Now that Passover is officially on the horizon, I thought I’d get myself in the holiday spirit by posting a short story I wrote for AMI Magazine’s Passover Collection back in 2014. It’s called “Exodus,” and its protagonist/narrator is one of my favorite characters I’ve written. Enjoy it!
Klein stole my shoes.
That’s the only explanation for it. The last time I saw them was motzei Shabbos, when I took them off, buffed them, and put them back in the closet. When I went to get them today, they were gone. I only wear them on Shabbos and Yom Tov. If they’re not on my feet, they’re in my closet. The only way they would not be where I left them is if someone took them, and I’d bet my last nickel it was Klein.
I saw him admiring them during davening last week. He even asked me where I got them. Klein used to be a salesman for Florsheim, he told me, so he knew good quality. I wouldn’t put it past him to creep in here like a little mouse and help himself. He’s crafty like that.
I wheel myself down to the cafeteria and corner him by the dessert table, where plastic cups of jello are lined in perfect rows with dollops of cool whip melting on top.
“Get it while it’s hot,” Klein says to me, palming two of them.
“You took my shoes, Klein,” I reply. “I want them back.”
“Are you crazy? Why would I do something like that?”
“How am I supposed to know? You’re the one who took them.” I roll my wheelchair an inch or two toward him, stopping just shy of his feet.
Klein steps back, pulling the jello cups closer to his chest. “Listen, Glazer. I have no idea what you’re talking about. I never took anything. You probably just lost them.”
“I don’t lose things.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure,” Klein says, raising his bushy white eyebrows in jest. “There’s a reason you’re in assisted living.”
“You’re in here too, old man! But you won’t be for long if I tell the office about this. I suggest, if you want a place to sleep tonight, that you put my shoes back in my closet right after you down your dessert.”
Keeping my eyes level on Klein, I grab my own jello from the table, swallow it in one gulp and roll out of the room.
As I make my way to the elevators, I hear a voice behind me. “What’s your hurry, Mr. Glazer?”
It’s Sandy, one of my favorite orderlies. Once in a while I slip him a few bucks and he brings me back a Snickers.
“I’m going to my son’s for Passover and I need to pack,” I tell him. “He’s picking me up day after tomorrow.”
“Lucky you,” he says. “Always nice to spend the holidays with family.”
“Yeah, well, it’s the least he can do for leaving me in this place.”
“Aw, Mr. Glazer,” Sandy says, chuckling. “You know it’s not so bad here.”
“Maybe not. But I was much better off in my own house, with my own schedule, and no one bothering me.”
“Until you fell down the steps and broke your hip.”
My hip socket throbs at the memory. “All I needed was a month or two in rehab, not to get locked away with this bunch of crackpots.”
“Don’t you think,” Sandy says, “it’s better to have crackpots for company than no company at all?”
The elevator dings and the doors slide open. Without a word I roll inside and jab the button for the third floor.
Sandy waves. “I’ll see you later, Mr. Glazer…”
“Harrumph,” I say, and the doors close.
If you’d told me five years ago that I’d be the curmudgeon of Forest Glen, I would have told you to lay off the l’chaims. Once upon a time, I was the president of my shul board, the kids’ favorite candy man, and I gave a shiur on the daf that was packed at 7:30 every morning. I was the most popular guy for ten blocks in both directions. Then Dora passed, and I felt like my legs had been cut out from under me. I tried to keep marching forward, but I never could quite get the hang of life without her. For the first time in half a century, the sound of her humming didn’t fill the house; the hallways only echoed my voice back to me. I had never realized how much work went into keeping home and hearth, but I figured it out pretty quickly without Dora around. Within a few weeks, the place looked ready to be condemned. And my cooking was dismal. One morning, I used up an entire carton of eggs trying to make them over easy just like Dora did, but the yolks kept bleeding all over the whites. As I shook the pan in frustration, I seared my palm on the metal handle. The pan dropped to the floor with a clatter, spattering half-cooked eggs all over the walls, and I crumpled, my skin still sizzling, against the fridge. I stayed there for two hours, crying like a child.
