Authors: Evan Fallenberg
Pepe’s newfound grown daughter Carolina is pretty, that Joseph knows from the photograph in the living room. Pepe claims no memory of her mother’s looks, but he is certain she was a dancer at a club he frequented and that she must have seduced him during one of his notorious drunken stupors. Joseph supposes that Noam is the only one of his sons who would dare fall for a non-Jewish girl, and he resolves they will never meet.
“I see you’re in a rare mood. Being in Rio certainly does relax you. You’re never this much fun at home.” Joseph is careful to soften the edges of his voice, since Pepe has the uncanny ability to pick up his slightest nuances, both the ones Joseph wishes to hide and those he wants to flaunt. Many times Pepe has tapped into his mood, dredging up grudges and hardened lumps of anger long before Joseph has been prepared to expose them.
But Pepe is oblivious to Joseph’s long-distance jabs. “Ah, Josimeu, and how are your big preparations coming along? I’ll bet the table is set and all the food is cooked and you’ve even put the Shabbat candles into their holders. Right? Are all those luscious boys of yours still planning to come? Nobody’s backed out?”
The word chokes Joseph with rage. He feels he could slap Pepe senseless or worse: scratch blood to the surface of his age-spotted skin, tear his shriveled cock from its root, wrench his mocking eyes from their sockets, sever the offending tongue from his mouth. This is not Pepe’s first infraction or even his worst—there’s the way he embraces Noam or holds Ethan’s hand in a long handshake, the way he appraises the boys’ bodies when he thinks no one is watching, his lewd jokes, and sexual innuendos—but it enrages Joseph nonetheless. He speaks in a tight, controlled voice. “There is a lot I still have to do today, but I’ll manage. And, yes, I believe they’re all coming, even Gidi’s wife.”
“Good, good. Anyway, I’m calling to say happy birthday to you and to tell you you’ll find your gift in the medicine cabinet, behind the laxatives.”
Joseph takes a long, deep breath, steadying himself. “Thank you for remembering,” he says as sweetly as he can. For a long moment after hanging up, he cannot recall what it was he was about to do. But he is certain that the medicine cabinet is not on his list this morning and he resolves to avoid looking for his gift.
He acknowledges to himself that what he told Pepe was not entirely true: he has extended invitations to all his sons, but not a one has quite exactly, precisely said he was coming. To this he is accustomed—their avoidance, the way they shift their eyes away from his own, the hooded hurt that still lingers. But he knows, too, to read around and under their words and their expressions, to pick up clues over the telephone lines. He is nearly certain they have been convincing one another, as always, in tight collusion, and that they will all arrive before the Sabbath begins that afternoon.
He wonders for the thousandth time how this Pepe, a man of crude appetites and unsavory business practices, is able to be so maddening and so disarmingly charming at the same time, how he has a knack for selecting just the present or thinking of just the idea. On the anniversary of their first year together Pepe presented Joseph with dress-circle tickets to an opera in Milan. On Joseph’s birthday that year Pepe arranged to fill every room of the apartment with sumptuous flower arrangements that took three delivery boys more than an hour to install. Concerts, a catered picnic, a private cooking lesson with a master chef, a champagne breakfast for forty guests, the theater festival at Edinburgh, the races at Ascot, tennis at Wimbledon, opera at Bayreuth—Pepe consistently provides the most exquisite of temporal pleasures. To Joseph they blend and fold together like a sweet batter of memories, one long whorl of eating, drinking, spectating. Short, pithy speeches; commissioned cantatas; frothing glasses raised in toasts; well-dressed friends; undressed friends. Teeth, tongues, gesticulating hands. So much talking! So much laughing! So much singing!
Several weeks after they first met, Pepe invited Joseph to Paris, his litmus test for new loves. Where else could he impress a guest with his knowledge and cosmopolitan ease and provide such romantic, elegant surroundings? Besides, he felt it was far less complicated to treat a new friend to a long weekend in Paris than to risk a potential entanglement on home territory.
