“High John Saw the Holy Number” – a short story by Con Chapman – Jerry Jazz Musician
Tag: short story
A Year of Brilliant Water
Had I known that Jackie’s boss was making a play for her, right there at the party she and her husband Jonathan were throwing, I would have liked him even less than I did at first impression. He—Andy was his name–was a nice guy, thoughtful and sensitive and all that, but irritating all the same.
Andy was half a head taller than everybody there except for Jonathan’s boss, the public TV newscaster with the sonorous voice and the forehead as high as a dolphin’s. He was always “Jonathan”—nobody ever called him “Jon,” not even Jackie, which may explain Andy’s appeal. Both Andy and Jonathan worked for non-profits, but lived well; it didn’t take a detective to figure out there was trust fund money behind both of them, although Jonathan was less subtle about letting you know it. He’d leave brokerage statements out on his desk when we went to visit, like Poe’s purloined letter, but his intent was not to conceal but to disclose.
There was a high-end store downtown that bore the family name but Jonathan wanted no part of it; he wanted to take part in the great debates of our time, and be recognized as a thoughtful commentator. He’d tried every angle in the book to get hired at our local liberal paper of record, but I guess nobody told him that he was NOKD—“not our kind dear.” He had that rag-trade background, if you know what I mean.
So he ended up catching on at public TV, which in my mind was just as good. You were on the right side of all the issues as far as the local prevailing thinking went, and you didn’t have to cover fires in triple-decker apartments or stabbings and shootings in poor neighborhoods. You only addressed the big national and international issues, even though anybody who mattered in New York or Washington didn’t give a damn what a little channel in Boston thought.
But while Jonathan was talking about big things, Andy was—as I understood it—doing something about one of them, the big one. Jackie humbly introduced him to Marci and me as “one of her fellow earth-savers.”
“Nice to meet you,” he said with a smile that you’d say was self-deprecating, if you were charitable.
We chatted a bit, the four of us with no one joining in. Jackie and Marci went to college with Jonathan, so I always felt like a fifth wheel when we got together. At least Andy acted interested, where Jonathan tended to lord his position as a minor local celebrity and future philanthropist over you.
“Do you like to hike?” Andy asked me.
“Depends on where we’re going.”
“It’s the journey, not the destination!” Jackie chimed in. She’d dragged Jonathan to Nepal for their honeymoon, and stayed in touch with their Sherpa.
“There’s a lot of easy mountains not too far from here in New Hampshire.”
“I’ve climbed Monadnock twice,” I said.
“You should try Kearsarge next,” Andy said.
“Or Chocura!” Jackie added, more excited than I thought justified by a hunk of granite.
At this point Jonathan appeared behind the other three, appearing a bit anxious to join the group. They were talking and didn’t notice him, so after a while I looked at Marci and nodded in Jonathan’s direction. She didn’t understand at first, so I cleared my throat until she said “What?”
“Jonathan’s trying to say something.”
She gave him a look without sympathy. She’d heard whatever complaints Jackie had about living with him in the first year of their marriage, which he had such high hopes for. “May you have a life of brilliant water,” the minister had said at their wedding, “like the diamond in the ring, which you may now place on the bride’s finger and repeat after me.”
They had had a Book of Common Prayer wedding, with nothing improvised. She was a beauty and her parents were paying for it, so he—in a last act of grace—had acceded to their wishes. They had moved into a home far away from the city, in an exurban town that young people typically didn’t live in unless they grew up or worked there, but she wanted to be near the ocean and the mountains.
The first year had been brilliant, or at least that’s what Marci kept hammering into me. I was a faceless drone in a corporate job, Jonathan was not. Jackie had room to build her harpsichord, Marci did not. They had a wonderful house on the North Shore where they had lively dinner parties, we had a place on the back side of Beacon Hill that was dark and cold and too small. We didn’t have all the furnishings you got when you got married because we weren’t, just living together; they’d taken the leap, a further one in Jackie’s case since she didn’t want to leave the little town in Connecticut where she and Marci had grown up, while Jonathan needed to be in a major media market. And so the quaint little house in Newburyport had been their compromise.
“Jackie, do you want to move people on to the activities?” Jonathan finally managed to get in sidewise between a crack that formed momentarily in the wall that the two women and Andy formed with their backs.
“There’s no rush,” she said with an airy toss of her head, and continued talking. I felt sorry for the guy, even though he wasn’t my favorite human being. I’d tried to connect with him back when we first got together as couples but it was clear he didn’t think I was anybody who was going to help him get wherever it was he wanted to go.
I could see him seething a bit over Jackie’s shoulder, and then Christopher, Jonathan’s boss, came over to talk to him.
“Do you want me to read from Dickens’s Christmas Carol?” he asked.
“Maybe later, after we’ve eaten,” Jonathan said. The guy clearly wanted to hear himself talk—it was a diplomatic way of putting him off. “Can I have everybody’s attention please?” Jonathan said to the crowd and, surprisingly, people turned to hear him without being asked twice, except for Jackie, Marci and Andy, who continued to talk until they finished their conversation.
“We have all kinds of arts and crafts supplies over on the table here for you to make Christmas ornaments with,” he said, and there was a murmur of appreciation that a party among the sort of young strivers we all were back then could include such a creative activity. “Nobody’s a pro, so there’s no need to be embarrassed if you make a mess. Unless you make it on my Shiraz here,” he said, pointing to the Oriental rug he stood upon.
There was laughter and a general movement in the direction of a game table on which were laid out felt and thread and glitter and glue and other makings for ornaments. I joined the crowd, hoping Marci would follow me, but she stood there with Jackie and Andy, talking on, not seeming to care.
I got some black and white and orange felt and a needle and thread to make a penguin, and came back to sit down by the trio. “Are you going to make anything?” I asked Marci. She had been so close to Jackie for so long, I wanted to make sure she didn’t get Jonathan upset without intending to. If she meant to be an accessory to marital friction, there was nothing I could do to stop her.
“I will. Jackie said she’s not in a hurry.”
I started to sew as best I could, which wasn’t very well. Eventually Marci put down her drink and went to get the makings for an angel, which she had no better luck with; she tried to glue the felt together to save the trouble of sewing, but it turned into a mess.
Jonathan was holding court, accepting the casual flattery that came one’s way for resisting the tides of convention among our crowd. It was a wonderful idea, Jackie was so lucky to have such a creative husband. This sort of talk flowed easily, since there was an implied pat on one’s own back with each compliment; aren’t we all so interesting as opposed to our parents and other suburbanites who just ate and drank too much when they got together for the holidays.
Jackie and Andy had moved to the tree, out of the way of the arts and crafts, and were sitting underneath it talking intently about something of great importance to them both. Their faces took on a more youthful cast, like college freshman in a coffee shop discussing their plans to change the world before they graduated and realized there was no money in that. I finished my penguin, made a little loop of gold thread to attach it to the tree, and took it over to the table to offer it to Jonathan.
“Hey thanks, that’s great. Look everybody,” he said, drawing more attention to my little creation than I wanted. “Why don’t we have a contest for best ornament? Here’s the early leader.”
There were oohs and ahs, mostly mock but some sincere, from the crowd, and a new burst of energy now that we were engaged in friendly competition. I went back to Marci to see how she was doing and she’d given up and had started over.
“What’s with Jackie and her boss?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“They’re all by themselves making goo-goo eyes at each other.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“You don’t think it’s a little rude to go off like that at a party?”
“No—they work together.”
I just shrugged my shoulders. We’d had this conversation before, how men shouldn’t think of women as exclusively theirs, like a dog. I thought there was probably a happy medium between the two extremes, but I wasn’t going to get into it.
As the evening wore on Jonathan continued to play the convivial host while Jackie and Andy rarely took the time to unlock their eyes. When they did, it was usually for a gush-fest with somebody who was coming or going and they’d stand together, or maybe Andy would withdraw a few steps if he didn’t know the people. Jonathan was usually off taking care of drinks and food, some of which he’d cooked himself. He could have afforded a caterer, but it wouldn’t have seemed right; he and Jackie were into showing others how much they didn’t care about his money, and how they’d do things their way, not in the grand style of his parents.
And so after a while I noticed him getting—a bit frazzled. He was drinking, but not that much, but running around a lot, trying—it seemed to me—to appear happier than he was. Marci had told me he’d turned out to be more high-strung than Jackie had thought he’d be. They didn’t live together first, the way most of us did back then, so she hadn’t seen him during long periods of togetherness, which means isolation. She hadn’t seen him through a winter here, where you’re thrown back on your own resources. In the end, I guess you’d say she’d only seen his social side.
I saw him go to the kitchen and then up the stairs that led to their bedroom on the second floor. It was pure Jackie—a pencil post bed, no TV, everything very plain, uncluttered. There was a throw on the bed from her grandmother, blue and white. Wide-plank floors with Shaker rugs. I’d only been up there once, when he took me to show me what he’d done with a print I’d given him; it was of an old London newspaper hawker, shouting “’Speshill ‘dishun, ‘orrible railway haccident.” The occasion was his promotion to on-air reporter, so I figured a news theme would be appreciated.
