“So why did you put the tomato paste in this cabinet and the tomato sauce in that I’ve told you about that a hundred times. . . . Just look in this dishwasher. You shoved my good glasses up against each other again. This one’s cracked. Oh, Jesus, the knives. The knives go point up or they block the tray and scratch the door. For God’s sake.” one?
At fourteen I couldn’t comprehend how I loved my parents, either how much or in what ways. I didn’t appreciate that love is heterogeneous, that the word covers everything from an amicable relationship with God to a roll on a motel bed and a taste for french fries, let alone that love can be smothered underneath other feelings or wrung-out until it’s faded and unrecognizable. At fourteen you feel more than you know so, though I loved my parents, this love was asphyxiated by anxiety, twisted by exasperation. As for them, I think their love for each other was being sandpapered to dust.
When the arguments began, they tried to keep them from me. Shh, she’ll hear. At some point they no longer bothered.
It was the standardization of their disputes that infuriated me most. They were like rituals repeated by unbelievers. Mother was always the aggressor; Dad would put up token resistance for about ten minutes, then she’d come back at him twice as hard until he curled up on the couch or put his head down on the table and just fell asleep.
“You’re always leaving your shoes in the hall . . . . Why didn’t you tell that jerk off? . . . What do you mean your forgot to pick up the cleaning?”
It wasn’t tomato paste location or dishwasher protocols; it wasn’t misplaced shoes or dry cleaning, of course, but that their love had turned sour, that Mother wanted out. I couldn’t understand why she seemed not have caught on. Dad just didn’t care, I figured, and only wanted peace, which was why he went narcoleptic, and made her rant even more.
I wanted to screech like her and withdraw like him. Like her, I had my grievances; like him, I wanted everything to stay the same. They were supposed to be my launching pad and those are things you like to be stable. But then, as Baruch told me a few years later, precarious is precisely what stability always is.
Fourteen’s not an easy age; at least it wasn’t for me. It won’t be easy for you either, I’m afraid. New breasts, the interesting boys you’re interested in and the uninteresting ones that are interested in you, the worrying spirals of school, female back-biting, childhood winding up and womanhood in the offing, too long to wait for the liberation of college.
And fifteen was worse.
Worst of all were their fights about me. Mother was all for tight reins, Dad just the opposite; he had plenty of trust but he wasn’t long on principle, a feckless ally who didn’t put up much of a fight. What was bad wasn’t that Mother was the disciplinarian but that she hated having to be.
I want it to be different for you, Miriam—I mean being an adolescent and a daughter—and I’m afraid it’ll be just the same, only with computers.
I’m on maternity leave, Miriam. Miriam, we’re on maternity leave. Time off for working mothers was a progressive innovation of the late twentieth century, at least in Western Europe and among enlightened or unionized employers and in America. Miriam. Miriam. If I delight in just writing your name, imagine I love your little hands and tiny toes, the suddenness with which you’ve changed my life. It’s just you and me all day for three months. Don’t get the wrong idea, though. Daddy doesn’t get any leave but he’s just as nuts about you as I am, and even more scared.
So why am I writing to you who can only cry, shit, suck, burp, and smile—which you do gloriously? And why am I writing about my adolescence? Well, because I think some day you might be interested. I once read that no generation really gets beyond another, that we all have to start in the same place, and so when it comes to feeling we can all understand each other. It’s a lovely idea and it sounds true to me; but the rub is we can’t understand each other at the same time. When do you understand your parents? When you get to be their age, or you get to be a parent yourself? Maybe not even then. When do you understand yourself at sixteen? When you’re twenty-seven?
I’ve given you a Jewish name, Miriam. Though it’s probably what Jesus’ mother was called, I chose it because it’s Jewish. I expect some day this might puzzle you, since your parents aren’t Jewish, or your grandparents, or your great-grandparents. Okay, so among other things, I am writing this to explain your name, Miriam.
It’s a long time since I’ve written, certainly anything as long as this is going to be. Not since college. Thinking of you as my reader helps. It feels funny to imagine you reading this decades from now, to wonder what you’ll make of it and of me.
