by Noa נעה
Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Cultural · #1564600
A Holocaust survivor learns a lesson in victimhood.
|“Just coffee, understand? A guy comes in and asks for a drink, he wants coffee. He doesn’t want anything but coffee, because that’s all we serve here.”|
Moshe scowled. “What if the customer really doesn’t want coffee?” he asked. “What if he is confused-,”
“-Then you tell him to get his ass of out of my coffeehouse.”
Moshe blinked. “But,” he said slowly, scratching the back of his head. “But that would not be very-,”
“-Very what?” his new boss snapped. “Very hospitable?” He laughed and dumped a bag of imported coffee beans into a large box. It was an early morning in Tel Aviv and the doors to the coffeehouse would open in a few short minutes. Then they would get very busy, because people needed their coffee. “I do not run my business on hospitality, Moshe—what is your last name?”
Moshe rolled his eyes. “Levy,” he said. “How many times do I have to tell you that? It’s a miracle you remember me at all.”
“You better be thankful I forgot a thing or two you’ve done,” Moshe’s boss snapped back as he started to brew a fresh pot. Moshe scowled.
“Yeah, yeah,” he said, checking the milk supply.
Suddenly, a knock at the door. Moshe’s boss let out a low cussword and growled. “Five minutes!” he cried, exasperated. “Can’t they wait for five minutes?” He ambled towards the door. “I’m telling you, I’m sick of this. I say we open at five, and we open at five. Not at four forty five, not at four fifty—FIVE o’clock! God help me, some day I am going to lose my mind, I’m telling you…”
He crossed the store and opened the door loudly. Moshe shook his head and pitied the pour soul who had dared to knock
“We’re not open,” his boss said loudly. “See that sign? Five o’clock. Come back when it’s five o’clock.”
The one who knocked was young—he could not have been more than twenty, and Moshe thought he looked ill. He wondered if he was a veteran from the War for Independence, and thought perhaps he was still recovering from his wounds. There was no other explanation for how thin he was.
“I did not come to buy coffee,” said the boy, his words heavily accented. Moshe wondered where he was from. Poland, he thought, perhaps, or the Soviet Union. There were many immigrants from Europe and it was hard to tell them apart. The boy did not look at Moshe’s boss as he spoke. He stared at the sandy ground and one thin hand stroked his opposite arm, which was no thicker than a stick.
“What are you here for, then?” Moshe’s boss demanded. “Why are you disturbing us? Can’t you see we’re trying to get ready?”
The boy bit his lip and Moshe thought he looked like he was going to cry. “I need a job,” he said softly. “Washing dishes, or sweeping the floor, or even working the exchange, if you want. But I need work, and I was hoping you…” He trailed off rather pathetically.
Moshe’s boss chuckled. “This is why you have bothered me?” he asked, folding his arms over his chest. “You want me to employ you?”
“Please,” said the boy, still not looking up. “I am a hard worker.”
Moshe narrowed his eyes a little and watched his boss carefully. “You will wash dishes?” he asked. The boy nodded. Moshe’s boss let out a scoffing laugh. “Yeah? Why not. Sure, boy. You’re hired. You got a name?”
“Jakob,” said the boy, his eyes wide with relief as he looked up. “Thank you, sir! I will work hard, I swear—I will do anything you ask.”
Moshe’s boss laughed. “Just do your job,” he said. “Go on. The sink’s behind the register, in the back room. We open in five minutes. You better be ready then, you understand?”
Jakob nodded and nearly ran into the back room. Moshe watched him pass, and then met his boss’s gaze.
“I don’t get these Europeans,” he muttered, unlocking the door. “I guess we’re ready to open, huh?”
The first customers promptly entered the shop, purchasing their usual drinks as the morning went on. It was a warm and sunny day, and they were busy. In a moment of temporary respite, Moshe set down the latest money he’d received for a drink and wandered back to the back room to check on Jakob and his dishwashing. The boy seemed to be working at a highly regimented pace and was as good a worker as he’d promised to be.
“Hey,” said Moshe, watching his young co-worker furiously scrub a mug. “You doing good back here? Any questions about taking breaks?”
Jakob didn’t look up. “I don’t need a break,” he said softly.
Moshe laughed once. “Come on,” he said skeptically. “You are entitled to a fifteen minute break after two hours. Take it. Get some fresh air, yeah? Some Arabs down the street sell the best hommous in the country, I swear.”
“I don’t need a break,” said Jakob again.
Moshe frowned. “Where are you from?” he asked. “Do they not rest where you’re from, or something?”
Jakob looked up quickly and then shook his head. “Poland,” he said. “But not the same Poland.”
Moshe blinked. “What Poland are you from?” he asked, very confused. “There’s just one Poland. I would know—my mother’s half-Polish.”
Jakob sniffed and wiped his nose. “The Poland before the war,” he replied. “That’s the Poland I am from. Not the Poland that is there now. I don’t know that Poland. That is not my country.”
Moshe had always hated philosophy. “Yeah,” he said, clearing his throat. “Well, now Israel is a real country, right? So there are no worries-,”
“-Not that war,” said Jakob, looking up. “The other war. The World War.”
“Oh,” said Moshe, blinking. “That war.”
A pause. Someone shouted loudly for service and Moshe swore quickly and hurried out back to the storefront. Hours passed. The day grew darker and soon it was time to close. Moshe’s boss left for home and ordered his employees to close up and lock the doors.
