The other day, I finished this scene in my novel in progress, The Ultimate Patient, and the emotions I felt writing it precluded me from focusing on my usual Monday morning blog. So I decided to post this excerpt as my blog. It is 1992 and Ben, Tina’s second husband, travels from Israel to Bucharest to attend his sister’s funeral and sell his paternal house. Yet his experience is more taxing than he expected.
He had left Romania over two decades ago and, as he flew on an El Al flight to Bucharest, his emotions were dull, unclear. It was right of him to attend the funeral. Who exactly would care he couldn’t say and, while he knew he would see some of his old friends, he wasn’t looking forward to that moment. He had never been close to his older sister Adina, not even when they were very young. Still, he felt a vague sadness and her passing signified to him the end of an era. He was the last Malamed, and Adina’s death reminded him of his own mortality, something to be expected and not feared. Through the fog of time he sensed his mother’s shadow and heard her voice.
As a practical man, he was determined to sell the house after the funeral and he gave himself two weeks to make it happen. As the plane flew over the Mediterranean, he thought about quickly creating an inventory of all the items in the house and grouping them in three categories: some things to sell, some to ship to Israel and the rest to be donated or thrown away.
His old friend, Paul Diamandi, met him at the Bucharest airport. His blond hair had thinned, his face was marked by two deep wrinkles on both sides of his thin, straight nose, and yet, he had not changed that much. He embraced Ben, his eyes serious, concerned. At Diamandi’s place, they had a bite to eat and then drove to the cemetery. Arranged by Diamandi, the funeral was in the afternoon. It didn’t last long. Only his other friend, Ionel Teodoreanu who came without his wife, Madam Pascalli, who was now very old and a man with dark and unkempt hair whom Ben didn’t know stood around the grave, their heads bent. Diamandi wore a kippah. Teodoreanu and the unknown man did not. The rabbi said the kaddish. Adina was set to rest at the Jewish Cemetery next to her mother’s grave. Her husband Marius’ grave was someplace else. Ben suddenly realized that he didn’t know if Marius was Jewish.
The man with the unkempt hair introduced himself to Ben as they were walking out of the cemetery. He said he had done a number of odd jobs for Mrs. Adina, like beating carpets, unclogging drains and fixing old wiring throughout her house. Being old and alone, Mrs. Adina loved to complain and had many good reasons. But he didn’t think she was crazy, like her other neighbors did. His name was Vitally and he came from a proud Gypsy family. He held a steady job at a restaurant at the corner of Clarinet Street and Rosetti. The restaurant belonged to his uncle. Should Mr. Malamed need anything or want a good meal, he should look for him there.
Ben accepted Teodoreanu’s and Madam Pascalli’s condolences. They agreed to meet again while Ben was in Bucharest
* * *
Ben unlocked the front door with the key from Diamandi and placed his two suitcases in the small entrance hallway. He turned on the light in the living room, which seemed much smaller than Ben remembered. It was also crammed with furniture. A three-arm lamp hung from the ceiling, with only one of the three bulbs working. He noticed a smell he couldn’t place and went to open the window. The small crank came loose in his palm when he touched it. He recognized the old linden trees outside the window in the pale glow of the city, placed the crank on the windowsill and turned around. The large mahogany table with eight chairs that used to be in the dining room occupied the space in the middle. Two sofas, covered in faded red velvet that had always formed a welcoming sitting area in a corner, were now pressed against the wall. The old Russian TV Ben had purchased before he married Tina, stood at an angle in front of the sofas on a bulky chest of drawers. A newer TV with a large screen and a spidery home antenna, was placed next to the old one, along with a turntable. A dozen records were strewn on the worn Persian rug in front of the chest of drawers. The steps to the upper floor were halfway covered with books, empty picture frames and cardboard boxes. The coffee table that had complemented the sofas was shoved under the dining table. The paintings on the walls were the same, grimier and less sharp, or maybe they looked like that because of the dim lighting.
He discovered the reason for the crammed furniture when he walked into the former dining room. His sister had converted it into a bedroom. He understood. She had abandoned the bedroom upstairs because she wanted everything on the main level. Steps be damned. She was an old lady. This was also where the music room was, the library, and the kitchen. There was a second full bathroom as well and the exit to the backyard, with the small, shady deck under the old trees.
Ben felt hungry and the emptiness in his stomach bothered him like a weakness. The kitchen was through a door from what now was the bedroom, and through a narrow, dark hallway. The door was partially blocked by a hefty armoire that didn’t belong there and fit the space precariously, limited on the other side by the bed. There were two cupboards in the room that were a part of the old dining room set and Ben guessed they were still filled with china and table accessories. The armoire held her clothing. The sheets on the unmade bed looked yellowed. “She slept in those sheets,” Ben thought, then squeezed by the armoire and went to the kitchen, which was dirty, but functional.
