‘Crying Just Like Anybody’

This long story set in 1920s Manhattan first appeared in the Fiction Desk anthology Crying Just Like Anybody, which you can buy here. If you enjoy the story, please think about sponsoring my Manhattan-set historical novel ‘Quays’.  
 

He was a little guy: five-two, five-three. His mouth was too wide to fit his face and he didn’t have any hair. He sat with his legs neatly crossed on a deal crate and I could see his dirty woollen ankle-socks.

I don’t know, I said.

Johnny nudged me. Sure he is, he said.

I shook my head and said it again: Johnny, I don’t know.

The little guy was watching us. He seemed interested.

Sure he is.

I don’t know, I said. I mean he doesn’t look like a Martian.

Sure he does.

Sherrit nek hazzer minny most, the Martian said.

See? said Johnny.

#

Johnny’s Gianni really, but around here no one calls anyone by their right name. There’s little Tomas Quis who’s Spanish but he’s called Tom Keys, and there’s my sister Jesca and the boys call her ‘Yes’ and make dirty jokes about it. At the repair shop Mr White is really Mr Weiss and then there’s Si Portman who works for the grocer and wears braces on his legs, and he’s just called Dumdum. Johnny ought to be Gianni really but everyone calls him Johnny. He doesn’t mind.

He met me after work. I waitress. It was around eleven.

Anna, he said, and grabbed my elbow. Anna’s my right name, at least. Anna Möller, with an umlaut. I pulled my elbow away.

Careful, kid, this is a new goddamn coat.

It was, too.

You’ll never guess, he said.

So you’d better tell me.

Go ahead and guess.

I sighed.

I’ve been working all day, I said. I’m tired.

Go ahead and guess.

He was all excited about something. He couldn’t stop grinning. When he grins you can see where there are two teeth missing in his upper jaw. His father did it one time.

I tried to guess.

Babe Herman went six for six. You found a buck in the street. Clara Bow sent you a postcard.

Nope, Johnny said.

Then I give up.

You won’t believe me if I tell you.

What the hell is this, Johnny?

Maybe you’d better just see for yourself, Johnny said.

He took hold of my hand. This was all outside the doorway of Henry Moon’s place at the ocean end of Depeyster. It wasn’t lit and I thought Johnny was going to kiss me there in the dark. I thought it was a hell of a way to lead up to kissing a girl but I was ready to be kissed anyway.

I said: Johnny?

Johnny said something but right then an El train went by overhead and I didn’t hear what it was. He didn’t kiss me. He just led me by the hand out of the darkness and up Depeyster and on to Front.

Where are we going?

You’ll see.

He walked too fast. I had on these high-heeled shoes and I couldn’t keep up.

Slow down, dammit. Where’s the goddamn emergency?

Johnny just laughed. He led me into an alleyway I didn’t even know the name of. This is where he kisses me, I thought. And who knows what else. But instead he opened a wormy blue door in the wall and pointed inside. There was a light on. I looked inside and there was this little guy sitting on a deal crate.

He smiled at me.

Who the hell’s this? I said.

 

My father’s a teacher. He taught at a school across the bridge until some girl complained. This was in the war. My father’s a German. Now he works in the garment district helping the Jews with their taxes and things, but underneath that he’s still a teacher. He taught me and my sisters to read and write. I wanted to ask him about Johnny’s Martian but I didn’t dare. I didn’t want to get Johnny into trouble. And I didn’t want him to laugh at me.

He was in the kitchen eating livers on toast when I got home. He likes to sit up late. He had a book open and a glass of something.

Good evening, Anna, he said.

My father talks very polite English.

I asked him about Mars. He swallowed the piece of toast he was eating and put a bookmark in his book and closed the book.

Why do you ask?

I shrugged. My father stood up, came round the table, and put his left hand on my shoulder. With his right hand he opened the door to the street.

It was cold out, and my father was only in his shirt-sleeves and a singlet underneath, but he didn’t seem to mind. We stood side by side on the doorstep. We live on Trundle Row, which is off Catherine Street, which is off Henry Street: we live way out of the way in midtown, is what I mean. There’s nothing in Trundle Row but trashcans and cats and fruit-crates. Since my mother died no one even sweeps the step.

