The Little Man
Stephen G. Bloom
The old man never got into a fight with anyone. Giving lip was out of the question. My mother, his customers, the landlord, the IRS, cops terrified him. Once we got stopped for speeding on the Garden State Parkway on the way to Florida, and my father started stuttering like Porky the Pig. He shook worse than an epileptic.
But in his own environment, my father was king. The old man was a shoedog. His domain was a crummy little shoe store in an industrial town 15 miles northwest of Hartford. That's where I spent my summers, slaving away in the stockroom. My father's stock in trade were pumps, sling backs, wedgies, ripple-soled bluchers, bucks (dirty and white), penny loafers, steel-toe work boots. Much to my disappointment, this was a family shoe store. No five-inch black stilettos, no see-through vinyl fuck-me shoes, no white boudoir slippers with purple puffs in the entire place.
The old man never let me sell. He was too scared I'd put the kibosh on any and all potential sales. So like a pariah child with blotches on his face, I was banished to the stockroom. My lot was not to explore the outer limits of foot odor, peds, shoe trees. I was never to know the sensation of caressing the soft, fleshy instep of a 23-year-old vixen in a miniskirt as she slipped on a pair of Life Stride high heels.
The old man's store was called Townley Shoes, not named after some aristocrat who went by the moniker, Townley, but because my father thought Townley would connote "friendly" to the working stiffs whose corn-callused feet he shoved into shoe after shoe, year after year.
Platooned full-time to the stockroom, for weeks on end I shifted towering walls jammed with shoe boxes so that every 7B was positioned immediately after every 7A. The old man had an insane, pathological hatred of shoe boxes on the floor.
"Can't sell 'em if you don't know where they are," he used to scream. "Get your hands out of your pockets, and get those boxes in the wall, now!"
Whenever a customer entered the store, the old man turned my way, and discreetly nodded toward the back room with a slight arch of his furry brow. That was my cue to vaporize into the black hole of the stockroom. Shrinks today might call it some bizarre form of psychological child abuse, but there would be no mistaking the kind of abuse I'd get if I muffed a sale, so I really didn't mind being banished.
The old man's approach to teaching the fine craft of shoedogging was not trial-by-fire. It was a painfully slow apprenticeship. In the beginning, the pup watches from a distance, observing the journeyman dog hard-sell customers into buying shoes they neither need nor can fit in to. Gradually, the junior dog is allowed to selectively wait on customers. Kids under 12 who want sneakers are the only ups (customers) allowed in the apprentice's purview.
There also were oral exams to pass. In shoedog lingo, L.Y. is short for "last year's" stock. Alberts are A-widths, Bennies are B's, Charlies are C's, Davids are D's, and Eddies are E's. Cookies or jimmies are felt or cork liners that make big shoes smaller. Ups are customers. Thirty-four is the same as a T.O., which stands for turn-over, or passing an up from one dog to another to ensure a sale. A D.I.S. (always pronounced as three separate letters) is short for "discount," usually ten-percent extended to nuns, priests, cops, or firemen. An 86 is when an up walks out without buying. That, of course, is the absolute worst, the end-of-the-road, the nightmare of every shoedog. Too many 86s and you were out of a job, bub. If you can't sell her shoes, for God sakes, push some slippers for the schleppy husband.
The old man didn't just happen to fall into the profession. When he was a boy, he worked summers selling shoes in his old man's store. My father figured that fixing feet would be better than shodding them, so like the kid who becomes a doctor to go one step further than his pharmacist father, the old man graduated from the Ohio College of Chiropody. For ten years, he was a chiropodist in a small walk-up office above The Leslie Dress Shop on the corner of Main and Day in downtown Hartford.
Alas, there was no money in shaving bunions and padding hammer toes. So my father took out a $10,000 loan from the Fidelity Union bank on the corner, and opened a tiny women's shoe store in downtown Hartford with Leonard, a 68-year-old dog with thick tortoise-shell glasses who drank three Manhattans for lunch everyday. Leonard died of a heart attack while jamming a jimmy into a 5 1/2-Bennie, peau de soie, mid-sized heel.
