According to Hasidic tradition, everyone must have two pockets, so they can reach into the one or the other, according to need. In the right pocket are to be the words: ‘For my sake was the world created,’ and in the left: ‘I am dust and ashes.’
The dark-haired girl arrived unannounced. Though the weather was humid in the mid-eighties, she wore long sleeves buttoned at the wrists and a drab, moss green skirt that hung well below the knees. The skin was pale with an ivory texture and lush, jet-black eyebrows that lent the otherwise placid features a haughty boldness. “My name is Miriam Applebaum and I live in the slate blue house with the shutters on the corner.”
Mark, who was seated at the kitchen table drawing up a list of building supplies, threw the pencil aside. “Yes, I know the house.”
The Applebaums had moved into the community several years back. They belonged to an Orthodox Jewish synagogue, Beth Ohavai Shalom, off Seneca Drive. Every Saturday the congregants traipsed in and out of the temple, the men dressed in black with skullcaps and prayer shawls. The women covered their heads with scarves even through the scorching summer months. “What can I do for you, Miriam Applebaum?”
The exotic-looking girl took several steps forward and was standing at the kitchen table now. She was medium height with a fleshy body. “Your pickup truck pulls onto the street every day in the late afternoon.” “Fournier Builders. General carpentry. New construction, interior and exterior renovations.” She recited verbatim as though reading directly from the metallic red lettering on the cab of the truck.
An easygoing affable smile lit up her features, and the thought occurred to Mark that the annoyingly persistent Jewish girl with the long sleeves wasn’t leaving anytime soon. “I was wondering if you had an entry level position available.”
A Chevy pickup with a blown muffler pulled into the driveway and his foreman, Kenny, lumbered up the backstairs and into the kitchen. Kenny handled the finished work – oak staircases, cornices, custom fireplace mantles, fancy trim, baseboard, windows and moldings. Noticing her strange dress, the middle-aged man gawked uncertainly at the girl.
“This is Miriam from down the street,” Mark said. “She’s looking for an entry-level job in construction.”
Kenny rubbed the back of his sunburned neck with a row of stubby fingers. The nail on the right index finger was blackened from an errant hammer. “What can you do?”
Again, as if on cue, her malleable features dissolved in an eager grin. “Anything, everything. I’ve never done this sort of work before, but woman work in construction and I thought maybe …” The sentence sort of petered away.
“Since Smitty quit, we ain’t got no helper,” Kenny ruminated, as though talking more to himself than anyone else in the room. “And we need someone to prime all that fascia and baseboard trim.”
A week earlier, Mark placed an order with the lumber company for several hundred square feet of molding. The shipment of wood arrived bare, with no protective primer coat. Rather than return the wood, the lumberyard agreed to sell him the entire load at cost. When Mark balked, the purchasing agent threw up his hands and said, “We got no use for it either. Take the crap and we’ll eat the loss.” The senior center project was already three days behind schedule due to bad weather and now a new headache; since Smitty quit, the mountain of unpainted lumber that cost him diddly-squat was utterly useless. Think wonders, shit blunders!
“What’s a helper do?” Miriam pressed.
“Anything and everything,” Mark repeated what she had said a moment earlier. “One minute you’re filling a dumpster with worksite debris, the next your lugging four-by-eight sheets of plywood to where a crew is installing subfloors.” Mark stood up and leaned forward so that his nose was a fraction of an inch from the girl’s face. “Do you have any idea what you’re getting yourself into?”
The girl never blinked. She only grinned all the more brazenly. “How soon can I start?”
Fifteen minutes later, as she was leaving, Mark called out, “Wait up!” Lumbering to the front door, he positioned his work boot over Miriam’s string sandal and pressed down gently. “Imagine, instead of this being my foot it’s a pressure-treated four-by-four post slamming down on your big toe.” He eased the dirt-crusted shoe off her foot. “You’re gonna need a pair of steel-toed work boots when you start on Monday. Also, no skirts. Pants or dungarees but no skirts.”
The impish grin was beginning to grate on his nerves. “Yeah, pick up a pair of work gloves, preferably heavy-duty.”
“Now comes the hard part,” she said, the smile wilting noticeably.”
“I’ve got to go home and tell my parents.”
Later that night as Mark was preparing for bed, the phone rang. “I bought the steel-toed work boots.”
“Where did you get my telephone number?”
“Off the side of your pickup truck, of course..”
“That’s nice.” He didn’t quite know what else to say.
“And a pair of genuine rawhide work gloves, too.” When there was no reply she added. “Should I go directly to the worksite?”
“No, just drop by my place at around eight o’clock.”
“Good night.” She hung up the phone.
