Caleb – Dog or Heart by Matthew Corey

Caleb woke up thinking about the inherent contradiction in his name, feeling every which way about it.

There was no agreement in Yiddish, only that it meant “dog.”

Did it make him a cur? Or was it meant that he was loyal, man’s best friend? That he had a lot of heart. The jury was still out, after all these years. He knew people that could make both sides of the argument in regards to him.

He went downstairs to make a cup of coffee.

The coffee maker stood ready like a friend at the counter. He was going to take it black that morning. It was Yom Kippur. As he ground the beans, his own lack of interest in most Jewish tradition and the concurrent disappointment of his parents came to mind. They even stopped calling during the holidays. He might go home to visit them in December, but the dates would more coincide with when the office was closed, rather than Chanukah. The tight-lipped look of distaste on his grandmother’s face, whenever she was around him and his sister now came to mind.

He poured the water in the percolator. One cup per one and half-scoops.

His sister came around though. She married―a doctor, naturally, Jewish. They had fraternal twins very soon after, Mordecai and Esther. She hosted Passovers. The last year of our grandmother’s life, he thought, at least gave her that much.

His sister and her family would already be well into their fast.

His began, and more or less ended, with the coffee. Usually he made it light and sweet – a splash of milk from the Farmer’s Market and one sugar. The bitterness of coffee never sat well with him. It was the caffeine―the hand or arm that reached out and pulled him out of bed every morning, against all odds, and aligned the clutter of his thoughts with just enough clarity to start the day.

So, taking it black that morning, and suffering the bitter taste, was part of a fast for him. He ate during the day, but small amounts, and only when hungry. If there were a birthday, or celebration at the office, he wouldn’t eat the sweets. He just stayed in the background, laughed and talked.

It was hard to explain it to others. It fell short of the standards of his practicing Jewish friends, and met with complete indifference to everyone else. But to him it kept the moments of the High Holy Days, which represented most of the highs and lows of his childhood, very much alive . It was like keeping a small flame going. What were the Roman women called? Vestal Virgins: goddesses of the hearth.

His Uncle Bert. The allergist who disappeared one year, leaving a distraught wife and three kids. He resurfaced in Alberta, Canada a few months later. He was having an affair with one of his patients, a woman who also had a family and was also married. They both decided to run off after they found out she was pregnant.

The brooding breakfasts after, with his Aunt Sam, the said distraught wife, who, although she wasn’t a direct relation (Bert was his mother’s sister), thought it best to keep celebrating with the family, maybe in the hope of Bert returning one day.

“No chance,” Caleb’s father and mother agreed.

“Is she coming again this year?” Caleb’s father would routinely ask.

Caleb’s mother just nodded. His father would try to hide his disgust behind the broadly opened newspaper, but the telltale signs were the growl caught in the bottom of the man’s throat, and in his fingers crinkling the edges of the paper.

The coffee might’ve been crazy, but no more so than his friend Katharine’s mother, who came one year when he was a teenager. She explained, or over-explained, or volunteered, while the lox and herring were brought out and being passed, how she had gotten a dispensation from her Rabbi (she was Orthodox) to be allowed to take a caffeine suppository.

They got every last detail―the experience of putting it in, how long it took for the caffeine to reach her head, her not knowing and forgetting to ask the doctor when it was appropriate to take it out.

My mother quiet. My father paused passing a plate, looking at Katharine’s mother, waiting to see if there was a punchline to all this. Katharine just looking at her food, a small, polite smile on her face. My sister and I exchanging looks. We both just saw Trainspotting, the most un-Jewish movie we could possibly see around then, and both learned what a suppository was from it. Aunt Sam and her three kids perplexed, but keeping quiet, maybe feeling less like a burden for once compared to this woman.

“How many do you think she took?” my father asked my mother later, while they loaded the dishwasher.

“Enough not to spare us anything,” my mother said.

Caleb tastes the coffee. The bitterness does have some appeal. Maybe it’s how he makes it, or the kind he buys. Plus, the holidays are late this year, so having the warm cup in hand on its own is a plus. He heads to the kitchen window and looks out at the bare branches in the yard.

Bits of Halloween-colored confetti blowing in circles in the high wind, mixing with the newly fallen yellow and orange leaves. His thoughts begin to perk up and draw some lines. The cluster of leaves and confetti is picked up again by another breeze, and tumbles out of sight, past the edge of the broad, bay window.


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