ESSAY: Other People by Emma Törzs
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Once, when I was twenty-two and working in a liquor store, an old white woman came in and told me her son had died in the Vietnam war, and his body been flown home. She wanted badly to see him one last time, but though she begged and begged for a viewing she was told by military personnel that his face had mostly been destroyed, and she was not allowed to look. “They were trying to spare me,” she said, “against my will.” So during the service she tore down the aisle and ripped off the flag and pushed open the lid of his coffin, and inside was a dead Vietnamese child, not her son, his small corpse wrapped in a green wool blanket and his face perfectly intact. “They sent us hundreds of dead children,” she told me, “and none of them were ours.”
She was an alcoholic, one of many regulars who stood waiting outside our doors before we opened at nine a.m., their backs to the blood-freezing cold of the Minnesota wind, breathing into their hands and peering through the window at me as I counted the register. I’d started working at the liquor store as a direct result of being fired from a different job, a café in Uptown where I’d been late every single day of the three months I worked there. I’d caused a terrible scene in the office in front of my embarrassed managers; not an impressive you-can’t-fire-me-I-quit-scene, but the kind with guttural sobs and mucous pooling first in my palms, then running silver down the cuffs of my sleeves. That evening my friend took me to the liquor store and I broke down again in the whiskey aisle. She led me to the counter by the wrist and presented me, deflated and soggy, to the guy at the register. “Do you have any specials for people who’ve just been fired?” she asked.
He gave me an airline serving of Jagermeister and a job application. Soon thereafter I began. My co-workers were all dark beards beneath woolen beanies, and one other woman who was twenty-eight and had recently lost her virginity. “Now I’m really trying to slut it up,” she said. Sometimes certain Somali men would ask us, “What do your husbands think of you working in a place like this?” and we would say, “Who’d be crazy enough to marry us?”
The store had recently been stung by undercover underagers and hit with a sixty thousand dollar fine, so we were now required to enter a birthday for each patron in order to unlock the computer and process the order. These men who asked about our husbands were often the same men who, when I said, “Date of birth?” would answer, “9/11,” and stare set-faced at me as if waiting for hysteria. I might have been nervous, except often enough their hijab’d wives came in with them and stood a pace behind their husbands’ shoulders and mouthed sorry to me, smiling, shrugging, rolling their eyes; what can you do?
“I thought Muslims didn’t drink,” I said to my co-worker.
“When has God ever stopped anyone from being an asshole?” she said, having her own conversation.
What can you do? My boss was miserable, and slunk into the basement to smoke weed when things were slow. He was the son of the owner, destined to inherit the beer dynasty, and when I had a headache he advised me to duck behind the counter and take a shot of sour-apple Pucker. “Go on,” he said, “I won’t tell.” He reported only to his sister, who came in every few weeks to walk the aisles with her lumpy long-haired dachshund, trailing judgmental fingers over dusty bottles of Boone’s Farm and telling my boss he was worthless; meanwhile the dachshund hunkered down to take a shit by the Captain Morgan’s. He’d glance at me mid-business, and then turn deliberately away, his little doggy face shamed but determined. This was how I felt the whole year.
“You’re just another white person feeding booze to the Natives and ruining our lives,” said Wheelchair Mike, before he threw up all over the carpet. He came in the next day with his grandson to buy vodka and to apologize for the vomit, and led the kid over to the newly-Lysol’d spot of rug in front of the counter, pointing, saying, “Here’s where it went down, but you can barely even tell.”
“It’s always so nice to see you,” said Stefan, in his gentle, choir-boy voice. He’d been an atomic physicist before his eyes and hands were blown away in an experiment gone wrong, and a rare operation had separated his ulna and radius so now at the end of each arm he had two enormous fleshy pincers, with which he held his white cane and his plastic flask of Early Times.
“Today’s the day,” said Lotto Jackass, who never knew when he was being made fun of. “You yahoos are gonna wish you were me.”
“Gonna haul it in big, huh?” said a bearded co-worker. “Gonna blow your whole fucking paycheck on lottery tickets and then make it all back, huh? What’re you gonna buy with that dumptruck of money?”
“I’m going to save it,” said Lotto Jackass, licking his fingers and counting out a stack of one-dollar bills. “And I’m not going to share it with any of you, either.” He was about half my size, with lots of shiny grey hair and a nine-month stomach. Desperate, unpleasant eyes, like two beetles paddling frantically on their backs in a puddle of filthy water. The gambling addicts were the real heartbreakers, the customers we pitied so strongly we despised them: they were so much more pathetic than the alcoholics, because the gamblers had hope. They were the Queen’s mirror on our own futile, repeated actions towards happiness.
“I don’t know where my son’s body really is,” the old woman told me. “Or if he ever really died. I’ve been searching and searching.”
I asked my friends and the internet, “Is it true? Did the US government send back anonymous bodies instead of American soldiers’?”
“No,” said the internet.
“It’s a good story,” said my friends.
Ostensibly why I took the job in the first place: for good stories, none of them mine until this moment. My own went like this. Nights, I’d sit hatted and gloved in the cement-floored back room with my co-workers, drinking squat bottles of Mickey’s and waiting for my best friend to come and drink with us before walking me home down the ice-paved desertion of 27th avenue. Past the moonless hollows of Matthew’s Park, past the La Perla factory where we sometimes hauled trash bags of misshapen tortillas from the dumpsters, and past the soup-smelling hall of our ground-floor two-bedroom, which housed five people, two of whom lived in a pile of blankets beneath our dining room table and all of whom were young and discontent and ready to move on, but where? One of us would get high in the evenings and pound out childhood memories into a typewriter. One of us drank a liter of Coke every day and made a fortress of empty Little Caesar’s Hot-N-Ready boxes. One of us played the same three chords on her guitar over and over until there was no music left to it. We had hope. We still do.
“Criminal, what they did to us,” said the old woman. That day she had a blackened eye, and from the swollen eggplant lake of it she peered across the counter at me. “Can you imagine weeping over the grave of somebody you’ve never even met?”
Of course I can. In my role-plays of grief I have felt loss on almost every level, and I have cried uselessly for anyone. A body standing in for a body: does it matter, in the end, which body we bury?
Yes. But tell me your story and I’ll cry for you, too.