You intend to wear the suit when applying for the chemical plant job. This is the same chemical plant where Faron, your roommate at the Oasis Center, works. He told you about the opening when one of his co-workers got promoted.
– They need someone to work in the warehouse, Marty, not run the company. Faron said when you took the suit down from the wire hanger in the closet the night before. – It's probably better to show them you're ready to do physical work. You don't want them to think you're over-qualified.
Nevertheless, you can't imagine going to any job interview dressed casually. The suit had hung in the closet for the past twelve days (since you first arrived at the Oasis Center) like a prisoner in a dungeon, abandoned and half-starved. The outer skin of normality, a palatable lie you'd been trying to shed for years. For a moment, the thought of putting on the suit made you go cold, like a snake trying to slither back into its old skin. Some part of you worried if you would ever be able to take it off again. When you first arrived, Faron had remarked that you could probably sell the suit for a good price. The thought was tempting.
You inspected the suit for any damage caused by the wire hanger. The shoulders a bit misshapen and an awkward crease on the pants, nothing too severe, but it still needed a good pressing, so you gave it a careful once over with the steam iron in the laundry room. Then, for good measure, you laid it out between the box spring and your mattress overnight. As you drifted off to sleep, you were aware of it under there, settling like a familiar residue. The sum of your existence.
This morning, after your shower in the communal bathroom down the hall, you button up your dress shirt and knot your tie. In the small mirror on the chipped dresser, you see yourself only from the top of your head to just below the shoulders. The shirt collar pinches and pushes up the roll of your extra chin, reshaping you into a presentable facsimile of what you used to be – a clothing salesman and family man in New Jersey – not the recovering alcoholic and gambling addict now living in a rehab center in Las Vegas. Once you put on the pants and jacket, you try to view as much of yourself in the mirror as possible. You have to stand on a chair to see your torso, doing up one then both coat buttons, then opening the coat altogether to nonchalantly slide your hands into pants pockets. The expanse of your belly fills you with such shame you decide to button the coat again.
You step down from the chair, jostling the butterflies in your stomach, not an entirely unpleasant feeling that evokes the morning inspections in front of your father back in Chomedey, a northern suburb off the island of Montreal, where your family moved with the hope that a quieter environment might ease your mother's manic-depression. Your father owned Sandy's Delicatessen on Labelle Boulevard, across the street from the St. Martin Shopping Center where everyone shopped at Miracle Mart. The old man always wanted to have his own business and be his own boss, but, truth be told, he would have preferred working in an office where he could wear a suit and sit behind a desk, rather than wearing a mustard-stained apron behind a deli counter.
He was extremely proud when, at seventeen, you started in the Boy's Wear department at Miracle Mart. Before that, you helped out in the deli, had a paper route, and flipped burgers at the A&W drive-in, but in the old man's mind, this was your first real job. A salesman.
Every morning as he drank his coffee, he waited for you to appear in the kitchen in your suit and tie, so he could look you over and beam his approval. This routine inspection was the closest father and son ever came to any kind of bonding ritual. You made sure there was always something for him to correct, a slightly crooked tie or a bit of lint on the shoulder.
Thinking back, you aren't exactly sure why you did this. Sure, you were hungry for the old man's attention, but you were also aware of taking a certain amount of pleasure in the envy that lay behind his pride.
Whenever he questioned you about the job – how you got along with the customers, if your supervisor treated you fairly – you always sensed there was more than mere paternal interest involved. You were being tested somehow, as if the old man was prodding for weaknesses, a subtle chipping away at the pedestal on which he put you, just to see how well you could balance yourself. The challenge lay not in having to prove yourself to him (not an especially difficult man to impress), but in the continuing process of keeping him convinced that you'd found your calling in life.
– Listen to me, Marty, he'd say. – I'm doing the best I can here. We'll always have a roof over our heads and food on the table no matter what. But I want something better for you. A nice suit. A big car. You can have whatever you want as long as you're willing to work. It's dog eat dog out there. So get hungry, Marty. Be a success.
Even during your rapid rise as a salesman for Fine Brothers, where the stakes and challenges continuously increased, you would play out those inspections in your head every morning as you got dressed. It was a way to remind yourself how far you had come since those days when you so eagerly sought the old man's approval. It was a daily rejuvenation of those twin youthful sparks: eagerness and determination. Later, when the challenges and demands of business became more and more stressful, those inspections in front of the mirror became bitter recriminations to the image of the old man looking over your shoulder. You'd been careening down a one-way road for so many years. Doing what? Being a salesman. A success. A self-made man who had no sense of himself.
