Join Steven Volynets and Paper Brigade’s editors for the second meeting of Paper Brigade’s new Short Story Club. Together, we discussed Steven Volynets’s“Shaare Emunah.” Watch it here.
Stan had often joked that the Irish girl he married was the most Jewish woman he’d ever met. “You break my heart,” he lied to her, and Elizabeth got up to leave the coffee shop with her eyes red. She would cry later the way she always had, half-laughingly: I can’t believe I’m crying about this, she’d say, wiping her eyes with the heels of her palms, how ridiculous! It was either a spectacle, he thought, that cry-laughing, improvised like their short-lived childless marriage, or one of the things that made her seem so Jewish. Laughter from the edge of the grave.
Soon after their divorce, Stan moved into his mother’s subsidized apartment in Trump Village, those high-rises at the southern end of Brooklyn shaped like an open book. It had been empty since he arranged to have her admitted to the Ocean View nursing home. The last homecare aide, her sixth in as many months, lasted only a day after his mother smashed her TV set and barricaded herself in the bedroom. No one knew what she saw on that screen that made her attack the thing with its own remote. But the agency refused to send any more home attendants and terminated her case.
By then she was the only person Stan still spoke to in Russian, or something that was once Russian but had since mutated into their own private dialect, terse and pharmacological, deformed by years of English, memory loss, and resentment. For a time, Elizabeth took an interest in learning it, but that curiosity quickly faded when hard consonants had to be rattled and words divided into female and male. Love, for example, was female; fear, male. A city was a he, and so was God. But some Russian words were neutral, for reasons Stan couldn’t explain. They seemed to describe things with no real shape to them, like the sky or sea. Or money — especially money, a word unalterably plural. Everything was neutral in English. It was older than Russian and had more words, but it was easier to learn because it didn’t take sides between men and women.
Raised in Brooklyn, Stan painstakingly carved his American image in defiance of all those words to find himself, two decades later, at the trading desk of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities. High above Midtown East, there was no ferocious Wall Street roar to any of it. But four years later, just months before the One Big Lie shook the world markets, a small earthquake shook Madoff’s offices at the Lipstick Building. Stan would remember that brilliant morning, but not for the minor tremor. He was on the phone with Carmine Corallo, a retired sanitation truck driver, when a scaffold with two men appeared outside the windows. Suspended from netting and rope, the rising platform was like a creaky fishing boat afloat in the wind. Somewhere, on the other end of the line, Corallo laughed about something, but Stan had put down the phone. With swiftness and practiced calm, the men dipped squeegees into buckets of liquid and glided them across the glass in crescent swivels, making the platform see-saw under their feet. Stan couldn’t make out their faces behind the soapy blur, but he knew that he had never glimpsed freedom so assured, so elemental. It was the closest thing to flight without wings.
Of the twenty-four traders, Stan was the only one who rose from his chair. He tried to get the window cleaners’ attention by pointing to the small dot. Fixed above the playful glints of Midtown towers, it looked like a plane headed directly for the Lipstick Building. But then one of them swiped it across the glass into a smoky vestige. Stan tried to see them better, to make out their faces. But their silhouettes were like two human-shaped eclipses suffused by the late August sun. Could they see him? They worked in tandem as the scaffold rose, slowly but inexorably, until it finally disappeared above his window. Even after they were gone, Stan peered into the empty sky. It took an earthquake to return him to his senses.
CNN said it was only a tremor, but they all spilled outside — ordered to leave for safety — hordes of besuited traders, lawyers and legal assistants, waiters and diners and postal workers from the USPS station across the street. Looking over this amorphous mass from the building’s steps, Stan guessed that he made more money than most of them. Dwarfed by colossal structures, which suddenly seemed rickety and unsafe, they huddled in front of the Lipstick Building. Network news vans were already there, extending cable-wrapped antennae for satellite signal. The far-off yelping of police sirens was broken by the electromechanical gong of a fire truck, which sent a throbbing buzz across brains and bones. There was no smell of burning ash or electrical fire in the air; the warm, dry wind was fresh with soap and fragrance from the thickening crowd. Stan scanned the plaza for people from his office, but couldn’t recognize anyone among all the faces distorted by fear of some unknown doom. Some, who already knew it was an earthquake, were thankful, as if violence caused by nature was somehow more merciful than that of men. Others, old enough to remember 9/11, called and texted in panicked, repetitious gestures while smokers clustered in small, self-exiled groups and sought distraction in gossip and childish pranks. Confused and on the verge of hysteria, a woman with pale bare knees crouched beside a flowerbed and rummaged inside her purse. Was she looking for her cell phone? It sat right next to her on the embankment. Stan was struck by an urge to comfort her, to tell her that it was all over, but felt his own Blackberry vibrate in his hand.
