I Take That Back
It starts like this, the intercom buzzes. Nick, the reluctant pet cat, is faking obliviousness, turning around, padding over to the kitchen for a snack. His tail, way up in the air, offers me a clear view of his hypoallergenic pink behind—shorthand for open scorn. “Guess I’m getting it then,” I say, pushing back with my own attitude. The box crackles when I press speak, the air holes asthmatically dusty, a vent to the ether—last call I got was around the time of the Big Bang. Then, too, it was for the guy down the hall. “Hello?” I say. I’m kept waiting for a long time. Then a man’s voice comes blasting through, garbled and shockingly loud. I make the suggestion that he back up a step and try for better enunciation. “YOOOUUPEEEEAAASS,” he roars. He’s got the sorry-we-missed-you note ready at hand, I’m sure of it. I give a quick scan of my shorts and t-shirt for unseemly stains, grab my phone, and put on the first footwear in sight, my bunny slippers, slid up against last night’s Pepsi Zero and Domino’s Pizza box underneath the coffee table. Definitely not the best choice for flying down three grubby flights of stairs at hysterical speed. I skip two steps at a time, my toes curled crow-like to fasten the grip on the soles. What is it about me, I wonder, willing to risk broken bones to avoid the wrath of the man downstairs?
The glass panels of the front door offer him a view of my tumbling dash down the last few steps. I make a bit of a show rushing across the lobby, make it look like his time is valued. He is big-boned, you could say towering, but maybe without the dignity the word usually connotes. Still, there is presence about him. His thick, round, firmly protruding stomach is not unintimidating. It says, I’m here, I’m scowling, and what are you gonna do about it? Close up, his facial skin is enviably smooth, pristine, the cheeks powdered with natural rouge. In addition to a scowl and the brown UPS cap and shirt, he is wearing grease-stained jeans, the little handle of the zipper not quite reaching its socially-expected destination. I find this detail oddly captivating.
“Roni Cohen,” he doesn’t ask but states.
“You’re wearing—what’s that? Baby slippers.” He’s criticizing my apparel? The guy in half uniform? Naturally, he is the owner of a booming voice, the kind that knocks out any member of his sex with him not straining a single muscle.
“Is that a problem?” I ask. “They come in all sizes.”
“Your package is not here.” He’s saying it like it’s something I should have known already.
“Ok?” And so—why are you here? is what I would have asked if my voice was half as commanding as his.
“You need to come along.”
“Along? Along where?”
“All right.” He glances at the slippers. “Better than barefoot.”
“Along with you?” I’m already scuttling after him, down the flagstone path to the street. “Wait! Wait, what?” Without turning around, he raises his hand ear-height, his two fingers tapping forward toward his truck. I obey but I don’t know why. Feels like I’m tied by a leash. I’m reminded once being told by an oracle reader that, in a previous life time, I had been a poodle. A toy poodle, in fact. She said I was karmically destined to meet my owner over and over again until I summoned the courage to cut him off, aggressively. “You will need to unpoodle yourself in order to move on to the next stage,” she said, refusing to elaborate what that might be. She let me pay below her sliding scale.
I still haven’t quite shut the truck door when he starts going. He drives in a state of low-grade road rage, honking, snickering, muttering under his breath, waving half-hearted apologies to drivers while still in the act of cutting them off. Somehow though, with all this going on, he also manages to explain, with surprising clarity, the terms of the delivery (my interjections are quickly struck down, which speeds things up). By the time we get to the BQE, I am still very much bewildered about the metaphysics of the “Offer,” as he refers to it, but as for practicalities, it’s pretty straightforward. It all boils down to a choice. Choice number one, I get $164,656. Somewhere at an undisclosed location (“What do you mean undisclo—?” “I mean undisclosed.”), towards which we are now driving, there’s a check bearing my name. Choice number two. Sadly, my checking account remains on the poor side of one thousand. At the same time, this is undeniably the more radical option. A permanent resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within the next fifteen months! Satisfaction for all concerned. (“I don’t know any Vanessa Redgrave,” the driver snaps).
“So what’s it gonna be?” he says once we’re settled on the fast lane. “Turn around? keep going?”
I spend the next minute in total, horrified silence. Then a piercing sound is heard. Something like a yelp, a shriek. A bleat? A bleat of a sheep possessed. It comes from all the way down in my gut, my mouth simply opening up with the force of it. Something like “Eahhhhhhhhhhhhiii.” The driver turns to me with a mixture of repulsion and suspicion. I cautiously look back. My face–bewildered, panicked. Pleading. Could he please tell me what just happened? That sound. What was it? Is it, like, a symptom, a common symptom he’s seen before in similar situations? Is it decodable? Was it a mutilated “turn,” as in turn around, I choose peace? My basic goodness pushing through the muck of self-interest?
The smirk spreading across his face tells me he’s figured it out. Figured me out. Basic goodness has nothing do with it. He turns his eyes back to the road. “You’ll need more time,” he says
“I will?” I ask idiotically. “How much time do I have? I can be a bit indecisive.”
He doesn’t seem to hear the question. Uncharacteristically, he waves in a mini Fiat to merge in front of us. “Dumbass,” he mutters when the guy gives him the thumbs up.
My phone beeps and instinctively I take it out of my pocket. A new Tinder match! I swipe right and quickly put it away.
“This is just so much,” I say. “I mean, isn’t it? You have to agree. It’s not even eight.”
“I don’t see you thinking,” he says. “It’s eight thirty.”
I shrink into the sticky vinyl seat. It makes a squeak that calls attention to my shame.
“ ‘I don’t see you thinking,’ ” I ponder out loud after a minute of silence that took everything out of me. “You just reminded me. That’s what my para used to say, ‘I don’t see you thinking.’ A para, you know, for my ADHD.” Arousing pity: that’s how the impish have managed to survive where the Neanderthal was vanquished. “Also dysthymia, but that wasn’t diagnosed till much later. After the army. You know dysthymia, right? ” The driver is determined not to engage—taking the same approach, come to think of it, as my para’s—ignoring anything I have to say that’s off topic. “Of course in Israel we didn’t call them paras,” I clarify. “It’s a funny word, isn’t it? Para. I mean, I understand why they’re called that. But still. Imagine being called a para. Not that paraprofessional is much better. Maybe even worse.” I chuckle affectedly. “Interestingly, in Hebrew, para would mean a cow, sort of. If you change the emphasis to the second syllable.” How I wish I could stop talking! Run off at the mouth, that’s the phrase.
A strange thought comes, that the only way to stop this pouring of nonsense would be a slap in the face, or a kiss. I imagine first one and then the other, and now I am almost ready to stop. “Anyway,” I say. “That’s all neither here nor there. Ok, enough, enough! I’m thinking.”
“Thoughts, thoughts, thoughts,” the driver says, somewhat cryptically. It’s been anywhere from a minute to eternity since my last words were spoken. I’ve done no thinking during this time, only panicking about not thinking, and the fact that I haven’t managed to sit still for one second must have clued him in.
“Hamlet! Isn’t it? You know him? Was that the allusion?” No reaction except a sigh. “Silence, silence, silence. That’s me, not Hamlet. I mean, that’s not me. I guess that’s you. I wish I could be the silent type. Not be so—accommodating. Beholden. You know what I mean? Entertaining, pleasing. ”
“Actually it might have been ‘Words, words, words.’ Either way. Maybe you weren’t even making the allusion.”
He doesn’t take the bait. But he does say, “It’s a misconception that thinking leads to right decisions.” That he speaks at all, however negatively, is a relief. “Never actually been proven.”
