Encore: Chapter 36| July 15, 2020
He liked to be reassuring, to tell her that everything was great. It was a husband’s job, he believed. But at the same time, it was hard to keep certain things from her
huey Portman carried the new chair into the office like it was a throne. It wasn’t such a big deal, but something about it — maybe the high padded back, or the serious-looking wooden arms — made him feel like an executive. He wasn’t going back to sit on the same folding chair as last zeman, but to get real work done. He was building something.
Over bein hazmanim three more bochurim had applied, and Rabbi Wasser had accepted two of them. There were others who’d inquired. There was a buzz about Modena.
Shuey had already booked tickets to Florida for the big executive directors’ conference in the winter, and, even though he wouldn’t have admitted this to anyone, he had put away the new suit he’d bought at the end of the summer, at the Nordstrom sale, for that. He imagined walking through the lobby in the sharp suit — he could wear it with the gray striped tie — and schmoozing with hundreds of other people who did exactly what he did. They would get it: The joy of new beginnings. The thrill of creating something from the ground up. The older ones, the ones he knew from magazine articles, would look off into the distance and smile as they remembered their early days, fighting for every dollar, building each relationship like it was the only one.
He would credit Avi Korman, the greatest boss in the world. Maybe, if he was feeling really comfortable, he would admit that it was Avi who’d saved him from the Kohl brothers and his freezing little office at Three-Star snacks. Avi had basically given him the job, paying his salary for a few months upfront and letting him run with it, he would say, with the unspoken conclusion that Avi’s confidence in him had paid off.
Shuey had gotten a lot done that morning. He’d switched caterers, finding someone in Monroe who was cheaper and whose food would be fresher. It might not have seemed like a big deal, but for Shuey Portman, it felt like he’d negotiated the sale of the Empire State Building.
He’d settled on basic tuition plans with most of the parents — he wasn’t secure enough just yet to demand that they make the yeshivah a priority, but he did feel more leverage than he’d had just six weeks earlier, when the yeshivah in Modena was still part-joke.
Of course, the third boy, the one the rosh yeshivah hadn’t felt a good fit for the yeshivah, was the wealthy one, but the first two parents had also agreed to something. There was money in the bank, a new coat of paint in the beis medrash, and the sound of learning filling what had once been the lobby of the Old Orchard Inn.
He was ready for his meeting with Avi Korman. He knew he’d done good.
Shuey Portman wasn’t a big instincts guy. Henny had known when Meshulam was having a bad week in camp and on a whim, they’d driven down to see him. She’d correctly predicted that the Bernsteins weren’t really happy in the neighborhood, even though to Shuey they’d appeared perfectly content, and she was the only one on the block who wasn’t surprised when the For Sale sign went up two months later.
But as he looked out the window, he thought something was off in the way Avi Korman parked. Usually, Avi parked the Range Rover off to the side of the lot, against the building, as if to reiterate his standing — he was staff here, above the rules. Today, he’d parked in the newly painted guest parking spots, neatly moving in between the lines. Avi usually walked like he was in a hurry, leaning forward and moving his legs rapidly, but today, his gait seemed off, like he was rushed and uncertain all at once.
Henny would have known what it was — he’s overtired, he’s stressed about the permits coming through, worried about payroll — but Shuey didn’t have that ability.
Avi paused to study the new doors and Shuey felt a little surge of pride. He’d had them changed, replacing the old hotel sliding doors with a regular glass door that swung open so that the boys could go out the front door on Shabbos.
Every detail, Shuey thought. Every single detail. I got this. He looked around his office, trying to see it through Avi Korman’s eyes. The small bookcase with the seforim was a nice touch, he thought; it was a yeshivah after all. The picture of Rav Elyashiv, too. Other than the computer, there was no wasted money, no knick-knacks or décor.
He felt like he had to justify the new chair, which Avi would no doubt notice, even if he wouldn’t comment, but Shuey was ready.
He heard Avi’s footsteps on the creaky wooden floor and stood up to greet him.
“Hey,” he said, “hail to the chief.”
Supper was over, and the jury had ruled. The new caterer was a keeper.
Lieber thought they were a bit too free with the teriyaki sauce and Harari wasn’t happy that some of the roasted potatoes were really sweet potatoes and “we’re not a seminary, we’re a yeshivah, and no one needs sweet potatoes, thank you very much,” but overall, it was a win for Shuey.
The boys went off to night seder and, since he was sleeping in yeshivah that night, it was time for Shuey to call Henny.
He was torn, though. He liked to be reassuring, to tell her that everything was great. It was a husband’s job, he believed. But at the same time, it was hard to keep certain things from her.
Like the fact that Avi Korman couldn’t pay his salary for the next three months.
Well actually he could pay, just not in one shot. A whole speech about refinancing and partners and bad timing and waiting for the rain to pass, but the bottom line was that it wouldn’t be simple and the yeshivah had to find a way to bring in funds.
Yes, he’d promised. Yes, he’d meant it. Yes, he realized that you can’t just move people around like pieces on a chess board and then leave them high and dry, it wasn’t his plan either. It had seemed back then like it would be no big deal, but the way things were looking now, it was a very big deal.
Once Avi Korman had finished, he looked relieved, and the mood in the room shifted. They were friends again. He had every intention of continuing to help and he would do whatever he could, of course. But he just couldn’t carry the achrayus alone anymore.
Even while Avi was talking, Shuey didn’t feel anger or a sense of betrayal. He just felt bad for someone who was clearly in pain, genuinely wishing he could keep doing what he’d done until now. Vulnerability made people more likeable, Shuey always thought. Korman wasn’t the hugging type, but Shuey had to restrain himself.
Now, as Shuey walked back and forth in his usual spot near the edge of the property, looking down the slope toward the blue mountains in the distance, he wasn’t sure what to tell Henny.
She would be distraught, worried about the salary and Malka’s shidduchim and what this meant now, when they needed every penny so badly. Also, she would want him to be as nervous as she was and for some reason, he felt calmer than usual.
It would be okay.
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 819)
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