* * * * *
Miriam Applebaum showed up Monday morning for her first day at Fournier Construction dressed in a navy blue uniform that made her look more like a janitor or maintenance worker than carpenter’s helper. “We need some raw lumber primed.” Mark brought her out back of the Brandenberg senior center where several sawhorses were lying next to a pile of molding and random boards. “The paint and brushes are just inside the door.” He pointed to the back entrance to the building. “Any questions?” She shook her head, which was covered by a dark scarf similar to the ones he had seen the other Jewish women wearing as they walked back and forth from the Orthodox synagogue on Saturday mornings.
Mark went to the front of the building where a heavyset man with blond hair was framing the walkway for a handicapped ramp. “There’s a girl taking Smitty’s place. A nice kid. You leave her alone, okay? No foul language, ethnic slurs or dirty jokes.”
The fellow slid a metal-shanked, Estwing hammer from his carpenter’s belt and looked up. “Why should I give her any grief?”
“Because you’re an asshole with a warped sense of humor,” he replied and walked away.
The previous week they gutted the interior of the main function hall, framing the structure according to the architect’s new plans. Now three palettes of drywall had to be installed before the plastering crew arrived midweek. Because the building was older construction, an extra width of board had to be doubled up to reach the ten-foot ceiling. More aggravation and wasted time. At ten-thirty Mark laid his pale blue Makita screw gun on the ground and turned to Kenny. “I gotta check on the Jewish girl.”
Out in the back of the building he found a row of freshly painted boards lined up on the ground. “Not bad.”
A drop of white paint was smeared across the side of her cheek. “It’s not rocket science.”
He waved a hand at the remaining pile of unpainted boards. “We got two more piles of this stuff coming. Once the wood is done, we’ll get you inside and involved with some basic carpentry.”
“Okay.” She dipped the brush in the can and wiped a glob of excess paint on the inner rim.
“I met your father,” he suddenly said, shifting gears.
She lay the brush aside momentarily. “When was that?”
One day in late September Mark was coming home from work and spotted a heavy-set, older man standing next to a Subaru with a flat tire. Mark pulled over. “What’s the problem?”
The bearded man, who was dressed in black pants and a white shirt, waved a tire iron in the air and glowered at him suspiciously. “Lug nut’s frozen. Won’t budge.”
Mark went back to his truck and returned with his own iron. “Too big!” The middle-aged man exploded. “You don’t see what a little tire I got?”
Mark pointed at the four-posted tool. “Each end has a different size socket. This one should fit your car.” Still fuming, the man reluctantly stepped aside. Mark seated the tool over the frozen nut. “Because of the T-shaped design, you get twice the torque to muscle rusty bolts free.” Bracing his legs, he leaned into the tool twisting counter-clockwise, and, after a moment, the nut slid to the left. He loosened the rest of the bolts and stood up. “Can you handle it from here?”
“Yes, thank you so much.” There was a perceptible softening to the man’s tone, tinged with appreciation. As he was climbing back into the cab of his truck, Mark noticed a tall, emaciated youth with a wispy beard and skullcap lingering near a crab apple tree on the front lawn.
“The younger fellow with the thin beard?” Mark asked.
Miriam resumed painting, brushing the creamy white paint over a length of beaded molding in smooth, even strokes. “That would be my brother, Saul.” Finishing with the fancy strip, she laid it aside to dry and reached for another.
“What does he do for a living?”
“Oh, he doesn’t work. Saul is too busy with other pursuits.”
“My brother spent most of last year at a yeshiva, a Jewish seminary, in Jerusalem. He’s studying to be a rabbi.”
“He’s very devout.”
“Yes, when he’s not chasing Jewish whores, he is the model of spiritual virtue and godliness.”
The odd remark caught the carpenter off guard. “Where does a rabbinical student in the Holy Land find prostitutes?”
“In Jerusalem, there are Jewish refugees recently emigrated from Russia. Many of the women arrive in Israel with no money. They can’t speak the language or find meaningful work. The more desperate girls sell themselves for a few liras.” She ran a second coat of paint over the wood to touch up the bare spots. “A handful of these downtrodden Russians also find their way to America.”
Mark had to get back to the sheetrock, but lingered a moment longer. “Does your father know about his son’s shenanigans?”
Miriam squatted down on her haunches, took a wooden stirrer and mixed paint, which had begun separating from the base coat. “About a month ago, my father spoke with a shadchun, a Jewish matchmaker, about finding my brother a suitable match and weaning him away from his perverted pastime.”
“She found an eligible woman, the daughter of Mordechai Gorelnik.” She glanced up with a dry smile.
“None other.” Miriam nodded.
The Gorelniks owned a string of appliance outlets – ranges, refrigerators, dryers and washing machines - throughout southeastern Massachusetts and nearby Connecticut. Their radio and TV ads ran non-stop from early morning through the late-night talk shows. “Not a very pretty girl, but when your father has that much money, ones physical attributes don’t necessarily figure in the equation.”
