What Elijah Brought
By Carolyn Ivy Stein
Chava leaned back against the hard but stylish dining room chair. Up until recently her condo had felt like a sanctuary with its textured white walls, large plate glass picture window with a view of the Rocky Mountains from the veranda. Winding paths in the garden areas were always filled with people, and even when she wasn’t amongst them, she enjoyed watching the interaction. She'd moved into the condo when it was new in 1974 with her husband, and in her eyes it still looked as beautiful as the day Mendel nailed the mezuzah to the door jamb and they’d entered laughing.
She stroked her hand over the stylish glass and brass dining room table and chairs, the result of long nights searching through catalogs with Mendel. Forty-five years imbued it with the power of memories. Here she’d spread a feast for her youngest daughter's bat mitzvah. Joanie’s strange wedding had been held in the party room downstairs. Afterwards this table hosted Joanie's vegan party for the bridal attendants. Chava had sat shiva for Mendel almost five years ago here, receiving groups of visitors, their gifts of fruit baskets, deli trays, candies, nuts, and pastries crowding every inch of the table until nothing could be seen of the surface. The air smelled like food for weeks, he’d had so many friends.
Chava smiled at the memory of so many people crowded into the four rooms of their apartment. She dragged her finger across the table’s surface feeling the chill of the glass and imagining Sadie’s chocolate lemon bars. Then she took a napkin and wiped away her fingerprint. There was nothing on the table today except the seder plate and the small plate with three pieces of matzah. A roasted kosher chicken warmed in the oven along with a kugel. Both had been delivered from the New York Deli News, a Denver Jewish deli. If Mendel were still alive, there would have been roses. He always bought her roses on birthdays and holidays.
Without people, the condo felt empty and smelled musty, even with the veranda windows wide open and a chill breeze pouring into the place. Not even the strongly scented vanilla candle she’d pulled from under her bathroom sink to light at the end of Pesach in lieu of a yartzeit candle disguised the old air.
These days yartzeit candles were as rare as toilet paper. Were Jews hoarding yartzeit candles in anticipation of the deaths of those they loved? Or was it just that stores didn’t know enough to put them on their online shopping lists? Who knew? Just one more sign of the times and a difficulty she hadn’t thought to prepare for.
Chava feared she would never leave the condo again, and never have company again, but would die alone, her beautiful calves fat and soft from lack of exercise, her dark hair gray after weeks with no colorist. She hoped her daughters were yartzeit candle hoarders.
Chava checked her iPhone again. Still nothing. Her daughter Susan had told her she’d phone at five forty-five to help troubleshoot Zoom for the seder.
Maybe Susan wouldn’t call this time. Maybe something had happened. Her heart pounded in her chest as hard as it had on the day five years ago when she’d brought Mendel home to die in his own bed. A familiar mixture of foreboding and denial.
Tears stung her eyes. She cursed herself for watching the news right before Pesach. Fifteen thousand dead in the United States. As if she needed to be reminded of the pandemic or of the many people her age and younger who were dying. The Almighty knew she should be used to death at this point. Once a woman is of a certain age...
Oh, why be coy? Once a woman is in her eighties, she has more dead friends than living ones. And now the Angel of Death was impatient, sending a plague to coincide with Passover. Some cheek. What was next? Locusts? Darkness? The deaths of the first-born? Chava laughed at her thoughts. Too much drama for Passover. Or, more precisely, the drama during Passover should be confined to the story of Exodus, not the day-to-day terrors.
The quiet dining room exploded with sound as “Oh, Susanna” began playing loudly on her phone. Susan, at last.
“Hey, Mom. Sorry I’m late. Let’s connect into the seder.”
At this point Chava hadn’t seen anyone, including her own three daughters and her grandchildren for more than a month. Phone calls, yes, but nothing else. But now it would happen. Her family would be around her again, if only virtually.
“Ready!” She felt a burst of joy overwhelm her. It surprised her. But when the technology didn’t work despite Susan’s best efforts, Chava drooped in her chair again, the disappointment and loneliness more intense because of the temporary hope of connection. “It’s okay, honey. Just do the seder without me.”
“No, Mom. Of course, we won’t. We'll figure it out.”