“That’s very interesting,” I say. “Turns things upside down, no?” The idea sounds too fatalistic, but I pretend, using a frown, to hold it against the light of reason and see what it yields. Part of me hopes he’s right. “So then, not at all? Like, under any circumstances? Thinking never does anything?”
“Does something. Drives you in circles. Long as you’re thinking.” He makes a few agitated circles in the air with his finger.
“So then, what? I should just listen to that voice inside, right? Just go with my gut?” Again, he keeps me waiting. “Go with my gut,” I repeat, as if to myself, but really for his benefit, to lure another response.
“Gut,” he says, scoffing. “The hell that means.”
“I don’t know. Maybe intuition?”
“Yeah? And what’s that?” I have to admit, I have no idea . “Stupidity. It’s people following their stupidity.”
My heart starts beating faster. “But then. Well, how do you make a decision? How does anyone make any decision?”
“He shrugs, losing interest in the discussion now that it reached a dead end. No Tuesdays with Morrie for me. Thankfully, his disengagement has a calming effect. I’m no longer being watched or timed. I let my head rest on the back of the seat and roll over to the right, toward the window. The asphalt underneath, reflected in the passenger side mirror, flies backwards, hypnotizing me. There. A little moment of total defeat with some suicidal ideation. Does me a world of good.
Here’s the thing. If I’m at all surprised about this situation, this Offer, it’s by how little surprise I actually do feel, after the initial hysteria, that is. You’d think such a proposition would give pause to anyone but the severely psychotic (who are presumably used to these types of occurrences and probably take them in stride). And it does. It does give me pause. And of course I’m deeply troubled—deeply. Anguished, even. But I’m not nearly as—what’s the word? Incredulous! Not nearly as incredulous as I imagine I should be. And the driver. What about him? Why is he so—so blasé? Not to go around in circles, but shouldn’t my lack of surprise be at least somewhat surprising to him? What is it that I actually do feel? I don’t know. Maybe nothing. Anesthetized.
And speaking of the driver. I have a confession. More like a secret. I do not dare admit it to a soul, least of all my own. I am doing my best to push it away but it is hovering at the top of my head, waiting for this very thought to end before it swoops down into consciousness. Even though I do not know what it is, I know it is indecent, that I do not want it, and that it’s most certainly coming my way. Here it is, coming down. And now I know it: I am more attracted to him, to the driver, than anyone I have ever been attracted to before.
I force my eyes to fix on the tissue box on the dashboard so as not to look at him, but over and over they sneak up to his hand on the steering wheel and the very bottom of his forearm, sparsely covered with dark hair under the very white skin. Has he not been in the sun this summer? Has he not taken off his shirt at the beach? While I ponder these questions my eyes manage to slide up his right thigh. It is thick. The man could stand to lose a few pounds. Which does not stop me from imagining the flesh underneath the jeans and how much of my prize money I’d be willing to give in order to see it. God help me. I force my eyes shut. Time out, eyes. And—as discreetly as humanly possible, I lift my left leg over the right and turn myself forty five degrees angle to face the door. This hides the evidence under my shorts, but the air, regardless, is thick with my desire.
I try to contemplate the situation, but the thinking is all wrapped up in sex. Viscous, unseemly. Lustful Oslo peace talks. Shimon Peres, Yasser Arafat, and between them at the table on the stage, Bill Clinton and a driver, both naked. Not this driver though. Another one. Or actually not a driver at all, a para. My para. My punitive para. Peace or greed. Virtue and lust. Giving or demanding. I should just open my eyes again, I should open my heart, and say it. Say it now. Turn around. Say it. Peace, peace, peace. Shanty, shanty. Take us back. No check, no check for me. I’m better than that!
My mouth remains infuriatingly unaffected by this very clear command from the brain. An obstinate child. I will deal with you when we get back home, young man, I tell it, I tell the mouth. The joke is amusing enough so that now my mouth is moving. Smiling. We’re friends again, it and I. But we’re no closer to a solution. Think, damn it, think! (My para again, now clothed.) Lack of thinking ahead, that’s been my life-long issue. And probably the reason why I find myself considering the pros and cons of taking a low-low six figure number over sustained peace in the Middle East. All my parents ever wanted for me is to finally stop following my heart with every whimsical, ill-fated artistic vision that “visits” me at night or in the bathtub—Eureka!—and start thinking with my brain. “What thirty-three year old doesn’t have a 401K?” A favorite in my father’s repertoire of punch-to-the-gut comments. It’s delivered with mysterious dependability every fourth Zoom call, always with the same theatrical throwing up of his hands outside the scope of my iPad lens.
I think I’m being duped here. Duped as in led to believe I need to make a choice. Peace or money. And with a mind all fogged up by sex, at that. But why should I not take a moment? Maybe I should try a little harder to be astonished. Perplexed, dumbfounded. If, for whatever reason, I was chosen from among the billions of people living on earth to face this ridiculous proposal, shouldn’t I consider possible implications to, I don’t know, quantum mechanics? Could this be bigger than the Big Bang? Should Neil deGrasse Tyson be notified? Or is it just a blip? A cosmic burp. The Universe experiencing some indigestion. I could take the money under the radar, no one being the wiser. But the point is, I’m tired of living this blindfolded existence. I want to be astonished. Like a toddler.
The first thing that comes to mind, of course, when I try to remove the blindfolds, is it’s a test. In which case, a no-brainer. Peace, go with peace. Peace be with you. Not such an impossible choice after all. If this was a movie, audiences would want me to save my soul by way of saving my people, both sides of the border. They are all my sons, I’d come to see, Jews and Arabs. I should come to see, right here in the truck. I’ve done that play, All My Sons. I was the son, I was Chris. Well, a dialogue from the play. For a stupid class. The teacher kept humiliating us, bitter because she’d made it to Broadway once and never again. We were all her sons and daughters and she treated us like garbage. Actors should have a heart. I should have a heart. In the movie, this one fateful choice, to go with peace, will end up having cascading effects on my life and character. From the squalor of a Bed-Stuy apartment to redemption. The final shot is of me and my cute Palestinian boyfriend piling up hearty plates for the cheerful line at the soup kitchen we run on donations by AIPAC and the Ayatollah Khomeini.
But then—say it’s the universe—why would it administer a test with such a profoundly obvious answer? Thinking of this dilemma with a glance toward Hercule Poirot or even Wallace Shawn in The Princess Bride, the right answer should be the one you least suspect. Why orchestrate the most elaborate production since Isaac’s sacrifice only to deliver a message any one of Oprah’s Super Soul Sundays could easily communicate in a more relatable way? Or Deepak Chopra. Shirley MacLaine. Indeed, Morrie. No, If some bored deity has descended on Brooklyn, maybe it’s to tell me I should once in my life do as my father has implored me for years now, wise up and start thinking like an adult.
And come to think of it, if the job is in fact routine for the driver, it would mean some version of the Offer was given to many before me. How many O’Connors got rich quick until they finally found the chump willing to put an end to the Troubles at his own personal expense? To say nothing of the Hundred Year War. Why should I always be the one with the conscience who ends up at the bottom of an ocean of student loans from a graduate school whose best idea of preparing me for the real world was the Meisner technique?
