Authors: Sholem Aleichem
Tags: #Fiction, #Short Stories (Single Author)
“You know what, though? I’ll be honest with you. If some poor storekeeper like me begrudges me the money, that doesn’t bother me so much; it’s only natural for him to be jealous when he’d like to have it himself. But what excuse does a rich Jew have? And the
person who burns me up the most is the son of the richest Jew in town. He’s a real know-it-all, but a good Jew, a warm Jew, a smart young fellow with a heart of gold who won’t take a penny’s interest on a loan and gives to charity like there’s no tomorrow; in short, a decent, a fine human being; it’s just that whenever he sees me, he stops me and says, ‘What’s new with your claim? I hear you lost a bundle in that fire’—and he puts his hands in his pockets, lets his tummy hang out, gives me a look like a satisfied cow, and makes a face I’d love to stick a fist in … and I have to grin and bear it! What else can I do?
, it says,
do you know what that means in plain Yiddish? It means that a pinch in the cheek brings out the color … If only the police investigation would be over already. Have I ever been given the third degree! The detective keeps calling me back, each time he’s got some new question … Of course, it’s all water off a duck’s back, since what’s there to worry about? They can’t scare me, because they have nothing on me, not when I’m as clean as the driven snow … They even made me sign a paper that I wouldn’t leave Boheslav, but you can see that I travel when and where I please, just to show those Boheslav Jews what I think of them.
Koyl dikhfin yeysey veyitzrokh
—in plain Yiddish that means that if they can’t stand to be without me, they’ll just have to travel with me—and as for the rest, to hell with them all and forget it!…
“Maybe you think that with a claim like mine, the company won’t come to terms? Well, Mr. Know-it-all should only get a smack in his fat puss for every thousand rubles I could have gotten already! Then why haven’t I taken them, you ask? That just shows how little you know me! I happen to be, you should know, a tough customer myself, I’m not such an easy nut to crack. My philosophy is,
—that means once you’ve gone the first step in plain Yiddish—then
—you may as well go the whole hog … What about the investigation? But an investigation never hurt anyone. Why let it scare me when they have nothing on me, because I’m as clean as the driven snow?… It’s just a crying shame that they’re holding up my money, because I happen to be good and hard-pressed, my creditors have me by the throat. That’s what hurts! I swear, it drives me up the wall; after all, in the end I’ll get the money anyway, there’s not a thing they can do about it, so why drag it out for no good reason? All I want is what I have coming. Why take it out on my kids, you childmurderers?
Am I asking for so much? Give me my ten thousand rubles, my children’s money! Do you think I want it for myself? It’s for them, I tell you! Give me their money and leave me in peace! You go your way and I’ll go mine—and as for the rest, to hell with it all and forget it!…
“But what good does it do to argue? What good does it do to shout? It doesn’t make things any better, not when they couldn’t be worse. The business is gone, my daughter has no dowry, my son can’t go to school, and just staying alive, just staying alive, praise God, costs an arm and a leg. My life is sheer hell! Who can sleep at night? Who can even think of it?… Don’t imagine I’m worried, though. Why let them scare you when they have nothing on you, because you’re as clean as the driven snow?… Still, you’re only human, you can’t help wondering; there’s the investigation, and there’s the state prosecutor, and there are the Jews in Boheslav who will swear on the witness stand that they saw you with a candle in your attic late that night … No, you don’t fool around with Boheslav! Believe me, we have a Jew in town called Dovid-Hirsh—all of us together should only earn in a week what I’ve had to pay him to keep his mouth shut! And he’s a good fellow too, and from a good home; it’s all done with a smile, with a ‘please God’ and a ‘God willing’—and as for the rest, to hell with them all and forget it!…
“Now do you see what Boheslav is like? Am I right or not to be down on our Jews there? Just you wait until I get my money, I’ll show them a thing or two then! First of all, I’ll let the town have a contribution—I can’t tell you the exact sum, but it won’t be a cent less than our richest Jews give. I won’t take a back seat to any of them; when I’m called up to the Torah on the Sabbath and the sexton sings out loud and clear what I’ve given the synagogue, there’ll be some shocked faces, believe me! The Hospital and the Talmud Torah Funds go without saying: the first will get half-a-dozen new linen smocks, and the second a brand-new set of
for the children … And then I’ll marry off my daughter. But what a wedding it will be! I suppose you think I’m planning an affair like everyone has these days? Eh, I can see you still don’t know me. Why, I’ll throw the wedding of the century—Boheslav won’t ever have seen the likes of it! I’ll put up a tent over the whole synagogue courtyard. The band will come all the way from Smila. There’ll be a table big enough for three hundred beggars
with the very best food, and the fanciest rolls, and the most expensive liquor, and a five-spot for each … And as for the guests themselves—the whole town will be there, every last mother’s son of them, and at the table of honor I’ll sit the very bastards who would have liked to see me croak, and I’ll drink to their health, just see if I don’t, and we’ll dance, and we’ll dance, and we’ll dance!… Jews, dance harder! Musicians, give it all you’ve got!… That’s the sort of Jew I am! You don’t know me yet, but you will. Do you hear me? You don’t know me yet! When I celebrate, money is no object—it’s another quart of vodka and another quart of vodka and
tomus nafshi im plishtim
. Do you know what that means in plain Yiddish? It means drink till you burst, children, and then off you go—and to hell with you all and forget it!…”
ou’re talking about thieves!” exclaimed a nattily dressed gentleman who was clutching an attaché case for dear life. (It was nighttime and there were three of us in the second-class waiting room at the station. While keeping an eye out for the mail train, which was an hour and a quarter late, we had struck up a conversation about crime.) “So it’s thieves you want to hear about? Then you’ve found yourselves the right man! Where else in the world do you have as many thefts as you do in my line of business? Diamonds aren’t small potatoes. They can do such things to a person that sometimes your own customer will try stealing one from under your nose. And especially if it’s a female. We never take our eyes off a woman we don’t know. It’s not so easy to steal from a diamond dealer. If I may say so myself, in all the years I’ve been one I’ve never lost a stone yet. Although once, as luck would have it, I had a close call. If you’d like, I’ll tell you about it.