Both my parents worked, just like yours. For years your grandmother was the office manager for an architectural firm, the pin in their pinwheel; Dad was a product manager for a medical instrument company. So, you see, they were both managers, the irony being that, in my opinion, neither could manage. They had odd hobbies, things they didn’t do together. My mother loved alpine plants. When she got email, she chose Diapensia as her address. She’d drag me out of bed at dawn and make me drive up to the mountains with her. Sometimes I was glad, of course, but I didn’t care for the crunchy, self-righteous hikers with whom we hooked up. My father learned to fly and bought a third interest in a Cessna. I think he enjoyed being out at the airport more than flying, though. He had cronies. They always teased me, not very cleverly. I thought of them as the Air Bums. My point is that there wasn’t much glue so far as I could see, and little balm. One night when I couldn’t block out the arguing even with my door shut and music blasting I went to the top of the stairs and yelled down at them. “Look, if I’m the reason you two are staying together I don’t want the responsibility.” I was angry and wanted to shock them. “Half the kids in my class have divorced parents so it’s no big deal to me,” I said. But it was. I just didn’t know what to do with all those negative ions zipping around the house like gamma rays. I wasn’t much of a rebel. I had a horror of drugs and just as much of sex. So I huddled in my room and read nineteenth-century novels, the longer the better; my vocabulary swelled and my grades actually went up. Some rebel.
Sweet Sixteen is an American thing. Once it was about being a virgin (as you will be!), then it turned into a party for getting your learner’s permit. Hispanic girls have their shindigs at fifteen, Jewish girls at thirteen. Really, it’s just an occasion for the biggest party you get until your wedding, something to look forward to and worry over. It’s also a chance some parents take to show off and make it look like love. I could happily have done without a party. My parents weren’t the showing off type and I had an aversion to being conspicuous. Nevertheless, I’d been invited to four of these things that year, two of them pretty extravagant, so it was expected we’d do something. Naturally, this became another casus belli for my parents. I wanted to suggest we invite the neighbors in and merge celebrations: I could hold up my learner’s permit and they could hoist their separation agreement—a dj would do; no need for a band.
As it turned out, I had a small party at home, with a striped tent in the yard and a few of those long sub sandwiches and pizzas. I got to choose ten friends and my parents picked the relatives. There were some nice presents. In fact, this whole tract, Miriam, is really about one of them.
It was from my Uncle Albert. There may be a snapshot of him in an album somewhere, so maybe you’ll get a look at him if the album survives and you can track it down. I’d only seen Albert three times in my life but he was my favorite relative by far. The first time I was too young to remember. The second I got a huge crush on him. He was tall and slim with shiny, slicked-back hair. He wore elegant clothing and was kind to me, the way men who spoil barren wives can be. To me he was old movie stars; he was Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, and David Niven, a natural aristocrat. He lived in glamorous Los Angeles with my mother’s older sister, Grace, her third husband and the only one to stick it out more than a year. Grace was nothing like my mother. She was a self-centered hedonist immune to discipline. To everybody’s astonishment, Albert stayed married to Grace for the rest of his life, apparently quite happily.
The third time I saw Albert I was twelve and full of embarrassing anticipation the moment I learned he was in town. He and Aunt Grace were making a royal progress down the East Coast to Palm Beach. They didn’t crowd in with us, of course. They stayed in a five-star hotel. Aunt Grace called as soon as they got in and insisted we all meet at her favorite downtown restaurant to eat lobsters. “My sister always has to have lobster when she comes home,” Mother said bitterly. I shared my mother’s view of Aunt Grace; I thought her a frivolous woman unworthy of her Albert and couldn’t understand why he doted on her, treating her, I couldn’t help noticing, pretty much the way he did me. How infantile she looked in her paper bib at the big round table. Uncle Albert and I sat beside one another. I ordered baked scallops and, gallantly he did the same. Foregoing lobster made a bond.
Over the scallops, Albert regaled me with the glories of Southern California and how, when I came to visit, we’d go into the mountains, over the border to Mexico, and visit his friends at the movie studios. Golden promises. I never did get an invitation. Maybe my aunt didn’t care for houseguests.
Grace and Albert got a courtesy invitation to my Sweet Sixteen. My aunt couldn’t or wouldn’t come but Albert phoned to say he had to fly east on business and would arrange the timing. He said he’d adore to see little Olivia all grown up.
