Thursday, March 13, 2008


Hoenig was no sucker. And as you might have guessed from his herbal medicines, a regular con in his own right, and at it longer. If there were used car salesmen in 1890, Hoenig would have been one. He smelled like oil, and something else, the spicy paprika he mixed into his pomade. It made his clients’ eyes water if they stood too close.

The women complained at his prices, and they were high. But they always bought. Handles of salvaged cooking pots, atomizers and combs, jars of oils and soaps, yamakas, candlesticks, and of course Hoenig’s special collection of healing salves. He knew they would buy, not because they needed a second hand hairbrush or a rusted horn, they just wanted him back. He understood that he was more than a salesman. He was an event. The villagers needed him to break up the monotony of their months and everything about him was orchestrated for that purpose.

Hoenig hauled his trinkets on a cart pulled by the two healthiest horses anyone in the villages he visited were ever likely to see, twelve hands tall and full of mucus and fire (he claimed he scrubbed their skin twice weekly with his energy inducing mud) (but really it was with a spice from Mongolia that burned their skin and made them choleric and ornery).

And though he claimed his voice was hoarse after a long day of auctions and bargaining, he could be persuaded by an offer of brandy, to recall the news and gossip he collected along his route. Hoenig made the rounds to the synagogue library, to the public house, and to the chess club. He never had to push his way through a crowded bar, any room very quickly rearranged to accommodate him. In the early evenings, Hoenig could always be found surrounded by wise looking men, their beards twisted round their forefingers, while his own greased braid soaked in a pint of lager.

Tall and hunched as he was, Hoenig was capable of dramatic entrances, a chill might sweep across a room when the door opened, his appearance in the entry way cast a shadow in the shape of a question mark across chess games in play, then his top hat could be seen, as if floating, above the shortish Jews, nudged askew to reveal a wisp of exotic orange hair. Even after he made his exit, his presence remained; in the hushed absence of his voice, and in the lingering reek of his pomade, a smell that hung in the air and seemed to maintain Hoenig’s very shape.