Jacobs, the Jew
The streetlights came on and a fine mist, common in Emilia-Romagna in the late spring, dropped soft and silent on the stone streets. Round 4 of the Grand Prix races in Imola was over and, looking to mellow out, Cecil Jacobs ducked into a small bar. The bartender was wiping clean a shot glass. He acknowledged Jacobs with a nod. Soon after Jacobs took a seat at a table in the corner, a small chunk of a man in a tatty gray suit walked over.
“You’re a Yid, right?” the man asked softly in English, pointing at Jacobs. Stubble covered his receding chin and fat, pallid cheeks. His long, curly brown hair hid his ears and the nape of his thick neck.
“What?” Jacobs stood and glared down at the man.
“A Jew,” the little man said with a smirk. “I can tell. They say it takes one to know one.”
“Look, I don’t need this right now. Do me a favor and go away.” Jacobs towered over him.
“We’re lantzmen,” the man pleaded, looking up at him, his arms spread wide.
Jacobs wondered if he was asking for a hug.
“Stanley Weiss. Everyone calls me Stash. Everyone in Philadelphia, that is. I saw you come in and figured you for a Yid. I’m never wrong, you know. It’s a gift.” His voice had a dark, annoying tone.
“This time you’re wrong,” Jacobs said flatly. “Go away. Leave me alone.”
“I’m not the madman you think I am,” Weiss said with the same smirk, not moving.
“Right.” Jacobs was not willing to concede that. The bartender, his chin on his hands and his elbows on the bar, starred at the two of them. Jacobs headed for the door and when he caught the eye of the bartender, he shrugged and pointed over his shoulder to Weiss as the reason for leaving.
Cecil Jacobs was at Monza with McLaren the day his team set the Formula One record. At the victory party, the racing champion introduced him to a rambunctious young woman with hair the color of honey, telling her with a straight face that he couldn’t have done it without Jacobs. It was their little joke, since Jacobs was McLaren’s certified public accountant—not exactly part of his pit crew. That McLaren clothed him with a prominence Jacobs didn’t deserve didn’t bother him. He was more than willing to gather the attendant benefits. Those were good times.
Things change. After McLaren was killed, the company felt the need to use one of the big firms with international scope. Still, the Formula One Circuit called to Jacobs enough that he left the international tax conference in Rome and took a train up to this interesting fortress town to see the races. While he watched from the stands, like the rest of the crowd, and drivers no longer patted him on the back or introduced him to loose women, the machines, the speed and the sound had his heart pounding.
He was feeling elated until the run-in with Stanley Weiss. And now as he walked the quarter mile in the rain to his hotel, Jacobs’ anger grew. That schmuck spoiled my evening. Spoiled the entire trip. A Yid, he says. A Yid. Lantzman. Weiss. Madman. The son of a bitch is mad. He sat in his room on the double bed, and saw in the mirror the bags under his eyes, the creases around his mouth. What’s with this guy’s fascination with my Jewishness? he thought. Even my father, who was absorbed with famous Jews—“Cecil, did you know that Kirk Douglas is Jewish?”—would not have gone this far. But he and Weiss would have gotten along, that’s for sure. They could talk all day about the Jews and the goyim.
Jacobs knew he was different: after his bar mitzvah he left all that mishigas behind. He looked at himself now simply as an American. He even thought about changing his name, but he knew it would kill his father. And here in the heartland of Italy, this maniac Weiss wanted him to kiss his Hebrew ass just because he was a Jew and he thought Jacobs was one too. Well, thinks Jacobs, he was wrong.
In the breakfast room the next morning, Jacobs spotted Weiss sitting with his back toward the door, sipping grapefruit juice. He considered leaving, finding breakfast elsewhere, but he was not about to let this punk run him out of his hotel. Jacobs took a seat as far from Weiss as possible. A few minutes later, Weiss, on his way out, noticed him and walked over.
“I apologize for accosting you like that last night,” he said. “I was a little drunk and maybe a little homesick.”
“All right,” Jacobs said, making sure to keep a dour tone. “I understand.” He tore a piece of bread off the mini-loaf and opened a tiny jar of preserves. But the little man didn’t leave.
“I was just trying to strike up an acquaintance,” Weiss continued. “I’m here for a few days and don’t know anyone. My first visit to Italy, and I see a yiddle from America so…”
“Stop with that, that … stuff,” Jacobs said holding up his hand. He was aware people at the surrounding tables overheard and were looking at him. “I’m a businessman on a deadline,” he lied. “I’ve got things to do, so you’ll excuse me.”
