Time, With Bernie
Yermiyahu Ahron Taub
Except for the ticking of her mantelpiece clock, no sounds could be heard. There were no footsteps coming from the floors below. This was one of those rare interludes when the house was truly quiet. Tick-tock, tick-tock the clock sounded, its pendulum swinging back and forth. Although it was designed for a mantel, the clock was on an end table which would better have held lamps or books or a crystal candy dish. There was no fireplace in this room, and therefore there was no mantel upon which to place this rather substantial clock. Some might call it “ungainly” or “clumsy,” Malkah Rumshevitz acknowledged, but the clock nonetheless pleased her. Since it didn’t have feet, she thought of it as a mobile version of a grandfather’s clock. She liked to think of it as a grandfather who had remained fleet of foot. Malkah always made sure to bring the clock with her on her moves.
Looking across the room at the clock, Malkah thought it fit well with the assorted things she had decided to bring to this apartment. Of course, “apartment” was a bit of a stretch. It was really just two rooms at the top of the home of her niece and her family. Malkah’s domain was not unlike the thrift shops she frequented. Things were always coming in and moving out. She was forever downsizing since she couldn’t abide clutter or excess, but then something would catch her eye in the shops. It might be something as small as a hairbrush or a mirror or an etched compact or as large as a chair or an ottoman she thought would be comfortable in and suited to her space. Things might stay for a year or two and then Malkah would call the Federation Thrift Shop to have it taken away. Seeing her number on the incoming call screen of the phone, Hector or Rodrigo at the Shop always greeted her with “Hello, Missus Malkah. How are we today?” Even though she wondered who the collective “we” was, since it was just Malkah now, she always responded that she was doing well. Because when Malkah was calling the thrift shop, “well” was how she felt. In Malkah’s opinion, that was the nature of life—things, just as people, come and go. Why should she or her home be any different?
Except for her undergarments, which she purchased from her friend Mindl’s store, virtually everything in Malkah’s possession had previously belonged to someone else. Although she didn’t consider herself superstitious in any way, Malkah sometimes felt the spirits of the previous owners, not exactly hovering, but floating above the objects. She found their presence thoroughly companionable, comforting even, as if blessing her usage of these objects and their residence, whether temporary or not, in her home. Still, Malkah wasn’t really attached to any of these objects. This stuff. She could give it all away tomorrow without a second thought. Today, in fact. Now—here have at it!
But the clock was different. It was a wedding present from her deceased husband, Bernard, who died some three years ago of a heart attack at age seventy-nine. It was so like her Bernie to give a big clock when any other man would give their wife a delicate wristwatch or a bracelet or something along those lines. Malkah loved the clock from the start, her enthusiasm unfeigned as she opened the package.
Malkah’s friend, Mindl was surprised when Malkah told her she was going out with a shoe store clerk, and then even more surprised, when Malkah married him.
“But he’s been touching people’s feet all day! Do his hands smell? Aren’t you worried that he’ll spread germs?” Mindl asked. Malkah was surprised that Mindl asked that since Mindl was never one to “pull rank”—something she always accused her sister Rosa of doing. And besides, Mindl dealt in ladies underwear all day. Were feet so different from breasts and bottoms? Malkah didn’t think so. And besides Bernie’s title was “store manager.” He only helped with the shoe sales when Melvin the salesman was off from work. But Malkah didn’t correct Mindl; that wasn’t the point. She just laughed and said, “Don’t be silly, Mindl dear.”
And Malkah really didn’t care about Bernie’s position, or “station in life.” She knew a lot of women did care about such matters. And with good reason; they had to. A woman needed to know how she was going to make it through life. Bernie could have collected garbage or shoveled pig slop all day for all Malkah cared. With his big, protruding ears and uneven teeth and his paunch, Bernie certainly wasn’t any great looker. And he was quite a bit older than Malkah. Eleven years, in fact. And Bernie wasn’t big on the conversation, either. Just said what had to be said. Not more, not less. And that was plenty for Malkah.
