Flipside: Loyalty for the birds

'Good riddance," Mati says under his breath, as he pries the lid off a can of paint with the tip of a screwdriver. His motions are methodical, yet jerky - wedge, lift, release; wedge, lift, release - as though for effect. His words, however - like his body language - are lost on the person for whom they are intended. This is because Ya'acov is not in the room. Hasn't been since early this morning. Since before the store even opened its doors to customers, which it does every day of the week, except Shabbat, at 9 a.m. on the dot. The fight between the two partners had been a bitter one. Different from their usual periodical squabbles. Sometimes over the quality and quantity of the merchandise. Mostly over money. You know, prices, wages, that kind of thing. Or whether it was about time the Schwartz family paid its mounting bill. Or if it was really still worthwhile to continue giving the Cohens a 10 percent discount, considering they no longer made bulk purchases the way they used to. "The nerve of that guy," Mati grunts with effort, finally managing to extract the stubborn cover from the half-full can. "The gall, the cheek, the hutzpa." Placing the sticky lid on a piece of newspaper he has spread out on the floor, he eyes the contents of the can with suspicion. It is no wonder, he thinks, that the paint looks funny - separated into oily layers of white and gray. It's been sitting on the shelf for God knows how long. Maybe since biblical times or thereabouts. Mati takes a deep whiff, then coughs. Not that he knows how to differentiate between normal and rancid paint. But being a butcher, he's used to smelling products that look "off." Here he is at a loss, however. Being sensitive to the odor of bad meat is not helpful where acrylics are concerned. But then, neither had his nose detected that Ya'acov was planning an ugly departure. "What the hell," he says, remembering that for his current purposes, any paint, no matter how pungent, would do. Mati pokes around the storage room at the back of the shop in search of a stick with which to stir the gummy substance before applying it to the roller. Automatically, he reaches for the cell phone in the pocket of his apron to phone Ya'acov and ask him where to look. Suddenly, thankfully, he stops himself in mid-dial. "You'll come crawling back with your tail between your legs, but it won't do you any good," he snarls, glad to have caught himself in time. It'll take a while, he realizes with some trepidation, to adjust to this new reality. One that doesn't include Ya'acov. In the immediate future, he thinks, he will tend to the business at hand: first, to paint over Ya'acov's name on the storefront; next, to contact his lawyer. Or maybe a different one, since throughout the 15 years they have been partners in the "Flesh and Blood" butcher shop, he and Ya'acov have used the same attorney. BEFORE TAKING his equipment to the sidewalk, Mati pauses to absorb the tragedy that befell him a mere 12 hours ago. His eyes wander from the glass casing under the counter - overflowing with unpurchased poultry - to the picture-lined wall above the cash register. Posters of a pre-stroke Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and a smiling President Moshe Katsav are flanked on either side by a photo of Mati and Ya'acov embracing at the festive opening of the shop all those years ago, and a laminated NIS 100 bill - from their first customer. Above this is a kashrut certificate; below, a row of better business awards. "Did you catch Mad Cow disease or something?" Mati recalls his shocked reaction to Ya'acov's news - that he was "spreading his wings" and had already removed "his share of the stock." What this meant, Mati discovered to his dismay and horror following his partner's abrupt exit, was that Ya'acov had absconded with every steak, every lamb chop - indeed, every morsel of red meat in the freezer - leaving Mati with a supply of chicken. "But I'll go bankrupt!" Mati had squawked, terrified at the prospect of a public consumed with worry about the Avian Flu. "Don't get your feathers ruffled," Ya'acov had pooh-poohed, without offering a different distribution of the goods. "The Health Ministry has already announced that it's safe to eat chicken and eggs." Before Mati had had the chance to prevent his soon-to-be former business associate and best friend from physically bolting - let alone to sit him down and conduct a civil discussion on the events leading up to this major move - Ya'acov was gone. His jocular farewell is still stinging Mati's ears. "Gotta fly," he had said, chuckling at his use of this particular idiom. "So to speak," he had added, kissing the mezzuza on his way out and heading for his Renault pick-up with a Kadima sticker on its fender. THE CHILLY night air gives Mati the goose bumps. But it feels good to be engaging in this concrete act. To be erasing all traces of Ya'acov from the premises. To be dusting off the old to make way for the new. "A blessing in disguise," he imagines his rabbi telling him. "Yes," he says, trying to believe it. "Ya'acov has flown the coop," he whisper-chants while he paints. "And I shall prosper without him." His job now done, Mati backs away to examine what is now his very own "Flesh and Blood." "Gone with the wind," Mati says, shivering, yet suddenly uplifted - energized by knowledge of the work he has ahead. "Tomorrow is another day." ruthie@jpost.com