By Keith Bloomfield © 2008
(An excerpt from the novel "A Guest at the Table")
Neither Ralph nor Helen remembered whose idea it had been to leave Morris' clothing shop and move out to Ohio to open their own store. Morris counseled against it, but Ralph and Helen were resigned to doing something on their own. Ever since Morris had first hired Ralph to work in his shop, back when the nation was on the brink of world war, he treated him like a little brother, despite the fact that Ralph was, at least chronologically, seven years his senior.
Ralph and Helen knew no one in Ohio. They had chosen Cleveland after scrutinizing a large stack of telephone books, searching for a city in need of the kind of clothing store that he had helped Morris to build. They drove west in a DeSoto, ate on the road, and slept in the car to save money. They found an empty store in a blue-collar neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. An apartment near the store was easy to locate, and the Weinsteins were ready to start a new life.
Their first few months in town were a lonely time for them. They lived off their savings in a neighborhood that did not welcome strangers - especially Jews. They never wore their religion outwardly, but they were certain the neighbors knew.
When they walked from their apartment to the store, they watched the women chatting with each other, heads thrust out of their windows, lost in animated debate about the topic of the moment, aprons flapping in the wind and elbows resting on well-worn windowsills. In Brooklyn, the Bronx, or Lower Manhattan, they would simply be the neighborhood "yentas." Everyone knew about them, and no one particularly cared. In Ralph and Helen's new neighborhood, everyone cared about what Mrs. Reilly and Mrs. Stanko thought. Their thoughts too often turned to Ralph and Helen. They were the strangers in town who spoke to few, and never made an appearance in church, or ate in the local restaurants. There was something different about them. They were like no one else on the block. When they passed beneath their windows, all conversation stopped. Ralph and Helen could feel their neighbors' eyes glare down at them and follow them along the uneven sidewalk until they disappeared from sight, by either walking down along the avenue or turning the corner at the end of the block.
Morris had agreed to use his contacts to arrange for goods for Ralph's fledgling business. When the store was ready, two large trucks filled with menswear pulled up in front of the shop. Ralph supervised the unloading and Helen made note of every item that rolled through the door.
"Morris knows his stock," declared Ralph.
"He always knows what's going to move," noted Helen.
What neither of them suspected, was that Morris had forwarded them merchandise that neither he, nor his vendors could sell. Morris hoped that pawning it off on Ralph would cut some of his losses. Ralph and Helen saw it as "manna from heaven," a divine gift to them as they wandered through this new wilderness.
Instead of "Weinstein's" they had decided to name the store "Winston's." Helen thought it sounded "continental." Ralph merely wanted a name that sounded less Jewish. They opened just before Thanksgiving, so they could make a name for themselves and cash in on the holiday business. The plan worked and they needed to hire another cashier and salesperson to handle the crowds. After the opening, Mrs. Stanko and Mr. Reilly waved at them as they passed beneath their windows.
Morris was excited when Ralph called him with the news. "I'll send more goods. What do you need?" Ralph carefully explained what he had learned about local tastes and Morris converted it into new stock. "I'll send a truckload to you week after next. You'll still be in time for the Holidays."
"It's a machiah," exclaimed Helen, "We are more blessed than I ever thought we could be and to have a friend like Morris is more than we could have ever hoped."
The truck arrived right on time, but unloading it was more than Morris and his sales clerk could handle on their own. His cashier, Maria, suggested that Ralph hire her cousin Petrov who had changed his name to Peter when he arrived in America the previous year. "He's very big and strong," gestured the cashier. She explained that he had worked in the Shkval Shipyard at Polyarny in Russia until they stopped building ships and retooled to maintain the Russian fleet. "Now he lives with us, and picks up odd jobs." Ralph agreed to meet with him.
It was midmorning and the store was empty. A bright, low hanging sun shone through the front door. The display windows illuminated everything and cast long parallel shadows across the slats of the wooden floor. Ralph looked up from his ledger when he heard the sound of the front door close. The huge silhouette of a man dominated the doorway. Fearing a robbery, Ralph edged toward the cash register, on the far edge of the counter, and tried to lock the cash drawer without calling attention to his movements. When Ralph turned back toward his hulking visitor, he found himself in the middle of his shadow as he approached the counter.
"How can I help you this morning?"
"I am Peter," said the visitor in a voice that shook the floorboards.
"You are Maria's cousin." Ralph reached out to shake Peter's hand and quickly wondered if it had been a good idea to agree to meet with him. Peter's massive paw engulfed Ralph's hand and while he was certain this visitor could have easily crushed his fingers; the handclasp was surprisingly gentle and warm. Perhaps in times before, Peter had unwittingly mangled another acquaintance's hand with a casual greeting and now was cautious about an otherwise innocent gesture.
