The Carpet Salesman by Ellis Shuman

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Business in the carpet department was slow; in fact, it was non-existent. Ziv sat behind his desk from the moment the store opened in the morning until it closed for the night, and looked out at the furniture displays with little to distract him.
            Occasionally, shoppers walked into Ziv’s section of the floor and admired the classic handmade Persian carpets bearing certificates of authenticity, or the multi-colored Boho-chic area rugs with their handwoven geometric designs hanging from ceiling-high racks, but few expressed real interest. For long hours, Ziv remained motionless and undisturbed. His shift passed slowly, and he had to prevent himself from yawning and stay presentable at all times.
            “It’s minimum wage, but you’ll earn substantial commissions,” the store manager had promised Ziv on his first day of work, three months earlier. “Our carpets are of the highest quality and sales will be good.”
            But there were no sales. Ziv knew that the imported carpets were over-priced and apparently the customers were aware of this as well. Of all the departments in the store, Ziv’s was the least successful, yet Management insisted it was to be manned full time. As long as Ziv was available for shoppers, whenever they had questions to ask, and as long as Ziv didn’t complain, he would keep his job, and for this he was grateful.
            When he finished work, Ziv boarded the bus for the journey to his small apartment in a quiet Ramat Gan neighborhood. He climbed three flights of stairs and unlocked his door. Immediately Charlie, his ginger-colored cat, rubbed against his legs, purring in eager anticipation of leftovers from the night before. Ziv couldn’t afford canned or packaged cat food, but Charlie didn’t seem to mind. Before feeding him, Ziv picked up the animal with affection, but Charlie had a mean streak and scratched Ziv’s cheek, drawing blood.
            As Ziv stared into a mirror, holding a tissue to the wound, he wondered where his life had gone off track. He had grown up in a middle-class neighborhood with caring parents and three older siblings, but he had lost touch with them after his army service. They refused to support him when repeated failures in mathematics studies caused him to drop out of university. “Get a hold on yourself,” his father said to him the last time Ziv had visited home. “We love you, but it’s time for you to start your own life,” his mother said.
            He hadn’t seen them since.

            Ziv enjoyed his morning cup of espresso. He sat back contentedly and watched the first shoppers arrive, but none of them strolled toward the carpet department. They were more attracted by the discounted sofas and lounge chairs. On the far side of the store, someone was discussing a double bed with Ziv’s manager. The only thing Ziv could think of was how warm the coffee made him feel.
            Sometimes Ziv was joined at the coffee machine by Esti, the dining room salesperson. Esti was much older than him. She proudly showed off pictures of her grandchildren whenever there was a significant lifetime event to celebrate. Ziv preferred to drink his espresso in reflective silence, but Esti took it upon herself to break him out of his quiet nature.
            “Do you have a girlfriend, Ziv? You’re certainly a handsome fellow.”
            He shook his head, but that wasn’t enough to stop her questions.
“Do you travel much? Mordechai, my late husband, zichrono le-bracha, would take me all over Europe. Paris, Rome—you name it! Ziv, you should travel. What are you doing here anyway, working in this store? Carpets? Is that what you want to do with your life? What about high-tech? Maybe you could work there!”
            Ziv rarely answered her, and when he did, it was with short Yes-No responses. He knew Esti had only the best of intentions, but a meaningful conversation with her was not possible. It wasn’t that he was simply not talkative, but rather unable to express what lay hidden deep inside him. He couldn’t, and he wouldn’t. No, he wasn’t capable of discussing any of that with Esti, or with anyone else.
            But he did speak to Charlie each evening. Although he hesitated to pick up the cat, fearful of another swipe of its claws, he leaned down to pet it, to rub its fur over and over.
            “That’s a good boy, Charlie. Are you all right, sitting here in the apartment all day waiting for me to come home? You know I’ll feed you, take care of you. And you know what, Charlie? You take care of me as well! We’re a good team, Charlie. You and me against the world.”
            After feeding his pet, Ziv sat down on the sofa that he got secondhand for a bargain price and turned on the television. It was the nightly newscast. Listening to the news was something he abhorred. He preferred the reality shows, the ones where contestants competed to see who was the best singer, the best dancer, or the one who could survive the most difficult physical challenges. Ziv would never dream of participating in such contests, but watching the shows gave him a sense of comfort.
            He was about to change channels and prepare himself an omelet when the screen was filled with a breaking news report. There had been clashes near Nablus—Israeli security forces in a gunfight with suspected Palestinian terrorists. Although not all the details of the battle could yet be released for publication, the serious grin of the newscaster suggested there had been Israeli casualties.
            Ziv’s head spun. The sound of gunfire, the smell of fired weapons, the whizz of bullets overhead. His commander shouting orders, a medic calling for help. “Get down!” “Take cover!” One soldier raised his rifle and fired, and a terrorist fell from a rooftop. A grenade. Smoke. And then, Ziv stepped back as an Israeli soldier dropped to the ground. Right next to him.
            “Move!” his commander shouted at him. “Ziv, move already!”
            Ziv froze in place, eyes wide. He turned to his commander, but Boaz had advanced into a forward position, commanding the unit to take cover, to fire back at the terrorists. He should follow Boaz’s orders, he knew, but he couldn’t move. He looked at his comrade lying on the ground, at the medic already attending to his injuries. The blast of explosions, the bursts of gunfire. The relentless ringing in his ears. Ziv glanced at the horrific scene unfolding around him and lifted his arms to his helmeted head, as if he could drown it all out.
            The news continued with reports of a political spat between government coalition partners, and an item about rising inflation, but Ziv remained seated, thoughts of preparing his dinner long forgotten. Not even Charlie’s jumping into his lap could calm him, could chase away painful memories from the past.

