Counter Offer| December 20, 2022
The store was going broke. Who’d be fired first?
morbid fascination that has Rachamim inching past the Square Shops mall on this frigid morning. Even though the heat is blasting in his 2014 Camry, the sight of the perfectly aligned wagons waiting outside the supermarket, each with an identical line of snow resting on its handlebar, is enough to make the hairs on Rachamim’s arms stand on end.
DOUBLE-WIDE ISLES! the ads for Mehadrin Shopper proclaimed. DELI! FISH! BUTCHER! PRODUCE! ALL UNDER ONE ROOF!
He remembers his boss Gavriel had snorted at that ad, said the supermarket’s marketing gurus had killed the campaign with one typo. But Rachamim, though he smiled at the joke, knew customers wouldn’t remember that gaffe. They’d remember the flashy interior design, the nifty self-checkout option. And Rachamim knew that Gavriel knew it, too. The marked creases on the ad, which had been refolded so many times, that it practically tucked itself back into Gavriel’s pocket, told him as much.
Rachamim is still counting wagons boasting the cheerful Mehadrin Shopper logo when a jalopy containing an alarming number of young workers pulls into the parking lot. The driver looks over at Rachamim, who loses count. Though he might just be a curious new shopper cruising by, he hits the accelerator and pulls away.
It’s a good thing, too. The dashboard shows 7:58, which means he has two minutes to get to work on time, and Rachamim is late an average of once every three years. It would take more than a newly sprung competition to taint that record, and besides, Gavriel is waiting for him.
The one-point-seven-five minutes it takes to drive from Square Shops to their cozy grocery, simply named Gavriel’s, helps Rachamim beat the clock. But the paltry distance between the two is hardly a blessing.
When Rachamim enters the shop, Gavriel accepts his steaming cup of Rachamim’s home-brewed coffee and turns back to his ledgers. Across the room stands Mrs. Katzenstein, known to her loyal customers as Temima, who is ringing up her first customer of the day.
“Here, Mr. Haimon,” she calls to Rachamim. She motions to a croissant she’s placed at the end of the counter, right near the plastic bin of chocolate coins, and Rachamim gets a whiff of the pastry that smells like a piece of Heaven broke off and dropped down right into the store.
“Wow, thank you, Mrs. Katzenstein,” he says gratefully. This croissant is the closest he gets to homemade food, other than what he bothers to prepare for himself.
“Baked fresh,” she says cheerfully as she slides a bag of bread over the scanner. “This morning.”
“You must make an early morning,” Rachamim replies. He nudges the croissant onto a napkin and takes an appreciative bite.
Mrs. Katzenstein smiles, as though she hasn’t heard Rachamim say the very same thing dozens of times.
“Five a.m., Mr. Haimon. Every morning.”
The croissant disappears much too quickly, and then Rachamim hits the produce section.
Two pairs of wire dreidels hang from the ceiling above the produce display, and they spin halfheartedly every time the door opens. Rachamim notices them and walks by, but they’re an annoyance in his peripheral vision. The store can’t support all that happiness this year.
Trying to ignore the cheery wires dangling overhead, Rachamim eyes the piles of produce sitting and waiting. He first thinks he has the day of the week wrong, but no — today is Tuesday.
“What’s going on, Gavriel?” he asks, though he suspects he knows the answer.
Gavriel looks up.
“Large order yesterday?”
Gavriel shakes his head wearily. “Less demand. See how we’re managing the workload even though I let José and Carlos go?”
Rachamim holds Gavriel’s gaze for a moment, and then drops his eyes. What can he say to a man whose toil of a lifetime is falling to pieces, crashing into smithereens so fast it’s but a memory by the time it hits the ground?
Tony walks by. He’s carting a box of fresh bread and juggling a croissant in his right hand.
“Hey, Rachamim! How was your croissant?”
Rachamim kisses his fingers and throws them up in the air.
Tony grins. “Mrs. Katzenstein is the best. I always tell you that, and still you don’t listen to what I say. She’s the best!”
