The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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I am standing at the bay window in our living room, watching my son walk down the street. I am Nathan Gold, son of Morris, father of Jeffrey. I am Nathan, son of Rose, husband of Jacqueline, father of Jeffrey. I am fifth on the singles ladder at the Racquet Club. I am Nathan Gold, who has been challenged by Sidney Zucker, number six on the ladder. Zucker has been taking hour-long private lessons three times each week since April. It is now July, and he has honed his serve, his forehand, his backhand, his approach shot, his net game, and probably his overhead. He is determined to master the game, which he started playing only a year ago; determined to beat me, a player for the past twenty years. In his determination he reminds me of my son, Jeffrey. And so I am Nathan Gold, soon to be sixth on the singles ladder at the Racquet Club, unless Zucker happens to meet with sudden, unforeseen misfortune, a possibility which, I am ashamed to admit, has become the fabric of my unguarded fantasies. Even a minor sprain would be sufficient, would buy time for me to improve in some small way, perhaps to build my stamina by jogging, which I have been considering for years.
The thing with Zucker is, you can’t underestimate him. I have driven by the club on my way home from work, at that time of evening when in summer you can smell dinner cooking on back-yard grills, and I have seen Zucker, alone, practicing his serves, serving into the thickening air.
Jackie is number one on the women’s singles ladder. Tennis is a skill she works at, but with enjoyment and a sort of easy confidence. She is not obsessed with the game, not by any means, and perhaps that is where Jeffrey gets it from, gets his resolve, his willingness to master new and difficult things, his ability to do what he wants to do. Jackie knows going into a match that she will do her best, but when she loses that’s that, it’s over, there is no manic, Zucker-like scramble to get and stay on top.
I am on guard, ready to sidestep should Jeffrey look back and see me standing here. If he turns I will alter my position: I am not watching my son, who became a man while I wasn’t looking, I am not watching him walk down the street; no, I am standing here next to a fern that hangs from a ceiling hook, I am watering the plant, or singing to it, or removing what has withered. Jeffrey is walking down the street, walking neither too slow nor too fast, just walking, exactly right, a comfortable walk. I press my hands to the glass, palms flat. It feels warm, and I leave two crooked, blurred hand prints.
When he was about fifteen, Jeffrey decided he wanted to be a poet. He would go outside in the rain, winter or summer, in only jeans and a thin T-shirt, with no raincoat, no umbrella, to “gather material.” Then he would come inside, go straight to his room, and write a poem. “Anything for art,” Jackie would say, while I worried that he would catch pneumonia. I have to admit, I never understood his poems. But if he had become a poet, OK, that would have been fine. I never thought he would be like me, an accountant in New Jersey, punching calculator keys. No one thinks his children are ordinary, but, above and beyond a father’s bias, I always thought Jeffrey had something special. I thought, Why not? Maybe head of a company, maybe a governor, who knows? I once told Jackie this and she laughed and said, “Nate, let him grow up first.”
Well, he has grown up; he is home for the weekend, visiting from New York City, where he lives and studies; and he is walking down the street to synagogue, to pray, the way my father used to. Rabbis pray, as do rabbis in training. I have never asked Jeffrey what he prays for, and I don’t know whether he would tell me. You have to leave your children alone, let them become themselves.
But listen to this. In January, Zucker’s wife gave birth to a son, their first child, after ten years of trying. Within a week, the lettering on the front of Zucker’s insurance agency had been changed to “Zucker and Sons Insurance.” Not even the singular — for one son, which is all he has at the moment — but the plural. That’s the kind of man he is, the kind of confidence he has. He will have another son; his sons will avoid speeding cars, incurable illnesses, and the lure of other professions; his sons will go into business with him.
I always thought I’d go into business with my father, who owned a mattress factory, but he sold it while I was in college. “It’s a terrible life,” he said. “Terrible. Not what I want for you.” That it was what I had envisioned for myself made no difference. My father spent his life working day and night, like a man possessed, ignoring his wife and son, to create a better life for us. He used to walk alone to synagogue on Friday nights, and I would sit on the stoop of our apartment building and watch him walk away. He walked slowly, his shoulders and eyes tilted down. I used to imagine that one day I would be old enough to walk with him. But his customs, his beliefs — he kept those to himself. Perhaps he thought that his ways, the ways of his father, of his grandfathers, had no place in this new land. At any rate, he did not pass them down. He let them die, never dreaming they would be reborn.
Now I stand at the window, surrounded by the green of plants that Jackie cares for, and actually does sing to, when she thinks I’m not listening. Several fronds from the fern are rubbing against my neck, and I feel like a small child again. I wish, more than anything, that my father were still alive, so that he and Jeffrey could walk together. No, I wish that he were alive and the three of us were outside on this warm July evening, as the sun prepares to set, walking side by side down the sidewalk to synagogue, admiring the homes and lawns along the way, our stomachs full of the dinner Jackie has just fed us. But sidewalks aren’t wide enough for three people, and I wish that I could just have my fantasy — the three of us walking, going to pray, knowing what to pray for, walking side by side — but I can’t, my brain has to interrupt and remind me about the width of sidewalks.
My father would be proud of Jeffrey, I’m sure of it. A grandson who is a rabbi! A rabbi for a grandson! Yes, he would be proud, as I am — I am as proud as a father could possibly be. So why, as I watch Jeffrey walking, do I feel like punching both my hands through the heavy glass of the bay window? That would do no good. It would rip my hands to shreds, so that any slight chance I might have of beating Zucker would be gone entirely, and it would upset Jackie.
As it is, she is patting me on the back and talking to me softly. “He’s all grown up now,” she says. “He’s gone.”
“I should have talked to him more,” I say. I can no longer see Jeffrey; my view is blocked by trees. I turn from the window and put my arms around Jackie. I am not a religious man — touching my wife is the closest I have come to feeling anything like holiness. But she doesn’t relax against me.
“Come on,” she says. “There’s still light. Get your racquet. We’ll go to the club. We’ll work on your backhand.”
So we do, and as she hits backhands to me I think about last Saturday, when I told her I was going to the club but instead went to a synagogue across town, one I had never been to; it was the first time I had set foot in any synagogue in years. I stayed for the service, and afterward I introduced myself to the rabbi, who was young — too young, I thought — with red hair and freckles, and not my idea of what a wise man should look like. I thought this rabbi looked as if he should have been outside, running around and enjoying the beautiful day, but since he wasn’t, I asked my question. What did God mean, I asked, telling Abraham to bring Isaac up that mountain to kill him? And why did Abraham listen? He almost killed his own son. What is that supposed to mean?
The rabbi said it was a good question, that there were many possible answers, and one was that God was testing Abraham, testing his faith. That was some test, I thought. But I don’t know. I like to think that God was reminding Abraham that Isaac, though his son, wasn’t his. He wasn’t Abraham’s to own, not even for a while. Isaac was more like a gift, but not even that. He was a gift on loan.