Firebird Alex Chapter 1

Firebird Alex Chapter 1 by Orren Merton

“I’m not from Hell,” I correct the interviewer. “But I guess you could say I visit regularly.”

“That’s a good place to start,” she says. “Please tell us about the first time you went there. I’m guessing that was recently?”

“Yeah,” I nod. “But I really need to start a few months before that, so you understand how I got there.”

“Please, go on…”

 ###

I didn’t know why I was there. I mean, of course I knew why I was there…I came out of habit, to try and connect with my mother, the same as I had every Saturday for the last four weeks. But this morning it wasn’t working. I didn’t feel that connection. I didn’t feel…anything. I sat in the back of my synagogue, Congregation B’nai David, that mid-September Saturday watching a thirteen-year-old stranger complete his Bar Mitzvah, and I wondered, would I ever feel again?

My mother was Jewish, which made me Jewish too, since membership in the “tribe” passes down through the mother. But then, I was sure the rules didn’t account for my father. Anyway, she loved to come to Saturday morning services whenever she could.

Mom died four weeks ago. I killed her. Technically, cancer was her cause of death, but my birth was the reason for her cancer. I missed her terribly. Constantly. I wanted nothing more than for her to be sitting next to me, laughing with me and running her hands through my dark brown hair. She had a soft laugh, almost like we were in on a private little joke…that together we could take on the world. And she knew my secret and still told me I wasn’t a horrible freak. But after she died, nobody alive knew my secret. I think that made me feel even more alone than actually being alone.

Mom was a published poet, frail and emotional and filled with love for everything and everyone, but most of all, for me. She was in and out of doctors’ offices and hospital beds for as long as I’d been alive. But she never complained, she never wanted me to feel guilty; instead, she told me how much she loved me and that she wouldn’t change a thing. When she was strong enough to work, she did medical record transcription and digitizing for clinics that hadn’t gone fully online yet. Every Saturday morning she wasn’t in a hospital or working, she’d come here.

So I’d been going to services Saturday mornings, just like she did. I spent the majority of the time daydreaming, but sometimes I’d follow along and imagine my mom whispering in my ear about what a certain mom or dad was saying to their child, about how well a kid was reading the Hebrew prayers, stuff like that. Those were the moments I would feel like she was there, that I could reach out and touch her. Those moments were why I came. But this service was nearly over, and I hadn’t felt one moment like that. Would I ever again?

Rabbi Norman Hirsch stood in front of the open floor-to-ceiling swinging gold doors of Torah Ark with the Bar Mitzvah boy, Josh Harman, giving him a private benediction at the end of the ceremony. I remembered Rabbi Hirsch giving me his benediction for my Bat Mitzvah, telling me how proud of me he was, that I would be a pillar of American and Jewish life, and all that. Mostly I remember reminding myself to keep looking into his eyes and paying attention when all I was really thinking was thank God it’s almost over. I watched the same struggle playing out on Josh’s face.

In between daydreams I spent much of the service looking over at his older brother, who sat on the pulpit with his father and some other family members, maybe grandparents or aunts and uncles. The brother looked kinda familiar to me, but I couldn’t quite remember where I might have seen him. All I was sure of was that he wasn’t a current or former student of Woodbridge High School where I just graduated from.

After closing the Ark doors, the rabbi and Josh faced the congregation and led them in singing Ein Keloheinu, the final hymn of the Bar Mitzvah service. I was a bit taken aback—this normally was sung with joy, but the congregation was clearly not in a joyous mood. I didn’t sing along. I never did.

When the ceremony ended, the relief on Josh’s face was obvious. He’d successfully navigated the ritual that had probably consumed all of his time for the last year or so. He’d survived the study and the preparation and now all that was left was to eat and get presents. Rabbi Hirsch invited everyone to the social hall adjacent to the synagogue to share in the Kiddush prayer over the wine and Challah before the family luncheon. As family and friends rose from their seats to thank the rabbi and congratulate Josh, I kept my seat. I didn’t know the family, and I didn’t want to bug them. Besides, I didn’t talk to anyone anymore.