Mark went back to work.
* * * * *
On the ride home after Miriam’s first full day of work at Fournier Construction, a cell phone with a decidedly minor-keyed melody chimed and Miriam fished about in her pocket “Nu?... Gar nicht. Ich bin fahrtig.” She hung up the phone, glancing at the driver self-consciously. “My mother. She wanted to know if I’d been molested or forced to bow down before graven images.”
Mark, who was becoming accustomed to the girl’s eccentric mannerisms shrugged. “Why do your parents dress like they’re living in the Middle Ages?” They were a mile from home, pulled up at a traffic light.
“We’re Hasidic Jews. The Eastern European tradition goes back to two hundred years.”
Which tells me nothing.”
Miriam stared out the passenger side window for the longest time before replying “According to Hasidic tradition, everyone must have two pockets, so they can reach into the one or the other, according to need.” Mark flipped his directional on as they neared Hathaway Street. “In the right pocket are to be the words: ‘For my sake was the world created,’ and in the left: ‘I am dust and ashes.’”
The truck pulled up in front of the slate blue house with the shutters. “See you tomorrow, Miriam Applebaum.”
* * * * *
Three months passed. Bit by bit, Miriam learned construction. Not that she was anything more than a carpenters helper, rank novice, gofer - go for this, go for that - or fledgling apprentice. Still, she got up every day, and, even when her back ached, hauled her weary carcass off to work.
At first her father showed no interest one way or the other in his daughter’s aberration. To his way of thinking, that’s all it was – a fleeting mental derangement. The Goyim weren’t necessarily bad or misguided; they just did things differently. Religious Jews led perfectly sensible lives. Nice Jewish girls didn’t pound nails. They didn’t work in blue collar trades, building homes for people who worshiped several gods at once and had spent the last two thousand years tormenting God’s Chosen People.
But by the third week of the second month, Morris Applebaum had seen enough. “Meshugenah! What is this craziness?”
Miriam had just returned from work. She unbuckled her leather carpenter’s tool belt and let it fall on the floor next to the bed. “We finished the senior center today,” she said ignoring his belittling tone. “Tomorrow we start renovating that mill complex over by the YMCA. High-end luxury condos—that’s what the developer wants.”
“And this is a job for a nice Jewish girl? Nothing good can come of it.” Rolling his eyes, Morris Applebaum began pacing back and forth, hands clasped behind his back. Miriam momentarily drifted into the bathroom where she stripped her clothes off down to her underwear. Pulling a bathrobe over her limbs she returned to the bedroom. “Fifteen pounds,” she said. “I lost fifteen pounds since I started this job, and I never felt so healthy in my life.”
“You know what you are?” The father suddenly wheeled around waving a finger menacingly in the air. “You’re a Babel. An Isaac Babel!”
“Gotenu! Bite your tongue to say such a thing!” Miriam’s mother was standing in the doorway. The large-bone woman placed a trembling hand over her mouth. “Isaac Babel was no better than a traitor,… a Molotov-cocktail-throwing Jew who joined the Cossacks, the very people who persecuted our race. How could you say such a thing?”
You’re a Babel. An Isaac Babel! Miriam understood perfectly well what Morris. Applebaum meant by the outlandish remark. Isaac Babel was a haskelah Jew, an enlightened soul equally comfortable among Bolshevik rabble rousers as mystical Jews. His stature as a great writer only complicated matters. Hero, traitor, lunatic, visionary, political agitator, heretic, prophet – how one understood the anomaly that was Isaac Babel depended as much on one’s personal biases as what side of the bed he woke up on.
Mr. Applebaum threw both hands up in an attitude of despair and rushed from the room almost knocking his wife down in the bargain. When he was gone, she slumped down on the bed next to her daughter, took Miriam’s hand and kissed it. Then she turned the palm over. “Your beautiful fingers are covered with calluses.”
“From honest labor.” In the yard adjoining their property, a lawnmower fired up. Miriam retrieved her framing hammer from where she abandoned it in near the closet. “Kenny, the man who does all the fancy work, showed me how to properly set nails.” She raised the shank chest high. “Your arm is just an extension of the tool.” She snapped her wrist and let the head of the hammer fall in a broad sweeping arc, striking an imaginary nail dead center. “I can set a sixteen-penny framing nail in three strokes. No wasted effort. Perhaps it’s not as impressive as studying the midrash but still it’s an accomplishment of sorts.”
Miriam’s mother kissed her cheek and sighed. “What we have here,” she waved a hand fitfully in the air, “it’s not enough for you?”
“I’m going to take my shower now,” Miriam replied evasively.
