The Old Curiosity Shop

"Ohhhh, that'll fit!" she says, cornering a woman holding a circus-tentlike black skirt. "All right, so you get it taken in a bit. There's a place on the corner. Five bucks. Look lady, you don't want it, we got plenty of other customers."

A towering black teen-ager shuffles past. "Hiya big boy," she squeaks, then turns in time to nab a couple headed toward the back of the shop. "Hey! Hey! What're you doing? We got rules here," she yelps.

"It's okay Sue," Streiff says, with the rueful tenor of Dr. Frankenstein. "She's trying something on."

Susie begins folding clothes, mumbling apologies to her boss, whom she clearly views as right up there next to God in the scheme of things. The virtues of the Bronx's unsung beaches occupy her next few minutes, before a meek French woman totters accidentally into her orbit.

"Say, that's a nice shoit, lady," Susie offers.
"Yes, but I don't think it is large enough for my son," the woman answers, holding up what looks like a plaid dishrag.

"Sure it is. That's a large shoit. That'll fit him. I can tell you, lady," Susie says.

"No, I don't think you know my son," the customer says, tittering politely.
"Lady, I'm giving you a good price, 'cause that's a nice shoit. It's gonna fit, lady. Lady, I know."

"Okay, what size are these?" the woman asks, meekly moving on to a pair of plastic wingtips.

Susie responds in true form. "Get over here," she says to a college kid browsing nearby. "Is he about the same size as your son? Yes? Okay kiddo, try these on." She hands him the shoes and watches him squeeze painfully into them. "Poifect," she declares. "Okay. Let's look at a price for everything." She does some mental bean counting. "Thirteen dollars flat. No tax," she adds munificently.

"But I don't know," the woman wheedles.
"Lookit," Susie snarls. "I'm giving you a good price here. I should be charging twice that much. Lookit everything you're getting. Oh, that shoit. So nice. You don't want it, I may take it myself."

The woman stutters. She falters. She is a goner. "Okay Ev, thirteen outta twenty," Susie says, waving the bill like a majorette. "Let's get some change for the lady."

Bee-yoo-tee-full.

Evelyn Streiff hears the promise, or some mewling approximation, at least once every day. She could level a city with the weight of its deceit, dump an ocean into the hollow of its intent. If she had a nickel for every time she heard it? Forget it. You can't count that high. Hey Mom, they say, how 'bout I take this for now and bring you 50 cents change.

The latest appeal comes from a rundown character in crusty dungarees. "I'm sleeping out tonight, Ma. I need a blanket." Streiff wobbles over to an alp of bedding and picks up a brown cotton comforter. "Two dollars." The fellow pulls a lump of change from his pocket, along with a twenty-dollar bill. "I'd give you the whole thing, but I gotta buy colostomy bags for my buddy. The poor guy's got a hole in his stomach where all the shit comes out," he says, exhaling the yeasty reek of malt liquor.

"Why don't he go to the hospital?" Streiff asks.
"He doesn't wanna go. He's just like Dustin. Remember Dustin? Ratzo Rizzo? He says the VA don't do shit for you. I'll bring you the rest once I get change from the bags."

Streiff hands over the blanket and watches the man lurch into the dusk. "They tell me this one has AIDS," she sighs. "Always it's the crazies. Years back this guy came in, said he needed bus fare to Alaska. Said he was an Eskimo, which I don't know, he looked like an Eskimo. He showed me this big gash on his foot. I said, `Okay. You need money, why did you come to my shop?' He said, ~`God sent me to you.' This is the kind of character we get around here." Streiff cackles to the point of choking, clumps of Kleenex dangling from her waistband like the stuffing from a doll.

She falls silent for a time, whisking through the day's fruit orders. "I don't know why I stay here," she says, by way of announcing closing time. "I've been trying to sell this place for a year."

Before she can get her money pouch in order, the colostomy bag man re-enters. "Here you go, Mom," he says, plunking down two sweaty quarters.

Evelyn Streiff's face registers the closest thing to surprise that her circumstance allows. "Guess you never can tell," she says softly, though it's

clear from her tone that, far too
often, she can.

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