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Unable to face the word count needed for today I head up to the local café. I hitch the dog to a post. Enter. Faces look up. I head for the counter only to find that it’s not my usual barista-the-writer. But the waiter-who-paints is there, so I give him my order. I count out some change. We share a joke about a centenary coin celebrating the anniversary of the Australian Taxation Office. It’s a twenty-cent piece. I stand to one side and wait for my coffee. I pretend not to notice a man at a wall table staring at me. His grin is ironic and toxically cool. I hide behind smeared glasses.  The man stands up and comes to pay. Points to my necklace and says loudly something I don’t follow. It’s too early for this. The café is already packed and noisy and besides, my ears are blocked from the waxy plugs I have to stuff in them at home to block out the building noise next door. A cross and a gun, the man says louder still, pointing at my necklace. Ignoring the Tiffany heart dangling there somewhere. I’m totally disorientated. I don’t have the personality to deal with this. Not first thing in the morning. Not ever. I feel logey from that extra dose of valerian I took last night. And the wine. I will never make today’s word count. What is it? Two thousand. Three? I defensively finger the cross. Religion? He yells. Rock n roll, I want to shout but don’t. Why should I? It’s not like he cares.

I cover my panic with a helpless smirk. Rest one hand on the counter to steady myself. Undaunted and in my face, he points  to the little silver gun. What is he on? You planning to shoot someone, he says, haha. Clamping his hand over mine.

Faaaaaaark.

The warm blood of a total stranger. Nails me to the spot. I look around but no one is finding this as menacingly banal as I am.  Mushrooms on sour dough toast, lattes, cell phones. Outside the plate glass, the dog lifts his muzzle and narrows his eyes at a very so-so new day. Trucks roar past. The stranger’s hand is sweaty on mine. His eyes are spinning in his head. From caffeine? Intoxicating indifference? Loneliness? His hand on mine, clamping us both to the counter. He says, I’m backing away slowly. Goofy smile, pivoting in cartoon fashion around our joint hands. Don’t shoot.

This dance of dunces. I am cowering, so determinedly devoid of personality that in the end, he stops. I feel sorry for him. I’m not the only one who didn’t need this. Whatever he wanted, I wasn’t it. Cool? Count me out. A good-sported foil for his two-dimensional japery? Come on. What writer worth her salt is a good sport? He removes his hand. Which unleashes something in me. Pity, maybe. My daughter gave it to me, I offer. Your dog? He says, a flash of irritation—or self-knowledge—surfacing in his empty eyes. But even that retreats. The cross, I said, not caring to compete with the clatter. He’s rifling through his wallet. And the gun? he asked, stifling a yawn. My hand flies to it, flashback to the untellable moment of acquiring it. The Browning? I say. And because he’s already turned away, I add, I gave that to myself.

“Excuse me, can you help me find the A train to Howard Beach?”

Calling to me along Second Avenue in Manhattan is a portly, fifty-ish, mostly bald man with a thick accent — Israeli? He looks like anybody’s Uncle Shmuel.

“Sure,” I say, my 20 years in the city kicking in. Take the 6 Train from 23rd and switch at Nassau. Or walk way over to Eighth Avenue.” I know New York.

“My son —” the man volunteers, “He’s in the hospital there, but the pharmacy doesn’t accept shekels.” A fellow Yid, I know from my 10 years at Jewish summer camp in the Poconos that shekels are Israeli currency, and the hospital is probably NYU — one avenue over. I hate to imagine this guy helpless at the pharmacy window, facing a monolingual bureaucrat who never heard of shekels. The pharmacist, like most people, is probably indifferent to Israel and cares only about what it does wrong, not right.

“I go to friends in Howard Beach,” he wonders aloud, “Borrow cash and return. My flight to Israel is tonight. I make sure he has the medication before I leave.”
 You don’t have to be a native New Yorker to know trekking to Queens and back doesn’t make sense when you have a flight from JFK.

“Sir, I don’t think you’ll make it.”

The man looks disappointed. “Maybe you would help me? Help me transfer to dollars so the pharmacy accepts it.”

Help sounds nice. A Jew helping a Jew, and his son is sick. To save one life is to save the world, the Talmud says. We all know this. The man keeps talking as we walk.  “I’m Avi,” he says warmly, extending his hand. We shook. “You been to Israel?”

