Chaim tried to keep his rheumy eyes focused on the paint-by-number canvas clamped to the easel. But his gaze kept returning to the window and the moving van parked below, alongside the aging brownstone. Movers came and went, crunching the multi-colored leaves, carrying their burden into the building. Chaim squinted at the sun flooding through the ivory lace curtains, reflected off the pink, plastic-covered sofa.
Straightening his sore back, he thought of his recently departed friend. “Weinstock was a mensch. But good to have some new company.” Chaim spoke toward the truck and the new neighbor moving in. “Do you play chess, I wonder.” Rubbing the ache in his left forearm, he turned his gaze back to the painting and dabbed ochre on the urn in the still life. Similar paintings hung in a continuous border around the room.
The familiar clomp of orthopedic shoes and the jingle of keys intruded on Chaim’s concentration. As he looked up, the heavy wooden door swung open and a handcart laden with groceries was shoved inside.
“Chaim,” Frieda called, “come take this buggy into the kitchen for me.” She hung her shapeless brown wool coat on the rack and removed a red Maple leaf from the collar.
“I met the man moving into the Weinstocks’ apartment.” Frieda followed Chaim as he wound his way through the dining room, around the heavy mahogany furniture, and set her cream-colored pocketbook on the sideboard. “He seems nice enough. Kind of quiet. He’s alone. No wife to take care of him.” She began emptying the bags, piling items onto the gold-flecked counter.
Chaim folded the handcart and slid it between the worn Formica table and the back door, hiking up his baggy brown pants and flexing his arthritic hands. “Does he have a name, this lonely man with no one to care for him?”
“Of course he has a name,” Frieda responded. “Everything has a name.” She steadied herself on a stepstool and began putting away the groceries.
“Will I ever know what it is?” Chaim enjoyed the back and forth of his life with Frieda. Nothing was ever simple, but it was never boring either.
“His name is Borys Chlopnicki. Are you happy now?”
“A bisel happier. But I am sure you know much more than a mere name.” Chaim turned on the burner under the teapot and lifted two barrel glasses from the drainer. “Frieda Schlessel would never be able to walk away with just a name. You must know his whole life story, my darling yenteh. So tell me and then I will know, too.”
“Finish making the tea while I put these things away.” Frieda continued stocking the cupboard.
Chaim reached past her for the canister of tea just as the pot began to whistle. His hand accidentally brushed her breast and he stopped, staring into her eyes. “Shana Frieda. Shana darling.”
Frieda gazed into his eyes for a long moment. “Alter Kacker! Dirty old man! You’re 75 years old! Go fix the tea.” Smiling, she pushed him aside.
He poured two steaming glasses and sat down at the pockmarked table, trying to be patient while Frieda finished her work. Chaim set a small china bowl of sugar cubes between the two tumblers. He beamed as he watched her.
Frieda shut the cupboard door and moved to the table. “Oy, the walk from the Pick ‘n’ Pay seems longer each week. I tell you, Chaim, the children I see just standing around on Coventry! If it’s not blue hair it’s boys in girls’ clothing! Or girls in the boys’ clothing! Or they’re carrying on with each other in the street! What shnorrers some of them are, with their hands out for any morsel.”
Frieda heaved a deep sigh. “Thank you for making the tea, Chaim.” She picked up a sugar cube and bit it in half, setting the other half on a napkin. She sipped the tea, letting the sweetener do its work. Chaim could see the mark of her pink lipstick on the sugary remnant.
“Nu! The story will not tell itself, Frieda. I want to hear about the new neighbor. Did he mention if he plays chess?”
“You haven’t played since Morty died, have you? You miss him, I know. I miss Sarah. But Morty lived a good life. And Sarah is better off with her daughter in California.” Frieda pulled a hankie from the recesses of her cleavage and dabbed at the corners of her eyes.
“Yes, yes. But the new neighbor. What can you tell me of him?” Chaim tried to steer Frieda back to the subject at hand.
“Well, Mr. Chlopnicki just arrived from Detroit. I could tell by the look of his furniture that a woman chose it for him, so I asked him.”
“You asked him if a woman picked out his furniture?” Chaim shook his head in awe. “My wife the yenteh.”
“No, Chaim. I asked him if there was a Mrs. Chlopnicki. He told me his wife died in 1995. They were married 49 years. Such tsoris! And they were never blessed with children.”
“And how did you find out that piece of news?”
“I asked him if he moved here to be near his daughter.”
“So our new neighbor lost his wife and has no children. And his interest in chess is unknown. Is that the crux of it?”
“He is originally from Poland.”
“Poland,” Chaim whispered. “Like me.” Tears welled up in his eyes. Rubbing his left arm, he felt Frieda’s hand on his.
“He is goyishe, a Catholic.” Frieda finished quietly. “That is all I know.”
Chaim sat silently, absentmindedly rubbing his arm. His eyes still wet.
“Chaim, bubeleh, you should paint. You know how you enjoy it.” Frieda patted his arm and smiled. “I’m going to bake some mandelbrot for Mr. Chlopnicki. Then we’ll know if he plays chess.”
