by Robert Sachs
Pipkin could see the neon light of Twig’s Restaurant two blocks down. Thank God they have electricity. The wind was at his back, rushing him along; but at the first corner, it forced his umbrella inside out, breaking the tines. He stuffed it in a waste bin and hurried on. Nearing Twig’s, an old man lurched out of a dark doorway.
“Change?” said the man, holding out a grimy hand.
Pipkin, startled, stopped. The man grabbed Pipkin’s arm. It was a strong grip but he was smiling. “Anything will help,” he said. “Nickel, dime. Anything.”
Pipkin, with some effort, pulled away from the man. He was a pushover for anyone asking for a handout, but he didn’t like being grabbed and he didn’t want his money to be used for booze or drugs. And that smile was peculiar; it bothered him more than the man’s grasp on his arm. More of a smirk than a pleading smile. Still, Pipkin could see the man was cold and wet and in need of help. In the spirit of the Chanukah season, he said, “Come with me. I’ll get you something to eat.”
* * *
It was the violent storm with ark-building rain. Wind had whipped around his neighborhood, breaking off the tree limbs, splicing power lines, and darkening large swaths of the city. A bolt of lightning and an almost-instant clap of thunder shattered the bay window in the front of Pipkin’s ranch-style home, fracturing the large maple in his yard. The creaking noise that followed warned Pipkin the tree was about to fall.
He grabbed his brass menorah and two Chanukah candles and moved quickly into the kitchen. The entire top half of the tree crashed through his living room roof, flattening a wooden table and the four upholstered chairs his mother had insisted he take when he left home to live with Claire. Draperies flapped in the wind. Rain soon covered the roan-colored marble in front of the fireplace. Pipkin crouched behind the kitchen table, grabbing one of its legs and noticing for the first time his moist palms, a wetness not caused by the rain.
He knew from experience his basement would be flooded. The dreidels! Pipkin was halfway down the stairs to his unfinished basement when he saw the rising water and a dozen dreidels floating like so many fishing bobbers amongst the empty paint cans, the old tennis racquet, and the extra crown molding he had meant to throw out years ago. His heart sank but he was careful not to wade in. Isn’t this the way people get electrocuted?
Backing up the stairs, he resigned to deal later with this small part of his extensive dreidel collection—the recent acquisitions he intended to photograph and catalog.
This was his second Chanukah since the divorce, and he would celebrate alone this year as he did last. Claire no doubt was at a party, laughing at the things her new boyfriend said, devouring latkes like they were M&Ms and, he feared, making derogatory comments about his dreidel collection. He could almost hear the voice he grew to hate during their five years together. “A grown man with three hundred and fifty dreidels; can you imagine?”
Gottleib, his next-door neighbor, called Pipkin’s cell phone. “Oh my God. Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” Pipkin said. “Just a little shaken up.”
“You need to get out of there, Alvin. The whole thing could collapse on you.”
“Yes,” he shouted. “And now. You can stay with me. I’m calling the fire department.”
“But there’s no fire.”
“The place could explode any minute. Don’t you watch television?”
Pipkin rarely watched television. His research job at the brokerage firm required him to be looking at screens all day—there were four on his desk. At home, watching another screen was the last thing he wanted to do. “But…”
“Out, Alvin. Get out. Come over here. And now.” Gottleib was screaming.
“Maybe you’re right.” Pipkin felt Gottleib treated him as a naive bumpkin. He disliked having to agree with him.
“Now, Alvin. Now.”
Pipkin looked at the special Chanukah menorah and the brightly colored, twisted candles. As he started to light the shamash, the candle used to light the other candles, he heard an electrical noise, a sizzle, and he decided Gottleib was right. He put the candles in the pocket of his raincoat and, holding the menorah in one hand and his umbrella in the other, rushed out into the rain. He hesitated in front of Gottlieb’s house and then went on. He couldn’t bear to listen to his neighbor drone on about the Fascists who were ruining the country. And he didn’t understand why Claire had so often taken his side. After last year’s Fourth of July party in Gottleib’s backyard, she had yelled at Pipkin for arguing with their host about immigration. “Let it go, Alvin,” she had said. “We’re his guests. We’re eating his food. Couldn’t you just smile and let it go?”
“Let it go?” Pipkin had said. “If he were making the laws in 1932, your parents would never have been allowed in. I didn’t call him a moron; I simply reminded him of this country’s heritage. What was so terrible?” He remembered now how red-faced she got. No, he didn’t want to be beholden to Gottleib.
