Esther Nussbaum sniffed her dentures and decided they could use a clean. She tottered to the bathroom in her embroidered blue-and-purple dressing gown, the cheap, easily replaceable grey slippers from Shuk-Hakarmel on her feet, and began running the water in the sink. She turned the old handle to the left, as far as it would go, where it only trickled very slowly. There was a problem with the pipes, but every time he came to unplug the toilet, the plumber told her that the only way he’d be able to fix it would be by tearing up all the tiles between the bathroom and the kitchen. It would cost too much and what would she do without a bathroom for a week while he worked there, stinking and dirtying up the house? And who’d clean up afterward, huh? No, Esther wasn’t going to let anybody fix anything, not till she was dead. Then her good-for-nothing kids and their beautiful-but-ungrateful, children could do whatever they wanted with the old apartment.
Leaving the faucet dripping the slowly heating water into the sink, Esther shuffled to the kitchen to get a glass to put her dentures in. There was a tablet she would add that would clean them well and get rid of the stench of her old mouth. If there was one thing she was meticulous about, it was her personal hygiene.
Someone pounded on the door. She almost dropped the glass, she was so surprised. Her family members all knocked in different staccato raps, little taps that sounded rude and impatient, barely bothering to graze their knuckles on the door before sticking their keys in and invading her privacy. This wasn’t them. There was a large, flat palm on the door, knocking again and again and again. It reminded her of barely remembered days, being very, very small, in her big sister’s arms, hidden away in a closet in Poland.
“Giveret Nussbaum? Please, it’s very important!”
She recognized the voice. It wasn’t a man, as she’d imagined, but her neighbor across the stairwell, a woman of about fifty who lived alone with a dog and a cat. They sometimes had coffee together. Esther shoved her dentures back in her mouth, left the glass on the counter and opened the door.
“Giveret Nussbaum, thank God you’re home! Oh, I was so worried. Come on, we have to go downstairs.”
Ruth’s hair, a brown so glossy and shiny that it was obviously dyed, was stuffed in a messy bun and her makeup, normally very neat and put together, was a little smeared. Convulsively, Esther’s hand shot out the doorway to clutch Ruth’s.
“Why? What’s happening? Downstairs?”
Ruth stared. “Giveret, didn’t you hear the alarm? ..oooooOOOOOoooo?”
“Wasn’t that just for Shabbat? Or is it not Friday yet…”
“Wednesday, Giveret, come on,” Ruth said, and she pulled Esther out of her apartment and began to tug her, bodily, towards the
flight of stairs that led down to the building’s small lobby.
“What are you doing? Are you crazy? Aia, you’re hurting me!”
“Slicha, Giveret, but I’m not leaving you up there. Haven’t you been reading the newspaper? Didn’t your kids call you? The war started last night and the scuds are on their way just like in 1991 and who knows, maybe even worse, some people say they have other things, chemicals, diseases, I don’t know.”
“War? Oy, and I left the water on upstairs, I need to go back up-”
“No, just leave it, come on.”
Ruth and Esther finally reached the building’s pathetic bomb shelter. It was little more than a storage space; the walls were as thin as the rest of the building, it was above ground, and there were two metal doors that led outside that nobody had the keys to anymore. The only good thing about it was that it had less debris in it that could fall on people than anyone had in their own homes – the kids of most of the building’s residents were grown-up and their bikes had been outgrown and thrown out. There were a couple old, rusting refrigerators in a corner of the shelter, a small and dirty faucet that might or might not work, and that was it. With Esther and Ruth, they were fifteen people. Everyone else had stayed in their homes, even after the siren. A young couple who’d moved into the building after one of them had inherited an apartment in it had gotten onto the roof to watch for falling bombs, if they came. Ruth told Esther about how she’d seen them going upstairs.
Esther laughed and looked around, holding a hand in front of her mouth, just in case anybody came near her. “They’ll have a nicer view than the rest of us.”