“I’m not embarrassing you with the Jew talk, am I? People sometimes tell me that. Even in Philly.”
Jacobs continued to eat, head down. But his ears felt hot. He felt as though he was wearing a yellow armband with the Star of David on it.
“So, I’ve got to run,” Weiss said, finally. “Maybe I’ll see you around.”
The coincidence of Weiss staying at the same hotel in a place like Imola, while not unusual, still unnerved him. Twice now he’d been accosted by this guy who seemed intent on shouting out his—and Jacobs’—Jewishness to anyone who will listen. “Accosted,” thought Jacobs, was Weiss’ word. It fit last night. A bit too strong, perhaps, for what happened this morning. It was, after all, his terribly inept way of apologizing.
After breakfast, Jacobs rented a bicycle and headed north toward the tiny hill town of Dozza. He will leave Weiss to attack other unsuspecting Jews he might run across. The proprietor of the bicycle shop had given him a small map of the area and outlined a picturesque route. Dozza, a few miles northwest of Imola, was known for its Biennale Muro Dipinto. The frescoes covering most of the facades in the town were kept up after the contest and Jacobs was anxious to see the artwork.
He was working up a sweat negotiating the hills between Imola and Dozza, but the wind wicked most of it away. Bales of hay dotted the hillside, broken regularly by row upon row of estate grown grape vines. The beep from a car horn startled him.
“Mr. Jacobs,” the man yelled from the driver’s seat of a powder blue Fiat. “It’s me, Stash.” Weiss waved as he went by. “See you in Dozza.” Jacobs thought he must have asked at the hotel for his name, maybe even checked with the bicycle shop. The little fuck is following me. Twenty minutes later, Jacobs was breathing hard as he finished the hill that took him to the center of town. Several provincial police cars with flashing lights blocked the road. There had been an accident. A powder blue Fiat was on its side against a guardrail. Compared to the spectacular crashes Jacobs had seen of Formula One racing cars, this looked so inconsequential as to be comical, as if a couple of teenagers had tipped over the little car on a dare. But then he saw Weiss lying on the ground, unconscious or dead. Blood had pooled behind his head, making it look like the little man had a halo. Jacobs heard in the distance the siren of an ambulance.
“I know this man,” he said.
“Yes?” asked one of the policemen. “And you are?”
“Cecil Jacobs. Visiting Imola for the races. This man’s name is Stanley Weiss. He’s from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. We’re staying at the same hotel.”
“Please,” the policeman said, motioning Jacobs to sit at a bench nearby. “I do some English, but you speak too fast. So the man’s name, Jacobs, no?” He cleared up the mistake and told the policeman everything he knew about Weiss, which wasn’t much. The ambulance arrived and Weiss, apparently still alive, was taken to the hospital in Imola. Jacobs learned from the police that he had lost control of his car, swerving to avoid hitting a boy chasing a ball.
As Jacobs entered the town center and began his walk down the main street, he couldn’t forget the image of Weiss lying in the road, unconscious. A friendless guy in a foreign land. He pictured him alone in a sterile hospital room and realized he was no longer in a mood to enjoy the painted facades of Dozza. Again, the son of a bitch has ruined his day.
Back in Imola, Jacobs asked after Weiss at the hospital. He was directed to the third floor, and after sitting in a waiting area for twenty minutes, a doctor introduced herself.
“Is Mr. Weiss a family member?” she asked.
“An acquaintance,” Jacobs said. “Not even that. Met him last night.”
“Do you know how we can reach his family?”
“No, only that he’s from Philadelphia. Is he going to make it?”
“His condition is serious. We’ll know more by tomorrow.”
Jacobs left the hospital, returned the bicycle, and walked back to the hotel. He asked himself why he was so concerned about Weiss. All he knew about him was that he’d been a pain in his ass, and he didn’t appreciate the interest Weiss had taken in him. Still, he seemed to Jacobs like an orphan in need of … what? Pity?
“Mr. Weiss has been in an accident,” he told the man behind the desk in the foyer of the hotel.
“Yes,” he said, “We’ve heard. The polizia were here; they looked through his things, took his passport.”
“Well, I guess they’ll try to reach his family in the States.”
