Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
The Job of Jones AvenueThe Job of Jones Avenue

The Job of Jones Avenue

Fiction from Randy Boyagoda

Randy Boyagoda
18 minute read

Lawrence Litvack believed that a Jew who ran a business had to deal with two types: the hard-working anti-Semite and the lazy anti-Semite. Adam Litvack agreed. Only while his big brother went on about this situation to anyone who would listen, Adam was pursuing the obvious solution: his wife was pregnant with number six. But God was having fun with him and his solution—so far it was five girls. Seizing on Adam's suffering, and on his keeping faith that the next one would always be the boy, Lawrence liked to call his little brother the Job of Jones Avenue. Adam tried, once, to correct him. Really, his nickname, if Labe wanted to have fun with him, should be Zelophedad. But this was Scriptural humour, and it always flopped in the office at Able Books. For one, Lawrence was firmly a secular Jew, and he had decided to make himself a Personality out of his slothful faith. He liked to say that he only made it through his bar mitzvah because his father had paid to have a teleprompter installed in the bema. As for my father, Lucky Kandy, who started to hear this Job stuff when he was promoted to his new duties on the second floor at the book warehouse, he missed Adam's jokes, too. When Lawrence would call Adam the Job of Jones Avenue in front of others, be they Gentile or Jew, rabbi or mailman, new Sri Lankan employee or old Latvian father, Adam wouldn't utter word one of reproach. He'd say that because Lawrence was his big brother, he respected his approach to family, even if he obviously disagreed with it in practice. Because while Adam kept having his girls, Lawrence had had two consecutive boys and then felt fine calling it quits. He'd done his demographic duty by the tribe. If his wife wanted for braiding hair or a little helper to put out the almonds for a party, she had nieces.

With two boys of his own when he started working for Able Books, my father was with Lawrence on this. But birth order and the one-way public cruelties of brothers aren't tribal. By the end of most days, he understood the hard swallows and grit that were behind Adam's grace and patience when dealing with Lawrence, even if he missed his Scripture jokes, having been educated in Colombo by nuns. He had had to endure such treatment for years before leaving Ceylon and escaping Eddie, his own big brotherly whirlwind. My father was privy to inside knowledge about his bosses because he had proven himself the great half-exception to the Litvack Rule. He was hard-working, yes, but he wasn't against the Jews. He couldn't be; he didn't really know what they were prior to getting hired at Able Books. To be sure, my father had ideas about others. Hindus were hypocritical about cleanliness; West Indians couldn't tell time, even on a digital watch; you have to watch the thumbs when Orientals weigh out your produce. This last one was from my mother; she came to understand ethnic humanity while catching buses, grocery shopping, buying our clothes. She contributed freely to my father's ideas about others, confirming here, detailing there. But still, Lucky Kandy knew nothing of the Jews, even though Leonard Woolf was a name that was long part of family legend. A relation from years back, on my grandfather Oscar's mother's side, had been Mr. Leonard's man whilst he was in charge of Hambantota, a town in the south of the island. There was a sepia picture that proved their relationship, or at least proved that a squat brown smiling man and a long somber Englishman once stood together on the verandah of a colonial office long enough for a shutter to open and snap shut. The picture hung prominently at an uncle's home. No one questioned why a serious-looking white man, sporting a nose like a cricket stump, was hanging on a wall beside various dead parents and grandparents. His position in the family was always already established and confidently invoked as a marker of the family's long and intimate connection to Crown and Mother Country. To explain what Woolf had been would have been mean scruples, like complaining about getting a bouquet of plastic flowers.

