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The Square Peg
BEST-SELLING AUTHOR OF THE REFUGEE
The hole is round.
The peg is square.
It's just not going to fit.
George Nachman knows exactly what he wants for his son, Jonathan. The brilliant boy will get an excellent education at a prestigious school and go on to a successful career. He'll be respected, he'll be powerful, and, most important of all, he'll be rich.
Jonathan Nachman doesn't know what he wants for himself. But he does know that his father's dream of material success has nothing to do with him.
And then Jonathan discovers the world of Torah, and knows that here is life.
And George discovers another world entirely. A dangerous world, where there is death....
Tough father. Tough son. Tough choices.
Square Peg is an unforgettable novel of family ties and family secrets, of one man's search for meaning in life and another's grim determination to impose his will upon him. Beautifully written by the author of The Refugee, it is a novel of both heart-pounding excitement and great depth.
Copyright © 2000 by David Sussman
Published by: Targum Press, Inc.
This book is dedicated to the memory of my beloved grandmother
(Rivka bas Pesach), who left this world on 23 Cheshvan, 5760.
Her strength and courage live on with us forever.
It is with tremendous gratitude to the Ribbono shel Olam that I present this book to the public after years of work. Many people were instrumental in its production, and I am obligated to express my hakaras hatov to a number of them.
First and foremost, thanks must go to Mrs. Miriam Zakon of Targum Press for her tireless efforts in editing and reshaping the story. Her contributions have truly been invaluable. Thanks also to everyone else at Targum Press for all of their hard work.
I also must thank Rabbi Moshe Chaim Sosevsky and Rabbi Shmuel Wagner of Yeshivat Ohr Yerushalayim for providing me with the computer facilities where much of the final editing of this book was done. Thanks also to Rabbi Tzvi Goodman, who was truly thoughtful and helpful and saved me much time and energy.
Thanks to Mrs. Audrey Wagner for reviewing the manuscript in its very earliest stages.
Finally, thanks to all those people who gave me support and inspiration, to everyone from the yeshivah, and especially to my family: my parents, Alan and Laureen Sussman, and my brothers, Adam and Daniel.
Jonathan Nachman could detect the sense of displeasure in the air that afternoon even before he entered his home. It hovered about the front stoop, closing ominously in upon him as he approached the house. Even the front door seemed to frown at him as he groped in his pocket for his key.
He opened the door and stepped into a silence that seemed to have just been created. There was no one in sight as he stood at the dimly lit end of the front foyer, but he had the impression that whatever conversations had been taking place in the house had been abruptly cut off at the sound of his arrival. He waited patiently for his parents to come, knowing they would and not even bothering to try to avoid the inevitable confrontation.
The first people to appear were Isabel and Hilary, two of his three older sisters, willowy, brown-haired look-alikes, parading down the winding staircase with the air of spectators in a Roman coliseum. Next his mother, Linda, emerged from the kitchen and stepped hesitantly into the corridor, as if she were afraid to make her presence known. Then, eclipsing all of them, came the master of the house, George Nachman, bulldozing out of the broad living room doorway like an enraged bear.
Linda seemed to be on the verge of saying something, but George, who was both closer to Jonathan and a good deal louder than his wife, overrode her with the roar, "We do not enjoy hearing about your intransigence, young man! Do you understand the importance of an education?"
Jonathan had little more than a vague idea as to what had sparked their displeasure. It was not difficult to figure out that one or both of his parents had been called by one of his teachers at Woodbridge Academy, but he could not think of a recent incident that would justify such a call, nor could he imagine what could possibly have irritated his father to such an extent. Then again, George was notorious for his fiery temper, which was one of the only traits his son had inherited from him.
The more Jonathan grew and matured, the more he began to feel like a stranger, a foreigner, wherever he was: at home, at school, and everywhere else. Although he was only twelve years old chronologically, his powerful intellect had marked him as a prodigy from his earliest months. He had outstripped his classmates at an early age, and his reasoning and comprehension abilities often seemed to surpass even those of his parents and teachers. But the problem was that no one seemed to understand him: not his peers, not his supposedly enlightened teachers, not his family, not even his sister Sandra, the only member of the Nachman family who maintained a constant civility to Jonathan. Everyone else seemed to feel threatened by him, simply because he was different.
And Jonathan knew he was different. He knew it with a certainty and a clarity that were virtually unparalleled in his experience. He often felt as if he were looking at the world around him through a glass barrier, as if everything around him were simply the contents of an aquarium, peculiar specimens from a world of which he could never be a part.
Another roar from George cut through his reverie. "Do you plan to answer me, Jonathan?"
Jonathan blinked and steadied himself. Profound intellect notwithstanding, he had yet to learn how to deal properly and diplomatically with people. "Of course I understand the importance of an education. Why do you ask?"
"Young man," said George, obviously seething, "there is no reason for you to address me so snidely."
Jonathan's eyebrows rose; the situation was obviously graver than he had imagined. But what could have disturbed his father so?
"George!" Linda, a petite woman whose face was crossed by the worries that had plagued her over the years, rushed forward and put a restraining hand on her husband's arm. "Your blood pressure!"
"Right now, I am concerned with my son's attitude," said George, but he subsided somewhat. "Jonathan, you have been completely out of line."
"I don't understand," said the boy in a tone of voice that was shaken but not at all boyish.
"Your principal Mr. Hunter called me in today," Linda elaborated, "about what you said to Mrs. MacPaul."
The memory of Monday's science class flooded into his mind. "Oh," said Jonathan. "That."
"Yes," George snarled sarcastically. "That."
"But that happened the other day...."
"I don't remember hearing about a statute of limitations on such issues," said George. In the background, Isabel and Hilary giggled. George whirled and ordered them furiously back upstairs. They were quick to comply, but they paused at the top of the staircase, craning to hear the rest of the argument.
Jonathan felt the usual surge of resentment at the manner in which his sisters enjoyed his discomfort. For as long as he could remember, they had taunted him, tormented him, and taken great joy from every disagreement he had with his parents, every failure in school in fact, just about every misfortune that befell him. It was not hard to figure out why.
Jonathan's sisters were deeply jealous not only of his remarkable intellectual abilities, but also of the special attention he received from his parents. As it had become clear to George that Jonathan was the academic star among his children, he had pinned all of his hopes and dreams on his son's small shoulders, making it clear to all that Jonathan would achieve the meteoric success which his father had never quite been able to achieve. As a result, the older children tended to be shunted out of the way in favor of Jonathan, who was placed on the family pedestal. Sandra, the third girl, seemed to be understanding, but Isabel and Hilary were not.
"I didn't really intend to be disruptive," said Jonathan. "But it hardly seems to be such a terrible thing."
"Jonathan," said George. "You may be very intelligent, but you simply cannot continue acting like you are superior to everyone else."
"But it was such a ridiculous idea, Dad! Just imagine! Human beings descending from apes! It's laughable!"
George and Linda looked at each other, their faces utterly unreadable. Uncharacteristically, Linda was the first to speak. "Jonathan," she said slowly, "it's a theory that has been believed by many scientists for many years."
"Enough!" George exclaimed suddenly. "You're only twelve years old, young man, and that is not old enough to be questioning Charles Darwin, let alone the entire scientific community!"
"But it doesn't seem right!" Jonathan protested.
"Whether or not it's right isn't what counts," said George. "If it's part of your curriculum, you must learn it." He paused. "Now, about these other things...."
Jonathan's heart sank. "There's more?" *
"There's a good deal more," man, I want to know why you must make yourself like an outcast among your peers."
Jonathan shrank back against the door. What - What are you talking about?" Hearing the words spoken aloud was something very different from reviewing them in the comfortable privacy of his own mind; George turned them into sharp-tipped darts, penetrating and painful.
