Victory Gardens – Chapter 82

Novel

Mutty begins trying to bring Papa back to himself. He puts tefillin on him, helps him daven, and then takes him out for a walk.

 

Although Mutty was talking the whole time, pointing out familiar sights to Papa as they walked, the tour of the neighborhood was nostalgic for him as well. It seemed as if years had passed since he’d been gone. Everything looked the same, but he was different. It all looked smaller, seedier and older. But he pointed out with real enthusiasm the shul and the grocery store and the bakery where Papa used to go and buy fresh rolls for all of them on Sunday mornings, for every one of these landmarks conjured up a memory for him.

They passed the barber shop where Mutty had gotten his first payos, and Mutty had the idea to give Papa a haircut, so they turned in to the barber shop and sat down to wait their turn. This turned out to be a mistake.

“Rothstein, how are you? Long time no see!” The older fellow sitting next to Mutty leaned over to speak with his father. When Papa didn’t respond, the man turned to look at Mutty for an explanation, which of course Mutty didn’t have. The man who was sitting in the barber chair then chimed in.

“Is that Rothstein? Heard you were hurt in the crash!” He was looking at Papa through the mirror in front of him. “You look awful! Are you okay?”

Mutty, acting quickly, pulled Papa’s arm to bring him to a standing position, but to his surprise, Papa shook him off and refused to stand. Mutty had no choice but to sit down and wait for Papa to give him some kind of signal that he wanted to go.

Noting his silence, one of the men looked over at Mutty. “What’s wrong with him?” Mutty said nothing, because he didn’t know, and even if he did, he wouldn’t say.

After the shop was empty, Mutty led Papa over to the barber chair and sat him down.

“The usual, Mr. Rothstein?” said the barber. He didn’t mind that Papa didn’t respond, but he was perhaps more careful than usual fastening the apron around Papa’s neck, and more gentle than usual when pulling on Papa’s tangled hair with the wet comb.

“It’s tough times for everyone,” said the barber.

Mutty could only nod. His throat was too full of lumps and stones to answer.

“Say,” said the barber, looking closely at Mutty. “You’re not the older one. Weren’t you in Hebron?”

“Yes, yes I was.”

“Your father couldn’t stop talking about how proud he was that his son was learning in Eretz Yisrael.”

“Really?” said Mutty. He was truly surprised, and found it difficult to imagine his father sharing details of his personal life – however positive – with neighbors in the barber shop.

“For sure. And when you went missing? Forget about it. He was beside himself. Looks like they found you after all!”

“My brother came to get me,” said Mutty. “He’s still there.”

“You are a lucky man. You have good sons.” The barber patted Papa on the shoulder as he tended to him.

After a few minutes, the barber placed a warm washcloth behind Papa’s neck and gently applied pressure to it. Papa’s shoulders relaxed, and he even sighed in evident enjoyment. Mutty looked at him hopefully, willing him to say a few words, but he didn’t. The barber brushed down the apron, then removed it from Papa, and took his hand to help him back to his feet.

“What about you, son? You look like you could use a trim. It’s on the house, after all you’ve been through.”

“Thanks very much, but maybe next time. I’ve got to get Papa home now.”

“Okay. Good wishes to all.”

Mutty helped Papa on with his coat and took his arm again, leading him out of the barber shop. He couldn’t help but wonder why Papa had insisted on staying there even when it was clearly uncomfortable for him.

“You doin’ okay Papa? Are you warm enough?”

Papa said nothing, so Mutty continued his running commentary, trying to elicit some sort of reaction. They walked until Mutty got too cold, then they turned around and came home.

Mama met them at the door. Hot tea was set out on the dining room table. “How was it?” she asked, meaning, of course, how was Papa.

Mutty proceeded to tell her what had happened in the barber shop.

“It’s a good sign!” Mama exclaimed.

“How do you figure?” asked Mutty.

“It means he was aware of what was going on around him, so we know that.” Mama spoke to her husband, “Jozef, I’m sure you feel so much better now that the barber has given you a crisp haircut. You look like you are ready to go to a chasunah.”

“From now on I’ll have to call you Mrs. Silver Lining, Mama, because I never would have been able to pluck good news out of that scene. It was not pleasant at all.”

“I know, Mutty. But it will pass, I assure you. It will pass.”

To be continued . . .