My father sold his share of the store, and moved to the suburbs, where he became commander and chief of his own musty emporium. However ignominious hawking shoes might be, the old man owned the stinking store, which was the singular dream of tens of thousands of shoedogs across the land. But in his new incarnation as sole owner, the old man became slave to the customer. Each customer had to be handled just right, coddled and coaxed to lovingly lay down the green backs. No 86s, please! The old man trusted no one else to sell, and only under extreme duress, did he ever let anyone else wait on an up. "You can never get good help! Can't trust 'em. They steal behind your back! They rob you blind!" were familiar refrains.
In the early 1960s with the advent of discount shopping malls, customers were beginning to flock to places like Thom McCann and Kinney Shoes. Those highway chain stores were absolute abominations to my father. If he ever saw a customer carrying a bag from one of these places, he would wait for the heretic to leave Townley and then tear into a rage, his eyes bulging, his stutter coming on in full force.
"Those d-d-d-d-damn highway thieves! They, they undercut your markup. They, they sell the seconds for 20-percent off. They'll cause my ru-ru-ruination!!!!!" The problem was that the highway stores often did sell the exact same shoes my father sold, and for 20-percent less. The chains bought in such large quantities that they could undersell small merchants. Occasionally, they sold seconds, imperfect pairs of shoes with nicks in the leather, scuffed soles, or faded uppers, but the old man sold them too without telling customers.
To match Thom McCann or Kinney's allure, the old man had a plan. He went after children, playing on parents' fears that if their children were misfit, they'd be pigeon-toed for life. He used to give away either balloons for the Christmas season, or pencil boxes during back-to-school months. Hauled out of the stockroom, my semiannual blow job was to inflate the balloons with a little foot pump, tie the balloon with green string, and present the damn thing to the squealing kid. If the kid was under eight, the old man had me tie the balloon onto the kid's wrist so the mother wouldn't troop back to the store demanding another.
In the fall, I reached down in a carton, and gave away one (and only one!) pencil box to every kid who bought a pair of shoes. None for brothers or sisters at home, none for cousins, aunts, uncles, friends. You had to buy to get the frigging pencil box.
Customers were gold. They were hardly ever right, but they were always customers, the old man's life blood. He had a plastered, freeze-frame smile for all of them. Each of the old man's sales had a pitch, a personalized twist that allowed for no exit. Why these working stiffs didn't catch on to his shtik was beyond me. Maybe they were so exhausted with punching out die-cut widgets all day long that they resigned themselves to buy whatever the old man brought outÑas long as it was "on sale!"
"My wife has a pair of these exact same shoes, and she just loves them!" he told old ladies. "And today only, they're ten-percent off!"
"They make your foot look so dainty, and my, this style is so smart!" he told fat ladies as they munched on sugary lady fingers bought from Eppler's Bakery down the block. "And they're on special!"
"I just opened up a new crate of these mid-sized heels. They're the latest in fashion!" he told young mothers. "And what a value!"
"They're sharp, and priced so reasonably today!" he told anyone under 18.
Back in the stock room, in my beige chino pants with cuffs that rested just above my ankles, white socks, and a plaid short-sleeve shirt my mother ironed each evening, I passed the time immersed in my own inner sanctum. I had a stash of magazines secreted between the wall of Wright Arch Preservers and PF Flyers, and carried on a summer-long love affair with Miss June, Dorothy Ann Fox. She stood erect, full and wanting in strappy black high heels. No open-toe taupe Cobbies for Miss June.
That summer, Miss June was the closest I got to sex and girls. I spent my nights watching Ralph Kiner and Lindsay Nelson do play-by-play of Mets games. My only foray into sex was on Sunday nights when I sneaked down to the porch to watch David Susskind interview call girls, busted madams, or Dee Martin, the world's oldest lesbian.
Usually for lunch the old man sent me for takeout to Joe's Deli for ham-and-cheese, or pastrami ("Tell Joe to hold the damn fat!") sandwiches and ice tea. He made room for the chow on a pea-green card table jammed in the back of the store. He pushed aside errant cork cookies, his mushed pork pie hat, Buster Brown shoe catalogs, and an ashtray full of used Stimudents he used to pick his teeth with.
Except for September school opening and Christmas, business was always bad. We seldom broke the ice before noon. At around 2:30 PM, with about $75 in the cash register drawer, the old man and I used to take a break at Morgenstern's, a fetid and sticky soda fountain run by 75-year-old Claudia Morgenstern.