Before she reached the doorway, her mother said, “In a fit of anger, your father compares you to Isaac Babel.” The older woman spoke in a confidential tone so the words wouldn’t carry beyond the threshold. “But deep down, in his heart-of-hearts, you’re the ben h’bachoor.”
“The first-born son,” Miriam translated from the Hebrew. The tacit implication was both flattering and unsettling. The first-born son inherited the father’s fortunes; he honored and preserved his family’s good name. Saul, the religious zealot and sexual glutton, was not up to the task. Wrong man for the job. Miriam was the new ben ha’bachoor – by default, the Applebaum dynasty’s heir apparent.
Her father could rage about the house, muttering to himself, arms flailing like a madman, but squirreled away behind the fierce eyes and bushy eyebrows was an inchoate fear. The fear of losing his beloved Miri, the indisputable ben habachoor. Mr. Applebaum followed all the precepts of his religion. He recited his prayers, never straying from Hasidic custom. When he crawled out of bed in the morning, the stoop-shouldered man carried the added burden of two thousand years of Jewish tradition on his portly frame. But not one word in the many dozens of frayed books that lined his study taught the devout seeker of eternal truths how to love his wayward daughter with moderation.
“Any news from the Shadchun?
“Your father met with Mr. Gorelnik on Tuesday and they discussed certain possibilities.”
“What about the daughter’s feelings?”
“Things haven’t progressed that far yet.”
Miriam lowered her voice. “What Saul does with the Russian girls isn’t right – not for Jew or gentile. Some of those girls are here without work permits or proper visas. If someone abuses them, they have no place to turn.”
“Once your brother is engaged to the Gorelnik girl,” her mother replied nervously, “all that ugliness will all be in the past.”
Miriam laughed abruptly making an unfeminine snorting sound through her nose. “The past has consequences that can come back to haunt you.”
* * * * *
Since graduating high school, Miriam noted a creeping malaise among her friends. Everyone seemed to be waiting for something to happen. But waiting for what? For the moshiach, the messiah, to come the first time? The ‘other one’, according Mr. Applebaum was a well-intentioned, if somewhat misguided, false prophet.
Her best friend, Mitzi, was waiting – waiting to find a husband and begin raising a family. Mitzi’s brother, Yossi, attended Brandeis. He returned from the prestigious college with a bachelor’s degree in nothing-in-particular. After loafing about the house for the better part of a year, the boy went to work in his uncle’s delicatessen cooking brisket, corned beef and tongue. And waiting. Waiting, waiting, waiting. Waiting to figure out what to do with the rest of his miserable, well-educated existence on planet earth.
Of course, Miriam’s brother, Saul, didn’t suffer from any such existential ennui. On Saturday evening, she spied him prancing about the house in a freshly ironed shirt, his frizzy hair blow dried, and cheeks reeking of St. Johns Bay Rum cologne. He favored the fragrance with West Indian lime that left a cloying trail of pungent citrus odors in every room he passed through. “Where’re you going all dolled up?”
Saul was preening in front of the bathroom mirror. With a pair of pointed scissors, he snipped a few errant hairs– his beard was still a work in progress - from the side of his chin. “No place special.” Pulling a billfold from his back pocket, her brother took silent inventory of his finances.
“Must be a heavy date,” Miriam said in a goading tone.
Flashing her a dirty look, he bolted for the front door.
Did he have to call ahead, Miriam wondered, to let the Russian whores know that the rabbinical student, Saul Applebaum, was on his way? Slathered in St. Johns Bay Rum with a hint of lime and horny as hell, God’s anointed messenger would be arriving shortly.
Later that night as she lay under the covers, Miriam felt like a dry leaf in late October. Waiting. Waiting, waiting, waiting. For what? To fall. To fall and, perhaps, be caught in a frigid updraft of autumnal air. No more malaise. A new life. A new beginning. Which was not to say that Miriam would ever turn her back on her faith. Once a Jew, a Jew for life. But a Jew with a myriad of options. Just as the Sephardic Jews in Medieval Spain learned from the Moslem invaders to cross-pollinate their Cabalist theology with Sufi metaphysics, so too would Miriam Applebaum, the carpenter’s helper, find a way to pass cleanly through the eye of the needle.
* * * * *
On Saturday afternoon, Miriam walked over to Mark’s house, where she found him in the driveway hosing down the truck. “I want my own circular saw.” Over the past few months she had been borrowing a reconditioned Ryobi model that the crew used for odds and ends.
Mark ran a soapy sponge over the tires and muddy hubcaps. “They got a real nice seven-and-a-quarter inch Rigid over at Home Depot for a little over a hundred with discount if we put it on the company account.” He rinsed the wheels off and carried the bucket of soapy water around to the opposite side of the truck. “That’s worm drive, not traditional.”
“Worm drive?” Miriam repeated.