The coolness of the morning is beginning to dissipate under the bright sun. The air has an oddly sweet chalky smell mixed with exhaust fumes from the steady flow of traffic. You decide to adopt an easy gait. Don't want to show up sweating like a pig.
It's too early for any bars to be open, yet each one you pass results in a concentrated effort to walk by with eyes straight ahead. Your only money is the bus fare you borrowed off Faron. All the same you enjoy this exaggerated denial of a temptation that isn't there.
You notice a variety store where the owner unlocks and lifts an iron grating that protects the front door and drags in tied bundles of newspapers. Your first thought is a pack of cigarettes even though you only have enough for the bus. You stop to look through the window, the tip of your nose kissing the cool glass, knowing you should just keep going. The proprietor of the variety store turns on the lights and there, behind the sliding glass door of a walk-in cooler, are rows and rows of Schlitz, Budweiser, Old Milwaukee. A six-pack and some Winstons. Go sit in a park somewhere. That exhale of relief from pulling the tab off a can of Bud. The first drink always gets you drunk. Just enough to wet your whistle, prime your thirst for something stronger.
That's enough now. You've had your fun, this playful tug of war between fantasy and torment. You turn from the window just in time to catch the bus that will take you to the chemical plant.
– Congratulations, Martin, says Jonah Whelan, director of the Oasis Center, from behind his desk. You like to look at the photos of his wife and two kids he keeps there. A handsome African-American family.
– What's the job?
– Warehouse in a chemical factory. Same place Faron works.
– You're on track. Just be patient with yourself. He lights up a Marlboro and pushes the pack toward you. You light one up and savor the smoke you've been craving all morning. It rushes to your head.
– You know what I mean, says Jonah. – Pace yourself. I've seen guys come in here, get a job, and then they can't wait to get out of here. They stop going to meetings and then the minute they feel a little freedom they relapse. Some of them come back; others we never hear about again.
You're still wearing the suit, not wanting to take it off before telling Jonah the good news. You're sure it gave you the edge in the interview and you want to hold onto that mojo for just a bit longer. Now that you have a job you're going to need bus fare until your first check. You toyed with the idea of calling New Jersey and asking Roz, but decide against it. You'll let her know about the job, but in terms of someone to hit up for money, it's probably best to keep her in your back pocket. Your sister is going to call from England on Sunday, like she promised to "every fortnight," but even if she agrees to send more money (having already sent the $25 for your Las Vegas work permit), it wouldn't get here before the week was out. You didn't like the idea of borrowing today's bus money from Faron and dismiss the idea of borrowing more. Something about the way Faron makes sure you know that you owe him. He took a lot of pleasure last night in lording it over you. Even bumming smokes from him is a drag. Having done time, he sees cigarettes as a kind of currency and is no doubt running a tab on how many of his you smoke.
– Slow and steady wins the race, you say to show Jonah you get his meaning. His two fingers with the cigarette wedged between them point at you, meaning you're spot on the money. The fingers are dark, but you notice the grayish-pink of his fingernails and glimpse the lighter tone of his palm. Twin clouds of smoke escape his wide nostrils.
– You're a smart guy, Martin, he says and smiles. – I consider the Oasis Center a level playing field where we're all struggling the same. But I can see you once had your shit together. How you got here doesn't matter. You made some bad mistakes, stole money from an employer, drank and gambled it all away. It don't make you better or worse than anybody else. How we make the most of our time here is another thing. I think you're going to be one of our success stories, Martin.
– I appreciate that, Jonah.
You lean over to stub out your cigarette in the ashtray. As usual, it is close to spilling over and you stand up to empty it in the wastebasket then replace it on the desk. Jonah thanks you and for a moment you just stand there. You have this ridiculous idea in your head that he might tip you or something, or even offer to slip you a couple of bucks for a service rendered. You, standing there in your suit, the one that scored you a warehouse job in a chemical factory. You can't even find the words to convey that you only need a small loan until your first check. Jonah looks up at you. His smile is warm, but something in it says he has a lot of work to catch up on. He holds out the pack of Marlboros.
