Through June and July Shifra hoped for more confidences from Joyce, but she was disappointed. Though Joyce seemed to be unusually thoughtful, her conversation was restricted to commonplaces.
In August, however, events took a different turn.
During the months since Mrs Mottram’s death, Bertha had maintained contact with Shifra in a desultory way, a telephone call now and then, and once a visit when her day off coincided with one of Sam’s infrequent visits to work in Shifra’s garden.
“I’ve been promoted at work ” Bertha apologized as Shifra sat her down in the well-used patio chair, “and I don’t get the free time I used to have.”
“I ought to call you, too,” Shifra smiled, “but with the children and the garden design I never seem to get around to it. So let’s just be comfortable with each other when we do get together.”
So it was no real surprise when Bertha accompanied Sam when he visited Shifra for a gardening consultation one Sunday afternoon in August. Shifra sat her visitors on the patio while Baruch entertained the children with the garden sprinkler.
“It’s Mrs Hurst,” Sam explained. “She doesn’t seem to have the patience to wait till that little Italian cypress grows. She wants that tall narrow effect right away. I didn’t want to mess up your plan without talking to you first.”
Shifra shook her head. “You know, she and I had that discussion three times. Well, take out the cypress – you can put it in a tub here until we need it for somebody else. I’ll order her a Juniper Skyrocket, and on her own head be it. In five years it’ll be reaching for the sky and she’s just asking for tip blight, but she’ll have her green column quickly – well, it’ll be blue-green, but that’s her problem. I’ll write out some kind of disclaimer for her to sign. I’m not having her ruin my reputation or yours.”
Sam grinned. “I thought you’d say that. I’ll get the cypress out tomorrow.” He glanced around the garden. “And I’ll trim that hedge before I go.”
“No, don’t. I don’t have any cash on me,” said Shifra quickly.
With an airy wave, Sam said, “On the house. You don’t charge me a consultation fee, I do your hedge.”
Together Shifra and Bertha watched Baruch spraying the shrieking children and Sam working on the privet, but it seemed to Shifra that Bertha was uneasy.
“Bertha, is something bothering you?” Shifra asked gently, uncomfortable about interfering in Bertha’s personal affairs. “You don’t have to tell me. I only wondered if there was something I could help with – oh, there’s the doorbell.”
Joyce was standing on the threshold. “I know your children are all at home, and probably your husband, too, so if you don’t want me, tell me and I’ll find another time. It’s just turned out to be a convenient afternoon.”
“No, come in; it’s all right. Bertha’s here – you remember her, don’t you?”
“The carer my mother mentioned in her will?”
Shifra nodded. “We’ve stayed in contact.”
Once Joyce was seated, Shifra, asked Bertha, “Do you want to go on, or would you prefer to keep it private?”
Bertha turned a troubled face to Shifra. “I don’t mind anybody knowing, but I don’t think there’s anything anybody can do. It’s our landlord. He’s notified the tenants that he’s going to be renovating all the apartments. He’s done two downstairs already.”
“That’s good, isn’t it?”
“I’ve been through this before, in another building. When they upgrade the apartments, they raise the rent. The two apartments he’s done – he’s almost doubled the rent and the tenants had to move out. If he does that to us – we can’t afford that much rent, either, but there’s hardly anything on the market right now. I’ve been looking. I don’t know where to turn. And we’ve put so much into the place we have, now, it’s a real shame.”
Turning to Joyce, Shifra asked, “Is that normal? Such a big hike?”
Joyce shrugged. “Happens all the time. Better apartment, higher rent.” But she looked thoughtful.
With a sigh, Shifra said, “I wish you dealt with residential property. You said you handled commercial buildings, didn’t you?”
“Yes, it’s a different field altogether. I hope you find something, Bertha.” Her voice was noncommittal.
However, astonishingly, Bertha did not have to find a new apartment. Less than a week later Shifra answered the phone to an almost inarticulate Bertha.
“You – I — You’ll never believe what happened, Mrs Levenberg!” Bertha’s voice was squeaky with excitement. “The landlord’s agent came in to look at our apartment and he said it didn’t need renovating – we’d done it all! He said we’d saved him so much money that he even lowered the rent by ten dollars a month! Lowered it! Can you imagine?”
