Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 60 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.
“Grew up happy?” Eliyahu did not understand the question. Only when evening fell did she have time to tell him about her worries. Even then, she only shared the basic idea, because she knew that she could not possibly put all of her detailed thoughts into words, and there was only an infinitesimal chance that he would fully understand her anyway.
“Happy? One minute. Shloimy!” he raised his voice.
Pajama-clad Shloimy came running out to the big porch.
“Shloimy, are you happy?”
“Are you happy?” Eliyahu repeated.
Elisheva smiled from her vantage point on the side.
“Sure,” Shloimy said.
“Why?” Eliyahu probed.
“Because…I don’t know why. Abba, do you let me play with Nati for a little longer before we fall asleep?”
“Five more minutes. But one more second; tell me, please, were you happy in the old house also?”
“But it was so crowded there.”
“So what? It was annoying sometimes, but what does that have to do with it?”
They didn’t get a chance to ask him what didn’t have to do with what, because he was gone with the wind.
“Abba, you called me?” Meir stepped out onto the porch a few moments later, rattling the box of apricot pits that he held between his palms. “You know, this morning I had 186 of them, but I became a partner with Motty Rozinsky from the other class, and now we have 346!”
“A recipe for trouble,” Elisheva muttered.
“Tell me, Meir, are you content?” his father asked him.
“Content?” He smiled, a confused type of smile. “Is content happy?”
“Then yes. Tell me, Abba, if I play a game with these pits, and I lose some of them, does my loss have to get split between me and Rozinsky?”
“Depends what you made up with him beforehand,” Eliyahu replied, glancing at Elisheva.
“Call Esty,” she said with a smile. “If you’re doing a sample survey here, then you need to have both genders represented.”
Esty arrived. “Usually, yes,” she answered the question solemnly.
“And today, for example?”
“Today, not so much. Someone—it doesn’t matter who, because it’s lashon hara—passed a note during class. The teacher caught it and read the note out loud, and it was about two girls and me, that we’re too close. So the other two girls got very insulted and said they didn’t forgive the note-writer, and I explained to them at recess that it was really a compliment for us and we shouldn’t make a fight over it, and they got very angry. And Din—one of them said that if I’m not so interested in our friendship, then I could stop being friends with them, but the second one said that I probably didn’t mean anything bad by what I said, and it’s not worth breaking up our friendship over this. And then…” She stopped when she saw her father’s somewhat befuddled expression.
“But usually, are you happy?” he asked, sounding a bit desperate.
“Yes, usually I am.” She smiled.
“Because it’s fun here at home, baruch Hashem, and I’m happy in school. Usually.” Her face clouded for a moment. “And I’m happy to share a room with Chani, even if it’s kind of hard for me sometimes because she’s such a neat freak and she has millions of rules about keeping our room clean.” She paused to think, and her father hastily took advantage of the reprieve.
“Great!” He grinned. “Thanks, Esty. You can go back inside now.” He turned back to Elisheva as Esty left.
“It wasn’t fair to make me ask her,” he complained. “Why can’t she admit wholeheartedly that yes, she is happy?”
“Try to ask Chani, or Riki, or Devorah,” his wife suggested.
“No thanks,” he said. “One of them was enough. Or is it the age difference between them?”
“There’s only a year and a bit between Esty and Meir.”
“Maybe I’ll ask Shuey, when he gets back. But do you need more proof that our kids are happy and content, baruch Hashem?”
“It would be interesting to hear what the older ones would answer if you would ask them if they grew up content and which experiences they remember from their early childhood,” Elisheva said. “Although I don’t believe that they would tell you even if it was sometimes hard for them. They are too polite and well-raised.”
“There is no such thing as too well-raised,” Eliyahu declared. “They baruch Hashem grew up very well, and that’s it.”
Shuey arrived home at twenty to ten, and Eliyahu had just managed to hear his terse and simple answer to the question—“Content? Uh, yeah”—when someone knocked at the door.
“Devorah or Riki!” Elisheva called from the fleishig counter to her daughters who were sitting in the dining room and folding laundry. “Are one of you getting the door?”
“Abba?” Riki called tentatively after a few moments. “Can you come to the door?”
Eliyahu emerged from Shuey’s room and reached out to open the door.
“Wait, Abba!” Riki’s whisper stopped him. “Look through the peephole who it is. He looks a little strange.”
Eliyahu looked, squinted for a moment, and then he pulled back the lock bar.
“Hello,” he said, studying the person standing in front of him, from his shiny brown pate, to the tips of his worn-out, gray shoes.
“Good evening, good evening,” the man replied heartily. His suspicious appearance made Riki and Devorah gape at one another in horror. “Can I come in, Mr. Botolsky?”
“What is this about?” Eliyahu replied pleasantly.
