By Allan Borshy
Richard Laxer, expectant father, slumps into a chair, weary from another restless night. The morning calm is broken by the squealing of a bus, as autumn leaves swirl through a broken window of the basement workshop on the corner of Fairmount and St. Urbain. Mr. Rosenberg may arrive at any time and he’s in no mood for conversation.
A black-frocked Hasid dashes by, sidelocks dangling in the air as Richard wanders outside for a breath of fresh air, intending to greet Mr. Rosenberg before he dashes in unannounced. Or maybe share a few words with old man Wagen sweeping the sidewalk outside his dilapidated fruit store where fruit flies gather to feast. Too late. Wagen has slipped behind some wooden crates, miffed by the dramatic voice of Cyndi Lauper belting out “Time After Time” from a boombox on the balcony of a winding staircase across the street. It’s just another late October day in Montreal’s Mile End.
Burdened with guilt, Richard lingers outside, smokes a cigarette, adjusts his colorful Rasta skullcap, and limps back inside. The cluttered workshop is home to an esoteric crowd of jewellery tools, lopsided tables, garage sale paintings, broken chairs, and lost souls. One of them is asleep in an armchair near the entrance.
Yehudah Halpern is no longer hauling sides of beef for Canada Packers. At seventy-five, his bushy white beard and gentle eyes show little regret for the years gone by. Quietly he waits only for the cowbell on the door to sound, hoping for his delinquent son to appear.
The bell clangs again. Yehudah awakes from his stupor, the eternal optimist. But Seymour never materializes, so he swallows his regret, saluting the visitor instead with a plate of day-old bagels from Fairmount Bakery.
“Here, have a poppy seed bagel. Don’t be shy. I know you. You’re Louise, no?”
Louise laughs, accustomed to Yehudah’s greeting. She’s known him for twenty years, before he lost most of his hair and his pants were a size 32.
“No, thanks, Mr. Halpern. Where’s Mr. Rosenberg?”
Surprised by the intrusion, Richard lifts his dark brown eyes.
“I don’t know if he’s coming in today. I never know when he'll show up. You know what he’s like.”
“Sure. He’s a ghost. Here, take a look at this. It doesn’t work anymore. Do you think he can fix it?”
The Mile End district isn’t what it used to be. Yehudah remembers when Collège Français was the B'nei Jacob Synagogue, and the workshop “Rosenberg’s Watch Repair.”
It still is; only the sign above the window has gone. Quartz watches have rendered Mr. Rosenberg obsolete. But he still appears out of nowhere to rescue aging timepieces for those who cringe at the thought of yielding their loved ones to progress.
Between Rosenberg’s rare appearances Richard tends to the faithful, reassuring them with a smile. For it is Richard who runs the shop now, while Rosenberg, semi-retired, maintains a small workbench in the corner, catering to a steadfast flock of loyal Luddites, whose broken wristwatches are placed in a crumpled old shoebox until Isaac Rosenberg comes to revive them.
Richard, Mr. Rosenberg, and Yehudah comfort each other from the frozen skies of a harsh Montreal winter. But it’s Mr. Rosenberg who keeps them on their toes.
Usually he prances into the workshop wearing a grey suit and black tie, looking more like a lapsed bank manager than a watchmaker who has toiled over a tiny workbench for the last twenty-five years. Katz, the fishmonger next door, says that Mr. Rosenberg’s unscheduled visits are intentional, since time means nothing to him.
Richard’s theory is that Rosenberg inhabits another dimension. His behavior can’t be explained. So he has taken the precaution of posting Lassie outside whenever he wants to indulge in one of his favorite vices.
But even with the canine parked outside, advance warning is not guaranteed, for Rosenberg doesn’t walk, he sprints, thus leading to Richard’s chaotic attempts to light some eucalyptus incense from a side drawer, feigning innocence as dense grey smoke rises like fumes from a smokestack, in an effort to eliminate the strong aroma of an illicit plant.
Mr. Rosenberg rarely notices the foul stench that greets his untimely entrance, too preoccupied with unfinished business to notice the smirk blossoming on Richard’s face. But after tossing his coat on a hook jutting from a crack in the wall, he turns around and teases Richard: “There’s a funny smell in here, boychick, no?"
Momentarily stumped, Richard mumbles a few inaudible words, curling up in his chair like a lone worm on a stormy day. “It’s nothing. Just something I use to polish the rings and stuff.”
The scent of a banned substance permanently affixed to his guilty conscience, Richard’s feeble attempt at an excuse goes unheeded, though it is more to appease his own ego than to satisfy a distracted Mr. Rosenberg, who continues to babble incessantly as he wanders around the workshop.
“Did I get any calls?”
“Are there any watches for me?”
"Yeah, they’re all in the box.”
“So what are you going to do about the baby?”
“I don’t know yet.”
Richard’s sluggish retort causes Rosenberg to wince, as he does when he sees a frayed pair of underwear tumbling aimlessly in a wash cycle. Observing a moment of silence, he washes his hands to cleanse himself of the offending words.
“Haven't decided? What are you waiting for? Make up your mind already. You’re Jewish, you have it circumcised. That’s it.”
“We’re not even sure what it is yet. And you know what the Torah says about the mother not being Jewish.”
“The Torah? It depends on which rabbi you ask. The father’s Jewish, so’s the son. Finished. What’s the matter with this one? I fixed it just last week.”
Although Richard never knows what to expect from Mr. Rosenberg and his unorthodox religious beliefs, he knows Rosenberg’s a freethinker who doesn’t bow easily to rules. He also knows that intimacy with him remains at best a distant possibility since the watchmaker seems impenetrable. Nevertheless, Richard knows their arrangement is mutual, one that they both understand.
