Mathew Goldberg

Teshuvah

Fishbein keyed Rabbi J’s Subaru as it collected ragweed outside the garden center. Or, more accurately, he knifed the car using the souvenir pocketknife he’d discovered at a sidewalk shop on the Buda side of the Danube. The smooth grain of the handle conjured Magyars leaping head-first into scimitars. Fishbein traversed the driver’s side of the car and faked a phone call, dragging the squealing blade across the shiny, crimson hatchback—a new-model Subaru that fit an NGO-worker better than a man who’d spent the last ten years behind bars.

Earlier this Saturday, at Temple Beth Shalom, Fishbein said yahrzeit for Mark Susskind and spied Rabbi J two rows in front of him, J reading and chanting as if nothing had happened. J wasn’t a rabbi anymore, but Fishbein still thought of him as one. And even though Fishbein hadn’t seen J since Fishbein quit Hebrew school in seventh grade, he recognized the man right away. A cheap, polyester suit hung loose from J’s shoulders, the top of J’s spine bent into a stoop, and a black yarmulke floated in a lake of bare scalp. J used to be a titan; then again, in middle-school, anyone over five-eight was a giant. Back then, J had a red, unruly beard touched by fire, but now, his beard and hair were both thin and gray. The early April sun gleamed through a ribbon of stained glass, and J mouthed Ein Kamokha while his long fingers trembled over the words in his prayer book. Fishbein shut his siddur and squeezed his fingers white. 

After the service, Fishbein waited in the synagogue’s lot, then tailed J through Olney, Maryland. J drove slowly, signaling well ahead of turns, stopping for every bike and pedestrian. He parked at a garden center located between a Safeway and a brewery. J pried off his tie and dress shirt right there in the lot before yanking on a polo emblazoned with the shop’s name: Good Earth. Potted trees lined the shop’s entrance, and J made for the large outdoor garden where crisscrossed scaffolding swallowed him whole. 

Through the Subaru’s windows, Fishbein spied crumpled fast-food wrappers, a bag of sunflower seeds, and a pint of rubbing alcohol. The doors appeared unlocked, which, for some reason, infuriated Fishbein. After slashing the car—a mark for Mark—Fishbein retracted the knife and crept into the outdoor garden. Look like you belong, he told himself. At MITRE, Fishbein engineered aerospace threat-detection. He designed a digital sensory net that would allow warships to shoot down ballistic missiles just after their launch. The Budapest conference concerned mobile radar systems.  During his MITRE interview, the recruiter had asked, “How would you feel if you designed something that led to the loss of human life?” 

“I’ve never thought of that,” Fishbein had said. 

Fan whirred inside the garden center, spreading the rich odor of mulch and potting soil. Hoses dripped, and water pooled on the stone floor. Fishbein hung back and pretended to examine rosemary as J arranged basil and mint at a nearby table. J stooped over, his fingers shaking as he tweezed wilted leaves and hummed the Kaddish. Fishbein felt a migraine coming on and pressed his fingers to his temples. 

“I’m sorry.” A woman wearing a Nationals cap approached J. 

“Don’t be sorry,” J said. “I’m here to help.”

“I can’t find the lavender,” the woman said.

“The holy herb,” J said, straightening up. “Is it ornamental use? Culinary? Medicinal? Are you doing the yard?”

Doing the yard. The voice was the same—that sing-song Yoda-voice ending on a rise.

“It’s for the backyard,” the woman said. “You know, to add color.”

“You can’t help but love this color,” J said, his eyes, behind wrinkles and pockmarks, still that sharp jade.

“Home Depot is cheaper,” the woman said.

“True, true,” J said, “but we stand by our products. You’re paying for service.”

The woman squinted at a price tag. “I don’t know.”

“If you have insomnia or headaches,” J said, “lavender is a miracle drug. Clip some and rub a little on your wrists before bed, then sniff to de