Outdated, a Novel Excerpt by Nathan Wolff
Chapter One: Joe
When Joe Charnoff turned the corner onto his block, he breathed a deep sigh of relief. Through the orange streetlights he could see his apartment—or at least the Gruberman’s two-story box of a house whose basement he rented—and was eagerly anticipating the moment he wouldn’t have to drag along his clunky, second-hand rolling suitcase and could collapse into his bed. Just as he was passing by the walkway to his landlords’ side entrance, he heard the familiar squeak of their door and saw Mrs. Gruberman’s broad figure emerge onto her small square porch. With a plastic watering can held at her side, she bent over to check the soil in the planters hanging over the railing.
“Good evening, Mrs. Gruberman,” Joe cordially called, loudly enough for her to hear. She immediately turned her head in his direction and squinted from behind her Armani glasses.
“Oh, good evening, Joe,” she replied casually. Without hesitation she rested the watering can on the ground and ambled towards him. As she approached, she rubbed her arms with her hands, as if she felt chilly on this pleasant evening in early June. “I wasn’t sure it was you. How was your trip?”
“Fine,” he answered, too tired to elaborate. She looked into his eyes, but he turned away.
She pointed towards his suitcase. “Just getting home now?”
“Yeah,” he exhaled. “Six hours door-to-door.”
“My gosh,” she shuddered, covering her mouth with her hand. “Why so late?”
“It’s normally a four-hour trip, but the train was delayed leaving DC, and then we stopped for no reason whatsoever outside just Philadelphia.” He mustered a heavy smile. “So it felt very long.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that,” she said in a motherly tone. “You must be starving.”
“No, my family had its ritual Sunday brunch just before I left, so I’m fine.”
“That’s good. You know, I wanted to make a brunch with my sisters this morning too, but by the time I got around to contacting them, one had to take her son to get his wedding suit, and the other had to fix her Smartphone, so…b’kitzur it didn’t happen.”
“Yeah.” As he listened, Joe glanced quickly at the watering can and felt something amiss. Weren’t their flowers watered by an automatic hose system? And why would Mrs. Gruberman tend to her garden at 10 PM in a skirt-suit? Her charade didn’t fool him. She probably heard the plastic wheels of his suitcase scraping along the sidewalk and probably even peeked from behind the blinds in her front room to be sure it was him. Maybe, he hoped, she was coming to report on what he’d asked her to find out.
He couldn’t just broach the subject abruptly, though. “Did you have a lot of guests over Shavuos?”
“We did,” she said matter-of-factly. “You missed some yummy
food. There’s tons of leftovers. Do you want some—?”
“Did Daniela come, by any chance?” he interrupted her, glancing down the street at the traffic light changing to yellow.
“Yes, actually,” she answered with wide eyes. “I think she came for two meals, if I’m not mistaken. I’m pretty sure she was at our milchig meal. She loves lasagne. She always orders it from one of the cafes in the neighborhood and it always smells so good.”
Joe stood there, a smile frozen on his face while Mrs. Gruberman rambled on like she usually did. Had she not been his landlord and his frequent Shabbos meal hostess he would’ve interrupted her long ago. A car passed behind him and he started blinking rapidly to revive himself.
“Anyway,” she said finally. “You’re probably wondering whether I was able to ask her.”
Joe nodded nonchalantly. “I mean, I can understand with so many guests that you might not have had the chance…”
“No, I did,” she said, accenting the “did” in a way that said everything. Her sudden look of compassion didn’t help Joe feel any better, but he allowed her to continue. “While she said that she thought you were very nice, she wasn’t interested in going out.”
He scratched the stubble around his chin, but then cupped his hands behind his back and looked down at his scuffed shoes. “Well, thank you anyway.”
“I wanted to let you know so that you didn’t get all…expectant.”
“Yeah, I guess it’s better you asked her.” He exhaled. “OK then.”
Mrs. Gruberman, though, seemed to have taken it harder than Joe. With a frown, she said, “I don’t think that she’s really ready for marriage, to tell you the truth. I don’t mean like that…I just don’t even know if she’s dating at all. I mean, maybe she should be, but there’s only so much I can say to her as her boss.”
Now can I go home? he thought but didn’t say. He took the handle of his suitcase, as if to subtly drop a hint to Mrs. Gruberman.
“What are you doing next Shabbos?” she asked. “Maybe you’ll come to us?”
