by Spencer Wise
Mark Bergman was standing to the right of the bema, which faced Zack Stein’s good side according to his mother. Mark didn’t have the heart to break it to Susan that at thirteen every side was awful—but particularly here, beneath the windows of Temple Emmanuel, where the backlight washed him out. The middle grays Mark needed were over on the opposite side. It would take him hours to color-grade all these later in Photoshop.
He still wasn’t even sure how Susan Stein found him out of the blue. It was probably his new website. Mark had been working hard on it recently to draw in new clients and work. He’d been smart. Now it had a gallery and a shop and a place for testimonials. Already it was paying off.
That’s what Mark was thinking as Zack switched from reading his haftorah portion in beautiful Hebrew to speaking candidly to the congregation in English about what tzedakah, charity, meant to him on the eve of manhood.
Tzedakah, it turned out, meant a hell of a lot to Zack Stein.
For one, it had taken him down to Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas, where he’d witnessed the devastation in the wake of the hurricane. He’d helped start a wastewater recycling program for potable water. He’d snuck aboard Royal Caribbean cruisers and traded certain medicinal island plants with the kitchen staff for their used deep-fryer oil. The dirty oil could then be recycled into biofuel. For trespassing on the ships, he’d been charged by the Bahamian government with sea piracy.
You could hear the tween girls—his classmates—sighing in the pews. JV soccer by day, sea pirate by night. What a dreamboat. They sat on their hands and squirmed.
Zack closed this story with a moral: sometimes you have to do wrong to do right.
Mark had never heard any shit like this before in his life. He was glad the camera was covering the shock on his face. This was tzedakah now? Hijacking cruise ships for biofuel? Mark had visited a retirement home and read ten pages of The Greatest Generation before the director asked him to help serve lunch because someone just quit. It was the longest two hours of Mark’s life. And that was that. He never volunteered again. Because he was normal. This wasn’t normal.
It was interesting though, Mark had to admit. But the interesting stories always seemed to be happening somewhere else. Not in Boston. If only it wasn’t in the Bahamas, Mark might go down and shoot it. He’d gone into debt studying photojournalism but these jobs proved nearly impossible to land. A close-knit club of art bros. He’d have to pay his own way down to the Bahamas, shoot on spec, and hope some media outlet bought it. He didn’t have money to prospect like that. To bet on himself. So, he was here. Not that there was anything wrong with that. He could build his portfolio. Use it as a springboard to real news. Or maybe he’d fall in love with this kind of photography.
Zack was still going, for God’s sake. Something about his father’s prostate now. Close calls. The fragility of life. Gone in an instant. Cherish it.
Standing behind him, gnome-like, his father dabbed his eyes with a handkerchief. They embraced at the bema. The mic caught a croaky “I love you.”
The girls in front turned blotchy and fanned themselves with the printed programs.
Is this what thirteen-year-olds today were like? Mark thought. Greta Thunberg had just spoken to the United Nations at what age? Fifteen? How was Mark supposed to compete with these wunderkinds?
At Mark’s bar mitzvah there’d been no talk of biofuels and no teary parents. His father— a big deal in town because he owned a men’s fine clothing store that had been in the family for generations—stood beside him, pinching the back of his arm every time he flubbed a Hebrew word. He didn’t want to be embarrassed. Bad enough that Mark didn’t want to go into the family business.
The only good thing that happened was that he managed to bore his émigré Russian cousin into hooking up with him in the Sukkot storage closet. Zoya Zokofsky. She’d just escaped New Siberia with her father, a dissident journalist. They were both so Russian that Mark didn’t see how they could possibly be related. After Mark’s ceremony, she dragged him into the closet and gave him a hand job. A dry, mirthless, apparatchik one, during which Mark was convinced more than once that he was bleeding. It ended with her wiping her hand on the fake green palm fronds of the sukkah hut. “You read Hebrew so slow,” she said. “Like cousin Igor. But he was kicked in head by goat.” And what valuable lessons had Mark learned from all of this? That life was pain. It was painful and shameful and sort of kinky, but mostly gross. But he’d learned.
