DAVIDOV, the census-taker, opened the door without knocking, limped into the room, and sat wearily down. Out came his notebook and he was on the job. Rosen, the ex-coffee salesman, wasted, eyes despairing, sat motionless, cross-legged, on his cot. The square, clean but cold room, lit by a dim globe, was sparsely furnished: the cot, a folding chair, small table, old unpainted chests--no closets but who needed them?--and a small sink with a rough piece of green, institutional soap on its holder --you could smell it across the room. The worn black shade over the single narrow window was drawn to the ledge, surprising Davidov.
"What's the matter you don't pull the shade up?" he remarked.
Rosen ultimately sighed. "Let it stay."
"Why? Outside is light."
"Who needs light?"
"What then you need?"
"Light I don't need," replied Rosen.
Davidov, sour-faced, flipped through the closely scrawled pages of his notebook until he found a clean one. He attemptedto scratch in a word with his fountain pen but it had run dry, so he fished a pencil stub out of his vest pocket and sharpened it with a cracked razor blade. Rosen paid no attention to the feathery shavings falling to the floor. He looked restless, seemed to be listening to or for something, although Davidov was convinced there was absolutely nothing to listen to. It was only when the census-taker somewhat irritably and with increasing loudness repeated a question that Rosen stirred and identified himself. He was about to furnish an address but caught himself and shrugged.
Davidov did not comment on the salesman's gesture. "So begin," he nodded.
"Who knows where to begin?" Rosen stared at the drawn shade. "Do they know here where to begin?"
"Philosophy we are not interested," said Davidov. "Start in how you met her."
"Who?" pretended Rosen.
"Her," he snapped.
"So if I got to begin, how you know about her already?" Rosen asked triumphantly.
Davidov spoke wearily, "You mentioned before."
Rosen remembered. They had questioned him upon his arrival and he now recalled blurting out her name. It was perhaps something in the air. It did not permit you to retain what you remembered. That was part of the cure, if you wanted a cure.
"Where I met her--?" Rosen murmured. "I met her where she always was--in the back room there in that hole in the wall that it was a waste of time for me I went there. Maybe I sold them a half a bag of coffee a month. This is not business."
"In business we are not interested."
"What then you are interested?" Rosen mimicked Davidov's tone.
Davidov clammed up coldly.
Rosen knew they had him where it hurt, so he went on: "Thehusband was maybe forty, Axel Kalish, a Polish refugee. He worked like a blind horse when he got to America, and saved maybe two, three thousand dollars that he bought with the money this pisher grocery in a dead neighborhood where he didn't have a chance. He called my company up for credit and they sent me I should see. I recommended okay because I felt sorry. He had a wife, Eva, you know already about her, and two darling girls, one five and one three, little dolls, Fega and Surale, that I didn't want them to suffer. So right away I told him, without tricks, 'Kiddo, this is a mistake. This place is a grave. Here they will bury you if you don't get out quick!'"
Rosen sighed deeply.
"So?" Davidov had thus far written nothing, irking the ex-salesman.
"So?--Nothing. He didn't get out. After a couple months he tried to sell but nobody bought, so he stayed and starved. They never made expenses. Every day they got poorer you couldn't look in their faces. 'Don't be a damn fool,' I told him, 'go in bankruptcy.' But he couldn't stand to lose all his capital, and he was also afraid it would be hard to find a job. 'My God,' I said, 'do anything. Be a painter, a janitor, a junk man, but get out of here before everybody is a skeleton.'
"This he finally agreed with me, but before he could go in auction he dropped dead."
Davidov made a note. "How did he die?"
"On this I am not an expert," Rosen replied. "You know better than me."
"How did he die?" Davidov spoke impatiently. "Say in one word."
"From what he died?--he died, that's all."
"Answer, please, this question."
"Broke in him something. That's how."
"Broke what breaks. He was talking to me how bitter was his life, and he touched me on my sleeve to say something else, but the next minute his face got small and he fell down dead, the wife screaming, the little girls crying that it made in my heart pain. I am myself a sick man and when I saw him laying on the floor, I said to myself, 'Rosen, say goodbye, this guy is finished.' So I said it. »
Rosen got up from the cot and strayed despondently around the room, avoiding the window. Davidov was occupying the only chair, so the ex-salesman was finally forced to sit on the edge of the bed again. This irritated him. He badly wanted a cigarette but disliked asking for one.
Davidov permitted him a short interval of silence, then leafed impatiently through his notebook. Rosen, to needle the census-taker, said nothing.
"So what happened?" Davidov finally demanded.