But nothing worked with the technology until finally Bonnie, one of the bored grandchildren, intervened. Two minutes later, five screens blazed into life on Chava’s laptop, each showing a table wearing its holiday best with a seder plate in the center. At least she thought it was a seder plate. The image was so small it looked like a little doll's house seder. What was large and beautiful was her family, each part of it in its own small square section on her computer.
“Hi everyone! I love you,” Chava blew kisses at the screen, counting her children and coming up with two short. “Where are Joanie and Mary?”
It was Susan who answered, her face appearing suddenly large and swollen in the screen, her long, curly brown hair fluffed around her. “Late, of course.” She swiped a hand through her curls, pushing them back. They bounced forward again. “We expect her and her wife soon.”
“Remember a few years ago when they appeared at the door just as we opened it for Elijah?” Chava asked.
Everyone chuckled except Emmy's two young boys, Chava’s great-grandchildren. The boys shifted in their chairs and started a duel with the salad forks.
Chava didn’t catch who said it, but she laughed along with the rest, and as everyone’s voices overwhelmed the technology, her speaker emitted little electronic chirps as if it were also in on the joke. Mendel had said that if Elijah himself had intervened on Joanie's behalf, it must mean their relationship was meant to be.
“Should we start without them?” Emmy asked. Her dark curls were more restrained than Susan’s but they glowed in the incandescent lights. She looked serious with dark-rimmed eyes that spoke of sleepless nights nursing sick babies.
“Emmy, you look tired,” Chava said. “Are you sleeping well?”
“It’s work. Long hours. The neonatal unit is not technically impacted by the virus, but some nurses moved over to help in the ICU, so we’re short-staffed. Everyone’s working hard. Don’t worry, Mom. We’re trained for this. But I only have a few hours and then I have to go back to work.”
Chava nodded more to keep peace than out of agreement with her daughters’ working on Pesach. Best not to argue and ruin this rare gathering.
“We light the candles before sunset, whether they are here or not,” Susan said firmly.
“Then we will begin the seder so that Emmy can celebrate with us.”
No one contradicted Susan or challenged her right to make the decision. Besides, they could wait all night for Joanie and Mary to show up. Joanie stretched Jewish Time to whole new levels of lateness, and apparently Italians had a similar concept since her wife was no better. Between the two of them, no one ever knew when they would arrive to anything.
They turned up just as the recitation of the plagues began. Both wore matching face masks that looked as if they’d been made from an old plaid lumberjack shirt.
“Joanie, don’t be ridiculous. You are socially distant already. You don’t need face masks,” Susan said.
“Mary made them.”
“They’re very nice, darling,” Chava said.
Susan flipped wildly through the Haggadah. “Skipping this part. Skipping. Skipping,” she muttered. “Ah, it's time for the blessing over the third cup of wine. And then we will open the door for Elijah.”
“But how do we do that? I mean it’s a Zoom seder. We all have different doors. Or is there a Zoom door?”
“Can we open an Elijah window in Zoom? I heard that some people are doing that.” Bonnie said.
“We’ll share the link with Elijah and he can drop in with his own account,” Susan retorted. “Everyone opens their own door, then we sing ‘Eliyahu Hanavi.’ Since it’s hard to get it exactly right with Zoom, each household will open the door for Elijah. When it’s done, come back and start singing. We’ll all finish together.”
“What a nice idea,” Chava said, but she moved slowly to the door to delay having to be the first to start the singing. Her voice wasn’t that good anymore. She paused waiting, one hand on the knob, the other on the deadbolt, until she heard Bonnie's sweet contralto singing, “Eliyahu hanavi, Eliyahu hatishbi, Eliyahu Eliyahu Eliyahu hagil'adi.” Only then did she open the door for Elijah.
In front of her, carrying two suitcases, a winter coat, and wearing a hat, was a slender, slightly stooped elderly man with sad eyes. Her heart beat fast in her chest. Could it be Elijah? All the stories said he appeared as a person in need.
Then she looked at the man's fastidiously tailored coat and expensive hat. Strong lines along his jaw suggested that he must have been movie star handsome in his youth. What was his name? Oh! Gene Cohen from the apartment down the hall. His soft blue eyes were rimmed in dark circles and the whites had red lines shot through them. He usually kept to himself. She only saw him when they met at the mailboxes.
