Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 27 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.
Penina pulled up a chair and sat down at the table near Hinda. “How do you manage?” she asked conversationally, revealing that she had heard part of what Hinda had been saying on the phone, even before coming into the kitchen. “Who works with papers today?”
“Me.” Hinda smiled and put the telephone aside. “And there are a few others like me. Afterward, I send the papers to someone else, and she builds the plan using a computer program.”
“Why does she do this for you?”
“That’s her job. Usually, the person who would do this step is a beginner interior designer, so it’s worth it for her to do just this part of the work. The woman I work with happens to have been in the business for years, but—” She paused. “We enjoy working together,” she concluded.
“You wanted to say something else, didn’t you?” Penina probed. “Probably something about how she enjoys working for you, and that’s why she’s happy to take on your projects, right?”
Hinda chuckled. “You’re a lot like your father,” she said. “Head on your shoulders, bli ayin hara… I usually take on projects with all kinds of little niches and nooks, and I try to maximize the space as best as possible. There are interesting solutions—some of which I’ve come up with myself and some of which I have heard about from others. Michal Reiner, the woman I work with, focuses specifically on this area of design, so she’s happy to take on my projects to give her more ideas.”
“Michal Reiner?” Penina’s forehead creased. “I don’t think I’ve heard you mention her name before..”
“Well, we hardly speak. I send her the material by fax, and then my clients speak to her. I’m not much of a phone person, Penina.”
“You’re like my father in that,” Penina said. She picked up Hinda’s cell phone without even realizing it. “After my mother passed away, and my father was alone, we sometimes went out of our minds with worry when he didn’t answer the phone for hours on end. More than once it happened that Simi—who lived a few streets away from him—ran over to make sure everything was okay.”
“And everything was fine, but he had forgotten his cell phone at home, or left it on silent after Minchah…” She laughed. “So we learned not to worry when he didn’t answer our calls.”
“Men.” Hinda smiled back.
Naturally, she began to think about Michoel, who was not only not answering his phone, but also not opening his door. And it wasn’t unintentional; it was clearly deliberate.
Thinking about Michoel didn’t do her good, and Penina noticed it. “I’m disturbing you,” she said, putting the phone back on the table. “My sisters ask me what I do for all these hours in your house… I told them that we schmooze a lot. I don’t think they understand it. My second sister, Yael, asked me yesterday if maybe I’m bothering you, because I can be a little talkative and nosy sometimes…” She stood up. “I told her I didn’t think so. But I think that right now, that’s what I’m being, right?”
Hinda met her gaze. “You’re not bothering me at all, Penina. It’s just that when we were talking about phones and people who don’t answer them, I remembered something that is bothering me a bit.”
“Can I help?”
Hinda smiled tiredly. “I’m afraid not.”
Penina nodded understandingly and sat down again. They were both silent for a long moment, and then jumped at once, when both of their phones began to ring. Hinda’s began first, and a fraction of a second later, Penina’s chimed in.
Hinda picked up her phone, noting that the number was unfamiliar. “Hello?” Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Penina’s face break out into a huge smile.
“Really? Mazal tov!” Penina shouted. “Mazal tov!! Wooowww!!”
Hinda turned back to her call. “Mrs. Schorr?” the person at the other end was saying.
“Yes?” Hinda didn’t bother correcting the caller about her new last name.
“This is Rabbi Goldberg, the administrator of Yeshivas Kletzkin in Netivot.”
“Okay,” Hinda repeated guardedly.
“I was chavrusas with your husband, Reb Shmuel, years ago. We were roommates in yeshivah.”
“Yes, I remember.” And I also remember that this friendship was useless to me when I tried to get Yosef into your yeshivah.
“We wanted to know if you know what is going on with Reb Michoel Perl. He used to be a regular donor, each year, but this year, we cannot seem to reach him.”
Dov walked in at that moment. “Abba, Abba!” Penina leaped to greet him, like an eight-year-old girl. “Is your phone on silent again? Simi couldn’t reach you—she had a boy! Ten minutes ago! Oh my goodness, that kid is going to be soooo spoiled—the prince after five princesses!”