By the time I knew her, Claudia looked like a washed-up floozy who had been a rum runner's moll in the 1920s. Her favorite outfit was a form-fitting Japanese red chenille blouse and matching pedal-pushers. She wore purple mascara and cakey rouge, and curled her eyelashes. "What happened to all the men who know how to treat a lady?" Claudia seemed to say with her watery, almond-shaped eyes and long lashes that once fluttered. She ran out of time waiting, and married an arthritic constipated loser by the name of Irwin who was a traveling salesman for Haley's M-O.
The soda fountain Claudia ran stunk from years of accumulated grease. A gooey gunk settled on everything. You had to pry apart the plastic-sheathed menus that had mimeographed sheets inside. Claudia hated the restaurant. She hated Irwin. She hated making Cokes. She hated us.
The old man liked Morganstern's because fountain Cokes were a nickel at a time when most places charged fifteen cents. I usually opted for a cherry Coke.
"What didja think of that ice breaker I had, Gene? Two double L.Y. Charlies I stuffed with cookies," my father said, slurping his Coke. "Put 'em on her, and she thought the Red Sea parted. And she was almost an 86!!! If I didn't own this place, the boss would give me a raise!"
The old man wanted me to share his enthusiasm, but I had no stomach for shoes, the customers, or the mating dance between the two.
"Why'd you tell her the pair was on sale? Where'd you pick up that one?"
The old man shook his head. "Gene, that's salesmanship. That's the beauty of it. They give you money and they don't really know why." You'd think the old man ran General Motors.
I don't know what motivated the old man. He didn't talk about anything higher in life than shoedogging. Oh, maybe a joke once in a while he picked up from one of his salesmen, but that was about it. He fell asleep in the Lazy-Boy whenever he watched sports. And, although my mother tried to interest him in bridge, he preferred going over the day's receipts every night. He kept meticulous sales records in a book called "Beat Yesterday." If the old man loved to tickle feet, it was something he never shared with me. If he was a leather freak, he never let it out of the closet. He was as much a working slug as the factory drones whose stubby triple-Eddie feet he knew intimately. He lumbered along, day in, day out, year after year, shoving on shoe after shoe, smiling that freeze-frame smile.
Could it have been the heady sense of providing a community service to generations of Connecticut families, from cradle to grave, shodding the entire herd? Hardly. With two kids to feed, pushing shoes was his only option after shaving bunions. I suppose the power is some of what turned him on, the slight-of-hand illusion of being a primo con man, able to bamboozle another stiff into buying an 11-Bennie loafer when what the sucker really needed was a 10 1/2 triple-Eddie. The money really wasn't there. On good days, he took in a hundred and fifty to two hundred bucks. Bad days, three or four customers showed up, not including Charley, the whacko usher at the neighborhood movie house.
Charley, who wore a tuxedo to work, could talk your ear off about nothing. He looked more like a mortician, actually more like a corpse. He was my first experience with a nut. Everything was somehow connected, and everyone was out to get him. He jabbered about Kennedy, about the mob, about Jimmy Hoffa, about the damn Catholics. He liked the old man, maybe because my father never paid any attention to him. I was invisible to Charley, just a pisher with acne. The old man used to go about his business, paying bills, sizing up what was left on the sock rack, totally ignoring Charley. And when the old man went to the head, Charley would follow him, and continue talking a blue streak while my father took a whiz. The old man zipped up, and Charley'd still be pontificating about Nixon, Helen Gahagan Douglas, James Hagerty, General Motors, the Federal Bureau of Land Reclamation. By 12:30 every day, Charley pulled out his white gloves, combed back his Vitalis-slicked coal-colored hair, and headed to the movie for Pillow Talk or The Guns of Navarone.
For all my father's bending, lifting and stooping, each spring and summer when the Connecticut humidity could suffocate Gorilla Monsoon, the old man's back used to drive him up the wall. He tried Doan's Pills, Ben Gay, all the other liniments, the hot ointments, went to an osteopath, then a chiropractor, and still his back felt like someone had whacked it with a monkey wrench.
So one day the old man took me to a place called Heich Prosthetic Devices in Hartford to buy a girdle for himself. Above the store window was the store insignia, a silhouette of a dapper man wearing a derby, who had a silver hook for a hand. Lightening bolts flashed towards the hook, which glowed in purple neon. This was the place that could remedy any condition no matter how deformed you were.
