The Play's the Thing
By Ruth Abraham
Chaim was a story teller and Zussa a faithful listener. At eighty something, he had plenty to tell. It didn’t matter much to her that she would never know the truth. “Rather a liar than a bore,” he proclaimed when she picked up contradictions. She could never quite get enough.
“I was only sixteen,” he told her, “when I saw my beloved family for the last time.” He had stood on a muddy road outside the family’s dingy wooden shack in the town of Stopnica, Poland, in a house that trapped all the heat in summer but couldn’t keep out the bitter cold in winter. After teary farewell embraces with his mother and father, he climbed onto the droshky that made its way to the nearest port, from where he would sail to South Africa.
“I was a boy when you think about it, at sixteen, no more than a child, sailing to a strange country, quite alone.”
In a small town in the Cape he found employment as the cantor for the Jewish community of some twelve families. It was fortunate that most of them knew almost nothing of Jewish tradition, because he didn’t know much more than they did. His repertoire consisted of a few prayers and songs, which he repeated regardless of the occasion. When he sang “Adon Olam,” the congregation, moved by his sweet tenor voice, swayed into the familiarity of it, grateful to have him there. The melancholy of it convinced them that he was bringing them closer to God, when, actually, what they were hearing was his loneliness, which was so overwhelming he imagined he was about to fall off the earth.
He’d married the first woman he had the courage to approach, and while she loved him, he didn’t care for her. “She wasn’t my dream,” he told Zussa. “In fact she wasn’t even to my taste.”
They had lived in a house at the foot of Table Mountain, from where, on many evenings, he watched the thick fog as it spread along the coast, hearing the dull blare of the foghorn that penetrated his rootlessness. A shrewd businessman, he made a small fortune, raised two children and learned to speak English almost without a trace of the Yiddish accent he had struggled so hard to overcome.
But with the sudden death of his unloved but dedicated wife, he was alone once more. Eighty years old and anchorless, he moved into an apartment overlooking the sea, a displaced immigrant all over again.
Not long after, his life unexpectedly changed. One day, strolling along the aisles of the supermarket, he was choosing what he called his meager meal for the lonely: a small bottle of milk, vacuum-packed pumpernickel bread, 100 grams of cheddar cheese, a tin of pickled cucumbers and a box of tea bags. Momentarily distracted, he pushed his cart into the leg of a young woman who was dropping items off the shelves into her cart at great speed. She turned around to scowl at him, bent down to rub her abused ankle and cursed in Polish vulgarities, which she probably assumed he didn’t understand. Tall and full bodied, she had short blond hair which, on her forehead, was gelled with pointy spikes, one longer red strand trailing along her cheek. All her movements were accompanied by the jangling of many silver bracelets that cluttered her wrists. Instead of being deterred by her lack of graciousness when he apologized profusely, he actually admired her feistiness.
“I like that sort of chutzpah,” he told her, when they reminisced later about their chance meeting.
A few minutes later, finding her dumping peaches indiscriminately into a plastic bag, he had smiled at her unfriendly glare. “You should take more time when you choose your fruit,” he said. He picked up a peach and turned it around gently, put it to his nose and sniffed deeply. “Texture and smell,” he said. “That’s how I know if they are worth the effort. That’s how I judge a beautiful woman.”
She glared at him impatiently. When he emerged from the supermarket, he spied her packing her goods into a dented blue car, scratched with age. He walked over to her.
“You’re a hot-headed woman,” he said. She stared down at him, making it clear that she thought this was a pitiful thing to say, cheap and vulgar.
“People should watch where they’re going. You hurt my leg,” she said. “It hurts; I get angry. Why not?”
“You’re right. Anyway, I like hotheads. As a matter of fact, I like lovely women. Lovely and hot-headed.”
Something about the audacity from this aging man caused her to take note and hesitate before she bustled off too quickly. She slammed the rusted door shut and leaned her back against it, facing him.