But Malkah loved being with Bernie, feeling his light touch around the house during the day and his arms wrapped around her in sleep. And she knew Bernie felt the same way about her. Every evening that Bernie came home from the shoe store was an evening to be savored. At the beginning of their marriage, Malkah asked Bernie at the start of each day, what he wanted to eat that night:
“What would you like for dinner tonight, Bernie?”
“Whatever you make for me will be delicious,” he responded, patting her thigh or kissing her on the cheeks. Ma had trained Malkah well, and Malkah was proud of her tuna casserole, lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs, eggplant, and stuffed cabbage, to name but a few. Even with his undiscriminating palate, Malkah enjoyed cooking for Bernie. He ate with such gusto, practically grunting in appreciation. Not unlike how he made love. Her animal, her man. That was her Bernie. That didn’t change over the fifty years of their marriage. As both of their bodies aged, Bernie never tired of her or of fulfilling his husbandly duties. Only, of course, he never considered it a duty. Neither did she. Malkah loved being with Bernie, in that way, too. In all ways, really. She never strayed, never wanted to. Neither did Bernie. Of that Malkah was sure. Well, almost fifty years of marriage. Bernie passed away just shy of their golden anniversary.
These days, the silence in the house was golden. Malkah rarely had the house to herself. There were always people coming in and out of the house—children, students, visitors of various sorts. Bernie’s niece, Henny was out visiting the sick. Not that Henny herself was in the best of health. Far from it. Henny had diabetes and had to monitor her glucose levels regularly. Still, that never stopped her from going out and about, finding ways to help the less fortunate. The woman was practically penniless and would give you the shirt off her back! And the children were away at school or out playing with friends.
The youngest, Yehoshua played with all sorts of kids on the block. Either he didn’t like boys’ games or the boys wouldn’t let him play since he was so bad at them. Maybe both. Malkah never got the full story from Henny, and she didn’t want to pry for more information on what was clearly a touchy subject. No sense picking at scabs. The boy played jump rope and jacks with the girls. When the Jewish girls wouldn’t have him anymore, he started playing with the colored children. He was getting especially close to one of the colored boys. A boy named Raheem. Those two were inseparable. Staying out at all hours of the day.
Was “colored” still the right term? No, of course, not. She knew it wasn’t “Negro.” It was African-American. That’s right. Or was it simply “black”? Malkah prided herself on staying current on such matters. Funny how Jews were called Jews. A constant. Sure, there had been “Israelites” and “Hebrews,” but that was centuries ago. In recent times, “Jew” hadn’t morphed into another term. Maybe it would someday. In any case, she’d have to find out today’s term. Not that it mattered to her. People were people. Ma always taught her that. Yes, with different histories, traditions, and customs. But strip all of that away, all human beings need food, water, shelter, and love. Those are the essentials. Everything else is just “icing on the cake.” Malkah did not consider herself a liberal or political at all really, but that is what she believed.
Just last week, one of the neighbors saw Malkah walking down the street and called her over. “Malkah, I just had to tell you I saw that nephew of yours—Yehoshua—kissing and hugging and touching one of the boys in the back alley. “A shvartse,” she said, and then grimly adding, as if compounding the boy’s crime, “Muslim. They thought no one could see them, but I saw it all. And it wasn’t quick either, mind you,” she said.
Malkah wondered how this woman knew who she was since Malkah didn’t even know her name. The woman hadn’t introduced herself. Did she assume Malkah knew who she was? The neighbors must have known Malkah as the relative who lived in the house of Henny and her husband, Velvl, although both were known as the Rebetsin and the Rebe. Malkah refrained from saying “with” her niece and her husband since, whenever she told people about her living quarters, she always made it clear that she had a separate apartment at the top of the house. Not that this distinction would have mattered to this neighbor.
Or was this woman a member of Congregation Haverim Ahuvim? Malkah sometimes attended services at that synagogue several blocks away from the yeshivah where the Rebe taught. People there were always friendly, and the services weren’t too long. Malkah’s attention span wasn’t what it had been. And it had never been that great. But she appreciated the fact that there was no sermon during the services. The unordained “rabbi” always said a few words at the Kiddush, but with a bit of food in their bellies, she and the other congregants were necessarily more attentive. Malkah always wore her sheytl there, but somehow she felt less judged as a single woman without children than she did in the yeshivah’s women’s section. It wasn’t her fault she and Bernie couldn’t have children! It wasn’t her fault Bernie died! She hoped Henny didn’t feel insulted that Malkah did not attend services at the yeshivah. She didn’t think Henny did, but you never knew. Henny was a sensitive soul.