"George," Linda whispered, "maybe this isn't the best-"
George silenced her with a whispered word that did not seem to Jonathan to be particularly gentle. Then he turned back on Jonathan. His voice softened ever so slightly. "I can understand that you have difficulties. But from what I've been told it seems that you've actually been going out of your way to separate yourself from your peers, to alienate them. Now, Mr. Hunter had a very long conference with your mother today, and he said that if you don't at least make an effort to fit in, there's nothing the school can do for you. He even hinted that if you continue to be obstinately disruptive and abrasive, you might have to find another school."
Linda looked up abruptly. "Well, he didn't say that exactly...."
"But he implied it," George said.
"Yes, he did," she acknowledged.
Jonathan trembled. "The fact that I have a different personality doesn't give them the right to to threaten to expel me!" he protested.
George shook his head. "Jonathan, Woodbridge is a private institution. A very private, very selective, very much respected institution. They can do whatever they want. And what they want is to have a specific breed of student. The best breed of student. Now, you have the brains and the diligence for it. All you need to do is to make a commitment to try to be a better Woodbridge student."
"But I'm not like everyone there," Jonathan exclaimed. "I'm not a Woodbridge student, and I don't really belong there!"
Red flames flared in George's cheeks; his fury suddenly returned. "What do you mean? Woodbridge is one of the most elite schools around. The classes are challenging, and your grades, along with the prestige of a Woodbridge education, will go a long way."
George and Linda looked at each other for a long time, neither seeming to understand Jonathan's question. Or perhaps neither one knew how to respond. Finally, George said, "Success. Naturally."
"In other words, fame, fortune, and so forth," Jonathan said disdainfully. "Is there nothing more to life?"
"Enough of this already!" George's temper had flared again. "I won't debate this subject with you! You simply have to accept the fact that your mother and I and your teachers do often know better than you do, despite your intelligence. And right now, you have to trust us to know what's best for you. When you become an adult, you can decide where you belong. Until then, I will."
At that moment, the pressures from within and without suddenly became too great to bear. Jonathan felt his temper detonate. Tears began to stream down his face. "You don't understand, Dad! I don't belong at Woodbridge. It may have been the best place for Isabel, Hilary, and Sandra, but it isn't for me. I hate it there! I've told you that. Now why won't you listen " He choked on the rest as his legs turned into rubber beneath him and his body quaked, racked with sobs.
The doorknob pressed into the small of his back. On a sudden, rash impulse, Jonathan twisted away from it and yanked the door open. Without waiting to see his parents' reaction, the boy dove through the doorway, pulling the door shut behind him as he fled.
He stumbled down the front stairs; the crash of the door slamming reverberated behind him like a gunshot, spurring him further and further, faster and faster. His parents did not follow him. He imagined them still standing in that foyer, staring and shaking their heads and murmuring with displeasure. Perhaps even his own huddled, sobbing body was still there, slumped on the floor like a broken toy, meekly absorbing the waves of wrath and displeasure emanating from everywhere around him. Perhaps the Jonathan that was now plunging maniacally down the street was no more than a shadow of the real Jonathan, a piece of that human being which had broken off and fallen away. He had felt it coming; he had known that eventually something inside him was going to break.
A light drizzle hung in the air like a lace curtain; Jonathan pushed through it, stumbling, his fingers outstretched like claws and tearing at the air around him. He felt his feet pound across soft grass, then the hard sidewalk, then grass again, then the sidewalk. He kept on pushing forward blindly, until he abruptly ran out of energy and collapsed, sobbing, next to a large utility pole. The rain seemed to envelop him, cutting him off from the rest of the world and isolating him in a tiny pocket of gray air and misery.
He did not know how long he sat there. No one from his family came to find him. He simply crouched on the wet, muddy sidewalk, weeping and trembling. He did not think of what he would do next, how he would explain himself to his parents or how he would face his sisters. There was no future anymore. There was just the all-consuming pain of the present.
"Jonathan?" A gentle voice interrupted his chaotic thoughts. Jonathan looked up. A tall figure loomed above him in the fog, a man clad in dark garments. Jonathan heaved himself to his feet, frightened and disoriented. The man moved closer; from the mist coalesced a familiar bearded and bespectacled face. "Jonathan, is something wrong?"
Rabbi Asher Steiner of Congregation Keser Torah, the local Orthodox synagogue, lived down the street from the Nachman family. Although Jonathan's parents discouraged him from having anything to do with any of their more religious neighbors, they had not been able to prevent him from forming an attachment to the Steiner family. Rabbi Steiner's oldest son, Dov, was the same age as Jonathan, and one of the very few people Jonathan considered a friend.
Jonathan had spent many weekends and weekday evenings relaxing in the Steiners' house, conversing with Dov, and often with Dov's parents. It was a place where Jonathan could actually feel at home, as if he belonged, a feeling that he did not enjoy even in his own home. The Steiners welcomed him into their home almost as a member of their family.
The question of religion, though, was one that had rarely been broached. It had occupied Jonathan's mind for some time, always seeming to hover at the edge of his thoughts when he visited the Steiners, but he had never been able to bring up the subject. The Steiners, for their part, never seemed to make any effort to bring up the topic, although Jonathan was certain that they, too, perceived the religious gulf that gaped between them.
"Jonathan? Have you been crying? Is there anything I can do for you?" Rabbi Steiner exuded an air of stately dignity and authority that had a calming effect on Jonathan. The boy rubbed his fingers against his tear-soaked face and composed himself to the best of his ability.
"I I hope so," he said uncertainly, almost fearfully, choking back the flood of tears that threatened to erupt again.
Rabbi Steiner laid a gentle hand on Jonathan's shoulder. "Let's go into my house, Jonathan, where it's nice and dry, and you can tell me what's wrong."
Jonathan meekly followed the rabbi through the steadily intensifying rain, struggling to maintain his composure. It did not last particularly long, though. He could feel his self-control giving way as he and the rabbi entered the Steiners' living room.
The room was empty, but rain drummed loudly on the roof above, as if it wanted to be let into the house. Jonathan always found this effect disconcerting, even though it was by now quite familiar. The Steiners' living room always seemed to amplify the sounds of the weather outside. A light drizzle seemed from within like a downpour; a mild rainstorm could sound like a hurricane.
Rabbi Steiner gestured Jonathan to the sofa, where the boy quickly sat, trembling, feeling the edge of the glass coffee table pressing hard against his knees.
"Can I get you something, Jonathan?" the rabbi asked hesitantly. "Something to drink, perhaps?"
Jonathan shook his head, already quaking and not trusting his own voice.
"Then...would you like to tell me what's wrong?"
The gates opened, and a tidal wave of words came pouring out. Jonathan found himself unable to stop speaking, to stop gushing raw emotions in front of a man with whom he had rarely, if ever, discussed any personal issues before. No matter how little he knew Rabbi Steiner, though, he had found an attentive ear, and that was something he had sorely lacked for a long time. Even his sympathetic sister Sandra sometimes seemed more intent on trying to keep the "family peace" than on listening to his complaints.
Rabbi Steiner sat silently, as Jonathan poured out the details of his tormented life. He spoke for an immeasurably long time, growing calmer as time went by, soothed by the catharsis of this long-awaited opportunity to vent his frustrations. At long last, he ground to a stop, a blush spreading across his face, certain that he had overstepped the bounds of propriety in relating all this to the rabbi.
Rabbi Steiner's expression was inscrutable. The rain continued to hammer on the roof above. Tiny sounds ran through the background: the crackle of a radio, the creak of a footstep, the clinking of dishes. But a heavy silence hung between Jonathan and Rabbi Steiner.
At long last, the rabbi heaved a deep breath and spoke. "Jonathan, it is clear to me that you have many situations that you would like to resolve. And I would very much like to help you resolve them. I certainly feel that it's very important for you to reestablish some kind of peace between yourself and your family. I would like to help you with your other issues as well. But but I hesitate to make any suggestions." The rabbi was clearly struggling with a difficult decision.
Jonathan leaned forward intently. "Rabbi, for years my life has felt empty, meaningless. My days have been filled with misery and mockery. If you know what I can do to bring some some meaning into my life, then...." His voice faded, giving way to the rain's insistent pounding. The rabbi watched him. Finally, Jonathan mustered the strength to say, "Then I would do anything anything at all for your help."
