by Linda Rodriguez
Rivka’s place at 39th & Paseo is the only remnant of the postwar time when this stretch of Paseo Boulevard was prosperous—and white. As the area changed in color and class, the other shops and restaurants of its day moved or closed. Now this old Jewish lady’s bakery and deli huddles next to a tattoo shop, nail parlor, and liquor store, directly across the street from The Hot Jazz Lounge with its board-covered windows, live jazz, and occasional dead bodies late on weekend nights. Next block down squats Snake Eyes Music, best known for rap, porn, DEA shutdowns, and SWAT team visits. Rivka’s is the only survivor of better times.
I call myself CJ Nash. I work here behind the old-fashioned glass counters, making sandwiches, cooking, cleaning. Rivka Schinski’s my boss, and she’s about a hundred, a hunched old lady all twisted up by arthritis. She should have retired and sold or closed this place a long time ago. Her family sure wanted her to do that. Her grown kids and grandkids are rich, and they keep trying to get her to close this place and go someplace where they won’t have to worry about her getting knifed or shot. But Rivka’s tougher than gunmetal.
When they come around in their cashmere coats, driving their Lincolns and Lexuses, with their fears of crime and Blacks and bad publicity, she always says, “Hitler tried to kill me. The Nazis couldn’t kill me. Why should I be afraid of anyone else?” And she shakes her tiny wrinkled arm with its ugly tattooed numbers in their faces.
Truth of the matter is it hasn’t really been all that dangerous for her here. In its own way, the neighborhood looks out for its own. Rivka’s good to folks. She’s always got free treats for kids and food for the poor. She lets homeless street people, like Weedy, El, and The Rev, hang out inside the shop when it’s bitter cold or killer hot, along with the working girls. I’ve never known her to turn anyone away hungry who couldn’t pay. So, folks watch out for Rivka.
I know I do. I was homeless when I first met her, homeless, penniless, and on the run. Rivka’s been real good to me, gave me a job and a room in the back of the shop. Never asks awkward questions. I appreciate that.
My old man would hate to see me today, working for a Jew and hanging around with Blacks and Latinos. He thought he was the white man’s messiah, or that he’d raise my brothers and me for the job. We believed it, too, didn’t know any better. Back in those hills, I’d had no contact with anyone outside my family since I was six years old. My dad ran the world I grew up in, and his was the only truth I knew. It was a combination of boot camp and special forces training throughout my whole childhood.
But after the feds charged in and we fought back, Dad looking like a pincushion for bullets, Mom and my brothers dead, too, I couldn’t keep them from taking me captive with two slugs in my gut. Once I healed and went to prison—I was barely eighteen, see, but I was eighteen—I got a whole new education.
Now, I just keep myself to myself, low profile. Don’t leave this building much, except to ride the bus once a month to the nearest used bookstore down in Westport. I stay in the front of Rivka’s, slicing meat, vegetables, and breads, or work the mixer and oven in the kitchen or just lie on my cot in the back and read at night instead of sleeping. I’d just as soon no one realized I was even around.
I live in a whole different world from the one my crazy old man preached with its brotherhood of the white man. Truth is, hardly anybody white ever helped me after the troubles, except for this crazy little twisted-up Jewish woman.
I knew we had a new kind of trouble the day Kev Mackey came around to flirt with pretty little Trini Hernandez, like he always does, and brought that new gangbanger with him. Trini’s tiny, half Mexican, half Dominican. She keeps her hair cut short and wears jeans and sloppy T-shirts all the time. Trying not to look sexy and available like her hooker sister. Trying to say she’s something different from what every man who sees her wants her to be. Sometimes I gave her a book to try to read between her several jobs. She’s studying for her GED. Her secret hope is to go to school to become a nursing assistant and then maybe a nurse.