But mostly, Malkah went to prayer services at Haverim Ahuvim to be with Mindl—to help with the set-up before the Kiddush and the clean-up after it. Mindl could have accomplished it without her, but Malkah still liked to lend a helping hand. Sometimes Malkah felt torn between her devotion to Henny and Mindl. What is it they say in Jewish—me ken nit tantsn af tsvey khasenes. You can’t dance at two weddings at the same time.
Malkah supposed it didn’t matter how this woman knew her. Whether in the yeshiva or in Haverim Ahuvim, everyone knew everyone here. And they were all up in each other’s business. Although it was located in a big city, this neighborhood functioned like a small village.
“The boys must have seen someone coming because they suddenly stopped. I didn’t say anything or make a peep,” the woman said. Malkah wondered which she found more appalling: this woman’s spying on the fumblings of boys in the bushes or her pride at her self-restraint at not making a sound or movement or her overall sense of self-righteousness. Did this woman enjoy her voyeurism? How long had she been standing there? Was she peering through her kitchen curtains? Hiding behind the balcony support posts? Or maybe it was the woman’s use of the term “shvartse,” which though a neutral term in Yiddish, certainly was pronounced with an unmistakable emphasis and glee. Or was Malkah being unfair? After all, she didn’t know this woman at all.
“Well, I just wanted to let someone in your family know,” she said. She must have figured that telling an older widow like Malkah would be easier to tell than someone from the immediate family. Less at stake. Thank goodness she had the common sense to do that. Or was it her own sense of self-preservation? It was in the interest of no one in the community for this morsel of gossip to get out.
“You did the right thing. Thank you so much,” Malkah replied.
“I hope you’ll let Henny know. She needs to know,” the woman continued. In fact, Malkah would do no such thing. Henny had enough on her plate, but she’d find out in good time if that’s what was meant to happen. But she wouldn’t hear it from Malkah’s lips. And Malkah certainly wouldn’t tell Mindl, even if she might feel the need to share it with someone.
“Of course, of course, I’ll be sure to let her know,” Malkah lied in what she hoped was a reassuring manner. She was eager to end the conversation but knew that a lot depended on the smoothness of her lies. Malkah didn’t want to look as though she wanted to escape, but enough was enough.
“Thanks so much. You take care now,” Malkah said, nodding vaguely at the woman whose face was scrunched up in … what was that? Skepticism?
Malkah wasn’t really surprised by this neighbor’s news. Yehoshua was going to be trouble, of that Malkah was sure. It wasn’t his school work, which was fine. In fact, he was a model student. It was the boy himself. His self. If you could even call him a boy. Well, he must be one, anatomically speaking. But, in all other ways, he really was a girl. He had a slim figure, full lips, wrists as limp as wet laundry fresh out of the washing machine. He really should be wearing a dress, even if his forearms were quite hairy.
In fact, one day Malkah saw Yehoshua as he slipped out of the playroom between Malkah’s sitting-bedroom and kitchen dressed in a wig and a yellow silkish dress and gold high heels. The dress must be his sister Zisl’s but whose wig and shoes were those? Lord have mercy! Besides the two youngsters themselves, only the Lord above knew what they did in that playroom. Had they been playing hide-and-seek? Malkah pretended not to have seen Yehoshua and turned back into her kitchen. She spared him the embarrassment, although she could have given him some style pointers. Still, he did look cute. Adorable even. She had to admit that. And he was such a dear boy, always so courteous and polite.