"It is very good to meet you, Mr. Winston. Maria has only wonderful things to say about you and your wife. She told me that you might have a job for me. I would work very hard Mr. Winston. I want to make a home for myself in this country and to earn a good living."
"Well Peter, our Grand Opening is tomorrow and there is still merchandise to bring up from the basement and display fixtures to move into place. It will probably take most of the evening to get ready. Can you start right now?"
Peter's work-worn face softened. Years of harsh Russian winters had aged Peter's long visage. A broad and open smile cracked the corners of his mouth. "You will look back and find that giving me a job was a good idea Mr. Winston." He peeled off his long coat and Ralph could see his thick muscular arms straining the seams of his threadbare shirt.
Ralph locked the front door and then beckoned to Peter, "Follow me," he said, guiding him toward the narrow stairway that led to the basement. "We still have things to talk about. Work hours. How you need to dress in the store, and how much I am going to pay you," he added as they disappeared into the cellar.
They worked through the afternoon and into the evening. Helen had called earlier and knew that Ralph had hired Peter. She came by with supper for the two of them and they stopped only long enough to gobble down the warm meal and two glasses of hot tea. Peter did most of the work while Ralph directed his every effort, whether it meant assembling racks for suits and pants or dressing the windows with the merchandise supplied by Morris. Peter worked tirelessly and Ralph clearly enjoyed being the boss.
It was long after midnight when Ralph decided that the store was ready for its Grand Opening. The racks and shelves were well stocked. The floor was clean and the store's windows were decorated in a style common in New York and unheard of in Cleveland. The mannequins did not just stand in the windows showing off the clothing, they were actually doing something: mowing a lawn; reading a newspaper; eating a meal, or walking an invisible dog on the end of a long leather leash. With Peter's help, it would be a magnificent Grand Opening.
"Much better than the shipyard," nodded Peter, surveying the store.
"Everything looks wonderful," observed Ralph, his head nodding as he turned to Peter. "Thank you my friend," he said with an outstretched arm. Peter anxiously caught Ralph's hand between his own hands and pumped his arm. "I thought that working in a clothing store might not be a job for a man. I was wrong Mr. Winston. I thank you again for giving me the chance and I will see you at 9:00 sharp. In fact, I will be waiting for you when you arrive." Peter took his coat off the counter and threw it over his shoulder. Ralph turned off the lights and they left together. Ralph walked down the street and Peter walked in the opposite direction.
The morning dawned overcast and a fine rain turned everything as gray as the sky. Helen and Ralph walked hand in hand to their Grand Opening. The street was nearly deserted, though at that time of morning, there should have been crowds of people making their way to work. "Not a good sign," thought Ralph. True to his word, Peter was waiting for them outside the store, slowly pacing back and forth on the sidewalk outside. The long ash of a cigarette dangled from the corner of his mouth. His suit was too tight for his wide shoulders, and his trousers showed far too much sock for his towering frame. "This will never do," mumbled Ralph.
Peter flicked his cigarette into the street when he saw them approach. "As I promised," he said proudly. "Are we ready?" He asked the question as though he felt a sense of ownership in the store as well.
"We are ready, but you are not. I cannot have customers see you dressed like that."
Hurt by Ralph's words, Peter quickly inspected his attire. He brought this suit with him from Russia. It was his only suit. Certainly, it was not brand new, but no one had ever been critical of the way it looked or the way he looked in it. "Do I displease you, Mr. Winston?"
"No Peter, but this is a men's clothing store and we need to dress and look as good as the merchandise we sell. As soon as we open, I will lend you a suit of clothes that will do us all justice."
Helen had just finished uncovering the display cases when Maria entered the store wearing a bright green dress beneath a light blue cloth coat. "Good morning Mrs. Winston. Today is the big day."
"And we're all ready for it," replied Helen.
"Did my cousin Peter ever show up?"
"That he did."
Both of them turned toward the sound of heavy footsteps on the stairs from the basement. Emerging from the darkness, the women saw the resplendent figure of Peter dressed head to toe in new clothing loaned to him by his grateful employer. "Well, what do you think?" said Ralph, several steps behind Peter and still in the dark. "Once I started, I could not stop. The only thing Peter has on that belongs to him is his shorts. He is a perfect forty-eight regular. No alterations necessary."
Peter strolled toward his cousin. "Maria, do you like?"
