Fiction – “The Seder Guest” by Barbara Krasnoff
Sadie considered herself a modern woman. To begin with, she was a real working woman – she’d spent at least part of her day for the past 25 years doing the accounts for her husband Mel’s candy store. She didn’t sit around like her neighbors and play mah jongg and gossip about the latest fashions worn by the new President’s wife. (“Jackie Kennedy? Who is she, and why should I care what some skinny New England shiksa is wearing?” Sadie would shrug. “I got better things to do with my life.”) She even supported her daughter’s determination to get into medical school, although she secretly thought that Julie was pounding her head against a very hard wall.
However, even Sadie was taken aback when Julie’s latest letter arrived from college. After she read it three times, she crumpled it up in her fist, sat on the couch staring at the wall for five minutes, and then ran to the oven, banged on the gas pipe next to it a couple of times, and opened it up.
“Yeah?” said a muffled voice.
“Get up here,” she yelled. “I got a crisis on my hands.”
Debra was a large, calm woman who lived (with three kids, a husband, an out-of-work brother, and two cats) in the two-bedroom apartment directly under Sadie’s. She was sitting at Sadie’s kitchen table ten minutes later, waiting patiently while Sadie made the tea and put some Oreos on a plate.
“It’s my Julie,” Sadie finally said, sitting and pouring some sugar into her tea. “She writes that she’s bringing her fiancé to the Passover seder.” Sadie shook her head, trying to keep calm. “Her fiancé? She’s hardly known the boy six months, and they’re already engaged? What about her education? What about medical school?”
Debra, who had married at 17 and had two children by the time she was 22, wasn’t particularly taken aback. “So she’ll continue her education after the children,” she said reassuringly. “That’s what I did. What’s the problem?”
“I’d hardly call some classes in modern art continuing your education,” Sadie countered. “Anyway, she’s always wanted to be a doctor. It’ll be hard enough for her to get into medical school as it is; what will she do with a husband and babies to take care of?”
There was a pause. “Did Julie write anything about that?” Debra finally asked.
Sadie sighed and pushed her hand through her hair. It felt a bit stiff; too much hair spray again. “She wrote that this boy told her that he fully supported her intention to become a doctor. In fact, he promised to help pay her way through medical school.”
“Uh-huh.” The two women each reached for an Oreo as they briefly considered the unreliability of men’s promises.
“What does he do? Also a student?”
“He’s some kind of forest ranger or zookeeper or something. Spends a lot of time outdoors. But what does it matter? Even if he’s a nice boy, he’s not going to want to support a wife who’s going to eventually make more money than him. It’s a disaster any way you look at it.”
“At least he’s got a job. That’s more than a lot of boys do nowadays.”
“Debra, listen.” Sadie sighed. “I don’t think this boy is even Jewish. He’s from some kind of weird background – a Satanist, I think she said. Or Stalinist. I’m not sure.”
“So let me see the letter.”
Sadie colored slightly. “I can’t. I…uh…I threw it out.” When her friend stared at her, she added, defensively, “I took it out of the garbage after, but it was under the coffee grounds.”
“Oy, Sadie.” Her friend shook her head. “Look – don’t worry. It’ll work out. You remember that jerk that you were dating, back before the war? That soldier from Georgia? You were going to run away and marry him, and nothing anybody could say would stop you. And what happened? Two months later he was with a blonde from Jackson Heights, and you had already met Mel. So stop worrying about your daughter. She’s got brains; she’ll be fine.”
Later, Sadie thought about the conversation. Debra always made sense, and it wasn’t as there wasn’t enough to worry about already. Her sister was coming to this year’s Passover seder with her new husband, the ex-Communist – at least, he said he was an ex-Communist. Mel’s brother, the Republican, was also coming. Sadie fully expected hostilities to break out just after the first glass of wine. When her brother-in- law’s youngest recited, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Sadie would probably be able to answer “Because on this night, the Cold War will be fought in Sadie and Mel’s dining room.”
Unless, she considered, she saved the news about Julie’s non-Jewish woodcutter fiancé until they all sat down. That would make things really exciting.
Maybe she would simply convert. Christmas couldn’t be as bad as this.
