On the Eighth Day
Copyright 1998 Audrey Beth Stein
All Rights Reserved.
On the eighth day God created the questionnaire, with an optional
space to declare yourself Methodist, Jewish, or Native American. He
rollerbladed into the corner store and bought an instant lotto ticket. He
presented me with my first camera. On the eighth day God didn't show up in
synagogue. On the eighth day God woke up, rolled out of bed, and fell onto
the floor. He ate a bowl of Cheerios. He skipped my brother's wedding. He
appeared in the distinct greys of an eight-by-ten photograph. On the
eighth day God forgot to check on the world. On the eighth day God
invented cancer. He read a book about himself. He learned how to spell my
name. He brushed with sparkly bubblegum flavor toothpaste. On the eighth
day God made a perfect layup, sending the earth into a black hole without
touching the rim. Swish.
Alternating Friday nights I was allowed to hold the large
kiddush cup and lead the prayer in Hebrew. The other weeks Zack got
the cup while my father read the English translation. Zack was eight and
couldn't sit through either version without fidgeting. That particular
Friday he was working the pedal on the sewing machine base that held up
our kitchen table.
My mother shook her head at Zack and he held his upper body still, eyes
on my father reading the passage about Creation. His feet were still
moving, though, as I found out when I shifted my leg and felt the pedal
come down on my left toe.
My father stopped reading. "Do it again, Zack, and you can forget
playing Atari tonight." Normally this threat wouldn't bother my brother
but he had just gotten Space Invaders a few days before. Zack took his
feet off the pedal and listened to our father repeat the passage from the
beginning. It was at the part where "the heavens and the earth were
finished, and all their host, and on the seventh day God rested" that Zack
interrupted. I thought he was going to ask about "host" but he didn't.
"What did God do on the eighth day?"
My parents ignored him. My dad kept reading. After we'd each tasted the
kiddush wine and begun eating our salads, Zack asked again. "They
stop telling at seven. What did God do on the eighth day?"
The beginning of dinner time was question time. At the kitchen table my
parents would explain in patient voices, in simple words, how babies were
made or why it was hard to ride a bicycle uphill. They would ease us into
a discussion, taking turns as though they'd planned it, as though they'd
been waiting for the question. This time, though, they were silent.
My parents exchanged glances, each waiting for the other to speak. My
father led his fork between his salad and his mouth. The kitchen clock
A flicker of something unrecognizable, fear perhaps, passed over my
mother's face as her eyes traced my father's moving adam's apple. Zack's
foot started working the pedal again, and my father glanced up, mid-chew.
He swallowed. "God did the same things on the eighth day that he does
every day." He spoke carefully, then he reached for the bread knife and
began cutting himself another slice of challah.
"Does God have go to synagogue?" Zack wanted to know.
I took a bite of my own challah as my mother answered, "God is
always in synagogue."
"He's everywhere," I said. "We talked about it in Hebrew School
"That's right," my mother said, serving the brisket. "Did you start
that unit on the Inquisition yet? At last night's board meeting we were
told you would be studying the Inquisition."
We hadn't. "My great-grandmother's family had to flee from Spain
because of the Inquisition," said my father. "It was a terrible thing."
"We're very fortunate," continued my mother, "to live in a country
where we can practice Judaism openly." My parents were back in rhythm
again, talking with my brother and me about religious freedom.
Upstairs that evening Zack set up Space Invaders and showed
me how to play. "As soon as I get old enough I'm not going to synagogue
anymore," he said, blasting an alien.
"You have to," I told him.
"No I don't," he shot back. "If God is everywhere, I can pray to him
while I play Atari. I don't get why anyone goes."
"They probably like the sermon," I said.
Zack waited only until the day after his bar mitzvah to
announce that he was through with synagogue. He said he was a man and he
could make his own decisions, and anyway he didn't believe in God. We
lived out in the suburbs and Zack's new thing was stealing the red flags
from mailboxes. I respected him for rebelling because somehow I couldn't.
Much later, before Zack's chemo started, before my parents
and Zack made up for the last time, I visited my brother out in Seattle. I
was working on a grant photographing modern American families. When I
arrived on Friday afternoon, his wife was reading a book about Harriet
Tubman to four-year-old Benji while Zack played with the baby. I took a
few pictures and kept the camera ready beside me as we gathered around the
dinner table and lit candles. Zack rested his hands on each boy's head to
bless them, one after another. My hands automatically reached for my
Pentax as he spoke to Benji in a voice too low for me to hear.
I composed the image carefully, knowing that more than one click of the
shutter could ruin the moment. I could see my brother's devotion to his
son, Benji's adoration of his father. Then Benji took my hand and
squeezed. "Squeeze Mommy's hand," he coached me. "That's how you pass the
love around the circle." I passed the love along while Lalaina hummed a
wordless spiritual, a tradition from her own childhood.
Dinner was a colorful vegetarian couscous dish, a far cry from the cans
of tuna I often shared with my cat. Benji pointed out the ingredients to
his brother, teaching him the red, green, and yellow. Lalaina and I
laughed at his pronunciation of "turmeric." When he finished, Zack
recounted the story of the Marrannos, Jews who outwardly converted to
Christianity during the Inquisition and lit their candles in secret.