I started talking to Jonathan’s boss—Christopher. I guess nobody was allowed to have a nickname in public television. He’d come from a big Irish family, his dad was a working farmer who died young, so there was more depth there I’d guessed from appearances. He talked about how he loved Christmas, with the rituals and the parties, and this reminded him of his offer to read from Dickens. “Have you seen Jonathan?” he asked me, as he looked around the room. I guess he didn’t want to upset the rhythm of the party by starting a story without permission.
“I saw him go upstairs,” I said.
“I’ll go fetch him,” Christopher said, and bolted away like he was in fact a dog after a stick.
I went back to Marci in the hope of getting out by the time Christopher got back so I wouldn’t be stuck listening to Scrooge and Bob Cratchit, but she was in no mood to leave. She and Jackie and Andy were still having a grand old time, so I got another drink and sat down in a chair near the fire. I could have gone to sleep there—I was starting to nod off—when Christopher came back downstairs and rushed over to Jackie with a look of concern.
He whispered something in her ear, and they went back upstairs after she’d excused herself to Andy and Marci. I was wide awake now, and stood up in case there was some medical emergency. I didn’t want to intrude, but I could tell something was wrong.
After a few minutes Jackie came back down and began to announce, in quiet tones to people in groups as small as she could manage, that Jonathan wasn’t feeling well. Christopher put on his coat and went outside, apparently to bring his car to the door from where it was parked down the country road from the house.
“What’s the matter?” Marci said, and Jackie took her aside so that I didn’t hear very well. The explanation between the two old girl friends was longer and more detailed than the version that had been announced generally. I stepped away and let them talk.
Christopher came back in and escorted Jonathan down the stairs; he looked pale, and his face was red. They stopped as they reached the door for Jonathan to put on a heavy coat, and Christopher waved a common goodbye. “Good night and Merry Christmas everybody,” he said, and everyone responded in kind, including some who had yet to hear the news.
“Feel better, Jonathan,” Andy called out in an affable, sympathetic tone, but Jonathan had already stepped outside.
I didn’t hear the story until we were out on the highway, headed home, the windshield wipers scraping a view through heavy wet snow. “Jonathan seized up,” Marci said. “He’s wound pretty tight. Jackie’s talked to him about meditating, but he won’t.”
“He’s got a tough commute and he works on deadline—I’m not surprised he’s tense. And there was a bit of provocation as well.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Maybe you missed it,” I said, and kept driving.
“Do you remember the time I asked you if you wanted to go for a dip?” Roberta’s father asked as they pulled into the country club parking lot.
“Yes, Daddy,” Roberta replied with annoyance. Her father had recounted the story many times over the years, sometimes in front of dinner guests and others outside the family.
“I thought you were going to bawl your eyes out when we drove past the Dairy Queen,” he said with the same mouth-wide smile as always. “You thought I meant one of those chocolate-dipped cones!”
This was her father’s way of suggesting that she needed to watch her weight, and it only made things worse. It irritated her, and when she got upset she wanted chocolate and a cola drink, which she wasn’t supposed to have. He’d be out on the golf course, however, and she’d be sitting by the pool. All she had to do was wait until he walked down to the pro shop, then she could order whatever she wanted through the little service window that opened into The 19th Hole, where the men gathered for drinks and to watch golf tournaments on TV. She was mentally embarrassed that she still felt she had to sneak around her parents at the age of twenty-four.
“Who are you playing with today?” she asked, trying to change the subject.
“Skip Frazier and Ed Muller and Clyde Boul,” her father said as he cruised up and down the lines of parked cars, trying to find the space closest to the club house.
“Can you drop me off if you’re going to park far away?” she asked plaintively.
“Oh, the walk will do you good,” her father said. His thoughts were hard to budge off the appearance of his only daughter, unmarried and headed back to graduate school five hundred miles north “when there was a perfectly good state school an hour’s drive away!” as her mother had told her when she got her bachelor’s degree. She had shared this story with the thesis supervisor for her first master’s degree, and they had laughed at the naivete that people outside academia were capable of.
“I don’t want to get all hot and sweaty,” she said.
“Take a dip in the pool,” her father said, then realizing he’d missed an opportunity to kid her some more, added “Just like way back when!”
She watched as her father began to glide uncertainly into a parking space that his big car could barely fit into. “Let me get out here so I don’t have to squeeze myself out the door.”
“It’s not that tight.”
“Yes it is, and your driving’s starting to scare me.”
“Oh, hush,” her father said, but he relented and stopped to let her out before he parked. “If you’d lay off the ice cream it wouldn’t be a problem,” he cracked as she closed the door.
She straightened her sun hat, which she had knocked askew when she bumped her head on the car’s door frame, and put on her sunglasses. She had a cover-up on over the swimming suit her mother had brought back from Hawaii for her. It was a loud floral print and struck her as dowdy, not something she would have bought, but she wouldn’t see anyone but her parents’ friends at the club. It wasn’t that she didn’t care what they thought; they would probably think it was fashionable, smart. She would blend right in.
She waited for her father, whose gait had slowed noticeably since she’d left for her final semester the previous winter. He now had a tray full of pills to take every morning, whose dispensation was handled by her mother. “I don’t know what your father’s going to do if I go first,” she had said to Roberta one afternoon as they sat in the living room, looking out the picture window, waiting for him to return from his plant. “His mind is going. He’s going to fall into one of those vats on the shop floor, I just know it.”
“We should be done around four,” her father said as she turned to enter the pool. “I’ll be in The 19th Hole if you’re looking for me. Call your mother if you want to go home sooner than that.”
“Okay,” she said, glad to be rid of him but sorry that she felt that way.
She smiled at the ladies at poolside, some under umbrellas, others sunning themselves on chaise chairs.
“Is your mother coming out today, Roberta?” one of them asked.
“No, she’s taking a nap.”
“She should come out and nap with us—we’re pretty lazy,” one of the women said cheerfully, causing the others to laugh.
“She likes her air conditioning,” Roberta said, then sat down on a lounge chair and turned it towards the sun as if she was interested in tanning, but in fact so that she wouldn’t have to join in the conversation.
She applied some lotion to her face, arms and legs and opened up her book, The Nose by Gogol. She would be starting over, getting a second master’s in comparative literature in the fall, this time with an emphasis on Russians versus French. She read French well enough but no Russian; she’d have to spend a lot of time in language lab picking it up, and she knew that it got harder the older she got. In her mind, she resolved the problem by comforting herself with the thought that she could get by as she’d always done—by reading translations.
A mother with two young boys came into the pool area; there, she thought, goes my solitude. The boys ran, then walked to the diving board when their mother told them to slow down; they began a bombardment of jumps into the water designed to produce the biggest splash. She turned her chair a quarter hour to the right so that she was facing the highway, the women on her right, the boys to her left.
She closed her eyes; Gogol was too absurd for her tastes, and Dostoevsky too depressing. She had enjoyed the Chekhov and Pushkin she’d read thus far that summer, and decided she would try to come up with a thesis comparing one of them to, maybe Proust or de Maupassant, French writers she liked. She wasn’t sure there were any real similarities between either of the Russians and the French, but she didn’t care. She was good at going to school; it helped her pass the time, and gave her an excuse for not settling down in her home town.
No, summers were enough, more than enough to spend back where she’d grown up. Every year there were fewer friends to spend time with. One by one they were marrying and she would be the third wheel in their houses. She was now down to just two, one of whom had to drive twenty miles to see her mother in a nursing home several times each week, while the other was working long hours in her father’s law office on Ohio Street downtown. It had been a lonely three months; maybe she would try staying in Chicago next summer, she thought, but she would miss the amenities that her parents provided—the pool, the car, the free meals.
After a while she got in the pool up to her armpits and walked around to cool off; she didn’t want to mess up her hair by swimming, even though she had no plans for the night. As she moved slowly around the shallow end she remembered how she’s been kissed by a boy for the first time—underwater—at the same spot nearly twenty years before. The boy was a year older but was in her first kindergarten class; Roberta had started ahead of schedule because she was bored at home and her mother concluded she was gifted.
She had gone all the way through high school with the boy and although he would say “hi” if they were walking down an otherwise-empty hallway towards each other, he otherwise didn’t acknowledge her presence. She had been “cute”—not pretty–back then, she thought; but then nearly all young children merited that rather shabby aesthetic accolade, she reminded herself.
She got out, toweled off and laid down to sun some more. She put on her headphones and played some music to drown out the noise of the boys and was soon asleep, dreaming of a long, cool corridor, marble and wood. She was with other young people she didn’t know. An older man—tweed jacket, tortoise shell glasses—was talking as they toured a building, explaining things. It struck her as strange; orientation week hadn’t been this nice in college or at the university in Iowa she’d graduated from last year. And then it occurred to her; it was better because the institution was better, and she’d be with better students, and the professors would be better. She felt a sense of warmth, even though she could see snow out the windows on the open spaces in the middle of a Chicago winter.
She woke up with a snort. Apparently she’d been snoring. She looked over at the women, who were still chatting, oblivious to her. The boys were talking loudly to their mother from the diving board, who had apparently told them to get out for awhile. She swallowed; her mouth was parched, her lips dry. She decided to get a drink at the refreshment window.
