I kept one anxious eye on Reb Getzel slouching in a recliner, a volume of the Talmud splayed out against his frayed black coat and perky red bow tie. My other eye I kept on Binyamin who was cutting his rosemary chicken cutlet into tiny precise wedges, then methodically pronging and eating them. Three quarters done, he reached for his newspaper and like clockwork, asked for decaf coffee, and I got up and made it the way he liked, with xylitol and soy milk.
Just then Reb Getzel lifted himself off his chair and creakily made his way into the kitchen. What now? He was opening and shutting cupboards, making such a racket, that Binyamin said, “What’s that noise?”
I coughed. “A squirrel in the attic?”
“Oh.” He looked brightly at me. “Have you heard of pest control?”
Ignoring his sarcasm, I snuck back into the kitchen presumably to get the phone directory. “What do you think you’re doing?” I hissed at the old man.
Reb Getzel placidly stroked his scraggly white beard. “You hev a leettle basil? I need a bissel,” he said, then chuckled at his own pun.
I handed him a dusty cylinder from the spice shelf, then sidled back to the dining room table. Only once seated did I think to wonder: What did he want with basil? Binyamin had practically banished the despised spice from the house.
The old man was making his slow unsteady way back, and now stood right next to Binyamin, his hand curled as if holding an egg in his palm.
Binyamin’s nose pricked like an angry rabbit. “Do you smell something funny?”
“No, nothing,” I mumbled, my eyes trained on Reb Getzel’s hand. Then it happened. He gently knocked Binyamin’s newspaper to the ground. While Binyamin bent to pick it up, Reb Getzel poured the spice into Binyamin’s cup of coffee.
Binyamin straightened and snapped the newspaper with one hand, and with the other took another sip of coffee. A strange expression stole over his features. He looked as confused as a cow on Astroturf. “This is downright putrid!” he spat out.
“You just tasted your coffee a minute ago and it was fine,” I reminded him.
He peered warily into his ceramic mug. “Something must’ve fallen inside.” He dipped a pinky in. “Basil?” he said, with such bewilderment and revulsion I had to hold in my snicker.
“I’m sure there’s nothing wrong with it,” I told him.
He glared at the coffee and could not bring himself to take another sip. Once again, I saw Reb Getzel creak to his feet. I tried to communicate with my eyes – stop, no more tricks! – but he shuffled over to Binyamin’s side and whispered in his ear.
Binyamin smacked his temple as if at a pesky fly. “Did you hear something?”
I fixed my eyes on my slab of chicken cutlet. “No.”
He plied his fork into the cutlet but – oh no – Reb Getzel whispered again.
Binyamin said nothing for a full minute. “Uh, you speak a little Yiddish, don’t you, Ruchella?” he said in a slightly nicer voice.
“Some,” I said, taking a forkful of Waldorf salad.
“Do you know what Gib der dem get means?” he said in his altered voice.
A celery bit from the salad got stuck in my throat. I coughed and reached for water. Give her the Get.
“Not sure,” I choked out.
When I got up to clear the table, Binyamin strolled off to the den to sit in his recliner and look important. All those books of Talmud on the shelves – not a single spine was cracked. Again, all for show. Near the stove I whispered to Reb Getzel, “Careful! You’re going to get me in trouble!”
“Don’t vurry so much.” Then he motioned me with a hooked finger into the pantry, off to the side. “Ruchella, it vas nice meeting vit you, and now I hev to go.”
Panic clenched my throat. “You can’t go now!”
He adjusted his red bowtie. “I hev anoder appointment.”
The thought of him leaving – in the middle of what he started – made my heart curdle. “Don’t go, Reb Getzel,” I half-begged, half-demanded.
“Ruchella,” he said, drawing a ragged sleeve against his ancient lips. “Vat you needing me for? Use your own good Keppel.” He tapped a dry finger against his forehead. “Feeneesh de job.”
Binyamin called out something, but when I checked, he was merely napping. When I turned back, Reb Getzel was gone.
Shaindy, I wept.