The rabbi nodded slowly. "I can't promise you the road won't be bumpy, Jonathan. But I can tell you that I know what you seek. And with time, you will find it."
Jonathan frowned. "What do you mean? What road?"
"Things can't be fixed in one day." The rabbi smiled benevolently. "You'll need time to adjust. But I have to warn you: If you agree with my suggestions, then you will undoubtedly meet great opposition from your parents."
Jonathan looked dismal. "I already have enough opposition from them. Nothing I do can make a difference."
"This will, Jonathan. I think you know what I mean. You know what you need, what you've wanted all along."
Jonathan looked at the rabbi's bearded face, at the eyes that glittered like brilliant gemstones, and he knew, without any further hint from Rabbi Steiner.
"I do know, Rabbi," Jonathan whispered. "And I'm ready to learn."
"Dad? Jonathan?" came a surprised voice from the door. Jonathan and Rabbi Steiner turned to find Dov standing there, looking confused. The boy was almost as diminutive in stature as his friend, but whereas Jonathan possessed a dark and brooding demeanor, Dov was more lighthearted and cheerful, an attitude which seemed to be clearly manifested in his bright, blond hair and mischievously glittering eyes.
Jonathan rose to greet him. After the pleasantries had been exchanged, Dov looked back and forth from Jonathan to Rabbi Steiner and asked, "Is there something going on?"
Jonathan grinned. "You could say that," he replied.
Sandra and her parents were waiting in the kitchen. George was seated at the table, glaring at the bowl of fruit in the center of the circular table, surrounded by an aura of brooding distress. Linda was pacing and wringing her hands, her shoes clicking on the tile floor. Sandra, who had recently returned from an extracurricular activity at school, stood watching her parents with some concern.
After a long period of silence, Linda blurted, "I'm going to find him."
"No!" George barked.
"Someone has to find him!" she objected. "What if he's hurt?"
"He isn't," George said shortly. "He made the decision to leave, and he will have to make the decision to come back."
As if on cue, the front door began to open. Listening to the door close and the sound of slow, hesitant steps in the hallway, Sandra straightened herself up. George rose from his seat. Linda froze.
And Jonathan entered the room.
Sandra was surprised at the expression on his face. He still appeared uncomfortable, distraught, and even a bit contrite, but there was something else there, some new dimension of excitement, even happiness, that seemed so out of place, especially on Jonathan's countenance.
George moved in to confront Jonathan before anyone else could speak. "I suppose you thought running away could solve your problems." His voice was low and ominous, quavering with emotion; this incident had clearly struck at something deep within him.
Jonathan took a deep breath. "No," he said slowly, his young voice trembling. "I just needed time to sort things out."
George raised an eyebrow, then turned and took a few steps away from Jonathan, coming to stand beside Linda before turning back to his son again. Sandra, a fifteen-year-old girl of average height with a lithe, athletic build and vivid red hair spilling over her shoulders, tensed. She could almost feel an explosion coming. Jonathan suddenly looked too small and frail to withstand the coming firestorm of anger. If only she had been home sooner, Sandra thought regretfully, she might have been able to forestall the confrontation.
"Did you manage to sort them to your satisfaction?" George asked coldly.
Try to assuage his temper, Jonathan! Sandra screamed inwardly, futilely. But she knew too well that Jonathan's temper was also quite volatile, and that he had a tendency to put in words things that were better left unsaid.
"I think I did," Jonathan said. "And I think I've found a solution."
George asked, puzzled, "A solution? To what?"
"To all of my troubles." For a moment, Jonathan seemed to be almost smiling. He knew he was in trouble; how could he behave as if nothing at all were wrong? "I spent a long time talking to Rabbi Steiner "
"Rabbi Steiner?" Linda exclaimed.
A deep frown was beginning to crease the edges of George's face. Sandra felt a knot forming in her stomach.
" and he told me a lot of very interesting things," Jonathan blithely continued. "I made a decision, Dad. I'm going to become religious."
Sandra's jaw dropped. Linda looked flabbergasted. George exclaimed, "Religious?"
No! Sandra thought. She could hardly believe what she had heard. And she knew better than anyone that George's reaction was bound to be unpleasant. The knot in her stomach hardened; little did Jonathan know that he was opening a gateway to trouble that might never be closed.
"Yes, Dad. Rabbi Steiner showed me how how wonderful the world of religion is. He explained how the Torah isn't just any old book; it was written by G-d and tells us how to live, how to deal with the world. And it all makes so much sense, too. I've never felt the way I felt when the rabbi was talking to me. It's as if as if I've found something that I've been looking for throughout my life."
"Religious?" George repeated, in a strange, almost strangled tone of voice. Sandra glanced nervously between him and Jonathan.
The flow of words had reached a frenetic pace. "Dad, you have to hear what the rabbi has to say. I wasn't sure whether or not I should tell you at first, but I was certain you'd be happy for me when you found out that I've found my place in life."
"After one conversation?" Linda exclaimed.
Jonathan turned to her briefly, but his attention soon re-focused on George, whose silence seemed to belie the fact that he was inwardly approaching a boil. "One conversation was enough. He explained so much to me and there's so much more, too. He said that he was sure that my 'discerning intellect' would understand what he was trying to tell me, and he was right. Mom...Dad, it's absolutely incredible. Everything he said was so so perfect. It's as if I've finally found something to bring meaning into my life, real meaning. And he gave me a pair of of what did he call them?" Jonathan floundered a moment, as the three stares grew steadily more intense, but his excitement could not be contained. "Oh, yes, tzitzis, that's it. A vest with "
"Religious?" George roared suddenly.
Jonathan fell silent. Looking at his father's suddenly crimson face, he took a step backward.
"Religious? You plan to go back to the Dark Ages, to take up that archaic nonsense? It took my family generations to get to the point where we are today, and you want to just throw away all of their hard work, all of the years of pain and suffering your grandparents and great-grandparents went through so that we could be modern, enlightened people? You want to join a community of closed-minded relics who look like something out of the nineteenth century?"
Jonathan's mouth opened. For a moment, he stammered incoherently. Finally, he managed to say, "It's not what you think "
"Then you didn't say you wanted to become religious?"
"No, I did, but it doesn't mean what you said."
"Certainly it did!" George glared Jonathan into silence. "You may have very high test scores, young man, but I am almost thirty years older than you, and I have a good deal more experience than you do. That insidious man took advantage of your obviously distressed state of mind to attempt to manipulate you. And I want to make it clear that I will not allow religion or anything resembling it into my house."
"Why not?" Jonathan protested.
George, who had been in the process of turning away, whirled back upon his son. "You're supposed to be very intelligent; you tell me!" His demand was met with a sullen silence.
"All right, then I'll tell you. Your mother and I have spent twelve years, not to mention thousands of dollars, trying to raise you as an upstanding, levelheaded, normal American citizen. We've given you only the best education and set you on the path toward success. Financial success, social success...any sort of success you want. What you've just told me is that you are ready to simply throw all of that away. Do you realize what I could have accomplished if I had had what's available to you? I might have been so much more than the simple businessman that I am!"
"What about spiritual success?" Jonathan asked in a small, quaking voice. Sandra closed her eyes briefly. Of course, Jonathan was his father's son; he simply could not stand to lose an argument. Little did he know how dangerous this argument could be. She wished she could say something, do something, to prevent the disaster she knew was coming. But she was effectively paralyzed.
George rolled his eyes. "What, exactly, does that mean?"
"How am I supposed to find...fulfillment?"
George looked at Linda, found no assistance, and looked back at Jonathan. "Fulfillment?" he intoned, his anger momentarily offset by confusion. "Fulfillment of what?"
Jonathan spread out his arms. "What's the point of having it all fame and fortune if you don't have spiritual fulfillment?"
"Is this what that rabbi told you?"
Jonathan looked down. "Sort of."