She walked past the women, who were busy with their own conversation and didn’t speak to her, out the gate and over to the clubhouse. Because she was still in her suit she wasn’t allowed in the men’s bar, and so would have to order through the window, as she had when she was little. As she climbed the stairs leading up to the refreshment window she thought of what an effort it had been for her to make this same trip when she was a little girl; three steps up, then she had to crawl up on a wooden ledge in order to reach the window. She would ring the little buzzer, one of the bartenders would open the window, and she would order a Coca-Cola and a Milky Way, giving her parents’ membership number if the bartender was new and didn’t know her.
The bartender saw her and slid the window up before she had a chance to buzz him. “What can I get you, Ms. Cain?”
“I’ll have a large Diet Coke, please.”
“You want anything to eat?”
She thought for a moment. She looked at her watch and realized she’d been outside for over three hours; it was three-thirty, her father wouldn’t be ready to go for another hour and a half. “I’ll have an order of fries, too.”
The bartender handed her the drink and she was waiting while the fries cooked, standing with her back to the window, when she heard her father’s voice inside, talking to another man at the bar.
“How’s the family?” the other man asked.
“Oh, you know Marge is fine, Roberta’s home for the summer?”
“What’s she up to?”
“Just got her master’s.”
“That’s great. So she’ll be off the payroll soon?”
“Nope—she’s decided to go back for another.”
Roberta moved a bit to her left so that stood behind a wall, invisible to those inside, but could still hear.
“What’s she going for this time?” the other man asked.
“The same thing.”
There was silence for a moment; Roberta held her breath, waiting for the other man to pick up the conversation again.
“And what was that?” he asked.
“Oh. So is it like a doctor goin’ back for a specialty?” the man asked with what sounded to Roberta like sincere diplomacy.
“I don’t think so, but I don’t know,” her father said. “I think she enjoyed it so much she wants another. Sort of like a chocolate éclair.”
The two men laughed heartily at the joke, then finished their drinks and headed to the locker room. “We’ll see ya, George,” she heard her father say to the bartender as they walked off.
She felt warm, as if she had prickly heat, but composed herself and walked back down to the pool area. As she passed the table of women one called out cheerfully “Looks like you got some sun today!”
“I needed a little color,” she said over a gulping sensation in her throat. “I’ll be cooped up in the library all winter.”
“It’s good for you, I don’t care what they say,” another woman said as she examined the handful of cards she’d been dealt.
Roberta set the fries down on a side table next to her chair and inhaled deeply. She took a swig of her drink, let her cover-up slide off her arms, stood up, took off her sunglasses, walked over to the pool, and dove in.
Probably for the Best
When I heard the news it came as a sting, but a muted one; like realizing there was a mosquito on your arm only by the slight irritation the bite such a pest is capable of.
That anticlimactic feeling was caused by the fact that we had all known Rob and Maria’s marriage was coming apart for a long time; there were the separate vacations, he going off to do “guy” things under the guise of business development, she taking time off for a week at an artists’ colony. Where the kids were during these interregnums wasn’t always clear, but they were out of high school in two cases, and nearly so in the third. Everyone pitched in to take the boy overnight if need be, and the need arose more than once.
I rarely saw Rob anymore; we’d worked together, then he changed firms to one five or six blocks away. It was funny, at some point I decided that the goal when I got into work each morning was to get things done as quickly as possible and get out, not hang out with the guys until everybody ordered take-out and stayed even later. I didn’t see Rob because I had no occasion to go in his direction; skyscrapers rose and fell between my building and his, but I didn’t know about it because my office window looked north, and he was south.
When I next stumbled upon Rob I recognized him from halfway across the room at a squash club before he divined who I was. I could tell he was searching his memory and not coming up with anything right away, so I called out to him and said my name.
“You’re out of context,” he said, half-apologetically.
“I know, I used to work out across from South Station, now I’m here.”
“Great, maybe we could play some time.”
“Sure,” I said, then we were both silent for a moment. He apparently wasn’t going to say anything about the subject I assumed we both had on our minds, so I finally did. “Sorry to hear about you and Maria.”
“Yeah, thanks. It’s probably for the best,” he said, and not sheepishly. The thought occurred to me–how, exactly, could it be for the best?–but that’s not the kind of question I’d ask him in public place unless we’d had a few drinks first.
“Kids okay?” I didn’t mean anything by it–it would have been received as innocent small talk any other time–but he took up the suggestion.
“Yeah, I think they’re holding up okay. Of course they’re all out in the world now, or nearly so. It’s not like their happy home got broke up or anything.”
“Sure, sure.” The way he said it, I wondered if he’d been waiting for the first opportunity, as soon as they became empty-nesters, or at least had all the boys squared away for college.
He’d been a good dad, or at least a proud dad–which is a different thing–the way I remembered it. Always there at the games, cheering them on, but then taking off and leaving Maria to pack up the hockey bag or whatever. When he joined the golf club he said it was so he could spend more time with the boys, teaching them the game. “There’s no better way to get your kid’s undivided attention for three hours than playing a round of golf,” he said. I assumed that was true, but I didn’t remember too many dads making a Sunday foursome with their sons when I was growing up. Maybe we had different experiences.
“Well, I hope we’ll stay in touch and get together every now and then,” he said. I let the sentence drop–it sounded like one of the easy sales pitches that Rob was so good at.
“You know how those things go,” I said. “It’s usually the wife who decides who’s in or out of the social circle.”
“Right, I know. I find I’m being . . . dropped by a fair number of people. Guess that’s the way it always happens.”
I thought back to the time when I’d come by one Saturday to pick up his middle son to take him to a ball game with my kids. It was hot as hell, and Rob and Maria were still moving into an old house they were renovating. They didn’t have air conditioning yet, and there were boxes to unpack. As his boy got in our car I said something like “Sorry to leave you two here sweating together.”
“Don’t worry about me,” he’d said. “I’m going into the office–where it’s air conditioned.”
I looked over at Maria. I expected to hear a grim little laugh, like she understood that he was the bread winner and this was what she had to put up with. Instead, her eyes got that cloudy shade they get when you narrow your eyelids with rage. “You could stay here and help,” she said.
“Yes, dear, I could,” Rob said, then gave out a little locker-room laugh, the kind you hear from a guy who thinks he’s got life figured out, and when all the chips are counted, just may. “But I’d rather stay cool.”
I returned from my reverie to see him grinning at me, the way he had that day. “No, it’s not the way it always happens,” I said. “Unless you’re a dick.” I said it with a smile that reflected his own; I don’t think he could tell whether I meant it or not.
The Ferris Wheel
“There’s nothing lonelier than a ferris wheel at night from a ways off,” he said.“You aren’t at the fair, and you want to be. You hear the girls screaming from the rides, and you figure everybody’s havin’ a good time, and you’re not. You want to get goin’ before the carnival closes for the night, but you know by the time you get there it’ll all be over—all the fun will be gone.”
He said this as we were cleaning up his truck. The last kid had come up for ice cream a good half hour ago, and we had shut down the grill before that. We were right next to the fairgrounds, but we were separated from it by the RV lot—surrounded by vans and pick-up trucks with camper compartments in the bed and over the cab.
“I’ve been workin’ this truck for exactly fifteen years now,” he said.
“Did your dad used to do it?”
“Yep, till he got too old. Me and Charlie would help out as soon as we were old enough. The truck body plant shuts down the last two weeks of August, so it’s a chance to make a little extra money.”
I was waiting to see if my girlfriend would show up. She and her friend Pam had gone over to the midway to walk around one last time. I hoped they hadn’t met anybody. Candy was like that—a flirt. The reason I liked her was the reason every other guy did.
“Is your girlfriend gonna swing by here or do you want a ride home?”
“She said she’d come back.”
“Waiting for a woman—get used to it, kid.”
He laughed softly. “You can’t live with ‘em, you can’t live without ‘em, but either way, you’ll spend a good part of your life just sitting around waiting for ‘em.”
I nodded to show I kinda knew what he meant. He acted as if waiting was boring, but it wasn’t for me. It made me nervous, because I never knew if Candy would come back with a bunch of other kids, which I didn’t want. I wanted to be alone with her.
“I’ll stay here for awhile longer if you want. Why don’t you go take a shower down at the latrine? You’ll feel better, and she’ll appreciate it.”
“It’s too late already. If she comes by while I’m down there, she’ll just go home without me.”
“Well, I’ll make her stay.”
“Thanks. I’d rather not take the chance.”
I dragged the trash bags over to his car and threw them in the trunk.When I came back he had closed up and was sitting on the steps that the little kids stood on to reach the ice cream window. I sat down next to him.
“I know what you’re going through,” he said as he tapped a cigarette on the pack and lit it. “I can remember when I was in eighth grade, first time I held a girl’s hand at a dance I was about ready to explode, and I don’t mean from gas.”
I laughed at that. He was a good guy to work for. “Was that who you married?”
“No, that was just puppy love. By the time I was a sophomore I thought I’d found the real thing—hell, I knew I’d found the real thing. I was getting’ it, fer Christ sake.”
I didn’t understand him.“What did you get?”
He looked at me like I was crazy. “Poontang, what do you think?”
“Oh, right,” I said as if I’d understood all along.
