Dave needed the toilet but shook off the urge. “Sol,” he said softly, partly hidden by a ficus tree in the Jerusalem Plaza hotel.
He counted to twenty, then released the word again, as if it were a missile he could guide past the Hasidic lady wiping drool off her baby’s cheek, past a waiter sagging under a platter of rugalach, to land, hopefully, on one balding old man sitting on a beige sofa with two old fogies on either side. Sol Saperstein with the white tufts of hair at the temples and the thousand-dollar shoes.
Dave reached into his pocket where the note lay coiled, the one he’d picked off the Western Wall less than an hour ago among all the kvittels stuffed into its crannies. He remembered each word: “I hate you, God. You’re not worth a used piece of toilet paper. Yours, Sol Saperstein.” Yours. If Dave ever got desperate enough to pen a letter to God, he’d never sign it yours.
One of Sol’s cronies was telling a joke.
“Sol,” Dave quietly repeated. The old man didn’t turn his head, though this time he pinched his chin. What in hell—a nod, or a no-reaction? All he knew was, he had to go, badly. Again, he fought it off. Old Sol might wander away or check out of the hotel and grab a cab to the airport. No, Dave couldn’t lose him. Not this live fish. The note was the cry of a man in pain, but look at him now, sitting with his fossil friends, talking, joking, noshing on rugalach. I’ll never get Sol alone, he despaired, just as his new mobile phone—pele phone—rang.
“What’s the deal?” he muttered.
Alexander spoke fast, leaping over every word.
“Slow down!” Dave said.
“You say that’s Sol Saperstein?” Alexander’s Russian accent deepened on the last name.
“Yeah. So who is he?”
“Forbes 400 list,” his partner said. “Hungarian Holocaust survivor. Made his money in, eh, plastics, after the war. That’s the one you have there?” Det’s de one you hev dere?
Dave had spotted the tattoo, a tiny bluish caterpillar on Sol’s forearm. A survivor. A desperate, angry old Jew, estranged, and yet in that weird Jewish way, connected. “That’s the one.”
“Yeh, good, very good. You won’t mess up this time, hokay?” There was a joke and a warning in his voice.
Dave held back a snort. Mess up? As if he was the wild card and not Alexander with his bottles of Stolichnaya in all his favorite flavors. As if they hadn’t cashed in plenty the past two years. Five thousand bucks from Millie Klinger, staying at the Larome Hotel with her drug addict son. Three thousand five hundred from Mel Borowsky, at the Hilton, suffering from irritable bowel syndrome and so much more. Plenty of wins. Those Yids had gotten their money’s worth, a spiritual experience they could tell to their friends back home—all thanks to his talents. But here Alexander was acting like the big Daddy of the operation. He let it pass. “Hokay,” he said, before clicking off.
The urge to pee took hold so strongly Dave couldn’t stand in one place. He slipped past the old men on the couch and made a left at the jewelry shops, then out of sight, sprinted toward the bathroom. He flung open the door while unzipping his pants. Fast, faster. He was racing against how long it took the old fogies to blow their noses, remove the fuzz from their ears, clasp hands, do all their moves before they upped and left the place.
A bearded old man hunched beside him at the urinal. He looked like a rabbi. The problem was, all these guys with beards looked like rabbis, the same ones who’d taught him Torah back when he was on the lam from Operation Desert Storm. Was it nearly three years ago that he’d stumbled into a Yeshiva? Found himself in a classroom with a rabbi serving up more Torah than he could stomach. Dave himself hadn’t looked inside a Torah book since his Bar Mitzvah. He’d wanted to bolt, but thoughts of supper and a place to sleep tethered him to his seat. He was hopping, that old rabbi, his arms flailing like a windmill. His sheer energy kept the other guys listening. Most were grinning like the whole thing was a colossal joke, but one or two looked shockingly awake like they were surfing a wave. Dave couldn’t believe it. Some of them were actually into it. That’s when the idea had first struck him. He could use this information. Here’s how he’d make it in a foreign country without having to live and die picking cucumbers on that kibbutz up North. He began to pepper the rabbi with so many questions, the acrobat rabbi nearly bust a gut from joy. Three weeks later, the same rabbi wept when Dave packed up. “You have a seeking mind, the makings of a beautiful soul,” he pleaded. “Stay.” Dave was shocked. Nobody had ever cried over him. But he’d had other plans and uses for his two notebooks filled with the wisdom of the sages.
Dave now zipped his pants, stumbled out of the bathroom and rushed toward the lobby.
“Watch your step, fella!”
