In honor of Pesach, beginning at sundown this Friday, I am reposting a part of a chapter from Unleavened Dead, the second Rabbi Aviva Cohen mystery. I wish the description of the leftovers in her fridge were more fictional.
To my Jewish readers, a zissen Pesach, and an easy clean. And to those of you who celebrate Easter or the Vernal Equinox instead, save some chocolate-covered marshmallow Peeps for me until after Pesach.
I closed the freezer door, and as I opened the lower one to the refrigerator, I hit the speed dial for Jean’s number. “Hello?” her deceptively sweet voice greeted me.
“Hey, Jean. It’s me, returning your call. What’s new?”
“Why, yes, thank, you, I am feeling fine. So nice of you to deign to call. Do you have any idea how many hours ago I left the message? And why do you call only after I call first?”
“I’m always afraid you’ll collapse from shock if I make the first call. And I called as soon as I could.” I was fibbing again. “I was at a conference in Philadelphia all day and just got home.” This time I crossed my fingers and held my hand behind my back. Somehow, my sister always made me feel like a pesky six-year-old kid again. Which I’m sure was exactly how she still thought of me.
“Hmm, yes, well, be that as it may. I just wanted to let you know I’ve changed my travel plans, so you don’t have to pick me up at the airport.”
I was supposed to pick her up at the airport? Someone forgot to tell me. I bet that was the important, gleeful news Trudy had for me – I was appointed to meet her mother instead of her. No wonder Trudy was going to ply me with food first.
Jean continued, “I was going to fly to Philadelphia, then drive back to Boston with Larry to spend some more time with him and my grandchildren and, of course, Mom, and then fly home from Boston. But now I’ve decided to fly both ways from Boston so I can have a few days there before I come for the Seder and then spend the rest of the week with them. And even with the fee for changing the tickets, it’s still cheaper to travel to and from the same airport. Did you know Mom’s not coming to Trudy’s?”
“Yeah, Mom told me last time I spoke with her that she wasn’t up for the long drive. I feel terrible about it. I haven’t seen her since December and I’m not sure when I’ll get there again.”
“Don’t you get a spring break?”
“No, Jean, I live in a university town, but I don’t work on a school schedule. In fact, I’m busier than ever this week – regular services Friday night and Saturday morning, a wedding Sunday afternoon, Pesach services Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, then Shabbat again the following Friday night and Saturday morning, and Pesach services again Sunday and Monday mornings. Plus the community Seder on Tuesday night. And in the meantime, I’m trying to clear out my fridge before the cleaning service comes on Friday.”
“You complain you can’t afford to visit me, but you have the money for a cleaning service?”
I tried, I really did, not to get exasperated. You’d think I’d be used to her after all these years. “I’ve told you before, it’s not the money, but my schedule. You know my work time is other people’s leisure time.”
“You have the month of July off. Visit me then. Believe me, we have air conditioning.”
“I’ll think about it when they figure out how to air condition the outdoors. Oh, yuck.”
“I’m clearing out the fridge and just opened a container. I’m not sure what it was in its former life, but I think I may be brewing a cure for cancer.”
“Why am I not surprised? Your room always was a dump. I’m not sure why the EPA didn’t declare it a toxic waste site.”
“Probably because that was forty-five years ago, before there was an EPA.” I wasn’t sure about my facts, but reasoned that she didn’t know either. I was right, as she didn’t challenge me.
“And I suppose you’re going to spend your money eating out instead of at home the rest of the week. Why are you cleaning so early? You always waited till the last minute. If you bothered at all.”
“I always clean for Pesach. And I told you, the cleaners are coming on Friday. Tomorrow is the closing banquet for the conference, Wednesday night I’m going to Trudy’s for dinner, and Thursday I’m meeting Steve for dinner.” I mentally kicked myself as I said that last bit.
“Steve? Steve Goldfarb? Your ex? Are you seeing each other? It’s been over a year since his wife died, so he’s done mourning. Now’s your chance. I always liked Steve.”
No you didn’t. But I saw no point in reminding her that she thought I was jumping into marriage with Steve too soon after the breakup of a long-term relationship I’d had with a pseudo-hippie/organic gardener who later made a fortune when he sold his flash-frozen organic vegetable company to a mega-corporation and now owned one of the most successful organic Kosher wineries in California. And I especially didn’t want to remind her that her hesitation about our marriage proved to be right.
“No, we’re not seeing each other, as in ‘seeing each other.’ It’s just a friendly meal.”
“I wish you’d stop having boy friends and find a boyfriend.”
“I’m happy by myself. After all, who would put up with me and my schedule? And I didn’t notice you running out to find someone after Harold died.”
“That was different. Do you know the ratio of single women to men in my age bracket down here? It must be ten-to-one. And I was much older than you were when you and Keith divorced. Now that was a good catch. I can’t believe you let him go.”
You didn’t think my second husband Keith Rubenstein was such a good catch when we first married and he worked at a poverty law center; you didn’t like him until he became a big bucks corporate drone. “It wasn’t working, Jean. We wanted different things out of life. He wanted an accessory and I wanted a partner. Oh, double yuck.”
“I don’t know. I think it’s a new life form. It just winked at me. Listen, I’ll see you soon. I really have to concentrate on this refrigerator. I’m not sure, but I think some old pickles just spoke to me.”
“How can pickles go bad? They’re already preserved in vinegar.”
“I don’t know, maybe they hung out in with a rough crowd of slimy lettuce. Give my love to Mom.”
“And to Larry?”
“Of course, to Larry, and to Karen. And to the kids. Are they coming, too?”
I already knew the answer. My nephew’s kids were in college and unlikely to take off from classes on a weekday, especially to travel to South Jersey from New England. “No, they already had spring break. They’re staying at their colleges for the holiday. But they promised to look in on their great grandmother. Such nice boys.” Unspoken were the words, “Unlike Josh,” who, to be fair, was only eight and she’d only gotten to know him for the past year or so. But, to be fair to Jean, something I seldom am, Josh is what is known as a “high maintenance” child.
“Well, give my love to all. See you soon.”
I finally could give all my concentration to the refrigerator. It was even worse than I thought. After dumping all the unidentifiable objects, I kept a couple of containers of yogurt, a jar of peanut butter, and some milk not yet past its sell-by date so I’d be able to eat at least something at home the next few days. By the time I’d emptied tins half-filled with green tuna, bottles of fuzzy tomato sauce, and jars of mutated olives into the garbage disposal, my recycling bin was overflowing with glass and metal. Some of the leftovers got thrown out directly into the trash, along with their storage containers; I was afraid I’d unleash poison gases if I opened them. I turned on the lights in the rooms facing the back of the house and opened the shades so I could find my way through the dark backyard to the composter, where I added the fruits and vegetables that had begun to morph into creatures that any director of horror films would love to use. Everything else went into giant black plastic trash bags, which I dragged to the curb and added to the trashcan. Being green has its limits, and if I hadn’t gotten that stuff out of the house, I would have been turning a very unflattering shade of green.
The non-perishables would take more time, so I’d save them for another day. I’d have to sort out the opened and unopened containers, bringing the former to a food bank and storing the latter in the garage. The peanut butter in the fridge would get mixed with some corn meal and flour and remnants of trail mix and then frozen until I put it out for the birds.