[This short story of mine recently won 1st place in 11th grade fiction in the HCTE (Hillsborough Council of Teachers of English) annual writing contest. I’ve posted it below for you all to read].
His last night alive was the seventh night of Chanukah. He sat alone at home, the pack of cigars he had just bought a week before almost empty, the weight of the divorce gnawing on his heart, trying to finish Abram Leon Sachar’s A History of the Jews and spinning a dreidel on the table next to him. The room was filling with pungent smoke and the pistol was across the room lying on the dresser but he vowed he would not go get it until he finished the book. He redoubled his focus on the bland words of Sachar’s big old tome but his mind kept slipping from the 1947 recognition of the state of Israel into mistier realms. He took his eyes off the book and spun the dreidel once more. In the drunk lilt of its rotations he rifled through the attic of his memory, and in a long-forgotten chest found the images from a night many years before.
On the night remembered he had met Beth, who was to become his wife of twenty years and then leave him in a six-month storm of anger and tragedy and drive him to, on the sixth night of Chanukah, raise a gun to his mealy, liver-spotted head. But on that night he had still been virile and young, with a thick black beard and a sturdy frame. He had been romping through Jerusalem with his friend Matthu, a native of the city, which he had just been visiting in honor of Rosh Hashanah. They drank shots under the glimmering lights strung over the streets and reveled with the drunk old men in the alleyway. By the time they entered the bar where Beth was sitting quietly with her then-boyfriend Jacob. Jacob was a proud and olive-skinned native Israelite who, unlike he and Matthu, was compelled by a Hebraic memory embedded in his genes, a genuine blood connection with the Talmudic prophets, to sit noble in his chair. When he and Matthu came crashing into the bar Jacob fixed them with a kingly stare. He lurched back from Jacob’s eyes but lurched forward again when he saw Beth turn her head. In her gorgeous eyes and freckled face and thick curls of black hair he saw the tragic pattern of culture and romance and temptation and impurity that would many years later cause her to leave him and cause him to shoot himself in the head, but on that night he did not recognize it as anything but the highest form of beauty.
The folks milling about through the bar parted before him so he and Matthu could walk over towards Beth and Jacob and introduce themselves. Beth’s eyes were like twin moons. Jacob greeted the two of them with obvious distaste and introduced himself and Beth. He could not take his eyes off her, nor could she take hers off him; they would meet in a tenuous glance, fraught with the power of a love being born from a dark womb, and then look away, overcome with the strength of their sudden connection.
“Happy New Year,” said Jacob. “I trust you are both followers of David?” he asked, indicating the six-pointed star hanging from a necklace he was wearing. He and Matthu both nodded, but the truth was that he had only been born to a Jewish mother and rarely ever went to synagogue; in fact, the only times he was really a Jew were on the high holidays, during the festivities.
“How about a game of dreidel, then?” said Jacob, pulling a dreidel from his coat pocket. He placed it on the table, along with ten dollars. “Ante up.”
He was too drunk to make informed decisions, but Matthu was too drunk to make conscious decisions at all. Before he could stop him, Matthu had anted up. He pulled out the last ten-dollar note from his wallet. Beth pulled a bill from her purse but Jacob stopped her and paid her way in. Jacob picked up the dreidel and spun it. Watching the top work its way across the table in a mad blur, he realized he had no idea how to play the game. He ordered a strong drink from the bartender. The top stopped and revealed a Hebrew character: Nun.
“Do you know what that symbol means, brother?” Jacob asked him.
He shook his head.
“Ah, but you said you were a Jew, no?” Beth put her hand on Jacob’s shoulder to silence him, but he batted it off. “I’m not surprised. You will see, brother, that fortune favors those who make true covenant with their Creator.”
Jacob passed the dreidel to Beth without taking his eyes off him. She rolled. He tried to remember the last time he had fasted on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, and the latest he could recall was when he had been six years old. The dreidel stopped spinning and showed Hei, and Beth took two of the four bills in the center of the table. Matthu turned around to spit on the floor and then reached to pick up the dreidel and spin it, but Jacob snatched it from his hands.
“I have seen the way you are looking at Beth here,” Jacob said to him, indicating his beautiful companion. She looked at Jacob with fear and anger, appalled at his actions, but Jacob kept his eyes on him. “And I wish to know: have you had a Bar Mitzvah?”
He shook his head, taking a long swig of the drink the bartender had brought him.
“Ah, right, I thought not,” said Jacob. “Then I would ask you to keep your eyes off my woman, you superficial pagan.”
There was a momentary silence in the room, as if all the bargoers had suddenly paused in their conversations, and in that moment his love for Beth surged up into his throat, boiling his innards with its strength, and he looked right at her in spite of what Jacob had said, drinking in the sweeping star-crossed silence of their mute language of looks. His heart leaped for hers and its beatings hammered at his chest as Matthu picked up the dreidel and spun it. The top stopped showing the symbol Shin, and Matthu cursed, pulling ten dollars more from his wallet and putting it in the pile.
“I’m dry, brother,” said Matthu, looking to him. “It’s up to you.”
He nodded and picked up the dreidel. His strong hands were trembling and his constitution, so bold and brave before he had entered the bar, was now at the mercy of love’s great game of chance. He was not afraid of Jacob; if he was afraid of anyone, he was afraid of Beth, and the devastation he would feel if he could not have her. He had always had a sensitive soul underneath his rocky layers of muscle.
