the house; I'll refuse, and we'll fight. Do me a favor, stay in California."
            "I'll call you again in a couple of days."
            She hangs up. Not a minute later, the phone rings. "Hello, Mrs. Feldman, my name is Beth Silver. I believe we've met. I had a closing rescheduled on me, and I couldn't do a thing about it. Tell me, how was class. What did I miss?"
            You think I was born yesterday? You think I don't know what you want? Bessie speaks: "Adam took it. She didn't force him. He ate. Then, when God comes, Adam hides, and Eve confesses. He goes free; she gets blamed. The same old story. But we don't have to blame her. She doesn't deserve it."
            "Come again."
            "That's what you missed."
            "Oh, I see."
            "And Beth, I know you're Sally's friend, and I know she must have told you to call me, but my house is not for sale. And if I change my mind, which I won't, I'll let you know."
            "She did ask me to tell you about The Meadows. I'm handling rentals there, and it would be very easy to arrange things so that they happened simultaneously."
            The Meadows. First an apartment. Then the nursing home. All right there on the grounds. The only thing they don't have is the grave. "Beth, please, you're a nice woman, I have nothing against you, but you're getting mixed up in the middle here."
            "I'm sorry, Mrs. Feldman. I hope I haven't offended you. To tell you the truth, when Sally told me you were in that class, and I figured out which one you were, I didn't think you were ready for The Meadows, either."
            "Thanks for your confidence."
            In the living room, Bessie turns on the television. She turns it off. She picks up the morning paper. Sally calls. "Ma, what did you say to her?"
            "Nothing. I said nothing."
            "You told her I set her up. Now, she's furious."
            Well, my darling daughter.
            "Ma, I'm talking to you."
            "Look, Sally, it's late, and I'm tired. My hip's been killing me all day."
            "I told you. Didn't I tell you, you can't live there by yourself?"
            "I made a mistake. Not all day. Just since I got on the telephone."
            Sally hangs up. Smiling, Bessie listens to the phone buzz.

            The next morning, Bessie can't get out of bed. Her arthritis is flaring up, pain in her back, her legs, her hands. Her fingers are curling. She reaches for her bottle of pills, and holding the bottle with the heels of her hands, she shakes out two. She pulls herself up and leans over her night table, taking the pills with her tongue. She swallows them down without water and prays for sleep. That day, Bessie gets up only to go to the bathroom and fix her meals, toast and tea, Stouffer's macaroni and cheese. She feeds Pisher and lets him out. The phone is quiet. Her friend, Minnie is away. Frances, too. Sally and Aaron don't phone. Doubt seeps like water oozing through a crack. In a place like The Meadows, she'd have someone on the other side of her bedroom wall. A nurse nearby. She'd have crafts, busses to take her to a shopping mall.
            She could live long, too long, and a place like The Meadows wants you only when you're healthy. But she loves her house, her neighborhood, the sounds on her street—Bobby, next door, shooting baskets, familiar cars driving and turning into driveways, the UPS driver, delivering a package and saying her name. Pisher curls at the foot of her bed.
            At noon on the third day, the phone rings. "Bessie, it's Doris, next door. I haven't seen you going out. Are you okay?"
            "I had a little arthritis attack."
            "I wish you'd call me. I'll be right over."
            "No, no."
            Using her cane, Bessie walks slowly to the bathroom. She strips down to her waist and washes up. She's too unsteady for the shower, but she needs to dress, to comb her hair and put on makeup--a little powder, a little blush. That Doris will be ringing the bell, and when she does, Bessie is ready to invite her in and thank her for the cooked chicken (bar-b-qued in a supermarket), the applesauce, the slice of cake. They talk a little about the weather, how beautiful with the sun still warm in November, and when Doris leaves, Bessie bundles up in her winter coat and sits outside, Pisher beside her. The air feels good; the sun feels good. Next door, Bobby dribbles and shoots. The ball hits the rim and bounces in. He gives her a thumbs up.
                                                                             
            Class on the fourth week. Eden, the state of innocence is a state of blankness, Miriam tells them. "How do we find words to express a state that is no longer in our consciousness?"
            Bessie's mind wanders. She looks outside at the gray day, imagining a landscape where earth, sea, and sky blend to white, a blanket of snow leveling rivers and mountains, oceans and streams. Not one thing rises up out of another. This is blankness. A vast sea of emptiness.
            Miriam's voice penetrates Bessie's dream. "When Eve chooses to eat the fruit, she sets in motion free will."
            This is the way Sally talked when she was in college. Free will. Different for Christians than for Jews.
            "And isn't this what God wants," Miriam says, "to teach us to choose good?"
            "So you're saying that without evil there is no good," Deborah says.
            Miriam smiles. "Am I?"
            Deborah sits up in her chair. "I'd say yes."
            "And without Eve's decision to eat the fruit there is no free will," Ruth says.
            Oy Vey. Bessie tries to imagine good without evil. Knowledge without disobedience. Impossible. One exists in relation to the other. Like Eve, like Adam.
            Miriam speaks. "Remember what Eve says. 'The serpent beguiled me and I ate.' Eve takes responsibility for her actions." Miriam smiles, wryly. "And her counterpart?"
            "He hides in the bushes," Bessie says.
            Miriam laughs. Bessie laughs. They all laugh.
            "So," Miriam says, "what are the consequences of creating this creature of free will?”
            "Things can go wrong," Deborah says.
             And Bessie understands that knowledge is risky; living is risky. You take chances. Some work out; some don't. Eve is a girl Bessie can like. She makes her choice; she lives with it. Bessie feels all puffed up like bread dough rising.
            At the end of class when Miriam takes off her yarmulke, they all applaud, and Bessie is sorry the course has ended.
           
