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Digging

BY ISABEL DEBRE

Recipient of the 2014 Adroit Prize for Prose
Judge: Wendy Rawlings

 

          In the first hot month of the fall she left her mother for college (the fall her mother left her, the fall her mother sold their apartment on the Upper West Side and moved to Jerusalem), Lauren rediscovered Keats. She had Romantic Poetry and the Sense of History on Wednesday mornings. Keats was writing love letters to Fanny Brawne. I have a sensation at the present moment as though I were dissolving…

          The class was uncomfortably far from the archeology department and populated with strangers who used miniature bookstands to flip through their Penguin collections, but it reminded her of Mom. If she let the professor fade just a bit into the warm, airless lecture hall, she could remember her mother’s asthma rasp, her burlap voice reciting sonnets in bed. If she closed her eyes, she could picture the first time she met Keats, age eight, sitting with Mom in the Vegas airport. They had seen blue men and inhaled too much of other people’s smoke. Dad was at the Delta desk, asking the man to upgrade them to first class because one of his deals came through. Lauren was eating tempura that would later make her sick, waiting to fly home. She asked her mother if she liked Vegas. Deborah looked very straight ahead at nothing in particular. She pulled out a picture of their hotel’s Eiffel Tower. “It’s not true,” she said.

          “Obviously,” Lauren said, “It’s bigger in Paris.”

          Her mother grabbed her shoulders, hoisting her up so she was staring inside her. “If you remember one thing,” her grip tightened. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That’s all you need to know.” She released her, and walked to the window. Sipping her Cuba Libre, she looked out at the tarmac.

***

          Lauren took the train to the city and there he was, waiting at their usual booth in Meg’s Diner. He brought his new girlfriend, Beatrice, who was wearing aerobics clothes and looked at Dad disapprovingly when he ordered large steaks for the table. When Beatrice left to “freshen up,” Dad leaned in close. “So what do you think?” he whispered, “About Bee?”

          “She smells like baby powder,” Lauren said, and then, “Have you heard from Mom?” so he wouldn’t get carried away.

          His large hands opened and closed, like how they did when his clients forgot their payments. “That’s why I needed to see you. Her brother called for the first time. Her ‘spiritual guide’ or whatever, Rover?”

          “Reuven.”

          “He said Mom’s health is…” Dad trailed off, focused out the window at the neon streaks of light.

          “Is what?” she pulled his arm. “Is what?”

          “Nothing but postcards for years and then this…” The waitress asked if he wanted chili fries and he shook his head. “I’m getting better. Bee’s a good influence.”

          “About Mom?”

          A bus was shifting gears outside and he raised his voice. “Honey, your mom’s O.K., don’t worry about your mom.”

          “But what’s the matter with her?”

          “Nothing on God’s earth, Lauren, that’s what I’m telling you. Here she comes, we’re talking about poodles.” Dad cleared his throat, slid over on the booth. “I’ve been telling Lauren about your little poodle, Bee.”

***

          A few days later the dreams began. Sometimes she was in Jerusalem, kissing a man with a furry hat and long sideburns. Sometimes she was alone, crossing the street from a motel to a supermarket. Other times she was with her mother, who kept raising her hand to shield her eyes from the sunlight. Always she was in a desert town, a vacant intersection, some dead center of the world. Fighting for consciousness, she wondered how Keats and Wordsworth felt about the desert. No woods or cottages or mountain springs to enchant them. Hot wind, palm trees, sullen valleys—would Keats still proclaim, the poetry of the earth is never dead?

          In Dr. Michelson’s office, Lauren talked mostly about the dreams. Dr. Michelson wore two cardigans, one on top of the other. He said, “Your mother has left a hole, a void…like, a hyphen.”

          “You should’ve been a poet,” Lauren muttered, looking at the ground. On principle, she never looked straight at him.

          Her dad came down for Wesleyan’s Family Weekend. She told him about the fieldwork in Ashkelon, Israel. She could excavate over the summer with real professionals in a real Crusader period city. Or maybe it was Canaanite, or Caliphate. On the way, she could stop in Jerusalem. For her, it had become a matter of necessity. A matter of disappearance, of the Keats line: pass into nothingness. She waited for her dad’s wince, for the pain lines to appear on his forehead. But he just nodded slowly.

          “It would be better to go now,” he said in a neutral voice. “Forget the dig. I’ll pay. You need to see her, sooner rather than…” He squeezed her shoulder.

***

          Lauren spent the ten-hour flight next to a man with braided sideburns, sort of like the one in her dream, but older. She couldn’t fall asleep because he kept murmuring to himself, rocking back and forth, a large black book spread over his thighs. When the plane descended his voice grew louder, stopping, starting, like jazz, an improvised rhythm. She tried to focus on the landing, on conversation topics, like what would come after “hi, mom?” or “Hello, Mother?” or “Deborah?” but all the questions consumed her. The plane rattled on the runway.