"Dear," George said loudly to Linda, "I believe our son has been brainwashed."
"That's not true!" Jonathan leaped forward.
George held up a hand. "That will be sufficient, young man. Now, I will have a talk with this rabbi of yours, and you are to forget all of the nonsense he told you. In the meantime, this doesn't excuse your past offenses. I expect your attitude in school to improve. Vastly. Have I made myself clear?"
Jonathan's lip trembled; he bit down hard on it and nodded. His face contorted with emotion, he scrambled out of the room and up the stairs. George turned to regard his wife and daughter, who looked shocked. "Religion!" he exclaimed. "Imagine that! What would people think?"
George closed the bedroom door behind him later that night, cutting off the last faint streams of light filtering in from the hallway outside, and moved across the darkened room to the bed, which he was able to find by pure instinct. He lowered himself onto the obediently yielding mattress, then collapsed into a supine position, letting out a great, gusting sigh. What a harrowing day it had been. Jonathan had really done it this time, George thought, maneuvering himself into a comfortable position on the bed. He wanted to be religious. Imagine that. Religious. A Nachman child. It was ridiculous.
George massaged the area above his eyes with one hand, the gentle pressure relieving the ubiquitous throbbing headache that had plagued him for the past couple of years. The doctors had been able to do nothing about it. "It's just stress," they had told him, and advised him to cut down on his stress.
Well, of course it was stress! It was a pressurized life that George led; that accounted for his high blood pressure, stomach problems, and frequent headaches. There was just so much to do, so many things to keep under control at one time. It was not easy being a businessman. If only he had listened to his mother, he thought ruefully, and become a dentist like his brother Philip, life could have been so much easier. But he had insisted on following his own ambitions. He had always been certain he could make it in business, that he could build a veritable financial empire. And instead he was merely another one of the nameless, faceless drones going about their business on Wall Street, so mundane, so pedestrian.
True, he had worked long and hard to get even this far. He had sweated for years to make his way up the ladder of success, rung by rung, until finally the next rung seemed to be just beyond his reach. He had achieved a lot. He had a nice suburban house, two cars, four children who were being sent to one of the best schools in the country, and at least a modicum of respect for being a self-made man even one who was constantly struggling to keep himself from falling into debt.
He had already landed himself in some serious financial troubles, a situation that he had not even revealed to his family. He was not certain how he would be able to extricate himself from it, but he knew he could not give up what he had already achieved; no, George would regain his financial security no matter what the cost. He was a long way from being the successful corporate executive he had wanted to be, but there was still time to make it to that point. And even if he didn't quite get there, then at least Jonathan could carry on his dream.
Jonathan. George winced at the thought of his son. Jonathan was his last hope. Isabel and Hilary were so average they hardly even deserved any special attention. Even Sandra, for all her unique attributes, still showed little promise of being anything more than a scientist. She had always showed an interest in the mathematics and sciences, since she was young. She might become a university professor or a researcher someday. But that was not the fulfillment of George's dream, of George's parents' dream: the dream of actually making something of oneself in America, the land of promise, the land of opportunities.
The throbbing behind George's eyes intensified until it was almost audible, a rhythmic thump-thump that seemed to match the beating of his heart. He rubbed his forehead even harder, hoping to at least dampen the pain. What was wrong with his son? Why did Jonathan reject his father's most basic hopes and dreams?
In the distance, George could hear the other family members moving about. Isabel and Hilary were preparing to go out for the night. Linda was puttering about in the kitchen, her movements accompanied by the mingled sounds of running water and a babbling television. For most of the family, life was proceeding along in its normal fashion. But for Jonathan, George was well aware, this day had left the realm of the normal.
Isabel stared at her reflection in the mirror. A perfectly made-up face gazed expressionlessly back at her. Her artificially created perfect face, to her, represented a triumph of the greatest degree, for she had overcome the plainness, the homeliness, that had seemed destined to be her lot from the beginning.
Isabel slammed her fist against the surface of the vanity, causing the various bottles and other implements that cluttered it to tremble as if in fear. Inferiority had been the bane of her existence for years now, yet she was still filled with icy rage whenever she thought about it. Jonathan was the star of the family, and Sandra with her elegant grace and calm sense of accomplishment was the runner-up. Isabel and Hilary, although they were the eldest of the Nachman children, had been rudely set aside in favor of their more promising younger siblings.
Isabel picked up a brush and gently made a couple of adjustments. There an improvement on perfection. When she went into the world, leaving her family behind, she was the sociable, vivacious, and attractive Isabel, with none of the stigma of taking second place to a twelve-year-old with a swelled ego that matched his famous brainpower.
"Isabel?" Hilary poked her head into the room, her hair neatly styled and a necklace gleaming at her throat. "Are you ready to go?"
Isabel smiled. Hilary was the only member of the family who understood her, the only one with whom she could truly get along. They had a special bond; they seemed to share one mind. They did almost everything together, and their nocturnal excursions were no exception.
A few hours later, Jonathan lay awake in bed, watching the shadows shifting in the dark room and listening to his own rhythmic breathing. The steady intake and release of air was the only sound in the ominous silence that seemed to fill the house. The rest of the family had fallen asleep long before, but, while Jonathan's body was filled with fatigue, his mind was still wide awake, poring over the day's events. He had just finished recapitulating the events of the last few hours to his sister Sandra, and their conversation remained spinning in his mind long after it had ended. Sandra, ever the sympathetic listener, had sat silently, watching him pluck at a Rubik's cube (the only toy he had owned for years; he kept it simply because he found the mental exercise soothing) as he tried to explain both to her and to himself why he felt that Torah Judaism was the path he had always been meant to take.
The journey would be difficult, murmured a voice in his mind. It might be too difficult, especially as he was so young, so vulnerable. Taking on all of the responsibilities of the religious laws would be too much of a burden. Why should he allow himself to be encumbered by all of those restrictions and rituals? Furthermore, what if his father was right? What if all of those religious practices were truly outdated? After all, very few people practiced them in modern times. The rabbi had told him that there were laws governing every aspect of life. Why should he trouble himself to learn all of those confining regulations when he could simply find a much more accommodating form of observance and serve G-d however he saw fit?
That's the secularist in me speaking, Jonathan realized, determinedly pushing away the intrusive thoughts. Rabbi Steiner had explained the issues to him quite clearly, and Jonathan himself had perceived the flawlessness of the logic. Jewish law was Divine. It had to have been given by G-d; the Torah said so itself. The Torah was sacred; it was the Word of G-d, painstakingly transcribed for centuries so that the text was never changed, so that the scrolls that one could find nowadays bore the exact same text that G-d had dictated at Sinai. In fact, the rabbi had said, the Torah had even predated the creation of the world by over two thousand years, serving as the blueprint of Creation.
Jonathan had found that difficult to comprehend, but he had accepted it. Some things, the rabbi had added knowingly, were simply beyond human comprehension. No human being could ever hope to comprehend G-d Himself or to understand why He commanded what He commanded, but we are obligated nonetheless to fulfill all of His dictates to the letter. Jonathan had smiled at that; the arrogant Woodbridge intellectuals would have balked at accepting their own inferiority, but he, Jonathan, understood and welcomed the revelation.
Jonathan had asked questions, had contemplated the rabbi's words, had turned the issues over and over in his mind. The more he thought, the more it became clear to him that the rabbi's words made perfect sense, more sense than anything he had heard in a long time. The void inside of him was finally to be filled, the yearning he had felt to meet his spiritual needs had been answered.
Jonathan knew that he had truly found his way home, home to the Torah and to Jewish tradition, where he belonged. Home to G-d.
At long last, sleep smothered his excited thoughts and wrapped its web about his mind. Jonathan's eyes fluttered closed, and he slipped into a dream world where everything was a jumble of chaotic images, and the only constant was his father's angry voice roaring from somewhere far away.
