A Burst of Ginger on the Tongue takes place in a somewhat fictionalized Philadelphia in the early 2000s. Its main character is Gabrielle, a sixty-year-old woman whose husband has just died. It explores her relationships with her old friend Flora; Jerome, a sculptor; her grown daughter Anna; and her husband’s brother Benjamin, with whom she develops more than a purely sisterly relationship. There are also two boys, an Arab and a Jew, visible only to her, who speak to her.
Gabrielle rediscovers her long repressed artistic talent and passion, which includes poetry and visual art, and its place in her life as well as her community. She has a bit of a subversive streak—tucking poems among cans of vegetables on grocery shelves and pushing back against the art gallery establishment. Her sense of self as an independent woman and an artist, her humor and appreciation of irony, and her place in the world evolve and strengthen over the course of the book.
Interwoven among these threads is a consideration of the nature of stories, of both the living and dead, how fragments of them become entangled into all the other stories, changing colors and patterns, wending their way into the roots, soil, and lives of people they never met, becoming part of the fiber of the world, eternally continuing on.
Gabrielle speared a cheese doodle with black lacquer chopsticks, dipped it in a glass of red wine, and plopped the disintegrating orange curl into her mouth. Since her husband Jacob had died several weeks before, she could not bear to sit at the table in the silent, empty kitchen, and so in addition to the puffy snack, she had taken to picking at odd bits of food—cold chicken pulled from the bone as she stood with the refrigerator door open; triangles of cheese; a jar of olives at the kitchen sink, draining the liquid over her hand.
Jacob’s death had left her disoriented about time and place, as if she were inhabiting two worlds at once, like a child standing on a schoolyard map of the world, one foot in China and the other in Africa. But normal chronologies no longer interested her anyway. She once had the notion that her life would move forward on a continuum toward a fixed point in the future. But now she found past, present, and future looping back and forth on each other. She wondered if the very old, unburdened by everyday appointments and schedules, rather than having a confused sense of time, were actually enlightened as to its true nature.
She spoke with her daughter Anna, who lived in Los Angeles, on the phone almost every evening. Gabrielle sat in the living room in front of the pitted antique mirror, watching her brown eyes staring back at her, her chapped hands running through the short charcoal and gray thatches of hair sticking out from her head. In a complicated way that she did not understand or care to analyze, looking at herself while talking to Anna gave her the feeling that she was sitting across from her daughter. As if her movements and facial expressions were not her own but Anna’s.
“Mom, I really need that picture of Dad from my graduation, standing near the palm trees.”
Gabrielle stretched the skin over her cheekbones with the tips of her fingers, smoothing out the wrinkles until she withdrew her hands.
“Why that one in particular?”
“It was a great day. We had such a good time together. I need to see him like that.”
Gabrielle knew that Anna would obsess on the photo until she had it in a frame in her apartment. Her daughter had always been comforted by talismans and charms. When Anna was a little girl, Jacob carved camels from scraps of olive wood for her. Even when she went off to college she attached one of those “pregnant horses” to her key chain for good luck. Gabrielle just wanted to lie in her bed and stare into space, but she searched half-heartedly through dressers and the junk drawer in the kitchen.
All along, Gabrielle had a good idea where she would find the graduation pictures. Bracing herself, she ventured down the steps into Jacob’s basement studio and yanked the string that dangled from the fluorescent light on the ceiling, illuminating the center of the room and the objects shadowed in the corners. Large rolls of white paper stood stoically against a wall like Easter Island statues. Tools were lined up neatly on one end of the workbench; some brushes were still soaking in solvent in old coffee cans, giving off a musty, acrid odor. She ran her fingertips over the textures of work surfaces as if she were selecting a fabric. She took deep breaths to relieve her nausea and dizziness as she started going through Jacob’s things.
Pulling papers from a cubbyhole, she shook her head at unopened water bills, brochures announcing the new opera season, and flyers for discounted mattresses and tires. She winced at a handout from a pharmaceutical company titled “What to expect when you’re expecting a liver transplant.” The only snapshots Gabrielle found were from a day she and Jacob had spent at the beach a few years before. She remembered that it had rained, and they wound up browsing in tee shirt and beachwear shops most of the afternoon, laughing at each other in funny hats and oversized sunglasses.
On a dusty shelf behind the workbench, she found a piece of paper with two pictures taped next to each other. One was a well-known picture of a Jewish boy in the Warsaw ghetto, with his hands in the air and an SS officer pointing a gun at his head. The other, which had been all over the news, showed a Palestinian boy in Gaza right before he was killed, being sheltered by his father from a barrage of bullets. There was no caption or note, just the two haunted little faces.