            “Good morning!” Esti’s warm greeting at the coffee machine startled him, brought him back to the mundane reality of his daily routine. “You look like you didn’t sleep enough. What time do you go to bed, Ziv? I always eat an early dinner and get to bed by nine, nine-thirty latest. Nothing like that saying—early to bed, early to rise. You should stay in shape, get more exercise, by the way.”
            Ziv nodded at her, but didn’t say a word. He raised his espresso in farewell and went back to his section of the floor. The carpet department. His safe haven.
            How can you differentiate between an authentic handmade rug and one that is mass-produced? Look at the reverse side. On a machine-made rug you can see white netting. That is where the threads are knotted. Woolen threads, sometimes synthetic fiber. You can barely see the rug’s pattern through this netting. And machine-made rugs are very stiff.
            Handmade rugs are denser and more delicate. And softer. The two sides look very similar. It is easy to see the rug’s pattern, even when viewed from the underside. To have real value, a rug’s knots must be hand-tied. It is easy to see the difference in quality, and that is why handloomed carpets are more expensive.
            Ziv knew this speech by heart; he was ready to deliver it. He would turn over the rugs stacked near his desk, revealing the reverse sides one by one. He would present the array of carpets hanging from the ceiling, sliding them aside as each one came into view. Distinct patterns, different colors. Geometric designs, free-style forms. Widths of one-and-a-half meters and more. Lengths as long as three meters. Bigger carpets could be ordered on demand.
            But Ziv rarely gave his practiced speech because few customers ventured his way. The carpet department remained empty, quiet, and that was just the way Ziv liked it.

            Charlie, what have you been up to?” Ziv asked when he returned home after another of his uneventful shifts. “I have leftover tuna for you tonight! A real feast! I can hear you purring already.”
            He knew he should avoid the nightly newscast, as it only upset him, but he picked up the remote control anyway. He shouldn’t listen to the news, but he couldn’t help himself. The commercials ended, and the broadcast began.
            “Two terrorists were killed in a gunfire battle earlier this evening outside Nablus,” the broadcaster reported. “No Israeli troops were injured in the incident. Let’s go to our military correspondent in the field for further details.”
            The newscast continued, but Ziv could no longer heard the broadcaster’s voice, nor could he focus on the televised scenes of the Palestinian village where the gun battle had taken place. His ears rang, but it was with the sounds of a previous battle. The gunfire, the bullets whizzing past his head, the moans of his injured comrade.
            “Ziv, move already!” Boaz shouted, but Ziv was incapable of following his commander’s orders. The smoke. The commotion. The confusion. He couldn’t move.

