IN THE END, when he began to look for her in the cafeteria, she was nowhere to be found; indeed, she had as much as vanished from the building. He would have to find a professional pretext to meet with her, he thought, since he needed a closer look to decide if she was or wasn’t his type. Yet he mustn’t let it seem unnatural. And he would have liked to obtain her personal file, too, if only to find out how old she was. True, women sometimes lied about their age, but such fibs were usually not great. Though he guessed she was in her forties, she might also be pushing fifty, might conceivably already have passed it. Even assuming that a young woman was not for him, that didn’t mean he wanted an old one. I’m in no hurry, he told himself. Yet he kept returning to the cafeteria, where one day he spied her surrounded by some members of her staff. From behind, he felt sure that her short, straight auburn hair was dyed, for he had seen its coppery tint before, had even helped his wife mix a solution of it in the days before she wore a wig. A gray sky was visible through the window. She was saying something assertively, gesturing firmly with both hands, her face well chiseled despite its lines, her small, almost oriental eyes giving her a squirrelish look. Though he nodded as he passed her, she did not respond or seem to know who he was, which made him wonder whether she was nearsighted. It was odd, he thought, sipping his strong black coffee, that she should be too busy talking to recognize him. Just then, though, she caught sight of him and flashed him a smile ... and yet she went on talking. If she’s been a widow for three years and has time, he thought, so do I. He could feel the strong coffee perking him up and worried that it might spoil his nap.
FOR THERE WERE HABITS from before his wife’s death that were hard to break, such as his afternoon nap. Was it really worth the effort of taking it? Once he had needed that hour of sleep to be fresh for the sleepless night ahead, and his wife had made sure he had gotten it; in fact, it had been his favorite hour of the day, one in which, lying curled beneath a blanket in the quiet apartment, the afternoon light filtered by the blinds, even his wife’s illness had seemed to him remote and unmenacing. Now, however, he sought in vain to recapture its sweet sensation; his naps grew progressively shorter, losing their inner tang, and after fifteen or twenty minutes of them he would wake up feeling cross. Not even leaving work early, at one o’clock, when he was at his most tired, could restore those lost sleeps to him.
The arrangement made with his department head that he could leave the office early by taking work home was still in force. Even after his wife’s death, he had kept it up, for he had wanted to give the high school boy his lunch, the preparation of which was no easy matter, in light of the quantities of food in the refrigerator. The new housekeeper was hyperactive; no matter how clear his instructions, she simply kept cooking more and more. Besides, the boy was beginning to follow in her footsteps; opening all kinds of cans when he came home, he had taken to concocting private dishes of his own while ignoring the leftovers that were crying to be eaten and filling up the house in pots and pans. Sometimes, thinking while at work about the overflowing icebox at home, Molkho fell into a rage; reaching for the phone, he would shout at the housekeeper to stop her cooking at once and would hang up, leaving her out of sorts and hurt. Worse yet, his daughter was away at an officers’ course and no longer came home from her base, making them one mouth less. Only now did Molkho realize how voraciously his wife had eaten, despite her illness. The refrigerator had never been too full while she was alive.
But it was his younger son who was the problem. If only he would stop his solo experiments! It was impossible to get the housekeeper to make what he liked, because the boy kept changing his tastes; yesterday’s favorite was today’s bugaboo, and so Molkho made a point of getting home in time to be in charge of promoting the leftovers. “Just tell me what you like,” he would plead for the tenth time with the long-haired boy in his blue uniform, who, besides being totally uncommunicative, was having a hard time at school, though Molkho hoped it was only a phase. “We have to finish what we started yesterday. I can’t be expected to eat this for a whole week by myself,” he would say, dumping the cold potatoes back in the frying pan and trying to resuscitate the dry rice with a slab of margarine and some tomato sauce. Once his son brought home a lanky friend, and Molkho invited him to stay for lunch. The youngster wolfed down everything on his plate and even asked for seconds, and Molkho, who was waiting on both boys with an apron, was encouraged to see that his son ate more too. He asked the guest for his name and inquired about his parents, who, he was told, were often away. “Then why not have lunch with us more often,” he said.
HIS YOUNGER SON had always worried him. Several times in recent years he had barely escaped being left back a grade, and it was only because of the illness of his mother, who taught in the same school, that he had been given the benefit of the doubt. Often he answered his parents impatiently, even rudely and with unprovoked anger, getting up and stalking out into the rain in a short-sleeved shirt without a sweater. While he had always been more hostile to his mother and closer to his father, his antagonism now seemed transferred to Molkho, who had even thought of sending him to a psychologist, though his friends had counseled waiting until the boy was older. Moreover, now that they spent long hours alone together, Molkho discovered that his son was a heavy masturbator; sometimes, opening the door to his darkened room, he found him in bed on his stomach, his face buried in the pillow, pretending to be asleep. Poking through the laundry bin, Molkho came across wet underpants whose young, animal smell assailed him, and once, rummaging in his son’s bed, he found beneath the mattress a photo of a nude, ripe-breasted, no longer young woman. His first reaction was to tear it up, yet on second thought he reflected, So what?