I tried to keep my chin up whenever I’d be at shul or at Shabbos meals, seeing families together, intact, with no one missing. But eventually it all started to wear me down. Even at my own childrens’ tables, I felt like an frozen islet cracked off the iceberg, floating farther and farther out to sea. After a while, it took too much effort to keep a smile on my face.
“Maybe it’s time to start dating again,” my son said to me one Friday night at dinner, spooning mayo onto his gefilte fish. “It’s not good for you to be alone so much.”
I had considered the idea myself – enough people at shul, the rav included, had already mentioned it – but after 50 years with one woman, the idea of living with anyone else seemed absurd.
“I’m not alone,” I replied. “I see people around…”
“Around where? You don’t go to the daf anymore, and they’re barely done with kaddish before you run out of minyan.”
“What are you, with the secret service? Why are you worried so much about what I’m up to? You and your sister, treating me like I’m fine china: ‘You sure you’re okay, Abba? Maybe you should take a vacation.’ ‘I know someone you can call, if you need to talk.’ And now you’re trying to marry me off! I’m an adult, you know. I’ve been one since before you were born.” I speared a second piece of fish and slapped it onto my plate. “Pass the chrayn, will you?”
“I know you’re an adult,” Dovid said, handing it to me. “You just haven’t been yourself in a long time. I hate to say it, Abba, but you’ve gotten a little…bitter.”
I snorted. “Please. I’m sweet as a peach.”
Just then, my twin grandsons tore through the room, loud as sirens, leaving a trail of cookie crumbs and dinosaur figurines in their wake.
“Can’t you get a handle on them?” I barked as they bumped into my chair. “It’s like a barnyard in here!”
My son’s eyebrows shot to his hairline. “A peach, huh?”
A few months after that, I broke my hip. It was a stupid accident; the carpet on the steps was loose and I caught my foot on it. Before I knew what had happened, I was at the bottom of the staircase and my leg was stretched behind me at an inhuman angle: my femur was cracked and my hip, shattered. The doctor told me that if it had happened twenty years ago, I might have bounced back in six months to a year. But an eighty-year-old body is like a vintage car; when the parts go kaput, it’s not so easy to replace them. So I got saddled with Old Faithful, my wheelchair, and my kids decided to pack me off to this place.
“You’re throwing me to the wolves!” I exclaimed when they showed me the brochure for Forest Glen: “A community for seniors with a passion for life and a love of Jewish tradition”.
“Not quite,” Shaindy replied, the bangs on her blonde sheitl falling into her eyes. She eased them over with a manicured finger. “You can’t take care of yourself in this big house anymore, and you don’t want to know how much it would cost to hire a full-time aide and install an elevator. It’ll be better for you there. You’ll have help whenever you need it, and lots of friends to keep you company. It’ll be fun!”
“What if I came to live with one of you?”
Shaindy and Dovid exchanged nervous glances. “We–we discussed that option, too,” Dovid began, “but it’s not so simple. There’s the issue of space, and with all the kids…It’s just going to be…too much.”
I was incredulous. “Too much? What if I’d said it was ‘too much’ to find a place for you when your mother brought you home from the hospital? That it was ‘too much’ to keep you fed, clothed and educated for the first two decades of your life? What if it had been ‘too much’ for me to take you to Israel every summer, or to pay for your weddings? You’d probably be down by Lichtman’s grocery, shaking a pushke at everyone who passed by, instead of sitting here, all high and mighty, telling me how much fun I’ll have over at the loony bin!”
“It’s not a loony bin!” argued Shaindy. “It’s a retirement community. It’s like the best of both worlds: you get your own room, and you can still do whatever you want. You just have people there to help you. Look…” She flipped the pages of the brochure to a picture of a smiling old man playing chess. “Look at how happy he is!”