“People miss the beautiful things in life,” he said. “I am an old man, and I have the time to see beauty. How many foolish young men miss yours?”
“Plenty,” she said.
“Well, I see more than the lovely package. I see a Polish soul that longs for a resting harbor.”
Days later they met for coffee. Zussa’s lease had come to an end, and Chaim arranged a meeting with the owner of an apartment, on the fourth floor of his building, who was looking for a house sitter for a year. He helped her relocate, made phone calls to the municipality, arranged a phone line and gave her advice about how to make the living spaces more agreeable. The night she moved in, he invited her to dinner down in his apartment: pumpernickel bread and cheese accompanied by a good Cape wine. It didn’t take long before she replaced her feistiness with a regard for and what seemed like an aching desire to please this man. He, for his part, viewed it as a miracle that a handsome woman of forty, a woman very much to his taste, should fall in love with him. But she did, and it almost turned his cynical mind to God.
His romance with Zussa was the talk of the small community with whom he and his wife had shared a history. The neighbours were all determined to close any cracks into which this alien woman could infiltrate. A shiksa, too blond, her fingernails too green. “What is she? A beatnik?” they scoffed. They couldn’t come to terms with what they saw as a theft, particularly since Zussa was unquestionably good-looking. Had she been ugly, short or had at least a red raised birthmark on her nose, her presence might have been tolerable. But this cheeky intruder had glowing skin that tanned to a rich coffee brown and a plump behind that pulled at the seams of her jeans. She wore skinny high-heeled gold sandals and towered impressively above Chaim.
Mrs. Kahn, a loyal friend of the dead wife, had caught sight of them at the shopping center. “Like a prince he walks,” she recounted to the bridge ladies as she slapped down her ace of trumps. “He holds onto her arm like he discovered Amerikah. So she’s blond. So does that make her Marilyn Monroe? Wait a bit; you’ll see. He’ll end up without a penny. How long will she put up with that shriveled prune?” Sitting at the bridge table, she sipped her coffee loudly while she counted up the points of the set. “Men,” she said, “are fools.”
“A shiksa,” Fanya reiterated, munching on her large portion of cheesecake, sprinkled with lemon rind. “Anda Polish one on top of it. Chaimke, she calls him. His poor wife’s entire family wiped out by the Poles. Chaimke! Pfu. I spit on the Poles.” She shuffled the cards as though they were knives.
Friendless, the newly married couple lived like survivors of a shipwreck on a deserted island. But Zussa didn’t mind such obviously negative attitudes. She wasn’t that keen on Jews herself. It was only Chaim she had grown to love, and she couldn’t help it. Chaim had always been able to gain the attention of a roomful of people, telling colorful stories and risqué jokes. Zussa had seen him at work, charming and intelligent. Now she wanted him for herself. The island suited her perfectly. She was greedy for the conversation that he provided, and she preferred not to share him. Most days, after morning coffee and a stroll in the park, they returned to the apartment. Comfortable pink fluffy slippers on her feet, Beethoven trios playing in the background, they sat side by side on the velvet couch, an indulgence he had allowed her to purchase, though he insisted on covering it with a transparent plastic sheet. “It will raise the resale price,” he said, planning, it seemed, to live forever.
“Talk, Chaimke, talk to me. Read to me. Tell me.” By her side, on the plump pillows, he opened the Bible, with its worn bookmark, and read her the story of Noah, putting his own spin on it: cynical, skeptical, mocking both his God and hers.
“A jealous God,” he said. “He’s spiteful and narcissistic. If his dictates are ignored, what does he do? He has a temper tantrum. Wipes everyone out and wants to begin again. Ready to start a new business, a new enterprise. Which, as we can see, is no better than the first. He should have known that if you make a mess of one business, you’ll probably fail on the next one. Let’s face it. He didn’t have what it takes. And look at the games he plays with Job — so insecure he has to prove himself to the Devil.”