“Hey, big shot.” The grainy, high-pitched Brooklynese suddenly reminded him that he’d hung up on Carmine. “I know I’m just a san man, but…”
“Did you feel that?” Stan looked up at the Lipstick Building. He’d never realized how beautiful it was.
There was a pause. “Is my money safe?”
More than once, Stan had tried to explain risk capital to Carmine, the only client who called every few days. He’d placed more money with Madoff than one would expect from a retired trash collector and Stan had long suspected that, unlike hedge funds and billionaires, Carmine had pooled cash from his entire family, and maybe friends, too, for a total of $145,000.
“Big shot, you deaf?”
Stan assured him that his investment was safe, especially from minor earthquakes, and that he’d call him back from the office as soon as he could. But all he could think about were the two men, high above the chaos of street life, breathing crisp air and wiping dirt from glass. He took a step back and tilted his head upward, then took another step. He kept walking backward, farther and farther away from the tower, straining his neck to see the upper floors, until the gust of Third Avenue traffic tugged at his back. He halted at the curb, inches away from speeding taxis. Somebody shouted an obscenity and called him blind.
His phone buzzed again: Elizabeth. She must have seen the news. Stan ignored her call. The crowd began to disperse. He decided to head back up to the office, but was stopped at the revolving doors. The Lipstick Building was closed until further notice. The managers were unsure if the quake would be followed by aftershocks.
“There are workers up there,” Stan called after the three men in dark suits. “Window cleaners.” But they were already receding into the lobby, summoned by the chirping of their two-way radios. Stan watched them disappear behind the sign that listed the office tower tenants:
Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LeClairRyan
Latham & Watkins, LLP
Crimson & Rye
Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl (CCOC)
He’d known about them all, except the last one. Every day he had passed the sign as he crossed the vast atrium of glass and berry-tinted marble, and he’d never noticed it. He was thirty-seven — the same age his father was when he went from being a man, the leading light of Soviet engineering, to a pool of toxic human waste. Stan had never thought of himself as a child of Chernobyl nor had he been anywhere near Chabad.
Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl (CCOC)— Evacuating Children from the Radioactive Zone for Critical Medical Care, New Homes, and Excellent Educations.
He wondered if Madoff Securities was managing their money.
Stan met him only a few times, at firm-wide meetings, and once with Elizabeth at a benefit dinner for some form of cancer. It had been held at Lincoln Center on a Friday evening and later that night, when they got home, he and Elizabeth drank more wine and ridiculed his zeide accent, the crook of his nose, how he tried and failed to light a cigar; they role-played the ass jokes that Frank DiPascali told right in front of the school chancellor, sounding more like Carmine Corallo, the san man from Brooklyn, than the CFO of Madoff Investment Securities. Elizabeth fell on top of him and shook with fits of laughter. He cradled her flushed ears and they made love.
In the morning they stirred awake on the same couch where they’d fallen asleep, happily queasy from the cutting sunlight, then ordered in and lazed around until their Saturday movie night at sundown. Stan bragged that they had the largest flat-screen TV money could buy. But it was Elizabeth who provided the entertainment — advance screeners that she snuck back from movie sets. She never became an actress. But sometime after 9/11, following a string of unrequited auditions, she finally got a callback: the producers had offered her a job as a location scout. She’d always called it “useless,” her knowledge of the sites of movies and novels set in New York. Sites that meant one thing to most people, but something else entirely to her. Stan’s South Street Seaport was where he drank with traders from Smith Barney. But hers was from Moby Dick, where she took him once on what Melville described as “a dreamy Sabbath afternoon … from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward.” Hotel St. George in Brooklyn Heights was just a hotel to most, but to her, it was where The Godfather’s “Luca Brasi sleeps with fishes”— just blocks from a brownstone that wasn’t a brownstone at all but a fake facade concealing a secret subway hub. Somehow she knew it all, a girl from suburban New Jersey, and with each story she told, she returned him to that awestruck Soviet nine-year-old who first glimpsed New York City on his tiptoes, midway across the Manhattan Bridge — the endless city rising beyond the Q‑train window before it rolled back into darkness.
