Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 19 of a new online serial novel, The Cuckoo Clock, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every week. Click here for previous chapters.
Copyright © Israel Bookshop Publications.
Bayla Stockhammer walked into Peretz’s empty room and opened the ironing board. How many shirts was she supposed to iron for him ahead of time? She’d be happy to iron all twelve of his new shirts, but in recent years, ironing had become increasingly difficult for her. She couldn’t do it sitting down, and when she stood to iron, it didn’t take long for her legs to begin protesting. If she could have spread the ironing over a few days, that would be one thing. But the wedding was in less than a week, and she had so many errands to do, and it was the aufruf this Shabbos… Maybe she would just give everything to a professional ironing lady.
She didn’t even plug in the iron. Instead, she went to find the most recent advertising circular that had arrived in her mail. If she wasn’t mistaken, there was an ad every week for just this type of thing.
The circular was waiting on the mail table in the hallway, and just as she found the ad and was about to make the call, the phone rang.
“Hello, is this Mrs. Stockhammer?”
“Yes, it is,” she replied, sinking into her favorite old armchair.
“This is Attorney Rosenblit. Your receipts have arrived, but we cannot file them because Peretz did not sign them.”
“I called a day after our meeting to let you know that my client is requesting the signature of the chassan and kallah on each of the receipts.”
“Ah, yes, now I remember,” she murmured. “I didn’t really like that directive, which is probably why I didn’t remember it.”
“Could be.” He was very courteous, but remained firm. “I’m sending them back to you with a courier so Peretz can sign them immediately, and the courier will bring them back to me. Alright?”
“Fine…oh, but one minute. Peretz is only coming home the day after tomorrow, on Friday. He’s in yeshivah now.”
“So be in touch with me when he comes home, and we’ll set up a time for him to sign everything.”
“Yes, okay.” Bayla almost slammed the phone down. He was really irritating, this lawyer.
Too bad that Nesanel, her sister Mira’s son, wasn’t here now. He had been in the area yesterday to give a price quote to someone who wanted to renovate, and had popped in to his aunt and uncle to say hello. He’d asked them how preparations for the wedding were coming along and, in his typical style, had peppered them with endless questions. Avraham had gotten fed up at one point and had gone to sleep, even before the visit was over, but she had stayed up, hosting her young nephew with a seemingly bottomless reserve of patience. But then, when he’d asked her, “And did you try to find out if there really was a couple before the war named Peretz and Tzipporah Genendel”? she, too, became exasperated.
“Come on, Nesanel! How suspicious do you think we could be already?!”
“As suspicious as is necessary. And believe me, Aunt Bayla, there is no such thing as being too suspicious. In my line of work I see it all the time. I work with people, and at first everyone seems serious and reliable—the electricians, the plumbers, the tile guys, all of them—and they all make promises from here to the moon. When I first started out with contracting, I was young and naïve, and I kept falling for these promises. Eventually I learned not to believe anyone until I work with him for at least five years.” He poured a third cup of Coke for himself.
“Nu, and after five years?”
“You don’t have to be as anxious. Not that it means that you won’t get swindled then, either, of course…”
“Fine, so we didn’t have time to wait—certainly not five years!—and we’re just davening that this is all legit and honest.” She had already risen; the clock indicated that it was twelve-fifteen, but Nesanel hadn’t had a relationship with time since a very early age. Nothing new there.
Finally he had left, but she’d spent the rest of the night tossing and turning with new fears about how Peretz was going to get swindled. In the morning she got up, having made up her mind to go to Beit Hatfutsot and look up in their computers if there was indeed a couple named Peretz and Tziporah Genendel Korman.
But Avraham had rejected the idea out of hand. “We’ve used the money already,” he said. “We already bought the apartment. We’re too far into the process, Bayla. We can’t turn the clock back. And I’m not sure that even if Nesanel would have suggested it earlier, I would have listened to his advice.”
“Because we inquired enough, in normal, acceptable ways. We don’t have to be oiber chachamim and go looking for problems where there probably aren’t any.”
She had agreed with him, and as time went on and the dark night with its bad dreams faded into a distant memory, she realized how impractical and unwise her idea of searching for the deceased Korman couple was. Deep down she knew that too much money was at stake here; it was no wonder that Avraham didn’t have an appetite to go delving deeper, only to discover that the story wasn’t true.
This phone call just now actually seemed to affirm the story, but she couldn’t stand that lawyer’s conceited tone. Too bad that Nesanel wasn’t here to answer him. They wanted Peretz’s signature on every receipt! What did they think? That she’d gone to buy herself a new oven? That she’d paid for nice chair-covers for the wedding so that she could use them in her own dining room? That she would eat all the catered portions herself?
Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to give the shirts to someone else to iron. The ladies who did it probably worked off the books, and they wouldn’t be able to give her a receipt. On the other hand, now that she didn’t have to pay for any of the wedding expenses, maybe she could just give the shirts to someone and pay from her own pocket. That would be good, because at this rate, the lawyer would soon think that Peretz was his own son, since they hadn’t, as of yet, paid a penny for any of his wedding expenses. It would be better for her to pay for something out of her own pocket; she would also tell Peretz about it, so he shouldn’t think that his parents weren’t ready to pay for his needs.
She was inclined to call the Potolskys, to see what Tzippy’s mother had to say about this.