On their third day of steady gray rain Pepe brought Joseph to a resplendent cookware shop in Les Halles, right in the shadow of the church of Saint-Eustache. Joseph was still grappling with the fact that every shopkeeper, clerk, and maître d’ they had encountered seemed to know Pepe. Who had accompanied him on all his previous junkets, Joseph wondered? Shopping for kitchen appliances proved strange, much stranger than picking out a bathing suit for Joseph, as they had done the day before, stranger still than receiving breakfast from a sallow young bellhop in the enormous hotel bed fitted with silk sheets. Kitchenware implied domestic intimacy; Joseph did not understand what Pepe meant in ushering him to this particular shop. He had no idea what Pepe had in his own kitchen. Whose kitchen were they out-fitting? Joseph’s own tiny kitchenette, or a large, gleaming room they would share one day, where pots and pans would hang from hooks and stacks of china would rest comfortably behind panes of glass? Pepe recommended whisks, basters, sieves, funnels, tongs, spatulas, ladles, and other more complicated appliances that required explanations and demonstrations. They had the whole lot shipped back to Israel; Pepe supplied his own mailing address. “But you are the one who will be using them,” he told Joseph, with a wink to the matronly shopkeeper.
When the doorman rings to announce—less politely than Joseph would like—that a taxi has been waiting for his descent for several long minutes, Joseph takes a quick look at himself in the mirror beside the door, throws a coat over his arm, and puts the apartment and his memories behind him and heads for the market.
* * *
After changing into a roomy housedress and a knitted sweater pulled loose with age and use, Rebecca sneaks out the front of the house as quietly as possible, careful not to let the screen door slam shut. She heads around to the back of the property toward Grandfather’s cottage, but stops at the old shed, where she thinks she may have mislaid her gardening gloves. The heavy wooden door needs coaxing, but Rebecca knows all the secrets of this farm; she slips her foot in the wide gap between the cement floor and the bottom of the door and lifts it slightly before pushing it open.
The air is close in the shed, and she hears feet scampering as her eyes adjust to the dim light. Sixty years of moshav living are buried here, a history in miniature of the State of Israel: wire cots provided to new immigrants on their first nights in the country; a mesh coop for babies, where Rebecca could leave the boys in the fresh air without worrying about mosquitoes or bees or stray cats; a rocking horse sent by Joseph’s aunt Lotte, who escaped to America before the war and lives there still; doorless armoires and cane chairs with no seats; a pile of waterlogged mattresses; an old radio the size of a child’s coffin; and several generations of farm equipment, from milking machines to feed grinders to chick incubators. Rebecca feels more at home in this small, dark, overcrowded room than anywhere else in the world, and it is here that a suffocating despair suddenly squeezes at her chest. For the first time in as long as she can remember she is terrified. Not for her boys, out there colliding with life, accruing bruises and scars; not for her father-in-law or for her mother, both reaching great old age and inevitable decline; certainly not for Joseph, whom she once pitied for turning his back on so much love: now, at the thought of her own futureless future, she is terrified for herself. Amid the discarded junk of the cramped shed she pictures scalpels and hospital gowns, oxygen machines and body scanners. She pictures pain so sharp it sears her belly and she doubles over, her breathing ragged. She pictures nausea and fatigue. She pictures herself surrounded by her sons, and she pictures her own loneliness. But before she can picture her death she straightens herself to her full height, unfurls her fists, breathes. She pushes the unwanted images away, tries to remember what it was that brought her to the shed, and casts about for her gardening gloves. She remembers that the men are waiting for her, and her gloves are nowhere in sight, so she backs out of the shed and picks her way through the sand and weeds to Grandfather’s cottage, wiping away her anxiety with the back of her hand.
She finds Daniel on his knees in front of the toilet, a metal coil plunged deep into the bowl. Grandfather is sitting on a stool in the corner, scribbling on a small pad of paper. “Then you divide the whole sum in half and you get the year of your birth. So let’s see. Two into one hundred and thirty-six. Yes. So, you were born in ‘68, no? Am I right?”
Grandfather looks first to Daniel’s stooped back then to Rebecca for confirmation. “Guten morgen, Rebecca. Das ist richtig, ya—1968?”
She knows this trick of his. He has performed it on every human being whose birthday Rebecca can recall. He has guessed her mother’s birth year, her friend Rosa’s, all of her cousins’. Unlike so many other things, it has never failed him. “Yes, Opa, Daniel was born in 1968.”
