Mrs. Kaplan and the Matzoh Ball of Death (5 page)

BOOK: Mrs. Kaplan and the Matzoh Ball of Death
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“Ida and I have already offered to help,” said Mrs. K. “But you don't have to tell me anything you don't want to.”

“No, no, I don't mind. It is perfectly ordinary, and I need your advice anyway. You see,” and here he lowered his voice so only she could hear, “Lily and I have not…have not, you know, had relations for quite a while. Several years, in fact.”

Sol hesitated and waited for a reaction, but when Mrs. K did not respond, look shocked, or even change expression, he continued, “Lily says she does not enjoy it. To be truthful, I am not sure she ever did, but especially since she has gotten older. And in any event, for some time now I cannot do it anyway. I guess I have what they call ‘E.B.' or some such thing in those television commercials.”

“I think it is ‘E.D.,' ” Mrs. K corrected him, “but it is no matter. I understand.”

“Yes, well, lately I have been talking with friends who are my age and still have relations with their wives (and in one case, with several young ‘nieces,' if you know what I mean), and I got to thinking that perhaps with the right advice, and maybe the right medicine, Lily and I can…can go back to acting like married people in the bedroom.”

Sol was looking here a
bissel
embarrassed, but he cleared his throat and continued: “So I went to a doctor, who examined me and agreed there was no reason we could not do this, and he prescribed the pills to correct my…problem. And he suggested reading some books about how older people can still enjoy, you know, sex.” It had taken him a while, but he finally said the word.

“And did you not tell Lily that you were going to this doctor and reading these books?”

“No, I thought it best to wait until the right moment to suggest we…we try it. To be honest, I was not sure just how to approach it.”

“Well,” Mrs. K said, “it looks like it is now through the bathroom door you will have to approach it.”

“Yes, it seems that way,” Sol said. He got up, straightened his jacket, and gestured for Mrs. K to lead the way.

—

Back at the apartment, I was holding the fort, as they say. Lily was not saying much, just an occasional whimper. Once or twice there was the sound of the toilet flushing. And I was not trying to strike up a conversation. What was there to say? So I was glad when Mrs. K returned, with Sol behind her. She gave me a look with the eyebrows that seemed to say, “The situation is totally
fercockt,
” you'll excuse the expression.

Mrs. K gestured that I should step back from the door, which I did. Sol then went up to the door and said, “Lily, it is me, Sol. Please listen. You have things all wrong.”

“Sex mad, that's what you are,” Lily said very loudly through the door. “Who is the
tsatskele
with whom you are planning to take up?”

“You don't understand,” Sol replied, sounding very frustrated.

“What is there to understand? Is there not the book and the pills? Do you deny it?”

“I mean there is no
tsatskele
—no other woman. I am not seeing another woman, and I am not planning to. You have made a big mistake. I would like to explain.”

There was silence for about a minute. Then we heard some movement in the bathroom. The door handle turned slowly and there was the
click
of it unlocking. The door opened just a little and we could see Lily, eyes red, peeking out. We had made progress!

“So explain already,” Lily said. For the first time since we arrived she was sounding more reasonable.

Mrs. K and I exchanged a small smile. It was good to see these nice people were making up. A happy ending.

Sol stepped forward and said into the narrow door opening, “Lily, like I said, there is no other woman. There is only you.”

“Then what is with the book and the pills?” Lily asked, speaking softly but still sounding suspicious.

“That is for us. For you.” He lowered his voice way down, but I could hear that he said, “It is so we can go back to…to having sexual relations again.”

Maybe in this case he was better off not using that word. The scream from Lily was even louder than when she was accusing him of
shtupping
a
tsatskele
. In fact, from the sound of it, perhaps she would rather he were fooling around with another woman than he should fool around with her!

“Sex mad! That is what you are! At our age? You must be
meshugge
! Don't you come near me with your Viagra and your crazy ideas!” The door slammed shut and the lock went
click
once again.

