It was on one of those Hanukah-warmed Christmas nights that Jacob Kopens learned of the perverse reverse. This being the story of Robert, a high school friend of his who had gone and married a Christian girl and then a year later caught a fierce case of the Hebron fever. Born again as Reuven he ditched his Gap jeans for a black hat and earlocks and a coat as long as his shadow. He caught an El Aland re-settled himself across the sea and the dunes in the sacred Gaza firestorm, abandoning the Gentile wife and the little son they had produced, even before he had heard the son speak his first word, which of course was daaa.
It was the kind of story his old, hawk-tongued mother loved to tell him – to jab another hole in his skin (why not one more?) – for leaving the fold or at least straying so far from it that she couldn’t understand the very street Jacob Kopens lived on. It was so Yankee a street in a town of huge sailboats and white steeples; it was so farfrom the little Kosher corner of Boston where she still lived, and lived so stubbornly in the old fish-and-knish style; even though there was practically nothing left of the place, not so much as a decent helzel to stuff or a dreidel worth spinning. Most of it was shards and splinters under an expressway.
So they had their dinner, their twinkly dinner of serious foie gras and mail-order chopped liver. As it ended fresh snow was falling. The silver whiteness came down noiselessly, in the thinnest filaments, a shower of newly minted tinsel. His mother said it was an impending blizzard and asked to be driven home. At the threshold of stately oak and maple she permitted her tall, corn-blonde daughter-in-law, child of the yacht club commodore, to kiss her goodbye.
More kisses came from the handsome half-breed grandchildren. And goodbyes in hale prep-school accents. Then Kopens himself, the son who was scrawnier than any of his children, not much taller than his stooped mother, walked her out into the cold. He sat her in the car, went round to the wheel with the nameplate marque, leaned over and helped her with her seat belt. As the elaborately heated seats kicked in, the two of them drove up the long, sweeping driveway and down the steep twisting road, a giant white curly-cue popping with colored lights.
“No Jews live on this street,” the mother said – in the tone of a babushka woman just off the shtetl boat - peering left and right at the white-candled windows, with their arches and mullions, and the pendulous light-strings draped like necklaces around the darkened spruces.
“What about me? This is my street.”
“You? You have lights too.”
“And a menorah. We have a menorah.”
There was a sigh, and nothing for several minutes, and then the subject of Reuven came up again.
“He was just home for a week,” she said.
“But I thought he never came home. I thought he never left Israel.”
“He still has parents here. He comes home to see them.”
“Does he see the first wife too, the Gentile?”
“He has to. Out in Chicago, lawyer business. He has his payments. He has to sign things.”
“And what about the son?”
“He has other sons now. In Israel.”
She had a way of saying Israel that made Kopens want to cover his head. It was a button she had installed, of course, so now she could push it at will. He chafed inside and imagined Robert bending and swaying over a prayer book in his settler outpost, surrounded by three or four little replica Roberts, all in black hats.
“But what about this son?”
“He’ll talk to him. But he won’t pick him up.”
“In his arms? He won’t pick up his own son?”
“He says he’s not allowed to.”
“To lift him? But it’s his own son. Who says that?”
“Reuven is very strict. That’s how the strict ones are.”
There was a sigh again, and more silence – a canyon of it stretching between mother and son. The wipers clearing the snow made a steady thumping noise, the sound of a robot’s pulse. Thinking back – and with his mother in the car there was no other direction in which to think – Kopens rode the long subterranean vein of memory, rode it all the way to those gold-leafed certificates his grandparents used to give him as birthday presents. His mother framed the first certificate and hung it in his room. The succeeding ones she kept in an album. Each of the documents had been stamped with the State of Israel seal; and each stated, in Hebrew and English, that the grandparents’ cash gift had made Kopens the official owner of a tree in Israel.
That memory of being handed the certificates kept bobbing up in his mind’s eye, along with a possibility he couldn’t deny – not entirely: That right now, the black-hatted one, the pious one who once ate Chinese pork but now couldn’t bring himself to touch his traif son, could be living and working and bending and swaying under the branches of his, Jacob’s,deeded trees. The very ones. At this date the trunks would be at full size – a dozen of them at least, each twig and branch owned by Kopens in perpetuity - and definitely, most definitely, not draped in strands of red and white lights every December.
As his mother would surely point out if he gave her the merest chance.
But he kept these imaginings to himself. And for miles, not a spoken syllable between them interrupted the mindless drumming of the wipers. However, when they reached the old neighborhood and her apartment – a stone’s throw from the scrubby vacant lot where he and Robert had had many an encounter, good and bad, and sometimes vicious – Kopens found he had to speak up.
“You said Robert sees his parents here and then goes to Chicago. So he flies.”
“Yes he flies. But not from sunset Friday to sundown Saturday.”
“And do you think the pilot of the plane is Jewish?”
He said it accusingly, as though he were in a courtroom, cross examining her.
“Not to Chicago. Not if the plane isn’t El Al.”
