Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 71 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.
Light burned his eyes. He coughed and turned over, and then, drawing on his strong self-discipline, stretched his arms and sat up. It was morning already. Actually, it was almost lunchtime. The sun was strong and too blinding. When had he fallen asleep? And why on the armchair and not in his bed?
Then he remembered: They knew everything.
Against, the pulse in his wrists began to throb rapidly, but not as much as the first time. At least a day and a half had passed since he’d gotten Mrs. Hartstein’s message. It was probably more like two days, based on the location of the sun right now.
He’d come home. He hadn’t eaten or slept, and certainly hadn’t spoken to a soul, or gotten back to anyone else on his list. He’d just paced from room to room, not finding a place to put himself down without feeling like he was choking. This wall belonged to Edo, and so did this couch, and this refrigerator, and the table… And everyone knew. Daniel and his father, and the rest of the extended Ludmir family, had probably heard about it already, and if they hadn’t, they would hear very soon…
He’d continued pacing restlessly, ignoring his age. Every so often, he’d slumped into a chair, drained, and then a short time later, he’d leaped out. He could not sit still. Only after the evening passed, and then the night, and a big chunk of the next morning and then the next afternoon, when he felt near collapse, had he called his doctor on his private line.
“This is…it doesn’t matter who, I don’t know anyway, and you can identify my number even without a name. I received some very harsh news.” He steadied his voice. “I haven’t slept for about twenty-four hours, and I hardly sat down at all during that time. Except for water, I haven’t eaten or drank a thing, and I feel like I’m going to lose my mind. What do you suggest I do now?”
“Wait a minute, this is Joe Ludmir, right?” the doctor asked, insisting on identifying him.
“If you want, for you, yes. And I remember my ID number by heart. At least that is mine.”
“How’s your pulse?”
Dr. Benson asked him if he had remembered to take his medications.
“Of course not,” he replied.
“So I’m sending help right away.”
“I’m afraid you don’t realize how—”
The doctor knew there was no one to argue with. “Listen, Mr. Ludmir, it does not sound like a stroke.” He thought for a moment. “However, you don’t sound at your best right now, yes? But if you promise me that you will take a sleeping pill right now, get into bed, and call me the minute you wake up, then I agree to leave you alone for now.”
“Fine,” Joe replied.
The sleeping pill got stuck in his throat, but after a few sips of water it slid down. Honestly, he should be suing this doctor for medical malpractice, but what did he care right now? The doctor was probably convinced that he was exaggerating. He was actually a good doctor, and he—Joe—certainly didn’t have the right to go around suing other people.
The Potolskys knew! Yisrael Bentzion—or Edo—knew the truth. He knew that he was Yosef Ludmir, instead of the imposter currently living in this house. He, the man who had lived in poverty, and his daughter who had continued the cycle, were actually the owners of huge sums of money, in proportions that they had probably never fathomed.
So it is true that he had accumulated most of the wealth himself, with his toil of many years, but this wasn’t only about assets. And it was also true that he had likely repaid the value of the money that Gershon had saved during the war to Yisrael and his only daughter, through his artfully crafted plan. But it wasn’t the money that was the point here, at least not for this minute.
His breaths grew a bit short, and he did not have the energy to get up and put his cup into the dishwasher.
He wasn’t a young man. He was nearing eighty.
Edo was younger than him; he knew that. But even if he lived to 120, it was safe to assume that most of his life was behind him.
What had Edo said? How had he reacted to the fact that the truth about his identity had been withheld from him for most of his life—along with a warm family? Had he even found the words? How much did he hate Joe right now, and to what extent did he realize why his older friend had not wanted to maintain ties over the years?
At some point, Gustav had moved from the chair to the recliner, and apparently he’d fallen asleep. That was where he’d woken up after fifteen hours in a deep slumber. There had surely been some very turbulent dreams—starring Edo, of course—but he remembered nothing of them.
He got up to wash his hands, dragging his feet toward the sink. After rinsing his face thoroughly, he straightened up to look in the mirror over the sink. He saw an old, tired man looking back at him.
What did Edo see when he looked in the mirror?
Another elderly man, to some extent or another.
Tired. Drained from years of loneliness and poverty. Those factors definitely must have had a presence in his life. Joe knew that from the inquiries he had made about Edo.
But when Edo looked at his image, at least he didn’t see endless self-loathing and guilt. Pangs of conscience. Abysmal pain. He hadn’t taken anyone else’s identity or anyone else’s money. He was clean.
