“Sol’s Special” by Alter S. Reiss
“You’re Brineh’s daughter?” asked Sol, scowling up at me.
“She calls herself Brandy,” I said.
“You can call a turnip a chicken, if you like. You’re Anna Rosenblum, Brineh Rosenblum’s daughter, and your aunt Esther says that you need a job.”
I looked out the window, through the letters that would have read SOL’S SPECIAL BAKERY – CATERING AND EVENTS – STRICTLY KOSHER if I was looking through the other side, and out to the grimy streets of East Pelham. It was the ass end of nowhere in the Bronx. An hour on my bike to get there, and even if I took the train, it wouldn’t be that much faster; there was like a mile between the last stop on the 6 and Sol’s. On the other hand, “Yes, Mr. Stemple,” I said. “I need a job.”
“Fine,” he said. “It’s ten dollars an hour. You speak Yiddish? Russian? Spanish?”
“A little Spanish,” I said.
“Eleven an hour, then,” he said. “Unless people get upset about your Spanish. You ever work a counter before?”
I had worked on President Obama’s reelection campaign; I had been on the Columbia College Student Council. “No, I haven’t, Mr. Stemple.”
He sighed. “Well, we’ll get to that. The first thing you have to know is that there are some people in the neighborhood who… they don’t always have the money to pay for what they need. Give it to them anyway.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Sometimes, they want to look like they’re paying, because who wants to look like a charity? So just take what they give you, and put it in the change drawer.” Which led to an explanation of how to work the giant old cash register, which led to the pricing of everything in the bakery, which led to an extended digression on kosher laws, and how that meant that I couldn’t bring outside food inside the bakery, not even chewing gum.
The whole thing lasted about an hour. By the time he was done, in addition to telling me how to do everything I needed to do to be a bakery counter girl, Sol had also informed me that while he didn’t care if I was religious, I had to act religious within the walls of his bakery. Which seemed like a pain in the ass, but not enough of a pain in the ass that I didn’t want the job.
When he was done, Sol scratched his chin, just below his white walrus mustache. Then he opened up a box, at the end of the shelves, hidden from view from the counter. “If someone asks for pohs,” he said, “offer them this.”
There were three little flatbread things in the box. They were a sort of sickly gray, and were cracked and lumpy. The other breads he sold – the rye and the white, the challah and the kaiser rolls – they all looked great. This stuff looked so awful that I looked up at him, thinking that it was some sort of joke. Sol’s expression told me it wasn’t. “Everything else, if you want some, you can take it, eat it on your breaks, as much as you like. These aren’t for you. Only for people who ask for pohs.”
I thought about making some sort of joke, but Sol Stemple didn’t invite jokes. He was a little old man, but he was also terrifying. Like a drill press with a velvet skullcap.
And that was that; Sol’s was kind of a dump, but starting the next day, it was the dump where I worked. It was, at least, a clean dump. The work wasn’t challenging, or fun, or in any way what I wanted from my life. But eleven dollars an hour wasn’t bad, and I got free bialys and onion rolls for lunch, and could take home whatever day-old bread I wanted.
I was the only counter-girl that Sol employed, so I had to deal with all the customers. Most of whom were old folks, mostly Jewish, some Latino, a few Russian. Regardless of ethnicity, the old people all took forever to count out a dollar twenty-five. There were also businessmen who were complete cocks if I took five seconds too long bagging their sourdough rolls, and kids my age who spent the absolute minimum amount of time possible not looking at their phones. One thing that working service teaches you is just how hard it is for some people to go into a store and buy a loaf of bread without causing the people behind the counter to lose faith in the human race.
Aside from Sol, the people who didn’t use money to pay were the only interesting thing about the job. Most of them were just homeless people and old folks who wanted to be seen paying, rather than asking for handouts. Some of those were clearly mentally ill. I’m not sure how Sol trained them to act like customers, but it made things easier for me.
There were some who weren’t like that. They didn’t seem poor, and they didn’t seem… well, okay, they did seem crazy. But not the sort of crazy that you’d get from the homeless people. They didn’t yell at things that weren’t there, or talk about their paranoid delusions, but they all attached too much significance to some things, and not enough to others. It was like they were out of focus. Sometimes, after talking them, I felt like I was out of focus, that I was watching the TV set and missing the show. They were the only people who ever asked for pohs.
