The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 2, No. 1

The Gates are Closing

by Amy Bloom

Help me.
    I slid my hands up the legs of Jack's shorts to stroke the top of his thigh and he lost his grip on the paint roller. A hundred tiny drops flew through the air at me. Thoroughly speckled, squinting to keep the paint out of my eyes, I stroked higher under his boxers, right up the neat, furry juncture of his crotch.
    "Jesus," he said. "It's not like I have any balance anyway." Which is true. He has Parkinson's, and if it weren't for the fact that he's been house painting for twenty-five years and is the synagogue president's husband, no sensible group of people would have him painting their religious institution. I volunteered to help because I'm in love with Jack and because I like to paint. I lay down on the dropcloth and unbuttoned my shirt.
    "Want to fool around?"
    "Always," he said. There has never been a sweeter, kinder man. "But not right now. I'm pretty tired already."
    "You rest. I'll paint."
    I took off my shirt and bra and painted for Jack. I strolled up and down with the extra-long paint roller. When the cracks in the ceiling lost their brown, ropy menace, I took the regular roller and did the walls. I poured Jack tea from my thermos and I touched my nipples with the windowsill brush.
    He sat up against the bimah, sipping my sweet milky tea and smiling. His face so often shows only a tender, masked expressiveness, I covet the tiny rips and leaks of affect at the corner of his mouth, in the middle of his forehead. His hand shook. He shakes. Mostly at rest. Mostly when he is making an effort to relax. Sometimes after we've made love, which he does in a wonderfully unremarkable, athletic way, his whole right side trembles and his arm flutters wildly, as if we've set it free.
    I told a friend about me and Jack painting the synagogue for Rosh Hashanah, and this woman, who uses riding crops for fun with strangers and tells me fondly about her husband's rubber fetish, got wide-eyed as a frightened child and said, "In shul? You made love in shul? You must have really wanted to shock God." I said no, I didn't want to shock God (what would have shocked God? two more naked people, trying to wrestle time to a halt?), it was just where we were. And if someone had offered me the trade, I would have rolled myself in paint and done dripping off-white cartwheels through the entire congregation for more time with Jack.



Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are my favorite holidays; you don't have to entertain anyone or feed anyone or buy things for anyone. You can combine short, skipping waves of kindly small talk with deep isolation and no one is offended. I get a dozen invitations to eat roast chicken the night before and a dozen more invitations to break the fast, including the one to Jack and Naomi's house. I think her name was Nancy until she went to Jerusalem in eleventh grade and came back the way they did, lean and tan and religious and Naomi. Jack thinks she's very smart. He went to Catholic school and dropped out of Fordham to run his father's construction business. Mouthy Jewish girls who can talk through their tears and argue straight through yours, myopic girls who read for pleasure, for Jack, this is real intelligence. And Naomi Sapirstein Malone totes him around, her big converted prize, the map of Ireland on his face and blue eyes like Donegal Bay, nothing like the brown eyes of the other men, however nice their brown eyes are, not even like our occasional blue-eyed men, Vilna blue, the-Cossack-came-by eyes, my mother used to say.



My mother still couldn't believe that I'd even joined a synagogue. Two bar mitzvahs when I was thirteen set off an aversion to Jewish boys that I have only overcome in the last ten years. And if I must go, why not go someplace nice, with proper stained glass and a hundred brass plaques and floral arrangements the size and approximate weight of totem poles? There, you might be safe. There, you might be mistaken for people of position, people whom it would be a bad idea to harm. When my brother Louis had his third nervous breakdown and they peeled him out of his apartment and put him in a ward with double sets of locking doors and two-way mirrors, the doctors tried to tell me and my mother that his paranoia and his anxious loneliness and his general relentless misery were not uncommon in children of Holocaust survivors. My mother was not impressed and closed her eyes when Lou's psychiatrist spoke.
    We went out for tuna fish sandwiches and I tried to tell her again, as if it was only that she didn't understand their zippy American medical jargon. I counted Lou's symptoms on my fingers. I said that many young men and women whose families had survived the Holocaust had these very symptoms. I don't know what I thought. That she would feel better? Worse?
    "Well, yes, of course, they suffer. Those poor wretches," she said, in her most Schoenbrunn tones.
    "Like us, Meme. Like us. Daddy in Buchenwald. Grandpa Hoffmann in Ebensee. Everyone fleeing for their lives, with nothing. The doctor meant us."
    My mother waved her hand and ate her sandwich.
    "Please. We're very lucky. We're fine. Louis has your Uncle Morti's nervous stomach, that's all."
    Louis recovered from his nervous stomach with enough Haldol to fell an ox, and when he got obese and shaved only on Sundays and paced my mother's halls day and night in backless bedroom slippers, this was Uncle Morti's legacy as well.

