There were three of us in the little cafe squeezed between a dime store and a laundrette in Little Italy. We had the place to ourselves - it was too late for the night-time boozers who dropped in to hose down their stomachs irritated by the excessive intake of Manhattans, and too early for the mid-day pastrami-on-rye guzzlers from nearby offices. If anybody wondered why a would-be writer, born and bred in the Liberties, was more frequently than not seen in the company of two gaffers born, bred and bar-mitzvahed in the pre-war Warsaw, he could easily see that the reason was an ancient Persian (or was it Chinese?) game called chess. In fact, the board had already been set in front of us and we were about to toss a coin to decide who’d start first.
Shlomo Fendelman, the younger of the two, was separating the black pieces from the white ones, setting them on the board like two disciplined armies. Although I was quite fond of Shlomo, there was one thing that nearly made me weep with frustration and it was his habit of slicing off the last syllable of my name.
“Derm,” he said now with the immutable seriousness of a person suffering from an acute case of world hurt. “You Irish and we Jews have much more in common than anybody in his right mind would expect. Do you get my drift, Derm?”
“It’s Dermot, Shlomo, Dermot Sweeney.”
“Never mind, Derm. What’s a name but a cluster of glottals and sonants? How’s that for my knowledge of phonetics, ha?” he chuckled amused by his witticism. “If you were at least someone famous, like our Singer or, whatsisname, your red-bearded playwright. But the problem with you is that you are not a finisher. In fact, you’re barely a starter. You might have great ideas but all of them half-baked. And you know why? Because instead of pounding away at your typewriter, you come to this lousy cafe and play chess with two old geezers. What can you learn from us?”
Shlomo was right. I was not a finisher. I’d started a novel about the second-generation Irish in New York, then went on to more marketable topics like dope-dealing and teenage prostitution in Wichita. So far, I had two sketchy chapters and a drawerful of plots that needed working on. Next week, of course. In the meantime, I spent most mornings drinking coffee and playing chess with two Polish Jews nearly double my age.
“That’s how I see it, Derm,” Shlomo droned on. “Take a typical Jew and compare him with a typical, run-of-the-mill Irishman. Both the Irish and the Jews have more similarities than differences, religion apart. Both you and we have seen all the chutzpah there’s to be seen and we’ve taken it in our stride. But there’s one thing we can’t do without: suffering. There’s nothing sweeter and more tempting to a Jew than suffering and from what I’ve seen of you, Derm, the same goes for the Irish. We bask in our otherness, you with your Emerald Isle and we with our Promised Land.”
“Promised to whom?” Aaron, the other old geezer, muttered. He was quite ugly, Aaron was, with a big nose stuck to his face like God’s afterthought. Normally a talkative fellow who played well-calculated, aggressive chess, he nibbled on a stale bagel and was strangely subdued today.
“There is a need for suffering in every Jew and I can tell you Aleichem was right when he said: ‘If no one squeezes us, we squeeze ourselves’.” Shlomo tapped the white bishop against the table. “Isn’t it so, Aaron?”
Aaron snorted uncomprehendingly into the bagel.
“What I find even more extraordinary is our ability to survive. Take any Celt or any Jew, tie his hands and feet and, in a Houdini-like stunt, he will get free. Bury him, and shovelful after shovelful he’ll emerge. Burn him, and from the ashes he’ll be re-born like a Phoenix.”
I winced inwardly at the words ‘bury’ and ‘burn’. It had been difficult at first because due to my instinctive fear of using words such as ‘camp’ and ‘chimney’, (words I had imagined brought painful memories to Jews), our conversation had been stilted. But Shlomo had put me on the right track.
“To the contrary, Derm.” (Dermot, Shlomo, Dermot!) “Speaking about the camps and the chimneys shows you haven’t forgotten. It’s respect - for us, for the dead. Keep the memories alive.”
“Coffee!” he called now to a passing waiter with eyes as big and brown as pickled olives.
From the pocket of his checked trousers Aaron took out a coin we used to flip to decide who was to start, looked at it for an instant, then put it back in.
“What is it, Aaron? Don’t you feel like a game? Scared we are going to check-mate you in the third move?” Shlomo teased.
Aaron sat with his long legs crossed at the ankles. “Maybe later, Shlomo.”
“Aren’t you feeling well?”
“It’s all the talk about suffering. Nobody chooses suffering. Your Aleichem was an old clod, “if nobody squeezes us” and so on. It’s just a lot of schmaltz.”
“Our Aleichem, Aaron, our.”
I watched them quietly. There was something they were not telling me, something that all the similarities between the Irish and the Jews (religion apart) could not explain. Aaron was miffed and it couldn’t have only been Aleichem’s century-old maxim.
I got up. “You’d better carry on without me,” I said.
“Sit down, Derm,” Shlomo ordered. His dry hand with coils of veins like aluminium wire under the skin patted his friend’s knee.
I felt ill-at-ease. What had promised to be an entertaining, if not particularly intellectually stimulating, chess-and-chat morning was turning into a cheap melodrama with rookie actors and an unwilling spectator.
