Tag : fiction

The Lilith Blog

August 2, 2018 by

What the Lilith Staff is Reading Now

Welcome to another installment of this occasional recurring feature in which Lilith staffers reveal what books are on our nightstands, our e-readers and tucked in our bags for the commute. Share your own summer reads in the comments!

Kira Yates, Intern:

This summer I’ve decided to read two books at once: The Guide for the Perplexed by the Rambam himself, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. Though one was written in 1190 Spain and the other in 1940s Georgia, the theological treatise and the novel explore God and the actions of human kind. In his investigation of Jewish philosophy, ben Maimon seeks to prove that God does not have a body–an assertion that became a scholarly sensation across Europe. McCullers, on the other hand, tells the story of four struggling people in a small Georgia town, a reminder of what it feels like to be forgotten and in search of human connection. Published 750 years apart, these books present parallels about the human need for understanding and unity with something greater than the self. 

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The Lilith Blog

July 31, 2018 by

I Couldn’t Divorce My Mother-in-Law

3_elephants_topiaryThe Lilith blog presents original short fiction: “The Elephant in the Bush” by Penny Jackson


 “Look,” my mother-in-law tells me. “There’s an elephant in the bushes.”

I turn to look where she is pointing. We are sitting on white deck chairs in a very suburban backyard in New Jersey.

“Do you see it?” She presses my hand. My mother-in-law, whose name is Ida, starts bobbing her head in the agitated way I know now so well.

“Of course,” I tell her, taking off my sunglasses and peering at the shrubbery.

“How funny.  Not only an elephant. But a baby elephant!”

Ida is in stage five of Alzheimer’s disease. She is either a late five or early six. I’ve read the books her daughter has loaned me. The 36-Hour Day is the most popular book that is passed around from family member to family member. 

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The Lilith Blog

July 17, 2018 by

Submit to Lilith’s Fiction Contest!

Lilith Magazine—independent, Jewish and frankly feminist—invites submissions of quality short fiction, 3,000 words or under, for our Annual Fiction Contest. When selecting what you’ll submit, please remember our tagline.

The magazine proudly spotlights both emerging and established writers. Winner receives $250 + publication. Deadline: 9/30/18. Put “Fiction Contest Submission” as subject line and send to info@Lilith.org.laptop-desk-notebook-writing-pen-color-761556-pxhere.com

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The Lilith Blog

July 2, 2018 by

A Novel of Barren Island, NYC’s Forgotten Glue Factory

Told from the point-of-view of Marta Eisenstein Lane on the occasion of her 80th birthday, Carol Zoref’s novel Barren Island is the story of a long-forgotten factory island in New York’s Jamaica Bay, where the city’s dead horses and other large animals were rendered into glue and fertilizer from the mid-19th century until the 1930’s. The island itself is as central to the novel as the members of the Jewish, Greek, Italian, Irish, and African-American factory families that inhabit it, including those who live their entire lives steeped in the smell of rotting and burning animal flesh.

The story begins with the arrival of the Eisenstein family, immigrants from Eastern Europe, and explores how the political and social upheavals of the 1930’s affect them and their neighbors in the years between the stock market crash of October 1929 and the start of World War II. Labor strife, union riots, the New Deal, the World’s Fair, and the struggle to save European Jews from the growing threat of Nazi terror inform this novel as much as the explosion of civil and social liberties between the two World Wars.

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The Lilith Blog

June 12, 2018 by

Isolated Mothers, Searching for Miracles

The reader knows by page one of Queen for a Day that Mimi Slavitt’s three-year-old son is autistic, but if anyone told her, she wouldn’t listen, because she doesn’t want to know—until at last Danny’s behavior becomes so strange even she can’t ignore it. After her son’s diagnosis, Mimi finds herself in a world nearly as isolating as her son’s. Searching for miracles, begging for the help of heartless bureaucracies while arranging every minute of every day for children who can never be left alone, she and her fellow mothers exist in a state of perpetual crisis, “normal” life always just out of reach. In chapters told from Mimi’s point of view and theirs, we meet these women, each a conflicted, complex character dreaming of the day she can just walk away.

