Try Mongolia On for Size

by Larry O’Connor

 

 

If I go down on my ankle in these shoes, a muscle pulls in the heel.  It hurts like hell.  Other parts hurt – my neck, my back.  But when I can’t walk, I start to get worried.

The pain gets so bad that I have to sit. Church steps are often occupied with bums and they can get territorial. I prefer a park bench, if I can find one. And the ground. The ground is okay.

It’s an old injury, a freak accident.  I’ve forgotten the details. One guy had something to do with it.  Only I’ve forgotten his name.  That’s not important.  He could be anybody.

Sometimes my temper even surprises me.  I look around in a public place – the subway, say, or on a corner waiting for the pinpoints of white light that show the little walking guy – and people shoot me accusing glares.  Like I’m waving around my ice pick or something.  I hear the echo of foul words, curses sometimes, hateful things.  I get so angry I could just spit. Then I realize it had been me.  It had been me yelling.

Once a long time ago, a person I admired stepped in front of a city bus.  He had quick reflexes and liked to gamble. But he miscalculated the speed of the bus and it ran over one of his feet.   Ha-ha.  In those days, the buses were yellow with narrow gauge frames.  Today, buses could really mess you up.  The drivers wouldn’t bat an eye.  Ha-ha.

I don’t go underground anymore.  My foot hurts too much on the hard stairs.  The trains travel so fast, faster than the buses.  And down there, when I close my eyes, I see the man and the bus.  He moves forward into a black opening, but he doesn’t get back in time.  The darkness swallows him up. When the trains arrive in the station that scene flashes over and over in my mind.  There’s nothing more to it. No lead-up.

Regular trains, too, they’re not for me. I watch the people coming off, the commuters on a patch of concrete, not long, say about two hundred feet, that runs from the point of exit to the entrance to a car parking lot. Too tired for words these people, nobody talking, or reading a book, or gesturing in any way. Only walking, trudging, a sea of slowly moving humanity and it strikes me that they don’t give a damn if they step on a crack. From the platform where I look down the cracks look deep. Not a single person seems the least bit capable of walking the two hundred feet of concrete without stepping on a crack and breaking their mother’s back. Mothers’ backs are broken, litter the sad little walkway. It strikes me that I’d like to observe people for a day, prepare a platform above the platform, above the fifteen-year-old trees, the architecture, maybe older, which means that you’d have to go high enough so that the leaves don’t obstruct the view  – maybe thirty feet from the ground – and spend a single day, say a Wednesday, hump day, the middle of the week would offer the fairest sample, and observe people who come and go along this concrete patch of ground to see if there isn’t at least a single person, one of the thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people who walk these two hundred feet of concrete and still care, after the end of their long day, to not step on a crack and break their mother’s back.

I can’t see his face and that is all I know, that I admired him and that he was proud of his athlete’s strength and that he liked to gamble. I remember the bus driver got out to see if he was okay. Surely he would have had to go to the hospital, maybe even have had to have a foot transplant. Of course, those were the days before foot transplants, so he would’ve been stuck with the pain. Just like me. I don’t have the money for foot transplants. But I feel sure the man and the bus would have, if transplants had been available. That is the sense I have anyway.

Something bad happened where I used to work.  I don’t remember what it was, but it was bad.  I lost my job and when I tried to get something else, my foot really started hurting. Not long after that, I started forgetting things. I don’t have a medical plan or anything.  I remember these shoes were the same ones I was wearing that day. And my socks are wet. If I make it to retirement, I have a simple goal: dry socks. If I go down on my ankle the muscle pulls in my heel.  It hurts like hell.

I said that.

At the peak of some of my rages, I remember something of the man.  He had a beard. There are old-fashioned-looking men in the middle distance, but the bearded man I see clearly.  A belly, a thin smile. The beard a snap-on piece: brown hair, clean lines.  When I shout in the street, I am thinking about him.  Of how he forced me out of my job.  If a man fitting that description ever came into my sight during one of my rages, I think I’d kill him. I think I’d kill him with my bare hands.

 

***

 

Sem, the deli manager, had let his hair go.  He’d said he didn’t have time in the day to comb it.  But I don’t know.  I’d say he just let it go.  His beard, too, was long and unkempt.  The bell of the front door tinkled and customers came. Sem stubbed his cigarette out in an ashtray behind the counter and ran his fingers through his hair to prepare for them. Two kids had red tubes of shiny candy stuffed in their hands. A brown-faced woman hugged a box of Arm & Hammer, a supersize Coke.  Sem sat on a pickle barrel before the plug-in cash register, ringing up sales.  From the wall near a lady in a fur coat, I could see Sem’s hair, sticking out in strands as stiff as fireworks.