TWO MONTHS HAD PASSED since his wife’s death, the second of which, Molkho noticed, went by particularly slowly. The days turned warm and clear, and the cold, rainy weather of the premature winter was forgotten. Though each time the telephone rang he still ran excitedly to get it, he had no idea whom he hoped it would be. Sometimes the call was from distant acquaintances who had only now heard the news, either because they didn’t read the obituaries or because they had been abroad, and he enjoyed being able to describe his wife’s last weeks again and to hear their sincere expressions of regret. Gradually, though, there was less of this. And galloping inflation notwithstanding, his own telephone bill had shrunk too, quite extraordinarily so; his wife, he realized, must have been on the phone constantly during her last, bedridden months. Calling whom, though? Out-of-town friends, no doubt, perhaps even her cousin in Paris. In any event, he himself used the phone sparingly, though he still called his mother in Jerusalem every morning with news of the children and himself. Slyly she would ask him how he felt and whom he was seeing, always with the same advice: “Don’t go to the movies yet, don’t go to any concerts. It’s too early for that. Just see a lot of people, keep in touch with your old friends before they forget you, and find new ones,” she would warn him again. “But don’t go to the movies. You have a TV at home; that’s enough for you. When your father died, I didn’t even have that, and I had to stay home a whole year doing nothing.” Grumbling, he would try to hang up, but it was impossible to get a word in edgewise; she simply repeated over and over, “Don’t go to any concerts. You know what people will think. You’ve done the right thing until now. Just have patience a little longer. Isn’t that what her mother says too?”
Nevertheless, when it was time for the next concert, he decided that enough was enough, though he did not, of course, say so to his mother-in-law over dinner that Friday. As usual, having arrived early at the old-age home, which he found himself liking more with each visit, he wandered about it. With sympathy he regarded its clean, bald German Jews who sat in their Sabbath best in the lobby, talking politely and looking at him affably, a stoutish man with curly gray hair and dark Levantine eyes that scanned the bulletin board with wary tedium, reading up on t
he cultural programs being offered that week. Perhaps, Molkho mused, he should put up a notice about the Talwin. Sometimes, his heart beating faster, he rode the elevator up to the fifth floor, curious to see the dying patients in the medical ward and the apparatus by their sides; yet each time, intercepted at the door by an elderly nurse who asked him where he was going, he stammered an excuse and rode back down.
He spoke in praise of the home to everyone, jocularly adding that the only thing wrong with it was its being exclusively for German Jews. “I can become a Christian,” he protested, a note of seriousness creeping into his voice, “even a Moslem, but there’s no way I can become a German Jew and get in there one day myself.” His mother-in-law liked the place too, though she had resisted moving into it for years, being used to her apartment near her daughter’s in which she had continued to lead an independent life, even after turning eighty. It was only when the illness took a turn for the worse that Molkho’s wife insisted that she move. “What will we do if anything happens to you?” she asked her mother. “Who will take care of you?” And even then the old woman put up a fight: she had two rooms in her apartment and would have only one in the home, and besides, she was in perfect health, there wasn’t anything wrong with her. But his wife refused to back down. “We can’t be responsible if anything happens to you,” she persisted. “What can happen?” asked the old woman with a quiet smile. “Suppose you fall and break something,” suggested Molkho. “But why should I fall?” asked his mother-in-law, amused by the thought. Then his wife said in desperation, “But can’t you see, you’re not letting me die in peace,” and her mother’s resistance crumbled. The old woman moved into the home while her daughter was still well enough to visit her there in her small but dignified room, and in fact, she got on famously with everyone, a little old, lucid, 100 percent German Jewess who could read Hebrew and had even once run an orphanage, so that she was soon elected to the social committee—which gave Molkho, now waiting impatiently for her in the lobby filled with potted plants, a feeling of having a personal stake in the place. Recently she had begun to remind him more and more of his wife. Smiling at him as she emerged from the elevator, her cane hooked over one arm, she looked as chipper as ever and carried the usual box of strudel that was her contribution to the Sabbath meal, whose chef he now was, though he refused to run any risks, playing it safe with a salad, french fries, and some frozen, codlike fish on which he had practiced all week, even burning it once or twice in the frying pan before getting the hang of it. And indeed, at first it was a great success with everyone, though after a while it, too, began to pall.
