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Home: The Toast

Gaza_beach Photo from Flickr

It was a hot, windy day when we addressed Rosa Herrsch’s Facebook posts at our weekly board meeting. This was in early summer, when in evening the part of the sky that faced the Holy Land grew purple, and the mockingbirds seemed to echo our pain, and we in turn echoed theirs.

“On Facebook, every damn hour she’s cursing the Holy Land. Rosa–and such a sweet woman!” said Moshe, who had recently joined Facebook, newly a widower.

“Yes, Moshe. I’m not on Facebook, but some of my friends have shared this with me–it’s concerning, to put it lightly,” said Lucas, the writer and columnist for his high school paper. He pushed his little round glasses up the bridge of his nose, then pursed his lips wisely, a boy beyond his years.

“Her mother a survivor, and she has the nerve to do this? To say all this–this crap!” said Debbie. She shook her head rhythmically as she asked this question–a most important one, to be sure–and tossed left and right her flaxen hair, straightened, long, and luscious for her age. We had always respected her academic credentials. She had attended an Ivy League school, where she met her dutiful husband, Doctor Ross. But we revered her even more now that she’d published her book, Our People’s Peace. It was all about Kabbalah mystics, Buddhism, and the writings of Martin Sodi, who had been through the tragedy of our people and had found his own, inner peace within it. She self-published her book, and some people praised it online. We all said she was in touch with the age! She had stayed awake till midnight signing copies of her book, laughing through the late hour; this was at a Friday night fundraiser in May, before the war had started.

She and Rosa Herrsch used to have a kind of friendship. They jogged together. Some afternoons Debbie took Rosa along when she read to the black children outside of Castle Falls. They shared causes and ideas. They would invite speakers and plan events. This friendship cooled and was severed when, that summer, the war began. It was certainly over when we brought up Rosa’s Facebook posts at the board meeting. By that time we frequently saw her husband, but we did not see Rosa.

Rosa’s husband was a wealthy Slavic man named Pavlak. He had a moustache that looked like a comb, and proudly admitted that his shag of black hair was fake. He was always on the phone with his project manager, a man who was so honest and broad-shouldered that he reminded us of a peasant in the old country. Most of what Mister Pavlak said on the phone began with the word “okay,” and the bulk of it was an exclamation: “Okay, good!”, he would say, or, “Okay, fine!” It was funny to us that he yelled, in seeming anger, sentiments of approval. He reminded us too of the men in the old country, who meant well behind their hard manners.

Mister Pavlak was a builder, or what some of us called a contractor. Yet his projects, as he told us many times during brunch, were not so much building up as knocking down. His company destroyed schools condemned by the state. This was a good business; there were many such schools. We lived in sordid times, when communities did not care for their children, and the reverse was also true. We did what we could to mitigate this among our people, and even, like Debbie, among the children of other peoples. At the same board meeting in which we discussed Rosa’s Facebook posts, we also talked about the progress of the private day school’s new wing, which we had asked Pavlak’s company to build for us. The wing was half-finished, we learned at the board meeting, and should have been complete when the children went to school in autumn.

This new wing would capture our tragedy, preserving its memory for the new generation. This wing would have the newest technology, taking our traditions into the new age. It would feature projectors playing short films about the liquidation of our people who lived in the old country, about its aftermath, which weighs on us still. The wing would have touch screens quizzing children about the years when we were nearly wiped from the earth. From the wing’s plaster walls would hang screenprinted poems, famous poems by children who were killed in the camps. A computer program would let children make t-shirts that would celebrate the Holy Land. This wing had just begun construction when the war broke out and Rosa started remonstrating on Facebook, and receiving all her likes; Mister Pavlak, her husband, had knocked down our defunct gym to build it.

On the day after our board meeting, Moshe sent Rosa a Facebook message. “Dear Rosa,” he said, “if you come to the board meeting, we will discuss your recent Facebook posts. See you on Wednesday at five pm.” She never replied to his overture–she never even read it, as far as we know. Moshe was distraught. At brunch that Saturday, he was on his phone for most of the time, brushing his finger up and down the touch-screen with a look of confusion on his face. Moshe had only purchased a smart-phone since his wife passed away, so Lucas, assuming he was having trouble, leaned over and asked the old man whether he needed help.