          A man opened the door looking panicked, but not surprised. “Where’s Mark? Is your father coming?” he asked. His hair was pure white, which made him seem very old until she noticed his ruddy, boyish face. A single braid hung like a tail against his back.

          “Well, Dad wasn’t in the mood, you have to be in a mood to see your ex-wife, also he has this new girlfriend and they’re probably doing sunrise yoga in Central Park…easier than meeting conservative Jews…no offense.”

          “Nervous?” Reuven asked, eying her like Dr. Michelson.

          Lauren forced a grin. “Can I come in?”

          When Lauren was in middle school she spent countless family vacations in the Pacific Northwest. Her mother had always liked views, and would hike long distances for them. Lauren didn’t care much for the shape landscapes took from great heights, but loved the feeling of open space, shiny emptiness, visible heat or breath. Mom said, “Let’s get a feel for the path,” and they started slow, got fast, faster until they were racing up the receding trail. Dad followed behind, moving as though he were puttering around in his slippers, wandering absently toward the cliff’s edge. “Come on, sleepwalker!” her mother called. On each hike, she and Lauren played a different game. On Mount Renton they imitated catbird noises, and critiqued each other’s sounds: “too tuneless,” “more rasp,” “less mechanical.” On Mount Constitution they played the “death game,” increasing the speed of possible death-causes with each switchback: “death by drought,” “death by water,” “death by marriage.” On Mount Hillsboro, they made up walking poems (Lauren’s favorite), always Romantic, never subtle, trading off lines: “it is November once again,” “dust settles on apple trees,” “are we there yet.” Sometimes, to keep their steps in sync, they hooked their fanny packs together with a clip.

          Lauren knew it when she saw Reuven’s face. It was blank as a notebook—no sadness, no smile. He didn’t speak.

          Her mother wasn’t in his kitchen with the premature menorahs, or in his backyard with the arm-length pool. The stillness of the air seemed to rob everything of its perspective. There were uncorked wine bottles cluttering the coffee table, daisies on the bathroom wall, bookcases with unpronounceable titles like Der Tilim Yid and big heavy books on the bottom shelf like The Routledge Encyclopedia of 20th Century Jewish Authors. Usually, wine and daisies and books—those little details, those crowded rooms—made Lauren feel warm, like climbing under an afghan. But this house seemed drained, hollow, as though it was folding into itself like skin.

          “Cancer,” Reuven said across the tiny kitchen table. He didn’t choke or stumble. “It was cancer,” he said.

          She looked straight at him. She was thankful for that word—cancer—so clean, so contained compared to her father’s vague mumblings and puffy eyes. There it was, laid out like a surgical knife on a plate. It didn’t blur, that hard c.

          “Where?” It was the only question that occurred to her, more important than when or how or why. She needed to locate its slippery convolutions.

          He looked at the Turkish coffee in his cup—darkness splattered in the shape of camels. “Pancreas. Doctors call it the ‘silent disease.’” He pushed a bowl of hummus toward her. She swiped it with a carrot, and bit down, imagining the chickpea molecules loosen, separate one by one.

          “She didn’t want you to know, to worry, but I told your father anyway. I told him it was serious. I really did.” Lauren wondered who first correlated eating with dying. She lost count of how many carrots. At funerals there was always too much food. She remembered the bread pudding wrapped in aluminum foil friends sent to their house after her grandmother died. She and her parents had hunched over the counter with their forks, filling something immense, letting crumbs fall. “So sudden,” Reuven said, staring through and beyond, way beyond, the cracked ceiling.

          Lauren—I know this must be hard for you, as it is for me. I also know this is not the first time she left us. I’ve let go. Remember her as you knew her. Breathe… (I’m discovering Buddhism with Bee. I’ll teach you how to breathe like Buddhists one day. They say it’s soothing, you know, for the soul.)

          In her email inbox, he left a note without a subject. When Dad didn’t write a subject, it meant he was thinking about it for too long and gave up. She imagined him typing and retyping and deciding on emptiness.

          Reuven and Lauren talked easily, because she was curious about the suicide bombings, all the wars and walls. She let him distract her. They drove through the desert, Reuven’s eyes on the highway and foot hard on the accelerator. Lauren tried not to think too much or else the aches started again. She stared out the window at the barbed wire curving through the desert.

          “Even the grandsons of their grandsons will call themselves refugees,” Reuven said, his finger pulsing up and down in a violent rhythm. “I’m telling you, if they all come back here—” he opened his window to wave toward a settlement of flat roofs. Arabs. The wind was hot against her skin, and she could feel the dust creeping through the door cracks. “It will be the death of the Jewish state.” He twirled his long gray beard between his fingers.

          Lauren imagined his big family grabbing dinner rolls from a Lazy Susan, Reuven throwing a football in the backyard, his son missing it, Reuven comforting his son with firm yet sympathetic pats on the back. She remembered her mother’s old photo albums—birthdays blowing out candles and fat baby arms. It occurred to her: “I don’t want to go to Western Wall.”