He arrived in a taxi wearing a beautiful gray suit and a purple silk tie. He was carrying a wicker basket with a puppy in it, a little black thing with a disproportionately large head and wonderful dark eyes. I’d never had a real pet. Mother wouldn’t countenance the mess and responsibility of a dog, and cats made my father sneeze. But I was sixteen now and I think they were sort of intimidated by my uncle. The puppy was a Scottish terrier and, like any kind of puppy, irresistible. I took the basket in my arms, set it down on the grass outside the tent, and the little thing hopped right out and licked my face for all it was worth. He didn’t try to lick anybody else; he never did, in fact. When I set him down, he walked backwards. Albert explained that Scotties were bred to go into holes after rats and foxes and pull them out, so they’re naturally inclined to walk backwards before they walk forwards. Maybe he made it up on the spot. Anyway, I saw him as an authority on his present and he assured me that my puppy would soon be walking forwards too.
I asked if the dog already had a name. Albert said no. Picking a name, he said grandly, was my privilege. That was the word he used, privilege. I’d never named anything before. My girlfriends gathered around and set up the mawkish row girls make over anything newborn and then they began suggesting names, competing to be the cutest: Boopsy, Teeny, Burns, Kiltie, Glasgow, Jock, Morrison, Dundee, Bobby Dylan, James Dean. But I felt naming this tiny being was a serious responsibility, and I wasn’t about to rush it.
Albert had to leave early. He was flying somewhere at dawn. I never saw him again; he died of a heart attack two months later and, six months after that, Aunt Grace, for reasons I thought I understood without approving, knocked back a glass of vodka and a couple handfuls of sleeping pills.
After the party finally guttered out in the spring night, I thanked the remaining guests for coming, my parents for the party, then said I’d be taking the puppy up to my room. Mother objected. She wanted him locked in the downstairs bathroom with newspapers spread three deep all over the floor. I took an armful of newspapers and did as I was told. Mom and Dad only cleaned up for a few minutes, so tired they didn’t even argue. Once they’d gone to bed, I tiptoed downstairs. There were whimpers coming from under the bathroom door. I opened it as quietly as I could. The puppy trembled with delight at seeing me and I smuggled him into my bedroom.
I sat cross-legged on the bed, my chin propped thoughtfully on my palm. He looked up at me, full of expectation, cocking his head fetchingly.
“What am I going to call you?” I said.
He uncocked his head. “How about Zev or Dov? No, better yet, Baruch. Baruch. How’s that?”
Then he waggled his bottom and panted up at me, all doggy ingratiation. “Okay?”
I was tired, way too tired, I figured, so I turned out the light, patted his head, and in no time we both fell asleep.
There was more face-licking at dawn. He’d also made a mess on the floor, some of which had, by accident, gotten on the newspaper I dropped the night before.
I frowned at the little charmer.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Couldn’t help it.”
I shivered. “Are you really talking or am I wacko?”
“I can talk but I can’t control myself. I’m too young, also too old.”
“Mom!” I screamed.
He put a little paw on my arm. “Sh. You want them to think you’re crazy?”
“I think I’m crazy.”
“Well, you’re not.”
“But nothing. I talk only to you. Nobody else. Got it?”
“Can I have maybe a little something to eat?”
“I want to tell. I have to. I’m your owner, your mistress. You have to obey me.”
“For the most part. Look, I really want something to eat or I’m going to start yowling. I won’t be able to help that either.”
“Stop chewing that blanket.”
“I’m a puppy. It comes naturally.”
“I’ve lost my mind.”
“Please believe me, you haven’t. Food!”
My thoughtful uncle had brought a bag of puppy kibble. I went downstairs and put some in a bowl and covered it with warm tap water. My hands trembled.
Baruch had done some serious damage to the blanket by the time I got back. “I don’t know how to jump yet. Put me down next to that bowl, please. I could eat a poodle.”
I lifted him from the bed with one hand. He dived into the bowl, little tail motoring like mad.
The party was Saturday night. I spent the next day alone with my puppy. Dad left early for the airport and coffee with the Air Bums while Mom scheduled a brunch and a garden tour with her comrades from the Horticultural Society. I found out a lot that day, not everything, not yet, but it began with the discovery that a rolled-up pair of old knee-socks was Baruch’s ideal toy. He treated it like a caught rat, a little fox, chasing it, pulling it backwards, shaking his adorable Scottie head back and forth, as if to break its neck. I was relieved that, while there was a good deal of high-pitched growling, there was no rational discourse and figured that whatever somebody had put in my food the night before must have worn off. My relief was premature.