“Here, Moshe, what are you trying to do?” he said, spreading his fingers.

“I’m checking to see if Rosa’s responded,” he said, clutching the phone to his chest, as if Lucas were trying to take it from him.

When Rosa did not come to the board meeting the next week, Moshe’s bug-eyes grew moist and puffy. Combined with the spider-veins next to his nose and the slight purple of his upper cheeks, his face looked like a watercolor. As the board meeting proceeded, we tried to ignore Rosa’s absence. Every few minutes Moshe would shake his head and breathe through his nostrils, staring down at his reflection in the table’s polished face. And when the meeting concluded, we all filed out of the room; we were disappointed, but not to the extent of poor Moshe. He stayed put in his red leather armchair, wheezing into his hands, like a father waiting up for a daughter who does not come. We don’t know when he went home that afternoon. The board-room doors locked automatically, so we left him there to be alone with his grief.

Then the Facebook posts grew as the war intensified. The numbers of insurgent dead increased, and so did the number of likes that Rosa’s posts received. She shared graphics contrasting the count of the dead on both sides–the Holy Land’s soldiers in one column, and on the other their enemies. She put up statistics that, if one took them at face value, belied our people’s cries of self-defense. As the war was growing desperate, this increase in activity did not surprise us, but it did mean that we had to make our case plain to her. She posted a new graphic or screed or op-ed by the hour. Many people shared her posts; some of them were from Castle Falls.

Then one day at the height of the bloodshed, we chose to reconcile with Rosa. Debbie, the scholar and local author, went to her house, intending to open a dialogue about her posts. Rosa and her husband lived at the back of Castle Falls, where there are hard, jutting rocks instead of tall, ancient trees. She went past the iron gates, up the front walk, and rang the doorbell. Rosa’s car was in the driveway, and so was Mister Pavlak’s, but no one came to the door. The minutes piled up until Debbie rang a second time, and pounded with the brass knocker.

“Rosa!” Debbie called out at the shut-up house, standing on the portico’s steps, “Don’t you know I have other things to do?”

She rang the doorbell a second time.

Debbie called out, “Rosa, I want the same thing! I want peace too!”

Then a double-sash window above her, on the second floor, opened with a squeak and an agitated smack. Debbie looked up at the black cusp of the windowsill when an object–small, light, squarish–flew out of the window, heading downward like a bird racing to rescue its young, or a crashing plane. The object, cast by an unidentified hand, collided with the crown of Debbie’s head. The lower edge of the object scraped her there, causing her to bleed from her miniscule bald spot. She called out in pain, and the window slammed shut.

She moaned, and cursed against Rosa, and felt the blood on her bald spot begin to dry. Looking down, she realized that the sharp-cornered thing that had flown from the Pavlak house’s second story, and which now lay inert on the stone walk, was a first-printing edition of her self-published book. Taking her book with her, she left full of rage and, more than rage, a kind of angry indifference.

“She threw my own damn book at me!” Debbie said at the next board meeting, and then explained the incident. “Let her go join them! Let her go bomb our people! I don’t give a crap, and I won’t apologize for my French!”

A few minutes later, when we voted to to exclude Rosa from serving on future committees, Moshe abstained, bowing his head. Debbie snarled, the bracelets on her forearm starting to rattle: “How would you like a book thrown at your head, oh Moses, mister deep heart, mister big emotions?”

“Not very much, but I also worry that we go too far,” he said solemnly, his bald head hanging down.

“Why don’t you and Miss Rosa go have a pity party for the people who are shooting rockets at us?” Debbie pressed him.