    Your might, O Lord, is boundless.
    Your loving-kindness sustains the living.
    Your great mercies give life to the dead.
    You support the falling, heal the ailing, free the fettered.

    How can you say those prayers when your heart's not in them, Jack said. My heart is in them, I said. I don't think belief is required. I put my hand out to adjust his yarmulke, to feel him. I never saw anything so sweetly ridiculous as his long pink ears anchoring that blue satin kippah to his head.
    You could wear a really dashing fedora, I said. You have that sexy Gary Cooper hat. Wear that. God won't mind. God, I said, would prefer it.



Naomi's break fast was just what it was supposed to be: platters of bagels, three different cream cheeses in nice crystal bowls, roasted vegetables, kugels, and interesting cold salads. There was enough food so that one wouldn't be ashamed in front of Jews, not so much that one would have to worry about the laughter of spying goyim.
    I helped Jack in the kitchen while Naomi circulated. Sometimes I wanted to say to her, How can you stand this? You're not an idiot. Doesn't it make you feel just a little ridiculous to have gone to the trouble of leaping from Hadassah president to synagogue president in one generation and find yourself still in your mother's clothes and still in your mother's makeup and even in her psyche, for Christ's sake? I didn't say anything. It was not in my interest to alarm or annoy Naomi. I admired her publicly, I defended her from the men who thought she was too shrill and from the women who thought their husbands would have been better presidents and therefore better armatures for them as presidents' wives, sitting next to the major donors, clearly above the balabostas at God's big dinner party. We'd had forty years of men presidents, blameless souls for the most part, only the occasional embezzler or playboy or sociopath. Naomi was no worse, and she conveyed to the world that we were a forward-looking, progressive congregation. I don't know how forward-looking Jews can actually be, wrestling with God's messenger, dissolving Lot's wife, wading through six hundred and thirteen rules for better living, our one-hundred-and-twenty-year-old mothers laughing at their sudden fertility and our collective father Abraham, willing to sacrifice his darling boy to appease a faceless bully's voice in his ear.



Jack and I were in charge of the linguine with tomato cream sauce, and we kept it coming. He stuck his yarmulke in his back pocket and wrapped Naomi's "Kiss Me, I'm Kosher!" apron around me. On the radio, an unctuous reporter from NPR announced that people with Parkinson's were having a convention, that there was an ACT UP for Parkinson's sufferers. ("I'd like to see that, wouldn't you?" Jack said.) The reporter described the reasonably healthy people, the leaders, naturally enough, angry and trembling but still living as themselves with just a little less dopamine, and he interviewed the damned, one worse than the next, a middle-aged classics professor, no longer teaching or writing, his limbs flying around him in mad tantric designs; a young woman of twenty-five, already stuck in a wheelchair, already sipping from the straw her mother held to her lips while they roamed the halls of the Hilton looking for the sympathetic ear that would lead to the money that would lead to the research and the cure before she curled up like an infant and drowned in the sea of her own lungs.
    "Morris Udall, respected congressional leader for thirty years, lies in this room, immobile. His daughter visits him every day, although he is unable to respond--"
    This is endless heartbreak. I don't even feel sorry for Mo Udall, God rest his soul, he should just die already. There is no reason for us to listen to this misery. I want to plunge my tongue down Jack's throat, pull gently on his chest hairs, and knot my legs tightly around his waist, opening myself so wide that he falls into me and leaves this world forever.
    We look at each other while the radio man drones on about poor Mo Udall, his poor family, all of his accomplishments mocked (which is not the reporter's point, presumably) and made dust by this pathetic and terrible disease. Jack looks away and smiles in embarrassment. He listens to this stuff all the time, it plays in his head when there is no radio on at all; he's only sorry that I have to listen too.
    It's better to cook with him and say nothing, which is what I do. I want to hold him and protect him; I want to believe in the possibility of protection. Growing up in the Hoffmann family of miraculous escapes and staggering surprises (who knew Himmler had a soft spot for my grandfather's tapestries? who knew the Germans would suddenly want to do business and fulfill their promises?), I understood that the family luck had been used up. I could do well in life, if not brilliantly, and if my reach did not exceed my grasp, I would be all right. My grasp included good grades, some success as a moderately good painter, and lovers of whom I need not be ashamed in public.

