Fiction // A Beggar’s Place

By | Jan 15, 2013

There he sits every day with his can, his lunch in a burlap bag, his knife to peel the cactus fruit he likes so much to eat, and all the while, he shakes his can at the passersby. And she must sit there, silent, while splinters from the corroding bus bench dig into her thighs. Old Moishe keeps up his ancient mutterings. And Estrella fumes. This is war. The Arab knows exactly what he’s doing. She tries to ignore him but he is so big, she sees him, she hears him, she smells him when he dips his pita bread into his container of hummus and smacks his lips with such pleasure. When she cannot bear this sight, she rushes up to Nissim the carrot juice vendor and Yossi from Jerusalem Takeout, her long skirt rustling. “He’s an Arab, a pretender!” she shouts. “Precious Jews, do not be fooled!”

Do they listen, do they try to help her? No. Worst of all, she is trapped by her own words. She dare not deliver her usual pitch—he might overhear—and so her earnings fall. Now she gets the same as all the other beggars, no more, and sometimes even less. She calls out to the passersby, “Tzedakah, tzedakah,”  but it has no flavor and the word dies in her throat. Out of boredom, she tries to start a conversation with Old Moishe at the other end of the bench, but the man is halfway toward the Next World. He only rouses himself when Nissim comes twice a day to escort him to the bathroom—the old beggar lacks the strength to go on his own.

Thoughts of her old village in Rabat come back to her while she sits on the bench with nothing to do. She remembers how her mother would cook a special thick harira soup during the Fast of Ramadan, and how it was Estrella’s job to deliver the steaming pot to her Muslim neighbors at the end of the fast. She recalls that pleasant time, and there on the splintery bench a new thought cooks in her brain.

Estrella wakes up at six the next morning. In a frenzy, she packs her things and arrives a full hour earlier than usual at Sabbath Square. Triumphantly, she settles herself on the ledge, under the olive tree, her plastic bags swelling festively around her. She looks to her left, to her right, all sides. Aside from Moishe  slouching at his usual spot on the bench, there is no one around. Hah. She’s back. Just let that Arab try to push her off the ledge. Let him dare.

At eight-thirty, the bus releases Shoshy the American. By now the Arab should have appeared. A little strange, Estrella thinks. She shrugs. Let him be late. Better for her.

Nine o’clock.  Then nine-thirty. Still, no Arab. Estrella twists this way and that, staring up and down the sidewalk, seeking him out. By midday, when he still hasn’t appeared she practically squeals with joy. Waves of relief surge through her. She sits straight and proud on her stoop and begins to ply her trade. To a woman with dark hair to her waist who looks like an actress she insists, “I need to read about that show playing in the HaBimah Theater.” To the American tourists she waves a copy of Newsweek and babbles on about earthquakes and the price of gas. To a tall, bearded man —a dos—a Hassidic man with silky side curls, she says, “Chanukah is coming. I want to read the Book of our Heritage to understand the miracle better. If only I could see the print.” Nothing stops her. What a relief to be back in her element, getting shekels and more shekels. She eats her lunch of pita, labana cheese and cucumbers with enthusiasm, sprinkling za’atar spice on top. Apparently, her little “vacation” has not been so terrible for business.

Only one thing bothers her. The stoop feels a little different. As if the stoop has altered—not more than a hair’s breadth or two—but that slight shift throws her thighs and buttocks into a mild confusion. She places bags underneath her as a padding where before no bags had been needed. Then she tosses the remains of her lunch into a nearby garbage can, looking uneasily over her shoulder to make sure the Arab hasn’t snuck back. She doesn’t dare relax.

The next day, seeing no Arab, Estrella concludes he has gone for good, and her fist rises in the air. She fooled him!  She has won. She, simple, fat Estrella! The Arabs chased her family out of her beautiful Morocco, where the Jews had lived for centuries, but now, look! She defeated this Arab man and chased him away! She closes her eyes, near ecstatic. The stubbornness of her years, of all she has endured! Her poverty, her childless years, the death of her husband. But no, she is not to be meddled with. Nobody can kick her off her ledge. Especially not that fool of an Arab. He’s a nothing compared to all that she has suffered, a broken branch, a dog chewing its own tail.

She sweeps up little fruit peels and wrappers he left behind, her plastic bags serving as broom and dustpan. Oh, what an excellent, strategic spot, she exults. There is none like it, especially with the Blind Institute behind her, lending credence to her story. And how she loves it when the tourists snap pictures of her under the olive tree and tell her she looks straight out of the Bible. Once, someone even gave her a snapshot, but it looked nothing like her and she threw it out.

The sun, though it’s late November, beats down harshly, and she drinks frequently from her water bottle. She gets up to use the bathroom on the first floor of the Blind Institute. She splashes water on her face, wets a paper towel and rubs at her neck and under the arms, enjoying the free hot water, and no one knocks on the door and tells her to hurry.

When she exits the building, scrubbed and rosy-skinned from her half-shower,  she catches a glimpse of a dark lump on the ledge. Moishe? She hurries to her spot. Then she sees him, the Arab. She feels weak; her spine trembles, dread clamps her heart. There he roosts on the stoop like a big, fat hen, a burlap bag resting near his ravaged shoes. As for her precious reading material—it is pushed to the side. Of no consequence.

Estrella advances, her eyes blurry with anger and humiliation. He fooled her. She let her guard down for an instant and he returned, with a vengeance and with great arrogance, as if he owned the place. Look at him, carelessly reading a magazine, his huge legs sprawled out like someone in his own home, happy and farting in his own kitchen.