“The motor housing runs parallel with the saw blade and uses gears to increase torque,” Mark explained, “so it’s better suited for the type of heavy-duty construction we do.”
“How soon could I get it?”
He came out from behind the truck, tossing what remained of the soap out across the lawn. “Let me clean up and we’ll take a drive over there right now.”
At Home Depot they went directly to the tool department. “The handle feels a bit strange.” With the fingers of her right hand wrapped around the grip, Miriam hoisted the tool up in the air and made several passes over an imaginary sheet of half-inch plywood.
“Once you get use to it, you won’t feel comfortable with anything else.” He grabbed a carbide-tipped, Freud blade off the display rack. “You’ll want a decent blade to compliment the new saw. My treat.”
After paying for the tools, they went to Friendlies for coffee and dessert. “My father’s unhappy with my choice of careers.”
“Can’t imagine he would be.”
“He called me a modern-day Isaac Babel.” Mark stared at her blankly. “A turn-of-the-century, Russian Jew,” she explained the obscure reference, “who ran off and joined the Red cavalry.” “Babel was on familiar terms with rabbis, thieves, Cossacks, religious mystics, anti-Semites and murderers. Being a traditional, goody-two-shoes Jew was never enough.”
“So, what happened him?”
“Under Stalin’s reign of terror, Babel was arrested by the Soviet secret police, tortured and executed.”
Mark shook his head in disbelief. “Just what I like - a story with a happy ending.”
“Yesterday in the late afternoon,” Miriam’s mind scurried off in another direction, “Tom was hanging sheet rock in the vestibule.”
Tom McSweeney, an immigrant Irishman, was painfully shy. He arrived fifteen minutes early to work every morning with a metal lunch box, thermos of hot chocolate and piece of fruit. Not much of a talker, he was always kind and respectful. The previous week, when the fire-coded wall board that lined the stairwell leading to the second floor arrived, Tom warned Miriam, “Don’t try lifting that alone.” Interrupting his own work, he helped her lugged the absurdly heavy sheets to the where a metal staging had been erected in the stairwell.
No one on the crew could hang drywall as fast or accurately as Tom. At six-foot-four, the gangly Irishman with the scraggily red beard was constantly in motion, measuring cutting and screwing the gypsum boards in place. Like a whirling dervish, he snapped a line of blue chalk every sixteen inches, hoisted the board in place against the studs, then ran a vertical row of black screws from ceiling to floor leaving a dimpled impression in the gypsum board.
Tom started the vestibule a little after four and by five-fifteen had the entire room covered with the gypsum board from sub-floor to the scruffy furring strips that crisscrossed the ceiling joists. Letting the electrical cord slither through his fingers, the tall man gently lowered his screw gun to the floor. Removing his dark-frame glasses, he wiped the lenses clean. “Here, let me give you a hand with that.” He grabbed a push broom and began sweeping up the white powder and scattering of blue-black sheet rock screws that littered the perimeter of the room.
As they were leaving work that day, one of the other carpenters offered Tom a pair of tickets to a Red Sox game at Fenway Park. “Thanks but I got choir practice all week.”
In response to her questioning look, Tom explained, “I sing liturgical music in a community choir. We’re getting ready for a big concert with full orchestra. Carmina Burana.”
“It’s a collection of religious songs dating back to the Middle Ages,” Tom noted. “Pretty intense stuff.”
Miriam leaned across the table. “If I hadn’t come to work at Fournier Construction, I’d never have met someone like Tom.”
“He’s married and the wife’s pregnant with their third kid, so don’t get any ideas.”
Miriam made a face. “You know perfectly well what I mean.”
Mark sipped at his coffee. “There’s Tom and then there’s foul-mouthed Ralphy, who whacks his wife around, goes on a bender and drinks up all the grocery money.” Mark shook his head from side to side. “You’re glamorizing a mundane task; it’s just Tom, a journeyman carpenter, working at his chosen trade.” He gulped down the last of the coffee. “I got to get home and make some calls.”
On Friday afternoon as work was winding down, Mark took Miriam aside. “I’m having a barbecue Sunday afternoon for the crew and their families, if you’d like to join us.”
“I’d love to, but my cousin Sophie had a baby and I got to attend the bris.” In response to his quizzical expression she added, “On the eighth day after male babies are born, there’s a ritual circumcision.”
Miriam’s cousin already had two daughters so the bris was a big deal. All the relatives crowded into the cramped house, while the mohel laid out the various tools of his trade – the hemostat, scalpel and surgical gloves. When the bris was finished along with the prayers and blessings, the family retreated to the living room for coffee and dessert.
“Our living room is so cramped,” Sophie groused. “I feel like I got to apologize when company comes to visit.”
Miriam pointed at the partition separating the living room from the kitchen area. “Why don’t you just knock that wall down and make the two rooms one.”
