I’ll be reading this short story this afternoon at the Blacksburg Library, but for those who can’t make the reading, and who don’t have Montgomery County local access TV, and who can’t wait for it to be posted on the New River Valley Voices YouTube channel, here ’tis. A little more serious than my usual fare. Let me know what you think!
THE FOUR QUESTIONS
The news came on the day of the Passover Seder.
“Sorry, darling, but your father won’t be joining us,” < my mother said, planting a kiss on my cheek as I stepped into the hallway. A vodka martini dangled from her hand like a vestigial appendage. “He’s chosen to pass the holiday with Karen or Corinna or whatever this one’s name is. But on the upside, Tess has made Gefilte fish from scratch. Nothing like soggy fish balls to soothe the sting of betrayal, eh?” She arched a wry eyebrow.
As if on cue, my little sister, Tess, flew down the stairs. “Pretty wild, huh? We’re taking bets on whether this one will be older than me.”
Tess, obese, myopic, lovable, neurotic Tess, possessed little more than a half-completed Master’s Degree in Film Studies from UC-San Diego _ and myriad pollen allergies, but she’d recently decided to become an organic chicken farmer. She and her boyfriend, who’d inherited money, but not business acumen, from his father, had put in an offer on a 70-acre parcel in rural Mississippi, complete with coops for 35,000 laying hens. Their business plan was liberally peppered with phrases like “radical self-reliance” and included a strategy to feed the chickens on a diet rich in seaweed. To my knowledge, Tess has never touched a live chicken. We indulge her, of course. < Families are supportive. That’s what families do. Families indulge things.
But Tess is the youngest, and there are still no grandchildren, so even if she goes around spouting agricultural pronouncements like a poultry-specific version of the Oracle of Delphi, the finding of the hidden afikomen and the recitation of the Four Questions fall to her.
My older sisters, the twins, took the news about my father like cosmopolitan sophisticates, laughingly wondering how long it would be before Dad would announce that we had a new little brother or sister. They took their cues from our mother. For her, the zap of a joke could staunch the blood pouring from any wound, and a quick-witted retort could dispel unpleasantness with the swiftness of a magician’s wand. My mother’s eyes smiled along with the twins, but her mouth was sewn up into a tight button.
I alone, it seemed, was astonished by my father’s absence. To me, it seemed like some trick of the light that would be revealed as an optical illusion. “Ta-da!” someone would spring from the shadows and shout. “He was here all the time!” Instead, there was an empty chair next to Tess who was enthusiastically belting Mah Nishtanah, the Four Questions, like she was trying to stage a Hebrew rendition of Oklahoma! “Ma nishtanah halailah hazeh mikol haleilot?” What is different, this night, from all other nights?
I got through dinner, even the homemade Gefilte fish, but after we got home, my husband found me in a sobbing heap, splayed next to the tub like an unmolded Jell-O.
“Come on, babe,” he consoled, bent low, hand on my back. “They’ve always been miserable. They were doomed from the start, like Romeo and Juliet, only without the stabbings or the sonnets or the suicides. Or the romance. Okay, not like Shakespeare, but you know what I mean.”
I shook my head. I knew he was trying to cheer me up, but I couldn’t even muster a smile. Fran and Benjamin Aaronson of Evanston, Illinois, passing their Seders separately for the first time in 33 years.
Puffy-faced and red-eyed, I dragged a toothbrush back and forth in my mouth, thinking of my own Four Questions.
Had my parents always been miserable? Probably. When they fought, the insults they hurled had a seemingly inexhaustible power supply, a nuclear arsenal, mutually-assured destruction. But their banter fed on the same fuel, igniting explosions of laughter that reduced them to tears and shook the very walls of our house.
Was my mother to blame at all? Most likely. Her ruthlessness as a public prosecutor was second only to her ruthlessness toward her liver, which she’d spent her life doing her best to pickle. And although my father could give every bit as good as he got, no doubt he could be forgiven for seeking out eyes that could look upon him without that unfocused glassiness.
And to what could I ascribe my father’s philandering, which was stitched into the very binding of their marriage? It wasn’t a midlife crisis—Nana Ruth once told me that it had always been this way, even when they were dating. And it had always seemed to me like a game he and my mother were playing together. Sure, the joke was sick, but I thought she was in on it.
As I climbed into bed next to my sleeping husband, it was a fourth question that planted itself in my mind and took root like a fast-spreading bamboo. Whatever they’d had, hadn’t it always been the same? For 33 years. Through four daughters. Through the death of my only brother, little Evan, the wispy candle flame of his life snuffed out before he even took his first breath. Through my father’s prostate cancer scare, hadn’t she tended him during the long months of treatment and recovery? Through my mother’s fear of flying, so paralyzing that when my Nana Ruth was dying, and mother had one of her panic attacks in the departure terminal at O’Hare, hadn’t he driven her through the night and day all the way down to Miami—26 hours—so she could be with her mother in the final hours? Hadn’t what they had been the same through my wedding the previous summer, when they had stood next to the chuppah, smiling and holding hands with habitual ease as Jason and I took our vows.
What is different, this night, from all other nights? I rolled the question around in my mind, trying to recall the moment when everything transformed. Some words, maybe? An insult too far? A joke that fell flat? If I could only find out what had changed things, I could use that knowledge to dig a firebreak around my own marriage. To keep the spark from catching, and burning my life to the ground.
One thought on “The Four Questions”
Very evocative about the “empty chair,” because there can be an empty chair added to the Passover table for Elijah. Just as Elijah has not yet come to complete any Seders, many incomplete marriages still exist.