Dave had collided with Sol Saperstein himself in front of the Bathsheba Gift Shop. The man’s voice was American, yet Dave heard strains of Europe in it, too.
“Excuse me,” Dave said, wiping his hands against his pants.
The old man grunted and made a move toward the jewelry shop.
“Ah, don’t go there,” Dave called, lifting a hand.
Old Sol turned, and Dave found himself staring at the saddest nose he’d ever seen, bulging, dotted with pores, shot through with capillaries.
“Why not?” Old Sol bleated.
Dave took a breath. “You won’t find your answer there, sir, I promise you.”
The old man’s eyes fired up. “What do you know about me?!”
“No chotchke inside that place will heal your broken soul.”
The old man raised his thorny fist. “Broken soul? I’ll break you!” He briefly bared his teeth, revealing gray gums. “Full of crap you are. Don’t know a thing about me.”
“Then why are you talking to me?” Dave asked.
Sol untied his wrist handkerchief and blew his grotesque nose. It made a piercing sound like a shofar. “You’re the first person in years who told me not to spend money.” A fit of coughing made his bony shoulders shake. “It amuses me.”
Fast, before Sol got unamused, Dave bent his tall frame and locked in with a penetrating gaze. “Forgive me, but you are a broken soul,” he said. “I see you talking to your friends in this nice hotel, but you’re broken all over. You don’t pray, you don’t study Torah, you don’t even keep kosher or the Sabbath,” Dave guessed with a fair amount of confidence. “You don’t love anyone. Least of all God.”
“I got no use for those laws,” the old man said brusquely, his hand hovering near the gift shop’s door. Dave said softly, “Like King Saul, that’s who you remind me of.”
“Saul?” The old man’s tanned skin broke out in blotches.
Dave nodded. “Saul was a good man, noble, divinely chosen to be king, but later, he didn’t listen to God and he didn’t believe in himself either. A deadly combination. In the end, he lost everything.”
Sol grabbed Dave by the collar. “Who are you,” he said hoarsely. “Why’re you telling me this?”
“A shell,” Dave murmured. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I just have a feeling about you.” He could feel his words hitting Old Sol’s heart, hitting even his own.
The old man yanked Dave’s collar hard. A blue vein bulged over Sol’s left eyebrow. “Three weeks I was on the Death March in 1945. From Auschwitz to Buchenwald.” He reeled off the facts like it was an old song, his personal lullaby. “My brother who was stronger and always beat me up when I was a yingele, he dropped after the third week, and a dog bit off his chin.” Just like that Sol’s face relaxed. He glanced at Dave as if surprised to find him there. “Come back tomorrow. I’ll buy you soup in the restaurant.”
“So how much you asking Sol for?” Alexander said, gazing at a sleek Volvo on his computer screen.
“I just met the guy.” Dave pulled out a ragged copy of Rebbe Nachman’s Tales that he kept on Alexander’s bookshelf.
He could hear Alexander’s mother banging around in the kitchen. Probably heating up leftover blintzes from the Sephardic orphanage where she worked. She was a rough-skinned woman with still beautiful legs, who, it was rumored, had been a prostitute in the Soviet Union. Dave loved the blintzes. So what if he had to sleep on a lounge chair in the apartment’s tiny balcony? The place was rent-free.
“Ah, forget it,” Alexander said with a disgusted swipe at the Volvo website. “Too expensive. A bunch of gavno,” he let out derisively. He stood, removed a nail clipper from a night table and lifted his bare foot onto his bed. “Why you study all this Torah?” He bent low to clip his toenails, his stomach busting out of his tight jeans.
Dave shrugged. “Without the Torah, I’m just another putz on the make.”
Alexander examined each nail paring as it separated from his toe as though witnessing a complicated surgery. “Yeh, but why so much?” Clip clip.
Dave suppressed a sigh. Maybe twenty minutes a day he went through his old notes from Yeshiva, or dipped into Rebbe Nachman’s Tales or even Gershom Scholem’s works (way beyond him, but the mystic scholar had great lines) or, if he was bushed, Kabbalah for Dummies. Not even twenty minutes, but even this piddling amount seemed to get under Alexander’s skin.