What had Zack Stein learned? The little turd. He knew everything already. Standing up there all smug and perfect, his father patting his shoulders, squeezing, patting, like he’d found the best melon in the supermarket and couldn’t believe his luck. This sweet old man in metal rim glasses and a horseshoe of baldness.
Mark lowered his camera. His mouth was parched.
The rabbi, a tall man with a giant orange beard, a burning bush unto himself, was wheeling out the cart for Zack to lead the blessings over the bread and wine. The big grand finale. Hamotzi and kiddish.
Mark’s hands and feet started tingling. He told himself to breathe. He was fine. Everything was fine. It would be worth it in the end. The world was full of families like the Steins and he could capitalize on them. Make a whole career out of bar mitzvahs, maybe? Imagine that. When the first name in the Boston bar mitzvah game that came to mind was Bergman. Get me Mark Bergman! I don’t care what it costs. But right now his fingers felt cold. He was freaking out a little. Breaths short, shallow. Chest tight. He needed to breathe. He turned away from the scene up front and faced the congregation. He was convinced everyone could see him losing his shit right now.
But no one was looking at him. Just rows of dwarves in spectacles and bowties, and then their parents seated in the rows behind them. And people standing in the back—it was standing room only—and then Mark saw his own father waving at him and blinked twice, sure it was a mirage. Or had Mark summoned him? Was he a warlock?
The mirage was still waving.
No, this really was his father. In the flesh. What the hell was he doing here?
Mark smiled, then raised his camera to show he was working.
His father pointed first at himself and then at Mark, and then at Mark and back at himself. I come to you, or you to me?
Mark shook his head. Neither.
His father shrugged. He stepped forward, bumping into an elderly guest beside him. He attempted another route, trying to nudge a woman’s wheelchair, rolling her forward a few inches, but her husband grabbed the push handle and stopped her chair with a scowl.
Leonard Bergman. Lenny. Pops. This piece of work.
Mark shook his head. Held up a palm. Stop.
The two men were silently mouthing words. Come? Stay. You come? Get back.
His father held up his palms in confusion.
Then there was a roar of applause.
Mark turned around. All three Steins were hugging on the bema. It was over. He’d missed the motzi, the blessing over the bread. It was one of those moments you had to have. The money shot. There were so few. But that was one. The first motzi as a man.
The wine glass, the sliced loaves of challah, Mark’s professional reputation—all wheeled away on a silver cart backstage.
Oh, he was fucked now.
The guests rose and began marching out of the sanctuary to the reception in the banquet hall.
He’d have to apologize to Mrs. Stein at the reception. Confess his sins.
In the lobby, everyone was kissing and mazel-toving when his father came up.
“What are you doing?” Mark hissed. “Why aren’t you at the store?”
“What do you mean? I was invited. You think I want to be here?”
“Why were you waving your hands at me?”
“I thought you were calling me.”
“For what?” Mark said, trying to keep his voice down. “I was working.” He lowered his camera. “I missed the goddamn motzi.”
Lenny inhaled sharply through clenched teeth. “Yikes. Can’t miss the motzi.”
“You were waving like a crazy person. How did I know you weren’t injured?”
“I thought you were waving at me. I figured you were injured. Well, you got to tell Susan. You can’t lie. Ask her if you can reshoot it later.”
“It’s that bad?”
“It’s the motzi.”
Lenny flagged down the waitress buzzing through the atrium carrying a tray of hors-d’oeuvres.
“Spinach and feta in phyllo,” the waitress said. Lenny popped one in his mouth. Then he took a second and wrapped it in a napkin and just held it. “For Amber,” he said to Mark. “She’s probably starving.”
“Where is she?”
“In the car.”
“The car? Your wife’s in the car? Did you leave the window cracked? Have her come in like a normal human being.”
“I asked. She thinks it’s disrespectful until she’s finished conversion class.”
