slow encroaches onto sidewalk

Winter’s Firelight

“Where do you want these boxes, boss?” Alex, the young deliveryman asked.

“Here, in the corner. Yes, yes, that will be fine,” Sol instructed him, gesturing towards an empty corner near the canned goods aisle. He had been that strong once, he recalled, watching Alex lift the heavy boxes with ease.

And it was a cold December day, raw and windy. They said snow was coming. Sol noticed approvingly that Alex was wearing gloves—the thick industrial workman’s kind.  He looked across the street and saw two men smoking against a brick wall, momentarily unable to distinguish the smoke of their breath from their smoke of their cigarette.  But then, Sol thought, wasn’t that one of the pleasures of smoking—to mix the two together? Sol had never been a smoker. Just never took to it.

After the boxes were stacked in the corner, Sol shook Alex’s hand and pressed some bills into his palm. The deliveryman’s eyes widened, and he said, “Wow! You don’t have to. Thanks so much, Mr. R.”

That was what Alex and others he interacted with in his grocery store called him. Rumshevitz was too difficult for them to say. Several times, Sol tried to pronounce it out for them: Rum-sheh-vitz. But when they repeated it, he could hear that they hadn’t got it quite right.  Since he didn’t want them to feel awkward or inadequate, Sol ceased the pronunciation lessons.  Instead, he told them to call him “Sol.” Imagine them trying his Jewish name: Shloyme—that would have been too much. He hadn’t even tried that one. Sol was easy; anyone could say “Sol.” And yet somehow it was Mr. R. that stuck.

Was he not supposed to have tipped Alex so much? Or not at all? Judging by Alex’s surprise, probably the latter.

After all, he worked as a salaried deliveryman for a distributor. He couldn’t possibly depend on tips. Or could he? Sometimes, Sol struggled to remember all the customs (or were they rules?) of his new home, which wasn’t really new at all. He should double check with his friend, Arnold Kestenberg. Now there was a man of the world! He would know, for sure. True, Arnold was busy with his business and the synagogue he founded. Either way, Alex wasn’t getting rich as a deliveryman, and every little bit helped. Sol wasn’t so far from being a struggling young man himself. He always appreciated the help of others.

Sol certainly wasn’t young anymore, but, well … he and Rochelle were still struggling. Sol wasn’t comfortable admitting that. Certainly, both he and Rochelle worked hard to keep any signs of that from showing in the store. It was always kept tidy, freshly swept and scrubbed. And Henny, their fifteen-year old daughter, apple of Sol’s eye, was always there to help in any way she could. But month to month, Sol was never sure if he was going to be able to meet the landlord’s check for both the store and their apartment next door. Plus pay all his suppliers to keep the shelves stocked. Plus … plus … . Sol never let the stress show. Everything would work out; it always did. Besides, he wouldn’t want Henny to worry. Rochelle worried enough for both of them. More than enough. And more than for just the both of them.

“Anything the matter, Papa?” Henny asked, putting her arms around Sol’s thickening waist.

“Everything’s just fine, ziskayt.” Sol said, giving his daughter a kiss, before they both began to unload the shipment. And so it was.

The snow did come. With a vengeance. There was over a foot and a half of snow outside. Sol trudged down the stairs to shovel the snow himself. He probably shouldn’t—with his bad back, etc. and at his age—but he couldn’t stop himself.  ‘Why don’t you ask the boy across the street? Charles? Yes, Charles,” Rochelle asked, no, pleaded with him. But Charles wasn’t really reliable—sometimes he’d help and sometimes he wouldn’t. And Charles wasn’t always thorough, either. Sol often found a thin coat of ice or snow remaining on the path after Charles’ shoveling. So Sol didn’t ask him. Maybe there was someone at their synagogue he could’ve asked. He should ask Sol about that, too—before the next blizzard.

And it was snow of the heavy and wet variety. And piled up in drifts in front of the grocery store, it looked daunting indeed. I’ve got to start somewhere, he thought, bending down. One shovelful, two shovelfuls …A half-hour or so later, there was a clear path to the store.  Despite the cold, Sol could feel the sweat dripping down his sides. He looked up. The sun was beginning to emerge.

It would be a while before the streets were cleared, but people still needed the basics. And that’s where Sol came in. The neighborhood customers knew they could depend on Sol to be open. When wasn’t he open? Only on the Sabbath and the holidays. Sol was dependable that way. He had to be. It was dependability that kept his customers loyal.