    We abuse, we betray, we are cruel.
    We destroy, we embitter, we falsify.
    We gossip, we hate, we insult.
    We jeer, we kill, we lie.

    One can recite the Ashamnu, beat one's breast for hours in not unpleasant contemplation of all one's minor and major sins, wrapped in the willing embrace of a community which, if it does very little for you all the rest of the year, is required, as family is, to acknowledge that you belong to them, that your sins are not noticeably worse than theirs, and that you are all, perverts, zealots, gossips, and thieves, in this together.
    "This girl from one of the art galleries wished me happy Yom Kippur," I said to Jack.
    "Hell, yes. A whole new Hallmark line: Happy Day of Atonement. Thinking of You on This Day of Awe. Wishing You the Best of Barkhu."
    We had all risen and sat endlessly through this second holiday, and my own silent prayers got shorter and shorter as those of a few alter kockers and two unbearably pious young men lengthened, making it clear that their communications with God were so serious and so transporting they had hardly noticed that the other three hundred people had sat down and were waiting to get on with it. The faintly jazzy notes of the shofar had been sounded the correct number of times, and I had the pleasure of hearing last year's president say Jack's name. John Malone. Not Jack. In the shul, Jack sounded too sharply Christian, so clearly not part of us. Jack Jack Jack, I thought, and I would have shot my hand up to volunteer to rebuild the back steps with him, but I myself always questioned the motives of women volunteering to help on manual labor projects with good-looking men. I didn't think badly of them, I just couldn't believe they had so little to do at home, or at the office, that the sheer pleasure of working with cheap tools on a Sunday afternoon was what got them helping out my darling Jack, or Henry Sternstein, the best-looking Jewish man, with dimples and beagle eyes and, according to Naomi's good friend Stephanie Tabnick, a chocolate-brown beauty mark on his right buttock, shaped very much like a Volkswagen.

    Open for us the gates, even as they are closing.
    The day is waning, the sun is low.
    The hour is late, a year has slipped away.
    Let us enter the gates at last.