Rosen spoke with ashes in his mouth. "After the funeral--" He paused, tried to wet his lips, then went on, "He belonged to a society that they buried him, and he also left a thousand dollars insurance, but after the funeral I said to her, 'Eva, listen to me. Take the money and your children and run away from here. Let the creditors take the store. What will they get?--Nothing.'
"But she answered me, 'Where will I go, where, with my two orphans that their father left them to starve?'
"'Go anywhere,' I said. 'Go to your relatives.'
"She laughed like laughs somebody who hasn't got no joy. 'My relatives Hitler took away from me.'
"'What about Axel--surely an uncle somewheres?'
"'Nobody,' she said. 'I will stay here like my Axel wanted. With the insurance I will buy new stock and fix up the store. Every week I will decorate the window, and in this way gradually will come in new customers--'
"'Eva, my darling girl--'
"'A millionaire I don't expect to be. All I want is I should make a little living and take care on my girls. We will live in the back here like before, and in this way I can work and watch them, too.'
"'Eva,' I said, 'you are a nice-looking young woman, only thirty-eight years. Don't throw away your life here. Don't flush in the toilet--you should excuse me--the thousand poor dollars from your dead husband. Believe me, I know from such stores. After thirty-five years' experience I know a graveyard when I smell it. Go better someplace and find a job. You're young yet. Sometime you will meet somebody and get married.'
"'No, Rosen, not me,' she said. 'With marriage I am finished. Nobody wants a poor widow with two children.'
"'This I don't believe it.'
"'I know,' she said.
"Never in my life I saw so bitter a woman's face.
"'No,' I said. 'No.'
"'Yes, Rosen, yes. In my whole life I never had anything. In my whole life I always suffered. I don't expect better. This is my life.'
"I said no and she said yes. What could I do? I am a man with only one kidney, and worse than that, that I won't mention it. When I talked she didn't listen, so I stopped to talk. Who can argue with a widow?"
The ex-salesman glanced up at Davidov but the census-taker did not reply. "What happened then?" he asked.
"What happened?" mocked Rosen. "Happened what happens."
Davidov's face grew red.
"What happened, happened," Rosen said hastily. "She ordered from the wholesalers all kinds goods that she paid for them cash. All week she opened boxes and packed on the shelves cans, jars, packages. Also she cleaned, and she washed, and she moppedwith oil the floor. With tissue paper she made new decorations in the window, everything should look nice--but who came in? Nobody except a few poor customers from the tenement around the corner. And when they came? When was closed the supermarkets and they needed some little item that they forgot to buy, like a quart milk, fifteen cents' cheese, a small can sardines for lunch. In a few months was again dusty the cans on the shelves, and her money was gone. Credit she couldn't get except from me, and from me she got because I paid out of my pocket the company. This she didn't know. She worked, she dressed clean, she waited that the store should get better. Little by little the shelves got empty, but where was the profit? They ate it up. When I looked on the little girls I knew what she didn't tell me. Their faces were white, they were thin, they were hungry. She kept the little food that was left, on the shelves. One night I brought in a nice piece of sirloin, but I could see from her eyes that she didn't like that I did it. So what else could I do? I have a heart and I am human."
Here the ex-salesman wept.
Davidov pretended not to see though once he peeked.
Rosen blew his nose, then went on more calmly, "When the children were sleeping we sat in the dark there, in the back, and not once in four hours opened the door should come in a customer. 'Eva, for Godsakes, run away,' I said.
'"I have no place to go,' she said.
"'I will give you where you can go, and please don't say to me no. I am a bachelor, this you know. I got whatever I need and more besides. Let me help you and the children. Money don't interest me. Interests me good health, but I can't buy it. I'll tell you what I will do. Let this place go to the creditors and move into a two-family house that I own, which the top floor is now empty. Rent will cost you nothing. In the meantime you can go and find a job. I will also pay the downstairs lady to take care ofthe girls--God bless them--until you will come home. With your wages you will buy the food, if you need clothes, and also save a little. This you can use when you get married someday. What do you say?'
"She didn't answer me. She only looked on me in such a way, with such burning eyes, like I was small and ugly. For the first time I thought to myself, 'Rosen, this woman don't like you.'
"'Thank you very kindly, my friend Mr. Rosen,' she answered me, 'but charity we are not needing. I got yet a paying business, and it will get better when times are better. Now is bad times. When comes again good times will get better the business.'
"'Who charity?' I cried to her. 'What charity? Speaks to you your husband's a friend.'
"'Mr. Rosen, my husband didn't have no friends.'
"'Can't you see that I want to help the children?'
"'The children have their mother.'
"'Eva, what's the matter with you?' I said. 'Why do you make sound bad something that I mean it should be good?'
"This she didn't answer. I felt sick in my stomach, and was coming also a headache so I left.
