Emergency Room, St. Ceciliaís Hospital 10 October
When I look back at the events that caused me to get hereÖ well, quite frankly, I find myself preferring not to look back. The events donít make sense, and so the story doesnít appeal to my love of reason. But I have to look, in order to appreciate completely how fortunate I am to be alive right now, how fortunate to have Ella for my wife, and, for a friend, Zach, an individual I hardly noticed existed at all before. Here is what happened: this morning, as I walked the dogs across 26th street, I was struck by a cab. I had just started to cross the street, heading up Fifth Avenue, as a cab came barreling down Fifth looking for a fare, scanning the crowd, seeing but not seeing me. I remember looking at the cab, seeing a green light and "walk " sign, and saying to myself, Ďheís not going to stop.í The cab hit my leg, sending me into the air. My head crashed down on the cabís front grill and that tossed me into the air again. I had the bizarre image of myself being bounced by this cab, flying with legs flailing Ė or was I gracefully floating? Who knew? And why should I worry about that, now that my death was most certainly here. How ridiculous to worry about appearances at a time like this, but I did. I should tell you that I am not a small person. I have enjoyed many dinners and much fine wine. I wondered about the dogs, too; and almost immediately, I guessed that they were dead. The reverie ended when I landed hard on my right hip, bleeding profusely from the head and staring into the discarded wrapper of a Snickers barÖ
This is the story: Somewhere along the year, I had lot my focus and awoke one morning about two years ago to discover that I was not the person I had meant to be when I started out. Since that time, Iíve been on a long pilgrimage to find my home and my heart. Perhaps it was the Wall Street background, that wonderful, wild time of making money, obscene amounts of money, and unrepentant spending that had turned me off course. But there I was; no longer the idealistic teacher, shirtsleeves rolled, drilling children of migrant farm workers in the niceties of the English language, but a middle-aged, slightly jaded, definitely paunchy, just a bit boozy, rich but restless man. So I did the only thing I could do, confronted with this image. I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror, opened my mouth and yawned.
"Honey," the Wife called from the bedroom. "Did you bring in the paper? I canít find it." Her voice drifted off, the sentences muffled as she roamed the room, head bobbing under the bed and darting into the closet. "No," I answered, then realized it was in my hand. "Jesus," I said,
"Letís go to church," I said. The words surprised even me.
"Are you feeling all right?" She asked looking up, a small frown of concern creasing her forehead.
"Why? Do I look bad?" I fingered my scratchy face, not yet shaved, felt little beginnings of jowls. Damn.
"No. Itís just that youíve never talked about going to church before."
I did a usual man-thing. I scratched my chin and the stubbly cheek. "It just seems like something I should do. I used to go as a child. I donít feel right; I donít feel like myself."
"My God, youíre not going to have a mid-life crisis, are you? I donít think Iím up to it this morning."
"NoÖyes." I looked her square in the eye. "We need to change. I need to change. I miss the person I used to be."
"You mean schlepping around with the migrant farmers? I thought you had gotten over that long ago." She thumbed through the magazine section, not looking up. She sipped coffee.
"Not that, maybe. I donít think I have the stamina for that. But I just have this vague feeling that I ought to be doing something other than the usual."
Now she was looking me squarely in the eye. "You are having a mid-life crisis. Cut if out."
"Maybe I should just go to the gym an hour earlier."
"Thatís the ticket." She put her mug down. "You are getting a little thick around the waist, my love." She smiled, blew me a kiss across the table. She knew me so well.
The gym seemed more palatable than church; that word brought up images of clerics in collars that pinched. I had been an acolyte. I knew what those vestments could do to you. No; better to go to the gym. I didÖand the exercise felt good. I went back daily for the next couple of months and got most of my old body back. The Wife looked at my progress and announced it was time to go dancing, which we did. She looked marvelous and so did I. That annoying feeling had passed.
"Guy, you look great," someone said, kissing air near me as I swirled the Wife around the floor. "Been exercising?" I smiled and we dipped another voice continued. "Ever hear from Frank?"
I nearly dropped the Wife. Frank had been a good friend in college. We hadnít seen each other in 15 years, and I felt myself uncomfortably brought back to the last time we had. He had invited us to dinner. Actually, we cooked it. He was ill and at the last moment couldnít face raw meat, but he greeted us warmly: gave the Wife a big, noisy kiss and me the usual bear hug. Frank had always been a big man, although now he had lost a lot of weight. I looked great, and I told him so. He had smiled then, rather oddly, but at the time I let it go. We chatted about this and that as the Wife and I put the meal together. Elegantly prepared, it was, presented on the best china and complemented by the best wine. Whatís the occasion, we finally had asked in that slightly disinterested way people have when they donít expect a really big answer in response. Actually, our minds were on a more pressing question: what would be for dessert.
"Iíve got AIDS," Frank said. "Iím dying. I want to enjoy my last days with my friends."
Iím not proud of our reaction. Right off, we both remembered that big kiss. The wifeís hand went up to her cheek automatically before, aghast, she slammed it back into her lap. I tried to remember if I had kissed her since then, and felt ashamed for wanting to separate myself from her possible bad fortune so quickly. I tried to remember just how one went about getting AIDS in the first place. Could a kiss do it? We cringed and looked at each other.
"My God, Frank. Donít say that," the Wife managed to stammer. "Of course youíre not dying."