When my father was given the initial tests at Able Books to see where he stood on the Jews, he passed the first, and neither failed nor failed the second. He was called in for his interview and met two men in their late thirties with curly hair and round mouths and eyes shaped like walnuts. They sounded like fishmen to me, because of Lucky's frequent impersonations but also because of Saturday morning cartoons. They were seated behind big desks, the type you see in bank offices and insurance commercials, old movies. They were out of place in the drafty, fluorescent-lit office, the rest of which was a chaos of half-open cardboard boxes, wads of abandoned packing tape, Styrofoam bits and lumps of newspaper packing, and everywhere else piles and leaning piles of school books. There was also a crooked avocado tree shoved against a window and a poster of a baseball pitcher stretched out, mid-throw. He was wearing light blue with a darker blue writing across his chest; the number 32 was stitched in red across his heart. Putting colours and numbers on players was such an American thing to do, like they were slaves or cattle, my father later explained to us, after his promotion put him at a work table in the main office between the poster and the avocado tree. Whereas cricketers wore no numbers and their linens would only be white, like brides going off to their joy; after the match, their only colours would be green from the grass, red from shining up the ball, maybe a little yellow from taking tea.

At that first interview, the two men stood to introduce themselves. They shook hands and then of-fered him a seat. This was the first test. He had two choices: a straight-back wooden school chair, and a red pleather recliner. He chose wisely.

"We bet money, Addie and me, on who sits where," Lawrence later explained. "Easy odds whenever islander types come in. Always the lazy chair with them; you live in east end Toronto, you must take the bus now and then, you know what I mean, right?"

"The guy we were, ahem, supposed to give this job to," Adam continued, "was the brother of a cousin's friend. You know how that works."

"Must be the same with you people, no?" Lawrence asked. He had a jumped-up, aggressive way of speaking when he felt like the brothers were showing too much the colour of their money to an outsider. But Lucky didn't remain an outsider for long; he nodded, in that universal brown man way, at this question, and at others, and this amused Lawrence. One day he brought in his Hank Greenberg bobble-head doll and had Adam hold it beside Lucky and then he asked both man and doll a series of questions and said "I was right!" and by then Lucky was on the inside.

"So anyway," Adam said, "he was this Ashkenaz fresh out of Argentina and he just bounced around the entire time he was here."

"He wouldn't sit down!" Lawrence took over, relishing the outrage. "He just stood behind both chairs, hands going back and forth across each one because he knew there was a test here and he didn't want to commit and be wrong."

"Maybe because new to the country and nervous," Adam offered, pained.

"No nerves here!" Lucky tried.

"Ashkenaz," Lawrence said matter-of-factly, by way of explanation. He said this not to Lucky, whose comment he ignored, but back to Adam, and in a way that seemed like both an inside complaint and a self-evident truth. It sounded to Lucky like what people meant in Colombo when they'd have to deal with a Burgher. This was the first time he saw a little sameness, Ceylon or Jew. A few months later, when Lucky was promoted after neither failing nor failing the second Litvack test, Lawrence welcomed him upstairs by continuing their earlier conversation, picking up as if there hadn't been a few weeks in between.

"But we put out both chairs because we take it as a sign, your choice, of how serious you are about the job. Because here at Able Books, Lucky, where you stand with us begins with where you sit with us. And Lucky, you sat better than most; but also you're up here because you work harder than the whole Caribbean Sea lifting boxes for me down there, and you're also smarter than the Bay of Fundy stacking boxes for me beside them, and finally, because you don't know from Jew jokes."

Lawrence liked to chat with new employees on the floor; everyone at the company was hired on a one-month probationary basis before a permanent decision was made. By week three, he'd approach a new hire in a secretive way, lull him into thinking he was already part of the Able Books family. Then he'd mention that his brother, Adam, already had five kids and had a sixth on the way. "And do you know why he has so many?" Lawrence would ask, and then answer, "Because, get this, he's made it his mission to personally make up for the six million!" Adam knew about this joke. He hated it. Lawrence was by his admission no fan either, but Adam was made to agree that it was an efficient way with a new hire to know what type they were dealing with. The results were always immediate. When a new man stopped lifting and laughed at this, he was a lazy anti-Semite and he wasn't kept on for more than another week. When a new man laughed and kept unloading, at least he was hard-working. But Lucky didn't laugh; he just kept working. Lawrence repeated the joke, in loud monosyllables, as if Lucky was retarded or French Canadian and, still, no response. After a third attempt, my father finished clearing off a skid and then turned to Lawrence and asked, respectfully, "Sorry, six million?" When Lawrence's eyes bugged (Fish-Man!) and he could say nothing, Lucky smiled, bobbled his head and went back to work. My father's historical innocence broke the Litvack Rule, and when, after a few more weeks, this was combined with his proving better at counting boxes than the hard-working Jamai-cans and Newfoundlanders already working at the warehouse, he was installed in the second-floor office. His new duties included playing occasional sounding board for internal Litvack disputes. He quickly identified with the Jewish way of family matters because of how much it reminded him of back home. There were only two ways of talking at Able Books. Either an instance of family ugliness was on offer for the whole world to see, like the yellow armpits of an old T-shirt hanging in the backyard, or that ugliness would be ignored at all costs, even when it was there, in full view, a man in a sweaty T-shirt standing in front of a congregation with both arms held up in the air.