“Let’s say it’s United.”
“How could the pilot always be Jewish?”
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Reuven is in the plane. The pilot could be Jewish, but he probably isn’t. The plane rises, and now Reuven is totally in the pilot’s hands. In his hands. So the goy pilot is lifting Reuven. How can he let that happen, and then get off the plane and not lift his own son? His own flesh and blood.”
He was in a steam, starting to sweat into his scarf, chomping at the bit to go on with other examples of people – not Jews, just people – who might lift Robert aka Reuven if he needed lifting. Paramedics, for instance – or any human being who might be passing by in the moment after Robert had taken a bullet in the chest. But she had turned to the passenger door and away from him.
He lost patience with her and shouted. “Did you hear what I said?”
The old woman made no reply, other than to demand that he release her from the seat belt at once. Kopens watched her climb the wooden stoop with her ninety-year legs. Typically he would go up with her, holding her arm, but this time he made an angry decision to go no further than the sidewalk - and the sidewalk is where he stood, leaning against the car. She climbed the flight of steps with drama, as though it were a mountain, never looking back for even an instant. After clawing her way past the last stretch of banister she stopped, but it was only to catch her breath, and then she disappeared into the creaky structure without so much as a wave. He immediately swung the car around with a tire screech that blackened the snow, and left the old neighborhood as though he were being chased out. He sped through Boston and across the bridge, so high and long it occasionally would sway – as it did tonight. At some point the snow had changed from softly falling strands of thread to pelting streaks, and a fast wind had come up too, out of nowhere. As Jacob Kopens drove north the streaks became nearly horizontal and there were serpentine white waves cresting at the sides of the highway. Every so often he would find himself blocked by a herd of plows and sanders, behemoths lumbering ahead of him and spitting back hard granules into his windshield.
Although these elephantine machines forced him to drive at a snail’s pace, they stayed on the highway for only a few miles at a time, covering a two-exit stretch of highway and then leaving at the next ramp. With the road open again, Kopens hit the accelerator. But, when he was a good two thirds of the way home, he ran into a convoy that was like none of its predessors. A parade of tireless heavyweights, and they would not get out of his way. The procession continued, exit after exit: huge tires and dump chutes scourging his windshield with a constant tailwind of sand and salt. As the slow march went on he became obsessed with his speedometer and his clock; the first was hardly moving while the second raced unstoppably. He was conscious, as well, of his eyes darting from the road to the dashboard, a rhythm as senseless as the slapping wipers, but he was unable to stop himself. Driving his mother home was not supposed to have been the end of the evening; only the beginning; and now he was very late – to the point of embarrassment. There were parties at neighbor’s houses, written invitations his wife had accepted, friends expecting them all over town. He fumbled in his coat pockets for his mobile but couldn’t find it. Then he realized he had never taken it with him - he had forgotten to - his mother had been in such a rush to escape the poinsettia and red candles; the alien world where menorahs stood in the same room as wreaths. And he, the dutiful son, had gone and charged ahead with her - even though he was stung by her Reuven/Robert stories; shocked that she would see piety where he saw only cruelty.
At last he was in the clear, driving too fast for the snow but alone at least, in the innermost of the two northbound lanes. Kopens brightened as he hit familiar landmarks: a frozen brook, a stretch of forest that told him he was nearing home. But the more he drove and skidded past the tall evergreens buckling with ice and snow, the more he reminisced about those old certificates, his deeded trees – which he pictured as cedars, biblical trees.
The pair of headlights came out of nowhere, as wild and sudden as streaking comets. He panicked, because they weren’t across the guard rail on the southbound side. The twin beams were on his side, the northbound, and headed straight for him. As the headlights flew closer, he gave the wheel so violent a twist he lost control. The car took him on a screeching swerve across the breakdown lane, then through the air as it dove, nose down, into the drainage ditch that bordered the forest, crash-landing just as the southbound car roared by. The wheels bounced so hard he heard glass shatter and something big as a boxing glove rammed into his jaw. It had been ages since Kopens had taken a punch to the chin – the puncher having been Robert, in a schoolyard scrap – and for a moment he sat in a black, blinded daze, wondering where the fist had come from, and why it wouldn’t leave his face. Then his eyes opened, the blackness lifted and he saw the swollen airbag jamming him back. He sat at a crazy angle, like a bull-rider frozen in mid-buck. The car’s right front bumper and fender had burrowed deep into the ditch-snow, and the left rear was in the air.
Jacob Kopens ministered to his bleeding with a handkerchief dipped in frost. He blew a little warm breath into his bare hands, jammed them in his coat pockets and entered the snow-flooded forest. On this one night they were most needed, his gloves were left at home – forgotten along with his mobile.
