Viesha took great pleasure in waking Hersh Wolf. Three times each week she took the elevator up to his apartment, opened the heavy wooden door and stepped inside. Once the door was flush with the wall and the hinge-springs were begging for release, she let go, watching with clasped hands as it cracked into its warped metal frame. Oops, she would shout, managing to make the simple word sound foreign as she hung her coat and removed her plain black shoes. But today she came in quietly, replacing the door with care. She moved delicately along the parquet floor, impressive for a woman of her girth. She knocked gingerly on Hersh’s bedroom door as she opened it, whispering for the forty-five-year-old man inside to wake up. Hersh lay still, his white bedspread wrapped around him like a loose diaper, the late morning sun bleaching his face, and for the briefest moment Viesha felt pity for him. She knocked harder and spoke as sweet as she could muster- he was now, technically, her employer- but still, he did not move. Not one for third chances she closed the door until there was a slice of light and slid back to the front closet. She procured the vacuum, its age that of the apartment, and wheeled the giant into his room. She plugged it in by the bedside table and flipped the switch. The blast of its engine shook the room. Hersh jerked slightly and squeezed his eyes, feigning sleep for a minute longer, then opened them, first one then the other.
Must you? he shouted, covering his ears and curling away from her.
Viesha ignored him and was now mowing repeatedly over a fortune cookie Hersh had crushed into the carpet, a few crumbs of which were still between his toes. It had been thirty days since Hersh’s father died and today was the unveiling of his tombstone. In an earnest, if furtive, attempt at love, Hersh’s dying father asked the shtiebel men if, from time to time, they would check in on his only child. The gathered promised they would, out of respect for the dying and with the small but tangible feeling that they too would cling to similarly comforting lies in the not distant future. In reality, they were content to let Hersh remain separate from them and their shtiebel, willing to let him roam their pocket of downtown while slowly fading in with the buildings.
Finding nothing else to vacuum, Viesha turned off the machine and began tidying the top of the long dresser, half-filled with Hersh’s things and some yellowed undershirts his father had left behind. Hersh remained in bed, his eyes shut against the day’s demands. The bed was beds, really, his parents, two twins pushed together and apart based on his mother’s cycle. He slept on his mother’s side because he was still in love with her. She had not slept in that bed for over three decades, since the night after Hersh’s bar mitzvah, the night she left.
Without warning, Viesha grabbed at the sheets and pulled, sending Hersh into a tumble as she mightily unraveled him from his nest, her Polish forearms making easy work of him.
I’m not going he said, attempting authority, his striped boxer shorts twisted around his thin waist, his avian arms out to his sides as he held tight to the mattress.
Hershele, my sweet. Wear the black suit. She looked at her watch, so small on her meaty wrist. You have one hour.
I did the shiva. That damned Rabbi Slavitovsky. And what maid says what’s so?
This one. Dress she barked as she packed the laundry into its basket and left the room.
Hersh sought solace outside the room’s single large window. It was humid despite the wheezing air conditioner. A few low, grey clouds puttered down the river beneath an achingly bright sky. He wished in that moment for a serious job or a child with an incurable ailment, some unavoidable distraction. Paying further respects to the man who made his mother leave was low on his plodding list, which included collecting rent and a visit to the massage parlor on Christopher Street. He still missed his mother’s warm hands, her French perfumes, her red lips. He had never learned why she left and in all the silent moments since it had never occurred to him that the small room with the waning light and the boxes and the tilted picture frames was meant for more children. At least that was his father’s plan.
The thought of saying a graveside kaddish among a quorum of old Jews sent Hersh back to the shtiebel, with its yellow light and low wooden ceilings sagging beneath the tenement above. As a child he sat immune to the tunes and chants, his mind elsewhere, back in the apartment playing with the curves and falls of her cigarette smoke as she sat with ankles crossed, her head out the window, searching the sky for a better life. He would often get stomach aches and she would give him an enema. His mother treated the procedure with medical distance but for Hersh it became a private love. He found himself missing them, thinking of them when he thought of her and the other way around. When she left, he cried and cried and couldn’t go to the bathroom for weeks. Hersh’s father sat in the leather chair that was faded even then, looking like a grey crow in the sharp winter light, his stack of holy books on the small square table next to him.