“It’s like a fairy tale!” Shifra exclaimed, delighted. “So you don’t need to move at all! Bertha, that’s the most wonderful, fantastic news!”
But Shifra was not so carried away that she couldn’t put two and two together. She called Joyce that evening. “You’ve been pulling strings, haven’t you?” she said.
“We-e-e-ll…Bertha seemed pretty upset.”
Unsure of her ground, Shifra made no response. Should she point out how Joyce had changed? She was sure the old Joyce would have shrugged and left matters to take their course. On the other hand, how could she tell Joyce how thoughtful she had been? It was embarrassing all around.
“Are you still there? Haven’t fainted or anything?” The sarcastic edge was back in Joyce’s voice, but blunted.
“Bertha is absolutely thrilled,” Shifra said at last.
“Bertha was very good to my mother. I wouldn’t have minded if Mom had left her more. She took a personal interest.”
“I know she did – but that’s Bertha. You know, to her it isn’t just a job. She has an individual relationship with every single lady there.”
“It meant a lot to Mom.”
“She even called me up when your mother died because she knew I wouldn’t have heard. I’m glad you stepped in, with the apartment, I mean. They’ve even taken ten dollars a month off the rent.”
“Ten dollars! The skinflint! And he thinks he’s going to do business with my firm? He should have reduced it by at least fifty dollars a month! What a gouger.”
Shifra giggled. “I wondered how you’d done it.”
“I knew who owned the building and dangled a carrot. He’s been making overtures to our agency for months but he’s not the sort of associate we work with. We’ll have to throw him some little deal, now, but he’s never going to make it. Too petty-minded.”
“Never mind Bertha’s landlord, Joyce – what about you? Even your voice on the phone is different. What’s happened?”
There was a pause.
“I don’t know exactly how to tell you…it’s kind of your fault, anyway. Do you remember you told me I wasn’t reacting from hate but from ignorance?”
“Of Orthodox Jews. After a while I began to see what you meant. So I signed up for a class – I thought it was time I started learning about the things I had no intention of doing. I liked the title of the class: The Aliens Among Us. It kind of said it all.”
Shifra giggled. “The Aliens Among Us? Green skin? Eyes on stalks?”
“And wigs and not getting your matzo wet and not answering the phone on the Sabbath and having hordes of kids. Sometimes you seem to be from a different planet. Offended?”
Shifra laughed. “I know how strange we are to you. But what does it have to do with something happening? And what is it that’s happened?”
“I’d rather tell you face to face.”
“On your next visit?”
“My last visit. I assume you have as few regrets as I do?”
“That’s one of those questions that has no right answer.”
Joyce laughed and hung up.
She was still laughing when she arrived on the following Sunday with a pleasant-faced man with middle-aged spread and a satin yarmulke, its prominent folds proclaiming infrequent use, perching uneasily on his nearly bald head. “Meet Steve,” she said.
Steve extended his hand, then retracted it. “Sorry, forgot,” he said with a friendly smile.
Though warm, it was drizzly, so they sat inside and viewed the blooming garden through the French doors.
“Seeing it in flower on my last visit is a nice way to finish,” Joyce remarked.
“Never mind the garden! Let’s have the story!” Shifra demanded. “But do you mind if my husband joins us? He’s kept the kids out of our hair a lot of times. It seems to me he ought to share in this.”
At Joyce’s nod, Shifra called Baruch. “I know it means the kids will drive us nuts in about half an hour, but let’s see how much we can get through,” she said as he brought a kitchen chair in and sat down. “Baruch, this is Steve,” she added with a cordial wave. “I have no idea why he’s here. All right, Joyce, let’s have it!”
With a glance at Steve, Joyce leaned back and smiled. “We met at the class – the one about Jewish customs. It was raining one night when class ended. Steve had an umbrella and I didn’t, and it turned out our cars were next to each other in the parking lot, so naturally we got to talking.” She looked at Steve. “Your turn.”
“The teacher had suggested each of us should try doing something Jewish, even if it didn’t last, though he hoped it would. Joyce decided to light candles Friday night in spite of the problems in winter – ”
“We’ll see what happens,” said Joyce.