No one in the synagogue could’ve cared less that Amber wasn’t Jewish. What was she? Floridian. That was her ethnicity as far as Mark knew. She’d emerged from a bog in the Everglades and crawled to the nearest colorist. Mark and his sister called her “Small Plate” because that’s all she ordered at restaurants.
“She’s fine,” Lenny said. “She’s got her iPad.” He waved down another waitress. “Chicken satay? Sold. Amber loves chicken.”
Mark looked at the growing collection of food in his father’s hand, seeping grease into the napkin. How long was he going to hold it like that?
They fell in line now with the crowd moving toward the seating assignment table outside the banquet hall. His father found his name on a placard and flipped over the card.
“Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” he said.
Mark found his own card. “Flint Water Crisis.”
Lenny frowned. “Sort of a heavy theme for a bar mitzvah. At least they could have sat us together. Given us the same disaster.”
On each table setting was a pamphlet with more information about the table’s environmental crisis. Down where you chose your fish or meat entrée, there was a section where Zack requested donations in lieu of presents.
“Impressive kid,” Lenny said.
But it was this kind of showiness that had driven Mark from the synagogue in the first place. Was there any difference between Zack’s environmental-crisis tabling and his little cousin’s bat mitzvah with the live ponies in the parking lot? Wasn’t it all for show? Although maybe Zack was sincere, which in a way was worse. That he was this serious and boring at thirteen.
“Listen,” Lenny said. “You better get back to work. I’ll run this food out to Amber.”
Mark watched his father go. In a parallel world, Mark supposed he would’ve gone into business with him. He even sort of liked listening to his father rhapsodize about brushed twill. But it wasn’t fakeable. Lord knows, Mark tried. Every summer at the store. Hoping to wake up one day babbling about worsted wool. But it never took. He still couldn’t help imagining how different his life would be. If he’d still feel like himself. Or what the hell he was supposed to feel like at all.
Mark searched the room and found Susan Stein’s blond rooster plumage bobbing in the corner by a cocktail table. She was speaking to an older man. Flirting. Laughing. Touching his sleeve to make a point.
Mark took a deep breath and steeled himself.
When he came up to the pair, the man excused himself.
“My photographer,” Susan said. She caught a glass of wine floating by on a server’s tray. She’d changed into a pleated dress with a fluffy white collar that looked like a cat died around her neck. She’d been in the Boston ballet Nutcracker as a kid. Everyone in town heard the story.
“Such a beautiful service, Mrs. Stein,” Mark said. “Mazel. How are you feeling?”
“Blissful.” She was warm, buzzed on Chardonnay and looking around the room for someone more important to talk to.
“Mrs. Stein,” he said. He cleared his throat and her eyes floated back to his. “I got to be honest. I missed a few shots during the service. I want to apologize. I feel terrible about it. When I put together your final album, there’ll be a hole. A big one. It’s the motzi.”
Her face went cold. Her red mouth pinched.
Mark curled his toes. Swallowed.
Then her face broke into a smile, showing off the whitest teeth. “Oh, don’t worry. Please, it’s nothing.”
“I appreciate you saying that. But no, it’s something. It’s a bad mistake.”
“No, no, darling, you misunderstand. I’m positive Uncle Irving got it. Have you met my Irv? The urologist? I’ll introduce you. He makes sublime videos. A hobby of his. They’re like short films really. He’d be in Hollywood if he wasn’t at Mass General. But he’ll have it. Someone will. Nowadays everyone has an iPhone.”
She flashed that rehearsed smile again. Wide and bright. Her eyes sparkled.
Mark was speechless.
Uncle Irv had it? Irv the urologist.
“Well, I hope that’s true, Mrs. Stein,” he said. “But in case Irv doesn’t have it, if you’d like to reshoot it after the reception, I’ll stay as late as you want. We can stage it just like it was.”
She touched his forearm. “Darling, relax, okay? We like your father so much. He really saved Ron during a tough time. Helped him get back on his feet.”
