Thursday, January 12, 2012

Grunstein's Sabbath (a short story)


            “I knew Maury Fishbein when he was operating illegal sublets in Allston!  He’d rent a place for $30 a month, and charge some greenhorn schlemiel $100, and it was illegal.  He was a gonif then and his grandson is a gonif now!”  Grunstein was out of breath.  His doctor forbade such outbursts, yet here he was, bursting out.
            “They are Havahart Traps, sir,” the man in the gray Fishbein maintenance overalls explained, his face puckered, as if Grunstein were a drip of paint pooling on the ceiling and ready to drop in his eye. “The cats won’t be harmed.”
            “Won’t be harmed, he tells me!  It’s not not harmed that bothers me – it’s removed!” Grunstein panted, his eyes darting around as if the fellow was not in front of him at all, but floating around his head, freestyle. 
            “I have my job to do.  I have my orders,” the man answered, a shade of annoyance crossing his face like a wisp of cloud over an already dim sun.
            “Now Nuremberg!  The Nuremberg defense I have to hear, here in Boston!”  The man did not understand Grunstein, shrugged, and walked away.  The traps were strewn about the fringe of the scraggly woods, just before a small rock outcropping -- an empty lot for eternity, too steep and craggy to build anything that would make money.  Grunstein stood and looked at the empty traps.  Each one had a square piece of dead fish on its trigger mechanism.  They were like empty coffins, waiting to be filled with corpses.  His cats would not be able to resist them.
            Grunstein would attack.  Would use his wits.  He sat at his desk and turned on the lamp.  The winter light was already fading through the window.  To give the letter some professional heft he took out a sheet of paper from the Commonwealth Insurance Company, his employer for forty-five years, and began to write in his shaky hand:

Peter Fishbein, President, Fishbein Properties
Mr. Fishbein,

            First.  What self respecting Jewish mother would name her son Peter?  Is this letter going to the Vatican? No offense to you, you can’t help what your mother named you, but when I was young, no Jewish mother would ever name a child Peter or Paul or Andrew.  What are we doing here, painting the Last Supper? My sainted first wife Ruth, dead now twenty years, named our son Jacob, dead now forty years, after her dead father, a rabbi in the Old Country.  That woman kept me in line for more years than I care to count…
            Second. I knew your grandfather, Maury Fishbein, way back in the day.  I know his secrets, and the skeletons in his closet (which is your closet too)! The only good Fishbein was poor young Mabel, who died at 15 of the Polio.  She was too young to get the Fishbein ways…
            So, Mr. Peter Fishbein, I’m an old man.  I buried two wives and a young son.  I have a fixed income.  A small pension.  Social security.  If I did not have a rent- controlled apartment, I’d be writing this from the poor house.  I’ve always been a good Jew.  Go to the shul, read the Talmud everyday.  Every seven years I finish and start again…

            Grunstein realized he was meandering, so he got down to brass tacks:

            So, Fishbein, I’ve got about 20 stray cats live in the woods behind your 15 Egremont Road building.  Live under the boards in the porches next door, have kittens in the holes in the rocky crag, why not leave them alone?  I put food and water in the bowls. I don’t bother anyone and the cats don’t neither.  How about this?  From a Grunstein to a Fishbein, old neighborhood families.  All I have is cats and God.

            Grunstein posted the letter, satisfied he had found the right balance between threats and pathos, emotions and facts. 
A week later he received a letter from the Fishbein Properties Corporation.  Not from Peter Fishbein as he had hoped, but from someone named Lopez.  Now Fishbein employs the Spanish, he thought, shaking his head as he freed the letter from the envelope without dexterity.  He quickly read, his eye stopping at: --- cats are being removed by order of the Health Department, and --- a health hazard and nuisance and ---overpopulation and disease.
            Grunstein’s trembling hands let the letter fall to his kitchen table.  Well, he thought, Fishbein wants war.

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