“We’ll see. It’s only Sunday.”
She went back inside, without watering any of the flowers, while Joe lugged himself and his suitcase to the other side of the house. The entrance to his apartment was at the back of the driveway and to get there he had to maneuver between the Gruberman’s Grand Cherokee and the exterior siding of the house. Though his suitcase was packed pretty lightly, it clomped loudly as he dragged it behind him down the stairs. He unlocked the door and was immediately hit with the stench of stale air. He went to the small window next to the door and heaved it open.
After rolling his suitcase inside the apartment, he slid his suit jacket off his shoulders and hung it on the back of one of two chairs around the table. He reached into his pockets and dropped all the contents on the table, the coins hitting the table with a loud crash and scattering in all directions and onto the floor. With a shrug, he went to the kitchen, which was really just the back corner of the one main room. He pulled out the Brita from the refrigerator and poured himself some water. Standing above the sink, he emitted a long sigh and made a beracha before drinking. He drank half before spiking the tumbler into the sink, its contents splashing on the sides of the sink and the cup bouncing ten times or so before settling in the open drain hole… After another sigh, he hobbled over to his bedroom to get undressed.
As he was unbuttoning his white Oxford shirt, he couldn’t understand why he was in such a funk. So Daniela, whom he had met at least ten times at the Gruberman’s Shabbos table, didn’t want to date him. Big deal. He had thought there was a rapport developing during their conversations but apparently she didn’t. He looked around and for the first time felt dissatisfaction with the mess. There was the pile of clothing in the corner that never seemed to get put away, the line of shoes along the wall, his desk cluttered with a disarray of graduate text books, work papers, science magazines, seforim, and various gadgets for his phone and camera. After brushing his teeth, he tumbled onto his mattress and fell asleep.
At 6:40 AM his alarm clock jolted him awake, but he turned over and stared at the ceiling for nine minutes until rolling out of bed when the snooze went off. Joe washed his hands and face in the kitchen sink and looked up at his reflection in the small mirror his former roommate had hung on the wall. He had never been that confident with the way he looked, though he knew of girls who described him as “cute.” His short hair had no particular style to it—it was just short—and his eyes were a dull green that looked bluish when he wore blue shirts. He was exactly the average height for American males his age but slightly thinner, and he felt out of shape. Depressing thoughts were uncharacteristic for Joe, though, so he rubbed his face with the closest towel and announced to his reflection, “But I’m alive!” It didn’t motivate him for very long, so he dressed slowly, filled his messenger bag with his work papers, and headed towards the shul on the corner.
After davening, he stopped in the kosher bakery to calm his grumbling stomach. With a heave he opened the door and walked straight up to the counter, relishing the rarity of it being so empty at this normally busy hour. When the woman behind the counter indicated she was ready to serve him, he ordered a small hazelnut coffee with milk and on impulse a corn muffin. She turned with a nod to make his coffee, and at that moment his cell phone rang. It was Sharon, his friend from college. He didn’t answer immediately.
“Hey Joey,” she said in a pleasant sing-song. “Good morning.”
“Yeah yeah,” he replied morosely. “I’m at the bakery.”
“Already? Early riser…”
“Not really,” he said with a grumble. The door to the back opened and the baker carried in a large tray of marble cake to the counter, bringing with him a scent of fresh cake and sweat. “Why are you up so early?”
“I don’t know,” Sharon answered behind a yawn. “I couldn’t go back to sleep.”
Joe hummed, his attention captured by the colorful pastries spotlighted in the display case in front of him. “So, what’s up?”
“I didn’t see you on Facebook for a few days. Everything all right?”
“I went down to Potomac last Wednesday, my parents, and forgot my charger,” he explained.
“Oh. Well, you probably had a better time than my cheesecake binge at home.” She laughed, but Joe didn’t.
“Probably,” he said blankly. He glanced to his left where an older woman with huge sunglasses and a shopping cart at her side was standing next to him and flailing her arm to draw the attention of the woman behind the counter.
“How long do I have to wait to be serviced?” she demanded of the clerk, who was busy putting Joe’s muffin in a small brown paper bag.
“What did you say?” Sharon asked.
“It wasn’t me,” Joe told her. “Look, I’m heading to the subway. Can we talk later?”
“Sure,” she said. “I was actually calling to say that I’ll be downtown later.”