“Of course he’s happy,” I said. “The other guy thinks he’s playing backgammon!”
Dovid massaged his temples with agitation. “Look, Abba. We just want to do what’s best for everyone. You can’t stay where you are, and as much as we’d like to, we can’t take you in. This is the best option we’ve got.”
He had that look his mother used to have, the one that told me the argument was over. I sighed deeply. “What about the house?”
“I think we should put it on the market,” Shaindy replied. “You paid it off years ago, so it’ll be all profit. We can use the money to pay for your new place.”
The thought of selling my house — the house I’d lived in for most of my life, where I’d raised my children, where I’d made 50 seders and eaten more Shabbos meals than I could count — made me feel like someone was bargaining for one of my limbs. But I had to admit that it made no sense for it sit empty, slowly decaying, like a ghostly shrine to the family that once lived there.
“Who says it’ll even sell?” I argued half-heartedly.
Shaindy patted my hand encouragingly. “Let us worry about that.”
Which is how, about a year ago, I ended up at Forest Glen: home of the jello cups, Monday night Bingo, cinnamon potpourri and Klein, the shoe thief. Not long after I got here, Mandelbaum, an old chevrusa of mine, got a bed a floor up from me. A week or so after him, Koenig, the ba’al koreh from our shul, moved in down the hall. So my daughter was right about the company. There’s a minyan on Shabbos, led by a youngish, fiery-eyed rabbi, who bounces from seat to seat like an overzealous camp counselor, trying to get everyone to sing. I tolerate him because his wife makes a half-decent cholent for the kiddush. They also have a library where I spend an hour or so after lunch. But mostly, this place is a glorified preschool for seniors, and everything about it, from the white-toothed nurses to the flowered wallpaper to the endless parade of craft projects, drives me up the wall. Every night, I dream of my house — which still hasn’t sold, by the way — and wake up expecting to hear Dora rustling around in the kitchen. But then I rub my eyes and see Old Faithful parked a couple of inches from my bed, feel the ever-present ache in my hip, smell the exhale of rubbery eggs from the cafeteria, and I wonder what kind of aveiros I committed in this life that were horrible enough to land me here.
At least I’m getting out for Pesach.
As I get out of the elevator, I can hear the phone ringing from inside my apartment. I fumble with my keys, somehow managing to get the door open and myself across the living room to answer in time. “Hello?”
“Hi, Abba, it’s Dovid.”
“Ah, good. I was going to call you this afternoon. I already started packing; there’s just a couple of things I’m missing. Can you have Esty pick me up a new toothbrush? I might also need a couple of buttons. Possibly some new shoes. What time are you coming on Wednesday?”
“That’s actually why I called,” Dovid replies.
“I just got a call, last minute, to be the mashgiach at this Pesach resort in Honolulu — the guy they had got food poisoning or something — and the deal was too good to pass up. They’re flying all of us out tonight, putting us up in one of those villas, and the kids get to go to the camp they’re running there.”
“I assume,” I say, “there’s no program for wheelchair-bound fathers?”
“No. There’s not.” I hear him sigh on the other end of the phone. “I’m sorry, Abba.”
Dovid’s voice is heavy with guilt. I almost feel sorry for him. Almost.
“Hey,” he says. “Doesn’t your place do a whole big thing for Pesach?”
“I guess, if you call ‘Make Your Own Seder Plate’ a whole big thing. I know that that rabbi is coming to lead the sedarim; he’ll probably make everyone hop around like frogs.”
“I know it’s not what you had in mind…”
“It’s fine, Dovid. Go to Hawaii with your family. Go coconuts.”
Dovid laughs. “Thanks, Abba. Chag Kasher V’Sameach.”
“Chag Kasher V’ Sameach. And safe trip.”
I hang up the phone feeling like someone just dropped a bowling ball on my chest.
