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Short Story

Published December 21, 2005 at 12:54 p.m.

The day before Sharon's mother's funeral, rusty water fell from the ceiling onto the kitchen table. "The house itself is weeping," She thought. But it was only an ordinary plumbing crisis in the third-floor bathroom. The big old house that had sat so empty these last few years was once again filled with family -- Sharon and her husband Michael and her sister Judy and Judy's various daughters and their various husbands, all switching on lamps and forcing faucets that had grown stiff from lack of use.

It had been almost a year since they had all gathered here for the last family occasion: the wedding of Judy's daughter. Things had gone wrong then, too. The florist had delivered the wrong color roses. The caterer had backed into the rabbi's Saab, smashing a headlight. The second cup of wine, filled to overflowing as a sign of joy, had spilled a round, red stain on the freshly cleaned carpet. But that time, Mommy had been in charge.

Sharon, Judy and Michael were sitting at the kitchen table when the plumbing failed. The rusty water rained down on the papers they'd spread out before them: the guest list, phone numbers for the limousine company and the funeral home, the draft of the death notice, the address of the designated charity. Sharon's mother had written many of these notes herself, sitting up against her pillows and squeezing the pen in concentration, ignoring her daughters' protests. Organizing her own funeral had been Mommy's final act of mothering. But for all her foresight, she had neglected to anticipate a flood.

As Judy stormed up the stairs to investigate, Sharon and Michael snatched the papers and piled them on the counter. A minute later, they could hear Judy's angry scolding raging in counterpoint to Amber's wild wailing. Amber was last year's bride.

Sharon suddenly remembered. "Chick Petricola."

"Excuse me?" Michael asked.

"Chick Petricola," Sharon repeated. "Mommy's plumber."

The water had crested the porcelain toilet bowl and spilled over the sides, run under the shaggy pink rug, penetrated the suspended ceiling in the second-floor bathroom, soaked the wood floor beneath, found the tiny space beside the kitchen light fixture, and slid down the candelabra's four brass arms to their elbows. There it had swelled into the drops that splashed on the paper-littered table.

When Sharon and Michael followed Judy upstairs, they found the flood had also reached the corner bedroom where they had planned to sleep. A mess of sodden plaster covered the bed, and sticky sludge coated the photograph Sharon had set aside that afternoon.

The picture showed her parents 11 years earlier, smiling in the sunshine at the center of an exuberant crowd. People behind them held Dukakis for President signs. Of all the pictures Michael and Sharon had found that afternoon -- school portraits, snapshots from birthdays and vacations -- this was the one Sharon couldn't get past. It captured her parents absolutely alive, and entirely untroubled by the bad news lying ahead. In June 1988, when the picture was taken, the polls still showed Dukakis leading Bush by a comfortable margin. The quiet constriction of Daddy's arteries was still undetected, Mommy's approaching cancer just an abstract probability.

Sharon was still staring at the spoiled picture when she heard the rabbi arrive, Judy's too-loud company voice ringing with false cheer above the others'. They'd been through this drill before, five years earlier, when Daddy died. But that time, Mommy had been there.

The previous rabbi, who'd arranged that funeral, hadn't exactly been a family favorite, but at least he'd been familiar. They had known and disliked him for years. In the disorienting ordeal of that day, Judy in particular was reassured by the very air of infallibility they'd always considered so infuriating. And though the family's official attitude towards religion was casual at best, under Rabbi Rudman's sudden influence Judy had taken to

pushing aside her shrimp at family dinners and observing obscure holidays that seemed to pop up at the most inconvenient times.

Judy's born-again phase persisted even after Rabbi Rudman suffered a stroke himself, and was replaced by the much younger Rabbi Glick, a man Sharon's mother appropriately dubbed Rabbi Slick. Slick stuck around just long enough to officiate at Amber's wedding, where his brocaded prayer shawl and matching gold skullcap nearly upstaged the bride's gown. Then he'd moved on, to Los Angeles.

When this most recent rabbi arrived in town, Mommy was already mostly machine: a menacing tangle of wires and tubes tethering the body on the bed to imposing monitors and bags of important fluids endlessly emptying and filling.

Judy and Sharon had worked out a schedule for visiting the hospital, to sit at their mother's side. When it was Sharon's turn, she would pull the chair close to the bed and stare into her mother's face, waiting for her to open her eyes and receive whatever news Sharon had brought. Day by day, as the morphine increased and her mother's responses diminished -- from whispered words to mute frowns or smiles to simply staring back -- Sharon continued to collect bits of information. For years, she'd been judging the events in her life according to Mommy's reactions. Even without her commendations or commiserations, Sharon found that simply storing up stories seemed to give her days import.

When she wasn't trying to make contact with her mother, Sharon would try to read. And when she couldn't read, she would try not to cry. She hated to cry in front of her mother, and most of the time she just managed to make it through her shift, only to weep on the way home in the car.

