Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 28 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.
The man who left the airport of the M.R. Stefanik Airport in Bratislava shifted his small valise to his right hand. Even its relatively little weight was heavy for him. Either his age was catching up to him, or this trip was just not doing him very much good.
But he was the one responsible for the fact that he had come here, so he had no one else to blame.
“Mr. Joe Ludmir?” A taxi driver leaning on his car stood up when he approached. “That’s you, right?”
“Right.” The man nodded at him. “I see that you recognized me, despite the years that have passed.”
“Sure,” the driver, a local, replied. “You’ve hardly changed.”
Sure, only fifteen years had been added to his age since his last visit here, but giving compliments to a tourist who hires you as a driver for his entire trip is surely very profitable. Joe’s lips curved into a half smile, and he let the driver put his valise into the trunk. “Is that all?” the driver asked in surprise. “Like then?”
“You remember well; I don’t like traveling with too many things.” He ran his fingers through his gray-white hair and straightened the little yarmulke. “If I lack for something, I’m sure you’ll be very happy to buy it for me.”
The streets hadn’t changed much in the last fifteen years, and Joe couldn’t decide if he remembered them so well from his wandering around during that visit, or from the many photos he had taken then to capture every single corner of the city of his birth. He leaned back and looked out the window in silence. Every so often, between the buildings, he could see the glistening waterline of the Danube, with the Bratislava Castle rising up behind it.
“Did you visit it last time?” the driver asked when he saw his guest gazing at the castle’s famous turrets.
Joe nodded. He didn’t know what it was, but something about this city enveloped him in a cloak of depression.
“We’re going to Mamaison, right?” the driver confirmed. “You reserved a room in that hotel, yes?”
“Yes, I have a confirmed reservation,” the tourist answered heavily.
“How do you like it there?”
“It’s excellent. Great personal service and high standards.”
“Because if you are disappointed, sir, my mother rents rooms out to tourists. Everything in her house is clean and pleasant and new. She renovated last year.”
“I hope I won’t be disappointed with the hotel.” Joe Ludmir smiled. “I’m sure the service by your mother is excellent too, but if you remember everything about me so well, you certainly remember that I have special requirements regarding food, and Mamaison is able to accommodate me with that.”
“Oh, yes.” The driver nodded in understanding. “You’re a religious Jew. You eat only kosher, right?”
Joe nodded and fell silent again. The taxi drove up into the parking lot of the former Jewish Hospital, which had been converted to a hotel in recent years.
The driver took the valise out of the trunk and followed his passenger. He put the suitcase down in front of the reception desk, and Joe turned to him. “Thank you,” he said as he pulled out his wallet.
“Where to tomorrow and when?” the driver asked. “Do you want to go where all the tourists like to go? The Bratislava Castle, the Museum of Clocks, the National Gallery, or the—”
“No, not at all.” Ludmir looked at the skies, which were turning pink, through the open door. “In the morning I’ll have some research to do. At around lunchtime, I’ll let you know when we’ll be going and where to.”
“No problem,” the driver said, and Joe turned back to the desk clerk.
“First time here?” the desk clerk asked, swiping the credit card. “Oh, no, I see that it’s already your second time. Allow us to accept that as a compliment.”
Joe smiled. “Last time wasn’t my first visit in this city, either,” he said. “I was born here. Like most Jewish children in Bratislava of those years.”
The second time was not as hard as the first; the third time was even easier, and by the fourth time, he entered the room without even pausing at the threshold. He put his hat and jacket on the empty bed and sat down on the chair next to the bed. Shabsi crossed the room to bring over the other chair, and Binyamin stared for a moment at the ceiling fan. Another once or twice doing this job, and he’d be able to buy himself a new hat.
The grayish hat he had seen the first time still remained etched in his memory, but he could not pinpoint what exactly had frightened him so much then. Obviously everyone passes away eventually, and it’s very sad, and it’s clear that no one can take anything with him to the grave. But that didn’t mean he had to ruin the new hat that he had gotten for Tzippy’s wedding.
For a fraction of a second, his gaze flitted to the tallis resting on the ground, near the opposite wall. He even felt a flash of heat run through him. Hastily he opened his pocket Mishnayos.
“Rich people,” Shabsi whispered to him as he took a seat beside Binyamin.
“Mmm…?” Binyamin queried.
“It’s not the time or the place to talk about it, but you can tell that they won’t need to fight over the yerushah here. There’s plenty to go around.”
“Nu, uh,” Binyamin concluded the discussion.
“You’re right, tzaddik. Let’s learn.” Shabsi wanted to add that he had the feeling they’d get a good tip here, but then it certainly wouldn’t be nice on their part to waste time chatting idly. Instead he took out his own Mishnayos.
A quarter of an hour passed, then half an hour, then forty minutes.