Less than a year later, the upper floors of the Lipstick Building became a crime scene and only the SEC officials, federal agents, and lawyers were allowed inside. Their faces warlike and determined, they wheeled their suitcases and carried their boxes, unimpressed by the structure’s elegant curves or the daring of men who scaled five hundred feet of glass in acrophobic spirals for no other reason than to make it shine. By then, most news stations had also lost interest in the Lipstick Building and instead camped outside Madoff’s penthouse on Lexington Avenue. Each time he emerged from that art deco fortress, they swarmed him with shoulder-mounted cameras and shouted if he had any shame. Stan muted the TV and watched the mob tighten around a seventy-year-old man who held his grin while being poked and prodded and once shoved into a building wall. Somebody knocked off his Mets hat and Elizabeth snorted.
“You think that’s funny?” Stan said. “You have no problem spending his Ponzi scheme money at Saks.”
She faced him, lips slightly parted in breathless shock.
“A blond girl from North Jersey,” he shouted, stunned by his own rage. “What would you know about the plight of the Jews?”
She watched the rest of the news fighting back tears.
“Did he bring down the Twin Towers?” Stan kept shouting at the muted screen even after Elizabeth had left the living room. “Did he create the eurozone? Did he trick people into subprime mortgages?”
Stan was never officially fired. But everything had to stop: his rent payments, credit card payments, payments for his mother’s home care. Traders who’d been drunk and backslapping at happy hours now didn’t return his calls. The scourge of secret, almost mystical global finance had gone from a wonder to an outrage to a reason for vengeful glee. In the weeks to come, Stan and Elizabeth spoke only through their blaring television, until one day she came back from work and told him that she was leaving.
Stan wasn’t contacted by anyone from the firm until three months after the divorce. Facing eviction from the Riverside Drive apartment he used to share with Elizabeth, he received a call from Frank DiPascali. His New York snarl cut through the distant car horns and sirens, and Stan’s stomach tightened. But right away DiPascali said it was okay to talk without lawyers — he and Madoff had made sure that the traders were safely isolated from anything that wasn’t “strictly kosher,” that he and Madoff alone were to take the blame. But that wasn’t why he was calling. He wanted to meet. He had something for Stan, something from Bernie. He would explain, but it had to be soon. “More indictments are coming. I don’t have much time.”
Here, in the shadows of monoliths adorned with gargoyles, they were still New Yorkers, driven against finality by some hidden light.
DiPascali, who also lived on the Upper West Side, didn’t want to risk the local Starbucks — too many brokers and bankers and various whales, all of whom read The Wall Street Journal and watched CNBC. So they decided on a Dunkin’ Donuts, the one on Amsterdam and 86th Street. Early the next morning Stan walked outside and reflexively hailed a taxi, but then remembered that the place was only a block away. Already his stretch of sidewalk was awake with roasted aromas and the shrill of the street. Delivery trucks were double-parked in front of delis, their drivers raising and slamming metallic doors. He stopped at the corner of Broadway and waited for the light to change. Bundled and still fighting sleep, pedestrians on both sides were restless to cross the street and dip into the rumbling warmth of the subway. Down there, barreling along southbound tunnels, they would shed their peculiar ways to reemerge somewhere south of Central Park as professionals. But in these early hours of half-sleep, will and ambition were still a function of moving feet. Here, in the shadows of monoliths adorned with gargoyles, they were still New Yorkers, driven against finality by some hidden light. The traffic box on the other side of Broadway turned green and Stan obeyed, crossing toward Gristedes, where he and Elizabeth used to shop, and away from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, that vaunting lantern of white marble on 89th Street, where he’d taken pictures of her laughing and making faces. Soon their apartment with its windows facing Riverside Drive would be repainted and rented, probably to another couple, breathless, if only in those precious first weeks, at the lazy arches of light over the Hudson. Elizabeth had found a place in Queens. Stan was moving back to Brooklyn. But Manhattan would remain, a self-healing wound, stubbornly magnificent even when everything was falling apart.
