Onion Rolls



Jerome Turken

Hoo hoo, did Kessler feel good!  As soon as he pushed himself through the revolving door of Bernstein’s Diary Restaurant his eyes eagerly swept over the crowd, trying to fish out Dorfman and Cohen.  Oh was he going to give it to those two Chaimyankels!  This morning he got rid of the last dozen cotton poplin short‑sleeved sport shirts he had bought at Bauman’s auction a month ago, and oo was he itching to rub it in, give them a few good twists in the kishkas.  They laughed when he put in his bid of thirteen‑fifty, hoo did they laugh. Like two hyenas they laughed.  That wise‑guy remark of Cohen’s.  Schmahtas.  You bought a bunch of schmahtas.  You don’t know what to do with your money, Kessler?  I got some advice: donate it to the Salvation Army, I heard it’s an exceptional charity.  Maybe you’ll get a few extra points from God.  With that smile on his face.  Did you ever see a putz smile?  That’s him.  Ech!  that smile. Like vomit.  Tell me, Kessler, you know what you’re doing? Know what he’s doing!  Nineteen years in the business and he shouldn’t know what he’s doing?  So thick were they pouring it on that for a second there, just for one teenchy second, he thought, who knows, maybe they’re right, maybe he’d go under with those shirts.  Well, gentlemen, now it’s Kessler’s turn to laugh.  Because those schmahtas what you call them went like hot cakes, like hot cakes!  Every last one of them.  With a 70% markup!  Every shirt in the store should go as fast as they went.  If he could get them at the same price he’d buy up Bauman’s whole stock.  Can you imagine that?  Cohen giving Kessler advice!  Cohen!  With his Salvation Army.  Oh, was he going to give him a Salvation Army.  Right in the gizzard.

Tse, tse, tse, where are they?  Uh! when you want to find Dorfman just look for a dirty gray hat with a hole in the peak.  There it was, sticking up over the top of a menu at an outside chair of one of the long, six‑seat tables at the side.  Sitting next to the wall was that little schmendrick, Hymie the key maker.

“Hello, hello, Dorfman,” Kessler said, seating himself on the chair opposite. “How’s business?”  He didn’t want to start in with the shirts until Cohen showed up.  Dorfman rolled his eyeballs up to look at Kessler.

“I’m comfortable,” he said.

“Where’s Cohen?” Kessler said.  “He got lost?”

Dorfman rolled his eyeballs up again. “Since when am I Cohen’s secretary?” he said.

Kessler took a menu from between the sugar bowl and napkins and looked over the appetizers.  Just as he got to the entrees Cohen came in and placed himself between Dorfman and Hymie.  Cohen was short and stocky and had undersized legs.  A belt of black hair ran around the back and sides of his bald skull and his brows were like two black tufts pasted over his eyes.  He looked at Kessler with that gekockte smile of his.

“What are you looking over the menu for?” he said. “You’re gonna two soft boiled eggs anyway.” He poked Dorfman. “Did you ever see him order anything else but two soft‑boiled eggs?”

“So?” Kessler said.  He looked at Dorfman.  “It bothers him if I look at the menu.”

“It don’t bother me, Kessler,” Cohen said.  “It don’t bother me in the least, not in the least.  I’m just remarking, that’s all.  There’s a law against remarking?”

Kessler closed the menu.  As he was about to put it back in place Cohen whisked it out of his hand.

“Look at him,” Cohen said. “Just look at him.  He’s in a bad mood for a change.”  As he studied the menu he squeezed his thick lower lip, creasing it in the middle.  “What’s the matter, you didn’t hear your cash register ring this morning?”

“Hm hm hm, I heard it ring,” Kessler said.  “I heard it ring like jingle bells for your information.  As a matter of fact what I took in this morning you wish you could take in in a week.  And since we’re on the subject I got a little announcement to make.”

“Lights, action, camera,” Dorfman said. “Kessler is making an announcement.”

“Hey, Hymie,” Cohen said. “Kessler likes jingles.  Stop eating a minute and jingle a few keys for him.  He’s going to make an announcement.”

Hymie, whose spoon had been working like a piston in a bowl of soup, paused and looked up at Cohen, puzzled.  Then he turned to Dorfman, and finally to Kessler, as if one of them might give him a hint as to what Cohen was talking about. “Announcement?” he said.

“That’s right,” Cohen said. “Kessler’s making an announcement.  I thought maybe if you brought some of your keys with you you can jingle him a little introduction, you know what I mean?”

Hymie turned to Kessler.  “You’re going to make an announcement?”

He’s starting.  But Kessler managed a smile and let it pass.  He felt too good to let that dumb ox get him all excited.  He wanted to sound nice and happy when he tells them about those shirts.  He wanted to do it just right, with a few jabs here and there.  He looked at Dorfman.

