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The Empty Apartment

by
Ruby Namdar
May 30, 2024
Editor’s note: Ruby Namdar will participate in the Jerusalem International Writers Festival in Mishkenot Sha’ananim, taking place on May 27-30. 

The apartment stood empty for some six months, maybe more. Who can remember? In the weeks following the passing of its tenant, a lonely and reclusive man none of the neighbors really knew all that well, a certain commotion was recorded: relatives coming and going, carrying with them pieces of furniture and all sorts of bric-a-brac. From time to time you could hear the thuds of hammers and other tools banging against the walls and the tiles, which made the neighbors in adjacent apartments wonder. Two months later, the apartment was visited by the volunteers of some charity who emptied it of the rest of its furnishings. A meticulously dressed woman, her hair carefully coiffed and dyed fresh blond, stood on her high heels and supervised the process. When the last piece of furniture was removed, she surveyed the empty apartment with satisfaction, locked the door, and disappeared. Ever since then, the apartment stood empty. Some hidden hand took care to empty the mailbox from time to time, and the building maintenance fees were paid by a real estate manager representing mainly people who lived abroad, mostly in France or the United States. For a few weeks, the neighbors wondered if and when the apartment will be sold or rented out. There were some who worried about new tenants coming in and disturbing the peace, and others hoped to buy it from whatever mystery person owned it and annex it to their own domain. But a month or two later, the apartment was forgotten by all, and the building’s other tenants grew accustomed to its emptiness, as if emptiness had always been its natural state.

The appearance of the stranger, therefore, made no special impression. He was dropped off by a taxi cab late in the afternoon, while some neighbors were away at work and others ensconced behind their shutters. Had anyone noticed him, they would have recognized, most likely, the telltale signs of a prolonged stay abroad: the put-together outfit, so starkly different from the local, casual way of dressing; the buttoned-down shirt, tucked in; the brown leather belt, matching the shoes; the fashionable, wide-rimmed glasses. Had some eagle-eyed person examined the stranger, they would’ve noticed, too, the exhaustion that surrounded him like a thin mist, the light melancholy, the uncertainty about what, exactly, he was doing here. The stranger paused for a minute, sighing as he examined the building’s unkempt entrance and the flimsy glass door that looked like a relic from the decidedly unglamorous 1970s. He fished some keys from his pocket and tried each until he found the right one. He paused again in the hallway, surveying with disdain the old staircase, poorly lit, and turned toward the elevator which, too, looked like something from a bygone and drab era. He tapped nervously with the tip of his shoe on the elevator’s filthy linoleum floor, as if trying to expedite its slow progression and rescue himself from the tight space that closed in on his wide body from all directions.

The complicated ceremony of looking for the right key repeated itself by the apartment’s locked door. This time, however, the stranger did not appear impatient but moderate and thorough, as if he was trying to gain a few more minutes before the lock finally surrendered to one of the keys and the door opened up for him. And this time, there was someone—a female someone, to be precise—carefully examining the stranger’s looks and deeds: It was the neighbor across the hall, who had grown accustomed to the absolute quiet that governed the hallway for so many months and who now felt the sudden stirring, crept up to the door, and peeked outside through her peephole, doing her best to stifle her breathing, heavy with excitement, so that the stranger may not notice her. She stayed glued to her peephole for a good long while, her heart aflutter with anticipation of all the juicy stories she’ll soon tell the other tenants, who weren’t fortunate enough to experience firsthand this thrilling development in the building’s otherwise dreary existence.