My philosophizing has cost me precious time. Evidently I was so much in my head that something very strange has happened without my noticing. A new driver is now settling behind the wheel. I cannot say why or how come. We are parked at a gas station at the side of a highway that no longer looks like the BQE. I want to say Jersey, maybe Pennsylvania. I really want to say Alabama, except that would be crazy, time-wise. Regardless, there are pale green trees on the other side of it, the highway, looking miserable in the sun. The old driver is currently using a squeegee to wipe the windshield with meticulousness and care that I haven’t seen in him before. He comes closer to the surface before moving on to another smudge and uses a sponge when extra scraping is needed. In his lovemaking, I wonder, is he as attentive as he is now, or inconsiderate, blunt, slapdash as he was all through our drive? I hope for the former, or the latter. When the glass is perfectly clean, letting in the full brightness of the sun, he gives it a few taps, indicating goodbye. Goodbye to his replacement. At me, he’s casting a short, disappointed glance. The new driver leans over slightly outside the window. “All right, baby,” she says, “you have a blessed day now.” I follow the old driver with vacant eyes as he places the squeegee and mop in a pail by the gas pump and makes his way over to the adjacent Dunkin’ Donuts (how is he supposed to get back to the city?) It may sound melodramatic, hyperbolic. But this is the most heart-wrenching goodbye or non-goodbye of my life. I’m collapsed, unable to move. At death’s door, too weak to knock. And yet as soon as the store door closes behind him, the feeling—it doesn’t go away, it doesn’t subside, it is just gone. Gone without residue. Like it’s never been. Like waking up the morning after a feverish night so healthy that the torture of just a few hours ago is simply unimaginable.
The new driver is about two heads shorter than the old one. She pulls the seat way forward, overshoots the target, backs up, and with a final nudge to the front meets her destination. She then adjusts the brown UPS pants, which are tight on her, clasping the fabric below either side pocket and rocking herself right and left till her thighs have enough room to breathe. There’s a professional air about her, at least in comparison to her predecessor. If nothing else, she’s in full uniform. The name tag says Antoinette.
I realize she hasn’t yet acknowledged my presence. Is it possible she hasn’t noticed me? For a moment I consider if I’m even here. What if the chair I’m sitting on is actually empty? If I introduce myself and she says something in response, that would be reassuring. But I can’t bring myself to speak. For some reason, asking to be noticed would mean losing my last drop of dignity. This whole thing is so embarrassing, my agonizing over this choice no decent human being would give a second thought to. No one has to tell me how terrible this is. How many seconds would John Lennon take? Or Desmond Tutu. Or Jimmy Carter. June Carter. Stop it right this second! Of course, none of the above has struggled with student loans, but that would have been so minor a hurdle. Their spirit, their essence, their nobility—student loans would have been no more than a fly to swat off. Gandhi! Aung San Suu Kyi! Stop it, I said. And the philosophical deliberation on top of it! Such rationalization. So icky. If you’re gonna shoot, shoot, don’t talk. It screams selfishness, indecisiveness, weakness, spinelessness.
Why are we not moving?
The driver is nodding her head, gazing outside her window at nothing in particular. I politely begin to ask if we’re waiting for someone, but she pauses me, as it were, with a little wave of her index finger. It takes me another few moments to realize she’s on the phone. A white AirPod is fitted into her right ear. The nodding is her agreeing with the person on the other end. That person is saying a lot; all Antoinette says is a-ha, yeah and I hear you. At long last, she turns in my direction. “Push that mirror in for me,” she says. Not unkind, more like neutral. I make a series of minor adjustments to the side mirror, following her hand gestures, which are hard to read seeing as most of her attention is still on the conversation. Sometimes her hand moves while she’s not even looking. In the end I get the OK sign pretty much at the same point where we started. At least we’re off.
Other than not paying me a smudge of attention, she seems pretty nice. She’s giving sound advice to whoever is on the phone with her. That person, I slowly gather, is having trouble with a teenage daughter. Someone is vaping (thank god not smoking) and someone is having sex, using protection so bad or badly, you may as well register at Babies ‘R Us, is Antoinette’s take. Making things worse, the boyfriend has a history, a bad one. To make things worse still, the daughter is also cutting. First I think school, then skin—although her attendance is nothing to brag about either. Some thought has been given to sending her to an aunt in Virginia. Antoinette, however, says to hold off. “We’re not there yet,” she says. “We gotta whip some sense into her first. We gotta let her know we mean business.” I find myself so moved by the inclusive pronoun. We, not you: it’s not your problem, it’s our problem, is what she’s saying. We’re in it together. Being so close to someone, really taking on their worries like that. I can’t imagine. I put it in my memory bank. It’s what I do. I listen to how people who care about other people talk, and then I make my best impersonation when empathy is called for (Oh that’s terrible, that’s so terrible! Can I give you a hug? It looks like you need a big hug!).
Listening to this unfolding drama is surprisingly lulling. I almost forget there’s something to think about—what is there to think about? Still, an important plot twist escapes my attention: the driver’s mouth is agape. “Shut the front door!” she says. “The nerve on him.” If only my Oh that’s terribles! could be that earnest, so unencumbered by artifice. I bet I’d be a happy guy. I briefly recommit to close listening, but the conversation, like all soap operas, becomes repetitive and somewhat boring, allowing me to zone out. Here I am again, I realize, following a soap instead of taking care of my own life. Get a life. A hateful phrase.
In childhood, I was perfectly happy living other people’s lives. Speaking of soaps. Days of our Lives. The Bold and the Beautiful. One Life to Live. In my room, I’d put a shirt on my head, which would stand for the big, blow-dried hair of the actresses. Dr. Marlena Evans, with her gallant posture, perfect diction. Her crazy daughter Sammy. Heather Locklear. Joan Collins. Dallas’s ever-florid Sue Ellen. Marlena now makes her dainty way back into my mind. The sharp bones, the wispy voice. If only I could be transported now to the stagnant, windowless living rooms of daytime TV.
I become aware of someone looking at me. The driver. Once she has my attention, she gives me a smirk and a wink. I somehow manage to replay her last sentence for some context. It went something like, “Tell her she ain’t too old for some good whoopin’!” The wink is probably to clarify we’re not talking actual beating. I try to smile back, but something happens. My cheeks are being pulled by some gravitational force in a direction opposite from a smile. My face is collapsing into its center. It feels like horror. I’m still trying to tell her it’s ok, meaning the spanking. Go ahead and spank for all I care. But there is no voice. And if there were, I wouldn’t be saying it’s ok. I’d be saying, Save me! Save me now!
The driver sees something is wrong. She nods, squinting her one eye, as in, hold on one more second. “Ok, hon, I’m gonna let you go now,” she says three or four times until her friend finally hangs up. She looks me over with some detachment, like a seamstress taking measurement with a trained eye. “So what’s it gonna be?” she asks finally, calm as can be, like she wants to know how much to take off the hem. We’re on a dilapidated narrow two-lane road, facing a lowered crossing gate. Two slow-moving trains are coming our way, one on either side. There’s a crossbuck, just in front of us, with mysteriously rotating slats, one with the warning to “Wait!” the other to “Be Patient!” The trains, both of them, seem miles away, their headlights on even though it’s still daytime. The tracks are straight, stretching as far as at least my eye can see. I shake my head in despair. “I’m stuck!” I say, almost tearing up. My voice is an agonized whisper, twenty percent sound, eighty percent breath. “It’s too much.” She keeps her gaze on me. I notice a slight shift in her eyes. Some tiny brightness that wasn’t there before has switched on. An openness. They invite me to watch them carefully. If I really look, they might tell me what I need to know, what I on my own can’t bring to the surface. Maybe that’s why they changed the driver, because she has this special, higher-level skill which difficult cases like mine require. They are large and a little bulgy, her eyes, and the lids are relaxed, blinking slowly, in what I take to be a tinge of patience. Perhaps even some compassion. We both wait to see if, through contact, my eyes could catch the fire in hers. I haven’t had real eye contact in so long, I’ve forgotten how much I dislike it. Still, I force myself to stick with it. Slowly my peripheral vision expands and I am able to see the rising and falling of her chest. Her breath moves with such calm and assuredness, as if observing its own tides. Then I notice that my breathing has aligned with hers. We’re moving together, dare I say, in unison.
