An angel came to her while she was mixing the salad and saying things like,
“Mm, this is good, wonderful––one of the best. A fantastic salad.” Licking her finger. A salad, she thought as she picked up each item, such a beautiful thing––such verdant broccoli, flowery lettuce, pale green cucumbers, sweet sliced tomatoes, wet onion, plump grapes, slivers of pale mushroom, creamy avocado, feta—dill, oregano, tarragon. She squirted the vinaigrette in, tossed it, added black pepper. A memorable salad. The angel came to her just as she was remarking to herself, “Just think, if I could have brought this salad to those people in a concentration camp.” A bearer of miracles. She could just see their faces. A salad. Wouldn’t that be something. And the angel came to her, saying, “All right.”
It is true that certain dispositions are hospitable to angels. Their minds wander into rosy, cinematic places, and without a director ––just certain dispositions led by their noses. Mm…ph, she breathed in the aromas. It is also true that a salad is a beautiful thing; although Cousin Julia in Spain observed that Americans like to mix everything up––and therefore can’t taste anything. Still, a salad is one of the richest of earth’s gifts. Passion can go into a salad. One is freed up to add whatever one pleases. Angels can come in and out as they please. And this one said, “All right.”
She turned around ironically. “All right, what.”
“All right, try it. Bring a bowl to the camp.”
“Go away, non-apparition,” she said. “I’m standing in a room full of daylight. Off. Shoo.”
“Fine. If you’d rather not.”
The angel (he was quite handsome) explained, “I will make it possible, providing it is all between you and you. It has to be that way, as I’m sure you understand. But it can be done. You prepare the salad, and I’ll guide you back through time, toward the camp, and even toward a certain inmate, as you call them, and you make a few people happy. It is within my means, although I am instructed to assign conditions. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be possible. I am telling the truth, as you can see—or perhaps, can notsee. You must know that Jewish angels are generally invisible and avoid elaborate, ahem, visualizations, wings and so on.. Although I am, strictly speaking, as Jewish angels go, more of a citizen of the world, like you—”
“Like me? What do you know about me?”
The angel looked tired. “Everything,” he said, wearily. “We have more in common than you think. As I said, we’re citizens of the world—”
“Are you sure you’re Jewish,” she said, because she could swear she could see him. So, what’s the condition? I’ll play along with you for — thirty seconds.”
“You have to do it for a year.”
“I’m not going to repeat it.”
“Go away, impoverished spirit,” she said again, thinking of a different kind of pepper. Lemon pepper?.... ” She liked “non-apparition” better.
The angel sighed.
“You are a distraction, like everything else,” she said. “Everything tries to fragment me, to take me away from my goals. It is a known fact with me. I too know something about me.”
The angel sighed again.
“And stop sighing. I don’t know what your problem is.”
The angel stopped sighing.
The minutes passed like years, and she liked this angel, maybe even loved him. Hah. He didn’t try to—impose himself, that was it. A truly benign, down-to-earth angel. An un-ambitious angel.
“I prefer ‘benign,’ ” said the angel.
They know everything—stop thinking, she thought.
But when she looked down, the salad looked downright chilly, and selfish. “What is all this salad we make, just for ourselves, all this greenery, all this salad? Mountains of SALAD,” she thought. She was drowning in it!.
The angel made a tinkling sound. He didn’t seem to reside strictly in her head, she could see him even better now, in the corner of the room, so Jewish—so unspecific. Damn. Yet beautiful, somehow. Burnished with gold. Somehow embossed, fluid, almost dancing. But minus diaphanous white wings. No diaphanous wings.
“Well, thank you for that. You can’t have everything,” said the angel, looking doleful and sardonic all at once. She focused on the salad. What a bright and cheerful salad it was. What a gentile salad.
“Salad, huh?… a whole country of salad….”
“Shut up!” she said, and ran out of the room, out of the hallway, outdoors.
It was spring! At least three robins were—here, and there. Green tulip leaves just popping. And sunshine brassy as trumpets. She could swear she heard the sun’s trumpet call—to earth! to earth! But nothing on earth made sense, she had been completely and entirely busy, for a month. No, for a year.... No, for….
Well, who isn’t? she thought. Edna. Edna sat in her big house like a painting in a furniture store, she sat in on a couple of committees, a couple of film groups, she sat, all that empty space around her. She had said, “I get up at five in the morning, with that whole day ahead, and I don’t know what to do.” And that idiot Eliot who had wanted to rake the leaves, but of course the leaves kept coming. So he sat down on the front steps and never got up. He is still sitting there. And then the opposites, like herself. Busy as hell. No happy medium. The word “medium” made her flinch. She sucked in the green freshness of dill.
“I like it too,” said the angel.
She turned to face him.
“It’s all right,” said the angel. “I can go away. Really.”
“Salad is good for you—it isn’t just beautiful.”
“Of course, of course! You are an artist! But also a businesswoman, it’s good business for the body, it is. Good for the transport, for everything, this salad. Believe me, if only I could....”
Back she went—into the house, half-thinking he would stay behind. But when she walked in and turned around, light in the open door was playing tricks, suggesting a silver-and-gold threaded shape, a pasha. This angel liked to—amuse her.