“Yes, when I was 16. One of those tours,” I say, embarrassed at what Israelis must think of giant buses rolling through Jerusalem filled with suburban teens and credit cards.  “I loved it. I might go back this summer.” This is true. My partner Bryan and I had been discussing it for my fortieth birthday.

“Ah,” he smiles. “That’s good. I can give you suggestions. You have family there?”

“Yes,” and I mention their town in the Galilee.

“Beautiful place. I know it.” Then Avi strays into politics and a recent espionage scandal. “People don’t understand the pressure we’re under,” he says, pointing to both of us. I nod instinctively. We are Jews. We are different.

“There!” he points, turning a corner to our destination — it is a Chase bank.

I am confused. “I thought we were going to the pharmacy?”

“Oh, no, this is better. Help me just get 1,400 shekels in American money and I can get the medication. I send you a check overnight.”

Wait, does he want me to loan him money? I try to ignore my internal alarm, which goes off when somebody is bullying me. In Beijing two years ago, three art students chatted me and my client up as we walked to the Forbidden City. They persuaded us to visit their student gallery — conveniently nearby. My client was so impressed she bought work from each one of them. The next day, I read in a local weekly about phony students scamming tourists using the exact script. I cringed not only at the paintings my client bought and the one I purchased to save face, but at the story we had bought. It was art, I suppose, just probably not theirs.

This seems different.  Avi is in a foreign country.  American medication is expensive and that is not his fault. But more importantly, I have the opportunity to do a mitzvah. My parents raised me to do this. My father was always giving money to people who needed it, and even to friends’ kids who maybe didn’t. He learned that from my grandfather who was the first in his family to go to college and became a big macher in his neighborhood in Newark.

And, there is this: Avi’s my tribe. He wouldn’t screw me. He is Israel.

On my iPhone, I calculate that 1,400 shekels is four hundred dollars. This is too much cash to pull out mid-month. I can do one hundred.

Avi shrugs, understanding. See, the pushy Israeli stereotype isn’t always true. “I can get him the basics for now. Thank you.” We walk inside the bank, and I withdraw one hundred bucks from the ATM. He offers to pay back the bank fee.

“Call me anytime,” he says, scrawling a phone number and address on a bank envelope. “Except Saturday — Shabbat.”

Outside, I hand him the wad of cash. “I hope your son feels better,” I say.

“It doesn’t look good, but thank you.”

I leave Avi, and with every block I walk, I feel worse and worse. I am an idiot. And he played unfair.  I finger Avi’s scrap of paper in my pocket as if it were insurance it might work out.

A week goes by, and of course, there is no envelope from Israel. Any news headline about Israel gets my ire. I agree with the worst opinions in the press. I boycott my weekly visits to Ha’aretz, the left-leaning Israeli newspaper. I wonder if I still even want to visit in August. I blame Avi. Maybe I should call and pretend to ask after the son. Pretend I am the mensch I was taken to be. I search for his number, but am admittedly relieved when it doesn’t turn up. I must have accidentally tossed it. It happens.

I’ve discovered, by traveling at the holidays, that people in general are not a particularly nice bunch of bipeds. Especially at Christmas. They’re greedy, self-centered, bitter, and not above running you over for a better parking space. By the time I leave Maryland for the Great White North of New Hampshire and my family’s Christmas traditions, I’m so sick of humanity that I want to bitch slap it into the New Year.

He leaned in close.  Like they do in the movies.  He leaned in close and I could see his every pore, his every hair follicle.  He leaned in close and I didn’t move away.  He leaned in close and then, without preamble, he began to sing.

* * *

In the mornings, the mall is empty.  A ghost town of neon lights, discounted clothing and discarded dreams.  The tawdry trappings of late capitalism.  Some shit like that.

In the mornings, it’s just the mall walkers and the anorectic.

The anorectic comes to sell her jewelry at the Cash4Gold kiosk.  She always wears sweats.  Navy sweatpants, a pink sweatshirt and a down vest.  She is freezing.  And somehow, even under the sweatpants, I can see the outlines of her knobby, fat-free bones.  She can’t work anymore.  She hasn’t eaten in three decades and she’s living off discarded rings and bracelets.

