The Second Time Around
By Yenta Mash
Translated from Yiddish by Ellen Cassedy
In the middle of the night, Ella awoke with a start, frightened to death. Hailstones pounded on the shutters, threatening to smash them to pieces, and a loose pane in the hallway made the apartment door whistle and creak and moan like a pack of jackals. The wind sounded as fierce as Ashmodai, king of the demons. The eight-story building seemed to rock back and forth, as if at any moment it would be torn off its foundation and carried out to sea. In a daze, she struggled to get up from the divan and knocked the screen onto her head.
Good God, what was happening? Down on her knees, she grabbed at the table and pulled herself up. She could die of fright right here on the floor and no one would even know. The electricity was out, possibly in the whole neighborhood. She couldn’t see a thing.
For a moment she lost her bearings, then took herself in hand. She was no fragile flower, had lived a long life, and knew how to take care of herself. She felt her way into the kitchen, found matches next to the stove, lit two candles and breathed a little easier. She filled two glasses with water and placed them in the windows, as her mother would have done. It might not make the hail stop, but it helped. No longer alone in the apartment, she had her mother with her now, and that was a comfort.
It was decades since her mother had died. Ella had long since surpassed her in age. Now a grandmother herself, she took every opportunity to talk to the grandchildren all about her mother and what she used to say and do. Recently she’d been telling a neighbor what her mother used to say about Short Friday, the darkest Friday of the year. In her mother’s view, only a lazy person would complain that Short Friday was so short that there wasn’t enough time to prepare for Shabbos. Short Friday was a good thing, her mother felt, because from that point on the days started getting longer. Each passing day, her mother used to say, was longer by exactly the amount of time it took for a rooster to jump onto a fence, flap its wings, and say cock-a-doodle-do. Her mother seemed to know everything. She had an answer for every question, and every answer was full of Jewish wit and charm.
By now the hail had stopped. Ella got back in bed, pulled up the covers, and tried to sleep. But the thunder and lightning started up again and the rain pounded mercilessly on the roof.
A flood! Evidently God had decided to destroy the world again. She got out of bed, put on her clothes, and gathered up a few things to take with her in case she needed to be evacuated. Fully dressed, she draped a shawl over her shoulders and settled into the armchair to wait for morning. There she fell asleep.
It was broad daylight when the telephone rang. The sun was shining bright and clear on a fresh-washed world, sparkling as if to show it had had nothing to do with the events of the night before. The sun held herself apart from the other forces of the cosmos. Of them all, only she had the power to console the lonely, the desperate, the sad.
Ella had no idea where she was as she opened her eyes. She picked up the phone and said hello in a sleepy voice.
“Elkele! Good morning!”
“Good morning, Naum. Why are you calling so early?”
“It’s not so early. I waited till seven. I heard on the radio about the flood in Haifa. They say the wind caused a lot of damage. I had to call and see how you survived all by yourself.”
“I almost didn’t,” Ella said. “But as you can hear, thank God I got through it in one piece. It all worked out for the best, I guess.”
“Just so,” he said. “What do they say – sometimes a bit of bad luck does the trick better than good fortune. Better than common sense, too. A night like that can lead a person to make a big decision, am I right, Elkele? But more about that another time, under more favorable conditions. Maybe face to face. Right now I’m just glad to hear your voice and know you’re all right.”
All day Ella couldn’t stop thinking about the nightmarish storm and the phone call that had awakened her and brought her back to life. Yes, back to life! His calling her Elkele the way her parents did and his worrying about how she’d gotten through the dreadful night felt like a sudden beam of light shining in the darkness. She’d been alone for so many years after her husband’s tragic death, so busy making a living and helping with the grandchildren, that she hadn’t given much thought to herself. The time passed quickly, and she was glad. Soon enough it would all be over for her, and she didn’t really mind. She’d made peace with her situation and had neither the strength nor the desire to change. It was no easy matter to start over again in old age, to get used to a new person, to adapt to his habits, his whims. She’d driven such thoughts from her mind and rebuffed the proposals that came her way. She would remain alone, alone and pure. Yet every Saturday morning she found herself getting out of bed and hurrying to the window to wait for “the couple.” She’d vowed many times to give up the foolish game, but the compulsion was stronger than she was. What it was all about she couldn’t explain even to herself. It was easy to spy on people from the eighth floor. You didn’t even have to hide behind the curtain. You could see everything, and no one could see you.
