This short story was originally published in Epoch Magazine, and appears in Seduction Theory: Stories (W.W. Norton, 1995)
It all began as a conflict between Gray’s Papaya and Taco Rico, who had peacefully existed side by side for years, on the corner of 72nd Street and Broadway. Gray’s Papaya sold various tropical juices which were supposed to make you live longer, and hot dogs. Between the juices and the hot dogs, one’s life expectancy would presumably come out even. Taco Rico sold tacos, and had a small hot dog trade on the side. At both establishments a hot dog cost a dollar.
Walter Weil, recently graduated from college and with a lot of free time on his hands, would occasionally stop for a hot dog at Gray’s Papaya, a few blocks from his house. Sometimes he would stop for a taco at Taco Rico. It didn’t occupy him throughout the day. He didn’t dwell on it. He didn’t expect it to have any bearing on his on his love life.
The initial salvo was fired by Gray’s, which occupied the sizable corner location. Taco Rico was wedged into a narrow space next door, up the block on Seventy-second street. Gray’s posted a sign declaring a hot dog special: ninety cents each. Taco Rico, for reason’s involving pride or economics or both, retaliated. Outside their store front, they posted a larger sign which read: “The Best Hot Dogs in New York- Eighty Five cents each!”
Tension built. What was once a casual, if somewhat messy corner populated by two stores and a newsstand turned into a riveting scene of people standing in front of the two establishments, deliberating which place to buy a hot dog. Walter was one of those people. His instinct was to be loyal, but since he had patronized both places in friendlier times, there was no one to be loyal to. When Gray’s dropped their price to eighty cents, he bought from them. When Taco Rico came back with a price of seventy five cents, he bought from them. It was a war of attrition, one nickel at a time.
He met Delia at seventy cents, standing in front of Gray’s Papaya.
“You’re supporting the competition,” she said one breezy afternoon, without any effort to be friendly.
She had a slender neck that supported a wide pale face with long lashed dark eyes. Her hair was short and brown and was topped by a peculiar pillbox hat that might once have been the favorite of somebody’s eccentric grandmother. The combination gave her the appearance of a strange and aggressive flower. He had been staring, as he sometimes did. It wasn’t a rude or lascivious stare; it was the blank, lost in thought variety. He wasn’t used to having the recipients of his stares, which often including such inanimate objects as the sidewalk, talk back. The exact thing he had been staring at, while standing in front of the newsstand on the corner, was Delia’s mouth.
“What do you mean, the competition?” he said. He had just emerged from Gray’s.
“Gray’s is the favorite. I tend to support underdogs against the establishment,” said Delia.
“They happen to be cheaper right now. I guess I’m being mercenary.”
They were both holding hot dogs. She had emerged form Taco Rico with a drink in one hand and a hot dog with sauerkraut in the other. She was managing to eat the hot dog with incredible grace and tidiness, something Walter thought impossible and never seriously attempted. It was a question of technique.
“You were staring,” she said.
“I do that sometimes,” he said. “I didn’t mean to be intrusive.”
She looked like a silent film star. She wore a jacket with a narrow waist that flared slightly at her hips and brown bell-bottom trousers whose cuffs reached all the way to the heel of her shoe; her eyelashes were long and laden with mascara. Each blink took place as if in slow motion. Her eyes had the clear, impassive quality of someone who wasn’t easily amused, but wasn’t entirely beyond it either.
“You have beautiful eyes,” said Walter. To say such a thing to a woman, let alone to one he had never met before, was so out of character that as soon as the words had left his mouth he felt a spasm of panic.
“Just look at the eyes of the Taco Rico man. They’re getting darker by the day,” she said.
She made a rather delicate maneuver, balancing the hot dog on top of the Styrofoam cup of Coke and reaching down to pick up a newspaper and stick it under her arm.
At the last moment she had to reach over and steady the hot dog. It was then that Walter offered to hold to Coke and she let him. It was, he often thought in retrospect, their first moment of intimacy, since one doesn’t let an absolute stranger hold your Coke. Walter was so pleased with the situation he almost didn’t want to give the coke back after she completed her transaction. But he did and she said goodbye, walking east on Seventy-second street. As she walked away Walter stared at her jaw line. It was moving in a very attractive manner, and even after he stopped looking at it, he could picture it clearly.
He turned toward the newsstand, which was crammed with magazines dangling like Christmas decorations. There was a face on the cover of each one, looking at him. He looked at the faces and noticed one in particular; it moved. It was the Pakistani news dealer’s face, in his little box, peering out at him with a quizzical look on his face.