The next day, Sadie called her daughter at school in Massachusetts. Julie was living off-campus with two other girls in a large apartment on the top floor of a house that should have been condemned years ago. Sadie had seen the place when she and Mel drove their daughter up last September for her senior year in college; she had been so upset by the state of the place that she had gone back downstairs to sit in the car and smoke a cigarette. She had known that, as soon as he smelled the smoke, Mel would yell at her, but she didn’t care. She had needed the nicotine.
Someone picked up the phone. “Hello?”
It was one of her daughter’s roommates; the blonde one who sounded like a piccolo on a bad day. “This is Mrs. Gelderman. Is Julie there?”
“Just a minute.” The girl put down the phone, then screamed in the background, “Julie! It’s your mom!”
Several indistinct sounds, and then her daughter’s voice. “Hi, Mom.” Cautious.
Sadie took a breath. Julie was a sensible girl. Had a bit of a temper, true (she got that from her grandmother), and a real mind of her own, but she wasn’t the kind of young woman who fell for somebody because he had nice hair or could strum a guitar. “Honey, listen, I was talking to Debra the other day, and I couldn’t remember. That boy you’re bringing to the seder…What’s his name…”
“Dorian. Did you say he was a Stalinist? The reason I asked is because your uncle Phil is going to be there, and you know how he feels about…”
“Ma-a.” Whenever Julie got impatient, the word took on two syllables. “He’s not a Stalinist. He’s a satyr.”
“A what? Honey, I’m not hearing you well.”
“A satyr, Mom. S-A-T-Y-R. It was in the letter.”
“Maybe it was. And maybe, with your handwriting, I could hardly make out every other word. And so what is a satyr? Some kind of new religion?”
There was a pause. Sadie chewed her lip – if that boy was the member of some strange religious cult, God forbid, then she would get Mel and they’d drive to that school tonight. She’d tie up the girl and send her to some school overseas rather…
“No, Mom. It’s not a religion. Not really. It’s sort of, well…” Julie swallowed audibly, and then said. “It’s like a culture.”
“Not a religion. A nationality?”
“Well, sort of.”
“From what country?”
Another pause. “Well, originally Greece, I think. But…well, not for a long time. They were sort of kicked out.”
Okay, this Sadie could understand. How could she not? “Like the Armenians?” she asked.
“Um… I guess.”
“Well, all right,” she said. Now she understood. Her daughter had a real social conscience, and a boy from an oppressed immigrant family would, of course, attract her. So, Sadie decided, they’d have the boy over, be nice to him, Julie would go back to school and eventually find other interests. “You just bring the poor boy along. He can sleep on the couch if he doesn’t have anyplace else to stay. Oh, and honey – are there any foods that he can’t eat?” She knew that a lot of these kids today had crazy diets, vegetarian or everything sprouts.
“No mom,” and there was relief and amusement in her voice. “No special diet.”
The rest of the week, Sadie alternately worried about the seder menu, whether the ex-Communist was being followed by any FBI men (and whether it was polite to feed them if they did show up), and what Julie’s new boyfriend would be like. Would he get along with the family? Would he get into an argument with Mel’s fascist brother? And what about the seder? What would he think?
Things got even worse as the holiday approached. Sadie had grown up in the kind of household where kosher meant you didn’t use the Italian butcher down the block, but if the kids wanted some milk with their chicken, nobody cared. Now, she found herself staring at the half loaf of white bread sitting in the fridge and wondering if she should get rid of it. After all, it was Passover, and there shouldn’t be bread in the house. But to throw out good food…
When she started pulling up the shelving paper to check for crumbs, Mel finally exploded. “For God’s sake, Sadie,” he yelled, throwing down his paper and advancing on her as she frantically brushed out the cupboard. “Since when did you give a shit about what other people thought? Especially some college kid? Your sister and her husband probably eat bacon and eggs every Sunday, your daughter goes out dancing on Friday nights, and you haven’t talked to my brother ever since the son of a bitch voted for Nixon. So who the hell are you cleaning for? Your daughter’s goyishe boyfriend? You want to impress him with how Jewish we are?”
Sadie stopped and stared at her husband. He was right. He was absolutely right. She had worked herself up into a lather over nothing. A seder. A dinner. What could happen? It would be like every year – the family would go through the motions of the ceremony, argue about politics, eat and drink and yell and have a good time. What was she worried about? She stepped down from the kitchen chair she’d been standing on, threw the sponge into the sink, and gave her astonished husband a loud kiss on the forehead. “Hell with it,” she declared. “Let’s go to a movie.”