Now his partner was staring at his pale toes with an outright love. The guy cherished every part of himself, his nail parings, the gefilte fish roll of fat around his waist, his swampy armpit smell, you name it. Dave had met guys like that in Iraq, twenty-year-olds in love with the stink of their own farts. Creatures, he called them. Some psychopaths, too, who got off on terrifying the Hajjis, going inside their homes, shooting up sofas, blowing up the kubbeh or Quzi or whatever hot stew they happened to be eating no matter how boiling it was outside. A hundred and six was considered a cool day over there. He remembered waking up in his tent, his boots melted to his feet, being scared to sit on a toilet seat—that’s how hot it was, the heat rashes, the sun hallucinations. If hadn’t escaped that inferno, he would’ve gone psycho himself. He’d take Israel over Iraq any day. Though if the army wasn’t still on his trail, he’d have returned to the States faster than spit. Even if there was nothing to return to. “Look, if you don’t believe your own lines, nobody else well. Ever hear of Method Acting?” Dave threw out.
Alexander stopped clipping. “Your problem is you think this is a show, like TV.” He tenderly dropped a nail sliver into a plastic cup. “A game! But we need this money. Big time.”
Dave nearly guffawed at his beeg time, but then killed it. Once, in a bad mood (or probably too much Stoli vodka), Alexander stomped a cat to death. Better not mess with the guy. Why did he even stick with him? Because Alexander was generous, with his apartment, with buying Dave food occasionally—just like that first time they’d met. It was at some diner that offered schwarma at half price, past a certain hour. Dave got a hold of a few shekels and was wolfing down that schwarma. Alexander, watching from the next table, offered his side of French fries, which Dave gladly took. They got to talking. Turned out Alexander came from Riga, same place as Dave’s grandmother. They seemed to share other things, too. Both of them were on the make. Alexander was a computer hacker. He knew all about identity theft. In a second, he got the gist of Dave’s work. “I get you the names of people on El Al flights,” Alexander said, “which hotels they’ll be staying at.” He could cross-reference it with Forbes 400 lists, too. He wanted a cut, though. “How about a flat fee,” Dave said. “No, a cut.” Thirty percent. For a while, the arrangement had worked out between them, but lately Alexander kept pushing him to try harder, to go for bigger fish and higher cash wins. And when Dave didn’t deliver he would pick and poke at him, get pushier and pushier and sometimes drunk mad.
Truth was, Dave was sick of tiptoeing around Alexander, living in fear of getting kicked out. He needed money. Maybe with some cash of his own, he’d go up North, to Safed, where all the mystics had hung out centuries ago. Meet a nice girl, have sabra brats, open a bakery. (His father had been a baker in the Bronx, why not?) He could put out tables, too, and books. He even had a name: The Holy Beggar’s Café.
“How much you asking from Sol?” Alexander persisted, pulling his shirt away from his neck to take a whiff.
Dave grabbed his Rebbe Nachman book. “Too soon to tell,” he said as he headed toward the bathroom for peace and quiet.
“Yah, yah,” Alexander called after him, shaking his nail clipper. “You and your method action.”
A Creature, Dave thought.
At Cow on the Roof café, Sol said go ahead, get anything you want on the menu, but Dave held back and asked only for tea. Soup—not to mention the baked ziti he was dying to order—would turn him into just another beggar.
Still, he kept sneaking bits of the hotel’s amazingly fresh bread.
“I see you don’t wash your hands or make a blessing before eating, like the Orthodox,” Sol remarked between chews.
Dave held out both hands. “Nope. Same as you.” He took a sip of Wissotzky tea.
“Me, I have my reasons.”
“Such as?” Dave hunched forward slightly.
Sol regarded Dave above his spoonful of butternut squash soup. “I don’t have to explain to nobody why I don’t keep those laws,” he said, his eyes going small as ball bearings.
Dave held out two palms as if to say, You don’t have to justify yourself to me cos’ I surely ain’t Ortho! In fact that was his trademark: Judaism and spirituality—yes, Jewish ritual and laws, no and no. No Shabbos or kosher or weird stuff like separating linen and flax (or was it wool?) or any of the sexual thou-shall-nots, whoo boy, he didn’t touch those with a ten-foot pole.
“But you, I’ll tell,” Sol shrugged, “why not.”
Dave nodded and adjusted his beard in the cafe’s mirror so that it looked unruly and mystical, not merely unruly and slobbish.
Sol took another three spoonfuls in rapid succession. “Once I wrote a note to God just after the war ended, when I was in a DP camp.” He jerked his jaw at Dave. “You know what’s a DP camp?”
Dave nodded—of course. He noticed a tear had crept into a crevice in the old man’s nose.
“I wrote, ‘God, what haven’t you done to make me stop believing in you. You let them murder my mother, my father, my baby sister in her crib, and my brother you took away at the last minute when we got so close to liberation. But you know what, God? Just to get you back, I’m going to keep on believing in you anyway.’”
Dave was moved, despite himself. It took a certain kind of nerve to pull off a showdown with God.
