Look at Landsman, one shirttail hanging out, snow-dusted porkpie knocked to the left, coat hooked to a thumb over his shoulder. Hanging on to a sky-blue cafeteria ticket as if it’s the strap keeping him on his feet. His cheek needs the razor. His back is killing him. For reasons he doesn’t understandor maybe for no reasonhe hasn’t had a drink of alcohol since 9:30 in the morning. Standing in the chrome-and-tile desolation of the Polar-Shtern Kafeteria at nine o’clock on a Friday night, in a snowstorm, he’s the loneliest Jew in the Sitka District. He can feel the shifting of something dark and irresistible inside him, a hundred tons of black mud on a hillside, gathering its skirts to go sliding. The thought of food, even a golden ingot of the noodle pudding that is the crown jewel of the Polar-Shtern Kafeteria, makes him queasy. But he hasn’t eaten all day.
In fact, Landsman knows that he is not, by a long shot, the loneliest Jew in the Sitka District. He scorns himself for even entertaining the notion. The presence of self-pity in his thoughts is proof that he is circling the bunghole, spiraling inward and down, down, down. To resist this Coriolis motion, Landsman relies on three techniques. One is work, but work is now officially a joke. One is alcohol, which makes the drop come faster and go deeper and last longer but helps him not to care. The third is to have a bite. So he carries his blue ticket and his tray to the big Litvak lady behind the glass counter, with the hairnet and the polyethylene gloves and the metal spoon, and forks it over.
“The cheese blintzes, please,” he says, not wanting cheese blintzes or even bothering to see if they are on the menu tonight. “How are you, Mrs. Nemintziner?”
Mrs. Nemintziner gentles three tight blintzes onto a white plate with a blue stripe on the rim. To ornament the evening meals of the lonely souls of Sitka, she has prepared several dozen slices of pickled crab apple on lettuce leaves. She tricks out Landsman’s dinner with some of these corsages. Then she punches his ticket and slings his plate at him. “How should I be?” she says.
Landsman acknowledges that the answer to this question is beyond him. He carries his tray of blintzes filled with cottage cheese to the coffee urns and drains off a mug’s worth. He hands over his punched ticket and his cash to the cashier, then wanders across the wasteland of the dining area, past two of his rivals for the title of loneliest Jew. He heads for the table he prefers, by the front windows, where he can keep an eye on the street. At the next table, somebody left a half-eaten plate of corned beef and boiled potatoes and a half-empty glass of what appears to be black-cherry soda. The abandoned meal and the stained crumple of the napkin fill Landsman with a mild nausea of misgiving. But this is his table, and it is a fact that a noz likes to be able to keep an eye on the street. Landsman sits down, tucks his napkin into his collar, cuts apart a cheese blintz, and puts some into his mouth. He chews. He swallows. Good boy.