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"Mrs. Gottesman - could it be?" gasps the dark, heavy-set woman seated beyond the cordoned-off queue, her breathlessness only partly a function of her surprise.
The slim, white-haired lady she is addressing has been intently inching her way toward the teller, one hand clasping the handle of her purse, the other clutching the rope at her right for balance.
"Yes?" Mrs. Gottesman answer-asks, lifting her head to search for the source of the greeting.
"Oh, it is you!" the woman exclaims, attempting to hoist herself to a standing position. Her girth and poor knees prevent completion of the task, however, so she bobs up and down a few times, then gives up altogether.
"Yes," Mrs. Gottesman repeats, hesitantly, squinting to determine the identity of this woman who clearly knows her. Neither her memory nor her eyesight being what they used to be, she feels at an uncomfortable disadvantage in situations like these. She wishes the woman would be less effusive and provide more clues.
"Good God, how long has it been?" the woman wheezes warmly, the North African lilt to her speech more audible than before.
"You tell me," Mrs. Gottesman says, pleased with herself for at least not having lost her ability to devise a ploy.
"Excuse me, Ma'am," an elderly gentleman behind Mrs. Gottesman interrupts, unwittingly saving the day. "But do you think you could either conduct this conversation elsewhere, or proceed with the line?"
"Indeed," Mrs. Gottesman says, taking a few steps to catch up with the person ahead of her, an effort which makes her knuckles bulge. And causes her to wonder how much longer she will be able to stave off her daughter's hysterical protests about her "going out alone to run unnecessary errands."
"Sorry," the other woman apologizes to the man. "But what can I tell you? I haven't seen this great lady - my former employer, Mrs. Gottesman - for so many years..."
Mrs. Gottesman is at once relieved and horrified. How could she not have recognized the person who tended to her household for the better part of a decade?
"Gottesman?" the man stops in his tracks and leans on his cane. "Any relation to Mordechai?"
"May he rest in peace," the woman heaves an asthmatic sigh. "Such a tzaddik..."
"He was my son," Mrs. Gottesman answers, taking another tiny stride.
"A parent shouldn't have to bury a child," the woman announces to nobody in particular, causing the rest of the bank to pause for a split-second - an unspoken, collective agreement on the part of this otherwise ordinary population, for whom mourning the death of its children has become chillingly commonplace.
"HOW DO you like that?" the man muses, rubbing his chin. "Well, it's an honor, then."
"And you are...?" Mrs. Gottesman asks, turning her torso just enough to get a look at the man without having to let go of the rope that is keeping her steady.
"Greenbaum," the man tips his head, revealing a black, knitted kippa. "Professor Eliezer. Admirer, student and - dare I be so presumptuous? - would-be biographer of your late...uh...the great Gottesmans."
"You were Mordechai's student?" Mrs. Gottesman says in disbelief, her Yiddish accent now so pronounced that, for a moment, she isn't sure what language she is speaking. Is she losing her mind completely? First, she couldn't place that woman - what was her name? Mali, no Malki, that's right - and now she is talking to an old man who claims to be her son's junior. Maybe her daughter's worry is justified, after all. But if it is, will this be the end of these little excursions to withdraw cash from her account? The almost daily outing gives her a reason to exchange her bathrobe and slippers for street clothes (something she wishes her retired daughter would do more often); the money gives her a sense of independence. Especially since it enables her to slip her grand- and great-grandchildren hundred-shekel bills whenever she feels like it. And Hanukka is coming up, after all. The thought of asking her daughter and son-in-law to handle this for her is distasteful.
"Professor Gottesman was my intellectual mentor, yes," the man says reverently, in Hebrew so highfalutin as to be almost archaic. "He must have been a source of endless pride for you."
Mrs. Gottesman murmurs some form of assent, then shifts back to her original position. She is glad to discover that her turn is about to arrive, since it gives her the opportunity to escape this unwelcome invasion of her privacy. And of her previous peace and quiet.
What is the meaning of her chance meeting with Malki - once so full of beans, and now so ill that she can't even get out of her chair? Where did such a woman get off calling Mordechai a "tzaddik," of all things? And who is this ancient geezer referring to him as a mentor? Poor, schleppy Mordechai, who couldn't even manage to meet a girl and get married, like a normal human being. A "source of endless pride," he says? Hah! How about the source of shame and humiliation - not to mention endless pain and guilt? When she thinks of how many years she had to endure, and avoid, The Dreaded Question: "Nu, is Mordechai seeing anyone yet?..." When she thinks of how angry and shocked she was at his funeral, at the sight of all those weeping females. Where were they when he was young and still had a chance to build a life?...
"HELLO MRS. Gottesman," the teller says, perkily patronizing - a tone Mrs. Gottesman told her daughter to get used to when she stopped dying her grey hair. "You're a very popular lady this morning."
"No, not me," Mrs. Gottesman says, suddenly - inexplicably - cheered up. "It's my son, actually."
"Oh, really?" the teller says, smiling.
"Yes," Mrs. Gottesman answers loudly, enunciating each word carefully. "He was a great man, with a great mind, and an even greater following."
"Oh, I wish I could have known him," the teller says, shrugging.
"So do I," Mrs. Gottesman mumbles, before bidding her farewells and heading for home.