Kev’s a kid on the brink. He could come up with extraordinary guts and strength and go down the good road or do the easy thing and claim a gang and that short, brutal life. His new pal made that decision a long time ago. Big, tough, head shaved, pierced all over with silver knobs and rings, tats on his fingers. Saw plenty of those in prison.
“They call me Dom, little girl. That’s short for Dominator ‘cause that’s what I do. No one disses me. No one refuses me. That’s the way it’s got to be, sis.” He went after Trini right away. “Now, you are fine, girl. Just as fine as my homes Kev told me. You and me going to be real close friends. Real close.”
A cloud of menace hung over him. He wasn’t from here, and it wouldn’t make any difference to him that Rivka was good to people or that Trini was working hard to get out of this neighborhood where her dad and brothers wound up in the joint and her big sis on the streets. It sure wasn’t going to make any difference to him that Trini was a good girl. He’d just break her. That’s the way those eaten-up lost ones work. They don’t give a shit about anyone or anything.
Trini just ignored the punk, but Kev stood there with his mouth open like he couldn’t believe what he’d just heard.
“No way, Dom. Trini’s mine.” Brave words, but he sounded as scared as he looked, all skinny brown-skinned teen with acne and nappy hair, trying to look bad with his jeans hanging around his knees.
Dom twisted his mouth. “But you want to share, right, homes?” His voice cut the air, harsh and dangerous. He glared at Kev with real threat. Dom wasn’t more than seventeen or eighteen, like me when I killed those feds. Like me, he’d been bred and trained to be dangerous. I knew his type. I’d been his type.
“There won’t be any sharing of me.” Trini looked across the glass counter at the two of them. She couldn’t help that her voice was small and soft, but she made it as firm and strong as she could. “I belong to no one but myself. Certainly not to you, Kevin.”
“Shit, Trini, you know you’re—“
“No bad language here, Kevin,” said Rivka, walking in from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. “You know the rules. You boys get something to eat and then leave Trini alone. She’s working.”
She came behind the shorter counter where Trini sat at the cash register. She reached over in the back of the high glass-front counters next to her and plucked up two doughnuts. “Here you go, boys. Nice and fresh and sweet.”
Dom glared at her and leaned over to get right in her face. “Listen, you old bitch! I—“
Rivka reached up and stuffed one of the doughnuts right in his open mouth as he was laying into her. His eyes flew open in shock and then panic as he started to choke.
“Chew,” Rivka said. “Chew and swallow. It’s good for you. Sweeten your temper. And no more bad language. You can’t frighten me.” She pointed to the tattoo on her wrist. “Scarier men than you will ever be have tried and failed.”
I moved out from the corner table behind the tall counter where I stayed most of the time, sharpening knives, making up bags of doughnut holes, whatever. I drifted over to stand next to Rivka. Mutt and Jeff. I’m almost tall enough to include two of her, one on top of the other. I still held the big butcher knife I’d been sharpening.
Dom was chewing as fast as he could and still choking some. Rivka waved him toward the door. “Go on home. Come back when you feel better.
I started to move around the short counter behind Trini. I thought I’d whack him on the back since he was having such a hard time, but he turned and dashed for the door to the street before I could.
“Come on, Trini,” said Rivka, grabbing her purse. “I will drive you home.”
“But I’ve got two more hours to work.” Trini looked as if she might start crying. “I need the money.”
“Kevin can work your hours. I will still pay you.” Rivka turned toward Kev. “Why would you bring such a meshugganuh…?” Her hands tried to grab words from the air. “Such a crazy one. Why bring him here to torment Trini?”
Kev started to sputter in anger. I raised my eyebrows at him. I know the effect that can have on a kid, what with the scar that runs from one brow down to my jaw.
Trini whirled to face Kev. “You stupid! You better not bring that punk around me again, Kev, or I’ll never, never speak to you anymore.”
“Come, Trini, let me drive you home. I don’t want you to walk tonight.” Rivka pushed her toward the back door. “You keep your phone by you tonight. Call me if anyone comes bothering around your apartment.”