“Gene? What are you doing out and about? It’s Pesach.”
“Oh, Chava. Not such a good Pesach for me. Alan evicted me.”
“He can't do that.”
“He can. My name isn’t on the lease. I don’t have any rights to the apartment. We’ve had some fights. Nothing serious, I thought. But then he kicked me out.”
“Where will you go?”
“I don't know. Maybe a hotel.”
Everyone in the Zoom seder had joined in the singing now. They were starting on the second set of verses. Waiting on me, she thought. Well, they’ll just have to wait.
“Just a sister in Queens, New York. That’s a plane ride from Denver. And New York’s not safe.”
“It’s not safe anywhere.” Chava studied him for a moment. He wasn’t sick, but he would be if he went out into the world. She was sure of it. If she let him go, and he died of the virus, could she forgive herself?
But what if he brought the virus in to her? No. The man never left his apartment. He was as safe as anyone. Besides, Mendel always said that no one knows Elijah when he knocks on your door, so always be kind. Mendel: pay attention, she thought. I am doing as you would.
She cleared her throat as she heard the Zoom Seder start in on another verse of “Eliyahu Hanavi.” Then Susan’s voice, “Mom? Where are you? Mom?”
Chava pulled on the handle of the nearest suitcase, which turned out to be too heavy to lift. She grunted as she dragged it across the threshold. “Come on in, Gene. You'll have Passover seder with me and you'll stay in my guest room tonight.”
“I don't want to impose.”
“It isn't an imposition. It is a mitzvah. We are commanded to come together on Passover and tell the story. Here I am alone. Come in.” She made little motions with her hands as if she were sweeping him inside.
A smile broke across his face. She revised her estimate. He was still movie star handsome.
She brought another place setting to the table and motioned him to sit. Silence swept over the Zoom channel as everyone saw him, and the singing stopped.
Susan was the first to break the silence. Disapproval dripped from her voice. She looked like she’d just eaten something bitter. “Who is that?”
“Gene, this is my family. Everyone, this is Gene.” She tried to make the right gestures of introduction, but they didn’t translate to video.
“Mom. Tell him to leave. You can’t entertain anyone. You must quarantine,” Susan said.
“Gene has been isolated. We’ll be fine. Let’s continue.”
“Mom, sit six feet from him. Practice appropriate social distancing.” That was Emmy, ever the nurse.
Gene picked up his plate and moved as far from Chava as he could.
“Satisfied?” Chava asked.
“No, you are not supposed to have visitors. He needs to leave,” Susan said.
The seder went downhill from there, until finally Chava had had enough of the argument and left. They could find the afikomen without her. Who needs this aggravation?
“I’m sorry, Chava,” said Gene. I don’t want to cause trouble. Or put you at risk. Thank you so much for the seder. I’ll go now.”
“No. I told you that you could stay with me and that is how it is. My daughters don’t get a vote.”
“Chava…” Pain etched into the lines of his face. He spread his hands in a hopeless gesture.
Chava softened her voice. “Look, you isolated for a month. I’ve isolated. We won’t touch. We won’t sit too close. Each bedroom has its own bathroom. You’ll use your bathroom. I’ll use mine. As long as we’re careful, there won't be a problem. Stay for two weeks. Who knows what will happen after that? Maybe your roommate will reconsider. Maybe you’ll find your own place.”
She didn’t say: Maybe, you will stay here forever – but she certainly thought it. She’d been lonely for far too long.
After setting up Gene in the guest bedroom, Chava went to bed, pulling the heavy flowered quilt over her body, relishing the weight. She didn’t sleep. Had she done the right thing? She did what Mendel would’ve done himself, if he had been here. But Mendel always had her to protect him from rash kindnesses. Who protected her?
She spoke quietly into the dark from the bed they’d once shared. “Mendel, I’ve done what you would’ve done, but now I don’t know if it’s the right thing.”
She wished he were here. Thoughts ran around her head like the noisy gerbils Emmy, as a child, had insisted on having. She couldn’t sleep. She also couldn’t get up and turn on the television. She had a guest and didn’t want to wake him.
