IT’S OUR THIRTIETH SUMMER in Jackson Hole. Out west, the scenery aims to impress. Deer float over fences. Raptors skate the skies. But this year more than others, we’re the victims of extremes. The weather, for one, has never been weirder. It’s been both desert dry and monsoon wet. Roads are flooded, and instead of heading to Yellowstone, folks are being detoured.
Still, there’s no denying the town is postcard perfect. Ninety percent of Teton County is fully vaccinated. There’s room to hike and space to breathe.
We are thankful. Are you thankful? I am working on my thankfulness like homework. To show my thanks, I decided to drag my husband to synagogue services. It was a Friday night, and our local group was meeting at a nearby park.
The service had already started. Following tradition, the group faced east toward Jerusalem. The hazzan, a local folk singer, was strumming a guitar. A handful of babies were whimpering, a few kids were giggling, a few elderly people sat whispering at a picnic table.
It didn’t take long for all the gears to click. The hazzan sang, a breeze blew, branches swayed. “It’s like being at a concert,” beamed my husband. The swaying. The bending. The wind brushing our faces. When it was the rabbi’s turn to speak, everyone grew quiet, rapt.
But one man, I noticed, was keeping his distance. While we looked east, he gazed west.
I glanced around. There were a few trees. A swing set. A climbing gym. Except for our group, the park was deserted. It was a veritable ghost park, echoing with laughter and sounds made hours ago. Still the man scanned the horizon as if expecting uninvited guests. He sat, then stood, hands on hips, feet apart. He was dressed differently too—a little more formally than the rest of us. A cowboy hat, a leather vest, a pair of starched blue jeans. And when he turned, I saw under that vest a telltale bulge, a glint of metal in the fading light.
Like the hawks above us, his head pivoted, and his eyes swept the grass. I saw him startle at the slightest sound. When a car backfired, he stood a little straighter. He squinted his eyes and shifted his feet. Then he lifted his hands waist high.
I was trying to pray. How I yearned to pray! But I was both fascinated and repelled by this man’s presence. And as the congregation crooned the closing hymns, as the hazzan strummed and the rabbi implored, as the cookies and grape juice were laid on a table, as the children fidgeted and the old people readied themselves like steeds at the gate, I understood that he was the hired help. He was the security every synagogue must now rely on.
A few minutes later, I pulled at the rabbi’s sleeve and nodded in the man’s direction. “Can I bring him some cookies?” I asked. “Perhaps a drink?”
“No,” said the rabbi. “He can’t eat. Won’t eat, won’t talk while he’s working.”
It had been a long week. Suddenly, my husband was restless, and I was bone tired. We grabbed a little schnapps and a bit of bread before we made our way back to the car. The summer sun was finally setting. Darkness hovered like a hand. Then I remembered to glance over my shoulder one last time. The man would be the last to leave, I supposed. And in the twilight, I watched his body standing tall among the shadows, like God I suppose, a promise and a pledge to keep us safe.
Marlene Olin’s short stories and essays have been published in Massachusetts Review, Catapult, Pank, and World Literature Today. Her work has been nominated for anthologies including the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, Best Small Fictions, and Best American Short Stories.