Ex Gratis

by Moshe Dann (February 2014)

Pulling the covers up around his head, Mendy opened one eye against an onslaught of sunlight. Noise of traffic three floors below bounced off the cobwebbed, mold-speckled ceiling. Windows rattled against the wind in his one-room roof-top apartment. Glancing at his alarm clock balanced on the edge of an old wooden chair, he curled tightly into himself trying to avoid the inevitable beginning of this day.

He thought about selling a stack of books piled in a corner that a friend had given him. An old wooden wardrobe closet leaned precariously against a cracked window, its crippled doors hanging with shirts and pants, cavities stuffed with clothes he’d found at charities, or gifts from friends. A grayish sky warned of rain; shivering for spring, Mendy calculated: two more weeks until the rent was due.

A small plastic table near the stove was covered with unpaid bills. Cars honked impatiently in the street below. The phone rang like a mosquito's buzz. Moving his feet slowly from under the blankets, he felt his worn slippers with his toes and pulled his torn once-white bathrobe around his shoulders. “Shmata,” he remembered his mother shrieking at him. “Why don't you get something decent to wear?” Shame on you, whispered dust that rose from the frayed rug. What are you doing with your life? hummed the old refrigerator that a neighbor had given him.

The bed creaked with his weight as he sat up, gravity fading with light, pulling him along with hairballs of regret. He counted the rings, three, four, and reached for the phone just as it stopped and listened to the failure of an open line.

He shuffled to the bathroom and relieved himself. A faded mirror, desecrated with age, reflected puffy eyes and thinning hair. He washed his hands, brushed the top of his head with the palm of his hand and put on a black skullcap. After morning prayers he opened his tattered phone book. There was work to be done. He began calling friends.

“Hi,” he tried to sound cheerful, “what's happening? It’s your friend, Mendy. I haven't been in touch for a while and wanted to know how you are.” He rubbed his belly, and pulled a wad of lint from his navel. Glancing at the list of names, he checked off the voice at the other end of the phone; there were two children, he noted and asked how they were. He was polite, casual. They talked for a while and then Mendy got to the point.

“I'm in a difficult position at the moment. I don't have money to get through the month. Do you think you could help me out with a loan? Of course I'll pay you back as soon as I can.” He took a deep breath, listening to their hesitation. “Just until I get back on my feet again. Anything you could do to help. I'd appreciate it so much. I thought if you wanted give a little extra charity this month…” He got a commitment, offered his thanks and blessings for success, hung up the phone and marked down the intended donation. Mendy was a great fund-raiser.

He called the next person on his list. “Could you manage a loan… to help me buy food this month?” Another commitment, he noted along with the amount pledged. He was on a roll.

“… for help with my studies…” he offered, managing to be vague about exactly what he was doing, but with enough specifics to make it sound realistic and even generate mild enthusiasm.

“…I've been having some medical problems… difficulty getting around…”  A few more dollars. He made a quick tally.  It was a good gematria, he figured, trying to match possible word and number combinations. His Kaballah teacher, Rabbi Berenson, would be proud. And, covered for two months, he smiled.

Nearly Mendy's age, Berenson had a sense of agitated mission. Newly divorced with a bunch of kids and an ex-wife that wouldn’t let go, Berenson gave lectures in Kaballah and ran a car rental place on the side; or, the other way around.

Mendy's stomach growled. He cut himself a piece of days-old cinnamon cake he'd bought at half-price and poured himself a cup of black coffee. He thought about Cindy the young blond who sat next to him in Rabbi Berenson's class. She was obviously not Jewish. But, Mendy pondered, who knows? Maybe she'll convert. She worked as a receptionist in a doctors' office and wrote poetry describing the Holy Sephirot. Mendy could see she was deeply spiritual. He showed her what her name meant in kabalistic metaphor while Berenson paced the room, adjusting his pants as if they were about to fall. Mendy liked his style, except for the pants routine.

Taking a bunch of old photographs from an envelope, he spread them on the table like a card player laying out a winning hand. His eyes wandered over faces of friends and family from his youth forty years ago. There were pictures of himself as a child on the street in  front of the small red brick house where he grew up, his parents, picnics in the park, a birthday party in the backyard surrounded by friends, before they became doctors, lawyers, businessmen, prominent members of the community, raising families and abandoning them. He wondered why his parents never had another child, and if they had even wanted him.

There was a picture of himself as a teenager, hands on hips, smiling self-confidently. In the background was the garage in back of the house where he grew up. He remembered secret gatherings there with his friends, telling stories about girls they'd kissed and fondled, and exploits not yet embarked upon. Some bragged that they had slept with women. He wanted to know what that was like and listened intently with a fascination that stirred his adolescent curiosity. One of the boys had magazines with nude pictures, but he would have none of that. He would find his “true love” and live “happily ever after,” silently admonishing them and himself, unsure if he was right, but dedicated to the moral high ground of deferred lust. 

