By Maris Finn
The congregation grew ornery. Word on the street was that the rabbi’s sermon would be the sermon to end all sermons. He usually reserved his best material for the High Holy Days, so a little rhapsody during Hanukkah would be a treat, even though so much running around still had to be done.
“In closing,” said the rabbi, “I urge you to do something nice for the environment this Hanukkah. And,” he pointed his finger in the air, holding the congregation’s attention by a thread, “Your clutter. Instead of buying eight new presents, why not wrap up eight items in your home and send them to loved ones?”
Few things shook the congregants to their core more than being accused of clutter. Many of them had resolved to reduce their carbon footprint this year. After services that night, after a rainbow cookie and a paper cup of decaf in the flex space, the congregants went home and pawed through their belongings.
The first boxing-up was easy. Everyone was able to find eight tchotchkes they wouldn’t miss. But when the congregants returned home after the first mailing, they were surprised to see that there was still clutter. Another eight items were rounded up, wrapped in newsprint, and shipped. The post office started offering coffee and donuts to those waiting in line.
“No gifts in return! Downsizing this year,” they wrote on handmade cards. They received very nice phone calls of thanks which lifted them up to the ceiling.
At the next service, the rabbi told the congregants that he and his family did four shipments of eight items apiece over the course of a week. A woman in the front pew said she did six. The rabbi got a mischievous look on his face.
“Hear me out,” he said. “What if we each did chai – eighteen – shipments of eight items apiece?” He held his hands in the air as if holding an enormous beach ball.
The congregation murmured. One hundred and forty-four items! They’d have to start giving the good stuff away.
“I challenge you. Be brutal! This congregation is abundant in its belongings. Think of it as merely storing your items elsewhere. They’ll be with family and friends, yes? So when you go visit them, there your things will be.”
The next day, the post office had its busiest day ever. Whole families went to the post office together and brought dollies to cart their items from the car. Untold dollars that would have been spent on buying gifts poured into the post office.
Families started inviting each other over to brag about their emptiness. The ones who were the most ‘brutal’ only had their large furniture and the most basic dish sets and linens remaining. Some families started raiding their pantries and making shipments to food banks. The rabbi caught wind of that and suggested it to the congregation the next week.
There were holdouts, of course. Yuri and Eva Menken went to every service and nodded their heads in agreement, but when they came home they refused to pack up even one item.
“We work hard all year to make a good life for ourselves,” said Yuri, indignant after the initial sermon. “We should give away all we’ve worked for?”
The Menkens kept a modest home, nowhere as large as the Frieds’ or the Weissmans’. Even smaller than the Rosenfelds’, which would be considered petite by most standards. But the Menkens only had themselves and their cat.
“This rabbi is trying to strip us of everything,” said Eva. “I bet he’s in cahoots with the post office.”
Eva floated her idea to others, about the rabbi being in cahoots with the post office. Most entertained her idea, though they also agreed that the Menkens could still stand to give away some things.
“It can’t hurt to be a team player,” said Eva’s hairdresser.
“I’m so moved by your collective generosity,” said the rabbi at the next service. “Many of you are down to the bare bones. I wouldn’t ask of you what I wouldn’t do myself. I brought photos.”
He passed around printed-out photos of the interior of his house and of the scooped-out insides of closets and the attic. The Menkens took the pictures when they were passed to them and gave each other a quick glance and eye-roll. They already gave so much money to the temple – they were Gold Leaf donors in the Circle of Giving for crying out loud. They were not going to let themselves be guilted into another one of the rabbi’s whims.
“I have one last proposal,” said the rabbi, loudly, over the murmur of the congregation looking at his photos. “What if we didn’t stop at bare bones! Why not send the bones?”
“Are you suggesting we give away our bed and sofa?” asked a woman in the front pew.
“Like the torah,” replied the rabbi, “this is meant for interpretation. Take my words as you see fit.”
“No one will do this,” whispered Yuri to Eva.
“You underestimate,” said Eva.
The next day, Eva rolled out of bed and put on the coffee. She checked her phone while on the toilet. Sure enough, the Reichsteins posted a video of themselves hauling a grey leather three-seater sofa into the back of a rented pickup truck. “Our downstairs sofa,” wrote Mrs. Reichstein. “Hardly used!”