“Your coffee,” the waiter balanced a tray on a boyish hip. He looked like a flamenco dancer - his movements well-co-ordinated and slightly effeminate.
Shlomo threw a few dollar coins on the table. “Keep the change.”
“I’m sorry, Dermot,” Aaron never called me by anything else but my full name. “The weather’s getting me down.”
It was hot outside, middle nineties I’d say, and a dry summer breeze tumbled a whirlpool of dust and litter along the pavement.
Aaron lifted the cup over which curled a cumulus of steam, took a gingerly sip then put it down again. “I’m not the best company today,” he rose and extended his hand to me. “I’d better get going. Shalom, Dermot.”
He left the cafe without a glance at Shlomo.
Fendelman slid his glasses off the nose, huffed at the lenses and using a corner of his shirt polished them in long, leisurely strokes.
“What’s eating him?” I asked.
Shlomo finished the tedious ritual and inserted his specs a little crookedly back on his nose. “Do you know the story of the dog and the sausage?” he asked.
“What kind of a writer are you, then? Every child knows the story of the dog and the sausage. But never mind. It goes like this. There was this mutt chained to a tree. The chain was neither long nor short - just the right length to let the dog move around. One day, a passing beggar dropped a sausage in the yard. The dog could see it, smell it but it couldn’t reach it. The chain was too short. It was not a clever dog: it thought that yanking at the chain could get it closer to the sausage. It yanked and yanked but neither the tree nor the sausage moved. It yanked so hard its collar bone hurt but still it got him nowhere. It would have yanked its stupid head off if the same beggar hadn’t happened to pass again. He saw the sausage, picked it up and ate it.”
In the kitchen a tarantella was racing to a crescendo. With the corner of my eye I saw the waiter tap his fingers on the counter as if it were a tambourine.
“Aaron was in Auschwitz, you know,” Shlomo said.
I did know. I had seen the faded bluish number on his forearm. “So what’s new?” I asked.
“Nothing. Just shut your gob and listen.”
The tarantella was over and the waiter, clearly bored with the early-morning lull, was directing a Puccini overture with sugar tongs.
“In the camp Aaron worked in a cobbler’s workshop. He’d been a cobbler before the war and the camp needed trained professionals. His wife, Lena, had been a housewife. They had no need for housewives in Auschwitz.”
He didn’t need to explain what he meant.
“Aaron wanted to live but don’t we all? And one way of securing his survival was to work for the Reich. He worked hard, Aaron did, he was a good cobbler. Until one day he saw a shoe. He’d seen thousands of shoes before - sandals, high-heels, work boots and plimsolls. But this shoe was different - it was a red shoe with a brass buckle. The sole was a bit thin, the person who’d worn it tended to put her weight on the heels. There was really nothing special about the shoe apart from one thing. It was Lena’s shoe. He’d mended it himself. And suddenly Aaron did not want to live any longer. He felt he had no right to live. But people in the camp were told exactly when to die. Death was everywhere, of course, but it was like the sausage in my story - it dangled temptingly in front of their eyes, but they couldn’t reach it. In a way, it would have been easier to die. But they had no right to choose the moment of their deaths. Aaron was still useful, you see. He was ordered to live.” Shlomo stared somewhere above my head into the broiling street. Sunshine poured in through the windows and, reflecting from the slightly convex glass, wove a dozen rainbows on the floor.
“But tell me, Shlomo, what does it have to do with now? It happened more than forty years ago.”
“That’s exactly what I mean by the chutzpah of fate, you see,” he swallowed making his Adam’s apple bob up and down like a walnut in a turkey’s neck.
“It’s the damn Sears,” he said.
“After the war Aaron remarried. Yesterday he went to buy a present for Hannah, his granddaughter. She fancied one of them ‘hip’ shoes with platforms like the ones that actors used to wear in Greek tragedies. Fashions come and go, you know. And quite by chance, he saw a shoe - the exact replica of Lena’s red leather shoe. There it was - bang in the middle of New York.”
He dipped his parched lips in the cold coffee. “What a shemozle, Derm.” He said.
For once I didn’t feel like correcting him. Just this once, it didn’t matter. I thought I had seen and heard it all. Writers, especially unpublished ones, are conceited creatures. There’s a potential Shaw or a Singer in each of us and a ‘Pygmalion’ or a ‘Shosha’ in the drawer full of ideas. But I realised now that there was still much to hear and to see, and that it was probably my conviction of omniscience that made my writing dry and flavourless and pushed me into the category of ‘unfinishers’, as Shlomo would put it.
As a writer, I was not fond of using worn out, warmed up clichés like ‘there’s more in Heaven...’ and so on. But at that moment, looking at Shlomo’s ostrich head and listening to Puccini on the radio, I felt exactly like that. There was a lot to learn. From two old geezers born and bar-mitzvahed in the pre-war Warsaw. From a red leather shoe with a brass buckle.