Frank put his glass down and answered quite matter-of-factly: "Yes, I am. Itís just a question of how soon. So, in the meantime, Iím going to live well and be merry. For tomorrowÖyou know." He had a little flourish with his hand. We did know, and a few months later, we went to his funeral. It was a small scale, very quiet affair. I watched the priest, a young man, perform the ceremony. I saw the earth being dropped on the coffin. I could hear the sound, hollow and final. The memory of Frank with his fading life, coming just then on the dance floor, ripped away something from my heart.
"Darling," I said to the Wife, "I have to go." She looked at me quickly, but didnít argue. In the car, she said, "You want to tell me whatís going on? Are you thinking about Frank?"
"Not Frank, exactly, butÖhow Iím not connected anymore. Iíve lost myself."
"Oh, Lord," she muttered. "Mid-life again. Honey, I donít mean to be unsympathetic, but you have a good life. You donít have to question yourself. You donít have to suffer. Youíve worked hard, made good money been a good provider. Youíre okay. Really. Youíve earned the right to beÖwell, very, very comfortable. Or is it that you want to conquer something else?"
"No," I said. "Not conquerÖ. Something else."
The next day, I decided to work at home. I couldnít get anything done and ended up watching a talk show in the late afternoon. The topic was spirituality. I shuddered and channel surfed, but nothing else was on. I drank coffee and smoked a cigar as the host droned on about inner children and God. I thought it was all a waste of time until, two days later, I passed a bookstore, saw the photo of the author whoíd been hawking the book on the show, and found myself purchasing it. God, what drivel, I thoughtÖ but I kept on reading.
In bed that night, I remarked to the Wife that all I needed to do was "get God in my life." Thatís what the author had said.
"God is in your life," the Wife observed. "God has always been in your life. He just hasnít been a real big presence." I thought that was true and slammed the book in the night table drawer, vowing to forget about things.
And I did, for a long time. The Wife and her friends took off for a few days in the Caymans and left me at home with the dogs. We ate steak and generally misbehaved. Then, feeling the need for some adventure, we took a long walk in unfamiliar territory. We strolled along, not thinking about much, as the neighborhood changed from glitzy shops with brass hangings to supermarkets, and then those expensive but junky convenience grocery stores. The dogs were delighted with the change in environment because there was so much more to sniff here. Bits of chicken bone and fruit were all over the sidewalk. They got into a wild frenzy over some leaving or another, and refused to budge. I yanked and called, but they ignored me. When I got over being indignant, I looked up and found myself standing adjacent to a soup kitchen line. Although I have been concerned with the poor and disadvantaged most of my life, it had been a long time since I had been close to them. Or talked with them, sat with them on purpose, or tried to personally help them. My days of idealism were very, very far away. Then, suddenly, there they were: The Poor.
"Do you mind? People are getting ready to eat here," someone said indignantly. I was caught up short, then realized what was the problem. My dogs had relieved themselves on the sidewalk. "Some people got no manners. No upbringing."
"Iím sorry," I stammered, feeling stupid. I searched my pockets for the newspaper I always bring to clean up, but found I hadnít any. "I donít seem toÖ" This was horrible. Here I was, rich, successful, middle-aged and quite well-intentioned, standing outside a church soup kitchen with two dogs who had defecated, and I was powerless to make good of the situation. Part of me said I shouldnít be at all concerned; it wasnít my fault. The other part was appalled.
"I donítí seem to have anythingÖ"
"Here, " a woman said, shoving a Herald into my hand. Iíve always loathed that paper. I scooped up the mess, feeling all eyes on my back.
"Iím sorry," I murmured again. Then I yanked the dogs and hurried down the street. We rushed home after that. I had a scotch and told myself it meant nothing. But the next day, I went back, without the dogs. No, donít ask. I donít know why.
The church was closed, and I actually felt relief. Whatever it was I was supposed to do there could be put off for another day. Happily, I turned on my heel and started down the street toward home. A homeless man passed me. I reached into my pocket and gave him a coin. He didnít say "thank you," and for a moment I was disappointed, but I let it go. Our hands had touched briefly; I looked down at mine, expecting it to be soiled or changed in some way, but it was still just my hand. That small touch had felt good, though, tingly, and that was troubling. I told myself to stop being crazy, go home and have a good stiff drink, and clean myself up a little before the Wife got home.
She looked glorious. Tanned just enough to still be healthy, rested. I had missed her. An hour or two after her arrival, as we lie in bed, I told her about the soup kitchen episode. As much as I wanted to ignore it, I couldnít keep my mind away.
"Ö.so there I was, with the dogs and no newspaper," I was telling her, "and I had this horrible feeling of inadequacy. No matter how much I reminded myself that I was worth a hell of a lot to the bank, I still felt that way. I told myself, these are just poor people Iíd never see again in my life and certainly didnít have to worry about offending, but I did worry about it, and I canít stop worrying about it. Somehow, those people are important to me."
"Theyíre important to you."
I really hadnít a clue until the words were spoken: "They re going to help me get my life back." Yes!
"I donít know." The euphoria of discovery faded almost instantly. Then, my wife, my exquisite Ella, solved the puzzle.
"Honey," she said. "You spend your life making business deals over the phone, or the computer. Youíve earned enough to distance yourself from any kind of work that isnít intellectual. Your dealings with people are mostly surface-social, except, of course, for me. Youíre cut off. Those people drew you back in, somehow. Woke you up. Made you see them. Maybe what youíve been going through isnít a mid-life crisis. Maybe itís a spiritual thing."
I was amazed. In all the years we had been married, Ella had never spoken to me of those kinds of things. "What do you mean, a spiritual thing?"