But no more than thirty seconds pass before she’s had enough of this little exercise. And who knows, it might have all been in my head anyway. She might have just zoned out, pondering the issue with her friend and her daughter. She shakes her head, taking off her phone from the magnetic mount. “Your choice, man,” she says and gives a quick but hearty laugh, amused, I gather, by her abrupt switch from somber to flippant.
We wait quietly. She’s absently scrolling up and down on her phone, I absently watch the trains. They crawl in the exact same pace, teasing us with their arrival, never quite reaching the gate. Both are freights, heavy and clunky, and louder by the minute. The one closer to us slowly reveals itself as a real Noah’s Ark: cows, sheep, horses, they’re all there, gazing at us from between the slats of their cages. Whether by accident or not, I make my decision just as they come roaring before us. “I’ll take the money,” I say. “I’m taking it.” The cab of our van is submerged with metallic screeching. A machine from the Industrial Revolution could be slaughtered in the back, it would hardly make a difference, decibel-wise. Even if I wasn’t whispering, practically speaking to myself, my voice would not carry, which gives me a sense of shelter, privacy. I keep repeating different variations of the phrase, eyes to my lap: “I’m taking it, taking, taking. Taking the money.” Slowly, the tempo and volume are rising, as with a drum circle, until I’m finally screaming. “God help me, I’m taking it! I’m taking it! I am taking the money!”
She rolls up her window and motions me to do the same on my side.
“I heard you the first time,” she says. The trains have just passed, and we are sitting in complete silence.
“That’s what my instinct tells me. I mean, it’s fire. Literally, I feel it. Right down here, in my belly.” I point for her to look around my belly button and she obliges with a brief, sidelong glance at my breathable pink-mesh runner’s shirt. I don’t think she sees any fire there. “You have to follow your gut, no?” My voice is pleading. “I mean, the other driver, he wasn’t very clear about it. He got me a little confused, actually. I’m sure he didn’t mean to. He seems nice. But I thought maybe you. You seem like you might have a better, I don’t know. Prescience! You know the word? It’s like having—”
“I know prescience,” she cuts me off. “I don’t have it. But I know it.”
Something tells me I’m in for some whoopin’. But it doesn’t happen. I don’t think she cares enough to give it to me. Instead she tells me what I want to hear—”Gotta follow your gut”—but it’s said in a flat, uninterested tone. Her eyes are back on her phone now. If our energies were actually aligned for a second there, the second’s gone. The crossing gate creaks upward, and she shifts to drive. Something in her movements emits an air of disdain or disgust, seeping in my direction. Maybe it is the small sum that makes my decision so pathetic in her eyes. Maybe she would respect me more if it was a million. I can’t imagine she has any dog in the Middle East race. My decision will have no effect on her retirement plan. What does she care about this far-away, annoyingly bullheaded part of the globe? Unless of course—she is a good person who cares about world peace. She does not particularly strike me as much of an idealist, but what do I know about idealists and what they look like? Ms. Universe contestants, Angelina Jolie, Mother Teresa. It’s a wide range, appearance-wise.
I fight the urge to ask her if she thinks I’m a weak person. Or worse, a “low life.” Scum of the earth. Could that be me? No one goes about their day thinking they’re scum. It’s more like a label others put on you. But the label can be right. And inside, you probably do know you are, you probably do go about your day thinking you’re scum. And it probably sours everything, every waking moment, if only by a pinch. Even the milk in your breakfast cereal, it tastes two days past best-by. Or the roses your wife or husband gets you for your birthday, somehow smelling just a little rotten, on the border between a bit too sweet and cloyingly deathlike. A scum, a low-life. Or could it be that worrying you are one means you aren’t? I’ve heard something like that before. The scummy don’t care about morality or where they fall on the Bodhisattva/ Hitler scale. Maybe guilt means you’re a good person making bad decisions due to scummy circumstances, past or present. But that, of course, can be an excuse: “Oh, I’m worried I’m scum, so I’m not scum, so I can go on doing scummy things and not have to worry about it—as long as I’m worried about it.” What would my mother have said if I asked her? Scum? My baby? Wash your mouth!
“Is it ok if I soap?” I ask.
“Smoke, I mean.”
She raises an eyebrow at me signaling some more contempt. “Roll down the window if you do.” I reach into my shorts pocket and as soon as my fingers touch the pack I remember: gum! Nicorettes! Goddamn. Goddamn quitter. Goddamn quitter, Roni. Two months ago I experienced a downgrade. I went down from inhaling to chewing. Health had very little to do with it, though that’s what I told people. In reality I was priced out of cigarette-cigarettes. With the last of my food stamps, I told myself it’s either cigarettes or cereal. And Medicaid covers gum. The one time poverty and physical health agreed to agree. “Dumbass,” I whisper under my breath. Like one bowl of Apple Jacks a day is keeping my doctor away. I make a pitiful smile, showing her the gum. “Forgot I quit.”
“I said,” she says, stretching the word, “roll down the window.” Her hand reaches inside her tattered tummy pouch, and in another moment an elongated, elegant white pack with a calming design of aqua stripes emerges. Virginia Slims! You’ve come a long way, baby! She takes one out for herself and offers me the pack. One cigarette is already pulled out an inch above the rest for me. A gesture of offering. I’m ridiculously moved. An expensive-looking silver box lighter follows. She lights up and hands it over. All necessary paraphernalia is in my possession. Now I am completely safe. And here it is, the lighting of the drug. The sound of the spark wheel, the minor pressure against the pad of my thumb. The dim chafing pain as it rolls over the skin. Sucking in air. The tip of the stick crackles as the paper burns. One puff. That’s all it takes. The spirit is wafting through me, smoky, delicious, ruinous. A religious experience, fake but exquisite. “Holy, Holy, Holy!” is playing faintly in the background of my mind, a slow, jazzy version. The bathhouse remix. “Jesus, Joseph and Moses,” I hear myself saying in a midst of the cancerous cloud, not bothering to look for the driver’s judging expression.
Next is the Rabbi, by far the most confident and least competent of the drivers so far. He zooms through the winding streets of the town with a frenetic energy of boys in bumping cars. The highway is gone.The roads are cramped between rows of stone houses and stores with cheap wares spilling out of their door fronts. The sidewalks are so narrow that the pedestrians, mostly children carrying balls and elders carrying baskets, must turn their backs sideways against the wall to avoid being run over by our mad vehicle. What town is it? Where. I want to say Eastern Europe. I really want to say the Old City. I could ask the Rabbi, but somehow the question doesn’t seem so pressing. The Rabbi’s drug of choice is Time, the cheap Israeli brand my mom smoked till her penultimate day. He takes unusually long inhales, really sucking the life out of the sticks. Every now and then he measures the progress he’s made by holding them up to his eye. The old cigarette is now being used as the lighter for the new one before getting chucked out the window. He waves his hand in a kind of distracted apology to the old woman whose feet the butt missed by barely an inch. I’m observing his movements with a strange blend of interest and catatonic apathy. I am once, twice, thrice removed from the action, leaning my elbow on the bottom of the frame of the open window. My face is resting on my fist, the skin of my cheek bunched up against my right eye, almost shutting it. I detect an amused grin under the shrub of the Rabbi’s orange beard. For a second I think it’s about me, but no, it’s something on the radio. Someone sounding like Howard Stern is interviewing someone sounding like Howard Stern. The only reason I know neither one is actually Howard Stern is because they are talking about Howard Stern, in negative terms. They both agree he’s now a sellout, but they argue about how much of a sellout. One is more forgiving than the other. The Rabbi giddily bobs in his seat every time a swear word is blipped out.