He found butter and a wedge of Swiss cheese in the refrigerator, and stale bread in the breadbasket. He took out a plate from the cabinet and a fork and a knife from the drawer he remembered his mother used to store silverware. He also found canned peas on a shelf and a packet of chicken thighs in the freezer, but it would have been too much for him to prepare a real dinner. There was no dishwasher, and the sink was empty. Adina had been taken to the hospital late at night and he figured she had cleaned up after eating her last dinner. He tried to imagine her moving around the kitchen and it caused him to feel gloomy and apprehensive: his mother and father dead a long time ago, his sister dead, and now him, alone in this old house, like a phantasm.
He sighed, then unlocked the creaking door to the backyard and allowed the fresh summer air to enter. There was no insect screen on the door and the mosquitos were out, but he kept the door open. He sighed one more time, sat down and started eating bread and cheese and drinking tap water. Two things were still on his mind for the night: make his old bed in his room upstairs and find the house title.
After he finished eating, Ben grabbed a flashlight from the tool drawer and went upstairs. A wall-mounted sconce illuminated the bottom of the stairs, but the at the top it was dark, as was the corridor that led to the bedrooms. A quick inspection convinced him that his sister was a hoarder. He didn’t even try to switch on the lights and, as he opened door after door and shone his flashlight inside, he found piles of boxes and old pieces of furniture blocking access and projecting deformed, scary shadows onto the walls and ceiling. No way he could reach his own bed. He would have to sleep in his sister’s bed downstairs.
He brought his suitcases in and decided to complete his tour. In the library, the first thing he noticed besides a thick layer of dust, was the white portable ladder, on its side, a giant wounded insect with its spindly legs up in the air. There were books everywhere, hundreds of them, thousands. The music room looked surprisingly empty. It took him a second to comprehend that the large piano was missing. Clara Haskil’s portrait was still on the wall, while Mozart’s plaster bust stood on the floor in the gaping, dusty emptiness left by the piano. He considered sleeping there and quickly changed his mind because the carpet was dirty.
In his sister’s bedroom, he found clean sheets and pillowcases in the armoire and made his bed. He unpacked his toothbrush and toiletries and placed them in the bathroom. Tomorrow, before taking a shower, he would wash the bathtub. A black ebonite telephone stood on one of the cupboards, but he didn’t call Tina since it was already ten in the evening. He made sure the front door was locked, then locked the service door to the backyard and cracked open one bedroom window.
He felt tired enough to think he would fall asleep immediately, but sleep didn’t come easily. The cool air drifted through the window along with the continuous hum of the city. The noise of childhood, Ben thought, at once distant and familiar. He listened to the steps of rushed pedestrians passing on the sidewalk, and to the rustling of the leaves of the lindens. He heard an engine rev up and slow down, followed by a long honk and voices. He closed the window and soon rediscovered the odd smell that had met him initially. It was his sister’s smell: dust, sweat, cheap perfume, and things that needed cleaning. The question of what may have happened to the piano crossed his mind and he suddenly became convinced that someone had stolen it. Had Adina sold it, she would have told him. It must have happened after she went to the hospital. Ben imagined someone familiar with the house, a music lover, come in at night with several other people, lift the huge piano and carry it silently out the door to a waiting vehicle. Would they return for other valuables?
He sat up in bed, frightened. The house squeaked. A tree branch hit the roof and the roof rattled. He smiled as he lay back on the pillow. He was a smart man, an engineer. The cooling temperature and the house contracting caused the ominous noises he was hearing.
He stretched and closed his eyes remembering he had not looked for the title. He’ll start with that tomorrow. His mother had kept her documents and valuables in a small chest of drawers with rounded corners in her bedroom. Maybe Adina had placed the title there. He hadn’t seen that chest of drawers or the Rococo bookcase and wardrobe that Lydia had loved and used until they left for Israel.
Thinking of Israel, how right had he been to insist that they leave Romania. He had been relentless. It had taken him a few years to first convince Tina. Lydia was next, in spite of her determined opposition, and then Toddy, once he married Lydia. Then the two of them moved to America where their children were born, and then Toddy’s parents joined them there. Now everyone lived in freedom and comfort. In the sphere of people he had influenced, Ben included all his wife’s relatives. He had been the initiator, the force and the trailblazer. Look at this house, a mausoleum in which his memories rest. It imprisoned his sister. Unlike her, Ben had been fearless and had broken the ties with his past.
In Israel people live in new, modern, functional homes. He had visited many other countries, leaving the old, the used and the worn-out emblems of his history behind him.
Too bad Tina was always tired. He had tried hard to make life easy for her and protect her from discomfort and worry. They had both worked hard to have a comfortable retirement. She had earned more than Ben — that’s the way it was with the doctors and the engineers. Not that it mattered. Nor had Tina ever reproached him. But money was important to Ben and in a healthy relationship it was better to have equal inputs. With the sale of this house, he hoped to restore the balance. He enjoyed his tinkering around the house. He was the one hiring the maid and doing most of the shopping. He loved Tina. Why wasn’t he enough for her? If she loved him a little bit in return, even a tenth of what he felt for her, she wouldn’t be so unhappy. Now that they had everything they could possibly need, what was he missing?
Ben twisted and turned. He tried to sleep. He counted to one hundred. Tears ran down his cheeks, warm and salty. They wet the clean pillowcase and his pajama sleeves. Crying made him feel better. He had never cried before. He was a child again, without his parents or sister.
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