They went about asking for it in different ways. One guy would come in wearing a different sharkskin suit every time. He’d sort of sneak up on the counter, lean forward, and whisper, “One pohs, please.” He’d watch the door while I wrapped it up, grab it out of my hands as I passed it over the counter, drop his matchbook or wooden top or whatever onto the counter, and dash out the door. One time an old lady came in when he was getting his pohs, and the guy turned white as a sheet, and ran out into the rain, leaving the pohs behind. He slunk back in five minutes after the lady had picked out and paid for a chocolate babka, grabbed his pohs, and hightailed it. I didn’t see him again for months.
On the other hand, there was a big Dominican woman who would come in about an hour after lunch, and bellow out for her pohs loud enough to shake the flour off the bialys. Then she’d lean over the counter and chat with me for about twenty minutes, whether or not there was anyone else in the shop.
I might have been able to dismiss it all, if Sol hadn’t seemed to care about the random shit they’d give to pay for their pohs. He didn’t make a big deal out of it, but at the end of the day, he’d sort through the junk in the change drawer. The stuff the crazy people gave got tossed, but he’d always pick out what the pohs buyers had given, and put it in his pocket.
There was one guy who might have been Sol’s brother; he looked to be about the same vintage, wore the same sort of clothing, and had the same square face. This guy was smaller, had a wispy little beard instead of a mustache, and wore a big black coat instead of an apron. He would come in on the second Tuesday of every month, at three fifteen. One time when he came in, he put a busted pocket watch on the counter when he asked for his pohs. “Solly will have to give me a few months credit for that,” he said.
When Sol went through the crap in the drawer after closing, his eyes lit up when he saw that watch, and he handled it like it was a diamond or something. “He said you’ll have to give him a few months credit for that,” I said.
“I’ll bet he did,” said Sol. “Next three months… say, four months, he doesn’t have to give anything.”
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“What what’s going on?” asked Sol. “We’re closing the shop, like we do every night.”
“What’s pohs?” I asked. “What did that guy give you for it?”
“It’s a bread,” said Sol. “Boruch gave me junk, because he’s a crazy old man.”
“So why do you care about the junk he gave you?”
“What? When you want to put music on in the store, I’m a crazy for saying no. Now, I’m not a crazy all of a sudden?”
I sighed. “Look, are you going to tell me what’s going on?”
“I told you what’s going on. We’re closing the store up.”
“Fine,” I said, and I dug out a crumpled ticket from the last concert I had been to. “There. One pohs, please.”
He looked at the ticket, looked at me, and shook his head. “Don’t be stupid. And don’t you bother the customers about this nonsense.” And that was that. There were things that I could argue with Sol about; there were a couple of times that I thought he was willing to bend on the music issue, and he had finally let me put a tip jar out on the counter.
But there were some things that he wouldn’t bend on, and it was clear that I had found one of them. This was like kosher, or keeping the bakery clean, or giving handouts to people who needed them; I could argue if I liked, but it wouldn’t do anything beyond lowering Sol’s opinion of me.
That tip jar meant I’d put up with a lot of rules. Most days, I’d get maybe ten, fifteen dollars. Some days, less than that. Other days… one of the pohs buyers had greyish skin and looked to be about three hundred years old. “Tips, eh?” he said, looking at the jar.
“Only if you want,” I said with a smile.
“Sure,” he said, once he had his pohs inside his coat. “Here’s a tip. Pfizer is going to drop three and a half points tomorrow in heavy trading, and is going to recover over the next week. Take a short position early, buy on the trough.”
Working behind a bakery counter probably isn’t the best way to get seed money for investment. And the guy might have just been a loony. But I put two hundred dollars in, and I got six hundred dollars out.
He wasn’t the only one to give me tips like that. Some of them offered advice on stocks and horses, others suggested streets I should avoid, or things I should wear. They were universally right. Messy car crashes in places where I would have otherwise been, phone numbers from guys who liked my shirts.
Which was great, but which made me even more curious about the stuff they were buying and the things they were buying it with. Things came to a head after the shooting. I was just leaving for the night, when there was a sudden pop-pop-pop, and a car peeled away. I didn’t realize what had happened – the gun didn’t sound anything like the way guns sound in the movies – but when Sol came out and started swearing in Yiddish at the neat little holes in the shop’s door, I put two and two together, and started shaking.