Sem was on that day.  Odd clumps of hair on exquisitely tapered fingers were a black blur across the electronic keys.  I used to love to watch him work.  Like Glenn Gould’s variations; Kissen at Carnegie.  From a blue plastic basket on the counter, Sem pulled at a six-pack, pushed an eight of Charmin, fluttered his thin fingers across the keypad, worked as fast as the machine was capable, forcing it to catch up to him, revert to its tiny computer memory.  Shoppers’ minds emptied, too. Can of soup, deli salami slices, Cheez Whiz, packaged haricot, organic milk, fliptop container of bean sprouts, Jell-O, Tsing-Tao. The woman in the fur coat smiled.  The brown-faced lady snatched the receipt and pored over it.  She shook her head, smiled, dug for her bills, change.  The kids sucked their red things.

If my foot wasn’t hurting so much, I’d have swept up.  You’d be surprised the dust and debris that collected at Sem’s Convenience.  Even the best of customers drop rolled-up paper, traipse in cement dust and gum bits.  Sem went for oiled-wood floors, which are much easier on the feet than the speckled linoleum a salesman kept telling him about.  Except for the electronic plug-in cash, Sem didn’t go for modern.  I don’t even know if he went much for me, but he let me hang out, lean on the broom and help with the oiling of the floors, which I’d done when there was a lull in business and my foot wasn’t bothering me too much. Sem would give me a box of Lucky Strikes. No money, just the smokes. That’s all I want, I said. Oh, and to enjoy the show at the cash.

Sem didn’t take a break.  Nobody could replace him.  From time to time, when the crowd slowed, he’d pay me attention, toss me his comb (which he said he never used because there wasn’t time but I knew different) and say, “Make yourself look respectable, Bub.”  He called me Bub like we were working on a B-movie set, not the corner joint in Hell’s Kitchen, 41st and Tenth Avenue.  Cleaning ladies, black kids from the magnet schools, social workers, retired actors, faded queens, out-of-work broads who’d spent their lives punching keys so hard their arthritis made it so they couldn’t use their hands anymore. They’d come to buy their eighty-nine-cent blueberry pie and frozen meat dishes, for a minute or two rub shoulders with Sem, watch him do his stuff.

Sem smiled at an old lady pushing a walker.  Her legs were swollen and draped in stockings that were two sizes too big for her, but she was shrinking and dying, so along with everything else are you going to buy new stockings, too?  Or are you going to move as slowly as you can because it’s not the legs that bother you but the feet?  At the end of your life, they hurt like hell. A decent man would invite her into the backroom and drive the ice pick into her heart. Into the cooler until nightfall, cut up with a cleaver, dumped in a trash bag for early morning pickup.

I liked the feel of the Cellophane, pulling back from the plastic sandwich holder.  The little pop of air, the natural peeling back.  Clementines shed their skin the same way.  Teenage whores, too.

I imagined Sem went for teenage whores.  Before the condos came, the corner was crawling with them at closing time.  He couldn’t keep any kind of a normal life working as he did – the maestro of the National Register Company.  His fingers dancing over the tiny slim bodies, driving ’em crazy with delight, head over heels, literally.  Sem played them like Issac Perlman did his violin and then Sem fucked ’em, cartwheels on the rug remnants of their cold-water flats.

One night Sem and I were sharing a ham and cheese after closing time.  I never ate fast, no matter how hungry I was; just little bites, like I’m chewing the host from Holy Apostles. Sem was good to me, so I wanted to act the gentleman. It wasn’t in deference to him, though.  His half of the ham and cheese was gone in three bites. Like he was taking the sandwich up the torpedo snout of his nostrils.

A finger pressed the corner of his mouth.  “You’re looking better,” he said, staring away from me, fingers on the till.

“My foot hurts like hell.”

“Nice shoes. Nice shoes would help.”

“You might tell me how I hurt it.  That would help.”

“I wish I could.”

The landlord used his key on the locked door and came in. Stood beneath the tinkling bell with all the poise of a linebacker under mistletoe.

“Sem,” the landlord said, “don’t tell me you been ignoring me.”

Sem put on his cat face.