Saved? Mark thought. That didn’t make sense. Then he straightened up. A terrible feeling spread through him. He knew his mouth was open, like a dumb cow.
“I’m just glad we could help,” she said. “The least we could do to repay him.”
He understood now. This was a farce. This whole thing. He was Mrs. Stein’s tzedakah. A charity case. His father had asked Ron and Susan to give him this gig.
Mark’s throat tightened, the camera heavy as a millstone around his neck. Everything seemed wobbly, underwater. Susan Stein was looking at him like at this point the only humane thing to do was take Mark out back and shoot him.
Mrs. Stein said, “Go enjoy yourself, now. Have a nosh. Drink at the bar.”
He felt something in the pit of him rising and tried to swallow it down, but it kept inching up. He had to go. Get out. How fast was his heart beating? Was this normal? If it beat this fast would it explode?
He went straight to the bar and ordered a bourbon. On the parquet floor, the kids were grinding, twerking, slapping their friends’ asses. It was an orgy at Temple Emmanuel. The bass from the speakers fluttered the cuff of Mark’s suit pants. He threw back the bourbon right as a fat kid fell backwards out of his chair and a mother woman screamed “Shrimp allergy!” and a half dozen mothers pounced on the boy, brandishing Epi-Pens, stabbing away like it was Lord of the Flies, and in all this commotion, Mark slipped out.
Everything was crashing down. He wasn’t going to get famous off bar mitzvahs. No one had seen his stupid website. He couldn’t lie to himself any longer. These kinds of shoots meant nothing to him.
He pushed open the heavy glass doors and tried to catch his breath.
His father was eating in his car in the parking lot. Mark marched toward him. The lawn overlooked a retention pond where a deranged white goose was picking out his own feathers.
The car window rolled down. “Sweetheart,” Small Plate shouted, leaning out. He’d met her like ten times in his life. He thought he’d be ill.
He went around to the driver’s side and leaned into the window. The dash was strewn with crumpled white cocktail napkins.
“Shouldn’t you be working?” his dad asked.
“I don’t get it,” Mark said. “Couldn’t you have given me the story up front? Let me know what I was walking into. I just talked to Susan.”
Lenny knew exactly what he was referring to. “Oh relax, what’s the difference?”
“It’s embarrassing. I thought Susan saw my website. I’ve been working on my website.”
“I’ve seen. Self-promotion’s not your strong suit. And I didn’t force Susan. I suggested. Recommended. I did a favor for her husband in the past.”
“I don’t care about that,” Mark said. “You should’ve told me!”
Mark put his hands on the windowsill of the car door. He bent low to see inside. Small Plate was pouting out her lip in feigned sympathy and he wanted to slap her. She elbowed Lenny. “You should have told him, you big jerk.”
“You didn’t even tell me you were coming today,” Mark said. “What’s wrong with you?”
“With me?” Lenny said. “What’s wrong with you? I knew I had to step in to get things moving for you. It was getting depressing, watching you. This isn’t summer camp, where everyone gets a turn to bat. You can’t just sit back and hope they call your name.”
Mark glared at him, a warm pressure building behind his eyes. He wasn’t sitting back.
Lenny said, “Honestly, I thought you’d be happy. Appreciative.”
“You always do this.”
It wasn’t really help. Mark couldn’t say what it was.
“Look, I’m sorry,” Lenny said. “I did it for you. What do you want from me?”
“I want—” Mark’s voice trailed off. He could see Small Plate’s lip protruding out further and further with each passing second. Soon he could grab it and pull it over her head.
What did he want? For his dad to drown Small Plate in the pond and remarry his mother. For him to validate Mark’s decision not to go into the family business. Maybe he wanted a hug. At a certain age, can you ask a parent for that?
Mark squeezed the door.
He was trying and failing miserably to say that his problem was how his father handled it. He didn’t mind help. Help was good. But his father’s way knocked you down. So how could Mark say that? Had he ever said anything?
Lenny frowned. “Listen, I hate to leave but I should get back to the store. I’m worried about losing the Andover Prep School account. Their students don’t want uniforms anymore. They want self-expression.”