    Jennifer, their daughter, came into Naomi's kitchen to nibble. I smiled and put a dozen hot kugel tarts, dense rounds of potato and salt and oil, to drain on a paper towel near her. Jack was fond, and blind, with Jennifer. She was tall and would be lovely, smart, and softhearted, and I think that he could not stand to know her any other way, to have her suffer not only his life, but hers. When Jennifer succeeded in the boy venues, Naomi admired her extravagantly and put humiliating tidbits in the synagogue newsletter about Jennifer's near miss with the Westinghouse Prize or her stratospheric PSATs; when Jennifer failed as a girl, Naomi narrowed her eyes venomously. Fiddling with her bra strap, eating too many cookies, Jennifer tormented Naomi, without meaning to. She sweated through her skimpy, badly chosen rayon jumper, built to show off lithe, tennis-playing fourteen-year-olds, not to flatter a solid young woman who looked as if in a previous world she would have been married by spring and pregnant by summer. And Naomi watched her and pinched her and hissed at her, fear and shame across her heavy, worried face.
    I loved Jennifer's affection for me; that it was fueled by her sensible dislike of her mother made it better, but that wasn't the heart of it. The person who was loved by Jennifer and Jack was the best person I have ever been. My mother's daughter was caustic and cautious and furiously polite; my lovers' lover was adaptable, imaginative, and impenetrably cheerful. Jennifer, I said to her at her bat mitzvah, surrounded by Sapirstein cousins, all with prime-time haircuts, wearing thin-strapped slip dresses that fluttered prettily around their narrow thighs while Jennifer's clung damply to her full back and puckered around the waistband of her panty hose, Jennifer, your Hebrew was gorgeous, your speech was witty, and you are a really, really interesting young woman. She watched her second cousin toss long, shiny red hair and sighed. Jennifer, I said, and when I pressed my hand on her arm she shivered (and I thought, Does no one touch you?), Jennifer, I know I don't know you very well, but believe me, they will have peaked in three years and you will be sexy and good-looking and a pleasure to talk to forever. She blushed, that deep, mottled raspberry stain fair-skinned girls show, and I left her alone.
    Now, when I dropped by as a helpful friend of the family, she brought me small gifts of herself and her attention, and I even passed up some deep kisses with Jack in the garage, "getting firewood," to give enough, and get enough, with Jennifer.
    Jack put one hand on Jennifer's brown curls and reached for a piece of kugel. I looked at him and Jennifer laughed.
    "Oh my God, that's just like my mother. Daddy, wasn't that just like Ima? I swear, just like her."
    Jack and I smiled.
    "You know, about what Daddy eats. She read that he should eat a lot of raw vegetables and not a lot of fat. Like no more quesadillas. Like no more of these amazing cookies. You are now in Fat-Free Country, folks, leave your taste buds at the door." She grabbed four chocolate lace cookies and went into the backyard.
    I had read the same article in Newsweek, about alternative treatments, and I dropped gingko powder into Jack's coffee when I couldn't steer him completely away from caffeine, and sometimes, instead of making love, I would say, I would chirp, Let's go for a swim! Let's do some yoga! and Jack would look at me and shake his head.
    "I already have a wife, sweetheart. Andrea, light of my life. Darling Mistress. I don't need another one."
    "You should listen to Naomi."
    "All mankind, all humankind, should listen to Naomi. I do listen and I take good care of myself. It's not a cold, D.M."
    I wanted it to be a cold, or even something worse, something for which you might have to have unpleasant treatments with disturbing, disfiguring side effects before you got better, or something that would leave scars like train tracks or leave you with one leg shorter than the other or even leave you in a wheelchair. Treatments that would leave you still you, just the worse for wear.



Jack had come back to my house after we painted the synagogue. There are a million wonderful things about living alone, but the only one that mattered then was Jack in my bed, Jack in my shower, Jack in my kitchen. His eyes were closing.
    "D.M., I have to rest before I drive home."
    "Do you want to shower?"
    "No, I'm supposed to be painty. We've been working. I'm not supposed to go home smelling of banana-honey soap and looking . . ."
    His head snapped forward, and I put a pillow under him, on top of my kitchen table. He slept for about twenty minutes, and I watched him.
    Once, early on, I washed his hair. His right side was tired, and I offered to give him a shampoo and a shave. I leaned his head back over my kitchen sink and grazed his cheeks with my breasts and massaged his scalp until his face took on that wonderful, stupid look we all have in the midst of deep pleasure. I dried his gray curly hair and I buffed up his little bald spot and then I shaved him with my father's thick badger brush and old-fashioned shaving soap. My father was a dim, whining memory for me, but I put my fingers through the handle of the porcelain cup and I thought, Good, Papa, this is why you lived, so that I could grow up and love this man.