“You remember those cotton poplin‑‑”  He stopped talking.  Dorfman’s eyes were on Ruby the waiter, who was already placing the silverware, napkins and a basket of rolls on the table.

“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” Ruby said. “The specials today are vegetable cutlet and fresh baked halibut.  The halibut’s delicious, just like butter.”

“Give me a tomato herring appetizer,” Dorfman said.

“Suit yourself,” Ruby said, writing the order.

“A bowl of strained borscht and a small order of potato latkes,” Cohen said.

“You said the halibut’s good?” Kessler said.

“I recommend it highly,” Ruby said, bobbing his head, his face in a trance of ecstasy.  “Exactly like butter.  You’ll thank me.”

Kessler squinched his eyes, thinking it over. “Aah, just give me two soft boiled eggs,” he said finally.

“A good choice,” Ruby said. “A very good choice.  The eggs are delicious this time of year.”  And he quickly put his palm in front of his face and did a fake recoil, smiling good naturedly.  “Na, I’m kidding.”  He scanned their faces. “That’s it gentlemen?”  He hurried toward the kitchen to place the orders.

“What did I tell you?” Cohen said. “Two soft‑boiled eggs like clockwork.”

Kessler felt a pang in his stomach but he let that pass too.  He reached to pick a roll out of the basket but all he could see were onion rolls, and onion rolls were one thing he couldn’t stomach.  How could anyone eat those burnt onions?

“Hey, Kessler,” Cohen said, picking one out.  “You forgot about your announcement?  Our ears are burning with suspense.”

Kessler couldn’t stand that innocent high‑pitched, almost squeaky voice that Cohen was putting on, with that wiseguy face of his, his brows and forehead pinched, his eyes squinting and his fat lips puckering in and out like a big fish.  He felt like letting him have it right now but he restrained himself.  Take it easy, just take it nice and easy.  Do this right.  He just gave him his own face, the one he used to look right through someone.  Then he forced a smile.  “I think you remember those cotton poplin short‑sleeved sport shirts I bought for thirteen fifty?” he said.  “Those schmatahs what you call them?”

“Of course I remember,” Cohen said. “What did you do, dump them in the garbage finally?”

“Those schmahtas, my friend, are all sold out,” Kessler said. “Every last one.  How do you like that?”

“How do I like it?” Cohen said. “If I could believe it maybe I’d like it.”

Kessler looked at Dorfman.  “He don’t believe it.  Cohen must think Kessler makes a investments for nothing.”

“It’s very hard proposition to believe,” Dorfman said.

“Those shirts?” Cohen said. “Maybe he gave one away free with every pair of socks he sold, maybe that way he got rid of them.  And that’s only maybe.”

Kessler tried to put on an amused face.  He looked at Dorfman: “Cohen thinks he’s talking to Hymie the key maker here.”

Hymie, chomping a mouthful, looked up when his name was mentioned.  “What?  What was that?”  Then the approximate drift of Kessler’s remark must have connected.  He put on a hurt face.  “You know, Kessler, the way you talk to people sometimes is going to get you in a lot of trouble one of these days.”

“Don’t aggravate Kessler, Hymie,” Cohen said. “Kessler already has his troubles.  He’s stuck with a gross schmahtes.”

“Maybe you got a customer for him, Hymie,” Dorfman said. “He’ll give you a commission.”

“Such comedians we have here,” Kessler said.  “Such comedians.  If any of you has even five per cent my brains you’re well off.  I’m not eighteen years this business for nothing.”  There was a lot more on his mind, ready to rub it into them with, but he noticed Ruby approaching, weaving his way through the tables, tilting from side to side to balance two handfuls of plates.

“Hey, Ruby,” Kessler said.  “Do you have‑‑”

“Just a minute!” Ruby said. “Just … one … minute … or I’m in trouble.”  He deftly placed the plates on the table.  “Yes, darling, what do you need?”

“What’s the matter, Ruby,” Kessler said, “all you got is onion rolls?  I never eat onion rolls.  How about some plain ones?”

“Uh!  A thousand pardons.” Ruby said.  “Plain rolls coming up in a jiffy.”

When Ruby left Hymie, a forkful of potatoes half way to his mouth, looked up at Kessler.  “Maybe you won’t believe this, but I once seen you eat an onion roll.”

“What did you say?”  Kessler couldn’t imagine anyone, even Hymie, coming out with a remark so ridiculous.

“I seen you eat an onion roll once,” Hymie said. “That’s all I’m saying.” He stuffed the potatoes into his mouth.