He read her the writings of philosophers, Schopenhauer being his favorite, not least because of his disdain for the female species, their cunning and lack of reasoning power, their infidelity and treachery. Chaim admired her for the questions she asked, but when she disagreed with him, or expressed an opinion, he reprimanded her. “Think, Zussa. Think. Don’t just say. Think what you say.”
Since his mid-fifties, economic security ensured, Chaim had begun to dabble in writing, mostly romantic stories in which the love object was always the same woman, dressed in fine silks or cheap high-heeled sandals, a simple street girl or an experienced femme fatale. It didn’t matter. They all inevitably fell in love with the male character, a miserable and lonely Jew. Chaim liked to think of himself as a Renaissance man. A successful businessman and a writer. And in Zussa’s view, Chaim was a great writer. Maybe even a genius. Every night he handed her the pages he had worked on during the day. She read diligently, collated, and sent the finished stories off to literary journals known to be interested in his genre. They collected the rejection slips — like pearls — reading them for the slightest hint of encouragement. He liked her to repeat the ones that said, “Unfortunately we can’t . . . but please do continue sending . . .” or “In spite of the high standard of the prose, we will not . . .” Even in these they found hope.
However, not all was harmonious between the old man and the young woman. Her love for Chaim could not entirely erase her natural tendency to be assertive. Gradually their quarrels increased, the dominant conflict always concerning finances.
“Why can’t we have two croissants?” she asked when they took breakfast in their favorite coffee house.
“Two? Every morning? How much do I eat? I’ll just take a little bite of this. Here, you can have the rest.” He pushed the plate in her direction, the croissant now misshapen and surrounded by crumbs. She looked past his shoulder, searching for a facial expression that would both show her disgust at his meanness but also conceal it.
Another time, Zussa tarried at a jewelry store. “That one I like, Chaimke. Let’s go in for just a moment.”
“Superficial needs,” he countered. “Wasting money.”
“Chaimke,” she pleaded, “it’s not a lot. Look, look how pretty it is around my neck.”
Her skin was young, smooth and glossy. Chaim glanced but refused to comment on her beauty. He adjusted his hairpiece and said, “Put that silliness away.”
She grumbled as they walked home. “I must be mad to spend my life walking at half speed to keep up with your slow pace.”
“So don’t,” he said. But she did, holding onto his arm, protecting him, aware of his precarious balance. That afternoon, when Zussa left for her daily swim, he went alone to the store and bought one of the less expensive pins she had admired. Goyishe desires, he thought later that afternoon when he handed her the jewelry in a plastic bag.
“And your Jewish friends don’t collect gold and diamonds? Their earlobes are stretched down to their wrinkled chests.” She was not short of answers.
Meanwhile Zussa was squirreling. As distant as he was from his children, she knew that his family commitments overrode any financial concern he had for her. True, he had put the apartment in her name, but he was not going to leave her anything more in his will.
“A place to live, you’ll have. You’re young,” he’d said, “and when I die, you can get a job, like everyone else.”
She had a system. She did the grocery shopping, and he paid the bill. At first he insisted on taking out each item and checking it against the tab and then added up the total on a separate piece of paper. Meticulous. “No shortage of mamzers who try to take me for a ride,” he complained. “Let them try it with someone else, not with me.”
She knew he was referring as much to her as to the supermarket staff. He was warning her, but she felt perfectly entitled, and she was patient. After some months he tired of the laborious process and was satisfied with the ballpark weekly figure he had in his head. Gradually she dared fake some increased costs, so that she could skim off twenty percent for herself, and her secret savings account began growing.
One day, however, he did a spot check and found the discrepancy, and she knew she was in trouble. If there was one thing that Chaim could not bear, it was being made a fool of. “You’re a liar,” he shouted. “A Polish liar.”
“And you’re a Jewish miser.”
“Out! Get out! You have no gratitude.”
But at night when she made him kasha, just the way he liked it, and cut his brittle toenails, which he could no longer reach, carefully tending his paper-thin flesh, he made a businessman’s calculation. For the meanwhile, he decided, he would drop it.