"Remember when you were wanting to go to church and I told you to go to the gym? I thought you were just dissatisfied with yourself, feeling restless. But itís not that. YouíreÖ disconnected. We both are. Actually, I discovered almost the same thing about myself over the last few days." She looked over at me cautiously, turning on her side so she could see my reaction. I tried to look clam, but my heart was racing. We were onto something.
"I had been playing tennis with Freida, and she was going on about Ė I donít know, something Ė and I decided to walk along the beach by myself. It was a clear day, with no wind. I was just standing there, looking out at the ocean, humming to myself, when I felt something brush against my cheek. Very softly, like a caress, but it had energy to it. My face tingled. I thought it was a strand of hair or something brushing against me, but there was nothing there." She paused, and I could think of nothing to say, so I just stroked her back. She continued: "My mother used to tell me about getting chills like that." She paused again. "She said it was God."
Well, I wasnít quite ready for that, although I remembered a tingly feeling on my own hand when Iíd given the man on the street some change. Ella had always been a good person. Sheíd been right there with me back in my teaching days, and she had never complained. She was good and caring. But she had never mentioned the "G" word to me in quite that way, and my sense was that she acted more out of a social consciousness than what they used to call "Christian charity." Those words, even now, make me shudder.
"You felt God?"
"I think so. This sounds nuts, doesnít it?"
I had to tell her the truth. "Yes, it does. You donít think weíreÖ.you knowÖgetting a little soft upstairs?"
"Maybe. Guy, I donít want to think about this anymore." She rubbed her eyes, as if trying to rub the conversation away.
"Neither do I," I said, and we both buried our heads under the blanket and sought mutual comfort and solace in the usual way. Bless her heart, she actually giggled.
We both got up early the next morning, happy but restless. It was Wednesday. I went to work; Ella had a committee meeting. Her work. I shouldnít talk as if it wasnít work, too. She called me twice during the day, just to check on me, and that was reassuring. I wasnít sure that we werenít going off a deep end myself. On the tail end of the second conversation, I said,
"I want to go back to the soup kitchen tonight, if theyíre open."
She paused. I could hear her draw in breath. "Whatíre you going to do there?"
"I donít know. Whatever they need, I guess. I havenít the slightest idea." I wasnít kidding. I really didnít.
"Iím going with you." I could feel the relief surging through every muscle.
"I hoped youíd say that."
So we went. Ella went through a frenzy over what she was wearing. Did she look too dressed? Was she trying to dress down on purpose, and was that condescending? Finally, we decided to wear what we would usually wear if we were just hanging around the house. On the way, I wondered if my organizational skills might be of use. I knew how to put a company together; surely I could organize a bunch of homeless people. By the time we reached the church, I had convinced myself that Ella and I could bring order into the chaos that no doubt ensued. I felt comfortable with that role. Iíd be helping, and Iíd take charge. We opened the door, walked confidently down the steps and into the wrong line.
"Do you have an ID?"
"Me?Ö Well, a driverís license, if you want that."
"Does it have your picture on it?"
"Yes, of course."
"Then Iíll take it." A toothless woman with buzz cut hair stuck her hand out at me, demanding my driverís license. "Downsized?"
"You. Downsized?" It dawned on me that she thought I was coming to get food. I was appalled. Then I was appalled that I was appalled.
"No, no. Weíre here to volunteer. We want to help."
"Oh. Well, then youíre in the wrong line. You need to go over there and talk to Helen. But she may not need any extras tonight." It had never occurred to me that my help might not be needed. I turned to Ella, who didnít seem to be upset by any of this. She was looking around, smiling at children. This was going down a lot easier with her and I wanted to know why.
"You seem right at home," I offered.
"It sort of reminds me of the places we worked in before."
"It doesnít remind me of anything," I whispered. "I just feel uncomfortable."
"Why? Because youíre not running the show?"
"Why are you always so damned smart?"
"Thatís my secret." She wandered over to Helenís line, which was long. "We may never get to the end."
"I think we should leave," I said. "I feel awkward."
"Nobodyís looking at you."
"But I feel like they are."
"Nah. Youíre cute, but not that cute. Anyway, they think youíre just some poor slob who lost his job."
"Now I feel much better."
"What did you expect?"
"I didnít expect anything; except I did think my help would be wanted. They donít seem to care or need me."
"So you came here to be needed?"
"I need you all the time."
"I thought I couldÖyou knowÖminister to the poor."
"Hold your horses. They may come up with something." We stood on life for a half hour before finally getting to speak to Helen. She was perky, polite, and not terribly pleased to see us. It turned out that we had no particular skill to offer that was needed. We didnít know the social service system, so couldnít help with referrals. We could serve behind tables, but all the slots were filled. We might have been useful sorting clothing donations, but they hadnít received many that evening, and what they had were already folded up. There I stood, with my English degree and MBA and money in the bank, totally useless to humanity.
"Donít take it so hard. We tried," Ella said. "This just wasnít our niche. And itís not the only soup kitchen in town." I nodded in agreement and we left. Back at the apartment, I decided to take the dogs for a walk while Ella soaked in the tub. I would have been perfectly happy to forget the whole deal except that the nagging feeling that I should be doing something was back again. I unleashed the dogs in the park and watched them run across the field. The summer evening was lovely.