Moshe, shaking his head, sighed for a long time. “Who is shooting rockets at us? We are here, in our board room, in Castle Falls. Leave me alone with this talk of ‘us.’” He got up slowly and shambled out of the board-room, loping beyond the double-doors, his bad foot trailing behind him. Without Moshe’s vote, we lacked the numbers to ban Rosa from committee seats. Lucas then brought up the construction of the school’s new wing. He was concerned. How could we trust Mister Pavlak, he asked? What if he sabotaged the project, or did it half-heartedly, on orders from his wife? We eased his fears by reminding him that the man had signed a contract. He had even signed a sub-contract with a sub-contractor. Lucas was soothed by this, but Debbie seemed ill at ease. She was silent for the rest of the meeting, massaging the scab on her bald spot, maybe thinking of what she had said, or what Moshe had said to her.

Then, at the end of the week, the war ground to a halt. We didn’t quite win, but they stopped launching rockets. She no longer made posts, for there was nothing to protest, no war to tilt against. Yet we were worried. Rosa did not come back. She was seen at none of the gatherings, missed our late-summer gala. It was true, in a word, that we wondered where she was. Then, on a Monday, Pavlak’s foreman did not come to the site where the wing was being built, nor did his crew come, nor did Pavlak himself. This absence left the scaffolds empty, the bulldozers and backhoes unmanned, the power drills and buzz-saws turned off and wrapped in their cables. We called his office, but it seemed the phone line was shut off. How could this have happened, we wondered. He had signed a contract with us. He was bound by law!

So Moshe went to their house, wanting to make peace. Nothing else could be done; Mister Pavlak’s company office was locked, and the lights were shut off. It was early evening on Monday when Moshe drove to their stucco, slate-roofed home at the back of Castle Falls. He unlatched the gate and lolloped up the flagstone walk, his bad foot dragging behind him, and called for her. “Mister Pavlak? Rosa?” he asked to the windows of their house. “Rosa, it’s over!” he shouted. “The war, they called it off! It’s a cease-fire!” He circled the back and front yards, knocking at each door and peering into the windows, but the lights were off inside, and no one was home. It was dusk, and color drained slowly from the sky as a great fleet of clouds came on, blocking out the horizon. Perhaps they had decamped for good, but there was no for sale sign; he assumed that they had fled Castle Falls for a while. Moshe sat on the front steps, underneath the portico. When night fell, he felt that it fell within him, too, and he went home.

He recounted these details at the next board meeting, at which Debbie apologized and he accepted. He replied by apologizing too, but not for any particular act. Rather, he apologized for, in his words, “all of this,” as if each act of that long summer drama had been his fault. After this, Lucas brought up how Pavlak had broken our contract: should we file suit? Draft an affidavit? Marshall the lawyers? When Lucas asked, we responded with silence. No one knew what to say, but then Moshe spoke up.

“No lawyers. No lawsuit. The war is over. Let it end,” he said. The sub-contractor would finish it alone, we decided, and therefore be paid more.

Then in early autumn we opened the wing with a celebration and a speech by Debbie. It was complete. The touch-screens were alive; the children clamored to be next in line to use them, and when they finished the short exams, the flag of our Holy Land would wave in 3D behind the numerical grade that each child had received. Many got perfect scores on the quiz, and they laughed with joy when the screens said “100%!” in big thick letters; they would run to tell their parents, who wandered in darker corners of the new wing. In these sadder spots, the poems of children, victims of mass murder, were copied on pasteboard and placed on the walls, illumined by floodlights embedded in the floor. The parents were glum, and spoke softly to each other with their hands in their pockets, but all that they said, really, were wordless things, moaning what can’t be expressed in the brighter parts of human speech, and they hung their heads and held hands like young couples, the warmth of the other’s grip letting him or her hear the voices of so many lives lost. But the children, their eyes lighting up with achievement, would scamper to their melancholy parents, and, with their clear faces and red cheeks, would bring cheer to this shadow-den of poems, and of heavy hearts. “Mom! Dad! I got 100 on the quiz!” they would say, as their parents shuffled through this penumbral part of the wing. The mothers and fathers would, as they smiled through restrained tears, clutch the boys and girls to their bosoms and their chests, those children who fluttered like birds in the arms of their parents, wishing to escape what was, to them, a meaningless embrace.

