God’s Appointments

Now forty, Moshe was what his mother called “stale goods”—his father preferred “bum”—and those in their fold had begun to speculate on what might be stalling a match. He knew he was not exactly handsome, his ears a bit big, and pockmarks on his cheeks. But there were other features—pale green, tender eyes, a slim build—that could please, and he tried his best to be well-mannered, though he was shy. He lived in Borough Park, in a sparse little walk-up owned by his parents, who lived one floor above him. When they came downstairs to visit, they quibbled endlessly. He had thought many times of changing the locks.

His block was lined with Callery pear trees and stubby brick buildings that blended into one another. He dreaded running into relatives outside; to read, he sat in a public garden far enough uptown that no one he knew would find him.

“You don’t like people,” his mother said. “That’s your trouble.”

Starting on his fortieth birthday, she came to him each week with a picture—women both comely and plain, tall and small, his age and half that—but each time he refused, and she went away muttering grievances.

One morning, as he was reading, she cracked open his door and grinned like always.

“Moshe, Moshe, Moshe,” she said. “Today I’ve got a good one.”

It was always a good one. His mother was tiny and plump, with pale, waxy skin and a tenacity that tired him as soon as she came in. He had resigned himself to her efforts. He let her try, let her pitch the women like they were cars in a shabby lot.

“Let me see,” he said.

She sat beside him and held a Polaroid up to the light.

“Her name is Evie. Look at her. Look at that face. How can you say no to that face?”

He looked. Pretended to consider. Evie was maybe ten years his junior and looked sweeter than some of the others: earnest, and shy, with soft features that suggested little of the sour compla­cency he had come to expect. Her eyes had dark circles that appealed to him, and her lips were as thin as her face, which quailed before the lens like the accused before a court.
He once had a wife. Liza. He had met her feeding ducks on a park bench, while in Yeshiva; it was not the first time he had seen her, but before then he’d never found the courage to speak. In recent years he often sat on the same bench and struggled to recall her thick, dark hair, her svelte frame, and studious eyes, which, he thought, though brown, were like his own. She was a Jew, but Reform, by no means Orthodox. He liked it that way.

Liza was sick from the day they met: a rare cancer that had come to her once in childhood and had, at the age of twenty-eight, returned. Her manner was oddly bright, in a way that made him both terribly sad and beautifully happy—though sometimes he saw her grow quiet and expressionless, staring at some patch of air, and he knew it was the sudden weight, the slowing pulse, the recollection of doom that came and went. Against the will of his parents. and hers—Liza’s family feared the prospect of a love so fragile—they were married, at a synagogue in Queens where no one judged them.

He watched her lose all her hair, vomit, cry, her sickness swallow up her soul. He watched her move from their warm linens into polycotton hospital sheets, and finally into the grave upon which he laid his useless flowers. They had only spent one year together; he dropped out of Yeshiva, thinking this the whim of a cruel God. That was ten years ago. Now he sold Judaica and lived alone.

As a boy he once sat shiva for his grandmother, and began to weep, and was scolded for it. “God does not like our tears,” his father said. “He prefers resilience. The Jews who lived never wallowed. They worked in the cold through their sorrow, even when their backs ached and legs buckled, because this was their duty to God—to live their lives, not mourn them.”

When Liza died, his parents offered him their solemn prayers, but sat no shiva, showed no grief.
Moshe met Evie at Kip’s deli on Twelfth Avenue. Anything loftier would have been cruel, making her dress up for such a hopeless evening. He had handed back her picture to his mother and shaken his head. “I’m sorry. Not this time.”

“Sorry?” his mother had replied. “You should be. You will be. Sorry is exactly what you’ll be when you die alone. Is that what you want?”

She had thrown the picture at his lap. “You embarrass us. You embarrass yourself. Is that what you want?”

Her voice had been so loud, at such a cutting frequency, he finally said the words to make her stop: “Fine. Arrange it. I’ll go.”

It was a damp Tuesday night, and the place was near empty; a trio of dapper men had loosened their collars and ties in one of the booths, and an old couple drank coffee beside each other at the counter. He found Evie at the very back of the restaurant, in a red-leather booth by a window.

Someone was seated beside her. An old woman with coifed white hair and glasses. The mother, perhaps? That was unheard of.

“Evie?” he said. Evie waved in a clumsy, guileless way that reminded him of a child. She then made a series of hand gestures to the old woman, who nodded thoughtfully and turned to Moshe, speaking in a Slavic accent he could not identify.

“She says it’s lovely to meet you. Won’t you sit?”