She dressed in her bulky winter robe and went to the kitchen where she prepared herself a cup of the Sleepytime tea that Emmy had left here years ago. It was sealed, so hopefully it was still good. Afterwards she sat at the glass dining room table, looking down at her feet kicking under the chair, and breathing in the apple aroma of chamomile, lemon, and mint. The steam felt good, relaxing. She took a few hot sips, then let it cool.
She had a man here. That was strange. And how long would he be here? She made a mental note to help him find a place, though the thought stung her heart. The tea worked. She relaxed, and by the time she’d finished the cup, she was ready to return to bed.
She woke two hours later from a vivid dream. Mendel was there, looking not as she'd last seen him when they bought him home from the hospital, when his features were gray and drawn, and his body thin with skin hanging from his emaciated body and smelling of decay. Then, his face looked exhausted from the fight against his illness.
No, this was the Mendel of her youth. He’d been thirty when she met him as a fresh twenty-year-old. She’d fallen in love right off. He was the kindest man she’d ever met. Now, looking at his black curly hair and slightly chubby baker’s stomach, she smiled at him and raised her hands in the air, willing him to embrace her, longing to smell his unique fragrance of bread and masculinity. “Mendel, my one true love. Tell me what to do.”
He smiled and, as he did, his face moved through the years until it was her own long-loved husband before he got sick. “You've done the right thing,” he said. “Let him stay.”
“I love you,” she said. She ached from her throat to the pit of her stomach, her grief as fresh as the moment he’d died. She waggled her arms begging for his embrace, but even in her dream this was denied.
Waking to tendrils of sunlight rising above the mountains, she saw the barest hint of pink edging the dark purple outlines of distant mountains like a bit of filmy lace on a woman’s dark peignoir. Normally she wasn’t awake this early. She sat up watching the morning dawn and thinking about Mendel. If he said it was right to provide a place for Gene, it was right.
Of course, it could be her own mind fooling her, telling her what she wanted to believe. She’d been alone so long. Perhaps it was her own hunger for company that had brought the dream. Was it a species of madness to think that Mendel had really come from beyond the grave to speak to her that night? She knew what her girls would have said, every last one of them. But she had chosen to believe in Mendel in life, and in life beyond death.
Eventually she must’ve fallen back to sleep, because when she woke again, she heard a clattering from the kitchen and smelled fresh-cooked food for the first time since Mendel died. He'd always done the cooking and once he was gone, she’d had no energy in her to take on that additional task. These days she subsisted on Chinese delivery, pizza, and either Nutrigrain cereal and milk or a sugary cereal as a treat if it were a Friday or Saturday.
She dressed hurriedly in flowing white pants and a flowered blouse. She topped it with a large chunky necklace, and checked her short gray hair in the mirror. How nice it was to have someone to dress for in the morning.
She found Gene within the small, white, galley kitchen looking puzzled. All of her cabinet doors hung open and he seemed to be searching for something in the tall pantry. He didn’t notice her come in, so she watched him quietly.
She liked that he sang to himself as he cooked. But it was also strange. Mendel approached cooking as if it were sacred, something to be done in hushed concentration. Never distracted with song. But here was Gene singing “Hello Dolly” as he worked. He had a lovely tenor and hit every note perfectly. It was a pleasure.
She watched him sorting through her twenty different boxes of cereal before she said, “Good morning. Can I help you find something?”
He turned at the sound of her voice, raising his hands in a hopeless gesture. “I am sorry,” he said. “I had hoped to have everything ready for you before you woke up.”
She looked around. There was a plate of something covered on the stove. He’d made matzah brei in a pan, along with a pile of hash brown potatoes, and she could see that the oven was on a low setting. It smelled like fried eggs, fried potatoes, and something sweet.
“What are you looking for?”
“Do you have salami?”
“No, I'm too lazy to make fry salami. I might still have some jars of pickled herring, if you’d like.” She decided not to tell him that they were leftover jars from Mendel’s funeral.
“No need,” he said.
She watched him as he washed up from cooking, his sleeves rolled up to his elbows, soaping enthusiastically, singing in a pleasant tenor with just the slightest bit of quaver. He moved like a man in his fifties. A fit man in his fifties. She knew him to be in his eighties. The stooped, aged man with the sad eyes whom she'd invited to her table had been transformed. Amazing what company, food, and a good night’s sleep could do for a man. And what it did for him was… intriguing.