She thought of Yehoshua as a boy, although according to religious law, he was a man. Yehoshua had his bar mitzvah … when was it? Two years ago? Three? Was he fifteen already? The Rebe couldn’t beat “it” out of him if he tried—“it” being the demon of effeminacy or whatever one called the burden he was saddled with. She wondered if he had tried. Such a stern man, that Velvl. Poor Henny. And the Rebe couldn’t have been much fun between the sheets. Certainly not the way Bernie, may he rest in peace, was. Poor Yehoshua. Malkah wouldn’t have been surprised if the Rebe beat that boy. It wouldn’t have mattered if he had. Those girly boys couldn’t be changed. And some of them were tough and hard under all of that prettiness. Malkah knew that. She’d seen enough of them in her day.
She wouldn’t tell Henny or Mindl about what the neighbor saw. She changed that declaration in her mind. No, she mustn’t tell Henny or Mindl. Still, she couldn’t quite seem to get that street encounter out of her mind.
Quiet reigned throughout the house. Malkah was happy to sit in her big fringed wing chair, savoring this deliciousness, doing nothing. Well, she wasn’t doing nothing. She was savoring the fact that neither Henny nor her children Mikhl, Perets, Zisl, or Yehoshua were in her apartment watching television that they were not supposed to be watching. Usually, she didn’t mind the company. In fact, she enjoyed watching their pleasure and her own role in the corruption of their good souls.
She herself barely watched television. What did they call it? The boob tube. She found most of the shows silly and dull to boot. She preferred the radio, with its news, discussion programs, and music. Whenever she had the television on, it was just for background noise. Still, when the children came in and asked if they could watch, Malkah never refused them. She just didn’t have the heart to do that. Those kids could never seem to get enough of the television.
But Malkah also enjoyed just listening to the grandfather’s clock continue its marking of time: tick-tock, tick-tock. If the clock could be moving while standing still, so too could Malkah. If all of the nameless ghosts from her possessions drifted around Malkah in the room, it was Bernie who spoke to her from beyond the grave through this clock. And Malkah just enjoyed being with her man, even in this way.
It was Henny who suggested that Malkah move to her house. Malkah assumed Henny believed the strictly observant atmosphere of the house would exert a beneficial influence. But Malkah couldn’t be influenced. Not at this stage of the game. So why had she moved here, Malkah wondered. She probably felt lonely after Bernie’s death, she admitted. And she needed to get out of that house so filled with memories of Bernie—of their time together, their love. She also felt a loyalty to Henny, Bernie’s niece. Although Henny’s father, Sol was ten years older than Bernie, the two brothers had been on good terms. Bernie and Malkah visited Sol, his wife Rochelle, and Henny in their apartment above their corner grocery store throughout their marriage. And Malkah had known Henny since she was a teenager. When she heard about Henny’s marriage to such a stern young scholar, Malkah had a flash of consternation. But Velvl had presence and charisma. Even then. She could see the appeal.
So here Malkah was in a junk-filled room on the third floor of an old mansion belonging to a yeshivah rebe and his wife these many years later. Who would have predicted that? Not Bernie, that’s for sure. He never cared about the rules and regulations. What did they call them? Halakhot? Yes, that was it. She’d ask Mindl. Not that Mindl was an expert, mind you, even with all of those years, taking care of Congregation Haverim Ahuvim. But Mindl would know that and not judge Malkah or make her feel ignorant for asking.
Henny must have had to pull some strings to get Malkah into this house, Malkah realized. The Rebe could not have been pleased that there was going to be a boob tube in his home, even though it was technically in a different apartment. Henny must have painted the whole move as an act of kindness to a childless widow. Which it was, and Malkah was.
Malkah’s thoughts were interrupted by the ring of the phone. She rose to answer it. It was an old-fashioned rotary phone on an old telephone table that had a seat attached to it.
“Hello. Is this Mrs. Malkah Rumshevitz?”
“Speaking,” Malkah replied in her most efficient but polite voice.
“Mrs. Rumshevitz, this is Ben Friedberg. I got your number from Mrs. Ariel, the rabbi’s wife at Haverim Ahuvim,” the man answered.
“Yes, I know who Mrs. Ariel is,” Malkah interrupted testily. She wasn’t pleased by this interruption of her rare day of solitude.
“I hope it’s okay that I’m calling,” the man continued, apparently undeflected.
