The rabbinical student’s phone rang. He was groggy with sleep.
“Rabbi? Is this the rabbi?”
“Yes.” He didn’t like to correct them, tell them he wasn’t a rabbi yet. He had a student pulpit in Jersey.
“Rabbi, you know my father, Stan Schiff—I, uh—that is, uh—we had, my wife had—a baby—a dead—a—can you come out? Can you--?”
He had done two funerals before, both for old people.
The driveway was slippery. He kicked the snow off of his shoes before knocking on the door. There was a wreath on the door. No mezuzah.
The man looked young: early thirties, maybe. He smelled of cigarettes; the ashtray was full. The wife was very thin, wearing a black sweater. Her hand when she shook his was cold; long thin fingers. She tried to smile; one of her right side teeth was missing.
“I’m Joe Schiff; this is Ann-Marie.”
“I’m sorry, sorry for your loss,” the student said.
There was a pumpkin-colored crocheted throw on the sofa, a mantelpiece clock, a wedding picture of them by the ocean. It was a tiny apartment; little Christmas tree. No Chanukah menorah.
“Can I get you coffee, Rabbi?” the man asked.
“Water—water is fine.”
The glass had the Hamburglar on it. He turned it in his hands, not knowing what to say.
“We thought he was going to be OK. Ann-Marie carried him for seven months. Lucky seven. They can do wonderful, great things. Baby in the incubator. St. Bonaventure’s in Passaic, you know?”
Joe took a long breath; she put her hand on his arm.
“We were going to name him Jacob Christopher, after my grandfather, and her brother, her brother died in Vietnam. Things moving along, moving along, great. And then, poof, just gone.”
Joe was crying now. Ann-Marie hugging his arm, reaching up for him.
“The priest said—he said—he wasn’t sure.”
“I’m sorry?” asked the student.
“The priest,” said the woman. “The Catholic priest. He said he wasn’t sure if Jacob-Christopher would go—would go—“
She was crying now.
“What do you say, Rabbi?” Joe was talking now.
The phone rang. Joe reached for it.
“Yes,” he said, “yes. That’s me. All right. Yes, thank you.” He hung up and turned to Ann-Marie.
“We have to—“ He took a long breath. “Go to the hospital, and get the baby.” He turned to the student. “Thanks for coming, Rabbi. Thanks a lot.”
It was very dark. The roads were icy; the wind drove new snowflakes into his windshield. He kept yawning. The dashboard clock glowed 1 am. He pulled into the Denny’s and parked near the side door.
Inside, a young man with a shaved head was mopping the booth area. The only place open for customers was the front counter. The student sat on one of the round stools, near a young man with long hair in a cowboy shirt with mother-of-pearl buttons. He ordered coffee: light cream. Four packets of the blue stuff.
Radio first talking about a Christmas Truce in Vietnam; then, the Eagles were singing “Get Over It.” Longhair next to him was singing along, softly. The waitress poured more coffee into the man’s cup.
What the hell does Judaism say about the Afterlife? Thought the student. What the hell?
“You using that sugar?” asked Longhair.
“No, here, that’s OK,” said the student.
Longhair put in three spoonfuls, stirred, tapped the spoon on the cup edge. He sipped, put the cup down, looked around at the big windows holding back the night.
“Big mess out there,” he said.
“Yeah,” said the student.
“I’m OK, though,” said Longhair, “name’s Steve, Steve Mackey.” He held out a hand; the student took it, still thinking about hell.
“Crazy thing, though,” said Steve Mackey, “I’m in this tractor-trailer, nice warm cab I got there, all my stuff. Gotta locked-up safe in that tractor trailer, dunno the combination, can you believe it? I thought it was one thing, my boss goes ahead changes that sucker. Goddamn. Can you believe it? I’m warm, but my wallet’s in the safe. I had fifty, even thirty bucks for gas, I’d be OK. All I need. Get to Wilmington tomorrow late, call my boss from the relief station, he’d wire me the money, the combo. All I need. Just that thirty tonight, get me on my way.”
He lit a cigarette, blew out the match.
He turned to the student.
“You got any money, my friend?” he said. “Tell you what. You loan me—that is loan, not give—me thirty bucks, thirty’s all I need get me to Wilmington. I give you my address in Sparta, South Ca’lina. I get you that thirty back. I send it back tomorrow night, Thursday for sure, guaranteed overnight mail. I give you this for security—“ he reached into his shirt pocket, took out a heavy nickel-plate watch—“my grandfather’s watch, he give it to me just before he died, this past year. I want that watch back, my friend. That’s the deal you trust me I get that watch back, you get your thirty bucks.”
The student said nothing. He was thinking of the young couple. He was thinking of how he would have liked to help them.
Steve Mackey sipped his coffee. He left the watch on the counter.
The snow was coming down.