Three for a Dollar

Hello, Friends–I wanted to share with you the first story in my latest manuscript, Three for a Dollar, a compilation of original short stories.  Each tale features a character at a pivotal point in life.  I hope you enjoy this first story, and I wish all of you a joyous holiday season and a Happy & Healthy New Year!–Shirley

 

A Woman of Valor

 

As Mrs. Tinsel placed a hot plate of lamb chops and spinach in front of her husband, she felt just the hint of a smile come to her face.  By the time she sat down and placed a fork into her own portion, she knew the smile had broadened to resemble something very uncharacteristic of her, a kind of giddiness.

Out of the corner of her eye, she glanced up at her husband who was chewing mechanically, his half-closed eyes revealing nothing but a dumb blankness.  Good thing he hadn’t noticed the smile, she quickly thought, but then there wasn’t much about her he had noticed since they married twenty-seven years ago.  Three years ago, when he had his triple bypass, things got worse, if it was possible.  Now, only a few words passed between them during the course of a day, subtle amenities at the breakfast table or when browsing the mail.  It wasn’t too bad, she finally admitted to herself, and after awhile, her husband’s reticence became one of the few things about him she could actually count on.

She swallowed hard on a chunk of the lamb now as she appraised the man sitting opposite her.  Always fair-skinned, in the last year, his face had taken on a soft, doughy hue.  Now as he ate, his cheeks billowing and deflating with each bite, he did not bother to pat back the few straight strands of pale blonde hair which, with oily tenacity, fell in front of his eyes now and then.  In between his bites, she could discern an audible breath, as if the work of chewing was almost too much.  The sight of him eating, Mrs. Tinsel concluded, would be enough for any restaurant patron sitting nearby to regurgitate in the nearest bathroom.  Anyway, it was a moot point since the couple had abandoned all thoughts of dining out, right after her husband’s surgery.  She looked at her silver watch with the big numbers.  Only ten more minutes and he would return to his study, absorbing himself in numbers, as he prepared tax returns for the handful of clients who still remained with him.  And then a brief delicious silence would fill the small kitchen until she turned on the under-the-counter TV and watched the news, or, if she was in the mood, switched the radio on to the classical music station which churned the air with a vibrant symphony.

Mrs. Tinsel dabbed at her mouth with a napkin and took a sip of water.  Now what was it that came to her mind only a moment ago?  And then she remembered.  Today was Thursday, and that meant only one more day before Shabbat.  This had been an especially weary week, what with the sudden late March snowstorm on Monday, and the next few days spent cooped up indoors instead of volunteering at the library or driving Meals on Wheels. She thought she might just lose her mind.  But it all didn’t matter now, for the snow had melted practically the next day (and to think she had paid those boys twenty dollars to shovel it), and now the sun was its bright self, and in only another day it would be Shabbat!

Shabbat, the day of rest is one of God’s commandments, a day firmly adhered to by all devout Jews, and the one day of the week Mrs. Tinsel lived for.  Not only did Shabbat provide her the time and space in which she could express her piety, it was the day she herself could shine.  While others in the congregation dutifully refrained from work of any sort, ironically, Mrs. Tinsel found herself most active on this traditional day of rest.  She would enter the low slung brick synagogue at 9am, finding herself second only to the rabbi and his early morning minyon, the ten gentlemen necessary for a proper prayer group.  First, she would check that the flowers were in place on the bima, or platform, in front of the sanctuary.  Then, she would return to the vestibule and count the programs, and, if there was a bar mitzvah or other special occasion planned for the morning, she would quietly thumb through the leather or suede yarmulkes, the head coverings for the men, supplied by the honored family, as she took note of those personally crocheted by an adoring grandmother or aunt.  After one glance into the kitchen to see what was to be served at the afternoon Kiddush luncheon she would rush back into the vestibule just in time to assume her place at the front table so that her greeting, her hearty “Shabbat Shalom!” was the first the congregants would hear just before they entered the sanctuary.

Once, after she had gotten up early on a Friday morning to deliver some bakery-bought cookies, special cookies with names written in pink icing in order to honor the women of the Sisterhood for the next day’s Shabbat Kiddush, the young rabbi peeked into the room.  He watched her for awhile, and, greeting her, said something she never forgot.  “Mrs. Tinsel,” he said, “you are truly a Woman of Valor.”  The reference was to a poem which may have been a eulogy for Abraham’s wife, but now its significance lay in the fact that it was a hymn recited at week’s end by Jewish husbands who revel in the goodness of their wives.  When the rabbi paid her this compliment, Mrs. Tinsel turned away, embarrassed that he might catch the blush rising to her face.  As President of the Sisterhood, Mrs. Tinsel was not required to perform any of these duties, yet just the same, she felt it was her obligation.

