Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 24 of a new online serial novel, Outside the Bubble, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every week. Click here for previous chapters.
Copyright © Israel Bookshop Publications.
On Sunday morning, Dov and Hinda set out for Yerushalayim, as planned. Penina waved goodbye from the doorway of the house and wished them good luck. Hinda, who had wondered earlier if Penina would be nervous to stay alone in a strange house, was happy to see the confidence with which the younger woman closed the door behind them and then locked it.
Zevi, Penina’s husband, was also joining them. It would be a much shorter and more comfortable trip for him than traveling by bus, he’d said, and he was grateful that they were willing to pass through Bnei Brak for him.
After he strapped his seatbelt and thanked them another two times, Zevi told Dov about the replacement of his rosh kollel; it had been talked about for years but no one believed it would actually happen. Then he changed the subject to his father’s retirees’ kollel, and then his mother’s retirement, and the natural continuation was the latest slipped-disc incident. And by then they were already passing Hadera.
After they passed the three towers of the power station, Zevi fell silent, and then cleared his throat and said, “I’m happy that Penina had where to go, because my mother had seriously planned to host us. A lot of her angst is because she knows that we didn’t really have where else to go after the birth…”
“I’m sure it was very hard for your mother,” Hinda said warmly, trying to remember in her mind how her “machateineste” looked. Zevi’s parents had been invited to their wedding, because Dov had a close relationship with them. But she could not envision a particular face in her mind. “B’ezras Hashem, she’ll get better, and then she’ll make up what she missed.”
“Right,” Zevi agreed. “And we really appreciate your hospitality. I travel to Bnei Brak with yishuv hada’as because of what you are doing for us.”
His expressions of gratitude were made at a much slower tempo than his regular speed-talking habit, and Hinda noticed the unease and awkwardness with which he made them. That made her appreciate them even more. “We did it gladly, really,” she said.
Zevi nodded, and then turned to Dov with a vort on the parshah. Dov returned it with a vort of his own, which led to another discussion, which lasted until the car pulled up outside of Zevi’s kollel and he bid them goodbye.
Dov and Hinda spent the next few moments allowing the silence to fill up the car. “I…” Dov seemed to be searching for the right words. “I know you don’t like noise and chatter; it sometimes gives you headaches…” He had discovered that when Hinda had come home one evening and asked him to turn off the stereo.
“Nu, so what?” Hinda smiled. “Music is sometimes annoying and deafening, but young people filled with life is something so wonderful to see and hear.”
Dov looked at the road ahead, and again seemed to be trying to find the right words. “I think it’s very nice to meet someone who always finds the good in every person they meet.”
Hinda laughed, and decided not to respond. Always found the good? Perhaps it was because they were on their way to Michoel that she was feeling all the criticism she had accumulated for him over the years suddenly rising. It wasn’t only the candlesticks that she had remembered about on Shabbos.
He’d often been right, and she didn’t like that. Even after Shmuel had passed away, and Michoel would land in her house every so often with no advance notice, he’d always have comments, some of them justified. “You can’t let Avigdor wear those pants. They’re too small on him.” Or, “What, you have an appointment for the well-baby clinic and you didn’t go? It’s important for the baby’s development, isn’t it?” Or another time: “They eat too much candy, your children, and I also notice that they are not good about brushing their teeth. Hinda! Do you want them to grow up to be neglected orphans? I won’t let that happen!”
Michoel always knew what was important and what wasn’t, what was appropriate and what was bad. On the rare occasion, he’d offered her money, but each time she’d refused to take it. At first, she still had a part-time job as a secretary for the Haifa Municipality, but a year after Shmuel’s passing, there were layoffs, and she found herself unemployed.
Initially, she didn’t worry. The months after Shmuel’s passing were hard, and dealing with the children was so complex that she’d been happy not to have the added burden of working out of the house. A month later, Michoel had come with a job offer, and she knew she’d have to accept it. Her empty bank account and wallet—not metaphorically empty, literally empty – made that very clear. She’d agreed to work for his organization and was happy with the work. It was a noble job, in her view, and she could adapt the hours to her own schedule.
And then Michoel had uttered the most insulting sentence she’d ever heard from another person…
“Hinda? We’re here at the German Colony. Can you direct me to your uncle’s house?” Dov asked as he stopped at a right light.
“Sure.” Hinda shook off the thoughts. “Continue straight here, and at the next intersection make a left.”
He followed her directions, and less than five minutes later, he was parking in front of Uncle Michoel’s house. Michoel’s car was not there, and Hinda began to worry that they’d made the effort for naught, despite her having informed him of their visit. Michoel was a special person, and very kindhearted, but his manners left what to be desired. Was it possible that he didn’t like her new husband so much that he’d decided to cut off contact with her and her family? It didn’t make sense.
Martin returned the two candlesticks to the china closet, trying to position them more or less where they had been before Shabbos, near the menorah. Grandma had never lit a menorah, but they’d lit one in the dorm this year, and one of the staff members had explained a bit about the occupation of the land by the Greeks. He didn’t remember the whole story; he’d always been better at computers than history. But there’d been a victory, and the weak Jews had managed to defeat the foreign invaders.