Women were like campfires to Walter: warm and comforting in the midst of the wilderness, but if you didn’t keep an eye on them you might end up engulfed in flames. He generally played the role of cynic when his friends confided details of their own women related problems. His own relationships tended to be groping and short lived. He had had his fair share of sexual experiences, but he had come to think of sex as a form of roulette; once something was set in motion it was nearly impossible to control. Even these encounters, which started at the end of high school and continued sporadically throughout college, had trailed off, and in their absence he was almost able to forget the completely nauseous terror of having a crush.
“I met a girl,” Walter told his friend Augie. Augie was a little on the short side and his red hair had been prematurely thinning since college, but he was extremely energetic and vehement and had always done well with women. In fact, he talked about them incessantly, and Walter assumed he would be interested in talking about Delia.
“I actually met a girl who I like,” repeated Walter. He waited for Augie’s congratulations.
“Bad news,” said Augie. “Women are bad news if you don’t know how to handle it, and you don’t know how to handle it. You’re going to want things from them they’re not going to be able to give. They’re going to make you complacent.”
“But I’ve been complacent long enough without any help from women!” said Walter. “Maybe I’m strange, maybe I have an inverted psychological metabolism, but I get very excited and active around women.”
“That’s just the point. All that excitement drains you of the energy you could be using to look inward and find something out about yourself. With women around you get excited about all the wrong things.”
“Well, what are the right things?”
“It’s not for me to say. But you have to be creative. Right now, I’m very excited about dissuading you from going out with this girl.”
“We’re talking about a few chance encounters here. I chatted with her in front of a newsstand and held her Coke. I’m not on the threshold of marriage.”
“You’re on the threshold of obsession,” said Augie. “It may already be too late.”
Walter began loitering in front of the newsstand in the hopes of seeing Delia again. He had been buying from Taco Rico exclusively, in spite of the fact that Grays was a nickel cheaper just then, a mere sixty cents. So he was shocked to see her emerge from Gray’s with a hot dog and what appeared to be a Papaya drink.
“I’m confused by your behavior,” he announced.
For a moment she appeared to be considering walking away, thwarted from her paper by a strange man, but then she recognized him.
“Oh, hi,” she said. “What are you confused about?” She looked over his shoulder at the array of magazines behind him. “The magazines? I could suggest one. There’s a wide variety of the ones with dirty pictures which are all displayed prominently and then there are the respectable ones stacked neatly in the corner.”
“No, I mean, You’ve just come out of Gray’s after that lecture about the underdog and me being a mercenary.”
“Oh. It’s true.” she said, suddenly pensive. “That’s a little hypocritical isn’t it? It was the lure of the papaya juice I think.”
“Immortality is tough to resist.”
She didn’t answer because she was chewing in that neat manner Walter liked so much. He introduced himself.
“My name is Delia,” she said. Since her hands were full they didn’t shake.
“That’s a nice name,” Walter said, and immediately flinched internally at how banal he sounded.
“I don’t know what came over my mother. Now she calls me Dee.”
“Okay, I’ll call you Dee.”
“No, don’t do that. Only my mother calls me that.”
“I see,” said Walter. “I wouldn’t want to intrude on your mother’s territory.”
“No,” said Delia, following the word with a blink as slow as a curtain call. “You wouldn’t.”
Suddenly the subway station across the street released a trainload of people who poured forth from the ancient brick structure with the enthusiasm of escaped convicts. The corner surged with activity.
“It was nice seeing you again,” said Delia. Then she gave him a playful wink, one eye flicking shut and open in a solo performance. “You must really like hot dogs.”
As she said this she was already turning away and joining the stream of people moving up the block, so the last word came nearly over her shoulder, accompanied by what Walter thought was a warm smile. After she had left he turned back to the newsstand. Walter shrugged at the small Indian Man, who looked back inscrutably. It was just then that Walter realized he had forgotten to talk about his planned topic of conversation, which was that yes, the eyes of the Taco Rico man were getting very dark indeed.
When Walter was growing up everything he did seemed in preparation for something else. A bath was a prolog to the towel, a T-shirt a preparation for the shirt on top of it. At his ninth birthday party someone has asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up and he said, “ten.” When he was in high school he had looked forward to college and when he was in college he always had one eye on The Real World, which was how he and his friends phrased it then, as if it were a glimmering city just over the horizon to be visited during summer vacation. After such a long buildup, however, The Real World was turning out to be a disappointment. It unnerved him to think that this was it, his life, in progress. The trailers were over, the movie had begun, but it had none of the benefits of a movie; you couldn’t blow it off and rent it later, you couldn’t see it more than once, and you couldn’t know ahead of time how long it lasted. There was the sneaking suspicion that somewhere along the line, he had missed an essential detail of how to live.