“Well, that remains to be seen,” Malkah answered. If this was an appeal for charity, Malkah hoped to nip it in the bud. She never responded to requests for charity, even through personal referrals, over the phone. That was her cardinal rule. Too many fakers and crazies out there.
“What can I do for you, Mr. … Friedberg?” she continued, softening her tone ever so slightly.
“Well, I saw you at the Kiddush last Shabbas at Haverim Ahuvim, and I asked around. I’d like to invite you out to dinner this week if you’re available,” Mr. Friedberg responded.
Malkah was stunned. A man was asking her out? She searched quickly for reasons to decline the invitation: 1. She had no idea who this Ben Friedberg was. 2. She was seventy-two years old. 3. And most importantly, it had only been three years since Bernie passed away. And if she did accept his invitation, how would that work logistically? Could a man come by this house to take her out on a date? Surely, the Rebe wouldn’t be pleased. Malkah felt the man waiting on the other end of the line. She had to make a decision.
“Why thank you, Mr. Friedberg, for your invitation. I’d be delighted to accept,” she heard herself saying. “Please let me know where you’d like to meet, and I’ll be there.”
“Please call me Ben. How about the kosher vegetarian place downtown this coming Monday at 6:30 p.m.?” he asked, seemingly nonplussed by Malkah’s hesitation. If he expected to pick her up at her home in his car, he gave no sign of it.
Malkah agreed, and the date, if that was what this was going to be, was set.
“This soup is delicious,” Malkah said, “so many vegetables and just the right amount of seasoning.” And it was. Malkah hadn’t eaten out in years. She couldn’t even remember the last time she and Bernie had gone out. With his bad heart, there were just so many restrictions.
Malkah didn’t tell Ben she didn’t keep kosher when eating out. She wanted to see what this was all about before revealing too much about her dietary habits. After Papa died, Mama stopped keeping kosher “for” herself. It was prostate cancer that got Papa. Mama didn’t see any point since it was Papa who was most interested in maintaining the traditions. She didn’t suddenly start eating ham and pork, but there was a gradual slippage in the level of the observance. At first, Mama stopped going to the kosher butcher and then she stopped separating meat and milk dishes. By then, Malkah had finished high school and her bookkeeping course and was out and about in the world.
“I agree completely. The food here is excellent. I’ve never been disappointed,” Ben said.
The waiter suddenly appeared with their dishes. “Here is the casserole for Monsieur. And for Madame, the spinach quiche. Will there be anything else?” When both assured him there wasn’t, he discreetly vanished. Malkah wondered about the waiter’s usage of the French titles of address. This was a kosher vegetarian restaurant in the center of P, for goodness sake. They weren’t on the banks of the River Seine. Still, she found it charming.
Ben was wearing a dark navy blazer, gray wool slacks, an off-white shirt, and a maroon striped tie. With his shock of white hair under a medium-sized yarmulke, Malkah thought he looked distinguished. When she’d entered the restaurant, she wasn’t sure who he would be. But after just a few seconds, he stood up, waved to her, and started to approach the entrance.
If she’d been a few decades younger, her heart might have skipped a beat. As it was, Malkah was pleasantly surprised. He was tall, well put-together … and well-preserved. At her advanced age, a woman did think of such things. Ben escorted Malkah over to their table and waited for her to seat herself before he sat down. She noticed that he didn’t pull out her chair for her. Their date lasted several hours.
“Well, I’m glad I was in Haverim Ahuvim a while ago. It’s not my regular synagogue, you know. I was just there visiting the Herzfelds. Do you know them?” Ben said.
“I can’t say that I do,” Malkah replied.
“They’re lovely people. As are you, my dear Malkah,” he responded, not missing a beat. Malkah forgave him his too-glib segue way. He was trying, and she had had a very pleasant evening. He clasped, rather than shook, her hand in farewell, and Malkah walked up the long drive to the the Rebe and Henny’s house and her own apartment above it.
