April 06

With A Strong Hand And An Outstretched Arm
by Jeremy Mullem
p. 2 of 3

The reader who knows the Haggadah will also recognize this story's present title. "And you, the Lord, did bring forth your people Israel out of the land of Egypt with signs, and with wonders, and with a strong hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terror." This is from Jeremiah and it is pretty good for chills too. I was vaguely in awe of God and his Biblical terrors. Real awe I reserved for my father.

There is no room in the fiction I am still trying to spin for you for a character like my father. First, he would have never married someone like Gloria, and I have too many characters already. Also my father makes no sense as a non-Jew—there simply isn't any way to convert him that leaves anything essential about the man remaining—and what I have in mind for David won't work if he isn't of mixed parentage. Incidentally, I say what I have said about my father's Jewishness even though he was a gun collector whose tastes in film and music ran toward Top Gun and its soundtrack. Finally, there is another reason for leaving him out, one I will come to in time. Before that though, I need to describe the ending I imagined five years ago in Iowa. This last reason won't make sense unless you've read that.

The ending that we'll get to in a moment is properly the second one I imagined. In the original, on the evening of that final Seder, with David and Gloria in Solomon and Ruth's apartment, Josephine shaves Solomon to get him ready for the Seder while Ruth trembles in anger at her husband's infatuation. Gloria needles her mother for her jealousy. Their bickering rises into shouting and accusations. While Josephine tries to soothe the old man, David stands with his hands over his ears, gazing at his grandfather and realizing now, finally, the depth of his grandparents' suffering.

Of course, that didn't really make sense. Petty jealousy—I don't read Solomon's crush as a great betrayal—does not amount to suffering. And even if Solomon did betray Ruth, what he did doesn't have anything to do with the Holocaust, which is the motherlode of their suffering. At least it did not in the story that I imagined. That left the epiphany at the end looking as squarely contrived as it, in fact, was. So, five years ago in Iowa, shortly after writing that first ending, I junked it. Instead this is what I imagined:

After Josephine finishes with Solomon and helps him to the table, she remains for the Seder.

Ruth doesn't yell. She is sad instead.

Gloria is bitter. She suspects that her father has never loved her mother. She blames them both for everything that has happened to them and to her.

Josephine and David are united, in David's view, in their embarrassment and discomfort. David wonders what it would be like to make love to her.

And Solomon is tired. At his Seder table, as his only grandson struggles to read the elementary Hebrew of a children's Haggadah, he sits with his life's disappointments arrayed, with no promise of relief or resolution short of death. But, for Solomon, death will not come. He is my character. He will go no farther than I take him, and I have no intention of writing any scenes beyond that final Seder. Solomon bears my grandfather's kindness and I have contrived to abandon him. I understand that I need to apologize.

The door buzzes. David rises to answer. When he unlatches the chain, I walk into the apartment.

"I am not Elijah," I say.

No one laughs. They all know me.

"Solomon," I say, "I have led you into a Sinai of my own making and I have stranded you here. I have no path to offer." I look each of them in the eyes. "There will be no Jerusalem for any of you. I am sorry."
Solomon nods then beckons me closer. He is not angry. "Sit with me," he says. "Take a chair. We have food. We will make a Seder. Sit here with all of us and together we will wait for whatever comes."


More than a year after my grandmother's death, long after I had written that second ending, an ending that, to my mind, almost excused my tepid beginning and aimless middle, I re-opened the story's file. I was still living in Iowa. It was the last of three winters I spent there. I was sharing a house with another writer and an anthropologist, and I had my computer in my bedroom, set on a desk in front of a window that looked onto the snow-covered bushes and walks of a peaceful side-street.

In a fashion, I had been waiting with Solomon. Through all those intervening months, I had found myself repeating those final lines I had written. The problem of, as they say, earning them, daunted me. For a few days, as snow fell intermittently, I labored to sharpen the events. I muted Gloria. I made Jospehine a refugee too. David became younger, then older. I turned Solomon into the owner of a luncheonette, like my grandfather. Finally, when all simple improvements failed, I allowed myself to think of the story that I am now still trying to tell you in the way that short-story writers who are not especially honest with themselves allow themselves to think of those stories that are the hardest to write and that they hold most dear: I imagined it as a novel.

I had just begun writing a different novel. So thinking of this story as one that demanded that amount of room for its telling allowed me to close its file once more.

In August of that year I moved to Washington, DC to take a job teaching writing at a law school. The work was hard and it kept me busier than I had anticipated. For most of a year, I wrote nothing. Then, the spring semester ended. As I look back on the months that followed, what I recall is a sense of unhurriedness. By the middle of May I had finished grading my students' papers. I needed only appear at my office for an hour or two a day to move along whatever bit of next-semester planning I had been assigned. And so, every day after lunch and all day on the weekends, I was free to take a sunny table outside a cafe on Wisconsin Avenue. I read and wrote, and watched the spring turn to summer.

