Picket

by Janna Brooke Wallack


Devorah shoves in with her siblings so that, at her mother’s behest, all the Rosenzweig spawn sit in a row on the lumpy green Chesterfield. She keeps her hands in her lap to avoid the arm of the couch, dented from decades of her father’s heavy elbow. As she sinks into the corner cushions, her control-top pantyhose lose purchase at the top of her belly and roll into the crease at her waist. Later, while undressing, she’ll notice a red line of irritated skin where the control-top settled, a regretful equator she’ll blame on her weakness for chocolate Tofutti and marble halvah. For now, the rolled-nylon snake swirls up and down by millimeters as she breathes.

Devorah’s older brother, Yehoshua Rosenzweig—a.k.a. Josh Rosen, since he emancipated himself on his eighteenth birthday—sits next to her, scrolling his smart phone with his thumb (Their mother, Esther, would say, Enough with the hedge fund on Shabbos for God’s sake!), while his wife, Tiffany (pretty…a trophy shiksa), reapplies her lip gloss. Tiff’s yoga-toned legs are smooth and bare, and her strawberry hair hasn’t the slightest bit of kink, but Tiff is a Rosenzweig. She wears her measured tolerance for her in-laws the same way Devorah wears the “festive” blouse Esther foisted on her when she rushed in this evening, but Tiff still showed up with Josh, a cog in the machine.

Their three-year-old, Tyler, sits on a patch of floor between the sofa and coffee table, corralled by a pile of brand new toys that Josh spent twenty minutes wrenching from their oppressive packaging. The toddler-sized, primary-colored fortress beeps, dings, flashes, and strobes as Ty jackhammers its glittery buttons, pausing intermittently to pick his nose and whine for organic string cheese.

Devorah had been late to this gathering, having stopped at the Museum of Natural History to spend forty dollars on a wooden dinosaur puzzle, which sits unopened on the kitchen table. Later, in their myopic hustle (They don’t even take the time to utter the syllables of their own names!), Josh, Tiff, and Ty will leave the puzzle behind, and Devorah will exchange it the next day for a flocked-velvet scarf to wear if John Doe ever asks her out.

Once, when Ty was an infant, Tiff allowed Devorah to babysit him for fifteen minutes while she ran out for nursing pads and green tea. Devorah held him close to her chest, at first tentatively, as with a raw egg, which he disapproved of by wailing. So she firmed her hold, rose up, strode the room, and sang every song she could remember. The baby settled into her and nodded off, flushed pink and sweaty against her chest and shoulder.

Devorah hopes he remembers. “Hi, Tyler. I’m your Aunt Devorah. I haven’t seen you since you were this big,” she says, showing an inch of space between her thumb and index finger.

The boy makes his chubby little hand into a gun and points it at her “Stranger danger! Pfew-pfew-pfew,” he says, chucking a Spiderman action figure at her knees.

She looks to Tiff for backup.

“He is so three right now,” Tiff offers in lieu of an apology.

To calm herself Devorah closes her eyes and thinks of John Doe, the patient in room 4-14 of the Cornell Burn Unit, whose legs she massages and bicycles four times a week while he sleeps in his coma. When she finishes his physical therapy, she gives him quick, illicit kisses on his unspoiled toes. Her love for John Doe grows without permission, like fluffy white dandelions in the tiny fissures of sidewalks. She spends her lunch breaks marinating in hope for the life they’ll share together when he wakes. When their three-yearold misbehaves, Devorah and John Doe will be firm and consistent parents, never yelling or spanking. They’ll talk with him…maybe time-outs…

No one has come to claim John Doe, save Devorah. She lets his anonymity break her heart over and over as the respirator forces his chest to rise and fall: whisper-hiss, whisper-hiss, whisper-hiss, Picket keeping him alive for the best part of her, the part farthest from her upbringing and from the miserable legacy of diligent surrender.

At the other end of the couch sits the happiest person in the room, Judah Rosenzweig, a slender thirty-year-old man whom Esther still refers to as the baby. His thick, curly hair has been plastered to his pate with some sort of glistening pomade. Judah’s pants are twisted, his tie tied incorrectly, and his jacket too big in the shoulders. He looks as if he changed quickly in a phone booth on his way to fight crime. Devorah makes a mental note to straighten him out when he stands.

