The Family Tabor

Cherise Wolas

July 9, 2018 
The following is from Cherise Wolas' novel, The Family Tabor. Set over the course of a single weekend, and alternating between members of the Tabor family, the novel reckons with the nature of the stories we tell ourselves and our family and the price we pay for second chances. Wolas' first novel, The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, was a semifinalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Debut Fiction Prize.

Tomorrow evening, Harry Tabor will be anointed Man of the Decade.

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If this were the 1300s, he would be running for his life to escape savage pogroms in France, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, or Bohemia.

If this were the 1800s, in Imperial Russia, he would be running for his life to escape savage pogroms in Odessa, in Warsaw, in Kishinev, in Kiev, in Bialystok, or in Lviv.

If this were the early 1940s, in Nazi-occupied Europe, he would be running for his life, the garish yellow Star of David on his chest, Jew centered in mock Hebraic, a target to be captured and deported to a savage camp to join the millions of dead going up in smoke.

It is only by a godsend that it is none of those times and none of those places, although those events, in those places, at those times, certainly clarified how one was considered by others.

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Instead, it is late in the second decade of the twenty-first century, in Palm Springs, California, and on this scorching mid-August Friday night, Harry Tabor is reveling in the truth of what’s coming. Man of the Decade is the desert city’s exceptional honor, lofting high the special few who devotedly enrich the lives of others in astounding and uncommon ways. As Harry has been doing for thirty years, manifesting futures of promise and hope for the persecuted, the lost, and the luckless.

In March, when he received the lavish hand-delivered announcement inviting him to ascend into the very select group—only twelve such ascensions since the award’s institution—he was hesitant about accepting, and had thought: Why me?

But now, as he embraces Roma, the love of his life and his wife of forty-four years, he thinks: Why not me? He commands immense respect and admiration as the highly successful head of his humanitarian enterprises, a man who effects miracles, trusting in the honey of bees, not the sting, to make those miracles happen. He shepherds all those he resettles here, thousands now, and looks after them lovingly, with care and pride.

“When he draws the drapes, he catches his reflection. He does look like an emperor, and he feels like one, too, a happy emperor, a pleased potentate, a benevolent monarch.”

And indeed, this moment, sheet thrown off, bodies damp, souls replenished by their Friday night union, Harry realizes there will never be a better time for this felicitous event, this proffering of esteem, this celebration of him, to which, apparently, eight hundred have confirmed their attendance. How wonderful that it has come now, when he has just begun dipping toes into the spotlight, and while he has not yet lost his hair or his teeth or his height or his hearing or his eyesight, and any notion of him shuffling off this mortal coil is far, far in the future. So far in the future, it bears absolutely no current consideration. In fact, he will not, this night, consider such an eventuality at all.

He runs a hand softly down his wife’s back and says, “You’re as lovely now as you were at twenty-four when we wed.”

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Harry says these words often to Roma, and always on Friday nights, for he still sees her as the bride she once was. And every Friday night, Roma says, “And you have matured into an emperor, my love. Enjoy your solitary hour.”

Which is what she says now, smiling up at him before cloaking herself with the sheet and duvet. She is instantly asleep in the ceiling fan breeze, the blades’ whirring a noise she seems never to notice.

Harry rises then for a quick shower. Under the spray, inside his head, Leonard Cohen is singing, Hineni, hineni. All afternoon he listened to that song in his office, its dark exultation curiously increasing his own elation. Here I am, here I am, he thinks as he dries off and dons the caftan Roma insisted they buy him long ago in Morocco.

When he draws the drapes, he catches his reflection. He does look like an emperor, and he feels like one, too, a happy emperor, a pleased potentate, a benevolent monarch.

Slipping out of their bedroom, he follows the path Roma leaves for him through the house, overheads reduced to small lighted circles, electric breadcrumbs by which she guarantees he will find his way back to her. And he always does, always wants to, always will.

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In the living room, a substantial pour of brandy in a cut-crystal glass; then he is through the sliding glass doors, stepping into the late-summer night with its textured, enveloping heat, the hot air scented with life.

On his expansive back patio that smacks right up against the vast desert beyond, he stretches out on a lounge chair, and becomes one with the settled darkness that embraces his large house, that outlines the rows of towering cacti—larger than when they first moved in—silvered by moonlight, thick as terrestrial soldiers, sulfurous as ghosts. This place, this desert, his desert, how it stirs his insides, the grandness of everything and of every living thing mixing seductively with the fragrance of the brandy he sips.