– Take a couple, Martin, he says. – It's all going to be okay.
After changing into a shirt and chinos, you lean your mattress against the wall and carefully lay the suit out on your box spring. From the jacket's secret inside pocket you take out the empty pewter flask, the one with the inscription from Fine Brothers for doing a good job on the Macy's deal. It's empty, but keeping it in the secret pocket was a way of keeping it out of mind. Still, parting with it is not something you ever thought you'd have to deal with. You quickly slip it in your back pocket and cover the suit with your mattress.
The pawnshop is a twenty-minute walk from the Oasis Center. Before going in you stop to look at an exercise bike in the window. It's an old make, kind of rickety, but still looks to be in working order. You really need to lose some weight. Mr. Childers, the manager at the chemical factory, said that a week or two in the warehouse would get you back into shape. There's no price tag on the bike, but you notice other items in the window: a beat-up electric guitar, an old portable typewriter, some well-worn golf clubs sticking out of a tan and green leather bag, a cracked Naugahyde armchair. Some eight-track tapes and a stack of books.
You open the shop door and a buzzer sounds. Inside is a counter with a wire-mesh and plastic barrier, but no one behind it. A faint, tinny smell of tomato soup. Behind the high, wire mesh fencing is a sprawling pile of what looks like leftovers from a garage sale.
– What can I do you for today? A large sleepy-eyed man appears from a back room. He is bald and shambles slowly, his girth a kind of ball and chain he's been sentenced to drag around for life.
– What will you give me for this? You hold up the flask.
– Slip it through and let's have a look.
You slide the flask through a groove between the counter and the plastic barrier. The man holds it up to the dim light overhead. He screws the top off, takes a sniff and makes a face. He screws the top on again and inspects it some more.
– I'll give you ten.
– That's it?
– Take it or leave it.
Something crumples inside you. It's not that you were expecting a lot for it, but at least twenty or even fifteen bucks. How is this fair? All the time and effort you put into working at Fine Brothers, and it all comes down to…ten measly dollars? Wouldn't you be letting them all down? You were nothing if not a team player. You think about the day you were let go. The look of regret and disappointment on your boss, Mr. Feldman's face, as if he couldn't be sure this wasn't your own fault, rather than a downturn in the economy, as he had tried to explain. There's a similar judgement in the dull expression on the pawnbroker's face.
– Well? Yes or no?
– Do I have a choice?
– Look, my friend, we all have choices. What's yours gonna be?
A box of paperbacks catches your eye. On top is a familiar cover, Trump: The Art of the Deal. You have this back home in Fort Lee. You remember buying it when it first came out, around eight years ago. Again, you think of Roz, calling her later to tell her about the job. Maybe ask her to send you your copy of the book and while she's at it slip a couple of bucks between the pages. You pick up this battered and dog-eared copy, flip through the pages. What would The Donald do in this situation?
– How much for this?
– Fifty cents, says the pawnbroker.
– Tell you what. For the flask, ten bucks, throw this in, and we have a deal.
– What you think, this is some street bazaar?
– C'mon, you say. – Look on the back of the flask. There's an inscription. To me, for closing a big deal.
The pawnbroker reads the inscription and shrugs. – We all have a story.
– Sure, but that inscription on the flask? That story is over. This is the start of a new one. Ten bucks and the book. What do you say?
– Lucky for you my soup's getting cold.
The pawnbroker presses the key of an old-fashioned cash register, producing an old-fashioned ka-ching and the drawer pops open. A Pavlovian flutter in your chest as you remember the register in your father's deli. The pawnbroker writes out a ticket and pushes it with two fives through the groove. You shove them in your pocket and walk out with the book cradled under your arm. On the way to the Oasis Center, you buy a pack of Winstons and smoke two cigarettes, lighting the second one off the butt of the first.
– I really appreciated you sharing at last night's meeting, says Jonah as he shuffles through some forms in his desk drawer. You're sitting in a pair of blue jeans and a work shirt with your legs stretched out, showing off a new pair of steel-toed work boots you bought with your first paycheck. You're holding your copy of Trump: The Art of the Deal, which you carry everywhere and read at any spare moment, including your lunch hour at work. – I think the others found it inspirational. Selling the flask, making a deal with the pawnbroker, the deal to start your life over. I could see some of the other guys nodding when you said that. They look to you as a role model, Martin. Is that the book? You hand it to him and he flips through it then hands it back. – Never read this. Any good?