Jonathan emerged from his house into the mid-June heat and immediately wished he hadn't. The oppressive, stifling air seemed to close around him like a thick, suffocating fabric being wrapped about his body. Jonathan squinted into the bright sunlight made out the form of his friend Dov walking slowly down the street on the opposite side. He hurried down the stairs and across the street, startling Dov with his unexpected approach.
"Jonathan!" the other boy exclaimed. "How are you?"
"I'm fine," said Jonathan breathlessly, already beginning to perspire. "And I have wonderful news!"
"I always like to hear good news." Dov beckoned him beneath the shade of a nearby tree; Jonathan welcomed the reprieve, no matter how minute the difference was, from the brutal heat. "What happened? Did your parents agree to send you to a yeshivah?"
"That wouldn't be good news; that would be a fantasy." Both boys laughed briefly. Then Jonathan said, "Actually, I got a job for the summer."
Dov blinked. "A job? Well, congratulations. I suppose that is good news...." His voice trailed off questioningly.
Jonathan smiled. "It doesn't sound all that earth-shaking to you, I suppose. Well, it happens to be a well-paying job. I'll be working for Herbert Spinner, as a clerk in his store."
"Oh, I know Mr. Spinner." Dov smiled. "He's a great businessman." Mr. Spinner lived around the corner from Jonathan and had earned quite a reputation in the neighborhood. He had become a veritable local legend when, after a meteoric rise though the ranks of a prestigious accounting firm, he had abruptly quit his job and opened up a small retail business of his own. His store grew overnight to become one of the most popular and successful such businesses in the region. The neighborhood consensus was that he undoubtedly reaped enough profits from his enterprise to assure himself of quite a comfortable retirement; he possessed what George often called "the golden touch." What people found perhaps most remarkable about Mr. Spinner, though, was that even in his middle age, he still lived with his mother although it was unclear which of them was more dependent on the other. "Still, I don't see why you're so excited."
"Well," said Jonathan, "I should be making enough money to finally buy my own set of tefillin. It may be three years late, but it's better late than never. And I'll never have to borrow yours again!"
"Well, that is good news!" Dov exclaimed. "It will be one of the most meaningful purchases you'll ever make, Jonathan; I can assure you of that." He paused. "So, how did you get your parents to go along with this?"
Jonathan's smile faded. "Actually, I...haven't told them yet."
Dov folded his arms across his chest. "Then why do you seem so certain that they'll go along?"
Jonathan frowned. "My parents won't buy me a pair of tefillin because of the expense, but I'll be using my own money now. They shouldn't have any objections."
Dov sighed. "I wouldn't be so sure about that, Jonathan."
"Still, it's my money. How can they stop me?"
"The last time you said something like that "
"I know," Jonathan broke in grimly. "They stopped me."
Dov smiled encouragingly. "You can always try, Jonathan. You'll just have to figure out how to be persuasive."
"I know how to be persuasive. It's just that my father doesn't like to be persuaded."
"Maybe he will be, this time."
"I really hope so. I hope and pray."
Before the boys could say anymore, George suddenly appeared at the end of the block, moving quickly in their direction. He was accompanied by a youthful-looking couple, both of average height and markedly gaunt. The man was dressed in a business suit and was wearing a pair of fashionable, tinted sunglasses. The woman beside him was dressed in a rather plain, flowered dress, wearing a pair of sunglasses like her husband's. Her features, though softer and prettier than those of the man with her, were also grimly set.
Dov's eyebrows rose. "I've seen those people before," he remarked. "They've been looking around at the houses up for sale in the neighborhood. Does your father know them?"
Jonathan shrugged. "I've never seen them before." The threesome were approaching them rapidly; before long, they were within earshot.
When George noticed his son's presence, he drew to a stop, gesturing to his companions. "This is my son Jonathan and his friend."
The man stepped forward first, extending his hand. "Kenneth Hartley," he said, as Jonathan took the proffered hand. "And this is my wife, Betty." She nodded, not bothering to step forward, which, Jonathan felt, was all the better. Trying to explain the prohibition of negi'ah to anyone was difficult enough; his father's presence would only complicate the matter.
"Friends of yours, Dad?" Jonathan asked his father.
Before George could answer, Kenneth interjected smoothly, "Of course. Your father and I met in the course of some business dealings, several months ago. He was just showing us around the neighborhood; we're interested in finding a place to live around here."
"I see," said Jonathan. "Where do you live now?"
"We have an apartment in the city," Betty spoke up, her voice lilting like an opera singer's. "But it's awfully cramped. Kenneth and I have dreamed for many years of moving to the suburbs."
Kenneth smiled. "It's partly thanks to your father that we can finally fulfill that dream." Jonathan's brow furrowed in puzzlement. Kenneth quickly explained, "Your father was involved in a rather lucrative business arrangement that proved to be quite a windfall for us."
"Oh." Jonathan knew that his father was an executive vice president of a firm with the impressive-sounding name of Meyers and Patterson, but beyond that he knew nothing about his father's work, and it held no interest for him.
"This is a beautiful block," Betty remarked. "It's so quiet, and these houses look so lovely. I'm sure I've seen this design before." She gestured with one arm at several of the similarly structured houses on the other side of the street, including the Nachmans' house and several adjacent ones.
Her husband turned to her and responded, "Why, of course you have, Betty. Just a few days ago, we visited a similar house just a few blocks from here. The one with the large kitchen that you liked so much, and that curving staircase."
Betty nodded, her face illuminated by sudden remembrance. "Yes, I do. What did they call the design again?"
Jonathan listened politely for a moment as the couple rambled on about architectural styles and some of the houses they had seen. Their tones were smooth, and their speech sounded educated and sophisticated; he could almost believe that they had studied up on architecture to prepare for purchasing their first house. He wondered idly what kind of business relationship would impel George to conduct a guided tour of the neighborhood for these people, but he did not feel like asking questions, and George seemed to be anxious for them to keep moving.
"Why don't we go into my house for a cup of coffee?" George suggested, gesturing down the street in the direction of his home.
"An excellent idea," Kenneth agreed. "Come along, Betty."
Betty paused as they prepared to leave. "What is your name, young man?" she asked, suddenly addressing Dov.
Startled, he sputtered for a moment before replying, "Dov Steiner."
"I see. It's been nice meeting both of you." Her cool gaze took in his unmistakably religious appearance without a flutter, then settled for a split second on Jonathan's yarmulke. He imagined that she wondered why Jonathan wore one when his father did not, then realized that her gaze had passed over it so quickly that she had probably not even noticed it at all. Instead, Betty was looking across the street at the house next door to the Nachmans'. "Look, Kenneth, that house over there is for sale! Do you think we can go see it?"
"Interesting people," Dov remarked as George and the Hartleys sailed across the street. "They're educated consumers."
"And wealthy ones, too, apparently." Jonathan sighed. The excited thoughts whirling about in his head had not subsided, despite the distraction. "I'm going to have to talk to my parents soon about buying tefillin," he decided. "Every time I look at my father now, I feel like I'm about to blurt it out." "Just be careful what you say," his friend reminded him. "Don't worry," Jonathan reassured him. "I know that all too well already."
"You want to do what?" George's explosion seemed to rock the room and leave a deafening vacuum of silence in its wake. Jonathan, looking up at his rather intimidating father from his seat on the living room sofa, fought an impulse to cringe. The milder demeanor that George had displayed in the company of his business associates had evaporated. Linda, who was hovering somewhere behind her husband, seemed to be frozen in shock.
"I Iwant to buy myself a pair of tefillin with the money I'm making," Jonathan repeated, this time with a bit of a tremor in his voice.
George's eyebrows rose, and he managed to give off a menacing air even with that innocuous shift in expression. "And how much do these tefillin of yours cost?"
"I understand that an average pair costs about...four or five hundred dollars."
"Five hundred dollars for some little black boxes?" George roared. "Are you insane?"
"George!" Linda exclaimed. "Your blood pressure!"