His cousin gestured for him to turn around and he awkwardly moved about in a small circle so that she could appreciate his new attire. "It's just a loan," he quickly interjected, "But never have I looked so grand. I don't know how to thank you Mr. Winston. I will take good care of it." He caught his reflection in a three-way mirror across the store and he walked over almost sheepishly to admire himself from all sides. Peter never had the money to afford clothing of this quality. He could barely believe that he was the person staring back at him in the mirror. Across the store, he could see his cousin's head nodding in approval. He could see Helen's eyes pour over him, dart back to her husband and then return to him. At first, it made him uneasy, but actually, he enjoyed it.
"We have a business to run. Let us open up," announced Ralph.
Though people stopped to gaze in the windows, few customers ventured into the store until noontime. Ralph only heard the bell on the cash register clang a few times and then it was only for the purchase of a few pairs of silk socks and several narrow ties that Morris had told him were the rage in Italy. Peter was kept busy bringing stock up from the basement and arranging it on the empty shelves at the back of the shop while Helen and Ralph attended to the trickle of customers and Maria tended the cash register.
Shortly after 4:00, Ralph noticed a small knot of men collecting outside the store. They were dressed in work clothes and were certainly not the kind of clientele that the Winstons were hoping to attract. A tall man, wearing a blue flannel shirt with a thick mantle of long dark hair, led the crowd into the shop. They stood quietly for a moment and fanned out around the store, eyeing the goods arranged in the counter displays and on the racks. Ralph walked over to meet the leader. "Good day and welcome to Winston's. How can I help you?"
"We have come to buy some new clothing," he announced in a deep voice, his words barely comprehensible through a heavy accent.
"Did you have anything in mind?"
"Does Petrov work here?"
At first, it did not register, and then Ralph realized that they were looking for Peter. His first day open and customers were already coming in and asking for one of his staff by name. "Peter," he shouted, "These gentlemen are here to see you."
Peter turned toward Ralph and a huge smile enveloped his face. He waved to his friends with one hand, while he placed a thick stack of shirts on a high shelf with the other. He swaggered up to the group, showing off his borrowed suit of clothes.
"Petrov, I would never have recognized you."
"Mr. Winston, this is my friend Ivan. We were boys together in Russia."
"Mr. Winston, if you can make a pig like Petrov look like a peacock, imagine what you can do for someone who is already as handsome as I am!" Everyone began to laugh and Ralph thought it best to laugh as well, though Ivan was far from being a handsome individual.
With Peter's help, Ralph and Helen sold them shirts and trousers, shoes and socks, and suits and ties. With each clang of the cash register, Ralph smiled and winked at his wife. Ivan and his cohorts left with their bags. "Do not forget to tell your friends about us," he called to them as he slowly closed the shop door. "Peter, do you have more friends like those?"
Peter hesitated for a moment. "I have lots of friends Mr. Winston. I'll tell them not to come to the shop."
"No Peter! Tell them to come to the shop. If they are customers like Ivan, we can use every friend that you have."
"Then I did good?"
"You did very good," replied Ralph.
In the days and weeks that followed, more and more of Peter's friends visited the shop. As the store traffic grew, so did the shop's receipts. The Weinsteins' pessimism evaporated. Ralph called Morris and asked him for more goods. He mailed him a check that paid him in full for the first shipment. Morris, of course, had made a generous profit by stocking the shop and he was very anxious to send Ralph and Helen another truckload of his castoffs.
Ralph found himself relying more and more on Peter to run the business on a day-to-day basis. Peter could open and close the shop each day, stock the shelves, change the window displays, and sell to the customers. And could he sell! Ralph had never seen a natural salesman like Peter in all of his years in the trade. When a customer came in for a single item, he or she inevitably left with it and much, much more. Peter was so effective; that Ralph began to offer him a small commission on everything he sold, in addition to his hourly wages. Ralph could not be happier.
"I have a very big favor to ask of you Mr. Winston," said Peter, one afternoon when they were alone in the shop.
Ralph was sitting behind the counter making entries in his ledger. "Yes Peter," he replied without looking up.
Peter walked briskly across the shop. The floorboards bounced beneath his steps and he stood in front of Ralph on the opposite side of the counter. "I would like to purchase a car Mr. Winston. I know of one that I can almost afford. I have been saving my money Mr. Winston, but I am a few dollars short. And. . ."
Ralph looked up from his ledger. "And you want to know if you can borrow the money against your future wages so that you do not miss out on this great deal?"
The large man sighed in relief. "Exactly Mr. Winston. I am $100 short and if I don't have the money by tomorrow, the man will sell the car to someone else." Peter's grasp of the language had improved. His accent was still thick and sometimes difficult to decipher, but Peter's vocabulary grew with each passing week, as did his appreciation for the American lifestyle.