The main family topic for the Litvack brothers was their father's love of french fries and its economic consequences. I never met Marvin Litvack, but apparently he was grandly fat, Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon fat. When their mother, Mrs. Litvack, would call to complain about Marvin, the brothers would each pick up their receiver and talk her down at the same time. Eventually, technology and comfort with Lucky meant the chats would proceed by speakerphone. Marvin had moved from boiled Latvia to the deep-fried West only too well. He was a sucker for any food-related television offer, say of a kitchen gadget to make potato peeling easier or a machine to fry potatoes in half the time with twice the taste. And Mrs. Litvack had to deal with the credit card statements, which was one thing, but there was also the used oil seeping into her tiled countertop and being late for the chiropodist if ever Marvin saw a Chip Truck while going across town. She claimed he chose routes on purpose. She could only speak by way of epic lists of her husband's wrongdoings, compiled down through the ages, and she was always going to leave him this time unless the boys stepped in. None of this fazed Lucky, who heard it all; he came from a place, the self-fabled Colombo Five district of the island's capital, where people were always issuing promises and threats and reviving old grievances far too loudly, usually in regards to unchanging drinking habits or pinching nieces too much or complimenting the neighbour's wife's sari one too many times. And the expectation, on my father's street in Ceylon, was always that no one else on the verandah or laneway took notice, for years if necessary, unless they were asked to, at which point you joined, immediately and at full tilt. So he knew to go about his work at the warehouse—unloading the boxes from the rumbling conveyor belt, hand carting them over to his table, where he unpacked, counted and checked the number against a purchase order before repacking a certain amount for a given school order and sending them back downstairs for the next day's delivery truck—as if the only noise in the office was the air conditioning unit. But if his opinion was asked, for instance, on how much money a family should rightly spend on malt vinegar in a month, he'd be right into it, making Lawrence and Adam laugh by informing his response with casual references to Litvackia: to the agreements Marvin had accepted with Mrs. Litvack before last year's trip to Riga or to the new promises he had made about not going to this year's Food Show at the Exhibition grounds.

Back home, at Rexford Place in Scarborough, we heard about all of this at the dining room table, like instalments from a radio drama.

The day he came home to tell us about his big promotion, Lucky explained to my brother and me that part of his new responsibilities meant he had to run an inclined conveyor belt that came all the way up to the top floor. We didn't know what this was, but his tone meant it was something impressive and we knew he wanted us to ask him more, and we did, we wanted to. He said book boxes came up all day, which he had to unload and unpack and count and reload for the men downstairs to take out again each night. And because it would take forever to move these boxes up and down the stairs, the warehouse had a conveyor belt, the type of thing no less than Mr. James Bond would be strapped to and then escape from at the end of all of his movies. He'd seen two or three of them, years back, in the cinema when he and my mother were still living in Montreal. He had to do something in between double shifts as a security guard at the Aldred Building, and it was just the same to buy a movie ticket as it was to take buses back and forth to Côtes-des-Neiges to have a cup of tea with my mother in the icebox apartment. My mother didn't mind. Mrs. Neuilly let her watch Family Feud in the parlour and taught her five-card stud.

My brother and I didn't know that much about Bond yet. We were too young to have the movies imagined for us directly, but we had the sense that when Lucky would talk about him by way of his new job, we were parties to advance knowledge about manly things. And so from this I was made wild with ideas about the place he worked, and when he came home from working there tired and raw looking, it made sense, and we would leave him alone until he was ready for us, ready to tell us his day's adventures and smile, laugh, frown, swat to hear our own.

