Herr Octavian, Part 2
There was a spot on the Haifa-Tel Aviv highway that had impressed Michael thirty years earlier when he first arrived in Israel. There the road was carved through hard rock at the edge of the Mediterranean and seen from the windows of a speeding bus, the straight walls on both sides had the silkiness of the desert. In that man-made canyon, young Michael saw the unity of the universe, mountains and sea coming together, sunshine and the sparkle of civilization. He was longing for Larissa, the girl he had left behind. He wanted to return to her, bring her here and show her this place, then go and explore the world together. A few years later he did just that. They traveled. They saw the seas and the mountains: the Norwegian fjords, the Pacific Coast Highway, Amalfi. Since then, his life had changed and now, as he drove through that area again, the split rock looked sadly barren.
Soon, the city of Haifa appeared to the east: first, the University building on the tallest hill, then the winding road, up the Carmel, and the hotels in the harbor district. They passed the old German quarter and caught a glimpse of the golden domed Baha’i shrine. Traffic slowed to a crawl among warehouses, office buildings, minarets, and dilapidated old Arab houses. At Check Point, Michael took the old road to Akko.
“You still remember your way around here,” Irene noted.
“I used to live in this area.”
In Nahariya, they drove half a mile west to the end of the main thoroughfare. Little Volga ran into the sea forming a small estuary of brown water protected by a jetty. A sandy beach extended on both sides. Michael slowed down and opened the window. The sound of waves mixed with children’s laughter and music from boomboxes. There were people everywhere and they spoke many languages. The sun parted the sea with a golden swath that trembled on the water’s surface.
They turned right at a side street with a supermarket at the corner. His parents’ apartment building had a parking lot fenced in on three sides, with the fourth occupied by two large green dumpsters. A barrier on a post with a small pushbutton panel blocked the car entrance.
“I’ll go ring the Bernsteins,” Irene said. “They know you’re coming.”
When she retuned with Mrs. Bernstein, Michael and Larissa stepped out of the car.
“Oh, Michael!” Mrs. Bernstein exclaimed. “What a joy to see you! How is dearest Tina? How is Tavi? Tell me, are they doing all right? Such wonderful people. Just this morning I was talking to Bébé and realized that it’s been four months since their departure.” Bébé was her husband. The powder blue housecoat she was wearing seemed worn in the bright sunlight and a pale yellow kerchief kept her thinning white hair off her forehead. “And this must be your lovely wife, Larissa,” Mrs. Bernstein continued. “So happy to finally meet you. Michael had told us so much about you. He loves you so much, you know. Oh, but we need to talk. All of you, you must come over for dinner. Bébé is so excited.”
“Mrs. Bernstein,” Irene said, “there is time. As I told you, they’ll be here for several days cleaning out the apartment.”
“Yes, and it’s sad. Because it is irreversible.”
“My parents are happy now,” Michael said. “They are in a home where they receive very good care.”
“My God,” Mrs. Bernstein said, “you mean, in a home for old people?”
“Yes,” Irene said. “But they are in America, so no need to worry.”
“I hope you’re right,” Mrs. Bernstein uttered.
“It’s really nice where they are,” Michael affirmed softly, as if mostly to convince himself. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have placed them there.” For a fraction of a second the muddy colors of the carpet that covered the hallway of his parents’ nursing home appeared in front of his eyes, filling him with a guilty sadness. “You go in,” he said. “I’ll park the car and bring the luggage.”
Michael came in through the foyer and entered the living room. He could hear women’s voices coming from the bedrooms: they were looking around, planning. He rested the suitcases against the kitchen counter, retrieved his digital camera and went back to the foyer. Herr Octavian stood abandoned in his corner. Michael stroked its head and greeted it aloud as one would greet a real person.
A slight pain went through his chest, a contraction.
“This is it,” he said to Herr Octavian. “The end of a chapter.” He snapped a few pictures and the flash cut though the semi-darkness. The air was warm and stuffy, as he’d expected in an apartment locked for several months.