* * *

The mall has a rigid caste system and we kiosk denizens are at the bottom.  It’s the lack of walls, I think.

* * *

We wear name tags.  All of us.  On lanyards around our necks.  We wear name tags and yet, somehow, this renders us even more invisible.  Disposable.

* * *

I took this job because it was the only one I could get.  Selling calendars at a kiosk in a suburban mall for $7.25/hour.

I work across from a Claire’s.  A hop, skip and a Hot Topic away from the food court.

My mother refers to me as “the Calendar girl.”  She thinks this is incredibly clever.

I should, of course, be grateful.  Grateful that I have a job at all.  Grateful that I’m able to live- rent-free- in my parents’ house.  Grateful that I have food and clothing and a roof over my head.

“Try,” I say to myself, “for a little gratitude.  Pack up your pity party and remember that you are lucky, lucky, lucky.”

Mine is not an American Tragedy of Dreiserian proportions.  I know that.  Mine is not even on the same scale as an Us Weekly cover story.   Tragedies generally take place on Russian Steppes.  They don’t usually involve Jonas Brothers calendars.  But this is my life and I’ll cry if I want to.

* * *

A woman I know from synagogue stopped by the kiosk the other day.  “This is what you’re doing with your Vassar degree?” she asked.

* * *

I ran into a friend from college last week.  She was home on October break, doing a little shopping with her mother.  We embraced.  We exchanged news.  I kept her talking because I didn’t want to be left alone, four hours to go until closing time.

She’s graduating soon.  In December.

I scared her.

My life frightened her.

“It’ll be different for you,” I promised.  “I make poor life choices.”

* * *

My manager, Scott, is a pathological liar.  Among other things, he’s told me that he was in a counter-narcotics group in the military” and that his ex-army buddies want him to join them as a “hired mercenary.”  By his own statements, he’s been a manager at a Big Lots and at Naturalizer, a truck driver, a fireman, a wannabe policeman.  He saved a Labrador from a dog-fighting ring.  He’s written two mystery novels.  “Sometimes,” he told me, “when I was writing my book, I just couldn’t believe how good it was.  I blew myself away.”  Scott thinks that convicted felons should be conscripted into the military instead of confined to prison.  “And if they die,” he said, “no big deal.”

Scott is small and thin.  He has the slim-hipped figure of a young Audrey Hepburn.

Scott says that his roommate Helene has the hots for him.  He says that he can’t tell her about his girlfriend because she’ll go all “Fatal Attraction” on his ass.

I met Helene.  She wears turtlenecks and corduroy jumpers.

The other day, Scott came back from the bank and told me he’d witnessed an armed robbery.  “I chased the guy down,” he said, “and I got a good part of his license number.”

Scott is 42 and he makes $10/hour.  He spends his time worrying about Units per Transaction and plan-o-grams.  He spends his time making up self-aggrandizing stories to impress his bored young coworkers.

I read his novel, Honor and Deception.  It was awful and I was relieved.  I’m ashamed to say that I took some pleasure in that.  But maybe he’ll have the last laugh.  I imagine that, one day, I’ll be Scott, my crappy unpublished novel rotting in some drawer, the butt of my coworker’s joke.

* * *

“Day-by-Day Calendar Company, this is Marni speaking-“

Without fail, Scott answers the phone.  “Hello, Marni Speaking.”

It wasn’t funny the first time.

* * *

Julian works at the Cash4Gold kiosk and he is too young for me.  We have nothing in common.  He doesn’t read unless forced.  He’s 19 and he just graduated from high school.  He’s Dominican and Puerto Rican and he’s beautiful.  He talks to me sometimes and I try my best to keep him entertained though I wish he’d leave me to my New Yorker.

He invites me to go running with him.  He’s either attracted to me or subtly trying to tell me I’m fat.

“Tell me your life story,” he said.  “Twenty seconds.”  I pictured it as a movie pitch: ” ‘Girl, Interrupted’ meets ‘Annie Hall’  with a dash of ‘Ordinary People.'”  But I knew he wouldn’t get the references.  So instead I listed only the facts.  “And now you work here!” he finished, laughing.  “And now I work here,” I repeated.

