published in Volume 2, Issue 4 on July 27, 1995
Some people are hopeless. Jack and I have known each other since we roomed together in college. I've been wining and dining him and his various wives for the better part of two decades. Never once did I suggest he was an irresponsible child, a big baby who bolted from every serious relationship he's ever been in. I even let him sleep on my sofa after each of his marital fallings-out. I loaned him money (some of which he actually paid back). I let him borrow my cars, which he ran into the ground as if they were his own -- correction: as if they were not his own. I put up with his tirades against capitalism, organized religion, and anything else which he imagined I held dear. I never forgot his kid's birthday or failed to buy his current wife a Christmas present.
But no more.
We have him over two or three times a year. He lives in Park Slope now. Jennie and I are still in the same brownstone we bought in Cobble Hill when Jack lived over this way with his first wife. Carol was a sweetheart, pure Marymount but without the Mounty's sharp tongue or prissy manners. She doted on Jack, actually supported him so he could paint his watercolors. He's a good artist, though not as good as he likes to think. Until last Saturday we hadn't seen him since the summer. We spent most of August in New Hampshire at an old farm my partner owns. I offered our brownstone for that time to Jack and his present mate, but he declined -- said the "vibes" were wrong.
He always brings a bottle of wine to these get-togethers, the same generic Bordeaux Rouge. I think he's trying to make a statement: "I'm just an ordinary bloke, a man of the people." I don't mind that he doesn't bring anything better than vin ordinaire. I couldn't care less if he brought nothing at all. In fact, I'd prefer it that way. It's not my fault nobody buys his paintings.
I was standing at one of the big windows on the parlor floor when I spotted him and Mona coming down the block, Jack in his twenty-year-old raincoat, Mona in something off the rack from the Salvation Army. The wine was tucked under his arm. They were neither of them talking, and Jack looked especially glum. I remember thinking, 'Uh, oh,' because since the baby arrived last January, we don't have a room to spare. 'It's the YMCA for you this time, my friend,' I said, turning my attention to the Coopers' West Indian cleaning woman who was shooing a scrawny stray from the garbage cans in the areaway. Which reminded me of something that happened the week before. But I'll come to that later.
"Something for the spirit," Jack said, handing me the wine. I mouthed some words of gratitude, noting the $2.99 price tag. But subtlety is lost on that man. He beamed as if he had just presented me with a '67 Chateauneuf du Pape. Then Mona offered her cheek and I suggested that we have an aperitif in the parlor.
We redecorated last spring. Rewired the entire house, had plumbers and plasterers in, and finally restored the oak parquet which was laid on original cherry planks at the turn of the century. With the paint job, the work damn near cost a second mortgage, but the house's value increased fifty percent. Not that we're thinking of selling. Tanya's only in kindergarten, and Bobby starts Trinity High School in the fall. We also bought a new sofa and armchairs -- ordered the patterns directly from Braunschweig. To fill up some of the white space on our new walls we bought a couple oil paintings from a local artist I'd had my eye on. One is a huge floral arrangement, slightly out of focus, the other a beach scene. They each measure four foot square, but you'd have to see our parlor walls to appreciate how well they look.
I made the mistake of hoping Jack would approve. I should have known better. It's not as if I don't have plenty of his own pictures hanging about, although not in the parlor where they would be lost in the sheer expanse of that mammoth plastering job. He'd already seen the oils last summer when we had him and Mona over for pesto and steaks in the yard. He wrinkled up his nose at the still life before turning his attention to the beach scene. For a moment I thought he actually might say something positive. But he just grinned maliciously. "You can almost feel the sand between your toes," he said, and asked if I had any beer in the house.
He never even glanced at the pictures this time. He just plopped down on the sofa and crossed the legs of the old polyester slacks he wears for these occasions. He had on a pale blue cashmere pullover -- Mona's Christmas present. He needed a haircut but knows he's still good-looking enough that it doesn't matter. Mona herself had on a dark sweater- and-skirt combination. She's a few years older than Jack, but still quite attractive -- lucky for her. I didn't like her at first, but she's grown on me. I've even come to feel sorry for her. Jack was a bit of a pill to live with twenty years ago. I don't imagine he's gotten any better.
"Cinzano and soda?" I asked, feeling more than a merely social need for a drink myself. Mona agreed, but Jack gave me the amused look he puts on to make me feel as if I've just made a fool of myself. "Budweiser for the gentleman?"