When he got to the Dunkin’ Donuts, DiPascali was already there reading the New York Post, large coffee and half-eaten French cruller next to him. The table was speckled with crumbs. They could have met at Cipriani or Union Square Café, but DiPascali would be immediately recognized and Stan suspected by association. Here they were just a couple of guys.
“Why are these places always so orange?” Stan said, sitting down across from him. “How are you holding up?”
DiPascali lowered the newspaper. His face, always dark and vigorous, was now pallid. “Not so great,” he said. “Got the big C.”
“Yeah, they think it’s in my lungs.” He smiled. “Got an appointment next week at Sloan Kettering.”
“Frank, I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say.”
“Guess we’re all doing what we can to stay out of prison.” DiPascali laughed. “Anyway, here, this is for you.” He took out a small brown envelope from his coat pocket and nudged it across. “Go ahead, it’s open.”
Stan parted the paper flaps and pinched out a small gold ring.
“Relax, I’m not proposing. Take it. It’s from Bernie.”
It looked like an old engagement ring. The tiny prongs were empty, but set wide enough to have once housed a massive gemstone. He turned it upside down with his thumb and index finger and narrowed his eyes: the underside of the metal plate that had once held the jewel was engraved with a swastika. He looked up at DiPascali then flipped it over. The inner rim read For Love, Eternal.
“It’s from a certain heiress.” DiPascali took a bite of his cruller. “She gave it to Bernie after her husband died.”
“Wait, what heiress?”
“Doesn’t matter. She had almost thirty million with us. Guessing she couldn’t stand her Nazi prick husband so as soon as he plotzed she gave it to Bernie as a birthday gift. And Bernie, he said he’d kept it because it reminded him of what was done to his people, to the Jews. But after the last round of subpoenas he’s getting rid of things, valuables, whatnot. He gave it to me, but I figured what do I need it for, right? So I’m giving it to you.”
Madoff was facing 150 years, DiPascali at least half that. If word got out that either owned Nazi-era jewelry, it could anger the judge.
Stan rubbed his temples. “Why me?” “That’s exactly what I asked my doctor.”
DiPascali smirked and wiped his mouth with a napkin. “Look, I don’t know how you’ve landed, but I thought maybe you could use it more than the other guys. I mean, it’s historic, right? A museum piece. Not the love forever stuff, that part was added later. So I figure even without the rock, it’s gotta be worth, what, twenty, thirty grand?”
Stan looked out the window.
“I know this ain’t the kind of severance you were hoping for,” DiPascali said. “But maybe you can sell it. Or maybe get that scratched off. Not the love part. You know, the other thing. Put a pebble in it and give it to your lady. You’re still married, right?”
A year after Bernie’s One Big Lie shattered the world markets and ended his career in finance, Stan knew that he would never again trade a share of stock or be allowed near a Bloomberg terminal. It didn’t matter that he kept Madoff’s name off his resume — somehow everybody knew. At times, desperately missing Elizabeth, he thought of calling her and begging forgiveness. He considered sanding down the swastika, like DiPascali had suggested, and giving her the ring. She would read the inscription, For Love, Eternal, kiss his face through tears, and come back. But then he would remember that without that Nazi cross the ring was worthless, a fifty-dollar pawn, and come to his senses.
Now living in Brighton Beach, his work prospects beyond leasing cars or selling warehouse furniture quickly dwindling, Stan got up every morning and went to the local Starbucks where the Wi-Fi signal was strong enough to browse the web and look for a job. And once there, it was amusing and absurd but also somehow endearing to catch snippets of chatter during the afternoon stampede — a strange mix of Russian and English from local store keepers and dental assistants; from mail-order wives, scorched-blonde and rambling on their bejeweled iPhones; from retired transit workers, all Soviet-born Jews, cursing and arguing about Putin. And then, whenever someone came or left, to hear the street disrupt this fragile peacetime, this covenant among the weary, the restless, the insane, and now Stan, wedged awkwardly among them.