At this point, Mrs. K rolled her eyes. She whispered to me, “I hope Lily gets over this. Like they say, if you do not feed your dog at home, he will get his dinner from the neighbors.” I nodded in agreement. And Sol was a dog who had not eaten dinner in a long time.

Mrs. K gestured to me that it was now time for us to leave. It is one thing to help to remove an obstacle of misunderst
anding between a husband and a wife. It is quite another to interfere when the problem is that they understand each other only too well.

So we made a quiet exit. As we passed by Sol, Mrs. K patted him on the shoulder to let him know that we were behind him.

But only from a safe distance.

11

The next day was the memorial service for Bertha Finkelstein. As you might expect, memorial services are not infrequent events at the Julius and Rebecca Cohen Home for Jewish Seniors. Any place where there are over a hundred residents with an average age of maybe seventy-five, and many over eighty, is bound to provide a lot of business for both the rabbi and the undertaker. Death is a fact of life, as someone once said. So these services, although sad occasions, especially when the guest of honor was a long-time or well-liked resident, are almost routine. But this service was especially difficult for Mrs. K, for obvious reasons, and I could see the strain on her face and hear it in her voice.

Rabbi Rosen made for Bertha a very nice service. Her children had given him a lot of information about her—I am certain he did not know any of this beforehand—and he made from it a little story of her life. Some of it was not so pretty.

The rabbi told us, “Bertha was born in Poland in 1930, and she had a very difficult childhood. She lived in a
shtetl,
a small village, and the Jews there were constantly being harassed by the authorities. Bertha told her children hair-raising stories of soldiers or mounted police riding through her village on horseback, breaking windows and even setting fire to the modest little houses of the residents. Everyone would try to hide until they went away, and if they caught someone outside, maybe an old man or woman, the soldiers would beat them, or worse. Then when Bertha was only twelve years old, the police came to the door of her house and demanded entrance. Bertha's parents hid her in the root cellar just before the police broke down the front door. They took her parents away, and she never saw them again. Bertha was taken in by another family, and she managed to survive the Shoah—the Holocaust. After the war, she came to America, where she met and married Bernard Finkelstein (of blessed memory
)
. It is a blessing that Bertha, after her traumatic childhood, settled down in America to a quiet and happy life, making a home for herself and Bernard, and helping Bernard to run his business. They were married for over fifty years when Bernard passed away and Bertha came here to the Home to spend her remaining years.”

So Bertha had survived the Holocaust, but not Mrs. K's chicken soup!

The rabbi went on for a while, as rabbis will do when you give them the chance, but you get the idea. As he spoke, I was struck by how much Bertha's past, about which I knew only a little, and mine were similar, at least as children. I too, as I already mentioned, remember the visits from the soldiers—as well as the stories my parents told of terrible pogroms they had lived through—al
though I grew up in what was then part of Russia and not in Poland. The lines they draw between countries, always dividing them up and changing their names or where the border is between them, really make no difference. It is the people who live there who make a difference, and for the Jews in Russia or Poland, it was the people who lived there, whatever they were called, who made our lives as difficult as possible.

—

After the service and lunch, Mrs. K told me she had been thinking about what had happened since the day before and would I mind if she ran by me some of those thoughts. I said I would be happy to oblige, and where would she like to talk?

“I think it would be best if we did not talk here in the lounge, or even in the building,” she said. “Let's see if the shuttle is going downtown this afternoon, and if it is, we'll go along and have a nice chat over tea at the Garden Gate Café—the one next to the Four Star Theater.”

I agreed that would be a good idea. We went up to the front desk and looked at the schedule for the shuttle. We could always take a taxi, or even the public bus, of course, but the shuttle is so much more convenient, not to mention it is free. We found that the shuttle was indeed going downtown just after lunch, so after we finished eating (the vegetable soup tasted just like warm water into which a few carrots had accidentally fallen and drowned), we signed out and climbed into the van.