    People came in and out of Naomi's kitchen, and Jack and I passed trays and bowls and washed some more dairy silver and put bundles of it into cloth napkins. I set them out on the dining room table.
    Naomi put her hand on my shoulder.
    "He looks tired."
    "I think so," I said.
    "Will he lie down?"
    I shrugged.
    "Everyone's got enough food. My God, you'd think they hadn't eaten for days. Half of them don't even fast, the trombeniks."
    I started picking up the dirty plates and silverware, and Naomi patted me again.
    "Tell him we're done with the pasta. I'm serving the coffee now. He could lie down."
    "He'll lie down when they go home."
    Naomi looked like she wanted to punch me in the face.
    "Fine. Then we'll just send them all home. Good yontiff, see you Friday night. They can just go home."
    I dragged Naomi into the kitchen.
    "Jack, Naomi's dying here. They're eating the houseplants, for God's sake. The bookshelves. Can't we send these people home? She's beat. You look a little pooped yourself."
    Jack smiled at Naomi and she put her head on his shoulder.
    "You're full of shit. Naomi, are you tired?"
    "I am, actually. I didn't sleep last night."
    I am grateful for sunny days, and for good libraries and camel's hair brushes and Hirschel's burnt umber, and I was very grateful to stand in their kitchen and bear the sight of Jack's hand around Naomi's fat waist and thank God that he didn't know how his wife slept.
    We threw six plates of rugelach around and sent everyone home. I went in the middle of the last wave, after they promised they wouldn't even try to clean up until the next day.
    There was a message from my mother on my machine.
    "Darling, are you home? No? All right. It's me. Are you there? All right. Well, I lit a candle for Daddy and Grandpa. Your brother was very nice, he helped. It's pouring here. I hope you're not driving around unnecessarily. Call me. I'll be up until maybe eleven. Call me."
    My mother never, ever fell asleep before two am, and then only in her living room armchair. She considered this behavior vulgar and neurotic, and so she pretended that she went to sleep at a moderately late hour, in her own pretty, pillowed queen-size bed, with a cup of tea and a gingersnap, like a normal seventy-eight-year-old woman.
    "Hi, Meme. I wasn't driving around looking for an accident. I came right home from Jack and Naomi's."
    "Aren't you funny. It happens to be terrible weather here. That Jack. Such a nice man. Is he feeling better?" My mother had met him at an opening.
    "He's fine. He's not really going to get better."
    "I know. You told me. Then I guess his wife will nurse him when he can't manage?"
    "I don't know. That's a long way off."
    "I'm sure it is. But when he can't get about, I'm saying when he's no longer independent, you'll go and visit him. And Naomi. You know what I mean, darling. You'll be a comfort to both of them, then."
    I sometimes think that my mother's true purpose in life, the thing that gives her days meaning and her heart ease, is her ability to torture me in a manner as ancient and genteelly elaborate as lace making.
    "Let's jump off that bridge when we come to it. So, you're fine? Louis is fine? He's okay?" I don't know what fine would be for my brother. He's not violent, he's not drooling, he's not walking into town buck naked. I guess he's fine.
    "We're both in good health. We watched a program on Mozart. It was very well done."
    "That's great." I opened my mail and sorted it into junk, bills, and real letters. "Well, I'm pretty tired. I'm going to crawl into bed, I think."
    "Oh, me too. Good night, darling. Sleep well."
    "Good night, Meme. Happy Day of Atonement."



I didn't hear from Jack for five days. I called his house and got Jennifer.
    "My dad's taking it easy," she said.
    "Could you tell him--could you just bring the phone to him?"
    I heard Jack say, "Thanks, Jellybean." And then, "D.M.? I'm glad you called. It's been a lousy couple of days. My legs are just Jell-O. And my brain's turning to mush. Good-bye, substantia nigra."
    "I could bring over some soup. I could bring some rosemary balm. I could make some gingko tea."
    "I don't think so. Naomi's nursing up a storm. Anyway, you minister to me and cry your eyes out, and Naomi will what? Make dinner for us both? I don't think so."
    "Are you going to the auction on Sunday?" The synagogue was auctioning off the usual, tennis lessons, romantic getaways, kosher chocolates, and a small painting of mine.
    "I'm not going anywhere soon. I'm not walking. Being the object of all that pity is not what I have in mind. I don't want you to see me like this."
    "Jack, if I don't see you like this and you're down for a while, I won't see you, period."
    "That's right. That's what I meant."
    I cry easily. Tears were all over the phone.
    "You're supposed to be brave," he said.
    "Fuck you. You be brave."
    "I have to go. Call me tomorrow, to see how I'm doing."
    I called every few days and got Jennifer or Naomi, and they would hand the phone to Jack and we would have short, obvious conversations, and then he'd hand the phone back to his wife or his daughter and they'd hang up for him.