Kessler turned to Dorfman, then Cohen, trying to put on a face that would show them just how ridiculous he thought the remark was, but he saw by the gleams in their eyes that they were ready to stir up a big commotion over it.  So he turned back to Hymie.  “You saw me eat an onion roll?”

“That’s right, I seen it with my own eyes,” Hymie said. “So don’t try to deny it.”

“My good friend,” Kessler said.  “When did you ever see me eat an onion roll?”

Hymie raised his brows and looked up to think.  “Let’s see, it was about … let’s see … I’d say about a year and a half ago.”

“I think you must be meshuga,” Kessler said.

“You can think I must be meshuga from today till tomorrow,” Hymie said. “It isn’t going to change that I seen you eat an onion roll.  I never forget what I see.  I got eyes like a elephant.” Kessler raised his eyes and looked straight up at the ceiling.  “When You created the world did You ever think it would get filled up with schmucks?”

Hymie leaned toward Cohen and put his hand to his mouth as if telling him a secret.  “I seen him eat an onion roll,” he said, almost in a whisper.  “That’s definite.”

Kessler turned to Dorfman.  “In a minute I’m gonna give Hymie an onion roll in the neck.”

“Wait a minute, Kessler,” Dorfman said. “Calm down a minute.  What have you got against onion rolls?  They’re delicious.”

“Look, Dorfman, you like onion rolls, eat onion rolls.  I don’t like onion rolls, that’s it.”  Kessler picked up his spoon and took in a mouthful of egg. “In the first place that’s not the point.  The point is, if I said I never eat onion rolls, I never eat onion rolls.  Finished.  Genug!  I never ate one single onion roll in all my life, so how could that little schlump sitting over there say he saw me eat one?”

Just then Ruby came with some plain rolls and dumped them in the basket. Kessler grabbed one and tore it in half with such force that the momentum of his hand knocked over his water.

“My God!” Ruby said, quickly transferring the towel in his arm to the puddle.  The three men pushed their chairs back.

“Kessler seems to be all upset because Hymie saw him eat an onion roll,” Dorfman said.

“I’ll get you another glass of water,”  Ruby said.  He called to a busboy, who was cleaning off a table on the other side of the room.  “Hey, Pedro, you’re wanted at the Mexican border!”  He pointed to the puddle on the floor. “Urgently.” He looked at Kessler’s lap.  “Your pants got a little wet.  I’ll bring you a few big napkins.”  He turned to Hymie as he hurried off.  “Something tells me you said the wrong thing.”

“How can a man get so upset over an onion roll?” Cohen said.

“I am not upset,” Kessler said.

“You’re not upset?” Cohen said. “Look at you.  You knocked over a glass of water.  You’re foaming at the mouth.  There’s a mirror.  Go ahead, look in.  Over an onion roll!”

“I’m telling you, Cohen,” Kessler said. “Stop up your big mouth with the subject of onion rolls.”

“You are telling me to stop up my big mouth?” Cohen said.  “No one tells Cohen to stop up his big mouth about nothing!”

Hymie leaned over to Cohen.  “I saw him,” he said. “There’s absolutely no room for doubt.”

Cohen’s face went through a performance of indignation and settled into a wide leer.  “Especially about you eating an onion roll,” he said.

What do you do with a putz like Cohen?  He felt like taking that ugly head in his hands and banging on it like a drum. “Cohen, you can’t understand plain English?” he said.  “I never eat onion rolls, and that’s the end of it”.

“That’s the end of nothing,” Cohen said. “What’s the matter, the truth hurts?”

Kessler was making an effort to control himself.  He turned to no one in particular, then back to Cohen again.  “You are a moron, my friend,” he said.

Still leering, Cohen said: “You are calling me a moron?  You?”

Kessler was now just about on the limit of his control.  He felt like taking his fist and screwing it right into one of Cohen’s eyes.  “Cohen,” he said.  “Just shut your mouth.”

“Ho ho, shut my mouth, you are telling me now.”  The leer stuck to Cohen’s face like a mask.  “Shut my mouth now, he’s telling me.  That’s very good.  It’s so good I want you to watch and I’ll show you exactly how I’m going to shut my mouth.”  He turned in his chair and tapped the shoulder of the man sitting behind him.  When the man looked around he said: “I would like to inform you, Kessler eats onion rolls.”

The man put his palm up.  “Don’t inform me of nothing.  I’m not getting involved.”

Kessler was fit to be tied.  “Cohen, you are not human. You are an animal.”