“Well, a Yid can’t believe in God just to get back at him. It doesn’t work. I haven’t believed in all that stuff for years.” Sol took another mouthful of soup, sloppily. For all his wealth, the man still ate like a refugee. “And here I used to put on tefillin every day when I was a boy.” With a flick of his thumb he wiped away the nose tear. “What about you?”
Dave gazed at Sol, making his eyes go gentle with compassion, although he tried not to overdo it, sensing Sol might be allergic to mercy. “I haven’t ruled out God, but I believe in souls. God? Who knows.” He shrugged. “The Torah—hard to say. But souls stick around for a long time, maybe forever.” He sort of believed this.
Sol seized a napkin. A sudden joy nearly disfigured his features. He clamped his hand on Dave’s shoulder. “Let’s meet. Tomorrow.”
Dave sent a silent thanks to the acrobat rabbi who’d given him that line years ago. “How long you staying in Israel for?”
“Till Wednesday. Then I catch a plane.”
Dave sucked in his breath. Two nights and days to accomplish the impossible.
Tuesday afternoon he waited for Sol at Independence Park. To better get into the mood, he said a chapter of psalms. It made a special quiet in him like the second before a kiss, though he hadn’t kissed anyone in ages.
Alexander called him on his mobile phone and crooned, “You ask Solly for a million bucks yet?” Dave shoved the phone into his knapsack just as Sol walked down the stone steps, his tanned bald head gleaming and alert. Even his white temple tufts looked perky in the bright afternoon light.
Dave tried to get a conversation going, but Sol wasn’t biting. The old man observed him, his head jutting from his neck in an aggressive, turkey-like posture. “What do you want?” Sol said. “Don’t lie to me, I know you want something.”
Dave said, “Money.”
Judging from the distorted grin on the old man’s face, Dave knew he’d hit the target.
Sol cocked his head. “What for?”
“To heal your children.” Dave had a plan ready in his pocket: a Kabbalah Wellness Center to be built in Safed. It was for the children of survivors. “They need to heal, too,” he said, and explained how the words, “Refuah,”—healing, in Hebrew, were the same words as “mouth” and “light.” Only by filling a mouth with words of light, could healing come.
Sol’s own mouth was moving, like he was chewing something indigestible. He lowered his neck to a stone water fountain. He pushed hard on the button but no water came out. “Ach, nothing works in this farshtunkene country.”
Dave held his breath. A win? A lose? Meanwhile, he reached into his ravaged knapsack. “Here. Some water.”
Sol grabbed it, took a long swig, his thin lips pursed around the opening like a nursing baby. His sucking repulsed Dave and yet touched him, too.
“Nobody gives presents to the rich, you know. But here you gave me this bottle of water,” Sol acknowledged.
“It’s nothing.” Actually, Dave had filched the bottle from Alexander’s fridge. The sun was beating hard, frying him to the ground. Now he wished he’d held onto his water.
“My children want nothing to do with me,” Sol said after wiping his skinny lips dry against his shoulder. “They can all go to Gehenna. Let them pish away their tsures in the Atlantic Ocean.” He broke into a coughing fit.
Dave prayed, God, put the right words in my mouth, please God. Give me a break, I swear it’ll be my last—although he reflexively said this each time. God, the good luck charm. Still, no words came.
Finally, Sol’s coughing spasm passed. He looked spent. “Sun’s murdering me,” he muttered. He wanted to return to the hotel.
“What’s with the sour look on your face,” Sol barked as they headed back. Spit flew from his mouth onto Dave’s wrist.
Dave discreetly rubbed it away. The whole world was spitting on him. A huge spitting party. And what would he tell Alexander? Then he thought: Hell with him. Alexander needed money to buy a Volvo. He needed money to buy a life.
Just before Sol slipped through the hotel’s revolving doors, he patted his front pocket. “Come to my room tomorrow night at six, before I catch my plane. Maybe I’ll have a little something for you.”
Maybe I’ll have a little something for you. On such words, a man could hang himself. Sol was a cheapskate, he realized. The world owed him, not the other way around. He had a dread feeling that none of this was going to work out. But still, he had to follow through.
Dave hung out at the U.S. Cultural Center on Keren Hayesod Street. At closing hour, he stayed in the bathroom to avoid the guard. He slept on three chairs. Easier than dealing with Alexander breathing down his neck with questions.
But the next day, there they were.
They sat in the Café Roma, Alexander’s treat. Alexander picked up money designing websites. “Well?” his partner asked.
