BONUS! Episode featuring short story “No One to See” by E. L. Tenenbaum!
Listen or read below:
(Originally published in Ami Magazine, August 2023.)
For those who do good, even if they don’t look the part. For those who do good, even if there is no one there to see.
Hear another short story “Hiya, Pops!”
He tugs the collar of his black leather jacket tight against his neck, warding off the lingering winter chill. Exiting his basement apartment, he kicks aside the burned remains of cigarettes littering the brick floor outside. He lives in his parents’ home, but he uses his own door.
Their neighbor Mrs. Rosenberg sniffs audibly as she waters the potted plants on her back porch, as if she can smell the smoke that’s long dissipated. He’d invited some friends to hang out at his place last night, but it had been a quieter gathering than usual. Low music, talk a murmur. She can cut looks his way, but he knows they didn’t keep anyone awake.
He also knows she isn’t the only one in his neighborhood whose lips thin when he walks past. Whispered words accompanied with sad head shakes, disappointed looks and glances heavenward, tsks and clicks about kids who don’t fit the system tend to follow him.
A boy who wears dark shirts without buttons, fitted jeans and not slacks, a gray knitted beanie or navy blue baseball cap without a yarmulke beneath. He doesn’t wear loafers or shoes with buckles but scuffed boots that add a thud to his step. He doesn’t wear Tefillin for davening, but slips them on long enough for a hasty Shema before he’s wrapping them back up again. His fingers don’t tap a keyboard in the quiet of a temperature-controlled office, nor is his day filled with low susurrations of lessons reviewed over large Gemaras. Rather, his fingernails blacken with car grease and oil changes, the clank of the auto body shop overlayed with staticky sounds of play-by-plays or classic rock.
Guys like him work different jobs, but the general track is the same. Academically unlearned but brazenly street-smart, wardrobes designed for gritty work and interests more aligned with cars and sports than the texts of their heritage. They’ve all been to the schools, they’ve all lived the life, but they also all cut out of their studies before finishing the “standard program.” His friend Danny repairs computers and jokingly refers to their group as system failures.
He takes the steps up to the pavement at a hop but freezes when he notices something dark on the uppermost one. He bends and his fingers close around the buttery softness of expensive leather. He examines the item in his hand; a wallet. He glances around, puzzled, but looking up and down the block doesn’t reveal anyone grabbing at a purse or pocket in horror. No one seems to be in the area right now at all, so he figures it must have bounced from someone passing by earlier this morning.
He turns his back to the street and rubs a hand along the black leather surface, admiring the quality of a wallet surely worth more than the jacket he saved up for all spring and summer. He flicks it open and checks inside; no license, no credit cards, medical cards, or checks with names. He peeks into the billfold and finds a neat stack of one-hundred-dollar bills. They’re so crisp they resist being counted, but there are fifteen all together. Fifteen hundred dollars of clean, unclaimed cash ready to disappear into his pocket. He looks the street over again but whomever he sees is busily going about their day. There isn’t even a straggler to chase down with, “Excuse me, did you drop something?” Even Mrs. Rosenberg is back inside. No one sees what he found.
He shoves the wallet into his back pocket and hurries down the street before he’s late for work. He keeps his eyes straight and his head slightly ducked, but he imagines that someone just knows and the wallet burns where it’s tucked away.
He tells himself that if there’d been a name, he would go straight to return the wallet, not even a doubt. However, without identifying features, he begins to think of what he can do with the extra cash. Should he be responsible and save it or blow it on something frivolous because it’s money he didn’t expect or earn? He could stick it in the bank or get seats so close to the field he can count individual blades of grass. A night of drinks at the bar with friends? Make a big donation? He can keep the wallet which pairs well with his jacket or sell it and add even more hundred-dollar bills to his windfall.
He hasn’t decided by the time he reaches the mechanics shop where he works. The phone is ringing as he steps inside and trips the notification bell.
“Hey, Kiwi, get that!” his boss Bernie calls from the back.
It’s been two years and Kivi’s beginning to suspect his boss just enjoys the mistake he’s made with his name. Truth is it’s better than other things he’s been called. System failure.