Taking its title from the 1950s reality TV show in which the contestants, housewives living lives filled with pain and suffering, competed with each other for deluxe refrigerators and sets of stainless steel silverware, Queen for a Day portrays a group of imperfect women living under enormous pressure. Maxine Rosaler talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about the true-life experiences that led her to write this book. (more…)

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The Lilith Blog

June 6, 2018 by

What Did Your Grandparents Do to Mine?

The HeirsAfter breaking her hip in a serious accident, Eleanor Ritter’s mother, Rose, a Holocaust survivor now living in New Jersey, suddenly starts talking about her harrowing childhood in Poland and the taboo subjects she has refused to discuss for half a century—even speaking in long-forgotten Polish. Around the same time, Eleanor learns that the parents of her nine-year-old son’s soccer teammate, Tadek, are Catholics from Poland.

As Eleanor becomes fixated with digging into the histories of both her mother and Tadek’s family, her obsession strains her already difficult relationship with Rose, as well as her marriage to Nick, an IT technician who is himself caught up in preparing for the feared Y2K turn of the millennium.

Eleanor starts flirting with the soccer coach, ignoring her 12-year-old daughter’s growing rebellion and her son’s misery when, messing up several games, he becomes the team pariah. Meanwhile, the “sure-fire” tech stock that Eleanor bought behind Nick’s back is losing money. Even as her quest nourishes an odd friendship with Tadek’s mother, it forces Eleanor to face the unavoidable questions: For how many generations can guilt carry on? And: What did your grandparents do to my grandparents?

Hawthorne, the author of the award-winning Ethical Chic: The Inside Story of the Companies We Think We Love and seven other books about business, consumers and social issues, talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about her journey from fiction to fact and then back again. 

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The Lilith Blog

May 30, 2018 by

Sadie Schuster’s Magic Love Knots (Part 2 of “Sadie in Love”)

All this week, in the grand tradition of Victorian periodicals, Lilith will be serializing an excerpt of Sadie in Love, the debut novel from 96-year-old former magazine editor Rochelle Distelheim. Look out for new installments every day this week.  


Sadie in LovePart 1Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Sadie Schuster sold love knots, hope wrapped in a schmattah, fifty cents. A lot of money in 1913, but hope never came cheap, especially when it came from Sadie Schuster. “You think this business makes me rich?” she asked her customers. “I do it to make people happy. The material alone costs me forty cents.”

She learned her magic tricks in Poland, where she and Fivel lived before coming to New York, two greenhorns, just married, and talked about love knots as though there really was magic in this world, and only she, of all the Jews in New York who came from Minsk, from Riga and Lublin, Budapest and Warsaw, knew how to put them together.

It was a secret, she said, passed from mother to daughter. Her own daughter, Yivvy, who ran a second-hand shop, and worked the cash register nights at the Second Street Cafeteria, didn’t believe in love or magic.  Take it or leave it, Sadie Schuster was the only love knot person in New York City.

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The Lilith Blog

May 23, 2018 by

A Novel Imagines F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Lesser-Known (and Jewish) Love Affair

In 1937 Hollywood, gossip columnist Sheilah Graham’s star is on the rise—while literary wonder boy F. Scott Fitzgerald’s career is slowly drowning in booze. But the once-famous author, desperate to make money penning scripts for the silver screen, is charismatic enough to attract the gorgeous Miss Graham, a woman who exposes the secrets of others while carefully guarding her own. Like Fitzgerald’s hero Jay Gatsby, Graham has meticulously constructed a life far removed from the poverty of her childhood in London’s slums. And like Gatsby, the onetime guttersnipe learned early how to use her charms to become a hardworking success; she is feted and feared by both the movie studios and their luminaries.another side of paradise

A notorious drunk famously married to the doomed Zelda, Fitzgerald fell hard for his “Shielah” (he never learned to spell her name), who would stay with him and help revive his career until his tragic death three years later.