The complete emptiness stunned the stranger, even though he knew, of course, that the apartment will contain no clue or remnant of the odd, monastic life it had witnessed for so many years. He was the one who asked, demanded really, of the management company to make sure all the furniture was given to charity as soon as the apartment was transferred over and registered in his name. He couldn’t bear the thought of entering an apartment still stacked with his stuff, the clothes and personal belongings of Uncle Avram—a recluse who lived a quiet life behind closed shutters and locked doors. The grief for the dead uncle mixed with sorrow for his life, a life sealed by deep loneliness, and was tinged, too, with a sour sense of missed opportunities and a dash of guilt. It was easy, during those brief and packed visits to Israel, to forget to call or visit Uncle Avram, an old bachelor who lived in the apartment he bought, most likely, with whatever money he had saved after liquidating his mysterious enterprises. Two or three years could go by without them seeing each other or chatting on the phone. And even his infrequent visits to his uncle always ended too briefly. It was hard to find topics for conversation with a man, no longer young, who had retired from public life, who never had a family, who wasn’t social, who wasn’t interested in culture or business or politics. He remembered once again the heavy, ancient furniture that filled the apartment, and was suddenly struck by the realization that the thing he was looking for, the thing that made him buy the apartment from the other inheritors for a not insignificant price, might have been concealed in some piece of furniture, sewn into a couch cushion or hidden underneath the upholstery of one of the chairs. How did he not think about it earlier? Before he made sure the apartment was fully emptied? His panic subsided a few moments later, when he remembered the thorough searches the other inheritors conducted, before they agreed, with clenched teeth, to sell their share, having despaired of finding Uncle Avram’s hidden treasure. Had there been something hidden in the furniture, one of them would’ve found it by now.

The issue was raised on the first day of the shiva, or maybe even immediately after the funeral: The money! Where was the money? For some reason, the inheritors—a not insignificant number of nieces and nephews who lived all over Israel, and some abroad—all agreed that the deceased must’ve amassed a considerable fortune, and that this fortune was hidden somewhere in the apartment. After all, Uncle Avram was the last one to trust the banks. His professional life, like every other aspect of his life, was shrouded in mystery. Everyone knew that 30 years ago, he shut down his small workshop in the city’s southern end and began busying himself with all manners of unknown occupations, about which he was never too keen to elaborate. Any attempt at questioning him about what he did for a living was met with sophisticated evasions and tortuous phrases that concealed more than they revealed. Paradoxically, his modest lifestyle—monastic, really—did not drive his family to think that his savings might’ve dwindled, or even run out. To the contrary—his extreme thriftiness excited their imaginations, making them think that he’d made a fortune over the years, and that this fortune was squirreled away somewhere in the empty apartment, waiting for some resourceful man or woman to find it.

Unlike those horror stories you hear from time to time, about inheritance fights gone wild, the search for the uncle’s legendary treasure did not begin when he was still alive, and did not, once he was dead, sour the relationships between the many cousins who had a claim to his estate. Quite the contrary! Everyone was forgiving—chummy, even—when faced with one another’s gust of greed, a sentiment that bubbled to the surface as soon as the uncle was buried. The atmosphere was sportsmanlike, almost friendly: Each of the cousins was allowed to search the apartment’s innards on his or her own, with or without the others present. Not that the rules of the game were ever clearly defined. They did not decide, for example, what might happen if one of the inheritors were to find the treasure while alone in the apartment. Was it incumbent on the finder to inform everyone else? Share the loot with the others? The cousins didn’t wish to waste any time on such complicated questions. They knew the building was about to be gutted and rebuilt, and that each passing day shoved the apartment closer to its pending demolition. The thought of Uncle Avram’s treasure, by now ballooning to epic proportions in the minds of his nieces and nephews, lost to oblivion and buried under the rubble, or, worse, discovered by one of the foreign workers in charge of the demolition—that thought haunted them. They stormed the apartment immediately after the shiva, determined to leave not a centimeter unchecked. Each tile was examined, as were the walls, the window frame, the wooden shutters, the bottoms of the cabinets in the kitchen and in the bathroom, the dusty alcove that housed the boiler, even the electric sockets’ plastic coverings, just to make sure nothing was hidden inside. The brother-in-law, the one married to Idit, Aunt Rachel’s daughter, took it a step further and hid out in the apartment overnight. Some argued that he brought with him some treasure-hunter gear, the sort you see on those strange reality shows on American television. True, he volunteered no information about his bizarre nocturnal quest, but the look of disappointment in his eyes made it clear that his sleepless night was for naught.

