Everyone at the party was younger than me. Not by a lot, but enough so there wasn't much we could talk about. Their conversation consisted of empty discussions about fashions, who was screwing whom, who served the best caviar. The women were hothouse flowers, skin the texture of petals. With luscious, perfect forms, not waiting to be plucked, they moved toward the men who moved toward them, all of them in motion.
Harrison had transformed the ancient guts of his ancient brownstone. The downstairs kitchen had a huge dining room. The second-floor walls had been ripped out for parties and God knows what, and finally the third floor, equally gutted, was nothing but a gigantic bedroom. The party spilled everywhere. Lamps floated overhead on long chrome arms, oiled teak soothed the eye, chairs invited, art beguiled, and music charmed us all - if you could hear it.
I tried to move with them, moved toward the women in an attempt to break through, but I didn't mean it. They must have known because none stayed with me for more than a few minutes. The drinking was not heavy but persistent; by midnight the giggling started. It was time for me to leave.
"Hey man, you're not splitting now, are you? Things are just livening up. Stick around. Get loose." Fake jive from a company man.
Harrison was insistent that I stay, but before I could come up with a non-insulting reason to leave, one of the women came up to us. I had noticed her but not seen her, if you know what I mean. She was all bones and angles in Italian leather jeans and a black silk blouse. If she turned sideways in the dark she would disappear. Her profile was crisp. She seemed fragile, as if a hard look could break her.
"Harrison," she said to our host - some voices, hers, are like music - "I'm sorry I have to leave this wonderful party and your magnificent home, but I have an early call and I simply must get to bed." She had a high cheekbone face that from some angles looked plain, but it was a face I could look at without getting bored.
Harrison showed hostly distress. "OK, doll," he said, "the night's ruined without you, but you don't want those cameras to break. Wait a minute," he said, suddenly concerned, "where are you parked? Gentrification is swell, but it leaves the natives restless. Hey, I got an idea. My friend here is leaving. Buddy-boy, walk her to her car. You know, ride shotgun." With that he gave her a quick embrace, told me he'd see me in the shop next week, and moved back to his more loyal guests.
We looked at each other with some uncertainty. She saw the scar across my nose, my K-mart clothes.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" she asked, looking at my cane. "My car is only five blocks away, and I'm sure I'll be all right." Was her look disdainful? The hell with her - but I remembered the gutted buildings, the men in ragged clothes, brown paper bags in their hands, the only ones left after the affluent moved in and forced the working poor out. This party was no place for me, but the streets were no place for her.
"What the hell," I said. "Harrison's probably right. He's not right about a lot of things, but no need to take chances. Let's go."
Silently she changed from her party heels into soft running shoes and bundled herself against the cold in a long, hooded woolen coat. Her partially hidden face gleamed in the darkness. I pulled my heavy sweater on and we started off. We walked in silence, the only sounds distant sirens and the light tap of my cane. I didn't know her name; she didn't know mine. Harrison had dropped the ball there. But in a few more minutes our meager relationship would dissolve. She would go on to her cameras, and I would open the shop in the morning, accepting the pain; breaking our isolation seemed pointless.
The streets were dark. The "natives" had broken most of the street lights. The city had given up any attempt to keep them repaired, another concession to anarchy. The few that still worked were like oases in a black desert.
"Oh God," she suddenly murmured, almost a moan, "there are people sitting on my car. Can you see them? What shall we do? Let's go back!" I felt her shiver.
I had already spotted them in the dim light. I had hoped it wasn't her car, that they were well beyond where she was parked, that we could drive away with no trouble. My knee didn't feel too good and I wasn't in the mood for a scuffle. Woletzky's face popped into my head, his terror and my pain mingling, and I cursed him for the thirty-seven thousandth time.
"Stop." I said to her. "Turn to me. Don't look at them." She started to turn her head. "Damn, don't look at them. Make believe that we're having fun. Get closer to me. That's right. Now listen. If we try to go back, they'll come after us and I can't run with this knee of mine. But it'll be all right. Just follow orders. Don't think, don't discuss, don't question. Just do what I tell you." The truth was, I no longer wanted to avoid a confrontation. My pain receded to a hidden part of my mind as I anticipated combat.