            In early December, she calls Aaron and tells him she's coming to visit. He can pick her up on Saturday. She wants to see her granddaughters. Aaron stutters. He's caught off guard, but he's a good boy, and he won't feel comfortable refusing his mother. This is what Bessie counts on.
            She calls Sally and asks her to feed Pisher and water her plants.
            "Ma," Sally says. "How can you manage? I'm floored. This is so sudden."
            "Not so sudden. I booked two weeks ago."
            "Why didn't you tell me?"
            Why do you think? "Look Sally, I'm leaving Saturday. If you can't do it, I'll ask Doris next door."
            "Saturday? Of course, I'll do it. Do you need a ride to the airport?"
            "I booked a taxi."
            "Already?"
            "Why should I bother you?"
            "It's no bother."
            "I'm fine, Sally. Honestly."
            Call me the minute you arrive. Okay?"
            "Don't worry."
            "Take care of yourself. Promise you'll call?"
            "I'll call."

            Bessie limps and leans on her cane. Her hip aches. Still, she has refused a wheelchair, but she has accepted an offer to board early, why not? She walks through a gate and onto a jetway. Bessie is flying first class, not that she paid for a first class ticket, but the young man behind the counter, winked and gave her an upgrade. Graded me up. For the limp? For the cane? She doesn't know. She doesn't care. The hip is hers to live with. The limp, the pain. An attendant approaches. "Welcome aboard, Mrs. Feldman. Can I get you a glass of orange juice, a cup of coffee? wine?"
            "I'll take tea," Bessie says. "With a slice of lemon. No sugar. And a small cookie if you have it."
            "Certainly," the attendant says.
            Bessie fastens her seat belt and settles back into her seat. The attendant attaches a tray table and hands her a linen napkin. Passengers board and cast looks. Who is this woman? First class. Bessie sips her tea and opens a magazine. She nibbles her cookie and waits for takeoff.

            No one waits at the gate. On the other side of the luggage scanners, she sees Aaron before he sees her. He's middle aged. Dark hair shot with gray. Furrows creasing his brow. Eyes wide, he scans the crowd. Bessie misses Erv. If Erv were beside her, she'd nudge his shoulder. What do you think, he's happy to see us?
            "Mom," Aaron says. Terry and Lucy lag behind.
            "We waited and waited," Lucy says. "Daddy said you might be riding in a wheel chair."
            Terry throws Lucy a warning look. "Lucy."
            "Well, you did," Lucy says to her father.
            "I thought maybe...." Aaron looks chagrined.
            "Catherine didn't come with you?" Bessie says.
            "She's studying," Terry says.
            "Actually, she started school in September," Aaron says.
            "I thought you said..." Bessie doesn't finish. What does it matter, September, January? "She likes it?" 
            "She's going to be a lawyer." Terry tosses her hair out of her eyes. She doesn't look at Bessie when she speaks.
            Maybe I wasn't so smart, flying three thousand miles, inviting myself.
           
Aaron's house sits on a hill. In this neighborhood, the houses are large, the spaces between them tight and narrow. Bessie sits on a patio, looking down on shingled roofs, on cars traveling on a highway. In the distance, she sees the ocean.
            Later, at dinner, she eats little. It's after ten, not by her watch which she has changed to California time, but by the clock inside her body. Exhausted, she leaves the table before dessert. Taking her cane, she walks to the den where Catherine has made up the sleeper couch, and she prays: Please, God, no attacks. Not here. Bessie sleeps soundly, so soundly that when she wakes she can't remember where she is, this room, these curtains, so gauzy that sunlight streams in. A knock. 
            "Gram, it's me, Lucy."            
            The door opens and Aaron stands behind his daughter. The look on his face is one Bessie remembers, apologetic and wistful. He was a loveable child, one who wanted to please. Lucy walks slowly, carrying a breakfast tray. Bessie sits up and bites her lip. Still, she can't help wincing with the pain.
            "Mom," Aaron says.
            "It's nothing," Bessie says.     
            As Lucy sets the tray on Bessie's lap, Aaron pulls down the legs. The tray sits on the bed like a table. "I made the eggs myself," Lucy says. "They're soft scrambled. I wasn't sure how you liked them. I can take them back and cook them hard."
            "They're perfect, Sweetheart," Bessie says.
            "It's whole wheat toast. We never eat white. Daddy likes rye, don't you daddy?" Lucy glances at her father.
            Aaron winks. "See you two later."
            "Well, he does." Lucy watches Bessie eat. "I like raisin, but we're out. Terry and Mommy like muffins. The grainy kind. I can't stand them." She lifts her chin. "Do you think I look like Daddy?" 
            "Maybe a little."
            "They divide us up. Terry's Mommy's. I'm Daddy's. Maybe I'll be Jewish. Jesus was Jewish. Abraham sort of. But Adam and Eve were before Jews."
            Bessie places her fork on her plate. "You're learning about Adam and Eve?"
            "My school has religion class. I'm supposed to go to church, too."
            Sunday morning.
            Lucy sighs. "I think Eve's a nerd, don't you?"
            Bessie tucks her napkin under the rim of her plate and motions. "You'll put my tray on that desk. Then, you'll come sit by me. I know a story that if you read it right makes a..." Bessie pauses. "What did you say? Nerd?"
            "Yeah, like jerk."
            “a nerd into a smart cookie."
            Outside, a car door slams.
            Bessie whispers. "Later."
           