I suspect this town is where he relieved Antoinette, but it could have been sometime before. The switch is not nearly as clear in my memory as it should be for someone who’s hopefully years away from dementia. It seems forever ago since the intercom buzzed, but the sun is still high up in the sky, indicating noonishness. The van reeks of nicotine despite the open windows. A metal spring is sticking out against my butt. It comes to me that the interior of the cab feels so different because it is different. I suppose I do remember climbing off the UPS truck. Also, it’s not impossible that a while ago I made known my annoyance about being asked to go inside a van that belongs in a junk yard. The seats in the back are folded over and there are four or five cardboard boxes on top, filled with plastic containers. I’m about to demand an explanation from the Rabbi. I will be firm and reject any vague statements he may offer to quiet me down. But then he makes me an offer I can’t refuse. “Reach out back,” he says, “and you got yourself a free lunch. It’s your lucky day, Bubba. No free lunches—except for today. Don’t forget, anyone ever asks you if you ever got a free lunch in your life, you tell them, well, actually, I did. Once, you tell them, one time”—he wags his finger in the air—“and it was Rabbi Menachem who gave it to me. That’s all I ask, that you tell them my name. I’m trying to rebuild my credit, if you know what I mean.” He leans forward over the steering wheel and looks up to the sky to clarify who holds the loan. He seems beyond delighted with this little future scenario he just came up, going up to heaven and settling your credit score with Hashem. Meantime, I’ve already ripped open the plastic wrap and am now plucking off the pointy top piece of the challah sandwich. Inside I get a peek at soggy tuna salad, oxidizing chopped lettuce, and a slice of tomato that seems to have committed suicide by jumping to traffic from the top of a high rise building. What could have gone so wrong in a tomato’s life that it should result to such desperate measures?
“Now let’s see if your hoity-toity sensibilities can stomach it.” He scans me over and belts out a laugh. “Meals on Wheels. That’s what it is! You wouldn’t have guessed, right? I got twenty greedy seniors sitting by their door waiting. I don’t even charge, volunteer basis. Well, I get something. Rabbis need to live, too. But it’s nothing, I promise you. I get something but it’s nothing.” Another roar of laughter. “I like to pun, you’ll soon find out. Especially when I drive. I think of puns all the time. I can’t help it. They just come to me. I wish I was, you know, committing them all to paper. Then possibly, who knows, do something about them. Make a name for myself. It’s a terrible feeling, seeing your own genius go to waste. Literally. By the wayside. You know these days, you have rapping Rabbis. They’re everywhere. You got Spotify? I tell you, I can be the next Matisyahu. You know him? He’s ok. He’s no Tupac. But he’s not bad. But my point is, we’re not just bitter, disgruntled cantors anymore. Not your grandmother’s Rabbis. The next Tupac could come straight out of a yeshiva.” He seems to consider going into another burst of laughter, but then his face turns straight, reflective. Perhaps the script of the yeshiva boy’s path to stardom is running in his mind. I’m hoping for some quiet, to eat my sandwich in peace. The thinness and juicelessness of the dead tomato is surprisingly satisfying. I chew each bite more times than necessary, the Rabbi mercifully giving me my space.
“You’d think there’d be some kind of attrition,” he says after a while, my sandwich finished. “If you catch my drift. My clients, I mean. Half of them are over ninety. You’d expect a shrinking clientele. I think, one day I’ll come and they’ll all be dead—completely dead—but still, right at the door. Holding out their greedy hands. ‘Where’s my meal? Give me my meal. I deserve a meal.’ ” He falls silent again for a few moments, his mind clearly taking a soft turn to another topic, which he then divulges. “I lost my congregation. Don’t ask. They asked me to step down, the synagogue. Now I’m reduced to this.”
I know it’s the wrong moment, but I ask anyway. “Is it ok if I take another?” I show him the crumpled Saran wrap in my hand.
He looks at me with some disappointment, as if I failed to answer a question he didn’t quite ask. “Go ahead,” he says, resigned.
The next hour or so is curiously non-sequitur. Random thoughts come to mind, this time unrelated to the soaps. I get a flashback to my notes for my world history baccalaureate exam, back in Israel: “Churchill—good guy, Chamberlain, pushover!” I think of Caulfield, first name…Holden. Where might he be now? Most likely dead, bones in the ground, after having gotten old. What kind of a world is it, I ask myself, one where Holden Caulfield of all people becomes an old man? Genghis Khan comes up, out of nowhere that I can see. If I’m really honest with myself, I know nothing about him. Once upon a time, I bet he was all people talked about. “Did you hear what Genghis is up to now??” To say nothing of the Vikings. I couldn’t even tell what centuries they roamed the earth. How come I know more about Beyoncé than the Vikings? It’s humiliating. Maybe the front page of the Times should be devoted to things people mustn’t die before learning: “President Lincoln admits clinical depression, says performance won’t suffer. Hear all about it!” What a small life I have. How little will be lost when I’m gone. What would I tell an intelligent cave man from—I don’t know, the cave age?—who time-traveled here for a little reconnaissance? “We now have flying cylinders with wings that take you places. You get a free mini toothbrush if it’s transatlantic!” Imagine what he’d say when he gets back home. “Don’t give up your clubs and axes quite yet, folks. I met a moron.”
My reveries come to an end when I’m bucked off the chair, almost hitting the roof of the van with my head: a rock in our way. We are on a dirt road, leading to a dirt sloped parking lot that’s marked off on one side by a row of pine trees. Not one tree is the same height as the other. I’m reminded of a large family, the kind I’ve always wished for, with children of all ages, posing for a portrait. The Rabbi shifts to park and pulls on the hand break. “You go this way,” he says, pointing beyond the trees. “I wait here. Let’s not take too long, though, yeah? This shouldn’t be too difficult. You get in, you do your thing, you go out. Chit chat, that you can do later.” Chit chat with whom? I want to ask, but he goes on. “Plus, don’t forget. We got mouths waiting to be fed. You don’t want a dead grandma on your conscience.” He says it like a joke, but he doesn’t laugh, he winks. Is this a throw-away comment or a final signal to change my mind? An urgent hint meant to go over the heads of whoever might be listening in on our conversation, but telling me to save my soul? Make the right decision. Could the Rabbi be more astute than his mannerism and body odor might suggest? Saving my soul. Isn’t it too late for it? Didn’t I leave it—such as it was—by those train tacks? Can I still pull out? Isn’t the deal done, signed somehow on a shrouded contract I never got to see but somehow knew existed? But I don’t ask any of these questions out loud. I only ask if he’s going to wait for me.
“What do you think, I’ll leave you in the middle of nowhere? Just, please, no blabbering. Take the money and run.” I can see he’s hoping for some acknowledgment of this cleverness, which I take small pleasure in denying him.
Beyond the pines is a flower garden, not too small, not too big. Clearly someone has put in a lot of time with the landscaping, someone with an eye for circles. The first circle, the one at the center, is a perfectly symmetrical bed of tulips in all colors under the sun. They’re arranged in small bunches, as in polka dot. A narrow strip of bright green grass is snaking through them. The flower bed is surrounded by a belt of the same grass, where four miniature orange trees are spread out evenly in four corners. Then there’s an outer circle of, I think, graded gravel. If I’m being honest, it’s a gorgeous sight. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more beautiful garden. If once in my life I actually did stop and smell the roses, this should be it. It don’t get better than that, buddy boy (that’s how I call myself sometimes). If I was only a little more enlightened, I think, this garden would be all the riches I’d need. Then what would be more important than world peace? As it is, I’m trying to peer under the petals for my money, my nearsighted eyes squinting, the better to cover the distance. If this turns out to be a game of Clue, then forget about it. I don’t do puzzles, can’t. Never solved one in my life. Not the way my mind works. The one escape room I’ve ever been to, I was let out the front door, shamefaced before my niece and nephew. No, if ever I were to get a treasure it must be a gift, a fluke, a miracle, an act of pity, charity. It must be meals on wheels.