"Go ahead and run. All youíve got to worry about is being a dog," I muttered under my breath. "Nobody nags you about doing more o be more dog-like." I realized that what I was saying made absolutely no sense, told myself to be quiet, and leaned back on a bench. Diagonally across from me were several lumps of discarded clothing. Thinking that I might gather them up and take them to the soup kitchen Ė and prove myself useful after all, so there Ė I went over and reached for the nearest clump, which looked like a raincoat. I heard the knife being unsheathed, and hastily pulled my hand away. The blade barely missed my fingers.
"Hey! Get the hell away from me," a voice snarled from the heap.
"My God, youíre a person."
"My God, youíre a person," the clump mocked me. "Geez, the idiots that are out here."
I didnít know what to say. For the second time that evening, I felt humiliated and stupid in the presence of a homeless person. "Iím sorry. I thought you were a bunch of clothes." Now that sounded really intelligent. "I meanÖ I thought someone had dropped clothing here and I was going to take them to the soup kitchen." That was reasonable, wasnít it?
"I donít go to those places."
"Get better food hanging around the restaurants on the east side."
"Oh." What else could I say? "I didnít mean to startle you."
"Fair enough." The clump moved again, and a hand appeared. "My name is Zach. You got a cigarette?"
"Actually, I have a cigar."
"Even better." He turned his hand, palm up. I saw myself placed a beloved Monte Cristo into his very grubby hand. It disappeared into the clump. The end of the cigar came flying out a second or two later. "Got a light?"
Iím ashamed to say that I hesitated bringing out my lighter. People steal things like that, you know, and this one had been a gift.
"I know you got a light. Come on. I wonít steal it."
"I wasnít thinking that," I lied.
"Yeah, you were. Itís what any reasonable person would have thought in the situation. Itís what I would have thought in the situation."
Again, I didnít know what to say. It was tiresome, being at a disadvantage like this. I handed over the lighter. He lit up and handed it back. "See? Weíre not all thieves." He puffed a few times, didnít cough, and sat up. For the first time, I saw a face and hair. He was not bad looking at all. An odor of something unpleasant but earthy emanated from the clothing and mingled with the cigar smoke. It was nauseating. He must have seen my face.
"Pretty ripe, huh?"
"The fragrance. Essence of park. Itís my protection."
"You wouldnít want to sit near here, would you?"
I was embarrassed to answer. "Of course not, ya ninny," he said. "And, by the way, I was raised to offer my name when the other party has offered his."
He had a point. I extended my hand and told my name. I could feel the grit from his hand now on mine. And as hard as I tried, I couldnít keep myself from glancing down to see how dirty I was or if there was something crawling. I hope he didnít notice.
"Youíre kidding. Youíre a guy named Guy."
"What kind of name is that?"
"My parents were French."
I could tell that he was about to say "ooh la-la," but resisted the impulse marvelously. "Well, Guy, itís been nice talkiní with ya, but I have things to do. And your dogs are halfway to Jersey by now."
I had forgotten about them. I looked around frantically. They were on a slope, not too far from me, but far enough to give concern. I called to them; they ignored me at first, then slowly made their way back.
"Paid dearly for it."
"Are you, Guy?" Zach said. "And why is that, Guy? Were you longing to connect with the downtrodden sector of humanity? Were you eager to do good?"
"Yes, but when you put it that way, I sound very foolish." Zach looked at me for a moment and said, "You are very foolish."
That made me angry. "I donít need this from you," I said, and went off to get the dogs. He may have been right, but I thought it was arrogant of him to say so.
"How would you feel if Iíd done that to you," he shouted after me. "How about I go into your home to experience Ďthe richí and shake your hand and pass out a cigarÖ not a very good one, either.." That made me angrier. It had been one of my best cigars. I leashed the dogs and came back.
"You bummed it off me. I didnít offer it to you. I didnít even want to give it to you."
"Then why did you?" Damn, he had a point. Again.
"I didnít want to seem cheap."
"So you wanted to impress me."
"Of all the insufferable.."
"Then you didnít want to impress me with how generous you were?"
I had to admit that he was right. I didnít have to give him the cigar. I gave it because I felt I ought to be generous.
"Next time, if you donít want to give something, donít."
"I thought I was being generous."
"See what it got ya?" He laughed and went back into a huddle. His face disappeared among the folds.
"Zach?" I called out, but he didnít answer. The audience was over.
Two days later, I went back to the park. I thought Zach was infuriating and rude, but I needed him to learn Ė I donít know what. Something about myself, I suppose. And I needed to tell him what I thought of his own manner. He could use some self-examination as well.
There was the same clump of clothing. I sat down a few feet from it. This time, I had come with two cigars. I thought we might share a smoke. "Zach," I began awkwardly, "itís Guy. Iím back. I have two cigars this time. I was thinking about what you said about not giving unless I wanted to, and you were right. That wasnít giving; it was me trying to be good. And I did it grudgingly. I want to get it right this time. So I have two cigars here. One for me, the other for you, if you like. Iíll just put it on the bench. You can take it, if you feel like it. Fair enough?"
The clump of clothing never moved. I waited a moment, then forged ahead. "I also thought you were pretty arrogant. Just because youíre poor doesnít give you the right to be offensive or rude. Itís not a privilege, being poor. You donít have to be poor. Iím rich because Iíve worked hard for my money. Nobody gave it to me. Well, some was in a trust fund, but the rest I earned myself. I donít have to share anything I have with you. I donít. I justÖ want to."
"Thatís a pretty good speech youíre giving to a pile of dirty clothes." I turned around, startled. There was Zach. I looked at the pile and sputtered.