“Do that,” Sophie’s husband, Jacob, noted, “and the roof might cave in.” Jacob, who taught philosophy at the state college, ran a thumb and forefinger through his goatee.
“That wall,” Miriam clarified, “runs parallel to the roof rafters. It’s not load-bearing and serves no structural purpose.”
“Look at all the light you’re losing.” Miriam rose and stood in front of the floor-to-ceiling glass slider that opened out onto the rear deck. “The light bounces off that partition,” she pointed at the wall in question. “Get rid of it and not only do you open up the space, but all that glorious sunlight streams straight through to the kitchen area.
“It’s not a load-bearing wall?” Jacob repeated what she said just a moment earlier.
“Absolutely not,” Miriam replied. “That’s the supporting wall over there - the one that runs side to side. This is just a partition. Nothing more.”
“Well, it makes no difference,” Jacob added with a constipated expression, “The wall is a minor inconvenience. Otherwise, we’re perfectly happy with the house.”
Later that night, Miriam’s mother came to her room. “Cousin Sophie’s on the telephone.”
Miriam went to the kitchen. “Yes, Sophie.”
“Can you tear down the wall?”
“Yes, I suppose. But I thought - ”
“I’m the one who slaves away in that claustrophobic kitchen seven days a week—a kitchen that resembles a gloomy dungeon.” There was a brief pause. “About the cost …”
“Just buy the materials. You don’t need to pay me.”
Suddenly an argument erupted on the other end of the line and Jacob was talking on the extension. “What about the ceiling? You’re going to ruin a perfectly good ceiling.”
“When the partition comes down,” Miriam explained, “it leaves a one-and-a-half inch gap that’s patched over with drywall.”
“And the floor?” He sounded borderline hysterical. “There’s fancy Italian tile in the kitchen and carpeting on the other side.”
“I can lay a solid oak threshold over the damaged area. Or you and Sophie can go to the lumberyard and pick out whatever you want.”
“What I want,” Sophie interjected, “is a new kitchen. And we won’t let you work without being paid. How soon can you start?”
So the renovation wouldn’t interfere with her regular job, it was agreed that Miriam would do her cousin’s work on weekends. The first Saturday she brought a DeWalt reciprocating saw to cut down the wall. Sophie had sent her girls to stay with the grandmother for the day. Jacob was pacing the den like a lunatic, fumbling with his beard and muttering to himself.
“It’s going to get a bit messy,” Miriam cautioned. After smashing a few holes in the sheetrock with her framing hammer, she ran the reciprocating saw through the top row of vertical studs, then cut away the section altogether from the bottom. Easing what was left of the dismembered wall out the patio slider, Miriam dragged the refuse into the back yard.
The two-by-four sole plate was pried free with a foot-long gooseneck wrecking bar. A nail claw made short work of the handful of bent and disfigured nails. Next, Miriam brought down the top piece in sections, hurling it out into the back yard in a heap with all the other debris..
“Baruch ha Shaim! Baruch ha Shaim! – Praise God! Praise God!” Sophie danced about the open space. “So much light. My new kitchen - it’s like miracle.”
“A dusty miracle,” Miriam qualified. She went out to the car and brought back her screw gun and utility knife. “Now the fun starts.”
Earlier in the week, the supply company had dropped off several sheets of drywall, which Jacob lugged into the living room. She cut a length of sheetrock to fill the cavity left in the wall, and then screwed the board firmly in place.
“You and Jacob can hold this board up against the ceiling, while I secure it to the joists,” she said, indicating a thin strip eight feet long. Climbing up on a step ladder, Miriam fished a handful of sheetrock screws out of her leather pouch. Whirr. Whirr. Whirr. Five minutes later, the ugly gash in the ceiling was repaired with drywall.
“That’s enough for one day,” she said.
Jacob was wandering about the room with a glazed expression. “What a difference.” He pointed at the late afternoon light flooding in through the patio slider. “All that glorious light.”
Later that night while she was preparing supper Miriam’s mother said, “You’re becoming quite the celebrity.” She was grating potatoes into a bowl for latkes. She diced some onion then added a raw egg, salt and a fistful of flour. “Even hoity-toity Jacob was telling everyone how great the new kitchen looks.”
“There is no new kitchen.” Miriam grabbed a gooey wad of potato batter, shaped it into a pancake and placed it in a pan of hot vegetable oil. After a moment, the edges of the batter began to bubble and turn light brown. “It’s just the old kitchen minus one wall.”
Five minutes later, Miriam removed several latkes, placing them to drain on a paper towel. “It’s a wonder they didn’t laugh me out of the house, I looked so silly.”