Dave’s shoulders were sore from sleeping on Formica chairs. “I’m seeing him tonight before he flies to the States. I told him all about the Kabbalah Center,” Dave said, trying to throw enthusiasm into his voice. But what was there to be enthusiastic about? A man wasn’t just a thing that could be moved or controlled or told what to do. Certainly not someone like Sol.
Alexander was nodding tell-me-more when a Yemenite waitress in a sheer blouse set down plates of hummus, tahini and hot pitas. Alexander grinned, staring at her polka-dotted bra, visible in her see-through blouse, and the waitress smiled back. Strange, Dave thought, how these sabra girls liked Alexander. Which just proved what a screwed up country Israel really was.
“How big?” Alexander asked, barely pulling his eyes away from the waitress. “How much he’ll give?”
Dave spread open a warm pita and spooned hummus into its pocket. “I told him I’d name the center after him,” he ad-libbed. “Sol’s a businessman. I’m assuming he understands these things cost.”
“Assuming,” Alexander repeated in a dubious voice, then bit hard into his pita. “So you still didn’t give him a number?”
“Not yet.” Dave covered his nose. Alex’s Aqua Velva aftershave was making it hard for Dave to breathe.
Alexander frowned. “What if he just giving ten thousand bucks?”
Man. He knew Sol all of two days. Alexander was delusional. “Isn’t ten thousand something?”
Alexander half rose, banged the bistro table with a flat hand. “From Millie Klinger we expect ten thousand bucks! But from a billionaire we should be getting a million!”
The Yemenite waitress had been coming toward them with more tahini. She skittered away.
“Calm down,” Dave choked. “So you won’t get your Volvo so fast.”
Alexander lit a cigarette, then blew a ragged smoke ring upward. “By the way, I found out from Google that Sol Saperstein has some serious asthma. COPD.”
“Maybe you can hide his inhaler if he doesn’t give you the money!” Alexander crowed, grinning in a cloud of smoke.
Just the kind of cruel shtick Alexander would pull, Dave thought. He was a wild card—no, an animal. Dave was better off without him, free rent or not. Still, the thought of scrounging for food and a place to live filled him with dread.
He stuffed a spare pita with hummus. The sandwich would carry him till tonight.
Alexander yawned. “What’s the hotel number?”
“Fourteen twelve.” Dave took extra napkins.
“I’ll be there, just outside. In case you need me. Don’t be a wise guy, hokay?”
Dave knocked on Sol’s door at six. He’d combed his beard and freshened up in the hotel’s bathroom below. Would it be Rebbe Nachman for the grand finale, or maybe he’d pull out a jewel from his old notes? He wished he felt more ready.
“Come in,” called a cranky voice.
Sol was puttering with a remote control, his shoulders sagging. Brown steak congealed on a dinner plate. A huge suitcase lay open on his bed. A sour odor rose off the hotel’s floral carpet.
“What’s the matter?” Dave asked in a gentle tone.
Sol lifted his scrawny neck. “What’s the matter is, it’s my last hour in Israel and I’m spending it with some fella I hardly know who wants my money for some cockamamie project.”
Dave said cryptically, “I hardly know you, either.”
Sol tossed aside the remote control. “Give me a hand with the luggage.”
Together they zipped the suitcase shut, Sol panting. Dave dragged the monstrosity to the door. Did he imagine the odor of Aqua Velva shaving lotion wafting from the hallway?
Sol sat on the edge of the bed and Dave sat beside him. The old man stroked his chin. “You want to know something about me?”
Sol said, “Every morning I wake up, I want to kill.”
Dave stared in surprise. It was the kind of thing he sometimes thought.
“For years I was killing my first wife and children until they wanted nothing to do with me,” Sol said while reaching for a steak bit, “then I killed my second wife, nagging her until she died, then I said one day, enough of this, better you kill Sol Saperstein, so I became a runner, a marathon runner, can you believe this?—at age seventy-five I ran and ran each morning until my heart couldn’t be held in my chest anymore and I thought I would die, but now with my knees I can’t do this anymore, and I have COPD—so I came to Jerusalem and I had one big idea.” He gazed at the piece of steak. “You know from that, right, the one big idea?”
Dave mumbled, “Sounds familiar,” feeling himself getting lost in Sol’s energy, when really it was supposed to be the other way around.
“So I thought, from now on I kill God. Not people, not wives and children and my workers, and not even Sol Saperstein, but God himself.” He bit into the meat. After a few chews, he spat it out. “This country doesn’t know from real meat,” Sol scoffed, and then fell into a deep coughing jag. Dave reached fast to thump his back, but Sol held up a hand. He fumbled to untie his wrist handkerchief, then wiped his mouth. “So,” he said, as if that settled something.