"Wait here Peter," said Ralph, leaving the ledger behind and retreating to the basement.
Peter had seen Ralph huddled over his ledger for hours at a time. He had glanced into it when his boss was away. He knew from the numbers he had seen written with blue ink in perfectly aligned columns, that his request would have little impact on the financial health of the shop. He would sell enough in the next few weeks to easily repay the loan.
Peter had always dreamed of owning a car. The one that he had his eye on was a dark blue Dodge. Though it had a small dent on one door, and a scratch on the rear bumper, it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. He had to have her. He imagined himself behind the wheel driving along the streets of Cleveland with a beautiful dark-eyed passenger in the seat next to him. With the windows open and her hair blowing in the breeze, she would nuzzle her head against his shoulder, while his sinewy arm stretched out along the top of the leatherette seat. The sound of Ralph's footsteps shocked him from his dream.
"Here you are Peter," said Ralph, his hand outstretched, clutching five $20 bills in his palm. Peter reached out and accepted the money. "I will keep; say twenty-five percent of your commission each week until you have repaid the loan. How does that sound?"
Peter was still learning about percentages. His new status as a commission earner had forced him to go to the library. He looked in several books to learn about percentages and interest and how quickly money could grow. "Do you want any interest on this loan?" he asked.
"No Peter, you are like a member of my family. I am not a moneylender. I am a haberdasher. I ask only one thing of you."
"Of course Mr. Winston. What is it?"
"That I am the first person who gets a ride." Ralph winked at him and returned to his ledger.
That evening, Peter bought the car. The purchase had greater impact on his life than anything he had done since moving to the United States. He had learned to drive a truck while still a child in Russia. When he came to America, a driver's license was one of the first things he obtained. Now he owned a car. Now he could go where he wanted. When he wanted, and with whomever he chose to be with.
After working at Winston's during the day, Peter found himself in bars and roadhouses on the outskirts of Cleveland, and the towns nearby, until the early hours of the next day. Ralph was not his first passenger. There were women anxious to ride with him in the front seat of the Dodge, or to lie with him on its broad rear seat. They brought him to after-hours clubs with gambling in their backrooms, and they were eager to help him spend his money.
Peter sometimes arrived at the shop later than usual. Ralph was certain that he was wearing the same suit of clothes on two consecutive days, though by then, he had a closet full of suits. Maria had once tried to cover for her cousin, but his new life had driven a wedge between them, and he had moved out of her home. She rarely saw him, except at the store. His new lifestyle had whetted his appetite for the things that money could buy, and he worked even harder to increase his earnings.
During their first year in business, Helen and Ralph had ignored the High Holidays. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were merely dates on the calendar. They had built the business from nothing, and they felt guilty that they had ignored the High Holidays. Ralph had made inquiries about finding seats in a local shul for them. A customer had told him about a tiny shul within walking distance of their apartment. Ralph met with the Rabbi and for a "contribution," he received a ticket for a seat near the rear of the sanctuary. Helen would sit in the balcony with the other women. They decided to close the store for the holidays. No one in the neighborhood needed to know why.
"We will put a sign in the window that we are having renovations performed. No one needs to know the truth," he told his wife.
"And what about the staff?" asked Helen.
"We will pay them for all three days. A little paid vacation. They will be grateful."
Maria accepted the news with a huge smile. Two days off one week and another day off the following week. She viewed it as a wonderful present. Peter's response was just the opposite.
"You can't do this to me," he fumed. "What about my commissions?"
"When you first started, we paid you by the hour. There were no commissions. You were grateful for what you were given."
"Well, things have changed," Peter argued. "I'll open and close the store for you. The carpenters can work around me."
"There are no carpenters. And I cannot ask you to work if I'm unwilling to work along with you. That is the law," explained Ralph.
"I've never heard of such a law. Where is it written? Why are we really closing?"
"It is written in the Torah. We're closing because of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur," Helen chimed in.
"Those are Jewish holidays. You never told me that you were Jews." Peter's eyes opened wide in anger and he pointed a malevolent finger at Ralph.
"Would it have made a difference?"