As soon as he saw that, Sol rushed over to me, though his solicitousness faded considerably when he figured out that I hadn’t been hit. “You have to tell me what’s going on,” I said. “They’re shooting at me now. I need–”
“At you now they were shooting?”
“Fine.” I sat down on the curb, put my head in my hands. “They were shooting at you. At your shop. Where I work. I need to know. I–”
“Here is what you need to know,” said Sol. “You sell bread. You sell rye bread, you sell white bread, you sell pumpernickel bread. Not so much pumpernickel as the guy before you, because he was a black.”
“What?” I was still frightened out of my wits by the shooting, but I wasn’t going to let that pass.
Sol shrugged. “The people here, they’re not so progressive. They see a black man behind the counter, they notice he’s a black. Then they think, ‘maybe I buy some black bread.’ You should pay attention to things like that.”
“How would I notice… what? Look. My point is, I’m risking my life to sell that pohs. I deserve to know–”
“You risk your life living in Brooklyn, is where you risk your life. But if you don’t want to work here, nobody’s forcing you. You could take your degree in basket-weaving–”
“Classic basket weaving, and go get a job somewhere else. Somewhere without a tip jar, maybe.”
I had to admit that he had a point; that tip jar was worth as much as a job on Wall Street. But it still rankled. I was getting some good advice, but I was eating the crumbs off these people’s table. Which gave me an idea.
Stealing either the pohs or the junk that people paid for the pohs seemed like it would end poorly. But it was a hard sort of bread, so there were always crumbs in the box that we kept the pohs in. I didn’t take any the next day, or the day after that, but the idea grew on me. Finally, one afternoon, I cracked.
It was a slow day. I waited until there were no customers, and I waited until I heard the sounds of Sol settling in for a long session on the can. Then I opened the box. There were two loaves of pohs there, which meant that there were going to be two customers coming in to get pohs – Sol always seemed to know how many he would need. It was the second Tuesday of the month, so the old Jewish guy would be there, and apparently one other. I moved the loaves to the side, and tilted the box so that the crumbs all fell down to one corner. It wasn’t that much, but it might be enough.
At three fifteen, Boruch came in for his pohs, same as always. This time he paid for it with a newspaper clipping about a local high school’s baseball team and two cigarettes. I filed the junk away, looked over the counter at him.
“You didn’t take it,” he said.
There wasn’t any point in asking how he knew. “No,” I said.
He bobbed his head a little, like he was thinking it through. “Why not?” he asked.
“I want to know,” I said. “I don’t understand, and I want to. But then I look at the pohs customers, and I look at my life, and I don’t want to trade. Even if there wouldn’t be trouble about the pohs, and there probably would be, it doesn’t look like knowing what you guys know is much of a help in your lives.” I shrugged, looked over at him. “Sorry.”
“Hm,” he said. “Hm. You might be right. Also, you might be wrong. Not a lot of people see it your way.”
“Anyone with good sense does,” said Sol, coming out from the back. “But more often after than before. Your aunt Esther took it right away, and regretted it ever since.”
“Aunt Esther worked for you?” I asked.
“For a week in 1957. Couldn’t make change without a pencil and paper, and for that I paid her a dollar fifteen an hour.”
“But she’s so…”
“Normal?” said Boruch. “Just because a door is opened, doesn’t mean that you walk through. But she sees things that most people don’t.”
Aunt Esther? She was married to a retired dentist, wore too much makeup, and drove a 1970s Cadillac the size of Newark. It ought to be hard to believe, and yet, it made sense. “Huh,” I said. And she had been the one who had gotten me the job at Sol’s, as well. “Huh,” I repeated.
Sol grunted, went to the back to make more bread, and Boruch left to wherever he was going. And that was that. I kept working at Sol’s, because the tips were something else, but from that point on, whenever I asked a question that Sol didn’t want to answer, he just said, “If you want to know, I’ll tell you,” and I never called him on that.
There’s something there. No question about that. And it could be that I’ll change my mind – every time I take out a pohs for a customer now, there’s always one more loaf in the box than I’m going to need. But when it’s a question of mystical knowledge against a well-paying job and a nice apartment, I don’t need the wisdom in the pohs to see which one is a better choice.
About the Author
Alter S. Reiss is a scientific editor and field archaeologist, who lives in Jerusalem with his wife Naomi and their son Uriel. He enjoys good books, bad movies, and old time radio shows. His work has appeared in Strange Horizons, F&SF, and elsewhere.