“Yes, she most certainly is,” Rachamim agrees. He shifts his gaze to the checkout counter. Mrs. Katzenstein is ringing up a regular, and the soft chatting and quiet laughter coming from the front lends a soft energy to the store.
Tony notices him watching. “We’re lucky to have her. So many people are still choosing to shop here just because of her.”
Rachamim agrees. They are lucky. But there’s nothing to say to Tony, not when the three of them — other than the teenagers who come in very early and very late to take over their shifts — make up the hired staff of the business. And if Gavriel still can’t cover their payroll—
Rachamim refuses to go there. Losing his job would be like losing his very heart, and what good would he be without one? And yet… who then?
He dares to think.
He throws a glance at Mrs. Katzenstein.
No. Just — no.
The rest of the day at the grocery passes sluggishly, and for the first time that Rachamim remembers, he’s glad when his shift ends and he can escape to the comfort of his car.
Now he’s home, still mired in dread, when the microwave beeps.
Rachamim heaves himself out of his recliner and pads over to the counter. He peers through the front of the microwave, but there’s no surprise there; the tray loaded with eggplant rollatini looks just as unimpressive as when it went in.
Grabbing a fork, Rachamim stabs the rollatini and ponders the fact that rewarmed, pre-boxed food never does look as appealing as the version on the outside of the box. His plate is missing the vividness of the vegetables and the artfully placed parsley sprig. It’s a sad version of the real thing, and the disappointment is real.
Rachamim thinks of the aluminum pans waiting in a cabinet. He really does need to put up some fresh food. Some for now, some for the freezer. And he’s not a baby, and never was babied. He knows how to cook!
Next week, he promises himself, in honor of Chanukah. Next week.
Tomorrow, he’d grab some food from the deli. He’d ignore the prices on those little toothpicks stuck into the food and pretend he was eating out at a fancy restaurant, with a companion. Only his finger would be trailing the display window instead of the menu card, and he’d be standing at a counter instead of sitting, napkin at his fingertips, at a properly set table.
But so what? He could handle his own company. And maybe it would be worthwhile to peruse the classifieds while he eats, just in case.
The next morning dawns dark and cold. Rachamim half remembers hail pattering against the windows in the middle of the night. When he peeks outside in the morning, he finds a layer of frosted hail on the ground, the remaining blades of grass bent over under the burden of winter.
His apartment is warm, but a chill crawls up his back, anyway. This isn’t the kind of cold that stays outdoors, even with the heat blasting. It’s the kind of cold that begs for hot chocolate, or the grown-up version of it.
“Coffee,” Rachamim mutters to himself.
Maybe he should bring extra cups of coffee today, he thinks. Even though Tony and Mrs. Katzenstein always turn down his connoisseur-style coffees, who would turn down a hot drink today?
Yes, he’d throw together a quadruple-sized coffee after davening, he decides. Warm the people from the inside out.
AT precisely 7:59, the wind blows Rachamim into the grocery store. His hat has crystallized snow all over the top and rim, and his gloved hands are nearly numb, even his left one, which is holding down the coffee cup covers. The steam escaping the tiny holes provides satisfying pricks of heat, but nothing else.
Rachamim distributes the cups amid grateful murmurs of satisfaction, and his heart swells with pleasure. Then, relieved of the other three cups, he brings his own to his lips and downs the coffee in nearly one go.
“Ah,” he exhales. The warmth does its job, and he removes his gloves and scarf.
“Wonderful brew,” says Tony when his own cup is empty.
“You’ve been missing out these mornings you turned down a cuppa old Joe,” says Gavriel. “Regret that now?”
Tony shakes his head definitively. “No regrets. Only forward. Besides, a croissant and a coffee? Now that would spoil me!”
Rachamim glances over at the checkout counter, where Mrs. Katzenstein catches his eye and nods to a croissant sitting at the edge of the counter. It looks like chocolate today, and Rachamim is glad.
“Thank you, Mrs. Katzenstein,” he says as he gets up to retrieve it.
Mrs. Katzenstein smiles. “My pleasure. And thank you for the coffee! It hit the spot.”
Rachamim turns pink. “My pleasure,” he says.
