Commentary Magazine


The Bill
A Story

Though the street was somewhere near a river, it was landlocked and narrow, a crooked canyon of aged brick tenement buildings. A child throwing a ball straight up saw a bit of pallid sky. On the corner, opposite the blackened tenement where Willy Schlegel worked as janitor, stood another like it except that this included the only store in the street—going down five stone steps into the basement, a small, dark delicatessen owned by Mr. and Mrs. F. Panessa, really a hole in the wall.

They had just bought it with the last of their money, Mrs. Panessa told the janitor’s wife, so as not to have to depend on either of their daughters, both of whom, Mrs. Schlegel understood, were married to selfish men who had badly affected their characters. To be completely independent of them, Panessa, a retired factory worker, withdrew his three thousands of savings and bought this little delicatessen store. When Mrs. Schlegel, looking around—though she knew the delicatessen quite well from the many years she and Willy had been janitors across the way—when she asked, “Why did you buy this one?” Mrs. Panessa cheerfully replied because it was a small place and they would not have to overwork; Panessa was sixty-five. They were not here to coin money but to support themselves without having to work to death. After talking it over many nights and days, they had decided that the store would at least give them a living. She gazed into Etta Schlegel’s gaunt eyes and Etta said she hoped so.

She told Willy about the new people across the street who had bought out the Jew, and said to buy there if there was a chance; she meant by that they would continue to shop at the self-service but when there was some odd or end to pick up, or something they had forgotten, they could go to Panessa’s. Willy did as he was told. He was tall and broad-backed, with a heavy face seamed dark from the coal and ashes he shoveled around all winter, and his hair often looked gray from the dust the wind whirled up at him out of the ash cans when he was lining them up for the sanitation truck. Always in overalls—he complained he never stopped working—he would drift across the street and down the steps when something was needed, and lighting his pipe, would stand around talking to Mrs. Panessa as her husband, a small bent man with a fitful smile, stood behind the counter waiting for the janitor after a long interval of talk to ask upon reflection for a dime’s worth of this or that, the whole business never amounting to more than half a dollar. Then one day Willy got to talking about how the tenants goaded him all the time and what the cruel and stingy landlord could think up for him to do in that smelly five-floor dungeon. He was absorbed by what he was saying and before he knew it had run up a three-dollar order, though all he had on him was fifty cents. Willy looked like a dog that had just had a licking but Mr. Panessa, after clearing his throat, chirped up it didn’t matter, he could pay the rest whenever he wanted. He explained that everything was run on credit, business and everything else, because after all what was credit but the fact that people were human beings, and if you were really a human being you gave credit to somebody else. That surprised Willy because he had never heard a storekeeper say it before. After a couple of days he paid the two fifty, but when Panessa said he could trust whenever he wanted, Willy sucked a flame into his pipe, then began to order all sorts of things.

When he brought home two bagfuls of stuff, Etta shouted he must be crazy. Willy answered he had charged everything and didn’t have to pay.

“But we have to pay some time, don’t we,” Etta shouted. “And we have to pay higher prices than in the self-service.” She said then what she had said every day of her married life, “We’re poor people, Willy. We can’t afford too much.”

Though Willy saw the justice of her remarks, despite her scolding he still went across the street and trusted. Once he had a crumpled ten-dollar bill in his pants pocket and the amount came to less than four but he didn’t offer to pay and let Panessa write it in the book. Etta knew he had the money so she screamed when he admitted he had bought on credit.

“Why are you doing it for? Why don’t you pay if you have the money?”

He did not answer but after a time he said there were other things he had to buy once in a while. He went into the furnace room and came out with a wrapped package which he opened, and it contained a beaded black dress.

Etta cried over the dress and said she would never wear it because the only time he ever brought her anything was when he had done something wrong. Thereafter she let him do all the grocery shopping and did not speak when he bought on trust.

_____________

Willy continued to buy at Panessa’s. It seemed they were always waiting for him to come, up from the basement (they lived in three tiny rooms in the floor above the store), across the street and down into the delicatessen, looming large as he opened the door. Every time he bought, it was never less than two dollars worth and sometimes it was as high as five. Mrs. Panessa would pack everything into a deep double bag, after Panessa had called off each item and written the price with a smeary black pencil into his looseleaf notebook. Whenever Willy came in, Panessa would open that book, wet his finger tip and flip through a number of blank pages till he came to Willy’s account in the center of the book. After the order was packed and tied up, Panessa added the amount, touching each figure with his pencil, hissing to himself as he added, and Mrs. Panessa’s bird eyes would follow the figuring until Panessa wrote down a sum and then added that sum to the previous total sum, and the new total sum (after Panessa had glanced up at Willy and saw that Willy was looking) was twice underlined and then Panessa shut the book. Willy, with his unlit pipe loose in his mouth, did not move until the book was put away under the counter; then he roused himself and embracing the bundle—with which they offered to help him across the street though he always refused—plunged out of the store.

One day when the sum total came to eighty-three dollars and several cents, Panessa, lifting his head and smiling, asked Willy when he could pay something on account. The very next day Willy stopped buying at Panessa’s and after that Etta, with her cord market bag, began to shop again at the self-service and neither of them went across the street for as much as a pound of prunes or a small can of sardines they had meant to buy but had forgotten.

Etta, when she returned from shopping at the self-service, scraped the wall on her side of the street to get as far away as possible from Panessa’s.

Later she asked Willy if he had paid them anything.

He said no.

“When will you?”

He said he didn’t know.

A month went by, then Etta met Mrs. Panessa around the corner, and though Mrs. Panessa said nothing about the bill, Etta came home and reminded Willy.