Gabrielle lowered herself onto Jacob’s tall work stool, her hands shaking. It was so intentional. Jacob had to have found the photos, cut them out, taped them down, and then held onto the thing. Jacob, who misplaced tax returns, invoices, and photographs of his own beloved daughter.
He had never been political, didn’t want to talk about the Mideast situation, the intifada, the right-wing Israeli government. When Gabrielle brought it up, he changed the subject or left the room, like someone refusing to discuss a relative from whom he has severed all ties.
Gabrielle was mystified and confused by his small collage. When had he made it and why? He wasn’t the type to clip articles out of magazines and newspapers. The two photos were so upsetting and emotionally charged that she could not dismiss them as whimsy or the distraction of a moment. Something important had happened to Jacob or tormented him that he hadn’t shared with her. She pushed the paper with the photos away as if it was tainted. This was more evidence of what she had felt like a low-grade fever throughout their life together, that as close as they were, there was still some part of Jacob that he had kept guarded and closed off from her. She mistakenly thought that during the last year when she had shared his raw fear, watched catheters and tubes running in and out of his body, whispered conspiratorial jokes with him in hospital corridors and doctors’ waiting rooms, that this secret place he had kept to himself had finally been exposed and stripped away.
Gabrielle had to get out of there. Craving motion, she ran the few blocks to the elevated train, the wind blowing grit and candy wrappers against her ankles. The rumbling el propelled her through the night, through the blur of the reflected lights from the traffic signals on the streets below and the dusty glow of the apartment windows that flashed by. The sounds of the city blasted in at every stop—people shouting, horns blowing, boom boxes blaring. She smelled roasted hot dogs, bus exhaust, and the burnt metal grinding of the train’s brakes.
She stared at the tired faces of the transit workers in their caged booths on the platforms and the other passengers lugging shopping bags, cranky babies, and bundles of laundry. Everyone was there for a reason, except for Gabrielle, who just wanted to keep moving.
When she first became pregnant, Jacob stopped trying to be a professional sculptor and began making customized wood furniture in his studio full time. His furniture was beautifully crafted, but there was no ingenuity or uniqueness to the designs. She had the sense that he shut down part of himself, as if afraid that he could not be a responsible parent and artistically creative at the same time. She resented this; she didn’t think it fair to her or the baby; neither ever asked to be part of an equation. Back then she confronted him about his choice and even why he felt he had to choose at all.
“It’s a seduction,” he said. “I get wrapped up and I don’t want to do anything else or think or care about anyone else—money, grocery shopping, dentist appointments. The kid didn’t ask to be born. Maybe when it’s grown I’ll start again.”
That was as much as he was willing to give her, but she suspected that the baby was only an excuse, that something in that other realm he had inhabited had frightened him—that he wouldn’t succeed in conveying his vision into the physical world? That he would find it ever more difficult to leave the realm of color and shape for the continually diminishing “real” world? That nothing he created might matter in the end?
The train rattled on, circling back toward its starting point. Gabrielle huddled in a corner of the el car. The other passengers had gotten off, except for an old white man sprawled asleep across two seats and a black teenage boy wearing headphones. The buildings beyond the windows blurred through her tears. Gabrielle wiped her nose on her sleeve.
She had been disappointed when Jacob stopped sculpting. It made him more like the kind of person she referred to in her mind as a lottery man, someone who could not imagine a dramatic change in his life unless something superficial and practical, like winning the lottery, were to happen. His sculptures had been large abstract objects that resembled giant walnuts that had been cracked open, the kernels scraped out and the ragged cavernous space left behind.
Gabrielle had sat for three days straight in Jacob’s hospital room, surrounded by the low hum of the TV and the monitors, with their blips and dots darting back and forth across the blue screens like fish in an aquarium. She felt submerged. It was hard to breathe, like when she was a kid, holding her breath and counting how long, how long, how long until the relief of air. Jacob drifted in and out of consciousness, his bones nearly pierced the skin of his knees and elbows; the prickly, gray stubble of his beard made him look dirty and derelict; and his once broad chest was a shrunken cave.
The surgeon told her there would be no donor liver to save him. It was too late, he was too sick; they couldn’t waste an organ on him even if one became available. She had not called to tell Anna in California to jump on a plane, or Jacob’s brother Benjamin in Washington, or even their best friend Flora who lived fifteen minutes away. She hoarded his dying for herself. As if by postponing the calls, and arrangements, and grieving, she could hold off death itself. For three days she kept her vigil, until she couldn’t anymore, and walked down the hall to the elevator.