From the toilet comes the sound of a loud burp. “There we go,” says Daniel, standing. The metal coil dredges up a huge wad of muck, which Daniel lifts carefully to a bucket. He flushes and the water runs freely. “Just overstuffed,” he says to his mother. He crouches down in front of his grandfather and says in a near shout, “Opa, you can’t put so much toilet paper into the bowl at one time. You’ll clog up this old toilet again and again, so just flush
you’re finished and then again when you’re all done.”
Grandfather stands up so abruptly he nearly knocks Daniel backward. Still, he grabs his grandson’s arm to steady himself. Rebecca sees he is insulted but she is not sure by what. Perhaps it is Daniel’s manner of speaking to him, as if to a child; perhaps he is embarrassed by Daniel’s forthrightness, talking of private matters so candidly. Rebecca knows he will never agree to waste that much water by flushing twice. Maybe he is even a bit peeved that Daniel has not acknowledged the birth-year trick.
She motions to Daniel to gather his tools and go straight back to the house. She follows Grandfather to his kitchen, where she finds him rinsing a bowl in the sink. “Opa?” she calls lightly to him from behind. She notices for the first time the way his head has begun to sink beneath the horizon of his shoulders, how soon he and she will be of equal height. He does not turn around or acknowledge her in any way.
At the very spot on which she is standing now, Rebecca began her life in Israel, in this cottage that was once a cow shed, one long narrow room with a kitchen carved out of one end and a bathroom out of the other. She had thrown herself into making it a home: she sewed curtains and painted an old armoire she had found lying in deep weeds and poured stones to make a path through the dirt to the main house and planted a small vegetable garden. She tried some of her mother’s recipes, but they were complicated and often required some ingredient she could not find at the village greengrocer’s, so she learned from her neighbor Penina instead. She sent Joseph off to the university each morning in a freshly ironed shirt and shoes she polished and buffed to a deep, rich glow. Each day she cooked him a full breakfast, packed him sandwiches and fruit and home-baked pastries, and had a hot meat meal on the table when he returned in the evening.
She tries to remember now, as she watches her father-in-law’s stooped back at the kitchen sink, whether she was happy then. She was in Israel, away from her mother, out of earshot of the Swiss who called her “Jewish swine” from behind cheerful window gardens, far removed from the grasp of spindly Jewish diamond merchants who wanted her hand in marriage. She was in Eretz Israel; she was living the Zionist dream; she had become a full-fledged member of her people, had become part of a history that was being written as she lived it. It was exhilaration she must have felt back then, and every shirt she ironed or meal she cooked was her own contribution to the building of this land and this people.
So when, she wonders, did the awe and pride and excitement turn to drudgery? How long did it take her to ask herself whether she had made a mistake by marrying this second cousin of hers, this man who became more of a stranger the longer they were married? When he had visited Switzerland she had been roused by his attentiveness, his sensitivity, and certainly by the flow of his prattle, the quickness of his mind, his ability to seize an idea or an image and dance it until it revealed its every curve and angle. He was fire and wind compared to the cool European boys she had known in Zurich, the sons of merchants or Holocaust survivors from the east, or pale Swiss Jews too long inbred. But in Israel he became absorbed in his studies, and by winter their routines were long established, patterns they would maintain until their last day together. It became her responsibility to maintain the house, cater to his father (cook meals, do housework, help with the farm chores, be an attentive audience for his tirades), and make sure that Joseph never wanted for anything and could therefore devote his entire mind and energies to studying English language and literature.
At night they dined together, though Rebecca spent much of the meal jumping up to remove a boiling pot from the stove or fetch him a napkin or a cold drink or the saltshaker. She became increasingly nervous that she might forget something or spill something or burn something, so that even when he was sharing an opinion about a story he had read or explaining a theory he had developed, she found herself scanning the small kitchen in search of potential disaster.
In bed at night she would lie patiently in a flannel night-gown under a heavy comforter waiting for Joseph to emerge from the bathroom. They would share the light from a small lamp and lie reading until Joseph would sigh, slip a book-mark between the pages, and lean over to kiss her on the fore-head. On occasion, mostly in the predawn hours, when the farmers were up milking their cows, and one-eyed Litovsky was using a long-handled paddle to slide the first loaves of the day into a roaring stone oven just down the road from them, they might make love. They would fumble with their pajamas but they would find one another under the sheets and their stomachs would make smacking noises as skin met skin and she would feel hopeful about him, feel that maybe she would, over time, find the softer, more vulnerable side to her husband.