By Nora Houri-Haim
Translated from Hebrew by Yaron Regev
“How long does it take for that cow to take down the trash?” Sabah mutters as he shuffles to the door. A cold draft buffets him as he bends to pick up the newspaper. He shoves the doormat half inside the apartment so the door won’t slam shut, and peeks over the stair rail, expecting to see her humped back, split by the thin braid, orange from the henna dye she uses, coming up the stairs.
He looks down at the newspaper and tries to read it, the letters darting in front of his eyes. Perhaps she has gone to open the grocery store early without telling him? Or to the market? But he knows she would never leave the house without waking Yakub first.
What if she has fallen and fainted in the garbage room? Reluctantly he rises, dresses, and makes his way down to the garbage room. Trash containers block the opening. A sour smell strikes his nostrils as his hand fumbles for the light switch.
The garbage room is empty.
He turns on his heels and starts back up the stairwell. Lulu, his neighbor, opens her door a crack. When she recognizes him, the door quickly opens wider. “Good morning, Sabah,” she says coyly, and in the same breath asks, “Where did Serah go so early this morning? I saw her through the window getting on a bus. And what was she doing with a trash bag in her hand? What’s happened to her?”
Sabah stops for a moment, his voice betrays him. Heavily, he continues his climb up to the next floor.
Serah imagines herself in a black dress, or a black skirt and blouse, maybe. Yes, a blouse would be better actually; why waste a good dress? After all, once the shiva is over, she will never again be able to wear any garment she wore to the funeral. To her right, she is supported by Odette, and to her left, by Naima. Simcha walks behind them with a bottle of water. And even Rachel has come all the way from America for the funeral — a father is a father, after all. She is holding Yakub, who is confused, does not even know what is happening.
Everyone is crying, though hers are the loudest sobs. And she is screaming too. “Sabah, Sabah, how can you leave me like this? How can you?”
There’s a large crowd at the funeral, all the regular clients of the grocery store in Pardes Katz, and also because of Yehezkel, her rich brother; people have come to pay him their respects. They are all weeping as they follow the stretcher bearing the shrouded body. And when they arrive at the grave and start covering Sabah with sand, she yanks her hand from Odette’s, beats her chest over her heart with a closed fist, and screams, “Let me go down there to be with him. Sabah, Sabah, how can you leave me like this?”
Then, at the shiva, she will sit in the middle of the sofa, like a queen, and everyone will serve her. Because she, the grieving wife, is forbidden from doing anything.
Mously and Hatoun, her sisters, will come to cut the cucumbers and apples, to prepare the trays laden with dates and almonds for the blessings, and keep coming out from the kitchen with fresh coffee and tea for the mourners. Her neighbor, Lulu, damn her name, will make the ka’akat. Wherever there’s a house with people grieving in it, you’ll see her running there with her ka’akat. No wonder people already call her “Lady Death.” This time she will probably cry into the flour as she makes them.
No, it will never happen. Serah sighs and throws the last kubbeh dumpling into the pot. Why would he die, why? Is his life so bad? Has he ever worked a single day in his life? She’s the one who has to do everything. She’s the one who gets up at four every morning to open the grocery store and get the milk bottles. Then she spends the whole day on her feet, working. And even now, what is he doing? Sitting behind the cash register reading a newspaper, or taking a nap, and he will wake only when he hears a female voice. “Uri, get me some milk,” or “Uri, get me some challah.” Then the bald patch on his head will start gleaming and his red eyes, always bulging because of his thyroid gland, will get even bigger.
Why doesn’t he ever wake up when the schoolchildren come in and say, “Uri, get me some bubblegum,” then try to swipe a popsicle from the refrigerator outside? She feels like she needs to keep five-hundred eyes peeled for these thieves. And how can she be inside the grocery store and outside at the same time?
Only the Iraqi clients know his name is Sabah. The Ashkenazim call him Uri, which was what they had changed his name to at the airport when the two of them made aliyah. They had wanted her to change her name to Esther, like the queen, but she wouldn’t have it. From the day she’d been born, she had been a slave, not a queen.
It had been fifteen years ago, when she was fifty, that the children, who were already grown, had surprised her and sent her on a vacation to the Dead Sea all on her own. She remembers floating on the salty water as though her whole body was in a barrel of oil, like the barrels the stinking herring came in — the ones they brought to the grocery store for the Ashkenazi customers. It was then that she decided that was that: he would never die on his own and she would have to do something herself if she wanted to get rid of him. All through the three days she spent at the Dead Sea, she kept thinking and thinking.
Until finally she decided what to do.
