© 2014 by Michael Kroft
© 2014 by Michael Kroft
Thursday Morning, July 8, 1976
He was comfortable. The first hour of the morning was always his most comfortable time of the day. It wasn’t that he was a morning person –he wasn’t, and he was neither a day nor an evening one. He simply appreciated his morning routine. At six thirty, with his full head of black, wavy hair lightly greased back, dressed in black dress pants, white dress shirt and a loose black tie flung over his shoulder, Mr. Rosen descended the stairs. Always in black and white, he didn’t always dress the same. No, sometimes he might be wild and wear a short-sleeved white dress shirt. After the stairs, he made a one-eighty-degree turn, passed the dining room to enter the kitchen, and after kissing and hugging his wife of forty-one years, the two sat across from each other at the small but heavy oak table.
He always sat in the same wooden chair, his chair of twenty-eight years with its right side of the seat badly scratched up from the small set of keys that for over the last thirty years he had habitually kept secure in his back pocket. Though the keys have changed over time, their scratching had continued, and by this time, they had carved out a shallow pocket of their own in the seat of his chair.
Compared to his chair, his wife’s was immaculate. Every morning it was polished by one of her many green nightgowns, some solid and others floral. This morning it was floral. She would neither change her clothes nor fix her disorderly medium-length white hair until after her husband had eaten and left for work. Until then, they listened to the news from the living room radio as they ate their breakfast of porridge and toast.
While his wife stirred her porridge before taking a spoonful, Mr. Rosen mechanically dipped his spoon into his bowl, watching the level drop with each mouthful. Mrs. Rosen ate at her usual slow speed, but Mr. Rosen ate slowly out of boredom. He was satisfied with his breakfast but that morning would've preferred bacon and eggs. It had been over a year since his wife had made that occasional breakfast, and only once since then had she offered him eggs without the bacon. He turned it down since that would be like eating dry toast. He could eat bacon alone, but not eggs alone. Eggs need bacon –not the other way around.
His wife’s sudden anti-bacon position was the first sign, and six months later came the second: she decided that they would attend synagogue on the high holidays. Mrs. Rosen was transforming into a practicing Jew, and Mr. Rosen was expecting her soon to suggest that they attend weekly synagogue.
The old man said nothing about the change in his wife’s religious attitude. Even though it worried him, he went along with it just as he went along with everything else she had decided. He didn’t worry because he had no desire to be among a group of people and having to be always on his guard against someone’s attempt to start a conversation before or after the service but because of the reason or reasons for her change. He had heard of seniors, who after becoming bored and / or lonely and / or began fearing the closeness of death, turning or returning to religion, but he had never expected the change in his wife, especially since he thought it was only for Christians.
Finishing his porridge, Mr. Rosen put down his spoon and with a white cloth napkin wiped his mouth and brushed his black chevron mustache that appeared to support his large hawk nose. With his habitual stone face and his refined British accent, the sort expected from a Cambridge graduate, he said, “Thank you, Ruthy. That was splendid.”
“Av, you’d be welcome if you’d eat that last piece of toast there,” his wife said in her just as refined accent as she slid the small plate with the half piece of toast a couple inches closer to her husband.
He wasn’t sure if his wife had ended her request with there or dear. If she had said there, she was teasing him, but if she had said dear, she was serious. Both had grown slightly deaf over the years and if he asked for clarification it might turn into a sort of comedy routine. He decided she had said there and replied, “Ruthy, I think the birds would appreciate it. I am more than full.”
His wife smiled. “All that butter for the little birds? It’ll give them tiny heart attacks.”
“Ok, I shall place it in the napkin...and eat it on my way to work.”
Mrs. Rosen dropped her spoon into her bowl and wiped her mouth with her napkin. From Mr. Rosen’s angle, the napkin removed her smile too. “No, you shall not, Avriel Rosen. I know you’ll not eat it, and I know I’ll never see that napkin again,” she said, and then pulled the small plate back toward her. “Perhaps I’ll try to persuade the squirrels to take it. Heaven knows, some of those little critters could use heart attacks. Have you seen the numbers raiding the bird feeders? They’re out of control! If any of those furry-tailed rats get rabies, this street is done for!”