At dinner that night, I sequester myself to a corner table, as close to the window as I can get. I spend the meal staring through it, hoping everyone gets the message that I have no interest in company.
“If I went by your face, I’d say that turkey tastes like turpentine.”
Mandelbaum stands at my table, holding a tray piled high with food, a houndstooth newsboy cap tipped jauntily on his head.
“Not that bad,” I say. “But close.”
He points to an empty chair across from me, silently asking if he can sit. Resigned, I tip my palm toward it. “Go ahead.”
Mandelbaum folds his plump body into the metal frame, the material on his shirt straining desperately against the buttons. On his plate is a small mountain of spaghetti topped with sauce, alongside a slab of lasagna. He salts the lot generously and takes a lusty bite.
“Counting calories, I see.”
Mandelbaum grins at me. “I’m enjoying my chametz while I can.”
“What are you still doing here? Weren’t you supposed to take the train to your daughter last night?”
“You won’t believe what happened,” he says, shaking his head. “An hour before I’m supposed to leave she calls me and says she got this thing…What was it called? A groupon? I don’t know what the heck she was talking about…Anyway, she and Ruvi and the kids are going to this water resort for the whole Pesach with two other families. And I–” he fills his mouth with lasagna, “–am not going anywhere.”
“You’re kidding! My son pulled the same stunt on me! Only he’s going to Hawaii.”
Mandelbaum nods, impressed. “Nice.”
“Yeah, nice for him. Not so nice for me.”
“What’s the big deal? Deutsch said Pesach here isn’t so bad. Last year, the cleaning staff left Barton’s almond kisses on everyone’s pillow.”
“Even the diabetics?” I ask.
Mandelbaum shrugs. “The seder should be nice, at least. They have those large-print Haggadahs with the pictures.”
When he says that, I feel something in me snap. “That’s it,” I say. “I can’t do it. I can’t spend my seder in this antiseptic ant farm. I’m getting out of here.”
“Where are you gonna go?”
“Home,” I reply. The word just slips out of me, as if I’ve just been waiting to say it.
“But you just said Dovid’s going to Hawaii. And didn’t Shaindy move to Atlanta?”
“No, Mandelbaum. I’m going home. To my house.”
Mandelbaum stops chewing. “You’re going to spend Pesach in that big old house, all by yourself, for eight days? How are you even going to make Pesach? You told me yourself you can’t even boil water.”
“I don’t know; I’ll call a caterer or something. I don’t care. I just have to get out of here.”
Mandelbaum leans back and gives me a long, hard look. “You’re not joking.”
“I haven’t made a joke in five years.”
“Alright,” he says, nodding. “I’ll come with you.”
I chuckle. “Get out of here.”
“Why not? I’ve already told the office I’m leaving. They have no reason to think I’m not going to Channie. I’ll just come to you instead. We’ll have groceries delivered, I’ll help you cook. We can make a nice seder; we’ll stay up late, tell some rebbe stories. I’ll even push you to shul if you want.”
I have to admit, it’s not a bad idea. “You really want to come with me?”
“Sure,” Mandelbaum shrugs. “The change of scenery will be nice. And you shouldn’t be alone on Pesach.”
“Okay,” I say, feeling a sudden surge of excitement. I’m going home.
Mandelbaum cuts himself a chunk of lasagna the size of Alaska. “Maybe we should ask Koenig to come with. His niece cancelled on him, too.”
“I don’t know. I don’t want word getting around about this. Once three people know, everyone knows.”
“You learned that Chofetz Chaim with me.” Mandelbaum says, pointing to himself with his fork. “I’ll tell Koenig not to say anything. It’ll be fine.”
I’m not so sure, but I agree.
After dinner, we find Koenig in the library and tell him our plans. “For sure, I’m coming,” he says. “But I’m in charge of charoses.”
“You can’t tell anyone about this,” I warn him. “The last thing we need is them finding out in the office.”