Then one day he stepped into a revolving door in the local shopping mall and lost his balance. “My baby, my baby,” she shouted to the twisted body being swept along and delivered to her on the other side. Short and thin as she always knew him, now he seemed to have shrunk into a pile of uninhabited clothing.
In the intensive care unit, Dr Verwey came to fill her in about Chaim’s condition after the operation. “The hip was broken in two places. Bad fall, trauma to the body and a lengthy anesthetic. Your father is a man with a strong will. Hopefully he’ll make it.”
“He’s my husband,” she snapped.
He squeezed his jaw and glanced once again at the frail body lying on the bed. “Please forgive me,” he said. “I’ll be in each day.”
Zussa had been warned that after a few days, when the body no longer produces emergency cortisone, it has to begin its fight for survival. After a fourth crumpled night on a chair beside Chaim’s bed, she awoke to the usual beeping and spiky lines on monitors. Nurses scurried about with their inaccessible eyes, stethoscopes hanging from their pockets, rolling metal trolleys. She pulled herself up hopefully: One day closer to Chaim’s recovery. Soon, soon he should be getting stronger.
“Good morning,” she whispered to the skeletal head. How glad she was that the tube had been removed from his throat, where the choking sensation had tormented him. She put a cloth under the cold tap, squeezed out the water, folded the cloth neatly and spread it on his clammy forehead. Stroking his swollen belly, she was as glad when he passed wind as if it had come from her own body. His relief was her relief. She searched for his pulse — a slow, hard-to-find patter under his bluish flesh.
An unfamiliar nurse came bustling in. “Let’s see how daddy’s coming along,” she crooned.
Zussa was too sad to correct her.
“Water,” he croaked, and she put the straw to his mouth, happy to hear the gurgling sound of his swallowing.
He lay staring at her and then closed his eyes. “I’m too old,” he mumbled, barely audible.
“No.” Zussa said. “No, Chaimke. Don’t give up. Stay with me.”
Only weeks before, she had threatened to leave him when he criticized her for buying a small tin of caviar. Now she sat by his bed, looking at the life seeping out of him, thinking: if only he had something to cling to, some hope. And then she was hit by an idea of pure genius — or so she thought.
“Chaimke,” she said, holding her mouth very close to his ear and talking slowly. “You shouldn’t be losing your will right now — at this critical moment. Darling, you won’t believe it. Only this morning — this very morning — I received a call from Samuel Bucher. A publisher — and what a publisher! Do you hear me, Chaimke?” she asked. His eyes were closed and his breathing sluggish. “A publisher who has read your stories.” She paused, waiting for a reply, not sure if he was hearing her. “He said they are delightful,” she went on, looking for a way in, beyond his fatigue. “And, this is the best part. He is considering a collection. He even has a name for it. “Alive At All Costs,” he wants to call it. Just an idea, and, of course, the title would be your decision. What do you think of that? ‘Delightful stories.’ Those were his very words.”
Chaim’s eyes flickered open, tired, strained, ill — but definitely alert.
“A publisher?” He squeezed her hand. Then his eyes closed, his energy waned, and she thought she’d lost him. But a minute later he opened them again. “When? When does he want to publish?”
“Almost immediately,” she said. “But first he wants to come and meet you.”
Within hours there was a major improvement in all vital signs: blood pressure, oxygen intake, heart rate. His color was better, and he demanded something to eat.
Twenty-four hours later he sat up, slurping red jelly from the spoon that Zussa put to his shrunken mouth. “Which one did he really like? Tell me, Zussa.” He put his head back to rest between each spoonful. “The circus? Did he like the circus story? I bet you he liked the character of Maria, the trapeze artist — so passionate, so beautiful. You must admit that she’s a great character. It could easily be a movie script. I can just see it. There’s that young French actress —what’s her name — who would be wonderful in the part.” He urged Zussa to invite the publisher immediately.