“Listen a minute, Binyamin.” Shabsi closed his sefer. “I’m beyond exhausted. Last night I didn’t sleep much, and it’s hard for me to make up lost sleep during the day. I’m going outside for a few minutes to get some fresh air, okay?”
Binyamin shrugged and nodded. If it would have been his first night on the “job,” he would have probably been unnerved at the idea of staying alone with a dead person. But now it didn’t faze him at all.
Shabsi left, and Binyamin continued learning. The smell of the paraffin wax slowly dripping from the pair of candles on the floor no longer disturbed him. His brother-in-law Yaakov could say what he wanted; he actually felt perfectly fine about the whole thing. The part that he found hard was interacting with the grieving families, but he really tried to avoid that as best he could. Shabsi was the one who took care of all the practical details before and after; he just showed up, said Tehillim or learned Mishnayos, and that was it.
He heard footsteps approaching the room. Shabsi must be coming back.
But when the footsteps paused at the door, no one entered. Instead, he heard quiet, hoarse sobbing. Binyamin realized that it was someone else, probably a close family member. He buried his eyes in his sefer and kept learning quietly.
“Excuse me,” the voice, a woman’s, choked out from the door. “I…I just got here from the airport, from London. I want…to take leave of my father, privately. Do you mind stepping out of the room? It will just be for a few minutes.”
Binyamin got up with a lowered gaze and slipped out the door. Yes, Mr. Katz’s apartment was opulent, and he was hardly familiar with such living standards. But what did he know about fancy apartments? He wanted to move away from the room; he couldn’t bring himself to hear what the daughter was telling her deceased father as she parted from him. Still, his sense of responsibility for his job didn’t let him go too far. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the profiles of two silent men in the dining room. One stood near the open window, and the other was resting his head on a nearby wall. He didn’t want to be too close to them either.
He stood like a potted plant in the middle of the small hallway and murmured the first perek of Tehillim, then the second and third…and then perek dalet… Just as he finished perek hey, he heard someone clearing her throat from the doorway of the room. He understood that he was supposed to go back and take up his position again.
But sitting on the chair where he had been a few moments earlier was a thick envelope.
He looked at the chair, wondering what this was about.
Mr. Katz’s daughter spoke up from where she stood. “We’ll be leaving here in about two hours, and I don’t want to take that envelope with me. But I don’t want to leave it here unguarded either…” She was crying again, and Binyamin fixed his gaze on the tips of his shoes. They were pretty rubbed out, though hopefully a good polish should help…
“I …I want to ask if you can keep the envelope with you for now, without talking about it…because it’s very precious… And after the levayah…” She sniffed. “After the levayah I’ll send someone to pick it up from you.” At the end of her sentence, she choked up again; a few seconds later there was no one in the doorway anymore.
The envelope was a bit heavy and full of lumps. Binyamin bit his lip but went over to the bed and stuck the envelope into the inside pocket of his jacket. Then he went back to his place and opened his Mishnayos again.
A minute later Shabis walked in. “It’s almost neitz,” he said, somewhat cheerfully, and sat back down. “That means that we should be finished here soon. I think that the rest of the family is starting to arrive. I think I saw the son-in-law from London outside. Within an hour, or less, we won’t be needed here anymore. I wonder when the levayah is.”
They became superfluous in much less than an hour later. The niftar had at least eight sons and sons-in-law, and countless married grandchildren who filled the house and entered the room. Shabsi and Binyamin left; Binyamin walked straight to the door, down the stairs, and outside the building. Shabsi lingered for a few more minutes inside. Binyamin did not know how his friend was going to find someone to speak to in the subdued hubbub that filled the house.
But Shabsi succeeded; he always did. And with a grim expression that matched the atmosphere in the house, he emerged to the stairwell. Once downstairs, his expression became focused as he counted the bills. “Great, they gave very nicely,” he said, and handed Binyamin his share. “It’s a big family, and most of the children are also wealthy. I don’t know if they’re as wealthy as their father, but they’re for sure comfortable. One of the daughters lives in London. If I’m not mistaken her husband is Hartstein, the gvir who supports Ohel Torah. Heard of him?”
“I think I saw him in the dining room, but I’m not sure. Because I would actually like to personally meet this person; people say that whatever he gives Ohel Torah—and trust me, it’s a fancy place—is not even a hundredth of what he has. I wonder if it was him, or if they haven’t arrived yet.”
“I’m trying to decide if I should go to sleep for a little bit now,” Binyamin said, not sure why he wasn’t telling Shabsi that the couple from London had arrived already. “Something like forty minutes, and then I’ll get up for minyan in yeshivah. Or maybe I should go find an in-between type of minyan, after neitz but before than the regular ones. Then I’d take a nap afterward…”
“I’m going to sleep now,” Shabsi said. “Not for a little bit, but for a lot! Then I’ll find a minyan somewhere. If I start to daven the way I feel now, I’ll fall asleep in a second.”