Working from Sheilah’s memoirs, interviews, and letters, Sally Koslow revisits their scandalous love affair and Graham’s dramatic transformation in London in her new novel, Another Side of Paradise, out this month from HarperCollins.

Koslow, the former editor-in-chief of McCall’s Magazine and author of four other novels, including acclaimed international bestseller The Late, Lamented Molly Marx, talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about how she came to uncover the secrets of Graham’s past—and why.

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April 12, 2018 by

The Miscreants

Art by Michaela MacPherson

(Art by Michaela MacPherson, michaelamacpherson.com)

I played Bach’s Prelude in C Major on Mrs. Z.’s piano this afternoon. Mrs. Z. is our downstairs neighbor, and she’s old, maybe 70. Since we don’t have a piano at home, she lets me come over on weekdays to practice on her crumbling baby grand. Her husband died two years ago, in 1945, and their children all left for Palestine with their spouses and kids. She rarely leaves the house anymore because of her Parkinson’s, so I’m pretty much the only person she talks to most days. I sang while I played, Gounod’s “Ave Maria”, just like Miss Weil showed me during yesterday’s lesson. Hear how Bach’s Germanic harmonies sit perfectly underneath Gounod’s French melody. Baroque and Romanticism perfectly entwined, reckless emotion and meticulous structure in flawless symbiosis. I sat still for a long time, quietly contemplating the two partitures in front of me.

“Rikki, come wash up for Shabbos,” Mama’s voice called me through the open window. I kept playing until I reached the end of the piece. The last chord rang out while I kept my foot on the pedal. I held my breath until every last decibel had disappeared into the ether.

“Coming!” I yelled out, and began packing my notes into a manageable stack of papers I could stuff into my bag. Mrs. Zaitlin was having her tea in the other room. Unlike my family, she does not keep the Shabbos. Keep the Shabbos. That’s what we call the strange practice, perhaps for lack of a more appropriate term. I’ve always found it peculiar, to speak of keeping a day. When I was younger Papa would tell me that we do it to prevent the day from slipping through our fingertips. To stop time: to watch it from the outside looking in, as if life were a snow globe or a film.

Mrs. Z. used to be more religious, back when her family was still around, but now she says offhandedly observance is a tribal practice and is not easily maintained on one’s own. At first Papa would invite her to have the three Shabbos meals with us right after her youngest son left, but she’d always decline, and eventually he stopped asking.

In addition to being a pious Jew, Papa is also a Zionist. So are Mrs. Z.’s children. They left their mother alone in the withering Jewish quarter of our Transylvanian town so they could go live an ideological ideal in the Promised Land. Her youngest son and his newlywed wife packed up their belongings last summer: blouses and a white tie; a sterling silver, handmade candlestick set that had been in the family for generations; a rusted shovel he thought would prove useful in working the land. I snuck into their kitchen and asked him to stay, please, I’d said, your mother is sick, your wife is pregnant, and you don’t even believe in God, so why go there? He ignored me and they left. His mother was rendered a sort of adult orphan, but as they were her children it was hard for them to see.

I swung my bag over my shoulder and stepped into the kitchen to say goodbye.“Ah gutten Shabbos.” I spoke the familiar parting words, leaned over and kissed the age spots on her soft and wrinkled cheek. Her skin was thin as wrapping paper.

Ah gutten Shabbos, my dear.” She cupped my face in her trembling palms and pressed it close to hers.

Later that evening, after we’d finished eating and reciting the food blessing, I excused myself from the table, saying I’d forgotten something at Mrs. Z.’s house. I’d been doing this every day for the past month and a half, finding some excuse to get away and slip into her home once the sun had set. This practice demanded a certain degree of stealth on Fridays, to ensure my parents didn’t ask any prying questions.

