Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 39 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.
“What are you doing here, Miri?” The two sisters bumped into each other at the corner of Nechemia and Chazon Ish streets.
“I went with Abba and Ima to see their apartment, and then I used the chance to do a few errands in this area.”
“How nice!” Tzippy chirped. “Now you can come over to me!”
Miri didn’t object. She hadn’t visited her sister since the wedding.
“But I have nothing special to serve you, just a little bit of cake left over from Shabbos.”
“Please, I’m not coming to eat!” They walked into the building, and Miri took Shmully out of the carriage. “You don’t need to feel pressured because of me.”
“That’s what you say,” Tzippy said in a low voice, and started to climb the stairs. Miri stared at her for a long moment, and then followed her sister, with her baby in her arms.
“So, how’s their apartment?” Tzippy asked as she turned the key in the lock.
“It’s really nice. Huge.” Miri took a deep breath. “You can see that it was designed as a very fancy place: the paint job, the moldings, gorgeous light fixtures in the whole house—including a chandelier in the dining room and a really nice piece in the dinette—and marble or ceramic floors; I don’t know the difference. The whole house has a very modern, shiny look, if you know what I mean. I wonder how it will look like with Abba and Ima’s furniture. Actually, the dining room has a bookcase built in, made of plasterwork, I think, so they don’t need to bring their old one along.”
“There are already light fixtures and a bookcase installed?”
“I don’t know if it’s actually a bookcase, but what else do you call a piece of furniture in the dining room that has lots of shelves?” Miri tittered. “I think we automatically assume it’s for sefarim; I don’t know what the original plan for it was. Maybe it’s just meant for knickknacks.”
“Right, that’s the strange part here. I get the feeling that this apartment was almost ready to be moved into. Someone planned it down to the last detail.”
“Could be. Why is that strange?” Miri sat down on the couch in the living room. While the apartment here might not have been as glitzy as her parents’, it was very spacious and fully furnished—on a much higher standard than her parents intended to furnish their new place.
“It sounds like someone really put a lot of thought into the apartment, and then backtracked at the last minute and sold it to U’shemartem.”
“Maybe that’s what happened. But so what?”
“Well, such sales could be very problematic. Who knows what the story is there with the title and all the legal stuff? I don’t know enough about this American organization to know how reliable it is. Isn’t it possible that this apartment has serious issues with it? You have no idea what kind of stories I’ve heard about Chinese auctions like this.”
“What do you mean? What kind of stories?”
“About an apartment that was built in a totally illegal way, without any of the neighbors’ approval, and then it was put up as a raffle prize. The winner found himself embroiled in a whole series of legal battles just to get the apartment to become legally his.”
Miri raised her eyebrows. “That kind of story can’t be the norm, Tzippy. I mean, I don’t understand much about titles and such things, but come on, a beautiful house that you can call your own? That’s the main thing! Everything else—all the technicalities and details—will somehow work themselves out afterward.”
“You think so?”
“Absolutely.” Miri tried not to look around, and focused her gaze on the plate of cake that Tzippy had set in front of her; it had a few squares of plain chocolate cake on it. “Someone who owns a nice, big home should realize: he has a great place to live, he has furniture, he’s all settled…he’s got it made! He has no right to complain! He doesn’t have to pay rent and scramble to make sure that he can cover it every month; he doesn’t have to crowd his family into a tiny, two-room apartment and know that this is what he has and there’s no chance in the next decade of getting anything more… So he should be happy!”
“I think that’s a bit of a narrow-minded thought,” Tzippy remarked, looking at the piece of cake she’d helped herself to.
Miri looked up at her sister. “Narrow-minded?” She didn’t notice how loaded her voice sounded.
“Yes. There are more important things in life than a good apartment.”
“Oh, of course, I know that. Good children, health, shalom bayis… You don’t need to remind me that not everything begins and ends with money, my tzaddeikes sister.”
“I actually did mean something that begins and ends with money. I wasn’t talking about the more significant things in life.”
“So which something are you talking about?”
Tzippy stood up abruptly and walked over to the fridge. “Tell me the truth. What do you think is inside here right now?”
“In your refrigerator?” Miri smiled and blushed at the same time. “How should I know?”
“Let’s put it this way: what do you have now in your refrigerator?”
“Mine? You really want to know?”
“Okay, let me try to remember.” She rolled her eyes dramatically. “One and a half bottles of milk. Six lebens. One container of cottage cheese. A package of mozzarella cheese. A pot with vegetable soup. An eggplant-mushroom dip from Shabbos. A pan with some leftover chicken. Chocolate spread…mayonnaise…ketchup…butter…um…what’s on the top shelf? Apple cake, I think. That’s it.”