After removing her neutral, first-date (or whatever it was) ensemble of a burgundy dress and a gray blazer and slipping on her nightgown, Malkah tried to remember what she and Ben talked about. All she could think of was how relaxed Ben was, how easy—in the best sense of the word—their date had been. And yes, the word “pleasant” returned to her. Without prior coordination, they even dressed in the same colors! Her skin was tingling with pleasure from his touch, instead of its usual arthritis.
Months later, while departing down the path from Congregation Haverim Ahuvim, Malkah thought Mindl took it better than expected. Malkah went over to the synagogue to tell Mindl she would be moving from the neighborhood. She told Mindl they could visit each other at any time, that she was just moving to a different neighborhood in P. Not a close one, to be sure, but still in the same city. But they both knew that frequent, or even regular, visits were unlikely. Mindl’s aches and pains were not going to get any milder, and she was five years older than Malkah.
Mindl was quite shaken up. That much was quite clear to Malkah. She couldn’t meet Malkah’s eyes, and her hands were shaking. Mindl so enjoyed spending time with Malkah—both at the synagogue and at her home—throughout the time period when Malkah lived in the apartment above the Rebe and Henny’s house. And that time had been enjoyable for Malkah, as well, especially those Shabbas afternoon visits. Mindl invariably served Malkah those cookie press cookies from her mother’s recipe. Delicious. How long ago had Mrs. Vakhtman passed away? Goodness, Malkah had known Mindl since they were both young women!
And Mindl had been an attractive, hard-working young woman. She’d even been engaged once. What was his name? Irving, Irving … Klein. Yes, that was it. Irving Klein. He seemed like such a nice man. And then he’d dumped Mindl a few months before the wedding invitations went out. In a handwritten note, no less. Didn’t even have the decency to tell her in person. Poor Mindl. Such a good person. How she wept. Couldn’t get out of bed for months. Only seemed to perk up when Malkah came to visit her, Mrs. Vakhtman told Malkah. In fact, she would only eat when Malkah fed her. Malkah spoonfed Mrs. Vakhtman’s barley soup to Mindl. Eventually, Mindl snapped out of it and really ran the family business, Vakhtman’s Ladies Garments and then the synagogue. Someone once told Malkah at a Kiddush that Mindl married Congregation Haverim Ahuvim. Mindl was never the same again after that “almost-jilting.” She never recovered. Some people never do.
But it was time for Malkah to move on. She wanted to live fully the years remaining to her. Ben had proposed—still able to get down on his knees … and then up again—without any help. Malkah prepared herself for this moment, expecting it even. Did she feel disloyal to the memory of Bernie? To the time they shared? Maybe a little. But she knew Bernie would understand. He would want her to move on. Bernie was never the jealous type. He was confident in who he was and expected no less from those he loved. Malkah knew she’d always carry Bernie’s presence within her.
And here was Ben. Widowed, with grandchildren, and as delighted in her as Bernie had been. Yes, he was more polished, far more elegant than Bernie. A jeweler he was before having his sons take over the business. Malkah hoped she could keep up with him. And if she couldn’t, she sensed Ben would forgive her.
What if she were wrong about Ben? How well did she really know him? Not very, admittedly. They’d only been seeing each other about seven months. Still, when you’re this age, you don’t have the time to dither. This was the age of decisiveness. And what if Ben dumped Malkah months before the wedding the way Irving Klein had dumped Mindl? Or worse, “at the altar”? Only there wouldn’t be an altar. They’d get married in city hall. Ben had suggested they get married at Congregation Haverim Ahuvim since that’s where he first spotted (and fell in love with) her, but Malkah wouldn’t hear of it. That was supposed to have been the setting of Mindl and Irving’s wedding. No way. City hall was so much simpler. Well, if Ben did dump her, so be it. It wouldn’t surprise her. Nothing could. Malkah had seen it all. She’d manage on what Bernie left her. It wasn’t much, but it was enough. She accepted Ben’s proposal without a moment’s hesitation.
Henny took Malkah’s declaration of departure well, at least far better than Mindl had. But Henny, for all of her trials and tribulations, had a husband and four lovely children. Sure, she had her health problems, a husband who wasn’t the most attentive or affectionate, and, of course, that mama’s boy Yehoshua, but still it was a family. Henny wasn’t alone.