“Don’t worry so much,” Koenig replies, waving me off. “Consider me Fort Knox.”
The next morning, I’m awake for about ten minutes when there’s a knock on my door. It’s The Turk — Sevilya, I think his name is — and Abramson from the first floor.
“We heard you’re making Pesach at your house,” Abramson says. “We want in.”
Fort Knox, I think bitterly. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Come on, Glazer,” he replies. A set of dog tags glints against his burgundy golf shirt. “Both of our kids left us high and dry at the last minute. Why should we stick around here for ‘Pesach for Dummies’ when you’re having a real seder?”
I give a furtive glance to my right and left, making sure there’s no one else in the hall. I beckon to both of them, and they lean down toward me. “Alright, fine,” I whisper. “But if you say a word to anyone, I’m cancelling the whole thing.”
They both nod gravely.
“We’ll need matzahs,” says Abramson. “I know a Satmar guy who can get us as much shmura as we need. Give me your address and I’ll have it delivered.”
I scrawl it quickly onto a scrap of paper and hand it to him. “Do what you have to do. Just don’t say anything.”
By lunch, Zimmerman, Herzog and Ovitz have invited themselves for Pesach (Zimmerman promises five cases of Manischewitz, and Ovitz says he can get all the vegetables wholesale), and as I’m heading upstairs for my nap, Gordetsky follows me into the elevator and begs me to let him come.
“We have a minyan!” Mandelbaum says when I tell him.
“No, we don’t. With you, me and Koenig, that’s only nine.”
“Well…” Mandelbaum looks down guiltily, “I may have told Klein he could come, too.”
“Klein?!!” I exclaim. “No. Klein is not coming.”
“Look, I know how you feel about him, but it’s not fair to yes to everyone else and no to him.”
I grit my teeth. “He stole my shoes.”
“Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t,” Mandelbaum says, shrugging. “Klein’s wife died last year. He has no kids. No one invited him anywhere. Have a little rachmones.”
I want to say no. I want to leave Klein to the plastic shot glasses of grape juice, the sing-along seder, and the Chol Hamoed magic show. But I can’t do it.
I sigh my assent.
“You’re a tzaddik,” Mandelbaum says, clapping me on the arm. “Now go pack.”
The next morning, suitcase in tow, I head down to the lobby to meet the cab with Mandelbaum. Everyone else will leave at scattered times throughout the day and meet later at my house. Mandelbaum is pacing by the entrance as I approach. “The cab’s waiting for us. You ready?”
“I’ve been ready since I moved into this place. Let’s go.”
As he pushes me through the sliding front doors, I feel a sudden lightness, as if I’ve shrugged a boulder off my back.
My house isn’t too far from Forest Glen, and the trip goes quickly. We pass through my old neighborhood and everything is the same: the elm with the double trunk one block over; the mint green shutters on the Kagans’ house; the neighbor’s garden, just beginning to bloom, that Dora used to pretend not to envy. And there’s the house, exactly as I remember it, only Shaindy must have had it repainted and landscaped when she put it on the market; it’s bright and vibrant in the sunshine, like seeing in technicolor after years of black and white. The spare key is still under the flower pot, and as I roll into the house, I immediately catch the familiar smell of old wood. My entire body instantly relaxes.
Four hours later the place is like the center of a beehive. Delivery men are coming and going with boxes of groceries, paper goods, wine and matzah. Shaindy has had the house cleaned from top to bottom — there hasn’t been a crumb of chametz in here for a year, at least — and I found everything we need in the Pesach pantry, exactly where Dora left it. Herzog is in the kitchen, making gefilte fish from scratch. “I did this every Pesach for forty years,” he says with a grin. “My grandmother made this recipe in the shtetl!”