Once I made it to her apartment, I made sure all the curtains were shut. I walked through her three-room home and ended up in the bedroom, where Mrs. Z. lay waiting for me in her large antique bed. I walked over to her night-stand in the dark. On it lay a Yiddish translation of Gulliver’s Travels. A small medicine jar. A tall glass of water with a straw. I lifted the box of matches that lay by a dark blue candle, it’s color barely visible by the slivers of moonlight that shone through an obstinate crack in the drapes. It was a simple task, but one she could no longer manage herself, lacking sufficient control over the muscles and joints in her fingers. As I removed a match from the box a familiar chill raised the hair on my forearms. I sensed with a formidable surety that somehow Papa could see me, about to severely defy the Jewish code of law. I struck it quickly. The flame grew before my eyes as I brought it towards the wick and lit the candle.

A warm glow appeared by her bedside. It overpowered the moonlight and illuminated our faces in flickering light and dancing shadows. She smiled at me and placed the book in her lap, opened it to where the bookmark lay in one of the first chapters. She scanned the lines with her finger until she found her place. I made a half turn away from her and waved the burning match around until it extinguished itself in a cusp of smoke, closed the matchbox and returned it to the nightstand. With a wave and good-night I exited towards the living room.

I paused to look around before leaving. There were shelves upon shelves upon shelves of books, their titles, all of which I knew by heart, obscured in the darkness. Leather-bound editions of the Babylonian Talmud and Maimonides commentaries; Bibles and Siddurs, prayer books; two shelves devoted entirely to Kabbalah teachings. Silent, dust-covered mementos of her deceased husband. He had always kept the faith alive in their house, defying his heretic wife. She stopped attending synagogue long ago, preferred to spend that time taking walks through the city or playing music at home.

Mrs. Z. used to be  more religious, back when her family was  still around, but now she says offhandedly that observance is a tribal practice, and is not easily maintained on one’s own.

Once, years ago, she went to Paris. She told no one but her husband and reappeared, weeks later, smelling of for-eign perfumes, a vibrant green scarf wrapped around her hair and tall, gold-studded leather boots on her feet. No one she knew had traveled farther than neighboring Hungary, where they would often go visit family before the War. When she returned, she became the talk of the town, her name spoken askance in whispers at synagogue and overheard in the women’s conversations at the market.

She told me stories of her adventures, over tea when I took breaks from practicing. The concerts she’d attended at the Opéra Bastille, how she had met Debussy and Satie; had approached them audaciously and shaken their hands, introduced herself in what I imagined to be impeccable French but in reality was just miscellaneous bits and pieces of the language. She used the proper accent when pronouncing their names, pucker-ing her lips on the vowels. She spoke animatedly and raised her hands as they trembled, carried them up and sideways to illustrate the tale. It was as though she was shaking them on purpose: jazz hands invoking the zeitgeist of the 20s.

In bed that night I looked out the window at the stars. I saw Orion’s Belt and the Great Bear. I recognized Betelgeuse, the star closest to Earth, except for the sun. My younger sister was asleep on the other side of the room, her breathing soft and regular, pacing my own inhalations and exhalations. The starlight would suffice, I thought. I reached under my bed, took out papers and a pencil, and started to draw with a feverish imperativeness.

I drew dense forests and woodland creatures from the basin of my subconscious. Awake, I dreamt in outlines and sketches of trees. A hare was caught in the air mid-jump. It spread its paws forward and they merged with the bark and the leaves. Swirling upwards, you couldn’t tell where fur ended and flora began. Grey pencil marks invoked shades of green and brown, a dawning purple sky. In lieu of a sun, a flickering flaxseed candle dripped tears of wax into the lake.

I woke up the next morning, graphite on my fingertips and the pencil clutched in my hand. Mama stood in the doorway. As per usual, she’d come to wake me up to eat. Our eyes met across the room and I saw that she’d already noticed the pencil in my hand, already registered my heresy and connected it to my time spent with Mrs. Z.

Two days later, I came home from school to find a black Steinway piano perched up against a wall in our dining hall. I walked over and gently fingered the keys. I stood upright at its far left; I didn’t want to sit down and validate its existence just yet.

“Now you can practice at home.” Mama’s smiled a smile that ended at her cheekbones, pursed her lips and clasped her hands to her chest.