He gently closed the glass door. He was thinking about defeat versus victory, and the fact that he’d always excelled at computer sciences, and that maybe it was time to crack the access code that was preventing the computer from connecting with the outside world. Otherwise, he’d need to speak with Dan by phone. And that would be terrible. Perhaps one day he’d sneak outside and purchase a prepaid phone, with no identifying markers. Then he would be able to switch to telephone communication…
Rap, rap, rap.
Someone was knocking at the door.
He bit his lips and hurried to the staircase, ready to make a hasty escape upstairs. The visitor continued to knock.
“Uncle Michoel? Uncle Michoel, are you home?”
Martin was quiet. Now they were trying to open the door. Which was locked, obviously.
“Uncle Michoel, I’m getting the key, okay?”
A male voice murmured something, and right after that, the intercom kicked in. Martin smiled, expectantly. The voice message should work as normal. The night before, half an hour after Shabbos ended, the timer went back to its normal setting, and all the systems began to work on their weekday schedule. Mr. Perl sure had a religious house.
“Good morning. Who is it?”
“Uncle Michoel, it’s Hinda! We came from Haifa, Dov and I. I wanted—”
“Sorry, I can’t come to the door.”
“Just for a few minutes, Michoel. We won’t bother you for long, really!” Hinda looked at Dov, hurt. Michoel was going too far, by all accounts. She wasn’t one to be easily offended, but now she felt awful, for herself and for her husband. Apparently Michoel had something against Dov. She should have realized that when he didn’t come to the wedding. It wasn’t clear what his reason was, and it did not change the unpleasant reality: Her – dear – uncle – could – not – stand – her – new – husband.
“I’m sorry, I can’t speak to you right now.” Michoel’s voice sounded very matter-of-fact, as if he wasn’t refusing to welcome his niece and her husband who had traveled all the way to his house from Haifa. “If you don’t mind, try to come back in another week.”
“What?” Hinda gaped at the door.
“He’s probably talking to me, not you,” Dov said in a low voice. He bent toward the intercom. “Mr. Perl! I’m leaving, okay? Only Hinda will come in. I’ll stay in the car. Feel good and—”
“Have a good day.”
“Uncle Michoel, I’m sorry, but this is not okay,” Hinda said, and then caught herself. She would let her feelings of humiliation overwhelm her afterward; now she had to deal with this very unpleasant situation. “I ask that you open the door for us. It’s going to be a very short visit. I want to make sure you’re alright; we haven’t seen you in a long time, and you still don’t know Dov.”
“I ask that you don’t leave anything at the door.”
“I have no intentions of leaving anything here,” Hinda said calmly. “But I ask that you allow us to come in. I think you were the one who once noted to my children that they were not well-mannered enough…”
“I am asking that you don’t leave anything near the door.” Hinda looked at the white speaker on the wall. The blue light went off. She turned and looked at Dov, with myriad questions marks in her eyes.
“He’s not alright,” Dov said quietly. “Something happened to him, that is clear. Not that I know him personally, but from your stories about him, this is not the same man.”
“Not at all.”
“I’m afraid that something bad is happening to him.”
“Do you mean dementia, chalilah, or something like that?”
“Maybe,” Dov affirmed. “Where’s the key you were talking about? Is it a key to the house?”
“It’s in one of the back windows. I’ll go get it.”
“Great,” Dov said. He raised his head, squinting in the late morning sunshine. It was a nice house; he liked the eastern style. He wondered how it looked inside.
Hinda returned, puzzled. “The key isn’t there,” she said. “But Yosef told me that he put it in its place after his last visit.” She pressed her hand to her forehead. “Uncle Michoel!” She began to pound forcefully on the door, and twisted the knob repeatedly. “Uncle Michoel!” Now she pressed the bell of the intercom repeatedly, a whole bunch of times, in a most uncharacteristic fashion. The device began emitting funny beeps.
“I’m afraid this is the beginning of a process that is not a good one, whether it’s aging or something else.” She leaned on the door, exhausted. “It’s not like him to behave this way, not like him at all! You know they say that sometimes people begin to suspect their own relatives of stealing or deceiving them, or of wanting to do something bad to them…? Do you think that’s why Michoel doesn’t want to see us?
A dull voice suddenly sounded from the metal rectangle, replacing the strange beeps. “It’s not about that at all.” It was a staccato sound, and the words were cut off, but they could still understand what he was saying. “And your wild pressing of the buttons has ruined my intercom! I’m young, and I don’t have dementia. I just don’t want you to come to my house now, okay?”
“B-b-but why not, Uncle Michoel?”
“It doesn’t matter.” The intercom was croaking more and more with every passing moment, until it seemed ready to fall silent forever. “When I want to see you, I’ll call you.”
“Should…should I pay you for the broken intercom?” Dov bent closer.
“No. Just go!”