"Dad, if you would just let me explain "
"Explain? That's preposterous! There is no explanation other than your own utter lack of common sense! There is no justifiable reason for you to buy those things." George's face was flushed and his breathing heavy; Jonathan's announcement of his intention to buy a pair of tefillin appeared to have upset him far more than seemed natural. It was almost as if Jonathan had declared that he intended to run away from home or worse.
"Of course there is a justifiable reason. I need them! It's a mitzvah an obligation. I have to wear them every day."
"Absolutely not," George said firmly. "I won't hear of it. It would be a foolish expenditure."
"But, Dad, it's my money!"
George and Linda looked at each other as if Jonathan had just uttered some sort of blasphemy. Linda said slowly, "Jonathan, that's beside the point."
George's voice was now ominously low. "Jonathan, you've just shown yourself to be far too irresponsible to handle your own finances. I am still responsible for your money, even though you are the one who has earned it, and I am telling you that the answer is no. End of debate." George turned on his heel and left the room without another word. Jonathan rested his head on his cupped hands and sat silently on the couch, enveloped in a gloomy haze.
After a few moments, the sofa creaked beside him and he became aware of another presence only a few inches away. Raising his head, he turned to find Linda seated beside him, looking at him with a pained expression.
"I hope you're not going to argue with me, too," Jonathan said, his tone laden with resentment.
"I want to understand you," his mother said softly. "I want to understand why you want to spend so much money on something that seems so foolish. I want to understand why you don't want to listen to your father. He worked very hard to build this life for you, and you act as if you don't appreciate it."
"Mom, there's so much more to this situation "
"How do you know that? Jonathan, when it comes down to it, your position seems so ludicrous "
"I'm not wrong!"
"You always say that. But what if you are? Jonathan, don't you suppose that your father and I know better?"
"I can tell that you don't understand my point of view. My religious point of view," he said balefully.
Linda looked down. "This obsession of yours with religion is starting to frighten me, Jonathan. What happens once you empty your bank account for these tefillin?"
"That's why I'm going to work so I'll be able to afford them."
"But the money that you earn should be saved."
"What happens when the money needs to be spent?"
"You spend it. But this isn't a need."
"Then what is?"
Linda looked incredulous. "Many things. You'll have plenty of opportunities to spend money once you get into college too many opportunities. Take my word for it."
"Five hundred dollars won't mean a thing in college."
"No, it won't, but there's no use spending it now."
"Mom, this is much more important than college!" As soon as the words left Jonathan's mouth, he knew he had made a mistake in blurting them out. In the Nachman household, few things were more important than college. A college education at a prestigious institution, of course was the culmination of years of the finest education money could buy; it was a goal on which all members of the Nachman family were supposed to set their sights from the earliest age. It was the key to unlocking the doors of opportunity that were just waiting to be opened by someone with the right tools.
"More important than college?" Linda repeated faintly. "That's a bold statement to make. I don't think your father would approve."
"So you don't either," said Jonathan wearily.
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"You both always seem to unite against me."
"Against you? Jonathan, we are trying to look out for you." Linda abruptly straightened her posture and said, "I'm sorry that you don't appreciate this just yet, Jonathan, but we really do have your best interests in mind." For a moment, Jonathan had the vague impression that she was trying to convince herself as much as she was trying to convince him. Linda seemed to be on the verge of saying something more, but instead rose and left the room.
Linda, uncertain of what to make of her conversation with Jonathan, moved into the kitchen, where Isabel and Hilary sat, involved in an intense conversation of some sort.
"Oh, hi, Mom," Hilary said, breaking away from her sister.
"I hope I wasn't interrupting anything," Linda said.
"Oh, no...we were thinking of coming to speak to you anyway." Hilary cleared her throat and said hesitantly, "Mom, we...couldn't help but overhear your conversation with Jonathan."
A cold feeling descended upon Linda. "Oh."
"I'm sure you realize," said Hilary slowly, "that it seems as if he doesn't want to...to go to college." She uttered the words as if they were a sacrilege.
Linda's eyes widened. "Doesn't want to go to college?"
"Come on, Mom, you must have noticed it," said Isabel. "He trivialized it!"
"I did notice that," Linda admitted, "but I never thought that he could be so...foolhardy."
"Think about it, Mom," said Hilary. "Jonathan has done plenty of foolhardy things."
"Yes, but he hasn't done anything that might ruin his life. Not like this."
"Oh, I think he's tried," said Isabel. "Remember the time he tried to convince Dad to take him out of Woodbridge and move him to a Jewish day school?"
"That was a couple of years ago," Linda said weakly, desperately casting about for ways to refute her daughters' argument. If the situation they were describing were true....
"Dad didn't talk to him for over a month," said Hilary. "And I don't think Jonathan will ever forget what Dad did "
"So he's surely learned his lesson by now!" Linda explained.
"If he had learned his lesson," said Isabel, "why would he be treating college as if it weren't important?" She raised her eyebrows pointedly.
"Think about it," Hilary said, adding her own ammunition to her sister's volley. "He's probably trying to prepare you slowly for the day he's going to tell you that he isn't going to college. He's trying to get you used to the idea. That's the lesson he took from last time."
Linda fell feebly into a nearby chair. She could feel the situation suddenly whirling out of her control, the turbulent events spinning out of her grasp. If her daughters were right, the consequences of such a situation were bound to involve a good deal of trouble. Linda's insides twisted with familiar feelings of anxiety.
"Face it, Mom," said Isabel. "You've got to stop him now before he destroys himself."
"You and Dad," Hilary added.
"Perhaps you're right, girls," Linda admitted, feeling some of her strength returning to her. Of course, it was her responsibility as Jonathan's mother to prevent him from ruining himself. She could do it. She would do it. Her son would never be a miserable, uneducated pauper, not as long as she lived. His foolish fanaticism aside, Jonathan would be reformed.
She rose from the chair, feeling powerful once again. The first step was to have a brief powwow with George, to plan their strategy. George would know what to do. Jonathan would be steered right once and for all. "Yes," Linda said softly. "That's exactly what we'll do." With that, she turned and left the room, marching determinedly up the winding staircase.
What she did not see were the brief, satisfied smiles that flashed simultaneously across her daughters' faces.
"What do you think she'll do?" Hilary asked when Linda had moved out of earshot.
Isabel rose from her seat and moved aimlessly toward the living room. "Hard to tell."
Hilary followed her uncomfortably. "Do you think we did the right thing?"
Isabel had stopped by a corner table on which were clustered several framed photographs, displaying youthful faces and radiant smiles that seemed by now to be relics of an ancient, irretrievable past shadows of people who no longer existed, even though the faces were those of George, Linda, and their children. She reached for the central photograph, one that stood taller than all the rest, its brass frame gleaming.
"Isabel?" Hilary was watching her. A solemn hush seemed to have fallen over the room.
Isabel stared at the picture, apparently transfixed. It was a picture of the whole family, all six of them, gathered in a park, surrounded by the barely visible remnants of a summer afternoon picnic. The picture had been taken eleven years before; Jonathan's four-year-old smile was innocent, the family's linked arms indicative of an unbreakable bond.
An unbreakable bond that was being strained beyond all limits.
Isabel's vision blurred, and she blinked away the tears that streamed into her eyes. Jonathan had destroyed the family unity. She and Hilary had lived as second-class sisters for too long. They could stop at nothing to restore as much of the Nachman family bond as was possible even if that could only be accomplished at Jonathan's expense.
Jonathan deserved to pay for the damage he had caused, anyway.
"Of course we did," Isabel finally said in an icy tone.
"Doesn't want to go to college?" George roared.
Linda hissed urgently to silence him. Having Jonathan overhear their conversation would only complicate matters.
For once, George obediently subsided. "What makes you so sure of that?" he asked in a softer tone.
"It seemed obvious," Linda said slowly. She recounted her conversation with Jonathan, adding the interpretations Isabel and Hilary had given her as if they were her own.
George listened, nodding pensively. When she had finished, he took a deep breath, let it out with a sound similar to that produced by a locomotive, and said, "This is intolerable." It could not be; it simply could not be. Jonathan was going to become a failure. He was going to destroy everything that George had worked to create for him and for the whole family. The Nachman family name would be ruined. Jonathan would be ruined. George would be ruined. Jonathan could not be allowed to become a failure.