* * *
“What?” the man asked.
“You heard me. It’s pouring down rain and it’s dinner time. I’m buying.” Now Pipkin grabbed the man by his arm and guided him into Twig’s. Lou Ellen gave Pipkin a look of disapproval over the top of her glasses and maneuvered the pair to his usual booth in the corner by the window. She left a menu in front of the old man.
“Order whatever you want,” Pipkin said.
“And you’re paying?”
“Yes, I’m paying.”
There was silence as the man studied the menu. His hair was red, fringed with gray and twisted in tight curls. His bushy sideburns flowed into his beard. Pipkin concluded he was younger than he looked. His coat was a musty brown. In the open air Pipkin hadn’t noticed the smell, but here in the restaurant it reminded him of rotten cabbage. The man ordered coffee, three scrambled eggs, French toast, sausage, and hash browns.
“Sounds like breakfast,” Pipkin said. “Have you eaten today?”
“What sent you to the streets on a night like this?” Pipkin asked. “There are shelters around town.”
“You’re not thinking you’re going to rub the belly of this old codger and discover the meaning of life, are you?”
“Just making conversation. Alvin Pipkin.”
“That’s what they call me.”
“OK, Mr. Weasel,” Pipkin said, leaning closer to him, “Tonight’s the first night of Chanukah. Lightning struck my house and for all I know by now it’s burnt to a crisp. I need to light these Chanukah candles.” He put the brass menorah in front of him on the table. He placed the two candles in the menorah and lit one. In a soft voice, he chanted the three prayers while lighting the second candle with the first.
“I’m not homeless,” Weasel said, holding a sausage link between his thumb and forefinger, shaking it at Pipkin.
Pipkin gave him a look.
“I rent a room, but the landlady is nuts. She thinks she’s in love with me. That I’m her long-lost husband or something. Sneaks into my bed at night. Goes through my stuff when I’m out. That sort of thing. I decided to stay away for a while.”
“Where’d you get the name Weasel?”
“My name is Leonard Weisel. In third grade the kids started calling me ‘Weasel’ and it stuck.”
“Do you work?”
“On disability. Can’t work. Hey, what’s with the third degree?”
“No offense. Just talking.”
“Well, let’s talk about something else.” Weasel motioned to Lou Ellen for more coffee. “Why do you think your house might have burned down?”
“Tree crashed into my living room. The electricity was knocked out, but I heard a sizzle and got the hell out. Know anything about electricity?”
“Enough to respect it.”
“Basement’s flooded. I’ve got things down there I want to save, but I’m afraid I could fry myself.”
“I could take a look. Maybe help out.”
The two men finished eating, and Pipkin led Weasel through the downpour back to his home. As they approached the house, the extent of the damage caused by the fallen tree shocked Pipkin. Perhaps when he fled, he was too intent on getting to safety to pay much attention to the destruction, but now he could see the crumbled bricks, the gaping hole in his roof, the shards of glass strewn across the lawn, the downed wires. If Gottleib had, in fact, called the fire department, they either didn’t come or came and left. In the morning he’d call the electric company and his insurance agent.
They entered through the back. Pipkin found two flashlights in a kitchen drawer and led Weasel through the kitchen to the basement stairs. But Weasel didn’t follow. Instead, he walked into the living room and was moving toward Pipkin’s bedroom.
“Hey,” Pipkin shouted. “This way.” At first he wasn’t sure Weasel heard him, but then Weasel turned around and joined him at the basement stairs, stopping one step above the water.
“What are they?” Weasel asked, pointing to the small pieces of wood and glass floating in the basement.
“Dreidels. You spin them. It’s a child’s game during Chanukah. I collect them.”
“What’re they worth?” Weasel asked in a voice as dark and smooth as old stone on the banks of the Ohio.
Was it the question or the way Weasel asked it that sent a slight tremor through Pipkin? It struck him for the first time that he was alone in his wounded house with a man he knew nothing about.
“Not much,” he lied. “My ex-wife thought I was nuts spending so much time with them. They’re just fun to collect. You know what the Hebrew letters on the dreidel stand for?” He meant to divert Weasel to something safer.
“I have a feeling I’m about to hear.”
“Nun, gimmel, heh, peh. It stands for, ‘A great miracle took place here.’” Pipkin liked assuming the role of teacher.