“Yes. Finally. Yes, thank you so much,” I said flatly.

Tamar Ben-Ozer is an editor at The Jerusalem Post. She recently completed a degree in vocal performance and writes and sings in Tel Aviv. This story was written “in loving memory” of her grandmother, Masha Ben-Ozer Shomroni. 

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January 20, 2015 by

Sweet Charity

“Do you know Aimee Rothstein is dying?”

My heart flutters as if tickled. Or maybe it is only the lamb nuzzling my palm as it searches for food.

“What?”

“Cancer,” Penny says. “Bone cancer, they’re thinking. How old do you figure she is, anyway? I’m guessing she’s around our age.”

Aimee Rothstein dying. The news can’t be trusted. Does it fit with my impressions of Aimee, the few times I’ve met her before? No, the diagnosis is not in sync with my concept of any young mother. No we all look life in the eye, unblinking, while dressing our babies, feeding them, planning their next days and years.

The lamb gives up and returns to its own mother, a sloe-eyed ewe. Deprived of the comforting moistness of the animal’s breath on my skin, I step away from the pen and search for the children. Penny’s son is standing near a vending machine that will not give up its feed, while my daughter edges too close to a ram standing on the other side of the gate.

“Shoshie, move away!” I cry, throwing up my hands to ward off an assault.

It’s a futile gesture, but I get my daughter’s attention.

My glance lingers until Shoshanna steps back. Only then do I call out to Penny, “How do you know?”

“Her husband phoned school the other day to talk with the principal. I took the call,” she fires back. As she rummages in her purse to find more quarters for the feeder, she adds, “He started weeping, Sarah. Then he told me the whole story. It’s so sad.”

“You shouldn’t gossip,” I scold. “I don’t know Aimee well enough to hear this news.”

Penny’s eyes go wide. “I just assumed Shoshie and her daughter were in the same kindergarten class.”

“It’s a big school,” I remind her. “And no, we hardly know them at all.”

It is startling to see Aimee Rothstein in the park a week later, as I guess I’d expected illness to hide her away. Yet here she is, looking much the same as ever as she sits on a bench in a red cape, the hood falling in scalloped folds across both shoulders. An elderly woman wearing a gray woolen coat tries to cope with Aimee’s daughter on the swings nearby.

I briefly hope Penny has exaggerated Aimee’s story. Since hearing the news, I have found myself imagining the horror of calculating days leading to death in the same way most people count down to birthdays. And then my thoughts always veer off onto one shameful, unutterable truth, Thank God it’s not me.

I notice Aimee’s child is acting particularly rotten to the elderly woman. With each swing, she kicks at pebbles under her feet and throws dust. Yet imagine what the child’s going through daily, and forgive, I remind myself. A wind comes up, clanging a red sign tacked to the fence that lists SAFETY RULES. Useful warnings if you know how to read. But what about my own daughter Shoshie, struggling with her phonics? And what about this Rothstein girl? Aimee’s daughter had to constantly hear adults whispering about, in slightly hysterical tones. All these strange words had to be knocking like wind chimes over her head: malignancy, terminal, radiation. No child could begin to guess why such fierce winds were blowing, or from which direction.

Shoshie had abandoned me at least fifteen minutes ago for her friends at the Tower, but now I need her.

“Shoshie?” When I crook my finger, my daughter pivots from the Tower’s second level to the ground, and reluctantly comes over.

“Isn’t that girl in your class?”

Shoshie eyes her then declares, “No.”

“But she’s in kindergarten too, right?”

Shoshie shrugs, begins to rub at her nose.

“Don’t pick,” I say. “Here.” I retrieve a crumpled tissue from my coat pocket and hand it to her. Then I add, “She must be in the afternoon class,” I say. “You should invite her to play fort. C’mon.”

As we walk over, Aimee Rothstein glances at me in a curious way.

“Hi. I think our girls might know each other from school.”

“Your daughter is in Mrs. Harrison’s class?” Aimee asks.

