Who doesn't remember searching for an elusive piece of matzah which, if found, was supposed to bring us an award. But what kind of award?
By Michael Oren
The light in our living room looks as yellow as the little prayer books I can’t wait to get through. The pages are also stained—bright red with the horseradish, brown with gravy, and purple with the wine we guzzle this time every year. Passover? Passed out is more like it, from the shit-shaped piece of fish I can’t bear to look at much less eat, and the matzah I can’t swallow. And parsley? Supposed to remind us of the bitterness of Egypt, they say. Well, it does the trick. Stuck at this table, waiting too long to be served too much crappy food and forced to read words I can’t understand and listen to conversations I wished I didn’t, that’s just what I feel like. A slave.
Why is this night different from any other night? I’ll tell you why. On all other nights, my rich uncle is too much of a bigshot to sit with my father, who my mother just usually ignores. And Dad does his best to come home late. On other nights, I can watch Star Trek reruns or play with the model cars I steal just about every week from the department store but which no one around here ever asks me about. On other nights, I can press my ear to the bathroom door to listen in on what my sixteen year-old sister, Carol, is doing in there with her dumbass boyfriend, or sneak outside and meet up with Randy and spray-paint stuff on the sidewalk. But instead of doing anything cool, tonight I have to sit here while dorky cousin Steven—thank God’s he’s younger than me—stands on his chair and sings the Four Questions. Why is this night different from all other nights, he croaks, and I’m dying to answer him. ‘Cause this night truly sucks.
There are some fun things, though. I can pretend to drop my napkin and reach under the table to get a peek at Cousin Marjorie, who’s fourteen and wears mini-skirts so mini her panties practically hang out. I can drink glass after glass of Manischwitz without anybody counting or dip my finger inside and zap the Egyptians with plagues. But the best part comes at the end when my sister and my cousins and me go off looking for a broken piece of matzah that my mother hides somewhere in the house. I have no idea why we do this only that my dad has to buy it back from whichever kid finds it. He has to “redeem” that cracker—so the prayer book says—for five or even ten bucks.
The matzah hunt feels like hours away and, until then, I have to sit here while Uncle Harold rails on and on about Watergate.
“He’s a fascist, that’s what our president is. A fascist and a crook.” He slams a fist on the table next to my dad’s fork, making it jump. “And you voted for him.”
Auntie Rita, Harold’s wife, looks on nodding while Mom spoons another matzah ball, into her husband’s soup. Yet Dad doesn’t touch it. He doesn’t say a word but drinks his wine even faster than I do and gazes into the candles.
“A fascist, a crook, and an anti-Semite, if you ask me,” Uncle Harold’s still shouting. “Haldeman, Ehrlichman—sounds like the goddamn Nazi party. Except for that Kissinger shmuck, the ass-licker. Feel good about that, Artie? That’s who you wanted in the White House?
And still no answer from Dad. Instead, he slumps further down on his chair. The prayer book says we’re supposed to do that, slump, or at least lean, for some reason to remind us how free we are. But Dad’s not looking too free. He’s looking caught between his brother whaling on him and his wife heaping a second lump of fish on his plate.
I look at my Dad and feel funny about him. Sad and angry. Embarrassed and afraid. In old photographs yellower than these prayer books, he looks a lot like me. Not too tall but no shrimp, either. No fatso, quick with any ball, probably, or at sneaking model cars under his sweatshirt. Same hair, shorter maybe, but just as kinky, and the nose like a tipped-over question mark. Not the kind of kid who’d Laurie Finkelstein would go steady with, no way, but no one you’d want to mess with.
Then why is everyone messing with my father? Is it because his belly’s gotten bigger, the nose, too, while the kinks are mostly gone, his head shining in the candlelight? Why, when Uncle Harold yells at bad guys in court, does my Dad get yelled out when all he wants to do is sell furniture? And why does my Mom, every night except this one when she has to put on a show for the relatives, treat him like Laurie Finkelstein does me, like he doesn’t deserve to breathe?
Those are my four questions, but no one bothers to answer them or even listen. Uncle Harold’s still ranting, “Invaded Cambodia. Fire-bombed Hanoi. Fire-bombed—what are we, in the Middle Ages?” His face is the color of those stains in our prayer books. “All that you’ve got on your conscience.”