Now, as she placed the dishes into the sink, she wondered if it wasn’t too soon to begin planning which suit to wear.  She decided, finally, that it wasn’t too early.  After all, life’s small moments were meant to be savored.  Drying her hands quickly, she left the dishes to soak, and, not bothering to shut the TV, bounded quickly up the stairs.  Once in the bedroom, she shivered as a blast of cold air from an open window shocked her system.  She clicked her tongue as she pulled the window shut.  It was a silent dance played out between the two of them each evening, he, always in sweat, opening all the windows in the house, she closing them.  She wanted to say something about his rudeness, but again thought better of it.  She opened the closet and plucked two suits, a deep purple one, and a cranberry, the latter still covered in plastic.  The purple, a tightly woven sweater set with gold buttons, was her favorite, sophisticated, yet steady.  She slid her hand beneath the one clothed in plastic, pulled at a sleeve, straightening it, and then allowed her hand to skim the surface of the cranberry, a wool blend with a high ruffled collar.  She let her fingers linger against its edge, feeling a quiet thrill again come to her lips before she started downstairs.

Two hours later, at precisely 10 pm after her favorite shows were over, she knocked on the door of her husband’s study where he sat bent over a stack of papers, the nib of a lead pencil gripped tightly in his hand.  The wide computer monitor cast a bright light against his face as he worked, his jowls moving nervously as he calculated, eyes beaming into a series of numbers.

She placed four pills and a glass of water on the desk.

“Want a slice of angel food cake and some coffee, Al?”

“No,” he said, waving her off.

“Well then,” she paused, adjusting the banker’s light to his left.

“Going up now.”

“”Um,” he said, not bothering to raise his head.

“Don’t come up too late,” she added, knowing that she wouldn’t hear his heavy tread on the stairs until it was almost 3 am.

She was right, of course.  Her eyelids quivered open at 2:52 am on the clock when she felt the mattress sag deeply as her husband eased his body next to hers.  It was only a matter of minutes before she would hear the rhythmic tenor of his snoring, keeping her awake until the first glints of daylight cast crooked patterns against the ceiling.

It was at this time as she stared into the slants of white overhead, that Mrs. Tinsel had time to think about her life.  Sometimes, she wondered what her life would have been like if things were different, if she had finished college, or had children.  But some things were beyond her control, like when her mother suddenly became a widow just as the daughter was entering her junior year at Queens College, an unfortunate situation for, as the eldest, she had to quit school to help support her mother and two younger brothers.  As she held down two jobs, one as a receptionist for a car repair shop, the other as a cashier in a department store, she vowed that one day she would make sure that her child would go to college, no matter what her circumstances.  She didn’t have to worry, though, for only a year after marrying Al, she found out that she would remain hopelessly, irrevocably, as barren as the Sinai Desert.   So, she resolved to redirect her maternal instincts toward her six nieces and nephews and, of course, her husband who by the time he turned 35 had already begun showing signs of diabetes and chronic arthritis.  Although she lacked the formal higher education she would have liked, Mrs. Tinsel nonetheless always managed to find a job of some sort.  As a sales clerk in a card store, a receptionist in a dental clinic, and a service provider for the Motor Vehicle Bureau, she took each job seriously, coming in early and staying overtime, if need be.  Everyone she encountered said she was a pleasure to work with.

Eventually, she fell asleep.  Sleep for Mrs. Tinsel was always deep and rejuvenating, perhaps because of her dreams.  Rarely did she experience a night without having a glorious dream, she and her best friend Ruthie in the school playground, or standing in her mother’s kitchen, helping her stir the batter for one of her chocolate cakes.  Mostly, though, she dreamt about Israel.  It was twenty years now since she had visited the Holy Land.  Yet she remembered every detail, as immediate as if it had taken place the day before.  She had traveled on her own, her husband too busy, too indifferent to be bothered.  Since then, she knew much had changed.  Nevertheless, she still found herself relating it all to some of the younger congregants.  “You haven’t been?  Well, you must go!  Quite a sight to behold, like no other.”  Although, in fact, since this excursion she hadn’t been anywhere past Pennsylvania, Mrs. Tinsel couldn’t imagine any other place could hold such interest, such a connection.