“So, it seems you have a breathing problem,” Dave offered.
“Like I told you, “ Sol said, impatient, “I got COPD.” Just then, he gave a quick spray with an inhaler. “So what do you have to tell me now?”
Dave felt his bowels tightening, on the verge of something. “It doesn’t have to be like that,” he said, feeling his words go slow and heavy in his mouth.
“You don’t have to murder. In fact, it’s forbidden.”
“Nothing is forbidden,” Sol shot back.
Dave felt himself trembling a little. Why, he didn’t know. Was Sol the last train out of Warsaw? But he needed a big win. Alexander was hinting his mother wanted to bring in a boarder, wanted him out. Where would he go? “You know the word for breathing in Hebrew?” Dave asked suddenly.
“It’s neshimah, the same root as the word for soul, neshama.” As he said these words, Dave felt an opening in his chest.
Sol repeated the word. “Neshama. So what?”
“It’s not so what,” Dave said. “It’s everything. If you want to feel the soul God breathed inside you, just breathe, Solly, breathe.”
Sol threw him a furious look. “Don’t call me Solly.”
“They’re connected. Neshama—soul, neshima—breath.”
“Hah!” Sol said.
“I’m telling you, old man,” Dave grabbed each wrist, “you’re pushing God away with your short breaths. You’ve got to take them in deep, slow, let them fill you. Breathe, and then you’ll feel God, the soul he gave you, and you won’t need to murder anyone anymore.”
“Shut up, shmendrick!” Sol yelled, spittle flying. “Stop talking about the breathing, just stop! I can’t take it anymore!”
“No!” Dave shouted. “You’ve got to breeeeathe! Right now, with me, one breath, then another! It’s that simple.”
Sol’s eyes flung open so wide, all you could see were the whites. Oh my God, the old man looked catatonic. A heart attack? Dave tried to draw his hands away, but Sol clutched at him. He began to talk. “They made us undress, and the Ukrainian guards were drunk, that’s how they did the work, and there was mud everywhere, and they were lousy shots, especially with all the vodka inside them, and them slipping in the mud and the dogs barking and biting off flesh whatever they could, and the women screaming so high, and the guards shooting from everywhere and nowhere to run. The Jews who died with the first bullet were the lucky ones, and I wasn’t a lucky one, the stupid Ukrainian guard shot me in the calf, and then they threw us into the big pit we had dug, and the naked bodies were pressed against me, the urine, the vomit, the drek, the blood, it was so slippery but I wormed my way to a spot where I could breathe a little, and underneath me was Mr. Persky the bookkeeper, I recognized his moans, he was moving a little, not dead yet, and I kicked and squirmed to the top, and in this way I breathed and breathed while so many in the pit, the ones who weren’t dead yet, couldn’t breathe so good like me, and they say the Polish peasants saw the dirt moving for three days afterward. But now every time I breathe, I think of Mr. Persky and all the naked Jews with me under the dirt, the ones I was lying on, wishing they’d stop moving underneath me.” Sol’s eyes raked Dave’s again and again. “So tell me how do you know I am ashamed to breathe? So ashamed.”
Dave seized Sol’s shoulders and held him close. His bones were so small. Sol cried, his chin quivering.
Then it was quiet. They sat on the bed, side by side, Dave holding Sol’s hand. A frail thing, like a bird. Dave took a breath. It hurt. It hurt so well. Sol dried his eyes with his dinner napkin, blew his nose. “How devoted I feel,” Sol said in a muffled voice, “to this God who I don’t believe in.” At this, there was a movement in Dave’s chest, like glass getting crushed.
Sol yawned. “I need the toilet, if you’ll excuse me.” He lead-footed his way to the bathroom.
Dave stood. He felt a prickling inside him, like whenever his foot fell asleep, and only walking or stomping would make it go away, but this feeling was all over him now, as if his soul had been pricked awake. He paced the fancy hotel room. His eyes swung here and there, fell on the suitcase, on a shopping bag, on Sol’s thousand dollar shoes under a round coffee table, not sure where to put his eyes. He closed them and kept seeing Mr. Persky in the pit. Or some purple blob floating around in the dark of his mind. Mr. Persky’s soul? He felt a wind passing through his chest cavity. God! God! Not a make-believe God. Not a gimmick God. As felt as a bracing shower. A groan rose up from deep in his marrow.
Then he heard another groan. Dave stared out, terrified. But this one had come from the bathroom. The sound of an old man straining at the toilet. Dave shook himself. Old Solly boy. Slowly, slowly, the prickling inside him ebbed, then trickled away.