Chaim sat up in bed, sweating. His movement was so sudden that Frieda woke.
“What’s the matter?” she mumbled, turning over. The pale blue tissue taped to her hair crinkled and tore.
“Nothing, Frieda. Go back to sleep.” Chaim patted her hip through the coverlet.
“No, Chaim. You’re farklempt. What’s the matter?”
“Nothing. I’m oysgeshpilt.”
“Of course you are. It’s the middle of the night. Who wouldn’t be exhausted?” Frieda patted her hair in an apparent attempt to keep the kleenex construction in tact.
“I had a nightmare, that is all,” he said, rubbing his left arm.
“Ptoi, ptoi.” Frieda chased the dream through her fingers and away. “Alright, tell me.”
“I do not wish to talk about it.” Chaim turned on his side, facing away from Frieda. He tried to feign sleep.
“Chaim Schlessel. You never want to talk about it but you know that talking always helps. Tsoris shared, Chaim.”
“Frieda, go to sleep. I am not discussing it. I will not hear another word.”
“Oy!” Frieda turned over, as always making one last comment.
Chaim listened as Frieda’s muttered grumbling faded off to a gentle snore. That is it, then – thank god. Chaim closed his eyes but it was impossible to get the image of the vicious dogs, jaws dripping drool, out of his mind. He could still hear them growling along with the guttural shouts of their handlers. Exhausted though he was, Chaim could not put this image behind him.
As Frieda’s breathing evened, Chaim slipped quietly from the bed. Shaking, heart pounding, he slid his feet into worn slippers and pulled on the plaid flannel robe retrieved from a velvet-covered occasional chair. Frieda moaned softly but did not stir. Chaim gently closed the bedroom door so the light from the kitchen would not disturb her.
He pulled a tall glass from the drainer and retrieved the lemon juice and seltzer from the old, harvest gold refrigerator. Rummaging through the flatware for a long-handled spoon proved a noisy endeavor but Chaim did his best to be quiet. He added two cubes of sugar and stirred the concoction vigorously to create the desired effect.
Moving to his chair in the corner of the room, Chaim set the glass gingerly on the table. Removing the spoon he laid it neatly on a napkin, careful to capture any drip. Leaving no detritus was important. Frieda would know how tormented he had been if she found evidence of his vice.
Chaim raised the drink to his lips and felt the sweet cool liquid flow. Oh, the delicious nectar! Lemon-ade was a delight of the heavens.Chaim could feel the demons of his dream recede.
Slowly sipping the drink to savor every drop transported Chaim back to his childhood. Whenever something bothered him Mama made lemon-ade, lime-ade, orange-ade. Whatever she had in the house would suffice. But it would always be sweet and wonderful. She would sit at the table with him and talk about his problems. Oh, how good it felt to have Mama’s eyes on just him. Whatever the matter had been, it would disappear when he sat with Mama and drank a glass of lemon-ade. And when the troubles came… Chaim would sometimes think if he could only have a glass at the table with Mama he could manage anything. Tears stung his eyes at the thought.
Chaim tipped the glass back to be sure to get the last drops. Then, using the spoon, he scraped the bits of sugar from the bottom and sides toward the mouth of the cup so he could slurp them up. Moving back to the sink Chaim washed away the evidence of his midnight treat, arthritic hands aching with the water and movement. As he set the glass in the drainer he noticed the plate of mandelbrot, covered in plastic. For the goyishe neighbor, he supposed. He hoped Frieda made extra.
Chaim turned out the light and made his way back to bed, trying not to bump into anything, his eyes not used to the dark. When he got into bed, Frieda snuggled against him. As always when the nightmares came, Chaim hoped the last fleeting images of dogs and men would recede once and for all, finally allowing sleep.
Annie put on a pot of coffee, knowing the aroma would wake her husband. She pressed her hands flat on the white tile countertop to still her shaking. She didn’t relish the idea of bringing up therapy again, but she didn’t know what else to do. The kids were old enough now to resent his distance … Oh, face it, Annie. You’re doing this for your marriage.
It felt good to admit the truth. The walls David built were isolating him from her as well as the kids. She couldn’t take any more of it. And if this would help…
After several minutes she heard him; feet hitting the floor … toilet flushing … water running. She smiled at his predictability. Annie removed the twice-folded sheet from her purse, filled two cups and waited. Moments later David trudged into the warm, sunlit kitchen, sat down at the glass-top table and hid behind the Sunday paper.
“Morning,” he sounded hoarse.
Annie set a steaming mug before her husband and sat opposite him with her own, placing the folded page beneath her cup. Squinting from the golden rays streaming in through the bay window behind him, she scooted into his shadow. “I want to talk to you before the kids come in for breakfast.”
“Sure Hon, whatever you need.” David remained veiled by the newspaper.
“Come on, David.” Annie reached out and crushed the paper barrier. “This is important.”
He didn’t hide his exasperation. “I was listening, Annie. You didn’t have to trash the Plain Dealer.” He made a production of smoothing out and folding the newsprint, setting it beside the cup.