A bat shoots by, then another one, and their soaring night search for insects to gobble up no longer gives him the slightest start. He listens to the murmurs, the rustles, the peeps, the faint calls that could mean love or despair out there, the scrabbling of creatures seeking whatever it is they need. The moon is cut in half tonight, the stars preserved rather than gleaming. He remembers when his children were young, pointing out specific stars whose names he didn’t know, has never known, saying to each of them, “That star right there belongs to you, Phoebe, and that one to you, Camille, and that one to you, Simon.” And they believed him; for years they believed those stars were theirs, their names attached to them in some astral registry. Perhaps he’ll offer up stars to the little ones, his young granddaughters, this weekend.

This is Harry’s finale on these sacred Friday nights, after he and Roma prepare a lovely dinner at home, drink a bottle of delicious wine, share news about his newest clients, her thorniest patients, their stellar children, their adorable grandchildren, and afterward, in every season, float together in the big pool until the moon appears, then make love. This solitary hour of reflection is when he considers the infinite, and the world at large, and this world of his that he thinks he created out of whole cloth.

Tonight, it’s not the infinite he wants to contemplate, but the specific. And specifically, his response to one of the many questions posed by the young Palm Times reporter for the profile piece that will be published in Sunday’s edition—highlighting, he was told, his installation as Man of the Decade.

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When asked, “Do you think great things are ahead of you or behind you?” Harry had replied, “The past no longer exists, there is only the future, whatever it may hold,” and something about his answer to that consideration of mystical simplicity has continued to give him pause. He studies it anew now, from multiple angles, and recognizes that the equation that has fueled him all his life is slightly different, less coy and more apt:

“The past no longer exists, but great things are always ahead in my future.”

That’s what he should have said. That would have been entirely accurate.

Which leads him to reconsider another of his responses during that long interview conducted in his office. His answer hadn’t been at all inaccurate, but he might have fleshed it out, elaborated, said something more than, “Religious faith has nothing to do with my organization’s mission. I am a historical Jew.”

In the dense heat, Harry unpacks that brief explanatory offering he made to the reporter, with its pithy pearl of a phrase, a definitional near-truth, a mostly accurate shorthand to describe himself, that he thinks his brain magically deduced on its own—it didn’t, but no matter.

Yes, he should have explained to the reporter that while he aligns himself with the cultural and ethical lineage of his, the Chosen People, he draws the line at, absolutely doesn’t subscribe to, their belief in the power of prayer. He could have said, “Look, prayer failed all of my ancestors, everyone from whom I’m descended,” and evocatively illustrated what he meant with a few quick stories:

That his great-grandparents Abraham and Minishka Tabornikov were tiny people, stoic and reverent in their religiousness, with an enormous belief that God was with them, despite the awful men on horseback who rode into their shtetl waving scimitars and swords, eagerly firebombing the place once again, leaving behind a new stack of dead Jews mangled, burned, cut down, sliced straight through. Every Shabbat and on all the big and little holidays, they prayed in the ramshackle shul that was their second home, rebuilt with tzedakah and reconsecrated as many times as it was left smashed and smoldering. They had three healthy sons, not strapping, but smart—the youngest, a Talmudic scholar—all marrying devoted girls who bore lovely grandchildren. Their condensed happiness was like a fragile flower cracking through bone-dry dirt, beauty found if they shut their eyes to the rough world and forced their hearts open. Paltry, pitiful gifts, taken as proof that Adonai was watching out for them, watching over them, hearing their worshipful words.

That his grandparents Aleph and Sonia Tabornikov were a little more progressive than the prior generation. They married, and with their young sons, left the shtetl for the big city, though the big city was barely a town. But with that fifty-mile migration, they reduced, to Shabbat and the top three tiers of holidays, their attendance at their newer, finer shul, whose roof did not leak, looking sideways at those who held fast to the full complement. And when their sons were old enough to understand where they came from, and that because of who they were, they were not wanted—another round of pogroms making that abundantly clear—the family sold their only inheritances, a silver Kiddush cup and menorah, packed up their meager belongings, and hightailed it out of the old country, arriving at Ellis Island, where these Tabornikovs were reborn Americans, renaming themselves Tabor. Worship did not wholly consume the totality of his grandparents’ lives in their new country, but to Harry, it has seemed only by a matter of meaningless degrees. For although these new Tabors were free as they had never been before, prayer barely eased their lot in life.

