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CANDLE OF GOD" - EXCERPT:
carried the boy out of the house and down the street. It was a warm
day, the beginning of summer, but he held the boy close so he wouldn’t
catch cold, because you never knew, even on a day like this when the
sun was shining. There were shadows as he passed the live oak trees,
brief bursts of cool air, anything could happen. How light the boy was!
Surely no more than sixty pounds. He brushed the boy’s hair out
of his eyes. “Don’t be afraid,” he said, “I’m
taking care of you. We’re just going for a walk. I’m going
to tell you everything now.”
* * *
dream was always the same. First, piano music ripples through the night
house. Then a woman is yelling, but he can’t make out the words.
His mother? A glass shatters against a wall. “Don’t tell
me I have to stay here!” a man shouts. His father? Someone pounds
the piano keys, and Danny flinches in his sleep. Footsteps running.
A door slams somewhere in the house. Silence, as though the house is
holding its breath. “Daddy?” Danny moans. “I need
Outside in the driveway
a car’s engine roars, tires crunch over gravel, a screeching of
brakes, then nothing but a woman weeping and palm trees rustling in
the wind. Danny tries to open his eyes, but he can’t move, his
body is paralyzed, someone is pushing him down, down into the bed, he’s
gasping for air, and then, laughter. A voice: “Come now, this
isn’t necessary. Just leave it behind,” and he rises up,
out of his body so easily he’s amazed. He glides through the house
like a ghost, past the forlorn piano, his mother huddled on the living
room sofa, his grandmother standing like a grim sentinel in the kitchen,
and out the open door. “Good-bye,” he whispers as he floats
over lemon trees, past the pyracantha, its flame-colored berries blue
in the moonlight, and up into the clouds toward Mount Wilson. Then he
looks down and sees his father carrying him in his arms.
* * *
was counting Danny’s pennies again. He could hear his mother drop
them into the jar, as though each one were a drop of her own blood,
to be collected like a magic elixir. A protection against harm.
He opened his eyes. What
time was it? Six a.m.? Seven? His mother kept his Venetian blinds closed
so he could sleep late and get well.
Mama, he whispered, tasting
his penicillin breath. Mamoushka. He sat up and pulled back his sweaty
satin comforter, quietly, so the bed wouldn’t creak, so Dena wouldn’t
rush in with her tray of pills. Let the day wait, he thought. Let it
begin later, after Mama has brushed the cobwebs from her beige hair.
Sitting in her room like Miss Havisham, because her bridegroom deserted
her. Only Mama doesn’t wear a wedding dress.
He saw the cans of peanuts
stacked like an Eiffel Tower in the corner of his room and stifled a
giggle. A year’s worth of peanuts he’d won for his mother.
Another gift ignored. But tonight he would play the piano sonata he
wrote for her and Gram, and maybe he’d dress up for them. Yes,
in Gram’s red silk shawl and his mother’s black high heels,
so he could read them his new play about a girl who ran away from an
orphanage and became an opera singer.
Why were his arms so thin
and white, like the arms of those plastic skeletons in doctors’
offices? Was he wasting away, like Uncle David said, calling him a Hanukkah
candle? But Gram said this was a joke Uncle David made to cover the
guilt of his Christian wife.
It was last Christmas,
when they had gone to Uncle David’s house, and his uncle was embarrassed
by the Christmas tree Aunt Kathleen had bought. A pagan ritual, Gram
had said, when they were hanging ornaments and lights on the tree. “I
don’t know why you invited us,” his mother had said. “Maybe
you don’t know that Jews don’t celebrate Christmas?”
Aunt Kathleen had turned
paler than the Christmas angel she was holding, and Uncle David, to
divert her, said, “Where are all the cookies and the fudge? Danny
needs sweets! I won’t have my own nephew thin as a candle of God.”
“Was my father thin
too?” Danny had asked. No one answered him but the radio. “Silent
night,” it sang.
* * *
her bedroom Dena counted pennies like minutes and waited for Danny to
wake up before she got ready to visit Rabbi Saltzman at the Healing
Center in Pasadena. Danny had coughed very little last night, though
perhaps she had slept and not heard him. What if he’d died, and
she’d been dreaming of something stupid, as usual?
No, she wouldn’t
think in this way. She and her mother alone in this little stucco house
with Danny all these years since Earl left to play the organ at Woody
and Eddy’s and never came back. Leaving his one good suit, his
orange toothbrush and his black underwear like an insult. She knew Earl
never believed Danny was his child. That last night he sat in the kitchen
waving his cigar and yelling, “He’s no child of mine. I’ve
got lungs like an ox, and if he can’t breathe, he’s somebody
Thank goodness she had
Rabbi Saltzman, who was a good man and didn’t care that she was
a woman whose husband had left her. Dena shivered with rage, remembering
the way Earl’s smoke clung like soot to the counters, tables and
chairs, black-outlined her lace doilies on the davenport, made their
house an ash bin. No matter how much Lysol she used, or Mr. Clean, that
smoke was sneaky like Earl himself. It lay over her bed, a veil of death,
trying to draw the very breath out of her.
She had even hired an
exterminator. Twenty-seven years old that man was, very sincere. Said
he never went after smoke before, rats were his usual line.
And Dena had said, "Never
mind, Earl was a rat and all I'm asking is for you to clean up his trail."
When the man laughed, Dena glared and said, “You think that was
funny?” It wasn’t then, but now, remembering, Dena laughed
with her hand over her mouth, so the laugh would stay inside. So Danny
While the man worked,
Dena took her mother to lunch at Bullocks' Tea Room with nice finger
sandwiches, egg salad and watercress, and a double feature at the Academy
When they got back, the
smoke was gone, except for one place that she didn't find till the next
morning. Seven o'clock sun drifted through the kitchen when she came
in to make coffee, and there was Earl's face, drawn in smoke on the
yellow refrigerator. Grinning like a Cheshire cat.
The phone began to ring.
Dena raced into the living room to answer it before the noise woke both
Danny and her mother.
Saltzman said, “can you be here by nine?”
Dena whispered, his voice warming her to the very soles of her frozen
“Why are you whispering?”
“Danny and Mother
are still sleeping. What time is it?”
I’ve been meditating for an hour, waiting to call you.”
Dena smiled, remembering
how handsome Rabbi Saltzman looked when he folded himself into a lotus
position. “All right,” she said. “I’ll see if
Danny’s awake. I promised him he could spend the day at my brother’s
house in Alhambra.”
“Good. I need you.
It’s Monday and we have work to do.”
Yes! He needed her. “I’ll
be there.” She kissed the receiver as she hung up, knowing it
was a silly thing to do, but how could a woman stop herself when a man
as wonderful as Rabbi Saltzman said “need”?
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