At the other counter is Koenig, who has a massive pile of chopped apples in front of him, and a mound of walnuts beside it. He’s forbidden anyone else to touch them; “Charoses is an art,” he said solemnly. Ovitz is up to his elbows in hardboiled eggs, and Gordetsky, who used to own a catering business, pours a thick marinade over a roast. Abramson is in military mode upstairs, making up all the beds “so you can bounce a quarter off of them”, and Zimmerman is in the basement, looking for the haggados. Somehow, The Turk has managed to get a hold of a sefer Torah and a small aron. He and Mandelbaum are setting them up in the living room, while Klein lines machzorim on the mantle shelf. I roll from room to room, watching it all in amazement. My house, which has been empty for over a year, is transforming into an impromptu Pesach resort for a bunch of deserted old fogeys.
Before I know it, we’re sitting down to seder. I roll up to my place, taking in a spread I think would have impressed even Dora. In all my years sitting at the head of this table, I have had a number of different faces looking back at me; never once did I expect to gaze upon a crew like this.
The seder floats by like a dream, well into the night, as we pour each other our four kosos, argue over chazal, and tell stories from Passovers that happened the better part of a century ago. The next day, we daven together — the first good davening I’ve had since Dora passed away — and Koenig leins pristinely. Our second seder stretches even longer than the first, ending only when Herzog, after downing his fourth kos, starts dancing on the table. “He’ll break his neck!” Abramson exclaims, and threatens to whack him with his cane if he doesn’t come down.
On Chol Hamoed, the group breaks off into clusters of twos and threes for outings around the city. I’m slow to accept invitations to join them; my need for people has rusted stiff. But after some prodding, Mandelbaum and Ovitz convince me to come along to the Botanical Garden. It’s one of the first warm days of the year, warm enough to remove our jackets. As we pass rows of new buds, I breathe in the scent of green.
The next day, I go with Zimmerman down to the South Street Seaport, where my father sold fish every day for thirty-five years. I tell Zimmerman about the New England fishermen who sailed in at dawn with nets full of pickerel to sell to the wholesalers. Within minutes, the fish would switch hands again, carted off by retailers and restaurant owners who came from the same towns where the fish had first been caught. “They made it here and back just in time for lunch!” my father would say with a grin as he soaked his hands in vanilla to cut the fishy smell.
I haven’t thought of that story in years.
When we get home, I roll out to the patio to take in the day’s last bit of sunshine angling across the lawn. I must have mowed this grass a thousand times.
I look to my left, and there’s Klein, standing in the doorway.
“Klein,” I reply. “You didn’t go out?”
“I’m tired today,” he says, taking a seat on one of the patio chairs.
We sit in silence for a minute, watching the wind tap at the leaves.
“I just wanted thank you for letting me come,” says Klein.
I grunt in response.
“I know we never got off on the right foot–”
“How could we,” I cut in, “when you stole the shoe right off of it?”
“Come on, Glazer. You really think I took them? You think I have nothing better to do than break into your room and steal your shoes?”
“I guess not,” I concede. “If you’d walked in them for even a minute, for sure you would have given them back.”
“Nah,” says Klein. “I probably would have thrown them at you.”
I laugh out loud, from deep in my chest. It’s a foreign sound, but one it feels good to make. Klein laughs, too. We sit there together until it starts to get dark.
Then it’s Yom Tov again. I savor the davening, the jokes, the food, even the company, knowing that all of this is stolen time. Soon enough, Pesach will end, and so will my pass to freedom.
As the sun sinks down on the last day, The Turk scrapes together the last of the matzah, sets out a few bowls of tuna, herring and eggs, and calls us around the table for a Mashiach Seudah. The wine flows generously, and the Turk makes sure to keep everyone’s glass filled. Soon enough, the room fills with a rosy light and everyone’s words seem to trip over each other as we make L’chaim after L’chaim.
“To the achdus we feel here together! May we bring it back with us to Forest Glen!”
“May we bring the simcha back!”
“…the ahavah back!”
“Let’s bring this wine back!”