Mr. Applebaum said that it wouldn’t be proper for Miriam to wear her work clothes during the renovations, so the girl chose the overly long, moss green skirt and a demure, checkered blouse that buttoned at the wrists - no makeup whatsoever, hair tied back in a dark kerchief. To this drab outfit she added her steel-toed work boots. No matter how absurd, the boots were a matter of safety and non-negotiable. “I can be a good Jew and a carpenter.”
“Yes, Miri.” Her mother brought a braided challah from the breadbox. “It is becoming quite evident that you have knack for doing both equally well.”
* * * * *
In the morning, Miriam arrived back at Sophie’s house with a five-gallon bucket of joint compound and a bag of taping tools. First, she ran a length of mesh tape over the section of ceiling that needed repair. With the blade of a putty knife she kneaded the spongy joint compound deep into the crevice, burying the seam.
“Where’d you learn to do that?” Sophie asked.
Miriam held a twelve-inch sheet of aluminum centered on a plastic grip in her left hand. With a flat putty knife she was working a thick glob of joint compound into position. “You got to get it just right on the edge of the knife,” Miriam explained, “or the trailing edge will run rough and leave a jagged mess.” She flicked the white gooey mix onto the taped sheetrock, pulling a moist line the length of the wall. “Now, we feather the edges away from the joint so the surface stays nice and flat.” She lifted the blade at a sharp angle and made a second, lighter pass over the fresh work.
At noon Sophie called and ordered pizza. When it arrived, she set the food out on the deck. No sooner had they begun eating, the baby woke and began whimpering. The mother brought the new edition out to join them, and, cradling the infant in her lap, began breast feeding.
The late June sun was high in a cloudless sky. Near the rock garden, a goldfinch flitted from a Scotch pine to the telephone line. “My husband doesn’t agree with your choice of professions,” Sophie spoke with a self-deprecating smile as she shifted the baby to a more comfortable position. “Actually, it’s not the work so much as the fact that you’re employed outside the Jewish community.”
“Jacob works at a secular university, where half the student body is either Latino or black.” Miriam reached for another slice of pizza. “I think your husband ought to get his priorities in order.”
“The man is an intellectual snot, but he’s got a heart of gold.” With her free hand, Sophie poured herself some black cherry soda. “I think the prevailing sentiment is that Miriam Applebaum is such an attractive and resourceful woman. It would be a shame if she became emotionally involved with a shegitz, one of those knuckle-dragging Neanderthals from the construction site.” Sophie spoke with a droll, deadpan expression that belied her underlying sense of the absurd.
“Another limb ripped from the tree of Judaism.” Finishing with the pizza, Miriam collected the plates and silverware.
The baby, having finished with his own liquid diet, was sleeping soundly in the mother’s arms. “Truth be told,” Sophie added, “most of the Hassidic men folk would be jealous of any woman who could tear down walls and flood my gloomy kitchen with heavenly sunshine.”
* * * * *
The following Saturday afternoon when Miriam returned home from work, she found a police cruiser pulled up in front of the house. She could hear her father bellowing like an ox from fifty feet away. Inside the house a uniformed officer, hands on hips, was glowering at the older man. “Don’t shoot the messenger, Mr. Applebaum.” The officer was clearly in a rotten mood. “I drove over here as a courtesy to you and your family.” Without waiting for a reply, the officer spun around on his heels, went back to his cruiser and drove off.
Miriam’s mother was standing by the stove with her face buried in her cupped hands crying noisily. “Okay. Okay,” Mr. Applebaum spoke in an unnaturally furtive, high-pitched tone. “It’s not the end of the world. Now, let me go upstairs and get my checkbook.”
“What happened?” Miriam asked when her father was out of earshot.
“Saul was arrested for soliciting a prostitute.”
“One of the immigrant Russian girls?”
“Ten times worse!” the mother wailed. “An undercover police officer. They got my baby, the future rabbi, locked up in the pokey.”
Mr. Applebaum returned. He had changed into a freshly ironed shirt. “I’ll go with you,” Miriam said, draping her tool pouch over a chair. On the short ride to the police station, Mr. Applebaum was unnaturally quiet. An air of resignation, more like defeat, had settled over his grim features. “It’s not like someone was maimed or murdered,” Miriam spoke softly. “I can think of a hundred things worse than what Saul did.”
Her father cleared his throat. “Name one.”
Incest. Sodomy. Pedophilia. Fratricide. Almost immediately, Miriam regretted her last remark.
“What he did isn’t the problem.” Mr. Applebaum looked straight ahead. “The schlimazel never learns from his mistakes.” Like a blind person groping his way down an unfamiliar street, the older man tripped and faltered over his words. “He doesn’t understand why it’s wrong to do what he does.” The older man’s lips trembled. “It’s the ‘why’, not the act itself, that worries me.”
