This profited little, as only a moment later there was a sharp set of knuckles on the door.
“Jerome Isaac, are you awake?”
Most children of fifteen dread the middle name when called by their mother. But Jerome Isaac Hershel was an exception. He expanded on this typical phenomenon to also include the first name, deciding he wished to be called “Jay” and not anything remotely like Jerome Isaac. And that would be that.
However the knocking continued.
Jerome Isaac? I want you up and out of bed.”
He stuffed a pillow over his ears. The door opened and light from the hallway spilled in. There were no locks in the Hershel house.
“You need to be up!” Jay’s mother said almost in a bellow. Of course she wasn’t angry, as anger is something that must pass at some point after enough exertion. This was her way.
It had been her way since Jay’s father had temporally relocated to Kensington Hospital and then permanently to the Hebrew Cemetery two years ago. Women from the neighborhood had come by day and the men from the temple had come by night the in week following. One they were gone all that was left was a mother’s sharpness.
The curtains were now open and his mother’s hand had pulled the pillow away. Jay sat up.
“The bathroom’s free so you can wash up. Your sisters are ready, they’re going early with me to help set some things up in hall.”
Jay shut his eyes.
“I’m not going today.”
“I’m not going today,” he repeated.
His eyes were still defiantly shut. At this his mother pulled the bedclothes away and her son’s eyes opened.
“Please not today. Your cousins are joining us this morning and as the oldest you have to set the example. Now up!”
She turned and stood in the doorway.
“We’ll meet you at the temple before the service. You need to be there before it fills up.”
And with that she threw the light switch and the bulbs in the ceiling fan came on. Jay shut his eyes again.
“I don’t even care.”
He wondered if anybody heard him.
The sun was awake by the time Jay dutifully put on the blue suit and green print tie that hung over the back of his desk chair. The suit was from a downtown department store and was only brought off its heavy wooden hangar for the most solemn of occasions. Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, was one such time.
Every September that that the Jews of Richmond would gather in their gray stone temple on Franklin Street, the sliver of a moon that marked the beginning of the ancient calendar having been sighted the night before. They had watched for the autumn moon of 1942 in the middle of a blackout drill.
But it didn’t settle well with Jay. None of it did. He had hoped for an early flu or some other crippling illness. This forlorn hope was mulling around in his head as he went down the creaking staircase and out the front door to the corner of Robinson and Grove.
He hated the air raid sirens tearing through the night. He hated the old ladies with their sagging faces taking up nickels for refugees ten thousand miles away. He hated bickering and being told to set the example for those who were bickering themselves.
And then there was Walter.
Walter Braunstein sat across the aisle at the Beth Ahabah Reform Temple. Never the center of attention in a room but still a sociable and an active member of the congregation. By all accounts a decent man.
Jay was certain he kept at least one of his wandering eyes on his mother. Only two years gone by and already there was a balding furniture store clerk was looking his mother up and down from the opposite pew. Eldest child or not, example or none, this was too much for him.
He wasn’t taking the Robinson streetcar to Broad and riding along to the corner where he’d walk up to the heavy columns of the temple. Today he wouldn’t sit in the crowded sanctuary and listen to the Hebrew of the ancient sages. He started walking to the river.
It was a still morning crossing the neighborhood. There were only a few cars on the Boulevard and some ladies in their early autumn colors. He passed the Confederate Widows’ Home, a cluster of quiet buildings and promenades across a green lawn. It was quiet in the way hillside tombs are quiet.
A truck rattling over an iron manhole cover shook him from his thoughts of place, thoughts of souls leaving their habitations. He continued to walk. Some of the thoughts returned.
After some time he came to the slow rise of Oregon Hill, a pocket of matchwood houses painted in blues and yellows. Most of their occupants worked in the factories along the riverfront, worshiped in the brick Protestant churches of the neighborhood, and buried their dead within the pointed iron gates at Hollywood.
Behind him the Carillion rang out the hour from across Byrd Park. Nine o’clock. It was a monument to the dead Virginians from the Great War. Jay wondered if they’d build another one when this war was over.
“Hey boy! Yeah, you!” a voice said from somewhere. Jay turned around. “Why ain’t you in school, boy?”