For her part, Debbie buzzed around like a bee; she had the passion of many women, in the body of one. She made sure that no one brought refreshments near the touch-screens, and she showed the younger children how to use the t-shirt-making program, which had the longest line, even though the t-shirts were not printed instantly but would take two-to-three weeks to arrive. Debbie, zooming around the wing, paused only to watch her two boys cooperate to design a shirt. They laughed, and pretended to fight bitterly over what its text would say would say, wrapped around a graphic of our Holy Land’s flag, but in the end they agreed on something simple and ordered duplicates, both shirts a child’s medium, for Debbie’s boys were the same size, with the same color hair, and were the same little age.

Lucas was less conspicuous at this fete. Taciturn in crowds, he hung around our modest exhibit of things from the old country, such as shoes, and caps, and amulets and dentures, all of which were on display in glass cases, with spotlights softly shining down on them. He less viewed the exhibit, which was only just set off from the atrium, than observed people’s reactions to it—quiet mixtures of sadness and respect for those articles that were at once lost and preserved. An artist of the eye, he saw patterns in the way people moved, in the way they spoke, and used these observations to repair the world and incarnate justice.

Moshe, lastly, was alone. He rambled around the wing, an inward soul, talking to no one, his bent foot lagging behind him. The night was a muddle of melancholy and joy, but he distinctly fell on the side of the former. He stared at the concrete floor, not at the poems that hung at the wall, not at the little ones that dashed from corner to corner, not at the items that stood forth at the exhibit, but merely at the unchanging floor. He was so old, full of grief and the procession of years, that he must have wanted to look for a little bit at that which did not move, but rather disappeared underfoot as one went on.

Then it was time for Debbie’s dedication speech. We all gathered at the podium that had been brought to the atrium, where there were benches and a marble floor, and photographs of our major donors. She stood at the podium with the pages of her peroration spread out against the stop. Her two boys hung beside her, motionless for once, one gripping her leg, the other leaning his head on her, both of them looking wide-eyed at the crowd that had gathered to hear their mother’s talk. We hushed each other as Debbie took a sip of water and cleared her throat, the lights dimming. Lucas stood at the side and the front of the throng, and Moshe at the center-front. “Thank you all for being here tonight,” she declared, quieting the low murmur of the crowd, “and thank you to my husband, and my two beautiful boys. We are gathered here, as a community, to celebrate our home and mourn our people’s long, difficult past.” Moshe made a grievous sound in reply to this. That was when the bomb went off. Because it had been planted in the rear of the podium’s low shelf, Debbie and her two boys were killed, as well as most people in the front row. The ceiling crumbled, then the wall caved. Falling cinderblocks and hunks of plaster trapped a group of children at the back of the crowd, who were fleeing the building. They suffocated; there were three of them. The marble floors were torn up, and some older people were pinned down as well. Most of the other children got out, and many of the adults escaped, but a number of them left wounded. All of the bodies were recovered, mangled though they may have been, except for those of Debbie and her two boys, which were lost.

When the so-called SWAT team went to Rosa Herrsch’s house, it was reported that she and her husband resisted arrest. The crime blotter said they tried to leave out of an upper-story window; this claim was corroborated when, later, the team of investigators discovered fingerprints on the pane. So they were shot in their bedroom. They remained in the room overnight until Debbie’s widower, Doctor Ross, asked for an inquest, his heart brimming with forgiveness and a love of truth. The wing was later rebuilt, and even more money was poured into it than the first time; it included monuments to the long-dead and the dead of recent days. We supplemented the wing with a statuary hall, in which we placed granite depictions of Debbie, Lucas, Moshe, and the many children. Moshe’s head hung down, Debbie carried a copy of her book, and Lucas had his hands in his pockets. In this sculpture, the children were holding hands and, with their stone eyes, looking up at the vaulted ceiling. These poses were emblematic, we thought. This second draft of the wing did fall short in a way, however. We could replace the touch screens and the pasteboard poems, and we could add a room full of statues in memory of our dead. But we could not replace the things from the old country, which had vanished in the blast.

Alec Niedenthal is an MFA candidate at Brown University. His fiction can also be found in The Brooklyn Rail, Agriculture Reader, and Vol 1. Brooklyn. He is working on a novel about sexual repression and privatized education.

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