One afternoon, the summer my grandfather Oscar visited us from Sri Lanka, he went to Able Books to see where his son worked. Lucky had picked him up at lunch. That morning, Oscar was shaved as smooth as new pavement and in his best suit and declared that he was going to see his son's workplace that day. He also said, again, that he wanted to call Ceylon afterwards, and for my father to make the arrangements. To make a call to Sri Lanka back then, you had to schedule it eighteen hours in advance with the overseas operator, and you only had three minutes on the line. This was the call my parents had been talking about at nights, where, they expected, they'd learn Oscar's findings on whether their leaving Ceylon for Canada years before had been deemed the right thing. The night before, my parents had decided that Oscar was probably reserving his final judgment until he saw where his son was working because, as it was with Mr. Leonard Woolf, you can only tell the cut of a Sri Lankan man by how fine a white man he works for.

"And? So how was the day?" my mother asked when they returned just before dinner. She had come from the kitchen when the front door opened, her hands stiff and upright like a scrubbed surgeon or a store mannequin—she'd been washing the Hindu hypocrisy out of a big bowl of green gram for the Saturday breakfast.

"We got Lucky!" The old man answered in a boom. My father stepped out from behind him. He was also smiling, fit to burst, his eyes buggy. He was violent with a man's joy, that joy of witnessing his father tell his wife and son what greatness he'd done in the world that day. Though never this excited, I'd seen him something like this only a few times before: when he came home to say that he had been hired at Able Books; and when he came home with a bucket of chicken and told my mother just to throw out the rice because he'd been given a promotion to the second floor; and, most recently, when he came home and announced that a blonde man had stopped him on the street and asked for directions to the subway. Father and son were standing in front of the door, beside the mirrored closet. They were clearly waiting for something more, some kind of tribute, but none of us knew what to make of Oscar's declaration or of Lucky's mad smiling. But it was clear they were waiting for us to do something. My mother looked nervous about what her father-in-law had said. Hoping for the good side of a banana split, I stepped in and asked my grandfather to elaborate.

"What do you mean, Siya? Isn't Daddy always ours?"

"No, you don't understand, boy. Listen to your Siya: WE—GOT—LUCKY."

"That is what the Litvacks told Daddy about me," my father explained. "They said —"

"They said, ‘We got Lucky.' About my son, they said this, such pride these men have, to have my son in their operation!" The old man was full of satisfaction. He was smiling like after he had had a milk-shake for the first time, the night he arrived and we went to McDonald's for dinner and were allowed to order anything. There was rightness in this world.

"But—do you really know what this means, this thing what they said?" Shari asked my father in a pleading way.

"Yes, I know what it means!" Oscar answered on behalf of his son, preening his way into the living room. He looked like he wanted to stand on the glass top of the coffee table. "It means the blood of my blood is making his way well in this country. And you should have seen it!" he sucked the air into his teeth, savouring it. "And his desk! Big like a BUICK! Tomorrow when the call is placed to Ceylon, I will tell everyone."

The Litvack brothers had understood what it meant, Lucky bringing Oscar to the warehouse, the old man seeing what the son was making of himself in the New World, and so they did it up. Adam was volunteered to move for the afternoon, and Lucky was shocked to be shown to his desk, but he knew he'd ruin their gift if he didn't take it in stride. My grandfather had been very quiet the entire time they were in the office, mild and smiling, standing to the side. Eventually he was persuaded to sit, he chose the hardback school chair, and from there he watched as the Able Books business was conducted. The brothers had given Oscar a lot of attention; Adam had been kind, offering tea, and Lawrence was grandly deferential, gushing about how grateful the company had been to find Lucky.

"Yes, we were very fortunate to find him," Adam agreed. And there was my father, watching his bosses boast about him to his own father, lapping it up like a bowl of gold milk. He didn't even flinch when they started with the new name.

"Very fortunate," Lawrence had seconded the seconding. "We were very fortunate to get Lucky."

