Pieces
Part Twelve
by sarAdora

~~~~~~~

"I sold the last of Ike's warehouses t'day, ever one uh 'em," Max told me in our weekly phone call. "After 'spences, the money'll go up to that Jewish old folks home jus like he be wantin. Sure do miss that ol man. He smoked a fine ceegar."

Ike Ferguson was as tall as the average twelve-year old when we met him. He was passed out cold, dripping wet and shivering when Max carried the small man into our basement apartment.

"Is that Mr. Ferguson?" Glory asked as she rushed to get blankets for the unconscious man on the couch.

"You be knowin him?" Max asked, wondering if the man might be one of her regular customers.

"Yeah but not in that way," she said, tugging Ike's wet coat off and tucking a blanket around his frail shoulders. "He rides in one of those delivery trucks every now and then, the ones that pick up dirty table cloths from the restaurants and brings them back clean."

"A workin man," Max mused, taking a closer look at the man on the couch. "Looks like he got a nasty bump on his head. I found him alaying half into the road and picked him up afore some good citzen run him over. Look in his pockets, girl," he said to me. "See if there be somebody we can call in a case they be worrying."

I looked. All I saw was an insurance card, a few dollars in cash and a business card for an attorney. Max called the attorney first. The man was not happy to be disturbed during the dinner hour but when he heard that Max was calling about one Mister Ike Ferguson, his tone changed and he said he'd be right over.

Ike woke up before his attorney arrived and Glory rushed to tell him where he was and that he was going to be okay. She kept a cool cloth on the back of his head, held his hand and asked if he wanted more than a sip or two of that bubbly water Max had given him.

"I thank you for your kindness," Ike said, his European accented voice soft as he slowly surveyed the room. "And I especially thank you for pulling me out of the road," he said to Max. "How can I possibly repay you for saving my life?"

"Didn't do nuthin special," Max mumbled, clearly embarrassed to be thanked. "Another body see you in that street would've done the veruh same thing. How 'bout some of Glory's hot soup? It'll warm yuh up in no time. Girl child, go get some of that soup for this here man."

Max helped him sit up, Glory put pillows behind his back and checked his forehead and I sat next to him, holding the bowl while he sipped the hearty soup from a spoon. I noted how tiny he seemed to be for a grown man and with youthful innocence, I asked if he was all grown up.

"Indeed, I am," he replied after he and Glory and Max stopped chuckling. "All grown up and very grateful to be here. You didn't have to take me in. You could have left me by the side of the road. I can't thank you enough for your kindness. I hope this means we can become good friends."

I wondered what Max would say to that but was interrupted by what sounded like an urgent knock at the door.

"That will be my attorney," Ike smiled. "The man's certain I'm going to die in some alleyway and no one will ever find me."

"Sir!" the dapper looking gentleman announced when he saw his client on our couch, the wet cloth Glory patted on the back of his head and the telltale flush of slight fever on his cheeks.

"I'm alright, Isaiah," Ike Ferguson replied. "These good people took me in when they didn't have to."

The attorney looked at us, at our surroundings, and seemed hard pressed to say more than "thank you." He was obviously not used to being in a basement apartment on the edge of downtown Chicago with three pairs of eyes looking straight at him - the eyes of a pimp, a prostitute and a very curious child.

"I'm Isaiah Rabinowitz," he announced with cordial formality. "I represent Mr. Ferguson and I thank you for coming to his assistance. Now, if you'll excuse us, I'll just drive him home," he added and reached to help the older gentleman to his feet. "Do you need an ambulance? Can you walk? Can you stand?"

"Stop your fussing. I'm alright," Ike mumbled with some exasperation. Then he started to cough and Glory pushed the attorney to the side and insisted Ike stay where he was and finish her hot soup before he did anything else and if he didn't finish it, she damn sure better know the reason why.

Glory - mother hen in disguise.

"No call for temper," Max said sternly in that soft disapproving voice he used when unladylike words were spoken in his presence. He poured a glass of wine for Mr. Rabinowitz and smiled when the man drank it too fast and choked a bit. "It's not as bad as it looks," Max said while they both watched Glory fuss over Ike. "Don't know what the fella be doin in the middle of the street but it looked to me like he maybe had a shiver and fell down. Got a bump on his head. That be all."

"We should get that checked," the attorney responded.

"I'm alright, Isaiah," Ike said for the third or fourth time. "We'll be going shortly." He patted Glory's hand and told her she was an angel and that she made good soup. Then, with her help, he stood and there were good-byes all around and a promise to let us know he was okay.

He came back a few days later - knocking on our door and bearing gifts.

"What all this be?" Max asked in amazement as he took in several prettily wrapped packages stacked on our dining room table.

"This is just a small token of my appreciation," Ike responded. "It's the least I can do."

"Didn't do nuthin to deserve all this hullabaloo," Max shrugged. "A simple thankee for your help and a shake of the hands man to man - that be all that necessry and it be done good and proper."

"Not too many folks would have done what you did. Please let me show my gratitude in my own way."

Max was not one to wear a person down in argument. He nodded his thanks for the gifts, inquired as to how Ike was feeling and offered the man a glass of wine.