When he first took the job, his father encouraged him to gain enough experience to quickly branch out on his own, working under the hood of cars a satisfactory choice if he’s the one running the shop. He could even pay house calls, his father claims. Either way, he’d be away from the sports betting, classic rock, and unsupervised influence of Bernie Gregson. But Kivi wants to do more than change oil and clean filters; he wants to detail fast cars, and Bernie can show him how.
He grabs the phone and as the work day begins all thoughts of the wallet and ways to spend the cash are pushed to the side. He doesn’t remember it again until he’s standing at the café counter during his lunchbreak and almost pulls out the wrong bills to pay for his sandwich. He hesitates for the briefest of moments. What if he takes one of those hundreds? No one would know whose money he’s placing on the counter. No one knows just how much he found.
“You want something else, Kivi?” his friend at the counter asks.
He shakes his head, pulls out his own rumpled twenty, shoves a five-dollar tip in the jar, and fist bumps his friend. Outside the day has warmed enough for him to have left his jacket at the shop, and he glances around for a spot that’s catching some sun. He doesn’t like eating at work, the grime and grease making everything else feel dirty and grimy too.
He’s about to sit on a low stone wall, when he hears an anxious voice in the small parking lot separating the café from the large supermarket next door. Glancing over, he sees a flustered woman standing before a car that’s tilted at a slight angle. Flat tire.
He watches the woman speak into her phone. There looks to be two kids in the back and the tone of her voice indicates someone who’s very overwhelmed. Maybe she’s talking to her husband who can’t leave work which is over an hour away because he’s already taken too many days off with the new baby—
He scratches at his bristly chin, too short for a beard, too long to be clean-shaven. He grabs the bag with his lunch and heads toward the woman. She stares openly at his approach. He doesn’t have his collar to pull up against the chill, but walks forward anyway, gesturing at the trunk.
“You have a spare?”
“A spare tire. I can change it for you.”
The woman catches herself staring, and repeats into the phone, “Do we have a spare tire?” She listens then shakes her head at him. “Someone just came over,” she explains into the receiver.
He points up the road. “There’s a mechanic two blocks up. You can get help there.”
“What time will the tow truck be here?” the woman asks into the phone. “Eighty to ninety minutes! I don’t have time for this!” Her pitch rises high enough to break, and he’s sure she’s about to cry. She catches herself and pauses to listen, her frustration clear. “No way. I’m not driving with a flat and two little kids in the car!”
“I’ll drive,” he offers without thinking.
The woman doesn’t answer right away. Then, into the phone, “He says he’ll drive.”
She looks at him again, making no attempts to hide that she’s studying him. She walks toward the trunk, as if looking the car over, but he knows they’re speaking about him. She walks back and holds the phone out to him. He puts it to his ear.
“This is Abi Franks. Who am I speaking with?”
A pause, perhaps waiting for more, but he doesn’t say anything else. The man on the other end can’t see him, he can only make assumptions from what he’s been told.
“Kivi, you say there’s a mechanic nearby?”
“Bernie’s Auto Detailing. Three minutes, maybe less.”
There’s no immediate response, but he can hear the clicking of keys, presumably as the man on the other end looks up the address.
“All right, Kivi, thank you. Will you give the phone back to my wife please?”
Kivi hands the phone over and the wife listens, visibly relaxing. She offers him the keys to her car. “Thank you,” she says.
Kivi nods and slides into the driver’s seat. Well aware of the woman and children who are his passengers, he hits the hazards and slowly guides the car from the parking lot.
“This nice man is going to take us to get a new tire,” the woman explains to her kids.
She gives them crackers that will soon be crumbs, which is less important than them being occupied, and sighs heavily as she turns back around.
“This is really so helpful of you,” she tells him, “mamash a chessed like you can’t even imagine. I don’t even know what I would do if you hadn’t seen me.”
The leather wallet presses into him as he carefully drives the short distance to Bernie’s. His boss sees him as he walks in.
“You back early, Kiwi? Take over while I run out for something,” Bernie says.
He stifles a sigh, his lunchbreak over before it’s really begun. As the only one left in the shop, there’s nothing to do but take care of the car himself. After the grateful woman leaves, he resigns himself to eating in the grimy, greasy shop.
He returns home later than usual from work, and a glance up the steps to the front porch reveals his grandmother sitting in a deckchair. He greets her with a kiss on the cheek.