“Ridiculous,” Small Plate said.
Lenny rubbed his face and scanned the tree line. “Some ass on the board suggested I make tracksuits instead. That’s not us. We don’t do synthetics. We’re wool men.”
Was Mark a wool man? he wondered. He suspected not.
“You’ll think of something, honey,” Small Plate said, patting Lenny’s knee.
Somehow his dad had twisted things around and made this all about him. She was comforting him now. God, he was good. He was so clever.
Lenny put the car in reverse.
“Wait,” Mark said. “Wait a second.” But he couldn’t think of what he wanted to say.
Lenny gave it light gas and the car started rolling backwards. Mark walked sideways alongside it, still holding the windowsill. It felt like he was in a whiteout, like when his father used to take him ice fishing. Sometimes a huge storm would roll down off Mt. Rattlesnake and cause a whiteout. Couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. Lenny would have to hold the arm of Mark’s jacket because if you wandered off in the wrong direction, you could easily fall through the ice. Happened to some kid. There was a red ski hat frozen in the ice they showed Mark to scare him straight. That was a boy who didn’t listen. It felt like being trapped in one of those storms now. Blindness.
Mark let go. He watched the car swing wide and then lurch forward, Small Plate waving goodbye from the front seat.
He’d finish the fucking job. Even if it was charity.
He marched back in and found Zack Stein standing alone beside a table holding balloons and a white, three-layer square cake with an edible photo of Zack inside a Star of David.
Mark stood beside him, both their backs to the wall.
Out on the dance floor, kids were shuffling under a limbo bar while the DJ cheered them on.
“Why don’t you go limbo?” Mark asked. “I’ll get some shots for the album.”
Zack folded his arms. “Did you know the limbo bar was what they used to chain up slaves on ships? That’s where it comes from.”
“Is that true? Jesus. You’re a real bummer, you know that?”
Laughing fathers swung their mortified daughters by their bony wrists. A circle of boys practiced an elaborate handshake with snaps and claps. Gym mothers pointed at the foods they hated in common. Everyone seemed happy.
“You don’t want to dance?” Mark sounded like an annoying parent. “I can’t take photos of you standing against a wall.”
“I was. I’m resting. Felt a cramp coming on.”
It was quiet a moment.
Out of the corner of his eye, Mark could see Zack’s hand moving, what looked like signing, and then he realized Zack was practicing the handshake routine the boys were doing out on the floor. He was rehearsing it discreetly in the crook of his armpit where he thought no one would see. Suddenly his eyes snapped up to Mark’s, a moment passing between them, and Zack immediately stopped. They both looked away.
It seemed hard to believe, Mark thought. Surely a young man wanted in international waters was wanted everywhere.
“I missed the motzi during your ceremony,” Mark said in a low voice.
“My mother’s gonna shit.”
“I told her already. I want to reshoot it though. But I’d need to borrow you a minute.”
This was what he’d come back inside to ask. If he didn’t realize it before, he did now.
“She’s making you?”
“No. I want to do the job right, okay? You’ll want to have it when you’re older.” He didn’t believe that for a second.
“I can’t leave my own party.”
“Zack, you’re a sea pirate. You can sneak out of your reception for ten minutes.”
The kid shrugged. “Okay, I’ll stand there, but I’m sick of praying.”
“That’s fine. Fake it.”
They went back into the sanctuary. It was empty now. The white programs scattered on the floor by the pews. Up on the stage, Mark found the silver cart where the rabbi left it. Two loaves of challah still under a large white napkin, the wine cup with the Manischewitz. It was all there like it had never happened.
He wheeled the cart over to Mark. Then he set the kid’s yarmulke straight on his head. Wiped some falafel off his sports jacket.
“Perfect,” Mark said, backing down the stairs and crouching into position. He took a few test shots then checked the back of his camera for the exposure and adjusted some settings.
“Okay. Hold up the loaves again. Look penitent. Look spiritual.”