Another grunt from the bathroom. Dave scrunched his nose, disgusted. Then he thought: Hell. Old Sol was getting ready to unload a huge wad of cash. Let him strain at the toilet if that’s what it took. And Dave was prepared to ask for that money. Why should he be anxious about it or timid? He’d given Sol an unforgettable experience. For the first time he had Sol in his palm. No question. He’d ask for $120,000—a reasonable amount. Forget Alexander’s insane and greedy million. Maybe he’d plant a garden in Sol’s name. That seemed right. Give a donation to the acrobat rabbi’s Yeshiva (that’s where he first heard the neshama, neshima idea), $100, something. He’d split the rest down the middle. Not even seventy-thirty, but fifty-fifty. Start a business, that bakery up in Safed. Alexander could buy his Volvo. They’d never have to see each other again. They—Dave stopped. Cocked his ear. A low buzzing sound was coming from the hallway. He could swear it was Alexander humming some Russian tune.
Dave rushed to the door, poked his head into the hallway. Alexander was sitting cross-legged on the floor in a Chicago Bulls T-shirt, his back propped against the wall, flossing his teeth while he hummed. “You want to screw this up?” Dave growled.
Alexander removed the string of floss. “That was some big time show,” he said, sniffing the floss, then laying it on the knee of his white jeans. “I heard everything. When you going to ask for the money?” His cheeks and pupils glowed.
“Soon as he comes out of the toilet,” Dave said, and started to shut the door, but Alexander said, “Wait.” He took out something from his jacket pocket. “Try this.”
Dave beheld a slim bottle of Stolichnaya, Applik Flavor. His stomach felt loose, hollow. “How much did you drink already?”
“Nothing,” Alexander assured him. “Take some. It will give you strength to act like a man.”
“Yeah, like you, right?” Dave muttered, and stuck his head back into the room just as the toilet flushed. Sol emerged a minute later, rubbing lotion onto his hands. “So how much you want for your whatchamacallit?” Sol snapped his fingers. “Your Kabbalah center.”
Sensing Sol was in a combative mood, Dave said, “A hundred and fifty thousand,” upping it by thirty. Sol would feel better then when he bargained Dave down.
The humming sound intensified outside the door.
“What’s that?” Sol asked.
“A waiter, maybe,” Dave said. “Nobody.”
“What kind of number is $150,000? What can you buy with that? Nothing.” Sol made a harsh, dismissive motion.
“Well, we’re going to rent a place first,” Dave said quickly. “We’re just putting our numbers together, figuring out if it makes sense to test the location before actually building.” It didn’t sound like a bad idea.
“Wait a minute.” Sol held up a skinny palm like a Stop sign. “Who’s the We?”
Crap. “Uh, I’m developing this with someone else, a—“ he groped, “a rabbi.”
“I hate rabbis,” Sol snapped.
“This one’s different, he’s like the,” Dave paused, his eyes darting “the anti-rabbi, yeah, not like all the other lousy rabbis out there.”
Now the humming had morphed into a song about Leningrad. Oh God, Dave groaned.
“What’s that now?” Sol asked, his turkey neck jiggling a little.
“Forget it,” Dave said so sharply, Sol’s eyes widened.
“No, maybe it’s a waiter bringing the apple sauce I ordered.” He went toward the door, pushing past his suitcase to open it before Dave could stop him. Alexander got to his feet in the hallway, doughy-faced, red cheeked like a girl, eyes blinking, one jacket pocket bulging with a bottle.
“Who’s this?” Sol asked as Alexander stepped in and looked around, wafting Aqua Velva and vodka.
“My, uh, partner,” Dave stuttered, extending his arm, “the rabbi. Rabbi Alexander.”
Alexander folded his arms over his black T-shirt. “Let me say hello and introduce myself,” he said, his voice loud and slurry. “First off, let me say, my partner made a mistake. We’re asking for five hundred thousand.” He paused to tuck his belly overhang into his jeans. “Like you said so smartly, a hundred fifty is too small.”
Dave’s armpits went wet.
Sol looked Alexander up and down in his tight white jeans and black T-shirt. “This is not a rabbi,” he declared.
“See, didn’t I tell you he’s not your regular rabbi?” Dave offered weakly.
“What is all this rabbi gavno?” Alexander said, his vodka breath spraying over Dave, over everything, all their careful plans.
“My partner isn’t feeling well,” Dave tried to explain, and he put his arm around Alexander to lead him out the door, but Alexander shrugged him off and swaggered over to Sol.