But it wasn’t Elisheva Potolsky who answered the phone, and it wasn’t Tzippy either. The one who picked up was Miri, Elisheva’s older daughter. “My mother and Tzippy are out on errands,” she said pleasantly. “I came over to go with my mother and sisters for our last gown fittings, but so far I’m still waiting for them to get back…”
“How nice! It’s really generous that they are also paying for the whole family’s wedding clothing, isn’t it? You probably bought something cute for your little one, too.”
“No, because I’m not yet sure that I’m bringing him to the wedding.” She was sitting in her parents’ empty bedroom, having shut the door on the chaos that Riki and Devoiry were trying to get a handle on.
“Oh?” Bayla was surprised. “So why don’t you just buy something, and then you’ll decide later if you should dress him up in it and bring him, or not?”
“I…we can’t just do that,” Miri replied, polite and refined as ever. “My father says we have to be very careful with this money. If it’s designated for the wedding only, then we can’t buy things that we’re not sure we’re actually going to use at the wedding.”
“Very true. Your father is absolutely right. And Tzippy signs every receipt?”
“Could be,” Miri said. “I haven’t seen the receipts. Wait, what do you mean, if she signs every receipt?”
“Well, the chassan and kallah need to sign the receipts for all the purchases.”
“Interesting.” So Tzippy was supposed to sign the receipt for her own wedding gown? And without that, they wouldn’t fund it?
“It’s as though they don’t trust us,” Bayla murmured. “But in any case, tell your mother and Tzippy that I called. I just wanted to hear how you are doing and how things are coming along, and to finalize a few details about the aufruf.”
“Sure, I’ll tell them,” Miri said politely. She hung up at the same moment that her mother and sister entered the room, weighed down with shopping bags.
“Oh, Miri!” Elisheva exclaimed as she eased the bags onto the floor. “How are you? How’s Shmully?”
“Baruch Hashem.” She vigorously rocked the carriage she had borrowed from her sister-in-law. She wondered if the philanthropist from Australia would want to continue supporting the couple named for his parents even after they had their own children. She imagined he would.
“I didn’t have a chance to let you know that I pushed the seamstress appointment off by an hour. Our errands took longer than I expected, and I saw we wouldn’t be finished in time.” Elisheva changed her shoes for her old, comfortable slippers.
Tzippy, who had left for a moment, returned to the room holding a cup of juice. “Ima, do you want a drink?”
“Yes, thanks.” Elisheva made a brachah and sipped from the cup as she leaned against the wall. “We forgot to take water with us,” she said when the cup was empty. She breathed in deeply. “And all I had in my wallet was Korman’s money. I forgot to take some of my own small change.”
“He’s not paying for that? A cold drink for yourself while you run around, and maybe even something to eat?” Miri hoped she didn’t sound cynical. Her mother, in any case, took the question very seriously.
“We only spoke about wedding expenses, nothing else—not even food to keep us going on the run.”
“I see,” Miri said as she kept rocking Shmully’s carriage. He’d fallen asleep even before the mechuteiniste had called. “I think maybe I’ll leave now.”
Rabbi Walkin, the director of the Jewish orphanage, sat across from Theodore Heinke, who was gazing at him silently, with his arms folded.
“So we are ready, as I said, to send volunteers to help search for the two children who disappeared from your place.” He tried to summarize everything he had said in the previous five minutes. “We got the impression during your visit to us that the children who are missing are Jewish. And because Jewish children are, unfortunately, not so common these days, each one of them is very important to us.”
“And then what?” Finally, the apparent statue had found something to say. “Let’s say you do find them. Then what would be?”
“Well, we’d want them by us—for a large sum of money to your institution, of course.”
“We don’t need your help. Especially since it doesn’t look like you’ll be able to help us out any more than the police.”
“We have connections,” Rabbi Walkin said delicately.
“So go and check with your connections. If you end up finding them, we’ll figure out then who they belong to.”
“I’d like to know who we’re talking about,” Rabbi Walkin said.
“Two children, both rather cute; one has been with our institution since he’s three years old, and the other since he’s two.”
“And are they indeed Jewish?”
“Sir, a person your age should know that today, in the unified Czechoslovakia, there is no emphasis on things like religion and nationality anymore; it’s not relevant for anything.”
“Let’s leave aside what people my age are supposed to know, and discuss instead what we both know.” Rabbi Walkin smiled. “Jews or not?”
“Of Jewish extraction.”
“They were baptized here.” His gaze darted rapidly from right to left. “Of course, before it was prohibited by law.”
“And you know who they are? Names, details…how did they get to you?”
“One of them came…on his own, let’s just say. The second was brought by his mother.”
“And her name was?”
Theodore shook his head. “I have no idea. I barely remember the incident. It’s possible she said something, but I didn’t attribute much importance to it.”
The Jewish orphanage director rose to his feet. “What are the boys’ names, so we know who to look for?”
“Gustav and Edo.”
“Those are their original names?”
“No. And don’t start asking me what their names were. I told you, I have no information about them.”
“I see. Okay, we’ll see what we can do.”
The man behind the desk weakly shook the proffered hand. “Have a good day.”
Rabbi Walkin entered his own orphanage, and was surprised to see Janek Cohen in his office. “You were in such suspense to hear what I’d find out?” He shook his head in disapproval. “We agreed that you wouldn’t come here, didn’t we? It might arouse people’s suspicions… In any case, this Theodore either didn’t know anything, or didn’t want to say. He didn’t give me any new—”
Janek cut him off. “That’s the lesser of our problems right now. The bigger problem is that Gustav has disappeared!”