“Wake up. Wake up, my darling.”
The old man sleeping next to her opened his eyes with great effort.
“Mmm … what is it, libling?”
“It’s time to get up. Today is the day, have you forgotten? Come on, I’ll get breakfast ready.”
The woman thrust the sheets aside with a force that allowed her feet to slide down toward the floor. With her soles planted firmly on the ground, she steadied her body, her weight on her elbow, bracing herself for the next step.
She was old and tired, and the maneuvering required simply to stand up grew more exhausting with each passing day.
For a moment, she stayed very still, allowing both the dizziness to pass and her heart rate to steady again. Behind her, still motionless, lay her husband, his eyes wide open. He too waited, in hopes that he would be seized by enough energy to get out of bed.
She counted silently. “One … two … three.” By the time she reached ten, she told herself, she would be on her feet. She found herself filled with an inexplicable sense of relief. For a moment she marveled at the unanticipated sensation. And then it suddenly made sense: there was hardly a need to rush; she could give herself all the time in the world she needed to get out of bed; it was assuredly a luxury that had not been afforded to her earlier in her life.
“Ten.” With one deep breath she pulled herself up. She felt dizzy, but she would need only a few seconds before taking her first steps of the day. In just three or four small strides, she would reach the windowsill.
Just beyond those glass panes she’d find the streets of Brooklyn, saturated in the gray light of dawn. The view wasn’t terribly magnificent—just little two-story houses, a corner tobacco shop, and a school in the distance. It seemed a world away from the Manhattan skyline, and yet she adored this little spot, where she knew no harm could come to her.
She turned toward the bed. Her husband was struggling to untangle himself from the sheets.
“Wait, let me help you.”
She turned around and leaned toward him. She pulled off the sheets that had been wrapped around his feet. She lifted his frail ankles and helped him set his feet upon the floor. When he sat up, they found themselves face to face. They peered into each other’s eyes, and for a split second, she spotted that cheeky look that had so enchanted her years ago.
The old man was finally seated on the bed, his back curved from the weight of time. His plaid nightshirt hung limply from his thin shoulders. Again she leaned toward him, holding him this time by his armpits. But as she attempted to pull him up, he quickly swatted her away.
“A brokh! First of all, I’m not that decrepit,” he snapped. “And secondly, the day that I can’t get my own self out of bed, I want you to call the police, tell them that I’m a criminal and that I was attacking you. Then, have them shoot me. And lastly, if you try to help me up again, you and I are both going to end up on the floor.”
The woman smiled to herself.
He clung proudly to the headboard as he managed to set his own feet squarely on the floor.
“I’m going to the bathroom,” he announced is if it were some sort of declaration of war. The woman made her way toward the kitchen, a tiny room that could hardly accommodate a single person at a time. She lit the stove under a pot, the contents of which had been prepared the night before. She opened one of the ancient white kitchen cupboards—they hadn’t changed since the fifties—and pulled out the necessary accoutrements for a table setting. She set everything on a tray and brought it into the dining room, unquestionably the most beautiful room in the apartment, boasting wooden floors and ornate stucco molding. The walls gave way to three windows from which one could see the little neighborhood park. At the center of the room sat a long, narrow table, one which seemed fit more for a restaurant or a wedding banquet rather than a home. She quietly shuffled about the room in her green felt slippers, placing the tray that held the cutlery at the center of the table. She began to arrange the place settings. The bowls were all made of shoddy tin, resembling old mess-tins from the war. They were each misshapen leftover pieces; corroded in parts and dented in others. She placed them meticulously on the table, one after the other in a most precise manner. The first, the second, then the third … When she had finished, there were ten place settings in all. She carefully studied the table so as to ensure that the symmetry of each setting was not compromised. She returned to the kitchen. She observed the pot on the lit stove in which a blackish concoction now boiled. The old woman tasted it with a spoon, and then turned off the flame.
She opened another cupboard, and from it she pulled out a large paper sack. She took out a loaf of rye bread, which she painstakingly sliced with a serrated knife. The bread was old, and had become hard and fairly unappetizing. She sliced the loaf into ten equal portions, pausing after each one to ensure that the size was indeed the same as all the others. She set the slices in a basket and returned to the dining room. She examined the table yet again, placing a slice next to each tin bowl. She then carried the pot, in which the coffee still boiled, into the dining room, all the while teetering from the weight of the load. With an old distorted, wooden ladle, she poured a large serving into each tin. When the preparations were complete, her husband emerged from the bathroom freshly shaven and dressed in a white robe.
“You’ve already prepared everything,” he mumbled, disappointed at not having helped her.
“Get changed and come in.”
After a moment, the old man reappeared, dressed in a chestnut brown woolen suit. His pants, which were much too long, brushed the floor, and the cuffs of his oversized shirt peered out from beneath his jacket sleeves. At one time it had been quite an elegant suit, yet it now seemed somewhat ragged.
They each took their places: he seated himself at the head of the table, while she took the chair just to his left.
The old man tore a generous piece from his hardened slice of bread and dipped it in the ersatz coffee to soften the bite. His teeth were no longer what they used to be, yet he had no desire to succumb to the idea of dentures. In truth, he still felt very much like the same young man who had miraculously survived the depths of hell.
Cautiously, he bit into his stale morsel of bread, struggling to swallow. The old woman did the same.
The rest of the table was vacant. A faint line of steam rose from each of the other eight bowls before dissipating into the air, while the eight slices of bread remained, waiting patiently to be devoured. The old man ate another mouthful of bread and sipped a few spoonfuls of coffee. The smaller morsels seemed to please the old woman much more. They ate, consumed by a seemingly sacred silence, one that neither of them dared to break. Their eyes were lost in thought, filled by images both distant and terrible.
Ten minutes passed, and no one came to sit. The eight places remained empty. The steam no longer rose from the bowls: the black liquid had now turned cold. The old woman stared at their own empty tin bowls and the few crumbs that remained on the tablecloth.
“Are you done, hartsenyu?” she asked him. Her husband nodded his head, and then got up from the table.
“Are you going to get ready then?” the old man asked his wife.
She shook her head. “I’m feeling quite tired this morning. You go. Tell the rabbi that I wasn’t feeling well.” He lingered there for a moment, surprised by her sudden break in routine.
“Are you sure?”
“You go. I’ll prepare everything here, and maybe even have a bath. You’ll come home for lunch, won’t you?”
He was not sure whether a question mark followed her last words; nonetheless, he nodded his head. He then put on his coat and his outdated, wide-brimmed hat, one which he had worn with pleasure for the last thirty years, and turned to go.
And there, at the door, just as they had done every day for the last fifty years, they kissed each other on the cheek. The old man left without another word.
Copyright © 2012 by Piero degli Antoni
Translation copyright © 2012 by Erin Waggener