Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 70 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.
“Are you with us, Mr. Ludmir?” The young rabbi of the Bnei Tzion community felt very sympathetic toward the elderly yet energetic man.
“Yes, yes, absolutely,” Ludmir said, with a broad smile that was meant to cover up the fact that it was not absolutely at all. On his way here, he had passed by Alex’s house—or rather, the house that had been Alex’s. He’d stopped the car at the side of the road. Yesterday, the buyers had closed on the house and had gotten the key.
He raised his eyes to the five-story structure, the building in which he had spent so much time in recent years, since Martha had passed away. He opened the car window and gazed at the house thoughtfully. In parting.
You were everything to me, Alex had told him in the good days, the times when they could still speak normally and imagine that everything was still fine. When they could hope that those murky, foggy hours that separated them would not come again. You were for me a father and mother, brothers and sisters, a wife and children. Everything.
Alex was also the only survivor in his family, but he had always known where he had come from. World War Two broke out when he had been in his late teens, and ended when he was over twenty. It left him totally alone in the world. He had never married or had a family, and in the community here, everyone was his relative. Since Joe had become partners with him more than thirty years ago, the two were more like brothers.
You’re even closer to him than to Elisha, your cousin! Martha would marvel about the close ties between the two. But the reason for that was clear: Elisha wasn’t present. Seventeen years after they had established the shoe factory together, Elisha had sold his share to Joe and returned to Israel. Only his son, Daniel, had stayed behind in Perth. “Our only relative on the continent,” Martha would point out, because all her brothers and sisters and their families lived in America.
Joe would not bother to correct her.
He did not know how to correct other people’s mistakes—and certainly not his own.
A relative. Uh-huh.
He kept abreast of the Ludmir family tree, with their multi-branched families, but he didn’t have any close ties with them. Subconsciously—or perhaps consciously—he did not want to feel surrounded too much by cousins and their children. Today, the Ludmirs were scattered all over the world, but aside for Daniel in Australia, he was only in touch with Elisha, and even that contact was manifested just by a transcontinental phone call once every few months.
Little Elisha… How old had he been when they had first met in Magdiel? Three or four? And today, his son Daniel was almost a grandfather himself!
“So you hear, Mr. Ludmir? I think that you should set up a meeting with our architect, with regard to the location of the new library,” the rabbi was saying. The president of the shul and the main gabbai, also present at this meeting, nodded vigorously.
“I don’t think there is any reason for me to attend the meetings regarding the professional aspects.” Ludmir slid the plate of cookies, which had been served to him at the beginning of the meeting, at bit to the right. “I trust you with regard to the planning and construction. I will transfer the necessary sums, and as far as I’m concerned, you have complete freedom.” He fell silent for a moment. “Of course, I ask that the commemoration for Korman should be prominent. I have not yet thought of a suitable name for the department, but I’m sure that you will think of something good for that, as well.”
“What was his full name?” asked Jonathan Klein, the shul president.
“Alexander ben Tzvi.”
“Tzvi, right?” Meir Kopel, the gabbai, scribbled something down in his calendar book. “You’re sure about that, yes?”
Yosef Ludmir looked at him. “Why are you asking?” he asked in a low voice.
“Because someone—who was it? I can’t remember this second…—asked me recently a few questions about Korman. I don’t remember in relation to what. And he asked me about his parents’ names.”
“Tzvi and Shoshana,” Yosef said in a calm tone, still very quietly.
“That’s right,” Kopel agreed. “That’s what I remembered. After all, I helped Alexander prepare the wording for the memorial plaque at the entrance to the shul, after he donated all those new chairs nearly twenty years ago. But they asked on the phone if his parents were called…these unusual names… He totally confused me, that guy who called.”
Peretz and Tziporah Genendel, Joe replied silently. But he kept his expression interested and patient.
“Nu, okay,” Kopel said. “It doesn’t really make a difference. Sometimes people make the strangest mistakes.”
“Who was it who asked?” Ludmir inquired casually.
“Now that I think of it, they didn’t even identify themselves. You know,” he chuckled jovially, “when people ask me about live people, I’m afraid to share information. Maybe the questioner is from the tax authority or some other nefarious entity. But when it comes to the deceased, there’s nothing anyone can do anymore!” He laughed aloud again.