I’d taken him out in the backyard. I sat under the maple tree and tossed the toy for him and experimented with endearments. It was all going normally enough until he dropped the knee-socks and rolled over, inviting me to rub his belly.
“That good?” I crooned complacently
“Terrific. Look, Olivia, I’m not a man trapped in a dog’s body, you know. That’s what you were thinking last night, isn’t it? You wanted to pretend it never happened. Come on, am I right or am I right?”
I pulled my hand back as if I’d been stung. Was I disappointed or not?
“What? You’re thinking Frog Prince?”
“It’s better than thinking I’m loony. Anyway, aren’t you? I mean something like the Frog Prince? God, I can’t believe I’m saying this.”
He rolled onto on his stumpy Scottie legs and walked backward. “Not everything all at once, okay? I’m just a puppy and you’ve just turned sixteen. Let’s take it slow.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
He sniffed around the trunk of the maple, ventured a few forward steps, did pretty well.
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“You think I do?”
“Be patient. I understand a little.”
“Are you a dog or not?”
“Oh, I’m a dog all right. I’m completely a dog. I’ve got doggy thoughts and urges and needs. I’m utterly desperate for you to love me and that proves I’m a dog. Getting the right person to love you is life and death for a dog, you know. The thing is—”
“What’s the thing?”
“Well, apparently I’m not only a dog.”
“Obviously! So what? You’re a frog and a prince?”
“It’s no fairy tale, at least not to me.”
“Reincarnated then, is it?”
“Am I a Hindu?”
His sarcasm exasperated me. “How should I know? Are you a Scotsman?”
“That’s a laugh.” He barked convincingly.
“I wasn’t reborn as a dog, no.”
He rolled on the ground, tried going forward again, gave my hand a little lick, cavorted—all, I figured, his way of changing the subject.
“Who are you?”
“I’m your puppy, Baruch.”
“Try to imagine that the thing that loves you so much somehow got smushed into a dog’s brain. The dog and the thing that loves you, has always loved you, they’re right up tight in here, inseparable even.”
He sat on his haunches and looked as pensive as a terrier puppy can. “Why do people assume the dead know all about death? Do the living know all about life?”
“Yes and no,” he said and piddled on the maple tree. “It’s hard to be certain, but I’m pretty sure I’m dead. I’d have to be, wouldn’t I? At my age.”
I sighed. “Can you at least tell me why you’ll only talk to me? Do you know what that’s going to do to me, what it’s already doing?”
“So it’s a secret. Don’t young girls have lots of secrets?”
“Just as I thought.” He pushed his head against my leg. I’d already learned this meant I was to scratch behind his ears.
“I wasn’t finished,” I said, scratching. “We have secrets yes, but not from everybody. And certainly not one like this.”
“Secrets are secrets.”
I stopped scratching. “You’re not listening. This secret separates me from everyone. Girls have secrets so they can share them. That’s half their point, to share them.”
“So secrets connect girls? That’s odd.”
“We whisper a lot. We pass notes. We share.”
“Well that’s all right then,” he said brightly. “You are sharing. With me.”
I threw up my arms. “I mean with somebody human.”
He turned his little rear-end on me. “I’m going to practice walking forward now.”
There was no more talking that day, just unalloyed puppiness.
With my parents, I observed Baruch, either out of calculation or instinct, was determined to establish working relationships—cordial, yet reserved. He liked it when they mumbled “good boy” at him; but starting with that leap of faith out of the basket, he left no doubt that he was a one-girl dog. A matter of life and death, he’d said.
Further information was not forthcoming on the next day either. When I rushed in from school, he was rapturous; I was his liberator. Mother had insisted on his being incarcerated all day in the downstairs bathroom. He’d overturned his bowl of water, perhaps in protest. The knee-socks, which I called “Foxy-Lox,” appeared to have received considerable attention. While I cleaned up after him, he kept as close to me as he could, leech-like with pure love, the fear of being abandoned. It had not been a happy day for Baruch; but he’d made good progress in going forward. I congratulated him and got no reply but a wagging tail and a hanging tongue. I felt silly, waiting for him to say something, but also saner and I phoned two of my friends for some normal gossip. Watching me talk into a little piece of plastic seemed to enthrall and perplex him; there was a quantity of head cocking.