“Leave me alone,” he said, “I got enough trouble of my own.”

“What kind of trouble have you got, Willy?”

“The goddam tenants and the goddam landlord,” he shouted and slammed the door.

When he returned he said, “What have I got that I can pay? Ain’t I been a poor man every day of my life?”

She was sitting at the table and lowered her arms and put her head down and wept.

“With what?” he shouted, his face lit up dark and webbed. “With the meat off of my bones?

“With the ashes in my eyes. With the piss I mop up on the floors. With the cold in my lungs when I sleep.”

He felt for Panessa and his wife a grating hatred and vowed never to pay because he hated them so much, especially the humpback behind the counter. If he ever smiled at him again with those eyes he would lift him off the floor and crack his bent bones.

That night he went out and got drunk and lay till morning in the gutter. When he returned with filthy clothes and bloody eyes, Etta held up to him the picture of their four-year-old son who had died from diphtheria, and Willy, weeping splashy tears, swore he would never touch another drop.

Each morning he went out to line up the ash cans he never looked the full way across the street.

“Give credit,” he mimicked, “give credit.”

_____________

Hard times set in. The landlord ordered cut down on heat, cut down on hot water. He cut down on Willy’s expense money and wages. The tenants were angered. All day they pestered Willy like flies and he told them what the landlord had ordered. Then they cursed Willy and Willy cursed them. They telephoned the Board of Health but when the inspectors arrived they said the temperatures were within the legal minimum though the house was drafty. However, the tenants still complained they were cold and goaded Willy about it all day but he said he was cold too. He said he was freezing but no one believed him.

One day he looked up from lining up two ash cans for the truck to remove and saw Mr. and Mrs. Panessa staring at him from the store. They were staring up, both together, through the glass front door and when he looked at them at first his eyes blurred and they appeared to be two scrawny, loose-feathered birds.

He went down the block to get something from another janitor and when he got back they then reminded him of two skinny leafless bushes, sprouting up through the wooden floor. He could see through the bushes to the empty shelves.

In the spring, when the grass shoots were sticking through the cracks in the sidewalk, he told Etta, “I’m only waiting till I can pay it all.”

“How, Willy?”

“We can save up.”

“How?”

“How much do we save a month?”

“Nothing.”

“How much have you got hid away?”

“Nothing any more.”

“I’ll pay them bit by bit. I will by Jesus.”

The trouble was there was no place they could get the money. Sometimes when he was trying to think of the different ways there were to get money his thoughts ran ahead and he saw what it would be like when he paid. He would wrap the wad of bills with a thick rubber band and then go up the stairs and cross the street and go down the five steps into the store. He would say to Panessa, “Here it is, little old man, and I bet you didn’t think I would do it, and I don’t suppose nobody else did and sometimes me myself but here it is in bucks all held together by a broad rubber band.” And after hefting the wad a little, he placed it, like making a move on a checkerboard, squarely in the center of the counter, and the diminutive man and his wife both unpeeled it, squeaking and squealing over each blackened buck and marveling that so many ones had been tied together into such a small pack.

Such was the dream Willy dreamed but he could never make it come true.

He worked hard to. He got up early and scrubbed the stairs from cellar to roof with soap and a hard brush then went over that with a wet mop. He cleaned the woodwork too and oiled the bannister till it shone the whole zigzag way down and rubbed the mailboxes in the vestibule with metal polish and a soft rag until you could see your face in them. He saw his own heavy face with a surprising yellow mustache he had recently grown and the tan felt cap he wore that a tenant had left behind in a closetful of junk when he had moved. Etta helped him and they cleaned the whole cellar and the dark courtyard under the crisscrossed clotheslines and they were quick to respond to any kind of request, even from tenants they didn’t like, for toilet repairs. Both worked themselves to exhaustion every day, but as they knew from the beginning, no extra money came in.

_____________

One morning when Willy was shining up the mailboxes, he found in his own a letter for him. Removing his cap, he opened the envelope and held the paper to the light as he read the trembling writing. It was from Mrs. Panessa who wrote her husband was ill across the street and she had no money in the house so could he pay her just ten dollars and the rest would wait for later.

He tore the letter into bits and hid all day in the cellar. That night, Etta, who had been searching for him in the streets, found him behind the furnace amid the pipes and she asked him what he Was doing there.

He explained about the letter.

“Hiding won’t do any good at all,” she said hopelessly.

“What should I do then?”

“Go to sleep, I guess.”

He went to sleep but the next morning burst out of his covers, pulled on his overalls and ran out of the house with an overcoat flung over his shoulders. Around the corner he found a pawnshop, where he got ten dollars for the coat and was gleeful.

But when he got back there was a hearse or something across the street and two men in black were carrying this small and narrow pine box out of the house.

“Who’s dead, a child?” he asked one of the tenants.

“No, a man named Mr. Panessa.”

Willy couldn’t speak. His throat had turned to bone.

After the pine box was squeezed through the vestibule doors, Mrs. Panessa, grieved all over, tottered out alone. Willy turned his head away although he felt she wouldn’t recognize him because of his new mustache and tan cap.

“What’d he die of?” he whispered to the tenant

“I really don’t know.”

But Mrs. Panessa, walking behind the box, had heard.

“Old age,” she shrilly called back.

He tried to say some sweet thing but his tongue hung in his mouth like dead fruit on a tree and his heart was a black-painted windowpane.

Mrs. Panessa moved away to live first with one stone-faced daughter, then with the other. And the bill was never paid. Never.

_____________

About the Author




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