She had discovered “the couple” only recently. Every Shabbos the scene played out like a silent film, and she tried never to miss a showing. She already knew the plot, and the two protagonists were always the same, yet every week there were new details that sent her imagination off in new directions. The man was very old but still carried himself like an aristocrat. His sensitivity and high culture could be seen in his slender figure, in his refined features, and especially in his delicate hands. His beautifully tailored suit and matching brown hat exuded wealth and good taste. Even his cane looked expensive. His glasses, though, with their dark bifocal lenses, suggested that his vision was failing. Every week the woman guided him to the synagogue across from Ella’s building. She helped him cross the street, then waited for the shames or someone from the congregation to come out and help him up the steps. After that she sat down on a bench and waited till she was sure he was safely inside, and then she stood up and started for home. Like him, she carried herself with dignity. At 11:00 on the dot she returned to the bench, and when the service ended and people started coming out of the synagogue, she crossed over and took his arm, and off they went.
The question was this: Was she his wife or just a caretaker? Surely not his caretaker. A woman with such a beautiful face would never end up as a servant to such a man. More likely his wife, and probably they’d married late in life. The second time around, so to speak. If the first wife were alive, she wouldn’t be turning herself inside out to meet his every need. After taking care of him for years, she’d be standing up for her rights by now.
“You want to make up with God in your old age?” she’d say. “Fine, but leave me out of it.” With the second wife it would be different. Inside, she could think whatever she wanted, but outwardly she’d have to hold her counsel and bend to his wishes more than she might sometimes prefer.
Ella was not proud of these harsh observations. Sour grapes, she scolded herself. She herself hadn’t had the sense to find a partner while there was still time, but that didn’t give her the right to hold herself above anyone else. Was it so terrible for the other woman to try to relieve her loneliness, which was so hard to bear on Shabbos and holidays? Today Ella had watched the woman straighten the man’s collar and tuck a handkerchief in his pocket, and then he had patted her hand. The wild billy goats you saw kissing and pawing at each other in the streets these days would never understand the tenderness of that caress.
On Shavuot, Naum arrived for a two-day visit. Ella had hesitated before agreeing to let him come. It wasn’t an easy decision. She’d worried about how the children would take it, and worse yet, the grandchildren, who would probably think Grandma had lost her mind. Old people didn’t get married, did they?
Her daughter calmed her down and gave her courage.
“Enough, Mama,” she said. “You’ve spent enough time alone.” She knew what it was like, she said, she’d been through it herself. Ella had sacrificed enough for the children, and now it was time to think about herself, before it was too late. “Who knows you the way I do, Mama?” Of course it would be hard to get together with a total stranger, but here was someone from her own home town. He would be easy to get along with, even in old age. Besides, they’d been corresponding. “Believe me,” she said, “if you hadn’t liked his letters, you wouldn’t have stuck around.”
Naum looked good, all dressed up with a bouquet of flowers in his hand and a song in his heart. He went straight to the bookshelf, which made Ella smile. Another attribute to add to the list. He was relieved, she could tell, not to have to struggle with an unfamiliar language; instead he could relax into his own Bessarabian Yiddish with its juicy broad vowels. Ella’s sorrel soup smelled just like his mother’s, he said, and the bagels with cream cheese made a perfect Shavuot feast. Best of all, as soon as they finished eating he began to sing – not one of the traditional Sabbath songs but Leyvik’s “Lay Your Head on My Knees.” In Ella’s heart, the verdict was signed and sealed, the decision made.
And then did the Lord, the universal matchmaker on high, generously bestow upon them a few hot, sunny days to warm their spirits and increase their desire to enjoy life. They went to the beach.