            That afternoon on the porch, Aaron pours Bessie a glass of iced tea and takes one for himself. Bessie knows that Catherine has taken the girls out, purposely. She stops Aaron before he begins. "Aaron, I'm having a nice visit. Don't spoil it."
            "Mom, I watched you this morning. You can hardly get out of bed."
            Bessie sips her iced tea. "So, I'm a little stiff. It goes away."
            "What's wrong with The Meadows?"
            "You've been to one of those places? Fancy names. Inside, they're all the same. You remember Sylvia Green? She's in Roaring Creek. I went for lunch. She asks for a glass of water. Three times, she asks. Finally, she tells the waitress she'd like her water. The woman gets mad, tells Sylvia she has no manners. Sylvia, can you imagine? In that dining room it's quiet like a morgue."
            Lucy appears. "Lucy," Aaron says.
            "Mommy let me out at the corner."
            "Does she know you've come home?" Aaron says.
            Lucy looks down at her toes. They curl at the edge of her sandals. "I was supposed to go to Carol's." 
            "So you disobeyed?"
            Lucy stands next to Bessie's chair. "Gram promised me a story. It's private."
            "That's right," Bessie says. She winks at Lucy. Aaron walks inside, letting the screen door slam behind him.
            "He's mad," Lucy says.
            "He'll get over it." Bessie wraps her arm around Lucy's waist and draws her close. She looks out at the hillside where the afternoon light has made the jewel-like granules in the shingles on the roofs glitter. Leaves turn silver. Red hibiscus glow. Bessie strokes Lucy's hair. "Come, you'll pull up a chair. So where was I?"
            "Eve was a smart cookie," Lucy says, her eyes wide and eager. She’s ready to listen.

THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
            I was taking a series of courses about women in the Hebrew Bible at Hebrew College, driving from my house in Portsmouth, New Hampshire where I lived at the time, to Brookline, Massachusetts, once a week, a three hour commute for an hour of class. But I wanted those classes, all of them looking for a woman’s strength and not her submission. I was surpised when I learned we were studying Genesis, particularly Eve. After going deeply into the text and listening to my instructor translate the Hebrew, I became obsessed with Eve’s story, and I wanted to tell it. At the time, I was writing fiction, exculsively, so I searched for a character. I knew I couldn’t take on the roll of Eve. I didn’t want a mirror image of myself. There was an older woman in the class. She walked with a cane. A friend had had a recent hip replacement, so I was somewhat familiar with what that was like. I began to spend time hanging out in Coolidge Corner in Brookline, a place of Jewish life, a place where the women reminded me of the women in my childhood, my grandmother, my great-aunts, most of them immigrant Jewish women, women who spoke directly, honestly and clearly. I created Bessie who told me her story.

ABOUT SANDELL MORSE
A recent essay, “Circling My Father,” has won the Michael Steinberg essay prize and is in the spring 2011 issue of Fourth Genre. Another essay, “This is Blood,” is included in the new CNF Books anthology, At The End of Life. Her short fiction has appeared in Green Mountains Review, Ploughshares and the New England Review. She has taught writing at the University of New Hampshire, been a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers' Conference, a finalist in the Ploughshares Robie Macauley Fellowship Award, an associate artist at the Atlantic Center for the Arts and a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts where she is now a member of the Board. New work is upcoming in Calyx and in Press 53, and is currently up on the Ascent website: http://readthebestwriting.com/?p=1581

Twitter: @sandellmorse

5 comments:

  1. An excellent and entertaining story. It also brought home the pressure children sometimes apply on their parents to go into establishments their parents are sure they're not ready for.Bessie made a good case against it and a good protagonist in the fight.

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  2. Thanks, so much for taking the time to read and to comment.

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  3. I love this story on so many levels: the way the life and the study of midrash become interwoven, the characters and how alive they become for me, and oh, the ending, with Bessie teaching her granddaughter how Eve was a smart cookie --! Beautiful. Kol hakavod.

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  4. Dear Rachel,
    Thank you, thank you. Hearing from readers means so much to me.

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  5. Wonderful, Sandell! And how special to have created Bessie, and that she was so gifted at telling you her story!

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