He paused for a moment, looked at the both of them, and took a seat on the other side of the table. Evie gestured to the woman again, who said to Moshe, “She wants to tell you she likes your shirt.” He was wearing a white collared shirt his mother had pressed that morning.

“Can she read lips?” he asked. The woman said no.

“Then tell her . . .” he said. “Tell her me too. Tell her she looks nice.”

She gestured to Evie, who blushed, half-embarrassed, half-pleased. For two hours, Moshe spoke to the woman while looking at Evie, and the woman gestured—signed, it was called—to Evie, and Evie signed back. They each ordered sandwiches, then pie and tea, but no one ate very much.

She had been born in Brooklyn, like him. She had no siblings, like him. Her mother was dead, her father alive, and there were no previous engagements, despite her age.

“It’s not been easy for me,” she signed.

He understood what she meant, of course, though the word itself—deaf—had not been used once the entire evening. She had written copy for years, for an ad agency Uptown, and no longer worked there—she did not say the reason. She liked to read, he was happy to hear, the classics, Flaubert, Kafka, Babel, and made no mention of holy works. She believed she would very much enjoy music and regretted that it was out of reach. Sometimes she tried to paint, though, according to her, she was not very good.

He told her about his life, his family. As he talked, he began to worry that he was dull. His mother and father and uncles and aunts, and the boys in Yeshiva—he had always thought they were the dull ones. But his life, on its surface, hardly set itself apart from theirs. Except for Liza. But he would not speak about her—not with the other woman around. Perhaps not ever.

By the time the check came they had learned little about each other that could not fit into a memorandum. But there were times, looking into her eyes as the old woman relayed her messages, and his, that he felt touched by her meek, melancholic demeanor.

Before leaving, the woman looked at both of them, and seemed to realize something, and excused herself to the bathroom. Now the two were alone. She smiled. He smiled. The light was bright and the air was cold, and soon the kitchen would be closing.
Evie knew when her presence was a burden. She had once gotten a job through her father’s friend, an ad man. Everything she had came from her father—besides the freckles and small, dark eyes. Those were from her mother, whom she’d seen in pictures.

She had worked at a cluttered desk with three others, among a sea of cluttered desks. No one could sign, of course; if they wanted to tell her something, they sent it by e-mail. One day, after five years there, her father came in without notice and led her to the boss’s office in the back. He rubbed her shoulder and touched her cheek and then signed the boss’s words: they were cutting spending, letting her go.

Her father had wanted to give her something. Something to prove that the world contained pockets to which she was cordially invited. In school, there were teachers trained to help her and students who were like her, but now she was older, and they were gone.

The time had come, her father said, for marriage. She wanted to be happy. But more than that, she wanted him to see her happy. Sometimes she desired happiness more as a gift to him than out of any urgent ambition of her own.

Before Moshe, she had met with three men, alongside a paid interpreter, but the meetings were awkward—the men would speak too fast, and the interpreter would have to slow them down, or they seemed to grudge the lack of conversational flow. Neither she nor they took the next step.

Meeting Moshe, she could see his surprise—had he not been told? If not, he had handled it well. He measured his words and made sure they had made their way through the interpreter’s hands before moving on. He looked at her while he spoke.

Perhaps he was being courteous. Perhaps, right after leaving, he had wiped away his smile and gone off to admonish whoever had tricked him into suffering an evening with a deaf girl. But no. Two days later, her father received a call; it was Moshe, requesting her hand in marriage.
The wedding was small, which relieved her: no need for gossip. It was held on the roof of his building. She wore a long-sleeved, lace gown with a high neckline, and after the contract was read and the glass broken under the chuppah, there was little of the usual merriment. Meals with a blessing, at a table mostly of Moshe’s side, and some wine, and sutlatch, but no dancing. If there was music, she could not hear it.

Throughout the night, she looked over at Moshe—the two had hardly spoken since their first meeting—but he rarely looked back. When he did, he smiled politely, and that was all. After everyone left, they walked downstairs to his apartment without speaking. It was hers now, too, she realized.
He turned on the lights. It was a little place. Very bare. The walls were white, undecorated, and there was a black leather couch across from a TV, with a little bronze table between. Nothing about it seemed deliberate. The kitchen, also, would be difficult to move around in. The bedroom was more of the same, with a metal platform bed that looked stiff and was not meant for two. He went to the kitchen and came back after a minute with a piece of paper, which said, “A bigger one is coming. It was supposed to be here today.”

He seemed nervous. That was good. She wanted to put her hand to his heart and slow its beating or reach in and remove something, some caught foreign object.

