The Afikomen Shell Game

We were about two hours short of home, northbound on I-5 when the sky ripped open and dumped a wall of water on us. Big fat honking gobs of rain, coming down like the backsplash for a Raging Rapids ride.

I was driving while D napped, and the kids were plugged into some blissfuly mindless animation on the laptop. All that you-never-really-know-whether-your-no-go-decision-was-the-right-one stuff from the last post? Scratch it. This was a payoff that was going to build some nice reinforcement somewhere in the old parietal lobe. Or prefrontal, or wherever it is that we store those subrational patterns that make us do what we all do.

When D woke, she looked out at the weather and nodded her head silently. I wasn’t going to say anything. She’d good-naturedly teased me, just a tiny bit, about my brooding over the no-go two days earlier, and I hadn’t responded well, Not at at all. (Note to spouses: NEVER tease your pilot about their no-go decisions. Nope, not even indirectly). So she wasn’t going to say anything about the rain either. We just drove in silence.

But that’s not what I wanted to write about. During the drivey bits, I was trying (again) to compose sans keyboard. I knew what I wanted to write about, but couldn’t figure out how to tell the story.

I wanted to write about the Afikomen.

Each family that celebrates Passover has its own tradition about how the Afikomen – the half-piece of matzah that ceremonially closes the meal – but they all have one thing in common: trickery. In some families, the kids “steal” the afikomen, and then bargain it back to the grownups for some small amount of cash. You can’t finish the seder without the afikomen, so…what’s it worth to ya?

In other families, parents hide the Afikomen, then reward the kids for finding it. In our family, it’s uh, more like an Agatha Christie novel, except without the bloodshed and inconvenient dead bodies. Adults and kids team up and conspire with/against each other to pile deception upon deception, aiming for that I-Spy “Aha!” of the final reveal. Or is that the final reveal? You get the idea.

So the challenge here is to figure out how, and from whose perspective to tell that story. How to capture the suspense of who knows what, and still keep the mystery alive for the reader? Trickier than I’d thought. I guess there is an art to this mystery writing thing.

Lemme just give it a go and see what comes out:

Early in the seder, I broke the Afikomen off and held up for everyone to see. Half traditionally stays on the seder table, while the half to be stolen/protected went to the left of my plate, wrapped in a folded yellow napkin. The kids eyed me and the napkin suspiciously. They knew the game was now on, but were still trying to figure out what, exactly the game was.

Five minutes later there was a brief commotion as we got ready to serve soup. I went around the table collecting the Hagadot (the prayer books we use for the seder). Mine was lying to the left of my plate, by chance placed on top of two identically-folded napkins, stacked to look like a single one. A simple variation on the shell coin trick – I palmed the top napkin while picking up my book and shuffled off to put the stack of them away. The deed was done, and the shell game could begin.

Coming back into the room, I was ever so slightly disappointed to discover that the decoy napkin was untouched. But Andy had been negotiating a no-kicking treaty with Jem, seated across from her, and hadn’t had time to take the bait.

Now, there were three “kids” at the seder this time. Technically only two – Jem and cousin Alex – but even though she’s past her bat mitzvah, Andy likes to do the “kid” thing. Especially for the Afikomen, because she’s still holding out hope that she can outwit me one of these years. But you know what they say about youth coming up against the treachery of age? Yeah.

Anyhow. The food was served, and Andy (who doesn’t actually eat food) took this opportunity to pop back into Afikomen mode. She sidled over to establish the rules of the game, and only then noticed that it was already afoot. Didn’t miss a beat. Figured she hadn’t seen me leave the table since things started (the power of misdirection!) and sat herself between me and the handful of places within arm’s reach that could be used to hide a half sheet of matzah. Checked every one of them, never letting her eyes leave mine.

She asked for a clue to start, and I’d already rehearsed three: the Afikomen was near Orlando. It was also near Virginia. And, as a third clue, I told her that there was only one person in the house who that information would help. I did my best evil smile, and she wrinkled her nose in a gratifying bout of annoyance.

Time passed, and attention waned. When I did finally get up to help clear the first set of dishes, I was empty-handed, but returned from the kitchen with three folded blue napkins. Kid radar locked on: my mother had declared that, with three kids, we really ought to have three pieces of Afikomen for them to find.

I wandered through a couple of rooms, with desperately nonchalant kids in tow. With a little more misdirection, I managed to pass one napkin off to Aunt Marion, who stashedit behind the plate in front of the fireplace. Second one went stacked among picture frames in the study – looking as much like a picture frame as I could manage, and the third went under the ottoman near my seat – the place Andy sat when she’d thought her quarry was still in arm’s reach.

Finally, my mom announced that it was time. While Andy was trying to organize the search party, Alex came over and sat on the Ottoman. Crunch. What’s this? One down at the starting line.

But the other two were puzzling – I could have sworn that they walked right past that picture frame half a dozen times. The damned thing even fell over, and they didn’t seem to notice it. Sat down by the fireplace and practically rested their hands on the napkin Marion had hidden, and yet…

Finally, Andy came to me to capitulate. Aside from Alex’s accidental discovery, they were at a loss: would I show them where the missing matzah was hidden? But there was something in her eyes – something that she’s not quite trained out of them registering closer to mischief than defeat.

The lightbuld went on: I knew that if I picked up that napkin by the picture frames I’d find it empty. Same for the one by the fireplace. Okay, time to sit down and barter.

Cutting to the chase, we agreed that, in exchange for them giving us the Afikomen, we’d give them $36 each (of which $18 had to go to charity), and that we’d earnestly try to take them to Disneyland for a day some time during our next trip to LA. It was a relative bargain, and they triumphantly turned over the three purloined-and-recovered pieces of matzah (four, actually, given Alex’s sitting upon the first piece).

Time to spring the final reveal: “Andy, as a longtime OOTS reader, you should know how a shell game works, shouldn’t you?”  She looked worried. I pulled the original half out of its wrapping and lay the redeemed bits next to it. They didn’t line up. It was like they were pieces from a different jigsaw puzzle – even a different kind of matzah than the original half of the Afikomen.

Andy stared, puzzled for a moment, then looked back up at me with those scrunched eyes and wrinkled nose that say, wordlessly, in a way only a 13-year-old who’s been one-up’ed by her dad can say, “Oh, you are so going to pay for this.”  I know I am. Once she’s fully caught up with me, she’s going to be hell on wheels, and I can only hope that she’s on my side in a tussle. But for now, I’m still that smartass dad whose job it is to keep just (barely) one step ahead of her. I gave her my best evil smile for the second time that evening, and repeated the clues: Orlando. Virginia. And these words will only help one person.

This time she got it – at least the last, important part, and enlisted my mother who, after a few moments of thought, went straight to the bookshelf and plucked a folded yellow napkin from a gap between two books on third shelf. It was in plain sight, but camoflaged by dint of being almost exactly the same color as the book it was leaning against: “Orlando”, by Virginia Woolf.

She handed it to Andy, who handed it to me. Another wrinkled nose: “Next time, dad. Next time.” And I do believe her.

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