But can someone do something to their partners?
The meeting concluded with gracious thanks, and Joe left the room, leaving the rabbi and the other two men to discuss the details of the new library. Very good; in three more months, a new wing in the library would be dedicated to poor Alexander Korman.
And who would build a new wing when poor Yosef Ludmir would leave this world?
Joe went down the shul’s marble stairs in a near-run, as if this threatening thought was standing on the roof of the building and lashing out at him with a fiery tongue.
Yes, there would be someone to do it, for sure. Daniel Ludmir would be very happy to take over management of his estate.
Breathless, Joe reached his car, which was waiting for him in the shul’s underground parking lot. But he did not unlock it. At this hour of the day, the lot was virtually empty. In another few hours it would be time for Minchah, and then more cars would arrive, but for now, he was alone with the handful of vehicles and the gray cement walls, gaping at the distorted image of himself reflected in his car window.
Yes, perhaps the time had come to bring Daniel into the picture a little bit.
Joe took a deep breath, and discovered that putting his thought into words, even if only in his mind, had made his racing heartbeat slow somewhat. He opened the door of the car and climbed inside. True, he did not have children, to his regret, but that did not mean he had to face thoughts about the future alone. Daniel did not have to move here to Sydney; it was enough for him to come once a month, for a few days, to learn about the business. Managing a factory is a big deal, and combined with his international real estate dealings, Joe certainly could not just toss the keys and the books into someone’s hands without any advance notice. He would introduce Daniel to the company’s accountants, and to his investment advisor, and to—
Ludmir’s hand, which was about to shift the gear into drive, stopped suddenly. No. He could not yet summon Daniel. Not before all his affairs in Israel were settled completely. The accountants could not tell Daniel now about all the questions and criticism that they had directed at him over the past few months. Let them tell Daniel what they wanted when Joe was gone; he didn’t care. But as long as he was alive—and he hoped to remain that way for years to come—everything needed to be kept secret.
Daniel and the Ludmir family must not learn the truth.
Instead of seeing him as their friendly, generous, beloved uncle, they would malign him as a swindler and a cheat.
Would any of them understand the sentiments of a young child, of the little boy that he had always remained, even though he had grown, matured, and established himself?
Frightened little Gustav.
Joe lifted his head from the steering wheel. Why had the gabbai made the effort to come down here to knock on his window?
“We saw in the cameras that you didn’t drive out,” the man explained, apologetically. “We tried to call, and you didn’t answer. We were afraid you needed assistance.”
“Sometimes I do need help,” Joe said, and smoothly ignited the engine. “But I’m afraid that right now, what I need is not the type of help that you can give me. Thanks, Mr. Kopel.”
“Sure,” the gabbai said easily, although he kept a worried eye on the car as it drove into the parking lot elevator. The metal doors closed, and Joe knew that he had only another moment or two to stare at them before he would have to ease back into the routine of his life. There was nothing he could do; he was familiar with these moments, when he found himself wondering if it would not have been preferable to just come out with the huge lie that was his life and be done with it; let the chips fall where they may. He could not continue with this constant anxiety.
The anxiety of the initial years, of being discovered, had passed. He was no longer afraid of innocent Edo. The fear of the recent years—which had galvanized him to take action—had also dissipated somewhat.
But lately he was realizing that he had not been able to totally assuage his conscience. His thoughts gave him no rest; they pursued him relentlessly and generated confusing dreams at night.
A life of action can always drown out thoughts, dreams, and musings, but life is not forever. And as Joe got older, he was internalizing this more and more.
The elevator door opened, and he drove out of the parking lot. Before pulling into the stream of traffic outside, he decided he would just switch on his phone and get back to all those who had been trying to reach him these past couple of hours. He checked his missed calls: his personal accountant; the foreman on production floor A; Steve from the advertising agency; his real estate agent in Ohio; and another unfamiliar number on the screen.
He had no idea why he chose to start with that last one.
And once he started with it, everything else came to an end.
“Hello, Mr. Yosef, or Joe, Ludmir. My name is Blumi Hartstein, and I’m speaking on behalf of the Potolsky family of Bnei Brak, including the grandfather, Mr. Yisrael Bentzion. They would like to inform you that they know everything, and they would like to make contact with you.”