“All that’s left is fourteen seconds to try to do what I must next,” he sang. It sounded like something from Broadway, but she couldn’t place it and had thought she knew every Broadway musical ever made. Must be something really obscure. He finished up and laughed, watching her watch him. He shrugged as he pulled the dish towel from its place hanging next to the sink. “We all wash as if we are about to perform surgery these days,” he said.
“What musical was that from? I don’t recognize it.”
“You love musicals? Were you an actress? I used to tread the boards myself back in the day.”
“No, just an aficionado of Broadway. The song?”
“Not a musical, I’m afraid, but Broadway composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman wrote a song to sing while washing our hands. I can teach it to you if you'd like.”
“I would like that very much, but after we eat.”
He bowed deeply, doffing an imaginary hat. “I am at your service, my fair benefactress. I will forever sing of you in my heart. You saved me last night, and I am filled with gratitude and joy this morning.”
He motioned her to the table, which had been set with one place setting at the foot and one at the head, about six feet apart. She would like to be closer, but he was right. Certainly Emmy would want them six feet apart. With face masks. Susan would demand that both of them wear hazmat suits. She laughed at the vision of the slender, affable man in front of her in a bulky hazmat suit.
“Share the joke?”
“I was just picturing my daughter’s demands of us. They'd like to wrap me in bubblewrap and lock me away for my own safety.”
“It's a frightening time. Your daughters are right to worry.”
“They worry too much.”
He laid out a feast of stunning proportions. There was fresh brewed tea, non-dairy creamer, matzah brei, hash browns finished with minced parsley, and a bowl of fresh sliced fruit. It turned out that a sweet kugel made from leftover apples and matzah was what had been warming in the oven. He poured caramelized sugar over it in front of her with a dramatic flourish. She couldn’t help herself: she applauded, laughing in delight.
“This is perfect,” she said. “More than perfect. Thank you, Gene.”
“It’s the least I can do for you after you took me in last night. I had no place to go and you brought me into your seder and gave me a place to sleep. It means a lot to me.”
“Sorry about the girls last night. They’ll come around.”
He waved his hand dismissively.
“Tell me about your family,” she said, as she began eating the matzah brei, which was tasty but a little dry compared to Mendel’s.
“I don't have many left,” he said. “I have a cousin in New York. I never married. Never had children. Yours look like they must be a true blessing.”
“A mixed blessing, let me tell you,” she said with a laugh. “But they are good girls. Mostly. I’ll tell you though, the best part of life is having grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”
“I have a cousin in Queens, where I’m from. She tested positive for the virus. I haven’t heard anything from her since then.”
“I am so sorry, Gene,” she said. Then, to change the topic, “What brought you to Colorado?”
“I needed a change of career, so I came here to get a degree in GIS & GeoInformatics at Colorado School of Mines. I ended up with a job in the oil industry while it was raging in Colorado. Before it all went south.”
He had to be smart as a whip to have gotten into, and graduate with a degree from, Mines. There was more to him than his looks. “You didn't leave during the recession?”
“Nah, I don't want to live in Oklahoma or Texas or anywhere else. I like it here.”
“Mendel and I fell in love with Colorado and decided to live here.”
“Mendel was your husband?”
He didn’t respond but dug his fork into the matzah brei. His eyes fluttered closed for a brief moment as he ate, as if he were tasting a fine wine.
Chava started in on the kugel. He’d cooked the raisins with the apples so that they were plump and juicy. He’d finished it with a sprinkle of fragrant cinnamon and a drizzle of caramelized sugar. It was like having dessert for breakfast, which Chava fully approved of. Life is short, have dessert first had long been her personal motto. She imagined him staying and cooking breakfast for her every morning. How would that be?
The next day, the second day of Passover week, Joanie called. “Mom? You shouldn’t have taken a strange man into your place. You don’t know who he is really. He could be a con man. What if he was waiting for you to open that door? I mean, everyone knows that doors will open on Passover.”
“That is ridiculous. He is not a con man; he’s my neighbor, and he is staying.”
“Mom, what would Daddy say?”