“Sometimes I wonder if some huge monstrous event is going to fall on me from the sky, something I’d never expect,” Walter once said to Augie.
“You have to court calamity,” Augie had told him.
Walter began to spend his late afternoons on the corner of Seventy-second street, Waiting for Delia to show up. It was a corner designed for passing through, not for hanging around, and Walter began to feel a kind of camaraderie with the corner’s permanent inhabitants– the newsman, the man at the take out window of Gray’s, the Taco Rico man. It was early spring, and the whole city was experiencing the slight lift in mood that comes from the discovery that it is pleasant to be outside, and one needn’t constantly rush to the next enclosed, heated space. People began to unfurl their bodies and stretch out; a sense of expansion was in the air.
It wasn’t long before Delia came by again, part of a huge rush of people springing forth from the subway station. She didn’t stop for a paper or a hot dog, so Walter had to jog to catch up to her. At the last moment he realized he had nothing to say and froze. But she had noticed him by then.
“You’re staring again,” she said. It was true. Walter was staring intently at the soft and, he thought, forgiving contour of her lips.
“I’m sorry,” Walter said. “It’s a bad habit.”
“You seem to be on this corner a fair amount,” she said. Every sensory mechanism in his entire body was flung forward trying to tell if she was being friendly or if she thought he was some potential weirdo who ought to be discouraged. His sensors couldn’t provide any conclusive evidence one way or another. Just then Walter had the incongruous thought that he seemed most attracted to women who held out the possibility of disaster.
“I like hot dogs,” he said.
“Another bad habit.”
She blinked. Her head seemed to pivot slightly as if a thought pertaining to the man in front of her had just registered.
“Bye,” she said.
She had taken several steps down the block when Walter lurched into action, running up beside her and blurting out an invitation to have a drink, to exchange phone numbers. As he said it, he nearly shut his eyes, as if he were going over the top of a roller coaster.
She paused for a moment, head pivoted, another thought. “Alright,” she said, eyes open, and in no time he had her number in his pocket. The whole thing happened very quickly.
“Something excellent has happened,” exclaimed Walter.
“What?” said Augie attentively. Augie was always happy for his friend’s good fortune, whenever some of it rolled around.
“Delia. I asked her on a date. I mean, I have her number, we talked about a date, we basically have a date.”
“The girl! How could you forget about the hot dog girl?”
“Oh, from the newsstand. You have a date. Well, this is either the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning. I don’t know which would be worse.”
Walter paused a moment to wonder weather Delia had referred to him as The Hot Dog Man in conversation with her friends. The thought made him sad and exhilarated. He imagined becoming part of her life, having overlapping friends, private jokes. Embracing on a crowded street as people rushed by.
“Augie?” said Walter in that tone of voice that people take on when about to ask for a favor, “I was thinking that perhaps you could join Delia and I for our first drink. It might take of the pressure off, make it more casual, you know.”
They were huddled in a dark crowded bar called the P&G on Seventy-fourth street, hunched close over a small table in the back. Walter and Augie drank beer from bottles. Delia had a scotch with ice.
Walter realized after he had introduced Delia and Augie that he didn’t know her any better than Augie did; they were more or less on equal ground as far as familiarity went, and the conversation proceeded accordingly, like three people meeting for the first time. It annoyed Walter, because he had invested a lot of energy in contemplating Delia, her body, her demeanor, imagining a history for her, thinking of her naked and next to him, blinking softly.
“So,” said Augie. “What do you do?”
“I’m a film student,” said Delia. “I have a day job, but that’s what I really do.”
Walter wanted to know what her day job was, because he had spent hours standing around wondering where she was just then and what she was doing, but Augie responded before he got it out.
“Are you going to go Hollywood and sell out right away or are you going to be experimental and have integrity?” Said Augie.
“I know a lot of people who are experimental and don’t have integrity.” said Delia.
“And I suppose it’s possible to go to Hollywood and not sell out,” said Augie, though he didn’t really look like he believed it.
“I know people who have integrity and don’t experiment,” Walter chimed in. Both Delia and Augie looked at him as if he had just made an extreme non-sequitor.
“Delia, where are you from anyway?” asked Walter, ignoring their moment of commiseration. He enjoyed saying her name.