Around this time, a friend from Iowa, who had happened to have moved to Washington at almost at the same time I did, sold her novel. Her agent, she told me, was looking for new clients. On the strength of a mostly-complete collection of short stories, this agent took me on. That fall, as she tried (without success) to sell the stories, I recall mentioning that I had another piece in the works—something that might be a novel eventually—a Passover story. That was an exaggeration bordering on outright dishonesty. No doubt I was trying to impress this agent, trying to say something that would compensate for the publishing market's rejection of my stories. The truth was that I had not been thinking much about my Passover scene except that, during the long period when I had left it to sit, the story that I envisioned as David's, as belonging to my proxy, had become Solomon's. Sometimes, in the shower, I would repeat the words I had written as the ending just to feel them in my mouth. I would imagine the old man waiting patiently for me to make my entrance, meeting my dramatics with kindness and accommodation.

Also, that summer, I fell in love.

For reasons that I will get to in a moment, I took out a month's subscription to an online dating services that catered to Jews. I asked out two women. With one I shared bad conversation over bad Chinese food, with the other good conversation over drinks. Then the woman who would become my fiancé e-mailed me. She was from Chicago and she ran athletic leagues for the Jewish Community Center. She suggested we meet at a Mexican restaurant in Adams-Morgan for Saturday brunch. At some point during the three hours we spent together that morning and afternoon on the roof of that restaurant, I realized I was captivated. She was wearing a knee-length, colorful skirt. She had broad shoulders, like a swimmer's, and because she had been golfing a lot her arms were very tan. When we walked back to her apartment, she teased me a little. I would not call what I felt love at first sight. I might instead say that, from the first moment I saw her, I understood that her face would always be arresting to me. I might say that I knew seeing this woman laugh would always give me pleasure. I might simply say that it was the kind of first date that would make a young man begin to speak with conviction of things to pass in years ahead.

But I need to explain to you what drove me to the Internet and that Jewish dating website. As I have said, during my first school year in Washington, I wrote very little. I dated even less. I met a great many bright, attractive, charming women that year; they were my students. I knew almost no one from outside of work. When the spring term ended, I decided I would go on a few dates, telling myself that trying some new restaurants and bars would compensate for whatever might not happen in the romance department.

In Iowa my last serious girlfriend had been a woman from California who was a couple of years older than I was. Several times she had let me know that she thought it would be a good idea if we were to marry. This would have been a very bad idea for reasons too numerous to set out here. Once though, when she had gently raised the subject of marriage and I had tried to put her off gently, she brought up religion.

She let me know that she would be willing to do Chanukah. "I'd come down every morning," she said, "and I'd light those lights."

She also suggested that if she could do that, I could do Christmas.

A thought I had in going with the Jewish dating site was that, if anything serious developed, I would be able to avoid that kind of negotiation. I should also admit that, when I was young, on more than one occasion my father had told my sister and me that we would be dead to him if we married non-Jews. But that was not something on my mind. By that dating summer in Washington, my father had been dead nine years, and even now I cannot be sure how serious his threat was. It's my recollection that one of the times he made it followed a family outing to see a community college production of Fiddler on the Roof in Stockton, California. It could be that he was caught up in that story. Or it could be that he was horrified by what the goyim had done to it. He was a man who liked his pork fried rice. What I do know is that my father would be delighted by my fiancé.


I need to tell you now about the circumstances surrounding my father's death. The ending here will not make sense unless I do. I've been going on about my fiancé and love and spinning out these happy thoughts. Well, here comes the darkness.

My father died on a Sunday evening, in early February 1994, in the Pan-Pacific Hotel in San Francisco. I had been in the City with my parents that weekend before and then driven back to Los Angeles, where I was in my second year of law school. They had stayed on for another night to visit with friends. Around seven o'clock, my mother went down to the front desk to see about a fax. When she returned to their room, she found my father dead on the bathroom floor.

According to the autopsy, my father died of peritonitis, toxic shock brought about by a perforation of his bowel. More fundamentally, he died of complications from metastized colorectal cancer. The first anyone learned of this cancer was in his autopsy. My father had been sick. For two or three years before his death, he had suffered from periodic fevers and abdominal discomfort. Early on, he had tested positive for giardiasis, an intestinal disorder caused by a one-celled microscopic parasite. At home, my family drew its water from a creek that ran beside our house. My mother had had the creek tested when we had first moved into the house; the technician she hired told her she could bottle the water and sell it. Still, it was a creek in the woods and animals came to drink from it and, presumably, some infected animal had died in it or along its banks and the parasite had been released into the water and drawn up through our intake pipe into our home.

My father took antibiotics and changed his diet. The symptoms faded and returned. There was a time, my mother told me later, when there had been blood in his stool. But that ended and he seemed to get better. She told me also that once, more than a year after the symptoms had begun, he had told her that if his illness was due to something besides what he thought he had, he should have been dead already. He didn't trust the other doctors in our county to examine him. He would not go anywhere else to get a diagnosis. And, of course, my mother, my sister and I took his word about his health as if it had come from God. My father was a brilliant doctor. He saved lives. He knew his medicine. In the days leading up to that final weekend, he was feverish and had complained about his gut. He had just begun taking Tylenol for the pain.

Images: Bill Bragg, Reflected Yellow
Bill Bragg, Egocentric in Blue