There was a time she had still believed he’d change. But the truth was, from the day they had married, from the very first night he’d lain with her for two minutes — just to show the blood-stained sheet to the Mashtot – the three old ladies waiting behind the door, and then left her to find his friends to drink and play backgammon with until morning, he had brought her nothing but suffering. He’d come home to her reeking of Arak and whores. It was only when he had run out of money for whores that he gave her children. And he couldn’t even do that right either. Four daughters and a son, Yakub, named for Sabah’s father. They didn’t know, when they both emerged from the grueling birthing she’d gone through, and nearly died from, that he, Yakub, would turn out to be slow in the head. It was only later, when he didn’t walk at the age most children did, and he didn’t learn to speak, that she realized that even a son to bring her honor and say a normal Kaddish prayer, she wouldn’t get out of Sabah.
In the Farhud pogrom, she almost got lucky. Sabah had been in the market when they started killing Jews, but he pretended to be dead and they just went past him. That night, when he was able to return to his home, they had run to the house of Yehezkel, her rich brother who had electrified his whole house from the outside. The two days they spent with her brother and his wife were the happiest, most beautiful of her life. They were afraid but they were all together, preparing good things in the kitchen, and there was lots of food, and all the children of the families played and had fun together.
It was her father, Yitzhak, who had arranged the wedding with Sabah. Sabah’s father had owed her father money, and that was how they had paid the debt. It soon became apparent that the son, just like the father, liked nothing more than to go out and have a good time. And she was the one who had to carry both their lives on her back.
When they gave up their nationality and property, as the Iraqi government required of those wishing to emigrate to Israel, she thought that maybe there, in Israel, things would be a little different. But they were worse because they had to live in a transit camp in the rain and mud, and if Yehezkel, her rich brother, hadn’t taken pity on her, and cared for them both, and procured the grocery store in Pardes Katz for them cheaply, putting down the key money for it, she couldn’t begin to guess what might have happened to them.
After that, she knew she had to make up with her brother’s wife, Violet. There had been bad blood between them and they hadn’t talked to each other for a long time. It had happened when they emigrated. Violet, who wasn’t sure she’d be able to bring everything she had, asked Serah to bring some jewelry into Israel for her, tied in a handkerchief. Serah opened the bundle and took out a gold bracelet. When Violet came for the jewels and saw the bracelet was missing, she had accused Serah of stealing.
Serah swore she knew nothing about any bracelet, and steadfastly refused to back down from that stance, even during the Sulha her brother had arranged to make peace between them. Still, though, Serah asked Violet to forgive her, and was ready to admit that perhaps she hadn’t safeguarded the jewels as well as she should have.
After that, every time she felt just how miserable her life was, and how much better the lives of other people were, especially that of Violet — the beauty from Cairo that Sabah would be willing to kiss the earth her feet had trodden over — she would get the bracelet out of its hiding place, polish it carefully and hold it tightly.
When she came back from the Dead Sea, she spoke to Sabah nicely. She said to him, “Look, we’re old now and don’t have much time left to live, so we should, at least, spend the last years of our lives without rows and anger.” And she told him she would be very happy if he started helping her in the grocery store — just for half the day, and then go and spend the afternoons with his friends, who invariably sat on the boulevard chatting.
He was suspicious at first, and asked her why she was suddenly being so nice. She replied that she had thought a lot about their life when she had been in the Dead Sea, wondering how to fix things between them. She had realized, she said, that if each of them sometimes did the things they liked to do, they would both feel better. She also told him she really liked the grocery store and didn’t mind staying behind to close it.
Just as she had guessed, it didn’t take a lot of time to convince him, a bum will always be a bum. Very quickly, the pattern was established. He would spend only half the day behind the cash register, and then, right after the lunch break, he’d leave. She didn’t care where he went. He could even go to visit Jacqueline, that boola, that whore whose husband rotted in prison, for all Serah cared.
He thinks she hadn’t noticed how he’d erased Jacqueline’s debt to the grocery store.
There had been a time when she had prayed that Jacqueline’s husband would come out of prison and cut Sabah’s balls off, but after the Dead Sea, all she cared about was “the plan.”
She went to the bank first, not the one where Salman, her sister Mously’s son, worked. A different bank, near the market, where no one knew her. She said she wanted to open an account and that they should never send anything to her home. Nor should they ever call her. She told them she’d come in every time she was in the market. She started making a list in her mind of things she could do to earn money without anyone knowing. Then she started working during her lunch breaks and at nights.
When strawberries were cheap, she’d take the bus to the market, buy the cheap strawberries, make jam, and sell the filled jars in the grocery store. When the price of quinces dropped, she’d rush to the market, make luzina and sell it. She made baklava pastries, halkoum cookies, pickles when it was the right season, and she sold it all in the grocery store to women who were too lazy to do it themselves. Her? She actually liked going to the market for the grocery shopping. She didn’t even care, anymore, that Sabah hadn’t wrapped the plastic basket handles so they wouldn’t cut her hands so much. Once, she would have given him hell for that. Now she only had to shove a hand into her purse on the way to the bank and feel the money, to calm down, secretively smiling.