The stranger walked around the apartment awkwardly, reflecting on how its excessive spotlessness, courtesy of the professional cleaning crew that had been hired, reminded him of the spring cleaning his parents undertook each year just before Passover. His heart grew tight with sorrow and longing. Unlike the other inheritors, he knew very well that there was no treasure hidden in the apartment. A decade ago, or maybe even longer than that, during one of his visits to Israel, he ambled into one of Tel Aviv’s sleepy cultural hubs by chance and, to his astonishment, saw Uncle Avram standing at the security desk, checking the bags of the people walking in. He averted his gaze right away, turned around, and ran away, hoping his uncle hadn’t seen him. He told no one about this encounter, and was ashamed even to remember it himself. Truth be told, from that day onward, his visits to his uncle grew less and less frequent, and they fell out of touch. In short, Uncle Avram had no legendary treasure, and he was lucky the apartment was purchased so long ago—before real estate prices in Tel Aviv skyrocketed—because otherwise he would’ve found himself spending his final years on the street. And yet, one thing was hidden somewhere in the apartment, something of negligible monetary value. The man was determined to find it, but had no clue where to start looking. The rooms were completely empty, as were the cabinets. The only thing that survived, miraculously, was the electric kettle, standing, orphaned, on the kitchen’s marble counter. The man took the kettle, peeked inside, and returned it to its place. Just then, his eye caught the sign he’d been looking for: a thin, bright strip of plaster, separating one of the ceramic tiles from the rest. The man, stunned by his good fortune, set the kettle aside and examined the tile excitedly, touching it gently with his fingers to see how strong it was. He let out a small cry of surprise: The tile gave in without too much of a fight, succumbing to the mild pressure exerted by the fingers, coming undone, and falling with a gentle crushing sound on the counter. The wall now had a rectangular hole in it, caked with the white dust of bricks, and inside it, like an animal hiding in its little nest, lay the small cloth satchel.

He was in no hurry to untie the thin linen string that tied the satchel together. He knew perfectly well what was inside. He’d come here especially to find it, despite the futility of the search and despite everyone’s warnings: “Who travels to Israel in wartime? There are no flights. The hotels are stacked with evacuees from the north and the south. The entire country is traumatized. Who needs you there now? What are you, a doctor? A general? Don’t go now. Now is not the time.” But they were wrong, all of them. It was precisely the right time. The formal excuse, the rationality for this seemingly hasty move, was that the apartment needed to be sold right away, even if its price dropped because of “the situation” (surprisingly, the price did not drop), because he needed to return the loans he took in order to buy it from the other inheritors. But the real reason was different, and decidedly irrational: Precisely now, as the world was seized by an apocalyptic mood, it was time to untie the knot, reattach the chain, and free everyone from its curse.

