Summer 1987, and my parents are homeowners. On Cumberland Parkway in Des Plaines. A Cape Cod with baby-blue siding and crisp white trim. Dormers, bay windows, full basement to shape in their image. Their backyard, lush with wildflowers and rhubarb, sprawls to the ravine hiding Weller Creek. They are royalty.
A new town to discover, neighbors to meet. The possibilities exalt. The map of this new life not yet filled, still vast with blank spaces guarded by beasts.
There’s still plenty to figure out. And now here I come, something more than a promise, poised to gain sight and future and a voice of my own, but for now simply growing in unseen spaces. There’s celebration and scrambling—and negotiations they thought they’d closed years ago are torn back open.
Baptism is out. So is Hebrew school. But they’ll celebrate major holidays—three apiece. The child will go to church on Christmas Day and join the Seder table on Passover. Male circumcision. Public education. They navigate boths and neithers. Anything not important enough to decide stays open.
For naming, they agree: she picks the first name, he picks the middle. If I’m a boy, my mother likes Adam. It’s solid, earthy, reliable. Appropriate for their first—right up until the due date, when she reconsiders.
It was the first week of August. My father, a basketball coach, was at the Michael Jordan Camp in Lake Forest. (He’d return with a photo of himself arm-in-arm with His Airness. I remember, all through grade school, bragging to friends about it.) So my mother was home alone when it started raining. Was sitting on the living room sofa with her legs folded, staring out at the old mossy elms along the sidewalk, when the gray darkness descended. And she lay in bed, still restless, as the storm fell like a rockslide, slamming the roof in unending waves.
She dreamt of caves and stone grottos, and the downpour’s pounding became torrents of pain as she lay full-bellied and exposed, giving birth in a bed of straw while a tribe of strangers stared in judgment.
She woke slowly, lingering in shame. The room cast in pale, weak light—a shadowless light, divorced from time and space. She had to check the clock to be sure it was morning. The rain still battering. And she became aware of a lighter chorus—streams and drips, which, she realized, were at least partly inside the house.
She slipped on her robe and went to the window. Through the curtains of rain, she could see grass buried in puddles, trees and bushes shaking—and beyond that, the ravine. Normally a fissure of brown clay, water now filled it to the brim. She had never seen the creek before, and there it was, creeping toward her yard. And the rain continued.
She got dressed and started going room by room through the house, setting out buckets, then kitchen pots, then souvenir pint glasses, the plastic ones they gave out at Cubs games. The storm not flinching. With each passing moment it felt louder, closer. Its constant pounding like a siege, a thousand blunt timbers bearing down.
The phone rang and she nearly leapt from her body. It was the neighbors. An older couple with a daughter her age, the husband on the line, his friendly crackle. He asked about her storm gutters, the state of her basement. They’d been here twenty-five years, he said. Seen it all before. The water’s coming. Best get your car to higher ground. He told her which streets would keep her Pontiac’s engine above the flood line.
She reset the dial and called the camp in Lake Forest. Somehow she got ahold of my father. Told him about the rain, the creek, the neighbor’s warning. Not bothering to hide her fear.
“You have to come home,” she said. A command, a plea.
“Oh, come on,” he said. “It can’t be that bad.”
He was annoyed. She didn’t realize all that basketball had given him. I’m here with Michael Jordan, and you want me to leave because of some rain? He told her not to be so emotional.
All weekend inside a hotel conference room turned practice court, absorbed in skip passes and the help-side hedge. He probably hadn’t looked out a window in days. She could forgive him that, being oblivious. But the dismissal, the lack of regard. She needed him. Couldn’t he hear it?
“It’s really bad,” she said.
Then she hung up.
The first time she’d ever done that to anyone. Though she’d long seen it in movies, admired those black-and-white vamps who seized the last word, asserted their power. Now, having done it, she didn’t feel especially powerful.
She moved her car. She dumped cups of rainwater down the sink. She stood outside the front door, under the battered eave, and watched the water climb the first step, then the second, until finally, mercifully, the rain softened to a drizzle, then stopped. She gazed out upon the wet world. A brackish expanse, silvered with sunlight.
Ultimately, he did leave the camp early. Or rather, they ended it early and sent everyone home because of the storm. It took my father two hours to make the drive, through downed trees and confused traffic, then he waded for half a mile to reach the house. He arrived with his pants soaked and rolled past his hairy knees, his duffel drooping from his head like a failed wig.
He squelched into the house and then, perhaps in contrition, immediately slogged back into the soup to get groceries. He did always have a knack for that—those gestures that said sorry without saying sorry—and this time it would take a lot.
But before any of that, when she was still standing over the slammed phone, her hands shaking. All alone with an act of God closing in. And even though the floor below her was dry, the kitchen where she stood may as well have been the center of the ocean. She wanted to pray—her whole life she’d been someone who prayed—but she couldn’t find the words. There were only feelings. Anger, distress—and her parents had taught her to never pray while angry, lest she ask for something she regret.
Then, somehow, it washed over her: the sense that she wasn’t afraid anymore. That nothing worse could happen, no matter what followed. She drew no strength from this, could draw no strength from it. She’d already lost something she’d never get back. But the rest of her would remain.
Before the wedding, she’d never had a doubt. He’d been the one with doubts. The prospect of marrying a shikse, of a life not fully Jewish, even though his life up to then was at most Jewish Lite. In this moment, though, he no longer existed. Plenty of times before and after when he’d be her entire world, her rock against life’s maelstroms, and plenty of times he’d be irrelevant. But he didn’t get to decide which. And neither did she.
The room was drenched in shadow, with just enough light to see by. The day had never really arrived, yet she hadn’t turned on any lights. She let the switches be and walked to the front hall for her keys.
Jeffrey Wolf was a finalist for the Third Coast Fiction Prize and the Arkansas International Emerging Writer’s Prize. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Bat City Review, Jewish Fiction .net and elsewhere. He has an MFA from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale and teaches at Columbia College Chicago.