Turning away, he immediately regrets parroting her choice of words. Couldn’t he think of something new to say? Flustered, he takes his pastry, leaves it at the desk where Gavriel is sitting, and escapes to the first section of the grocery that is awaiting him.
He finds Tony carefully licking his fingers behind the displayed onions.
Without looking up, Tony says, “Don’t worry, Mr. Haimon. I’ll wash my hands with soap before getting back to work.”
“Oh, I’m not worried,” Rachamim says. He lifts a case of yams and rests it on the edge of the display. “I know you will.”
“Have you eaten yours yet?”
Rachamim shakes his head. “It’s waiting for me on the main desk.”
“Eat it fast or Mrs. Katzenstein will be hurt,” Tony says, wagging a licked-clean finger. “And I’ll tell you again — you should marry her!” He announces this with gusto, as if this earth-shattering idea just struck him for the very first time.
Rachamim laughs. “Yeah, yeah. So you say.”
“And so does Garvriel,” Tony interjects. “I’ve heard him say so.”
Rachamim shakes his head.
Tony sidles up to him. “Really, now,” he says quietly. “Why don’t you? She certainly can bake, that’s for sure. And she’s kind!”
Rachamim waves away Tony’s words. “Why would she want to be saddled with an old man like me? She has kids, rabbis all of them. Nah.” Rachamim turns back to the yams. “I’m last year’s potatoes.”
Tony doesn’t give up. He bumps an elbow into Rachamim’s back. “How old are you, old man? 40, 50?”
“Oh, you charmer,” says Rachamim. “I’m a few months’ shy of 60, and you know it!”
Tony throws his hands onto his chest. “Nooo. Really? I took you for 45… 48 maybe!”
“Then you’re growing old yourself, amigo,” Rachamim says. “Have your years been taking longer? Soon they may go so slowly, you’ll find yourself growing younger.”
Tony grins broadly and licks the last of the vanilla frosting off his fingers. “This conversation isn’t about me, remember?”
Still chortling, Tony saunters off.
IT is near dusk when Rachamim finds Gavriel sitting over his ledgers again. His face is pinched in an expression Rachamim has grown to recognize as one pending doom.
“Tony will probably be next.”
Gavriel’s words slice through the air, and Rachamim looks up in shock. “No.”
“But he’s here almost as long as I am! And he has a family to support!”
Gavriel nods woodenly. “I know. That’s why I can’t push him off any longer. His duties will be divided between the two of us. There’s no point denying we have the time now.”
Disbelief pulls the color from Rachamim’s face. “I don’t believe it.”
“What’s not to believe?” Gavriel’s Adam’s apple bobs. “Look at this decades-old cash register. Look at this peeling ceiling. We can’t compete with the big guys! Not when they carry every item in every brand, as if people actually need all those confusing choices. I mean, what would I bring home for my wife when she asks for a bag of pasta and there are 50 varieties? And those are only regular wheat ones!”
Words attempt to work their way out of Rachamim’s mouth, but something has lodged itself in his throat. He remains silent.
The following day feels like Tishah B’Av, even though Rachamim is wearing gloves and a scarf again. As soon as he arrives, he hands Tony a cup of homemade brew and tries to convey the feelings in his heart without words.
“Thank you,” Tony says politely.
Rachamim opens his mouth to reply, but then the fear of saying the wrong thing overtakes him, and he says nothing.
Tony takes a long draw from the cup and then meets Rachamim’s eyes. “I guess you heard?”
Rachamim nods wordlessly.
“Well.” Tony looks down at his shoes. “I don’t blame Gavriel. He’s doing his best to keep his head above water.”
Rachamim is silent.
“He gave me two weeks’ notice,” Tony continues, “but I know my wages are a stretch for him now. I think I’ll take tomorrow off, look around for some work, and hope to find something sooner.”
“Wow,” Rachamim murmurs. “I… I don’t know what to say.”
“Neither do I.” Tony flashes a weak grin. “Shocking for me, right? When did I last have a hard time talking? And I can’t say that I didn’t see this coming.”