That night my parents arrived home within half an hour of each other, as usual. Dad was always second, as if he’d been hiding outside that extra thirty minutes mustering the nerve to come in. Thanks in part to the distraction of the puppy; things went pretty smoothly until almost the end of dinner. After Baruch had greeted her with recognition and even some gallantry, after she couldn’t find anything in tatters or a yellow stain on a carpet or a turd in a closet, she lightened up. Dad greeted Baruch like an old poker pal, sat me down, and pompously offered me advice on housebreaking: “If he goes on the kitchen floor he gets a newspaper across the nose; if he uses the yard—or, better yet—the park, he gets a Milk Bone. Easy. Pavlov.” I turned to Baruch and made a couplet: “Hear that? Kitchen means switchin’; street means treat.”
The argument broke out suddenly and had nothing to do with me or the dog. In fact, my mother’s grievance was so ancient and obscure I couldn’t make out what it was about, but I understood the music. I scooped up Baruch and headed upstairs, out of the Beethovenian thunderstorm.
I placed the puppy on my bed, put my hands on my hips, and stared at him.
“Look,” I said, feeling a little angry myself, “it’s got to be clearer. You talk or don’t you?”
He settled down on the bed, full-length, making himself comfortable, letting me know that my bed was the first-prize place on the planet. “That happen often, does it?”
“Downstairs. The fighting.”
“More and more.”
He gave me a rather human nod, as if I’d just confirmed what he knew all along. “So tell me, were you disappointed about my not talking?”
I considered this. I wasn’t sure. “Was it a test? Does it matter?”
“It matters to me.”
I sat on the edge of the bed and rubbed his head a little. “What did you mean about being dead?”
“I’ll tell you a story. Maybe a story will help. With some things stories are the best you can do.”
“Is it going to be long? I’ve got Algebra and English to do. Quadratic equations and Katherine Mansfield.”
“Okay, I’ll make it snappier than I should. But I’m warning you, it’s a Jewish story. Do you mind?”
“Why should I mind?”
“Well, your parents named you Olivia and they didn’t exactly leap up and do a hora over your naming me Baruch, did they? You think I didn’t hear? ‘But that’s a Jewish name,’ your mother said. Just like that. Jewish, as if she’d smelled a bad egg. ‘Have you been reading Spinoza?’ your father said. ‘Bernard Baruch?’ They weren’t pleased.”
“I don’t care. Just tell the story, please.”
“You got it. Once upon a time, there was a widow who lived in a little Jewish village in Eastern Europe. She had only one son and by scrimping she got enough together to send him to study with the tzaddik Dov Baer in Mezritch, known as the Great Maggid. This was more than two centuries ago, just so you know.”
“What’s a tzaddik? What’s a maggid?”
“You want this to go fast or you want footnotes?”
I rolled my eyes. “Go on.”
“Well, a year after the boy went to Mezritch he fell ill. Dov Baer got a message—you know, from up above—that the boy would live only if his mother could be with him by the Sabbath. He had to send someone for her at once, but the only person available was a carter named Yitzak Wolfsheim, a terrible sinner. Butt Reb Baer sent for Yitzak anyway and told him to fetch the mother back before sundown on Friday. It was already Wednesday. Yitzak, who was afraid of the rabbi, hitched up his two nags and set out for the shtetl where the widow lived, cursing. He arrived late Thursday night and had to wake people all over the village until he found the widow’s broken down hovel. When he delivered his message, she of course screamed and insisted that they leave at once. Yitzak said that his horses were exhausted. They couldn’t possibly leave before first light. The widow begged, but Yitzak wouldn’t budge. So off they went at dawn. The woman was beside herself. ‘Faster! Faster!’ she urged Yitzak who ground his teeth but beat his old horses. Did he feel for the old woman and the sick boy? Perhaps. Anyway, he drove his horses so hard that the heart of one of them gave out from the strain and he died. The widow began to wail. ‘Don’t you worry,’ said the carter, ‘I’ve still got the one horse.’ He said this to calm her, though he didn’t believe they could possibly make it Mezritch before sundown. He unhitched his dead horse and left it there by the side of the road and off they went. ‘Faster!’ cried the desperate mother. And Yitzak drove his one remaining horse so hard that they made it to Mezritch two hours before sundown. It was almost a miracle. The woman ran straight to her son who, at the touch of his mother’s hand on his forehead, revived. Dov Baer said a prayer and made ready a thanksgiving feast for the Sabbath. They were all at the table, just breaking up the challah—”
“Sh, it’s special bread. So the candles are lit and everybody’s about to eat—the rabbi’s court, his students, the widow and her son—when a late arrival comes in and says Yitzak’s second horse’s heart gave out too. The tzaddik knew that Yitzak’s livelihood depended on those horses and he instructed one of his followers to go to the man and tell him that he had done well and they would take up a collection and buy him two new horses. But the messenger came back and said that the carter’s heart had also given out from the strain and despair at the loss of his horses. And so sadness fell on the company.”