The two of them had been born and raised in the same town, far from any ocean or sea. All they had was a little stream known as Zhelinski’s River, choked with moss, reeds, and grasses. No sensible person would set foot in it for fear of leeches, worms, and other creatures. As a result, neither of them could manage much more than a dog-paddle. They took a brief dip, then sat on the warm sand exposing their not-so-young backs to the sun.
“We may not be big swimmers,” Naum said, “but I’ll tell you a story from… well, it doesn’t matter how many years ago. Do you remember Yankl from back home? The one we called ‘The Bagman’ because he was so good at repairing sacks? Yes, there used to be such specialists among us back then. Remember the people who would bind clay pots with wire to keep them from falling apart, and the ones who could repair used clothing so that it was as good as new? Today, of course, you mention something like that to the children and they don’t want to hear it. ‘Not that old stuff again!’ Anyway, this Yankl had a little brother about my age named Zelik, who was a little devil. When I got my first tricycle from Kishinev, all the kids were jealous. One time, when I wouldn’t let this Zelik have a turn on my new ‘krike,’ as he pronounced it, he decided to play a trick on me. The next day, when he saw me down by Zhelinski’s River, he went running to my house screaming that I had drowned. Of course the whole town rushed down to the riverbank, and there I was, sitting on the bank, as innocent as a newborn babe, discussing an important matter with my best friend Yisroyl Skolnik.
“Zelik got a beating, but my desire to go near water was also beaten out of me. I’ve been a terra firma type ever since. What about you, Elkele, did you ever swim in Zhelinski’s River?”
“Of course I did,” Ella said. “The Volga was too far away, and besides, as you know, the Volga was the Russian river and Zhelinski’s was the Jewish one, divided into two parts like a synagogue.” The women and girls would bathe on one side, not in bathing suits, just in their regular clothes, and on the other side, near the water wheel, there was a stronger current known as “the shower,” where the men would splash around, naked as the day they were born.
“Everyone made fun of our pathetic little ‘Volga,’” Naum said, “but on hot summer days, no matter how brown and rusty the water was, we couldn’t stay away.”
“The older you get,” Ella said, “the more the memories bubble up, and you look at things in a different light. After everything we’ve seen and done, it seems, the best part is remembering the past.”
“We had a neighbor,” Naum said, still deep in the pleasure of recollection, “Itsik Shnayder, maybe you remember him. He used to talk to us about his father, who was always in motion. They called him ‘Shmuel the Bird’ because he was so lively and quick. He hated being idle, and he couldn’t bear to see other people sitting around doing nothing either.”
Eventually, Naum went on, Itsik’s father, this Shmuel the Bird, fell gravely ill, and in keeping with custom, two members of the burial society arrived to sit by his deathbed and escort his soul into the other world. Suddenly he opened his eyes and saw them.
“Why are you just sitting there?” he asked in a weak voice.
“What should we be doing, Reb Shmuel?”
“Heat up the water!”
Even on his deathbed he couldn’t tolerate people sitting idle – they should be busy preparing the water to wash his corpse.
Ella had known this story ever since she could remember. They used to say it at home: Don’t just sit there, heat up the water! Everyone knew what it meant, even the children. But here they were in Haifa, on the magnificent beach with its pavilions and all its attractions, its half-naked young people noisily chasing one another and playing handball right over her head, as if they, the old couple, were in their way. Just to spite them, she burst out laughing, as if she were hearing the story for the first time.
Pleased to have amused her, Naum got up and went for ice cream. Ella took out her mirror, fixed her hair and reapplied her lipstick. Then something made her turn her head. Nearby, two famished, lonely eyes were staring at her with a mixture of curiosity, envy, and perhaps a trace of scorn. What are you so happy about? they were saying. What makes you so sure you’ll get along with him in old age? How do you know you’ll be good for each other?
When Naum returned with the sweet dessert, the woman stood up to go. One last question, the eternal, painful question, remained hanging in the air:
What makes you any better than me, and why do you deserve to be so happy?