Sol stamped and then wiped his feet on the mat inside the grocery store door. Even though the furnace supplied ample heat, Sol momentarily longed for the warmth of a fire in a fireplace. He could hear its crackling, the flames dancing up from the logs. The Rumshevitz family would be surrounded nearby. Rochelle would be knitting, while Henny would be reading one of her fan magazines about movie stars and popular singers. He saw images like that in magazines, maybe even in one of Henny’s own magazines. Probably even one of the movie stars and the popular singers themselves at the fireplaces in their own grand living rooms. He even saw them on billboards, the warmth magnified over the highway, hovering out of reach.

But surely a fireplace could be attained. What was it, after all, but a pile of carefully constructed stones or bricks? It wasn’t a yacht or a private island or rare gemstones. Sol had no interest in any of that.

But Sol realized he probably would never have a fire like that in his home or, of course, in his business. Neither was equipped to have one. And they weren’t relocating any time soon. And that would have to be fine. Rochelle would’ve smiled, just short of mockingly, at him—she would’ve been happy simply to have their business turn a profit—and here was Sol dreaming of a fireplace! She wouldn’t have mocked or even at laughed at him. But she would’ve smiled. Sol knew better than to share his fireplace fantasy with her.

Sol placed a rag around the shovel to prevent the slush from dripping onto the polished tiles of the store. Henny had mopped them last night. He then wiped the slush from his boots and lifted each foot for inspection. Good. Satisfied that he wouldn’t be tracking up the store, Sol brought the shovel to the room at the back, where he placed it near the mop and broom and such. The room was tidy here, too. Henny was thorough. Unlike Charles. Still, he would never ask a young girl, let alone his daughter, to shovel snow. Sol just wouldn’t do that. He switched on all the lights of the store and returned to the front store. He turned the sign hanging by the door window from “closed” to “open,” turned on the lights, and began his workday.

“Good morning, Mr. R.,” said a familiar voice. Sol looked up from his inventory, and was startled to see Alex in front of him.  Only he wasn’t in his delivery uniform.

“Good morning, Alex,” he said, “How was the blizzard near you?”

“Not too bad, not too bad,” Alex replied.

“Did you need some supplies to ride out the storm?” he asked. Clearly, the man was there for some reason. You didn’t venture out in weather like this without a good reason.

“No, I’m good. I’m good,” and then seeing Sol’s expectant gaze, he said, “Hey listen, Mr. R., I’m sorry to bother you. I hate to ask this, and I hope you won’t take it the wrong way. But you’ve always been so good to me. And I just didn’t have anyone else to turn to.”

“Well, what is it, Alex?” Sol asked, hoping a note of impatience hadn’t crept into his voice, although he was feeling more than a note of it. He really did have to get back to this inventory. He wanted to take advantage of what he presumed would be less customer traffic today.

“It’s this, Mr. R. Could you loan me money? I need it for—”

Sol held up his hand and said, “Alex, you don’t have to tell me what it’s for.” He really didn’t want to know. He didn’t think Alex was on drugs, but you couldn’t always tell. Clearly, the young man was in some kind of bind. If it was for something shady or illegal, it was best he didn’t know. But Sol couldn’t refuse him. “Of course, I’ll help you out,” he said.

“A thousand!” Sol exclaimed, his eyes widening as Alex told him how much he needed. That was a lot of money. Was he crazy? Was he naïve? Was he being swindled by this fellow? Maybe all of the above, Sol thought, getting out his checkbook.

Alex hugged him across the counter, each of the men leaning awkwardly in, and said, “I promise I’ll pay you the money back in installments.”

“Don’t worry. I trust you,” Sol said, waving to Alex’s already retreating form and returning to the inventory. But did he? He must have, at some level, or he wouldn’t have given him the money. He could’ve refused. Was he just soft, as Rochelle had suggested on numerous occasions?

A few minutes later, the first paying (!) patrons of the day arrived. A woman bought a loaf of whole wheat bread, some peanut butter, and a quart of milk. Good. Income was being generated.

What had really happened with Alex? What had he done?

Those were the very questions that Rochelle put to him several days later after he came home from evening services at Congregation Haverim Ahuvim. Darn, he’d forgotten to ask Arnold if he knew someone reliable to shovel his snow, he realized. And what else was he supposed to have asked Arnold about? Oh yes, tipping a salaried delivery man. Well, he didn’t have to worry about that anymore. Boy, had he tipped Alex! Enough to last the rest of his working life. But it was just a loan, Sol had to remind himself.

How did Rochelle find out? She must have gone through the books. It wouldn’t have been that hard, even though Rochelle usually left the books to Sol. There it was in black and white for all to see: Alex X, $1,000.00. He wasn’t trying to hide it from her or anyone else.

“I want to know what happened that day? What have you done to us? Did this Alex force you to do it? Should we call the police?” she practically shouted at him. Rochelle never raised her voice to Sol or Henny or anyone.