There were few Jews in the tiny village near Polyarny where Peter was born and raised. In hushed tones, it had once been hinted at that the Manager of the Shkval Shipyard was a Jew. He was known for never missing a deadline, and he drove men and equipment past their limits in order to maintain that reputation. Several of Peter's friends had died in accidents attributable to fatigue or failed equipment that should have been taken out of service for routine maintenance. His name was Kreizberg. He was a short man, with tiny eyes that stared out through thick wire frame spectacles. He always wore a dark gray suit with a matching trilby that he pulled down over his forehead, and only his protruding ears kept the hat from enveloping his entire head. Kreizberg never walked through the yard alone. He never walked through the yard at all. During his daily inspection tours of the facility, Kreizberg was always escorted by a phalanx of administrators and supervisors who surrounded the car in which he drove. If Kreizberg had something to say to one of the workers, he would whisper it into the ear of one of his honor guard, who would relay it to the employee. If the worker had a response, the process would be followed in reverse. No one liked Kreizberg and sometimes accidents occurred in his presence. A heavy bucket of rivets once landed on the roof of his car. A massive block and tackle crashed through the windshield, seriously injuring the driver. Kreizberg was in the backseat when it happened. The injured man was removed from the car. The broken glass was cleared from the front seat, and another driver was quickly selected so that Krizberg could continue his tour.
Kreizberg abruptly left his position at the shipyard, after several children in the village mysteriously disappeared. The rumor was that Kerizberg had kidnapped the youngsters, and used their blood as part of the Jewish Passover celebration. Blood libel was one of the base causes for anti-Semitism. Hundreds, if not thousands of Jews had met their deaths at the hands of angry mobs out to revenge the death or disappearance of a wayward child.
Peter had little use for Jews. Never in his wildest dreams would he have believed that the stranger who befriended him could be one.
"No Mr. Winston, it doesn't make any difference to me."
"And Peter, it is not really Winston. Our name is Weinstein. I will tell you what I will do for you. I will advance you your commissions based on what you have done in the past. You sell more following the holidays; I will owe you the difference. If you sell less, we will talk about it then. Do we have a deal?" Ralph held his hand out to Peter.
Peter stared at it for a long time before shaking it in acceptance. Peter was now uneasy about working for a Jew. He did not know just why, but he felt that a barrier had been thrown up between them. An invisible line had been drawn that neither of them could cross; one that would forever change their relationship. Peter made certain that the Weinsteins' identity burned through the neighborhood like an uncontrollable brushfire. To his surprise, no one seemed to care. "They're nice enough people," said Gertie, the waitress at Murphy's Luncheonette. "There's room for everyone."
The holidays were a welcome respite from work for the Weinsteins. They used the holidays to look at themselves and the life they had created in Ohio. They were proud of what they had accomplished.
Peter spent his time and his money at a roadhouse on the outskirts of town with the wife of a regular customer. Beth and Jay Siegel stumbled into Winston's one Sunday afternoon. They learned the Weinsteins' secret even before their employees knew. Soon they were regulars in the shop.
Beth always accompanied her husband when he shopped for clothing, and of late, Peter had become Jay's favorite salesman. Peter had seen Beth watching him as he helped her husband to select shirts and ties to go with the suits and slacks that she urged him to buy. He traded glances with her as he bent to cuff a pair of pants or check an inseam. While her husband traveled on business, she was with Peter.
Peter was everything that Jay was not. Beth and Jay graduated from upper crust east coast colleges. Beth was a history major who met Jay in a political science course. Upon graduation, she was satisfied being a junior high school teacher. Jay wanted to be an attorney. They married. She put him through law school and when they were ready to start a family -- nothing happened. The recriminations were fruitless. It just was not meant to be. Beth worked for a while, but being around adolescents proved to be too depressing for her. Jay built a substantial practice and money was not an issue, so Beth found other pursuits to occupy her time. Peter was her most recent.
If opposites truly attract, then Peter and Beth were bound to be drawn together as strongly as the most powerful magnets. Bar food and the backseat of the Dodge would never be sufficient for Beth. She wanted only the finest restaurants and four-star hotels where the clerk at the front desk would look aside for a few discretely placed dollars. The excitement of being caught was the aphrodisiac that pushed her into the relationship. Beth called the steps and Peter followed in the dance.
Their relationship lasted through the Holidays and into the winter. Ralph was well aware of what was going on and wondered if it was his place to tell Jay. He dismissed the idea for fear of losing him as a customer. He felt that in time, Beth would grow tired of Peter.
One Monday morning, Beth showed up at the shop alone. A taxi dropped her off at the curb and sped away. Her eyes were red and her checks were tear-stained. Peter saw her through the window and rushed out of the store to speak with her. Ralph could only imagine what they were talking about. Their discussion soon became an argument, and while Ralph could not understand what they were saying, their muffled voices could be heard even inside the shop.
Beth screamed at Peter. Peter raised his hand to hit Beth. That is when Ralph had to intercede and he raced out into the street in Beth's defense. Peter saw Ralph rush out of the shop, and he threw his hands up over his head, and stepped away from Beth. "This has nothing to do with you Mr. Winston. We'll take care of it ourselves."