“Would you like the pretty china candlesticks your mother gave me?” Shifra put in.
Joyce shook her head. “My mother collected them. She left me six pairs of candlesticks and a candelabrum. I can’t imagine why I hung on to them all. Sentiment, I suppose. One pair looked as if they’d been used, so I put my candles in those.”
“Your mother lit candles Friday night for the last year or two.”
“Did she? Your influence?” Joyce’s voice took on a sharp edge and she sat up straight. Suddenly she was as prickly as she had been a year earlier.
“Good.” The prickles relaxed. “Well, anyway, Steve stuck his neck out a lot further than I did.”
“When I said Kaddish for my wife I put on tefillin every morning,” Steve explained, “so I thought I’d try the tefillin thing again, for longer. It’s a big commitment, though.”
For a long minute Shifra looked from one to the other. “I’m – I think I’m speechless,” she said at last.
“That’s not the important part, anyway,” said Joyce.
“It is to us!” exclaimed Shifra.
“Well, my point is, Steve and I got along well. We had a lot in common. To be honest, I was absolutely flabbergasted when he said he wanted to marry me. But he was exactly what I was looking for – he’d had a successful marriage and I figured he could teach me. When he proposed, I warned him he was taking on a hard job –”
Steve gave a slow smile. “She’ll be a handful, I can tell that,” he admitted. “But I’ll never be bored.”
“When you and Ray both told me how selfish I was,” Joyce continued, “you both told me I couldn’t build a successful marriage if I didn’t change. And when I thought about it, I did want to marry again, and I wanted to marry Steve. And I thought he deserved better than a bitter, selfish, sharp-tongued female. That was where the garden came in.”
“The garden?” Shifra looked blank.
“All those visits to your garden – they had me thinking in gardening terms. I began to think of marriage as a sort of plant. It needed feeding and watering and sun and so on – Attention. Nurturing. What I’d had before – that wasn’t a marriage, it was just two people living in the same place. We never really considered each other’s needs, at least not that I recall. We both had careers, we were going places…we just weren’t going places together.”
“I think your mother sensed that,” said Shifra.
“She picked up on a lot of things. I know we weren’t that close as adults, but after all, she’d raised me. She knew me better than I did myself. I’m not the introspective type. So when she condemned me to a year of visiting her garden – and you – she had a pretty good idea of what she intended it to do to me.”
“Which was?” Baruch put in.
Joyce gave a start. Baruch had been sitting so quietly, unmoving, that she had forgotten about him.
“I think I know,” Shifra interposed. “Getting to know a garden makes you slow down. It gives you room to think.”
“You were right about your part, too, though. My mother once told me that she trusted you. I think she had that in mind when she made the will.”
“Trusted me? To do what?” asked Shifra, puzzled.
“I think – to be yourself. I couldn’t argue with you, be nasty to you, because you wouldn’t argue back. You stood for something but you didn’t try to convert me. You just listened, mostly. Like a therapist.”
“Oh. I didn’t mean to.”
“Anyway, Steve and I are getting married this winter.”
“We asked the rabbi from the class to marry us,” said Steve. “You’ll be able to come, won’t you? Not the reception – the rabbi warned us you couldn’t stay for that. But we’d love to have you for the – the –”
“The chuppa?” Baruch offered.
“Yeah. That. That’ll be Orthodox.”
Turning a little pink with pleasure, Shifra looked at Baruch, who nodded. “We’d love to come,” she said.
“Oh – another thing,” said Joyce. “Steve runs a construction business.”
“If you haven’t chosen a builder, yet, I can do you a really good price on that extension Joyce says you’ve planned,” Steve offered, leaning forward eagerly. “We wouldn’t have met if it hadn’t been for you.”
Dumbfounded, Shifra and Baruch stared at each other. Baruch found his voice first. “It would solve a lot of problems. Yes, please – we’d be grateful.”
“But Joyce, your mother already left me all that money. It really isn’t necessary – ” Shifra began.
“She never expected you to be my matchmaker,” said Joyce. “You and your garden. Take the offer. We owe you. We’ve just been learning in that class about marriage customs. Let me tell you about –” she pulled a slip of paper out of her handbag and read from it carefully – “shadchonus gelt…”