Grandma Rivka’s golden chain was the most coveted part of her meager estate. She had no money; her apartment was leased; and her housewares were dented relics from a bygone time of austerity. Her golden chain, which she brought with her to Israel, was the single beautiful thing that survived her. It was truly very beautiful, surprisingly so. “Delicate handiwork,” as the goldsmith said when he charged a not-small amount of money to reattach the four torn parts of Grandma Rivka’s ancient golden necklace. No one remembered which of the three sisters came up with the delirious idea of splitting the necklace in four, but everyone remembered how shocking the idea was to Uncle Avram. “You’ve gone mad!” he howled in a voice thick with fury. “Have you gone mad? It’s Mom’s necklace!” No one understood why he, the only son, who was never seen in the company of a woman, was so opposed to splitting the necklace in four. The atmosphere grew tense, old wounds that seemed to have healed were reopened. Uncle Avram was as stubborn as a mule, but offered no sensible alternative. At one point one of the sisters (they all refused to remember which one of them it was) turned to him and hissed at him wickedly: “What do you want to do with this necklace, Avram? What do you need it for? You have no wife. You have no daughters. What do you want, to be buried with it?” Uncle Avram grew pale. He grew silent and gave up. The day after that bitter conversation, one of the sisters took the necklace to a jeweler, who cut it into four equal pieces and placed each piece in a small satchel tied together with a thin linen string. Nothing was the same after that. The evil wind that haunted the disbursement of Grandma Rivka’s meager belongings continued to trouble the relationship between the three sisters and their brother. They saw each other rarely, and treated each other coolly. Uncle Avram became a recluse, refused to visit on Saturdays and on holidays, and would only see the nieces and nephews who made an effort and came to him. The family was struck by a string of disasters. Two of the three sisters were plagued by incurable diseases, and died prematurely, suffering greatly. One niece lost her fiancé in a military accident two months before their wedding, and another nephew was severely injured in a car crash. “You know,” the man’s mother told him once on one of their trans-Atlantic calls, “it’s all because of that damn necklace. From the day we split it in four, we hadn’t a moment of joy in the family. You should have seen Uncle Avram’s face when we decided to split it among us. What did we need this torn-apart necklace for? We should’ve given it to him. We had everything: families, children, grandchildren. But poor Avram, he had almost nothing in life, almost nothing.”

The necklace looked almost whole once the goldsmith was done putting it together. Only from up close, really up close, could you see the three thin stripes where the torn pieces were reattached, or maybe it was all an optical illusion and there really was no sign of the fierce struggle that led to tearing it apart. His mother gave him her satchel on one of his visits, and asked him not to forget to do as she had asked. Hanit, Aunt Sara’s daughter, gave him the piece she had without asking questions or asking for anything in return; she knew his intentions were most likely good. Only the brother-in-law, Idit’s husband, the smart aleck, asked to be compensated for his wife’s piece of the necklace, “just a nominal price, what it would cost to melt it,” a sum that was surprisingly high given the skyrocketing price of gold in recent years. And now, there was only one thing left to do for the complicated plan to come to fruition.

Uncle Avram’s tombstone stood in the same plot as the other members of the family, but somewhat farther away from the rest of them. The man brushed away with the palm of his hand the dust, the pine needles, and the jagged little bits of gravel someone had once lain on top of the tombstone. He had no idea what to do now: Talking to the tombstone seemed silly, and reading psalms or awkwardly reciting the Kaddish seemed like an empty gesture. The small satchel grew heavy in his pocket, reminding him of the purpose of his visit, his upcoming flight, the life he had overseas which will resume with full vigor as soon as he lands. He looked around the tombstone and found the small and square metal case designed for candles, candles no one had likely ever lit for Uncle Avram. He walked around the gravesite and stared at the case, squinting. As could be expected, it didn’t contain much: dried pine needles, a few rotting leaves, and an empty metal canister that once contained a candle. So someone had lit a candle to elevate Uncle Avram’s soul. Who could it have been? The man shook off that thought, deciding it was time to let go, let loose, forget. What does it matter now? He took the satchel out of his pocket, looked at it for the last time, and then leaned over and stashed it deep inside the metal case, hiding it underneath the dry leaves and placing the candle canister on top. He stood up, shook the dust off his hands, took one last peek at the uncle’s tombstone, and turned toward the rental car parked by the side of the gravel road. With a little bit of luck, there’ll be no traffic en route to the airport, and he’ll be able to refuel the car, return it, and make his flight on time.

Ruby Namdar is an Israeli-American author. His latest novel, The Ruined House (2013), won the Sapir Prize, Israel’s most prestigious literary award. He currently lives in New York City with his wife and two daughters and teaches Jewish literature, focusing on biblical and Talmudic narrative.