Mendel’s Wall by Jai Chakrabarti

As soon as Shabbos ended, Mendel went for his heavy tools.  He had enough sheetrock in the basement—that wouldn’t be a problem—but first he made himself a coffee and added a bit of schnapps.  He poured a little into his palm and rubbed it behind his ears like perfume.  Sweet luck for the week ahead.

When Leah came home, she saw what he’d built and grew pale.  She was holding the groceries in one hand; with the other, she took off her wig.  Mendel had been imagining this moment for the last year, building and tearing the thing apart in his mind.  He’d imagined it as he brushed his teeth and murmured his prayers.  Now that the children were settled in their own homes, the time was right.

What had he built?  Nothing but a wall.  It was made of gypsum and sheetrock and divided their apartment into unequal halves.  On one side, a bathroom and the living room, with an Ottoman now fitted to make a bachelor bed.  On the other, the kitchen, the master bed and bath, and most of their life together:  a rusty teakettle from her German mother, the candlesticks from Yerushalayim, and the raised marriage bed eased so many years ago into the sunken floor.  He’d let her have the larger half.

“You schmuck,” she said.  “You stupid old schmuck.”

He looked into his callused hands.

“It had to happen,” he said.

Later that night, he knocked on the wall.  “Wife, you left some things.”

Through the hole in the wall, which was almost big enough to fit his head, he shoved through her leftover possessions.  A beaded necklace, the book Honoring God and Raising Jewish Children, the wool coat he’d bought her when they were still courting.

He couldn’t tell how angry she was.  The only words she said all night:  “I’m going to the Rebbe tomorrow and—”

Mendel latched shut the hole in the wall and heard no more.  That night, he slept as well as well as he ever had.

 

On the other side of the wall, Leah read their Ketubah again and again.

Be my wife according to the laws of Moses and Israel.

I will present you with the gift of two hundred zuzim.

And other necessities, for example, the dress on your back.

In return you agree to laugh at my anecdotes and larks.

No matter how many times Leah read it aloud, she failed to find the root of his betrayal.  It was old; no doubt, the stubborn man had fixed his mind.  How dare he when it was she who’d taken Shua and Mendel Jr. to Yeshiva every morning, who’d held them when they’d cried, who’d protected them whenever he was in one of his moods.

No, she would not fail.  She would not let Mendel see her fail.

When Leah settled into their marriage bed, she noticed a pair of Mendel’s dirty socks.  They were right by the night lamp, and they produced the musty odors of Mendel himself.  She picked them up with the tips of her fingers.  They swayed in the air.  Let him suffer a little, she thought, as she tossed them in the trash.

The next morning Leah made a chocolate babka.  It came glistening out of the oven and confused the air with its warm sugary perfection.  Before she left the house, she kicked the wall twice to mark a dent the shape and size of her winter boot.  From the other side, Mendel groaned like he was seasick.

She strode across the tundra of Sunset Park, avoiding the Puerto Rican dogs, who tended to howl viciously at this hour.  They snarled at her from their turrets, but what did she care?  For the first time, she felt like a free woman, free to think alone, free to read those books on the other side of midnight, free to bring home the guests she liked, free to cook the things that once made men line around her block.

Leah decided to call on the Rebbe another day.

 

When Mendel came home the next afternoon, he sat and admired his wall.  From any angle you could see how straightly it was laid.  If you were to tilt the world one hundred eighty degrees and place a pencil on Mendel’s Wall, that pencil would not roll a pinch.

He had lost the kitchen, but he’d kept the toaster.  He browned a slice of rye and balanced his checkbook.

In the evening, Mendel heard the door on the other side open.  Then he heard laughter rise and fall in steady waves.  It offended his ears.  Loudly, he cleared his throat, but it did not stop.  He tapped gingerly on the wall.  The noise stopped.  He leaned his cheek to the wall and heard the other voice trail into hoarse whispers.

It was beyond question—there was a man on the other side.

“Rebbe, my dear Rebbe, is it you?”

The wall didn’t let his sound pass.

For that week’s talk on the Torah, the Rebbe had thrown his accusing voice around the room and then brought it back so that the families had to lean close to listen.  In the back of the shul, Mendel had caught pieces.  Inseparable were the two original people, he heard.  They were glued together, spine to spine.  And then the serpent and the apple, and the daily arguments, and the one time he hit her in the mouth, and the one time she kicked him in the knee, and the one time he scolded her over a piece of burnt meat, and the one time she called his mother and smeared his good name.