But whom did Mindl have? That sister of hers Rosa wasn’t any good. Mindl hadn’t seen her in years. Henny didn’t drive, but one of her older sons—Mikhl or Perets—or maybe even the Rebe would drive Mindl. Malkah was sure they’d be happy to take Mindl along when they came to visit Malkah and Ben. But that wouldn’t happen. Mindl just wouldn’t feel comfortable. Her time with Malkah had been a fragile web, dependent on just the two of them being in it. Their time together in Congregation Haverim Ahuvim was different. There, Mindl was on her terrain; Mindl could welcome Malkah in as effortlessly as she could in her own home. In that synagogue, the web of their friendship didn’t seem fragile at all.
Malkah wondered if all that time tending to women in an underwear store had somehow messed with Mindl’s mind, her desires. All that femaleness, ripe for the viewing. What did Malkah really know of Mindl’s true longings? Is that what truly unhinged Mindl? Is that what Irving Klein saw? Was she damaged before Irving Klein abandoned her? It was the old “chicken and egg” problem. Well, Malkah wasn’t going to solve it anytime soon.
And then there was the matter of Yehoshua. She wanted to tell the boy that he didn’t have to wear girl’s clothing only with his sister Zisl. He could come to her apartment dressed that way. Sure, it would take Malkah some getting used to, but she’d manage. She wanted to tell him that she’d like to meet his friend Raheem, that he should bring Raheem over to meet her. But she never told him these things. She was sure Yehoshua would be mortified, with his secrets held up to the light. Malkah understood that he had to come to her when he was ready. If she were alive when (and again, if) he would become ready. Maybe she couldn’t quite bring herself to extend these offerings. Maybe she wouldn’t get used to these things, maybe she wouldn’t manage. Maybe she wasn’t as open-minded as she liked to think she was. And she was just the boy’s great-aunt. And by marriage. Still, such a dear boy. So young, with so many secrets. Such burdens would he bear.
Malkah would miss Yehoshua and his television-guzzling siblings, Perets and Mikhl. She would miss Henny. And, of course, she’d miss Mindl. But her decision was made. She’d already called the Federation Thrift Shop to remove her things. She wouldn’t need them anymore. She was moving into a new place with Ben at the end of the week. They’d only just found it last week. Cozy, not much bigger than these two rooms here. Ben wanted them to move into a new place of their own together.
There was considerable activity in the house, and Malkah could smell Henny’s salmon cakes in the oven. Mmm. But the hallway was dark, and Malkah’s ascent to her third-floor apartment garnered no notice. She looked around her bedroom-sitting room. She saw the boxes piled on the floor, and the half-filled suitcases scattered about. There was the big grandfather’s clock with her on the table. Tick-tock, tick-tock. Of course, she wouldn’t donate that to charity. She would keep the clock with her on this, what Malkah hoped would be her last move before the Final One. Yes, “Final One,” she thought, catching herself but still unable to prevent herself from mouthing aloud, “not Final Solution.” The clock ran well and was still rather handsome. Not unlike its owner, she thought, applying some lipstick in the mirror across from the clock, contentedly though not immodestly. Of course, Malkah couldn’t bear to consign the clock to the fate of the many discarded personal items in thrift stores that still held such appeal, although she knew Hector and Rodrigo would take good care of it. The clock would stay with her, and now, with Ben, too. Time would tell (Ha! Ha!) whether Ben would be pleased. She wouldn’t tell him who gifted this clock to her.
Bernie would have been pleased—that Malkah was keeping the clock and that she wasn’t telling Ben that he’d given it to her. And Bernie would also have been pleased that she was moving in with Ben. Of course, he would have, Malkah assured herself. She reached over to continue packing. She placed Bernie’s silver-framed portrait in bubble wrap and then taped it. Malkah would have to find a spot for it in her new home. Or would she? How would Ben react to a portrait of his predecessor? Malkah wasn’t sure she wanted to find out. One thing was certain—Malkah was not going to discard her portrait of Bernie out of Ben’s possible jealousy. There were limits to her forbearance—and from the grave, to Bernie’s.