“She was hot. She talked me into it. I wanted true love.”
“And that’s your wife?”
“No, she was gone by the beginning of the next school year. But you figure—if we lived in the old days we woulda gotten married, had kids—that woulda been it. But her dad was in the Air Force and got transferred way the hell up to New York.”
“They lived right over there,” he said as he pointed to a lot where there used to be a trailer park, just across the highway, with the utility poles and the gravel streets the only sign there had ever been anything there.
“The Air Force’d move people in and out on short notice, so at any one time there might be five or six trailers empty. The kids who lived there—the Air Force brats—knew where each one was as soon as a family’d leave. You could have parties in there and no one would ever know about it.”
“Yeah. They’d leave the beds behind, even the mattresses.It was government housing, all you owned was what you brought with you. One time I told my mom I was staying over at a friend’s house and my girl and I spent the night in one of them empty trailers.” He snorted a little laugh. “We moved a stereo in there and listened to one album, over and over. Then we fell asleep with our clothes on.We didn’t have sex that night.”
He was being so open with me, I asked him a question. “Why not?”
“Neither one of us was ready for it. We knew we weren’t. Anyway, we were just lyin’ there when the sun came up, not wantin’ to face the day yet, getting our first exposure to the . . . uh . . . more everyday part of sleeping with someone, when one of the caretakers comes bustin’ through the door.”
“Holy cow—what did you do?”
“Nothin’. When he said we had to leave, we left. And he said don’t ever do it again.But we didn’t obey that part.”
“What did you do after that?”
“What came naturally. We had gotten close that night, but the next time we went into the trailer park’s laundromat. It closed up at eleven, but nobody checked on it.”
I tried to sound thoughtful, but I could barely contain myself. I wanted to know how they did it.
“So what happened?”
“She picked me up from work with her girlfriend. They had been working on a pint of rum.”
“Where’d they get it?”
“Floyd Williams, Sr., down at the ice plant. They’d give him money and follow him over to the Sportsman’s Club. He’d get them a bottle and keep the change.”
“Anyway, her girlfriend was in the front seat with her boyfriend, and she was all over me in the back seat. Everybody was pretty liquored up.”
“And you had a party in the laundromat?”
“Not a party. We turned out the lights and just drank for a while, pouring rum into cans of coke. Then her girlfriend left in the car and we were there alone. In the dark. Half drunk.”
“One thing led to another.”
He was quiet for awhile, and took a drag on his cigarette.
“She was hot to trot, and . . . uh . . .mentally at least, I was not. “
“Well, I’d just gotten offa workin’ eight hours in a barbecue restaurant and I smelled like a slab of ribs and was about as greasy.”
“What did you do?”
“Buddy, sometimes your body will do things your mind doesn’t want to.”
I was quiet for a moment. “So that was your first time?”
“Sort of. Since she’d been drinking, and I’d just got off work, neither one of us thought to bring a rubber.”
I was getting confused. “So you didn’t do it?”
“No, we did. Somehow with all the moanin’ and groanin’ we agreed I’d pull out.”
“Which, when you’re sixteen and have never done it before isn’t as easy as it sounds.”
“Oh.” I waited for him to start talking again, and when he didn’t I asked “So what happened?”
He dropped his cigarette in the dirt, and stepped on it. “I pulled out, but I was scared shitless. I figured she was pregnant for sure, and I got all upset. I took off my undershirt and wanted her to, you know, like do something with it to catch the sperm.” He snorted.“What the hell did I know—my biology teacher was a taxidermist.”
We both laughed.
“Then I walked her to her trailer and kissed her goodnight. And we hugged each other and were both cryin’. A hell of a way to lose your virginity, isn’t it.”
We looked up towards the carnival when we heard a boom. The fireworks had started, and we saw the first one explode high over the grandstand. That meant that the fairgrounds would be closing up soon.
“Then I just started running,” he began. “I ran across the highway, and into this field here. It was a good mile and a half to my house, but if I cut through the fairgrounds I could shave a half mile offa that. And as I was runnin’ through this field I threw the undershirt away. Then I climbed over the gate at the fairgrounds and kept on running ‘til I got to the fence behind my house. And I crawled under and walked into the house like it was just another night.”
“Did your parents see you?”
“Yeah, my mom came downstairs. My heart was pounding from running, and ‘cause I was upset, but I acted like it was just another night after work, we just had to stay later because—I don’t know, I made something up, dishwasher broke. Have to say, I shoulda won an Oscar for my cool, calm performance.”
We sat there in silence. There was one last question I was bustin’ to ask him, but couldn’t right away. Then it just came out, the way sometimes you just jump in the water after standing there cold and scared. “Did—did the undershirt thing work?”
He broke out laughing hard now. “That’s a good one.I’m sure it didn’t, but she didn’t get pregnant. I’ll tell you though, if you ever want to see time move in slow motion, that’s the way to do it.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re waiting to find out if your girl’s pregnant, and she’s countin’ the days, and tellin’ you how late she is. You know what I’m talking about, right?”
“Yeah,” I said.“Sorta.”
“If she gets her period, she’s not pregnant. If she doesn’t, she is. So you’re waiting—“
He looked at me like a math teacher, expecting me to sum things up in my head.
“For her to get her period,” I said after a few seconds.
“That’s right. She did, nothing happened, she moved away, and I moved on.”
I stared straight ahead, listening to the katydids. After awhile I heard some voices talking low, approaching us. It was Pam and Candy, done with the carnival for the night.
“Is this your girlfriend?” he asked.
“The one with the brown hair.” I wanted to sound as if I’d been around, and was as experienced as he’d been at my age.“ I dated Pam—she’s the blonde—for awhile but decided I liked Candy better.”
“Man about town, huh?”
“You missed a great band,” Candy said as they walked up.
“Yeah. The Lavender Hill Mob.”
“I’ve heard of ‘em.”
“I’m Billy’s girlfriend Candy, and this is my friend Pam,” she said to Roy as she stuck her hand out.
“Nice to meet you both,” Roy said. I could tell he liked Candy right away. “I’ve heard a lot about you,” he said, looking at Candy.
“Did lover boy kiss and tell?” Pam asked with a smart aleck tone. That was one of the reasons I broke up with her.
“Nope, just a man-to-man, heart-to-heart talk.”
“I thought men didn’t have those kind of talks,” Candy said.
“We do, when we run out of things to say about football,” Roy said.
“We’ve got to get home,” Pam said. She wasn’t getting anything out of this.
“We’re closed and Billy’s done,” Roy said. “He’s all yours.”
“Well, it was nice to meet you,” Candy said. “I hope you survive the fair.”
“I hope I do too,” Roy said. “Nice to meet you, Pam.”
“Same here,” she said. She couldn’t care less.
We started to walk towards the highway and I turned around to say goodbye to Roy, and saw him looking at me.
“Take care of that girl, okay?” he said.
I Fall in Love Too Fast
That’s my problem, he thought to himself as he turned off the music to his headphones. He had been listening to Chet Baker and in a moment his state of mind had turned from mellow moodiness to irritation. The romantic background that the sounds had provided on his morning walk to work now struck him as . . . inappropriate. He needed to get his mind in a frame to be alert, even anxious, not placid and pacific. He dealt with money, and no one wanted a complacent, dreamy-eyed romantic making investment decisions.
But it was true, he thought. He fell in love too easily. Until he learned to do otherwise, he would lack the focus he’d need to close the deal with someone really nice, someone he’d want to settle down with.
Take his first week at work. He’d been smitten with a brown-haired go-getter who walked the same diagonal he did over to Winter Street, then down Summer Street to the financial district. She came out of her apartment building a few minutes behind him; he’d see her down the block. She carried an insulated mug with ducks on it, and by the time they’d crossed over Beacon Street she would already be steaming ahead of him. He had tried to slow down at first to see if she’d break stride to his gait, but she wouldn’t. She was obviously into her career and didn’t have time for a dalliance, not even one that would be so convenient. They lived on the same block and worked in the same building.
Maybe there was some sort of taboo about dating someone you’d run into too much if you broke up, he’d thought by way of way of trying to understand the folkways of the bluestocking tribe. When he decided to give up on her he found it was quite easy because he happened to strike up—or almost strike up—a conversation with another woman.
Brown hair pulled back with a head band, pretty, a few inches shorter than the first one, but tall enough so that he wouldn’t have to worry about a son being too short. His sister had dated a real cool, good-looking guy in college who had an air of sadness about him when there was a lull in the action, all because he was so short. He didn’t think of himself was shallow—it wasn’t like he was buying a horse for breeding purposes—but it was something you had to consider before you got involved with somebody.
It had been a Wednesday, both the papers had a food section that day—restaurant reviews, recipes, that sort of thing. The gap-toothed news hawker who stood at the mouth of Winter Street would yell out “Foozection! Foozection!” as you passed by him that morning each week.
He’d been walking alongside the second woman and when the man shouted out his garbled cry she broke out laughing. He turned to look at her and she said “Did that man just say booze and sex?”
He had laughed too—the woman had quite an imagination, or sense of humor if she’d deliberately contorted the words into something funny.
“No, he said ‘Food section.’ It’s Wednesday, the newspapers have food sections on Wednesday.”
