Abe picked at his supper. A thousand times he’d eaten his wife’s stuffed cabbage and never given it a second thought. Now he was sickened. Squat, green-eyed Essie sat opposite in their tiny Bronx kitchen, oblivious. She was spitting out complaints in a litany so familiar, the words vaporized: the crooked butcher, the nosy neighbor, the impudent kids on the block; all conspiring to make her day insufferable. He sat stiffly, eyes on his plate, choking an urge to tell her to shut up.
“What’s the matter, Abe?” she said as she cleared the plates. “All of a sudden you don’t like my cooking?”
He got up and walked past her, toward their living room. “Just leave me alone,” he said. She shrugged.
After she tramped off to her latest night class, watercolors, Abe fell asleep in front of the TV. He glared when she came home and shut it off, rousing him. He muttered under his breath before climbing into bed.
“Abe,” Essie said after she’d gotten into bed with him, a bed they’d shared since they’d gotten married nearly fifty years before, “I get so tired of your moods, like the world owed you. Why don’t you grow up already?” He rolled on his side and went to sleep.
The living room of their three-room apartment faced the street, while the kitchen window looked out over the alley, crisscrossed with clotheslines strung to the adjacent building. Beneath the window there was an unused icebox, the wood polished from years of use as a window seat. For grandchildren if they ever got them. An old gas range sat opposite their two-seat Formica kitchen table.
Their living room furniture was upholstered in muted velvet, purchased when they moved in more than forty years before. Along the walls, Essie had hung stock Gauguin prints, de rigueur at one time in a lower middle-class Jewish home with pretensions of culture. Sometimes Abe wanted to rip them off the wall. An empty mezuzah was fastened to the front door frame.
When Abe awoke, with a start, long before the winter sunrise, Essie was snoring. His stomach still felt quivery. He rose quickly and pulled on his pants and shirt, nearly forgetting his belt. The front door shut with barely a click.
The subway downtown was nearly empty. He looked at the Daily News, skimming over the headline splashed over the front page about President Johnson’s latest war speech. He turned to the sports page, but spring training was still a month away, so he stopped reading and folded the paper under his arm. He felt himself dozing off. Twice he’d fallen asleep on the train, missing his stop, waking up in Queens. Then it was another 15 cents for the ride back. He willed himself awake.
The sky was growing light when Abe got off. He’d once been distinguished-looking, six-foot, mustache, the poise of an athlete. His hair had turned white overnight when he was 17 without apparent cause. He looked more German than Slavic, more gentleman than peasant in the Jewish world where German Jews looked down on the waves of Eastern European Jews who emigrated decades later. But he was a Russian Jew—or Polish, depending on when you lived there—first generation, as was Essie.
His stomach finally settled and he was hungry. Moshe, Abe’s business partner, sat on the next stool in the diner on 14th Street where they always met, and he rolled his eyes as he sipped his tea. Abe was putting a piece of grilled ham into his mouth.
To the counterman, Abe had said “emaneggs,” twice, because the man just stared the first time. Abe’s usual Danish and coffee were already set out on the counter. He’d pushed the pastry aside.
“So, what’s new, you disapprove,” he said, waving his fork in Moshe’s direction. Moshe turned on his stool. “I order treife and you give me that look. It ain’t gonna kill me, so lay off.”
“It just pains me to see a Jew who is not ignorant, just stupid,” Moshe said. “A man who throws away so much. Strictly kosher I know you ain’t, and haven’t I kept my mouth shut? But Abie, this is pig, pig, Abie, and this is too much.”
Abe chewed and swallowed. “If this God of yours is so interested in what I’m eating,” he said, his voice edging higher, “how come everywhere you look people are starving to death?” He took a gulp of coffee. “Kosher,” he said. “Big deal. Like a sheep you follow directions.”
He wiped his mouth with a napkin. “This is America, Moshe, 1964. We’re not living in the shtetl. These days everything is sanitary down to the last hair on a pig’s ass.”