I went back downstairs for the drinks, leaving poor Jennie to hold the fort. When I returned Jack was holding forth about co-oping in the Slope -- greedy landlords and Yuppies who will pay any rent and drive honest citizens like himself out of the neighborhood. He hasn't forgot that I was a landlord myself until my salary was such that I could make the mortgage payments without renting out the top two floors.
"Why don't you try another part of the city?" I suggested. "It's still possible to find a reasonable rent in Greenpoint or . . . Long Island City."
He eyed me icily. He always brings out the tease in me. It was Mona who broke the silence.
"No way," she said, most of her Cinzano gone. "This is as far from Manhattan as I go."
"Greenpoint is actually closer to Wall Street than where we live now," Jack told her.
"Makes no difference. I'm not moving anyplace other than Manhattan. You can have the boroughs." Jack gave her an even chillier version of the cold glare he had just shown me. It's hard to gauge the state of a relationship from just a few minutes conversation, but on the basis of what I'd seen of Jack's previous matings, I gave this one another six-months-to-a-year.
We headed back downstairs for dinner. Jennie had prepared prawn cocktails, followed by filets minions bordelaises. I put together the salad myself. We don't eat like that every night, and I said so. But Jack's comment that this was the first decent meal he'd had in weeks did nothing to improve the climate between him and Mona.
"I made you lasagna just last week."
"So you did."
I offered them Italian bread that's still baked fresh every hour at a shop on Henry Street. Mona glared angrily into her dish of prawns, but now that he had successfully insulted her, Jack's own temper was much improved.
"Did you tell Jack and Mona about the visitor we had this week?" Jennie asked. She had been bouncing up and down to see about the filets. I was grateful for the change of subject, but I would not have raised this particular one on my own.
"It was the oddest thing."
I went on to relate how I had heard the doorbell ring when I was doing some touch-up work in the kids' bathroom on the third floor. A moment later Tanya came bounding up the stairs and said there was a "dark man" at the door. I thought immediately of the plasterer who still had work to finish on the basement level, and cursed under my breath because we were expecting company that evening.
But it wasn't the plasterer. It wasn't anyone I had ever seen before.
"Yes?" I said through the glass door. The young man -- he looked to be in his middle twenties, "dark" all right, but not negroid -- was smiling broadly. He was dressed in jeans and a flak jacket. It was a damp, chilly day, but he didn't look especially cold. "Yes?" I said again, having no intention at that point of opening the door; there had been a number of break-ins in the neighborhood recently. But he kept on smiling and pointed a long brown finger at his chest, then at me, as if there were no chance of his being heard through the glass. By this time I had him figured for a salesman or, worse, Jehovah's Witness. We could have gone on with our charade indefinitely, so I decided to open the door. It was the middle of the afternoon, and I figured I outweighed him by twenty pounds.
"I would never open my door to a stranger," Mona put in. "I don't even open it for Jack unless I can see him plainly through the peephole."
"Which you rarely can."
"I'm nearsighted," she replied. "If you were nearsighted you'd understand."
I fumbled with the key -- we rarely receive visitors on the parlor level -- until I finally succeeded in worrying it through the ancient lock. The man never hesitated. He was into the vestibule even before the door was fully open. I positioned myself between him and the inside entrance. "Yes?" I said again, this time with authority.
"Hi," he replied, offering his hand and an even brighter version of his big smile. His teeth were whiter than Tanya's piano keys. His eyes were black. "My name's Alonzo. I'm homeless. I've been asking folks in the neighborhood if they can help me out with some canned goods or leftovers they might have in their fridge. I used to have an apartment on Court Street, but the landlord evicted everyone so he could renovate for condos. I've been out of work for more than a year since I injured my back. I'd appreciate any help you can give."
I like to think I'm no fool when it comes to spotting a con man. But it was only afterward that I realized I should have asked what he would do with canned goods if he was homeless, not to mention how he was surviving with just that cotton jacket to keep him warm. I guess I was hypnotized by his big grin. Even so, my mind was working overtime calculating how far I was from the nearest weapon (the poker in the parlor fireplace would do), whether it was likely he had a knife or gun concealed under his jacket, and if Tanya was still up on the third floor or, more likely, was hovering just behind me, her thumb in her mouth.
Of course, I left out these deliberations in the story I told Jack and Mona. As I said before, if Jennie hadn't raised the subject I would not have brought it up on my own. I knew Jack would try to turn the incident into some kind of joke at my expense.
I told Tanya to run downstairs and tell her mother we had company. Half a minute later Jennie appeared, in her usual dither, but hardly expecting to find this dark stranger in her parlor.
