Audrey Beth 
Stein's SHOW AND
TELL

 
 
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.

"Ouch."

"Sorry."

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 ticked loudly.

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 yesterday."

"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 reflected.

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 fold-out couch.

"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.

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