It was painful when he entered her, but he saw her wince and was gentle. If he moaned, she could not hear him; it occurred to her that she would never know the sound of his voice. She imagined it coarse, like his cheeks, like his beard, and at the same time soft, like his eyes. Afterward, as she lay beside him, the vibrations of his breath struck her as its own sad, soft kind of music.
In the morning he was gone. A note on the kitchen table said, “Work. Back by seven.” She had expected no honeymoon; still, it seemed abrupt. There was nothing good to eat, so she went out past the residential blocks and bought groceries: meat, bread, margarine, broth, wine. As expected, the kitchen was small, but she was a good cook and had made most of her father’s meals even as an adolescent.
When Moshe came back, she had it ready on the table: a beef stew. He sniffed the air. Smiled. They sat down at the same time, and she poured him wine and watched as he devoured his meal, spooning it in thickly and leaving the broth to dry on his beard. He finished before she did and sat for a few minutes, sipping his wine. She wondered, for a moment, why he had not thanked her, or expressed satisfaction, or told about his day, like her father always used to. Then she remembered he couldn’t sign. That was something he would learn; she would teach him.

She raised her index finger eagerly and rushed off to the kitchen. In one of the drawers she found the notepad from which he had torn a page the night before. She wrote, “Let me teach you some words!”

When she showed him the note, his face changed: it was the kind of expression one makes remembering a chore. But he smiled politely and scratched his beard and nodded, waiting, it seemed, for her to begin the lesson. Where should she begin? How had her first instructor begun? It was so long ago there was no chance of her remembering. A word, not a sentence; that seemed reasonable.

She wrote the word “me” on the notepad, and held it up, and then signed it slowly, watching his eyes. She signed it over and over and gestured for him to copy her. Hesitantly, he raised his rough, dry hands and did a clumsy, though somewhat lucid, imitation of her movements. She smiled encouragingly and gave a thumbs-up. Then she did the same with the words “you,” “us,” “here,” “home,” “life,” “God,” “husband,” and “wife.”

She doubted he would remember these—not all of them the first day, at least. Perhaps she could record a video of herself and he could study them when he liked. Or she could buy him a book. He followed along well enough, but this seemed like a concession, and she could see his diligence wearing thin after the fourth or fifth word. They would continue the next night, she decided. Eventually, things would begin to stick, as they had with her when she was a child. Repetition, persistence. With repetition, with persistence, things would change.
In bed, his usual desire was to read. It was his version of ritual. Now that she lay beside him, it would be no different. He showed her a drawer full of books in the dresser, which she now had half of, and she chose a book he had not yet read, by an author whose name meant nothing to him. He liked that she read. He supposed it was because she was deaf that she didn’t watch TV, and that struck him as a small, bitter blessing. TV dulled the brain. He had one simply to keep him company while he cooked and cleaned—as a bachelor, the quiet sometimes got lonely. In that way, too, he supposed they were alike; quiet was all she had ever known.

That was lonelier than most things he could imagine. It must have kept her at arm’s length from the world. There were times, looking at her, when he felt pity. He knew it was a smug impulse —what right did he have to pity her? He barely knew her, and his life was not so charmed that he could pretend to be some benevolent angel. But every now and then he couldn’t help it.

“You don’t like people,” his mother had said. But she was wrong. It wasn’t people he disliked, but those around him: their thoughtless worship, their smug morals, their deference to God at the cost of life, humor, passion. Not to mention the filthy payot and beard, and heavy clothes they wore in summer.

The thought of their choosing a match for him had been frightening.

All of it had the stench of tradition: a rote chain of maneuvers guiding him toward some common fate. But the prospect of Evie, at the very least, didn’t make him shudder. He was getting older. Less desirable. And the quiet did get very lonely.

Every night, he sat with her at the little round dining table, and they glanced at each other, straining to find some pulse of love or affection. It was as quiet as ever. He knew she expected some­thing more of him. Was she waiting for some burst of passion, some baring of his soul? There was no passion to give and little soul to show. Her deafness didn’t help. But he doubted much would have changed without it.

Love. Happiness. Husband. Wife. These were the words he remembered best. He watched while she made her gestures and mimicked them as best he could, but often couldn’t hold them in his mind for more than a few hours. The thought that he could become fluent and speak with her about anything of substance from these brief lessons struck him as absurd. But still he watched, and mimicked, because he didn’t have the heart to say no. Love. Happiness. Husband. Wife. When she was asleep, he sometimes practiced the words in the dark, trying to feel them in his blood.
After work, on the Sabbath, he came home to an assortment of candles on the dining table. The white walls were flickering orange and black. He had never thought the place could look so nice. Evie was sitting with a brisket laid out in front of her, and wine, and when he sat down, she got up to kiss him on the cheek. She held up an index finger, as he had seen her do many times before, and soon came back from the kitchen with a note: “I have an idea!”