“No,” I say. “She goes in the morning. But we’ve seen you around, maybe at the library reading program? Anyway, my daughter wanted to come over and say hi. Shoshie.” I squint up my eyes to prompt. “Can you say hi to —?”

“Emma,” Aimee offers. “That’s her Grandma Lyla with her.”

“Emma, of course,” I say, nodding to Lyla at the same time. “Do you want to play with Shoshie and her friends, Emma? They’re building a fort by the Tower.”

Emma’s ready to accept my invitation. She shoves off the swing, then moves a few steps away from her grandmother’s oversized shadow in the dirt. With Aimee’s nod, our children run to the Tower together. I smile too then ask, “Does your daughter take a dance class at the Academy?”

“She has.”

“That’s where I’ve seen you before,” I lie. “Well, it’s great to meet you. Maybe they’ll be in dance together next term.”

Aimee tucks one lip under the other, doesn’t respond.

“You know,” I continue, as casually as if I’d just come up with the idea. “Why don’t our girls get to know each other before the new season starts? How about a play date at my house? Your daughter’s welcome any time.”

Aimee doesn’t reply, but her mouth goes small. I can guess what she’s worried about, recompense, and so I say, “We’ll just try it one time and see how it goes. You’d be helping me out. I don’t think my daughter will know anyone else in dance next year.”

Aimee’s breath comes fast, and I wonder how much her illness has already advanced. Yet then she reaches for her purse and says, “It’s a very nice offer. Let’s exchange numbers.”

When the bell rings, a barking Beardsley gets to the door first. He’s followed by my daughter, dancing barefoot in her anticipation. Both have to wait for me to turn the lock and then Beardsley wedges his nose up onto the screen, terrifying Emma and Grandma Lyla.

“Down Beardsley,” I scold. As I pull him back by the collar, I try to explain, “He’s harmless, really, useless as a guard dog. He mostly patrols for squirrels.”

Still, Grandma doesn’t take her eyes off our St. Bernard as she steps into the hall with her charge. Emma looks as if she’s confronted yet another wolf in this strange forest. I force a laugh to calm everyone down.

“Do you like costumes, Emma?” I ask as Shoshie pushes past me to smother her newfound friend in a hug. “Shoshie has plenty.”

Emma nods and they head upstairs, ready for a session of make-believe to see if the friendship will prove real and true. I’m left behind with Grandma, who demands in the heavily accented words of someone whose first language is presumably not English, “What time you want me back?”

My glance falls to the car keys she’s holding. Truthfully, I’m relieved not to have to play hostess, even if this nervous visitor deserves all my attention and concern. More than likely, this woman will be burying her own child soon; laying out clothes for her funeral much as she did when sending her off to school decades ago. That’s her cursed fate and a reality so unbearable that, this close, I find myself full of irrational superstitions. No I’m not proud of these thoughts, but I’m normally lousy with the elderly and so terrified to invite into my home this sad-eyed woman who carries about her smells of old age and imminent tragedy.

“Let’s say two o’clock?” I say. “That will give the children some time together.”

“Two, yes.”

Still eyeing the dog, Grandma Lyla backs down our bricked walkway. I latch the screen, release my hold on Beardsley. Upstairs, I can hear my daughter chattering, “You be the witch and I’ll be the princess.”

“You girls okay?”

In reply, I hear a clicking of play heels, then Shoshie’s face appearing behind stair railings. Her red-brown hair is twisted in a messy bun and she is wearing her pink princess gown.

“We’re good.”

“You let Emma wear whatever costume she wants, witch or princess,” I instruct. “ Now, are you girls hungry for a snack or do you want to wait?”

There is a rustle of netted skirts and then a blonde-haired witch comes alongside my daughter. Emma’s chosen the darker costume, but I’m guessing she’s the cherubic one when it comes to coloring and temperament. Still she seems so unsteady in her black sequined getup and inch-high play shoes, I warn, “No heels on the stairs, Emma. It’s not safe.”

Even as I say the words, practically trill them, the girl’s lips start to scrunch up with worry she’s done something wrong.