Already Mr. Jack Winterfelt and his wife, Miriam, were seated in the front, which is actually where we like to sit, and at the back were some ladies from the bridge club, probably on their weekly outing to play against the ladies at the Lutheran Home. These ladies take their bridge extremely seriously, and I have heard that the competition with the Lutheran Home is fierce, sometimes leading to angry words that are not very ladylike at all. Personally, although I always try to win, I prefer a nice quiet game among friends.

So Mrs. K and I settled for the long sideways-facing seat just behind Andy, the driver. I looked out of the window and I became anxious when I saw Daisy Goldfarb leaving the building dressed in her hat and coat and heading in the direction of the van—I was not ready to talk with Daisy about her earrings, and I was sure Mrs. K was not either—but she passed right by and walked in the direction of the corner drugstore. I was relieved. Other residents climbed aboard, and pretty soon the shuttle van was almost full. Most residents like to get away into the outside world every now and then.

Mrs. K and I chatted about nothing in particular as we waited for the shuttle to leave, being careful not to mention the recent events. Jenkins, the not-so-nice detective, had warned us not to tell anyone about what we were discussing in Mr. Pupik's office, because it was not generally known about Daisy's earrings being stolen or any of the other details of Bertha's death. He didn't have to bother: Believe me, neither Mrs. K nor I had any desire to announce publicly that she was under suspicion of theft and maybe even murder.

Mrs. Rachel Silverman, a nice lady who had been at the Home for only about a year, got on the bus just in time. In fact Andy was already closing the doors when Rachel inserted her foot onto the step and he had to quickly open them again. Such a look he gave her!

Rachel, who is not built for sprinting, or for any running at all for that matter, was quite out of breath from hurrying so as not to miss the ride downtown. She looked around for a seat and saw that there was one open on the long bench next to Mrs. K. She sat down and smiled at both of us, but she seemed unable to speak for the moment.

Andy again closed the doors, after checking carefully that no one else was putting their foot in the middle. He shifted the gears with hardly any grinding sound, and we were on our way.

It was not until after the bus left that Rachel finally was able to say to us, still somewhat breathless, “Good morning.” She paused and took another breath. “I just made it, didn't I?” Another pause. “I need to do some shopping, so I didn't want to miss the shuttle.”

Mrs. K put her hand on Rachel's and said, “We all seem to be running for something these days, don't we? Even here at the Home it is not always so relaxing.”

“But maybe that is good for us,” Rachel said. “Maybe running to catch a bus is better than sitting and looking out the window at the bus going by.”

“Perhaps you are right,” I told her as the bus hit a bump and I almost fell onto Mrs. K's lap, “but I don't like to think that we have to run for buses in order to have some excitement in our lives.”

Mrs. K seemed about to say something, probably about having more than enough excitement in her life at the moment, thank you, but apparently she thought better of it and only nodded in agreement.

After a few minutes of silence, we both noticed that Rachel was looking quite upset about something, as if whatever thoughts she was thinking were not at all pleasant. Mrs. K finally asked Rachel whether there was something wrong.

Rachel looked up as if she was startled. “Wrong? Not really. I was just thinking about my daughter Doreen.” As I recalled, Doreen, who I did not know personally, was one of those “second family” children, born maybe ten years after her brothers and sisters, when Rachel was already in her forties. That would make Doreen somewhere in her middle twenties perhaps.

Mrs. K, although not one to butt into other people's business uninvited, is nevertheless always ready to give an opinion if it is requested. And sometimes the request requires some prompting.

“I have met Doreen,” Mrs. K said, “and she seems like a very nice girl. Very friendly.”

“Perhaps too friendly,” Rachel said with a rueful tone and something close to rolling her eyes.

“Too friendly?” I asked, now curious myself.

“Yes,” Rachel said. “You see, Doreen is now living on her own, working at a local department store. She is twenty-six. She lived at home until last year, when my husband, Harry, passed away, and I came here to live.” Here Rachel paused and looked down at her hands, and it was clear that it was still painful for her to talk about her husband's passing. But after a moment, she looked up again, cleared her throat and continued where she left off.