She flipped it to its backside.

In smaller lettering it said, “You could go to night school! I found a community college that teaches a course. We can finally talk!”
It was twenty minutes’ walking distance from the apartment. The course was an hour long, three days a week. She seemed so excited, he could not refuse her, though he wanted to. He was tired, had little time as it was. He never liked school. And if he did learn the language, he might find out through speaking it that he and Evie had nothing in common. They would see each other, finally, truly see each other, without the barrier between them, and there was a good chance they wouldn’t like what was on the other side.

She had bought him a yellow three-ring binder full of loose-leaf paper and pockets for stray papers, homework, handouts. On the front she had written, in marker, his full name and address in case the binder was lost. It made him sad, the effort she put in—watching her present it to him like an unwrapped gift. Her large, tidy handwriting, the bright color she chose. When he saw it, all he could think of was the burden, the pleading expectation, it seemed to imply.

The building was brick and glass, hard-edged, with steps leading up to its entrance and a bare lawn. The class was held in a gray lecture room with concave rows of seats that sunk down gradually to the professor, who signed in front of a chalkboard. Just like Evie, he wrote the words, then signed them. Moshe had no idea how to take notes on this kind of thing. He only listened. The professor, reciting his syllabus, stated that the first half of the semester would be dedicated exclusively to words, while the second half would integrate grammar. Grammar—this was not something he knew even existed in sign.

His mind often wandered. At dinner, when Evie asked what he had learned, he struggled to recall more than a few simple phrases. Her face turned a little crestfallen.

“How are you?” he learned to say. “Good,” she responded. “Dinner is good.” “I’m happy you like it.” But nothing remotely substantial.

With Liza, in the best moments, talking was not just an exchange of facts but of secrets, of souls: obscure fears and desires that they had wondered about privately for years and now could wonder about together. Communion.

No matter how fluent he became, no matter how elaborate his gestures, that sort of thing was impossible for him now, with anyone, let alone someone who required such a slow, broken method. It was not Evie’s fault; he hoped he would not make her suffer for it.
Four months had passed since the wedding. She made his food, made the bed, ironed his clothes, swept the house. If they ever had a child, she would raise it. But now there was little to do. He didn’t spend much time at home, and she sometimes wondered if he idled for a while in the park or in a bar before coming back, to avoid her. When they read together, she had a highlighter in her pocket and would highlight parts that struck her, and show him: the last passage in “The Dead,” in Dubliners. The quote in East of Eden, “But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul.” He nodded thoughtfully and smirked, acknowledging its truth.

Aside from keeping kosher, and Shabbat, Judaism was hardly a presence in their home. They went through the motions of a life that had been thrust upon them, and with which they could not identify—if they had sworn it off completely, they would have caused trouble, so they chose instead this subtle rebellion.

It was not yet cold enough for snow, but there was a troubling chill in the wind, and she wore her fleece to the grocery store, the supermarket, the laundromat. The Callery pear trees had shed their leaves, which settled around scaly bark, and the fruit that remained was eaten by birds and squirrels. Moshe must have begun to resent his obligation, travelling to and from the class in such unpleasant weather. Now he usually fell asleep before her, sometimes sitting up, hands cradling a book. When this happened, she took the book away and woke him gently so that he could rest in a proper position.

She had once read, in a book of Jewish proverbs, the quote, “Whoever does not see God everywhere does not see Him anywhere.” She tried to see God in Moshe, but all she could see was the man beside her, sullen, tired, echoing her own disappointments.

When Moshe’s mother came to visit, she complimented Evie on the state of the apartment. She had scrubbed the floors and counters, bought new linens, new cookware. “You’ve straightened out my boy,” his mother said. “He’s always been a pig.”

When Evie’s father asked if she was pleased, she told him yes, things were good, wondering if—almost hoping—he could feel her uncertainty. But he only pinched her cheek and grinned the hearty grin she knew well, which made big dimples, even through his heavy beard.
Moshe quit the course in November. The walk was too cold, he decided. He was learning so slowly, so clumsily, and by the end of the semester, Evie would remain a stranger. What then? Another semester? Another after that? It was useless.

Each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday after work he went to a deli—not the one where they’d met—and read, or watched the customers, making whatever item he’d bought last the length of the class. Evie by now had stopped asking what he’d learned, so he didn’t have to lie. He thought maybe she knew; if she did, she probably would have feigned ignorance anyway.