Rachamim shakes his head. “It’s not something we can… joke our way through. I just hope business picks up fast, and Gavriel rehires you before we know it.”
“I’ll miss those pastries,” Tony says. “And all you people.” He blinks a few times and cocks his head to stare at the fluorescent light hanging above his head. After a few moments, he says, “I’ll have to tell my family.” It sounds like he has a head cold.
Once again, Rachamim finds he doesn’t have words worth saying. Instead, he drapes an arm around Tony’s shoulders.
“We’ll miss you, too,” he says, and then abruptly turns away.
Rachamim finds the perfect minute when he goes to retrieve his croissant from the desk.
“Can I speak with you, Gavriel?” he asks.
Gavriel swivels around in his chair. “Of course,” he says immediately. “What’s going on? Is this about Tony?”
Rachamim shakes his head. “No, it’s about me.”
“Oh, okay,” Gavriel says. There is concern in his eyes. “Shoot.”
Rachamim tries to draw a deep breath, but his lungs freeze up and he can only get a minimum of oxygen in. The self-preservation instinct in him is screaming for him to terminate this conversation before it even begins, but compassion forces its way up.
“It’s like this,” he says. “I know things aren’t going well. And I know now you’re down to Mrs. Katzenstein and me. I just want to say that if, well… if… if you need to take another step, then—” Rachamim’s throat narrows, and he chokes on his words. He tries for another breath, coughs, and then continues, “Then I want to be next.”
The last few words die to a whisper, and Gavriel’s brow creases as he tries to catch them.
“You’re — you’re saying you’d rather be fired next? Is that what you’re saying?”
Rachamim nods, a tiny jerk of his head.
“Wow,” Gavriel says. “This is very gallant of you.” He leans back in his chair, thinking. “First,” he says at last, “I’m not letting either of you go so fast. But chas v’shalom, if that reality ever occurs, I promise I’ll give you this consideration.”
“You have to understand,” Rachamim says haltingly, “I have no major expenses. I can go a while without income.” Rachamim feels like he must make Gavriel understand. “This isn’t about gallantry.”
“I understand,” Gavriel says.
Rachamim is relieved. But then, because he really, really doesn’t want to lose his job, he adds, “And… and if my paycheck needs to wait a few weeks, that’s okay, too.”
Gavriel is quiet for a moment. “Okay.”
Then Gavriel busies himself with some papers, but his actions seem mindless, and Rachamim knows his boss is simply avoiding his gaze.
“Also,” Rachamim adds, “I was thinking whether selling some pastries in a mini bakery section would attract customers.”
Garvriel pushes his yarmulke to the front of his head and sighs. “I don’t know. I just don’t know.”
And Rachamim’s heart aches. There’s little more that can hurt the morale of a man than the knowledge that he can’t provide.
AS planned, Rachamim gets into his Camry after work and heads straight to Deli Counter. It’s a good thing, too; dining at home on microwaved chicken nuggets and instant mashed potatoes isn’t something he’d like to pair with the prospect of unemployment.
When it’s Rachamim’s turn, he chooses chicken soup with a matzah ball and noodles, latkes, and meat pizza. He knows there is an imbalance of carbs in his meal, but that’s one of the benefits of no one looking over his shoulder to see what he’s eating. He deserves some comfort food after today.
He also skips the classifieds. He’s intent on enjoying this meal.
He washes and sits down in a corner with his food. The background chatter is a nice change from dinner in his quiet apartment, and he refuses to think of the lonely singing in front of the menorah awaiting him tomorrow night. Instead, he works his way slowly through his meal, allowing the muffled noise surrounding him to fill his mind.
When his plates are empty, he washes it all down with some water, bentshes, and then gets up to leave. But he moves slowly. The silence in his apartment will only harbor heavy thoughts and possible regrets, and he’s in no hurry to confront them.
When Gavriel arrives at the grocery the next morning, he’s surprised to find Mrs. Katzenstein waiting for him. She’s standing there nervously, hands clasped behind her back, but there’s fierce determination in the way her lips are set.
“What can I do for you?” Gavriel asks. He’s just as nervous as she is — especially since her payroll is behind one week — but as the employer, he can’t show it.