Circles. Something is at the tip of my tongue. I encountered circles before. But when? A dream? A flash from a past life? The rise in my pants reminds me. The first driver. His finger circling the air. Long as you’re thinking, he said. Drives you in circle. Once again I have the outrageous thought of giving up the money for the driver. What is it about him? He’s a man, he’s just a man. I’ve seen so many men before. Maybe I can ask to go back to the Dunkin’ Donuts.
As soon as I spot the bench across the garden, an inner voice tells me it’s there for me. I waddle awkwardly along the parameter of the grass, crossing my palms before my lap, again to cover my embarrassment in that area. The two minutes on the bench help to calm my body and spirits down. Then a whiff of a fruity, maybe citrusy, smell comes my way. Turning around, I see the source moving from behind the trees. A woman with curly, straw-colored hair. Her white high heels make for an unsteady walk through the grass. She’s in her late twenties—make it late thirties—and has a dishonest air about her, strong as her perfume. “Hey there,” she calls out, a bit out of breath, giving me a brief, wobbly wave. “I’m Eve,” she says, having made it to the bench. A twitch in my eye gives my suspicion away. “Not that Eve!” she says with a coquettish laugh. I hesitate whether to get up, but she motions me to stay seated. I shift a little to the right end of the bench to give her room, but she stays standing, giving the upper bodice of her string red dress a slight adjustment. Is this where the check will be coming from, the bra? I’ve seen this in movies. Fortunately, no. She fishes it out of her black leather tote—Zara, if I guess correctly. Then her slim but firmly sculpted arm stretches out to hand it over, taking me by surprise. Instinctively I shoot off of the bench, as if it was a hot gun she just offered me. I quickly back up two or three feet to get some distance between us. She seems to be covering up some dissatisfaction with this new development, the smile on her face stiffening ever so slightly. She thought she had me in her Zara bag, I guess; I thought so, too. Reluctantly her hand withdraws to her chest, but she keeps the face of the check dangling seductively, so I can’t help but stare. It has a washed-out pink background with some white design I can’t attribute to any bank. She continues flapping it between her index and ring finger. Her smile tells me she’s regained her cocky confidence. If it’s a come-hither situation, where I’m supposed to reach out to her breast and snatch the check, I’m giving up, discussion over. I don’t do puzzles and I don’t do breasts—not that there’s anything wrong with them. But she gets bored with the exercise before I get to think too much about it. Once more she hands it over, now with a tinge of impatience suggesting this time it’s take-it-or-leave it. I reach out and take it. “Better endorse it,” she says, tapping on the front of the paper with a long, artificial red nail. The tote bag is opened again and she digs her arm elbow-deep. Some makeup items almost topple out as she rummages with a chaotic energy. “God damn,” she says. “No pen. Well, whatever. No one ever looks anyway.”
“Don’t they though?” I ask. The worst thing would be giving in to the Devil and ending up with nothing just because of some technical bureaucratic negligence.
She shrugs. “Do it at the bank, then.” Her lips coil into a coy, taunting smile, and she cocks her face in the direction of the check. “You can look at it, you know.”
And here it is, up close. Black ink, gel-edged by the look of it. $164,555, made out to me, all nine letters of my name spelled in correct order, signed by the so-called Xoxo Corp., LLC. Over the years I’ve had dreams of such sums, lesser sums even, sometimes bigger, but never in this kind of scenario. I was more likely to dream of a part on a Juliana Margulies show that extends from a four episode arc into series regular due to very favorable test audience reviews. Hope springs eternal.
“All right then,” Eve says, sighing, moving some locks of hair against their natural parting so that they fall right back into place. “And so it ends, our brief encounter. An exchange to remember. Two humans, two lives, histories, timelines…birth and death…death and birth…the trees our only witness. Never shall we two meet again but in our sweet dreams and glorious reveries.” I have no idea what she’s talking about. It could be some kind of a mandatory script she has to recite, the kind bank agents read on the phone to seal the deal on a new credit card, the balance of which will haunt you for the rest of your life. She gathers her bag to her hip, beginning to slowly swivel on her heels. It’s then that I realize: I’ve been waiting for her to surprise me in some way. In the back of my head there was an expectation of a final obstacle, a challenge, a last-minute sphinx-like riddle. I didn’t expect Eve to be so easy, no pun intended. All her finesse, her implied in-the-knowness—she seems somehow, I don’t know, underutilized for a simple delivery job. But I suppose it really is a jobless recovery. You take whatever gig you can get. Maybe she writes poetry on the side.
So this is it? Press submit? Transaction complete? No receipt? Rhyming has been a nervous habit since being bullied at seventh grade.
“Stop!” That was me.
Eve freezes. Her tan shoulders squeeze closer together. She cautiously turns to face me with a damn-I-almost-made-it expression on her face. “But I haven’t given my final answer yet! I mean, isn’t there a word or, some…some phrase I have to say before the deal is sealed?”
“Isn’t that a check I see you holding there, sweets?”
I look down at my hand, magically hoping that maybe there is no check, that it disappeared, was never even there to begin with. But of course it’s there. My fingers are holding it so faintly, it’s one air waft away from blowing off. Suddenly a thought comes to mind: if it falls now, if it slips out of my hand, it stays on the ground. I’m not picking it up. This is no joke, it’s a firm decision. When I look up at Eve I immediately see she knows what’s just transpired within me. Something in my face, something new and unfamiliar and strange and even exciting and even bold must have appeared there. And she recognizes it, understands there is no way to convince me out of this… let’s call it a vow. This is strength, I realize. It’s what strength feels like. Conviction. I’ve seen it in others. I must not let it go unnoticed, now that it has come to me. Paid me a visit. I must never let myself forget that—contrary to common belief—I do too have courage. Now it’s Eve who’s worried. The worry has leapt from my heart to hers. I know that because her eyes narrow unattractively, and the stiff smile is back. We both hold still, waiting. Waiting. A tense moment, right out of Spaghetti Western. But, alas. No wind, no waft. The air is perfectly still, unmolested. And besides, my palm and fingers have gotten all sweaty with fear, and now the thin paper is sticking to them. Fear the demon. Squatting at any church God has just evacuated. Common belief because it’s right: I have no courage. I despondently look at the check, then lift my eyes again, sheepishly. “Don’t I have to at least sign something?” I ask.
Her shoulders lift in a casual shrug. “We’re informal here.” She hitches up the strap of her purse, ready to turn around, but then in a moment of thoughtfulness—unexpected fondness?—she moves a step closer to me. She doesn’t need to. The battle is over. She’s won. This is outside her job description. “Look,” she says quietly, confidentially, eyes to the ground. “Ask yourself. What did the Middle East ever do for you?”
I almost invoke JFK, but I only nod.
“You take care,” she says, just as her cell rings. Beyoncé ringtone. This time her heels give her no trouble as she saunters up the grass towards one of the garden’s exits, not the one she came from. She takes out her car keys from her bag and jingles them in the air as a final toodle-oo.
“Good enough,” says the Rabbi when I get back to the van. He turns the engine on and the radio begins to play, now thankfully jazz. I’m no aficionado, so it’s strange how certain I am this is “Conversations with Myself.” Bill Evans. The Rabbi lets me be, which is how I want it. I’m exhausted. By the time we turn out of the dirt road, Bill has lulled me to sleep. A dense sleep, packed with sleep nutrients that feed and nourish my poor, aching amygdala and all the other over-worked brain parts whose job it is to produce pain and fright and suffering. At the very center of my brain, though, an almond-sized morsel of cells remains watchful, satisfied, savoring, stable, peaceful, unmolested like the air before. Maybe it’s the sleep of solvency, solvency at last! Solvency and some chump change! All threadbare underwear, be warned: your days are numbered! I shall go shopping.