Popular in high school, a good dancer and a neat dresser, he was elected class president and got a bit part in the school play instead of becoming hero of the playing field. “Mendy,” his teachers assured him when he graduated, “you'll make something of yourself, a success.” He knew that they were wrong. When he returned home bedecked with diploma and praises he stood in front of the mirror in his room and stared at himself in his new suit. Smiling coyly, he pretended that he was someone else, a businessman, or doctor. Someone of importance. He knew it was a mistake. It was only a beginning; thirty-five years later, he would sign on the dotted line: Failure.

Mendy fingered each photograph carefully, as if they contained a map of buried treasures. A bundle of bar mitzvah photographs portrayed him, Bar Mitzvah Hero of Hebrew School, weary soldier of Sunday school classes and lost time on the playground. There were pictures of him as a teen-ager and a few when he attended a local community college. Then, nothing, as if no one had any interest in him anymore, his life sucked into an abyss of forgotten years. His parents had moved to Florida and he'd moved in with an uncle in Cleveland who had an apartment above his tailor shop in a once-Jewish-now-black neighborhood. For a few years, he'd worked as a social worker, interviewing welfare applicants. It was only a job, he admitted, but he knew better. “The system,” he thought, was cheating them, and he was a part of it.

“My husban' up an lef me wif a housefulokids. Ain’t got no money.” Life is simple, he thought. The heavy black woman shrugged her shoulders and chewed a large wad of gum, her eyes bleary with a mascara of misery that covered her face like a plague.

“I have to verify…” he began, feeling ashamed and helpless,”… a special form …”

“Fuckyou whitey,” she spit at him. “Alls I wan' is a break. Us folks need food. You ain’t doin shit an yo gettin yo money. I don' get nothin,” she glared at him, kicked the table and walked proudly out.

Mendy pulled a package of tissues from his desk and wiped his forehead. The other social workers and their clients pretended to ignore his encounter, but an unusual hush settled in the room, like the aftermath of an explosion.

Feeling sick, he went to the bathroom and looked at himself in the mirror. ‘She was right!’ he acknowledged. ‘Name, rank and serial number.’ He splashed water on his face, toilets flushing automatically around him. It was time for a change and his cousin, Jack, called just in time.

“So, Mendy, what about working for me? I could use you in the store.” It was an offer he could hardly refuse; funds were low.

“How about an advance,” Mendy tried to bargain. “You can take it off my salary. I need something now.” Jack nodded sympathetically, but when Mendy counted out the bills, he was short. “That's the best I can do,” Jack said abruptly. Mendy hesitated for a moment and then stuffed the money into his pocket. “Can do,” he muttered, turning away.

Jack owned a men’s clothing store, “Jax Slax, ETC” in a suburban strip mall. Mendy didn't like Jack, or his bleached blond wife who looked like she had been spilled into a dress several sizes too small for her, but he needed a job and it was a short bus ride from his apartment. He enjoyed asking people about their lives, hearing about trips they had taken, business projects in which they were involved, as if he was a silent partner. Perhaps, he thought, one day I'll go back to school. Maybe Law, or Accounting, he mused.

“You've got a good head,” Jack encouraged him, “but you don't use it.” Mendy watched Jack ring up a purchase. “$39.99,” Jack said as he shoved a pair of pants into a bag.

“It's $29.99,” Mendy corrected him.

“What?” Jack looked at him angrily and then again at the register.

“Those pants are on sale,” Mendy said pointing to the red sign that hung over a table piled with assorted clothing. “It’s $29.99.”

Embarrassed, Jack adjusted the receipt. “No problem,” he reassured the baffled customer who looked curiously from Mendy to Jack.

“Thanks,” he said to Mendy when he received his change.

Later, Jack cornered Mendy outside the dressing room. “Did you have to tell him?”

“Tell him what?” Mendy acted surprised; he knew Jack.

“Why did you have to tell him? He wouldn't have known…”

“It wasn't the correct price,” Mendy said, hoping truth would protect him and not wanting to confront Jack.

“Who asked you?” Jack retorted angrily.

Mendy got the point as he shifted his eyes from one shoe to the other. His legs hurt him. Varicose veins, he thought, as a headache beginning to throb.

“Sorry, Jack,” he muttered. He didn't want to lose the job. He liked trying on hats and expensive jackets, fancying himself a gentleman at prices he couldn't afford. He remembered a boyhood friend who had ordered hundreds of dollars in clothing. “Look me up,” his friend had said, stuffing his business card into Mendy’s pocket. As he was packing the clothes in a box, Mendy wiped a large snot into the button hole of the suit.

Jack fired him without an apology. Mendy stuffed a pair of socks under his jacket on his way out. ‘Who cares?’ he said to the mannequin as he pushed open the “No Exit,” door and alarm bells rang in celebration.