She nodded, staring at me with eyes that seemed larger. I put my arm around her and we walked toward the car. "If there's any sign of trouble, back ten feet away from me and just stand there. I've got to know where you are. No matter what happens, just stand there. It'll be all right. In ten minutes we'll both be laughing about this. Just don't move. Get it?" I couldn't tell if she understood, but she nodded again. Maybe I got through.
Two young black men sat on her sedan. A third lounged against it. They wore nondescript clothing except for green bandannas, colors, marking their membership in a gang. Their arms were bare, showing off their musculature. Their amiable smiles were unconvincing.
"Hey, mamma," one of them called out, "what you doin' with that gimpy ole man? We been waitin fo' you in the col' all ni' long. You had your fun," addressing me, "now it's our turn. Move on, ole man."
I waved her back and confronted them. The were young and strong, warriors thinking they could engage whitey with impunity, that confronting me would make up for some of the emptiness of their lives. Hell, I might have been sitting there myself. It's just luck.
I said, "I'm not looking for any trouble, guys. Just back off and we'll get in the car and drive away - no sweat, no pain."
I knew that such talk was pointless. They had been waiting for her through the night, and they weren't going to let gimpy me talk them out of their fun. Talking was just something to do until the dance started.
"Well, gimp, trouble sure has foun' you. Short Stuff," he said, turning to one of his companions, "you feelin' froggy? Go get me that mutha fucka's cane. I think maybe I'll stick it up his ass, he look like a lollipop."
They snickered at this cleverness. The shortest of the three, built like a young bull, slipped off the car and moved toward me. His hand reached out to grab my cane as I backed around into the street where I would have more room to maneuver. I held it out to him with my left hand. He pulled it to him, frowning against the slight resistance of my grasp. I hit him with the brass knuckles wrapped around my right fist.
He went down, jaw broken, without a sound. The two others gaped at this sudden turn of events, then leaped at me, cursing, knives flashing in the dim light. Somewhere in the distance a car door slammed. An engine started. One of them came in fast and low. I caught his throat with the tip of my cane. The other moved like a boxer, left hand forward jabbing at me, knife held back, waiting for an opening. I dropped the cane. Its clatter momentarily dragged his eyes from my face. He snapped them back up at me, but only in time to see the brass knuckles just before they broke his nose. They had youth, energy, and speed; all I had was my craft, but that wins every time.
Short Stuff, now on his feet, pulled his knife and moved towards me. "Hold it," I said, more than impressed by his courage. "You've seen what I can do. If they're your friends, you'd better get them to a hospital. No point in your bodies littering up the place for the trash man to pick up in the morning."
He backed away.
Refusing to face the truth, I called to the woman. "Let's go, now, before reinforcements arrive," but there was no response. During the battle she had gotten into her car and driven away. Even though I had heard it start, I hadn't wanted to believe it. She had deserted, run off, left me to face it all by myself--her defection made easier, I thought, by our damned anonymity. What a story she'd have to tell, the goddamned bitch!
The walk to my car wasn't bad while the passions of battle still raged within me, but the cold and the exertion got to my knee. I began to grunt with each step. I thought of Woletzky and what I would do to him when he got out of prison. Rage came back, blotting out the pain and the cold. I remembered moving toward him, strong, full of confidence, terror on his face as he anticipated my attack. The twenty-two in his hand was meaningless. I said, "You son-of a-bitch, what do you think you're going to do with that? I swear to God that if you shoot me with that popgun, just for starters I'll break all the fingers on both hands and then I'll go to work on your toes. Drop it. Now!"
That was my error. I so enjoyed frightening him into submission that I told him to drop it instead of handing it to me. It fell out of his shaking hand and went off when it hit the floor, hitting me in the kneecap, smashing it to pieces, smashing my career, smashing my life. His incompetence had done what experts had tried and failed to do. From that moment I was no longer in the game. That's why I was walking and grunting. Luckily for them, no green bandannas were after me - I would have left a trail of bodies, so demented was I. But it couldn't last.