“I’m very sorry, Uncle Michoel,” Hinda said. She shook her head decisively even though she knew he did not see her from inside his closed house. “But you will please open the door for me. I’m worried about you, and I’not planning to leave this way.”
Dov was quiet. He already had one foot on the bottom step. “I’m going again to look for the key,” she said to him. “You’re right, Dov; this is not his normal behavior.”
Dov followed her. “Maybe he really is angry about something?”
“About what?” she asked, walking briskly across the sand. “I am collecting the donations as normal, the bank account is being managed perfectly, and the receipts are in order. I did nothing unusual.”
“He is devoted to your children, right?” Dov asked.
“That’s right.” She stopped in front of the last window, which was very dusty. “Why?”
“Maybe something about Yosef’s visit last week irritated him?”
“There really was something funny there,” she said, as she felt around in the place where the key should have been.
“Or maybe he’s angry about your estrangement from Mali. Maybe he thinks I’m to blame in some way.”
Her hand, fumbling around on the windowsill, froze in midair. “The estrangement is hers, not mine. And it’s been going on for more than half a year already. It has nothing to do with you.”
“The question is how Mali presents it, though.”
“That really is a question…” Hinda didn’t trust her hand anymore, and she bent to look at the windowsill more closely. “The biggest question right now is where the key is, because it’s not here.”
“Maybe your uncle took it, because he didn’t want you to come inside.”
Hinda looked at the empty windowsill for another moment, and then turned around in a near run and dashed back to the front of the house. She ran up the stairs in a way that Dov, who continued to trail behind her, could only describe as hysterical. “Uncle Michoel!” She pounded on the door, her eyes glistening. Someone on the sidewalk across the street stopped and stared at the scene with interest. “Michoel!”
“I asked you something,” the dull voice said. “Leave, both of you.”
“Uncle Michoel!” She pressed again and again on the doorknob, her eyes, which were usually dry no matter what, dripping steadily. “If you don’t open up for me this minute, and I mean this minute, I’ll suspect that you were abducted, and an imposter is answering me in your place. And then I’m calling the police immediately!”
No response. Maybe her uncle didn’t know how to handle his fifty-year-old niece’s uncharacteristic chutzpah. But after half a moment of shock, she heard him clearing his throat. “Wonderful. Okay, call the police—and I’ll file a complaint against you for harassment.”
Dov shook his head decisively. “This is not going to work,” he said, and descended the stairs. “Come on, Hinda, if he doesn’t want us, then we won’t force our way in. We need to think about what to do.”
“But what’s wrong with him?” She was sobbing like a child, not caring about the open intercom. “What does he want from me? Is something wrong with the organization? With the money?”
The intercom interjected. “That’s it, exactly,” it croaked. “The money. I discovered that you’re taking money from the…organization, for yourself. And don’t forget about what’s happening with…Mali. I should be filing a complaint on you! It’s only because I am your uncle that I’m not doing it. But if you stay here one more minute, I’m going to get sick of it all, and I will call the police.”
Hinda stared at the door for one more minute. Then she turned around and went down the stairs. She walked to the car without another word, entered, and slammed the door behind her. “It must be a stroke, for sure,” she said hoarsely, out of breath. She groped around in the glove compartment for a package of tissues. “Something about the way he was talking seems off—did you notice? He stopped a few times to find a word…and he wasn’t always able to. Doesn’t he know that you file a complaint against someone, not on someone? He wasn’t talking like his regular self. And he also didn’t remember Mali’s name…oy, I don’t know if I should laugh or cry!”
“It’s always better to laugh, of course.”
“I know,” she said, and sobbed harder.
Dov shook his head. It was the first time he was seeing his wife cry this way. “Yes, something here is very strange,” he said. “More than strange. It’s—”
“And this crazy accusation about the money!” she all but gasped. “What do I do?”
“For now, nothing. Let’s go to the Kosel, like we planned, and we’ll daven for everything. Then, when we get home, we’ll go over all the receipts and your lists, and we’ll see what’s going on there.”
“It’s not organized like your office, but it was always one hundred percent to Michoel’s satisfaction.” She shook her head. “I really don’t understand what is going on here. On the one hand, it seems like he’s going through some kind of medical crisis…but maybe he did find something that I did wrong?”
“He thinks he found something,” Dov corrected her as he started the car. “But does it make sense for him to react like this, even in such a case?”
“Then it doesn’t sound to me like this is the real problem. Now we are going to the Kosel, okay?”
Martin quietly closed the doors to the electric box and passed a hand over his damp hair. That had not been pleasant. He didn’t think he would sound so…cruel. Poor people. He just hoped they wouldn’t call the police, but he should be on the alert, because they would surely come back. If he could have been more gentle, and not thrown that poor lady into such a traumatic state… He wondered if this was the “Hinda” from the email messages. Probably. And because she seemed to have a close relationship with Mr. Perl and this house, he had to keep her as far away as possible. When this whole crazy story was over, he’d find out her address and send her an apology letter.