“God favors not those who stray from him,” said Jacob. “That is the teaching of the Torah.”
He took another swig of the drink and palmed the dreidel. His hand shook the same way it would as he held the pistol to his temple decades later, alone with the book closed on his lap and the dreidel spinning madly on the table next to him. He spun it on the bar table, and eyes from all across the bar turned to watch it spin. When it landed on the fourth symbol, the Ghimel, Jacob slammed his fist on the table and jumped up with burning eyes.
“Take the money, brother,” laughed Matthu. “It’s all yours.” He scooped it up and the two of them staggered out before Jacob could release his anger. At the doorway he turned to see Beth looking at him, and through the hazes of liquor and adrenaline he felt the clear pure rivers of love sweetly running.
She showed up unannounced at Matthu’s apartment, where he was staying, two days later, carrying the same dreidel in her hand; from then on they were inseparable, seen by the town gossips kissing in the cafes, holding hands in the dark of the cinema, praying together at the Wailing Wall and planting the seeds of a love which would take root in the exotic warrens of that city. When it was time for him to return to America a week later she went with him.
Their cultures diffused into each other; from her he learned Hebrew, learned that the four symbols on the dreidel were an acronym for “A great miracle happened here”, and he learned the meaning of that miracle and lit the menorah in its honor on every night of Chanukah every year until the year of his death. And from him she learned how to buy things without haggling for them, how to get stuck in traffic on the freeway and how to order a sandwich from Subway. And as long as their hair was still black and their skin still warm and alive, and their intercourse still passionate, they were perfectly happy to take walks through residential Bloomington, Illinois and to attend a small synagogue in their minivan and to stay childless, finding after dozens of tries that one of them (though they never found out which one) was sterile.
Sitting there with the gun to his head and thinking about Beth, he remembered the exact day when she had become irritable. He first noticed it while looking at her one morning as she made breakfast; he drew a cold breath when he saw that her eyes were no longer moons but dead asteroids, missing something. For years he tried to figure out why she could not be made to feel anything, why she spent so much time smoking alone on the back porch, and why she stopped going to synagogue without explanation on her sixtieth birthday. He did not see how foolish he had been until he caught her one afternoon when he came home early from the college where he taught, in the bedroom with Jacob, who had come to America ten years earlier, never having given up his vengeful pursuit of the woman who had left him without a goodbye. He had taken up residence on the other side of Bloomington and vowed never to rest until Beth was in his arms again, driven by the weight of countless generations of cultural affinity and expectation, the burden of a people who had made a covenant with the Father at the beginning of time and persisted through thousands of years of oppression by the strength of their heritage and their tradition. What had shocked him the most about the broken-glass moment in which he had discovered the two of them together in bed was how much he could understand the situation, understand the anger Jacob had felt at losing his love to a heathen who was only a Jew on the surface, and the restless nostalgia Beth had felt for unpredictable, youthful Jerusalem as she aged in the plastic fields of America. Indeed, as Jacob rushed out of the bedroom and the house saying a prayer, all he could smell was the Jerusalem he had won a game of dreidel in many years before; the bedroom was saturated with its scents … baking bread, starched clothes, old liquor, strange accents, and eternal intrigue. It was a sense of place that was not at all invoked by the plain descriptions of Abram Leon Sachar in A History of the Jews, which hit the floor just before he did after he pulled the trigger.
He had been willing to forgive her, because he could understand her infidelity, but she had treated him as if he had been the adulterer, refusing to sleep at home and finalizing the divorce with the fury that only comes from guilt. He could only sit in the court and watch, an ancient tragedy sinking into his heart, as she separated from him in a whirlwind of legality and negotiation. Six months later it was all over, and she and Jacob had eloped to find the youth they had lost, leaving him old and frail and without a remaining hope in the world.
One week before the night of his death, on the first day of Chanukah, he had bought the cigars and locked himself in the house and begun the enormous A History of the Jews and by the seventh night he was on the final chapter, but as he sat there spinning the dreidel, distracted by the spirits of memory and the gun on the dresser across the room, he had a revelation of such strength that he knew it could be nothing other than the revelation which immediately precedes death: by finishing the book he was declaring himself a victim to history, to the deterministic wheel of time, to finality; stories were never finished. The layers and layers of history and memory — cultural, textual, interpersonal, personal — bore down like worlds upon worlds on his shoulders, and he was a crippled Atlas at the mercy of all that had happened before, before in the history of the culture of which he was a part, before in the lineage of all those who lit the candles and fasted and kept the Sabbath, and before in his own life in the tragedy and comedy of all that had happened to him. Stories are not and never will be finished, he thought, and stood up to go get the gun. He placed it on the table and sat back down, tome still open to the same page and still filled with what was long gone. From the very beginning, Beth’s moony eyes had been pushing him towards that moment, the moment of his suicide; the river of his life had flown always towards the instant when the gun went off. He would not survive the night, and he had no reason to want to. But even if the torrents and floes and levies and dams and streams and straits of culture and fate and heritage had ensured his death, he would not let every loose end meet in a clean knot; stories, be they the stories of one person or a whole people, were never finished. He stopped reading in mid-sentence, set the dreidel spinning, and raised the gun to his head, shooting quickly so that he might never see the outcome of the spin.