"I can see the way you were going to take care of this." He took a handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to her. She mopped her eyes and cheeks. Her face was flushed. Ralph had never seen her so upset. "I was afraid that nothing good would come of this. What's wrong Mrs. Siegel?"
"I'll tell you what's wrong," shouted Peter. "She went and got herself in trouble."
"And you do not think you have any responsibility for it?" asked Ralph.
"If you had done what you were supposed to do, this would never have happened."
"What happens when my husband finds out?"
"Tell him it's his."
Beth crossed her arms in front of herself. "Did you ever wonder why we never had children?" Peter furrowed his brow. "Because he can't. He was sick as a kid. We didn't know until after we were married."
"Tell him it's a miracle."
"I can't let him find out. He'll throw me out of the house."
Peter turned to Ralph, his fingers laced behind his head and eyes forced shut. "I know a doctor who can help, but I don't have the money Mr. Winston."
Ralph could hardly believe that Peter could not afford to pay for what needed to be done. While it really was not his business, he somehow felt responsible. "I'll lend you the money Mrs. Siegel."
"And I'll pay you back with interest Mr. Winston. I promise!" She threw her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek.
Jay and Beth Siegel never returned to Winston's, but each week, Peter brought Ralph an envelope and in a few months, she had paid off the debt with interest. What Ralph never learned, was that Peter removed a few dollars from each envelope, and pocketed the money.
Peter soon brought Ralph an endless stream of equally needy individuals who benefited from his boss's charity his "tzedakah." Ralph began to believe that he was performing a mitzvah. It was easy money for both men and they began to rely on the steady income. It took Helen a long time before she realized that something was wrong.
One night while Ralph was in the shower and Helen was looking for something in the closet, she found a shoebox hidden beneath a pile of clothing that Ralph never wore. The box contained neatly arranged and rubber band bound stacks of money. With a stack of money in each hand, she charged into the bathroom and tore the curtain aside. "Where did all this money come from? Ralph, what have you gotten yourself into?"
He explained what had happened with Beth Siegel, and how he had come to her assistance. He told her how she had paid him back with interest, and of the other people in need that Peter had brought to the shop. "The money in the box is only the interest. Think of if Helen."
"I am thinking about it, and that's exactly what's bothering me. Get out of the shower. We have to talk about this now."
Helen was sitting at the kitchen table with the shoebox on her lap and the money in neat piles in front of her when Ralph stepped into the room in his bathrobe, still drying his hair with a damp towel. "I can't believe you. There's over $6,000 in this box," she admonished her husband.
"$6,500 to be exact."
"Are there other boxes too?" Ralph smiled at his wife. "This is against everything you stand for."
Ralph knew what Helen meant. While he never went to Hebrew school, his father read to him from the Torah and from the family's copy of the Code of Jewish Law The Shulchan Aruch. He remembered what it said in Exodus "If you lend money to my people, to the poor who is in your power, do not act toward him as a creditor: exact no interest from him." He knew that lending money to those who truly needed it was one of the highest forms of tzedakah, of charity, that a Jew could undertake. Ralph knew very well that the people brought to him by Peter were not his people. While lending them money for interest was not prohibited, they saw him as just a moneylender. It was an appellation that was too often at the heart of so much of the persecution that his people had experienced through the years whether they knew him to be a Jew or not. Ralph and Helen had come to Ohio to start a new business, not to resurrect old memories. It had to stop now!
The next morning, he arrived at the store earlier than usual. Peter was surprised to see him walk briskly into the shop and flipped the "Open for Business" sign on the door to "Closed." He pulled down the window shade and locked the door behind him. "We need to talk," he told Peter, walking to the counter where the cash register sat.
Peter thrust his hand into his jacket pocket and removed an envelope. "Sure Mr. Winston, but before we do, here is Fredrick's last payment." He held it out for Ralph to take, but Ralph knocked it out of his hand. Peter quickly bent down to pick it up. "What's the matter Mr. Winston? You never refused his money before."
"And I'll never accept his or anyone else's money again. It stops right now!" Ralph pounded the counter with his fist.
"You can't do this to me. I mean; to the people you're helping."
"It's wrong Peter. It's over. No more loans. Let people just give me what I actually lent them. No interest and I wash me hands of this whole dirty affair."
Peter could not understand what had changed, but he was not ready to walk away from the money. It was time. He had worked for the Weinsteins long enough. He wanted the store and he wanted the money lending. He thought about Kreizberg and knew that he had found a way to rid himself of the Weinsteins. He would take control of the shop that he felt he deserved to own.