Beautiful, my father said. Actually he said wunderschön, which means the same. He wasn’t looking at the trashcans. He was looking up. I looked up too.

Beautiful, I said. I said it in English. It was one of those clear nights and between the gutters of the houses I could see a strip of clear dark sky and maybe a dozen stars.

There, my father said, pointing. Mars.

It just looked like a star.

It has two moons, he said. The moons are called Fear and Panic. We can’t see them from here.

I didn’t know that, I said. I never knew there was more than one moon.

Out there, my father said, waving a hand at the sky, there are hundreds.

He told me that there are canals on Mars. I asked him who built the canals. Martians, I guess, he said, and laughed. I wondered if the little guy Johnny had found had ever worked on the canals. He didn’t look like he’d be any good at digging or loading coal. But I didn’t know what else there was for him to do on Mars.

Phobos and Deimos, my father said.

What?

Greek, he said. Fear and Panic. Phobos and Deimos.

Oh, I said.

It’s just like I said. Round here, nobody calls anything by their real names.

#

Things got out of hand when Joe Gillray got involved. I never wanted him to get involved. The truth is, the whole thing was so crazy, I didn’t want to be involved my­self, only Johnny never gave me a choice. I wish he hadn’t said anything to Joe, though.

We were at Alessandro’s. I was drinking a sarsaparilla and Johnny was picking up a dish of cannelloni to take to the Martian. Put a cloth over it, he was saying to Alessandro. Put a cloth over it, for God’s sake, or it’ll be cold by the time it gets there.

Joe was sitting at a table looking over a newspaper. Knowing Joe I bet he was looking for his own name in the paper. He was an Irishman. Overweight, maybe thirty years old. Was he ever a bigshot. He lived with his parents and ran errands for Owney Madden when he wasn’t minding the register at his father’s tobacconist. He wore a watch chain and a derby hat.

When Johnny said that about the cannelloni getting cold he looked up.

Someone sick?

Why didn’t he just say yes? Why couldn’t he just say, sure, the old man’s laid up with a crick in his back, or the ’flu, or a broken leg, here’s his dinner I’m taking him.

No, Johnny said. It’s for a guest. A special guest.

Why couldn’t he have just kept his damn mouth shut?

 

Sherrit nek eggy pappy rot es tollit kerrum, said the Martian.

Joe Gillray laughed.

How about that. Get him to say something else.

Johnny prodded the Martian in the ribs.

Leave him be, I said.

He’s all right, Johnny said. Aren’t you, kid?

He didn’t look all right.

Kee ezz azz ember! he said. Nem tudger tanner eyin steyin!

And you just found him? Joe Gillray said to Johnny.

He was lying down in the middle of Pearl at three o’clock in the morning, Johnny said. He must’ve fell from the sky.

Well, well, said Joe Gillray. A man from Mars. Well, well.

Tecky vaggy, said the Martian.

Shut the hell up and eat your goddamn cannelloni, Johnny said.

Well, well, said Joe Gillray.

 

He could talk; I have to give him that. People say it’s ‘cause he’s Irish but I’ve known a few Irish boys and all they can say is How about you darlin’ and then they put their hand up your skirt. But Joe could talk, all right. I heard him giving his spiel to two Italians on the corner of Depeyster and Front.

You’ve never seen a thing like it.

Is that a fact?

Sure it’s a fact, my friend. Listen, I’ve been all over. I’ve seen it all. I’ve been all around.

Is that a fact?

I don’t think the Italians had good English.

Sure it’s fact, sure as I’m standing here, I’ve been all over the world, and when I saw this character, I thought my goddamn heart was going to stop. I thought I was going to drop dead right on the spot!

A spaceman, one of the Italians said.

A real-life man from Mars. Can you even imagine? An emissary, Joe said, from another goddamn galaxy.

A quarter?

That’s all I’m asking, Joe said. Each.

I stopped listening after that. I guess Joe got his fifty cents all right.