Draped across his lap and most of Tiff’s, wrapped top to bottom in white satin, tulle, and pink roses from the bodega on 83rd and Amsterdam, is Judah’s fiancée, the slender and still Angelica Mills.

“That’s my present!” Ty yells, grabbing at the train of tulle.

“Drop it!” Josh barks, prying Ty’s fingers off the fabric. Judah smiles wide and sits back, hugging Angelica Mills closer. Ty shrugs, pounds the button that makes a siren sound, and shouts, “Juice box!”

“Juice box, what?” Tiff asks, face to iPhone, typing, laughing, and not looking up. Suddenly Devorah panics that Tiff may be texting pictures of this to her friends.

“Juice box, pleeeeease!”

“Jude,” Devorah says, scooping Angelica Mills from his arms, “I’ll take her in the bedroom to rest and freshen up until the ceremony, okay?”

Devorah lays Angelica Mills down on the bed where this morning, as on so many other mornings, she had awakened to her heart pounding her sheets, the kind of anxiety that summoned flickering filmstrip memories of Rosenzweig summers at the beach house in Amagansett. She had tried to go back to sleep, but each time she settled into the pillow and closed her eyes, she had returned to the dream—the fleshy slap of her father’s hand on Judah, trying and failing to make the odd little boy cry; Judah, stone-faced and quiet, but so obviously in pain; the white noise of ocean waves a block from their backyard, where Judah had spent so many hours of each day forced to stand with his nose to the fence; and she, numbing her own fear of the whiskey-pickled Avram Rosenzweig with the calming comfort of Hydrox sandwich cookies.

When Devorah returns to the living room, Esther is fiddling with Tiff’s elaborate camera. Tiff, typing with her thumbs and smiling into the screen, takes little notice. Devorah watches from behind as the iPhone light squeezes Tiff down into a twodimensional silhouette. Tiff’s shaded shoulders bob up and down with her giggles.

“This is ridiculous,” Esther says, still struggling.

“Mommy, let me try,” Devorah beseeches Esther, who has accidentally detached the hefty zoom lens from the rest of the apparatus. Devorah tries to be a good daughter. For the length of her memory, she has done this by offering extra help, loyalty, and the taciturn act of not overtly disagreeing with her mother; but in her dreams each day she walks and walks and walks until she is far enough away from the apartment where she lives with her mother, baby brother, and Angelica Mills—walks and walks and walks until she feels the curve of the earth between her own feet and the building on West 89th Street. When she tries, she only gets as far as Cornell Hospital.

“No, no, dummy,” Esther answers. “If you take the damned picture, you won’t be in it. I want everyone in the picture.”

Esther’s hallway is lined with framed pictures of the Rosenzweigs, photos from all the weddings, graduations, and bar mitzvahs where Esther had wrangled the photographer to a corner of the dining hall where she’d arranged the children like deli meats on a platter: Josh, the tallest, sitting between Devorah and Judah—who never looked into the camera to her satisfaction, even after Avram smacked him for it—with Esther and Avram standing behind. Josh calls it the Hall of Shame.

“Just sit and smile until I figure this Godforsaken thing out,” Esther says. The lens cap drops off the zoom and hits the floor, waking Tiff from her iPhone trance.

“Jesus, Esther,” Tiff says, straddling her son and catching the
camera. Esther manages to press the right button and the flash goes off in Tiff’s face.

“Jesus, Esther! Jesus, Esther!” Ty mimics.

Devorah pets Ty’s little head. “That’s not very nice to…”

“No!” Josh shouts too loudly, making Ty and Devorah jump.

“Josh!” Tiff stops him, turns to Ty. “Ty, that is not what we do.” She draws in and then slowly exhales a white, whispery breath, whisper-hiss, whisper-hiss, whisper-hiss, before darting a disgusted look at Devorah.