“Something very important, Mr. Botolsky. But it’s not for me or for you to stand here in the stairwell.” He lowered his gaze to the floor. “Nice work, very nice,” he complimented them, or the anonymous tile layer. “Last year, we did an apartment in the building next door. On the second floor. Their name is Lev. It cost them four hundred thousand shekel, those renovations, but they were very happy. Very. Can I come in, Mr. Botolsky?”
“Who are you, sir?” Eliyahu asked. Not that the fear of his anxiously whispering daughters standing behind him was contagious or anything, but he also didn’t like bringing anonymous Arabs knocking at the door for no defined reason into the house.
“My name is Jalib. Jalib means the winner, but not with knives—don’t worry.” He grinned widely and turned his pockets inside out, demonstratively. “Everyone in Bnei Brak knows me for twenty-seven years already. I do apartments, one by one. And I want to tell you something important about this house.” He stood calmly, and Eliyahu vacillated.
“Do you learn in kollel, Mr. Botolsky? Ask anyone there who you want about Jalib the contractor. I’m sure that for every three people who don’t know me, there will be one who does.”
Eliyahu overcame his hesitation. “Alright, come in.”
“Ima, Ima!” The two girls burst into the kitchen in a panic, with Shuey hot on their heels, more amused than hysterical. “Abba brought an Arab into the house!”
“An Arab who wants to tell him something important about our house, and he doesn’t have knives,” Devorah concluded in an ominous tone.
“What?” Elisheva hurried toward the kitchen door. She managed to see the man settling himself down on the wide sofa.
Before Eliyahu managed to say anything, the guest cleared his throat and began to sing: “V’afilu b’asturah, shebetochasturah, bevadai gamsham nimtzu Hashemyisburach. V’afilu b’asturah…” He smiled and leaned back on the couch, pulling a packet of cigarettes out of his green shirt pocket. “You see, I even know Yiddish.”
“That song is not in Yiddish,” Eliyahu replied, and then regretted it. “But what’s the difference… So, what would you like to tell me, Mr. Jalib?”
“I came to tell you that…” The Arab’s teeth gleamed. “That you won the lottery!”
“The lottery, the lottery, you know what that is, right? Anyone who knows me knows that when I do their renovations, it’s like winning the lottery.”
Elisheva, who had been standing at the kitchen doorway until now, took a step toward the dining room. If this Arab had come to tell them that they had won some obscure raffle, she might faint. No, she wouldn’t faint, because this was almost becoming routine already, but she would feel like….
Like something was going to happen to her.
Wait a minute. He hadn’t said anything about a raffle; it was just a play on words. He was referring to renovations. He had come to offer his work to make the unit for her father.
But how did he know about that?
And where had she seen him before?
“So why do you think we won the lottery?” Eliyahu asked, in that same pleasant, patient tone. “I still don’t know when and how we are planning to renovate and whom to hire for the job.”
“Me,” Jalib said, with a chuckle. “Of course, me.”
“But wait.” Eliyahu woke up three seconds late. “How do you know that we want to renovate something in the first place?”
“You really don’t need much here,” Jalib said. “Such a nice house, new, all frish. Why renovate? But you want to renovate for your old grandfather, right? So he should have a room with a counter and a sink, yes? I know.”
“How do you know?” Eliyahu queried.
Elisheva found herself staring at the man intensely, swallowing every word of this strange conversation. Shuey and the girls were as riveted as she was.
“I know everything!” Jalib chuckled again. “I had a dream. I know everything from my dreams.”
Elihayu rose. He regretted having allowed this man inside; he didn’t look quite all there. Now he had to figure out a way to gently show him to the door—the sooner, the better.
“Sit, sit, Mr. Botolsky. Don’t lose your lottery because you are in a hurry,” the Arab urged. “I’ll tell you about my dream, alright? Listen.”
He lowered his voice, and Elisheva sent the girls to their room with a motion of her hand. She tried to catch Eliyahu’s eye. What did he have to talk to this Arab about? Why wasn’t he sending him away already—or rather, why had he let him in, in the first place?
“My dream was on Wednesday night. No, the night after Wednesday.” He took out his cigarette, gazed up at the ceiling for a moment, and then continued speaking. “My grandfather came to my house and told me that there is a Botolsky family in Bnei Brak, good people. And he wants me to build them whatever they ask, for free, because he owes them something.” He smiled, and then finished triumphantly, “So here I am. Just tell me what you want, give me plans, and we can start.”
Eliyahu gaped at him. “Really?” he said finally.
“Really, my grandfather came to me in a dream, Mr. Botolsky. You knew him?”
“I certainly did not.”
“What’s the matter, Eliyahu?” Elisheva’s voice was as cold as ice.
“This gentleman wants to do our renovation, for free.” Eliyahu’s voice was a bit strange. She didn’t know if it was because he was in shock, or if he was choking on his laughter. If she would laugh now, it would be a totally hysterical cackle.