It was hard for Helen and Ralph to believe that they had only been in Ohio for four years. The store had performed better than they ever had imagined. Morris could not have been happier. He had promised to come out for a visit, but he never did. They even spoke about opening another store. That was never to happen.
Helen and Ralph were opening their home for Passover. They had invited several of their friends from the shul and their Rabbi had even agreed to join them. Ralph was very proud and he called Morris to brag. Peter was planning for the holiday as well. If his plans were successful, the Weinsteins would be out of his life.
Not far from the store was the elementary school attended by all the children in the neighborhood. Though a tall chain link fence surrounded the entire building, there was an opening in the fence adjacent to a clump of trees near the playground. Peter knew that from time to time, an overthrown ball rolled through the opening in the fence, closely followed by a youngster. A car parked near the opening was hidden from the street by a row of houses. Peter parked there one afternoon during his lunch, and waited. No ball rolled through the fence that day. He returned the day after, and the day after that. It was on the third day that his patience was rewarded. First, a white kickball rolled through the fence. Peter was out of the car in an instant. A little girl, maybe six or seven years old followed it. Peter trapped the ball beneath his foot and before she could bend to retrieve it, a large burlap bag came down over her head. Peter tied the bag around her legs and moved quickly to put her into the trunk of his car. Her muffled screams made him nervous. He could not be discovered, not now. He tried to cover her mouth with his hand, but even through the material, she bit him. Peter exploded in anger, and a single blow to her head with the tire iron quieted the child. Peter returned to work, and brazenly parked the car with the child's body in his trunk in front of the store.
News of the missing child filled the pages of every newspaper in town and theories were on the lips of radio reporters alike. The police had no clues, no leads, and no witnesses. Pictures of the grieving parents and pleas for her return brought tears to the eyes of readers and listeners. Soon Peter knew more about his victim than he wanted, but what he knew was crucial to his plan. A picture of the child wearing the dress she was last seen in was seared into the town's memory. The neighborhood was unhappy, but they were powerless. In a few days, the child's disappearance was old news. It was two days before Passover.
Peter had disposed of her body where it would never be found. The blow to the child's head was more powerful than Peter had imagined. Her dress was covered in blood and he spent hours washing down the trunk of his car. While he was sure that her body would never be located, he made sure that the dress was.
In the early morning hours before the trucks started to roll, Willy Simmons made his daily rounds in the neighborhood's garbage cans and trash bins. He never knew what he was going to find. Some treasures he kept for himself, and others he could sometimes sell in local pawnshops or junkyards. He particularly looked forward to searching the trash behind Winston's. Ralph and Helen took pity on the man and sometimes left something special for him - a shirt, pants, even shoes in the winter. Willy systematically went through the cans and the containers so as not to miss anything. "Nothing here today," he muttered to himself. There were several cardboard boxes there as well, and Willy opened each one in succession. Opening the flaps of the second box, Willy pushed aside some tissue paper and his jaw dropped open. Inside the second box was a torn and bloodstained dress. He recognized the garment immediately, but why would it be hidden in a box behind Winston's?
Murphy's Luncheonette was only two blocks away. Everyone knew about Murphy's, it was an informal meeting place for the entire neighborhood. Peter bought his morning coffee there and Ralph had even taught Gertie how to make a New York style "egg cream." Willy wandered into Murphy's with the box tucked under one arm. He sat down at the counter and placed the box on the stool next to him. He looked around for a familiar face and saw his reflection in the chrome and mirror lined the walls of the luncheonette. How tattered and worn he looked. His graying beard should have been cut days ago, but he cared very little about how he looked. Since the death of his wife, he cared very little about people or what they thought of him. Nevertheless, he cared a great deal about the monster that killed the child whose dress he had found.
"Willy, you're early today." Willy was shocked from his thoughts by the cool voice of the only woman who seemed to know that he was even alive. "The usual?"
"Good morning Gertie." Gertie's smiling face and shining eyes greeted him. She remembered Willy back when he was called Mr. Simmons, and when he and his wife strolled through the neighborhood turning heads. He leaned toward her and whispered: "Not this morning. I have to speak to Murphy. It's important. Very important."
"And just why is it so important that you speak with Murphy?" Willy put the carton on the counter in front of him. Gertie looked quizzically at the box. She dried her hands on her crisp white apron, opened the flaps, and peered into the darkness. "Oh my God! Where did you find this?"
"In the garbage behind Winston's"
Gertie's shining eyes filled with tears and the tears ran down her cheeks. "It's Christina's. There is no doubt about it. I'll get Murphy." Gertie quickly ran off and hurled open one of the swinging doors to the kitchen.