The store scared the bejesus out of me. Up until then, my only exposure to physical abnormalities had been women midget wrestlers on TV. Since this was before the era of plastic, there was display after display of scary wooden hands and, like the gleaming device on the store's sign, metal hooks. The mannequins looked like doctored Venus de Milos with brown knit slacks and yellow polyester blouses. The big ones wore pink moo moos, under which metal braces flashed. Porta-potties were everywhere for incontinent retirees and customers who could wait no longer. Gargantuan bras hung from the walls and ceiling, designed to fit gals with 60-triple-E cups. As a normal kid, I dreamt of shapely breasts, but these were more like Georgia watermelons than cantaloupes. The lord giveth and giveth, I figured.
The old man bellied up to the counter, tended by a pen-protector guy with an enormous tan hearing aid and a limp in his right leg. My father mumbled something. Like an undertaker, the sales clerk nodded knowingly, discreetly. He disappeared into the stockroom of horrors and came back with a stiff, flesh-colored contraption. It was a medieval apparatus with laces, straps and three metal slats that ran up the corset's back. The Marquis de Sade would have had an orgasm fingering the thing.
Silently, the three of us went into dressing room. My father dropped his pants. Atop his faded, blue-striped boxer shorts, he buckled the bone cruncher around his screaming lumbar. The clerk tightened the laces, then yanked each of the straps. The old man winced and sucked in his gut.
He endured in silent submission. Each morning, the old man cocked his head like Nipper the RCA dog, and then pulled on the corset's tabs until he was blue in the face. Walking out the house everyday, he resembled Fred Gwynne on The Munsters.
Summers were slow. Factory slugs piled their wives and children into beat-up, dented Chevrolets the Gypsies, at traffic lights, didn't even offer to pound out. The whole lot headed to Florida for two-week vacations. Business picked up in September for school-opening days and the pencil boxes, and in December for Christmas presents of Daniel Green slippers and white go-go boots, which were then all the rage. With the increased business, the old man ran his annual sale to get rid of as many L.Y.'s as possible, and customers trickled into the store. Then he had no choice. He had to hire someone else beside me to hawk.
Over the ten years I worked summer and Christmases at Townley, the old man had an eclectic assortment of temporary shoedogs, fat slobs who bit their fingernails, rail-thin racetrack junkies, and other assorted sociopaths.
Manny picked his nose constantly and flicked the boogers across the store when he thought no one was looking. He went to Joe's one day for lunch and never came back.
Buddy, who looked like Art Linkletter with Grecian Formula, turned out to be hypochondriac. Most dogs read the Courant sport section, some of them read the back pages of the Boston Herald. Buddy must have been the only dog in the world who brought to work with him the Physician's Desk Reference. He was engrossed in the book, and between stock work and ups, Buddy buried his greasy mop in the thick tome the way fundamentalist Christians disappear into the Bible. He complained about his sacroiliac, his varicose veins, his wobbly Herbert Hoover knees, but most of all about his migraine headaches.
"Can't take 'em any longer!!!" Buddy moaned everyday. "Someday I'm gonna take a gun and POW!" he said, cocking his thumb and index finger against his forehead.
The poor guy said he never slept more than two hours a night, and his face looked it. His eye sockets were the color of the violets my mother grew in her kitchen window. His jowls looked like sagging twin punching bags.
One morning, Buddy downed a 35 aspirins from a bottle of Bayer the old man kept in the back for housewives with PMS. Buddy came out of the crapper rubber-legged. He didn't look like he was going to make it. He blacked out smack in the middle of the showroom, conked out cold for 35 minutes between the purses and sock racks. Two ladies ran out screaming. A contingent of Boy Scouts on their way to camp circled Buddy's body with a macabre fascination.
"Is he dead? Is he dead?" one tall kid with size 11-Davids kept asking.
"He's probably drunk!" replied the wife of a Pabst brewery worker in for his annual Red Wings.
Two shocked white haired ladies looking at the Cobbie display, buttoned their cloth coats and hurried out.
The old man was fit to be tied. He called for an ambulance, but the rescue squad took their sweet time about showing up. There were customers in the store who wanted to buy, but you couldn't transact business over a man's body.
The old man took center stage. "Don't let this man bother you," he said over the clamor. "This is a temporary condition. P-P-P-P-Proceed normally, p-p-p-p-please!"