I don’t open my eyes until the Rabbi’s “Wakey, wakey.” Another gas station.
“Where are we?” I ask. The van smells of human gas. I’m not sure if it’s his or mine, or which one would be worse.
“What’s your bank?” he asks.
“Citi.” I mutter.
“It’s worse than I thought,” he says, cupping his cheek in performance of distress. “You need me to slap you a little, bubbeleh?”
“Where in the city?”
“Ha! And here I pegged you for some credit union nonsense. Citi’s good.” He merrily taps on his smart phone screen for directions, then we’re off. After a mile or so, he points to a billboard of a man with shiny teeth claiming to be Jersey’s best attorney for people whose children died in the crib. “Jersey!” he says, answering my question with a one minute delay. “That’s where we are. Surprised?” The figure on the bottom of the ad catches my eye. $23,000,000. In retrospect, the devil is a cheapskate.
“I guess,” I say.
“I don’t drive, I slither. Maneuver.” He makes a snake-like movement with his hand. “There’s fast drivers, but all that means is, they know how to step on the peddle. Good for them. Now get them in heavy traffic. They’re stuck. Slithering. It’s in the eye, the anticipating eye. You don’t drive,” he states. “I can tell when someone’s not a driver.”
We’re on the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn bridge in just a little over an hour. I get the sense we didn’t make good time, because the Rabbi seems to cover up some embarrassment with irritation. He does seem to hold his own when we arrive at Downtown, and in a few more twisty minutes we’re on Montague, by the courts. He double parks across the street from the blue facade of Citi, telling me he’d be waiting in the van. “Traffic cops smell me from miles,” he explains. “Don’t worry. You’re a nervous guy. I’ll wait till you come outside. Let’s say, give me the thumbs up. No need to cross the street. What’s the point? You’re a busy man, I’m a busy man. Life goes on. We need to look forward, to the future, the horizon. In my case it’s a lecture from Mrs. Kaplan about the dangers of hypoglycemia. In yours? God is big.” He hurries me by demonstrating with his fingers the pulling motion I would need to perform in order to open the door. I take a quick, discrete look inside the van to see if, amid the mess of candy wrappers, empty cigarette boxes, cigarette stubs, Sprite bottles, and used tissues, there is any evidence of the traffic tickets he’s presumably amassed, but there aren’t any that I can see. He overlooks my awkward attempt for a handshake, instead going for a few pats on my shoulder. “God Bless, God bless,” he says, rushing through the convention.
Outside it’s raging hot. But Citibank will be blissfully cool, cool and dry. All I need is to cross the street, which isn’t even very busy. Very few cars for Downtown. Few enough, in fact, that I decide not to look left and right before stepping into traffic. Just go. Why not. See what happens. Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves. I feel the heat and jaggedness of the asphalt under my feet. Steady and confident, one step, then another. I am an elephant, I am a horse, I am a turtle, I am a gazelle. There’s some car horns going off, someone yelling Watch where you’re going, man. A woman with a Brooklyn accent says, Unbelievable. Do you see that? Unreal. I’ve never felt so seen and so unseen in my life. I am a wolf. I am a tiger. I am a dancer in the dark. And the passage is over. Here I am, all in one piece, having made it to the other side.
Indeed the bank is cool, but somehow not blissfully so. I feel no relief. Of the two tellers at the counter, I’m hoping for the one on the left, the woman. The man is a sourpuss. He keeps adjusting his glasses for no reason. It’s a tic-like assertion of his professional capacity. Don’t even get close to his so-called boundaries. The client at his window sighs and then sighs again, more heavily, looking pleadingly at the woman teller. He remains defiantly unaware. His small blue eyes are dead set on the computer screen. I do believe he’s speaking to it, chatting and negotiating with the “system,” which is probably how he refers to it during their regular banter. The system is his closest and only friend. His one eyebrow is raised into an almost perfect pyramid. I ask myself, what is all this typing for? What does he have to say? Also, is this fanatically erect posture really necessary? Other than his lips, his rapidly tapping fingers are the only body part that’s moving. They seem like their own independent organism, aggressive, efficient, single-minded, like bacteria. It’s possible that I’ve never been so intimidated by any person, ever in my life. He is poised for revenge, driven by bitterness. At his age he must have expected to be doing something else. Now he is sharing his unhappiness with his captive customers.
Me, I don’t want unhappiness. I don’t know why it keeps harassing me, the way mosquitoes go after certain people more than others. “Mosquitoes like me,” those people always say. I want its opposite, I want happiness. I pray for happiness. I’ve been praying—and right now, if there’s a lane to it, a path, a customer line, then it’s to my left, towards the woman. The woman. She is—I wouldn’t say business casual. From afar, I’d say business domestic, business homey, business mom and pop. Perhaps a holdover from the diner or bakery Citi must have pushed out of the building. She wears an over-sized red flower, charmingly ridiculous, on the lapel of her blue jacket. Her smile is soft and alight. A Kathy Bates type, though not as an insane nurse. I cannot believe my luck when the word “Next” is sounded. Coming from her mouth! Kathy! In my mad rush, my one foot stumbles on the other. I have to reach for her counter to stabilize my step. For the first time since I left home I remember my footwear: of course, the bunnies tripped me! Bunnies like me.
“Welcome to Citibank,” she says politely. “Now, how is your day going so far?” I can tell my breathlessness does not go unnoticed. Neither do the slippers. Her smile now squiggles a little with concern. Her eyebrows too.
“Why, very good, thank you.” I still hold on to the counter. I realize my legs are quivering. She takes some time to consider my composed response, which is quite incongruent with the sight of me. A drop of sweat is slowly sliding down the side of my face, falls off and reaches the credit card key pad, right on top of the number three. We both take a second to observe the evidence. “Hot day outside,” she says. A smoker’s voice. I trust smokers more than non-smokers, though I admit it’s a bias that has no place in my mind. Still, smokers choose solace over longevity. That tells you something. “You look like you need some water, sir.” See? Solace. “Let me get you some water.” She starts rising up from her high swivel chair.
“No!” I order, much more loudly than I meant. A faint wave of shock moves across her face. She sits back down. I have the presence of mind to understand that her quizzical expression means an explanation is in order. But what can I say? That if she leaves her post and makes me wait another second I may drop dead? That fear and heat will melt me? The next words that come out of my mouth, I know, will have a profound effect on the rest of my life. And yet, even as I open it, my mouth, I have no idea what these words should be. “Oh, no,” I begin. “No, no. No. No no no no. No no no. No need.” Despite the repetition, I come off not crazy or threateningly hysterical like before, just a little silly, maybe even charmingly so. That string of nos came out in a florid lilt. Sue Ellen! I knew you were good for something! The tension in the teller’s face begins to diffuse, which I take as an invitation to keep on talking. “Oh, wow. You’re so kind. Truly. What a nice bank it is, Citi. I always say, it was the right decision, bailing you out. What would New York be like without Citi? I mean, really. It’s in the fabric, isn’t it? In the spirit. And all you gracious employees. Where would you have gone to? Western Union? No, no. Absolutely not. Too nice to fail, is what I say.”
Just then another drop of sweat lands on the counter. This one I’m determined to ignore. Ignore it out of existence. Unfortunately Kathy is not on board. She seems strangely rapt. She moves closer to it, closer to the drop, squinting for sharper focus and tilting her head sideways for a better angle. Needless to say, even under more neutral circumstances, this would be very uncomfortable, having my bodily fluid so closely studied by a total stranger.