Zack half-shut his eyes and held out the loaves straight-armed like a zombie.
“Too much. Be normal.”
So he put the bread down and just put his hands over it and mouthed the prayer. Maybe he was really saying it.
“This is good,” Mark said. “You’re perfect.”
With every drop of the shutter Mark was proving his father wrong. He wasn’t incompetent. Whether it was news or bar mitzvahs didn’t matter. He was a good photographer.
“This all feels like a huge waste,” Zack sighed. “This bar mitzvah.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Everyone’s out there talking about nothing. It’s all very frivolous.”
What a word for a thirteen-year-old, Mark thought. “I think parties are supposed to be frivolous, no?”
“I don’t like it.” He looked up at the ceiling like he just realized this about himself. “Do you like parties?”
“Not really, no.”
“Is that why you take photos? So you don’t have to talk to people?”
Mark laughed. “I don’t know. I guess, maybe.”
Zack nodded. “My mother says I’m too serious. That’s why people don’t like me. But there are serious problems in the world.”
“She says if I talked normal and lighter, I’d have more friends.”
He just said all this off the cuff—harsh and honest. Mark had forgotten kids were this forward. “I think you’re good at talking. I wish I was that good. And normal people are boring.”
Mark said, “You had me fooled during the service. I thought you were loving this.”
“No way. My parents like showing off to their friends. I’m a good actor. But none of these kids even talk to me at school.”
Zack got pensive again. He started and stopped a few sentences. “Are you lonely?” he asked with a finality, like this is what he’d really been building up to with all the other questions. “Or am I not supposed to ask that?”
Mark felt his throat clutch. “Sometimes. Sure. I think everyone is.”
“I feel lonely. But everyone says it gets easier. As you get older. Right?”
Mark wanted to lie. To Zack. To himself. Actually, he sort of wanted to ask Zack the same question: does it get easier? The closer you get to Zack’s level of success. But it seemed that even the rich, Ivy-bound eco-pirates of the world felt just as lost and freakishly alone.
“A little,” Mark said.
Suddenly Zack tilted his head. His ears pricked to some sound Mark couldn’t hear.
The door behind them flung open.
Susan Stein poked her blond coif into the sanctuary.
“What are you doing?” she stammered. “What in the world? Zack, everyone’s wondering where you are. It’s cake time. The DJ called your name three times. Hurry. Your father’s furious. Stop embarrassing us.”
She slammed the door behind her and the chandeliers shuddered.
Zack looked at Mark. His eyes widened. Like he’d just realized the Bahamas wasn’t nearly far enough. He might need to volunteer on Mars to escape.
It scared the shit out of Mark because he knew that look well. The same look Mark had on his face when his dad put his car in reverse. Rigging this gig for Mark didn’t feel like love. Or if it was, it was the kind that didn’t let you breathe. Made you feel small.
The two of them stared at each other a moment longer.
One as isolated in his success as the other felt in his failure.
“Come on,” Mark said. “Before she kills us.”
Zack hopped off the step and walked up to Mark. “I’d like to shake your hand before we leave. In case I move to the Bahamas and never see you again.”
They shook. The boy smiled and puffed out his chest. “I hope you have an unfrivolous life.”
Mark was taken aback. “You too,” he said.
Susan was waiting outside the door to escort them back to the banquet hall. She handed them two glowsticks on lanyards and said everyone was wearing them. It was almost dancing time. Cake then dancing. Didn’t they read the itinerary? Tight schedule. She shook her head and looked over at her son—but at Mark too, at least so he thought—and said, “We’re doing this all for you.”
Spencer Wise is the author of The Emperor of Shoes (HarperCollins/Hanover Square Press). His work can be found in journals such as Narrative Magazine, Prairie Schooner, Gulf Coast, The Cincinnati Review, Witness, The Literary Review, and The New Ohio Review. He has been awarded residencies and fellowships to the Vermont Writer Studio and Ragdale Foundation in Chicago. Wise is an assistant professor of creative writing at Augusta University.