“The North Pole,” said Delia, directing the answer to Augie.
“I see. The ice goddess,” said Augie.
“And you’re from down south?” said Delia. “Straddling the equator, perhaps?”
“I’m from Cozad, Nebraska,” said Augie. He had once been slightly ashamed of this fact but then realized its novelty had a kind of cachet.
“His town apparently has the best selling postcard in Nebraska,” said Walter.
“All right, fine,” said Augie. “Bring that up. I’m not ashamed. It says ‘Cozad, the Alfalfa capitol of the world.’ It has this ugly looking tin colored industrial thing in the picture. I admit it. I’ll probably live to be a hundred considering the amount of alfalfa I ate as a kid.”
“We’ll all be better off for it,” Walter said.
But Delia didn’t reply. Instead her face went soft, exposed. “Wow,” she said faintly. “My first boyfriend, the big love of my life, sent me that post card when we just started going out. It was when everything was just starting and it was very intense and romantic. He drove across country without me and the one time I heard from him was when that postcard came. On the back the only thing written was, ‘To my sprout.’
There was a meaningful silence. Walter felt himself withdraw, becoming a spectator; it was a role he often assumed even when it was he himself that was the subject of his watching, an audience to his own life. Delia took a sip of her scotch.
Then Augie spoke. “You fell in love with a guy who called you sprout?”
Had Walter been afraid of what had happened, what had happened might not have happened. But it hadn’t occurred to him and so he blithely went into the evening, only to watch Delia and Augie connect like the opposite ends of two batteries.
Walter had seen this before. Augie never seemed to get into relationships cautiously like someone stepping into a hot bath. He got into them the way people step into unexpectedly deep puddles.
“I hope you don’t mind,” said Augie, genuinely concerned.
“Of course I don’t mind,” said Walter, minding terribly.
“If you guys had been involved I never would have let things happen, but I though since it was just this passing thing, I mean a thing in passing.”
“Yes, yes, Jesus,” said Walter “It’s not a big deal. I knew her from the street.”
Walter’s relationship to Augie went through the subtle and unspoken transition friendships go through when one party becomes involved with someone. Walter insisted to himself that it was no big deal and in a way it wasn’t. His schedule didn’t change. It wasn’t as if he suddenly had more time on his hands. Augie was discrete enough not to talk about the romantic aspects of his time with Delia.
And Walter still spent time on the corner, though not as much. The taste of hot dogs had become inexorably linked to Delia and thoughts of Delia were now accompanied by a tightening in his chest; the sight of a pack of eager, sprightly people springing forth from the exhausted looking subway station made him retract a little and want to go somewhere more private, where there wasn’t so much paper and debris swirling around his feet.
One fateful day Gray’s delivered what was clearly intended to be a knock out blow in the hot dog war. The entire outside of the store was painted white, with the words, “Hot Dog Revolution! Fifty Cents!” scrawled urgently in thick black paint. It gave the store a kind of Berlin wall feel. The new image worked. The store was packed with Papaya-swigging, sauerkraut-chomping customers. Next door Taco Rico had amended their sign to read: “The Best Hot Dogs in New York! Fifty Cents!” But there was a decided absence of grandeur to it.
Feeling that the funereal mood of Taco Rico was much closer to his state of mind, Walter went in. The man’s eyes were quite dark. The store was fairly quiet.
“What can I do for you?” said the man behind the counter.
Taco Rico closed sooner than Walter expected, and a sign appeared, also sooner than Walter had expected, announcing the imminent arrival of an electronics store. And the electronics store opened sooner than Walter expected, so the whole corner was transformed quite quickly. In the window of the electronics store, among all the other gadgets, was a video camera and video monitor. The camera was aimed right at the newsstand.
Walter’s routine changed slightly. Now when he bought a hot dog (for the low price of fifty cents, two dogs and a medium tropical drink for a dollar eighty five!) he would wander over to the newsstand to eat it and browse, except sometimes instead of looking at the newsstand, he’d would watch it on television, where he could also watch himself eating. There he would be, and behind him all the faces on the magazines, and behind them the little Indian man in his box who was also looking at the T.V. screen, which seemed to have him so transfixed he could barely be bothered to deal with his customers. Once, Walter and the Indian man stared directly into each other’s eyes, both pairs of which were trained on the screen. The two of them looked at each other, their gaze suspended. Without thinking, Walter smiled and waved. Much to his surprise, the Indian man waved back.
This short story was originally published in Epoch Magazine, and appears in Seduction Theory: Stories (W.W. Norton, 1995)