Out on the street, she went into a dingy shot and beer place. A neon Camel cigarette sign flickered in the window. There were only two or three men in the bar, listlessly watching TV. One of them, a wiry white man with a thin, lined face turned and leered at her.
“You looking to get something I’m not giving? she snarled.
He lowered his eyes and turned back to the TV. The bartender set the two shots of tequila she had ordered in front of her. She clinked the glasses together. “To us,” she whispered before tossing back each of them. The liquid burned her throat.
The TV was replaying the same news clip she had seen over and over for the last two days. A space shuttle had blown to pieces in outer space just minutes before it was scheduled to land. They kept broadcasting footage of the wives, husbands, parents, and kids gathered on the tarmac, arms loaded with bouquets and hand lettered signs “Welcome Home” and “Come Back Down to Earth.” One second they were jubilant and excited, the next devastated, shocked. The camera captured their expressions changing, their bodies deflating.
Gabrielle wanted to touch the space where such transformations occurred—in the silence between words, the scar where the skin healed, or love turned to indifference or worse. She knew that the wound of her own grief was not pure but contaminated with guilt, anger, and fear. Still, she wondered if it was perhaps possible to alter the natural course of things with, say, a trick of science or a wild imagining. To shift the balance, confound fate.
Gabrielle got off the train and walked to the diner around the corner from her house. She passed the park, detecting the scent of rotting leaves and marigolds in the cool air. She remembered a fall day here many years before—she and Jacob and Anna jumping in the piles of leaves, Anna bundled in a red sweater Jacob’s mother had knitted. From the park they walked to the diner, Anna surveying the neighborhood from her perch on Jacob’s shoulders. They ordered three kinds of pie and hot chocolate, and Anna threw a tantrum when the dollop of whipped cream went up her nose.
A bell jingled as Gabrielle pulled open the diner’s smudged glass door.
“Hey hon, how’s it goin?” the waitress called through a puff of her illicit cigarette. Coffee, cinnamon bun? Not even stale tonight.”
“Sure. I’ll be in the back polishing the fine silver if you need anything else.”
“Okay,” Gabrielle said with a smile.
She unwound the spiral of sticky dough as if disassembling a mechanical object to learn how it worked. Perhaps Jacob had taped the pictures together as a symbol of his despair and hopelessness. “What after all,” she could imagine him saying, “is the point of living in a world that would even contemplate the killing of children for a scrap of land or a political ideology.”
She gazed out the window and spotted the kid from the train performing a dance on the sidewalk to the song that only he could hear, an urban ballet in the gritty night.
Gabrielle carried the paper with the boys’ photos in her pocket and took it out to look at while riding on the bus or eating lunch at work. She unfolded it slowly and smoothed it out. It occurred to her that it would be a good idea to make a photo copy, as the creases were wearing thin and it would soon tear into ragged pieces.
Gabrielle welcomed the boys with hot soup, fragrant with carrots, potatoes, beans, and strands of dill and parsley. She brought thick slices of sourdough bread to the table on a small wooden cutting board and tall mugs of apple cider. She stood before them hesitantly. “I don’t want you to think I’m being disrespectful. It’s very presumptuous of me to think I could imagine your lives. I never lived in your countries. I don’t know the words or nuances of your languages. I was never surrounded by soldiers or enemies. It’s pretty nervy of me to try to understand you based on my own limited imagination.”
The boys glanced at each other and shrugged. “I don’t care.” “Me either.” “We’ve pretty much been forgotten anyway.” “We’re dead after all.” “Whatever you imagine, it’s more than the rest of the world would. We’re only kids. There are plenty of kids. They’re kind of a bother for most people.” “Go ahead. After all, we have to imagine what our lives would have been like too.”
Gabrielle left the room so they would be more at ease. The Jewish boy gently kicked the Arab boy beneath the table. Startled, the Arab boy kicked back. A cat walked into the kitchen and distracted them. They picked up their spoons and began eating in silence.
The boys began meeting behind a potting shed on the outskirts of a town. They brought small items to trade with each other, yo-yo’s, brightly colored marbles, chocolate, bottles of soda. They walked through fields of tall weeds, passing an auto repair shop where mustachioed men sat smoking and giving instructions to each other about inserting and removing parts. The boys’ destination was an olive grove, where they hid inside an ancient tree so old it was hollowed out. They asked each other about girls, what they had seen, what they had touched.