An excerpt from

The Rent Collector
by B. Rotchin

Gershon found Joey Putkin in his basement office, reclining in a leather-backed armchair. His feet were propped up on a glass desk. Putkin's fingers were locked together, palms down, across the top of his head. A heretic's kippa, thought Gershon, looking through the doorway. All in all, Putkin seemed pleased with himself, relaxed. Putkin leaned forward, then dropped his fists on the desk and faced Gershon squarely.

"So, you've come to collect," Putkin said.

Gershon might have chosen to reschedule his afternoon meeting had he known that Putkin was in rare form.

That morning Putkin had stormed into his basement office, late.

"The buyer from The Leather Barn has been waiting since nine o'clock," the receptionist had announced. Putkin scooped the small squares of multi-coloured message paper out of her hands and paused in front of her to flip through them.

"Fucking overpaid private school teachers are so lazy," Putkin had growled. "They'll do anything to work less. My kid's teacher says he's a trouble-maker. She wants us to put him on Ritalin. Shit. I had a meeting at school, that's why I'm late."

Putkin had shed his jacket, snatched an order pad from the desk and sped off down the corridor.

"Your father's keeping the client occupied in the showroom."

"Page him over the intercom. Send him on an errand to get more toilet paper or something. Tell him we're out of styrofoam cups!" he had barked back.

Joey's father Avi had come to work here after his wife died three years earlier. It was his way of filling a dark hole in his daily life, and Joey's opportunity to act the role of a dutiful son. Avi was a large jovial man who enjoyed telling off-colour jokes, especially to pretty young customers. Joey considered his father a nuisance around the office. He preferred working solo. His father's outgoing, friendly disposition nagged at him. But Avi was proud of his son, which made things difficult. He took ownership of Joey's accomplishments, reminding him, when Joey least wanted to hear it, that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

Joey had emerged from his meeting with The Leather Barn buyer wasted, and victorious. He was tabulating the profits in his head as he bid her farewell at the front door of Putkin Leather Designs Inc. For the tenth time he told her how gorgeous she looked, touched her hand, and then let the fingers drop gently, like a bouquet of flowers on a grave. It was a romantic departure worthy of film. Two lovers seeing each other off, perhaps for the very last time. The door closed behind the buyer leaving an atmosphere thick with the residue of longing.

Gershon, of course, knew nothing of Putkin's morning. His eyes ricocheted off the office walls and across the framed photos. He saw girls wearing tanned leather mini-skirts and zipped-up knee-high boots. His sightline grazed bare female arms gratefully clutching the jackets of chesty, heroic-looking men. On Putkin's side of the bureau there was a photograph of a woman holding her baby. Next to this was one of a little boy wearing a blue and white soccer shirt with "67" on the front. Gershon's eyes finally settled on the giant green bug behind Putkin. It was an army beret, the regulation IDF shirt and matching ripped khaki pants, pinned spread-eagle to the wall. He'd seen them on his other visits. But now the clothes made a unique impression on Gershon. They seemed to be displayed with the purpose to intimidate.

"You fought for Israel?" Gershon was looking for an amicable way to broach the subject of unpaid rent.

"Lebanon '83." Putkin sat back in his chair, turned his head toward his computer screen and began typing. His face glowed in pale blue light.

"I'm a bit surprised. You never mentioned you were in the war."

"There's nothing more to say." Putkin didn't budge from the screen. "Arab terrorist bastards. Now they want a country. What do they know about running a country?"

Putkin's fingers tapped staccato on the keyboard like he was sending an urgent message over the internet. "You think they won't send katyusha rockets into our cities every day if they can? Arabs hate Jews. It's inbred. They won't be happy till we're all dead," he said.

Gershon felt as if he had casually strolled into a restricted zone, booby-trapped with landmines. "God willing, one day there'll be a settlement," he said.

Putkin scratched his temple and glared at Gershon. "God willing? You say God willing? God has nothing to do with it. You religious guys think you understand, but you don't. I didn't see guys with payas fighting in my unit, I can tell you that. While you people were parading around synagogues carrying Torah scrolls on your shoulders, we were in the field with bazookas fighting for our lives!"

"I only meant that nothing is solved with violence."

"You know, the problem with you guys is that you live in the past. You never fought for your future. If we learned anything in the last fifty years it's that if you don't fight for your future, you don't deserve one!"

Gershon was losing his appetite for rent. The conversation was speeding past the point of no return. He would be lucky to get away unscathed. He sought some means of making an exit without appearing disrespectful. He stepped backward, trying to think of a neutral, harmless way to sign off.

"I guess we can both appreciate living in Canada," he said.

Putkin calmed down. "Yes, this great peaceful country, Canada. A wonderful place where almost nothing happens." He smirked. "Except maybe an old-time Jew like you and a modern one like me doing battle."

"I must go now. Another appointment. Excuse me." Gershon reached for the door knob. He hurried past the receptionist and exited the office.

He walked unsteadily as he approached the elevator, sucking in deep breaths of basement air. Gershon replayed the exchange with Putkin over and over in his mind while he waited for the elevator.

Had he lost? The money was not in his hands, it was true, but he didn't feel like a complete failure. Something was learned, something more valuable. Perhaps he was wrong about Putkin. As an Israeli soldier Putkin had put his life in jeopardy. He possessed a sense of obligation after all. This must be what Sholem saw in Putkin. They shared the mutual respect of brothers-in-arms.

Now Gershon was feeling presumptuous, even foolish. What had he ever done to struggle? He accepted his father's hard-earned hand-outs like a beggar. People shouldn't make silly assumptions. Gershon had to admit there was much he had to learn. He looked up and down the dimly lit hallway. Behind every wooden door strategies were being planned, decisions were being made, and destiny itself was taking shape. There was only One who knew the whole story, how it all ended, even before it began.

"You should've been there, Alfreda," Gershon declared as he yanked open the management office door. "It was ugly. A slaughter."

"I take it you didn't get the rent," Alfreda said. "Big surprise."

"Not even close. But I did get an earful. Now I represent everything that's wrong with the Jewish people. A weakling with payas." Gershon marched to his desk. "I realize it's not about paying rent with him. It's something more. The sight of me sends him into a rage."

"Gershon, don't take everything so personally," Alfreda reassured him. Pointing at him with her ballpoint pen, she said, "Everyone needs an easy target. Someone else they can harass so they don't take out their hostility on themselves. You're his favourite target. I think he feels threatened by you."

"Threatened by me? Why would he feel threatened by me?"

"We always attack the thing, or person, who threatens us most. It's the survival instinct."

"Why should I threaten him?"

"'Cause you're a Jew. And you really look like one. And he doesn't. He hates the fact that you look like a real Jew and he doesn't."

"I don't know," Gershon said. "Putkin's not the type who can be so easily threatened. He fought for Israel in Lebanon. Did you know that?"

"Really?" Alfreda stopped working and looked up. "It's hard to believe. Vulgar, money-grubbing, insulting Joey Putkin, Defender of the Holy Land. God help us!"