Nissim / A Short Story

Small and raggedy, his scowl still terrified me. This was when he knocked on my door and announced he had come to stay with me. He looked like he was having a tougher time than most. Shallow unshaven cheeks, angry burning eyes set deep into black circles, shaggy brows. He said his name was Nissim. I gave him some towels and sheets and left him to get on with it.

I didn’t even believe in God before the war. Nor do I believe in him now, not in the way others do, but I have started praying. We all learned to pray during the war. Praying for a highly selective and ruthless virus to strike down all our vicious enemies. Praying for no more innocent people to die. Praying for those who were taken to be returned.


The first days of the war were a blur. I was half glued to the news, half struggling to get any housework done, half looking for ways to volunteer, half timing my showers so I wouldn’t find myself covered in suds in the shelter with Upstairs Mrs. Levy’s pursed lips projecting revulsion. Basically, shattered into so many halves I’d make a Greek monster if someone could assemble me back together. No wonder I asked no questions when he arrived.


Small and raggedy, his scowl still terrified me. This was when he knocked on my door and announced he had come to stay with me. My roommate was backpacking in South America and there were no flights back, so I told him he could crash in the second room. Out of all the volunteering forms I’d filled in, one must have been to host a refugee. Besides, he looked like he was having a tougher time than most. Shallow unshaven cheeks, angry burning eyes set deep into black circles, shaggy brows. He said his name was Nissim. I gave him some towels and sheets and left him to get on with it.


For the first few days, he neither showered nor ate. At least not in my presence. All he did was slump in front of the television, chain-smoking disgusting old-man cigarettes and muttering at the news. I couldn’t make out the words, but the tone was clearly judgmental. The main channels ran news and political talk shows all day, so he had plenty to mutter at.


Eventually, I started trying to have conversations with him, but couldn’t get too far.

“Nissim,” I’d ask, “what are you so mad about?”

“Everything,” he’d say. “Everyone.”

Nobody was arguing with that.

“Nissim,” I’d persist, “what do you do?”

“Nothing anymore. They don’t need me.”

“What did you used to do?”

“This and that. I was useful. Now I’m not,” he’d growl. Then he’d turn up the volume on the televised doom and gloom.


Around that same time, I was hearing a lot about Messianic times. Hereabouts, many people start that up every time there’s strife. According to the predictions, right before God sends the Messiah along, the general feeling will be of the world going down the drain. Bad, bad things will happen before redemption. Many people will renounce religion and become atheists.


It’s not like I believed any of it. It was just something I heard a lot about and I suppose it was on my mind when Nissim showed up. Then, late one night, I was mucking about in bed, my nightly ritual of trying and failing to unglue phone from palm and eyeballs from screen, when all of a sudden and in relation to nothing, the thought popped up in my head that Nissim—might —just—be—God.


I’ll say it again, I wasn’t sure God even existed. But at that time, as sand-eyed from lack of sleep and frenzied as I was, it all seemed to fall into place in my mind. Sure, he had called himself Nissim, meaning “miracles”: that was my first hint right there! He said he was once useful and now people had no more use for him—just as they said would happen before the Messiah arrived! And he was just so small and odd, and if I were to accept that God existed, I somehow needed him to be exactly like that. I couldn’t deal with a majestic, all-encompassing, pure and perfect God. This chain-smoking furious sparrow was the Goldilocks God for me.


The realization knocked me out. Within seconds, I was two things: one, unshakable in my faith in Nissim as God; and two, snoring. The next morning, having filtered through my dreams and into memory, the faith morphed into something I had always known. It settled comfortably in the back of my mind, making itself at home. Throughout the routine of brushing my teeth and washing my face and changing out of sleep pajamas into moping-about-the-house pajamas, it hummed at me like an old radiator. The new truth was unsettling and baffling. Carrying on as usual seemed impossible. I was unaccustomed to living with any sort of faith, and it was giving me jitters. I took my coffee into the living room and peered at the disheveled little man camped out on our couch. Did he look particularly godly? No. Ironclad proof, then.


They say that we all went a little mad in this war. Yes, an outside observer would probably have judged me unfit to operate heavy machinery, but I felt as lucid as ever. I started following Nissim around, watching for any sign of miracle-working or incidental smiting. No dice. He meted out zero divine retribution. Not even to Upstairs Mrs. Levy after she vacuumed for three hours straight and he had to hike the volume on the news almost all the way up. Lots of seething, no smitery.


Still, I wouldn’t be deterred. It’s a mystery what he thought I was doing, because I was just constantly in his space. I even took up watching those political commentary shows he was so fond of deriding under his breath, on alert for any commandments to prove his divine nature.