“It’s been three weeks now by my count.”

“I know.”

“You got anything for me?”

“Getting there.”

“Not fast enough,” the landlord said, moving into the light of the pasta corridor. He was in a fedora and a plaid dinner jacket. From the doorway, he may not have been able to see me, but now I was in clear view, leaning against the glass case of sliced meats, and still he didn’t show me any courtesy.

Something bad is happening at work. Something bad always happens at work. And that man whose foot was run over by the bus. I know it wasn’t me. It couldn’t have been. But then who? If I run, won’t Sem come with me? It’s strange, but is there any memory in which Sem does not play a part? If I run but never so far that Sem is not near, what risk am I taking when I run?

Damn the landlord. He’s still here. When he leaves, I’ll go out back to calm down by hacking with my pick block after block of ice into shavings. You can never have enough ice shavings.

“You said that all you needed was the three weeks. And that’s just to get where we shoulda been four months ago.”

“I know.”

“It’s not adding up, is it?”

“Nope, I guess it isn’t.”

“It’s hard for me to know what to say, if you’re going to be taking that attitude.”

“You’ll get your money. You’ve always gotten your money.”

“We will soon see about that,” the landlord said, as he doffed his hat and made his way to the door.

I woulda said something but I couldn’t trust myself. Sometimes my dander gets up to such a degree that I have to stop from doing or saying anything but stew in silence. Better that than grabbing the landlord by the neck and squeezing every inch of life out of him. Yup, lots better than that. A certain kind of guy who’s so insecure about himself that he has to assert his superiority by means of ignoring and demeaning others too unobtrusive in the conventional ways – say, shy and soft-spoken, or just plan foreign and distant – will get my goat every time. Those are the guys – not the liars or the cheats or the greedy or the brutish or the bullying – who make my blood boil. Like the guy with the snap-on beard, belly and thin smile.  Exactly like him.

The next Saturday before the store opened Sem unlocked the door for me, locked it again, and then went back to wrapping a thick roll of bills with a rubber band. He placed it in a doeskin bag.  I turned away and he stashed the money.

“I’m glad to see you.”

“Where am I going to go? My foot hurts like hell.”

“I know. You like the wood floors.”

“Right.”

“I was looking for you.  I’ve got something to tell you.”

“Me too.  I’m leaving.  I’m going on a little trip.”

He ignored me.  He always ignored me when I talked about my trip.  That’s okay with me.  He didn’t talk to anybody and I didn’t talk to anybody.  We had each other.

Sem grabbed two Washington Reds, passed me one, then buffed his on his sleeve and bit into it.  Crack.  A glacier split in two.

“I’ve got this idea,” Sem said, sucking apple juice from his beard.

“Me, too.”

“Try Mongolia on for size.”

“Huh?”

“Try Mongolia on for size.”

“I-I . . . don’t get it.”

“Anything is possible.”  He flipped up his eyeglasses and his gray eyes sparkled.

“Sure.  I know that.  Like my little trip.”  I shifted my weight and pain shot up from my ankle.  “Maybe I’ll try Mongolia, who knows?”

“Mongolia is right here,” he said, tapping the side of his Zorba head.

“Mongolia is right here,” I said, grabbing my crotch.

“I knew you’d understand.”

We took bites of our apples. Juice splattered on the plastic covering the lottery tickets.

“What’s the plan?”

“I just told you,” he said. Then he sat up on the pickle barrel.

“I guess I don’t get it.”

“Sure you do.”

“Try me.”

“My mother wanted me to be a concert pianist; my father had his heart set on me being a surgeon.  So for ten years of my life, I studied like hell thinking that I could rescue minds during the week and souls on weekends and holidays. My folks were happy with that, me busting my butt so that they could be proud of their son, the surgeon virtuoso.”

“Don’t bullshit me.”

“I’m not bullshitting you.”

“Why don’t you give me a foot transplant, then?”

“I manage a deli.”

“Hold up your hands.”

“Huh?”

“Hold up your hands.”

Sem’s hands rose before his face.  I loved to look at the long, elegant fingers, perfectly spaced.  Thumbs with the back-bend action that could punch the add bar from home row, stretch like Pinocchio’s nose. I’d never thought Sem capable of lying, or at least capable of the big lie. Until now.

“Thought maybe your hands had gone Mongo. Seems it stopped at your brain.”