Zack was at complete ease, sleeves pushed up on his cable-knit sweater,
talking to us as the teacher he'd become. You couldn't tell by looking
that he'd worked for two years pumping gas or had hiked the Appalachian
trail with a group of delinquent teens. A faded scar on his left forearm
was the only outward sign of what he'd been through.
"Did any of your family become Marrannos?" Lalaina asked.
I shrugged and Zack shook his head.
"I don't know," he said. "My father might." His voice was wistful and
Lalaina quickly changed the subject.
Her family, I knew, hadn't approved of her marrying a white man, but
they had been won over a few months after the wedding when Benji was born.
I thought about the lives Zack and I had chosen for ourselves, his
estrangement, my recurring bouts of loneliness each time I finished a
project and left the darkroom for a quiet apartment and a tabby cat.
"I like the rituals," Zack said later that night as I helped him with
the dishes. "Even when I change them. It's still a way to connect to a
part of me, and to share that part with my sons and Lalaina."
"What are you going to tell the boys," I asked, "when they ask about
the eighth day?"
"Mom and Dad never did get comfortable talking about God," Zack
I shook my head. "Not really."
"Hard to teach something you're unsure of yourself. I guess I'll just
tell them I don't have the answer." He turned the water on to rinse a
plate, then turned it off. "And that part of growing up is trying to
figure it out."
I was home the weekend my brother brought Lalaina to meet
my parents. Zack was twenty-four and in his senior year of college. I
studied Lalaina as they talked, her deep maroon dress contrasting with tan
skin and jet-black eyes. You had to look hard to see her African ancestry.
She and Zack sat close together on the couch, my father in the easy chair,
my mother and I in the matching straight chairs.
Lalaina squeezed Zack's fingers as he explained how they would be
saving money by getting married now instead of waiting until graduation.
Her stomach wasn't showing yet and Zack didn't mention the baby.
My mother didn't say anything for a long while. The years had been
emotionally draining, and I knew it was hard for her to have faith in a
son who had so often let her down. "I still have my own wedding dress,"
she said finally, smiling at Lalaina. "It should fit you."
"I don't think--" Zack began, then hesitated, aware that my mother was
trying. My father's face remained expressionless.
"No, it's fine," said Lalaina, to both Zack and my mother.
"Oh," my mother said, blinking her eyes. "What was I thinking? It's
alright, I understand, Lalaina wants to wear her own mother's dress. I
shouldn't have said anything."
"Actually," said Lalaina slowly, "I had been planning on something a
little less fancy. A suit, maybe. But I would love to wear your dress."
"You were planning to get married in a suit?"
"We're going to a justice of the peace." Zack looked at my mother, then
at me, his eyes pleading for help. He wore a sports jacket and hiking
boots, his hair not quite long enough to tie back.
My father's hand tightened on the arm of his chair, and my mother
gasped. "A justice of the peace--that's what they have in Las Vegas."
I looked at my father, who was watching my mother. I didn't know then
that my father kept a confiscated mailbox flag in his sweater drawer and
still used the bookmark Zack had made him in nursery school. Later I would
overhear him bragging about my brother's work with Outward Bound, but that
day what I noticed was the distance between them, a distance that hadn't
been there sixteen years ago. I thought I recognized a hatred for what
Zack had put my mother through complicating my father's love for his son.
The silence was controlled, tense, my father's emotion withheld as he
waited to see how my mother would react.
"Mom, Dad," I cautiously interrupted. "Zack and Lalaina just spent five
hours in the car. They probably want to rest for a while."
Zack concurred with a nod, and Lalaina sent a grateful smile my way.
"They dress like Elvis there," my mother continued as I led Lalaina
upstairs to the den. "I've seen it on television."
The linen closet was at the top of the staircase and I
caught the word "convert" a few times while I searched for a clean set of
towels. I tried to close the door to the den but it was blocked by the
"You didn't seem to have a problem when I was dating Kathryn in high
school." Zack's voice was loud.
Lalaina held one edge of the polka-dotted sheet and I took the other,
struggling to fit it on the fourth corner.
"We did have a problem with it," my father said, in the tone
that said he wasn't going to change his mind. "But you also may recall
some more serious problems around that time. You cutting classes,
drinking, getting arrested. How do you think it felt, having to convince
the judge you didn't need to be put in a juvenile detention center?"
Lalaina lifted the edge of the couch and eased the door past it and
shut. Her smile was wry. She asked about one of the photographs on the
wall and I told her about the semester in college I'd spent documenting
the lives of subway musicians. I admired her hammered silver bracelet. She
showed me the e.e. cummings quote Zack had had engraved on the back.
Together we spread out the comforter, and as I opened the door to get
pillows Zack's voice reverberated throughout the hallway. "It's a little
late now. This is my life. I love Lalaina and I love that she has a rich
culture of her own, and I want to share that with her. Not replace her
past with mine."
After the funeral I found the negatives I had taken of Zack
and his family and decided to print a few for Lalaina. I stood in the
darkroom under the orange glow of the safelight, acidic smell of chemicals
surrounding me, eight-by-ten print slowly appearing in the developer.
Zack's hands gently covering Benji's small skull, lips pressed to the
boy's forehead, Lalaina and the baby blurred in the background. On the
eighth day God lent the world my brother. I grasped the sides of the
chemical tray and held on.