It was exactly what Willy had feared. The dead girl was Murphy's niece Christina the daughter of his sister Cathy. If anyone in the neighborhood wanted to find her killer, it was Murphy.
Murphy burst through the kitchen door followed by Gertie. Murphy's t-shirt was stained with sweat and grease thrown up by the grill he attended, cooking eggs and pancakes for his breakfast crowd. "I gotta see for myself," he cried. "If that Jew-bastard killed my little angel Christina, he won't have to wait for the cops, I'll kill him myself. The missus and me never trusted him or his wife." Murphy looked in the box. Then he buried his face in his hands, and began to cry. His tears lasted only a moment. Murphy dried his eyes with his soiled apron and moved close to Willy. "Tell me exactly where and how you found this," Murphy said slowly. The corner of his left eye twitched and Willy could see the veins in Murphy's neck swell with rage. Willy repeated the story for Murphy and for everyone else in the luncheonette to hear.
Peter was just opening the shop as Murphy and a crowd of at least fifty angry people rounded the corner. Murphy was at the head of the gang with a meat cleaver in one hand. Others held knives or sticks, and others, like Willy, grasped metal rods taken from a construction site they had passed along the way. They had only one thing in mind, and only one person that they sought. Peter saw them coming through the front window. His plan was working. He knew that Willy would bring the dress directly to Murphy. He knew what Murphy and his Irish temper would do. The store, the money lending, it would all be his soon. He was the only one in the shop and Ralph and Helen were nowhere to be found.
As Murphy and his gang approached the shop, Peter stepped out into the street. "What's the problem Murphy?"
"Out of the way Ruskie, we have nothing against you. Where are Winston and his wife?"
"The Weinsteins," fumbled Peter. "I mean the Winstons are a little late this morning."
Maria was walking down the street and she broke into a run when she saw the mob in front of the store. Quickly, she was at her cousin's side. "What did you do now?" she chided.
"We want the Winstons, not your cousin. That Jew-bastard killed my little Christina. Willy found her dress behind the store. Lord only knows what he did with her," he whimpered. "We aren't going anywhere until we find them."
Willy saw Ralph and Helen approaching from a distance. "It's them!" he screamed, pointing to their distant silhouettes in the morning sun. Willy ran off toward them and then something happened that Peter had not anticipated. As the crowd began to smell Weinstein blood, someone hurled a trash can through the shop window and scurried through the shattered glass, while others pushed Peter out of the way, and ran into the building. They grabbed armfuls of clothing, and rushed out of the building while Peter shouted in protest. He was pummeled to the ground with sticks. Then someone set fire to the trash in the garbage can and soon the entire store was ablaze. A bloodied Peter crawled out of the store.
"This wasn't supposed to happen. The store was for me!" he cried, instantly knowing that it was the greed speaking in his voice, betraying his plan for everyone to hear.
Murphy realized that the Weinsteins had nothing to do with the death of his niece and he immediately fell on Peter. At the same time, Willy had overtaken the Weinsteins. Brandishing the rebar in both hands like a baseball bat, he thrashed out at Ralph and caught him behind the knee. Ralph collapsed on the concrete in agony and Willy stood over him ready to strike again, but he could not move the metal weapon. Willy turned and found a police officer behind him holding the end of the bar with one hand and his gun poised in the other. Helen knelt beside her husband and watched the police disperse the crowd. The fire truck arrived soon after, but there was little left of the shop. Murphy had avenged the death of his niece, and what remained of Peter was transported to the hospital. The doctors did what they could for Ralph's fractured knee, but his limp would be an ever-present reminder of what he had done.
Morris read of the incident in the local newspaper. Ordinarily, he would have overlooked the story, buried at the bottom of a column in the middle pages of the paper, but he saw Ralph's and Helen's names peppered throughout the article, he read it three times before he was finally sure who the reporter was writing about. He called Ralph on the telephone and in a voice choked with emotion; Ralph retold the entire story to his friend and backer.
"Why did you start?" asked Morris.
"The greed," replied Ralph. "Like a beautiful woman she stands in front of you beckoning. You know that it is wrong, and still you take the first step. After that, each step becomes easier, and easier until you do not even think about what you are doing right or wrong. The greed does the thinking for you. I was a fool Morris. A silly fool to invite her into my life. Like Lilith, all she brought into the world was misery."
As soon as possible, after the investigation and the trial, the Weinsteins returned to New York. Morris took Ralph in once more. Ohio was never again a topic for conversation.
from the November 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine