Guest Post: Money for Dinner, a Short Story by Rita Ashley

Thank you to everyone who submitted work for the October Short Story Contest. The 2nd place featured entry is:

Money for Dinner by Rita Ashley

First published when she was nine – a tiny story in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The dye was cast. Rita Ashley has been writing all her life for business and pleasure… but the fiction has been a quiet passion.

Rita’s entry was based on this writing prompt:

The writing prompt

Please Enjoy

Money for Dinner

Four fat seagulls screeched from their perch atop discarded barrels at the end of
gangway number three. They stretched their necks and vocalized long high pitched
cries as they surveyed the flock soaring over the incoming ships. Tired of their noises,
Ben shooed them away and took their place atop a barrel, careful to avoid their sticky
white feces.


For the next hour, Ben observed what he believed to be scam artists as they ran their
cons on the newly landed gullible Jews. He had heard tales of such things on board
during the long passage from Hamburg and was quick to identify what was going on. A
plan to make his own way easier sprang whole as he watched how easily these wolves
fleeced the unsuspecting – the refugees from countries glad to be rid of them.
Ben watched as the shipyard hustlers picked their prey clean with skill and purpose. He
kept a close eye on one well-dressed couple who wore brightly colored and carefully
tailored garments, which Ben imagined to be the latest fashions. They appeared to be
waiting for newly arrived passengers. The woman bumped, full frontal, into a newly
disembarked man. He apologized loudly in Russian, Yiddish, and Polish, and fidgeted
with embarrassment over such intimate contact with a wealthy female stranger.
The woman had removed the man’s fat money purse on contact. She deftly slipped the
unsuspecting dupe’s pocket watch into her dangling wrist purse while her ‘husband’
snagged valuables from onlookers. During Ben’s vigil, he saw the couple stealthily
unshackle one oblivious traveler from his apparently expensive leather valise. Ben
gurgled a “humph” of disbelief then grew bored watching their routine repeated as each
new group disembarked. He turned his attention to two men who were the same height
and who apparently worked the crowd together. He was mesmerized by their constant
movement, movement and the same vigilance as Ben’s own technique whilst hunting
rabbits. The men rapidly approached the third gangplank now crowded with first class
passengers who lugged ornate trunks and lavishly embellished bags as they clumsily
made their way down the steep wooden path. Ben left his post to monitor the team’s
technique.


He was within ten feet when he saw the two hustler’s forelocks and the black clothing.
Their long beards were clean; one wore the traditional black hat of the Orthodox Jew,
the other, a simple skullcap or yarmulke.
Scanning the crowd of disembarking Jews, the scammers closed in on any signs of
wealth. The ‘Rabbi’ slowly approached a couple with three well-dressed children in tow.
Ben listened to the Rabbi as he spoke in calm tones. “Welcome to your new country. I
am Reb Rabowski and this is my Cantor, Moiseh Brankowski. We have a house with
plenty of rooms not far from here and Jews from all over come to live with us while they

find their way. Would you like to join us?” The new arrivals nodded their heads in relief
and expounded in Yiddish.
“Hashem, G_od, has sent you. We will stay with you until we connect with our relatives.”
Ben was not surprised at how quickly the victims succumbed. The travelers were used
to Jews helping Jews. It was natural to find help among their own, especially from a
Rabbi.

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The scammers continued, “Let us take your bags and wardrobes for you. We can carry
them on our cart and I will take them to your new home right now. Moiseh will lead you
to us. There are many Jews from Poland and you will feel at home.” The mark said, “We
did not welcome carrying all our things, our whole life, on our backs.”

Their relief was apparent to Ben who registered the skillful way the ersatz rabbinical
leader gained their confidence and pitched solace to the unsuspecting newcomer.


“Would you like us to change your money for you? We go to the bank and change your
Zloty to American dollars at a very good rate. We will give you your American dollars
when we all meet at the house where you will find a clean bed and good kosher food for
everyone.”


It was obvious the visions of a clean bed, and for the observant men, prayers and talk of
Torah, were welcome. They handed over all their worldly goods and money with an
eagerness that caused Ben to cringe. He grimaced as he continued to watch.
The victims retrieved money hidden in their stockings, under their belts, inside the lining
of their coats or from inside their boots. The naive Jews uttered sighs of relief and
audible prayers of thanks and handed their cash to the holy man. The ‘Rabbi’ pocketed
their money, loaded their possessions onto the wooden cart, and quickly rolled it out of
sight.


Moiseh, mimicking a submissive cantor, held back to adjust his boot laces, which were
untied. He bent over, momentarily lost his balance and, after a prolonged and clumsy
effort, retied the laces. He smiled to the marks and walked with them to a crowded spot
where he quickly slipped away. The unbelieving victims searched for him, certain
separation was just an accident. Several heart-breaking minutes passed before they
were jarred by their new reality—the ‘Rabbi’ had stolen everything they owned. Seeing
their tears and knowing he could do nothing, Ben mumbled to himself to block out the
screams of the women and the men ranting to an unseeing G_d.
Ben kept his distance and followed the thieves to their carts which were sagging from
the newly acquired booty. For an imagined sense of authority, he grabbed a makeshift
weapon from a discarded pile of rubbish. He wielded an old board with six menacing
nails protruding from it.

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Breathing steady and with a relaxed stride, Ben approached the men. He felt confident
he could out run them and lose himself in the crowd if there was trouble.
The thieves continued to load their ill-gotten gains onto precariously overflowing carts,
oblivious to Ben’s approach. He swooped in and summoned his deepest voice
commanding in Yiddish, “You stole money and you will give it to me. Give me what you
collected today and I am on my way. If you don’t, I will follow you every day and tell
everyone what you are doing. You will steal no more money.”


The thieves spoke in Yiddish accented English and Ben picked up only fragments. The
‘Rabbi’, angry about his options, said to his ‘cantor’, “We will lose the money from the
work we did so far, but we can get more money if we work until dark. There are two
more ships docking this night. If he doesn’t keep his word, we can get rid of him later.”
The ‘Rabbi’ raised his eyebrows, shrugged his shoulders, spread his hands in a gesture
of acquiescence and nodded to Ben.


Ben pointed to an aged leather pouch nestled in the corner of one cart. “Dump it out and
put the money in that black satchel.”


Family heirlooms, pictures in carved wooden frames and silver combs clattered onto the
red brick street. The ‘Rabbi’ shook the satchel and the last bits of jewelry fell to his feet.
He stuffed Kopeks and Zloty into the bag, closed the battered case, and threaded the
worn silver buckle into place.


“Put the bag on the ground and shove it to me,” Ben said.


The ‘Rabbi’ complied immediately. Ben lifted the bag and walked backwards, eying the
thieves, defying them to move. He stumbled from the unexpected weight, righted
himself, and dashed into the crowd.


With the satchel held close and aware of his vulnerability to the myriad bandits afoot,
Ben pushed his way through the mass of new arrivals and brushed by the thieves’ last
victims. He immediately looked away from their tear-stained faces and quickened his
pace. The damage was already done and Ben saw no reason to dwell on their
misfortune; it was his job to improve his own.


Ben did not look back as he made his way to the street. He was hungry. It was time for
Benjamin Bernstein, new American, to find his dinner.

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