At the Brandenberg Police Station, Mr. Applebaum craned his neck to one side, scrunching his shaggy eyebrows together while sniffing the humid air. “Well, your brother’s definitely been here.” The undeniable scent of St. Johns Bay rum with a hint of West Indian lime seemed embedded in every permeable object.
They discovered Saul waiting docilely in a cramped jail cell. Out of a sense of compassion – or was it sick humor? – the door had been left wide open. There he sat with his neatly-trimmed, wispy beard, wire-rimmed glasses and paisley yarmulke like a traveler seated on a bench waiting for the next bus to pull up to the curb.
“What happened to your hands?” Miriam asked.
Saul stared at his bony fingers which were smudged with dark stains. “They fingerprinted me.”
Miriam could just picture her brother having his fingers rolled over a pad of blue ink. Then the humiliating mug shot. Did he even have the good sense to remove the yarmulke? If the picture appeared in the local press, the entire Jewish community, not just immediate family, would be scandalized!
A thirty-something blond with a voluptuous figure was sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup thirty feet away. Her top, a low-slung halter trimmed with frilly sequins, was overly tight. She had kicked off a pair of patent leather, stiletto heels, which lay to one side on the linoleum floor. The woman was chatting energetically to a uniformed officer. At one point she glanced brazenly over at Miriam’s brother but just as quickly averted her eyes. In her left hand she clutched an official-looking document, most likely the police report identifying Saul Applebaum as the dim-witted ‘John’ who propositioned her earlier in an otherwise uneventful evening.
“You couldn’t keep your lousy schmeckel in your pants,” Mr. Applebaum, who was staring morosely at the well-endowed under-cover officer, growled. “Now the whole family’s disgraced.”
Saul cringed and seemed to wilt under the crass indictment. Miriam, who had never heard her father use foul language, felt her brain grow numb. The penultimate insult - now, not only had her brother victimized the Russian immigrant women, but his parents as well. What was it she told to her mother only a week earlier? The past has an uncanny habit of doubling back and biting you squarely on the tuchas. With the vengeance of a deranged pit bull, it rips your tender ass to shreds.
“Okay. Okay. Okay. Okay.” Mr. Applebaum’s voice had gotten even softer, almost childlike. Not a good indicator of things to come. He turned to the officer who had brought them into the rear holding area where the prisoners were held. “Now we will pay the bail and go home.”
At the front desk, Saul had to sign for his belongings: a gold watch – a cheap knock-off of a Rolodex he bought from a street vendor on the Avenue of the Americas in New York City, his belt, wallet, some pocket change, a handkerchief with his initials embroidered in wine colored thread and two lubricated condoms wrapped in plastic. “Why two?” Miriam thought. “Was he planning to move from one brothel to the next?”
* * * * *
Around ten o’clock Mark Fournier heard the doorbell chime. Miriam was standing on the front stoop with a pillow and an overnight bag. “Was wondering if I could crash for the night.”
Mark held the door open. “This wouldn’t have anything to do with the cop car in front of your place earlier this afternoon?”
She told him about her brother soliciting the undercover police officer. “He gave her thirty bucks so they got him dead to rights.”
Miriam grinned. “No, fitting justice. His name will be printed in the Brandenberg Gazette police log along with all the sordid details.” She tossed the pillow onto the sofa, depositing the bag on the floor. “In the morning, my father will call the shadchun and withdraw Saul’s name as an eligible suitor. Ellie Gorelnik will be free to look elsewhere.”
“You seem a little …” Mark didn’t quite know how to finish the sentence. “Can I get you something to drink? A cup of soda or tea?”
“Why don’t you ever ask me out on a date?” She blurted the words with such force that he took a full step backwards.
“You’re an Orthodox Jew. I figured - ”
“Well maybe you figured wrong. Remember, I’m the heretic, the Isaac Babel of the female set.”
Mark leaned forward and kissed her on the lips. “Don’t talk nonsense. You’re not like that.”
She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him back. “I want to sleep with you tonight. In your bed.”
“I don’t have any protection.”
Miriam fished a Trojan condom from her shirt pocket.
“Where did you get that?”
“While my father was downstairs berating my brother, I went rummaging through his dresser. He had a whole carton full.”
“Guess he won’t need them any time soon.” Mark pulled her close and felt her warm cheek wedged against his neck. “That Hasidic saying about the two pockets—tell it again.”
“According to Hasidic tradition, everyone must have two pockets, so they can reach into the one or the other, according to need.” Her voice was tinged with a dreamy, effervescent quality, a breathy, musical sonority such as he had never heard before. “In the right pocket are to be the words: ‘For my sake was the world created,’ and in the left: ‘I am dust and ashes.’”
“And what are we?”
“Too soon.” She rose up on tiptoes, brushing his ear with her lips. “Ask me again in the morning.”
Publication Date: 06-24-2010
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