“Of course not. I gave it to him. He’s a nice young man who needed a loan. There’s nothing more to it than that,” Sol said.

“You gave our hard-earned money to someone, practically a stranger off the street?! What do you know about this man? What do you know about his dealings? Do you even know what he needed the money for?” she said.

“I know he’s a hard-working young man who needed money. I trust him,” Sol said simply but firmly.

“Trust?!” Rochelle laughed bitterly, as if decades of pent-up dissatisfaction could no longer be contained. “You gave a thousand dollars to someone you barely know, while we toil away in this, this … dump and can barely make ends meet,” she continued.

So that’s what she thinks of our store, Sol thought bitterly but refrained from blurting out. It would only make things worse. He thought Rochelle was going to burst into tears, but instead Rochelle just sat at the kitchen table and shook back and forth, as if she were in the women’s section at Haverim Ahuvim, praying for answers from God above since none were forthcoming here on earth. He wanted to reach out to her, but couldn’t. Instead, he stood across from her and stared. He wondered if Rochelle would have acted the same way if Alex were Jewish. Hard to say, but probably not. Sol wasn’t feeling particularly generous at that moment. Here he was being more charitable to a deliveryman than his wife! Something else for his wife to hold against him.

Alerted by the commotion, Henny entered the room and put her arms around her mother, as she’d done with Sol himself only a few days. She helped Rochelle rise from the chair, or rather, she pulled her mother out of the chair, making unintelligible, soothing sounds all the while. The two walked together to the small guest room between Henny’s and their rooms. So that’s where Rochelle would be sleeping tonight. Where other wives sent their husbands to the sofa when they wanted, Rochelle simply withdrew to the guest room. Sol could hear the murmuring voices of his wife and daughter.

Sol went out to the store to see if anything needed to be done for the next day. Might as well make myself useful somehow, he thought. The snow was still piled in drifts along the curb and buildings. Not for the first time did Sol wish their apartment were above the store, rather than a few doors away. Even this short distance, he still had to put on his winter coat, hat, mittens, and boots. He didn’t want to risk catching a cold or bronchitis or falling on the pavement, even if it was mostly clear of snow and ice.

Henny saved the day again. She invited Sol’s younger brother Bernie and his wife Malkah over for tea. Henny always came through. Somehow Rochelle emerged from the guestroom, and she and Henny prepared the tea and refreshments together.

The tea went very well. Rochelle used the best china set—the ones with the pink rose and green leaf border and slim ring of gold. Rochelle always perked up around Bernie. And Malkah wasn’t really all that much older than Henny. Malkah and Henny loved to talk about the pictures and the pop music hits. In her excitement at the company of the guests, Henny reached for some of the chocolate bon-bons that Malkah brought. She had a sweet tooth, his sweet one. She’d have to watch it. Not that it showed … well, not that much. But Henny would have to be careful.

Bernie came to visit more often with a wife than he had as a bachelor. Maybe it felt more natural to come with a wife. And he seemed to be doing well at the shoe store. Sol had wanted Bernie to join them in the grocery store. “We could call it Rumshevits Bros.” he’d always liked that abbreviation—“Bros.” But Bernie would have none of it.

For years, Bernie was a bit of a shady character, hanging around pool walls and the race track. God knows what he’d gotten himself into. Sol heard rumors of “numbers running” and “bookie” in reference to Bernie.

Not that he knew what those words meant, and he didn’t want to find out. Bernie was even attending services more regularly at Haverim Ahuvim, now that he was married. But Malkah was talking about moving to a different neighborhood, and Sol was worried he wouldn’t be going to services there at all. He hoped Malkah was going to keep Bernie on the “straight and narrow.” She didn’t seem to want any trouble.  She would make Bernie an upright citizen in a way that Sol himself hadn’t been able to.

Bernie was Sol’s “baby” brother. Sol felt he needed to look out for him, just as he did when they came on the boat together when Sol was sixteen and Bernie was six. Their father had arrived years before and sent them in the company of Tante Tsilye. Their mother died years before, and Tsilye raised them. Their father never told them the cause. But Bernie was always restless and troubled, getting into trouble at school and who knows where else. Bernie wouldn’t work at a grocery store. Was a shoe store that much better? Well, it was somewhere away from his older brother, in any case. And, for Bernie, that seemed to be enough.

“Thank you so much for coming,” Rochelle said, warmly embracing and kissing both Malkah and then Bernie as they rose to leave. What had they talked about during tea? Sol realized he’d been so wrapped up in his thoughts that he hadn’t interacted with the guests. He doubted anyone minded or even noticed. After Bernie and Malkah left, Rochelle began humming a tune, and she and Henny cleared away the tea things.