Back in the living room he pulled open the sliding door to the balcony. Outdoor furniture, including the tied down umbrella, was exposed to the mid-day sun. Behind Michael, the living room, the dining area and the open kitchen formed one large and bright space that continued with a hallway to the master bedroom, the guest room, the two full bathrooms, the utility room with its service balcony, and the obligatory Israeli bomb shelter with a blast proof metal door. That one Tavi had outfitted with a pullout sofa, a desk, and shelves all the way to the ceiling. There were modern oil paintings on the whitewashed walls of the living room and the hallway, and every corner and the top of every piece of furniture was decorated with clusters of Tavi’s sculpted twigs. Before his last departure, Michael had covered the living room sofa and two armchairs with white cotton sheets. Two teak cupboards filled with china and silverware stood along the wall, next to a teak dining room table and six chairs. The refrigerator and pantry were empty.
Irene and Larissa came out of the master bedroom.
“Michael, you’re here,” Larissa said. “There’s so much stuff everywhere, I don’t know how we’ll manage.”
“You’ll manage.” Irene placed her protective hand on Larissa’s shoulder.
The following days, Michael and Larissa cleaned, packed and organized. They sorted through tablecloths and napkins, dishes and pots and pans. Larissa started by working her way from the kitchen to the living room and master bedroom. Michael worked in the shelter.
There were several piles of items: those destined for America, those to be given away, and the rubbish. The paintings came off the walls and out of their frames and were placed in a leather portfolio. Towels and linens were washed and hung out to dry on the service balcony.
Neither of them touched Tavi’s sculptures.
The weather was hot and the wall air conditioner of little help, especially in the shelter. Michael sat at the desk, trying to move as little as possible. He leafed through art albums and reorganized books by subject matter and potential recipient. He shrugged when he looked at the boxes of slides. A few times a day, he filled plastic bags with stuff, took them to the elevator and down to the dumpsters. Outside, beads of sweat formed on his forehead.
One evening they dined with the Bernsteins. Although of the same size as Tavi’s and located directly underneath, the apartment seemed smaller, more crowded. The furniture was bulkier, and a wall separated the kitchen from the dining room.
“All units have a wall to the kitchen, except yours,” Mrs. Bernstein explained. “Tavi hired a contractor to knock down the wall. That’s how it is in America, he told everybody. He wanted to live like you, Michael. He missed you.”
Michael was surprised that Tavi felt that way, and instead of responding he clicked his shutter.
“Our son, who’s a doctor,” Mrs. Bernstein continued, “has been many times to America. He has told us of the beautiful open floor homes you have there.”
“I prefer a separate kitchen,” chimed in Mr. Bernstein. “I don’t like the smells and the heat of cooking to linger in the apartment.”
“But you like to eat what I make for you, don’t you Bébé?” Mrs. Bernstein’s lips formed a coy smile.
She served Romanian food, heavy on meat and potatoes. For dessert she had prepared blintzes with apricot preserves and whipped cream. She offered coffee.
Sitting across the table from Michel, Larissa hardly participated in the conversation. She was shy and didn’t easily open up, especially with people she had just met. Mrs. Bernstein suggested they hold an open house for everybody in the building. The neighbors would come, look around, and take what they wanted.
Larissa liked the idea. Michael complained he didn’t know what to do with Tavi’s slide collection. “He has slides from all over the world, many on Jewish subjects. He’s put so much passion into photography.”
“We know,” Mrs. Bernstein said. “Every time they came back from a trip, they would invite us over for a slide show. I remember the stained-glass windows by Chagall. So beautiful!”
“There are thousands of slides,” said Larissa.
“We can’t take them home with us,” Michael said. “I mean, not all of them. What would we do with them over there?”
“It’s sad, but people don’t need other people’s memories,” Mr. Bernstein said. “You have no choice but to throw them away.”
“I’m not sure I can do that,” said Michael.
“Of course you can’t,” Mrs. Bernstein exclaimed. “A collection like this is too valuable. Donate it. Bébé, don’t you think they could try at the library?”
“I don’t think so,” Mr. Bernstein said. He had a stern face, not looking at all like a man whose nickname was Bébé.
“Try the library,” Mrs. Bernstein insisted. “Or if not, try the high schools. I’m sure the high schools would be interested, for the benefit of the children.”
“Michael, do you know Mrs. Goldblum?” Mr. Bernstein asked.
“Yes. She was friends with your parents.”
“I remember her,” Michael said. “Her son moved to Toronto.”