The absolute and total lack of any evidence whatsoever was all the evidence I needed. Not that I didn’t try to obtain more. Spilling and dropping things in front of him and exclaiming loudly in exaggerated sorrow did not provoke him to perform a miracle of restoration. Sharing my anxiety and grief about the war inspired him to bestow no omniscient wisdom, other than observing that we were all going through it and that I should man up and quit whining when he was trying to watch the six o’clock. Kneeling before my bed and sending out a heartfelt prayer brought out a response from him not once.


After a few days hounding him, I decided to change tack. If he was God, as I knew him to be, my behavior must be embarrassingly transparent to him, and that meant I might as well just be forthright. So I emptied his ashtray as an act of worship and went for it.

“Listen, are you actually him?”

“Actually whom?”

“You know. God.” No qualms, I just blurted it out.

He bulged his eyes out at me, then scoffed and turned away. As soon as the ending theme of the talk show sounded, he got up and headed for the door.

“Thou shalt not follow!” he thundered over his shoulder, cementing my conviction. Then he added in his usual reedy voice, “I’m kidding, you ass,” uncementing it right back. “But seriously, don’t follow me.”


Of course I followed. He walked only as far as the construction site on our street corner. Construction had resumed pretty swiftly, once the jolt of the war’s beginning oozed into the doldrums of its continuance. There is just too much construction in a country charging into a brilliant future to be halted by minor nuisances like war. Construction sites around here are surrounded with tall cardboard fences, with square windows cut in here and there to slake the curiosity of passersby. Nissim positioned himself in front of one of these windows, and passively observed the towering cranes and other equipment of the sort any impartial judge would forbid me from operating in my then-state. His brow was furrowed, fists shoved deep into his pockets. He seemed to be muttering to himself again.


I watched him for a while, hoping that perhaps he was intoning the words of power which would speed the work on and restore much-desired silence to our block. No joy. He seemed genuinely interested in the goings-on inside the fence. He may have been aware of me, but gave no sign of this. I gave in and went home. On a whim I tried one of his cigarettes, and was bestowed with a seared throat and convulsing lungs. Perhaps such is the reward of those accursed sinners who steal God’s smokes.


Nissim didn’t return until the late-night news. The next day, he wandered into the kitchen at lunchtime and leaned crookedly on the wall, watching me cook.

“Do you have any idea how crap it is to feel useless?” he asked me out of the blue.

In response, I flipped the omelet one-handed. I’d had a lot of time to learn that trick, unemployed for over a year now. “A pretty good idea, yeah.”

He sighed heavily and refused to have any of the proffered omelet. Once again unwilling to eat in front of me. That in itself was clear as day. Still, I continued to try to catch him out, offering snacks and drinks when he wasn’t expecting it. To no avail. He did start showering though.


It was almost nice, this routine we developed. I cooked, Nissim didn’t eat, he smoked, I didn’t sleep, he watched the politics and the construction, and I watched him. Asking him straight had proven useless, so I abandoned that approach and began to settle into the realization that I might never reach any conclusive verdict and would be left with just faith. Which, come to think of it, is how religion works anyway. It was pretty obvious that I had caught the bug.


Three weeks or so later, however, Nissim startled me with the news that he was moving on. Nothing I said persuaded him to stay. Naturally, my feelings on the matter couldn’t have affected him less. He wasn’t really the compassionate kind, leaning more towards wrathful, if truth be told. He packed his few belongings, failed to empty the ashtray or switch off the TV, stuffed his fists into his pockets—presumably to dissuade me from going in for a handshake—and shuffled off.


If I followed him, if I stood on the corner and watched him stop one last time at his favored window into the new world being formed in the pit right next door to us, then I am not proud of it. Nor of the bitterness that I felt at the time. I felt as though I’d been cheated: if not of a monumental theological discovery, then at least of some beneficence, some uniquely prophetic revelation. Wasn’t it part of our tradition that people who’d seen God became prophets? Became special? Far from the elation that I had experienced at the start, I now felt merely burdened with a knowledge that no-one else shared or wanted.


The moment of forsakenness didn’t last long. Nissim came and went and I remained at home, just as unemployed and as unneeded as I had been before he’d showed up. But I now had those few weeks of possibly having hosted God at what had surely been a low moment for him, and I gradually came to realize that this was far from nothing.


Time went on. The populace settled into the long haul of our new grim reality, and we started behaving a little less abnormally. My fear of driving abated, and one day I took the car out to see mom in the suburbs. On the way, I stopped for gas and saw Nissim in an attendant’s vest, operating a pump. He didn’t seem to notice me. Or if he did, he didn’t acknowledge it. In turn, I did not approach him.


These days, I often pass there, just to keep an eye on him, for old times’ sake. He looks more peaceful now, less thunderous. I guess he is being useful again. Regardless of whether or not my idea of him is true, this comforts me. We never speak; there isn’t anything to say. I always use the self-service lane anyway, it’s cheaper. But ever since, whenever I am moved to pray, I picture Nissim.

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