It was coming from a porch across the street. Jay looked closer. An old man wrapped in a dark flannel blanked sat in a chair.
“Huh? Why not?”
Jay had frozen in place. The old man was ugly, no not ugly, but he hadn’t aged well. It was as if something had worn down his face and set his eyes further back in his head. They looked at each other for a moment before Jay turned and moved quickly to the end of the block.
With the blocks of houses behind him he came along the downward slope past Hollywood. The Victorian graves and family vaults of the ivy-green cemetery stood out against the horizon. Soon he could see the end of the neighborhood.
Climbing down from the heights he crossed a shallow remnant of the old canal, his socks and black leather Oxfords left in a nearby bush and the bottoms of his pants rolled up below the knee. Then up again, a steeper ridge with freight tracks along the top, and down to the river.
He stood in the water. Looking east he saw the rapids, white foam churning beneath bridges and rail trestles. Further along the ironworks and other foundries smoked and churned out whatever they could hurl at the Germans.
This was as far as he could bring himself to go. The river was too rough further out, and he couldn’t rightly go back now, so he just stood in the water. A sentinel at the city’s edge.
There was a Hebrew-English service book in his jacket pocket. A gift from his Uncle Hershel the day he first stood up to read the Torah scroll in front of the congregation. Too often he pretended to follow along in the little book while the rabbi recited the words of Moses and the eyes from across the aisle watched his mother.
They’d be blowing the shofar by now. One of the men of Beth Ahabah would be letting out trumpet-like blasts from a hollowed out ram’s horn, an ancient call to prayer and a strange sound of comfort. Jay missed that in spite of everything else that seemed to strangle him about the temple.
He took the little book from his pocket and thumbed through to the day’s service. When he had found it he put his kippah on the top of his head and placed the silk tallit around his neck, neither of which he ever remembered wearing in public before.
The words were strange as well. He spoke them aloud, the readings from the Torah, though the water passing though the rapids downriver made him unheard to the world. After several pages he came to the sounds of the shofar. He stopped and then called out in Hebrew.
Jay paused and tried to imagine the sound. But he started to hear something else. A low rumble that he knew wasn’t in his head.
Behind him rolling between the canal and the riverbank was a great black freight engine, pulling a stretch of what must’ve been a hundred and fifty cars, loaded down with Appalachian coal. The engine blared out a single whistle, the solemn sound carrying downriver.
Jay quickly turned around and watched the massive train plough across the rise below Hollywood. He recited the second call.
The engine blasted three whistles as it rounded a short bend. Black smoke bellowed from the furnace and the coal cars screeched along behind. The final call.
The train gave a loud bellowing whistle, longer than any of the rest. It echoed across the rapids and all the way to the power station on the south side of the river.
Jay watched it pass, continuing on to the trestle crossing by the ironworks and on to the crowded district of factories further down. There were no more whistles, only the screeching and rattling of the wheels as they slowed along the canal. Jay took off the tallit and wiped his forehead. He had been sweating.
Back towards the cemetery he got his shoes from the undergrowth and found himself in the neighborhood again walking by paint-chipped houses and overgrown front yards that spilled out into the street. There was a line of charity children outside St. Andrew’s Hall filing through the huge red doors of the chapel with their faces to the ground. Some of them didn’t have any shoes.
“What are you doin’ now? Huh?”
The old man was still on his porch. Jay had carelessly arrived at his front gate.
“Come here, lemme see ya.”
Jay took a step forward and put his hand on the wrought-iron fence.
“You still ain’t in school,” the old man said. His skin was stretched over his cheekbones like thin canvas.
“No, sir,” Jay replied.
“Well why ain’t ya?”
“It’s a holy day,” He thought the truth wouldn’t hurt at least once.
The old man’s breathing was rough. He mumbled something as the screen door creaked open. A black woman in a neat dress stepped onto the porch.
“Would you be liking your coffee now, Captain Lacy?” She asked in a gentle voice.
“Lemme go inside.” The old man responded.
She picked up the blanket that had been draped over his body and began to fold it. Jay watched in surprise.
Both the man’s legs were gone and his right arm stopped at the elbow. His left hand had been maimed and was missing a few fingers. The nurse finally caught Jay watching.
“It ain’t becoming to stare like that.”
He knew it wasn’t and he started for home.