All this talk about going back makes my teeth clench tight. I don’t want to think about it. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I actually feel good. Like I’ve been restored to myself. And I know it’s because I’m home. Returning to Forest Glen now would be like getting rescued from a shipwreck, then falling out of the lifeboat.
Then, suddenly, everyone falls silent, and The Turk begins to speak.
“Every year on Pesach, my father made a mashiach seudah,” he says. “They were always very grand; in Istanbul, he was a wealthy man. Jews from all over the city would fill our dining room, and my mother made enormous platters of her famous leek and potato cakes. They all drank and sang for hours, until my father stood up. Sometimes, he would sing old Ladino songs from his childhood. Other times, he talked about the mysteries of the Pesach holiday. No matter what he did, they all would listen to him in silence. In that house, my father was a king.”
I look around the room at the other men, all staring at The Turk with rapt attention.
“But the year I turned thirteen,” The Turk continues, “My father stood up in front of his guests and said, “My son is a bar mitzvah this year. Although I can fill his hands with anything he wants, if I keep him in Turkey, his soul will be empty. At the end of this month, I am leaving with my family for Eretz Yisrael.”
“Many of them thought he was foolish. My father had lived in Istanbul all his life; it was all he knew. He was comfortable. Established. Now he was going to abandon it all for an uncertain future in a place he had never been before! But my father was no fool; he knew the risk, and we went anyway. That was in April of 1934. In June of that year, there was a pogrom in Trakya, not far from Istanbul, where they stripped a rabbi to his skin and dragged him through the streets. Then the Nazis came. Within a few months, most of the people who were at my father’s seuda were gone. My father could not have known, but by taking us out when he did, he saved our lives.”
“In Israel, my father never had the kind of success he did in Turkey. But he still made his mashiach seuda every Pesach, and he told this story. ‘I was in Mitzrayim, too,” he would say. ‘I could have stayed and held on to what I knew, just like most of the Jews did in Egypt. And if I had, my family and I would have died. Sometimes, in order to live, you have to leave what you know and go where you’re led.”
The Turk’s words settle on us like a cool mist and we end Pesach in a thoughtful quiet.
The morning after Yom Tov ends, there’s a thrum of activity as everyone prepares to leave; I can hear muffled voices and nine pairs of feet creaking the floor at different spots around the house. I sit on the edge of my bed, holding a framed black-and-white photograph of Dora that I took just a few weeks after our wedding. She’s sitting on a rock — I think it’s in Central Park — with a fist balled up underneath her chin. She looks mischievously off to the side, the beginnings of a smile tugging at the edge of her lips. It’s my favorite picture of her.
“You all packed?” Mandelbaum asks me from the doorway.
I shake my head.
“Well, come on. You want some help? The cab will be here in ten minutes. If you’re not packed I’m going to have to ride with Ovitz. The man sweats garlic.”
“I’m not going,” I tell him.
“The heck you’re not,” says Mandelbaum, with a half-amused, half-bemused look on his face. “Pack your bags, Glazer.”
“I mean it, Mandelbaum. I’m not leaving this house. I belong here.”
“Sure you do, ten years ago. But this isn’t the same place you lived in then. Now it’s just a hotel for all your memories.”
“I don’t care,” I say.
Mandelbaum crosses his arms on his chest. “What are you going to do all day? Talk to that picture of Dora?”
“Maybe. It’s better company than most of those wackadoos at the funny farm.”
“I’m one of those wackadoos!” Mandelbaum says, exasperated. “And so are you!”
My mouth falls open.
“That’s right, Glazer!” he says, pointing at me. “If you think you’re any different than the rest of us, you’re kidding yourself! You think any of us wanted to end our days in a place like Forest Glen? Everyone has a picture of what he wants his life to look like, but you can’t just dig in your heels when it doesn’t work out that way!”
“I never dug in my heels! I went there, didn’t I?”