Several months later, while standing in the line for his unemployment check, Mendy met Rabbi Berenson. When the rabbi asked him if he could help him out in his car rental business, he accepted eagerly. But his salary hardly covered expenses and customers were scarce. Berenson closed at the end of the month; Mendy stopped going to his classes. And Cindy was gone. It was meant to be, he concluded.

Cars were honking; a traffic jam. Taking a candle from the shelf, he lit it and watched its tiny flame shiver on the table. Slowly he let each photograph touch the edge of fire, until it shriveled into ash, smelling acrid odors of destruction. “Be a mensch,” he remembered his father's dying appeals.

Outside his window a radio blared. “Stayin alive…stayin alive…Somebody help me…I'm goin nowhere…”  He remembered a red-haired girlfriend who loved to dance. He didn’t like dancing and she got a job offer in California. Standing at a pay phone in front of Kosher Deli eating a hot dog with chili sauce, rain soaking into his jacket, he tried to persuade her to stay.

“Got to go,” she said. “Please understand. I love you, but we're not right for each other. I'll call.” He knew she wouldn’t.

“Let's talk,” he begged, licking mustard that leaked onto his fingers.

“It's no use, Mendy,” her voice mixed with noise from the street. “We'll stay in touch…” 

He bought himself another hot dog. ‘Maybe she was right,’ he thought. ‘She had a good job, moving up in her career. What did she need me for?’  Sounds of heavy trucks shook the iron grate beneath him, rattling inside him like a heavy prison chain.

Cars honked in rhythmic cacophony. Mendy thought about going back to bed. He wished someone would take care of him. He thought about several women to whom he had been introduced. He'd interviewed them dutifully, gently pulling out their stories, hopes that followed them like a stray dog that refuses to leave, ex-husbands who ran away, children who no longer needed them, careers and businesses that demanded attention, lives in furrows of regret. Mendy was a good listener. What were they looking for? Bottom lines stretched like horizons before him: ‘What are you gonna do for me?’

He thought about Shelly, nearly twenty years younger than he and half his weight. Sweeping into his life with enthusiasm, she stirred his expectations, but then, she too suddenly left. He'd sensed that danger all along, but refused to be put off, or discouraged. He'd even carried her bags to the airport. At first she’d answered his letters, but then, after months of waiting patiently for the mailman to bring him some reward for his efforts, he scratched her name off his list of dreams.

Traffic flowed again. Mendy crawled back into bed. Useless, he sighed, weariness overtaking him like the dreary aftermath of a battle. ‘No one would ever be there for me,’ he thought, feeling cold at the end of his nose. He remembered when he was a child, frightened, calling out to whatever power in the universe he thought would hear him. A fly buzzed nearby.

The sharp smell of burned photographs lingered in the air. He needed to blow his nose, but couldn’t find any tissues. He pushed himself up, went to the bathroom and dabbed a wad of toilet paper into his nose. A red trickle dribbled onto his mustache and down his scraggly beard, and then a fresh stream, heavier and redder, spilled out. Jabbing another wad of paper into his nose, his head began to spin. Choking, he gasped for air and then bolted for the door, flung it open and stumbled down the stairs and onto the sidewalk.

A sharp cold breeze slapped against him. Nearby, two children played in the street. In the distance a car swerved, heading for the kids. He screamed and ran towards them. Suddenly, he tripped and fell forward, arms flung out, his robe flying and landed in front of the kids as the car hurtled toward them. A screech of brakes. He felt the bumper graze his arm as he lodged under a parked car amidst the smell of burning rubber, dust in his mouth. Someone screamed; children were crying as people rushed to him. Eyes closed, he waited.

A siren and voices flowed around him. “Easy,” someone groaned as they placed him on a stretcher. “Damnit, he’s heavy.” He'd never been inside an ambulance before. Opening his eyes, he exchanged looks with the young woman dressed in white sitting next to him. “How do you feel?” she asked. Bruised, Mendy tried to connect to his body.   

In the emergency room a doctor examined him. “We'll keep him overnight,” he said, “just to make sure.” As they wheeled him down the hall, Mendy wanted to ask when meals were served. A few hours later he had a visitor.

“Rabbi Berenson,” Mendy was surprised. “What are you doing here?”

“I heard the news. I came right away,” he smiled, hitched up his pants and patted Mendy’s hand.

“You know, you're a hero. You saved those kids,” he leaned closer. “The parents want to organize a fund for you, for your recovery. There’s insurance. My brother-in-law's a lawyer. He'll take care of you.” 

A nurse came in to check his blood pressure. She held his hand. Inhaling the sweet incense of her perfume, Mendy sighed an epiphany.

Holy, holy, I will stay with you forever.



The author is a writer and journalist living in Jerusalem.   


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