Dad takes another gulp of wine and nods at me. “Your turn to read,” he says, and from too much wine, maybe, I groan.
“No, please,” he practically begs me and for a second sits up in his chair. For a second he looks almost happy, the candles for once sparkling in his eyes. “You’ve got a Bar Mitzvah coming up in a year or so. It’s good practice.”
I think about the Bar Mitzvah, all the gifts I’ll get and the chance to slow-dance with Laurie. Shrugging, I read. I read about the wise son and the simple son and the son who did not know how to ask. I can’t really tell the difference between them—they all sound clueless about what we were doing around that table talking about plagues and eating crackers. Which was why I kind of liked the wicked son, the only one with guts. “What’s all this weirdness about,” he wants to know, “and do I really have to put up with it?”
Finally, it’s mealtime. Chicken with matzah stuffing that makes the chicken taste like talcum powder. Dad hardly touches it but that doesn’t stop Mom from giving him second helpings, even thirds. More wine. Auntie Rita, making moon-shaped motions with her pocket mirror, checks her hairdo and makeup. Carol and Marjorie play with one another’s hair, whisper to each other, and giggle. Steven’s curled up in a corner—six years old and still sucking on his thumb. Jesus. And I’m about to conk out myself, thanks to Mr. Manischwitz. Thank God, then, when Mom announces that it’s time to search for the matzah.
Stevie’s a no-show and the girls complain that they’re too old for silliness, but I’m already hunting. Behind the couches, under cushions, inside the magazine rack. Mom may not do much during the day—she’s a secretary who can type, she says, eighty words a minute—but she’s a demon at hiding matzahs. Once, I found one lying beneath the television antenna only to have her tell me that she hid it there two years ago.
I pretty much cover the dining room and kitchen and so make my way up to the bedrooms. There’s Carol’s with its pink telephone and posters of the Grateful Dead and my own, a mess of empty spray cans and broken model cars that I’m always being told to clean up. Not even Mom would think of stashing things there. Which leaves my parents’ room.
The satin blanket, the puffed-up pillows, the lamps growing out of vases and the corner’s porcelain dog—nothing looks disturbed. I go through their drawers only to come up with socks and t-shirts and Fruit of the Loom underwear. But no matzah and no five or ten bucks to redeem it. So I set to work on the closets.
Mom’s rattles as I open it, with the belts and necklaces hung on the back of the door. She’s got a jungle of dresses in there that are thick with her smell but nothing else. Dad’s closet, on the other hand, brings up this cool pair of army binoculars, a wooden box of tie-clips and cuff links, and piles of sweaters he never wears. Climbing up the cubby holes on the far wall, I reach the highest shelf. Here he keeps his high school album and a bowling ball and then, under some old furniture catalogs, a leather folder.
Magazines. That’s what’s inside. Two fistfuls of magazines with crinkled covers and a couple pages that are hard to separate. Picture magazines of men without clothes on and doing things that I imagine Carol and her boyfriend do in the bathroom. Things I can’t even daydream about doing with Laurie. But these are men and the magazines are in a folder way in the back of Dad’s shelf.
My head feels like it’s spinning. Not from the wine anymore but something else. Confusion. Excitement. I want to look longer and don’t want to look at all, ever, and while I’m deciding, I hear my name being called.
Back into the folder the magazines go, but not before I tear out a single page and fold it into my pocket. How much would that be worth, I wonder. Fifty dollars? One hundred? My name gets hollered again and I holler back, “all right, already, I’m coming!” and head downstairs.
I’m already thinking about the model cars I can buy for once and not steal, and a charm bracelet for Laurie. I’m thinking about my father’s face when later, after everyone’s gone home, I show him what I’ve got in my pocket. I’m thinking about it still when I enter the dining room and its stained, yellowed light.
They sit there—Mom and Uncle Harold, Auntie Rita and the girls—all growling. Tired, bored, too full and drunk to move, but desperate to get it over with. Only my father smiles at me as he places his wallet on the table.
“What’ve you found, my little man?” he asks me. “And how much will it cost me to redeem?”