“It’s a sad story, but what has it got to do with you?”
“There’s more. Will the equations wait?”
“Should I say ‘faster’ too?”
“Very funny. So, Yitzak’s before the heavenly court. He’s done so many bad things and so few good ones that there’s a whole gang of accusing angels. All his bad acts are laid out and they’re so numerous and so bad that the court’s about to send him straight to hell. But then the one defending angel rises and tells the story I’ve just told you. The Court’s perplexed. They can’t send him to paradise, not with all the bad things he’s done, but neither do they want to send him to hell, on account of the widow and her son. So they compromise. They send him to the Olam ha-Dimyon.”
“The World of Confusion. Or Illusion. Or dreams. They decide that he won’t know he’s dead and they’ll give him a new cart with two fine stallions and set him out on a wide road in good weather.”
“He’s going to be driving down that road forever? All alone?”
“I suppose he might have. He was happy and content. But Dov Baer learned of the heavenly judgment and lodged an appeal. That’s how powerful he was. He has the man found and tells him he is dead. Yitzak doesn’t believe him, of course, but then the tzaddik shows him the shroud under his overcoat and says a special prayer and the carter’s allowed into paradise. For the tzaddik’s sake, for the sake of the one good deed.”
“So you. . ?”
“Am in the Olam ha-Dimyon. At least I think I am. I must be, though it makes no sense. The way I understand it, the instant you know you’re in the Olam ha-Dimyon then you’re no longer in it. But here I am anyway.”
“But why as a dog? Why my dog?”
“Why a dog I also don’t know. As for you—that’s because I’m your great-great-great-grandfather, Olivia.”
Jennifer Alvarez started a nasty rumor about me. Mr. Dalhousie gave my paper on Dubliners a B+. My favorite TV show was canceled. A rock singer I liked overdosed. Elena’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I got a part-time job in a pharmacy and didn’t like my boss, Mr. Hogrectum. Meanwhile, my parents kept grinding away at the same raw spots on a daily basis.
Sixteen, as I expect you’ll discover, is a heroic, whining age, one of negative self-definition, haunted by an insecurity you reveal on pain of social death. It’s caring about things you know are trivial and despising yourself for it. It’s feeling worse about one pimple than four days of cramps, or war or starving children in the Torrid Zone. It’s imagining some future exaltation, not middle-aged contentment, not bland settling, but some nebulous fulfillment of intensity, happy or sad hardly matters.
Baruch was beside me through it all, listening, licking, impeccably housebroken, always ready for a walk, perpetually ecstatic to see me.
One night, after I’d burst into tears for no good reason, I asked him, “Why do you love me so much?”
“Love’s never reasonable,” he said sententiously, “and yet we always demand reasons for it. Now I love you because I know you but the truth is I loved you before you were born—before your father and mother were born.”
“Then it couldn’t have been me you loved, because I didn’t exist. You loved me as an idea, on principle, as a possibility, a descendant. It’s like saying you’d love anybody with even one of your genes.”
“That’s so awful?”
“To me it’s selfish. It’s impersonal. What if you didn’t like me when we met?”
“But I did! I was a puppy. You smelled right.”
“I still think it’s a kind of vanity, egoism, the way people love their children and grandchildren.”
“Your parents love you. They can’t get over you, in fact. Anyway, it’s built-in; it’s how things work. Babies and puppies need help. Love guarantees protection.”
“It’s tough out there in the world. If that Doberman around the corner attacked you, what do you suppose I’d do? What are these teeth for if not to protect you?”
“You’d kill to protect me?”
“Without hesitation. Why? You want to give me a try?”
“No. It’s just such a responsibility.”
“For you and me both, Olivia. Now, how about a treat?”
