Black Doesn't Show Stains

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March 16, 2010

Just when Mom started telling me stories about my father and her time on the kibbutz, she stopped. She spoke instead about Bill, who she’d met at the health food store.

“What, are you guys going to eat some tofu together? Light some incense?” I asked.

Mom ignored the edge in my voice. “No, he’s a chef,” she said. “He’s going to cook me dinner Friday night.”

“If the restaurant doesn’t want him on Fridays he must not be very good,” I said. “And what about burritos?”

“We can have them some other time.”

“Who will light the candles?”

“You can do it yourself.”

I wasn’t sure.

When I’d been at Ruti’s for Shabbat dinner, Mrs. Schuster had placed two silver candlesticks, topped with long white tapers, on the table. She struck a match and moved the flame from one wick to another. We stood, silent, as she covered her eyes and said a prayer. When she finished, we’d sounded a chorus of Shabbat Shaloms.

Mom used an old plate with a crack in it. She took the lighter, the same one she used for incense, and held the flame to the bottom of the candles, heating the wax until it dripped onto the dish. Then she stuck them on the plate and lit the wicks. She didn’t cover her eyes and she didn’t pray, so we skipped that part.

I wondered if we were doing things right. And I wondered if thirteen-year-old girls were allowed to light candles alone. Or did the mother need to be there?

I wanted to ask Mom but the look on her face told me she wasn’t taking any more questions. I decided I’d check with Ruti instead.

“You know the rules,” Mom said as she was leaving. “Stay inside and don’t answer the door for anyone. I’ll call to check on you in a couple of hours, but if anyone else calls, don’t tell them you’re alone.”

“Don’t you think I’m a little young to be alone at night anyways?” I asked.

Mom stood, one hand on the doorknob, her keys in the other. She was dressed in black, as always. I asked her once why she wore the same color all the time and she said, “Everything matches this way. And black doesn’t show stains.”

Her purse hung from her shoulder. I thought to walk over and ease it down her arm. I’d rest it on the floor and tell her, “We’ll light candles together. I can cook you dinner. We don’t have to have burritos if you don’t want them. I can make pasta, or eggs, or grilled cheese…”

“If you are old enough to ask that question, then no,” she said.

The key turned in the lock.

I sat on the couch, alone, a pillow on my lap. Mom sewed the case from threadbare sheets, patterned with delicate birds and sprigs of jasmine. I remembered sitting on the sofa with her when she made them.

Outside, the sky was deepening; the cicadas’ song was slowing. I’d forgotten to ask Ruti if I could light the candles. I hurried to the phone. If I didn’t reach her now, before Shabbat, I wouldn’t get an answer until after Saturday night.

I sat on the gossip bench in the hallway. The phone cord was short, and our house was small, so nothing was private. It was scary when Mom sat in the bathroom crying, but I liked listening to her on the phone. The way she laughed with her friends. The pride on her face when she looked at me, sitting on the couch, and bragged about how well I was doing in school. How she would give me a little wave when she was talking, to let me know she was still with me.

I got the Schusters’ machine. “Hi, Ruti. It’s me, Alma,” I said. “Can you call me as soon as you get this? It’s sort of an emergency.”

The sky was a heavy blue, so thick I almost couldn’t see the color. Ruti hadn’t called back. Shabbat had started. It was time.

I took the plate and the box of candles from the drawer next to the sink. I went Mom’s makeshift Sai Baba shrine in the living room and grabbed the lighter. As I walked back to the kitchen, I realized that I’d never lit anything by myself before.

The candles we used were squat, not graceful, like the Mrs. Schuster’s. I thought of Ruti and her family. They’d be sitting down to eat. If Mom wasn’t with Bill, we’d be tucking into our burritos now—Mom with a fork and knife, me with my hands. I hated the way the beans went all over my fingers, but I liked how Mom smiled and teased me about the mess.

I ran my thumb over the metal on top of the lighter, like Mom did. Thft! Thft! It sparked, but didn’t catch. I tried again, pushing down harder, my finger hurting a little from the wheel’s ridges, but there was no flame.

The cicadas stopped buzzing. The house dropped into silence. I thought of the quiet that took hold when Mom meditated Saturday mornings, with a door between us. That was frightening, but this—a stillness that felt complete, final—was worse.

I stood, listening. That’s when I heard the hissing coming from the hallway. The water heater, I thought. Gas. Our tiny house—the sagging wood frame, the pine floorboards—was a tinder box.

I dropped the lighter onto the counter. I looked around the kitchen. What else could catch on fire? The toaster, the coffee maker, the fridge. I unplugged them all.

I raced through the living room, pulling the cords than ran from the TV, the clock, the lamp, the stereo, and the air conditioner. I ran to Mom’s room and then mine, yanking the clocks off the bedside tables.

I stopped in front of the phone. It wasn’t plugged into an outlet. But it was connected to the wall and it was right across from the water heater. I thought of electricity, sparks, surging up the line when Mom called from Bill’s. I thought of our house in flames.

I wrenched the cord free.

I sat down on the couch and looked outside. The sky was black. I took a pillow onto my lap and rested my hands on top of it, waiting.

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