Tablet Original Fiction: Sent on a gruesome errand, a young man comes undone
His fingers shook, he lost count, my own counting was distracted by his explaining his scheme to coordinate the homeless bundling recyclables: “even charities pay salaries.”
When I asked how it’d gone with the tires, he denied all knowledge—“pills destroy the mind”—left neurotic about a bet he’d placed on a hockey match he told me to get the score of, he couldn’t bear to face the paper. But when I called Sruly with 6-2/Rangers, it was like he was only humoring my interest.
He said, “from now on, you’ll deal with the Mizrahi”—the Mizrahi was the Greek, it figured—“just restrain yourself next time and you’ll get yours.”
He told me when and where—“I’d go myself but I’m mashgiach by a nursinghome in Whippany.”
As far as I understood it the Mizrahi didn’t sell just the ADHD meds that Sruly marked up for resale to religious families with plenty kids, without insurance, but also opiates, for the chronic pain of lifting kids, of living—tablets dissolving down from Sinai.
Also anything I wanted, especially ecstasy—“the best,” the Mizrahi said, “product of Israel.”
Uppers, downers, me—“let him work with who he think’s a goy,” Sruly said when I returned with the next parcel unopened, “so they don’t get the bad impression.”
Then he counted out my take, in milligrams, didn’t have the rest in cash so went for a machine or to borrow.
I waited—until I was too broke for even a Metrocard and so walked to my grandmother’s apartment, but every building stooped the same. Garbage had piled up. None of the buzzers were labeled so I pressed them all, couldn’t remember which floor, the only open door held a parkingmeter wearing tzitzit, tightywhities. Shalom? Didn’t speak a word. Ethiopian, why should he?
I crept downstairs, got lost in the lobby. I waited for a bus but the line was for a bakery, followed a rumble I was sure was the train. The line wasn’t for a bakery, but for a flatbed truck distributing free matzah—free for everyone but me.
A storm grew. I struck my last match, chainsmoked. Scaffolded posters advertised lectures. There was a Tiki-themed—Nouveau Tiki—establishment midblock. Masks dangled from the awning. A totem, chained to the grate, had been graffitied barbigerous with payos. A skittish trim Hasid pasted at the glass. A buff white bouncer yelled at him to stop. The Hasid yelled. Totems and masks. Paste oozed from the glass. Lectures or obituaries.
Clouds gathered, huddled, a wisp of gray hitched to a noxious smear—Sruly’s Nissan approached, incontinent with oil, towing a smutty trailer.
I crossed the street, knocked at his window—he was so shocked he clutched his neck—I said, “I didn’t mean to.”
“Don’t worry,” letting go his choke, “you’ll get your money after this.”
He slogged upstairs, left the Nissan idling.
When he returned, his thumb was swollen with gauze. “I had a minor procedure to deal with.” I hadn’t noticed any bandage before. “You doubt that it’s a sign?”
He drove all the way, though I’m not clear where, it’s been four months since and foggy—Brighton Beach, the Rockaways, shorefront landfill down past where the BQE swerves to avoid a DUI, tightening the Belt Parkway. Sruly found a break in the boards, rattled our hitch straight onto sand. He shut the car down to moonlessness, only the red of the trailer’s reflector and stars, the weather and wake churned as one. Sruly got out, I followed, he got a shovel out of the backseat, handed it to me, scrolled up the trailer’s hatch to troughs, had me shovel sand to the troughs as the wind blew the sand back into my face, openmouthed. I stripped my jacket, sweated the rain, filled the flimsy blowing away in the wind tubs like juvie swimmingpools, as Sruly—staying dry in the driver’s seat—searched my jacket for my pack, lit my last cig with his lighter and smoked and drank from his styrofoam cup what could’ve been anything he spiked with shots from his flask, drank it all and extinguished the cig in the cup left in the holder so as not to leave any traces, had me replenish the deep grave of sand in the sand and turned the car around and had me level the tracks of the tires too and when I collapsed back into the car and he tugged the wheel to pull out and turn again toward the Parkway, reversing our route, he was steering just fine with the thumb and the bandage had unraveled.
But instead of taking the Expressway back we loopdelooped and took the bridge. Staten Island to Jersey was all one olamic span of bridge we rode, like we were hopscotching along the outer rim of a turning but stationary, always semisunken ferriswheel.
As we merged into Jersey, the wipers stabbed, and Sruly ranted: this party we’d be meeting would have more liqs for us at the ready—not whiskey, scotch—not vodka, gin—every shelf the topshelf, filled to the top with more cigs too, full cartons, a club with nonstop grinding, he diddled the radio, WFME FM, “Where Faith Means Everything,” we’d be put up at this inn, which supplied its own females, had a shvitz and Olympic pool, each room equipped with cable with all the premium channels, the basketballs and footballs, the pornos.
But the Hunan had worn off by the time we’d pulled into this damp moldsplotched fallapart motorlodge squeezed like a fart between a condemned multiplex and a Szechuan buffet/affordable bankruptcy stripmall and the party who was supposed to have received us had to be woken by both our phones and was cursing and meanly pissing in his own vacant lot even as he bargained for a fairer shake, “isn’t that what you people do?”
I unloaded the troughs as Sruly insisted, “I never agreed to installing nothing”—which meant I had to empty them too, shoveling their contents into the yawning sandboxes in the playground out back between the minigolf course bereft with only a bulbless lighthouse obstacle and a spalled tennis court without net. I bled for my percentage, while the lodge manager and Sruly himself, thumb totally unbandaged, unloaded the rest of the trailer, the uprooted minuscule trees packed in burlap and flower flats hastily spaded sprinkling enough soil toward the lobby to irk the manager into saying, “forget it”—his wife would deal with replantation whenever she woke up.
He handed a cashwad to Sruly who handed me just enough to cover his debt and though when I balked he gave me a taste of his cut too he grumbled in Yiddish throughout the drive back, stopping only in Middlesex County, once proposing to split the fuel (I refused), once again to ditch the trailer by a major transit hub from which he let me find my own way home (without expenses), “I have a noon horse situation by the Meadowlands,” “Pesach is tonight.”
Forbidden marriages (but Sruly specialized in divorces), supervising kashrut (the mashgiach gig), mikvah drainage (clogs), tourist excursions to local sites of Jewish interest (East Side Pastrami Pilgrimage/Financial District Twofer), sports betting in the Diamond District, ticket resale, wheelchair rehab, selling used children’s shoes, the hydrocodone, the speed, reblocking hats, recycling sheytls (sourcing “the finest Hindu hair”)—this was—all of it—Sruly’s “rabbinate.”
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