“Really? What for?”
“Oh, nothing really. Just, you know, meeting someone…”
“Someone?” He took the phone away from his ear as the woman placed the paper bag with his muffin and presumably his coffee on the counter. He pulled out a five-dollar bill from his pocket and returned the phone to his ear. “Is it a…date?”
“Nooooo,” she denied. “Just a guy I met at this surprise party—you know Evelyn from my building?”
“No,” Joe said decisively.
“Well, whatever, he was there and Evelyn introduced us and then wandered off, and we talked and he…asked for my number, and—”
“That’s nice,” Joe interrupted her. He held his phone with his shoulder and collected his change from the counter. “Have fun.”
“So, you wanna meet for dinner at the spot?” Sharon asked.
Joe’s nose twitched as he picked up his coffee and muffin. “I learn nights now, remember?”
“Oh, right,” she said, with a short laugh. “I forgot.”
“Another time,” he offered as he placed his breakfast on a small table in the corner of the bakery. “Look, I gotta go.”
“OK. What’s up for Shabbat?”
He rolled his eyes. “How do I know? It’s only Monday.”
“I’m just asking. You don’t have to be so terse.”
He held the phone away from his ear and sighed. “I meant that I never know this early.”
“So come for Shabbat,” she offered. “There’s a get-together this week at Frankel’s.”
“No thanks,” Joe said pointedly. “Have a good time with Frankel.”
Sharon clicked her tongue. “Don’t be so cynical. You used to enjoy going.”
“Maybe when we were undergrads,” he said as he took the plastic cover off his coffee and blew on it. “I’ll be there in a few weeks for Rob’s aufruf anyway.”
“That’s in a few weeks,” she pointed out. “I figured that you’d be lonely now that your roommate’s left. Are they bringing in someone else?”
He made a beracha over his coffee and tasted it before answering. “I don’t think so. My landlords haven’t said anything.”
“Aren’t they losing money?”
“I don’t know if they even need my money,” he said, taking a sip.
“Oh, why don’t you live uptown?” she blurted. “I don’t know why you still live there.”
He threw back his head in exasperation. “We’ve been through this before. Number one,” he was counting with his fingers, “It’s still cheaper to live in Brooklyn. Two, it’s closer to my job and school—”
“But you have to ride the subway through all those bad neighborhoods,” she whined.
“New York isn’t what it was in the eighties.”
“Fine. But at least don’t spend your Shabbat alone.”
He took out his muffin from the bag and peeled off the paper. “I’ll see. Let me go.”
It was another minute before he could finally hang up. Even though Joe had basically cut contact with girls, he hadn’t gotten around to telling Sharon yet. When he first arrived at NYU as a scared freshman from Maryland, she befriended him and showed him the ropes of college, New York City, and helped him acclimate to the Orthodox lifestyle he’d chosen in Israel that summer after high school. They became close friends, but nothing more, because while Sharon seemed content with her level of observance, Joe was always growing, and wanted a girlfriend who was also interested in seeking a stronger connection to her yiddishkeit.
When she graduated after his second year, he felt the time had come for him to distance himself from the girls he was friendly with and from hanging out in mixed crowds, but since Sharon wasn’t on campus and didn’t see Joe in his new isolation, she continued to call and Joe never got up the nerve to tell her he wasn’t keeping female friends anymore. Instead he placated her, finding excuses not to meet up, sporadically answering her calls but never initiating, hoping that eventually she’d get the hint.
As he drank his coffee and stared out the big windows at the synchronized changing of the traffic lights, he concluded that he couldn’t continue doing nothing indefinitely, but couldn’t imagine hurting her like that either. He finished his breakfast with his stomach still unsettled and disposed of his trash on his way out to join the morning march towards the subway.
As Joe strolled down Nostrand Avenue, glancing into the store windows as he passed them and enjoying the cool air, his train of thought switched tracks and he agonized over where he went wrong with Daniela. Was it the right thing to use Mrs. Gruberman? Maybe Daniela didn’t feel comfortable with her boss intruding into her personal life. Was he misreading her interest in their conversations? She seemed to be engaged when speaking with him, despite the frenetic background action typical to a Gruberman Shabbos meal. Perhaps he was someone who she didn’t even think of as a potential date and immediately relegated him to at best a friend? When he reached the station and settled into a seat on a waiting-to-depart 2 train, he concluded that he simply didn’t know, and the uncertainty soured him for the duration of his ride into Manhattan.