“Call 911,”I shouted after them. “They might not get there as fast as Rivka, but they’ll have more firepower.”
When I turned back to Kev, he was staring at the butcher knife in my hand. “What? This?” I shook it at him a little.
He pulled his head back as his eyes grew bigger.
“Kev, I was sharpening knives when your pal got so out of line. I just happened to have it in my hand.”
“You sharpen knives a lot of the time. I’ve noticed that.”
I shrugged. “I was taught to take good care of my tools. A dull knife is dangerous. You’re much more likely to cut yourself or someone else accidentally with a dull knife. And I never want to do something like that accidentally.” I walked back to my corner butcher block table and laid the knife on it.
I had the knives laid out in a line on the table, ordered by size. I put away my sharpening stone and its bench. I’d finished that part of the drill. Next, I would take my butcher’s steel and hone the knives so it would take the barest touch of their edges to open the skin or surface of almost anything.
“You know, Kev, the time comes when you got to think for yourself and not just move in the direction everyone seems to be pushing you to move.” I looked at him directly, making eye contact, though I usually avoided it. I wanted to make sure he was hearing and understanding. “This Dom guy may seem cool, but he’s not. He’s bad news for someone like you. Anything you do with him will bring him what he wants because you’ll be left to take the blame and punishment. Never let someone else control what you feel and do.”
I knew it was probably useless to talk this way, but I was talking to myself at his age more than anything, that kid who’d blown away two feds thinking he was protecting his family, thinking he was doing the righteous thing, only to learn after too many deaths that he’d been misled and would now have to pay forever for letting someone else control his emotions and actions. I was talking to the boy who’d set me on the course I’d been on ever since that day the feds showed at our home compound.
“Nah, Dom’s okay. He just doesn’t want anybody to feel like they can mess with him.” Kev’s face suddenly looked troubled. “I sure wish Miz Rivka hadn’t done that to him. You know, she dissed him bad. He’s going to have to come back on her hard.”
I nodded. I knew that the minute Rivka did it. I’m not sure she didn’t know it also. Rivka’s a lot smarter than people give her credit for. Dom was going to have to come back in and put the hurt on her big time. I didn’t want to see that. I hoped he’d get smart and go somewhere else.
I had to keep myself as low and out of sight as possible. Just because the search for me wasn’t active any longer didn’t mean it wasn’t ready to leap up any second the feds heard of a sighting or whenever my fingerprints showed up in some case or other. So I avoided trouble always. Now, Rivka had walked herself right into some really bad trouble. I didn’t see what I could do about it.
When Rivka came back, she stopped right inside the back door and gestured for me to go back to her. Kev was ringing up old Mr. Banks, who stopped by each afternoon to buy two doughnuts for the price of one. We had standing orders from Rivka to always make him a sandwich to go with the doughnuts. It was probably his only real meal most days. He supported himself and his grandson on Social Security and a disability check. A hit-and-run driver killed his daughter and put his grandson in a wheelchair, giving the kid traumatic brain injury, as well. Needed lots of special medical care. Mr. Banks was one of the folks in the neighborhood hanging on by a thread.
I joined Rivka in back, wondering what she wanted to tell me that she didn’t want Kev to hear. She’d been gone longer than I expected. Maybe she took Trini to stay in some safer place.
She held out a thick bank envelope to me. “Take this and keep it safe, CJ. Tomorrow morning as soon as I get here to open, I want you to take my car and pick up Trini. Drive her to another town. A college town. Lawrence, Manhattan, Parkville, Warrensburg. Find her a place to live and get her settled in with this money in a bank account. Stay with her a few days. Help her find a job and everything. There’s enough for her to live on and go to school if she works and is careful.” She smiled at me. “Trini’s used to being careful with money.”
“You don’t want to send me as a nursemaid for a young girl, Rivka. You shouldn’t trust her to some guy unless it’s someone as old as Mr. Banks.”