The one time the new rabbi stopped in at the hospital, Sharon was out in the parking lot getting some air and trying to pull herself together. When she returned to her mother's room, she found a business card stuck in the bulletin board: Rabbi Shoshanah Baker.

"A woman rabbi!" she'd remarked, leaning close to her mother. "What did you think of her?"

Mommy's eyes opened and held Sharon's for a moment, then slowly rolled toward the ceiling.

She probably hadn't been bothered by the fact that the new rabbi was female, Sharon thought, putting aside the picture and heading downstairs. More likely, she figured, as she rounded the last step and caught her first glimpse of Shoshanah Baker, Mommy had been put off by the woman's excessive youth. It was, after all, hard to have much confidence in someone who couldn't have been a day older than Amber. She was a freckled little boy of a girl in a Monica Lewinsky beret. As she took Sharon's hand, her nervous smile revealed a flash of braces. No question, Sharon thought -- this would be the very first funeral of the rabbi's career. Sharon could just hear her mother: I get one funeral in this life. Is it too much to ask for a rabbi past the age of bat mitzvah?

Judy, meanwhile, was falling all over the woman, taking her coat and hanging it on the rack beside their mother's, then ushering her into the living room and steering her towards Mommy's end of the sofa.

"What should I know about your mother?" the rabbi asked, folding her hands. Despite her childlike frame, the sofa springs sagged dangerously low, as if still bearing Mommy's weight. The cushion under her pleated skirt was worn to a shine. Sharon shot Michael a meaningful glance, but his attention was focused on the rabbi.

As the rest of the family eagerly filled in the highlights of her mother's biography, Sharon felt increasingly alone. Couldn't they see that each new piece of information passed on was another part of Mommy relinquished, another step in the process of freezing her life into a finite story?

On the table at the rabbi's elbow, one of Daddy's ashtrays -- converted to a coaster after he'd stopped smoking -- waited for Mommy's Diet Pepsi. Her reading glasses and sharpened pencil sat poised for the daily crossword.

"The synagogue will arrange for a shomer," the rabbi was explaining, "someone to watch over the body, reciting psalms."

"What's the idea behind that?" Amber's husband, Dylan, wanted to know.

"K'vod ha-met, respect for the dead," Judy interjected, the diligent student bucking for an A.

The rabbi nodded in agreement. "The body must not be left alone from the moment of death until the time of burial."

"And what about the psalms?" Judy wondered.

"Affirmation," said the rabbi, scratching under her beret. "Judaism teaches us that life always takes precedence over death. That's what Kaddish expresses. Even the shomer who spends the night in the presence of the deceased fills those hours by thanking God for the gift of life." Then she added with a wink and a quick flash of orthodontia, "The psalms also help keep the shomer awake."

There was no end, it seemed, to the lady's eagerness to exhibit her credentials, or to the family's willingness to oblige. As they went on exploring the mysteries of covering mirrors and lighting candles, wearing slippers and sitting on low stools, all the arcane observances and picky prohibitions of the five official stages of mourning, Sharon considered the half-sheet of cardboard on which Mommy had recorded, in her rounded, cursive hand, her children's and grandchildren's phone numbers. Each night she'd called them, one after another, keeping them close in a web of words.

"And how about you?" the rabbi asked, turning timidly toward Sharon. "You've been awfully quiet. Is there anything you'd like me know about your mother? Anything you'd like to have happen tomorrow?"

Sharon shook her head. The only thing she wanted to happen tomorrow was for tomorrow not to happen.

They were all in the front hall saying good-bye to the rabbi, more nervous smiles and timid handshakes, when Chick Petricola arrived. For the 40-plus years she'd lived in this house, Sharon's mother had cultivated a close circle of trusted professionals like Chick. His gray hair and broad figure looked so normal in the doorway that Sharon stepped right into his hug. And he smelled so surprisingly like Daddy, that same familiar blend of Barbasol and cigarettes, that she didn't want to let go. When she did, she saw that the old plumber was tearing up.

"I'm sorry," he said, wiping his eyes in embarrassment. "I just can't believe she's gone. And look at you," he went on, turning to Sharon's sister. "Judy, right? You favor your mother. And you have beautiful daughters, just like she did. She was so proud of all her beautiful girls."

His gaze came to rest on the rabbi. "Are you one of the granddaughters, too?"

"No," said the rabbi, looking startled.

"This is Rabbi Baker," Judy quickly corrected.

"Rabbi!" Chick exclaimed. "Well, I'll be darned. Good for you. I think that's wonderful. God bless all of you," he went on, gathering his tools and heading towards the stairs. "No need to show me the way. I know this house like my own."