That evening, Jacobs had dinner at Ristorante San Domenico. A friend had recommended this Michelin two star restaurant, and while the food was exceptional, his mind kept returning to the strange little man in the hospital. He had been working hard and looked forward to this side trip. But Weiss had stolen the joy of it from him. I don’t owe him a damn thing, he said to himself. He wasn’t a relative, and he was far from being a friend. His only relationship to Weiss had been trying to avoid him. And yet the little man’s pathetic attempts at friendship, his obnoxious habit of loudly interjecting his Jewishness into everything, his insistence in proclaiming Jacob’s Jewishness to everyone, his seeming simple mindedness, now crowded his thoughts. He is, Jacobs supposed, one of those pitiful characters you can’t help feeling sorry for, like a bird with a broken wing.
Jacobs was up early the next morning and, because of a heavy downpour, took a taxi to the hospital. On the third floor, the doctor told him Weiss was pretty beat up but that he was stable. His injuries weren’t life threatening. She told Jacobs he can visit, but only for a few minutes. “Mr. Weiss asked for you last night. He told me you’re both Jewish and he thought perhaps you would say a prayer on his behalf.”
“A prayer,” Jacobs said with a forced laugh. “He’s barking up the wrong tree, Doc. I’m not a spiritual person. Maybe he needs a rabbi.”
“I must have misunderstood him,” the doctor said. “My English is good, but not perfect.”
Jacobs had to laugh. Even in his battered condition, when speaking at all must have been an effort, perhaps even painful, Weiss felt compelled to tell a complete stranger that Jacobs was a Jew!
The doctor led Jacobs to Weiss’ room and left him there.
“Weiss,” he whispered. There was silence. “Stash.” He was lying there with his eyes closed, tubes hooked to orifices both original and new. His breathing was heavy, but regular. Much of his head was bandaged. Jacobs sat there for an hour, waiting to see if Weiss would wake up. The doctor returned and shook a good-natured finger at him.
“This is more than a few minutes, Mr. Jacobs.”
“He’s been asleep the whole time. I was just sitting.”
Jacobs returned the following afternoon. Weiss was asleep, but when Jacobs talked to him he saw his eyes flutter. “I used to work with McLaren,” Jacobs said just to have something to say. “Tommy Pojanski, his lawyer at the time, introduced us. I must have looked like a Mr. Milquetoast to McLaren, but I could see he liked me.” Weiss made a noise sounding like a sigh. Jacobs took it as his way of telling him to go on.
“It was Sixty-five, shortly after he had set up his own racing team. We were both still in our twenties. McLaren knew I was Jewish. ‘Like Revson,’ he’d say. Pete Revson was a Formula One champion from a wealthy Jewish family.”
“‘Right,’ I’d say, ‘but without the money.’ I let him know I came from lower middle class parents, that my dad worked for the post office, that we lived on the third floor of an apartment building in Queens. He asked me once about my religion and I told him I viewed myself simply as an American.”
“‘And I view myself simply as a Kiwi,’ he’d said laughing. He patted me on the back. After he was killed, I might have been able to take the McLaren business to one of the big accounting firms, but I wanted my own firm; I didn’t want to be a hired hand.”
A snort from Weiss told Jacobs he’d heard enough. Jacobs left him and bicycled back to Dozza. This time the only drama was the paintings on the walls of the houses. His favorite fresco was of a large angel-like being. It was seated with its right forearm draped over an actual curved wooden door. The angel was looking down. An old man happened to walk by and it seemed to Jacobs as if the angel was looking at the man, watching over him.
The next morning, his was back at the hospital. “It’s Jacobs.” Weiss’ eyes flutter slightly. “Jacobs. The Jew,” he said smiling. He sat with Weiss for a while and talked to him so that he’d know he wasn’t alone. Jacobs told him again of his old connection to Formula One racing and that he had come up from Rome to see the races. “It’s a shame you didn’t get to see the frescoes at Dozza. They were spectacular. There’s an art gallery in the fortress where you can see preliminary drawings of most of them.” No response. Jacobs asked him if there was anyone back home he could contact for him.
Weiss’ mouth began to move and Jacobs heard a soft, throaty sound, but he was unable to make out the words. He bent over and put his ear next to Weiss’ mouth.
“You been to Israel?” Weiss whispered.
“No, actually I haven’t.” There were a lot of places he’d like to visit, Jacobs thought, but Israel was not high on the list. He braced for Weiss to berate him for not having visited the Jewish homeland.
“Me neither,” Weiss said with some difficulty, and then swallowed before continuing. “Maybe when I’m up and around,” he wheezed, “we can go.”
“We’ll see, Stash.” Jacobs heard himself say. “We’ll see.”