– Yeah, I bought it when it first came out. I have a copy back at home. It's interesting rereading it. There's stuff about his life growing up. Also, his formula for success. We keep talking about the twelve steps in our meetings. He's only got eleven. Things like thinking big and maximizing options. Using your leverage. It's sort of like Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking. I read that when I was still a kid.
You like dropping in on Jonah every now and then. His office door is literally open. You keep expecting him to tell you not to keep coming in so much, but he hasn't done that yet. He's always saying positive things to you, like what he just said about you being a role model to the other guys here. You don't fully believe Jonah, not that he seems dishonest, but your own interactions with the other residents here have been sporadic. Most everyone seems to come from blue collar backgrounds, which isn't a problem for you since your own background is working class. So far you haven't met anyone who's done any white collar work, like in an office or anything. There are a few ex-cons like Faron and some guys who worked construction or warehouses, like what you're doing now. The closest to a white collar worker is one guy who used to be a croupier in a couple of casinos.
– I can tell that you're well read, says Jonah. – I can believe that you were a good salesman. You have confidence in the way you speak in the meetings. I'm sure there's an art to it. What's that they say? You don't sell the steak, you sell the sizzle.
You laugh. – I guess so. The real secret is believing in what you sell. In the end, you're never selling the product as much as you're selling yourself. If they buy you, they'll buy whatever you're selling.
– I guess that makes sense. I just hope you remember, Martin, that in the meetings you don't need to be selling anything. I'm sure that attitude can serve you well in the outside world, but it could easily trip you up in the meetings. Know what I mean?
– You mean honesty?
– Sure, honesty. The eleven points in that book are probably pretty useful things to know in the business world. But you mentioned the twelve steps before. They're not just boxes to tick off. The steps take a long time to work, longer than most people think.
You thank him and stand up. He reaches for his pack of Marlboros, but you whip out your Winstons and hand them to him. Jonah smiles, and there's a yellow tinge at the rims of his moist eyes. He takes a cigarette from your pack, and you do as well. Then you take out your red Bic and light up the both of you.
On the bus ride to work, you've noticed a synagogue around Winchester in East Las Vegas. In the early days, growing up in the Outremont section of Montreal, you and your sister, Rachel, often accompanied your grandfather and uncle Victor to a nearby temple on St. Viateur Street. Once your family moved to Chomedey, there was no synagogue nearby. By the time the Young Israel was built a year after your arrival, you and Rachel had gotten out of the habit. Neither of your parents were ones to ever attend shul on a regular basis. You often passed the Young Israel while riding your bike on your paper route. On Saturdays, the sight of whole families walking to synagogue in their best clothes elicited only the mildest twinge of nostalgia. It was only much later in life, while your daughter Dani was still little, that you felt like you'd missed out on something fundamental. You never had a bar mitzvah celebration, and Dani was not interested in one either.
The New Sinai is a reformed temple. Going gives you a reason to wear the suit. You sit far back in the last row and listen to the morning service being conducted in Hebrew, not understanding a word of it, but, nonetheless, feeling mildly stirred by this most tenuous connection to your heretofore-neglected faith. There are also sermons in English, mostly about the challenges of being a Jew in today's modern society. You enjoy the rabbi's sense of delivery and timing. Having heard too many sales managers and executives who sounded as if they were cribbing from Dale Carnegie's original notes on public speaking, you're impressed by the rabbi's natural use of levity without ever losing the thread of his central message. If he hadn't decided to answer his religious calling (assuming it is a calling, or at the very least a vocation, although you're not sure if there is a difference between the two), you are pretty sure the man could have found success as a motivational speaker or possibly a stand-up comic.
After a few weeks you notice other members of the congregation are nodding at you in recognition, some even stopping to say hello and shake your hand. Soon the rabbi, whose name is Belkin, introduces himself. You admit that you're not part of the community, but make no mention about living at the Oasis Center. You speak guardedly about your background, but somehow let it slip that you'd never had a bar mitzvah ceremony. Even as you say it, a deep flush of embarrassment enflames your cheeks. Rabbi Belkin settles a firm hand on your shoulder and moves a little closer with the intimacy of a fellow traveller in the unforgiving orthodoxy of Jewish tradition.
– Lots of men haven't been through the ceremony. It's never too late you know.