“There’s more to kosher than what you eat,” Moshe said. “Keeping kosher makes you think. Makes you stop for a second and pay attention. And you, the way you fly off the handle; it’d do you some good. Anyway, don’t you got any respect?” He paused to blow his nose into a white handkerchief. “Okay, okay,” he sighed. “You don’t have to remind me how I’m wasting my breath. Last thing I need is a fight with you first thing in the morning. At least you’re on time.” Abe reached for his overcoat.
“You missed a spot,” Moshe said, and handed Abe another napkin. Abe scowled and went over his mouth again. “Okay,” Moshe said, “you got it.” He smiled. “See what I mean?”
As they walked into the frigid air, Abe muttered, “Kosher, smosher, who cares what they kill or how they kill it, so long as it’s good and dead. I got enough on my mind without worrying about kosher.”
Moshe was half a head shorter than Abe and twice as thick, a peasant who looked it, Russian or Polish depending on when you lived there. He took three steps to every two of Abe’s and had to pant to keep up as they walked down Second Avenue, cut over on St. Mark’s Place to Avenue A opposite Tompkins Square Park to the novelties store they’d owned together for more than ten years. It was hardly more than a counter, a tiny office, and a few shelves with a meager assortment of merchandise—cheap gloves, scarves, socks, and a few second-rate toys. If you found yourself suddenly in need of a number 2 pencil, a spool of thread, or a little pad of paper, you could always go to The Dime Store—“Nothing More Than A Dime,” not strictly true since the number of dimes wasn’t specified.
When they reached the door, Moshe said, “And another thing. You at least got a family. Me, I got to do everything by myself since my Ada died. And no kids, either.”
Abe said nothing. He opened the door with a sharp push. So how can old Moshe believe in God?
On that Sunday the cold invaded every tenement on the Lower East Side, driving the inhabitants uptown to museums, cross-town to the movies, or simply onto the subway to find warmth. Only children seemed oblivious, playing their games on stoops and down alleys. Through the front window Abe watched a group of boys pitching pennies against a building wall. Still they use pennies, he thought, and laughed.
“What’re you laughing about?” Moshe squawked. “Why don’t they find something to do instead of loafing around?”
“Just thinking,” Abe said. “Nobody in here, anyhow.”
The morning moved slowly while Moshe dozed in their tiny office and Abe sat at the counter reading the rest of his paper. The sun was in his eyes when their first customers came through the door, three wiry black kids, new immigrants.
“Mister, mister, how much?” one of them asked in a Jamaican lilt, pointing to a hand-carved chess set on the uppermost shelf. It had been there for years, kept out of sight so as not to remind the partners of the fight they’d had when Abe had let a salesman talk him into purchasing it.
“What we got,” Moshe had said, thumping his fist on the counter, “is cheap stuff, you understand? Nobody around here is going to be interested in a goddam hand-carved, expensive chess set!”
And Abe had said under his breath, “We’ll see, we’ll see.” Now he reached up and looked at the tag. “For you maybe it’s too much--$18. And what do you want with a chess set, anyway?”
The boy said nothing. Abe saw movement in the corner of his eye and looked up just in time to see the other two boys run out, each clutching a pink Spaldeen rubber ball. Abe gasped with surprise. The neighborhood kids regularly came to the store to buy such balls, but no kid had run off with one, or if he had, neither Abe nor Moshe had seen him. Abe felt betrayed. The third boy, the decoy, fled through the door.
“Hey, you,” Moshe yelled, “Come back here!” He ran outside, shaking his fist. The boys disappeared around the corner. He came back in and slammed the door.
“It’s no use,” Abe said. “We’re too old. I didn’t even see those other kids come in. Anyway, it ain’t much, just a couple of rubber balls. What’d they cost us, twelve, thirteen cents?”
Moshe looked up. “You maybe are too old--letting that schvartze pull such a trick,” he said through tightened lips. “Maybe a ball today, who knows what tomorrow.”
“Don’t talk that way, “Abe said. “Schvartze—might as well call them niggers. You want that? What do they call us? Kikes, that’s what, Christ killers.”