“Here’s the thing,” Mrs. Katzenstein begins without preamble. “I know business isn’t doing well, and I know how these things go. But I want to tell you that you cannot — absolutely, positively, 100 percent not — let Rachamim go.”
Gavriel exhales in a whoosh. If she only knew—
“Mr. Haimon needs this job more than you’d ever know. And it’s not the money that’s the issue; it’s his life that’s the issue. This job, this grocery… it’s his everything.” Mrs. Katzenstein’s lip trembles as she reins in her impassioned speech, but she’s not done yet. “I know Rachamim may not know how to man the checkout counter, but I need you to promise me — really promise me — that you’ll let me go before you let him go.”
Gavriel looks at the woman standing before him, and all he wants to do is throw his hands up to Shamayim and yell with all his might, Do You see, Hashem? Father in Heaven, do You see these two wonderful, kind souls right here?
But he doesn’t. He only nods courteously and murmurs, “I promise to take that into consideration, Mrs. Katzenstein. Thank you for your kindness.”
At that moment, Rachamim walks in, three coffees in hand, and stops short.
He glances sharply at Gavriel, who gives a very slight shake of his head. No, he’s not letting her go.
Then Rachamim’s gaze slides to Mrs. Katzenstein, and her reaction is even stranger. She balks at the sight of him, reddens, and quickly walks off to hide behind the checkout counter.
Completely bemused, Rachamim walks to the desk and places the cups of coffee on its surface.
“Thanks,” Gavriel says absently.
Rachamim catches Mrs. Katzenstein’s eye and points to the other cup of coffee. She nods her appreciation and places a caramel doughnut — his favorite! — at the end of the checkout counter.
Rachamim downs his coffee and then reviews the day’s work with Gavriel. They’d be taking superficial inventory today. The purpose is to see what items were popular so they could work backward by supplying customers with what they want.
“You can start at the freezer,” Gavriel says. “I think we could cut down on some varieties of frozen fruits and breaded fish. Probably other things, too.”
After poking his way through the freezer, Rachamim has compiled a list of the most popular items. He returns to the front and finds Gavriel in conversation with Mrs. Katzenstein once again.
When Gavriel catches sight of him, he returns to the desk and silently collects the list Rachamim hands him.
“Rachamim,” he says.
Rachamim stiffens. “Yes?”
“I thought about what you told me yesterday. I gave it careful consideration, and I have a counter offer.”
Rachamim’s heart begins to pound. “Okay. I’m listening.”
“It has two parts,” Gavriel begins. “If you agree to both, then I’m pretty sure I can keep both you and Mrs. Katzenstein on board for the foreseeable future. I’ve been crunching some numbers and hope this will work.”
Gavriel pauses and Rachamim waits, a heaviness in his belly. What does Gavriel want from him?
“One part involves what you mentioned about Mrs. Katzenstein’s baking,” Gavriel continued. “I was thinking that if we have her pastries and your coffee, we can create a café counter that will get people to stop by on the way out in the morning. We may need you to create more blends, though. Can you?”
“Sure.” That was easy.
“The next part is different. It involves you agreeing to take Mrs. Katzenstein out for lunch today.”
Ten seconds pass before Rachamim can speak. “Lunch?” he finally manages. “Me?”
“Yes,” Gavriel says calmly. “You. Mrs. Katzenstein already agreed.”
“But… but of course she agreed!” Rachamim sputters. “Her job is dependent on it!”
Gavriel smiles. “No, it isn’t. I just asked her two things. If she would like to go out for lunch with you, and whether she’d bake for us. I’m not sure which idea gave her more joy.”
Rachamim ducks his head. “Okay,” he whispers.
“Go on, now.” Gavriel gives Rachamim a tiny shove. “Invite her for lunch.” And then he turns to busy himself with the list of freezer items that Rachamim feels like he compiled in a different lifetime.
As for Rachamim himself? He makes sure his shirt is buttoned correctly and doesn’t have the collar turned inward, and then he crosses to the checkout counter and politely asks Mrs. Katzenstein to join him for lunch.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 823)
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