“Enough with these stories already,” she declared. “Renovate for free? I don’t believe a word.”
“For free, for free!” Jalib repeated, and fixed his gaze on Eliyahu. “My grandfather said!”
“And your grandfather also gave you our address?” Eliyahu asked, very seriously. “Because there is another Potolsky in Bnei Brak; maybe they need the renovations more than we do, and you made a mistake with the address.”
“He said here,” the green-shirted contractor insisted.
There was silence in the large dining room, and then Jalib began humming “Vafilube’asturah ”again, but something in the air was too tense, and his voice faded out quickly.
“Give me your phone number, Mr. Jalib,” Eliyahu said finally, after exchanging wordless glances with Elisheva. “My wife and I will discuss it. If we want you to do the renovation, we will call you.”
“No, no,” Jalib insisted. “We don’t finish this way. My grandfather said I have to make you a beautiful room for your grandpa, and I’ll even give you an air conditioner unit for free! I do very good work. Ask all your friends, Mr. Botolsky.”
“That’s very nice of your grandfather,” Eliyahu said cautiously. “Tell him I said so, the next time you dream about him. And it’s nice of you as well, very nice. But we don’t decide about renovations in one minute like that. We need to think and plan and see. If we want, we’ll call you.”
Never, Elisheva was mouthing. Even if all the men in Eliyahu’s kollel knew a contractor named Jalib, and they said he was reliable and did fantastic work, she would not take him to work here. There was a limit to the number of crazy stories she was ready to swallow like an innocent lamb.
But even without taking him to renovate anything, the visit itself was something she was not ready to swallow either.
Jalib stood up, a bit defeated.
“Who sent you?” Elisheva spoke up.
“My grandfather,” he said. “In a dream.”
Silently, Elisheva snorted to herself. Aloud she said, “No.”
“Yes,” he insisted.
“No.” She was just as insistent.
“Yes,” Jalib said, and walked to the door. “I’ll tell him it’s not working out with you…” He spoke with an ominous expression on his face. “You’re like steel, stubborn. Why? Why don’t you want to make a nice apartment for your grandpa? Don’t you love him?”
“We love him very much,” Eliyahu said soothingly. “We’ll see… Give me your phone number.”
“Why did you take his number?” Elisheva asked as soon as the door had been double locked behind the contractor’s back. “I don’t want to hire him for the job even if…even if he pays us to work here, okay? This whole story is suspicious, inside and out.”
“I took his number to help you do your detective work with your British friend!” Eliyahu laughed, as Riki, Devorah, and Shuey all burst in from the kitchen, hankering for details about the strange visit.
“So, do you agree with me that he is totally not trustworthy?”
“Of course he’s not.”
“So what can this be?” Elisheva opened the porch door wide to air out the dining room from the smoke that the man had left behind. “Something dangerous? I’m afraid he’s connected to an Arab terrorist group or something.”
“It doesn’t look like it.” Eliyahu stepped out onto the porch, looking down below at the figure of the contractor growing more distant on Chazon Ish street.
“How can you see if he’s a terrorist or not?”
“His face seems a bit familiar to me.”
“You too?!” She stopped. “I feel the same way!”
“Yes. I think he really is a well-known contractor in the city.”
Elisheva leaned on the railing and looked down, too. From such a distance, in the dark, it was hard for her to really see clearly, but… “One minute,” she said suddenly. “I think he renovated the yard in my father’s nursing home! I saw him hanging around there a few times, about half a year ago.”
“Right, I also think it’s him,” Eiyahu agreed, after mulling it over.
“So what’s the strange story about donating a renovation to us?” Shuey asked.
“Is it also connected to Tzippy’s wedding, and U’shemartem, and the cuckoo clock and everything?” Riki asked, as if it was already agreed-upon by all of them that none of those things were really what they were presented as being.
“I don’t know.” Eliyahu bit his lip.
Elisheva looked at her children for a minute, and also remained silent. She and Eliyahu had both shared this hunch for some time already, and it was only growing stronger. Someone had apparently decided to take them on as their charity case, and he did not stop even when the excuses and the drama he was creating went beyond good taste. “I just hope that the next step won’t be a dead monkey full of golden coins that will land in our dining room,” she muttered to herself, out of earshot of Shuey and the girls.
“It’s not so easy to toss a monkey through the window of the sixth floor,” Eliyahu said with a suppressed chuckle.
“Based on the talents this anonymous person has displayed until now, it sounds like he has the ability to send helicopters up in the air on a moment’s whim, so don’t be so sure of yourself,” Elisheva remarked, reluctantly smiling along with him.
She knew she’d be calling Blumi back the next day. It hadn’t been nice to ignore her call earlier today, and it was even less nice that when she wanted something from Blumi, she got back to her quickly. But she would apologize and do it, even if it was neither polite nor friendly. Her desire to know who was behind all of this had reared its head full-force once again.