Moshe slammed the front door shut, ignoring him. “You just let them get away.”
“Maybe so,” Abe said, “but you better be careful you don’t blow a gasket the way you jump up and down whenever somebody steps on your fat toe.”
He picked up a box of lace and threw it on the floor. He felt the blood rush into his face. Moshe was wide-eyed.
“The hell with you. I’m going out,” Abe said, grabbing his hat and coat.
He started walking downtown, toward the neighborhood he’d known as a kid. What the hell is happening to me, he thought. Nothing feels right any more. Here I am throwing stuff around the store and yelling at old Moshe. My wife’s cooking makes me sick. So many Jewish stores were gone—tailors, butchers, bakeries with their fresh bialys and challah, the dry goods places… Even the cry of the I-Cash-Clothes-man, who carried a complete stock of used clothing on his back, is a memory.
Abe looked up and saw he was on Houston Street, just around the corner from where he’d spent his boyhood in a tenement, with its cramped rooms, occasional rats, the grubby toilet down the hall.
Essie, the youngest Cohen daughter, couldn’t wait to move after she and Abe had been married. Amid the cries of mazel tov, Abe had caught her gazing straight out of the ghetto. But in 1918, few had the means for such a move, and Essie and Abe had taken a cold-water flat on Stanton Street, smack in the middle of their old neighborhood. They had promised each other it wouldn’t be for long. No child of theirs would grow up as they had.
Abe had been the youngest of seven. Two others had died. His parents had emigrated in 1892. Like so many, they had settled in the Lower East Side. His father had odd jobs. His mother had taken in laundry and birthed their children. There had never been enough money and the children had been pushed to get an education so they could do better. Abe’s two brothers were doctors, while he had just managed to finish the eighth grade.
Essie’s family had been smaller. Her father had been a rabbi, but since there had been an excess, he’d had no congregation. He’d had to brush up to officiate at Abe and Essie’s wedding. He had been famously unobservant, breaking Jewish law when it suited him. Essie had been his favorite child and she shone in the light of his irreverence. As was the custom, her father as a rabbi had studied the Torah and had been unprepared for other work. Essie’s mother, however, had been pious to a fault, had toiled long hours as a dressmaker, and had nagged both father and daughter. They had taken to ducking out of the house whenever possible for excursions uptown to Union Square and even beyond. Essie had concluded that God either didn’t know what He was doing, or He didn’t exist.
Soon after World War I ended, Abe, whose poor eyesight had kept him out of the Army, had gotten a lucky break and landed a steady job as a shipper for a clothing manufacturer. Within a month, Essie had found them an apartment uptown, complete with their own bathroom. Now, as he waited for the light to change, he recalled how crazy they’d gone with the steam heat, how wealthy they’d felt. Then he shivered and jammed his hands deeper into his pockets.
The low winter sun was at its apex as he turned the corner onto Essex Street, where the Public Market still dominated the neighborhood. A contrapuntal chorus of buyers’ and sellers’ cries rang through the ancient, cavernous building and spilled out in the street. Through the din he heard a familiar, raspy voice. “Hey, Abe. Over here. It’s me, Izzy.”
Abe turned and saw an old man whose broad smile revealed a multitude of missing teeth. He was bundled in a heavy black overcoat and Russian fur hat.
“Izzy, you son-of-a-bitch,” Abe said, walking over to the old man’s stall. “I figured you must have retired by now.”
“Not me,” Izzy said, beaming. “What for? I should sit at home with that witch and watch TV so I can die in my crummy living room? Ten years you’re gone and nothing’s changed.” He laughed, and Abe noticed there were new gaps in his mouth. “But you, Abie, you’ve either retired, or that battleship wife of yours has thrown you out, ha, ha.”
Abe smiled. “Nah. I’m still up on Avenue A with Moshe Druckman, only I just now decided to take a walk. Glad to see you, you old goat.”
A breeze sauntered through the building and the two men shifted positions. “Remember your old stall, over there where that schmuck is leaning his fat thumb on the scale?” Izzy said, pointing to a middle-aged man weighing what looked like a large carp. When he was little, his mother would have had them deboned at the market for gefilte fish.