"I thought it was you."
"Evidently." He pointed to himself. "This, however, is me. That," he pointed to the pile on the bench, "is my laundry."
"So you do laundry?"
"When the spirit moves me. Or the clothing moves itself."
"So did you hear any of that?"
"I heard all of that. Nice cigar. Donít mind if I do." He broke off the tip, and poised it in his mouth for a light. "Go ahead. I know you got one."
I obliged, this time without misgivings. "Is this the part where we do some male bonding? Iím supposed to tell you the story of my life? How I fell on hard times? How I was abused as a child?"
"Only if you want to."
"Well, it wasnít that way, and I donít want to." He puffed contentedly. "So just exactly how much are you worth?"
I told him. It made me feel proud. People tend to be impressed.
"So, what do you do with all of that? Do you look at it every night?"
"Of course not. I donít have it in bills. Itís tied up in real estate and some bonds and other investments. I almost donít know itís there."
"You donít spend it?"
"No. It accumulates."
"To make more."
"Then whatíre you going to do with it?"
"I donít do anything with it. I re-invest it and it accumulates."
"I mean, what are you accumulating it for? You ainít got no kids. You seem to have everything you want. Why are you keeping the rest of it?"
"Because itís mine. Ö and I can leave it to my wife, to relatives, to charities."
"After youíre dead."
"Yes, of course."
He looked at me carefully. "And about how long do you think itíll take you to be dead?"
"Well, Iím not writing you into my will."
"I donít even know you."
Zach spread his hands out before him. "Well, then. Thatís different. You canít exactly give money to a person youíve only seen twice. Better to give it to an organization. Thatís much cleaner." He glanced down at my hands. "And you donít get your hands dirty, either."
The man was infuriating. "Where did you pop up from, anyway?"
"I was over there, " he said, pointing to a car "Thatís mine."
"You have a car?"
"No, Iím just showing you the car for fun. Yes, I have a car."
"But I thought you were homeless."
"I am. But not car-less. That is the one remnant from my working days."
"So you did have a job once"
"Sure. Place folded a few years ago. Never got the stride back. Live out of my car now."
"Speak in sentence fragments."
"Funny. Anyway, I liked the neighborhood and decided to stay." He puffed a few times. I decided to light up as well.
"Zach, why do you talk to me?" He stopped puffing and gave me a direct-in-the-face stare.
"Guy, Iíll tell ya. I donít know. I mean, itís not as if youíre enhancing my life overly, although the cigars are nice." I stifled a protest. "I guess somehow I just like you. Youíre honest. Honestly a boob. You donít know what youíre doing, and neither do I."
"Do you really want my money?"
"Of course I want your money. You think Iím crazy? Iíd be crazy not to want your money."
"But itís mine."
"But you got too much of it. Just give me some."
"This is a ridiculous conversation. Iím not going to continue it." I felt decidedly uncomfortable and got up to leave. "How could you even think such a thing."
"I think it because it would be a good idea. And if I donít ask, Iíll never receive anything."
"Well, youíre not receiving any of my money." I stomped off with the dogs running to catch up with me. Later, I told Ella about the conversation.
"Thatís bizarre, all right," she said, tossing a salad. "Are you going to give him any?"
"No. Of course not."
"Just asking," she said.
I took a sip of wine. "Thatís almost exactly what he saidÖ about asking, I mean. Are you sure you two havenít met?"
"No, but Iíd like to Ö I think. Does he usually smell? Not that I couldnít get past it, but Iíd like to know in advance so I could be prepared."
"Do you really want to meet him?"
"I donít know. He sounds kind of interesting."
"Hmm." I thought it over. Where would the friendship go? Was I supposed to start inviting him over to dinner? Thanksgiving? Christmas? What exactly were we to each other, anyway?
"What are you thinking about?" Ella pulled me back to the present.
"How life would be if Zach were a regular part of it. I donít think we want that," I said, settling the matter.
"Weíll see," Ella replied. I looked up, startled by the challenge but not wanting to pursue it. Sheíd change her mind soon enough. It was probably just a passing thought.
"There he is," I said, pointing towards the usual clump of clothing at Zachís bench.
"That bunch of clothing."
"Thatís a person?"
"Yes." She looked surprised and I felt gratified and savvy. "I had the same reaction. But thatís him. " Always the adventurous soul, she moved toward the clothes, peered in, and discreetly, sniffed.
"Hello," she ventured.
His head darted up and he saw me. "This must be the Missus." Ella extended a hand, gave her name.
"I must say," he said, turning towards me. "She has better manners than you did."
"Yes," I muttered. "Sheís quite splendid." As they shook hands, she suddenly gave him an odd look, as if sheíd recognized something.
"Iíve heard a lot about you." Zach grinned broadly.
"Iíll bet you did," she said easily. "Donít worry. I wonít ask you to tell."
"Me and him been trying to figure out the mysteries of life together. So far, weíre not doing so good."
"I think youíre doing quite well. He enjoys your company."
"Thatís kind to say." He turned toward me. "See? I can have a nice, civilized conversation when I want to." I made a face.
"Zach is the most exasperating man I have ever met, but we seem to need each other."
"Iím going to save your life," Zach said. "Just you wait and see."
I had had about enough of him at that point and made motions as if to leave. Ella got my hint and extended her hand. "It was nice meeting you," she said. Their hands touched and, again, she gave him that strange look.
"See you tomorrow, or something," I said. We got the dogs in hand and wandered to another part of the park.
