You wish it had been your mother who was home when the school called. You wish for a lot of things. Your father’s hand envelopes your skinny shoulders, hiding you like gloves. You hate how warm they are.
“You are my son. You hear me?”
“That makes you royalty around here. You can’t let them schmucks treat you like you’re small.”
But you are small.
You don’t know who your father means when he says they. You don’t think he’s talking about the boys who hit you. In the years to come, you will understand that when your father says they, it is more of an idea than a group of individuals. They are nightmares coming to get you in your sleep. They are what will make you lose your job, or raise your taxes.
“I want to hear you say it.”
“I’m your son.”
“Not that, boy. Come on.”
“Don’t ever let anyone fuck me.”
You are eleven years old. Next week, your father will catch you saying fuck when startled by the neighbor’s dog. He will beat you for it.
He stands up. In the overhanging light, you can see how tired your father is. The shadows extend the dark bags under his eyes down to the floor.
“Look at you, oy-vey. Did you have to let them get you before Shabbat dinner?”
“I’m sorry, sir.”
“What do you think your Bubbie is gonna say when you see her?”
You know she won’t say anything. You know the only one who thinks how you look matters is him.
“What have I told you about life out there, boy?”
He gestures vaguely into the air when he says it. You know he means life out in the world, life not here in this smoky garage, life outside the grasp of his huge, ape-like hands.
“It’s a carnival, sir,” you say.
“That’s right. It’s a carnival. You can’t let anybody fuck with you.”
“Go clean-up for dinner. When your mother finishes cooking, we’ll say our prayers. Bubbie and your Uncle will be here soon.”
You sign for the candle before you bring them into your mother’s room. The nurses want to stop you. You do your best to explain.
“You can’t take that in there.”
“It’s Yom Kippur,” you say.
“The day of atonement.”
The regulations of the ward do not allow open flames in the patient’s room. You explain that your mother is a religious woman. The regulations of the country do not allow for the suppression of faith. Religious suppression means the death penalty. Your family had made sure of that. You’re allowed to pass, the thick stock of wax and wick still pressed tightly between your fingers.
You don’t understand how the room numbers work in the ward. You know your mother’s room is 1603. You know the hospital only has four floors. You try not to think about it too much.
There is someone in there before you. The door is only open ajar. Soft yellow flame light slips through the cracks to reach you, changing the texture of the hospital tiles.
A man’s voice is singing Kol Nidre in Hebrew. You are rooted in place by the music. The voice is heavy with masculinity but still lifts itself up for every note. All you can think about is how much your father had loved this song.
He sways next to you to the rhythm, tapping feet that make no noise against the floor.
You squeeze the unlit candle to remember the dead until you feel the wax begin to bend under your fingers.
When your uncle comes out of the room, he smiles like he knew you were there. His suit is dark, blues and blacks and greys mingling together. You can’t meet his eyes. You stare at your father’s ring on his fingers. You remember your father, eight weeks in the ground. You remember the interlocking naked fingers over his still chest.
He and your father look almost the same except for the eyes. They both watch you with grey eyes. But your Uncle’s eyes aren’t like your father’s at all. One of them is lighter than the other, uneven orbs.
The brothers look at each other, the living and the dead. Your Uncle smiles at both of you.
“Shalom,” he says.