Then I went to see the Martian. They didn’t lock the door or anything, but the Martian stayed there anyway. Where else was he going to go? I went to see him. I talked to him; although I don’t know if you can call it talking to somebody when they don’t say anything back, and they can’t even understand what you’re saying in the first place.

So I guess what I did was, I went to see the Martian, and I just talked.

My father says there are canals where you come from, I said.

The Martian was sitting on the floor. Johnny had put down a mattress, blanket, rolled-up sweater for a pillow. The edges of the mattress were dark with damp. I didn’t know how the Martian’d been sleeping, or if he’d slept at all. Maybe – what did I know? – he didn’t even needto sleep.

He looked tired, though. There was a little grey stubble on his jaw. He nodded and blinked his big lazy eyes.

We got canals here, too, I said. Upstate mostly. I mean, far away. But not far away compared to where you’re from. I mean – Schenectady. Syracuse. Out there.

I didn’t think he could have been very old. Older than me, sure. I’m eighteen, eighteen and two thirds. But if he was just a normal guy I’d have said he was maybe thirty or thirty-five.

Maybe you could get a job there, if you decide you want to stay, I said. On a canal boat. Maybe if you save up the money Johnny and Joe give you, you can buy a ticket and go to Schenectady and work on a canal, or something.

As soon as I said it I felt like…well, I felt all of a sudden like I wanted to buy a ticket to Schenectady and take the train and go work on a canal boat. More than I wanted anything. It was only for a second, but it was a crazy feeling. I couldn’t work on a canal boat. I waitress, is what I do.

Or maybe you’ll be heading home, I said.

The Martian looked up at me and sighed. Then he licked his forefinger, and on the pale concrete floor he drew a ‘2’.

I wasn’t sure what to say. He was looking at me again.

You learned numbers, I said.

Kett, the Martian said.

I wondered how come he had on a blue flannel shirt and pants instead of a flying-suit or something. I wondered how he wound up in the middle of Pearl at three o’clock in the morning.

#

The thing about Johnny was that after he’d tried to put his hand inside your dress a couple of times and been told to cut it out, he wouldn’t try it again. I don’t say that that was a good thing about Johnny. But I guess it made him a damn sight better than a lot of guys, that’s all.

Cut it out.

C’mon. Joe wants to take him to Coney Island. He thinks we’ll –

Cut it out, Johnny.

Okay, okay. He thinks we’ll make a fortune there. Show him at Steeplechase Park or whatever they have there. In the freakshow or whatever.

Johnny’d never been to Coney Island. His parents never took him.

We were sitting on the harbourside at the bottom of Coenties Slip. I didn’t mind necking and I liked Johnny’s arm round my waist but I had on a dress I’d borrowed from my sister – it was cherryblossom pink with a satin rose on one shoulder – and Johnny kept mussing it up. Anyway I wanted to talk about the Martian. I like Johnny but sometimes I want to talk.

It’s a shame Barnum’s museum burned down, I said. You could have sold him to Barnum for a million bucks.

You think? Johnny said. God damn.

He didn’t see that I was kidding him.

I asked Johnny if he didn’t think he ought to tell the government about the Martian he’d found. Or at least the Mayor’s office or somebody.

He said, are you kidding?

I told him no, no I’m not. I was kidding before about Barnum but I’m serious now. People will want to know about this.

Johnny snapped his fingers.

That’s it, he said. We’ll sell it to the goddamn New York World!

I was sick of talking about it. I took hold of Johnny’s hand and put it on my bare knee.

#

Who put an end to it all in the end was Fat Pete Law. Pete Law was this fat guy who was friends with my father. I think he used to be in city politics or something. Now he was retired and all he did all day was sit around reading books and boozing. My father liked him. My father called him ‘the wisest fellow in Manhattan’, but I guess he was mostly kidding. With my father it can be hard to tell.

Whatput an end to it all was I went to see the Martian again. He’d been there three nights. Like I said, where the hell else was he going to go?

When I opened the door he was standing with his back to me and his face to the wall.

Hello, I said, but the Martian didn’t turn around. I guess he was pretty tired of being poked by Joe Gillray and gawped at by bums for a quarter a go.

