Once, a long time ago, I knew a guy named Martin who did not like to be called Marty, though I’d heard another man, Charles, who himself allowed people to call him Chuck, call him Marty on several occasions. So he, Chuck that is, was the only one allowed to call him Marty, perhaps, though I’m not sure, because Martin was afraid of Chuck, or, at the very least, afraid of appearing uptight around Chuck’s Mustang convertible and collection of antique golf clubs he kept in the trunk.
Martin and I were coworkers, though saying so implies some kind of cooperation that did not in fact exist. He sold men’s shoes, I sold women’s, which is to say, I had all the customers and did all the work, and he had all the free time.
“I’m going to bake some pies,” Martin said to me one afternoon, late, when the sun slid down the windowpane like so many ripe fruits gone rotten in the fields.
“What kind of pies?” I said. I was counting down my drawer, something I’d learned to do while talking at the same time. Martin was clearing the showroom of loafers and high tops and heels. We were supposed to run the vacuum, but we always skipped that part and cut out early.
“Key lime pies,” Martin said, “Chuck’s favorite.”
“You hang out with Chuck?” I said. This was news to me.
“Chuck’s very into Key lime pie,” he said. “He wants to move to Florida.”
Something to know about Martin is that he adored other men, but was not, to my knowledge, gay. Back then—when I was a mere underling at the shoe store—I myself was gay but had yet to tell anyone about it. Nowadays I’m still gay, but everyone knows about it and finds it very boring. Who can blame them? I’m the manager of the shoe store now, however, a single step up in the long staircase of life. Eventually, Martin and I had a falling-out, but after that he disappeared into the fabric of local life. I have a neighbor who still runs into him at the natural foods store, but something tells me he still eats plenty of foods that are unnatural.
“I thought Chuck didn’t like Shoobies like you,” I said. Shoobies was our name for people who’d worked at the shoe store six months or fewer. Chuck was an old hand, having worked there most of his adult life and not once but twice refusing promotion to manager. He said the extra responsibility would interfere with his social life, which, to my knowledge consisted of teaching ballroom dancing lessons and attending Star Trek conventions. Still, Chuck was popular. Martin, in particular, loved him. I’d once played softball with Chuck’s half-sister, so I knew about him. His lawn chairs, in particular, were nicer than anyone else’s.
“You’re right,” Martin said. By now we’d locked up for the night and had decided, after some deliberation, to have a smoke in the parking lot before going home. “Chuck does hate Shoobies, but he’s made an exception for me.”
“You’re like Chuck’s Special Shoobie, then?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Just that you two are buddies, that’s all. Like the two of us.”
“Not like the two of us,” Martin said. “Nothing like the two of us.”
“I heard Chuck’s half-sister likes to go to the natural foods store.”
“Where’d you hear that?” Martin said.
“Around,” I said. I took a chance and pretended to be a kidder. I was not the type of person who might dig my elbow into someone else’s ribs, but I was the type of person to pantomime digging my elbow into someone else’s ribs, you know, to show affection. “You two are big buddies, I guess. Marty.”
“Chuck calls me Marty,” he said. “Just Chuck.”
“Does Chuck like coffee?” I said. “Because coffee goes well with pie.”
“I don’t think he likes coffee,” Martin said. “Look, can we stop talking about Chuck?”
“You’re the one who always wants to talk about Chuck,” I said. “Shoobie.”
When I realized our relaxed parking lot chat was turning into a fight, I decided to pull the plug and go home. Besides, I had to be back at work early the next day. After Martin hoisted himself up into the cab of his truck and was safely around the corner, I went back into the shoe store to check the schedule; I wanted to know if either Martin—or Chuck—was assigned to my same shift the following day. To my relief, they both had the entire day off and I instead would be working with a woman named Michelle, who was several years my senior and a very hard worker, if a bit aloof. Every day she brought a briefcase to work, but never opened it; the rumor was she was stealing rolls of toilet paper from the stockroom, but I was not the kind of person to believe rumors. All the next day, while I sorted and stacked Hush Puppies, while I stretched slipper socks onto the callused feet of churchgoers, while I cut my middle finger on a pair of girls’-sized soccer cleats, my mind wandered to what Martin and Chuck must have been doing without me. My thoughts grew increasingly obsessive. Were they listening to “Hernando’s Hideaway” or “Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)” while riding around in Chuck’s Mustang convertible? Were they touring our town’s finest golf courses, eating slim and glistening slices of Key lime pie with their bare hands?
It was then I realized imagination was more powerful than actual experience, and, in order to demonstrate my commitment to the arts, began what became a lifelong interest in metallurgy and handcrafted jewelry. To this day, I sell ankle bracelets under the table in the back room of the shoe store. I don’t make a lot of money, only enough to cover materials and labor—you could call it a side hustle, but the truth is I do not hustle.
About a week later, Martin, who by that time had officially changed his name tag so that is said, “Marty,” stopped into to the store one night when he wasn’t working, though he was still wearing his stupid nametag. I thought at first he’d stopped in to pick up his paycheck, but when I looked on the shelf—this was before the days of widespread automatic electronic deposit—I saw only a layer of dust and the same dull pencils with chewed-up erasers that were always there, a mark of our then-manager’s untidy habits.
I’ve long since removed the offending shelf and replaced it with a digital clock.
“Hey, Marty,” I said. “Where’s Chuck?”
“It’s Martin,” he said. “Pay no attention to the name tag.”
“You and Chuck out on the town?” I said. “Gone golfing?”
“Chuck’s getting married,” he said, his voice unsteady, like the rhythm of an old rocking chair when it rocks, for a while, even after the person who was sitting in it has risen to his feet.
“Chuck would never get married,” I said, even though I’d never before heard the details of Chuck’s personal life. “Say, Marty. Martin. Why are you crying?”
“It’s because of you,” he said. He put his finger to my chest and pressed, hard. “I’m crying because of you.”