Julian says that he has a 60% shot of making the NFL.  Julian says that he was asked to model for Calvin Klein.  Julian says that he has two million dollars.  “My godfather left it to me,” he added.  “I just can’t get access to it right now.”

Julian says it would take hours, days even, to tell his life story.

Julian and Scott are liars.  But maybe we all are.  Even me.

* * *

Ariane has yellow and black teeth.  She smells of cigarettes and perfume. She’s nearly thirty though she says that everyone thinks she looks much younger. She’s had some trouble with law.  “Parking violations,” she says with a sigh.  “Those fines add up.”  She says, “I wouldn’t go back to Dunkin’ Donuts now even if they paid me a million dollars.”

I lent Ariane $90 and I don’t think I’m ever going to get it back.

Scott thinks she’s stealing.  “Maybe it’s a mathematical error,” I said hopefully.

I drove Ariane home.  She doesn’t have a car anymore.  She lost her car and her license in 2004.  “I had a little bit of a drinking problem,” she told me.  “I got a DUI.  And then I took the fall for my little brother in this drug thing.”

Ariane lost custody of her kids, too.  They live with her ex-husband’s parents now and she and her boyfriend rent a room in a rundown house on Maryland Avenue.

The electricity went out for three days this week.  $150 worth of food got ruined.  And they have bug problems and the house is overcrowded and she’s behind on rent.  Also, Ariane’s paycheck hasn’t come yet.  And could she maybe borrow some more money from me?  “I hate to ask,” she added.

I said, “sure, no problem” and went to the ATM.  I knew it was probably a bad idea but I did it anyway.  Because she needed it more than me.

Ariane told me that her older brother died of carbon monoxide poisoning.  She doesn’t believe that he committed suicide though.

When my friend Jill called from London the other day, I told her about the money.  She laughed and said it sounded like maybe? possibly? Ariane was a drug addict.

Today she left early for the third time this week.  She didn’t feel well and I said go ahead and go.  It’s okay.  When I counted the till at the end of the night, $40 was missing.  “Did you leave her alone?” Scott asked.  I had, actually.  I’d gone on my half hour break and left her alone with the register and the keys and the cash.  “Maybe I added wrong,” I said.

I don’t want to be the reason Ariane gets fired.

People have sad lives.  They have dead brothers and drug habits and kids that don’t live with them anymore.  And I can’t help but think, “there but for the grace of G-d…”

* * *

I’d like to think that I lent Ariane that money because I’m a kind person.  But I’m not sure that’s it.

I wonder if I lent her the money in some misguided attempt to assuage my class guilt.  I wonder if my generosity wasn’t just another form of condescension.

* * *

Whilst manning a kiosk alone at 9:15 on a Tuesday night, it is hard to believe that I’m anything more than this job.  That I’ll ever be anything more than I appear to be: the girl who sells calendars at the mall.

* * *

People have sad lives.  I repeat this to myself late at night.  It has the ring of truth to it.  People have sad lives and it’s a wonder that any of us have the energy to try for something better.

* * *

He was in his eighties maybe.  Plaid shirt, cowboy hat.  He was looking at the baseball calendars and I came up behind him, ready with my opener.

“Let me know if I can help you with anything.”

The man turned and smiled at me.

“Do you like baseball?” I asked.

“You should sell music here,” he said.

I pointed to the store across the way.  FYE.  A record store.

“Oh,” he responded.  “Do you like Glenn Miller?”

I said I did, yes, but I like Benny Goodman even better.

He leaned in close.  Like they do in the movies.  He leaned in close and I could see his every pore, his every hair follicle.  He leaned in close and I didn’t move away.  He leaned in close and then, without preamble, he began to sing.

He began with a few bars of “Goodnight My Love.”  “I was thinking of my wife,” he told me.  And then he sang “At Last.”  He had a sweet, tuneless voice that made my chest ache.

He told me how to play the harmonica and how to clean dirt off of cassette tapes.  He’d just started in on “The Chattanooga Choo-Choo” when his son came to take him away.

“Sorry,” said the son, giving me a conspiratorial look.

I didn’t return it, gazing instead at his father.  “It was wonderful meeting you,” I told him.  I held his eyes for as long as I could and then he left, leaving me alone with wet eyes and a broken heart.