"Yes, we're happy we got Lucky," Adam confirmed, against his better self, but smiling, glad to not be his brother's target for a change.

"And you know what, sir," Lawrence said to my grandfather, "you see Adam over there, his wife is expecting their sixth child! You should see her, so big! And when my little brother goes home tonight and tells her he got lucky at work today, she'll be so happy for him. And you know why, right? Because that's the only place he's getting it these days!"

Oscar laughed along, bobbling like Hank Greenberg waiting on a fat fastball.

My father told my mother the full story that night, in bed, at her calm, stiff request. She made sucking noises through her teeth as Lucky detailed the afternoon's events. This sound was serious disapproval from Shari Kandy, the type of noise she'd make if the woman deacon gave the homily at St.John's, or when there would be a run in her good pantyhose because we'd been wearing them again for sliding races down the apartment's back hall.

"What is it, Shari? All night long you've been as cold as a passport officer. Why? When Daddy had such a grand time at my work, and now just think of what he's going to tell Eddie in the morning."

Sighing, a lot, she explained the Canadian meaning of "We got Lucky" to her husband. She'd heard it used once, by two bachelors, roommates, white men with tawny moustaches, chatting at the back of the elevator. Listening to my parents speak while scrunched up in the hallway, I was with my father here; I didn't understand what was wrong with getting lucky at work instead of at home, or in an elevator with two roommates for that matter. And I didn't get much more from my mother when Lucky asked for a clarification; she shifted into Sinhalese. I could tell he didn't like hearing about it in Sinhalese, at all, and he stopped her when she said something in English about jokes at his expense. No, he insisted, this was not like back home. The Litvacks had done well by him and his father that day, very well; and he wasn't going to see it any other way.

The next morning, at 5:55 a.m., we were gathered in front of the telephone. We were quiet from sleepiness, my brother and me, but there was a charge in the air from my parents and grandfather. They were staring at the telephone, waiting for it to do something, like it was the boulder in front of Christ's tomb on Easter morning. When, a few minutes after six, it rang, we all jumped a little and then Lucky took charge. He listened to the rules from the overseas operator, repeating each out loud. My mother nodded in time. Oscar was rolling a cigarette between his fingers so fast I thought he might start a campfire.

"Yes, I know, only three minutes call and no extension, yes, I know. Please connect us now, thank you." He stopped talking, stiffened for a few seconds, countries and brothers moving toward each other through the crackling dead air, and then he called out, in a voice of half-question, half-wonder, "Eddie-Aiya? Eddie-Aiya? Good to hear you, big brother. Yes, wait a moment, Daddy is here and we only have three minutes and he wants to tell you about how things are for us in Canada. Hold the line."

"Halloo? Edward! Hello, sonnaboy!" My father flinched to hear the pet name sail across the world like that, but only for a moment. What was an old pet name compared to a desk the size of a Buick? "What?" my grandfather yelled into the phone, "Say again, sonnaboy... It's been a very good trip, yes... You must see the life your little brother is making for himself over here. He is set up like a chairman of the board, working for a top-flight firm... Yes, he is... Yes!... And this is why I'm telling you, Edward, if I were a younger man, a man like you are, the things that can be done in a place like this... Yes, that's what I'm telling you... I know, I know, but Gestetner is useless compared to what they are doing here... No, right, I know I said to, but now I'm telling you... Sonnaboy, you must come see for yourself this place... Sorry?... Oh, I'd say my favourite things are McDonald's milkshakes and Charlie's Angels... Eddie? Edward? Halloo?"

Lucky took the phone back to check, but it was dead air and crackle again. He had heard enough to strut, but still he needed a higher confirmation. He needed to know what his big brother had said.

"So what did Eddie-Aiya think, Daddy?"

"He thought I was right. What else? I want a cup of tea."

"You were right about what, Daddy?"

"About this place."

"What about this place? That we're doing well here?"

"That if you're doing this well here, just think what your big brother could do!"

A few months later, the request came by cable, and then there was my father at the dining room table, a sudden King Pyrrhus signing immigration forms for his big brother, Eddie.

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