Their meals were not talkative. His wife had been the conversationalist in the family. “Without me,” she used to say to them, “you’d just gobble your food like animals,” and in fact, though it did not make them feel particularly bestial, that was how they now ate. Sometimes one of them would groan in despair over the political situation, but fatalistically, as one despairs of the incurably ill; and sometimes Molkho’s mother-in-law would tell the children about their dead mother, relating some childhood story about her from the age of ten or eleven. None of them had ever heard these anecdotes, which the old woman evidently rehearsed during the week; but though Molkho would listen to them with interest, feeling a bittersweet pain, the children would sit through them bored and fidgety. Soon the college student would return to his dorm (he had fallen behind in his studies and had a lot to make up), the soldier would pick up the telephone and begin dialing her friends, and the high school boy would slip off to his room, leaving Molkho and his mother-in-law to watch the news by themselves until, as soon as the entertainment programs started, she would rise from her chair and put on her coat and scarf. Sometimes, driven by habit, she first went to her daughter’s bedroom and stood looking at it from the doorway, casting Molkho a kindly glance. Though she had never thought particularly highly of him, he knew that she felt a subtle affection for him, which had grown stronger in recent months. “Is there anything I can do for you?” she asked. “Perhaps you’d like me to invite the boy for a meal now and then.”
He would have liked to ask if she was going to Tuesday’s concert, but he thought better of it. Driving her back to the home, he parked near the entrance and watched her step out of the car, her feet groping weakly for the sidewalk, then quickly recovering and striding firmly down the path between flowerbeds and bushes surrounding a small pool until she reached the large glass door, on the other side of which the postprandial light was an almost blackish violet. He waited to make sure she passed safely through it, watching her gaily say hello to the old folks chewing their cud in the lobby and the little old lady who greeted her, rising quickly from her corner with an old-fashioned bow.
THAT TUESDAY NIGHT he went to the concert. The program featured Haydn’s Creation and rumor had it that the performance was a good one, Sundays and Monday’s audiences having only the highest praise for it. Though at first the college student had promised to join him, Molkho found a note from him that afternoon saying that he couldn’t make it, and so he asked the high school boy instead. “What’s there to lose,” he cajoled him. “Try it one time. It’s wonderful music. You can always leave in the intermission if you don’t like it.” “Ho, ho, ho,” said the boy, rejecting the offer disdainfully. Molkho did not make a point of it. This time he was sure his wife’s ticket could be sold. His last Philharmonic concert had been over half a year ago, in early summer, before his wife, who had come leaning on a cane, took to bed for the last time; later on in the season, when he had wanted to bring her again, she had asked him, practically begged him, to go by himself, and he almost did, until suddenly she began to throw up and he was forced to stay home with her.
He washed, put on a dark suit, and arrived earlier than he had meant to. Yet the mall was already crowded, and its festive mood was infectious. There were numerous people he knew, many of whom came over to shake his hand earnestly, and he wished the college student were with him so that the blame, such as it was, could be shared. The concert was sold out; quite a few youngsters circulated among the crowd in search of extra tickets, but none were to be had. He himself was approached in a friendly manner by an attractive young lady in glasses; she seemed to be alone, perhaps even available, and seeing her bright, beaming face, he thought, Why not, who knows what may come of it? Yet he wavered, afraid how it might look, and then feebly shook his head. Soon after a young man in jeans came up to him too. No, said Molkho decisively after starting to take a step toward him, making up his mind to forfeit the price of the ticket. Entering the auditorium, he took his customary seat. The two old men on his right, who were partners in an optometrist’s shop, greeted him diffidently, not quite sure it was he, while quickly he sought out his mother-in-law’s seat a few rows ahead of him and saw it was empty. The musicians began coming onstage, taking their places and warming up deftly on bars of the opening piece. The hall hummed with people, more of whom kept streaming in, though it looked almost full already. Students were sitting in the aisles. Now and then, someone stopped to ask Molkho if the seat beside him was taken, to which he testily replied, “Yes, it is.” Still tuning up, the orchestra was now wildly improvising on all kinds of themes. He kept staring at the empty seat ahead of him, hoping to see his mother-in-law appear, but instead, an usher arrived with a little old lady in an old velvet dress who, anxious and flustered, bowed to her neighbors with a timid smile and sat in Frau Starkman’s place. Just as he recognized her, a hand on his shoulder made him jump. It was some old friends from Jerusalem, who helped him to his feet and sorrowfully embraced him. “We heard about it,” they said in low voices. “We’re so sorry. We wanted so much to come see you. Was it very hard in the end? Did she suffer much?” They wanted some preconcert consolation, and he gave it to them warmly. “No, she didn’t suffer at all. Not a bit. I know, because it happened at home.” “At home?” they asked astonishedly, their arms still around him. “Yes,” he said proudly, “at home. She hardly s
uffered at all.” The old men on his right listened open-eyed, regarding him sympathetically when he sat down again. No doubt they had suspected as much, from the moment they saw her last summer with the cane, and now they put two and two together. Still, they didn’t seem to mind his being there. They even seemed about to speak to him, but just then the conductor made his entrance.
Five Seasons Page 6