 

The next several evenings, Mendel would roll his chair towards the center of the wall.  He liked to drink next to it.  A pinch of schnapps here, a shot of vodka there.  This led to the counting.  For each newfound day, Mendel carved a notch in the wall.  There were three such notches in the corner now, and one day he hoped to fill the whole face of the sheetrock.

It wasn’t all bitterness.  Whenever memories of baby Shua and Mendel Jr. came into his mind, he also thought of Leah, in a way that wasn’t entirely unpleasant.  The two of them had lived in this apartment and they’d managed to turn two chayas into decent men.  What was the straw that broke this mensch’s back?  A coffee stain.  A little more than a smear on her grandmother’s quilt.

In another time and place, they would have had a laugh about it.  Except this time, as she’d cleaned off the stain, she’d brought up the way he’d smacked her cousin in Yerushalayim years ago, and he’d started fidgeting with his tzitzit, and she’d said, Don’t, and he’d said,You’re not my mother, first in Yiddish then in Hebrew, and she’d said first in Hebrew then Yiddish:  I just wish your mother taught you some basic things.

All he knew was he’d been happiest at nineteen, when he’d crisscrossed Brooklyn on a five-speed and heaved bricks into boarded windows.  He had married at that age because he wanted to touch a woman.  That was all.  Never did he bargain she would grow a mouth.  A mouth so large it would envelop the rooms of every  house he’d ever lived.  Husbandhood did not suit him.

“You give me zero,” she’d said.  “I do and do for this house, but you, you give me back nothing.”

 

The last few times she’d walked by Sunset Salsa, Leah had lingered a moment to observe the men and women inside, whose bodies moved like rain across a windshield.  On this day, she walked around the block three times, then returned to the same spot.  When she saw Chaim coming up Fourth Avenue, she was fixing her hair, glancing through the steamed window as if inside were nothing—a Laundromat.

“Sister!”  Chaim called from his bicycle.  “You look terrible.  What happened?”

She shrugged and stared at her hands.  Truly, they did look old.  Leah wanted to tell Chaim what her husband had done, but how could she begin to explain?

“The Rebbe wants us for Shabbos,” Chaim said.  “Don’t overcook the chicken this time.”

It was Wednesday, which meant she had two days before their community would learn—or wouldn’t.  Chaim was already halfway up the block when Leah yelled, “What if I can’t come for Shabbos?  What if I have plans?”

 

Thursday morning, Mendel was boiling with worry.  It had occurred to him that he hadn’t confirmed the Halakhic properties of the wall.  In fact, it was possible he’d committed an error by putting it up.  The Rebbe would know what to do, but telling the Rebbe meant also telling the Rebbetzin.  He decided to head to Chaim’s house instead, because if anyone knew Halakha, it was his little brother.

When Mendel got there, Rachel was getting the place ready for Shabbos:  picking up diapers, wiping away banana stains, giving a stir to the pot of cholent.  He nodded to her and made his way down to the basement.

Chaim was painting again.  It was one of those things he’d discovered when he was twelve and refused to give up.  All around his feet lay crates of chachkis and stacks of canvases.  He was mostly into painting Rabbis.  He’d done their Rebbe in the style of Dali and also Chuck Close.  Now on a whim, he was painting the once-beautiful Rebbetzin.

“Could use a little more color,” Mendel said.  “And in real life, her face is a bit longer.  Like this.”  He sketched an imperfect oval in the air.

“Listen, brother, you know we are expected tomorrow.”

“Shabbos?”

“Leah did not tell you?”

“You know, Chaim, we have been busy.”

“Funny, I saw Leah just yesterday.”  Chaim sank his brush into a teacup with cerulean blue and began to work on the Rebbetzin’s eyes.  “She said she had plans.  What does that mean, plans?”

Mendel stared at his brother and remembered the time Chaim and he had dressed as Hebrew Batman and Robin.  It was to celebrate Purim.  Chaim was twelve and Mendel sixteen and they’d danced together.  They went along the streets of Crown Heights, floating arm in arm, until they reached the shul, where they whirled with the Rebbe and drank vodka from bowls.