After two weeks, Naomi called and invited me to visit.
    "You're so thin," she said when she opened the door.
    My thinness and the ugly little ghost face I saw in the mirror were the same as Naomi's damp, puffy eyes and the faded dress pulling at her hips.
    "I thought Jack would enjoy a little visit, just to lift his spirits." She didn't look at me. "I didn't say you were coming. Just go up and surprise him."
    I stood at the bottom of the stairs. "Jack? It's me, Andrea. I'm coming up."
    He looked like himself, more or less. His face seemed a little loose, his mouth hanging heavier, his lips hardly moving as he spoke. The skin on his right hand was shiny and full, swollen with whatever flowed through him and pooled in each reddened fingertip.
    "I can't believe she called you."
    "Jack, she thought it would be nice for you. She thinks I am your most entertaining friend."
    "You are my only entertaining friend."
    I sat on the bed, stroking his hand, storing it up. This is my fingertip on the gold hairs on the back of his right hand. This is my fingertip on the protruding blue vein that runs from his ring finger to his wrist and up his beautiful forearm.
    "If you cry, you gotta go."
    "I'm not."
    "D.M., I may want something from you."
    I put my hand under the sheet and laid it on his stomach. This is my palm on the line of brown curling hairs that grow like a spreading tree from his navel to his collarbone. This is the tip of my pinkie resting in the thick, springy hair above his cock, in which we discovered two silver strands last summer. His cock twitched against my finger.
    Jack smiled. "You're the last woman I will ever fuck. I think you are the last woman I will have fucked. You're the end of the line."
    I was ready to lock the door, step out of my jeans, and straddle him.
    "I had a very good time. D.M., I had a wonderful time with you. My last fun."
    Naomi stuck her head in. "Everything all right? More tea, Mr. Malone?"
    "No, dear girl. We're just having a wee chat." I never heard him sound so Irish. Naomi disappeared.
    "Well, Erin go bragh."
    "You've got an ugly side to you," he said, and he put one stiff hand to my face.
    "I do. I'm ugly sides all over lately."
    "When it gets bad," he said, "I'll need your help. I seem to have taken a sharp turn for the worse this time."
    I put my face on his stomach, which seemed just the same beautiful stomach, hard at the ribs and softer below, thick and sweet as always, no wasting, no bloating.
    "And when I'm worse yet, and I want to go, you may have to help."
    I saw Jack's face smeared against the inside of a plastic bag.
    "That's a long way away. We all want you with us. Jennifer needs you, Naomi needs you, for as long as you're still, you know, still able to be with them."
    Jack grabbed my hair and pulled my face to his.
    "I didn't ask you what they wanted. I didn't ask you what you want. I can't ask my wife. I know she needs me, I know she wants me until I can't blink once for yes and twice for no. She wants me until I don't know the difference. You have to do this for me."
    I put my hands over my ears, without even realizing it until Jack pulled them away.
    "Darling Mistress, this is what I need you for. I can't fuck you, I can't have fun with you." He smiled. "Not much fun anyway. I can't do the things with you that a man does with his mistress. There is just this one thing that only you can do for me."
    "Does Naomi know?"
    "She'll know what she needs to know. No one's going to prosecute you or blame you. I've given it a lot of thought. You'll help me and then you'll go, and it will have been my will, my hand, my choice."
    I walked around the room. With a teenager and a sick man and no cleaning lady, Naomi's house was tidier than mine on its best day.
    "All right? D.M.? Yes?"
    "What if I say no?"
    "Then don't come back at all. Why should I have you see me this way, see me worse than this, sweet merciful Jesus, see me dumb and dying, if you won't save me? Otherwise, you're just another woman whose heart I'm breaking, whose life I'm destroying. I told you when I met you, baby, I already have a wife."

    Avinu Malkenu, inscribe us in the Book of Happiness.
    Avinu Malkenu, inscribe us in the Book of Deliverance.
    Avinu Malkenu, inscribe us in the Book of Merit.
    Avinu Malkenu, inscribe us in the Book of Forgiveness.
    Avinu Malkenu, answer us though we have no deeds to plead our cause;
    save us with mercy and loving-kindness.

    "You're a hard man," I said.
    "I certainly hope so."