“And forgot that he has an old mother who lives alone,” Mrs. Bernstein said rolling her eyes. “He doesn’t write to her at all, and he doesn’t visit. You should see the poor woman, so lonely in her old age. We are lucky with our children. They are nice, like you are, and we see them almost weekly.” Mrs. Bernstein touched her husband’s arm. “Aren’t we lucky, Bébé?”
“Michael, did I tell you our son is a doctor?” Mrs. Bernstein asked. “He has a busy life and two children.”
“Michael,” Mr. Bernstein said. “Could you do Felicia a favor?”
“Depends on the favor,” Michael said.
“The two armchairs you have in the living room, you’re not going to sell them, are you?”
“Bébé!” Mrs. Bernstein said.
“Let me speak,” Mr. Bernstein replied while Mrs. Bernstein started clearing the table. “Felicia needs an armchair; two, if at all possible. You know, she survives on a very small pension, and it will be in the memory of your parents. If they were over here, they’d be happy to give the armchairs to her, I am certain.”
Felicia Goldblum rang their bell at eight the next morning. Michael was shaving. Larissa invited her in and offered her coffee. When Michael joined them, the first thing he said was that Felicia could take the armchairs. He was in a hurry to get ready for the open house in the afternoon. Felicia clasped her hands in surprise. One would have thought she’d just heard they were in town and had stopped in to say hi. She seemed that kind of a person: small and coy, with soft and insecure gestures. . She got up, looked at the armchairs, smiled, circled them, and caressed them fondly. Then she talked affectionately about Michael’s parents and, after the second cup of coffee, she turned to the weather. It was too hot in Israel in the summer, and then it rained cats and dogs in the winter. They, of course, had it nice in this apartment. There was air conditioning. She asked about life in the United States, brought up Canada, and lamented over her son in Toronto. Her face, many years before, had been beautiful. It was wrinkled now, droopy, parchment colored.
“Life is difficult there,” she said. “I mean, in Toronto. I haven’t visited, but I know that my son is very busy. And his wife, well, his wife, she is grabbing all his attention. People say otherwise, but I understand. I know better.” White hair curled on her forehead, and her expression reflected deep conviction. Life’s a serious endeavor, she seemed to be saying.
Michael realized she was stalling. He figured she’d keep talking unless he offered to transport her furniture. After all, she alone couldn’t do it. She didn’t drive and couldn’t afford to pay anybody. “Let me bring the armchairs to your apartment,” he said suddenly. “They’ll fit in my car. One at a time, I’m sure.”
“Michael, sweetheart,” Felicia responded.
An hour later, Michael brought the second armchair up the stairs and into Felicia’s living room. The air conditioner was off, or there was none, and the shades were pulled over the windows. Once the armchairs were arranged, Michael grabbed his camera and shot a few pictures. Just like that, for him to remember. His flash illuminated the room. Felicia thanked him again and insisted he try her baklava. He wiped the sweat off his face and mumbled something about being in a hurry and Larissa waiting, but he could not refuse her. They went to the kitchen, and he sat at a table squeezed between the stove and the refrigerator. Felicia moved around quickly. She took a cake platter out of the refrigerator, removed the plastic wrap, lifted two pieces soaked in thick honey with a spatula and placed them on a white plate in front of Michael.
“No lunch today,” Michael joked. His mouth was watering.
She rummaged through a drawer and picked up a small fork. “Here, use this. It’s silver, and it belonged to my grandmother.”
The fork tines were slightly crooked and worn around the tip from too much use, and the etched handle was blackened.
Michel took the first bite and the sweetness choked him.
“I know it’s not easy for you,” said Felicia. “You’re a good son and people admire you for what you did for your parents, for what you’re doing for them, God bless you. Not many children would do it. Your parents are lucky. You’re lucky. And your wife is supportive. That’s what a family is all about — love and togetherness.” Felicia sighed, and sat down near him. “I hope your children will take care of you one day as you care for your parents. There is nothing worse then being alone at my age, believe me. I, too, had a family once, a child and a husband.”
Tears formed in her eyes, rolled down her cheeks, and dripped on the front of her dress. Michael lowered his head and stopped eating. The taste of honey in his mouth spread to his throat, flowed through his veins, coated his joints. Time expanded while the centuries-old Levantine mellowness took over.
He stroked her slim fingers.
Please comment, clap, or share, and return next Monday for the third and last part.