"This is Alonzo," I said. Even before I could finish the introduction, he was pumping my wife's hand and treating her to his hundred-watt smile. "He's a homeless person," I added, and sure enough, Jennie looked as if I had said he was an Egyptian mummy. But Alonzo's grin never flagged. "He stopped by to ask if we had any extra food we could spare."
Comprehension finally registered on Jennie's pale brow. "You're collecting for the homeless? Why, that's wonderful."
"No, ma'am," he corrected, "I am homeless. I'm collecting for myself." And then he gave her the same smooth rap he had laid on me when I first opened the door.
I figured this game had gone on long enough, so I told my wife to see if we couldn't spare something from the pantry. "Aren't there also cold cuts in the fridge?" I called after her as she was hastening back to the stairwell. She hesitated, showing a look that made me want to burst out laughing despite my own apprehensions -- I still didn't know what Alonzo's real game was, and by this time he was ensconced in my parlor, having a look at the beach scene.
"Would you like to . . . sit down?" I asked, indicating a wooden rocker that wouldn't be offended by his weathered denim. But he favored our new Braunschweig sofa. He fingered the lush pattern critically.
"How long have you lived in the area?" I asked. "I mean, before you were evicted."
He spotted the still life and got up to have a closer look. When he replied, it was in the manner of someone who had more important things on his mind. "Two, three years."
"You're not sure?"
He completed his appraisal of the still-life. "What difference does it make?" he said, his grin gone stale around the edges. Then, perhaps realizing how I, his benefactor, might take his offhanded tone, he added, "I mean, what does time matter? It's all karma anyway." He sat down again, this time in the rocker, and looked as if he had no intention of going anywhere else for the rest of the day. "You like it here?"
I replied that we liked it well enough, but I was wondering what was taking Jennie so long to throw a few cans into a paper bag.
"I don't come from these parts originally," he said. "You can probably tell by my accent."
Actually, I hadn't noticed he had any accent at all -- a sure sign, I then realized, that he was not a native New Yorker. "Where do you hail from?" I asked.
His dark eyes -- they had become oddly bright -- fixed on me as if for the first time. "I already told you," he said, "I'm homeless."
Just then Jennie appeared, staggering under the weight of two full shopping bags. I never asked our visitor to clarify his response, and he didn't seem inclined to pursue the subject. I gave him something short of the bum's rush to the door, but he made a point of putting down his shopping bags on the top of the stoop and shaking hands in full view of the neighbors.
"My God!" Mona said when I finished the story. "He could have been an ax-murderer!"
"I doubt that," I replied, sipping some pinot noir. The steaks had been first-class. "He was too skinny to have something as bulky as an ax concealed on his person."
"Even so . . ."
"More likely he was putting you on," Jack said, helping himself to the scalloped potatoes.
"Putting me on how?"
"Goofing on you, man. Conning you."
"Oh, I don't think he was," Jennie said, shocked as always at any suggestion of mendacity. "Do you, honey?"
I made a reach for the creamed cauliflower and shrugged. "The thought crossed my mind. But what difference does it make? If he actually needed food, then we did a good deed. If he didn't, what did we lose -- a few cans of tuna?"
I spoke offhandedly but was expressing a conclusion that had taken me the better part of a week to come to. I had felt very foolish indeed when I still thought the entire episode might have been an elaborate joke.
"Of course, he may also have been casing the place," Jack said.
But I was tired of the subject. I turned toward my wife, who had become very quiet, and suggested that we have coffee up in the parlor.
After we were settled again on the sofas, Tanya came down for her goodnight kiss. Mona immediately lost her preoccupied look and opened her arms wide to the child. Jack watched with ill-concealed disdain. Mona had no children of her own, although her first marriage had lasted fifteen years. Jack had a son living in Connecticut, a nice boy a couple years older than my Robert. As I watched Mona fuss over Tanya I realized that she probably wanted nothing more from life than a child of her own. Fat chance, I thought, keeping one eye on Jack, who preferred even the beach scene to that of his woman showing affection to another human being.
After Tanya had headed upstairs for the night, Jack asked, "How much did you pay for them?" nodding toward the still-life.
"Actually, we got a good deal. The artist was relocating and wanted to travel as light as possible. We probably paid less than half what they're actually worth." I had no intention of giving him a dollar amount. No price would have seemed right to someone who hadn't sold any of his own work since last year's Promenade exhibit. Besides, I liked the paintings.
I brought out a bottle of kirsch to wash down the coffee, put some evensong on the stereo, and as we all sat sipping, a rosy glow seemed to permeate the room, a sense of good fellowship, however slightly out of focus, like my still- life. I reached for Jennie's hand, thinking how lucky I was to have a loving wife and family, good health, and, yes, an old friend like Jack, however trying he could be.
