Kirschbaum is having a bad morning. He’s lost his favourite pen. And now his wife Bernice is leaving him. She’s slamming the front door and yelling that she’s going to stay with Yetta in Temple Fortune and never coming back. Yetta is waiting at the curb with the engine running, drumming her nails on the steering wheel.
Kirschbaum doesn’t know what to do, so he goes to the synagogue and stays there all day. He sits in the back on a scratched wooden pew and recites his prayers, and then he asks for his wife to come home. But when he returns, the house is dark and still. He shrugs off his coat and hangs his hat and shuffles down the hall. Every night for twenty-nine years he has made this journey. Every night for twenty-nine years Bernice has been standing in the kitchen, stirring something delicious-smelling. What was it, the last meal?
Kirschbaum brushes two fingers to the mezuzah and then to his lips. The kitchen is empty and the saucepans hang hollow and reproachful on the wall. In the darkness, he tugs at the fridge door. It swings open and he sees that Tupperware boxes line the shelves. They look like rows of teeth in need of urgent dentistry. Visible through the opaque plastic are mysterious, lumpy things.
Kirschbaum does not know where to begin. He slumps to the floor and sobs. Tears hit the tiles with little splashes.
She’s really gone.
Finally, Kirschbaum takes his head from his hands. He wipes his nose on his shirtsleeve and runs his fingers through his beard.
And now something catches his eye. It’s perched atop the counter, silhouetted against the moonlight.
He heaves himself up and kicks shut the fridge door.
A perfect orb, a real beauty, enthroned upon a disposable plastic plate. Beside it, a knife with winking silver blade. He clasps the fruit and smooths his palms over the rough veiny skin.
Kirschbaum takes the knife. In slicing watermelons, he excels. They are his very favourite. Grasping a piece in his right hand, he makes the blessing. Baruch atah Adonai, he chants, eloheynu melech ha’olam. Blessed are you Lord! King of the universe! Borei p’ri ha’adamah. For bringing forth the fruit of the earth!
But in his heart of hearts he doubts that it is God who has granted him the melon. He stuffs the first chunk into his dry mouth. The miracle has come from his steadfast Bernice alone.
Who is Mrs Bernice Kirschbaum?
She is a woman of complete and unimpeachable integrity.
Her wig is not one of those long, showy things of real human curls, like all the girls sport today. Each morning she wedges onto her skull a hairpiece that closely resembles a nylon chestnut. When Bernice and Kirschbaum were newlyweds, her skirts had fluttered daringly at the mid-calf, but in recent years have crept steadily down to the ankle. For every day, she prefers a palate that ranges from porridge to taupe. On special occasions, she will bring out a two-piece skirt suit in mauve.
She and Kirschbaum last made love one frosty Friday night three years ago. There had been no guests for dinner. The act itself was six minutes in duration. Bernice had not taken off her stockings, although she had removed her wig. This she draped over a polystyrene mannequin which presided over the dressing table.
When Bernice married, she was innocent in every way imaginable.
Kirschbaum, it has to be said, was not.
The first transgression occurred in the summer of his fourteenth year. He was last in a line of boys straggling home from school who looked from above, in their black velvet skull caps, like so many ants. One of them called out to him but Kirschbaum didn’t answer. He wasn’t listening.
A girl was marching towards him.
She clutched in one hand an unlit cigarette and in the other a bright green lollipop. On these she alternated furious, audible sucks. She wore a knitted vest and a pair of shorts emblazoned with the pattern of a gurning Minnie Mouse. Scabs and bruises pocked her sun-pinked limbs.
The girls Kirschbaum knew wore tight plaits and layers of black frilled swaddling. When he entered the room, they looked at the floor. This one met his gaze as she passed and stared right back, lollipop rammed between sticky lips.Kirschbaum broke from the chain of ants and followed her around the back of the Wimpy Bar. It was the start of a pattern which was to last a lifetime.
He can still taste the flavour of the lollipop on her tongue.
Kirschbaum is flush with saccharine ecstasy. He stuffs chunk after chunk of the tender flesh into his mouth. He resolves to mend his ways. Bernice, he has to say, had not seemed much astonished. The crescendo of her shame: that it was Yetta who had seen them together. This she returned to again and again. The rabbi’s wife! Of all people!
But the melon is a message, of this there is no doubt. She will return.
Now his beard is sodden. He grabs a tea towel and wipes himself down and carries the plate with its carcass of fruit to the bin. He presses the pedal and the lid rises. It is full to overflowing. Kirschbaum dumps the plate on the top of the rubbish and starts to push. It does not give. He must hook his forefinger into the mess and tug. A transparent plastic packet emerges, which he tosses to the floor. He repeats the gesture. Another, identical packet. And then a third.
He holds one to the moonlight.
Finest Back Bacon, the label reads in cursive. Wiltshire Cure.
Kirschbaum cries out. He rushes to switch on the light, blinks as the room is thrust into harsh relief. Thick trails are illuminated. They snake along the countertops and up and down the walls. His eyes trace the slimy path to the spot on the counter where his watermelon had lain in wait.
He grabs the knife and runs his forefinger down the blade.
He holds his finger to his nostrils.
He understands that she has spared nothing.