Mr. Rosen sat perplexed before he cracked a slight smile reserved exclusively for his wife and followed it up with a low, reserved belly laugh.
“Avriel Rosen, the squirrel situation is no laughing matter!”
He checked his laugh. “Ruthy, I was not laughing at you. I was laughing at myself. I thought I had heard you say that if the squirrels get rabbis this street is done for.”
Mrs. Rosen’s dark gray eyebrows tilted inward and she stared at her husband for a second before starting to laugh, or glaugh as her husband liked to call it since it was as loud as a laugh but sounded more like a giggle. Glaughing, she reached across the table and squeezed her husband’s large, thin hand.
He returned her squeeze, broke a rare full smile and added, “I wonder what our neighbor would do if the squirrels converted.”
His wife glaughed again.
Proud of his joke, Mr. Rosen forced his eyes from his wife and glanced up toward the wooden-framed clock on the kitchen wall behind her. He would've looked at his leather-strapped watch, but without his reading glasses, its thin arms were useless. He wore it more out of habit than practicality. His smile dropped. He released his wife’s hand and said, “Well, it is time.” He stood up from the table, rinsed his plate and coffee cup under the tap water and placed them neatly in the sink. Walking into the adjacent dining room, he asked, “Ruthy, are you finished with all the stores?”
“Yes, dear,” his wife answered, clanging the remaining dishes as she cleared the table.
Mr. Rosen picked up the five-inch pile of manila file folders from off the dining room table, packed them into his thick, black briefcase and, using some force, closed it. He knew the giant electronic calculator, the small box of pens and pencils and the even smaller box of pins resting on the table –his wife never trusted paper clips– would soon disappear to a location that he had yet to discover; though, he had never had a reason to search for them. And as he did almost every morning, he walked to the front entrance closet, placed the briefcase on the floor, took out his black blazer and put it on. With briefcase in hand, he opened the front door and bent down to pick up the Chronicle Herald newspaper. He turned around to find his wife slightly out of breath with a small paper lunch bag in her hand.
Exchanging the bag for the newspaper, the old woman struggled to catch her breath. “Now...now don’t forget...about tonight. It’s...Thursday.”
“I will remember. I should be here by four thirty.”
Mrs. Rosen pulled her husband’s tie out from between his shoulder and blazer, adjusted it and patted his thin chest at just about her head height. “Ok, dear...just to remind you, I...I’ll call you at four,” she said before standing on her toes as her husband bent down and with both hands full, swung his long arms around her, giving her a soft hug and then a quick kiss.
With her breathing almost back to normal, Mrs. Rosen wished her husband a good day and closed the door behind him.
Mr. Rosen never brought attention to his wife’s struggle for air, but it worried him. He worried about her constant struggle after exerting herself, worried about the decline in her quality of life, which she always downplayed, and he worried over her attempts to hide or ignore her struggles so that he wouldn’t worry. He worried that one day he would see his wife confined to the bed with an oxygen mask strapped to her face and oxygen tanks standing permanently beside it. He almost never worried about what would come after that because he refused to think about it. The few times he had found himself doing so, he was only able to distract himself by looking back to their shared past.
The Rosens never discussed death. To them, it was as taboo a subject as sex, though more inevitable. Up until the discovery of his wife’s heart problem, Mr. Rosen was comfortable with the high probability of him passing away before her. She could function without him. She had always been an independent, outgoing people-person who could make friends easily if she tried, and he was the only reason she didn’t. He, on the other hand, couldn’t live without her. He wasn’t a people-person, kept himself securely protected behind a shell of introversion, and had become mentally and perhaps even physically dependent on his wife. So dependent that if one were to ask him where in their new home his wife kept the cutlery, he would have to think about it and might guess the top kitchen drawer. He would be wrong. The cutlery was in the second drawer. Since Mrs. Rosen spent the majority of her time at home and had more time to cook elaborate meals, she found it more convenient to keep her cooking utensils in the top drawer.
For the last twenty-two months, the deterioration of his wife’s heart –their doctor called it cardiomyopathy– had been slowly progressing.
When first informed of his wife’s condition, Mr. Rosen hid his panic well but insisted that she stay home and from there do only, if she felt she must, the bookkeeping. He had surprised both her and himself with his insistence. It may have been the first time that he had ever insisted on her doing anything, ever.