            “There’re rumors there are going to be layoffs,” Esti whispered to him at the coffee machine. “Store profits are down. People aren’t buying furniture like they used to.”
            Ziv sipped his coffee, only half listening to his coworker’s words.
            “I heard our manager is going to have a talk with each of us,” Esti continued. “He’ll be discussing sales in each section. If sales are not good, who knows? I can’t afford to lose this job, not at my age! You, Ziv, are still young. You’ll have no problem finding somewhere else to work. Well, have a good day!” she said, before walking off to the tables and chairs in her department.
            Look for a new job? No, that was more than he could handle. It was true there were no carpet sales, but it was not his fault. He was trying his best to win over shoppers, but he couldn’t force them to buy carpets!
What would he do if he lost his job? He had no other skills, no college education to rely on. His parents wouldn’t help him, he knew. How would he pay his bills? How would he afford to keep his apartment? What would he do about Charlie? The ginger-colored feline had nobody else.
            Ziv sat down behind his desk and rested his head in his hands. Carpets—that was what he knew, and in reality, he hardly knew anything at all about them. What was he capable of doing in life if he couldn’t even sell the carpets in the store?
            “We’re interested in an Oriental rug. Something stylish, but not overbearing.”
            Ziv looked up. That voice—it sounded very familiar. A man and a woman stood nearby, scrolling through the carpets hanging from the ceiling. They touched the fabrics, dismissing each one in turn before moving on to the next.
            “What do you think?” the woman asked.
            “I’m not sure. It wouldn’t match our furniture,” the man replied.
            Again, the voice he remembered. Ziv stood up, but his knees nearly buckled when he recognized the shopper. Boaz! His commander from the army!
            “Ziv, move already!”
            Words from his past. Memories of what transpired in that gun battle were what haunted his dreams, what made him toss back and forth through endless nightmares. Recollections of Boaz ordering him to face the terrorists and their guns, to engage in a battle that could take his life, toward gunfire that had already felled one of Ziv’s fellow soldiers. A battle that raged on, in his mind, even now.
            In the store, Ziv froze in place, just as he had frozen in fierce combat. Just as he remained frozen between the terrors of his army days and his insecurities as a civilian. His feet were rooted to the floor, almost as if they had been embedded in concrete. He ducked his head, as if bullets were whizzing past. He reached for his gun, but of course, he had taken the weapon off his shoulders long before. His eyes searched frantically for signs of an enemy hiding behind the camouflaged bedroom sets. Or possibly, taking cover in the forest of dining room chairs at the front of the store.
            “Excuse me,” the woman called out impatiently. “Can we get some help over here?”
            “Of course,” Ziv replied, snapping to attention. “What exactly are you looking for?”
            “A carpet for our living room,” Boaz explained, his hand on his wife’s arm. He looked straight at Ziv but showed no signs of recognition. “Two meters by three meters. Where are these carpets imported from?”
            It was difficult for Ziv to put aside the pain Boaz had caused him, the terror he had felt at every command Boaz had issued. Ziv forced himself to concentrate on his role as a salesman. He knew these carpets, he told himself, almost better than he knew anything else. Bravely, he answered the couple’s questions. And then, at their request, he unbuckled one carpet from the rack and rolled it out on the floor so that they could get the sensation of walking on it. And finally, Ziv informed them of the price.
            “Okay, we’ll take it,” Boaz announced, looking at his wife for confirmation.
            “Take it?” Ziv replied.
            “Yes, we’ll buy it.”
            “Good. Okay. Let’s sit down at my desk and I will…”
            Ziv prepared the paperwork and ran Boaz’s credit card through the terminal. He gave the couple their receipt and went to tie up the carpet and wrap it in protective plastic.
            “Thank you,” the woman said.
            “Do I know you from somewhere?” Boaz asked as he lifted the carpet roll to his shoulder. “No, I guess not,” he said when Ziv didn’t respond.
            As they walked away, Ziv remained standing next to his desk, trapped in final thoughts about the incursion into the village. He remembered Boaz’s last words to him on the battlefield. As the medics evacuated the injured soldier under gunfire, Boaz put his hand on Ziv’s shoulder, holding him back not as a commander, but almost as a friend.
            “It’s going to be alright, soldier,” Boaz had said. “Now, let’s get the hell out of here.”
            Ziv stared at the couple leaving the store, but then his eyes wandered to the dining room sets. Esti stood next to a large wooden table, smiling proudly at Ziv. She clapped her hands, applauding the carpet sale, his first since coming to work at the store. Ziv nodded his head at her and then saw his manager speaking to a woman near the entrance. The manager looked over at Ziv and made a thumbs-up gesture, acknowledging Ziv’s sale.
            Ziv smiled as he stood next to his array of colorful carpets. Maybe it was going to be alright after all.

Ellis Shuman is an American-born Israeli author, short story writer, travel writer, and book reviewer. He is the author of The Virtual Kibbutz, Valley of Thracians, and The Burgas Affair.


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