Crazy Gus Meyerson and his now famous foot fetish.
I was washing dishes at the El Sombrero the day this business of the shoes began. People from all walks of life pass through the Sombrero's doors—construction workers and bank exec's, doctors and lawyers, call girls and Baptist stump preachers. Meyerson—a retired Republic Country Club janitor and former North Dakota farm boy—was a regular. Now and again a rumor would rise that Gus had a thing for the arch of a woman's instep—most recently from a hooker who'd claimed Gus forked out an extra $50 to play popsicle with her toes—but just as quickly the rumor would fade. To us, Gus was just another old sinner in baggy pants and suspenders cutting the boredom of his final days nursing drinks and trading stories in downtown Republic bars from morn to night. All this changed the day Gus came into his inheritance from the sale of his family's farm in Devil's Lake, North Dakota.
I was returning rinsed bus tubs to the bar when Gus came waltzing into the Cactus Room wearing a new powder blue Brooks Brothers suit and carrying the first shoebox. None of us had seen Gus in anything other than his Andy Capp hats and polyester suits coats and parkas. He hands the shoebox to little Shirley, our day bartender, then just stands there like some seventy-year-old teenage boy handing his Homecoming date a corsage in front of the whole family. No word of explanation. Just the bright pink box, sitting there on the tile counter between the fresh cut lemons and limes like hot property. Old Gus grinning, panting even like a hound waiting for a biscuit. Shirley looking at Gus Meyerson, at Myra Ailing, our boss—at me and everyone else in the lounge—wondering "Should I open it?"
It was then the trouble began. Maybe if Shirley had quickly clamped the lid on the box and slid it back across the tiles to Gus Meyerson, or if Myra Ailing, elevating her varicose-veined legs on a chair, had gotten up and escorted Gus and his little shoebox out of the bar in that gentle motherly fashion of hers—telling him to come back when he'd slept this one off—things might have turned out different. But maybe Shirley was feeling a little slighted by her boyfriend that day. Maybe the pain in Myra's legs was worse than usual. Whatever the case, none of these things happened. Instead, Shirley gingerly lifted the expensive-looking pair of red pumps out of their tissue-papered crib, and held them up in the neon light.
"Gussy!" Shirley said, stubbing her cigarette and kicking off her juice-stained flats. "You didn't!"
And that was all it took. Blushing, Gus left the lounge as speechless as he'd entered it. Three in the afternoon, this was. By five, he was back with two more pairs of pumps for Shirley, and a set of spiked heels for Shirley's relief, Darlene, the night bartender. By six, everyone at the Sombrero knew about Gus Meyerson's big inheritance. Myra had been shown an actual receipt of the Old National Bank deposit. She wasn't giving any numbers, but did let on that it was a "substantial sum."
Exactly how substantial became the bone of contention at the Sombrero the rest of that week. Cynical Maria, our lead waitress, put the figure at twenty-to-thirty grand, forty tops. Douglas, our doting busboy, agreed. This was predictable. Everyone knew that this four-eyed high school sophomore had a terrible pimple-aggravating crush on sexy black-eyed Maria. She had five illegitimate children by five different fathers and still a figure to make the starry halo over a Catholic priest glow. I tended to agree with the computations of our loud-mouthed, chain-smoking lead cook, Tony. Tony had ancestors still living in Minnesota, not far from the Red River Valley area of Devil's Lake, North Dakota. He claimed this was some of the richest black-peat farmland in the U.S. of A. Since word had been leaked the farm was a big one—at least a thousand acres—Tony figured no less than a cool Hollywood million. So even if Gus came from your typical Depression-era clan of ten that put his cut at a hundred thou. Add in the likelihood a few of Gussy's siblings had kicked the bucket, and that situated him at an even two hundred. Two hundred grand! Tony had come up with some doozies before, but this one definitely snaked the cake. Whatever the exact figure, it was at least enough that on Friday morning Myra interrupted me from vacuuming the banquet room to move Gus's new '94 Oldsmobile—parked along the bricks out back—to the $200-a-month parking garage one block up on 1stAvenue.
I do believe the smell of this money enticed us into ignoring little indiscretions on Gus's part that would not have been tolerated under ordinary conditions. I think Gus himself was sometimes amazed at things we let him get away with: often, for no apparent reason, a crazy close-lipped grin cracking over his wizened mug as he sat in his corner getting tight; laughing quietly to himself like a dog going unpunished for licking his nuts in front of the guests.