Stunned, she grabs her things. She plops herself down on the bus bench. She sneezes loudly and wipes her nose with a fierce swipe as if it bears no connection to the rest of her face. Then she sits still. A well-dressed man walks by but she ignores him. She squeezes and releases the folds of her skirt. She watches the Arab take out a paring knife and slice the prickly peel off a cactus fruit, using a finger and thumb to ease the knife along the way. A wild man, she mutters to no one. A grabber, a taker. Just like Ishmael. A hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him, like it says somewhere in the Bible. Could he be a terrorist? Maybe he’ll stab her with that knife! He could plant a bomb under her bench! She might be blown away with the garbage and branches, with no one to remember her, and she clutches her hamsa necklace so hard her neck burns.

The Arab barely looks at her. He finishes the cactus fruit in two bites, while his eyes train up and down the block. When a red-headed soldier in a knitted yarmulke lumbers past, the Arab wipes his palms against the sides of his pants. “Brother,” he says, putting a hand on the soldier’s wrist, “my eyes are tired and weak. How I wish I could buy glasses so that I too could study Torah.” His sparse brows arch with feeling. “My soul”—he taps his collarbone—“longs for this.”

Estrella’s breath seizes so suddenly in her breastbone that she jerks back and falls off the bus bench. Luckily, her many plastic bags cushion the fall. She lies askew on the hard ground, squealing in fury, her plump, hairy thighs exposed. Moishe leans and holds out his bony arm but is too frail to pull her up. Nissim the carrot juice vendor and Yossi with his grease-spotted apron from Jerusalem Takeout hustle over. She flails on the ground, fighting them off.

“Grandma, your hand is bleeding,” Nissim says, his voice leaking sympathy.

“Did you see what he did?” she yelps as she struggles to sit up and pull down her skirt at the same time.

“Calm down, Grandma,” Yossi soothes her. “Maybe you’d like a piece of  potato kugel?” but she turns her head away at this ridiculous offer. Her fingers shake as she kneels and gathers her Bible and loose stray bags. She hobbles back to her spot on the bench, not even bothering to collect People, Ha’aretz and other fallen magazines. She eases herself slowly onto the bench, holding onto the side pole for leverage. From the corner of her eye, she sees the Arab stuffing a bill into his pocket—no doubt from that jinji soldier in a stupid yarmulke—and her tongue goes heavy and rancid in her mouth. The Arab has outdone her. Eye glasses! They cost a fortune, more than magnifying glasses, much, much more.

Estrella squirts a little water from her bottle onto a paper napkin and dabs at her hand. She reaches for her head kerchief—still there—and clumsily knots it under her chin, her fingers wooden. She takes a breath. A second, a third. There’s no place for her here. No place for Estrella. Not one defends her, not one understands. The shopkeepers are fools. They should’ve chased away the Arab, instead of trying to stuff her with their terrible gray food with no taste.

Her gaze falls on Moishe. He’s muttering again about corridors and worlds to come.

“Moishe,” she calls hoarsely to him. “Did you see what happened?” She gestures with her head toward the ledge.

He raises his bony neck and turns his bleached eyes toward her and gives the slightest dip of his head. Estrella nods to herself. Old Moishe will listen. He’ll know. He understands more than the stupid sabras what it means to have no place. Him with that caterpillar scrawl on his arm, and those no-color eyes that look as if they’ve seen things in the camps, in that war the Ashkenazis are always crying about.

“The Arab lied, he stole,” she says thickly.

Moishe just looks at her and then across the street at Mister Rags who dreamily smokes a cigarette under an awning.

She hangs her head. “He stole from me,” she whimpers. “He took,” she squeezes her eyes shut, “everything.” More terrible still, the Arab said her own lines even better, even she has to admit this.

Moishe’s hand makes a wiggle as if to say, You’re a faker, he’s a faker. What do you want from me?

She stares at his skinny little wrist peeking out of the slab of his black coat. She stares at his chicken neck, at that dirty rag of a beard on his egg-white face. A terrible rage fills her throat.

“Idiot!” She clambers to her feet. “He lies more!”

Again, he makes that Ashkenazi hand wiggle of his, like a knife making distinctions. So what? Nobody cares.

Her face purples with fury. “Don’t you dosim understand a thing?” she screams. With two hands, she heaves her maroon Bible at him. It flies through the air faster than spit and hits his scrawny shoulder with a thwack. His no-color eyes fling open. He lets out a tiny yelp as quiet as the flap of a butterfly wing.  A wind blows through the olive tree, and Estrella turns her small stunned eyes from the tilting old man to the holy book. It lies there like a squashed animal between the bus stop and the ledge. Old Moishe rubs  his shoulder and groans and then stretches out his white skinny fingers to reach the book but can’t come even close. Estrella’s eyes catch on Nissim and Yossi standing like frozen lumps, their mouths slack with shock, their dark eyes bullets of accusation, and she turns away. It hurts her to breathe, each intake of air poking her chest like glass. What a terrible thing she has done. People will say this. But now—what’s this?—she sees the bald Arab rising, no, bending one thick knee to the ground as if about to pray his prayers, but instead he seizes the book and presses it roughly to his lips. God in Heaven! As if he loves it,  as if he cherishes it above all other books!  The more people who walk past and stare, the louder and more fervent his kisses.

Ruchama King Feuerman’s story,“A Beggar’s Place,” is the second-place winner of the 2011 Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest. Feuerman is the author of a novel, Seven Blessings (St. Martin’s). Her second novel, In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist, will be published by The New York Review of Books as an e-book in the summer of 2013. She lived in Jerusalem for 10 years and now resides in Passaic, New Jersey, with her family.

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