When I finally got to my car I just wanted to sit, but Short Stuff was probably gathering the troops and I didn't want to have to fight any more. I had had enough for one night. It was time to get home to uncork the bottle and pour the liquid down in one long burning, glorious slide to where nothing mattered except finding another bottle, and I could curse Woletzky and the bitch to my heart's content, easing my anguish with booze and invective.
My three rooms were clean and unadorned. I could leave them easily, without regret, leaving nothing behind of any value to me. The Harrisons of the world are trapped by ownership.
The bottle was on the top shelf of a tall kitchen cabinet. I had to use one of those three-stepped ladders to reach it, but it was worth it. Getting drunk was no problem. My apartment was over the shop. In the morning all I'd have to do was stumble downstairs, unlock the door, and collapse in a chair.
The whiskey was one of those dandy single-malt scotches, forty-five bucks a bottle, my only indulgence except for self-pity. I carefully poured myself a drink, the smell of it making my soul salivate.
But I couldn't do it. It sat on the table while I went through the ritual of forcing myself to remember the DTs, me screaming and shaking, pleading with the orderlies to get the bugs away from me, the bugs that crawled out of my mind, all with Woletzky's face. I remembered drinking on antabuse, and the smarmy counselors spouting their AA crap about higher powers. I poured the drink down the kitchen sink. The booze was for when I wanted to die, but the pain was not yet that bad, though I wondered how much more I wanted to take.
The shop always soothed me. After that moron Woletzky shot me, they gave me a desk. The surgeons had done sufficiently well to keep me walking if I "took it easy." I was not to run, walk too far, or in any way put pressure on my knee, or they couldn't be "responsible" for the consequences. There would be, "of course," some pain.
They loved their success. It was quite excellent surgery. They would feel slighted if I screwed up their splendid work, so I was taken off field work and assigned to the desk that had controlled me. Now I was to send my inferiors out to do work that I had mastered; to debrief them when they came back; to listen to their tales of failure or triumph; to arrange for their funerals when they died - all with proper institutional dispassion. The work must continue, but I could no longer do my work and, ultimately, I could not do theirs.
I was no use to anyone. I began to drink, at first by myself, at home, but then gradually I began to sneak drinks at the Company. Harrison protected me as much as he could, but it was no use. After three years of drinking, detoxing, puking in taxis, and blackouts, it was the DTs that finally got to me. I teetotaled it and opened the shop. If I was now fit only for desk work, it would be my own desk.
My bookshop was small. Harrison came around a lot. Though I figured he had shown up to make sure I wasn't slipping secrets to whomever, it was nice to see him and his bogus concern that sometimes fooled me.
The Spartan ethic had always made sense to me; my pension and the income from the shop were sufficient. I specialized in books about war. I don't mean the trash that told lies about what it was like, but scholarly books, translations of Clauswitz, Du Picq, Mao, Jomini, Machiavelli, and all the rest who had tried to make sense out of chaos, to organize it so that it would not seem the beast it really is.
The regulars were always there to argue the strategic moves of a particular campaign. There were days, sometimes weeks, that I never got out of the building. Harrison thought I should "get involved, get loose, shake the cobwebs out, dust the old attic," and so, incessantly, on and on, until I agreed to go to his damned party.
Three days had gone by and a lot of scotch down the drain when she walked into the shop. Damned Harrison must have told her where to find me. My knee still throbbed, but the pain of her betrayal sat like a lump two inches above my heart. We had been trained to expect it; that was some consolation. I would have gotten over it if she hadn't come in.
"Oh," she said, "you weren't hurt. That's marvelous. I was so worried about you. I didn't know how to find you. I wanted to thank you for being Lancelot to my Guinevere, but I didn't know what had happened to you."
The music of her voice was not enough. Fancy talk, I thought. I wanted to scream at her, to accuse her to her face that she had run out on me, but was caught by the violence of my feelings, not daring to speak lest I also act. But my face must have told her something.