An hour later, Moshe journeyed back into the back room. “Come on,” he said briskly. “Time to go, yeah? You’re done. Good job. You stop working now.”
Jakob did not stop.
Moshe frowned. “Stop,” he said. “Come on, Jakob. You’re done. Let’s go. I have to get some sleep tonight.”
Jakob looked up, and to Moshe’s shock he saw tears glittering in the boy’s eyes. “Maybe I should take out the garbage,” he suggested, voice thin and wavering. “Right? That is my job, too, isn’t it?”
Moshe snorted. “No,” he assured him, putting an arm around the boy’s shoulders and steering him out of the room. “Come on. You have family to get back to tonight, yes? Friends? A girl?” He winked. Jakob hung his head.
“No,” he said softly. “No one.” His shoulders began to shake. “There is no one waiting for me.”
Moshe was horrified. “Hey,” he said sharply, pulling away and looking at the kid in alarm. “Stop that—don’t cry. What is wrong with you?”
Jakob continued to weep, sinking down into a chair and rested his head on his hand. Moshe gaped, looking all around him as if afraid of witnesses. He ran a hand through his black curls and cleared his throat.
“Stop,” he tried again, but the kid continued to cry. “Good Lord-,” Moshe lowered a tentative hand to touch Jakob’s shoulder. “Get a hold of yourself, kid! Come on. What are you doing?”
Jakob lifted a tear-streaked face. “There is no one waiting for me!” he wailed. Moshe gave him a look.
“So what?” he snapped. “Go find some girl at a bar-,”
“-No one!” Jakob cried out, his voice shrill, his dark eyes red and glittering. “They’re all dead! Don’t you understand?” His voice broke and Moshe sank down in an opposite chair, still in a horrified kind of shock at seeing anyone cry for no comprehendible reason. “I told you I was from Poland—haven’t you heard of Hitler? Of the Nazis? You are a Jew, aren’t you?” he demanded.
Moshe was offended. “Of course I am a Jew,” he said indignantly. “What do I look like, a Muslim?” He scowled. “Why are you crying like a baby?”
“BECAUSE I MISS THEM!” Jakob shouted, fresh tears leaving his eyes. “Why can nobody understand? I come to Israel because I thought, here they will understand. Here people will help me and empathize me and understand me. Here people will know what happens at night when I cannot sleep, and they will know the faces I see when I close my eyes, and they will smell the smoke and taste the bread, and always be hungry-,” He broke off suddenly, overcome with fresh sobs. Moshe looked at him in disgust.
“You came to the wrong country,” he said lowly. “The last thing the Jewish people need are weak Jews. Be strong. You were led like sheep to slaughter, and you were slaughtered because you were weak.”
Jakob looked at him, furious shock twisting his face. “What-,”
“-Weak!” Moshe spat again. “Okay? The Jews in Europe were weak and were not armed, they could fight…They let their children be taken and their wives be branded, and they did not fight back-,”
“-We couldn’t fight back!” Jakob shouted, his hands curling into fists. “They had guns! They came at night! They shot our wives and they gassed our children!” Moshe rolled his eyes.
“Because you were weak!” he insisted. “You LET them-,”
“-YOU SON OF A BITCH!” Jakob screamed, jumping up from his seat and punching Moshe in the face. “I watched my father get killed in front of me! I held my brother’s hand as he was led to the gas chambers! I stole bread from my family because I WAS HUNGRY! I let others die because I was STARVING! You think I’m weak?” Moshe held a hand to his bleeding mouth and his eyes narrowed. “I AM WEAK!” Jakob cried, more tears falling. “Why can’t anybody understand?” He dropped to his knees, covering his face with his hands.
Moshe spat out blood. “We understand,” he said, voice low. “We understand, and we get it.” He crouched down. “But look—every tear you cry gives them victory, you understand? Their triumph is in your anguish—look at me! You want to honor your family? Stand up. Stop crying. Come to work tomorrow and take the breaks you’re entitled to take.”
Jakob shook his head. “If I do not work, I remember,” he said softly.
“Then remember!” Moshe said, throwing his hands up in the air in exasperation. “For God’s sakes, remember everything! You think working ‘til your hands bleed is going to help anyone? No. You’ll just get blood on the dishes.”
A moment. Jakob lowered his shaking hands from his face and slowly turned his head to look at Moshe. “I am not strong like you,” he said.
Moshe laughed. “You are a Jew,” he said. “You are the strongest man in the world.” He held out a hand to help the boy up. “No more crying. It’s a nice night—Israeli nights are the best nights in the world.”
He led the boy out of the shop and then carefully locked the door as he turned out the light. It was indeed a beautiful night and the Tel Aviv streets were alive with loud music and bustling bars.
“Wipe your eyes,” Moshe said firmly, waiting for Jakob to obey. The boy did. “Good,” said Moshe. “Come on. I will buy you a drink, yes? And you can dance with all the pretty girls until it is morning…”
Jakob frowned a little. “We have to work tomorrow morning,” he pointed out. Moshe laughed.
“We work in a coffeehouse!” he joked. “We do not need sleep to be awake…”
And like shadows, they disappeared into a dark, tumultuous night. Laughs hid demons that rotted like sabras under a merciless sun.