“I am an animal?”  The leer did not depart from Cohen’s face, but it took on an anger‑oozing tension; his nose twitched and you could almost see heat waves around his reddened head.  His chair made a grating scrape on the floor as he shoved it back and got to his feet.  Kessler, in pure reflex, leaped to his feet too, then lost his balance and plopped back down, wondering what the devil Cohen was going to do next.  He watched him turn and walk recklessly toward the clearing in front of the food counter, almost knocking over two men who got in his way, his small plump body dipping from side to side like a penguin.  He turned, faced the crowd, took a chest swelling breath and yelled at the top of his lungs:


Two waiters near the counter stopped in their tracks and goggled at Cohen as he walked back to the table and sat down and proceeded to spoon his borcht.  The words were still ringing in Kessler’s ears.  Never before did he feel so humiliated.  It seemed there were a million eyes in the restaurant staring at him.  Voices were buzzing.  “What did he say?  Onion rolls?  Who?  Over there, where the one who yelled … ”

Kessler was numb.  He sat watching Cohen bent over his borscht, zooping it in, his face now oozing nonchalance.

What was he doing sitting here with this beast?  He must be crazy himself.

Without looking up Cohen mumbled: “A liar ain’t even worth the price of a pickle on Rivington Street.”

It was like a Cohen’s words opened a valve in Kessler’s head and propelled him off his chair right across the table, and in the next instant his lips were as close to Cohen’s head as they could get without touching it.

“KESSLER NEVER EATS ONION ROLLS, YOU DIRTY SKUNK!” he bellowed, and remained bent over the table like that, glaring down at Cohen.

Cohen’s face was all screwed up, his eyes clamped shut and his head half way into his shoulders.  He remained like that for five seconds; then he looked up. “Kessler,” he said with a calmness that was so out of whack with his expression that it seemed some mechanism in his throat went haywire.  “If I go deaf you’re going to pay through the nose.”

“Cohen, you should only croak!” yelled Kessler

Bernstein materialized.  “Gentlemen, gentlemen!  Please! Calm yourselves.”

“Did you hear that, Bernstein!” Cohen said.  “He said I should croak!  Throw him out!”

Kessler held out his fist up to Cohen. “Do you see this fist?”

“No violence!” Bernstein said hastily. “This is a place of business!”

“Cohen, if you say one more word this fist is going to make mince meat out of your face!”

“No violence, Kessler!” Bernstein cried. “I forbid violence.  I strictly forbid violence!”  He tried to ease Kessler to his chair. “Now calm down.  Calm down.  Can’t we discuss this like businessmen?”

Kessler felt a chill in his head and he could almost feel his anger flow out of his bones.  Businessman.  He was a businessman.  He felt ridiculous, leaning over the table, stalking Cohen like that.  He gave way to Bernstein’s nudging and sat down.

“He’s a businessman?” said Cohen. “A businessman never picks up his hand.  Never!”

That Kessler couldn’t disagree with, but he felt he had to say something to answer Cohen.  “Cohen don’t know when he’s well off,” he blurted out.  He lost his appetite but he started to eat his eggs just to do something to calm himself.  The aggravation of Cohen was still rattling around in his head.  He was hardly even aware of lifting the spoon to his mouth.  Questioning his being a businessman!  Even if it took fifty years Cohen couldn’t be the businessman that he was.  He heard Cohen’s voice again.

“Only a hoodlum uses his hands.”

“Please, please, Cohen, is that a nice thing to say?” Bernstein said.  He was still standing by just in case.

Cohen’s remark cut into Kessler’s liver, but he had to control himself.  He decided he wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of a reply.  On the edge of his vision he could see that Cohen was eating seriously now.  Good.  His craziness was over with at least.  A little maniac he gets involved with.  What he really felt like doing was just getting Cohen out of his sight, leaving and going back to the store and just sitting down in the back yard a while where it was nice and quiet.  He looked around.  It seemed all eyes in the restaurant were focused on him.  Tepper was sitting there watching.  There’s Ginsler.  He thought he saw Weisberg at the counter.  No, he was not going to walk out like a monkey in front of all these people, as if Cohen won this great victory over him.  He would never live it down.  Oh no, he was going to sit right here until he drank his last drop of coffee.  He picked a roll out of the basket, broke it in half and started to butter it, trying to act as nonchalant as he could.  Suddenly Cohen’s voice cut into him like a knife.

“I told you he eats onion rolls!  Look!  Look!”

Kessler looked up at Cohen, whose blazing eyes were directed at what he had in his hand.  An onion roll!  He was buttering an onion roll!  He crushed it in his fist, crushed it so hard that his whole arm vibrated.  Laughter pierced his ears like needles.  “He eats onion rolls all right!  … See!  See! Look, look it’s an onion roll!”

He pushed himself to his feet and raced to the doorway. He heard someone say: “What did he do, pee in his pants?”

Onion rolls!  Goddam onion rolls!