Your laughter is uneasy. – I can't even speak a word of Hebrew. I'd have to start from the beginning.
– There's no shame in that. I could set you up with a teacher. Rabbi Belkin extends his hand as if ready to close the deal. – Think about it.
In fact, you think of little else for the following week. In the past, you sometimes toyed with the possibility of having a bar mitzvah ceremonyand wonder if you possess the discipline to learn Hebrew. You also wonder whether going through with the rite might somehow restore a sense of wholeness in your life. There are many cases of older people enrolling in adult education courses to get high school diplomas because the fact of not having one gnaws at their self-worth, no matter how successful they are.
There were two separate conversations before your thirteenth birthday. The first was with the old man. Actually, it was after you turned twelve. You knew it would be one of those man-to-mans because you both went for a drive in the beat-up Plymouth, the usual setting for all serious talks. Normally, he drove for a couple of blocks before anything was said. This would give you a chance to take in that over-heated vinyl smell that seemed to originate from under the dashboard and always got you in a more sober, adult kind of mood. You'd glance over at the old man, who'd already lit up his first Export A and was biting down on the brown filter, a sign that he was figuring out how to open the conversation.
– You understand that I'm a bit low on money now?
– I understand.
– I should have started you in Hebrew school when you were younger, but…
You picked up your cue. – That's okay. I didn't really want to go.
– Still, it would be good to know more about your heritage. I could send you to a rabbi now, I guess.
– No, you said. – I know it's too much money. I don't really want a bar mitzvah party. You didn't have one.
– Yeah, he said, biting down harder on his Export A. – But I always swore to myself that you'd have one.
– But I don't want one. I don't want to stand in front of everybody and sing something I don't understand. You fiddled with the glove compartment button, pushing it without letting it open.
– If it was good enough for you not to have one, then I don't need one either.
– I want something better for you than what I had, he said, staring straight ahead through the streaked windshield. – But I'm glad you understand.
The other conversation was with your mother. It went a bit differently. A month before your thirteenth birthday she took you downtown to buy you a suit at Morgan's on St. Catherine Street. You could tell, even before you left the house, that she was in one of those upbeat moods by the breathless way she spoke and hurried you along, as if you were holding her back. At the department store, the salesman kept bringing suit after suit at your mother's insistence for you to try on. Your only respite was inside the changing room where she couldn't follow. Once you were in a new suit, you came out and turned around for her and stood to look at yourself before the three mirrors (two of them angled for side views and the middle one for the full frontal). Your mother kept pinching and tugging jacket shoulders and trouser knees, going on about vents and double-breasted buttons, questioning the patient salesman about solid colors as opposed to pinstripes. Finally, when the salesman had brought a fifth suit, you turned to your mother.
– What do I need a new suit for anyway?
– What do you mean what for? Her voice managed to cajole and chastise at the same time, rising to a pitch that turned you cold inside. – In a month you're turning thirteen. That means you're going to be a man.
– But I'm not having a bar mitzvah party. Why do I need a suit?
She bent down and pushed the hair off your forehead. The sharpness of her perfume filled your nostrils and made your eyes water slightly. Her huge dark eyes fixed onto yours. Staring into them, you felt your balance wavering, as if perched on the edge of a dizzying abyss.
– Having a ceremony or not isn't the point, she said. – You're going to be thirteen, which means you're going to be a man. That's the deal.
– What deal? you challenged. – With who?
– With God, she said. – You're a man, not just in God's eyes, but also in the eyes of everyone you meet. What kind of mother would I be if I let you become a man without a proper suit? You're going to make me proud, Marty, whatever you do.
At that moment you glanced over to see the salesman pretending to busy himself with straightening some shirts piled on a shelf. You wished with all your heart that you could trade places with him. It had also made you self-conscious about turning thirteen without the benefit of a bar mitzvah ceremony.
You remember telling Dani the story of how your mother gave you a Star of David as a birthday present, in lieu of going through that rite of passage. It belonged to a woman she used to work for when she was a girl. The woman had tried to commit suicide, and your mother found her and called an ambulance. You're not sure, but you think the Star of David was the woman's way of thanking your mother for saving her life.