"What was that look about?" I asked, cautiously, as we strolled.
"What look?" she said, predictably. I should have known better than to phrase it quite so bluntly.
"When you shook hands with Zach -- and, incidentally, did you have to do it twice? -- you gave each other a look."
"Did we?" She seemed to need a moment to think about it. "I felt a tingling in my hand. Both times. Like on my face in the Caymans. It was odd, thatís all. I guess he felt something, too."
"I donít know if I like strange, homeless men giving my wife a tingle," I muttered, and felt foolish instantly.
"Darling, I only shook his hand. It was nothing."
"Heís not God, you know."
"Oh, darling, I know that. Stop being silly. Anyway, Iím in love with you, remember?"
"Well, of courseÖ"
"And I could barely see what he looked like under all that clothing. Iím sure youíre a zillion times more attractive."
Oh, Ella really knew how to manage me. With that, I went merrily on, totally forgetting what she had said.
Months passed, and gradually I came to know other people who lived in the park. There was Ann, who always dressed as a man to avoid attacks, and Floyd, who drank too much, period, and Andy, who was crippled in one leg, and Bernice the hooker and Ralph the addict and Fernando, the Crazy Man. Those were their outward identities; over time, I came to know who they really were. For me, Ann was most touching. Ann was a singer; is a singer, I should say. She still has the most beautiful voice, but her mind has gone. She used to perform in a club in the village until her boyfriend got jealous and, in a fight, tossed acid in her face. Now, all along her jaw and just above one eye is flesh that looks like putty. I always wanted to take my hand and push it back into shape. One day, she let me touch it. That was the day she told me her story. As I ran a finger along her jaw, she started humming, then the humming turned into a true melody, then the melody gained words:
"Me, myself and I, weíre all in love with youÖ"
I asked her where that line came from, and she said it was from a Billie Holiday piece. She had been singing that song one night in the clubÖ
"There was this guy who came and sat in the front. Big guy. In those days, I was a platinum blonde, with really niceÖ you know" Ė she motioned towards her bosom Ė "and the men always like to watch me. I think they also liked my singing, but mostly it was the other. I didnít mind. I loved singing, and I was getting paid. So I was singing this song, and the man gets up and starts to move to the stage. I said, Ďhold on, lover boy. You know I canít share my spotlight with anyone else. Youíve got to stay down there and let me sing.í He wasnít having it, though, and went right on up to the stage with me. Starting singing the song along with me, crooning and laughing. Couldnít sing worth spit, and he was drunk. You could smell it every time he exhaled. I tried to play along. ĎLover,í I said, just as a joke, Ďyouíve got to try to stay on pitch. You dragging me down. You got to do better if you want to be in a duet with me.í Why did I say that. Elvin came charging from the back of the room somewhere. I couldnít really see him until he got close because of the spotlight in my eyes. He was shouting something about our being a duet and why was I calling him "lover." I tried to tell him I was just fooliní, playing along with this guy because he was so drunk and I didnít want him to ruin my act. You know, all my life Iíve wanted to sing in a club and wear beautiful dresses like that, and this was my chance. I didnít want to blow it. Iíd only been there three weeks. Anyway, he wouldnít listen. He started yelling and pushing at the guy. The poor drunk could barely stand up. Then I saw the bouncer coming towards the stage. All I could think was that I was gonna get fired. ĎPlease, honey,í I said, Ďlet me handle this. Itíll be okay. Heís just had a little too much to drink.í Then I realized that Elvin also had had a little too much to drink. He reached in his pocket and before I could duck, he threw something at me. I could feel it stinging my face and throat. I rubbed at it and my hand started stinging, too. It was acid. I could see where it had burned the skin on my hand, and I knew my face was worse. I screamed and screamed, and then I woke up in the hospital with bandages all over my face. My throat, too. For the longest time, I blamed the whole mess on that drunk guy, but later I realized that Elvin must have had that acid in his pocket all long. Maybe he had planned to burn me, and the drunk was just an excuse. Maybe he had always wanted to hurt me. I think about that, and then I canít go on. I thought we were together, you know? I thought he loved me. Maybe he did love me. I donít knowÖ" The puzzle pushed her mind back into its safe cushion of fog. She started to sing again, "Me, myself and I, weíre all in love with you."
She drifted off down the road, dodging the falling leaves, singing to herself. And that was Annís story, just about the only story she could keep together in her head. She had lost her mind over the idea that the man shoe loved had wanted to hurt her. She must have cared very much. When I first heard her story, I had thought: aside from Ella, Iím not sure that Iíve ever cared that much about another person. And even with Ella, itís not the same thing. If she left me Ė God forbid Ė but if she did, I would hurt, Iíd be angry, but I wouldnít lose myself; I would go on and eventually find someone else. I know I would find someone else, or one of our friends would fix me up. It would be more Ė well, the hell with that. Iím not sure which is the healthier attitude, or if either is healthy. Her dependence on that relationship unnerved me.
