The other day, I broke one of my rules while I was making a homemade challah for a friend of mine. I forgot to unplug the telephone. As I tell my psychotherapy clients, “It’s important ‘to be in the moment,’” and nothing is more centering or stress-relieving than making your own bread.
When the phone rang, my hands were not as yet plunged wrist-deep into the sticky, sweet-smelling dough. I had added all the liquid ingredients – water, honey, four eggs – to the King Arthur Unbleached Flour and was stirring the mixture with a wooden spoon.
“This is Ruth,” I answered.
The voice on the other end was that of a woman with a nearly unintelligible accent, begging me to meet her in Northeast Philadelphia.
“I found you on the Internet,” she said. “I must meet with you.”
”You’re Russian?” I asked.
“Russian, yes. I must see you.”
We argued a few moments about where to meet. This was a disagreeable woman, for sure, and her conversation was interrupted by a man’s scream in the background.
I was startled, though she wasn’t.
“Is that why you’re calling me?” I asked.
“It’s your son, isn’t it?”
“Yes, yes,” she said. “Can you meet me?”
She gave me the address of Jack’s Deli in Northeast Philadelphia.
When I hung up I was furious with myself. Here I was doing a favor for someone I had never met and not being recompensed for it. I have only enough money to pay my bills and the taxes on my beautiful yellow house in Willow Grove with the birdbath out front and a pink Buddha sunning himself beneath the maple tree.
Thinking quickly, I called Katya back and asked for her complete home address, then got in touch with a mental health clinic where she might send her son. He was cursing her every word in the background. Cursing and screaming. Schizophrenia, I predicted. With medication, I knew, this illness can be helped. Hadn’t John Forbes Nash, who had schizophrenia, been honored with the Nobel Prize in economics?
Putting a damp towel over my bread, I tucked it in the fridge and headed for my car.
I switched on the audio book in my gray Nissan. A man with a purposely unpleasant voice was reading a Stephen King novel. This was the one about a man and his fourteen-year-old son killing the mother and stuffing her down a backyard well.
Whatever your life was like, it was certainly better than the lives of these pitiful characters, who deeply regretted their long-premeditated plan. Truth be told, I get so involved with my audio books, their characters stride through my life as if I know them.
As I traveled down Bustleton Road, I had a million things on my mind. Inside my pocket book was my new cell phone I was mandated to carry. I hadn’t learned to fully use it yet, but had mastered calling people on it. I got flustered when someone called me, so I paid no attention when it begged to be answered.
I was on the “waiting list” for a new kidney, since the drug lithium I took for bipolar disorder was slowly killing my kidneys. I could be called at any time.
Although I was paying strict attention and was not distracted by the shocking happenings in the Stephen King novel, I did miss the driveway for Jack’s Deli. I did a graceful u-turn and backed into a spot in front of the deli.
When I walked inside, she was not there. Not a good sign.
I entered the meat market on the left, wearing my brown boots, jeans and a warm jacket.
At my request, a butcher named Perry gave me samples of corned beef, tongue and chopped liver.
“The tongue definitely,” I said to him over the tall counter. Although he was in his fifties, his white hair was tied back in a pony tail. I was ordering the tongue for old time’s sake. It was just about impossible to find tongue in the gentile neighborhood of my home in Willow Grove.
“Listen, Perry,” I said. “Would you mind giving me another taste of the chopped liver? It’s absolutely exquisite!”
He dipped a tiny white spoon into the mound of chopped liver and I took another small bite.
“You’ve got egg, mayo, onion, and something I can’t recognize in here, maybe wine?” I said. “Would you mind telling me what it is?”
“If I told you that,” he laughed, “you’d run me out of business.”
It was futile to protest.
Perry and I decided that I’d add the chopped liver to the tongue under one roof of rye bread with seeds.
I paid in cash because it was ridiculously cheap and then went over to the dining room, passing by a tall display case of cheesecakes and multi-tiered cakes with frosting – chocolate, vanilla, butter-cream. They sure knew how to tempt a person.
Choosing from the mustard assortment on the table, I put a dollop of Gulden’s spicy mustard on both sides of the rye, and chose a dill pickle from the tray.
The waitress, Sue, gave me a plastic glass of water with ice, extracting a straw from her apron. For months, I’d been on a kidney-healthy diet to preserve my kidneys until the blessed day of my transplant, whenever that might be. Occasionally, I’d take a break from the diet, and today I gave myself permission to eat whatever I wanted. I would make up for it the next day.
Yeah, by buying one of their cheesecakes and downing it with milk.
My diet was low in protein and bread was verboten since it was high in phosphates, difficult for damaged kidneys to excrete because phosphates consist of large cells. Instead of being excreted, they would float around in my bloodstream.
While enjoying my meal, I kept my eyes on the double doors. No one came in who looked like a Katya.