“Ohh,” she’d said. “I get it.” He had turned his head back down Winter towards the water, where rays of sun were pouring up the street from the Atlantic. By the time he’d turned his head back to smile at her she was already two steps ahead of him. He didn’t know if she was unhappy that he hadn’t tried harder to carry on a conversation, but he hadn’t anything in mind to say to her. It was too late now, he thought; she’d think he was weird if he accelerated to catch up with her—wouldn’t she?
From that day on he tried to time his walk to arrive when she had come up out of the Park Street station, especially on Wednesday. Maybe they would recreate the first encounter and they’d look at each other in recognition and laugh. Then it would be easy to think of something say—“Say, I’ve heard that one before” or “Isn’t this where we came in?” if he was going to try and pull off something really witty. But she never showed up again and, rather than staking out the intersection from the coffee shop with the window that looked out on the brick pavement, he’d fallen in love—again—too fast.
This time it was a sales clerk at the women’s clothing store where he was buying his sister a birthday present. It was a sweater, it wasn’t really her style, but the store was just around the corner from his office so it was convenient, even if it wasn’t right. He was like a drunk who looks for his car keys under the street light, he was thinking to himself when another clerk came up from behind him singing a song she’d obviously made up for the occasion. “It’s a great big beautiful world,” she began, “full of great, big beautiful girls.”
“Why are you singing that?” the first woman asked, losing her commercial composure.
“I don’t know,” the singer said. “Just popped into my mind when a six 6 tried to squeeze into a size 2.”
They kept their voices low, like two school girls passing notes in the back of a classroom. He was in love with them both, but especially the one who’d come up with the sarcastic sales jingle. Now there was a woman you’d want to spend the rest of your life with, he thought. Someone so witty, there’d never be a dull moment.
“Would you like me to gift wrap this for you?” the first woman asked, and before he had a chance to answer her, the second woman had returned to the sales floor to re-shelve two pairs of now-stretched pants, humming her little song.
“Uh, yeah, it’s for my sister,” he said nervously, as if he needed an excuse.
“Well, you’re a good brother,” the woman said. She was heavier than her friend the spontaneous songstress, who had just stepped out of his life, probably forever.
Whatever Happened to Fred Moss?
We were in one of the conference rooms, the one that looked out over the water towards the airport. There was a break in the closing—we were waiting for the title guy to get on record with the mortgage—so Scofield the banker and I were sitting around waiting.
“Murck Industries has been a customer of the bank for twenty years,” he said with an air of satisfaction. I figured that meant it had been handed to him, that he hadn’t gone out and found it on his own, so he wasn’t flattering himself, although I’m not sure he cared. To him it was all about being part of a fine old institution like Boston Merchants Bank, one that had started by financing the China trade and had survived now for two hundred years.
“Who had it before you?” I asked. I was interested in financial genealogy.
“Fred Moss,” he said, as if the sanctity of this name entitled him to claim a lineage back to St. Peter. I knew a little about Moss. He’d been a star from what I could tell going through old files; he’d brought in a lot of new business, gotten into the option pool, then when the bank’s stock took off in the eighties he’d cashed in. Made a bundle of money and went out and started his own bank, over in Cambridge. He was a gentlemen of the old school, and he liked the idea that he’d be on the ground floor, not in a high-rise, looking out over Harvard Square, where people could see him when they passed by.
Scofield could have been his son, what with the club tie and the ruddy face and the herringbone suit and the Roman numeral at the end of his name, but Moss carried himself differently. The men of his generation—they’d graduated from college before things got crazy in the sixties. They were more reserved than the young guys who came after them. They were a little less—exuberant, I’d guess you’d say. They’d gone straight from prep school to a dorm, then married life without ever having given a thought to social experimentation. What a younger man might mock or rebel against in our time had been as natural as waking up, as easy as falling out of bed to them.
I knew we had done some work for Moss’s new bank—BayState, they were the first to get fancy with their orthography–but I gathered that it had tailed off. Every now and then we’d rewrite the papers for one of their loans, but no more; what we got came our way by inertia.
And as I got around town over the first few years of my professional life I learned that other, newer firms—upstarts, my boss John would call them, if he condescended to speak of them at all—were getting the business from BayState. To be perfectly frank, coarser men, the type who would pound a table in a business meeting, their voices raised to a shout. That wasn’t John’s style, and it wasn’t the way I was taught. He told me you should never lose your temper, it wouldn’t reflect well on the client, and it meant that you’d let your emotions overpower your reason.
“Whatever happened to Mr. Moss?” I asked, trying to be sly and Scofield—not the brightest bulb on the scoreboard—letting me get away with it.
“Oh, he’s still active. He’s sort of the elder statesman of the bank. His name alone brings in tons of customers. He took a year off after that big trial.”
“Which one was that?”
“The Scilardi Construction case. It took a lot out of him.”
I didn’t know the whole story, but I knew that what had been a garden-variety business transaction, the kind that John and Fred had done by the hundreds of over the course of their careers together, had turned sour. It had been sent to the “workout” department of the bank, where troubled loans were rewritten or collected or liquidated. Then to everyone’s surprise, it had gone to trial.
“Why was that?” I asked.
“I guess it’s no fun having to testify. He was supposedly on the stand for two full days.”
“Wow. That does sound tough.”
Scofield looked at me as if I were a simpleton. “That’s why we have lawyers. Or why we’re supposed to have lawyers.”
There was an edge in his tone, as if I were somehow implicated in whatever Moss had had to endure. “Did we represent the bank?” I asked.
“Yeah. Some guy named Bart. I guess you were a smaller firm back then, didn’t have that many horses. The way I heard it, he was known to be a tough guy, but I guess he didn’t come off that way when he represented Fred.”
“Oh.” The fellow he was talking about had left shortly after I arrived. He looked like he had street smarts, which is a charitable way of saying he didn’t seem to have a whole lot of the other kind. “So what happened?”
“Well, the bank probably should have settled it, discretion’s the better part of valor and all that. But I don’t know, John had taken a dislike to this guy Scilardi and sort of egged Fred on. Told him his bank was brand new, he shouldn’t get reputation as somebody who would settle. Pretty soon other borrowers would hear about it and would try to walk all over him.”
I could just hear John saying that. He was a beady-eyed little guy, probably got pushed around a lot when he was a kid and decided he’d take it out on the world when he became a lawyer.
“And it backfired?”
“They use it as a case study for the new recruits in credit. You look at how much you could get if you stretched out the term of the loan in exchange for some new collateral. You look at the liquidation value of the assets at each decision point—do you let the guy hang on or do you pull the plug?”
That was Scofield, mixing his metaphors and not giving a shit. Probably skated through four years as a legacy, then got a job through his dad’s connections. I was guessing, and maybe I resented the way he seemed to be blaming me for the downfall of his mentor, but I suspected I was right.
“Anyway, you could see from the reports they give you that a little forbearance would have gone a long way,” he continued. “I don’t know if things were slow around here or what, but John persuaded Fred to sue the guy. I’m sure it helped your bottom line that year.”
I felt a little disloyal listening to this without objection, and a little nervous too. John was out of the office, but one of his first lieutenants—the lawyers ten years or so ahead of me—could have heard us with the door open; there was an office on either side, plus a copy machine right across the hall.
“Well, you can still settle once you start a lawsuit. Ultimately it’s up to the client . . .”
“Fred thought John was Oliver Wendell Holmes or something. He’d never been through a tough case, he’d always prided himself on choosing his borrowers carefully, and he’d succeeded. He figured John knew what he was talking about—which he didn’t.”
I got up and went outside to ask my secretary if the fellow had called from the registry. She said no, and I stepped back in, this time closing the door behind me.
I sat down again and tried to think of something to do to distract Scofield, but he was off again. Apparently animus against lawyers flows in a vein that, once tapped, bleeds profusely.
“Anyway, there were some incriminating comments in the bank’s files about Scilardi. Somebody at one point had commented that he was a rough Italian, it wasn’t clear how he maintained his profit margins. In addition to his construction company he had a business that made wallets—a lot of low-wage workers out in Worcester. And then he went out and bought a racehorse that he kept down in Kentucky. Nothing really offensive, you know, but there was a suggestion that everything wasn’t on the up-and-up. And Fred had written in the margin ‘Money launder? Org crime?’”
I let out a little involuntary snort. You wouldn’t expect men like Fred and John to commit something like that to paper, although it was certainly something you might hear behind closed elevator doors. Maybe Moss thought his telegraphic style was enough to shield him from harm.
“So what happened?”
“Well, Scilardi’s lawyer was a real s.o.b. He made a lowball offer and let it just hang out there. At John’s recommendation, Fred didn’t even respond. They were going to teach the bastard a lesson.”
“How much was at stake?”
“That’s the sad part. With interest, around a million dollars. They could have written it off and shareholders wouldn’t have even noticed. But they were gonna win, by God!”
I didn’t want to hear what I knew came next, but I settled in for the ride, the way you do with a roller coaster making its way up the incline.
“Who went first?”
“The bank. They put the note into evidence, they thought it would be like shooting fish in a barrel. Without any water in it.”
“That didn’t take long, right?”
“Less than half the first day. Then the defendant got his chance.”