It’s just me, I said.

He looked over his shoulder. I thought he’d look sore. I’d have been sore, if I’d been him. But he didn’t look sore. First, he looked tired, and because he looked tired he looked old. Second, he looked sad. I never in my life saw a face so sad. He opened his too-wide mouth and gaped like a fish on a slab.

I remember thinking, he’s crying, that must be how a man from Mars cries. He made a noise like a seagull: awk or arook.

Magger emley keztet, he said, engem a lannium. Ozzin yunyero lannio.

And then he was crying just like a man cries, just like anyone cries.

I’ve tried to repeat all this like he said it, the way he said the things he said, whatever the hell they were, but I know I can’t, really, because that was the craziest thing about the Martian. Sure his face was kind of peculiar and he’d been lying in the road at three in the morning, but the way he talked: you listened to him, and it was like Johnny said: you’d believe he was from another planet. It wasn’t even like talking. It was like music.

I’ve been around, Johnny would say, which was true, even though he’d never been to Coney Island. I’ve been all around this city, and I’ve heard ‘em all, all the lingos, the Bohunks, the Yids, the Swedes, the Krauts, even the Chinese and Japanese; they don’t talk this way, nobody talks this way. Nobody on this earth, Johnny would say, talks like the Martian talks. And he was right, I thought.

But here the Martian was crying just like anybody. He turned away from the wall; he turned to face me.

At first I was scared to touch him – I didn’t know if he’d be slimy like a frog or if I might get an electrical shock or something – but then I took hold of his hand, his right hand, and after that I wasn’t scared any more. His hand was dry. It was small and the skin was smooth: it didn’t feel like the hand of a guy who worked on a canal. I let go of his hand and put my arms around his neck, just because he was crying, just so as he’d stop. The guy had a bad body odour, but I guessed that wasn’t his fault.

He breathed out through his mouth and his breath wasn’t so great either. That was the garlic from all the goddamn cannelloni Johnny had been feeding him. He put his arms around my waist.

Sherrit nek hazzer minny most, he said, or sang, or whatever.

The sad little Martian kissed my hair and Johnny walked in through the door.

#

I tried to comb my hair to cover my eye but my dumb hair wasn’t long enough. It wasn’t like it was the first time I’d been hit, but it was the first time Johnny’d hit me.

Anna?

I have to use the bathroom, Dad, I said.

We had a little bathroom with a pan and a basin that we shared with the Podolskis next door. I didn’t know what I was going to doin there anyway, except be by myself for a little while. But my father said: no. Anna, look at me.

So I looked at him.

That’s a heck of a shiner, said Fat Pete Law.

The two of them were sitting at our kitchen table with a bottle of something clear. This was maybe seven o’clock in the evening. My father had his shirtsleeves rolled back. Pete Law was wearing an untied bowtie. Pete Law was said to be a sharp dresser.

My father drummed his fingers once on the tabletop and said: Wer?

When he was upset sometimes my father forgot to talk English.

I told him. I told him how Johnny had never done anything like it before but how he must have just lost his head, seeing me there. Johnny had swung his arm just as I was turning around and his fist had hit my face, right in my eye-socket. I told him how I figured Johnny must have pulled the punch, because it didn’t hurt too much. Johnny had called me a fucking Kraut bitch; I didn’t tell my father that. I told him that the Martian had attacked Johnny. He wasn’t much of a fighter: he’d caught Johnny a good one on the nose, but he didn’t hit hard enough, and Johnny’d folded him up with a punch to his guts. I told him how Johnny’d gone away then.

The main thing was, I told him about the Martian, and I told Pete Law, too.

Martian? my father said. Martin?

My father had a brother named Martin.

No, I said. Now I felt like a crazy person. A man from Mars. A Martian.

My father looked at Pete Law. Pete Law looked at me.

A Martian in Manhattan? Pete Law asked with a smile. I suppose he thought it was funny. He had a good sense of humour, although maybe he had too good a sense of humour. Not everything’s funny. I don’t think it is, anyway. I didn’t think this was.