“Slowly,” she said, putting another spoonful of ice cream to his mouth. “You need to recover,”
“I’m not going dancing, Zussa,” he said. “All I need is the energy to think and talk, and I’m good at both of those.” He smiled mischievously as he picked up his head and opened his mouth like a little bird. “Tell him Chaim is ready for him.”
Relieved for the last few days by his recovery, Zussa now began to worry. Chaim was back home, a blanket tucked around his skinny legs, weak but full of plans and impatient, urging Zussa to get on with it.
“I don’t have much time,” he complained. “You’re young. You have your life ahead of you. I have so many yesterdays and so few tomorrows.” He looked pleased with the philosophical resonance of this often-repeated sentence.
How, she worried, was she going to break the news to him that there was no publisher?
“It’s the hope that brought him back to life,” she said to Halina, who worked at the post office — temporarily, she said, while she improved her English. “It’ll kill him when he finds out there isn’t a publisher.”
She was having coffee with Halina. Zussa was drawn to her, enchanted by the familiar sounds of her own language in her friend’s pretty mouth. Halina complained about the daily grind of selling stamps and weighing parcels. “For someone with a master’s degree in Literature from Cracow University, this is demoralizing,” she’d told Zussa.
Zussa was not convinced regarding Halina’s claim about her education. She herself had lied about her paltry achievements on some occasions, when all she had was a high school diploma. She knew how easy it was for an immigrant to fabricate a more impressive past. But she liked being with Halina, who was lighthearted and laughed a lot.
“Your husband? What about . . . you know . . . you’re a young woman. You must really love him.” And then she added, “You know what? I could be the publisher.” They chuckled, but Zussa thought Halina far too attractive to allow into her and Chaim’s life.
“Wait,” she said. “There’s the kernel of an idea here. But it would have to be a man. My husband likes to be around women, but he doesn’t have much respect for them. He wouldn’t believe that a woman has the ability to be a worthy publisher of his stories.”
Halina called her that night. “I think I have someone who will fit the role. My friend Janush. He is educated, charming and convincing. He could do it.”
Just days later, when Janush entered the apartment for the meeting, Zussa saw how thoroughly Halina had understood the mission. Tall and slim, the man wore black trousers that hugged his hips and his overcrowded crotch. With his thin moustache and black hair pulled back into a small greasy ponytail, he looked like a gypsy. Zussa had given Halina the manuscript and Janush had read the circus story.
“Vonderful,” he told Chaim, managing to avoid the pitfalls of providing any details about the publishing company. He’d done his homework. “It’s vital and full of energy. A man of your age, you obviously are still young in your heart. Vonderful.” He admired the art on the walls, agreed that contemporary music was grating to the ears and that Stravinsky screeched while Chopin brought one close to Nirvana. “And you obviously have good taste in women, too.”
Zussa didn’t like the wink in her direction.
When Janush left, Chaim lay back exhausted, his belly stuffed with compliments. “Good man,” he kept repeating. “He understands something of value when he sees it.”
Two days later, Zussa returned from grocery shopping to find Janush and Chaim in cozy conversation, Janush screaming with laughter at one of Chaim’s jokes. The sight of it unnerved her. Who invited him here? she wondered.
“Zussa, Zussa, come and listen. Janush likes the circus story so much, he thinks it could be adapted for the theatre.”
Janush nodded with enthusiasm. “Colorful, excellent dialogue. I come from a gypsy tradition and Chaim has captured the rhythms of our culture. Fits the circus atmosphere. Brilliant story.”
“Zussa, bring some coffee for Janush,” Chaim called out, his voice getting stronger by the day.
“Janush,” he said, “not too early for a vodka, yes? Just because I can’t, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.”
“I don’t particularly like him,” Zussa said, when Janush left. But she was cautious. After all, he was the new publisher. He was the hope, he was the penicillin, the cortisone, the endorphins. And the reason Chaim washed his hairpiece, took down his fedora, which he hadn’t worn for some time, and began to change his shirt daily.