And now, her head sunk into her seamless white pillow and she gave herself up to her dreams, memories of that special time again descending upon her like a gentle rain.  Her hand caressing the coarse rocks as she slipped tiny sheets of paper, prayers, between the stones.  Watching the day break as the full sun cast a violet swath against the sky directly above the Dome of the Rock, glistening eternal.  Her lithe body nestled like an infant swathed in the salty waves of the Dead Sea.  All these memories returned to her in her dreams as she slept in her bed each night.  These dreams, along with her faith, she knew were the things which sustained her.

And yet, as the trip itself, her dreams were short-lived, for in another hour she would be awakened by the shattering cough, the foul dispelling of gas, the touch of sweat against the sheets as her husband settled in for the night.  Sometimes her mind would try to pick up the scattered remnants of her dream, but then she would again feel the rolling motion of the bed as he sat up and plodded toward the bathroom, or the sudden bounce beside her as, snoring, he startled to a sharp intake of air.  After that, it took her an hour or so lying awake staring at the murky shadows cast by a night light plugged into the socket on the wall, trying to recapture the pleasure of dreaming.  Often, she could not go back to sleep at all and would sigh as she observed the first impetuous glints of sun stream beneath the window shades.

Friday morning she took her time getting out of bed.  No sense in rushing.  She never did volunteer work on Fridays, but spent the day shopping for the greenest greens, the leanest meats, and then she begin to cook.  By three o’clock, the aromas of her fine chicken soup and potato kugel would saturate every corner of the house, even to the front porch.  By Shabbat, as the first star blinked in the dimming light, the two of them were seated at the table, the Shabbat candles ablaze in the silver candelabra, the fine china which her mother-in-law had presented them with on her wedding day, set neatly in place.

“How’s the soup?” she would delicately inquire.

“Um,” he said, not bothering to look up as he blew on the liquid and placed the spoon against his lips.

Mrs. Tinsel smiled and continued eating.

The next morning, she got up early so as not to disturb her husband, who was still in a deep sleep, his nose pressed into the pillow, giving him the appearance of an aging boxer.  Barefoot, she tiptoed into the bathroom, feeling quite like a young girl, her white cotton nightgown fluttering against her calves.  She showered quickly, wrapped herself in an old blue terrycloth robe, and decisively walked toward the double closet doors.

She had fully made up her mind that it would be the cranberry one, which she now delicately lifted from the closet.  She placed it down at the foot of the bed and lifted the plastic from it as carefully as if she were undressing a child.  Then, she retrieved her black pantyhose from a drawer and, pointing her foot as she stood on one leg, dipped her toes inside.  She worked the stocking up over her plump thighs, fastened the black full figure bra against her skin until it hugged her back tightly, so that all the excess flesh was bound firmly inside.  Then she turned to the suit.  She stepped into the skirt, feeling the smooth silk of its slip slide easily over her legs, past her ample hips.  She patted down the folds and reached for the jacket.  Slowly, she placed her arms into the slender tubes, one at a time, feeling the jacket’s secure embrace, like a lover’s touch, across her shoulders.  She fastened the buttons, careful not to scratch her newly manicured nails, pulled on a pair of sturdy black boots and matching derby hat, and then turned to appraise herself in the mirror which hung inside the closet door.

What she saw was a stout tall woman with pale skin the color of lamb’s wool.  Her eyebrows, which had grown sparse with age, were penciled in with a russet color, a couple of shades darker than her hair which she had managed to dye just the shade of a navel orange.  She shook her head now, watching the curls spring forward and bounce back.  For years she had fussed over them, pulling the ringlets into a variety of tamed possibilities, but now she rather accepted their unruly, willful nature, and the fact that, like her, they had a mind of their own.  She moved closer, examining her eyes, which were pale blue and not unkind.  They glistened now with childlike anticipation.  Her mouth, firm-lipped, dipped down to a slight chin which preceded the jowls, two half moons which had only just begun to sag.  The new suit hugged her curves in all the right places, so that even she had to admit she looked quite amazing for a woman of 63.

She walked back into the bathroom, quickly patted her face with cherry rouge, added some mascara and matching cherry lipstick, and walked past the bed, careful to shut the door quietly behind her.