Since relating the story to Dani, you often wonder what had happened to that Star of David. During one of Rabbi Belkin's sermons at the New Sinai Temple, it hits you out of nowhere. The Star of David had been lost around the same time you were transferred to the Fine Bothers' New York office. Shortly after all yours and Roz's worldly possessions had been moved from Chomedey to Fort Lee, you mentioned to Roz that you couldn't find the Star of David.
– Did you pack it with your cufflinks and tiepins?
– I don't remember, you said. – I looked through all my stuff. It's gone.
– It could still turn up, she said and went on unpacking boxes of kitchenware. Her words stung, inflicting the dead certainty that you would never see the gold-plated star again.
On the following Saturday, Rabbi Belkin greets you after service. – Have you thought any more about the Hebrew lessons? The reason I ask is that my wife used to be a teacher and she wants to go back into freelancing. I mentioned you to her, and she was intrigued.
– To be honest, I'm not sure I can afford any lessons.
– I think she misses the teaching more than the money. I'm sure your financial situation would be taken into account.
– Let me think about it some more.
– Take your time, says the rabbi, squeezing your hand. – I won't bring it up again.
On the bus, you let your mind play with the strange excitement of studying for the rite. You pretend to still weigh whether it is a necessary expense. That familiar restlessness forces you to get off a few blocks before your stop. You think better while walking and realize, as the Oasis Center comes into view, that you had already made up your mind the moment Rabbi Belkin squeezed your hand.
– I think it's a great idea, Jonah says while absently tapping out something on the keyboard of his computer terminal.
– So do I, you say. – Still, I've been changing my mind back and forth all this week.
– You know we put an emphasis on placing your faith and recovery in a higher power. For that alone, I'm glad you've been going to temple. For me, it's important to be open and flexible about what a higher power means, because most people just don't have that sort of thing in their lives. Someone or something that is greater than themselves. So, you know, even on the level of having some kind of basis that will help your recovery…I'd encourage you to give it a shot.
– I guess it would give me something to focus on. A goal.
– Magical thinking, says Jonah. – That's what's taken the place of religion. That's why people don't need something greater than themselves. They look at the world, and they think they see all these clues, all these signs that point from one thing to another. Things that connect the dots in their fractured lives. Coded messages that are supposed to give them a leg up. Don't fall for magical thinking, Martin. I think you're being given a rare opportunity.
It calms you to hear this from Jonah. The mad fluttering that swings from excitement to fear and back again until you're not sure which is which, that restless pendulum you suspect was passed on to you from your mother, is quelled for the moment. At this moment, anything seems possible. You want to shake Jonah's hand, thank him with all your heart. Instead, you tell him you need to do some laundry before tonight's meeting.
– Catch you later, he says without looking up from his computer keyboard.
Your first lesson with Meera Belkin is at the New Sinai Temple on Sunday after lunch. You are both sitting in a conference room at a long table surrounded by chairs. On the walls are photographs of desertscapes outside Las Vegas. You are surprised to discover that these were taken by Meera herself.
– They remind me of Israel, she says and tells you she was born in Jerusalem and met Norman (Rabbi Belkin) in the early 1980s on a kibbutz. – We were married while he was at the yeshiva in Tel Aviv and moved to America in 1990. First ,we lived in his hometown in San Francisco, and in 1992 we came to Las Vegas. It's been three years, but I'm only starting to feel settled.
The photos are atmospheric and otherworldly, texturally unique like visions of a remote planet. The one you are most drawn to was taken at late dusk and features the distant lights of Las Vegas glowing spectrally against a darkening sky.
– I call that one Gehenna, she says.
– Gehenna? The word is vaguely familiar, possibly something you heard from your grandparents.
– It's from the Bible, Meera explains. – Gehenna was a valley south of Jerusalem. It was a site for human sacrifices to the god Moloch. Mostly children. Later it became a burning rubbish heap. The Jewish version of Hell. These days that area is known as the Valley of Hinnom. I have a cousin who gives bus tours there for tourists. He's very ambitious, very opportunistic.
– What's wrong with that?
– Nothing, I guess. I just don't like him because he tried to kiss me and put his hand up my skirt when we were kids. But he saw an opportunity to cash in on the deal we make with history.
– Which is?
– We are happy to go up close as long as we can also keep our distance.
You turn your attention to the photograph again. – So Las Vegas is the burning rubbish heap?
– More like a neon rubbish heap, she says and laughs. – My husband thinks I'm too harsh about this place, but it's just my way of coping.