She smiled at me and patted my chest when she couldn’t reach my shoulder. “You live through what I did, and you lose the blinders when it comes to people. Most of them are weak, and whichever way they fall will depend on the circumstances around them. Some are just bad like that gangster who wants Trini.” She shook her head with a frown. “Bad.” She smiled and gave my chest one last pat. “Some are good. Solid good. You’re one of them, CJ. You’ve been through the fire, had the impurities burned away.”
I shook my head. Crazy old lady. She had me so wrong.
“I don’t know why you fear yourself so much and why you’re running. I don’t want to know. I know people. You’ll take care of Trini and settle her somewhere safe without hurting her. You can come back when you’ve done that if you want. Or you can move on.” She wrapped her arms around herself. “I won’t be around much longer. Have to go into hospital, I suppose. My children will insist when they find out. I’d leave this place to you. They won’t want it. But I imagine you can’t have anything to do with the courts.”
I nodded dumbly. After a few seconds, I found my voice. “What’s wrong?”
She laughed, and for a second I thought I could see the young girl whose beauty and courage allowed her to escape from Auschwitz. “Life, that’s all. Life is a death sentence, CJ, and I’ve had a long run with mine, but the bill’s finally come due.” She morphed back into the twisted little woman I knew and shrugged her hunched shoulders. “It’s all been an extra gift. Every day since I didn’t die with my mother and aunt. Riches, all of it. I’m ready.”
I didn’t know what to say. I understood that. I should have died with my parents and brothers, but I’d long since reached a place where I was glad I hadn’t. “Still, you shouldn’t trust me with Trini or the money. You don’t know who I really am. I could be a murderer for all you know.”
She tilted her head to look up at me in a quick, birdlike movement. “If you are, I know there was a reason. You had cause to do it. You’re a man who values life and other people, even those others ignore or despise. Trini and the money will be safe with you. You can take some of it to speed you on your way. I know you’ll leave Trini with enough.”
She closed my hand around the envelope with her own tiny fingers. “Keep it safe and get Trini somewhere where that thug can’t find her as soon as we open tomorrow.”
She turned and marched on into the shop, snatching up an apron from its hook on the wall. “Well, Kevin, how are things going? Mr. Banks, how is Charlie doing?”
I turned into the tiny back room, not much more than a closet, where I had a cot and a set of plastic storage drawers I’d picked up at the thrift store. Everything else I owned, except the row of used books sitting along the deep windowsill, was in the backpack hanging from two nails in the wall. Instead of putting the envelope in the backpack, I slid it under the mattress and headed back into the front of the deli.
The bell above the door was still ringing from Mr. Banks’ departure as I walked back behind the counters as if nothing had changed. I headed over to the knives to put them away. Rivka started to gather the day’s left-over doughnuts, rolls, and cookies into a sack. She always stopped by the vacant lot at the end of the block and handed the bag to The Rev, a homeless guy who could have once been a minister—I’d heard him preach when drunk. The Rev was as close to a leader as the homeless guys had. He passed out the food and made sure everyone got some.
The bell rang again, and I looked up to find Dom walking in. He had a revolver—looked like a Smith & Wesson .357—stuck in the front of his pants. Good way to blow off the family jewels, my dad would have said. He had no patience with anyone who didn’t respect his weapons.
Kev froze at the register, hands in midair, eyes huge. Rivka took a deep breath and let it out with a big sigh, walking around the counter to confront him. I was surprised to find I’d walked almost over to Kev at the register, knife in hand, while staring at them.
“Trini’s not here,” Rivka said. “She won’t be in until tomorrow.”
The door slammed behind Dom. He didn’t jump at the sound, but he moved around Rivka so he could watch the door and street outside as well as her. I could only see the side of his face once he did that, although he was much closer to me.
“I’ll take care of her later. Right now, you’re the bitch I came to deal with.” He pulled the gun from his pants without blowing a hole in himself the way I was hoping he would.