“Sure I remember,” Abe said. “Fifteen years selling in the same stall, you don’t forget just like that.” Abe noticed that the sellers seemed to be the same Jewish men as always. The buyers were mostly newcomers, and the fish was not a carp.
“Damn, Izzy. You look good. What are you now, 100?”
“Gimme a break already,” Izzy said as he vigorously gripped Abe’s shoulder. “You don’t look so bad yourself,” he said. Izzy’s hand felt good.
“So, how’s business?” Abe asked.
“Like always. I sell for five percent below cost and make it up on volume,” the old man said, laughing hard at his hackneyed joke.
Abe laughed too, until tears came to his eyes. He turned away. “I gotta go,” he said, suddenly. “Take it easy, you old buzzard.”
“You, too. And give what’s-her-name—Essie—a kick in the pants for me.” He was still laughing as Abe turned back uptown. He took out his handkerchief and wiped his eyes. He started up again, eyes cast on the sidewalk.
It had been Moshe’s idea to go into business together. “It’ll be us that makes the decisions,” he’d said. Ha. Him and his kosher this, his kosher that. Sometimes I wish I’d never known him. Essie had fought against it, complained about the cost, the fact that they’d had to borrow money from his brother Dave, a doctor, but there was no changing Abe’s mind. Now he was still making payments.
He stopped in a luncheonette to get out of the cold and have a cup of coffee. He thought about the day he’d quit his first shipping job, not even a year after he and Essie had moved uptown. Essie had been furious. Abe had gotten into an argument with his boss over ten minutes of a lunch break.
“You quit—or got fired,” Essie had declared. “Maybe you won’t mind it if we have to move back,” she’d said sharply, nodding toward the window. “Me, I’d rather die.”
Yeah, he thought, but got her calmed down. He’d found another job within a week. A year and a half later, he’d gotten fired again, another angry outburst. By then, they’d moved again, to their present apartment. And this time, Essie had held a baby boy, Nathan, on her hip.
“You expect me to take care of your house and your son, and you can’t hold a job?” she’d yelled, in tears. “No, you get you a steady job and hold onto it, and that’s that.”
But he hadn’t. Although he’d worked most of the time, he’d quit or got fired regularly. Finally, near the end of the Depression, fed up with bosses and reduced to a WPA job digging ditches, he’d gotten the idea to sell in the Public Market on Essex Street in the old neighborhood. Essie had been furious.
“You’re never gonna change,” she had said, shaking her head.
“I won’t quit right away. I’ll just sell on Sundays until I see how it goes.” But they’d both known it would just be a matter of time before he was there every day.
“I just don’t get it,” Essie had said as she wiped her hands on her apron. “You could try anywhere you please, but instead it’s back to that worthless neighborhood. What the hell was wrong with shipping?”
She’d never understand. How could he explain? Yes, the neighborhood was a slum, but he’d smiled when he thought of playing stickball in the street, building scooters out of wooden crates and roller skates, pitching pennies, stealing the occasional Baby Ruth, even, he had to admit, a Spaldeen or two. Yes, stealing, just like kids did today. Moshe was one of his friends, but not his best. That was Mickey Nussbaum, little Mickey, who could run faster than anyone, except Abe. Moshe couldn’t run to save his life.
By then Nate had been in high school. Essie herself had wanted to go back and finish. She had even talked of taking night college classes.
“I’ll tell you what’s wrong with you,” she’d said miserably. “You got too much pride. Someone says something you don’t like, you walk out. Fine for you,” she’d said as she’d slammed her rolling pin into the sink, “but what about me and Nate? How can you expect me to take care of him on what you bring home?”
“Nate, Nate, Nate it’s always Nate, ain’t it?” he’d said, voice rising. “Gonna go to college. Yeah, well, I’m the one busting my back every day. Snow, sleet, don’t make no difference, I’m out there laying sewer every lousy day.” He’d kicked a table leg, and the pie Essie was making for Nate had tottered. She’d flung her arms out and emitted a small cry. Abe had wanted to smash something, anything, but had only run his hands roughly through his thinning hair. He’d jerked open the apartment door and had fled down the stairs. The next day he’d opened his stall.