          “Oh, sure you do. Just wait, it’s incredible. You’ll see thousands of worshippers, Hasidic Jews—”

          “You know Keats wasn’t religious? She told me that. She said Keats shuddered at the thought of martyrs.”

          Reuven leaned forward, elbows over the steering wheel. He closed his eyes for a moment longer than a driver should. Then he nodded, changing lanes.

***

          He drove her to Mom’s favorite café, Olive & Fish, where she liked to write. He drove her to the synagogue, where she had prayed and read Torah. He patted the small of Lauren’s back, saying, “Call me when you’re ready, kid.”

          Lauren took deep breaths. In, out, and again. Very Buddhist, according to her father. She wondered if she could trace her, know her, remake her.

          When Reuven left to pick up his kids, she stayed behind in the sweet mildew of the temple basement or used bookstore. She slumped against the carpeted wall and remembered when she turned fourteen, those last three years at home. Lauren had her private theories about her mother’s midlife crisis, limited to the possible, probable. She wasn’t the type to think Oswald was a KGB agent. Maybe, most likely, the divorce and its preamble set it all off, her father, a Christian, always asking, “Do you want a divorce?” Her mother shaking her head with difficulty, like a stroke patient. Or maybe it was some strange, hormonal glitch, the way Lauren’s breasts started growing when her mother’s veins started showing. Their cycles colliding, menstruation, menopause, the ms like the crests of hurricanes.

          Distance was mutual, palpable. Hiking trips petered out and then stopped. Her mother started talking about God, the “incorporeal.” Reuven, Lauren’s uncle who she had never met, called more often and Deborah took the phone into the laundry room.

          Deborah’s history surfaced during dinner as trivia: “Did you know I was raised a conservative Jew in Jerusalem?” “Did you know my whole family lives thousands of miles away?” Lauren knew, nodded, faced the wall. “I was always a purist,” she told Lauren, “in life.” Her conversations with Reuven grew longer, as did her skirts. She joined a temple and Yeshiva University. She said, “I’m embarking on a journey,” and “It’s time I go back,” not in those exact words but something equally epic, as though she was a lost Odysseus battling dangerous seas to reach home—as though her whole life with Lauren and Mark was a distraction, the Sirens.

          Her last day in Jerusalem Reuven insisted they hike Masada. The Dead Mountain—seven miles of dust. The air was dry, in the aftermath of wind, so clear that she could see the ploughed furrows in the distance.

          “Almost there,” he panted, and clung to her shoulder.

          The heat stuck. Sweat dribbled down Lauren’s chin. “How is this worth a view of sand?”

          He didn’t respond. He also hadn’t talked about Palestine for the entire hike and it was making Lauren nervous. After a week she was used to the spittle collecting in the corners of his mouth, his baritone laughs, his hand cutting through the air, knuckles turning white against the steering wheel. But today he was tired, walking as if still in a sound sleep. Every so often he would say, “You doing ok?” his voice soft, almost motherly.

          They curved around a switchback, and then stepped, arms intertwined, onto a massive rock. “There,” Reuven said, waving all around. They were surrounded. Sand and air gleamed and moved, like white birds feathering-out. Shadows flickered across a ribboned, caramelized sky. Hills sprawled from the mountaintop, tumbling into the Dead Sea. The sun, a low-flame heat, spanned everything. Lauren couldn’t see the walls that separated Arabs from Israelis, or even the horizon; water and sand blended, blurred like an old woman rambling, or spilling coffee.

          Reuven touched her hand, and led her to a tower of ancient-looking rock in the middle of the plateau. It seemed foreign, out of place, capped with bright, living grass and with a small tree growing out of a crack. But there it was. This surprise, this careless challenge in the ordinary landscape. She felt it rip through her—a physical chill—like when, armpits damp, heart pounding, she found an oil lamp on her first desert dig.

          Lauren looked closer. There were letters carved into the rock’s skin: In Loving Memory of Deborah Jenkins. She stepped back, looked for Hebrew letters or a Hebrew name or something she couldn’t understand, but there it was. There she was, the rock saying: Beauty is truth, truth beauty.

          Still holding Reuven’s arm, Lauren closed her eyes. She squinted hard, so she could see the red of her own eyelids, the stone words being etched not in this place but in all places, like light in water. In the silence, she could almost feel her breathing. She could almost feel her own mother inhaling poems, holy text—maybe it was all the same.

 

“I appreciated and admired ‘Digging’ for DeBre’s compressed and affecting portrait of a family and its dissolution, as well as its pacing and selection of telling detail.”
Wendy Rawlings, 2014 Prize Judge

 

Transient

Isabel DeBre is an undergraduate student at Brown University from Los Angeles. Her short fiction and poetry have been published in Hanging Loose, Polyphony H.S., BRICKrhetoric, and the Young Writers Racing Toward Dawn anthology. She has been named a 2014 YoungArts Finalist for Short Story, and has received a Scholastic Art & Writing Awards Gold Key and the Renee Duke Youth Award from Poets for Human Rights.