“I didn’t know you would be here today or I would’ve come home earlier.”
His bubby squeezes his arm affectionately. “I didn’t either know, but then I could smell your mother’s babka to my apartment, so I had to come! Then of course I stayed for dinner.”
“But, Bubby, it’s cold. I would’ve brought you some, home delivery!”
His grandmother pats his hand. “Baruch Hashem, I could come myself. But now you can walk me home.”
He offers his arm and she clutches it as they walk together. His grandmother lives what could be a five-minute walk away, but the slowed steps of age make the time feel triple. Still, he doesn’t think about the extra minutes as he reins in his usually quick pace and stays with his grandmother until she’s in her apartment. He wishes her goodnight and she kisses his cheek.
“You’re a good boy, Kivi, you know.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he replies, ducking away, deliberating ignoring the new weight in his pocket speaking to the contrary.
His grandmother has been calling him a good boy for as long as he can remember, and he used to argue this point with her but has since learned to bite his tongue.
“It’s not good if I don’t get good grades,” he once tried explaining.
She waved his words away. “You get good grades, that means you do good in school. But you do good things, you’re a good boy!” she insisted.
Let an eighty-two-year-old believe what she will. He’s accepted she won’t be swayed on her opinion of him despite what everyone can see.
He steps into a darkening night, the sun well set, the extra chill kicking back up again. He tugs his collar tight against his neck, ducks his head, and heads to Danny’s place. It’s his turn to host the weekly poker game, which means getting food and drinks too. Danny will probably order the same buffalo wings and crunchy chicken nuggets with all the sauces as he always does. Danny always orders generously, because the truth is Danny’s generous about a lot of things. The guys are convinced he’s on the list of at least twenty-five different organizations, and that he donates to each one.
On the way over, he turns over the idea of buying thick steaks for everyone next time he hosts. Or, as the guys cap their buy in at fifty bucks to start and only one option for another fifty to stay in the game, he could generously offer to cover another fifty worth of chips for the table. Bonus, on him, make the pot even sweeter to win. Or he can enter the hero buying any number of things the guys would appreciate. He’s tempted but the wallet stays in his pocket.
Danny’s got an enclosed outdoor space, so the guys enjoy their cards and food and beers and smokes in the cool night air. Throughout the game, details of his find crowd his tongue. The more they want to be said, however, the more determined he is not to voice them. He knows it would be fun to figure out ways to spend the money with the guys, they may even come up with a few good ones he hasn’t thought of yet. Still, he keeps quiet about it.
He walks home with two other friends about two in the morning. The air’s turned cold and his beanie is pulled low over his ears. The trio lingers at the corner, finishing a last smoke before going their separate ways. As he turns toward home, his eyes settle on an overturned crate outside a pizza shop some yards up.
The street is quiet. There’s no movement but the slight puff of his breath and the traffic lights changing for cars that aren’t there. Still, out of nowhere, two people walk out of his memory, one on the crate, the second leaning toward the first. He blinks. The street is still silent and empty but the echo of a scene long past remains.
Rabbi Kohn was his teacher in seventh grade, the only grade he ever managed to do schoolwork above average, for him. By then, he already had the sense he was shaping up to be one of those system failures. He didn’t exactly get in trouble more or less than any other active boy, but school just wasn’t for him. He could sit still for hours pouring over car magazines and comics, but just a few lines of Gemara made him fidgety and anxious to move around.
From all his teachers, he’d liked Rabbi Kohn best, though he couldn’t exactly say why. He wasn’t specifically more fun or less strict than others, but even as a young boy he’d had this sense that there was a simplicity to him, and in that simplicity was something which felt real.
That year before Chanukah, the school gifted all the teachers a pair of expensive leather gloves. The boys joked that a big gvir must’ve had extra inventory, and truth was Michoel Berenson’s younger sons were still students at the school. Everyone knew Mr. Berenson dealt in high-end leather products, so the gloves had probably come from him.
The next day, when he ran back into the empty classroom during lunch, he spotted Rabbi Kohn’s gloves on the desk. He’d glanced quickly to ensure no one was there to see, then very carefully touched three fingers to the leather. They melted to his touch. Even he could tell they were top quality.