“I don’t know what your friend Dave here is telling you, but he’s a mixed-up boy. What you need to do is write a check for a million dollars,” he said, bringing his pink forehead so close to Sol’s they nearly touched, “and together we’re going to the bank. Forget that $150,000 or even five hundred.” Alexander glared at Dave who all but clopped his forehead, stunned by his partner’s recklessness. “Always my friend, he doesn’t think so clear,” Alexander finished.
Imbecile, Dave screamed inside. Drunk maniac.
Sol’s tanned scalp drained of color. His mouth flapped open and shut. His pupils dilated. “A crook!” Sol said. “A ganif!” He turned his shocked eyes on Dave. “You too?”
Dave refused to be drawn in by those destroyed eyes. He shook his head vehemently. “I’m no crook.”
“So it was all a trick?” Sol wrung his handkerchief. “You and me—the things we told each other, all the time we spent together—just some way to steal money from me?”
Dave hung his head, felt a flash of embarrassment, a singeing horrible feeling. “You’re looking at it the wrong way.”
“A trick!” Sol spat out in disbelief. “A grubmeister’s trick!”
“Come on, Sol.” An impatience quickened inside Dave. “I don’t like to put a dollar amount on a spiritual experience, but I’d say” he cleared his throat “you got your money’s worth.” Sol was staring at him with those eyes, that monster nose, his scrawny neck. God, so ugly, and yet the old guy had reached him.
“A girl agrees to go on a date, and you think now you can force yourself on her?” Sol’s chin was shaking. “Shvantzt!”
“Enough gavno!” Alexander bellowed. “Where’s your check book?”
At this Sol raised his fist but Alexander caught it and shoved the old man flat, hard against the wall. “I’ll knock off your ugly beak if you make any noise.”
Dave’s throat went dry as ash. This was something new, terrible. “Leave him alone,” he hissed, and yanked Alexander’s arm, but his partner roughly flung him off, and his bottle of vodka slipped from his pocket. It banged against Dave’s shin.
“Moron,” Dave moaned, bending to rub his leg. “Psychopath. Why did you have to barge in here?” He stared at the bottle of Stoli lying on its side, dripping onto his shoe, then into the floral carpet.
“Because you’re a stupid coward,” Alexander shot back.
“Police,” Sol shouted, finding his voice, “Po—“
Alexander rammed his fist into the old man’s mouth just as the bathroom door sprang open. Two men, one bald and square-headed, one black-haired with meaty thighs, filled the doorway, then lurched forward, as though discharged from a canon. Dave gaped. What in hell were they doing here, he wondered even as he saw the square-headed guard seize Alexander by the shoulders, saw Alexander struggle for a second, saw Square Head’s fist hit the Bull of Alexander’s T-shirt, saw Alexander smile in stunned pain.
Quick movements, hard movements! A violent shock as a guard—he couldn’t tell who—clamped Dave’s wrists with handcuffs. “Hey!” Dave said. The cuffs burned into him. “Hey!” I’m not the bad guy, he almost shouted. He stared over at Sol standing beside his suitcase, rubbing his jaw. An acrid taste rose up in Dave’s larynx. “The guards were there while we talked the whole time?” he said in wounded disbelief.
Sol shrugged. “Plan B.”
The guard with the thatch of black hair was staring pointedly at Dave’s pants, smirking, and Dave gazed down at the wet splotch the Stoli had made. It looked like he’d peed.
And Sol retrieving his thousand dollar shoes from under the coffee table.
“How can you let them do this?” Dave cried. “After all I gave you, I shouldn’t ask for a little something for myself?”
Sol just shoved his feet into his shoes.
“Sol,” he pleaded. “I shielded you from Alexander. And now you’re letting them do this to me?”
“Maybe,” Sol said, “you should pray harder.”
The next day, in prison, Alexander was visited by his mother who brought potato blintzes in foil. None for Dave. It didn’t seem fair that he should be charged, same as Alexander, when he was nothing like that animal. He hadn’t rammed a fist into Sol’s mouth, he hadn’t threatened Sol. A little lie here and there, so what? Everyone played with the truth. He’d even defended the old geezer. But there it was. This whole country had it in for him.
He paced the tiny cell he shared with fifteen other men awaiting trial. Burglars, rapists, drug dealers. He balled a loose scrap of paper until it got spitball size. God, why have You forsaken me? He hurled the spitball at the pocked prison wall, and the spitball hit him back in the forehead. He stood there, rubbing the spot. For a moment Dave considered calling the acrobat rabbi, the only person who’d ever wept for him, but he couldn’t, for the life of him, recall his name.
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