Eventually the train passed through most of Brooklyn and entered the last leg of his journey in the tunnel under the East River. Joe perked up a bit as the automatic voice announced, “The Next Stop is…Wall Street.” He stood up heavily, coming to terms with having to spend the day at work instead of moping in his apartment.
The subway doors opened upon their two-tone chime and for five minutes Joe joined a dense mass of commuters shuffling towards their respective jobs, breaking from the herd when it passed his building on Water Street. Joe waved to the doorman, who nodded in response. Nobody from his office was in the elevator so the twenty-four-second ride was shared in silence with a young guy giving off a strong whiff of the same cologne Sharon once tried to persuade him to spend way too much money for.
When he reached his floor, he pulled out his electronic keycard from his wallet and opened the glass doors to the offices of Stadler & Klein. He managed to get to his little cubicle without being drawn into any conversations, and as he sat down at his swivel chair, he dropped his bag at his feet and emitted an audible sigh that he hoped nobody else heard.
Once Joe started working, though, he forgot about the image of Daniela laughing at his corny sarcasm and focused on his task. Currently he was spending three days a week interning at a stock market research firm while he finished his Master’s. Joe was extremely grateful to have found work in his undergraduate major—statistics—doubly so that Stadler & Klein was predominantly a religious Jewish company. He took his lunch at one and then went to the conference room where there was a daily minyan at 1:30.
Afterwards, when everyone was silently filing out, Joe was approached by Mr. Siegel, head of acquisitions.
“Can you come by my office before you leave?” he asked Joe abruptly.
“Sure,” Joe replied immediately.
“See you then,” Mr. Siegel said before turning and quickly disappearing down the hallway.
Joe remained standing in place, bewildered. He couldn’t think of any reason why Mr. Siegel would want to speak with him, especially in the privacy of his office. For the two years since his initial hiring, they had only shared pleasantries or general work inquiries, so what was so important that it couldn’t be said in the conference room? Was he going to get reprimanded?
For nearly half-an-hour after he got back to his cubicle, Joe stared at his computer, unable to understand why the same calculations he breezed through all morning suddenly didn’t make any sense. He went to get a drink from the coffee room and as he gulped some cold water, he felt his hand shaking and his left eyelid twitching. With a few deep breaths, the shaking ceased and he went back to his cubicle to find the numbers back to their old selves.
At the calculated time of 5:09, Joe made his way to the corner offices and announced his presence to Mr. Siegel’s secretary. She was probably Joe’s age, if not younger, a slender and pretty brunette who Joe thought dressed too stylish for their boring office. She was busy examining dresses from a bridal magazine when he approached and barely looked up when she indicated with her hand that he was free to proceed to Mr. Siegel’s office. The door was open a small crack and made a creaking sound when Joe knocked.
“Come in,” Mr. Siegel called from inside.
Joe opened the door and stepped in.
Mr. Siegel looked up from his computer. “Ah, Joseph. Take a seat.”
He was typing rapidly as Joe entered the office and closed the door behind him. He walked over to the chair opposite Mr. Siegel and settled into the leather while glancing around. There was a polished wood desk with a flat-screen computer and a line of framed photos, but besides a small tree Joe couldn’t identify, the only other furniture was a bookcase filled with colorful binders and a few seforim. Joe surmised the panoramic view of the East River compensated for any need of furnishings. The entire downtown Brooklyn skyline was Mr. Siegel’s backdrop, with the two bridges named after the two connecting boroughs to the north and the shipyards and townhouses of Brooklyn Heights to the south. With a view like that Joe tried to guess how much the company must’ve been making just to handle the rent.
“So, Joseph,” Mr. Siegel finally said. He increased the speed of his typing, made one dramatic Enter, and slid his chair away from the computer. “How are things going in statistical analysis?”
“Fine,” Joe replied. “Great.”
“I saw your name on a first-quarter report last month. It looked pretty thorough.”
“Thank you,” Joe said sheepishly. Joe’s eyes looked around the room as he anxiously awaited Mr. Siegel’s mystery business. He concluded that the tree in the corner was probably a fern.
Mr. Siegel leaned forward and stared at Joe. “You’re probably scared to death to know what I called you in for.”
“I am,” Joe felt safe to admit.
