The important man had the kind of face that would look no different without the mustache. He was carrying a black-lacquered cane with a diamond-studded handle and I envied him his cane. I imagined thumping my fingertips against it, the sound that would make, and flipping it upside-down to make believe it was the letter L. If the cane were mine I would pretend it was a long-barreled pistol with a diamond-studded grip. I would holster it in the elastic of my jockey shorts and have friends. When I came across a friend, I would pull the cane from the holster and point it, say, “Gotcha.” I could do that as many times as I wanted, and it would never stop being a good joke. I would be what they call a “character.” People would want to see more of me. They would say of me, “That character! Always with the cane he pretends is a pistol!” and exchange intimate glances with one another, then wave the whole thing off with both hands and decide to lunch together. “Lunch?” one would say. “Let’s,” would say another.
The important man continued along the sidewalk, until he was right in front of me. I made myself sideways so he could pass, but the tassels of his nearer epaulet grazed my chest. “Pardon,” he said, and he was walking away.
Just like the last one.
“Come back,” I said.
He waved me off and sped his pace. I went after him. I walked beside him. The heat was unbearable that day. I was sweating.
“I have something to ask you,” I said.
He said, “What’s that?” but he kept walking, like he was scared of me, like I had done something wrong or something dangerous. I was going to ask him if he ever imagined his cane was a pistol, and then say, “Me too,” and we would have something in common. But I saw that would scare him and I didn’t want that to scare him so I said something I thought was scary so we could both be scared together. I said, “The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground,” and made a movement with my shoulders as if stricken and he flinched. Exactly, I thought. And that was when another man (bearded) came along. This second man owned the hat shop that we were standing in front of, but he was not wearing a hat and he said to me, “Christ! What the fuck? Who the fuck?”
“I don’t know,” I said. I was ashamed to look at him. I looked at the display window instead. It was full of breastless, earth-tone mannequins in bowlers and derby hats sitting in folding chairs around a square table, one on each side. There were playing cards affixed to their hands by means of an invisible adhesive, probably the quick-dry liquid variety. There wasn’t a single thumb between the four of them.
“Who the fuck?” the second man said again.
I still didn’t know the answer and he was starting to give up on me.
Eyes locked on the mannequins, I made a thinking face to appease him. Then I started thinking. I thought: They do not have ears and they do not have hair, yet their hats do not fall over their eyes—there must be adhesive. I thought: But a liquid-adhesive of the kind affixing the cards to the hands would, if used on the heads, irreparably gum up the fibers in the hats and ruin their potential to be sold well. No, I thought, a liquid adhesive would not be appropriate at all, and therefore the mannequins must have adhesive tape between their heads and their hats, strips of adhesive tape looped into O-shapes. Oh, you’re stupid. You thought you were smart, but you’re stupid, I hate you. There is double-sided tape on the market. There is also the law of parsimony. Nothing need be looped into O-shapes—not when both sides adhere with equal potency. You should have thought of that first, but you are not elegant.
The second man said, “Go,” and pointed me across the street.
I crossed the street and straddled a construction horse. I watched the men speak. They spoke like friends. The second man set his hand on the shoulder of the first man and the first man leaned on his cane toward the second man and soon they were laughing. As they laughed, I could see the steam of their gasps converging. I thought: Maybe they don’t know each other at all and the second man is the greatest salesman who ever lived, is selling the first man a hat without the first man even knowing that he is being sold a hat. I thought: I wonder if they notice the way their steam is converging. I wonder if the second man does, but the first man doesn’t, if knowing how to foment such a convergence is one of the secrets to being as great a salesman as the second man. Convinced of it, and convinced that the second man, despite his canelessness, was important, possibly even more important than the first, I set out to find someone to mingle my steam with. This is not as easy for me as it is for others. It is not as easy as it should be.
I walked a block and found two men talking. I approached the younger one. I said, “What the fuck? Who the fuck? Who the fuck? Go.” It didn’t work.
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