After eight months of staying home, his wife decided that they needed a smaller house. He reluctantly agreed and suggested that they avoid one with stairs by purchasing a bungalow, but his wife felt that a house that small would be inadequate for all their things. Then he suggested that they get a house cleaner, but his wife said that she could still use the exercise of cleaning and gardening, but on a smaller scale of each. In the end, they sold their much larger home and moved to the smaller two-story/three-bedroom/one-and-a-half-bath on Gilmore Street, which his wife took upon herself to pick out.
Mr. Rosen didn’t immediately question his wife’s decisions. He had learned to wait and after he had given it some thought, he would find that she was right.
His wife was his paragon. In the past, when she had decided that they would make a dramatic change in their life, which was not often, she had never been wrong. When he returned from the war as a noticeably broken man, his wife suggested, as a needed change, they move to Canada. She was right. When they had the means and the opportunity presented itself to purchase an established drugstore, she pushed her reluctant husband to do it, and she was right. When their first store was doing well, she suggested they open another. She was right again. Moreover, when, after the seventh location was operating smoothly and making a profit, Mr. Rosen tried beating his wife to the punch by suggesting they open another location. His wife surprised him by disagreeing and telling him that they had had enough locations. Once again, she was right, though he didn't know it at the time.
The only decision that Mr. Rosen wasn’t confident with was the one to move to Gilmore Street, not so much the house, but the location. On Jubilee Road, where they had lived for almost twenty years, the couple never saw their neighbors. The houses were separated from one another by almost three-hundred and sixty degrees of trees, almost because the tree lines were broken only by the long driveways. Gilmore was dramatically different from Jubilee. There was no isolation. The houses lining it were literally a spitting distance from one another, and Mr. Rosen didn't have to do a survey to be confident that in that lower / middle-class neighborhood his wife and he were the only Jews. With their telling last name and his stereotypical Jewish face, he was certain that his neighbors had realized it and, even with the lack of space between the homes, kept their distance because of it. That was fine with him, but he knew his wife would like more contact with them. He believed that the main reason she had picked that neighborhood was to make friends.
Mr. and Mrs. Rosen had differing opinions of their neighbors. Mrs. Rosen didn’t believe they were bigots, except perhaps those on their immediate right, but thought the problems were that they had no children, were old enough to be the parents of most of those on the street and their accents made them appear as foreigners and perhaps even snobbish. Having little to nothing in common with the other families made for distant relations, at least initially.
Mr. Rosen fought to get his keys from his back pocket, unlocked and got into the oversized, four-door Cadillac, placed his briefcase down flat on the passenger side of the bench seat and laid his lunch on his lap.
He yawned and rubbed his hands over his face. He hadn't yet adjusted to his earlier schedule of leaving at seven-thirty instead of nine. That early in the morning was only necessary because it lessened the chance of coming across and exchanging insincere salutations with his bigoted next-door neighbor or his blond-haired, blue-eyed son who had recently started summer vacation and several times in the morning had greeted him as Mr. Jew. After being surprised the first time it happened, he learned to expect the greeting and retaliated by calling the child a goy boy, but only in his mind since his wife didn't appreciate that sort of talk.
He picked up the lunch bag and searched inside it for the small piece of colored paper containing a note with writing so small that he had started keeping a pair of reading glasses in the glove box for just that. Since confining herself to the home, each morning Mrs. Rosen added small messages to her husband’s lunch. Sometimes they were romantic, sometimes reminders and sometimes amusing. That morning, he found the usual roast beef sandwich wrapped in wax paper, but instead of finding a note, found the last piece of buttered toast. He cracked a slight smile, closed the bag and squeezed it between the briefcase and the backrest. Putting the engine in reverse he looked over his right shoulder and cautiously backed out of the driveway.
Mr. Rosen had never liked driving, but with his wife no longer working with him in their main office above their seventh and final drugstore, he had learned to appreciate its sanctuary. It had become the perfect place for his mental adjustment between home and work and vice versa. His car essentially became his acclimatizer; it compressed him on the way to work and decompressed him on the way back, every day except for Thursday afternoons.