The words echoed in George's head. Years ago, he had heard them shouted, screamed hysterically, over and over again, as a girl cowered in terror on the living room sofa in his parents' apartment.
"You'll be a failure!" Sam's face had been scarlet, his voice reverberating through the house with fury. "You can't do this to me! You can't do this to yourself! You're going to be a failure! Do you hear me? A failurel"
The girl was not very young, but she was not very old either. George was even younger than she was, and he wanted to hide, to escape his father's wrath, but it poured over everything like a flood of frothing, boiling water, filling the room, filling his son's ears.
"I won't be a failure!" the girl protested through a streaming curtain of tears, her voice choked with anguish. "Why should I be?"
"You're taking away any chance you ever had of making anything of yourself!" The words seemed to be all around George as he stared in morbid fascination at his father's mouth, wide open and screaming angrily. "Failurel"
George was suddenly jolted back to the present, as the emotions evoked by that fragment of memory stirred in his stomach like a boiling cauldron. Angrily, he forced every last trace of those old thoughts and feelings out of his mind; where had they come from so suddenly?
"Of course it's intolerable," Linda was saying. "We've got to keep him on the right track."
"But how are we going to do that?" George growled, feeling somewhat weak. He tried desperately to make his mind work, to come up with a solution to the problem. "Confront him?"
Linda shuddered. There was no telling what kind of conflagration might result from another verbal altercation between father and son. "That might be...complicated."
George rose suddenly and paced about the bedroom, striking the palm of one hand angrily with the other, which was clenched in a tight fist. "We're his parents, for crying out loud! We shouldn't have to convince him of anything! It's our decision more than it is his!"
Linda gazed at him speechlessly.
George looked at her and said, "I did not work so hard all these years, come all this way, and give so much to Jonathan just to see him fall prey to this cult mentality." He paused to think. After a moment, a sudden gleam came into his eye. "All right," he said slowly. "We'll do this the hard way. Fortunately, I have an idea."
Jonathan and Dov stood together on the now-empty street, huddled in conversation beneath the vast expanse of purplish-blue that was the summer twilight sky. Their hushed voices droned unintelligibly like the quiet murmurs of working bees as Sandra drew near.
"Well, you know that my offer of my tefillin still stands as long as you need them," Dov was saying. He broke off as Sandra approached them. "Hello, Sandra."
"Hello, Dov," she said quietly, in a tone that made it more a valediction than a salutation.
Dov took the hint, and the two friends bade each other farewell. Sandra firmly steered Jonathan toward their house, while Dov moved slowly in the direction of his own home, lethargic in the summer heat.
As soon as Dov was out of earshot, Sandra hissed, "I hope you weren't still thinking about buying a pair of tefillin."
Jonathan looked exasperated. "Actually, I was. And I don't see any problem with it."
"Well, I do." Sandra stopped walking and turned to face him, forcing him to draw to a stop as well. "I see many problems now. Perhaps the most significant one is the fact that Mom and Dad both look angry enough to kill someone. And I suspect that someone is you."
"What?" Jonathan frowned. "What happened?"
"I don't know what happened, but I was hoping you could enlighten me. What have you done?"
Jonathan spread his arms. "I've done nothing! I've been standing out here and talking to Dov all evening."
Sandra frowned. "Then what could possibly be wrong?"
"I'm not the one to ask."
"Jonathan, you can't always be so quick to shift the blame onto other people. Your own uncompromising stance has done enough damage."
"I'm just trying to protect my beliefs," he said.
"Well, why don't you protect them without being so confrontational? If you don't watch out, you could alienate yourself from this family."
"That might not be such a tragedy," Jonathan mumbled, beginning to turn away.
Sandra grabbed his arm. "Yes, it would," she said severely. "And don't you forget it."
Business was slow at Herbert Spinner's store, and the relentless late August rain did little to improve matters or the mood of the store's occupants. Jonathan sat behind the counter, staring glumly through the plate-glass window at the wall of driving rain that obscured everything else outside.
The store was silent. The last customer had left over an hour before, and there did not appear to be any others on their way. Jonathan looked around the spacious room for a moment from his seat in the tiny space behind the narrow front counter. The thick, green carpeting, the neatly ordered aisles, and the bright fluorescent lighting always gave the store a new feeling, so that Jonathan felt as if it were newly refurbished even after working there for two months.
At the other end of the counter, his coworker Liz leaned back in her chair, idly flipping through a magazine. She was a girl in her twenties who rarely spoke about anything other than the business at hand. Her face was lined with a sense of worry that was far too heavy for anyone of so few years, and she occasionally seemed to be casting furtive glances about her, as if she were afraid of being caught while involved in some wrongdoing. Jonathan had been slightly suspicious of her when he had first met her, but by now he had grown used to her idiosyncrasies, and he had come to the conclusion that any aberration in her behavior was merely a figment of his imagination. At least in the workplace, she seemed to be a completely one-dimensional human being, totally focused on her job. She never spoke about her personal life or family, and as far as Jonathan was concerned, she had no more personality than did the cash register.
He suddenly became aware that Herbert Spinner was standing beside him and had evidently just finished speaking. "Sorry?"
Spinner did not show the slightest exasperation, although Jonathan knew he felt it. "Something's been on your mind lately, Jon. Feel like talking about it?"
Jonathan thought for a moment. "How would you know if something was on my mind?"
Spinner laughed softly. "Trust me, Jon; when you have something on your mind, the world can tell." His eyes twinkled as he spoke; the statement could never have been construed as an insult.
Jonathan glanced at Liz. She was staring at the magazine, apparently engrossed in its contents. "I don't think you want to hear about it."
"Of course I do." Spinner settled himself onto the other stool, which creaked alarmingly under a weight the man did not appear to possess. He took the sound perfectly in stride.
"Go on, tell Uncle Herbert what's the matter. I'm sure there's some way I can help."
Jonathan shook his head, but he could feel even his resistance giving way. "I I don't think...."
"Tell me, Jon," Spinner said, seeming to pour every ounce of force he possessed into those three words.
Jonathan told him haltingly, lowering his voice although he was sure his coworker was so absorbed in her magazine that she could not even tell he was speaking. "You see, Mr. Spinner, it's almost September, and...well, I've earned a lot of money over the past couple of months, and I want to use it to buy...something that's very important to me." He did not go into any more detail; Mr. Spinner was completely unaware of Jonathan's family situation and had always taken Jonathan's religiosity for granted, and Jonathan wanted to keep it that way.
"So what's the problem?" Spinner asked, his expression so carefully attentive that one would think Jonathan's situation was the greatest concern he had.
"My parents don't want me to."
Spinner blinked. "What exactly is this...item you want to buy?"
Jonathan tensed. "I'd...rather not say."
Ever the diplomat, Spinner waved a hand airily. "Have it your way. Jon, if your parents don't think you should buy it, then maybe it isn't necessary."
"Trust me, Mr. Spinner; it's very necessary. My parents just don't understand."
"Hmm." Spinner looked pensive. He was undoubtedly beginning to realize that he had dug himself into a hole. If he favored Jonathan's position, he risked angering Jonathan's parents, whom he didn't even know and certainly didn't want to anger; but if he responded in defense of Jonathan's parents, he might alienate Jonathan himself. And for Mr. Spinner, silence was never an option. After a moment or two, he said, "Well, Jonathan, I don't think it's a good idea to do anything that might make your parents angry. Maybe you should try talking it over with them."
"I did," said Jonathan morosely. "It didn't work. It never did. They refuse to see reason."
Spinner thought for a moment, then gave a little chuckle. "That's what my mother always says about me."
Jonathan listened patiently for a few minutes as Mr. Spinner talked about his mother. Then, when the store owner had fallen silent, Jonathan said, "Tell me something, Mr. Spinner."