“Well, aren’t you hungry?” I ask, making a joke. It works. Emma’s face relaxes even if her tongue continues to poke about in her cheek.

“I had lunch,” she informs me.

“Okay. I’ll just make snacks. Go play.”

The girls kalump-kalump back to Shoshie’s room. When I leave the chilled hallway, Beardsley trots obediently behind. As I push open the door leading to the kitchen, I’m feeling proud and why not admit it, if only to myself? My offer to watch Emma has to be of real comfort to Aimee while she’s struggling. In this house, we will nurture through normalcy, a routine playdate — and no hint of hushed conversations, tears being wiped on sleeves whenever a child enters a room. None of that for Emma today.

I open the refrigerator and retrieve a milk carton, give a brief sniff to make sure the milk is fresh. Yes, today, I’d done it right. I’d helped people and not in my usual ineffectual ways of being charitable, surrendering to phone solicitors or signing up for fundraisers that offered up hefty tax deductions as incentives.

I reach into the pantry and then rush a bit while I spread peanut butter and jelly onto crackers, not sure how long everyone’s amiable moods will last. I pour milk into two Sippy cups and set them on the table.

“Girls, snacks!”

As I head upstairs, I notice Shoshie has closed her bedroom door against all intruders, mainly me. Behind the door, I can hear her cry out, “Scribble Scrabble!”, and Emma’s laughter in response, a sweet baa-baa riff.

“Girls, snacks,” I repeat and push on the door. As I do, my glance shifts to the child-size mezuzah we’d hung on Shoshie’s doorframe, a gift from her baby-naming, and again, I think a bit irrationally, yes see, Emma safe’s here.

They are on Shoshie’s bed. My daughter stands in full princess regalia, holding a marker in her left hand. Emma sits cross-legged near the pillow, markers held in both fists. Lines of blue, green and yellow trail out along the sheets. What they’ve drawn is not clear. But to me, the lines look like chalk marks used to sketch victims’ bodies at crime scenes and so, of course, I scream.

Shoshi just glares, furious that I’ve walked in and ruined their fun. Emma, however, launches into a volley of tears and wails. Downstairs, Beardsley barks in nervous accompaniment.

“Emma, don’t. It’s okay,” I mumble.

I close my eyes, scribble scrabble all those lines from sight. Remind myself about non-toxic markers, how they’re made to erase with a sponge.

“All right. It’s time for a snack. I think we need a break,” I announce. Using the door knob for balance, I turn to leave. Behind me, I hear one last loud sniff from our guest and Shoshie’s bell-toned reassurances. “It’s okay. Don’t cry.”

She needs to cry, I think. Let her cry, Shoshie. The sheets are probably a total loss but all this is fixable. In her home, nothing is fixable anymore. So have pity.

I return to the kitchen and glance at the clock in an entirely different mood than moments ago. It’s not even twelve-thirty. I have an hour and a half more to go on this play date. The girls trail in a few minutes later, back in their clothes. I can tell Shoshie’s already forgotten the incident upstairs, but Emma hesitates when she notices my gaze upon her.

“Here, Emma, sit,” I say softly and pull out a chair at the table. The girl eyes the plate of crackers then pretends to be fascinated by the lamp hanging overhead. One, two, three, I watch her mouth as she counts the bulbs.

“Emma, is anything wrong?”

“I don’t like peanut butter and jelly,” Emma whispers to Shoshie, avoiding me altogether.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “Is there anything else I can get you —?”

Beardsley has found his way under the table and my daughter pries open a cracker sandwich, offers it to him.

“Ahh, you’re so gross!” she screams as the dog’s tongue licks her palm.

For the first time since she’s entered the kitchen, I hear Emma laugh, that baa-baa riff. I’m startled into action. Maybe this play date can be saved, after all.

I grab the dog’s collar. Showtime, Beardsley.

“Do you want to pet him?” I offer. “He’s really gentle.”