A few times, he felt her crying. She was turned the other way in her blanket, and there was no moan or whimper. He didn’t know if she could make those sounds. But he could feel her body quivering, and heard quick, sharp sniffles in the dark.

Liza had cried this same way, many times, even on nights when hours before she had appeared cheerful. She was determined to bear it alone. Still, he told her, in a whisper, that he was awake. He told her she was not alone. He touched her neck, her breast. That thick, dark hair.
It was in these moments when he could not see Evie at all, when she didn’t even know he was there, that he felt a slight pull in her direction. But then in the morning he would wake, the light startling, the tenderness gone.
She knew, at least, that his binder was empty. He kept it on his side of the dresser, took it with him to every class, and every two weeks or so she looked to see if he had taken any notes. A single note might have been enough. A single, simple scribble, to show he had once, if even for a moment, cared. But every page was empty, as pristine as the day she had bought the binder. He had disliked her idea from the minute she told him. It was pity that made him say yes. She had known it well, all her life.

There was no use asking him, confronting him. She guessed that he had stopped showing up weeks ago, maybe months, or never gone at all, but if he did go, it was pity, that was all it was. He had no desire to know her; she was there to cook, to clean, to keep away his griping mother. She was there to provide him a wife. It was no thought of his to provide her a husband.
Early December, he came home to find the kitchen burning.

It was a Wednesday night, and he had spent the past two hours in the deli; he was sick of this routine, but there was nothing else he could think to do, nowhere else he could think to go. When he opened the door, a fire was shooting up fiercely from one of the stove burners, and a thick smoke had made its way across the room. The alarm was going. Evie was out of sight.

He ran to the closet for an extinguisher, and fumbled with the nozzle for a minute before aiming it at the fire. When the fire was out, smoke covered most of the stove, but he could see the far edges blackened, with little vibrant patches the color of rust. The upper cabinets, too, were scorched black at the bottom. He stood on a chair and disabled the alarm, and then everything was quiet except the hiss of dying metal.

He sat down at the kitchen table, waiting for his heart to slow, waiting for the smoke to clear. The alarm’s harsh, tripled rhythm was still ringing in his ears; it seemed to make its way into his body, his blood, his quivering hands. He imagined Evie like the stove: black as tar, burned beyond saving—shriveled in some strange position, and dead.

His mother would weep—if only for the marriage, and not for Evie herself; his father would say his prayers and hug him, perhaps, and his neighbors would come to him with things they had baked, with condolences. The shiva would be a long, solemn affair. But what would he feel? He didn’t know. All he felt now, though the fire was out, was fear.
She was in the bedroom’s bathroom when it began. A quick break while the vegetables were on, something she had done countless times before. Of course, she had not heard the alarm, and at first the faint smell of smoke did not concern her. When she came back, she saw what had happened and saw him by the clouded stove, his eyes wide, his face drained of color. He said something to her that she thought was loud. Maybe he was yelling. Few people had ever yelled at her—it was no use (her father had done it once or twice in frustration)—but she knew anger by the deeply furrowed brows and the pinched face and the mouth, which opened and closed rapidly, like shutters during a storm.
You almost killed yourself.

He looked at her, waiting for her to understand. It occurred to him that this was absurd. But her expression, so confused, so candid and vulnerable, filled him with a strange contempt, a desire to punish—and, at the same time, a terrible, unwelcome warmth.

Her hands made a series of gestures, some of which he actually recognized.

“I’m sorry.” “I didn’t know.”
She tried to read his lips, then his face. Some hint of good will, some glimmer of forgiveness. But there was none. Instead, he went past her into the bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed and put his head in his hands. She saw him through the doorway like that, his awkward frame hunched over, his elbows against his knees.

She had never hated him. Seeing those blank pages, all she had felt was the misfortune that had been laid upon the both of them—their supposed fate, to live among each other’s loneliness, to pledge themselves to each other, whom they barely knew, whom they did not love, because life had presented them with nothing better.

Sometimes, when he came home, she thought of signing furiously: “You can’t understand a word I say, can you? I could say anything. I could call you scum if I wanted, the biggest bastard I’ve ever known, and you wouldn’t have a clue. Would you? Would you?” In her mind, the words rose in volume, began to pierce the air. But even then she had known, somewhere deep within her anger, that he didn’t mean to hurt her. It was his weakness, not his cruelty, that hurt her.
He was crying only slightly—a thin, trembling sheen of tears. It had been so long since he last cried, and the feeling, the wet, painful warmth, was strange and foreign to him. He hid his face so Evie would not see. But when he finally looked up, she was there in the doorway, staring. For the first time, there was something in her eyes he truly recognized: Mercy, maybe. Forgiveness.