Then I put my head into the freezer to get the red out of my eyes, and cleared off the dining room table.
What’s that smell? Oh. Here, you know what to do. I’ll wait till you’re done.
Luckily Binyamin was going out for a Torah class that evening. The topic: Lashon Hara – the laws against slander and evil speech. Hah! How he squared away his nastiness with the Torah classes he went to… Well, it got him out of the house, which was all I cared about.
You see, I had a plan. A combination of Reb Getzel and Gaslight. Think of it as Getzlight. You know what comes next, Shaindy. I heard his car start up in the driveway, and I swallowed my pride and called you. Really it wasn’t so bad. A storm in a glass of water, like our bubbe used to say. I wished you mazal tov – heard through the grapevine you’d had a baby girl. Said it was time I came down to say hello to the newborn and see the rest of my nieces and nephews, and could I stay a day or two? Of course, I didn’t say the real reason I was coming. You said sure, like nothing bad ever passed between us, like my request wasn’t a little out of the blue. Got to hand it to you, Shaindy.
Then I got busy. I ran upstairs with a canister of salt and sprinkled a good amount on Binyamin’s sheets, and another sprinkle inside his pillow case. I scribbled, Gib her de Get on a piece of paper and crumpled it into the pillow.
I pulled out my sewing machine that I hadn’t touched in months. I shortened every last one of his trouser legs by two inches. Hoped it would be the last wifely “chore” I ever did for him., ha ha. What else? What other card did I have up my sleeve? I had to think subtle and devious, nothing that would reveal my hand. My eyes swept the bathroom. Hide his Power Grip nail clippers? Turn the toilet paper facing the opposite direction? My eyes landed on his beloved hair gel. Yes. I grabbed the tube, ran into the kitchen, tore off the mouthpiece, squirted half the gel into the sink, and poured globs of mayo inside. Then I replaced the cap, wiped down the tube, and shook it hard, to combine the gel and mayo. There. While I waited for the taxi, I stuffed a few items into an overnight bag, and penned a note.
“My sister gave birth and needs me a couple days. There’s a meat loaf in the freezer. Enjoy.”
Didn’t that sound nice and house-wifey? Hopefully that would put him off the track a bit. Outside, the taxi honked.
It was a long train ride from Norfolk to Baltimore. I ate a Health bar I’d rooted out from the bottom of my purse. A woman sat diagonally across from me, flossing her teeth. A teen-age boy was tapping his sneakered foot to music only he could hear. Strange people got off, and stranger ones got on, and all the while, a thrilling terror seized me at what I had done, the foolishness of it, the braveness. Had I gone too far? Or worse, not far enough? Anxiety roiled through me, but it was a delicious anxiety, too, you know?
Your Yossie welcomed me nicely, Shaindy, considering that I’d arrived at two a.m. He apologized – you were nursing the newborn just then and couldn’t come down – so he put out a slice of shtrudel and a cup of seltzer, then set me up nice and cozy in the guest room. Finally he brought me up to your bedroom where you sat in a glider, nursing your latest. There was a glow in the room, the glow a new baby brings. He set down a cup of juice beside you. I couldn’t help comparing your husband to mine. Mine had all his hair while your Yossie’s hairline had retreated even further, forgive me for noticing. Binyamin was tall and Yossie was five foot seven with a slight pooch, too, but the way he handled all the baby details with such easy confidence, the sweet warm way he looked at you and you looked back – well. It was pretty clear that the glow in the room couldn’t all be attributed to the new baby, who looks exactly like Poppa, by the way.
I tried hard not to be jealous – now you had six and I had none! – tried not to compare your life to mine, such a useless activity. You looked great, by the way, not like someone who’d had a baby ten days ago. I liked how you didn’t ask any roundabout questions about Binyamin. Still, I saw a speck of suspicion in your eyes, and given enough time, maybe you would get around to asking, so I apologized for the late hour, and promised you we’d catch up the next day.
I slept hard, while I could, which I knew wouldn’t be for long.
(To be continued)