It took her fifteen years – fifteen years of scrimping and saving, and taking a little from the cash register each day for herself when she was closing the shop – until she decided it was time.
Today is Serah’s birthday. She doesn’t know exactly when she was born. Her father wrote the birth dates of his daughters in his prayer book, but only the year. She had picked a date for herself between Purim and Passover. That day is today. She is sixty-five, a good day to carry out her plan.
She opens her eyes at four in the morning, an old habit from the early grocery store days, although nowadays they never opened the store before seven. Even today, there’s not a bone in her body that doesn’t ache, but today she doesn’t care. She shoves her gnarly feet into the wooden slippers, smooths the old gown, which always rises on her because of that old potbelly, and wraps herself in the tattered black shawl she knitted when her hands still had the strength for that sort of thing.
She ambles into the kitchen and boils some water for tea. After it has boiled, she pours some hot water into a tiny pot in which she also places tea leaves. The little pot she places atop the bigger pot and waits. She never drinks tea from a bag. She tried once. It tasted like she was drinking water someone had poured brown color into.
She turns off the stove and pours her tea into a small transparent glass adorned with stripes of gold. She used to put two sugar lumps in it, but the doctor told her if she kept it up with the sugar she’d have no feet left to stand on. “Your sugar level’s very, very high, Mrs. Shakarchi. You need to go on a strict diet. Very, very strict!”
She cannot bring herself to go on a diet. What is she going to take off her menu? What? She hardly eats anything as it is; is a little bread in the morning food? A little rice and kube patties for lunch is food? She takes two large saccharine tablets and drops them in the tea. They sink quickly, giving off tiny bubbles as they drown.
Sabah says you could play poker on her old potbelly. He can make fun of fat people because he’s always been bony, even though he eats like a vacuum cleaner. In the end, they discovered it was because of his thyroid.
They thought it was his heart at first. They put something like a radio on his belt and stuck some wires around his heart to check. He panicked, thinking they wanted to electrocute him like some lunatic. Naima, their only daughter worth a damn, who became a teacher, sat with him for two hours to explain. Her voice dried up from all the talking. Yes, she and her sisters were nice to him only when he was sick.
She carried bags for him to the hospital because he wouldn’t touch the hospital food. And he shamed her there, too. He pinched a young nurse on her ass, and they had to bring a male one to care for him.
Serah drinks from the glass with measured sips. When she drinks, the furrows around her mouth deepen, the temporary sleep wrinkles mix with the more permanent ones. With her two little eyes the color of rusty nails, she looks around her. No, she decides, there will be nothing in this house she will miss.
Today she is moving to a smaller apartment she has rented in Beersheva, in a co-op. Thinking ahead, she bought a wig and a pair of large glasses. When she gets there, she will tell people she is a widow with no children or family. She will change her name at the Ministry of Interior in Beersheva to Esther Shasha, and no one will ever think of looking for her there, of all places.
That is how she will live the rest of her life, with herself only. Maybe, now and then, she’ll remember the luckless Yakub, and, perhaps, feel a little flutter in her stomach. Yakub, one-hundred-eighty centimeters tall, ninety kilos heavy, but with the brain of a five-year-old. He helps them in the grocery store. Carries boxes, puts tin cans in order on the shelves, helps the women clients with their heavy baskets. From today, Sabah will have to care for him. He will probably hand him over to the girls.
She goes into the bedroom. Sabah is still sleeping. She looks at that slender body of his under the covers, the hairs sticking out of his nostrils fluttering as he snores. He farts. He always farts in the morning, under the cover. She puts on her floral dress, having trouble with the sleeves, wheezing and panting.
Sabah wakes, straightens. Without his false teeth, his head looks like a skull to her. He takes the dentures from the glass and shoves them in his mouth just so he can grumble. “Can’t you get dressed quietly? Must you wake me with all the noise you’re making?”
The striped pajamas go into the bathroom without saying good morning. It never does.
Serah hears the urine trickle. She hopes he has remembered to put the seat up. He’s been like a sprinkler since age has caught up with him. Then she remembers she actually doesn’t care. Not anymore. Let him get it dirty.
He emerges from the bathroom and goes into the kitchen. He pours himself some of the tea she made and barks, “Where’s my newspaper?”
She answers, “I’m just going to take the trash down first.”
Serah picks up a black, opaque trash bag. In it, she has packed some clothes and a few precious belongings for herself, like the gilded mortar and pestle for grinding spices that she brought from Baghdad. Closing the door behind her, she hears his morning cough, thick and wheezing.