They carted off Buddy, pumped his stomach, and released him from Hartford General in a couple of days, but the old man wouldn't have him back. "You take half a bottle of aspirin and then want your old job back? No way, Buddy. Can't take a chance on you again." I think the old man was on the verge of asking Buddy to pay for the aspirin but didn't have the nerve. Poor Buddy was left groveling as the old man shoved him out the door.
One promising dog was a Phys. Ed. teacher at the local high school who moonlighted after school hours. My father brought Seitzer in with the hope that he would be able to work out a deal with the football coach to get the team account, but all Seitzer did was take long lunch breaks and talk about his glory days as a tackle at the University of Hartford. Seitzer was history when the old man caught him giving a D.I.S. to his next-door neighbor.
Mel was a favorite of mine. He adored Elvis Presley. I think he went into the shoe business because of a desire to sell suede shoes. At 47 and less than 5 feet 2 inches, Mel still lived with his mother in a two bedroom walk-up downtown. It was a good relationship, my father and Mel. Mel resembled an elf, and jumped when the old man ordered him to take an up. He had mutton chops down to the dimple in his chin, and used to comb his hair for hours in front of the full-length mirror near the cash register.
Alas, Mel's days at Townley were over when the old man broke open the lock to the bathroom after Mel was on the can for 50 minutes. With his jockey drawers around his ankles, Mel was beating his meat to my Playboys!
"G-G-G-G-G-G-Get the hell out of here!" the old man screamed. Mel zipped up, and hurriedly hobbled out through the back door, grabbing his zip sweater and black Ace comb. That was the last we ever saw of him.
Harry "The Tiger" Kekel worked for the old man a whole year before he came out of a closet of another sort. Short, squat Harry was built like a fire hydrant mangy dogs loved to sprinkle. He and the old man got along famously. They talked for hours about insteps, toe cleavage, steel shanks. In his late twenties, Harry lived alone. He said he never got married because the right girl just never came his way.
Then one day, Harry fell in love. The once drab, monochromatic-dressed Harry started to show up for work in bell bottom pants, pink ties, sprigs of lilies in his lapel. Harry started humming Broadway show tunes. Dressed in his new get-up, he had a swagger to his walk. He grew a handlebar mustache, which he twirled with sticky wax from a tube all day long.
Two months after they met, Harry told the old man he was going to leave the shoe business to open up an antique store in western Connecticut with a "friend."
"Whadsamadda with you, Harry?" The old man asked. "You wanna give up this great job? You'll leave me in the lurch for Christmas. And what for? To open up a antique store with some faygeleh?
"I guess that's what you could call me too, Harold," Harry said quietly.
The old man's eyes bugged out. You could just as well have told him that Judy Garland was Richard Nixon in drag. My father looked my way in the stockroom, rather protectively, and lowered his voice. "For G-G-God's sake! You mean you've been working the last year with me and you're q-q-queer!"
Harry was a calm as an Oklahoma armadillo laying in the sun. "Yeah, Harold, it's true. That's just who I am."
The old man kept shaking his head. I was taking all of this in from my perch in the stockroom. I was as incredulous as my father. "Harry, a homo!" I kept on thinking. "I've eaten lunch with him, sat at the counter of Morganstern's with him. I even used to show him the Miss June's foldout. He salivated over her lusty, curvaceous body as much as Buddy and I did.
Harry worked the rest of the week and then left to open the antique store. On his last day, he bid the old man and me good-bye. By that time, we had, I think, gotten accustomed to the idea that Harry was a homosexual. We just couldn't imagine it, but that was all right.
"Harry," my father asked him, needling. "Who's this business partner, this mystery man, of yours?"
I forget who Harry saidÑRalph, Joe, FrankÑbut I remember Harry smiled sweetly and purred, "He calls me Tiger."
The old man looked at me. I was too embarrassed to look at Harry. There was an uneasy silence. Then the three of us, Harry, the old man and I, broke up laughing at the same moment.
For a while, no other dog could fill Harry's shoes. The old man couldn't get along with anyone else. It was almost as though Harry had jilted my father. The old man walked in a trance. He moped around the store, padding around like a wounded dog.
Christmas days were around the corner, and the old man had no choice. He had to call on the one-and-only Murray Schwartzkopf, retired shoedog extraordinaire.