“And how did that go?”
“You ever been to one of those festivals in the North End? Where they walk St. Rocco through the streets and everybody sticks a dollar bill on him and hopes their dying Aunt Theresa will be cured of cancer?”
“Yes, I was over there for dinner one time while one was going on.”
“Well, it was like that. Everybody and his brother and his dog got up and testified about what a great guy Gennaro Scilardi was, how he never did anybody any harm.”
“And what did our side do?”
“Well, this guy Bart’s gets up every now and then and complains, how much more do we have to listen to, you know? But the judge says ‘Let it all in.’”
“But eventually . . .”
“They called Fred as a witness.”
“Beats the hell out of me. He brought the business in, but anybody could have responded. Ask your guy Bart, wherever he is today.”
“Doesn’t sound good.”
“It wasn’t. Scilardi’s lawyer dragged him through the mud and back, then stomped on him. He said ‘Is this your note here?’ Moss admitted it was his handwriting. The lawyer said “It looks like it says “Money laundering, organized crime.” Is that what you thought of Mr. Scilardi, that he was a member of La Cosa Nostra?’”
“Did Bart object?”
“I don’t know. I guess it was a business record, they couldn’t keep it out. That’s why they teach us now to be very careful what you write for the file.”
I could imagine how John took all this. His old friend and good client, being grilled like a hot dog. His half-assed litigator not doing such a great job, but probably as good as anybody could under the circumstances. Him seething each night as he got reports from the front.
“By the end Scilardi’s lawyer had reduced Fred to a wet dishrag. He admitted that he had no basis for believing Scilardi was involved in organized crime. He tried to salvage the money laundering comment, saying he didn’t know how about the other businesses, but it was too late.”
“Too late why?”
“The jury—this was before banks got people to waive their right to a jury trial—three were old guys from the North End. The kind of guys who hang around the courthouse, and actually enjoy being called for jury duty. Italians, a chip on their shoulder. They went to work on the others, about how unfair it was, couldn’t you see the guy was a family man, all the good he did for the community, his church.”
I didn’t say anything, and neither did Scofield for awhile. From all I’d ever heard Fred was a fine and decent man, and his whole career, an unbroken string of successes, had come down to something he’d scribbled in the margin of what the bankers back then called “dope,” their impressions of the character of a customer from the regular visits they were supposed to make, to protect the bank and its depositors and shareholders. He was doing his duty as the senior officer reviewing the reports of one of his men in the field, and he’d crossed a line he probably didn’t even know was there, like a soldier wandering into enemy territory in the dark.
“You know how it ended, I assume,” Scofield continued after an uncharacteristic moment of reflection. “Million dollar verdict against what was a little start-up bank, a gentlemen’s club for Fred and his friends going all the way back to prep school—boyhood, even.”
“I don’t suppose insurance covered it?”
“No, it wasn’t that kind of claim.” He exhaled a little sigh of wonder; I figured he was thinking of the kind of trouble he himself could get into, him with his rather less circumspect manners than Fred Moss. Then he continued. “The bank appealed, of course. They, uh, brought in a bigger firm to handle it, and the verdict was overturned.”
“They all were, or pretty much all of them back in the days when people suddenly started suing their banks,” I added.
“Right,” Scofield said. “’Stop me before I borrow again,’ or something like that. Never made much sense. But Fred had been dragged through the mud, and that’s when he went into semi-retirement. He brought in somebody from one of the big banks in Boston to run things, and he stepped back to a sort of . . . ceremonial role. They offered Scilardi $300,000 to settle in order to avoid another trial, and they took it. I’m sure his lawyer had had enough—a hundred grand was a good payday to him, and probably about what his two years on the case was worth.” He said this last part with a sneer.
We’d been looking out the window all that time and so were surprised when a voice boomed out “Scofield!” It was John at the door, playing the role of the hale-fellow-well-met to the younger banker who was technically his client, even though the two decades that separated them in age meant this was an institutional formality, a vestige of a relationship that had started with John’s father. “How are you?” John continued as he strode across the room. Scofield stood up and the two shook hands.
“Everything in order?” John asked me after the two had exchanged pleasantries.
“We’re just waiting to hear that they’re on record,” I said.
“It’s gone very smoothly,” Scofield said.
“Good, good,” John said. “Well, I’ll leave you two young Turks to the battle. Good to see you, Scofield. We should get a lunch on the calendar once you two have wrapped this thing up.”
“Sure, John. That would be good.”
“I’ll have my girl call your girl.”
And with that John turned and with a “Nice to see you,” left us alone again.
Scofield gave me a look and a smile. “A gentleman of the old school, huh?”
Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Ice Cubes for the Hell Ship and Other Legal Fictions.”
The Racquet Club
I was new at the firm, a lateral hire from a place I’d prefer to forget. Three and a half years out of law school, the perfect time to make a move according to the headhunter who’d contacted me about the job. “You’ve got the skills, they’re not paying you for them,” he said.
I asked him which firm he was calling about. “Actually, I’m not at liberty to say,” he said. “You may have heard of them, Harris & Block.” I let that one sink in for a moment. At 25 to 30 percent of my salary, if the guy placed two or three others besides me he’d make as much as I did that year; the legal recruiting business wasn’t attracting America’s best and brightest, but they were doing all right.
It was a matter of months and several rounds of interviews before I got an offer, and I was awfully happy when it came through. It was conditional upon a phone call between senior partners at the two firms but I hadn’t screwed up in any significant way so I had nothing to fear. That letter sized envelope—hand-delivered–was my ticket out of a hellhole where in less than four years time, I was already the most senior associate.
I still harbored some guilty feelings about leaving the firm that had given me a chance when I was just a tyro out of law school, but my guilt couldn’t overcome my sense of elation as I settled in at the new place. I got a nice office, probably a better one than I deserved but it temporary until a smaller one opened up. I was busy right from the start, but not so busy that I turned away anybody who showed up at the door of my office.
And so it was that I came to know Ray. I’d seen him in the halls before, usually pushing a baby carriage. His wife, I later learned, had left him. It was the 80’s, women were doing that sort of thing, going off to discover themselves or something. There were movies and books and magazine articles that validated the whole trend for women who needed encouragement to follow through on an impulse.
When he first stuck his head in my office he didn’t have the baby with him.
“You’re new,” he said, with a mixture of surprise and cordiality.
“Yes,” I said. What else was there to say?
“I’m Ray. Ray Goldberg,” he said, advancing into my office as if he were part of the firm, which he wasn’t. I told him my name and he asked what kind of work I did.
“Debtor-creditor, commercial law.”
“Oh, okay. I see why they hired you. Nobody here likes to dirty their hands with that kind of stuff.”
“Yeah, I guess I fill a hole.”
We chatted for a bit—everybody “chatted” at my new firm, nobody just talked; some wore bow ties, even if they weren’t WASPs. The place had its share of Episcopalian Jews, as I’d been informed by a salty-tongued son of South Boston at my old firm.
“Well, I maybe could use you,” Ray said. He still hadn’t said what his connection to the place was; I assumed he worked there. “I’ve got a situation going on.”
By now I was guessing he was a client, and so I asked him to explain, which he did in the shorthand fashion I came to expect from him. “Guy I was in business with had me sign a lot of paper,” he said. By questioning that he seemed to find a bit tedious I got out of him what he meant; he’d been in cahoots with a real estate developer who’d converted a number of buildings to condos. He’d sell the condos to friends who expected they’d be able to flip them quickly for a profit; the real estate market was hot in Boston at the time, and there was no reason to think it would cool off anytime soon. The bank wouldn’t finance the full amount and the buyers didn’t have the cash, so the developer took back notes and second mortgage from guys like Ray.
Then, as always happens, what went up came down; one big project on the South Shore went into default and it made the papers. Suddenly banks stopped lending to developers. Things tightened on the retail side, too; if you weren’t going to live in the place they weren’t so quick to lend to you anymore, so that was it for the speculators. Down payment requirements went up, and there weren’t as many buyers out there. The “bigger fool” theory—that if you’re fool enough to pay too much for something, there’s always a bigger fool out there to buy it from you—was discredited. The number of available fools decreased substantially all of a sudden.
“Anyway, I did it so I could get first crack at some units,” he said. “I was okay there for awhile—sold one in a day for twenty thousand dollars profit–but now I’m stuck with three I can’t unload and they’re coming after him.”
“Why doesn’t he just file for bankruptcy,” I began but he cut me off.
“It’s not just the bank,” he said. “It’s the feds too. He knew one of the directors. The bank’s in receivership. Their take is there was no way he could ever repay the loan, so how did it get approved?”
“I assume they got an appraisal.”
“They did, but it wasn’t worth much.”
“No, the appraisal. It was a ‘drive-by.’ It was worthless.”
I didn’t know what to say other than “So—it sounds like fraud, huh?”
“Some people might say that,” he said, less candid now. “Anyway, you seem like a good boy, maybe I’ll have you take a look at the papers, see if you can figure something out.”
“Uh, sure. Yeah.” I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.
“I’ll drop them off sometime,” he said as he got up to leave. We shook hands, as if he was a senior partner of the firm and I’d just been officially welcomed.