“Here?” Weasel asked. “Doesn’t look like a miracle happened here.”
“Israel. Diaspora dreidels don’t have the peh. They have a shin. ‘A great miracle took place there.’” That’s how you know a dreidel is from Israel or not. He pointed to the flood. “What do you think about wading in to retrieve them?”
Weasel bent close to the water. “Should be OK,” he said. “Power’s out. If it comes on while we’re in the water, we could be toast; but that’s not a big risk, is it?” He plucked the dreidel closest to him out of the water. “What’s so special about this one?”
“That’s a Vilplast,” Pipkin said. “About sixty years old. Handmade in Jerusalem.” He took it from Weasel, looking closely at each side.
“Is it ruined?” Weasel asked.
“No. I think it will be OK.” He was immediately sorry he told Weasel about the dreidel; it would only fuel his interest in the value of his collection.
It took ten minutes to corral the rest of them.
“Why’d you have ’em laying out in the basement like that?” Weasel asked.
“I was going to clean them,” Pipkin heard himself saying. “Just a hobby.”
“Doesn’t make sense,” Weasel said, taking the Vilplast from Pipkin and fingering it. “You ask a stranger to risk his life to save some worthless trinkets? You a doctor? Lawyer?” He looked up toward the dining room, the high backed chairs, the sideboard, the paintings on the wall.
Pipkin tried to laugh. “No, I’m a researcher. A geek.”
Weasel started to move toward the kitchen. “Mind if I get myself a drink of water?”
“Relax,” Pipkin said. “I’ll get it. Ice?”
But Weasel continued into the kitchen. “That’s all right.” He began opening cupboards until he found the glasses.
Pipkin followed him in. “There’s ice water in the fridge.”
“I said that’s all right.” There was an edge to Weasel’s voice Pipkin hadn’t noticed at the Twig. Weasel filled his glass from the faucet over the sink and sat down at the kitchen table, facing Pipkin. “Now why don’t you start telling me the truth, Mr. Pipkin? How much are these dreidels worth and where are the rest of them?”
“I think you ought to leave,” Pipkin said. He tried to sound authoritative, in control. He was fingering the cell phone in his pocket, wondering if he could press 9-1-1 without looking.
“I’m not quite ready, Mr. Pipkin.” Weasel stood up and moved around the kitchen, opening and closing drawers. “It would take me only a few minutes to find the collection, Mr. Pipkin. Why so coy?”
“Look, I was nice to you. I bought you dinner. You’re making me nervous. Is this how you repay kindness?”
“Is that what it was, Mr. Pipkin? Kindness?” He took a large chef’s knife out of one of the drawers and moved toward Pipkin. Suddenly, he stabbed the center of the kitchen table. The knife stuck there, vibrating. “It sure would be rude of me to repay your kindness by being a bad guest in your home.”
Pipkin turned and ran toward the door, but Weasel was too quick and grabbed Pipkin’s arm. “I was going to be kind, Mr. Pipkin. You strike me as someone who would choose life. Is this how you repay my kindness? Now sit down.” He threw Pipkin back into the middle of the kitchen. Pipkin fell, hitting his forehead on the edge of the table. “We’ll play a little game. You like games, Mr. Pipkin?”
Pipkin’s eyes were wide. Blood oozed from a cut in his forehead.
“Put both of your hands on the table,” Weasel said as he pried the knife loose and held it in his left hand. He took the Vilplast from the pile of dreidels they had rescued from the flooded basement. “Both hands. Now.”
“We’ll spin the dreidel,” the man said. His eyes were shining and he had the same odd smile Pipkin noticed when he first asked for money. Nickel, dime, anything. “Now we’ll see if you can summon up a miracle.”
BIO: Robert Sachs is a writer living in Louisville, Kentucky. He earned an MFA in writing from Spalding University. He serves on the board of Louisville Literary Arts and has been a board member of Sarabande Books, a not-for-profit book publisher. His short stories have appeared, or are scheduled to appear, in Mobius: the Journal of Social Change, The Front Porch Review, Boundoff, The Writing Disorder, Red Fez, The Blue Lake Review, Northern Liberties Review, Black Heart Magazine, Literary LEO, Lowestoft Chronicle, and The 10th Annual Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Collection. His story “Blue Room With Woman” was an honorable mention finalist in the Glimmer Train’s November 2009 Short Story Award for New Writers. He was a semifinalist in the Nineteenth Consecutive New Millennium Writing Competition.