The next time Janush visited, he presented Chaim with the bad news. “I have to be honest with you. The publishing industry is suffering right now. Things have come to a halt. I love your stories but my house is not going to bring out any short story collections for at least a year.”
Zussa watched Chaim’s mouth tense up and recognized the hurt that threatened to overtake him. There was the pain she wished to save him from.
“But,” Janush suggested, “why don’t we continue with the play idea. I have a perfect person for the role of Maria. Sexy and young and passionate. And very beautiful.”
Zussa walked Janush to his car. “What was that about?” she asked, furious, barely able to be polite. “I never asked you to suggest a play. Please just drop this idea. And I don’t think Chaim should be seeing so many visitors. He gets overexcited.”
The next day, she gaped when she opened the door to find both Janush and Halina standing before her. “This is Halina,” Janush said and Halina winked at her. They walked past her and Janush introduced Halina to Chaim. “A great Polish actress,” he said. “She has problems finding roles here because of her accent. But your Maria — the passionate, beautiful Maria — needs an accent. She’s a gypsy. She’ll make an excellent Maria. I’ve told her about the circus story and she loves it. Look at her, Chaim, look at her beauty and youth and passion.”
Janush glanced at Zussa, who stood glaring at them by the kitchen door. “Zussa, come and join us. You’ll like Halina, I’m sure. She’s a vonderful actress.”
Zussa looked into the deceitful eyes of the post office worker — an excellent actress indeed!
“Don’t make such a fuss,” Halina said, when, the next morning, Zussa stormed into the post office, as soon as she could get away from home. “It’s not such a bad idea. I can see why you find him fascinating, with his active, ripe mind. It will keep him busy. You know there’s no chance of getting his stuff published. So now he has something to do.”
“Of course I’m paying them,” Chaim told Zussa that afternoon. “Why would I not? They’re investing a lot of time in this project. This could hit the theatres. This could be big.” He took out a handful of banknotes from his pants pocket and pressed it into her hand. “You need to be busy with your own things, Zussa. Get out a bit, enjoy yourself. Go. Go and get yourself something pretty. And pick up another bottle or two of vodka.”
Chaim now spent his days in a tight circle with Janush and Halina. Zussa served them the herring that she and Chaim used to eat together. Her head bent over the plate, Halina forked great chunks of it into her mouth.
“So delicious,” she said, and in a husky voice she added, “nearly as good as making love.”
The three of them guffawed and licked their lips, and Halina and Janush swigged directly from the vodka bottle, now permanently on the small table next to them. Sometimes Zussa caught sight of them from the window, Halina and Chaim walking on the promenade, his arm around her shoulder, their heads close together, deep in conversation.
“It’s about the play,” Chaim insisted. “Why all this jealousy?”
Actually, Zussa thought the circus story was one of Chaim’s worst indulgences. His most predictable love story, she recalled the gist. It ended with Maria betraying the village boy who fell in love with her. She played with his feelings, delighting in his youthful inexperienced attentions. She made love to him, amused but unfulfilled by his clumsy fumbling, and returned at night to her devilish trapeze partner, who satisfied her lust. The lovesick village boy sneaked into the circus tent one morning, climbed the ladder till he was on the highest ledge, grabbed hold of the bar and began to swing wildly, imagining himself partnering Maria. He swung higher and higher, about to explode in ecstasy, and then lost his grip and fell in a heap on the ground. Maria ran into the tent where he lay dying. She caressed him and wept, saying, “With time I would have learned to love you.”
“Wonderful story,” Halina had said.
“Vonderful story,” Janush had repeated.
They’d both gotten a little drunk by the time they heard this story, and Chaim, a captive inside his frail body, was already madly in love with Halina. Or Maria. At times, Zussa suspected, he forgot which.