"All night I didn't sleep, and then all of a sudden I figured out a reason why she was worried. She was worried I would ask for some kind of payment except cash. She got the wrong man. Anyway, this made me think of something that I didn't think about before. I thought now to ask her to marry me. What did she have to lose? I could take care of myself without any trouble to them. Fega and Surale would have a father he could give them for the movies, or sometime to buy a little doll to play with, and when I died, would go to them my investments and insurance policies.
"The next day I spoke to her.
"'For myself, Eva, I don't want a thing. Absolutely not a thing. For you and your girls--everything. I am not a strongman, Eva. In fact, I am sick. I tell you this you should understand I don't expect to live long. But even for a few years would be nice to have a little family.'
"She was with her back to me and didn't speak.
"When she turned around again her face was white but the mouth was like iron.
"'No, Mr. Rosen.'
"'Why not, tell me?'
"'I had enough with sick men.' She began to cry. 'Please, Mr. Rosen. Go home.'
"I didn't have strength I should argue with her, so I went home. I went home but hurt me in my mind. All day long and all night I felt bad. My back pained me where was missing my kidney. Also too much smoking. I tried to understand this woman but I couldn't. Why should somebody that her two children were starving always say no to a man that he wanted to help her? What did I do to her bad? Am I maybe a murderer she should hate me so much? All that I felt in my heart was pity for her and the children, but I couldn't convince her. Then I went back and begged her she should let me help them, and once more she told me no.
"'Eva,' I said, 'I don't blame you that you don't want a sick man. So come with me to a marriage broker and we will find you a strong, healthy husband that he will support you and your girls. I will give the dowry.'
"She screamed, 'On this I don't need your help, Rosen!'
"I didn't say no more. What more could I say? All day long, from early in the morning till late in the night she worked like an animal. All day she mopped, she washed with soap and a brush the shelves, the few cans she polished, but the store was still rotten. The little girls I was afraid to look at. I could see in their faces their bones. They were tired, they were weak. Little Surale held with her hand all the time the dress of Fega. Once when Isaw them in the street I gave them some cakes, but when I tried the next day to give them something else, the mother shouldn't know, Fega answered me, 'We can't take, Momma says today is a fast day.'
"I went inside. I made my voice soft. 'Eva, on my bended knees, I am a man with nothing in this world. Allow me that I should have a little pleasure before I die. Allow me that I should help you to stock up once more the store.'
"So what did she do? She cried, it was terrible to see. And after she cried, what did she say? She told me to go away and I shouldn't come back. I felt like to pick up a chair and break her head.
"In my house I was too weak to eat. For two days I took in my mouth nothing except maybe a spoon of chicken noodle soup, or maybe a glass tea without sugar. This wasn't good for me. My health felt bad.
"Then I made up a scheme that I was a friend of Axel's who lived in Jersey. I said I owed Axel seven hundred dollars that he lent me this money fifteen years ago, before he got married. I said I did not have the whole money now, but I would send her every week twenty dollars till it was paid up the debt. I put inside the letter two tens and gave it to a friend of mine, also a salesman, he should mail it in Newark so she wouldn't be suspicious who wrote the letters."
To Rosen's surprise Davidov had stopped writing. The book was full, so he tossed it onto the table, yawned, yet listened amiably. His curiosity had died.
Rosen got up and fingered the notebook. He tried to read the small distorted handwriting but could not make out a single word.
"It's not English and it's not Yiddish," he said. "Could it be in Hebrew?"
"No," answered Davidov. "It's an old-fashioned language they don't use it nowadays."
"Oh?" Rosen returned to the cot. He saw no purpose in going on now that it was not required, but he felt he had to.
"Came back all the letters," he said dully. "The first she opened it, then pasted back again the envelope, but the rest she didn't even open."
"'Here,' I said to myself, 'is a very strange thing--a person that you can never give her anything. --But I will give.'
"I went then to my lawyer and we made out a will that everything I had--all my investments, my two houses that I owned, also furniture, my car, the checking account--every cent would go to her, and when she died, the rest would be left for the two girls. The same with my insurance. They would be my beneficiaries. Then I signed and went home. In the kitchen I turned on the gas and put my head in the stove.
"Let her say now no."
Davidov, scratching his stubbled cheek, nodded. This was the part he already knew. He got up and, before Rosen could cry no, idly raised the window shade.
It was twilight in space but a woman stood before the window.
Rosen with a bound was off his cot to see.
It was Eva, staring at him with haunted, beseeching eyes. She raised her arms to him.
Infuriated, the ex-salesman shook his fist.
"Whore, bastard, bitch," he shouted at her. "Go 'way from here. Go home to your children."
Davidov made no move to hinder him as Rosen rammed down the window shade.