The pattern was set. Baruch would be silent for as long as a week, during which time he was simply all dog. I could talk to him as much as I liked, pose questions, and he’d just cock his head. Meanwhile, my parents became accustomed to having him around. They even asked to take him out for walks. Together. Dad gave him rides in the car with the window down. When he got sick, I couldn’t bear to take him to the vet alone. Mom came with me. I had to drag him inside, tugging on his leash. The vet was a perfectly sweet man but Baruch explained later that the place stank of death. To him the clinic was just an abattoir, a fancy place people took the pets they wanted to be rid of. For a week after, he whined and flattened himself whenever we walked near the Honda.
During one of his talkative phases, Baruch explained about the Jewishness and where it went. He himself was a Jew, of course. An Ostjude, he said. Married twice, the second time not so happily. His first wife he extolled. Her name was—can you guess?—Miriam. Yes, that’s who you’re named after, your great-great-great-grandmother who died at thirty-one, deep in darkest nineteenth century. He said he wasn’t entirely sure what country his village had been in because it changed so often: Poland, Moldava, Austro-Hungary, Russia. He couldn’t figure out why Jews ever thought it was a smart idea to set up housekeeping between Germany and Russia. “Could be,” he said, “we had no more choice than the Poles.”
He filled in some family history for me. “Your great-grandfather was a Jew, grew up on the Lower East Side, Jew Central. But he argued with his parents. It was the usual immigrant thing: assimilate but don’t change, be American but speak Yiddish. So he decided to go to California and work in the new movie racket. Jews seemed to run it. He learned how to edit film then changed his name and married a nice Midwestern girl from the chorus. They did it in a Methodist church and he never got around to telling her he was a Jew. Had been. Never saw his parents again either. His brother took over the father’s bathroom fixture business. Nice boy, but dull.”
“Did you live with all your descendants?”
“Live with? No. All? No again. I looked in on a lot of them, sometimes for a week or a month or just an hour—as a customer, a colleague, a neighbor. And, before you ask, never as a boyfriend or a spouse, God forbid, and never as a dog.”
“So you had control of who and where you were?”
“I wish. It’s called the World of Confusion for a reason.”
I told him the monstrous idea that had been eating at me. “What if I’m the one who’s in the Olam ha-Dimyon?”
“Impossible, Olivia. You’re just a sweet mixed-up shiksa. Nobody named Olivia’s going into this Hebrew purgatory. It’s exclusive. Believe me.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“When you’re sure, you’re sure.”
I was about twenty-five percent comforted.
“So you’ve never been an animal before?
“It’s a new experience.”
“You like it?”
“Well, it has its points. You live more in your body, more simply and purely. To tell the truth it takes tremendous effort to think like a human, you know, let alone to speak sensibly. It’s unnatural. Takes nothing to think like a dog. Also, it’s easier to be happy. Just being near you does the trick, especially if you’re not moping.”
Hollering wafted up from the kitchen and I clutched at Baruch. “You’re my real family,” I said passionately.
But my impulsiveness made him cautious. “In a sense,” he allowed, “but still I’m too far away in space and time. I’m a dog. I’m an ancestor.”
“What do you mean? You’re right here, right now.”
He shook his head at me. “It’s not the same. Admit it.”
I wouldn’t. I just hugged him closer. He licked my cheek then shut up for five days.
It was a fine Saturday afternoon and I had just put the last touches on my college essay. I disliked the thing but didn’t hate it. The college essay is not so fine a genre as, say, the Petrarchan sonnet. To celebrate I took Baruch out for a long walk. We strolled all the way to Rheinach Park and sat down under my favorite copper beech.
Baruch seemed subdued or maybe he was just worn out, going all that way on those four short legs.
We lay down on the grass. I put my hands behind my head and gazed up into the branches. “I used to climb up there,” I said.
Baruch looked this way and that, making sure we were alone. Then he said, “I want to tell you a story.”
“It’s another one about the Olam, not exactly a happy one.”
“Fine with me. I’m not exactly happy either. If I get in anywhere I still have to wait months and months.”
Baruch huffed glumly, as if to say, “It’s the way of the world: you can’t wait to get away from me; I’ll bet you wish I were dead.”
I patted his head. “Go on,” I said.