Rochelle always did enjoy Bernie’s company, Sol thought again. She seemed more alive, more herself, he noticed, watching Rochelle move about the apartment. Sol tried to remember if that had always been the case. Maybe she thought she’d married the wrong brother. With his shady underworld past, maybe Bernie was the one who secretly, or not so secretly, appealed to Rochelle. Did she find Sol’s calmness unexciting in comparison? Well, Sol sometimes wanted some excitement, too, but someone had to be steady at the helm.

Of course, maybe it was the fact that Rochelle wanted more children. Henny arrived to both of them late in life when they hadn’t been “expecting” her. They were both been past forty when Henny was born. And then suddenly, Rochelle wanted another one, given the miracle of Henny. She got desperate, greedy. “A sister, a brother. It doesn’t matter,” Rochelle said. But the doctors absolutely forbade Rochelle from having any more children. Even giving birth to Henny had been a risk. The second opinion was as firm as the first. Sol never tried to convince Rochelle to be content with Henny, as he was. He shouldn’t have to. The gift of Henny was self-evident.

And then of course, there was the store, and their livelihood. Ever tenuous, never givens. They wouldn’t discuss what happened—their argument and the loan that precipitated it and the guest room crisis that followed. Sol knew that. Rochelle didn’t “discuss” things or emote at all.  That was why her outburst was such a shock. Rochelle was a stoic.  Except in the rarest of circumstances, Rochelle just didn’t complain.

Sol slipped away as Henny and Rochelle appeared to be finishing up the cleaning. He knew he should have offered to help. He should have just pitched in, especially given the recent quarrel. But the kettle and the cups and saucers were already put away. Rochelle’s chocolate chip cookies, eclipsed by the box of bon-bons that Malkah brought, were still on the coffee table before the sofa. Sol swiped one for himself. He had a sweet tooth, too, he reminded himself, not for the first time. Sol put on his coat, hat, and gloves, and then rubbers over his shoes. Most of the snow from the recent blizzard was melted by now. He looked out the window to confirm what he already knew. Sol knew he could make it the few doors to the store without his boots.

He unlocked the front door of the store. Being in the store after hours was always a pleasurable time for him. Sol didn’t have to be concerned about how many customers walked through the door or how much sales income they’d generated. He could enjoy the quiet. He could enjoy what his family built, however tenuous it seemed. It was theirs … for now.

After glancing around the store, Sol went to the checkout counter. Was that a stain near the register? The counter had to be clean at all times. That was where customers placed their goods. That was where they stood waiting for their transactions to be completed. The counter was really the first and last spot of the store the customer faced. Sol reached for the all-purpose cleanser just below it and sprayed the counter. As he was bending down to put the cleanser away, something under the door caught his eye.

Sol walked to the door and bent down to pick it up. It was an envelope addressed to Mr. R. He opened it slowly, careful to avoid tearing the envelope’s contents. Inside were two one hundred dollar bills with a note written in a precise hand. “To Mr. R. Thanks, A.” Sol read aloud.

A smile spread across Sol’s face. He allowed himself that, although he couldn’t help but think Alex should have handed it to him personally. It could have been stolen or stepped on … or just blown away in the wind.

What would he do with this money? It was his, after all, but somehow it felt like a gift. He’d put most of it away for Henny. He’d make a donation to Congregation Haverim Ahuvim. He felt somewhat remiss about not volunteering as much of late. He reminded himself that he needed to get back into the synagogue swing of things in the spring when the weather got warmer. He knew Arnold and his wife Myrna would appreciate the thought behind the donation, even if they didn’t exactly “need” the small amount of cash. He would buy a flowering houseplant for Rochelle.

And then, he thought, I’ll put some of the money away for a fireplace, one with a mantle for family photos and a hearth wide enough for plenty of kindling. As he left the counter, Sol could hear the crackling flames and feel his toes ease and expand in warmth. And there was Henny reading tidbits from her gossip magazines aloud to Rochelle. Their faces were bathed in the glow that was both bright and wintry at once. Only a fireplace fire could produce such a light. Of that, Sol was certain. No matter that the apartment building couldn’t structurally handle a real fireplace. Maybe he could have a fireplace with a stove of some kind in it installed in the living room. They had all kinds of options nowadays.

Sol locked the front door and made his way to his home. It wouldn’t be a lot, this bit of money he planned to set aside. But it would be a start. As he continued walking, Sol felt himself slip. Fortunately, he was close to the brick wall of the store and steadied himself by reaching out to the wall. Just in the nick of the time.

Not so fast. Better not get ahead of myself, Sol thought.