To do all this walking in Austin, Tx, I need a pair of sneakers, says Robert. He points to the white and blue shoes he wears to walk to the university every morning. Sneakers, he says, so I’ll know what to ask for when I get to a store.
After peering into the windows of several stores on a shopping street near the university, I finally see sneakers displayed on the wall in orderly rows. The store is small, and a man behind the counter looks bored. He springs into action when I ask him for sneakers, size seven and a half, vanishing into the back of the store, then reappearing with the pair I’ve selected. He is cheerful and enthusiastic, his balding head gleaming under the neon light. I don’t know why I chose sneakers with white and green stripes made of what looks like suede; maybe they reminded me of the shoes I once glimpsed in a magazine called England left open on my boss’s desk at the Leningrad House of Friendship and Peace.
The salesman points to a stool for me to sit and kneels, a sneaker in his palm like an offering. Please, I plead silently, don’t try to put these shoes on my feet. I’m not ready for this, having just arrived from a land that had no shoes at all. Twenty-four years of nothing have warped me, and now I’m stupefied by all these choices, all this enthusiasm and kneeling.
The man takes hold of my foot and slides on the shoe.
I walk around the store, supple suede enveloping my feet.
“They look great!” exclaims the man, watching me turn in front of a store mirror.
I think so, too, but how do I ask him about the price? When do customers ask salespeople here how much a product costs? Should I have asked before he knelt in front of me, thus possibly preventing all this cheerful prancing around?
As soon as I take off the white and green sneakers, the man scoops them up and puts them back in the box. “Terrific,” he cries out, another word I don’t know. “So we’re all set here,” he says and heads toward the cash register.
I can no longer delay the agony. “How much are they?” I ask.
He looks at the box label. “Forty-four ninety-five.”
I open my Russian wallet, not big enough for dollar bills, and examine its contents. One twenty, three fives, and a couple of singles. I pour the bills onto the counter where the man is already writing out a receipt. “This is all I have,” I force myself to utter.
The man stops writing and looks at me as if I’ve suddenly turned into Grishka, a drunk with a battered face who used to sleep under my Leningrad courtyard archway. He picks up the bills and counts them, already knowing that it is eight dollars less than the amount on the box. There is annoyance in his eyes, but also suspicion.
“Don’t you have a credit card?” he asks curtly.
I don’t know what he’s talking about.
“Visa?” he says and peers from above his glasses.
“I have a visa,” I assure him. “I am a resident alien,” I say and pull out my green card.
The man throws up his hands in frustration, probably lamenting the moment he kneeled before me, his balding head glistening with drops of sweat. I feel guilty for entering this place, for sauntering before a mirror in sneakers I couldn’t afford.
“Take them,” sputters the man, nodding toward the box. “And go,” he adds and waves me out of his store.