Nate had never had need of him, he was sure of it. Sure, Abe thought, the kid had been happy when he gave him a treat from the store or talked baseball, but he knew Nate had looked down on him, his lack of education, his string of nothing jobs. Nate had gone to City College and had gotten a degree in engineering, married and moved to California. They spoke twice a year by phone.
It was late afternoon and even colder when Abe got near the store. He couldn’t help thinking that he didn’t have much to show for his life.
Up the block he noticed a police car and an ambulance, and he broke into a trot.
“What is it? ¿Qué pasa?” Abe demanded of the Puerto Rican cop outside the door.
“What’s it to you, old man? Guy in there just dropped dead, that’s all.”
Abe gasped. “What the hell are you saying? Are you crazy? Let me in there.” The cop stood aside and Abe headed for the counter where another cop and a couple of ambulance attendants stood. One of the attendants was laughing. They turned when Abe got near. The laughing stopped.
“You know this guy?” the cop asked. He was big, bigger than Abe.
“Sure, I know him,” Abe said, breathless. “That’s Moshe—Moshe—Moshe Druckman. My partner. What the hell is going on?”
Moshe was on his back on the floor in front of the counter.
“See for yourself,” the cop said. “Looks like he had a heart attack or something.”
Abe knelt beside the figure and gently placed his right hand on Moshe’s forehead, as if he was checking a child for fever. The skin was lukewarm. Moshe’s mouth was open and his nostrils flared. Abe thought he could see fury in Moshe’s dead eyes.
“Was it those damn boys?” he said. “They come back, right? And you, you schmuck, you. You were gonna catch them.” He saw that Moshe’s right hand was clenched in a fist. “You damn hothead. No, it’s me, isn’t it, me who’s the hothead. Me. If I’d been here, you’d be cursing me yet.”
“What about his family?” the cop asked. “He got a wife, kids?”
Abe kept his eyes on Moshe’s body. “No,” he said, “no wife, no kids.”
The cop tapped him on the shoulder. “Whaddya say? I didn’t hear you.” Abe turned his head. “No wife,” he said, his voice rising. “No kids, okay?”
The cop pulled out a pad and took a pen from his shirt pocket. “I gotta get some information on this,” he said.
“Like what?” Abe said.
“Like his name.”
“I already told you. Moshe Druckman.”
“What’s his address?” the cop asked. “Phone number.”
Abe stood and tried to think of Moshe’s address. He realized he didn’t know.
“I don’t know where he lives. Somewhere in Washington Heights.”
The cop looked at him.“How about the phone number?”
That Abe knew, thank God. He wondered what the cop thought of him.
The cop wrote down the number.
“And now, how about you,” he said. “Maybe you got an ID or something. That poor guy didn’t. We couldn’t find nothing in his pockets, not even a wallet.”
Abe knew Moshe kept his wallet in the desk in the office. The hell with the cop and his questions, he thought. He’s got the number, doesn’t he?
“I ain’t got one,” Abe said.
“All the same to me, bud,” the cop said. “You don’t need nothing official.”
He gave the cop his name, address, phone number. Where he’d been when Moshe had the dropped dead, about the three thieves earlier in the day. The cop nodded.
“Okay,” the cop said. “I want you to make a list of anything that got taken. Bring it down to the station. You know where it is?” Abe nodded. He looked around the store. Nothing was out of place, or if it was, he realized, he didn’t give a damn.
“Look out, buddy,” someone snarled. The attendants were waiting to place Moshe on a stretcher.
“Just a minute,” Abe blurted out. “Did anybody see him?” Abe asked. “Was he alone in here?”
“A lady come into the store about two-thirty,” the cop said. “Found him on the floor. “That’s about it. Now let these guys do their job, okay?”
“Who was the lady?” Abe said. “Who, who?”