"The money you pay me.... It's mine, isn't it?" For a second, out of the corner of his eye, he could have sworn he had seen an abrupt movement from Liz a flinch, as if she had been stung. But when he turned to look at her, she was engrossed as ever in her reading; she did not appear even to have moved while Jonathan and Mr. Spinner had been talking.
"Who else would it belong to?" Mr. Spinner laughed, although he could guess what Jonathan was thinking.
"I mean, my parents can't really tell me what to do with it, can they?"
Spinner exhaled; Jonathan could almost see his mind racing. "It depends on the household, Jon. According to the law, the money is yours to do with as you please, but you don't want to buck your parents. How old are you again?"
"Fifteen." In years only, Jonathan thought morosely. He often felt more like fifty, which made his subjugation to unreasoning parents all the more frustrating.
"Fifteen," Spinner repeated, rolling the number about on his tongue. "I hate to tell you, Jon, but most fifteen-year-olds are subject to their parents' decisions. The money you make may be yours, but you are theirs." This was delivered with a brilliant smile, as if to soften its effect.
Jonathan frowned. "They'll never understand...."
Spinner laughed. "You may be a genius, Jon and I'd certainly say you are but don't underestimate your parents."
"Oh, I would never do that," Jonathan said gravely.
Spinner laughed again, obviously at a loss for a more suitable response to Jonathan's cryptic comment. "Well, now that that's settled," he said, sounding relieved to change the subject, "there is another matter."
Spinner paused delicately. "Well, Jon, I know you're going back to school in a couple of weeks. Nothing gets by old Uncle Herbert, eh?" He chuckled. "Well, you've been such a valuable employee, I'd really hate to lose you. I was wondering if you'd still have any free time during the school year to work here. We could work out some kind of arrangement: weekends, evenings, whatever you like." He spread his arms. "I'm flexible."
Jonathan pursed his lips. "I suppose that wouldn't be a bad idea." He might need a source of money independent of his parents; besides, a job would only mean more time spent away from the pressures of his home. "I'm sure I could work at least one or two nights a week."
"Very good!" Spinner stood up and pounded Jonathan's back jovially and a bit too hard. "So we have a deal. You'll see, Jon, everything will work out just fine."
"Excuse me, Mr. Spinner?" said a voice suddenly. Both Jonathan and Mr. Spinner started; it was the first time Liz had spoken in hours. Jonathan had almost forgotten that she was there. He silently hoped she had not overheard too much of their discussion. "Seeing as there doesn't seem to be anyone coming in and there's only about an hour left...well, I was wondering if I could go home early today?" Her voice, which sounded slightly nervous, seemed to place a question mark at the end of the statement.
Though Spinner was unwilling to say it aloud, Jonathan could tell he was thinking, Absolutely not. Instead, though, he moved to stand behind Liz and said, "Why don't we discuss it in the back?" She rose, and the two walked together across the store and disappeared through the back door.
Jonathan turned back to the plate glass window. The rain outside seemed to be intensifying, if that were possible. Sighing, he reached for a book Rabbi Steiner had lent him.
Just then, the door wheezed open, letting in a blast of cold wind and rain along with a diminutive figure hunched against the storm behind him. The door closed, shutting out the gale, and the newcomer straightened up and turned to face Jonathan, doffing his soaked rain cap. Jonathan's eyes widened in surprise as he recognized the face of Kenneth Hartley.
Kenneth seemed even more surprised to see him. "Jonathan? You remember me, don't you?"
"Of course." Jonathan rose to greet him, and Kenneth shook his hand, politely inquiring after his welfare. After they had traded pleasantries, Kenneth asked, "Did your father tell you that Betty and I are moving into the house next door to you?"
Jonathan's eyes widened in surprise. "No, he didn't."
Kenneth smiled. "It was only on the market for about a week we're lucky we came when we did. It's a beautiful house and a lovely neighborhood, isn't it?"
"Yes, it is," Jonathan said. He felt suddenly ill at ease talking to this man, whose tone sounded slightly too polished. Perhaps this was the way he dealt with his business contacts, but it made Jonathan uncomfortable.
He was saved from further conversation by the return of Mr. Spinner and Liz. They emerged from the back room to-gether, Spinner smiling broadly as usual and Liz looking slightly abashed, and they both drew to a halt at the sight of Kenneth Hartley, as if the arrival of a customer during such a fierce storm was simply unthinkable. For a moment, a flicker of recognition seemed to cross Spinner's face; then it vanished. Liz, for her part, quickly wiped the surprise from her own countenance and resumed her post with the same bland expression she always wore.
"Can I help you?" Mr. Spinner asked loudly, striding across the room to greet the newcomer.
Kenneth gave him what almost seemed to be an appraising look. "You're Mr. Spinner?"
"I am," Spinner replied, looking strangely and uncharacteristically uncomfortable.
Kenneth flashed a brilliant smile. "I'm just moving into the neighborhood, and I needed to pick up a few things."
Spinner waited expectantly.
Abruptly, Kenneth looked at his watch and said, "On second thought, I just remembered I have a meeting now. I'll have to come back another time. It was nice meeting you, Mr. Spinner." He turned to leave, then added, almost as an afterthought, "By the way...I'm Kenneth Hartley."
Spinner nodded silently as Hartley left. Jonathan stared in surprise at his employer. Spinner moved behind the counter, sank into a chair, and rested his head on his cupped hands. Jonathan's astonishment grew. It was rare even to see his boss without a smile; this condition was certainly unthinkable.
After a moment, Spinner raised his head and said, "I've reconsidered, Liz. If you want, you can go home early."
Liz, too, seemed taken aback. She looked in confusion from Spinner to Jonathan and back, then said simply, "Thank you, Mr. Spinner. Have a good day."
When Liz had left, Spinner hesitated for a moment, then said heavily, "What did that man say to you, Jon?"
"I beg your pardon?" Jonathan asked, still disconcerted by the sudden change that had come over his employer.
"I heard the two of you talking before we came out of the back room. What did he say?"
Jonathan shrugged. "He told me he was moving into the house next door to me. He's a business associate of my father's."
Spinner's mouth opened. "A business associate...."
"Mr. Spinner, what's wrong?"
The businessman shook his head. "I don't know for sure...."
"What do you think?"
"I don't want to say anything," he insisted. He paused for a moment, and there was an uncomfortable silence filled by the pounding of the rain outside. Then Spinner said, "But if he's a business associate of your father's...."
Jonathan frowned. "Do you know him, Mr. Spinner?"
"I might. I very well might. And if I know him, then he knows me." He sighed.
Jonathan spread his hands. "Mr. Spinner, I don't understand."
"There was a Kenneth Hartley in the firm where I used to work. He was involved in an embezzlement scheme...heavily involved. But when the investigation turned to him, he suddenly disappeared. I haven't seen him since."
"Embezzlement?" Jonathan whistled. "It's not a very common name. Was it the same man?"
"I can't be sure, Jon. I can't even be sure I remember the name correctly; it was very long ago. And I only met him personally once or twice. I knew him by reputation more than anything else but as soon as I saw this man, I knew he reminded me of him." Spinner paused and drew a deep breath.
"But I don't want to say any more right now. Do you know anything about this man, Jon?"
Jonathan shrugged. "I've only met him once." Spinner nodded, his expression suddenly clearing. "It might be worthwhile for you to find out a little bit about him, Jon and to find out what kind of business dealings he and your father are involved in."
Jonathan felt a chill tickle his spine. "Why, Mr. Spinner?" But Spinner refused to say anything else. "Just to be sure, Jon. Just to be sure."
Jonathan shrugged again and turned back to his book. He had far more important concerns at the moment than the history of his father's business associates. After all, such information could hardly have any bearing on Jonathan himself.
But he still felt a prickling of sensation at the back of his neck when he thought of his employer's unusual reaction to the appearance of Kenneth Hartley.
Jonathan?" A man's voice broke into Jonathan's thoughts as he made his laborious way down the Woodbridge High School corridor.
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