“I’m sure that on the door, and in the fruit and vegetable drawers, and in the freezer, there are a few more things,” Tzippy said. “But let’s not go that far.” She jerked open the two doors of her refrigerator. “Now come and see what’s in my fridge. Even Ima’s fridge was never this empty.”
The shelves of the large refrigerator were gleaming…and almost completely bare. Miri gaped for a minute at the two lebens standing next to a small container, and raised her eyes to her sister.
“I…” She couldn’t stand Tzippy’s posture. “You don’t get your monthly stipend anymore since he died?”
“Since who died?” Tzippy slammed the doors shut.
“The millionaire, Korman.”
“The one he gave you after the wedding.”
“There was no stipend. He didn’t give us anything past the wedding.” Tzippy’s voice grew hoarse; she didn’t know if it was from humiliation or frustration. “I don’t have a job yet, Peretz’s kollel still hasn’t paid us a penny, Abba and Ima are already paying for my schooling, so I don’t expect any more support from them, and that’s it…”
“And they really haven’t given you anything?”
“Here and there they did; it amounted to a few hundred shekels,” Tzippy whispered. “That, with the money from our wedding gifts, goes mainly to pay for electricity, water, gas, and the telephone bill, and the little that is left over I use for groceries.”
“So how are you managing with your bank account?”
“Like you see. I think we have a balance now of a hundred and something shekels. Peretz doesn’t want an overdraft, even though the banks have a heter iska.”
“Abba and Ima also never had an overdraft, as far as I know.”
Tzippy came back to sit next to her sister. “I really don’t know how they managed all these years.”
“You’ll also manage,” Miri said soothingly. She laid a gentle hand on her sister’s shoulder. “Remember, there are a lot of newlyweds who are in the exact same situation as you. B’ezras Hashem you’ll find a job. Don’t forget that Ima worked when we were little, and then we sold Abba’s tea.”
“That tea caused more losses than profits, didn’t it?” Tzippy picked up another piece of cake, but then returned it to the plate.
“At first it went well. Abba didn’t just concoct a strange brew. It was a blend of herbs, and he himself saw how they helped with his migraines. Lots of people were very grateful to him for that tea. Ima told us about it.”
“Yes, I remember. But at one point, it began selling less and less.”
“Right. Because slowly but surely, the competition increased. Open any advertising circular today, and you’ll see how many natural products are out there, for weight loss and migraines, fungus and warts… And after all is said and done, Abba is not a sales guy. The licensed institutes are much better at selling these things, and it robbed him of a lot of energy. Plus there were all of his expenses. He had to pay for the ingredients, and the lab for actually creating the brew according to his recipe. So when he saw that sales were steadily declining, he stopped ordering new batches. I don’t think he’s ordered anything for a few years already.”
“So how did Abba and Ima manage?” Tzippy repeated.
“We didn’t know, as children, to appreciate Ima enough,” Miri murmured. “Look how she ran our house. Some years, it was literally from nothing. Do you remember the clothes she sewed for us? And the meals she used to cook… Go tell someone how to make chicken balls from the wings. Cook the wings in boiling water so the bits of meat should be easy to take off the bone, pick it all off, and then grind it up. Use the boiling water to make delicious chicken soup. Which one of us kids was ever aware of how much effort Ima put into making sure we’d never feel lacking?”
“I think it goes even further than that!” Tzippy exclaimed. “Ima herself never felt any lack; that’s the answer. And that’s why we also always felt good with the situation.”
“I don’t know if she didn’t ever feel like she lacked for something.” Miri spoke slowly, shaking her head from side to side. “Could be there were moments when it was hard for her. I’m sure there were. But I do think that she was very at peace with this way of life.” She rose from her seat and picked up Shmully, making sure he hadn’t spit up on the elegant, perfect sofa or left behind any stains. Stains that might ruin the impressive, stable image that this house imprinted on the minds of all those who visited.
“I’ll help you look for a job, b’ezras Hashem,” she said, after a few seconds of silence. “Besides that, I don’t know if we have anything right now, but if I see that I do have some money that we can spare, would you want a loan?”
“I’ll ask Peretz,” Tzippy almost whispered. “I’m not sure he’ll want it. I’m not sure I want it, either. Like you said, there are lots of young couples in our situation, and they learn to manage. Or actually…” She looked around and smiled. “There aren’t lots of young couples in our situation.”
Miri walked to the bus stop, pushing Shmully’s carriage. They hadn’t yet bought a carriage of their own, the model she had chosen, but still, she felt very rich today indeed.