After he was gone a guy named Brian who was a year ahead of me out of law school, and who’d been with the firm from the start, stuck his head in my office.
“So you met Ray, huh?”
“Yeah. Who is he?”
“He grew up with Eddie,” he said. As a short-timer I didn’t know much, but I already knew that Eddie brought in more business and made more money than any other partner in the firm.
“Oh,” I said. “So . . . he’s a client?”
“Sort of,” Brian said, then flopped down in a chair and told me how he’d extricated himself from providing free legal services to Ray back when he was new. “I guess it’s your turn,” he said as he got up to leave. “He gets passed around like a bad cold, and never goes away.”
“Thanks for warning me,” I said with rueful resignation.
“Hey—I didn’t get here soon enough,” Brian said with a sly smile. “Remember to record your time,” he added facetiously. “Ray’s number is 23629—not that he’ll ever pay for it.”
I had to laugh at myself; the rookie who doesn’t know any better who agrees to take on the client everybody else is trying to get rid of, like a Christmas fruitcake.
With the profile Brian had given me I expected Ray back at my door soon, but I didn’t see him again until that Friday afternoon, when most of the partners had left for the weekend.
“Hey, kid,” Ray said as he appeared at my door, emphasizing the difference in our age in a way I would come to expect; it was his way of putting me in my place, reminding me I was a rookie and he was somehow more a part of the firm than I was.
“Hi,” I said, trying not to be too friendly now that I’d been warned.
“Here’s those loan docs I told you about,” he said, taking a manila folder out of his briefcase that was stuffed to overflowing with paper in no apparent order. He dropped it on my desk and sat in one of my chairs. “There’s gotta be something in there that can get me off the hook.”
I picked up the file and started to flip through it. “So—these are your signatures, right?”
“Right,” he answered, somewhat defensively.
I looked at the documents. “Did the bank know about your mortgages back to your . . . friend?”
“I assume so.”
I pulled a legal size sheet of paper out of the file. “This says you paid cash for the difference between the first mortgage and the sale price.”
“That’s what the note’s for.”
“But the note isn’t cash.”
“What difference does it make?”
I looked at him and thought for a moment about how to put what I had to say. “It’s one thing if your friend . . . lied to the bank, it’s another thing if you signed something that wasn’t true.”
“I don’t know what I signed. You’ve been to those closings. You don’t get to see anything until you get there, then they shove it all in front of you at once.”
“But you must have filled out a loan application . . .”
“Maybe I did.”
“You knew you signed a note, but you don’t know if you signed a mortgage?”
“I dunno. Maybe it was a silent second. My friend arranged it all.”
“That’s not going to persuade a judge.”
“That’s why you gotta find something in there,” he said in a peremptory tone. I didn’t know how much leverage he had, but I figured if guys like Brian—who did know—wanted no part of the guy, I was probably not in a position to resist.
“Okay, I’ll take a look at them.”
“That’s a good boy,” Ray said as he got up. “You got any plans for the weekend?”
“Supposed to be playing tennis,” I said as tersely as I could. I didn’t want to be his friend.
“Oh—you’re a tennis player, huh?”
“Yeah—after a fashion.”
“Where do you play?”
“On the Esplanade or the Common.”
“On those public courts? Those are crap.”
“Well, I can walk to them and I can’t afford to join a club.”
“I’ll have you out to Newton sometime,” he said. “The courts out there are nice–clay.”
“Sure,” I said.
“They take good care of them.”
It sounded unappetizing to me; a trolley ride and a walk out followed by an afternoon with someone whom I disliked more the longer I was with him, a trolley ride and a walk back. I wondered if I had to do it because Ray was a client.
“Okay, well, I’ll let you get back to work,” he said as he got up to go.
I had nothing else to do and I couldn’t leave yet, being the most recent hire, so I started examining the documents. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with them at first glance; they looked like a million other notes and mortgages I’d seen before; printed forms spit out by a computer at a bank somewhere, blanks filled by hand in some places. Somebody’d been on a mission to close a lot of loans for Ray’s friend.
When you read the so-called “fine print” on legal documents all day you have to resort to tricks to keep your attention from fading. Sometimes I’d stop in the middle of a document when I get that snow-blind feeling and go to the end where they put the unimportant stuff. That way if your mind wanders and a clause doesn’t register, you won’t have missed anything important. You work your way back like a salmon swimming upriver to spawn, although the payoff when you get back to the headwaters isn’t as much fun.
I started right above Ray’s signature, the paragraph that usually begins, like some medieval bailiff or highsheriff about to seize somebody’s chattels, “In Witness Whereof, the undersigned has executed this note as an instrument under seal.” I read the words and realized at a level below my normal consciousness that something was missing; the “seal” part. I looked at the paragraph above and saw no reference to a seal there either.
The note wasn’t witnessed either, which meant that it came under the short statute of limitations; six years instead of twenty.
I turned back to the front page and looked at the date; it was six years and a month earlier.
So Ray may not have been smart or articulate or successful, but he was lucky, which is more important. I picked the other notes out of the file one by one; they’d all been signed on the same day, and they were all no good at this point.
I called Ray’s home number—he didn’t have an office, as he was currently “between” jobs–and left a message on his answering machine. Then I got up and started to leave, but just before I was about to turn off my lights, I went back to my desk and wrote “1.5 hours, review notes and mortgages” for client no. 23629.
I didn’t hear from Ray until Monday, when he appeared at my office door with a big shit-eating grin on my face and a bag of bagels.
“Counselor!” he said, loud enough to draw stares from the secretaries in their carrels. “You’re a genius!”
Against the inclinations of my professional I couldn’t suppress a smile; everyone likes to be praised.
“Just doing my job,” I said with facetious modesty.
“Nobody coulda done better,” he said, moving eagerly towards me to shake my hand. “I’m gonna tell Eddie you’re the best goddamn lawyer in the joint.”
I looked out the door where one of the elder secretaries was peering over her half-glasses with disapproval. As much as I liked to hear the words, if Ray was going to go on like this I would have to shut the door, but he beat me to it. “This is BIG, lemme tell you,” he said as he put his hand on the knob and pushed. “Sit down, we gotta talk.”
I did as I was told, with the expectation that he had some major reward in store for me.
“I’ve got $25,000 here,” he said, pulling a check out of his pocket.
I wasn’t sure where he was going. “To . . . pay a bill?” I asked uncertainly.
“Not quite. This is gonna have to last me for some time, until I sell some property I got in a trust nobody knows about.”
“So . . . what do you want me to do with it?”
“I want you to put it in your clients’ funds account.”
“As a retainer. In case I need more legal work from you.”
“You should probably talk to Ed, he’s the billing partner.”
“Eddie’s too busy. He tolerates me. He’s a big deal, I’m not.”
“So, why don’t you just put it in the bank?”
“I’m getting sued, see? They’re gonna send out attachments to every bank in town. If I put this in a bank it’ll be gone as soon as it clears.”
“But—if you need the money, what good does it do you to pay it to us as a retainer?”
“When I need it, I come and say you’re probably not gonna need the whole thing so give me some back.”
I thought about his idea for a moment; it was shady, but I didn’t think it was illegal. “So if we’re holding the money . . .”
“I’ve signed your retainer agreement before. It says the money’s security for your bills. Creditors can’t touch it. Attorney-client privilege or something.”
“Just put it in a bank that hasn’t got a claim against you. That way the bank you owe the money to has to go to court to attach it. You’d have plenty of warning.”
“I can’t afford to spend my last cash on legal fees to stop somebody from taking my last cash. I’d be like a dog chasing its tail.”
“Still, the bank has the mortgages. A judge will make them go after the condos first.”
His face took on a look of exasperation, as if I was a particularly dense child who wasn’t getting long division. “It’s not just the banks,” he said, leaning in and speaking more quietly now, conspiratorially.
“Well, who else?”
“My wife,” he said with a note of finality.
That struck me as a difference in kind, not just degree. “Do you owe her money too?”
“No, but she’s filed for divorce, and she wants to know all my assets.”
“You’re going to list it on the schedules, right?”
“No way. That bitch left me with a two-year-old and now she wants my money too?”
His point of view appealed to a fundamental sense of fairness, but that wasn’t the standard. “But . . . you have to report it, don’t you?”
“It’s not a bank account, it’s not a brokerage account. It’s something I give you guys to take care of me. As far as I know, it’s gone, you guys are so expensive. I’ll probably never see any of it again.”
I took a breath. I’d never taken money from a client before, except for $500 in cash from a guy who was leaving for China and wanted to pay on the spot for a note I drafted. “I don’t know . . .”
“Gimme a break. If there’s a law firm in Bostn that ever turned down a $25,000 retainer, it’d be on the front page of both papers. Here . . .”
He held out the check over my desk, waiting for me to take it.
“Take it. You’ll win the prize for Associate of the Year.”
I didn’t accept it, so after probably ten seconds he dropped it on my desk. “Give it to your secretary, she’ll know what to do with it. You don’t have to be involved. I’ll let you know when I’m coming over and how much I need. You fill out a check request, it’s that simple.”
I must have had a skeptical look still.
“You don’t have to touch the money or the check. Take it to a partner, they’re the ones who have to sign.”