"What's wrong? You're angry with me? But you shouldn't be angry. Why should you be angry? You saved me from... death. I'm grateful. Why are you angry now?" Her eyes were wide, smoky-dark. Her hand was to her cheek, partially covering the corner of her perfect lips. She looked like the cover of a Nancy Drew mystery I once saw in a used book shop, elegant, perplexed.
"You ran away." I snarled, struggling to keep from smashing her. "While I was protecting you, you were deserting me. What did you expect, flowers?"
There was silence for a moment, then color flooded her pale face, and she drew herself up, taller than me.
"What kind of person are you?" she began, tougher than I had expected. "Do you condemn people for what they are? Yes, I'm a coward. I'm terrified of being raped, and I ran. I thought you were brave, and I thought you were going to get killed. Did you think I was supposed to stand there and watch you die and then...."
She paused for a moment. Tears began to slide down her cheeks, and she sat down, face in her hands. The few customers in the shop slowly left.
"The truth is," she continued, looking up, "that I was terrified. I thought I was looking for help, but I won't lie, I ran because I was frightened. There was no help to be found. I built up some courage, God knows how, and went back, but by the time I got there you were gone. There was nothing that I could think to do. Either you were dead or safe, and more young men in green bandannas were coming down the street, so I fled."
This was different from what I had expected. I thought of Shirley, who had covered my back, who had gotten killed in the process--but to judge this woman by those standards was insane. She was wrong, of course. There was a lot that she could have done, but she wasn't Shirley. I looked at her eyes. In that moment I had a profound sense of understanding her, and through her the universe. Everything in life seemed totally clear. Martin Buber, the old Jewish philosopher, called it the I/Thou experience, the touching of two souls across the isolation of existence. I could feel the tension drain out of her body, that's how close I felt to her.
"Let's get lunch," I managed to say. She smiled.
We started for the Italian joint down the block, but kept on going in the chilly sunlight, found a park where we talked and talked. I told her about Woletzky and the drinking. She told me how she hated modeling, how she hated the false sexuality, being treated like a thing, the easy-sly way men touched her body, the covert assumption that she was available to entertain visiting businessmen, feeling like meat, how she stayed with it because she was afraid of being poor.
But she would not accept that I hated Woletzky.
"It doesn't make any sense. He didn't do anything to you. You're a victim of the universe, struck down by a random event. Woletzky was no more responsible than you, or I, or anyone."
We kept on talking. More hours went by. I told her about violence and indifference; she told me about love and commitment. An absurd idea, at first a wish, popped into my head. It gradually made more sense as the time went by. I kept it to myself, not daring to broach it, until we got to her apartment building.
"No," I said in response to her suggestion, "I don't want to come up now. There's something important you have to think about."
Suddenly wary, she moved away. I almost backed down, but I realized that if I didn't say it now I would always avoid it. It came out in a rush. "Quit modeling, be a clerk in my shop. It's the only thing that makes any sense. Don't say anything now, just think about it."
It was crazier than I thought. I had deluded myself that it could work, that she might consider it, but listening to myself I heard nothing but infatuated naivete. No, it was more than that; I didn't want it to end. We could be for each other. But the words sounded hollow, devoid of the passion that I felt.
"What... do... you... mean?"
"Come to work for me," I pushed out. "You can teach me how to stop hating Woletzky, about love and compassion. I can teach you that you don't need things, how to stop being afraid. You can change what you've been doing with your life."
"I--I don't know what to...."
"Don't say anything," I interrupted, afraid to let her speak her rejection. "Think about it. Call me anytime. Just give yourself time. It'll make more sense after you think about it." I walked off, leaving her on the sidewalk staring at my back.
So life goes on. Harrison keeps wanting to know what happened between Elizabeth and me, why she's a clerk in the shop, and if we're living together. I tell him to mind his own goddamned business. I still pour that expensive scotch down the sink - maybe less now - and I keep hating Woletzky, though it now takes more effort. She told me to go to hell once and has gained some weight. Everything is getting better.
Bertram Benmeyer is a retired clinical psychologist who has taken up writing in the last few years. He has published more than 20 short stories and articles and is currently working on a science fiction novel. He enjoys listening to jazz, blues, classical, and other music.