Murray was as proud of his forty-seven years in the shoe business as any four-star general is of all the theatres of war he commandeered. Murray had his own war stories, whether they were tales of valor about show girls too poor to pay for their tap shoes so Murray took payment in trade, or yarns of woe about bosses so cheap they would make Jack Benny seem like Michael Anthony on television show, The Millionaire.
But what Murray could do was sell. If people were flies, they'd come in and beg that he sell them flypaper. Murray's crowning achievement was selling a pair of heels to actress Fay Wray in 1928, when he worked for a son-of-a-bitch miser in a small joint around the corner from the Roxie Theatre. "Some gams that broad had," Murray said reverently about Miss Wray, whose dainty pads, he recalled, were size 6-double-Alberts.
Murray himself wasn't too much bigger than Fay. He was five-feet, five-inches, weighed 128 pounds, and wore 7-Albert gray Hush Puppies. He was bald and had two hearing aids, neither of which did anything to improve his hearing. Murray had a bum left arm (he mumbled something about a World War I injury), which required that he hold his arm bent at the elbow, perpetually crooked.
"This damn arm of mine," Murray used to say as he fumbled yet another stack of shoe boxes, tumbling onto a customer's lap.
He came cheap, though. The old man paid him under the table, and it's a good thing. Because if anyone saw how little the poor bastard got they'd speak up in righteous indignation. Like the Hush Puppies on his skinny feet, Murray was a sad dog. He was a Jewish version of one of the Joads in Grapes of Wrath. The old man paid him $1.25 an hour, half what he paid Manny, Harry, Mel, Buddy or Seizter. Murray got no commission, no vacation, no benefits except for one pair of shoes priced wholesale each year. The old man called Murray, "the little man."
Murray's solace were his cigarettes. Like a limber old genie, Murray seemed to appear and disappear with each poof of exhaled blue smoke from his beloved Kents, staring into space, one skinny leg folded over the other at the knee, waiting for the eternal up. But since there were so few ups, Murray had time to indoctrinate me into the mysterious ways of the shoedog.
"Gonna see a man about a horse," was the little man's way of saying he was about to disappear into the crapper. To this day, I don't understand who the man is, why it's a horse he's got to see, and how the two ever fit into a bathroom together.
To the little man, the working stiffs from the breweries and the few remaining steel mills in Hartford were all "Mac."
"Whadaya want, Mac?" Murray barked in his best blue-collar timbre. "Another pair of the usual?"
The usual meant steel-tipped Red Wing boots that weighed 16 pounds each. Besides useful at work, they came in handy at home, able to scare the shit out of Mac's wife or his six children should any of them ever think of getting out of line.
When kids came into the store, if they had Alberts for feet, Murray told them to eat mashed potatoes standing up. If they wore triple-Eddies, Murray advised them to stand on their heads so the fat would run from their feet, down their legs, through their arms, out to their fingertips.
The little man had his shtik down, with apologies to Abbott and Costello. He was right out of vaudeville. Whenever a boy came in with his mother, Murray greeted the kid by pumping his hand so hard he almost pulled the little guy's arm out of its socket.
"How ya doin', how ya doin', George?"
The kid looked sheepish. "My name's not George."
"Well, you sure look like George. You're not George?"
"My name's Bobby."
"No way! You're not Bobby. Bobby just left. You look like George!"
"My name's Bobby."
"O.K. Have it your way. Now, whadaya want, George?"
If the mumbo jumbo perplexed the kid, it goosed the mother good. She was the important one anyway. If the mother was young and had a figure, Murray sometimes played a strange game on her, too. After he wrapped up the kid, he would talk the mother into trying on a pair of pumps.
"We've got some lovely new styles, mam. I know they'd look wonderful on you," the little man cooed. "There's no obligation. You just relax." It was hard to refuse him.
Then, just as he was slipping the heels on the harried mother's feet, he'd slide his index finger on the soft underbelly of her foot, momentarily pressing a tiny spot under her arch. It happened too fast to protest.
"This feels just right!"
"Yes, Yes, slip 'em on! Slip 'em on." "Give it to me!"
Murray had found the G-spot of feet. Nary a smile would come from the little man as the mother squirmed in Townley's yellow and orange vinyl chair, doing everything in her power not to slide down the footstool onto Murray's soft, shriveled noodle. Of course, there was never any implication of sex. No way. This was cold, hard business. Put her on the chopping block and get her to buy. Murray's sad, hush-puppy eyes seemed to say, "Don't hold back. You are putty in my hands, lady. I can drive you to ecstasy. But buy the frigging shoes!"