“Sure you went, but all you ever did was complain about Forest Glen and pine away for this place. Like this big, empty house is gan eden.”
I square my shoulders. “It is to me.”
“Then stay here and rot!” Mandelbaum says. “I hope you and the dust bunnies have a wonderful life together!”
Then he stalks off.
I stare at the doorway in stunned silence, expecting Mandelbaum to come back, but he doesn’t.
I look down at Dora’s face and laugh darkly. “Dust bunnies…”
The front door opens and shuts a half dozen times over the next hour as our Pesach resort empties. No one comes looking for me; they assume I’ve already left. The echo of voices grows fainter and fainter, until, finally, the last of them leaves.
And then, at last, I’m alone again.
Over the next couple of days, I make my way slowly through the house, swimming in memories. This is the corridor where Dovid took his first step…There’s the window seat where Shaindy spent hours with her nose buried in a book…Dora wore this groove in the floor walking back and forth at night with the babies…I revel in the past washing over me, but underneath it is a sense of longing I hadn’t anticipated, like I’m trying to grab onto water. After I’ve looked and touched my fill, I spend the rest of the afternoon checking my watch like I’m waiting for something to start. But the hours just creep by, with no change in pulse.
As I eat my breakfast, the scrape of the spoon against the bowl is jarringly loud. I check the volume on my hearing aid, but it’s right where it should be. The house, I realize, is too quiet.
In the evening on my third day alone, I scan the bookshelves for something that will urge the time along. I pull down an ancient volume of my father’s Shas, Maseches Ta’anis. I open it at random, inhaling the scent of dust, old paper, and woody tobacco from my father’s pipe, and absently read the page in front of me. I recognize it from when I used to learn the daf. It’s the story of Honi Ha’meagel, the miracle worker who woke up after seventy years of sleep. When the scholars of the new generation failed to recognize him or pay him respect, he davened that Hashem take his life to save him from loneliness. One of the sages looking on said, “Either friendship or death.”
In the margin, I see a penciled note in my father’s familiar scrawl: “A life without friendship is death.”
The words hit me with such force, I put my hand up to the wall to keep from rolling backward. I’ve read this story at least a dozen times; I may have even seen this note before. But the truth of it has never been real to me until right now, in this house, where I have chosen to spend the rest of whatever time I have left alone. I had thought that solitude would be a relief, but — and I hate to admit it — after a year full of people around me, being alone for so long feels more like a sentence. Mandelbaum was right; when Dora died, I excused myself from the land of the living, biding my time until I could meet my wife on the other side. I realize now that the lightness I felt during Pesach had nothing to do with being at home; if it had, I would still feel that way now. The truth is, I felt alive for the first time in years because I’d actually been living.
This house is all I’ve known for half a century. But if I stay here, I’ll rot away well before I die. Ready or not, it’s time go where I’m led.
As the cab pulls up to Forest Glen, I stifle the urge to ask the driver to take one last trip around the block. He’s already taken me twice; I need to get out now before I run out of cash.
I still can’t believe I’m coming back here. On purpose.
I wheel through the doors, bracing myself for the onslaught of fluorescent lighting and Lysol. They strike as expected, but somehow, the blow to my senses is not as sharp as I thought it would be.
In the hall, I pass Sandy, pushing a vaccuum.
“Look who’s back!” he says, shutting it off. “You doin’ alright?”
Sandy looks hard at me. “Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure. What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. You just look…different.”
I grin at him. “I got a facelift while I was gone.”
Sandy chuckles. “The smile suits you, Mr. Glazer.”
“Yeah, well, don’t get used to it.”
He shakes his head, laughing harder. “Oh, good. I was worried about you there for a minute…”
I roll into my room and drop my bag on the floor. Opening the closet door to hang up my jacket, I notice a strange silhouette towards the back. I push past my suit jackets and belts, leaning in to see what it is.
And there, lined up perfectly, are my shoes.