Over the next three weeks, Gus bought no less than thirty-seven pairs of shoes for Shirley, twenty-nine for Darlene, and fifteen for Maria. This is no exaggeration. All kinds: beautiful Spanish leather boots, simple jogging shoes, sheepskin moccasins from Montana, and kinky six-inch black leather spikes with interlocking chains at the ankles. You name it. Gus's only request was that the girls allow him to photograph them posing in their new footwear, preferably with skirts raised and plenty of pantyhose showing. Increasingly, a large 70s Polaroid camera was part of Gus's standard attire.
It was also around this time Gus began bringing women in with him, the kind of lonely broken older women you see mooching for drinks at places like Al Dorsey's and Vic's because their pensions and social security always seems to run a little short. Gus would buy the women large meals and drinks. Then, after they'd scraped their plates clean—many of them that hungry—he'd snuggle up to them, pressing all the harder when they put up protest. A sad, pathetic spectacle. But the thing is, while this was going down, we—the staff—only joked, "Ah. Old Gussy's getting good foot tonight!" Cruel, I know. But what else were we to do? It was already the end of September, and still business was no better than it had been all summer, the time of year when downtown Republic restaurants and bars lose up to fifty percent of their clientele to the parks and mountain lakes of North Idaho.
There were days when, if it wasn't for Gus Meyerson's ring-up, neither Shirley nor Darlene would have sold enough booze to pay their wages. And since Gus Meyerson had the dinero and we didn't, we were more or less obliged to prepare the man his food, serve it to him with a smile, and clean up after him. Either that or close up shop. In a sense, we were as much in Gus's snare as those poor wenches. Maybe that's why we joked so much about it? I don't know.
I do know that every dog has its day.
Gus's came out of a strange intimacy he struck up with a table of white-collar workers, real estate brokers and stock traders, CPAs, insurance men, and always a healthy bevy of smartly dressed bank tellers, stenographers and salesgirls. The kind of people who under regular circumstances wouldn't give a duffer like Meyerson the time of day. But now that this strange old man in $500 suits was buying the females in their group shoes—and oftentimes the whole table rounds of drinks—he was all the rage. It was a kind of circus for them.
Every weekday night, around 5:30, they crowded through the narrow partitioned doors of the Cactus Room, startling all us with their loud self-important banter and kibitzing around. Myra was no longer laid out in her regular booth, but was up and flying like a sleeping-bee shaken in its jar singing "The drought is over! The drought is over!" They brought friends and business associates with them to witness the act. They coined new nicknames for Gus, from Georgy Porgy (because of his resemblance to the comedian George Burns) to Pervy Wervy to simply, Dad. I don't believe more than a handful knew Gus's real name. But Gussy didn't seem to mind. Rather, he ate the attention up, sitting at the head of these combined tables like the birthday boy, drinking his brandy/sodas without ice, that alcohol-soaked tongue of his flicking out occasionally to match his chameleon eyes.
I wasn't there to witness most of this but got it from Shirley and Darlene that one couple seemed especially fond of Gus: a Century 21 broker and her All State claims adjuster boyfriend. She was the kind you see so much of in Republic: ex-high school cheerleader turned Republican Party booster with the Kewpie doll blue eyes and bleach-blonde hair—still a looker but bitter because she no longer quite fits the same red party dresses she wore in high school and can't give up. The boyfriend was a handsome black-bearded Russian-looking guy of about thirty, an ex-Navy SEAL (who, we learned later, had served briefly as a midshipman aboard the Exxon Valdez at the time of the famous oil spill).
These two began moving in on Gus, positioning themselves so Gus sat between them. They patted Gus's head by turns, checked that his tie was straight, made sure his glass was always full and that he was served a fresh doily napkin. They laughed uproariously at Gus's jokes, then smiled in warm conspiracy behind his back. Once, I noticed Gus catching them in such communion. His smile faded. He sat poker straight, suddenly sober—startled even—like a man rising from underwater. He mumbled to himself. He started to get up when, suddenly, his drink tipped over into his lap. In the mad flutter that followed, I can't say for sure that the Century 21 broker tipped Gus's glass on purpose. But judging how her experienced hands mopped Gus's lap with a wad of napkins, I'd say it's a pretty good bet she did.
It was her job to introduce the giggling young women to Gus. She'd get each applicant's shoe size, then chaperone Gus, herself and the girls through a little ritual that amounted to the girls feigning ignorance how Gus got their shoe-sizes right and then feigning gaiety when he quipped "a little bird told me!" before firing his Polaroid flash.
Things began getting a bit testy amongst the girls. Shirley, Darlene, and Maria expressed feelings of disappointment, neglect and betrayal now that Gus was no longer showering all his attentions upon them.
"Look at them goodie-two-shoes bitches fawning all over poor Gussy."
"Why see that little yellow-haired slut playing with Gus's wallet while she wiggles in his lap!"