Mr. Rosenberg repairs watches. The very watches that gather dust in a shoebox, while their impatient owners fiddle nervously at home, cursing a world they no longer comprehend.
Back at his desk, Rosenberg is focused on dismantling an old Rolex. Still handsome and virile at sixty, sporting a two-day stubble and wearing a small black kippah, he wanders off to another time, another place.
But not for long.
The rattling of the cowbell announces the arrival of Richard’s friends. The workshop is not always what it appears to be. The visitors gather around Richard's worktable, which is topped with a solid sheet of shiny copper and has rickety legs steadied with stubs of folded cardboard wedged underneath.
The table is set with chunks of burning incense smoldering atop broken lumps of charcoal, ashes dropping obediently into miniature funeral pyres.
Didier is there, seated next to Guylaine, who faces a smiling Josh. Yehudah, not one to miss a party, rubs the crust from his eyes and scratches his balding head. He’s staring at Didier’s long black beard.
“Are you Jewish?” he asks.
“No, I’m afraid not. I’m a Buddhist.”
“You’re what? So why do you have such a long beard like the tzadikim?”
“The righteous ones. He’s talking about the pious Hassidic rabbis,” adds Richard.
Rosenberg removes his eyepiece, turns, and cocks an ear.
“What’s going on here, Richard?”
“Nothing. We're having a meeting. For a peace festival. ‘Gesture for Peace.’”
“You’re talking nonsense again. That stuff you’re burning must be choking your brain.”
“‘Gesture for Peace,’ Mr. Rosenberg. You know, we close off the street every year and have a peace festival.”
“So parents and kids can have a good time.”
Rosenberg is staring at Richard now, confused. “Have a good time? You mean smoke that funny stuff? Fool. Look outside. It’s almost winter. You want people to have a good time?”
“For next year. The meeting’s for next year’s festival. In July.”
“So what’s the rush then?”
“There’s a lot to do before we receive permits from the City. We have to present them with a proposal. It all takes time.” Richard flashes an old permit in front of Mr. Rosenberg sea-blue eyes. “Here. Take a look at this. I have to go to City Hall and explain what we’re doing to ten different people.”
“I see, a minyan. Permits. Of course. I know all about them. Only idiots hand out permits. For peace? Not such a bad idea, but you can’t change the world. People are what they are. Better you should circumcise the baby and think of the future. Stop wasting your time.”
Reaching for another timepiece, Rosenberg opens it, then stares at its innards. His fingers drop to the fringes of a prayer shawl under his belt. Only silence can be heard as his lips move.
Gripping the watch with a clamp, he delves between two plates of metal, but finds only a rusted remnant of a past lying beneath layers of dirt and darkness. He is fixing something else now.
Something much larger. An eight cylinder engine. He jams himself inside the hood of a transport truck, staring at its chassis. A sign above him reads “Arbeit Macht Frei.”
He’s eighteen. His mother, father, and older sister were dragged away, screaming, howling. Somehow he has been spared, chosen to live by the gesture of a one-man selection committee. Later he learns that his family has been murdered along with hundreds of others. Rosenberg is thinking only of repairing the carburetor, getting the truck moving again. He is one of those rare prisoners at Auschwitz, an expert, first-class mechanic. The guards plan to take his work unit outside the gates of the camp.
The truck is past the gates now, barreling down a dirt road, kicking up dust in the face of a vanishing sun. The soldier in the front seat on the passenger side is falling asleep, and the nervous driver is shouting obscenities to keep his partner awake. The truck is nearing a long wooden bridge. The sinking sky is now a distant glimmer of yesterday’s tomorrow. The bored guard watching Rosenberg and the others in the back reaches for a cigarette. Gun holstered, he lights a match, eyes on the flame.
Rosenberg jumps, rolls into a trench, skirts a wooden fence, plunges into a river. The truck is gone.
“Hey, what the hell. Stop! The.. the Jew has... hey, halt!”
The men stop on the other side of the bridge.
“Where’s the goddam Jew bastard?”
“I don’t know!”
Two soldiers give chase. The smoker stays behind, gun cocked at the heads of the remaining prisoners. Rosenberg is downstream behind a row of trees, panting, favouring his right leg. It is almost dark.
The Germans aim their floodlights along the bridge, descend to the water’s edge, then retreat. “Forget the dirty Christ-killer. We must continue. These bloody lights are useless now.”
Rosenberg crouches low in the grass, not convinced it isn’t another ruse. He listens as the thumping of boots hitting hard ground grows fainter. Falling stones, unleashed by the crush of distant footsteps, roll by. An hour passes. Then another. Exhaustion follows. He tries to force his eyes to stay open, but his body yields to the soft bed below his knees.
Thirst hastens him to a new dawn. Rosenberg walks, runs, walks again. Emerging from high brush along the receding shore, his eager lips bend to savour the river's cool offering. Pink clouds spread a curtain to the heavens. Muffled sounds loom in the distance. He moves closer, crawls along the river bank, listens. Innocent voices echo in the daybreak. A child is heard calling for its mother, but her words are stifled by a howling wind.
“lsaac, Isaac, here — have a bagel.”
It's Yehuda, back from his errands.
Mr. Rosenberg rises, overwhelmed by the touch of Yehudah's warm, chubby hand. The workshop is empty. The meeting is over. Unconvinced, he rolls up a sleeve, uncovering the vestige of another life.
He reaches for the hidden fringes of his prayer shawl.
This time he is not silent.
“Yisgadal v'yiskadash shmey rabo,” he begins.
Mystified, misty-eyed, he stares at the stale bread, reciting the Jewish prayer for the dead.