Then through a haze of ecclesiastical reverberation I heard, "Of course, the same fate could happen to any one of us here. The way things are going, we could find our asses out on the street just like Alonzo."
"What are you talking about?"
"You don't believe there's a 'safety net' that catches us if a real calamity strikes? Suppose you fell ill or lost your job because of -- I don't know," he gestured with our Swedish crystal "-- professional misconduct. It isn't only doctors who get sued for malpractice, you know. Or, take my own case. Where would I be if Mona lost her job and couldn't find another?"
My mood was ruined. I suspected that whatever ideas I had been putting into Jennie's mind for later were also in jeopardy.
"What are you talking about? Even if we did lose my income temporarily, Jennie could take up the slack. Just as you could," I added, no longer concerned about stepping on his delicate ego.
"Suppose you both got ill at the same time? Suppose one, or even both of you, were in a serious accident? It happens, you know."
"Yes, of course it happens. And when it does people fall back on their savings, or their insurance, or in the last resort on their families."
"Your brother lives in New Mexico. Would you be willing to relocate to New Mexico?"
"If I had to, certainly," I said, feeling my wife's fingers tightening on my own. "My God, Jack, you have this maudlin imagination that always thinks the worst. I mean the preposterous!"
"It's not so preposterous. There are thousands of people on the streets of this city who would have also thought the idea 'preposterous' if you told them a couple years ago they would be sleeping on subway gratings. What about your Alonzo? Didn't you say he had a good job before he lost his apartment?"
"He was obviously lying. You said yourself he was a con man."
"Then, why did you give him food?"
Mona let out a big sigh and looked at her watch. When she did, the animosity I had been feeling toward her mate suddenly included her as well.
"To get rid of him," I said.
My wife turned toward me with saucer eyes. "Really? You didn't believe him?"
"Well, I did and I didn't. Giving him what he asked for just seemed the easiest way to get him out of our hair. Look," I said to Jack, "what are we arguing about anyway?"
"Who's arguing? You just got taken, man, pure and simple. You feel foolish, but you don't want to admit it. It's a human reaction."
"Thank you very much, but I don't think I need you to tell me what's human."
Jennie pinched my arm as if I were a sleepwalker heading toward an open window.
"Actually," Jack went on, "you're right. People like you don't have anything to worry about. It's only poor bastards like Alonzo who end up on the street. You'll weather any kind of calamity, and your kids will go to Ivy League colleges. That's what the American Dream is all about. Your own father was a laborer who broke his ass so you could become a professional. You send your kids to private schools instead of those retarded parochial schools we had to go to. Your kids meet the right people and become high-powered business types. You don't imagine they'll settle for being lawyers or doctors, do you? Hell, the professions are for the children of Jews and immigrants."
Never mind that he had already done a 180-degree turn about Alonzo. Never mind that we were both drunk enough to be able to claim afterward that anything we said should not be held against us. In vino veritas, I say. The next thing I knew I was on my feet, heading for the same parlor entrance which hadn't been opened since I let Alonzo in.
"Here's your coats."
"Gerald!" Jennie cried in protest.
Jack accepted his ragged raincoat with a sour grin. We were both swaying from the kirsch, but I had already decided that if he tried to throw a punch I would hit him right back.
He did nothing of the kind. He put on his coat, then helped Mona into hers with more solicitude than he had shown her all evening. She looked too terrified to speak, but just as I was about see them out the door she turned toward me, looking as if I might hit her, and asked if she could please use the bathroom.
Suddenly I felt like an ogre.
"Of course," I replied. "And I'll call you a cab."
"No need," Jack said. "We'll take the bus."
There was an uncomfortable minute while we waited for Mona. Jennie asked nervously about Jack's son and the boy's mother. Jennie and she had been rather close for a while, but after Carol and Jack separated she avoided us for some reason. I still felt bad about how I had just acted, but there was not the slightest trace of anger on Jack's handsome face.
Mona joined us again, wearing a fresh application of lipstick. I was sorry for the scare I had given her. "Come see us again soon," I said, leaning toward her freshly powdered cheek. But she averted her face, leaving my kiss hanging in midair. Neither of them said good night -- not even to Jennie, who was close to tears.
"Goodbye and good riddance," I said as I watched them walk down the block, Jack's arm through Mona's to keep her from tripping on the flagstones.
I haven't heard from Jack since and I have no intention of calling. Jennie's asked if she should go ahead with the plans we had for a surprise party to celebrate his fortieth birthday.
I told her to put it on hold.