"It's obscene is what it is! Like a pack of hyenas picking through bones."
"Yes, siree. He promised just last week he was gonna get me a new pair of Missy Ann's. Darlene was standing right beside me when he said it."
Even Douglas, the busboy, got into the act. When he inferred Gus was sexist buying shoes only for women, we teased him for secretly desiring to join Meyerson's harem.
And at the center of it all the Frog Prince himself, lapping it up. But not with his former relish. More and more a troubled expression crept into his face as if to say, "maybe I'm getting into too-deep waters." It seemed Gus was enjoying himself less and less (though he was shelling out the green stuff more and more). It got to be almost as if he was persecuting himself. Once, he bumped into me while I was passing through the bar with a full bus tub. Grinning, he'd casually asked, "Are we having fun yet?"
When I only shrugged my shoulders in reply (thinking of the bus tubs stacked five high waiting for me in the dish room), a crazed, hurt look came to his eye as if to say, "Is this what I get for all I have sacrificed here?"
And so it went and might have gone on until Gus Meyerson's monies ran dry if things hadn't gone, as they often will in these cases, a step too far.
Almost invisible at first—people were so caught up in the Christmas-like atmosphere of torn wrapping paper and open shoeboxes and crumpled tissue paper—we began to notice that the Century 21 broker was sometimes seen resting her shoeless panty-hosed feet in Gus Meyerson's lap. This was appalling. Myra, who had been strangely quiet up until now, was the first to point this out.
"Well, I'll be…"
Myra had willingly exiled herself from the bar. She'd consigned herself to a dark drafty booth at the back of the restaurant, behind the dish room and under the cracked neon EXIT sign leading out to the alley and dumpsters.
"Just so two perverts"—the first time Myra had used this word—"can play footsies in my bar and at my table!"
Customers or no customers, there came a point when a woman had to put her foot down. Gus Meyerson and his real estate bitch had awoken the Puritanical Beast in this ex-farm gal from Saskatchewan, Canada, and their days were numbered. So numbered, in fact, I don't think they'd have lasted the rest of that week if another Puritanical Beast hadn't beat Myra to the punch.
The All State claims adjuster boyfriend.
I was up to my elbows in dishes and hadn't even gotten my apron off before half the ruckus was over. When I entered the Cactus Room, Tony, our cook, had the boyfriend in a full-Nelson. He was yelling "Get off the fuck! Get off the fuck!" over and over, his enchilada sauce–stained kitchen towel still draped crazily over his large freckled forearms. Cynical Maria was alternately calming down a raving Myra and raving herself at the same pack of white shirts Myra had been raving at. Shirley and Darlene were finally having it out with Gus's harem of girls. And Gus Meyerson—the old dog—was stretched out on the floor, gasping for breath like a fish out of water.
Apparently, the Century 21 broker and a team of her cohorts had won a big zoning battle over a proposed commercial development site along the Republic River. They'd closed the deal with the city that afternoon and were celebrating their victory with guns-a-blazin'. Darlene said she was sure they were sneaking off to the restrooms to coke up. Before long, people were on tables and chairs, dancing to the juke box that was loud clear to the kitchen. Nobody knew how it started. But both Shirley and Darlene remember turning around at the same time after counting out Shirley's till and seeing Gussy on his hands and knees beneath the table. What they saw was so shocking it didn't register until it was too late. The Century 21 broker had—probably during one of her trips to the ladies room—removed her pantyhose and was swinging them overhead. She was laughing in a shrill falsetto while our Gus Meyerson performed fellatio on her feet, all five toes of her right foot in his mouth. Next thing they knew, the All State claims adjuster boyfriend—who'd been strangely sullen tonight—was all over Gus. If Tony hadn't come to the rescue when he had, we might have had a dead man on the Cactus Room floor.
For most of us Gus Meyerson's story ended here. Though he'd been coming to the El Sombrero as long as any of us could remember, he'd been handed an early death sentence as far as we were concerned. Once you're 86'd from the Sombrero, that's it. Myra, devout Catholic that she is, had even begun to pray for his soul's transition. She'd tied a sprig of dried palm branch over the entrance of the Cactus Room and was sometimes caught secretly praying a rosary over a glass of wine in her once again empty lounge. Shirley and Darlene couldn't join in enough jokes about their ex-Sugar Daddy now that his sugar-coated frosting was off. Cynical Maria was simply Cynical Maria: telling us she told us so—though she'd never told us a thing while it was going down. Tony and I, being men, were mute on the matter.
And things might have ended here for me too except, two weeks after the blow-out, who should I see leaning against a parking meter out front of the Sombrero but Gus Meyerson himself. Or rather, his ghost.