Night came as a relief. The toilet was fixed, the rabbi dispatched, the precious photo cleaned and dried and the sodden linens stripped. The only remaining obligation was sleep. But with their bed soaked through to the mattress and the house filled to capacity, Sharon and Michael's only choice was to spend the night in the master bedroom.

"What do you think?" Michael asked, carefully.

Sharon shrugged. "It's not as if Mommy needs it."

She saw her mother lying in a place very much like the hospital room, but unfettered by tubes or wires, freed from the horror of the cancer. A chair was pulled close to Mommy's side, and the man who sat there looked a lot like Chick Petricola. Like Sharon in those days at her mother's bedside, he was talking. But rather than delivering family news, he was offering words of thanks. If she knew what was happening, would Mommy roll her eyes? Sharon didn't think so. Though she had never had much use for rabbis and their rules, she had always appreciated poetry.

Sharon told Michael, "Actually, I think it will be sort of sweet."

No one had slept in this bed for a month -- not since that frantic morning when Maria, the home health-care worker, had sensed the crisis and rushed in to find Mommy gasping, the tumor obstructing her windpipe. That whole last month when Sharon's mother lay dying in the hospital, the unwashed sheets on her bed back home had held the smells of her failing body and its struggles. As Sharon and Michael slipped between the sheets, their feet brushed aside the stiff, plastic tabs the ambulance workers had discarded when they'd stuck their electrodes to Mommy's scarred chest.

Sharon and Michael's bodies moved automatically into position: Michael's arm under Sharon's neck, Sharon's leg over Michael's thigh, her nose buried in the space below his ear and the deep, meaty smell that meant home. After so many hours spent dwelling on Mommy's absence, the solid assurance of Michael's presence felt like a gift of good news.

She gratefully lifted her face to find his mouth, hungry for the taste of it, and then she suddenly stopped. Hadn't the rabbi's long list of regulations included some sort of prohibition against sex on the eve of the funeral? Judy, no doubt, would be following the rabbi's instructions to the letter. But Sharon wasn't Judy or the rabbi. And Sharon wasn't dead. She was here, now, alive and awake to the heat and smell of Michael's waiting skin, encircled by his ropy arms and legs. She thought again of the shomer reading psalms at Mommy's side. What better way to affirm life than by feeling the force of teeth against teeth, the fit of one body in another? Love is good, she thought, gladly pulling Michael closer. Love is good.

Sharon had never been able to think about her parents making love before. But now, as she and Michael made their own -- gently, intently -- she remembered how sometimes, when she'd come into her parents' room in the morning, she would find them lying right here, Daddy on Michael's side and Mommy on hers, holding hands. Later, when Mommy dropped Daddy off at his bus, he never failed to give her a goodbye kiss. Sitting in the back seat, Sharon and Judy would watch for the decisive moment of contact and listen for the satisfying smack of their parents' smooch. Sharon and Michael were picking up where Mommy and Daddy left off.

Afterwards, Sharon fell asleep almost immediately. And, as usual, she woke up sometime in the dark. All her life, she'd been wrenched awake at night, yanked into unwanted consciousness by the flash of bad news, the weight of unfinished business or some abstract terror. Sometimes she'd lie awake for hours, her stomach in knots, her muscles tight, her mind playing tape loops of worst-case scenarios: earthquakes, fires, nuclear warfare, incurable diseases, lost jobs and failed exams. Or she'd get up and pace around the house, clean out a closet or balance her checkbook.

But being awake now felt different. Sharon searched her mind for the worst thing that might happen -- then remembered that it already had. Calmer than she'd felt in many months, she simply lay there. Without even opening her eyes, she could feel the familiar contours of her parents' room: the windows overlooking Mommy's beloved New York skyline; the closet with Daddy's suits; the drawer stuffed with every card and letter Sharon and Judy had ever sent home. And though Sharon knew she and Michael were alone, she could also feel someone standing over her, watching.

Sometimes, when she was little and couldn't sleep at night, Sharon would climb out of bed and creep into her parents' room. Tiptoeing around to Mommy's side of the bed, she'd stand watching her, waiting for her to wake up. Cold air would leak in through the cracked-open window, making Sharon shiver in her nightgown.

"I can't sleep," she would whisper.

"Go back to bed and try a little harder," Mommy would whisper back, never even opening her eyes.

Sharon would wait for her to ask about a bad dream or invite her to confess some infraction. She would come hoping to hear Mommy's magic words that would wipe her worry away once and for all. But her mother never said any more. And after a while, Sharon would have no choice but to creep back to her own room and climb into bed with the uncertain consolation of that cursory instruction.

Lying now in her mother's place, Sharon could feel Michael's warm breath on her back. From the cracked-open window, a slice of cold air touched her face. And somewhere in the room, her own scared, former self stood waiting. Maybe, Sharon thought, I should just keep my eyes closed and try a little harder.

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Ruth Horowitz


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