Back in the kitchen, the salad waited, huge and fit for––who was it who painted salads, not Cezanne?— the odors spreading throughout the house, competing with—him behind her, around her, then back in a corner, peeling a banana. She could swear he was peeling a banana. When she turned, he looked genderless, like a girl, laughing at her, then a man again, a long-haired male angel.
“I’m serious,” he said. You make the salad and I will take you. No one will stop us. No one will know. It will take some time, of course—“
“Time?” What a strange consideration. And anyway, who had time?
“About half an hour a day, or less... to actually make the trip. As for the salad—“
“Victor wouldn’t know the difference. He’s gone almost all day anyway.”
“So... what’s the condition?”
“Has to be every day. That’s all. For a year. You’re the one who imagined––”
“What?! I did? But—” It was true.
“Think about it.”
“Think about what?” She was suddenly frightened. “Are you going to leave me with this?”
“Of course. I have other work. Who else should I leave it with? What’s yours is yours.” He grinned. “You know, I would like both the mitzvah and—the company.”
And then he was gone. And she had no notion of when—what was she thinking of—he would return. It’s really spring, she thought, shivering.
The salad was a huge success. There were only the two of them to appreciate it, husband and wife, and it lasted into the next day. “Fah-tee-gay,” her husband called it, exaggerating the syllables. It was what they called wilted salad in New Orleans. Fah-tee-gay. Fatigued. It was European, but now a totally Americanized word.
How can we know what we know, she thought. I mean how they thought, what they would have done with this.... salad. Suppose she were suddenly brought the thing she wanted most in the whole world. How would she behave? What would she want? What would alleviate her suffering? Was she suffering? How could anybody handle this? What was it? It was frightful to think of getting something that important. She had read too many stories. Imagine.
“Imagine what?” said the angel, this time from a great distance, from across the world, it seemed. Was he in China? How was he needed in China?
“No...” she said, “No, no — no. Thank you anyway.”
Imagine what? she asked herself, as if he had entered her.
Imagine what. She began to grow a headache, once a day.
“What’s a pasha?” She asked her husband, over the remaining salad. As though it had been the angel who had put the word into her mind.
“A pasha? A pasha. A pasha is rich, is all I know. A pasha gets everything he wants. And I think he gets fat.” Her husband sounded a touch sour. But his answer pleased her. It said something about him; for once he was revealing himself.
“I wonder what a pasha wants,” she said.
He looked up but didn’t quite answer. It was a “hm.”
She smiled at him.
She suddenly realized that what she wanted most in the world was to be an angel, a Jewish angel, but also a citizen of the world.
“I think a pasha might want you,” said her husband. That’s what I would want––even if I couldn’t figure out why.” He was teasing her. Was he just easing her?
“No, really.” she said. “What would you do with me, if I was what you most wanted, and you got me?” She was teasing back. Was she just teasing?
“Mm,” he said, “I’d ask for another salad like that one—tomorrow.”
She wanted to kill him, but then what could he have said?
“Is that what you’d want if you were in a Concentration Camp?”
Linda, the seven-year-old came running in for a ball, and ran out again.
“Isn’t this a little strange?” said Victor. “What’s going on?”
“Yeah. I’m sorry.”
“So what’s up?” he said.
“I want to do something important.”
“The kids have programs after school; they’re always gone. I don’t have a job.”
“You don’t need one. You want one?”
“No. I don’t know what I want.”
“You want to become a doctor without borders?”
“Hey, you make the best salad.”
“It’s better than diamonds,” she whispered. They wouldn’t ask for diamonds. They wouldn’t ask for a silver shower stall. They couldn’t eat tickets to a ballgame.
The next time the angel appeared, sitting in the same corner, she knew he was the proverbial Jewish guilt. Not a citizen of the world. And she couldn’t understand how he could be so beautiful. “I mean, what’s the POINT?” she demanded of him. “Why beautiful?”
“I’m not Jewish guilt,” he said. I live in an alternate world. You too. And your husband. And you know Linda does. She doesn’t go anywhere after school, doesn’t even eat. You should see how happy she is. Be joyful she lives there.”
“So who are you in the real world? Are you someone’s husband, or—who?”
“I don’t know. Nobody explained it. I’m not even the happiest angel; I don’t really belong in one place, I have too much travel. I am useful in too many places.”
“I know how that can be,” she said.
“Yes, traveling can take up all your time. You need some rest stops.”
She laughed. “You travel differently.”
“I know,” he said, “and I’m happy when people laugh that way. It makes me very happy.” He was actually looking into her eyes.
“But you said you’re unhappy.”
“But I’m happy when I make others happy––I watch them being unhappy for so long, that it feels good when they’re finally happy. And I can rest.”
“You’re not an especially intellectual angel,” she remarked. “You sound simple.”
“I never got a degree. I say simple-minded things.”
“No?” The angel looked pleased with that. Was he too mocking her?
Linda ran in and said, “I bounced the ball fifty eight times in a row without missing!” She bounced up and down, and ran out again.