When Devorah returns to the living room, Esther is fiddling with Tiff’s elaborate camera. Tiff, typing with her thumbs and smiling into the screen, takes little notice. Devorah watches from behind as the iPhone light squeezes Tiff down into a two dimensional silhouette. Tiff’s shaded shoulders bob up and down with her giggles.

“This is ridiculous,” Esther says, still struggling.

“Mommy, let me try,” Devorah beseeches Esther, who has accidentally detached the hefty zoom lens from the rest of the apparatus. Devorah tries to be a good daughter. For the length of her memory, she has done this by offering extra help, loyalty, and the taciturn act of not overtly disagreeing with her mother; but in her dreams each day she walks and walks and walks until she is far enough away from the apartment where she lives with her mother, baby brother, and Angelica Mills—walks and walks and walks until she feels the curve of the earth between her own feet and the building on West 89th Street. When she tries, she only gets as far as Cornell Hospital.

“No, no, dummy,” Esther answers. “If you take the damned picture, you won’t be in it. I want everyone in the picture.”

Esther’s hallway is lined with framed pictures of the Rosenzweigs, photos from all the weddings, graduations, and bar mitzvahs where Esther had wrangled the photographer to a corner of the dining hall where she’d arranged the children like deli meats on a platter: Josh, the tallest, sitting between Devorah and Judah—who never looked into the camera to her satisfaction, even after Avram smacked him for it—with Esther and Avram standing behind. Josh calls it the Hall of Shame.

“Just sit and smile until I figure this Godforsaken thing out,” Esther says. The lens cap drops off the zoom and hits the floor, waking Tiff from her iPhone trance.

“Jesus, Esther,” Tiff says, straddling her son and catching the camera. Esther manages to press the right button and the flash goes off in Tiff’s face.

“Jesus, Esther! Jesus, Esther!” Ty mimics.

Devorah pets Ty’s little head. “That’s not very nice to…”

“No!” Josh shouts too loudly, making Ty and Devorah jump.

“Josh!” Tiff stops him, turns to Ty. “Ty, that is not what we do.” She draws in and then slowly exhales a white, whispery breath, whisper-hiss, whisper-hiss, whisper-hiss, before darting a disgusted look at Devorah.

When Devorah took the train to Westport, Connecticut, for Ty’s second birthday party, Tiff told her all about how she shielded her chakras from Esther’s nervous energy by using the Ujayi breathing she learned from her yoga teacher. Tiff did not send an evite to Ty’s third birthday party, just a link to an album on Facebook. Devorah had to create a profile to view the 346 photos of Tiff, Josh, Ty, and their Connecticut friends and neighbors, all competitively attractive and chic as a Vogue pictorial. It turned her stomach to think of Tiff’s friends liking, tagging, and commenting on any photos of Judah and Angelica Mills.

Tiff, no dummy, knows that giving Esther her seat next to the baby will get her the camera back. “You be in the picture instead of me. Why don’t you sit on the couch with Judah?”

As soon as Esther waddles over and wedges her thick frame between Josh and Judah in the deep middle of the Chesterfield, the doorbell chimes, and she pops, with a grunt, back to her feet, causing an abrupt smack of plastic on the parquet floor. Devorah bends to retrieve the fallen remote controls—one for the TV and one for the VCR—duct-tape back-to-back, like hostages.

“That’ll be Mr. Schreiner from downstairs,” Esther sings.

This rouses Josh from his smart phone. “What? The building super?” He looks to Tiff, and Devorah sees them connect with ironic pity faces. These two have to stay together, Devorah thinks,because to them, every other living human is moderately pathetic.“Why is the super coming now?”

Esther heads to the hall mirror to pinch her cheeks for color, then answers the door with a flourish. “Good evening, Mr. Schreiner,” she sings, outside of her usual exasperated timbre. When they go out together, she calls him Claude, but in front of Josh and Tiff, he is Mr. Schreiner. “Thank you for coming, and—well—for doing this for me.”