He got up and moved to the door. I could hardly stuff the check in his pocket without creating a scene that would be worse than the alternative, which was to simply put the check in my desk drawer and lock it until I decided what to do with it. If nothing else, I could simply write Ray a letter returning the check; then he’d have to come back with it and force it on me. I figured if I did that he’d give up, since I could just repeat the process until I wore him out.
“Thanks again, kid,” he said with a knowing look as he turned the corner and walked down the hall.
I sat back down and stewed over my predicament. If I were a braver man I would have walked down to Eddie’s office and turned the matter over to him, but I didn’t have the nerve. I knew from my past dealings that it would take forever to get in to see him; he was so successful he had two secretaries, one who handled his paperwork and one who handled client relations. The latter kept a file on every client’s preference for coffee, lunch and cocktails; their birthdays and anniversaries, kids’ names and ages, all the little details that made Eddie’s practice run like a private jet. Which he didn’t have yet, but it was only a matter of time.
In the end, I took the walk down to accounting, filled out the forms and handed the check to one of the little women behind the cashier’s window where you got petty cash when you were going to the courthouse or something. They took it without so much as a raised eyebrow. As I walked back to my office I decided I’d been making too much of the situation as a result of my inexperience. This sort of thing was probably as normal to the people in accounting as $1.25 in coins was to a toll taker on the Mass Pike.
I didn’t hear from Ray for two weeks—I guess he had enough walking around money to last him for awhile—then he called me up one day with his usual frat rush chairman bonhomie.
“Hey, buddy,” he said when I picked up.
“How’s my favorite lawyer?”
“Okay—how are you?”
“Hangin’ in there. They haven’t caught me yet. Say listen, I need some of that money back.”
“Okay,” I said. The sooner it was gone, the better for me, I figured. “How much?”
“The full twenty-five.”
I wasn’t expecting that. “Doesn’t look much like a retainer if you were just parking it for two weeks.”
“No, but appearances can be deceiving.” His voice conveyed the thin, wiry grin that came over his lips whenever he said something cynical and expected me to approve.
“Doesn’t matter to me,” I said. “I’ll be happier when I don’t have it hanging over my head.”
“Geez, you’d think I asked you to watch my pet snake or something.”
“I never felt comfortable about it, but now I don’t have to worry anymore. I’ll have a check made out to you . . .”
“Not to me,” he said sharply.
“The Racquet Club,” he replied, laying heavy emphasis on the definite article. The place was definitely the genuine article; an old-Boston club with oak paneling, squash and tennis courts. If you could get in there, you had arrived.
“Do you owe them money?”
“No—it’s my initiation fee. I’ve been on the waiting list for eight years.”
I started to say something, then caught myself. After a moment, I began again. “But what about those loans?”
“I’m off the hook for those, remember?”
“All because of your legal talent.”
“Right, right.” There was something else, I thought, as we hung on the line for a moment, both of us silent.
“What about your wife?”
“That’s why I want you to make it out direct to the club. That money’s not going in a bank where she can grab it.”
I didn’t say anything, then he spoke again.
“She’ll never see a nickel of it, my friend. Not one fucking nickel.”
Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Ice Cubes for the Hell Ship and Other Legal Fictions.”
They had a deal, she reminded him. If he didn’t want to wear a condom all the time, he’d have to help with her birth control, and she was off the pill. It made her nauseous, and she didn’t see why she had to suffer for their lovemaking; wearing a rubber didn’t make him sick to his stomach all day, she told him.
And so he had agreed, but he’d had no idea what he was getting himself into, he thought in retrospect. If he had, he might have thought twice about it, he told himself now. They could predict when they needed to use protection, he’d argued, so the onus could be on him then and they could go naked, literally and figuratively, the rest of the time.
No way, she’d said. She’d already had two abortions and she didn’t want to have another. He’d remembered what she had looked like when she walked out of the clinic in Brookline the time that he was the father; far paler than normal, weak, stunned. They’d walked back to his car through the protestors who were less interested in her because she was coming out than trying to persuade women walking in the opposite direction not to go in.
She went home and lay down, and he tried to stay as quiet as he could the rest of the day. Their other roommates came and went and he tried as best he could to keep them quiet, to damp their enthusiasm without letting them know what had happened, why she needed to withdraw.
Now they had a place of their own, in Boston, on Beacon Street. It wasn’t on the sunny side and the darkness fed her depression, but they had windows on the ground floor in the back, facing the alley, so some sunlight fell on their bed and the living room on winter days.
He wondered how, exactly, they would do it; she had left her women’s health book open at the page that showed the correct method of filling the little rubber half moon with spermicide, then squeezing the sides together to make a little sort of taco to slip into her. He didn’t want to practice beforehand, and he hoped she wouldn’t make him.
That Saturday they went out to dinner at the French restaurant with the green walls down on Charles Street. The tables were close together but it was noisy because voices bounced off the exposed brick walls.
“Did you look at the picture?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said through gritted teeth as he looked at the woman opposite him one table over. “Do we have to talk about it now?”
“No one will know what we’re talking about if we keep it discreet,” she said, her left eyebrow arching slightly upwards, as if they were conspirators. “We can pretend we’re communicating in code because we’re surrounded by spies, like this is occupied Berlin or something. C’mon.”
She smiled a mischievous smile, but he didn’t think it was funny.
“What are you gonna have?” he asked, looking down at the menu, hoping she’d change the subject.
“You never ask me that. Are you embarrassed?”
“I just don’t think this is the right place and time to be talking about . . . that.”
The woman opposite him was watching them, but looked back at her companion when he glanced at her.
“Perhaps you’re right,” she said, opening up her menu. “What are you going to have?” she said with a stilted tone, as if observing proprieties solely for his sake.
“I was thinking of the sweetbreads.”
“What exactly are sweetbreads?”
“The pancreas of a sheep.” He thought of what they would look like on his plate and thought he should probably stick to something less . . . graphic, given what he had to get through later.
The food came and although their conversation wasn’t lively, after two glasses of wine apiece they were as animated as usual when they went out to eat. At one point she reached across the table and took his hand, catching him off guard, then looking him straight in the eye.
“I appreciate what you’re doing,” she said quietly, although her voice came out husky. If her intent had been to avoid drawing others’ attention to them, it hadn’t worked. An older man with half-glasses looked over the top of his lenses at them, then quickly averted his gaze when he was caught in the act.
“No problem,” he said.
“Yes it is, I know it is.” She squeezed his hand and he reciprocated, but his attempt at a smile came off poorly, more like a look of resignation.
He paid and, as they walked out of the restaurant, she slipped her arm in his for the short walk back to their apartment.
As they stood on their front steps and he fumbled with his key, she nuzzled uncharacteristically into his ear. He turned and they kissed, her mouth warm against his, then they entered the vestibule.
Once they were in their apartment they began to take off their clothes in layers, putting them away with precision in a gesture of restraint that she found erotic, but which he used as a means of marking time. She used the bathroom first and walked out with a little plaid bag; he knew it had her diaphragm and goop in it. She smiled at him and he tried to return it but he felt his mouth just screwing up into an expression of determined cooperation.
When he came out of the bathroom buttoning his pajamas she was sitting on the bed with the covers pulled back. She had the little rubber half-sphere and the tube laid out on the bottom sheet, as if she were his den mother and had readied the materials for a Cub Scout project.
“Okay, you get the concept, right?” she asked.
“You hold the diaphragm in one hand, and squeeze this into it.”
“A lot. Enough to stop all your little guys from sneaking in. Here . . .”
She picked the stuff up and handed it to him. He looked at her, then pressed the middle of the tube and a little cylinder of spermicide came out. He let it drop into the concave surface. “Now what?”
“Put the tube down and spread it around.” He did as she said. “Spread some around the rim to make it easier to go in.”
He concentrated on the task but self-consciously took in the tableau that he was a part of: she had the lamp on her nightstand turned on and the bulb was too bright since she used it for reading; there were curtains on the windows and they were elevated above the parking lot in back, but he felt exposed. He imagined someone in an apartment across the alley could see in the windows, and he wondered why she didn’t want to do it in the dark.
“Okay?” he asked.
She looked down as he held the diaphragm up for inspection. “Should be. Okay, next is the tricky part,” she said.
“Why is it tricky?”
“Because you have to bend it in half but it’s slippery because it has that gel on it, so you have to be careful. Use both hands.”
He folded the rim along its diameter, then held it in place with both thumbs and forefingers. “Ready?” she asked.
“As I’ll ever be I guess.”
She spread her legs further apart in a clinical manner, and he slipped the half-moon shape of the thing into her.
“Like that?” he asked.
She felt within herself, made an adjustment, then gave him a satisfied smile. “Pretty good for the first time.” She lay back and pulled the covers over her and said “Turn out the light.”
He walked around to the other side of the bed and pulled the lamp chain, and the room was dark. Light shone in from above the café curtains, white with purple edges, and he got in bed next to her.
She moved towards him and placed her arm across his chest, but he didn’t respond at first. “This may take awhile,” he said after a moment.
“I mean, the process sort of killed my interest.”
She said nothing at first. “That’s okay, it’s good for six hours.”
They lay that way for awhile, then fell asleep.