Floyd, on the other hand, never said much of anything to me. He was just someone I grew to realize existed as part of the gang. He hardly spoke to anyone, as far as I could tell; just quietly listened and nodded and drank and drank and drank. Someone told me he had been a prep school teacher once, but I donít know if that was the truth. Imagine what might have been in his brain, what might still be lodged in there somewhere if he ever sobered up. Perhaps hundreds of students had sat listening to Floyd in a corduroy jacket with elbow patches teach them aboutÖwhat? Great Expectations. I had loved that story. After awhile, I got used to just nodding in Floydís direction, then sitting down next to him. He had a comforting kind of presence. And thatís the thing that surprised me most. Although he never spoke to me, we did relate. I remember the first time he offered me a drink from his bottle. My face must have shown horror when he extended it in my direction, because he instantly pulled it back, rummaged through his pockets, produced a filthy handkerchief, and wiped the bottle neck "clean" for me. The thought of putting my mouth on that bottle was loathsome, but I had to do it; then as I took a drink, I prayed the alcohol would kill off any contamination. I neednít have worried. Whatever we were drinking was about 200 proof. No germ had a chance. When I had taken a sip, Floyd nodded approvingly. Once he brought a bone for the dogs. Another time, he brought me a small wad of newspapers. When I didnít understand their purpose, he gestured toward the dogs. I wondered if he had been at that soup kitchen, months before, when I had nothingÖ
"Floyd," I said one evening, "why donít you talk anymore?" He had looked at me rather carefully, not at all sadly, and shook his head. Then he stretched his arms out in front of him as if to suggest that the world was self-explanatory. Or maybe that there werenít enough words to explain the world. Iíll never know.
Zach used to watch me and kind of snicker as I got to know the others. I donít know what he was thinking, and I never asked, but I caught him looking. Once he nodded -- I suppose with approval but Iím not sure Ė and often he shook his head as if Iíd missed the point. Other than that, he just stood by and let me become part of the gang. We got into a regular routine. We came to expect each other. Maybe we even took each other for granted. With a kind of quiet eagerness I would leash the dogs and stroll down to the park, wondering what they were up to, savoring the thought of being amidst people who talked to me rather than my money. It took me a long time to realize that was what I enjoyed so much about them. No one cared whether I worked or not or made money or not. In the park, with Zach and Ann and Floyd, I could simply be Guy. It made me feel free. Summer sailed gradually into autumn, autumn swiftly shifted to winter. I pulled on a leather coat against the cold, called the dogs, and headed to our spot.
The benches were empty. Wind blew stray papers in tiny whirlwinds in the place Zach always used to be. I looked around for the usual clumps of clothing, but there were none. They all had vanished from sight. There was only the wind, a voice of thin silence.
I was horrified. The dogs wandered aimlessly around the benches, sniffing for clues. I shocked myself with my own disappointment. Why hadnít they told me they were leaving? Or had the police chased them away or locked them up? Friends arenít supposed to treat each other that way, I caught myself ranting, then realized what I had said: they were my friends. I was angry because they were my friends and had gone away without me.
My period of mourning did not last long, however. Ella and I packed up for the winter home and disappeared ourselves for several months. The first few days were sunny and fine. I ate extraordinary amounts of seafood, drank martinis, stared into perfect sunsets. There was beauty all around me, and there I sat, the ugliest emotions taking turns with me. Anger and betrayal, hurt, wounded prideÖall these paraded themselves before me and refused to go away. I saw myself clearly for what I had become, and what I might be. Ella was right: I was disconnected from people and what Zach and the others had succeeded in doing was to bring me back. The best vacation money could buy was not enough to make me myself again.
It was the worst season of my life, except that I came to appreciate Ella more. It was as if I had bought a pearl and was discovering that there was an even finer diamond hidden inside. She understood my confusion over the loss of the gang; at times, she would come to me and simply take my hand, stroke it, or touch my face. "Theyíll be back," she reassured me countless times, although I didnít believe her. "I donít care," I usually said. It felt childish and sounded even moreso. I was bored with myself. I was angry with myself. I heard all the conversations Iíve had over the years about Ella, and always Iíd be calling her, "The Wife." Why did I do that? Even when I tried to compliment her, I described her as a jewel Iíd purchased. Ella is a jewel, but she is more: she is my wife. Flesh of my flesh. Beloved. How could I have seen her as a trophy? The feeling of shame drenched me, then quickly turned into gratitude that I di, after all, have some time left to rectify things.
I did something silly one night on the veranda.
"Ella," I called to her softly as she sipped a drink and worked furiously at a crossword puzzle. She didnít look up, but gave me her usual, "hmmm?" in response.
"Ella, I want you to marry me." No, I had said it all wrong. I tried again before she could speak. "What I mean is, would you marry me, again?"
"Because I donít think I knew how fortunate I was the first time." She put her pencil down for that one.
"Guy, thatís the most romantic thing youíve ever said to me. That anyone has ever said to me." She looked misty-eyed.
"Itís true. I knew you were a good catch when we married; I never know, however, how deep your waters ran. Or maybe I never gave you a chance to show me. If thatís the case, Iím sorry. But Iím awfully glad I finally found out."
Ella just stared at me. I thought she was going to turn me down; then I thought, how stupid. Weíre already married.
"Youíve changed, and at the same time, you havenít," she said. "In the past year, itís almost as if youíve been like Rip Van Winkle coming out of a long sleep. I wonder, sometimes, where it is youíve been."
"I donít know. Lost. Or sleep-walking. I donít know. Iíve been living by a whole different set of rules than I did when I was young. And itís only just become clear to me that these new rules, the ones Iíve lived by for the past thirty years or so just donít work. They donít make me happy. Thatís the thing: I was cared for, pampered even, but never happy. Now, in the morning, I open my eyes and you are there, just as always. But also, I know that Zach and Ann are there. I know that Floyd is out there Ösomewhere. We have our other friends, of course, but those arenít the same. Our friends know us because of who we are, except for a few. Most know us because of your committees or my business. These people knew me for me. They sawÖ.well, they saw my soul. You see my soul, donít you? Perhaps you always have." I stopped for a moment to catch a breath. Heaven only knew what I was saying. I kept grasping for words and finding them inadequate. Finally, I just sat there with my hands palm up on my knees, staring at Ella, shaking my head in confusion. I said: "I open my eyes and you are there, and I thank GodÖ" and couldnít say anything else. I just sat there, looking at her. Ella took my hand, squeezed it a little and said the words of the vow we had exchanged decades ago:
"With all that I am, and all that I have, I honor you." She let go of my hand.