“I am happy to be of service,” says Claude. The widow and widower may watch movies and eat in diners and flirt for the rest of their lives, but nothing will come of it. (Stop nagging me, Devorah! He’s not Jewish and I am too old for Godforsaken love.) While Claude greets everyone, compliments Judah on his suit, and inquires about Angelica Mills, Esther puts on more lipstick and replenishes the almond lace cookies, Claude’s favorites. Seeming to have forgotten about her failed photo session, she positions herself in front of the console television to address the room. “Mr. Schreiner is here now to perform the ceremony.” She winks at Devorah. (I’m not calling Rabbi Weiner for a meshuggah fence wedding. I couldn’t show my face in shul. Besides, Mr. Schreiner speaks so beautifully.)

The day after Judah, in a whisper, confided to Devorah about Angelica Mills, she sneaked out to the public library and read websites about cooking and comas and occupational therapy until the computer room cleared out. Then she searched the Internet until she found the right term: Object-Sexuality. Wikipedia defined it:

A pronounced emotional, romantic desire toward developing significant relationships with particular inanimate objects.

Judah, who rarely spoke more than a few words at a time (So what? He’s quiet. It’s such a crime to be soft-spoken?), told his big sister that he was deeply in love with and planned to marry Angelica Mills as soon as possible.

“Jude,” she had asked, “what does Angelica Mills think of your plan?” “I got on one knee,” Judah said. “I proposed to her.”

“Yes, but then…” Devorah stumbled over her words. Really, what could she say?

She’d known something different was happening with him since their last summer in Amagansett. Judah, fifteen, had taken the train from his residential school in Riverdale to meet the rest of the family at the beach house.

In the bluish dawn light, Devorah had seen a ghost in the fog. The man-sized Judah stood at his usual picket of the fence, unmoving.

Those individuals with this expressed preference may feel strong feelings of attraction, love, and commitment to specific items or structures of their fixation. For some, sexual or even close emotional relationships with humans are incomprehensible.

She tried to reconcile how her father, who’d really mellowed since the cirrhosis, had managed to find fault with Judah before sunrise. She watched protectively until she saw Judah kiss the fence, caress it, hug it. She smiled at his game of pretend. He never failed to inspire her with his gifts of inscrutable spirit and boundless sweetness. What game was he playing, she wondered, until he plunged his right hand into the fly of his pajama pants. Devorah looked away, and then spent the rest of the summer hoping she’d been mistaken.

In September Judah returned by train to the New York State Association for Retarded Children’s residential school for teens (Esther called it The Riverdale Academy). Just before they packed up for the season, Avram Rosenzweig’s liver decided it had cleaned enough whiskey out of his blood and went kaput. There was a well attended funeral and afterward Esther put the beach house on the market for too little money, and it sold in a day.

In mid-October Judah went missing from The Riverdale Academy, sending Esther into a hysterical panic and leading to a Rosenzweig family manhunt: Devorah, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends—even Josh, who drove in from Yale—swept the Bronx and moved south to Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn. Amidst the chaos, Devorah hopped the jitney to Amagansett, where she found a slice of darkness in the backyard fence. One picket pried from the spot where Judah had spent untold hours, first in punishment and then of his own accord, with his nose pressed to the black ink of the sawmill stamp that bled through the whitewash: Angelica Mills, NY.

Devorah found a pay phone in town and called a heavily sedated Esther.

“Mommy, it’s Devorah,” she managed before Esther cut her off.

“We found the baby! He rode the train to the Hamptons, for heaven’s sake, but he’s back at The Riverdale Academy now, safe and sound.”

Devorah wondered if any Rosenzweig would ever be safe and sound.

Mr. Schreiner sends Judah and Angelica Mills into the kitchen to wait for the music. Judah whispers something to her as he carries her away.

“One more snapshot,” Esther begs her remaining children. “And for heaven’s sake, put those phones away.”

Josh and Tiff lock eyes again, and Tiff busts into a laugh. Josh smiles but holds there. “Mom, he’s out of the room. You can stop it now.”

“What are you talking about, Yehoshua?” When she speaks of him to others, she will call him Josh, but never to his face.

“I’m talking about what no one in this fucking family will say…” (Enough with the “F.” Everything is “F” with you kids today.)