“I’d’ve taken that couch off their hands,” Eva said to her coffee pot.
Yuri awoke and shuffled out to meet her in the kitchen. “I already saw the video,” he said. “Will cost them an arm and a leg to ship. I’d’ve taken it off their hands for free.”
The Menkens brought their mugs into the living room and sat on their own sofa, a blue velvet three-seater whose cushions slightly sagged at the corners. Their back window overlooked a scramble of woods through which families of deer would sometimes trot. There were no deer this morning, just a few darting squirrels that kept their cat occupied.
“Are we doing the right thing?” asked Eva.
“You heard the rabbi,” said Yuri. “Interpret how you see fit. We’re already living down to bare bones. I don’t need to fling my belongings here and there just so the rabbi can prove some point. Can I be honest with you?”
Yuri took a deep breath. “I think this should be our last year as temple members.”
Eva let out a small yelp and clapped her hands once.
“I thought you’d never say it,” she said.
“For a little while now,” said Eva. She found herself lowering her voice, as if someone – the rabbi perhaps – was listening.
“Five thousand dollars a year!” shouted Yuri. “Maybe we put in a pool.”
“Or a trip to Japan!”
They poured themselves more coffee and turned on the news. Live footage showed congregants in twos lined up outside the post office with large pieces of furniture: sofas, loveseats, a canoe (“The Feldmans have a canoe?”), and a handful of coffee tables and dining room tables.
Eva was finished trying to understand these people. “How about some eggs?”
The Menkens skipped next Friday night’s service. They couldn’t bear to hear what the rabbi was going to suggest next. Instead, the Menkens tried a new restaurant, one that required “proper attire.” They left their phones at home, treated themselves to a bottle of red wine, and lingered during dessert to make sure one of them would be able to drive back.
When they got home, both of their phones were blinking with messages: the rabbi never showed up to services and the cantor had to take the reins. Where was the rabbi? No one could reach him or his family. The police were called, and a few women posted up outside the clergy office and wept for him.
“We didn’t do enough,” they said. “We’ve disappointed him.”
The cantor led the Sunday morning service as well, but all extra programming, including Wiffle Ball with the Men’s Club, was cancelled.
On Monday morning, an email from the rabbi went out to the entire congregation. The email contained no subject line or body text, just an embedded video of him emerging from a large crate, on which “Live Cargo” was stamped on the side. His yarmulke was still attached to his head. He emerged like he had just performed a magic trick and walked into a small crowd that embraced him with feverish kisses and back pats.
Yuri and Eva watched the video several times. Eva laughed a little bit, but then stopped. Yuri threw his phone on the couch hard and watched it bounce from cushion to cushion and then to the floor. He wanted to slap the rabbi, or at least give his shoulders a good shake. Eva fed the cat and then started getting ready for bed. Yuri did some push-ups on the bathroom floor. They hurried themselves through their evening routines, hoping to blur away what they just saw.
The next day, three people shipped themselves. The day after that, ten. Then twenty. They all left the post office in large crates, all wagging a finger out of an air hole as they were taken away.
“Don’t these people have jobs?” asked Eva, after watching what felt like the millionth video of another congregant boxing themselves up.
“Maybe they shipped those, too,” said Yuri.
“What was the point of de-cluttering if they were just going to leave?”
“I’m telling you, the rabbi is up to no good. He might not be in cahoots with the post office, but he’s clearing this place out for a reason.”
“We’re going to stay, right?” asked Eva.
“Of course we’re going to stay,” said Yuri. “We just paid off this house. I’m not leaving unless they drag me.”
The next round of videos showed the unboxings. Not everyone looked as spry as the rabbi did upon arrival, but they all emerged, alive, in various states of dehydration and exhaustion, embraced by family members on the other side.
The wealthier congregants were able to ship themselves far away, arriving on the doorstep of families who lived in California, San Antonio, Jamaica. The rest shipped themselves around the tri-state area. The rabbi never revealed where he shipped himself, but he promised he’d be back in a couple of weeks and that the cantor would take over until his return.
“Not that we would,” said Yuri that night over a home-cooked dinner, “But if we were to ship ourselves, who would welcome us?”