Mr. Siegel smiled and picked up his phone. “Joanie, could you bring in a bottle of seltzer and two glasses, please?” After he hung up, he told Joe, “It’s nothing work-related, I can assure you.”
Still Joe felt weird. All this suspense must have been for something important. The secretary entered with the requested drink and two glasses. Mr. Siegel thanked her and waited for her to leave before continuing. “Look, I’ll get to the bottom line. I’m not exactly your boss, so I feel I can…I can ask you this…”
“OK,” Joe answered, scratching his stubble.
“You see,” he paused, exhaling quickly. He grabbed the bottle of seltzer with the speed of a ninja. “Do you want a drink?”
“Sure,” Joe answered.
Mr. Siegel looked completely at ease as he busied himself with pouring Joe his drink. “Look, I hope I’m not prying into your business, but I ran into a relative of mine before yom tov who’s a shadchan who asked me if I knew of any guys. I wasn’t in the proper mindset to offer her any names then, but when I saw you at mincha I thought that you might be interested. Have you thought about getting married?”
For a moment, Joe sat dumbfounded. He couldn’t believe that this was the climax to his hours of suspense. He wanted to laugh very hard, but held back. He reached for his glass and made a beracha before drinking. After his first sip, he replied, “Who at my age isn’t thinking about it? But a matchmaker?”
“You’ve never been set up?” Mr. Siegel asked, settling back into his chair with his glass.
“No,” Joe admitted.
“How old are you”
He laughed a hearty laugh and Joe couldn’t help laughing with him. “Twenty-two? How is a young guy like you already finishing a Master’s?”
“I took a lot of APs in high school,” Joe answered simply.
“Oh, I see. I didn’t get to take any of those in yeshiva. So what do you say?”
Joe was slow to answer, which Mr. Siegel must have understood as a hesitation, because he added: “Listen, at worst it’s an hour meeting a very nice woman in Borough Park. You live in Brooklyn, right?”
“For now, at least.”
“And at best, you could find your wife. She’s made dozens of matches—she’s a professional, you know, not just some newly married kallah trying to set up her single friends. Here,” he opened a drawer, pulled out a business card and started writing on the back. Then he handed the card to Joe. “Give her a call.”
Joe took the card, glanced down at the writing, and quickly put it into his pocket. “I really…had no idea this was what you wanted to speak about.”
Mr. Siegel leaned back in his seat and sipped his seltzer. “I didn’t think that it would be appropriate to bring this up in the conference room.”
“You’re right,” Joe said, nodding. He then felt his phone vibrating again but he maintained a straight smile.
“All right. Otherwise, everything is all right?”
“Yes, Mr. Siegel.”
“Good. I’ve kept you long enough.”
Joe made an after-beracha and stood. “Thank you for thinking about me, Mr. Siegel.”
“It could turn out very good. I have the same feeling about this as I had when I first got your resume, and look at what you’ve done.” Mr. Siegel got up from his chair and accompanied Joe out of the office. When they reached the door, he slapped Joe on the shoulder. “Go finish your Master’s already,” he commanded. “I’ll see what I can do about getting you a real position.” Mr. Siegel smiled widely at Joe before closing the door.
As Joe walked to his cubicle to get his bag, he felt his heart beating heavily. Mr. Siegel’s guarantee of a job didn’t even register because he was more perplexed over the rest of their conversation. It wasn’t the first time someone tried to help him get married. Last year at a friend’s wedding, the bride, in so many words, enthusiastically told him she would set him up with a girlfriend. The girl, who was in earshot, overheard the bride’s plan and blushed and Joe felt that somehow the boundaries of modesty had been breached with such a public announcement. Nothing transpired from the suggestion, and it seemed strange to him to make his private life such public business. Although Joe appreciated Mr. Siegel looking out for him, he wouldn’t do anything with the number.
When he reached his desk and bent down to pick up his messenger bag, he discovered that he was still holding Mr. Siegel’s glass.
He backtracked and ran it to his secretary, who actually looked up as he approached. “Oh, thanks,” she said with a smile as he put it on her desk.
He was so surprised that she even spoke to him that he smiled back and nervously murmured, “You too.” Realizing his slip, his face turned red and he turned and hurried out of the office.
For more about Outdated, by Nathan Wolff, or to buy the book and know the ending before everyone else, go to www.nathanwolff.com/