They had a small Chanukah party in class before the short school break. He couldn’t remember much about it, but he did remember grabbing a cup of soda and taking a big gulp. When he stopped to catch his breath, he noticed Rabbi Kohn’s eyes had landed on him. Feeling suddenly ashamed, he hastily mumbled a bracha then took a slower drink.
When class was over, Rabbi Kohn stood at the door and wished each student a nice vacation. As he left, Rabbi Kohn smiled at him. “You can say a bracha even when no one sees,” he said warmly.
Those words could be the reason why about a month later he was watching what not everyone would see. It was a blistering winter day, enough that the “real feel” dropped the temperature several significant degrees. It was already dark out and late enough that the pizza store across the small shul where his father davened Ma’ariv was readying to close, so it was pretty empty. He’d stood shivering outside, waiting for his father to wrap up with his friends, when something caught his attention on the other side of the street.
Rabbi Kohn was walking down the block, coat buttoned tight, hands warm in those soft leather gloves. He stopped when he reached the pizza shop and the man bundled up in mismatching clothes sitting on the crate outside. The poor man was a semi-regular fixture outside the shop, hoping for the loose change of those who’d just eaten. Every once in a while, someone would buy him some pizza and fries, maybe even a falafel.
He couldn’t hear Rabbi Kohn as he bent and said something to the man on the crate. The man shook his head and then Rabbi Kohn was holding open the door and gesturing the poor man inside. A few minutes later, Rabbi Kohn emerged from the shop, hands deep in his pockets, frame bent against the biting breeze, oblivious to his student watching across the street.
His father finally came out of the shul several minutes later, and as they walked home, he looked back over his shoulder once. In time to see the poor man emerge from the pizza store, hands hugging a large cup of steaming soup. Hands wrapped in the warmth of expensive leather gloves.
He frowns to himself as the image disappears, replaced by the darkened storefronts and empty streets of the late hour. He returns home and once inside pulls out the wallet, examining it again for any signs of identification. There’s something about those gloves that’s bugging him.
Running his fingers along the billfold, he feels letters pressed into the leather. He pulls it open and tilts it to the light. M. Berenson. Of course. Who else would own such an expensive wallet, with leather as silky soft as those gloves?
He should return it. Then again, Michoel Berenson doesn’t need the money or the wallet, having more than enough of each. He thinks again of bare hands jammed deep into pockets and sighs. He knows what he should do.
Then a new voice rises in him, a voice that tells him to time the return for Shacharis. To burst into shul and pointedly drop the wallet on the table before Michoel Berenson, a loud exclamation of the person bringing it back. Maybe he should wave it before Mrs. Rosenberg on his way, tell her and all others who frown as he walks past to watch what he’ll do now. He could even bring Danny and some of the other guys along, an entourage of system failures to oversee the wallet’s return. Cash intact. Count it. He won’t need to speak, but in his actions will be his own downturned expression, his own disappointed remarks. You think someone like me wouldn’t return this?
It’s tempting, so very tempting. Everyone would know what he’d done, and no one could think him a system failure after. This would be a clear counter to anyone who would write him off.
His plan for the next morning set, he unzips his jacket but freezes with it partway down his arms. It’s those gloves. He hasn’t thought of them in years, and now he can’t shake them from his mind.
He shrugs his jacket back on and zips it against the cool night. He trades his beanie for a baseball cap, and pulls it low to shield his features. He exits his basement and takes the steps to the pavement at a hop, then turns and walks the few blocks to where the houses are larger and people can afford wallets worth more than the cash they keep in them. His feet know exactly where to take him.
He stops at the Berenson’s home and stares up the wide steps to the large double doors at the entrance. He looks around the block, but it’s silent at this hour. Not even the wind stirs.
He watches the door, checking for cameras, then shakes himself and laughs quietly. As though the steps are made of porcelain his rough boots will smash with their tread, he tiptoes to the front door, head down.
He crouches and gently lifts the mail slot, then shoves the wallet inside. He’s down the steps and hurrying home within seconds. As he walks, he tugs up the collar of his black leather jacket, warding off the chill. He keeps his eyes straight, his head slightly ducked, as if someone just knows, even though there’s no one there to see.
Theme Music by Tim Burke www.timburketales.com