A week later Chaim told Zussa, “They’re doing a dress rehearsal of sorts today,” and he instructed her to check that there was enough Polish salami. “And they love Lindt chocolates. Pick up a few slabs of those on your way home.”
Halina arrived wearing a long coat which she slipped off and slung onto the nearest plastic-covered sofa. Her red satin trapeze outfit, a size too small for her, hugged her body and pressed tightly against her bulging breasts. She wore black fishnet stockings, gold pumps, and on her head, a crown cut out of cardboard, still slightly wet with gold paint and glue to which a row of plastic beads had clearly, and only recently, been adhered.
Janush arrived minutes later in even tighter than usual satin pants. “Forgive me, Chaim. I’m not an actor. I just want to help Halina,” he said.
“We’re going to do the last act,” Halina added. “It’s the young boy’s fantasy as he swings to his death. Very dramatic. One of your best scenes, Chaimke.”
Chaimke? Zussa was appalled that Halina should address her husband with such intimacy.
“Well, what about a drink before you begin,” Chaim offered, rubbing his hands together. “Warm you up. Zussa,” he called from his armchair, “bring the vodka.”
Janush and Halina each took a hefty slug and then positioned themselves at the center of the circular carpet. Janush lifted his hands up high, swaying backwards and forwards, groaning about his longing for Maria. He pretended to lose his balance, fell and then — as if heroically— straightened up, calling in a fake sing-song voice for Maria, “the only woman I have ever loved, the only woman I will ever love.”
Zussa stood back from the action, leaning against the wall, her face puckered with disbelief. Halina adjusted her crown, which had tilted to the side, and joined Janush. He seemed to have forgotten that he was supposed to be on a tightrope, and standing behind her, clutched Halina’s satiny belly, pulled her close to him and then they swayed together, Janush whimpering in ecstasy, “Maria, I cannot live vit-out you.”
Chaim stared, turning his hard-of-hearing ear towards them, his head cocked aside to catch the muffled words — and what might be intermittent giggling. Again Janush pretended to lose his balance on the highwire, flinging his arms around.
“Oy ya yoy,” he called, and Halina joined in, “Oy ya yoy.”
Halina slipped away from the action for a moment, and Janush dropped to the floor, calling out “Maria, my love, I think my limbs are smashed to match my broken heart.”
Halina rushed back to lie over his crumpled body, her sticky crown falling off — and was overcome with uncontrollable laughter.
“Halina, I love you,” Janush sputtered. “I mean, Maria, I love you.”
They both collapsed in a heap, rocking their pelvises crudely. “In time I could have learned to love you,” Halina responded, laughing hysterically.
Chaim looked startled at the sounds of laughter, as though woken from a deep sleep, his dream disturbed. He clutched at his chest and groaned, seeking out Zussa’s eyes, but before she could get to him, Halina had leapt up.
“What is it, Chaimke?” she asked, sitting beside him on the armchair, wrapping her arms around him. “Janush, help me,” she called, her head under her armpit, trying to control her laughter, to make it sound like weeping.
But Chaim reached up to hold the back of her head and pressed it toward him, seeking her mouth with his cracked pursed lips. “Maria, my love,” he said weakly.
Even before he collapsed onto the floor, Zussa had already called the ambulance.
Now, in the hospital, she stands guard, sleeping on the chair beside him, in case Halina tries to sneak in. Though the doctor has told her, “Your father is unlikely to regain consciousness,” she insists on keeping a bowl of red jelly in the hospital fridge, just in case. But she doesn’t dare leave his side. Her sleep is light, always on guard against infiltrators. She smoothes and pats and caresses. She slides his toupee onto his shiny head in the morning, hoping he might look less vulnerable: more like her audacious, bullying Chaimke than this wizened old man. She listens to the music of the slow beep beep which she knows will soon end. She would like to tell him that it was all lies, to whisper in his ear, “I deceived you to save your life. Halina tricked you for your money.” But she knows it is this very knowledge that is killing him.