It’s not so much an invitation as a bribe and Emma squints, rightly suspecting my intentions. Still she rises from her chair and holds out her hand. I grab her palm, lay it on the brown furry tufts between his ears.

“This is his favorite spot,” I confide. “But he can’t get to it himself. He loves when someone helps.”

Scritch, scritch. Emma’s fingers start to move and Beardsley pants his appreciation. His jowls pool with saliva and then he can’t help himself; he starts to drip.

Shoshie bursts out laughing. With a smile, I release the dog and pull a tissue from my jeans pocket.

“Let’s make a potion,” I say. “Dog drool’s the first thing we’ll need. Come here, sweetie.”

I pivot the dog’s massive jaw into my hand, and wipe. Startled, he backs off with a growl. Emma steps back and not willing to lose the moment to her fear, I retrieve another tissue, turn to my daughter.

“Blow.”

Shoshie takes the tissue, snorts like an elephant at a watering hole.

“We’ll grease down a bowl with dog’s drool and kid’s snot,” I cackle in my best witch’s imitation. I drop both tissues on the counter, rummage through cabinets. “And what else, what else?”

I open my refrigerator and see items I’ve let sit for days, even weeks, past their labeled expiration dates. A pint of grape tomatoes, paunchy in their skins, a browning head of lettuce. Two slightly cracked hard-boiled eggs, a quart of milk.

“Here. I’ve got smelly eggs, leaking tomatoes, rotting skull lettuce.”

Both girls start to giggle, enchanted with my sorcerer’s turn. Not even a costume nearby to help in the transformation, so they’re impressed.

“And how about some nice, sour milk to blend it all together?”

“No! No milk!”

I turn to see Emma’s tongue working her cheek like a thermometer.

“My Grandma says sour milk makes you sick. If it’s bad, throw it out!”

Sick, that word. How fast noises in the room fly away with that word.

Emma’s eyes move frantically, to find Beardsley. But no longer the center of attention, he’s left the room. It’s Shoshie who comes over to dab with her finger at a few milk drops pitched into the table slats.

“How does milk get sour anyway?” my daughter asks.

“You don’t know when it happens!” Emma shrieks before I can reply. She tries to control herself, as if someone has warned her not to behave this badly in someone else’s home. Still her fingers clench, her cheeks purple in anger.

“You can’t see anything! But it makes you real sick if you drink it. You could die!”

You could die. It is a phrase she understands beyond all other words that swirl lazy as dust motes in the air. She’s found them in her mother’s closets, under her bed.

Between lavender-scented sheets that, despite all their washings, can’t hide the stink of illness.

I look at the milk already poured into pink plastic cups, focus on its whiteness in contrast, how pure, how clean. And I am surprised by this child’s fierce insistence that the world only gives us something else: decay, decay.

“You’re right, you wouldn’t want to drink milk that’s gone sour,” I manage. “It doesn’t taste good. But milk’s not bad when it turns. It’s just…different.”

I take a glass from the cabinet and set it on the counter, start to pour until this new milk’s almost rimming the top, threatening to spill. I pick it up carefully and move to the girls at the table.

“It’s not sour. I was just playing before. Really, this milk is fresh from the refrigerator. You don’t have to be afraid that it’s going to change so fast you won’t know.”

Shoshie leans in, interested, but Emma’s face doesn’t give over a clue that she hears anything I’m saying.

“Come and taste it, you’ll see.”

My daughter inches forward, yet Emma’s glances stubbornly sweep about, frantic to unearth landmines buried in this kitchen. Sour or not? Death or not? And what is there to trust, after all, when only the unknowable can be counted on in this room, in our words, in the very air?

“Come here, Emma,” I repeat, my tone rock-steady. “Take a sip.”

Her gaze shifts to mine, over the glass. When she blinks, an eyelash falls to her cheek. We are so close this is what I see, and I am nearly distracted.

But then I can feel her breath, wet, on my knuckles as her lips touch the rim.


 

Michele Merens is a Puffin Grant winner for her full-length play “The Lion’s Den.” She is also a member of the Dramatist’s Guild.

 

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