“Look, pal, you can get all the details you want after I finish my report,” the cop said. “Right now we got to get this guy out of here.”
Abe grabbed the cop’s shoulders. “Now you listen to me,” he yelled. He could feel spit spilling into the front of his mouth. The cop pushed Abe in the chest, hard enough to send him tottering backward.
“You want to get arrested, buster?” the cop barked. “Lay another hand on me, and you’re in trouble. Now watch out.” Abe balled his fists and narrowed his eyes but kept quiet.
He turned back toward Moshe and frantically eyed the body, now on the stretcher, arms folded. The shiny blue pants looked shabby, the white shirt ripped open and filthy. He noticed that Moshe was in his stocking feet. He’d never seen Moshe without shoes, or more likely, he’d never noticed. The feet were short and wide, like Moshe.
He had an urge to pull down the socks. He saw a Star of David on Moshe’s chest, brought his right hand up to his own chest and then quickly dropped it. The attendants started to roll Moshe out the door. Abe walked out after them and watched them place the stretcher into the ambulance, leaned against the door frame, took out his handkerchief, and blew his nose. The ambulance drove off into the streetlights.
He turned back into the empty store and went to the toilet, went into the office and kicked at the ledger, which had fallen to the floor. Then he noticed the scuffed black shoes in front of Moshe’s chair. He picked them up. They smelled of sweaty feet. Moshe must have taken them off. Maybe his feet hurt, Abe thought. He visualized Moshe jumping up and running out in his socks. You should have let them have whatever they wanted.
He picked up the shoes and went to the open door. He’d forgotten the cold. He stepped outside and saw a black kid walking toward him. Their eyes locked, freezing the boy with mouth agape and his eyes white and wide.
“You… you…,” Abe stuttered, his heart pounding. “You want the chess set? You want the chess set? Okay, you can have it,” he bellowed as he brought his right arm up with one of Moshe’s shoes in it. The boy broke and ran, disappearing around the corner. “You can have it, you, you schvartze,” he said softly.
He went back into the store, looked around and shut off the lights. Damn you, he said again, under his breath. He locked up and walked slowly toward the subway.
He got on a half-empty uptown subway holding Moshe’s shoes in his lap. He looked up and saw an old woman sitting across the aisle, asleep, with a shopping cart in front her. Her filthy red cloth coat had opened and Abe could see she was dressed in a stained, badly frayed black skirt that came down nearly to her feet. Bits of newspaper stuck out from her worn-out Keds. Her lumpy bosom was covered by a dingy gray sweater, and she wore a Navy blue wool cap.
He watched her chest rise and fall with placid regularity, how her body gently rocked over the staccato jerks of the train. Her hands were clasped on top of her large belly, as if she had just consumed a generous meal.
He glanced down the aisle at the other passengers. Some were reading, others dozing. One middle-aged man, dressed in business clothes, seemed intent on scanning the advertising placards near the roof of the car. He saw his own tired face reflected back from the darkened train window. So many arguments, fights over God, keeping the laws, life. But there was something else, wasn’t there? He looked up once more and blinked. He realized with a jolt that the store would have to close. Without Moshe, there was no store. And there was no going back to the market. There was only the three-room apartment and Essie, green-eyed, snoring Essie.
The train pulled into his station. The street lady had opened her yellow eyes and was staring at him. The shoes, he thought. She wants the shoes. She’s looking at me and she thinks I got these extra shoes. The train stopped and he got up. He would not let go of the shoes, no matter how she looked at him, no matter how pitiful her shredded sneakers were. He would bring the shoes home. He would open the junk drawer in the kitchen and take out his can of Kiwi polish and his shoe rag. He would get his shoe brush out from under the sink, and then he would brush Moshe’s shoes clean. He would put one hand inside the left shoe and spread polish on with his other hand. He would feel the place where Moshe’s foot had stomped, had strode to keep up with him. He would do the same for the other shoe. Wipe until there was a gloss on the shoes, as close as he could get them to brand new. And he would put them in the bedroom closet next to his best pair of Florsheims. They would always be Moshe’s shoes. He would never give them up.