That his parents, Mordechai and Lenore Tabor, were, like all the rest, dead, but after meeting at CCNY and marrying, they chose as their home a comfortable house in the Bronx within walking distance of a conservative synagogue they immediately joined. They did not attend on Shabbat or on the minor holidays, but were present at the ostensibly fun ones, like Purim and Sukkot and Hanukkah, and were always in their middle-of-the-house seats on the most holy of days, those deemed critical, young Harry seated firmly between them. And when the synagogue threw out the fusty old prayer books and adopted looser, more free-form services, with a musician to strum his guitar and a newfangled cantor who sang to the plucked notes, they went with the times. They maintained their minimized calendar of observance and their strong belief that prayer was an answer to so many things that remained, unfortunately, unanswered.

And that on Harry’s own Bar Mitzvah, as he ascended the bema, reached the Torah scroll unrolled on the lectern, accepted from the well-bearded rabbi the scepter to guide him along the reversed sentences of minuscule black-inked Hebrew words, he, like all those earlier Tabors and Tabornikovs, had prayed. His prayer hadn’t been for global peace, or to make Mordy and Lenore proud, or to be gifted with checks and Israeli Bonds in relatively substantial sums for 1961, but that Eve Flynn, the long-legged redhead in his homeroom, who every single Sunday attended church and sang in its youth choir under a massive crucified Christ, would finally notice him on the very day Jewish tradition declared him a man. Harry had looked out at the congregation and prayed that when everyone was at the after-party in the Tabors’ tidy, well-gardened backyard, Eve, dazzled by his new manhood, might, in an enthusiastic clasping of sweaty hands, be led around the side of the house, where, under the silky fronds of the weeping willow tree, Harry would bestow upon her his first-ever kiss. He had seen his pale gingery angel among his dark-haired erstwhile tribe and sang his Torah portion as if it were a love song for her. At the party, he was knock-kneed with love for Eve, who wore a short froth of a party dress in a peach that clashed with her red hair, but exposed her slim thighs, her rounded knees, her thin calves, all that opaline skin. Despite his fervent call to God, as fervent as once intoned by his ancestors, the prayed-for kiss was not to be. Big, blond Bobby O’Ryan, a churchgoer like Eve, had led her away, and in painful defeat, Harry could only imagine Eve Flynn being kissed under that weeping willow tree by a boy who, because he was no Jew, would never be a man at thirteen.

And he would have concluded by saying, “I consider myself a thoroughly modern man, standing at a vast distance from the millennia of bloodshed and obliteration and prayer, and that whatever links me to my ancestors is tenuous at best, a matter only of DNA, and not of outlook, or of temperament, or of faith. Big prayers did nothing for my ancestors, and a tiny prayer did not turn Eve Flynn’s head and heart in my direction. After that, I gave up prayer entirely.”

All these years, Harry has been certain that he prayed just the once and never again. Indeed, he would swear that’s true.

What is true is that he left Eve Flynn behind, and met other girls who welcomed his kisses, and he graduated from college, and from a decent business school, and landed, surprisingly, at a hoity-toity, top-tier, gentile-owned stock brokerage firm in Manhattan, where he was the token Jew for a few years, but moved up the ladder with alacrity anyway, fell madly in love with the dazzling Jewess who deigned to become his wife, and created a life far beyond his ancestors’ ken.

What is also true is that thirty-plus years ago, in what still strikes him as a miraculous decision, he moved his family to this desert and made it his mission to do good in the world.

Looking up at the moon and the stars, Harry thinks he ought to be done for the night. It’s late, but not too late, and anyway the brandy is finished, and he wants to be fresh for tomorrow.

He locks the glass door, rinses the crystal, returns it to its living room tray, and snaps off the lights one by one as he winds his way through the house, back to his bed, where his wife, and the warmth of her skin, awaits him.

It is pitch-black in the bedroom, and silent once he cuts the fan’s spinning entirely, and then Roma sighs her heartbroken sigh when she’s dreaming about her grandmother Tatiana and her mother, Inessa. He waits until his strong and happy wife’s nocturnal sadness fades away, then carefully climbs into bed, fluffs his pillows, and closes his eyes.

Soon there is an internal rush of lapping oceanic waves pulling him under, into the ruffled layers of sleep, where he will travel to places he does not know, see people he never knew, and others he once loved, traveling, he thinks, on his own, believing, as he always has, that he alone inhabits his head. Mistaken in his assumption that the past no longer exists. Mistaken, too, in his certainty that the world can be understood, that he understands the world, or, at least, that he understands his own. As his breath grows even and deep, a sensed, rather than articulated, sentiment washes over him: I have been a very lucky man.

And that is true, absolutely true. But luck is a rescindable gift.




From The Family Tabor. Used with permission of Flatiron Books. Copyright © 2018 by Cherise Wolas.

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