Finally, a tall woman in a hat strode inside the restaurant. She looked my way and stared at me, saying nothing.
“Are you Katya?” I asked.
“Yes, vhere haff you been?” she asked. She said she’d been waiting for me and motioned to the meat market, certainly a dumb place to wait.
“She’s been sitting here half an hour,” said Sue, the waitress, in her dainty white apron, “watching everyone who comes in. We’re all helping her.”
Indeed, talkative me had told a couple of neighboring tables I was watching for a woman I had never met.
“Never mind, Katya,” I said. “Have a seat and we’ll talk.”
I moved my food out of the way and motioned for her to sit.
“No,” she said and disappeared.
“Jeez,” I said looking at Sue and another customer, Linda. We’d all become friends during my wait.
I took my time finishing, tasting each delicious bite.
“Dessert?” asked Sue.
“I’d love to, but, you know how it is with women, always dieting.”
“I know,” she said. “You look good, honey.”
I thanked her, left a five dollar tip and then went to look for Katya.
She was standing, arms folded across her chest, in front of the glass cookie case with its rugalach, mandel broid and hamantaschen.
Her bright red hair stuck out of her hat. Her age was indeterminate.
“Where shall we go?” I asked.
“Come with me,” she said and I followed her back into the restaurant.
“We stand right here.”
In front of the restaurant were two chairs where customers would wait for their take-out orders.
We were to conduct our private business in front of the customers. Maybe, because she was Russian, she didn’t trust me.
“Tell me what’s happening,” I said, beginning to think the problem was as much Katya’s as her son’s.
Her body language was very unusual. She kept her hand in front of her mouth as if she were contagious or had terrible breath. I felt like pulling it away.
”I can’t hear you,” I said at least seven times.
“How old is your son?” I asked.
“Does he have schizophrenia?”
”No, he has de-pression,” she said, rolling the “R,” as her hand blocked her mouth.
“When is the last time he left home?”
“Five years ago.”
“Five years?” Sure doesn’t sound like depression, I thought.
“Is he ruining your life?”
”Do you have relatives you can talk to?”
”Yes…. no…. yes… no,” she said.
”Did you ever hear of Jewish Family Services?”
”Have you called them?”
”No,” she said, looking down at her feet. She was wearing slippers.
Then I pulled my trump card from my pocketbook. I gave her the name and phone number of a mobile crisis unit who would come out to their home and hospitalize the boy.
“How dare you!” she said. “He my son!”
That was the last straw. She was finished with me.
“I go,” she said.
“But don’t you want my help? He’s ruining your life.”
She gave me an angry look.
“Do you want me to pay you?” she asked.
Payment was the last thing on my mind. But I was so furious with her I said, “Yes, I would like something for my trouble.”
“You vant money?” she repeated.
“Ten dollars will be fine,” I said, looking at her flashing black eyes and fake red hair.
She opened her huge black bag, looked inside and shook her head “No.”
She closed her purse and walked out the door.
I followed her out and said, “Look, you’re going to leave here and feel terrible. I don’t want you to feel bad.”
By now, I pretty much hated the woman. She had wanted my help but changed her mind. Courageous she was not.
“Don’t be judgmental,” I said to myself.
I watched to see which car she would get into. None. She had vanished. Was she an apparition?
I ran around the corner, clopping in my leather boots, and there she was walking home, fast as a bunny in her furry slippers. A woman with very little money, and I’m trying to extract ten dollars from her like a con woman.
But she does own a cell phone. That I knew. Her son called her when she and I were talking inside the deli. She never answered him, but mumbled that he was on the line. Her husband had died. Yes, she said, he knew how to handle Gregory, but he had died five years ago.
Now I knew she was really a story out of Chekhov, a story I wished I had never read.
On the way home I stopped at a red light and pulled out my beautiful brand-new gray cell phone my son had bought me. It had large easy-to-read numerals, the kind you might give to an eighty-year-old lady or someone who was losing their marbles.
I had memorized the number: 215-784-2009 and vowed I’d learn to use more of its features some day. At the first red light, I dialed my home number. Therapists have feelings, too, and I needed to voice my supreme discontent.
“Hello, Ruthie,” I said. “Welcome home. You just went on a goddamn wild goose chase. Relax and have a good evening. And don’t forget about the challah rising in the fridge.”
Ruth Z. Deming has had her prose published in Creative Nonfiction, Haggard and Halloo, Mad Swirl and other lit mags. She lives in Willow Grove, a suburb of Philadelphia. She had a successful kidney transplant on April 1, 2011, courtesy of her daughter, Sarah Lynn Deming. And we, the folks around Twisted Sister, are wishing them both all the best.
Drop by Ruth’s website at http://www.ruthzdeming.blogspot.com