Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 47 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.
“Yes, yes, thank you. Low alcohol, please.” He looked at the clear red liquid that slowly filled his crystal goblet to the lip.
“Right you’re going to let me steal your afikoman?” seven-year-old Benjy asked him cheekily. “Because yesterday my father didn’t let.”
“Tell me when exactly you want to take it, and I’ll decide then,” the guest replied with a smile.
“Kadesh!” Benjy’s father announced, and placed three square matzos into his tall, tiered Seder plate as they all stood up. The guest preferred not to pick up the full glass in his hand, and instead encircled the narrow stem of the goblet with his fingers. His hands were not what they used to be, and he had no desire—even after being a Pesach guest here for fifteen years—to stain the family’s pristine silk tablecloth and make it awkward for everyone. He insisted on staying young, and when those parts of him that refused to remain young emerged, he did his best to conceal them.
He drank most of the wine in the glass, and leafed through the leather-bound Haggadah on the table in front of him. It was the night of Pesach, the Festival of Freedom, so why did he feel like his brain was in prison? It was roiling with thoughts that kept turning over in his mind, preventing him from enjoying the company of his devoted relatives. His fingers played with the lace napkin that had been arranged into a fan next to his gleaming plate. He didn’t like the design on the napkin, or the plate. He also hadn’t enjoyed the Seder last night, and feared he would not enjoy tonight any more.
What was going on?
He must be tired. He hadn’t been sleeping well, and he would have to come to terms with the fact that tonight would also end earlier than he would have liked. You get old; that’s how it is. And as long as you stubbornly refuse to take sleeping pills, take into account that your days start at three a.m.
He set his empty goblet down with the weariness of an old man. He liked Pesach vacation at Daniel’s home in Perth, but although the visit was as pleasant as ever, these things seemed to drain him at this point. He wasn’t twenty anymore, and he needed his bed, his house, his quiet, and his privacy…
His back stiffened in pain, and he leaned against the back of the chair, unable to move for a moment. He closed his eyes and reflected on the fact that he hadn’t been at the orthopedist for quite some time. He’d never tolerated doctors.
“Are you afraid they are going to tell you to write a will?” Alexander Korman would tease him in those halcyon days when they were both young, busy, and successful, and the thought of wills only flashed rarely through their minds, if at all.
“And if so?” he used to answer. “Let’s say I am afraid of that. Why can’t I be? Isn’t it my right?”
“It’s your right, of course,” Alex—he should rest in peace—would always reply.
Your right. Indeed, it is your right to ponder wills very rarely, because you know that if you think about them too often, you’ll get into trouble. As it is, you spend most of your days trying not to think. Not about the past, not about the future, and not too much about the present either.
The problem is that when you age—which you are doing—your head automatically fills with thoughts. Unwanted, wanted—they don’t ask permission to barge in.
Okay, enough already! It’s Pesach tonight! Be happy! The family in Bnei Brak is also celebrating Pesach happily tonight.
Maybe he should send someone to Bratislava to try to dig into the past again. Why not? He had been most pleased by Leonid’s recent work. True, investigations in the present were simpler, but Leonid was very good at what he did. He hoped that Leonid would do a good job of meandering through the pathways of the past, which had gone up in smoke, seemingly silenced forever.
Again these thoughts?! On Seder night?
“I wish you lived closer to us,” Benjy whispered to him, and wiped his lips after emptying his smaller, child-sized becher. “I like it when you come to our house. My mother and father like it also.”
Really? He was somewhat doubtful about that, but to their credit, he had to admit, they had never tried to get out of hosting him each year. He preferred not to think too much about the reason why they were so devoted to him. Each year, Daniel called a week or two before Pesach and reminded him that they were expecting him for all of Yom Tov, of course. It was a domestic flight that wasn’t too many hours, and he would spend the whole week of Pesach in Perth. And this year, here he was again.
“Urchatz!” Daniel announced. “Uncle and I will wash our hands now.”
“I’ll bring the cup and bowl!” Benjy volunteered. He seemed to have adopted their guest this year, and was determined to wait on him hand and foot. As he stood with the towel on his shoulder, polite and patient, he asked, somewhat randomly, “How are you related to us, anyway?”
He smiled at Benjy, took the towel off the boy’s little shoulder, and wiped his hands.
Benjy’s mother answered patiently, instead of him. “Stop badgering him with questions, Benjy. It’s a bit complicated to explain. He’s a cousin of Saba and Savta in Israel; you didn’t know them. And when Arik was in eighth grade, he went on a summer trip to Israel and met them.”
“Uh-huh,” twenty-year-old Arik said, from the other side of the table. He yawned. “Can we continue? I’m hungry already.”
“A cousin of Saba or Savta?” the boy pressed.
“Saba. Now go back to your seat. And don’t get the drapes wet as you pass by! How many times do I have to tell you that!”
The guest sat, paging through the Haggadah in front of him. Drapes. He couldn’t imagine that the family in Bnei Brak had drapes, even for the Seder night. They probably did not have crystal glasses or pure silver napkin holders, either. But he hoped that they had managed to use a bit of the generous Yom Tov grant that they had received to buy some new things for themselves.
“I don’t believe it, Eliyahu!” Yocheved stood gaping at the built-in bookshelves that were packed with sefarim. Then she spun around to her brother. “Where is that very dignified, traditional bookcase of yours?”
“In the storage room downstairs,” her brother answered patiently. Elisheva was bustling from the kitchen to the dining room, serving dates and nuts, Pesach cookies, cake, and homemade lemonade.