The name Moloch strikes a familiar chord. Not from anything Biblical, but from a poem you heard once. When you were a teenager and had first moved to Chomedey, you had a sleepover with a few friends you'd made. One boy named Avi fancied himself to be something of a bohemian. He had brought a book called Howl by Alan Ginsberg. There were four of you altogether sitting in your room. The lights were off and Avi read the poem by flashlight. You and the other two thought it was going to be some kind of ghost story, but it merely turned out to have a few dirty words. The rest was mostly incomprehensible, but you all liked Avi's dramatic reading. Your father was still at the deli, closing up. Your mother was in her room. You hoped she could not hear any of the dirty words. You remember Avi intoning the name… Moloch, Moloch, Moloch.
Meera has a Hebrew schoolbook and gives you a basic lesson of the alphabet. She explains how the letters are consonants and the markings under the letters represent vowels and makes you repeat lines of the letter Beth with different vowel markings. You find the repetition soothing. The strangeness and familiarity of it. A way to relive a youth you never had.
– You can take the book home to practice, and we'll meet again next Sunday.
– What are you going to charge?
– I was told you couldn't really afford to pay.
– I'm not expecting you to teach me for free.
– Sure I understand, she says. – I haven't taught in a long time. The lessons are as much for me as for you. Let's see how things go, and then we can settle on a price.
Over the next few weeks, you fall into a regular schedule of work and lessons, interspersed with AA meetings and visits to Jonah's office. Trump: The Art of the Deal and your Hebrew textbook comprise a mini library on your bedside table. When you're not reading one your nose is buried (as Faron often observes) in the other. Faron has his place in the schedule. You ride the bus to work together, although you read while he sleeps. He even notices that you're starting to lose some weight, from all the lifting and moving around metal drums in the warehouse, and suggests the two of you hit the town some night to pick up some women.
– Doesn't gotta be in a bar, he says. – There's lotsa coffee places now we can go to. When you tell him you're not interested he grins. – I get it. Saving it up for teacher. This whole learning Hebrew for your bar mitzfee is just a way to get some wang bang sweet Jew-tang.
– It's bar mitzvah, not mitzfee.
– Really? Isn't that where you get a lot of presents and money? That's like getting a fee, isn't it? He laughs, and you decide to let it go.
After a while, you notice he starts calling you by your last name and tends to carp about little things, particularly at the warehouse. During one lunch hour, while you're reading the Trump book, he pushes it aside to get your attention.
– There's a rhythm to working here, Weintraub. You have to make it last, so it looks like you're always busy. If you do the work in half the time, you make the rest of us look bad. Just cause you can't wait to get back to one of your books. The Hebe schoolbook and this Jew-It-Yourself piece of shit.
– This? you say, genuinely puzzled. – Trump's not Jewish.
– He's rich and he's from New York, ain't he? One hundred per cent Hebe, he says, pushing those H's in your face. You can smell the alcohol on his breath and wonder if you should say something to Mr. Childers, as well as to Jonah.
– I promise you Donald Trump is not Jewish.
He decides to ignore you and takes a cigarette from your pack of Winstons without asking. This is something he started a few weeks earlier. At first you didn't mind,since you bummed plenty of smokes from him when you first got here. He seems to be on some kind of rant, so you decide now might not be the time to say something.
– Know why you Jews are still around? he says, lighting up. – Because those Nazis did a shitty job. Those krauts are supposed t'be so efficient and everything. But when you see pictures from those camps there are a lot of old people in them. Why go to the trouble? They gonna die anyway. Just kill the kids. If you wanna wipe out the race, you gotta cut that shit at the root. No kids, no future. That simple.
When Mr. Childers calls you into his office one afternoon to tell you he has had to let Faron go, your sense of relief is not without an undercurrent of dread. Some small airline-sized whiskey bottles were found behind a group of empty chemical drums and traced back to him. Also, his anti-Semitic tirade to you was overheard by someone else.
– You should have reported that to me yourself, says Mr. Childers, partially as a rebuke, but with a measure of sympathy. – We have no room for that kind of person here or those kinds of views. I don't expect him to make any kind of complaint about being fired unfairly, but if he does, I hope you'll come forward as a witness.