The day of the seder was a bit chilly, but clear and sunny. Although she had stopped worrying whether her home was absolutely clean of breadstuffs, that didn’t mean that Sadie didn’t have her pride. Now, she looked around the apartment with pleasure and a real sense of accomplishment.
The place was clean – not a speck of dust to be found. The dining room table had been extended to its full length and pulled into the living room. The good linen and china had been carefully set out, along with the wine glasses that Sadie’s mother had brought from Russia. The Maxwell House Haggadahs – the traditional booklets that were given out free each year in the local supermarket – were placed carefully besides each place setting, and the seder plate, with its ceremonial foods, was besides Mel’s place at the head of the table. Everything looked perfect.
A rattling at the doorknob announced her daughter’s entry. “Hi!” Julie yelled, throwing her coat in the general direction of the closet and dropping her suitcase on the floor. She ran in, gave Mel, who was staring wistfully at the television set (Sadie had declared Passover a no-TV holiday) an affectionate hug, and then, as Sadie came in wiping her hands on a towel, said anxiously, “Dorian is parking the car. You will be nice to him, won’t you? Please?”
“Of course I’ll be nice to him,” Sadie said, with a dismissive wave of her hand. “Who said I wouldn’t be nice to him? Mel, have I said anything against the boy?”
Mel gave the television one last affectionate pat, and said, “You keep me out of this. I’m going to see if I can find the yarmulkes from the Finebergs’ bar mitzvah, in case anyone decides they want one,” and escaped to the bedroom.
Sadie and her daughter examined each other. Suddenly, despite Julie’s jeans and short curly red hair, Sadie saw her own mother in the tight mouth and determined eyes, and for a moment, she felt sad and rather old. She touched her daughter’s cheek and said quietly, “Really, honey. It’s okay. I’ll be nice to the boy. I promise.”
“Okay, then.” Julie visibly relaxed. She went back to the door and grabbed her coat and suitcase. “I’ll put these in my bedroom. I told Dorian he’d have the couch. I’ll just be a minute – we’ve been on the road for hours, and I’ve got to use the bathroom.”
She ran down the hall, while Sadie looked after her. So she was going to meet this boy, finally. This Dorian. This… um… satyr.
The doorbell rang. Sadie took a deep breath. “You will be nice to him,” she told herself sternly. “He’s probably a very nice boy.” She went to the door, realized she was still holding the dish towel, took a moment to drop it into the umbrella stand, ran a quick hand over her hair, and opened the door.
He had a round, pleasant face and a smile that had something slightly mischievous in it. “How do you do, Mrs. Gelderman,” he said, with a slight, unidentifiable accent. “I’m very glad to meet you.”
His hair was brown, curly, and just a little too long. From the waist up, he was thin enough so that Sadie instantly determined that he was getting two helpings of the potato kugel. From the waist down he was …furry.
Sadie stared at him – at all of him – and realized two things.
First, that while she had been concerned about what satyrs ate, she hadn’t given much thought to what satyrs wore – or, rather, didn’t wear. The boy didn’t have a stitch on him.
And second – that it was all going to be all right.
She greeted him graciously, showed him to the living room, and bestowed a glowing smile on her amazed daughter (“Honey, it might be a good idea if he wore your father’s good bathrobe – just for the dinner,” she whispered). Then she excused herself for a moment, ran into the bedroom, and threw her arms around her husband.
“He’s perfect!” she said triumphantly. “He’s nice looking, he’s polite, he’s got a job, and best of all, he’s Jewish!”
About the Author
Barbara Krasnoff divides her time between writing short speculative fiction and editing tech as Features & Reviews Editor for Computerworld. She is a member of the NYC writers group Tabula Rasa, and lives in Brooklyn, NY with her partner Jim Freund.
Her most recent publications include stories in Space and Time Magazine, Electric Velocipede, Apex Magazine, Sybil’s Garage, Behind the Wainscot, and the anthologies Descended From Darkness: Apex Magazine Vol I and Clockwork Phoenix 2. Her Web site can be found at BrooklynWriter.com.