Chaim tried to keep his rheumy eyes focused on the paint-by-number canvas clamped to the easel. But his gaze kept returning to the window and the moving van parked below, alongside the aging brownstone. Movers came and went, crunching the multi-colored leaves, carrying their burden into the building. Chaim squinted at the sun flooding through the ivory lace curtains, reflected off the pink, plastic-covered sofa.
Straightening his sore back, he thought longingly of his recently departed friend. “Weinstock was a mentsch. But good to have some new company.” Chaim spoke toward the truck and the new neighbor moving in. “Do you play chess, I wonder.” Rubbing the ache in his left forearm, he turned his gaze back to the painting and dabbed ochre on the urn in the still life. Similar paintings hung in a continuous border around the room.
The familiar clomp of orthopedic shoes and the jingle of keys intruded on Chaim’s concentration. As he looked up, the heavy wooden door swung open and a handcart laden with groceries was shoved inside.
“Chaim,” Frieda called, “come take this buggy into the kitchen for me.” She hung her shapeless brown wool coat on the rack and removed a red Maple leaf from the collar.
“I met the man moving into the Weinstocks’ apartment.” Frieda followed Chaim as he wound his way through the dining room, around the heavy mahogany furniture, and set her cream-colored pocketbook on the sideboard. “He seems nice enough. Kind of quiet. He’s alone, no wife to take care of him.” She began emptying the bags, piling items onto the gold-flecked counter.
Chaim folded the handcart and slid it between the worn formica table and the back door, hiking up his baggy brown pants and flexing his arthritic hands. “Does he have a name, this lonely man with no one to care for him?”
“Of course he has a name,” Frieda responded. “Everything has a name.” She steadied herself on a stepstool and began putting away the groceries.
“Will I ever know what it is?” Chaim enjoyed the back and forth of his life with Frieda. Nothing was ever simple, but it was never boring either.
“His name is Borys Chlopnicki. Are you happy now?”
“A bisel happier. But I am sure you know much more than a mere name.” Chaim turned on the burner under the teapot and took two barrel glasses from the drainer. “Frieda Schlessel would never be able to walk away with just a name. You must know his whole life story, my darling yenteh. So tell me and then I will know, too.”
“Finish making the tea while I put these things away.” Frieda continued restocking the cupboard.
Chaim reached past her for the canister of tea just as the pot began to whistle. His hand accidentally brushed her breast and he stopped, staring into her eyes. “Shana Frieda. Shana darling.”
Frieda gazed into his eyes for a long moment. “Alter Kucker! Dirty old man! You’re 75 years old! Go fix the tea.” Smiling, she pushed him aside.
He poured two steaming glasses and sat down at the pockmarked table, trying to be patient while Frieda finished her work. Chaim set a small china bowl of sugar cubes between the two tumblers. He beamed as he watched her.
Frieda shut the cupboard door and moved to the table. “Oy, the walk from the Pick ‘n’ Pay seems longer each week. I tell you, Chaim, the children I see just standing around on Coventry! If it’s not blue hair it’s boys in girls’ clothing! Or girls in the boys’ clothing! Or they’re carrying on with each other in the street! What shnorrers some of them are, with their hands out for any morsel.”
Frieda heaved a deep sigh. “Thank you for making the tea, Chaim.” She picked up a sugar cube and bit it in half, setting the other half on a napkin. She sipped the tea, letting the sweetener do its work. Chaim could see the mark of her pink lipstick on the sugary remnant.
“Nu! The story will not tell itself, Frieda. I want to hear about the new neighbor. Did he mention if he plays chess?”
“You haven’t played since Morty died, have you? You miss him, I know. I miss Sarah. But Morty lived a good life. And Sarah is better off with her daughter in California.” Frieda pulled a tissue from the recesses of her cleavage and dabbed at the corners of her eyes.
“Yes, yes. But the new neighbor. What can you tell me of him?” Chaim tried to steer Frieda back to the subject at hand.
“Well, Mr. Chlopnicki just arrived from Detroit. I could tell by the look of his furniture that a woman chose it for him, so I asked him.”
“You asked him if a woman picked out his furniture?” Chaim shook his head in awe. “My wife the yenteh.”
“No, Chaim. I asked him if there was a Mrs. Chlopnicki. He told me his wife died in 1995. They were married 49 years. Such tsoris! And they were never blessed with children.”
“And how did you find out that piece of news?”
“I asked him if he moved here to be near his daughter.”