“Oh, that,” Mendel said.  “She has a kind of doctor’s appointment.”

“On Shabbos?  Why would she have a doctor’s appointment on Shabbos?”

“You know, Chaim, girls are girls and women are women.“

“Don’t baby me.  Is something wrong with Leah?”

“It is not so serious, I think.  Let us eat.”

“Brother.”

“Let us eat, Chaim.”

Mendel left Chaim’s house feeling all the more unsettled.  Tomorrow at the Rebbe’s table, there was a chance the whole community would know what had happened between them.  He hadn’t planned on telling anyone, but Leah might have had other ideas.  He thought they could continue to live in close but separate spaces.

On the way back home, he stopped at Lefty Pearlman’s deli.  Many years ago, Lefty had cut ties with the shul.  Nowadays he sold non-Kosher milk, but he still refused to carry ham.

“Lefty, give me one, will you.”

“You got it.  What’s your lucky?”

“6783:  I was with God, and I was with the Devil.”  Because if you took the most important line from this week’s Torah portion and then computed the Gemetria value, you’d get six thousand seven hundred and eighty three.

“By the way,” Lefty said.  “I heard the beef.”

“The what?”

“It’s old news.  Even the goyim know.  When are you going to make the move?  I know a matchmaker who can find someone for someone like you.”

“Who told you?  How did you come to hear?”

“Listen, if you want advice:  leave her to rot.  You still got what you got.”

Lefty cordoned off a pair of lottery tickets and passed them across the plastic enclosure.

“The second one’s on me, because according to Latina Numerology, Morena Gonzalez is too hot to handle too cold to hold.”  Lefty Pearlman winked at a plump woman selling coco frio outside the deli.

Mendel looked away.  They’d followed the first Rebbe’s advice and gone out into the world.  Sometimes, this was fine.  Other times, it was like putting a cow in a room with a lion—you would get many things but not milk.

 

Leah bought a pair of soft white gloves.  She circled the corner of fourth avenue and forty sixth street seven times before she went in.

Her partner was named Ricardo, and though he was soft around the middle, he was a good dancer.  He led her through the basic step, breaking on five.  He crisscrossed underneath her shoulder and turned her until she grew embarrassed with the way the conga tickled her collarbone.

At first she had her gloves on, which didn’t seem to bother anyone, but after Ricardo dipped her for the first time, they came off.  He picked them up and became the second man to touch her hands, her hips, the small of her back.

Afterwards, she wrote in her diary:

Things I thought I’d never do that I’ll never do again.

She opened the hole in the wall and peered through.  In the milky dark, a bullock cart, or maybe the father of her sons, turned and snored.

 

Late at night, Mendel heard noises through the wall.  It sounded like Leah was making an extravagant meal, shifting pots and pans, stirring stews, and arranging their good silver on the table.  He didn’t want much from her, a few leftovers would do.  She could pass them through the hole in the wall and that would be enough.  When he heard what sounded like the opening and closing of her front door, he held his blanket tighter to his body.  It sounded like a line of strangers were coming in and going out again.  Their voices were like woodpeckers in the trees.

He was tired enough the next morning that he considered not going to work, but the roof under which they lived had to be paid for, and he was not a man good with excuses.

The job was in Brooklyn Heights, on a block close to the Promenade, with lots of maple trees and nannies who eyed him suspiciously.  When he got to the house, he found his client wasn’t home, so he sat outside her stoop and laid out his tools.  Many years ago, when he’d gotten Leah a chocolate box for her birthday, she’d said:  I wish you’d make me something from the heart.  So now he set about it.  He carved and chiseled a four by four block into a replica of Yankee Stadium.  You could look inside the wooden dome and see rows of tiny seats and imagine miniature figures in the crowd holding hands.  When Shua was twelve, they’d gone to the stadium as a family, and who would’ve guessed that Leah would catch Reggie Jackson’s bases-loaded homerun?

When it was sanded and polished, Mendel held his Yankee Stadium as if it were his grandfather’s talis.  From deep in his throat, he sang a niggun his Rebbe had taught him when his hair had first been cut.  With all the nannies watching, Mendel roared his wordless melodies into the air.