Well, almost anyone. After congratulating the family, smiling, and shaking hands, Rabbi Hirsch excused his way through the crowd and started walking toward the pews in the back. I glanced up from my lap and offered him a faint, tight-lipped smile. Not very warm, but it was all I could muster.

Rabbi Hirsch approached me and flashed his trademark smile that lit up the wrinkles and cracks in his face. He slid into the seat next to mine. “Hello, Alex. Thank you for coming. I’m glad to see you here again this Saturday morning.”

I nodded. I always liked it when he said that, week after week. He had this manner, this way about him, that it always felt like he truly meant every word he said to you, he wasn’t just being polite. Everything about him—his smile, the wrinkles around his eyes that looked wise and impish at the same time, the gray and white hairs poking out from under his large blue and gold Kippah that covered his entire head like a cap—made me think of him as the kindest, most trustworthy man in the world. I don’t know if all Rabbis were like him, but he meant a lot to me.

And to my mom too—we had no family or close friends, but she always confided in Rabbi Hirsch. She told me that I could too, that I could trust him with anything, although I never really did. I still saw him as my Bar Mitzvah teacher, my rabbi…not my buddy. Before she died, Mom asked him to look after me after she was gone, and he was the only person who made a point to check on me.

“So, how did Josh Harman do?” he asked me.

I shrugged. It was our little joke, that I was some sort of knowledgeable critic. I didn’t even understand Hebrew or know most of what was going on.

“He sounded good to me, like he’d really prepared. His speech was good. But he…everyone seems a bit subdued, you know?”

“I do know,” the rabbi nodded with a quiet sigh.

“It’s because his mom isn’t here, isn’t it?”

“Yes it is,” Rabbi Hirsch confirmed. “And she dearly would have wished to be.”

“Do you know…” I trailed off as both Rabbi Hirsch and I noticed the Bar Mitzvah boy’s older brother walking towards us and turned to face him. I still couldn’t place him.

“Hi Rabbi—thank you,” he said, looking at the rabbi but also looking at me. I averted my eyes. I don’t know why. I just…I didn’t know him, and I didn’t really want to talk to him. Well, I kinda did, which made me feel even more uncomfortable, since I normally didn’t want to talk to anyone, but I didn’t know what to say.

“Thank you for allowing me to share this momentous occasion with your family,” Rabbi Hirsch answered. “Seeing both of you to Bar Mitzvah has been a true joy for me.”

So that’s where I knew him from.

“And I don’t know if you’ve met Alexandra Gold…” the rabbi said, gesturing toward me.

Great. Just great.

“Hi Alexandra, I’m Jacob, but call me Jake,” he smiled. He had a really broad, toothy smile that practically shoved his cheeks off the sides of his skinny head. But it was cute, in an awkward way. Just like the way his narrow frame clearly couldn’t fill out the suit that he was in. I could relate to that, I always felt overdressed wearing my knee-length black skirt and long-sleeve black blouse for services. I’d much rather run around in jeans and a shirt or tanktop. I assumed he’d rather run around like that too.

“Thanks for coming. I know you weren’t dragged here because you’re family or whatever, so I appreciate you taking the time.”

I turned back toward him. That was a sweet thing to say and I could tell he meant it. I didn’t want to be rude, but I had no idea what to say. “Hi Jake…call me Alex. I went to religious school here.”

That’s why you looked familiar!” he said. “Were you in the year right after mine?”

“Maybe two,” I answered haltingly. “I had my Bat Mitzvah five years ago. I just graduated from Woodbridge.”

“Oh, okay,” Jake nodded. “Yeah, my Bar Mitzvah was seven years ago, and I graduated from Irvine High two years ago. But I was young for my grade. I’m still nineteen. You must be eighteen?”

I nodded. I wanted to be nice, but I really didn’t feel like getting drawn into a conversation.

“Look…could I invite you to the Kiddush? Maybe to stay for the party? We have enough food, and I’m sure my dad won’t mind.”

The rabbi turned to me and raised his eyebrows, flashing that grin of his.