He had always fancied himself above this shouting, mumbling shipwreck of people. He was simply too American. But with Elizabeth gone, his future in finance shattered, and his mother in a nursing home, he could at last admit that there was something restorative in its abandon, its daily parade of tacky appetites and filthy jokes. They were like distant relatives who embarrassed him in front of strangers but whose company he had secretly missed. In the years since he immigrated to the United States, only one of his Soviet childhood friends, a boy he’d gone to school with named Yarik, had reached out to him via Skype, but Stan had never bothered to respond. The two had not been in contact since Stan’s family left in 1987, when leaving meant leaving forever, like dying only to be reborn in some unknown world, as some unknown creature, never to be seen by those left behind. No one on either side of the Atlantic could have predicted in those pre-Gorbachev times that one day the Iron Curtain would finally lift, much less imagined a thing like Skype. But now, instead of looking for work, Stan decided to reconnect with his old classmate, and before long the two were looking at each other on a split screen — scruffy and baritone, yet somehow still the same — converging at the speed of light across the ocean without exit visas, charges of treason, bribes to customs agents, and antisemitic taunts.
Married with two kids and living in Moscow, Yarik had a sparse goatee and a buzzcut. He was a web developer for the Russian government. He lived modestly but in sufficient comfort; he owned a car and an apartment and took frequent vacations in the Ural Mountains with his family. He even saved enough money for some flight lessons. “Some dreams do come true,” he said, smiling and sharing a photo of himself at the controls of a small plane, green patches of Moscow suburbs below him and slightly tilted. They recalled their Kharkov grade school, their teachers, and their classmates, especially girls, musing about how they had turned out, whom they’d married and where they were today. For Stan, those memories had long since turned into dreams and the people in them now spoke English— all except Dontsov, an older boy who even in dreams still called him a zhyd in a rough, street-corner Russian. Stan had forgotten his first name, but he remembered how Dontsov had ambushed him on the staircase or in a hallway almost daily, hitting him on the head with whatever he held in his hands.
“Which was it, The Political History of the Comintern or World Geography?” Yarik quipped, referring to the time when the thing Dontsov happened to be carrying was a hardcover textbook.
“Geography,” Stan said. “Knocked me pretty hard. Right upside the North Pole.”
Yarik smiled back. “Not hard enough to make you forget it.”
He kept asking about New York City, but Stan was too embarrassed to recount the last five years of his life, especially to someone who lived in Putin’s Russia. How does one account for earning almost half a million one year only to become completely unemployable the next? How could he talk of tricking his mother into the Ocean View nursing home where she now sat by the window in the haze of dementia, staring at the far-off strip of ocean and waiting for her weekly bath? Yarik wanted to know what it was like to live in a city where a man was in charge of his own destiny. But he was seven hours ahead of Stan, on Moscow time, and he had to put the kids to bed.
“So, what is it like?” he asked. “Your glorious New York?”
Stan took a long, exhausted breath. “It’s everything you’ve heard, and more.”
He may have been there all along and Stan just hadn’t noticed. But when Stan returned to Starbucks the next morning, and was waiting in line for coffee and looking around for an available seat, he recognized the spawn of his Soviet dreams. Only unlike the Soviet teenager who had tormented him, taller than Stan and Yarik but just as undernourished, the man at the end of the long table bulged with muscle — not the seasonal kind, inflated by water and protein shakes to last the summer months, but the kind that has been tempered like steel, over years, in a boxing gym or in prison. It was Dontsov. It couldn’t be him, a modicum of reason. Even if by some cruel miracle this was Dontsov, he couldn’t possibly, not after three decades, recognize Stan’s grownup face. And even if he did, why would it matter if, by the same cosmic crossing of wires, a Jew hater had been transformed into a pious Jew?
Another block and Stan could smell the ocean. He felt its deep enveloping boom. When he finally made it to the boardwalk, his temples quieted. Breathless, he climbed the stairs. The first few wood planks rattled under his feet. He could see it now, just past the sandline, the foamy surf swelling and receding like the breath of an ancient monster. Not even Dontsov would dare follow him into those secret depths.