“So our new neighbor lost his wife and has no children. And his interest in chess is unknown. Is that the crux of it?”
“He is originally from Poland.”
“Poland,” Chaim whispered. “Like me.” Tears welled up in his eyes. Rubbing his left arm, he felt Frieda’s hand on his.
“He is goyishe, a Catholic.” Frieda finished quietly. “That is all I know.”
Chaim sat silently, absentmindedly rubbing his arm. His eyes were still wet.
“Chaim, bubeleh, you should paint. You know how you enjoy it.” Frieda patted his arm and smiled. “I’m going to bake some mandelbrot for Mr. Chlopnicki. Then we’ll know if he plays chess.”
Chaim sat up in bed, sweating. His movement was so sudden that Frieda woke.
“What’s the matter?” She mumbled, turning over in bed, the pale blue tissue taped to her hair crinkling and tearing.
“Nothing, Frieda. Go back to sleep.” Chaim patted her hip through the coverlet.
“No, Chaim. You’re farklempt. What’s the matter?”
“Nothing. I’m oysgeshpilt.”
“Of course you are. It’s the middle of the night. Who wouldn’t be exhausted?” Frieda patted her hair in an apparent attempt to keep the Kleenex construction under control.
“I had a nightmare, that is all,” he said, absentmindedly rubbing his left arm.
“Ptoi, ptoi.” Frieda chased the dream through her fingers and away. “Alright, tell me.”
“I do not wish to talk about it.” Chaim turned on his side, facing away from Frieda. He tried to feign sleep.
“Chaim Schlessel. You never want to talk about it but you know that talking always helps. Tsoris shared, Chaim.”
“Frieda, go to sleep. I am not discussing it. I will not hear another word.”
“Oy!” Frieda turned over, as always making one last comment.
Chaim listened as Frieda’s muttered grumbling faded off to a gentle snore. That is it, then – thank god. Chaim closed his eyes but it was impossible to get the image of the vicious dogs, jaws dripping drool, out of his mind. He could still hear them growling along with the guttural shouts of their handlers. Exhausted though he was, Chaim could not put this image behind him.
As Frieda’s breathing evened, Chaim slipped quietly from the bed. Shaking, heart pounding, he slid his feet into worn slippers and pulled on the plaid flannel robe retrieved from a velvet-covered occasional chair. Frieda moaned softly but did not stir. Chaim gently closed the bedroom door so the light from the kitchen would not disturb her.
He pulled a tall glass from the drainer and retrieved the lemon juice and seltzer from the old, harvest gold refrigerator. Rummaging through the flatware for a long-handled spoon proved a noisy endeavor and Chaim did his best to be quiet. He added two cubes of sugar and stirred the concoction vigorously to create the desired effect.
Moving to his chair in the corner of the room, Chaim set the glass gingerly on the table. Removing the spoon he laid it neatly on a napkin, careful to capture any drip. Leaving no detritus was important. Frieda would know how tormented he had been if she found evidence of his vice.
Chaim raised the drink to his lips and felt the sweet cool liquid flow. Oh, the delicious nectar! Lemon-ade was a delight of the heavens and Chaim could feel the demons of his dream recede.
Slowly sipping the drink to savor every drop took Chaim back to his childhood. Whenever something bothered him Mama made lemon-ade, lime-ade, orange-ade. Whatever she had in the house would suffice. But it would always be sweet and wonderful. And she would sit at the table with him and talk about his problems. Oh, how good it felt to have Mama’s eyes on just him. Whatever the matter had been, it would disappear when he sat with Mama and drank a glass of lemon-ade. And when the troubles came… Chaim would sometimes think if he could only have a glass at the table with Mama he could manage anything. Tears stung his eyes at the thought.
Chaim tipped the glass back to be sure to get the last drops. Then, using the spoon, he scraped the bits of sugar from the bottom and sides toward the mouth of the cup so he could slurp them up. Moving back to the sink Chaim washed away the evidence of his midnight treat, arthritic hands aching with the water and movement. As he set the glass in the drainer he noticed the plate of mandelbrot, covered in plastic. For the goyishe neighbor, he supposed. He hoped Frieda made extra.
Chaim turned out the light and made his way back to bed, trying not to bump into anything, his eyes not used to the dark. When he got into bed, Frieda snuggled against him. As always when the nightmares came, Chaim hoped the last fleeting images of dogs and men would recede once and for all, finally allowing sleep.