You assure him you will and apologize for not going to him in the first place. On the bus, you try to prepare yourself for whatever confrontation might be waiting for you at the Oasis Center. You decide to put off the inevitable by going to a men's clothing store to buy a proper hanger for the suit. Something you should have done sooner. Ridiculous to keep it under the mattress all this time. Most likely Faron will accuse you of getting him fired. You'll probably have to get Jonah involved and then Faron's drinking will come out. Maybe he'll have to leave the Oasis Center. What you aren't expecting is to find your mattress turned over and the suit gone. You look in the cupboard and dresser drawers, but only Faron's clothes are missing. You tell Jonah then file a report with the police.
Later that night, you find it strange to have the room to yourself. As you settle down to sleep, you're surprised by how quiet it is, not realizing how accustomed you were to Faron's snoring. If you didn't know better you think you might actually miss him. You spend much of the night lying awake, but when you do finally fall asleep you dream of the pawnshop where you hocked the flask.
In the dream, the pawnshop is lit up with a casino-like neon sign, the glass piping shaped to look like red and blue flames and flashing Hebrew letters. In the window, amidst the exercise bike, electric guitar, and typewriter hangs your suit. Rather than a regular hanger, it has been fitted on some kind of wooden rack so that the arms and pant legs are akimbo, as if ready for an embrace or maybe to be tortured. You wave to let it know you see it, that you will rescue it. At that moment, Faron walks out of the pawnshop drinking from your flask.
– Look what I got, he says and takes another long swig. – Straight trade for the suit.
– You got ripped off! you scream, more anxious than angry, strangely worried about Faron. – The suit is worth way more.
– Nah, not for this flask. It's bottomless. It never empties.
To prove it, he pours liquor from the flask over the ground. – See? Endless hooch. Better than magic beans. Now how about joining me in a drink to celebrate my good luck.
You tell him you're not going to drink, but he keeps insisting. You cover your mouth with your hands, and Faron starts pouring liquor all over you, chanting over and over. – You gotta cut that shit at the root. You gotta cut that shit at the root.
He takes a lighter out of his pocket and you recognize it as your red Bic. He flicks the button and a long flame shoots up. He moves it closer to your face, ready to set you on fire. When you wake up, it's still dark. Your legs are cold and damp, and you realize you've pissed the bed.
– Sounds very intense, says Jonah after you tell him as much of the dream as you can remember, leaving out the part about wetting the bed. – Then again, you have a lot going on, what with the new job, the lessons and all this Faron business. But I think things will settle down. You've hit the ground running, so it's okay to find those moments to chill out. Relax. You're still allowed to enjoy life.
As usual, Jonah is talking while his attention is on something else. This time he has the phone receiver cradled between his shoulder and his chin while he types on his computer keyboard. He's on hold and sighs with impatience.
– It was weird having the room to myself. I sort of felt like I was… You stop when Jonah puts his finger up to interrupt you and immediately begins talking on the phone. When his conversation is over he turns his attention back to the computer and continues typing.
– You were saying.
– Nothing important. I guess I should feel lucky having my own room.
– Well, don't get used to it. We got someone new coming in. A young guy. I'm putting him with you. Let's hope some of your good influence rubs off on him.
You buy a cheap blazer to wear with chinos for shul the following Saturday. When you get back to your room, there's a young man sitting on Faron's bed. He can't be older than twenty-one. The mattress is bare with clean bedclothes still folded at the foot. A battered suitcase lies flat on the floor. He wears a white, short-sleeved shirt and dark pants. His hair is short and badly cut. He looks like a Mormon, the kind you've seen wandering in pairs on the strip. He's reading your copy of Trump: The Art of the Deal. He looks up at you.
– Sorry, is this yours? He closes the book.
– That's okay. I'm Martin. You can call me Marty.
The two of you shake hands. He returns the book to your bedside table. You sit on your bed and notice his collar is askew. You study him for a moment then realize the shirt is buttoned wrong. You take out your pack of Winstons and offer him one.
– I don't smoke, he says.
You put the pack away. – Good. It's a bad habit to get into. I think I'll go to the front porch for a smoke.
– You don't have to do that, he says. – If you want to have a smoke it's cool with me.
– Tell you what. From now on this room's a no smoking zone. Okay?
He nods. You show him which drawers are his and which side of the closet he can use. Then you head out to the front porch for a cigarette. You might even go for a walk along the strip. Make it long and leisurely, like Jonah suggested. Enjoy yourself. Just to give the kid some time to get settled.
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