Eva put her fork down. “You’re not seriously asking.”
“I’m just curious, in a for-instance sort of way. If the floods came.”
“Either of our parents, or your brother, I guess.”
“My brother! He wouldn’t give two shits,” said Yuri, forking a small potato.
Eva finished off her meal, but Yuri left his half-eaten. This wasn’t the first time he’d worried himself full.
“So your parents then,” said Yuri. “Do you think they would bring a crowd? Do they have a lot of friends in that senior complex of theirs?”
“I’d rather not have this conversation,” said Eva. She stood up and brought her plate to the sink. “We’re not going to do it, so why entertain the idea?”
“My parents would have quite a welcome party, I think,” said Yuri. He remained at the table and agitated his wine.
“You’re forgetting that your parents travel,” said Eva, weary. She turned to look at him and slouched against the counter. “They’re leaving for Costa Rica on Wednesday.”
“So we go to Costa Rica,” he said.
“By all means,” said Eva. “Ship yourself to Costa Rica. I’ll pay for postage.”
“You’d let me ship myself all the way to Costa Rica alone?”
“Of course not,” said Eva. “You can take the cat.”
The next weekend was the Menkens’ anniversary. They chose a restaurant where one usually needed a reservation a week in advance, but when they called, they had an unusually easy time booking a table.
The grocery store was also noticeably quieter. The man behind the deli counter took Eva’s order immediately, and half the checkout lines were closed. Traffic was better and gas prices had gone down. The Menkens saw more deer in their backyard that night, and a small family of opossums.
The unboxing videos became more elaborate. One woman shipped herself while nine months pregnant and arrived holding her newborn in her arms. A local news station on the other side picked it up. Mother Bird, they called her, even though it was ground shipping. Others took care in outfitting their shipping crates with plush carpeting, a small icebox for provisions, and an electric generator so they could watch movies on their phone while in transit.
“Looks nicer than our house,” said Yuri, after watching the footage of Larry and Rita Horn’s crate. He set his phone down harder than he’d meant to. The cat startled and ran away with a sharp mew.
“Who cares,” said Eva. “Meanwhile, no one has asked about our plans.”
“You’re right,” said Yuri. “I haven’t heard from anyone in weeks.”
“I’m done watching those videos,” he said. “If and when they all come back, let’s pretend we’ve forgotten about them.”
“We should act like we didn’t even know they were gone.”
“That’ll really get their goat.”
“Or deer,” said Eva, gesturing to their back patio. Five deer had climbed up their deck stairs and were standing around as if having a little barbecue.
Yuri doffed an imaginary hat to them.
“Should we do something about them?”
“What’s there to do?”
The next morning, the rabbi sent out another mass email and Yuri and Eva deleted it without reading. Their plans for the day were to grocery shop, pick up stamps from the post office, and watch a movie in the comfort of their own home. When the Menkens opened their front door, a dozen deer were on their lawn. The deer were slowly pacing, shaking their tiny tails, flapping their ears. None of them cared when the Menkens walked past them to get to their car, and they only slightly moved when the car started and drove away.
Nearly every house in the neighborhood was now host to a family of deer. They walked gracefully down the sidewalks and lounged on lawns and front porches.
There were more deer than cars in the grocery store parking lot.
A hand-written sign was taped to the door that said “Closing at noon.”
The shelves were mostly empty and deer wandered up and down the aisles, as if they, too, were looking for Sunday dinner ingredients.
The only other person they saw was the deli man.
“You’re the only ones left,” said the deli man.
“What about you?” asked Eva, taking her package of sliced turkey off the counter.
“Gonna ship out. The wife and kids already left yesterday.”
Yuri and Eva paid for their items at self-checkout and waded through waist-high deer to get back to their car.
Like falling snow, the deer had accumulated in the short time they were in the store. It was difficult to drive through the parking lot. Yuri turned on his headlights, which scared the deer into giving him a pathway.
They drove the few miles down the road to get to the post office. Deer had begun to spill over from front lawns into the street. Yuri drove slowly. Eva kept accidentally making eye contact with deer.
“Are they like cats? If I blink at them, will they trust me?”
Eva blinked slowly at a few deer and none blinked back.