"Gets 'em every time," the little man casually told me after he wrapped up a sale, pulling on a Kent, fading in and out of view in a plume of azure smoke.
When Murray and I did inventory, the scourge of all shoedog, the little man called out the sizes and I wrote down on an order pad what was left in the walls. Murray used an oral shorthand to alert me when he went from one line of shoes to another.
"Wilson?" I asked.
"He's dead, ain't he?"
I was glad for Murray's company. Buddy, Mel, and Harry all had been too weird for me, and Seitzer was too much of a jock. That we got along didn't bother the old man, who thought we'd keep each other out of trouble. While he minded the store, the two of us took our afternoon breaks at Morganstern's.
Away from my father, Murray stretched out. With a butt hanging from his mouth, he looked like a strung-out version of Montgomery Clift. He still smiled whenever a pair of shapely gams walked by. I half hoped that one of Murray's G-spotted mothers would pursue him, and waylay him on the counter of Morganstern's.
Murray ordered black coffee and a sandwich of grilled Velveeta with the crusts cut off. Something about his dentures not being able to handle Claudia's week-old bread. I stayed with a cherry Coke, a chaser to Morganstern's week-old bear claws.
"Gene, my boy, let me tell you the story of Hartford during the war," the little man started out, raising his voice just enough so Claudia could overhear. Sitting on the grimy soda fountain stools, he put his hand on my shoulder, and pulled me in close. He pronounced my name, "Geeeeeeene," stretching and drawing it out like salt water taffy. I do believe the little man reveled in the company of someone who would listen to him. He had two sons, one an accountant in Tarzana and the other a collections lawyer in Albany. They sent him Chanukah cards, but that was about it. Maybe I was the kind of son he never had, or once had and disappeared. "Ya open up a vein for your kids, feeding 'em and clothing 'em, then one day they get up and never come back. A card once a year. Christ almighty!"
Despite the bittersweet reverie, Claudia thought Murray was disgusting. For his part, Murray thought Claudia gave it away to the Coke syrup salesman. "This town was wide open in the '20s," Murray said, daintily biting into the crustless gooey orange sandwich. "My buddies and I used to go to burlesque shows on Broad Street, where the cocktail waitresses were all working girls. You know, strippers, kurvehs. They could melt a lead pipe if they put it between their legs."
Murray took another bite. I licked my lips. Visions of grainy, black-and-white skin flicks of bloomer-clad girls disrobing in private boudoirs danced in my head.
Murray set down the greasy sandwich and held out his right hand. With one finger at a time, he ticked off their names. "I remember, Rosie," up went his thumb. "Emma," he counted with his index finger. Then "Ursula, Mildred, and Doris," sticking out his middle and ring fingers and then his pinky.
"But Eva, I could never forget," the little man said, dreamily gazing upward towards Morganstern's ceiling. "They used to call her Eva because she was like Eva Peron. 'Do-with-me-what-you-will' little Eva. She'd grab you by the belt buckle, Gene, pull you into the stockroom between the Bass Weegens and the Miss America prom pumpsÑand schtup you standing up. Je-sus Christo!"
The old man never talked to me like that! Let 'er rip, Murray!
"Hot as a pistol. Eva could melt anything. Including your heart."
"C'mon, Murray!" I said, shaking my head.
He waved me off. "I used to pick her up at the stage door, then stop by the Drift Inn. Federico would be there, ready with the set-ups. Then it was back to my room for the real show. Caliente, my friend, moo-ey caliente."
"I see you picked up a little Spanish," I teased.
"The language ain't important. You're not doing much talking."
Murray paused, looking around for Claudia.
"A little service, barkeep!" Murray intoned. "A refill for my boy Gene and me! Chop! Chop!"
Claudia looked like she was going to smack Murray. She wearily put down the Courant crossword puzzle, and rose from her stool at the end of the soda counter, kvetching about her arthritis and rheumatism, Irwin, and under her breath, Murray.
She lumbered over to us, and poured Murray some acid coffee, and squirted some more cherry syrup into my Coke.
Murray lit a Kent, and drew on it. He defied the laws of physics. Murray kept the smoke deep in his lungs for minutes on end, talking, gesturing all the while. Where'd the smoke go, anyway? The guy swallowed it like he belonged in a carnival act with the bearded lady.