“Your father never turned anyone away, certainly not someone who came to the door when we looked for Elijah. You, of all my daughters, should know that.”
“Do you think your father would have been okay with this relationship of yours?”
“Are you talking about my wife?” Her voice sounded stiff, offended.
“Yes. We love Mary now, of course. But before that, we were not comfortable with the idea of you taking up with a woman.”
Joanie blew out her breath noisily, like a horse. “What you mean? And what does this have to do with that man? He's not a woman.”
“It’s the same thing. When we opened the door for Elijah, and you and your wife were standing there, your father changed his mind. He said, “Elijah brought them at that exact moment. It means we must embrace them as a couple.”
“I didn't know Daddy didn’t approve before that.”
“Now you know. And Elijah brought Gene to this house. Your father would have brought him in, so I did too.”
She heard a gulp at the other end of the line. Joanie said in a slightly strained voice, “What about now?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Do you like my wife now? Or have you always hated her?”
“We love Mary. I love her. Your father loved her. It just took time to get to know her. That's the point. Elijah knew she was right for you. He brought you to the door at the exact right moment. Just like Gene.”
“Okay, Mom. Okay. Do you need anything?”
After she hung up the phone, Chava turned to Gene and said, “One daughter down. That’s the easiest one.”
“I don't want to come between you and your family. I can go to a hotel. I can go to New York. This will all blow over eventually.”
“No, Gene. You're staying here. You are my very welcome guest.”
On the fourth day of Passover week, Emmy called during the day. She must be calling from the hospital, Chava thought.
Emmy’s tired voice said, “Mom? Do you still have that man there?”
“Gene? Yes. Are you calling to talk me out of it?”
She sighed heavily. “No, Joanie says you cannot be talked out of it. But I’ve brought you some masks, two pairs of goggles, gloves, and instructions. I am outside your door.”
Chava’s heart leapt at the thought of another visitor. She patted her hair and headed for the door. “You’re here?”
Emmy’s voice increased in volume, a note of anxiety percolated through it. “Don't open the door for me. I don't know what I've got. I may be carrying the virus home from the hospital. I am dangerous to you right now. Follow the instructions and make sure your guest does, too. Understand?”
Emmy asked after a pause, “How long is he staying?”
“He’s staying until he doesn't need to be here anymore. At least until the end of Passover, I think.”
“Be very careful, Mama. You’re eighty-two. Covid-19 is merciless on those who are old.”
“Are you saying I'm old?” She laughed, and Emmy responded with a dutiful laugh. It was an old joke, but sometimes the old banter is the best.
“You’re a very young eighty-two year old. I’m leaving now, Mom. Wipe down the package, then wash your hands after you bring the package in. And don’t touch your visitor. Especially don’t sleep with him.”
“I’m serious here, Mom. Safety first.”
Chava opened the door, but Emmy was already gone. She’d left a plastic grocery bag filled with the gear, some hand sanitizer, and the instructions. Chava brought it in and placed it by the front door. Then she washed her hands.
Gene looked up from his Kindle. She noticed that his eyes were the exact blue of the painted morning glories in her favorite painting. She rested in them for a moment. Damn Emmy for putting thoughts of sleeping with him in her head. Now she could see how perfect that would be.
“Is she coming in?” he asked.
“No, she says she might have the virus. She brought us protective gear and instructions.”
Susan called the next day. “If that man is still here, you have to get rid of him. You have to for your own health. What would Daddy say?”
“Daddy came to me and told me it’s fine.”
“You cannot believe that. That’s just stupid, Mom. You are being played by that man.”
Chava hung up.
Susan called a few times a day after that, always with the same message, until Chava could take it no longer and just stopped answering Susan’s calls. Thank God for modern phones that identify the callers.
On the seventh day of Passover, after another excellent breakfast by Gene, they retreated to the living room. Chava took the brown overstuffed leather sofa. Gene sat in Mendel’s recliner singing “Miracle of Miracles” while Chava clapped in time with the song. He’d just sung, “Walked him through the lion’s den,” when the front door burst open.