He stopped to admire the temple’s efflorescent brickwork, its roofline ledges, sun-blasted and red, and the turret-style windows stained with Stars of David. Kak trevoga tak do Boga, he thought, surprised that it came to him in Russian — why only in misfortune do we turn to God?
He took the long way back to Trump Village, past the Shaare Emunah of Brighton Beach. There he stopped to admire the temple’s efflorescent brickwork, its roofline ledges, sun-blasted and red, and the turret-style windows stained with Stars of David. Kak trevoga tak do Boga, he thought, surprised that it came to him in Russian — why only in misfortune do we turn to God? By the time he was back at his mother’s apartment he felt calm enough to hold down a meal and fall asleep.
The next morning Stan woke up early and signed into Skype.
“I saw him,” he said as soon as Yarik’s face popped up on the screen.
“That’s impossible. Last I heard he was married with kids and living in the same flat, the one on the corner of Heroes of Stalingrad and Taras Shevchenko.”
While Yarik was speaking, Stan uploaded the photo. Yarik opened the file and brought his face close to the monitor. After studying the blurry image, he leaned back in the chair and rubbed his chin.
“I told you.”
“It looks like him, but…”
“Maybe he has an American twin.” “Please.”
“And we just talked about him.”
“You’re telling me.”
Yarik, who wasn’t Jewish, had never suffered Dontsov’s harassment. He couldn’t do much to help, either — they were nine and Dontsov fifteen — but even as a boy, Yarik realized that what he saw was wrong. For Soviet schoolchildren, morality wasn’t subject to scrutiny. Why was it wrong to hurt the weak, to harm the defenseless? Simple — because it was. But Dontsov was shameless, and since shamelessness commanded respect, he incited other boys and girls to pick on Stan, or to stand by and laugh. Some did it out of fear or deference, others out of some hidden hate, which Dontsov freed in them by showing them the thrills of small untrammeled violence. This special kind of hate did count on a reason, namely that Stan was neither weak nor defenseless, but something else — a Jew.
“Gestapo Genie,” Yarik said, knuckling his closely cropped head. “We talk about him and he shows up.”
It could have been a one-off, Stan thought, half-dressed, trying to decide if he should go back to Starbucks. Then again, whoever this man was, he clearly wasn’t a random beachgoer from Park Slope with milky thighs and perfect teeth, just off the Brighton Q stop and grabbing a latte. He had to be a regular at the Starbucks, and his presence didn’t depend on Stan’s state of mind. The mere knowledge of his existence was now immutable, which made avoiding the neighborhood’s only Starbucks as childish as the belief that you can make something vanish by shutting your eyes.
“There was always the ocean,” Stan kept repeating to himself like prayer as he set out against the torrent of Brighton’s downcast faces. When he finally made it to Starbucks he spotted the man through the window even before walking in.
The seating area was empty except for a couple of students bent over their textbooks and a pair of scruffy seniors playing chess. Stan bought a cup of coffee, sat down across from the man at the long table, and opened his laptop and pretended to work. From there he could watch without being noticed. But the more he studied him, the less certain he became that this was Dontsov. One minute he could swear it was him, with that battering-ram forehead and twitchy scowl. But whenever Stan looked away, afraid to be caught staring, and then glanced up again, this amalgam of human features seemed to embody a total stranger.
Peeking over the top of his screen, Stan kept trying to extend these glimpses until, suddenly, their eyes met.
Pushing against the table with his massive hands, the man stood up, moved back his chair, and looked directly at Stan.
“Mind watching my stuff while I go smoke?” he said, walking out without waiting for an answer.
Through the windows, Stan watched him smoke in the weak daylight and thought about what to say. When he saw him light a second cigarette, skillfully flanking it from the wind, he realized it was Friday, just before Shabbat, which, along with forced rest, brought the prohibition of currency and fire.
After the man finally came back inside, smoke wafting from his clothes, Stan said, “You go say Mincha and you don’t invite me?”
Stan smiled timidly. “Afraid so.” “Afraid?” He shifted his weight from foot to foot. “What’re you afraid of?”