"Sure," I say. "You meet this stripper, Ava, and you end up in bed with her?"
"'Eva!' and 'stripper' hardly does justice to her," Murray said, finally exhaling. "Eva was an ar-tiste."
I wasn't sure if Murray was putting me on or what. This was an act of contrition, a way to reconcile where his life once was and where it had gone. His bum arm seemed to twitch.
"She used to dance behind fans, and she'd wear a tight little two-piece number that came off just fine. I remember she had a wonderful pair of marabou mules with little French ticklers at the toebox. No mary-janes for Eva! She'd kick them off, and then it was down to business. Around the world, baby!"
That was all the indignity Claudia was going to take. She rolled up her Courant into a bat and came after us.
"You dirty, old man!!!!! Get the hell outta here, now!"
Murray and I ran out, half elated, half embarrassed. We were like two boys Charley caught sneaking into a Saturday matinee. We giggled and loped back to the store giddy.
When we walked in, the old man glanced at his Longines watch. He was not pleased. "You guys forget we have a business to run? This place looks like a shit house with all the shoes on the floor." Blah, blah, blah. We went to the stock room to size up galoshes and rubbers.
When Christmas rolled around that year the big sellers were those godawful furry slippers for girls. They looked like either cotton candy or a dead wolverines. Take your choice.
The Christmas season went better than expected. We got so busy on a couple of days that the old man even let me try my hand at a couple of ups. They bought from me too, a pair of black wing tips, two pairs of Keds, some Florsheim blucher oxfords. I sold a geriatric nurse a pair of 7 1/2 double-Alberts, but when it came to pressing her G-spot, I got scared.
On the night of December 24, the old man gave out Christmas bonus to the helpÑMurray and me. He put a bill in an envelop sent us on our way.
I opened mine, a measly ten bucks. At least, I could complain to my mother, who would berate the old man and force him to pony up another ten.
Murray opened his. Twenty bucks. This was a serious underpayment, a shot to the little man's solar plexus, a kick to his groin. The little man had worked a total of ten weeks at Townley this year, and twenty bucks didn't even buy him four cartons of Kents.
You could tell Murray was smoldering. He didn't look up. He muttered something as he walked back to the stockroom. I heard the snap of his lighter, and his inhaling a Kent. From behind the wall, blue smoke wafted to the showroom.
The old man and I looked at each other, not knowing what to expect. Was Murray going to get a pocket derringer and shoot the old man dead on the spot? What the old man figured was that he might have to shell out more money. This might cost him.
"Pop, you gotta give the little man more," I said. "Twenty dollars is an insult."
"Mind your own business, Gene," he shot back. "You know nothing about this. If you minded the store, we'd go broke!"
No use even trying to talk to him. I slunk back to the sock rack and started fondling the seamless hose. I flipped through a Florsheim catalogue. Lots of grown-up shiny shoes with buckles and tassels that I could never imagine ever wearing. I hoped Murray would march back from the stockroom with fire in his eyes. I envisioned the little man's black glasses smoldering, his two hearing aids spewing sparks.
Nothing happened for another ten minutes. There was an eerie silence in the store as motorists outside honked their horns and shouted to each other in a mad dash to get home for Christmas Eve dinner.
Another ten minutes passed. Finally, Murray sauntered back into the show room.
This was the moment of truth, the point of no-return, the moment when the toreador is directly above the bull, poised to plunge the sword. The little man, the shaman who possessed the secret of the feet-al G-spot, was tired of being treated like a schmendrick. Revenge, sweet revenge, was heavy in the radiator-warmed December air of Townley Shoes.
Murray looked up at the old man. No telling what he would do. His eyes were blood-shot, and the circles under looked like week-old cookies. "Thanks so much, Harold!" Murray said without emotion. "I appreciate the gift!"
The old man was taken aback. He forced an awkward smile. Murray went to the front of the store, and looked out to the street through the plate glass of the display windows. He took out another Kent and drew on it. Maybe he was thinking about Eva, about Claudia, about all the Georges he had sold sneakers to, about the slew of Macs and their Red Wing steel-toe work shoes. Within seconds, he disappeared in a vapor of smoke. The old man was immensely pleased. It would be a wonderful Christmas.