“We’re back in the old country, you understand. Okay, then. It was a bitterly cold winter. A poor tailor whose wife had just given birth to a little girl gathered all the money he could find and went to the market to buy wood to warm them. Firewood was scarce that terrible winter, coal unheard-of. There were only a few sticks left and the tailor was about to buy them when a rich merchant stepped in front of him and offered the woodsman half again as much as the poor man could. The poor tailor begged the rich merchant to take pity on his wife and baby but, as they say, to no avail. Two days later both the wife and the child died of the cold. And two days after that, the tailor, broken-hearted and frozen to the bone, also perished. Now, by coincidence, the very day the poor man died so did the rich one, overcome by a fit of apoplexy after being bested in a deal over some furs.
“Both men appeared before the Heavenly Court and the tailor lodged his complaint. The angels weren’t at all surprised. They’d been keeping an eye on this merchant who had frequently been sued in earthly courts by people he cheated. But, since he could hire the cleverest lawyers, the merchant had always managed to get these suits referred to a higher court, one after the other until he finally found one to acquit him. The chief of the accusing angels read out all his sins, which took two days. A verdict was quickly arrived at. But the rich man, having died so suddenly and unexpectedly, was in the Olam ha-Dimyon and acted just as he would have had he still been alive. He insisted on appealing to a higher court. A panel of higher angels was duly summoned. They listened to the evidence and at once concurred with the verdict. ‘I’ll show you?!’ shouted the rich merchant and declared he would appeal to an even higher court, ‘to the emperor himself, if necessary!’ This amused the angels who put their heads together then told the man that if he wanted to appeal he was free to do just that.”
“That’s it? How does the story end?”
“That is the end. You see? He’s still filing appeals.”
I scratched Baruch behind his ears. “So this means you’re afraid you’re being punished?”
“I was once convinced of it and for a long time I lived alone. I can’t remember for how long. I lived in the mountains, under a bridge, then I built a little hut in the corner of a Jewish cemetery. Eventually I was thrown out by the shamus. There was quite a jolly protest on my behalf by the children. I’d always thought they were scared of me. It was because of them that I was placed again among the living. At least I like to think so.”
“Then maybe you aren’t being punished at all. Maybe it’s just some kind of mistake. Courts make them all the time.”
“Not heavenly ones.”
“Why not? They’re so perfect?”
He turned his head and examined me. “Just then you sounded like. . .”
“Like a Jew.”
For some reason this made me laugh and I gave Baruch a kiss right on his wet black nose.
Well, Miriam, I’m nearly done. I’ve just been changing your diaper. You smiled at me while I did it, and very sweetly too. I can’t help wondering what you’ll make of all this someday, if I decide to show it to you. I’m not entirely sure what I think of it myself. I’ve left out so much: my adolescent social life, for instance, the music I listened to constantly, the volleyball team, learning to drive in the Baptist parking lot, trying pot (disliked it), wearing black (about a month), the fifty ways I did my hair (don’t ask). But this hasn’t been about why my adolescence was difficult—everybody’s is—it’s the story of with what help I made it through. In that sense, it has a happy ending.
Four colleges accepted me and I chose the one furthest away. I loved being there, reveled in it even when I was depressed. Even as places to be unhappy, colleges are better than high schools. I met your father my last year and that’s a big part of the happy ending.
As you know, my parents did get divorced, though it took them another three years. Your father’s didn’t wait so long. Happy? Unhappy? There’s always a dot of ying in the yang and vice versa. On the day you were born your father and I took a vow that we would never divorce, that this would never happen to you. There will be no arguments over where the tomato paste belongs. And you won’t have to wait sixteen years for some suave uncle to give you a puppy either. Still, who knows? A vow may just be hope going overboard.
The summer before I left for school Baruch got out of the back yard, and ran into the street, and was hit by a Jeep. The poor woman had three screaming kids in the car and she was crying too and kept repeating, “I couldn’t do anything. He just . . .” She meant that not only wasn’t she responsible but she wasn’t guilty either, though guilt often hasn’t much to do with responsibility. I’ve always believed this was Baruch’s way of letting me off the hook, too, leaving me before I had to abandon him. He was, I hope, moving on. Father bore up manfully, but, to my surprise, Mother was devastated.
Was he being punished? Was I being rewarded? Was I a little mad? There are doctors who argue that adolescence is a form of madness. And there are rabbis who argue that the Olam ha-Dimyon, the World of Confusion, is this one. I guess it’s as he said though, the dead can’t be expected to know more about death than the living do about life.
On one point, though, I think Baruch was wrong. Miriam, my darling girl, though you’re even less a Jew than I am, we all do our time in the World of Confusion.