I swallowed. I was so not ready to deal with crowds of people I didn’t know. But I hated to seem cold or insulting, especially on his brother’s big day. “I…”

“You could just stay for a little while,” Jake added, his tone not pleading, but clearly eager.

“I have to leave,” I said far more curtly than I meant to. “I mean, I already have plans for this afternoon. But congratulations to your brother. And thanks for saying hi. It was nice to meet you.”

“Oh, okay. Well, thanks again for coming. I should go catch up with my brother. I hope…it would be nice to catch you around.”

I tried to smile back. I don’t think I succeeded.

“I’ll be in the social hall in a moment,” Rabbi Hirsch stood and shook Jake’s hand. “I’m just going to say goodbye to Alex and head right over.”

“Sure,” Jake said. “I’ll let Josh and Dad know.” Before he turned around he leaned his head around the rabbi, smiled one more time and waved his fingers at me.

It was cute. This time I smiled back more successfully.

Rabbi Hirsch sat down next to me again, with a slightly disappointed expression.

“Alex, I really wish you’d reconsider. We can just tell him you called and postponed your appointment this afternoon….”

“I…”

“And Jake is quite a young man, kind and smart…tall and cute too, eh?” Rabbi Hirsch prodded with a knowing grin.

“He’s cute,” I agreed. “But I’m not up to talking to crowds.”

“This isn’t a crowd,” the Rabbi said. “It’s maybe fifty family members and friends.”

“Still, I don’t know them and I’m not up to talking. I’m just not,” I insisted.

“Okay,” Rabbi Hirsch stopped prodding. “So do you have somewhere to be this afternoon?”

I hesitated.

“Well, what are you going to do?”

“I don’t know…”

“Please, Alex, what is your usual Saturday afternoon routine?”

“I guess…I go home. I watch some TV, read, eat. Play video games. Probably surf the web for a while. Maybe watch a movie. Eventually I’ll get tired and go to bed,” I shrugged. It sure sounded empty when I said it that way.

“Alex…” the rabbi shook his head, his expression so sympathetic he looked like he might break into tears. “Have you been seeing the grief counselor I set you up with after your mom’s funeral?”

I shook my head.

“Did you make any follow-up appointments?”

I shook my head again. Rabbi, if you really knew me, you would never have sent me to her in the first place. There’s no way I could talk to her about how I feel, what I’ve lost…or what I am.

Rabbi Hirsch sighed. “Alex, I accept that meeting strangers might be too overwhelming right now. But you have to start changing your routine and rejoining the world. So tonight, please come to my house for dinner.”

“Huh?” I’d heard what he said…I just couldn’t quite believe it.

“I don’t think sitting alone every day in your condo is good for you. You know me, so hopefully that won’t be scary. And I know my foster daughter would love to meet you. She’s younger, twelve, but she also lost her parents about six years ago and I’ve been fostering her ever since. She’s a sweetheart and she could really use some time with someone closer to who she is…to her own age than old, gray me.”

“It’s…thank you but…”

“Please,” Rabbi Hirsch almost pleaded. “You need the company. We need the company. And I’m betting you haven’t been eating very well, either. You could use a home-cooked meal.”

He had me there. I’d been eating canned and frozen food, spaghetti, and anything I could make simply and easily, with the occasional walk to a fast food restaurant for a chicken burger, fries, and iced tea.

“Okay,” I sighed heavily.

“Excellent,” the rabbi smiled. “Can I give you a ride?”

“Thanks, but I can walk,” I said.

“Okay,” he said. Rabbi Hirsch pushed his Tallis aside and fished his phone out from the inside pocket of his jacket and typed up a quick message. “I’ve just emailed you my address,” he told me as he replaced his phone. “Seven O’clock?”

“Sure.”

“Thank you, Alex. I know you’d rather not do this, which makes me even more grateful that you are.”

I nodded. Both the rabbi and I rose to our feet.

“I’m looking forward to seeing you tonight,” he said as he turned to go.

“Thanks for the invite. One quick question before I go. What’s the deal with Josh and Jake’s mom?”

“It’s very sad,” the rabbi answered softly. “About six months ago she went missing and is presumed dead.”

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