“To tell you the truth, I’m not exactly a diamond dealer. That is, I deal in diamonds, but I have nothing to do with the cutting; I
just buy and sell, generally wholesale, and generally at trade fairs that I go to. Sometimes, though, when there are serious private clients, I take my display case, this one right here, and pay a special call on them.
“One time I happened to hear about a rich Jew in Yehupetz who was marrying off a daughter. That meant diamonds for sure. Not that, in case you’re wondering, there weren’t plenty of diamond dealers in Yehupetz already—in fact, too many of them—but what did that have to do with it? Lock me up in a room with a thousand dealers and one customer, and you’ll soon see who rings up the sale. Selling diamonds is an art. You have to know just what to show, and how to show it, and who to show it to. I don’t mean to boast, because publicity is the last thing I’m after, but ask anyone who knows the least thing about it and he’ll tell you that I’m in a class by myself. If someone else can sell you X amount of diamonds, I can sell you 3X. It’s an art and I’m an artist.
“Well, then, I took the train to Yehupetz. The merchandise I had with me fitted right into this little case, but believe me, the three of us together should only be worth as much as it was. I found myself a place and sat myself down with my case pressed tight against me; I needn’t tell you that I didn’t leave it for a second. Sleeping, of course, was out of the question. You don’t sleep when you’re traveling with merchandise. My heart gave a thump every time a new passenger entered the car. Could he be a thief? No one has it written on the tip of his nose.
“With God’s help, after a day and a night without food or sleep I arrived at the rich Yehupetz Jew’s house, took out my goods, and launched right into my sales pitch. I talked and talked until I was blue in the face—and, as luck would have it, got nothing but a headache for my pains.
“Far be it from me to complain about our rich Jews, but for my part they can all catch the cholera! A slow boil is all they ever give you. They look at each item, they turn it every which way, they ooh and they ah over it—but when it’s time to do business, one big goose egg is all you end up with. Well, what could I do about it? You make a sale, you lose a sale—the main thing is to keep hustling. Who knows what you might be missing out on elsewhere? Most probably nothing, but that’s no reason not to get there as fast as you can. So I hailed a cab and asked to be rushed to the station. Just then I heard someone shout, ‘Hey, mister! Hey, stop!’ I
turned around to look—a young man was running after me with an attaché case in his hand that looked exactly like mine. ‘Here, you dropped this,’ he says.
“I could have died! It was my case. How could I have dropped it? When? Where? As luck would have it, the case turned out to have slipped from my hand just as the young man happened by; he picked it up and … but I’ve already told you that part, what more is there to say? I climbed out of the cab, shook his hand, and said, ‘I don’t know how to thank you. May God give you health and happiness. Thank you, thank you ever so much!’
“ ‘Don’t mention it,’ he says to me.
“ ‘How can I not mention it?’ I say. ‘You’ve saved my life. You’ve done such a good deed that no reward in the whole world would be big enough. Just tell me what I owe you. Speak up, don’t be shy.’
“ ‘But if it’s really the good deed you say it is,’ he says, seeing me reach into my pocket, ‘why should I sell the rights to it for money?’
“Well, when I heard that, I took that young man and actually gave him a kiss. ‘God Himself will reward you for what you’ve done,’ I said. ‘Please come with me now, though, and at least let me treat you to a glass of wine and some food.’
“ ‘A glass of wine,’ he said, ‘I’ll have with pleasure. Why not?’
“And so we both climbed into the cab and I told the driver to forget about the station and take us to a good restaurant instead. When we got there I asked for a private booth for two, ordered a fine meal from the waiter, and began to chat with my companion. Not only had he saved my life, he was, I now saw, an extremely likable young man with an attractive face and deep, dark, earnest eyes—in short, a peach of a fellow. And bashful to beat the band! I kept having to tell him not to be embarrassed to ask for whatever he craved without worrying about the cost. And whatever he ordered, of course, I asked the waiter to bring twice as much of. We ate and drank like kings. Not, God forbid, that we were drunk. That isn’t like a Jew. But when I was feeling just a little balmy I said to him, ‘Do you have any idea what you’ve done for me? I’m not even talking about the cash value of what you found, although we should both only be worth what I owe for it. My life belongs first to God and then to my creditors. And you’ve saved not only it but my honor as well, because if I had come home
without this case, my creditors would have thought it was just a diamond dealer’s trick. (Pocketing the goods and crying “thief” is something we dealers have a name for!) The one thing left for me to do would have been to buy a rope and hang myself from the nearest tree. To your health!’ I said. ‘God grant your every wish! Be well, and let me give you one more kiss, because I really have to be off.’ And, saying goodbye to the young fellow, I paid the bill and reached for my case—
what case? What young fellow?
There wasn’t a sign of either.