“Oh no, you’re smart!” she told the angel. You’re just not—scholarly, not—”
“I’m a hallucination,” he said. “But when I’m not here, you get a headache. So if you let me come, you’ll have no headaches, right? You’ll be—normal.”
“How can someone with hallucinations be normal!” she objected.
“Tsk, tsk, lady—you can’t be normal without them. Even I know that.”
“Where did you learn that! I don’t believe you. Go!”
He left her. For almost a month she had a headache, on the hour, every day. The rest of the time she was almost fine.
It was a long time before she came up with the idea of bargaining with the angel. Her salads were the talk of the suburb. She varied them, she simplified them, re-invented them, and she tasted them. She said, “To someone, this would be heaven.” But there was no someone. People loved her salads, which weren’t exactly heaven to anyone. “It would be passionate,” this love, she thought. She wondered about the long-haired, dimpled angel—where did she see one like him? In the movies. But that one wasn’t Jewish. Was he passionate? Traveling so much and witnessing—a witnessing angel, a Jewish angel. An angel who wanted to feed—a Jewish mother. She laughed heartily and had to sit down. And it brought him back, the mocking one, the golden wise aleck.
The angel like a pasha, not fat at all—a dream of an angel.
In the corner, peeling a banana. She could smell it. Never did a banana smell so—she dared not say it. She grabbed her cell and shot him, but the “picture” was only the smell of cinnamon. She realized he could smell of anything. Kugel. Cumin. Even watermelon. She wanted to make a deal with this angel, just so she could be with him, could inhale the odor of the world, of life in all places and times. Perhaps she could make her salad more—useful. She wanted to be both a good person and a happy one.
“So it’s yes?”
It was almost an erotic question.
“I’ll make a bargain with you.”
“It’s beginning to sound not too kosher….” he intuited.
“Take it or leave it. Besides, you aren’t even kosher, are you.”
“I’d have to make a real case for it. I’m not a lawyer, you know.
“So you know what I’m going to say?”
“Think it and I’ll know it. Think it, pretty lady….”
Time passed and her headache returned.
“How would it be delivered?”
“Well… I could arrange for one inmate to wander off by accident to the edge, where you would appear to him with the salad… maybe invisible to others.”
“And he would give this illusion the benefit of the doubt—would pick a radish and be in paradise? And then what? Gorge himself?”
The angel stood pondering.
“You… you haven’t thought it out, oh my God….”
The banana odor disappeared.
“The recipient—” she continued, “would have to keep it a secret. But how”—she couldn’t quite say it—”how could he… or she? He would begin to look healthy, others would suspect him. Unless he told them. But how could he tell the others without sharing the salad? And then—what would each one get—a quarter of a radish? This would make a person happy? A quarter of a radish? Well… maybe. But then, wouldn’t they want to follow him? Wouldn’t it put them in danger?”
The angel was with her, thinking.
“My God, my God, you really haven’t thought it out. You make me an offer you haven’t thought out. Is this what heaven is about?”
The angel dropped his head and only said, “There is woe in the world.” All the good in the world seemed to fade into the nebulae. The angel was as if human, less than human, his wings––ah, but he had no wings.
He was no angel.
“Human angel, you prey on those people. Not just me. You offer me the impossible—there’s no way to help them. It is too late for them. You mock me. You offer to take me back in time, but you haven’t worked it out. To what purpose are your offers? You mock me, you mock me. I’m ridiculous.”
She was rocking back and forth, as if in prayer, kept repeating, “Look at me, you mock me, this is worse than a headache, you mock me.”
He produced a mirror. “Another offer.”
When she looked at him, the angel looked sorry as a beggar, his threads of gold and silver just—threads. The pasha a shadow. Not even a shadow. She stood as if naked before her husband.
“To what purpose are your offers!”
“The angel sighed.” Odd, how she still welcomed his sighs.
“How dare you come here with such offers? How dare you make a mockery of what happened—which no one, no one can even imagine. How dare you make me feel—useful!”
“Useful,” he repeated.
“Uh,” she said, “the horror of it,” collapsing onto her chair.
“Such a price.” He shrank onto his stool.
“The horror,” she repeated, “and even that belongs to Conrad, a real writer, someone who—”
“—suffers more than we do,” he filled in. He was a shadow now, but still, a shadow she loved, for strange reasons.
“How easy it is to be an angel,” he said. “How facile.”
“Yes, I’m afraid so,” she agreed, without understanding.
“How sweet you are,” she said, crying. “Even when you can do this to me.”
“This is the way to fall in love,” she said.
“Yes, while everything looks so possible.”
“Yes, but for a moment possible.”
“A salad. A mere salad,” she said.
“A beautiful salad.”
“I know,” she said, and took up the mirror.
Helen Degen Cohen‘s (Halina Degenfisz’s) awards include the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry, First Prize in British Stand Magazine’s Short Story Competition, and three Illinois Arts Council Literary Awards (poetry and fiction). This story is from Twilight, a semifinalist in Leapfrog‘s Fiction book competition. Another is forthcoming in Nimrod’s Awards Issue as finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter award. She has published three poetry collections. She co-founded and co-edits the poetry journal, Rhino.