Ngai and I were working the Saturday night shift. This was in the early 1990s, before you could read things like this on the internet. Before the internet. I sat on the stool behind the counter up at the front of the store, gazing warily out the store window at the river of shitheads streaming up and down Eighth Street.
Stay away, I prayed.
I leaned against a thin vertical slat of wood in the shelves between the half pints and pints. The tops of several tacks pushed into my back. They held up photos. I knew the photos by heart at that time, thanks to all the long blank spans of time during my shifts at that liquor store, but I can’t remember them anymore.
I have to imagine myself swiveling on the stool, away from the staggering, wanting pedestrians out on Eighth Street. I look once again at those curling photos. I see photos of clerks who’d worked there before me, young men dazed, young men smiling, young men waiting like I was, a year or two or ten, for something to pull us along to somewhere else.
The card fragment at the top of this page, the handiwork of my younger son, is of a player named Larry. I found it on the carpeted basement floor of our condo last Saturday night while I was playing with my older son. He has several construction vehicles that he refers to as the Bob the Builder team, after a show he watches, and he likes me to pretend I’m the one called Scoop and get into dangerous situations. We do virtually the same scenario again and again. When I found this scrap of card on the carpet, I seized on it like a starving man might seize a sandwich.
When people tell parents of young children that “it all goes by so fast,” they aren’t remembering the many eternities of exhaustion and anxiety and boredom, those stretches of time that seem to slow to something beyond time altogether. But of course I know someday this will all be gone, and it will seem to have passed like nothing. I know this time with my boys is the golden era of my life, what I was always waiting for when I was waiting for my life to begin.
I see among the photos on the slat of wood between the half-pints and pints one of the owner, Morty, with his friend Larry.
Morty is wearing a Silver Surfer T-shirt, a clerk’s ironic tribute to Morty’s Silver-Surfer-like bald dome and to Morty’s habit of wearing any T-shirt thrown his way.
“What do I give a shit what I wear?” he would crow.
In the photo he’s got his mouth open, words pouring out. This also matches the figure on his shirt, whose agonized metallic face is open in a howl.
“I will endure!” the Silver Surfer vows.
In the photo, Morty is flanked by his friend Larry. Larry’s full head of close-cropped hair is flecked with silver. His clothes are impeccable. His mouth is closed, his chin upraised.
Both men are solid as granite.
It took me a few minutes, but with the sparse hints—the mention of 1976, the ERA numbers, perhaps even the word Championships, more than anything the fact that his first name was Larry, narrowing the possibilities considerably—I guessed the full identity of this Larry. Can you? That’s about as far as most internet posts go, right? Trivia lobbed forth in hopes of what? Hits? But instead of piecing together a whole, I want to dwell in the fragmentation, in that brief moment when I didn’t know who this Larry was. When Larry could be Larry, just Larry. Any Larry.
That Saturday night as I sat on the stool up front, gazing at the photos between the half-pints and pints, Ngai was in the back of the store, leaning on the edge of Morty’s desk. He was flicking open a gravity knife and closing it and flicking it open again.
The phone behind the cash register rang. I picked it up.
“Eighth Street,” I said.
“Listen. I want you to bring me up two rolls of quarters.”
“Quarters? Quarter-pints, you mean?”
In the back of the store, Ngai turned the blade of his knife back and forth, looking at it.
Or maybe this wasn’t the time when he was into gravity knives. Maybe this was when he got really into origami. Maybe he was holding a tiny paper flamingo in his hands, turning it back and forth. Who can remember?
Last week my wife and I decided to subscribe to the Sunday New York Times. I had been reading some stuff about how now more than ever there should be an effort to support journalism. I don’t hold to the illusion that we’ll be getting more than fragments of the world in the New York Times, but at least it’s a start, a way to expand my general habit of randomly absorbing fakery and mongering and trivia.
“To abandon facts is to abandon freedom,” wrote Yale history professor Timothy Snyder last week. “If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”
So this past Sunday morning I got up with my youngest son at around six in the morning and for the next couple of hours kept looking out the window to try to see whether our newspaper had arrived. I didn’t want someone to swipe it. Nowadays who knows what people will do?
Eventually Ngai looked up at me, wondering what was being asked of me through the phone. The Saturday night shift at the liquor store was all about weathering volatile requests.
“Larry?” I said. “You still there?”
“This motherfucker,” Larry finally said.
“Let me talk to him,” Ngai said.
“I know he’s the one,” Larry said. “Quarters, Joshua, you hear me? Two rolls of quarters, one for each hand. I’m gonna cave this cocksucker’s head in.”
Maybe I’ll leave the story there, with Larry asking me to deliver him two rolls of quarters, with me years later holding my youngest son and peering out the window on the lookout for a newspaper thief and thinking of Larry. That’s what had happened so many years before to Larry. Someone had started stealing his New York Times. That Saturday night when he called the store he had decided who the perpetrator was and had decided what he was going to do to the perpetrator.
Why of all things does that story stick with me, the one when he called up and asked me to deliver him ballast for his fists?
The world is always falling apart, and we’re powerless to stop this, but it has always been pleasing to me in my powerlessness to imagine Larry, solid as granite, roaring out of his apartment in his bathrobe to catch a newspaper thief red-handed. It’s pleasing to me to imagine him with those rolls of quarters in his large hands.
You’re in for it now, motherfucker, I like to think.
The last time I saw Larry was at Morty’s memorial. That was a few years ago. He came to the memorial with Ngai. It was at the apartment of one of the former clerks. There were photos all over the walls, some of them the same as the photos that had been tacked up at the store. I’ve mentioned this before a while back, but Larry started crying as he looked at a photo of Morty.
“I miss you, you old fuck,” Larry said.
When the memorial was over Ngai and Larry left together. I can’t remember the details of that memorial that well, but I think Larry was having a little trouble walking, and Ngai was helping him. Years earlier, Ngai had been the one who’d been able to calm Larry down, to convince him that he shouldn’t use two rolls of quarters to cave in the newspaper thief’s face. So maybe that’s where I’ll leave this story, with Larry leaning on Ngai as both move slowly out of the memorial, out of sight.
Everything will be reduced to fragments, and then it will disappear. How are you holding it together?