It was Susan, wearing an embroidered blue face mask clearly made from an old dress. Her hair had been tucked under a blue runner’s cap. She’d matched the face mask to her blue shirt and tan skirt. Her wild, angry eyes made an amusing contrast with the pretty embroidered flowers. She pointed to Gene and said in a loud, but somewhat muzzy, voice “Get out! You leave my mother in peace.”
“Susan, what are you doing?”
“He leaves or I take off all of my things and embrace him.”
“Susan, this is terrible behavior! Apologize.”
“I am protecting you, Mom.” She pointed at Gene, her eyes blazing and wet. “Get out. For the sake of my mother, leave.”
Gene nodded his head slowly. Chava could see the lines deepen in his face. He lifted himself up as if it took a great deal of effort. “I understand.” He walked slowly into the guest room. Through the doorway, Chava could see him lift his suitcase onto the bed as if it were made of lead.
Chava turned to Susan and pointed a shaking finger at her. She was so angry she could barely take a breath in. “You are a terrible daughter. Get out. Now!”
“Is he leaving?”
“No,” Chava said, her vehemence coming out as a shout.
Gene came back out, wearing his coat, brown fedora, and carrying a single suitcase. “I don’t want trouble, not on my account,” he said. “I’ll leave.”
Chava raised her voice and pointed the same finger at him. “No! That is completely unacceptable. Stay here.”
“I won’t come between you and your family.”
“See what you've done, Susan. Get out of my house and never return. I disown you.”
“You can't disown me. You already disowned me last month. And if that’s what it takes to keep you safe, I am happy to be disowned. I will die alone knowing I have done the right thing.” Her eyes gestured wildly above the ridiculous flowered mask like those of a silent movie heroine tied to the train tracks. If Chava had not been so angry, it would have looked funny.
Susan swooped out the door. Always drama with that girl. She should have become an actress, not an insurance saleswoman. But it didn’t matter. The damage was done. Gene followed her out the door.
“Why are you leaving?”
“I am causing trouble here. Don't worry, I'll be okay.”
“No, Gene. Don’t leave. It’s not safe out there.”
He tipped his hat and walked down the hall with his suitcase and coat.
Mendel, what shall I do? Tell me.
Nothing happened. No sign from Mendel. She had never felt so old and so alone.
She looked at the unused masks and goggles by the door. Gene needed protection at least. She put a mask on, gathered the rest of the gear, and ran after him. But where had he gone?
Down. Down to the parking garage. She operated the elevator by pressing the button with her elbow and rubbed hand sanitizer over the buttons.
They got to the first floor and she didn’t see anyone. Her heart hammered in her chest. Where was he?
A warm breeze stirred impossibly from the garage displacing the cool dusty air. Was that the slightest fragrance of caramelized sugar and matzoh brei? How was it even possible she smelled it? Still, it was there. Gene! She followed her nose to a white sedan. “Gene!”
“I can’t hurt your relationship with your daughters, Chava.”
She started to cry. “Please come back with me. Please. I can’t live alone anymore, I just can't. If you don't return, I will go where there are a lot of sick people. I will volunteer to work with the sick. The only way to keep me safe is to come home with me. It’s logical.”
He caressed her cheek with his thumb. “That would be dangerous.” Tears welled in his eyes also.
She knew then what she had to do. There was only one way to remove the threat of contagion between them. She pushed down her mask and kissed him fully on the mouth. She felt him melt against her and return the kiss. Shivers of delight ran up and down her body.
“There,” she said. “We have shared breath and spit. If we are to get sick, let’s get sick together. Come back upstairs.”
And he did.
On the last day of Passover, Gene prepared a special feast, scenting the kitchen with chicken stew and a sweet potato cholent. Emmy and Joanie phoned in with greetings. Susan was still angry, but Chava knew she would recover.
Chava lit the vanilla candle in lieu of a yartzeit candle to commemorate Mendel’s life. She thanked him for blessing her with so many years of happiness and for helping her find Gene.
Suddenly she smelled something like the roses Mendel had bought her every holiday and birthday.
“Do you smell that?”
Gene looked around and sniffed. “Vanilla. Nice choice of candle.”
“No. Roses. Do you smell roses?”
Gene shook his head and Chava realized that it was a message just for her. Mendel approved. Thank you, Mendel.
“Thank you, Gene. I think tonight we should cuddle on the couch, don’t you?”
And they did.