 

They did not belong here.  If it weren’t for his Rebbe’s Rebbe, who’d survived the war and the camps and the new country, where would they be?  He’d always thought as you got older, as you did your duty and filled the world with decent children, that God would give you the right of way.  A little Torah in the morning, some fishing in the afternoon, a hearty meal with family, and music in the shul.

Mendel paced outside his house and considered all the things God might be trying to tell him.  Then, he knocked on Leah’s door.

She opened the door partway.  In the sunlight, she looked almost pretty.  At least, he thought, they knew each other.

“I smelled your cooking,” he said.

She shrugged and fixed her apron.  It was covered in flour and stained with grease.

“Wife, how have you been?”

“Wife?” she said.

“Well, by the Torah, we are still husband and wife.  If we wish to change that…”

“Listen, I need my red scarf.  It’s on your side of the room.”

“What?”

“My scarf.  Also bring me the typewriter.  I need it.”

“You, type?  Do you even know even the first thing of typing?”

“Mendel, you look skinny.  Haven’t you been eating?”

“Leah,” Mendel tried to crane his head around her.  “Is there a strange man in our house?”

“Listen, Mendel, is the shower broken?  Because you smell like a wet dog.”

“Me?  I smell?  You, you have chicken grease all over your face.”

 

Shabbos evening, Leah went to the mikveh.  It was something she’d done every month for twenty nine years, even after her time of blood.  Partly, she liked the quiet moments with her body:  the filing of nails, the removing of wax from ears, the flossing even of back teeth, the washing of skin until every part was a pale gem.  Also, she loved being submerged in the mikveh’s waters, dipping herself seven times with slow, deliberate delight, but mostly, it was the feeling of coming home that had always made her go.  When she returned to the house and touched her husband, after twelve days of being strangers, that was a feeling unlike any other.

Tonight, there was praying at the shul, and, afterwards, dinner at the Rebbe’s.  But there was also a party at Sunset Salsa, where the beginners would try their new moves:  the basic step, the right hand turn, the Mariposa, and the Figure Eight.  It was hard to decide.  Mendel had shut her like a book, shut the both of them out from their whole world.  Yesterday his face had looked so pale, like a ghost from the old country.

Leah got dressed.  She put on her wig and her special occasions dress, a solid blue gown that softly grazed her ankles.  When God spoke the first word and there was light, it wasn’t for the undoing.  Mendel’s wall was this kind of a word.

 

After a late snack of herring and cold noodle soup, Mendel put on his Shabbos clothes.  He’d gone to the drycleaners to have his suit pressed and ironed, a task Leah used to do for him.  It was a good thing, though, because now the dark suit sparkled.  When Leah ironed, she was daydreaming some little this and that.  She tended to leave burn marks, splotches of brown on his good fabric.

He took the longest time to wash his beard and to button his coat.  In the bathroom mirror, an old man with too much forehead winked back at him.  When he was ready, Mendel knocked on the wall.  It was a studious knock, a knock that respected her privacy, but was, in its own way, quite firm.

“Wife,” he said.

No answer.

“The Rebbe expects us.”

“Listen, outside of the house, we are still man and wife.”

He knocked with both his fists, then stuck his nose close to the frame.

“Leah?”

He stopped knocking when he saw the sheet of paper caught between the wall and the floor.  It was the frilly kind of stationary she used to make his grocery lists.  He picked up the page.  It said:

Orange juice, salmon, sesame seeds.

On the back, it said:

It is not good that a man should be alone.

God said that it was mostly not good.

And there was nothing as subtle as the Serpent, which in the beginning was an off-putting comment, as was the way he discarded things such as Kleenex on the very floor where their child crawled.

Mendel went for his sledgehammer.  He aimed it at the wall.  He struck three times.  Each time it made a terrible groan, but the wall did not crumple.  There wasn’t a single dent where the sledgehammer had met the sheetrock.  The surface still looked pristine, just as it had a week ago.

 

When Mendel reached the Rebbe’s house, he peered through the window.  The Shabbos candles had already been lit.  He couldn’t make out the faces inside, though a couple of families were already seated around the table.  The Rebbe stood in the center of the room with a Torah in his hand.

He had come to this ordinary home on this holy night countless times over the years, though on this night he came alone.  After the silent prayer and the washing of hands, he’d have to give them a good story of how it all began.  Mendel spoke the Shema under his breath and went inside.  Until the end, it would be this way—his word against hers.

 

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