Annie pushed her unruly red hair out of her face for the hundredth time that morning. She slowly opened the flyer her cup had been resting upon, determined to make this the last fight on the issue. “I saw this notice at the bakery the other day. I think you should go.” She slid the sheet across the table.
David picked it up and scanned the text:
“What the hell is this?!” David’s voice boomed through the spacious house.
“Shhh! I don’t want you to wake the kids.”
“Fine.” David lowered his voice to a normal decibel. “You want to tell me what you mean by this?”
Annie braced herself. She didn’t want to push but she had to make him see where he was headed. “Look, you’ve always said you wanted to deal with this thing. I can’t count how many times we’ve discussed it. But you won’t go to therapy. You won’t talk to your father, you –”
“Are you kidding?! I can’t talk to Pop. You know he won’t talk to me. And my mother doesn’t want me to push him.”
“As I was saying,” Annie countered, not letting his outburst dissuade her, “You’re not doing anything about it.”
“Maybe not right now. But I’m going to.”
“You’ve had a million opportunities. You’re not in this family alone, you know. The kids and I feel how far away you are, and it’s getting worse. Just the other day, Judith –”
“You’re talking to my sister about this!”
“Judith and I had lunch on Tuesday. She’s very concerned about you, you know.”
“Judith is a flake.”
“She is not a flake. She’s just more the ‘go with the flow’ type.”
“Drives me nuts,” David mumbled.
Annie gulped her coffee. “I love you, David. Do you think I would have stayed for nineteen years if I didn’t? But these walls you surround yourself with are getting thicker and I can’t get through anymore. Is this really what you want out of life? Keeping everyone out? Doing to your children what your father did to you?”
David flinched, as if the accusation slapped his face. “I … am not … my … father.”
“Honey, when the kids were little they didn’t see it. You played with them. You were closer. But Adam is starting to date. He needs you to set an example, show him how to be a good man. And Sophie. She’s not going to be your little girl much longer.” She paused, then whispered, “and you won’t let me in at all anymore.” She closed her eyes for a moment and tried to regulate her breathing.
Trying a different tack, she continued. “When was the last time you went with us to the lake? Do you remember we used to go with the Schneiders? When the kids were little.”
“Yeah, so? What does the cottage have to do with anything?”
“The year before Adam started kindergarten, remember? You sat inside and read the entire week. Didn’t even eat with us half the time. The Schneiders turned down our invitation every year after that. They didn’t say anything, but we both know that was why. And you haven’t even come the past four years. Summer isn’t a big tax season. We miss you when you don’t come.
“So, I don’t like the lake. Somehow that translates into me being the bad guy? What do you want from me?”
Annie took a deep breath, determined. “I want my marriage back. I want you to be a part of this family, not someone we tiptoe around because we’re afraid to upset you.”
“I’m a part of the family. No one tiptoes around me.”
“You really have no idea. I wish I had a tape recorder. You’d be amazed at the difference in this house when you’re here versus when you’re not.”
“Bullshit, nothing. You need to go to this group. You need to work this stuff out.”
“How can you expect me to sit with a bunch of strangers and talk about … about my feelings? I’ve talked to you. That’s enough.”
“You told me all about your Pop when we were dating, more than twenty years ago. Whenever we’ve talked about it since then you pay lip service to whatever ideas or suggestions I have, and then you clam up even more. Talking to me hasn’t changed anything.”
Annie reached across the table but David didn’t respond. “Look, I know it won’t be easy. But these people already get it.”
“I’m not the only one with problems. Why is it so important that I examine mine with a magnifying glass?” He paused, mumbling, “what if it’s only me?”
Her heart ached with love and pity. “Oh, no, Honey. That can’t be true. If it were, why would the JCC form a group?” She patted his hand where it rested on the table.
He pulled away. “Do they have a group for nagging wives, too? Maybe we can go on the same night.” The look on David’s face said he knew he went too far.
”You know what? We’re done with this dance.” Any sympathy she felt evaporated. “Deal with it or pack it, David. I quit being the one who tries. It’s your turn.”
“Annie, I …”
Annie felt a tear trace a path down her cheek. Ordinarily she’d swat it away, hating the weakness. But she let this one go, let David see what this meant to her. He always claimed she’d dig her nails into her palms and draw blood before she’d let anyone see her cry.
He watched her, no sound except the ticking of the grandfather clock in the foyer. “What do you want from me?”
“If I do this, I can’t promise I’ll ever go back.”
Annie sat, arms crossed, silent.
“I’m not the touchy-feely type.”
The silence breathed. “If I try it, it’ll be for you.”
“No, David. You have to try it for you.”
“Don’t push it, Annie.”
“Well, the first time you can go for me, then. After that, it’ll be for you.” Annie moved toward David and kissed him on the temple. There was something about her lips pressed in the tender spot above his cheek that always seemed to soften him. She breathed deeply, loving the mix of soap and sleep he wore in the morning.
“I’ll think about it.” David slumped, spent and defeated, and left the room, coffee untouched. She heard the screen door bang and, with no one around to witness, gave in to the tears that begged to flow.