It was one of those terrible bright October mornings. I'd rolled out of bed only minutes before, and was having a hell of a time seeing anything with the glare coming off the Sombrero's white stucco street front.
Gus Meyerson was ripped. He had the characteristic shit breath and wall-eyed look of a bottom-feeding fish. The head of the parking meter was pressed against his chest so it looked like he was dancing cheek-to-cheek with it, mumbling sweet nothings into its ear as he conversed out loud with some imaginary friend or foe.
"Gussy? You okay?"
When he only smiled and continued his conversation with himself, I was about to continue on inside when—no exaggeration—he fell off the parking meter.
Seeing Gus clutching at his heart with a palsied hand—the other stretched out parallel to his body on the sidewalk—I realized he was having some kind of heart attack or stroke. He'd not been holding onto the meter so much as balancing himself upon it.
"Hold on, old boy…"
I am not a big man—only 5'3", 120 pounds—but I managed to get Gus off the cold concrete. With the help of a passerby, I shouldered Gus through the two sets of glass doors at the Sombrero's entrance.
"Ben! Somebody! Help!"
Ben, Myra's husband and the owner, was the only one I knew would be here at this early hour. I could see light from his office in the dressing room back of the bar. He came out wearing his wife's reading glasses, a string of receipts in hand.
"It's Gus. I found him–"
Ben was on the phone and calling for help even before I finished.
We stretched Gus out in the orange vinyl booth where the big blow-out had occurred. I noticed big cracks, holes even in the bottom of Gus's street shoes. And I shook my head, thinking how hard it is to understand anything about anybody.
Ben covered Gus with a sport jacket someone had left in the bar overnight. That was about all we could do. Customers were entering the lobby to see if we were open for lunch yet. I performed my opening chores. Ben finished making out the tills for the restaurant and bar, then finished his coffee and cigarette sitting at Gus's table.
By the time the paramedics arrived, Gus was sitting up and looking better. His face was still ashen, but the weird sweating had stopped and his hands no longer trembled.
Before the medics carried him out on a stretcher, Gus asked if Myra was on her way to the restaurant.
Ben told him, yes, she was.
He'd called her right after he'd called for the ambulance.
The funeral was on a Friday morning. It was at the little cemetery west of the Falls, in the shadow of I-90 and the old Burlington Northern trestle. It was a chilly end-of-October morning. This was usually a day I slept in—not having to be at work until three that afternoon—but the idea that only Myra would be attending Gus Meyerson's burial seemed too cruel somehow.
The groundskeepers were already throwing dirt on the casket by the time I arrived at the cemetery gate. I'd gotten on the wrong Republic Transit Authority Bus and had to walk an extra half-mile to get here. The hired priest had finished with his benediction, had slipped his little black book in a coat pocket and was busy comforting Myra. She reached out and took hold of my hand as I passed, reckoned "how good" it was that I had showed. I relayed the same and continued on.
Dead from a second and this time fatal stroke two days after I found him leaning against the meter. I stepped quiet as I could over the fallen leaves and grunted a hello to the groundskeepers as I arrived at graveside. Poor old bastard. Not a single relative had showed. Just Myra and me.
I waited until the groundskeepers moved off with their spades and rakes, then stepped closer. I turned up the collar of my jacket, dug my hands inside its pockets. All morning I'd been trying to think of something poetic to say. But my head was as empty as this two-bit graveyard with its spindly maple transplants, cracked concrete headstones and tractor-trailer trucks roaring by overhead on the interstate overpass.
"Well," I said, shivering a bit, "I'll give you this much, old boy. You know how to throw one hell of a going away party."
Gus had died a pauper. His inheritance hadn't been anywhere near what we'd imagined. "Ten thousand, or thereabouts," was the figure Myra later revealed to me under strictest confidence. The Chrysler dealership had repossessed his Olds. If it wasn't for the money Myra got pawning his Brooks Brothers suits and his toaster oven and what-have-you, he wouldn't have even had this decent burial. Personally, I'm convinced Ben and Myra threw in a few dollars of their own. I think they felt a little like I did, that we at the Sombrero had somehow let Gus down. I can't help but feel that we were at least a little guilty of not nipping this thing in the bud.
Maybe that's why Gus came to the Sombrero. Maybe he'd made the mistake of thinking of us as family and had expected us to put him quickly in his place. Maybe he thought we'd care more about him than the almighty dollar. I don't know.
I do know that none of his freshly soled friends were standing above his grave now. Myra stepped up and stood silent beside me, head bowed. I bowed my own head and smiled a little. Hell, I thought, maybe this is just how it should be: me in my duct-taped sneakers and Myra in her sensible brown loafers.