Sem pushed himself up from the barrel.  He was a few inches shorter than he was sitting down. Sem was one of those guys who should spend the rest of his life sitting down.

“Don’t be so literal.  Try Mongolia on for size is just a way of saying that no matter what kind of life you’ve had, you can remake it. If you’re more comfortable with, ‘Try Tibet on for size’, or ‘try Nepal on for size’, or ‘try Punjab on for size,’ then fine.  Tibet’s not for me, though.  Too Hollywood; crystals and whatnot. Mongolia is just my style. Yours too, if you think about it.”

My foot hurt like hell and I stopped talking because I couldn’t feel anything but the pain.  Sem waited to hear if I had a response and when I didn’t, he went about his business in the store. He asked what my idea was. But it was no good. I hated when I lost my train of thought because of the pain. I had so much more to ask Sem. If only I could concentrate, hold on to a single thought. Sem walked past me and unlocked the door, let in the first customers, and I skeddadled to the back.

***

Weekends are the worst.  Sem got schoolkids to help out and I was on my own.  Mostly, I slept in the backroom on a bedroll.  Walls of Scott tissues.  At dark I didn’t see them.  I didn’t see anything. Can’t get the last scene of  “The Hustler” out of my mind.  When Fast Eddie takes his winnings from the men in the dark who would if they could drain the last ounce of life from him, but Eddie turns his back on them, those lifeless, frozen-faced beings, shadows in a pool hall.

One night I wake up and can’t breathe. Near the boxes of Kootenay Water and the Scotts but feeling much less necessary, and with terrific effort I push myself up from the floor and hit the light switch so I can see that I’m still a person because before the naked bulb I throw a shadow the size of a Sasquatch against the Scotts and finally I breathe a little and remember what Sem had said about trying Mongolia on for size. I think maybe if he keeps telling me I should make something of myself that I’ll kill him. When I think about killing Sem, I feel wind in my belly. Like a fish’s mouth slowly opening in a tank.  Killing Sem would be easy because he got distracted in his work. His fingers knew the keys so well that he didn’t look at them. He glanced at the price tags of the items, turning his head so that his jugular vein was exposed.  Wham, up side the head with the ice pick I used to chop ice chunks for bags that sold as well as anything in Hell’s Kitchen because I swear people drank more than they ate in this neighborhood and although Sem’s didn’t have a license to sell hard liquor, at three dollars for an five-pound bag nothing’s more pure profit than a bag of ice.

I got up and out of the stockroom and stood in the middle of the store. The barrel behind the cash had the word PICKLES on its side. When business was slow, Sem would sit on the barrel and smoke. He said if you were going to think about what really mattered, it was best to elevate yourself and smoke a little. Smoking may cause cancer, but it was good for your soul.  What is more American than the peace pipe? he liked to say.  I’m leaning on my broom, smoking a Lucky, tapping the ashes to the floor; Sem, he’s sitting on the barrel, kissing out Camel smoke rings.

A screwdriver’s sitting on the lid and I pry it off to look inside the barrel.  There’s enough light from the streetlamp so I can see without the fluorescents.  The barrel’s empty and bone dry, but when I’m putting the lid back on, it feels too heavy and I notice the doeskin bag built into a small compartment.

It’s a big wad of money.  Twenties and fifties and hundreds.  Old men long since dead but not forgotten, and I think as I remember this moment and try hard to keep it as a permanent memory, not one that fleets out of mind because in one brilliant flash I can see that I have a job I like to do and a friend who admires me, that my foot hurts, sure, but not like it once did. I could put the money back and not take off, not fuck up as I seemed determined to do because the landlord would surely be pissed to be out, what, maybe a thousand dollars, his cut of the proceeds, because if in that moment of clarity I held on to what Sem knew, if I didn’t let our lives be ruined, as I always did, I’d know that this is what the landlord is due.

But our fabulous fingers are sore and stiff, red-knuckled.  So cramped it’s all they can do to hold the spare change we drain from the regulars who took pity on us when we rage against the villain in the beard. When we shout for his death – the image we paint, a tabloid dream: WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE – the customers dig into their pockets, give us what little they have. We need their help until we get another job.  Any job.

People talk but I listen to the dead in my hands.  Take us away, they say.  Try Mongolia on for size.

 

 

Larry O’Connor is the author of Tip of the Iceberg, a memoir, and the novel, The Penalty Box. His essays have been widely published and his radio commentaries have been broadcast on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, the novelist Mary Morris.