Suddenly, Gustav felt a strong desire to see what Edo saw when he looked in the mirror.
He took out a box of sugar-free cookies and sat down at the table. First, he would call the doctor, as he’d promised. Hmmm, three calls from the doctor. Good to see Dr. Benson had a speck of responsibility.
And then maybe he’d call that lady who had left him the message, the representative of Edo and his daughter. He had not become Chareidi like Edo, but he was also observant, and a believing Jew. And if Hashem had brought him to this point, then maybe it was better for him to meet Edo face to face, to try, however possible, to explain himself to him. And to ask Edo to try—at least to try—not to judge him too harshly.
And then maybe his own reflection would finally show eyes that were clear of guilt.
Over two mornings, two lunchtimes, and two evenings, Blumi repeatedly called the Potolsky family to report that Mr. Ludmir hadn’t made any contact, and perhaps they needed to think of something more direct. But then, when Ludmir had actually called her back, she hadn’t understood anything he was saying.
“Please tell Mr. Yisrael Bentzion, I’m sorry, Mr. Yosef Ludmir, that I must meet with him,” the man said, in a dignified tone. His Australian English actually sounded very eloquent, but there was also an underlying European accent. He had also cut himself off a few times.
“Excuse me?” Blumi was confused. At the beginning of the conversation, the man had introduced himself as Joe Ludmir. So who was he talking about now?
“I’ll understand completely if…” He stopped for a moment and sounded like he was choking up. “If he doesn’t want to meet me. But I want to try and explain myself to him.”
“Mr. Ludmir,” Blumi said, “the Potolsky family wants to thank you for all that you have done, and to try and understand why you did it. They cannot figure out your motivations. Elisheva’s father, for example, thinks that perhaps it was all a big misunderstanding.”
“I wish it was just a misunderstanding,” he whispered. “But it was intentional deceit. I…” He paused. “It was so hard for me, and looking back today, I cannot understand what I did. But it was not just a mistake; I must admit to that.”
“So there was a misunderstanding, intentional or not?” Blumi could not figure out what the Australian millionaire was saying. He sounded completely confused. “Mr. Ludmir, I…I think that it would be better if you spoke directly to the Potolskys. I just helped them make inquiries, but maybe now it would be better if they contact you directly so you can sort things out.”
“Sort things out,” the man said. And he sounded like he was crying. Crying! “I’m not sure that it’s possible, but I want to try.”
Eliyahu and Elisheva also didn’t understand anything at first. He must also be going senile, unfortunately, Elisheva scribbled to her husband on the back of an invitation that was on the kitchen table. It was late at night, and they were using the quiet to place this transatlantic call to Mr. Korman’s partner.
I don’t think so, Eliyahu wrote back. “I don’t understand, Mr. Ludmir,” he said gently into the phone. “Why is it that every time you mention my father-in-law, he should live and be well, you say that his name is Yosef Ludmir? Maybe you’re mistaking the identity?”
“I didn’t make a mistake,” the elderly voice said tremulously. “I made no mistake about that.”
“But that’s your name, isn’t it? My father-in-law doesn’t know his original family name.”
“But I do know it.” The metallic nature of speakerphone did not dull the cracks in his voice as he said these words. “I do know that he is Yosef Ludmir, Rabbi Potolsky. His mother told me that herself.”
Elisheva gaped at the red light on the phone. His mother! That meant, her grandmother! This man had known her. He knew details about Abba and his family! No. No. No. This was a dream. It had to be. Suddenly, after decades, someone should appear who knew about Abba’s past? This couldn’t be. It just had to be another sweet dream. Like all the sweet dreams that had made up this past year.
But those were not dreams. They had all really happened.
…Although they hadn’t really happened, at least not in the ways they’d appeared to be happening. This Ludmir had been behind it all. Who was this man?
She bit her lips, breathing hard.
“Wait, so you are a relative?” Eliyahu asked the question on her mind without her even telling him to. “If you are also Ludmir…”
“No, I’m not his relative. We were friends in the Christian orphanage in Bratislava. And then after the war…” He fell silent.
A long silence ensued.
“Hello?” Eliyahu asked cautiously, wondering if the man had hung up.
“Yes, yes, I’m still here…” the man murmured. “Please understand, it’s hard for me to speak… And I don’t know what you know and what not… But after the war, I was nine or ten, and I said that I’m him…” His voice became so hoarse that the words became almost unintelligible. “Yosef Ludmir. I took his identity. I took his assets. I took the life that he was supposed to live.”