“Language, babe,” says Tiff. “Sorry,” he concedes. “Look, you two want to pretend Judah is still a ten-year-old, but I have news for you. He is a fully grown, disabled man who is about to marry a fuckin slat of wood…” “Language—”

“…in the apartment he shares with his mother and sister! I…I just don’t get all this, and frankly I don’t want it around my son. Pack up, Tiff. We’re leaving.”

“Wait!” Devorah hears her own mouth yelp. She can explain. She can prove Josh wrong by explaining her love for John Doe, how his existence gets her up in the morning, puts the lipstick on her mouth, and pulls her through each day, and how until he dies— which, let’s face it, he probably will—his current existence, what little of it remains, will be cherished by her with feelings she knows to be real. She will love his unblemished legs and ankles and feet and all seven little brown hairs on his perfect pinky toe, and, knowing this, she will allow room in her heart to define and comprehend Judah’s love for Angelica Mills. Whatever he feels for her, whatever he receives from his fence picket has made him happy for fifteen years, and how many normal people can say that? Judah knows the truth, and Devorah is learning—that there is space in every beating heart for love that flows so intensely in one direction that when it hits its target, it rebounds, intensified, to shower and protect its giver.

“Josh, listen,” Devorah begins.

“Oh, what the fuck!” Josh shouts at her, sounding so much like his father he would shudder to hear it played back.

“Lang—”

“What, Devorah? You’re actually going to say something?” But against Josh’s hollering, Devorah’s head swirls with shame, which clouds her words.

“Have you ever heard the story, Josh, of Pygmalion?” Mr. Schreiner, the wooly, mutton-chopped outsider, speaks up. Josh shakes his head.

Yale-shmale! Devorah knows Pygmalion. He was a sculptor who carved a woman from ivory so perfect and beautiful that he fell in love with her. Galatea, that was her name. Venus gave Galatea life and Pygmalion married her. Devorah liked Mr. Schreiner and hoped he might name more examples that Josh would be forced to admit, in front of Tiff, to never having learned.

“What about Pinocchio, Josh? You know that one? A little puppet, yes? Made of wood by a lonely man. Geppetto, you see, he has love enough, but he has lost those to whom he would give this love.”

“No disrespect, Mr. Schreiner. I appreciate how you help my mother when I can’t be here to do it.” Hearing his softer tone for Mr. Schreiner, Devorah realizes Josh’s contempt for the Rosenzweig family. His disgust and humiliation does not extend out into the world; it lives within the walls of Apartment 5B along with Esther’s neuroses, Devorah’s spinelessness, Judah’s dependent confinement, and Angelica Mills. “But Pinocchio becomes a real boy in a fairy tale. This is a piece of wood in real life.”

“Ah,” says Mr. Schreiner, hiking his trousers up around his weeble belly. “Ah, yes, but that is Geppetto’s interpretation. You see, you don’t know what the townspeople saw. Maybe in ‘real life,’ like you say, this was just a man who loved a puppet and for him it was alive.”

Josh doesn’t counter. Devorah knows him enough to see that he likes Mr. Schreiner, or respects him, or maybe he simply doesn’t want to piss him off and drive away Esther’s devoted companion. (The toilet was acting up, but no need to come, Yehoshua, Mr. Schreiner will take a look.) Josh stops Tiff from packing up, pulls her close, and stands Ty squarely in front of him. He nods to Mr. Schreiner.

Devorah walks past Josh, helps Judah through the doorway, and yanks his belt buckle a couple of inches to the right, centering it over his fly. After adjusting his necktie, she says loudly, over her heartbeat, to the room, “Everyone loves you, Judah. Everyone is so happy for you.”

Judah grins and puffs up his chest. Devorah turns and locks eyes with Josh, and his eyes soften. He drops his shoulders. He nods, and they share the same unspoken agreement that he and Tiff have when things feel right regardless of the circumstances.

“Esther, dear,” says Mr. Schreiner with a warm—not to say priestly—smile. “Time for the music.”

Esther places the needle to the record, and Mendelssohn’s Wedding March rises up and fills the living room. (We can’t use “Here Comes the Bride,” for God’s sake. Wagner was Hitler’s favorite composer.)

Copyright ©2014 Janna Brooke Wallack

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