Yeah, I said. Johnny found him in the street.

What a piece of luck, Pete Law laughed.

But my father didn’t think it was funny either. I guess he was afraid I was crazy. He took hold of my wrist.

Why do you think this man is a Martian, Anna?, he asked me seriously. Did he tell you that he is a Martian?

He doesn’t tell me anything, I said. He can’t. He doesn’t speak any English. He knows numbers, though.

What does he say? asked Pete. The idea had really tickled him.

I cleared my throat. I knew I couldn’t do it right, like the Martian did it, but I tried anyway. I tried to sort of sing it like the Martian did.

He says, I said, sherrit nek hazzer minny most.

I would like to go home now, said Pete Law.

My father blinked.

What do you mean? he asked Pete. Will you not have another drink?

Pete waved his hands.

No no. That’s what she said. That’s what her Martian said. Her Martian speaks Magyar. Who’d have thought? Either that, he added, or the goddamn kids have got a goddamn Hungarian cooped up in a shed someplace.

He laughed, and reached for his hat.

We’d better go, he said, and they both stood up.

A goddamn what?, I said.

#

I sat on the harbourside by myself. I tried to find Mars in the sky. The stars looked different here than they had on the doorstep, when my father had pointed at Mars and told me about the canals and Panic and Fear.

I touched my eyebrow with one fingertip. It was still sore.

I’d showed them where the wormy blue door was but I’d waited outside because I didn’t want to see him again. The Martian, or whatever he was. It was me that’d got him beat up, so I’d figured he wouldn’t want to see me, anyway. Through the door I’d heard them talking. I’d listened for a little while – it was like singing, or maybe like a vaudeville show where the guys talk backwards or something – but then I went away. I went home. An hour later my father came home, too.

He hugged me. My father always smelled very clean, like soap. He kissed me on my hair, right where the parting is. Then he poured himself a glass of the clear stuff, and then he poured me one, too, and I took it, even though I don’t much care for boozing. We both sat down at the table.

Mr Law’s mother, he said, was born in Budapest. Budapest, he said, is in Hungary.

I nodded.

Okay, I said.

Mr Law, he said, was able to speak with Laszlo Szengeller.

Okay, I said again. I sipped my drink. I don’t know what it was. It stung my lips. Then I said: who the hell is Laszlo Szengeller?

Laszlo Szengeller, my father said, is the greatest mathematician in Europe, and it turned out that he did think it was funny, or at least a little funny, after all, because he smiled.

Okay, I said.

He is your Martian, my father said.

Okay, I said.

It turned out that this Szellenger had come to New York on a Norddeutscher Lloyd liner, just like anyone might. There was a meeting or convention of math brains up at Morningside Heights. Analytic number theory, my father said. This Szellenger was the guest of honour. Only he hadn’t showed up: this Szellenger, my father said, was one of these guys who’s a whiz in math and science but can’t do up his own shoelaces. Szellenger got lost as he left the piers. Sometime in the night the poor dummy jaywalked out into Pearl Street and got knocked flat by a car. That’s where Johnny found him.

Isn’t that just like Johnny. Just like Johnny and goddamn Joe Gillray. They find the smartest guy in Europe just sitting in the street, and the best thing they can think to do with him is put him in a booth at goddamn Coney Island.

There is no need to be embarrassed, my father said, and touched my cheek with the back of his hand. Mr Szellenger is perfectly well now, he said, and smiled. Mr Law told me that he said to say hello to you. Hello and goodbye.

That was when I came down to the harbourside to sit by myself. I couldn’t find Mars. Everything up there looked alike to me. Everything down here too.

 

 

8 thoughts on “‘Crying Just Like Anybody’

  1. This is amazing. You get lost in the rhythm, which is a bit confusing at first, but you quickly get the pace and the story just flows. The narration feels so natural. I love how human all the characters are, flawed, but still trying to make the best out of they have. Well done!

  2. This was amazing, really amazing.

    The way the story flew from one place to another, to the characters and descriptions and every single thing. The scene when the Martian cries, I cried.

    I can’t compliment it enough.

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