He spoke with the assimilated fluency of someone raised in Brooklyn. Still, his voice carried the echoes of an Odessa ghetto — he was a man who said more with his neck and shoulders than he did with words.
“I guess I’m not a very good Jew.”
“That voice you have inside.” The man glared. “You hear it?”
Stan felt his eyes blink uncontrollably. “Sometimes.”
“Is it real or is it just guilt?”
“I don’t know,” Stan admitted.
“Then do something about it!” the hulk nearly shouted, which would have sounded like a challenge if not for a rascally grin.
When Stan woke up on Saturday morning, Yarik’s Skype icon already glimmered, indicating that he was online.
“I talked to him.”
Yarik squinted into the eye of the camera.
“Then he left to get ready for Shabbat.” “The guy we knew from school, the one who slapped you around and called you a Jew?” He paused. “Is a Jew?”
“If it’s him.”
“What could possibly happen?”
“I don’t even remember his first name.” “Kostik, or maybe Rostik.”
“Wasn’t it Vitalik?”
“Listen,” Yarik stopped him. “What’s the worst he can do, call you a Jew in the schoolyard? Hit you with a textbook?” And then he added in broken English: “Be not afraid!”
“Be not afraid,” Stan repeated. “Who said that?”
“Pope John Paul II.” Yarik smiled. “On his first trip back to Poland in 1979.”
It was precisely the assurance that he didn’t have to go back, didn’t have to ask questions, that gave him the confidence to do just that. So the next Sunday morning Stan returned to the Brighton Starbucks. He was the first one there besides the groggy baristas who raised the metal gate. He sat waiting for several hours, closely watching the comings and goings, but by two in the afternoon, when Stan’s mind was racing with caffeine, Dontsov hadn’t showed. He didn’t show on Monday either, nor on Tuesday or Wednesday. On Thursday Stan himself took a break to visit his mother at Ocean View, but returned on Friday, hoping to find the man chain-smoking before Shabbat. By then Stan had grown undaunted by the prospect of learning who he really was. So much so that during the afternoon fury of bean grinding, Stan felt, after a second refill of black coffee, that he could confront him without much ado. Sitting by the window, he desperately scanned the passersby. It was almost December. Soon there would be a menorah on that windowsill, plugged into the same outlet as the Christmas tree, its electric candles counting down to the shortest day of the year. Stan checked his watch. He knew Dontsov wasn’t coming back.
When Stan got home, his cell phone rang. The caller ID read “private,” but he answered anyway.
“Big shot, how’s my money?”
“Carmine?” Stan hadn’t heard that Brooklyn drawl since Madoff’s firm dissolved.
Corallo tried to laugh, but instead it sounded like he was struggling for air.
“Carmine, I am sorry.”
Stan looked around the room. “What if I gave you something, a gold ring, it must be worth like twenty thousand dollars, maybe more?”
“A gold ring,” he wheezed.
“You don’t understand, it’s … ”
“You soulless fucking kikes,” Corallo laughed miserably. “You and your Madoff. Everything I had, my family, all down your Ponzi rat hole.”
“Carmine, please. ”
“What kind of name is Madoff, anyway?” His voice rose. “I’m going to find him and kill him.”
“And then I’m going to kill you.” He hung up.
Stan frantically searched for something to fix his eyes on — a smudge on the wall, his mother’s old TV, his father’s Star of David pendant on the dresser, the Nazi ring. “What did you say?” he cried and kicked a chair. “What did you call me?” Pacing the room, he made polemical points about the Soviet Jews who fled from being Jewish, forced to betray their God. And just beyond some invisible edge, in a darkened theater, an audience exploded in roaring applause. They cheered as he quoted poets, took positions, and asserted claims — until, his rage finally spent, he found himself alone in the empty apartment, talking to a broken TV loud enough for the neighbors to hear.
Enjoyed this story? Join JBC and Steven Volynets on March 2, 2022 12:30 – 1:00 PM ET for a discussion of“Shaare Emunah” at the second meeting of Paper Brigade’s new Short Story Club! Register here.
Steven Volynets, born in Soviet Ukraine and raised in Brooklyn, is a writer and journalist, and the winner of the 2016 Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation prize for fiction.