Old Man Oshenschlager had the heaviest thumb in the neighborhood. He used to stand behind that old scale and weigh things, and you could look in through that little glass window where it said Toledo, Accuracy, look in at the revolving drum spinning around in there, and old Oshenschlager, wearing his straw hat with his rolled-up sleeves held by sleeve garters and that big bloody apron of his, would just stand there and look kinda squinty-eyed at the back of the scale. He'd say: "That'll be forty-seven cents please."
And my mother at the other side of the counter would say: "Get your thumb off."
He would say, Madam?"
Of course, he knew my mother for years. My mother knew him for years. And they were playing The Game. She knew it was forty-seven cents, and so did he. Two adversaries, each worthy of the other's steel and mettle.
And she would ask: "Are those eggs fresh?"
What is it that drives housewives into asking such ridiculous questions? Has anyone ever been answered: "No. These are not fresh eggs, Madam. Actually they are a week and a half old."?
And then my mother would say: "Fifteen cents worth of summer sausage. Sliced thin. "And I'm standing there next to her, and I'm getting embarrassed, because every time she said sliced thin, he would say: "How thin do you want it?"
And she would say: "Thin." And he would put it on the machine that used to slice things thin. It was a big revolving wheel with a handle on it, and it was painted red. It would go whoosh! You know, it would go zing, zing, the sound that it makes, zing. I used to always want to go in there and slice something. Anything. Zing. Zing.
And Oshie then would take one of the thin slices of summer sausage and hold it up and say: "See? You can see the light bulb through it." My mother would say nothing. She would just look at him.
These two had been sparring now for maybe four hundred years. And she'd look down and she'd say : "I
want a half pound of fresh sauerkraut, and I want it from the bottom of the keg."
Oshie would say, "Fresh sauerkraut. Half pound. I've only got the one pound containers here."
"l only got the one pound containers here."
And she'd say: 'ĽOne pound, please."
You see, he had just scored a point. She had scored three on the summer sausage. And so they played back and forth, each one knowing where the other stood.
And then my mother would say: "Cash." Oshie always tried to get her to put it on the book. Because somehow he felt that if he put her on the book, she would be hooked forever.
Oshie was a pusher at heart. What he pushed was lamb chops. Because, you see, he never sold lamb chops to our family. We were not a lamb chop family. And the only time he could ever sell lamb chops to anybody in that neighborhood was when he got them on the book and they got reckless.
The book was an early version of the credit card. And you know what happens when you get credit cards. Did you read about that kid that travelled across the country and he finally arrives at Las Vegas? Did you hear about him ?
Yeah, the kid's spent about nine g's on somebody's credit card. And he's finally reached Las Vegas. Great scene. The kid's standing there, and he wants to buy some chips on credit. Did you know you can sign for chips on your credit card now? Hah! Yes, pay for your sins later. Buy ecstasy on time.
And so the kid's standing out there in the outer darkness, with all the regulars down there knocking it around, you know, and they're playing roulette. The kids get the itch to put a couple on black, seventeen. And he's standing there and he's obviously a rookie, this wisp of a boy. He doesn't know how to say it or how to do it. He's spending his first ten thousand dollars. It doesn't come easy, at first.
Then suddenly, in walks Frank Sinatra, of all people, and Sinatra sees the kid hanging around on the outside there, shifting, and all the regulars are down there, you know the ones, with the pearls hanging on them, with the sharp hawklike beaks. Sinatra says: "Let the kid roll!" And they cleared a path and the kid moves in and blows five hundred in thirty seconds. Turns and walks out a happy man. You see, this is the principle Oshenschlager worked on.
If Oshie could get you on the credit book, it was lamb chops. When you pay cash, it's summer sausage, sliced thin.
I can remember my mother saying : "Cash.'' She puts down her seventy-eight cents.
Oshenschlager smooths his thumb across that bloody apron: "Yes. Be seeing you."
She says: "Yep." And we walk across that sawdust and leave the butcher shop with its smells of dill pickles and Oshenschlager and butter, sauerkraut, and women haggling.
But I was learning something there. There were principles. You would almost hear the sword being drawn from its scabbard.
It would be kind of nice to fight a duel again. Not that we aren't, in a sense, in fact almost constantly, in one sense or another, all the time.
Let the kid roll!
"Old Man Oshenschlager" is from Shepherd's forthcoming book, "Bubbles in the Air"