“Maybe they don’t trust you,” said Yuri.
The post office was nearly boarded up when they arrived. A large truck idled in the parking lot. Half the lights in the store were off and only one worker was there, moving quickly to close the place down.
“We just need some stamps!” Eva called to the worker in the back. She waved a ten dollar bill in the air.
“Why?” the worker called back.
“To mail things?” said Yuri.
The worker came into the light.
“You gotta go to a different town,” she said. Her uniform was still crisp at the shoulders. “We’re done.”
“Done?” asked Eva.
“See that truck outside? It’s waiting for me and Sam.”
“Sam Elman,” said the woman, confused. “Of the deli.”
Yuri and Eva looked at each other. How were they to know? Sam had never introduced himself, let alone first and last name.
“Anyway,” continued the woman. “I can’t help you, but here’s the number of the post office the next town over. They’ll charge an arm and a leg but they’ll get you out.”
“We’re staying,” said Eva.
The woman looked at them in horror. The door chimed. It was Sam Elman, of the deli. He wheeled a small suitcase behind him.
“Ready when you are,” he said to the woman. “Yuri and Eva Menken! You coming with us?”
“How do you know our names?” asked Yuri.
Sam smiled and then frowned.
“No,” said Eva.
“Well, good luck,” said Sam. The post office woman shut off the store lights and set a roll of stamps on the counter.
“On us,” she said. She ushered them all outside onto the sidewalk and locked up. A young man climbed down from the driver’s seat of the idling truck, black and grey tattoos snaked out of his shirt collar and up his neck, around his ears like ivy. He helped the woman and Sam into the truck. He shut the door and climbed back into his seat without acknowledging Yuri and Eva, and drove away, steering through deer that had congregated in the road.
Eva and Yuri turned back to their car, which was covered on all sides by deer. There were deer pushed up against the car, and then from out of the group, one deer jumped up on top of the car.
“It’s not too far to walk,” Eva said.
She pushed some deer aside and popped the trunk. She grabbed the few grocery bags before two deer hopped into the trunk and sat down, so she left the trunk open.
On the walk home, their phones kept beeping with more unboxing videos. Eva stopped, fished the phone out of her purse, and turned it off. When they reached home, there were more deer than before, gathered on their lawn and walkway as if having a party. Yuri made a joke about them holding red Solo cups. A few deer tried nosing their way into the house. Eva pushed them away with her foot and made hissing sounds like a cat would. Their own cat ran into the basement, wanting no part of it.
The Menkens put away their groceries, both thinking they should have gotten more but neither actually saying so. Eva sliced two pieces of Entenmann’s coffee cake and poured two small glasses of skim milk. It was lunchtime and they should have eaten a real meal, but this was all they wanted.
They sat on their sofa and looked out into the scramble of woods, eating forkfuls of coffee cake. The deer in the back were even more densely packed than in the front, and some of them were starting to push their chestnut bodies up against the glass. One tapped the glass with its hoof, as if knocking on the door like a polite neighbor. Eva waved back with her fork. It tapped again, and then another one sidled up to it and tapped the glass with its antler. A hairline crack formed in the glass.
“Do you think the store workers talk about us?” asked Yuri. The deer tapped its antler again and the crack grew an inch.
“What do you mean?” asked Eva. She savored the cinnamon streusel ribbon in the coffee cake. It was her favorite.
“They know our names but we don’t know any of theirs. Do you think they resent us for it?”
“How were we supposed to know his name was Sam, let alone Elman?”
“You’re right,” said Yuri. He finished his cake and milk. Two more antlered deer started tapping at the glass and the crack grew still. It started to smell vaguely of outside in the living room.
“Is there a man out there?” asked Eva, squinting into the distance. “Beyond the deer?”
“Watch,” said Yuri. “I bet it’s the rabbi.”
“Oh stop,” said Eva.
“What do you think his last name is?” asked Yuri.
Maris Finn is a writer from New York, currently living and writing in Austin, Texas where she works for the Texas Book Festival. She has her MFA in Fiction from Columbia University. Her work has appeared in Molotov Cocktail, Literal Latte, Gandy Dancer, and Noble Gas Quarterly. Her story ‘Whale Summer’ was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.