“You should definitely have some water,” she says. Her tone is not authoritative, but reflective, as in, she considered the matter and came, by way of deduction, to the only possible conclusion. A swivel chair scientist. Like a good dentist, she explains the next few steps. “You stay right where you are. I’m going to hop on to the back. We have a nice little water cooler there. I’ll get you a cup. No, I’ll get you two cups. And I’ll be back in a sec.”
“No, no, no.” A stiffer lilt this time. “Allergies,” I explain. A stupid smile creeps up onto my face.
“That’s right. I can’t have it.”
“Can’t have what? Water?”
There. I’ve officially lost my mind. In her mind, also maybe in mine. Lost my mind in my mind.
“Plastic cups,” I say, perhaps saving the day. “Or just—any kind of plastic, really.”
“I do like water,” I add. “I have no problem with water per se.”
There’s a pause. She considers the possibility of letting the issue go. But then with a burst of a new idea she buoys up.
“So. Let’s say a cup was not made of plastic.” No she didn’t. “You’ll be ok?”
Damn her to hell.
“Well, usually,” I concede. “Usually yes. Unless it came in contact with some kind of plastic. So, actually, maybe not. Better safe than sorry.”
Now she takes it as a project. Her face sparkles with passion. “We’ll use my personal mug!” She rises up from her chair triumphantly. “I assure you, it hasn’t touched plastic, not in ages.” It is really very hard not to hate her right now. I take a moment to examine whether I do in fact hate her, but hate is so elusive, isn’t it? I know it no better than I do love.
In the end, of course, she does triumph. As I’m waiting, a whole nightmare scenario runs through my mind. SWAT team breaking through the front door. Bullhorns, sirens, snipers, tear gas, ballistic shields. Kathy Bates, the real one, bursting in from the back, not with water, but with an RK-16 and a psychopathic nurse’s roar. Surprisingly, I am not anxious. I am awash with acceptance. My body has turned limp, collapsed. The ease and comfort of total defeat. Bring it on. Or don’t bring it. Either way. A cup of water, a spray of bullets, all the same to me. She comes out with the former, a full mug of water: Best Aunt in the World! it declares. I finish it and gratefully ask for another and she laughs and says, “I told you so.”
“She told you so.” The man teller! His face hasn’t left the screen, but he’s got on a smile—still sarcastic, but disarmingly mischievous. Betraying humanity. I want to leap over the partition and give him a hug. I want to tell him, there’s still a chance for you to be happy. You can go back to school. You can become an artist, a farmer, a traveler. You can be whoever you want.
When she finally gets to the business at hand, it takes less than five minutes. Then I hear the phrase every criminal dreams of. “You’re all set, sweetheart.” She leans over toward the bulletproof glass between us as she slides my receipt over the tray. Then, with her hand half-covering her mouth for privacy reasons, she whispers, “God all mighty Jesus!” Mick Jagger lips. She taps the paper with her two long nails. “This kind of money, I’d be sweating too!” Mom and pop.
Nick and I are on our Ashley’s Extra Comfort recliner, getting an electric massage. Since the various upgrades to the apartment, he has shown some signs of, if not intimacy, then qualified, cautious closeness, sometimes even sidling up against my hip—not an invitation for petting, I’ve learned the hard way. The sixty inch flat screen tv before us is tuned in to a solid Murder She Wrote. Guest star Derek Jacobi, the murderer for my money, is an especially welcome treat. But chances of finishing the episode are not in my favor. Nick and I have been at war over the remote (hence, presumably, the closeness) and he has an apparently bottomless skill set when it comes to stealth. For the first few weeks he would wait till my bathroom break to change the channel, but now he’s learned to burrow for the remote, whether it’s between the cushions or behind my back or under my butt, and I guess chew or paw on the button of his choice, leading me to assume we’ve gone to commercial. It’s becoming increasingly possible that he is The Devil. Or perhaps more realistically, The Devil’s emissary to 674 Serf street, apartment 3D. His mandate is to torture the occupant with MSNBC, currently my channel to hell.
Oh, I’ve almost gotten used to the sights of burning tires, black smoke, hurled stones; people tearing into chain link fences, hit with rubber bullets, sprayed with tear gas; eighteen year old children in uniform pretending to be fearless warriors by screaming at men and women old enough to be their grandparents. Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes’s dramatic pronunciation of “riot dispersal means” and “Molotov cocktail” by now leave me almost flat. Same for “absolutely no end in sight.” I’m still working on images of corpses moving hand to hand above a wailing, raging crowd.
No, forget the Middle East. It’s the domestic front that does me in. Specifically, anything to do with a certain Secretary of Education, a Ms. Elisabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVos, who sometime between Trump’s second and third terms was apparently abducted by aliens and brutally inserted with a heart right into the dark cavity that used to dominate her chest. Betsy, now affectionately known as Bets and sometimes Bets-Bets, has managed through a “breakneck, sleight-of-the-hand streak of deals” (The New York Times) with House and Senate members to pass the so-called “The Impossible” or “The Beyond” bill, named after the vegan hamburgers. Call it chicanery (The National Review), call it artfulness (Washington Post, the Times, again). Forcing of arms, or above board politics. Perspiration, inspiration. Witchcraft or miracle. Call it what you want, it’s a feat. Fifteen months to wipe off all student loans? Nothing short of a miracle. Or witchcraft. Regardless, people are out on the streets with flowers in their hair. At least on my side of the aisle. But, actually, in Texas too, and—get this—Alaska and Hawaii. Young Idahoans have trouble keeping a straight face at dinner with their uncle. “Betsy gone wild!” (Daily News). “Betsy gone Bernie!” And then a slew of varyingly amusing memes. “Elisabeth gone Warren!” “Betsy’s Heart Beats!” And “This lady rocks!” “We love, love, love you, Betsy!” is the most straightforward and ubiquitous. Here’s the one I came with: “DeVos, DeVos, you bastard, I’m through.” Call it derivative, call it homage.
The tv screen, all sixty inches of it, is filled with the image of Mika Brzezinski, her blue hawk-like eyes following my every movement, trained as the Mona Lisa’s. I get confused for a second, wondering if it’s her, not Derek Jacobi, who’s the real killer. But then Nick indulges in one of his satisfied purrs. Smiling like the Cheshire cat. I don’t bother looking for the remote. That would simply increase his pleasure. I let Mika tell me all about those thousands of college graduates, the so-called “Betsy Pilgrims,” making their way by foot to the Secretary’s yacht on the shore of Lake Erie, where the Secretary herself is known to come out on to the deck and toss flower petals at her tearful, adoring crowd. “Fuck them,” I say. “And fuck you, Betsy. Pardon my language, but fuck you.”
In a minute it becomes unbearable. I stub out my American Spirit into the cold cheese of the leftover Pizza Hut and stumble on to the bedroom, closing the door behind me. Some time passes. During that time something similar to sleep has transpired and now I am being woken out of it. Someone is scratching at the door and meowing. My first thought is a crow, but what would a crow be doing in my apartment? Upon consideration—Nick? He’s never done either, scratch or meow, certainly not for my company. The intercom is buzzing, too, and it occurs to me that this is already the second or maybe even third buzz and that the previous attempts had something to do with my waking up as well. I open the bedroom door and it is Nick, anxiously trotting in place on his front legs. Absent is the sly, just-under-the-surface contempt. He quickly turns on his paws and heads in leaps and hops toward the front door, stopping to look back to make sure I follow, Lassie-style without the star power. I take my time, slow stride, only partly to annoy him. But then I do get to the box and press speak and say “hello”? Calling back to the ether.