Bernie showed up at the doorstep in fraying jeans, a T-shirt that read, “I love summer,” a white cap, and a crooked smile.
“I want to see your basement for rent.”
“What’s your last name again?” Chava asked, smiling.
“Uh…whatever.” Bernie walked past Chava and into the living room. “Nice chandelier.”
“Thank you.” Chava didn’t even raise an eyebrow. These characters were regulars in their studio basement. No surprises here. “This way to the basement.”
“Smells good here. Chicken soup? Ahhh…I love chicken soup.”
“It’s this way.”
Bernie’s footsteps finally followed Chava out the entrance and down the rickety staircase.
“You know, you could fall on these steps. They have to be fixed.”
So do your jeans, Chava thought. But she just smiled.
Chava pushed the door open. She scrunched her nose. Musty. Well, what could you expect after Dan and Spotty (yes, he liked dogs) and Melech and…whatever that man with the three cats’ name was. She wouldn’t crouch down and scrub the floors of gum gook. And neither would the cleaning woman. So the surface scrub would have to suffice.
Bernie sniffed. But his sense of smell apparently wasn’t discerning because he smiled and declared, “Perfect.”
He emptied the two shopping bags he was carrying, filled with packs of cigarettes, clothing, and two huge pairs of sneakers. He threw open the peeling closet door and packed the belongings in a pile.
“I’m starved.” With that he turned around and headed out the door and down the street.
Chava slowly walked up the steps to her front door, shaking her head. I should have offered him chicken soup, she thought.
“Rent, Mrs. Adler.” Bernie placed a pile of crumpled bills on the table as Chava cleared off his empty plate. “And that apple was delicious. My wife, you know, the one who used to be my wife, made it sometimes. Smell of home.”
Chava eyed the bills on the table. They were $300 short, and two weeks too late. But she’d leave it be. It wasn’t like they needed the money anyway. She really didn’t know why she was doing this. Her husband had made it clear that he needed no tenants but if she wanted, she was welcome to find some.
So this is what she got herself into: serving chicken soup and getting bits of rent on random days. She couldn’t say it wasn’t worth it, as she was earning both a chesed and a little bit of cash.
When she left for the hospital, Chava didn’t know she wouldn’t be back for two months. Shalom was born two months early and with severe development issues. Mother and baby were transferred to a distant hospital specializing in premature births, and Yechiel packed up their five young children and moved into his parents’ house.
When Chava finally walked into the house with a bundled-up Shalom, she wasn’t emotionally or physically prepared for the mouse droppings that crunched underfoot.
“They’re not mice, they’re rats,” the exterminator declared. One trip to the basement told the story: the fridge left open for who knew how long, with spoiling food inviting a horrible stench and rats. And Bernie had disappeared.
Yechiel may have been furious with Chava and the eccentric tenants she procured, but it was no time to show it. He shipped out his wife and kids again to his parents and had the exterminator get rid of the rats. A cleaning crew cleaned out the basement, and finally the Adlers settled down to life.
Bernie owed two months of rent and thousands of dollars from previous months. Mrs. Adler tried to shrug it off. He was gone, and it would not help to stew over it. But she would not fool herself: the money was not the issue. It was the aggravation, the impudence, the brazen crossing of all red lines.
Yechiel was at his fifth job stint, and this time his prospects finally looked promising. He wouldn’t dare complain, especially with the knowledge that his wife and children were suffering much more. The new country, language and culture shocked them, stretching them until they almost snapped. And it was all because of that bad investment that sucked them of every stitch of their assets.
The debts that needed to be paid scared him. He’d never been in debt before, and these were unfamiliar waters. What he had done before was pray. And so pray he did – for mercy, for compassion, for survival in this trying time.
Chava also prayed. She couldn’t take on a job because of Shalom’s around-the-clock needs, but she did tighten her buckle and cut every possible financial corner.
Almost predictably, Yechiel’s fifth job fell through. And that found him, yet again, thumbing through the yellow pages and e-mailing resumes, which was more time-consuming and draining than a job.
As she did everyday, newly married Naomi called Chava at nine in the morning. But something in her voice was different this time.
“Ma, the strangest thing happened.” She drew a breath. “I get a phone call from a man who called himself Paul, from Puerto Rico. He tells me that his father had a dream.”
“So I’m quiet, not knowing what in the world I’m supposed to expect. And he says he’s the son of Bernie, you know, that man who rented our basement ages ago. Well, he passed away and came to his totally secular son, Paul, in a dream, and told him that he owed the Adler family money for rent.”
Money. The magic word! Yes, truly like a dream.
A day later a few thousand dollars was transferred to the Adlers’ bank account, just in time for Shabbos shopping. The Adlers knew it would somehow all be fine again one day.
Maybe all it took was a chesed and a prayer.