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God’s Waiting Room

January 17, 2014

In the north end of Bridgeport, Connecticut is a two-story brick apartment building that has been dubbed God’s Waiting Room.
For reasons known only to God or because of the landlord’s sense of humor or bigotry or propriety or even due to incredible odds of coincidence reside sixteen single elderly Jewish women.  More, if you count the multiple personalities and less if you listen to, “don’t count me… my doctor says that I’m OK but I know better.”
I park in front of the building, enter the unlocked front door, go right to apartment 4A and do my shave-and-a-hair-cut knock.  I have a key but I just use it for emergencies.
“Who is it?” my Tanta Ester sings out.  I stick my eye to the peep hole to meet hers.
“It’s me,” I sing right back.  She knows it’s me the whole time.
“I’ll be right there!” she yells as our eyes stay glued to each other.  “I’m just finishing dressing.”
I put my ear to the door and I hear her quietly as possible put the chain on the door and then I hear footsteps and the sound of the refrigerator door.
She’s not fooling me.  I know that she’s been dressed for over an hour waiting for me and probably was sitting by the window and saw me drive up.  I also know after hearing the refrigerator door open and close that she had forgotten to hide the eggs before I got to her apartment.
It’s a game we’ve been playing for years.  Now that she’s in her eighties it is less of a game and more of a tradition.  She’s afraid that I’ll write on the eggs again.
Once, about ten years ago, I opened her refrigerator, and in the full egg bin I saw that three of the eggs had an H written on them and I asked her what the H meant.  She told me that she hard boils up a few eggs in advance and that way she knows which is which and can get up in the morning and make a hard boiled egg and onion sandwich and watch Willard Scott.  Good idea, I told her.  When she went to the bathroom I opened the refrigerator and took her pen off the counter and wrote an H on all of the eggs.  Then I went to the door and waited for Tanta.
The call came the next morning.  I can tell by the sound that she’s on the portable phone.
“You’re rotten,” she laughs.  “I was so surprised when I took an egg out and cracked it on the counter and it ran all over the place.  I couldn’t figure out what happened.  Then after it happened two more times I noticed that all of the eggs had H’s on them and I knew it was your kind of stunt.”
“It was an accident,” I told her.
“Liar,” she said.  “What am I going to do?  I don’t want to throw out all the eggs.”
I heard the toilet flushing.
“Wash your hands and I’ll tell you how to tell if an egg is hard boiled or raw,” I told her.  “Take the egg and spin it on its side.  If it wobbles slowly it’s raw.  If it spins nicely it’s cooked.”
“You’re making this up,” she told me as she loudly sipped her coffee.
“Would I kid an alter koker?” I asked her.  “Spin an egg.  I’ll wait on the phone.”
I heard her put the phone on the counter, and open and close the refrigerator door.  I guess…. spin or wobble.  I guessed spin.  It was.
After I knock several more times she finally lets me in.  My silver-haired Tanta Ester, a foot shorter than my six four, looks almost regal in her black pants suit, ersatz diamond brooch and earrings.  She has a devilishly delightful smile.  We are going out for dinner so Tanta Ester says, “Wait, I’ll go to the bathroom first.”  The restaurant is a mile and a half away and she’s known for a week that we have six o’clock reservations but she always goes to the bathroom first and then asks if anyone else has to go.  I’m surprised that she doesn’t make sandwiches for the trip.
I take Tanta out to dinner about once every three or four weeks and always ask her if she’d like to bring one of her neighbors.  “Not on your life,” she says.  “When they have company I never hear from them.  Besides,” she says, “they’re very fussy eaters and no fun to be with.”
I call her every week.  One day when we spoke, she told me about Frannie, her neighbor across the hall.  She has mentioned Frannie before, just as she has told me about all of her neighbors at one time or another.  Only now Tanta is worried that Frannie is getting senile.  Frannie insists that the woman who lives above her is out to get her.  “When Frannie comes over to watch a movie she runs home at a quarter to eleven because she says Ellen, the upstairs neighbor, will do horrible things to her if she isn’t in bed by eleven.”
“What kind of horrible things?” I ask.
“Ver vaist,” Tanta shrugs.  “Who knows?  Ellen wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
“Have they ever discussed this?” I ask.
“No.  I’m making cod for supper.  How do you make cod?”
“I put it in aluminum foil with sliced peppers and onions and baste it with mustard.  Then I close the foil and bake it.”
“How long do you bake it for?”
“Until it’s done.”
“What do you think I should have with the cod?”
“Are you doing this as we’re talking?”
“Yes.  I’m getting hungry.”
“Do you want me to call you back later?”
“No.  I want you to tell me what else to have with the cod.”
“Do you have tomatoes and cukes?”
“OK.  Slice them thin and sprinkle basil all over them and then drizzle olive oil on top and keep it in the refrigerator until you’re ready to eat.  Then take some challah, cut it thick, and put butter and garlic powder on it and toast it and you’ll have a nice garlic bread.”