As usual, the minyon of men was already there when she pulled open one of the two glass doors of the synagogue.  She walked purposefully inside and began the routine of checking the flowers, the programs, the food for the Kiddush luncheon, making sure all was in order.  And she tried not to be self-conscious as she handed the regulars their programs, greeting them with “Shabbat Shalom.”  Secretly, she was glad that there were no bar mitzvahs or other celebratory events scheduled since it meant that visitors would not be coming in the door, people with whom she couldn’t exactly stop and chat.  Mrs. Murma, an elderly woman who lived down the block, was the first to compliment her on her outfit, calling it “quite striking.”  Mrs. Tinsel smiled, touched the brim of her black hat, and said “thank you.”

Even though there were no special events scheduled for the service, the young rabbi reminded her that it was a special day, nonetheless, for they would be concluding another Torah reading, this one regarding the Exodus.  Mrs. Tinsel thought this portion was highly appropriate, for today, somehow, in her new outfit, in this place she thought of as her own, she felt freer than she ever had in her life.  She lifted her voice in song that morning, and her prayers were so fervent, that the blend of sounds even caused a slight blush to rush to her cheeks.  She decided right then that since she looked especially presentable that she, and not one of the other women, would say the prayer for the country.  When she finished and walked slowly back to her seat, she noticed that even the Golner family, who were always serious during the service, and never gossiped, nodded to her respectfully.

Later, at the Kiddush luncheon, there were more compliments. The rabbi’s wife, blowing on her coffee, walked up to her and even commented that she looked like she might have lost some weight.  Mrs. Tinsel laughed softly, and when the wife turned to greet someone else, reached toward the center platter, allowing herself an extra slice of marble cake.

The moment she returned home, however, she realized something was different.  Nothing she could really put her finger on, but there was a static tension in the air, and the rooms were oddly quiet.  She headed for her husband’s office and opened the door, but he wasn’t sitting in his usual chair; there were only the stacks of papers and a couple of manuals next to the computer on the desk.  She went to the kitchen and didn’t find him there either.  She thought he might be in the bathroom, but when she called his name, the only answer she received was the grinding sound of her neighbor’s car engine as he exited the garage.  She proceeded up to the bedroom.  There he was on his stomach, still under the covers as she had left him that morning.

“Al, do you know what time it is?” she scolded.  But when she went over to him and touched his arm, she knew.  He was ice cold, lifeless.  Mrs. Tinsel’s hand trembled as she lifted the receiver to call 911.

A week later, after a quick graveside service, and the lovely eulogy by the rabbi, (truly lovely, considering it was for a man he had never met), after the mourning “shiva” period was over, the hugs, the expressions of comfort, the hot bowls of chicken soup, the baskets of fruit, she resumed her life.  But this time, she could cook only for herself, even have spaghetti with spicy marinara sauce if she desired, and afterward, since there was no one to disturb, she could sit in the living room and watch all her programs.  Later, clicking off the TV news well past 11 pm, she went upstairs, loosened the belt on the blue terrycloth robe, and slipped into the center of the bed.  The white sheets felt especially cool and dry against her skin, and the only sound in the room was the intermittent hum of the heater as it kicked in, and the reliable tick of the clock on the night table.  But she couldn’t sleep, and that meant she couldn’t dream.  As she lay on the queen-sized bed, staring up at the ceiling, Mrs. Tinsel had a queer feeling and she knew that for the rest of her life, she would never really dream again.  She turned her face against the smooth cotton pillow and cried, long hysterical bursts which no one heard.  She cried because she knew that all her prayers had finally been answered.

 

 

 

 

 

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About shirleywachtel

Shirley Russak Wachtel is the author of The Story of Blima—A Holocaust Survivor (publ.2005), a novel which recounts the early years of her mother, Betty Weisstuch Russak. The novel s listed as a recommended novel by the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education. Wachtel is the author of several children's books, including a series of interactive mysteries, Charlie Wonder, Chef-Detective (2005), which includes several recipes; Brad Sureshot, Coach-Detective (2007) which details basketball skills; and Howie Rocket, World-Traveler-Detective (2009) which has handy foreign language phrases. In The Mellow Light (2009) is her first book of poetry. She is a professor of English at Middlesex County College in New Jersey. In addition, Wachtel is the co-author of Spotlight on Reading (2011), a textbook for college-level students. A mother of three sons, she resides with her husband, Arthur, in East Brunswick, New Jersey. Initially written as a doctoral dissertation for her Doctor of Letters Degree from Drew University, My Mother's Shoes , says Wachtel, is not just the novel of her life, it is the novel of her heart.
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