Hinda smiled at them both. The man on the other end of the line was saying something, or asking, but she didn’t hear him. She looked at her husband, who took Penina’s phone with tears in his eyes. She felt near tears herself, too, even though the new prince was not even hers. She’d seen his sisters, the princesses, all of once, and the queen mother picked up the phone just once every two weeks for a hurried “good Shabbos”—that was it.
But he was Dov’s, and for her, that was enough.
“Hey, Michoel! Michoel! Why aren’t you opening the door?” The man in the gray shirt pounded at the door, completely ignoring the intercom. “Michoel, where are you? Get up! Up! You don’t sleep when a good friend comes to visit!”
Martin stood on the sidewalk across the street, with one foot poised to flee should it became necessary. If this man continued to stand there and scream, the neighbors would surely call the police.
“Hey, Michoel! Are you not home? What about your pizza, eh? They probably called to tell you that I didn’t come even once to pick it up, but that was because I was in the hospital. Is this how a good friend acts? You don’t come to see how I’m doing at all?”
A window in the next building opened, and someone emitted a loud and irate, “Shhhhhh!”
“No one will tell me to be quiet!” The man balled his fist and banged again on the door. “Michoel will open the door for me! He’ll open up, or my name is not Gronam!”
Gronam… Martin stood a bit straighter. That was the name that Benny at the pizza store had mentioned: Either Michoel Perl came himself each Tuesday to pick up the pizza he’d ordered, or a friendly, homeless guy named Gronam would come for it.
Friendly? Martin was skeptical about the description; the man with the dirty gray shirt made a threatening impression more than a friendly one, but who knew?
“Michoel, open up already! I was in the hospital, okay? I got out today, and I walked from Bikur Cholim all the way here. Don’t you even care about that?! You’re not even letting me come in to eat or drink something? Oh!.” His voice dropped at once. “Maybe I’m doing all this screaming for nothing. You’re probably not even home. Where’s the guy who said before that you’re probably not home?”
He turned, and his eyes bored into Martin’s. “Wait, you, you’re the guy who was going to help me with the mailbox, right? Come here! Do you live here? Where is Michoel? Tell me! For more than a month I’ve been in the hospital with a ruptured appendix. I had an operation, and then I got an infection, with high fever and everything, and I lay there in the hospital for days on end—and Michoel didn’t visit me even once! What’s with him? Do you know?”
Martin took a step backward.
“Oy, maybe he collapsed one morning, and he’s lying in his house totally dead, poor guy. We should call the police. Let them bring their dogs to sniff if there’s a body inside.”
Martin didn’t need more than that to turn on his heel and disappear from Gronam’s view. Dogs. Police. Really! That was all he needed.
Again, he heard hushing from a few windows, but the man did not quiet down. “He flew to Mexico for a few days, but he told me it would be for just a few days! And he said he’d be back! Hey, where did you go, boy?!”
Martin stood further away, but he focused on every word Gronam said. Mexico. Interesting.
In the end, Gronam gave up and went on his way. Martin waited an hour and a half until he dared to go back to the house. He opened the door and slipped inside, but he could not fall asleep that night. Only when dawn broke and there was still no police car in sight did he calm down enough to fall asleep on “his” stack of mattresses.
He got up two hours later, feeling refreshed and very hungry. After eating a quick breakfast, he went into the dining room, as was his habit these past few mornings. The curtain was pulled aside a bit, giving him a clear view of the entrance path, and he sat down on the armchair across from it.
How long would he sit in this house, fearful of the moment Perl would return?
Of course, it was possible that something had happened to Perl, and he wouldn’t come back at all. It was safe to assume that something was not right, based on the reactions of the people who kept coming here. It sounded like he had cut off all ties with everyone at once, and his acquaintances were worried. It didn’t sound good at all.
Even though he wasn’t one of Michoel Perl’s acquaintances, Martin felt a strange frisson of worry. He hadn’t seen the American too often, but the fact that he’d now spent quite a while in his house generated a feeling of connection to the absentee owner.
It was sad to think that something bad might have happened to him, and no one knew about it.
Just like if something bad would happen to him, Martin, no one would know.
Let’s say he would fall down the stairs, break a few bones, get electrocuted, suffer an aneurysm… How much time would it take for him to be discovered?
It was sad to be so alone in the world.