“Thank you,” Tanta says and I hear pots and dishes in the background and the phone slipping away from her cheek and shoulder once in a while clanging to the floor or counter.
“Why not?” I ask her.  “Maybe it’s just a simple misunderstanding.”
“Why not what?”
“Why haven’t they discussed this with each other?”
“It’s gone too far for that,” Tanta tells me.  “Look.  I’m friendly with both of them and we all used to watch movies together and then one day Frannie calls me and says she won’t be coming over.  I ask her why and Frannie tells me that Ellen threatened her with physical harm and dybbuks if she came over when Ellen was here and furthermore there were some new rules she had to live by.  Do I have to peel the cukes?”
“Only if you want to.  New rules,” I say.  “I didn’t know that there were old rules.”
“Listen,” Tanta says opening the wrapping on a hard candy.  “All I know is what Frannie said.  She had to be in bed by eleven.  She couldn’t use her toaster oven after nine-thirty in the morning and she had to drink her coffee black from now on.”
“How old is this Ellen?”
“I like them better peeled.”
“So peel them.”
“I can’t find my peeler.”
“Look in the drawer with the serving spoons.  How old is this Ellen?”
“She’s seventy-two, seventy-three… I found it… and she maybe weighs a hundred pounds in the rain.”
“And Frannie?”
“Frannie is in her late sixties and looks like she hasn’t missed a meal once in all that time.  I told her that she’s just imagining this and she should come over but she’s really frightened and won’t.  I think maybe she is getting senile.”
“And Ellen?”
“Ellen says that she feels sorry for Frannie but doesn’t know what she can do.  Ellen was a school principal and is very decent.”
“What about Frannie?”
“What about her?”
“What did she do?”
“She stopped using her toaster oven after nine-thirty and…”
“No.  Wait.  What did Frannie do for a living?”
“Why didn’t you say so?  Frannie was an English teacher.  I can never beat her in Scrabble.  Neither could Ellen when we all used to play together.”
“Did she work in Ellen’s school?”
“No.  They worked in different towns.  Why?”
“Just curious.  That’s all.”
“Remember what being curious did to the cat?”
“What did it do?”
“I can’t remember, but I know it wasn’t good.”
One day I stopped in to see Tanta but she was out so I left and went shopping.  I filled her freezer with eight half gallons of ice cream, a box of creamsicles, a box of fudgesicles, and a dozen little chicken pot pies.  I left her a one pound box of Godiva chocolates on her pillow and made a pitcher of Rob Roys and put them in the fridge.  Then I short-sheeted her bed and left.
She didn’t call that night because she found the Rob Roys first, but the next day she called and I told her that I didn’t do it but that I had gotten a call from Frannie who saw Ellen leaving her apartment and if she didn’t believe me she should check with Frannie.  She told me that Frannie was away on vacation and I told her that it appeared that Frannie was sicker than we originally thought.
Tanta didn’t buy it.  “Liar,” she said.  “I love you.”
Frannie had a heart attack and was in the hospital for two weeks in which time Ellen moved out of the apartment building.  She left to be with her children in Chicago.  One thing had nothing to do with the other.
When Frannie came home from the hospital her sister came to stay with her.  The sister and Tanta became very friendly and the three of them used to watch movies together but Frannie would still run back to her apartment by a quarter to eleven.
Tanta said, “A new lady, Dora, moved into Ellen’s apartment and a nicer person you wouldn’t want to meet.  She watched movies with us the first two Saturdays and then Frannie wouldn’t go near her.  Frannie said that Ellen left instructions with Dora that she should punish her if she didn’t obey the rules.”
“What did Frannie’s sister say about all of this?” I asked.
“She didn’t know what to make of it but she didn’t want to upset Frannie any more than she was because of her heart so she suggested that I go over to Frannie’s apartment and watch a movie the next Saturday night.”
“How did it go?”
“It wasn’t that good of a movie.  It was Mel Brooks and a little too slapstick for me.”
“How did the evening go otherwise?”
“Fine, except the strangest thing happened.  We were watching the movie and it wasn’t over yet when Frannie looked at the clock.  It was twenty minutes until eleven and Frannie said that I should leave because she and her sister had to get into bed within the next few minutes.  No sooner had she said this when the phone rang.”
“And what?”
“And what did the ringing phone have to do with the movie or anything else going on?”
“Oh.  Well it was very strange because Frannie and her sister were arguing over who should answer the phone or if they should answer the phone and I couldn’t stand the ringing any more so I picked it up.”
“And nothing.  It was a neighbor asking if we’d seen his poodle.”
“And then?”
“I looked for Frannie and her sister and they were in bed so I watched the rest of the movie, turned off the tv, and went back to my apartment.”
“And nothing.  The last ten minutes of the movie were as bad as the rest.  What a night.  I don’t understand.”
“What don’t you understand?”
“Mel Brooks,” said Tanta.

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