“So she lived at home a lot longer than many children do. Not that there is anything wrong with that; she just wasn't ready.” We both nodded in agreement.

“Anyway, while at work she met this man, whom I do not like one bit. Now I learn she is actually living with him.”

“Ah, we seldom like the men our daughters take up with,” sighed Mrs. K.

“Nor the women our sons take up with,” I added with feeling, having some experience in this regard.

“No,” Rachel agreed. “But this is a little different. I believe this man Doreen has met is a real
nogoodnik,
and he is taking advantage of her.”

“In what way?” Mrs. K asked.

Before Rachel could answer, the bus made an abrupt stop to avoid a taxicab that suddenly pulled out in front of it, and everyone was thrown forward, to become much more intimate with each other than we had intended. Andy said some not-so-nice words to the taxi driver, which that person could not hear of course, but we all could. He then turned around and apologized to everyone with a sheepish look, but I think we all understood. Soon we were back on our way and the conversation continued.

“You asked how this man is taking advantage of my Doreen, Rose. But I do not know. All I know is that I have met him, I have seen them together, and I do not like what I see.”

“But Doreen, she does not see the same thing?” Mrs. K asked.

Rachel sighed. “No, she only sees an older man who is taking an interest in her. Doreen, you see, was never what you would call pretty. She seldom was asked out on dates when she was in school. Harry and I thought that was a good thing at the time, as we did not have the
tsuris
that some of the other parents of teenage girls had.”

“Yes,” Mrs. K said. “Those can be some of the hardest years for parents, can't they? Especially parents of pretty girls.”

“Oh, yes,” agreed Rachel. “We knew plenty of other parents who would have been only too happy to trade places with us.”

“But now you are not so sure?” I asked.

“No, I'm not. Because Doreen didn't have the experience of dealing with men at a time when we were there to advise her. Not only advise her, but run the really bad ones off with a shotgun, if necessary, as Harry would have done, I'm sure. Instead she stayed, well, innocent. Now that she is out on her own, she is not well prepared for men like this ‘Eddie' she has met and now she is living with.”

“Is he at least Jewish, this Eddie?” I asked. It is always one of the first questions we Jewish mothers all ask when discussing the boyfriends and girlfriends of our children. Maybe we are looking even with the bad ones for a redeeming feature or two.

“Well,” Rachel said with a little laugh, “his last name is Christensen. You may draw your own conclusion.”

So much for redeeming features.

As I had thought, the van stopped at the Lutheran Home and the bridge ladies got off, and then it proceeded toward downtown. Mrs. K looked out of the bus window. We were getting close to our stop. Mrs. K turned back and asked Rachel, “So what makes you think the fellow is a
nogoodnik
?”

“Well, for one thing,” Rachel said, “he is extremely rude, even to me, Doreen's mother.”

“Ah, many young people are rude these days,” Mrs. K said. “It is as if they did not learn any manners when they were growing up. And they probably did not.”

“Yes,” Rachel agreed, “but it is more than that. When I asked him what he did for a living, he kind of smirked and said, ‘Oh, a little of this and a little of that,' which to me means either he does nothing, or it is not something he wants to talk about.”

“Maybe he works for the FBI or he is a spy and he cannot reveal what he does,” I said, trying to put in a bit of humor. No one thought it was funny, however.

“And once,” continued Rachel, “when I was speaking to Doreen, and he was standing next to her, I asked Doreen whether they had any plans for that evening, thinking I would invite them to dinner with me. Do you know what he does?”

From the tone of Rachel's voice, I was not certain I wanted to know, but she told us anyway: “He gives her a kind of a wink, and a
potch
on her
tuchis,
and says, ‘Oh, I think we'll stay in tonight, huh, Doreen?' The
chutzpah!
And in front of her mother yet! At least Doreen had the decency to look embarrassed. I was speechless. A man who is a
mensch
would never do such a thing.”

BOOK: Mrs. Kaplan and the Matzoh Ball of Death
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