Glory was as embarrassed about the gifts as Max was. Ike had brought a professionally wrapped party tray. There were cheeses, meats, nuts, chocolate bars and miniature bottles of fine spirits. Another package held ceramic soup crocks and a huge soup tureen. There were cigars for Max and three beautiful wool scarves - for Glory and Vi and for me.

"Who gonna be eatin all this fine food?" Max asked, eyeing the cigars and I knew he was wondering if he could puff on one without Vi muttering one of her unladylike words when she smelled the cigar smoke.

"I was hoping to join you," Ike said and pulled a chair out for Glory to sit.

That was the beginning of our friendship with Ike Ferguson. Max had been right. He was definitely a working man, a man who owned many buildings in Cook County, Chicago, as well as several large plants that catered to the hotel and restaurant businesses. He owned a large fleet of vans, employed hundreds and paid good wages.

Much to his attorney's chagrin, he liked to wander the streets of Chicago to remember his roots as an ordinary man - a rags to riches story - a man who made it in spite of the odds.

He was born in a small town in Austria, the only child of a butcher and his wife. His parents proudly named him Isaac after his grandfather who was a rabbinical scholar. They hoped he would follow the same life's path and become a respected religious leader in their small community. Isaac kept his own dreams to himself and obeyed his parents' wishes, studying the Talmud with the village elders, paying for them with fine cuts of meat from his father's shop.

There was a lot of unrest in Austria when Isaac was a young man and seeking a better life for their only son, his parents reluctantly sent him to America not long before the start of World War II. He never saw them again.

Isaac spoke German and Polish and Russian and Yiddish and Hungarian and several dialects spoken in other eastern European countries. He didn't speak English.

"When you get to Ellis Island," he had been told, "the men in uniforms will ask you questions in English. Memorize these answers and they will let you in to America."

Isaac memorized all the questions and all the answers in English so he could enter America.

When the ship approached the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, all aboard shouted their excitement that they were coming to America. But there was also some fear that they might not make it past immigration and their joy was muted. Isaac kept rehearsing the questions and answers he had memorized and when at last, he was next to be questioned in the long line of hopeful immigrants, his mind went blank.

The immigration officer was fresh on duty and not yet stressed by the confusion and chaos caused by travel weary men, women and children speaking a Babel of foreign tongues. The questions were asked and repeated until Isaac answered sufficiently. The immigration officer was now ready to print Isaac's name on his new identity papers and he asked Isaac for his first and last name and did he have a middle name as well?

Isaac was overwhelmed and exhausted. The sea journey had been a long one in cramped quarters and few amenities. Water had been provided, but each passenger brought his or her own food, which had been stretched to last for weeks. Bathing had not been an option. He had stood ramrod straight - all four feet - 10 inches of him - and pondered the question.

"What is your name?"

Weary and suddenly afraid he would be turned away, Isaac responded in Yiddish. "Ichh fergesson - I forgot."

The customs officer looked at him for barely a moment, Ike told us when we learned how he happened to acquire his name. He picked up his pen and with a flourish, wrote Isaac's name on the entry papers. Then he handed them to Isaac and announced "Welcome to America, Ike Ferguson."

And so Isaac Stern became Ichh Fergesson - translated into English as Ike Ferguson.

He worked in a laundry, washing linens, sleeping on a cot in a back room, eating sparingly, saving pennies. His life had been filled with books and studying so night school was an easy choice. Learning to speak English was imperative and reading and writing in the language of his adopted country was his initial goal. Ike was grateful he had been accepted and wanted to acclimate.

"The old man who owned the laundry had aches in his bones," he told us. "I was small but strong and I took over some of the heavy loads. He repaid me with more wages and treated me like a son. When the man died, I learned he left the laundry to me. One laundry became two and two became four and so on. It took years and hard work but America has been good to me - I try to give some of it back by hiring immigrants and giving them the same opportunities I had."

Ike became a frequent visitor to our basement apartment. He and Max and several others played poker regularly. Ike supplied the snacks, Max brought the wine, Abraham Hale's son-in-law brought the "prize" cut of meat for the weekly winner. The others brought cigars or chocolate along with their friendship and camaraderie.

Over the years we heard about other immigrants who had uttered "Ichh fergesson" back in the days when Ellis Island was overcrowded with those who would come to America. I don't know if there were others renamed Ike Ferguson. I just remember a very sweet and generous man fate brought into our lives, enriching us with his friendship.

Max keeps telling me he's getting up in years but he doesn't look or act like a senior citizen to my way of thinking. Some of his contemporaries have died, but then, so have some of mine and I'm a lot younger than he is.

I was telling someone about some childhood friends recently and relating some of the mischief we got into and where those friends are today. She said I knew some extraordinary people. I've heard that before. Truly... there's nothing extraordinary about the people I know; we all put our pants on the same way. I believe, however, that if we take the time and the effort, we discover extraordinary things about the people who are or have been a part of our lives.

Isaac Stern a.k.a. Ike Ferguson was an ordinary man who had lived an extraordinary life.

~ End ~

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