“Stop bringing so much food already,” Yocheved scolded her. “Come sit down for a minute. What is this? You’ve already let Eliyahu put his sefarim into the wall?”
“It’s not a wall.” Eliyahu looked over at the plaster shelves. “It’s a built-in bookcase. What difference does it make what a sefarim shrank is made out of? It’s easier to use than the wooden bookcase.”
“What’s easier about it?” Yocheved turned to look at her younger brother.
“The shelves don’t sag.”
“Oh, you think plaster is stronger than pressed wood?” she asked, hardly concealing her scornful tone. It wasn’t directed at Eliyahu, of course, but at the offending, modern, new bookcase that she decidedly did not approve of.
“Plaster is not stronger than wood, but metal is. And there are enough metal bars in those shelves.”
“And the silver display,” she said. “Why is it on the side? Why didn’t you put your silver items in the middle, to make the whole thing more symmetrical?”
Elisheva retreated to the kitchen.
“I don’t think the silver has to be in the center,” Eliyahu answered, in the same patient, respectful tone that he used when speaking to his oldest sister. “I think the sefarim are the center, and it’s more appropriate for the silver to be placed on the side.”
“So why wasn’t it like that in your old bookcase?”
“Because I didn’t have the choice. The silver display was built into the middle of our old bookcase, and that was it. We bought a floor sample from the store twenty years ago. Here, the person who installed this asked me exactly how I wanted to plan the layout of the shelves.”
“Nu, very nice. And what other furniture did they give you?” She looked up as Elisheva set a mug of hot tea in front of her. “Oy, Elisheva, I told you that you don’t need to!”
“It’s fine; let us host you with the honor you deserve. When do we ever have a chance to have you?”
“That’s right. In your old apartment, it was nearly impossible to get into the dining room. So what’s with the furniture? I see your antique table is still here. And the chairs.”
“We were supposed to get a table with eight chairs, and another coffee table with a couch and two armchairs,” Eliyahu said.
“A coffee table,” she repeated. “Menachem, why aren’t you sitting down? Yehudah, you too. Take a drink or something to eat while I take another look around the apartment.”
“The children are showing me this large porch,” her husband, Menachem, said. “I never would have believed there could be such open air in Bnei Brak at this time of year.”
“Well, the sixth floor on the outskirts of the city—what did you expect?” she said. “Wait until some more buildings go up here, and you’ll want to run back to your little porch in our house in Yerushalayim.”
She turned back to Eliyahu. “So, a coffee table, you said, Eliyahu? Really now. A set of matching chairs sounds good—better than this whole hodgepodge you have here. But armchairs? Why do you need them? And a couch?”
“We always had a couch, but it’s old already. And I like this table and don’t really want to replace it. So we asked for only the chairs and the couch, and they let us exchange the rest of the stuff for bedroom furniture—dressers and beds. But they’ll only be coming in after Pesach.”
Yocheved conducted another walk-through of the house, which passed without any comments, and then they all sat down in the spacious dining room. “I understand that your father isn’t here anymore,” she said to Elisheva.
“No, he left on the first day of Chol Hamoed back to the nursing home. But he enjoyed being here very much, baruch Hashem.”
“I’m sure.” Yocheved’s eyes, which were usually narrowed with suspicion or criticism, also knew how to smile. “Plenty of space, well-raised grandchildren, a devoted daughter and son-in-law… So, children, what do you say about the new house?”
“It’s nice,” Chani and Esti said in unison.
“And big,” Devoiry added.
“But Ima doesn’t let us ride our cars here,” Shloimy complained.
Bentzy quickly soothed him. “But there’s lots of room in the lobby downstairs, so it’s okay.”
“I miss my friends who live near the old house,” Meir said, “but it’s not so far. On Isru Chag I’ll go help my friend collect wood for the Lag B’Omer fire. It’s only a fifteen-minute walk.”
“Oh, that’s not too bad. All the kids stayed in the same schools, right?”
“Yes,” Elisheva and Eliyahu said together.
“So what’s with your apartment? When are your tenants moving in?”
“They’ll get the key a week after Pesach. I don’t know when they are actually planning to move in.” Elisheva passed Yocheved a platter with slices of cake.
“But you’ll get paid from the minute they get the key, right?” Menachem inquired.
“Yes. They pay a few months’ rent up front.”
Menachem nodded approvingly. “That’s good.”
“Yes, it sounds very good,” his wife added. “So, you’ll have some more ma’aser to give for Aunt Minna’s operation, right? Yankel told me that you gave him a nice amount, but you know how it is; there’s never enough money.”
“We’ll see,” Eliyahu said.
“What does that mean, ‘we’ll see’?”
“It means that I have a few ideas about what to do with my ma’aser money, and I have to look into it.”
“What’s there to look into? What other things were you thinking of doing with it?”
“Buying a sefer Torah for a shul,” he replied.
“A sefer Torah!” Yocheved stared at him as though he’d swallowed five whole dates with the pits. “How much are you renting that apartment out for, Eliyahu, that you can deduct ma’aser of one hundred and thirty thousand shekels?!”
At the doorway of the porch, Binyamin was chatting with his cousin Yehuda, Aunt Yocheved’s youngest child. They both turned around when they heard her voice rise. “What costs one hundred and thirty thousand shekels, Ima?” Yehuda asked.
“A sefer Torah.”
“A sefer Torah? Our yeshivah got a new sefer Torah before Purim that cost more than a hundred and forty thousand.”
“Nu.” Yocheved looked triumphantly at Eliyahu. “After all, Eliyahu, you didn’t become a millionaire. Although…” She looked around. “Maybe this apartment might delude you into thinking otherwise.”