Rivka shook her head. She looked at him, and you could see the sorrow wash over her features. “You’re so young. So much hate. Is there no way to reach you?”
“Shut up, old bitch. You’re not dissing me ever again. I’m the man, see.” He shook his gun at her. “You better start crawling if you hope to live.”
My hand tightened on the knife I held. Kev was shaking so hard I could feel it.
“Is an old woman like me worth throwing your own life away? Am I worth going to prison and staying until you’re old and gray yourself?” Rivka was so calm, as if she discussed whether to have beef or chicken for lunch.
I moved closer to where the edge of the low counter pressed into my gut. I saw it in his eyes when he came in. Dom was going to kill Rivka. He’d hopped himself up for it, and there wouldn’t be any way to stop him, short of force. I figured I was the only one in the room, other than him, able to apply any force.
Rivka looked straight at me for a second, as if she’d heard my thoughts, and she shook her head imperceptibly before looking back at Dom.
“You’re going to be so fucking sorry you ever met me, you old cow,” he said as he lifted his gun toward her.
Kev screamed. I flung myself over the counter, ripping my knife across Dom’s throat, but I knew it was too late. He’d pulled the trigger, even as I threw myself at him. I hung on the countertop as Rivka fell onto her back, blood blossoming on her chest, and Dom dropped face forward, blood spurting in front of him. Kev screamed again.
I threw the knife down, pulled myself off the counter, and ran around to Rivka. “Call 911, Kev. Shut up and call 911. She needs an ambulance.” I knelt at her side, and she smiled up at me.
“Take that money. Trini won’t need it now. Run and hide. You know how.” Her voice was broken and gasping.
“Hang on, Rivka. An ambulance is on its way.” I tried to lift her head.
“No!” she cried. “Go now, CJ. Take that money and go.”
I stood and saw that Kev had finally picked up the phone. “Get that ambulance here for her, damn it.” I looked at her again, and she waved her hand weakly, signaling me to go.
It was only a few steps to the back room. I slid the envelope of cash out from under the mattress and grabbed my backpack. I could feel the feds on my trail already, that hunted feeling I’d lost for a while with Rivka. Snatching her keys from the counter, I slammed out the back door and threw the bag and myself into her old Buick.
I’d have to ditch it before very long, but I’d have a little while before they realized it was gone and started looking. Long enough to get away from the scene that would have months of my fingerprints all over it. Long enough to slide back underground and out of sight before the feds got involved.
Long enough to get somewhere safe to grieve for a twisted old Jewish lady who came out of hell to feed a whole neighborhood the rest of the world forgot.
Linda Rodriguez's Dark Sister: Poems is her 10th book. Plotting the Character-Driven Novel, based on her popular workshop, and The World Is One Place: Native American Poets Visit the Middle East, an anthology she co-edited, were published in 2017. Every Family Doubt, her fourth mystery featuring Cherokee detective, Skeet Bannion, and Revising the Character-Driven Novel will be published in 2019. Her three earlier Skeet novels—Every Hidden Fear, Every Broken Trust, Every Last Secret—and earlier books of poetry—Skin Hunger and Heart's Migration—have received critical recognition and awards, such as St. Martin's Press/Malice Domestic Best First Novel, International Latino Book Award, Latina Book Club Best Book of 2014, Midwest Voices & Visions, Elvira Cordero Cisneros Award, Thorpe Menn Award, and Ragdale and Macondo fellowships. Her short story, “The Good Neighbor,” published in Kansas City Noir, has been optioned for film.
Rodriguez is past chair of the AWP Indigenous Writer’s Caucus, past president of Border Crimes chapter of Sisters in Crime, founding board member of Latino Writers Collective and The Writers Place, and a member of International Thriller Writers, Native Writers Circle of the Americas, Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers, and Kansas City Cherokee Community. Visit her at http://lindarodriguezwrites.blogspot.com