"With all that I am, and all that I have, I honor you. And this is what I have," I said, giving her my opened hand. "This is all that I have in the world to give to you: myself."
"Thank you," she said quietly. "Thank you, Guy." And then we were married again, for the rest of our lives.
I knew exactly what I had to do when we returned. Without unpacking, I headed for the park, for Zach. I looked everywhere. But he was still gone. I asked if anyone had seen him, and just about everybody looked at me as if I was a crazy man. Well,you have to admit, saying to people, "Zach. You knowÖthe man who used to sit over there, looking like a pile of dirty clothesÖ. Have you seen him?" Well, would you have taken me seriously? I supposed I shouldnít have expected to find him -- after all, it had been months since we had been together here Ė but I just had a feeling that he was around somewhere close. I called to the dogs, and began walking along the avenue. Perhaps he was panhandling on a corner, or had just picked another spot to call home. Maybe he was in his car Ė or had taken a job after all this time Ė it was possible Ė the thoughts were running through my mind when, suddenly, I saw him standing just across the street from me on Fifth Avenue. I raised my hand to wave; amazingly, he saw and waved back in response, grinning broadly. I was grinning, too.
"Zach," I yelled foolishly. "I have something to tell you. I want to give you the money. You were right. I donít need it. I want you to have it. Weíll go to the bank together, right now. You donít have to wait for me to die. Here Ė Iím coming." I took a step into the street. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the cab approaching, not seeing me. And then I was face down on the street, oozing blood and staring idiotically into the wrapper of the Snickers bar. Soon, I saw a pair of feet.
"Guy, you idiot," Zach was saying. "Look at you. Look at whatís happened to you. Now Iím going to have to save your life." I managed to turn my head a bit so I could look up at him. There seemed to be a light around him. Maybe it was the bump on my head doing things to my vision. But Zach had a white light surrounding him as he spoke. "Zach," I started to say, but he cut me off. "No, donít talk." He closed his eyes a moment, then reached out his hand and touched my head, my back, my arms, my legs. It happened so quickly. Shudders passed through my body. I wondered if these were the convulsions Iíd heard accompany death. "My dogsÖ.Zach. Do you see my dogs?"
Zach looked around, then moved out of my vision. "Theyíre under the car. And theyíre safe," He said. "Iíll take them home. Listen, Guy," he knelt down and looked me in the eye. "Donít tell anyone about me, or what Iíve just done, okay? Itíll be our little secret. Okay?"
"Tell them what?" I didnít understand. Then there were all these people around me. Someone shouted, "that bumís trying to rob him. I saw him patting him down. Hold himÖsomeone call the policeÖhold him! Heís getting awayÖ" Then I lost consciousness and awoke in the emergency room. I felt fine. The doctor was looking at me, puzzled.
"Thereís nothing wrong with you. No cuts. No bruises. No broken bones. No concussion. Nothing. How did you do that?"
"I donít know what youíre talking about."
"Youíve just been in a major collision. Police say the cab threw you three feet into the air. You landed on the hood, slid down to the fender, hit your head and your leg, wham, on the pavement, and nothingís broken. Not even a scratch. There was blood at the scene, but none coming from you, apparently. Someone said there was a bum with you. Did he get hit?"
"No, he was across the street. And heís not a bum. He was a friend of mine." I tried to sit up. He pushed me back down.
"Whatever. Well, I want you to stay here overnight, just in case, but it looks like you just got very lucky."
"Iíve always been lucky," I replied. And it was true.
- EPILOGUE -
So thatís the story. Maybe I havenít told it as well as it could be told, but thatís the best I can do. My dogs --- I should tell you that my dogs arrived safely at my home the evening of the accident. Ella found them sitting out front as if nothing had ever happened. Thee wasnít a scratch on them. I never saw Zach again, although I did look. I went to the precinct, even, thinking he had been arrested after the accident. I asked around the park, but there was no one I knew there, and those who were said they had not seen anyone of his description. On my last attempt, I stood behind his bench, feeling lost and empty. It was breezy, and as the wind rushed past me, I murmured his name. Like my words, Zach had taken to the wind and disappeared. But then I knew what to do. I took money out of the bank Ė hundreds of thousands Ė and brought some to the soup kitchen and had them give it to people they thought could use some extra. Some I used to build a daycare center. Some I gave to a church. It almost didnít matter where it went, as long as it got into the hands of other people who could use it well. And now Iím back home, contemplating Ella. Our lives are still good; we still vacation when we want to; we still give parties when we want to. We volunteer at the soup kitchen, doing whatever is needed. Some of the people are our friends. I can honestly say I donít miss the money. And what I have received in exchange is worth far more. With half of my life over and done, I have discovered the joy of living and loving, and being free.
And I am content.
Angela Boatright, is a priest associate at St. Maryís Episcopal Church in Harlem. This story was written in collaboration with Madis Senner, a former financial analyst and author of the Jubilee Amendment.