But he was alive, and grateful for it. In his mind there was no question as to whether he should abandon the car and go on foot. What was a hike in the woods, even with squalling snow, compared to a car streaking at him like a missile on the wrong side of the road? He knew where he was: only two exits from his own. The woods had to end and give way to the towns the exits led to; the cul-de-sacs and lighted trees and snowed-over golf course ringed with estates and townhouse condominiums. If he had his bearings right, he could even cross a meadow or two and reach one of the homes he knew well. The Kenyon house. The holiday crowd might even still be there, the toddy flowing, the party in full swing.
Kopens knew he was taking a risk. But this was a parcel of woodlands in the outer suburbs, not a wilderness. However, as the trees enclosed him and the lights and sounds of the highway faded away, he found himself in a different and deeper storm. The forest wind shook every trunk and branch, and blew pain into his ears with a high, wild scream. The air temperature was beyond reason; a knifing cold he associated with regions of the earth more desolate than Boston’s North Shore. Not a football field’s length into the woods, words like tundra and glacier flitted across his mind. Ice and water filled up his street shoes and every step hurt to the bone.
At last he came to a golf course – or a prairie – and with no trees in the wind’s way it came at him like a rolling wall. When he saw a pinpoint of light and felt hope, he was physically unable to run or even plod straight for it. The light was imbedded deep in the wall of wind. To make his approach he had to negotiate the swells of snow like a sailboat in a gale, tacking to the side of the oncoming gusts. Finally, the wind gave way to a groaning, scraping presence that loomed like a stalking mammoth at his back. He turned and looked up at a yellow backhoe fitted with chains and a plow, one of the very beasts that had thrown him off his course in the first place.
The Kenyon house stood on high ground. In fact, the steepness of its driveway was a joke at the club. Kenyon himself said he had considered selling lift tickets. But Kopens had always experienced the long climb in heated comfort, sitting behind the wheel. Tonight he walked the walk of the frozen, barely aware of the moment when the jagged crust underfoot changed to granite stairs, sheltered by a fully roofed colonnade. Its pillars were so entwined in Christmas greens even the frigid gusts couldn’t erase the spicy scent.
Kopens leaned on the bell and rapped at the same time, and didn’t stop until the tall door opened. Kenyon himself had come to let him in, and the broad doorway fit his frame so perfectly it seemed it could have been designed for just that purpose. Kenyon was an old paratrooper and mountaineer, and still one of the best catamaran sailors in the Northeast. Physically, he was Kopens’ exact opposite. Soaring and muscular. But the word Kopens felt described him best was monumental. At the door, his voice overrode the razzmatazz of the party welling up just behind him.
“Jacob, good to see you. Are you all right? You’re blue.”
He put his arm around Kopens, guided him over the threshold and closed the door.
“My car broke down. I had some walk.”
Kenyon nodded graciously, but stared down at him as though waiting to hear more.
“Point me to the whiskey,” Kopens said. “Then I need a phone.”
Without breaking his stare, Kenyon seized his right hand, burying it in his own fleshy mitt. At first Kopens thought it was a handshake, but the heavy paw would not let go.
“What are you doing?”
“Will you let me heat up your hands? Here, give me the other one.”
“We’re standing in your doorway like we’re about to dance.”
“Well, maybe we are. I want to get you warm, Jacob. Get warm.”
As Kopens felt his knuckles and palms thaw, his mood thawed too. It was as though the pores of Kenyon’s massive, radiant hands were releasing a drug into his own. The heat it brought was deep and all-embracing, so intoxicating that it stayed with Jacob even as he moved through the crowd, shaking hands and hugging, making party talk with friends and acquaintances.
After he had made the rounds and soaked up some Scotch he felt a heavy hand on his shoulder. It was Kenyon again, holding up a small leather case and pointing towards the spectacular Christmas tree in the center of the palatial room.
“Jacob,” he said, “I know you – so I know you can take a joke. True or not true?”
“True. Of course it’s true. Fire away.”
From the leather case Kenyon extracted what looked like a pair of cheap, cardboard framed sunglasses – very much like the glasses Jacob remembered from the old 3D-movie days.
“Here,” Kenyon said, “put these on and look straight at the tree – at all the lights.”
The tree was magnificently strung with Christmas lights, and so huge – the Kenyon trees always were. Kopens set the glasses on his nose and took in the full display, top to bottom. But what he saw through the lenses weren’t Christmas lights at all. All over the tree, sparkling and shimmering, were countless Stars of David.
Kopens stumbled for words, but before he found them, Kenyon spoke.
“Amazing, aren’t they. My little niece got them from someone at her school. She’s only ten, Jacob, so I hope you’ll forgive the … crudeness. My niece called them Jew-glasses.”
Finally, Kopens had his words. Something witty to hide the shock, an escape line:
“Conversion glasses, right? Whoever wears them converts.” Laughing, he handed Kenyon back his glasses and diplomatically excused himself to telephone his wife.
Once again, Kenyon’s heavy mitt landed on his back, but this time as a farewell. “Merry Christmas, Jacob.”
Kopens turned and their eyes met. For the merest second, until Kopens blinked, the eyes he saw beaming down on him became something else. The two headlights out on the highway, roaring straight for him.